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Two-Faced Woman

Posted : 2 weeks, 5 days ago on 2 August 2019 09:29 (A review of Two-Faced Woman (1941))

If you’ve ever wanted to watch a rigidly square peg try to slink into a round hole, then Two-Faced Woman is the film for you! It’s not that Greta Garbo couldn’t do comedy, she’s a sensation in Ninotchka, but that film built humor around her dour, serious iconography and found a sly way to subvert that image. Two-Faced Woman asks Garbo to become Irene Dunne or Carole Lombard, and that’s just not the type of actress she was. Screwball comedy was a genre that eluded her, and I love Garbo for her tragic romances.


Garbo was best suffering, as if she were perpetually being punished for some cosmic infraction at birth that necessitated her proverbial cutting down to size. Even her previous comedy had her paying a price for falling in love. Sure, there was an eventual happy ending, but first Garbo had to suffer, become isolated, and revert to a humorless presence. It’s what makes her acting so potent and poetic. No one suffered as romantically or gorgeously as Garbo.


It’s also one of the myriads of reasons that this film is an inevitable failure. It asks Garbo to play events light, flirty, and frivolous. She’s clearly throwing herself into it with relish and a game face, but it’s not working as efforts to minimize her glamorous exoticism into an Americanized society girl reveal Garbo as a pre-modern screen presence. Hers was an ornate foreign elegance that was attuned to Anna Karenina and Camille, and not a ski instructor trying to play a saucy trick on their husband by posing as her twin sister to test his fidelity.


Of course, there’s eternally a changeover in the old guard of Hollywood and few rarely survive the changing tides. For instance, several stars failed to transition from silence to talking, while many never recovered once the Hays Code came into being, and still more fell away as World War II approached and the lyrical romanticism of films gave way to paranoia, candy-coated musicals, and the first reverberations of Method acting. Garbo and Two-Faced Woman are one such example of this upheaval. By mutual decision, Garbo and MGM terminated her contract after the failure of this film and her eventual comeback vehicles never materialized. This is better known as a piece of historical trivia than it is widely seen, and maybe it should stay that way.

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Little Women

Posted : 2 weeks, 5 days ago on 2 August 2019 09:29 (A review of Little Women (1933))

Louisa May Alcott’s oft-filmed story gets a wonderfully warm, charming, if rushed treatment in George Cukor’s celebrated version. Two prior silent film versions, from 1917 and 1918 respectively, beat this one to the screen, but this was the first version where all the disparate pieces came together to form a satisfying whole. Director George Cukor, star Katharine Hepburn, a pervading sense of optimism in the face of strife and a pleasing but not overpowering sense of socially progressive ideals at play mark this version as a resounding success.


Fans of the novel tend to either, very generally speaking, adore this version or the 1994 version starring Winona Ryder. Frankly, I think they’re about equal with the 1994 version possibly coming out on top with a stronger sense of an ensemble and a less overpowering sentimentality at play. This version also feels like it’s speed-reading through the material with moments like Beth’s untimely death barely registering their full emotional impact. Having said that, Little Women is still a strong film overall.


A really strong film overall, in fact. If ever a part was born for Katharine Hepburn to play it was Jo March, a head-strong New Englander tom boy with progressive beliefs. She’s marvelous in the role as she finds a part that matches her patrician accent, fierce angularity, and physically domineering energy. 1933 was the breakout year for Kate the Great, but I can’t help but feel that Morning Glory Oscar maybe should’ve gone to her for this film instead. Sure, it’s a bit type casting, Hepburn would go on to bring a queerness (both how you’re thinking of that word and also its original definition) to other superwoman in later roles like Woman of the Year or Adam’s Rib, but she’s just so joyful and fun here that I can’t knock the obviousness of the casting in any meaningful way.


The only actor that matches her fire is Edna May Oliver as the March’s elderly aunt. Of course, she’s another that seems right at home playing the monied spinster aunt as that was one of her character types. Cukor assembled a strong group for the rest of the family, including a beatific Frances Dee, bratty Joan Bennett, and lovable Paul Lukas, and they add immeasurably to Little Women’s strength.


