Thursday, August 31, 2017

A Place in the Sun: A Review


A PLACE IN THE SUN

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

Has there ever been a more beautiful motive for murder than Elizabeth Taylor?

A Place in the Sun, George Stevens' adaptation of Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy, is both a sweeping love story and an exploration of societal ambition in both the glories and darkness of that uniquely American ideal of 'upward mobility'.  Both a glorification and condemnation of constrictive class structure, the performances in the film make one both melt in admiration and mourn the inevitable clash.

George Eastman (Montgomery Clift) is the poor relation to wealthier relatives, his parents being somewhat the family eccentrics for their excessive religious work.  Still, he's a relation and is put to work at the lowest level of Uncle Eastman's factory.  There, he meets pretty Alice Tripp (Shelley Winters), whom he starts dating despite the company rule against staff relationships.

Still, George yearns to be among the vaunted upper class his cousins are in, and on his birthday (which the Eastmans don't remember), he's invited to a soiree.  Still a bit removed from the rich society members at the party, he does find one person interested in him: Angela Vickers (Taylor).  Our raven-haired, violet-eyed beauty is fascinated by George: his gentleness, his manner, and she soon falls in love.

George has been in love with Angela since he first spotted her briefly when she came to see the Eastmans on his first day in town, though she took no notice of him then.  George and Angela fall madly in love despite their different backgrounds, but there's a hitch.

Alice finds herself pregnant, or 'in trouble' to use the term of the time.



Now George finds himself in a terrible situation: his deep passion for Angela (and the world she lives in) versus his impending fatherhood for Alice's baby (and the world they come from).  Angela knows nothing of George's double-life, but Alice does.  George stalls for time, insisting that with a new position at the factory it might be beneficial to keep things as they are.

However, things can't stay as they are with a baby on the way, and an Eastman no less.  George's situation grows more precarious every day, between his deep love for Angela and that world and his responsibility to Alice and theirs.  Something has got to give.

Alice forces the situation when he calls up the Vickers' estate where George and the other Eastmans are enjoying the Labor Day holiday.  She insists that George come pick her up at the bus station and marry her, and if he won't, she'll tell all.  It couldn't have come at a worse time for him, as Uncle Eastman was coming around to move his nephew further up and Mr. Eastman seeing George as a good husband for his daughter, Angela's parents now warming up and not objecting to the relationship. George leaves, telling them his mother is ill.

George gets an unexpected break when he and Alice find that the Courthouse is closed due to Labor Day.  To make up for it, George suggests a picnic and rowboat trip to a secluded lake.  Alice, who cannot swim, accepts.  George struggles with the idea of murdering Alice, which he has planned or contemplated for some time.  He finds that in the end, he can't go through with it, but Alice still manages to fall overboard and drowns.

George attempts to cover things up, but pretty quickly Alice's body is found and the trail leads right to George.  At his trial, District Attorney Marlowe (Raymond Burr) is convinced it was premeditated murder, a charge George denies.  In the end though, he is found guilty with Angela's unwitting involvement kept out of the papers to spare her the scandal.  In the end, as he's about to be executed, Angela does make one last visit to the prison to say goodbye to her great love.


It takes a great deal of talent to make someone as unpleasant as George Eastman sympathetic, almost tragic, and yet Montgomery Clift did that by showing Eastman not as a calculating figure but as perpetually ill at ease.  From the moment we first see him, with his jacket and t-shirt, we can admire the beauty of Clift, this beautiful rebel who yearns for that 'place in the sun'.

Clift's performance is pitch-perfect, how he holds himself slightly back whenever he's with his wealthier relatives, his soft manner with Alice (at least in the beginning) and his passion for Angela Vickers.

The scenes between Clift and Taylor are so filled with passion, almost a barely contained frenzy coupled with their exquisite external beauty that you get swept away as well.  It is easy to understand why Angela and George fell madly, passionately, totally in love.  It's more than just their physical beauty.  It's finding in each other what they did not have.  For Angela, it's someone who loved her the individual, not the money (though it helped).

For George, it was the world Angela lived in, the promise of a golden world.  Angela is that not-so-obscure object of desire, that ethereal world of joy, bliss, peace and freedom that he had never known his whole life.  She was the polar opposite of schlubby Alice, who was sweet and kind but who also would tie him down to another generation of poverty.

To have this goddess so close, this goddess love him, and to lose it because of a past romance with unintended consequences...we can see why any man would kill to be with Angela Vickers.

Taylor, I don't think, ever gave herself credit for being a good actress.  She proved her critics wrong with her definitive performance in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? but she more than holds her own in A Place in the Sun.  As the carefree bon vivant Angela, she captures innocence without coming off as flighty or frivolous.  Angela is a woman who loves deeply, who sees in George someone not just beautiful outside but inside.

It helps when you have Franz Waxman's lush romantic score to fall in love to.  That sweeping nature of George and Angela's romance, coupled with Waxman's Oscar-winning music, just carries one into such passion you fall into them as well.

It's to where you forget that there is anyone else, which is what George did when it came to poor Alice.  For those who remember Winters as the fat, frumpy lady who was a good swimmer, it may surprise them to see her as a demur yet determined girl.  More surprising is to learn that prior to A Place in the Sun, Winters was known as a 'glamour girl'.  Here, she gives a whole new side and range to her acting abilities, making Alice into a sad girl, neither wimp or harpy.

If anyone gave a bad performance, I would say it was Burr as the District Attorney.  With his cane and theatrical manner, Burr seemed to devour the scenery in one gulp (and no, that was not a Raymond Burr fat joke).

George Stevens' directing not only drew out great performances (though Burr seemed a bit out of control), but he had wonderful mise-en-scène that was intelligent without being wildly overt.  There is when we see outside George's apartment the "Vickers" sign blinking, either from the Vickers Hotel or Department Store, suggesting how the entire Vickers world, and Angela herself, light him the way to a whole new world in the way Jay Gatsby's green light was so close yet far away.  Later on, when we see George struggling over what to do about Alice, above him is the portrait of the doomed and drowned Ophelia from Hamlet, suggesting that perhaps he contemplates a similar fate for his troublesome lover.



