No Time to Die

The last James Bond film starring Daniel Craig will probably best be remembered as simply his last Bond film. As a film, it’s way too long, and has too many featured characters, especially when it comes to “Bond girls” and “Bond villains”. The film is gorgeous to look at, and the action sequences, while sharing about the same level of believability as Marvel sequences, are exciting even when they defy every law of gravity and physics.

As Bond, Craig (admittedly my favorite Bond) has recalibrated the famous British agent, and has reminded us that he is supposed to be “a blunt instrument.” He reformulated the character so much, and yet dominated the scene for so long (five films) that the Broccoli family can now pretty much go in any direction they want to for the next phase. Also—spoiler alert, bigtime—his death at the end obviously opens things up for new directions.

This is a film that seeks to tie up every loose end possible. The Bond that loved and lost Vesper (Eva Green) now finishes up his romantic connections with Léa Seydoux’s Madeleine. The film uses the relationship not only to broaden our Bond emotionally, but also to motivate Bond to make the final decisions he selflessly makes to wrap up the plot. The film also gives Craig the gift of several emotional scenes, many done in close-up, to remind viewers and producers that he is more than just an action hero and has plenty of years left of his career. (Note: Knives Out 2 and 3 are currently in various stages of production.) Other than these scenes, there isn’t much new to Bond here, and as much as I admire Craig, he seems to be hitting the age ceiling for Bond in the film, and he isn’t used to his best as he is rushed from scene to scene to scene. Bond’s humor, a key element in the series’ success, was almost nowhere in sight; there was a quick “one-liner” in the middle of a fight that half the audience could see coming and was too sophomoric for a film like this; I felt bad for Craig having to say it.

Seydoux is an accomplished French actress with a respectable lists of film credits, and she brings a steely strength combined with a personal warmth that is needed for Bond’s love interest and (another spoiler alert) possibly the mother of his child. She also makes a good action heroine…which only make Ana de Armas’s presence as the slinky Paloma all the more confusing. Paloma is the sexy Bond girl the film apparently thinks it needs, but she appears and then disappears out of nowhere, and any promise she brings to the film is frustrated by her quick exit.

Equally as frustrating and head-scratching are the two villains. Oscar-winning actors Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody) and Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained) play the two bad guys, but the latter has almost no screen time. That’s regrettable, as he has much more screen presence even in his short scene than Malek, and makes a stronger villain. Malik’s Safin is underexplained, undermotivated, and underplayed…and not very interesting.  

Fortunately, the overstuffed film brings back some old favorites that each could have/should have had more time: Ben Whishaw’s Q, Naomie Harris’s Moneypenny, Jeffrey Wrights’ Felix Leiter, and Ralph Fiennes’ M. Getting rid of one sexy female and one villain, and giving us more time with these four, would have combined to make a stronger film.

Craig, even with less to do here, still makes for a compelling agent, and in some ways the film is a good send-off for him and his version of 007. There is (spoiler) another 007 in the mix here, but the less said about her the better, and we can only hope that this is not the future 007 that the franchise will present. The Scarlett O-Hara-like search and discussions for the new “Bond” are currently underway, but if the franchise sticks to history, we’ll all be surprised.

No Time to Die should be seen in theaters to fully appreciate its stunning locations and action sequences. It’s far too long and something of an overpacked and confusing mess, but it’s the last in an important phase of the series, and for that reason, is a must-see for Bond and action fans alike.

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Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

If Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Avatar had a baby, it would be something like Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (hereafter referred to simply as Shang-Chi). Not being a particular Marvel fanboy, but being interested in how Marvel studiously lays out their universe and the superheroes therein, I can say easily that Shang-Chi does its job. And that is introducing a new-to-most-of-us hero that will join the others. Like Black Widow, it’s an origin story, but of someone who has (spoiler alert) passed away. Unlike Black Widow, we are being introduced to a character who will likely join the rest of the Marvel cast soon. With the film’s economic and critical success, Marvel clearly has another hero who can join the others or support a film of his own.

The film follows the usual path of a background set-up, a shocking revelation of who our hero really is, the fish-out-of-water adjustment, and then far too many fights. Fortunately, they mix things up a bit. The first part of the film moves along quickly, setting out the world of San Francisco, and the rather rudderless lives of two folks who park cars for a living. This simple fact does double duty by demonstrating how very stuck the two are in dead-end jobs, and also by laying the groundwork for some superior stunt driving later. Just enough time is spent here to establish the world of our two main protagonists, including the conflicts of cultural expectations and language.

There are loads of flashbacks that probably overtell the tale of Sean’s (Shang-Chi’s) birth and spiritual heritage. There is a huge improbability at the heart of how Shang-Chi’s parents get together, but hey, none of this is real anyway. But the fight scenes there and in the main story of the film are quite beautiful and are a fresh mix of Crouching Tiger, The Matrix, and the standard Marvel fight scenes. There is a beauty and an elegance that is rare in the Marvel universe (and non-existent in DC’s). The only gripe I have here is that the two dragons fighting at the end–one “good” and one “bad,” are occasionally hard to differentiate when they are fighting one-on-one.

Certainly this film is both introducing an Asian superhero and simultaneously aiming at a greater Asian slice of the pie. To do that, it often has to thread a narrow path of pandering on one side and a dangerous cultural appropriation on the other. Haters will hate, of course, but the film manages a mix of humor, mysticism, family tensions, and actions that usually works. There is little that is offensive unless one is looking for it, and that is because of its safe mix of a gently laid out story and its comfortable leads.

Canadian actor Simu Liu is the eponymous lead, and he’s a good choice. In the beginning, he is relatable and easy as the car-parking millennial, not something every actor playing a superhero can pull off He has quite the arc to demonstrate as the film continues, but as he takes on his real identity, he becomes visibly more confident, until he (spoiler) is believable facing off with his father. I could see him acting a few times, but for the most part, he is an Everyman the audience can easily connect with.

