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Tender is the Night

Posted : 6 months, 4 weeks ago on 26 November 2017 05:52 (A review of Tender Is the Night)

The interior writing style of F. Scott Fitzgerald is practically impossible to adapt to film. It takes work for us to invest and understand the interior life of these characters, and this adaptation fails to do that. Many of these characters are not as sharply observed as they are in his novel, and the film continually suffers for it.


There’s also the strange case of Jennifer Jones in the lead role. She’s about twenty years too old for the role, but it’s the last performance of any worth in her career. It comes as a pleasant surprise after a series of overacted and artificial turns in films like Good Morning, Miss Dove and A Farewell to Arms. Jones had her own problems with emotional and mental disturbances, and she funnels those personal demons into this part. Nicole Diver is a part that can sustain her grandiose emotional turbulence, and Jones enlivens every frame as she expertly navigates her Zelda Fitzgerald proxy’s madness, recovery, and episodic fits.


It’s a shame that the rest of the players, and the film as a whole, do not rise to her level of commitment. Jason Robards is trying, but the script doesn’t believably transition his F. Scott proxy’s descent and turmoil. The worst of the worst has to be Jill St. John’s starlet, a completely vacuous creation as envisioned by the script and her wooden performance. Only Joan Fontaine as Jones’ older sister makes a good impression. Fontaine goes for broke, not in a sense of overacting but in a way that artistically channels the unintentionally callous and vacuous glitterati of Fitzgerald’s work. Fontaine and Robards have several tense scenes where she throws money at the problem, not in an effort to be cruel, but in a way that suggests this is the only way to problem-solve that she knows. Tender is the Night needed more of this character building and empathy and far less of the surface-level glitz and glamour that it traffics in. 

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A Farewell to Arms

Posted : 7 months ago on 25 November 2017 05:46 (A review of A Farewell to Arms)

This left me like Elaine in the Seinfeld episode where she’s forced to watch The English Patient, just staring at the screen and seething, “No, I can’t do this anymore. I can’t. It’s too long….Just die already! DIE!” Looking at the critical reception of the day and the more recently, I am apparently not alone in this sentiment.


This would be the last production from David O. Selznick, and it follows his hardened formula set with Gone with the Wind, the instant classic he eternally chased. A Farewell to Arms also opens with a text scrawl over vibrant landscapes and highly demonstrative strings playing over it all. Whereas Gone with the Wind had enough source material to justify its prolonged running time, A Farewell to Arms does not. Ernest Hemingway’s prose style favored an unadorned simplicity that Selznick annihilates with his showmanship.


Yet it’s this exact choice of showmanship for its own sake that terminates the film from the beginning. Ben Hecht’s script is padded, witness the armistice of WWI occurring and still another thirty minutes of material happening before the final curtain, and much of it is pitched towards Selznick’s sense of grandiosity and cinematic overkill. At times these tendencies could whip themselves into a fury of a film that proved entertaining because of its excesses, but it leaves the romance inert here and Catherine Barkley as an unbelievable female character.


Strong performances could go a long way towards salvaging the material, and we get three of them in supporting players but less so in the leads. Rock Hudson looks adrift throughout and I wonder if the original choice for director, John Huston, could have managed to get something more out of him. Hudson was a blank slate actor that needed a strong guiding hand, look at his work for Douglas Sirk or John Frankenheimer, and Charles Vidor does not provide him one here. Vidor himself seems lost among Selznick’s never-ending demands. Hudson would later admit that taking the part in this film was a career mistake, and it’s a damn shame this turned out so poorly. Much like Gary Cooper, who played the role in the 1932 original, Hudson looks like what we imagine a Hemingway character would look like.


Even worse is the cast of leading lady Jennifer Jones. It was yet another excuse for Selznick to forge Jones as a cinematic Helen of Troy, but she’s about fifteen years too old for the role and flagrantly overacting here. Much like Hudson, Jones was an actor that needed a strong guiding hand to help her shape a performance, and she’s allowed to run wild with her worst instincts here and indulge in an emotional intensity that gives the impression that she needs to take a sedative and calm down. We don’t buy Jones and Hudson as a romantic pairing, and Jones’ crocodile tears and breathless, slurred line readings aren’t helping matters.