It's not too subtle as to be entirely missed, but it's not so overt that it screams out at you.  It's balanced just well enough to work without being over-the-top.

A Place in the Sun is sweeping in its doomed love story, the beauty of Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor being put to fine use.  It is also an exploration of the lengths one will go to obtain that object of desire, that dream of something so removed from us that one would go to any lengths to obtain it.  It's a tragedy and a romance, and sometimes the two go together.

One cannot help surrendering when one hears "Tell Mama...Tell Mama all".

DECISION: A+

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2: A Review


GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 makes me think of the old Smiths song, That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore.  It also reminds me of people who tell the same 'funny story' over and over and once more, then end by asking me if I got it.  What was fun and zippy the first time round turns to diminishing returns the second time round.

Our title characters: half-human Star-Lord aka Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), his green-skinned love interest Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the literal-minded behemoth Drax (Dave Bautista), and the duo of Rocket Raccoon and Baby Groot (voiced by Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel respectively) are up to more hijinks.  This time, after killing a monster for the ethereal and excessively pompous Sovereign people in exchange for them handing over Nebula (Karen Gillan), Gamora's wicked sister who is still hell-bent on revenge.

As it so happens, Rocket decides to help himself to batteries that the Sovereign hold of great importance.  The Sovereign are incensed, or as incensed as these rather cold golden beings can get, so they go after the Guardians.

At this point, rather than just hand the damn batteries over (or to my memory never really explaining what Rocket would do with them or why the Sovereign were so passionate about them), the Guardians make a run for it.  Fortunately, they are aided by a mysterious figure and they jump to a new planet where they literally crash.

Here, the mysterious figure reveals himself as Ego (Kurt Russell), Peter's long-lost father.  He has been searching the galaxies since the being hired to bring Peter to Ego as a child, Yondu (Michael Rooker) never delivered him after Peter's mother died.  Now it's father-son bonding time, as Ego spirits some to his own world of pure imagination.

I say some because while Peter, Gamora and Drax, along with Ego's companion Mantis (Pom Klementieff) are with Ego, Rocket and Groot have been working to both repair the ship and keep Nebula imprisoned.  The Sovereigns, having hired Yondu and his crew to bring in the Guardians, have taken Rocket and Groot.  Yondu's excessively gentle manner when it comes to the Guardians, especially Star-Lord, causes his crew to mutiny, locking the three of them up and killing off those loyal to him except for Kraglin (Sean Gunn, director James Gunn's brother), who accidentally started the mutiny.  Kraglin, however, helps the others escape.

Back on Ego's world, Ego informs Peter that Ego is a Celestial, a godlike being who genuinely loved Peter's mother and now wants him to be on this new world.  Gamora, for her part, is still highly suspicious, but she has Nebula to worry about.  She's managed to make it to Ego's world in an effort to kill her, but they end up calling a truce when they find multiple bones in this paradise.  It seems that Ego, rather than being benevolent, is actually malevolent, looking for one of his many spawn to help him harness the power.  When they don't, he kills them (hence all those bones).

The Guardians, who do manage to reunite in time (Rocket, Groot, Yondu and Kraglin all managing wild leaps from one point to another) do battle with Ego, defeat him, and then set up for the next series of films in this never-ending saga known as The Marvel Cinematic Universe.



There is much wrong with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 buried under the bright colors, cool retro soundtrack and fanboy cheering can't cover.  The film is an unspeakably long two hours and sixteen minutes (including post-credit scenes, some of which I admit I didn't see because I'm frankly beginning to tire of them).

You can see Gunn (who wrote the film also) working overtime to make things longer and to force a lot of the humor.  I look as an example when Rocket laughs at the name "Taserface" (Chris Sullivan) when said character has announced both his name and his intentions.  All right, you can have a laugh about it, but that bit gets stretched out and out and out to where it's being grinded out.  Then you have to see the severe Sovereigns get in on the act and burst out laughing when they too hear the name "Taserface".

This happens a great deal in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2: jokes and bits that might have worked if they were mentioned once and only once and/or 'comic' bits and scenes stretched out ridiculously long.  Baby Groot trying to find the device that will allow Yondu to control an arrow, Drax asking if Ego had a penis for when he impregnated Peter's mother, the long killing of Yondu's men by Rocket, the Sovereign's fighting the Guardians via remote control video game-like consoles, the wild distortions Rocket & Company endure as they speed to rescue Star-Lord.


I get that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 wanted to keep to the fun, lighthearted manner of the original, but so much of the film genuinely calls attention to itself in a 'look, here we are being clever bit.  It's a bit like a stand-up comic who has talent but is trying too hard with endless variations of 'Take my wife...please!"  At one point, the mutineers ask whether they should kill Baby Groot.  Taserface replies in a gruff, sharp manner, "NO, he's too adorable to kill," which I'm sure had the fanboys in stitches, maybe even applauding, but which in retrospect just sounds too obvious that they are playing to the audience.

I think the lowest when it comes to fan-service in place of an actual story comes in what is supposed to be the climatic battle between Star-Lord and Ego (showing the Marvel still struggles with its villains and their motivations save Loki from the Thor films).  While Fleetwood Mac's The Chain plays (and to its credit, the film did use the soundtrack well) and we've got all this world-destroying mayhem, and Peter has to battle the man who both begat him and killed his beloved mother, for reasons known only to Gunn and Marvel Studios, Peter takes the form of an animated Pac-Man (complete with sound).

Why Peter Quill opted to do this, why James Gunn decided this would be clever or necessary at this point, well, why ask why when there's so much fun to be had?

I can't find fault with the performances on the whole.  We had good standouts: Elizabeth Debecki as Ayesha, Queen of the Sovereigns kept things serious while knowing when to play things for laughs (the audiences, not hers).  Rooker too did well as Yondu, the father figure to the future Star-Lord.

However, while it's nice that Pratt is attempting to stretch as an actor (and give us the Obligatory Shirtless Scene to show off his great body), I don't think he got the 'I miss having a Dad' scenes as well as he did the 'I am showing how goofy/action-oriented Star-Lord is' scenes.  Everyone else did well, but there was nothing new to the table.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a terrible disappointment because it thinks it's funnier than it actually is, when in reality the joke they started only left me crying.

