Avengers: Infinity War

In the “old days,” some films, for various reasons, were called critic-proof. That could mean that it didn’t matter what the critics would say, it would still be financially successful. It also meant that some films seemed impervious to any serious critical analysis, as they somehow inhabited a rarified place where regular analysis and critical review were as unable to connect with the film as a rubber band would be to knock down an invading spacecraft.

Avengers: Infinity War is the newest of those films. On its way to becoming one of the top moneymaking films of all time, and still dominating the box office, the film is something of a juggernaut (no pun intended) that is somehow separate from the world of cinema. This is a marketing triumph, a franchise culmination of sorts, a social event, and a cultural moment. It’s also a movie, though that can be lost in the noise and the hype.

The disappointment in viewing the film through one of those lenses is that this is a pretty good movie. There are a myriad of approaches to saying that, and I must set out my terms. A pretty good movie here is an entertaining film that solves the problems set out before it. As with the first (recent) Avengers film (https://film-prof.com/2012/05/14/the-avengers/), the great success of this filmic collection of superheroes is how it addresses its many challenges. I don’t think its challenges were to present a thoughtful treatise on the human condition or present a cogent critique of the modern political landscape. This, like the Star Wars universe or that of the LOTR trilogy, inhabits a universe only tangentially related to the one in which most of us live (I tip my hat in equal parts respect and dismay at those who tend to live in said universe). In spite of its many, many, many plot and logic holes (even considering the make-believe world we’re speaking of here), the film succeeds because it meets and solves its challenges well.

The biggest of those challenges isn’t the plot. Literal-minded folks need not apply, nor attend. For heaven’s sake, it’s a world where a raccoon speaks, a twig plays video games, a blond god survives innumerable deadly situations—oh, never mind. The main problem is how to present as many of the Marvel characters as possible in a way that we as viewers can connect with. The film does so with imagination, wit, and occasional feeling.

First, it gives its heroes as much time to connect with the viewer and the other superheroes as they can. Some admittedly come and go at too quick a pace, but the major players are fleshed out well enough to remind the viewer of their identity, their personality, and their powers. [Nota bene: I’m not a big Marvel fan, I don’t know all the players, and I don’t geek out at these films.) Some of the old is kept, and most of the new works. The old includes Iron Man’s snark, in abundant display here, as is his intelligence. It includes Spider-Man’s naiveté and sweet nature, and Gamora’s fierceness and tenderness. It includes Captain America’s cool and Thor’s lumbering bravery and entitlement. I could go on and on.

What’s new is even better. Dr. Strange is the only one able to go one-on-one with Iron Man, and watching Robert Downey Jr. and Benedict Cumberbatch face off is worth the price of admission. Just as delightful is how the film handles Thor’s arrival on Peter Quill’s (Star Lord’s) spaceship. The respect and adulation the crew gives to Thor is funny enough; Quill’s immature reaction to it is classic. The one-liners throughout are also genuinely funny and work in their context better than many a funny line does in other films.

In some ways, like Thor: Ragnarok, the film is one of the funniest of the year. Having Peter Dinklage play a giant is only one of the film’s great moments. Having Quill’s team completely ignore him and pass him while he’s giving the clenched-fist “hold it” signal is another. At the same time, the film is surprising (even shocking) in whom it kills off, and then is moving and touching in moments that are unexpected. There is a kind of “father-daughter moment” that is first poignant, and then startling. The end features certain “departures,” shall we say, that include a surprisingly emotional and open-hearted exchange between Spider-Man and Iron Man that pulls the film into a depth and seriousness that harkens back a century to Chaplin’s ability to make us laugh, and then turn around on a dime to make us cry.

One of the strongest elements of the best of these more recent films is the complete commitment to the character that the actors provide. There is no winking to the camera, no pulling back into a star persona. The commitment to the reality of the character is as real as the five actors nominated in the four main acting categories at the Oscars every year. Some of these actors have been nominated in the past for those other films. Their talent is no less on display here. Certainly one that needs to be called out is Josh Brolin (another Oscar nominee, for Milk) whose career path has been fascinating to watch. Here he plays the villain—a great one at that—with all the power, anger, evil, and vulnerability of the great villains of the past. He’s only beginning to come into his own as an actor.

