Monday, January 31, 2022

Great Expectations (2011): The Miniseries



While my experience with Charles Dickens' Great Expectations is only through the various adaptations, I think I am safe in saying that this is one of his bleaker novels. Even by those standards however, I was surprised at how bleak and despairing the 2011 BBC adaption was. While in some ways sumptuous, in other ways dull, Great Expectations has some good performances but one awful one in the midst of it that brings the project down.

Young Philip Pirrip better known as Pip is forced to help escaped convict Abel Magwitch (Ray Winstone). Magwitch may be a criminal, but he curiously is nicer than either Pip's sister or Orlick (Jack Roth), the apprentice blacksmith to his uncle Joe (Shaun Dooley), the only kind person in Pip's life. Pip's life however takes a few strange turns.

First is when he is called to serve at Satis House, home of the wealthy recluse Miss Havisham (Gillian Anderson). Havisham is haunted by her jilting at the altar to where she still wears her wedding dress and keeps the rotting wedding feast intact. Pip is made the playmate of Estella, Havisham's adopted daughter, but this is part of Havisham's crazed revenge plot.

A second turn is when seven years later, the adult Pip (Douglas Booth), now apprentice to Joe, is made heir to a great fortune by a mysterious benefactor who wishes him to "live as a young fellow of great expectations". Now off to London to live the lush life, he becomes friends with Herbert Pocket (Harry Lloyd), Havisham's nephew whom as a child he once punched. Their purse strings are controlled by Jaggers (David Suchet), an efficient lawyer who deals with young men of privilege. 

Pip pursues Estella (Vanessa Kirby) now that he is a gentleman, but she has been trained to be cold towards men. Her coldness is perfect for wealthy Bentley Drummle (Tom Burke), who cares nothing for her but only for her future fortune. Once Pip discovers whom his secret benefactor is, things go full speed as he tries to sort out his own life while attempting to help Herbert and his secret benefactor. As much as both Havisham and others attempt to thwart out pair, circumstances bring Pip and Estella together over all their obstacles.

In some respects, this Great Expectations has a wealth of great acting. At the top of the list is Suchet as Jaggers. Cold but efficient, blunt but aware, his Jaggers is frightening in how he makes sense even as he appears coldhearted. He does not tolerate fools and executes his clients wishes with efficiency, and Suchet dominates everyone who shares the screen with him.

Anderson, the only American in the cast, takes a different tact with her Miss Havisham. She has a singsong style to her delivery, childlike that makes her version more sympathetic. Anderson still makes Miss Havisham into a totally creepy figure, but we see the haunted woman behind the cray-cray. Her Miss Havisham does not appear to be the bitter jilted spinster of lore. Instead, she appears more haunted and lost, a broken woman suspended in a living death. Her first appearance makes her look like a literal ghost, giving her a haunted quality. It is as if she were a walking corpse.

She is also more manipulative, fixated on bringing misery to others as vengeance for having misery visited upon her long before Estella or Pip were born. It is an exceptionally strong performance that is to be commended.

Another standout is Harry Lloyd's Herbert Pocket. He is somewhat diminished in this adaptation, but Lloyd makes Pocket into a good man, reformed from his youthful arrogance into someone who is motivated to do good and love well. Cheerful but serious when needed, one wishes for a Herbert Pocket spinoff where we see him and his wife in Cairo.

What sinks Great Expectations a great deal is the central character. It is not Douglas Booth's fault that he is exceptionally pretty. It is his fault that he cannot act, at least not in Great Expectations. One already finds it laughable that such a delicate looking, almost porcelain like figure such as Booth would plausibly be an apprentice blacksmith. He in actuality looks like he's never done a single day's worth of manual labor in his life, let alone something as labor intensive as a blacksmith. 

Booth's delicate features and elegant manners are already difficult to overlook to be seen as a working-class hero. It is his total blankness as Pip that dooms him and Great Expectations. No matter what the situation, Booth gives the same disengaged expression. He is like many people who have film/television careers based more on their looks than their acting prowess. His lack of reaction when his benefactor reveals himself should elicit howls of laughter. It does not matter whether he is trying to con an old hand like Jaggers, express ardor to Estella or feverishly work to save Herbert. Booth gives the audience the same facial expression throughout Great Expectations.

I once commented that Jaime Dornan's performance in Wild Mountain Thyme was more that of a good- looking man who can speak than of someone who could actually act. As a side note, I still feel this way about Dornan regardless of the praise he's gotten for Belfast. When it comes to Booth's performance in Great Expectations, I'm not sure he could even get past the speaking part. It is just so blank and empty. Worse, it makes Pip look less naive and more eternally stupid.

Perhaps Booth's weakness as an actor is why Kirby seemed to match him in the blankness of her own performance. While not as bad as Booth, Kirby looked neither like the cold woman or the simmering woman underneath. 

Great Expectations also, I think, went overboard in its Gothic trappings. The miniseries is dominated by endless shades of grey to where you wonder if sunlight even exists. It is as if the production wanted to encase you permanently in Satis House. Such dour looks and heavy greys work when we venture into Miss Havisham's ruined home, but why do so when entering the magic world of cosmopolitan London? 

Despite having more time to develop the Dickens story than other versions, this Great Expectations seems almost rushed. The heaviness of the production and Douglas Booth's lack of performance pushes the project down. It has the saving grace of strong performances from others (Suchet and Anderson in particular) but I found it a terrible disappointment. My expectations were not met.


