Filling The Gaps: The Apartment (1960)

Billy Wilder’s The Apartment was one of a huge list of movies that are considered classics which I haven’t seen, and indeed knew very little about (other than the level of admiration which many people have for it). Having a vague knowledge of the stars of the film (Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine), for one reason or another I was expecting a light-hearted comedy filled with innuendo and witty banter, a tradition of filmmaking that was common around the period when this film was released. Thankfully I wasn’t disappointed, as these elements are all in play in The Apartment, but what really thrilled and surprised me was the much more serious subject matter that the film deals with. To say this is simply a comedy is completely false, as it’s a somewhat dark and daring study of the nature of love and infidelity, and the stunning performances and filmmaking on display had me enthralled from the first frame.

The film certainly begins as a comedy. C.C. Baxter (Lemmon) is a young bachelor trying to ascend the corporate ladder by allowing a group of his superiors to use his apartment for their extra-marital liaisons. After he falls for charismatic elevator attendant Fran (MacLaine), who is engaged in an illicit relationship with Mr. Sheldrake, the married head of the company, Baxter tries to free himself from the demands of his bosses, with hilarious results. While this is certainly risqué subject matter (for 1960), the film takes an unexpectedly sombre turn when Fran makes a suicide attempt in the apartment after learning the truth behind Sheldrake’s motives. What follows is a touching, and at times heart-wrenching flowering of Baxter and Fran’s relationship, and if the ending is a little predictable, the journey getting there is really something wonderful.

The Apartment features an excellent selection of fully-formed support characters, but the film really belongs to Lemmon and MacLaine. Lemmon’s reputation as cinema’s greatest everyman is really on show here, and it’s impossible not to root for him and sympathise with his plight. Playing Baxter as a charming yet awkward underdog, his character is the embodiment of the ‘nice guys finish last’ maxim, and although some elements of his life may be a little shady to say the least, Lemmon is flawless. MacLaine is completely up to Lemmon’s high standard as Fran, effortlessly making audiences fall in love with her just as Baxter has. She’s just so damn cute that even when she’s recovering from an overdose of sleeping pills, she exudes such a potent ‘girl next door’ allure that can’t be avoided. Her chemistry with Lemmon is palpable, and when they inevitably end up together, it’s one of those truly satisfying romantic moments seen all too rarely in modern cinema.

I’m not usually one to get nostalgic when it comes to film periods, but while I do have great fondness for many more recent romantic comedies, Hollywood really doesn’t make movies like The Apartment any more. Wilder’s screenplay (co-written with I.A.L. Diamond) is clever, witty and engaging, particularly in the subtle motifs and unique idiosyncrasies of all the characters, and the film is just so expertly crafted. I’m determined now to seek out more Wilder films, along with catching up on my Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine. I can’t recommend The Apartment highly enough!

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Blu-Ray Review: Winter’s Bone

There were only two Best Picture Oscar nominees from last year that I didn’t manage to see in theatres, so today I decided to catch up on one of them, Winter’s Bone (The other one being The Kids Are All Right). Winter’s Bone was something of a sensation on the festival circuit last year following it’s debut at Sundance last year, scooping a bunch of awards and making a star of the previously unknown Jennifer Lawrence (soon to be seen in X-Men: First Class and the adaptation of the Hunger Games novels). It’s a solid, moody film which is unfortunately hampered by a somewhat dull and unfocused story, a problem I see in a lot of independent drama.

The setting of a small American community seemingly under the control of methamphetamine dealers makes for some beautiful and haunting imagery which matches the bleak tone well, and a feeling of cold seeps through every desaturated frame of the film. Ree (Lawrence) is a teenager struggling to raise her young brother and sister and care for her mentally ill mother, while also searching for her absentee father to ensure he makes a court appearance so the family won’t be turned out of their house. She’s something of a wonder-kid, selflessly juggling all of these difficulties, and it just seems a little far-fetched. In the hunt for her father, Ree visits various acquaintances to gather clues, adding a nice element of mystery to the story, but again the realism of the film’s construction and performances doesn’t extend to the story as Ree runs afoul of the higher-ups of the town’s drug hierarchy. There is no satisfying explanation offered for why so many people react to Ree with such hostility, but the implication is that asking questions leads to trouble. However, Ree’s claim that she is a “bred and buttered” member of the community surely extends to a knowledge of its pervasive drug influence, and the idea that a young girl would be treated so badly by so many stretches the limits of believability a little too far, and reeks of emotional pandering.

