Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Little Women (1978): A Review



LITTLE WOMEN (1978)

Many thanks to Kristen Lopez at Journeys in Classic Film for including me in the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon.  Today's star is Greer Garson.

The television adaptation of Little Women marked the farewell performance of Greer Garson, one of MGM's grande dames known for her sophisticated, and oh-so-proper British elegant manner.  Apart from a guest spot on The Love Boat, this would mark the final time Garson performed.  As a minor character from the Louisa May Alcott novel, her role wasn't large, but it fit well into the miniseries.  I've no way of knowing if this version of the classic novel sticks close to the original.  I will say that the performances are hit and miss, but it has other positives that elevate it.

The March sisters are living life the best they can as their father serves as a Union chaplain during the Civil War.  Chronicling life is Jo (Susan Dey), who dreams of being a writer.  There is her older sister Meg (Meredith Baxter Birney), who yearns to be a grand dame and is considered the family beauty but whose poverty is a hindrance to her aspirations.  Amy March (Ann Dusenberry) is a bit of a flirt but highly immature and petty.  The youngest, Beth (Eve Plumb) plays the piano and is the most sensitive of them all.  Under the loving and watchful eye of Marmee (Dorothy McGuire), the March girls eke out a living the best they can while they keep going.

Across the street is Theodore Lawrence, better known as Laurie (Richard Gilliland), who lives with his very wealthy Grandfather James (Robert Young).  Grandfather loves Laurie but is also worried that he will become a wastrel, having already endured the loss of his daughter to an Italian named Senna (as this is Laurie's real surname though not used as Grandfather's insistence). 

Jo, the most independent, bristles at having to keep Aunt March (Garson) company, especially since Aunt March pays so little and is consistently haughty, giving her disapproving advise at every turn.  Jo also almost loses Amy after she rejects her working with Jo on a book: Amy painting, Jo writing.  In revenge, Amy burns Jo's book, an act that shocks everyone and enrages Jo.  In a desperate effort to make amends, Amy seeks out Jo and Laurie, who have gone ice skating.  Amy falls through the ice and nearly drowns, and a repentant Jo realizes that her war had gone too far.


Life continues, though with great struggles.  Laurie and Grandfather's relationship is strained, and Beth gets the scarlet fever and nearly dies.  This on top of their father becoming ill and Marmee having to rush off to Washington for him.  Aunt March helps financially, but Jo's anger at Aunt March's comments nearly cost them the cash.  Jo makes her own sacrifice, cutting her hair to raise more money.

While Meg falls in love with the dashing Union officer John Brooke (Cliff Potts), Jo still cannot think of herself as marriage material.  In fact, she turns down Laurie's proposal, insisting he can find better (though in today's terms, we'd say he was put in the 'friend zone').  Angry, he takes up his grandfather's offer to go to Europe.  Jo's anger issues cost her a trip to Europe too, when she tells Aunt March off, the latter decides to get Amy to be a travelling companion for her friend rather than Jo, whom she had originally chosen.  With Elizabeth still weak from her scarlet fever and Meg married (on the day of Lee's surrender no less, turning it into a great celebration), Jo decides to go to New York and be a governess.

There, she meets Professor Friedrich Bhaer (William Shatner), whom she is fond of, even if he lets on that he isn't fond of Jo's writing (though he isn't aware that 'J. March' is his next-door neighbor).  Meg gives birth, which calls Jo back to the Concord abode.  Jo and Beth go to the sea, a mutual dream of theirs, but Elizabeth acknowledges what Jo won't: that Elizabeth is dying.  Professor Bhaer doesn't write as much as he used to, and Amy, to her own surprise, not only finds Laurie in Europe, but discovers that he now is in love with her.

When they return to Concord, Jo learns that Amy and Laurie are now themselves married.  Still, any dreams of Jo being a spinster are gone, as Professor Bhaer has arrived for Christmas, the promise and hope of love still there.    


It is interesting to see so many people early or late in their careers.  As noted, this was Garson's final major appearance, and in it she played the haughty Aunt March with a clear, arrogant manner, which I think was the correct way of dealing with this character.  However, to her credit Garson did show that there was a bit of a heart beneath the harsh exterior.  As a member of the family, she attended Margaret's wedding (Aunt March always called the girls by their full name), and when everyone learned that the war was over just before the toasts were announced, Garson gave a short yet lovely and beautiful toast. 

We also saw Robert Young in a bit of a departure from his normal roles as the somewhat gruff Grandfather.  I think this is one of his better performances, as he made Grandfather Lawrence into a believable person: not a tyrant who berated his only heir, but not an overtly avuncular and sweet man.  He could be sweet and sincere, such as when he invites Elizabeth to use his piano anytime, but he could also be stern and serious, so much so that when he hears the piano and thinks its Laurie goofing off, he starts barking out orders to stop, terrifying Elizabeth into running off.  The look of shock and regret at his snapping is clear on his face.

Another star from the Golden Age, Dorothy McGuire, wasn't particularly great as Marmee, but she had her moments of tenderness.  One of her best was when she advised Jo to forgive Amy for burning her book, offering that the loss of a sister is greater than the loss of a book.

In the younger, we can see a surprising albeit small turn from Star Trek: The Next Generation's Q himself.  John De Lancie plays a British courter of Amy, and as you look at him you begin to wonder where you've heard that voice before.  After seeing him in Little Women, it is surprising that Richard Gilliland didn't become a bigger name.  The camera focuses lovingly on his intense blue eyes, and even though he looks a bit old to be a naïve young man (he was 28 at the time), Gilliland did a strong job as the earnest young man who loves Jo (him loving Amy, though, didn't seem believable).

Again, not having read the book, I cannot say whether that stays true to the story, but after spending so much time with Jo, his romance with Amy seems beyond whirlwind.



