Friday, June 28, 2013

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

Director: Philip Kaufman                               Writer: W.D. Ritcher
Film Score: Denny Zeitlin                              Cinematography: Michael Chapman
Starring: Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Jeff Goldblum and Veronica Cartwright

This is a very, very, seventies film, but in a good way. Or maybe since I grew up in the seventies I just resonate more with these films, especially the ones I saw at the time. The Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a remake of the original, but with less of a Communist scare undercurrent and more of a science-fiction slant. This includes special effects that are still pretty effective, something the earlier film didn’t really try for. The other big change to the plot is that instead of the invasion being confined to the isolation of a small California town, it’s a big city that’s being taken over, San Francisco. Once the overwhelming fact of the invasion becomes clear, it makes the scare even more real because there’s no way to control it.

In the original story there are pods from outer space that wind up transforming people into clones, and their only purpose is to change everyone else on earth. In the updated version it is an unusual flowering plant that begins the transformation, creating pods that replicate the humans. After the person is fully transformed into the copy the original body is somehow turned to ash. The wonderful Brooke Adams, who would be so effective in The Dead Zone a few years later, is the key figure who realizes her boyfriend has changed somehow. But getting people to believe it is incredibly difficult. Her closest friend, a work colleague, is Donald Sutherland with incongruously curly hair. Like the original, by the time Sutherland and Adams figure out what’s going on, it’s too late.

The film has a terrific supporting cast. Jeff Goldblum plays an over the top writer who has an opinion about everything. His wife is played by Veronica Cartwright who would be so memorable in Alien. Leonard Nemoy plays a well-meaning psychiatrist who thinks it’s all in people’s heads but leads them terribly astray because of it. There’s also a fantastic cameo by Kevin McCarthy, who was the star of the original film, reprising his role and attempting to warn people of the takeover. In the tradition of great seventies thrillers like The Reincarnation of Peter Proud and The Stepford Wives, the paranoia in this film is palpable. Director Philip Kaufman, who would have more success as a writer than a director, does a masterful job of ratcheting up the tension and making Invasion of the Body Snatchers one of the all time great scare films.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Another Dawn (1937)

Director: William Dieterle                               Writer: Laird Doyle
Film Score: Erich Wolfgang Korngold             Cinematography: Tony Gaudio
Starring: Errol Flynn, Kay Francis, Ian Hunter and Frieda Inescort

Something strange is going on here, an Errol Flynn movie with not enough Flynn in it as he’s barely in the first twenty minutes. But that soon rectifies itself. Another Dawn begins in the Middle East after World War I when the British are a dominant presence in the area. At one of their military outposts Flynn is a captain who has been left in command while the colonel, Ian Hunter, goes back to England on leave. Frieda Inescort, who also happens to be Flynn’s sister, is clearly in love with him, but while he’s away Hunter falls in love with the mysterious and sad American, Kay Francis, who has lost the love of her life when he was testing airplanes and can’t get over him. Nevertheless, she marries Hunter and goes with him back to his post in an attempt to try and forget the past.

Among the early Flynn films, this one has not fared so well, perhaps because the love story seems doomed from the start, not destined for consummation. The kind of tension that usually comes between Flynn and his leading lady is not typically another man. Based on a story by Somerset Maugham, it has the sort of British reserve and duty-at-all-cost sort of spirit that might play well in England, but seems a touch too quaint for American audiences. Of course, one of the best things about the film is the score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold. It’s a curious score for Korngold for a couple of reasons. The love theme, from the cue called “The Kiss,” he would use later in a concert piece, but the most unusual aspect is how another melodic element in the cue called “The Cable” seems to have been copied by Max Steiner for his main theme in A Summer Place. In the end, it’s a memorable score, far more than his score for Devotion.

Warner Brothers had some good stock comedic talent in this British romance. As Hunter’s personal assistant is the great Herbert Mundin, who would appear with Flynn in most of his greatest films. Billy Bevan is also on hand as one of the soldiers. Flynn is his usual dashing self and the film is definitely recommended for fans of his. Kay Francis, however, presents a much more worldly and sophisticated love interest for him than when he plays opposite Olivia de Havalland, and it’s a revelation. She's a great actress that deserves a much wider recognition. In his later films, when they didn’t have de Havalland, Warners would use female leads who were equally as dewy-eyed. Not that I dislike de Havalland at all. She’s wonderful, too. This film, however, shows Flynn more restrained, and thus more intense and mature in his love, which is great to watch. In a lot of ways, this film is much more successful than the more popular and similarly themed Charge of the Light Brigade.

I think I like Flynn’s thirties films, plus The Sea Hawk, better than most of what came after. The film is out of print at the moment, though it appears occasionally on Turner Classic Movies. While I had read several negative reviews, I had never seen it myself. Another Dawn, however, is a very satisfying experience for all the reasons listed above, and I hope Warners makes plans to release it on DVD soon, perhaps along with some other early Flynn that has yet to make it to disc.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Usual Suspects (1995)

Director: Bryan Singer                                   Writer: Christopher McQuarrie
Film Score: John Ottman                               Cinematography: Newton Thomas Sigel
Starring: Gabriel Byrne, Kevin Spacey, Kevin Pollak and Benicio Del Toro

I like Kevin Spacey. I have a lot of his films and I enjoy his performances in most of them. But I don’t think he’s a very good actor. What I mean to say is, he seems like the kind of a guy who can be an absolute jerk in real life, and when he plays those kinds of characters I find him very convincing. But when he attempts to play vulnerable, sniveling, or crippled, I don’t believe it for a second. Buddy Ackerman in Swimming with the Sharks? Oh, yeah, that’s Kevin Spacey. But Quoyle in The Shipping News, or Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects? Not for a second; he’s totally phony. The first time I watched this film it bothered me the whole way through.

I’m also not a big fan of L.A. drug bust stories. Tequila Sunrise, anyone? The plot is full of complications and unbelievable situations. In the first place, five big-time thieves are simply arrested in New York and then thrown into the same jail cell where they can talk together. Really? And of course they get together for a big score in L.A. But, surprise, surprise, once in La-La Land they find the whole thing’s been engineered by the master criminal, and angel of death, Keyser Söze. Evidently all of them had unknowingly robbed shipments that were operations he was running. Now, to pay him back, they need to destroy one of his competitors in the drug smuggling business in Southern California.

It sounds straightforward enough, but the story is told in bits and pieces by Spacey, the only survivor of the melee. The narrative of the caper is intertwined with the DEA and the New York police and a bunch of other people who want information about the heist, lawyers, district attorneys, FBI, you name it. It’s convoluted, but needlessly so. And yet, the Academy decided to award the best screenplay to Christopher McQuarrie for the film. The most disappointing thing about the script is that it’s not a legitimate caper film because of the cheat ending. The confession that Spacey gives is a lie. So the fact that the real story turns out to be different isn’t really clever . . . it’s just a lie.

