Friday, September 17, 2021

The Capote Tapes: A Review

 


THE CAPOTE TAPES

Truman Capote: writer, bon vivant, enfant terrible, self-destructive drunk. He was all that and so much more. The Capote Tapes, taped interviews with his friends, lovers and enemies unheard until now, gives us a glimpse into the rise and fall of one of America's most celebrated creative forces.

Using newly recorded interviews along with the audiotapes writer George Plimpton recorded shortly after Capote's death in 1984, The Capote Tapes allows those who knew Capote (or thought they knew him) speak their minds. Capote, this poor son of the South with a fantastic imagination and open homosexual lifestyle, charmed and wrote his way into the upper echelons of New York City high society.

Despite being openly gay the upper-class beauties of high society gravitated and were enraptured with Capote. He in turn gravitated and was enraptured by these women whom he dubbed his "swans". However, part of him worked to expose them. Whether it was subconscious revenge for his mother's suicide due to her failed efforts to be a society doyenne or the belief that his own genius would save him, Capote's poison pen brought him nothing but ruin. His long-gestating novel based on his swans, Answered Prayers, created an absolute scandal despite only snippets ever being published. 

The man who had brought the world the ultimate in posh grandness with the Black and White Ball, hobnobbing with the elite of the the elites, now was reduced to partying it up with virtual peasants at Studio 54, drinking and drugging through "a haze of pain" at the loss of his swans. All for a book that might not have ever existed. 

The Capote Tapes are fascinating to listen to and serve as the de facto narrative to the documentary. As various figures such as fellow writer Norman Mailer to C.Z. Guest (one of the few Swans to stay loyal to Capote) remember their friend/frenemy, we see behind Capote's persona. Another of his Swans, Slim Keith, recalls to Plimpton an incident when Capote rejected the idea that Keith "loved" him.

"People are amused by me, fascinated by me but they don't love me", he said. It's a sad confession for someone who gave people the impression he was the life of the party.

Other revelations aren't as sad. They appear instead rather malevolent. Another writer, William F. Buckley, was not impressed with Capote's "nonfiction novel" In Cold Blood. "We've only had seven executions in the past five years," Buckley states, adding with a hint of venom, "and two of them were for the personal convenience of Truman Capote". Given that Buckley was not opposed to capital punishment, such a declaration is a bit surprising.

The Capote Tapes hint at Capote's arrogance towards his Swans, a contempt mixed with fascination. "I'm a writer. Did they think I was with them because I thought they were interesting?" he once observed after the scandal over the Answered Prayers excerpts were published. Whether he saw himself as the Swan's court jester or the chronicler of their sordid lives we do not know.

We also cannot know what he thought of his exile from The Land of Swans to The Land of Disco, but I can imagine that it must have been a hard blow. Despite the wild, hedonistic abandon of the club scene there is something sad about this old man shaking his groove thing when once he waltzed with duchesses and princesses. One contemporary interview recalled that he looked like "a little aged dwarf" as he shuffled about in the daylight. 

We do get a more sympathetic view from Capote's adopted daughter Kate Harrington (whose father had an affair with Capote). She recalls a hard-working writer who welcomed her into a world of literature and art, though also a gossip who wandered away from writing to indulging in worldly pleasures.

Capote fans and those who know him more by reputation will find interesting information and revelations about the writer through The Capote Tapes. Even those who have seen Infamous or Capote (or the notorious Stanley Siegel interview) will learn new details and gain greater appreciation for Truman Capote's work and legacy good and bad. 

DECISION: B-

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Jane Fonda in Five Acts: A Review

 

JANE FONDA IN FIVE ACTS

Few actors have been as wildly divisive as Jane Fonda. In the opening of the documentary Jane Fonda in Five Acts, none other than President Richard Nixon captured her best with his description of Fonda. "She's a great actress, she looks pretty, but boy she's often on the wrong track". At the then-age of 81, Fonda can look back on the highs and lows of her life and career. Jane Fonda in Five Acts hits some interesting notes but sometimes feels like a hagiography and slog to sit through.

As she reflects, Fonda divides her life into five acts: Henry, Vadim, Tom, Ted and Jane. The first is her father, Henry Fonda, and her efforts to both come out of his shadow and repair their frosty, distant relationship. Vadim goes into her first marriage to French director Roger Vadim, who essentially pushed her into becoming a sex symbol via his film, the erotic science-fiction Barbarella. Tom, which dominates the documentary, regards her second husband, activist Tom Hayden: their joint anti-Vietnam War activism, their almost strident lower-middle-class lifestyle and how her workout empire was created to fund their various causes. Ted is her stint with her third husband, media mogul Ted Turner. Jane is on her comeback to film.

Jane Fonda in Five Acts does have surprising information. I think many people would not have known that her start as a fitness queen was due to finding revenue for her and Hayden's Campaign for Economic Equality. We also find that when she filmed the striptease opening to Barbarella, not only was the final footage the second take (the first ruined by a bat that had wandered in) but that she was drunk and hungover when she filmed it. Fonda, who was interviewed for the documentary, also admits that she wasn't crazy about Monster-in-Law but knew that people would see the film because of Jennifer Lopez. Maybe by appearing with a big star like Lopez, she speculates, people would discover or rediscover Jane Fonda.

At over two hours, Jane Fonda in Five Acts is surprisingly focused on Act Three: Tom. This is when her political activism was at its zenith, and Fonda does not come across as particularly pleasant. While the infamous footage of her sitting at an anti-aircraft gun with the North Vietnamese will always damn her to some people, Fonda's radio broadcast on Radio Hanoi during the trip is not as well-known.

Act Two has a news report on her separation from Vadim. It states that at one point, he called her "Jane of Arc", a wisecrack with which she was not amused by. Added Vadim via the report that "to take on the sins of her country, she has lost her sense of humor".

Truth be told, she still comes across as a bit of self-serious figure (she was not asked about Vadim's quips). In the footage from her Vietnam-era days, Fonda appears to openly criticize former prisoners of war as brainwashed, useful idiots for Nixon. She does state that "I'm proud of most of what I did (with regards the protest movement) and I'm very sorry for some what I did". Talk show host Dick Cavett, a friend and supporter, also seems to think dimly on her actions, calling them "tactless". 

Later, when her son Troy Garity remembers how his first thirteen birthday parties were fundraisers for his parents' various causes, such details make Fonda almost unaware that her children became tools to further whatever cause du jour she embraced. Garity may find nothing wrong with that, but somehow that detail sounds a touch peculiar.

Jane Fonda in Five Acts does not delve into why her activism inspires so much ire. It is not self-reflective in that way. It is, though, on the personal, and we learn that despite being firmly feminist, for most of her life Fonda was dominated by men. There's the talented father who according to her late brother Peter "has to have the mask in order to express", an interesting way of saying Henry Fonda was emotionally lost without a script. Working with a dominating director, a firm activist and a macho persona respectively, Fonda could never balance a relationship with her own views.

In those moments, when we see Fonda evolve to being a Woman and person, we have good moments. When it comes to her career itself or her political activism, how she evolved to being a Woman of the Left, we get very little.

For better or worse, it will be difficult to nearly impossible to separate Jane Fonda the actress with Jane Fonda the activist. Jane Fonda in Five Acts is a good, albeit long, primer on her life and career as she sees it. What the final act or whole legacy will be remains to be written. 

DECISION: C+

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

The Corn is Green (1979): The Television Movie

 

THE CORN IS GREEN

The Corn is Green, in its brief running time, tells a rich and beautiful story so well, with such effective performances and breathtaking scenery, that it transcends its play origins and becomes the moving tale it seeks to be.

Spinster Lily Moffatt (Katharine Hepburn) comes to a Welsh town after inheriting a small estate. Along with her reformed maid Watty (Patricia Hayes) and Watty's shrewish daughter Bessie (Toyah Willcox), Miss Moffatt sets up her new residence. 

