Sunday, June 21, 2020

HAPPY-GO-LUCKY - CRITERION CHANNEL

This review as originally written for DVDTalk.com in 2008.


Happy-Go-Lucky is one of th more lauded filmes from British director Mike Leigh, who is known for telling stories of the working class that chronicle their fancies and their doldrums in a modern style that resembles the Kitchen Sink cinema from the 1960s. In this latest offering, Leigh could have easily adopted Charlie Chaplin's "Smile" as the movie's theme song, as it seems to be what he's encouraging his audience to do: smile, even when it's not that easy to do.

Sally Hawkins, last seen as Colin Farrell's girlfriend in Woody Allen's Cassandra's Dream [review], stars as Poppy, a kindergarten teacher with a relentlessly upbeat outlook on life. Practically a child herself, she's equally at home in the classroom or on the dancefloor. Like any single young woman at age 30, she still likes to go out drinking with her girlfriends, but she's also slightly adventurous, booking weekly trampoline sessions and joining a co-worker for flamenco lessons because it sounds like fun. At the beginning of the movie, Poppy's bike is stolen, and instead of lamenting over it, she decides to learn to drive instead.


Poppy's driving instructor is one of the first of several challenges to Poppy's worldview. Scott (Eddie Marsan, Hancock [review]) is an angry little man with a lot of pent-up issues. He takes his job way too seriously, and he is easily provoked. Thus, he and Poppy get on like paper and a match, since she seemingly can't take anything seriously. In fact, she's often exhausting to watch, so I can't imagine what it must be like to be around her. Poppy can't let any comment pass without tossing out a silly joke, and she rarely answers a serious question with a serious answer. Honestly, I found her to be extremely annoying at first, and I was dreading spending two hours in her company.

Then came the first flamenco lesson. My whole attitude changed watching her interact with the class. Regardless of how stern the lead dancer's demeanor, Poppy always maintains her smile and her gung-ho attitude. She doesn't necessarily follow instruction, instead looking around the room at the other students and trying to elicit a reaction from them. Watching her pantomime amongst the group, a silly grin on her face and a knowing look in her eyes, it occurred to me that Poppy was like other clowns in motion picture history, characters like Chaplin's Tramp or Tati's Hulot. Though she is clearly more vocal than these mostly silent characters, she is like them in that she realizes that the rest of the world is too uptight and is doing her level best to keep from letting it grind her down.


Happy-Go-Lucky is Mike Leigh's study of this kind of figure. The movie is the writer/director's way of deconstructing the clown in order to see what makes her function. Throughout the film, he continually disarms Poppy, tossing her challenges she can't get out of by cracking wise. Her driving instructor, an abused student in her class, the recriminations of her middle sister (Caroline Martin), the prodding of her long-suffering roommate (Alexis Zegerman)--all of these people pick at the clown's mask and question if her brave face is real. It's to Poppy's credit that she is able to dial it down and prove that she can handle the bad as well as the good. Like all people who make us laugh, she is a caregiver, intent on alleviating the sadness of others even if it means harboring her own. She can be fierce, such as when she witnesses a boyfriend yelling at her youngest sister (Kate O'Flynn), but she can also be extremely empathetic. When she randomly encounters a homeless man (Stanley Townsend) in the middle of a psychotic episode, she sits with him rather than running away, answering all of his half-finished utterances with affirmative responses. It's a beautiful acting moment, centering on a look that Hawkins and Townsend exchange at the end of the scene, the masks clearing away for both of them for one truly honest moment.

Sally Hawkins is actually superb throughout. I don't think I would have wanted to strangle her as much as I sometimes did were she not. She makes Poppy a complete character, not just a collection of catchphrases and nervous ticks. She never once breaks character or appears to be an actress performing a role, every moment is authentic. During much of the joking, there is obviously more going on behind it. The outward expression may be physical, but the true weight of the performance is all mental. Thus, when it's revealed how much strength is really backing up the buffoonery, we can believe it.


Mike Leigh's shooting style is often stark, letting the setting and the actors dictate where he takes his camera. Once or twice, he indulges in a larger shot, pulling back to show us the landscape, but it's not just decoration, it's purposeful. The world these characters live in is just as important to their state of being as anything else. Over the course of the various conflicts, he slowly moves in closer, until in the final confrontation between Poppy and Scott, their heads take up the entire frame, and he rapidly cuts back and forth between them. (Though, such is the gravitational pull of the Poppy character, in all of the conversations, Leigh has no choice but to quickly cut back to Hawkins to catch her rejoinders.) There's a psychology to how Leigh sets up Happy-Go-Lucky, but it's not forceful or overbearing. The characters, their environment, and the greater narrative are all perfectly entwined. The final scene of the film is a little on-the-nose in comparison to the rest, but better to drift out of a story like this than superimpose a false dramatic arc over the top.

I doubt Happy-Go-Lucky is going to make Mike Leigh a household name. If anything, he's like Woody Allen in that he puts out a consistent stream of product that tends to cover a lot of the same ground, and when either of them hits the mark, they hit it quite well. Happy-Go-Lucky is a good movie propped up by excellent actors, and as seems to be its intention, is sure to leave you smiling.



Monday, June 15, 2020

THE CAMERAMAN - #1033


Buster Keaton was an independent producer and director making his own starring vehicles in the silent era when, in 1928, he decided to sign on with MGM and let them foot the bill. This was despite warnings from his friends and peers, who didn’t see why a successful artist would give up his freedom and control. Keaton probably should have listened, as MGM immediately paired him with a director, Edward Sedgwick, and though their collaborations yielded some excellent funny business, it does feel like something is different in the two features offered on Criterion’s release of The Cameraman

Before criticizing things, though, it should be noted that there is much to rejoice about in this new 4K restoration. Though still missing three minutes of footage, this is the most complete version of The Camerman that anyone has seen in quite some time. The picture is clear and beautiful, and it allows for a fresh perspective of this pivotal moment in Keaton’s career. The score is also very good, enhancing the picture as necessary without overplaying the comedic actions or trying to hard to mimic what is onscreen (the same cannot be said for the music on the second film). 


