Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

19 August 2017

Once More with Too Many Feelings

For the record, I loved the first of these movies, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and I really really liked the second one, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. (I wrote an entire post about how the film thinks about justifying violence; the movie is very interesting.) This means, of course, that I am the target audience of Matt Reeves' third movie, War for the Planet of the Apes, since I already love the characters, already care about the fate of the apes, and am hoping the humans can leave them alone to live in peace. (Rupert Wyatt directed Rise; Reeves directed Dawn and War.)

Reviews of this third movie were good, so I was excited. But War falls mostly flat. It is a slow, ponderous type of thing that follows the conventions of 19th century melodrama to a tee. This means that all of the emotions in it are overdone, everything is milked for the absolute last drop of feeling that can be squeezed out of it. This is supposed to be an action movie, and it does have some good action sequences in it, but Reeves is not focused on action as much as he is focused on the feelings of everyone involved in the action. So even when we are in an action sequence, we get shots of sad chimps, looking wistfully at the camera and dreaming of better days or a world without action. All of this kind of thing slows us down, and it takes Reeves forever to do what he's trying to do.

The small, tearful, white child up on Caesar's horse stands in for all of this movie's many many feelings.

The other problem with War is that it is too intent on meaning. It takes itself extremely seriously (à la nineteenth-century melodrama). The other movies were serious too, don't get me wrong, but now that we are in a third movie, Reeves has decided that what the films are about is racism and not animals. To be sure, both topics are about the ways that we exclude people from the category of the human, but the first two movies told us a story and let us make sense of what the movies had to say. Not War. War makes explicit allegories about nationalism and Steve Bannon and the alt-right. Worse than that, the film simply tells us all what we already know about racist white supremacist without using the allegory of apes to see if there's anything new we might learn about the logic of neo-Nazism.

Still, the allegories aren't really the problem. What the allegories do is contribute even further to the slowing down of the entire pace of War. The real problem is the slow pacing of Reeves' staging and his sentimental treatment of every moment of feeling so that what could be a simple moment turns into a four-minute sequence. What could have been a good, tight, 117-minute movie became instead a 140-minute Spielberg melodrama with chimps.

14 August 2017

State Fair

I hadn't actually realized the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical State Fair was based on an original film. Anyway, this is it. And Henry King's film is charming from start to finish. And this movie also had some pretty great shots for 1933: the roller coaster rides were a highlight.

12 August 2017

The Beguiled and Baby Driver

I was into Sofia Coppola's The Beguiled. It's a mood piece, like all of Coppola's films, and, well, it is about the same mood as all of Coppola's films. Still, it's a fun, mostly sexy piece, and I was into it. I found it troubling and interesting. 

But I find that Coppola's movies make assumptions about audience identification or comprehension that aren't always quite there yet and so The Beguiled makes unjustified moves, assuming we are following, and we eventually end up playing catch up.

The other sort of odd thing about The Beguiled is that it isn't really sure whose side it's on. This is strange. Are we supposed to identify with this soldier against the women (the film seems to think so during a long sequence in the third act in which he is allowed to articulate his grievances), or are supposed to be on their side, to take pleasure in their actions? This just isn't clear, and if Coppola knows what side she wants us to be on, she hasn't made a film that helps us do that. Again, I think Coppola's filmmaking makes assumptions about audience identification that haven't actually been achieved.

This didn't bother me too much, though. I just love me some Nicole Kidman and Colin Farrell and Kirsten Dunst. And this film uses all of them very well. (I continue to be baffled by the popularity of Elle Fanning, I must say, but to each her own.)

The best thing about The Beguiled is the costumes. They're absolutely genius. I really hope that  Stacey Battat gets her first Oscar nomination for this.

* * *
Edgar Wright's Baby Driver is better than what I am about to say, but once it occurred to me that Baby Driver is La La Land for people who hated La La Land, I couldn't forget the association. To be sure, Baby Driver has guns and explosions and the best car chases I've ever seen in my life, but it is just a little more gimmicky than I could handle.

This is a fun twenty-first-century musical, and it is definitely Wright's most accomplished, finely directed film to date. But... well so much of it just seemed so overly phony. This is not helped by Kevin Spacey's absurdly over-the-top performance and the film's ridiculous romantic plot, which even has an entire La La Land fantasy sequence near its end.

Do not mistake me, though. This is a good movie. And I enjoyed it a lot. That the film does not have enough Jon Bernthal in it is, I think, indicative of why I didn't completely love this picture. Baby Driver is more interested in sentiment and fantasy than it is in crime, violence, or really scaring its audience. Instead, everything in the film takes place in a kind of Disneyland version of criminal activity, in which it is inevitable that love will save the day.

