Two Prototypes: What Price Hollywood? (1932) and Stranger on the Third Floor (1940)

Prototype: a first, typical or preliminary model of something.

I’ve seen a boatload of old and foreign films recently but haven’t had the time to write about them. Yet when I notice a similarity between two films that don’t seem to have any outwardly, I like to note it. Both 1932’s What Price Hollywood? and 1940’s Stranger on the Third Floor are darn close to “first of a kind,” the earlier film the acknowledged forerunner for A Star is Born’s various incarnations, and the latter a lower-profile example of early film noir—perhaps the earliest example, depending on one’s definition.

In light of the new (2018) A Star is Born, there will be the inevitable comparisons between the new one and the “three” previous ones (1937, 1954, and 1976). But it’s clear that if you want to go back to the first rising star/falling star Hollywood story, you have to include What Price Hollywood? Even the famous line, “Hey, I just wanted to take another look at you” is straight from this film. The film made the “mistake” of separating the husband figure from the character that is on his way down, and conflated the two in subsequent versions. But in nearly every other way, the films are VERY similar, so much so that the film’s writers threatened to sue David O. Selznick (producer of this film and the first A Star is Born) over the similarities.

A few intriguing elements of the film: George Cukor directed, and it gives the lie to the rumor that Cukor was just a women’s director who specialized in sleek and elegant atmospheres. One, there is a dazzling montage sequence, one that seems derivative today, that shows the lead character’s rise to stardom with applauding hands, fireworks and theater marquees (thank you, IMDB, for helping me remember this). This was apparently the first of its kind, and that has been endlessly imitated since. Plus, the death scene near the end is handled with a creativity and experimental approach that the studios clearly moved away from in subsequent years.

The leads—Constance Bennett, Lowell Sherman, and silent star Neil Hamilton—are nearly all forgotten today except by film historians, and they are interesting today only because of other acting sisters (Bennett), the similarity between his role and his real life (Sherman), and because of his silent film cred (Hamilton). All are serviceable, and none stand out, expect when the script allows Bennett to show some grit. But make no mistake—this is the first version of A Star is Born. It just has a slightly different character mix and title.

Best friend and cinephile Clint Morgan, a big fan of cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca (Cat People and other Val Lewton films) mentioned that Musuraca was being honored on TCM, and perhaps I’d be interested in something of his I hadn’t seen. Stranger on the Third Floor was the choice, and it was more than worthwhile. It’s clearly a contender for the first noir. Some point to Double Indemnity (1944), and some point earlier to The Maltese Falcon (1941). Some even insist that 1941’s Citizen Kane can be seen in that light (pun intended). Since the definition is noir is so loose, all these options should be considered. But Stranger on the Third Floor should most definitely be part of the discussion, and actually viewing it just confirms its importance. According to George E. Turner, “[the film has all the elements of full-fledged noir, including moral ambiguity, hovering fear, menacing shadows and angular POVs, dark streets, precarious stairs, unexpected noises, the works.” (https://ascmag.com/articles/wrap-shot-the-stranger-on-the-third-floor-1940)

At just a few minutes more than an hour, it has a simple story and solid but grade B acting. Peter Lorre is given leading role credit, though that is misleading. He is in it for just a few minutes, but is integral to the story. Any view of his career needs to take this role seriously in an overview. Like an intense but serious Bill Murray, he always seems as if he were in another film altogether. That, along with the remnants of his M performance hanging over his character, works for the film and brings it up another level.

But what makes this a real noir precursor is Musuraca’s work, the mood of despair, and the semi-surrealist sequences that predated Hitchcock and Dali’s work in Spellbound by five years. Musuraca was nominated for an Oscar for his work on the popular and traditional 1944 I Remember Mama, but his contribution to film is his work in moody and atmospheric films, especially those with Lewton and on the incomparable Out of the Past. His work here is rich, with deep focus and strong black-and-white contrasts, clearly setting a visual precedent for the later noirs.

