The crazed and opulent Cleopatra

It’s appropriate that what I’ve written below about Cleopatra should be muddled as it is. That kind of reflects the movie. It’s a mess, in any number of ways, but what an arresting mess!

I’m pretty sure I saw this movie in the theatre when I was a kid and bits and pieces on TV over the years. I sat mesmerized through the entire movie about ten years ago when it came out on DVD. A week or so ago, however, I watched it again but this time it took me three days — I kept falling asleep on the couch. I suspect that was due to three things: 1) having seen it a few times already, 2) the sheer length of the movie and, 3) more wine than was wise.

As movies go, Cleopatra isn’t good or bad; it’s okay. But it’s probably the most fascinating “okay” movie you can see.
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Ernst Lubitsch and his lustfully troubled Paradise

Without really planning too, I’ve found myself watching the movies of Ernst Lubitsch. A few nights ago it was The Shop Around the Corner. Last night it was Trouble in Paradise. I had seen both before, at least once each. What I find interesting is that the more I see them, the more I like them. The first time around you miss how well constructed they are because they evolve so seamlessly. So I definitely recommend seeing them at least twice.

Trouble in Paradise (1932)

One of the finest romantic comedies ever made, and one that in many ways created a template and set standards for later romantic comedies (while also looking ahead to the screwball comedies to come), is Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise, made in 1932.

With a single film, American cinema suddenly grew up. In many ways, it’s the most adult film Hollywood has ever made. (Not long after, production codes were put in place and much of what is in Trouble in Paradise would not have been allowed.)

Prior to Lubitsch’s first nonmusical American film, the sophisticated manner and style of this movie hadn’t been seen, not on this side of the Atlantic. Nor had this degree of elevated wit or sexual play.

Much is made of the “Lubitsch touch,” and there certainly is such a thing. While a bit hard to define precisely, it has a great deal to do with a European sensibility, one not informed by a Puritan cultural background. It has to do with wit and sophistication and adult romance.

Here, adult means playful, well-mannered and tinged by a degree of melancholy. Trouble in Paradise is a perfect example of this.

The movie is about two charming thieves, their love for one another, as well as their enjoyment of their craft. It’s about the playfulness between them, and the woman whom they choose as their mark.

Herbert Marshall is the thief Gaston Monescu. He charms his way into the life of Mariette Colet (Kay Francis) in order to steal her money. His love, the pickpocket Lily (Miriam Hopkins), is his accomplice.

But this is what Hitchcock would call the McGuffin. The movie is really about the triangle that develops as Gaston becomes romantically enchanted by Mariette just as she falls in love with him. All the while, Lily is still there and still loves Gaston, just as he still loves her.

Lubitsch’s direction is nothing less than wonderful here. One of the qualities that characterize his films, especially in Trouble in Paradise, is his refusal to be obvious about anything. He tells his story through indirection and implication, rarely being overt.

This is particularly true with the way he implies sexuality and its encounters without ever stating, much less showing, anything. It is part of the film’s playful wit and charm and adult quality. Equally adult is the absence of any salacious sense. There is no sense of “nudge-nudge, wink-wink” here.

Yet, essentially, the film is about lust, Gaston’s and Mariette’s.

As Peter Bogdanovich mentions in his introduction to the Criterion DVD of the film, it’s a wonder this was ever made in Hollywood, particularly when we see where we are today.

While the troubled triangle of Gaston, Mariette and Lily plays out, the movie also gives us the ineffectual efforts of the Major (Charlie Ruggles) and Francois (Edward Everett Horton), two of Mariette’s luckless suitors. Their ineptness and pretensions provide a nice comedic counterpoint to the sophistication of Gaston.

Much of what Lubitsch does isn’t noticed on first viewing the movie. It is too seamless and fluid. The plot unfolds too effortlessly. It’s only on seeing a second or third or fourth time you see the small details he attends to and just how cleverly the movie is constructed.

In cinema terms, Ernst Lubitsch was a magician. Much of what he does is a kind of sleight of hand — verbal and visual. His movies, like Trouble in Paradise, are mature, charming and absolutely wonderful.


