Sunday, February 22, 2015

12 Years a Slave (2013)

Director: Steve McQueen                              Writer: John Ridley
Film Score: Hans Zimmer                              Cinematography: Sean Bobbitt
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o, Michael Williams, and Michael Fassbender

For some reason I don’t tend to watch dramas at the theater, and choose instead to watch them at home. This has resulted in something of an Academy Award tradition for me in which I review the previous year’s winner for best picture on Oscar night. It’s very clear to me why 12 Years a Slave won. It’s a beautifully told story that is simply heart-wrenching, and yet still has a hopeful ending. In fact the title itself indicates the very temporal nature of the story. Oddly, however, this is a bit like The Monuments Men for me. While that story tells of the rescue of thousands of objects of art that were stolen by the Nazis, what it failed to do was to really address the tragedy of how many thousands were lost forever due to Nazi destruction, their way of saying if we can’t have it no one will. While watching Steve McQueen’s carefully crafted story, I couldn’t help be aware of how many millions of stories there were in that era that didn’t end so hopefully. Of course, there were glimpses of this in the characters played by Lupita Nyong’o and Adepero Oduye who have no one to rescue them. Even so, it is an undeniably powerful story that is well told and realistically rendered.

The film begins in the middle of the story, with Chiwetel Ejiofor working on a sugar plantation, chopping cane. From there the story flashes back to his home in Saratoga, New York. A free man, Ejiofor and his wife, Ashley Dyke, have two children and an upper middle-class existence. When his wife takes the children away to cook for a celebration that some white neighbors have every year, Ejiofor takes the opportunity to be seduced by some traveling showmen who want to hire him to play the violin to accompany their magic act down to Washington, D.C. But when the engagement is done, the two men drug Ejiofor and sell him into slavery to avoid paying him. Thus begins a long and tortuous existence for the formerly free black man. In a moment onboard a ship bound for New Orleans he is told by another free black who has been captured, to not say a word about his education or where he is from or he will eventually be killed. Once at the mouth of the Mississippi, he takes the advice to heart. First he is purchased by Paul Giamatti, a slave trader, then sold to the seemingly benevolent Benedict Cumberbatch. But when the taunts of overseer Paul Dano become too much, he fights back and is sold to a psychotic cotton farmer, Michael Fassbender.

While picking cotton for Fassbender, he discovers that the man has no use for his wife, Sarah Paulson. Instead, he enjoys the affections of slave Lupita Nyong’o which puts her in the middle of their conflict. Paulson abuses her as often as she can, while Fassbender rapes her, and eventually Nyong’o begs Ejiofor to kill her. But he can’t. His plan is to bide his time until opportunities to get word to New York present themselves. The first thing one notices about the picture is the claustrophobic telling of the story. In screenwriter John Ridley’s Oscar-winning adaptation of Solomon Northup’s story he chose to take the first-person narrative directly to the screen. As such, there is nothing shown in the film that isn’t from Chiwetel Ejiofor’s point of view, nor is there any first-person voiceover from Ejiofor. The audience is trapped, just like he is, in this bizarre world of cruel and inhuman treatment of other human beings. In fact, it’s not until nearly the end of the picture that we meet anyone who has the temerity to speak his mind about the evils of slavery, and that comes in the form of one of the film’s producers, Brad Pitt, an architect from Canada who speaks plainly to Fassbender of the evil he is perpetrating. And yet even Pitt’s presence, as heartening as it is, only reinforces just how isolating the deep South is for Ejiofor because of the utter lack of opportunity to escape. That is, while the slaves may leave the property at their leisure . . . there is absolutely nowhere to go in which they can remain free.

Interestingly, there were a couple of fascinating things I heard in a discussion of slavery by author David Brion Davis about his series of books on The Problem of Slavery. One was about the institution of the Fugitive Slave Act as a way to placate Southern slaveholders in an age that was moving increasingly toward Emancipation. While over forty-five thousand runaway slaves were living in the North by the time the Civil War began, less than three hundred runaways were actually returned using the fugitive slave laws. Slave trading, on the other hand, had been outlawed for many years, which allowed for the kind of kidnapping that is shown in the movie, capturing free blacks and selling them “down the river” with almost no hope of being returned home again in order to supply plantation owners with new slaves when they couldn’t be imported from Africa. But the other thing Davis talked about, when the film was mentioned directly, is that the community in which Solomon Northup lived did not represent the experience of a majority of free blacks in the North. Racial discrimination was very much a part of their experience and also accounted for many Northerners looking the other way when things like his kidnapping happened.

