Friday, July 31, 2015

Tandem Hearts (2010)

Director: Jon Garcia                                      Writer: Jon Garcia
Film Score: Toby Nathaniel                           Cinematography: Jeff Hammond
Starring: Quinn Allan, Heather Harlan, Rebecca Teran and Nick Ferrucci

While Jon Garcia’s first film, Tandem Hearts, is definitely a first film, it is also a harbinger of the greatness that would follow. Shot in 2009, but not completed until nearly two years later, it is the story of a young couple who have run out steam and attempt to jump start their relationship by moving to a new city to start a new life. Unfortunately, once they get there they realize they have brought their moribund relationship along with them. While the tendency in Hollywood might have been to manufacture some kind of happy ending for the film--even in the sense of simply moving on--Garcia allows the viewer to wallow in the pain. But it’s not a masochistic experience because of it. There’s a wistfulness to the story that is undeniable, and though the description bitter-sweet has lost its meaning through overuse, there seems no more accurate phrase to describe the experience. While many small, independent films painfully attempt to portray reality--and to be fair there’s some of that here--there is also a sense that the purpose here is somewhat larger. The emotions that are pulled from the audience have been done so in a very careful and deliberate way by a thoughtful artist with a distinctive vision that would fully show itself in his very next film, The Falls.

This film begins in an old garage, with Quinn Allan walking over to a covered, tandem bicycle and pulling off the tarp. This is followed by a very nice 3-D animated title sequence. Each act of the film is also prefaced by Allan taking out a fresh CD and writing on it. The first section, in Boise, Idaho, is labeled Track 1. It begins at a going away party for Allan at the house he’s living in before he moves to Portland, Oregon. Later that night in bed his girlfriend, Heather Harlan, seems a bit nervous about the move they’re making, and they turn away from each other to go to sleep. But the next morning they finish packing the U-Haul trailer and hit the road. During the trip, however, there is a sense of unease working in Harlan. While Allan takes the trip in stride, sleeping in the car or the hotel, Harlan is restless, as though she’s stuck on the back end of that tandem bike with someone else steering. Track 2 begins outside of Portland at a gas station, stopping for supplies. Once they reach the furnished house they’re renting, a certain gender stereotype creeps into the shots, with Allan checking out the TV and pulling down a giant sword from the wall, while Harlan takes a look in the kitchen. After unpacking they go to a bar and a couple of locals give them the lay of the land.

From there the daily routine of existence begins, working on the car, going shopping, and finding jobs. Harlan goes to a party without Allan, and talks about moving to Portland because she wanted a change, the subtext being that she may want a change from Allan. When Harlan gets a job, however, things settle down and the audience gets its first glimpse of what the couple is really like together as they make dinner, sing together, and watch TV. Garcia wonderfully transitions into the couple’s problems by showing the first rain in the film. Then Harlan engineers about the most awkward sex scene on film. Nothing dramatic, but emblematic of the couple’s lack of intimacy, especially considering they haven’t had sex since they left Idaho. The story is not a unique one, and in many ways a simple recounting of the plot does a real disservice to the film. Right from the opening, the viewer is aware that this is a director who has a passion for visuals. The glow of the sunlight washing out Allan’s features in the opening shot as he enters the garage is beautiful. And the road sequence on the way from Idaho to Oregon begins with a terrific montage.

But there are also some questionable choices as well. Garcia has his cinematographers pull out of focus frequently and while the effect is interesting in a way--like Terrence Malick’s elliptical editing--it soon becomes a cliché that draws attention to itself rather than something uniquely part of his directorial vision. And there are standard problems with the screenplay, a typically weak point in many first films, and young actors working too hard to play normal. In many ways Garcia attempts to do more here than he’s capable of, but rather than failing it comes off as young director stretching himself, working at the edge of his abilities, and as a result it is far more admirable than amateurish. For one thing, his use of close-ups is particularly distinctive, a trait that he would carry through to his later films with great effect. For another, his use of space makes the set--in this case a rented house--become almost another character in the film in a way that few directors of any stripe are able to do. Garcia also has a penchant for unique songs on his soundtrack, some of them written by him. But where in other independent films the lyrics can become intrusive, he seems to have a deft touch with knowing just how to use these songs for maximum effect

Quinn Allan, in his only his second feature, does a respectable job but seems to have the same issue that he did in his first film, The Roomies, in that he gets better as the picture progresses. In the early scenes he looks adrift in terms of how to play them, while in the later half of the picture he finally settles down and does some very good work. A similar effect haunts Heather Harlan’s work but again, after the breakup, she really begins to get comfortable in her character in a way that makes her much more believable in the second half of the film. Rebecca Teran is the friendly barista that Allan has a crush on, and she does a terrific job later on in the film, while Nick Ferrucci has only a small role as a guest at a couple of parties. Tom Stutzman begins his first scene, as a musician friend of Allan’s, as a stock character, but quickly makes an impact as someone who’s very genuine. The title of the film, along with the visual of Allan riding the bike without a partner, had the potential to be a lot more powerful symbolically than the way in which it was actually used, but the symbolism is still there. The most powerful stamp of the director, however, is in the way he ends his films. Can I call it “Vintage Garcia?” Tandem Heats may not have been the best cinematic meal I’ve ever eaten, but the dessert Garcia serves at the end is the most satisfying I could ask for.

Chained (1934)

Director: Clarence Brown                                  Writer: John Lee Mahin
Film Score: Herbert Stothart                             Cinematography: George J. Folsey
Starring: Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Otto Kruger and Stuart Erwin

Chained is the fifth in a series of eight early MGM films featuring Joan Crawford and Clark Gable. The film came at the tail end of the pre-code era, and though it ostensibly deals with the same kinds of subject matter as their earlier parings, it’s clear that the controversial parts of the story have been considerably toned down to comply with the new regulations. The story was conceived by Edgar Selwyn, a co-founder of Goldwyn Pictures as well as a director, producer and writer for films, and prior to that a theater producer, director, playwright and actor on the stage. During the production cinematographer George Folsey noticed the way Joan Crawford looked as she happened to walk beneath a small spotlight high up in the lighting grid. Crawford was so thrilled with the way it highlighted her eyes and cheekbones that she demanded to be lit that way for the rest of her career, and Folsey would go on to film seven more pictures with the actress. Crawford and Gable would be joined by the great Otto Kruger, who had only begun contract work for MGM the previous year under Edgar Selwyn, and the comedic actor Stuart Erwin, a staple for the studio since the introduction of sound.

The film begins with Joan Crawford out driving a speedboat with Wade Boteler, racing through New York Harbor. When she’s through she walks up to an office building to visit Otto Kruger. She tells him that she wants to go back to work, but he genially tells her no. Then he says he has good news, that his wife is back from Europe and he can finally get a divorce to be with her. But Kruger’s wife, Marjorie Gateson, shows up at the office and flatly refuses saying she’ll fight any attempt to end their marriage. When Crawford tells him she’s willing to be a kept woman, Kruger puts her on a ship to South America so that she can have some time to think about it, and they’ll make arrangements when she gets back. Onboard the ship she meets Clark Gable, and his sidekick Stuart Erwin, but she’s initially so sad about being separated from Kruger that she doesn’t much care. The next day when she meets Gable at the pool she’s charmed and agrees to join him for a drink that evening. He can tell, however, that she’s thinking of another man. Nevertheless, they succeed in having lots of fun during their trip, though when they arrive in Buenos Aries the two say goodbye and assume they’ll never meet again. But it’s not long before Gable tracks Crawford down and takes her out to his cattle ranch.

One of the most interesting facets of the story is the last name of Joan Crawford’s character: Lovering. In one respect, it telegraphs the dramatic arch of the picture in the way that her character wants to have the ring that symbolizes love, a wedding band, and yet there seems to be no way for her to have that with Otto Kruger. And with the long voyage to think about it, there seems little doubt that her initial desire to become his mistress will not last through their separation, especially with Clark Gable around to fall in love with. The real conflict of the piece comes, then, when she goes back to New York and discovers that Kruger managed to get a divorce after all. Though the story is nothing--there’s barely a plot at all--it’s the actors that bring life to the picture and make it something worth watching. Gable is excellent, perhaps even better than his performance in It Happened One Night from earlier that same year, though it is admittedly a different type of role. The lack of extremes in the screenplay also helps Crawford to concentrate on her acting rather than emoting, and the two are very good together. Otto Kruger is stuck with the least interesting role in the film, and while it’s great to see him onscreen, it’s a part that anyone could have played. Stuart Erwin begins as the stereotypical sidekick, but manages to bring some warmth to the character of Gable’s best friend.

