Films I Saw Last Week (May 8th to 14th)

I’m not really fond of writing short reviews for films, but I’d like to get into the habit of writing, as an online acquaintance said, “at least a few sentences” on what I watch because it’s much better than not.

So last week I saw nine titles. I’m going to keep this as concise as possible.

First up is Henry Hathaway’s Niagara which I only caught for the two names that got top billing on the film’s poster – Marilyn Monroe and Joseph Cotton. Essentially, Cotton’s character is a depressed man married to Monroe who is a femme fatale fitted with the customary ambiguous motives that tend to underpin most B-noirs. The film begins with a look at their disquieted dynamic — his uneasy mind and sadness, her adultery and wanting to be free of this sad sack —  before changing perspective and following the newlywed Cutlers, Polly (Jean Peters) and Ray (Max Showalter).

There isn’t much to say about this film other than Monroe was very well-cast as the murderous seductress and that everything else around her is pithy and derivative. There are a few twists and turns that you can see coming a mile away, the art direction looks exactly like art and not one bit captures Niagara Falls and there are multiple endings which drag out. It’s an exhausting watch at 90 minutes and the only reason it hasn’t faded into B-movie obscurity is because Marilyn Monroe is in it – and wrongly billed as a lead, might I add.

In watching Roman Holiday I finally crossed out that title from the short list of “greats” that I’ve yet to see. I’ve now seen six films directed by William Wyler and while each of them are quite good I’ve never quite regarded any of them as great – The Heiress coming closest but being stifled by the first two acts of de Havilland’s performance. The problem with Hawks – and it’s present here – is that he too often does nothing, meaning he doesn’t give the film any real flavor; no matter the quality of the script he shoots it with a relaxed focus. That’s the main problem with Roman Holiday – that it is exactly how you would envision it to be if you read the script and were told Gregory Peck would play the staunch newspaperman and Audrey Hepburn the caged bird escaping confine.

It’s pleasant, it’s certainly pleasant, and the performances are rather good. I have reservations about the set-up – particularly how Peck’s character doesn’t recognize Hepburn as Princess Anya that first night when she’s a global icon and he’s to have a one-on-one interview with her the following afternoon – and a few others minor things (how they elude police later on, etc.) but nothing that left me nonplussed and grouchy. Another annoyance I had with the film was how touristy it all felt; that Anya gets the enchanting and completely invigorating version of Rome despite deliberately attempting to keep out of plain sight and be recognized. This did stifle my enjoyment especially because I didn’t feel the magic in the chemistry that most first point to when specifying why they love it. However, this is mostly made up for by the great ending which was a given from the moment the plot is revealed, but the way it was handled was certainly wonderful and its implications resonant.

Generally regarded as the most beautiful film of all-time, Jean-Luc Godard’s Le mepris is exactly what you’d expect it to be. Outrageously beautiful? Check. Full of symbolism? Check. Experimental narrative? Check. Solid performances? Check. It isn’t definitive Godard — if you’re looking for something with thematic similarities, last year’s Blue Valentine does the jaundiced relationship thing far more impassioned, if far less artistically — but it is quite captivating nonetheless and certainly his most accessible to date.

If you’re looking for plot, turn the other way. As aforementioned, the narrative is experimental and in this case it’s a cyclical scenario with Homer’s The Odyssey being rewritten for the screen by Paul Javal (Michael Piccoli) which is the story that dictates the film’s own plot for the majority with the people involved with the film adaptation (the kindly Fritz Lang as himself, Jack Palance as the despotic producer) weaving themselves – be it intentionally or incidentally – into the Nouvelle Vague-Greek tragedy playing out between Paul and his wife Camille (Brigitte Bardot). This is made all the more noticeable and exhausting (good to put us where the main characters are at emotionally and psychologically) by the repetitive, yet gorgeous use of “Theme de Camille” by Georges Delerue – one of the most breathtaking original works ever put to film.

It isn’t all that easy to understand given how reliant on symbolism it is to make deeper points than the two obvious ones – “love can be difficult” and “filmmaking can be oppressive” – Godard puts forth through the main text. It’s astonishing on a technical level, but its story is not nearly as well-crafted.

I’ve seen Due Date three times now and damn is it funny. It is exactly what Planes, Trains and Automobiles but darker and more ridiculous in the final stretch. Basically it’s Robert Downey Jr. playing Abbott to Zach Galifianakis’ Costello – ye olde straight man/dopey man routine.

Basically there isn’t much to say about the plot past that because Zach Galifianakis does his off-kilter comedic routine — which can be simply described here as a more insightful take on what he did in The Hangover — and Robert Downey Jr. does his sardonic tongue-in-cheek thing with more vitriol; to the film’s benefit. It’s great until the final act where it structurally falls apart and becomes a wacky, lawless road film as opposed to two human forces colliding. The first two acts offer warmth and hatred; brief violence and shame; dramatic bits and “oh no they didn’t” moments. The final act has stolen cars, police chases, an abundance of violence and a plot twist that jeopardizes, if not completely compromises, how we feel about one of the main characters. All in all, it’s a very entertaining film with two great performances – and I mean great as in well-rounded and defined, not just in that they have good comic timing – that is let down by a stupid final act which isn’t uncommon with Todd Phillips’ films. Old School? Starsky and Hutch? You get the idea.

