Monday, August 31, 2020

Breaking Fast: A Review (Review #1418)


Breaking Fast is a little film that takes a lot of the conventions of a romantic comedy, puts them through unorthodox routes but still comes across as what it is: a sweet little tale of love.

Devout gay Muslim doctor Mohammed or Mo (Haaz Sleiman) has lost his closeted fellow Muslim boyfriend a year ago, and while he is now openly gay he is unwilling to find romance. His family has gone away for Ramadan, the Islamic holy month where observant Muslims who are physically able abstain from all pleasures of the flesh (food, sex) until sunset. Once night comes, Mo can break fast in the Iftar dinner.

Mo quietly accepts he will have to observe Iftar alone, until his flamboyant best friend Sam (Amin El Gamal) cajoles him to his birthday party, which falls on the first day of Ramadan. There, Mo meets Kal (Michael Cassidy), an up and coming actor. They are attracted to each other but Mo won't give in to the temptations. He does, however, agree to break fast with the Arabic-speaking Kal, bonding over their shared love of Superman.

As the romance blossoms, both Mo and Kal face their individual family issues as the holy month and their shared dinners go on. Their separate issues and individual situations sometimes land them in curious situations: Mo's carnal struggles at one point cause him major embarrassment when he accidentally drops his towel while hugging Kal, the potential for impure thoughts or deeds frightening him as he holds the object of desire while nude. However, their private issues also threaten to end their relationship; on the last night of Ramadan, with Mo's family back, Kal and Mo finally break their own romantic fast.

The curious thing about Breaking Fast is that the film does not make any of the unique issues the characters live with into anything extraordinary. Neither Mo's homosexuality or Islamic faith are treated as quirks or more importantly as contradictions. Breaking Fast could have made this into a serious to dour drama, but writer/director Mike Mosallam made a wise decision to make this into a straight romance (no pun intended).   

With one exception all the characters are treated as human, complex figures who are fully formed. To Mo, his sexuality does not exclude his deep faith or vice versa. If I understand it, Mo may still be a virgin, his faith so strong that he would save himself for marriage (albeit marriage to a man, which to him is perfectly natural). Kal is not treated as the atheist/agnostic figure who threatens to disrupt Mo's belief system but as a decent but secretly troubled who finds himself falling in love, openly flirtatious but respectful of Mo's beliefs.

The script does the actors and situations right, with Mosallam's direction resisting the temptation to make what in other films be big or overt moments into simple ones. After Mo does a spit take that causes him to wet himself again, he remarks, "I can't seem to stay dry around you". In other films, this would be built up to some big double entendre, but the only thing you see is Kal raise his eyebrows and respond somewhat flirtatiously "Really?", but then quickly move on, the comment not in an over-the-top wink-wink manner. Instead, it's subtle enough to be noticed but not dwelt on.

The performances are all top-notch. Sleiman makes Mo into an endearing figure: slightly awkward and bumbling, hesitant but also one who has a set of principles he lives by and works to adhere to. He can play it serious, such as when he attempts to comfort Kal when learning of his own issues. However, Sleiman is adept at playing almost innocent, like when he gives a standing ovation to Superman and is the only one to do so.

Cassidy too does great as Kal (which we quickly find is short for Kal-El). Cassidy makes Kal into a generally casual, happy-go-lucky figure but he too can play things dramatic.

El Gamal is probably the weak link, though I would argue through no fault of his own. He is the stereotypical flamboyant best friend, and to be honest Sam annoyed me in his manner. He didn't strike me as real but as cartoonish. Granted, perhaps that is how Sam was meant to be, but every time he came out he aggravated me (again, no pun intended). His character is meant, I think, to be the counterpoint to Mo's upbeat view of Islam, never wanting to deal with or accept that many Muslims or Muslim families would not be welcoming about gays as his mosque and family were. The conflict comes from what Kal calls Mo's "bright-siding", refusing to accept things are not always pleasant. 

As Sam is so outlandishly flamboyant, his dramatic turn late in the film doesn't quite hold true

It's good to see a more complex and complete view of gay men, Muslims, and gay Muslim men, one that treats each as unique with their own acceptances of their apparent contradictions. 

Despite the homosexual angle, in certain ways Breaking Fast is quite conservative in its romance: there is no kissing until the end and apart from that comic towel-dropping scene no suggestion of any erotic moments. 

Breaking Fast works as a sweet little romantic comedy and genuine romance. The issues of being true to oneself, the burden of family and forgiveness internal and external make this a very unique picture. We go beyond stereotypes (save for Sam and his boy toy Jack), and see individuals with all their flaws and virtues. Some things are a bit unclear (is Mohammed actually a virgin? did Kal fall off the wagon?) and Mo's karaoke accompaniment by a gospel choir a bit too unrealistic but that's being picky.

On the whole, Breaking Fast is a nice little love story where a gay Muslim man can be himself free of prejudices internal and external. 


Sunday, August 30, 2020

The Agony and the Ecstasy: A Review


This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon sponsored by Journeys in Classic Film. Today's star is Charlton Heston.

Who would have imagined that the struggle between a temperamental artist and a tyrannical art patron over a commission would make for cinematic drama? Then again in The Agony and The Ecstasy, the artist is Michelangelo, the art patron is Pope Julius II and the commission is the Sistine Chapel ceiling. While The Agony and the Ecstasy suffers from a certain dryness, it makes for acceptable entertainment.

Michelangelo Buonarroti (Charlton Heston) keeps working on sculptures for the tomb of the very much alive warrior Pope Julius II (Rex Harrison). Michelangelo has an enemy in the Pope's architect Bramante (Harry Andrews) but a friend and champion in Cardinal Giovanni de Medici (Adolfo Celi). He also has the affection of the Cardinal's sister Antonia (Diane Cilento), who still carries a candle for our conflicted artist.

His Holiness continues his military campaigns but still has time to torment our tortured artist with a painting commission despite Michelangelo's objections that he is not a painter. He wants frescoes of the Apostles in the Sistine Chapel, but the project does not interest Michelangelo. His Holiness, however, will not be denied. Despite his best efforts Michelangelo finds the project a disaster set to ruin his reputation and he flees. It is only upon seeing nature that he finds inspiration to create the Book of Genesis upon the ceiling.

The project goes on and on, with Julius forever asking "When will it be done with?" and Michelangelo replying "When I am finished". Despite wars internal and external for both men, their pas de deux goes on until it reaches fruition with one of the greatest artworks in human history.

There is a drama buried within director Carol Reed's adaptation of Irving Stone's historical novel. It's unfortunate that somewhere along the line The Agony and The Ecstasy became almost an art history lesson versus a vivid drama. The film opens with a twelve minute overview of Michelangelo's artistic output more suitable for a documentary than a feature film. The ponderous narration that guides us through Michelangelo's works does not help.

It should be noted the film is two hours and nineteen minutes long, so by the time we get to the opening credits we've been either treated or tortured with a lengthy essay on Michelangelo's genius.

As a side note, the 1989 documentary Michelangelo: Self-Portrait did a much better job in covering both his life and artwork and worth seeking out.