10 August 2017

Visions from 1964: Part Five

Bernhard Wicki's The Visit did not work for me. It stars Ingrid Bergman and Anthony Quinn, as well as a wonderful Valentina Cortese, but I didn't like it, and the entire conceit fell flat for me. A woman returns to her hometown and shames them because they shamed her when she was young? This kind of revenge is not interesting to me... I think because it is emotional revenge rather than a logical, murderous revenge. Killing someone, I guess I can get. Shaming him or her: no thanks. Also, I don't think I had ever read Friedrich Dürrenmatt's play (on which this film is based) and I have to say that if the play ends the way this film ends, I don't like the play either.

The Visit had fabulous costumes (that was why it got an Oscar nomination), but its camerawork was very strange, and its sentiments left me cold.

* * *
I honestly don't think I have anything to say about Edward Dmytryk's Where Love Has Gone. This was apparently based on a true story, but it is a soap opera through and through – something Jacqueline Susann might have written. It stars Susan Hayward (who I adore) and Bette Davis (who is beyond all adoration), but... this is dumb. It wishes it were a murder mystery, but it actually never builds any tension in that direction. In other words, I never cared who committed the murder in the first place. This is a melodrama through and through, a kind of poor man's Mildred Pierce, but it never really picks a side and so the final suspenseful moments have no effect.

Where Love Has Gone was nominated for Best Original Song and, if I'm honest, I don't really dislike the tune, sung by Jack Jones. It's a big, bright, brassy sort of thing with lots of violins, rather like something Frank Sinatra would normally make into a hit.

As for the movie though, don't bother.

* * *
The Chalk Garden is another boring potboiler that was probably originally a stage play.

Ok, I went and looked it up and of course it was a play – by Enid Bagnold. the film is directed by Ronald Neame, and he tries his best to make this something other than a stagey movie, but I'm afraid there's no saving it. It's a kind of David and Lisa or Miracle Worker sort of thing, where a teacher gets ahold of a precocious young woman and somehow convinces her to be less crazy and stop causing everybody to fret so much.

Edith Evans was nominated for an Oscar for this picture, and she earned her nomination. She plays a cranky old grandmother who believes she's caring for the young woman in her house but who is actually causing rather a lot of trouble because she's being so darned indulgent and not reading this child the riot act. 

It's not a bad little thing, and it's sort of your typical mid-century USAmerican realist drama, but I've never cared for mid-century USAmerican realist drama, and I haven't gotten any kinder to it in 2017.

* * *
Jack Clayton's The Pumpkin Eater follows a woman played by Anne Bancroft who has many children. Her husband is cheating on her (cheater, cheater, pumpkin eater), and she figures this out over the course of the film. Maggie Smith appears (in 1964!) in a tiny role as the first of her husband's lovers whom we meet. Peter Finch plays the husband, and this movie is interesting, even if it is quite strange.

The thing is, The Pumpkin Eater is a brooding, slow movie, and it is more than a little odd. I appreciated it more than I liked it. But it is about depression, and watching a movie about depression is not the easiest thing in the world to do.

Still, it gets kudos in my book for trying to get into the mind of the depressive in 1964 and not simply treating depression as something that needs to be somehow dealt with or cured. And I really love Jack Clayton's work as a director. I think his 1959 Room at the Top is near perfect, and this is gorgeously, assuredly made even if I didn't enjoy watching it, particularly. Clayton was really ahead of his time.

This concludes my 1964 viewing! Now to catch up on some 2017 movies.

31 July 2017

Cold Fission Blonde

I was pumped for Atomic Blonde; I'll be honest. Charlize Theron, as her typical icy heroine, kicking ass and shooting guns while walking around Berlin in heels at the end of the Cold War. That sounds like a good time to me.

And it is true. All of those elements are a good time. But, most of the film is actually not that. Atomic Blonde starts off slowly. Charlize looks beat to hell at the beginning of the movie, and we should immediately be skipping back to the beginning so we can see who beat her up so badly, but no, we can't do that. The director wants to make sure we have a whole bunch of plot points first. There's a watch with a list on it. Charlize apparently loved a British spy who has been killed by a Russian spy in Berlin. And then there are three mysterious men – higher-ups in the CIA and MI6 – who have to interview Charlize. This set up takes forever.

