Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Arrogance and Cruelty of Youth: "Last Summer" (1969)

Perhaps Frank Perry could have directed a film like "Last Summer" in a year other than 1969, but it seems appropriate, that in that watershed year of films like "Easy Rider" and "Midnight Cowboy", that this little-seen gem about the cruelty of youth was conceived and released.

Barbara Hershey, Richard Thomas, and Bruce Davison play a trio of well-to-do teenagers who are summering on New York's Fire Island, where Hershey's character, Sandy, uses her budding sexuality as a powerful force to retain control over the two boys.

The person to watch in this film, however, is Catherine Burns (who is she?  whatever happened to her?) who earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress as Rhoda, who invites herself into this closed circle, and becomes the ultimate  victim of their cruelty and especially Sandy's hositility towards anyone who threatens her power.  The fact that Burns didn't win the Oscar for this brilliant performance is compounded by the fact that she lost to Goldie Hawn, as a hippy chick in the much less entertaining "Cactus Flower".  She is physically unlike the other three, in that she is a bit on the chubby side, and her intellect (or pretense of intellect) makes her the most mature of the bunch.

It is because of that intellect, that she is perceived as a threat by Sandy, and must therefore ultimately be punished.  Burns has a brilliant scene, basically a monologue, where she describes her mother's death, and it it a chilling thing to watch.  She tells the story as though she has distanced herself from the event, and yet her emotions cannot help but spring through, like leaks in a dam.

Perry's direction is fine, and the cinematography is beautiful, perfectly capturing the haze that hangs over beaches on sunny afternoons.  My only complaint is with the editing in the film's final scenes, but that may have more to do with the censors (the TCM print of "Last Summer" is obviously the one that was edited from the original X rating to an R) but it muddies the scene of Rhoda's humiliation.  It is a stirring film, one that I watched several weeks ago, but have been turning over in my mind for quite a while, because I wasn't sure what I wanted to say about it, or how I wanted to say it.  Essentially, it remains an undiscovered treasure by most people, but it is definitely worth a viewing.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Nothing Much Grows There: "The Chalk Garden" (1964)

In the film adaptation of Enid Bangold's novel and play "The Chalk Garden", the soil is rich but the trees are barren.  Rich soil comes with the territory when Ross Hunter is producing, and if the style of this picture seems more suited to a late-period Lana Turner or overheated Dorothy Malone, it is only because Hunter's style is so omnipresent that it always threatens to override the subject matter.  The picture is gorgeously made though, and it is hard to object to the look of the film, with its beautiful sets and appealing costumes, straight from a mid 1950's studio soap, even though it was filmed in the mid 1960's and seems almost a throwback to that earlier decade of filmmaking, which again, is probably just a side effect of it being a Ross Hunter production.  Hunter's fingerprints are much more evident on the film than that of director Ronald Neame, who made more cinematic work of a novel and play with "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" in 1969 and even the spectacle of epic disaster with 1972's "The Poseidon Adventure".  The direction is competent and doesn't interfere with the story, but does seem lacking a certain imagination that would fit the story of a young girl who is a habitual liar and troublemaker.

This holy terror of a teenage girl, Laurel, is spoiled by her indulgent grandmother, discarded by her mother in favor of a new husband, and the cause of ruin of a queue of nannies and governesses, each of whom have been swiftly dealt with by young Laurel.  One poor applicant is even scared away by Laurel's wildness before she is ever interviewed for the position.  The audience is meant to see Laurel as a misunderstood young girl on the verge of womanhood, swept away by a confusing undercurrent of emotion (symbolized rather heavily by the ocean she loves to sketch drawings of), and yet, she comes off more as a spoiled brat who wants nothing more than a good smack across the rear end.  Hayley Mills is very well-cast in this role, cranking up her comedic prankishness from Disney's "The Parent Trap" into more disturbing behavior.  What is most disturbing about Laurel is not her love of starting fires or unearthing secrets about her caretakers that cause their dismissal, but rather the feeling that the girl can be redeemed by the one thing she doesn't have: love.  That may be a trite assumption, however, and though the acting out may be seen as strictly a response to behavioral problems, we never get a clear enough picture of Laurel to explain her self-hatred.  In a well-performed scene, Laurel is asked where she wants to be and she replies "dead...and in hell", like a more chipper version of the disembodied voice of Mercedes McCambridge that would eminate from the mouth of Linda Blair nearly a decade later in "The Exorcist".