Miss Moffatt quietly and elegantly barrels through all opposition to set up a school for the community despite firm opposition from the local squire (Bill Fraser), with only her attorney Mr. Jones (Artro Morris) and another unwed woman, Miss Ronsberry (Anna Massey) to help. The local community too is a bit hesitant, but among the adults there is one who has a spark of genius buried under the coal dust.

Morgan Evans (Ian Saynor) is like the other men in the village: the mines and the pub are his life, but he also has a quiet, unique writing manner and a thirst for knowledge. Miss Moffatt soon takes him under her perhaps excessively protective wing, filling his mind with vast knowledge. It soon, however, becomes too much for him, and he has a one-night stand with Bessie. 

A chance for an Oxford education comes his way, but there are complications. First, is his own self-doubt. Second, there's his and Bessie's love child, which no one knew about before she left. Despite not loving him or the baby, Bessie demands Morgan marry her, which means sacrificing the chance for an education. It is here that Miss Moffat must rally herself to impart her most important information and save many lives.

The Corn is Green was filmed on location in Wales, and the production takes full advantage of it. The telefilm is one of the most beautiful I have seen. It is a bright, sunlight production, one where you can almost feel the breeze in the air. It is one where nothing is dirty, the closest is when we see early shots of boys going down the mineshaft. Apart from that, The Corn is Green is bathed in light, where even the interior scenes have a brightness to them. Perhaps this is metaphor for the story itself, of light coming into the life of Morgan Evans. 

The lightness and brightness extends to the performances. The Corn is Green is one of Katharine Hepburn's great autumnal works, her iron-fist-in-a-velvet-glove manner played if not for laughs at least with an almost addled touch. We can see Miss Moffatt's intelligence, warmth and caring, but she is also not about to suffer fools gladly. Her evolution with the Squire, from well-earned hostility to a touch of warmth works well.

Miss Moffatt is not afraid to call him a nincompoop when he gets in her way, but she also uses the Squire's sexism and arrogance against him by playing something of a "damsel in distress" when whittling him to essentially serve as Morgan's patron. By using his ignorance and ego to her own plans, Hepburn shows a knowing, wry touch. 


When working with Saynor, she also displays in turns a motherly yet at times pushy manner, yet you immediately fall in love with Miss Moffatt. Hepburn can insult people with the nicest words, such as when she hoodwinks Miss Ronsberry to be her teacher's aide. Insisting that she might still find a man to marry (and rule over her), Miss Moffatt almost cheerfully replies, "If you're a spinster well on in her 30's, he's lost his way and he isn't coming". Hepburn enlivens Miss Moffatt into being a nice, bright light, one that wants to give people a chance to succeed when society pushes them under the ground, physically and mentally as one character observes.

She is more than matched by Saynor. He seamlessly transitions from the poor Welsh miner who appears hostile to the idea of education to the intelligent, sensitive man he has grown to be. The evolution from miner to scholar works well with Saynor, and in their scenes he and Hepburn show both the joys and struggles of the mentor/student relationship. He makes you believe that he could think "teached" is correct, and she in turn shows gently that it is "taught".

Every performance is excellent and one can see that age had not withered director George Cukor's style. He was at least 79 when he directed The Corn is Green, but there is a youthful vitality and joy in the film that belies the notion that he or the story were old. There is life in the film, a bright inspirational one, and John Barry's beautiful music enhances the production.

The Corn is Green is a story filled with light and joy on the enlightenment of one man, both intellectual and moral. With standout performances by its two leads and its bright, open space, The Corn is Green is as inspirational a tale as has been seen.

10/10

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Hacking Alert & Update

 


I am sad to say that I am one of millions whose laptop was hacked with ransomware. On Sunday, September 5, this image appeared. The major difference was that rather than $200, the hackers demanded $4000, but it was eventually negotiated to $500 via a Target gift card. At a certain point when I expressed reluctance to pay so much, rather than help as the person on the other end of the call (the "tech guy") said he would, he started what they said was a "self-destruct" on my laptop, complete with countdown. I then hurriedly said I would get the card but get it the next day.

I did not pay.

Instead, I contacted the FBI via their Internet Crime Complaint Center at http://www.ic3.gov and took my laptop to be inspected.

I am most stressed and upset about all this.  

As such, I will be essentially offline for a few days. I hope this situation is resolved soon and well, but for the moment, I am simply too anxious to concentrated on much.

Friday, September 3, 2021

Pray Away: A Review

 

PRAY AWAY

For a brief time in the 1980s and 90s, there was an "ex-gay" movement, where men and women were led to think that they could convert their sexual orientation through therapy of some kind. The documentary Pray Away looks at the former leaders and participants who now look back with regret and shame, though some still hold to the ideas they once professed.

Using a variety of archival footage and current interviews, Pray Away chronicles the once-held notion that through "reparative" or "conversion" therapy, a homosexual could be changed to heterosexuality. John Paulk, one of the interview subjects, soon became the face for the largest conversion therapy organizations, Exodus International. He claimed to have become straight, even marrying a woman who said she was now an ex-lesbian. Michael Bussee, cofounder of Exodus, saw a need for a support group for gay men who were also Christian, modeling his idea on other support groups within the Church.

Soon, however, Exodus became a center for the idea that homosexuals could transition to heterosexuality. Other groups either sprung up or became affiliated with them, such as Living Hope, where Julie Rodgers fell under the control of its founder, Ricky Chelette. Eventually, Exodus International delved into the political, faced scandal when Paulk was photographed at a gay bar, and eventually closed its doors with deep regret for the lives it hurt.

The closest thing to any kind of rebuttal is that of Jeffrey McCall, who is a "Trans for Christ". McCall says he was transgender until a religious conversion and now identifies as the male he was born as. He forms a Freedom March where a small but passionate group of believers spread the word that change is possible in their minds.

Pray Away is best when we hear from those who brought about this brave new world. Hearing how some were pushed into sharing deeply personal details is extremely upsetting. One senses that the various ex-gay groups such as Exodus sound almost like a cult: once you leave the group and embrace the homosexuality/bisexuality within yourself, you are cut off completely. We also get to see how some of the former leaders have changed into new lives; some like Rodgers have a same-sex wedding ceremony at a more progressive church (I think it was the National Cathedral). Others, like former Exodus spokesman Yvette Cantu Schneider accept they are bisexual, happily married to a man while not denying their same-sex attraction.

However, like other documentaries and films detailing the struggles between Christianity and Homosexuality (example, Boy Erased), Pray Away treats Christians not as people but as almost alien creatures, these bizarre figures who come from another world. From what I saw in Pray Away, those participating to change their orientation were sincerely looking to adopt their ideas of faith and lifestyle and were not motivated by malevolence. Bussee for example apparently merely wanted to form a support group for same-sex attracted Christians, not literally change their orientation. 

When did the shift from support to conversion take place? Was that the plan all along? Granted, those who still maintain that sexual conversion can take place, such as Paulk's former wife Anne who has her own group, Restored Hope, declined to be interviewed. However, it is hard to say that the motivations for the churchgoers who listen and support someone like McCall are wicked. We do not hear from them or from anyone who would call themselves a gay Christian. Again, while that is not the focus of Pray Away one senses that the filmmakers see Christians as a source of antagonism, an idea I can't share. 

From appearances, someone like McCall who detransitioned may be less brainwashed and a genuine desire to be male. It might even be due to a sincere religious experience. To the film's credit, McCall is allowed to share part of his story, though again one senses that it is a surface look.

As a side note, I find that both Christians and gays are too hung up on sex. It's a curious thing that those who look askance at people who believe homosexuals can change to heterosexuals sometimes fantasize that a straight person can enjoy a same-sex encounter or even themselves be converted from heterosexuality to bisexuality or even homosexuality. I would argue that sexuality is again very complex, not fitting easily for everyone. I would also argue that evangelical Christians are not the boogeyman some in the LGBT community continue insisting that they are. For whatever faults some evangelicals have, they have never advocated tossing gays off buildings, let alone done so. At least that I am aware of, but I digress.

