Friday, August 31, 2018

The Gorgeous Hussy: A Review (Review #1089)

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Hussy Fit...

The Gorgeous Hussy is going to be among the oddities of Joan Crawford's career in that is was a rare venture into costume pictures.  Crawford was best known for contemporary films, as she was known as the epitome of the 1920's 'flapper'.  As such, seeing her in all these hoops and pantalettes might not have been a good fit, no pun intended.  What could have been a breakthrough for Crawford instead turned into a slight embarrassment, where she was gorgeous but hardly a hussy.

Margaret 'Peggy' O'Neill (Crawford) is the daughter of a respected Washington, D.C. innkeeper.  Politically aware and astute, she becomes an object of fascination and lust by the various politicos and wanderers to Major O'Neill's inn.  Among them are rakish sailor 'Bow' Timberlake (Robert Taylor) and John Eaton (Franchot Tone), a Senator.  However, Peggy has her heart set on two men: one romantically, one spiritually.  Her great love is another Senator, John Randolph (Melvyn Douglas), and her political soulmate is yet another Senator, Andrew Jackson (Lionel Barrymore).

Randolph thinks Peggy is too immature and young to marry, despite her protests of love.  She soon falls, perhaps reluctantly, for Timberlake, and accepts his marriage proposal.  Her dear 'Uncle Andy' and 'Aunt Rachel' (Beulah Bondi) are shocked to hear gallivanting going on in her bedroom, until Timberlake shows their marriage license.  Actually, the idiot lost the license, but Jackson did not bring his reading glasses and pretends to read it.  Timberlake actually showed the Jacksons his newest orders for the Caribbean.

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Peggy sadly learns that she is a widow, and now she throws herself into helping Uncle Andy become President.  She also keeps dreaming of Senator, now Russian Ambassador Randolph, who yearns for her too but cannot bring himself to seek her out.  One person who does seek her out is Eaton, who is also eager for Jackson to become President.

The 1828 campaign is a nasty one, dragging poor Rachel through the mud.  Rachel's divorce from her first husband had not technically been finalized when she married her beloved Jackson, so the Washington wives call her essentially a whore.  The fact that she's a pipe-smoking rustic woman does not help.

The Jackson campaign has managed to keep the most malicious press from 'Backwood Rachel', but she still learns about it on the eve of Jackson's win.  Heartbroken and humiliated, she dies, asking Peggy to take care of Andy.

By this time, the political divide between the Unionist Peggy and the Dixie-loving Randolph become too great for both and they reluctantly part ways.  Peggy becomes the unofficial First Lady, but despite her knowledge and grace the Washington wives don't care for 'Pothouse Peg', even after she marries the elegant Eaton, who becomes a Cabinet member.

Jackson, still carrying the anger of Rachel's treatment, sees Peggy as a wronged woman, one with whom he's willing to go to war with his own Cabinet over.  He has other pressures though, including a growing secession movement from the South.  Randolph finds himself caught up in this when he is approached to help ferment a revolution.  He refuses, and is promptly shot for it.  Peg rushes to a dying Randolph, escorted by a mutual friend, Rowdy Dow (James Stewart), a newspaper man.

Poor Peggy cannot catch a break: her going to the dying Randolph with a man not her husband sets tongues wagging, and Jackson is determined to stomp out this vitriol against our gorgeous hussy. A tense Cabinet meeting with them and their wives leads to Jackson demanding apologies for Mrs. Eaton, apologies they summarily refuse.  Jackson insists that it was he who asked Dow to accompany Peggy with Eaton's consent, but this will not protect any of their reputations.

Reluctantly, John and Peggy Eaton go off as a special envoy to Spain, where they can finally enjoy their love in this unofficial exile.

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I think where The Gorgeous Hussy went wrong was in the casting of Crawford as our 'gorgeous hussy'.   It isn't that Crawford cannot act.  It is that she simply looks wrong trying to look younger than she was and as demure and innocent as Peggy was supposed to be.  She seems nervous on-screen, which is so out-of-character with both her persona and some of her  other performances.

It's as if she was put-off by all the costuming, and that unease seeped into her performance.

Sometimes, she looks genuinely angry and too strong to be this damsel in distress.  That could have worked to her advantage, such as when she has to stand up for herself against men who know less than she does in the political realm.  However, for the most part director Clarence Brown, who like Crawford was a pro, could not get her to convey that innocence or gentleness of this maligned female.

One particularly odd moment was when she was told that Bow had died.  On receiving news that her love was dead and that rather than the joyful reunion she expected she was now a widow, Crawford looked more angry than pained at hearing this news.  It wasn't an anger of the injustice of it all either, it was more of an irritated anger.

Crawford's performance in The Gorgeous Hussy was all wrong, sometimes comically so.  Ainsworth Morgan and Stephen Morehouse Avery's adaptation of Samuel Hopkins Adams' novel did not help.  "I'm not only too young for politics!  I'm too young to love too!" Peggy yells at Randolph at one point, and it's hard to make lines like those believable.

There were a few moments where Crawford and Brown showed they could do a few good things.  One nice moment was when Peggy silently kisses the door where Randolph is staying in, but for the most part Crawford looks out of place and ill at ease among the costumes and overwrought romance.

It wasn't as if any of the others did much better.  This was an early film for Stewart, and like Crawford, he looks uncomfortable and not convincing as Dow, among her court of suitors.  One really strange moment was when Peggy, Bow and Rowdy were on a hayride.  As Peggy and Bow were flirting, we see Rowdy glancing from behind playing his flute.  Few things look creepier and distracting, almost as if Stewart is trying to upstage them.

It was a small role, but I can see why so many women fell for Robert Taylor, the rakish but love-smitten Bow being a nice part, even if it was a bit overplayed.  Overplayed is how Louis Calhern was as Sunderland, Randolph's political enemy and killer.  The only thing he needed to do was twirl a mustache as he devours every scene he is in.

Tone was his usual formal man as the upstanding Randolph.  He did, however, have a good moment when he confronts his wife's accusers. "I demand proof of their accusations, and proof of their respectability", he thunders when he's told 'respectable ladies' have accused Mrs. Eaton of indecent behavior.

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I thought Barrymore was a bit over-the-top as the hillbilly-like Jackson, but over time Jackson's crotchety nature got to me.  Barrymore, to his credit, could be pulled back: a scene at a church window he dedicated to his late wife was very moving.  Bondi was the one who came out of The Gorgeous Hussy the best as Rachel Jackson.  She could play the more hillbilly-type mannerisms for gentle laughs than open mockery, but in the sadness she felt when she learns just how the public thinks of her, she is quite moving.

It's no surprise that Bondi earned the first of two Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominations for The Gorgeous Hussy, as her performance elevates the film tremendously.

The Gorgeous Hussy is a product of its time: the treatment of the African-American characters, such as there were, is highly problematic, and the 'Negro' choir singing hymns outside Master Randolph's window as he is dying is creepy.

Odd how 'creepy' keeps coming up again and again with regards to The Gorgeous Hussy.

The story of the 'Petticoat Affair' could make for an interesting feature film.  Hopefully we'll get one, for The Gorgeous Hussy, outside Bondi and those lovely frocks, has little that would make anyone's dander get up.


Thursday, August 30, 2018

A Special Day: A Review

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A Special Day (Una Giornata Particolare) is a departure for its two leading stars. It is a sad, haunting tale of two people who are so different and yet so alike, finding that the other is not what he/she seems.

May 8, 1938, Rome, Italy.  Adolph Hitler has come to meet his Fascist counterpart, Benito Mussolini.  Il Duce pulls out all the stops for Der Fuhrer, hosting him to a lavish parade and all Rome it seems is there.  Well, almost all Rome.