There are certain elements that lift The Agony and The Ecstasy. At the top of the list is Rex Harrison, who was a master at being imperious without being dislikable. Despite being a tyrant, bossy and a literal holy terror you get through Harrison's performance a respect for Julius, a man who always seems to have a hidden motive for what he does, hidden even to himself.

Heston has an ability to portray men of history, and The Agony and The Ecstasy gives him a chance to once again play a titan of another era. I think this is a good, strong performance: the artistic temperament bursting out against Julius' tyranny.

Though her role is small, I think Cilentro is the best in the film as The Countess de Medici, the woman to coax Michelangelo out of his funk and foolishness. Shrewd and loving, Cilentro dominates when she is on the screen. 

As for Michelangelo's love life, while it is made clear in the film that Michelangelo and the Countess have something of a romance, you can see perhaps a sly suggestion of Michelangelo's potential homosexuality peering out. At one point, Michelangelo points out that he does not have a passion for women. As the Countess stares at a sketch of a male figure, Michelangelo says "It's not that either," but whether he was referring to his art or the subject is left to the imagination. If we believe Philip Dunne's screenplay, one would describe Michelangelo as asexual. 

The film also has the benefit of Alex North's Oscar-nominated score and the excellent recreation of the Sistine Chapel which was also Oscar-nominated. The visuals in The Agony and The Ecstasy will I think hold viewers attention more than the lumbering pace.

The Agony and The Ecstasy, if remade, could be about the struggle between artist and patron, between he who pays for a work and he who makes it, the conflict between the artistic vision and the desires of the owner. As it stands, while it is a bit slow and slightly pompous (the opening art lesson, the intermission, the stiffness of it all), The Agony and The Ecstasy does have qualities of good performances from Harrison, Heston and Cilentro and excellent recreations of one of humanity's greatest artistic achievements.

At least the Sistine Chapel was one of humanity's greatest cinematic achievements until the Marvel Cinematic Universe came along, and we all know Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 is vastly superior to whatever rubbish the Renaissance spun out.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

The Sandpiper: A Review


This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon sponsored by Journeys in Classic Film. Today's star is Eva Marie Saint.

If The Sandpiper is remembered at all, it is due to two reasons: it is the third film teaming of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton and its love theme, the Oscar-winning The Shadow of Your Smile. Apart from that The Sandpiper is not particularly good but it is mildly entertaining.

Free spirited bohemian artist Lisa Reynolds (Taylor) is forced to place her illegitimate son Danny (Morgan Mason) in an Episcopalian boarding school near her Big Sur home. The school's director Dr. Edward Hewitt (Burton) is stern but not unkind. Despite Lisa's overwrought fears Danny does adjust well, thanks to both Dr. and Mrs. Claire Hewitt (Eva Marie Saint).

Dr. Hewitt is quickly drawn to the outspoken atheist Reynolds and soon a passionate affair begins, with each questioning their worldviews (his on his myriad of sins, hers on marriage and the possibility of true love). However, eventually the affair is found out by the community. Hewitt finds he has been compromising so long financially (such as letting poor students slide if their parents kept checks rolling in) that despite his wife's forgiveness for his liaison he knows he cannot stay. 

Lisa for her part sees that Danny is free himself to make his own choices, and he chooses to stay at the school. The lovers make a quiet farewell, each remembering "the shadow of your smile".

The Sandpiper, for better or worse, lays the symbolism of the actual sandpiper far too thick to where it almost slips into farce. Early in the film, Lisa finds an injured sandpiper and nurses it back to health. In keeping with her free spirited worldview, she tells the somewhat dour Episcopalian that he (the bird) has to be free to roam.

The subtext is anything but, and while one can roll with symbolism one thinks that The Sandpiper could have restrained itself just a touch.

In certain ways, The Sandpiper is almost a bit hilarious. The "bohemians" and "free spirits" that Lisa surrounds herself with now come across as either almost rather square or exaggerated figures. In any case, each of these avant-garde artistes look at least twenty years too old to be believable bohemians. 

Performance-wise, you don't watch The Sandpiper for them. Burton and Taylor are not "acting". They are "being", but that is not a compliment or insult. Taylor seems almost determined to be hysterical in every sense of the word, coming across as less an earthy, passionate woman and more an annoying scold. Burton has only his baritone to act with (and as a side note, I don't know why this was such an existentialist crisis as I find that Episcopalians are essentially churchgoing atheists, but there it is).

Still, it is always a treat to see them together. They have a quiet magnetism together, making it hard to look away from this most glamorous and conflicted pair.

Eva Marie Saint does not have a big enough role as the wronged wife, but she is effective, particularly with Mason in their scene together. A surprising turn in that of Charles Bronson as Cos, the overtly antagonistic sculptor who needles Hewitt to the point where even Lisa says he's out of line. It's nice to see Bronson do something unexpected even if it is a bit curious.

If anything really lifts The Sandpiper, it is two elements. First is the beautiful location, as the film showcases Big Sur, California in beautiful scenery. Second, it is Johnny Mandel's jazz-tinted score, including the closing theme The Shadow of Your Smile. Mandel and lyricist Paul Francis Webster would go on to win Best Original Song for The Shadow of Your Smile, which plays in an instrumental version throughout The Sandpiper

The scenery and music are both quite beautiful, and The Shadow of Your Smile is certainly worthy of its win. Apart from that though The Sandpiper is not a particularly great movie but it is something to watch on a quiet Sunday afternoon for the pairing of one of the great screen duos in the most lush of surroundings. The Sandpiper does not ask much from Burton and Taylor other than to be Burton and Taylor, but that is enough in this case. 


Next Burton and Taylor Film: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Friday, August 28, 2020

Now, Voyager: A Review (Review #1415)

Now, Voyager (1942) | The Criterion Collection


This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon sponsored by Journeys in Classic Film. Today's star is Paul Henreid.

Few films have the reputation for unabashed romance as Now, Voyager, and fewer films have more than rightly earned that reputation. With beautiful performances and a brilliant score, Now, Voyager is the weepiest but also among the most beautifully romantic of tales.

Plain spinster Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis), psychologically tormented by her bitch of a mother (Gladys Cooper), is very reluctantly sent off to the Cascades sanitarium where under the caring and watchful eye of psychiatrist Dr. Jaquith (Claude Rains) she gains some confidence in herself and a sense of herself as a woman, one that may be worthy of love.

Travelling as "Miss Beauchamp", she meets the handsome and suave Jerry Durrence (Paul Henreid). He is an unhappy marriage but while he falls in love with her, he remains faithful. As they spend time in Rio, she too falls in love. When she returns to her Boston home, Charlotte's transformation astonishes all, but still her mother pushes her to be that frumpy old woman she was before her treatment. 

