Tuesday, May 26, 2009
Stupidity is not a victimless crime
By Edward Copeland
Dramas built around underdeveloped, selfish, thoughtless and stupid people can be among the most frustrating films to endure and, even with its mercifully short running time, last year's Wendy and Lucy certainly proves unbearable to watch.
Having recently lost my beloved dog, I was hesitant to watch the film in the first place, fearful that something bad would happen to the animal. Much to my surprise, the film didn't elicit a lot of sadness, but it did get me angry at Lucy's owner Wendy (Michelle Williams), a one-note character that the screenplay by director Kelly Reichardt and Jonathan Raymond places before us as if Wendy's a frozen dinner that they forgot to cook in a microwave.
Wendy's motivations, if she has any, remain hidden beneath layers of sulk. One brief scene where she calls her sister and brother in-law seems to indicate the in-law is glad to hear from her but the sister assumes she's after more money. I'm sure the movie wants us to sympathize with Wendy against the hard-ass sister but based on what we've seen, I can see how a relative who has put up with her shit would assume the worst and be on to her game since the last she'd heard she was taking her poor dog, hopping into a down-on-its-luck car and driving to Alaska for some sort of job.
Williams can be a good actress, but she gets nothing here. Wendy has saved a bunch of money and she and her dog Lucy travel toward a job in Alaska, only her car breaks down (despite early warnings she ignored). I couldn't help but be reminded of the superior (on every level) Into the Wild, where another young person heads off toward Alaska and even though he seemed to have even less specific aims than Wendy, Emile Hirsch's character functioned with direction, intelligence and a distinct lack of poutiness. He also didn't make another living creature suffer alongside him.
You really see no evidence that she really even loves the dog. She barely has any food for her left in the trunk, so she goes to a store to get some more food. We know she has a wad of cash, but she chooses to shoplift a single can of Iams instead and she gets caught. There seems to be no planning to anything Wendy does. The store employer who catches her tells her that if she can't afford dog food, she doesn't deserve a dog and that's true, except SHE CAN afford it.
While Wendy visits the local police (she's quick to pay her own fine), Lucy disappears and she worries about where she has gone. At least I guess she's sort of worried. You get very little from Williams' performance.
Wendy and Lucy is one of those films that some embrace as being better and more profound than it really is. If they make another version of those sad Sarah McLachlan ASPCA ads, they should include clips from this movie as an example of animal abuse.
While they're at it, maybe someone needs to form the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Movie Lovers.
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Monday, May 25, 2009
“Oh, Nicky…I love you because you know such lovely people…”
By Ivan G. Shreve, Jr.
In the surviving movie trailer for 1934’s The Thin Man, famed movie detective Philo Vance (William Powell) stands next to a book mock-up of Dashiell Hammett’s detective novel…and is startled when the figure depicted on the cover — detective Nick Charles…also played by Powell — begins to speak to him:
CHARLES: I haven’t seen you since you solved The Kennel Murder Case…how are you?
VANCE: Well, for the love of…Nick Charles!What are you doing up there, impersonating a book cover?
CHARLES: Shhh…I’m working on a case…
VANCE: Don’t tell me you’ve gone back to detective work…I thought you had turned respectable…didn’t you get married?
(Charles steps down off the book cover to chat freely with Vance)
CHARLES: Oh ho…didn’t I! Vance, I married a girl in a million!
VANCE: Hmm…I heard it was a girl…with a million…
CHARLES: Well, same thing…I’ve become a California gentleman
VANCE: I never heard of such a thing…what are you doing here in New York?
CHARLES: Well, it seems that Clark Gable is making some personal appearances here — which, uh, interests my wife…and there’s a very good bar at the Ritz, which is all right with me…so we popped into town to play…but would you believe it? Before you could say Metro Goldwyn Mayer, I stepped right into the middle of a baffling murder mystery and they put me to work…
VANCE: Well, you poor fellow…you have my deepest sympathy…
CHARLES: I can use it…believe me, Vance, this case is a toughie…it all revolves about a tall, thin man…
The Thin Man trailer provides all the necessary proof that this film — released to movie screens on this date 75 years ago — was not your ordinary, run-of-the-mill detective melodrama. While it does contain an intriguing whodunit plot (one that’s so convoluted that you can watch the movie, then return to it a year or two later and completely forget the identity of the killer) the film concentrated on the chemistry between Nick Charles — a retired detective who nevertheless often found himself neck-deep in solving mysteries — and his wife Nora, a society heiress whom Charles unabashedly admitted he married for the money. The married couple — whose sexy and saucy badinage was reportedly based on author Hammett’s longtime rocky affair with Lillian Hellman — were unlike any previously depicted on the screen; they drank to excess (a trait that was gradually phased out once they produced a son in the many Thin Man followups to come), teased and flirted with each other as well as members of the opposite sex, and provided an interesting yardstick to measure cinematic marriages at a time when the institution of marriage was either something couples in the movies ran to or away from. Sure, it wasn’t realistic — but anyone who didn’t honestly wish their relationship was more like Nick and Nora Charles’ clearly had some news for themselves.