DECISION: D-

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Show People: A Review



SHOW PEOPLE

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

It's a terrible disservice to remember Marion Davies as either William Randolph Hearst's longtime mistress or the inspiration for Susan Alexander, talentless drunk harpy, from Citizen Kane.  Davies was a born comedienne, delightfully versatile with a wonderful mixture of charm, elegance, and zaniness that would have probably made her a premiere funny girl if not for Hearst's involvement. Show People is not just a showcase for Davies' unique brand of comedy or even a spoof of Hollywood.  In some ways, it's one of the first meta film before the term was used.

In a strange turn, it could also be its own version of Citizen Kane, reflecting how a bright comic performer was essentially done in by artistic pretensions.

Peggy Pepper (Davies) is a Southern belle who has come to Hollywood to become a legitimate actress, chaperoned by her father, Confederate General Marmaduke Oldfish Pepper (Dell Henderson).  It's a bit of a task getting into showbiz but Peggy does.  She meets brash low comic Billy Boone (William Haines), who gets her into one of his slapstick shorts.  Peggy is mortified when she unwittingly becomes part of a comedy bit involving her getting seltzer splashed on her face.  She's despondent, but Billy comforts her, telling her she needs to take it on the chin.  Ever the trouper, she does.

To her surprise, her comedy film becomes a wild success, so much so that even Charlie Chaplin himself (in one of Show People's many cameos) asks for her autograph, even if Peggy at first has no idea who 'that little man' was.  Despite that success, she still aspires to fine art like those of John Gilbert in such films as Bardelys the Magnificent (Gilbert doing another cameo).  Peggy manages to attract the attention of bigwigs at High Art Studios, which offers her a contract, but not to Billy.  While Peggy is sad to say goodbye to all the friends she's made at Comet Studios, and especially to Billy, she moves forward.


Now billed as 'Patricia Pepoire', she at first finds the adjustment to grand cinema a bit jarring.  She still is down-to-Earth enough to not be impressed when she sees 'Marion Davies' on the lot (Davies essentially doing a cameo as herself in a film that she stars in).  However, she soon starts gaining great pretensions about her 'craft' and her new costar/boyfriend, Andre Telfair (Paul Ralli), who claims to be a nobleman.

While shooting their newest grand film on location, Billy shows up to her set, his crew also doing location work.  Billy laughs at "Patricia Pepoire's" pretensions as well as at Andre, whom he claims worked as a waiter selling spaghetti with him early on.  Our posh Patricia angrily dismisses him, and a sad Billy goes back to his lot, working to make 'em laugh.

Patricia is told in no uncertain terms she is becoming unpopular with the public, who are rejecting her grand artistic statements and want a more real persona back, if not a full-on return to her comic past at least someone audiences can relate to.  She scoffs at such notions, and decides what she needs is some good publicity.  That means marrying Andre and becoming a real-life Countess.

Billy, too much in love with Peggy, goes to her wedding determined to stop her.  At first she won't hear of it, but some seltzer to her face and her throwing a pie in anger at Billy, only to end up on Andre's face, makes her see how pretentious she's gotten.  With that, she rushes to Billy.

Show People is in a technical sense not a silent movie.  We can hear the roar of the crowds, the rattling of dishes, and a musical score.  I don't know why MGM opted to not make this a talking film, but had it done, we might have lost some wonderful moments.

At the heart of Show People's delight is Davies.  She shows herself a wonderful comedienne, able to play scenes for laughs.  One of the is when she is informally 'auditioning' at a casting office.  To show off her range, she uses a handkerchief to hide her face as her father introduces her wide range: meditation, passion, anger, sorrow and joy.  Each mood has Davies revealing a different face to 'express' said emotion.

Davies is obviously playing this for laughs, but she has such a wonderful, expressive face that lets her get away with an exaggerated manner.  She is funny whenever she has to face 'indignities' and when she becomes the sophisticated 'Patricia Pepoire'.  Even when Peggy doesn't mean to cause trouble, such as when she crashes various sets trying to get to Billy's set, Davies makes Peggy's innocence comedic without being idiotic.

Haines is now best remembered as the star who walked away from movies rather than give up his longtime partner, refusing to hide his homosexuality for the sake of fame.  In Show People, it's more than his good looks that got him to be among the most popular and well-received stars of the era.  He is great in the funny scenes and in his ability to knock down pretensions wherever he saw them; he is also endearing when a scene requires a lighter touch.  How he comforts a despondent Peggy when she finds she was essentially tricked into being a comic foil shows a tenderness that is used effectively.  Haines even manages to show disdain and irritation when he's forced to stay and watch something he feels is far too grandiose for its own good.

The film is in many ways both a love letter and a send-up of Hollywood, poking gentle fun at the newfangled and wild industry.  From the mocking of the 'High Art' Studios productions to how Peggy in her naivete accidentally walks behind two actors shooting their own scene, Show People enjoys having fun at how films come to life.


Of particular note are the various cameos from silent film stars.  Even now, the scenes with Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Renee Adoree, William S. Hart, and even director King Vidor himself playing 'King Vidor' show that Show People was pretty much in on the joke.  The entire plot of our Peggy or Patricia marrying a count is clearly a reference to another silent film star, Gloria Swanson, who did exactly that.  The cameos, some lost to today's audiences, must have been a sheer delight for contemporary ones.

As I said, Show People was meta before meta was cool.  The film was highly clever in having Marion Davies appear as herself to a disbelieving and disinterested Peggy.  That was the fun part.  The less funny part is that Show People plays as a comic but still eerie version of Davies' life in the way that Orson Welles' Citizen Kane played as his own.

Show People showcases Davies' masterful comic abilities, but her patron Hearst did not like her in these goofy roles.  His taste ran to more elegant features, which is why despite her wonderful light manner she was pushed into lavish epics such as When Knighthood Was in Flower.  These types of films downplayed Davies' true gifts in comedy and ironically impeded rather than enhanced her career.  Once she got into more 'serious' films, like Patricia found, the public started turning away from her.