Charlotte, however, manages to stand up for herself, knowing she has worth. The push and pull of the mother-daughter relationship continues until Mrs. Vale's death; with Charlotte a wealthy woman, she goes to Cascades ostensibly for a rest but soon bonds with a young girl, Christine (Janis Wilson), who turns out is "Tina", Jerry's daughter. Charlotte, breaking off her engagement, knows that her heart belongs to Jerry. As they meet in her home, they come to an understanding: metaphorically sharing Tina. Asked if Charlotte will be happy, she tells Jerry, "Oh Jerry, don't let's ask for the Moon. We have the stars".
I admit that I got swept up in Now, Voyager's sweeping romance where I got a lot teary-eyed. On a certain level, the adaption of Olive Higgins Prouty's novel should not work: it seems rather oddball to believe Charlotte could go from old maid to elegant woman in the course of three months. However, the film is open about its intentions as a sweeping romance, so a little suspension of disbelief is not unexpected.

What makes Now, Voyager truly successful is twofold: the performances and the score. Bette Davis is a standout as she essentially has to play two roles: pre-and-post Cascades Charlotte. In the beginning, we see the tormented and much-abused "unwanted daughter", one who is beaten down and beaten up by her family save Lisa (Ilka Chase), the sister-in-law who is the only person who treats her with genuine love and affection.

In small bits, such as when she has a slight smirk in thinking how joining "tourists" would so displease her mother, we see Davis make Charlotte into someone coming into her own. When she looks longingly at Jerry's train as it leaves the station, we see someone finding "the woman within". You ache when she tearfully declares her astonishment and joy at being called "Darling" by anyone. Davis makes Charlotte a woman in full, and you cheer her growth.

Henreid has the suave and elegant leading man down pat, and he also gives Jerry a sense of dignity, even sacrifice. Now, Voyager makes clear that Jerry and Charlotte are in love with each other, but they never do more than kiss (at least on-screen). Jerry is at heart a good man, who loves his family but who finds in Charlotte true passion, even if he will not act on it. I can understand why any woman would melt at him offering her one of the two cigarettes he simultaneously lights.

Cooper elicits hatred for her vicious mother, which makes it an exceptional performance. In her almost deliberate cruelty you despise her, and to elicit that strong of an emotion in the audience is a mark of a strong actress. Rains, albeit in a smaller role, is gentle but firm as Dr. Jaquith, a wise man who knows how to push without being pushy.

In any examination of Now, Voyager, major credit has to be given to Max Steiner's Oscar-winning score. It's lush and beautiful, sweeping yet gentle in its musical portrait of true love internal and external. The music so moves the viewer that it really does underscore the Jerry and Charlotte romance, one where just by a glance we can see two people deeply in love but who also retain a proper distance.

Now, Voyager is a beautiful love story where the viewer can get swept up in it. It may be saccharine but it works, and I can't fault a film for moving me emotionally as it aimed to.

I don't approve of smoking, but when it comes to Now, Voyager, I make an exception.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Driven to Abstraction: A Review

Driven to Abstraction - IMDb


It's a pretty wild tale involving mysterious art collectors, hoodwinked experts, millions of dollars and even a "Mr. X, Jr.". Driven to Abstraction is not revolutionary in its filmmaking. In fact, it's pretty straightforward. However, in its tale of modern art gone wild, you can see enterprising filmmakers realizing how truth really can be stranger than fiction.

The Knoedler Art Gallery, the second oldest art gallery in the United States and one of the most respected, suddenly closes with no explanation or notice. What could have brought down this grand institution? It stems from a major scandal: the Knoedler had sold various abstract paintings that were found to be fakes. Some of the fakes were almost comically so: some Jackson Pollock paintings misspelled the artist's last name as "Pollok". It was only when a particularly irate collector storms after the Knoedler Gallery's last director, Ann Freedman, screaming "I WANT MY MONEY AND I WANT IT NOW!" that what is already an odd story takes more bizarre turns.

As a side note, does said irate art collector, Pierre Le Grange, work for J.G. Wentworth?

These paintings were brought to Knoedler by a Glafira Rosales, who claimed that these newly-discovered but never-known pieces by Pollock and Robert Motherwell among others were from a secret collection held by the son of a Swiss-Mexican millionaire who wished to remain anonymous. This "Mr. X, Jr." was slowly parceling his collection but wanted no attention. Either by deliberate fraud or thorough foolishness Ms. Freedman sold these pieces with at most questionable provenances and authentications that skimmed the truth. 

In reality, a Chinese artist named Pei-Shen Qian was knocking these off in Queens. Qian could make impressive imitations but it is unclear if even he knew who these artists were (hence "Pollok"). What he knew is also unclear as he has absconded back to China and doesn't appear to have profited from the deception. As for Freedman, the question of whether she was duped or complicit remains unclear, as a trial involving the Gucci Group head Domenico De Sole ends with a sudden settlement.

'Driven to Abstraction' Documentary on the Knoedler Art ...Driven to Abstraction is more than a tale of how the art world both lacks transparency and is ripe for fraud. It is also about how people can willingly believe what they want to believe. A generous look at Ms. Freedman would have made her completely moronic to not question the logic of such a wild tale as that of "Mr. X, Jr.". A more malevolent look would suggest that at some point, perhaps from the get-go, she was fully aware that there was something rotten in Denmark but chose to ignore it.

Was it out of mere greed? Was it out of a desperate effort to keep the Knoedler afloat? Only she knows, and as far as she is concerned what's past is past. In a rare interview for the New York Times Ms. Freedman is not troubled by the whole affair. "These are works of art. I didn't kill anybody's firstborn," she comments.

As I saw Daria Price's film unfold, I thought it a straightforward film about this story with all its twists and turns. It is a cautionary tale of "buyer beware", but also of willing disbelief: people who accept what they are shown, who don't question facts and who perhaps are more interested in the market value of a painting than on the painting itself. 

I confess that I find a lot of modern/contemporary/abstract art rubbish. My view is that almost everything past Picasso's Guernica is junk, and my art teacher once told me I had no soul after describing Jackson Pollock as "a bunch of squiggles". I stand by my views, but recognize some people love this kind of work. Driven to Abstraction should be seen by anyone interested in both art history and the art market, a warning that while beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, sometimes the Motherwell is not that good.  


Sunday, August 23, 2020

Olivia de Havilland: A Personal Remembrance


This piece is in the spirit of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon sponsored by Journeys in Classic Film. Today's star is the late Olivia de Havilland, replacing original Summer Under the Stars player Bette Davis.

2020 has been perhaps the worst year in human history. There's been the COVID-19 pandemic, which has affected every single person on Earth. Hundreds of thousands dead, millions without jobs, many without hope. Economies crashing, paranoia over the disease making people behave irrationally: everything from physically assaulting those who wear masks to those who insist on wearing two masks while driving alone.

The world, particularly the United States, is additionally in tumult after the slaying of George Floyd triggered mass protests that devolved to riots, looting and mayhem. Everything from tearing down statues and burning down buildings public and private to again people attacking others in violent acts. An election where neither candidate inspires anything close to confidence that the Republic will be in safe hands.

On a personal level, there is the simultaneous loss of my job and my Mother, both of whom I loved dearly. I don't know what it says about the City of El Paso that I have greater hope of seeing my late mother than of ever seeing my old job again.

Into this came the news of the death of Olivia de Havilland, whom many called "the last star". We had grown so used to seeing stories of her indomitable will and strength that it seemed she would go on forever. Yet, her passing at the extraordinary age of 104 quietly in her sleep still seemed a shock, and seems to punctuate what an awful, awful year 2020 has been.

