Sunday, June 29, 2014

Spywork Can Be Real Torture



THE AMERICANS: TRUST ME

The secrets and lies of the Jennings family extends to all members, though for different reasons.  Trust Me also has an incredibly tense hour where we really are thrown for a loop until the last ten minutes, and then we see the parallel worlds between the Jennings (who find truth buried under piles of lies) and the Beemans (who find lies buried under all that truth). 

Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) is about to make contact with his unwitting mole, FBI secretary Martha (Alison Wright) when he is abducted.  His abductors aren't buying this 'I'm a travel agent' story.  They know he's a Commie!  That isn't all: Elizabeth (Keri Russell) is at home alone when she hears something.  Despite her great efforts (sorry Philip, she put up a better fight), she too is taken.  Will they break?  They certainly are being tortured in ways both physical and psychological until one of them breaks and tells all.

Of course, we can't have everything related to the beatings the Jennings are taking.  At the Rezidentura, Nina (Annet Mahendru) is still sleeping with the 'enemy', Vasili (Peter Von Berg).  They too are hunting for the mole within the KGB, but Nina's handler, Stan (Noah Emmerich) has a plan to keep eyes off her while simultaneously getting Vasili out of the way. 

In a separate storyline, Philip and Elizabeth's children Paige (Holly Taylor) and Henry (Keidrich Sellati) are waiting for their parents to pick them up from the mall.  With them no-shows for some reason, Paige decides to hitchhike, over Henry's loud and whiny objections.  They find a ride with Nick (Michael Oberholtzer), who appears nice but seems to get creepier and creepier, insisting on taking them to a local pond to 'feed the ducks', then offering them alcohol and generally frightening the Jennings children.  With careful coordination that would have made their parents proud, they outwit and outfight Nick and manage to flee home.

At the end, we find that Philip and Elizabeth have been taken by the KGB, who wanted to know if THEY were the moles.  Claudia aka Grannie (Margo Martindale) comes to stop the torture, but an enraged Elizabeth beats the living crap out of Grannie, furiously shouting that her beat-down was her response to those who thought either were traitors.  However, because Elizabeth once reported that Philip liked the U.S. too much, that was the reason suspicion fell on them. 

Both Jennings parents and children come up with cover stories to stop either from knowing just how close both groups came to disaster.


Bitches Brew
I found it curious that the KGB torturers who were doing the brutalizing of Philip and Elizabeth simply went about it the wrong way.  They were quite sexist and I am not sure that they really understood the dynamics of the Jennings psychology.  With Philip, they beat him mercilessly, and with Elizabeth, they locked her up with family photos and threatened her family.  I could never shake the idea that if the torturers had flipped the tortures the Jennings would have cracked, or at least Philip.

If anything, Philip Jennings is the more emotional and compassionate of the pair, while Elizabeth is the stricter and more loyal to The Cause.  This isn't to say Elizabeth doesn't love her children, but she still struggles with connecting with them and for her, Mother Russia always comes first.  She is also someone who could put up a far stronger fight than her husband.  Philip on the other hand has a wavering towards the Soviet state, seeing how America really isn't all that bad.  He is the one who has bonded better with the children, and if the KGB had put his kids in danger, he might have immediately gone through with defecting. 

Still, Trust Me was one wild hour of The Americans, giving us more and more danger and thrills than most television series have.  From the possibility that the Jennings have been unmasked to the revelation it was an inside job already gave us a series of thrills.  However, when Elizabeth laid the smack down on Grannie it's in turns shocking, brutal, and appropriate.  I remember writing in my notes for Trust Me "Claudia got what she deserved".  I felt no sympathy for her, but it still stunning to see how brutal Elizabeth could be to a clearly stunned Claudia who was doing her job.

What really worked in Trust Me was that we had a very slow and clever build-up to the three primary situations: the Jennings' torture, the junior Jennings' danger, and the framing of Vasili.  Curiously, I felt more sympathy for the Rezident than the old woman getting punched and kicked around.  It comes from the fact that Vasili is innocent and we all know that but Claudia is nowhere near innocent. 

If anything pushed Trust Me down, it was the younger Jennings' dangerous situation, which at times felt like something to lengthen the story.  It isn't to say that either the performances or the storyline was bad or weak but it did feel like the weak link in the chain. 

Trust Me is not just about the psychological/physical torture of Philip and Elizabeth, but also about the state of our two marriages.  The Beeman's marriage after 23 years is slowly unraveling, and while the Jennings' false marriage is coming closer it also is suffering from the strains of mixing work and home.

The question of the mole is important, but the central question is now can anyone trust those they work for/with? 



8/10

Next Episode: Duty & Honor

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

You Can Check Out Anytime You Like, But Why Would You Want to Leave?




THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL

I am by no means a Wes Anderson fan (what do I call them?  Wessers?  Andersonians?)  I find his style to be self-consciously cute and whimsical, and for my taste too focused on the visuals than on the humans, who are often more extensions of Anderson's fantasy world than actual people.  Having said that, I have warmed somewhat to his world.  As much as I detested The Royal Tenenbaums (bunch of whiny WASPs in my view), I enjoyed Moonrise Kingdom (though given that children were at the center of it all, I found it made sense that their world was a little offbeat).   Now we have The Grand Budapest Hotel, a mix of elegy for long-vanished world and more Andersonian whimsy. 

Yes, I enjoyed the film, perhaps because I didn't see it as this overtly cutesy but still something in its own universe, one that I still find a bit hard to embrace.

We have three stories in one, befitting the setting of Zubrokaw, a vaguely Central/Eastern European country pre-and-post World War II and subsequent Communist occupation.  We have the first (and thinnest) story: in 1985, when the nation is in mourning over The Author, who wrote The Grand Budapest Hotel.  We then go to 1968, where The Young Writer (Jude Law) recounts how he came to find the tale of The Grand Budapest Hotel, owned by a Zero Mustafa (F. Murray Abraham).  With that, we go to the main thrust of the story, where a Young Mustafa (Tony Revolori) is starting out as a young and inexperienced lobby boy at this elegant establishment. 

Mustafa is taken under the wing of M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), the concierge de concierge, the Citizen Kane of Concierges if you will, one who believes that 'rudeness is merely an expression of fear'.  M. Gustave runs The Grand Budapest Hotel with the upmost efficiency and sophistication.  He has a weakness: he 'caters' to older blonde women despite wide suspicion (though no confirmation) that M. Gustave might be gay.  One of his 'clients', Madame D. (Tilda Swinton), has died.  With war in the headlines, this is the news that concerns M. Gustave.


To his surprise, and that of all of Madame D.'s relatives like her Fascistic nephew Dmitri (Adrien Brody) and his henchman Jopling (Willem Dafoe), Madame has gifted M. Gustave with a priceless painting, Boy With Apple.   While Madame D.'s solicitor Deputy Kovacs (Jeff Goldblum) wishes to investigate the death of Madame D. and keep the will as is, Dmitri will have none of it.  Jopling not only kills Kovacs but now M. Gustave is framed for Madame D.'s murder. 

Once in prison, Mustafa gets help in smuggling escape tools through Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), a pastry chef's assistant with a birthmark the exact shape of Mexico who are now in love.  M. Gustave and Mustafa now go on the hunt for the Second Will and Madame D.'s real killer, and while the Zig-Zag  Division of pseudo-Nazis are taking the hotel, the Division's head, Dmitri, is too obsessed with stopping M. Gustave and recover the painting.  As it stands, the Second Will is in the painting, and we find M. Gustave is the rightful heir.  After his death, M. Mustafa takes the hotel and keeps it running the best he can despite the Communists 'efficiency' in making things equal, as in equally drab.  We now find that all the tales are now at an end. 

