Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Lost Weekend (1945)

Billy Wilder’s “The Lost Weekend” could very well serve as a public service film in some support groups akin to Alcoholics Anonymous! I mean rarely have I come across a film that that is solely dedicated to chronicling an alcoholic’s drinking binge over a trying weekend, as he recalls the period of time during which alcohol got the better of him.

We are introduced to Don (Ray Milland), a down on his luck writer in New York struggling with his alcoholism. Apparently he is attempting to recover from it and has weaned from the stuff for ten days, which is when he and his brother Wick (Phillip Terry) are planning to take a vacation over the weekend as a further attempt to take Don’s mind off alcohol. Don conveniently evades this outing plan by sending his brother with his girl Helen (Jane Wyman) to a concert and agreeing to take the later train. Ensuring that there is no bottle hidden away in one of Don’s many “secret places”, Wick reluctantly agrees.  

A penniless Don frantically seeks out alcohol when opportunity knocks in the form of the cleaning lady, who he successfully manages to con out of her wages, all for whiskey! And thus unfolds Don’s disturbing story of alcohol addiction, told partly in flashback as he pours his heart out to Nat (Howard Da Silva) of Nat’s Bar, Don’s favourite hangout and partly in the present as the weekend turns deadlier by the minute as Don’s alcohol craving gets desperate…

The above summary may seem wafer-thin but you will be surprised at how much material Billy Wilder packs in this 100 mins film that just drifts by…! Ray Milland, in his Oscar winning portrayal of Don, the alcoholic, delivers a scintillating performance. Practically the whole film rides on this masterful performance, for if the performance hadn’t been as effective, the film wouldn’t be as effective! As Don guzzles down shots of Rye Whiskey, we come to know of his past, his involvement with Helen, his embarrassment at being a writer who isn’t able to get a breakthrough and his increasing belief that he is inspired to write only when drunk!

Wilder paints a very frightening picture of what happens when one clings on to the bottle.

I, personally, am a whisky lover too, but I would hate to be in Don’s position. For Don, alcohol becomes the one and only solace. It becomes a way of his miserable life! It becomes the sole goal and drinking appears to be the magical cure for everything! Wilder shows it all…the desperation, the depression, the helplessness at not finding a bottle, the penury that drives Don to even try and pawn his livelihood…his typewriter! And then there’s the hallucinations! On one hand Wilder shows some superbly surreal scenes depicting Don’s thirst for alcohol. Check out that wonderful scene at a stage show, when, while watching a song depicting drinking, Don develops a strong desire to drink and all the performers on stage appear to be a row of raincoats to him, ‘cause his raincoat which he has checked in before entering the auditorium, contains a bottle of rye! And then there are the hallucinations which result from alcoholism going overboard…as a character in the film, Bim (Frank Faylen) says “alcoholics usually imagine seeing small animals rather than pink elephants”!

It is sufficient to say that as far as the deadliness of alcoholism are concerned, Wilder makes sure he covers all the grim effects it would have on a person. A significant part of the film plays out with perfection. The crisp editing and super smooth narrative of the engaging screenplay are some of the winning aspects of “The Lost Weekend”.

It is only towards the end that Wilder decides to go “Hollywood” with his ending!

Why, a film that builds up to such great promise, has to end with a whimper is beyond me. I mean it could’ve been the ultimate picture of inevitable doom and destruction suddenly does an about face and closes with a proverbial “where there’s a will there’s a way” ending full of hope that simply did not fit in the scheme of things in the major portion of “The Lost Weekend”. It would still be convincing if there was a gradual buildup to that ending, but so is not the case. There is a sudden reversal from an obvious point of no return, and that becomes one of the major flaws of “The Lost Weekend”. One only wishes Wilder had revised the ending.

While not a masterpiece like Wilder’s “Sunset Blvd” is, “The Lost Weekend” is most definitely worth taking a look at.

Score: 8/10.

Monday, September 19, 2011

A Place in the Sun (1951)

Oscar winning director George Stevens produced and directed one of the most popular films of our time, “A Place in the Sun” starring Montgomery Clift, Liz Taylor and Shelley Winters.

Based on the novel “An American Tragedy” by Theodore Dreiser, the screenplay written by Michael Wilson and Harry Brown tells the tragic story centering around a young, ambitious yet financially poor man named George Eastman (Montgomery Clift) who leaves behind the religious missionary work his parents were a part of and moves out with the hopes of seeking some decent employment with his business tycoon distant uncle Charles Eastman (Herbert Heyes). Initially perceived as socially “misfit” amongst the Eastmans, George is given a menial packaging task on the Factory floor. Early on, George seems to have developed the hots for a beautiful socialite and wealthy family friend of the Eastmans, Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor). But she hardly even notices him in the beginning, and believing her to be way out of his reach owing to his social status, George probably decides to leave it aside.