Atomic Blonde keeps on doing that. We get long establishing shots of Charlize in her apartment making phone calls, of Charlize walking the streets of Berlin talking to people we don't know, of Charlize looking through ransacked rooms for objects we wouldn't recognize even if we saw them. The director is here for the mood and the mood is bleak. No one is having any fun in this world. We're here for the chilly atmosphere.

The deal is this: Whenever Charlize kicked someone's ass, I enjoyed myself. And that happens five or six times in the movie. The rest of the movie has to do with a spy plot that no one needed and that didn't matter.

And I wouldn't have bothered about the spy plot in my own brain if the movie itself didn't keep returning to it, insisting this information is important. What's worse is that this entire plot is completely incoherent, as far as I can tell, and so I was baffled as to why the director kept emphasizing it. (Bad directing advice I often hear given to student directors involves the phrase "make sure you're telling the story". Sometimes the thing you're working on isn't about the story.)

The music in Atomic Blonde is cool. Charlize is cool. The costumes are cool. The lighting would be cool, but I have to admit to being tired of this trend where neon red illuminates one side of someone's face and neon blue light illuminates the other. The fight sequences are really cool. James McAvoy is cool. Spies are cool. The whole thing is cool. But it's also just boring.

Visions from 1964: Part Four

J. Lee Thompson's What a Way to Go! is a very strange fantasy film indeed. This is obviously a vehicle for Shirley MacLaine, and she is lovely and hilarious, so that makes perfect sense. It is also a star-studded extravaganza of nonsense. In it, MacLaine marries four different men all of whom are impossibly, insanely wealthy – Dick Van Dyke, then Paul Newman, then Dean Martin, then Gene Kelly. All of this is ridiculously silly, but charming enough. And the art direction and costumes are fittingly over the top and inventive. Extra points for Paul Newman, who appears shirtless for most of his scenes in the movie.

Here, Newman conducts his painting machines before being killed. You had to be there.

* * *
The Fall of the Roman Empire is pretty much garbage from start to finish. It is a disastrous, epic mess lasting three hours and forty minutes and not making a bit of sense. This is an Anthony Mann movie, but it is really a Samuel Bronston movie – the guy behind King of Kings (1961), El Cid (1961) and 55 Days at Peking (1963) – and so it is obsessed with grandeur and pageantry. In one of the opening sequences, we watch two dozen different kings from all over the Roman Empire come pay their respects to Marcus Aurelius, who isn't even in Rome but is in some Gothic outpost that is basically an overgrown hunting lodge. The idea is absurd and it goes on for like twenty minutes. This is whatshisname, King of Cappadocia, and now here is the ruler of Armenia, and oh here is the King of Nubia. Are you kidding me? Who cares? I guess if I want to look at a parade of horses and costumes this is worth something, but mostly not. The Fall of the Roman Empire actually has several sequences like this. Obviously in 220 minutes they have time to work in a lot of stuff, but the plot itself is excruciatingly boring. We alternate between absurd fight sequences, pageant sequences, and then scenes of quite, "very important" drama.

Sophia Loren is in this (she was, apparently, in three Oscar-nominated films in 1964), as is Stephen Boyd, who played Messala in Ben-Hur, and Christopher Plummer, who plays the Emperor Commodus. And while we are on Ben-Hur, this film wishes it were Ben-Hur, and wishes that so much that it has a chariot race sequence with Stephen Boyd! It is a total rip off of the legendary chariot race in William Wyler's film. I will say that the one thing for which this nonsense was nominated is its score, which is an amazingly gorgeous achievement by Dimitri Tiomkin. This has a great cast, but it is an epic mess in the tradition of giant epic sword-and-sandals messes like The Greatest Story Ever Told and Quo Vadis? Awful.

* * *
Larry Peerce's One Potato, Two Potato is not nearly as bad as The Fall of the Roman Empire, but it is also a very different movie. This is a story of a legal battle that doesn't know it's the story of a legal battle. The director apparently thought One Potato, Two Potato was something of a comedy, and its title seems to think so too. The movie is comedy length and staged like a romantic comedy for a good two thirds of its running time. But then stuff gets really serious.