In a nondescript apartment complex there are at least three people who will not be attending.  Housewife Antonietta (Sophia Loren) would like to go with her husband and six children, but the housework cannot wait.  She knows that the apartment concierge (Francoise Berd) cannot go either, and Antoinetta figures she is alone in the complex.  After having readied her family to attend, all loyal if not fanatical Fascists like the concierge, she begins her duties.

One of them is feeding Rosamunda, the family myna bird. To her dismay, Rosamunda escapes and Antonietta becomes frantic.  Fortunately, she spies that someone else hasn't gone to the parade, a man living across the way.  She goes to that apartment and asks for help.  The man, Gabriele (Marcello Mastroianni) agrees and together they get the myna back.

Gabriele seems lonely, and Antonietta is surprised to discover he was a radio announcer, though now unemployed.  Both of them are very lonely people, and they begin a conversation.  She goes, but he then goes to her apartment, where over the course of 'a particular day', they spend the time laughing, arguing, commiserating, and revealing.  She discovers that Gabriele is a homosexual and anti-Fascist, two things our Catholic devotee of Mussolini doesn't understand.

Yet, she sees a kindred spirit in his kindness and need for someone. At the end of this day, they do appear to have a tryst, but she leaves to meet her family.  She begins reading the book he gave her, The Three Musketeers, and watches as the police take him away.

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A Special Day is a showcase for our two actors, who essentially play it as a two-person play.  This is a total departure from the screen images of both Loren and Mastroianni.  The epitome of glamour and seductiveness, Loren plays a frustrated, sad, and somewhat frumpy housefrau. Mastroianni, of whom one can say is also the epitome of glamour and seductiveness, plays a quite, haunted homosexual. Both roles are clearly at odds with how most of us see them, and yet they surpass themselves in showing just how strong they are, both as actors and as a screen pairing.

In terms of performances, Loren and Mastroianni achieve something extraordinary; they display true emotions in these two figures.  Loren's Antoinetta seems to carry such unhappiness within, and in a way her support for Fascism and Mussolini is not one built out of hatred towards others like Gabriele, but more as something to make her life a little brighter.  She knows her husband is consistently unfaithful, and worse, his current mistress is something she is not: educated.  Loren as Antoinetta has wonderful moments, such as when she reveals the deep hurt she has, not so much of her husband's infidelity but in that his mistress has more education.  It is not the sex that bothers her so much as a sense that she isn't worthy.

Image result for a special day movieThat is probably why she gravitated towards Fascism and Mussolini, down to having a photo album of Il Duce, a collage of Il Duce made up of buttons, and even speaks movingly of when she saw him briefly on horseback, to where she fainted when their eyes met.  A Special Day, in that respect, gives an indication as to why Italy and Germany both fell sway to these tyrants.  It may not have been just a mad desire to wipe out peoples en masse.  It might just have been to feel part of something great, something that would improve their lives.

I feel I've wandered off a bit.  As strong as Loren is as this sad, heartbroken and simple woman, Mastroianni is equally strong as this man, finding himself on the verge of exile if he is lucky, hiding his sexual orientation and seeking solace among anyone with a friendly face.  Mastroianni is gentle and almost meek as Gabriele, a man on the verge of losing everything and finding on this day a kindred spirit in a most unlikely place.

However, when he rages, he rages.  Given how gentle Gabriele is, when he finally explodes with Antoinetta, screaming at the top of his lungs that he is homosexual, including terms for it that I won't use, you see the anger burning beneath him.

He and Loren give simply magnificent, heartbreaking performances.

It's to director Ettore Scola's credit that he kept the audience's interest when so much takes place in a confined space and with basically two people.  He also bathes the film in sepia, filling in with a sense of the pathos of the past.  He has a great tracking shot where we first enter the family apartment, the camera moving smoothly from room to room as Antonietta rises everyone and gets her family going, the weariness within her close to the surface.

A Special Day is a very quiet film, and a very moving one.  It's a sad and haunting tale of two people who find each other just when this monumental event will shape their small lives without their active participation.  It's a sympathetic portrait of these two different yet similar people, tenderly portrayed by two fine actors.


Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Young Man With a Horn: A Review

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This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon. Today's star is Lauren Bacall.

Young Man with a Horn is a thinly disguised biopic of Bix Biederbecke, a troubled jazz cornet player. Unlike Biederbecke, we get a happy ending.  We see some great performances, some very interesting subtext and all that jazz.

Willie Willoughby, better known as 'Smoke' (Hoagy Carmichael), tells us the story, both in voiceover and directly to the camera in the beginning and end.  Rick Martin had a troubled childhood: both parents dead by age 10, cared by a sister who wasn't that involved.  Rick began wandering away from school and life until he came upon a Rescue Mission and heard the piano.

Starting to play, he finds himself a bit of a prodigy, but it's when he hears the trumpet that Rick believes he's found his calling.  He soon starts being mentored by Art Hazzard (Juano Hernandez), a trumpeter who sees potential and trouble in Martin.

Rick (Kirk Douglas) soon starts showing his talent at various clubs and orchestras, but he also wants to play jazz 'his' way.  This method does not jive well with Jack Chandler's Dance Orchestra, which Chandler insists plays dance music in the same way for the audiences' benefit, not for artistic aspirations.  Rick's talent and genius attract Smoke and Jo Jordan (Doris Day), the band's singer, into being his friend.

After Rick does an impromptu jazz bit with other orchestra members, Rick's fired.  Jo, however, uses her influence to get him into another band, one that welcomes a trumpet soloist if he can rein himself in, which he does.  Jo also introduces Rick to one of her best friends, Amy Woods (Lauren Bacall), a beautiful, somewhat haughty and mysterious woman.  Rick is instantly taken with Amy, but there's something about Amy that we can't peg.

Jo warns Rick that Amy is "a strange girl", who is "all mixed-up inside", but it's too late: they've married.  Amy wants Rick to be more refined and high-class, not mix so much with juke joints and people like Art Hazzard, who is still playing though not at the strength he used to.  Rick soon struggles between his love for Amy and his love for the trumpet, whom Amy calls his 'alter ego'.

Eventually, things give way, especially since we get the strong suggestion that Amy may have designs on her fellow female student.  The end of his marriage sends Rick on a downward spiral where even his trumpet fails him.  A bout with alcoholism and depression wreck him more, along with guilt about how he dismissed Art before his death in a car accident.

Ultimately though, with the love and support of Smoke and Jo, Rick returns to be a better human than trumpet player.

Image result for young man with a hornYoung Man With a Horn is a surprise in many ways.  First, it comes from director Michael Curtiz, perhaps the most underappreciated director in history.  The man could direct everything from romantic melodrama like Casablanca to lavish musicals like Yankee Doodle Dandy to action films like The Adventures of Robin Hood to horror films like Mystery of the Wax Museum to strong dramas like this. 

As such, Curtiz brings certain elements that showed subtext.  One involves mirrors.  Almost every time we see Amy, we see her reflected in a mirror, as if Curtiz is suggesting that she is presenting an image, not the real person or even if she is real herself. 

Another is the 'lesbian' bit.  There is no overt mention that Amy is lesbian or even bisexual, but there is again enough subtext to let audiences fill in the idea if they wish to see it.  There is Jo's declarations of how Amy is 'strange' and 'all mixed-up inside'.  There's Amy's own affection for her other female friend, and a very telling bit of dialogue from Carl Foreman and Edward H. North, when Amy comments on how simple Jo's life is because she knows 'which door (she's going) to walk through'.

One can read that line as saying Amy envies Jo's straightforward life, but it could also mean that Jo, unlike Amy, goes only one way sexually versus Amy's 'confused' manner.

Another aspect that separates Young Man With a Horn from other films is the positive portrayal of African-Americans in the film. Art Hazzard is a mentor to Rick, almost a father figure. There is no suggestion that Rick thinks himself superior, and when Amy seems about to suggest something racist against Art, Rick flies into a rage.