Comic relief is supplied at first by Awkwafina, so good in a similar way in Crazy Rich Asians. It wasn’t always the smoothest of performances, but that could as easily be attributed to the challenge of such a comic character in a generally serious superhero film as well as the actress. More comic energy comes from Sir Ben Kingsley, who will always be known for his Oscar-winning turn in Gandhi, as well as his roles in Schindler’s List and House of Sand and Fog. Here he brings back his Iron Man 3 role of Trevor Slattery, and pretty much steals every scene he’s in. He’s almost in another cinematic space here, as Bill Murray often is in his films, but he manages to build on what Awkwafina has provided him in the earlier part of the film and simply stretches the film in his comic direction.

Two legends add weight and legitimacy to the story: Michelle Yeoh and Tony Leung. Yeoh, a Malaysian actress known to most of us today as the rather strict mother of Henry Golding’s character in Crazy Rich Asians, was the lead in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon way back in 2000 after a successful career in Hong Kong action films. Here she is Shang-Chi’s aunt, and her mere presence and strong persona bring a gravitas and authority that connects this film to so many others she has been a part of, providing innumerable resonances of culture and action.

The other legend is Tony Leung, here making his first American film. The film needed a strong presence to play Shang-Chi’s father, Xu Wenwu, and Leung brings it in spades. Unfortunately, the role is the least clearly written in the film, and at times only Leung’s acting abilities can distract the viewer from the confusion about his character and motivations.

Like a good sequel (which this isn’t), Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is the same but different. It belongs to a Marvel universe that it manages to extend and re-create so it can fit in, and it brings in Asian characters and story elements that open whole new fruitful opportunities for the Marvel universe. Yes, it’s a great problem-solver for Marvel, but it’s also chockful of nerd bait for some and simply enjoyable filmmaking for the rest of us.

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The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Les parapluies de Cherbourg) (French, 1964)

DNow is probably the right time to take a first or second look at The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. There is nothing else like it, not even writer-director Jacques Demy’s next film, The Young Girls of Rochefort, and that one starred not only French legends Catherine Deneuve and her sister Francoise Dorléac, but other French legends Danielle Darrieux and Michel Piccoli, AND Oscar winners George Chakiris (West Side Story) and Gene Kelly. Yes, that’s quite the cast, and it’s an incredible film. Yet there is nothing quite like Umbrellas.

Film Night: Umbrellas of Cherbourg – Huguenot Museum
Catherine Deneuve and Nino Castelnuovo in Les Parapluies de Cherbourg

Umbrellas is an obvious homage to the golden age of the American musical, with its slightly heightened emotions and colorful costumes and sets. But it’s not a satire like Singin’ in the Rain; it’s a love letter and a tribute that takes subjects and themes to another level. It’s completely sung-through, which in the mid-‘60s could have been distancing, but now after Les Misérables, Phantom of the Opera and even the more recent Annette, it’s not such a strange thing. It almost feels comfortable.

The story could be described as thin (no spoilers here), but where it goes is unlike any classic American musical you could think of. It’s tender, and almost heartbreaking (and perhaps not “almost” for some viewers). It resolves its narrative well and clearly, but the attendant emotions are complex and could be considered contradictory. The film addresses issues of love, first love, money, time, sacrifice, compromise, wisdom, sex, marriage, yearning, and regret—all wrapped up in a pastel bow. That’s not exactly a list of subjects addressed by classic American musicals.

The film is a technical marvel and has nary a misstep in its cinematography. The blocking of actors and the movement of the camera is so on point that you don’t even notice it; the movie just keeps rolling along. The music is extraordinary—imagine a completely sung-through film with no major songs. No one stops to sing a number. There is, however, a theme song, called “Je ne pourrai jamais vivre sans toi” and known as “I Will Wait for You” in English. It was pulled out as a discrete song and was nominated for Best Song (more on that later), but in the film, it’s a theme that appears at several moments. Suffice it to say that the music, by legendary Michel Legrand (Oscars for “The Windmills of Your Mind” from The Thomas Crown Affair and the score of Summer of ’42 and Yentl) never dominates the acting or the imagery, but is perfectly paired with both. (Note: This theme, and even the “single song” version of it, is one of the most haunting, evocative, stirring pieces of music ever written for a film. Just try to get it to leave your head, or your heart, for several days after viewing.)

Even the lip-synching is extraordinary. Real singers such as Jeanette MacDonald and Judy Garland liked to genuinely sing along with their recorded voices when filming to look as if their characters were singing what we were hearing. The “gold standard” for synching while singing to someone else’s voice, in my view, is Marion Cotillard in La Vie en Rose, but there she needed to look like she was channeling Edith Piaf as a performer. Here the synching is softer and subtler, looking as if it existed in a world where everyone easily and simply sings his/her words. I couldn’t find one instance of bad lip-synching, and that’s something of a successful tightrope walk in a film that needs to get a lot of things right at the same time.

The film is certainly famous in its own right, but it was also the star-making vehicle for the soon-to-be French legend Catherine Deneuve. Deneuve had been acting for a few years and was famous/infamous for having lived with and having a child with “bad boy” film director Roger Vadim (she came in after wife #1 Brigitte Bardot and before wife #3 Jane Fonda), having moved in with him at the age of 16. This was her breakout role, and it’s easy to see why. For one, she is breathtakingly beautiful, a topic which has been much noted and written about, but she is also sweet and tender and believable as a naïve, love-struck teen. Deneuve was later known as an ice queen, and you can see the coldness creeping into her performance in the last scene. But for the most part, her performance is touching, heartfelt, and light

TheUmbrellasofCherbourgLessonstoLearn

Director Jacques Demy, a “not quite” New Wave director, liked to have characters in one film appear in another. Here his early Lola (1961) character Roland Cassard, played by Marc Michel, appears in this film in an important role. Demy kept directing after Umbrellas, doing some interesting and experimental work, but he never achieved the artistic and commercial success of this film. Most serious film students will recognize, perhaps with surprise, the name of his wife, New Wave legend writer-director Agnès Varda, the only female director to have been awarded an honorary Oscar for her work. (Demy passed away in 1990, and Varda lived another 29 years.)

