Sunday, December 1, 2013

The Apartment

The Apartment
Director: Billy Wilder
Starring: Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Fred MacMurray

If there is such a thing as a perfect film, The Apartment strikes awfully close to the mark.  Full of quiet comedy and a streak of pathos so deep that it seems to become sadder the more I think about it, The Apartment is utterly lovely from open to finish.  It certainly helps that when I think about “my type” of film, The Apartment fits the bill almost to the tee.  I have always preferred what I call “small films,” films that have a story that only concerns a handful of people in a limited number of locations dealing with regular, ordinary, everyday problems.  And while the central conceit of The Apartment is played for ludicrous satire, it is so gloriously small in its scope that I love it more and more each time I see it.  This is my kind of movie.

C.C. Baxter (Lemmon) works in insurance in a big, generic corporation in Manhattan.  He often works late, not because he’s driven but because four of his bosses regularly use his apartment in the west sixties as a trysting place for their extramarital affairs.  Baxter trades his apartment for promotions at work, leading him to ultimately come up before big boss Sheldrake (MacMurray) who has heard about Baxter’s place through the grapevine.  Sheldrake wants to use the apartment as well to continue his affair with cute and perky elevator girl Fran Kubelik (MacLaine).  Thing is, though, that Baxter, has fallen hard for Fran, not knowing she is Sheldrake’s lover.  Fran, for her part, is too hung up on the married guy she knows is no good to pay any notice to Baxter’s earnest attentions.  Things come to a head when Fran is dumped in Baxter’s apartment.

While there’s certainly more to this film than C.C. Baxter as played by Jack Lemmon, it can be hard for me to see it.  This central character and this brilliant performance completely make the film for me.  This is my personal favorite Jack Lemmon performance because it strikes such a fine balance between comedy and tragedy.  Lemmon makes me laugh as he watches his typewriter at his desk, nodding his head along with its rhythm.  About an hour later, he breaks my heart as he frantically paces his apartment after finding a comatose Fran lying in his bed.  Neither is played too extreme; Lemmon, definitely known for his hammy comedic talents (and I mean that in the best possible way) never lets his hamminess completely take over the lighthearted scenes.  The opposite is true as well; when the tenor turns more somber, he never dreams of ranting and raving and throwing things around to express his angst.  Instead, it’s all done so perfectly quietly in his face where I can read the depth of sadness and worry he is feeling.  Lemmon makes my heart ache in this film.  He is utterly sublime.

But Lemmon would not be as amazing as he is were it not for the creation of the story itself, and that credit goes to Billy Wilder and I.A.L Diamond.  Lemmon’s perfect blend of funny and heart-wrenching pain comes directly from a story that makes it abundantly clear from the get-go that no one is above reproach.  No heroes, no villains, just regular people making bad choices.  Sheldrake is perhaps the clearest-cut villain from the cast of characters, but even he seems less dastardly and more simply an arrogant man used to getting his way.  There are even moments where I feel sympathy for him (albeit not many).  And Baxter?  I suppose he is the de facto hero, but what I adore about this story is that really, he is not.  Is Baxter a good person?  Well, that depends.  At first glance, yes, you see his earnest interest in Fran and you think, wow, what a nice guy.  You see him throw away what other people think of him in order to take the blame himself rather than incriminate others, and his self-sacrifice seems positively noble.  Indeed, that self-sacrifice is another component of Lemmon’s performance as Baxter that utterly breaks my heart.  But then back it up: Baxter trades his apartment, where he lives, for its use for sexual favors, all in order to climb the corporate ladder.  He has sold more than a bit of his soul, making seedy bargains to work his way to that elusive corner office.  From the very beginning, I yearn for Baxter to finally say “No” to his demanding bosses, his bosses who kick him out on the street at 2am because they met a Marilyn Monroe lookalike (lovely little in-joke from Wilder there), but he can’t.  He doesn’t have the necessary spine to get himself out of the web he’s woven for himself and so simply keeps surrendering to the lewd demands of others.  Baxter, a hero?  Hardly.  I think he is a good man, but deeply flawed, and he must learn to overcome it in some small way.

Opposite Baxter is MacLaine’s Fran Kubelik, another brilliantly written character.  Fran is believably stuck in a toxic relationship that she desperately wants to end yet cannot.  I love that Fran knows in her head that she needs to end the affair with Mr. Sheldrake.  Fran knows this, she says it over and over again.  And yet, her heart won’t let her.  She is in love with him despite desperately not wanting to be.  This makes her sad and frustrated and everything comes to a head.  This sort of situation, of knowing that you SHOULDN’T be in a certain relationship, yet not being able to actually cut and run, this is a difficult situation to believably portray, but I believe it completely in The Apartment.  MacLaine is fantastic and helps me believe that Fran knows better yet can’t find the strength to walk away.  So our two main characters, those we feel should be our heroes, both can’t seem to find the strength to end the morally reprehensible situations they find themselves stuck in.

