Monday, July 31, 2023

Summer Under the Stars 2023: Some Thoughts

We come once again to Turner Classic Movies annual Summer Under the Stars series, where each day TCM devotes a single day to a single star. This year, we got a few surprises.

One surprise is that unlike past years, we do not have a single silent film star featured. This is probably due to the sad dearth of silent films, which limits the number of performers that can be featured. 

We also do not have a single foreign film star featured. The closest ones would be Sophia Loren and Katy Jurado, the latter who also fills the traditional Hispanic star slot and is making her SUTS debut. Loren does have at least two Italian films in the line-up: A Special Day and Two Women. None of Jurado's Mexican work, however, will be featured.

A more pleasant surprise is the inclusion of two black stars this year: the SUTS-debuting Nicholas Brothers and Woody Strode. This is, again to my memory, the first time more than one African-American has been featured in the same year. While there are sadly not as many black stars to showcase as there should be had things been more equal, it is good to have what we do have showcased.

Another surprise is how we have only two living performers this year: Loren and Geraldine Chaplin. Stella Stevens, who like Chaplin is also making her Summer Under the Stars debut, died on February 17, 2023, and as I understand it, this will be her TCM Tribute. Rhonda Fleming, another SUTS first-timer, will be a centennial salute on what would have been her 100th birthday.

Jurado, the Nicholas Brothers, Chaplin, Stevens and Fleming are one of a surprising eight Summer Under the Stars debuts. The others are Anthony Perkins, Jackie Cooper and John Carradine.

Some things though, never change. I think I should be fair and think that there are broadcast rights issues that prevent some more contemporary films to be shown. I will say that perhaps showing Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom for Chaplin would be too outlandish for Turner Classic Movies. To be fair, such a concept does tickle my funny bone: something as junky as Fallen Kingdom on the mostly posh Turner Classic Movies.

Imagine seeing Alicia Malone or Dave Karger having to introduce that film!

However, despite still working at age 78, the most recent SUTS films for Chaplin are three from 1976. It might have been interesting to have screened something like 2002's Talk to Her or 1992's Chaplin, where she played her own grandmother. Small though the roles may have been for her, it would have brought a little variety. I would have even liked for them to have featured something like the television movie Mother Teresa: In the Name of God's Poor, where Chaplin plays the lead. 

Yes, it is a television movie, but I don't know if people will quibble that much over the distinction. 

Paul Newman received his final Oscar nomination for 2002's Road to Perdition, but the newest film for his day is from 1973 (The Mackintosh Man). Given that 1989's Tap is part of the Nicholas Brothers' night (and I believe the newest film overall), what really is there to prevent 1982's The Verdict, 1986's The Color of Money and 1994's Nobody's Fool to make up part of Newman's night? 

It might have been interesting to show The Hustler and The Color of Money back to back. TCM, however, is showing neither.

There seems to be a great reluctance to showcase more recent films for the SUTS players. Ball's films don't go past 1956 (Forever, Darling). Granted, she made only four films after, but it would have been nice to see the disaster that is Mame for her day. Debbie Reynolds had a critically-acclaimed performance in 1996's Mother, but her day won't venture outside 1964's The Unsinkable Molly Brown. The 1931 version of The Champ is featured for Cooper's day. Why not offer the 1979 remake for Joan Blondell? 

What I am driving at is that many of these performers worked long after the so-called "Golden Age" of film, yet TCM rarely if ever ventures beyond the era. I think that leads casual film viewers to think these figures were from a very distant past and thus, of no real interest to up-and-coming classic film fans. To my mind, it is an annual lost opportunity.

Some of the choices are good: James Stewart has most of his films not be the well-known ones. Some are strange. Ernest Borgnine does not have Marty on his day despite it winning Best Picture and he Best Actor for the film. Ronald Colman too has his Oscar-winning performance in A Double Life somehow left off among his day's films. More curious is how he follows Greer Garson (who does have her Best Picture/Actress winning Mrs. Miniver featured), but he gets Random Harvest when it might have served as a great bridge between the two. I think all of Fred Astaire's films are musicals, but why not offer some of his non-musical work to showcase Astaire's talent outside a dance number? 

Vincent Price's films cover the years 1947 (The Long Night) and 1964 (The Last Man on Earth and The Masque of the Red Death). His first film was in 1938, his last in 1990. That's an awful big gap to leave out such films as Brigham Young, Laura and The Song of Bernadette (pre-1947) to Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine and The Abominable Dr. Phibes (post-1964). 

Such as it is, I look forward to Turner Classic Movies' Summer Under the Stars series and hope to make new discoveries.

