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

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 for 1964. 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.

* * *
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. It might be different if they looked at all like Native Americans, but they all just look like uncomfortable white folks in Indian drag.
  • 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.