Monday, August 31, 2015

End of the World (1977)

Director: John Hayes                                       Writer: Frank Ray Perilli
Film Score: Andrew Belling                              Cinematography: John Huneck
Starring: Kirk Scott, Christopher Lee, Dean Jagger and Lew Ayres

Despite its low-budget pedigree and incomprehensible plot, there’s something undeniably compelling about this film that’s primarily the result of the actors involved. End of the World hosts a wealth of acting talent that spans several generations, from Lew Ayres and Macdonald Carey, to Dean Jagger and Christopher Lee. The special effects at the end of the film that show the Earth’s destruction seem to be lifted from Godzilla movies, while the sound effects seem like leftovers from Star Trek. Add to that a dismal screenplay and wooden acting from the principals and the film really is dreadful. That said, however, all bad movies are not created equal. One of the fascinating aspects of the film is that the engineering firm where Kirk Scott works appears to be part of the Rockwell International facilities, as a skeleton of a space capsule can be seen in the background behind him and Dean Jagger in an early scene, and then they walk into a hanger where one of the earliest space shuttles can be seen. For a cheap film, it’s a healthy dose of verisimilitude. And while the computer systems are laughable by today’s standards, they seem to be fairly convincing for the time. It’s these little things that kept me watching until the end . . . right to the absolutely ridiculous end.

The film begins at a roadside diner, with Simmy Bow playing a pinball machine. When a frightened Christopher Lee as a priest stumbles in looking for a phone, Bow points to a payphone on the wall. But before Lee can get to it, the phone explodes, spraying scalding water in Bow’s face, and sending him out the window to his death. Then Lee stumbles back to the church, where a man who is his exact double leads him gently back inside. After the opening credits, engineer Kirk Scott receives transmissions from outer space that predict a series of natural disasters on the Earth. One of the strange aspects of the messages is that they are also duplicated from two sources on Earth. Of course he wants to investigate further but his boss, Dean Jagger, wants him to go out on a government sponsored lecture tour instead of following up on the transmission. While out on the tour, however, Scott knows he’s near one of the Earth sources and so he takes his wife, Sue Lyon, to find it. And it just happens to be a convent, the very church run by Christopher Lee. The other site is a gated compound run by Lew Ayres and once inside the two are captured by gunmen. But as it turns out, Ayres is one of Scott’s colleagues that he communicates with by telephone, and the compound is a Soviet satellite monitoring station. Ayres says it’s the only communication that can possibly come from space.

The conflict begins when Scott gets back to work and checks his computers, only to find that a descriptions of he and his wife has been sent out to space and knows that it could only have come from the convent. Scott is now more determined than ever to find out what Christopher Lee is hiding. But as soon as they go to the convent they are captured by the nuns, all of whom are working for Lee. They see an experiment in which the real Lee is killed and then Lee tells Scott if he doesn’t get a secret experimental substance for him that Scott’s company is working on, he’ll kill his wife. As stated earlier, the story itself is absurd and makes very little sense, and by far the weakest actors are the two leads. But where Kirk Scott does a passable job, Sue Lyon leaves a lot to be desired. The two play a hip, upper class couple that like to have sex a lot. And while there is no nudity in the print I saw, it doesn’t mean that the original intent wasn’t there. Christopher Lee, in his black vestments, looks every bit like Dracula and the viewer half expects him to be sporting fangs when Scott and Lyon first see him in the convent. But his performance is wooden and gets lost amid the general corniness of the ending. End of the World is not a good film by any measure, but for me it had enough interesting tidbits that kept it from being truly bad. Nevertheless, caveat emptor.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Ghost Story (1981)

Director: John Irvin                                            Writer: Lawrence D. Cohen
Film Score: Philippe Sarde                                Cinematography: Jack Cardiff
Starring: John Houseman, Fred Astaire, Melvyn Douglas and Douglas Fairbanks Jr.

In 1985 I read my first horror novel, Peter Straub’s Ghost Story. I was blown away by nearly everything in it at the time, and to this day it’s the most well constructed novel I’ve ever read. As a result, I wanted to like the film version so much that it almost pained me to watch it. Unfortunately, Ghost Story is not a very good film. And even if it’s a bad one I’m not sure I’m in a position to make that judgment because of how much I completely enjoyed Straub’s novel. Nevertheless, I think there are good things to take away from the experience, not the least of which is the superb casting of four cinematic legends at the time: John Houseman, Fred Astaire, Melvyn Douglas and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. British director John Irvin has made a string of films throughout his career that have never risen above a solid mediocre, and this is one of them. Straub’s previous two novels, Julia and If You Could See Me Now, were made into moderately successful films in the seventies, but those were fairly straightforward stories. Beginning with Ghost Story the writer embarked on a much more ambitious and sophisticated style that would launch him onto the bestseller list, and simultaneously prove to be unfilmable. But it’s not just the screenplay and the direction that’s bad. The score by Philippe Sarde is average, and the editing is terrible. The greatest sin the film commits, however, is that it’s not really very frightening. The whole production seems like something that should have been made for television.