For the geek, there are certainly holes that one could drive a truck through. The trip to Wakanda feels as shoe-horned into the film as it probably was. There are probably too many fight scenes. But the film moves with energy and enough logic (within the confines of its universe and its possibilities) to keep the viewer engaged, and it ends (is there anyone left who doesn’t know this?) on a shocking note of devastation and plot irresolution. What a great creative risk! We feel full and we are left hanging at the same time. Yes, it’s “just” a superhero film, but it’s well-written, well shot, briskly paced, very well acted, and occasionally brave artistically.

Note: It’s been fun reading reviews from those striving to bring this film into their own socio-political or traditionally cinematic perspectives. To them I say: The film is outside of your world, so don’t try to evaluate it on those terms. You’ll miss the point. This film has other goals, and they are more than making money and entertaining. Take the time to respect it, and you’ll understand.  

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I Can Only Imagine

Oh, what a challenging task it is to analyze a film such as I Can Only Imagine! I come at film on this site (and in my class) from an artistic perspective, and as with all critics and analysts, there are topics and storylines that resonate more deeply for me in some films than others.

Full disclosure, as I am posting this on two websites: I am a Christian who loves Jesus, and I am a film professor with two film degrees from Columbia University. (I’m sure there are folks who don’t think this combination in one person is any more likely than finding a unicorn in one’s backyard.) I am also a musician(singer and pianist) and musical performer. The song I Can Only Imagine didn’t change my life, but I was profoundly moved by it, and still am. To make matters more complicated, I’ve met Bart Millard at a music studio, and spent some time with him and legendary producer Brown Bannister. And I have family connections to both Amy Grant (through my brother) and Michael W. Smith (double—through my brother and my son) who both feature in the film. So while it’s not hard to be clear-eyed about the art, my enjoyment of the film is partly predicated on these personal elements.

Factoid: As I write this, I Can Only Imagine has brought in $60 million, much more than anticipated. Why this is will be left to others.

Briefly, the film covers the story of Bart Millard, composer and singer of the song, from early childhood with a terribly abusive father, through his eventual spiritual and artistic success with this song, the biggest-selling Christian song of all time. As always, a Christian film, especially one that is relatively well-made, is going to be something of a Rorschach test, depending on one’s view of Christianity and Christians, though many critics may try to run from that truth. It’s easy to dismiss poorly made Christian films, as there are so many. And while this film can be accused of preaching to the choir, its story of father issues, self-doubt, artistic struggle, self-defeating behavior, and forgiveness touches on a number of universal themes. Perhaps some reviewers have a hard time with one of its central plot points—that a relationship with Jesus can turn a life around, sometimes dramatically. If I were not a Christian and hadn’t viewed the same thing personally, I might also bring my requisite analytical skepticism to that aspect of the film.

Compared to other “Christian films,” I Can Only Imagine is well-made. Contrary to some folks’ opinions, it is lovingly photographed, and even creatively so at times. It’s generally well-acted as well. Oscar winner Cloris Leachman (yes, she’s still around) has a strong supporting part that requires little of her, though her lovely and surprised reaction to hearing her grandson sing for the first time is a joy to behold. Dennis Quaid as the “monstrous” father has a more challenging part. He’s the angry beast in the first half, and Quaid works hard at it, but doesn’t seem to connect with the personal rage indicated by his actions (which are surprisingly rough for a film like this). As his character begins to walk with God, Quaid gets better. His awkward attempts to be genuinely spiritual and to connect with his son are nicely played, and that famous Quaid smile does get a moment in the sun at the right time. His casting was an inspired choice (no pun intended), as his general likability helps us to stay connected through the difficult parts of the film.

Michael Finley as Bart has by far the hardest task. He’s a close enough lookalike to the real Bart that it works on a physical level. His acting is more than adequate, considering that this is his first film. He captures the anger of an abused young man, and the scenes of him with his band reflect the reality of band life, and the support and teasing that comes with shared work and performance. The whole musical aspect of it, in fact, is probably the strongest part of the film. From composing to listening (and reacting to) honest and even harsh criticism, to recording—it all seems right.