The atmosphere of doom that belongs to the genre is only partially present here, but when it arrives, it’s bracing and so very different from most films of the time. Then there are the German Expressionist flights of cinematic paranoia that are as surprising as they are intriguing and almost shocking.

Time is a great equalizer, and the films that deserve status as originals, or at least great influences, will eventually come to be recognized for their contributions. The better news here is that both films are worth watching.

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Mission: Impossible–Fallout

For my friend Steve:

Mission: Impossible—Fallout is the latest in the series that was rebooted with Tom Cruise way back in 1996, when the image of Cruise suspended above the floor grabbed the nation’s attention and helped kick-start the new series. Since then, the stunts have become more and more daring—with lots of ink spilled on the risks Cruise takes, always working to have the newest installment outdo the previous ones in daring-do.

In doing so, the balance of the action films has switched from espionage thrillers with some kicking action scenes with a soupçon of “How do they do that?” to now, where the plot provides the through line for a series of increasingly dangerous and nearly incredible action sequences and stunts that have a life of their own. These scenes are the equivalent of great song-and-dance numbers in a musical whose plot is nearly irrelevant. Yes, there is some kind of new mission involving double- and triple-crossing (at least), Angela Bassett is still too intense for most screens, and the world’s fate is once again in the balance.

Cruise is now in a league of his own with this film, that seals once and for all his outsized action pedigree. My film-knowledgeable brother believes he deserves a special Oscar for his amazing work in the series. I suggested a Lifetime Achievement Award, at least if future couch-jumping or Leah Remini don’t get him first. He’s a force of nature here, and he inspires a sense of thrill, wonder, and lastly, awe for the performer, which can take one out of the film at every such sequence. Fortunately, the film kept the sequences tied to the plot, and kept the action moving at such a place that the increasing implausibility is overridden by respect, near-astonishment, and adrenaline.

Cruise, also a producer of all the modern MI films, may well have peaked with this film. In his mid-50’s when this was filmed, Cruise is only human, after all, and his face is beginning to show the inevitable. That makes his action work all the more electrifying for now, but the series will suffer if the stunts get any crazier, with the inexorable focus on the star’s superhuman abilities over the story itself. This one keeps the story tight, the sequences just this side of credibility, and the other characters worth the watching.

This one is cast well, with one exception. The femme fatale (or is she?) is Vanessa Kirby, who played Princess Margaret in Netflix’s The Crown to great effect. Here she is smoky, sultry, and smart, and nails the necessary attitude and mystery. The “team,” now down to two, is a perfect couple to balance Cruise’s distancing coolness: Ving Rhames and Simon Pegg. They are both immensely appealing screen personalities, with Rhames pulling in the heavy action hero direction and Pegg always riding along on a strong comic persona (even in the more dramatic scenes). The pair succeeds in surrounding Cruise with a necessary amount of heft, humanity and humor to prevent him becoming too recessive a presence. Michelle Monaghan “acquits herself well,” shall we say, and Alec Baldwin nearly succeeds in transcending his comic persona and personal uneven reputation by playing it strong and straight. And lastly, on the good side, Rebecca Ferguson (who is all over the place these days), lends her own heft and solid acting skills to the mix, making a nearly unbelievable character come to life.

The only regrettable casting, unhappily, is Henry Cavill. He makes a great (and underrated) Superman, but he can’t seem to find a role that fits him as well as the Supersuit. At first, I was internally complimenting Cruise on allowing a taller, better looking and buffer actor to be in the same shot. But then Cavill’s character got introduced, and his early line readings reminded me of a good community theater presentation. The direction the film takes his character (spoiler alert) helps a little and gives him a little something more to work with. He’s a strong physical presence on film, and he makes a good action fighter, but he never nailed his character when it counted.