There are certainly some fine performances in the film. Chiwetel Ejiofor could not have been a better choice. The naiveté that he displays in the beginning of the film and his eventual transformation into a hardened survivor are what earned him an Oscar nomination for best actor. Michael Fassbender also earned a nomination in a supporting role for his portrayal of the brainwashed slaveholder. But it was the suffering and anguish of Lupita Nyong’o that won the third of the film’s Academy Awards last year, for best supporting actress. Steve McQueen’s direction of the film is not very flamboyant, and the film is the better for it. It many ways it is a small film, focusing on one man’s experience. The careful attention to historical detail was also recognized by nominations for Patricia Norris’s costume design, and the production design team of Adam Stockhausen and Alice Baker, while Joe Walker’s film editing and director McQueen earned the film’s remaining nominations. 12 Years a Slave is a disturbing and moving motion picture that captures a moment in American history that has, unfortunately, not entirely left us. Race inequality is still one of the embarrassing legacies of a country that trumpets its own moral authority around the world but has yet to fully come to terms with it at home. Films like this need to be made in order to remind us of our continuing failure as a society to address these issues in a way that will truly close the book on our past.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Ray (2004)

Director: Taylor Hackford                               Writer: James L. White
Film Score: Craig Armstrong                         Cinematography: Pawel Edelman
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington, Bokeem Woodbine and Harry Lennix

2004 was a pretty impressive year for Jamie Foxx, not only was he nominated for an Academy Award for best supporting actor in Collateral by Michael Mann, but was also nominated--and won--an Oscar for best actor as the lead in the Ray Charles biopic Ray. Taylor Hackford was probably the best directorial choice to make the film, as he had done some impressive work with musical films like The Idolmaker and the documentary Chuck Berry, Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll. Even so, it apparently took the director the better part of a decade or more to get the financing to make the movie, and that turned out to be a stroke of luck considering the wait enabled him to cast Foxx in the lead and make the film a truly great work of art. It also has an interesting structure, as do similar films like Clint Eastwood’s Bird, in which the past is woven into the current timeline in order to keep it from being a straight chronological march through Charles’ life. How much of that is due to Hackford’s work on the story, or screenwriter James L. White is unknown, but it works extremely well in the way it keeps the great performer’s past in the mind of the viewer in the same way it was in his own mind as he went through the many challenges in his life and career. The most frequent image, one that isn’t explained until later, is that of water--on the floor and in suitcases--that sends him into a panic.

The film begins with a beautiful montage, Jamie Foxx’s hands as they play the opening to “What’d I Say” on the electric piano. Other instruments join in, and then the piano keys become a reflection on Ray Charles’ sunglasses. The film proper begins in 1948 in Florida, where he was born Ray Charles Robinson, with Foxx catching a bus north to Seattle. He beautifully pretends to be a World War Two veteran to ease some of the racism that comes his way. During the trip he remembers playing a recording session for a country band back home, as well as being told he needed to wear sunglasses. The first person he meets in Seattle is none other than Quincy Jones, played by Larenz Tate. He begins his professional life with guitarist Terrence Howard doing impersonations of Charles Brown and Nat “King” Cole, and trapped into service contract by the unscrupulous Denise Dowse, who also makes him live with her and service her sexually. When he get an offer from Swingtime Records he takes it, and goes out on the road with Lowell Fulson, played by Chris Thomas King, which is where he meets Bokeem Woodbine as sax man David “Fathead” Newman, and future personal assistant Clifton Powell. The money’s better, but he still feels just as isolated, and it’s also where he gets hooked on heroin. It’s not until Foxx gets a visit from Ahmet Ertegun of Atlantic Records, in the form of Curtis Armstrong, and Jerry Wexler played by Richard Schiff, that his career finally takes off.

Sharon Warren does a nice job as Charles’ feisty mother, and C.J. Sanders is adequate as the young Ray who unexpectedly goes blind. Later on, Foxx falls in love with Kerry Washington and the two of them eventually marry. But the singer can’t help falling into relationships with his backup singers, first Aunjanue Ellis and later Regina King. While his relationship with Atlantic made him a star, and solidified his sound, Charles was always looking out for himself and eventually replaced Powell with Harry Lennix and moved to ABC Records where he became a superstar. The acting by the entire cast is uniformly excellent, which makes Jamie Foxx’s performance that much more impressive. Taylor Hackford was also fortunate to get the participation of Ray Charles on the entire project shortly before his death. Jamie Foxx actually met with Charles and worked on some of the music with him, but only once. Hackford was at first mystified why he didn’t want to spend more time with him, but Foxx told him that he couldn’t risk sounding like the old Ray when he had to portray him while he was young. And yet another stroke of luck came about when the director learned that Foxx actually plays piano, and had gone to college on a music scholarship.