The editing is almost there. There are some well-cut flashbacks that serve to connect childhood experiences and conversations with some later struggles. Most of them work, though some flashbacks are just a few seconds too long, seeming to wait for the audience to make sure they get it. Please, filmmakers, it’s OK to challenge the audience a bit artistically. Shorter, tighter snippets would likely have had a stronger impact.

I laughed at one complaint that the film couldn’t make up its mind on what to focus on: the abusive childhood or the creation of the hit song. Uhhh, they are completely related, and needed to be interwoven. One strength of the film is that it blends these two elements fairly well, and also includes a number of other relatable situations, including Bart’s childhood sweetheart and how that develops into adulthood, how people deal with hotheads, and how adult criticisms can bring up and connect with old abusive memories. Unlike many Christian films, there is little action in churches, highlighting Bart’s home, life on the road, and in the office or recording studio. These are refreshing and realistic settings for the story, and they add to its accessibility.

The script is an improvement over others of its type, though there are problems. Some of the dialogue is witty, strong, and completely believable. Then there are bits of dialogue and turns of action that seem more clichéd and paint-by-numbers than they needed to be. While not setting up the elements of success as done explicitly by Slumdog Millionaire and The Man Who Invented Christmas, the film has fun slipping in the various inspirations Bart eventually makes use of.

Watching—and experiencing—the film brought back other films I’ve seen recently, such as The Post. IMHO, The Post was overrated upon its release by those that were deeply touched by its themes of journalistic integrity, freedom of the press, and the attempts of our country’s leaders to suppress incriminating truth. As someone who thinks our involvement in Vietnam was a mistake, that various administrations lied about it for political advantage, and who as a member of the media (at one time) loves the First Amendment and truth, those themes resonated with me as well. For those poised to find the obvious connections to current events with The Post, and for those who feel most deeply troubled by what they see, the film tapped deeply into those concerns, and many critics were stirred by their responses to the issues raised in the film. I understand that, but also posit that many reviewers and film analysts are swayed to connection with some films and negative reactions to others because of their reactions to the content. Contrary to more than one review, The Post was not a great film, and certainly not one of the greatest of all time.

Like those who experienced The Post through their strong political beliefs, and like other critics that experience films through their own concerns, fear, and likes, I was deeply touched by the themes of I Can Only Imagine, as well as being connected to its music (both because of my history as a musician as well as having enjoyed the song so much). Like Walk the Line, the film connected with me in a way that doesn’t necessarily connect with others, and that doesn’t reflect its value as a well-made work of art) and I need to be aware of those connections and try to not them overwhelm my understanding of the art (as I believe many did with The Post). My faith and my role as a musician greatly connected me with the film, and I “enjoyed” it a great deal, and was deeply touched by it. I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t see and point out the film’s limitations; I’d also be remiss if I wasn’t honest about how a film acutely connects with me on issues that I deem eternal, and more profound and significant than any social or political issue.

 

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All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) and A Night to Remember (1958)

All Quiet on the Western Front 

All Quiet on the Western Front was a Best Picture Oscar winner (and Best Director winner for Lewis Milestone as well) way back in 1930. The version I saw was a restoration with sound effects, but no heard dialogue. In spite of its age and its status as a black-and-white silent film, it still stands as one of the most powerful anti-war films ever made, and it’s as touching and powerful as any film made since. At two and a quarter hours, it’s also one of the longer films of its time.

The film defines “epic,” and ranks up there with Lawrence of Arabia and the three Lord of the Rings films as a film of great scope that can also carry an intimate storyline. The setting is World War One, and the film is told from the perspective of young and innocent German soldiers. The “enemy” here is the French, though the point is not pressed that hard. The leads are not so much German as simply young, and the enemy isn’t the French and British so much as war itself and its warmongers. The message could hardly be fresher.

