A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Monday, February 29, 2016

Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas, 2014)

Clouds of Sils Maria is like a good short story: It demands almost as much attention after you've finished it as it did while you were watching/reading it. The set-up is this: An actress, Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche), is asked to perform in a revival of the play that made her famous when she was only 18. Now that she's in her 40s, however, she will play the older woman who has a relationship with the character she earlier played. She accepts reluctantly, and then wants to back out when she finds that the younger actress, Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz), who has been cast in her original role is a Hollywood star best known not only for working in sci-fi blockbusters but also for her off-screen affairs that draw the attention of the paparazzi and Internet gossip sites. However, her personal assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart), thinks Jo-Ann is a good actress who has been exploited by the media, and persuades Maria to take the role. Maria and Valentine retreat to the home of the play's author, who has recently died, in Sils Maria, a Swiss village, where Valentine helps Maria learn her lines. As the film progresses, the lines of the play echo not only Maria's own feelings about growing older, but also the somewhat ambiguous relationship between Maria and Valentine. Indeed, it's often not entirely clear whether actress and assistant are reciting the lines of the play or are voicing their own feelings for each other. And then the casting of the film brings out another layer of meaning: Stewart is best-known for the Twilight movies, precisely the kind of Hollywood film that Maria turns up her nose at when she first hears about Jo-Ann's career. Assayas, who also wrote the screenplay, deftly juggles all these layers of art and reality, but the film would be nothing without Stewart's superb performance, which won her the César Award in France as well as the best supporting actress awards from the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics. There are those who think the film is more talk than substance and that it feels like a "high-concept" product: Persona (Ingmar Bergman, 1966) meets All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950), perhaps. But seeing Stewart interact with Binoche more than justifies it for me.  

Sunday, February 28, 2016

GoodFellas (Martin Scorsese, 1990)

Considering that it's Oscar night, I suppose I need to observe that 25 years ago tonight, the best picture and best director Oscars went to Dances With Wolves and Kevin Costner. For many this is yet another example of a gaffe by the Academy. I actually remember enjoying Dances With Wolves a great deal, though it has been years since I saw it. I liked Costner's and Mary McDonnell's performances in the movie, appreciated the attempt to see things from the point of view of Native Americans, and found the buffalo stampede thrilling. But I haven't seen it again for many years, and don't really have much interest in doing so: There are other equally enjoyable movies to watch instead. There are people who say that the real test of a movie is whether you want to see it again and again, because each time you do, you either see it differently or get a sense of why you liked it the first time. In the latter case, there's a great pleasure in hearing the dialogue in a movie like Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1943) fall into its accustomed place each time you revisit it. But GoodFellas seems to me to fill both categories: You anticipate the "What do you mean, I'm funny?" exchange between Tommy (Joe Pesci) and Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), while at the same time you see something new each time in the way scenes are staged by Scorsese, shot by Michael Ballhaus, or edited by Thelma Schoonmaker. I will have to say that the Academy's choice this time doesn't seem so egregious to me as does, say, its choice of Ordinary People (Robert Redford, 1980) over Raging Bull (Scorsese, 1980) does. GoodFellas is just a little too clever and showy for its own good: Consider the dazzling tracking shot as Henry and Karen (Lorraine Bracco) enter the Copacabana via the cellars and kitchens, or the fast-paced editing in the climactic scene when the paranoid Henry is dashing around town, keeping an eye on the helicopter above. On a repeat viewing, both scenes maybe draw a little more attention to film technique than is good for narrative coherence. But these are quibbles. GoodFellas won exactly one Oscar, for Joe Pesci's hair-trigger performance. Lorraine Bracco lost to Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost (Jerry Zucker), the adapted screenplay award went to Michael Blake for Dances With Wolves instead of to Nicholas Pileggi and Scorsese, and Schoonmaker lost the editing Oscar to Neil Travis for Dances. And Ray Liotta's exceptional performance went completely unnominated. But then, who knows what movie we'll be talking about 25 years from now as having unfairly lost to tonight's winner?

Saturday, February 27, 2016

The Man Who Fell to Earth (Nicolas Roeg, 1976)

This is a film that could only have been made in the mid-1970s, when people with a lot of money were looking for the Next Big Hit aimed at the youth market. And what could be better than a sci-fi film featuring a major rock star, lots of sex, and an irreverent attitude toward American corporations? Four years later, this anything-goes approach to filmmaking would expire with the colossal failure of Heaven's Gate (Michael Cimino, 1980), now known as the movie that killed United Artists. But we can see in The Man Who Fell to Earth a bit of the carelessness (some of it fueled by too-easy access to drugs) that afflicted the film industry. It is frequently brilliant but also often frequently incoherent, a movie held together by David Bowie's charisma as the alien Thomas Jerome Newton, even though Bowie later admitted that he was so high on cocaine during the filming that he didn't know what he was doing. In the film, as the titular alien, he gets hooked on gin and television, so his drug indulgence may have helped in his performance. Somehow Roeg pulled through a difficult shoot in New Mexico, and while the movie never quite succeeds as either science fiction or satire, it became a cult hit. None of the other cast members stands out as prominently as Bowie. Rip Torn doesn't put together a coherent character as Nathan Bryce, the lecherous college professor who gets hired on by the mega-corporation created by Newton so he can bring water to his dying home planet. Candy Clark plays Mary-Lou, the hotel maid who becomes Newton's lover, has some affecting moments, but it's never clear whether she is extraordinarily naive or under a kind of mind control induced by Newton. But there's an intelligence (or at least an attitude) here that makes more coherent and better polished films about alien visitors look tame and conventional.  

Friday, February 26, 2016

Mannequin (Frank Borzage, 1937)

Spencer Tracy, Joan Crawford, and Alan Curtis in a publicity shot for Mannequin
Joan Crawford in her MGM prime, tough but slinky, convincing as the factory girl trudging up the stairs to the Hester Street flat she shares with her family, but also as the chorus girl, the high-fashion model, the fur-bedecked millionaire's wife. Mannequin is a very talky melodrama, but one with a kind of reassuring confidence about what it's doing, helped along by Crawford's skill and commitment as an actress. She never does anything by rote. The screenplay is by Lawrence Hazard, but anyone who knows the work of the film's producer, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, as a screenwriter can sense the uncredited contribution of the writer-director of A Letter to Three Wives (1949) and All About Eve (1950). Not that Mannequin is up to the standard of those films, but that someone connected to all three movies knows that smart talk can bring a film to life. Frank Borzage, who had won Oscars for directing the "women's pictures" 7th Heaven (1927) and Bad Girl (1931), had just the right touch for this movie. It somehow manages to overcome a lack of chemistry between its leads, Crawford and Spencer Tracy, who didn't hit it off -- she later accused him of stepping on her feet when they were dancing together and of chewing garlic before their love scenes, in addition to his typical "bad drunk" behavior -- and never worked together again. There is, however, a good performance by Alan Curtis as her sleazy first husband, a would-be fight promoter who comes up with the scheme that she should divorce him to marry Tracy's millionaire shipping magnate, then soak him of his millions. And Oscar O'Shea as her ne'er-do-well father, Elisabeth Risdon as her doormat mother, and a terrific Leo Gorcey as her wise-ass brother all make it clear that Crawford's character has no way to go but up.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Our Dancing Daughters (Harry Beaumont, 1928)

