Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and The Whales of August (1987)

Sometimes, seeing two films in a short period of time can lead to fascinating insights and comparisons that would otherwise not have presented themselves. I just saw Lawrence of Arabia (1962) in a movie theater on a large screen (thank you, RIT student John Dugan for letting me know this was happening) and saw The Whales of August (1987) at home. I don’t think I could have arranged a greater contrast in films if I’d planned it.

Lawrence is considered the greatest epic ever filmed, and I can’t disagree with that. It’s certainly of its time, with music that is far more dominating than in today’s films, with a scope that is beyond most filmmakers, and with a stately pace that rewards the patient but might test the attention span of many modern folks. This may be one of the great “they don’t make ‘em like they used to” films of all time. If someone wants to see a great big fat epic film, this is the one. But try to see it on the largest screen possible. It’s meant to overwhelm, and it did this past week.

I’d last seen Lawrence on the big screen after its restoration in the late ‘80s, and seeing it in 70mm back then was unlike anything I’d ever seen before; I felt as if I could walk out of my seat and into the image. This time it was presented in digital, but the newest restoration was still glorious, and the film presented a master course in cinematography by Freddie Young (Oscars for this, Doctor Zhivago and Ryan’s Daughter, but also cinematography for the original Goodbye, Mr. Chips; 49th Parallel; Ivanhoe; Mogambo; Lust for Life; The Inn of the Sixth Happiness; and Nicholas and Alexandra, to name a few.) This was likely Young’s and director David’s Lean most beautiful and expressive work before Lean’s becoming self-conscious about it.

This is also the film that many claim to contain the best performance not to win an Oscar, and some consider Peter O’Toole’s work here the best performance by any actor in any film. That’s subjective, of course, but the performance hasn’t aged over the years, and is as enigmatic and confident as ever. Alec Guinness’s performance as an Arab used to bother me, but the great actor (Oscar for Bridge on the River Kwai and fame for playing Ben Obi-Wan Kenobi in some popular space opera) was made to look the part, and clearly brought his considerable skills to creating a believable character. What surprised me was how over-the-top-yet-missing-the-mark Anthony Quinn was. Of course a Mexican actor playing an Arab was a stretch, but Guinness showed how the lack of background didn’t have to be an impediment to a believable performance. Quinn chewed up all the scenery in sight, and kept popping out of the fabric of the film. But it’s Lean’s and O’Toole’s film, and if the post-intermission (yes, there was an intermission) part of the film doesn’t quite add up to the first half, it’s still a must-see for everyone interested in what film can be. Look around and find out when it’s coming to a movie theater near you, and then don’t let anything get in the way.

The opposite of Lawrence is the delicate, lighter-than-air The Whales of August, which simply floats on the screen until it fairly evanesces by the end credits. It’s known for being the last film of legendary Lillian Gish at the end of her 75-year career in film, as well as Oscar-nominated Ann Sothern. It was also the second-last film of stroke victim Bette Davis, and one of the last films of Vincent Price. It’s a quiet chamber piece, with basically 3.5 characters. Gish and Davis play two sisters, one soft and kind and one edgy and attitudinal (guess which actress plays which). It was Sothern who got the supporting actress Oscar nomination, and she is fine if still held to a rather small part. Gish is lovely and doesn’t miss a beat, ever the consummate professional. She’s nearly lighter than air. Davis, of course, provides the cynicism and holds the drama down to a jaundiced realism before (spoiler alert) she decides that there is more to live for.

Price’s character is interesting, as he brings in the pre-Soviet Russian aristocracy into a New England context, and helps to pull the film out of its possibly too-constricted place and historical moment. His character was originally scheduled to be played by Alec Guinness, who would have connected this film to Lawrence of Arabia and would have added another texture to the film. But Price is surprisingly effective, bringing a soft Continental touch to his character, who has been physically unmoored due to the death of his dear female friend. The dialogue and acting around his attempts to investigate if Gish’s character might be his new dear friend is subtle, polite, and moving.

The film will always be remembered as Gish’s final effort (at age 93), the end of a 75-year film career. But a few other notes of interest add some delightful context to the film. Ann Sothern’s daughter plays her as a young girl, and Oscar winner Mary Steenburgen plays the young Bette Davis in that same short segment in the beginning of the film.

When you want to be rolled over with drama, beauty, sound, and scope, try Lawrence. If you need a quiet, lovely, and soft film experience, join Gish in her final performance. Both films are historic, and ring two very different internal bells.

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Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood

This is the first time I’ve genuinely looked forward to seeing a Quentin Tarantino film. As my film students have come to learn, I’ve had an aversion to him and his films for a number of reasons, none of which I’ll go into here—though I greatly admire many of his sharply drawn characters, the generally high level of acting, and the cinematography of Inglourious Basterds.