Again,  one has to accept that an Andersonian world is one where whimsy is the law of the land.  I imagine that Wes Anderson would have made a great silent film director.  Despite how often his dialogue may be praised, the important thing with Anderson is the visuals.  If one dropped all the dialogue from The Grand Budapest Hotel and substituted title cards without altering anything else, I imagine that The Grand Budapest Hotel would look like something that would be shown on TCM's Silent Sunday Nights.  The deliberate whimsy and cuteness of Anderson's film work in general are on full cylinders here.

His mix of offbeat humor and visual splendor come from the fact that the film is divided into five parts (the screen says, Part 1, Part 2, and so on), and from the fact that the most violent that Anderson ever gets is when we see Jopling kill Kovacs by seeing Kovacs' fingers come off.  That really is as bloody as he has gotten.  In any case, Anderson is and pretty much has always been and will always be someone who makes films like an elegant pastry: pretty but light.

This isn't to say I didn't think The Grand Budapest Hotel was terrible.  By now one has to accept that Anderson is his own style in the same way Tarantino is his own style.  I for one am fascinated by the prospect of having Wes Anderson and Quentin Tarantino switched scripts.  Can one imagine Quentin Tarantino's Moonrise Kingdom or Wes Anderson's Django Unchained

Everything that makes a Wes Anderson film a Wes Anderson film are here: the lack of cutting, the camera moving left to right (always left to right), the characters always in the dead center of the frame, and the obsession with the look of the film.  IF one embraces this quirks of Anderson's (or like me, just accepts them and doesn't try to shake the mop-top violently to get him to edit his films another way), you will find The Grand Budapest Hotel a delight.


Truth be told, I did after a while warm up to the film.  It knew what it was (a confectionary piece that was also a lament for that Age D'Or that is now long-lost).  We see this thanks to the commentary of how The Grand Budapest Hotel looks under the Communist era: dry, dull, uninterested workers with only Boy With Apple to give it any sense of elegance and opulence.  The incoming war that will sweep away all that Gustave loves and holds so dear looks as whimsical as the world he occupies.

As the film knows what it is, the elements in it work.  We get Alexandre Desplat's score that shifts from vaguely Slavic to Baroque, all fitting the mood Anderson wants to set.  The acting is equally fluffy but effective: from Brody's camp villain to Defoe's more dangerous but still oddly quirky henchman, but in truth The Grand Budapest Hotel is Fiennes' show.  His Gustave manages to keep the balance between camp and sincerity, as though he genuinely belongs in this exaggerated and mannered world because HE is so exaggerated and mannered.  Everyone else around him (even in smaller roles like Anderson regulars Bill Murray and my doppelganger Jason Schwartzman) has to keep up with him. 

Those not in his era, like Law and Abraham (and I'm so glad Abraham is making more movies and television appearances) play it straight but with a slight twinkle, as if knowing they can't take all this completely seriously.

Yes, I enjoyed The Grand Budapest Hotel, and while I still haven't fully embraced Wes Anderson the way the Wessers have (I think I'll stick with that nickname for his acolytes), at least for now I can revel in his world, full of whimsy and yearning for a world that is no longer here, and perhaps never was.   

Le difference entre
Schwartzman et Aragon?
I never smoked, and

am a foot taller!


DECISION: B+

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Friends Don't Let Spies Turn


THE AMERICANS: COMINT

COMINT, the fifth The Americans episode, keeps a focus on what can be the strangest case of work and family life colliding as our KGB spies and their hunters target the same person and the shocking results both personal and professional from all involved.

The Rezidentura is losing its grip on Adam Dorwin (Michael Countryman), a longtime spy who is not only lonely after the death of his wife but who has been cut off from his minder ever since the FBI got the KGB encryption codes that allow them to tail Soviet agents.  Claudia aka Grannie (Margo Martindale) tells Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) that Adam cannot be contacted by her or anyone other than Adam's minder (unlike the Americans who can trade caseworkers), and tells her of when she befriended an informant in West Berlin who was a loner.  After his usefulness expired, he thanked Claudia...and then shot himself.

FBI agent/the Jennings' neighbor Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) pushes his mole Nina (Annet Mahendru) to find out about Dorwin, whom the agency suspects of not only espionage but of being on the verge of cracking and thus giving them valuable information.  In order to get this information, Nina becomes the mistress of the Rezidentura head Vasili (Peter Von Berg).  Thanks to her blowing something other than her cover, Nina helps Stan but Stan, who by now has become besotted with Nina, is displeased that she took one for Uncle Sam by screwing Mother Russia.

Philip (Matthew Rhys) for his part, is enraged that Elizabeth's new assignment has beaten her as part of his perverse sex games.  Elizabeth tells him not to bother, but Philip doesn't want to stay on the sidelines as his wife is physically abused.  Still, they have more important things to do: find the encryption codes, which involves stopping the FBI agents getting close to them and in a tense sequence, Elizabeth breaking into the trunk of the FBI's car and making a bold and daring escape.  However, the codes that the KGB has that allow for a safe meeting with Adam, now get a twist when Nina tells Stan they have them.  A mad rush between the FBI and the KGB attempting to find Adam leads Elizabeth to a shocking but necessary act.

Now both sides know there is a mole, but no one knows on which side the mole is on.


It is this moment when Elizabeth strikes, when Adam has a quick glimpse of hope in his disheveled state, and Vasili's silence as the FBI follows him and knows what they don't (that he was sending his friend to his death) that leaves the biggest shock.  We see Russell give in those few moments such an incredible performance: the mix of shock, horror, and determination in her face as she shoots this poor, sad, lonely man point black send shivers.  Elizabeth is momentarily stunned at her own act of violence towards this pathetic figure, but she is also a devoted member of the KGB (Putin would love her as a daughter). 

In fact, COMINT really was Russell's show from beginning to end: from the meek questioner who interviews Adam to the violated (and temporarily terrified) sex victim to the tough and invulnerable woman, Russell's work in The Americans really deserves more recognition. 

COMINT also has the added bonus of giving us a great tense scene when Elizabeth finds herself trapped in the FBI agents' car.  How will she get out?  WILL she get out?  Just the scene of Russell entering the trunk when both the FBI and the Jennings' cars were lifted up was tense enough, but seeing her trapped to by sheer force of will calming walking out of the FBI headquarters parking lot (even saying bye to the guard) to arrive at Philip waiting for her with coffee all adds up to a brilliant and tense few minutes.

COMINT does so well in blending the personal and professional.  The lives of the Jenningses and Beemans are all blending into strange shapes.  Philip, who has now grown closer to Elizabeth, can only stand by helpless as his wife is brutalized.  He wants to do what any man would do: take care of the abuser, but Elizabeth makes it clear she won't have that.  Stan for his part, soon starts finding his infatuation with Nina is clouding his judgment.  The men, it seems, are forgetting their roles.

We see this effect on Stan when he begins to learn Russian.  At this point we don't know whether he truly is falling in love with Nina or is merely trying to find something exciting in his personal life, especially compared to his partner Chris Amador (Maximiliano Hernandez), a swinging bachelor who encourages Stan to find some fun from home. 

Martindale continues to make Claudia/Grannie into a dangerous woman beneath the cuddly exterior: her reminiscences of West Berlin leaving a crack of humanity beneath her all-business exterior but when she tells Elizabeth why she opposes the Equal Rights Amendment then being pushed, we see that in her own way the idea of feminism strikes her as foolish, even decadent.  Grannie is not to be trifled with.

