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The Horizontal Lieutenant

Posted : 3 days, 17 hours ago on 17 July 2017 04:31 (A review of The Horizontal Lieutenant)

Absolutely nothing works in The Horizontal Lieutenant. From the predictable title straight on down to the indifferent plotting there’s very little to engage you here. Jim Hutton mugs and falls down a lot, Paula Prentiss plays the sensible foible, and there’s a bunch of supporting players that drift in and out for easy laughs. If they were trying to make Hutton/Prentiss a viable romantic-comedy duo for the ages, then they needed to give them better material. Same could be said for the supporting players, like Oscar winner Miyoshi Umeki wasted in a role that basically boils down to her yelling at the Americans in Japanese and singing one song in half-Japanese/half-English. The whole thing feels frozen in amber from the early 60s sex comedies in which the title did most of the clever jokes.

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Flower Drum Song

Posted : 4 days, 17 hours ago on 16 July 2017 04:27 (A review of Flower Drum Song)

Oh boy, it’s hard to talk about Flower Drum Song without wincing. It’s not an outright terrible film, but it is loaded with baggage that hinders one maximum enjoyment of this entertaining but unwieldy adaptation.


Many of the problems with Flower Drum Song originate in the Rodgers and Hammerstein book/score, which is widely considered one of their weaker efforts. That’s not even taking into consideration the cavalcade of stereotypes on display, or the overstuffed nature of this adaptation that leaves all of its main players as mere sketches and supporting ideas instead of fully fleshed out characters. And we still haven’t even talked about the uneasy nature of watching Juanita Hall, a black woman, play a Chinese woman and belt out “Chop Suey,” the lowest of the film’s many low points.


At its heart, Flower Drum Song is primarily about two things: generational conflict, the Old East versus the New West, and a series of young romantics falling in and out of love with each other. There’s just too much going on in the story that it feels both burdened with too much and too little. Yet there’s still the chance to watch a group of primarily Asian actors take the lead, play scenes of romance and comedy, sing and dance.


Miyoshi Umeki gets her finest hour as a movie star in her limited filmography here. She’s reprising her Tony nominated stage role, and she’s consistently charming and endearing, deploying moments of sly humor then hitting you hard with her musical abilities. She also gets the closest thing to a full-blooded character here, yet she’s still sidelined and lost in the ever-expanding shuffle of musical numbers and characters hogging the limelight. She’s still demure and bashful at points, but she gets to engage in physical comedy (“Don’t Marry Me” with Jack Soo is a riot), sing (“A Hundred Million Miracles” is a delight under her guidance), and assert some brains and agency by finding the loophole in her arranged marriage to run off with the man she truly loves.


Supporting her are Nancy Kwan, saucy and vivacious as naughty girl Linda Low, Jack Soo, who plays Sammy Fong as if he stepped out of a Damon Runyon short story, and James Shigeta, wonderful and impossibly handsome as the leading man. Yet there’s still the strange vision of watching these characters get sidelined for moments that place the emphasis on the wrong thing. Kwan’s “I Enjoy Being a Girl,” one of the best and campiest songs in the show, understandably gets the lavish treatment, but the extended dance breakdown in “The Other Generation” just eats up time as the kids are hardly major factors in the story. Same goes for “Love, Look Away,” undoubtedly one of the best moments in the film for its beautiful dancing and production design, but it’s given to a character that has barely registered as integral to the story in any way except for this one moment.


Even worse is the icky political undercurrent that stacks the deck in favor of tradition, and forces Umeki and Kwan to square off in a variation of the virgin/whore complex. Flower Drum Song wants us to believe that the old ways are the best ways, and that includes the quiet, docile wife. It’s all wrapped in glossy colors, extensive production design, and a general sense of happy, warm fantasy. The Chinatown we spend time in here is clearly a confection with no basis in reality or resemblance to the realities of assimilation.