Top-billed Deborah Kerr is in noble, stiff-upper-lip mode as the newly arrived governess, who of course has a  deep, dark secret of her own for Laurel to discover.  Her characterization here is not one of Kerr's strongest, and in fact marks the second disappointing performance of 1964 when considered along with her maudlin Hannah Jelks in John Huston's "The Night of the Iguana", released the same year.  When you take into account that only three years earlier, Kerr had given the performance of her career in Jack Clayton's "The Innocents", it is extremely disappointing that there is no fire in her work in either of these films.  Perhaps the characters themselves were not interesting enough to invite said fireworks.  Certainly the unstable Miss Giddens from "The Innocents" (which I've written about before) is an extremely rich character , one which Kerr fills in and shades with every color in her actor's palette.  But in "The Chalk Garden", even in Kerr's big  reveal near the end, her confessional scene, lacks any real emotional investment.  She's still going through the motions of her nanny duties, like Mary Poppins but without the twinkle in her eye and the dancing chimney sweeps behind her.  Kerr is simply too good an actress to be wasted on such an impassive role.  She may be the glue that holds the picture together, but hers is not the performance we remember fondly afterwards.  Perhaps because she was nearing the end of her reign as one of the foremost leading ladies of the era, Kerr decided to take it easy and leave the heavy acting to young Mills and the film's other veteran performers.

These two dependable character actors provide exceptional supporting work that definitely make up for some of what the lead role lacks.  Sir John Mills (Hayley's real life father) is the household butler, and presents what I consider to be almost a textbook example of a solid supporting role: he has no direct bearing on the main story arc or plot, but adds texture to the film, which would be less enjoyable without his presence.  Mills hits exactly the right notes as a long-time family servant who has Laurel's number from the get-go, and even goes along with some of her more playful lies, but proves where his loyalties lie by alerting Kerr to Laurel's more devious activities.  There is slightly more than a hint of flirtation between the Mills and Kerr characters, which thankfully goes nowhere, avoiding what could have been a ponderous middle-age romantic subplot.

In a role that earned her an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress, Dame Edith Evans handles the role of Laurel's doting grandmother as one would bite into a juicy steak: she doesn't nibble around the corners of the role daintily, but rather dives right in, slathering up every bite and then drooling happily over the empty plate.  Evans' line readings are, as always, delightful and a joy to listen to, but when it comes down to it, she's played this type of part so very many times before.  The motivation of the grandmother spoiling Laurel is her disappointment with how Laurel's mother (Evans' daughter) turned our, and her determination to keep Laurel with her, now that the mother has reappeared and wants her back.  Evans makes the most out of this role, even as the plot positions her as a type of villainess, albeit a rather benevolent one; she maintains a sense of order, always.  Evans, Kerr, and Miss Mills represent a trinity of Englishwomen: the past, present, and future of the country, as it were.  The only other prominent actress in the cast, whose name escapes me, portrays Laurel's mother and has two brief scenes, but makes so little impact on the picture that we must believe Laurel inherited all her spirit from her late father, or from the grandmother, whose extravagant crotchitiness must have skipped a generation.  It is easy to see why Laurel might be reluctant to be raised by her mother, when compared to the extravagance of her grandmother's character.  But if the actress playing the mother is unobtrusive (which she is) and the role itself is not fleshed out or even very well written (which it isn't), we still must see some reason for the conflict of whether Laurel remain with her grandmother or go with her mother.