Casting Powell in the lead was a no-brainer; he had become identified onscreen as the movie’s definitive Philo Vance (he made four films as the shamus, including The Canary Murder Case, which featured silent-movie siren Louise Brooks) and studio executives gave director W.S. “Woody” Van Dyke to use the actor that, earlier in his career, was one of moviedom’s suavest villains. But Van Dyke also wanted Myrna Loy for the role of Nora; chiefly because the two performers demonstrated such an amazing chemistry in the film he had directed previously, Manhattan Melodrama (1934). MGM balked, but then acquiesced and told Van Dyke he could use Loy under the proviso that he finish the film in 16 days so that the studio could have the actress available for a film they thought more suitable. Van Dyke — known in the movie biz as “One-Take” — did it in twelve, spending only $231,000 (it was budgeted as a B-film) and creating of one of MGM’s biggest hits that year, raking in $1.4 million. The success of Powell and Loy in this film would shore up one of the most successful cinematic partnerships; they would eventually appear in a total of 16 films together — six of them being Thin Man entries.
Supporting Powell and Loy was a superlative cast of contract players and great character actors: Maureen O’Sullivan, Nat Pendleton (as Lieutenant John Guild; he would reprise his role in 1939’s Another Thin Man, Minna Gombell, Porter Hall, Henry Wadsworth, William Henry, Harold Huber, Cesar Romero, Natalie Moorhead, Edward Brophy and Edward Ellis (“the thin man”). Albert Hackett and Francis Goodrich adapted Hammett’s novel, creating a sparkling, sophisticated screenplay that contains so many memorable exchanges of dialogue:
NORA: You know, that sounds like an interesting case…why don't you take it?
NICK: I haven't the time…I'm much too busy seeing that you don't lose any of the money I married you for…
LT. GUILD: You got a pistol permit?
LT. GUILD: Ever heard of the Sullivan Act?
NORA: Oh, that's all right — we're married.
NORA: All right! Go ahead! Go on! See if I care! But I think it's a dirty trick to bring me all the way to New York just to make a widow of me.
NICK: You wouldn't be a widow long…
NORA: You bet I wouldn't!
NICK: Not with all your money...
NICK: How'd you like Grant's tomb?
NORA: It's lovely…I'm having a copy made for you.
And my personal favorite:
NICK: I'm a hero…I was shot twice in the Tribune…
NORA: I read where you were shot 5 times in the tabloids…
NICK: It's not true…he didn't come anywhere near my tabloids.
With the success of The Thin Man, the eventual sequel came two years later in After the Thin Man (1936) — an equally enjoyable romp that some fans consider superior to the original. But After lacked the fresh, improvisational feel of its successor (another benefit of Van Dyke’s direction-by-stopwatch), as did the four follow-ups to come. Audiences and critics alike began referring to the Nick Charles character as “The Thin Man” so MGM insisted on working that reference into the other films of the series: Shadow of the Thin Man (1941), The Thin Man Goes Home (1944) and the final entry, Song of the Thin Man (1947). (I guess only the second film uses “the thin man” in its proper perspective: it is the second of the series, following [“after”] The Thin
Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. writes and edits the wonderful blog Thrilling Days of Yesteryear and has a companion piece on the 1950s television series version of the Charles' adventures starring Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk.