I’m almost convinced that if Kevin Spacey had not been given the ending of the film in his script that he would have been more convincing. But, of course, he obviously didn’t need to be as he earned an Oscar for his performance as well. I know it doesn’t make much sense but, for all that, I don’t think it’s a bad film. It’s just a film that didn’t grab me. It had some good performances, Billy Baldwin aside, and I know a lot of people found the story compelling. The Academy certainly did. For me, however, I can only give The Usual Suspects that most damning of descriptions: overrated.

Indigènes (2006)

Director: Rachid Bouchareb                            Writers: Rachid Bouchareb & Olivier Lorelle
Film Score: Armand Amar                              Cinematography: Patrick Blossier
Starring: Jamel Debbouze, Samy Naceri, Roschdy Zem and Sami Bouajila

Is there any place without racism? I read a lot of jazz history and it’s fascinating the way so many great black jazz musicians in the forties and fifties moved to Europe, especially France, to escape the racism that they encountered here in the States. Yet France is far from free of racism. Indigènes (Days of Glory) is like a French version of A Soldier’s Story, but this time it is French North Africans who suffer discrimination at the hands of the very people they are fighting and dying for. For the Muslims the motivation is the same as blacks soldiers from the States: perhaps if they show their valor, their bravery, their humanity, the French will begin to treat them as equals.

What’s interesting about this compared with other, similar World War II films is that the war is already half over by the time the North Africans are called to duty. The first place they fight is in Italy. Not knowing what to expect, many of them are scared and hide during the shooting, but eventually they capture their objective. Next, however, the scene shifts to France, after the Germans have been driven out. The Muslims participate in the liberating of French towns, much to the delight of the women there. One of them brings Roschdy Zem to her room for the night and he falls in love. But the conflict is not just with the French. Zem taunts Jamel Debbouze for being a personal servant to the sergeant of the company and Debbouze puts a knife to his throat and threatens to kill him. Before they see heavy action in the Battle of the Bulge, however, they pulled out of action to go on leave.

Jamel Debbouze was co-producer on the film and was one of the prime movers in getting the story to the screen. A son of Moroccan immigrants himself, the story held a personal meaning for him because his great-grandfather had fought in the war, and he won the best actor award at the Canne Film Festival that year. Though Debbouze lost the use of his right arm in a train accident before his career began, he goes right on acting, everyone cheerfully ignoring his hand stuffed into his coat pocket. This was his next project after his brilliant appearance in Angel-A for Luc Besson and was followed by a sequel, Outside the Law, four years later. All the principals do an exceptional job, though, bringing a lot of emotion to the screen, and the film was nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign language film.

The English title of the film is puzzling and I don’t like it. The French title means “indigenous” but uses it as a noun instead of an adjective, and what I take from that is the story of people who are from countries that were French colonies and while seemingly having a divided allegiance are nevertheless patriots for their mother country in spite of the difference in religion. The English title, Days of Glory, is not only ridiculous, but borders on offensive, entirely missing the internal and external conflicts inherent in the story of these soldiers. The ending is incredibly intimate and intensely moving precisely because of those conflicts. While a small film, as modern war epics go, Indigènes is decidedly one of the best and can hold its own against any of its Hollywood brethren.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

A Free Soul (1931)

Director: Clarence Brown                                Writer: Becky Gardiner
Music: William Axt                                         Cinematography: William H. Daniels
Starring: Norma Shearer, Clark Gable, Lionel Barrymore and Leslie Howard

A Free Soul begins as a fairly pedestrian outing for Clarence Brown at MGM, but it does have some big stars and that is enough to hold interest. But what starts as a banal courtroom and family drama, eventually turns into something of a gangster picture. Norma Shearer is a free spirited daughter of a mob attorney, Lionel Barrymore. They’re from a rich family who looks down on Barrymore’s profession and Shearer’s lifestyle. Clark Gable is a mob boss who Barrymore gets acquitted for murder, and though Shearer is engaged to Leslie Howard--one of the top dozen polo players in the world--he’s just as upper-crust and boring as her family, and she finds being Gable’s gangster moll much more fun.

All the pre-code elements are there. Barrymore is a lush, evidently to numb his conscience, Gable is in the middle of shoot-outs and murders and runs a gambling speakeasy, and Shearer parades around in clingy silk dresses and loves to have sex but refuses to get married to do it. Barrymore, however, makes a clear distinction between work and socializing. While he’ll represent Gable, he doesn’t want Shearer anywhere near him. So she makes him a deal: if he’ll give up drinking, she’ll give up Gable. At first Barrymore agrees, but eventually he wants to make a distinction between their two situations as well, in order to serve his own addiction.

The direction by Brown is, for the most part, static. He likes to set up his camera in a two-shot and then let it roll. There are some very nice, if incongruous, outdoor nature shots when father and daughter go away to dry out. But there’s one scene that is definitely amusing for modern audiences. When Gable is on trial for murder the prosecution believes he is guilty because they found his hat by the body. Barrymore tells the jury that just because the initials in the hat are Gable’s doesn’t mean it isn’t someone else’s. When he has Gable come up in front of the jury box and puts the hat on his head it’s so small everyone in the courtroom breaks out laughing. For those of us who remember, it certainly brings to mind the O.J. Simpson trial and the glove that “wouldn’t fit.”

Gable plays his usual early-thirties tough guy, in fact, the usual character he would perfect over his entire career. Shearer is fascinating. She still has some of the stylized acting of the silent era, especially when she poses while talking with her hand on her hip. When the camera is close in on her, she has a nice dramatic style. Leslie Howard plays the upper-crust sap who winds up being the ineffectual love interest, but shows he’s more than that in the end, and along as Barrymore’s sidekick is the great James Gleason providing a bit of comedy relief. A Free Soul is a pretty standard story, told in a standard way. The pre-code elements are what raise it up to something more interesting, and ultimately it is that.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Appaloosa (2008)

Director: Ed Harris                                        Writer: Robert Knott & Ed Harris
Film Score: Jeff Beal                                    Cinematography: Dean Semler
Starring: Ed Harris, Viggo Mortensen, Renée Zellweger and Jeremy Irons

A few days ago I made some disparaging remarks about modern westerns, to the effect that there have been mighty few good ones in the last twenty years. I still hold to that, but Appaloosa is a real discovery, one that I hadn’t heard of and was delighted to learn how entertaining it is. This is Ed Harris’s second attempt at directing, after his portrayal of Jackson Pollock in his biopic Pollock. He does a terrific job here, not only with his direction but with his contribution to the script. Based on the 2005 western by mystery novelist Robert B. Parker, the film is intelligent, humorous, and though the premise is fairly clichéd, there’s still a lot of suspense to it.

When the marshal of the town of Appaloosa is killed outright by Jeremy Irons, the town fathers hire Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen as lawmen who agree to protect the town as long as they make the laws. Meanwhile, Renée Zellweger comes into town as a widow and she falls for Harris, attempting to turn him into a family man. When one of the hands who witnessed the murder decides to testify against Irons, Harris arrests him and keeps him in jail until the trial. Just before the trial, two gunmen that Harris knows ride into town, coy about what they’re doing there but obviously in the pay of Irons. When Irons is convicted and being taken by train to be hanged, the two gunmen show up at a watering stop with Zellweger, threatening to kill her if they don’t get Irons. Of course Harris give up Irons, and then begins the hunt for both Irons and Zellweger.