The symbolism of the chalk garden of the title is brushed on a bit heavy as well, with Kerr spelling it out in detail to Evans in the manner of her schoolteacher character from "The King and I" (but without the lovely score in support of her efforts), and for the purpose of the plot, it may seem appropriate that Kerr's end of the film decision is to remain with Evans, but to me it seems silly to tend a garden whose flower has already been grown and plucked.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Hollywood's Venomous Valentine: "Sunset Boulevard" (1950)

Oscar nominated Gloria Swanson, totally demented yet totally bewitching in the final scene of Paramount's "Sunset Boulevard" (1950) 

Anything that can be said about Billy Wilder's 1950 masterpiece "Sunset Boulevard" has already been said, and by better writers than myself.  So, why bother to write anything on it at all then?  Because over sixty years after its debut, it remains one of the best films that Hollywood has ever made about itself.

The fractious relationship between silent movie queen Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson, not just giving the performance of her career but rather the performance of a lifetime) and hack screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden, all acrid, snippy remarks) reflects the battle that occurred when sound first came into cinema.  Norma thinks she needs Joe to survive in the world, but in reality she has already cocooned herself into a delusional fantasy, and seeks to reel him into it along with herself.

There are numerous impressive things about this film, most notably, its screenplay.  Wilder, Charles Brackett, and D.M. Marshman create a gothic world of old Hollywood gone to seed, contrasted with the current (or what was current in 1950) state of affairs in the motion picture capital.  Scenes are filled with dynamic dialogue, which still pops and crackles today, showing little if any sense that it was written well over a half-century ago.  Joe's snarky attitude and superior tone makes the viewer instantly distrust him, and our sympathies lie with Norma, who, though teetering on the edge of sanity, is vital, alive and the most interesting character on the screen.

The photography, set design, and costume designs are all black and white wonders.  The film works with light and shadow, the decaying opulence of Norma's mansion, and her bizarre outfits to create a twisted, Grimm's fairy tale of life in Movieland.  In fact, the only inferior sections of the movie are those which take Joe out of Norma's world, and into contact with other 'modern day' characters like would-be love interest Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson, pleasant and fairly attractive, but a total compared to a leading lady like Swanson).

Veteran director Erich von Stroheim has a strong supporting role as Max, the slavishly devoted butler to Norma, but their past is much more complicated than just employer and employee.  Max represents Joe's future if he continues to orbit Planet Norma.  Cameos by other prominent figures like silent-era comedian Buster Keaton, veteran director Cecil B. DeMille, and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper add another strong note of reality to the picture.  But make no mistake, and despite Holden's top billing, this is Gloria Swanson's show all the way.  Norma is utterly mad, but in the most wonderful way possible, and her descent further and further into her self-created world is a wonder to behold.  Modern audiences may be turned off by her overly theatrical acting style, but it rivets me to the screen every time I see the picture.  She commands the camera, practically daring the viewer to take their eyes off her for even a moment.  And that's a dare I don't take, because I know what this crazy bitch is capable of.  And so, finally, does Joe Gillis.

Despite nominations for the entire main cast (Swanson, Holden, Von Stroheim, and Olson) as well as for Picture and Direction, the only Oscars won by "Sunset Boulevard" (all extremely well deserved) were for Screenplay, Original Music Score, and Art Direction/Set Decoration.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Dreary in its Realism: "Room at the Top" (1959)

Jack Clayton's 1959 drama "Room at the Top" is a British drama concerning the love triangle between an ambitious young man (Laurence Harvey), the daughter of a rich industrialist (Heather Sears), and an unhappily married older woman (Simone Signoret, who won the 1959 Oscar for Best Actress for this part).

The Academy went hog-wild over this film, also giving it the Adapted Screenplay Oscar, as well as nominations for Best Picture, Director, Actor (for Harvey), and Supporting Actress (for Hermione Baddeley, who appears in only three scenes, for a grand total of about four minutes).

The tone of the film is harsh, which matches the performance by Harvey as the young government clerk who has his eyes set on landing a girl with money, to help him overcome his own anger about his working-class upbringing.  Despite the fact that the object of his attentions (Sears, who is blandly pretty yet also a little annoying) has a boyfriend and a set of disapproving parents, Harvey pursues her.  When she appears to have no interest in him, he falls into an affair with Alice (Signoret), whom he meets at a local dramatics society.

