Tuesday, June 5, 2018

O, De Havilland!

Olivia de Havilland climbs the staircase to freedom at the climax of The Heiress.

Although she was one of the most intelligent and dedicated actresses of the studio era, Olivia de Havilland has never quite ascended to the legendary status attained by Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck and Katharine Hepburn. One problem was that she lost two peak years in the 1940s to a lawsuit against her first studio, Warner Bros. She was suing because Warner's wanted to add six months to her original seven-year contract to compensate them for time she had been on suspension for refusing scripts. Two years on career hold to avoid six months' work may seem too much of a sacrifice, but that's the kind of commitment de Havilland had to her career. She thought the studio was assigning her to indifferent projects that would damage her more than her absence from the screen. When she won the case (in a landmark decision ending the addition of suspension time to seven-year contracts, which was a big boon to the leading men who had gone on suspension while fighting World War II), she was rewarded with a juicy role in Paramount's To Each His Own (1946) and an Oscar for Best Actress. Warner's got back at her by cutting her best scenes from their final film with her, Devotion (1946), turning her role as Charlotte Bronte into a supporting part. It was the kind of pettiness she had seen done to actors like Ruth Chatterton and Kaye Francis in the past
De Havilland also made some career mistakes in the 1950s (most notably turning down the 1951 film version of A Streetcar Named Desire) before cutting back work altogether to relocate to France with her second husband. As a result, she never engaged in the kinds of reinventions her contemporaries did. Nor was she prone to the larger-than-life emoting that helped turn Davis and Crawford in particular into camp icons. She gave simple, honest performances, though over time there was a tendency to excessive sweetness. Even in her prime, in The Snake Pit (1948), she's much more appealing as a madwoman than she is sane. Her character's normal seems almost artificial next to the gritty realism of the asylum scenes. There's none of that, however, in the two nicest ladies she played — Melanie in Gone With the Wind (1939) and the romantic schoolteacher in Hold Back the Dawn (1941). Nor is there in arguably her best and most honest performance, as Catherine Sloper in The Heiress (1949).
Catherine is the plain, shy daughter of a doctor (Ralph Richardson) who resents her because the wife he has idealized as a great beauty and charming hostess died in childbirth. The makeup and hair departments did their best to make de Havilland look dowdy (they can't do anything about those wonderful cheek bones), and she plays her character's gaucheness with subtlety. There's none of the slapstick indulged in in the later Washington Square (1997), adapted from the same Henry James novel on which Ruth and Augustus Goetz had based their play The Heiress. There's something just a little off in the way de Havilland walks and curtseys. When she fans herself, she does it so vigorously people ask if she's too warm (as the great Edith Evans once said, you can do anything with a fan except cool yourself). The film opens up the play, which was set entirely in the Sloper's drawing room, so that she and her family attend an engagement party for her cousin early in the film. Sharing the scene with the people who know how to behave, particularly her aunt Lavinia (Miriam Hopkins knows how to work a fan), she just doesn't fit in. When the handsome, young Morris Townsend (played by the handsome, young Montgomery Clift) asks her to dance, she keeps kicking him.
But then a small miracle happens. With his gentle coaching, her dancing improves. As he courts her, her gaucheness starts to evaporate. Director William Wyler shows more generosity toward Catherine than do her contemporaries. He lets her have moments of grace. And he doesn't make her cousin Marian, conceived in the play as the example of what a perfect young society woman should be, upstage her. Of course, the role is significantly diminished from the stage version. But under his guidance, Mona Freeman is only just a little prettier. She's younger, obviously, but her real gift is a confidence bred by more supportive parenting than Catherine has had.
Humanity and generosity are key elements in Wilder's films. On the rare occasions he presents a major character as a villain — Oscar Hubbard  (Carl Benton Reid) in The Little Foxes (1941), Marie Derry (Virginia Mayo) in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), Messala (Stephen Boyd) in Ben-Hur (1959) — they're still human beings. You know what's made them that way. When he agreed to direct The Heiress (at de Havilland's request; she knew what he could do for actors), he asked the Goetzes to make Morris less of a villain. That primarily involved cutting one section from the play in which he complains to Lavinia that if Catherine's father disinherits her the income she's inherited from her mother won't be enough to live really well (her mother left her $10,000 a year, equivalent to about $300,000 today). Montgomery Clift focuses a great deal of his performance on de Havilland. There are times he seems genuinely concerned for her, to the point that you might actually hold out hopes for their marriage. When he jilts her on the night they're to elope, it's almost a surprise.
Dramatically, of course, it's a blessing. This isn't the story of a woman blossoming as she finds the right man. It's the story of a woman's growth after she realizes the only role that will give her value in society, that of wife, has been denied her. De Havilland builds her frustration subtly as she realizes she's been jilted. And Wyler frames the scene with her in the background (one of his famous deep compositions) and Hopkins in the foreground, the aunt's desperation slowly seeping into her niece. There follows a powerful confrontation with her father, who's realized he's dying (the scene in which Richardson listens to his heart and lungs through a stethoscope is an acting gem). Where he had feigned warmth and affection in the past, only allowing his disdain to creep through in a line reading or a gesture, she makes no efforts to hide her revulsion. At this point she knows she'll never have his love, much less his approval, and flatly informs him she doesn't even want his money. The two actors work off each other masterfully, and the shift in power dynamics is truly exciting.
Wyler saves the best for last, however. After a time jump, we meet the older Catherine, now alone and very wealthy. There's a calm about her, but also a coldness. She's still a prisoner of her father's disapproval and Morris' rejection. Then Morris returns. There are two ways to play the scene. You can show that Catherine is setting him up for revenge or you can hide it and make the final moments a surprise. Wyler and de Havilland choose the former, and at first that may seem a mistake. It's not a question of Morris' realizing she's setting him up. It's all very subtle, and Clift plays his excuses with a certain forced arrogance. He can't believe that Catherine would turn him down. It's a question of how soon the audience should be let in on Catherine's plans. That's the wisdom of director and actress. Were the scene played totally sincerely, the shock when she leaves him locked out and pounding on the door at the end would upstage any other point they wished to make. Letting the audience in on Catherine's thinking, allows them to share the artists' point of view about what's happening at the end. De Havilland's reaction when Morris moves in for the kill and suggests that now that her father is dead and the inheritance is settled they're free is like a moment of revelation for the audience. You can see the realization and relief in her eyes. Once she rejects him, she doesn't have to be tied to the past roles forced on her. When she climbs the steps at the end, the last in a series of ascents Wyler has used to capture her shifting emotional states, she pauses briefly, listens to Morris' calling her name, and then goes up with just the hint of a smile. This isn't the grimace of revenge. Catherine truly is free.
In James' novella, he can tell the audience that Catherine has found a new life devoting herself to charity. Agnieszka Holland does the same thing in Washington Square, but it's too clearly spelled out. When Morris in that version watches Catherine relating to an orphaned girl, it seems like the point is hammered home. The audience is reduced to students at a sophomore-level lecture on feminist theory. It's also a little disappointing that after losing her socially dictated role as wife, Catherine moves into another socially acceptable role for women, that of caregiver.
In The Heiress, Wyler and de Havilland let the audience decide what that new freedom means. It's interesting that in the final scenes, she's almost pretty. Her face is less pinched than in the earlier part of the film, her hair is softer and she's wearing a lighter gown than previously. It's not a miracle transformation. This isn't a variation on Now, Voyager (1942). Nor is this to suggest the film equates feminine beauty with success. But it isn't Mourning Becomes Electra (1947), either. Catherine no longer has to shut herself away from a world that's hurt her. She's freed herself for whatever she wants to be. And that's a pretty powerful feminist message.