Friday, July 21, 2023

Clarence Darrow: The Television Special



It is not surprising to see Henry Fonda play Clarence Darrow in a one-man show. Fonda, like Darrow, was firmly on the political Left, and Clarence Darrow tells his story. Fortunately, Clarence Darrow is not some crazed political diatribe. Instead, it is a well-acted exploration of the man, who had humor, some regrets and an unbending sense of principle. 

Taking on the form of the old Darrow speaking to us, Clarence Darrow covers his life and career. He speaks of his earliest memories: his father as a conductor on the Underground Railroad and his mother supporting women's suffrage long before it was popular. From that, Clarence Darrow took up many causes. He fought against railroad corporations, defended various labor movement activists and Socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs. Later in his career, he went on to defend people as various as teacher John Scopes of the so-called "Monkey Trial" to Leopold & Loeb, the "thrill killers" who murdered a child acquaintance.

Darrow also recalls some anecdotes from his private life. Sometimes they are witty, such as when he recalls enemies suggesting he'd spent the night with a beautiful widow and left in the morning. "My friends know I wouldn't have left at dawn. I'd have stayed for breakfast!". When traveling through the Holy Land, Darrow balked at the cost for a boat ride across the Sea of Galilee. "All he (the boat owner) wanted was $15. No wonder Jesus walked". 

Other memories though, are not so cute. He touches on his divorce. "I'm sorry, Jess. I think I need my freedom," he recalls telling his first wife. Recalling his defense of Dr. Ossian Sweet, a black man charged with murdering a white man during a riot, his memories of what he saw express deep pain. He ends his story by saying he wishes to have his story recorded in the Book of Love.

Clarence Darrow is sometimes erroneously listed as having been "directed by John Houseman" (the Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner for The Paper Chase). John Rich was the actual director, with Houseman serving as "artistic advisor". Rich and Fonda worked excellently to bring Darrow's life and career into focus.

Fonda has that everyman quality that translates well to the role. His Darrow is a folksy yet shrewd lawyer, passionate about the law and fighting injustice and prejudice. "I don't believe in Socialism", he recalls telling a railroad executive, "but I do believe that government's ownership of railroads is better for the people than railroad ownership of the government". 

It is difficult to hold an audience's attention for an hour-plus, but Fonda succeeds beyond anything I could have imagined. His success comes from how Darrow takes the audience as a partner, someone he can converse with. Fonda as Darrow does not go for big moments or gestures. Instead, by keeping things simple, Fonda makes us believe that it is Clarence Darrow speaking to us.

Clarence Darrow is a masterclass in how a strong actor can hold your attention all by himself. Minus a slight stumble when discussing the McNamara saga which came across as a bit dry and when he transitions from the Scopes trial to Leopold & Loeb, Clarence Darrow is a showcase for both Clarence Darrow and Henry Fonda. 


Monday, July 17, 2023

No Hard Feelings (2023): A Review (Review #1727)



Once, Jennifer Lawrence proudly touted that she had never appeared nude on film. Since the We Saw Your Boobs number at the 2013 Academy Awards where she was singled out for not showing her boobs, J-Law has gone full frontal in two films. The first was Red Sparrow. The second? No Hard Feelings, a film that is meant as a throwback to raunchy sex comedies. More tame than people have been led to believe, No Hard Feelings is serviceable if slight.

Maddie Barker (Lawrence) is facing tough economic times. In danger of failing to pay her property tax, her major source of income as an Uber driver in a summer beach community is lost when her car is impounded. Fortunately, an ad on Craigslist offers a car to anyone willing to make a man out of a very sheltered 19-year-old.

That 19-year-old is Percy Becker (Andrew Barth Feldman). Socially awkward, shy, and extremely sheltered by his parents Allison and Laird (Laura Benanti and Matthew Broderick), Percy's condition as an inexperienced man-child needs remedying. Thus, the need to secretly recruit the 32-year-old Maddie (she being the only person to answer the ad).  

Maddie instantly sets to work seducing Percy, leading to some remarkably uncomfortable situations for both of them. However, as time goes on and both spend time with each other, Maddie and Percy find a connection that goes into genuine friendship. Still, there have to be some hijinks and misunderstandings before both become better people through their shared experiences.

I figure that a lot of the comedy in No Hard Feelings comes from the mix of inappropriate behavior from Maddie and Percy along with the age gap. As far as I know, no one questioned why a 32-year-old is palling around with a 19-year-old. Maddie may not be old enough to be his mother, but one has to have some suspension of disbelief to get things going. There is also the element that it is the female who is the aggressor, though to be fair we have seen this before. 