The film is most impressive in a number of ways. The historical replication by the set designers was magnificent, not only in terms of the number of locations they had to duplicate, but also the shifting time periods as the singer moved through his career. Hackford also handled the flashbacks extremely well, giving them a sort of stylistic quality but also imbuing them with a lot of realism. The color manipulation was also well done in both parts of the film. The film was nominated for six Oscars, including costume design, editing, Hackford’s work as a director, and best picture. The two wins were for Foxx and for sound mixing. The last award was also well earned, as the integration of Ray Charles’ actual music and vocals was seamless. There were also some nice practical effects shots with the water that always come at surprising times. If there’s a down side to the film it’s that it spends too much time sensationalizing his drug abuse and marital infidelity and less on the music itself, though fortunately there is enough of the later to balance things out. Other notable appearances in the film are by Rick Gomez as Tom Dowd, Garry Grubbs as a fiddle player, and Mike Pniewski as a bus driver. Ultimately Ray is a terrific film that celebrates one of America’s true musical geniuses and well worth a place in everyone’s movie collection.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Arbuckle & Keaton, Vol. 1 (1917-19)

Director: Roscoe Arbuckle                             Writer: Roscoe Arbuckle
Music: Alloy Orchestra                                   Cinematography: Elgin Lessley
Starring: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Buster Keaton, Al St. John and Alice Lake

As absolutely dreadful as Buster Keaton’s enforced partnership was with Jimmy Durante later in his career, that’s how terrific his work was with Fatty Arbuckle at the beginning. What is so impressive right from the beginning is Arbuckle’s willingness to give Keaton so much screen time in his films, to perform many of his gags on his own. In addition, with Arbuckle writing and directing his own films it inspired Keaton to do the same later on, which made him arguably the greatest silent comedian of all time. At this point, however, at the end of World War One, it was Arbuckle who was the biggest name in comedy, even ahead of Chaplin. Kino Video has gathered ten of the fourteen Arbuckle & Keaton shorts into two volumes that demonstrate amply why not only Keaton, but Fatty Arbuckle, was such a huge star. Of course, the incident that ended the partnership was the spurious murder charge against Arbuckle that killed his career. And while it was a real blow to Keaton at the time, it may have been the best thing for The Great Stone Face, as it forced him into his own spectacular career rather than continuing to play wingman to Arbuckle.

The Bell Boy, from 1918, makes no pretension to story. It is simply a series of gags set around the lobby of a hotel. Fatty is the elevator operator while Buster is the bellhop, but they both perform multiple duties. Sight gags and slapstick are present in equal measure, one of the finest of the former is Buster’s cleaning of the glass in the phone booth, while the later is the acrobatics of the three leads when the towel warmer keeps knocking the hat off of Charles Dudley, as well as the anarchic finale at the bank. But the centerpiece of sight gags is Arbuckle’s barber service for a customer first though to be Rasputin. Even the throwaways are funny, like the sign on a building exterior that reads, “Last National Bank.” Then next film is The Butcher Boy from 1917. Set in a grocery store, it is notable for being Keaton’s first onscreen performance. While Arbuckle does some nice work in the butcher shop, Keaton doesn’t enter until halfway through the film, but he has a couple of very nice gags, the first is when Fatty pours molasses into Buster’s had, and the second is when he throws the sack of flour and puts Buster’s head where his feet were, a scene that ends, again, in complete anarchy. As always, however, Fatty ends up getting the girl.

From 1918 comes Out West, with Fatty as hobo riding the rails, and Keaton as a combination sheriff and saloon owner. After Fatty is dumped off in the desert, he is chased by three Indians who treat it like a buffalo hunt. Later, Al St. John comes into the saloon with his gang to rob it prompting the classic sight gag of the hands on the clock raising up to eleven and one. But Fatty stumbles in and foils the robbery, and so Buster hires him tend the bar. In one scene that seems to begin as an unconscious racial slur, the men are firing at Ernie Morrison Sr.’s feet to get him to tap dance, but fortunately Alice Lake comes in from the Salvation Army and shames them for doing it. This film seems to suffer from being incomplete as there are several jump cuts and no real ending. Next is Moonshine from the same year. It is the story of bootleggers from Virginia, but Arbuckle plays the whole thing as a joke, writing title cards that reference the film itself throughout. It’s a unique touch that, while robbing it of any suspension of disbelief, nevertheless entertains, especially when Alice Lake jumps into Fatty’s arms and when her father objects, Fatty says “Look, this is only a two reeler. We don’t have time to build up to love scenes.” Where the last film had pieces missing, this film is the most washed out of the collection and it’s difficult to see faces at all at times.

The final film of this volume is The Hayseed from 1919, the second to last film the two would make together. Fatty plays the clerk in a general store while Buster mans the garage. Jackie Coogan Sr. plays Fatty’s rival for the affections of Molly Malone, culminating at one of the Saturday dances held at the store. The highlight is the talent competition when Fatty sings after eating onions. Throughout, one is not only impressed by the two leads, but the work of Al St. John is particularly good, and Alice Lake is clearly the best of Arbuckle’s leading ladies. Overall, the set is quite good. If there’s a weakness, however, it is one that occurs on many of the Kino reissues, and that’s the use of the Alloy Orchestra on the soundtrack. For my taste it is just wrong. The dissonance and the repetition are incredibly annoying, and I find myself looking for something else to go with the films. This time I wound up listening to Carl Davis’s music for Chaplin’s Mutual comedies and even without synchronization it was infinitely better. As for the visuals, Arbuckle certainly had a gift, and his decision to use Buster Keaton was inspired, as each of them made the other better. Arbuckle & Keaton are classic comedians, and their power to entertain never seems to diminish with time.