As a side note, I think the same happened to Mary Pickford once she moved past the 'little girl' image she had mastered.

If Hearst had allowed his mistress to do more comedies in which she excelled versus the costume pictures she was made to do, Davies might be better-remembered as a female Chaplin or Harold Lloyd.  She might even have been able to eventually do more dramatic work (and her scenes of sadness when not played for laughs show she could do drama).  Davies might have been able to go into sound with greater success.  In short, Show People is missing only the domineering lover to be an unofficial biopic.

Putting that all aside, if we go by the film, we see that Marion Davies was a delightful screen presence: a gifted comedienne who was expressive, boisterous, and amusing, without short-changing drama when it called for that.  Show People is a showcase for Davies, a wonderful, funny movie about the insanity of movie-making and those who make them.



DECISION: A-

Monday, August 28, 2017

Gotham: The Executioner Review



GOTHAM: THE EXECUTIONER

Well, here we go again.  The Executioner has more minuses than pluses, some almost hilarious lines and some very curious situations.

Captain Nathaniel Barnes (Michael Chiklis) has gone completely mad and is serving justice all over the place to those whom the law has been unable to capture.  If it means executing people without benefit of trial, so be it: absolute justice must be served.  Detective Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie) knows Barnes has been infected with the Tetch virus and is not in control of his senses, but he can't let on.  Gordon's partner, Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue) doesn't believe that the by-the-book Barnes, who hasn't had an incident in his 20-year career, has suddenly gone bonkers.

He forgets, this is Gotham City.

Barnes, aware that Gordon is on to him, now is going to set him up for murder or maybe murder him himself.  Gordon, however, manages to convince Bullock just enough, with some help from Dr. Lee Thompkins (Morena Baccarin) to save him in time.

In the two other subplots, our dear Ivy Pepper, all grown up but still with the mindset of a child, steals a large emerald from a collector.  Bad move.  Even worse, Ivy (Maggie Geha) has finally revealed herself to her best friend, Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova).  Selina calls in help from Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz), whom Ivy surmises is her boyfriend but whom Selina still refuses to recognize as such.  It isn't long before men are pursuing Ivy (and by extension, Selina and Bruce) for said emerald.  Bruce manages to buy it from Ivy for the maximum price of $5000 from its original $1000 (Ivy completely unaware that Bruce is a billionaire and as such, $5000, an outlandish price to Ivy, is pittance for him).  When they go to return it, they find the art collector dead, stabbed through the eye.

In anger, Selina tosses the emerald, only to find that a key emerges from it.

Our Bloodhound Gang will surely begin to investigate.

Finally, Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith) is still in deep mourning for his dead girlfriend, who for once he didn't kill.  His best friend, Mayor Oswald Cobblepot aka The Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor) does his best to get Nygma up and running, even by putting him in Mayor Cobblepot's official portrait.  Nygma, however, can't let go, and goes to place flowers where Isabella died.  There, Nygma gets the story from a homeless blind man that Isabella was screaming in terror as the train was coming down, contradicting the idea that she fell asleep and was killed.

A little investigating shows that her brakes were cut (and Nygma is both angry and astonished that no one on the GCPD noticed, leading him to suspect bribery along with foul play).  Nygma tells Pengy whom he holds responsible: Butch Gilzean, enacting revenge for unmasking him as the Red Hood Gang leader that caused havoc for Penguin.


The Executioner made me laugh more than it did make me excited.  I think it was a combination of a lot of things.

I howled in laughter when Bullock gives this unintentionally hilarious line to Gordon, "You got to tell Barnes what Symon said".  I'm genuinely surprised that Logue didn't burst out laughing as well when he read it or that he got through saying something like that and not laugh out loud himself.

While the subplot of Selina, Bruce and Ivy was nice (and Geha was good as the physically adult, mentally child Ivy), something about these kids forming some sort of investigative group to find what's behind the key strikes me as just a little off the beam.

I also wondered about something I think is a bit of an inconsistency when it comes to Captain Barnes.  In Blood Rush he was able to physically push someone through a wall, so when he and Gordon are having their ultimate battle I figure Captain Barnes would whip out his super-strength and be able to kill Gordon with his own hands.  Yet for some reason, Barnes' almost superhuman physical prowess didn't break through.

It isn't as if they were unevenly matched physically (both of them standing at 5'8"), though Chiklis at 54 is fifteen years McKenzie's senior. However, given what we've seen Barnes do, it seems highly curious that he in essence holds back from laying the smack down.

When it comes to the Nygma Investigates story (which by the way, I think would make a great show: Nygma Investigates) was anyone genuinely surprised that Nygma would finger the wrong person?  Was anyone similarly surprised that a wino would suddenly show up to give important information?   It seems a bit odd that Nygma hasn't picked up the gay vibe that Pengy throws, or the fact that Pengy has all but thrown himself at Nygma, which would put Cobblepot among the list of suspects.



One wonders if Oswald would have to come into Ed's room completely naked, crawl into his bed, and start devouring him before Nygma got with the program.

Again, I struggle with the graphic nature of Gotham.  The show is dark, but something about seeing Barnes hang people strikes me as again, gruesome.  I doubt anything will top seeing a character literally explode on television, and I get that Gotham is going to have violence.  I however still am troubled by the highly graphic nature of the violence, which is why I would not let my young children watch it and maybe my teens watch it with me while cringing.

Again, not throwing the baby out with the bathwater.  Geha and Chiklis were extremely strong as Ivy and Barnes, though Chiklis at times seemed to barely hold on to not slipping into camp.  The rest of the cast was still as strong as ever.

It's in the overall story that I wonder if Gotham couldn't have found something slightly better or stronger.

4/10

Next Episode: Time Bomb

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Thank Heaven: A Memoir Review


THANK HEAVEN: A MEMOIR by Leslie Caron

For Today's Journeys in Classic Film entry in the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon, I've decided not to review a film from today's star, Leslie Caron, but instead her memoir, Thank Heaven (the title inspired by a song from her film, Gigi).  Thanks to Kristen Lopez for allowing me to participate.

I am a permanent loss to understand why An American in Paris is held as this brilliant masterwork.  I found it, apart from the elaborate and brilliant final musical number, almost obscene.