Christmas in Connecticut almost great

Some movies leave you scratching your head, like Christmas in Connecticut. You like it yet it bugs you. Why is that?

This is another one of those movies I saw years ago as a kid watching TV in the basement. The DVD came out in 2005 and I recall watching it then but feeling ambivalent about it. I suppose I still do, though I liked it much more when I watched it last night. But that opening …

Christmas in Connecticut (1945)

Directed by Peter Godfrey

This movie is an odd duck. It’s a good, quick paced Christmas movie of the old Hollywood variety, as in circa the 1940s (which is when it was made). Christmas in Connecticut has all the appearance of what we usually mean by a holiday classic. But it has some peculiarities and they are probably the reason it doesn’t quite achieve that status – though it comes close.

The first and most pronounced peculiarity is its opening. The first twenty or thirty minutes of the film are completely unnecessary and also suggest a different movie than the one we end up seeing. The movie is also a lot more interesting once that opening is over.

For some reason, perhaps length or a script change elsewhere in the film, the opening appears to be tacked on to what seems like a finished movie. Jefferson Jones, played by Dennis Morgan, is a war veteran in a hospital having survived being adrift at sea. He’s absolutely obsessed with food. This sort of sets up the movie that follows, except once that movie starts his food obsession seems to mysteriously vanish.

Food is at the heart of this romantic-comedy in the sense that it is one of the defining characteristics of Barbara Stanwyck’s character, Elizabeth Lee. She’s a kind of war time Martha Stewart, a famous master of country kitchens and homes, known as the world’s best cook. She writes for a magazine about her beautiful country home and describes the fabulous foods she prepares.

Except she’s a city apartment dweller and doesn’t know the first thing about cooking. The complication comes when her publisher, Sydney Greenstreet as Alexander Yardley, decides to invite himself and the war hero to Christmas at her home.

Chaos follows. There are also numerous complications, not the least of which is the need to have a husband and baby because Elizabeth Lee writes about them all the time.

It’s also quite funny, especially when Greenstreet’s Yardley sees one baby on one day and another on the next and can’t understand why it looks different, has a gender change, suddenly has teeth and can talk. “Most peculiar,” he says.

The romantic aspect is with Stanwyck’s character agreeing to marry her insistent fiancé (whom she doesn’t love) in return for providing her with a Connecticut country home to use to fool Yardley. The romance comes in when she falls in love with Jefferson, the war hero.

I also found some of the characterizations in the movie a bit peculiar, though not necessarily in a bad way. They just seemed odd. As mentioned, there is a food obsessed war hero who seems to forget his obsession once the real movie starts. Then there is Stanwyck’s Elizabeth Lee who appears to be completely self-centred and indulgent – yet we like her.

Despite the quibbles, I really did like this movie, especially once that opening was over. It certainly has the look and feel of a Hollywood holiday classic. It’s also funny and, in its Hollywood way, romantic. It gets great supporting performances, particularly those of Greenstreet, S.Z. Sakall (as the real food master) and Una O’Connor with her thick Irish accent and wonderful reactions.

For me, this movie played well – quick, engaging and almost, but not quite, satisfying. Had a bit of time been taken editing the opening, I would say it would be up there with the great holiday movies.

And I’m darned curious about how that opening came about.

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Bang for the movie buck – Auntie Mame

Don’t ever accuse the entertainment business of not cleaning up its plate. There is no place like the world of entertainment for squeezing every last drop of blood out of a “property” (as the money guys refer to it).

For example, take the 1958 movie starring Rosalind Russell, titled Auntie Mame. It began as a play, became a movie, then later became a musical. Oh, but it was a book before all of that.

This story put on some mileage. Have a look:

  • 1955 book
  • 1956 play
  • 1958 movie
  • 1966 broadway musical
  • 1974 movie musical

Of course, there would also be records, cassettes, DVDs and mp3’s as the years rolled by, not to mention the VHS tapes, the DVDs and, now, online streaming/downloads. And many in the general public are probably completely unfamiliar with the story, Auntie Mame. Imagine that.