Comparisons have been made to the 007 series, which are legitimate. But the series are clearly two different cinematic animals. Perhaps the best shared aspect at the moment is the aging of its central character, which both series are now starting to address. Considering Cruise’s controlling nature and role as producer (where Daniel Craig is simply an actor), the references to advancing age and (heaven help us) its inescapable limitations may help the series. It might be smart to capitalize on Cruise’s advancing age as either a comic or humanizing thread, something to give some richness and additional leavening to the intensity of the plot and action, with less reliance on one-liners and irony.

The film is beautifully shot and intelligently edited. Christopher McQuarrie (Oscar winner for the screenplay of The Usual Suspects, released back in the year of the newly rebooted series) directed for the second time in the series, previously directing Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation. It’s only his fourth turn as director, with two other action films to his credits, Jack Reacher and The Way of the Gun. He clearly prizes action over performance and narrative plausibility, but these films are about neither. The film is slick, fast-moving, and is essentially a series of mouth-opening stunt sequences threaded together by a plot that had something to do with international intrigue and destroying most of the world…I think. In any event, it’s the joyride of the summer. There are twists and turns everywhere—in the plot, in the relationships, and with the action—that keep everything moving along. It barely holds all its disparate parts together, but it does. I’m sure I’ll see it again.

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Two French Classics: Lola Montès (1955) and Pépé le Moko (1937)

My new FilmStruck subscription (thank you, children) is giving me access to many older films that help fill in my cinematic gaps. Recently, I saw two French classics that couldn’t be more different from one another—Lola Montès (1955) and Pépé le Moko (1937).

Lola Montès is a huge Technicolor epic that was hailed, if only temporarily, by legendary writer and critic (and my professor at Columbia) Andrews Sarris as the greatest film ever made. To quote Renoir’s La Regle du Jeu (Rules of the Game), “tout le monde a ses raisons” (“everyone has his reasons”). Sarris was in love with the moving camera of Max Ophuls, Lola Montès’ director, and the sweep and mood of the piece. Sarris backed off from that claim not long after, but only to substitute another Ophuls masterwork, The Earrings of Madame de….

Lola Montès is ambitious in scope and seems to borrow its then-confusing flashback narrative style from 1941’s Citizen Kane, and can be seen as a forerunner of the kind of monetizing of one’s foibles and living in an embarrassingly public way that we find surrounding us today. The film is based upon the real exploits, trials and scandals of a woman who is a kind of 19-century combination of Forrest Gump and scandalous courtesan. Filmed in widescreen with high production values and in luscious Technicolor, the film is a feast for the eyes. What either works marvelously for the viewer or what alienates the viewer is one of two things.

First, the central conceit of the film narratively is that Lola’s life, and perhaps all our lives, is a circus act, with little reality and a great deal of cynical show. The circus framework can be seen to continually pull us out of the story of Lola’s life, and/or to reduce to inanity the exciting tale of a half-broken woman who exploits and is exploited by men. Perhaps the device was both too jarring and too ahead of its time.

The other problem is one that doesn’t change over time. It’s the rather dull and lifeless performance of Martine Carol, the early-50’s sexpot actress chosen to play the central character. While nearly all agree that her acting skills are limited, to be kind, some think the vacuity of her performance works for the film. It does so by presenting a rather dull figure in bright colors and fine costumes, in a context of dramatic historical events with some famous figures (Franz Liszt and King Ludwig I of Bavaria, to name two), which sets the title figure up to be both celebrated and denigrated in equal amounts, with perhaps a greater emphasis on the swirl about her than on Lola herself.

This argument is similar to those that look at Barry Lyndon and don’t find fault with Ryan O’Neal, but excuse the performance because O’Neal pretty much was a modern-day version of Lyndon. With a weak central performance, the viewer’s attention is put on the stunning look of the film, the camera movement, the costumes, and the quality of the performances around O’Neal. This is the case with Lola Montès, both in terms of acting talent and reputation. Apparently, Carol was a second-rate actress who had a similar reputation to that of her character, which might have brought something to a contemporaneous viewer, but which doesn’t resonate today. And when one is surrounded by Peter Ustinov, Anton Walbrook, and Oscar Werner, the contrast can be occasionally painful.

