Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Awful Truth (1937)

Director: Leo McCarey                                    Writers: Viña Delmar & Sidney Buchman
Film Score: George Parish                              Cinematography: Joseph Walker
Starring: Cary Grant, Irene Dunne, Ralph Bellamy and Cecil Cunningham

Though at first blush The Awful Truth seems like a rehash of His Girl Friday it was actually made several years earlier, a successful trial run for a series of films starring Cary Grant in which the star seduces back his ex-wife and leaves another suitor out in the cold. The film was adapted from the hit play of the same name by Arthur Richman, and according to Ralph Bellamy in his autobiography When the Smoke Hit the Fan, it had gone through the hands of half a dozen screenwriters before he showed up on the set for the first day of shooting. The trouble they had was trying to convert the Englishman of the play into a western hick. Once everyone was on the set director Leo McCarey began shooting without a script. Dunne wanted out of the picture, and so did Grant unless he could play the Englishman from the original play and Bellamy take over his part. Though the controversial writer Viña Delmar is credited with the screenplay--and was even nominated for an Academy Award--Bellamy claims they never had a script and that McCarey would come in with fresh pages everyday that the actor assumed he wrote himself. Apparently, after a few days of insecurity with McCarey’s directing style, the cast warmed up to it and knocked the picture out in six weeks. Despite the cast’s misgivings, the film was the first of it’s kind and went on to achieve classic status as a screwball comedy of remarriage that would be followed by My Favorite Wife, The Philadelphia Story, His Girl Friday and many others.

The film opens at a Manhattan sports club, with Cary Grant trying to get a tan to hide the fact that he hasn’t been in Florida as he told his wife. When he brings some friends over to the house, however, wife Irene Dunne isn’t there. He assumes she’s at the house of her aunt, Cecil Cunningham, but when the aunt shows up alone he becomes suspicious. Then Dunne does show up, but with Alexander D’Arcy in tow. Apparently his car broke down the night before and the two of them stayed the night together at a country inn. After the guests leave, Grant’s suspicions get the better of him and accusations fly, not only from him but from her when she sees the fruit basket he brought her is from California. After a quick trip to divorce court, Dunne gets an apartment with Cunningham and it’s not long before the two meet their neighbor, Ralph Bellamy. He’s a rich oilman from Oklahoma who lives with his mother, Esther Dale. Dunne falls for him because he is the opposite of Grant, polite and thoughtful instead of unfaithful and scheming. With two full months before the divorce is final, however, Grant begins to have second thoughts. Fortunately, as Dunne becomes increasingly more aware of what spending her life in Oklahoma with Bellamy will be like, she becomes disenchanted with marrying him as well. Neither one wants to admit to the other that they’ve made a mistake, though it’s obvious that the two are still very much in love.

In addition to Delmar, Ralph Bellamy and Irene Dunne as well as the film itself, were all nominated for Oscars but it was director Leo McCarey who won for best direction. For McCarey, who had worked extensively with Laurel and Hardy as well as the Marx Brothers, it was a long overdue recognition of his comedic talent. The film starts off rather predictably and the first half hour is almost pedestrian, but the second half more than makes up for it. And the antics, while not exactly zany, are actually the better for it. One of the funniest moments of the film is a nightclub act by Joyce Compton singing “Gone With the Wind,” though it’s less the gag that goes along with the song as it is the reaction of the three leads that is so humorous. And as it was throughout his career, the witty banter can get a bit tiresome and so some of the best moments for Grant are when he indulges is physical comedy. For Dunne, the highlight is playing Grant’s sister in an attempt to destroy his new romance with Molly Lamont. To be honest, the pacing is uneven throughout, but that is no doubt a result of McCarey’s working methods. And while Grant never did warm to the finished film, it catapulted his popularity into the upper echelon of male actors in the forties and solidified his screen image for the rest of his career. The Awful Truth may not be the greatest screwball comedy of the late thirties but it is a solid hit film that deserves its classic status.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Interstellar (2014)

Director: Christopher Nolan                              Writers: Jonathan & Christopher Nolan
Film Score: Hans Zimmer                                 Cinematography: Hoyte Van Hoytema
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain and Ellen Burstyn

Ah yes, Christopher Nolan, a man who has a deft hand at visuals that could confidently be called impressive, combined with a congenitally defective sense of narrative and dialogue. Unfortunately, in his complete lack of understanding about how abjectly impoverished his writing is he’s not alone, and it won’t be long until the inability of the younger generation of writer-directors to understand narrative and what makes a good story is all that viewers will soon be left with. If you turned off the sound and simply watched Interstellar, you might think you were watching an Academy Award winning film. If you closed your eyes and simply listened, however, you’d swear you were screening a high school visual arts class project. It’s that bad. All of which makes assessing the film fairly challenging. It’s not a horrible film by any stretch, and it takes no effort to remain interested in the story--at least until the ending. But the screenplay, co-written by Nolan’s brother Jonathan undercuts the good parts of the film at every turn. The dialogue does absolutely nothing to develop the characters, as all of them remain two-dimensional throughout the entire film. It delivers no useful information to the viewer, leaving them a bit mystified as to all of the theoretical plot holes in the scientific underpinning of the story. And finally it’s so far-fetched as to render the entire exercise nearly pointless. But it sure is gorgeous to watch.

Matthew McConaughey is a former test pilot who was scrubbed from the space program when his plane went down. Now he lives on a farm in the Midwest as a widower with his father-in-law, John Lithgow, and his two kids. The time is the near future and while the world has ended warfare, a blight has destroyed all of the grain crops on earth except for corn. He hates farming, his son can’t get into college, his daughter has a poltergeist in her bedroom, and the earth is dying from lack of oxygen. Meanwhile dust storms come sweeping across the landscape every few days and get dirt everywhere. It’s not until McConaughey becomes interested in the poltergeist that things begin to happen. It turns out that the books being pulled off her shelves by invisible hands are an attempt to communicate using binary code. He figures out that the information is a location, and when they go their government agents capture them. It turns out, however, that the location is a secret space program run by Michael Caine designed to go into a worm hole near Saturn that can take astronauts to a distant galaxy to repopulate another planet from the dying Earth. Anne Hathaway is Caine’s daughter and they need McConaughey to fly the ship. It’s actually a little more interesting than it sounds.

But again, the visuals are the only interesting thing about the film, and even they have some problems. The Dust Bowl like conditions are wonderful to look at, but they can hardly be called original. And the space sequences seem oddly reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Jessica Chastain and Casey Afleck appear later as the older versions of McConaughey’s kids, and there are spiffy cameos by Ellen Burstyn and Matt Damon, who turns out to be nothing like his character in The Martian. The thing that’s so disappointing is how much could have been done with the idea, and how extravagantly it was squandered by Nolan. The project had originally been designed for Stephen Spielberg and, even though it had been written by Jonathan Nolan at that point, it’s difficult to believe that it would have made it to the screen without an extensive rewrite. One thing Spielberg is known for is the quality of the screenplays he works with. It’s troubling to read how many fans think this is one of the best films of all time, considering how incredibly bad the dialogue is, and that doesn’t bode well for the future. The actors do as well as they can, saddled with insipid dialogue that does nothing to give them any life. The whole thing is reminiscent of the philosophical drudgery of the 1936 film by H.G. Wells, Things to Come, in that it lacks anything resembling a story. While Interstellar has tension and suspense, and boasts some great actors working in visually compelling landscapes, ultimately it can’t overcome a crippling screenplay that never gets off the launch pad.