[Spoilers galore—continue at your own risk if you haven’t seen it.] Where to begin with Once Upon a Time…? In some senses, it’s a mature departure from his earlier work, though it resonates throughout with references to those earlier works (especially regarding wish fulfillment, Inglourious Basterds, and fire.). It’s a rich blend of sound and image, with so many cultural and cinematic references that it’s going to be a guaranteed subject for conversation and writing for serious critics, film students, and Easter egg sleuths for years to come. It’s by far my favorite QT film, and it manages to build and build uniquely and creatively until he lets loose with what could be called a typical Tarantino ending that folks will either love or hate—or in my case, both love and hate.

But even before that controversial ending has a chance to either pull you in all the way or completely take you out of the film , QT has created a funny, serious, dreamy, surreal, parodic,  series of sights and sounds that shouldn’t blend together, but do. He uses diegetic music in so many different ways, for example, that one minute the viewer is grooving along with Cliff (Brad Pitt) and the next, is listening to music emanating from a scene that turns into nondiegetic accompaniment for the next scene before we’re aware of it–and it works.

Full disclosure: I was 16 in 1969, when these film events happened. Many think that the Manson murders were the unofficial end of the 1960’s (the film’s take), while some think that the Kent State murder a few months later has that dubious distinction. In any event, for Hollywood and for many who were coming of age at that time, those murders were as shocking and as culturally significant as President Kennedy’s was shocking and political. I hadn’t yet been freed from high school by this time, but was aware of the free-spirited music and mindsets that had been developing around me. Tarantino has captured the mood and feel and more, and has put his own stamp on it, including what is becoming his revisionist trope.

Tarantino is doing so many things in this film, from social comment to loving respect for 1960’s TV and Hollywood, to slight (or not so slight) satire on the same, to recreating and celebrating and undermining 1969 swinging Hollywood, that it might be dizzying trying to follow everything he’s doing–except for the fact that he’s created a dynamic blend of narrative and dream that keeps the viewer engaged, even when he stretches that viewer’s engagement to the limit (which is does more than once). To call it a rich stew doesn’t do this complex film justice. It justifies many more words than I have time or inclination to present.

The casting and acting combination may well be the best of the year, or many a year. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Rick Dalton (great name), a TV actor trying to make it into film, but whose career is in low gear. Dalton is much less intelligent than DiCaprio, often a great challenge to a smart actor. DiCaprio plays it humorously most of the time with a performance that is self-conscious about its character’s flaws and limits, but he doesn’t stay there. Rumor has it (or IMDB has recorded) that DiCaprio had a hard time doing second-rate acting as Dalton without visible condescension, but he manages to pull it off, and also nails it when Dalton has to pull out his best acting for one intense scene. This is a high-wire performance with great range and range of expression. Should the Academy have waited a few more years to give Leo an Oscar?

The owner of the film, however, is Brad Pitt, who does a star-making turn again by playing a character opposite of DiCaprio’s in many ways, from Cliff’s imperturbable unflappability to Pitt’s finally accepting and even celebrating how cool and good-looking Brad Pitt is. Pitt is supposed to be playing second fiddle to DiCaprio here as his stunt double/driver/personal assistant. But he ends up taking over the narrative at some points and finally becomes the primary agent of action at the climax of the film. Pitt has never looked so comfortable in his own skin, and he exemplifies the laid-back 1969 California dude perfectly and without irony while still carving out his character’s individuality. DiCaprio is all motion and range; Pitt is all internal stillness and consistency. They are both bravura performances, and while DiCaprio is the better actor in general, this film belongs to Pitt/Cliff.

There are so many other good-to-great actors in smaller roles that it would take too long to go into how they do, why they were cast in this role, and what meaning it has for the film. Lena Dunham as one of the Manson girls? Dakota Fanning as Squeaky Fromme? Maya Hawke as the “Flower Girl” in the group?. Timothy Olyphant in just an extended but meaningful cameo? And Luke Perry in his last role? Then there is Bruce Dern, playing the real George Spahn of Spahn Ranch fame because Burt Reynolds died before filming, and bringing a meta sensibility to the role because of he turns his own career has taken in later years; is what happened with and to George Spahn similar to what happens to actors who are aging out?

Making the most of her role is Margaret Qualley as Pussycat, a fictional Manson girl. Qualley was most recently seen in her Emmy-nominated role as Ann Reinking in TV’s Fosse/Verdon, where she had to not only act but dance that legendary dancer’s part. She owns every scene she’s in here, which is miles away from her Reinking role. She’s everything an uninhibited flower child of the late ‘60s should be, and her role and performance add depth and layers of fluctuating meaning to the film.