The Monuments Men (2014)

Director: George Clooney                               Writer: Grant Heslov
Film Score: Alexandre Desplat                       Cinematography: Phedon Papamichael
Starring: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray and Cate Blanchett

One of the great taglines in movie criticism was when this film was first released and critic David Edelstein called it “The Dainty Dozen.” While incredibly humorous in its own right, the way the comparisons play out for George Clooney’s The Monuments Men with Robert Aldrich’s Vietnam era classic The Dirty Dozen also make it instructively appropriate. Aldrich’s World War II film was about convicted soldiers set to be executed but given a second chance to die in battle. Clooney’s World War II nostalgia piece is about over-the-hill art experts volunteering to go into Europe after the Normandy invasion to rescue the artworks the Nazi’s were stealing wholesale to take back to Germany. But where Aldrich managed to wring a lot of humor from serious situations, Clooney’s attempt a milking drama from a comedic premise is much less successful. At two and a half hours, Aldrich’s film gave the audience time to get to know the men and identify with them so that their deaths were meaningful. But even at two hours, it seems that we barely get to know Clooney’s men in a way that pushes past their considerable onscreen personas. It’s too bad, because it is a unique and mostly unknown chapter in World War II history that deserved much better.

The story is based on the book by Robert M. Edsel and Brett Witter about the allied attempt to, at first, protect precious buildings and museums from being destroyed during the Allied advance, but eventually became about finding stolen art and retrieving it from the Nazis. George Clooney is the American art historian who initially goes to Roosevelt to tell him of the dire situation concerning European art at the time. But Roosevelt, more concerned with winning the war than rescuing art, says that if Clooney wants to take charge of the mission personally, then he’ll okay it. To help him, Clooney enlists another of his colleagues, Matt Damon, and the two of them put together a team of artists, historians, and architects to go into France after D-Day and save this art from Nazi destruction during their retreat, or Allied destruction on their way into Germany. The three other Americans are Bill Murray, John Goodman, and Bob Balban, and they are joined by British scholar Hugh Bonneville and French resistance fighter Jean Dujardin. A subplot in Paris involves a museum being run by Nazi military man Justus von Dohnányi as a staging ground for the looting of the West, which involves regular visits from Herman Goering who picks out personal treasures to be sent back for his private collection, and those to be sent to Hitler personally. The secretary of the museum, however, is Kate Blanchett who has kept a meticulous diary of every piece of art being moved through the museum.

The Monuments Men, as Clooney has dubbed them, go through a truncated basic training, and then are shipped out to Normandy. There they come up against massive resistance from commanders who absolutely refuse to avoid bombing certain buildings. Soon, however, the team discovers that most of the art has been stolen anyway, and their mission shifts from protecting the art, to discovering where the Nazis have hidden it. Matt Damon attempts to get information from Cate Blanchett, but she is curiously unwilling to help him, assuming that they will simply steal it from the Nazis and take it back to the U.S. The team then splits up, following rumors and conversation between captured prisoners to help them track down the treasure. It’s clear where Clooney and screenwriter Grant Heslov were going with the story. It’s a fish out of water tale with elderly art experts dressed in uniforms, and he went with established comedic actors to underpin the obvious comedic overtones of the film, including the relationship that he had with Damon in the Ocean’s films. Ultimately, however, this actually seems to work against the film. Having older dramatic actors might have been the better move, allowing the natural humor in the situations to stand on its own. As it is, the combined weight of the comedic personas the principals bring to the picture tend to bog the whole thing down.

The biggest flaw in the picture, though, is the pathos that Clooney so obviously reaches for, when the screenplay hasn’t really earned it for him. A director like Steven Spielberg might have been able to earn it, but with so little time or substance in which to be invested in the characters, it rings hollow here. When Bill Murray gets a Christmas recording from home, it’s as though he’s been fighting for years--something most of the Allied soldiers had been--when he’s only been in Europe for a couple of weeks, a borderline insult to the rest of the soldiers. Likewise, Hugh Bonneville’s obsession with a sculpture, something that becomes the basis for most of the pathos in the rest of the film, isn’t sufficiently fleshed out and fails to unify the second half of the film in the way it was intended. The true moments of soul-sinking despair are actually for the works of art themselves. While the end of the film rightfully celebrates how much was saved, the audience could have done with one last jab at the Nazis by estimating how many works of priceless art were lost forever because they violated Hitler’s personal lack of taste or because they didn’t have the time to remove them. Still, the acting is good, as would be expected from this veteran cast. Clooney’s direction is serviceable, though little else, and it’s to his credit that despite the flaws it is still a very watchable film. The Monuments Men, while not essential viewing, is still an important story that deserves telling and has its entertaining moments along the way.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Blood Work (2002)

Director: Clint Eastwood                                  Writer: Brian Helgeland
Film Score: Lennie Niehaus                            Cinematography: Tom Stern
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Jeff Daniels, Wanda De Jesus and Paul Rodriguez

