Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Film Week

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

JANE EYRE (1943)
Very much a Gothic fairy tale version of the Bronte novel, with a moody atmosphere of shadows and fog. Something I noticed this time; I always get a little disappointed in film versions when Jane grows up. I find her story as a child so compelling, something just grabs me about it, and this version has strong performances from Peggy Ann Garner and Elizabeth Taylor. But Joan Fontaine is an excellent Jane, and even though the film isn't exactly an interesting take on the novel itself (it kind of abandons a lot of the smart, resolved, inner Jane when Rochester arrives and the whole thing becomes more or less Beauty and the Beast), it is a very enjoyable old movie. Orson Welles as Rochester, with his fake nose and his flamboyant performance, doesn't really fit the tone of the story at all, but is nonetheless completely enjoyable. It's kind of a panto; his performance runs right over Jane Eyre (and Jane Eyre), but I couldn't help but love it. Like I said, a Gothic fairy tale, like a storybook that simplifies its original source in a way that doesn't really do the novel justice, but which is enjoyable as its own entity. **** for its warped sense of style alone.

Mandy Lane (played by Amber Heard) goes on a ranch vacation with her shitty high school friends (mostly guys trying to fuck her), and then a slasher movie happens. Kind of a mixed bag. The cinematography is good, but mostly because it's emulating The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Last House on the Left, and the twists are pretty predictable. All the elements are there, but not in the right measurements. **1/2

Silly-but-fun action flick with Arnold Schwarzenegger as the sheriff of a small border town who is the only thing that stands in the way of a powerful drug dealer trying to escape federal custody. It's silly, and Korean director Kim Jee-woon does a lot of those fun, earnest flourishes that for some reason we tend to think are cool in Asian cinema but silly in American action flicks (I guess because we're not used to that style). But it's a surprisingly enjoyable action movie with a good B-movie cast. Just a fun waste of time on a weeknight. ***

I never thought I'd see an actual interesting vampire movie again, but Jim Jarmusch really made something offbeat and dreamlike. Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton play Adam and Eve, vampire lovers who are reunited after a long break. It's basically a film about ennui and angst, but making the characters vampires amplifies their world-weariness into something much larger and more daunting. In this way, it's kind of like a movie about... not depression, exactly, but about how huge and crippling depression often feels to a depressed person. No gimmicks; engrossing. ***1/2

I enjoyed this one at least as much as the first, maybe more. Gru is now a reformed villain, living as a father of three adopted girls and adapting to his suburban life. The larger plot involves him getting recruited by an organization that roots out supervillains, and falling in love with his new partner, but somehow it still doesn't feel gimmicky and it doesn't rely on media parodies. Instead, the humor comes from the characters and the more-pronounced presence of the Minions. The emotions are still genuine, as they were in the first movie. I wasn't sure if they could recapture the magic of the first Despicable Me, but once again they've eschewed the usual crutches of modern CG animation and just told a funny story about characters. I really like these. Beautifully animated, witty, and likable. ****

BELLE (2013)
Historical fiction inspired by a painting of a real person: Dido Elizabeth Belle, a black woman who was raised in 18th century English society by her great-uncle, the 1st Earl of Mansfield. Not much is known about the actual Belle, so the screenplay puts her around the edges of one of the Earl's real court cases as Lord Chief Justice of England, the Zong insurance case of 1783. That case revolved around a company trying to claim insurance on a group of slaves who were starved, killed and then thrown overboard. Though framed as an insurance fraud investigation, it was also a landmark case which helped lay the groundwork for the UK's 1807 abolition of slavery. Tom Wilkinson is quite good (of course) as the Earl, who is torn between English tradition and what is right. Much of the film follows Belle as she falls in love with a passionate law apprentice who demands England change, and she is wooed by an officer who seems to only want her for her money. The film also touches a lot on the racism of 18th century British peerage, who either grudgingly accept Belle as one of them, or are disgusted by her mixed heritage and refuse to see her as an equal. Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who plays Belle, carries the weight of the film on her shoulders very well; she's likable and moving, and quick to stand up for herself and others. (You may remember her as Martha's sister on the third season of the new Doctor Who.) The film has a good cast, actually, but she and Wilkinson leave everyone else behind. Still, for a film about such an interesting character and revolving around such an important event, I wish it had been more engaging and substantial. Worthwhile, no doubt about it, but ***.