The film has an unusual plot line and structure. There are a great many battle scenes, and there is a focus on a few young men until the film finally focuses on just one—an unusual approach for any film. Lew Ayres has the lead, and it’s a treat to follow his journey from a callow youth to a still-sensitive young man hardened by war. Ayres is pretty much forgotten today, though he had a career extending into the 1990’s, and was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for 1948’s Johnny Belinda. Director Milestone was famous for his breathtaking tracking shots, which are used to great effect here. But he also was (apparently) influenced by Russian rapid cutting, especially with faces, which he used more extensively in his sound films—most obviously with his next film, The Front Page.

For anyone interested in war films, anti-war films, or film epics, this needs to go on the list of must-sees. I won’t give anything away, but prepare to be surprised by the visual sophistication and emotionally touched by several scenes.

A Night to Remember (1958)

This one wasn’t high on my list to see, but I was familiar with it as a British film about the Titanic. After the early sound era’s Atlantic, the film I was most familiar with was 1953’s Titanic, which centered on a married couple’s issues as much as the sinking of the ship. It always struck me as odd that the 1950’s had two high-budget Titanic films. But the British film may well be the best film of all time on the sinking. (And yes, I’m thinking of the Cameron film when I write this).

For one, its British perspective is less dramatic and melodramatic than the other Titanic films, and there is a spirit of “Carry on” and the stiff upper lip that adds to the power of the events. There is a central character played by Kenneth More, the most popular actor of his time, who more or less carries us through the film, but there is none of the focus on a character or couple that many filmmakers deem necessary to hook the interest of the audience. Here, the focus is on several characters and couples, yet mostly on the inexorable actions and inactions that led to the sinking.

The film is surprisingly suspenseful, considering the viewer’s supposed knowledge of what ultimately transpires. The maddening behavior of the crew of the Californian forms a significant part of that suspense, and anger. The special effects are surprising, too, though seen through today’s eyes seem quaint. But considering the times, the effects are excellent.

The strongest attribute, however, is its stunning photography. British cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth (Oscars for 1972’s Cabaret and 1979’s Tess) was one of the greatest of all time. The look here is luscious, deep-focus work, and is rather crisp and nearly documentary-like at times. His work is occasionally too beautiful for the film’s workaday approach to the story, but it elevates the film into a work of art as well as a serious retelling of the tragedy. Similar to Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949), we see a great many tilted images, but here the tilt is not from the camera, but from the ever-changing and ever-tilting set that reflects the actual slow sinking of the ship.

This is a film of great production values that still keeps its focus on the ship itself and the series of events that led to its end. It keeps its frustrations and terrible losses under its cool and lovely surface, and in the process, allows the human factor to rise to the surface more naturally. For a film that doesn’t major in melodrama, the film has the most touching moment of any I’ve seen in a Titanic film. Clearly, less is often more.

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Foreign Correspondent (1940)

I’ve heard over the years that Foreign Correspondent is “minor Hitchcock,” which of course begs an understanding of what “minor” means here. In more recent years, however, I kept hearing that it’s not so much minor as simply half-forgotten and undeserving of a second-rate classification.

Finally seeing it, it’s a fascinating film on many levels. As an entertainment, it is most enjoyable to Hitchcock lovers and World War Two film aficionados, but it’s also an intriguing look at Hitchcock’s transition from an English to American director, and a classic example of a “what could have been if only…” film.

Hitchcock was brought to America under the auspices of David O. Selznick, producer of Gone with the Wind. While he did a great deal of work under Selznick, including his first, Best Picture-winner Rebecca (1940), Hitchcock was also loaned out a great deal to other producers. His first loan-out was to Walter Wanger, who produced Hitchcock’s next film, also released in 1940, Foreign Correspondent.

The film’s moment in time is more significant than most. Europe had just entered the war, and events surrounding Germany’s various invasions and the question of America’s involvement were changing every week. Some felt that peace was still a possibility, while others saw the inevitability of major war. Wanger wanted constant changes to the storyline and dialogue to keep as current as possible, a process wildly antithetical to Hitchcock’s normal method of visually conceiving the entire film before shooting the first scene; he considered the film essentially finished before the actors appeared on the set.