While this type of overly melodramatic plot is sadly quite common in American independent productions, the quality of the acting does go a long way to redeeming Winter’s Bone. The film works as a character study with Lawrence shining in every single scene, and the massively underrated John Hawkes (Me and You and Everyone We Know, Deadwood) is typically excellent as Ree’s uncle Teardrop. Working with a fairly small part, Hawkes injects such humanity into the character, and he’s by far the best part of the film. Lawrence is well on the way to becoming a huge star, but hopefully the success of Winter’s Bone will also allow us to see more of Hawkes in future, as he’s truly a class act who needs to be in more films.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

It’s a funny thing about Johnny Depp. Perhaps more so than any other contemporary actor, people often view his presence in a movie as something of a mark of quality. I know many people who will see a film simply because he is the star, and until recently I might have understood why, even if I wouldn’t go quite that far myself. However, since around the time of the first Pirates of the Caribbean film (2002’s The Curse of the Black Pearl), I’ve found myself less and less impressed, or even interested at all, in almost anything he’s done. I’m always willing to give a talented actor, particularly one with as many great performances under his belt as Depp, a chance to surprise me, and win back some credibility, and it was with this mindset that I went into On Stranger Tides. Unfortunately, but perhaps unsurprisingly, the latest entry in Disney’s swashbuckling franchise is by far the worst yet, and my personal admiration for Johnny Depp has reached a new low.

There’s no denying that the success of the first POTC film came as something of a shock to many people, both critically and commercially. Before it’s release, the idea of adapting a theme-park ride to film was seen as a creative death knell by an admittedly cynical part of the movie-going public (myself included), but the film defied critics to become one of the more memorable action-adventure blockbusters of the new millennium, and introduced Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow, one of modern cinema’s most charming and appealing characters. On Stranger Tides works hard from the beginning to maintain the style and tone of the initial trilogy (all directed by Gore Verbinski), while simultaneously making it clear that this is a new story, albeit with a handful returning characters. The problem however, is that the new story is just too overloaded with new characters, vacuous action, and unnecessary, tedious subplots.

It’s very hard to gauge Captain Jack’s motives in this film. He swings wildly between the selfish yet loveable rogue from the earlier stories, to a newly considerate and almost emotional hero which doesn’t seem to fit at all. Jack was always the best element of the POTC franchise, and the unfortunate use of his character harms the movie irreparably. Geoffrey Rush returns also as Barbossa, alongside new characters Angelica (Penelope Cruz) and Blackbeard (Ian McShane), all talented actors who do their best with the poorly written dialogue, with McShane in particular standing out as a worthwhile addition to the cast. And then, there’s newcomers Sam Claflin and Astrid Berges-Frisbey as the missionary Philip and mermaid Syrena. Where do I start with these two…..

I guess there’s a feeling in Hollywood that every story needs a romantic element to reach a wider audience, and indeed Verbinski’s POTC films had the Will Turner/Elizabeth Swann thread successfully placed at the forefront of the narrative. Regrettably, new director Rob Marshall’s (Chicago, Memoirs of a Geisha) attempt to replace Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley with these new young lovers is On Stranger Tides’ greatest flaw, and any time attention is paid to their story, what little amount of fun and humour the film has is sucked completely away. The story progression grinds to a halt as we’re subjected to this highly implausible and somewhat disturbing (beastiality anyone?) romantic plot between two characters who have no significant ties to Captain Jack, only one of which has any purpose in the movie at all. It’s all simply a ploy to appeal to the mythical ‘four quadrant’ audience, and in this case it is unforgivable.