The film’s connection with the Oscars isn’t unique, but belongs to a handful of films that made the list two years in a row. It was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film in the 1964 Academy race, losing to Vittoria DeSica’s Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow. In 1965, it was apparently eligible in all categories, and gathered five nominations for the music and the writing. It didn’t win any, but this was the year of The Sound of Music and Dr. Zhivago.

If you’re reading this and haven’t yet seen The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, try to fill that gap in your film experience. It has references to a lot of other films, especially in its use of music, color, and production values. But no one has been able to succeed as well as Demy has in blending all these elements into such a delicate but heart-wrenching soufflé. It’s lovely to look at, a joy to listen to, and manages an emotional, quiet gut punch at the same time.

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Broadway Melody of 1936 (1935)

Broadway Melody of 1936 is the second of four Broadway Melody films. The first, simply called The Broadway Melody (1929) is likely the most famous, as it was the first musical and first sound film to win Best Picture. It was also M-G-M’s first all-talking picture, the studio’s first musical, and the highest grossing film of the year. It introduced classics often repeated throughout the series (and later, in Singin’ in the Rain), such as “You Were Meant for Me,” “Broadway Melody,” and “Wedding of the Painted Doll.”

Broadway Melody of 1936 isn’t any kind of sequel, and just picks up on the idea of folks wanting to be in a show, and it shows us the numbers as they are rehearsed or performed. In just a few short years, the studios, especially M-G-M—which ended up making the greatest American musicals—learned how to film their numbers, from large group efforts to individual performances. The film is packed with then-famous faces, including Jack Benny,  Una Merkel, and Robert Taylor. But it is the newcomers that make the film worth watching, and one of them makes one of the most spectacular appearances as a newcomer that film has ever seen.

But first, the famous ones. Una Merkel is perfectly cast as the tough-but-tender wisecracker she often plays. Benny hadn’t yet become a legend, and he is almost in a separate film. Most of his scenes are with Sid Silvers, a comic second banana as an actor, but who as a screenwriter either contributed to or wrote the scripts for this film and the next two in the Broadway Melody series (“…of 1938” and “…of 1940”) as well as For Me and My Gal and even The Wizard of Oz. There’s a lot of Benny humor and physical comedy, and it doesn’t show the famous comedian at his best. If anything, Silvers might have the edge here.

Robert Taylor is one of the three actors of the time that the leads in Zoolander would have called “ridiculously good looking” along with Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power. Here he surprises, as he sings “I’ve Got a Feeling You’re Foolin’”, not the easiest song to sing. He doesn’t have much of a voice. It has little character, but he’s smooth and on key. This was a time when studios were stretching their dramatic and comic actors to see who might be a musical star. (Check out Jimmy Stewart…. https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x1l3co). Taylor has a nice natural voice, but he isn’t a singer.

The minor revelation is Buddy Ebsen, here in his first film with performing partner and sister Vilma, a dancing team that once billed itself as “The Baby Astaires.” For those who only know Buddy Ebsen in The Beverly Hilbillies or Barnaby Jones, his dancing is something to behold. It’s been described, as loose-limbed, rag-doll, and even “surreal.” All apply.  He and Vilma sing a rather silly song called “Sing Before Breakfast,” which introduces the main star of the film. Ebsen’s voice is like his dancing. He sings around the notes, eventually hitting the pitch, but often just barely. (He’s a much better singer than Taylor, though.) Check it out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VHsE9_A_YSE

Finally, the woman that most folks have forgotten. It’s the inimitable Eleanor Powell. She had a small part in George White’s 1935 Scandals, where she is uncredited but gives a small glimpse of her incredible talent. Here in Broadway Melody of 1936, she is given the star treatment, and puts on an incredible display of dancing talent that was unequaled. She’s not much of an actress, and she is weakest playing the main role as the character. But when her character is imitating Katharine Hepburn in her first Oscar-winning role in 1933’s Morning Glory (very funny) or pretending to be a French dancing star, she’s quite good. But when she dances, watch out. The film gives her a gradual unveiling of her talents. She dances with the Ebsens in a “Wow, she can really tap” moment. Then she gets the classical ballerina treatment (and dances beautifully, often en pointe.) in an overly lush scene that reminds one of the sets for A Midsummer Night’s Dream from a year earlier. Having established those credentials, she does a dazzling technical display of her footwork as the French star, and then at the end, the film gives her the ultimate musical treatment, allowing her to tap like crazy, bend over backward like few others could, and spin like the best ice skaters—except for longer. This last segment is breathtaking, and anyone with an interest in film should see it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fEaklU6UyZg and start at 1:50.

Perhaps the greatest dance ever recorded on film came four years later, when Powell was finally paired with her only equal, Fred Astaire, in Broadway Melody of 1940. Powell could never be part of a dance couple, as Ginger Rogers was with Astaire. But the pairing of these two giants who shared a great respect for one another is extraordinary. The number is long and starts slowly, but here is what most folks remember when they talk about the number: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ti0FnSLBXSM.

I’d always thought of Powell as a machine-like technician, and a little on the cool side. But she has a glorious smile and a sweet demeanor on film. It’s just that she dances everyone (except Astaire that once) off the screen, and has acrobatic abilities that left even other dancers in awe.