To me, it struck me as an ode to stalking. It was almost a mix of American Gigolo and Lolita: a man pursuing an engaged girl almost old enough to be his daughter despite her constant rejections while also being essentially a 'kept man' by an older woman under the guise of being his 'patroness of the arts'.   Gene Kelly was 39 years old when he made An American in Paris, while his gamine costar/discovery, Leslie Caron, was a mere 20. Yet despite the fact she was engaged to another man, he kept pursuing her despite her 'no means no' declarations.

Still, people do seem to love it, and love Gigi as well.  In that one, we see that charming musical numbers can paper over the fact that our very young title character is being trained to be a man's mistress.  More shades of Lolita wrapped up in great songs.  Such deep philosophical thoughts aren't expressed in Thank Heaven, Caron's memoir.  Rather, Caron looks back on her life and career, one that had great highs, great lows, great self-doubts, and a surprising salvation from an unlikely source.

Caron, the daughter of a French chemist and an American dancer, grew up in a very charmed, almost Belle Epoque world of manners and Basque summer homes, a world of wealth, refinement, and love from her grandparents.  Her parents were not terrible, but there was a certain distance, especially from her mother.

Then came The War, which upended everything in Caron's life.  Gone were the lavish homes and warm summers, the nice clothes and abundance.  In came the cold, the deprivations of all sorts of material: food, clothes, running water.  It wasn't just the shortages that were a burden.  It was the Occupation itself, one that affected even how people behaved towards each other.


It was not the best of times, and even children's pranks took on an accidentally sinister air (Leslie and her brother Aimery would sometimes crank call strangers and in German accents say they were 'the Gestapo', which would terrify the listener until they realized it was children).  Neither Leslie or her brother realized at the time just how dangerous these crank calls were and she deeply regrets her antics.

At long last, the war ends, and Caron shocks her family by announcing she wishes to become a professional ballet dancer, Caron unaware that to her grandparent's generation, a 'ballet dancer' would by default be a wealthy man's mistress.  "Do you want your daughter to become a whore?" her beloved but horrified Papy asked Caron's mother.  Nevertheless, she persisted. She also showed great skill and enthusiasm for dance.

To her great surprise, she received a phone call from Hollywood, bringing her to MGM.  Gene Kelly had seen her a year earlier in a ballet, La Rencontre, and had gone backstage to meet her.  She, however, had already left home, unaware the American actor/dancer had sought her out.  Rushing off to America, land of her mother's birth, Caron and her mother begin the journey into cinema history.

Caron never fully thought of herself as an actual actress, constantly struggling to be one.  She also found herself in a curious position: not American enough for parts other than the foreign ingenue, and yet never accepted into French cinema, where with the exception of her friends Jean Renoir and Francois Truffaut, she was considered an American product.

Still, Caron kept working as best she could, including on another musical to win Best Picture, Gigi.  By this time Caron had found herself on her second marriage to Peter Hall, who was working furiously to build his eventually great reputation for his stage directing (he was later knighted for his work).  Hall, however, did not want an actress for a wife, and certainly not one who could join him for Shakespearean work.  He wanted a wife for a wife, and Caron struggled with and against that.  The push-and-pull culminated in an affair with Warren Beatty, which ended her marriage.

Finding new outlets for herself, she began to write and opened up an auberge (the French equivalent of a country inn) while still working in film or television, with her career reaching a high point when she won an Emmy for her guest role in Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (SVU) in 2007.  


Caron does not spare herself from examination on the less than positive aspects of her life.  She is open about some of the bad films she was in or that didn't quite work how she would have liked.  For example, she thought the subject of drugs in The Subterraneans could have been for a good film, but she found working on it difficult due to her costars joining forces against her; one of them, Janice Rule, was married to the screenwriter and felt she should have been the lead.  The other, George Peppard, offered Caron a tryst essentially to 'get into character', which she turned down.  He was not amused.

"I thought then, and still do now, that he was a wooden actor," Caron writes, still displeased by it all.  Caron also expresses dislike for two generations of the Douglas acting family, stating that Kirk Douglas was more interested in his tennis game than being a judge at the Cannes Film Festival, and that she didn't like Michael any more than she did his father when Michael and Joel Douglas produced Courage Mountain, a version of Heidi.  "Rivals in cynicism", she says of the Brothers Douglas.

She goes on to state that when she objected to technical inaccuracies in Courage Mountain (such as having a map of Europe dating from 1960 when the film was set in World War I), they were curtly dismissed with "It doesn't matter, they won't know the difference!"  More infuriating was that Douglas essentially got the film on the cheap: the contracts with the cast and crew claiming Courage Mountain would be a television film when he secretly planned to release it as a feature film.

Caron expresses great delight in reporting the film flopped in theaters.


As well as detailing the people she knew and met, those she loved and those she disliked, Thank Heaven also gives us quite curious insight into what might have been.  Warren Beatty, for example, is portrayed as highly talented but almost desperate for approval (particularly from his sister, Shirley MacLaine), always playing at being a star but not liking it.  So besotted was Beatty with Caron, that at one point he made the bizarre suggestion that she play Bonnie to his Clyde.  Soon after, Beatty came to his senses and realized the part required an actual American.

Thank Heaven gives us more than just the high and low points of Caron's career or her views of the famous she knows.  Caron has a bright, light style, particularly when discussing the many travails she endured when opening her auberge, things that might make for a good comedy under the right hands.  She also expresses cold self-awareness, ruminating on struggles with depression and alcohol, and the troubles with her mother, who committed suicide.

After reading Thank Heaven, I find that Leslie Caron is worthy of a reevaluation in terms of her career.  It goes beyond Gigi or An American in Paris or even Fanny and The L-Shaped Room.  It would be interesting to see the depths of her acting ability, to see whether her long-held view that she was more dancer than actress is accurate.

It is surprising that the War got only one chapter, but as she often states, Thank Heaven is her memories of how she remembers things, not a strict recitation of facts and figures (which may explain why she remembers Le Divorce much more fondly and thinks more highly of it than the general public).  It makes an interesting and quick read for a woman almost 90.  I cannot say I'm a Leslie Caron fan, but after Thank Heaven, I am a Leslie Caron respecter.