The scenario as devised by Clyde Bruckman and Lew Lipton sees Buster playing a street portrait photographer who falls for a beautiful girl (Marceline Day), whose picture he takes before she is whisked away by her boyfriend (Harold Goodwin). The fella, Stagg, is a cameraman for MGM newsreels, and Buster decides to get his own movie camera and join the freelance crew as a way to get close to Sally. What follows are plenty of mishaps as Buster tries to figure out the business, finds a monkey to be his pal, and gets tangled in a Chinatown gang war. The latter sequence is incredible for the chaos and mayhem that erupts on the screen. There is a real sense of peril, and we fear for our stone-faced hero. 

This is probably the closest we get to a vintage Buster Keaton situation. His previous comedies all have a sense of danger, as his elaborate set-ups and stunts would consistently put him in harm’s way, only for him to stumble through unharmed. Most of the gags in The Cameraman are dialed way back from what audiences would have expected from Buster. Weirdly, we get more wordplay in the title cards than ever before, which is not really what we signed up for. We also get more romance. If anything replaces the danger, it’s an increased sweetness. Sure, we’ve seen Keaton work the love angle before in pictures like Battling Butler, but there is a dogged earnestness to The Cameraman that is almost less effective because it replaces his trademark cluelessness with confidence. 


In truth, The Cameraman and the second feature on the disc, 1929’s Spite Marriage, also directed by Sedgwick, remind me more of classic Charlie Chaplin than classic Buster Keaton. The relationship of City Lights comes to mind, where we root for the Little Tramp to win the blind girl’s heart. It’s not that we don’t also root for Buster in his other films, but I think we are more inclined to see him take a licking, his famously rigid face keeping us from being nearly as invested in his well-being. Perhaps this was what MGM was hoping to undo, thinking that maybe making him more like Charlie he could start to outpace the other man’s success. 


It’s hard to say. And it’s also still hard not to like both The Cameraman and Spite Marriage. Both are very funny. Spite Marriage even features one of Keaton’s most lauded bits, when he has to put his drunk wife to bed. It a routine he would perform live for many years to come. It’s just some of the inventiveness is gone. The precarious situations, the elaborate sets, the prop work, the daredevil stunts--these are all dialed back. 

You know what it is, actually? It’s that Buster Keaton was always the little guy standing up to an indifferent world that consistently outsized him. Just as MGM took away his full control, so too did they shrink the threats. It levels the playing field, it’s not nearly the contest it once was. Buster is still the champ, but fighting in his own weight class, and so the victory is not as sweet. While the performer has the charm to be a rom-com lead, it’s not what he really made his name on, and it’s a classic example of the business side of show business not really understanding the show.


 This disc provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.



Sunday, June 14, 2020

TARNATION - CRITERION CHANNEL

Originally written for my personal blog in 2005. While, were I to write the piece again, much of my initial reaction would stay the same and is perhaps more relevant (sadly) fifteen years later, I would like to note that the comments about the veracity of Renee Caouette's accusations toward her father (marked with a *) were something I should have taken more seriously. While the filmmaker's techniques can be in question as it regards to the older man's portrayal, Renee's claims of abuse deserve to be given their full due.


Jonathan Caouette's Tarnation is a puzzling, disturbing film. On one hand, it's arguable that it's like one of Godard or Orson Welles' essay films, updated for a time after music videos have affected how visuals and music are combined, with the whiz-bang editing style familiar to any MTV viewer. On the other, it possibly sidesteps what it wants to say by distracting us with that same style. The film is about one boy's journey into his family's mental history and how he fits into it, but does Caouette obscure his discoveries by over-abstracting? Or is the abstraction just a way for him to continue to avoid the hard answers? 


Caouette is his own worst artistic enemy, it seems. Something about how he presents himself offset me as a viewer, made me inclined to distrust him. All artists are self-obsessed, but most step away from who they are when they deconstruct their lives for their art. Ironically, Caouette is always away from himself: he suffers from a mental disorder that causes him to disassociate from his own reality and view life as a dream. He uses film to try to get back into his own shoes. But I couldn't shake the feeling throughout Tarnation that the exercise was all bullshit. I wasn't witnessing soul searching but a masturbation tool for a man who is in love with his own visage. Caouette started filming himself at age 11, creating disturbingly graphic monologues where he'd play characters like battered wives and drug addicts. While they suggest a natural talent for film, these scenes also begin a pattern of Caouette staging his own life for the sake of the movie of it. In his final confession, when he is alone in his bathroom with the camera, I wanted to believe he was sincere in his epiphany; instead, I was more appalled by how badly he was mugging for the lens.

Caouette begins his history before his birth and carries us all the way through 2002. The way he puts images together, a decade can pass by over the space of a montage set to a single song. Midway through the picture, I was beginning to question what it was I was being shown. I didn't feel like I was getting to know Caouette or his family. The photos seemed random. I could have been looking at any stranger's photo album, purchased in a thrift store or found in the road. When the rush of images would stop, it was rarely to contextualize what had just been presented. Rather, the viewer is given increasingly exploitative, drawn-out sequences of the filmmaker's mother, Renee, losing her grasp on reality. One sequence, when she dances and sings with a pumpkin, feels like it will never go on forever as Caouette milks his audience for every last squirm. Renee believes she is Elizabeth Taylor's daughter and Dolly Partner's sister, and she's going to perform for us just like they do. This is where her son got it from. A former model and actress, mom's mental illness has become an elaborate stage for her to play her part on. Caouette witnessed her being raped and abused when he was four, and Tarnation oftentimes seems like his attempt to recreate that kind of trauma over and over so we can share it with him. 