If the look of the film suffers, it’s from MGM’s claustrophobic style of production. While all of the studios did most of their work on sound stages, it tends to be more evident in Metro pictures, especially when it’s juxtaposed with the few exterior shots that are inserted, skeet shooting on the ship and riding horses on the ranch. The scene in the pool between Crawford and Gable is also a little awkward. They are supposed to be having fun and enjoying themselves, but it’s pretty clear from the scene that they are expending an awful lot of energy just to keep themselves afloat and they are gasping for breath much of the time. Director Clarence Brown does a good job with the moving camera, tracking the couple as they’re riding, or more impressively on the ship when they are on their walk, being led by a fully mobile camera that has no tracks. There are also a few distinctive character actors onboard. It’s nice to see Una O’Connor, though she’s in yet another servant role, but she’s very subdued here which makes for a nice look at her straight acting abilities. A young Mickey Rooney appears as one of the boys in the pool, Ward Bond is a ship steward, while Akim Tamiroff plays the big-hearted ranch chef. Chained may not be the best example of the Crawford-Gable team, but it is a satisfying film that actually benefits from the lack of extreme drama.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Dirigible (1931)

Director: Frank Capra                                      Writer: Jo Swerling
Music Dept.: David Broekman                         Cinematography: Joseph Walker
Starring: Jack Holt, Ralph Graves, Fay Wray and Hobart Bosworth

Long before the Hindenburg disaster at Lakehurst, New Jersey in 1937, people were aware of the dangers of lighter than air ships, and Columbia used that to it’s advantage in producing Dirigible, a suspense film revolving around the use of these aircraft by the Navy. The story comes from an original idea by U.S. Navy commander Frank Wilber Wead, who would also stay on the film as a technical advisor. It was adapted by Russian born Jo Swerling who would not only go on to be a major talent in Hollywood in the forties continuing his work with Frank Capra as well as working with Alfred Hitchcock, but he would win a Tony Award for his work on Broadway as a writer and lyricist. The film was inspired by the success of William Wellman’s Wings three years earlier, but while it has some aerial photography it lacks much in the way of realism the earlier film contains because it is so dependent upon special effects. The film was a major step forward in Columbia’s attempt to produce prestige pictures, and having Capra at the helm was certainly the way to achieve that. Unfortunately the story was a bit too speculative on the one hand, verging into science-fiction territory, and clichéd in terms of the romance on the other hand, and only received lukewarm reviews at the time.

The film begins with a dedication to the U.S. Navy for their assistance in the film. Jack Holt is called in to admiral Emmett Corrigan’s office and told he is to fly his dirigible to the South Pole. At the same time, explorer Hobart Bosworth is in Washington trying to get support for his South Pole expedition, and the admiral wants Holt to convince Bosworth to go by balloon in order to garner support for the ships in the public eye. At a naval air show at the air station in Lakehurst, Bosworth is suitably impressed, with both the balloon and the coast-to-coast flight of Ralph Graves that ends the same afternoon. That night when Holt comes over to congratulate Graves, he finds his wife, Fay Wray, alone and crying. It’s clear she has affection for Holt, possibly more than for her adventure-loving absentee husband. When Holt convinces Graves to go on the South Pole expedition, it’s more than she can take, and she begs Holt to tell Graves not to go. But the dirigible is testing out a new airplane tether that can launch and land a plane right on the ship, and while Graves is clearly the man for the job, he honors Wray’s request and takes him off the trip. But when the airship goes down in a storm, Graves takes a leave of absence from the Navy and decides to go with Bosworth on the expedition by boat, much to the dismay of Fay Wray.

The second half of the film concerns the suspense surrounding the expedition to reach the pole, intercut with the melodrama of Wray being left by herself with Holt. Though Joseph Walker is credited as the director of photography on the film, there were several cameramen working on the impressive aerial and miniature sequences. The special effects showing the air ships in long shot are also very good for the day. Capra does a great job with the moving camera on the ground as well, whether its panning behind Graves’ trophies, or walking along behind Holt and Graves in the hanger. Even at this early stage in his career, the director has a strong cinematic sense, using close ups and long shots, especially those from the top of the blimp hanger, to great effect. The acting is par for the course, though some is certainly better than others. The real low point is the posturing of the all-American hero role of Ralph Graves, which might have played well at the time but seems incredibly dated today. And of course what would a Hollywood film be without overt racism against blacks, this time in the form of Clarence Muse, who aside from having to read horribly stereotyped lines, is alternately patronized and abused by the other actors throughout the expedition. Overall, Dirigible is a solid production, a must for fans of early Capra, but a well-produced pre-code film in its own right.

Three Kings (1999)

Director: David O. Russell                                Writer: David O. Russell
Film Score: Carter Burwell                               Cinematography: Newton Thomas Sigel
Starring: George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube and Cliff Curtis

Three Kings is essentially Kelley’s Heroes set during Desert Storm. George Clooney, of course, is Clint Eastwood, but there’s something more to this film than a quest for gold. There’s an underlying morality tale at work that is absent from the earlier film. And I’m still not sure if it makes it better or worse. In some respects there’s an element of bait and switch in the film. It begins as a comedy, almost a farce, and halfway through it turns into something quite different. It’s the difference between a long-range war with bombs and airplanes and casualty lists, and the up-close and personal view of the war from the ground, where innocent men, women, and children are killed for reasons that have nothing to do with them. They were simply in the way when the Americans came through. And who is going to give them the answers? Who are they going to hate? They can’t hate Saddam Hussein because he owns the country, owns the military, and owns their lives. But they can blame the Americans, for asking them to rise up against the dictator and then pulling out when their military objective is achieved, leaving them in the hands of the Iraqi army, reprisals carried out against them to assure that no one will attempt it again. It’s a powerful message with no real answer, especially in light of the war in Iraq that would happen four years later.

The film begins with the end of the Persian Gulf War. Mark Wahlberg ask his fellow soldiers if they are still shooting, and when he can’t get an answer, goes ahead and kills an Arab with his rifle--to the delight of his comrades, but to his dismay. The atmosphere is like a frat party for most of the men. At the same time two female reporters, Nora Dunne and Judy Greer, are competing for what little scraps of newsworthy events they can cover while at the same time the military is not anxious to share much with them at all. Add to that the fact that George Clooney has been assigned to assist Dunne and yet he’s carrying on a sexual relationship with Greer, and the tension between the two escalates even further. The division is ordered to capture more prisoners the following day, and Wahlberg discovers a document on one of them that tells the location of a cache of gold stolen from the Kuwaitis by Saddam Hussein. He takes the map to their commanding officer, Ice Cube, who he knows the location of Saddam’s bunkers. When Nora Dunne hears a rumor about the map, she and Clooney begin asking questions, and after Clooney manages to ditch her he eventually finds it and he and Wahlberg and Ice Cube decide to go after the gold without telling anyone.

They drive up fast to the village and disarm the guards, but while the three are inside the driver is besieged by the people in the village who believe the Americans are there to liberate them. They leave when they are told the bunker has no gold, but Clooney think’s it’s actually hidden in a well and they return to get it. In addition to the gold, however, they also find political prisoner Cliff Curtis and his family. The Iraqi soldiers even help them load the gold, but it’s also clear that they’re going to kill the entire village when they leave and Clooney can’t live with that, so he tries to take the villagers with them. The Iraqi soldiers blow up their trucks and the Americans are seemingly captured, but winds up in an underground village in the dunes. It’s then that Curtis offers to help them transport the gold in exchange for escorting him and the rest of the villagers to the Iranian border. With no other way to move the gold, the men reluctantly agree. While Clooney and Wahlberg are the nominal stars of the picture, Cliff Curtis is the moral center of the film, along with Saïd Taghmaoui who has suffered the same tragedy as Curtis but whose allegiance still resides with Hussein. There are also some nice cross-cultural scenes with Ice Cube, whose character is a Muslim and the hick driver who wants to be buried at one of the Muslim temples. And though filmed in the U.S. and Mexico, many of the Iraqi refugees were also played actual Iraqi refugees.