Pray Away seems to be a surface look at complex issues revolving around sexuality, faith, and the conflict between the two. There are people who have reconciled their same-sex desires with their faith whether through seeing no conflict between the two or deciding for a celibate life for themselves. One watches and sees that perhaps we are merely skimming through things. If, for example, people put the blame on their same-sex attractions due to toxic parenting or abuse, it would be better for them to get treatment for the parenting/abuse versus putting their attractions squarely on that. For good or ill, Exodus fed a need among believers who found their attractions could not be reconciled with their ideas of faith. I am more curious as to the apparent need within some to "be cured", but Pray Away doesn't delve into that.

Some mention is given that perhaps groups like Exodus came about as a reaction against the growing AIDS crisis, where promiscuity was literally killing people, but whether the ex-gay movement really was a response to fear one does not know. Again, I was curious about such things, but again Pray Away didn't go into that.

We do not know what drove some of the ex-gay and ex-ex-gay movements. Perhaps some were to force changes in people or to cash in on therapy fees, but others appear to be genuine in their beliefs about changing. I think it would be too simplistic to say it was merely a desire to conform, and humans are too complicated to put it down to simple answers. Pray Away isn't going to dig into motivations, but it is good to hear from those both who found their journey harrowing and those who are barely starting their own. 

DECISION: B-

Thursday, September 2, 2021

A Taste of Honey: A Review (Review #1530)

 

A TASTE OF HONEY

A Taste of Honey has it all: abusive mothers, miscegenation, illegitimate births, homosexuals. An early example of "kitchen sink drama", A Taste of Honey delves into the lives of three disparate people brought together by all these elements.

Working-class schoolgirl Jo (Rita Tushingham) yearns for a better life away from her lush, tart of a mother Helen (Dora Bryan). Bouncing from flat to flat over Helen's inability to keep up with the rent, Jo is counting the days where she will be free from school and start her own life.

Her dreams are complicated by two situations: Helen's romance with the younger Peter (Robert Stephens), who makes it clear he doesn't want Jo with them, and Billy (Paul Danquath), the black sailor with whom Jo experiences her first romance and sexual encounter.

Billy sails off and Helen chooses middle-class respectability with Peter, but neither really bother Jo. She's starting a new life as a shoe salesgirl. Here, she meets Geoffrey (Murray Melvin), whom she starts a platonic friendship due to his homosexuality. Geoffrey and Jo make an odd couple, but things take a turn when Jo finds herself knocked up. As Billy is now gone, Jo opts to have the child and repeatedly declines Geoff's help and marriage offers.

Geoff contacts Helen for help, and she seems willing but Peter again pushes to keep Jo out of their lives. Jo for her part isn't eager for Mommie Dearest to be part of her or her child's life either. As Peter has found a new bit of fluff, Helen now is more able to help Jo, though it means Geoff will have to go, which he does. At the end, Jo tells Helen the child may be black, and we end A Taste of Honey on an ambiguous note, with Helen moving in, Geoff moving out and Jo unsure of what is to become of her.

I am at a bit of a loss over why for a brief time British cinema seemed wildly obsessed with chronicling the miserable lives of the British working class. Films like A Taste of Honey and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning appear to suggest if not flat-out say that the British working poor led lives of loud desperation. They faced endless horrors and were perpetually unhappy, making horrible decisions, drowning their miseries in booze and broads. I'm genuinely surprised no one ever opted to make a spoof of these kinds of films, but I digress.

A Taste of Honey tackles serious subjects in a somewhat realistic manner. I say somewhat only in that Shelagh Delaney (adapting her play with the film's director, Tony Richardson) can't quite escape the theatrical setting. Many scenes, particularly when we're at Jo's loft, look like they could easily take place on a stage. The film does not totally avoid looking like a filmed play, which did make the overall effect a bit stagey.

However, these limits are offset by some of the performances. Tushingham, making her film debut, is quite strong if perhaps at times bordering on hysterical as Jo. When she isn't shouting at someone, her quiet moments allow the viewer to see Jo as frustrated by her surroundings, one who yearns for a better life and even has a bit of joy that is quickly taken from her. She can be tacky, like when she almost chipper-like asks Geoff to describe being with a man. She can also, however, be arrogant, hard-headed and lost. Despite what she feels about her mother, Jo is repeating the same mistakes Helen made. It is a strong debut performance.

I found Bryan to be the better performance. Her Helen was not just a selfish floozy but someone with a bit of a heart. Bryan made Helen a sad, tragic figure: one who did put herself first but who also, in her way, wanted something better for Jo. When she remembers Jo's father and how she ended up pregnant, you see Helen looking back not in anger but in regret. When she sees the ring Billy gave Jo, she tries to warn her daughter about men, but by now she has set such a poor example her words fall flat. Struggling to love Jo and be a mother, Helen could not truly put her daughter ahead of herself. It is a beautiful performance.

That leaves Melvin, and here is where A Taste of Honey could only go so far. While it isn't overtly stated Geoff is gay he does acknowledge it. However, Geoff's sexuality plays almost no role in the story. We never see him so much as look at another man, and it makes one wonder if Geoff's homosexuality is there more for the novelty of seeing a gay man on film than anything else. Granted, A Taste of Honey is Jo's story, not Geoff's, but seeing that he really has no purpose apart from being an early version of "the gay best friend", it seems almost pointless to bring up the subject.

A Taste of Honey is clearly an ironic title, as no one here will ever know the sweet life. The film, well-acted and directed, gives us a look into this world that more than a few people know personally. I did find it an interesting story, though again I wonder if the British working class ever had any happiness in their lives.


DECISION: B-

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

The Suicide Squad: A Review (Review #1529)

 

THE SUICIDE SQUAD

It's a curious thing that a sequel to part of a major franchise would have a title in which the word "The" distinguished it from its predecessor, but that's how The Suicide Squad is separate from 2016's Suicide Squad. I'm not a comic book fan, and I couldn't tell you anything about the many antiheroes The Suicide Squad has. I can say that the film is too gory, too long and frankly too dumb for me to have enjoyed.

Villainous government official/jailer Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) sends two groups of super-criminals and oddities officially known as Task Force X but nicknamed "the Suicide Squad" to the remote island nation of Corto Maltese. Why two? Well, one was meant as a decoy for the actual group, but that group had a couple of survivors: Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) and Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), both of whom had to be rescued at different points in time.

The main group is led by Bloodsport (Idris Elba), who was essentially blackmailed into this mission so that his daughter would not serve time herself. In his motley crew is Peacemaker (John Cena), Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), King Shark and Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior). Peacemaker is a large man who will kill to bring about world peace, Polka-Dot Man is a genetic experiment gone wrong thanks to his mother, King Shark is a dumb talking and walking shark and Ratcatcher 2 can control rats just like her father.

Their mission: to destroy the secret lab of Jotunheim and the mysterious "Project Starfish", headed by The Thinker (Peter Capaldi). The mission does not include helping a counterrevolution after military dictators overthrew the ruling family, but if it helps their mission to have joint objectives, all the better. However, there is evil at work, as some of the Suicide Squad have a more secret mission in all this, one that conflicts with the giant alien starfish destroying Corto Maltese. Not all the squad survive, but with Waller both incapacitated and blackmailed, the survivors live to fight another day.

The Suicide Squad, written and directed by James Gunn, loves to go on many tangents that may have looked flashy but made the film much, much longer than it should have been. Both rescues of Colonel Flag and Harley Quinn seemed superfluous. The opening battle and the decision to both introduce characters and reintroduce some from Suicide Squad just to kill them off within minutes is also a poor decision. One is completely justified in asking why such characters as The Detachable Kid or T.D.K. (Nathan Fillion) or Blackguard (Pete Davison) were in The Suicide Squad if they were not going to be part of the film itself.

