Saturday, July 13, 2013


THE PHILADELPHIA STORY Review by Taylor Wright
I like a good romantic comedy, but I love a great one and that's exactly what The Philadelphia Story is. The backstory for this gem is that Katharine Hepburn had been in a string of flops (one of which was the now beloved Bringing Up Baby) and was looking for a star vehicle that would break that losing streak. It came about in the form of a play by Phillip Barry, rewritten as a screenplay by David Ogden Stewart, and what a screenplay it is. Katharine Hepburn stars as Tracy Lord, a wealthy, willful, free-spirited, but abrasive and judgmental socialite of Philadelphia who has divorced her husband and fellow socialite C.K. Dexter Haven, played by the always delightful Cary Grant. Her reasons for divorce being that he didn't measure up to her very specific standards, namely being that he was a drinker, a habit which she had apparently contributed to. Now Ms. Lord is about to marry to George Kittredge (played as amusingly fussy by John Howard), a man who acquired his wealth on his own. However, the tabloids are anxious to cover the wedding and, with a little masterminding by Dexter and a scandalous story surrounding her father Seth Lord, Reporter Macaulay "Mike" Connor (James Stewart) and photographer Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussey) do just that.
This film was one of many to feature a plot involving remarriage, which was a plot device in the 30's and 40's to avoid difficulties with censorship. I believe this to be one of the best examples of those, another excellent one being The Awful Truth, which also starred Cary Grant. The chemistry and comic range of the three leads is the highlight of the film. Hepburn's performance as Tracy Lords is a perfect opportunity to tap into her own persona of a tough woman, but with enough sensitivity and wit to make it fun. And indeed, Tracy is a fun character who somehow winds up being torn between three very different men and having eat a slice of humble pie before all ends well. The scenes between Hepburn and Grant, both of whom share sparkling chemistry and a charming Mid-Atlantic accent*, are a sight to behold, the first scene in the movies shows Dexter leaving his mansion in a huff as Tracy snaps one of his golf clubs in two. Dexter is poised to strike, hesitates, then pushes her to the floor. It doesn't sound like much reading about it, but it's all about delivery. They share some very sensitive and heartwarming scenes too, Dexter's accusations of snobbery and self righteousness are as satisfying as their reconciliation, and hey, come on, we all know they'll get back together.
Equally fun are James Stewart in his Oscar-winning role as Mike and Ruth Hussey as Liz who seems to have some unrequited feelings for her colleague. If Dexter has a bone to pick with Tracy being on her high horse, Mike seems to like her there, praising her and falling for her: "You're lit from within, Tracy. You've got fires banked down in you, hearth-fires and holocausts." One of the most hysterical scenes in the film is when a very drunk Mike visits Dexter in the middle of the night with helpful information he has gathered from Tracy. Grant and Stewart crank up up their comic abilities to whole new level as as a very drunk Mike rambles on to Dexter, Cary Grant playing it off amusingly and James Stewart doing one of the most convincing drunk performances I've ever seen. The other characters are all enjoyable as well, John Halliday as Tracy's warm father Seth, Mary Nash as her kindly mother Margaret, Virginia Weilder is winsome as her sly younger sister Dinah and of course Roland Young as the hilarious Uncle Willie, who takes quite a liking to Liz. It's all tied together with George Cukor's solid direction and David Ogden Stewart's crackling screenplay. Like most romantic comedies, all's well that ends well, but it's a heck of a journey along the way with a lot of laughs and plenty of heart.
*Mid-Atlantic English (sometimes called a Transatlantic accent) is a cultivated or acquired version of the English Language once found in certain aristocratic elements of American society and taught for use in the American theatre. Source:


CASABLANCA Review by Taylor Wright
Casablanca is often regarded as one of the best movies of all time, so it's funny to think that none of the incredibly talented people working on the film had much faith in what they were doing. The story takes place in December 1941, Casablanca, Morocco at "Rick's Cafe Americaine", a cafe owned and managed by a cynical American named Rick Blaine, played by Humphrey Bogart, who slips perfectly in the role of an embittered, wise-cracking self-proclaimed neutral ("I stick my neck out for nobody") with a checkered past. Ingrid Bergman plays Ilsa Lund, Rick's old flame who comes back into his life as she and her husband, important leader of the Czech Resistance, Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) are on the run from the Nazis, she and Rick bear most of the weight of the story. Claude Rains gives a scene-stealing performance as the likable and cynical opportunist Vichy Captain Louis Renault, Beyond the crisp black and white photography, unforgettable lines and the haunting theme song "As Time Goes By", the characters are what make this film the beloved classic that it is. As the lyrics put it: "It's still the same old story, a fight for love and love and glory, a case of do or die. The world will always welcome lovers as time goes by."
Rick's neutrality and desire to escape his painful past are shaken by the return of Ilsa, who reunited with her husband upon discovering that he was alive. Rick and Ilsa are severely put to the test, Rick is revealed to have smuggled weapons to Ethiopia and fought for the loyalists in the Spanish Civil War, hence his exile from the United States. Ilsa had thought her husband dead during her time with Rick and ultimately, when Victor turned out alive, Rick was left at a train station in the rain, holding a goodbye letter, one of the most iconic moments in the film. One of the most powerful moments comes about when Ilsa and Victor enter Rick's cafe, she asks the piano player Sam, played charmingly by Dooley Wilson, to play the song "As Time Goes By", which Sam reluctantly obliges. Rick storms in angrily as he forbids the song ever be played. Upon Rick and Ilsa seeing each other, the music becomes dramatic and carries a feeling of regret and heartbreak that is expressed just as powerfully in their faces. Rick has a quiet moment after closing as he drinks away his sorrows and asks Sam to "play it again", sadly uttering: "Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine." Ilsa is compelling in her own right, struggling to aid her husband in his escape and obtain legal transit papers and confronting a man she loved.
Victor Laszlo is a noble character, almost flawless, but his true love appears to be his cause, and that makes him appear as a bit stiff. In a pivotal moment, several German soldiers begin singing a patriotic anthem, "Die Wacht am Rhein", which prompts Victor to defiantly sing the French National anthem. He at first starts alone until Rick beckons the band to play and sing. It becomes apparent that Rick is the stronger force in the story and perhaps the most noble. Captain Louis Renault, a man who appears to be all about self-preservation, must come to a choice between his survivalist philosophy and what the right thing to do is. The looming presence of World War II is an incredibly important factor in the story, several of the actors such as German Conrad Veidt, who plays the villainous Major Heinrich Strasser, and Austrian Peter Lorre who plays Signor Ugarte, a petty crook, fled the Nazis as they rose to power. Warner Bros. studios had taken their stand with the Allies and this film may be the best of their output during those dark times. At it's core, the film is a love story and a great one at that, it's about sacrifice, the choices people make, heroism in the face of hardship and redemption. It's a film about people that we care about and is full of the most iconic moments in cinematic history and a real emotionally powerful experience. It seems to only get better on repeated viewings, there are things that you might even not have noticed upon the first viewing. A Morrocan girl who seems to be rather close with Rick early in the film, Yvonne, has her own story arc if you pay attention. Casablanca is funny, romantic, exciting, moving and inspiring all at once. If you give the film a watch, well to quote Rick Blaine, "this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship."