The plot of One Potato, Two Potato is that a young white woman's husband abandons her and their small child. She asks for a divorce and he is, like, off in Brazil and never comes back. She, meanwhile, falls in love with a black man and they decide to marry (against the advice of his parents; hers are maybe dead? I forget). Things are going well, for the most part, and they have a kid and the original kid is doing great, loves her grandparents, etc. But then husband number 1 comes back and decides that he wants the kid back. Now, this is clearly a case where the father completely abandoned the kid, but the court actually is interested in hearing this man's case – get this – because the new father is black and so somehow the environment is not healthy for the kid. See what I mean? Very serious, actually. And the last five minutes of the movie are actually very powerful drama. But that emotional power is not earned and so it doesn't land. The film hasn't treated things seriously enough for this actually to work. It's a bit of a failure, though its heart is in the right place.While

* * *
And then there's Cheyenne Autumn, which is a John Ford movie about the killing of many many Native Americans. Ford tries to take the native side in this movie, after having done precisely the opposite for the previous 25 years, but this movie is an epic, bloated, self-important mess. And then there are these other complaints that I had:
  • All of the Indians are played by Latinos and Italians. Justifiable, perhaps, in 1964, but... actually no, never mind. It isn't justifiable.
  • There is this twenty minute sequence right before the intermission, in which Arthur Kennedy and Jimmy Stewart show up (even though they are not in the rest of the movie) to play a series of cartoony scenes showing how silly white people were out west when it came to Indians. This is an absurd sequence only tangentially related to the movie, and because it comes right before intermission it seems important. It isn't. But it is so typical Ford.
  • It just keeps going. This mess was 154 minutes long.
  • ...And actually it's all about the white people after all. Richard Widmark has a lot of feelings and so do Caroll Baker and Karl Malden and Patrick Wayne and Edward G. Robinson. It may be that the Indians in the film make serious decisions and struggle to make the decisions they make, but if they do, we don't really see it. It is all filtered through the white folks.
* * *
While we're being racist, there's also George Pal's 7 Faces of Dr. Lao, which is actually pretty hard to dislike. It's a charming little fable that I really found delightful. At the center of the film, of course, is a mysterious Chinese "doctor", played by Tony Randall in a typical yellowface costume. So there's that. But I am here to report that this movie is actually not terrible, despite the racist portrayal at its center.

Honestly, why does he need to be a mysterious Asian character in the first place? Like, since when do all mysteries need to come from the "East"? Are there no mysterious white people for Tony Randall to play? Can he not just play your typical American charlatan, coming into town to cause trouble and bring people together? The film sort of plays with this idea, I suppose. For one, Dr. Lao always pronounces his own name "Dr. Loh" (rhyming with dough), and everyone else in the movie calls him "Dr. Lao" (rhyming with cow). And then in the middle of the movie, in conversations with (the beautiful) John Ericson, Dr. Lao stops speaking with his Chinese accent and speaks in a perfect mid-Atlantic dialect like any good New York actor from the period. In other words, the film doesn't need its racist construction, so why it uses it is sort of baffling.

The rest of the film is just plain delightful. There is a silly plot about a town and having faith in the town or some such. And then Barbara Eden falls in love with John Ericson (very sensible of her, I might add). I was into it.

* * *
Are we done yet? (We're not.) Four more.

20 July 2017

Visions from 1964: Part Three

Some of these 1964 films have been weird, but some have also been brilliantly good. Here are some of the excellent ones.

Mario Monicelli's I Compagni (The Organizer) is a gorgeous movie about striking textile-factory workers in 19th century Turin. This film has been added to The Criterion Collection, and with good reason. It stars Marcello Mastroianni (also in 1964's Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow and Marriage Italian Style) as a labor organizer who inspires the town's workers to strike against the factory owners. But the film isn't really about Mastroianni's organizer as its focus (the title in Italian translates to something more like Comrades than The Organizer); it's about the workers in the town and the actual struggle of their labor and their strike.

This film follows a strike in the 19th century, but it felt completely relevant to today, and it was easy to see how the movie would have felt relevant to Italians in 1963 and Americans in 1964. But more than that, this is also just a superbly made, beautifully acted, deeply satisfying movie.

* * *
Another movie I loved is Fate Is the Hunter by director Ralph Nelson. Fate Is the Hunter is an ensemble picture but stars Glenn Ford (for whom I fell so hard in Dear Heart). The premise of this film is a plane crash and then an investigation into that plane crash and what caused it. There seems to be no real explanation for the crash, or rather too many explanations for the crash, but our main character is determined to get to the real cause, which everyone keeps saying "must just be fate". Glenn Ford refuses to accept this explanation and keeps digging. This is a bit of a strange movie, I guess, mostly because of its time scheme. At the beginning of the movie we watch a really terrifically filmed plane crash, but then the film totally switches gears and the majority of the movie is a kind of detective story filled with flashbacks to the life of the pilot, who has died in the crash.