And who knows, perhaps I will be converted, though for the life of me I don't remember her at all in Chocolat.  Could I have fallen asleep when she was on screen?

At one point, Leslie Caron jokes that when she was younger, she thought a good title for a memoir would be how many scripts sent her described the character she was offered to play: She's Not Beautiful, But...  While I have not seen all of Caron's films, even the lousy ones, and was not taken by some of the ones she was in, I reject the notion that she was not beautiful.

If by 'beautiful', you mean 'erotic', then perhaps that is a good estimation of Caron.  If by 'beautiful', you mean warm, open, honest and charming, then yes, she is beautiful.

Thank Heaven for Leslie Caron.

Born 1931

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Gotham: Blood Rush Review



GOTHAM: BLOOD RUSH

Blood Rush is a hit and a miss: we get a lot of the Gotham crazy but we also get perhaps a bit too florid with one storyline that maybe should have been toned down a touch.

Captain Nathaniel Barnes (Michael Chiklis) is still struggling to keep the Tetch virus from taking full control, letting him become more unhinged in his absolutist fight for justice.  It's a losing battle, as he gruesomely kills off a 'cleaner', someone who cleans up a murder crime or gets rid of bodies.  Both the actual dismembered body the cleaner was getting rid of, and Barnes' gonzo justice to said cleaner, were a bit more gruesome than I would like and one that I would not let my children see (something Gotham has struggled with: balancing violence with graphic depictions of).

The newly reinstated Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie) and his loyal partner Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue) find themselves investigating this crime, while Barnes does his own investigating into the cleaner's connection to a low-level mobster called The Toad.  The Toad insists he's a middle-man for someone higher up, a plastic surgeon named Dr. Symon (William Abidie), who ostensibly is a respected surgeon but who has a sideline as a mob surgeon, altering faces for on-the-lam criminals.  To get new faces, he has no problems killing victims, and Barnes comes across one of the doctor's newest victims.  Despite Symon willingly surrendering, Barnes' rage cannot be stopped and he assaults Symon.

Symon, however, has connections, more than likely those of the Falcone family.  Don Falcone (John Doman) is throwing a party for his son, Mario Calvi (James Carpinello) and his fiancee, Dr. Lee Thompkins (Morena Baccarin).  Barnes goes for Lee, but is informed that Symon is now out.  His rage is now all-out, and he throws Symon through the wall from a high floor.  Symon lands on a car and lives long enough to whisper to Gordon that it was Barnes who did this.


In our secondary plot, Isabella (Chelsea Spack) triggers fears in her new love, Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith) when she wears glasses, having him flash back to Miss Kringle, the woman he loved and killed.  Nygma is intensely worried that history will repeat itself, and he asks his good friend, Mayor Oswald Cobblepot (Robin Lord Taylor) to tell her that he's breaking up with her.  Cobblepot is thrilled to follow through with such a request, but Isabella won't give up her man so easily.

She pushes Nygma into seeing that he wouldn't harm her, and Nygma is convinced.  Penguin is incensed that their romance is back on, and does what any gay man passionately in love with a straight man does: he has the woman killed, by cutting her brakes.  Isabella therefore is unable to stop when she approaches a passing train.

Like our friend Nygma, Blood Rush seems to have a bit of an identity crisis.  There are some wonderful things within the episode.  You have Spack and Smith together again, working so well as our doomed lovers.  Chiklis is also strong as the morally conflicted Barnes, who is giving in to his urges to bring about justice no matter what.

That being said, a lot of Blood Rush seems awfully weak.  There are some really bad moments and some wild stretches of logic.  Both of those are related to Isabella's death.  It seems wildly coincidental that the train would be coming down just as she was driving in what appears to be a reasonable speed.  I just wondered that given she wasn't speeding why she didn't either swerve or jump out of the car when she realized she had no control over the brakes.

I also thought her reactions were surprisingly, almost comically understated given the gravity of the situation.  It did come across as almost comic rather than tragic.


Going further into the subplot, it's one thing to do shout-outs to other film or television projects, but Blood Rush seemed to be going for outright ripoffs.  As Nygma waits for Isabella only to see her emerge looking like Kristen Kringle, the echoes of Vertigo were not just overt, they were downright parodying the film.  They even had a glowing green light just like in Vertigo to where you expect the music to appear too.

Homage is one thing.  This here is something else.

I also wonder whether having Nygma seeing things in mirrors again was a good idea.  It gave Smith a chance to showcase his acting skills, but did it help to be a touch repetitive?  And that isn't even covering the rather bonkers idea of a gay Oswald pursuing a straight Edward with such fervor as to make him almost pathetic.

And that was the subplot.  Moving on to the main plot, we also get good and bad.  It's already a bit of a wild stretch to see Barnes literally break through a wall as he hurls Symon out through it (and again, touching on the gruesome and graphic) without anyone noticing or hearing; when he looks out though and says "Justice is served," you think that maybe having Barnes say a line that that was not a good choice.  It makes it sound as if he's doing quips, even when delivered in dramatic fashion.  Perhaps having him just stare out there would have been enough.

The sequences where he's going crazy, where he hears Bullock's voice and words echoing as the detective speaks to him, and as he descends further into insanity are well-filmed and executed (no pun intended).  If Gotham is good at anything, it's in its cinematography.

The interplay between Chiklis' Barnes and Doman's Falcone were also well-acted to where you'd like to see them face off against each other.

Having Bonkers Babs just pop in seems however as if they are just shoehorning her in, just like last week, considering she was there for well under five minutes both times.

Blood Rush is setting things up, so I cut it some slack.  However, is Chelsea Spack doomed to play the perpetually killed-off girlfriend to the future Riddler?  You'd think she would have learned by now...



5/10

Next Episode: The Executioner

Friday, August 25, 2017

Gotham: Red Queen Review


 
GOTHAM: RED QUEEN

It has been a long, long time since I've touched on Gotham.  Due to a host of other matters, I've let Gotham slip by, but now it's time to go back before Season Four begins.  For a show that was predicted to fail quickly due to not having Batman, Gotham has found itself to be a hit.  Red Queen continues our villain du jour, The Mad Hatter, and keeps things going on our homage to Vertigo and Nygmogglepot: the pairing of our all-but-out Penguin and our apparently clueless straight man Riddler.