Sunday, January 30, 2022

Churchill's Secret: The Television Special


Sir Winston Churchill once wrote that history would remember him kindly, for he intended to write it. Few Britons have been as, if not beloved at least as remarked and remarkable as Churchill. When was the last time biopics have been made about Edward Heath? Churchill's Secret chronicles a time when the Twentieth Century Lion in Winter almost came to an end.  With strong performances and more focus on his family life, Churchill's Secret does not deify or demonize this historic titan.

Nurse Millie Appleyard (Romola Garai) is somewhat reluctantly preparing for her move to Australia where her fiancée has gone on ahead of her. She then finds herself called to serve in the most secret treatment of a mystery patient. That patient: Prime Minister Winston Churchill (Michael Gambon), who has suffered a pair of strokes, the second an especially critical one. 

The Prime Minister is spirited away to Chartwell, his private country home at the insistence of Winston's wife Clementine (Lindsay Duncan). The Conservative Party leadership wants to keep Churchill's condition as secret as possible, fearing that news of an ill, possibly dying Prime Minister will bring down the government. Churchill's likely successor Antony Eden is himself recovering from surgery and there is no one to take Churchill's place. 

While Nurse Appleyard, no supporter of Churchill, does her duty to care for her patient, she warms to the curmudgeonly Prime Minister. She also observes the dynamics of Winston's families political and blood. Some Conservatives would be happy to see Winston quickly retire, some are fiercely loyal. The Churchill children: son Randolph (Matthew Macfayden) and daughters Diana (Tara Fitzgerald), Sarah (Rachael Stirling) and Mary (Daisy Lewis) in turns bicker with and love each other and their parents.

Will Sir Winston recover to lead his nation once more? Will Nurse Appleyard opt to follow the loving sacrifice of her own career for that of her fiancée's or will she forge her own life in Churchill's Britain? 

Churchill's Secret has the benefit of some exceptional performances. Gambon, I think, did well in opting not to try to sound much if anything like Sir Winston. Instead, he focused on Churchill the man: one weakened by health but also determined to return. One is moved when seeing this volcanic figure stumble and mumble I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles in an almost childlike manner. 

Duncan is his equal if not superior as his beloved Clemmie. We see the mix of support and irritation at having to deal with being The Great Man's Spouse. She wants him to retire, to have the few remaining years to herself. She also knows in her heart that retirement will metaphorically if not literally kill him. As she struggles with that delicate balance of support and independence, she also has to deal with their children and their various failings. 

The interplay between her and Gambon show the complex yet totally loving couple Winston and Clementine were. The scene where Clementine finally speaks of the death of her daughter as Winston secretly overhears her conversation with Appleyard is heartbreaking, the buried pain finally exposed. Both Duncan and Gambon deliver exceptional performances.

Macfayden is a true actor who sadly has never been the star his talent should have made him. His take on Randolph from the moment he first appears makes one wonder why Randolph's story has not been made. He is in equal turns filled with rage and regret about his tumultuous relationship with his father. He is unpleasant from the start: blunt to the point of rudeness, almost cheering at the thought of his father dying. Yet behind this there is a deeply hurt man, forever haunted by his inability to live up to his father's image or expectations, the bitter man who numbs his pain with alcohol. 

While Macfayden is on screen for a relatively short time in Churchill's Secret, he makes the most of his screentime, dominating his scenes with a blend of fury and lament at the state of his life. The best scenes in Churchill's Secret are not those of the various machinations over possible succession or news suppression. Rather, they are when the Churchill family has an unofficial wake for their legendary husband and father. The Churchills come across as a genuine if highly dysfunctional family: one moment joyfully giggling with each other, the other viciously snapping at each other.

Garai is not left out as the fictional Nurse Appleyard. While her story about whether to stay or go is a bit lost in the shuffle, she too does excellent work as the nurse who sees the man behind the legend, flaws and virtues. It was a wise decision to not make her a Conservative supporter, which allows for another viewpoint. She does her job as a nurse, but she also sees how people gather around an old man for reasons benevolent and self-serving.

Churchill's Secret allows for seeing the human behind the legend. Strong acting all around move the story along well, and on the whole, it does humanize this massive figure. 



Wednesday, January 19, 2022

The Lion in Winter: A Review (Review #1572)



Peter O'Toole once said that he could make a career out of playing Henry II. He had done so already on film in Becket and would in essence pick up where he left off in The Lion in Winter. This tale of the machinations of succession is a towering achievement, with magnificent performances and a gripping if long tale.

Henry II (O'Toole) is still vigorous but knows that he will die. He favors his youngest son John (Nigel Terry) to succeed him, his fatherly love mostly blinding him to John's idiocy and weakness. His oldest living son Richard (Anthony Hopkins) has a champion in his imprisoned mother Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katherine Hepburn), though their relationship is frayed. No one considers the middle son Geoffrey (John Castle), though at their peril due to his plotting mind.

Henry allows Eleanor out of her imprisonment for Christmas court, and all their sons will be in attendance too. A Christmas Court guest is Philip II (Timothy Dalton), the young King of France, whose sister Alais (Jane Merrow) is betrothed to one of Henry's sons to be determined later. She is also Henry's current mistress. On this dark Christmas Eve, the various royals plot and counterplot over the succession. Henry, enraged that he cannot get his way and finding all his sons lacking, decides to dump Eleanor via annulment, disinherit his treacherous sons and marry Alais to father real sons. 

For once though, this scheme is too much for both Eleanor and Alais, and while the succession itself is not settled, the tempestuous Henry and Eleanor manage to hold on to yet another day, delighting in their cold war.

What The Lion in Winter manages is to make words more cutting than swords. Seeing these noble figures tear at each other with sharp remarks and careful plotting makes for almost fiendishly delicious viewing. James Goldman's adaptation of his play gives the actors strong, fierce dialogue with which to wield at each other. Some of the monologues are extraordinary.