It was selected for inclusion in the National Film Registry in 2008, which makes perfect sense as its more interesting as a cultural artifact than an actual film. It has something in common with 1943’s pair of all-black musicals, Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather: they’re rare glimpses to watch a majority of people of color get to play actual characters and display the full range of their talents, even if the material does crudely dip into stereotype.  

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Cry For Happy

Posted : 4 days, 18 hours ago on 16 July 2017 04:04 (A review of Cry for Happy)

You wouldn’t know it from watching this, but Miyoshi Umeki won an Oscar and got a Tony nomination just a few short years prior to this cringe-inducing “comedy.” But five years is a long break, and between Sayonara in 1957 and Cry For Happy in 1961, Umeki was nowhere to be found on the big screen despite possessing Hollywood’s preeminent film award. What she gets sacked with is another smiling, placid figure in a nothing role that we know will eventually wind up with one of the four American GIs crashing in the geisha house. This doesn’t stop the GIs from basically inferring that the geishas are prostitutes and trying treating them as such. A series of misunderstanding and outright lies escalate to a zany conclusion, there's a happily-ever-after, and the geisha becomes an orphanage because why bother successfully developing one plot strand when you can half-ass a series of them? No one looks like they’re having much fun here, with Glenn Ford looking bored and Donald O’Connor adrift without pulling faces or breaking out into a song-and-dance number.

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Posted : 2 weeks, 6 days ago on 30 June 2017 04:29 (A review of Chocolat)

This has got Harvey Weinstein’s fingerprints all over it. What exactly do I mean by this? Well, there was a period of time when Miramax/Harvey Weinstein produced a never-ending parade of handsome adaptations of novels, some of them more prestigious than others, with vaguely respectable directors, and a series of talented international actors. Chocolat is a prime example of this type of film-making, both for good and bad.


Chocolat is pleasing enough when it operates at the level of confectionery fable, but falters whenever it strives for something deeper. It preaches a lovely message of tolerance, and gives several actresses ample room to strut their stuff. There’s not a lot to it, and its heavy sentimentality can grate towards the end, especially in a happy ending that just feels forced and hollow. There’s gradation here, we’re told explicitly throughout who is good and bad and where our sympathies must lie.  


Any and all enjoyment comes from a trio of performances. There’s Juliette Binoche as our heroine, who may or may not be a witch, a pagan demi-goddess, or merely a pagan priestess, it’s never entirely sure and her character is thinly written. But Binoche brings a tremendous amount of charm, incandescent star power, and serene ease to every scene. It’s no wonder that the small village falls under her powers, she casts a similar spell on the audience. While the movie tries to make its war between Christianity and paganism a source of dramatic tension, the mere presence of Binoche tilts the scales towards the old beliefs at every opportunity.


Supporting her are Judi Dench and Lena Olin, and both turn in very fine work. There’s a consistent problem with the non-French actors giving inconsistent accents, Carrie-Anne Moss is the worst offender while Johnny Depp is bizarrely doing a vaguely British one, but Dench and Olin manage to ground their performances in some truth and deeply felt emotions. Dench as an opinionated and hardened sounds like something she could do in her sleep, but Dench never slouches no matter what the material is. Olin as an eccentric, abused housewife who flowers under the maternal warmth and feminine support of Binoche and Dench. For me, Olin is the true best-in-show when it comes to the supporting players. She hits notes of grief and mania that are impressively wide and watchable. She’s an exposed nerve when others are merely play acting.


Chocolat is perfectly fine, safe and whimsical, designed less for artistry than to try and garner awards. Weinstein’s P.T. Barnum-esque showmanship has heralded many an empty but handsome film to prominence, and this one is no different. At least Chocolat offers a rare glimpse of Leslie Caron, and I do mean rare as she’s barely in it, and three great performances to engage you. It plays like a cheap store-bought holiday candy, you eat one, get a temporary high, and then move on to another and another and another.