Michael Connelly has written some nice mysteries. Blood Work, which was produced and directed by Clint Eastwood is his first feature. The second was The Lincoln Lawyer with Matthew McConaughey almost a decade later. Unlike the later film, the first was a box office dud, which is unfortunate. In terms of his post-Dirty Harry work, this film is what I consider Eastwood’s middle period, that is, the films Eastwood made before he became primarily a director, everything from Unforgiven on. I say that because, of the fifteen films he has directed since 2000, he has only starred in four. This film, while using Connelly’s story, takes considerable liberties and that is due to screenwriter Brian Helgeland, a writer with an impressive Hollywood resume. But with the exception of the ending, most of the changes are terrific, adding lots of humor and making the story work on the screen. I remember once seeing an interview with, I believe a director, who said that Eastwood doesn’t know how to use music, and ever since hearing that I have to agree. Lennie Niehaus, one of the director’s longtime collaborators, is a non-entity in the film and with the exception of the opening title sequence the music might as well not even be there. Ultimately it’s easy to see why the film stiffed--to use music industry parlance--but I would still argue that it’s a good film. It has a wonderfully intricate and surprising plot that, while not as rewarding on repeat viewings, still has a lot to enjoy beyond the surprises.

The film begins like a vintage Dirty Harry movie with Lennie Niehaus’s jazz score behind a helicopter filming a crime scene at night. FBI agent Clint Eastwood shows up and gets a guided tour of a house of horrors, three people dead, with homicide detective Paul Rodriguez doing a comedy commentary because he’s angry that Eastwood gets all the credit on the cases. But he should because the “Code Killer” has written his name in the victims’ blood, with a series of nine digits below. The killer, it turns out, is actually at the crime scene in the crowd. Knowing how old Eastwood is, and that he’ll chase him, it seems an easy taunt and, sure enough, Eastwood takes the bait. But it all ends with Eastwood on the pavement having a heart attack on one side of a chain link fence, and the killer on the other. Fast forward two years later and cardiologist Angelica Huston gives Eastwood the good news: his heart transplant has been successful. Back at his boat, where he lives, he says hi to neighbor Jeff Daniels, and finds Wanda De Jesus waiting for him. It turns out the heart that saved him belonged to her sister and she wants him to look into her murder. Of course Rodriguez gives him nothing but grief, especially since he doesn’t have a private detective’s license. But they let him look at the tape of the murder, during a robbery of a convenience store. Then he asks if there were others and gets shown the door. After a visit with Tina Lifford, an old friend from the sheriff’s department, he gets a copy of the murder book that the LAPD gave to her. It turns out the killer did the same thing to a guy at an ATM.

Eastwood gets trust-fund bum Jeff Daniels to drive him around on his investigation, but his temperature goes up and Huston quits as his doctor. It turns out it’s the dead woman’s son who comes up with the answer to the code killer’s numbers, but an even more shocking revelation comes when he learns who the woman’s killer was. Eastwood has done a terrific job of choosing projects to star in since 2000. He typically finds roles in which there is something wrong physically with the character so that he can make his age work for him, and this is no exception. I’ve never liked Jeff Daniels, ever since I first hated him in Terms of Endearment, but even I have to admit that he’s the perfect goofy, deadbeat partner in crime for Eastwood. Paul Rodriguez, on the other hand, is an absolute delight, delivering punch line after punch line with nothing but hatred in his heart for the camera-hogging FBI man, and Tina Lifford absolutely evokes the female Blaxploitation stars of the 70s in the best possible way. Wanda De Jesus is solid, but nothing out of the ordinary, and Rick Hoffman has a nice turn as a disgruntled witness to the first shooting. If there’s a downside to the film it’s the ending, which simply tries way too hard. It’s convoluted and over the top in a way that wants to be Die Hard and just doesn’t have the right cast to pull it off. But it’s hard not to like this film, and Blood Work continues to be an Eastwood gem--in the rough, admittedly--but precious nevertheless.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

The Gray Area (2010)

Director: Chapin Hemmingway                        Writers: Chapin Hemmingway & Tyson Balcomb
Film Score: Jeff Broadbent                              Cinematography: Sean Rawls
Starring: Gavin Bristol, Morgan Lee, Ian McMilan and Jesse Henderson

This is yet another independent film made in Portland. Writer-director Chapin Hemmingway’s most recent feature is a fascinating look at a three friends returning home after the death of one of their group. But while the premise might sound familiar, the film is anything but as it delivers as powerful an ending to a film as I have ever seen. I came to The Gray Area through Jesse Henderson, who had appeared in Justin Koleszar’s One Foot in the Gutter. The other draw for me was the appearance of Benjamin Farmer who was so impressive in The Falls films by Jon Garcia. Like so many of the great films coming out of Portland, this has a decidedly autobiographical feel, and an emphasis on character and drama that seems unique to the filmmakers in that area. The one area where so many small films fail tends to be in the screenplay, but this one is quite good. Hemmingway and his producer, Tyson Balcomb, have written a believable script that gives the actors a natural framework on which to work. One scene in particular, where the three leads are saying a few words before scattering their friend’s ashes, is a clinic on how to differentiate characters in the writing, but this is just one part of an impressive overall production.