Only Elaine Stritch, Mercedes McCambridge, and Vittorio de Sica escape this thing with their dignity intact. McCambridge wasn’t stretching herself too much here, but she does what she normally does very well. It’s Stritch as a wise-cracking nurse and de Sica, Oscar nominated no less, as a morally confused, randy Major Rinaldi that really make this thing tolerable in brief moments. Vittorio de Sica’s haunted face and breakdown during a long march reveal the depth of feeling that was possible in this film that the leads were incapable of producing.


And so, A Farewell to Arms continues to spin out, adding more large scale scenes of soldiers marching, of battles, of more extensive production costs on the screen, but it’s all without a heart. Without a strong central reason to care, it’s all sound and fury signifying nothing. Don’t even bother with this version, just watch Frank Borzage’s romantic tragedy run-through of the material.  

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The Barretts of Wimpole Street

Posted : 7 months ago on 25 November 2017 05:10 (A review of The Barretts of Wimpole Street)

A remake of the 1934 version with the same director (who allegedly shot the exact same script) leading the charge, this version of The Barretts of Wimpole Street is a dull bit of coloring by the numbers. Director Sidney Franklin feels like he’s on autopilot, and so does much of the resulting drama. Jennifer Jones and Bill Travers are stilted and hollow as the central lovers, both mistaking overacting and dominating for being commanding of our attention and engagement. It’s only John Gielgud who rises above the mediocrity to breathe life and drama into his role of an emotionally abusive and domineering father. This visit with The Barretts of Wimpole Street is like a plastic figurine: it’s handsome to look at but artificial and hollow.

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The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit

Posted : 7 months ago on 22 November 2017 02:06 (A review of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956))

There’s an exchange late in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit that sums up the movie better than I can. While discussing a speech for work Gregory Peck presses Jennifer Jones for her opinion on it, and she dubs it a bit boring. Peck responds, “Is that all, just boring?” Jones pauses for a moment before adding, “I hate to say it darling, but I think some of it is a little silly, too.”


There are two unforgiving problems with The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit: it’s punishing long and incredibly dull. These two fatal flaws consume all of the good points, mainly Gregory Peck’s dependable moral decency, and they cannot overpower the stolid nature of the material and the unexciting direction. The story is just too thin for 153 minutes, and it’s clear that a good thirty minutes (or more) needed to be exercised from the finished product.


The story concerns the post-war social and economic anxieties of a thirtysomething couple garnished with unnecessarily long flashbacks to his time in combat, an Italian love affair, and the family dynamics of his boss, a reliably soulful Fredric March. All of this means there’s alternately too much going and that none of it is cooked all the way through. The film doesn’t given us enough reasons to care, unlike the same year’s similarly themed Bigger Than Life, Nicholas Ray’s masterpiece of class consciousness tearing a family apart by driving the patriarch towards mania.


A better director, like Ray, would have helped, but so would better performances from Jennifer Jones and Marisa Pavan. Pavan is merely wooden in her sections, giving the type of artificial performance that has aged poorly from 50s cinema, while Jones is actively terrible. Jones is emotionally catatonic except for her mouth and eyebrows that twitch and move around persistently, as if they were giving the performance on their own.


Pavan’s performance is another nice encapsulation of the film’s problems, it feels like you popped open the Tupperware that’s been hidden in the back of the fridge and found a moldy mess. Perhaps this played better during the era, but time has not been kind to it. Much like the title’s character description, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit is just too nondescript and didactic for its own good or any enjoyment.

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Good Morning, Miss Dove

Posted : 7 months ago on 20 November 2017 09:57 (A review of Good Morning, Miss Dove)

The treacle and sentimentality is heavy with this one. Good Morning, Miss Dove is a film that whips itself into crocodile tears and pours syrup over every frame in its story of a spinster teacher finding herself as a town’s beloved member. There’s curious case of unknown emphasis here, as though Miss Dove at once wants to be about the teacher, various made-good pupils, and her current flock of charges.


I admit to consistently being unmoved by these hagiographies of “inspirational” teachers, and most especially one as scrubbed and antiseptic as Good Morning, Miss Dove with its depiction of small town life where everyone knows your business as some kind of picturesque and aspirational view of the world. I don’t buy it for a second, especially with a stiff-backed and frosty teacher like Miss Dove.


There’s nothing asked of Jennifer Jones here but to lie down, speak in a low, gruff voice with a genteel and incredibly proper vocabulary. Her grey hair and old age makeup are unconvincing, and Jones’ performance is as closed off and dull as the film around her. She’s just got to lie back and deal with the flashbacks just as much as we do, and heaven forbid for her to crack a smile until the very end where she repeats as an invalid in a hospital bed like a happier variation of The Song of Bernadette’s crescendo.