Signoret's performance is touching, but a little on the dull side.  There's none of the excitement that was so evident in her work in the 1955 thriller "Les Diaboliques".  But of the three leads, she has the most complex character and does come off best of the three main performers.  Her Alice is sympathetic, even without the inclusion of her caricatured bastard of a husband, and it is refreshing to see an "older" actress given a romantic leading role, rare at the time but even rarer in the youth obsessed film industry of today.

"Room at the Top" was daring in its day for its realistic depiction of sexual situations between adults, and still has a strong sense of realism in the drama.  But too much of the film just feels dreary, and unpleasant.  I really don't understand the frenzy of Oscar love for this movie, and even feel that Signoret's win was undeserved when compared with Audrey Hepburn's work in "The Nun's Story".

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Depp Does Drac: "Dark Shadows" (2012)

Tim Burton and Johnny Depp have proven to be such a winning combination, cinematically, that it doesn't seem at all surprising that they teamed up to bring the campy, cult 60's soap opera "Dark Shadows" back into theaters.

Depp seems perfectly at home in the undead skin of Barnabas Collins, a cursed vampire who is awakened after 200 years of bondage into a world of McDonalds restaurants and Scooby-Doo cartoons.  He is a lovable outsider (like other Depp characters before) who just happens to crave the taste of human blood.  His Barnabas is charmingly out of touch with life in 1972, but Depp gives in to the fun and creates a complex, comical character.

The film is extremely well cast, with Michelle Pfeiffer, Jonny Lee Miller, Chloe Grace Moretz, and Gulliver McGrath as the other members of the Collins family, Bella Heathcoate as new governess Victoria Winters (who just happens to be the spitting image of Barnabas' true love Josette), Eva Green, deliciously nasty as the immortal witch Angelique, and in a howling hoot of an over-the-top performance, Helena Bonham Carter as the family's live-in psychiatrist, Dr. Julia Hoffman.

The film's costume designer and production designer get major props for the look of the film: the family estate, Collinwood, is in a state of gloriously opulent decay, and the clothing is a mix of early 70's kitsch and styles more reminiscent of Barnabas' time (the late 1700s).

As far as Burton films go, this one is definitely more "Beetlejuice" than "Batman", meaning it tempers its darkness with humor, although much of the humor will definitely be lost on audience members who weren't around in the early 70's.

"Dark Shadows" succeeds as a campy, fun picture, with just enough bite (you knew I'd have to make that pun eventually) to keep you entertained.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

This Movie is Brought to You by The Vatican: "The Cardinal" (1963)

To say that Otto Preminger's 1963 religious drama "The Cardinal" is a three hour commercial for Catholicism might be oversimplifying things, but at times that seems to be exactly what he's made.  Following the career of a young priest from the days prior to World War I up to the stirrings of World War II, and also charting his rise in the church, Preminger certainly has a flair for inserting the realities of the times into the personal story of Father Stephen Fermoyle (played by Tom Tryon; more on him later).

Although he earned an Academy nomination for Best Director for this film, Preminger's direction seems ponderous at times, and the film is definitely too long.  There's a sequence in the middle of the film where a romantic subplot appears which becomes a major point late in the film, which could have been handled better.  In fact, if you're going to include a romantic subplot, at least go to the trouble of making sure there are some kind of sparks going on between the characters, which doesn't happen at all here.  In addition, a detour into the southern US where Fermoyle becomes involved in a racial issue which also seems redundant when compared to other films that had focused on similar problems; the only difference here is that Preminger focuses on the church's part in segregation.  This whole segment of the picture, resulting in the Father being whipped by a gang of hooded Klansmen, is meant to establish him as a Christlike symbol.  But due to the less than stellar work done by lead actor Tyron, it just comes off as melodramatic and heavy-handed.