Diana (Joan Crawford) is a Good Girl who people think is a Bad Girl because she likes to dance the Charleston on tabletops. Ann (Anita Page) is a Bad Girl posing as a Good Girl to try to land a rich husband. Beatrice (Dorothy Sebastian) is a Good Girl trying to hide the fact that she used to be a Bad Girl from Norman (Nils Asther), the man she has fallen in love with. And so it goes, as Ann steals Ben (Johnny Mack Brown) away from Diana, and Beatrice confesses her past sins to Norman, who marries her but doesn't really trust her. This romantic melodrama was a big hit that established Crawford as a star. She's lively and funny and dances a mean Charleston -- a far cry from the long-suffering shoulder-padded Crawford of Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945) and the melodramas of her middle age, though we can see a hint of the Crawford to come when she squares off against Page, using her big eyes and lipsticked mouth as formidable weapons. The movie is semi-silent: It has a synchronized music track with some forgettable songs and occasional sound effects like the ring of a telephone and the knock on a door, and once there's a spoken line from a bandleader: "Come on, Miss Diane, strut your stuff." But most of the dialogue is confined to intertitles that tell us Diana has asked a boy to dance ("Wouldst fling a hoof with me?") or that Freddie (Edward J. Nugent) has asked Ann if she wants a drink ("Lí'l hot baby want a cool li'l sip?"). The Jazz Age was probably never like this, even at its height, which was several years earlier, but there is fun to be had here. The story, such as it is, was by Josephine Lovett, and those title cards were the work of Marian Ainslee and Ruth Cummings, who give it a mildly feminist spin: Despite the slut-shaming, the film is solidly on the side of the rights of women to have a good time. Lovett's story and George Barnes's cinematography were considered for Oscars -- there were no official nominations this year -- but lost out. 

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Sabotage (Alfred Hitchcock, 1936)

Sabotage poster with the original title for the U.S. release
In one of the coldest-hearted scenes ever put on film, a young boy plays with a puppy held by a woman seated next to him on a London bus, and then they are blown to bits by the bomb he has unwittingly been carrying. The scene would be less shocking if we hadn't spent a good part of the movie getting to know Stevie (Desmond Tester), the younger brother of Mrs. Verloc (Sylvia Sidney), whose husband (Oscar Homolka) belongs to a terrorist group. We have seen Stevie carrying his lethal package, which Verloc has commissioned him to leave at a specific location by a certain time, and we have grown fond of him when he is detained by a street hawker selling toothpaste and hair tonic and pauses to watch a parade. As the fatal time grows closer, we feel sure that something will happen to defuse the bomb, as usually happens in movies, so its detonation comes as a reversal of movie convention, one so radical that even Hitchcock will not attempt anything quite like it until he kills off the star of Psycho in mid-film 24 years later. (Even then, he will not do anything so sadistic as add a puppy to the scene.) Sabotage is not one of Hitchcock's more famous movies -- it's often confused with his Saboteur (1942). But it is, I think, one of his most characteristic because of his willingness to violate convention. The film is based on Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent -- a title he couldn't use because it was the title of his other 1936 release, an adaptation of a Somerset Maugham story that starred John Gielgud and Madeleine Carroll. But Sabotage is closer to Kafka than to Conrad, a film that verges on the surreal and dreamlike at times. The Verlocs own a movie theater and their home is separated from it by a passageway behind the screen, so that sometimes the sounds from the movies that are playing enter their daily lives. Stunned by Stevie's death, Mrs. Verloc goes out into the theater, where a Disney short, "Who Killed Cock Robin?" is playing, and suddenly begins laughing at the absurd cartoon action. Much else in the film is similarly askew: The bomb-maker, for example, keeps his explosives in ketchup bottles and condiments jars, and when he goes to get the bomb for Verloc, he finds his granddaughter's doll in the cabinet. (If, indeed, she's his granddaughter -- there's much coy mystery about that.) There's an oddball romance between Mrs. Verloc and Ted (John Loder), the Scotland Yard detective who works undercover at the greengrocers' next to the Verlocs' theater, keeping an eye on Verloc. And the ending is a mare's nest of ambiguities that don't lend themselves to summary. What keeps the movie from descending into incoherence is Hitchcock's sure sense of style and the occasionally expressionistic cinematography of Bernard Knowles. Later, Hitchcock would regret the way he handled Stevie's death, but it remains consistent with the haunting effect of the film as a whole.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Entertainer (Tony Richardson, 1960)

Sleazy old Archie Rice was one of Laurence Olivier's theatrical triumphs, proof that a renowned classical actor, known for his Hamlet and Oedipus and Coriolanus, could take on the "kitchen-sink realism" of an Angry Young Man, John Osborne, and add glory to his already celebrated name. But the film version is an example of the difficulties that have to be overcome when a play is translated into a movie. For even though Tony Richardson, who directed the 1957 Royal Court Theatre version, also directed the film, and the play's author did the screenplay as well (in collaboration with Nigel Kneale), the movie lacks energy and direction. The play alternates between what's going on in Archie Rice's house and his performances on stage, while the film "opens up" to show the English seaside resort town where Archie's music-hall is located, and some of the events that are merely narrated in the play, such as Archie's affair with a young woman whose family he tries to persuade to back him in a new show, are dramatized in the movie. Olivier's creation of the "dead behind the eyes" Archie is superb, and his music-hall turns in the film manage to suggest that even though he was a hack as a performer Archie could have held an audience's attention, though it's clear that seeing Olivier on an actual stage would have had a stronger impact from sheer immediacy. The cast is uniformly fine: Brenda de Banzie as Archie's second wife, Roger Livesey as his father (Livesey was in fact only a year older than Olivier), Joan Plowright as his daughter, and making their film debuts, Alan Bates and Albert Finney as his sons. But in the end it's a collection of impressive performances in service of a not very involving story of a self-destructive man and his dysfunctional family.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Cabaret (Bob Fosse, 1972)

I've been reading Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, in which a young German engineer, recuperating in a tuberculosis sanatorium in the Swiss Alps, decides to read up on physiology. He concludes that life itself is a kind of disease, "a fever of matter." In Cabaret, Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli) proclaims that "life is a cabaret, old chum." Yet given that the cabaret presided over by the Master of Ceremonies (Joel Grey) in the film is a febrile sort of place, there's a coherence between the two views. Director Bob Fosse would himself go on to posit a relationship between illness and creativity in All That Jazz (1979). And Sally Bowles's favorite phrase, the seeming oxymoron "divine decadence," suggests that out of decay comes something higher. What would be the opposite, after all: satanic order? In perhaps the movie's most chilling moment, Fosse gives us a closeup of a cherubic, well-scrubbed young face, the very opposite of the Master of Ceremonies's rouged and lipsticked face that  has dominated the film from the very beginning. The boy then begins to sing "Tomorrow Belongs to Me," and as the camera pulls back we see that he is wearing the uniform of the Hitler Youth. As the crowd at the open-air beer garden, which has to this point seemed an idyllic setting, joins in and begins to raise their arms in the Nazi salute, we view the very definition of satanic order. But enough German dialectics here; just let me say that Cabaret is one of my favorite movie musicals. As I have said before in this blog, I prefer musicals created originally for the movies, like the Warner Bros. films with the kaleidoscopic routines of Busby Berkeley, the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movies, or the sublime Singin' in the Rain (Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, 1952), and not the musicals like West Side Story (Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise, 1961) or My Fair Lady (George Cukor, 1964), that were translated to film from the stage. My admiration for Cabaret would seem to be an exception to that rule, except that when Fosse became director, he jettisoned the book that had been written by Joe Masteroff for the 1966 Broadway musical and went back to the source, Christopher Isherwood's 1939 The Berlin Stories. Jay Presson Allen had been commissioned to write the screenplay, but Hugh Wheeler (credited as "research consultant") heavily revised what she had written. Fosse also dropped many of the songs by John Kander and Fred Ebb, though he added new ones by them: "Money, Money" and "Mein Herr," along with one of their older songs not from the Broadway version, "Maybe This Time." And he made the significant decision to keep the musical numbers confined to the Kit Kat Klub stage -- a touch of cinematic realism that seems essential to a story set in Berlin during the rise of the Nazis. The result is a musical essentially created (or at least re-created) for the movies. It received 10 Oscar nominations and won eight of them, including awards for Minnelli, Grey, and Fosse, as well as for Geoffrey Unsworth's cinematography. The only categories in which it lost were best picture and best adapted screenplay, which went to The Godfather and its screenwriters, Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