The film begins in a snowy, New England village, John Houseman pacing his study with a snifter of brandy. In another house, Melvyn Douglas is talking in his sleep through a bad dream. Across town, Fred Astaire seems to be having a real nightmare. Finally, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. is so physically affected by his dream that he’s thrashing about in a sweat. Then a wonderful credit sequence begins, with a milk-like substance dripping down the screen, revealing names and ghostly images of the moon. When the action returns Houseman is telling a ghost story to the rest of the old men. It’s a meeting of the Chowder Society, a club where the members dress in tuxedos and tell scary stories to each other. From there the scene shift to an urban high rise apartment, water spilling over the bathtub and Craig Wasson, in a towel, ignoring it. He wants to know the identity of the naked woman, face down in his bed. But she won’t tell him. Finally, he turns her over and her corpse-like face makes him recoil in fear, right through the window to his death. Later the phone rings and Wasson, this time with no moustache, answers the phone to learn that his twin brother has died. Turns out the boys are Fairbanks’ sons and Wasson goes home for the funeral. He thinks the death might have something to do with his brother’s fiancée, and when his father winds up dead after falling off a bridge he confronts the Chowder Society about what they’ve been hiding. It turns out, it’s a lot.

Straub’s story is purposefully complex, and while that kind of literary technique can sometimes work in film, it doesn’t here. Later, Astaire goes to look at what seems to be the old Psycho house and finds a couple of squatters. This is a subplot that probably could have been done away with, but screenwriter Lawrence Cohen kept it, and tried to shoehorn everything else from the novel in as well. There’s a reason that Hollywood never tried to film Straub’s other two great works of horror, Shadowland and Floating Dragon. Like this one, the books are tangled webs of plots and subplots that don’t really make themselves understood as part of a whole until almost the end. And that almost never works onscreen. Ghost Story is the case in point. Wasson eventually decides he needs to join the Chowder Society if he’s going to get anything out of the old geezers, and has to tell a ghost story as the price of admission. The one he tells is about his brother’s fiancée, Alice Krige, who was his girlfriend first. This really sets things in motion when the geriatric gang realize she might be a ghost from their past, out for revenge. While the novel was fantastic, the screenplay, the direction, and the acting all fall flat. The old stars do their best with an uninspired script, but most of the other actors are not very good at all, and that includes Krige. Though Craig Wasson probably would have been a decent TV actor, he’s not up to the skill level required to make the story work on the big screen. Ghost Story is such a brilliant book that the film is probably better enjoyed after reading it. It’s just too bad it wound up in the hands of a creative team that couldn’t make it work better onscreen.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Ordinary People (1980)

Director: Robert Redford                                  Writers: Alvin Sargent & Nancy Dowd
Music Adaptor: Marvin Hamlish                       Cinematography: John Bailey
Starring: Timothy Hutton, Donald Sutherland, Mary Tyler Moore and Jud Hirsch

The late seventies produced a number of intense family dramas like Kramer vs. Kramer, the previous year’s best picture winner. Ordinary People was the first film directed by Robert Redford and it went on to win the best picture Oscar that year as well as a best director statuette for Redford. The story was based on the novel by Judith Guest, and Redford purchased the rights to it before publication specifically to make his directorial debut. The actor-director had already set up his Sundance Film Institute in Utah earlier in 1980 and it was a time of transition for him, as he was becoming increasingly disenchanted with simply being a movie star. Both Sundance and the legitimacy of his Oscar win for directing the picture solidified his newfound reputation as a legitimate supporter of independent films and directors. Because pictures like Raging Bull and The Elephant Man lost out to Redford’s movie, it has created a critical backlash against the film as being undeserving of the Oscar for that year. Plus there is the fact that the film focuses on people who are well off financially, and that it doesn’t create a lot of sympathy for the viewer. But Redford was very purposeful about exploring the idea that money does not create a bulwark against tragedy, and that people of any socio-economic strata can suffer. As a result, the film continues to retain a strong popularity with modern viewers.

As the title indicates, the opening of the film is about a regular family. But clearly there is an undercurrent of trauma running through it. Timothy Hutton wakes up in a sweat while his parents are gone. Father Donald Sutherland checks on him when they get back and is obviously worried, while the next morning at breakfast mother Mary Tyler Moore whisks away his favorite breakfast when he says he isn’t hungry and runs it through the garbage disposal. At the same time his father is attempting to smooth things over, his mother is being passive aggressive. Hutton is a year behind in school and still having nightmares about a boating accident, and so he’s compelled to call psychiatrist Jud Hirsch for help. During their first conversation the audience learns that Hutton’s brother died during the accident, and that Hutton tried to commit suicide afterward. The line the plot hinges on is when Hutton tells Hirsch that he misses the psychiatric ward at the hospital because nothing was hidden there. Moore and Sutherland are upper middle class, well dressed, and living in a big house. At home Moore wants to pretend that nothing happened, and especially when she’s out in public, and berates Sutherland for telling one of their friends that Hutton is seeing a psychiatrist. When Hutton falls for a girl at school, Elizabeth McGovern, he begins to feel normal, but then he goes back home and he knows that his mother blames him for the death of his brother.