Yes, it’s Ophuls’ last film, and a masterpiece of imagery. But perhaps its most telling attribute will prove over time to be its then-shocking combination of narrative structure and attitude—not just the European coolness toward sexual mores, but the cynical and dismissive perspective toward a human life, even one billed—and hyped–as fascinating and scandalous. The reduction of a life, even one colored by important events and people, to a sumptuous but silly circus act was not of its time, and might even be considered controversial today.

The other film I saw was Pépé le Moko,a wonderful film that made its star Jean Gabin internationally famous. It’s a great performance with colors and shadings that is the highlight of the film. Gabin can perhaps be compared for Americans to Clark Gable in that they were both “salt of the earth” actors, but Gabin’s talent far outweighs Gable’s, and he is inescapably French, which may well, along with a difficult personality, have limited his chances at a major career outside his birth country.

The film was remade the next year in English as Algiers, and much of the American film is nearly shot-for-shot the same. That film starred a smoother and more Continental Charles Boyer, who didn’t have a machismo or power of Gabin. It also served as a platform for presenting Hedy Lamarr to the public, and her beauty and the film’s insistence on featuring that beauty made for quite a different film, as did Hollywood’s habit of smoothing out rough edges and glamorizing its sets and characters. Pépé le Moko moves much more quickly, both within scenes and from scene to scene, and features some stunning moving camerawork. In some ways it’s more like Gabin himself—rougher, faster, and more animalistic.

To answer the question many in my generation might have, yes, Pepé le Pew was based on this character, though specifically the more romantic Boyer version.

To see the two films back to back made for some obvious comparisons. Lola is definitely the better film but has a weak spot in the center. Pépé le Moko had a strong central performance, and solid work around Gabin. One film is grand and epic in scope, is set against thrilling historical events and people. and addresses the human condition. The other is a tight little thriller that author Graham Greene rightly said “rais[ed] the thriller to a poetic level,” creating a star overnight in Gabin. If you have to choose, go with the older Gabin film and see why he has a unique place in French film.

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Summer Fun: One good, one medium, and one piece of dreck

    Incredibles 2

Incredibles 2, a financial success and the longest animated feature film in history, is a good argument for not popping out a sequel right after the success of the first film. Fortunately, this film is more like a continuation than a sequel, and remakes rather than recycles the best parts of the first film. Emphases switch, focusing on Elastigirl rather than Mr. Incredible, and giving Jack-Jack a slowly developing role that delights with each revelation of his budding powers.

It hasn’t quite the edge of the first, with that film’s still politically incorrect exchange of Elastigirl saying “Everyone is special, Dash,” with Dash’s response of “That’s just another way of saying no one is,” and with the film’s blatant encouragement of viewing those with certain gifts as special. It also contained a blistering—and comic—send-up of the darkest aspects of insurance companies that still stings today. There are political asides in the new film that connect its early-1960s world with today, but aside from a “frustration with-new-math” thread that runs through the film, socio-political issues are softly alluded to in isolated moments rather than landing hard or being a part of a underlying theme.

The big switch of putting Mr. Incredible in the house and Elastigirl out battling the bad guys could either be seen as prescient, being an idea more than a decade old, or as a nearly cliché gender switch. There was enough strength in her character in the first film, and enough male buffoonery for his, however, to make this switch believable and a little less forced.

The film is funny, beautifully rendered (apart from the light sequence that theaters are warning those susceptible to seizures about), and builds on rather than repeats the structural and personal elements of the first film. It can’t have the pizzazz of the first film, whose strength was its originality combined with warm support for the traditional nuclear family. It also has a few too many action sequences that recall too many Marvel and DC moments. But it has its well-thought-out joys. Besides, any film that properly uses the word “conflates” as part of an impassioned exchange will always have a warm spot in my heart.