Even if a logical answer could be found, their deaths were particularly gruesome and excessively graphic. Perhaps some people would love to see Pete Davison's face blown off, but I am not one of them. The graphic, almost gleeful nature of The Suicide Squad's violence deeply appalls me. I figure I may be in the minority on this, but the same issue I had with Mortal Kombat is the same issue I have with The Suicide Squad: the perverse pleasure they had in showing how detailed the various killings are. Even before we get to the actual opening credits we are treated to almost sadistic levels of killing, with more to come.

I have not grown that desensitized to find enjoyment in seeing such graphic beheadings, stabbings and dismemberments. 

The Suicide Squad itself is a terrible group of people to be around, and while I figure they are the anti-Avengers I still could not find any interest in any of them to care what happened to them. It's hard to empathize with a weasel who doesn't talk.

It probably isn't fair to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and it's a credit to Margot Robbie's skills as an actress that she remains the highlight of the franchise. Her third turn as Harley Quinn (at least I think it's her third) shows she gets the character completely. Robbie can shift from almost innocent to murderous, sometimes in the same scene, with a smoothness and ease that is quite exceptional and skilled. 

As a side note, I would argue that Harley Quinn would know the David Lee Roth version of I'm Just a Gigolo/I Ain't Got Nobody than she would Louis Prima's version. I don't know why this particular song had to play during Harley's rampage. I don't see how it fits, but there it is. I give credit to Kinnaman as Flag, about the only sane person in this crew, and Elba does well in the action moments, though less effective when trying to convince he has any sense of caring for the daughter he left behind. Their fight in the beginning of the film caused more laughter than concern.

Cena isn't an actor but a hulking machine, so why anyone found Peacemaker interesting enough to create a television spinoff for him is puzzling to me. I also credit Dastmalchian for working some kind of angst in his Polka-Dot Man, but nothing save the character from being silly. It's hard to sympathize with Melchior's Ratcatcher 2, for no matter how much she or The Suicide Squad tries, someone who controls rats is rather grotesque.

The Suicide Squad is poorly structured, with a lot of "three days earlier" and "eight minutes earlier" to interrupt big moments or cliffhangers such as Peacemaker's threat or the decoy invasion. Sadistically violent, unnecessarily cruel (jokes about characters deaths are tacky, tasteless and predictable), I know many enjoy such things, but I do not. Loud, long, dumb and with nothing to say, The Suicide Squad is not a film I would watch again. 

DECISION: F

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Tomorrow, the World!: A Review (Review #1528)

 



TOMORROW, THE WORLD! 

This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon. Today's star is Fredric March.

As the United States entered the Second World War, Americans were not well-versed in the ways of the European enemies as much as they thought they were on the Japanese. The Germans had not bombed us, but there we were fighting against them. What made the Third Reich tick? I don't think Tomorrow, The World! will answer that question, but one can't fault its total earnestness even if at times it veers close to camp.

Mike Frame (Fredric March) is bringing his orphan nephew to America. The child, Emil Bruckner (Skippy Homeier) is twelve-year-old but already dangerous unbeknownst to his American family. Emil is a devoted Nazi (I figure Hitler Youth), forever spouting off against the cesspool that is America. His first horrifying moment is when he tells his family he was "forced to sit next to a big fat Jew", and it only goes downhill from there.

He is convinced he is a spy for The Fuhrer here in America, attempts to recruit and shape up his fellow classmates is informs Mike's fiancée Leona Richards upon learning she is Jewish, "that is regrettable". He looked happy when one of his cousin Pat's (Joan Carroll) friends was a Charlie Lee, but his joy was short-lived when he found that Charlie was not Japanese but Chinese.

Emil, snobbish, excessively formal and arrogant, makes life pretty hard to impossible for everyone around him, leading to among other things trying to turn his spinster aunt Jesse (Agnes Moorehead) against this "unholy matrimony", an attempt on Pat's life, Mike going homicidal on a child and a manhunt consisting of three tween boys. It is only Leona's genuine concern for the child inside the Baby Stormtrooper (give or take a slap or two) and Pat's only pleas that Mike thinks maybe our Aryan Child may be redeemable.


I understand that both Homeier and Tomorrow, The World! were big hits when they were on Broadway. Perhaps the stage version was better, but the film version ended up almost a spoof than a genuine exploration of the indoctrination of Hitler's Children. I found Jojo Rabbit to be more realistic, and that one was a comedy.

I put it down to the elements that made Tomorrow, The World! such a widely acclaimed work: Homeier and the overall story. Sounding like a Teutonic Steve Urkel, Emil came across as less a True Believer of Nazism and more as a loon. His behavior was more than bizarre, it was overtly antagonistic to where it was clear Tomorrow, The World! was totally misguided in what it was attempting to say.

I figure the film wanted the viewer to look on Emil as so indoctrinated that he would reject any evidence to the contrary of what he had been taught. However, through Homeier's performance on down to the music it was clear they wanted the audience to hate Emil versus feel sympathy for him. Director Leslie Fenton and screenwriters Ring Lardner, Jr. and Leopold Atlas may have wanted us to be shocked by Emil's manner, but they ended up making him look like the German Bad Seed.

Take for example the scene where Emil comes down in his Hitler Youth uniform. The film could have made it into a scene where he unwittingly wears something that is wildly inappropriate but which to him is perfectly normal. However, as played by Homeier, directed by Fenton and written by Lardner, Jr. & Atlas, it is clear that Emil is evil versus confused. Over and over we see Emil bully, berate, ridicule and insult people with an almost Satanic glee. Over and over I thought that Tomorrow, the World! wanted us to look on at Emil as either evil or bonkers. Only at the very end is he allowed to be the slightest bit human. 

No matter the intent, seeing Fredric March try and strangle a child comes across as hilarious than horrifying. There are a lot of laughs to be had in Tomorrow, The World!. How else to react when seeing Emil freak out over seeing his male classmate put up the laundry.

It seems a strange thing that rather than make Emil a sympathetic character or at least a conflicted one, the film seemed to go out of its way to make him a miniature version of the many Nazi villains rolled out in World War II-era films. In a certain way, Tomorrow, the World! seems to be almost to put children in adult roles.  The fight scene between Emil and Paul, the Polish-American laundry boy, looks like something more appropriate for grown men to be doing. The score somehow emphasizes the weirdness of it all.

His assumption later that his classmate was "the leader" due to his Boy Scout uniform is not made to look naïve or innocent. It comes as almost belligerent, aggressive and insulting. 

In short, nothing in Tomorrow, the World! makes Emil into the lost little boy or even the fanatical Hitler Youth. Instead, he's really just the male version of The Bad Seed's Rhoda and These Three/The Children's Hour's Mary: little children who are really psychos.

Not that Fredric March did himself favors here. Tomorrow, the World! doesn't quite make him a sap but it does at times seem more interested in his romance with Leona than in his nephew's more loony ideas and plots. He seems more interest in offering lessons than in being this scientist caught up in his nephew's twisted world. Much better were Field and Carroll as Mike's fiancee and daughter, both of whom showed a caring that Mike, despite his alleged open-mindedness, couldn't or wouldn't.

Tomorrow, the World! is interesting to those who want to see how neo-propaganda World War II films came across. I think now Tomorrow, the World! is less shocking than silly.


Monday, August 30, 2021

The Public Enemy: A Review

 

THE PUBLIC ENEMY

This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon. Today's star is James Cagney.

James Cagney first came to major prominence playing gangsters, and The Public Enemy was the film to put him on the map. An exciting, brutal look at the early days of Prohibition, The Public Enemy may try to pass itself off as a cautionary tale, but it does glamorize this seedy world a bit.

