Hit Me with Your Best Shot: Sunset Boulevard

sunset17This weeks choice for Hit Me with Your Best Shot movie club is the classic Billy Wilder directed and written film Sunset Boulevard.

If you haven’t seen it the film stars Gloria Swanson and William Holden in a film noir drama about a struggling writer who gets involved with a delusional star from the silent movies named Norma Desmond.  Most movies are about not giving up hope and achieving your dreams (even if it ends tragically).  Sunset Boulevard on the other hand is a bit of a cautionary tale of when those dreams become obsessions and keep you from living a full life. Great Expectations is mentioned in the beginning and in many ways they are similar.  Both stories have a male protagonist who dreams of greatness and women who can’t let go of lost dreams.

Today watching Sunset Boulevard reminded me of a guy I knew when I was about 25.  He believed he was destined to play in the NBA.  He actually had a vision from God that it was his calling.  Unfortunately he had not been good enough to make the college team at UofU.  Nevertheless, he would give these motivational speeches about the power of a dream and all.  It not actually happening didn’t seem to phase him much like Norma Desmond. On one hand this kind of vain ambition may seem charming but on the other it seems like a lot of wasted energy when new perhaps better dreams could be fulfilled.

Anyway, in classic noir style the film tells you the grim results of the crime with brooding narration at the onset.  This allows us to focus entirely on characters because the plot has already been spelled out.

Because it is so character driven a movie like Sunset Boulevard depends entirely upon the strength of the actors for its success.  Luckily in this case Holden and especially Swanson are up to the task.  It’s a cliche to say but Swanson is mesmerizing in every scene.  One gets the impression Norma Desmond would be proud of the leading lady portraying her!

That’s not to take anything away from Wilder or cinematographer John F Seitz because their work is very strong. What they do enhances the great efforts of the actors making it all work together nearly flawlessly.

For example, one thing I noticed while looking for a shot is the way Wilder makes Norma feel both large and small depending on the moment.

Gloria Swanson it turns out is only 4’11” (William Holden is 5 ’11” which would normally be short but a foot taller than his costar in this case).

When he needs Norma to feel powerful over Joe she has buns in her hair or they are sitting.  Here are some examples:

sunset3 sunset13 sunset14 sunset15But when Norma is losing control we see her being looked down on or seeming as tiny as Swanson really was.

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All the doors in the house are massive and dwarf Norma.
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Norma looks so tiny next to this giant ship bed
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All the reporters looking down on her as she makes her grand exit.

sunset7 sunset11 sunset12Before I give my shot I will say that Sunset Boulevard is one of the few classics I would love to see a remake on.  The reason why is I love the musical version by Andrew Lloyd Webber (definitely his most underrated).  The music is very strong and I can see Meryl Streep eating up the part of Norma Desmond.  (Norma’s only 50 after all!).

Glenn Close is also iconic in the role as can be seen in one of the best songs

Can’t you just see that being a great movie?

Best Shot-

In this shot Joe is finally leaving Norma.  He spills the beans on all that Max has been doing to prop up her delusions of grandeur but she seems to be oblivious to all he is saying.  He is telling her “there is no shame in being 50 except when you are trying to be 25”.  Instead of paying heed she is giving a performance almost as if there is a spotlight over her head.  Look at the way her hands are at her throat like a Shakespearean actor doing Hamlet.  It’s almost as if she expects applause.

sunset18Then she says “I’m the greatest star of them all”.  He leaves and says goodbye and she says “No one ever leaves a star.  That’s what makes them a star”.  Once having tasted the greatness of being adored and loved Norma mentally cannot handle being small (she even says ‘I’m big. It’s the pictures that got small’).

Madness for Norma is a better alternative than being abandoned.

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Hit Me with Your Best Shot: Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon

I’ve looked at the Hit Me with Your Best Shot project as kind of a book club for movies.  Just like in a book club you get to see what other people think and gain from their perspective.  You also sometimes love or just like the books assigned and sometimes you don’t like them at all.

Well, this weeks selection is I’m afraid the latter, a movie I don’t care for called Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.  I know many love it and it was nominated for many awards, but  I don’t like it (which makes picking a favorite shot rather difficult). If I made a list of ‘top 10 overrated movies’ this would definitely make that list.

My main flaw with the movie?- I don’t like the flying! 

The whole appeal of martial arts movies is that the fighter has the potential to kill his or her opponents with their body.  They do not need any assistance or super powers to get the job done.

You watch some of the old Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan movies they completely dominate their opponent from start to finish.  Maybe they had nunchucks or a pole but the power was always from their own body.  I’m aware some of these kung-fu movies can be over the top in their execution of the stunts and it end up looking ridiculous but it is always meant to appear like one man fighting with just his body.