COMINT gives us a shocking ending and a thrust for the season: the finding of the mole.  Where it leads will lead to some truly shocking, even sad, consequences for all involved.



8/10

Next Episode: Trust Me

Oscar Doesn't Need a Kane

Joan Fontaine:
Best Actress for Suspicion

TUESDAYS WITH OSCAR: 1941

The 14th Annual Academy Awards have it all: retroactive Oscars, major snubbing, backstage politics, and even sibling rivalry (which not even death fully healed).  This was the first year where sisters were up against each other for Oscars the same year, something that has happened only once since. We also have the first and I believe only time that a person named Oscar won an Oscar, and what an Oscar won an Oscar...none other than Oscar Hammerstein II, one of THE great lyricists of the Twentieth Century.  However, Hammerstein's win for Best Song was the beginning of a small crisis at the Academy.

The Last Time I Saw Paris from Lady Be Good was not written for the film itself.  Jerome Kern, who wrote the music, was disturbed that The Last Time I Saw Paris won a category called Best Original Song when the song wasn't original to the film it won for.  At the time, it was permissible for songs in films to be nominated for Best Original Song without being specifically written for the film itself.  However, after their win Kern lobbied to have the rules altered to have the nominated songs be written specifically for the film itself.  As a result, all succeeding Best Original Song winners were actually written for the films themselves.

As always this is just for fun and should not be taken as my final decision. I should like to watch all the nominees and winners before making my final, FINAL choice. Now, on to cataloging the official winners (in bold) and my selections (in red). Also, my substitutions (in green).

THE 1941 ACADEMY AWARD WINNERS

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS




Sara Allgood (How Green Was My Valley)
Mary Astor (The Great Lie)
Patricia Collinge (The Little Foxes)
Teresa Wright (The Little Foxes)
Margaret Wycherley (Sergeant York)

It is almost always the case when two actors/actresses from the same film are nominated in the same category, they tend to cancel each other out.  Sometimes it doesn't happen (F. Murray Abraham beat out his fellow Amadeus nominee Tom Hulce), but take that as a general rule of thumb.  Therefore, The Little Foxes cut each other out.   We now have three relatively small performances, and out of those it was Astor who emerged the winner.  Not having seen The Great Lie I cannot say whether it should/shouldn't have won, but I can say that Astor could be relied on to play two types with equal aplomb: the Madonna (Meet Me in St. Louis) and the Whore (The Maltese Falcon). 



Sara Allgood (How Green Was My Valley)
Mary Astor (The Great Lie)
Patricia Collinge (The Little Foxes)
Teresa Wright (The Little Foxes)
Margaret Wycherley (Sergeant York)

For the moment, I am going for the strict but loving mother in How Green Was My Valley, as sentimental a performance in a sentimental film as has been made so far.  Her scene when she calls out all those miners who wouldn't stand with her husband and family, condemning them for their collective cowardice was a highlight of a great movie.



Sara Allgood (How Green Was My Valley)
Mary Astor (The Maltese Falcon)
Dorothy Comingore (Citizen Kane)
Margaret Dumont (The Big Store)
Maria Ouspenskaya (The Wolf Man)

One of the things that I think helped Astor win was the fact that she had given a bravura performance in The Maltese Falcon, one of the great film noir films before noir came to be.  However, I think another factor was that Astor was 'blessed' not to be involved with Citizen Kane, a movie that despite its brilliance and nine nominations managed only one Oscar, for Original Screenplay (and even that I think had more to do with its credited co-screenwriter, Herman Mankiewicz, than anything else.  Fortunately or not, thanks to Mank's win we are either cursed or blessed with his grandson, Turner Classic Movie weekend host/At the Movies co-killer/unabashed lefty Ben Mankiewicz).  How else to explain the failure of Comingore as "not Marion Davies" Susan Alexander Kane to not receive a Supporting Actress nomination? 

As the naïve and innocent second wife, who goes from sweet to virtually destroyed and bitter to mournful, Comingore gave a brilliant and heartbreaking performance.  However, given that later on even Orson Welles felt that his portrayal of "not Marion Davies" as a hopelessly pathetic untalented drunk went too far (using Rosebud, rumored to be William Randolph Hearst's pet name for that 'special part' of Davies as the object everyone is looking for and talking about, I'm sure didn't help).  Both The Great Lie and Astor's performance are pretty much forgotten (whether rightly or not I cannot say), but Comingore and her performance fortunately are not. 

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR



Walter Brennan (Sergeant York)
Charles Coburn (The Devil and Miss Jones)
Donald Crisp (How Green Was My Valley)
James Gleason (Here Comes Mr. Jordan)
Sydney Greenstreet (The Maltese Falcon)

It must have come as a shock when Donald Crisp won Best Supporting Actor, namely because it a.) wasn't a showy performance by any stretch, and b.) Walter Brennan was among the nominees, and he had won in all his other nominations.  Perhaps by now even the screen extras that had given 'one of their own' the margin of victory had had enough of Brennan and felt he'd been honored enough.

Donald Crisp won the only acting Oscar in How Green Was My Valley as the stern but loving father who doesn't admit to the changes in his comfortable world with unions and his children leaving (his sons for America, his daughter to marriage to the mine owner's son).  It is a very strong and moving performance, and his death scene is still a very powerful moment in a film awash with nostalgia.



Walter Brennan (Sergeant York)
Charles Coburn (The Devil and Miss Jones)
Donald Crisp (How Green Was My Valley)
James Gleason (Here Comes Mr. Jordan)
Sydney Greenstreet (The Maltese Falcon)

Curiously, despite the breath of great performances in The Maltese Falcon, only one was singled out for recognition, that of Sydney Greenstreet's Kaspar Gutman, or "the Fat Man".   He certainly wasn't going to outfight Bogart or anyone, but what made him dangerous was that he could manipulate and outwit his foes.  Greenstreet created an iconic character, and it's hard not to think of him when thinking of The Maltese Falcon.  It usually is Greenstreet (The Heavy...no pun intended), Bogart (The Gumshoe), and Astor (The Femme Fatale) who come to mind when thinking of the noir classic. 

Yes, Greenstreet tended to play the heavy (again, no pun intended) but he could do comedy (Christmas in Connecticut) and it was sad he wasn't given enough chances to show a lighter side (sorry, no pun intended part III). 



Charles Coburn (The Lady Eve)
Joseph Cotten (Citizen Kane)
Donald Crisp (How Green Was My Valley)
Claude Rains (The Wolf Man)
Sydney Greenstreet (The Maltese Falcon)

Again, I marvel at the Academy's selection process.  Only one acting nomination for Citizen Kane, only one acting nomination for The Maltese Falcon, and two nominations for How Green Was My Valley (both in supporting roles, ignoring some equally great leading roles).   Even worse, some great actors were never to receive nominations.  Take a look at my choice for Best Supporting Actor.

Joseph Cotten was brilliant as Jed Leland, Kane's best friend who saw first-hand Kane's slow moral corruption.  True to his own values but conflicted about what his friend had become, Cotten (minus his make-up work as the Old Jed) gave a smashing performance.  Despite his work in Citizen Kane, in Shadow of a Doubt, in The Third Man, and even Niagara, Cotten was never deemed worthy of consideration.

Again, I marvel at the Academy's selection process.    

BEST ACTRESS



Bette Davis (The Little Foxes)
Joan Fontaine (Suspicion)
Olivia de Havilland (Hold Back the Dawn)
Greer Garson (Blossoms in the Dust)
Barbara Stanwyck (Ball of Fire)

Let's call this episode Revenge of the Retroactive Oscar!