The film, as a film, has its high points and low points. There is some interesting use of film technique, especially in the editing and use of double exposure. The downside of some of the Broadway Melody films is the awful tendency to showcase novelty acts that are out of place and generally annoying to the modern viewer. Here there is a recurrent character who does different kinds of snoring. Really. But this is what fast-forward was made for.

Powell was a unique performer, and she deserves to be more remembered than she is. One good look at her dancing should take care of that for one willing to give her a try.

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In the Heights

When it comes to the film version of In the Heights, context might not be everything, but for many folks, it might be the biggest factor in experiencing it. The Broadway version opened in 2008, and it was to be made into a film a few years after. Then there were problems, and things were delayed. Then they finally made the film, and looked to a June 2020 release date. Then COVID pushed it to June 2021.

Since the pandemic changed the timing for a lot of projects, what’s the big deal? Well, the film version of Hamilton was supposed to be released this coming October (2021). But instead, it was released on Disney+ in the middle of last year, and has been a popular streaming choice. For me and many others who have seen this version of Hamilton (in my case, several times), In the Heights comes off as a delightful but pale early version of a Lin-Manuel Miranda work, a great first draft for the deeper and richer Hamilton.

Is that unfair to In the Heights? Yes, but it’s still the way many are going to see it, with the monumental Hamilton firmly sitting in the background. It’s energetic (too much at times) and colorful, and its focus on a specific neighborhood and cultural community will always make it focused and relevant. (Disclosure: My family lived in Manhattan in the ‘70s and ‘80s—for the most part in a Hispanic neighborhood—and we had friends who lived in Washington Heights. The many New York City jokes hit home, and added to the experience.)

The film is a good half-hour too long, and feels like it just has to include large showstopper numbers that clearly worked better on stage. For a musician/singer like myself, those numbers have an attraction that might not work on others; my guess is that they will seem to go on too long and will be seen as distractions from the main story line/s.

Musicals always have the tremendous creative challenge of creating a universe in which people can sing and/or dance. Hamilton was essentially all-singing, but In the Heights, while having long and involved musical numbers, has many “normal” dialogue scenes as well. Opening as the film does with a large group number, it suggests that this is going to be all-singing as well, but then it settles down to going back and forth between spoken and singing/dancing scenes. Transitions are easy and natural, and nothing seems forced.

The plot is not the point, as the real point is Washington Heights—a place, not a story. But there is a central story, and many, many side ones as well. There are actually too many stories here, and the film loses its focus more than once. There are several attractive characters here whose stories we are interested in following, but the many group numbers often pull us away from our investment in these characters, and the abundant energy of the numbers isn’t enough to keep us as invested as we are in the individual people and their particular challenges.

Key among these people is Anthony Ramos, who occupies the soft, warm center of the film with a soft and warm character. What his character Usnavi does in the film and what he wants really doesn’t matter; it’s what Ramos radiates that matters. Ramos, who played the dual roles of John Laurens and Philip Hamilton in Hamilton, easily holds this film together, and while only a decent singer and dancer, holds his own in those regards and has a strong screen presence of likeability and relatability. It will be fascinating to see where he goes to from here.

There has been a good deal of press around the presence of Jimmy Smits in a major role. The non-singing dramatic actor does a little bit of singing (well done) and some dance-like moves that can substitute for real dancing. He provides the gravitas of the piece, and while Ramon remains the standout, Smits fills his role well.

The two female romantic leads are lovely and have lovely voices. But after hearing what Renée Elise Goldsberry and Phillipa Soo did with Miranda’s words and music in Hamilton, these two sounded more like Disney princesses. They are competent actors and very good singers, but they suffer by comparison (again, unfair, but real).

A real standout among the supporting playes is Tony nominee (for the stage version of In the Heights) Olga Merediz, who plays Abuela Claudia, and provides some real heart in the first half of the film. Then in the second half, she steals the film for a while with a showstopper number that reveals a surprisingly strong voice and a command we didn’t see coming. After all the big numbers (on the streets, in the pool, etc.), this is the number that really lifts the film. I was thinking in the first half of the film that hers was the character and performance that might draw a Best Supporting Actress nomination. Watching her big number (“Paciencia Y Fe”) only confirmed that.

In contrast, Daphne Rubin-Vega as Daniela has a similar number that showcases her energy and talents. But “Carnaval Del Barrio” is one big number too many, and reminds us of the difference between stage and film. My guess is that it worked well on the stage. It could easily have been cut or even drastically shortened. Coming as it does toward the end of the film, it tends to draw things out when things need to be wrapped up.

Multi-hyphenate Miranda, who originated the lead role of Usnavi on stage, makes a fun appearance as a piragua salesman. He sounds better and stronger than ever before, certainly more than in the film version of Hamilton or Mary Poppins Returns. Another even smaller cameo appearance as the Mister Softee man is provided by Christopher Jackson, who along with Leslie Odom Jr., was one of my two favorite Hamilton performers. (Jackson played George Washington.) The most beautiful male voice in the film is Corey Hawkins’; he plays Benny, and I could have heard a lot more from him.

Then there is a completely non-musical performance by music legend Marc Anthony, playing a straight, down-and-dirty role that wasn’t in the original play. He does a very good job, but it’s hard not to see the superstar under the tattoos and grit. Another supporting performance that gets stronger and more satisfying as it goes along is that of Sonny, played by the young Gregory Diaz IV. His part becomes more important as the film goes along, and really blossoms near the end. This is a multi-talented young actor that is well worth watching out for. He sings, dances, acts, and possesses a strong screen presence, especially for someone so young.