PopMatters dubbed the film “sentimental pedagogy,” not entirely as a compliment, and that encapsulates the entirety of the film. We’re expected to venerate Miss Dove as much as her selected pupils, but there’s very little reason to care. The film is artificial in the worst ways, including in its demands for emotional catharsis. It wants your tears and pound of flesh, and it will pull out all of the devious tricks to flagellate you into feeling something, anything. Don’t be fooled, Good Morning, Miss Dove doesn’t deserve it.   

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Terminal Station

Posted : 7 months ago on 19 November 2017 06:28 (A review of Indiscretion of an American Wife)

If the main criticism of Terminal Station can be summarized it would be: grand ambitions thwarted by a series of never-ending problems. Much like with the Archers and Gone to Earth, producer David O. Selznick continually fought at cross-purposes with his director on the film, and created an alternate, inferior cut under a new title (the groaner Indiscretion of an American Wife). Vittorio de Sica wanted to merge the stars Montgomery Clift and Jennifer Jones into the titular location, to blend them into a wider ensemble of characters, while Selznick wanted a flattering star vehicle for his prized starlet and wife.


In one form, Terminal Station is a noble failure, a film that provides Jones and Clift with complex characters engaging in a ruined affair and romance in its final fits. The other, Indiscretion, removes all of that complexity and presents a one-dimensional Jones, all of her fire and passion smothered and confined. If this isn’t symptomatic and symbolic of Selznick and Jones’ personal and creative relationships, then I don’t know what else could so easily define it.


The best thing about Terminal Station is the meeting of Jones and Clift, a pair of raven-haired actors with a profound vulnerability, visible neurosis, and emotional intensity matched only by their thick eyebrows and prominent cheekbones. They’re beautiful individually and together, and we believe that they would engage in a doomed love affair from the start. And it’s fascinating how they seem to be acting in two different films. We watch Jones perform in a traditional Hollywood sudsy romance, while Clift is clearly aiming for truth and realism in a more traditional de Sica film.


Terminal Station’s original concept was to surround these two with a series of vignettes that detailed how life moves on even if these two believe everything is ending. It does make it a bit hard to invest in these characters as we watch only the ending of their romance and nothing more, a concept that even de Sica admitted later was a potential mistake. There’s also the curious incident of the climax of the movie, something that proves unsatisfying.


Still, this is far better than the Selznick cut. Selznick removed as much of de Sica’s singular artistic quirks as possible. This resulted not only in thirty minutes of material getting cut, but the choice to include a prologue with Patti Page singing two songs in her New York apartment. Indiscretion of an American Wife is everything wrong with Selznick’s late period, and a microcosm of what went wrong with Jones’ film career. It’s a glaring example of what happens when the people involved in a production are working at opposite purposes.

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Beat the Devil

Posted : 7 months ago on 19 November 2017 05:44 (A review of Beat the Devil (1953))

From the first frame on this thing just screams “cult classic” with its pervasive close-ups of character actors, a compulsively watchable hang-out vibe, and a sense that all of the action is taking place with gigantic quotes around it. Beat the Devil, easily the oddest film in Humphrey Bogart and Jennifer Jones’ bodies of work, is a charming satire of the kind of films John Huston made with a straight face both before and after its release.


Beat the Devil has a charm that plays out like watching a group of improv actors spinning out an adventure story on the spot, complete with free-associative musings and character motivations. We open at the end of the film where a group of men are being carried away by the police, and we trace back as much as possible to explain how we ended up here. The journey doesn’t always make sense, but it’s a great time once you find its wavelength.


Just assume you’re spending 90 minutes with a group that’s permanently drunk, more than a little horny, and some combination of crazy and crooked. We expect this type of behavior from veteran character actors like Peter Lorre and Robert Morley, and they are a treat as expected, but seeing how great Jennifer Jones adapts to this material is the real shock. Ernst Lubitsch had displayed a latent talent for comedy, a talent that no film since bothered with until this one. Wearing a blonde wig and talking in a plumy English accent Jones is a revelation as she drops rapid-fire passages of dialog and tells one whopper of a lie after another.


For his part, Bogart does his romantic cynic routine, but this time that’s an undercurrent of a raised eyebrow and bemused smile to all of his actions. The story gives him plenty of wiggle room for gently mocking his major star persona, as much as there is a story in this film. It finds Bogart and his wife, Gina Lollobrigida, stranded in an Italian seaport waiting on repairs to a ship that will take them, a band of riffraff, to Africa to buy up uranium rich lands. A British couple, Jones and Edward Underdown, wander into this bizarre group and cause chaos and the eventual undoing of it all.