As for the movie, I wrote up review/overview a few years back:

The movie succeeds in large part because of Rosalind Russell’s incredibly energetic performance. (You can almost hear voices crying out, “No more coffee for her!”) …

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Shock isn’t scary; suspense is – The Sixth Sense

As October wraps up, it seems appropriate to talk about a movie from 1999 that was a genuinely good, suspense-filled ghost story. It’s one that caught most people off guard, especially with its ending. And it was so quiet!

The Sixth Sense (1999)

Directed by M. Night Shaymalan

It’s undoubtedly due to the time of year that I find I’ve been recently watching films of a supernatural nature. Not long ago I wrote about The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947) and last week Ugetsu (1953). Those two movies tackled the subject of ghosts in very different ways. Last night I watched The Sixth Sense (1999), a movie that takes on the subject in a much more traditional way. It’s aspires to, and succeeds at, being a scary movie.

Most people I know have seen the movie but if you have not you should know that this entire review is likely to be a spoiler, so you’ve been warned. If you haven’t seen the film, I recommend reading nothing about it anywhere until you have.

I’ve probably seen The Sixth Sense three or four times now and each time I feel a sense of melancholy – except for that first time. I feel that way because, once seen, you can never see it as you did that first time. Once seen, it becomes a completely new movie. (See, You can’t watch the same movie twice.)

However, make no mistake. This is a movie that should be seen at least twice. In a sense, you get two movies for the price of one: the movie where you didn’t know the ending and the one where you do know how it ends. That difference is a big deal with this movie.

Haley Joel Osment plays Cole, a very troubled boy. Bruce Willis plays a child psychologist, Dr. Malcolm Crowe, who tries to help him. It isn’t until roughly the movie’s mid-point that we (and Dr. Crowe) discover the nature of Cole’s trouble: “I see dead people.”

Yes, we’re in a ghost story. It’s one that ends with a big revelation for the audience (even more so for Dr. Crowe). All the tumblers fall into place then as we understand that what we’ve seen was not what we thought we were seeing.

Watching the movie again, you see how all the clues are there and most are remarkably simple, even obvious, and you wonder how you didn’t see them the first time. The answer is that writer/director M. Night Shyamalan understands how we watch movies, especially our expectations.

There is a scene in the movie where Dr. Crowe shows Cole a magic trick and it’s a nice analogy for how the movie works. His trick is no trick at all. The scene is about setting up a trick and how in setting it up we expect something. The trick (if you can call it that) is that what we expect doesn’t happen.

The movie also works because Shyamalan also understands that a scary movie is all about mood. You may notice how remarkably quiet the movie is. With the exception of a few short scenes, most of the movie is still, almost silent. When characters speak to one another it’s intimately, often whispered and hushed. Sound is used delicately and when it is loud it is usually brief and for punctuation, such as a scene where a quick, single chord is heard as a ghost passes by a door. Yes, we jump.

The performances are also very good and, because they are, help pull us into the movie’s mystery. Haley Joel Osment gives a performance you would expect from an old pro, complex and perfectly times, and Bruce Willis gives one of his best performances, understated and poignant in its restraint.

The Sixth Sense is one of those wonderfully entertaining spooky movies that understands atmosphere creates suspense and worry. Shock is a different kind of movie and that isn’t what this movie cares about. It cares about suspense and surprise.

And it delivers.

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A different kind of ghost story

Ghost stories are appropriate for the season, I suppose, but one of my favourites is one of the least ghostly, at least in the “Boo!” sense. It’s The Ghost and Mrs. Muir from 1947.

I remember as a kid watching the TV show that starred Hope Lange. Back then, I had no idea it was based (loosely) on a movie. Then a few years ago I came across the movie. For the record, I’ll take the movie. Just saying.

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir

Directed by Joseph L Mankiewicz

If you’re looking to be frightened by a ghost movie, this is not the movie for you. While to some extent it is dressed up in the look of one, it’s a romance, and a melancholy one at that.