Harris’s character is quite enjoyable. He’s the fastest gunman around, he likes to read Emerson, and prides himself on his extensive vocabulary. And when he doesn’t know what a word means, Mortensen is there to help him. The two had worked together in David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence and Harris offered him the part of his deputy and apprentice. Cinematographer Dean Semler was a great addition to the crew. The Australian cameraman had filmed and handful of westerns including Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves. The film score by Jeff Beal is not very memorable, but he had done the score for Pollack and so Harris hired him again.

I have to say, this was a very pleasant surprise. Harris as well, knew what he was up against in going into the making of this film. “You can count on one hand, or maybe half a hand, the number of Westerns that were box office successes in the recent past,” he told Entertainment Weekly. Unfortunately the film received mixed reviews and doesn’t really have the high-intensity action sequences of something like 3:10 to Yuma or Open Range that would make it more popular with a younger audience. Appaloosa is a thinking person’s western, which means it’s very, very good. But with a modern audience who doesn’t want to think and is only interested in visceral experience, it was never destined to have the box-office draw to match its artistic success.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Long Night (1947)

Director: Anatole Litvak                                  Writer: Jacques Viot & John Wexley
Film Score: Dimitri Tiomkin                              Cinematography: Sol Polito
Starring: Henry Fonda, Barbara Bel Geddes, Vincent Price and Ann Dvorak

Henry Fonda makes an unlikely noir protagonist, even taking into account his role in The Grapes of Wrath, but he makes it work here. The Long Night begins with the shooting of Vincent Price. After Price falls down the stairs, dead, the police come looking for his killer: returning World War II veteran Fonda who won’t let them into his room and won’t surrender. The story has an odd construction, even for a noir film. While Fonda is trapped in his room on the third floor of an apartment building, he thinks back over the last month in flashback, sometimes one inside of another. Instead of a confession or a letter, the usual noir conventions, he simply remembers to himself during the long night.

Fonda falls in love with a local girl, Barbara Bel Geddes, and wants to marry her. But she has some secret she’s hiding, and one night he follows her to a seedy nightspot where she’s watching a magic show performed by Vincent Price. Ann Dvorak has just quit his show and strikes up a friendship with Fonda. Later, Price tells Fonda that Bel Geddes is his daughter. When Fonda asks her, however, she says it’s not true, that Price has been pursuing her and wants to marry her as well. Price, with his Bride of Frankenstein whitewalled hair, looks positively strange. What’s even stranger is that Bel Geddes is actually considering his proposal seriously. But she does offer to stop seeing him when Fonda bares his heart, and so it would seem that’s all there would be to it. But there’s more . . .

The film is a remake of the French classic Le Jour se Lève, starring Jean Gabin and Arletty, but the American version comes off a little strange, almost not really a noir at all, especially considering the happy ending. Still, Anatole Litvak does a workman-like job. No really interesting camera angles, but that’s probably because he was copying the French version more than attempting to reimagine it. Behind the camera is Sol Polito who had a long and distinguished career as a cinematographer. As far as the production design, Frenchman Eugène Lourié does a nice job emulating the original, and with the bigger budget and access to more resources it looks darker and richer as well.

Fonda, as the wronged veteran, is actually just right for the part. As bullets are whizzing through his room he doesn’t even flinch. He’s seen worse. He just sits in his bed smoking cigarettes and remembering how he got there. I was not too hopeful about Bel Geddes going in, but she winds up doing a great job. Price looks as if he’s gearing up for his career in horror films and even in the context of the film it seems a little over the top. There are also some nice character parts. Elisha Cook, Jr. has a small turn as a blind man, and Davis Roberts and the great Ellen Corby have bit parts in the crowd scenes. It’s not a great film, though it might have been had they kept the original ending, but The Long Night has some good performances and makes for an interesting viewing.

Juno (2007)

Director: Jason Reitman                                 Writer: Diablo Cody
Film Score: Mateo Messina                            Cinematography: Eric Steelberg
Starring: Ellen Page, Michael Cera, Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman

On the cover of the DVD for this film is a blurb by Roger Ebert saying that this was the best film of the year. Sorry, Rog, but I don’t think so. In a year that saw films like Michael Clayton, No Country for Old Men, Charlie Wilson’s War, and even comedies like Ocean’s Thirteen and Music and Lyrics, I wouldn’t even put it in the top ten. Juno is a mildly amusing comedy that seems more like a TV show than a movie. In fact other than the pregnancy, which is a finite event, the characters seem tailor made for a network sit-com. It even has its own running—literally--gag, high school runners going through the neighborhood or past the school every fifteen minutes in the film.

Ellen Page plays a sixteen-year-old girl who gets pregnant when she sleeps with her best friend at school, Michael Cera. She agonizes for a few days, initially deciding to get an abortion, but something about the clinic turns her off and she can’t go through with it. Eventually she comes clean with her dad, J.K. Simmons, and step-mom, Allison Janney, because she needs to give the baby up for adoption. Looking through the Penny Saver she comes across an ad from Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman, the perfect suburban couple to raise the child. She even begins to bond with Bateman over music and films and knows she’s made the perfect choice . . . until he drops a bombshell that sends her into an emotional tailspin.

Diablo Cody won an Oscar for her screenplay, but I think history has shown that she probably wasn’t the best choice. Tony Gilroy, who wrote Michael Clayton has had continuing success in films while Cody, on the other hand, has written a couple of dismal screenplays and a TV series since. There are some funny lines, but overall the script is kind of predictable and gives the impression that we’ve seen all this before. Once the shock of seeing the tiny Page with her huge belly wears off, there’s little left to be amusing. At the same time, director Jason Reitman hasn’t really done anything since that approaches the popularity of Juno, and so I’m not sure what else to say. Oh, I hated the soundtrack, too. The whole thing is like watching a good TV movie: it has some laughs but is ultimately forgettable.

It (1927)

Director: Clarence G. Badger                           Writers: Hope Loring & Louis D. Lighton
Film Score: Carl Davis (1991)                          Cinematography: H. Kinley Martin
Starring: Clara Bow, Antonio Moreno, William Austin and Priscilla Bonner

Clara Bow’s most well-known film, though not so much for the content as for the cultural sensation it created, "It" began as a novel by Elinor Glyn and was rushed into production the same year to capitalize on its popularity. The film, however, is wonderful, which is probably why it created such a sensation in the first place. And like the reality shows of today, Glyn makes an appearance as herself in order to tell the main character what "it" actually is. Bow plays a shopgirl in the largest department store in town. The owner’s son, Antonio Moreno, is in charge while daddy’s gone and his best friend, William Austin, happens to read a magazine in the office with a serialization of Glyn’s novel It.