There are a few problems with the main love story. Ramos as Usnavi is just a little too hesitant and shy with Vanessa  (Melissa Varrera), and that gets old quickly. Also, during a scene where he supposedly “abandons” her, believability is strained to the breaking point both in what supposedly occurs and in how it’s shot. Director Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) generally does a good job balancing the group numbers with the individual story, but this scene—an important one in the romance plot—doesn’t work. It’s not a fatal flaw, but it hurt.

The film goes into magical realism in one number for no good reason, and ends up reminding everyone of La La Land. Not sure what this brought to the film. Since there hadn’t been anything other than the usual suspension of disbelief that most musicals have, the scene was confusing and a bit distracting.

In spite of the overwhelming marketing campaign, the film doesn’t seem to be doing all that well. With a $55 million dollar budget plus marketing costs to cover, the film hasn’t even cracked the $20 million mark internationally. Is it worth seeing? It depends. If you’re a musical or Miranda completist, it’s worth seeing, and Ramos is now officially a star and worth watching. What it has going for it is a not-quite-unique musical style (see Hamilton), some good performers, and a specific focus on a community and a place. But it doesn’t have a song you’ll be humming on the way home (not that it has to…), it overreaches, and it’s too long. Your call.

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San Francisco (1936)

I had always thought of 1936’s San Francisco as the ultimate early studio disaster movie I hadn’t seen yet, with then-groundbreaking effects dominating the film. Actually, the amount of film covering the devastating 1906 earthquake is relatively small, but the effects are so good and so shocking within the context of the film that the impact of them far outweighs their time on the screen.

For most of its 115 minutes, San Francisco is a generally unbelievable struggle of good vs. evil, classical music vs. modern music, and love vs. exploitation. It stars Clark Gable well on his way to becoming the “King of Hollywood,” soprano Jeanette MacDonald at her height of popularity, and Spencer Tracy right before his back-to-back Oscars for his films in 1937 and ’38. In fact, this film gave him his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor (Paul Muni won that year for The Story of Louis Pasteur), though the case can be made that he should have been nominated in the new Best Supporting Actor category. But his effect on the film is strong. He’s playing a priest and long-time friend of Gable’s Blackie Norton; Tracy supplies a firm strong sense of morality throughout when others are either wavering ethically or simply choosing to be the bad guys (e.g., Norton), and his presence is onscreen even when he isn’t.

MacDonald’s Mary Blake is a classically trained singer trying to make it on the Barbary Coast in 1906. She secures a gig with Blackie Norton (Gable) at his house of gambling and drinking, the ironically named Paradise. There is a back-and-forth with Blake singing Norton’s kind of dance hall music, and a wealthy socialite and an opera empresario drawing her back to classical roots. Mary and Blackie inexplicably fall in love, and Mary later just as inexplicably falls for the wealthy socialite. Most of this is sheer hooey, as is the idea of MacDonald singing in a modern-day saloon.

This all leaves plenty of opportunity, however, for a half-dozen performances of “The Theme from San Francisco” (a.k.a., simply “San Francisco”) an earworm before there were earworms. The song is sung with every possible musical approach, including the rousing crowd anthem version with MacDonald going to town with an operatic descant that creates an aural combination that perhaps ought not to be. (The cynic in me wonders if the combination of the crowd performance of the title song combined with the aria-like descant is what actually caused the earthquake, which happens right after.)

The song gets in your head quickly and was so familiar to me that I has assumed that it had been written about the city before this film. But no, it was written for the film, and has become one of two of the city’s great anthems—the other being “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”. I also assumed that such a popular and singable song might have won Best Song at the Oscars, yet it wasn’t even nominated. That’s understandable, however, when you learn that three of the nominees included “The Way You Look Tonight” (Swing Time), “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” (Born to Dance), and “Pennies from Heaven” from the film of the same name. (“The Way You Look Tonight” was the winner.)

Note on MacDonald: She isn’t my favorite movie soprano. She has the rather “hooty” sound of some classically trained sopranos that covers the sound they’re producing and makes the words take a back seat. (In contrast, my wife has the same vocal range as MacDonald, but has a clear, almost “pop” sound, even on her high notes; that’s a sound I’ve come to prefer.) MacDonald sounds like she had come to film from opera, but the opposite trajectory was true. After her film career, she seriously pursued, with some success, a genuine operatic career. MacDonald does better with another song composed for the film. It’s “Would You?”, which musical lovers will remember from 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain. I had thought that Singin’ had tried to stick to the numbers written around the time of the earliest talkies, with “Beautiful Girl” from a few years later being the exception. Seems that “Would You?” Is indeed the biggest outlier.

In terms of acting, Tracy is the standout, and it’s not hard to see why he snagged a nomination. But the film really belongs to the two leads. MacDonald was a bit out of her element; she was better in smarter, sharper roles, like those with Maurice Chevalier. She’s not lost here, and she gives it her all, but her character is slightly unrealistic, and she is asking the viewer to believe things most simply won’t if they gave it any thought. Having just seen Gable (and Crawford) in Dancing Lady (https://wordpress.com/post/film-prof.com/1134), where I was pleasantly surprised by Gable’s range and depth, I was disappointed to see a more two-dimensional performance here. It’s a meaty role, but not as fleshed out as it could have been.

Note on Gable: It’s understood that many, many films are going to do their best to highlight the physical attributes of their stars, and certainly in the studio era, those stars were mostly female (see the poster above for the film’s attempt to do that with MacDonald). I grew up learning that Gable was “what women wanted, and men wanted to be.” But I hadn’t realized how often Gable was presented physically. In Dancing Lady, there is a gratuitous scene in a gym that shows off his muscles. In San Francisco, he’s put in a boxing ring with little more than a Speedo. There is a small attempt to connect those scenes to their films’ plots, but the goal of the scenes is obvious.

