“Gaslight” (1944) starring Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Cotton, & Angela Lansbury

Named for this movie, “gaslighting” has become a recognized form of controlling and manipulative behavior. It involves an exploitative person manipulating those who suspect him/her into doubting themselves and questioning their own perceptions, so that they distrust their own suspicions of the manipulator. This behavior is now classified as a form of psychological abuse.

[1] The first scene establishes the dreary tone of the film. It is nighttime in London and a murder goes unsolved.

[2] Charles Boyer has in this film a thankless role, that of a devouring immoralist who has only two possible moods– brief burst of anger needing to be controlled and an exuded charm that must be slightly overdone at times.

[3] The actress – who would soon become blacklisted after her marriage to Italian director Roberto Rossellini – can convey every emotion and nuance of her character through her amazingly expressive eyes. 

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

The original Broadway stage play and source for the screenplay was Angel Street by Patrick Hamilton, which opened at the John Golden Theater on December 5, 1941 and ran for over a 1,200 performances! The original stage cast included Leo G. Carroll, Vincent Price, and Judith Evelyn. After the death of her famous opera singer aunt/guardian, Paula Alquist (Ingrid Bergman), goes to study in Italy to see if she has any talent as a singer as well. She falls in love w/ a charming/older man who works as a composer, Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer), and they return to London and take up residence in her aunt’s townhouse. Gregory limits her having visitors and going out. He keeps saying that his wife is unwell to anyone who asks. She begins to notice strange goings-on: missing pictures, strange footsteps at night, and gaslights dimming. Paula feels like she may be going out of her mind!

Bergman (who won an Oscar for her role) spent some time in a mental institution to research her role, studying a woman who had suffered a nervous breakdown. This was a suggestion from Cukor, who is known for his ability to draw out fine performances (esp. from women). As my mom commented, this was rare type of role for Bergman. I learned that the actress was initially reluctant to take on this role, as she considered herself to be very strong/independent. She worried that she’d be unable to convincingly play a timid/fragile woman.

Dame Angela Lansbury was only 17 y.o. when she made this- her movie debut! Lansbury (who was nominated for an Oscar) had never acted before her screen test, but she impressed director George Cukor w/ her natural talent. The scene in which the sassy/flirty maid Nancy lights a cigarette, defying her mistress Paula, had to be postponed until near the end of production. The social worker who was monitoring Lansbury refused to allow her to smoke (while she was a minor). New scenes not in the original play were added to this version. Brian Cameron (Joseph Cotten) was changed from a stout, sardonic elderly man to a young, handsome one (as a potential love interest for Bergman). For his part, Cotten relished the chance to play a heroic role, as he had done shady/negative roles in the few years before.

Cukor asked producers (who were reluctant) to hire Paul Huldschinsky to design the Victorian sets. Huldschinsky was a German refugee who fled his native country because of WWII. He knew much re: upper-class European decor, b/c his family had grown wealthy through their newspaper business and his wife was the heiress of a railroad fortune. When he moved to the U.S. most of that money was gone and he got by working on smaller pictures. However, his luck changed w/ this picture, and Huldschinsky won an Oscar for set design.

“Mangal Pandey: The Rising” (2005) starring Aamir Khan, Toby Stephens, Rani Mukherji, & Ameesha Patel

Aamir Khan plays Mangal Pandey passionately with a complete conviction. All the scenes between Aamir and Toby are a delight to watch. Toby doesn’t fail to impress with his acting or his Hindi-speaking lines.

Stephens’ brief speeches about the ruthlessness of a private corporation pillaging a country seem all too relevant to our own time… The film is wildly entertaining, filled with the color and beauty of Bollywood- superb cinematography, epic sets and crowd scenes, music-and-dance numbers that pop out of nowhere, and a love story…

-Excerpts from reviews on Amazon.com

This is an epic set against the backdrop of what the British called the Sepoy Mutiny; for the Indians, it was the First War of Independence. It took two years to complete this film b/c of the research that went into its production. “Company Raj” (the British East India Company) had been plundering the country, treating the locals unjustly, and causing widespread resentment. During battle in one of the Afghan wars in the mid-1800s, Mangal Pandey (Aamir Khan), an Indian sepoy, saves the life of his commanding officer, Capt. William Gordon (Toby Stephens- son of Dame Maggie Smith). He is indebted, even giving Mangal his pistol. The first act is focused on the friendship; historians have pointed out that this was unlikely. A few years later, the Company introduces the Enfield rifle, which comes w/ a new cartridge rumored to be coated w/ grease from cow and pig fat. This cartridge has to be bitten before it is loaded, which ignites resentment and anger among the sepoys; the cow is sacred to Hindus and the pig is forbidden for Muslims.