Meanwhile, breaking one essential rule of not mixing with the female co-workers, George gets romantically involved with one Alice Tripp (Shelley Winters).  Their romance heats up quickly enough and George also finds himself steadily climbing the ladder in the Eastman industry, thanks to his hard work and last name Eastman! Soon enough he finds himself shoulder to shoulder with some of the who’s who in an Eastman party and Angela Vickers finally notices him and predictably enough, falls for his boyish charms! George seizes the opportunity and gets involved in a passionate affair with Angela.  Things however take a turn for the worse when Alice declares she is pregnant with George’s child…….

“A Place in the Sun” is one of those rare motion pictures which unfold in a predictable fashion, yet manage to hold our attention, thanks to the riveting performances and the superbly written scenes full of exciting drama. So we all know how it’s all gonna turn out…at least initially! The romantic relationships build up most predictably and you know very early in the film how the love triangle will eventually take its shape. We all know then that there is bound to be some turbulence when Alice gets pregnant. Now it is post this point that the protagonist starts to take drastic decisions and we immediately begin to sense the outcome for his every action!

Yet George Stevens manages to give us a highly watchable film. A film that starts with sugar-candy-floss romance, soon turns into a bleak noir-like drama! The quality of the film is only enhanced by William C. Mellor’s Oscar winning cinematography and William Hornbeck’s crisp editing. Stevens takes the helm of this project and ably delivers a solid drama. Only one wishes the romance wasn’t as cheesily portrayed and the dialogs weren’t as excessively sappy! I mean how many times have we heard “I've loved you since the first moment I saw you”!! And this is said by the protagonist to Angela not long after he has confessed his “everlasting love” to Alice! It is only human to behave like that…succumb to ravishing beauty (especially when you have the likes of Liz Taylor eating out of your hand), but Clift’s portrayal of his character looks calm and gentle with a discreet charm, a far cry from being a suave, yet sly womanizer who would two-time two beautiful ladies. 

Clift was nominated for an Academy award for his portrayal, yet I felt something was certainly lacking, especially in later scenes where he is required to emote, more so for a person or character who finds himself in the sticky situation he is in! He has done a far better job in some of his other films.

Taylor looks ravishing enough as a high society girl, whose every move makes headlines in the local papers. So even if she goes on a boating trip somewhere, she is captured by the paparazzi and it appears in the morning papers! For a girl spoilt by the media like that, it is quite surprising that she turns out to be such a fool for love, falling for a man whom she hardly knows about and even being ready to marry him! One would think such a girl would have a jolly time with several young men dying to woo her and get close to her!

The only character that is the most realistically portrayed, then, is Shelley Winters’ Alice Tripp. It is a spectacular performance that deserved the Academy award nomination. Winters clearly understands her character, that of a poor girl working in a factory; one who’s afraid to bring boys to her humble rented apartment, for fear that she would be in trouble if her landlady found out. One who gives her everything to the man she loves; one whose angst is visible when she begins to sense betrayal, just as her lover gets a taste of the rich and famous (read Angela Vickers!). It is a solid performance that deserves most accolades.

Of the supporting cast, it is Raymond Burr’s portrayal of the limping District Attorney R. Frank Marlowe, that holds our attention, although he has but a few scenes to his credit.

“A Place in the Sun” is definitely worth checking out. The sappy romance and some unconvincing character traits notwithstanding, it is one of the most accomplished works in American cinema.

Score: 8/10

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Klute (1971)

With a strange name like “Klute” I wondered what’s in store, considering all I knew was that this was an early Alan J. Pakula film and the first of his informally known “Paranoia trilogy”.

Things start to happen immediately as the credits begin to roll, and we soon come across the situation around which “Klute” is centered. Tom Gruneman, a Pennsylvania executive has disappeared without a trace, under mysterious circumstances. It is after six whole months of wasted efforts and no outcome on part of the police, that Gruneman’s friend and colleague Peter Cable (Charles Cioffi) entrusts the responsibility of investigating the disappearance to Tom’s family friend, John Klute (Donald Sutherland). All he has, to start with, is an obscene letter, apparently written by Gruneman to a New York prostitute named Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda). With the Bree Daniels link, Klute begins his investigation hoping to reach Gruneman.

But Klute soon realizes that things aren’t gonna be easy, as it becomes difficult to get the reluctant Bree to talk. Bree is a call-girl but is clearly not enjoying it. She wants to be an actress, but doesn’t seem to be getting a break. In the midst of all this she is haunted by the constant feeling of being stalked. She feels she is being followed around, even gets blank calls in the wee hours of the night! Obviously in a troubled state of mind, she visits a shrink from time to time and reveals her deepest fears to her.