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Working Girl

Posted : 2 weeks, 6 days ago on 30 June 2017 03:43 (A review of Working Girl)

The shop-girl makes good films gets an update (for the late-80s) in Working Girl. If you look under the hood of this thing, it’s built to last and form a foolproof exterior that runs like a dream. Add in a dash of the battle of the sexes vibrancy from films like Woman of the Year to the mix, and you’ve got the recipe for a crowd-pleasing comedy. It’s pure Cinderella-style fantasy, but there’s a core of spunky, can-do dreamer positivity that is quite fetching.


Working Girl tells the story of Tess McGill (Melanie Griffith), a secretary with big dreams and aspirations but the inability to get them accomplished. After getting a new job with a barracuda (Sigourney Weaver, sensational) who appears sunny and supportive, Tess, through a wacky series of circumstances, falls in a duplicitous plan to grab the brass ring for herself. Along the way she falls in love with an executive (Harrison Ford, charming and ponderous instead of amorous), commiserates with her best friend (Joan Cusack, absolutely golden while alternating between eccentricity and emotional support), and gets caught up in her lies and schemes. Of course, this is basically a feel-good romance so we all know that we’re going to wind up with a happily ever after.


It’s fun to watch Working Girl and realize that Harrison Ford, and Alec Baldwin to a lesser extent, is the sexualized character. There’s a scene where he changes his shirt in front of an open window while all of the female secretary pool watches and applauds. His brief foray into revealing his skin is treated as a peepshow while Griffith’s scenes of undress are more complicated. There’s a scene where she’s wearing the lingerie that Baldwin buys her for her birthday, and she feels exasperated and unfulfilled by the whole ordeal. There’s another where she’s briefly seen vacuuming nearly naked in a frenzy to cleanup Weaver’s apartment before her arrival that’s merely played for laughs and not to arouse the audience.


Tess is not unaware of her place in the world. She’s prone to both describing herself as built with “a head for business and a bod for sin,” and assessing her need for a makeover with the signifiers of appearance, primarily telling Cusack that "serious hair” is imperative. Appearances are everything, and Tess is trying her hardest to not only take night classes to build up her vernacular and acumen, but speech courses to soften her rough Long Island accent and baby-doll voice. There’s more than a little bit of Melanie Griffith in Tess, and this truth brings a vitality and spark to her performance that she distinctly lacks in others.


Griffith was a largely unknown commodity as an actress prior to Working Girl. She’d appeared in two critically acclaimed/cult favorite Jonathan Demme and Brian De Palma films, Something Wild and Body Double, but in no box office hits. If she was known at all, it was through the prism of her relationships with other famous people, mainly her romance with Don Johnson and her famous Hitchcock blonde mother, Tippi Hedren. It’s hard not to read Tess’ yearning for respectability as a reflection for Griffith’s own wants as an actress, and she’s absolutely stellar here. She’s proven to be one of our more inconsistent actresses, but nothing can take away from the variety of moods and humor that she brings to this film. It’s success or failure rides on her leading work, and it’s a success overall. Much like Tess, Griffith made good with Working Girl.  

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An Unmarried Woman

Posted : 3 weeks, 1 day ago on 28 June 2017 03:42 (A review of An Unmarried Woman)

In many ways, An Unmarried Woman is a cosmetic update of a woman’s picture from the 40s. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine a tougher dame like Ginger Rogers or Carole Lombard starring in a fluffier, happier version of this story about a woman reconciling from a divorce and finding her footing again as a single woman. It would include women like Eve Arden appearing as one of the best friends, eternally with a cigarette in one hand and a drink in the other offering up bon mots and supportive sarcasm. It would be both incredibly similar and tonally different to this film, but it’s easy to trace the line from those films to this one.