That this movie will go on to make huge profits for Disney I have no doubt, and while there is a somewhat ambiguous ending in terms of further sequel prospects, I find it hard to believe that they will make the smart choice and retire Captain Jack and the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise before further damage is done. This film is of such low quality that it has actually changed how I feel about the series as a whole, and the first film in particular (which I previously loved), but the most unfortunate casualty for me is Depp’s reputation. Hopefully he’ll think twice before applying the makeup and donning the dreadlocks again, and abandon this sinking ship.

Fast Five

There’s a scene about half an hour in to Justin Lin’s Fast Five, the latest film in the car racing Fast & Furious franchise, where federal agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) angrily throws a clipboard to the floor as his explanation of something that “makes sense”. It’s this moment that totally sums up Fast Five: a film you can enjoy only by casting logic aside and simply surrendering to the bombastic absurdity you’re witnessing. Luckily for those of us able to do this, the film is one of the best examples of big dumb action of the past decade.

This series seems to be on something of a one good/one bad streak, with the first, third, and this fifth film all being worthwhile, somewhat original examples of the big-budget summer blockbuster. Picking up directly where the fourth film (2009’s Fast & Furious) left off, no time is wasted in getting to the action, and the opening bus assault places us in familiar territory, setting up the mostly unimportant plot with a spectacular, physics-(not to mention logic) defying stunt to get pulses racing. Where the film departs from the tried and true formula of its predecessors however is in blending the heist film genre with the vehicle-based action, and the decision to shake things up was a smart one. The biggest problem with the previous film was that it just seemed kind of pointless, but here Lin uses the ‘one last job’ team heist plot as an excuse to reunite characters from every previous entry in the franchise, and indeed the film feels like it belongs more to the Ocean’s Eleven canon than Fast & Furious. The series’ celebrated ‘car porn’ is still present, yet Lin wisely opts for more variety than ever before, including more direct character conflict (fighting!), and thrilling parkour-esque foot chases across the rooftops of Rio de Janeiro.

While it is fun to see so many previous cast members returning to form the team (similarities with 2010’s Inception abound here), undoubtedly the greatest part of Fast Five is the introduction of Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson as Agent Hobbs, a kind of ‘super-cop’ sent in to nab only the most wanted criminals. Johnson, looking so absurdly massive that he dwarfs even Vin Diesel, adds an extra layer of beefcake to a film already dripping with testosterone, and he seems to be loving every minute. Throwing out hilariously macho one liners (“Gimme the damn veges!”) in between breaking necks and jumping out of windows, he fits so perfectly into the film that every time he wasn’t on screen I found myself just waiting for him to come back. Perhaps my biggest complaint is that he should have had more screen time, but in a film already juggling around a dozen characters, you can’t always get what you want. There’s always the inevitable sixth entry into the franchise, where hopefully Agent Hobbs will play more of a role.

Certainly Fast Five shines in the action scenes, but things aren’t so successful if one foolishly tries to think about the logic of the narrative. While it’s an interesting move to have Brian (Paul Walker) turning away from his FBI career to help his friend Dom (Diesel), it’s hard to see these characters as heroic in any sense. Their desperate self-preservation antics betray a shockingly callous disregard for any innocent bystanders. One would do better to not think about the number of fatalities in the various scenes of destruction around Rio, and even Agent Hobbs and his team, the most obvious ‘good-guys’, brutally kill their fair share of people. The film attempts to portray all of the people killed as stereotypical corrupt cops and officials, but I did find the amount of violence from the supposed ‘heroes’ of the film a little distressing. Add to that around 30 minutes of planning for the climactic heist that ultimately becomes unnecessary after a plot twist that changes the whole plan, and the problems with Fast Five’s script start to show their presence. But obviously this series was never intended to be admired for its storytelling, and any concerns about the plot are chased away by the excellent action sequences.

With Fast Five, Justin Lin has arguably crafted the finest film yet in the franchise. Everyone involved seems to know what this movie needed to be, from the stunning use of practical effects that more than makes up for the awful CGI of the previous film, to the way the ensemble of past characters really pushes the series’ constant theme of doing everything for your friends and family. Undoubtedly we will see these characters again, and there is potential for maybe one more outing to round off the story of Dom and Brian. Hopefully Fast Six or whatever silly thing it is eventually titled will match the quality of this entry.