A study in contrasts: Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland in In This Our Life

Olivia de Havilland is the eye of a hurricane of overblown dramatics in John Huston's second film, In This Our Life (1942). The picture was a huge misstep for Warner Bros. and Huston. Co-star Bette Davis always blamed it on the script, credited to Howard Koch, but in the studio era there's no telling how many hands got stuck into a stew like that. A lot of fans blamed it on Davis. I tend to side with her and would suggest her performance has been unjustly maligned. Ultimately, however, it's a film whose main recommendations are a strong supporting cast and some social commentary trying to break through.
Ellen Glasgow had won a Pulitzer Prize for her novel about raging passions and racial unrest in Richmond, Virginia. The book is almost 500 pages long, which points to the main problem with the movie, which tries to cram all that action into just over 90 minutes. Some of the supporting characters, particularly Billie Burke as the female stars' chronically ill mother, are given no background. And Davis' character seems to have no motivation. In 90 minutes, she steals sister de Havilland's husband, drives him to suicide, goes after her ex, who's now dating her sister, kills a child in a hit-and-run accident and tries to pin it on an African-American law clerk whose mother is the family's housekeeper. There's nothing unfamiliar about that kind of behavior. She's basically a soap opera spoiler in the tradition of Alexis Carrington, Erica Kane or Iris Carrington. Unlike them, however, she has no reason for her bad behavior. She's just there to keep the plot moving.
Davis does her best to keep the picture alive. She had originally fought to switch roles with de Havilland, arguing that a) she was too old to play de Havilland's younger sister and b) audiences were getting tired of seeing her play bad girls. She was probably right, and it would have been fun to see de Havilland take on the other role. Once she knew she had to play it, though, she threw herself into it with her usual full commitment. Her Stanley (one of the film's gimmicks is that the leading ladies both have men's names, Stanley and Roy) can't keep still. She's always dancing to the record player at home or a band or a jukebox when she's out trying to have fun. Fans didn't like her hair, makeup or costumes, but she actually does a good job of acting younger than de Havilland (whose, of necessity, more staid performance helps carry off the illusion) and there's only one costume (a harlequinade pattern she throws on when she comes out of mourning) that seems over the top. In addition, Davis' penchant for realism pays off. After her husband's suicide, when de Havilland comes to take her home, Davis wears little makeup, and her hair is a mess. Few actresses of the era would have played the scene without being practically lacquered into shape.
De Havilland is the steadier character and manages to keep Roy from seeming a total wimp. There's a weariness about her interactions with Stanley. She knows her sister is going to get her way eventually, so why make an issue of it if she doesn't have to. After Davis runs off, de Havilland is perfectly capable of driving her part of the action. She stumbles into a relationship with her sister's jilted fiancé, a lawyer played by George Brent, and has some charming scenes with him as they fall in love. Brent could be a bit of a lug in some of his films. It took an actress like Davis or de Havilland or Barbara Stanwyck (in the wonderfully soapy 1946 My Reputation) to get something out of him, so when he gets two strong leading ladies, he almost gets to shine.
The real shining in the film, however, comes from the supporting cast. As truncated as her role is, Burke immerses herself in it, and it's fun to see her break from her typecasting as a dizzy society matron (her Lavinia could be the poor country cousin of Millicent Jordan, her role in 1933's Dinner at Eight). Frank Craven is just as good as her husband; he makes long-suffering integrity touching. Lee Patrick sums up her character, a party girl who befriends Davis after her marriage, in one hip-swinging walk, then gets to show the character's depth when Davis is widowed. And Charles Coburn breaks out of his usual typing as a bluff upper-class clown to play the women's venal uncle, who cheats their father, oppresses the rest of the town economically and secretly lusts after Davis. His quietness when he realizes he's dying is a surprise in this otherwise feverish soap opera.
The other surprise is the picture's acknowledgment of racial inequality. Hattie McDaniel, as the family's housekeeper, gets her best role since winning the Oscar for Gone With the Wind. Her simple, sincere explanation of how she knows her son isn't responsible for the hit-and-run accident is another island of sincerity in the movie. As her son, Ernest Anderson goes beyond defining stereotypes; he's more of an anti-stereotype. His character growth is kept mainly off-screen, but his rise from errand boy to law clerk (as he saves to go to law school) is one of the film's most compelling plot points. When he's arrested, his repeated statement that "Nobody's going to believe me in this world" is a powerful indictment  delivered simply and quietly. This isn't to suggest the film was a trailblazer by any means. Much of the novel's racial politics was toned down to pass the Production Code, and some of Anderson's work had to be cut in southern states for fear of creating racial unrest, as if cutting a few scenes from a film could stem the tides of history.
The treatment of race is the most interesting part of In This Our Life. Huston's opening shot, showing laborers at the tobacco plant where Craven and Coburn work, says it all. There's a raised dock at the level of the factory itself and a street below. The African-American workers are confined to the street level unless called for, while the whites occupy the upper level. With that set-up and the background presence of African-American servants in the two main households, race becomes like an ostinato running beneath the rest of the action. It's a pity Huston couldn't have focused the entire film on McDaniel, Anderson and the town's other black inhabitants. All the insane doings of the white populace could have been just so much noise in the background.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Apocalypse Then; Apocalypse Not

