Saturday, March 26, 2011

Film Review: The Strange Case of Angelica

"The Strange Case of Angelica" ** (out of ****)

Manoel de Oliveira's "The Strange Case of Angelica" (2011) was a movie I greatly looked forward to seeing. When it was announced to be played as part of the line-up for the 14th annual European Union Film Festival in Chicago, I was excited. Sadly, the film did not meet my expectations.

Those of you who read my reviews on a regular basis, know of my great appreciation for the work of Manoel de Oliveira, regarded by some as the greatest living Portuguese filmmaker. He is also the world's oldest living director, at the ripe old age of 102. Yet the man has an uncanny work ethic. He churns out one film a year.

I've written on here before about de Oliveira. I reviewed his "Belle Toujours" (2006), a sequel to the classic "Belle de Jour" (1967) and "The Convent" (1996). Unfortunately Mr. de Oliveira is not as widely known in America as he should be. He is under appreciated here. A good many of his films, mostly his early works, are hard to come by. In the U.K. a DVD collection celebrating his 100 birthday was put together, comprised of all of his films. In America such a collection was never released.

On paper "The Strange Case of Angelica" sounds like a good match for Mr. de Oliveira. The film deals with themes of life, death, love and beauty. But only in the most abstract of terms. Or, at least it felt abstract. Mr. de Oliveira has been taking the Eric Rohmer route lately with his films, as they generally center on his musings on love. What makes someone attractive to another person? In "The Strange Case" Mr. de Oliveira is dealing with obsession and how the search for true love can sometimes be a dangerous one. But, no one could do these type of movies better than Eric Rohmer (full confession, Mr. Rohmer is one of my all-time favorite filmmakers). Mr. de Oliveira has made some accomplished films over his long career but his work of late seems to suffer in comparison.

In "The Strange Case of Angelica" a young photographer, Isaac (Ricardo Trepa) is sent by a wealthy family to photograph their recently deceased daughter, Angelica (Pilar Lopez de Ayala) as a last memento. But, when Isaac looks at Angelica through his camera lens, he swears she wakes up and smiles at him. Isaac has become captivated by her beauty. She consumes all of his thoughts. Her spirit visits him. He longs to be with her.

"The Strange Case of Angelica" bears a resemblance to Mr. de Oliveira's previous film, "Eccentricities of A Blonde-Haired Girl" (2009), which I saw at the Chicago International Film Festival. Both movies (Mr. Trepa appears in both of them) are about men who become obsessed with women they do not know. This would appear to be a theme running through Mr. de Oliveira's current films. "Belle Toujours" also had an element of obsession in it.

But where "Angelica" and "Blonde-Haired Girl" lose me, is there is nothing really to care about here. These characters are not fleshed out. I have no emotional investment in anything that is going on. Isaac is a strange character. In another movie perhaps in could have worked. Hitchcock had Jimmy Steward play a man who thought he was in love with a dead woman in "Vertigo" (1958), and while, it may have been a stretch for Stewart to play that type of character, we, the audience, are still involved in what is going on. A part of us sympathize with him. There isn't that level of involvement in "Angelica". Isaac doesn't grow on us.

We also have to wonder what exactly is Mr. de Oliveira trying to tell us? Is their a point to any of this? Or is he just having some fun? We can see the themes at play and get a general sense of the underlying story but what does it all add up to? How are we suppose to feel by the end of the picture? What is Mr. de Oliveira's objective? Should we even try to read so deeply into the film. Is it simply just a whimsical story about love and our search for ideal beauty and/or our search for true love?

If that is the case I prefer several other films which have come before this one. "Vertigo" is one example. And what about "Laura" (1944). There too a man thinks he has fallen in love with the picture of a dead woman. As I said, Eric Rohmer has also given us films about male characters obsessed over women. Remember his classic "Claire's Knee" (1971) where a man has fallen in love with a women's knee and makes a vow he must touch it (it is not as creepy as it sounds). Or what about "The Aviator's Wife" (1981) where a jealous lover follows his girlfriend around Paris. These movies had more engaging characters.

"The Strange Case of Angelica" feels like a de Oliveira film. We can instantly tell it was directed by him. And, while I must admit, I didn't particularly like this film, somehow I'm glad I saw it. If only because I want to see as many films by this gifted filmmaker as I can. People should see de Oliveira's films. They aren't for everyone though. Many will complain his work is too slow, nothing happens, characters just talk. On the surface that is what is happening, but, it is the ideas presented in the films which I find interesting.

If you are unfamiliar with de Oliveira's work I wouldn't start with this movie. I'd advise you to watch "Belle Toujours", "The Convent" or "Abraham's Valley" (1993). Then slowly build yourself up to "A Talking Picture" (2003) and these more recent films.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Film Review: Unfaithfully Yours

"Unfaithfully Yours" **** (out of ****)

Great movies often serve as a reflection into society. They make us look at ourselves and face grim truths. In the case of a great comedy, they do the same thing only they make us laugh at our behavior. They exaggerate our irrational behavior. That is the case with this classic comedy directed by Preston Sturges.