I couldn't help but feel sorry for Adolph, Renee's father and Caouette's grandfather, for being caught up in all this. He may have done the things his daughter claims (we'll never know)*, and he certainly was misguided when consenting to give her shock treatment, but the character Caouette gives us is of a genial old man who has tried to smile his way through it all, not the monster he'd have us believe. When his grandson moves to New York, he sincerely wishes him well and speaks supportively of the boy's abilities; except Caouette has him say his farewell into a machine that turns the old man's voice robotic. A prescient contrivance so he can suggest the sentiment is false? When Caouette accusingly turns the camera on Adolph near the end of Tarnation, it just feels vicious, and when grandpa declares he has had enough, I frankly felt I had, as well.



It's hard not to think of the famous scene from Madonna's Truth or Dare documentary where Warren Beatty says to the singer, "Why would you do anything off camera? What's the point of living if it's not on camera?" Often in this day and age, it feels like the majority of the population missed that Beatty wasn't saying that like it was a good thing. Technology has put the means of expression into just about everyone's hands. This blog is a perfect example of that. If I wanted to, I could follow the example of many others and record my every waking moment on here as if it were absolutely vital and important. The problem is, self-expression (and its evil twin, self-obsession) in itself is not all there is. We can't simply present what happened to us on our lunch break and expect the fact that it happened to grant it meaning. I like to joke that everyone has a right to an opinion, just not the right to express it...but I'm starting to think it's not so funny. Unless we start to demand that people extract something out of these experiences before they frame them for public consumption, we're going to lose sight of the big picture that is capital-A art. All the little snapshots are going to cover it up. 


It's not an either/or question. One should dare to tell the truth.



Friday, May 15, 2020

THE SNIPER - CRITERION CHANNEL

This review originally written in 2005 for my Confessions of a Pop Fan blog.'


The Sniper is a 1952 release from director Edward Dmytryk, also known for Murder, My Sweet and The End of the Affair. Dmytryk really has to struggle against some heavy-handed material here. The film stops dead twice as the police psychologist explains his theories about sexual predators and the proper course of treatment, but even as these monologues grate on modern ears, you have to appreciate the progressiveness in even approaching the subject. The titular sniper is a disturbed young man who has developed an obsessive hatred of women, and he is compelled to climb the rooftops of San Francisco and shoot ones he feels have done him wrong. Arthur Franz plays the killer as a lost soul who just wants to belong somewhere, only to find himself barred from the social situations he finds himself in. He goes from placid happiness to rage to self-loathing and guilt all in the course of single scenes, the smallest slight setting him off. It all has an unexplained connection to baseball, stemming from his first violent outburst as a child, and it comes to the fore at a carnival where an obnoxious woman in a dunking tank game taunts customers. Franz buys nine balls, sinking the woman five times in a row before really losing his cool and hurtling the rest of the balls at the tank itself. It's explosive, and makes perfect sense for a character overcome by irrational anger.


The movie truly shines, though, when we focus on the cops (including the amusingly named Lt. Frank Kafka), who approach the crime scenes with a gallows humor and a dogged determination they never quite let show. The best scene is when a parade of sex perverts is led through an open interrogation where they are more ridiculed than questioned, the sort of snarky bad-cop interrogation that has become a staple of police stories. Dmytryk's fantastic location shooting is another high point, adding a realistic touch to the film. The steep San Francisco streets seem to personify the sniper's internal struggle: he can never walk normally on even ground.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

SALOME (1953) - CRITERION CHANNEL

This review originally written for DVDTalk.com in 2013. 



I've written some pretty harsh reviews of older Biblical movies in the past, and generally take heat for it whenever I do. It's a genre that hasn't necessarily aged well. The earnestness of movies like The Song of Bernadette [review] has only grown more clunky over the decades, and some dramas like The Robe [review] now come off as more campy than intended. It's not that I am opposed to these kinds of movies, but it seems they need to be of a finer vintage, like DeMille's The King of Kings [review] or the silent version of Ben-Hur.

William Dieterle's 1953 interpretation of Salomé proves to be a solid exception, albeit an imperfect one. Rita Hayworth leads a fine cast as the stepdaughter of King Herod (Charles Laughton, Island of Lost Souls [review]). Herod's marriage to Salomé's mother (Judith Anderson, Rebecca [review]) has brought him unwanted attention from John the Baptist (Alan Bedel), a prophet in a new religion who also preaches sedition against Rome. While Herod is in service to Rome, he is afraid to move against the Baptist due to an old prophecy and his fears that the preacher may be the Messiah.


Salomé herself recently left Rome, tired of being persecuted and rejected by Roman men as an outsider. She is thus understandably upset to hear that her mother is suffering from small-minded bigotry, as well. Travelling with her is Claudius (Stewart Granger, Caesar and Cleopatra), an emissary sent to check up on Herod. Claudius turns out to be sympathetic to Herod's dilemma, sensing that harming the Baptist would turn the King's subjects against him. The soldier also turns out to be susceptible to Salomé's charms.

The gnarled motivations and backstory of Salomé is largely what makes the movie still interesting. At first I thought it odd that Harry Kleiner and Jesse Lasky Jr.'s script was working so hard to humanize the people who are, essentially, the villains of the piece, but this ends up working toward establishing Christianity as a transformative movement. John the Baptist's message appeals to the fundamental humanity in his oppressors, and it offers redemption to all, including Salomé, who ends up joining his cause. It's her mother who will be the one to demand the prophet's head.


No surprise there, really. Anderson is at her best when she is being selfish and shady. Laughton mainly sleepwalks through yet another bored ruler role, while Granger and Bedel play their parts with a stiff reverence. At times, they serve as little more than props on the elaborate sets, clotheshorses for the fancy costumes. The colorful photography of Charles Lane (Charade [review], Summer and Smoke) eclipses just about everyone. Salomé is a Technicolor delight.