What can I say about Dame Olivia that has not already been said? 

Was she a great actress? Yes: five time Oscar nominee, two-time winner. She seemed to specialize in elegant women, outwardly demure but with iron wills, in a way a reflection of de Havilland herself. Her most famous role was as Melanie Wilkes, the gentle and genteel flower who saw goodness in the wicked Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind. Despite Melanie's physical fragility, she had internal strength that made her in her own way a survivor, and in some ways stronger and more courageous than those around her. 

More than one person has pointed out the irony that her character is the only one who died in the film but the actress herself outlived all the principle characters and almost every credited cast member.

Her screen pairing with Errol Flynn is among the greatest of screen duos, the woman forever enthralled with the dashing, daring swashbuckler with her being my definitive Maid Marian in The Adventures of Robin Hood.   

For myself, I think her single greatest performance, indeed one of the greatest performances in film history, was for her second Best Actress win in The Heiress. As the lovelorn wallflower who discovers her own strength, it is a brilliant performance: in turns heartbreaking and chilling. She will not be made a fool twice over no matter if it means closing the door on a semblance of romance.

She could play elegant, sophisticate, traumatic (as in The Snake Pit), wicked (Hush, Hush...Sweet Charlotte) and even a touch of comedy (such as Princess O'Rourke). In the whole of her career, the only time I think she made a misstep was with Lady in a Cage, but bless her for trying.

Olivia de Havilland should be remembered as a great actress, something she sought out to do. However, I think she should also and equally be remembered for her great courage. At the time when she and other Golden Age stars were working, the studios held a firm grip on their players. Every time an actor/actress was suspended for refusing work they thought detrimental to their career, the studios would tack on the suspended time to their original contract. In essence, this forced an actor to work past his/her original contract.

De Havilland refused to accept this, and made the bold step to sue her studio, Warner Brothers. If she had lost this case, it would have meant the end of her career, as she would have been either forced to return in disgrace to Warner Brothers to accept whatever poor scripts they gave her or being blackballed by the industry. She risked everything to do what she thought was right against incredible odds.

A year later, the court ruled in her favor, and the "De Havilland Decision" freed performers in an almost literal sense. The massive contracts stars have now, the lack of control a studio or corporation has over said star all stems from de Havilland's courageous step in fighting the studio.

Maybe it is coincidence that the first film she made after the Decision, To Each His Own, won de Havilland her first Best Actress Oscar, maybe not.

If there were any shadows in de Havilland's life it was the tortured relationship with her sister, Joan Fontaine. How much of the fabled feud was studio press and how much of it was genuine hatred only they knew. Probably even after both de Havilland and Fontaine have died we will never know.

She certainly would not want this story featured on any future series of Feud. The (so-far) only season of that series, chronicling the rivalry of Joan Crawford and Bette Davis enraged de Havilland, the sole living figure portrayed in the series. While her lawsuit against Feud creator Ryan Murphy ultimately failed, it's a credit to her fierce strength that she, even at 101, would not allow what she thought was wrong to get a pass.

She could have retained a restrained silence on the matter, but Dame Olivia was not amused, and she wasn't going to sit quietly.

Personally, I find it a tragedy if de Havilland and Fontaine never seemed to have settled their differences. I understand that families drift apart and that relatives can end up despising each other. I can't help think however, of my own family. My mother Socorro had six siblings but when she died she had only one: her older sister Alicia. They had had a strained relationship for many years, not unlike Olivia and Joan. Eventually, Mom made that step to reach out, and the last three to five years were content ones for both.

Yes, they would quarrel from time to time, hang up on each other and tell their children they'd never speak to each other again. The children by now would all roll their eyes, knowing that within a week they'd begin speaking and pick up where they left off. Now my Tia Alicia is the last living sibling, with no one left to remember with her. I cannot begin to think what de Havilland thought or felt, but if it is close to what my Aunt has shown in deed (she is not one for words), it would be a sad, quiet resignation and an internal sense of loss with the memory of love and an acceptance that our own deaths along with those we love comes at the Lord's choosing. I imagine those that outlive and survive continue on, knowing that death, while a permanent shadow, is not the focus of life. 

Olivia de Havilland had strength of will and character, an immense courage in her profession and an extraordinary talent. She will be remembered by all who love film for as long as people see film. Yes, 2020 has been an awful year, claiming so much. It took Dame Olivia de Havilland away physically, but she will be eternal through film, and we who love film will be eternally grateful for all her work in her extraordinary century.

Saturday, August 22, 2020

Brainstorm (1983): A Review


This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon sponsored by Journeys in Classic Film. Today's star is Natalie Wood, taking over the day from John Wayne.

Brainstorm has the sad distinction of being Natalie Wood's final film before her untimely, tragic and still mysterious death in 1981. Whether it would have turned out as it did if Wood had lived to film her few remaining scenes will never be known. Perhaps that is why, despite some good ideas, Brainstorm just seems rather bland.

While still technically married to each other, scientist Mike Brace (Christopher Walken) and technical designer Karen (Wood) are on the verge of a divorce. Mike has taken up with his work partner, Lillian (Louise Fletcher) and together they have perfected a system that allows one person to experience the physical experiences of another.

There is evil afoot however, when their boss Alex Terson (Cliff Robertson) is found to be in cahoots with the military, which wants to use this technology for their own aims. Little do they know, or perhaps they do, that this technology is dangerous, as it not only can capture the physical but emotional experiences of one person and transfer them onto another. As Mike and Karen reconcile, Lillian dies, but not without first recording her own death experiences.

Mike can now experience death while alive, but such experiences along with the wicked work of the military, has devastating effects on him and his family. He is led to the top secret "Operation Brainstorm", which he is now set to destroy at all costs.

Robert Stitzel and Philip Frank Messina's screenplay (from a story by Bruce Joel Rubin) has great potential and is most intriguing. This is a fascinating topic: the idea that people can experience other people's lives. It's almost as if someone came up with elements of Inception long before the technology could make it come alive.

And therein lies a problem with Brainstorm. While director Douglas Trumbull crafted a story with potential and while it has some beautiful effects work, there is a clinical remoteness to it all. Time has not been kind to Brainstorm in that the end results look almost boring. The "visualizing" of other people's experiences come across as an amusement park ride. Every time we "saw" or "experienced" the memories or experiences of others, I was reminded of This Is Cinerama, where viewers just got to vicariously enjoy things via having the camera take a viewer's POV.

Take when Mike and Karen's son Chris (Jason Lively) is supposed to be under Brainstorm's hold. The entire sequence is neither scary or intense. Instead, it's surprisingly cheap and dull, to where you wonder if things are veering close to comic.

Sadly, a lot of Brainstorm is a slog to sit through, with little of genuine interest until we get to the final section as Mike and Karen attempt to remotely demolish Operation Brainstorm. One can give credit to the film in predicting virtual porn but there's a sense of things being disjointed, moving from one scene to another without any real sense of cohesion.

