Tuesday, January 31, 2012

An Affair to Remember (McCarey. 1957)

"The Empire State Building is the closest thing to heaven in this city..."

An Affair to Remember is a movie that tells the audience everything they need to know with its title alone. Carey Grant and Deborah Kerr are both upper-class people on a luxury liner to New York where they accidentally cross paths and fall in love. The only problem is that they are both currently in relationships. Grant’s character, Nickie Ferrante, is unhappy in his relationship with a wealthy woman who pays his way through life. Terry McKay (Kerr) is considering getting married to her boyfriend in the city, but realizes that she has compromised herself in order to appease him. Boy and girl meet, comically try to keep their relationship hidden and then go their separate ways. But not before making a secret agreement.

Just before they split in New York, the couple-to-be agrees to meet at the Empire State Building in exactly one year. They have decided to be together, but need this time to “find themselves” and end their respective relationships. Though the first half of the movie takes place on the boat trip, the real movie begins with this story. After a year goes by, Nickie is waiting for his lover at the top of the building. Terry is running late and, while looking up at the building in wonderment, is hit by a car and paralyzed at the waist. Nickie does not find out about the accident until a long time later, but he never gives up on finding Terry. It is a tragic sounding, but ultimately inspiring, love story….but…

What really bothers me about An Affair to Remember is that the two main characters unapologetically have an AFFAIR TO REMEMBER. They are away from their partner while on a cruise ship and manage to fall in love with another person. Maybe this just hits home for me, but cheating is not really an okay thing. We should not be cheering for these two people while they are being kind of sleazy. Grant and Kerr are beautiful people, but it still isn’t nice to go around breaking hearts. I understand that a lot of romantic comedies center on a female in the wrong relationship who meets the right guy and they end up together with a kiss before the credits, but outright cheating is different than dumping your boyfriend for a new man. Most people will not even see this point as significant, but it bothered me for the entire length of the movie.

Even with that unlikeable aspect, Kerr and Grant still have impeccable chemistry. I am immediately reminded of the hilarious The Lady Eve when Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck meet on a boat and fall in love. Maybe there is something about an open ocean that makes people want to be in love – because every boat-romance I have ever seen features relationships that are delightful to watch. Maybe that is why the audience can blatantly disregard the character’s infidelities.

Director Leo McCarey also had a significant amount of input on the screenplay, and it has proven to be a timeless work in romance movie history. The planned meeting at the top of the Empire State Building was borrowed by the huge box-office smash Sleepless in Seattle (1993) and the whole idea of providing endless frustrating obstacles for love has become a staple in popular film. An Affair to Remember does not allow anything to be easy. Nickie and Terry have to work to find each other again and have to work even harder to conceal their feelings.

In one memorable scene, the two are talking in Terry’s apartment. She still has not told Nickie that she is paralyzed and remains sitting on the couch with her legs covered by a blanket. She avoids telling him why she was not able to meet him on that fateful day because she is simply too proud to let him be with her out of sympathy. It is a perfect example of the lover’s drama that has become so common in romantic filmmaking.

On a totally different note, there is one scene in An Affair to Remember that stands out as unintentionally hilarious and (un?)intentionally racist. After her accident, Terry works as a youth choir director for the local church. As her choir is singing a song about being nice to everybody the only two black kids break into a tap dancing solo. I have no idea if this scene is supposed to have any racial undertone, but after seeing Do the Right Thing it is nearly impossible to not consider it. I watched this moment with my jaw loosely dropped onto the floor.

An Affair to Remember may feature some morally unfit people, but the love story is compelling and the acting is spot on. It is a pleasure to watch Grant and Kerr work together, and McCarey’s direction is a sold step up from my only other experience with his work (Duck Soup). It is a simple, straightforward film that served as a heavy influence on the romantic genre. It may be a bit chick-flicky for some, but it is still entertaining.

An Affair to Remember: B-

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Videodrome (Cronenberg. 1983)

"Long live the new flesh!"

What bothers me most about the incendiary David Cronenberg is that he has never been able to make up his mind over what type of film he is trying to make. Because of this, he has been dubbed one of the founders of “techno-surrealism”. I have previously reviewed one of the finer works by Cronenberg, Naked Lunch, and though I liked it quite a bit – I still thought the entire endeavor was a tad pointless. I am forced to say that I have the same feelings toward one of his most famous “cult” films, Videodrome.

Videodrome follows that story of a sleazy television programmer, Max Renn, for a UHF station in Toronto. His station is controversial in the area because it almost exclusively depicts softcore pornography and extreme violence. Max is looking for the next big thing for his station when one of his employees uses a pirate satellite to intercept a strange, plot-less television show that seems to be coming from Malaysia. The show features two men who are dressed in all black as they torture, beat and eventually kill a young woman right there on the screen. It is never said why that woman had to die, nor are the killer’s identities known to the audience. The show is called Videodrome. Max is enthralled by the show and proclaims that this new form of fake-snuff-television will be the future of his station.

In the midst of all of this, Max is a guest on a local talk show where he is put on a panel to defend his actions against psychiatrist Nicki Brand (Debbie Harry) and a strange pop-culture analyst and philosopher who will only appear on the show through a video-feed, Brian O’blivion (Jack Creley). Max explains that he does not see any problem with his station because it provides a much safer outlet for people who are excited by the idea of extreme violence. In an unexpected twist, the feminist Nicki agrees with him and the two spend the majority of the show flirting back and forth. O’blivion overtakes the host and endlessly rambles about how television will eventually become the actual reality and how the audience is powerless to stop it.

Max and Nicki end up bonding over their infatuation with Videodrome and even have terrifying sex while watching it. I do not know about you, but I do not associate sex with having my ears pierced, but this is how they like it. After learning that the show actually takes place in Pittsburgh, Nicki goes off to audition to be a contestant. This leads to Max wanting to know more about Videodrome. He does not like what he learns.