It’s a heartbreaking story, especially where Mary Tyler Moore is concerned. She is cold and heartless and can’t even begin to try to untangle her feelings about anything, Hutton, Sutherland, or her dead son. It’s to the credit of the screenwriters that they left the ending in tact and didn’t try to put a happy spin on it. Alvin Sargent won an Academy Award for his adaptation of the novel. The real merit behind Redford’s work, however, begins with the casting. Donald Sutherland hadn’t yet edged into is villainous period, but still played characters who were either crazed or in command. The weak-willed husband in this story was definitely going against type and works well because it is so unexpected. But greater than that was the disparity between Mary Tyler Moore’s television work and the tightly-wound suburban housewife she plays here. Redford stripped her of all her TV mannerisms and it worked brilliantly. Jud Hirsch was also a bold move as the psychiatrist, as he was another actor known for his TV work at the time, and he did well. Elizabeth McGovern was still attending Julliard, and while she has an arresting onscreen image, her performance feels a little forced. Timothy Hutton, in his first feature film role--and whose father died just the year before--is clearly the focal point of the film, and his performance earned him an Oscar.

There are a couple of associations that the film brings to mind. The first deals with survivor guilt in coloring the relationship of Hutton and Moore. This would be expanded on to include the father in Stephen King’s novella, The Body, itself made into the film Stand By Me. In that story the protagonist imagines that both his parents wish he had died instead of his older brother. The second association is with Ben Affleck and Matt Damon’s Oscar-winning screenplay for their film Good Will Hunting. In that film there is an intense relationship between a young boy and a psychiatrist that takes much the same story arc. And while the Affleck-Damon script makes for better drama, it’s not nearly as realistic as the relationship presented in Redford’s film. The final aspect of the film that is worth noting is the film score by Marvin Hamlish. Instead of new compositions, a decision was made to orchestrate Baroque pieces to underscore the action. Hamlish had done something similar in an earlier Redford film, adapting ragtime music for The Sting. It’s a nice effect here, even extending to the diegetic music that’s heard from Hirsch’s stereo. In many ways the story seems pedestrian today, but Ordinary People does contain some very good performances, and the subdued nature of Redford’s nascent directorial style establishes the perfect mood in which to frame them. Is it the best picture of 1980? Probably not, but it’s not the first time it’s happened and it certainly won’t be the last.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Mimic (1997)

Director: Guillermo del Toro                             Writers: Matthew Robbins & Guillermo del Toro
Film Score: Marco Beltrami                              Cinematography: Dan Lausten
Starring: Mira Sorvino, Jeremy Northam, F. Murray Abraham and Josh Brolin

Despite its lack of critical success, Guillermo del Toro’s sci-fi horror film Mimic has a lot of positive things going for it, and a cult following even inspired the studio to produce two more direct-to-video entries in the franchise without him. What he has created in this first film in the series, however, is a genuine throwback to seventies horror film, complete with color manipulation to give the images the warm feel of the film stock from that period, as well as a brilliant production design by Carol Spier that gives the sets a timeless quality, making the movie feel as if it could be set at any time in the later half of the twentieth century. The screenplay was, in fact, based on the story of the same name by fifties sci-fi author Donald A. Wollheim and deals with genetic manipulation gone wrong. The film was originally planned as one in a series of short films that would be shown together, but the project was eventually undertaken as a feature. And while it was released before del Toro had approved of the final cut, a few years later he went back and re-cut the film, which was released on DVD in 2011 as the director’s cut.

The film begins with an outbreak of a deadly disease in New York City that is attacking children. None of the usual remedies work, however, when they try to come up with a cure or a vaccine. So the medical community decides to go after the carrier: the common cockroach. CDC physician Jeremy Northam takes research entomologist Mira Sorvino through the clinic in order to convince her of what needs to be done, and she develops what is called the Judas Breed, a genetically engineered roach that, once it breeds, produces only sterile roaches. When the population eventually dies out the cases of the outbreak dwindle to nothing. Fast forward three years and Northam and Sorvino are married. Sorvino’s buying exotic bugs from two kids who haunt the subways. Then they find a live specimen of a juvenile Judas roach, and since they can’t technically reproduce she begins to panic over what that could mean. Her mentor, F. Murray Abraham, calls her bug Frankenstein and tells her that the world is a much different place than the lab where all of them died. At the same time a bug-man is haunting the streets of New York, killing and taking the bodies underground to his lair. Josh Brolin is the uncouth CDC inspector who works with Northam on the case.

The only witness to the bug man’s crimes is a savant child, Alexander Goodwin, who can mimic the sound of the bug man with a set of spoons. Halfway through the film del Toro sets up for the climax in three ways. First, Northam and Brolin investigate the subway tunnels with policeman Charles Dutton to look for more examples of the juvenile Judas species of the roaches. Second, a subway worker discovers a larval form of the bug man that he shows to Sorvino, and she delivers it to Abraham for examination. And finally, Goodwin goes into the church across the street from his house were a priest was killed and encounters two bug men, while his father Giancarlo Giannini searches for him when he goes missing. Director del Toro does a nice job of building suspense by having all of the principals, save Abraham, wind up trapped in the subway with the giant bugs, which Abraham has determined is an actual colony rather than isolated specimens. At this point the film turns into something like Alien and, unlike a lot of other modern horror film, it works because of the way the film is constructed as an homage to those older films.