Terrence Stamp twits the establishment in "Toby Dammit"

The opening credits of Federico Fellini's "Toby Dammit" (1968) state that it is "liberally adapted from Edgar A. POE's novel, 'Don't wager your head to the Devil.'" That's a pretty apt description. After the credits, "Toby Dammit" picks up aboard a jet headed for Rome, heralding its more modern take on the gothic writer's works. Originally presented as the third — and best — part of the international omnibus film Spirits of the Dead, the short must have come as a shock to contemporary audiences, particularly following the feature's other, more traditional, period adaptations by Roger Vadim ("Metzengerstein") and Louis Malle ("William Walton"). It's still a shock today to anyone who actually reads. This isn't the world of Poe we've come to expect from high-school English classes. But in many ways, the film is as self-absorbed and oneiric as Poe's more visionary works. Like Poe, Fellini works from his subconscious to queer his chosen art form; he uses his medium to interrogate images he can't fully understand until he's worked them out in his art.
With seemingly random shots of nuns at the airport caught in a sudden gust of wind, their black veils and robes billowing around them, a roadside fashion shoot as the title character is driven to a television appearance and the grotesque participants in a surrealistic awards ceremony, this was the first film in which Fellini turned the dreamlike incursions from earlier works like 8 ½ (1963) and Juliet of the Spirits (1965) into his style for a complete film. As such, it prefigures pictures like Fellini Satyricon (1970) and Roma (1972), in which reality is destabilized throughout.
The title character played by Terence Stamp with badly bleached hair and a zonked-out, other-worldly detachment is a one-time Shakespearean actor who's sold himself out for film stardom. He's in Rome to shoot a spaghetti Western his producers assure him is an allegory for the life of Christ. He doesn't care about their pretensions. All he wants is the Ferrari they promised as partial payment (a jab at Clint Eastwood, who had demanded the same compensation for taking a small part in 1967's The Witches). To forget this betrayal of his talents, Toby has soaked himself in drugs and alcohol. Terence Stamp plays him as if he were seeing things nobody else can (which is literally true in some cases, as he has visions of the devil as a little girl with long blonde hair and a white ball). In a way he's a satire of self-important actors of the day, reminiscent of Marlon Brando or Oskar Werner in some of their moodier interviews. And 50 years later, he seems to be prophesying the behavior of actors like James Franco and Shia LaBoeuf, whose off-screen performances of self often threaten to upstage their on-screen work. However much the character may be out of control, Stamp isn't. The beauty of his performance is that he makes original, idiosyncratic choices, yet you never lose faith that there's something behind everything he does. It's easy to let yourself get lost in his madness.
Fellini's vertiginous style is perhaps a little easier to follow today. We've seen his later films, other directors' imitations of his work and even television commercials and music videos mimicking that style. Yet it's no less potent for that. He's trying to accomplish a lot in this film. Overall, it seems to be sending up the very Euro-culture that made him a directing superstar. It's the same world in which Guido Anselmi felt trapped in 8 ½, yet with Fellini's more dreamlike approach here, it's all so over-the-top in its vulgarity that it's much easier to side with Toby, no matter how strange he may seem. In addition, there are parts pointing toward a more mechanized future — the airport monitors where a disembodied head advises on flights and weather conditions, the television interview with a mannequin-like host who has to crawl out of the shot so Toby can be interviewed by what, to the home viewer, would be a series of disembodied voices. It's a post-human culture in stark contrast to Toby's tortured humanity.
To obtain an American release for Spirits of the Dead, Fellini had to cut ten minutes out of "Toby Dammit." The American distributor, Samuel Z. Arkoff, felt the awards-show sequence was too personal to play in the U.S, as if Fellini were just working out his personal grudges against the Italian film industry. The sequence is restored in the version streamed by The Criterion Collection on FilmStruck, which is a good thing. It's central to Fellini's ideas and strengthens the motivation for Toby's wild drive in search of an open road, some kind of freedom, when he finally gets his Ferrari.
Yes, the sequence is filled with Fellini's personal grievances, but there's an underlying unity to it all. The awards scene extends the theme of dehumanization with a bitter satire of the commodification that takes place when art forms are excessively commercialized. The preening, self-important producers are too drunk with their own power to see how ridiculous and inhuman they are. When they announce the awards for actresses, the camera focuses on the winners' body parts, suggesting that the female form has been commodified as well. That joke plays particularly well today, as women are fighting for more equitable treatment within the film industry. Within the film's context it links to a scene just before that, in which a woman leaves one of the producers to offer Toby a life of happiness, telling him "I am the one you have always waited for." As will happen with the award-winning actresses, she's shot as a series of body parts, with emphasis on cleavage and her heavily made up eyes. She's just another commodity, like the Ferrari, offered up to keep him in line.
Toby himself is commodified. When he arrives at the awards ceremony, he's informed that he will be called up to say a few words, maybe some Shakespeare, but nothing too long. His new bosses want only enough of his artistry to give their work some cultural capital but not so much they might actually have to deal with the questions art raises. When he finally makes it to the stage, surrounded by models in fashions that make the human form something mechanical and variety entertainers who move like automata, he launches into the only possible Shakespearean speech for the moment, "Out, out brief candle" from Macbeth. He gets as far as "It is a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury," then stops, leaving out the speech's final two words, "signifying nothing." Of course, at this point, he doesn't need them. You can tell that this evening of self-congratulation is ultimately meaningless. For Toby, however, it's a kind of breakdown, an attempt at self-realization. He loses the thread of the speech, launches into a rambling diatribe about selling out his art and then runs out into the night.
By this point, it's pretty clear that Toby has nothing left to offer the devil. His soul was lost a long time ago when he chose stardom over art. In a final, desperate effort to escape he drives his Ferrari through the streets in search of what? Rome, he says, but also some kind of freedom or even reality. He keeps running into streets that are really movie sets, and the people standing along the road are mostly mannequins he eventually plows down.  He finally comes to a bridge that's been closed for construction. He sees the devil, the little girl with the ball, on the other side of a gap, and tries to jump it in his car. The leap for freedom (is the end of 1991's Thelma & Louise meant to echo this?) is his final wager, and he loses. There's a shot of a string of cable with blood before the camera reveals his blood lying on the road.
Although Spirits of the Dead was sold in the U.S. as a horror film, capitalizing on the popularity of Roger Corman's increasingly delirious Poe adaptations, that final shot is the closest Fellini gets to genre tropes. The true horror, however, is the nightmare world he's created. Toby has sold himself to a world that relentlessly eats away at humanity. In  a sense, however, Fellini is also a part of that world. He doesn't hesitate to exploit Stamp's sexiness (has any actor that good ever looked so appealing in the Mod fashions of the late 1960s?). Some of Giuseppe Rotunno's shots of him driving along the roads, with the breeze whipping through his hair, are almost stunningly erotic. That makes the film a form of meta-cinema, film commenting on itself. Does Fellini see himself as another Toby Dammit? That would certainly link the film to 8 ½. If I value "Toby Dammit" more than the earlier picture, it may be that the short film's brevity makes it less of a wallow in self-pity. Fellini sets up Toby's situation, then ends the film with a cinematic flourish that ties it into its genre while keeping it divorced from reality. It's a vision of an artistic apocalypse that's somehow light as a dream, albeit the kind of dream that can leave you shaken for hours after waking.