As for the March sisters, I think Baxter-Birney did the best as the elegant beauty Meg.  She made her aspirations to a better social standing really stand out.  Plumb, now notorious for "Marcia! Marcia! Marcia!" of Brady Bunch fame, was surprisingly gentle as the delicate Beth, with barely a hint of her infamous 'middle child syndrome'. 

Dusenberry was a bit of a nonentity in Little Women to where I barely remember her.  In regards to Dey's Jo, part of me thought she was too beautiful to be considered the plainer, more assertive March sister.  I don't think Dey is a particularly good actress, having a more gentle manner than perhaps Josephine should have.  However, as the miniseries progressed I think she grew on me.

What didn't grow on me was Shatner, adopting the worst Deutsch accent in television history.  It was painfully bad and obvious the only thing German about Shatner was Black Forest Cake.  It just wasn't a bad accent he was carrying.  It was just a bad performance, so much so that one is really left scratching their heads wondering why Jo would turn down Laurie but be enthralled with Bhaer (who didn't even like her stories).

Little Women has beautiful music courtesy of Elmer Bernstein, who can be counted to create the perfect mood whether it calls for action or lightness.  The sets were obviously stage-bound (especially anytime the characters were meant to be in a park or ice skating pond, though there was location shooting), and the sets and costumes were nice (the former winning the miniseries an Emmy).

Little Women is a decent enough adaptation, though whether the fact they have more time than a feature film made it feel longer or richer depends on individual tastes.  On the whole though, with some good performances, I think it will be a good introduction to the classic novel.

7/10

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The Nun's Story: A Review


THE NUN'S STORY

I'm tempted to say Audrey Hepburn and director Fred Zinnemann broke the habit in The Nun's Story, but the film itself won't allow for such puns.  Stately, regal, dignified, but with a heart, The Nun's Story is like the sisters: contemplative, thoughtful, meditative, but don't mistake any of that for 'boring'.  The film is anchored by Hepburn's brilliant performance and Zinnemann's strong directing.

Gabrielle Van De Mal (Hepburn) yearns to go to the Belgian Congo and serve as a nurse, but she feels a call from God and thus, she joins a convent of sister nurses.  Her father (Dean Jagger) is a famous and renowned doctor, so Gabrielle knows her way around a stethoscope.  However, there is no room for such pride.

She along with the other women who ask to join must undergo a rigorous training before they can be nuns: six months as a postulate, one year as a novice, where they must endure a very strict life to fulfill their vows of Poverty, Chastity and Obedience.  It requires long silences: Inner Silence they call it, along with writing down all your faults, flaws and failings.  They even have to confess them before other nuns, starting out with "I accuse myself..." and other nuns coming forward to confess seeing what the others have done.

Gabrielle struggles often with sticking to the rules, not in a haphazard or indifferent way but in attempting to suppress her caring nature to fit into the strict regimen.  However, she manages to come through to formally become a 'bride of Christ', and is given the name 'Sister Luke'.

Sister Luke is disappointed to learn she won't be going to the Congo but to an insane asylum.  Worse, she is bitter and bitterly disappointed to be asked to deliberately fail an exam that would allow her to travel to the Congo as a sign of humility (and let another nun go).  She is angry, confused and conflicted about this, but submits, breaking her heart and a bit of her spirit.

The mother at the convent/asylum tells Sister Luke, "You must bend a little or you'll break," and acknowledges the other sister was wrong in having her deliberately fail.

However, in the end her skills are needed in the Congo, and at last she is able to go.  Her joy is short-lived, however, when she learns that she will not care for the native population but for the Europeans living there.  Adding insult to injury, she must endure the brilliant but arrogant and non-believing Dr. Fortunati (Peter Finch).  He acknowledges Sister Luke's skill, but also sees what she won't admit: that she struggles between her calling and her nature.  Sister Luke works herself ragged while trying to maintain her vows with obedience being the greatest difficulty.

Eventually she does fall ill with tuberculosis, but not enough to send her back to Europe.  Sister Luke is a bit conflicted about staying or leaving, her inner struggle still plaguing her.  Sadly, she is sent back to care for a Belgian minister, being the only sister-nurse with the experience to do so.  As she goes back to Belgium, she finds herself continuing to struggle not with her faith so much as the restrictions her order places, insisting in her heart that one should not stop speaking to a patient to 'answer the bell'.

However, World War II formally ends her struggles.  Finding that she is slipping more and more partisan, and in particular angry and filled with hate for the Nazis when she learns they murdered her beloved father, she asks to formally leave the order.  Her wish granted, the former Sister Luke, now Gabrielle van de Mal, leaves to a new old world.


Has there ever been a figure so radiant on screen as Audrey Hepburn?  She is the type of person of whom it can be said that God kissed her and gave her a beautiful spirit to match her beautiful face.  Even sans makeup, when she is undergoing the intense nature of the process of becoming a nun, she is breathtakingly beautiful.  It's only when we see her eyes in the Congo, the weariness within and without, that Sister Luke even vaguely looks weak.

Audrey Hepburn, I don't think, ever gave as good a performance in anything as she did in The Nun's Story.  There is a quiet solemnity to her performance, and even when she is close to inner or external rage, she doesn't express it in fire and fury, but in agony.  We see Sister Luke undergoing her dark night of the soul, attempting to keep true to the rules of the order while attempting to keep true to herself.  The inner conflict between obedience and duty tear at her, and Hepburn makes Sister Luke into a devout woman who works to be one with her order but who finds the struggle too great.

There is both a strength and a delicate nature to Sister Luke and Hepburn brings it out so beautifully.