Again, it's impossible to say whether Wood's early death forced the film to feel so out-of-sync, but my sense is that it did. Performance-wise Walken was the best, his unique cadence still strong and the sense of a man with a mission firm. Wood came alive at the climatic online break-in but other times she seemed distant from the procedures. To be fair the film sidelined her, and again this may have been a result of her not completing the film.

As a side note, seeing a funeral scene with Wood as one of the mourners lends Brainstorm a touch of the macabre.

It doesn't excuse Fletcher, whose primary character trait was chain-smoking. Her death scene was almost hilarious, as was her questionable acting.

If there's anything good in Brainstorm, it is the early work of James Horner with the music, which still stands out even if it can be a bit 1980's. 

Brainstorm has an intriguing idea, and with technology being more advanced it might be worth a remake. It would be a better tribute to Natalie Wood than the original.

Thursday, August 20, 2020

The Last Command (1928): A Review

The Last Command (1928) | The Criterion CollectionTHE LAST COMMAND

This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon sponsored by Journeys in Classic Film. Today's star is William Powell.

The Last Command is a curiosity in the annals of the Academy Awards. The film is in a roundabout way half of a Best Actor Oscar-winning performance. When the Academy Awards first began, a performer could be nominated for multiple performances. Emil Jannings won for his performances in both The Last Command and The Way of All Flesh. As the latter is now currently a lost film, The Last Command is the only record of what so impressed the Academy in that year's two-man race. 

In 1928 Hollywood, Russian director Leo Andreyev (William Powell) is making a Russian Revolution-set epic. Looking for extras to fill out his Czarist Army, he comes across a photo of a Sergius Alexander (Jannings), whose bio claims he is a cousin of the Czar. Andreyev has the slightly tottering extra hired, and on the day he reports to the set the aged extra seems confused and barely functioning. Unbeknownst to his crew, Andreyev and Sergius have a past, which The Last Command reveals.

Before the Czar's fall, Sergius was His Imperial Highness Grand Duke Sergius, head of Russian armies. He discovers two actors are revolutionaries. While he whips and imprisons the male, Andreyev, the female Natalia (Evelyn Brent) piques his interest. She is ready and willing to kill the Grand Duke until she sees that he deliberately disobeyed orders to send Russian troops to a military parade when they are desperately needed on the front. Seeing that the Grand Duke is, in his way, a patriot, she not only won't kill him but returns his affection.

However, the Russian Revolution has swept the nation, and the Grand Duke's train is seized. Natalia pretends to rejoin the Revolution, but it's a rouse to buy Sergius time for him to escape. He does only to watch in horror as the train he jumped out of fall into a frozen river, killing all on board. Now back in Hollywood, the shell-shocked and demoralized former Imperial Highness is made to reenact a version of himself before Andreyev and his crew. However, by now the former Imperial General has started confusing reality with film fantasy, with shocking and tragic conclusions. 

The Last Command
is an early film for director Josef von Sternberg, but one can see his mastery of the visual form. The Revolution scenes are particularly effective in capturing the chaos of the Bolsheviks, but of particular note is the concluding sequence. As fact and fiction merge for our aged Grand Duke, von Sternberg gives us amazing, even breathtaking scenes of mad soldiers and peasants storming Sergius' beleaguered troops. There is a frenzied quality that works for the now-totally lost mind of our tragic hero, convinced that he is giving his "last command".

I can see why the Academy was impressed with Jannings. He essentially plays two characters: the haughty but ultimately noble Grand Duke and the defeated, shattered Hollywood extra. Jannings specialized in men who are brought down to shame and degradation (The Last Laugh, The Blue Angel). While The Last Command continues that Jannings specialty, he also is quite commanding as the Grand Duke, even sympathetic. It is an excellent performance though perhaps nowadays the endless head-shaking and dazed look might put viewers off now. 

It's a curious thing that before he was the suave, dashing sophisticate, William Powell's silent career was mostly as a heavy. In The Last Command, there is a darkness, a menace in Powell's acting that would take most Powell fans by surprise. Far from the dashing, breezy fellow, Powell's Andreyev is bitter, angry, and in his own way as haughty and abusive as Sergius. Only in the end when he sees His Imperial Highness' true nature does Andreyev realize that his perception was not what he thought it was. It's a surprisingly dark but effective turn for Powell, that rare star whose career not only survived but thrived when sound came along.

Brent's Natalia may be slightly over-the-top now, but she too has moments of gentleness. The "transition" from being Sergius' mistress to a passionate revolutionary and back again are very effective to where you do believe she's a duplicitous tramp.

The Last Command is a beautiful film, with some remarkable sequences and strong acting all around. 

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Madame Du Barry (1934): A Review


This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon sponsored by Journeys in Classic Film. Today's star is Dolores del Rio.

"Du Barry was a lady, no matter what they may say. Du Barry was a lady, the fairest girl of her day". So goes the title song to the musical comedy Du Barry Was a Lady. The biopic Madame Du Barry was not going to take as lighthearted a look at our infamous royal courtesan as that song-and-dance romp. Time has not been kind to Madame Du Barry the film, showing the limitations of the time. Despite its brief running time the film is not terrible but one that might benefit from a remake.

King Louis XV (Reginald Owen) still misses his late mistress Madame De Pompadour. He yearns for another royal courtesan, but one who unlike the rest does not care about politics or him as His Majesty but as Louis, the man.

Enter the pretty Jeanette, Madame Du Barry (Dolores del Rio), a pretty young thing who is fun and frivolous. His Majesty is instantly charmed by our flirtatious vixen, one who wants to go for a sleigh ride in summer, causing the courtiers grief to make it come true. Disliked by Versailles courtiers who find in her an upstart, Du Barry also has friends like the Duc d'Aiguillon (Victor Jory). She is her own woman, unafraid to speak her mind. Louis is enchanted, but the new Dauphine of France, Marie Antoinette (Anita Louise) is not. Despite it all, and after Louis XV's death, the Comtesse du Barry is exiled but with her head held high, singing the ditty that so delighted the late King.

Madame du Barry (1934)As I watched Madame Du Barry, I was reminded of all things, Singin' in the Rain. In particular, I kept seeing flashbacks to the faux-film The Dueling/Dancing Cavalier in how despite being seven years into sound production, you still felt as though the actors had to gather in groups to get their dialogue in.

As a side note, I still await The Dueling Mammy, but that's for another time.

There just seemed to be an odd stiffness to the production, a sense that the actors still were trying to work through sound film technology. That hampers Madame Du Barry, making it very remote and creaky.

It is, however, not without some elements worth noting. Del Rio is surprisingly adept at the coquettish courtesan. I confess this is curiously the first time I have heard del Rio in English, my only experience with her work in Mexican films. She handles the language quiet well and is impish and amusing, if perhaps a bit exaggerated. However, as we are dealing with Ancien Regime decadence, I can let that go.

The real standout is Owen as our merry monarch. He is a fun-loving ruler who also wants to be loved for himself, and he makes for a fine performance balancing the regal with the roguish, from the scandal over Du Barry's court presentation to how he goes "hunting" at Deer Park, his unofficial school for potential ladies.