A woman in an idealized life finds it suddenly rocked by the revelation that her husband is leaving her, and the stability and complacency of her life is thrown to the wilds. This is the only life she’s ever known. How exactly does one regain their footing and carve out their new identity, or reclaim one that they had sublimated to another person, without any of the safety nets in place that they once knew?


While so much of An Unmarried Woman happens in the lap of upper-middle class wealth that it’s hard to completely relate to these characters, there’s the strength of Jill Clayburgh’s performance that carries everything off. Clayburgh gets to play one of the most fully realized female characters in the movies, and she’s obscenely good here. Not only is she allowed to play scenes of anger, jealousy, and utter ridiculousness, but she gets to be vulnerable and hilarious. She’s allowed and encouraged a freedom of expression that is rare in a female character, and her work is transcendent, the type of finely crafted film acting that we go to the movies for in the first place.


Hell, I don’t even disagree with her decision in the end to drop the overly sensitive artist for the continued rebuilding of her identity. Apparently this decision courted some controversy, but I understood why she would choose herself over an idealized solution. Why forsake her own identity to play the wife of another wealthy, successful man in his field? The film is called An Unmarried Woman, and Clayburgh’s Erica makes a rational, informed decision based upon where she’s at in her life to remain the titular woman and not become another Mrs.


It is a damn shame that An Unmarried Woman doesn’t offer up the rest of its characters the same amount of range and expressivity. Her teenage daughter feels like the precocious fantasy of liberated, late-70s youth, and her friends feel like a bunch of entertaining neurotics with limited variations (even if they are wonderfully played by the likes of Kelly Bishop, Patricia Quinn, and Linda Miller), and the trio of major male characters in the film basically fall into broad strokes of personality. This thing belongs solely to Erica, but a little more vibrancy for the supporting players wouldn’t have hurt.


At least it doesn’t demand that Erica engage in all-encompassing suffering, long gone are the days of Joan Crawford glamorously suffering in furs, or sack her with a too trite happy ending. Nope, Erica gets to exist as her own persona working out what she does and does not want for her life on her own terms. An Unmarried Woman is at its best when it plays for the real, and I wish that the last section hadn’t descended into some kind of all too perfect romance. It was far more fun to spend time with Erica and her friends over long lunches or flipping through magazines, to watch her talk with her daughter about what the divorce means for her relationship with her father, or break down in sobs about unrelated events during therapy sessions. When An Unmarried Woman, and Jill Clayburgh by extension, are allowed to go out into emotional daring and draining territories it is at its most engaging, satisfying and deeply felt.

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Posted : 3 weeks, 3 days ago on 26 June 2017 04:46 (A review of Sayonara)

Sayonara feels like the type of movie that was built for awards consideration. Just full of enough liberal politics to make people feel good about themselves watching it when it’s really just a mildly ridiculous, soapy melodrama. Half of the romantic equation here is more authentic and fraught then the other half, which just feels like movie stars posing and staring at each other glamorously.


Granted, Sayonara does have some balls to offer up even the mildest of critiques about our involvement in Korea during the Cold War, and more especially during the 50s when complacency was all but expected. There’s also some capitulations towards racial tolerance, miscegenation, and heaps of travelogue narrations and images. Yet the ending remains a problemantic cop out as Marlon Brando gets to thumb his nose at conventionality and Miiko Taka sacrifices everything to run off with him. There’s no logical reason to think that they will work it out, and the ending probably left many a viewer with crocodile tears but left me with the vague sense of unease one gets from the ending of The Graduate.


What really sticks out is how for all of the good Sayonara tries to do, and it really does seem to try have its heart in the right place, is how grossly it leans into cultural stereotypes of the submissive geisha doll wife. It may have helped turn the tide on the popular culture view of mixed marriages, but it grossly overplays into stereotypes. Even worse is the vision of Ricardo Montalban in yellow-face makeup. Montalban, like many actors of color during this era, was frequently treated as a “house ethnic,” a phrase Rita Moreno used to describe her own tenure at MGM.