The film was offered to Bollywood superstar, Shah Rukh Khan, but he declined (thank goodness). Director Ketan Mehta first thought of making this film in 1988 w/ Amitabh Bachchan. Hugh Jackman turned down the role of Gordon; this required Stephens to speak w/ a Scottish accent and also in Hindi. A very young Kiera Knightley was considered for the role of Emily Kent, who is new to India and develops a crush on Gordon. After Aishwarya Rai turned down the part of Jwala (due to contract issues), Rani Mukerji was given the script to consider taking the part. Mukherji, however, liked the character of Heera and asked if she could play her instead. Khan requested to cast Ameesha Patel as the young widow, Jwala, after he saw her on a BBC game show. Patel wears no make-up; this was Khan’s suggestion.

We only sell our bodies; you sell your souls. -Heera explains to Mangal re: the difference between her girls and the sepoys

The BJP wanted to ban the film, as it showed Pandey visiting a prostitute (though their scenes are platonic in the movie). As Lol Bibi (veteran actress Kiron Kher) points out, her house is only for white men (mainly the British officers). Though this is not a “typical” Bollywood film, it contains songs and dances. One number by Heera and other nautch (dancing) girls, Main Vari Vari, created controversy due to Mukherji’s outfit (where her cleavage was covered by transparent fabric). This song serves a dual purposes- to entice the British officers and to show how conflicted Mangal feels re: trusting Gordon (and biting the new bullet). A.R. Rahman was the music director on this movie; the music flows w/ the story. My favorite song is below- Rasiya.

In your Ramayana there was one villain “Ravana” who had ten heads, company has a hundred heads and they’re all joined by the glue of greed. -Gordon replies when Mangal asks re: the Company

I think this movie is a must-see, though it is uneven (particularly when it comes to editing). The narration (in Hindi) done by veteran actor Om Puri is repetitive; I think it was used to appeal to Hindi speakers who may not be fluent in English. There is a mix of English and Hindi spoken in this film, which I’m sure was accurate for the period. The bromance is much more stronger than both the romances. The relationship between Mangal and Heera was underdeveloped, but I could see the chemistry between the actors. I liked the wrestling scene and hand-to-hand combat between Mangal and Gordon. The sepoys and villagers confronting the British one night w/ their torches stood out to me. However, the scene where Gordon stops the sati (bride burning) looks disorganized. Mangal Pandey: The Rising was shown at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival. The screenwriter is British of Parsi heritage- Farrukh Dandy- associated w/ black (as in minority in UK) and left-wing intellectuals and activists.

You have tasted a black man’s loyalty – now taste his fury! -Mangal declares to Gordon

On second viewing, I noticed how colonialism was compared to slavery (which we may associate w/ the American South and West Indies). Hewson beats a waiter and insults him w/ “kalla kutta” (“black dog”). One of the villagers near the cantonment, Kamla, works as a wet nurse for one of the British officer’s wives. When she gets home, there is no milk left for her baby. Perhaps the most direct correlation to slavery is made in the market scene; Emily is appalled to see an auction of men and women (incl. Heera). It turns out that the Company buys girls, too!

“Body Heat” (1981) starring William Hurt, Kathleen Turner, Richard Crenna, Mickey Rourke, & Ted Danson

Lawrence Kasdan’s neo-noir (and first film- wow!) is inspired by classic noir films: Double Indemnity (1944) and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). Kathleen Turner (in her debut role at age 28- wow!) played a woman so alluring/confident that we can believe her lover could be convinced to do anything for her. Kasdan wanted a woman editor, Carol Littleton, to have a female perspective on the erotic scenes; she would go on to work on 9 films w/ him. Unlike many of the films of the ’80s, Body Heat has a balanced take on revealing skin. I saw this film maybe three times; on this most recent viewing, I noticed how well the editing turned out!

Women are rarely allowed to be bold and devious in the movies; most directors are men, and they see women as goals, prizes, enemies, lovers and friends, but rarely as protagonists. Turner’s entrance in “Body Heat” announces that she is the film’s center of power.

One of the brilliant touches of Kasdan’s screenplay is the way he makes Ned Racine think he is the initiator of Matty Walker’s plans.