I’ve enjoyed the brouhaha around Margot Robbie: “She doesn’t have enough agency in the movie” and “Her role doesn’t give her enough lines.” How do I say this nicely?: People who really don’t know what they are talking about should really stop talking. Her role as the doomed Sharon Tate (a.k.a. Mrs. Roman Polanski) is yes, the stuff of dreams, but this movie isn’t about her at the same time that it is about her world and how it soured. It might be said that any breathtakingly lovely blonde could have played this role, and that would be wrong. Robbie has an intelligence behind her beauty that keep us engaged long after we notice her looks. She represents the “look” and so-called “freedom” of the late ‘60s with her miniskirt and white boots. But she also shows a little-girl joy at seeing her image on the screen (watching the real Sharon Tate—wow, could someone please dig into that?) while also showing us a young woman who doesn’t quite know who she is but who has patterned herself after ‘60s clichés, to a kind and generous woman about to have her first child. It’s not a performance that insists that you watch, but instead invites you in to observe, to enjoy, and even to ponder. There’s depth in her character and greater depth around it.

Not every scene works. The Playboy Mansion scene doesn’t really add anything, and the current actors playing ‘60s actors is more distracting than meaningful. There is also a long unbroken take of dialogue between Rick Dalton (studying lines between shooting scenes) and the child actress Julie Butters, playing a child actress named Trudi (who looks like a combination of the young Brooke Shields and the young Elizabeth Taylor) who has to spout some of the funnier, more ironic, satiric lines about the Art of Acting. As usual, Tarantino’s dialogue is biting and intelligent. But coming out of the mouth of a genuinely young child in a long take doesn’t quite resonate. Butters does her best and she may well become the actress some think she will be, but the dialogue is too much for her, and the long take doesn’t allow for a back-and forth selection of the best takes of either actor.

What does work is the extended Spahn Ranch scene, which “interrupts” the narrative and pulls us away from the person we thought was the lead—Dalton. This is Tarantino at his bravura best, deviating from every expectation about plot and character to go on what could be considered an unnecessary side journey. Pitt is just about perfect here, and he gets to demonstrate his character’s tough exterior, fighting skills, and soft heart. But far more than that, this is a scene of developing dread and tension, feelings that began much earlier in the film with that reverse tracking shot that ended with the shot of “Cielo Drive.” There is great suspense here, and suspense that is stretched to the breaking point. But there is also deep dread mixed in. Since we know that Cliff is not a real person, we don’t know what might happen to him in this strange and unfamiliar setting. We do know historically what they group was capable of, so Cliff’s adventure here keeps us tied to Tarantino’s main character while building foreboding for what we (think we) know is coming.

That sequence is one of the most mature and daring sequences Tarantino has directed. It took exact pacing and a great deal of restraint to do it. I was hoping that restraint—which yielded such creativity here—would last throughout the rest of the film. But this is Tarantino, after all, so of course I was wrong. The end sequence at Dalton’s house is gonzo, all hell breaks loose, over-the-top-beyond-all-recognition action and violence. It’s at this point that QT seriously deviates from historical accuracy, but that important fact is all but drowned out in the moment by the utter insanity and unleashed carnage we view. Of course the irony is that this is violence that we want to see to some extent (cue Hitchcock), but it’s so overboard that it finally becomes funny. I understand that this is a QT trademark, but after my first viewing, I believe that while I see what he’s doing with the violence, the way he did it prevents this from becoming a great film.

Yet…yet…I was a sucker for the ending scene outside the Polanski residence. As in many of QT’s films, history is distorted in a way that delights the brain with “what ifs” while quietly acknowledging what we all know really happened. The film wraps up perfectly with the title coming just as we settle into the alternate reality that’s been presented to us. It’s a dream we wish could have occurred. And a number of themes are suggested by the words “Once Upon a Time” coming first, reminding us that we watching wishful revisionism, and then having …. “in Hollywood,” opening all the thoughts the film suggests in the combination love affair/satire QT has with the Dream Factory.

And yes, I’ll see it again. Probably more than once.

 

 

 

 

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Spider-Man: Far from Home

Spider-Man: Far from Home is a minor but delightful entry in the MC canon. It impresses because it doesn’t try to be more or weightier than it needs to be, and it slyly and subtly addresses a number of larger issues while being faithful to its teen superhero roots.

Unlike previous Spider-Men Tobey Maguire (27 when his first Spider-Man was released) and Andrew Garfield (28 when his first hit the screen), who are actors I respect, Tom Holland looks and sounds right as a high schooler. Holland was in his late teens in his first Spider-Man film, but looks and can act years younger. You believe he’s a high-schooler, with every insecurity, umm, ahh, and undeveloped voice. He’s also been a dancer for most of his life, and is the smoothest, lightest, most gymnastic of the three Spider-Men, which adds a quiet elegance to his action sequences.

This film decides to take Peter (Holland) out of the country on an international school field trip (that keeps experiencing one humorously unbelievable change after another). I was afraid that this was going to be a Mission: Impossible version of the Spider-Man story, with exotic locations that overwhelmed the action. But the film stays rooted in the high school experience and the high schoolers themselves, with the requisite personal dynamics played well and credibly. Especially enjoyable is the ongoing friendship with best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), who is our stand-in just enough to help us stay connected while staying in his own character.