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is a beautiful example of black and white filmmaking. There are some great shots and it’s interesting to see how the movie uses camera technique and other tools to create mood etc. as opposed to using special effects. (For example, Harrison as the ghost appears out of shadows rather than “materializing.”)

The movie is about a recent widow (Gene Tierney) who leaves the oppressive environment of her mother-in-law and sister’s home to take her daughter and live by the sea. She rents a home on the coast, one the real estate man urges her not to take. He reluctantly confesses it is haunted and, because of this, a problem house.

But Tierney’s Lucy Muir falls in love with Gull Cottage and takes it. After a few introductory “haunting” type scenes (less scarey than moody), she meets the ghost, a sea captain played by Rex Harrison. The relationship begins, and so does the real story.

While never explicitly stated (until the end), as an audience we know a romantic relationship is developing – each is falling in love with the other. I think this is because they recognize they share the same independent, uncompromising spirit. One is more overt (the ghost) and the other more restrained (Lucy), but both are informed by individuality.

Of course, the relationship is doomed since she is a living woman and he is a ghost.

Eventually the captain leaves Mrs. Muir because of this. He wants her to live as a flesh and blood woman and to find love with a living man, though he warns, “… there may be breakers ahead.”

There are and Lucy hits them.

The movie shows us an unusually independent woman. She asserts herself again and again though always with a contradictory sense of apology.

Tierney plays Lucy in a playful way (as the DVD notes say, almost screwball). This quality she gives the character allows the film to show us the passage and transformations of time.

The playfulness gives her a youthful quality in the first half of the film. As the movie progresses, and time passes, this becomes less and less, replaced by an introverted quietness. This interpretation, along with the wonderful score by Bernard Hermann, creates the melancholy feeling the movie’s opening scenes announced.

As time passes and the ghost of the sea captain is no longer in her life, Gene Tierney’s character becomes a lonely woman, almost eccentric.

The film gives us the inevitable Hollywood happy ending but it’s not enough to take away the essential sadness at the heart of the film. Tierney’s Lucy is a wonderful woman but out of step with her environment.

The only person she truly connects with, and who appreciates her independent spirit, is a ghost. The price for her independence is loneliness.

Tierney plays her part perfectly. Harrison, on the other hand, is a little over the top.

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is a marvellous film. While it contains a lot of humour, it’s primarily a romance, a sweetly melancholic one.

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An unapologetic and satisfying romance

A friend kept telling me how much she loved this movie. I knew nothing about it but a few years ago I saw it and picked it up. I took it home, put it in the DVD player and was very happy I did.

This is a good, fun movie.

Dangerous Beauty (1998)

Directed by Marshall Herskovitz

What’s a girl to do? It’s 16th century Venice, wealth and politics determine the marriage bed and, with a father having squandered the family fortune away on drink, a sad match with a old man is the best a woman of few means can do.

Unless, of course, she becomes a courtesan, which is what Veronica Franco, played exquisitely by Catherine McCormack, decides to do in Dangerous Beauty.

By turns sexy, romantic and even bawdy, and generously flavoured with an almost melodramatic quality at times, Dangerous Beauty is a marvelously entertaining film that, when all is done, is ultimately an unapologetic and satisfying romance.

But unlike many costume romances, the movie does not choose to make the lead female character a damsel in distress awaiting a dark rugged hero to sweep her off her feet and carry her off to some ill-defined happily-ever-after. No, Veronica is the architect of her fate.

And Rufus Sewell as Marco Venier, the handsome if somewhat wishy-washy object of her affections, gets to go along.

The movie works so well for several reasons. First of all, it is what it is, meaning it knows it is a romance and follows those conventions faithfully. However, it manages to go beyond them by toying with them, such as making Veronica a much stronger character than the form normally possesses.

And the Veronica character, as played by Catherine McCormack, is the ultimate key to the film’s success.

McCormack manages a nuanced performance that captures a cornucopia of emotional shadings that enunciate the character perfectly — strength, uncertainty, sauciness, love, sensuality and the steady-eyed determination of youth, among others.