The producers had originally intended for Clint Eastwood to be offered the lead role, but the decision was ultimately made that a young man was needed and the part was offered first to Nicholas Cage, but eventually given to George Clooney. Like it’s predecessor, the film strives for a comic overtone that is in keeping with the time. In the seventies it was the hippie culture personified in Donald Sutherland’s character. In this film it is the caricature of the army in the Middle East. The men even argue about which specific derogatory terms they are allowed to call the Arabs that they capture. Wahlberg and Ice Cube argue about whether it’s Lexus or Infinity that makes a convertible. The soldiers skeet shoot with Nerf footballs, and a cow even explodes when it accidentally steps on a cluster bomb. Most of the humor comes from the fact that the men react to the bizarre happenings with no surprise at all. The film was made long after the use of digital color manipulation and so it’s odd to actually see a disclaimer at the beginning of the credits to the effect that the filmmakers did this on purpose. Three Kings was writer-director David O. Russell’s most successful film to date, and was released to generally positive reviews by critics. It has continued to gain critical respect through the years and despite its flaws it remains an important film about the first Iraq War.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Jagged Edge (1985)

Director: Richard Marquand                             Writer: Joe Eszterhas
Film Score: John Barry                                    Cinematography: Matthew F. Leonetti
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Glenn Close, Peter Coyote and Robert Loggia

Jagged Edge is a very neat courtroom thriller. Interestingly, there are some parallels between this film and The File on Thelma Jordon from 1950 in terms of the main character’s relationship with one of the lawyers in the courtroom and how the identity of the real murderer is kept from the audience until the very end. The screenplay was written by Joe Eszterhas, who would go on to pen other thrillers like Basic Instinct and the adaptation of Ira Levin’s Sliver. Director Richard Marquand, on the other hand, would make only one more film before his unexpected death two years later. He certainly had a deft hand as a director, and managed to raise this film above much of what was coming out at the time. His shot selections are well done, as is the lighting that he gets from cinematographer Matthew Leonetti, and he is able to build suspense in a very natural way. He is also assisted in this by composer John Barry. Although he gives in to the use of synthesizers in the film score--and they are used heavily at times--Barry’s use of them is done within the framework of a traditional orchestra, and so it works in a way that is not completely overbearing. During the very tense scenes it is reminiscent of something like Ennio Morricone’s work on John Carpenter's The Thing.

The film begins with the brutal murder of Maria Mayenzet. While assistant district attorney Peter Coyote is pulling into the scene of the crime, the radio announces that Mayenzet’s husband, Jeff Bridges, is being taken to the hospital. After examining the house, Coyote and the police detective Lance Henriksen go to the hospital to question Bridges, but they already suspect him because he inherits everything. His wife was a rich heiress, worth millions, who owned the newspaper Bridges was running. After the funeral the head of his firm, James Karen, suggest hiring an expert criminal lawyer but Bridges objects on the grounds that it will make him look even more guilty. The only one on their staff who has had any criminal experience, however, is Glenn Close, who just happened to be a former assistant district attorney under Coyote and there’s bad blood between them. Initially she refuses, but when she meets with Bridges she’s convinced that he didn’t do it, and reluctantly agrees to represent him. First she goes to her former investigator at the D.A.’s office, Robert Loggia, and though he is far from convinced of Bridges’ innocence, he agrees to do it for her. During the four months leading up to the trial, however, Close begins to fall for Bridges. Everything she has learned during the investigation has convinced her that he is innocent and so she allows herself to be seduced by him.

The trial section of the film is absolutely terrific, and it wouldn’t surprise me a bit to learn that Scott Turrow was inspired at least somewhat by it when he wrote Presumed Innocent. The way in which Close, in the defense of a seemingly hopeless cause, is able to destroy the prosecution’s case point by point is wonderful to watch. John Dehner is the crusty old judge who begins by giving Coyote a lot of latitude but is just as convinced as the jury when things begin going the other way. Helping Coyote with the prosecution as the eager young assistant is William Allen Young, who really should have had more opportunity in Hollywood than he was given, working almost exclusively in TV after this film. Jeff Bridges is good to a point, but when he gives Close a tour of the house where the murders took place and breaks down--the thing that convinces her he’s telling the truth about his innocence--I probably would have turned down the case at that point. But perhaps that’s part of the suspense. Close, similarly, has certain mannerisms that haunt her work. Even a small scene like the one in her kitchen when she’s drinking coffee and reading the paper seems exactly like the one in The Big Chill when she takes a cigarette from Mary Kay Place. This is probably the main reason the film has diminished somewhat in its critical assessment. The film was a hit when it was first released but has declined steadily in reputation over the years. There are some bright spots, though.

Peter Coyote, one of my favorite actors, and someone who has taken an incredibly odd career path, couldn’t have been better for the part. When he sits in his office saying, “What is that? That’s the oldest trick in the book, killing your wife for the money,” it really gives the film a true adversary, unlike the bumbling idiots in Presumed Innocent. But the best performance by far comes from Robert Loggia, one of the unsung character actors of the screen. He’s forceful and magnetic and commands the scene whenever he appears. The Academy evidently thought the same thing because he received the only Oscar nomination for the film. One of the unique things about the story is how it actually shows a genuinely amicable divorce. Clearly Guy Boyd wants to get back together with Close, but even though she doesn’t she’s not petty or mean or dismissive of him, and their relationship onscreen is incredibly refreshing. The final factor that the film has going for it is even though the film was shot smack dab in the middle of the eighties, it feels surprisingly timeless. Much of the credit for that must go to costume designer Ann Roth, who made some classic and conservative choices with the wardrobe. Jagged Edge may not be the best thriller made in the eighties, but despite some flaws it still remains a gripping and entertaining suspense film.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Midnight Cowboy (1969)

Director: John Schlesinger                              Writer: Waldo Salt
Film Score: John Barry                                    Cinematography: Adam Holender
Starring: Jon Voight, Dustin Hoffman, Brenda Vaccaro and Sylvia Miles

Midnight Cowboy is the only X-rated film to win the Academy Award for best picture. But it’s not really what it seems. Though we now exclusively associate it with pornography, the rating was initially intended not only for sex, but thematically disturbing or overly violent content. In fact the British used the rating for decades to label horror films that had no sex at all. The story was based on the novel of the same name by James Leo Herlihy and director John Schlesinger had a difficult time finding a producer who would finance such an daring film for the time. While Warren Beatty expressed interest, Schlesinger felt he would be wrong for the part and eventually settled on newcomer Jon Voight. Dustin Hoffman, on the other hand, lobbied for the part, donning makeup and wardrobe to convince the director he would be right for it. Ultimately the film won three Oscars, not only for best picture but for Schlesinger as best director, and for the screenplay by Waldo Salt. One of the unique aspects of the film is the way in which it almost presages Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H. In that film Altman had sort of a running commentary going over the camp loudspeaker. In Schlesinger’s film he does something similar with the radio advertising that Voight listens to, but also takes it further by using images from film and television, along with store windows, to act as a Greek chorus commenting on the action.

The film begins in a small Texas town, with Jon Voight getting dressed in brand new cowboy gear and imagining all of the people at his coffee shop job getting angry and yelling at him when he shows up late for his job washing dishes. But Voight only stops in to quit and hops a bus for New York City. During the trip he has flashbacks showing him as a little boy being told by his grandmother how beautiful he is, and his sexual encounters with young women. He believes that there are women in New York who would pay a lot of money to have sex with him and so he plans on becoming a gigolo. But this isn’t Texas. Not only do the women on the street not strike up conversations with him, they don’t even notice him and he quickly feels lost in the big city. He manages to catch the eye of Sylvia Miles, who knows what he wants and is willing to give him a little. Only instead of getting paid he winds up giving her money for cab fare. That afternoon he shares his fate with Dustin Hoffman at a bar, and his sympathy creates a bond between the two. Hoffman knows of an upscale pimp that he can introduce Voight to . . . for a small cash advance. But the man he introduces him to, John McGiver, is not a pimp but a religious nut who wants to save fornicators, and Voight’s flashback to being baptized has him quickly running out the building.