Some more comedy is meant through John Philips and director Gene Stupnitsky's screenplay. When first meeting Percy at the animal shelter, Maddie asks, "Mind if I touch your wiener?". She is referring to a dog, but Lawrence's overtly sexual delivery makes clear she meant that double entendre. Whether Percy was meant to understand it is unclear.

No Hard Feelings has that feel for a throwback to raunchy sex comedies. It certainly tries for that, but sometimes it plays as if it is trying too hard. Lawrence in her early scenes with Feldman appears too desperate to seduce this clearly clueless young man. It is only as the film goes on that Lawrence's Maddie reveals more than her body. She and Percy have a few heart-to-heart moments where we learn about their backgrounds and how they got to where they are now.

That too, I believe, is another trope of these comedies: finding that the characters are deeper, more wounded than they first let on. No Hard Feelings pretty much plays it that way, where we know that by the end, they will both become better people. 

Between those revelations, though, we get to see people maced and skinny dipped. Given how utterly reluctant Percy is to interact with people, it is a wonder why Maddie would go through all these hoops for a car. Granted, the plot point of essentially offering a used car for deflowering your child is already oddball, but again one rolls with it.

Jennifer Lawrence knew what the role required and played it as such. Neither horrible nor rising above the material, Lawrence did her best. There were some good moments, such as when she shows unexpected jealousy when one of Percy's classmates is too friendly for her tastes. Lawrence's best moment probably is when she goes to the teen party looking for Percy; her efforts at trying to understand everyone recording their every action and saying things that make her sound worse and worse is a highpoint.

Feldman, for his part, is above the material. Few people could make Darryl Hall & John Oates' Maneater into both a tale of terror or a surprisingly tender love ballad. I would have thought though that as a Zoomer, Percy would be more familiar with Nelly Furtado's Maneater than Hall & Oates, but there it is. Feldman rarely missteps in his performance, making Percy sheltered, scandalized but also sincere. There were a few off moments, such as his violent reaction to discovering the deception. However, I did laugh when Percy, aware of his parents selling him for a car, makes a snippy remark at Maddie's expense. Asking about his future plans, he looks at her and says, "In four years, we'll both be seniors", the pun clearly intended as an insult. 

No Hard Feelings does have stumbling blocks. A subplot involving Jody (Kyle Mooney), Percy's male nanny goes nowhere and adds nothing to the story. Another subplot involving Maddie's friends Sarah and Jim (Natalie Morales and Scott MacArthur) too seem irrelevant. 

There is a story rattling about No Hard Feelings, and it does have a couple of good performances. It's serviceable, but nothing more.


Wednesday, July 12, 2023

The Little Mermaid (1989): A Review



Pre-The Little Mermaid, animation was considered a dying to dead genre. The Disney Company, which had originated the animated feature film, had had a bad run of animated films. It was to where the company gave serious thought to ending the division. The Little Mermaid ushered what was called "the Disney Renaissance", when the company revived both its financial and artistic fortunes. It is also a delightful film, with excellent songs and a compact story that entertains and charms the viewer.

Teen mermaid Princess Ariel (Jodi Benson) dreams of the world above the sea, but her father King Triton (Kenneth Mars) is aghast at the thought. She won't be denied, and one night observes the human Prince Eric (Christopher Daniel Barnes) sailing on a battleship and she falls instantly in love. In desperation, she enlists the help of sea witch Ursula (Pat Carroll), who will give Ariel human legs which will allow her to go to the surface.

There are a couple of catches. First, Ariel must surrender her voice to Ursula. Second, Ariel has three days to have Eric give her true love's kiss, or she will revert to being a mermaid. Ariel has friends to help her in this quest: appropriately crabby but caring sea crab Sebastian (Samuel E. Wright), eager young tropical fish Flounder (Jason Marin) and eccentric seagull Skuttle (Buddy Hackett).

Will Ariel and Eric find true love or will Ursula win out in her efforts to take over both the mermen and human world?

The most interesting thing for me about The Little Mermaid is how remarkably short the film is. The film manages to tell its entire story, complete with six songs and musical numbers, in 83 minutes. The film never feels rushed. In fact, The Little Mermaid is so well-packed that I would argue that one musical number could have been cut altogether due to being superfluous.

