Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Extraordinary Measures (2010)

Director: Tom Vaughan                                    Writers: Robert Nelson Jacobs
Film Score: Andrea Guerra                              Cinematography: Andrew Dunn
Starring: Brendan Fraser, Harrison Ford, Keri Russell and Jared Harris

It’s difficult to tell at times if this film is worth watching simply because of the story, or whether it was actually a good movie. Extraordinary Measures is the inspiring true story of John Crowley, adapted from the book The Cure: How a Father Raised $100 Million—and Bucked the Medical Establishment—in a Quest to Save His Children by Geeta Anand. He and his wife Aileen had two children born with Pompe, a devastating genetic disease in which muscle tissue is unable to burn sugar. Life expectancy for most children born with the disorder is less than ten years. Brendan Fraser plays Crowley and that might be the weakest point of the film. While his early films are not worth watching at all, he did make a pivot toward more adult roles in 2004 with a nice part in the ensemble film Crash, which won the Academy Award that year. This role draws on the same limited dramatic range he possesses and was the Achilles’ heel for a lot of reviewers. It was almost that for me, but not quite, as the story was important enough to keep watching. Harrison Ford’s role is also a bit one-note, though that’s not necessarily his fault. He plays a research physician in Nebraska who has come up with a new way of delivering enzymes to the muscles that has a greater chance of helping the muscles burn sugar that those previously tried. The only problem is that all of his research is simply theoretical, and nowhere near ready to be used as a medical therapy.

The film begins in Portland, with corporate executive Brendan Fraser late for his daughter’s birthday party. Meredith Droeger has Pompe and is confined to a wheelchair, but she has lots of personality. Her younger brother, Diego Velazquez, is a more challenging case, and yet it is she who winds up in the hospital first. After she makes it out the doctor says another respiratory episode might be her last. Desperate to find a treatment, Frazer begins devouring research on the disease and keeps coming across the name of one particular doctor, Harrison Ford. After numerous calls and emails get no response, he simply decides to leave work one day and fly to Nebraska to meet with Ford. But the cranky, eccentric researcher has no time for him. That is, until Fraser pretends to be an investor who wants to give him half a million dollars to start his own lab. Back in Portland, Fraser now has to decide if he is going to leave his corporate job--and the medical insurance that comes with it--or along with wife Keri Russell create a Pompe foundation overnight and try to get the money together before Ford comes out to meet with them. Of course, they choose the later. But Ford has done his research and when he comes out to meet with them, he calls their bluff. Nevertheless, he’s tired of university politics and he decides to meet with venture capitalist David Clennon, who gives them 10 million and a year to make something happen.

Fraser makes a valiant attempt at wringing some emotion from himself, but it’s ultimately unconvincing and the film never really recovers from that. Fortunately, he’s surrounded by a pretty impressive cast. Keri Russell as his wife picks up a lot of the slack in the domestic scenes, but Fraser is absolutely buried by Harrison Ford in their scenes together, even though the writing leaves the veteran actor with little else to do but act irritated and yell at people. It’s great to see David Clennon in anything after some memorable supporting work in the seventies and eighties. Later in the film Clennon decides to pull his support and Fraser makes a successful sales pitch to a large pharmaceutical company in Seattle run by Patrick Bauchau, to buy he and Ford’s new startup. His right hand man is Jared Harris and he and Fraser clash almost immediately. Other notable appearances come from Courtney Vance who plays against type as a timid father with two Pompe kids, and a terrific cameo by Dee Wallace as a bartender who thought “Doc” was just Ford’s nickname. Local Portland actors Gavin Bristol and Jeff Hammond can be seen as Harris’s assistant and a lab tech, respectively, and the real John Crowley appears as an extra as one of Clennon’s partners.