It is the utter ordinariness of the film that I love as well.  The Apartment is rife with ordinary, everyday touches that make me love it even more.  I love Baxter’s drab little apartment that only grows seedier as the film continues.  I love him unceremoniously lighting the oven and preparing a foil-wrapped TV dinner.  I love him drinking the leftover cocktails from the party as his place.  I love the electric blanket he has to plug in.  I love the simple feast of spaghetti and meatballs he prepares, complete with grated Parmesan from a jar.  I love Fran’s taxi driver of a brother-in-law.  I love her broken compact mirror.  There is no attempt to glamorize the sets in The Apartment, and I love that.  I mean, I really love that.  So gloriously, perfectly ordinary, lumps and all.

There is so much more to The Apartment; the fantastic set design, the gorgeous cinematography, the witty banter, script-wise, and the rampant social commentary running through the film.  All this is great and important, but that’s not why I love The Apartment.  I love it because of its characters, because of their brokenness, because of Jack Lemmon, because of the perfect tiny details, and because it breaks my heart and makes me laugh at the exact same time.  And it’s aged extraordinarily well.  I recently put this on while my parents were visiting, and my mother watched it in spite of herself.  Still engrossing, still wonderful, still relevant, still real. 

Arbitrary Rating: 10/10, ratings-wise.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Le Million, because I like to celebrate American holidays with French films?

Le Million
Director: Rene Clair
Starring: Rene Lefevre, Annabella, Paul Ollivier

I make it no secret that I love musicals.  They’re comfort films, they pick me up when I’m down, they make me happy.  But I don’t love all musicals indiscriminately; I tend to prefer musicals where the musical numbers are incorporated into the everyday lives of the characters over those that have to use the stage as a “reason” to have song and dance.  I think this coincides with my love of heavily stylized film; having characters spontaneously break into song and dance, while troubling to many of my fellow blogger friends, is something I love, as it reinforces that this movie is taking place in a different world.  The world of the movie musical is usually one full of sunshine and happiness.  I welcome this alternate reality.  When I first encountered Rene Clair’s superb Le Million, it was as if I had unearthed The First Musical Ever.  While Busby Berkeley (rightly) gets a great deal of credit for popularizing the movie musical with his raucous films, I give Rene Clair the credit for introducing, or at least legitimizing, the idea of incorporating music into the everyday action of his films.

The story is very simple: Michel (Lefevre), a broke artist, unexpectedly wins the lottery.  This is great news, as it will allow him to pay off his many debtors and maybe even marry pretty Beatrice (Annabella) who lives in the apartment across the hall from him.  Problem is, he left his winning ticket in his jacket pocket, the same jacket that Beatrice just lent to Grandpa Tulip (Ollivier), a Robin Hood-esque figure who runs a petty crimes syndicate dedicated to stealing from the rich to give to the poor.  Michel must track down his missing jacket and missing ticket in order to claim his winnings.

Le Million is a musical, but not a traditional one.  There are few, if indeed any, “musical numbers” in terms of what we think of today as big showstopping song and dance numbers.  Instead, there is an almost constant use of music and sound throughout the film which, accompanied by an irrepressible sense of whimsy, establishes the mood if not the specific logistics for so many great musicals to come.  There are many small musical touches that aren’t combined into fully realized “songs.”  For example, the scene where all of Michel’s debtors marching up the stairs in unison as they sing (well, more like chant) about how they’re about to get paid isn’t strictly speaking a song, but it’s a great example of how Clair approaches his world in Le Million.  The couple of Michel and Beatrice make up after their required fight (this is a musical, after all, of course the lovers have a fight about something or other) in an incredibly clever setting, stuck on the stage of an opera while the couple in the show sings a love ballad to each other.  Would I call this a musical number?  No, not in the traditional sense, but it’s a very winning use of a love song that isn’t sung by the hero or heroine.  And then there is the unexpected yet ridiculously charming “football game” over the missing suit jacket, where Clair pipes standard crowd noises over the film as the men turn the jacket into a football, complete with tackles and huddles.

The plot of Le Million is simple enough and the comedy broad enough that this could have been a silent film, but it’s the above scenes that make me glad it isn’t.  Yes, silent films had musical scores, but they were simply scores, no sound effects, and it’s really the sound effects that shine brightest here.  It’s odd to think of someone actually inventing the concept of the “sound effect,” but Rene Clair does a fantastic job in Le Million of incorporating sound smartly.  Too many early sound films were nothing but cacophonous excuses to cram as much rhythmic noise (NOT music) into the ears of the audience that they never stopped to think about sound as a storytelling technique.  This does NOT apply Le Million, as it is quiet when it needs to be, and jubilantly loud when it needs to be, and most of all, using all manners of sound – dialogue, music, and effects – to tell its tale.  Sound furthers the story and adds to the overall charm.  If this were not a primitive musical, if this were instead a silent film, it would not be Le Million, but something inferior.  

Le Million is irrepressibly fun.  It exists in a world where it is never cloudy, and although our characters may encounter problems, never fear, for they will find a way out.  People occasionally start walking in time with one another singing a few snatches of song with one another.  A suit jacket becomes a football.  This right here, all of these things, these would become the Great Hollywood Musical in future years as film evolved.  It is all here, in a distilled, primitive form, but there for the taking.  It is so easy to see how a film like Le Million, in just a year or two, would lead to the Fred and Ginger musicals like Top Hat or Swing Time, and then, in a few more years, to the Technicolor extravaganzas like Singin’ in the Rain.  While hardly emotionally or intellectually taxing, Le Million to me is a sure thing.  A sure thing to pick me up, a sure thing to make me smile, a sure thing to usher in a cheery mood. 