 .   Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

Then there is Jurassic World: Fallen World, which continues the argument of not rushing out sequels. Unlike Incredibles 2, this film gets most of the sequel aspects wrong. It retains the two leads, a good idea of course, as well as an always-bizarre appearance from Jeff Goldblum. But the film doesn’t do anything new, or even interesting, with the characters. It introduces some new ones, but only two are part of the central team, and they each threaten to be more of a stock than a real character throughout the movie. The movie bad guys signal their nefariousness a mile away, or appear full-blown wicked upon arrival, neither of which provides depth or surprise.

Figuring out how to make the sequel fresh was apparently too much for the creators. Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl had a believable switch in Incredibles 2. Here the switch is to make the dangerous creatures the object of pity and concern, a concept which is mangled and trampled upon as much as a stomping dino in a parking lot, especially at the confusing and wretched end of the film.

The film doesn’t know how to use the previous film’s strengths to its advantage. There is one dramatic dino-roar against an equally dramatic background, recalling earlier such images. But then we see it at least two more times. The first film in the series had us discover, along with the movie’s characters, the beauty of seeing these creatures for the first time, while also clearly admiring the special effects behind their creation. Here someone just talks about it, and the film denies us our own experience of the wonder of these beasts. It seems as if there were a series of boxes that needed to be ticked, and what we see is the compilation of those ticked boxes—the person who seems to escape but doesn’t! The sea monster that brings about a surprise death. The rolling ball. The big bad business guy (a cliché which Incredibles 2 actually turned on its head).

The only new character outside “the team” that we could care about is [spoiler alerts] a little girl who is woefully misused. She’s the One We Care About, because she’s young, cute, and in something of a tough position. But then she becomes something of a mystery, which [spoiler alert again] which is under-addressed and which coulda/shoulda become a central part of the film (which may well have made It stronger), but which is revealed and then undeveloped in the lamest manner possible. Finally, in something of a unexpected but welcome move at the end, the temporary surprise turns in a forehead-whacking moment that nearly drains the character of almost all of our built-up sympathies.

And the editing! What coulda/shoulda been seamless action sequences are divided up into separate pieces of film where the characters seem to be positioned in place and then told “Wait…wait…go!”—normal filming techniques. But then those pieces were put together with little respect for the flow of the action. Certainly normal people don’t wait so long before running away! A film like this needs all the believability that it can get, and film technique shouldn’t contribute to the problem.

The ending of the film only makes sense as a set-up for a sequel. Sigh. Bored.

   Rampage

This is easily one of the worst films I’ve ever seen. (If you’re never heard of it, count your blessings, and considered yourself warned—it’s coming out on video soon.) It looks bad, has an awful script, is consistently badly acted, and is completely unbelievable, even for its genre. Dwayne Johnson is bland, Oscar-nominated Naomie Harris is bland and wasted, and Malin Akerman is truly awful. (I don’t understand how she has a career, as the only palatable performance I’ve seen her in is Todd Strauss-Schulson’s underseen The Final Girls.)

ToWhy did I see such an awful movie? I was with my brother, a film-lover, as he was recuperating from a painful medical procedure, and we saw three movies in three days to get him distracted. We saw a couple of good ones, and then thought this would be dumb fun. We were half right. But we decided to redeem it in our memories by harking back to an infinitely better film—Casablanca. From now on, “We’ll always have Rampage”!

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Two Audrey Hepburn Films: Roman Holiday and The Nun’s Story

Enough time has passed that many filmgoers today have only barely heard of one of the biggest starts of the middle of the last century, and one of the most sparkling and engaging presences in all film history. There was no one like Audrey Hepburn, and I was reminded of her unique appeal and talents in seeing two of her greatest films.