The film opens with some nice establishing shots around Portland, night gradually falling as the credits roll, and ending on a shot of the still body of Jesse Henderson in a car. From there the narrative begins with Gavin Brisol as small-time actor in L.A., picking up Michelle Damis by appealing to her vanity. The next morning he gets up from her bed--where she’s still asleep--and tries to write a note but has to look in her purse to get her name. He goes in to work as a barista at a coffee house, and soon finds out from a friend that Henderson has been found dead in his car. Bristol flies into Portland the next day and is met by Morgan Lee at the airport, who takes him to his parent’s house to wait for the funeral. That night Bristol, who has had a drinking problem, takes some pills and washes them down with whisky. While he’s in the pool ex-girlfriend Meredith Adelaide shows up, but leaves soon after when she realizes she can’t have an honest conversation with him about Henderson. On the way to pick up their other friend from the airport, Lee tells Bristol that Henderson’s death might not have been an overdose but a hot shot, a lethal dose of drugs that dealers sell to customers who get behind and don’t pay. Finally they pick up Ian McMilan, a soldier on leave for the funeral, and the group is complete.

Bristol is feeling the need to rekindle his relationship with Adelaide, though more out of physical familiarity than emotional desire. But the real drama turns on how the three friends decide to deal with Henderson’s death by investigating whether it might have been murder. The film primarily revolves around Gavin Bristol, an actor who had already made a couple of appearances in the Twilight films. He does a good job here, but the drug abuse aspect of his character seems a little clichéd and at times his affectations tend to stand in for acting. It’s really Morgan Lee and Ian McMilan who do the bulk of the heavy lifting during the film. The only other real questionable moment in the screenplay is when the friends are presented with Henderson’s ashes by his mother, Trish Egan, and McMilan doesn’t know what to do. With his military background, however, he should have been the one in the group to voluntarily take the lead. Other than that, however, McMilan does some solid work as the self-assured war veteran, especially in the ending. For me, however, Morgan Lee is the real standout as the former drug addict who feels survivor guilt for getting out of the life while Henderson succumbed.

Of the other notable performances in the film, one is Benjamin Farmer as a drug dealer. The simple juxtaposition of his scene with that of fellow drug dealer Joaquin Fernandez during their interrogation shows Farmer to be the far superior actor. The other is by Manna Phommathep as a drug distributor, and his scene in the climax is also very well done. While Meredith Adelaide is breathtaking in her brief scene by the pool, she unfortunately has very little else to do in the story. The ending of the film is as disturbing as it is surprising, and is no doubt one of the reasons the film has had such positive reviews. In addition to the drama, however, there are also some nice bits of humor in the screenplay, beginning with Bristol looking for Damis’s ID in her purse. And when Bristol insists on taking his convertible to the airport, McMilan looks in the back and says, “Where am I supposed to sit?” But Hemmingway also has nice way with visual humor. The tableaux after the funeral where the friends are lined up on the couch and given the urn by Egan is terrific. Like so many of the films coming out of Portland, the cinematography is beautiful, especially the scene at the beach where the friends go to scatter Henderson’s ashes, and the montage where the friends go to the drug house is also quite good. The Gray Area is a solid piece of filmmaking from Chapin Hemmingway, and hopefully we’ll see more from him in the future.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Black Angel (1946)

Director: Roy William Neill                              Writer: Roy Chanslor
Film Score: Frank Skinner                              Cinematography: Paul Ivano
Starring: Dan Duryea, June Vincent, Peter Lorre and Broderick Crawford

Universal wasn’t really known for their noir films, but they did produce a few gems like Double Indemnity. This, however, isn’t one of them. Black Angel is based on the novel by Cornell Woolrich, one of his “black” series of thrillers and, whether the fault lies in the original novel or was simply butchered by screenwriter Roy Chanslor, the screenplay is dreadful. There are just too many places in the plot that don’t make sense at all and after a while it becomes too difficult to suspend disbelief. That being said, however, it still manages to be a watchable film, and that is due primarily to the actors. Had this been a low-budget, poverty row production it would have had no redeeming features. But the four big names, Dan Duryea, Peter Lorre, Broderick Crawford and Wallace Ford, are pros who bring a wealth of experience in tremendous films with them. It doesn’t make the screenplay any better, but it does make the overall film more palatable. June Vincent was the only real leading lady Universal had at the time. She had starred in their Phantom of the Opera sequel, The Climax with Boris Karloff two years earlier, but by the mid-fifties she had moved almost exclusively into television.