Of particular note is when Hepburn declares that war does not come from outside forces such as religion but from within themselves. It gives her a chance for a bravura performance, one where Eleanor is filled with equal parts rage and regret. She loves Henry, perhaps even her own children despite her protests to the contrary. However, she also knows what vipers they are.

Director Anthony Harvey draws excellent performances from the whole cast. Hepburn, the only American in the cast, is fierce as Eleanor, able to show affection and duplicity with equal ease. She tears at Henry for his plots, but you also see the deeply hurt woman when he plans to cast her aside or taunting her with freedom in exchange for her ducal lands. 

Peter O'Toole is more than her equal, his Henry a man filled with rage but a powerful lust for life. He too shows vulnerability when he sees how hated he is by his sons, at point declaring "all my sons are bastards". It is when Eleanor more than suggests that she had been his father Geoffrey's mistress (and she delighted in Geoffrey's body) that we see that this fierce, proud, arrogant man can be reduced to a weak one.

Each of the royal sons is a standout. Anthony Hopkins in an early role makes Richard both a warrior prince and a hurt ex-lover to Philip. Whether Richard is more hurt by his "outing" or Philip insisting their affair was not genuine love we cannot tell. Terry's dimwit John is appropriately pathetic and silly, forever flailing about being king when he appears unable to form a thought. Castle as Geoffrey does not have as showy a role as the others, but in his quiet and still manner he shows the dangers the middle son poses. 

As Alais, Merrow uses subtlety to communicate her delicate position. She loves Henry but detests how she in her own words is the only pawn in this game of kings, queens and knights. She brings a gentleness to Alais but also an awareness that the old monarch does not have. She, like Eleanor, knows that Henry's mad plan to annul his marriage and father sons through Alais will put her and whatever child she has in danger. She knows it is dangerous, and that there is no logic to it all. However, like the pawn that she is, Alais is powerless. Not even her half-brother Philip can help her. 

Dalton uses his youth and soft voice to great effect, making Philip less of a master of plots that Henry is, though as Henry observes, not bad for a beginner. 

The Lion in Winter is enhanced by Douglas Slocombe's cinematography and the art direction, which gives the film an almost "you-are-there" look. The various castle corridors feel lived in, as if it were less film and almost documentary. John Barry creates a masterful score, evoking the medieval era and being appropriately grand and intimate when necessary.

The Lion in Winter is a true game of thrones, showcasing actors at the top of their game and delivering a strong, sharp script. You do not feel the film's length though it is a long film. "What family does not have its ups and downs?", Eleanor observes to herself. In The Lion in Winter, we see that the Plantagenets were a really screwed up family, but it makes for fascinating viewing.


Monday, January 17, 2022

The 355: A Review


THE 355

Here's the 411 on The 355: it is a sad waste of talent, where we see strong actresses (two Oscar winners and one nominee) slog their way through a jumbled, boring story that one hopes was not the beginnings of a hoped-for franchise.

What seems a routine albeit massive drug deal goes wildly wrong when international cyberterrorist Elijah Clarke (Jason Flemyng) tries to take a device that will not only hack but control any device in the world. Even the highest security level of governments can be taken over by this decryption device. In the chaos of the Columbian anti-drug police raid, however, the device is picked up by Agent Luis Rojas (Edgar Ramirez).

While he does not know what exactly it is, he knows he is in danger. Wanting some profit, he offers it to the CIA, which sends agents and secret lovers Mason "Mace" Brown (Jessica Chastain) and Nick Fowler (Sebastian Stan) to Paris to retrieve it. Easier said than done, as Mace and Nick find they are not the only ones aware of the device. The Germans want it too, with renegade German agent Marie Schmidt (Diane Kruger) getting it first.

From there, it becomes a globe-hopping set of action pieces as everyone tries to get the encryption device. Mace, still mourning Nick's death, enlists her friend and retired MI6 agent Khadijah (Lupita Nyng'o) for help. Soon the three have to not just work together but have Columbian psychiatrist Graciela (Penelope Cruz), who is caught up in this when attempting to bring Luis back safely.

As the various women work to retrieve the device, they find unexpected help from the Chinese through their agent, Lin Mi Sheng (Bingbing Fan) and an unsurprising adversary. The women face personal losses but also know they must work together to save the world.

The 355 has a good idea behind it, but there is a terrible lethargy running through it all that makes it so routine and dull. We have something there, but I think one of The 355's issues is in how our team is introduced. The various entries of one group member seems almost intrusive on the others. Just as you start focusing on Mace, we then get Marie thrown in. Just as we get Marie's story and involvement rolling in, in pops Graciela, then Khadijah. It gets to the point where we forget the other women are there, and by the time we get to Lin, there isn't much for the audience to care that much about her, let alone them together.

That isn't to say we don't care about them as individuals. However, only Graciela, the only non-agent of the bunch, has anything close to a backstory: a husband and two boys whom she is devoted to. The others are given familial relationships: Diane and a father figure, Khadijah and her boyfriend, but they leave so little impact that when they meet unfair ends, we have little investment in either the characters or the women they love.

The 355 is in many ways rather routine. We get the "twist" that is clearly obvious and a collection of stock characters. What sinks The 355 is that everyone looks rather bored. There is exactly one scene where the females appear to be bonding, but even here there seems to be a hesitancy in their performances. 

The worst is Chastain, who sleepwalks throughout the film. Whether it is attempting to express love or desire for Nick or going after criminals, she has a look of disinterest throughout the film. Not even in the action scenes does Chastain look engaged in the proceedings. As much as Chastain looks bored and disengaged, The 355 has almost everyone acting this way. Out of the female leads, only Kruger appears to show anything close to emotion, particularly when she gets to act in her native German. 