In short, Sister Luke is no saint: she makes mistakes (such as attempting to attend a mentally ill woman she had been warned about and almost getting killed for her efforts at false humility), she gets angry (the rage she feels at the murder of her father versus her calm reaction when a fellow sister is murdered by a local man in the Congo).

She pretty much is The Nun's Story, though that's not discounting Finch in his role as Fortunati, the more caustic doctor who doesn't care for the rituals but does see through Sister Luke's inner struggle.

Zimmermann and screenwriter Robert Anderson (adapting Kathryn Hulme's novel) are brilliant in how they show, don't tell, and how they bookend the film.  We start in silence and see Gabrielle put a ring on her dresser in front of a picture, and this tells us that she has renounced the pleasures of the flesh and presumably her fiancee to join the order.  The Nun's Story ends with her changing back to the clothes she had when she came into the convent, and placing her 'wedding' ring on the table, signifying the end of her 'marriage to Christ'.  It is also done in silence and with no nun to see her off: when she presses the bell as instructed, another door opens into the street, with no one to say goodbye.

Zinnemann takes great care in letting us see this quiet, contemplative and yet inwardly tormented world by taking his time showing the majesty of the Catholic rituals and of the lives of the postulates and novices.  It's a world few ever see, even Catholics, making it almost documentary-like; with their commitments to Inner Silence and the intense physical and spiritual rigors, we see that a nun's life is no place for wimps physical or spiritual.

Zinnemann is a master of using mise-en-scene, revealing more without telling us more.  In the film, there's a scene where Sister Luke looks at herself in the glass from a medicine cabinet.  We see her robes but the mirror does not reflect her face, a powerful image of how Sister Luke is there and yet not there.  Subtle but clear.

All this is highlighted by Franz Waxman's beautiful and elegant score, one that is spiritual and ethereal.

It's a stately, dignified world in The Nun's Story without being dry or dull.  That however, may be a hindrance to some.  The film is very long, running almost two and a half hours.  Its length might put some people off, as would the fact that there isn't any action or romance (maybe a suggestion between Sister Luke and Fortunati, but I didn't see it).  It's a highly cerebral film, maybe slow, but well worth the patience it might ask from people.

A more troubling aspect might be the 'white man's burden' aspect.  When Sister Luke arrives in the Congo, another Sister shows her around.  "One generation ago their fathers were savages in the forest," she proudly states while showing off how well they've improved under their watchful care.  I found myself slightly cringing at that line, though to be fair the setting of the film lends itself to that kind of worldview.

On the whole, The Nun's Story is a deep, introspective one, giving us not just a glimpse into a world few people know of, but of one woman's spiritual journey.  The Nun's Story is almost divine.



DECISION: A+

Friday, August 18, 2017

Plaza Classic Film Festival 2017: Some Odds and Bitter Ends


I should note first off that the 'bitter ends' in the title is facetious.

I now wrap up my coverage of the Plaza Classic Film Festival 2017 with some thoughts.

I had so wanted to do more movies, but alas, time was against me.  I had to skip both the short independent film series The Good, The Bad & The Indie along with Cronos.  After The Rescuers, I would have had to have stayed in the area for well over four hours, and I simply didn't want to stay there that long.

There was one film I went to see just for the pleasure of it, with no desire to review it.  I went to see National Lampoon's Animal House on the rooftop of the Mills Parking lot with three friends.  They had all seen it before, I had not.  I'd seen bits of it but not the whole thing complete, so I did know a bit about the film.  I declined their suggestion that we go in togas.



Before the movie started, the host asked if anyone was seeing Animal House for the first time to raise their hands.  I, along with others, did so, and the reaction I got shocked me.  The people around me who had seen the film before actually and literally booed those who had raised their hands!

I was shocked, upset and angry at this.  I am astonished the people who claim to be 'fans' of something would be so unwelcoming to those who had in a sense not been 'initiated' into the cult of Delta House.  That to me suggests a very insular group of people like Animal House, thinking that you have to go into it with the ability to quote every line rather that discover the film in such a public setting.

There is simply no excuse these Animal House fans can make to rationalize or justify their own boorish behavior.  What right do they have to exclude others simply because they had not been consecrated to the bonds of obedience?  It must be the greatest irony: Animal House, a celebration against conformity, has as its fans those who insist others totally conform to their ways.

It seems to me counterproductive to tell those who have never seen a film, 'we don't want you'. I looked around at those booing and asked, 'What, you want me to leave?'  Sadly, while I did laugh at some of Animal House (I confess not being big on some of its humor), the reaction by its fans diminished my enjoyment of the film.  I doubt I'll watch it again, since the reaction by its fans so disheartened me I will have negative feelings towards the whole experience that will end up coloring my view of the film.

Thanks, Animal House fans...for making me feel unwelcome and unwanted, two things the guys at Delta House were dead-set against.


I went to see Kathleen Turner, two of the big names to attend (the other being Richard Dreyfus).  She was having an autograph session on a Saturday, and I sacrificed my lunch hour to see her.  That day, my lunch consisted of an apple, Fritos, and some Cherry Coke.  It cost $50 for an autograph and picture.

Yes, I missed lunch and paid practically all I had for about two minutes of her time, but I figured 'how many chances am I going to get?'  She was very nice, and to my surprise spoke fluent Spanish in her low tone.  She signed my copy of Peggy Sue Got Married (one of two films she introduced).  My mother and cousin went to see her other film, Romancing the Stone, where I was told that Miss Turner said the film, contrary to popular belief, was not filmed in Columbia but in Mexico.  She also, if I understand it, served as unofficial translator, as some of the local cast & crew could not speak English and the director could not speak Spanish.

Turner spent more time speaking to the people immediately before me, who went to school with her.  As she mentioned that to me, I said I had barely gotten through my reunion.  She laughed and said she wasn't going to attend any reunions.  I completely missed the curiosity of her signing a copy of a film that revolves around high school reunions.

