Tuesday, December 25, 2018

The Bishop's Wife (1947)

Director: Henry Koster                                      Writers: Robert Sherwood & Leonardo Bercovici
Film Score: Hugo Friedhofer                            Cinematography: Gregg Toland
Starring: Cary Grant, Loretta Young, David Niven, Elsa Lanchester and James Gleason

Though Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life failed to draw post-war moviegoers to the theatre in numbers great enough to make a profit, producer Samuel Goldwyn nevertheless decided to create his own holiday supernatural classic the following year—though he was actually inspired by the success of MGM’s The Bells of St. Mary's which, incidentally, was playing at the Bijou Theater in Capra’s film. And while The Bishop’s Wife is a far lesser film, to be sure, it does have some endearing moments. The story comes from the 1928 novel of the same title by Robert Nathan. Goldwyn originally brought in William A. Seiter to direct. Seiter was a journeyman director but had done no major films, and his absence of directorial flair eventually caused Goldwyn to scrap what he had done and begin over with Henry Koster who, while his best films were still ahead of him, was simply a much better director. The actors Goldwyn originally hired also changed, as David Niven had originally been cast as the angel, while Dana Andrews was set to be the bishop and Teresa Wright his wife. But when Wright became pregnant she had to bow out, and then Andrews left shortly after when Goldwyn was forced to lend him to RKO in order to get Loretta Young. Finally, the producer brought in Cary Grant to play the bishop, but when he was unhappy with the script he decided to play the angel and Niven was moved over to that part. Though it could have worked the other way, this was definitely the right choice as it is firmly Grant’s picture and he is charming throughout.

The film begins at night up above the city, with the lights below reminiscent of the stars that open Capra’s film. Once on the streets a group of young carolers singing “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” is observed by Cary Grant, who smiles wryly and then moves on down the street. Grant is set apart from the rest of the men on the sidewalks because he isn’t wearing a hat. He helps a blind man across the street, fearless as cars screech to a halt in front of them while they walk together. He enjoys the delight on the faces of the children looking through the store windows, and then saves a baby carriage from rolling into the busy street. It’s clear from the opening that Grant is not a normal person. Then he spies Loretta Young, looking longingly at a hat in the window of a dress shop—shades of Mrs. Miniver. While purchasing a Christmas tree, Young meets Monty Wolley as the atheistic college professor who buys a tree every year because it reminds him of his childhood. It comes out in conversation that her husband, David Niven, is a bishop who is under a lot of stress trying to raise money to build a new cathedral—and neglecting Young in the process. The plot revolves around Niven’s obsession with his new church, having abandoned his old neighborhood parish and curried favor with his richest parishioners in order to get his cathedral built. It has caused a rift in his marriage and home life, but he doesn’t seem to care.

Grant’s role as the angel is to be the answer to Niven’s prayers. His biggest donor will only agree to give him the money if he builds the church as a temple to her late husband, and he calls on God for help. Grant tells Niven who he is, and what his mission is, but won’t let him tell Young or anyone else. What Grant decides to do is essentially distract Young by paying her all the attention to her that her husband should, which keeps her from taking out her displeasure on Niven, and at the same time making Niven jealous. The story itself is rather predictable, and at times quite pedestrian, especially where religion is concerned. In fact, many moviegoers stayed away from the film because they thought it would be just about religion, causing Goldwyn to change the name of the film to Cary and the Bishop’s Wife at some theaters. In truth, the very religious nature of the film is off-putting at times, but since it is such an obvious part of the story it’s to be expected, and the whole picture has a heart-warming quality in spite of it. The one exception is the character of the professor, who by the end of the film has been turned away from his atheism and is apparently prepared to embrace his lost religion. It’s a bit underhanded in its assumption of the rightness of religion, but other than that there’s little to complain about. The film was remade in 1996 by Penny Marshall and called The Preacher’s Wife, starring Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston.