One can quibble whether Hernandez's somewhat noble and patient Art is a step forward for African-Americans on screen or an early indication of the 'Magical Negro', though I would say it isn't since Art does not resolve anything for Rick.

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One surprise in the acting department is Carmichael, known better as a songwriter who wrote such hits as Stardust and Georgia on My Mind. Carmichael carved a good career as a supporting actor in film, usually playing a jaded or cynical musician, though not as jokey as say an Oscar Levant.  Carmichael holds his own against the cast as the guide to our story, bringing a world-weariness yet compassionate nature to Smoke. 

Interestingly, Carmichael knew Beiderbecke, the inspiration for Young Man With a Horn.  His friendship with the real 'young man with a horn' and his own musical experience more than likely informed Carmichael's performance.

Granted, I wasn't thrilled with the voiceover or having Smoke speak directly to us at the beginning and end, but one can't have everything.

Douglas managed to keep that volcanic over-acting that sometimes plagues his performances and makes Rick a talented man too in love with music to care for anything else only to get hurt when he slips for Amy.  He isn't raging like he is in other films that at times make his characters come across as hysterical or crazed, but here he seems genuine and at times rational.

Bacall keeps to being a cool to cold customer, one who is forever seeking and never satisfied.  She is almost sympathetic in her snobbery and yet obscure in her true self.  Day seems a little ill-at-ease in this drama, a bit unsteady.  However, as Young Man With a Horn was not just her fourth film overall but her first straight drama far from the more frothy musicals or comedies she started out with, Day acquitted herself quite well.  She shined when she sang, but she also showed her potential as a dramatic actress, which she would develop further.

Day was also fortunate to team up again with Curtiz in their third collaboration.  Having guided Day in musicals and comedies, she benefited from his expertise in this drama.

An element not mentioned often enough is trumpeter Harry James, who played the music, showcasing his versatility and why he was popular in the big band era.

Young Man With a Horn has the positives of strong performances, an interesting story and some wonderful music.  Perhaps the voiceover and direct narration, along with the happy-type ending may not be completely believable, but on the whole a worthy picture.

Bix Beiderbecke


Monday, August 27, 2018

All That Heaven Allows: A Review

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Whatever the flaws someone can find in a Douglas Sirk film, he was unapologetic about celebrating the lushness of cinema.  All That Heaven Allows is more than just grand melodrama beautifully shot.  It's also almost subversive commentary on 1950s mores and social standards, almost to where it predicts the rise of a counterculture to rebel against Eisenhower-era morality.

Widow Cary Scott (Jane Wyman) lives a quite and comfortable but somewhat secluded life since her husband's death.  She has two college-age children who visit, a best friend, Sarah (Agnes Moorehead) and an imitation of life with her bridge and country club set.

There is also someone else on the periphery: Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson), the hunky gardener who comes every fall and spring to work on the Scott yard.  Ron is different from the other men Cary knows.  He is a simple, rustic man, who lives simply, directly and with no need of wealth, caring only for the trees.

He also is in love with Cary, and soon, she falls in love with him and his world.  Ron surrounds himself with, while not exactly bohemians at least with people who live freely and who enjoy life outside the rat-race and social set.  Ron proposes and Cary accepts.

However, the local gossip Mona (Jacqueline de Wit), sees this pair and soon starts spreading the news all over town.  Here is this older, wealthy woman with this younger, poorer man.  Worse is Mona's subtle suggestion that Cary and Ron had been carrying on before she became a widow.  The seeds for scandal are planted.  Moreover, Ron does not care about what society thinks, but Cary does.  She also cares about what her children think, and both her son Ned (William Reynolds) and daughter Kay (Gloria Talbott) are shocked at all this.  The idea that Mother would sell the family home to live in the woods with some gardener.

To both their regrets, Cary breaks off the engagement.  Ron is heartbroken but he is true to his principles.  Cary is equally miserable, her misery compounded when Ned and Kay announce they will move on and worse, encourage Mother to sell the house.  To add insult to injury, Ned has bought his mother a television set, the very symbol of the lonely woman.

Eventually, Cary is convinced to go back to Ron, and she attempts to but hesitates.  Ron too has been pushed to go to Cary, but an accident stops him.  Once Cary learns of the accident, she runs to Ron, telling him she is now home.

Image result for all that heaven allowsIn a certain respect, All That Heaven Allows is a bit hokey and melodramatic, but Sirk sells it by being so lush with the visuals and music.  This kind of love affair is very grand without being overt or tawdry.

One thing I think Sirk has not received enough credit for is how he is a master of light and shadow to show subtext.  For example, when Cary and Ron are together in the mill house when he confesses love, we see him in light, but Cary in the dark.  After they kiss (and perhaps make love off-screen), we see them together, and it is now Cary who is bathed in light while Ron is in the shadows.

To me, that suggests that before she gave herself, Cary was in the darkness of societal constraints while Ron was free and open.  Once she found love, Cary, now in full light, had wisdom and love and was free to be herself.  Ron, however, was now bound to her, unaware of how strong her world was.

Granted, I may be reading too much into things, but I think Sirk is too good a director to not play with metaphors.

He certainly did in that famous shot of Cary seeing herself reflected on television, essentially now a shadow figure watching the world at a distance and not being part of it.

Credit should also be given to Russell Metty's lush cinematography, for few films are as beautiful as All That Heaven Allows.  The visuals play a role in the story, whether it is the joy of Ron's party versus the stiffness of Sarah's soiree, or the beauty of Ron's rustic retreat.

Related imageWyman never makes Cary into a stiff or brittle woman but instead a woman burying deep emotions within.  Yes, at times it is a bit dramatic but the role calls for it.  Hudson may never have been a particular good actor, but here he holds his own as the Thoreau-loving and quoting gardener unafraid of society or anything except his love's rejection.

It's interesting that Moorehead was given a more sympathetic role than usual as Sarah, Cary's BFF who at least attempts to help Cary and isn't totally shocked at the 'May-December' romance (given in real life, there were only eight year's difference between 'the older woman' and 'the younger man).  I think she gave a good performance, but I also think that her face seemed a bit too tough to be that sympathetic ear to her friend's plight.  Somehow, I think she would have been cast as Mona, but at least Moorehead showed she could play kind even if she seemed too tough to believe in such a role.

All That Heaven Allows is lush and romantic, with a plot that does touch one emotionally.  We see how social commentary can be couched in beautiful colors, where we ask why anyone, even the adult children, should have veto power over matters of the heart.  Beautifully filmed, well-acted, All That Heaven Allows is both internal and grand in its love story.


Sunday, August 26, 2018

This Can't Be Love: The Television Movie Review

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Is it a good thing or a bad thing when two actors, in their declining years, appear together for their first collaboration?  Is it a joining of two great thespians, or self-parody to the point of pain? This Can't Be Love teams up two-time Academy Award winner Anthony Quinn with four-time Academy Award winner Katharine Hepburn. There's a certain delight in seeing two legends not only essential play themselves but almost spoof themselves, but at time This Can't Be Love seems less about them and more about the younger set involved in their winter love.

Marion Bennett (Hepburn) is a grand dame of the screen, essentially retired and living out her years painting, gardening and commenting on how the world would be better if everyone did as she thought.  She drivers her driver Grant Landis (Jason Bateman) if not bonkers at least to puzzlement at times with her quirks, such as the idea that not waking up by six a.m. means 'half the day is gone'.

In turns fascinated and exasperated, he gleefully goes along with Madame Bennett's views.  One day, they spot a woman following them around.  Marion dismisses her as 'a fan', but despite this she gladly invites this woman, Sarah Wells (Jami Gertz) for dinner when she brings Grant the ice cream she had 'mistakenly' taken from him.  Sarah has an almost encyclopedic knowledge of Marion's life and career: she recognizes both George Cukor and 'Michael Reyman', an actor Bennett worked with.  Marion does not appear to have fond memories of Michael, but thinks nothing of the whole thing.