Soon Voight runs out of money and is locked out of his room. He can’t stand the thought of washing dishes again, so he steels himself to pick up gay tricks, but when he goes with Bob Balban into the movie theater he’s stiffed again and has to leave without any cash. It’s not until halfway through the film that Voight meets up with Hoffman again, and the story turns into a bizarre variation on John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, with Hoffman taking him in to live in a condemned apartment building and dreaming of moving together to Miami. Obviously there’s a part of Jon Voight’s character that is a hayseed, but the film won’t let the cliché stand alone. The flashbacks of Voight’s childhood and time as a young adult are gradually revealed to the audience in a way that makes his outward stereotypical behavior all the more complex underneath. This, too, replicates Steinbeck’s use of brief discussions to gradually let the reader in on the backstory of George and Lennie. Schlesinger does this by visualizing Voight’s imagination. In the opening it’s what the employees at the diner will say, and then on the streets of New York he imagines going up to a woman’s apartment with her. Later, after Hoffman has tricked him out of money, he imagines chasing him through the city--primarily in black and white--seeing him in every doorway, and eventually strangling him. This last scene, however, is also intercut with flashbacks of him being attacked back home by some men who rape his girlfriend--as well as him--while he is forced to watch.

The acting is uniformly excellent. Jon Voight’s characterization of Joe Buck, as stated earlier, defies convention. He’s certainly naïve, but he’s not stupid. In fact, because of his experiences early in his life, it allows him not to be swallowed whole by New York, and his final speech to Hoffman is especially satisfying because of it. Dustin Hoffman’s Rizzo, also seems to defy convention. The crippled aspect is not very well done, and the affectation in the voice is equally unconvincing, and yet his character doesn’t take advantage of Voight after the first time, instead choosing to throw his lot in with him. The rest of the cast interacts with Voight in a series of set pieces. John McGiver’s wide-eyed fanatic seems at first as if he’s going to be gay, and then his character defies convention also. Bob Balban is wonderful as the young boy who goes into the theater with Voight, and Barnard Hughes is also good as the homosexual who wants to quit. Surprisingly, the two actresses in the film had relatively little screen time and yet both were nominated for Oscars in a supporting role. The great Sylvia Miles is a wonderful free spirit while Brenda Vaccaro is stunning as the party guest who finally pays Voight for sex. Midnight Cowboy might not seem as controversial as it was when it was first released, but it is a fascinating piece of cinema that is also and entertaining work of art.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Twilight of a Woman's Soul (1913)

Director: Yevgeni Bauer                                  Writer: V. Demert
Music: Laura Rossi (2003)                              Cinematography: Nikolai Kozlovski
Starring: Nina Chernova, A. Ugrjumov, V. Demert and Vitali Brianski

Twilight of a Woman’s Soul is the first film directed by the Russian cinema pioneer Yevgeni Bauer. For most of cinematic history his work was never seen or written about, hidden away in the film archives of the Soviet Union as politically inappropriate for communist consumption. The plot owes something to Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, but only very loosely. The screen story by V. Demert takes the ending in a very different direction from expectations, adding yet another dimension to this already complex early work by Bauer. Though the director would make dozens of films in a mere four years, from 1913 until his death in 1917, less than thirty remain today and must have been highly influential to the filmmakers in Russia who saw them before the communist revolution. The film begins with the actors introduced on film in character, a standard technique of the day, but artistically done by Bauer. Nina Chernova as Vera Dubovskaia walks forward toward the screen, elegantly dressed, a large fur muff hiding her face. Then she pulls it down and talks to someone off camera. A Ugrjumov plays the Prince and begins his shot in profile, clean-shaven with dark eyes. V. Demert, the screenwriter, plays Petrov, with slicked back hair and a knowing smirk on his face.

The opening scene is set at the home of Chernova’s mother, a countess, people mingling and talking in front of a patio that opens onto lush foliage. Chernova, however, is alone upstairs in her room. After coming down she begins to dance with Demert, and then he takes her out into the garden. Clearly she is unhappy, and the camera moves with her as she walks to a table and has a drink. The next day she is reading in her room and her mother comes to ask her to accompany her bringing food to the poor. This is something to do, and it makes her happy. As the two are driven away, the scene shifts to the house of peasants where men are playing cards and drinking. When they see the wealthy women coming, they hide everything and welcome them into their home, delighted with the free food. Then they visit an apprentice, Vitali Brianski, where Chernova bandages his arm and her mother gives him money. That night Chernova has a dream that the poor are surrounding her, begging for help, so when she awakes she decides to devote her life to helping the poor. Unfortunately Brianski decides to trick her by sending a note saying his bandaged arm is much worse, and asking her to come immediately. Of course, she goes to him without her mother, and the consequences are disastrous. When she finally makes it home she is no longer unhappy because of boredom, but haunted by what has happened to her. Later, when she is introduced to Ugrjumov as the prince, she tries to forget about what happened, but whenever she loses herself and touches him he literally turns into Brianski and she recoils.

The opening shot of Chernova’s home is very proscenium-like with the doorway in the back framing the shot. But in the very next scene Bauer’s use of shadow comes to the fore, with Chernova lit in the background and the foreground images looking like cameo cutouts. In fact, the naturalness of Chernova in her opening shot and as she moves through the party is in distinct contrast to the rest of the scene, which looks phony and staged in comparison. The dream sequence uses standard double-imaging, but the effect works well, and the moving camera shots are a welcome change of pace. Though it doesn’t happen often, once or twice Bauer finds occasion for interesting camera angles, like the overhead shot when Chernova is walking through the ghetto to find the apprentice. One of the other noticeable aspects of Bauer’s filmmaking is the entrance of characters into the scene from either the front or the back of the set rather than the side. This makes for some far more interesting action, whether it’s the butler entering from next to the camera toward Chernova’s bedroom, or Ugrjumov entering from behind a bank of flowers at the rear of the set into Chernova’s dressing room. The actors all do a good job of realizing Bauer’s vision, with Brianski a bit of a cliché, licking his lips and such. Overall, however, Twilight of a Woman’s Soul is a confident early film by a wrongly neglected early master filmmaker.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Flatliners (1990)

Director: Joel Schumacher                             Writer: Peter Filardi
Film Score: James Newton Howard               Cinematography: Jan de Bont
Starring: Kiefer Sutherland, Julia Roberts, Kevin Bacon and Oliver Platt

There’s an absolutely fascinating parallel between this film and the early U.S. space program. Alan Shepard was the first American in space . . . and now no one cares. He was only outside the Earth’s atmosphere for a few minutes and then splashed down a few hundred miles from where he lifted off. It’s John Glenn, who was actually the first American to orbit the Earth, who is always remembered. It drove Shepard nuts because, in the instance of his flight, there was nothing new about being in space as the Russians had already been there. The real milestones became distance and duration. Joel Schumacher explores the very same idea within the setting of a medical horror film in Flatliners. Kiefer Sutherland is a young doctor who wants to separate himself from the pack and do something extraordinary. So he decides to have his classmates give him an injection to stop his heart and make him clinically dead for sixty seconds. If they can bring him back he’ll see himself as something of an explorer, the first man to explore death and return to tell about it. Unfortunately, as the film demonstrates in its second scene, many people have had near-death experiences. It’s when his other classmates begin “flatlining” for longer periods of time that he feels left out and forgotten as the pioneer of the idea.

The film opens on a real groaner, Kiefer Sutherland intoning the line from Little Big Man, “Today’s a good day to die.” From there, medical student Kevin Bacon is seen saving the life of a woman because no doctors are around, and being thoroughly disciplined for his efforts. Then Oliver Platt tries to come up with a title for his memoirs and settles on, “Genesis of a Young Surgeon.” Next, Julia Roberts interviews different people about their near-death experience, only to be hit on by Billy Baldwin afterward in anatomy class. Meanwhile, Sutherland is having difficulty rounding up enough of his classmates to pull off his little experiment. But by the time he’s ready to go that evening, everyone shows up. After they pull the plug on him, in Sutherland’s mind he sees himself as a child and is comforted, but at the end of the vision he’s in a dark place and something is wrong. Then they bring him back. Sutherland definitely feels changed by the experience. Roberts wants to go next, but Baldwin outbids her, willing to flatline for a minute and a half. But Sutherland is having bad dreams connected with his experience, and is reluctant to tell anyone. Baldwin’s experience is, as expected, about women, but his infidelity begins showing up on every TV screen he sees. Bacon, the atheist in the group, goes back in time to a school bus and is confronted by a little black girl he used to torment.