The story, which could have been electric, instead is “too much this, too little that” as it follows a plot involving peace-mongers who may or may not be what they seem, and who may or may not have killed someone important. The elements of a first-rate thriller are there, but don’t come together throughout more of the film. The last scene, however, is both prophetic and thrilling, as it anticipates the bombing of Great Britain by five days.

But it’s the separate parts that don’t necessarily coalesce that still make the film. The highlight is an extended sequence in a windmill, which should be studied at least for its use of space. It combines the best of his British work (The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes) while anticipating Lifeboat, Rear Window, and others. It’s also a scene that moves the film forward narratively while ratcheting up the excitement level. It’s the best thing in the film, and ranks up there with the best of Hitchcock’s more thrilling set pieces. There are moments in the film that echo Chaplin and look as if they were borrowed from a mid-30’s British film, and little humorous asides that were funnier to the British that have lost their punch as time has passed. Inside joke names abound, especially George Sanders’ character, who has the best name in a Hitchcock film, the revelation of which is one of the best moments in the film. The developing love story, however, filled as it reputedly is with echoes of Hitchcock’s romance and marriage to his wife Alma, is so patently absurd and Hollywood rushed as to be laughable.

While the film was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture (which it lost to Rebecca), it hasn’t aged that well for a few reasons. One is simply that it is an uneasy blend of the Hitchcock that was and the one that would be. The other major problem is the actors and the acting. The best actors, unfortunately, take the minor roles. Albert Bassermann as a pivotal but ultimately minor figure in the film was nominated—deservedly—for Best Supporting Actor. Of the four remaining stars, the supporting players—George Sanders and Herbert Marshall—were by far the stronger actors.

The lead role went to likable, moderately talented actor Joel McCrea (The Palm Beach Story, Sullivan’s Travels, The More the Merrier, plus a slew of Westerns in the second half of his career), who functioned well as a lightweight romantic lead at this point in his career. Set against heavyweights like Bassermann, Sanders and Marshall, McCrea’s relative weightlessness seems all the more apparent. He holds the film together only be virtue of being in most of the scenes, not by his screen authority. Looking back, he wasn’t a Robert Donat or a Laurence Olivier. Looking ahead, he wasn’t a Cary Grant or a Jimmy Stewart, either.

Trying hard but making little to no impression is the female lead, 19-year-old Laraine Day (The Locket plus several Dr. Kildare films), who handles her scenes adequately but with little impact. It’s been reported that Hitchcock wanted either Barbara Stanwyck or Joan Fontaine (former star of Hitchcock’s Rebecca, and future star of his Suspicion) for that role. And apparently Clark Gable and Gary Cooper turned down McCrea’s role. Speculating is futile, but one can imagine this would be a stronger film with any of those four in the two leads.

Putting the weakness of the two leads aside, Foreign Correspondent is worth viewing as a time capsule—of America on the edge of war, hovering between isolation, hopes for peace, on the edge of involvement, and of a director moving from the biggest fish in a relatively small pond, imbued with British humor and silent film tropes, to a world-class American director who would change the face of cinema. The story is of its time, uniquely. Some of the sequences, however, especially the scene in the windmill, are forever.

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Black Panther

I loved The Avengers when it first came out in 2012 (https://film-prof.com/2012/05/14/the-avengers/) for how well it answered the many challenges of a first superhero franchise film. But Black Panther may well be the best Marvel film yet. It’s gorgeous to look at, well acted (surprisingly so in some instances), and manages to handle its many problems presented by an overstuffed origin story as deftly as The Avengers did six years ago. In addition to the look and the acting, the film owes a significant thanks to its effects crew, an intelligent use of reverb at powerful moments, and of course, personal trainers.

The origin story has depth, and while the plot itself is negligible and centered around a classic McGuffin, the film presents places and characters that work in a standalone film while laying the groundwork for follow-up Panther films, as well as integrating these characters into the rest of the Marvel universe.