That is until Michael Reyman (Quinn) suddenly shows up.  In truth, Sarah says she's Michael's granddaughter, and they've cooked up a scheme to have Michael and Marion reunite.  Into their web they get Grant to help 'Cupid fire his final arrow', as Michael says. It is discovered that Michael and Marion were secretly married for five days, which resulted in not just a miscarriage but also in bitter recriminations. 

It appears that Michael wants a chance to reunite with Marion, but then things take a turn. Marion, on the cusp of being wooed, finds Living on the Roller Coaster, Michael's memoirs.  His memoirs involve their relationship, and the private Marion is incensed.

Her anger puts a dent on the Grant and Sarah romance, which has its own blow when it's revealed that Sarah isn't really Michael's granddaughter, but his literary agent.  No one will publish this faded star's book without the juicy details, and after their brief encounter Michael is now reluctant to publish.  Marion gets herself arrested for stealing a horse and carriage, Michael ends up in the hospital for trying to show he is still the man he once was, and Grant is offered a teaching position in Arizona.

Ultimately, both pairs of lovers reconcile: Michael hands over the only copy of his book to Marion, who burns it, and Sarah leaves her job while Grant opts to stay with Miss Bennett.  Marion goes to the train station to find Michael, convinced that instead of asking 'Why?', she should ask 'Why not?'

Image result for this can't be love 1994It's surprising to see that This Can't Be Love was directed by Anthony Harvey, who directed Hepburn to her third Oscar for The Lion in Winter. The surprise isn't so much that Harvey directed this bit of fluff or even that This Can't Be Love ended up being his final film.

The surprise is that he could not get Hepburn or Quinn to go beyond playing themselves.  Despite the names, the two leads might just have well been called by their right names.

This Can't Be Love was announced as Hepburn's final performance, but she ended up making two more projects, another TV movie and Love Affair with Warren Beatty. Not having seen that film or One Christmas, I cannot say how they compare to this, but This Can't Be Love does nothing to stretch Hepburn.

It does give her a chance to play up her image as a cantankerous legend and to issue a few wisecracks. When a fan asks for an autograph at an art gallery, she dismisses the request as idiocy. "Of what possible use could my name on a piece of paper be to you?", she casually states in her clipped New England tone.  "It's a hobby," the man helpfully replies.  "Collect stamps," she whispers and shakes her head.

Watching the film, you think Hepburn is not so much even sending up her own image but just being herself with a thin veneer of acting.

The same goes for Quinn, who is boisterous as Michael Reyman.  Perhaps writer Duane Poole realized that 'Rey-man' could be a bit of a pun, since 'Rey' is Spanish for 'King' and Quinn is Hispanic.  Perhaps that is also giving Poole far too much credit.

Quinn seems to almost delight in vamping it up as this exuberant swashbuckler, even though in the opening montage we see only 'Marion Bennett's' past triumphs.

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Oddly, Harvey made some very odd choices.  For example, he shot Quinn and Hepburn in medium shots even when they were supposed to be in the same room, almost as if they were acting apart and speaking to someone off-stage.  With Gertz and Bateman, they were shot together.  It does seem strange that when you get two respected stars of the 'Golden Age' to work together, you spend little time having them literally share the screen.

Gertz and Bateman work well together, though the twist of Sarah not being Michael's granddaughter was unnecessary.  Bateman made Grant believable as this eager but naive figure and not a cliched imbecile.  Oddly, the opening scene where Marion storms into his room at six in the morning to find him only in boxer shorts shows that he was rather fit.

One wonders why Reyman and Sarah had to go through all these hoops when perhaps a simpler love story would have worked.  One also rolls their eyes at the cliched and hackneyed idea that Marion would come across Living on the Roller Coaster so quickly.

Despite all this, This Can't Be Love has a bit of charm.  It allows Hepburn to roll out some great quips (example: when Reyman says age is a state of mind, Marion retorts, "I live in an old state, one of the original 13 colonies").  It gives a chance for Bateman to play the innocent and Gertz, while not the strongest, at least able to keep up.

Not on the level of either Hepburn or Quinn's best work, This Can't Be Love is decent if a bit trite, and I can't fault it for not stretching when it never intended to. Besides, how often will you see Katherine Hepburn have a heart-to-heart with a horse or Anthony Quinn leaping onto a coffee-table swinging a sword?


Saturday, August 25, 2018

Star 80: A Review


The life and death of Playmate Dorothy Stratten is among the saddest tales in Hollywood.  Stratten's external beauty was matched by her inner beauty, the rare woman who could be considered innocent while posing nude for erotic photographs. Her story, Star 80, made a mere three years after Stratten's shocking murder, was director Bob Fosse's final film.  Star 80 is not so much a cautionary tale but a portrait of how darkness can destroy light, a beauty devoured by a beast.

Told in a faux-documentary style with flashbacks to the time prior to the murder of Stratten, we see how Paul Snider (Eric Roberts) entered the life of Dorothy Stratten (Mariel Hemingway).  Paul was a small-time player and pimp who came up with wild plans to make money and 'be somebody'.  He meets Dorothy in Vancouver, British Columbia in 1978 when she's working at a Dairy Queen.

Young and naive to the point of being totally innocent, she is charmed and flattered that someone would pay attention to her.  Paul attempts to ingratiate himself to her family, but while Dorothy's younger sister seems taken in, neither her younger brother or her mother (Carroll Baker) seem to care for him.  Paul takes pictures of Dorothy, which he uses to get more professional photographers to take an interest in her. 

The ultimate goal is Playboy Magazine, and Dorothy is surprised that anyone would think she could possibly be a Playmate.  Dorothy's mother refuses to sign the consent form, as she is only 18.  Somehow, however, Dorothy and Paul go to Los Angeles.  While Dorothy's natural charm and endearing, innocent manner make headway with people, including Playboy founder Hugh Hefner (Cliff Robertson), Snider's efforts, however, fail spectacularly, as his over-eagerness to please comes across as more smarmy than sincere.

Hefner thinks Dorothy has major crossover potential to become a star, if not an actress.  Dorothy goes along with things, even if she seems thoroughly uninterested in a career.  Her excitement however grows when she meets Aram Nicholas* (Roger Rees), a famous film director who is equally fascinated by Dorothy's external and internal beauty.  Something akin to My Fair Lady takes place as Dorothy begins wondering if there is more to her and the world than what Snider has given her.

Eventually, Snider's rage and jealousy cause her to split up with her now-husband, but despite Aram's warning to not see Snider, at least alone, she goes one more time to the apartment they shared, for the last time.

Image result for star 80Star 80 never comes across as manipulative or exploitative, though the film can be read as a meditation on exploitation.  Dorothy was exploited in some way by every man she dealt with, certainly and most overtly by Snider but also by Hefner and even Aram.  Star 80, a film about the tragic and sordid nature of her death, in a strange turn may be the most respectful portrait Dorothy Stratten ever had.

The film is respectful of Dorothy in Mariel Hemingway's performance, as she makes Dorothy into a young woman who is extremely kind and naive.  It's as if she were a younger real-life version of The Golden Girls' Rose Nylund.

Take this exchange from one of the many "interviews" the film features.  Dorothy, almost apologetically, states that a TV movie she was in, Wednesday's Child, was hardly worth the effort and is fully aware she was bad in it.  "I'm studying," she says with a touch of self-defensiveness.  "The classics?" one of the reports somewhat sarcastically asks.  "No, acting," she gently and sincerely replies. "I don't know anything about music".

We see someone gently whisper into her ear while the reports look at each other and chuckle.  Dorothy immediately puts her head down and apologizes, stating how dumb that sounded.