One of the fascinating aspects of the film is how much it draws on previous supernatural films, especially in the casting. First of these is Monty Wolley, the professor, who with his clipped white beard actually looks a bit like Edmund Gwen from Miracle on 34th Street. Next is the maid, Elsa Lanchester, who played Mary Shelley in Bride of Frankenstein as well as the “Bride” herself. Then there is cab driver James Gleason, who is probably best known for his iconic performance in the supernatural comedy Here Comes Mr. Jordan. But the most blatant attempts to capitalize on It’s A Wonderful Life are the couple’s daughter Debby, played by Karolyn Grimes who was also Zuzu Baily in that film, and the appearance of Robert J. Anderson, who was literally unforgettable as the young George Baily in Capra’s film. Not only was Grant unhappy with the screenplay, but Goldwyn was as well, and brought in Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett to do an uncredited rewrite over the weekend before Henry Koster began filming his version. Ultimately, in spite of the turmoil, the film was a success both financially and artistically, though while it was nominated for several Academy Awards, like Wonderful Life, it only took home one technical award. Though The Bishop’s Wife is not great cinema, it is a charming film that deserves a viewing every Christmas season along with Capra’s masterpiece.

Friday, December 21, 2018

Sex Weather (2018)

Director: Jon Garcia                                          Writer: Jon Garcia
Film Score: Mike Sempert                                Cinematography: Jon Garcia
Starring: Al’Jaleel McGhee, Amber Stonebraker, Alan Burrell & Marty Bannon Beaudet

Jon Garcia is back. Not that he ever stopped making films, but his latest project, Sex Weather, finds Garcia embracing the vital element at the core of all of his films to the exclusion of everything else: the love between people. When that is combined with the confidence of a filmmaker who is fearless in putting on the screen a vision that refuses to be compromised by the cinematic fashions of the day, truly amazing things are able to happen. In his first film, Tandem Hearts, Garcia has a scene that takes place in a bar between a male and female couple and a pair of musicians. He sets up the scene with an establishing shot of the bar, but spends the rest of the scene cutting between faces. Because of that the emphasis of the scene moves away from the setting to focus exclusively on the characters. In Sex Weather he has taken that same idea and made it the focal point for an entire film. While the premise of the film seems far from original, a typical one-night-stand, morning-after love story, Garcia manages to avoid all of the clichés and defies expectations at nearly every turn to create a unique cinematic experience that, while familiar in context, is anything but predictable.

The opening credits begin on an establishing shot at dawn of the Freemont Bridge in Portland, Oregon. It first appears to have been done with a crane, but as the camera continues rising it soon it becomes apparent that this is a drone shot—the sort of thing that used to be done with a helicopter, and something Garcia experimented with in his previous film, The Falls: Covenant of Grace, but is used to a much more purposeful effect here. Finally the credits end on the feet of Al’Jaleel McGhee and Amber Stonebraker as they poke out from beneath the sheets of the bed in her apartment. The first of Garcia’s unpredictable moments comes when Stonebraker gets out of bed to make a secretive phone call in the bathroom—preceded by a shot of her and another man in a photo, and ending with a painful declaration of “I love you” before she hangs up and hangs her head. This is typically something most films would reveal later in the story, and while there is more to it here than first meets the eye, there’s also a sense that Garcia has no interest in those kinds of cinematic tropes. Which doesn’t mean it’s not important to the story. Garcia’s mastery of the cinematic art form is such that it often doesn’t reveal itself until a film is over—and sometimes not until after a second viewing. His films are much more like novels in that respect. The reality is the phone call is incredibly important. In fact, it’s the center around which the entire film revolves . . . it’s just not important yet, and it’s that kind of patience that is the hallmark of Garcia’s best work.