Thus, I keep the tradition of humiliating myself in front of famous people.



In regards to the sadly films I saw, I was highly impressed by Persistence of Vision, which I think was the best of the lot.  Ashes and Diamonds was also worthy of its reputation as being among the great films, and the introduction featured a Polish-American group.  I did feel slightly out-of-place there as I felt I was one of the few people there who wasn't Polish.

I had the same sense when I saw The Heart Outright in that I felt I was one of the few people in the smaller Philanthropy Theater who wasn't involved in the production or knew the cast/crew personally.  It should not be a reflection on either film that I was slowly nodding off during both screenings.

The Philanthropy Theater, which abuts the main Plaza Theater (or rather, the Kendall Kidd Hall), has a great air conditioning system and is extremely dark, two things that conspired to lull me to sleep.  The fact that both films were in the evening I think also played a part in that restive aspect.

It was there that I also saw Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man and The Rescuers.  I had never seen the latter and was enchanted by it, making it a rare Disney movie that I was not exposed to as a child.  As for the former,  I still do not find Bud and Lou funny and don't get why so many do.

The weather must have played havoc with some screenings, for I saw Rocky Horror Picture Show cosplayers running around all wet.  Since I don't get the cult around the film I don't feel much about it, though the cult around Xanadu is puzzling.  While The Atomic Café was a good film, I didn't find it as funny as I'd been led to believe.

I'm proud of the fact that I covered films that I had never seen before.  That, I think, is one of the important aspects of a film festival: to make new discoveries and yes, revisit old favorites.  Pity the Animal House fanbase does not understand that concept.

On the whole the Plaza Classic Film Festival 2017 was a wonderful success: along with the films, there was music and discussions.  I'd like to see more discussions and symposiums around the festival, and the El Paso Community Foundation and all those involved in the PCFF should be commended on doing wonderful work.

Even if I had to pay to see the films, but part of me has come to peace with those small indignities. 

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Auntie Mame: A Review



AUNTIE MAME

This is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon sponsored by Journeys in Classic Film.  I am grateful to Kristen Lopez for allowing me to participate. Today's star is Rosalind Russell.

It's a wild and wacky world that Mame Dennis lives in.  Auntie Mame, the film version of the hit Broadway show, does so much right, starting with having the original Mame, Rosalind Russell, recreate her role.  It also is a film fully aware that it is a stage adaptation, which allows for transitions that otherwise might not work. 

Little Patrick Dennis (Jan Handzlik) is an orphan, his father having dropped dead in his health club.  According to his will, Patrick is to be in the care of his father's sister and only living relative, Mame Dennis (Russell) despite her fierce eccentricity. Only the loyal maid Nora Muldoon (Connie Gilchrist) is there to help Patrick through the transition.  Mame has the legal responsibility but the Knickerbocker Bank has the purse strings.  Patrick's financial trustee is Mr. Dwight Babcock (Fred Clark) who is as uptight and bourgeois as Mame is free spirited and flamboyant.

In the Roaring Twenties, Mame is convinced she must 'open up doors you never dreamed existed' for her little love, which means sending him to the most progressive school and having him associate with all her friends, including stage actress Vera Charles (Coral Browne), who routinely gets drunk at the wild soirees Mame throws.  Though Mame is courted by respectable publisher Lindsay Woolsey (Patric Knowles), she is too busy being a mother to be a wife.

Then come two calamities simultaneously: Babcock is enraged to find Patrick at a school where the students wear no clothes and the Crash of 1929. Mame is wiped out emotionally and financially, Babcock taking Patrick to boarding school, leaving him with her only on school holidays.  With only her wits, panache and savoir fare to keep her going, Mame tries her hand at all kinds of jobs, and fails spectacularly in each of them.  A short-lived 'comeback' with Vera in a touring company of Midsummer Madness is a fiasco, but help comes from a most unexpected source.

While failing as a salesgirl at Macy's, Mame meets the rich Southern oil baron Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside (Forrest Tucker).  He is swept off his feet by this Yankee gal, and after a wild fox hunt, she is too.  Despite becoming a world-traveling belle, Patrick (Roger Smith) is never far from her heart.  Sadly, she finds herself now as The Widow Burnside in what can only be called 'most curious circumstances'.

Patrick urges her to write her memoirs, hiring two people to help: the Irish poet Brian O'Bannion and the meek secretary Agnes Gooch (Peggy Cass).  More hilarity and hijinks ensue until Patrick has found love with Gloria Upson (Joanna Barnes), the epitome of WASP narrow-mindedness (what we would call now 'white privilege).  The whole Upson family is pleasant enough, save for their antisemitism and lack of intellectual curiosity.  It's up to Auntie Mame to sort all this out, and help him and her future great-nephew find 'doors he never even dreamed of'.



Auntie Mame is a love letter to nonconformists while being perfectly acceptable to those who are a little more square in their worldview.  I don't know if it's fair to call Mame an 'eccentric' in that for the most part, she's perfectly lucid.  I'd qualify her more as a free spirit, who does think 'life is a banquet' and there to enjoy.  She does oppose bigotry and intolerance, but she is also classy and with breeding, or at least posh in her outlook.  Mame is appalled at turns of phrases like 'spitting distance' and holds such people as the boorish Upsons in contempt.

Norah best sums up the character by telling Mame that she's loving...odd, but loving.

Rosalind Russell recreates her Broadway performance, and in the film version, you can see the trappings of the stage show.  Russell was always able to do rapid-fire speaking, which Mame has in spades.  It comes at times close to being very broad, but this 'broad' was meant to be wild and exaggerated, so Russell was accurate to the character.