The Graduate (Mike Nichols, 1967)

The Graduate and It Happened One Night (Frank Capra, 1934) are both fine examples of the "runaway bride" trope, but there the resemblance ends in irony. In the latter, Ellie (Claudette Colbert) balks at the altar and runs away, veil and train streaming, to the arms of Peter (Clark Gable), but we never see them together: The film ends with the sound of a toy trumpet and we see the "walls of Jericho" blanket falling. It's a gratifying "happy ending," in which order is brought out of chaos, which is the way a romantic comedy is traditionally supposed to end. But in The Graduate the situation is reversed: The wedding that is supposed to restore order ends in chaos, as Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) arrives to carry off Elaine (Katharine Ross), interrupting the nuptial kiss after the wedding is over. And then we see them together on the bus, as Nichols holds the camera on their faces just a little longer than he might: The smiles on their faces begin to fade, and uncertainty takes hold. We aren't supposed to wonder about what happens to Ellie and Peter, but we can't help feeling the chill of reality fall over Elaine and Benjamin. Watching The Graduate today, I find it a troubling, even cynical treatment of some serious themes. Benjamin, for example, seems to be designed as a comic figure, with his little gulps and tics and his awkwardness when faced with the seductive Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft). But a more sympathetic viewer might diagnose him as clinically depressed, desperately being borne along by the tide of events, just as he's borne along by the moving sidewalk at the airport in the film's beginning, and then trying to avoid the consequences of the freedom he has earned by graduating. He escapes from the adult world into his room, with its burbling fish tank that foreshadows his underwater escape when he's expected to "perform" in the scuba gear he's been presented by his parents. When he does commit himself to a course of action, deciding suddenly and almost arbitrarily that he will marry Elaine, he has clearly lost his mind. And is there a sadder figure in movies than Mrs. Robinson, who lives in alcoholic denial of the disaster her life has become? Bancroft's performance in the scene in which Benjamin tries to get her to open up about her life is simply stunning. The screenplay by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry is the only really funny part of the film, with its classically quotable lines: "Plastics." "Mrs. Robinson, you're trying to seduce me. ... Aren't you?" "I think you're the most attractive of all my parents' friends." It's Nichols's direction that turns our attention to the reality undermining the comedy. The Graduate is often seen as a kind of twin to Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967): two films that announce an epochal shift in Hollywood, upending audience expectations by addressing themselves to a more sophisticated young audience. As a satire on upper-middle-class life in the mid-20th century that masquerades as a romantic comedy, The Graduate was enormously influential. I just can't make up my mind whether that influence was for the good.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

A Midsummer Night's Dream (Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle, 1935)

James Cagney and Anita Louise in A Midsummer Night's Dream
Lysander: Dick Powell
Demetrius: Ross Alexander
Hermia: Olivia de Havilland
Helena: Jean Muir
Bottom: James Cagney
Flute: Joe E. Brown
Oberon: Victor Jory
Titania: Anita Louise
Puck: Mickey Rooney
Quince: Frank McHugh
Snout: Hugh Herbert
Snug: Dewey Robinson
Theseus: Ian Hunter
Hippolyta: Verree Teasdale

Director: Max Reinhardt, William Dieterle
Screenplay: Charles Kenyon, Mary C. McCall Jr.
Based on a play by William Shakespeare
Cinematography: Hal Mohr
Art direction: Anton Grot
Music: Erich Wolfgang Korngold
Costume design: Max Rée
Choreography: Bronislava Nijinska

The spirit that animates this version of A Midsummer Night's Dream is not that of William Shakespeare but Felix Mendelssohn. Shakespeare's text has been trimmed to a nubbin and hashed up by the "arrangers," Charles Kenyon and Mary C. McCall Jr., and it's gabbled by the all-star cast. Strangely, Olivia de Havilland and Mickey Rooney are the worst offenders, and they are the only members of the cast of Max Reinhardt's celebrated 1934 Hollywood Bowl production who made it into the movie. De Havilland delivers her lines with heavy emphasis on seemingly random words and with odd pauses, while Rooney punctuates every line with giggles, chortles, and shrieks that affect some viewers like fingernails on a chalkboard. Nobody in the cast seems to be aware that they're speaking verse. Fortunately, the decision was made to use the Mendelssohn overture and incidental music (along with snippets of other works by Mendelssohn), and to have it orchestrated by Erich Wolfgang Korngold. The result is an opulently balletic version of the play, taking advantage of what can be done in movies that can't be done on stage. Is it good? Maybe not, but it's much more fun than the stodgily reverent version of Romeo and Juliet (George Cukor, 1936) that MGM came up with the following year. Casting James Cagney as Bottom/Pyramus and Joe E. Brown as Flute/Thisby was a masterstroke, and if they had been directed by someone with a surer sense of American comic idiom than Reinhardt, the Viennese refugee from Hitler who spoke very little English (Dieterle acted as interpreter), the results would have been classic -- as it is, they're just bumptious fun. Much of the design for the movie is sheer camp, reminiscent of the twee illustrations for children's books in the early 20th century. But there is a spectacular moment in the film when Oberon gathers the fairies, gnomes, and bat-winged sprites to depart, under a billowing black train that sometimes resembles smoke. The cinematography by Hal Mohr won the only write-in Oscar ever granted by the Academy.