What becomes clear as their near-death imaginings begin to haunt their waking lives, is that it is coming from some hidden guilt they are feeling inside. But as the illusions become real, they threaten more than their sanity and the group begins to fear for their lives. Because the film isn’t really set in a hospital, it gives it a very gothic feel, opening with shots of the gargoyles atop the school. The production was filmed in Chicago during the summer, at Loyola University while the school was undergoing extensive remodeling. The other thing that adds tremendously to the gothic atmosphere is the music by James Newton Howard, who used religious choral music to augment his film score--though there is still some eighties jet lag in the form of popish instrumentation in places. This was also one of the earliest films to use color manipulation of the negative to great effect. The sets are nothing, the empty rooms in a sparsely populated medical school surrounded by diaphanous plastic sheeting and heavy wood paneling. What gives the set the ominous feel it has is the monochromatic tint that used to wash out any bright colors and give the whole thing a sepia-toned feel. You can practically feel the dust motes. This also enabled cinematographer Jan de Bont to wash the set with colored light, mostly blue, but sometimes red.

Though it’s not necessarily a horror film in the way that we typically think of one, it is a terrific supernatural thriller. The actors, though early in their careers, all do credible work as well. While I’ve never been enamored of Kiefer Sutherland, he’s certainly the right choice for the explorer who’s been left behind. I’m also not a fan of Billy Baldwin, but again, the casting couldn’t be better, and he does get what’s coming to him. Oliver Platt, is the comedy relief, but it never goes too far and he winds up being an integral part of the cast. The real star of the picture is Julia Roberts, who went into this production right out of Pretty Woman. She’s just as radiant, even with the color manipulation in the film. She obviously brings along her specific persona, but it works well. Kevin Bacon plays a little over the top for the first half of the film, but he eventually works into a believable character. Joel Schumacher does a terrific job, in a heavily stylized production, and he would work with Roberts again the following year in Dying Young. And the film was actually nominated for an Academy Award for sound editing. Despite a few bad reviews, it was a box office hit when it was first released, and also garnered a bunch of positive reviews from critics who understood the intent of the film. Flatliners is a youth picture, playing to a youth audience, a breathless supernatural romp that delivers plenty of entertainment.

The File on Thelma Jordon (1950)

Director: Robert Siodmak                              Writer: Ketti Frings
Film Score: Victor Young                              Cinematography: George Barnes
Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, Wendell Corey, Paul Kelly and Joan Tetzel

Robert Siodmak does Douglas Sirk? That’s certainly what it seems like for the first thirty minutes of this film. It proceeds at a leisurely pace and appears to be about nothing more than a bored family man who wants to leave his wife. But The File on Thelma Jordon is one of the most suspenseful films I’ve ever seen. It’s something of a cross between Double Indemnity and The Big Clock, but closer in substance to Body Heat, Lawrence Kasdan’s rip off of Billy Wilders’s film. It was Siodmak’s final film in the genre before moving back to Germany, and he makes it a good one, especially in the way that he plays against certain cinematic expectations. The first part of the film has several night scenes, but they don’t telegraph the twisted nature of the plot until the murder happens. Then he makes use of close-ups and interesting camera placements to let the audience know that things have changed. It’s cinematic storytelling at its best, and that’s not even the best scene in the film. Siodmak had worked primarily for RKO and Universal, and so this was the first opportunity he had to work with Paramount contract player Barbara Stanwyck. The film was originally supposed to be directed by Otto Preminger but he was unavailable, most likely at work on Where the Sidewalk Ends, and so the project was given to Siodmak.

The film opens on assistant district attorney Wendell Corey pulling up to the courthouse and walking in. Police detective Paul Kelly is on the phone with Corey’s wife, Joan Tetzel. Corey, sick of his in-laws, especially his father in law, has left to get drunk. But Kelly has to go out on a case, and while Corey is in his office alone, Barbara Stanwyck shows up. She believes that Corey is actually Kelly and begins telling him about someone breaking into her aunt’s house, but soon Corey confesses and she tries to leave. By now Corey is drunk and doesn’t want to be alone, and convinces her to go to a bar with him so that they can talk. Later he gets so drunk that he kisses her and professes his love, but she dumps him off back at the courthouse and leaves. Tetzel is unhappy when he gets home, but there’s little she can do about it. When Stanwyck shows up the next day at the courthouse Corey apologizes and they part friends, and when he gets home Tetzel makes up with him as well. They’ve planned to go to the beach for vacation, but Corey wants to beg off and stay home instead of being alone in town during the week. The sense is that he doesn’t want to be alone in town with Stanwyck around. Sure enough, as soon as his wife is gone Corey goes out with Stanwyck. It get’s tricky, though, in a small town, and while he tries to be discreet the two are being watched by Richard Rober who’s been waiting at the aunt’s house. Then when Corey leaves, Rober kisses Stanwyck.

After a weekend with his family Corey picks up Stanwyck again Monday night, and that’s when she drops the bombshell: she’s married to Rober. But this is the least of the couple’s troubles, as they don’t realize they’re being tailed by someone else. Wendell Corey has always been a favorite of mine ever since seeing him in Rear Window. But this is perhaps his finest role. While the part is something of a cliché, there is nothing pedestrian about his performance and his pursuit of Barbara Stanwyck is utterly believable. Stanwyck, as expected, is tremendous as she is able to sow doubt not only in the minds of the jury on the screen, but in the audience as well. With such stellar work, it’s difficult to understand why the film has not had more of a reputation through the years. Critics have had their problems with it, but somehow the intangibles in the filmmaking process managed to make the film successful in spite of its weaknesses, something most of those critics are forced to acknowledge. If there is a negative criticism it usually comes in the form of complaints about the ending, but even that works for seasoned noir fans who understand the conventions as it contains a healthy dash of James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice. Eschewing the dark and gritty streets of the city for the fifties post-war suburbia, The File on Thelma Jordon is not only the perfect noir for that time, but a classic for all time.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Cimarron (1931)

Director: Wesley Ruggles                              Writers: Howard Estabrook
Film Score: Max Steiner                                Cinematography: Edward Cronjager
Starring: Richard Dix, Irene Dunne, Estelle Taylor and Roscoe Ates

I have to say that the first time I watched Cimarron, I didn’t like it very much. This was due primarily to the character that Richard Dix played, seemingly abandoning his family at every turn. But with repeated viewings it does become possible to simply see him for what he is, and especially for what the author of the original novel, Edna Ferber, was attempting to do with the character. RKO purchased Ferber’s novel specifically for its star, Richard Dix, as he was a popular leading man at the time and would assure a healthy box office upon release. Irene Dunne, however, was not a sure thing. She lobbied hard for the part of Dix’s wife, even going so far as to have the makeup men at the studio work with her one day to age her through the forty years the film spans. It also didn’t hurt that Dix wanted her in the picture as well. While it is generally considered today as an inferior Oscar winner for best picture, it was up against a very weak field that year. And while it doesn’t hold up as well as the previous year’s winner, All Quiet on the Western Front, it is light-years better than the dreadful Cavalcade, the winner from two years later. It’s not a western in the traditional sense, but more of a film about westward expansion, and understanding that in 1931 the frontier days were still within human memory, makes it understandable why the film was such a critical and popular success.

After the opening credits the actors are shown in character one by one with Max Steiner’s march-like theme underneath. The story begins with the Oklahoma land rush, thousands of people clamoring for free land offered to anyone willing to settle it. Richard Dix is one of the crowd on horseback, as is Estelle Taylor, and they both want the same piece of land. The rush itself is fairly breathtaking, with horse-drawn wagons, buggies, and carts being driven across the prairie at breakneck speed, and Taylor winds up tricking Dix in order to get the land he wanted. His plans as a rancher taken away, Dix moves his family to Osage Township, a frontier town, to try his hand at running a newspaper. While his wife, Irene Dunne, finds the place more wild and lawless than she expected, Dix is in his element. He knows most of the people in town and comes in conflict with a shady character, Stanley Fields, over the death of the previous editor. Dix’s first employee is the stuttering Roscoe Ates, and he helps get the newspaper office running. While Dix is intent on proving that Fields is the one who killed the former editor, Dunne fears for his life. But Dix is invincible, taking on every leadership role in town, from protecting those who are weak from bullies like Fields, to defending prostitutes like Estelle Taylor, and even delivering the first sermon at the ad hoc church the town erects in the gambling hall.