I just love the mischievous grin she gets, particularly in her earlier scenes with Rufus Sewell. There is a completely disarming combination of youth and playfulness in it.

Sewell is also good, as he always is, despite a role that is quite difficult to play — the hero is not quite a hero, the man who disrupts his life due to his conflict between his love of Veronica and his sense of duty.

There is also a wonderful performance by Jacqueline Bisset as Paolo, Veronica’s somewhat stern and determined mother.

It is she who introduces Veronica to the life of the courtesan (and from whom, in the back story, we can probably assume Veronica gets her own strength of will).

In the end, Dangerous Beauty is a great romance and adventure. It’s sexy too. While it may have a bit of a costumed soap opera quality to it, that’s fine because it works, engaging us in its story from the very start.


As far as I know, there is just the one version of Dangerous Beauty on DVD and, while passable, it’s a bit of a disappointment. The image is soft and I found the lack of a crisp image frustrating.

The story, however, is strong enough that you can convince yourself you can live with it. But I would certainly like to see a better presentation of the movie at some time in the future.

If they ever do, they might also want to think about including some special features. Other than some text “Production Notes” that are pretty scant, there are no special features here.

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The Apartment and the melancholy Billy Wilder

Directed by Billy Wilder

While Billy Wilder movies are often spoken of in terms of romantic comedies (which many of them are – kind of), the thing that most strikes me about them is the melancholy that informs them.

More often than not his lead characters are lonely and sad. The stories that unfold are usually ones where that isolation is alleviated and happiness, to varying degrees, is found at the end – which generally is the way romantic comedies unfold.

But the humour in his films is often mitigated by the quality of sadness. They are often amusing, even funny, but not terribly so because there is a constant awareness of the human drama underpinning everything.

In The Apartment we get a good example of this. It’s a very good movie. It’s a funny movie – but not wildly funny.

Everything is flavoured by the quality of sadness which comes from who Wilder’s main characters are and their lonely situation.

Jack Lemmon plays C.C. (‘Bud’) Baxter, a bachelor who is trying to get ahead in a large corporation. For a year now, he has been lending his apartment to the company’s executives (his seniors in the corporation; men with pull who can help his career). They use it for their romantic trysts – extramarital ones.

Baxter has no life himself, not beyond his job. He lives alone, stays late in the office, and often spends his evenings killing time waiting till his apartment is free to come home to.

Shirley MacLaine is Fran Kubelik, an elevator operator in the building Bud works in. She is also single. Though seemingly above the sexual shenanigans of the office, it turns out she is (or has been) the mistress of the company’s head executive (Fred MacMurray).

Despite the questionable decisions they have made (Baxter to use his apartment as he does, Fran to be someone’s mistress), they are the only two decent people in the office. (Neither is comfortable with their morally compromised situations.) It’s interesting, and likely deliberate, that with the exception of Fran and Baxter the office has no genuine, decent people but those kinds of people do exist outside of it (such as Baxter’s neighbour, the doctor).

The consequences of the compromises Baxter and Lemmon make are tragic, even severe, but not insurmountable.

Both are lonely and miserable and both acquire an acute awareness of this through their growing relationship, primarily as friends (at least at the start of the relationship).

They find one another and this is what they need in order to get out of their situations – the strength and support they find in one another.

The Apartment is very good movie with a similar romantic theme to the later film, Avanti! Lemmon, MacLaine and MacMurray all give great and convincing performances.

(Originally posted 2003)


Spielberg, Kubrick and Artificial Intelligence: A.I.

I haven’t seen A.I.: Artificial Intelligence in a few years so I watched it again last night. My memory is poor but based on what I wrote (below) in 2002 and my vague recollection, this was a Stanley Kubrick project that never saw the light of day. (The Wikipedia entry suggests Kubrick himself felt the subject might be better suited to Spielberg.)