But Fate Is the Hunter is so compelling, the story so good, and the acting so very well done (with performances by Nancy Kwan, Rod Taylor, and an especially good turn by character actor Mark Stevens) that its quirky dramaturgy felt justified, and I thoroughly enjoyed this. The script is excellent, and especially when compared to Clint Eastwood's boring Sully, which tries to do much of what Fate Is the Hunter does with nowhere near as much success, it felt really special.

* * *
Philippe de Broca's action-adventure-tourism film L'Homme de Rio (That Man from Rio) is an absurd, delightful gem starring Jean-Paul Belmondo. The plot is this – there are these three idols which have been taken from the Brazilian rainforest and then, like, divided up between three different people (one in Paris, two in Brazil), and there is a treasure to which they hold the key. OK, honestly, I've forgotten the entirety of the completely absurd premise. The point of the movie is that Jean-Paul Belmondo is a soldier who has a week of leave in Paris ends up following his drugged girlfriend to Rio and chasing around bad guys and trying to solve a mystery. It's intended as a mockery of James Bond seriousness, approaching a typical Bond plot with a carefree attitude and a silly tone.

This is a delightful, ridiculous, completely fun movie from which many, many action-adventure movies could learn a ton. Belmondo is comic, handsome perfection (he was obviously at his sexiest in 1964), and the script is perfectly absurd with just enough hilarious twists and turns to be enjoyable without crossing over into stupidity. I loved this movie.

* * *
And then there is Bo Widerberg's Kvarteret Korpen (Raven's End). I actually had never seen anything by this Swedish director, surprisingly, and I thought this movie was perfect. Raven's End is about a young man growing up in an impoverished housing project in Sweden. His father is an alcoholic, and the family has landed on very hard times. But the young man is determined to get out of his housing project by writing. He is also a part-time political activist, and the film, for some of its length wonders about how one actually might improve one's situation by staying in the housing project and working to make it better.

But Raven's End is also a portrait of the people in the housing project, of the intriguing characters who have come to make it their home, of some who have grown up there and never gotten out, of children living in poverty, of silly pie-in-the-sky dreams. This is a masterfully told story, and the film itself looks at its characters without sentiment and puts the hard questions to them. I adored this film.

Raven's End, however, is not available on DVD in the U.S. (I got my bootleg copy with questionable subtitles through the Movie Detective.) How it is possible that this excellent movie is not widely available, I really don't know, but the Criterion Collection needs to pick this one up.

09 July 2017

Visions from 1964: Part Two

Arthur Hiller's The Americanization of Emily is an excellent movie that I absolutely loved. I guess I should've expected to love it, since it was written by Paddy Chayefsky (the writer of my favorite movie Network), but I had been stalling on seeing it, I think because Julie Andrews was in it, playing a bit of a prude, and I was concerned that it was some kind of break-down-the-woman's-stiff-upper-lip sort of thing. It is nothing like that! Instead, what The Americanization of Emily is is a brilliant anti-war satire. The Americanization of Emily aims directly at pro-war propaganda that makes dead soldiers into heroes. It makes fun of the way we praise the young men we send off to be killed in other countries, and it mocks and criticizes the fat-cat Americans who think (for example) that a goal such as preserving the distinct branches of the military is a worthy cause for sacrificing the lives of men. James Garner is the star of this film and he is at his absolute sexiest and most interesting. Even better, his romance with Andrews works nicely, even if she is a bit stiff as an actress still in 1964.

This is a funny movie that actually hits quite hard – although the hit is not an emotional one; it's an intellectual one. Garner has a monologue midway through about how he would much rather stay alive than die for his country, and anyone who doesn't think that same thing is a liar. It is an excellent scene and his costar in the sequence – Joyce Grenfell – is superb. Imagine if we didn't glorify soldiers and instead were angry about their deaths. Imagine if we treated governments that wished to send men and women to die with suspicion. The Americanization of Emily asks us to imagine precisely this.

* * *
The film about the famed madam Polly Adler, A House Is Not a Home, is out of print and not available on DVD. You can, however, watch the entire film on YouTube, which is what I did. But... A House is not a Home is nothing to write house or home about. And while I'm making puns, let's simply note that this title really hasn't a thing to do with famed New York madams writing tell-all books. But oh well.

This film is not terrible, really, but it is very moral, and it has this idea that prostitution is the absolute worst thing in the world. The film does articulate, at least briefly, the difficult economic positions of the mostly immigrant women who become prostitutes in the movie, but it spends the majority of its time showing us images of "the fast life" for our pleasure and then telling us how sinful it is. No thanks.