But Dix can’t stand to be in one place for long, and when the Cherokee Strip opens up for settlement, he leaves his wife and kids and isn’t heard from again for five years, just the first of his extended absences for the rest of the film. Dix’s character sees the building of the town, the civilization springing forth from nothing, in a Biblical sense, equating man’s creation of civilization with the almighty’s creation of the Earth. In fact, the tag line on the posters reads, “Terrific as All Creation.” And Dix can be seen as something of a Christ figure in the film, helping the weak, working to build a community where not had existed before, and especially his sacrifice in the final scene. That’s probably the part of the film that resonated with audiences and earned it the fourth ever Academy Award for best picture. The production certainly must have seemed Christ-like for RKO, when it became almost single-handedly responsible for saving the company from bankruptcy. The film didn’t make back its production costs right away, but receipts from the picture definitely kept the studio alive until they could come up with an even bigger hit in King Kong two years later.

The direction is good for the time. The opening sequence of the land rush is one of the iconic images of early cinema. Wesley Ruggles set up over two dozen cameras in various places, shooting from overhead towers, and from below in trenches, as well as from cars to get tracking shots, the signature moment being when the large-wheeled bicyclist is seen among the horses. But the moving camera is also used to good effect in other contexts, as when Irene Dunne marches across the street toward Stanley Fields and the camera follows her the whole way, or in the courtroom scene when it’s pulled back on a crane. Of course there’s also a tremendous amount of racism in the film, in keeping with the prejudices of the day. Eugene Jackson is forced into stereotypical black slave behavior, which Dix refers to as “loyalty,” while Dunne tells her son to stay away from the “dirty, filthy Indians.” An as if that weren’t bad enough, the local Jewish peddler, George E. Stone, gets roped by one of Stanley Fields’ gang and shot at, forced to drink alcohol and humiliated in the middle of the street. But to be fair, it does serve a function in the film, as a way show Dix’s compassion as well as the change in Dunne’s character over time. Finally, the film sports one of the first films scored by the great Max Steiner, though his music is used minimally throughout. Cimarron is one of only three westerns to ever win best picture, and while it is definitely dated it is still worth watching.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Good (2008)

Director: Vincente Amorim                              Writer: C.P. Taylor & John Wrathall
Film Score: Simon Lacey                                Cinematography: Andrew Dunn
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Jason Isaacs, Jodie Whittaker and Steve Mackintosh

If the film Good feels as if it were written for a different actor, that’s because it was. Originally based on the stage play by Scottish author C.P. Taylor, and commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1981, the role was originally performed by the brilliant Alan Howard. All one has to do is see the BBC production of Race for the Double Helix to know how perfect he would have been in the role. The actor who was originally approached to play the lead in the film was, not surprisingly, Colin Firth, while the first choice for directors was Lone Scherfig, who has made some terrific films in her native Denmark. Now that would have been a fascinating film. But as odd as Mortensen seems at first, he does a respectable job as the shy, soft-spoken professor. Producer Miriam Segal finally settled on director Vincente Amorim, who has worked primarily in short films and television and is the primary reason that the film was such a critical failure. The production design is so sterile that it comes off as phony, especially in the concentration camp scene. The film was shot entirely in Budapest, but the poor direction doesn’t make use of the locations the way something like Milos Forman’s Amadeus does to add realism, and instead it evokes the opposite feel.

The film begins with Viggo Mortensen being called into the Reich Chancellery, afraid and unsure why they want to see him. It turns out he is an author who has written a novel that Hitler likes because the central character kills his wife who was living with an incurable illness. In a flashback Mortensen shows what his life was like at the time the novel was written. His wife was obsessed with playing the piano and he was left to care for their two children as well as his mother who was sick with TB as well as having dementia. He was also being pursued by one of his students, Jodie Whittaker, a beautiful blonde who has been taken in by National Socialism. Also on his plate is the fact that he has been threatened with dismissal from the university where he teaches because he is against the Nazi policies of book burning and censorship of curriculum. To make sense of it all, he begins writing his book. In the present, Hitler’s chief in the chancellery, Mark Strong, needs him to write a paper expressing the benefits of mercy killing. The only thing is, he still has to join the party, and so he is given an honorary position in the SS. He has also separated from his wife and is living with Whittaker and taken his mother back to her home and left her there.

After he joins the party, Mortensen is suddenly made the head of his department and everything seems to be going great. But when his best friend Jason Isaacs, a Jewish psychiatrist, discovers what he’s done it creates an irreparable rift in their relationship. The fascinating thing about the film is the underlying philosophy of what it means to be “good.” Mortensen resists the Nazis at first, but as he tells Isaacs later in the film, they are in control. Whatever they expect is what is deemed good by the society. So when he gives in to their desires it’s easy for him to rationalize his actions because they are condoned by the state. And yet while he is doing what he is supposed to, it winds up hurting the people in his life--not to mention the millions of other lives deemed worthless by his very work. The disappointment in the film comes from how well acted the thing really is. All of the principals do an exceptional job, especially Jason Isaacs as Mortensen’s Jewish friend, and Gemma Jones as Mortensen’s mother. But Anastasia Hille is also quite good as Mortensen’s ex-wife. Good had the potential to be an incredibly thought-provoking film, an almost definitive look inside the minds of those whom Daniel Jonah Goldhagen called Hitler’s Willing Executioners. Instead, it's merely a well-acted but less than gripping morality tale.

Friday, July 10, 2015

An Officer and a Gentleman (1982)

Director: Taylor Hackford                                Writer: Douglas Day Stewart
Film Score: Jack Nitzche                                Cinematography: Donald E. Thorin
Starring: Richard Gere, Deborah Winger, David Keith and Lou Gossett Jr.

It wasn’t until I began reviewing films that I realized how many of Taylor Hackford’s films are among my favorites. The ones I like the best are the musical biographies, Ray, the Ray Charles story, and before that The Idolmaker with the late Ray Sharkey. But An Officer and a Gentleman was also great. A huge hit in 1982, it solidified Richard Gere’s star status, as well as giving Deborah Winger a springboard for a number of good films to follow, like Terms of Endearment. Gere had just come off of a critical success in American Gigolo and after the hype surrounding this film it may have been too much too soon. He’s a great actor, but a little humility goes a long way. What’s interesting is that both of those roles had been offered to John Travolta and he turned them down, and where Gere’s career trajectory went up, Travolta’s went the other direction. The part that Deborah Winger played was originally offered to Sigourney Weaver and later to Jennifer Jason Leigh, who one could actually see doing a decent job in the part based on her performance in Miami Blues. And, of course, David Keith was in his prime, just coming off of a tremendous performance in Brubaker with Robert Redford.

The film begins with a prologue in Seattle. Richard Gere has just graduated from college and his father, Robert Loggia, a career Navy man, has given him a night with two prostitutes for a graduation present. In the morning Gere thinks back to when he first met his father, right after his mother’s suicide, on the naval base on the Philippine Islands. He was essentially abandoned, but learned early about sex and self-defense. He shocks Loggia, however, when he tells him he’s going into the Navy’s officer candidate school at Fort Worden near Port Townsend on the Washington Peninsula, and despite his protests, leaves that morning on his motorcycle with the hopes of starting a new life as a naval aviator. Louis Gossett Jr. is the drill instructor in charge of Gere’s class and he’s been instructed to get rid of as many of the weak links as possible. Gere’s roommates include David Caruso and David Keith. Keith becomes his friend, and the two of the bond with the only female officer candidate, Lisa Eilbacher. Gere and Keith meet two girls who work at a paper plant, Deborah Winger and Lisa Blount, labeled “Puget Debs” by Gossett, who warns them that the girls are only trying to trap them into marrying them so that they can escape their white-trash existence. But even though the female companionship is just what the guys need to get them through the arduous training, there are a lot more challenging obstacles. For Keith it’s his sense of obligation to everyone around him, for Gere it’s love.

For those of us living in Western Washington, the film was especially exciting to watch because it had been filmed in some very familiar locations. Though the film showed Deborah Winger and Lisa Blount taking the ferry across the sound to get to the base, almost all of the filming was done in and around Port Townsend. Director Taylor Hackford wanted to make Lou Gossett’s character more intimidating during the shoot and so he had him stay apart from the rest of the cast when they were not working. When seen today it doesn’t have near the impact it did at the time, when Gossett seemed absolutely frightening, but fittingly, Gossett was awarded the Oscar for his performance as a supporting actor, the only nomination he has received in his distinguished career. But all of the actors are tremendous in their respective roles. Gere plays the emotionally wounded loner better than anyone else in Hollywood could have at the time. And Deborah Winger’s part is subtle, but she does an exceptional job differentiating herself from the more dim-witted Lisa Blount. Winger understands Gere’s jokes and demonstrates a real insight into his psychology that a mere hick wouldn’t have, and she was given an Academy Award nomination for best actress. The other standout is actress Lisa Eilbacher, whose character struggles with the physical and emotional limitations of being a woman competing for a job that was traditionally considered suitable only for men.