What is fascinating about Russell in Auntie Mame is how quickly she is able to go from a wild, broad comedy to straight, pure, tender drama.  The best example comes after the disastrous Midsummer Madness production where Mame inadvertently made the very serious, stuffy drama into a comedy.  After seeing all the hijinks involving her jangling bracelet (leading Vera at one point to sharply ask her in a stage whisper, 'What do you have back there: reindeer?!'), Russell is left alone on stage, the realization of both her failure and the dire financial strains overwhelming her.

She can go from making one laugh to making one almost cry on a dime, and while I figure some have a hard time enjoying the very broad nature of both the character and the performance, I think both worked so well that it made the character delightfully bonkers and plausible.


Another thing that worked extremely well was the relationship between Mame Dennis and Vera Charles, the original frenemies.  Cass was the other cast member apart from Russell to receive an Oscar nomination, and while her Agnes Gooch was slightly amusing, I never saw anything particularly great or hilarious in her performance.  I was much more impressed by Browne, who should have been nominated either with Cass or in her place.

Browne and Russell made a great double-act, playing off each other brilliantly.  Whether it was through bonds of genuine affection for each other or driving each other insane with their mutual self-absorption, they worked so well in being able to keep up with each other.  Browne was about the only castmember who could match Russell's rapid-fire delivery, and she was hilarious as the droll, oftentimes drunk grande dame of the theater.

I don't think he's been given much credit, but Handzlik as the younger Patrick gave an equally strong performance.  It's Patrick's total innocence in both how he sees his oddball aunt and the things she's taught him, such as making a martini for a shocked Babcock, that sells the outlandish situations and things he says.  He plays it perfectly straight when, for example, he recites all the words and phrases he doesn't understand from 'libido' to 'heterosexual'.

At the heart of Auntie Mame's greatness is the screenplay, and it's not surprising given it was adapted by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, one of the greatest writing duos in film or on Broadway.  Not having seen the play or the musical version, Mame (except the lackluster film version), I can't say what Comden & Green created and what they brought in.  However, they created a wonderfully witty script, full of double entendres that also worked to reveal the characters with an economy of words.  Gloria Upson, Patrick's bourgeois fiancee, makes what she considers to be a compliment when first visiting Mame's penthouse.


Admiring the decor, she tells Mame, "Books are very decorative, don't you think?"  That sums up Gloria and the Upson's total lack of intellectual curiosity.  Her total stupidity is expressed when upon learning that Mame's memoirs are to be published, chides her almost-WASP fiancee.  "Patrick, why didn't you tell me your aunt was literate?" she drawls in a stuffed-up voice, completely unaware of the idiocy she has

We see Mame's character revealed earlier when Babcock tells her they need to make sure Patrick's educational choice must be 'exclusive and restricted'.  "Exclusively what and restricted to whom?", Mame asks in a tone both elegant and annoyed.  She, unlike the WASP Babcock, won't accept bigotry.

Auntie Mame revels in the elaborate sets and wardrobe, which reflect the wild and wacky world of Mame Dennis.  It also is pretty open about being somewhat stage-bound, as director Morton DaCosta will often end a scene by having everything go dark except for a large spotlight that centers around Mame.  It doesn't strictly take away from the story but sometimes it might a bit jarring to be into the film only to have it almost turn into a play.

Auntie Mame is a comic delight, with a wonderful turn by Rosalind Russell who showed the range she had.  It has a witty and fun script and performances outlandish and outrageous: much like Mame Dennis herself.  A celebration to live, live, live, how the world would benefit if we did heed her advise.

Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving.

DECISION: B+

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Xanadu: A Review


XANADU

You've got a musical built around disco and roller skating, with Gene Kelly throwing himself in for good measure.  What could possibly go wrong?  Xanadu was a flop when it was released, and gained a reputation for being an embarrassment to almost all concerned: I doubt any clips were used when Kelly received a Kennedy Center Honor.  The fact that Xanadu was his final film perhaps explains a lot.

Looking back at the whole thing from a distance of almost forty years, Xanadu is not a 'bad' film, just a very peculiar one.  Most peculiar, Mama.

Sonny Malone (Simon Beck) is a brilliant but struggling artist, one reduced to painting large versions of album covers.  Out of nowhere a beautiful woman comes roller skating up to him and kiss him.  Sonny also meets Danny Maguire (Kelly), a former jazz master who went into construction and made a fortune.  He lost interest in music after he lost his Muse, and Muse is an important matter, since the mysterious girl who comes to Sonny is Kira (Olivia Newton-John), who in reality is one of the Muses of Greek mythology come to Earth to inspire Sonny.

She also, in a subplot that gets a bit lost in the haze, was the same Muse who inspired Danny to create great jazz (and at one point, do a little softshoe, but I digress).

Kira and Sonny soon fall in love while she guides him and Danny to turn a rundown auditorium into a roller skating nightclub/dance hall to be called 'Xanadu'.  Eventually Kira reveals herself as the Muse Terpsichore, and reveals that her job is just to inspire, not be with mortals.  Danny is too busy and happy to be bringing back jazz in a disco setting, while Sonny is despondent about losing Kira.  He literally roller skates into a mural of the Muses where he asks Zeus (voiced by Wilfrid Hyde-White) to let Kira have a moment with him.  Zeus is not moved, but thanks to the intervention of whom I assume to be Hera (Coral Browne), Kira is allowed to be in a showstopping number on Xanadu's opening night, and be with Sonny once again.


To say that Xanadu is a bit confused is to be extremely generous. It's flat-out bizarre in moments, with plot points that either don't make sense or don't seem necessary.  We see Kira's sister Muses doing some dance numbers, but they are so unnecessary to the story they might as well have been left out.  No one gets as to why Sonny was rehired at the art studio or who his coworkers were, coworkers who as far as I know never got names or again were unnecessary.