Friday, February 19, 2016

North by Northwest (Alfred Hitchcock, 1959)

There's a famous gaffe in North by Northwest, in the scene in which Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) shoots Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant). Before she fires the gun, you see a young extra in the background stop his ears against the noise, even though it's supposed to surprise and panic the crowd. It's so obvious a mistake that you wonder how the editor, George Tomasini (who was nominated for an Oscar for the film), could have missed it. The usual explanation is that he couldn't find a way to cut it out, or didn't have footage to replace it. And after all, in the days before home video, would the audience in the theater notice? Even if they did, they would have no easy way to confirm that they had actually seen it. But I have a different suspicion: I think that they showed the goof to Alfred Hitchcock, and that he laughed and left it in. For above all else, North by Northwest is a spoof, a good-natured Hitchcockian jest about a genre that he had virtually invented in 1935 with The 39 Steps: the chase thriller, in which the good guy finds himself on the run, pursued by both the bad guys and other good guys. The ear-plugging kid fits in with the film's general insouciance about plausibility. A couple who climb down the face of Mount Rushmore, she in heels (and later in stocking feet) and he in street shoes? A lavish modern house with a private air strip that seems to be on top of the mountain, only a few hundred yards from the monument? A good-looking man who seems to go unnoticed by the crowds in New York and Chicago and on the train in between, even though his face is on the front page of every newspaper? A beautiful blond woman who shows up just at the right moment to take him in and not only hide him on the train but make love to him? Only a director with Hitchcock's skill and aplomb could take on such a tall tale and make it work, keeping you thoroughly entertained in the process. Of course, he had a good screenplay by Ernest Lehman to work with, along with one of the greatest leading men of all time. He had a leading lady with enough skill to evoke his favorite leading lady, Grace Kelly, without embarrassing herself (as Tippi Hedren came close to doing when she tried). He had Bernard Herrmann's wonderful score, alternately pulse-pounding and romantic, and Robert Burks's cinematography. He had James Mason, Martin Landau, and Jessie Royce Landis as support. I would call it my favorite Hitchcock film, but that's maybe only because I've just seen it, and my ranking will probably change the next time I see Notorious (1946) or Rear Window (1954) again.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Right Stuff (Philip Kaufman, 1983)

With its brightly irreverent tone toward subject matter that typically brought out pious patriotism in Americans, The Right Stuff feels more like a film of the 1970s than of the Reagan '80s, which may be why it was a box-office disappointment. It remains true that some of the parts of the film -- the caricatures of the German scientists, the publicists, the press, and politicians like Lyndon Johnson (Donald Moffat) -- don't fit snugly with the genuine heroism shown by the astronauts and test pilot. But that's because writer-director Philip Kaufman dared to assume a point of view on the material that was fresh and unconventional -- a rarity in American film of the '80s. Some of the tone of the film can be found in its source, Tom Wolfe's book, which was designed as a corrective to the "official story" of the Mercury 7 that was provided by Life magazine. Instead of squeaky clean superbeings devoted to wife and family, the astronauts were just human beings, frequently raunchy, irreverent, and more than a little inclined to step out of marital bounds. The film's great glory is its all-star cast (though few of the actors in it were stars before it was made), with particularly good work coming from Sam Shepard, who received a supporting actor Oscar nomination as Chuck Yeager, the test pilot that the astronauts wanted to be, even as NASA and the scientists wanted them just to be glorified lab rats, plus Scott Glenn as Alan Shepard, Ed Harris as John Glenn, Dennis Quaid as Gordon Cooper, and Fred Ward as Gus Grissom. There is similar strength in the female cast, particularly Barbara Hershey as Glennis Yeager, Veronica Cartwright as Betty Grissom, Pamela Reed as Trudy Cooper, and Mary Jo Deschanel as the publicity-shy Annie Glenn, whose embarrassment at her stammer leads to a wonderfully satisfying standoff against an increasingly irate LBJ -- a man whose whims were seldom ignored. Deschanel's husband, Caleb, is the film's cinematographer. (Yes, they are the parents of Zooey Deschanel.) The movie was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won four: for sound, film editing, sound effects editing, and Bill Conti's score.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Tomorrowland (Brad Bird, 2015)

A critical and commercial flop, Tomorrowland is a little too much a film for kids to satisfy sci-fi geeks, and a little too heavy on the sci-fi to hold the attention of kids. It has a few good things going for it: the presence of George Clooney and Hugh Laurie in its cast, and nice performances from two young actors, Britt Robertson as Casey and Raffey Cassidy as Athena. (It's particularly good to see a sci-fi movie for kids with girls as the protagonists.) Unfortunately, the screenplay by director Bird and Damon Lindelof, with contributions to the story from Jeff Jensen, is dauntingly overcomplicated and more than a little preachy. The premise is that somewhere after the 1964 New York World's Fair, with its glittering images of the future, our culture took a turn toward pessimism. We no longer believe that we can progress toward a more equitable society or that we can solve environmental problems with collective application of science and technology, and this pessimism creates a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. Those of us who were old enough in 1964, after the Kennedy assassination and at the beginning of the Vietnam War, may remember the mood a little more darkly than the film posits. But even granted the premise, it seems unlikely that our contemporary malaise is going to be lightened by launching a cyberpunk spaceship designed by Gustave Eiffel, Jules Verne, Nikola Tesla, and Thomas Edison into another dimension. Keegan-Michael Key has an amusing bit as the proprietor of a sci-fi memorabilia shop who says his name is Hugo Gernsback, an in-joke for science fiction fans. (His partner, played by Kathryn Hahn, is named Ursula. As in Le Guin, perhaps?)  The special effects are elaborately routine CGI stuff.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

It Happened One Night (Frank Capra, 1934)

Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night
This is one of the few Frank Capra movies I can watch without getting annoyed or queasy. It was made before he let his sentimental populism go to his head, so it has just the right amount of social consciousness, especially the sympathy for the victims of the Great Depression. We see that especially in the camaraderie of the bus riders singing "The Man on the Flying Trapeze," the willingness of Peter (Clark Gable) to give his last dollar to help a mother and son who have spent all their money on bus fare and have none left for food, and in the sense of entitlement shown by rich girl Ellie (Claudette Colbert), who learns a lesson when she tries to jump the queue for the showers at the trailer court. Later, Capra would want to preach at us about the power of The People in Meet John Doe (1941) and the way One Man Can Change the World in It's a Wonderful Life (1946), films I can barely watch today. But here he's just content to give us a good-natured romantic comedy with a social subtext. It has all the earmarks of the genre: a meet-cute, a hate-at-first-sight, a falling-in-love, a crisis, and a happy ending -- the paradigmatic runaway bride. It's not especially a laugh-riot, which may be why Gable and Colbert, who didn't want to make the movie to start with, thought when they'd finished it that it would be a bomb. Its charms are quieter but in their way entirely satisfying, in part because whatever their doubts about the movie they were making, the two stars were consummate pros and Capra allowed their natural charm and charisma to shine. All three of them won Oscars, of course, as did the movie and Robert Riskin for his screenplay. Joseph Walker's cinematography deserves a mention, as does a cast that includes Walter Connolly, Roscoe Karns, Alan Hale, and, as the dimwit bus driver whose only response to Peter's insults is a feeble "Oh, yeah," Ward Bond.

Monday, February 15, 2016

House of Flying Daggers (Yimou Zhang, 2004)

From the kaleidoscopic color of the Peony Palace at the beginning of the film through the final duel seen through the scrim of a blizzard, House of Flying Daggers is visually extraordinary, fully deserving of its Academy Award nomination for Xiaoding Zhao's cinematography. It tends, however, to be a collection of brilliant set pieces, including a spectacular battle in a bamboo forest, held together by what could be a conventional love triangle -- if only the stories of the three members of the triangle, Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro), Leo (Andy Lau), and Mei (Zhang Ziyi ), weren't so extraordinarily complicated. In the story by director Zhang Yimou , Feng Li, and Bin Wang, it is 859 C.E., and the police are trying to root out the House of Flying Daggers, a group of Robin Hood-style rebels against the government of the Tang Dynasty. Police captain Leo and his subordinate, Jin, hear that an agent of the Flying Daggers is working incognito at the Peony Palace, a brothel, so they arrest Mei, a blind dancer. But neither Mei nor Leo is exactly who they appear to be, which is unfortunate for Jin, who falls in love with Mei, with fatal consequences. In the end, it's best just to sit back and admire the performances of the three actors, especially Zhang Ziyi , who is truly astonishing in both the action sequences and the dramatic scenes. In addition to Zhao's cinematography, the visual impact of the film depends largely on the work of production designer, Tingxiao Huo, art director Zhong Han, and costume designer Emi Wada. Most of the exterior scenes, with the exception of the bamboo forest, were filmed on location in the Carpathian Mountains of Ukraine.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Of Human Bondage (John Cromwell, 1934)