When Stonebraker returns to bed McGhee wakes up and heads to the bathroom himself. Afterward he looks around the apartment, at her latest script and her awards for acting, and then they have the inevitable awkward confrontation. One of the expectations for a comedy or drama like this one is the predictable conflict between two people who have had sex but don’t really know each other. In most of these stories it is the centerpiece of the film, but Garcia is happy to get it out of the way early and get on to what really matters. McGhee can’t find his phone, and has Stonebraker call the Lyft driver to see if he left it in the car. Then, with time on their hands while they wait for the driver to return her text . . . they start talking. And the thing that becomes apparent almost immediately is the quality of that talking. Al’Jaleel “A.J.” McGhee is a phenomenal actor, and his co-star, Amber Stonebraker, is nearly his equal. Because of that it’s powerfully clear from the outset that this is no indie production populated by local dinner theater actors. Rather than characters, McGhee and Stonebreaker actually become people. They are alternately funny and serious, concerned and dismissive, naked and partially clothed, and beneath it all emerges the conviction that their sexual encounter the night before was no accident. Their compassion for each other—rather than passion—becomes far more important than their differences.

The dialogue ebbs and flows quite naturally, and both actors are visually compelling on the screen. But because the screenplay is so highly autobiographical, it is McGhee who is the most startlingly original in his characterization. When Stonebraker expresses disappointment at the quality of McGhee’s lovemaking she says she thought it would be different because of their history together—McGhee is an independent filmmaker and she had worked on one of his films, then they reconnected at the premier of his most recent picture the night before. When she says she had certain expectations about him, he immediately fires back about her, “Well, so did I.” Even more endearing is when he says the same thing after Stonebraker chides him for not trying hard enough with his previous girlfriend—“You know, women like to be pursued”—and he responds with, “Well, so do I, right?” It shakes viewers from their complacency and puts them in the position of Stonebreaker, seeing McGhee as an individual rather than a composite of all the negative expectations women have of men. Eventually the two come up with rules for the bed, one being that they can’t leave the bed all day. Their self-imposed isolation in the apartment and on the bed is beautifully symbolized by the frequent juxtaposition of the drone shots that float effortlessly over the rooftops of the neighborhood, a different kind of isolation but one that matches their separation from the rest of the world.

One of the major challenges of making a film this intimate, shooting on a set that barely ventures out beyond the confines of a queen-size mattress, is how to make it interesting visually. Shot selection and editing, in that regard, are crucial in order to keep the audience from feeling as if they are seeing the same shots over and over again. To that end editor Zach Carter is to be commended. A long-time collaborator of Garcia’s he has taken Garcia’s wide array of camera angles and woven them together in a way that feels fresh and yet never loses sight of the fact that the actors are at the center of the story. As a cinematographer Garcia indulges more than ever his penchant for pulling focus, but it really works in this context. It’s the same effect one experiences in bed with a lover, so close to the other person’s face that it’s impossible to focus. The subdued film score by Mike Sempert is also supportive in the way he reflects the nature of the visuals, but little more. Garcia has scored large chunks of his previous films and, though it seems just one more responsibility to ask from an artist who already takes on nearly every task in his projects, one has the profound desire to see the director at some point make the commitment to score an entire film with his own music.

It’s difficult to resist giving the ending away, because that is the most remarkable part of Garcia’s story. It’s not until the very end of the film that everything finally makes sense, and Garcia’s purpose suddenly washes over the viewer to reveal the true nature of what this experience together has meant for these two people. Garcia’s film isn’t perfect, but that isn’t the point, any more than it is to expect people to be perfect. But in spite of people’s flaws, everyone carries around isolated perfections within them. In fact, it is ultimately those perfections that we see when we fall in love and, ironically, what we initially perceived of as flaws can become some of the most endearing qualities of the person we fall in love with. Garcia’s latest is just that kind of film. There is something about it that resonates deep inside, and so we find ourselves compelled to take it home with us. But don’t be too quick to kick it out of bed the next morning and send it on its way. It has much more to tell than might first meet the eye. It has much more to teach if we just give it the chance. Only by opening up and allowing ourselves to be vulnerable will we reap the benefits to be had by this chance encounter. Sex Weather is a film you could love.