A lot of Xanadu is just weird, just totally weird in a TNT 100% Weird style.  You think Gene Kelly could have done something better to end his career, and to be fair Kelly did elevate this bizarre material.  He showed he could still do interesting dance routines, though nowhere near as athletic as his work in Anchors Aweigh or Singin' in the Rain.

However, at times what dignity he lends to the proceedings evaporates in whatever efforts director Robert Greenwald made to make Kelly more contemporary.  A frightfully embarrassing dance number has Kelly trying on various threads in an effort to be more hip and trendy.  This montage leaves one cringing.  One of his outfits makes him look like a gayer Truman Capote.

That is not a repetition of terms: one outfit looked so flamboyant that Kelly managed to come across as more bonkers than when Capote was bombed out of his mind on a television interview.

Xanadu also made the choice with Maguire to suggest that he might recognize Kira as the great love of his life only to pull back and never mention it again.  Why the gods would want to set up a roller skating disco, and what this if anything has to do with Sonny becoming a painter is similarly left unanswered.  Sonny's puzzling acceptance of Kira's non-answers to his legitimate questions, or why he would rush head-forward into the mural on his roller skates with no idea whether this would get him to Kira or literally kill him, well, such things will remain a mystery.

Dalek: The Musical?
Other times the elaborate musical numbers were just, again, weird.  A long number where Sonny takes Kira to a studio as they romance each other I think is supposed to evoke Singin' in the Rain (especially a part where 'rain' falls on them and they find two umbrellas).  However, that whole number falls disastrously flat when a.) they roller skate to this and b.) they at one point appear to be chased off by a giant Dalek.

While the mash-up between Sonny and Danny's competing visions for Xanadu plays actually well (Sonny's 80's New Wave style versus Danny's 40's swing), the final big title number just goes on and on and on, building to more silliness that leaves you either in shock or in fits of laughter.  While I find nothing wrong with Newton-John's voice (and Xanadu the song itself isn't a horror) you just wonder how any of it is remotely logical.

In fact, while the soundtrack was a hit, and I have nothing against either Newton-John or Electric Light Orchestra who both sung the songs for the film), I can recall only two songs: Xanadu and Magic (the latter not used to the best effect as it's played while Kira roller skates in the rundown auditorium).


When it comes to the acting, Beck can generously be called 'not good' as the lovelorn artist.  Very generously.  In his scenes with Kelly, it looks like Beck is not only not able to see that Kelly is considerably shorter and is speaking over his head, but he similarly has no real expressions or emotions when he speaks to anyone.  I don't want to be too hard on Newton-John, who at least had her singing to carry her up.  Maybe in her defense, Kira is such a blank role no one really could have done much if anything with it, but Newton-John did not have the range to make any of this believable.

As for Kelly, yes, he gave Xanadu what little dignity the film had, and as I stated had a couple of nice song-and-dance numbers. However, when in that frightful costume montage he looks like a gay cowboy on a weekend bender, Kelly can't have thought the final product would build on his legacy.

Xanadu is pretty much a daft film, where by the end you either shake your head or put your hands up to your face in disbelief at what you're watching.  I know I said 'Wow' a lot, though more in shock than in awe.  Bad visual effects, poor acting, a curious premise all conspire against it.

However, in its own offbeat and wacky (or whacked-out) way, Xanadu can be enjoyed as kitsch, a reflection of the odd times it was made.

In the end, sometimes you do have to believe we are magic.



DECISION: C+

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man: A Review


ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE INVISIBLE MAN

I start out by saying I have never found Abbott and Costello funny. The Marx Brothers, I found funny.  Laurel & Hardy, I found funny. The various versions of The Three Stooges, I find funny.  Abbott and Costello, with the exception of their Who's On First routine, I never found funny.  Costello, the eternal man-boy, was always crying "HEY BUDDY!  BUDDY!", usually in terror, while Abbott just pretty much took whatever abuse his dimwitted buddy threw at him when he wasn't doing the actual abusing himself.

It's with that disdain that I wank into Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man, which I figure is another comedy romp where these two find themselves among the Universal Monsters such as when they met Frankenstein and Dracula, the Mummy and the Creature From the Black Lagoon.  Perhaps my resistance to Abbott and Costello is simply too great to overcome, for while I did chuckle a few times during Abbott and Costello Meet The Invisible Man, and many in the audience were laughing uproariously, I still do not get the appeal of these two dimwits.

Recent detective school graduates Bud Alexander (Abbott) and Lou Francis (Costello) find themselves with their first case: that of Tommy Nelson (Arthur Franz), a boxer accused of murdering his manager.  Tommy's on the lam, and Bud and Lou find themselves with him through the strangest and most illogical of circumstances.  Tommy takes our thoroughly unwitting heroes to the home of his girlfriend Helen (Nancy Guild) and her father, scientist Philip (Gavin Muir).  Dr. Gray has been working on an invisibility formula earlier used by John Griffin, who was driven mad by it.

This bit ties Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man with the film The Invisible Man, showing Claude Rains' picture as that of 'Griffin', Rains having the title role in The Invisible Man.

Lou can't make it clear to Bud that the guy they went with to the house IS Tommy Nelson, but once Bud 'figures it out for himself', he's eager to get the reward money.  The police arrive, but they literally don't see Tommy.  He's injected himself with the invisibility formula and disappears in front of a disbelieving and shocked Lou.

After Bud twice tries to pull a fast one and get Tommy locked up, Tommy gets them to help him solve the murder.  The real murderers are gangsters who are angry that Tommy didn't throw a fight.  Morgan (Sheldon Leonard), the main gangster, still wants Tommy found, dead or alive.


Our heroes now decide to do undercover work by having Lou go into the ring as a boxing mastermind and Bud is his manager.  The reason 'Lou the Looper' is so fast is simple: Tommy is the one doing the actual boxing, but since no one can see him, everyone credits Lou.