If there’s something about the film that hasn’t aged well, it’s the lead actors. Unlike Alien, which sported a host of A-list actors--even if only in retrospect--Mira Sorvino and Jeremy Northam are decidedly lesser talents. F. Murray Abraham, while an incredibly gifted actor, hasn’t been able to find a project that even comes close to Amadeus, and therefore has had to settle for character roles that severely underutilize him. Josh Brolin was early in his career and adds little more than many other actors could have done, though Charles S. Dutton does some nice work with a small role as a cynical cop. And while Alexander Goodwin is almost clichéd in his reading of the kid, the real standout among the supporting actors is Giancarlo Giannini, who brings a European believability to his role as Goodwin’s father. The ending of the film treads dangerously close to camp, but it never goes over the line, and while there is a certain amount of improbability to the climax it can almost be forgiven amid the impressive, Giger-like bowels of New York City and the non-CGI special effects work on the giant insects. Though the acting in Mimic may not have aged well in the past twenty years, the film definitely has its moments and is well worth taking a look at.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Nazi Agent (1942)

Director: Jules Dassin                                       Writers: Paul Gangelin & John Meehan Jr.
Film Score: Lennie Hayton                                Cinematography: Harry Stradling
Starring: Conrad Veidt, Ann Ayars, Frank Reicher and Martin Kosleck

It’s always fascinated me that MGM, the most conservative of the studios in Hollywood, was the first to go headlong into anti-Nazi propaganda with films like The Mortal Storm even before Pearl Harbor. This one, Nazi Agent, starring the legendary Conrad Veidt, was produced later during the flourishing of these pictures, coming out just a month before Alfred Hitchcock’s Saboteur. This was the first feature film for director Jules Dassin, who would make some powerful films noir in the late forties for Universal but, ironically, would be hounded out of the country by the communist witch hunts that began shortly after. He wound up spending the bulk of his career in Europe and made some stellar films there as well, including Night and the City in England and Rififi in France. Despite the title, this film is all about U.S. patriotism, and had gone through several title changes during production, finally settling on Salute to Courage during previews before the studio opted for a more sensational title on general release. As such, the film is known less for its cinematic qualities than it is for the bravura performance by Conrad Veidt in a dual role. The great actor would make only two more films before dying unexpectedly of a heart attack a year later.

The film opens in the days before Pearl Harbor with a radio announcer reporting on acts of sabotage around the U.S. Reporters in to visit the German consulate are told by Conrad Veidt that the Germans are not responsible. But when they are gone he instructs his man Martin Kosleck that it’s time to activate their undercover agent, who also turns out to be Veidt as a bookseller. Dorothy Tree works for him as a clerk, and Ivan Simpson helps him acquire rare stamps for his collection. One night, however, his twin brother shows up at his home above the shop and asks to use the shop as a blind for his agents to exchange messages. But bookseller Viedt has become an American citizen and wants nothing to do with his Nazi brother. Unfortunately Marc Lawrence is brought in and because he has blackmail information on him the bookseller reluctantly acquiesces. Tree turns out to be the Nazi brother’s agent and will report on anything he does to hinder their operations. The information is transmitted through stamps, the first communiqué from Canada resulting in the destruction of a convoy by Nazi submarines. But bookseller Veidt can’t take it and passes a note to Simpson the next time he comes in to call the police, which only results in Simpson’s death and more threats by his Nazi brother.

In a rage, bookseller Veidt attacks his brother, and turns his own gun on him, killing him. Then in a panic decides to shave off his whiskers and assume his brother’s place in the spy ring in order to destroy it. Of course, it’s not easy to impersonate someone else’s life even in the best of circumstances, and the suspense comes from seeing if Veidt can learn enough about the organization to really damage it before he’s exposed as the “Nazi agent.” He not only has to fool his closest aides, including Kosleck and Ann Ayars, but most crucially his personal manservant, Frank Reicher. Conrad Veidt had to play so many Nazi’s during his brief Hollywood career--the most famous being Major Strasser in Casablanca--that this role probably seemed a welcome relief, as it mirrored his own hatred of the Nazis and his emigration to the U.S. In fact, there’s a surprising amount of compassion expressed in the film for German people in America and the difficult choice they had to make, whether to honor the loyalty to their adoptive country or loyalty to the Nazi party, and it makes for a much richer story than painting all Germans as evil. Unfortunately it’s a compassion that Hollywood failed to extend to Japanese Americans as well.

Dassin has a good eye for framing shots, like the way he stays at the bottom of the stairs as bookseller Veidt goes up into the shadows, or when the camera is at the top when Nazi Veidt walks up toward it. He and cinematographer Harry Stradling also make occasional use of a moving camera to good effect, though clearly the emphasis of the film is not on its artistic qualities and was no doubt rushed through production to capitalize on its exploitative potential. Veidt has no real equal in the film, except perhaps Frank Reicher. Though he’s a pale ghost of Captain Engelhorn from King Kong, he had a lengthy and distinguished career as a character actor in Hollywood and supports the star well. Ann Ayars, on the other hand, is not quite a natural on screen, and she only made a few more films during the war before returning to her primary vocation as an opera singer. Character veteran Marc Lawrence is a familiar face, as is Moroni Olsen as the head operative of the spy ring, and Sidney Blackmer as the ring’s front man in the States. While Nazi Agent is definitely a lesser genre film, it does have the benefit of genuine suspense and a terrific performance by the great Conrad Veidt to recommend it.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Between Heaven and Hell (1956)