Having lost for more superior work in Rebecca (though at the moment, I can't say she lost to a weaker performance), the Academy decided to make it up to Fontaine by giving her the Oscar for playing a variation of the Second Mrs. De Winter in SuspicionSuspicion is one of the few Hitchcock films that I didn't like, thinking it slow and a little boring.  The same can be said for Fontaine's character, and I found her performance a little more mannered than her brilliant turn in Rebecca (which makes me like this film and this win even less).  In the 'unforeseen circumstances' division, Fontaine's win made her already testy relationship with her sister de Havilland more problematic (seeing as de Havilland had yet to win).  Fontaine earned a place in the record books as being the only actor/actress in a Hitchcock film to win the Oscar, and when we think of the performers who weren't even nominated, it sets one's blood to boil.




Bette Davis (The Little Foxes)
Joan Fontaine (Suspicion)
Olivia de Havilland (Hold Back the Dawn)
Greer Garson (Blossoms in the Dust)
Barbara Stanwyck (Ball of Fire)

Fontaine's "We're Sorry You Lost Last Time, Here You Go" win also meant that Barbara Stanwyck, one of THE great actresses, went home alone...again.  Stanwyck I think really could do it all: she could play straight drama (Stella Dallas), she could play comedy (Ball of Fire), and she could play the ultimate in femme fatale (Double Indemnity).   Of course, the Academy, being what it is, has a real hard time with comedy, which explains so much. 

That, and the fact that Fontaine had lost the year previous, probably doomed Stanwyck's chances.



Bette Davis (The Little Foxes)
Irene Dunne (Penny Serenade)
Vivien Leigh (That Hamilton Woman)
Maureen O'Hara (How Green Was My Valley)
Barbara Stanwyck (The Lady Eve)

Again, you really need more proof that Barbara Stanwyck could do it all?

While she was nominated for Ball of Fire, she could easily have been nominated for The Lady Eve (as the duplicitous con artist turned good for love) or Meet John Doe (as the cynical reporter turned good for love).  It's interesting that all these performances are remembered and revered today, but the winner (Fontaine) is not for her winning role but remembered more for her losing role.

BEST ACTOR



Gary Cooper (Sergeant York)
Cary Grant (Penny Serenade)
Walter Huston (All That Money Can Buy)
Robert Montgomery (Here Comes Mr. Jordan)
Orson Welles (Citizen Kane)

Don't tell me the Academy doesn't look down their noses at comedies.

In these Tuesdays With Oscar retrospectives, I have nominated Cary Grant four times and had him win already for The Awful Truth.  All those nominations came from comedies save for Only Angels Have Wings in 1939.  However, despite the fact that his co-stars were nominated in some of these films (Ruth Hussey, James Stewart and Katharine Hepburn for The Philadelphia Story, Irene Dunne for The Awful Truth), at long last we have Grant receiving his FIRST nomination!  And is it for a comedy?  Certainly NOT!

Instead, it is for the sentimental drama Penny Serenade, and with all respect for Grant he wasn't going to win when he was up against an average Joe (Montgomery), a newspaper baron (Welles), and a war hero (Cooper). Why the Academy singled Grant out for THIS particular performance while ignoring all those that came before I'll never understand.  However, the winner is Cooper for his heroic turn as the dissolute drunk turned believing pacifist turned war hero Alvin York. 



Gary Cooper (Sergeant York)
Cary Grant (Penny Serenade)
Walter Huston (All That Money Can Buy)
Robert Montgomery (Here Comes Mr. Jordan)
Orson Welles (Citizen Kane)

And guess what?  I'm not giving it to Grant this year either!

Cooper's turn as Sergeant York is legendary and beloved, but my choice would be the sole acting nomination for Citizen Kane.  It's interesting that Welles made a biopic of sorts but one where we are no closer to knowing who Charles Foster Kane was at the end of the film than at the beginning.  He is an idealist turned bitter reactionary, a bon vivant turned old stick-in-the-mud, a people's champion turned hardened industrialist.  Welles makes Kane into a wholly human person, with all the flaws and virtues within us all.  The yearning for 'Rosebud' and what it represented to him, his disintegration, genius, and folly.  One couldn't ask for a greater and more spectacular debut.



Humphrey Bogart (The Maltese Falcon)
Gary Cooper (Sergeant York)
Henry Fonda (The Lady Eve)
Joel McCrae (Sullivan's Travels)
Orson Welles (Citizen Kane)

Even more bizarrely, I wouldn't give Welles OR Grant the Oscar if I were in charge of them this year.  I found three great performances that were overlooked: Henry Fonda's befuddled boob/patsy in The Lady Eve, Joel McCrae's turn as the director trying to make 'a picture with dignity, a true canvas of the suffering of humanity...with a little sex in it' in Sullivan's Travels, and my choice.

In a stunner, Bogart's iconic and standard-setting detective in The Maltese Falcon was not nominated.  It certainly was a great year for actors, but for me, the best performance is Bogart's Sam Spade, the sarcastic gumshoe who while not the best of men, was the best of detectives with his own moral code; he's the type of guy who knows she's a bad woman, but one still worth waiting for...once she's out of prison.

BEST SONG

Baby Mine (Dumbo)
Be Honest With Me (Ridin' on a Rainbow)
Blues in the Night (Blues in the Night)
Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B (Buck Privates)
Chattanooga Choo-Choo (Sun Valley Serenade)
Dolores (Las Vegas Night)
The Last Time I Saw Paris (Lady Be Good)
Out of the Silence (All-American Co-Ed)
Since I Kissed My Baby Goodbye (You Were Never Lovelier)

Now you know why I HATE writing down all the nominees.  Who remembers some of these songs?

Actually, this year provided some really good songs.  As stated already The Last Time I Saw Paris was not written for Lady Be Good, and the kink of having non-original songs after this year got worked out.  This isn't to say it isn't worthy: The Last Time I Saw Paris is a beautiful song.

However, I think the nostalgia was more for a Paris no longer around, as the French had lost their war with Germany and the world was bracing for a global conflict.  We have other great tunes associated with World War II: Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B and Chattanooga Choo-Choo, and one song that never fails to make me cry (Baby Mine from Dumbo).  All would be worthy of the Oscar, but I'm going for another nominee, one that I think both stands the test of time and is a brilliant number...




From Blues in the Night, Blues in the Night, music by Harold Arlen, lyrics by Johnny Mercer.

Talk about a Dream Team of Music: Music by Arlen, Lyrics by Mercer, and interpreted by ELLA!

BEST DIRECTOR

John Ford (How Green Was My Valley)
Alexander Hall (Here Comes Mr. Jordan)
Howard Hawks (Sergeant York)
Orson Welles (Citizen Kane)
William Wyler (The Little Foxes)

In retrospect, Ford's selection isn't such a horror.  How Green Was My Valley was perfectly directed, drawing great performances from his cast (including a young Roddy McDowall and Maureen O'Hara) and is beautiful-looking too.  Still, it's interesting that in Ford's third Oscar win it still isn't for a Western.

John Ford (How Green Was My Valley)
Alexander Hall (Here Comes Mr. Jordan)
Howard Hawks (Sergeant York)
Orson Welles (Citizen Kane)
William Wyler (The Little Foxes)

Of course, as great a director as Ford is, and as influential as he was to people like Welles, there is simply no denying what Welles did as a director.  It isn't just how he handled his actors, but in how Kane moved!  The techniques, the cinematography, the sound editing...everything about Citizen Kane is just brilliant.  In any other year, I would have gone for Ford.  This year, there's no way around it...Orson Welles wuz robbed!