Arbitrary Rating: 8.5/10

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Monsoon Wedding

Monsoon Wedding
Director: Mira Nair
Starring: Naseeruddin Shah, Vasundhara Das, Shefali Shetty, Vijay Raaz

There was a time in my life, for quite a few years, actually, when my cinematic diet consisted entirely of the same fare that is Monsoon Wedding.  In the past ten years or so, I’ve stretched myself, imbibing film after film that is far beyond genres I usually watch, learning to love movies outside my comfort zone.  It’s been a wonderful experience, and one that I wouldn’t change, but every now and then, it feels incredibly comforting to settle down with a frothy little romantic dramedy.  Seeing Monsoon Wedding for the first time took me back, man.

Aditi (Das) is getting married.  Her father (Shah) is stressed, the wedding planner (Raaz) is an incompetent goofball, and her cousin Ria (Shetty) seems to be depressed.  Aditi herself isn’t terribly jazzed about the arranged marriage to an Indian man from Houston, Texas she’s never met, especially as she’s still in love with her married ex-boyfriend.  As the scores of relatives descend upon the family house for the days of wedding ceremonies, romance blossoms in unlikely places just as old family secrets are revealed.  Nothing like a wedding to bring out the best – and worst – in people.

Undoubtedly, the central theme of Monsoon Wedding is the universality of the Crazy Family.  This is a film cut from the same cloth as My Big Fat Greek Wedding, with a cast of cacophonous characters doing their best to confuse you with their identities and separate plights.  There are several storylines continually being developed by the rather large cast, but in the end, it doesn’t matter, because it’s really just about this family muddling through.  Wait, there’s one scene where the father mentions money problems but it doesn’t really go anywhere?  No worries.  The story of the younger brother being sent off to boarding school feels markedly unresolved?  Don’t trouble yourself.  Just as in real life, not every tangent can find a conclusion in the time span of a long weekend.  Monsoon Wedding is about family, plain and simple, and how everyone in the family carries their own cross to bear, but ultimately love, be it romantic or familial, finds a way to triumph. 

Multiple plotlines and large casts can feel confusing, and when you add in the fact that Hindi, Punjabi, and English are all spoken in Monsoon Wedding, sometimes even in the same five minute period, the film constantly feels as though it’s teetering on a knife’s edge.  Credit where credit is due, then, to director Mira Nair, who manages to keep all the balls in the air and continually moves the film forward by focusing on Aditi’s wedding ceremony.  I’ll admit I was a bit overwhelmed during the first half hour of the film, but when I realized that this is a classic example of ensemble casting – and when I turned on the English subtitles for the English lines – everything started to fall into place.  I might not have every character’s name down pat, but by the end, I knew who was interested in whom and how the conclusion benefited which person and why.  Everything comes out in the wash.

The romance in Monsoon Wedding was rather lovely.  Although overshadowed by the focus on Aditi’s wedding and her angst about an arranged marriage and her ex, my favorite of the multiple romantic plotlines was easily that of inept wedding planner Dubey and household maid Alice.  Aditi’s family is most definitely upper middle class, if not upper class, and this was the one part of the story that dared delve into class distinctions in India.  Dubey is shown to live in a tiny apartment with a nagging mother, and Alice is the maid.  Watch her face when she first accidentally bumps into Dubey and he says “Forgive me.”  You can read her shock that she wasn’t blamed for the accident, that it wasn’t assumed it was her fault.  Right from that very first moment, I knew how this romance would blossom, but I didn’t care that it was already spelled out.  I wanted to watch these two, whose lives were definitely a bit harder and rougher than Aditi’s family, find their little bit of happiness.  The fact that Aditi’s family includes them in their own wedding ceremony at the end of the movie is heartwarming.

Like every decent romantic dramedy out there, there is more than a whiff of the fairy tale in Monsoon Wedding.  Things wrap up a little too nicely, especially in Aditi’s plot line, to be believable.  At all.  Not every plot line is based on romance, but even in the more serious story line, things seem to resolve a little too nicely.  But you know what?  I’m okay with that.  I wasn’t expecting hard-hitting realism in a story about an Indian upper class wedding.  It’s nice, every now and then, to bid adieu to any semblance of real life and live in a world where everyone gets their happy ending.  Like I said, I used to subsist on a cinematic diet of nothing but films like this.  I welcome the fairy tale, the fantasy, the happy ending.  

And yet what really makes Monsoon Wedding work is that it is a fairy tale masquerading as a real life story.  There is a great blend of the two, and although the story tiptoes near the borders of Bollywood excess, it never pushes over the edge.  Sweet without being sickening and with just enough emotional poignancy to make it feel substantial, Monsoon Wedding achieves its goal.  It’s diverting, escapist, well-made fun. 

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10