Director: Richard Fleischer                                 Writer: Harry Brown
Film Score: Hugo Friedhofer                              Cinematography: Leo Tover
Starring: Robert Wagner, Terry Moore, Broderick Crawford and Buddy Ebsen

Between Heaven and Hell is a World War Two film that sort of gets lost in the shuffle and is rarely seen on television. The reason probably has to do with the fact that fully half of the film is incomprehensible, though for me it’s still better than From Here to Eternity. The film was based on the novel by Francis Gwaltney called The Day the Century Ended. The author was a Southern landowner who had been in the Philippines and the book is based on his experience and the friends he made that changed his way of thinking. The novel was purchased by 20th Century Fox but had a rocky beginning. The screenplay was first offered to Rod Serling, on the strength that he had also served in the Philippines, but he couldn’t get the story down to a manageable length. Then it was passed along to several other writers before it landed on the desk of Harry Brown, whose novel A Walk in the Sun was the basis for the film of the same name ten years earlier. Whether it was the original source material or Brown’s choice of what to use from it, the novel doesn’t translate well to the screen and other than the flashbacks, makes little sense. Director Richard Fleischer would make some other interesting big-budget pictures, including another World War Two film, Tora! Tora! Tora!, but there wasn’t a lot he was able to do for this film other than shoot some beautiful scenery, some of it on Kaua’i. Hugo Friedhofer’s score was the only part of the film nominated for an Oscar.

The film begins on an unnamed island in the Pacific during the last year of the war. Robert Wagner is in the stockade for assaulting an officer and called on to see the colonel, Frank Gerstle. Apparently Gerstle doesn’t want to turn Wagner over to a court martial just yet because he’s earned the Silver Star. So he’s being reassigned to an isolated company high up in the hills. The driver is Buddy Ebsen and when he takes him to the company headquarters Wagner meets the captain, Broderick Crawford, who doesn’t wear stripes on his uniform and insists on being called Waco instead of Sir, so he won’t be shot at by Japanese snipers. Crawford makes him a radio operator and sends him out to find a foxhole to live in. There he meets Brad Dexter, a lieutenant from the same part of the country back home. Dexter asks about a deceased colonel, Robert Keith, and learns Wagner is married to his daughter. Then Wagner flashes back to being back home on the plantation with his wife, Terry Moore. He’s mean to his white sharecroppers and she doesn’t like it very much. The portrait of a bigot emerges as he talks to his wife and reinforces a view of the past that goes back to slavery. He returns briefly to the present before flashing back to his first island landing with his National Guard unit, commanded by Keith. It’s here that Wagner earned his Silver Star when his company is hit by hidden gunmen and he climbs up above their position and drops down on them with grenades.

The friends he makes in the trenches happen to be just the kind of sharecroppers that he had abused on his own farm, but now sees as his equal, especially Buddy Ebsen. It’s this realization that is at the center of the drama, as well as the reason for his arrest. The title of the film comes from the disparity between Robert Wagner’s flashbacks with his wife Terry Moore, and the jungle fighting during the war. Wagner plays the role with the kind of disdain for authority that was beginning to creep into films after the propaganda of the late forties was wearing thin, and he does a decent job. Nevertheless, the problems with the screenplay are insurmountable as Broderick Crawford’s role makes absolutely no sense. In his island outpost the men behave as if he’s some kind of Kurtz-like character who has gone rogue, and yet his insistence on trying to avoid a sniper’s bullet seems very reasonable. The script has him ranting and raving, with soldiers like the crazed Frank Gorshin at his side amplifying the effect for no discernible reason, which simply makes him look ridiculous. Other than a couple of attacks by Japanese patrols, and some mortar shelling, there’s very little in the way of warfare, save the island landing from Wagner’s flashback. The photography is undeniably gorgeous, but again, it’s not enough to save a severely flawed picture. Between Heaven and Hell is best appreciated by fans of Robert Wagner, and is interesting for the character arc he goes through, but as a World War Two drama it’s sorely lacking.

Becoming Jane (2007)

Director: Julian Jarrold                                       Writers: Sarah Williams & Kevin Hood
Film Score: Adrian Johnston                              Cinematography: Eigil Bryld
Starring: Anne Hathaway, James McAvoy, James Cromwell and Maggie Smith

In a similar fashion as Shakespeare in Love, this film attempts to show the author falling in love, as well as being inspired to write one of her novels, Pride and Prejudice, through her own personal experience. Becoming Jane is, of course, about Jane Austen and her supposed infatuation with Irish law student Thomas Lefroy. It’s an ingenious concoction, especially in the way that the story in keeping with the kind of novels that Austen wrote. The Shakespeare film did the same thing. Despite it’s anachronistic parallel with Hollywood, and the fact that he was working on a tragedy, the film itself is more akin to one of his many comedies. By the same token, the Austen film demonstrates the way that she used the personalities of those people around her, including herself, to people her novels, and puts her romance--if there really was one--into the form of one of her stories. Director Julian Jarrold had worked primarily in television up to this point in his career, moving out of series work and into TV movies. His previous feature prior to this was the successful Kinky Boots, and he would go immediately from the Austen film into the remake of Brideshead Revisited before returning to the small screen. He brought along with him TV writers Sarah Williams and Kevin Hood and together they created a wonderful Jane Austen pastiche.