Ever since they were boys, Tommy Powers and Matt Doyle had gotten involved in petty crime. As adults, Tommy (James Cagney) and Matt (Edward Woods) have increased their criminal activities to grand larceny, but after a botched robbery leads to a dead cop their fence Putty Nose (Murray Kinnell) leaves them hanging.

Fortunately, both World War I and Prohibition go in Tommy's favor. His more upright and moralistic brother Mike (Donald Cook) goes off to war, while Prohibition lets Tommy and Matt become enforcers to bootleggers under the protection of Samuel "Nails" Nathan (Leslie Fenton). Tommy's raking in the dough, keeping his sweet mother (Beryl Mercer) oblivious to his criminal acts.

Now with Tom as one of the Kings of Chicago Gangland, Tommy feels all-powerful. Mike, back from the war, is appalled at his kid brother profiting off "booze and blood" and reproaches him, but neither want to hurt Ma, so they have a most uneasy ceasefire. Tommy takes up first with Kitty (Mae Clarke) then with glamorous Gwen Allen (Jean Harlow). However, ultimately we find that crime indeed does not pay, and our public enemy, having taken his revenge for Matt's killing, pays for his sins in a brutal and sad way.


The Public Enemy starts and ends with text making clear that it does not set out to glorify the hoodlum or criminal, and that this is a problem society must address. This is a case of having your cake and eating it too, for The Public Enemy makes a case that Tommy's life is more exciting than that of the morally rigid Mike.

Tommy gets beautiful girls, goes to swinging nightclubs, gets to slap people around and even kill with no consequences. Running gin by sneaking it in gas delivery trucks looks more fun than riding the streetcar or working there. If it weren't for the affection he has for his mother, Tommy would be a totally repellant psychopath. 

I would argue that he is, but it is to Cagney's extraordinary performance that Tommy is almost likable and sympathetic, his brutal end shocking and terribly sad. The Public Enemy is one of if not James Cagney's greatest gangster role, with perhaps White Heat being the bookend to the types of roles most often associated with him.

His Tommy is unapologetic, cruel at times but also with his own code of morality. Though he has no issue with plugging his former mentor Putty Nose, part of us feels that he did the right thing given what Putty did. "If it hadn't been for you, we might have been on the level," Matt tells Putty when he and Tommy confront him. Cagney gives a quick look to Woods that suggests Tommy does not regret his life, but goes along with Matt's genuine anger to back up his buddy.

Cagney isn't afraid to go into dark places, to make Tommy unsympathetic. However, he also shows him as vulnerable and ultimately tragic. He, for example, does something of a dance after dropping Gwen off, a surprising turn amidst the gangland killings. After achieving his revenge, we see him, wounded, literally in the gutter as he says to the rain, "I ain't so tough", as true a confession as heard. The Public Enemy has to be among James Cagney's finest performances.


The Public Enemy has strong performances from Beryl Mercer as Ma Powers, loving to her two boys. The cheerfulness she has preparing Tommy's room for what she thinks is his safe return will break your heart. Joan Blondell in an early role too does excellently as Daisy, Matt's eventual wife who loves her man but fears for him too. While The Public Enemy is an early role for Jean Harlow and we can see she hasn't quite mastered the art of acting, we see hints that she could become a strong dramatic actress and not just a comic foil or alluring temptress. She has a monologue in her final scene with Cagney commenting on how he's a bit of a little boy in his desires that is quite well done.

It is only some of the other performances, such as Cook as the rigid, almost priggish Mike and Woods as Tommy's toady Matt where I would argue the film flounders a bit. Both appear to act as if The Public Enemy is a silent film, which is understandable as the industry was still struggling with the transition. 

The film, under William Wellman's direction, is surprisingly fast. The scenes run quickly and are brief, transitioning from one to the other to where many of them last less than five minutes at most. There are quite a few scenes where the dialogue is unnecessary to say what is going on, such as the mass booze buying spree the night before Prohibition starts or Tommy's rain-soaked stakeout of his rival's headquarters.

The Public Enemy, if remembered by most, is for the infamous scene where Cagney slams a grapefruit into Mae Clarke's face. I figure that many modern viewers would either laugh or be enraged at this moment, but it is perfect for the character of Tommy Powers, selfish, arrogant and unapologetic.

The film also has a great use of the vernacular of the time, which would serve well for those attempting to study how the Roaring Twenties and Thirties sounded like among the less posh element. After Matt berates Putty for their life of crime, Tommy joins in. "Sure, we might have been ding-dings on a streetcar", he adds. The film captures the authentic sound of the era that sounds contemporary for the times but that now may be a bit opaque. That, however, does not make it inscrutable to present-day viewers.

The Public Enemy is beautifully filmed with a powerhouse performance from James Cagney as this reprobate who will break your heart. It may try to pass itself off as a moral warning, but gangsters never came better than The Public Enemy.
  

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Cactus Flower: A Review


CACTUS FLOWER

This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon. Today's star is Ingrid Bergman.

Ingrid Bergman was seen as the height of Continental elegance and sophistication, so it's more than startling to find her in something as wild and as daffy as Cactus Flower. The sight of the posh Swede cutting a rug and openly flirting with a man old enough to be her son isn't shocking so much as it is genuinely funny, not in a bad way but as part of a good romp.

Ditzy but sweet record shop employee Toni Simmons (Goldie Hawn) attempts suicide after her lover, dentist Julian Winston (Walter Matthau) ditches her at the last minute on their anniversary. She's saved only by the intervention of her neighbor, aspiring writer Igor Sullivan (Rick Lenz). Toni has been Julian's mistress for a year, but now wants out. Horrified and moved by Toni's actions, Julian tells her he'll divorce his wife and marry her.

Only one problem: Julian isn't married. 

He's been using the "wife and kids" line to avoid entanglements, but having fallen for the much-younger Toni, he opts for marriage. Things get complicated when Toni insists on meeting "Mrs. Winston" to see if she does agree to a divorce. Julian attempts to get his loyal nurse Miss Dickinson (Bergman) to pose as his wife. 

At first appalled, she ends up going along with it, inadvertently making things worse. Now drawn into this web of deceit, "Mrs. Winston" has to find a boyfriend of her own. All this leads to Miss Dickinson liberating herself to wild abandon, Julian becoming more flustered by all the confusion his lies get him into, and ultimately the right couples end up together.

Cactus Flower works because it has an eccentric logic. As the situation becomes more and more convoluted there is still a semblance of sense throughout it. I.A.L. Diamond, adapting the stage play, gives the script a smooth flow, allowing the situation to build on itself despite the outlandish nature of things.

Take for example when Julian gifts Toni a beautiful mink coat. Toni thinks "the wife" should get it, but it ends up with Miss Dickinson. A disinterested Julian tells Miss Dickinson the box is "his gift" to her, unaware of what it has. When Miss Dickinson opens the box and not only sees the coat but the love note he intended for Toni, she naturally mistakes both are for her.

It's really crazy, but it's all perfectly logical. Cactus Flower is built entirely on the situation never being forced but moving from Point A to Point B with ease.

The film also has a lot of wry wit and humor. At the Slipped Disc Club the various parties all meet, and we see how Igor finds the newly liberated "Mrs. Winston" to be an older sexy lady. Trying to dissuade the younger man by pointing out their age difference, Igor will have none of it. "Let's run away and live off your Social Security," he tells her to her amused delight. 

While the term used to describe Miss Dickinson is a "barracuda", today it would be more "cougar". 

This blending of wit and logic find a perfect fit when Toni observes "Mrs. Winston" getting down and dirty with Igor. After having previously seen her with Julian's friend masquerading as "Mrs. Winston's" boyfriend then seeing her arrive later with another man, Toni essentially declares her rival a nymphomaniac. She points out that in the course of twenty-four hours "Mrs. Winston" has been with her husband, her ex-boyfriend, her current boyfriend and her potentially future boyfriend!