I will say one really positive thing about A House Is Not a Home, though. At the beginning of the movie, innocent Shelley Winters (who plays Polly) is just a Polish immigrant working in a factory. She is taken out dancing by the supervisor at the factory and then when he makes a pass and she rebuffs him, he won't take no for an answer. In a surprising scene, she gets out of the carriage and makes a run for it into a copse by the side of the road. He gets her down in the mud and violates her. The film is very clear about this. She's running and screaming; he's pursuing violently. Then she comes home to her aunt and uncle's house terrified and with her clothes messed up. Her uncle and aunt, predictably, behave abominably toward her. They say they didn't know she was that kind of girl. They tell her she can't stay in the house any longer: the sort of victim-blaming to which we have become accustomed when we hear about rape. Viewers are supposed to know what really happened but also supposed to understand what the adults think, as well. We are supposed to see this as a kind of insurmountable problem of shame in the household. But A House Is Not a Home does not fade out after presenting us with this problem. Instead, Shelley Winters says quite clearly for her foster parents and the audience to hear: "I was raped!". It is a great, defiant moment, and an honest surprise for a USAmerican movie from 1964.

* * *
Jack Arnold's The Lively Set is also out of print, and with much better reason than A House Is Not a Home. The Lively Set is a really stupid and extremely dated comedy about car-racing undergraduates in 1960s California. We mostly follow a young girl (Pamela Tiffin) who has designs on a young man (played by pop singer James Darren) who only has an interest in cars. This is an old joke and is supposed to be quite funny. She wants to make out and all he wants to do is take apart an engine and put it back together again. Ha ha ha. 

There isn't much more to this picture in all honesty. There is some plot about the invention of a car that doesn't pollute the universe, and then there is an important race where they test this new invention – this race is the eleven o'clock set-piece, of course.

But for twentysomethings in 1964, these kids are ridiculously tame. They are apparently not having sex of any kind, and barely even think about it, even though the movie is filled with revving engines and loud exhaust (an obvious if poor substitute for sex). This seemed like a kind of Hollywood version of reality that was trying to give college students the idea that normal people wait until they're married.

Still, James Darren is pretty cute, and car racing is sort of inherently high-stakes. It was hard to hate this movie even if it was outrageously silly.

* * *
A romantic comedy I really fell for, on the other hand, was Dear Heart, a film by Delbert Mann, starring Geraldine Page and Glenn Ford. Page is a postmistress from some tiny town who is attending a conference in New York City and Ford is a businessman who has decided to settle down, stop sleeping with random women, and get married to a woman he just met. (See why I think it is crazy to portray twentysomethings from Los Angeles as "waiting" for marriage in 1964?) Anyway the two meet. Page's character is a total loon – rearranging her hotel room, learning everyone's name, trying to make friends. And Ford's character is dealing with his new "son", who is actually 18 and drove down from college to see his new dad. Hilarity ensues.

But the two people fall in love and it is very sweet and both of them are compelling. I fell hard for Glenn Ford, who is the sort of perfect 1960s combination of hard-bitten and sensitive, and I've always loved Geraldine Page.

21 June 2017

Visions from 1964: Part One

I have seen rather a lot of films from 1964. The big Academy-Award-winning movies that year were My Fair Lady, Mary Poppins, Zorba the Greek, Becket, and the camp classic Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte. But long ago when I started watching Oscar-nominated movies, I also screened Robin and the 7 Hoods (a musical with Frank Sinatra in which he sings "My Kind of Town"), The Unsinkable Molly Brown (you've heard of her, I assume), Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove (widely considered a classic), and the James Bond picture Goldfinger.

Other films nominated for Oscars in 1964 were Marriage Italian-Style, with Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni, as well as the eventual winner of the Foreign Language Film, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (also with Loren and Mastroianni), the Tennessee Williams film The Night of the Iguana, a Leslie Caron–Cary Grant war-comedy called Father Goose, the Beatles' A Hard Day's Night, the Jacques Demy musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and the classic Japanese horror film Woman in the Dunes.

In other words, 1964 was a good year for the Academy Awards

Two weeks ago I looked at the list of forty films nominated, and I had twenty left, and I thought, well, why not watch the rest of 'em in the next month? So I started doing that. Here are the first three...

John Frankenheimer's Seven Days in May is a superb political/military thriller starring Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, Fredric March, Edmond O'Brien, and Ava Gardner. This movie felt pretty extraordinary to me at just this moment in USAmerican history because it was totally about the power of the president and a plot on the part of the head of the joint chiefs of staff to – of all things – overthrow the government! The chairman (Lancaster) is a hawk who believes that the President (March) is too soft on the Russians, and because the President favors a treaty with the Russians that will involve joint disarmament, the chairman decides to kidnap the president and declare a military junta. The chairman is a popular politician as well, and so he believes that this will work. The main character of the film (Douglas) is the man who figures out the plot and goes to the president to try to stop it.