The film begins in the English countryside, with Anne Hathaway as Austin suffering from writer’s block. It’s early in the morning and she plays the piano for inspiration, waking everyone in the house in the process. Meanwhile James McAvoy as a law student in London, is trying to experience everything in life, from boxing to whores, and when he comes late to court his uncle, Ian Richardson, decides to teach him a lesson by sending him to the country, the deep country. It’s there that he comes late again to a gathering hosted by James Cromwell as Reverand Austen. Hathaway is reading aloud one of her stories about her sister, Anna Maxwell Martin, and her engagement. McAvoy can barely stay awake, and when Hathaway hears him insult her work, the two become the best of enemies. After a ball, in which the two go toe-to-toe exchanging barbs, her writer’s block is broken as she begins spewing forth adjectives to describe his uncouth behavior. But while the theory of opposites attracting is playing itself out, matron Maggie Smith wants to marry her nephew off to Hathaway. He has an income of his own as well as the promise of inheriting Smith’s estate, while McAvoy lives on the charity of his uncle. The only problem is that the nephew, Laurence Fox, has no personality whatsoever. To make matters worse, the Austen’s are little more than paupers and Hathaway’s mother, Julie Walters, is desperate for her to marry into money.

It’s not until McAvoy’s last night in the country that Hathaway allows her sense to rule over her sensibility and goes away with her brother and a countess to visit McAvoy’s uncle in London, in order to persuade him that she would be a suitable match for his nephew. But as in her books, Richardson is nearly apoplectic with rage at McAvoy marrying mere peasant and threatens to cut him off of funds altogether. What’s so fascinating about the screenplay by Williams and Hood is the way in which they come up with a motivation behind the novels. Hathaway says at one point that she wants to write about the truth, that bad things happen to good people and she intends to show that. But after her experiences with love and heartbreak, she turns her work into a way to right the wrongs done to people by reality. As with most of the films of this type, the British film industry has the production design down to a science. The costumes and sets are incredibly realistic and add the necessary verisimilitude to the project. Julian Jerrold doesn’t bring a whole lot of interest to the framing of the story but, to his credit, he doesn’t botch things either. In the same way, the film score by Adrian Johnston--another of Jerrold’s longtime partners--may fail to transcend, but it is serviceable and ultimately unobtrusive.

Obviously the real draw, other than the story itself, is the acting. Anne Hathaway is, at first, an unusual choice to play the British author. Her accent isn’t quite right, and while she is supposed to be a rebel of sorts, there seems to be a bit too much of the American in her performance. Nevertheless, she is someone that the audience can warm to as the film goes on and winds up doing a solid job as the heroine. James McAvoy, on the other hand, is perfection. He has a youthful charm and a joie de vivre that mirrors his character’s enthusiasm and recklessness. And he also has the added benefit of actually being British. The two of them are so good together that it really makes the climax all the more emotionally powerful. James Cromwell, another interesting choice as Hathaway’s father, doesn’t get enough screen time to do more than lend recognition to the role. It’s also unfortunate that Anna Maxwell Martin didn’t have a bigger part, as her quite innocence is a welcome balance to Hathaway’s more impassioned character. Maggie Smith naturally brings a wealth of gravitas to the part of the rich widow, and in just a few years she would go on to a more comic character in Downton Abbey. Ultimately, Becoming Jane is a film that is far greater than the sum of its parts and, while not an obvious masterpiece, it certainly has plenty of glimpses of greatness that make it highly recommended.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Dr. Monica (1934)

Director: William Keighley                                 Writer: Charles Kenyon
Film Score: Heinz Roemheld                            Cinematography: Sol Polito
Starring: Kay Francis, Warren William, Jean Muir and Verree Teasdale

On the surface, Dr. Monica is little more than a potboiler, with a contrived plot that emphasizes sensationalism. On the other hand, however, it is Kay Francis and Warren William, and there’s little more that Warners could have done to make the film better and a whole lot more that could have made it worse. The story comes from a Polish stage play by Maria Morozowicz-Szczepkowska and its English translation done by Laura Walker Mayer, and this makes sense, at it seems like nothing from that era in the United States. Kay Francis plays a renowned obstetrician who seems to be in complete control of her life. She doesn’t feel the need herself for motherhood, except as a way of pleasing her husband and bringing them closer together. The other major characters are Verree Teasdale, an incredibly empowered woman who offers some seemingly weak advice to Francis that is actually a healthy dose of realism in that day and age. What’s fascinating is that the only male characters in the film are the effeminate Herbert Bunston and the ineffectual Warren William. But where William is a tremendous actor, he is given a part that even his considerable skills can’t bring to life. Being as this is such a staunchly feminist film, it’s difficult to understand how Jack Warner could have given the green light to it, even in spite of the happy ending that adhered to the production code.