It says something about how iconic a film is when you watch it for the first time yet are able to sing along to almost every musical number. Singin In The Rain is great film, but it doesn’t quite have everything working in its favor. The story is particularly weak by juxtaposition to the visual flair, the very good performances and the unforgettable musical numbers. Particularly queer is the initial dynamic between central character Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) and aspiring actress Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds) who, at first, demeans the silent star by saying that he isn’t a real actor. Later she apologizes for that remark, but for no rational reason, so it conveys a feeling that the writers wanted a classic romantic arc to play out between Don and Kathy with her being hard to get and him being persistent and charming her. There’s really none of that here and it significantly weakens the romantic center at the center of the feature.

More curious than anything the feature itself affords is how disinterested the AMPAS seemed to be in regard to this film. Despite it not having an original song — all the songs were taken from musicals created in the approximate time period which the film plays out in — the film still only managed two nominations; best original score and best supporting actress for Jean Hagen who plays the shrill voiced silent star who is a nuisance for two acts and a villain for the finale (another problem the film has – its distinction between a good person and a bad one is far too black and white, erm, pun). If you didn’t know better, you’d be sure that this film would’ve landed nominations in each of the major categories because it is sweeping, large, beautiful and charming – or at the very least, you’d bet your life that it would have gotten nominated for art direction, cinematography and costume design – but this isn’t the case. You’d have to assume the film somehow offended people of the transition generation to be received so apathetically because the film hits every “award fodder” note along the way to its satisfying conclusion. It’s a delight, and even if the romance doesn’t hold up under any kind of scrutiny, the right intentions are all there and the cast exceeds at being absolutely entertaining – but none more so than Donald O’Connor.

Simply put – Marion Davies is one of the all-time great screen comediennes. Of course she did drama very well when her husband put up the big bucks and pushed her into heavily costumed productions, but her natural habitat always was wherever craziness reigned.For 78 minutes, The Patsy is pure and innocent lunacy and it marks not only Davies’ crowning personal achievement, but also the best film wherein she starred.

One of the most difficult things for an actress to do is believably portraying a very young woman when they themselves pushing thirty. Look at Kim Stanley’s turn in The Goddess – the emotion is all there, but the frequent references to how old her character is often kills whatever believability the actress produces and even then some of the scenes have her bonding with actors and actresses who are many years her minor, but yet it’s insinuated that they are her age equivalent peers. Obviously this doesn’t work and the whole film falls to shambles because of how unbelievable it all is on the most basic of levels. Here, while Davies is almost thirty herself, there are none of these curiosities because not only does she pine for a man who is in his mid-twenties, but she is able to convey that indelible innocuous charm of youth with just a bat of her eyes or slumping of her shoulders. As much as I love her and the film, my main criticism is that it’s clear her main bedfellow is conventional wisdom, which at the time for actresses playing young meant nuzzling up against very anti-feminist ideals and being, well, a soft, impressionable, destitute woman looking for a knight in shining armor. Here she is more in pursuit of the man than sitting back with her legs spread so there’s a real charm where they would normally be nuisance and like her contemporary Garbo, Davies has an innate ability to capture not only the heart of her audience but entice their mind with her drive. Essentially her performance can be divided into three parts as the film is divided into three acts: helpless and abused the way Cinderella was, loony and confused not knowing how to win a man, and sad once again; destitute, but sincerely longing. Each part of her performance – as is true with the film – is completely honest and never manipulative. Davies herself does a fantastic job sifting through the required emotions and hitting every note — as a silent star she was blessed with open and doe-y eyes perfect for winning any viewer over — as is true for the film… as long as you don’t question how sweet the final few minutes are and how it nonchalantly it redeems the bad actions imparted by the mother and sister figures.

Perhaps a bit puerile, but certainly of the finest quality. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it is a footnote in Davies’ career as it marks her great sense for the dramatic and brilliance as a comedienne in one shot, and if I may be bold, is the performance every aspiring actress should watch in order to learn how to be whimsical and femininely charming without succumbing to stereotype and falseness. One of the best performances by the greatest comedienne of all-time in one of the most enjoyable classics you’ll ever see.

Through the years, Joel Schumacher has earned a reputation as one of those directors for hire that aren’t particularly good at anything but assembling a solid collection of scenes. He cannot customize his style to fit any feature he directs — some would argue that he doesn’t even have a style which isn’t necessarily a bad thing  — so when he writes a mediocre script you cannot expect him to do anything more than what’s on the page. It was true with Tigerland, it was true with A Time To Kill and it was certainly true with Falling Down. His magnum opus has been – and I believe always will be – Phone Booth which had nothing to do with how he shot it and everything to do with Larry Cohen’s script. In fact, if I recall correctly all Schumacher really did was frantically edit the thing together with hopes to give it more tension as he does in all of his features which most directors do better anyway. The point I’m making is that when Joel Schumacher’s at the helm you’re probably getting a very lifeless version of whatever story he’s telling. So while Flawless isn’t particularly appetizing given its obvious conflict – a homophobic stroke victim seeks speech therapy from a drag queen – and its truculence in showcasing gay society – off-putting for how unflaggingly it displays them, there’s nothing recumbent about it or them at all – it’s made an all the more tiresome viewing because Schumacher does nothing of benefit to the material or the audience at large.