Austin becomes enthralled with the idea of this innate attraction that the opposite sex would have for someone with “it.” He checks out all the shopgirls in the store and decides that Bow is the one. He becomes enamored of her at the same time that she’s trying to get the attention of Moreno. So when Austin asks her out to dinner, she agrees, as long as he takes her to the fanciest restaurant in town. And who should be eating there too but Moreno, along with his de facto fiancé, Jacqueline Gadsen. This time he definitely notices her and at the store the next day he asks her out. They go to a carnival at the beach, and have a tremendous amount of fun. But when the women from the social welfare attempt to take away the baby of her roommate, Bow steps in and tells them it’s hers, little knowing the consequences it will have on her burgeoning relationship with Moreno.

The story is not very original. In fact, it’s pretty standard stuff for any romantic comedy. But Bow is just plain fun, and the film is incredibly enjoyable because of her. Though she would go on to do more serious work later, including the Academy Award winning Wings, but she wasn’t able to make the transition into sound, probably because the studios were ushering in stars of a more exotic nature, like Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo rather than her girl next door vivaciousness. She had trouble in her first talkie, was trying to get more compensation for the low wages she received during her career, and was in several legal battles at the time and career lost all of its momentum. Her silent film work remains, however, and it is wonderful.

Silent films are simply amazing. But you really have to understand that they are a very different art form than sound films. Sure, they’re all films, but you have not only the time period to consider, but acting styles, directing styles, and a host of other aspects of film that are subtly and not so subtly different. Once you give yourself over to the pantomime, the musical accompaniment, the reading of lips, it’s an incredibly rewarding experience. Clara Bow is fascinating to watch, and she certainly was the best choice to showcase the elusive “It” of the film. She is light and frothy and it makes you feel better just watching her.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

The Thin Man (1934)

Director: W.S. Van Dyke                               Writers: Albert Hackett & Frances Goodrich
Film Score: William Axt                                 Cinematography: James Wong Howe
Starring: William Powell, Myrna Loy, Maureen O’Sullivan and Nat Pendleton

The classic Dashiell Hammett novel brought to the screen with style and brash, The Thin Man would spawn numerous sequels and the team of William Powell and Myrna Loy would become an iconic screen duo in the process. In fact, the two were so popular that they were also cast together in a number of non-Thin Man films. Powell and Loy are two of a kind, irreverent, carefree, and very much in love. What The Thin Man series has going for it is turning murder mysteries into screwball comedies, something that hadn’t been done before, and the two leads are great in their roles.

When inventor William Henry goes missing his daughter, Maureen O’Sullivan, calls on William Powell, former private investigator, to help her locate him. Powell and Loy, his wife, as the loveable lushes Nick and Nora Charles who, along with their little dog Asta, are the only ones who can solve the case. But is there a case? Henry’s apparently been seen in New York by his lawyer and when his ex-wife calls on him at the apartment of his “secretary” to ask for money, she finds the woman dead. And still no sign of Henry. As with any good mystery there are any number of suspects: the ex-wife, her gigolo husband, the mob, or Henry himself . . . and with Nick and Nora there to booze and schmooze their way to a solution it’s always a good time.

Unfortunately for nearly everyone involved, Powell doesn’t want to get involved. But as a reluctant detective he sure manages to get a lot accomplished. Maureen O’Sullivan is probably best known for her appearances in the Tarzan films, including her nude swim--though, of course, it wasn’t really her--in Tarzan and his Mate, from the same year. She had a fairly prolific career, but wasn’t in anything really major. The great character actor Porter Hall appears as Henry’s lawyer, and Cesar Romero is Minna Gombell’s gigolo husband. Pug-faced Nat Pendleton makes a very strange police inspector, and in a bit part is Charles Williams, Eustace from It’s a Wonderful Life, who appeared in over two hundred films. The Thin Man was one of the big hits of its time and is still a classic today.

Friday, June 21, 2013

The Jazz Singer (1927)

Director: Alan Crosland                                  Writers: Alfred A. Cohn & Jack Jarmuth
Film Score: Louis Silvers                               Cinematography: Hal Mohr
Starring: Al Jolson, May McAvoy, Warner Oland and Eugenie Besserer

It’s difficult for us now to feel the same wonder that audiences felt at the end of the twenties when synchronized sound was introduced for the first time in films. But The Jazz Singer comes close as possible because of its particular makeup. For the most part it is a silent film, but the musical numbers that suddenly jolt us into the next decade of sound films are quite striking. The most interesting aspect of this, for me at least, is the opening number with young Jakie singing in the tavern. The music is not quite synchronized, and it has a frisson of what it might have been like to experience this effect for the first time. The film is an absolutely compelling hybrid that seems to stand on its own in cinematic history as the fulcrum on which the rest of the films of that era would balance, on the side of silent or sound.

The story comes from a piece of short fiction written by Samson Raphaelson that he turned into a play. It really has the flavor of the kind of immigrant theater production that would be immortalized by Francis Ford Coppola in The Godfather II when Di Nero goes to see his friend’s girlfriend in a play. A Jewish cantor in New York is horrified to learn that his young son is singing “raggy songs” in a salon. When he whips him, the boy decides to leave for good, taking with him only a picture of his mother. And though it is set in the late twenties, it has the feeling of something a generation earlier. The title is also something of a misnomer. What we think of a jazz singing today comes out of the 1940s and 50s. Back in the twenties jazz was what we would call pop music, with Jolson being one of the popular singers of his day.

When the scene shifts to the present day, with Jolson trying to break into the music business on the West Coast, the synchronization is perfect, even his patter between numbers. There are also plenty of sound effects, some synched and some not, that demonstrate early attempts to transition to sound. Of course, Jolson’s singing and seems quite outdated today, corny almost. But this is also the closest that we will get to experiencing the kind of vaudeville performances that were almost gone by then. So, the film also works as a historical piece on a number of levels. Still, there is something strangely compelling about Jolson’s acting. Sure, it’s tempting to say it’s over the top, but when you really watch him, it’s not. And unlike a lot of pantomime, he seems as if he genuinely wants to get across his feelings in the silent medium. It’s quite interesting.

Warner Oland is great as Jolson’s father, the cantor. And while the comedic elements are toned down, Otto Lederer makes the most of his talents. Naturally, however, we have to address the blackface minstrel numbers at the conclusion of the film. Were the filmmakers racist? Probably. Are the numbers racist? Certainly. Is this a racist film? I would have to say no. But then, I’m not black. There’s no doubt the film could have been just as successful without the blackface, but I would hope it could be seen today as more of an embarrassment for whites than blacks. Ultimately, The Jazz Singer is a very good silent film in its own right, and with the addition of sound on the vocal numbers it makes it something quite unique, an important milestone in cinematic history that also has the good fortune of being entertaining.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

3:10 to Yuma (2007)

Director: James Mangold                               Writers: Halstead Welles & Michael Brandt
Film Score: Marco Beltrami                           Cinematography: Phedon Papamichael
Starring: Russell Crowe, Christian Bale, Logan Lerman and Peter Fonda

This a terrific modern western, a remake of the Glenn Ford film from 1957. Russell Crowe and Christian Bale are great and their contest of wills--but more importantly their reassessment of each other's character--is a joy to watch. This film is something of an oasis in a period when the only really interesting westerns in the last twenty years have been Open Range and Broken Trail. Director James Mangold suffered somewhat early in his career by filming his own scripts. But 3:10 to Yuma definitely benefits from being envisioned by different screenwriters and helped him make a satisfying modern western, something there have been few of since Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven in 1992.