No surprise that Sayonara is overwrought as its source material comes from James Michener, he of the doorstop trashy epic. This was something different, smaller scale and filled with bits of truth that manage to poke out of the Hollywood gloss. Frankly, there’s just not enough story to justify the bloated running time, and the thing creaks along at various points. It’s not helped in this matter by director Joshua Logan, a man fond of sticking the camera in one spot and pointing it at his actors and not doing much else. By all accounts Logan was a great stage director, but he treated film the same way and they’re vastly different mediums requiring different techniques and touches.


Then there’s the curious case of Marlon Brando’s central performance, one of the first warning signs that Brando was going to become overindulgent in his quirks and flagrantly disregard acting as a serious craft in years to come. He adopts an indiscriminate southern accent, something of an all-purpose droll, that calls attention not only to itself, but to the performance he’s giving with it throughout. This remove in his performance keeps the romance guarded, can’t smother the more unbelievable plot machinations, and can’t elevate the material beyond its sudsy tone.


He’s bettered in the acting department by a duo of supporting players that walked off with the Oscars. Red Buttons and Miyoshi Umeki create a believable romance, and they play their parts with deep-rooted commitment. Umeki is a bit of a background player in a lot of her screen time, but there’s one moment where she argues with Buttons about potentially getting plastic surgery to pass for white that probably won her the statue. These two, along with some lovely scenery, are a good enough reason to seek out Sayonara, just be prepared for a dip in interest once their characters meet a tragic end.

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Hello, Dolly!

Posted : 3 weeks, 3 days ago on 26 June 2017 03:42 (A review of Hello, Dolly!)

The core of Hello, Dolly! is a warhorse of a show that is structured in such a way that it always works. Yes, it even works in this bullheaded adaptation which plays every single detail for the back of the house. It’s almost aggressive in its demands for maximum entertainment, as if it were trying to justify its bloated $25 million budget (bloated for 1968, that’s chump change nowadays) by conflating expense with enjoyment.


Hello, Dolly! was a colossal turkey back in the day, yet still somehow managed to snag a series of Oscar nominations (and wins), but its merits are better than its reputation would suggest. This thing was such a massive failure that it made Cleopatra look like a money-printing machine. Yet for all of its mugging and bug-eyed overacting there’s still something resolutely charming about it.


Walter Matthau isn’t the first choice I would think of for a song-and-dance routine, but his surliness and curmudgeonly persona wrap around Horace Vandergelder quite nicely. His voice is nothing to write home about, but it’s a character voice that works for the role and it all somehow manages to work out. Then there’s the Jerry Herman song score that is filled with out-and-out masterpieces like “Before the Parade Passes By,” “Hello, Dolly!,” “Put On Your Sunday Clothes,” and “It Only Takes a Moment.” And a few moments manage to strike the right tone and build up to a pleasing conclusion, namely the title song’s big spectacle in the Harmonia Gardens restaurant.


Yet the film’s greatest weapon and strongest asset is Barbra Streisand’s leading turn. She’s far too young, and in this sense is completely miscast, but brings a rapid-fire line delivery that makes her yenta character a scheming charmer. Not only that, but she delivers her songs with every shade and texture she can give. “So Long Dearie” begins with a hilarious series of vocal runs that would make even Mariah Carey blush before transforming into one hilarious kiss-off. Streisand dominates, keeps everything flowing, and is positively radiant here despite being about 15-30 years too young for the role.


Then there’s everything else about this behemoth that hampers the enjoyment. This isn’t a musical that’s been expanded for the screen, they exploded it with all of the delicacy of an atomic bomb. The supporting players emerge as more annoyances and mugging cartoonish characters than as memorable personalities, the choreography is routinely limp, and the entire thing feels like flailing of the Hollywood epic in panic. It’s busy throughout when it needs to moderate its tone between laughs, romance, and musical spectacle. It’s fascinating to watch as a camp artifact and for Streisand’s indomitable star power.