The performances match the farce. Hawn won Best Supporting Actress for Cactus Flower, a rare time when a comedic performance won. She is that bubbly persona Hawn is known for, but her Toni is sweet and guileless throughout the film. Despite thinking herself a mistress Hawn makes Toni a delightful, innocent person, one who genuinely cares about others. Her wide eyes and own wacky logic ensure that you like Toni.

Bergman for me is the big surprise here. I don't think she was known for comedies, let alone sex farces like Cactus Flower, but what makes Bergman's performance brilliant is that she underplays the lunacy of the situations. She is perfectly droll in the beginning, showing a deadpan manner to the somewhat uptight nurse. When patient Harvey Greenfield (Jack Weston) attempts to flirt with her by saying he'd read an article about topless nurses, she retorts with "I wasn't aware you were interested in reading" with a perfectly straight face.

Once Stephanie Dickinson discovers "the woman within", it's wild seeing Bergman so frisky and liberated. Bergman was hilarious throughout and a joy to watch her try another side to her many talents.

Cactus Flower is a delightful romp, an oddball but thoroughly logical film that more people should see. Perhaps a bit hampered by a sometimes stagey manner, it's still witty and amusing.

DECISION: B+

Saturday, August 28, 2021

Gorky Park: A Review (Review #1525)

 

GORKY PARK

This review is for the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon. Today's star is Lee Marvin.

Murder in the Soviet Union is not a simple matter. Gorky Park, based on the Martin Cruz Smith novel, has some good moments towards the end of the film. However, a lot of it feels a bit rote to dull.

Moscow police detective Arkady Renko (William Hurt) is not enthusiastic about a gruesome murder case he has. Three bodies have been found in Gorky Park, normally a quiet family-friendly area with ice skating. The victims had their faces removed, along with their fingerprints and anything that could identify them.

Renko is almost eager to have the KGB take this case, especially as he thinks they are involved. However, the investigation takes a strange turn when Renko is invited to a dacha by a high government official. Here, he encounters Jack Osborne (Lee Marvin), an American millionaire and sable importer. Osborne's companion is Irina Asanova (Joanna Pacula), a beautiful Soviet film costumer whose skates were found on the female victim.

What are Irina and Osborne's involvement with this case? Why is the strange American William Kirwill (Brian Dennehy) following Renko? It turns out Kirwill, a New York detective, is related to another of the victims, an American whose born-again Christianity got him mixed up in helping people flee the Soviet Union. However, there is more to this case, one involving both human and sable smuggling, corruption, and betrayals. A climatic shootout will lead to many deaths and freedom for some but not all.

What is interesting about Gorky Park is that it does not treat the Soviet system as anything exceptional. By that I mean that in essence Gorky Park is a police procedural, with the oppressive Communist regime as almost a backdrop versus a central part. Renko is presented as essentially an honest cop in a dishonest world, one who is interested in solving the crime and is appalled at what people will do to gain money. His methods stick within the traditions of an investigator who is set in finding the truth, but he is not in any way belligerent unless he has to be. 

In fact, I remember only once does Renko show a threatening manner, and that is when he faces mortal danger. 

Director Michael Apted brought a surprising stillness and perfunctory manner to Gorky Park, which may explain why the film felt longer than its already tiring two hour mark. Because the film is sometimes so still and quiet, it can feel stretched out to boring. There are certainly no big fight scenes until the end, and even here at times it's more restrained than other filmmakers would have made it.

I have an issue with William Hurt's performance. I think he was trying for a Russian accent, but sometimes it sounded more British than Russian, perhaps to match the British accents of some of the other cast members. Sometimes it sounded like a strange blending of British and Russian, and sometimes he sounded American.

Apart from his dodgy accent I'm beginning to warm to Hurt's overall performance. His Renko was honest, direct, and even allowed himself some moments of humor when interacting with his fellow detectives. I will admit that the romance between Renko and Irina struck me as both predictable and unbelievable, but apart from that it was a generally strong performance of the strong, silent figure.

The aspect about his father's heroism during World War II, along with his final fate, suggest that maybe there was an eye to making a film series out of the Cruz Smith Renko novels. As there were none, the repeated mentions of him trying to live up to his father fell flat.

Lee Marvin fortunately didn't have to don an accent and his Jack Osborne was equally strong. Quietly menacing. Marvin's Osborne was wily and capable of anything to get what he wanted be it pelts or a beautiful woman. His gravelly voice and stillness gave Osborne more menace, and the interplay between Hurt and Marvin when discussing sable hats shows both knew they were essentially speaking in code.

Pacula's Irina at times seemed almost blank, someone who did not seem to express any emotion. When she did after being shown her friend's head, it seemed a bit over-the-top to comical.

I think the stillness at times harms Gorky Park, leading to somewhat comical reactions such as when William Kirwill is discovered (both alive and dead). However, on the whole I found Gorky Park not a bad film, but a bit slow. 

DECISION: C+

Friday, August 27, 2021

The Epic That Never Was: The Television Documentary

 


THE EPIC THAT NEVER WAS

This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon. Today's star is Merle Oberon.

In 1976 the television miniseries I, Claudius successfully adapted the Robert Graves novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God in its twelve episodes to become in my view one of the greatest miniseries events ever made. However, this was not the first time someone took a stab at adapting the Graves novels. The Epic That Never Was tells of the aborted first effort, a 1937 production that was stopped production a month after beginning. 

With film star Dirk Bogarde as our guide, The Epic That Never Was uses interviews with the then-surviving cast, crew and I, Claudius author Graves to detail their memories and experiences on I, Claudius, with particular emphasis on its star, Charles Laughton. 

I, Claudius was meant to be the ultimate triumph in the career of British film impresario Sir Alexander Korda. Fighting against the "quota quickies", British films made on the cheap to fill up government quotas, the Hungarian-born Korda wanted to challenge Hollywood. He had a surprise hit with The Private Life of Henry VIII starring an Oscar-winning performance from Laughton, and this led to a series of films. 

Korda pulled out all the stops to make I, Claudius. Alongside Laughton would be a Who's Who of actors: Flora Robson as his grandmother Livia, Merle Oberon as his duplicitous wife Messalina and directing them would be none other than legendary auteur Josef von Sternberg.

Then, it all fell apart.  

Laughton had difficulty "finding the character" according to Oberon, which made it difficult for him to act. It wasn't until he decided that Claudius was King Edward VIII, Duke of Windsor that he was able to give the role his all. However, von Sternberg was lost in his own sumptuous vision for I, Claudius to endure Laughton. Von Sternberg, for example, balked at having a mere six Vestal Virgins in era-appropriate costumes. He decided he needed sixty Vestal Virgins, all nude save for thin coverings, to fulfill his vision.

Finally, Oberon was involved in a car accident that put her out of commission. Von Sternberg decided he could not wait and that Oberon could not be replaced, and as such, I, Claudius was shut down. 

The highlight of The Epic That Never Was is seeing the footage from the failed I, Claudius adaptation. Of particular note is the sequence where Laughton's Claudius takes the throne and speaks before the Roman Senate. In those five minutes we see an actor in full possession of extraordinary skill, his voice and movements so excellently crafted that the viewer forgets he/she is watching a clip from an unfinished film. Instead, the viewer gets wrapped up in I, Claudius and we get a tantalizing view of what could have been.

We also see how a film is put together, when the actors and extras are on set working. There's no music or sound effects to enhance what we normally would have seen had I, Claudius been completed. It's almost eerie how film sets, particularly large sets like I, Claudius, sound like when we get the raw materials of film.

The reminiscences of the surviving cast and crew, however, do not paint a positive picture for some of them. Von Sternberg, who looks like Colonel Sanders without his beard, seems highly contemptuous of I, Claudius in general and of both Laughton and Oberon in particular. The actors, according to von Sternberg, had truncated his film. As Emlyn Williams, who played Caligula in this unfinished film observed rather bitterly, "truncated his film" was a pretty dismissive way of referring to Oberon's car accident which left her physically scarred at the time. 