Part of the problem between Gable and MacDonald is that the leads have no real chemistry (see Dancing Lady again for an example of chemistry). Their characters would likely never have fallen for each other; only as cinematic stars and leads is this possible. Not outwardly visible is another possible reason: these two actors didn’t like each other, and had no relationship when the cameras stopped. Gable apparently did some rather immature things to signal his dislike, such as eating garlic before love scenes. You can’t see the mutual aversion on the screen, and it’s to the two actors’ credit. But there is no real connection.

The earthquake scene is justifiably famous, and should have garnered some kind of award. For the time, it was certainly state-of-the-art, and even today it can be jarring. Having recently seen a documentary on the earthquake and its attendant fires, I realized that the film nails the key components of the quake, and gives the viewer a surprisingly accurate experience. You can see it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hnk7FidwnTA

Once the earthquake sequence is done, the film goes from heavy melodrama to positively surreal. Gable/Norton looks for (and of course eventually finds) Mary/MacDonald, a man conveniently dies, and when Norton finds Mary, the film gets downright strange. The situation he finds her in is rather unusual to modern eyes and ears, and then the film ends with what is supposed to be a stirring expression of hope by, apparently, all the survivors. It’s probably important to remember that this film came only 30 years after the earthquake, and there were likely millions of viewers who remembered it, and thousands who experienced it. San Francisco had rebuilt itself in those 30 years, and the film (spoiler alert) ends with a modern (i.e., 1936) image.

An M-G-M production, the film has the requisite gloss of the studio, as well as the stars acting like stars as much if not more than their characters. Part of me would have loved to see what Warner Brothers might have done to it—adding an edge and getting down and gritty in a more realistic way. But clearly any film attempting to convince us that Gable and MacDonald are a believable pair is clearly going to try and distract us with energy (check), a believable supporting performance (check), and a plot that leads to a well-done demonstration of state-of-the-art special effects (double check). The film is a strange amalgamation of high- and low-brow, and pretty much everything aside from the earthquake sequence can’t be taken seriously. The parts never really gel, but as an example of M-G-M at its height, and a platform for two major stars who would never get together in or out of a movie, it’s fascinating.

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A Quiet Place Part II

More than a year after its planned wide release, A Quiet Place Part II is finally here. It’s a solid, well-directed, and well-acted film. It reminds me a little of Alien followed by Aliens: thefirst was a deeply felt, intelligent classic followed by an excellent action/horror film with many more creatures to deal with. Part II here has more monsters, more close-ups of monsters, and a lot more action.

The story line picks up the moment after the first film ends. But director John Krasinski (who wrote the film as well as directed it) wisely brings himself back as an actor as the film opens by going back to Day One of the attack. He’s a most welcome screen presence (especially after so many will see this as their first film enjoyed in a theater), and his presence at the beginning of the film brings back our memories of his heroism as well as connecting him strongly with daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds), who takes over the lead as the film progresses. We also meet Emmett (Cillian Murphy), who figures into the action later.

Once the film reminds the viewer of the danger and devastation awaiting the unsuspected or the noisy, it moves us back into “the present,” where Krasinski’s Lee has died, and the family must survive on their own. Without Lee, the family moments are less effective, but the film reminds us that son Marcus (Noah Jupe) is emotionally high-strong and needs lot of encouragement from Mom (Emily Blunt, a.k.a. Mrs. John Krasinski), that Regan is smart and feisty and creative, and Mom is still a rock—albeit one with a tender heart.

Without giving away the plot, suffice it to say that the family discovers that one or more people in the region are alive. Connections are made, journeys are struck out on, and each of the family members develops their own story. The big leap viewers have to make is that while they are telling us that the action picks up right after the first one ends, Marcus looks quite a bit taller and more mature, which of course the actor was when it was made. Blunt and Simmonds can get away with it; Jupe can’t. But as long as you accept it (and it took this viewer a while to do so), we file it away under suspension of disbelief and we go on. Fortunately, his actions in this film befit someone older than the Marcus of the first film, and that helps to make us forget how quickly this young and talented actor is growing up. As in the first film, Jupe has to maintain a look of terror throughout much of the film, but he gets both tender moments and a gut-wrenching scene of intense pain and screaming that round out the performance. What he is put through reminded me a bit of some of the comments on 2005’s War of the Worlds (yes, the Tom Cruise one), where poor Dakota Fanning was so traumatized for so long that some critics were worried about the effect the performance might have on the actor.  

After a while, however, the film belongs to Simmonds, who gives a quiet, intense, and moving performance—all while being the film’s de facto action star. Her scenes with Murphy show a maturity we didn’t see in the first film, and highlight the actor’s and character’s strength, tenderness, and intelligence.

Sequels are fascinating in how they choose to keep parts of the first film, and how they choose to branch out or simply depart. The film benefits greatly by the characters and the actors. We want to be with these people that we so fondly remember from the first film, and the film benefits from our loyalty to them with our memories of the family times in the first film. We don’t get much of that here, and it could have used more of that, even without Lee’s presence. But these are people we want to be with, and that alone is a strength. I

n terms of the acting, we know that Blunt can be a strong screen presence and a very good actor, and the film simply confirms that. Murphy’s presence is less slick and more macho than in any film I’ve seen him in, and those who know his history are reminded of the similar world he was challenged with in 28 Days Later…. He’s solid, but his character is no replacement for Krasinski. By the end of the film, Simmonds has essentially taken over the role of her film father as the strong and capable lead, and has shown the world that she can hold a film together on her own. Jupe is clearly an actor of sensitivity and range, and he could hardly have a stronger calling card to casting directors than his work here.