Somerset Maugham's 1915 autobiographical novel Of Human Bondage is one of those books nobody seems to read anymore. It's not "literary" enough for academia and it's too old-fashioned for today's readers of popular fiction. But it was a big deal when RKO bought the screen rights intending it as a vehicle for Leslie Howard as the protagonist, Philip Carey. It was director John Cromwell who, having just seen Bette Davis in The Cabin in the Cotton (Michael Curtiz, 1932), thought the young Warner Bros. contract player might be right for the role of the cockney waitress Mildred in Of Human Bondage. (The Cabin in the Cotton is the one in which she plays a backwoods seductress who tells Richard Barthelmess's character, "I'd like to kiss you, but I just washed my hair.") Davis, who was unhappy with the way Warners was handling her career, also wanted to play Mildred, and finally wore down Jack Warner's resistance to lending her to RKO. It was the film that made her a star, though she continued to battle with Warners for as long as they held her contract. It is a sensational performance in a not-very-good movie. The infatuation of Philip with Mildred is only a small part of the novel, though it's probably the most interesting, and to emphasize it, screenwriter Lester Cohen had to jettison a great deal of plot and trim some of Philip's other relationships -- notably with the romance novelist Norah (Kay Johnson) and the young Sally Athelny (Frances Dee) -- to the point of incoherence. Nor did he really succeed in making Philip's attraction to Mildred entirely credible, considering that much of the movie deals with her coldness toward him. Howard does what he can, but it's really all Davis's show, and when she's not on screen you feel everything go slack. When Academy Awards time came around, everyone expected her much talked-about performance to land her a nomination for best actress, but she was overlooked. The outcry led the Academy to change its rules for the Oscars, allowing write-ins for the first time, but although Academy records show that Davis came in third, the award went to Claudette Colbert for It Happened One Night (Frank Capra). Next year, Davis would win the first of her two Oscars for Dangerous (Alfred E. Green), a movie that's if anything even weaker than Of Human Bondage, so the award is widely regarded as a kind of consolation prize for the previous year's oversight.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Sunset Blvd. (Billy Wilder, 1950)

Sunset Blvd., with the abbreviation, is the "official" title because it's the only way we see it in the credits of the film: as a shot of the street name stenciled on a curb. So from the beginning we are all in the gutter, and later we are looking at the stars -- or at least one fading star, Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). Accepting the role of Norma was a truly courageous act by Swanson: She must have known that it was the part of a lifetime, but that posterity would remember her as the campy has-been silent star, and not as the actress who had a long and distinguished career, playing both comedy and drama with equal skill, or as the spunky title character of Sadie Thompson (Raoul Walsh, 1928), which earned her her first Oscar nomination. The role of Norma Desmond might have won her an Oscar if it hadn't been for another star whose career was beginning to fade: Bette Davis, who was nominated for All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz). The conventional wisdom has it that Swanson and Davis split the votes, allowing Judy Holliday to win for Born Yesterday (George Cukor). This was also a landmark film for William Holden, who had been an unremarkable leading man until his performance as Joe Gillis established his type: the somewhat cynical, morally compromised protagonist. It would earn him an Oscar three years later for another Wilder film, Stalag 17 (1953), and would be his stock in trade through the rest of his career, in films like Picnic (Joshua Logan, 1955), The Bridge on the River Kwai (David Lean, 1957), The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah, 1969), and Network (Sidney Lumet, 1976). Holden almost didn't get to play Gillis; Montgomery Clift was offered the role but backed out. One story has it that Clift thought the role, of a man out to get the money of a woman he doesn't love, was too much like one he had just played, in The Heiress (William Wyler, 1949), while others have said that he backed out because the story of a man's affair with an older woman would remind people of his own earlier affair with the singer Libby Holman, 16 years his senior. There is in fact an unfortunate whiff of disapproval in Wilder's treatment of the age difference between Norma Desmond and Joe Gillis -- Norma is said to be 50, which was Swanson's age when the film was made, while Holden, who was 32, was made up to look even younger. Wilder, it must be observed, seemed to have no problems when the age difference was reversed, as in his 1954 film Sabrina, in which a 54-year-old Humphrey Bogart romances a 25-year-old Audrey Hepburn, or the 1957 Love in the Afternoon, with 28-year-old Hepburn and 56-year-old Gary Cooper. None of this, however, seriously detracts from the fact that Sunset Blvd. remains one of the great movies, with its its superb black-and-white cinematography by John F. Seitz. It won Oscars for the mordant screenplay by Wilder, Charles Brackett, and D.M. Marshman Jr., the art direction and set decoration of Hans Dreier, John Meehan, Sam Comer, and Ray Moyer, and the score by Franz Waxman. It's also one of the few films to receive nominations in all four acting categories: In addition to Swanson and Holden, Nancy Olson and Erich von Stroheim received supporting player nominations, but none of them won.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Diabolique (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1955)

Diabolique (or Les Diaboliques) was probably one of the first foreign language films I ever saw (although I'm sure I must have seen it in a version dubbed into English, as most U.S. releases were back then). The only thing I retained from it, I'm afraid, is the surprise ending. So I'm glad to say that it holds up after all these years, as any good thriller must even when you know its twists. I am, for the record, not one who is spoiled by "spoilers": I knew the gimmick in The Crying Game (Neil Jordan, 1992) before I saw it, and I like to think I appreciated it more because I could see how it was being set up, and I enjoyed The Sixth Sense (M. Night Shyamalan, 1999) more the second time I watched it. To my mind, any good thriller with a twist has to work independently of that twist, which Diabolique does. What it has going for it especially is Clouzot's superb control of atmosphere: sets (Léon Barsacq), music (Georges Van Parys), cinematography (Armand Thirard), and of course the performances of Véra Clouzot as Christina, Simone Signoret as Nicole, Paul Meurisse as Michel, Charles Vanel as Fichet, and a gallery of mildly grotesque supporting players, all working together to create a thoroughly sordid and unpleasant but also hypnotizing milieu. Even before the murder takes place, I was seriously creeped out by the shabby old school, its rowdy boys and ratty staff, and the sadism displayed by Michel toward his wife and mistress. That said, the story doesn't entirely hold together in any dispassionate post-viewing analysis. Without giving away any of the film's secrets, I spotted numerous loose threads. To name one, why is Christina so insistent on not divorcing Michel when she's perfectly willing to go along with a plot to murder him? We are expected to believe that she's a devout Catholic with religious scruples against divorce, but surely the church is at least as much against murdering your husband as it is against divorcing him. But I'm perfectly happy to ignore the implausible when the movie is as gripping as this one is.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Red River (Howard Hawks, 1948)

