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Monthly Archives: May 2007

[Spoiler Alert]

Where to begin? I’m bestowing upon Stella Dallas, which many generally agree is an undisputable classic American movie, an unfavorable review. Such critics may intend “classic” to mean “grand,” “timeless,” or “memorable.” However, the movie is more like the video-store-genre definition of “classic”: any old movie. The ending of the movie is sad, and a few of the emotional actions seem genuine. However, some of the scenes in the movie have too many leaps of logic, and the reasoning of the theme itself of the film is irrational.

I am not trying to insinuate this is a completely terrible movie or even glad to report a negative review. I really wanted to like this and went into the movie with an open mind, and there is at least one element to admire in the movie. Barbara Stanwyck is absolutely great in this movie, and it’s the best performance of hers I think I’ve seen yet. Considering Stanwyck has played luscious femme fatales (like her role in Double Indemnity), mouth-watering babes (as she did in The Lady Eve) and ballsy women, it’s surprising to see her portray a common woman and, at times, be unattractive.

This is pretty much the plot: Stella, a common and simple woman, falls in love with an affluent man. He loves her for who she is, and she wants to be part of high society. They marry, and her common ways embarrass her husband. They have a child, and he wants to keep the child from her, for she regularly has a drunken man over while taking care of her baby, which Stella’s husband finds to be negligent. Stella dedicates herself to her daughter, even after her husband divorces her. Then Stella later embarrasses her daughter with her common ways and prevents her child from doing certain things or meeting particular people. When Stella realizes this, she basically forces her daughter to live with her father, where Stella is practically invisible and not able to embarrass anybody. At her daughter’s wedding, Stella stands outside the window, looking in at her daughter bride. She doesn’t want to invade but still wants to see her daughter be happy. The end.

So, a few issues here. If Stella’s husband loves her for whom she is, what’s wrong if she’s not exactly “high class?” I can understand the feeling, but it sounds like a matter of pride and letting society run your decisions. We’ve seen how society can affect a relationship (see All That Heaven Allows or its beautiful remake, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul); while it may be difficult for polarized individuals (whether different in age, race, or class) to maintain a stable romantic relationship, they fight and struggle to keep it going. In Stella Dallas, however, the characters of husband and wife seem weak. The husband doesn’t seem to try hard enough to keep the marriage together, and Stella seems to be too extreme a level of lower-class, which is not hinted at earlier on in the film. One could argue we finally see her true colors, but I think not. After the two marry, I began to downright dislike her, and I assume the audience is supposed to sympathize with Stella just a little bit.

The upper-class individuals act in a very condescending manner toward Stella and hurt the daughter in the process. For example, Stella’s daughter invites some people to her birthday dinner. However, after seeing Stella on a train with the soused gentleman, one woman refuses to show her face at Stella’s home. This consequence snowballs till the point that nobody shows up. She’s laughed at in public because of her chosen garb. Yes, her accessories are gaudy, and her dress isn’t very attractive. But so what? When Stella’s daughter hears her friends mocking a cheap-looking woman, she sees they are talking about her mother. She isn’t angered and does not jump to her mother’s defense (“This is my mother, and if you don’t like that, then tough!”) No, she cries and runs from the place so her mother wouldn’t identify her in front of her friends. She wouldn’t even admit to her fiancé that it was her mother! (Another matter of pride.)

Psychologically, it’s perfectly natural that, among a group of “her own” (upper-class types), Stella’s daughter would go along with the crowd. Once, there was a psychological experiment in which a “doctor” quizzed a few people about whether the line that they saw was straight. Most of the time, the lone subject (who thought he was in a room of “subjects” but was accompanied by actors) got to the point that he would regard a non-straight line as straight simply because everybody else did! So I don’t blame Stella’s daughter for feeling the way she does, but I do accuse her of not being strong enough. She should have stood up to her friends, not letting them get her down. However, as I said earlier, these characters are weak. As hard as it is for characters (or people, in a real-world context) to be really good, they should at least try.

At the end, it’s as if Stella is trying to make herself appear to the audience to be some kind of martyr. When Stella is asked to move along by a cop but she begs to watch her bride daughter kiss the groom, or when the orchestral music swells in the final frames, one may feel moved. I can honestly admit that much. However, this doesn’t make up for everything else in the movie. I don’t know about you, but reason and logic is a big thing for me. If a movie doesn’t have at least that, I can’t possibly enjoy it and be willing to recommend it to others.