There was a kind of perfect storm of plot, actors, and directors in the first film. The sequel necessarily loses the element of surprise and freshness that a surprise hit like the first film possessed. With Dad gone, it’s also lost the strongest connector of the family. But Krasinski has made some wise choices here. He has spread out the action geographically, and has given each main character his/her own story-within-the-film. He’s also chosen to go the rather familiar route of more horror and more action, but his continued astute use of silence still sets this apart from the more routine action/horror films. We miss the strong element of family, however, that so tenderly characterized the first film, and that is a bit of a loss. The film isn’t devoid of quiet moments, but the depth of family love we associated with those moments in the first film isn’t here. Yet we get more activity, more jump scares, and more people (e.g., Djimon Hounsou making a quiet and unfortunately short appearance).

Viewers with happy memories of the first film should enjoy this one. Just being with these folks is a cinematic pleasure. Krasinski can’t quite capture the lightning-in-the-bottle essence of the first film, but that would be impossible. It’s indeed a smart sequel and a thoroughly enjoyable experience, just not a particularly deep one.

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A note to my readers – May 2021

First of all, thank you for being a reader. I hope you enjoy and are blessed by what you read. I have a couple of things to share with you:

  1. I have three websites in all. I hope some who are signed up for one might be encouraged to sign up for another.
    • My devotional (www.markdupre.com/devotional), which is a daily Christian devotional meant to encourage and challenge.
    • “Dedicated to Grammar” (www.dedicatedtogrammar.com), which is a fun weekly release designed to help professionals speak and write more accurately. It’s also ideal for folks learning English as a second language.
    • Last but not least is my film website (www.film-prof.com). My degrees are in film, and I taught film at a university for 20+ years. I analyze films, new and old, and cover some film-related events. My newest entry is on The Father.
  2. I would like to turn all these writings into books. I did have the devotionals turned into a book that apparently sold out its modest run, but the publisher decided not to reprint. The grammar site could easily be a fun and easy book to have around. Lastly, the film website wouldn’t be these entries (I just hit 300 of them this past week), but a book on the musical films of Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen.

If anyone has any connections or great ideas about getting these writings published, let me know at markwdupre@gmail.com.

Thanks.

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The Father

I was wrong. Not having been able to see The Father in the theater until recently, I went with the current wisdom that the award for Best Actor would of course go to Chadwick Boseman for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. It would be an award signaling our collective loss of a great actor, one who would likely have continued to contribute powerful, shaded performances…plus…it was generally agreed that this powerful performance was the best of the year besides.

Then I saw The Father’s Anthony Hopkins, who won the Oscar for Best Actor and shocked anyone paying attention. The Academy got it right. As good as Boseman was, Hopkins’ performance is one for the ages. It’s stunning, rich, full, and as powerful as it comes. That’s one reason to see it. The other Oscar the film won was for its screenplay, which is masterful.

The film is a challenge to anyone getting up there in years. It’s the nightmare scenario of a man dealing with Alzheimer’s, and the slow but steady loss of a grip on reality. The plot is simple: when is it time, if it is ever time, to put a parent in a home? But there is so much more experientially. The film takes us along on the journey of Anthony’s (yes, that’s his character’s name as well, as screenwriter/director Florian Zeller wrote it specifically for him) growing confusion, until we don’t know exactly what is going on and can relate to his constant bewilderment. (For those among you who must make sense of things, you’ll be happy to know that by the end, things clear up.)

I’ll get back to Hopkins soon, but his fellow actors are well-known, even to most American audiences, and they range from solidly good to great. The great is the great Olivia Coleman, Oscar winner for The Favourite. She plays Anthony’s daughter, and is the character who holds the film together narratively. Other well-known actors include Olivia Williams (The Sixth Sense), Mark Gatiss (Mycroft in the TV Sherlock Holmes with Benedict Cumberbatch), and Rufus Sewell (Man in the High Castle and Victoria).

The script by Zeller, based upon his play, has a clear arc and direction while still allowing viewers to experience the dizzying confusion Anthony is plagued with. It moves at a steady pace, never rushing but never lagging. This is also Zeller’s first film as a director after years of writing plays, and while his work is being overshadowed by both the strength of the script and the stellar work of Hopkins, it’s an exciting and very intelligent first effort.

The cinematography by Ben Smithard (Downton Abbey the film) hasn’t been written about much, but it’s a major contributor to the story. In most films dealing with confusion or dementia, there is a clear differentiation between what’s real and what isn’t, or what might not be real. Everything here is crisp and clean and in focus, making the unreal as real as the real, and allowing us access to Anthony’s perceptions.

Finally, I cannot say enough about Hopkins’ work. He’s funny, intelligent, silly, mean, self-absorbed, selfish, childish, and finally, pitiable. It’s an “all out there” performance with no punches pulled, but it’s not showy and no furniture is chewed. Even Hopkins’ patented “yell” is used only once. It’s as fine-tuned a performance as you will ever see. The film is closely centered around him, and he holds it together while the film itself provides him with an opportunity to show the depth and breadth of his talent. It’s easy to see why some consider him the greatest actor alive today.

The film is intriguing, fascinating, engaging, smart, and genuinely emotional. It’s worth seeing for itself. But finally, it’s a must-see for those that appreciate world-class acting. This performance is one on the best you’ll ever see. (Yes, it’s that good.)

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A note to Oscar (re: 2021 show)

Oh, Oscar, Oscar! I’ve never felt sorry for you up to now. Yes, you’ve been ridiculous, and full of self-centeredness and virtue signaling. But with the pandemic and the dearth of movies in theaters, I had faith that you would turn a negative into a positive, and that the new approach might be refreshing in these most unusual times. I expected record low viewing numbers, as the thin movie year yielded a number of excellent smaller and independent films, but the big popular movies that lead to lots of viewers just weren’t there.