It's a pity that apart from del Rio, Owen and in smaller roles Jory and Osgood Perkins as the dueling courtiers the actors seemed rather farcical. To be fair though, Maynard Holmes' Dauphin came across appropriately as a dim kid, easily bullied by anyone around him.

Madame Du Barry could not as decadent as it could have been given the rise of the Production Code, but enough creeped out to make it a weak though still interesting film. Short but clunky, it might be time to revisit our lovely royal wench.



Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Ishtar: A Review (Review #1410) Watch Ishtar | Prime VideoISHTAR

This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon sponsored by Journeys in Classic Film. Today's star is Warren Beatty.

Ishtar has become a byword for "movie bomb", entering the lexicon as the embodiment of a total cinematic disaster. The film has become notorious and the butt of many jokes about its high cost, low comedy (in every sense of the word), inflated cast & crew egos, chaotic production, and overall poor quality. It was such a poisoned film that Ishtar routinely finds itself listed among the worst films ever made. Yet, how many people who bash Ishtar have actually seen Ishtar? Is its reputation as a sheer horror warranted?

Quite simply...yes.

Aspiring songwriters Lyle Rogers (Warren Beatty) and Chuck Clarke (Dustin Hoffman) dream of being the next Simon & Garfunkel despite having no talent. As the pursue their quixotic musical dreams, to the consternation and horror of everyone, they do manage a booking in Morocco, though they have to land in the nearby nation of Ishtar first.

It is here where Clarke meets beautiful revolutionary Shirra Assel (Isabelle Adjani), who convinces him to give her his passport and jacket to escape Ishtar. While Rogers goes on ahead to Morocco to keep the booking, Clarke ends up working for the CIA to stop the planned revolution. Rogers, for his part, gets recruited by Assel to help the revolution. As Assel and CIA Agent Jim Harrison (Charles Grodin) do their Spy vs. Spy impersonation, our bumbling duo keeps surviving.

There may be a reason for how they manage to stay alive despite the CIA, other spy agencies, the Ishtari government, the revolutionaries and various gunrunners' best efforts. A map that everyone is after and which Rogers & Clarke unwittingly possess speaks of a prophesy where two messengers of God will bring liberation to Ishtar. One guess as to who these two messengers may be.

Ultimately, Rogers & Clarke get Harrison to bring about social reform to Ishtar...and a live Rogers & Clarke album which the CIA has to promote. 

Elaine May's 1987 flop “Ishtar” doesn't deserve its reputation.There is a strong movement to restore Ishtar's reputation as a good to great movie, a genuine satire on American imperialism and show business. To be fair, those who condemn Ishtar have more than likely never actually seen it, but having now seen Ishtar, I will argue that the rehabilitation movement is wildly misguided.

Whatever laughs come are a result of cringing at how awful Rogers & Clarke are than of anything actually being funny. I get that Rogers & Clarke are supposed to be simply dreadful in their songwriting, but them being delusional about their lack of talent isn't in itself funny.

Yes, I did chuckle at how inept they were, but sometimes you wonder if they were merely clueless or downright horrible. Take Clarke's solo song dedicated to a couple celebrating their 53rd wedding anniversary. He's known them for three years, so you'd think he'd have some inkling of who they were; yet his song Love in My Will is flat-out insulting to them, the lyrics talking about their impending death. I'll grant that the song itself is funny (Paul Williams co-writing these "awful" songs with Ishtar's writer/director Elaine May). However, in the setting and horrified expressions of the family, it comes across as almost deliberately cruel.

Again, I get that we're meant to cringe at their performances, but that doesn't evoke a sense of humor but a genuine sense of pity, even horror, for them. I think most everyone reacts to their cover of Little Darlin' the way their very frustrated agent does: by covering his face.

Rogers & Clarke - Little Darlin' (Ishtar) - YouTube
Let's say for the sake of argument that Ishtar has the for lack of a better word redeeming quality of the inept song catalog (and for full disclosure I thought Dangerous Business was not horrible). Almost everything else in Ishtar is not funny. Of particular note is when Rogers is going to meet his revolutionary contact. You've got a cacophony of spies so openly following him, who himself is briefly followed by Clarke, that it soon becomes forced. A lot of the comedy is forced, as if everyone knows it is supposed to be "funny" and pushes it beyond the breaking point. It stops being funny and just becomes stupid.

Ishtar is one of those comedies which depends on the collective stupidity of every character despite logic, even its internal logic. You have Adjani playing it completely straight while everyone else plays this as exaggerated farce. It's as if her plot came from a whole other movie that somehow got lost and ended up in a showbiz spoof. Her brother Omar is killed, you've got the Emir planning to take everyone out, and in the midst of all this you have our idiots crossing the desert.

Moreover, Ishtar itself gets lost between the musical satire and the political intrigue. Some scenes are not only cringe-worthy but veer dangerously towards racist and end up making no sense. Shirra tells Lyle to seek out Mohammed at the camel market and buy a blind camel. When he goes and asks for "Mohammed", it's comedy that he is surrounded by Mohammeds. Worse, the first "Mohammed" is THE Mohammed, but why exactly he needed the blind camel or how it plays to the Ishtari Spring is left unclear.

As a side note, Adjani makes for one of the most bizarre North Africans in cinematic history, but there it is.

To find some positives, I was surprised at how good Warren Beatty was as the nebbish, dimwitted hick Lyle Rogers. With his body movements and wide-eyed expression, he makes it plausible to think this tall, good-looking man could be so naive, unaware and almost frightened. It's a wild stretch to think Dustin Hoffman could be the more self-assured Clarke, and he makes as good a go as possible even if it ends up looking more desperate than amusing.

Ishtar may have been unfairly bashed for elements outside the film itself, but it is still a sad and sorry spectacle to see. It is nice to see Warren Beatty go for something new and doing a good job at it, and divorced from the film, some of the "bad" songs are amusing in their "awfulness". However, Ishtar has rightly earned its reputation as a disaster.


Monday, August 17, 2020

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939): A Review


This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon sponsored by Journeys in Classic Film. Today's star is Maureen O'Hara.

After the recent Notre Dame fire, many people went back to both the Victor Hugo novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame and the many film versions of it (at least four versions so far). The 1939 remake came at what is considered Hollywood's greatest year, and the film more than lives up to that lofty statement. While a bit long The Hunchback of Notre Dame is very well worth it, and may be an allegory on its troubled times.

During the reign of Louis XI (Harry Davenport), there is persecution of the Gypsies. In particular, His Majesty's Chief Justice of Paris, Frollo (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) opposes both the Gypsies and the newly-invented printing press, seeing both as dangerous. However, on this Fools' Day, the Parisians are too much into revelry to note either the poetic musings of Gringiore (Edmund O'Brien) or the beautiful Gypsy girl Esmeralda (Maureen O'Hara). They do, however, shiver at the sight of Quasimodo (Charles Laughton), the notorious Hunchback whom they declare King of Fools.