Tryon is the center of the film, but unfortunately, he just can't hold the weight of the thing up above the ordinary.  The film needed a more dynamic leading man, one capable of pulling off more than a single facial expression.  When Tryon is supposed to be concerned or conflicted about an issue, he ends up just looking constipated.  Also, Romy Schneider is never quite a threat as the woman who might make a priest question his vows; she's just not tempting enough.  The best performance in the film is given by John Huston (who did earn a Golden Globe and Oscar nomination for the part) as crusty Father Glennon.  Already famous and award-winning as a director and writer, Huston made his "official" acting debut here, and his presence adds a good bit of the spark that Tryon lacks.  There are also quite good, smaller bits by Burgess Meredith, Ossie Davis, and Cecil Kellaway (once again, doing his patented 'twinkly old Irishman' role).

The motive for the film is an honest one, and I applaud what Preminger attempted, but the subject matter is just too heavy for the lead actor, and that's a big flaw that the picture simply can't overcome.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

What I Watched Today: "The Hindenburg" (1975) and "The Sterile Cuckoo" (1969)

When you make a film about a true-life event, for example, the explosion of the German airship The Hindenburg, you can approach the material one of two ways: either you can base your story on evidence and fact, or you can create an entire fictional world that just features the event as a plot point.  Director Robert Wise evidently did a lot of research into the disaster, and that shows in the impressive details of art direction and visual effects that are presented in the film.  However, the complete lack of character development robs the audience of any emotional impact that was so important to the disaster movies of the 1970's.  Also, knowing how the story eventually ends (as is also the case with Titanic movies) makes it even harder to maintain suspense, as everybody already knows the outcome.

George C. Scott gives his usual intense performance as Col. Franz Ritter, who is aboard the ship as a special security agent in response to the threats that have been made prior to the voyage.  Anne Bancroft co-stars as a German countess fleeing the country because of her distaste for the Nazis, but until the end of the movie she appears bored and thinking of how much money she must've been paid for this horribly underwritten role.  There are a lot of familiar character actors present as well: Charles Durning as the Captain, Richard Dysart as the designer, Burgess Meredith as an elderly gambler, and other faces (if not the names themselves) that you may recognize from other film and television roles.

The best part of the picture is, of course, the ship's fiery finale as it attempted to dock at Lakehurst, New Jersey.  At this point, the cinematography changes from Technicolor to black and white, and director Wise mixes in actual newsreel footage of the disaster with his own shots.  The change in color is impressive, and gives the scenes of destruction and hysteria a realism that other parts of the film are seriously lacking in.  And despite the historical details and chilling final scenes, I consider it one of the lesser entries in the 70's disaster film era.

Liza Minnelli earned a Best Actress Oscar nomination in 1969 as 'Pookie' Adams in the film "The Sterile Cuckoo", and the nomination was deserved just by the amount of acting that she does in the movie.  The girl acts up a storm the whole way through.

Pookie is meant to be a loveable oddball; somewhat of a misfit, with quirky behavior who pushes her way into an affair with a nice, well-meaning young man (Wendell Burton) she meets on the bus as the pair of them are on their way to their first year at neighboring colleges.  The problem is that Pookie's quirkiness grows old very quickly, and becomes exhausting.  I grew tired of her character long before Burton's did, and some of her behavior would be considered more erratic and worthy of examination rather than charming and lighthearted.

Liza has herself always been known for having a rather "outsize" personality, and perhaps she identified with Pookie for that reason, but I do wish director Alan J. Pakula had toned down some of that 'personality' and given us more of a character than a caricature.

Now, on the other hand, knowing that we often reject traits in others that we don't like in ourselves, I freely admit that I identified with Pookie's feelings of being something of an outcast, and entirely too needy and clingy.  Maybe this movie (and especially the character) hits too close to the bone for me to be able to look at it objectively.  Watching how desperately this girl longs to be part of something, to have someone love her, can be quite painful, and Minnelli has a few moments where she is genuinely moving, but then the very next scene she's right back to over the top and annoying.

The cinematography and title song "Come Saturday Morning", are both, however, quite beautiful.