Mary Poppins Returns

Warm, sometimes touching, exciting, and uneven, with a compromised central performance. Plus, oh yes, it’s got to withstand the viewer’s recollection of its superior predecessor. That’s a lot for any film to bear. Mary Poppins Returns is mostly a delight, however, with its bright colors, accomplished dance numbers, and mostly strong, mostly English cast. It’s just too bad that the whole wasn’t quite the sum of its parts.

Most serious film viewers and writers try to see a film in its proper context, which usually means working to see the film in relation to itself. That’s impossible for this film, which must either beat back or transcend the fond memories of the 1964 original. Mary Poppins Returns succeeds to some degree, with knowing but humble references to the original (some of which you might miss if not paying attention), strong secondary performances, and solid production numbers (one of which makes use of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop talents.) The completely uncynical mood throughout is refreshing, and the film is beautiful to look at, evoking the original while setting a color palette of its own.

The original chimney sweep Bert has been updated to lamplighter Jack (Miranda), who gives an open-hearted performance with a clearly improved Cockney accent over Dick Van Dyke’s original. Miranda is such a talent, and has achieved such success, that I feared a certain knowingness and smug aloofness might taint the performance. But Miranda, neither the best singer nor best dancer around, gives a thoroughly joyful performance and makes the best use of his talents—the songs fit him perfectly and the most challenging dance number (“Trip a Little Light Fantastic”) is edited to let us enjoy the fine choreography of the main dancers and at the same time give us the impression that Miranda has their same dancing abilities. That’s no dig at Miranda, the heart of the film, but a compliment to the editors. And (spoiler alert) he becomes involved romantically in an arc that is gently (and beautifully) developed and provides a love connection that the first film lacked.

The core of acting Brits keeps the film grounded. Ben Whishaw (the dad), Emily Mortimer (the aunt, Dad’s sister), Julie Walters (the maid) don’t get too serious, but they lay a solid foundation for the leads to go magical when necessary while holding the film together with their charm and honesty. Colin Firth, however, doesn’t exactly make the most of a paper-thin bad guy.

The main problems are the plot, the songs, and Emily Blunt (sort of). The plot is gruel-thin, and boils down to a “will-they-or-won’t-they lose the house?” scenario. Of course ,the end is never in doubt, but the last-minute suspense sequence tends to strain even Mary Poppins credibility while taking the film into a risky direction that fortunately doesn’t erase the childlike joy of the previous two hours.

Some of the numbers are enchanting, mostly because of director Rob Marshall’s choreography and direction rather than the songs themselves. They are, to use a term popular in my household, “fine.”  The aforementioned “Trip a Little Light Fantastic,” “A Cover is Not a Book,” and “Nowhere to Go But Up” are particularly strong. “A Cover is Not a Book,” though, fits lyrically into the film yet suffers from the lack of connection to either the plot or the overall mood and sentiment of the film, which never is firmly established. This is another area in which the film unfortunately has to battle with the original—those songs were classics, working on their own while also working for the film of which they were a part. Perhaps one or two songs will live on after this film, but they tend to be solid rather than transcendent.

The classic animation in the film is a welcome change from all the CGI work clogging up current movie screens, but not all those numbers work, either. The dangerous chase sequence is classic Disney on one hand in its scariness, but it disconnects from the rest of the film and seems unnecessary. Also unnecessary and seemingly shoehorned in is Meryl Streep’s number “Turning Turtle,” an homage of sorts to the “I Love to Laugh” number of the original. If I were Marshall, and Streep requested to be in my next film (which is what apparently happened), one could do much worse than this number, but it’s the kind that would have been cut out on TV viewings 20 years ago in the interest of time and momentum.

Which brings us to Blunt, one of my favorite young actresses (A Quiet Place, The Devil Wears Prada, The Young Victoria). When I saw the preview of the film and noted her entrance from the sky to the park, I saw some body language that caused some concern. Unfortunately, that was a genuine preview of a performance that is more of an impression or impersonation of the Poppins character than a genuine performance. I had always tended to under-appreciate Julie Andrews’ work because I assumed her Oscar was mainly due to Hollywood making up for her not getting the lead in the film version of My Fair Lady. But subsequent viewings of the 1964 film show a solid, inhabited performance by Andrews that was funny, mischievous, and slyly subversive. And that voice—one of the great voices of the second half of the 20th century. How could anyone compete with that? Blunt has a fine voice, but no one could be in Andrews’ league. So kudos to Blunt for tackling the project. But she never finds her inner Mary Poppins. The performance varies from scene to scene, and Blunt keeps defaulting to an upper-crust sophisticated attitude that is put on rather than lived in. She is a talented triple threat of actress, singer, and dancer, and some of her lines are delightfully delivered. She shines (if not really dazzles) in the musical portions of the film, but never locks down on her own version of the classic character.

Even with all of that, the film is a pleasant and occasionally charming film with more strengths than weaknesses. Miranda and the secondary players (save Firth) are wonderful, and the musical numbers are genuinely entertaining. Then there is the “just-in-the-nick-of-time” appearance of the then 91-year-old Dick Van Dyke that rushes the ending of the main narrative, but does so with so much surprise and energy that it doesn’t really matter. And then there is the surprise appearance of another legend at the end of the film, which is a lovely revelation that dovetails perfects with the film’s final musical number and finishes the film on a literally high note. The whimsy and wonder of the film may not match those of its predecessor, but there are some enjoyable  moments and the occasional highlight in this sequel.