At least for me, the film began a bit shakily as one of my favorite actors, Sterling K. Brown, was offered in something of a punk/street persona. Didn’t work for me at all, and was the first time I was disappointed in seeing him on the screen. He’s a great actor (and I use that term precisely), but his persona as the nice guy is perhaps a bit too strong to accept him in the role he has here.

Fortunately, that was not the case with the many other actors that inhabit the film. Chadwick Boseman (42, Get On Up, Marshall) finally steps out of his biopics and easily slips on the persona of the mythical earthly king (T’Challa) and superhero (Black Panther). Boseman has a dignity and regal bearing that combine with his natural talents to make a believable character. It’s true his rather recessive screen personality tends to be overpowered by the electric presence of the villain, played by Michael B. Jordan (Creed), who could have easily stepped into Boseman’s shoes. But that would have created another dynamic entirely. Boseman doesn’t break through the screen as Jordan does, but he carries the weight of the film easily on his broad and highly exercised shoulders.

What the film contains in terms of its presentations of African-Americans and strong women is beyond the scope of this analysis. But two things: Wakanda is a magnificent place that is both fantasy and something of a cinematic affirmation of black history and culture; that’s a tough thing to pull off, and the film does it well. Its strong women, too, are not called attention to as exceptions, but are a logical part of the film’s landscape, going far beyond the “I am woman, hear me roar” presentations of other films, and simply presenting these warriors and leaders as part of the fabric of life. There might be other recent films that call such attention to what they are doing in the name of diversity and inclusion that they forget narrative, drive, energy, and cinematic skill. Thankfully, that’s not the case here.

The cast is large, and the film could easily have broken down under the weight of the many faces and the necessity of giving life to them all. It doesn’t. The commitment and talent of each actor is part of the reason, and the film places characters before plot, giving the viewer ample time to get a sense of each personality.

Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave) is third-billed, but in many ways, this is her film. She is strong most of the time (without trying to be), focused all of the time, and relational and romantic at just the right moments. She bears a good deal of credit for the film’s success. Danai Gurira (The Walking Dead) has the difficult task of playing a female warrior that has to be a fighting machine while still being a believable person facing believable conflicts. Perhaps it was because of the arc of his character and (spoiler alert) what he ends up doing in the film, but Daniel Kaluuya is less impressive than he was in Get Out. His character seems less focused and credible, and he was less than an ideal match for his character.

On the other hand, Angela Bassett is perfectly cast as T’Challa’s mother, and finally fills her performance with poise and regal strength without the edge of anger she often brings to her roles. Motion-capture legend Andy Serkis (Gollum in the Lord of the Rings films and Caesar in the Planet of the Apes films) throws himself—perhaps too much—in the role of a classic bad guy, but he certainly provides the film with energy. Lastly (for here and now), Brit Martin Freeman (Sherlock and the Hobbit films) nails an American accent and brings his warmth and sympathetic person to a complicated character, adding a welcome layer to an already complex, rich film.

The visuals in the film are stunning. That includes the special effects, which are both eye-popping and beautiful, and are quickly made of a piece with the whole look of the film—not just there for the occasional wow factor. The sets, the costumes, the cinematography are all impressive but again, are so very well integrated into the whole look of the film that you can’t consider them separately. Director Ryan Coogler, who had been known for smaller and more independent style work in Fruitvale Station and Creed, manages to mix the various ingredients of a blockbuster in a way that brings together performances, story, a massive cast, and a breathtaking look into a single cohesive film that also happens to be greatly entertaining. It’s been offered that the film is so complicated that it needs a second look to understand it all. For this writer, the film is worthy of a second and third look for its beauty and distinction alone.

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A Classic Performance, Revisited

 

Rainer in The Great Ziegfeld

 

Rainer in The Good Earth

Luise Rainer is a name long forgotten in the film world, except by historians and major film nerds, of which I am one. Even so-called “film buffs” have never heard of the actress who won the first two consecutive acting Oscars, retired shortly thereafter and lived to the ripe old age of 104. Certainly part of the problem is how long ago her work was recognized, her short film career, and the absence of any solid film persona that has lingered.