Norman McLaren turns mutually assured destruction into a human cartoon in "Neighbours."

Canadian animator Norman McLaren crams the apocalypse into eight minutes in his influential short "Neighbours" (1952), also available on FilmStruck and YouTube. Amazingly, even that short running time had to be cut for American audiences.
The film is simple, comic and powerful. Using a technique dubbed "pixilation," which involves filming human beings in stop motion, essentially making the human form into a machine, he depicts two neighbors living in harmony — one even lights the other's pipe as they're out reading in the sun — until a flower pops up between their properties. Each tries to claim the bloom, leading a series of escalating sight gags. It's reminiscent of Laurel and Hardy's comedies of destruction like "Big Business" (1929).  They build fences that conveniently swerve around the flower, then use the pickets to duel with each other, before destroying the fence, their homes and, ultimately, each other.
At one point they knock over the cutouts that indicate their houses, and each attacks the other's wife and child. That was considered too extreme for U.S. audiences in 1952, so the brief bit was cut. It must have made sense back then, as the film received an Oscar nomination for Best Short Subject and won for Best Documentary Short (an amazing miscategorization long since acknowledged by the Academy). By 1967, McLaren was able to restore the scene with no complaints. After brutal satires like Dr. Strangelove (1964), which may have been influenced by "Neighbours," and the current spate of body porn horror films like Hostel (2005), the sight of one of the men dropkicking his neighbor's baby, gets a big laugh. It's the next logical step in the string of increasingly violent gags.
Critics have called McLaren's political commentary simplistic, but how much nuance can you get into eight minutes? For that matter, how much nuance is there in the 95 minutes of Dr. Strangelove? As commentaries on the Cold War, both films are about as complex as they need to be. It's not as if the final slides, using various languages to urge the viewer to "Love Thy Neighbour", demand a rebuttal.

The suspense in Friend Request is brutal.
Can anything break through Alycia Debnam-Carey's placid beauty?