A brief online scan shows that since the DVD was first released back in 2002, there haven’t been any other editions. I don’t believe it is available yet in HD. That seems odd since it seems the kind of movie suited to HD. Here’s what I wrote back in 2002:

A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001)

Directed by Steven Spielberg

While it is a flawed film, I think A.I.: Artificial Intelligence is the Steven Spielberg film I’ve most enjoyed. Like the Andrew Niccol film Gattaca, it’s a science fiction film that is about something and, like the best science fiction, it’s not about science but how we respond to science and what it creates.

It’s also a great movie to set against Spielberg’s earlier Close Encounters of the Third Kind in that the perspective is so different.

In a way, it relates to Spielberg’s earlier films in the way Shakespeare’s The Tempest relates to the earlier Shakespearean romances. The bright, awe-struck sensibility of a young man is now replaced by a darker (but not pessimistic), somewhat world-weary view of an older man. This is what happens when you make movies like Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan. While hope may remain, it has been conditioned by the darker aspects of reality, by an awareness of consequences that linger despite overcoming evil.

Of course, this is the movie that has caused so much discussion about what Stanley Kubrick would have done had he made the film. There seems to be a belief among some that Kubrick would have made a better film. I don’t think so, and I think Kubrick knew it.

In fact, I think this movie is as good as it possibly could have been, and is probably much better than many think it is, precisely because it’s informed, to varying degrees, by both men. Spielberg’s mastery of a child’s viewpoint is what redeems the bleak world of a Kubrick production.

Kubrick’s masterful way of creating an almost Zen-like clarity of darkness defuses what could easily have devolved into an almost Disney-ish sentimentality. Together, the Spielberg and Kubrick sensibilities negate the excesses of the other and create a dark vision we can actually enter, identify with and travel along with.

It results, however, in a few jarring moments. In the first act, Spielberg gives us a pristine homage to the Kubrick style. In fact, it’s hard to image this is Spielberg directing and not Kubrick. The scenes are austere, cold, clinical, dispassionate. In the same way that Kubrick sets up a story by almost laying cards unemotionally on the table, Spielberg creates a collage of scenes almost documentary style. There are odd angles, off-putting lighting, and brief dialogue exchanges with awkward pauses that create a sense that we are seeing things voyeuristically, at imperfect but opportunistic moments.

In Kubrick films, he sometimes seems to show us moments that are not only not the moments we’re use to seeing, but the moments that occur between them. In other words, he uses the material others put on the cutting room floor, and discards what others would have used.

And then we’re into the second act and suddenly in Steven Spielberg’s world. The austerity is gone; it’s all adrenaline now. It’s the man who makes movies like Jaws and Jurassic Park rather than The Shining. I think this is because in the first act we’re seeing how we react to David, this robotic boy who seems so human. The focus is on our response (not as an audience, but as a individuals who make up a society) and that is pure Kubrick.

In the second act we see how we, as human beings (identified now with David) are affected by this response. It’s terrifying; it’s baffling. It’s nightmarish, and this is what Spielberg gives us, in the Spielberg style.

In the third act, we’re into something altogether different. It’s a strange fusion of Spielberg and Kubrick, of Close Encounters and 2001: A Space Odyssey. The end is mysterious but it’s also hopeful, in an odd and equivocated way. Frankly, I’m not quite sure what to think of the ending.

Spielberg hedges on the bleak ending but that is not a bad thing because the obligation to Kubrick, I think, conditions and mutes a happy ending. It’s probably also muted because of Spielberg’s awareness of the Holocaust where, though the evil is defeated, its consequences remain.

When I picked up A.I., I didn’t expect much. Following the utter rubbish of big DVD releases like Star Wars: the Phantom Menace and Planet of the Apes, I was expecting another great DVD package of a truly awful film. What a wonderful surprise to find a really good movie was on this 2-disc set. The one thing to be aware of is there are two versions out there: widescreen and pan-and-scan (full frame). But the packaging doesn’t really make it obvious so take care to pick up the version you prefer. (Hopefully, you aren’t one of those barbarians that prefers the full frame.)

(This review was written in March of 2002.)

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