The love angle is provided with the mutual attraction of Peter and MJ (Zendaya), who is given more space in the film, but takes up little of it with her quietly snarky and self-protective attitude. Peter’s reluctance to share his feelings actually gets a little old and frustrating for the viewer, who is tempted to reach up to the screen, slap his face, and tell him to get on with it. (Spoiler alerts from here on in.) But the film finally takes us places after dancing around this issue and others—several places, in fact—in ways that are narratively and emotionally satisfying.

I usually read a little too much about films before seeing them, and I’m glad that wasn’t the case here. I knew that the Mysterio character was played by Jake Gyllenhaal, another actor I respect. But I found myself judging his performance in the early part of the film, feeling as if he never really found his character. Just as I concluded that he really missed it here, the big reveal comes, all makes sense, and he nails his character the rest of the time. It’s nice to be caught off guard every once in a while.

The film could have gone deep and dark with super-villain antics, but the film finds a way to layer humor in between scenes, and even between shots within a scene. It doesn’t jerk the viewer back and forth as much as it creates a lighter mood and prevents the film from ever becoming too heavy. Much of its humor is sly and even indirect. The opening of the film, for instance, is so heart-on-the-sleeve high school, with Whitney Houston’s classic “I Will Always Love You” paired with awkward high schoolers in a second-rate video, complete with copyright marks on their images. Then the (more spoilers here) requisite Marvel action/destruction sequences are revealed to be what they in actuality are—imaginary images that only look like the real thing. Anyone wanting to go deep into the subjects of illusion, within films or even just within the Marvel Universe, could have jolly ol’ time with this aspect of the film. It could also be read (and by that I mean, I want to read it as this…) that Marvel is spoofing its own tendency to  fill the last third of their films with noise and annihilation, going meta at last, even if quietly and subtly.

If you’re missing Tony Stark, this is also your movie. In many ways, it’s the latest (last?) Iron Man movie. His presence and legacy is all over this film, pulling on and putting upon Peter Parker from many angles, and helping situate Peter vis-à-vis Tony Stark in Peter’s life and in the MC Universe. Again, for those interested in the intersection of Stark and Parker and their respective superhero incarnations, this is a rather rich vein to explore.

The film is another opportunity to see Marisa Tomei, who is given a larger role as Aunt May, albeit a very different Aunt May than in the first two Spider-Man series. Tomei elevates every film she is in, and is finally allowed to be more of a character and something of a girlfriend to a major character here. Someday there will be reams of papers dedicated to this actress’s talent and the near-magic of her presence on screen. For now, we can just enjoy her warmth and cinematic charisma, which helps ground this film in reality—not a harsh one, but an affectionate and nurturing one.

There are other small delights in the film as well. Ned and Betty (Angourie Rice) go from “I don’t like you” to “I do like you” to “I love you—we’re soulmates” (and “let’s call each other ‘Babe’ on day two of our relationship”) to breaking up a few days later, “maturely” understanding the short-term high school infatuation as part of each person’s personal journey. It’s a minefield of clichés that are done believably and with affection rather than snark, and with only a small hint of satire. The two chaperones/teachers are a little over the top at times in their characterizations, but they contribute consistently to the layered humor.

The interactions of Peter and MJ, from their first “too cool to be real with you” conversations to their declarations of “like” to their first kisses, are right on the nose. They are filled with the awkward pauses, nervousness, and tentativeness of real teens, not Hollywood characters that go into a smooth and mature movie kiss as their first. Lastly, the way the film tosses off the missing years and devastation of Thanos by calling the Decimation “the blip” is both funny in its reductionism and a tipoff to the viewer that the film we’re just beginning to view is going to be lighter, funnier, and irreverent.

(BTW,  stay through the end credits for two—count ‘em, two—sequences that have provoked screams and will be talked about until Marvel explains all.)

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Late Night

Late Night is, well, occasionally diverting. Much of the promotion for the film has focused on the fact that current star Mindy Kaling wrote this specifically for legendary actress Emma Thompson, as if that fact had value in and of itself. What does have value is that Thompson actually made the film, and generally helps to make the film come as alive as it ever does.

The film is a updated version of The Devil Wears Prada set in television land. Thompson in the Streep role plays a late-night talk show host resting on her laurels who has been losing viewers steadily over the last decade. When she decides she must have a female writer on her all-male writing staff to re-engage her audience, lucky Mindy Kaling, who has just applied for a job on her team, gets hired. Kaling wrote the script, and it features many of her patented quips that tend to focus on the snarky, and which often elevate a scene by one last quick and funny phrase just when you think the scene has ended. The plot is predictable and threadbare, however, and except for one slight surprise (if you’re not paying close attention), you can see every turn coming a mile away.