Seven Days in May is riveting stuff. And it is beautifully acted. It also stars Ava Gardner as a former lover of Lancaster's. Gardner is superb in this movie, and whenever I see one of her movies I am reminded of just how underrated of an actress she was. She is brilliant in literally everything, as far as I'm concerned.

What is most interesting, I guess, about Seven Days is the film's investment in the office of the president. Seven Days believes that disarmament is the right thing to do for the planet, but the film also acknowledges that some of us may be freaked out about the Soviets using nuclear arms against us while we become sitting ducks – or doves, as it were. But the movie, finally, believes that the people of the United States elected the president, and that it is the president's job to make these kinds of decisions. We can't have military leaders deciding that they know better than the person elected to represent the people.

Another presidential film made in 1964 is The Best Man, written by Gore Vidal and directed by Franklin J. Schaffner. The Best Man's poster makes it look rather like it might be a comedy, and the first few minutes of the film do nothing to disrupt that impression, but The Best Man is quite a serious film about two men in a presidential primary. The candidates are Henry Fonda and Cliff Robertson. Fonda plays a wise old man who quotes Marcus Aurelius, is in favor of racial equality, and has decided always to "do the right thing" (even though he is a bit of a philanderer, apparently). Robertson plays a truly odious politician who will do anything to win, is a complete racist, and seems to have not a sensitive bone in his body. The cast is rounded out by the former president (whose endorsement would crown the victor in the race) and Fonda's wife, who is a no-nonsense, lovely sort of woman who knows her husband doesn't really love her. Robertson's wife is rather an important character, too, but she is not given much of a part.

This is only a so-so sort of picture. It doesn't actually make sense that someone quite so conservative and someone quite so liberal are fighting for power in the same party – one of them could at least have been a centrist of some sort. But also the film just doesn't generate interest in its own questions. Whether or not one man will do the right thing is not really the most fascinating topic. One rather wants to see his favorite character win. Fonda's character does all the right things, but his inability to get down into the mud and do all he can to make sure that this basically evil person doesn't become president really means that he himself is not presidential. And he knows it. He is not willing to get his hands dirty, and so over the course of the picture he comes to realize that he doesn't really have what it takes to be the president. I am not sure why the film is invested in men who are willing to get their hands dirty, but The Best Man sure believes that the office of the presidency needs that.

Robertson at center, looking shifty
Where The Best Man gets really interesting is when someone in the film discovers that Cliff Robertson's character had an incident when he was in the army where he was brought before a court martial and accused of ... and I about clutched my pearls when someone said it, in 1964 no less ... homosexual activity! They talk around it for a little bit, but then someone actually says the word. I was shocked. And the film seems to believe that Robertson's character did do something back in the army... and that this makes him a particular kind of person. The Best Man's feeling about homosexuality is negative, of course, and certainly makes the man unfit to be the president, but what is perhaps more interesting is the way the film stages denial of homosexuality, accusations of homosexuality, and the code of honor that dictates that such things are not discussed in public by respectable men. Either way I found the whole thing quite surprising.

Finally, there is yet another film from 1964 about the presidency. This one is called Kisses for My President, directed by Curtis Bernhardt and starring Polly Bergen and Fred MacMurray. In this movie, the first woman is elected president of the United States and laughs ensue when her husband has to deal with being the new first lady. You'll pardon my enthusiasm, but the entire movie hinges on the idea that it is just hilarious that a man would be the first lady and would have to follow the orders of his wife, Madam President.

This is a one-joke picture. Where the joke actually works is when we get to the White House and no one – and I mean no one, including her political opponents – behaves as though it is abnormal for a woman to be the president. The only person who can't seem to quite figure it out is the president's husband.

But Kisses for My President is not a serious movie in the least, and the movie opts for an easy ending when the president becomes pregnant and decides to resign because the doctor says the stress of the presidency will be too much for the baby. I'm rolling my eyes all the way to the back of my head. Kisses for My President is invested in both the absurdity and the impossibility that a woman could be president, and it finally decides that women are unfit for such jobs because they might get pregnant and, well, shouldn't they be taking care of their families in the first place? No thanks.

15 June 2017

Closet Monster

This is a coming-of-age drama about a kid dealing with the closet and with an emotionally abusive father. Closet Monster has some interesting images, but mostly is just about teenage angst. I said this when I watched The Edge of Seventeen a couple months ago, but these teenage dramas are just not for me.