Another essential movie. There's a post going the rounds on Facebook that asks you to name the movies you've watched more than five times that you would still watch again. I haven't responded to it because there are too many movies that fit the category for me, but this would certainly be on my list. Each time I watch Red River, I have a little different reaction to it. Sometimes, for example, I'm glad when the character of Tess Millay (Joanne Dru) shows up, because it's kind of a relief from all that male bonding of the cattle drive. But this time I found that she annoyed me. I know she's meant to be the "Hawksian woman" of the movie, the character embodied so well by Jean Arthur in Only Angels Have Wings (1939), Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday (1940), and especially Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946). The Hawksian woman talks back to men, asserting her place in the world they dominate. But Tess Millay just talks, and even talks about how much she talks. Moreover, she's obviously there primarily to serve as a reincarnation of Fen (Colleen Gray), the woman whom Tom Dunson (John Wayne) loved and lost when he left the wagon train at the beginning of the movie. Still, even this bit of unnecessary narrative linkage is forgivable in a movie that offers so much. There is, of course, what I think of as Wayne's best performance as Dunson -- some prefer his work in The Searchers (John Ford, 1956), which I find too artfully staged by Ford. Here he shows he can do everything from Hawks's characteristic swiftly overlapping dialogue to the paranoid trail-boss martinet to the tough guy hiding his tender side. And there's Montgomery Clift's remarkable movie debut as Matthew Garth -- Red River was filmed before The Search (Fred Zinnemann, 1948), though the latter was released first. Clift, who was stage-trained, somehow learned that movie acting is done in large part with the face, and he uses his eyes particularly expressively -- he reminds me of the great silent film actors in that regard. The scene in which Garth and Cherry Valance (John Ireland) handle each other's guns is one of the great homoerotic moments in movies, but it's prepared for by the way Clift and Ireland look at each other when they first meet. And then there's one of the great supporting casts in movies, including Walter Brennan, Noah Beery Jr.,  and a whole lot of cattle. (Hawks, who also produced the film, graciously gave Arthur Rosson, the second unit director in charge of the cattle drive scenes, a co-director credit.) Dimitri Tiomkin's music added immeasurably to the film, but surprisingly went unnominated by the Academy, which took notice only of Christian Nyby for editing and Borden Chase for the film's story. (It was based on his story in the Saturday Evening Post, and was turned into a screenplay by Charles Schnee -- though a lot of the dialogue is so Hawksian that I suspect the director deserved a screenplay credit, too.) Naturally, like most Hawks films, it won no Oscars.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

For a Few Dollars More (Sergio Leone, 1965)

Most of us didn't realize it until much later when he was an Oscar-winning director, but Clint Eastwood was a very smart man. When Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars became a hit in Italy in 1964, he asked Eastwood if he would make a sequel. Eastwood hadn't seen the movie, which hadn't yet been dubbed in English and released in the States, so Leone sent him a print of the Italian version. Even though he didn't speak Italian, Eastwood immediately recognized Leone's skill, and signed up to do the sequel. It was a gutsy move: At the time, making genre films like Westerns and sword-and-sandal epics in Italy and Spain was a job for has-beens and never-weres. Eastwood was on the brink of becoming one of the latter: His career to that point had been mostly in TV, on the long-running series Rawhide, with a few unmemorable movies. But cultivating a persona distinct from that of Rawhide's callow Rowdy Yates, that of the taciturn Man With No Name* of the Leone films, proved to be precisely the right thing to do. By the end of the 1960s, he had become a major star. Narratively, For a Few Dollars More is not quite so tight as the first film -- for one reason because it lacks the well-tested framework of Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo (1961) that was the underpinning of Fistful. Also, setting up a rivalry between Eastwood's character and that of Lee Van Cleef's Col. Douglas Mortimer tends to diffuse the story a bit: As in Fistful, Eastwood's character is beaten to a pulp by the bad guys, but so is Mortimer, and the double mauling feels gratuitous, especially since there's no particular reason why the bad guys shouldn't just kill them. But the sequel shows Leone growing in style and technique, with a fine use of widescreen in establishing shots and a deft use of closeups in establishing the characters, especially the bad guys in the mob headed by El Indio (Gian Maria Volontè, who had also been the chief villain, Ramón Roja, in Fistful). Am I the only one who suspects, from Leone's closeups of the mob's faces, that Leone had been influenced by Carl Theodor Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc (1929)? One standout in the mob is a superbly twitchy Klaus Kinski as a hunchback named Juan. The cinematography is by Massimo Dallamano. And once again, Ennio Morricone's score is integral to the film's success. The spareness of the music, scored only for a few instruments, serves as a contrast to the sweeping orchestral scores for Hollywood Westerns by composers like Dimitri Tiomkin and Max Steiner. Morricone and Leone recognized the need for silence, punctuated only occasionally by a penny-whistle tweedle or a guitar riff, to maintain the film's texture.

*Actually, he has a name in both films: In Fistful he is called "Joe," which is obviously just a generic name for an americano, while in the sequel he is known as Monco, the Italian word for "one-armed," in reference to his tendency to use his left hand while keeping his gun hand under his poncho.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks, 1940)

I can never make a list of the ten best or my ten favorite movies because once I get started I keep remembering the ones that absolutely have to be on the list. But this is the one that always claims a place somewhere, higher or lower. It is maybe the one essential movie, the one without which life would be just a little poorer. The play on which it's based, The Front Page, was no slouch to start with. Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur crafted the single best portrait of what it might have been like -- according to the accounts of others -- to be a newspaper reporter in the first half of the twentieth century, when there was neither television nor the Internet to make one's profession obsolescent. We don't have to believe that it was always like that, but just that occasionally reporters in the big cities had moments like the ones shown in the movie. And then Charles Lederer, with uncredited help from Howard Hawks and Morrie Ryskind, turned it into a romantic screwball comedy by changing the sex of one of the leads, Hildy Johnson, from male to female. And after lots of actresses who would have been just fine in the part (Katharine Hepburn, Carole Lombard, Irene Dunne, Jean Arthur) turned it down, Hawks cast Rosalind Russell in probably her greatest role. Is there a better matched team than Russell's Hildy and Cary Grant's Walter Burns? We can see both why they got divorced and why they could never be separated. And adding Ralph Bellamy as the patsy was a masterstroke, even though it's essentially the same role he had played three years earlier in The Awful Truth (Leo McCarey, 1937): the stuffy guy who loses out to Grant, perhaps because, as Burns observes, "He looks like that guy in the movies, you know ... Ralph Bellamy." The whole thing moves so brilliantly fast that you don't have time to reflect on the film's flaws, which include a racist gag about "pickaninnies" and a deep confusion about whether it's satirizing or valorizing its characters' callous indifference to other human beings -- notably the moment when Hildy sardonically refers to her fellow reporters as "Gentlemen of the press" after their harassment of Mollie Malloy (Helen Mack), but then immediately reverts to get-the-story-at-any-price behavior. What keeps it all skimming swiftly above reality is the astonishing skill of the leads (notice how long some of the takes are to realize how great their timing and command of dialogue was) and a gallery of the great character players of the Hollywood golden era: Gene Lockhart, Roscoe Karns, John Qualen, and especially the hilarious Billy Gilbert as Joe Pettibone: If you can tear your eyes away from him long enough, watch how hard Grant and Russell are working to keep from cracking up at his performance. Oh, hell, stop whatever you're doing and just go watch it.  