There is also something of a tension between the screenplay and the direction. Director Nisha Ganatra, a filmmaker best known for her work in television, often seems to direct at a pace that is slower and therefore at odds with the verbal rhythms of the screenplay, particularly the snappy dialogue. Scenes are sometimes too slowly paced or go on for too long, and Kaling’s rhythms are sacrificed. (Kaling’s scene with a possible romantic interest who is clearly already “busy” is embarrassing not so for the “oops, I made a goof coming here” plot point as for how long it takes our supposedly sharp lead to get a clue.)

Thompson is a very good actress, yet not quite in the league of the “can’t do anything wrong British actresses” like Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, and Maggie Smith. She almost nails the character, yet you can see her acting in the more outlandish and dramatic moments that don’t quite seem to come from her center. As an actress, Kaling is decent, and her moments of sincerity and earnestness—which are comically mocked by Thompson’s character—are well played and believable.  Her range is limited, but the film doesn’t give her anything to do that is beyond her. What is beyond belief is her storyline and her character’s developing closeness with a powerful late-night host. This is supposed to be based on Kaling’s experiences as the “token diversity hire” on “The Office,” but the credibility of the basic plot and several scenes stretches thinner and thinner as the film proceeds.

John Lithgow is credited as being in the film, but he’s alongside the film rather than in it, as if all his scenes were done off-line and at a different time. He doesn’t have to work particularly hard in the film, but the ways his scenes were filmed and cut in separate him even further than how the story presents him. Hugh Dancy (spoiler alert) as the office Romeo and cad is generally accepted due to the actor’s skill and personal charm, but the film demands that he function more as a plot point than a character at times, and the film is the weaker for it.

Probably the best male performance is by Tony winner Denis O’Hare, who brings a warmth and world-weariness to his role on the team that helps keep the film grounded and Thompson’s character from occasionally flying off the frame.

What the film is actually trying to say or portray isn’t always apparent, and actually is quite incomprehensible at times. Is this a story of success through hard work—when her big break is nearly beyond belief? Is it a sly take on Emma Thompson trying to gain younger viewers by pairing herself with Mindy Kaling? (I personally vote no on that, but the similarities are unnerving.) Is this an old-fashioned feminist and/or racial statement about the imbalance of power between white men and women, especially women of color? Or is this a simple success story about a hard-working, clever minority woman with a little romance thrown in that taps on all these issues without really digging too deeply into any of them? (I vote yes on that one.)

While the journey that Kaling’s character takes is not always believable but is always predictable, Thompson’s character apparently needs to get out of her rut, get real, and get woke. Unfortunately for the viewer and the film’s grosses, the supposed brave and breakout moment comes with a musty political stab and a plug for a particular “health” association that destroys young human life and often sells their body parts. (Did I just write that?) It’s divisive and is a classic example of Hollywood playing to itself. There are going to be many wondering how and why this film bombed. There is plenty to look at, but one might at least begin here.

The other scene is Thompson’s character’s “come clean” speech, which is supposed to be brave (again) and revelatory, and which supposedly resurrects her wounded career. It seems at first like it might make sense, and then ultimately doesn’t, and the rousing standing O it receives feels forced, to say the least. Then the last scene is what supposedly occurs in her writing and other staff after a year–an improbable collection of candidates that look like a Benneton ad of 10 years ago or a group hired simply for their contribution to someone’s idea of diversity.

In all, the film succeeds best as a vehicle for Kaling’s varied talents and a demonstration of the skills of one of our better supporting actors (O’Hare). Story-wise and message-wise, however, it feels easily predictable and oh, so yesterday.

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The King of Kings (1927)

First of all, apologies for how long it’s been. I’ve seen lots of movies, some old and a few new, but have been too busy with other activities. I hope this gets me back in the groove!

So I stepped back into my time machine and went back nearly a century to finally see what many believe is the ultimate film about Jesus Christ, the 1927 The King of Kings. Of course, there was the 1961 version starring Jeffrey Hunter, sometimes referred to as “I Was a Teenage Jesus” (in mock reference to Hunter’s youth and teen idol status and to 1957’s I Was a Teenage Werewolf). And there was 1965’s The Greatest Story Ever Told, featuring John Wayne as the centurion speaking the famous “Surely this man was the Son of God” line in his inimitable style.

Both those more modern films were respectful toward their main character, but none quite had the worshipful veneration of Cecil B. DeMille’s silent classic. And of course none had the strange dichotomy of a real DeMille classic—that rare combination of lush sensuality and a genuine holy reverence toward the religious. The film opens with a rather raucous soiree hosted by Mary Magdalene, here a party girl rather than a prostitute. Historical accuracy has already taken a hit with this scene, and receives another one rather quickly when we find that she has been “dating” Judas, and doesn’t like the idea of “a carpenter” stealing her man and his loyalties. So of course she hops in her zebra-driven chariot and rides off to confront Jesus. All this is in lovely two-strip Technicolor, a technology that highlighted red and green (blue had to wait eight more years to make an appearance), but which was stunning compared to most black-and-white films of the time. Once MM heads off to Jesus, the film reverts to black-and-white until the Resurrection.