Director Tom Vaughan had worked primarily in television, with only one feature to his name before this film, and it shows. But does some interesting work here. In fact, the most memorable aspect of the film is not the characters at all, it’s the sets. The film was shot primarily in Oregon, including downtown Portland, St. Paul, Tualatin, Manzanita, Beaverton, and Vancouver, Washington. One of the most interesting locations was for the pharmaceutical company in Seattle. For that, Vaughan was allowed to shoot on the Nike campus in Beaverton, the only time it has been seen on film like this. The shots of laboratories, the houses, the OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital, Veterans Affairs Medical Center, and aerial shots of the Oregon coastline, as well as establishing shots in Nebraska and Seattle, are all beautifully done and provide a major aesthetic component to a film that is heavy on dialogue and light on drama. While the lives of the children hang in the balance--an important plot point--there’s a sense that either the drug therapy will come in time or it won’t, and the real interest lies in how Fraser tries to cut that time down rather than whether or not the children will die. Extraordinary Measures is an amazing story that was turned into a rather lackluster film. Still, there are things to enjoy, the visuals above all, and the improbable nature of the eventual outcome.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Rear Window (1954)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock                             Writer: John Michael Hayes
Film Score: Franz Waxman                          Cinematography: Robert Burks
Starring: James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Wendell Corey and Thelma Ritter

As much as I love North by Northwest, if pressed, I would have to say that my favorite Hitchcock film of all time is Rear Window. Peter Bogdanovich called it the finest expression of Hitchcock’s art and I would agree. It is as close to being a perfect film as there is. The voyeuristic aspect of the story complements the director’s unique vision and the actors are as good as it gets. Both Hitchcock and screenwriter John Michael Hayes were nominated for Academy Awards, but with On the Waterfront and The Caine Mutiny being nominated that year, there was no way a mere suspense film could have won. Still, it was a pretty blatant snub that the film wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar for best picture, and that the Thalberg award in 1968 was the closest the master of suspense ever came to winning a statuette. The film was based on the story by Cornell Woolrich called “It Had to be Murder” which had only three real characters, Jeff, confined to a wheelchair, his detective friend, and a black manservant. Hitchcock gave the story to John Michael Hayes to adapt and added the entirety of the love interest and the nurse, as well as most of the dialogue at Hitch’s suggestion.

The story begins with photographer Jimmy Stewart laid up in a wheelchair after breaking his leg while shooting a crash at an auto race. He is visited daily by insurance nurse Thelma Ritter, and his girlfriend Grace Kelly. New York City is in the middle of a heat wave and so Stewart not only can see all of his neighbors through their open windows, but can hear much of their conversations as well. Among the cast of neighbors is a bickering couple across the way, Raymond Burr and Irene Winston. Winston is bed-ridden while Burr takes care of her. One night Stewart hears an errant scream, and the next morning Winston is gone. When Stewart sees Burr taking several trips out of the apartment on a rainy night with his sample case, he gets suspicious. Meanwhile Stewart is getting pressure from Kelly to give up his nomadic lifestyle and settle down, preferably with her. But while their arguments get them nowhere, he does manage to convince her that Burr has murdered his wife, especially after Stewart is able to enlist the help of a detective friend, Wendell Corey. Though Corey initially dismisses the idea, this only inspires the couple to ever more daring attempts to prove Burr’s guilt.

One of the most impressive features of the production is the set, which required that the floor be cut out of one of Paramount’s sound stages in order to accommodate the four-story apartment buildings that faced the interior courtyard that Stewart’s rear apartment looked out on. As with earlier films like Lifeboat and his previous production, Dial M for Murder, Hitchcock thrived on the claustrophobic set, which enabled him to control every aspect of the production from the comfort of his chair on the set. The limitations that would have frustrated other directors, Hitchcock used to perfection. The Greenwich Village apartment is the lens through which the entire story is told. Stewart alternately uses binoculars and a telephoto camera lens to get a better view of the other characters and, with very few exceptions, the audience only views them from afar, from Stewart’s point of view. But Hitchcock also provides suspense by showing details to the viewer while Stewart is asleep, as well as sprinkling the film with some great comedic dialogue. One of the other interesting aspects of the film is that the soundtrack uses exclusively diegetic music, that is, only music that is created by the characters within the film, either on the piano, from the radio, or by whistling. Nevertheless, the great Franz Waxman’s opening title music scored for a jazz combo is one of his most distinctive compositions.