Monday, February 8, 2016

A Fistful of Dollars (Sergio Leone, 1964)

Clint Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars
Joe: Clint Eastwood
Marisol: Marianne Koch
Ramón Rojo: Gian Maria Volontè
John Baxter: Wolfgang Lukschy
Esteban Rojo: Sieghardt Rupp
Piripero: Joseph Egger
Don Miguel Benito Rojo: Antonio Prieto

Director: Sergio Leone
Screenplay: Adriano Bolzoni, Victor Andrés Catena, Sergio Leone, Jaime Comas Gil
Cinematography: Massimo Dallamano, Federico G. Larraya
Music: Ennio Morricone

My father was a huge fan of Westerns, which meant that whenever one was on TV -- which in the 1950s and '60s was almost all the time -- the set was tuned to Gunsmoke or Bonanza or Laramie or Rawhide or whatever. And naturally, that meant my adolescent rebellion took its course into a distaste for the genre. Which is why the "spaghetti Western" phenomenon escaped my notice in its heyday. Having had my exposure to Clint Eastwood on Rawhide, I was certainly not going to pay money to see him in a theater. Perhaps if you had told me that A Fistful of Dollars was based on (or stolen from) Yojimbo (Akira Kurosawa, 1961), I might have been curious. But it was not until years later, when people began talking about Sergio Leone as an auteur, that my curiosity about the movie was piqued. By then I had overcome my indifference to Westerns, having learned that they were the essential American Myth, and having admired Stagecoach (John Ford, 1939) and Red River (Howard Hawks, 1948), so I was intrigued enough to check it out. I still think A Fistful of Dollars is a shade on the primitive side, and that Eastwood occasionally shows his discomfort at being directed by a man who doesn't speak English, but it holds up, not only as a precursor of the compelling violence of The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah, 1969) and as a landmark in Eastwood's extraordinary career, but also as a tour de force: a Western filmed in Spain by an Italian with a polyglot cast. Best of all, it established the career of Ennio Morricone as one of the great film composers.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Cavalcade (Frank Lloyd, 1933)

There are lots of forgettable best picture Oscar winners: Who today watches The Great Ziegfeld (Robert Z. Leonard, 1936), The Life of Emile Zola (William Dieterle, 1937), or Gentleman's Agreement (Elia Kazan, 1947)? But Cavalcade may be the most forgettable (and forgotten) of them all. Based on a play by Noël Coward adapted by Reginald Berkeley and Sonya Levien, it's the saga of 33 years in the lives of a wealthy London couple, Robert (Clive Brook) and Jane Marryot (Diana Wynyard). Its portrait of their lives and the lives of their servants may have inspired the popular British TV series Upstairs Downstairs, and through it the even more popular Downton Abbey, both of which cover pretty much the same time period. In Cavalcade, as in the two TV series, the families suffer losses from the sinking of the Titanic and from World War I, and experience the social upheaval of a changing class system. But Cavalcade tries to cram it all into less than two hours, and tends to be more blatantly nostalgic about the passing scene. Unlike the creators of the later TV series, Coward and his adapters didn't have the benefit in 1933 of seeing what effect the events of the first third of the twentieth century would have on Britain and the world. It settles for a bit of prophecy in the form of a montage in which various talking heads rant about disarmament, communism, atheism, Christianity, and other ideologies, including a rather corny scene in a louche night club where same-sex couples seem to be on the verge of making out. (The film is pre-Code, so the strictures against depicting homosexuality haven't kicked in yet, though it's clear that the film -- despite Coward's own sexual orientation -- disapproves of it.) In addition to the best picture Oscar, Cavalcade also won a second Oscar for its director, Frank Lloyd, who had been the first director to be so honored, for The Divine Lady (1929). Wynyard also received a nomination for best actress, losing to a newcomer, Katharine Hepburn in Morning Glory (Lowell Sherman, 1933). Wynyard had a more successful career on stage than in movies. In Cavalcade she tries to register emotion by staring meditatively into the middle distance, which often looks like she has spotted something troubling on the wallpaper. The rest of the cast includes Herbert Mundin and Una O'Connor as the Marryots' servants, and Frank Lawton as Joe Marryot, the younger son, all three of whom would be reunited in a much better movie, David Copperfield (George Cukor, 1935). For the record, some of the films that Cavalcade beat for best picture include 42nd Street (Lloyd Bacon), I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (Mervyn LeRoy), and Little Women (Cukor).

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Avengers: Age of Ultron (Joss Whedon, 2015)

There are two distinct audiences for superhero comic book movies like The Avengers (Joss Whedon, 2012) and this one, its sequel. One audience is just the casual fan of action movies. The other is the hardcore devotees of the comic books on which the movies are based. Pleasing one audience without losing the other is a hard trick to pull off. The hardcore audience knows the backstories of all the characters and is likely to be turned off by any inconsistencies with the source material. But the audience ignorant of the backstories needs some exposition to get them clued in to who these people are and what they're up to. Whedon is probably the person best qualified to deal with the problem, for one thing because he brings his own hardcore devotees along with him: the fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, who trust Whedon to keep them entertained no matter how complicated and absurd the storyline becomes. I don't happen to be steeped in Marvel Comics lore myself, but I've watched every episode of Buffy at least once, so I appreciate Whedon's ability to take me along for an amusing ride. He does this by not taking anything in the Avengers movies terribly seriously. As in Buffy, what you have is a bunch of characters wisecracking through the apocalypse. And fortunately, the producers have enough money to spend not only on special effects but also on a huge cast of likable actors who relish the gags Whedon gives them and have the skill to play it all with the right blend of seriousness and tongue-in-cheek. In the end, the movie seems a little overloaded with stars -- in addition to Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, and Jeremy Renner, there are cameos by Idris Elba, Samuel L. Jackson, and Don Cheadle, as well as the luxury casting of James Spader as the voice of Ultron. Keeping all of them busy squeezes the action sequences into incoherence. That may be why Whedon confessed to feeling exhausted afterward and declined to write and direct the third film scheduled in the series.

Friday, February 5, 2016

The Apartment (Billy Wilder, 1960)

Jack Lemmon was an actor Billy Wilder trusted almost more than any other. Starting with Some Like It Hot (1959), they made seven films together. I think Wilder may have found Lemmon's bright American likableness the perfect antidote to his own Middle-European cynicism. It shows particularly in one fleeting moment in The Apartment, after Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) has attempted suicide with sleeping pills, and after the doctor (Jack Kruschen) who lives next door to C.C. Baxter (Lemmon) has induced vomiting and left her to recuperate in Baxter's bed. (There is an unnecessary sourness in Wilder's repeated use of suicide as a motif in his comedies: Six years earlier he had Audrey Hepburn's character attempt to kill herself in Sabrina.)  As Baxter is dithering around his apartment after the doctor leaves, he pauses for a moment and plugs in the electric blanket that covers Fran. It's a detail that might -- probably usually does -- go unnoticed, except that it strikes the exact right note about Baxter, who can be so wrong about the large things -- namely, allowing executives at the insurance company where he works to use his apartment for their extramarital liaisons -- but so right about the small ones. The Apartment takes place in the era of male dominance but nascent female assertiveness that was so thoroughly mined by Mad Men: It satirizes the arrogance of the male executives by making the subservient Baxter and the exploited Fran the most sympathetic characters. It also doesn't "slut-shame" Fran for having slept with her boss, Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), which would have been unthinkable only a few years earlier, when the Production Code was in full and rigid enforcement. We really are on the cusp of the transition from the prudish 1950s to the permissive 1960s here. This is not to say that The Apartment is any kind of revolutionary film: Its portrayal of women remains on the retrograde side, but the performances of Lemmon and MacLaine make it look smarter than really is.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974)