While Little Women is set during the Civil War, it was released during the Great Depression and functions as something of a soothing morale booster for a nation enduring a psychological scar. Here was balm and a recognizable reality as the March family discusses rationing, economic anxiety, and perform desperate measures to stay afloat, such as Jo cutting off her hair to ward off starvation for a while longer. Sure, it’s a glossy and sentimental, but those aren’t bad things as they melt away during the second half’s escalation of life’s disappointments, struggles, and loses.

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Our Betters

Posted : 2 weeks, 5 days ago on 2 August 2019 09:28 (A review of Our Betters)

Our Betters wants to both titillate us with its tale of the idle rich and their different rules for love, marriage, and society while finger wagging over amorality. It wants to build up its main character, an American socialite who married into the British upper class, while also slut shaming her to an absurd degree. Too wooden, too meandering, and populated by actors who can’t find the right undertone of frivolity-meets-acid, Our Betters is a misfire from George Cukor, a sophist director who seemed attuned to this material on paper.


There’s not much in the way of an actual plot so much as a series of vignettes loosely tied together around themes of love sought for convenience, either economic, social, or desperation (often a combination) but never from a place of love. Constance Bennett’s socialite learns that her husband married her for money on their wedding day by overhearing him talk to his girlfriend. Her pride is wounded, but she carries on and becomes the most powerful member of the upper crust’s freak show of kept men, aging dowagers, and effete male companions.


Bennett is not at ease with the material as she was the tough, workaday waitress-turned-star in What Price Hollywood?, and her awkwardness with the rhythms of a drawing room comedy make for an uneven experience. She’s fantastic during a late scene where she lashes out at those were judge her for crafting a life of privilege and power on her own terms but can’t quite deliver the flowery wordplay with as much ease. She isn’t alone as no one seems quite attuned to the musical and muscular structure of the script, especially an American boy played by Charles Starrett.


It all comes to a climax that feels less like the ending of a film and more like everyone just got tired of trying. As if everyone involved just decided this scene was good enough and decided to move on with their lives. This leaves Our Betters an incomplete work, a thinly sketched series of moments in search of a wider organizing principle.   

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What Price Hollywood?

Posted : 2 weeks, 5 days ago on 2 August 2019 09:28 (A review of What Price Hollywood?)

While not exactly the foundational brick for the four official versions of A Star Is Born (to date, tick-tock on the fifth), What Price Hollywood? is still owed a debt of gratitude and payment when discussing those films. If you were to officially rank it among the four, it would slide obviously above the Barbra Streisand version and below the Janet Gaynor leaving it in fourth place. It zips along with a saucy (and soused) Pre-Code energy with the scrappiness and disparity of the Great Depression nipping at the heels of its starry-eyed dreamer.


Stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before: waitress with dreams of motion picture stardom (Constance Bennett) has a chance meeting with a big Hollywood player (Lowell Sherman), he gives her a shot in a bit part that leads to eventual ascension. Her fame grows, his alcoholism worsens, she meets a polo player (Neil Hamilton, best remembered as Gordon to Adam West’s Batman), marries, and finds the lifestyle of the rich and glamorous more fraught than she imagined. Eventual tragedy looms over everything, but we still get a triumphant (I guess?) final scene before the end credits roll.


Ok, so it’s not exactly the tortured romance of A Star Is Born, but it’s close enough. So close that RKO threatened legal action against David O. Selznick when he produced the first Star in 1937. But What Price Hollywood? gives Constance Bennett a great part, she knows it too as she delivers a complex essay of a sturdy archetype, and sacks her with a leech of a love triangle that goes nowhere slowly and removes much of the energy, charm, and wit from the movie.


One of the best choices the eventual variations of this story made was removing the secondary character. Hamilton’s polo player is a #MeToo waking nightmare of a character. He breaks into Bennett’s house, forces her into a date she blew off, and routinely proves that he’s fragile masculinity personified as being Mr. Movie Star is too much for his wounded pride. He needed to go for a variety reasons, one of them was his toxic and abusive idea of “courtship,” but his complete lack of chemistry with Bennett sinks half of the story.