The film begins in Los Angeles with Dan Duryea on the sidewalk looking up at the single light on in a high-rise apartment building. The camera pushes in to the interior, Constance Dowling getting dressed in her bedroom. When the doorbell buzzes she pulls a gun out of her top drawer, but it’s only a delivery from Duryea. Nevertheless, she calls down to the doorman to stop him from coming up. As he’s leaving the building, Peter Lorre strolls in and goes right up, and the whole time Broderick Crawford and his partner are casing the joint. Duryea drowns his sorrows by playing the piano in a bar and Wallace Ford comes in to take him home. A few hours later John Phillips arrives at Dowling’s apartment, comes in and touches just about everything before finding her dead. When the killer gives him the slip he gives chase but attempts to avoid being seen by the maid. Unfortunately she gets a good look at him running down the stairs. Crawford and his partner then show up at the house a short while later and while his wife, June Vincent, defends his innocence, it doesn’t look good for Phillips. The plot finally gets going when Phillips is convicted of murder.

Vincent, getting no help from Crawford, then launches into her own investigation in an attempt to clear her husband before he gets the death penalty. At first she want to lay the blame on Duryea, until Ford tells her that he was locked in his room the whole night and she realizes he’s not the killer. But it’s not until he goes over to her house that Duryea realizes Phillips didn’t do it. It was someone else who went into the building when he was going out. In addition to the acting, the direction also helps the film. I’m not a big fan of Dan Duryea, primarily because he’s a terrible over actor and doesn’t have a lot of subtlety even when he isn’t. He’s definitely tolerable here, which is a nice surprise. Peter Lorre’s presence, on the other hand, is completely wasted. His part is small, and the role itself is another part of a bad screenplay. He’s supposed to be a nightclub owning mobster, and yet he simpers around the set with absolutely no sense of menace. Broderick Crawford’s homicide detective is far more threatening, but again the part is tiny, as is Wallace Ford’s. June Vincent is left to carry the picture and she does a decent job and is one, among very few, reasons to watch the film.

Cornell Woolrich’s story is very derivative of another of his novels, The Phantom Lady, adapted for the screen by RKO two years earlier. In that one it’s the protagonist’s secretary who attempts to find the woman he was with to prove he didn’t kill his wife, rather than the brooch from this picture that proves he didn’t kill his lover. Roy William Neill helmed Universal’s Sherlock Holmes series and, though the cinematography isn’t particularly inventive for its day, he and cinematographer Paul Ivano do some terrific moving camera work. But Neill’s unwillingness to overuse the device is what makes it particularly arresting when he does use it. He also has a very nice montage at the end of the film that reveals the killer. The music in the film is right in Frank Skinner’s wheelhouse. Unlike most of the composers in that era he didn’t come from a classical music background but as an arranger for dance bands, and the score is primarily dance music. The songs “Heartbreak,” “Time Will Tell,” and “I Want to be Talked About” were written by Edgar Fairchild and Jack Brooks and were all sung by June Vincent on the soundtrack. Though Black Angel has been called a cult classic, I’d call it a B-movie with big stars, interesting but far from essential.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Beau Geste (1939)

Director: William A. Wellman                        Writer: Robert Carson
Film Score: Alfred Newman                          Cinematography: Theodor Sparkuhl
Starring: Gary Cooper, Ray Milland, Robert Preston and Susan Hayward

Beau Geste is another in the long line of films from the magical year of 1939. The story was adapted from the novel by Percival Christopher Wren, first published in 1924. Of course there was a popular silent version made two years later, starring Ronald Coleman, Noah Beery and William Powell, and the ’39 version is a near identical remake. In 1966 the film was remade again, this time in widescreen Technicolor with Guy Stockwell and Telly Savalas. But the classic version is the one starring Gary Cooper. While ostensibly an adventure film, it is primarily a mystery story revolving around three orphaned brothers who grow up in a British estate that has fallen on hard times. Growing up alongside the brothers are the heir to the estate, and the lady of the manor’s female ward. One of the fascinating bits of trivia about the film is that four of its stars would go on to win Academy Awards, Cooper, Milland, Preston and Crawford, and here they all appear together before any of them had won. And yet it was Brian Donlevy who would be the only actor on this film to be nominated for an Oscar. The film also sports a terrific score by Alfred Newman, the same year as he composed the music for The Hunchback of Notre Dame starring Charles Laughton.

The film begins in the North African dessert. Captain of the French Foreign Legion, James Stephenson, comes upon a fort that appears to be occupied by troops, but all of the soldiers are dead at their posts. He sends Robert Preston inside to investigate, but when he doesn’t come back Stephenson investigates for himself and finds no sign of Preston. He does find two men who appeared to have fought each other to the death--one of whom wrote a confession that he stole a rare sapphire--and later they disappear too. When shots ring out the soldiers retreat and the fort is burned from the inside. The film then goes back fifteen years to a wealthy estate in England where three orphaned brothers live with Heather Thatcher, down on her luck with only the sapphire left, and the visiting Stephenson asks to see it. Years later, when the sapphire turns up missing, Garry Cooper leaves a note saying he’s taken it and disappeared. Younger brother Robert Preston then leaves a note for the third brother, Ray Milland, saying he took it, and Milland leaves to find them both, leaving Susan Hayward at the estate to join the foreign legion. With the three boys reunited in Africa under the charge of Brian Donlevy.