Things started well with a long shot (that was admittedly TOO long in duration), but that featured the talented, intelligent, and articulate Regina King. And just when you had me willing to go along on this new approach, there she was, bringing in current socio-political events that apparently she just HAD to talk about. She was right that folks were reaching for their remotes at that moment. You didn’t lose me at that moment. To quote many people, I wasn’t angry, I was just … disappointed.

There were actually a lot of happy moments, though none were completely unexpected.

Emerald Fennell’s Oscar was partly for her arrival and skill at her first film, right? Yes, the screenplay was good, but everyone knew she wasn’t going to win Best Director this year, right? (And isn’t it against some law somewhere to not give this to Aaron Sorkin?) But she is a bright new light in cinema, and this was a great encouragement for her.

Of course the best competitive acceptance moment was the overlong but gut-wrenching sharing of Another Round director Thomas Vinterberg’s story about his daughter. This was one of those great personal moments that will be remembered by everyone who saw it (low as those numbers are). The other great moment was Yuh-Jung Youn’s win in the Supporting Actress category. Again, lovely and memorable, but this time lighter and funnier.

No host again, huh? I know it’s hard for you, as there is a reason that everyone on the planet is unsuitable for hosting, and everyone out here is poised to be offended by … something. But really, can we reconsider, Oscar? A good and popular host may actually improve the numbers, and make the show worth watching again. What about an actor/actress who can actually speak intelligently? Everyone loves Clooney and Pitt, yes? What about either? What about both of them?

Thank you for not having full-length and time-consuming performances of the five nominated songs, of which, lately, perhaps two or three are worth listening to. But did you have to take the music away from the main show, and relegate them to the pre-show, where pretty much no one could hear them? I’ve been telling you for years that there should be one, grand, knock-your-eyes-out medley of the Best Song nominees. We’d get the flavor of the songs without taking up so much time. Is that so hard to manage?

I liked the roving camera that showed us the various nominees in many of the more technical categories. Nice touch—human and engaging. And done pretty well to boot. Also, a nice job on the remote nominees and winners. Tricky stuff and you did it well. Two thumbs up.

I won’t mention the name, but you know who I’m talking about. Can we please just have a show that’s about the movies, and not about anything else? I understand that this is a platform now—a smaller one than ever, but a platform, nonetheless. But there seems to be some kind of impetus to go beyond the world of film and thankfulness. You can actually see when the switch happen sometimes. Winners just STOP, and then they think, and they just HAVE to say something, and since it’s not planned, it’s generally not clear. Or appropriate.

Related to that was an idea that didn’t quite work. THANK YOU for not having inane “banter” between two stars before giving us categories and winners. Good job, there! But winners tended to share a little too long, and some of them, well, again, I won’t mention names, but a few were quite painful to listen to, especially as they droned on.

You did get one big response from me during the evening. When Lil Rel started to move into the audience for his bit about songs that may or may not have been nominated, I started yelling at the television. I was screaming for you to stop it, now, please, for the love of all things good, please stop this immediately. You clearly didn’t listen to me, and it’s a  good thing that the reputedly spontaneous but clearly prepped Da Butt/Glenn Close thing happened; it distracted from what a bad, bad, bad, bad, stupid, awful, if-you-asked-me-about-this-I-would-have-shut-it-down-immediately, bad idea. Please don’t ever do anything this awkward and poorly done again. Please. Let’s just keep things moving.

The sad thing about an experimental format that only partially succeeds (and I’m being nice here) is that most of the voting was actually something I tended to agree with. There were no egregious, horrible choices, no career Oscars for mediocre or cringeworthy performances (thank you for not giving GC her Oscar for this film). There were some surprises, and if I’d been part of an Oscar pool, I don’t think I’d have won. But even when surprised, it was generally either a happy surprise or at least an “it’s OK” one. (I did feel bad for Halle Berry, who messed up the name of the one of the nominees, and then had to repeat the name—doing a slightly better job—when he won.)

…which of course leads us to your decision to mix things up a little, departing from tradition, and doing the unexpected. Mostly it was fine; I don’t think anyone is going to lose any sleep over the preceding year’s Best Whatever winner for giving the award to a person of the same gender this year. But oh, that ending. Not good. Throwing the Best Picture award into the show when you did was confusing, and it undermined the award. Then you had Best Actress, which I was happy to see. I was rooting for Carey Mulligan, but was happy that Francis McDormand, the early frontrunner, was the eventual winner. Yes, she will always refuse to get glammed up, and you never know what she is going to say, or howl. But always entertaining.

Putting the Best Actor award at the end was a bad choice. Yes, I know you and everyone else expected Chadwick Boseman to win for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, (as did I) and you gambled that it would bring the show to an emotional close. Instead the opposite happened.  Instead, Anthony Hopkins wins for The Father, and you’re left holding the bag. Since your cronies had refused to let him be seen or speak on Zoom, he was just an unresponsive face on the screen. There was no one to accept the award, and Joaquin Phoenix did the best he could do to bring the embarrassing and awkward moment to a close. His gracious acceptance speech the next morning put the previous night’s Best Actor decision to shame. I know you’re trying to rescue the choice by saying that hey, we’re all talking about it. And we’re all taking about COVID still, too.

The highlight was Tyler Perry’s deserved Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award and his elegant speech. He took advantage of the moment to put forward not a political or social agenda, but a human one. It is the kind of speech that deserves to be heard and remembered. He was absolutely shining that night, and the audience that stopped clapping when he suggested that those whom we should not hate include police officers showed themselves to be as shallow as he was deep, as unthinking as he was thoughtful. Quite telling.

We all hope that this coming year will yield more and richer choices, though this year’s quality was the equal of any. The roster for film releases looks promising. So Oscar, I beg you, do a thorough and far-reaching post-mortem on the show, keep what works, fine-tune it, and toss the rest. No matter what, I’ll be watching. And I’ll always have a suggestion or two.

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