The apocalypse is social in Friend Request (2017), a horror film set against the world of Facebook. The film has a nifty premise. College golden girl Laura (Debnam-Carey) tries to reach out to the outcast Marina (Liesl Ahlers). When Marina gets too clingy, Laura cuts her off, inadvertently driving the girl to suicide. Then the fun begins. Marina's spirit takes over Laura's Facebook account (the social media platform is never mentioned by name, but all of the images are clear imitations of Facebook pages). Marina posts a video of her suicide to Laura's page and then starts driving Laura's friends to suicide and posting those images. In short order, Laura is expelled from college and starts losing friends. As the action unfolds, the status bar from her homepage is superimposed over scenes, showing the friend count dwindling away until it reaches zero.
The premise has a lot going for it. After all, this is the age of social media, good or bad (and sometimes both at the same time). I have friends who use Facebook as an effective marketing tool for their work in the arts. I've used it that way myself. I've even tried using it as a teaching aid (only to discover that videos and articles related to performance theory just can't compete with cute cats and political memes). But I also have friends I had to silence because they posted every song they listened to on Spotify. If you read enough political comments or subscribe to any of the pages on film, you also may share my belief that Facebook is where critical thinking has gone to die. All that's relatively benign, however, compared to social media's use as a vehicle for spreading bigotry and bullying.
So, Friend Request starts with a good idea. One of things attracting Laura to Marina is her art; Marina's Facebook page if filled with intriguing gothic images and animations that give the film's early scenes a great visual spin. And Debnam-Carey isn't a bad actress. Her face may not move a lot, but there's always something going on behind her eyes. The light there is strong enough to register even on television, where she did pretty good work on The 100 and Fear the Walking Dead (the latter after the writers finally decided to give her a character). And just for fun she not only has a hot boyfriend (William Moseley, of the Narnia movies) but also a hot back-up guy (Connor Paolo of Gossip Girl, Revenge and the great 2010 mumble gore flick Stake Land). Once the action gets going, sadly, that's just not enough.
Screenwriters Matthew Ballen, Phillip Koch and Simon Verhoeven (who also directed) give Marina a backstory to explain her outcast status and her ability to haunt Laura's Facebook page. She came from a coven that was destroyed in a fire. Then she went to an orphanage where two boys abused her before meeting their own untimely end. Somewhere in there a hive of wasps got in on the action as well, but I've long since forgotten or blocked the connection. Those three elements — fire, the bullies and wasps — are the main images haunting Laura's friends and driving them to suicide. They're pretty much beaten to death, so instead of the hallucinatory violent body counts of classic screen killers like Freddy Kruger or Jason Voorhees, the Marina's murders become kind of boring.
The film also commits a cardinal sin in horror. They use Marina's mythology to concoct an expert scheme to end the haunting by social media, and then forget it. Failed attempts to take out the monsters are one thing. One of the best scenes in The Thing From Another World (1951) occurs when they mistakenly try to set the monster on fire. It's a terrifying study in light, shadow, movement and sound. But you can't build a film's climax around an elaborate scheme to find the source of the haunting and destroy it, only to give up the whole thing, which is what Friend Request does. Basically, logic takes a holiday, with an ending that seems intensely dramatic but really doesn't make any sense — the kind of thing high-school sophomores would consider profound until they grew up. Any good will the film has built up, of course, has been completely dispelled by that point, leaving the climax something to laugh at, not with.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Passions

Dueling passions in one of Stephen Sondheim's most romantic musicals

In her final novel, Clock Without Hands, Carson McCullers writes:

Passion makes you daydream, destroys concentration on arithmetic, and at the time you most yearn to be witty, makes you feel like a fool. In early youth, love at first sight, that epitome of passion, turns you into a zombie so that you don't realize if you're sitting up or lying down, and you can't remember what you have just eaten to save your life.