John Ford (How Green Was My Valley)
Howard Hawks (Ball of Fire)
John Huston (The Maltese Falcon)
Preston Sturges (Sullivan's Travels)
Orson Welles (Citizen Kane)

Granted, he was helped by having some of the best directors that year not nominated. No slam against the other nominees, but when you see what directors were doing that year: people like John Huston (like Welles, in his directorial debut) and Preston Sturges (who brought us both The Lady Eve AND Sullivan's Travels), he would have faced stiffer competition.

And now, The Best Picture of 1941...




Blossoms in the Dust
Citizen Kane
Here Comes Mr. Jordan
Hold Back the Dawn
How Green Was My Valley
The Little Foxes
The Maltese Falcon
One Foot in Heaven
Sergeant York
Suspicion

Well, again, IF this were any other year...

It's unfortunate that How Green Was My Valley has been damned in certain circles because it beat out another film.  Let's call it the The Greatest Show on Earth of its time.  On The Rotten Tomatoes Show, co-host Brett Erlich (who is not as funny as he thinks he is or as politically astute as he thinks he is either) called How Green Was My Valley the Worst of the Best, mocking the Welsh setting and the singing that there was in the film. 

He obviously never saw Cavalcade or Gentleman's Agreement

The unfortunate thing about How Green Was My Valley winning is that it blocks out the fact that the film itself is quite good, perhaps a bit sentimental, but still expertly crafted and with an emotional punch that still hits you.  We also have some other good choices: The Little Foxes, The Maltese Falcon, and a little art-house feature...




Blossoms in the Dust
Citizen Kane
Here Comes Mr. Jordan
Hold Back the Dawn
How Green Was My Valley
The Little Foxes
The Maltese Falcon
One Foot in Heaven
Sergeant York
Suspicion

Were you expecting me to pick Blossoms in the Dust or One Foot in Heaven, perhaps? 

Citizen Kane is the Greatest Film Ever Made...and a pretty good movie too.  Again, Citizen Kane is one of those films that has been mummified by its reputation, something people might be afraid will be boring or worse, educational, because so many critics love it (myself included).  However, once you see Citizen Kane, you will not only see what all the fuss is about (a breathtaking feature that moves and is decades ahead of its time), but you will find a wildly entertaining story of a good man who corrupted himself thanks to his hubris and need to find 'love on his terms'.

How to explain Citizen Kane's loss is simple, much more than the simplistic "Hollywood was cowed by William Randolph Hearst" scenario.  Let's look over a few things.  Oscar loves to reward real winners (those that make money) and Citizen Kane was not a box office hit.  THREE Abbott and Costello films were bigger hits than Kane, and both How Green Was My Valley and Sergeant York were popular with audiences (at Numbers 5 and 1 in box office receipts respectively).  I also think Welles did himself no favors by showing off what a genius he was.  If you see the trailer for Kane, you see he doesn't show you almost anything about the movie itself, and seems almost contemptuous of his audience when he shows some chorus girls and comments they're there just to be there.  I imagine that many Academy voters were just rubbed the wrong way by the Boy Wonder and his Mercury Theater players from New York.

Finally, there just may have been some Academy members who thought the other films were better than Citizen Kane.  Hollywood is not known for its intellectual prowess.  Yes, some of the voters were cowed by their studios (who in turn were cowed by Hearst) against the film, but some others might have felt loyalty to Marion Davies (viciously portrayed as a talentless drunk harpy rather than the talented comedienne and elegant host she was, even if she did drink too much) or just liked Gary Cooper more.  Who's to say? 

Ultimately, I don't think it was some massive Hollywood cabal against Kane, but certain other factors that sank Citizen Kane receiving the reward it truly deserved.

And Now, MY Choice for the Best Picture of 1941 based on MY Choices...


Citizen Kane
How Green Was My Valley
The Lady Eve
The Maltese Falcon
Sullivan's Travels

There isn't anything that would make me change me mind about Citizen Kane deserving the title Best Picture.  However, given how there were other good films that year, I do wonder why some of them were not nominated.

It must be that 'comedy is bad for you' thing the Academy has.

There is a reason why I refer to the Ultimate in something as "The Citizen Kane of..."  Frankly, in terms of cinema, Citizen Kane is indeed the apex, the standard to which all other films are measured.  Yes, Citizen Kane is the Greatest Film Ever Made, but give it a chance...you might enjoy it too.

Tuesdays With Oscar will be taking a short sabbatical of about three or four weeks so I can catch up on some other reviews along with some personal matters, but I am so looking forward to keep looking back to see where the Academy went wrong...and right.

Next Time, The 1942 Oscars. 

Monday, June 23, 2014

See, I'm Not As Bad As All That


MALEFICENT

There is a certain danger in making the villain the hero/heroine of the film, a risk of making a figure known for evil too sympathetic.  Maleficent purports to tell either Sleeping Beauty's nemesis' side of the story, or give us 'the real story' behind the fairy tale.  While the film takes liberties with the story we all know, it has a strong atmosphere, great nods to fantasy worlds and a knowing performance by Angelina Jolie that makes Maleficent enjoyable if nothing more.

As a child, Maleficent guarded the magical land that bordered the land of humans, with whom there was always tension if not downright conflict.  One day, she comes across Stefan, a poor lad who yearns to rise above his station.  A friendship develops, which soon turns to love. 

As time goes by however, the King wishes to wipe out their feared rival, but Maleficent, now a fully-grown fairy, has tremendous powers that keep them at bay.  The King pledges his throne to he who can subdue this monster, and guess who happens to be serving at Court when this is announced?  In the guise of warning her, Stefan and Maleficent spend a night together (rather chastely, mind you...this movie is PG).  As reward for their night, Maleficent finds her wings have been hacked off while she slept heavily (thanks to the medieval version of roofies), and now, embittered and angry, she waits for her opportunity to strike back.

It comes when she learns that King Stefan has a daughter who will be christened before the nation.  With her loyal crow/manservant Diaval (Sam Riley), Maleficent places a curse upon Aurora: before the sun sets on her sixteenth birthday, she will prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and fall into a sleep like death.  This curse is irreversible, with one caveat: it can be broken by true love's kiss.  Fearing for Aurora, the King sends her off with three fairies who will raise her in hiding until the day after her sixteenth birthday.  As an added precaution, he orders all spinning wheels destroyed and hidden within the deepest dungeon in the castle.

The Witch Is Back!

Maleficent, however, will not be denied.   She spends all those years with Diaval observing Aurora, and as time develops (and she protects the Princess from the fairies' ineptness), she grows to love the child.  Aurora (Elle Fanning) knows all about Maleficent, but thinks of her as her fairy godmother!  Maleficent does not dissuade her ideas, and Aurora tells her she wishes to live in her fairy kingdom.  Maleficent's heart has melted and she attempts to revoke the curse, but finds she cannot.  King Stefan, for his part, has grown more paranoid about Maleficent.  As hard as everyone tries Aurora still falls to the prophesy.  Malevolent, now totally enchanted with her ward, even tries to stop it by rushing with Prince Philip (Brenton Thwaites), but is too late.

Oddly, it isn't Prince Philip's kiss that awakens Aurora (though he is certainly game for trying).  Instead, it is from another, who has given Aurora true love.  However, a fierce battle erupts when Maleficent is discovered, and with one or more twists Stefan is defeated and Aurora binds both kingdoms in peace.