Only Rita Hayworth, with the help of her trademark red hair, manages to stand out. As always, she is lovely, and she wears her gowns with elegance. (Her outfits were designed by Jean Louis, who also made Rita's knockout black dress in Gilda [review].) The actress struggles slightly with Salomé's naïveté, overdoing the wide-eyed routine just a tad. This could just be the downside of playing a character who was considerably younger than she was, even if she somehow still manages to look as fresh-faced and youthful as required. It was interesting to watch this film back-to-back with Miss Sadie Thompson [review], released in the same year. In that one, Hayworth plays a woman of some experience, and she is allowed to show her maturity, both in performance and appearance. You'd swear they were shot at least a decade apart.

The climax of Salomé is Hayworth performing the "Dance of the Seven Veils" to distract Herod. It's an excellent number, with both the costumer and the dancer delivering on the choreography's sensual promise. It's too bad that an uncut version of the routine doesn't exist. It's a crime every time Dieterle breaks away from his star to show the backstage shenanigans. It's Salomé's biggest selling point, and makes the more rickety plotting well worth sitting through.


Sunday, May 10, 2020

THE BIG COUNTRY - CRITERION CHANNEL

This review was originally written in 2011 for DVDTalk.com.


My first encounter with The Big Country was a couple of years ago. I wasn't familiar with William Wyler's 1958 film until George Clooney was talking about how he borrowed a scene from it for Leatherheads [review]. When Clooney's character goes and gets John Krasinski in the middle of the night and takes him outside to settle their differences without anyone else spying in, that's a direct lift from The Big Country. Gregory Peck does the same with Charlton Heston. They need to fight, that's inevitable, but the score is between them, and there is no need for bragging or showboating.

It's a pretty impressive fist fight, with both men whaling on each other until neither of them can stand up. It's also central to understanding Gregory Peck's character in the film, and really, the whole of Wyler's message. Life's hurdles are for each individual to tackle in his or her own way, and though might may sometimes be required, it may not always make right. This didn't all sink in the first time I watched The Big Country, but seeing it again, I am awed by Wyler's expansive transformation of the cowboy epic into a politically relevant tale of personal responsibility and ethics.


The Big Country is based on a novel by Donald Hamilton, perhaps best known now as the creator of the Matt Helm character (Dean Martin played Helm in four movies in the 1960s). Wyler and a team of writers bring Hamilton's book to the screen as a western that is as grand in scope as the open land allows, but as deeply personal as human drama demands. Peck plays James McKay, an East-coast gentleman and former Navy man who travels West to join his fiancée (Caroll Baker, Baby Doll) at her family home. When he arrives, he is immediately out of place. His bowtie and rounded hat say "dude," and the local roughnecks immediately doubt his suitability as husband for one of their own. In particular, Steve Leech (Charlton Heston), the foreman on the girl's family ranch, doesn't like this dandy threatening his own place in the scheme of things.

But it's not just McKay's clothes that set him apart, it's also his attitude. Little did he know that by joining with the Terrill family, he was signing on to a long-running feud between the well-to-do Major Terrill (Charles Bickford, Brute Force [review]) and a neighboring rancher, the less successful Rufus Hannassey (Burl Ives, who won an Oscar for his performance). Their main squabble is over the Big Muddy, the land that separates their properties, a lush spread with a healthy water supply. Since its owner died, leaving the deed to his granddaughter (Jean Simmons, The Robe [review]), each man has fought to get his hands on the property and cut his rival out, even though the woman has every intention of honoring her grandfather's promises and letting both water their cattle on the Big Muddy.


The truth is, neither Terrill nor Hannassey are really fighting over water. Their bitterness goes deep down, and it's indicative of class divides and social ranking. Major Terrill is respected and rich. He calls Hannassey and his boys "the local trash;" Hannassey, in his blistering opening speech, calls Terrill "a high-tone skunk." As McKay learns more about this feud, the murkier the motivations of each man becomes and the obvious first impressions lose their luster. It also becomes harder and harder for McKay to stick to his own principles, as the natural suspicion of outsiders undercuts him at every turn. It would be easy to show up his detractors. When he first arrived on the ranch, Leech tried to haze him by putting him on the farm's most ornery horse. McKay beggared off, though later that day, returned to the corral and kept getting on Old Thunder until it stopped bucking him off. He knew he could do it, he didn't need outside validation.


James McKay is another of Gregory Peck's great screen heroes, a man as philosophically and morally resolute as the progressive reporter he played in Gentleman's Agreement or his career-defining turn as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. Peck is the very embodiment of intelligent masculinity. While watching The Big Country, I texted a friend and said, "Damn, I'd like to have a drink with Gregory Peck." He is stoic and smooth as McKay, displaying plenty of backbone but in a manner that is quietly assertive rather than shouty or violent. He also gets to be funny and romantic, particularly in his scenes with Simmons. There is at least one laugh-out-loud moment when he feigns being queasy during their contest of who has the most gruesome story from their respective adventures.


William Wyler was no stranger to big productions. A decade prior he had made The Best Years of Our Lives, a multi-layered portrait of post-War American life. Though The Big Country doesn't branch out in quite the same way as that film, it is no less impressive in terms of how Wyler handles large themes. He expertly moves from contemporary life to the untouched countryside of America's past, appropriating it as a backdrop where these near-mythic conflicts can play out. The Big Country was photographed by Franz Planer (The Nun's Story, Breakfast at Tiffany's [review]) using the widescreen Technirama process (a Cinemascope knock-off). Wyler and Franz use the gorgeous mountains and untouched plains of California and Arizona as their canvas, drawing their drama under the blue skies and using the grandeur to show both the smallness of human pettiness and also how majestic individual endeavor can be when placed in the context of the big, beautiful world we live in. Their compositions are fantastic, particularly in the final scenes of conflict. Gunmen dot the landscape as far back as the camera eye will permit.

For western fans expecting quick-draw showdowns and black hat/white hat morality, The Big Country likely won't be your thing. For those who want something a bit more enriching, who want to see complicated men wrestle with maintaining a personal code of honor and maybe get a little romance for good measure, then The Big Country is soon to be one of your new personal favorites. As another friend pointed out, this is like The Quiet Man [review] set in the American West, with all the expansiveness such a transplantation implies.