Bennett and Sherman have a better chemistry together and their characters are more fun to watch interact. It’s rare to see male/female relationships played for something other than eventual marriage and domesticity, and it’s sweet to watch her continually stay by her friend’s side as everyone else in town treats him as a pariah. They sling fun barbs, treat each other with respect, and are clearly enjoying playing off each other in both high melodrama and bawdy comedy.


What is patently obvious is how enamored and disturbed George Cukor is with Hollywood both as a physical location and a place of vast mythology, then in the earliest process of drafting it. Scenes where Bennett’s limited dreamer rehearses her scene until her artifice strips away and she’s onto something better is a glimpse into the hard work and thought required to make art. What Price Hollywood? is problematic and uneven, but there’s always Bennett and Sherman in two great parts, Cukor’s sophistication, and enough juicy bits of expose to keep your interest.

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Total: from Joy Division to New Order

Posted : 1 month ago on 23 July 2019 02:29 (A review of Total: from Joy Division to New Order)

Total: from Joy Division to New Order isn’t exactly the all-encompassing expansive set that its title would promise. Joy Division gets a meager five songs out of eighteen, and the last chunk of New Order’s section prove that they’ve been a confused legacy act for a while. I suppose if all you want are the biggest singles (“She’s Lost Control,” “Bizarre Love Triangle,” “True Faith”) then you’ve got a one-stop shop, but this set had the potential to be so much more. It doesn’t exactly do either acts legacies any large favors but it’s not completely worthless either. It’s just kind of …there. It for sure doesn’t represent the totality of their musical outputs – plenty of Joy Division’s non-album singles found on Substance are MIA, while New Order had several classic albums released in the 80s. I suppose my biggest complaint about Total is that it doesn’t feel purposeful but is merely another entry into the never-ending expansion of “best of” compilations from both bands historic and exalted careers.  


DOWNLOAD: “Transmission,” “Temptation,” “Hellbent”

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The Immigrant

Posted : 1 month ago on 22 July 2019 08:07 (A review of The Immigrant)

James Gray’s passion play of a Polish woman discovering the American dream and its seedier realities and rot is built upon the silent era’s pantomime and impressionistic imagery and the melodramatics of the 40s and 50s. The Immigrant is a ripe film that manages to paper over its occasionally weaker moments, such as thinly written characters or an ending that feels like purple prose, through sheer force of visual poetry and Marion Cotillard’s incomparable acting skills. It’s easy to imagine a variation of this film starring Lillian Gish as the suffering dreamer caught in a love triangle and trying desperately to reunite with her sister.


The Immigrant often recalls Hollywood’s studio era in its towering artistry built around its lead actress’ performance. Cotillard suffers beautifully throughout, think of Joan Crawford expressing emotional torrent while wrapped in furs and you’re close to the filmic language of this film. She plays Ewa, freshly landed and running away from the Cossacks, an immigrant woman with a shady past that is threatened for deportation until she meets a benevolent man willing to take a chance on her. His benevolence is a mere ruse, an illusionary construction that even he half-believes, and Ewa is soon pimped out and the subject of both the character and camera’s gaze, a piercing male gaze that views her as forgiving matron and fleshy concubine.


It is Cotillard’s face and shining, haunted eyes that telegraph so much of the story’s emotional contours and interior fractures far better than the occasionally on-the-nose dialog or occurrences. She’s one of modern cinema’s strongest actors simply for her ability to behave and project with limited movement and no words volumes of detail and texture about her character. As Slant Magazine described it, she “infuses a heartbreaking mixture of dignity, vulnerability, and strength into her latest entr(y) in a gallery of ordinary women under extraordinary pressure.”


It isn’t just a shady, murky past that lingers over Ewa’s delicate frame and possessed, somber face, but the threat of losing her sister. They came over together and her tubercular sister gets quarantined, Ewa makes a promise, more like a near religious vow, to free her sister and reunite in a slice of the American ideal and promise. This is the inciting incident that makes her vulnerable for Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix) and his machinations.


Much of The Immigrant concerns her abuse and near slavery to him as he makes grandiose promises of commerce and the freedom/power it can buy. Ewa wants to free her sister, put Poland far behind her, and start anew but the past is never far enough behind us. It lurks and its traumatizing ramifications manifest in her relationship with Bruno and more sane, lucid romantic flirtations with Orlando (Jeremy Renner), a magician and Bruno’s cousin.