Jarvis Tetch aka The Mad Hatter (Benedict Samuel) is still plotting to take revenge on Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie).  He does this by stealing the body of his sister, Alice, whose blood can still drive people to fits of insanity.  He now has a new weapon, the appropriately-named 'Red Queen', which is a powerful hallucinogen.  Tetch uses this on Gordon, who descends into other realms that explore his psyche, with his guide being Barbara Kean (Erin Richards).  Among his fantasies are seeing Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) in a mask pushing him off, Mayor Oswald Cobblepot aka The Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor) as a backward-speaking soldier, and even his late father, District Attorney Peter Gordon (Michael Park).  The late Mr. Gordon advises his son that he can do no good hiding behind a self-righteous lone wolf nonsense, and that his family has a code.

"While we breathe, we shall defend," is the Gordon Motto in Latin, and now it is time for Gordon to finally make his choice: to return to the GCPD.

Pengy, for his part, is too upset about the romance between his Chief of Staff Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith) and librarian Isabella (Chelsea Spack), who bears an eerie resemblance to Nygma's great love, Miss Kristen Kringle to be concerned with matters legal and criminal.

Isn't it the way of the world: a gay man in love with a straight man pursuing said straight man beyond reason.

There's more love in the air as Bruce makes a special meal for Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova), who shows up late, but does show up.  There's also danger as Captain Barnes (Michael Chiklis) finds that his infection of the Tetch virus is growing stronger within him, and that a potential cure is years off, which he does not have.  This anger, which makes him murderously dangerous, comes close to fully coming out when Tetch crashes the Founder's Day Dinner, where the Mayor and other bigwigs go join the most powerful and oldest families in Gotham.  While the police save Pengy from real danger of hallucinating (one wonders what he'd do in a drugged fit), Barnes' rage is getting the better of him, and Tetch knows it.


I found Red Queen to be a good episode based on our journey into the dark soul of Jim Gordon, with Visions of Gordon that are a little bonkers at times.  Beautifully shot with some really wild images that are both foreshadowing (it's almost as Jim knew that Bruce Wayne would adopt a secret, hidden identity) and a little bit odd (why exactly is Oswald Cobblepot speaking backwards?  An homage to the dancing dwarf from Twin Peaks?), it lends Red Queen that surreal quality the episode is going for.   

I think Red Queen was meant to be less about the wild goings on in Gotham City and more about Jim Gordon reconciling himself to being on the GCPD.  It's not as if he were the central point of the episode, but the journey into insanity was meant to be the central point.

I got to give credit to Samuels for fully embracing the camp nature of The Mad Hatter, fully embracing the crazy of the character. 

There's also the two & a half love stories going on around Red Queen.  There's not much time given to Bruce & Selina (do they have a cutesy nickname like Brulina or Seluce, I wonder?), and it did seem that they were there kind of to fill time, but both Mazouz and Bicondova work so well together as the future Batman and Catwoman that we can see how they would end up being the most mismatched pair in history.

Now we go over to Nygma and Isabella.  Smith and Spack also work well together in this most gentle of love stories.  Smith does a really great job focusing on Nygma's remarkably gentle nature, and Spack also on Isabella's kindness and genuine love for Nygma, even if they've known each other for the briefest of time.


Taylor is still my favorite, though here I though his desperation for poor Nygma was a bit excessive, almost pathetic.  Since I figure that's how the character is supposed to be, I can cut RLT some slack, but something about Pengy's obsession for an ostensibly straight man strikes me as a bit strange.

Yes, I know he's in love with Nygma, which would make the character gay (I don't think he's bisexual).  It does, however, make me wonder why he would go to such great lengths to pursue someone who has shown both no inclination or suggestion that he would find romantic love with Cobblepot, let alone sexual desire.

Nygma's sexual desires and romantic interests have always been towards women, and while there's nothing to say that Nygma may be bisexual, there's also nothing to support that premise either. 

I figure Penguin isn't interested in sex, for as a criminal kingpin and the Mayor he could procure any man willing or even unwilling to satisfy Cobblepot's sexual urges.  It's romantic love he's after, but why he would pursue Nygma in such almost desperate ways to do so is something I don't understand.

One thing I wasn't thrilled on is how weak Morena Baccarin's Dr. Thompkins is.  It's almost as if the show has lost an idea over what to do with her, as she keeps being the object of desire between Gordon and Dr. Mario Calvi nee Falcone (James Carpinello).   Despite how good Baccarin is as an actress, Thompkins is not as good a character as I remember her. 

Finally, I continue to be impressed with how good Donal Logue is as Harvey Bullock.  It's good to see how he has really transformed into a genuine cop versus his early days, not as big of comic relief as he once was but still with a touch of humor to him.

I liked, but didn't love Red Queen.  It was a good, strong episode and a nice return for this series that I have forsaken for much too long.


7/10

Next Episode: Blood Rush

Thursday, August 24, 2017

The Lost City of Z: A Review


THE LOST CITY OF Z

Perhaps one of the reasons The Lost City of Z didn't do well in America was the fact that Americans pronounce the letter as "Zee" versus the rest of the English-speaking world which pronounces it as "Zed".  Therefore, the title makes it sound amusing to American ears, as if they were doing an adventure story set on Sesame Street.  The Lost City of Z, I figure, is a much better book than it is movie, for in its efforts to be epic, maybe even Oscar-bait, if failed to be entertaining.

Major Percy Fawcett (Charlie Humman) is a disgraced son searching to redeem his family name.  An opportunity pops up when the Royal Geographic Society asks him to survey deep in the jungles of Amazonia in an effort to settle the Brazil/Bolivia border and avoid war between the two.  Fawcett takes along Mr. Costin (Robert Pattinson) as his aide-de-camp (though they meet aboard the ship bearing them to South America).  It does mean leaving Mrs. Fawcett (Sienna Miller) back home in England, along with both their son Jack and the baby on the way.