The story opens at Bale’s homestead, with his barn being set on fire by the man who loaned him money. He lost a leg during the Civil War and his eldest son has lost all respect for him because he won’t fight back. The next morning when he’s rounding up his cattle, he witnesses the robbery of a stagecoach moving money for the railroad. Peter Fonda is the wily Pinkerton agent who is in charge of protecting it. He’s shot but not killed during the holdup. Russell Crowe is the leader of the gang and when he spots Bale and confronts him, takes his horses but lets him live. When Crowe is arrested in town, Bale asks for $200 from the railroad man to help take Crowe to the train station in Bisbee in order to be transported to the prison in Yuma on the 3:10.

One of the best parts of this film is how the screenwriters transform Crowe into a western version of Hannibal Lecter. When he is at Bale’s house in handcuffs while the decoy stage is taking the gang in a different direction, he gets Bale’s son to look up to him and his wife to confide in him. He uses the information to get into Bale’s head on the trail, and it almost works. Crowe is a master gunman and supremely confident in his skills, while at the same time Bale has lost all his confidence as well as his son’s respect. Still, Bale is the moral compass in the picture and in holding on to that it actually impresses Crowe in a way that even he didn’t expect.

Ben Foster is the crazy partner of Crowe, a stone killer who is effectively in charge of the gang while Crowe does his own thing. It’s great to see Fonda again, doing a nice job as the grizzled veteran. Dallas Roberts is the railroad man who has lost thousands of dollars to Crowe and wants nothing more than to see him hang. Doing a very nice job as Bale’s oldest son is Logan Lerman, who has a great look for the period piece and is very convincing. 3:10 to Yuma is a quality entry in a genre that hasn’t fared well the past couple of decades. It’s an enjoyable western that delivers humor, pathos, a good deal of action, and comes highly recommended.

Conflict (1945)

Director: Curtis Burnhardt                              Writers: Arthur T. Horman & Dwight Taylor
Film Score: Friedrich Hollaender                    Cinematography: Merritt B. Gerstad
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Alexis Smith, Sydney Greenstreet and Rose Hobart

I like this film. Conflict is not great, but it’s clever. What starts as a fairly pedestrian domestic drama, and then a similarly prosaic murder mystery, eventually becomes something quite fascinating. Humphrey Bogart plays a husband whose wife’s nagging is getting the better of him. Alexis Smith claims that he doesn’t love her anymore and has fallen in love with her sister, Rose Hobart. That night at an anniversary party for the couple, psychiatrist Sydney Greenstreet gives a rather boorish lecture on Freudian psychological theory and the emotional basis for psychiatric “conflict.” At first it seems unrelated to the story, but ultimately it works into the plot in a very satisfying way.

One of the interesting choices in the opening of the film is the pouring rain, symbolizing the conflict between Bogart and Smith. That night, in a traffic accident, Bogart’s leg is broken. But a few weeks later he hides the fact that he can walk, and schemes to get his wife out of the house and go up to a mountain vacation spot alone. Before she goes, she stops by Greenstreet’s house and he puts a rose in her lapel while she asks him to look in on her husband. Bogart, however, has already gone ahead and blocked the mountain road. When she arrives he kills her and then pushes the car off the side of the mountain. That night, when she doesn’t arrive at the cabin, Bogart has conveniently invited one of his employees over to hear his phone conversations. Then Bogart calls the police. What happens over the next few days begins to unhinge Bogart when it begins to look like Smith is not dead.

The screenplay is based on a story by the great Robert Siodmak. The story on its own, however, is not that great. It’s like something Sherlock Holmes would do, and may very well have. But that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable. As such, those who call this a forgotten noir film, are a little off in their assessment. It’s a murder mystery pure and simple. The production team is also something of a second-string at Warners. Curtis Burnhardt made a few interesting film, and this is certainly one of them, but never broke out to become a star director. He has a very forgettable style that usually creates a couple memorable moments but little more. The score, by Friedrich Hollaender, is also fairly forgettable. Production design is good by Warner standards but overall it’s nothing special.

Other than Bogart and Greenstreet, the acting is also fairly second-string. The story never allows the audience to be in on the investigation so we follow Bogart around the entire film as he is “haunted” by the presence of his “dead” wife. This is probably the one thing the film has going for it. But Bogart was beginning to look a little tired by the end of the war years and was bringing very little new to his roles that he hadn’t perfected by the time of Casablanca. Greenstreet is his jolly self, and at the end of the film has a brief scene in his office with Bogart that suggests he could have been a much bigger asset--acting wise--to Warners had they chosen to use him dramatically in more substantial roles. Conflict is certainly an enjoyable murder mystery that Bogart and Greenstreet fans will enjoy. Beyond that, low expectations should lead to a satisfying classic cinema experience.

La Bamba (1987)

Director: Luis Valdez                                    Writer: Luis Valdez
Film Score: Miles Goodman                          Cinematography: Adam Greenberg
Starring: Lou Diamond Phillips, Esai Morales, Rosanna DeSoto and Joe Pantoliano

It was really The Buddy Holly Story that paved the way for rock ‘n’ roll biopics like Great Balls of Fire (Jerry Lee Lewis), What’s Love Got To Do With It (Tina Turner), Ray (Ray Charles) and, of course, La Bamba. This is the story of Ritchie Valens, who became a huge star in the late fifties. His biggest hit was the title of the film, but he tragically died in the same plane crash that claimed the lives of J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson and Buddy Holly. I don’t know if it’s interesting, per se, but the film seems to be just as much about Valens’ step-brother Bob Morales. In fact, the opening has Ritchie’s family picking fruit in Northern California and Bob riding in on his motorcycle and stealing away his girl. Of course, that never happened, but like The Buddy Holly Story, the dramatic license sets up the rest of the story.

Lou Diamond Phillips plays Valens and does a good job, except for his guitar playing which looks as a bit phony onscreen. He’s also taller and thinner than the real Valens, but fortunately doesn’t attempt a literal translation the way that Gary Busy did with Holly. The primary conflicts are, first, with Esai Morales as Bob, who gradually begins to feel that Phillips’ success is overshadowing his life. He drinks, does drugs, and generally abuses Elizabeth Peña, the girl he stole away from Phillips. Secondly, when Phillips falls in love with Danielle von Zerneck as Donna, a white girl whose father doesn’t want her to see him, he has to face the racism inherent in this country against Hispanics. The third, and most minor conflict, is with the great Joe Pantoliano as Bob Keane, whose methods of recording and grueling touring schedules Phillips doesn’t like.