Saturday, May 9, 2020

WUTHERING HEIGHTS (2011) - CRITERION CHANNEL

This review originally written for DVDTalk.com in 2011.



Leading British arthouse film director Andrea Arnold (Red Road [review], Fish Tank [review]) has taken one of literature's most famous romances and scrubbed it of its poetic declarations and gloomy portents, revealing a tattered, brutal tale of cruelty and the privilege of class that has been lurking underneath all the heavy breathing and emo expressionism.

Arnold's interpretation of Wuthering Heights maintains the 19th-century timeframe and Southern England locale of Emily Brontë's novel, but her presentation of the Earnshaw estate is neither fancy nor pretty. There are no white curtains come alive in the wind, no pleasantries or politeness. It's muddy and dark and bare. The story is basically split into two halves. In the first half, the head of the Earnshaw clan (Paul Hilton) brings home a young ruffian (Solomon Glave) he found in the streets. Thinking he will do the boy a favor by raising him as his own, he dubs the child Heathcliff and forcibly baptizes him into his family and religion. This breeds resentment with his eldest son, Hindley (Lee Shaw), and awakens something else entirely in his daughter Catherine (Shannon Beer). The relationship between the two adolescents is one of sexual discovery, even if they aren't immediately clear on exactly what they are discovering.


When Earnshaw dies, leaving Hindley in charge, things take a turn for the worse. Hindley becomes more openly hostile and expressive in his racism. Though Brontë described Heathcliff as darker skinned, the prejudice against him was primarily because he was a gypsy; Arnold has decided to cast Heathcliff as a black male, adding a more pronounced and identifiable sting to Hindley's hatred. Feeling ostracized in the community, Heathcliff leaves to make his way in the city.


Heathcliff's return to Yorkshire as a grown man is the start of Wuthering Heights' second half. Played now by James Howson, a first-time actor (like much of the young cast), Heathcliff comes back to find the farm in a state of disrepair under Hindley, and Cathy (Skins-star Kaya Scodelario) has married the son on a prosperous neighboring farm (James Northcote). Seeing his plans for revenge and redemption scarpered, Heathcliff chooses instead to hang around, slowly twisting the emotional knife in his tormentors while also trying to rekindle lost passions. Such things can, of course, only end in tragedy.

Andrea Arnold's take on the material exposes the Heathcliff/Cathy relationship as less a great love affair and more an obsession over a lingering compulsion. Cathy, played with eager naivete by Beer and haughty privilege by Scodelario, is drawn to Heathcliff because he is forbidden fruit. He is a bit of a bad boy, prone to verbal outbursts full of colorful, anachronistic street slang, but she also toys with him, both as a teen and as a woman. This makes Heathcliff grow increasingly bitter. Both Howson and Glave are a bit blank onscreen, their only apparent emotion being the slowly boiling anger and resentment that understandably make them want to lash out. Earnshaw adopted Heathcliff hoping to make him one of his own, and in that he succeeded. His natural children are petty and mean, no matter how many class pretensions they claim. Hindley is a hooligan, Cathy is practically an 1800s version of a chav.


This latest rendition of Wuthering Heights was shot by Robbie Ryan, who worked with Arnold on her previous movies; more recently, he's lensed both Ken Loach's The Angels' Share [review] and Sally Potter's Ginger & Rosa [review]. Ryan brings a street-level verité to what is traditionally a fancier story. The camera follows the characters on loose feet. Jittery handheld and voyeuristic close-ups lend the film an immediacy costume dramas often lack, plucking Wuthering Heights out of the past and placing it in the now. Though Ryan and Arnold linger on different aspects of the natural surroundings, they never chase the magic hour or seek out the more conventional beauty of the countryside. They instead prefer nature in all its harshness--mud, waste, death.

The elements are a living presence in Wuthering Heights. The wind and the rain drive the narrative and its characters, reforming the people as much as the weather also alters the landscape. A sudden storm accompanies a conflagration of emotion, leaving a lingering feeling that the soil will never dry, nor will the extreme impulses of the battered lovers ever cool. This, of course, only adds to the tragedy of Wuthering Heights: Heathcliff and Cathy can never win, they are subject to the natural order, and its inevitable consequences, as much as anyone--or anything--else.



Thursday, May 7, 2020

STRAY DOGS - CRITERION CHANNEL

This review originally written for The Oregonian.



Stray Dogs, the 2013 film from Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang (Good Bye, Dragon Inn), is a heartbreaking work about struggle and human connections.

The story follows a family of three--father, son and daughter--getting by as best they can. Dad's alcoholism has put them on the streets.

A lonely grocery store clerk who regularly feeds the neighborhood's homeless canines meets the children in her store. They tug at her sense of charity.

Ming-liang's patient filmmaking avoids expositional narrative. In Stray Dogs, the silent scenes say more than the sparse dialogue.

The movie is at once beautiful and entrancing, ending with a staggering scene of loneliness and warmth. The stillness of those final moments is emotionally devastating, yet incredibly rewarding.


Tuesday, April 28, 2020

THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL - #1025

This review originally written for DVDTalk.com, reviewing the theatrical release, in 2014.



I think we are officially in the second phase of Wes Anderson's career.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is nothing short of a delight. It is a sugary, multilayered confection, as colorful and complex and precariously stacked as the courtesans du chocolate that become an important plot point in the movie's narrative. The Grand Budapest Hotel is the sort of movie that you want to dig into wholeheartedly with the biggest spoon you can find, shoveling as much as you can into your mouth, but the more you dine on Anderson's decadent creation, the more you will want to dissect it and separate the parts and savor every flavor on its own.