It takes a long time for something to happen in North Africa, and for a long while most of the action takes place in the barracks. J. Carrol Naish overhears the brothers talking about the sapphire and is caught trying to steal it, but before the men can torture him Donlevey makes him his corporal and takes over the attempt to get it from the brothers by shipping Preston off to another post, along with their friends Broderick Crawford and Charles Barton. But the action eventually comes, along with the revelation about the sapphire. The film is something of an ensemble piece, and while Cooper is the nominal star he’s really no more prominent in the film that the other two leads. The story is kind of odd, to say the least, and yet it is infinitely watchable. That is to say, it’s ultimately a rewarding film and the odd structure ultimately pays off in the end. Though Ray Milland and Robert Preston have substantial roles in the film, this was Susan Hayward’s film debut and she only a brief part in the middle of the story. The other notable fact about the film is the appearance of Donald O’Connor as the young Beau Geste, one of several films he appeared in as a child actor. The direction by William Wellman is good, though nothing stands out as being exceptional. The only other Oscar nomination was for the art design by Hans Dreier and Robert Odell, but given the wealth of great films that year there was little chance of it winning an award. While Beau Geste is not quite a classic it is a fun and interesting film that is worth seeing.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Freshman (1925)

Director: Fred C. Newmeyer                         Writers: Sam Taylor & Ted Wilde
Film Score: Robert Israel (2002)                   Cinematography: Walter Lundin
Starring: Harold Lloyd, Jobyna Ralston, Brooks Benedict and Pat Harmon

While Harold Lloyd is often thought of as the third of the great silent comedians, that third step is a long way down. It’s easy to make the case that his popularity lifts him up to the exalted heights of Keaton and Chaplin, but that popularity was primarily a function of his prolific output. The step down, however, comes from the fact that his films were not the creative vision of a single genius, but the product of a talented team. Still, Lloyd was a talented actor and comedian, and as distant as he is from the top two, the step down from him to the murky pool containing number four is even greater. The Freshman is one of Lloyd’s best known comedies and was so influential that it even inspired Keaton to make College two years later. Where Chaplin had his tramp costume, and Keaton the flat hat, Lloyd’s distinctive bit of wardrobe was his black, horn-rimmed glasses. The had just begun to be popular with young people in the early twenties, but Lloyd’s use of them made them something of a fad at the time and forever cemented his screen personality. Rather than an eccentric character, he was the regular man on the street who started out weak and abused, but always ended strong by exerting the everyman strength that had been within him all along.

The opening credits are terrific, with Lloyd’s name and the title of the film on a college pendant fluttering in the wind, the stadium in the background. The film opens with a nice sight gag at the home of Lloyd, with his mother telling father how much he has saved for spending money to go to college. The total is an impressive four hundred and eighty five dollars . . . but he started out with four hundred and forty. Excited about going to college, Lloyd has been practicing yells and watching a film called “The College Hero” at the theater, and dressing and acting just like the star. Also on the way to the college town is Jobyna Ralston, but she is on her way back home to work as a maid in her mother’s boarding house. Seated next to her on the dining car in the train, Lloyd can’t stop from helping her with her crossword puzzle. When he arrives at the train station, Lloyd is tricked into stealing the Dean’s car and making a speech in his place. This is just one of a number of running gags in which the Dean is on the receiving end of Lloyd’s clumsiness. After offering to buy ice cream for the gang backstage, they invite half the student body and suddenly Lloyd is looking for cheap rooms after his savings account has been drained. At the boarding house he is reunited with Ralston, to the delight of both of them, and when she reads a joke article about Lloyd in the school newspaper, she doesn’t care, and cuts out his picture anyway.

The centerpiece of the film, of course, is the big football game. Knowing he is attempting to emulate the most popular man on campus, James Anderson, one of the boys who is trying to humiliate Lloyd, Brooks Benedict, tells him he must try out for the football team. This, of course, gives Lloyd the ability to perform a number of gags, none of them really genius, but the aggregate is impressive. Pat Harmon plays the tough-as-nails football coach who winds up being the butt of several gags, but eventually Lloyd is persuaded to be the team’s tackling dummy, with obvious results. Given equal time in the second half of the film, though, is the big Fall Frolic, where Lloyd’s tailor follows him around trying to keep his suit on him. Lloyd’s regular directors, Sam Taylor--who also co-wrote the screenplay--and Fred C. Newmeyer actually do a tremendous job, and some of their moving camera work is quite good for the time. While not the athlete that Keaton was, Lloyd does a nice job with the football game, and is solid in his physical comedy. The place that Lloyd probably excelled over Keaton was in terms of story. All of his films have really coherent story lines and this is one of the highlights of a Lloyd comedy. Along with the image of him hanging off the clock in Safety Last, the football scenes in The Freshman are the most iconic of his lengthy and popular career.