There are some inaccuracies Biblically (as with Peter’s restoration), and the film dates itself terribly by having normal conversation be in King James English. Also, Jesus (H.B. Warner) is 50 years old (but admittedly looks younger), and Mary (Dorothy Cumming) is 18 years younger than the man who is supposed to be her son. But aside from these minor weaknesses, the film is powerful, inspiring, and a glimpse into the classic Protestant view of Jesus as viewed from the late 1800’s. The film skips the Nativity and all of Jesus’ pre-ministry life, and gains from the concentration on the later days.

DeMille generally directs with sensitivity when needed and sweep when it’s called for. By sticking close to a thoughtful Jesus always slightly set apart from the world around him, the film achieves a lovely and occasionally glorious portrait of a miracle worker, teacher, lover of children, and finally, a willing sacrifice. Looking at it through modern eyes, the slower pace of a silent film, as well as the absence of the spoken word and any natural sound, tends to keep the King of Kings at a slight remove from the everyday. Yet Warner’s performance and the general “ripped from the Bible story” approach makes this man familiar and relatable. The cinematography from J. Peverell Marley (whom DeMille used nearly 30 years later for The Ten Commandments) is stunning for its time. Yes, the Technicolor is a visual if temporary delight, but so is the way Jesus glows with a holy light, something that could have been nearly laughable but instead is soft and respectful. DeMille’s use of special effects is occasionally subtle (a word rarely associated with DeMille), and even when dramatic, as with the deliverance of Mary Magdalene from seven demons, is strong and effective.

The film uses the references in the Bible when it is directly representing a Biblical story, a feature that is helpful in locking down the various events in the Scriptures, and which sets those stories apart from the much more mundane (and often silly) plot point and scenes that were added.

Warner, best known to modern audiences as the pharmacist Mr. Gower in It’s a Wonderful Life, and to film nerds like myself as one of the “waxworks” that William Holden refers to in Sunset Boulevard, is a little long in the tooth here to play a 33-year-old. But he exudes a gentleness and strength, as well as a maturity, that works for the film. The special effects help a bit, but he has a presence that works well with the image of Jesus held by most American Protestants. Audiences used to The Passion of the Christ will find a great timidity in how Jesus is tortured and eventually crucified. But De Mille handles all this with a surprising delicacy and artistry. There is a lot we don’t see directly, and Jesus’ body is hardly wounded compared with modern film, but we more than get the idea.

This film was the standard story of Jesus and his death until the sixties, and some would rightly argue until Mel Gibson’s film. For most viewers today, the film would come off as corny and terribly slow. But while it is clearly a product of the silent era, with the acting styles and pace that go along with that, there is a reverence toward the subject and the Subject that is unparalleled. It’s the holiest and most respectful of religious time capsules.

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Avengers: Endgame

Image result for avengers endgame

I’ve been lax in writing lately, and for those who look for and enjoy what I write, my apologies. I’ve been busy working on other people’s scripts. I’ve also been seeing lots of films, including two 1938 classics (Only Angels Have Wings and You Can’t Take it with You), 1959’s Room at the Top, 1965’s The Agony and the Ecstasy, plus some little trifle called Captain Marvel, which wasn’t interesting enough to write about. Just didn’t have time to write about them.

But the behemoth of the year is Avengers: Endgame, which is more than a mere movie. It’s an event (as anticipated as a royal birth), a catalyst of far too many passionate discussions about people and events that aren’t real, and the culmination of a hugely successful series. (Its march to the top of the money heap is another story in itself, and worthy of discussion in other quarters).

I’ve tended to look at Avengers films as problem-solving cinematic machines that are challenged with having to give space and time to a variety of superheroes within the film itself, creating a recognizable universe, strategically introducing new characters along the way, and oh, yes, telling a story. And all that activity culminates in Endgame.

The emotional investment that most viewers are likely to bring to the film tends to override the film’s flaws (like the rather leisurely first hour), and can at least temporarily connect one to the film with love and nostalgia while viewing it, and then rethinking the experience with some misgivings later. The film is successful in giving every superhero his/her space, though no one will be completely happy that their faves didn’t get perhaps as much time as they would have liked. A friend and I agreed that there was not enough Chris Pratt or Spider-Man—our personal preference. Others may take issue with who lives and who (spoiler) dies. And of course that sweet, soft ending will likely be a point of contention for a while as well.

But the film succeeds as a whole. It brings everyone together, and though there is a sense of shoe-horning them in, every major character appears, sometimes at just the right moment. Again, the first reaction is joy at seeing another loved and temporarily forgotten character appear on screen; the second reaction, perhaps days later, is how dissonant these characters and worlds can be when they share a frame. As subgroups, they have been defined well, and they work well within their worlds. Lumped together, it’s a good thing they are in battle mode, as the fight scenes bring common cause to disparate heroes, and the energy of the fight scenes tends to distract us from noticing how the various superheroes and the worlds and values they represent don’t really gel.