Roger Owen Green said...

The wife LOVED Belle. I never saw it.

Tallulah Morehead said...

Last year I happened to meet Margaret O'Brien just a week after watching her in Jane Eyre. We chatted happily about how much we both liked the movie, and about her performance and Orson's. Then Maragret brought up how "Wonderful" Joan Fontaine was, and the air went out of the conversation as I admitted that I have never liked Joan Fontaine in anything. That I felt Jane Eyre was a movie that was good in spite of Joan Fotnaine, not because of her. That, for me, she sinks everything she's in, from Rebecca and Suspicion (Cary Grant could do better, even that louse of a Cary Grant) to Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. I'm on Olivia DeHavilland's side of that feud.

SamuraiFrog said...

Reading your comment, I went to the Wikipedia and looked at Joan Fontaine's filmography, and I've really not seen her in much. Besides the films you mentioned, the only other substantial roles I've seen her in were Ivanhoe (where she's outshone by Elizabeth Taylor), The Women (where everyone, in my opinion, is outshone by Rosalind Russell), and Gunga Din, which I had quite forgotten she was in despite it being one of my favorite movies... Orson Welles pretty much rode right over her in Eyre, and in Rebecca it's Judith Anderson's show, and Suspicion is... not a favorite. I'd forgotten she was in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, also. All this really says something.

I DO like Margaret O'Brien very much.

Tallulah Morehead said...

Here's a coincidence: in the 1960s, I saw Margaret O'Brien onstage in The Women! (Pamela Mason had the Roz Russell role. I'm betting you are not familiar with Pamela Mason.)

I'd forgotten Fontaine was in Gunga Din also.

SamuraiFrog said...

I'm totally unfamiliar with Pamela Mason. Looking at her Wikipedia page, I've never even heard of any of her films except for The Sandpiper. I thought I'd seen Jew Suss, but I've seen the 1940 Nazi version, not the version she's in. (Made for grim watching in a college history class.)

Tallulah Morehead said...

Pamela Mason was the wife of James Mason, and the mother of his two kids. In the 1960s, she had a talk show on local Los Angeles TV. Her talk show had no guests on it --- ever! It was just Pamela talking and talking and talking, in one, directly to the camera, about whatever crossed her mind. Her mouth just ran. She could be mildly witty, but the woman never had an unexpressed thought in her entire life. I don't know how James put up with her, and, of course, eventually he didn't, and divorced her.

As a teenager, I was almost hypnotized by her show. I would watch her every afternoon (She was on at noon), amazed at how she could talk non-stop for what seemed an endless amount of time without ever really saying anything. She just blathered on and on, in a classy-sounding British accent. Understand, she really never sis have any guests on, nor did she take phone calls. Guests would have spent time talking that she could spend talking instead. The closest she ever came to conversation was that sometimes she'd read aloud a letter from a viewer, and then talk about the letter for a while.

I guess it was her reputation as a wit (though not much of one) that prompted the producers at Melodyland Theater to cast her in the Roz Russell part in The Women, and give her star billing. She wasn't really an actress at all. The rest of the cast, Joan Caulfield, Margret O'Brien, Dagmar, and even "Miss Beverly Hills" (Who is in like two movies, though one is my beloved A Comedy of Terrors with Boris Karloff, Vincent Price, Basil Rathbone and Peter Lorre) were all better than Pamela.

Pamela Mason was a bizarre local cultural artifact of 1960s Los Angeles, now long-forgotten except in James Mason biographies.