The night before the big fight, a femme fatale named Boots Marsden (Adele Jergens) attempts to seduce our man-child Lou the Looper, but as much as he'd like to get seduced, either Bud or Tommy are there to prevent it.  Further complicating things is Tommy's excessive drinking, which neither Lou or Bud appear able and/or willing to stop.

Morgan leans on Bud to get Lou the Looper to take a dive in the fifth, and he's more than willing, but Tommy yet again thwarts Bud's latest get-rich-quick scheme.  Into the ring poor Lou goes, causing all sorts of mayhem, down to accidentally knocking Tommy out in a pique of hubris.  To his surprise and Bud's dismay, Lou wins the fight.

Bud is especially distressed because now he's going to be the one iced, but fortunately, the main detective in charge, Roberts (William Frawley), gets there in time to save them.  In the fracas however, Tommy is shot and injured.  His name cleared, he's rushed to the hospital where Lou gives him a blood transfusion that brings him back to visibility.  Unfortunately, Lou becomes temporarily invisible himself, causing some mischief with the pretty nurses.  That invisibility doesn't last long, and Lou finds himself desperately trying to cover up his slowly visible nudity while also trying to figure out how his legs got backwards.



What surprised me about Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man is that Abbott can be just as moronic as Costello.  As he prattles on about the Tommy Nelson case, he is thoroughly and completely incapable of figuring out that THE Tommy Nelson just happened to wander into his and Lou's office.

It's pretty clear from the onset that Lou is the bigger moron: he has a hard time walking towards the stage at the graduation, proceeds to fall off the small stage when the graduates sit, then is told by Bud that Lou managed to graduate because Bud paid the school off.  I guess a lot of the comedy comes from this roly-poly figure, easily frightened, could possibly pass himself off as a boxer.  His idiocy knows no bounds, as he manages to drive the police psychiatrist crazy, down to accidentally hypnotizing him and everyone else who wanders into the psychiatrist's office without meaning to.

It's also pretty clear that Abbott and Costello were in on the joke, for I noticed a lot of winking at the camera if not downright mugging to us, especially by Costello.  The film is full of sight gags and moments where it's clear that these two are playing up to the camera.  Perhaps that self-awareness is a reason I don't like Abbott and Costello.  It isn't as if the Marx Brothers couldn't on occasion do that kind of shtick, but Bud and Lou seem to build their whole careers on it.

They also didn't have the Marx Brothers' witticisms to go along with the lunacy and idiocy.


It's not as if Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man isn't without some merits.  A routine where Costello, dumb as he is, keeps managing to take money away from his more cantankerous straight man is amusing, and Costello has a surprising ability for some physical shtick in the boxing match.  When Lou shoots someone with a water pistol, he says, "I'm a little squirt," and I confess to chuckling at this.

However, a lot of Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man seems either rushed or a drag.  The subplot with our temptress doesn't add much and Boots Marsden doesn't have much to do.  Same goes for the second-rate love story between Guild and Franz, both stuck in poorly-written roles with little do to as well.  They're all just plot devices to set up another Bud and Lou routine.

For the most part, however, I still don't get their appeal of Abbott and Costello.  Some people don't get what makes the Marx Brothers funny, and it's a cliche that women don't find The Three Stooges funny and wonder why men do.

For me, the mystery of the straight man Abbott, who is always trying to pull a fast one, and his little buddy Costello, the dimwitted boob who is easily scared, are similarly mystifying to me.

I probably will given Abbott and Costello one more chance should the moment arrive.  I know many in the audience were in stitches, and there were good moments, particularly near the end when Bud and Lou are trying to fight off Morgan and doing a right-mess of it.

Costello tries to handle a gun while still wearing his boxing gloves, and even after managing to get them off still is too stupid for his own good.  When Bud tells Lou to 'let (Morgan) have it', he meekly gives Morgan the gun and 'lets him have it'.

I still don't find Abbott and Costello funny.  It's really the audience reaction that makes me given even the slightest positive rating I can.  I truly hope that Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man is on the lower end of their comedic prowess.  If it's near the top, then I'll be the man who will be invisible whenever their movies are show.

DECISION: C+

Monday, August 14, 2017

Persistence of Vision: A Review


PERSISTENCE OF VISION

In the pantheon of Great Lost Films there is Greed, The Magnificent Ambersons and Touch of Evil, movies that were taken out of their creators' hands and given over to others who took the product into something other than what it was envisioned to be.  Add to that sad list The Thief and The Cobbler, the subject of the documentary Persistence of Vision.  This animated film, in the works for over thirty years, had a very tortured history and an even worse fate, one that ultimately makes one cry over the whole tragedy of it all.

In his 'quest for excellence', artist and animator Richard Williams became enchanted, or obsessed, with the Nasrudin stories of Persia and began to work to create an animated film based on them.  His difficulties were that he really never had a complete story but a series of vignettes and that due to fraud, he had the rights, and all accompanying work, essentially taken from him.

He was allowed to keep a character, a Thief.  Undeterred, he charged ahead again, this time planning a major work: The Cobbler, The Thief and the The Grand Vizier.  Already having won an Oscar for his animated version of A Christmas Carol and supplementing his studio with commercial work ranging from movie title scenes to television ads, Williams and his group pressed on and on and on.

The pace was slow and painstaking, perhaps too slow and painstaking.  People brought on board, such as master animator Ken Harris, died during its production, and he had been working alongside Williams for fourteen years.  The work on The Cobbler and The Thief took a lot out of those who worked on it: many eventually left for work at other studios, and one animator recounts he was not allowed to visit his wife in the hospital when she had meningitis.  The only way he could get around that was by going to see her on his lunch hour.