Be certain of one thing: Maleficent is Jolie's show from start to finish.  Looking more glamorous than demonic (with cheekbones that are a special effect unto themselves), Jolie is shrewd enough to play Maleficent as someone who has been turned evil rather than just being evil for evil's sake without slipping into camp.  I think it is because Jolie first off allows glimmers of kindness to shine through.  Maleficent spending the day with her 'goddaughter' allows us to see that the 'villain' is capable of reaching the understanding that not all humans will do her as badly as Stefan did.  By giving Maleficent a bit of humanity, Jolie allows us to see her as a more complex figure, almost someone not just redeemable but worthy of redemption.

Arise, Aurora

This does has the unfortunate effect, however, of drowning almost everyone else.  Fanning has nothing more to do than smile and be pretty, totally enchanted with her 'fairy godmother'.  Same goes for Thwaites as Prince Philip: he just pops in because the story needs him, then is almost immediately put into a sleep by Maleficent, spends most of his time in a state of unconsciousness, fails to wake the girl when kissing her, and pops in at the end.

Even sadder is to see the three fairies reduced to comic relief (and bad ones at that) and Copley's one-note mad King Stefan.  About the only one to have anything close to an arc apart from Jolie is Riley's Diaval, and I'm of two minds about him.  Riley is someone that I think has it in him to be a great actor, but apart from his brilliant turn as the late Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis in Control he seems to be performing all his parts the same way: a bit cold, aloof, distant.   It was the same here, but while it wasn't a terrible performance his role as Maleficent's conscience/confidant/henchman/court jester was also a bit, well, distant.

This isn't to say that Maleficent is not enjoyable; far from it.  Linda Woolverton's screenplay does at times not only stray from Sleeping Beauty (in the original, Maleficent cursed Aurora to die, and the third fairy's gift was that it would not be death but sleep, while Maleficent has the title character doing double duty as providing both curse AND escape) but add moments that do border on the idiotically convenient (the matter about Maleficent's wings being a prime example).

Still, I imagine Robert Stromberg had a family audience in mind when directing Maleficent; along with the PG rating, we get the fairy kingdom which Maleficent rules populated with somewhat cuddly creatures who are a bit afraid of Maleficent but who are never actually harmed by them. At one point when she's with Aurora one of the creatures accidentally throws mud at Maleficent, and rather than be struck down Maleficent slyly slings mud back and I think even has a laugh about it.

That is one has to keep in mind while watching Maleficent: the title character can be a bit scary but it's clear that she is not evil in the Satanic sense, merely hurt and striking out for revenge only to see in the end that love is more powerful than hate.  Maleficent is a family film that is a little dark but not too intense for elementary-school children (apart from the final battle with Diaval as the dragon and King Stefan's not-too-gruesome end) and it should be seen that way (in every meaning of the term).  I would advise against letting toddlers watch it and would recommend Sleeping Beauty first (animation can be easier to take than live-action), but on the whole I was entertained by Maleficent and thought it worked for what it was doing: telling another side to a well-told tale. 

With a show-stopping performance by Jolie and some beautiful-looking imagery, Maleficent is less revisionist take on Sleeping Beauty and more alternate take on the tale, using elements from it to spin its own story where the Devil's Handmaiden gets her due.

DECISION: B+

Friday, June 20, 2014

A Love Worth Sleeping Through


ENDLESS LOVE

I never knew Endless Love was based on a book.  I also never saw the original version of the Scott Spencer novel.  The only thing I really know about Endless Love is that it was the source for the Lionel Ritchie/Diana Ross duet which earned a Best Original Song nomination (and which is one of those sappy songs that people either adore or detest.  I find it a bit overblown but still singable).  This remake of Endless Love doesn't have an original song to it, and it doesn't even have the decency to do a remake of the song.  Again, not having read the novel, a little part of me thinks that Spencer wrote a parody of love stories.

After the death of her brother, Jade Butterfield (Gabrielle Wilde) takes shelter in books and withdraws from high school society.  At graduation, she is surprisingly taken by surprise that her other classmates don't sign her yearbook or include her in pictures.  Looking on is David Elliot (Alex Pettyfer, or as I call him, 'Alex Prettyfer').  He is a working-class boy, son of a mechanic (Robert Patrick) who works as a valet in the country club where the WASPy Butterfields go to.  In short order Jade runs off with David in a car he and his eternally wisecracking friend Mace (Dayo Okeniyi) were suppose to park.  In short order, David punches the obnoxious car owner and is fired, but not before Jade becomes instantly charmed and attracted to David.

Despite her isolation, she convinces her parents to throw a graduation party to which David, using his connections (and Pettyfer's native British accent) manages to get the kids that had been ignoring her for four years suddenly come to Jade's massive mansion and party on down.  Jade, along with her surviving brother Keith (Rhys Wakefield) are thrilled to see some happiness in their home, but Jade's father Hugh (Bruce Greenwood) doesn't like any of this, especially David (whom he not only witnessed punching out a guy, but was in the closet with his very virginal daughter).   However, she is simply too much IN LOVE to care: about her father's disapproval, about her internship with an important doctor, even about her future career as a doctor who is going to Brown University.

SHE IS A WOMAN IN LOVE!!!  A WOMAN IN THE THROES OF FIRST LOVE!!!

At first, she and David are content to spend two glorious, fun-filled, passion-filled weeks together, but soon it is not enough.  THEY MUST BE TOGETHER FOR ALL TIME, MAYBE TIME AND ETERNITY!!  (Having come from Utah, certain Mormon thinking has seeped through).  David, however, can cut no ice with Hugh, even though Hugh's wife Anne (Joely Richardson) and surviving son Keith (Rhys Wakefield) find David charming, bringing life into their Ordinary People existence.  Even fixing the dead brother's car won't please Hugh, who wants David to stay way away.  Already upset that Jade has given up the internship for David, he unilaterally packs them off to their vacation home, much to Jade's anger.

We're too pretty to have REAL problems...

Needless to say, when one tries to deny the burning passion of two beautiful-looking people, they will not be denied.   David is invited to the lake house, and a shocked Hugh has to tolerate all this.  Even David's discovery of Hugh's mistress doesn't help matters.  As far as Hugh is concerned, David is all bad news.  David helps in that department with occasional punches, but despite it all, even a restraining order Hugh put on David to keep him away from his adult daughter, and the distance between David and Jade (studying at Brown), and even David's high SAT scores, Hugh won't compromise.  Things all come to a head in a fire at the Butterfield Mansion where Hugh's whole family walks out on him for being a horrible person, and which allows David to redeem himself.  Thus, now David and Jade can have their Endless Love...

I think I should point out that a certain point in Endless Love, I nodded off.  It was getting harder and harder to concentrate on the film when it lends itself so freely to parody.  After withdrawing from high school society all these years, people would so willingly go to a party at Jade's house (and perform dance routines)?  I know it's been a few years since I've been in high school, and I was hardly the most popular guy (unless you were in the Academic Decathlon team), but even I thought this party was shockingly square.

However, things like what teenagers do nowadays is the least of Endless Love's issues.  I thought the obsession Hugh had to protect his daughter from the hunky beauty of David bordered on the incestuous.  I'm sure it wasn't director/co-writer Shana Feste (with Joshua Safran) who intended Hugh's fixation for Jade have such creepy undertones, but what else can be said of a man who would put a restraining order on his adult daughter's boyfriend?  Furthermore, why would his adult daughter not step in and say, "Please remove this restraining order, I'm a grown woman and am not an imbecile?"