If that description sounds muddled and confusing, then I’ve described it accurately enough. Some films you watch for the strength of depth of their story, others for the beauty of their images, and some we watch for the vibe of them. Beat the Devil is very much a “vibe” movie. There was an original shooting script, but once on location Huston tore it apart and bought in Truman Capote to write scenes on the spot. This sense of the film inventing itself as it spirals out will keep many viewers at a remove, but I went with its blessed chaos from the beginning.


It doesn’t matter what may or may not happen in the story, all that matters is the sense of fun and tongue-in-cheek camp proudly on display throughout. There’s a series of smart bits of roundabout dialog that charm more than they guffaw. If you walk in expecting a complex adventure story or a laugh-out-loud comedy, then you’ll be sorely disappointed. All Beat the Devil wants to do is entertain and bemuse you for its running time, and it’s a masterpiece of kooky, eccentric camp cinema.

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Justice League

Posted : 7 months, 1 week ago on 17 November 2017 08:44 (A review of Justice League)

Let’s start with the good, Justice League is a leap above both Suicide Squad and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and about on par with Man of Steel. So clearly, WB/DC may be heading in the right direction with the material, finally, but it’s still bogged down by numerous problems. Chiefly, the insistence on sticking with Zack Snyder’s hollow imagery, clashing of tonal styles, and a general sense of things being rushed to a finish line instead of organically taking their time to happen.


The likes of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman didn’t need a series of origin stories to tell their tales prior to teaming up. They’re iconographic and well-known enough that everyone is familiar enough with them, but that still leaves half of the team to get introduced (Flash, Cyborg), Aquaman to get an image rehabilitation for the general public, and the concept of the Fourth World/New Gods to get time and development. That’s a hefty task for any film let alone one that runs just shy of two hours. They really needed to push this one back and roll out the solo films for Aquaman and Flash before jumping into the deep end. The New Gods and Fourth World material alone would be enough to justify its own movie.


As it stands, there’s a clearly visible sense of the characters treading water. Did you like Aquaman enough here? Well, his solo film is coming out in 2018 where we fully explore his background and develop his character. That isn’t to say that Jason Momoa isn’t an absolute joy in the role, because he is. They’re revamped the character to combine the brooding underwater barbarian and the adventure-loving hero into a surfer demi-god with a lust for stabbing Parademons with his pointed staff.


Nor does this mean that the Flash isn’t a blast to hang out with, as he provides the solid comedic relief of the team. Ezra Miller is clearly enjoying playing the hyperactive, sarcastic Barry Allen (hey, welcome! I’m tired of your TV show version being a mopey dick), but his character’s journey here feels half-formed. Miller and Billy Crudup are strong enough actors to make us care about their father-son dynamic, but it just feels like a lot of teasing for a Flash movie that may or may not come.


And that’s the problem with Justice League for all of its fun and entertainment, it feels like its keeping time and setting up better things to come in the shared cinematic universe. Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman continues to be the MVP, Henry Cavill finally gets the chance to play a hopeful Superman, while Ben Affleck is in clear “I’m contractually obligated to be here” mode. Joss Whedon’s snarky additions to the film stick out most abundantly when stuck into the mouth of Affleck’s Batman, a character that has become far less interesting than the one we saw previously.


Zack Snyder’s ability to film beautiful images but complete indifference in the emotional connectivity that ties these sequences together is still a problem. Steppenwolf’s flashback attack, one prevalent enough to bring in the Amazons, Atlanteans, the tribes of man, the Greek gods, and the Green Lanterns (that was a fun cameo) is a gorgeous tableau that the rest of the film never quite lives up to. And the less said about the constant cutaways to a Russian family trapped in their shanty home while the Parademons flocked outside the better.


I didn’t hate Justice League, not by a long shot, but it’s a comedown from the glorious high that was Wonder Woman. It’s just at this point many of its failings are clearly endemic to the genre (bland villains being one, excessive yet unconvincing CGI being another) that rival Marvel are just as guilty of but better at papering over with tonally coherent and consistent entertainment. Justice League is serviceable, but these characters deserve better than that. At least the characters are engaging and fun here.