Yes, my outline for Stella Dallas is a string of simple sentences that doesn’t go into depth of the nuances of the performances or some of the other complications of the story, but I can’t write the entire script of the movie (or even a transcript of the way the actors say and do certain things). It’s been a few weeks since I’ve seen the movie, so I can’t remember all the things I actually liked about it, unless Stanwyck’s performance is actually the sole likable component of the film. You could always watch the movie yourself and draw your own opinions. However, I wouldn’t put this at the top of my Netflix queue if I were you.

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There are plenty of lenient “rules” to filmmaking, but seeing someone shatter conventions is quite refreshing. There are plenty of great directors, actors, writers, and other artists out there who meet this criterion, yet there are a few who go unnoticed. Nick Broomfield, a British documentary director, is probably the nerviest interviewer I’ve ever come across. He asks bold questions, performs some wild stunts, and will go to any lengths to see his documentary turn out the way he wants it to. Even though I haven’t yet seen a film from him that I would call a classic, he is one the best contemporary documentary filmmakers out there.

Broomfield consistently breaks rules. He’s not Jean-Luc Godard, but he is great when it comes to breaking “rules” of documentary filmmaking. For example, interviewers/directors are not supposed to be an active element of the movie, for the point of a documentary is to… well, document. However, like Michael Moore after him, Broomfield sprinkles his face all over his documentaries, and in a sense, he is a secondary subject in his movies. Or actually, he is the subject. As Roger Ebert said in his review of Broomfield’s Biggie and Tupac, “His movies are, in a sense, about his experiences in making them.” While his chosen subject (Lily Tomlin, fetishes, Heidi Fleiss, etc.) is the main focus of his film, his role is very active indeed.

In addition, unlike most directors these days, Broomfield refuses to use a large crew. He is his own sound recorder, and someone else acts as the photographer. Anyone watching him knows he is brilliant when they see that amid the cords, boom mike, headphones, and other sound equipment, Broomfield is surprisingly clear-headed, completely organized, and focused.

Unafraid to ask tough questions, Broomfield will even get himself into some trouble in order to make his point or to get what he wants. For Aileen Wuornos: the Selling of a Serial Killer, he spoke openly with Wuornos, America’s supposedly first female serial killer. (Most other people in his place would probably freeze and not know what to ask.) When one woman reveals herself as practically Machiavellian, Broomfield puts her in her place, calling her deceptive, conniving, and the like, not worried about the possible consequences due to the twisted people he’s involved with.

In Kurt & Courtney, he attends a party at which the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) awards Courtney Love with an award about free speech. After Love makes her acceptance speech, Broomfield improvises: he approaches the podium on stage and talks about how inappropriate it is that Love, who sent death threats to reporters and journalists who discussed her in an unfriendly light following the death of Kurt Cobain, receive an award from a group that supports the freedom of the press. (Unsurprisingly, he was immediately removed from the stage.) If anyone can say anything about Broomfield, it would regard his fearlessness.

As awesome and relentless as he his, Broomfield and his work consistently go overlooked. Most of his documentaries were for Channel Four of the BBC, which has offered minimal exposure of Broomfield’s films in the States. Barely even a third of his movies is (or ever has been) available in the U.S. Even while he made movies in the United States, I had never heard of Broomfield until I saw Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam (thanks to Roger Ebert for placing the movie in his top ten list for 1996), and I was left greatly impressed. Documentaries aren’t exactly at the top of people’s lists of movies to check out, but when they’re done well, like when Broomfield makes them, they’re more than worth the cost of a rental.

How’s this for a plot? Boy gets out of prison, boy meets girl, boy kidnaps girl, girl pretends to be boy’s wife in front of boy’s parents, boy and girl… well, I’m not going to give away the ending. What I will say is that Buffalo ’66 is an amazing, must-see movie from the great mind of Vincent Gallo.

We laugh at Billy (played by Gallo himself) for the same reason we laugh at a Seinfeld episode. As nervy as he is, it’s just a part of his make-up, and he’ll ask the people that he just insulted for a favor. For example, when he first bumps into Layla (Christina Ricci), he scolds her about knocking into people. When he realizes that he needs to use the payphone, he asks her for a quarter. And he’s still not nice about it.

The movie is definitely well cast. Ricci is sweet and innocent as the girl that Billy uses to pretend to be his wife in order to impress Billy’s parents. Gallo sometimes comes off as too harsh and unpleasant, but we see why he acts the way he does when we meet his parents, portrayed by Angelica Houston and Ben Gazzara. In the movie, Houston is a bad mother, but in a very subtle way. For example, she does not remember that her son is seriously allergic to chocolate (she actually thinks it’s his favorite treat). Gazzara is an obviously terrible father. (I don’t want to give away too many details about how cruel he can be. It’s best to watch and find out yourself.) Houston is at her best in this role, and Gazzara is… well, Gazzara. (The part he improvises at the table is genius, and since Ricci didn’t expect it, her face is priceless.) As a matter of fact, there aren’t any bad performances in this movie. Most of the actors are phenomenal, and some are, at worst, above average.