Passion queers everything. And Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's musical Passion, recorded for Public Television in 1996, seems a two-hour illustration of that.
Based on Ettore Scola's Passione d'Amore (1981), itself an adaptation of I.U. Tarchetti's 1869 novel Fosca, the musical traces the invalid Fosca's infatuation with Giorgio, a young captain garrisoned in the provincial mountain town where she lives with her cousin, Colonel Ricci. Giorgio is already involved with the married Clara, who refuses to leave her husband and son for him. Initially taking pity on Fosca, Giorgio offers his friendship, but she wants more. She considers him a kindred soul in that, unlike his fellow officers, he reads and has an appreciation for the arts. She has watched him with his men and notes that "They hear drums/You hear music/As do I."
For Giorgio and the audience, the idea of loving Fosca initially seems unthinkable. His lover Clara is a beautiful, full-bodied woman, and when the actors in the roles, Jere Shea and Marin Mazzie, share a duet in bed at the show's opening, they seem like perfect wedding-cake toppers. Theirs is the idealized romantic pairing of musical comedy, even though Clara is unavailable to him. Or perhaps they're perfect because she's unavailable. Their big duet, "Happiness," is more about yearning than union. She may sing that "I thought where there was love/There was shame./But with you/There's just happiness," but their love is not won freely. Even though she claims to want to spend her life with him, it's a dream deferred. She can't leave her husband until her son is grown for fear of losing her child. But isn't yearning a better subject for a musical than union. Most shows end after the couples have been united following a series of crises that keep them apart so they can sing of how much they want each other. The few musicals that follow their leads after marriage, like Carousel or I Do, I Do, have plots that throw obstacles in their way, so they're never completely happy until the end (and when you're married to an abusive lout like Billy Bigelow, what greater comfort can there be than knowing he's dead; he may be with you in spirit, but he can never lay hands on you again).
If yearning is more dramatic than union, of course, poor Fosca holds a near monopoly on the drama in Passion. As detailed in a musical flashback, she was always a plain woman, but she fell prey to a bogus count who married her and bled her family dry. Once he had been exposed, Fosca developed the illnesses that plague her throughout the show. Her sickliness makes her an inherently queer figure. As she states in her first scene, "Sickness is as normal to me, as health is to you." But though she initially seems reconciled to her limitations, singing "How can I have expectations?/Look at me….I do not hope for what I cannot have!/I do not cling to things I cannot keep!," she falls in love with Giorgio and pursues him with an obsessive fervor.
In a conventional musical, Fosca would be the villain, keeping the beautiful, young lovers apart. But Sondheim and Lapine are anything but conventional. The plot is structured to privilege Fosca and her misplaced passion. When Giorgio writes to Clara about Fosca, she cautions him to keep his distance, leading to a series of choices on his part that just deepen Fosca's obsession. Suddenly, the ideal beauty seems cruel, even jealous of a woman who, in conventional terms, poses no threat to her. If there's a flaw in the plot it's that Giorgio, at this point, seems too callow to deserve Fosca's love. Fortunately, Shea plays him with vulnerability that keeps the character appealing. From the start, you can see what Fosca sees in him, and over time you may even question, as Fosca does, how truly deep his romance with Clara is.
It helps tremendously that Fosca is played with depth and restraint by Donna Murphy. Not living in New York, I've never had the chance to see Murphy on stage, though I've read raves for her work from others. In the few recordings I've heard besides Passions, she demonstrates a beautiful mezzo voice but also a tendency to overdue things when given her head. That's borne out with the numbers from her revival of Wonderful Town that have turned up on line. In "A Hundred Easy Ways to Lose a Man," she overplays the jokes so much it makes the material seem more labored than it is. And she mugs so shamelessly during "Swing," a wonderful piece of character development as originally played by Rosalind Russell, that she completely loses the song's throughline.
 Working with Lapine (who also directs) and Sondheim, however, she gives herself over entirely to the material. Lapine wisely doesn't go overboard making Fosca physically repellent. He just has her painted down a bit, and director and actor have worked out a halting, stooped walk that makes her physical condition clear. Sondheim's music lets her glow vocally, with deep notes and repeated phrases that bring her passions to life. Before the show is over, pretty little Clara doesn't stand a chance.
Recorded stage shows can often be a chore to watch. The actors often keep their performances pitched for the last balcony and come off forced and phony when the camera moves in for close-ups. With Passions, that's not the case. This is already one of Sondheim's most fluid and intimate musicals — really more of a chamber opera than a Broadway show — and this is the rare taped version that reveals subtleties a live audience might have missed. Lapine only occasionally falls prey to another danger of the recorded production, the over-reliance on close-ups. That's only really a problem when Giorgio reunites with Clara on leave in Milan while Fosca sings in the background. The point of the number is the contrast between Fosca's solitude and their togetherness, creating the sensation that she's starting to tear the couple apart. Lapine keeps the camera on Shea and Mazzie so much, however, that Murphy seems almost an afterthought in the trio, her disembodied voice hardly completing with their physical presence. It contradicts everything else he and Sondheim have done to make her role in the triangle the primarily one. Sometimes the perpetual long shot most often associated with stage pictures isn't such a bad idea.
Otherwise, the recorded production is pretty much seamless. Filmed just after the play's original Broadway run ended, it preserves not just the original leads' performances, but strong supporting turns from people like Gregg Edelman as Fosca's cousin and the late Tom Aldredge and Francis Ruivivar as the company doctor and an officer in love with opera, respectively. The production flows beautifully on Adrianne Lobel's simple but effectively painted sets, a symphony in siennas that gives the whole thing a glow. It's a great record of a strong production and, when Murphy and Shea are digging deep into their characters' emotional lives, almost a privilege to watch.
*   *   *


Grasping at happiness in Keep the Lights On

Ira Sachs shoots his semi-autobiographical feature Keep the Lights On (2012) as if it were an Ingmar Bergman film. The tale of a gay romance destroyed by one partner's drug use and the other's dogged determination to save his addict boyfriend places its passions within the characters rather than between them. That's partly a product of Sachs' approach to filming the material. He uses the camera as an objective observer. The first time the lawyer, Paul (Zachary Booth) lights up a crack pipe during a date with filmmaker Erik (Thure Lindhardt), there's none of the foreboding music or harsh angles of a Hollywood anti-drug screed. Sachs shoots the encounter straight on. Indeed, Paul's drug use seems almost a matter-of-fact part of his character. To know him is to put up with him. The camera never sides with Erik as he deals with Paul's lengthy absences and self-destructive behavior. It just records the dissolution of a relationship.
Keep the Lights On is not for all audiences. It's not a romantic comedy, nor does it wallow in Erik's inability to find and keep a partner. And the dialogue is high context — characters don't tell each other things they know already just so the audience will be clued in. You have to pay attention to contextual clues to follow the action. After suffering through independent gay films that seemed to be set in fantasy worlds divorced from the realities of LGBTQ life or scripts whose writers seem to think all they have to do to strike a blow for inclusion is turn the mean girls of a stereotypical high school rom com into gay men, however, you may find Sachs' point of view refreshing. He creates an illusion of honesty that lends the story emotional weight without pounding you over the head.
Sachs based the script — co-written with Mauricio Zacharias, who would become a frequent collaborator — on his relationship with literary agent Bill Clegg, who told his side of the story in his 2010 memoir Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man. Even though Paul does some horrid things to Erik, including hiring a hustler to have sex with him in a hotel suite while Erik is waiting in the next room, the film never judges him. By the end, he even seems to have a more honest take on the relationship than does Erik.
Erik's staying with Paul through the worst could seem masochistic, but Sachs provides some context that mitigates that impression. The film opens with Erik on a telephone hot line looking for sex and then follows him on an unpromising hook-up. That simply and even humorously sets up the world in which he's looking for love. The hot line calls are brief, with one of the parties hanging up when things don't fit some prescribed formula for sex or romance. His hook-up admits up front that he has a partner, and he wants Erik to admire his physique from across the room before he'll go any further. If those are the options, maybe trying to get an otherwise charming partner through drug addiction doesn't seem like such a deal-breaker.
Sachs is a master at revealing characters through details. The film covers eight years, from Erik's initial hook-up with Paul in 1998 to their meeting after Paul's second stint in rehab in 2006. There are quick scenes during the relationship that fill us in on Erik's career trajectory as he moves from borrowing money from his family for his big project, a documentary about gay photographer and filmmaker Avery Willard, to the film's successful release. We see him win a film festival award for the film, but he never tells anybody how well he's doing. Rather, we see the décor in his apartment gradually change to reflect his success.
The other characters are also drawn simply. The wonderfully open actress Julianne Nicholson has the largest supporting role, as one of Erik's colleagues. In just a few scenes, she and the writers create a woman as adrift as Erik when it comes to relationships. She even tries to get him to agree to help her get pregnant if she can't find a suitable partner by a certain time. Other characters are etched with a gesture or a look. You can tell by the way another friend, Russ (Sebastian La Cause), hugs Erik after a disastrous dinner that he has a crush on him.
When Erik and Paul reconnect in 2006, you don't need dialogue to tell you they haven't seen each other in a while. It's all there in the way they touch, the way they look at each other across a restaurant table. That scene is so skillfully done it's almost a pity the film doesn't end there. In the final scenes, Sachs' high-context writing actually becomes a problem. The final developments in the relationship seem to come from nowhere. Still, the film never gives into sentimentality. There are no jumps into a future where Erik has finally found happiness. Within the world of Keep the Lights On, there are no happy endings, just more drifting through an uncertain emotional landscape in search of something less terrible than cruising for a quick hook-up.

