A Star is Born (2018)

In film school, we learned that one of the most intriguing of artistic collisions is when a strong auteur director with a signature style decides to take on a genre with its own rigorous formulaic demands. The result is usually something unique, combining the elements of both director and genre while demonstrating what happens when the two collide.

 

The story of A Star is Born is its own genre at this point, and its various versions are worthy of study not only as films in themselves, but as reflections of their creators and the times in which the films were created. To me, this is the fifth telling of the tale, not the fourth, as the first in my mind is 1932’s What Price Hollywood?, directed by George Cukor, whose only major difference is that it separated the love interest and the character with the failing career, while the subsequent versions combined the two. (See https://film-prof.com/2018/09/25/two-prototypes-what-price-hollywood-1932-and-stranger-on-the-third-floor-1940/)

Since 1954’s version with Judy Garland (also directed by Cukor), the films have all been musicals, or at least dramas with a great deal of music. The current version is no exception, of course, featuring a surprising tour-de-force performance by Lady Gaga as Ally, and an unsurprising great performance by director/co-writer/star Bradley Cooper as Jack. The film is beautiful to look at, intense, and occasionally confusing.

Watching the film just for the performances is a worthwhile venture, as the two leads bite into their roles with energy, not quite chewing the scenery, but not holding back, either. They are joined by Sam Elliott, a sure-fire Oscar nominee, for a solid and grounding performance that provides some needed real-world perspective in this crazy arena of famous musical artists. Gaga, of course, is the big revelation, and she gives herself over completely to the role with all its ups, down, joys, and disappointments. Cooper has dug out a new basement-low voice for himself in both singing and speaking, and reminds us again that this is one of our best actors, with an astonishing range and now, solid musical chops on display. He and Gaga contributed to the writing of the majority of the songs, but the songs feel natural to the characters and don’t come off as a second-rate vanity effort.

As a director, Cooper is certainly an actor’s director, but he succeeds in keeping this a story of people relating to people, even as it’s set against the world of huge concert venues and a heartless and often soulless music world. Cooper keeps the focus on Gaga and his character’s relationship with her, never letting the film get sidetracked or overwhelmed by other concerns.

The film hits all the required notes (pun intended), from the tagline of “I just wanted to take another look at you” to the embarrassing awards ceremony to the tragic end. What’s going to be the center of study for a while are the differences between this version and the previous incarnations. Perhaps as a nod to the singer’s earlier audiences, Gaga’s character Ally is introduced to us musically in a drag club. The film does its best to ease that into the plot, but it seems a little forced. What is occasionally perplexing is the film’s view of Ally’s musical directions once she becomes famous. Are we to go along with all the dancing, lights and costumes? Ally seems to have dancers imposed on her at the start of her rise, then drops them (and we applaud), then brings them back as she becomes a better version of Britney Spears. Just when we might go along with Jack’s negative reaction to all the glitz and noise, he is just arriving at his jerk phase, and he comes across as one who’s beginning to lose it than one who might legitimately object as a musical artist.

In keeping with the times, there are dozens and dozens of f-bombs (this is not a film for children and many young folks), even a few more than might be considered natural in this environment. And then there is one very quick shot that wins the award for the most gratuitous piece of nudity in any film this decade.

While the 1976 version of A Star is Born with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson is widely considered the weakest of the named versions, this one contends with the 1937 and 1954 versions for consideration as the best. The differences between the two earliest named versions are significant enough that a ranking of one over the other comes down primarily to taste and preference. The same can be said of this one. The leads in all three films are great, the films speak to their times, and at least in this version and the 1954 version, there is an element of surprise, here with Gaga and there with Garland’s stellar adult performance. The differences ultimately arise from the actors, the directors and the times. Comparing is fun, but in terms of determining a best, ultimately a joyful futility.

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Green Book

Note: It’s been a long time since my last entry. Apologies. I’ve seen many an older, classic film, but no films in the theater. Yes, it’s been that busy. The older films I saw deserve their own entry, but an entry for an old film takes as long as an entry from a newer one.

I feel more of a reviewer than a serious film writer when I write about Green Book. It’s the feel-good film of the season, and (spoiler alert) since it ends at Christmas, can conceivably be considered something of a Christmas film.

The film itself is middle of the road, and a bit paint-by-numbers. It’s the story of a talented black pianist, great as a solo act but financially successful as part of a trio, who engages a dees-dem-dose Italian guy from Brooklyn to drive him on his next tour—one that will take him to the deep South. Once you hear this, and know that the time is 1962, nearly any adult could map out what might happen. And it does. But it doesn’t really matter that much.

A film like this stands or falls on its performances, and this is where the film most succeeds. Viggo Mortensen, a Danish-American actor who is probably best known for playing Aragon in the LOTR films, veers far from his normal stick-thin film character to play this version of the overweight Tony Danza Italian-American. The film doesn’t ask Mortensen for much more than believability here, but he supplies it with a performance that first nails the character, then enriches it with the occasional emotional detail; his great success is transcending all the clichés which could so easily could have dulled this character.

Mahershala Ali (House of Cards, Moonlight) plays the polished, half-isolated musician who doesn’t feel at home anywhere. Of course he’s the perfect balance to Mortensen’s earthy, street-wise sauce-and-pasta kind of guy. To say more is to sound cliché, but also to give away too much. Each learns from the other, which viewers can see from a mile away, but that process is fortunately linked to the great chemistry between the two actors and characters.

Holding these two together beyond the plot is Linda Cardellini, who plays Tony’s (Mortensen’s) wife Dolores. Cardellini is an underused American treasure who brings her A game to a small part, and is really the third solid performance of the film. She is woven into the plot as the two go on the road, and it’s a smart screenplay idea to keep her in our minds as the two men travel.

Every racial situation you can think of is addressed, usually in a way consistent with the film’s PG-13 rating, the spoonful of sugar that makes the social-comment medicine go down. Again, though, this is a writer’s success when the focus needs to be on the two main characters and their evolving relationship. This isn’t a film about racism; it’s about two people connecting, growing, and learning in the context of a tour that takes an effete black male boss and a prejudiced white male employee through the Jim Crow south.

Though the inevitable racial conflicts are uncomfortable, perhaps the most disturbing element is the existence of the Green Book (full name: The Negro Motorist Green Book) itself—a guide to the black traveler to the most welcoming (or perhaps more accurately, the least unwelcoming) hotels, service areas, and restaurants. With all the “normal” conflicts presented in the film, perhaps the very existence of the Green Book is the greatest social service the film provides, and the one for which the film may be best remembered.

The film is, with all its all-too-obvious racial encounters, is primarily a warm, lightly funny buddy movie in the context of a road trip. Not challenging, but quite enjoyable.

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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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