Frollo, who is Quasimodo's guardian, is appalled by all this, but at least when it comes to Esmeralda he is powerless as she has unwittingly gone to into Notre Dame and thus acquired sanctuary from arrest. Gringoire is in love with her, but she has eyes on a Captain and Frollo now desires her. The complicated love lives of them lead them to the "Kingdom of Beggars", where Clopin (Thomas Mitchell) rules his literal den of thieves. Circumstances join Esmeralda and Gringiore, but Frollo won't be denied.

The Hunchback Of Notre Dame. 1939 - YouTubeThere's murder and false accusations against this "witch", but just when all is dire Quasimodo literally sweeps in to save her, claiming "SANCTUARY! SANCTUARY!" within the halls of the holy site. A crisis emerges as to the power of the Church, the State and the Mob all colliding as a result of Esmeralda's predicament. Things come to a head when the various groups clash at the steps of the cathedral, with everyone unaware of the entire truth. All things, however, end joyfully, save for Quasimodo, who ends up alone.

It's a testament to the longevity of the film that when we think of Quasimodo, it is usually the Laughton version that comes to mind. Surprisingly, Quasimodo does not play a large part in The Hunchback of Notre Dame until past the midpoint. Most of the film is really about Esmeralda, brilliantly played by O'Hara in an early role. She brings a beauty and innocence to the role, a woman who embraces all the new worlds of thought and faith and romance.

There are some breathtakingly beautiful scenes, such as Esmeralda worshiping at the statue of the Virgin Mary, making her embrace of Catholicism true and pure. O'Hara draws the viewer towards her whenever she's on screen, and she gives a rich performance as our Gypsy girl.

She is counterbalanced by Hardwicke, who is evil itself as Frollo. The censors forced changes to the plot such as the happy ending and Frollo now being the brother to the Archbishop rather than the Archbishop himself, but unless you are a purist you do not notice as the film works quite well with the changes. In his sternness, his hostility mixed with desire, Hardwicke is frightening and malevolent, making his performance quite effective.

In other roles, Edmund O'Brien brings that youthful optimism as our wise poet, and is surprisingly handsome and dashing. Mitchell had a banner year in 1939, showing an exceptional range. Here, he is rough and roguish but not without a bit of mirth and caring as Clopin, leader of the oppressed. Couple that with his wealthy plantation owner in Gone With the Wind and his Oscar-winning role as the drunken doctor in Stagecoach and it is a marvel that more people don't know his name. Davenport brings a strong bit of humor as the honest but slightly dotty Louis XI.

Guillermo del Toro on THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1939) - YouTubeAs for Laughton, he does not speak for most of the film, letting his body and makeup work speak for him. However, Laughton makes Quasimodo into a figure of pathos and sympathy, showing that beating heart behind the frightening visage. I think most caricatures of Laughton as the Hunchback are exaggerated, but he does a magnificent job in a surprisingly small role.

It may not have been intended as such, but The Hunchback of Notre Dame may have been commentary on the rise of Fascism and Nazism. Frollo's almost fanatical hatred for Gypsies and the idea that men can freely express themselves is eerie in its similarity with what the world was seeing at the time of the film's release. Moreover, Frollo too wanted the Gypsies persecuted and exterminated, demolishing the free press and determined to hold power.

The climatic battle at the cathedral is exceptionally well-crafted, and the Fools Day festivities are lavish.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is really well-acted all around. It felt a bit too long for me, but on the whole it holds up extremely well and is a fine film.


Sunday, August 16, 2020

Blonde Venus: A Review

Blonde Venus (1932) | The Criterion CollectionBLONDE VENUS

This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon sponsored by Journeys in Classic Film. Today's star is Cary Grant.

While Blonde Venus is best remembered for the Hot Voodoo number, a still remarkable almost shocking sequence, the film is surprisingly devoid of the usual glamour associated with Marlene Dietrich. It veers close to a message picture about the nearly tragic fate of a fallen woman, with two of its stars in surprisingly varied roles.

Former German chanteuse Helen (Dietrich) is now an American housefrau, happily married to British scientist Ned (Herbert Marshall) and with a son, Johnny (Dickie Moore). Their happiness is threatened however with the discovery that Ned is dying.

Lifesaving treatment is available in Germany, but they are poor. Over Ned's objections, Helen returns to the stage. Now billed as Helen Jones, the Blonde Venus, she is a hit not just with the cabaret set but with politico and man-about-town Nick Townsend (Cary Grant). Nick gives Helen a check that can send Ned to Germany, and in exchange for his company she gets money to pay for Ned's treatment.

Unfortunately for Helen and Nick, Ned comes home early and soon discovers the truth about Helen's finances. Hurt and humiliated, Ned threatens to take Johnny away, at which point Helen runs away with their son. Helen and Johnny being a peripatetic life, sinking further into squalor until found. Helen agrees to return Johnny to his father, and now free of worry, goes to Europe where she becomes the toast of the cabaret world. Nick re-encounters her, and he engineers a reunion between her and Johnny. Ultimately, Helen and Ned forgive each other and reconcile.

The sight of our erotic Teutonic temptress as a mild-mannered housewife is pretty startling, but Dietrich can shock one without deliberately aiming for it. Blonde Venus allows her to if not totally move away from her image of the alluring woman at least a chance to show she could do more. Her scenes with Moore are always sweet, charming and tender, showing that she could play a loving mother.

This really is the theme of Blonde Venus: that of a mother's undying love. It can be stretched to Helen's love of her husband too, as she made the sacrifice of her virtue to become Nick's mistress to save Ned. It's not exactly and endorsement of her actions, but they are couched in a very sympathetic light to where we see she is not a wanton woman but a desperate one.

We still get Dietrich in drag, the way the public usually saw her, in one of her three musical numbers when she performs I Couldn't Be Annoyed, keeping to the usual Dietrich persona of the cool, distant vixen. However, neither this or the You Little So-And-So numbers are well-remembered, especially compared to her first number, Hot Voodoo.

The Hot Voodoo number probably would not pass muster today: the African theme despite voodoo being more associated with Haiti, Dietrich dressed as a gorilla before transforming into La Dietrich, her blonde wig with two arrows in the hair all would be seen as vaguely racist. The lyrics too that talk of "that African tempo has made me a slave" and its hard to imagine such a number being made now.

However, seeing Hot Voodoo is pretty startling, Dietrich dominating the screen. It's an exceptionally well-crafted number, showcasing both Dietrich's stage presence and von Sternberg's visual style.

Marlene Dietrich dancing in Gorilla costume | Marlene dietrich ...
Blonde Venus is also a surprising turn for Cary Grant. As his career developed, he become more refined, able to shift easily between light comic fare and suave sophistication. However, Blonde Venus is early in Grant's career, and it showcases him in a harder, more jaded role as the somewhat lecherous Nick. Grant had exceptional talent, able to communicate Nick's desires with a glance. Able to punch out a guy and dismiss the lesser entertainer/good-time-girl "Taxi" Belle Hopper" (Rita La Roy) with equal ease, Grant showed a much darker side that was rarely tapped later on (I can think only of Alfred Hitchcock's Suspicion and Notorious being in the same vein). 