*   *   *

Fashion becomes art at the climax of House of Z.

Growing up in Philadelphia, I was regularly exposed to a commercial jingle suggesting "If you've got a passion for fashion/And you've got a craving for savings/Take the wheel of your automobile/And swing on down to Ideal." The current spate of design competition shows on cable seem created for people with a passion for fashion, though the types of clothing produced by contestants don't seem likely to satisfy any cravings for savings. With the work of Project Runway judge Zac Posen, however, there's really no price tag that's appropriate. As shown in the documentary House of Z (2017), he has the ability to transcend clothing and even fashion to create works of art.
Director Sandy Chronopoulos structures the film as though it were the finale of a reality competition like Project Runway. Focusing on his Fall 2014 Fashion Week show, she builds suspense by positioning the collection as a comeback after the decline of the fashion market following the 2008 recession and a disastrous Paris show in 2010. The 2014 show breaks from tradition. At the last minute Posen pulls out of the usual Fashion Week venues to present in his own studio, and he's only showing 25 looks, when the average collection can be as large as 75. Even that number is jeopardized when the showpiece of the collection, an ornate gown modeled on the Guggenheim's ceiling, has so many construction problems it may not make it to the runway.
All of this is very entertaining. It's a model of how to cut together documentary footage, interviews and archival materials to tell a story. It's so persuasive you may overlook the fact that the entire film was made with Posen's full cooperation, including appearances by family members, champions in the press and current colleagues. That certainly blurs the lines between documentary and publicity. Yet it's hard to deny the artistry of his work as a designer. In addition, his interviews have a candor that lends the story credibility. When he owns the past mistakes that led to a rift with his mother and sister, who had helped him found his atelier, it seems like a privileged view inside the unattainable world of glamour. Nor can you deny the quality of his work, particularly when that massive gown walks the runway.
This is hardly a rags to riches story. Even Posen's supporters in the press have been quick to note that his initial success was helped greatly by his connections within the fashion industry. Posen is the son of artist Stephen Posen and corporate attorney, Susan Orzack Posen, who exposed him to culture from an early age. One of his childhood friends was Anna Wintour's son, which guaranteed him an in at Vogue. None of that would have mattered, however, without talent. Chronopoulous includes shots of student work and his first showing (in 2001) that clearly position him as a major talent from the start. Posen has a special knack for re-working the best of the past with a contemporary edge in the choice of materials, colors and detail, all accomplished with impeccable craftsmanship. The film makes much of the fact that he's one of the few designers who still has all of his work done in-house, and there's a good deal of footage showing him taking a hand in the construction of his garments.
It's a rarified world the film reveals. Some of the most elaborate designs really couldn't be worn by anybody, and several would be impossible to produce at a saleable price. That's not necessarily a bad thing. His looks go beyond the utilitarian to become their own art forma. There's even an autobiographical element to the work, as the first, technically accomplished pieces, the work of a young artist celebrating his own abilities, become more refined with maturity, then veer into gimmickry during the period in which he lost touch with his talent and his roots only to come back to the greater refinement and epic vision of a more mature designer. Ultimately, that makes fashion the entire story, and it's a pretty powerful one as his work queers our notions of conventional clothing and turns his models into creatures of fantasy.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Tell Me a Story, Baba