Williams also remembered that he didn't have a makeup or costume test before starting filming. "I only met the director on my first day of shooting, which was a Roman orgy starting at 6:30 in the morning on a January or February day and ending at 6:30 at night". Unintentionally, Williams' turn of phrase of "a Roman orgy starting at 6:30 in the morning" almost startles the viewer.

Oberon for her part all but states that I, Claudius was a vehicle for Merle Oberon. The surviving footage however gives little to suggest that I, Claudius would have been the Merle Oberon starring film that Merle Oberon suggests I, Claudius was intended as. In fact, she appears in one brief scene where Caligula orders her to marry the stuttering, limping Claudius. Oberon is pretty in the footage, but she has so few lines that it does not suggest the true evil, dare I say bitchiness Messalina is meant to be.  

To be fair as this was one scene it is difficult to say if a completed I, Claudius would have made her performance a better one, but from the footage shown it suggests Oberon was more a pretty face than deep actress. 

In her scene, Dame Flora Robson was much stronger as the old, cantankerous and cynical Livia. It's a curious thing that in reality Robson was only thirty when playing the eighty-year-old Livia.

In his own interview, Robert Graves is either blunt or unaware of how his motives for writing I, Claudius sound. "I'll write the true story (of Claudius) if I ever need the money", he says, but with no suggestion of humor to that comment. Whether he was just acknowledging the truth or making a joke is unclear.

The Epic That Never Was talks about Oberon's accident but does not state exactly why Oberon could not be replaced to keep the production going. As I understood it they had been in production for about a month. If so, I don't think there was that much footage as to make it impossible to recast the role. It could be that there was more footage, perhaps now lost, that would have made recasting impossible. However, it is a bit unclear.

It's accepted that Oberon's accident was the main if not central reason for I, Claudius dying, but von Sternberg hints that perhaps his difficulty with Laughton was the real reason, with Oberon's accident a fortuitous occurrence. Von Sternberg does say he found Laughton difficult, and while we can see that suggested by others (Williams called him "a brilliantly gifted child"), the final results showed that Laughton would have made a fine Claudius.

At the end of The Epic That Never Was, Graves suggests that the production died because the Emperor Claudius himself did not want to be photographed. Written about he can accept, but not filmed. Bogarde, who mentions he visited the set as a sixteen-year-old art student, wonders if in the future others would tackle the Graves novels. 

Thirty-nine years after the first failed effort and eleven years after The Epic That Never Was, the miniseries adaptation proved him prescient.

8/10

Thursday, August 26, 2021

Down With Love: A Review


DOWN WITH LOVE

This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon. Today's star is Tony Randall.

Down With Love is sold as an homage to the Rock Hudson/Doris Day "no sex sex comedies", and while the film has certain elements of the Hudson/Day films in it, I think it focused more on the style than on the substance of said Hudson/Day films.

Barbara Novak (Renee Zellweger) has just published her feminist manifesto Down With Love, arguing that women should focus on career over marriage and have sex without love. Finding no help from stuffy male publishers, her agent Vikki (Sarah Paulson) suggests an interview with dashing man's man, ladies' man and man about town Catcher Block (Ewan McGregor), as swinging a Lothario as ever walked the Earth. Catcher is the star journalist of Know Magazine (the magazine for men in the know), but Cather is nowhere near interested in Ms. Novak's theology on sexual equality. 

His disdain is so great that he stands her up three times, each time for a stewardess he beds. Much to Know Magazine's editor Peter McManus' (David Hyde Pierce) exasperation (who harbors secret passions for Vikki), Catcher is nowhere to be found. Despite this snub, Down With Love is a massive success, initially delighting Barbara's publisher Theodore Banner or TB (Tony Randall). Its success, however, is now affecting Catcher's sex life, so he cooks up a scheme to seduce Barbara by getting her to fall in love with him. Once she is under his spell, he'll write a damning expose on her.

To do this, Catcher creates an alternate persona: Captain Zip Martin, astronaut unaware of who Barbara is. Barbara appears to be taken in by this rouse, but soon it becomes a case of who's zooming who as Barbara has a few tricks up her own lavish couturier. However, as in all romantic comedies, our foursome find that love can conquer all, as Catcher and Barbara sing Here's To Love.

It's a curious thing that Rock Hudson and Doris Day are seen as the quintessential romantic screen duo when they in fact made only three films together: Pillow Talk, Lover Come Back and Send Me No Flowers. More curious is that despite what Down With Love may suggest, in only two of their three pairings did they play rivals (Send Me No Flowers had their characters married to each other already, deviating from the formula). 

Down With Love is, or at least appears to be, perfectly open about how it thinks the formula for the Hudson/Day films worked: successful career woman meets sexual heel and they loath each other instantly, until through circumstances and mistaken identities the most mismatched couple find passion and romance. While Eve Ahlert and Dennis Drake's screenplay has certain elements that use said formula, the film is actually all style and little to no substance. Down With Love drowns in its own self-conscious and aware manner that it ends up not as an homage or even parody of the Hudson/Day films but almost a desecration of them.

The Hudson/Day films were exaggerated, farcical perhaps but never idiotic. The sexual tension was built around, in part, the double entendres and sly suggestions going on. Down With Love, for better or worse, is more overt while attempting to masquerade as innocent but naughty fun. The split screen scene that Down With Love riffs from Pillow Talk is a case in point. 

For those who haven't seen Pillow Talk, a split screen was used to suggest that our leads were playing footsie in their separate bathtubs, whereas in Down With Love we see Catcher and Barbara appear to be simulating oral sex. While the former was suggestive and playful, the latter was almost vulgar, idiotic and nasty.

A major issue with Down With Love is that the script and director Peyton Reed focused more on the aesthetics than on the substance. The film in its costumes, sets and score is overt in its wild over-the-top manner. It, in short, refuses to take any of this seriously, mistaking open insincerity for humor. Down With Love is more about an homage to the late fifties style than to the Hudson/Day films themselves. Everything we see makes clear that Down With Love isn't going to even try to ground any of this in any sort of reality. Fully aware of itself, it thinks it can (like Catcher) get away with surface charm. Instead, by being so open about its exaggeration, Down With Love misses the charm of the Hudson/Day films.

The performances equal the broad nature of Down With Love. To her credit Zellweger does capture some of Day's facial manners, particularly the look of exasperation at situations. She also has a wonderful monologue where she reveals her motivations that is a strong piece of acting. However, she is not matched by McGregor, who swings into the parody of a parody of the Rock Hudson role with an almost too-cartoonish ferocity. Far too cocky for even what ends up as less a tribute and more an almost meanspirited spoof, McGregor's Catcher ends up quite repulsive. Moreover, you don't see how the romance blossomed between Catcher and Barbara. 

However, you do see McGregor shirtless three times, so if that piques your interest, there it is.

As a side note, we see Judy Garland in archival footage singing Down with Love (billed as being from The Ed Sullivan Show but in reality from her eponymous show). Zellweger would, in a curious turn, end up playing Garland in the biopic Judy.

With Rock Hudson sadly dead from AIDS and Doris Day in happy retirement, it falls upon Tony Randall to serve as the only original piece from the three Hudson/Day films to tie it to Down With Love. His role in the Hudson/Day films was always that of the third wheel, the neurotic, slightly befuddled best friend forever trying to help or get something from either or both of the main characters. His role of the publisher who ends up cursing his main success is a sad waste of Randall's talent. He was so unimportant to the film it might just as well have been a cameo, and it's a puzzle as to why he couldn't play a larger role.

Much better were Pierce and Paulson. Pierce manages to balance being an homage to the Tony Randall-type role while making it his own. Paulson too balanced being exaggerated without making Vikki look stupid.