It takes an actress of incredible talent to deliver lines like those and make the character sound guileless and naive rather than stupid.  Hemingway makes Dorothy someone who is endearing, kind, who genuinely wants to please and has a gentle charm to her.  In Hemingway's performance, there is a Marilyn Monroe-like manner to her, making Dorothy someone you would like to go to bed with and also try to protect her.

Hemingway never makes Dorothy dim or even unaware, but instead a very gentle soul who is just a very kind and nice person.

Image result for star 80All those things are things that cannot be said for Snider, but Eric Roberts delivers one of the best performances as this man who is desperate to be someone big, someone worthy. It's a credit to Roberts as an actor that he does not resort to making Snider into a cliched monster.

Instead, we see Snider's deep need to be 'appreciated', to be that 'somebody'.  It comes from when we see him early on, and he is rehearsing how he will introduce himself to people.  This desire to be part of a group he yearns desperately to be in comes up again and again, making Snider more pathetic than contemptible, even if he manages to do that to.

When he rages, when he crumbles, when he pleads and dreams, down to pushing Dorothy into getting a fancy car which he will add the vanity license plate 'Star 80', Roberts makes Snider almost sympathetic yet not enough to where we feel sorry for him and especially not sorry over Dorothy. The performance was shamefully overlooked by the Academy, as it is one of pathos and horror.

Robertson keeps to the Hef persona, hinting at how he is more father-figure than exploiter of women. While Baker's role is smaller as Dorothy's mother, she gives a very gripping performance when remembering in an 'interview' that she never signed the consent form to pose for Playboy.  She never openly states that Snider forged her signature (it is unlikely that Dorothy, gentle and honest as she was, would have willingly gone along with a forgery), but as she keeps twisting a towel, she repeats how she didn't sign.

Small but powerful.

Image result for star 80 1983Fosse did something brilliant with the music, something that Martin Scorsese also does.  He used songs to underscore the scenarios.  Unlike Scorsese who uses songs almost nonstop, Fosse is more sparing but no less clever.  From when Paul and Dorothy are at her Prom and slow dance to Just the Way You Are to the repeated use of Do You Think I'm Sexy? when Paul is driving down to Big Shot when he sees Hefner's displeasure at him being at The Mansion, Fosse integrates music well in the film.

If there are flaws in Star 80, it is in the decision to cut between the faux-interviews, presumably taking place after the murder-suicide, and going back to the story.  One doesn't know what the context is with the interviews, and at times seem jarringly out of place. 

However, sometimes they work in a very strong manner, as when we hear Dorothy's various interviews, as if either commenting on or foreshadowing her horrifying end.

Star 80 is a very fine crafted film on a story that still leaves chills and tears.  Dorothy Stratten's story is moving and ultimately heartbreaking.  One can oppose pornography and have issues with how it commercializes people, all subjects worthy of debate.  However, after seeing Star 80 and with masterful performances from Mariel Hemingway and Eric Roberts, one feels so much sorrow and sadness for this beautiful, naive girl, a victim of her own beauty both physical and spiritual. 

Image result for dorothy stratten
*In real life, Dorothy had the affair with Peter Bogdanovich, but as Star 80 is by its own admission, a fictionalization in part about the lives of Dorothy Stratten and Paul Snider, the name was changed to 'Aram Nicholas'.  Further, the names of Dorothy's siblings were similarly changed, and Dorothy's mother's name was simply not used at her request.


Friday, August 24, 2018

Beat the Devil: A Review (Review #1084)


Beat the Devil has been variously described as 'oddball' and 'bizarre', something akin to the murky The Big Sleep, a film people think highly of even if they don't understand what the actual plot is.  I don't think Beat the Devil is that perplexing.  It might be a bit too clever for its own good, but this send-up of heist films might be worth a look-over.

With voiceover in the beginning and end, Billy Dannreuther (Humphrey Bogart) remarks on a group of criminals with whom he is involved.  This motley group is headed by Peterson (Robert Morley), whose avuncular persona hides a more nefarious manner.  Along with Peterson are Ravello (Marco Tulli), a more dimwitted criminal, Julius O'Hara (Peter Lorre), who despite his Irish surname has a German accent, and Major Ross (Ivor Barnard), who is either a Nazi sympathizer or actual Nazi collaborator. 

Billy isn't keen on being in league with these men, but he has to in order to get at land in East Africa that may have mass quantities of uranium. His wife Maria (Gina Lollobrigida) insists she's English despite her Italian accent, or at the very least has British aspirations such as making afternoon teas.

Into this web enter Harry and Gwendolyn Chelm (Edward Underdown and Jennifer Jones).  Gwendolyn is fascinated by Billy, much to the disdain of the uptight Harry.  Gwendolyn soon romances a flattered Billy, and they start cavorting together. 

Things take a twist when Peterson and Billy are mistakenly reported dead: the car they were in went off a cliff but they had gotten out before, trying to push it as it had just broken down. In the confusion Gwen is devastated and Harry is let in on the scheme, Ravello thinking he could help finance it.  Unfortunately for them, Peterson and Billy are alive, and they all attempt to sail to Africa.

More mishaps and mayhem aboard ensue, with the result that Harry is locked up as being insane due to Gwen's statement about him being out-of-sorts, despite the fact that she knows Ross tried to kill Harry on Peterson's orders. 

The ship sinks, forcing everyone to the lifeboats, and Harry unaccounted for.  The other criminals attempt to hide their passports that will reveal their true identities but the local official, not as foolish as Peterson thinks because he is a 'native', has everyone except Billy, Maria and Gwen locked up.  The official is too fond of Billy, who claims to know Rita Hayward personally.

Once they are locked up, Billy reads with amusement a cable from Gwendolyn, telling her he got the land where the uranium might be.

I think part of 'the problem' with Beat the Devil is not so much that it's confusing but that it plays things too serious for the spoof that it appears to be.  As such, sometimes it's hard to see that this is meant for laughs and it ends up looking as though this is serious but rather oddball, even a bit crazed.

We get hints that this whole thing is meant as a lark, such as when the ship's jolly purser walks across the ship's salon and asks "Do I hear a lady screaming?" when Harry is attacked. Lorre's reply, "One down," shifts the tone somewhat from mirth to menace, so I can see how someone watching Beat the Devil might not be sure where exactly they stand. 

As John Huston directed most players to play things straight, we do wonder what exactly is going on.  There is a touch of winking to the audience with Jones, who is completely unrecognizable as the accidental femme fatale

Image result for beat the devil 1953She pegs Peterson's group as criminals instantly.  "They're desperate characters," she says.  "How do you know?" Harry replies.  Her answer? "Not one of them looked at my legs".  She delivers the line with a perfectly straight face, and that is amusing.  Jones shows a surprising knack for comedy, which is wonderful except that when she is asked to be more dramatic, it still plays a bit like a spoof.

Oddly, Robert Morley, known for more jolly or bumbling characters, shows he could play quietly menacing as Peterson.  Despite his size and manner, you sensed that Peterson could be more dangerous and deadly if you crossed him.  It shows an untapped potential with him too.

However, as he played it generally straight, one wonders if he was in on the joke.

Also someone who doesn't appear to be in on the joke is Lorre. He expresses some great lines from Truman Capote's adaptation of James Hevlik's novel.  When waxing rhapsodic about time, he remarks, "Swiss manufacture it, French hoard it, Italians squander it, Americans say it is money, Hindus say it doesn't exist.  You know what I say? I say 'time' is a crook". 

Despite looking shockingly old and frail, Lorre at least seems able to keep up with everyone, but he too plays it straight.

The other players look as if they are in on the joke, but it looked like it was too much of a joke.  Underdown and Barnard seem to play camping it up as the haughty Brit and the crazed Nazi, to where their spoofing of these characters seems wildly broad even for a comedy.