Any review of her work includes the tired old chestnut that “despite limited appearances” (as the ever-questionable Wikipedia entry describes) in her first Oscar-winning performance in The Great Ziegfeld (1936), it was really her one big scene toward the end of the film that won her the Best Actress Award. This is Rainer’s moving telephone conversation congratulating former lover Ziegfeld on his marriage to Billie Burke (best known as Glinda in The Wizard of Oz.) This entire perspective needs to be upended and reviewed.

Yes, the telephone scene is certainly one of the best in all film history, and probably the strongest in the studio era. The aching contrast between what she is saying and the expressions on her face is admittedly touching, and coming toward the end of the film, is probably what most viewers tend to remember about her performance. When I recently revisited the film, however, I was struck by two things: how much Rainer is actually in the first part of the film, and how very good she was in all her scenes, deserving of the award quite apart from the telephone scene.

For one, Rainer performs in numbers her real-life character Anna Held presented years before. Held was known more for her personality and style than her voice, and the performances here walk the fine line between showing her star quality while presenting a voice that is usually “good enough” to pull off the songs—most of which wouldn’t tax a real singer. Rainer makes this look easy, and the songs are usually so light, that it’s tempting to ignore the quality of her work.

But it’s her scenes with William Powell as Ziegfeld that are most impressive. She plays what we might call a flippertigibett, moving with quicksilver speed from “I hate him” to “I love him” and “tell him to leave,” to “no, tell him to stay.” Most other actresses wouldn’t have been able to navigate the quickly shifting thought processes and lightning-fast mood swings of such a character; most would have slowed it down to be able to give some kind of shading to each thought before moving on to the next, or would have skimmed over the scene, unable to provide the necessary emotional depth of each quick feeling. Rainer, however, manages to bring authenticity to every serious and silly thought and feeling, and makes it look effortless.

Her subsequent scenes in the film aren’t challenging, but she keeps in character and gives her all to each moment, even when she’s not called upon to do very much. She drops out during most of the second half of the film, which is apparently why some think of her work as more of a supporting role. Myrna Loy, as Burke, appears late in the film, and as Ziegfeld’s last female partner, perhaps leaving a stronger impression in the memory because of that. But while Loy is fine in the role, it’s far less challenging than Rainer’s, and she isn’t in the film anywhere near as much. Powell dominates the film, of course, but in terms of a female presence in the film, it’s clearly Rainer’s film.

To complete her one-two punch, Rainer played a plain Chinese peasant, as quiet, unattractive, and unassuming as Held was not, in 1937’s The Good Earth, another long-for-its-time film that is unfortunately slipping from memory. While its then-common “whites for Asians” casting is off-putting today, the film has arguably the best locust attack on film, features two solid lead performances—especially Rainer’s as O-Lan—and Oscar-winning cinematography from legendary Karl Freund.

It’s easy to Google Rainer’s famous phone scene, and it’s admittedly something of a slog to make it through the lengthy half-accurate biopic on Ziegfeld (even if it won Best Picture) to see the rest of Rainer’s work. But between her acting and the over-the-top musical extravaganza “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody,” the film is worth a revisit. And Rainer’s work in it deserves to be appreciated for far more than her most famous scene.

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2018 Oscar Thoughts

Oh, my. Where do you start covering this year’s Oscars? Do we cover the awards, the show itself, the politics, the dresses, the awards as a window into….whatever?

The best I can do at the moment is a series of random thoughts:

The set was extraordinary, and the various numbers were imaginatively staged. The montages of films and actors spread throughout were intelligent and engaging.

Jimmy Kimmel wasn’t as cutting and negative as I feared, and not quite as political either (I’d set the bar low on purpose). Considering his move from talk-show host to self-appointed national social and political commentator, this was surprising. The first several minutes of the show were so fun and smart, I thought we were in for a great show. Well, at least it was a good start.

I am usually appalled at the degree of self-congratulation apparent at the awards, but was happy to see much of that energy moved into activism. The activism was occasionally coated with the same self-congratulatory spirit, but the theme of “Time’s Up,” etc., while ultimately overplayed in the context of an awards show, is at least legitimate and of genuine lasting value. Perhaps, unlike the era after Thelma and Louise (as noted in the broadcast), we are seeing the beginning of a new moment in film art and industry.