Sebastain Stan looks as if he was genuinely drugged, attempting to arouse himself enough to show the slightest interest in things. Curiously, it is his character's arc that pushes The 355 down. I can believe one obvious twist with him, but not two. The second is simply too laughable to believe.

The action scenes too were infected with a sluggishness that made them almost dull. Worse, director and cowriter Simon Kinberg (writing with Theresa Rebek) indulged in the fast cutting that many action films suffer from, making things sometimes hard to follow. 

The 355 could be forgiven as so much fluff, a mindless action film that showcases women without condescending to either gender. However, it is done in by a routine story, dull action scenes and almost wholly bored actors. The second twist with Nick for me was what pushed it further. The 355, whose name was inspired by a real-life American Revolution female spy, was a wasted opportunity. It would have been better to have made a film about Agent 355 rather than a group of females inspired by her.


Sunday, January 9, 2022

Pride & Prejudice (2005): A Review (Review #1570)


Perhaps to my shame, I admit I never finished Pride & Prejudice. From what I did read, however, I was quite impressed with the celebrated Jane Austen novel. While perhaps her most famous/beloved work has been adapted at least twice on film and television, the 2005 adaption remains one of the most popular versions. This version of Pride & Prejudice is a beautiful film, simultaneously contemporary and traditional, that is a delight throughout.

The five Bennet sisters, living in genteel poverty, are happy. Mrs. Bennet (Brenda Blethyn) wishes nothing but advantageous marriages for her girls, while Mr. Bennet (Donald Sutherland) would like to keep out of things altogether. Jane Bennet (Rosemund Pike) has caught the eye of Mr. Bingley (Simon Woods), the wealthiest man around. Jane's sister Elizabeth (Keira Knightley) is not opposed to marriage but is not looking for it either.

Things take a complication when she strikes a love-hate relationship with the brooding, proud Mr. Darcy (Matthew Macfayden), Mr. Bingley's best and wealthier friend. As the proud Darcy and the prejudiced Elizabeth continue their pas de deux d'amour, their various friends and family intermingle. The small and small-minded distant Bennet cousin Mr. Collins (Tom Hollander) pursues Elizabeth, while caddish soldier Wickham (Rupert Friend) manages to lure young Lydia Bennet (Jenna Malone) away. Eventually, true love triumphs for both Jane and Elizabeth, as the futures Mrs. Bingley and Mrs. Darcy rise above pride and prejudice.

From the opening sequence where the camera flows around the rambling, ramshackle yet loving Bennet home to where our lovers are bathed in the sunlight of their love, Pride & Prejudice is a sweeping, beautiful film. Director Joe Wright is very fond of having the camera follow the characters all around, but this works exceptionally well here. We get quick interactions between small groups of characters that give us story details without bogging things down. 

There is spirit of life in Pride & Prejudice as we see the various interactions between characters. Wright, along with screenwriter Deborah Moggach, do allow some moments of magical fantasy to enter the film. As Darcy and Elizabeth dance at the Bingley ball, at one point it appears as if they are the only ones in the ballroom, allowing their sharp comments to disappear as they fight their growing love.

One aspect that stands out in Pride & Prejudice is how contemporary the film feels. There is an almost rapid-fire delivery to the dialogue, not in a screwball comedy way but in a sharp, fast manner that has no sense of stuffiness to it. In short, the world of Pride & Prejudice feels lived, real, alive, as if we were genuine observers in this Regency Romance. I would put it as having the Darcy/Elizabeth romance be made up of respectable flirtation.

Each performance was simply perfect. Knightley comes into her own as Elizabeth, a very modern woman who is sharp, intelligent, not above throwing shade at the arrogance of the wealthy, but also aware of her own mind. She is brilliant when rejecting Collins' proposal, moving when seeing another side to Darcy, and delightful when showing her affection or irritation with her family. 

Macfayden, to my mind, has not been given enough credit for his Darcy. He certainly is an extremely handsome man (I would not blame women if they fainted when he appears through the morning mist, shirt open and coat flowing), but he shows the complexity of Darcy's emotions. Starting out openly haughty, he also shows how Darcy attempts to hide his growing attraction to the mind and body of Elizabeth: a quick glance, a flustered manner. Macfayden is excellent as Mr. Darcy.

Hollander brings humor to the bumbling Collins, Friend a plausible vulnerability to Wickham. Blethyn balances comedy and irritation to Mrs. Bennet, Sutherland showing the outwardly indifferent but genuinely caring Mr. Bennet. Rosemund Pike makes the case that one could have a film centered around Jane Bennet, and Woods like Blethyn balances comedy and romance with his Bingley. We also see early performances from Carey Mulligan as Kitty Bennet, and while Judi Dench has a small role as Lady Catherine de Bourgh, she is equally impactful.

Pride & Prejudice may be a costume picture, but there is no sense that it is theatrical. Instead, it is as quietly fiery as the romance between Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet, two individuals who are clearly made for each other. Beautiful, moving, fast-paced and keeping the sense of the time setting while injecting a modern sensibility to things, Pride & Prejudice is an excellent film.   


Friday, January 7, 2022

The Blue Angel: A Review



Author's Note: This review is for the German version.

Decadence was never so decadent as that of Weimar Germany, but with Marlene Dietrich as the seductress, I can see how even the most moral of men could fall. The Blue Angel is a star-making turn for our Teutonic goddess as well as an excellent showcase for the man who would ultimately end up going from star to costar.