Orlando and his entire subplot are weak points. Not that Renner is bad in the role, no one performs at anything less than optimally throughout, but it’s thinly written material when it comes to him. Ewa becomes less of an agent of her own life, there’s plenty of material suggesting that she sees her relationship with Bruno as justifiable punishment for misdeeds and the cosmos teaching her forgiveness, and more of a pawn between the two men. An early scene where he entertains the detainees on Ellis Island and promises the American dream is laughably on the nose when so much of the film is painterly compositions and articulated through elision.  

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Posted : 1 month ago on 22 July 2019 08:06 (A review of Butter)

Butter never goes as balls deep as it often threatens. It’s shallow thrusts at political satire, race, and conservative middle Americana and its weird folksy rituals. It’s dissatisfying as its climax whimpers out when it should shudder and scream.


I think that’s enough metaphorical sexual talk, but there’s a general point to it. Jennifer Garner’s unholy hybrid of Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, and conservative Christian housewife is as sexually frustrated as she is personally unfulfilled. These two points often converge, and Butter often questions if what she needs is just a big orgasm to get her to calm down or if political mobility and craven power grabs are her orgasmic expressions.


There’s plenty of funny material to mine here, yet Butter is often surface level with an Obama standee ascending seemingly out of the blue. Then there’s the extraneous material, like Olivia Wilde’s vengeful stripper, Ashley Greene’s rebellious daughter, and Hugh Jackman’s scenery-chewing car salesman/dumbass. Butter wants to use the prism of a butter carving competition to speak out about the near absurdity of political campaigning and politics as a wider topic, but it also wants to be a heavily sentimental tale of hard work and ethics paying off in the end.


Such as it exists, Butter exists in a phantom zone where the sentiment ruins the bitter, better parts of the movie. At least Garner delivers her tightly wound performance without a hint of irony or self-awareness. It’s a solid reminder of what a capable comedic actress she is as she’s all but wasted in numerous barely-there supporting roles. All she needs is an Election of her own to really go full-scale Tracy Flick monstrous and demonstrate her skill set.   

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American Gangster

Posted : 1 month ago on 22 July 2019 08:06 (A review of American Gangster)

Big, perfunctory, and obviously reaching for the lofty heights of Martin Scorsese’s gangster epics or Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather series, American Gangster is the bloated sight of a former master coasting. Here is a wannabe prestige epic about a real-life figure that coasts along an unearned sense of import without providing any memorable images or excavation of its characters moral weight. There are bland poses made towards trying to contort Frank Lucas into a symbol of upward mobility and American “can-do” spirit but contrasting him with Richie Roberts just unintentionally glamorizes the gangster to the point that his violence becomes defanged.


Hell, I just watched American Gangster and I’m having a hard time conjuring much of it back up in my memory. Ridley Scott circa Alien or Blade Runner would’ve turned this into a memorable affair, but present-day Scott is all veneer without atmosphere. His films deflate from the mind soon after the final credits roll. Do you really remember much about Alien: Covenant or The Martian?


Scott’s choice to make Richie and Frank two sides of the same coin is borderline inane. Sure, Frank Lucas is a stone-cold killer, selling heroin in his neighborhood, and coopting soldiers’ caskets to sneak his illicit goods in, but Richie is going through a rough divorce and is maybe not the best father to his kid. Some of this story is completely fabricated and it sticks out like a sore thumb which one it is. These men are not somehow spiritual brothers and trying to force the strange detours of their life stories into a digestible framework doesn’t do them any justice.


It doesn’t help that Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe appear disengaged from the material. Washington has gone deep into villainy before, but he somehow plays Lucas as too noble or too beatific. One never gets the sense of danger he brought to Training Day or the complete transformation into amorality he brought to Fences. Crowe just appears dyspeptic. Where is the transformative work he brought to L.A. Confidential or The Insider? He was far better in another bloated Scott vehicle, Gladiator. (Please read that in full drunken Elizabeth Taylor at the Golden Globes voice.)