Then again, the way Wilde plays her Jade is not innocent but idiot, one who appears not to know what fast-food is.  I'm not joking: she finds going from her posh country club to some drive-thru a real 'walk on the wild side'.   Same goes for Prettyfer.  He's the same vapid performer of such horrors as Beastly and I Am Number Four.  Granted, I haven't seen Magic Mike (somehow, the subject matter never called to me), but I can't imagine like his mentor Channing Tatum, Pettyfer has anything to offer except his body. 


As the lush cinematography takes great pains to focus on the physical beauty of Wilde and Pettyfer (and they are beautiful, no doubt on that) I wasn't convinced by any of it.  I think Jade and David are not in love with each other.  Instead, I'd say they are in love with the idea of being in love.  Their romance is rushed and wildly, bizarrely intense.  These two barely know each other (David only admiring Jade from afar, never actually speaking to her) and yet these two throw themselves into this massively-intense affair, an affair so great Jade willingly, almost casually, gives up her internship to be with him. 

I question how intelligent someone can be to throw away golden opportunities for nothing more than some good times like breaking into a zoo and flirting with getting high. 

However, Endless Love isn't interested in dealing with real people like you or I.  If it did, it would take pains not to introduce things only to never mention them again.  There is the matter of Hugh's mistress, whom we see exactly once, know she is 'the other woman' (even if no one except David and Anne know), and never see or hear from her again.  Same goes for Jade's Brown boyfriend (we never saw him), and David's ex-girlfriend, who just pops in every so often to push the story along.

Pretty much everyone except Wakefield and Richardson embarrass themselves in Endless Love.  To their credit, Wakefield tried to make the 'not-favorite son hiding his hurt beneath his grin' clichéd character worked, and Richardson seemed to know all this was junk.  I found Okeniyi's similarly clichéd "upbeat best friend who has a quick quip for everything' more annoying than anything else (what happens when you want the 'bad guy' to punch the 'good guy'), and Patrick was wasted in his working-class mechanic part.

The one to suffer the worst is Greenwood, who was missing a mustache to twirl every time he was on screen.  He was so shamelessly camp as the 'evil' dad when in many ways (mistress notwithstanding) he was probably the most sensible of the lot. 

Endless Love puts a high gloss on the story that needs more emotion and less pretty visuals to highlight all the pretty people.  It is boring, a bit silly, but not a bad way to pass an hour or two finding ways to laugh at the bad acting, dumb story, and endless ways to make bad actors but beautiful people look even more beautiful while giving worse performances than anyone could imagine coming from them. 

Lest We Forget...





DECISION: C-

Thursday, June 19, 2014

She Turned The Tide of History. The Divine Lady: A Review



THE DIVINE LADY

As silent films gave way to those "100% All Talking" features that would kill off that particular style of filmmaking forever (The Artist more a throwback/homage than a revival), a few films straddled both worlds.  The Divine Lady is one of them: essentially a silent movie but with sound effects and original score.  At times it suffers from those aspects of silent film that people dislike: acting that is a bit theatrical, but while it isn't remembered today (apart from the fact that Frank Lloyd won Best Director at the Second Academy Awards) The Divine Lady is quite entertaining, well-made and anchored (no pun intended) with a beautiful performance by a beautiful lady.

Emma Hart (Corrine Griffith) is a poor working-class girl.  When she and her mother (Marie Dressler) arrive at the home of the Honorable Charles Grenville (Ian Keith), he is horrified by Emma's flirtatious manners.  However, he too quickly falls for Emma's charms, a physical beauty mixed with a joie de vivre and vitality.  Grenville is torn about Emma: on the one hand, he finds her beautiful and vivacious.  On the other, she is common and unabashedly enthusiastic (at one point leading a sing-along at a country fair).  Telling her that he wishes for her and her mother to visit his uncle Sir William Hamilton (H. B. Warner), Grenville sends them off to Naples where Sir William serves as British Ambassador to the Royal Court.  Perhaps with this in mind, Sir William falls in love with Emma.  She pines for Grenville and tells Sir William that she won't be passed from one man to another, and that she isn't in love with him.  Sir William tells her he knows this but still wishes to marry her anyway.  Thus, the cook's daughter becomes Lady Hamilton.

It is the height of the French Revolution and Napoleon's rise to power.  Naples maintains neutrality but war between Napoleon and the British is inevitable.  Into this steps Horatio Nelson (Victor Varconi), who at first doesn't wish to see the Ambassadoress but who is immediately charmed by her vivaciousness and beauty.  Over time, despite his rise to Admiral and his injuries (he is left with one eye and one arm), they fall madly in love, and their affair shocks and scandalizes an Empire.  Nelson has his duty to perform, and thanks to Lady Hamilton's intervention at Court with Queen Maria Carolina of Naples (Dorothy Cumming) the British fleet is saved and in turn saves Naples.

However, as Lady Hamilton is scorned by society for being so open about the affair and shames Nelson by living with him in quiet retirement without either divorcing their respective spouses, The British Lion calls Nelson again.  He now goes to meet his fate at Trafalgar, where he tells his men, "England expects that every man will do his duty" in that typical British understatement.  Lady Hamilton must now end her love affair with Lord Nelson as he dies, having done his duty.  


The Divine Lady may be historically wrong, but one forgives all this because one doesn't watch The Divine Lady for lessons in naval history.  One watches for the sweeping romance between the cook's daughter and the hero of the Empire, and to their credit Griffith and Varconi play Lady Hamilton and Lord Nelson as these two people passionately in love.  Frank Lloyd gave a subtle subtext to show their consummation of their love: as they are about to kiss for the first time, crashing waves are seen, suggesting the storm of passion that will overtake them.

Lloyd also gives Griffith really good material to work with.  We see in her performance that Emma may be uneducated (though there is a montage of her undergoing various forms of refinement, down to learning to play the harp) but she is also a kind woman who loves life.  We see this when she leads the informal sing-along at the fair.  She certainly wasn't doing it to attract attention to herself.  She began to sing for her own amusement, and once she attracted attention she saw nothing wrong in everyone having a good time. 

Interestingly, in this scene and when she sings to Nelson at their first and final meeting in Naples, we have sound.  This is a silent picture in that the actors' voices are not heard, but Lloyd did what few directors in the chaotic transition from silent to sound did: integrate sound while keeping the film mute.  The sound effects (cannons firing, crowds cheering) were integrated effectively, and moreover, I think they should have served as a template to how silent and sound films could have been integrated without throwing out everything.  Sadly, other filmmakers didn't follow Lloyd's lead, leading to much confusion and wrecked careers (not to mention, lost films). 

Lloyd also has moments of quite good directing.  When Horatio first attempts to kiss Emma, she quickly places a rose between their lips, and the image of Emma, Lady Hamilton with a rose on her lips is still a beautiful image. 

Corrine Griffith, not remembered today, is simply beautiful as Lady Hamilton.  When we are first introduced to her, we see a beautiful, carefree flirt, mixing innocence with experience.  However, as time goes on we see Griffith gave a very good performances without most of the mannered mannerisms of silent film acting.  There was some of that here, but on the whole Griffith brought the evolution from carefree girl to woman deeply in love and hurt that circumstances could not allow her to live in peace with the man who had sacrificed for her and for whom she had sacrificed for.  These two figures living out this larger-than-life history are not allowed to have a happy ending, and Griffith makes this a beautiful performance.

As the 'divine lady' of The Divine Lady, it is only fair that Griffith have the lion's share of attention, and she goes through many emotions and handles them well.  I also thought well of Warner as the Ambassador who is aware of things without drawing attention to them.  "I don't believe rumors," he 'tells' his nephew, "in case the rumors turn out to be true".  The acting on the whole was above-average when thinking of silent films, with  only Cumming succumbing to a more exagerrated manner. 