Strict, moralistic Professor Immanuel Rath (Emil Jannings) is appalled that some of his students have been frequenting the seedy Blue Angel Club. The miscreants, however, do not care what he thinks or even for him, giving him the pun name of "Unrath" (or "Garbage"). Determined to catch them at the club, he visits The Blue Angel.

There, he meets the alluring chanteuse Lola-Lola (Dietrich). It isn't long before he too falls under her spell, where a little Falling in Love Again so overpowers him that he gives up his respectable life to marry our siren. However, rather than him bringing her to his world, she takes him into hers. He starts by selling erotic postcards of his wife, then by being a literal clown in the cabaret show. Lola-Lola soon turns her wandering eye to Mazeppa the Strong Man (Hans Albers) as her husband becomes the stooge for Kiepert (Kurt Gerron), the magician and cabaret show impresario.

Things take a horrifying and tragic turn when the troupe returns to the Blue Angel Club. There's a sellout crowd to see the good professor at his lowest point. This ultimate humiliation drives him insane, causing tragedy for himself.

There is no greater fool than a fool in love, and The Blue Angel chronicles this axiom quite well. As much as I have been told this is a commentary on bourgeois hypocrisy, I do not see it that way. Rather, for me The Blue Angel is about a man who is so rigid in his worldview that he cannot sustain it when something that challenges it comes along. 

I found Professor Rath to be stiff but not a monster. Instead, he is a pathetic figure, one who has suppressed his passions for so long beneath the guise of morality and intellect that he soon became lured into Lola-Lola's world. 

Emil Jannings specialized in once-proud men who fall into desolation and disgrace: The Last Command, The Last Laugh, the now-lost film The Way of All Flesh. Jannings' performance can come across as a bit exaggerated as the acting styles shifted from silent to sound, but he also played the part correctly. He starts out stiff and rigid, and his descent into despair comes slowly and sadly. The shock he displays at his ultimate humiliation before his hometown crowd is deeply moving, and you feel great sadness for how he low he has fallen. Rath struck me as more moralistic than prudish, so his fall was not to my mind hypocritical as it was an outlet for his self-imposed repression.

While The Blue Angel was meant as a vehicle for Jannings, it is Dietrich who steals the show as our temptress. The film made Dietrich both a star and icon, the decadent siren of carnal pleasures. It is interesting to see her early on, her voice not yet having that rich, husky manner. Dietrich's Lola-Lola is her own woman, casual with men, one who does not mind playing with them if it amuses her. Whether it is telling one of her school suitors "Cut the English nonsense" when he speaks "I love you" (the little English used in the film) or behaving almost like a respectable hausfrau to her stuffy professor, Dietrich's character is cool to her men.

She sings what would become a signature song, Falling in Love Again, twice in The Blue Angel, but it is to her credit as an actress and von Sternberg's as director that both versions reveal Lola-Lola's character. The first time she is coyly flirtatious veering on amused, the second time there is a sharpness, a bitterness to her declaration that she "never wanted to" fall in love but "I can't help it". It is nice to see Marlene Dietrich before she became "DIETRICH", where she was still raw. You do not like her manner with Rath, yet you do believe that for a brief moment she could love someone like him.

The Blue Angel even has a bit of German expressionism when Rath wanders through the streets. Von Sternberg manages to sneak in little bits of humor in the film, such as when Rath and a student struggle with the English word "the". 

This chronicle of a stiff but not bad man's fall to the demimonde of desire is a well-acted, well-directed film. It is clear why audiences fell for The Blue Angel, and why even after all these years people are still falling in love again with Marlene Dietrich.


Wednesday, January 5, 2022

David Copperfield (1935): A Review



It is a credit to the studio system that on occasion, it could create genuine pieces of art that make one interested in reading the source material. David Copperfield is one such film: a sweet, delightful and lavish adaptation that has excellent performances and an exceptional debut.

Young David Copperfield (Freddie Bartholomew) lives a happy life with his mother (Elizabeth Allan) and his nurse Peggoty (Jessie Ralph). That is until the Widow Copperfield marries Edward Murdstone (Basil Rathbone). He is a cold figure, though his sister Jane (Violet Kemble Cooper) is worse. 

After his mother's death, David is sent to work in a wine bottling plant, watched over by the kindly if irresponsible Mr. Micawber (W.C. Fields). David then runs away rather than go back to Murdstone when the Micawber family is forced to relocate due to Mr. Micawber's time in debtors' prison. David finds refuge with his distant Aunt Betsey (Edna May Oliver) and her cousin Mr. Dick (Lennox Pawle). 

As he grows up to become a man (Frank Lawton), he is loved by Agnes Wickfield (Madge Evans) and loves the addled-brained Dora Spenlow (Maureen O'Sullivan). Their marriage is ended by her sudden death, but David discovers his love for Agnes before the villainous Uriah Heep (Roland Young) can take even more advantage of the Wickfield family. With David and Agnes united at last, David Copperfield's life story ends happily.

David Copperfield is an absolute triumph of a film, beautiful and delightful. At the center of its triumph is the collection of performances, with an all-star cast and a star-making turn. David Copperfield marked the American debut of child star Freddie Bartholomew, and I do not think we will ever have as perfect a characterization of Charles Dickens' title character as his.

Bartholomew has an angelic face that goes well with David's wide-eyed innocence. However, he has more than sweetness to offer the audience. Bartholomew's acting is superb. You would be hard-pressed not to be emotionally moved by David's nighttime prayer when he finally arrives at Aunt Betsey's home after an over 70 miles walk. As he wanders off in his prayer, exhausted from his long journey, he apologizes to God. It's a beautiful moment. Bartholomew makes you feel David's horror and pain when Murdstone brutally beats him (or beats him as brutally as the Production Code would allow). His expressive eyes and excellent diction enhance his performance.

