Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Film Week

A review of the films I've seen this past week.

WHEN A MAN LOVES (1927)
This sumptuous movie stars the Great Profile John Barrymore in another energetic, magnetic performance, this time as a man studying for the priesthood who falls in love with a woman engaged to a member of Louis XV’s court. The woman is the gorgeous Dolores Costello, who would go on to marry Barrymore soon after the picture was finished; she’s the grandmother of Drew Barrymore, and you can tell just by looking at her. It’s an elegant movie, and one of Vitaphone’s first successes for Warner Bros. Director Alan Crosland and Barrymore had previously made Don Juan for Warners, which had a synched film score and some sound effects; so does When a Man Loves. Crosland would go on to direct the less good but groundbreaking The Jazz Singer. But the Barrymore pictures are better. **** stars.

SANTA BABY (2006)
I have no idea why the idea of Santa having a kid captivates so many people. Here, Jenny McCarthy is the daughter of Santa Claus, and has to return home to help him run the factory after he has a heart attack (?). Really, it’s just another antifeminist piece of claptrap where women are made to feel empty and worthless just for being good at their jobs, once again couched in the cowardly terms of sentimentality. And Ivan Sergei really is a shit actor. * star for Jenny, because I do like that she’s extremely hot and keeps trying to play roles where her incredible hotness isn’t a factor. From the auteur who directed The Adventures of Pluto Nash.

A LETTER TO THREE WIVES (1949)
How is it that Joseph L. Mankiewicz directed so many great films and yet seems to be barely remembered these days? This is yet another of his effortless masterpieces. Ann Sothern, Jeanne Crain and Linda Darnell play three women about to go on a day trip as volunteers minding children, and just as they’re leaving, they receive a letter from another woman informing them she has just left town with one of their husbands. The three women all fret over which one of them it might be, and as they do, we see three flashback vignettes detailing the sometimes-unhappy marriages of each. Rita (Sothern) writes scripts for soap operas, which her English teacher husband (Kirk Douglas) disapproves of. Lora May (Darnell) is from the wrong side of the tracks and has married a rich man. Deborah (Crain) grew up on a farm and thinks she’ll never fit in with her husband’s society friends. Mankiewicz’s masterful, very human dialogue elevates what could easily have become melodramatic. As always, Thelma Ritter steals nearly every scene she’s in. **** stars.

THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE (1972)
This movie has virtually no plot. That’s what’s so great about it. Six outwardly respectable friends keep trying to have a meal together, but they keep getting interrupted by more and more bizarrely surreal situations. This movie is Luis Bunuel’s masterpiece of dreams within dreams within dreams, an absurdist observation of the hypocritical lives of the elite. **** stars.

THE ISLAND (2005)
Wow, where to start with a movie this bad? Well, here’s the premise, so sorry if I’m spoiling anything: people live in a facility after a world contamination, with new survivors showing up all the time. Anyone who wins the lottery gets to go to the Island, the last place on Earth that has not been contaminated. But they’re actually clones, and the world isn’t contaminated. As an insurance policy, people in the outside world have themselves cloned in case they need organ transplants or whatever. “Going to the Island” is code for going to the hospital and getting harvested. Okay, that’s the premise. Seems like it would be fine, right? Except that this movie is so badly written, and it rips off so much (especially Logan’s Run and THX-1138 and, bizarrely, the speeder bike sequence from Return of the Jedi nearly shot-for-shot and sound effect-for-sound effect) that it becomes ridiculous. So, the clones need to live and have human experience or else the organs fail? Did you maybe, like, once have a scientist go over the script just to check that sort of thing? And the clones re-grow the memory of the people they’re cloned from? Huh? As if a gingerbread man could remember what cookie dough looked like. And since this is a typical American movie as directed by Michael Bay, the typical shitty American director, it’s way, waaaay too long. Every time this movie ends, it goes on for another 20 minutes. Producers Walter F. Parkes and Laurie MacDonald blamed the failure of this movie on Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson not being big enough actors to draw a crowd, but that just shows you how out of touch Spielberg’s micro-managing lieutenants have become. It failed because it’s a piece of total shit. Every time there’s a nice, quiet moment that draws you into what the characters are going through, there’s a loud, long, boring, unnecessary, shakily shot action sequence that could’ve been completely cut out of the movie. I’ll tell you why the movie failed: director Michael Bay, a script by two of the writers from Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Spielberg being anywhere near it (as an executive producer), and even being made by DreamWorks in the first place. As I’ve continued to say, DreamWorks is making the absolute worst movies of the 21st century, especially when it comes to science fiction (witness A.I., Minority Report, War of the Worlds, and The Time Machine, ALL of which would be on my list of the worst movies ever made, and all of which share this film’s overlit gunmetal color palette and crappy special effects). This is a film that is potentially full of ideas, but Michael Bay directs it like any other crappy action film. The man is not interested in humanity, nor does he care to be; he just wants to know how to move them like pieces in a video game. It’s too bad, because the cast for this movie is actually quite good (I wonder how heavily the script must’ve been rewritten; it either had to have been better to get this good a cast or it’s just incompetently directed). Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson are both actually great, playing na├»ve innocents who are forced to learn the ways of the world very quickly. Sean Bean is nice, even though he’s predictably playing the villain. I always like him, at any rate, even if he’s constantly under-utilized in nearly every damn movie he’s in. Michael Clarke Duncan and Steve Buscemi lend solid support, and it’s nice to Shawnee Smith whenever I can, even if it’s only briefly. My favorite actor in the movie was easily Djimon Hounsou, who plays a real badass who gets a little philosophical; his eleventh hour conversion happens to suddenly and far too late in the movie to be remotely believable, however, which is a real shame. And the whole picture ends with another one of those offensive Moses leading the Jews out of the desert shots, just like I Robot did. It’s real shit. I’ll give it *1/2, because I really don’t blame the actors and they’re all quite good.