To be fair Down With Love has at least one highlight: the closing song Here's To Love. It has a nice swinging style and unlike the film itself it's cute and witty. "I hear the march that's calling for us/We'll walk down the aisle to an angels' chorus/I'll be your Rock if you'll be my Doris" go the lyrics. You have to tip your hat for a song that rhymes "chorus" with "Doris".

Down With Love is too self-aware to be the Rock Hudson/Doris Day homage it wants to be. It's cutesy but it's better to go for some Pillow Talk than to be Down With Love.     


DECISION: C-



Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Stage Fright (1950): A Review

 

STAGE FRIGHT

This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon. Today's star is Jane Wyman.

Murder and death take stage in Stage Fright, a lesser-known and I would argue lighter Alfred Hitchcock film. With a bit more humor and some strong performances, Stage Fright is entertaining though not among The Master of Suspense's greater works.

Aspiring actress Eve Gill (Jane Wyman) learns from her love interest Jonathan Cooper (Richard Todd) that famed chanteuse Charlotte Inwood (Marlene Dietrich) has come to him for help after murdering her husband. Johnny has been having an affair with Charlotte, and as a result he was seen fleeing the scene of the crime by Charlotte's maid Nellie Goode (Kay Walsh).

Now, Eve is determined to clear Johnny's name. With help from her father Commodore Gill (Alastair Sim), Eve uses her acting skills to infiltrate Charlotte's circle, though she has to bribe Nellie to get her to pass Eve off as her "cousin", Doris Tinsdale. Eve becomes Charlotte's maid/stage dresser, while also starting something of a romance with Detective Wilfred Smith (Michael Wilding), who likes it when she calls him "Ordinary" Smith.

Charlotte maintains her innocence, but there are more twists in the tale until we discover that not is as it appears, with deadly results for one and romance for another.

Starting from Leighton Lucas' opening music on down to some of the performances, Stage Fright feels less thriller and more light entertainment. It is not surprising given that a highlight is Dietrich's rendition of The Laziest Gal in Town, a song written by Cole Porter specifically for her. Dietrich seemed to be having a ball playing up a bit as the great musical star, but she also can show a good, strong dramatic manner when reminiscing about how she had to kill off a dog who bit her.

As Dietrich was playing diva, it leaves Wyman to play a bit more mousey as Eve. Stage Fright did give her a chance to play dual roles: Eve Gill and Doris Tinsdale. It speaks to the more lighthearted manner of Stage Fright that there's an extended scene of Eve preparing to masquerade as the Cockney maid only to end up easily recognizable to her nearsighted mother (Sybil Thorndike). Wyman did well not just in these dual roles but also when showing her conflicting romantic feelings for Ordinary Smith.

More lighthearted elements come through Sim's performance, which for me was a highlight. With a slight twinkle in his eye and a generally amusing and amused manner, Sim's Commodore Gill showed himself to be less addled than his estranged wife but still able to show lightness. Like Wyman though, he was able to play the more dramatic elements, especially when warning Eve of how dangerous Johnny was.

I think a lot of Stage Fright is more light due to seeing how Eve continuously tries to hide her undercover work. Most of the film is Eve/Doris trying to keep others from discovering her double-act. This, along with Sim and Dietrich's performances indicate that Stage Fright is not intended to be deep or intense. Rather, it is a bit of a lark, not a full-on romp but not something to put one on the edge of one's seat.

Finally, in regards to what is called "the false flashback", I can see how it would be needlessly misleading the audience and think it should have been reworked. Rather than show, perhaps merely telling would have been enough, or at least indicate in some way that things were not as presented. However, it is not a deal-breaker for me.

Stage Fright, while nowhere near the same level as Vertigo or Psycho, is pleasant enough and worth the price of admission to see Marlene Dietrich be The Laziest Gal in Town

DECISION: B-

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Savior for Sale: The Story of the Salvator Mundi. A Review


 

SAVIOR FOR SALE: THE STORY OF THE SALVATOR MUNDI

In the annals of art, the Salvator Mundi is in a class of its own. The reputed "last da Vinci" sold for a record-shattering $400 million ($450 with auction premium). What could have been a dry telling of a very old painting turns into a bizarre yet fascinating tale of high art and low characters in director Antoine Vitkine's documentary Savior for Sale.

Except for the opening that takes place at the spectacular Christie's auction, Savior for Sale tells its tale in chronological order with almost all the participants in sit-down interviews. We begin with when New York art dealer Robert Simon spots a certain painting on a New Orleans auction house website being sold as part of an estate sale. Believing it to have a connection to Leonardo da Vinci, Simon buys it for $1,175. After restoration, Simon believes it to be an original da Vinci and not from merely da Vinci's workshop or his apprentices.

This potential rediscovery of a genuine da Vinci painting is enhanced by Britain's National Gallery curator Luke Syson and art expert Martin Kemp, both of whom believe it to be genuine. Syson's faith is such that he includes Salvator Mundi as part of the National Gallery's da Vinci exhibition in 2011. 

Despite its questionable provenance and a small group of skeptics who hold that it is at most from Leonardo's workshop and not his work alone, the Salvator Mundi is a hit. However, the cost is too high for the many museums and art patrons who might take it. That is, until Russian oligarch and art lover Dmitri Rybolovlev learns of it.

From here, Savior for Sale turns into part thriller, part freak show. We have the machinations of middle men, the shrewd selling of a dubious painting by Christie's "marketing genius" Loic Gouzer down to the painting's eventual owner, Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS). Is the Salvator Mundi the seed that will make Saudi Arabia an arts & culture mecca (no pun intended)? Will he use that as leverage against the French to get both prestige and lucrative funding for his Vision 2030 modernization program?

Those questions, however, don't take on the two biggest questions regarding the Salvator Mundi: is the Salvator Mundi a genuine Leonardo da Vinci and where is it now? It was, despite intense Saudi pressure on the Louvre not included in a da Vinci retrospective and has not been seen publicly since the 2017 auction. Is it in storage somewhere? Is it on Crown Prince Salman's private yacht? 

Savior for Sale moves methodically through this story of how what looked like a third-rate, heavily damaged and insignificant portrait of Christ became not just a cause celebré but a major point of international diplomacy. The various figures involved in the Salvator Mundi saga are a fascinating lot, from true believers like Simon and art expert Kemp down to doubters like New York Times British journalist Scott Reyburn and Rybolovlev art consultant Yves Bouvier, who may have pulled off a masterful yet perfectly legal swindle on his Russian tycoon.

The story behind the Salvator Mundi and its ultimate fate grows slowly yet is in many ways bizarre. We see how Gouzer essentially hyped the painting through a series of shrewd publicity stunts such as selling the painting in the contemporary painting sale and videotaping audience reaction to the painting as part of its ad campaign. Then there's the various shell company subterfuges buyers go through to keep their names anonymous. Add to that how the Salvator Mundi's true ownership was revealed in part due to when MBS held his fellow princes in elegant house arrest to squeeze badly-needed funds out of them and this tale grows wilder as it goes on.


Savior for Sale allows the interviewees to state their information good or bad, weaving a story of how a mere painting that perhaps is the work of a Renaissance genius grew to insane proportions. The few intertitles state facts as they are save for the last, where it allows itself a pun.

"In New York, where it all began, two art dealers still believe in the savior of the world", a deliberate and clever wordplay on the painting's title. Whether either believe in the Christ Himself is another matter.

The drum-centered score is a bit reminiscent of all things Birdman, but that's not a negative.

Finally, on a personal note, I am of those who thinks Salvator Mundi is not a genuine Leonardo da Vinci. I don't even think it's a particularly good painting. Even if it turned out to be genuine, I still wouldn't pay $50 for it, let alone $400 million. 

I think people who watch Savior for Sale will be amazed at the lengths wealthy people will go for something that trivial. Art should be there to be enjoyed, but that so many would risk vast fortunes, reputations, even whole nations for something that is perhaps not real is astonishing.