Bogart, to his credit, seems to be in on the joke, playing things remarkably cool and going with the flow. 

Beat the Devil is an odd picture as one never quite knows if it is all playing things for laughs or not. I think it might be worth a remake, but if that were to happen, they'd have to decide how exactly they want to play it and how far they should go one way or another.


Wednesday, August 22, 2018

The Politics of "The North Star"


The North Star was made in 1943 at a time when the Soviet Union was our ally in World War II.  A mere decade later, The North Star would be among the pieces of evidence used to show that Hollywood was making Communist propaganda, with subsequent re-release of the film cut to add more anti-Soviet dimensions under a new title, Armored Attack.  With over seventy years now separating us, I will look at The North Star to see what I can gleam from it in terms of political messaging.

First, an overview of The North Star.  In a Soviet village, North Star, the rustic peasants live a happy, jolly life filled with song and plenty.  One of the boys, Damian (Farley Granger), is set to go to University.  Before that, however, he decides to take a brief holiday to Kiev.  Joining him on his sojourn is his brother Kolya (Dana Andrews), an officer in the Soviet Air Force, Damian's girlfriend Marina (Anne Baxter), and their friend Clavdia (Jane Withers), who is smitten with Kolya.  They ease on down the road, doing more singing and later joining more rustic people riding down these roads until they are caught in a German air assault.

Kolya goes to join his military comrades, while the others attempt to be an insurgency to the invading Fascists.  Back at North Star, the Germans are already heading there.  The villagers attempt to burn down the village rather than surrender it to the Fascists, but the Nazis get there before they finish the job.  Under the direction of Mengele-type Doctor von Harden (Erich von Stroheim), nefarious work is done of the village children: he bleeds them dry of blood to provide blood for German troops. The Soviet doctor Kurin (Walter Huston), who was internationally known and renowned before retiring to the simple life, is horrified.

The North Star villagers form a guerrilla army and The North Star culminates in a tremendous battle between the noble Soviet partisans and the horrifying Huns, one that costs lives of many of our cast but that will lead to the inevitable Soviet victory.

Related imageThe North Star was not some two-bit quickie production or a B-Picture.  It was a 'prestige picture', one that commanded high production value leading to six Oscar nominations.  Its producer was Samuel Goldwyn, one of the few independent producers with clout.  It had music by Aaron Copland and lyrics to songs by Ira Gershwin, cinematography by the legendary James Wong Howe, and screenplay by noted playwright Lillian Hellman.

Copland, Howe and Hellman were among those nominated for Academy Awards for their work, along with the film's art direction, sound recording and special effects.

In short, The North Star was meant to be of the highest quality.  I imagine that many involved in The North Star could not have foreseen that less than a decade later their film, along with Song of Russia and Mission to Moscow, would be held up as Communist propaganda.

I think a very strong case can be made that The North Star is propaganda.  It was made as a response by President Franklin Roosevelt to Hollywood studios to make films portraying the positive role of the Soviet Union in the war effort.  As such, the people had to be shown in a heroic light, with any questions about any 'evils' or atrocities of Soviet Communism ignored. The North Star was specially made to change hearts and minds, and would that not fall under 'propaganda'?

As a side note, it's astonishing that even in wartime, Hollywood studios were quick to rally behind a Presidential directive to make a particular type of film to sway public opinion.  One can only gasp at the thought of studios answering a request from President Lyndon Johnson or George W. Bush asking for similar films about Vietnam or Iraq.

Image result for the north star 1943

The North Star's worst aspect in terms of being propaganda is in the early sequences before the Nazi invasion.  Its portrayal of the village and villagers as being extremely happy and upbeat is shocking to being almost obscene.  These musical numbers are disingenuous to say the least, horrifying at worst.

If one saw The North Star and knew nothing else about this time period, the impression left would be that these villages were filled with well-fed people with their own charming huts, where food was plentiful and where they spent their lives singing and dancing.  These scenes really seem to come from a Soviet film that wants to promote their world as one of frivolity and plenty, where the citizens want to be ruled by a benevolent ruler in Moscow for whom they would lay down their lives and put above all other considerations.

Apart from the scenes of happy, content peasants singing and dancing while picnicking together with much food, we get some pretty surprising bits of dialogue and music.  The scene where the schoolchildren sing a song about the nation isn't a big surprise.  Children in the Communist world would be taught to love the State.

It's other moments that are far more troubling.  In one bit, Damian makes clear that as much as he loves Marina, "the Country" comes before any other consideration.  On the road, with Kolya playing his balalaika, the youngsters sing the chorus, "We're the younger generation and the future of the nation!"  As the men ride out to hide in the forest, they sing about 'being free once more' (as if under Soviet rule, they were free to begin with).  At the end, after having defeated the Nazis, Marina makes a defiant speech as they ride into the unknown.

"We'll make this the last war.  We'll make a free world for all men.  The earth belongs to us, the people, if we fight for it, and we will fight for it!"

Image result for lillian hellman communistIt is not a surprise that The North Star showcased such images and messages.  Lillian Hellman, who wrote The North Star, reflected in her memoir An Unfinished Woman that The North Star came about because an early project, a straightforward documentary about the Russian war effort, fell through.

Her solution was to make, in her words, "a simple, carefully researched, semi-documentary movie to be shot in Hollywood" (emphasis mine).

Her 1937 trip to Russia was part of that 'carefully researched' effort, that trip giving her insight into what a collective farm would be like.  She also states that for more research, she read translations of Pravda, the Soviet Union newspaper.

"The script sounds authentic, I suppose" she concluded, "because Russian motion-picture people to whom I've shown it said it read like a Russian script, which pleased me very much".

One simply marvels at Hellman's total lack of awareness in the idea that The North Star 'read like a Russian (or rather, Stalinist-era Soviet) script' is something to be pleased about given that the Soviet Union was a totalitarian regime.

Her visit to the Russian collective, her taking Pravda as truth, and The North Star itself playing like something written by a Soviet screenwriter at the very least show her to be essentially a 'useful idiot'.  Hellman took everything she was given and shown as truth when the reality was more problematic, to use a Millennial term.

Image result for the north star 1943
The collective Hellman was shown might have been quite jolly and pleasant, but in the Ukrainian* collectives there was fierce resistance, not to the Nazis, but to the Soviets.  There were no happy peasants singing folk songs about the joys of life under Stalin. Instead, there were famines and executions. It was a reign of terror, one so massive that far from fleeing the Nazis, these peasants almost ran to them as liberators.

The Ukrainian farmers were burning their crops and killing their cattle, but not as Hellman paints it, to stop the Fascists from taking them.  They did it to stop the Communists from taking them.

Moreover, Pravda, as the voice of the USSR, was not going to publish the truth about the misery Stalin unleashed. The 'Holodomor' as the Stalin-created Ukrainian famine became known, was not a secret.  Various newspapers in the United States and United Kingdom were reporting on the starvation, even cannibalism happening among the peasants Hellman paints as content and well-fed.  Rather than believe these stories, she chose to believe the official Party line.

I have no proof that Hellman knew the truth about the Holodomor before writing The North Star and chose to ignore it in order to show the Soviet Union in a glowing light. At the very least, she only saw the surface and decided that was good enough.

Other pesky details, such as how up to the 'summer of 1941', far from being outraged at Fascist/Nazi atrocities the Soviet Union was in a non-aggression pact and there was no great talk among the Soviet population about an impending war, are not even brought up.

Perhaps here is where The North Star could have been altered to be less propagandist. Rather than paint North Star as a land of plenty with happy peasants, they could have shown them as struggling to keep their farms going.  At the very least, the decision to make the village so bucolic as to make The Emerald City look like Gotham was a horrendous decision that opened The North Star to accusations of Communist propaganda.