The story, which is Anderson's homage to a semi-obscure writer named Stefan Zweig, is a story within a story within a story, narrated by a writer in his old age (Tom Wilkinson) reminiscing on a tale he heard as a younger man (when he was Jude Law), told to him by an aging millionaire (F. Murray Abraham), detailing where his fortunes began (back when he was played by newcomer Tony Revolori). And, of course, the whole thing is the book itself being read by a fan sitting at the writer's grave. Anderson cleverly distinguishes the writer's version from the "original" by switching aspect ratios from the more standard widescreen to the classic Academy size (the square "full frame" as early DVD adopters know it), a nod back to the important films that inspired him once upon a time.


Not that it's hard to tell the two apart on their own. The tale told by Zero (Abraham/Revolori) is a fantastical concoction full of eccentric characters, anachronistic quirks, and a bizarre divide between heavy and light, dark and innocent, the kind of childish scenario told with a grown-up vocabulary that has been Anderson's raisin d'être since he came into his own with his second feature, 1998's Rushmore [review]. How The Grand Budapest Hotel represents the MkII of his incomparable oeuvre is that it solidifies his move from a more reality-based cinema into a strange otherworld that exists within its own story space. Sure, The Royal Tenenbaums [review] and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou [review] had magical inventions and characters who were anything but "real," but much of what made those movies interesting was how those characters existed in a recognizable dimension. Steve Zissou stepped out of his nature documentaries and off his boat and was confronted with a reality he otherwise sailed the seas to escape. Richie Tenenbaum was made of Glass [sic] and shattered when life did not live up to his concept of it.

The Grand Budapest Hotel exists somewhere closer to the imagined landscapes of Roald Dahl (a la The Fantastic Mr. Fox [review]), while also being the daydream idyll of the children of Moonrise Kingdom [review]. The Grand Budapest Hotel is the realization of that movie's more special moments, with rudimentary special effects and a naïve representation of violence and heartbreak that is as bloody and gruesome as a Grimm's fairy tale but approached with the same devilish glee and wonder as we all had the first time we heard those original stories. It's almost as if Anderson, distraught by the labels his harshest critics pasted on him, retreated further into a land of his own design. Where the haters live seems rather lackluster, anyway, so who needs 'em?


For the plot-minded amongst you, The Grand Budapest Hotel's driving fable is the story of Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes, in his most whimsical and witty performance to date), the concierge of the titular resort when it was at its height, sometime before an unnamed war, set in a nonexistent European country. Gustave takes the young Zero under his wing right when one of the dandy man's geriatric lovers (Tilda Swinton, who apparently replaced Angela Lansbury) passes away and bequeaths him a priceless painting, titled "Boy with Apple" (a symbol of innocence meeting original sin). The dead woman's children, lead by her murderous son Dmitri (Adrien Brody), is looking to keep hold of all facets of their mother's fortune, and so they frame Gustave for her murder and set off a chain reaction of mishaps, double-crosses, and spilled secrets. The Grand Budapest Hotel is a farcical chase movie smuggling a nostalgic cargo. Darkly comic, subtly surreal, and deceptively shallow, the depths it plumbs are perversely human. Anderson has never met a graveyard he can't pass with a jaunty whistle.

Outside of Fiennes' energetic performance, and maybe Willem Dafoe's turn as the human version of the rat he voiced in Fantastic Mr. Fox, it's hard to single out any other actor for their work here--the standard of quality is excellent, but the ensemble is too interconnected to separate. The full cast is a who's who of past Andrson performers (Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Harvey Keitel, Ed Morton, Jeff Goldblum, etc.) and a handful of newcomers to the tribe (Law, Saoirse Ronan, Léa Seydoux, Mathieu Amalric). Some of them come and go in the space of time it takes to type their names, but each is essential, the parts forming a well-planned whole, an animatronic amusement-park attraction where each new piece requires the one preceding it. Fiennes and Revolori (who is, admittedly, out of his depth even in the sidekick role) are the sole constants. Their only other companion for the duration is Alexandre Desplat's score, a combination of European folk traditions, classical flourish, and the cinematic orchestration of Georges Delerue.


I wish I could have seen The Grand Budapest Hotel a few more times before writing this. Once is not enough. Ideas have not entirely coalesced. I know there is much I missed. Every corner of the hotel is packed with as many details as the interiors of the spaceships in 2001: A Space Odyssey; I want to slow the movie down and read every sign, study the stitching on the costumes, and just stare at all the gorgeous colors. I want to savor the pithy dialogue and run my fingers through all the plot elements and feel the way they fit together. What has preceded this closing paragraph represents the first thoughts that came to mind, the initial words to travel to my fingers. This is a line a kajillion of my critical colleagues will likely use, but The Grand Budapest Hotel is someplace I plan to check into again and again. I envy you if you have yet to visit the first time. You're in for something special.



Sunday, April 26, 2020

THE DEVIL AND MISS JONES - CRITERION CHANNEL

This review originally written for DVDTalk.com in 2013.


Critics are fond of declaring things like, "It's the best time I had at the movies all year!" Only, when we do, it's not supposed to be about a movie that is over 70 years old.

Except some times it's true. I've had a rough time with movies in 2013. I've felt like I've disliked more than I've liked, and what I have liked, it's usually come with reservations. Let's hope that 1941's marvelous The Devil and Miss Jones is the true break to that negative streak. An efficient, unadorned comedy, The Devil and Miss Jones is a delight from start to finish, inviting viewers to invest in its characters and cheer for their every success. By the climax, I was howling with laughter and reassessing my cynical opinions about my fellow man.


The "Devil" in question is J.P. Merrick (Charles Coburn), the richest man in the world. The reclusive tycoon is shocked to find himself in a photo on the front page of the newspaper being burned in effigy outside a New York department store he owns. Some of the employees there have been trying to unionize, and Merrick is not happy about the changing tide of worker's rights. He decides to go undercover and get a job working in the children's shoe department so he can witness first hand what all the fuss is about and root out the agitators.