The film begins at a cocktail party thrown by Verree Teasdale. Doctor Kay Francis is late, and Teasdale wonders out loud if she’s been held up at the hospital delivering another baby. But Francis’s husband, Warren William, is in attendance and he assures the host that Francis will be along any minute. Then, when she does arrive, William has to attend a meeting with his publisher and so he and Francis only meet in passing. The two are set to go off on a trip to Europe, but she hasn’t told him that she won’t be able to go because she wants to get treatment for infertility so that they can have a baby. Meanwhile, Jean Muir is miserable at the party. She’s been having an affair with William and his impending six-month absence is almost more than she can take. But where William was going to break things off after a renewed commitment to Francis, Muir is unable to cope with his loss. Francis tries to befriend her, and it isn’t long before she figures out Muir is pregnant. Then Francis she learns that William will be returning early from Europe, and at the same time that her own case is too severe and she will never be able to have a baby of her own. The conflict comes nine months later, the night Muir is going to give birth, when Francis hears her frantically putting in a call to William, and is devastated to realize he’s the father. The irony is, while Muir doesn’t want the baby because she wants to forget about William, Francis is desperate to have one.

It’s almost difficult to believe that this film was made during the pre-code era, as the ending seems as if it were scripted by the production code office itself. Not only that, but when Muir suggest that Francis help her get an abortion, Francis is outraged and tells her not to even think about it. Nevertheless, the mere appearance on the screen of adultery and a child born out of wedlock was enough to make the censors threaten to pull the picture. Kay Francis puts in a solid performance, as usual, but it’s just that standard level of professionalism from her that fails to push the film into anything more than a melodrama. She didn’t much care for the part, either, preferring to play women who were more distinctly feminine. Warren William, on the other hand, didn’t stand a chance in this film. In fact, in the stage play there were no male characters at all. William’s part was created by screenwriter Charles Kenyon and he gives him little to do except be the man in the lives of the two women. At this point in his career, however, the actor had little enthusiasm for challenging roles and was content to appear in whatever the studio threw his way. While Dr. Monica may not be a great film, there’s still something about the star quality of the two leads that makes it watchable. And that’s a recommendation in itself.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Advise and Consent (1962)

Director: Otto Preminger                                  Writer: Wendell Mayes
Film Score: Jerry Fielding                                Cinematography: Sam Leavitt
Starring: Walter Pidgeon, Charles Laughton, Henry Fonda and Gene Tierney

Otto Preminger’s Advise and Consent is an all-star extravaganza, Advise and Consent, is about the “sausage making” that goes on in Washington D.C. In this case the plot concerns the attempt to confirm the president’s nomination for secretary of state, and the legal and political maneuverings that go on behind the scenes as well as in front of the cameras. What makes this film so interesting is how prescient it was at the time. The contention in the Senate is between the hawks and the doves, those want to actively confront the communists versus those who seek to find some way to strike a peaceful end to the Cold War. While the thrust of the film is about the secretary of state, there is a real parallel between the attitudes of Henry Fonda, as the nominee, and John F. Kennedy who was moving toward both peace agreements with Cuba and the Soviet Union, as well as pulling out military support for South Viet Nam. The best-selling novel by Allen Drury was published just prior to Kennedy’s election, but he captured the tenor of the times perfectly, and clearly delineated the powerful forces at work in the political system, strong-arm political maneuvering, smear tactics, and even blackmail. And while the relationship between the parties seems almost quaint by today’s standards, there is a lot that hasn’t changed in fifty years.

The film opens on the steps of the Capitol, with senator Paul Ford reading about the nomination of Henry Fonda to secretary of state. He rushes over to see Senate majority leader Walter Pidgeon at his hotel, but he’s already on the phone with president Franchot Tone. Getting Fonda confirmed may be an impossible task, but Pidgeon is going to give his support to the president and try. When Pidgeon calls Senate minority leader Will Geer, he’s not worried about the nomination because he knows that influential senator Charles Laughton from the majority party already hates Fonda and the nomination probably won’t get past his own party. On the Senate floor, Edward Andrews begins a filibuster to keep Pidgeon from forming a sub-committee, the next step on the confirmation process, but then allows Laughton to voice his displeasure over Fonda to the other members and the gallery full of onlookers that includes wealthy socialite Gene Tierney, who just happens to be having an affair with Pidgeon. At the subcommittee hearing Fonda holds his own as an intellectual who refuses to be drawn into mutually assured destruction with the communists, but Laughton tries to sandbag him by calling witness Burgess Meredith who says Fonda is a communist. Meredith is a mental case, though, and Fonda easily destroys his credibility on cross-examination, at the same time strengthening his bid for the cabinet post.

The only problem is, Fonda did flirt with communism when he was younger. And at this point the plot takes a very interesting turn. Produced during the height of the Cold War, the real idea underlying the film seems to be the lingering hangover from the communist witch-hunts of the McCarthy era. But that’s not the only idea at play. The fact that everyone has secrets comes to the fore when Laughton tells the subcommittee chairman, Don Murray, about Fonda and then he is blackmailed. As fascinating as the film is, it’s not very compelling, though the last thirty minutes is wonderfully shocking and surprising. Filmed in crisp black and white, it tends to make the story a bit artificial, but at the same time it also wonderfully replicates the documentary footage of the era. And there’s a lot of artistry involved as well. Other than the film stock, the thing one notes immediately about the production is the fluidity of the camera in the hands of Sam Leavitt, who worked on a number of classic films from the late fifties and early sixties. While there is judicious use of editing, masterfully assembled by Louis Loeffler, the film has the distinct feel of something like Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope in the way that actors are followed as the fast-paced dialogue pulls the camera along it its wake. In a way it can be seen as a precursor to Aaron Sorkin’s The American President and The West Wing.