I will confess that the grand explanation for how (spoiler alert again) the heroes can go back in time and undo Thanos’ nefarious deeds made my head hurt, and the doubling up of the characters in one time frame being visited by the same character from other time frame often left me confused. I’m sure some Avengers nerd (no offense meant—I’m nerdy about other things) might explain it from a place of full understanding. But I wouldn’t understand it (not being that deeply connected with the Marvel universe) and I don’t really care enough to make the effort. I was just happy they could get their friends back.

One thing I’ve always admired about the new wave of superhero films is the absolute commitment of the actors. No one phones it in, and good actors contribute good acting. Robert Downey, Jr. is a very good actor, and he is a standout among a solid group of performances. Let’s hope there is no going back to actors not giving their all in films like this.

What is a bit lumpy about the film are some of the choices made about the characters. Opening with Hawkeye and his family—why do that? Fat Thor? Some loved that; I am not among them. I wanted him to have a stronger presence and perhaps clash more with the others. Why did Peter Quill and Gamora get such little time together, especially when the film actually brings them together?

Bringing in Ant-Man and using him so significantly seemed a good creative choice, and limiting the confusing character and bland performer of Captain Marvel also seemed good. What she can and can’t do, and why she chose to do her thing so sporadically, was only stabbed at in the film, and ineffectively. But I’m glad she wasn’t a major presence in the film. I was also hoping that Peter Q. would redeem himself for all the chaos he contributed to in the previous film, but alas, such was not to be. What was in its place, however, worked, and helped bring the franchise around full circle; having Iron Man move from selfish to sacrificial in the first Iron Man film was repeated here, with more depth and much more resonance.

And yes, the final battle scene was gargantuan. But layered as it was with various superheroes making their arrivals when they did, it kept the viewer emotionally connected throughout, and prevented the battle scene from turning into a DC slugfest that goes on far too long.

There will be endless conversation around the artistic choices made here, as they nearly all involve characters that we love, love more, and love less. And what happens with all these characters is really at the heart of this franchise. Yes, there is an alternate universe with a Tesseract, wildly different rules from our universe, etc. But what has always counted are the characters, much more than the stories we find them in. Endgame is actually overstuffed with them, and most viewers will joyfully gorge themselves on their favorites.

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A Trip to the ‘30s: Peg O’ My Heart, Lady for a Day, Morning Glory, and King of Jazz

Saw a trio of films that turned to be central to the 1933 Best Actress race. Katherine Hepburn won her first Oscar for a somewhat strange performance in Morning Glory, playing an actress who goes from young, innocent, naïve, and quirky to a confident star.

She was up against May Robson, who gives an excellent and touching performance in one of Frank Capra’s earliest successes, Lady for a Day. (You may have heard the story of the Best Director Award being announced by Will Rogers, who just said, “Come and get it, Frank.” Capra was halfway up when he realized Rogers was speaking to Frank Lloyd, director of Cavalcade. Awkward.)

 

Peg O’ My Heart wasn’t nominated for anything, but the lead, Marion Davies, gave what many considered her most solid performance. Her much older and married lover, magnate William Randolph Hearst, apparently devoted a great deal of energy—pre-Harvey Weinstein—to try and secure her a nomination, as he rightly felt that this was her best work as well. But to no avail.

All three of these films are in that peculiar early talkie period where the camera hasn’t yet rediscovered its pre-sound freedom, and much of the action is played at a mid-range, with little movement and stage-like blocking of the actors. Capra’s film is by far the most sophisticated visually of the three, and Robson’s performance has echoes of the stage, but still feels fresh and engaging. It’s the corny story of a poor alcoholic who is believed to be high society by her overseas daughter until such daughter announces her engagement to a European aristocrat, and tells her mother she’s on her way to see her. Then she receives help from rather unscrupulous characters to pull off the charade of her being as high society as her daughter believes. Robert Riskin’s screenplay is full of energy and wit, even while the plot itself combines a creaky Damon Runyon central story with a dip into the occasionally wisecracking New York underworld. Riskin and Capra fared better the next year with Oscar wins for It Happened One Night, with awards for them as screenwriter and director, plus wins for leads Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, plus the Oscar for Best Picture.