Supporting players bring more color and fire with Josh Brolin going full cartoon as a crooked cop, Cuba Gooding Jr. in full ham as a rival gangster, and Ruby Dee glides through the film bringing decades of experience into a small role that nearly salvages the wider film at various points. Dee has several small but powerful moments, including a glower while exiting a church that’s reactive, silent acting at its finest. Her greatest moment is the towering slap and threatening to abandon her child where she scorches the earth with her gravitas and controlled rage. She is not only exerting her right to be heard by her son but asserting her authority. Dee’s screen time is minimal but what she does with it is the art and magic of acting at its finest.


Late career Oscar bait this is not. Or maybe it is, but it’s not a successful gambit like The Departed, Scorsese’s late-career Oscar make-good that’s also a wildly entertaining film. American Gangster exists, I know I watched all its near three-hour running time, but I’ll be damned if anything other than boredom and incredibility managed to linger in my mind.

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Experiment in Terror

Posted : 1 month ago on 19 July 2019 01:56 (A review of Experiment in Terror (1962))

More of a director trying on Hitchcockian suspense and seeing how it fits than a film noir, Experiment in Terror strikes curious poses as it lumbers towards its ending. Far too protracted to keep the suspense going, Experiment in Terror in an experiment alright, but mainly one of the “woman imperiled” variety. Much of the story is game of cat and mouse between rigid cop Glenn Ford (who else, really) and psycho killer Ross Martin with Lee Remick and Stephanie Powers functioning as collateral damage and tantalizing bits of temptation.


This would all converge into something better if the damn thing just didn’t drag itself out for so long. At two hours, it can’t justify its bloated running time, and a lot of it loses tension as it feels like wheels spinning in the mud before the eventual showdown. It doesn’t help that Ford’s once again a blank good cop with little antiheroism in him, and he’s outshone by Remick’s petrified bank teller.


There’s nearly something subversive about how Experiment in Terror lays bare the voyeurism of so many crime sagas and psychological thrillers. Remick’s character beomes a mere reactive agent to the men around that willfully throw her into dangerous situations to fight their battles for them. She’s a prop just as often as she’s an autonomous character and you’re tempted to think of all of this as an autodidactic critique of the male gaze and cinematic voyeurism.   


Such egg-headed theories are not to be found, though. Scenes stretch out and wait for a judicious edit that never comes thus robbing them of their potential impact. Remick’s possible arousal over being choked and threatened whimpers more than it moans due to a sense that the scene proper ended and yet there it is, still going. Any deeper points feel buried under the rubble of too much.


Not that all suspense thriller should be 100 minutes or less, some need that extra breathing room just for their sheer narrative heft, but there’s a reason so many of them are lean and mean. It’s better to punch quick, hard, and fast then it is to show off your flashiest moves then spend a lot of time pacing before doing them again. Experiment in Terror would have done well to remember that.

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Murder by Contract

Posted : 1 month ago on 19 July 2019 01:56 (A review of Murder by Contract)

While watching Columbia Noir on the Criterion Channel, I found that Murder by Contract snuck up on me with the biggest punch. Lean, mean, and enthralling, Murder by Contract is a nasty little B-movie that attacks you with more artistry and firepower than some of its more stuffy, canonized siblings. There’s an air of cool here that wouldn’t be replicated again until Le Samourai, Jean-Pierre Melville’s neo-noir.


There’s also a clear line between this and something like Taxi Driver as the main character isolates himself, commits to a vigorous training regime, and develops an ideology of the world needing purifying in some manner. The difference is that Taxi Driver’s character operated from a perverse viewpoint that placed him as the hero of his narrative. The heir apparent to the lone rangers of numerous westerns. Murder by Contract views its character as a near android who calculates and keeps his emotional displays to gross misogyny if he exhibits any emotions at all.


Murder by Contract has us watching a control freak deal with his plans failing and the cracks in his remote exterior are fascinating to behold. We’re both repulsed by him, fearful of what depths his lack of conscience makes him capable of, and grossly fascinated in watching what he’ll do next. There’s a preternatural calm to this character that is unnerving to an extent that noir’s various hoods and femme fatales never quite reach.

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