-Roger Ebert

It is a very hot/humid night in a small town in South Florida. A small-time lawyer, Ned Racine (Hurt- then only 30 y.o.), is strolling on a pier where a band is playing. We can see straight down the center aisle to the bandstand. Suddenly, a woman in white stands up, turns around and walks directly toward him- Matty Walker (Turner). She is slim, tall, w/ hair down to her shoulders. The white dress w/ long sleeves she wears might remind some viewers of how of the actresses in ’50s films (such as Barbara Stanwyck, Lauren Bacall, or Lana Turner) dressed.

The characters here are constantly hot and sweaty. The film was shot in freezing cold temperatures. The actors sucked ice cubes before speaking to eliminate foggy breath and had water sprayed on their skin and shirts to simulate body sweat. Christopher Reeve was offered the lead, but turned it down by saying: “I didn’t think I would be convincing as a seedy lawyer.” Kim Zimmer (who plays Mary Ann) had originally been offered the role of Matty, but the producers of The Doctors (a soap opera) wouldn’t give her time off to shoot the film. This movie- slated to be shot in the NYC/New Jersey area- was moved to Florida because of a Teamsters strike.

[1] …I felt the music really pushed the movie over the top. The hauntingly melancholic string work serves not only as ambiance, but also acts as narrative. The sweet yet cautionary score mirrors the plot theme of ‘moth to the flame’- obvious danger yet unavoidably seductive beauty. 

[2] William Hurt is very assured in one of his early roles as an incompetent small time lawyer who’s also an inveterate womaniser. He’s driven by lust and greed and his gullibility makes him easy fodder for the manipulative Matty.

-Excerpts from reviews on IMDB

The film opens with an inn burning (w/ shades of yellow, orange, and red) in the distance; Ned leans against a window and lazily comments to his hookup: “Somebody’s torched it to clear the lot. Probably one of my clients.” There is use of the color red, incl. on the pier (when a snow-cone stains Matty’s blouse, in the lighting of the Pinehaven bar, and the infamous scene where Matty brings Ned home to listen to her (creepy IMO) wind chimes. She is wearing a white blouse and a bright red skirt (“revealing that though she acts cool, she is red-hot below the waist,” as Shannon Clute and Richard Edwards discussed on their podcast- Out of the Past).

Maybe you shouldn’t dress like that. -Ned advises Matty (when she mentions re: local men hitting on her) / This is a blouse and skirt. I don’t know what you’re talking about. -Matty retorts quickly / You shouldn’t wear that body. -Ned comments

The above dialogue is inspired by noir of the past, but it works in this ’80s movie (as Ebert noted). If you take away the smoking (or fiddling w/ cigarettes) and a few lines related to the role of women, this film has aged pretty well. Matty even gives Ned a fedora- a direct homage to classic Hollywood. Kasdan surrounds the lead characters w/ good supporting roles; he creates world of police stations, diners, law offices and restaurants. An adorable/young Mickey Rourke, playing an arsonist/former client of Ned’s, steals the show in his scenes. Matty’s husband (Richard Crenna), who she calls “small, mean, and weak,” is nothing of the sort; he obviously knows how to make money and is no pushover. Ted Danson (wearing thick glasses) is an A.D.A. and Ned’s friend, who eventually suspects him of murder, as does their police detective friend. The dancing Danson does was choreographed based on the dance moves of Fred Astaire. The following year, Danson got the lead role on the iconic sitcom- Cheers.

Hurt does a fine job in this anti-hero role; he is a sleazy guy (hooking up w/ various women w/o any emotion, having an arrogant/superior attitude, and taking on shady clients). However, he is far from a one-note villain; he is troubled by his conscience. The film delved into content that would’ve been censored earlier, incl. the explicit love scenes and also the femme fatale getting away w/ her crimes in the end. Ned goes to jail, b/c he never was as smart as Matty; she was always a few steps ahead. Pay attention to the scene in Ned’s office when he and Matty resolve to kill her husband. They speak softly (and calmly) re: murder.

That man is gonna die for no reason but . . . we want him to. -Ned flatly tells Matty

What do you think of their relationship? In the last act, Matty says: “Ned, whatever you think- I really do love you.” Does she? Does he love her? Matty got what she always wanted- “to be rich and live in an exotic place.” The ending, showing her relaxing w/ a drink on a sunny beach under blue skies, is ambiguous. She reacts to an (offscreen) man, but sounds indifferent to him. What is she thinking about under those sunglasses? Matty is a mystery at the end!