Despite all the production woes with the film, the results more than make up for it.  Using no computer technology, which Williams was opposed to, some of the sequences in The Thief and The Cobbler are breathtaking in their ingenuity and visual splendor.  An unexpected boost comes his way, when none other than Steven Spielberg sees test footage from the film.  So impressed is he that he hires Williams and his crew to create the animation for Who Framed Roger Rabbit?.  With his second Oscar in tow, Williams now has the backing of Warner Brothers for $50 million: $25 to finance and $25 to promote, with the understanding that he had to have it finished and at budget.

Alas, Williams' passion project could not get that done: he continued in his crawl, lengthening scenes because of their beauty instead of story reasons, and that is considering he didn't have an actual story for many years.  In his long interim, Disney managed to beat him to the punch with the similarly-themed Aladdin, which bore more than passing similarities between their characters and those in The Thief and The Cobbler. It didn't help that many people who worked on Aladdin also had at various points worked on The Thief and The Cobbler before quitting or being let go.

As was the case with all artistic ventures that exceed logic, Williams failed on his promise to deliver the film on time and on budget.  With it 'almost complete' in 1992, the Completion Bond Company legally seized everything connected with The Cobbler and The Thief.

After over thirty years work, the film was released as Arabian Knight, an Aladdin knock-off that junked a lot of Williams' work, mixed some of the original work with animation made by others without Williams' input and which differed from The Thief and The Cobbler, and added voices and songs to the characters: two things that Williams was dead-set against (he opposed songs completely and had envisioned the title characters to be mute).

Williams, who did not participate in Persistence of Vision, is still working on a new secret project, and still is revered among artists and animators.


For those who see Persistence of Vision, it all just breaks your heart: both the ultimate collapse of what could have been a beautiful, almost revolutionary piece of art, and the destruction its failed creation wrought.  The work on The Cobbler and The Thief or The Thief and The Cobbler (it seemed that the title could shift) did affect people's private lives (Williams' marriage failed, other people almost literally died in its making, and years were spent on a total of a few minutes' worth of screentime, if they were lucky).

Some things that led to the ultimate fall of The Cobbler and The Thief were not Williams' fault: the shady business deals that took the original Nasrudin stories from him.  Other things were: extending scenes that did not need extending, the failure to have a solid, set script, the driving obsession to the point of other people's private lives (another animator, if memory serves correct, quit or was fired when he was denied the opportunity to be at the birth of his first child, the time needed on a never-ending production).

Director Kevin Schreck does not delve deeply into the blame Williams has for this debacle, but from my seeing of Persistence of Vision, he does bear a great deal of blame.  In his 'quest for perfection', he may have forgotten that 'the perfect is the enemy of the good', and that his work, though beautiful, was running too long in production, money, and patience.

One animator wryly noted that he had 95 minutes of an 80 minute film, but The Thief and The Cobbler kept growing and growing with no actual signs of stopping.

In a certain way, Persistence of Vision is highly sympathetic towards Williams' mad, tragic, doomed efforts to create something truly magnificent.  The scenes from the aborted Nasrudin, as well as Williams' version of The Thief and The Cobbler are spellbinding (particularly a chase between the title characters that was done with no computer enhancements).   Having seen all the work and love poured into the project, seeing just what extraordinary work had been created, and knowing what the original intention of Williams' was, once we see the trailer for the eventual end result, Arabian Knight, with its songs and voices and jumble of animation, it just makes you want to cry.

It being so forgettable that after decades of hard and painstaking work, to see it released on DVD as part of a cereal giveaway makes it all the more mocking and tragic.


However, part of me was almost sympathetic to the money men, those who put up the financial backing to finish this passion project.  It wasn't as if Williams wasn't aware that The Thief and The Cobbler had to finish at some point.  His decision to extend scenes in particular because they were beautiful in particular struck me as extremely poor.  If he had maybe hoped for an extended version of The Thief and The Cobbler, to go back and tweak it after its release, that would have been applauded; his decision to make it grow into something much grander shows that he either did not know or did not learn the hard lesson Erich von Stroheim was taught.

Greed, his silent masterpiece, was intended by the temperamental director to run a punishing nine hours long.  Forced to cut it down to a slightly more reasonable four hours, it was still too long.  Internal studio politics took Greed out of Stroheim's hands and reedited it to a much shorter two hours, but the film, despite its brilliance in its truncated form, was not the work Stroheim had envisioned.

Similarly, Orson Welles' follow-up to Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, along with his last comeback at directing a studio-financed film, Touch of Evil, both met a similar fate.  Having decided they were too complex to be understood, the studios took the film and reedited them, down to re-shooting scenes not in the original version of the films.  The destruction of both Ambersons and Touch of Evil essentially left behind 'beautiful corpses', films that are still impressive but not what they could have been if their makers had been allowed to complete things their way.


Such is the case with The Thief and The Cobbler, another film that could have been something extraordinary but that was destroyed by a terrible combination of financial considerations and artistic excess.  What is left is a terrible tragedy for all concerned.  It is highly unlikely that Williams' full, complete vision for The Thief and The Cobbler will ever be realized.  If memory serves correct, a great deal of material was essentially tossed and discarded.

Those who sold the bastardized Arabian Knight and another reworked version not or barely mentioned in Persistence of Vision (The Princess and The Cobbler) will never see profits from their handling of the material.

Audiences will get only tantalizing glimpses of something that could have been extraordinary, even revolutionary, and will have to settle for something less than the sum of its parts.

Persistence of Vision is a tragedy and both a chronicle and a warning to those who seek out to create their masterpiece: be careful that that vision does not blind you to the cold reality of money matters. Sometimes one can love something beautiful too much, and that love will ultimately destroy that which you hold so dear.

DECISION: A-