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Friday, May 15, 2009
Centennial Tributes: James Mason
By Edward Copeland
When an artist is called prolific, it is usually an adjective being attached to a writer or if it's in the film medium, perhaps a director, but there probably is no better word to describe the amount of film and television work churned out by James Mason as an actor. Check out his filmography at IMDb. Even if all his work were available on DVD, I doubt anyone would have time to watch it all. Hell, I doubt Mason himself, who was born 100 years ago today, could have even been able to view everything he was in. He was too damn busy. His first credited film role dates to 1935 in a mystery titled Late Extra and it seems as if he never stopped working after that in films originating in all parts of the world. Mason turned in one of his best performances for director Carol Reed in 1947's Odd Man Out, which tragically is not available on Region 1 DVD. Mason turns in a superb outing as an Irish nationalist who tries to evade police after a robbery, despite the fact that he's been seriously wounded. As I mentioned, Mason's filmography is so extensive, there is no way I could be comprehensive, even if I wanted to be, so I'm sticking to the films I've seen or that I recognize as being notable. There were several more I'd hoped to catch, but an unexpected hospitalization interferred with my plans. In 1949, Mason co-starred with Barbara Stanwyck, Van Heflin, Ava Gardner and Cyd Charisse in Mervyn LeRoy's odd but watchable hybrid of soap opera melodrama, romance and noir in East Side, West Side. Mason plays Stanwyck's husband, who truly loves his wife but can't bring an end to his caddish playboy ways. 1951 brought two distinctive roles for Mason. He played Nazi Field Marshal Erwin Rommel in The Desert Fox, making the man a sympathetic soldier who had no use for Hitler's lunacy and politics. He even reprised the role in a cameo in 1953's The Desert Rats, which focused on Richard Burton as a Scottish army officer. His other 1951 offering had the look of a Powell-Pressburger production thanks to the great color cinematography of Jack Cardiff, but Albert Lewin directed Pandora and the Flying Dutchman which reunited Mason and Gardner in a modern interpretation of the mythical tale. 1952 brought another of Mason's greatest roles and yet another film frustratingly not found on Region 1 DVD: Joseph L. Mankiewicz's 5 Fingers. Mason excels as the valet for the British ambassador to Turkey during World War II who envisions a cushy existence for himself, one he intends to finance by becoming a spy for Germany. It's another example of what Mason brought to all his greatest roles: a certain gravity that tethered him to the ground and made almost all his roles seem real even in the most questionable of films. In 1953, he teamed with Mankiewicz again and while Marlon Brando garnered most of the attention as Antony in Julius Caesar, Mason was no slouch as Brutus either. The following year brought two of Mason's most recognizable roles: His first Oscar nomination as Norman Maine in the remake of A Star is Born opposite Judy Garland and as the legendary Captain Nemo in the adaptation of Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea opposite Kirk Douglas. Mason made an odd choice in 1956 when he appeared opposite Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz in Forever, Darling. In their second feature film during the run of I Love Lucy, Desi and Lucy played a couple with a struggling marriage and Lucy starts being visited by her guardian angel who wants to help her save her marriage, the main joke of the film being that her angel is a dead ringer for James Mason, her favorite movie star, which does lead to a funny sequence where they go to see a positively awful looking James Mason movie. Three years later, he starred in one of his time capsule candidates: playing the suave bad guy mistakenly chasing Cary Grant in Alfred Hitchcock's North By Northwest. That same year, he returned to Jules Verne as a professor who becomes obsessed with the idea of finding his way to the earth's core in Journey to the Center of the Earth. I can only assume his descent into partial madness was sped along by having to endure Pat Boone's attempt at a Scottish accent and frequent slips into lip-synching pop songs. Throughout the late 1950s period, the ever-busy Mason started being seen with more frequency on the various theater anthology series on television, work on the small screen he continued in the 1960s while still appearing on the big screen. When 1962 arrived, Mason took on the character of Humbert Humbert in Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov's controversial novel Lolita. Once again, while he was surrounded by some silliness around him (provided mainly by Peter Sellers), Mason kept Humbert grounded in the real world even as he obsessed about the young teen (Sue Lyons). Throughout the 1960s, Mason continued to appear in film productions around the world as well as on television, including a four-episode run on TV's medical drama Ben Casey. In 1966, he scored his second Oscar nomination, this time in supporting, as the older London businessman obsessed with making a carefree, somewhat homely teacher his mistress (Lynn Redgrave) in Georgy Girl. Be careful what you wish for. Mason continued to balance classics with potboilers and paychecks, such as a film of The Sea Gull or exploitation classics such as Mandingo. Sometimes, the stars aligned and a little gem sprang force such as The Last of Sheila. Written by Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins, it's a mystery disguised as Hollywood satire featuring Mason, Raquel Welch, Dyan Cannon, James Coburn, Richard Benjamin, Joan Hackett and none other than young Ian McShane long before we ever met Al Swearengen. He returned to the Nazi military for Sam Peckinpah for Cross of Iron and returned to a heavenly guise, this time trying to guide Warren Beatty in an afterlife screwup in Heaven Can Wait, the 1978 remake of Here Comes Mr. Jordan. The story requires more than just a little suspension of belief but like most of Mason's roles, he manages to sell it somehow even if others in a production descend to camp. The next year he got to spar lovingly as Dr. Watson to Christopher Plummer's Sherlock Holmes in Murder By Decree, making the most out of a night at the theater or a meal's last pea. He worked for another monster, a vampire, (see comments) when TV adapted Stephen King's Salem's Lot in 1979 and he earned a final Oscar nomination as supporting actor as the wily defense attorney of a crooked hospital in The Verdict in 1982. Mason never managed to nab the golden guy, but he sure knew how to put on a good show.