In 2003, director Mahesh Bhatt made a Bollywood reimaging- Jism (“body”)- starring two former models-turned-actors (John Abraham and Bipasha Basu). Kabir Lal (Abraham) is a young, alcoholic lawyer who sees an attractive woman hanging out on a beach (Pondicherry) and is intrigued by her. He sees her again in a local restaurant (where she is wearing a backless black dress) and offers to buy her a drink. This is Sonia (Basu) and she’s married to an older/wealthy man (Gulshan Grover) who neglects her. The lead actors looked self-conscious together, though they were (at that time) a real-life couple. I recall thinking that Abraham had a few good scenes w/ the character actors who played his friends (Vinay Pathak and Ranvir Shorey). Siddharth (Pathak- an experienced indie/theater actor) plays a policeman who goes from from wanting to beat the hell out of Kabir to wanting to protect him. Unlike in Body Heat, Kabir gets very emotional (and shows it); there is not much nuanced about his character. Basu (as expected) is tan, toned, and wears an excess of eyeliner; she was put in vampy roles in Bollywood in her time. Women w/ darker skintones are (often) put in negative roles in this genre; it’s a well-known/troubling fact. Though the production design (as well as many scenes) are a direct copy of Body Heat, the ending is very different!

SPOILER-FREE Reviews: “Jojo Rabbit,” “Joker,” & “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”

Jojo Rabbit

This is an unique movie- that’s for sure- and it worked! It is a mix of comedy (satire), history, and drama from the mind of New Zealander, Taika Waititi, who also plays Jojo’s imaginary friend (Hitler). Waititi (who used to focus on acting before directing) is far from Aryan; he gets his unique (for mainstream Hollywood) looks from his Jewish mother and Maori father. This movie is a must-see for the touching/nuanced/realistic acting of its child/teen actors: Roman Griffin Davis (Jojo), Thomsin McKenzie (Elsa), and Archie Yates (Yorki). Scarlett Johansson (who got a Supporting Actress Oscar nom) does a fine job as the mom (Rosie). Jojo is fascinated by Hitler and joins a sort of Youth Movement (a Nazi-inspired Summer camp). The sunny/bright look of the film is in direct contrast to its themes. The supporting actors incl. Sam Rockwell (not a fan but he gets a good scene), Alfie Allen (from GoT fame), Rebel Wilson (who I found distracting), and Stephen Merchant (a tall/British comedian who is hilarious).

Joker

As a whole, this movie (loosely connected to the world of Batman) wasn’t as effective (or realistic) as I was expecting. It’s partly an exploration of mental illness, so not the (typical) development of the comic book villain- Arthur Fleck (AKA The Joker). I felt the audience was uneasy (incl. one particularly violent/bloody scene); Arthur gets beaten in several scenes. However, it’s a must-see for Joaquin Phoenix’s performance (incl. his physical transformation). The dark/dreary look of the film is very fitting of its themes. As some critics commented, if you’ve seen Taxi Driver, Falling Down, and/or Fight Club– I haven’t, then maybe this movie won’t be original to you. I was surprised to learn that director Todd Philips worked on The Hangover franchise. The supporting actors come from the theater world (Frances Conroy plays the invalid mother) or are character actors. Critics have commented on the way race (particularly black women) are treated here. There are (at least) two big twists to this movie, but were they expected? You’ll need to see/judge for yourself!

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

I’ve only seen three of Tarantino’s movies (so far): Natural Born Killers (1994)- which I barely recall, Inglourious Basterds (2009)- which I thought was very well-done, and Django Unchained (2012)- which was interesting, yet also self-indulgent. This is Tarantino’s 9th film; its a mix of buddy comedy, nostalgia for ’50s Hollywood/Westerns, and strong violence. In the first third, we see the development of the friendship between a middle-aged/fading TV actor, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), and his former stuntman-turned-driver, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). These two actors have great chemistry together! Rick is somewhat insecure re: his talent, and drinks way too much to compensate. Cliff maintains a more chill vibe, though we learn about his (potentially) dark past about at hour into the story.

The supporting actors are a mix of well-known TV actors who may or may not be distracting (incl. Damian Lewis, Timothy Olyphant, Lena Dunham, and 90210’s Luke Perry- his final role); the daughters of famous actors (Margaret Qualley, Rumer Willis, Maya Hawke, among others); and also some actors who never quite “made it big” in Hollywood. The super-serious child actor really did great in her scenes! There has been criticism of how B-movie actress, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), and martial arts expert, Bruce Lee (Mike Moh), were portrayed in the film. Tate comes off as a beautiful object; she gets one really good scene. The (flashback) scene between Cliff and Lee just seems unreal; I think it’s open to interpretation. It has some fine moments, but (as a whole) is self-indulgent, slow, and muddled.