That’s where we get into problems with Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.  By making the characters mystical and capable of flight it takes away all the tension and excitement because the vulnerability is gone.  They can fly away like Superman and walk on walls like Spiderman.Seems pretty invincible (and predictable) to me.

Most of the time the fights seem to end without any real victor because the loosing player can just fly away.  This is way less satisfying than a bloodied up opponent after facing Bruce Lee in a fight.  It makes the fight scenes feel very boring because it is so obviously choreographed and our heroes aren’t really going to get hurt. Again if you can fly away how bad can things really get in a fight?

The problem is these flying fight scenes are most of the movie, so my not liking them means I don’t really like the movie.  I think it is boring and I don’t think the special effects have held up very well.  They look kind of corny to me.

The main story is about 2 women Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) and Jen (Zhang Ziyi) as they try to protect a sword for Mu Bai (Chow Yun-fat). They have various romantic adventures along the way and lots of flying fights. That’s about it.

The Shot

Some of the cinematography is nice and the performers are all gifted (how I wish we could have just left the Peter Pan antics and let them fight!).  But probably the part of the movie I like the best is that it has 2 strong female leads that are the main protagonists of the story. These women are as formidable as any men if  not more so and for a martial arts movie that is very cool (some of the Jackie Chan movies are particularly misogynistic).

So for me the best shot of the movie is when Jen and Shu Lien are fighting at the beginning and when they stay on the ground the movements are almost too fast to get a good screenshot of.  Nevertheless, this is the one I came up with.  It is pretty amazing and certainly way more impressive than any flying.

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Hit Me with Your Best Shot: The Red Shoes

It’s time for my third entry in the Hit Me with Your Best Shot film project done by Nathaniel over at the Film Experience

I’m really excited about this project because it is kind of like a book club- in that it is interesting to see what other people think about the same movie, all watching it at the same time.  Plus, it introduces me to new films I might not have discovered on my own.  I won’t be able to review every movie because of content (as last week’s Magic Mike selection demonstrated) but the one’s I can I’m very enthusiastic about.

red shoes4This week’s choice is The Red Shoes which is a film made in 1948 by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (known as The Archers) .  It is a movie I admit I had never heard of before but of course it is a classic (so  many of those it’s hard to keep track of all of them).  And it is fortunately a classic for a reason.  It is a stunning movie about passion, work, love and dance.

Frequent readers to this blog will already know one of my favorite topics in film is work. Why we work? How we balance work?  When have we over-worked?  How do you know what work to do?  What is passion and what is too much?  What about the doldrums when we are miserable at work?  I love comedies, dramas, even cartoons about work.

Well, in The Red Shoes you have a woman that has an unusual job- she is a prima ballerina.  At the beginning I was a little bit confused about who all the characters were and what was going on.  If this happens to you stick with it.  It all gets explained.  The ballerina in question is named Victoria ‘Vicky’ Page (Moira Shearer) and through an aunt of hers she is introduced to Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook).  He is an eccentric strange man who’s obsession is having the greatest ballet company in all of France.

As the director he ends up giving Vicky a shot when his ballerina gets married and is fired (there is no option of a working woman in this film).  Vicky’s first role is as the lead in a ballet called The Red Shoes based on the Hans Christen Andersen story.  It is written by the conductor Julian Craster (Marius Goring) who is new to the ballet company like Vicky.

I don’t want to give too much away because I went into this movie completely fresh and I’m glad.  Basically it is about Vicky’s battle between her love or personal life and her passion for dance or career.  There is an extended ballet sequence which is a stunning surrealist masterpiece.  I loved this shot from that dance.  You can see both the home and the dance reaching out to Vicky.

red shoes 3There is also a great scene towards the end where Lermontov tells Vicky ‘you cannot live two lives’ and she must choose what she wants. (I have to admit I was a little bit let down by the ending but given it was 1948 it is kind of understandable). Even in modern times most working women will tell you ‘you can’t have it all’.  Something is always sacrificed whether it is work, family or both.

red shoes 1The Shot-

But my favorite shot from The Red Shoes is from the ballet.  One of the things I noticed is whenever Vicky is dancing she is always smiling. You can tell she is so happy and perhaps that is the best litmus test of all?  Whatever makes you happy than try do as much of that as you can…It may not be your career but make it the thing you work for.

In a way watching her dance reminded me of the movie Ed Wood (I know strange comparison but hear me out).  He is so happy making his terrible movies.  The smile on his face never leaves.

So rarely is great passion matched with talent, so especially in Vicky’s case she should embrace what gives her that big smile. That’s why I picked this shot.  I love the dancing, red shoes and the smile.

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