Roman Holiday (1953) of course, was Hepburn’s first lead and first American film, and it won her the Oscar for Best Actress. The competition wasn’t particular stiff that year, but nothing stood out like Hepburn, exploding on the scene from apparently nowhere. She was charming, delightful, funny, and when necessary, regal. The film, also starring Gregory Peck and directed by the great director William Wyler, stands up in more ways than her performance. It won the Oscar for Best Writing/Motion Picture Story, which was written by blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo (that’s another story) and for Edith Head’s costumes. But it was also nominated for seven other Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Eddie Albert for Supporting Actor Eddie Albert, for a performance that may well have been his best. It’s a little slow by today’s standards, but the story moves along, buoyed especially by that then-fresh screen presence.

The film is also known for its locations all over Rome, and for one scene of unplanned laughter that made Hepburn an overnight star in the same way that Pretty Woman made Julia Roberts a star nearly 40 years later when Richard Gere snapped a jewelry case on her fingers.

Peck was a good 13 years older than Hepburn, but the romance is believable (though the film skirts some of the edges of the Production Code). Some of Hepburn’s early scenes seem a bit overplayed, but for most of the film she is a revelation. It must have been shocking to see a virtual unknown, looking unlike any other female star of the time (think Marilyn Monroe for contrast), completely owning a major film opposite one of the biggest male stars of the time.

[Spoiler alert.] One of the surprises when I first saw it years ago was the ending. When I was young, I was disappointed. Now it makes complete sense, and any other ending would have been illogical.

One of the best topics in my film class is the topic of stardom, and what makes a star. There are certain stories of star build-up in film history, and descriptions of certain attributes that critics try (in vain, I believe) to attach to stars to attempt to understand what makes a star. My take is that it is very often individual in nature as well as a mystery. But for those who believe they know a star when they see one, Roman Holiday is a delightful necessity.

The Nun’s Story is as different from Roman Holiday as was possible in Hollywood of the ‘50s. It’s completely serious and anything but light, and has the scope of the great epics of that time. It’s based on the true story of a Belgian nun who leaves her old life for the convent and faces great challenges internally and in her various assignments. The most time is spent with her in the Belgian Congo (on location), especially with Dr. Fortunai (Peter Finch), a brilliant and atheistic doctor with keen insight and a sharp tongue. Hepburn’s Sister Luke is every bit his equal in intelligence and quick wit, and the verbal jousting between them is the highlight of the film, though the subtle sexual tension between the two is considered to be a screenwriter’s invention.

The film is largely forgotten today, and at two-and-a-half hours and with a v-e-r-y slow first half, can be a challenge to modern moviegoers. But at the time, it was nominated for eight Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director (Fred Zinnemann, of High Noon, From Here to Eternity and A Man for All Seasons), and Best Actress for Hepburn. It ended up with none, though the picture and Hepburn won the New York Film Critics Circle Awards in their categories. Hepburn expanded her already sizable reputation as an actress with this performance, one that dug deep and bore no resemblance to her more romantic work earlier in the decade. Ironically, the film was thought to be a poor financial risk, and it was only when Hepburn expressed interest that the film was able to be produced. It turned out to be a great success.

That slow first half is going to prove the downfall of many who try to see the film. But it is a classic example of either asking a film to entertain you, or allowing yourself to give yourself over to a film and let it draw you in. The first half contains many scenes of life as a novitiate and later, a nun. The pacing is glacial by today’s standards, but it is a demonstration of a different kind of life, with different values and different challenges. It also functions as the context in which to view the rest of the film. Considering what comes after, it is well worth the experience.

Aside from Hepburn and Finch, both doing excellent work, the film features Dean Jagger and five powerhouse actresses: Edith Evans, Peggy Ashcroft, Mildred Dunnock, Beatrice Straight, and Patricia Collinge. That’s what is known as an embarrassment of riches.

When it comes to Hepburn, what can one recommend first? The classic suspense thriller with that gut-grabbing moment, Wait Until Dark? Or the romantic triangle of Sabrina? The cool play-by-play with Cary Grant in Charade? Or the influential Breakfast at Tiffany’s, where Hepburn plays against whatever “type” means. And that doesn’t even cover My Fair Lady, Two for the Road, or War and Peace.