One final note.  It's curious that Walter Huston and Ann Harding, who appeared in both The North Star and Mission to Moscow, were themselves never fully affected career-wise during the blacklist era.

As I look on The North Star, I judge the issue of it being Communist propaganda, as it was charged with being sixty-odd years ago with a hopefully more balanced eye than those who insist that Hellman and her group were all innocent martyrs to freedom or those who equally insist they were collaborators to a monstrous regime they wanted imported and imposed on America.  I've come to these conclusions.

Image result for the north star 1943The North Star is propaganda, made to persuade non-Soviet audiences to have a positive image of the Soviet Union, particularly as a land of happy peasants free from worry and want.

The North Star was made as propaganda at the request of the United States government and not from a direct decision by those involved. I do not believe The North Star's producer, Samuel Goldwyn, would have made it if not for President Roosevelt's encouragement.

The North Star writer Lillian Hellman was at the very least a useful idiot in portraying false and misleading images of a Soviet collective, at worst a willing propagandist who either knew or chose to ignore the truth to create something that 'read like a Russian script'.

The North Star actors were not, to my knowledge, deliberately attempting to subvert the United States by acting in the film.  As actors, their job is to perform the script given to them as convincingly as their abilities and directing allow them to.

The North Star may be propaganda, but it must also be seen in the light of the times it was made.  The desire to show the Soviet Union as our allies brought about this disingenuous imagery.  I do not think The North Star would have been made under independent motives to specifically be pro-Soviet propaganda. 

"Goldwyn received a message from President Roosevelt through Lowell Mellett, the chief of the Bureau of Motion Pictures of the Office of War Information, that American needed a film about our Russian allies," wrote The North Star costar Farley Granger in his autobiography.  If that is the case, then I cannot call it deliberate Soviet propaganda. 

It is the fact that makes me decide that while The North Star is propaganda, it is not part of a conspiracy to subvert the United States.

Image result for lillian hellman oscar
One final point. In 1977 Lillian Hellman returned to Hollywood to present the Documentary Oscars.  Held up as a heroine by presenter Jane Fonda and given a standing ovation, Hellman reflected on the blacklist, commenting that "even before Senator Joe McCarthy reached for that rusty, poisoned ax, I and many others were no longer acceptable to the owners of this industry".

"I have no regrets for that period," she continued.  "Maybe you never do when you survive, but I have a mischievous pleasure in being restored to respectability, understanding full well that the younger generation who asked me here tonight meant more by that invitation than my name or my history".

It is not known whether Hellman had 'no regrets' for her idealization of those 'happy peasants' she wrote of in The North Star, those who ended up dead despite Hellman's idealization of their circumstance and the government she thought highly of.
Image result for ukrainian famine

Oddly, they don't appear to be jolly peasants singing folk songs and feasting on picnics as seen in Lillian Hellman's The North Star.  Maybe it's just me, but I think the subjects of The North Star would gladly exchange their suffering for whatever Hellman endured.

*It is never overtly stated, at least as far as I remember, that 'North Star' was Ukrainian.  I think it was referred to as 'Russian'.  While this does not suggest to me a deliberate deception, I lean towards these being Ukrainians due to them going to Kiev, which is the capital of Ukraine. 

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

The Worst of 2009 So Far

In my continuing quest to organize this site, I have revisited the various postings to see whether any have been left uncatalogued. Given I've written close to 1,100 reviews along with various opinion pieces, it is not surprising that some posts were missed when placed in the archive.

I have now finally completed all the reviews for films released or seen in 2009, and while I did write a Best of 2009 post, I never wrote a Worst of 2009.  Now, at last, having officially cataloged all of those 2009 films that I have seen so far, I am at last ready to rank the ones I thought were the worst.

There may be some surprises here, as some critically acclaimed films found their way onto this list. Let us therefore begin.

10.) 2012

2012 was cashing in on the fabled Mayan 'prediction' of the end of the world in the year 2012, if man is still alive.  It was all sound and fury, badly acted and with some simply bonkers visuals that really didn't make up for just how dumb it all was.  However, given that 2012 was pretty much meant to be junk, I figure I can be merciful.

09.) Watchmen

I think I can be harsher towards Watchmen, the first film I reviewed, because it thought so highly of itself.  The greatest issue with Watchmen is that it was simply too slavish to the graphic novel on which it is based on, leading to some flat-out hilarious moments such as the 'love scene' between Silk Specter and Nite Owl, which might be how the novel had it but which translates into a comical moment.  Pompous, pretentious, and at times baffling, especially to those who have never read or heard of the graphic novel, I again can be a little more kind given that for some reason Watchmen was marketed as being perhaps a new franchise.

08.) Obsessed

Obsessed is, as far as I know, Beyoncé's only real stab at being her generation's Diana Ross in terms of attempting a dramatic film career. Bey's efforts to be seen as a dramatic actress versus just a pop super-diva/icon, however, fell flatter than the crazed woman who plunged to her death.  It's comically bad, but so bad that it can't even be enjoyed as camp.  Filled with totally stupid characters, and dragging poor Idris Elba into this mountain of nonsense, Obsessed is good only as a reminder that Beyoncé's great acting ambitions have not been fulfilled. Outside of music videos, she has yet to return to the screen.

My only real memories of Public Enemies was on how good the Sweet Tarts that I was popping while watching the movie were.  That and how boring it all was.  It's a shame given that the subject matter of John Dillinger and the FBI agent who pursues him could have been.  However, by the end when Dillinger is at the Biograph Theater, I was more interested in the clips of Manhattan Melodrama that were playing than in this snoozefest, another in the "Loss" column for Johnny Depp.

06.) New Moon

Perhaps it is too easy to pick on a Twilight film as being among the worst, given that the whole series, or rather 'saga', is unbearably awful. I think it would be difficult to find which of the Twilight films is the worst because all of them are a crime against cinema, maybe even humanity.  In retrospect though, I think New Moon may actually be the worst, because somehow we got a bizarre 'rationalization' for domestic abuse: the guy is a werewolf.  It's simply too punishing to revisit this horror, so let's move on.

I confess to not liking Logan, despite its wild critical acclaim.  I felt it all too dour, too morose, and I don't go to X-Men films to leave so depressed.  However, even if I were to place Logan in a 'Worst of 2017' List, I would still prefer it over X-Men Origins: Wolverine.  This not only has to be the worst Wolverine film of the six that have him play a major role (I'm not counting cameos), but perhaps the worst in the X-Men franchise.  I guess that means X-Men: The Last Stand can't blame it all on Logan. Cliched story, bad performances, a waste of Deadpool (which makes continuity with the revived series a bit curious), this disaster was so great that there were no other X-Men Origins films for any other characters.

I understand that Gerard Butler is actually a highly intelligent man, down to having a law degree.  One wouldn't believe it after seeing Law Abiding Citizen, a movie that defies logic and even good taste.  We are asked to sympathize with Butler's character, but he's flat-out crazy, enacting his own brand of justice on people who at times seem tenuously connected to the original crime that he was a victim of.  I get where the film wants to go, but it ends up going nowhere. The story makes no sense on so many levels; if memory serves correct, Butler's character defends himself in court and after essentially admitting to killing two people, he's allowed to walk out without bail because of some random legal technicality. Ugly, excessively violent with awful characters matching awful performances, why so many genuinely like Law Abiding Citizen is something I do not understand.

I have seen all the Terminator films save Rise of the Machines, but that might be that to my mind, Rise of the Machines is when the franchise started going downhill. I cannot prove that yet, but I can say that the Terminator films that followed Rise of the Machines have all been pretty bad.  Terminator: Salvation is more Terminator: Abomination.  It abused its actors (what exactly was Jane Alexander doing in this rubbish), and it had its actors abuse others (the film became notorious for a rant its star, Christian Bale, unleashed that was recorded and released). Apart from the much-missed Anton Yelchin (gone way too soon), no one came out of this horror with any degree of dignity. Of course, thanks to Terminator: Salvation, we'll always have this...