Yes, the movie sounds morose, gloomy, and sad. However, it’s anything but. (Well, kinda.) Gallo offers a great mix of emotions in this film. Buffalo ’66 starts off as a brilliantly dark comedy; it’s sad toward the end, but the movie ends up being more uplifting as the end credits roll. Most of the film is absolutely hilarious, but we still take these events as serious because they’re really happening to a character that we care about: Billy. If he was an unsympathetic, one-sided character, the entire movie would fall apart at the seams. Because of the way Gallo writes and portrays Billy, we support him like a lost soul that one befriends because nobody likes to watch someone go astray.

As a writer, Gallo is a master of twisting the movie around either two-thirds of the way through or right at the end. (To clarify what I mean by “twisting,” Gallo isn’t manipulative like M. Night Shyamalan; Gallo uses the technique to develop his films structurally.) In Gallo’s movies, we see new facets to the story, which change what we’ve seen before the turn of events, which usually makes us want to see the movie a second time. In The Brown Bunny, a startling revelation at the end helps us understand the bedroom scene before it and Gallo’s character’s encounters with other women in the film. Here, in Buffalo ’66, we figure out why he acts the way he does and only begin to understand his modus operandi.

The movie is supposed to be somewhat autobiographical. Gallo even shot the scenes of Billy’s home in the house that he grew up in as a child. Even though this fact makes the movie seem a little more heartbreaking (that somebody actually went through some of these events), in the end, the movie is about a character who struggles. We watch Billy wrestle with his conscience, his past, and his present. And we root for him, we really care about him. Buffalo ’66 is a rare gem that too few people know about or are willing to try, but what’s the worst that can happen? You’ll fall in love with a movie that you’ve never heard of before.

I’ve found it almost impossible to find a Max Ophüls film. Two are located at my local library, and one is actually available on Netflix. To purchase even a used VHS tape of one of his movies on Amazon can cost upwards of $45. I’ve seen Ophüls named countless times in a myriad of film books I’ve read; he’s always praised extensively, yet I felt, why bother with him? I know he’s supposed to be one of the greatest directors of all time and is famed for his moving camera and long takes; but if his movies are practically unavailable, why should I be willing to spend on one Ophüls used VHS tape what I would on four DVDs? I rented Letter from an Unknown Woman, virtually a cult classic due to its unavailability, and I discovered why. My surprise at the end of the film (and re-watching the essential first five minutes) brought me a joy I’ve felt during few movies.

The film begins with a man who is going to duel in a few hours. (He has always been a womanizer, and, this time, he was with another man’s wife.) He goes upstairs to ready for his duel in a mere few hours. His butler gives him a letter, but our protagonist doesn’t know who sent it. Over the course of him reading the letter, the history between the man and the sender, a woman, slowly unravels. We see all the moments they bumped into or met each other, and to him, it was as if the previous meeting never took place, for she was lost in a sea of memories of numerous affairs.

Even though Ophüls is famed for his moving camera, the camera motion is not what struck me with this movie. The screenplay is beautifully written and constructed. Usually I’m completely turned off by the use of flashbacks, but they are crucial for this movie to work as it does. The story could have easily fallen into gooey melodrama á la Stella Dallas, yet the screenplay magnificently brings us into crying territory without the manipulation and forced feeling of the scenes in another more sappy film.

Joan Fontaine, as sexy and pretty as can be, plays a very shy girl, which I’m not used to seeing from her. Her performance allows us to sympathize greatly with her. We can understand why she does some irrational things because we understand her thought process. This is what great actors, screenplays, and movies do….

I would like to say more, but there is too much to express about this masterpiece. Anything that anyone has to say about this film is not enough. I noticed Letter from an Unknown Woman on Jim Emerson’s list of 20 favorite movies, and the film is also featured in the book 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. What a shame that these are the only two places that have listed this movie! If you’re like me, and you had never heard of this movie until reading about it in a book or on a list, or even if you’ve never heard of the film, all I can do is spread the word and tell you that Letter from an Unknown Woman is an essential, must-see movie that every film lover should see.

I had finals and a hectic week following my previous post. I’ll be posting more regularly from now on.