Almost everyone in David Copperfield is simply astonishing acting-wise. This is, to my mind, the only W.C. Fields performance where he plays it straight, and his Mr. Micawber is extraordinary from his first scene, when he's walking over rooftops to avoid creditors. Fields shows a softer, kinder side as Micawber, and even gets a chance to work in a little Uriah Heep impersonation that fits into the characterization of a kind yet bumbling man. 

Ralph's loving nurse/maid Peggoty is sweetness itself; Rathbone is at his sneering best as the cruel Murdstone, and Oliver's bossy, pompous, eccentric but ultimately caring Aunt Betsey balances comedy and drama. My only issue is with Roland Young's Uriah Heep, who seemed even for the character too exaggerated as the allegedly humble man. However, given how Heep is meant to be overwhelming in his insincerity, I am cutting a little slack. 

Director George Cukor, who had brilliantly brought Little Women to the screen, does equally well with a British novel as he did with the American literary classic. He directed the actors to their very best, some of them to the best performances of their careers. In other aspects, Cukor did wonders with his directing. The editing of when David is overwhelmed at Murdstone's brutal teaching methods is remarkably tense, the suspense and fear building to an almost unbearable climax. A scene where David's friend Steerforth (Hugh Williams) and the young sailor's niece Emily (Florine McKinney) requires only their eyes to show how she will jilt her old love for a new one.

The only real flaw, if that, is that you do eventually feel the movie's running time, but that is a minor quibble.

David Copperfield is a deeply moving film, anchored by excellent performances all around. Freddie Bartholomew is a revelation as the young David to where you wish the movie did not have to have him grow up. W. C. Fields showed himself a genuine actor versus a persona. David Copperfield is an enchanting film, and to my mind the standard that future adaptions should be measured by. The film shows that when the best people are working in front and behind the camera, backed up by the poshest studio production standards around, even something as "literature" can become not just art but a true thing of beauty.


Tuesday, January 4, 2022

The Last King of Scotland: A Review


Can one make a film where the villain is almost sympathetic, while the protagonist is almost monstrous? The Last King of Scotland manages to do exactly that. The film can rightly claim to be Oscar-winning, but I am not convinced people remember it or its subject.

Scottish doctor Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy) finds the prospect of being partners with his doctor father depressing. Looking for adventure and escape, he settles on Uganda to start his medical career. 

He starts working with Dr. Merrit (Adam Kotz) and his luscious wife Sarah (Gillian Anderson). Nicholas can easily tempt Sarah, but she resists halfheartedly. Uganda is in the throes of a coup d'état, and Nicholas finds the whole prospect exciting. He sees the new President, Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker) and Nicholas thinks Amin may be a good guy.

That joy grows when he and Amin meet, and he finds that the General loves Scotland and all things Scottish. Now as Amin's personal physician, Nicholas finds himself in a life of luxury, even having an affair with Kay (Kerry Washington), one of Amin's wives. However, the shadowy British diplomat Stone (Simon McBurney) and Amin's former physician Dr. Junju (David Oyelowo) give Nicholas hints that Amin is not a good man.

Nicholas does not take the hint, and he finds himself immersed in Amin's paranoia and terror. He also finds that Kay is not safe now that Nicholas knocked her up. Things culminate when the PLO hijacks an Air France flight that lands at Entebbe. Here, Amin soaks up the limelight while simultaneously torturing Garrigan for his betrayal. Ironically, Garrigan is able to escape Uganda thanks to Amin, whose release of non-Israeli hostages lets Garrigan mingle among the other white people.

The Last King of Scotland won Forest Whitaker a Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Amin, the film's sole Academy Award nomination. It is rare when a film wins a major Academy Award when it is the only nomination it has, and Whitaker is exceptional in the role. He switches easily from Amin's joie de vivre to his unhinged fury. Many times, Whitaker can shift from Amin raging about accusations of cannibalism to laughing at the prospect of showing his cleverness to the world.

There are, however, two issues with Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland. First, I think Amin is a supporting character, so his winning in Lead versus Supporting strikes me as a bit of category fraud. The bulk of the film, indeed the entire story, does not revolve around Amin but on Garrigan. As such, it seems that McAvoy was the lead, Whitaker the secondary.

Almost everything around The Last King of Scotland revolves around McAvoy's Garrigan to where the title could be more about him than Amin. I grant that McAvoy is an attractive man and gets his obligatory shirtless scene, but even for a film based on a fictional novel there seems something almost comical about how Garrigan is sexual catnip to every woman he meets.

As the film really is around him, I think director Kevin Macdonald wanted the viewer to see the growing horror of Amin's reign of terror through an innocent's eyes. That was difficult enough given that Garrigan was no innocent but almost arrogant in his manner to where when Amin has him hanging on hooks, we root for Garrigan to die. It gets worse when Macdonald is adamant about zooming in and out various shots within the same scene. He also moves the camera all over the place, disorienting the viewer, making things pointlessly artsy and confusing.

Second and perhaps more concerning, The Last King of Scotland seems almost sympathetic to Amin. I was surprised at how Amin was shown not as a tyrant but as almost more eccentric to slightly bonkers than cold and calculating. He was irrational at times such as when he berates Garrigan for not being supportive. "And you call yourself my closest advisor?" he scolds Garrigan, obviously shocked to have this title foisted on him when he never made such a claim.

Almost all of Amin's actions seem more misguided than malevolent. Sometimes they seem rational, a dangerous thing given that Amin was not the cartoonish buffoon the Western press caricatured him as. He could be oddball, but he was also cruel, murderous and tyrannical. His anger at an assassination attempt seems understandable even if The Last King of Scotland meant for Amin's violent retribution to those taken prisoner to be shocking. Even his literal butchering of Kay appears to be more the overreaction to a wife's betrayal than a small taste of Amin's evil.