It's there that he meets Mary Jones (Jean Arthur), a sweetheart of a salesgirl who shows the old man the ropes and even loans him half a buck when she thinks he hasn't any money for lunch. Mary is a kind woman who has been around the block a couple of times but hasn't let it tire her out. She invites Merrick into her world, helping to fix him up with one of the older employees at the store (Spring Byington) and also taking him to workers' meetings. Her boyfriend Joe (Robert Cummings) is the organizer of the would-be union, and Mary has inadvertently put him in the boss' cross-hairs. Not even a conspiracy-minded politico like Joe suspects that the enemy is walking in their midst.

Unsurprisingly, Merrick ends up taking a real liking to his new friends and their simple way of living. The Devil and Miss Jones joins the ranks of other socially conscious comedies from the 1930s and 1940s that found humor and honesty in the plight of the working man by putting the privileged few down amongst the masses. It's equal in measure to 1936's My Man Godfrey [review] and Sullivan's Travels [review], also released in 1941. In some ways, sure, it maybe simplifies the issues, particularly in how the villainous money man so easily goes from gruff grizzly to lovable teddy bear, but at the same time, The Devil and Miss Jones can be disarmingly frank, both in how it deals with work relations and also romantic entanglements. In the eyes of writer Norman Krasna (White Christmas) and director Sam Wood (Pride of the Yankees [review]), both aspects of modern living are connected. Everything we do is about how we survive in a world where it's easy to get lost in the hustle and bustle, it all comes down to how we treat one another. It's not like it is in the movies or popular songs, Mary tells us, sometimes you just have to love the one you're with.


This practical approach to life is nowhere more evident than in the sequence where Mary organizes a trip to the beach at Coney Island. There, the quartet are just a four-spot amongst hundreds of others. Merrick, who is unfamiliar with such outings, gets separated from the crew and finds himself without his clothes or identification, seeking a way to make contact. That his friends not only find him but rescue him from incarceration at the risk of their own freedom shows him what it's like for the common man living his day-to-day without the safety nets of money and power. Family and companionship are all they really have.

Charles Coburn was nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of the gruff businessman. His is an expert performance, never overplayed, not even when the scene calls for him to lose his temper. Sentimentality is kept to a minimum, even when he is going through his transformation. The script smartly communicates the bulk of his metamorphosis through action rather than speech. Merrick's evolution is mostly reaction.


Even so, the Devil is no match for Miss Jones. How have I not been on the Jean Arthur train before now? The actress' performance here is a revelation. She carries the picture, providing both its heart and its funnybone. There are a couple of fantastic slapstick moments in the climax, including an hysterical interior debate perfectly executed through exterior performance and gesture when Mary has to decide whether or not to strike Merrick across the back of the head with a shoe. Determination crumbles into fear and concern and then self-recrimination, all played out silently behind the elder gentleman's back. The comedy works because we already know what kind of a person Mary is, we know it's not really in her to crack her friend's skull. Jean Arthur has sold us on the bigger emotions, delivering a pair of monologues about romance and individual determination that, had they come via a less capable personality, would have just seemed schmaltzy.

That's the true indicator of how well The Devil and Miss Jones holds together. Even when it goes broad with either the comedy or the politics, the film utilizes intelligence and honesty in equal measure to what it otherwise shows in the quieter moments. The audience can get on board with the sweeping changes because Sam Wood and company have already built to them by lining up a series of tiny changes, laying a foundation so The Devil and Miss Jones can deliver on its promise of big entertainment without sacrificing any of its heart. And, boy, does it ever work! This is the kind of movie that you want to start over just as soon as it ends in the hope that you can forever sustain the feeling it's inspired. If the party is still rockin', then what's the point in stoppin'?



Saturday, April 25, 2020

MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON - CRITERION CHANNEL

This review originally written as part of an overview of The Premiere Frank Capra Collection for DVDTalk.com in 2006. 



Perhaps the greatest Goliath you could have in a David and Goliath story is the government. For Frank Capra and screenwriter Sidney Buchman (Holiday [review]), if the United States is a democracy built for the people and by the people, then when it goes awry, it's up to the people to fix it. In 1939's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Jimmy Stewart plays Jefferson Smith, a leader of a Boy Scouts-like organization. When one of his state's senators dies suddenly, Smith is appointed to the vacant seat as a sort of political patsy, a puppet for the remaining senator, Joseph Paine (Claude Rains, Casablanca) and the true backroom mastermind, Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold), a kind of Karl Rove of his day.



Being a Capra movie, what no one figures on is Smith's down-home manner being a reservoir of true wisdom. Never before having been to Washington D.C., but being a history buff, he's awed by the city's monuments. His "aw shucks" demeanor is quickly pounced on by cynical reporters and his initial supporters all quickly turn from him, much like the story arc Mr. Deeds went through. Also like Deeds, Smith is a minor victim to the dual devotions of Jean Arthur. As Saunders, the ambitious political aide, she is set up as Smith's assistant in order to further the goals of her political party and secure herself a place in the Administration when Paine moves on to the White House. Naturally, she begins to see that Smith's uncommon patriotism is not a product of stupidity, but a genuine fount of emotion that modern politicians have long since forgotten. Her role will end up being the same as many of Capra's heroines: when Smith is beaten and ready to give up, it's Saunders who will give him the courage and the means to carry on. His faith in something greater gives her a new reason to believe, and she returns the favor.


Smith's near downfall comes when he uncovers the corruption of Paine and Taylor and attempts to expose it. They do a frame job on him to make him look corrupt himself, and Smith striking back is one of the most famous scenes in cinema history. Staging a one-man filibuster, Smith talks for a full day, giving everything he has in him to try to make his fellow senators see that they have lost their way. Stewart is remarkable in this scene, conveying the deterioration of body and voice while maintaining the resolve of Smith's spirit. While his brand of patriotism may seem strange to us in the '00s, when we would hear about the graft scandal the junior senator uncovers as everyday news, for the end of the '30s, at least in Capra's world, it's got a kind of quaint appeal. While earnestness and honest intentions can be a lesser artist's downfall, it's the fuel that runs Frank Capra's motor, making Mr. Smith Goes to Washington as inspirational today as it was nearly seventy years ago.


YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU - CRITERION CHANNEL

This review originally written as part of an overview of The Premiere Frank Capra Collection for DVDTalk.com in 2006. 



1938's You Can't Take It With You was adapted from a popular play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, who also brought us The Man Who Came to Dinner, A Gentleman's Agreement, and the Judy Garland version of A Star is Born. Their text provides Frank Capra and writer Robert Riskin with what was then their largest central cast to date. Jean Arthur returns to Capra's set as Alice, the most stable member of the eccentric Sycamore family. When she becomes engaged to Tony Kirby (Jimmy Stewart, another Capra mainstay), the son of a wealthy financier, the fun-loving, free-living Sycamore family comes face to face with the uptight Kirby family. The two clash over issues of class, finance, and social propriety, and the question of whether or not the two can coexist is integral to whether or not Tony and Alice can really get married.


It took me a little while to warm up to You Can't Take It With You. The Sycamore family was a tad too obnoxious to stomach at first, almost like the Addams Family but without any of the cool creepy stuff. I came around largely due to the performance of Lionel Barrymore as the clan patriarch, Grandpa Martin. He sets the tone for their crazy lifestyle. As a former businessman who left the life of high finance for a life of high relaxation, he can school the Kirby patriarch, A.P. (Edward Arnold, Man About Town) in the loneliness that is the product of living your life as a series of acquisitions and mergers. You Can't Take It With You is actually more about those two than it is about the love affair between Tony and Alice. Grandpa Martin is the quintessential Capra man, and he has to teach A.P. to live as the Sycamores do.

Once I got past the initial noisiness of the Sycamores (as well as the hypocrisy of their household: it's all right for them to do as they please as long as they have black servants making it all possible), I started to really enjoy You Can't Take It With You. The role of Tony seems tailor-made for Jimmy Stewart. The boy is caught between two worlds. He has the sort of dreams you can only pursue as a Sycamore, but the sense of responsibility you get saddled with when you try to be a Kirby. The scenes of him wooing Jean Arthur when they are on their own, away from both families, are funny and charming, and next to the clash of the two older men, Tony's wrestling with his own soul is the main attraction of You Can't Take It With You.



Sunday, April 12, 2020

VERA CRUZ - CRITERION CHANNEL

This review originally written for DVDTalk.com in 2011.



The 1952 cowboy picture Vera Cruz is one of the first big Hollywood movies to be shot in Mexico, so it's only fitting that it be a story about the Mexican fight for independence from European (and particularly French) occupation. The focus of the script is two American outlaws, both with different approaches to how they do business. One is a dangerous man, a smiling gunslinger named Joe Erin, and played by young star Burt Lancaster; the other is a man of honor, Benjamin Trane, portrayed by an elder statesman of American movies, Gary Cooper. Joe has gone to Mexico to escape a bounty on his head. Benjamin has traveled south of the border in order to leave behind a painful past: he lost his livelihood fighting for the Confederacy in the Civil War. That conflict was about a house divided, two sides of the same coin struggling for supremacy. So, too, is the Mexican revolution a division amongst the people. And likewise there is the division between the two mercenaries who choose to fight it.

Despite being an unlikely pairing, Joe and Ben team up, heading a posse that is hired by the foreign-occupying Emperor Maximilian (George Macready) to escort a rich aristocrat (Denise Darcel) across the country to the town of Vera Cruz, where a boat will take her and a treasure chest of Mexican gold back to France where she will buy more soldiers to hold back the revolutionary army. Joe and Ben make plans to steal the gold for themselves, but then they turn around and make plans to also steal it from each other. Joe romances the rich woman, while Ben makes eyes at a sexy Mexican bandit (Sarita Montiel). She also just so happens to be working for the Mexican army, who want the gold themselves. And, of course, Maximilian's lancers have a pretty good notion that all of these double- and triple-crosses are underway, and they set up their own ruse to keep their hands on the Emperor's coinage.


Vera Cruz is directed by Robert Aldrich, who also helmed The Dirty Dozen, another famous film about a band of rough customers facing impossible odds. The screenplay by Roland Kibbee (Valdez is Coming) and James R. Webb (Cape Fear) may feature a healthy cast of characters--Joe's original team includes such recognizable character actors as Charles Bronson, Ernest Borgnine, and Jack Elam; the Emperor's right-hand man is played by Cesar Romero--but the focus here stays tight on the main stars. The odds build against them as the movie progresses, ending in a giant battle between the Mexican and the European forces that claims a lot of lives. It's a gut punch of a finish, especially after the turbine engine plotting that gets us to this particular port of call. Vera Cruz generates speed as it goes, the chase growing more dangerous, the action more exciting. The resolution brings to bear all the compromises and consequences in a way that is both bleak and surprising.


It's hard to see how it could go any other way, though. When there are two central but opposing forces, there will have to be some kind of reckoning between them. Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster are perfectly cast as the hero and the anti-hero, and their disparate acting styles mesh surprisingly well. Cooper is stoic, mannered, and every bit the Hollywood hero; Lancaster is feral, unpredictable, and physical. He's not quite as twitchy and method as some of his contemporaries, but he's definitely more willing to engage in behavior otherwise unbecoming of a leading man than Cooper. As the other complications build up, so too do we see how nasty Joe really is and the full depth of the inherent good that defines Ben. The latter can't pretend to be the villain any more than the former can play at being the hero.

The movie itself embodies all of these things as well. Vera Cruz is full of the humor and the bravado and the clear-cut morality of classic westerns, but it also prefigures the darker themes and violence of the horse operas to come. Heavy is the head that wears the white hat, and what Cooper walks away from at the end of Vera Cruz may be more than a pock-marked battlefield and a chest of gold, it could be seen as a metaphor for the whole Western genre.