Here is a film that was praised to high heaven, but one I could not embrace.  It is not that I didn't 'get' what Up in the Air wanted to say: the importance of connections in a world where making connections means more catching a flight than feeling for others.  I 'get' it.  I just didn't 'like' it. I found it all smarmy, unpleasant, and not at all funny.  Moreover, I do not understand the hold Anna Kendrick has on people.  I find her neither cute or adorable or even generally competent, but to each his/her own.

It may be because I found Larry Gopnick, the object of A Serious Man, to be such a schmuck that I could not emphasize or sympathize with him or his various 'crises of faith'.  I found him so pathetic, such a nudnik that I simply did not care what happened to him. Again, A Serious Man was worshiped by my fellow critics, but why did they rally so much to this yutz's story? He was a wimp through and through, and I figured if he stopped being such a nebbish he could have fixed his life.  I'm sure many thought it was hilarious, and maybe I'm too much of a goy to get the humor, but A Serious Man was a serious waste of my time.

Well, there it is: my Ten Worst Films of 2009 So Far.  And just for the fun of it...

Monday, August 20, 2018

Madonna of the Seven Moons: A Review

Image result for madonna of the seven moonsMADONNA OF THE SEVEN MOONS

Madonna of the Seven Moons starts in one direction and then veers into new territory of the times it was made. Perhaps a bit theatrical, one can cut the film some slack given the time and place it was made.  However, one also can admire, even respect the fact that a hereto little-known subject was given a cinematic treatment.

Maddalena (Phyllis Calvert) is an innocent convent girl who in the opening scene is raped (though the actual rape is never shown, just implied).  Soon after, she is sent by her father to marry Guiseppe Labardi (John Stuart), whom she's never met.  However, from all appearances Mr. and Madam Labardi genuinely love each other and their daughter, Angela (Patricia Roc).

Angela now comes down from England back to Italy for her 21st birthday.  Maddalena is thrilled her child is coming, but is soon shocked by her breeze, more liberated manner.  She's equally shocked to find that her traveling companion 'Evelyn' is not a girl, but a man (Alan Haines).  Maddalena is a refined society lady, but she also is troubled, sometimes going into trances and behaving curiously.  She also disappeared for at least a year, something Mr. Labardi is keeping a closely guarded secret.  Not even family friend Dr. Logan (Reginald Tate) can get the truth, let alone Angela.

Angela is not just celebrating a birthday.  She has accepted Evelyn's marriage proposal.  This thrills their mutual friends, artist Jimmy Logan (Peter Murray-Hill) and his wife Nesta (Dulcie Gray).  Jimmy has heard of Madam Labardi's great beauty and yearns to paint her, but he has no idea what she actually looks like.  He hopes to see her at Angela's party, but it's the sight of someone only Angela likes that sends Madam Labardi into a tailspin.

A guest at the party is Sandro Barucci (Peter Glenville).  A ne'er-do-well and gigolo, he eases his way into this upper-crust world, much to Evelyn's disdain.  Upon seeing him, Madam Labardi appears to have vague memories of another world come at her and faints.  Once she awakens, however, the little moments of confusion burst open, and she becomes another person altogether.  With a slightly maniacal laugh she takes a handful of jewelry, dresses as a peasant and leaves her estate, leaving as her only clue a drawing in lipstick of seven moons.

Image result for madonna of the seven moons
Soon after, 'Rosanna' returns to Florence, where she is embraced by her on-off again lover Nino (Stewart Granger), who is also Sandro's brother. Nino is the local tough who rules the neighborhood of The Seven Moons, living off of crime.  Nino tosses aside his current mistress Victoria (Jean Kent) to take up with Rosanna again, who has brought with her valuable jewels.

No one is aware that 'Rosanna' and 'Maddalena' is the same woman.

Nino, inspired by his passion for 'Rosanna', decides to get out of petty crime and lead his gang to strike at major heists.  Sandro, for his part, wants to lure Angela into his own web.  An unexpected opportunity arises when Angela begins to do her own investigation into her mother's disappearance, which leads her to Florence.

Soon the various clues start coming together: Jimmy having sketched a drawing of the gang with Sandro's telltale ring, Sandro recognizing the drawing as that of 'the Seven Moons', Rosanna's own contradictory nature (scoffing at religion yet drawn to faith in the way Maddalena was a firm believer). Things culminate at Carnival, where under the guise of helping Angela contact someone with information on Maddalena, he lures her to the Seven Moons.

Sandro drugs Angela, with nefarious plans to assault her.  Nino plans to rob the Labardi estate and perhaps kill Mr. Labardi, especially since upon discovering the jewels are from the Labardi family, has convinced himself that Rosanna didn't steal the jewels but got them by being Labardi's mistress. Rosanna, similarly convinced by Victoria that Nino's cheating on her, looks for him.

Part of the plan for the robbery is that everyone wear the same costume, leading to a series of mistaken identities, tragedies and deaths, including the Madonna of the Seven Moons, who dies unaware of both her other self and her lover.  He in turn sees the truth and leaves heartbroken.

Image result for madonna of the seven moonsLong before Sybil or The Three Faces of Eve, Madonna of the Seven Moons tackled the issue of multiple personality disorder, though I believe dissociate identity disorder is now the correct terminology.  I think the second is more apt for Maddalena's condition, as she had only two identities with one identity unaware of the other. 

Her 'dominant' identity is of Maddalena, respectable upper-class married lady.  It's only when something triggers her that she becomes 'Rosanna', a fiery lower-class tart.

The film was wise to open with Maddalena's rape, though again it is the score and the metaphorical falling of the flowers.  As such, we are already aware of the probable cause of her dissociate identity disorder, something that was probably far ahead of its time.  The adaptation of Margary Lawrence's novel by Roland Pertwee also did well in including disparate elements within the character, such as how one personality had great religious faith while the other didn't but was 'triggered' by a religious procession, as if something about that was within her but she could not place it.

As Calvert has to play two 'characters': the elegant, somewhat prudish Maddalena and the more earthy Rosanna, she had a chance to showcase her range.  Calvert did a pretty good job, though I would say more as Rosanna than as Maddalena, where she was given to doing more posing and being slightly theatrical.

Granger, I think, did his best to be this tough Italian hood, but with his diction, voice and manner, it came across as slightly comical to imagine this rather posh and elegant man as this lowlife hood.  It brought to mind an episode of Are You Being Served?, where the effeminate Mr. Humphreys attempted to pass himself off as an Italian mobster.  In that episode, it was obviously played for laughs, but in Madonna of the Seven Moons, it was meant to be played straight.

Image result for madonna of the seven moonsSomehow it didn't work, and Granger looked out of place.  At least Hilda Bayly as Mrs. Fiske was meant to be comic relief, but Granger just came across as sometimes comical.

This at times plagues some of the other actors who also seem to be excessively dramatic, but I put it also to director Arthur Crabtree, who had little to no experience in directing when he made Madonna of the Seven Moons.

His background in cinematography however helped in the visuals, for the film at times is quite beautiful.  Of particular note is when Rosanna has crosses in her eyes, metaphorically and almost literally bringing back the faith of Maddalena to her mind.

Some things were a bit confusing, as when Sandro suggests that Angela was his literal partner in crime before she went off to Florence.  Other things seem like wild coincidences, like Sandro knowing of Rosanna and Angela.  Finally, other aspects, such as Nesta's stutter, were brought up never to be mentioned again.

Still, Madonna of the Seven Moons is an intriguing film that looks at the psychological effects of dissociate personality disorder in a non-sensational manner while still having an interesting whodunit mystery.  Granted, some of the acting seems a bit excessive, but on the whole, it makes for most interesting viewing.