Without giving too much of the story away, Videodrome ends up being an actual, snuff, production where the contestants are killed on the screen. Though that is shocking, it is not even the half of it. It also emits a strange frequency that causes the audience to develop brain tumors. Max becomes a victim of this unusual scheme and eventually begins having violent and graphic hallucinations where his stomach opens up and serves as a VCR for his new reality.

The hallucination scenes are probably what make the movie famous, but that does not mean they are fun to watch. In fact, they are a bit disgusting. It was hard to pick a working picture from the movie to serve as the header for this blog-post, but I decided that I would use the least graphic one I could find.

James Woods is an actor who is not capable of doing wrong in my book. He is masterful in Videodrome with his sarcastic smile, condescending vocal-tone and skinny sleazed out demeanor. Watching him succumb to the disturbing side effects of Videodrome is a haunting experience for the viewer. As an empathetic moviegoer, I could not help but experience some significant stomach pain during a few of the scenes. But Woods controls these moments with the calmness of a veteran actor. It is obvious that he believed in Cronenberg’s vision no matter how strange it seemed. He is not able to makes the film believable, but he certainly does try. That alone is worth some respect.

Debbie Harry, most famous for being the lead singer of the punk band Blondie, has something irresistible interesting about her in Videodrome. She advertises herself as a feminist psychologist, but then begs Max to cut her and stick needles through her ears during sex. In one scene, she shows arousal after burning her breast with a lit cigarette. I do not want to send off the wrong signals, I am not into cutting, needles or burns – but Nicki is actually a pretty sexy character. I have no idea why I think that. Please, feel free to judge me.

Cronenberg is the writer and director of Videodrome and displays a knack for setting a gross scene. Sadly, he mixes far too many aspects of too many genres that, for me, do not seem to mix well together. Surrealism and horror have gone hand in hand for years, but I have no desire to watch erotic surreal horror with a dab of comedy and a touch of mystery-thriller. Also, the science fiction points in the plot do not stand up well on their own. Long story short, it just does not make any sense. Looking at Videodrome is pretty neat, but watching it is disappointing.

Videodrome is not a bad movie by any means. It is just messy. It is fun to go back and watch a director like David Cronenberg as he evolves and grows stylistically. In Naked Lunch he displays a much more mature tact and tells a far more surreal, but still more interesting, story. I can see why Videodrome has remained a cult hit. It is less deep than it seems and harder to watch than it needs to be…

Videodrome: C

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Bob le Flambeur (Melville. 1956)

"Gamble, Bob, gamble, in it is the source of salvation..."

What does it take to make a crime film so great that it forces Stanley Kubrick out of the genre? Bob the Gambler is a movie that perfectly mixes a classic black and white coloring style with sophisticated camera work and characters with which an audience can be immediately familiar. The story is not complex, trite or obscure in telling, but rather so simple that it makes the experience of watching un-exhausting.

From the start, we have our main character, Bob Montagné. He is a reformed criminal who seems to have gained the respect of everyone in the Montmartre district of Paris, even some of the cops. Though his public appearance remains flamboyant, it becomes known that Bob has lost most of his riches due to a steep gambling debt. After hearing that the Deauville casino holds a fortune on certain nights, Bob arranges one final heist to regain his prominent social stature.

As a character, Bob Montagné is almost a cliche. He wears finely pressed suits and drives a convertible coupe. His apartment is decorated with the finest things and his general demeanor will not break for a weak moment. Morals and masculine values play a major role in his ability to make decisions, and he is shown to have a somewhat greater knowledge in the art of feminine persuasion. His only moments of weakness stem from an uncontrollable addiction to gambling. And poor Bob is on a losing streak.

In the background we are introduced to Bob's arrogant and unlikable young protegee, Paolo. He is an eager, overzealous and untimely overly-horny poor-to-do kid who only recently started wearing his big boy pants. He falls in love with an amazingly beautiful French blonde named Anne and everything goes downhill from that point.

Honestly, I am not sure if Anne is supposed to be a prostitute or not. It is hinted every now and then in the film that she SHOULD be working on the street, and her reactions to these statements seem a tad subdued. Maybe she is, maybe she isn't. Either way, Anne (Isabelle Corey) is a bombshell. Her eyes and lips are enough to drive almost any man wild. She knows this much about herself and uses it to take advantage of Paolo - who ultimately spoils the heist by spilling the plans to Anne after a round of sex.

There are a few more interesting sub-plots in Bob the Gambler, but I do not want to spoil all of the action. I will say that the final scene is a tragic warning against breaking the law. Jean-Pierre Melville does not give the audience all of the information that is needed because he wanted to create a sense of urgency in the climax. Watching Bob the Gambler is not like having a story read to you; it is a voyeuristic experience where you are allowed to witness the deterioration of a man's proud life. Some of the pieces will have to be put together by the audience.

Roger Duchesne is a proper fit to play Montagné. He has a sense of experience and stonewall emotion that cannot be shaken. His desperation seeps through the meticulously constricted lines on his face. In the film's final moments, as Montagné kneels in tragedy, he seems to be under-emotional. Bob cannot be weak. It is not an option.

Most crime films have similar endings, and Bob the Gambler is not an exception to this rule. But the movie does not seem to be about the ending. It is not a heart-pounding display of intense action or suspense. Melville's vision uses more of a charter-driven mythos. With a beautifully done black and white backdrop (especially in the Criterion release) and hard-boiled acting from the entire cast, Bob the Gambler has been cited as a major influence on everything from French New Wave to Martin Scorsese. For me, it is not fantastic, but it is better than almost any crime-driven cinematic alternative.

Bob the Gambler: B