GONE WITH THE WIND Review by Taylor Wright
I wasn't shocked that I enjoyed this film, but rather how immensely I enjoyed this film. It's noted as a classic romance film set before, during and after the Civil War in the serene beauty of southern Georgia. It's running time is staggering as it's nearly four hours long, it's a period drama where people wear fancy costumes. But it's a great film in every sense of the word. The film opens with heartbreakingly glorious music, a sprawling opening title sequence and astoundingly beautiful color cinematography that looks decades ahead of its time, but it doesn't end there. We're quickly introduced to our protagonist, Scarlett O'Hara, portrayed by Vivien Leigh. Scarlett is the heroine and, sometimes, the anti-heroine of the story, a strong-willed, courageous yet spoiled and selfish character who we root for in face of danger but can't help but be glad to see her sometimes much deserved comeuppance. While she's a fascinating character to watch, it is through her eyes that we witness a rather romanticized depiction of the Old South, an idyllic land of prosperity, flowering trees, barbecues and the glossed-over depiction of black slaves.
Yes, slavery isn't portrayed as we might expect from a film nowadays, it's decidedly simplistic and everyone seems to be pretty happy. We see black men toiling away contentedly in the fields, a not-so bright maid named Prissy ("I don't know nothin' 'bout birthin' no babies!") whose high pitched voice and fussy hysterics are grating and uncomfortable, she may easily be the film's low point. There's an interesting sense of a desire to compromise in the film, however. In the aftermath of the Civil War, the slaves are reluctant to leave out of loyalty to Scarlett, perhaps to make them appear more noble to the audience, even if it essentially denies them personal freedom. Still, Hattie McDaniel walks away with her dignity as Mammy, the sensible, outspoken housemaid who isn't afraid to tell Scarlett what's what. Scarlett often needs a good reality check once in a while, over the course of the film she levitates back and forth between two very different men: Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), a tepid man betrothed and eventually wed to Scarlett's cousin, Melanie Hamilton, and Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), a tough, cynical man who seems to be the perfect foil to the stubborn Miss O'Hara.
Rhett Butler and Scarlett O'Hara's romance is the film's heart, Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh have incredible chemistry and subtle (but sometimes not so subtle) sexiness which really pushes the film forward. Rhett's intensity, brutal honesty, opportunism and pragmatism and lustfulness seem to click with Scarlett, who pines for the gentle, idealistic and ultimately weak Ashley Wilkes, played by Leslie Howard. Scarlett's unending pursuit of Ashley proves problematic and brings about trouble, it also serves as a sharp contrast to Rhett. If the first half of the film chronicles the Civil War and events leading up to it, the latter half of the film focuses on the Reconstruction Era and gives way to the tumultuous marriage of Rhett and Scarlett. The conflict between the North and South and the aftermath become secondary to Scarlett's conflict in herself. She was and still is one of the greatest female protagonists in cinematic history, our guide through the romanticized Old South and a melting pot of courage, strength, weakness, vanity, lust, warmth, coldness and charisma. Gone With the Wind is truly a sight to behold and, thank goodness, will never be gone.

Thursday, June 6, 2013


THE CAMERAMAN Review by Taylor Wright A master of self-depreciating physical comedy and what are still some of the most impressive stunts in cinema history, Buster Keaton still manages to put a smile on our faces and get some great laughs. In The Cameraman, Keaton stars as a small-time photographer, named Buster who falls for a secretary named Sally who works for MGM Newsreels. In an effort to be close to her and impress her, he spends all his money on a film camera and tries to get a job as a cameraman for the studio. This seems to work, but nothing is ever so simple as Keaton finds himself is increasingly wacky and dangerous scenarios. As he had just moved to MGM, albeit reluctantly, his was to be the last film Buster Keaton would make where he had considerable creative control, beyond starring in his his own films as the lovable underdog, he directed the films and created incredibly funny and exciting scenes often through improvisation. This film proves to be what may be his last real masterpiece. Some of his greatest moments are in this film, Buster taking Sally to a pool for a date and having to a share a changing room with a big man, leading to a hilarious mixup of swimsuits, a cop who witnesses Buster's antics as he dashes about town and my personal favorite, Buster's solo reenactment of a baseball game at an empty stadium. The heart of the story is the relationship between Buster Keaton and Sally, played sweetly by Marceline Day. Unlike quite a few leading ladies, she's a warm, supportive and likable character and a more realistic love interest than the fickle women who appear so often in the silent comedies. And Buster Keaton shows off his own acting prowess in the film's quieter moments, soaked and cold in the rain after their date, the pep in his step when Sally kisses him on the cheek is a charming moment, just as the sadness from his supposed defeat by his rival for Sally's affections is genuinely disheartening, but this is a comedy after all, do we really believe it will end sadly? And as the plot suggests, Keaton's fascination with film is on full display. The footage of the Tong war (violent wars between criminals in Chinatown, put simply) is magnificent and has an air of authenticity; the climactic rescue of Sally from drowning and the aforementioned baseball antics are all shot beautifully. Buster's own mishaps with his camera are familiar to anyone who has dabbled with a camera, albeit more modern ones. Even early forms of photography are something for modern audiences to learn about. At the beginning of the film, Buster is a Tintype photographer. Tintype was a method of photography that involved print a photo directly onto a metal plate, it was something of a novelty in it's time and is interesting to see on screen. But it's Buster Keaton's love of the art that makes the film a masterpiece, spectacle, humor and heart win the day and it makes for great entertainment. Even if it was to be his last great film, it's a fitting swan song.