The film then delves upon Klute’s investigations and Bree’s personal problems as it moves along its steady and gripping screenplay. Does he finally uncover the mystery of Gruneman’s disappearance? Is there more to it than he can ever handle?

Klute” reminded me of Francis Ford Coppola’s terrific psychological drama “The Conversation” on many levels. Although “Klute” came out before “The Conversation”, one can’t help but notice the astounding similarities in the “atmosphere” of both the films. The film is slow-paced, there is considerable focus on surveillance and the use of tape-recorded voices, the constant paranoia of being followed and watched all the time, along with other things. Of course, that said, the two films are completely different in terms of plot and central theme.

This is only Pakula’s second film as director and he does a fantastic job with the material at hand, the screenplay written by Andy and Dave Lewis. It is great to see Donald Sutherland underplay his character of Klute, thus making his performance quite memorable. Jane Fonda is superb in her Oscar winning role as the troubled call-girl wanting to quit. The always dependable Roy Scheider appears briefly in an important role as Frank Ligourin, Bree’s former pimp and makes sure he makes a mark in whatever little screen time he gets! Michael Small’s enigmatic music is creepy and at some point reminded me of some B-horror films but that is actually a compliment as the music suits some of the more nail-biting moments shot in the dark.

However I must admit that while the film is built up in a pretty solid fashion up to its climax, the final few minutes are a tad disappointing…but maybe it’s just me; perhaps I was expecting a bit more from this film and hence ended up feeling somewhat underwhelmed!

Nonetheless, credit must be given where it is due, and this film is surely a must-see for lovers of old school mysteries and whodunits!

Score: 8/10.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Girl by the Lake (2007)

It was a weekend well spent for me for having watched yet another hidden Italian gem that is “The Girl by the Lake”.

Toni Servillo stars in this intriguing whodunit set in a picturesque, quiet little mountain village somewhere in Italy. The film opens with great promise of a finely crafted film, as we see a little girl named Marta walk down the road in her neighbourhood exchanging sweet hellos, when she is stopped midway by a man in a truck whom she calls Mario and seems to know well. What he says isn’t audible to us, but she accompanies him in his truck and he drives away.

But there are other things happening elsewhere in this little obscure place that is sparsely populated and everyone seems to know every other person! So it is no surprise that everyone knows a beautiful girl in her late teens who turns up dead by the nearby lake. She is left there naked by her killer, but strangely enough there isn’t much evidence of physical abuse on her body and she seems to have died of strangulation. Inspector Sanzio (Toni Servillo) starts pursuing the case with the assistance of his loyal fellow officers Alfredo and Lorenzo Siboldi. As he begins unearthing evidence based on his clues and starts rounding up suspects who all happen to be locals and those who have seen Anna alive not more than a few hours before her death, we also learn that the Inspector is dealing with some personal problems of his own. Battling his own personal demons, the inspector begins to realize that every one of his suspects has a secret which may or may not be directly related to Anna’s death…

The Girl in the Lake” is surprisingly overlooked, possibly because it had limited release outside of the Italy and only recently was released on DVD in the US by IFC Entertainment. It is a neatly made film and ensures it doesn’t stray from its focal point, even though the proceedings are a tad slow. It steers clear of cheap gimmicks and instead relies on intricate characterization, slowly introducing us and getting us acquainted with all the individuals that Anna interacted with. Like any standard mystery, of course, there are red herrings, but not to the extent of seeming forced. The cinematography is spectacular as the camera pans and lingers on some of the most amazing locations you may have seen. Everything is so beautiful and cut away from the rest of the world, it will make you wanna go there on a weekend getaway trip! Adding to the merits of the fantastic camerawork is the fact that even the most ordinary scenes seem out of the ordinary as they are shot in a way as to please the viewer’s eye! The film also avoids the use of gratuitous gruesomeness in the form of excess violence or nudity. In fact this is a surprisingly clean film as far as such ‘visual’ devices in a murder mystery are concerned. 
The performances are all genuine and convincing, but of course, one that stands out belongs to Toni Servillo as he impresses yet again with a brilliant act after his “The Consequences of Love” which I saw last. Also watch out for an interesting cameo by Valeria Golino (“Hot Shots!”, "Rain Man").

For first time director, Andrea Molaioli, “The Girl by the Lake” is quite a commendable debut, even if the conclusion may seem a tad underwhelming to some. I, on the other hand was quite impressed as it took me entirely by surprise and I couldn’t help but think how well it distances itself from the usual conclusions that most films of the genre typically resort to!

For all its worth, “The Girl by the Lake” definitely deserves to be seen and is worth the time invested, rest assured!

Score: 8/10.