Yet I still can’t find it within myself to completely write off the DC movies. For all of their egregious errors and flaws, they’re at least trying to explore themes and ideas with these characters and their mythologies that are unique and distinctive even if not entirely successful.   

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The Lure

Posted : 7 months, 1 week ago on 17 November 2017 05:21 (A review of The Lure)

What a glorious mess this is! The Lure takes the familiar story of The Little Mermaid and presents it as a horror-musical set in 1980s Poland. If that sounds an exercise you’re willing to endure, and I really hope that you are, then you’ll find a lot to enjoy in The Lure, even when it doesn’t all work.


The wild ambition on display here is more than enough to overpower its structural and tonal flaws. There’s a pervading sense that actions are happening just because without enough context, and while that can occasionally be excused by the daring imagery it does eventually get confusing. A certain amount of grounding and information is necessary to contextualize just what is happening and why.


Absurdity and tragedy don’t just interact here but frequently blend together or end up throttling each other for dominance. There’s a doomed romance built upon the back of its fairy tale origins, but there’s also the frequent sight of the mermaid sisters eating men. A shocking and nuts image is of one of them crawling back to the water with a human heart in her mouth. I think it was around this moment that I transitioned from surrendering to the strange power of this film and into full-blown outsized enjoyment.


I immediately surrender during an opening scene that found the cabaret band doing a cover of “I Feel Love” while the sister giddily demonstrated their eel-like tails in a dressing room to the club’s manager. Next thing you know the two are performing in a gigantic champagne glass and flashing their tails for the confused (and aroused) patrons like they’re a pair of aquatic Dita von Teese. If that sounds like a moment of high-camp, then that’s quite simply because it is. The Lure slams camp and horror into the same frame over and over again, sometimes smoothly and more often jerkily.


It’s hard to believe that this is Agnieszka Smoczynska’s first film as it glides along with a confidence and the high-powered imagination of a long-time film-maker. She creates an entirely singular cinematic world for this story. Bits of David Lynch or David Cronenberg pop-up, but the absurdity and body horror those greats traffic in are clearly woven into a larger fabric that Smoczynska is creating. She feels unburdened by stronger metaphorical import and happy to just stare at the mindfuckery and strangeness of the film she is making. The Lure looks and feels like a fabulous bit of future cult cinema unspooling before your eyes, and you mark me down as a fan.

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Black Girl

Posted : 7 months, 1 week ago on 17 November 2017 04:48 (A review of Black Girl)

Ousmane Sembène’s first feature film is a searing indictment of the stain of colonialism, of how it continues to infect us in ways both crystal clear and subterranean. Black Girl is a brief but powerful debut feature film, and a modern classic worth discovering.


Sembène’s political fury is Spartan here. It manifests an entire country’s identity crisis in a singular story and positions the promises of Western comforts and lifestyle as unattainable by those that do not conform to the easily identifiable conventions. The tale concerns Diouana (Mbissine Thérèse Diop), a young Senegalese woman who finds a job with a white family as a nanny in Dakar before finding herself working as a de facto slave for them on the French Riviera. Diouana finds herself increasingly isolated, frustrated, and depressed, and through flashbacks we glimpse her initial enthusiasm that intercut numerous scenes of her alienation and entrapment.


Technically, she is a free woman, but her illiteracy and constant barrage of personal attacks and chores keep her locked into one tiny space, all at once emotionally, politically, and physically. She longs for glamor and the unintentional promises made, but quickly becomes disillusioned and unbalanced by her actual lived-in experience. Her subjugation to this family becomes total, and the worst of it is when she’s treated as a passive object by a group of their friends which includes a kiss from a lecherous old man that’s waved away as him just making a joke. Diouana tries to rebel as best she can, but the limited options available to her make her rebellion limp.


It isn’t that Black Girl is heavy on symbolism, but rather that is quite literally watches as the casual racism and disorientation of post-colonialism drain the life out of this woman. She becomes a fixture and not a person as time goes by, and her final rages have the air of a forgone tragic conclusion. The only major symbol here is an African mask that comes to represent everything to Diouana during the final moments, and then her haunted spirit chasing down the white man she worked for as he tries to throw around money at the problems he’s played a passive role in causing.


Sembène’s argument here appears to be that history is strangling all of these characters equally but in different ways. It is the ultimate tragedy of Black Girl that no one is able to escape the caste system where certain expectations are met (the wife’s constant outrage feels like a byproduct of France’s casual exploitation of African labor), certain promises are made regardless of any intention to keep them, and the whole system becomes a self-sustaining machine.   

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