Labels: Brando, Carol Reed, Cary, Cyd Charisse, Garland, Hitchcock, James Coburn, K. Douglas, Kubrick, L. Ball, Mankiewicz, Mason, Peckinpah, Plummer, Sellers, Sondheim, Stanwyck, Van Hefiin, W. Beatty
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Sunday, May 03, 2009
CSD: Crime Scene Disinfectors
By Jonathan Pacheco
Sunshine Cleaning gets its emotions and characters right, but feels the need to force them into specific situations. It leaves long stretches of story untouched, allowing the characters to be, exist, and reveal, only to intervene at somewhat critical points to steer the story in the direction it planned on going. This results in the audience member yelling at the film, “Get out of the way!”
The idea of the plot intrigues — two sisters, Rose and Norah (Amy Adams and Emily Blunt), decide to go into the crime scene cleanup business — but the way it reached that scenario felt contrived. First, the idea is “casually” tossed out by Rose’s married lover, Mac (Steve Zahn), a cop who claims Rose could make good money off a racket like that. When her son’s principal recommends that she put the boy on medication, Rose neglects caution and pulls him out of the school that minute, insisting he only receive the best education that money can buy. She needs more cash for a school like that. Luckily, Mac’s got an idea: what about that crime scene cleanup racket he casually mentioned before?
Once Sunshine Cleaning gets past this blunt hump, it cruises along nicely as the characters have time to breath, even allowing important plot developments to feel as if they happen on their own. While cleaning a particularly nasty scene at a trailer home, Norah discovers a fanny pack with the deceased’s ID and pictures of her daughter. Norah feels that it might be their duty to inform the daughter of her mother’s passing, but Rose disagrees, prompting Norah to simply do it on her own. The film doesn’t take the easy way out in the relationship between Norah and Lynn, the daughter in the pictures (Mary Lynn Rajskub), who doesn’t know Norah’s true intentions. The story takes some turns, complete with not-so-subtle hints at a lesbian attraction from Lynn which is interestingly neither accepted nor rejected by Norah. Typically in films like this, you get the “Whoa, hey, I think you got the wrong impression” moment, but Sunshine Cleaning intriguingly allows us to instead try to guess Norah’s thoughts. Is she open to this kind of attraction? Is she not rejecting it to keep the relationship alive? I don’t know, and the film doesn’t spell it out for me either. I like that.
The same goes for Rose’s relationship with Winston (Clifton Collins Jr.), the helpful, perceptive one-armed owner of the cleaning supply store. The film nurtures an attraction, especially on Winston’s part, allowing it to grow, rarely forcing circumstances to meet at certain end. Eventually the attraction reaches a level where it’s obvious to everyone that there’s something more to these two, but the film doesn’t draw any conclusions for its audience. Refreshingly, no blatant declarations are made as you are allowed to decide for yourself what happens next. To make things even better, the chemistry between Winston and Rose feels genuine. I looked forward to scenes between the two characters (and actors) because of the pleasing nature of their attraction.
It’s hard to say more about Amy Adams. The material in Sunshine Cleaning isn’t particularly challenging for her, but the character of Rose did have a few small twists that gave Adams a little bit more to do. She’s played many innocents throughout her career, from Junebug to Doubt to Enchanted to even, in a way, Charlie Wilson’s War. Rose is still a sweet character with good intentions, but she lacks the same innocence as the past roles. She sleeps with Mac behind his wife’s back, and while the main point of the affair is that Rose hopes that Mac will one day leave his spouse for her, I also see it for one of the obvious reasons: Rose likes sleeping with Mac. It’s not an overt trait, but Rose is more sexual than most characters that Amy Adams has played before (with the possible exception of her role in Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, which I’ve yet to see). Mix that in with the classic Amy Adams charm, and you have an ever-so-slightly different animal in Sunshine Cleaning.
Alan Arkin brings an amusing, if somewhat forgettable, touch to the film as the father of Rose and Norah. Most of his interaction is with Rose’s son, as he ropes him into several of his endless hair-brained business schemes, always looking to make a quick buck. In this light he reflects his character in Little Miss Sunshine, as does the general feel of Sunshine Cleaning (not surprising, as the two films share the same producers). However, it’s hard to find much purpose in his character other than a pleasant, occasional diversion from the main action.
I initially had no interest in seeing Sunshine Cleaning until I watched the trailer. The concept sounded like a great one until the trailer featured moments when the characters forced too much meaning on events. “We come into people’s lives when they have experienced something profound and...we help.” That’s when I got a vibe about the film, worrying me that it would try too hard to have an impact. The actual film is not nearly as sappy or ham-fisted as the trailer, and even takes a few daring steps in certain stories and endings, but it still contains that bit of forced meaning and sentimentality that hinders it from being anything more than just “a nice film.”
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