"Unfaithfully Yours" (1948) deals with jealousy, which has always been a reliable comic theme. Jealousy, I think, sometimes gets a bad name. Many people consider it a negative trait for a person to have. I disagree. I feel it is a basic human emotion, like sadness or happiness. We have all felt jealous at one point in our life. It is what we do with that jealousy which can be negative or positive. For example, a man who takes out his jealousy by beating his wife is wrong. A person like myself, who keeps everything in, developing a nervous breakdown, is also negative. But, I'm only hurting myself and not resorting to violence. In "Unfaithfully Yours" the main character does resort to violence. He plans on killing his wife.

Rex Harrison stars as a world renowned conductor Sir. Alfred De Carter. He is in marital bliss to a younger woman (Linda Darnell). When they see each other they engage in the kind of romantic conversation we hear in romance novels. They lovingly look into each others eyes. Each moment they are away from one another feels like an eternity.

Alfred was away on business and in his absence asked his brother-in-law, August Henshler (Rudy Vallee) to keep an eye on his wife, in case she gets lonely. August however misunderstands and concludes Alfred must suspect his wife of foul play. So he hires a detective to tail her. When this story is told to Alfred it infuriates him. He despises the whole idea of detectives and husbands having a deceitful mind that they would do such a thing.

But we all know how this works. Once someone plants the seeds of doubt in our head, our imagination starts to run wild. Even if one doesn't suspect their spouse of being unfaithfully, once the suggestion is made we start to play amateur detective and try to find clues in their behavior. This is what happens to Alfred. He suspects his wife is having an affair with his personal assistant, Tony (Kurt Kreuger), who is younger than Alfred and considered an attractive man.

You see, the detective (Edgar Kennedy) who was hired followed Alfred's wife, Daphne, as she entered Tony's room at midnight and stood there for exactly 38 minutes. Why, Alfred wonders, did she go into Tony's room at midnight and what was she doing in there for 38 minutes?

With the tension building in Alfred's head, and as he prepares to conduct an orchestra later that day, Alfred decides he must kill his wife and have Tony framed for murder. He devises his plan as he conducts the orchestra.

This is the main set-up of the film. Alfred imagines three situations in which how to confront Daphne and Tony. His first plan is to kill her and frame Tony. Next he contemplates himself as the forgiving lover, letting Daphne go and be with the man she loves. And finally he entertains the idea of suicide. After the concert is over Alfred immediately tries to act out his plan of killing his wife.

One of the themes of "Unfaithfully Yours" is the idea is ignorance really bliss or is it just ignorant. In Alfred's world everything was going fine. He loved his wife and he assumed she loved him. He never suspected her of any wrong doing. He becomes violent at the mere suggestion of it. But finally his imagination gets the best of him. Now that he is faced with what he believes is the truth his world has come to an end. Was he better not knowing that "awful truth"? Are we all better off living in our own ignorance? Playing the fool, believing the world is full of sunshine and rainbows and the ones we love, love us back.

Preston Sturges is one of my favorite comedy directors. He has been a very important inspiration to me. I have seen nearly all of his films, except his final one. Among my favorites are "The Palm Beach Story" (1942), "Hail the Conquering Hero" (1944) and "Sullivan's Travels". But "Unfaithfully Yours" has always been my favorite. A wonderfully constructed, sharply written dark comedy jewel.

Like all Sturges films "Unfaithfully Yours" balances the line of having delightful verbal remarks peppered throughout its screenplay and moments of broad slapstick comedy. I have only reviewed one other Sturges comedy on here, "The Great Moment" (1944), and there I mentioned Sturges makes the kind of films I wish I could make. Many people are bothered by the shift in tone in this film. They complain the ending, which is pure physical comedy, is out of place with the rest of the picture. I disagree completely. The slapstick ending is a terrific reminder of how our plans go down in flames. Life is never as perfect as our daydreams.

When Alfred is planning the murder in his head, he has all the details figured out. He anticipates his wife's response. Everything in his plan is clockwork. Every single detail falls perfectly in place. But when the moment comes to actually embark on his endeavor, things get messy. These slapstick scenes are a nice commentary on that. And even if that all seems completely obvious, I still like these scenes because they are funny. Yes readers, I laugh at Alfred's pratfalls and clumsy behavior. I enjoy broad comedy. And nothing in "Unfaithfully Yours" feels out of place to me. Every scene serves a purpose. It shows one element of Alfred's personality. It foreshadows events to come. It serves as a set-up to a later punch-line. It may take more than one viewing to recognize that, but, "Unfaithfully Yours" is the kind of movie you won't mind watching multiple times.

As good as Rex Harrison is in the role, I must say I enjoy watching everyone in the film. Edgar Kennedy has some good moments and Sturges fans will recognize Alan Bridge as a house detective. Rudy Vallee is excellent as a boring, up-tight husband and Darnell is pitch-perfect as his all too understanding, loving wife.

"Unfaithfully Yours" is a great introduction into Sturges work. It demonstrates his approach to comedy and the balancing act of his films as he effortlessly switches from verbal humor to slapstick. Plus, it offers some great insights into human behavior.

The film was remade in 1984 with Dudley Moore and Nastassja Kinski. Unlike most people I enjoyed the remake. I admit, I don't like it as much as this Sturges film, but, the remake does have some funny moments.