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The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958)

The Inn of the Sixth Happiness is one of those older, well-regarded films I’d put on my list to see “sometime.” Sometime turned out to be last night, and since I didn’t really know much about the film, many of the surprises of the true story were part of the enjoyment.

The Inn of the Sixth Happiness is the “based on true events” story (I can’t in good conscience call it a “true story”) about Gladys Aylward, a British maid who felt called by God to be a missionary to China. Obstacles ensue, of course, but she manages with great difficulty (that the film papers over) to get to China in time to learn the language, become a Chinese citizen, meet a man that may or may not have been more than a friend, and to help a huge group of children get to safety in the middle of the Japanese war with China (1937 to 1945).

The film was nominated for Best Director Mark Robson, who, ironically, had been nominated the year before for the quite opposite Peyton Place (he’d also directed Champion, Bright Victory, and The Harder They Fall.) It’s an epic that falls easily in look and production among the large-scale productions of the period, such as The Robe, The Ten Commandments, and Ben-Hur, though the central story is much smaller and focused, and the background is a foreign field and a foreign war rather than the Exodus or the beginning of Christianity. It’s in CinemaScope, which adds to the visual scope, but the non-Technicolor color hasn’t survived well over the years.

What it gets wrong: The production is simply too big and grand for the story. The story is grittier, smaller, and stronger than what the film portrays. The film is far too long at 2 hours and 38 minutes—and this in 1958. The film broadens at the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese war, and rather quickly becomes something of a war epic followed by a combination Great Escape/Journey film. It works, but just barely.

The real Gladys was a short, dark-haired, Cockney-accented woman, and the book the film was based on was entitled The Small Woman. None of these make anyone automatically think of the tall, Swedish Ingrid Bergman, but Bergman was a star and could hold a film like this as few could. The central personage of a film narrative like this needs to be strong and demanding of attention. My guess is that Aylward was the former and nothing of the latter; Bergman was both. Bergman continues the good news/bad news of her casting with her performance. No one suffers on film or swoons as beautifully and romantically as Bergman, and she shares with fellow Swede Garbo that slightly removed, “floating above it all” flavor that gives her an otherworldly air. Fortunately, we’re not in Gaslight or Notorious territory here, and that performance is set against a set of difficult circumstances that ground her work here.

The film, like all others, is also a reflection of its time, and not only in its slightly bloated production. The key male in the story was Chinese, and here is portrayed by Curt Jurgens, who is German and has been changed into a supposed half-Chinese, half-Dutch officer. He looks as Chinese as Bergman, and it’s distracting, to say the least. The other male lead is supposed to be completely Chinese, and is played by the ailing English actor Robert Donat (The 39 Steps, Goodbye, Mr. Chips), who died during production. He is made to look as Asian as possible, but since Donat is 1) not Asian, and 2) a major star of the time, it’s also distracting now, though less so than Jurgen’s character. Since casting Asians as Asians is still an issue, we can just look upon the casting here as typical of its time. What’s also intriguing is the love interest in the film, which falls somewhere between romantically almost believable and shoehorned into an otherwise romance-less story (Aylward insisted that she had never kissed a man.) Apparently, it was OK to place a romance into a story where there wasn’t one, but heaven forbid it be between a Swedish-looking supposed Englishwoman and a genuinely full-blooded Chinese.

What the film gets right: What the film gets right makes up for all the things it gets wrong. It’s a Hollywood version of a missionary, but while presenting Aylward as strong and capable, it also shows her as stubborn and occasionally difficult, leading to a more well-rounded characterization. Even better is that unlike most mainstream films of today, there is a great deal of accuracy and respect shown to her faith. Opposition abounds of course, as it would for any missionary, be it on a personal or societal level. But there are people whose faith takes hits and never waivers, and there are people led by a genuine call of God. In the world of this film, Christianity is real, and powerful, and occasionally quite effective in accomplishing deeds great and small.

The film also succeeds in not doing the typical Hollywood dance around the key issues of a missionary. The goal is to bring people to faith, and the film doesn’t back away from that. One might call the climax of the film the (spoiler alert) successful rescue of scores of children over difficult terrain, but in some ways the climax comes somewhat earlier when (another spoiler alert) the Mandarin (Donat’s character) becomes a Christian, and Aylward bursts into tears of joy that don’t subside quickly. For a true Christian, the genuine conversion of a soul is on a par with the rescue that follows, and the case can easily be made that they are two fruits of the same heart and work. I can’t recall seeing a mainstream Hollywood film of that era, except perhaps for a few moments at the end of Ben-Hur, that not only respects faith, but gets it so right in its presentation.

The film is slow, and could easily have been 45 minutes shorter. The traveling at the end gets a bit long and dragged out, as so a few of the other sequences. And oh, the music: overdone, overloud, and though typical of its time for big-budget productions, a distraction. Yet in the middle of the noise and the scope is a story that gets more right than wrong at its essence, and is, in spite of itself at times, genuinely inspiring.

 

 

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A Star is Born (2018)

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Green Book

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mission: Impossible–Fallout

For my friend Steve:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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