The film was the third highest grossing film in 1982 and generally received positive critical reviews. While the film is certainly sentimental, it does so in an intelligent way that never dumbs down its characters. There is a humanity in nearly all of them that wants the best for others in addition to raising themselves out of their present circumstances. The key to the film’s success seems to be the emphasis not just on regular people, but downtrodden people, whether economically or emotionally, that resonates with audiences. Much of the credit for that goes to screenwriter Douglas Day Stewart, who was also nominated for an Oscar. Other nominations went to the film score by Jack Nitzche, who also won an award for his contribution to the best original song, “Up Where We Belong,” sung by Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes at the closing of the picture. And on the subject of the ending, Gere apparently didn’t like how sappy and romantic it was, but after seeing the final cut even he had to agree with what audiences have known for years: An Officer and a Gentleman is simply a terrific film. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

The Sign of Four (1932)

Director: Graham Cutts                                    Writers: W.P. Lipscomb
Music: Ernest Irving                                         Cinematography: Robert De Grasse
Starring: Arthur Wontner, Ian Hunter, Isla Bevan and Graham Soutten

This British production was one of the earliest sound films to feature Conan Doyle’s famous detective Sherlock Holmes. The Sign of Four is the second film to feature Arthur Wontner as the great detective, and made by Associated Radio Pictures, a European arm of RKO, after The Sleeping Cardinal from the previous year was financed by Warner Brothers. The screenplay is based on the novel of the same name, and has the distinction of Dr. Watson falling in love with his future wife. Like the Universal series later in the decade, featuring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, the producers decided to save on expenses and set the film during the present rather than the 1880s. Production designer on the film was none other than Rowland V. Lee, who would go on to minor immortality at Universal when he directed Son of Frankenstein in 1939. Though director Graham Cutts, is relatively unknown, his cinematographer, Robert De Grasse had a lenthy career. There are a few interesting camera setups, mostly during Wontner’s investigation of a murder, shooting through a ladder and from overhead. There are also some nice overhead shots in the finale. It’s too bad there was more use made of different angles because the bulk of the film is shot as though it is on a stage. Like so many films from the period, there is title music, and some diegetic pieces, but no real film score. And also like other early soundies the film suffers from that lack primarily in the climactic finale.

The film begins with architectural plans laid out on a table. The name on the plans is Jonathan Small, who also happens to be serving a life sentence on the Andaman Island Convict Settlement. An iris transitions to the feet of a man walking with a peg leg, Graham Soutten as Small, telling two soldiers on the island where they can find precious cache of gems hidden within the wall of an old fortress there. The soldiers, Herbert Lomas and Edgar Norfolk, are supposed to split the gems with Soutten who threatens to break out and come after them if they don’t. But when they find the gems, Lomas kills Norfolk so that he can have it all. The scene then shifts to London years later, with Lomas reading about the escape of Soutten and his partner, Roy Emerton. Sure that Soutten is coming after him he calls for his two sons, Kynaston Reeves and Miles Malleson, to confess and to warn them. He tells them that Norfolk had a daughter and to give her the valuable string of pearls, but before he can tell them where the rest of the treasure is, Soutten shows up outside his window and Lomas dies of fright. Norfolk’s daughter, Isla Bevan, receives the pearls at her flower shop with an anonymous note from the sons and then locks them in her safe.

When Soutten and Emerton confront Malleson to get the jewels, he truthfully tells them he doesn’t know where they are, but does tell them Bevan has the pearls. When they break into the safe and can’t find them, they write a note threatening to kill her, and that’s when she goes to Arthur Wontner as Sherlock Holmes and Ian Hunter as Dr. Watson. It’s obvious that Arthur Wontner was chosen to play Holmes because of his physical resemblance to the illustrations of the detective rather than any acting ability, as he possesses very little. In fact, he has a rather high, droning voice that annoys rather than reassures. The film keeps with the tradition of having Holmes disguise himself when he turns himself into an old seadog to get information at a wharf side tavern. Unfortunately, there’s no disguising his voice. Ian Hunter, when he is on the screen as Watson, is easily the best actor in the room and would go on to a distinguished career in Hollywood and London. In this film he has the unfortunate task of having to ask Wontner how he came up with every deduction, and then remarking how astounding it is. Nasty work for a talent like his. The heroine in the film, Isla Bevan, doesn’t add much to proceedings, and neither do any of the other actors, especially the Lestrade stand-in, Gilbert Davis. The Sign of Four isn’t terrible, and if you can get past the bad acting it does manage to keep interest, but it still lags miles behind the Universal series with Rathbone and Bruce.

Two Night Stand (2014)

Director: Max Nichols                                       Writer: Mark Hammer
Film Score: The de Luca Brothers                   Cinematography: Bobby Bukowski
Starring: Miles Teller, Analeigh Tipton, Jessica Szohr and Scott Mescudi

This is most definitely a low-brow romantic comedy. There is nothing original, nothing clever, nothing that we haven’t seen before a million times. And yet . . . First of all, I was intrigued by the premise. The idea that a one-night stand turns into an enforced, long-terms stay was enough to draw me in. And frankly, I was fully expecting to turn the thing off after a few minutes. What this film has going for it, though, is that it doesn’t make any missteps, though there are land mines aplenty to be found all along the way. The film Better Than Sex, for instance, has a similar set up but is a chore to get through. Two Night Stand, on the other hand, flows along effortlessly, without turning into a Judd Apatow piece of garbage--I know, that's redundant--and that’s a welcome surprise. With audiences today seemingly willing to pay money to see the worst possible excuse for humor, Mark Hammer’s screenplay manages to walk a fine line between commercial and crass and stays on the right side of the line for the entire ninety minutes. At the same time the actors are up for the challenge, not necessarily great, but never lapsing into the kind of exaggeration that something like Bridget Jones’s Diary goes to. While utterly unbelievable as a premise, there’s a suspension of disbelief available to anyone willing to keep watching. And that’s saying something in today’s wretched romantic comedy climate.

The film begins in the apartment of Miles Teller. Analeigh Tipton wakes up in his bed, regretful, and tries to sneak out after pinning a note to his bulletin board. But when the alarm goes of she scurries back to bed before it wakes him up. Flash back twelve hours and Tipton is sitting in her apartment, jobless, filling out an online dating profile. Her roommate Jessica Szohr shows up and tells her that unless she can put her name on the lease Tipton will need to move out so that her boyfriend Scott Mescudi can move in. They all go to a birthday party but when Tipton can’t find her I.D., she winds up back at the apartment trolling for a one-night stand. She connects with Miles Teller, and then it flashes forward to the next morning. Teller turns off the alarm and goes back to sleep-Tipton still in her coat and jeans in bed. When he finally wakes up she tries to leave on a positive note, but the two clearly have contempt for each other and things end badly as she leaves. Or tries to. When she get’s to the front door of the building it’s covered with snow and iced shut. The city had a blizzard the night before and all of the transit systems are down. With nowhere else to go, the two are stuck together in his apartment, grinning and baring it until they can separate. From there, it’s not difficult to guess where the film goes.

Despite the predictability, Mark Hammer still manages to put in some nice twists at the end that are incredibly refreshing, and the frank discussion of sex between the two principals never becomes an embarrassment. It should also be no surprise that the director of the film, Max Nichols, is the son of director Mike Nichols, and apparently shares the same eye for solid comedy as his father. Nichols recognized something in the screenplay immediately that was more than the usual Hollywood dross. His first casting choice was Analeigh Tipton, which also shows his talent. She has the perfect look and does a terrific job without being overly clichéd in the way so many of these roles can become. Miles Teller is also a great choice, but again, the screenplay has a lot to do with his willingness to go along with Tipton, to not get sullen or angry, and to see in her something that he didn’t at first. He would go on later that year to positive notices in Whiplash. One of the fascinating things about the production is that during shooting Tipton and Teller were staying in an apartment in a New York apartment downtown when Hurricane Sandy hit and were stranded there together without power, replicating their onscreen predicament. It may not be original, or even particularly good, but Two Night Stand has a charm that is undeniable and is well worth taking a look at.