That would be Les Poissons, a number where royal Chef Louis (Rene Auberjonois) sings of his delight in preparing a fish meal, horrifying Sebastian, the latter doing his best to avoid being part of the main course. Having seen the film twice, I keep reaching the same conclusion: that Les Poissons just serves no purpose in The Little Mermaid. It does not advance the plot nor give any insight into a major character (Louis essentially is here for that one scene). I did not find it memorable either. I actually found it similar in style and melodically to Beauty and The Beast's Be Our Guest. The latter worked within its film, but the former stuck out.

The rest of The Little Mermaid's songs, however, are among the best in a musical film. Two of its songs were nominated for Original Song: Kiss the Girl and Under the Sea, with the latter winning. I can see why the latter still delights people. Under the Sea is a great, big, upbeat number filled with a Jamaican flavor (Sebastian has a Jamaican accent). The song is splashy, bright and colorful, but it also expresses Sebastian's view on how the underwater world is much better than the human world. It is a nice, joyful number that works well.

Kiss the Girl, conversely, is more quiet and intimate. Again sung by Sebastian with a chorus, Kiss the Girl is romantic without being schmaltzy.

It is a strange situation that what has become The Little Mermaid's signature song was not nominated for Original Song. I think many would be surprised that Part of Your World was not listed for Oscar consideration. For me, it is the best song in The Little Mermaid and among the best written for a musical film. Starting out slowly, we learn why Ariel is so fascinated with the human world. We also hear how she yearns for something different, for adventure and exploration. Part of Your World rises to a crescendo that is appropriately grand without being bombastic. Part of Your World is a perfect song, complete with spoken sections, expressing Ariel's hopes while advancing the story.

The last major song is a sheer delight. Ursula's Poor Unfortunate Souls is wickedly fun, showing Ursula's gleeful malevolence as she entices Ariel with her own powers. Playful, brazenly insincere and gleefully over-the-top, Poor Unfortunate Souls reveals Ursula's evil while still keeping a tongue somewhat in cheek.

Howard Ashman's lyrics and Alan Menken's music combines to fit every style of song, from the ballad to the big dance number. The Little Mermaid's songbook is practically perfect, where almost every number expresses character or moves the plot forward.

The success of The Little Mermaid also hangs on the voice work, and every actor was perfect in their role. Benson brings an innocence mixed with strength as Ariel. She may be young, but she is also full of courage. Barnes' Eric may be a standard Prince, just there to be the object of affection, but he does have a charm whenever trying to upend royal plans his court tries to give him. Wright's Sebastian mixes frustration, snobbery and horror with a caring side. He may be appalled at Ariel's wanderlust and consorting with the sea witch, but he also genuinely loves Ariel and wants to protect her.

Marin's Flounder is a cute figure, the second fiddle to the antics going on around him. Hackett is equally delightful as the well-meaning but clearly addled Skuttle, who gives wild names for human objects he clearly does not know, let alone what their use is for. Mars shows King Triton to be a firm ruler but also a loving father. After he destroys Ariel's collection, the animation shows his genuine pain at causing his daughter to break down in tears. He expresses concern for his wayward daughter, but can also be mischievous, as when he appoints Sebastian to be Ariel's minder. 

Carrol's Ursula is pitch-perfect, and not just in the music. Her take is one of delightful evil: grandiose, egocentric but also frightening in her evil and destructive power. 

If there are any flaws, I would say that the resolution to the crisis is rather quick and the inclusion of Les Poissons, which I think should have been cut altogether. Apart from those minor points, The Little Mermaid is an absolute triumph. 

Thursday, July 6, 2023

Asteroid City: A Review (Review #1725)



One either loves Wes Anderson or hates him. His style is not only not going to change, but one senses he's going to double down on it. Asteroid City is his latest twee adventures into WASP weariness, albeit with a surprisingly (Academy-appropriate) diverse cast. If you love Anderson, you'll like Asteroid City. If you detest him, you'll hate Asteroid City. It's as simple as that.

Wrapped within not one but three layers, Asteroid City is a late-1950s television special where the Rod Serling-like host (Bryan Cranston) invites us to see the creating and staging of the play "Asteroid City". The play "Asteroid City" is being written by Tennessee Williams-like playwright Conrad Earp (Edward Norton). 

"Asteroid City" the play transitions back-and-forth to Asteroid City the story. Here, emotionally stunted war photographer Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman) is taking his oldest child, son Woodrow (Jake Ryan) to the eponymous town in the American Southwest desert. Woodrow is one of five winners of a Junior Stargazing contest where each is to be presented a special citation for their distinct astronomical creation. They are also finalists for a major scholarship, the winner to be determined by General Grif Grierson (Jeffrey Wright). 