As they enter the jungles and survive various dangers, Fawcett and Costin finds some evidence that there may have been a great civilization in the jungles hereto unknown.  Eventually returning as heroes, Fawcett insists on his case of a great civilization that is located in what he calls 'the City of Z (Zed)', though he is dismissed by many as looking for the mythical El Dorado of conquistador infamy.  While Mrs. Fawcett believes she should go on the second voyage, Major Fawcett insists she stay home.  He, Costin, and another explorer, Manley (Edward Ashley) go for a second expedition, this time bringing James Murray (Angus Macfadyen), who will help finance the journey.

The fat Murray is not built for the rigors of jungle trekking, and moreover is a coward, greedy, and pretty much a selfish scoundrel.  He slows them down, rejects the natives (though to be fair, they do appear to be offering them a touch of cannibalism) and takes food not meant for him.  While Manley and especially Costin would like to shoot him then and there, or at least leave him, Fawcett insists on giving him the last horse and some supplies to send him back.

Murray thanks them by pouring oil over their remaining foodstuff.


Once again in England (where Fawcett meets his daughter...seems Mrs. Fawcett gets pregnant every time he comes back), the men are surprised to see Murray not only alive and well but lying to cover up his horrors, insisting they apologize to him.  Fawcett refuses, apologizing to his men instead for having ignored them, and resigns from the RGS. Fortunately, World War I has begun, and he goes and serves.  He and Corbin survive but Fawcett's son Jack (Tom Holland) is bitter about the constant abandonments from his father: first his explorations, then the war.

It's now that Fawcett finds that many people, mostly Americans, have become fascinated with exploring the wilds of Amazonia, and look to Fawcett as an early influence.  He is persuaded to return one more time to find the Lost City of Z, and this time Jack insists on coming too.

Together, they go off into the jungle, funded by a consortium of American newspapers and John D. Rockefeller, Jr.  Corbin declines the offer to return.  Fawcett pere et fils go, find themselves caught in an inter-Indian war, and in the film are drugged and taken down the river.  Mrs. Fawcett retains hope that her husband and firstborn will return and are not dead, but they are never seen again.

The Lost City of Z has so much going for it, that it is a clear wonder to understand how it failed so miserably.  I put it as a combination of bad performance and especially bad directing by James Gray (who also wrote the screenplay).

It just seemed that every time the film had an opportunity to be good, Gray decided it needed to be 'important'.  I cannot say how close or far The Lost City of Z stayed or veered from the book, but the film seemed to go out of its way to be derivative of others, particularly those of Werner Herzog.



At one point Fawcett and Corbin come across an opera being performed in the middle of the Amazon rainforest.  If that isn't a straight-up rip off of Herzog's Fitzcarraldo (where the title character dreams of building an opera house in the jungle) then it's one of the wildest and most surprising coincidences in film history.

Still on this first journey, The Lost City of Z slips from one Herzog masterpiece (Fitzcarraldo) to another (Aguirre, The Wrath of God).   As the float down the river, the crew looks like it had wandered from or into Herzog's conquistadors epic down to certain images, such as the boat they encountered.

I'm genuinely surprised Humman didn't end up picking up a monkey and declaring himself King of Amazonia.

And it isn't as if Gray and The Lost City of Z didn't pay 'homage' to other, better films.  While the score is credited to Christopher Spelman, I found very little in it that was original.  The film quotes if not flat-out lifts from Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring and Debussy's La Mer among other works. Given that the former was written in 1913 and the latter in 1905 it is doubtful they would have been heard when Fawcett was exploring.

Perhaps La Mer could possibly be background music for the time, but Rite of Spring is simply not possible given we heard it or echoes of it when the film was in 1906.  


It might have done The Lost City of Z a world of good if it did have Humman go Klaus Kinski bonkers, given how dry he was in the film. It would have shown that Fawcett had at least some emotion to him.

There are many things I dislike in film, and among them is when people confuse hushed tones with serious drama.  Again and again everyone in The Lost City of Z appears to whisper their dialogue, as if they are making a film inside a library.  All that whispering, all that quiet, even when they are supposed to be shouting or raging or be filled with anger, is indicative to me that the film thought of itself as a serious, somber, sober drama instead of a potentially good action/adventure film.

If it didn't want to go that route, that's fine.  An exploration into the conflicted, obsessed world of Percy Fawcett would have been equally compelling.  It's unfortunate then that Gray had Charlie Humman show virtually no emotion throughout.

Humman with this and King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is not making a case that he is a good actor.  He's making a case instead that he is a bad actor (though again to be fair, I have never seen Sons of Anarchy).  Humman never shows us what drove Percy Fawcett, what kind of driving obsession he had for either his family or finding the Lost City of Z.   He never seemed to have any emotion, any passion, any genuine anger.  Only once did I see Humman/Fawcett express any real emotion: when he confronts the Royal Geographic Society about his believes in a pre-Colombian civilization.

Apart from that, every time someone might have shown some emotion: when dealing with his wife/son's sense of abandonment, when Murray was showing his arrogance, when he faces danger all around, Humman seems so terribly detached from everything.  It's astounding how remote and distant he is in the film.  There's no sense of passion, emotion, anything really.

Robert Pattinson still hasn't made a case that he is an actor, but with his appearance here he makes a great case for casting him as Torgo in any Manos: The Hands of Fate related film or remake.   Macfayden, a generally good actor, never makes Murray either the villain that he is or the man who might be inspired to join Fawcett on his second voyage. It makes one wonder why he was there at all.

Holland isn't in the film long enough to make us question whether he's a bad actor or a good actor with lousy directing, but he too is forced into this 'hushed, quiet' manner of speaking that should drive people crazy.  Miller was there long enough to show she needs better material to showcase her skills, which she does have.

There's a certain dryness in The Lost City of Z, for what should be tense or exciting isn't.  I think the film thinks that being slow and quite and still it will be somber and serious, but ends up being boring.  By having everything be so serious, even moments that lend themselves to be amusing or at least light fail.

Bad performances with bad directing lead to an awful film and a wasted opportunity.  The elements are there.  They are just lost.

1867-Circa 1925

DECISION: F

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+