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Upstream Color

Posted : 3 weeks, 6 days ago on 23 June 2017 04:01 (A review of Upstream Color)

A confession: I eventually had to abandon Upstream Color with 30 minutes left to go. Look, you can bombard me with as much abstract and bizarre imagery as you want, but without a tether or reason to care about the abstract oddities, I will not care or invest my brain power and empathy into it.

Puzzle box movies are something of a mixed bag for me, as I can easily find many of them more in love with their own peculiarity and denseness than being actually involving or engaging pieces of art. Upstream Color is in love with its own impenetrability and vagueness that you could argue that this film is about anything at all. Or, it’s actually not about anything but its own disorienting schisms of time, place, narrative, and character.


It’s damn ambitious, I’ll give it that, but I just didn’t care. The first section intrigued me where Amy Seimetz’s character is kidnapped, forced to swallow a mind-controlling maggot creature, undergoes a transplant with a pig, and performs a series of bizarre actions leaving her destitute and battered. Then we skip forward a year, Shane Carruth, not content merely to be a one-man production house on this film, also stars as a love interest. It is here that I stopped caring at quickly accelerating pace. Their love story just didn’t interest me, and the elliptical connections to the first half never paid off despite the obvious bread crumbs.


There’s beauty to be found here, and a commendable sense of visual film-making but an antiseptic flavor overpowers everything. Upstream Color doesn’t merely keep you at an arm’s length, but keeps you a distance, confuses you, and then smiles at you with a sense of unearned importance. It doesn’t help that I’m getting seriously tired of straight, middle-class white male angst and romantic troubles overpowering everything. Imagine if we had just stayed with Seimetz’s character alone throughout the journey as she’s by far the more interesting and dynamic personality, both as written and as performed. I wonder if Carruth can make a passionate film and not merely a series of calling card projects. He seems talented enough, so I wouldn’t entirely write him off.

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A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

Posted : 3 weeks, 6 days ago on 23 June 2017 03:46 (A review of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night)

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a beautiful nightmare dipped in a silvery varnish. The narrative thrust of the film doesn’t matter, what matters is the evocative mood and daring visual sense of prior and encroaching gloom and doom. It seems only natural that a vampire would thrive among these streets, but it’s a bit of a shock that she looks like Jean Seberg in Breathless and dances around in her room to 80s pop (check the Madonna and Michael Jackson posters in her room).


Not only is this a vampire film, and something of a dystopian science-fiction mood piece, but clearly indebted to westerns, mainly the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns. Sheila Vand, the girl of the title, stands and swaggers around like she’s the Man with No Name. I guess she would be the Vampire with No Name here, but she radiates a sense of cloistered danger that seeps out whenever her sense of moral indignation goes off. Otherwise, she’s positively girlish, in an abstracted way, in how she spends much of her time in her apartment listening to pop music and applying makeup. Vand’s vampire feeds as much off of the blood of drug dealers as she does on ephemera of pop culture.


Then there’s Arash Marandi’s handsome dreamer, so corruptible and dressed like James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause or Marlon Brando in The Fugitive Kind, depending on how you look at it. Marandi frequently becomes something of a damsel-in-distress, and Vand the avenging vigilante swooping in to rescue him and fall into a muted form of attraction and sexual desire. With his kissable lips and soulful eyes, Arash Marandi is an obvious pinup object for any girl, or gay boy, to swoon over and want to protect.


It’s consistently fun to witness how the film flips the genders around even if it lapses into full-scale blunt force trauma. No one could ever accuse A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night of being subtle about its politics and machinations, but it does so with a full-bodied commitment that is admirable. Even its strange diversions, glimpses of neighborhood denizens doing mundane actions that have nothing to do with the main thrust of the story, are performed with a theatrical commitment that would make even the most diehard of Broadway babies blush and comment that they maybe should tone it down. 

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