Monday, July 6, 2015

White Palace (1990)

Director: Luis Mandoke                                  Writers: Ted Tally & Alvin Sargent
Film Score: George Fenton                            Cinematography: Lajos Koltai
Stars: Susan Sarandon, James Spader, Jason Alexander and Kathy Bates

As the Rabbi of Temple Emanuel and an adjunct professor in classics at Washington University, as well as the author of numerous books on Judaism, Rabbi Joe Rosenbloom was an institution in St. Louis for decades. But just when his fame was about to go national in 1990, Rabbi Joe’s big scene ended up on the cutting room floor. It’s the scene where Jason Alexander gets married to Rachel Chagall at a Jewish wedding and, though the complete ceremony was filmed, the only shot that remains in the picture is from the front, looking at the couple, Rabbi Joe’s yarmulke the only part of him visible. With the possible exception of Meet Me in St. Louis--which was shot entirely in Hollywood--White Palace is probably the most famous picture filmed there. All of the locations were actually in the St. Louis area, including Sarandon’s house in Dogtown. The story was adapted from the novel by Glenn Savan, and the screenplay sticks fairly close to the original, with the exception of the ending, which is pure Hollywood. Savan wanted to call his novel White Castle, but the company denied him permission to use the name and so both it and film used the pseudonym for the title.

The film begins with James Spader coming home from work, preparing for a night out at his best friend’s bachelor party. He’s been entrusted with picking up the burgers from a chain called White Palace instead of White Castle, a Mid-Western institution. But when he gets to the party some of the boxes are empty, and so he goes back to get a refund. At the counter is Susan Sarandon, who calls him Fred Astaire because of his tux. When he gets back, Jason Alexander tells him to keep his money because he’ll need it for therapy. It turns out Spader’s young wife has died in a car crash and after two years he still grieves. He stops at a bar on the way home and who should he meet but Sarandon. She cons him into giving her a ride home and talks him into spending the night. She wakes him up by having sex with him in the morning and while he initially resists, he is also inexplicably drawn to her. The two could not be more unlike, however. He’s twenty-seven and a neat freak, while she’s nearly forty-four and a total slob. He works in a big advertising agency in St. Louis, while she works at a burger joint. The crux of the conflict comes when Spader is embarrassed by the older woman, and lies to her to keep her away from his circle of upper class friends and family.

The primary theme of the picture is one of class distinction, which is easy to lose sight of with the difference in their ages being so prevalent. Spader is Jewish. He lives in an expensive home. He drives a Volvo and wears a tuxedo to a bachelor party. The first encounter with Sarandon in the burger joint, he with his bow tie and her in her uniform, is pointed. This idea continues when he stops at the country bar on the way home for another drink. Country music plays from the jukebox in the tavern, typically associated with blue-collar workers or farmers, but on the way home he plays opera on his car stereo, defining him as upper class. He calls the opera, “The most beautiful music in the world.” Sarandon, on the other hand, asks, “Got any Oak Ridge Boys?” The class conflict climaxes before the romantic one does when Stephen Hill discusses politics at the dinner table and Sarandon tells him that Merle Haggard could be president and he’d still be rich and she’d still be poor. Beyond this, however, the real subtext of the film, and one that should have been explored further, is something Spader asks near the end, “How do you know who’s right for each other?” This is the key. In his world there are only specific types of people that may be chosen from for romantic partnership. Spader was embarrassed at himself for going outside of those expectations. And with the examples of such polite misery all around him by adhering to them, why not follow his heart instead?

It’s almost difficult to believe that the film came out the same year as Pretty Woman, as that film seems almost juvenile by comparison. Spader and Sarandon are able to generate some real emotional chemistry on the screen and rather than manufactured conflict they grapple with genuine feelings and problems. The best that can be said about Luis Mandoke’s direction is that it’s invisible, which is not a bad thing for this kind of film. It floats along seamlessly, allowing the viewer to identify with the characters rather than marvel at the shot selection. The film score by George Fenton, while serviceable, is not particularly memorable, but again, its contribution to the film as a whole is just right. There is also a great supporting cast. In addition to Alexander and Chagall, Kathy Bates plays Spader’s boss, and Stephen Hill is Alexander’s father. The wonderful Eileen Brennan plays Sarandon’s older sister, and Jeremy Piven appears as an extra at the bachelor party. Susan Sarandon was nominated for a Golden Globe, but otherwise the film was ignored at Oscar time. It’s too bad, because it is such a strong dramatic story, and much better than the highly contrived Ghost, another film released the same year. White Palace is an emotional rollercoaster, but the realism makes it a wonderful film and a highly recommended romantic drama.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

The Horse Soldiers (1959)

Director: John Ford                                          Writers: John Lee Mahin & Martin Rackin
Film Score: David Buttolph                              Cinematography: William H. Clothier
Starring: John Wayne, William Holden, Constance Towers and Judson Pratt

The Horse Soldiers is a Civil War story about the siege of Vicksburg, based in part on the novel of the same name by Harold Sinclair. In April of 1863 a Colonel Benjamin Grierson led 1700 Union cavalry troops from Tennessee down to Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The goal was a small town called Newton’s Station in Mississippi, a railroad hub that was feeding supplies to Vicksburg and had allowed them to hold out despite a Union siege on the town. The raid was intended to destroy the hub and stop supplies from getting into Vicksburg, and it did just that. But rather than attempt to go back through the enemy territory he had just come through, Grierson decided to continue to head south in the hopes of avoiding as much confrontation with the enemy as possible. Other than that, however, very little of the story in the film is based on true events or people. By all accounts the shoot was a difficult one, with William Holden and director John Ford arguing most of the time, and John Wayne looking ahead to his own production of The Alamo coming up. The end result shows it, and the film is not one of the best for either Ford or Wayne.

The film begins with Union cavalry colonel John Wayne being asked by Stan Jones as General Grant, to break the stalemate at Vicksburg by cutting off their supply lines. Even if the raid succeeds it would put Wayne and his short brigade three hundred miles behind enemy lines. But Jones is desperate for a victory and okay’s the mission. Unbeknownst to Wayne, however, he’s also been assigned an army doctor, William Holden, and the two butt heads immediately, with Wayne wanting to leave behind the wounded and Holden wanting the opposite. Even before they leave, Holden culls a few men off the roster that he believes won’t make it all the way. When Holden stops to help a slave family deliver a baby, Wayne puts him under officer’s arrest and orders him to confine his work to the soldiers. Along the way they stop at a plantation house, vacant except for the woman of the house, Constance Towers, and her slave Althea Gibson. But when the two women turn spy, Wayne has no choice but to take them along with them on the trip so they don’t give away their battle plans. Of course she hates the Yankees and tries to foil their plans at every opportunity, which in turn annoys Wayne and delights Holden. In fact, Holden seems to take a liking to Miss Towers and becomes her constant companion, even if it’s against her will.

While the principal actors do nothing wrong, there is a real sense that they are going through the motions. John Wayne, especially, has absolutely no subtlety to his performance at all. Constance Towers is probably the best of the bunch and her role, while stock from the perspective of gaining a new respect for her captors, mercifully avoids being a cliché. But the rest of the screenplay is disappointing in the extreme. There is no conflict between Wayne and Holden over Towers, which makes no sense. Wayne simply spends the whole film hating all doctors, until the obligatory explanation he makes to Towers. Wayne’s cinematic morality even seems like a pain in the ass to him during the film. One of the interesting elements of the picture is the presence of the great tennis star Althea Gibson as the slave woman Lukey. The original screenplay had her lines written in slave dialect, which Gibson absolutely refused to do. Fortunately, John Ford allowed her to speak her lines in proper English rather than replace her. By this time John Ford was a grizzled veteran of westerns. Everything, from camera angles to exterior scenery was no accident. He does some nice work but even he can’t save a weak script. Composer David Buttolph wasn’t particularly known for westerns, but he certainly knows his way around the genre, even composing the kind of vocal numbers that Ford liked in his films. The Horse Soldiers has some interesting moments, particularly the battle scenes, but ultimately it is simply too predictable and too pat to even be called a good film. Other than the stars, there’s not a lot here.