Her first, Roman Holiday, is the best introduction for those unfamiliar with her work. The viewer can taste something of the experience the world had in seeing her for the first time. After that, try The Nun’s Story for something completely different, and then having seen her range, enjoy as many of the others as you can find.

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The 15:17 to Paris

Clint Eastwood’s most recent film came and went rather quickly, and was nowhere near the success of either Sully or American Sniper. There are many reasons for that, but also several reasons to see the film in spite of its weaknesses.

As I began watching the film, my heart sank as I began to think that this was another example of a film based on a fascinating and dramatic event that should have been as dramatically interesting as its real life foundation but wasn’t. Yet the film had “good enough” production values to prevent the great story behind it from being filmed again any time soon, in some respects “burying” this great story inside a mediocre film. Yet…

Of course, the event in question is the true tale of the three brave American friends who stopped a potentially devastating terror attack on a train in France in summer 2015. Devastating in this case meant 270 rounds of ammunition and several different kinds of guns and a radical on a mission. The bravery of the three men in stopping the attack is unquestionable and unquestionably dramatic. So is the fact that the three shared a nearly lifelong friendship in spite of significant personality differences before this event brought them even closer together. It had all the possibilities of being a film like Sully. It isn’t. Yet…

The two biggest problems are the script and the acting. The script seems to want to follow a kind of Slumdog Millionaire route of connecting events and thoughts prior to the “big event” as little more than preparation for that event. In some ways, that is part of the story’s power. But the script makes the connections painfully obvious and literal. The dialogue is also stilted and unbelievable at times, striking at the core of reality that Eastwood seems to be wanting to create. The structure of beginning to cut into the final event throughout the film, though, is a strength, and keeps reminding the viewer of where we’re going with all of this.

Much has been made of the fact that the three adult leads are being played by the three real heroes themselves. That’s not the central acting problem, however, as limited as they are as non-actors (though at least one looks like a Hollywood actor). The acting of the three children playing them as school age and the adults playing their parents is as awkward as the acting of the non-professionals in Gran Torino. And this includes Judy Greer and Jenna Fischer! The level of performance is somewhere between high school and college. And then having Thomas (“Reno 911!”) Lennon, Jaleel (Steve Urkel in “Family Matters”) White, and Tony (“Arrested Development)” Hale be part of the staff at their middle school temporarily turns the film on its head by taking the viewer out of the film time and time again—and toward comedy, no less? What was the great man thinking? Yet…

Once the three actual heroes take over the film as adults, however, we shift into another gear, once that combines a dramatic film with a documentary using a series of reenactments. It’s an odd mixture, but if you are engaged at that point, it works. The three have natural charm, the camaraderie is easygoing, and we as viewers keep telling ourselves that the acting isn’t all that bad after all.

Once they board the train, suspense builds (safely—after all, we know what happens) and the film suddenly pulls together all its raggedy pieces. The attack is furious and wild and looks as awkward as it likely was. And dramatically, of course, it brings a culmination to everything before it—the friends’ closeness, their military and medical training, and of course, the idea that something was “catapulting” them toward some unknown event, now known. Perhaps the most effective non-actor acting was the (spoiler alert) man shot by the terrorist, and his life-and-death struggle. The man playing the wounded man was the man wounded himself, and the wife was played by, yes, his wife. This is just as dramatic in its own way as the attack itself, as we don’t know for a long while if he will live or die, and if Anthony’s medical background is enough for the situation.

At this point, the film is all about the attack, the successful events to stop it, the efforts to save a possibly dying man, and the awarding of all this bravery by the French, and later, by the Americans. Here is where the story finally dominates the filmmaking, and it ends on a satisfying emotional note.

The film seems something of a rush job by Eastwood, and it pales in comparison to his previous two. Those films had some good (Sully) and excellent (American Sniper) acting, and good (Sully) and excellent (American Sniper) scripts. Aside from the action on the train, the care doesn’t seem to be there. Lucky for the film and the viewer, however, that action comes at the end, and the lackluster early scenes and pleasant but aimless middle scenes are apt to be forgotten. Ultimately, this is a film that those interested in the main event may well find worthwhile. But it’s also a film most viewers will only see once.