The awards were not surprising at all, and the lack of suspense, and the general low quality of films this year together conspired to lower viewer ratings. The top three contenders were cool (Dunkirk), hot (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), and warm (The Shape of Water). This was a warm year, apparently. (Would Dunkirk, considering its rapturous reviews when released, have won Best Picture if it had been released in December?) I would have preferred a Dunkirk win in both the picture and director categories, but ‘twas not to be. I agree that The Shape of Water is beautifully designed and (generally) exquisitely acted, but has several glaring screenplay holes in it, and I think it misses the balance between magical and realistic in its magical realism in several key moments. Time will tell, of course, but Dunkirk may well be better remembered in the future.

Nothing was surprising, either, about the acting awards, which have been set in stone for months. I would have preferred Lady Bird’s Laurie Metcalf every so slightly to I, Tonya’s Allison Janney, but no real com plaints. Question: Since Casey Affleck bowed out (or was asked to bow out?) of the presentation for Best Actress this year (which traditionally belongs to the previous year’s Best Actor), will Gary Oldman be forced out next year in the light of his past accusations? And as much as I love Frances McDormand, who is an American institution, she may be getting a little full of herself in her speeches lately. And to say she was a little “over the top” may be under-describing her moment. I may be old-fashioned, but I thought these were acting awards that ought to be gratefully received. Silly me—I forgot they were just springboards for whatever one is passionate about at the moment

Folks are saying Lady Bird was “snubbed,” a word I’m coming to dislike as much as “dystopian,” but it just came up short in all the categories—that’s all. Take another look at all the nominations, and we’ll see it wasn’t “snubbed.”

Best Song was a surprise, especially after the live presentations. “This is Me” (The Greatest Showman) was rousing, engaging the audience with energy and powerful enthusiasm. It almost seemed inevitable that it would win after such a performance. This was especially in comparison to the winner, “Remember Me” from Coco, which was earlier presented with a barely-there vocal start by the wonderful actor and pretty awful singer Gael Garcia Bernal, only to be followed by two real singers who seemed to have their own vocal struggles. Perhaps the winner peaked at the right time for voters, while “This is Me”’s popularity came just a little too late.

The highlight of the night for this writer was Rogers Deakins finally winning an Oscar after 14 nominations, for Blade Runner 2049. He could have easily and rightly won any number of times in the past, and he was deserving of both the specific award for this film as well as the career award that it also was. James Ivory, a spry 89, won both a specific and well-deserved career award for his screenplay for Call Me By Your Name, becoming the oldest Oscar winner in history, joining seasoned presenters Rita Merino and Eva Marie Saint as reminders that we still have some legends around.

As seems to be the new habit, there was one crazy idea carried to excess that wasted time, involved food, and really didn’t work. The idea of thanking the moviegoers was fine in theory and worthy of a quick mention. But to be honest, that’s not what the evening is about, and it seemed an awkward stretch to a general public that wasn’t out there in TV-land to be reached. The visit across the street to interrupt the viewing of a preview of A Wrinkle in Time must have sounded good to someone on paper. But the joy of the interrupted movie-viewers didn’t make its way to those of us in the home audience, and the greetings from the Oscar participants to the viewers were somewhere between silly and forced. I’ve rarely gotten the impression that the folks involved in the Oscars genuinely cared about the movie-going public. There are some who honestly appreciate their fans, and hearing them express those thoughts is touching. But the evening is about peer recognition (and to quote Seinfeld, there’s nothing wrong with that).

I’m not sure if the Oscar show even knows what it is anymore. This year there were sub-par films, little to no suspense in the awards, a host trying to restrain himself from instructing us all in how to think, some genuinely well done production numbers, and a show trying to reflect an industry struggling between fierce anger and hope that this is a time of real change. In spite of frayed edges, the show managed to squeak through well enough—this time. The awards aren’t really going to affect anyone’s career this time out, but last night’s show may well be studied as an example of where and how Hollywood is struggling to remain viable and relevant.

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