One of the artistic choices in the film by writer-director Luis Valdez is to have Phillips dreaming of an airplane crash in a ham-handed attempt at foreshadowing. In retrospect it seems entirely unnecessary, especially given the well-known circumstances surrounding Valens’ death. Also, at times, Morales really takes over the film, and not in a good way. Perhaps, however, it replicates the destructive nature of the actual relationship between them. The longer the triangle is played out, however, the less interesting it becomes, at least cinematically. With Morales getting just as much screen time as Phillips--and chewing the scenery when they’re onscreen together--it takes away from the main story of Valens’ mercurial rise to fame.

The music and vocals, provided by Los Lobos, are very good, however, and when the film focuses on that aspect of his life, it’s incredibly good. Phillips is electrifying as Valens and his infectious portrayal lights up the screen. Pantoliano, after a turn as a nebbish pianist in The Idolmaker, steps up to fledgling record producer and provides a great undercurrent of exploitation that gives the part needed realism. Unfortunately there are too many soap opera moments that detract from that. Unless something else comes along, however, this is the definitive biopic of Ritchie Valens. La Bamba, despite its flaws, is a wonderful homage to a musical star whose life and career ended much too soon.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Devotion (1946)

Director: Curtis Burnhardt                              Writer: Keith Winter
Film Score: Erich Wolfgang Korngold              Cinematography: Ernest Haller
Starring: Olivia de Havilland, Ida Lupino, Paul Henreid and Arthur Kennedy

Warner Brothers’ story of the Brontë sisters is really just an excuse to listen to another brilliant score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold. And, of course, to see Warners’ great stable of artists from the forties in action. It is rather incongruous, however, to see these Americans pretending to be the British literary royal family, the Brontë’s. Devotion is the story of Emily, Charlotte, and Ann and the real life adventures that inspired their classic novels. Dominating the screen, however, is the drunken, ne’er do well brother Bramwell. Unfortunately, there’s distinctly broad, over the top quality to the performances that, while not quite causing a wince, come close.

The story revolves around a love triangle between the two older sisters, Emily played by Ida Lupino, and Charlotte, played by Olivia de Havilland, and the new curate, Paul Henreid. When Henreid comes to the village de Havilland and Nancy Coleman, as Anne, are in London and he befriends Lupino. She naturally feels that they will eventually come to an “understanding.” But when he meets de Havilland he falls for her instantly, and Lupino channels her devastation into her novel. The film actually deals very little with the writing, and when it does it seems very superficial, as if it was more of a lark for them. The film actually becomes far less interesting after the sisters’ success and the confession of Henreid. Arthur Kennedy as Bramwell is a nuisance in an annoying way and engenders very little sympathy. And Sydney Greenstreet has a small role as William Thackeray, who champions the girls’ work.

The film is adequately directed. Burnhardt, who had stayed in Germany and then Paris until the beginning of World War II, never make any truly great films in Hollywood, but worked steadily. His next film, A Stolen Life, with Bette Davis is probably his most well known and the better of the two. The film score, by the great Erich Wolfgang Korngold, exhibits the composer's romantic / dramatic flair that he was known for but doesn’t dominate the proceedings. The title apparently refers to the love of the siblings for each other, but the story itself doesn’t really come off that way. de Havilland is a bit too ruthless to qualify. A better title might have been a Jane Austen parody, Selflessness and Selfishness, with Lupino playing the former and de Havilland the later. Ultimately, Devotion is a very melodramatic piece that is enjoyable for the stars and, of course, the music, but as a serious film about the literary Brontës it just seems too artificial to be great.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Search for John Gissing (2001)

Director: Mike Binder                                    Writers: Mike Binder
Film Score: Larry Groupé                              Cinematography: Sue Gibson
Starring: Mike Binder, Alan Rickman, Janeane Garofalo and Juliet Stevenson

The Search for John Gissing is a mildly entertaining film by Mike Binder, who does triple duty here, not only writing and directing, but starring as well. It was probably a few jobs too many for him. The script has several problems, not the least of which is trying to figure out what the motivation of the main character is. Despite his “this is my war” speech he is alternately sly and resourceful or dull and clueless. It’s on the precipice of being a good script, but probably needed a Hollywood veteran to push it over all the way. Binder’s acting also leaves a bit to be desired. With a look slightly like Ben Stiller, I kept watching the whole film wishing he was Ben Stiller. The direction is probably the best part. Interesting set ups and editing make for a fun film that simply lacks polish.

The script has Binder and his wife, Janeane Garofalo, moving to London so that he can take a promotion as part of the multi-national corporation he’s been working for. His contact man is Alan Rickman as the title character. What Binder doesn’t know is that he’s to replace Rickman and so Rickman decides to make his life miserable in the hopes that he’ll just leave. And it almost works. After two days Garofalo has had enough and wants to go. But Binder turns the tables on Rickman. With a big presentation to merge with a German company he sabotages Rickman’s materials and gets him fired. But this is jut the beginning. The second half is definitely funnier, but there is still an uneasiness that is difficult to embrace that also seems like a flaw in the script.

Regardless, one of the best kept secrets in film is that Alan Rickman is a comedic genius. Whatever you think of the film, his turn as the Sheriff of Nottingham in the Kevin Costner Robin Hood was fantastic. He can do the subtle stuff like that, or Quigley Down Under, or totally go over the top with something like Galaxy Quest. My favorite part of the film, however, is seeing Juliet Stevenson again. She is just one of the most wonderful actresses ever, and I sure wish she could get some bigger films and gain a wider following because she is a brilliant actress. As for the rest of the cast . . . Janeane Garofalo is great, toned down considerably from her usual battering ram of sarcasm, but the rest are just adequate, including Binder himself. Still, The Search for John Gissing has its funny moments, and some great performances, and is an enjoyable film overall.

An American Tragedy (1931)

Director: Josef von Sternberg                       Writers: Samuel Hoffenstein
Music: John Leipold                                     Cinematography: Lee Games
Starring: Phillips Holmes, Sylvia Sidney, Frances Dee and Irving Pichel

An interesting first attempt at filming Theodor Dreyser’s An American Tragedy. Comparisons are naturally made to the more popular version from the fifties, A Place in the Sun and the earlier version unfairly suffers. There are, of course, disadvantages von Sternberg’s An American Tragedy face, especially coming at the beginning of the sound era. A lack of musical score is the most obvious. There are also difficulties with transitions, which are made via title cards that harken back to the silent era. Josef von Sternberg had a short, but distinguished, film career, directing The Blue Angel and Morocco, as well as Macao later in his career. This film displays his considerable talents with the camera, but also his trouble with pacing, trouble that could sometimes render his films un-compelling

The story begins with Phillips Holmes as a bellhop in a Kansas City hotel. Out that night with friends, the film emphasizes the hedonistic nature of their dancing a drinking, and on the way home the drunk driver taking them home runs down and kills a little girl. Holmes leaves his mother’s mission to avoid arrest and heads out looking for work. As a bellhop in another hotel in Chicago he is told that his rich relations are staying there. The scene next cuts to him working for the family in their clothing factory in New York. Of course, he meets Sylvia Sidney at the factory, falls for her, and gets her pregnant. Meanwhile, he falls in love with Frances Dee and becomes desperate to find a way out of his relationship with Sidney without exposing it and ruining his relationship with Dee.