Grant, however, could show he did love Helen in his final scene, where he arranged the meeting with Ned. Marshall did well in what could have been a blank role of the betrayed husband, showing that his pursuit and anger towards Helen, despite her sacrifice, was driven more out of genuine hurt than ingratitude or understanding. Tender with Johnny, angry towards Helen, Marshall made Ned a sympathetic character too.

Interestingly, while unbilled Hattie McDaniel makes a brief appearance as Cora, a woman helping Helen hide out from the law.

Blonde Venus shows a surprisingly tender side to Dietrich and surprisingly dark side to Grant. You can see the struggles the film had with the Production Code: the happy ending, the artistic though tastefully opening shot of a group of nude bathing beauties. However, there are some beautiful transitions and the Hot Voodoo number that still hold up exceptionally well. Blonde Venus has strong performances and a still-influential musical number: it is echoed at Poison Ivy's entrance to the ball in Batman & Robin and while not firmly stated probably inspired the If You Could See Her number in Cabaret.

People will fall under Dietrich's Hot Voodoo.   


Dietrich & Von Sternberg Films:

Shanghai Express
The Scarlet Empress
The Devil is a Woman

Saturday, August 15, 2020

Mahogany: A Review


This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon sponsored by Journeys in Classic Film. Today's star is Nina Foch.

"Do you know where you're going to? Do you like the things that life is showing you? Where are you going to? Do you know?"

Theme from Mahogany (Do You Know Where You're Going To) is, apart from Mahogany star Diana Ross' massive wardrobe of her own creation, the only thing most people remember from the film. This, MISS ROSS' second film, is a love letter from Mahogany director Berry Gordy to MISS ROSS, and perhaps a love letter from MISS ROSS to MISS ROSS herself. An intriguing premise with promise devolves into a bizarre, almost flat-out bonkers film that is in turns fascinating and hilarious, neither in a good way.

Tracey Chambers (Ross) dreams of being a fashion designer, but that's a hard dream for a poor black woman from the Chicago ghettos. Working as a department store secretary to Mrs. Evans (Nina Foch), Tracey goes to design classes at night. She meets political activist Brian Walker (Billy Dee Williams) and a tentative romance begins.

The 25 best fashion movies of all time |
Things really begin to build up when fashion photographer Sean McAvoy (Anthony Perkins) comes to the department store for a shoot. Initially mistaking Tracey for a new model, he pushes for her to go to Rome with him, which she does almost in anger when Brian dismisses her dreams for his political aspirations.

Rechristened as "Mahogany" (as she is rich, dark, beautiful and rare), Tracey becomes the toast of Rome: the supermodel to end all supermodels. Feted and adored, Tracey finds that life at the top is not all it's cracked up to be. Sean is both obsessed with and unable to take Mahogany as his mistress (the film hedges but strongly hints Sean's gay). Brian attempts to win Tracey away from "la dolce vita", but to no avail. Sean for his part ridicules her efforts to become a designer.

Only until wealthy Count Rosetti (Jean-Pierre Aumont) saves her from public humiliation does she find a patron who appears to believe in her talents. Sean turns murderous, Rosetti turns lecherous, and Brian returns to Chicago. Will Mahogany give up her dreams and follow her man to the South Side of Chicago or keep to her driving ambition? 

Scenes from Mahogany (1975, French dubbing) - YouTubeMahogany has been described as camp, and there is some merit in that. Once Brian returns to Chicago having failed to win Tracey back the film takes what can best be described as an insane turn.

Not that most of Mahogany was all that sane to begin with. The overall plot seems rather outlandish: mere secretary becomes a supermodel in apparently days, but to its credit Mahogany does touch on important issues on race and the perception of beauty.

When Sean insists on using Tracey as a model, thinking her better than the professional ones, Mrs. Evans objects, insisting they have a conservative clientele. While never overtly stated, the suggestion is clear: people don't want to see black models. The film does hedge here too: a case could be made that Mrs. Evans' objections are due more to class than to race, but at least Mahogany slips in the idea that to some, black isn't beautiful.

A more open admission of this is when Brian scolds Tracey for helping Sean bring people from the neighborhood for a photo shoot. While the models are paid, the residents are not despite literally bringing a bit of "color" to the photo shoot.

Turner Classic Movies — Anthony Perkins and Diana Ross in Berry ...
Soon however, Mahogany forgets about being any kind of commentary, or any kind of rational for that matter, as it evolves into an homage to MISS ROSS. Motown founder Berry Gordy, it should be pointed out, was not a director, having taken over those duties from Tony Richardson, who was. Berry Gordy, it should also be pointed out, was at one point Ross' lover, and judging from Mahogany to misquote Smokey Robinson, she really had a hold on him.

The film soon becomes a paean to the glories of that most magical being MISS ROSS, sometimes to almost absurd levels. The montage of her photo shoots becomes comical in their obsession and deification of MISS ROSS. The worshipful tone Mahogany takes with MISS ROSS blinded Berry to the detriment of everything else, particularly logic.

There is a particularly oddball scene where Sean and Brian confront each other. Sean pulls a gun and they have the most hilarious fight over it, culminating with Brian pulling the trigger on an empty gun. At that point, Sean starts all but babbling incoherently and Brian leaves. Despite this, neither informs Tracey of this, making one wonder as to the logic of any of it. Sean's attempted murder of Mahogany is cray-cray to the max, at times shifting into hysterical in every sense of the word.

Diana Ross's Best On-Screen Style Moments: Mahogany, Lady Sings ...Mahogany doesn't even have a sense of continuity about anything. One minute Tracey is a sweet, grateful woman to have her dreams financed by the wealth Count, literally the next minute she's a screaming harpy inches from bitch slapping a poor Italian seamstress who doesn't understand what this crazed woman is going on about (as a side note, why didn't she just hire an interpreter). They can't even keep things straight with something as basic as the main character's name. At the beginning, she is "Tracey Chambers", but for reasons unexplained, Brian tells her that he'll wait until "Tracey James" comes back. Did she secretly get married to someone we've never seen? Did Williams just make a mistake and Gordy not notice? Does anyone care?

Do you know where you're going to?

I'll give credit where it is due: Theme From Mahogany is lush and beautiful, one that is used often and it works well within the film. It has stood the test of time, so at least there's that.

I don't think there's a good performance in the film. MISS ROSS, fresh off her Oscar-nominated turn in Lady Sings the Blues has good moments, but some others are cringe-inducing (her kiss off to Brian being that camp element). Williams, I think, did his best but it's hard when you don't have a director but a MISS ROSS photographer. Speaking of photographers, poor Anthony Perkins was relegated to another "crazed man" role, here looking a mix of bored and comic (his final scenes with La Ross causing nothing but laughter). Foch and Beah Richards as Tracey's aunt also did what they could, but they knew these were not asking much if anything from them so they pretty much slummed through their scenes.

Mahogany is not a good film, but there's an almost hypnotic nature to its badness. Some of it has aged badly: the suggestion that a woman should sacrifice her career for her man's won't go over well. Also, the film can be accused of "cultural appropriation" thanks to Mahogany's at times garish couturier collection (Mahogany begins with her triumphant fashion show and its "Kabuki finale"). It's only worth the time to marvel at MISS ROSS or wonder if they'll ever know where they're going to.