Curiously, the Entebbe hostage situation seems more a plot device than a real story. I am puzzled as to why, despite the danger the hostages face, Amin seems willing to show them his own brutality so openly. 

The Last King of Scotland might read better as the novel it is. As a film however, it went wrong in its portrayal of Idi Amin apart from Forest Whitaker's performance. I think two films that touch on both Amin himself and the Entebbe raid are better. For the former, there is the documentary General Idi Amin Dada: A Self Portrait, and for the latter, the 2018 film 7 Days in Entebbe (also known as Entebbe). Overall, it is not a good sign when your hero comes across as worse than a murderous dictator who destroyed his country.

Circa 1925-2003


Monday, January 3, 2022

Licorice Pizza: A Review



As pineapples on pizza are an acquired taste, I think so will Licorice Pizza be. Some will be put off by the excessive nostalgia for a time not well remembered. Others will find the age gap between the lovers creepy. Still more will, like me, feel Licorice Pizza is more a set of vignettes than a whole film. However, the film has the blessing of one to two good performances that make it acceptable, if a bit scattershot.

Up-and-coming fifteen-year-old actor Gary (Cooper Hoffman) is instantly smitten with school picture assistant Alana (Alana Haim). Alana, jaded even for a twenty-five-year-old, at first rejects Gary's overtures, but slowly she starts spending far too much time with Gary and his friends.

Gary's acting career sputters a bit, and I figure him whacking Lucy Doolittle* (Christine Ebersole) upside the head while on stage does not help his prospects. Gary's not worried though. His mom runs an advertising firm that helps a Japanese restaurant, and Gary for his part starts first a waterbed company and then a pinball arcade over the course of the film. Alana for her part tries out acting, then helping sell waterbeds over the phone and finally volunteering in a mayoral campaign.

For good or not, the waterbed company manages to sell one to famed film producer Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper). Peters' purchase comes at a fraught time for himself and the country: he angers the kids with his belligerent manner and Gary in particular when flirting with Alana. The nation is also going through the gasoline shortage crisis, dooming Gary's waterbed business. The pinball arcade business comes only thanks to insider knowledge they will be legalized, but Alana finds that her candidate, Joel Wachs (Bennie Safdie) is closeted and trying to have Alana be his beard. Ultimately, Alana and Gary find they are destined for each other.

I think writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson was reliving either his teen fantasies or wonder years in Licorice Pizza, but I wonder why anyone outside his circle would care. The film does not seem to have a real narrative, kind of drifting from one thing to another in a laidback manner. It seems that those involved, many of whom are Anderson's friends and family, found the film a nice excuse to hang out and have a good time.

Alana Haim for example prior to Licorice Pizza had as her biggest claim to fame being part of Haim, a pop group that consists of herself and her sisters. Coincidentally or not, both her sisters/fellow bandmembers Danielle and Este play her sisters, and their parents play their parents. Her lack of acting is also shown via the fact that the actress and character share the same name. It almost suggests Anderson did not think Alana Haim** would be able to respond to any other name. I am old enough to have never heard of Haim, let alone their music, so I am completely unfamiliar with who they are. 

Her performance is good for being a novice, especially when playing against veterans like Cooper and Sean Penn as Jack Holden*. However, I am still unsure whether this is the start of a separate film career for Alana Haim or just a lark.  

This is contrast to Cooper Hoffman, who like Alana Haim is making his film debut in Licorice Pizza. He is the son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, who was a frequent Anderson collaborator. Again, how much that played in his casting I have no knowledge of. Unlike Alana Haim, however, he does not seem to be playing a variation of himself. Gary is a full character: in turns happy-go-lucky and maddingly possessive, arrogant but naive. Licorice Pizza is a good debut for Hoffman, though like with Alana Haim I don't know if this is the start of a career or just a one-off to allow Anderson to get family and friends together.

As a side note, given that the character Gary Valentine is based or at least inspired by Gary Goetzman one wonders if Licorice Pizza is more a mix of his and other people's memory and fantasy than anything else.

Licorice Pizza suffers from bathing in perhaps too much nostalgia for an era mostly forgotten. I do not think many people will look back on the Nixon years or the oil embargo as happy times. I also think that the ten-year age gap between Gary and Alana is curiously left unexplored. If the genders were reversed, would a twenty-five-year-old man forming a romantic relationship with a fifteen-year-old girl be equally embraced? Alana to her credit does suggest some disgust at hanging around people ten years her junior but agreeing to date or bearing her breasts to a fifteen-year-old is something I am not sold on.

I looked on Licorice Pizza with some confusion as to what the point of it all was. The film just goes through moments without tying them well together. We go from Gary's acting career to ruining Jon Peters' home to the closeted mayoral candidate. To my mind, the film seemed to meander about, circling various moments with no genuine point.

I can recommend Licorice Pizza only due to the performances of Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim, though the latter did not impress me as much as the former. Apart from that though, I was generally unimpressed with the film. To be fair though, I actually like pineapples on my pizza, so there is that.

* The character of Lucy Doolittle is clearly Lucille Ball by another name. The television appearance where Gary hits an unsuspecting Lucy with a pillow on (and enraging her afterwards) was to promote Yours, Mine and Ours, which starred Ball. Jack Holden is meant to be actor William Holden, and while I have no knowledge of how close/far Jack is to Bill, the motorcycle scene seems more like something Steve McQueen would do than William Holden.

** I kept repeating "Alana Haim" versus writing "Haim" to avoid potential confusion if I was referring to the actress or the band. When I used "Alana", I was referring to the character.