One of the most noticeable things about the production is the incredibly fluid camerawork. There is a beauty to the film that immediately brings to mind the best of the silent era, and gives lie to the belief that those elements could not--or should not--be duplicated in sound films. The biggest difference between this film and the remake is the protagonist. In keeping true to the novel, Holmes’ interpretation is almost cruel, decidedly lacking the sympathy that Montgomery Clift brought to the part. The acting is also of its time and tends not to translate as well to a more modern audience. Also, unlike the later film, Sylvia Sidney is ravishing in the film, while Shelley Winters, for all her obvious beauty, doesn’t have the depth of Sidney. Irving Pichel is the district attorney who tracks down Holmes after the “tragedy,” but has a habit of speaking too softly for the microphone.

Other than its few flaws, this is a film that is much more deserving of recognition than it typically receives. The surviving print is still in terrific shape and looks wonderful. The pre-Depression working class milieu is nicely done, and one wishes that the parts of the film dealing with the upper class were as lovingly recreated. This is part of the reason that the film seems to lack a dramatic drive to it, though it’s probably more appropriate to blame that particular trouble on the script. Still, Josef von Sternberg made some gorgeous film during his career and An American Tragedy is certainly one of them.

The Snake Pit (1948)

Director: Anatole Litvak                               Writers: Frank Partos & Millen Brand
Film Score: Alfred Newman                         Cinematography: Leo Tover
Starring: Olivia de Havilland, Mark Stevens, Leo Genn and Celeste Holm

Olivia de Havilland is one of my favorite actresses. I loved her work for Warner Brothers with Errol Flynn, but after she won her freedom from studio contracts she worked for a number of other studios and did some of her best work in the late forties and early fifties. The Sake Pit was one of her Oscar nominated roles, playing a mental patient who can’t seem to remember who she is or anything else about her life. There have been lots of films about mental illness and institutions, most of them not very flattering. And however well-meaning, they all seem to wind up like yet another version of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. de Havilland does a remarkable job, but didn’t win because she was up against a major field of contenders at the Oscars that year.

de Havilland plays a woman whose husband has committed her to a mental hospital because of her erratic behavior and inability to understand what’s going on around her. As the film opens she is on a bench outside, hearing voices. The wonderful Celeste Holm is sitting next to her and helps her inside after their exercise time is over. The doctor is played by Leo Genn, who is something of a poor man's Cedric Hardwicke. The husband is Mark Stevens, who had a long career in films and television but in nothing very memorable. So, de Havilland is not surrounded by any major support and must carry the film on her own. After shock treatments seem to have improved her condition somewhat, Stevens pusher the doctors to release her, but a relapse keeps her in for a while longer while Genn attempts to figure out the repressed memories at the heart of her problem.

As with many of these types of films, there are several good character actors playing small roles as inmates, the most well known in this case is Beulah Bondi. Natalie Schafer plays de Havilland’s mother (before her own descent into the TV sit-com snake pit in Gilligan's Island), Mae Marsh plays a patient’s mother, and several more faces are recognizable in the hospital. Ultimately, it’s not very gripping drama. de Havilland does a tremendous job, but the revelation is fairly benign and anti-climactic. In the tradition of films from Bedlam to One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, it seems as if the hospital itself is responsible for not allowing patients the ability to really recover. Officious nurses and doctors who seem to not understand what the patients need also contribute to an atmosphere of hopelessness. The Snake Pit is not quite the expose it promises to be. It’s a simplistic tale, and one that seems almost childish by today’s standards, but it’s worth it just to watch Olivia de Havilland.

Monday, June 17, 2013

A History of Violence (2005)

Director: David Cronenberg                         Writer: Josh Olson
Film Score: Howard Shore                          Cinematography: Peter Suschitzky
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris and William Hurt

I’m not a big fan of graphic novels that make it to the big screen. V for Vendetta, and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen are about the only two I’ve really enjoyed. But David Cronenberg really has something here. We’ve all seen stories about people who have had to go into witness protection, but what happens when their cover is blown? This is the premise for A History of Violence. Viggo Mortensen is a mild-mannered owner of a diner in a small town. He’s married to the beautiful Maria Bello and they have two very normal, middle-class kids. Everything goes along great for years until one day the wrong people come into the diner.

The film begins with two men who are quickly understood to be serial killers. Though in the script the younger man is a nephew, there is more of a father-son vibe present, the older man teaching the younger about killing. But, and this is big, Cronenberg defies expectations. The audience expects this to be a siege picture, with the two serial killers taking over the house of this perfect family and seeing who would come out on top. Instead, the two walk into Mortensen’s diner and before they can kill anyone, Mortensen manages to get the better of them and kill them both. So it’s not what we expect, and that defying of expectations continues over the course of the film.

The story began its life as a graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke. Josh Olsen took the story and crafted into a screenplay, but Cronenberg is the one who brought it to life. Mortensen does his usual job holding down the lead and delivering a solid performance. Maria Bello, who is probably best known for her work on ER is terrific as the wife. She is incredibly supportive at first, and very believably betrayed in the film. Ed Harris is the wronged mobster who, seeing Mortensen on the news, comes after him. William Hurt has a nice cameo as Mortensen’s brother, and the teenage son is wonderfully played by Ashton Holmes.

David Cronenberg has made relatively few films over the past twenty years, over the course of his career, really. But each one has the look of something carefully crafted and bearing the undeniable stamp of the director. Lately he has produced more mainstream films, and though small in stature they seem to carry much more weight than his earlier, genre films. A History of Violence is a great title, with several meanings and a story that unfolds for the audience in a very satisfying way. Cronenberg’s visual style is very distinctive, and while the stories he has been filming lately may not be the greatest cinema in the world, they are very good movies.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Tender Mercies (1983)

Director: Bruce Beresford                            Writer: Horton Foote
Film Score: George Dreyfus                        Cinematography: Russell Boyd
Starring: Robert Duvall, Tess Harper, Betty Buckley and Wilford Brimley

There’s a palpable difference in the pacing of films from the late sixties through the early eighties when compared to today. They took their time, to unwind, build character and suspense. Tender Mercies is a case in point. It would be hard to believe that it could be produced today. It’s a simple study of a washed-out country singing star. He’s remarried to a woman who lost her husband in Viet Nam and who has a young son. He works in the combination gas station/motel that his wife owns and is trying to forget about music . . . but it’s not working. Reporters, musicians, fans, they won’t let him forget what he was, and the music coming out of him in the form of songs won’t die either. Music destroyed him before and he’s a might skittish about takin’ another turn around the dance floor with it.