While Henry Fonda is ostensibly the star, and appears on most of the recent packaging for the film, he’s only in a few scenes. He does a nice job, but it’s a supporting role at best. The actor who carries the picture is Walter Pidgeon. His urbane quality and cultured voice serve him well as the senior senator who attempts to carry out the president’s wishes. This was a comeback film for Gene Tierney, who suffered from bi-polar disorder. She was also one of Preminger’s favorite actresses, but there was little for her to do in this film that any glamorous woman in her forties couldn’t have handled just as well. The surprise for me was Don Murray, who I couldn’t recall seeing in anything previously. He does a nice job as the confident young senator from Utah who is blindsided by a secret from his past, but spent most of his career in television. The other pleasant surprise was Lew Ayres, who I had only known from All Quiet on the Western Front thirty years earlier. Of course Charles Laughton is usually given a lot of praise for his performance as the wicked Southern senator, and he is good, but his menace is tempered a great deal by the frailty he exhibits, as this was his last film before he died in late 1962. In all, Advise and Consent is certainly fascinating as a time capsule, but not quite essential viewing.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Dracula 2000 (2000)

Director: Patrick Lussier                                   Writer: Joel Soisson & Patrick Lussier
Film Score: Marco Beltrami                              Cinematography: Peter Pau
Starring: Gerard Butler, Christopher Plummer, Jonny Lee Miller and Justine Waddell

Vampires have been done to death. Part of me feels as if they aren’t even scary anymore because of the way they’ve been used and abused in film and on television for the last eighty years. Dracula 2000 is no exception, and in many ways it’s a bad film, but ultimately I watched the entire thing and was able to extract something positive from the experience. The same can’t be said of another classic monster film that came out ten years earlier, Roger Corman’s Frankenstein Unbound. That film was, literally, unwatchable. But this Dracula also shares a TV-movie type pedigree with Werewolf: The Beast Among Us, which was made twelve years later and is easily the best of the three. This updating of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, was produced by Wes Craven and directed by Patrick Lussier who had been at the helm of Craven’s Scream franchise. This was probably not a good choice, as he seemed to carry the artifice and poor production values of those films with him over into this one. The screenplay was written by Joel Soisson, who has primarily worked on direct-to-video films for Craven, and that is another nail in the coffin, so to speak, for the film. And yet, like the title character himself, the critical failure of the film did not stop it from spawning two direct-to-video sequels.

The opening credits roll over the voyage of the Demeter, from Nosferatu, F.W. Murnau’s unauthorized adaptation of Stoker’s Dracula, but put back to the original 1876 date of the novel. When the ship runs aground in England all of the crew is dead, and footprints leading away from the ship are washed away. Then the date jumps ahead to London in the year 2000. Abraham Van Helsing’s grandson, Christopher Plummer, is buying a medieval crossbow for his collection with the help of his assistants, Jonny Lee Miller and Jennifer Esposito. Plummer even jokes about how ridiculous it was that Stoker used his grandfather for a character in his book. Later that night a team of thieves, led by Omar Epps of House, M.D. fame and Danny Masterson, attempt to break into the vault of Plummer’s extensive collection, but instead of treasure they discover a metal coffin that they can’t get into. When Esposito comes across the open vault and walks inside, there is some genuine suspense, until she is revealed to be part of the conspiracy. The coffin is guarded by some protective booby-traps that kill two of the thieves, and unbeknownst to the rest of them, their blood is pulled into the coffin. Plummer hears the alarms, but he and Miller arrive too late, and the thieves take the coffin, assuming there’s money inside, and fly to the Caribbean. Meanwhile, in nearby New Orleans, Justine Waddell is having incredibly vivid dreams about the man in the coffin, almost as if he’s actually in the room with her. Then Plummer and Miller head to Louisiana to do battle with the newly released Gerard Butler as Dracula.

For many people, the film is unwatchable, and that’s completely understandable. The profusion of television actors in the film, for one thing, only adds to the low-budget feel. But for all that, the acting isn’t bad at all and the principal actors, along with Jeri Ryan and Shane West, do nothing to embarrass themselves. Easily the worst part of the film is the production design, which actually is embarrassing. The entire film appears to have been shot on a sound stage and even the shots in New Orleans fail to add any type of atmosphere to the picture. On the positive side is that the special effects are from the Matrix era, and they are a welcome relief from CGI, which I’m beginning to hate with a passion. The other thing that makes it watchable is the clever ideas that permeate the screenplay. The trip on the airplane with the coffin turns into an updated variation on the Demeter, and setting the film in New Orleans is clearly a nod to Anne Rice’s Vampire Lestat. There’s also a wonderful revelation about Plummer’s true identity and how he got that way, as well as the identity of Waddell. But the most ingenious plot twist has to do with the genesis of Dracula, which gives the title added meaning. Though the film tanked at the box office, it did quite well in its video release, enough to make back its production costs. Dracula 2000 continues to be seen on cable TV, and that would definitely be the place to watch it, interesting for the ideas but little else.