THE WHITE SHEIK (1951)
Hmm, I liked another Fellini movie. Weird. Maybe I should just stick with anything made before La Dolce Vita, a movie I know I hate… Except that I liked Fellini’s Casanova… well, sort of… I don’t know. This was a fun movie about perception and romance. A newlywed couple visits Rome for a honeymoon, but the bride is secretly obsessed with the White Sheik, a hero of comic books and movie serials. They are filming his new adventure nearby, so the bride sneaks off to find him and give him a drawing she made. For his part, the husband is also obsessed, but with getting an audience with the Pope through his uncle, a minor Vatican official. The bride learns to be careful what she wishes for, because the Sheik is a truly unromantic figure. Hmm, do you think Fellini is drawing a parallel between the White Sheik being a disappointment and the Pope? Hey, what do you think? It’s a fun little movie, and Leopoldo Trieste as the husband is hysterically over-the-top. ***1/2 stars. “Our real lives are in our dreams, but sometimes dreams are a fatal abyss.” Very nice.

ASHES AND DIAMONDS (1958)
Andrzej Wajda’s film is often considered the greatest achievement of Polish cinema, but I found it a little melodramatic. It’s about Polish resistance fighters at the very end of World War II; one of them, Maciek, is ordered to kill Szczuka, a fellow soldier who is also the Communist district leader. The resistance is trying to flush out Communists, but Maciek wrestles with the decision. Overall it’s a good movie, but I thought it was pretty flawed. *** stars.

BALLAD OF A SOLDIER (1959)
This masterpiece by director Grigori Chukhrai tells the story of a Russian soldier, Alyosha, who gets a few days leave to see his mother after an act of heroism at the front. But while traveling by train he meets a girl, Shura, and the two fall in love. Chukhrai tells the story of what happens when the world loses a single person, and the effect of that life is felt dramatically. It really seems like a simple journey story, but Alyosha is a stand-in for the 30 million Russians who were killed during World War II. Just watch this movie to compare the difference between Europe’s realistic and sensitive treatment of World War II and how it affected daily life with the patriotic, awe-of-the-military bullshit that still comes out of Hollywood to this day. **** stars.

LOVE’S ABIDING JOY (2006)
The latest in the series of movies based on the Janette Oke novels about the Davis and Lahaye families, and with this one, Erin Cottrell becomes the first actress to portray Missie Davis Lahaye twice. It’s a nice movie, but I think they’ve dipped in quality since the lovely first movie, Love Comes Softly. It was nice to see Dale Midkiff back, though. This time around, Missie and Willie are trying to make their frontier lives work despite the encroachment of civilization in the form of a corrupt mayor. ** stars.

MR. SKEFFINGTON (1944)
Bette Davis stars as Fanny Trellis, a popular society girl who has almost every man eating out of the palm of her hand. She’s forced into a loveless marriage with Joe Skeffington, a Jewish banker, to save her younger brother from embezzlement charges. Things happen more of less predictably, with infidelities and broken hearts as Fanny continues to act as she always has: with only herself in mind. Claude Rains plays Skeffington with a sort of wounded optimism, even though he’s not completely an angel himself. Through the course of her life, Fanny alienates everyone who knows and loves her, and she comes to realize exactly how much her marriage should have meant to her. It’s pretty melodramatic, actually, and it could have been shorter. But Rains and Davis are, of course, excellent. *** stars.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

You spent more time writing that essay on The Island than I spent watching it.

SamuraiFrog said...

That took no time, too. When the hate's there, it just all flows out.