Peg O’ My Heart’s best feature is Davies, who gets to show off her charisma and comic skills, too often hidden by Heart’s insistence that she be in stuffy costume dramas that didn’t suit her. The story had been filmed more than a decade earlier with Broadway legend Laurette Taylor in 1922, a film based on the play written for her by her husband a decade before that (Taylor was 38 when she played the teen in this film; Davies was 36.) Her co-star Onslow Stevens (yes, that’s his name) gives a compelling, naturalistic performance that is ahead of its time. He has star quality to beat the band and is leading man handsome, but in spite of a long acting career, never made the leap to full-fledged stardom. The film itself, like Lady for a Day, is a fish-out-of-water film, with country Irish Peg being forced to go live in London with rich relatives for reasons that seem more confusing as time goes on. The clash between fresh, stubborn and innocent Peg and her snooty rich relations is at the heart of the story, though the love story (such as it is) and her love for her father via for domination at times. As most of the Davies films, it’s primarily a showcase for Hearst’s admittedly talented paramour, but Davies makes the film hers, and it may well be her best sound film performance. The story is as creaky as Lady for a Day’s, and it “feels” more like a silent than the others mentioned here. Plus, it ends far too abruptly, raising interesting questions it doesn’t answer.

Morning Glory is perhaps the oddest of the three. Director Lowell Sherman, who was also a successful actor who made the transition to sound (e.g., 1932’s What Price Hollywood?, really the first of the A Star is Born films), directs in an old-fashioned manner in terms of camerawork and blocking. But he also elicits a modern performance from Hepburn, whose angular features, unique voice, and unusual vocal delivery make for an uneven but compelling performance; you can’t and don’t want to take your eyes off this strange creature. One could say she exhibits a broad acting range in the performance; others might say she was all over the place.

Up-and-coming son-of-legend Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. plays the male lead, and is pretty much eaten alive by Hepburn. He has a pleasant presence however, that helps balance the film. Adolph Menjou plays, well, Adolph Menjou, and happily, C. Aubrey Smith has a substantial role and helps to hold the film down to earth.

All the above films are worth seeing for their central female performances. Personally, I found Robson’s to be the most consistent, mature, and well-rounded. But seeing a silent (and controversial) star succeed so well in a talkie, and seeing a legend in her first Oscar-winning performance—well, also worth the time.

Lastly, there is the intriguing King of Jazz, which is firmly in a short “moment in time” period of film history, when talks often meant musicals, and film didn’t quite know what to do with its new abilities. This isn’t a musical, but a revue of songs, dance, and comedy routines put together in chapters. The central personage is Paul Whiteman, generally unknown today except for his introduction of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” in 1924. But for a time, he was the King of Jazz, and well known for it.

This is a Universal Film, but with an M-G-M look to it. It was hugely expensive for its time–$2 million, and it looks it. There are hints of Busby Berkeley-style work (but better directed in many cases) and early moments that presage the over-the-top numbers in The Great Zeigfeld. Some of the numbers are stunning, and surprisingly grand.

The film strongly features John Boles, a star-of-the-moment with a lovely operatic voice that worked well in more popular songs. He was handsome, and seemed destined for great stardom. He worked throughout the 1930’s, and not just in musicals. But he faded and became an oilman. Ironically, the film also has a much less handsome crooner who was part of a Paul Whiteman group called The Rhythm Boys, formed in 1925 and picked up by Whiteman the next year. They are featured strongly twice in the film, with cameos along the way. That much less handsome crooner became as famous as Boles became unknown. His name was Crosby–Bing Crosby–and it is a delight to hear him in his early years. The charisma is all there, as is that magnificent voice, which was featured (solo) over the opening credits. (He made things difficult for the production, though, by having to be escorted to the set every day from jail, where he was servicing a four-week sentence for drunk driving, a sign of things to come.)

Aside from being a hybrid musical-revue-comedy-skit parade, the film is also the richest example of a two-strip Technicolor film I’ve ever seen. The two-strip process, starting from the last ‘20’s up until the three-strip process came to fruition in 1935, featured reds and greens, and the film nearly overwhelms the viewer with the colors. (It won the Oscar for Best Art Design.) Within those limitations, the film is wild with color, and has more variety than one might think possible. Anyone interested in the history of color film, or anyone interested in art design, has to put this on their list to see. The film has been lovingly restored (which is a complicated story of its own), and is a fascinating treat to experience.

There is one breathtaking omission, however, and one that damages the film’s reputation today. “Jazz” in those days meant lightly-jazz-infused pop/dance music, and is not what we think of today when we think of jazz. But the grand finale, the Melting Pot number, ostensibly celebrates modern music as the amalgamation of influences from all over the world as they blend together to create modern American music. And there is nary an African-American to be seen or referred to. To attempt to present popular music of 1930 as a combination of musical influences without considering true jazz or the overwhelming contributions of black artists is somewhere between laughable and tragic. It’s thought that this had less to do with Whiteman than with the producers, as Whiteman was known for working with black musicians. But the whole in that portion of the film is huge.

Aside from that gaping omission, however, the film offers a glimpse into the period of great “in-betweens”—between two- and three-strip Technicolor, in between rigid camerawork and the more fluent cameras of just a few years later, and in between having the opportunity to use sound for music and dance, and actually knowing what to do with those opportunities. There hadn’t been a film quite like King of Jazz, and there certainly never will be again. As a time capsule for film and vaudeville, it’s invaluable, and charming, enthralling, and curious all at the same time.

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