“Midsommar” (2019) starring Florence Pugh

I think this film depicts a broader social commentary about cult mindset – the destruction of one’s individualism and systematic breakdown of one’s personality to become part of a “collective”/hive mindset.

To have another person acknowledge your grief, confusion and deep inner pain would be therapeutic. Instead of ignoring it, denying it, putting a mask on to try and be ‘happy’ without help. …the friend tells Christian, ‘dude, she needs therapy’ and he’s right- she does. But the group of boys Dani travels with are unable or unwilling to sympathize with her- the main person who should, Christian, was checked out.

I was also disappointed in how the main characters were handled. I hoped they would be given some depth, but they ended up becoming cliche caricatures.

-Excerpts from reviews posted on YouTube

Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor) are a young American couple with a relationship on the brink of falling apart. But after a family tragedy keeps them together, a grieving Dani invites herself to join Christian and his friends on a trip to a once-in-a-lifetime midsummer festival in a remote Swedish village. What begins as a carefree summer holiday in a land of eternal sunlight takes a sinister turn when the insular villagers invite their guests to partake in festivities that render the pastoral paradise increasingly unnerving and viscerally disturbing. -Synopsis from A24 (studio)

Whoa, WHAT did I just see!? And what does it mean? This indie horror film, or perhaps psychological drama, is now on streaming (Amazon Prime). The writer/director, Ari Astor, explained that this was the story of a break-up. It’s also about the individual’s need for connection, community, and acceptance. Warning: This is NOT for everyone, as it is slow, has a long running time, and has several scenes (incl. blood, nudity, etc.) which will be difficult for sensitive viewers. I heard re: this film in Summer 2019 from a few podcasts, so did get spoiled on some of the events. I was even shocked by the gruesome nature of two scenes in particular.

He’s my good friend and I like him, but… Dani, do you feel held by him? Does he feel like home to you? -Pelle asks re: Christian

Pugh (Amy in Little Women) does a fine job w/ her role; sadly, she is the ONLY character who is well-developed. We can empathize w/ Dani, who suffers a great loss, lives w/ anxiety, and fears being “too needy.” She is studying Psychology in grad school; she could benefit from some counseling herself. Reynor (an American/Irish actor) doesn’t have much of a screen presence, though he is tall and conventionally handsome. He is the boyfriend who has one foot out the door; from the get go, we know he’s NOT deeply invested in the relationship. Later, he tries to “collaborate” w/ Josh, who is more of a scholar and has done background work on the Harga. As some critics commented, Christian didn’t deserve the harsh ending which he received.

Christian and his fellow American pals (Mark and Josh) don’t speak and act like grad students in Anthropology; they seem like stereotypical/insensitive frat boys. Pelle (Swedish actor Vilhelm Blomgren) is the friend who invites the others to spend the Summer in his community; he seems trusty, sensitive and kind. Pelle is concerned about Dani’s mental state; it has only been a few months since she had a tragedy in her life. Mark (British actor Will Poulter) is the comic element; he wants just get high, and to hook up w/ Swedish women (who he calls “the most beautiful in the world”). One the other hand, Josh (American actor William Jackson Harper), has a curious mind and plans to do his thesis on these Harga people.

This film is very white; it’s about an insular/rural Swedish commune where the sun always shines. I did like seeing the diversity when it came to age, body type, and size. There are some scenes w/o English subtitles, so most viewers will be confused like the Americans. A black journo commented that she didn’t like seeing the few people of color (POC), incl. Josh and the British couple- Connie (Elloria Torchi from Indian Summers) and Simon (Archie Madekwe)- being used as one-note plot devices. Was this intentional? Or is this what happens in most horror stories to everyone, incl. POC?

Some things work very well in this film. Aster has a vision and he goes for it full-force (world-building). It is unusually beautiful to look at and the cinematography is award-worthy; it was shot primarily in Hungary (stand-in for Sweden). The special effects are unique; I’ve never seen anything like it). A few viewers commented that these reflect what it feels like to be on ‘shrooms. You will find yourself wondering- how did Aster come up w/ this stuff!? I learned that he conducted years of research. FYI: The rituals conducted all have basis in history- yikes!