What is perhaps interesting about Closet Monster is the unique way that male/male rape is used in this movie. Rape in this case works as a figure for all violence directed toward queer bodies. In this way it works to stand in for the bodily threats experienced as fear that are felt by queer young men and boys. But... mostly this is not that interesting.

13 June 2017

Staying Vertical

Rester Vertical is on Netflix now and made rather a splash at Cannes where most people decided it was the strangest film of the festival. The movie is indeed weird and unexpected, while also completely taking place in the real world... it's just that the stuff that happens in the film keeps prompting one to question the reality of the images on screen. It's realism, but then you find yourself watching something and go – wait what??

This is a gay film, I guess, or at least the main character is mostly gay. But there are many other things to recommend this strange movie. The film, in fact, is filled with intriguing images – a man fucks an old, dying man as a kind of last request; at another point of the movie a group of transients steal every stitch of clothing off of the main character; and at one point the camera steadily and simply watches a baby come out of a vagina. (It's kind of gross, in case you've never seen this.)

Rester Vertical is not quite as good as Guiraudie's last film, L'Inconnu du Lac. I found the latter film just as strange but much more troubling, still, Rester Vertical is certainly intriguing, and I am always happy to watch something that aims to be outrageous.

08 June 2017

The Man Who Would Be King

This came very highly recommended. Someone – I forget who – told me years ago that this was his favorite film.

But I don't know. Watching two drunks (Caine and Connery) make fun of the military and the government of the British Raj was funny, but watching these same two assholes become kings in Kafiristan did not inspire affection or even, if I am perfectly frank, interest.

Plus, The Man Who Would Be King has a bit of a strange narrative frame that I didn't really understand, so when we returned to that after the main narrative, the film's ending left me totally cold.

06 June 2017

The Lost City of Zed

The Lost City of Z was an astoundingly ambitious film. I am not sure it actually works, but I was really taken aback by it, and I respected it very much. I don't think I've seen a movie like this since, like, the 1950s.

Nobody really makes big epic melodramas like this movie, and I think that is what I found so shocking about it. It felt like an old school Mark Robson picture or something: a giant epic like The Inn of the Sixth Happiness. James Gray takes his movies very seriously, and there is no hint of irony in this kind of moviemaking. I didn't think this worked at all with his last movie The Immigrant – I thought the acting was just terrible – but The Lost City of Z is much more successful, and Sienna Miller, Robert Pattinson, and Tom Holland do great work. Charlie Hunnam is less successful; the main part is a role made for someone like Brad Pitt, really, and Hunnam doesn't have the dynamism of a Colin Farrell or, say, Russell Crowe. He does his best, but the part just never quite jells.

To be honest, though, The Lost City of Z had other problems as well. The end is unsatisfying and not well designed: if you're going to make an old-fashioned melodrama, you need to have an old-fashioned happy ending. And the movie drags in its center, as the players search for their lost city and are bogged down by an absurd character played by Angus Macfadyen with Alfred Molina levels of absurdity.

In short, I can't really recommend this movie. I was excited to see it, and I found the whole thing rather stunning, if I'm honest. But in the vein of something like Richard Linklater's Boyhood, it turns out that the ambition and the idea behind the thing are more interesting than the picture; all that work and the movie just isn't that great.

04 June 2017

Florida Film Festival 4 of 5: Sami Blood

The thing about Sami Blood is that it wants to be a story you've never heard before. But it settles only for generic tropes. So instead it is the story you've already heard twenty times in your life... but this time we're in Sweden! Young girl leaves her indigenous roots behind in order to become her own person. She battles discrimination, poverty, and racism; she falls in love; she leaves behind her sister who adores her.
And then many, many years later when she is a very old woman, she sheds a tear and remembers that she turned her back on her roots and I guess sort of feels bad about it? No thanks. Like I said: you've seen this before.

14 May 2017

Snowtown a/k/a The Snowtown Murders

This is a grisly Australian serial-killer film. This might actually have been too fucked up even for me. Also, I was troubled by the film's gaze, which was... intrigued by its main character, a bit like Tony Kaye's point of view in American History X, a film with which Snowtown actually has much in common. The film actually agreed with the serial killer at the film's center, at least for much of its length. And I am not sure I understand or appreciate this kind of gaze. I did think the young actor at the film's center (not the serial killer), Lucas Pittaway, was interesting to watch, and I can see why filmmaker Justin Kurzel was interested in him, as well. But the film just doesn't have much to say, after all, shocking and surprising though it is.