On the whole I found The Divine Lady to hold up rather well.   It told its story well, the acting was not exagerrated (mostly) and as a bonus, it integrated sound effects into a silent film to where it didn't topple one or the other.  I found much to admire in The Divine Lady...just like Lord Nelson.

A Love Story For the Ages...


DECISION: B+

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Mixed Inheritance



BELLE

It isn't often that a true story mixes race and class in a Jane Austenesque setting, but Belle manages to tell a fascinating, if somewhat dry, story lifted up by a career-making performance that hopefully will lead to greater roles for its star, Gugu Mbatha-Raw.  Belle is both a period piece and a strong study on the issues of race, gender, and social status: all of which are still with us today.  If one wants to see Belle as a straight costume picture, fine.  If one wants to see Belle as a commentary on today's times, fine.  If one wants to see Belle as a biographical film about an obscure but fascinating figure from history, that's fine too.  The important thing is to see Belle, period.

Dido Elizabeth Belle (Mbatha-Raw) is a curious situation.  As the daughter of a black woman she is a slave, but she is also the daughter of a British naval officer, Captain Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode).  As a result of this, Captain Lindsay takes his child and brings her to his uncle, Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) and Lady Mansfield (Emily Watson).  They aren't necessarily thrilled to see a "Negress" as family, but family she is.  Dido's presence has a benefit: she can serve as companion to their other niece, Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon), and the two girls grow up together as the bestest of friends, almost sisters where race is unimportant.

As they grow into women now they are expected to enter society, or at least one is.  Being both illegitimate and black makes Dido's coming-out problematic.  However, unlike her cousin Elizabeth Dido has an advantage.  Her father has left her a wealthy heiress, one who does not need to find a man to keep her in the manner she's grown accustomed to (even if that manner prevents her from dining with the family when company comes), so while her prospects are dim, Dido at least can live without worrying about money.  This is not Elizabeth's fate, who undergoes her own version of a slave auction as she is paraded among eligible men of her station. 

This situation makes this a bit dicey for the ambitious Ashford family.  The venal Lady Ashford (Miranda Richardson) doesn't want a mulatto in the family, but she does want connections to the Mansfield clan.  She pushes her younger son James (Tom Felton) towards Elizabeth, and Elizabeth looks pleased with this match.  Lady Ashford on the other hand, discourages the sincere efforts of her older son Oliver (James Norton) towards Dido, whom he is attracted to (much to the disgust of both Lady Ashford and James).  Imagine their mutual horror upon learning that Elizabeth is virtually penniless and Dido is a wealthy heiress!


Suddenly, Lady Ashford doesn't dislike Dido as much as she did, but Dido, who genuinely has feelings for Oliver, finds that the Ashfords are not suitable for her.  James, for his part, is coarse with Dido, and there is a brief rupture in Dido and Elizabeth's friendship over their marriage situations and prospects.  However, when James opts for a wealthier choice, a distraught Elizabeth turns to Dido for comfort and their wounds are mended.

As Dido and Elizabeth continue to seek out love and marriage, Lord Mansfield is consumed by the Zong case.   As Lord Chief Justice, Mansfield has to decide the case of the ship Zong, which hinges on whether the black 'cargo' was justifiably dumped by the ship or whether the 'cargo' was deliberately murdered.  It would chip away at the institution of slavery in the British Empire, if not bring a legal precedent to abolishing it altogether.   To help Lord Mansfield, he has a young clerk, the vicar's son John Davinier (Sam Reid).  Davinier is a passionate young man, eager to rise and to destroy what he sees as the evil of slavery.  He also becomes fond of Dido, who at first does not return his affections.  They are after all, from different classes, and at the moment that distinction is more important than being of different races.

As Dido learns more about the Zong case, she and John begin seeing each other in secret.  Dido goes as far as to provide evidence that makes it clear that the ship's captain did not throw the slaves out to open sea to preserve their water supply (as he contends) because they had passed several ports where they could have refueled.  They were dumped because they had become diseased and thus, unsellable.  As time goes in the case, John and Dido do fall in love, and Lord Mansfield is highly displeased in his niece's prospects of marrying beneath her class.  A VICAR'S SON! A LOWLY LAW CLERK! 

However, true love will not be denied, and neither will justice.  Elizabeth too finds love with a better suitor who is both rich and cares for her, and we learn that she and John had a happy marriage.

The interesting thing about Belle is that it is both based on a true story and a brilliant commentary on the issues of race, gender, and class.  Dido is held back because of her heritage, but at the same time she is liberated because of her class and financial standing.  She is both slave and free: legally she could be sent into the fields but her unique circumstances allowed her to not be under the 'protection' of a man.  Her cousin-sister Elizabeth conversely is legally free but dependent on the kindness of a wealthy man.  Both women, in their own way, were captives, and if it were not for the twists of fate (say, if Dido had been white or Elizabeth had been wealthy) they would have been in thoroughly different circumstances.

"We are but their property," Elizabeth observes to Dido.  For her cousin, that term has so many different meanings, but all of the interpretations are true.


Also, when race doesn't come into play, then the issue of gender arises.  Apart from the parading of the women to 'land a man', there is also the dual idea of what Dido's role could be.  Lord Mansfield provided education for his nieces, but he also considered them too intellectually weak to understand the nuances of the Zong case.  Would Dido turn into the old maid of the family because her marriage prospects were hampered by her race?  She had that burden, but she also was a woman of independent means, so in this respect she was free.  If race or gender doesn't come into play, then the issue of class does.  Lord Mansfield's objections are not from it being a mixed-race marriage, but it being the marriage of a lower-class man to his aristocratic niece.  Despite being black Dido has grown up with wealth and is for all intents and purposes a refined lady of high position.  Therefore, her union with a vicar's son is not seen as a suitable prospect for her, love be damned. 

Belle in short tells both a fascinating life story and reveals so much about the issues that divide people: race, gender, class...all the biggies.

Belle also has a dynamic performance from Mbatha-Raw as the title character.  At one point Dido, fully aware of being excluded by the family that does love her but still bows to social conventions, begins to paw at her skin, as if attempting to tear the blackness from her.  Mbatha-Raw blends so beautifully into her surroundings, be it the slums of the docks as she helps and meets with Davanier or walking in refined aristocratic homes.  By 'blending in' I mean to say Mbatha-Raw makes Dido appear to be born to a world of privilege while still understanding that she is not a full member of that world.  Her evolution into doing things for herself (finding more about the Zong case, following her heart) is a beautiful thing to see. 

I would say Mbatha-Raw is what pulls one into the movie, seeing her rise above the sometimes dry, Masterpiece Theater-type script with its costumes and love story.   She is an actress on the rise, and I hope that this will be her breakout film in the same way 12 Years a Slave was the breakout for another talented and beautiful actress (Lupita Nyong'o). 

She was supported by a reliable cast who might have had a one-note character (the besotted Reid, the bitchy Richardson) but who knew the parts and played them well.  At times I will say Belle is a bit dry and standard in terms of a costume picture, but the wit of the story (and with a steady directing hand of Amma Asante), Belle is entertaining and informative, if a bit stately.

In short Belle is both an entertaining biopic of a little-known but fascinating life and a sharp commentary of the divisions that people place on each other and themselves.  It might have the stuffiness of a period film, but with a powerful performance by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Dido Elizabeth Belle's story has an actress worthy of carrying her story.


Portrait of A Lady

DECISION: B+