Jimmy Stewart is wonderful as Hitchcock’s favorite Everyman. Like the director himself, he engineers the investigation from his chair, delighted when things work out and horrified when they don’t. Grace Kelly, coming off a strong performance in Hitchcock’s previous film, has arguably her finest role here. She plays a high-fashion New York socialite who dreams of turning Stewart into a fashion and portrait photographer, but is willing to risk her life to show that she has everything it takes to exist in his world as well. Thelma Ritter and Wendell Corey perfectly complement the principals as the wise-cracking nurse and the unimaginative police detective. Though I’ve seen the film dozens of times, I was pleased to be able to attend a theatrical screening of the film as part of Turner Classic Movies’ presentation through Fathom Events. It made me realize just how much is lost by watching the film on television. The buildings loomed up from the screen and the interiors made me feel as if I was in the room with the actors. Though it’s a cliché by now, this truly is the way films were meant to be seen. Rear Window has never lost its power to both thrill and entertain, and as such it remains a testament to Alfred Hitchcock’s genius as a filmmaker.

Show People (1928)

Director: King Vidor                                      Writers: Agnes Johnston & Laurence Stallings
Film Score: William Axt                                Cinematography: Charles Van Enger
Starring: Marion Davies, William Haines, Dell Henderson and Harry Gribbon

Hollywood was going through a rough transition in 1928. With the success of The Jazz Singer over at Warner Brothers solidifying the legitimacy of sound, the other studios suddenly found themselves behind the technological curve with hundreds of silent films still in the production pipeline. Nevertheless, that was also the first year of the Academy Awards and with films like William Wellman’s Wings and F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise as examples of the very pinnacle of silent film art, there was still a lot to admire. Show People, by King Vidor, was one of the first of it’s kind, a film about the movie making industry, and it would be a formula that the studios would return to countless times during the golden age as homages to silent pictures of the past gained traction with moviegoers. The film is a light comedy starring Marion Davies, who had been mired in large, extravagant productions due to husband William Randolph Hearst’s influence. But she did poorly in those pictures, prompting the less than flattering portrayal of her in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. Had she been in more films like this, however, her reputation might have been more positive.

In many ways the film is merely an excuse to parade some of MGM’s biggest stars across the screen. The plot is corny and unbelievable and unfortunately set the stage for all kinds of similarly stilted attempts at celebrating the silent era from Hollywood Cavalcade to Chaplin. Marion Davies plays a Southern belle who comes to California with her father, Dell Henderson, a Southern colonel convinced that her daughter’s parochial acting success will earn her an automatic entre into the film business. But she is herded into the line of extras along with hundreds of others, oblivious to the fact that she has no talent at all. In the commissary comedic actor William Haines takes a liking to her and gets her a spot in one of the comedies he’s filming. The director, Harry Gribbon, sets up her scene for her and Davis, convinced she is about to walk into a dramatic masterpiece, is hit with a pie in the face. Her outrage, however, is perfect for the scene and after a bout of tears learning what her fate is to be, quickly climbs the ladder of success, moving beyond the comedies Haines is stuck in and becoming a big star. When this happens she loses the charm she once had and, believing her own press, shuns the lowly comedians, including the heartbroken Haines, who gave her her start in the business. But Haines isn’t about to give up on the girl he loves.

Marion Davies is not a great actress, but she does have a certain amount of charm that is effective in a role like this. William Haines, on the other hand, tends to wear thin after a while, but that may have been due to the part he plays rather than his acting ability. The great Dell Henderson tends to steal the show when he’s onscreen. Taken as the frothy comedy it is, it’s not an unentertaining film overall. John Gilbert makes a couple of appearances as himself, as does director King Vidor. But there is also a great scene involving Charlie Chaplin. Seeing Davies in her first comedy, he goes over to get her autograph but she is so busy talking to Haines that she ignores Chaplin, only learning afterwards who he really was. The Washington Center for the Performing Arts has, for years now, presented a silent film series each spring. Unfortunately, I’ve never had the opportunity to attend. But a few weeks ago I was able to see their presentation of the MGM film Show People with an original score performed on the Wurlitzer organ by Dennis James. Of course “The Mighty Wurlitzer” has been denigrated over the years as being hopelessly old-fashioned and out of date, as passé as silent films themselves. But this was an absolutely delightful afternoon. The instrument was impressive and added another dimension to an average film and made it a truly memorable experience.