Another of the Junior Stargazers is Dinah (Grace Edwards), who has the added benefit of being the daughter of Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson), a glamourous but forlorn movie star (a mix of Greta Garbo and Marilyn Monroe with a hint of Marlene Dietrich). Augie has an issue: his wife died but he is struggling to tell his four kids of the fact. He also has car issues while in Asteroid City. For help on both fronts, he needs his father-in-law Stanley Zak (Tom Hanks). As these various groups gather in Asteroid City, they get an unexpected visitor from outer space, and with that comes their quarantine. Will the various characters in Asteroid City find peace and love? Will the actors in "Asteroid City" understand their motivations? Will anyone wake up if they don't fall asleep?

There are three types of filmgoers. The first simply loves all Wes Anderson films, finding his oeuvre quirky and delightful. The second simply despises all Wes Anderson films, finding his oeuvre smug and pretentious. The third has no idea who Wes Anderson is and does not care. I fall between the first and second, depending on the film. I have loved some of his films (The Grand Budapest Hotel, Moonrise Kingdom). I have detested some of his films (Darjeeling Limited, Isle of Dogs). I think it depends on how much tolerance I have for "quirky and delightful" versus "smug and pretentious". Asteroid City veers towards the latter, but not enough for me to thoroughly condemn.

Part of the issue with me is that I am, by now, fully aware of Anderson's style. He will not change. He will always direct his cast to speak in a very staccato manner, strip them of all emotion, keep them pretty much deadpan. He will always focus on the deliberately artificial look of his film, not bothering to create anything close to what reality is like. He will always put WASP or WASP-like Jewish characters and their various existentialist crises at the heart of his stories. It's not as if Anderson would ever try to make something remotely realistic. 

Therefore, I accept how Asteroid City is. He keeps within his milieu of oh so lonely and desperate people, of teenagers smarter than everyone else but still emotionally stunted, and the pretty visuals. It's no use getting mad about his style. It is what it is.

What I did find in Asteroid City is that, for all of Anderson's deliberately quirky and cutesy manner, it might have worked better if he had opted to not make his screenplay (with story by himself and Roman Coppola) less clever. Perhaps if he had opted to stay with just the events at Asteroid City versus his "play within a television special" manner, we might have had a better film. The shifting from the televised show to the play production to the alleged play itself sometimes was jarring. It, in my view, needlessly interrupted the flow of the story. 

Furthermore, it felt as if it was there just to allow some of Anderson's regulars a chance to appear because Anderson could not fit them in Asteroid City itself. While Schwartzman shifts between "Asteroid City" the play and Asteroid City itself, others stay firmly within one or the other. Anderson regulars Willem Dafoe, Adrien Brody and Norton never cross from one to the other. More bizarrely, Cranston does, making things if not confusing at least curious.

You have some people appearing for just one scene. I can grant a little leeway to Margot Robbie, who appears to be reviving her Mary Queen of Scots performance as Elizabeth I as the actress/character cut from the production. What, however, was the point of Hong Chau's sole appearance as Polly, soon-to-be ex-wife to Adrien Brody's "Asteroid City" director Shubert Green? Moreover, what was the point of the Earp-Green romance? It just is pointless as it adds nothing to the film. 

The conspiratorial side of me thinks this was done so that Asteroid City could meet all the diversity qualifications the Academy now insists on for Best Picture consideration. How else to explain Chau appearing for exactly one scene that adds nothing to the overall story. How else to explain the same-sex romance between writer and director which again adds nothing to the overall story. That you apparently can feature a same-sex romance on 1955 television makes things slightly more puzzling. 

When one watches a Wes Anderson movie, you do not really bother with performances. Everyone is pretty stoic, emotionless, remote. As such, everyone here pretty much kept to that style. Schwartzman had essentially two characters to play: Augie and the actor playing the character. He showed more emotion when playing the actor, but for the bulk of Asteroid City he was Augie. Johansson was better than her "I want to be alone" actress. 

Asteroid City is there to look at. The film does have the positives of a strong aesthetic, mixing a deliberately cutesy look with a more realistic early television look. Anderson does know his history: Midge's bathtub death reenactment clearly echoing Jacques-Louis David's Death of Marat. I do wonder if the song Dear Alien (Who Art in Heaven) will receive a Best Original Song nomination. The song does reflect Asteroid City as a whole: having two tones with nary rhyme or reason. 

It is clear that Asteroid City sticks with the Andersonian manner. If you like that style, you'll like Asteroid City. If you hate that style, you'll hate Asteroid City. You can't wake up if you don't fall asleep. The trouble is you might fall asleep at Asteroid City.