Where there's money, there's murder, and where the sun shines brightest, the shadows are darkest. That's why film noir was invented in Hollywood, and why California's greatest contribution to American literature may have been the pulp fiction of James M. Cain and the detective novels of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonald. Chinatown, which draws on that tradition, has a kind of valedictory quality about it, harking back to the 1930s roots of noir, although the genre's heyday was the postwar 1940s and paranoia-filled early 1950s. (Curtis Hanson would exploit that latter era in his 1997 film L.A. Confidential.) But it's also very much a film of the 1970s, which is to say that 42 years have passed and Chinatown is showing its age. The revelation that Katherine (Belinda Palmer) is both the daughter and the sister to Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) no longer has the power to shock that it once did, incestuous rape having become a standard trope of even TV drama. Nor does the "dark" ending, which director Roman Polanski insisted on, despite screenwriter Robert Towne's preference for a more conventionally hopeful resolution, seem so revolutionary anymore. It remains a great film, however, thanks to those quintessential '70s stars, Dunaway and Jack Nicholson, in career-defining performances, the superb villainy of John Huston's Noah Cross, and Roman Polanski's deft handling of Towne's intricate screenplay, carefully keeping the film limited to the point of view of Nicholson's Jake Gittes. Production designer Richard Sylbert and costume designer Anthea Sylbert (Richard's sister-in-law), aided by cinematographer John A. Alonzo, are responsible for the stylish evocation of 1930s Los Angeles. The atmospheric score is by Jerry Goldsmith.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Jules and Jim (François Truffaut, 1962)

Catherine (Jeanne Moreau) is insane, and Jules (Oskar Werner) and Jim (Henri Serre) love each other more than either of them loves Catherine. That's obviously a reductive way of looking at the movies' most famous ménage à trois, but it's my takeaway from the most recent viewing of Truffaut's masterpiece. Why is Catherine insane? one should ask. Because she's a free spirit trapped in a woman's body when freedom for women can be glimpsed but not fully achieved. Note how liberated she becomes when she dresses as a man, smoking a stogie (pace Dr. Freud, but sometimes a cigar is more than just a cigar) and providing a light for a strange man outside of a pissoir. And at no time do Jules and Jim find her more sexually desirable, I think. Naturally, she marries Jules, the more repressed of the two, and finds further liberation by cheating on him rather than falling into the socially respectable roles of wife and mother. As for the "bromance" of Jules and Jim, that too skirts societal disapproval: The narrator tells us that their friendship was much talked about. Even separated by a war that puts them on opposing sides, each worries that he may find himself killing the other. But they survive, only to find Catherine testing their friendship. That it survives the test until Catherine kills one of them is the film's deepest irony. And Catherine is never able to find the freedom she seeks, even after death: Her desire to have her ashes scattered to the winds is thwarted by "the regulations," as the narrator (Michel Subor) tells us. It is, of course, one of the great films, made so by Moreau's tremendous performance, by Georges Delerue's score, and by Raoul Coutard's cinematography, but most of all by Truffaut's direction and (with Jean Gruault) endlessly fascinating script. Even Jules and Catherine's daughter, Sabine, is perfectly presented: Sabine Haudepin is one of the least affected, least annoying child performers ever to appear on screen.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Letter (Jean de Limur, 1929)

Her fascinating performance in this version of the Somerset Maugham melodrama might have won Jeanne Eagels an Oscar -- the second one ever given for best actress -- if the Academy hadn't been determined to give it to Mary Pickford, who had been one of its founders. Certainly Eagels outshone Pickford's ridiculously hammy Southern belle in Coquette (Sam Taylor, 1929). Though there were no "official" nominations for the award this year, Academy records show that Eagels had been under consideration -- as well she should have been. Her Leslie Crosbie is edgy, nervous -- a sharp contrast to the grim, icy Leslie that Bette Davis created in the 1940 remake of the story. Only at the end of the film, in a blazing release of the tension she has stored up does Eagels demonstrate the full power of the character, with her celebrated pronouncement, "With all my heart, with all my soul, I still love the man I killed." In sharp contrast to the later film, made under the watchful eye of the Production Code, which insisted that all criminals must receive their due punishment, this version ends with Leslie walking free, though she's hardly in an enviable emotional state. Eagels had been a sensation on Broadway in another Somerset Maugham vehicle, playing Sadie Thompson in Rain in 1922. Her stage career was troubled by her alcoholism and addiction to heroin, but the reception of her performance in The Letter suggested that she could have made a remarkable career in Hollywood. Six months after the film's release, however, she died suddenly; the toxicology report found alcohol, heroin, and chloral hydrate, which she took to help her sleep, in her system. Both versions of The Letter, incidentally, feature Herbert Marshall, though in this one he plays the man Leslie murders, whereas in the 1940 film he is Leslie's husband. But Eagels is pretty much the main reason for the survival of this version. As a very early talkie, it feels almost primitive: There's no music track, and throughout the film there's very little ambient sound. We see the streets of Singapore which, though they're thronged with people, are shown with no crowd noises, and even when we get to the Crosbies' plantation we see men playing on musical instruments from which no sound comes. This was Jean de Limur's first film as a director -- he had worked as an actor and writer in Hollywood. George J. Folsey, the film's cinematographer, later claimed that it had really been directed by the more experienced Monta Bell, the credited producer, who wanted to launch de Limur's directing career. After making one more film, Jealousy (1929), also starring Eagels, de Limur moved to his native France, where he continued his directing career into the 1940s.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Remember the Night (Mitchell Leisen, 1940)

Mitchell Leisen directed two films from screenplays by Preston Sturges. The first, Easy Living (1937), is one of the great screwball comedies, in which fat cat Edward Arnold throws his wife's fur coat out of their penthouse window and it lands on penniless Jean Arthur, who is riding by on the top deck of a double-decker bus. Wackiness ensues. But Sturges was so unhappy with what Leisen did with the other script, for Remember the Night, that he decided to direct his own screenplays for then on, resulting in one of the greatest of writer-director careers. He was, however, so delighted with Barbara Stanwyck's performance in Remember the Night that he created one of his best movies, The Lady Eve (1941), for her. Stanwyck and her co-star, Fred MacMurray, are in fact the best thing about Remember the Night, on which Leisen could never find the right handle. It starts as screwball comedy, with Stanwyck playing Lee Leander, a compulsive shoplifter whose theft of a bracelet lands her in court being prosecuted by assistant district attorney John Sargent (MacMurray). It is just before Christmas, and when the judge rules for a continuance until after the holidays, Sargent good-heartedly arranges for Lee to be released on bail rather than spend the holidays in jail. When defendant and prosecutor find that they are both from Indiana, he decides to give her a lift home. Naturally, they fall in love, and not so naturally, the movie falls to pieces. It devolves into a sentimental nostalgia piece, with a few good lines and some nice performances, particularly by Beulah Bondi as Sargent's mother, Elizabeth Patterson as his maiden aunt, and Sterling Holloway as his simple-minded cousin. But the problem is that they have to return to New York and she has to face him as prosecutor, not as fiancé. The Indiana scenes are preposterous: Sargent's family lives on a farm near a small town that seems untouched by the 20th century, a place without electricity where the chief amusements are taffy pulls and barn dances. It's possible that Sturges could have resolved all of this better than Leisen does, but the material needs a consistent touch that the director is unable to provide.