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A Quiet Place

Image result for a quiet placeEvery so often a small, focused, even intimate film comes by and reminds us that not every film has to have CGI as a foundation, has to be loud, or needs to address the horrors of the contemporary political landscape. Wisely released as a counter to the latest Avengers film, A Quiet Place is a surprisingly good piece of work. Marketed primarily as a horror story, it is much more than that, and all the better for it.

Yes, the premise is a horror premise, but the situation is more of a MacGuffin than in other similar films. We have a post-apocalyptic world (thank God I didn’t have to write the word dystopian one more time) taken over by creatures that can’t see but have over-sensitive hearing and that can destroy you in no time if you make too much noise. It’s a spin on the usual horror set-up, and while we never forget the vulnerability of our main characters, there are other explorations that elevate the film far above the usual horror fare.

There will likely be many a master’s thesis written about the place of sound and noise in the film. Yes, these dangerous creatures force silence or at least a greatly reduced noise volume, and that sets up the world in which the film operates. But the presence of Millicent Simmons (Wonderstruck), a young actress deaf since infancy, does more than help explain how the family could know sign language so well. Her character’s deafness plays naturally into the film and should be a treasure trove for those analyzing the role of silence and sound in film, as well as the role of deafness in cinema. Simmons also happens to be a talented actress and is well poised to be this generation’s Marlee Matlin.

Probably the strongest theme, however, has nothing to do with horror tropes. It’s family, and this is where A Quiet Place may well become a classic. As nearly everyone knows, director/lead actor/co-writer of the script John Krasinski and lead actress Emily Blunt are man and wife in real life as well as in this film. Looking for how their real-life relationship and their filmic one might cross into each other may be an absorbing topic for some. For me, it’s obvious that the love and respect they have for one another informs this movie couple with a high degree of connection and affection. There is a tenderness and protectiveness on both their parts that make this a new kind of “family film”.

The couple’s scene dancing to music they can both hear (no more said about that here) is one of the most touching marital moments in recent cinema. It’s a kind of stolen moment in the midst of constant tension, and it’s lovely to behold. There is a connection between the two leads that serves the film well as they struggle to keep their children safe, constantly having to connect quickly and deeply with one another to avoid harm to themselves or their children. They “go there” quickly and believably, strengthening the film at every turn.

Everyone knows that Blunt is a greatly talented actress, and some of us look forward to her improving her craft even more over the years. Krasinski, though, was a revelation. Known mostly for television’s “The Office” and for lighter and even comedic roles outside of television, here he puts in a fleshed-out dramatic performance that necessarily has to keep the drama to a minimum. He is my new favorite movie dad—strong, caring, self-sacrificial, and equal parts accessible and softly confident. He’s also not just playing the character; he’s settling comfortably into it, making the unbelievable premise that much more believable. This is a man who loves his wife and children, understands that even in this crazy world they inhabit that he needs to connect differently with each child, and is a hero that never acts like one.

Of course, Krasinski also directed the film, which has made ten times its budget domestically alone (as of this writing). To call this a surprise hit is likely the understatement of the year. It will be fascinating to see what he does next. Here he has crafted a film based on something of an absurdity, and has made it tense from the word go, only giving occasional moments of respite, and filled with solid performances and camerawork that keeps the focus on the family and the relatively small world in which it’s trapped. There is one cliché move borrowed from every other suspense/horror film that works in context, but was ultimately a small disappointment. Yet as a whole, the film was a small cinematic jewel.

Yes, it’s a horror film with more than enough tension for a few films. But it’s also a film about sound, about silence, and most of all, about family. Some films, especially those released around the end-of-the-year holidays, have family as a theme. Krasinski has made a film about family that happens to be hidden under the cloak of horror. Go for the thrills; stay for the beautiful picture of what a family can be.

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