Robert Duval is Mac Sledge, a former country star who is trying to start a new life. Duvall wears the road-weariness well and is convincing in a way that would inform his later western roles in films like Lonesome Dove and Open Range. The real center of the film, however, is Tess Harper. Rather than the conventional bitter widow, she’s incredibly accepting of Duval. When he runs off one night, she doesn’t chastise him, but is supportive and loving. There’s a sense that if he did take off and never come back that she would be heartbroken but would be able to go on as before. Betty Buckley is Duvall’s former wife, a star in her own right who is keeping him from seeing his grown-up daughter, Ellen Barkin. Allan Hubbard is the young boy who does an adequate job, but doesn’t seem that interesting from today’s vantage point.

There’s definitely a pall over the entire film that is entirely in keeping with the subject matter. If, as has often been stated, country music is all about the stories then film is the perfect milieu for showing those stories that are sung about. And as far as that goes, the kind of slow and unwinding pacing of the film is also perfect. There’s a refreshing lack of histrionics of the kind found in a lot of films today, Walk the Line, for example. In some respects this is to be expected. Biopics often focus on the more sensational aspects of celebrity lives. A fictional story like this is relieved of the burden of factuality and can, instead, focus on the small things in life, sad as well as happy, and allows the audience to experience the life rather than the headline. Duvall won an Academy Award for his performance, and was certainly deserving of it. Tender Mercies is a small, intimate film, but one whose reverberations can be felt long after watching.

Pretty Woman (1990)

Director: Garry Marshall                              Writer: J.F. Lawton
Film Score: James Newton Howard              Cinematography: Charles Minsky
Starring: Richard Gere, Julia Roberts, Hector Elizondo and Laura San Giacomo

Something very strange happened when I read Garry Giddens’ review of Pretty Woman in The Village Voice. Compelled by his position on a national stage, in a magazine of national repute, I had the distinct impression that, regardless of how he might have really felt about it, he thought it necessary to denigrate the film. In terms of political correctness, he had no other choice. There was no way he could celebrate a film about a woman who has chosen to be a prostitute and who relies on a man to “save” her from that life. It’s too much of a fairy tale. To his credit, he does realize the story is an allegory of Cinderella, but that wasn’t enough for him to support the film. For me, however, it’s more than enough.

Screenwriter J.F. Lawton had only one screenplay produced before this, and as I wrote about Outbreak, it probably worked to his advantage in avoiding clichés and still managing to head right down the middle of genre conventions. Of course Garry Marshall--the voice of the bum outside “Stalone’s” house--is a comedy veteran and directing a romcom was right up his alley. His previous films were the wacky comedy Overboard, and the tear-jerking Beaches. In Pretty Woman he manages to bring balance to both aspects and in the process created one of the classic romantic comedies of all time. Julia Roberts was a virtual unknown at the time, and this was her breakout film. Gere, on the other hand, had found his career failing to live up to its early promise, and this film gave his career a needed boost.

Roberts plays a prostitute in Hollywood, and when corporate raider Gere gets lost looking for his hotel, she propositions him, he accepts, and a week later the two wind up in love with each other. In between is a deal that Gere is attempting to close, buying out Ralph Bellamy’s company and breaking it up to sell off. Jason Alexander plays Gere’s cutthroat lawyer, while Laura San Giacomo plays Roberts’ best friend. Reuniting with Gere from American Gigolo is the great Hector Elizondo as the hotel manager and, as Giddens rightly interprets, Roberts’ fairy godfather. Needing an escort for his week in L.A. Gere hires Roberts for the next five days and while he shows her a way out of the life she’s leading, she also shows him a new way of looking at the world.

In the allegory Roberts is Cinderella, a lowly woman with little self-worth. The handsome prince is Gere, seeing something in her that she doesn’t see in herself. Aiding her in her rise to elegance is Elizondo, who helps her buy a dress, teaches her etiquette at the dinner table, and generally allowing her the room to learn and grow. The film is full of humor, and not all at Roberts’ expense, as Giddens seems to think. It’s also very much a product of its time, the late eighties excess and the widening gap between the rich and poor. But Pretty Woman is certainly not a commentary on society, nor was it meant to be. It’s a fairy tale, plain and simple, and as a romance it’s everything we could hope for, a tale of redemption and possibility that puts a smile on our faces and love in our hearts.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)

Director: Monte Hellman                              Writers: Rudy Wurlitzer & Will Cory
Film Score: Billy James                              Cinematography: Jack Deerson
Starring: James Taylor, Dennis Wilson, Warren Oates and Laurie Bird

This is an odd little road picture. When I first saw the opening of Two-Lane Blacktop I thought the driver was Lance Kerwin, but he would have been too young. He looked like he could have been James Taylor, and the mechanic looked just like Dennis Wilson from The Beach Boys and, of course, they were. I’m not sure that they did much acting in the film, but I’m also not sure that that wasn’t the point. Director Monte Hellman, it seems, was going for verisimilitude above all. Warren Oates is the only real actor in the bunch and his role is the better for it. A lonely man driving east across the Southwest, he picks up nearly every hitchhiker he comes across and tells them each a completely different story about what he's doing there, depending on who they are.

Taylor and Wilson, after winning a street race in L.A., head out east as well, picking up Laurie Bird along the way. Bird, eighteen years old at the time, plays a free spirited woman who tags along with the two for no particular reason. Along the way she attempts to leave several times, but continues to wind up back in the car. Bird had a troubled few years after that, appearing in only two more films, one of them Annie Hall as Paul Simon's girlfriend. In reality she was Art Garfunkel's girlfriend, and killed herself in his apartment in 1979. She was only twenty five. Taylor, Wilson and Bird wind up passing Oates, and vice versa, several times along the road and Taylor eventually makes a bet with him for the pink slips. The first one to Washington D.C., from their starting point in Texas, wins the other’s car.

I purchased the Criterion Collection version of the disc, which contains a complete script for the film. It’s a little strange, however, seeing as how there isn’t much of a script at all, just guys talking about cars, and Oates talking about anything that comes into his mind. It’s a mildly interesting look at a particular sub-culture of society, road racers, but other than that it doesn’t have a lot going for it . . . unless you’re a car person. It’s probably pretty interesting then, seeing the vintage cars. The period setting is fairly interesting as well. Other than that, I’m not sure I really get the point. I much prefer a film like the original Gone in 60 Seconds for its spirit of recklessness rather than the introspection of this film.

The B List essay by Sam Adams does as good a job as possible for making the case that this is a classic film. He talks about the film’s relationship to French avant-garde, minimalism, the bleak symbolism of a generation . . . and still is not convincing. All of the things that made Universal dump the film when it was initially released--the amateur actors, the lack of a real script, the lack of any serious racing, the lack of any conflict whatsoever--are still flaws today. The only time there is any real tension, and not even between the two competing drivers, is when Taylor falls for Bird, but she winds up leaving anyway. Two-Lane Blacktop is certainly a curiosity of a film but, for my taste, little else.