Sunday, January 2, 2022

All of Me (1984): A Review (Review #1565)



The supernatural meets the slapstick in All of Me, a comedy built around reincarnation. A showcase for one of its stars, All of Me does drag a bit but has enough to recommend it slightly.

Roger Cobb (Steve Martin) is a lawyer by day, jazz guitarist by night. He is disillusioned with his life, and his de facto fiancée Peggy (Madolyn Smith) is no help. She is, however, the daughter of Roger's boss, Burton (Dana Eclar), who assigns him an estate preparation case that could make Roger a partner.

Wealthy eccentric Edwina Cutwater (Lily Tomlin) has been dying since the day she was born. Now coming close to really dying, she decides to will her entire fortune to the groomsman's daughter Terry (Victoria Tennant). There is a catch: Terry has to give up her soul and let Edwina's soul take her body so that Edwina can experience life. Roger thinks everyone involved is bonkers, but later attempts to mend fences when Edwina comes to finalize the paperwork at the law office.

Unfortunately, things don't go as planned. The Tibetan Buddhist who captured Edwina's soul in a sacred bowl is bumped during the ceremony, causing the bowl to fall on Roger's head. The end result is that Edwina is inside Roger rather than Terry, possessing the right side of his body while he maintains control of the left. Both want out but also, over time, see that Terry is not the best candidate. More hijinks occur to get Edwina into Terry anyway, leading to various hits and near misses until all's well that ends well.

All of Me is Steve Martin's film through and through. The film allows him to show his almost jaw-dropping command of physical comedy. The scene where he first realizes Edwina is now literally inside him has some exceptional comedy bits as he tries to handle the situation. I figure that today, his effeminate mannerisms would not be looked kindly on, though again it should be remembered that one side of him is mentally a woman.

The film however shows off his natural comedic manner when not possessed by a dead woman. Early on, his hesitancy in using the "M" word (marriage) shows that he could have built a separate comedy around his frustrations and neuroses. 

As Martin dominates all of All of Me, everyone else is either keeping up with him or not. Tomlin's role is smaller, as it consists of a lot of voiceover work as she speaks her mind. When she is on screen as Edwina, Tomlin seems a bit forced in the "rich bitch" manner, as if Tomlin thinks she is far too smart for all of this. Her evolution into a more pleasant person is not believable to me. There is a hardness to Tomlin overall which makes Edwina not funny or sympathetic.

A lot of All of Me seems more sitcom-like: the shrewish girlfriend, the blind friend, the bald boss who is catnip to women. Perhaps the worst aspect is the Tibetan guru Prahka Lata (Richard Libertini). Acknowledging that the Tibetan character is played by an Italian is not the low point. It is in the character himself: a character who seems idiot and unaware among other things that the toilet is not responsible for the telephone ringing. It is not funny now, and I doubt it was funny then.

Perhaps slightly amusing back then, but not funny now.

Only Tennant comes close to Martin in terms of acting. She turns easily from caring to villainous and makes for a strong antagonist. We even get hints that she is not all bad, that her motivation for taking Edwina's wealth is not strictly due to greed but to care for her father. It also may be a bit of revenge against Edwina; the woman is so disinterested in Terry that she constantly refers to her as "Fred's daughter". 

All of Me is worth watching for Steve Martin's performance alone. Apart from that though, it has aged poorly. While not as funny as it could have been, it is not a bad way to kill a quiet afternoon.

Saturday, January 1, 2022

Peter O'Toole Oscar Nominations: A Retrospective





Peter O'Toole is held as one of the greatest actors of his generation. He was so great that he lost all eight of his Best Actor Oscar nominations. He is tied with Glenn Close for most Oscar nominations without a win, thought Close still in theory has a chance to win a competitive Oscar in the future. Unlike Close however, he was nominated only in the Leading Actor category while she has received Best Actress and Supporting Actress nominations.

I have thought about O'Toole's almost comically tragic Academy Award race, where he saw himself lose over and over and over again. It got to the point to where he had originally declined the Honorary Oscar the Academy had announced he would receive until O'Toole was persuaded to change his mind. In a twist, his final Oscar nomination came after his Honorary Oscar, for 2006's Venus

The likelihood he would have won for Venus was, in retrospective, thin. His was the only nomination Venus received, and it is exceptionally rare for actors to win on a film's sole nomination. Strangely, the man who beat O'Toole for Venus managed exactly that: Forrest Whittaker for The Last King of Scotland. Moreover, sentiment for being "overdue" is not guarantee that a win is certain. Both of these circumstances befell Glenn Close on her seventh nomination with The Wife, who saw what many were sure was going to be a cakewalk to victory go down in flames to Olivia Colman's performance in The Favourite

As I think on his unfortunate record, I was inspired to look at his failed nods and see if perhaps he should have won for any of the films. Perhaps he genuinely lost to a better performance, or perhaps he was really robbed. Every so often, when time and the mood strike me, I will look at all eight of his Oscar-nominated roles for both a review and consideration as to whether he should have won for that performance. 

In the future, I give an overall examination to see whether he should have won for any of his nominated performances or whether the Academy was right to have him be The Biggest Loser. I will take into consideration the other nominees though currently I have not seen all of his competitors for every year. This Retrospective will begin with just the overall nominations and later on shift to his competition in specific years once all the nominated performances are seen.

Still, I think and hope that this Peter O'Toole Retrospective will be fun and enlightening. Below are links to the eight films for which he received his failed Oscar bids. 

Lawrence of Arabia


The Lion in Winter

Goodbye, Mr. Chips

The Ruling Class

The Stunt Man

My Favorite Year