In addition, there is a subplot involving a ganglord looking for his money which not only kills whatever cadence the two great leading performers create, but also feels like a cheap way to pander to people who normally wouldn’t see a movie featuring a drag queen character. It never invokes a real sense of danger because of how poorly its drawn out — really it’s just one guy going around demanding his money and it takes up about 20-30 minutes of the total run time — and if it doesn’t completely feel like at attempt to win over the adamantly heterosexual male then it reeks of paltry contrivance so that our tragic characters can come together in the end and do something cool and satisfy the audience while in turn also reaching their individual journeys with great personal wealth.

Each of the supporting characters are either staunch cops that parallel the protagonist’s homophobic ideals, are hysterical or ostentatious drag queens/homosexuals, or are a kindly black physiotherapist whose ethnicity is pronounced by one of those staunch cops in one of the script’s many failed attempts at edgy humor. The personalities of the two main characters — Walt (Robert De Niro) and Rusty (Philip Seymour Hoffman) — are also only generally known due to predictable violent imparts and all-too-telling monologues. I’m sure it’s intentions are all in the right place, but Schumacher is certainly not the person to enlighten those with prejudice. A very monolithic endeavor that can only be recommended for Philip Seymour Hoffman’s accentuation of his character’s tragic qualities and for fans of Robert De Niro because although the clinical monologues stifle his naturalism, when he’s alone with the camera in his apartment and pensive, well, classic De Niro shines through.

When I went to bed (so at the wee hours of the morning) sometime last week, I threw TCM on because I like to do that. Usually whatever’s on at the time doesn’t appeal to me and I turn it off and sleep, but sometimes the film is actually quite good fun and I watch it to its conclusion. This wasn’t the case with The Little Minister, but I did give it an hour’s worth of my time because finishing it up on my computer because it wasn’t so much bad as it was enduring for a sleepless person.

The film starts with a young Gavin Dishart (John Beal) retreading through his hometown as their newly appointed reverend. From the get go it’s clear he has his principles and sticks to them no matter the inner stirrings it may cause in his parish. Soon he is enchanted by a gypsy woman (Katharine Hepburn) and his worldview grows as he experiences… dare I say it, love for the first time?

Now it doesn’t go so far as to address any interesting issues — like a man of the cloak falling in love as a serious matter of conflict because the story builds up in a very conventional way and seems rather carefree in its thoughts rather than staunch like its protagonist — but it is a sweet little film with a nice sense of Hollywood romanticism. The two leads offer up very good, and at times great, understanding of their roles and subsequently delight their audience with their homespun qualities. John Beal, who I had never heard of until this, has a great look to him that encourages viewers to read into his expressions more than you ought to,  and does the film a great favor by adding an interesting quality to what could have been a very boringly stoic man. Final thought: It’s always nice to see Hepburn before she became stuffy and monotonous.

There isn’t much to say about Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs that hasn’t been said. As you probably know, the 1971 cult (is it still?) classic about xenophobia and the vile ego of man inspired many films with its provocative nature (the “rape” scene, the final bloody act) and with its eerie composition that arranges the misc-en-scene in an ominous way by just managing quick juxtapositions really, really well and utilizing the broken down fields of rustic England to full effect. So technically it is well crafted and influential in that sense and facilitated what we regarded as avant-garde in the late 70s with Lynch’s Eraserhead and to this day with, say something like Ken Jacobs’ Razzle Dazzle. To me, though, this is where the film’s meaning both begins and ends, and personally, having seen Don’t Look Now a few months ago and having that comparison so ready, I feel its style was further refined and better wielded by Nicolas Roeg, so it’s great technical achievement simply won’t resonate with me. But I do respect it and that is essentially all which I respect from this film.

On a whole, the film is kind of misguided and far too ambiguous to say anything meaningful about racial hostility or really much of anything that it tries to say (I’m vague because I’m honestly perplexed in trying to remember anything on which it tried to start a dialogue) minus the various elements of the male ego. The driven, the bold, the need to win – you know, things that had been said time and time again before and time and time again since. Here, however, Peckinpah was bold enough to incorporate the male determination into something more archaic than it ever had been and it still packs a punch to this day – how could that bloody, bloody final act not? Even though that’s awash with little incongruities and characters making knee-jerk decisions that contradict what we had known of them beforehand. It’s an alright little thing that doesn’t quite have a point but alludes to a lot of things and tosses out a handful of provocative images to sort of give it this melange of human sadness, but it doesn’t amount to anything. What goes unsaid is often too unsaid — the intentions of the wife of bringing her husband up to the place (did she want him to prove his love for her knowing there’d be chaos or did she not know the danger?) — and what is blatantly stated are already things that most people (and most importantly for my opinion, I) know. Fine technical accomplishments, fine performances, very brazen at the time, but in retrospect its ultimately inconsequential and half-baked.


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