The region of supernatural wonder in Black Panther


What makes the Marvel superhero movies so much more popular than DC's attempts is one simple fact: they know how to tell stories. For the most part, their films are variations on The Hero's Journey. Although the heroes often stay home, the "region of supernatural wonder" described by Joseph Campbell is the world they enter when they become superheroes. Along the way they acquire mentors and other allies. They usually face some crisis that seems to destroy them, only to rally and win the day in the end. And in one of Marvel's strongest variations on the genre, they also have a lot of fun. Only Deadpool (2016) has done more to make super-heroing look like release for geeks with a sense of humor.
All of that helps make Black Panther such a persuasive entertainment. The fact that the journey is undertaken by a person of color living in an idealized vision of the black motherland makes the film more than just an appealing adventure, however. It's a cultural statement.  As activists around the country fight, seemingly in vain, to prove that black lives matter, T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is doing just that on-screen and at the box office. And the film itself presents an allegory for conflicts within the African-American community, with T'Challa, nurtured by his African heritage, fighting for a politics of inclusion against his cousin Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), a refugee from U.S. racism (and the errors of his and T'Challa's fathers), who wants to assume the mantle of colonist in revenge for centuries of exploitation.
Lest Killmongr's turnabout colonialism seem too attractive, the filmmakers differentiate him from T'Challa clearly before they ever meet. At the beginning, T'Challa fights to save Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o) from kidnappers who resemble Boko Haram. He loves her so much that when he first sees her he freezes, forcing the head of his female guard, Okoye (Danai Gurira) to save them. By contrast, Killlmonger greets his lover, Linda (Nabiyah Be) with a passionate kiss, but when his temporary colleague Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) holds her hostage, Killmonger shoots her rather than give in to his betrayer. That part of the contrast gets a little uncomfortable. The more frankly sexual relationship and Killmonger's casual murder of his lover play into racial stereotypes. The later suggestion that his behavior is a result of living in a racist society doesn't quite dispel that discomfort.
Of course, there's always been a hint of racism beneath Marvel's Black Panther mythos. Although T'Challa was the first black superhero featured regularly in comics, he was still a creation of white writers. His powers spring from a meteor that crashed into Africa in an area that would become the advanced nation of Wakanda, providing the land with the miracle metal Vibranium. The suggestion, however, that it took a meteor to advance the people of Wakanda tends to overlook the richness of the cultures that flourished in Africa before colonial incursions, suggesting advancement would otherwise have been denied the race. To their credit, Marvel eventually started hiring black writers like Christopher Priest, Reginald Hudlin and Ta-Neishi Coates to script the characters' various titles.
It may seem ironic that a studio as pervasive as Disney is releasing Black Panther — economic colonists commenting on colonialism — but to their credit they've hired the promising young African-American Ryan Coogler to direct and co-write (with Joe Robert Cole). And you have to love a movie whose first trailers created a Twitter storm among people complaining that it was "too black."
Coogler, who's already earned critical laurels with Fruitvale Station (2013) and Creed (2018), delivers an almost perfect comic book adaptation. The film moves through some pretty stunning landscapes, making Wakanda a true region of supernatural (or should that be super-scientific) wonder. Working with his usual production designer, Hannah Beachler, he's created some eye-popping sets, particularly the conjunction of two waterfalls that serves as the arena in which the nation's leaders face challenges to their royal titles. Coogler's usual composer, Ludwig Goransson, researched traditional African music and uses West African instruments in the score, while the fight choreography also mimics African fighting styles.
There are the inevitable plot holes. W'Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), the head of Wakanda's security, lost his parents years earlier in an attack by Klaue and demands T'Challa kill him or at least bring him back to Wakanda to stand trial. When Killmonger presents him with Klaue's dead body, W'Kabi sides with him automatically. Why doesn't anybody point out to him that Killmonger had rescued Klaue from T'Challa and the CIA, preventing T'Challa from bringing the villain back? Wouldn't that fact mitigate his support of the usurper? For that matter, when exactly does the king become the Black Panther. The film establishes that his powers are derived from a flower grown near the vibranium deposit. But in T'Challa's first appearance, in Captain America: Civil War (2016), he dons the Black Panther costume and goes into battle as soon as the previous king has died. Was he carrying some of the flower with him? And the motivation for leaving Killmonger behind back in the 1990s, when T'Challa's father first confronted his straying brother (N'Jobu, Killmonger's father) and had to kill him, doesn't make a lot of sense. He killed him to save the future priest Zuri, who had been spying on him. What exactly is he covering up? Is the fact that his brother betrayed Wakanda something nobody ever needed to know, or is it just that they needed something to motivate Killmonger's villainy?
Coogler keeps things moving well enough and his cast is strong enough to keep the plot afloat for the films two hour plus running time. The humor, particularly as handled by Letitia Wright as T'Challa's scientific genius sister, Shuri, and Martin Freeman as CIA agent Everett K. Ross (though his material isn't as good as what Clark Gregg gets to play as S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Phil Coulson) comes in handy whenever the film is in danger of taking itself too seriously. However serious the crises may be in the Marvel movies, there's a buoyancy running through them that reminds us of what we love about comic book superheroes. Yes, it's wonderful when they reflect tensions within the real world the rest of us are stuck in, but they're also an escape — a chance to live in the world where we can all be a little stronger, a little braver, a whole hell of a lot hotter and, at least in the Marvel films, much more clever than we get to be in our own lives.

*   *   *

Thunder (Nafessa Williams), Black Lightning (Cress Williams) and their not very practical costumes

As dismal as the DC movies have been at times (with 2017's Wonder Woman and the Margot Robie portions of Suicide Squad as welcome, if only partial  exceptions), their TV shows of late have been rather the opposite. Between the gleeful stylization of Fox's Gotham and the dorky, pin-up prettiness of the CW's series, they're almost as a great an escape as the Marvel movies. Although all of the shows have explored diversity in casting — and for a while Legends of Tomorrow was one of the few action series with an out gay actor (Victor Garber) top-billed — they haven't come close to dealing with current political and social issues until the appearance of the CW's Black Lightning, which recently ended a very successful first season.
As Disney/Marvel did with Black Panther, Warner Bros. and its subsidiary, DC, had the intelligence to entrust their second black superhero (Black Lightning appeared six years after John Stewart became a Green Lantern in 1971) to African-American creators. Salim and Mara Brock Akil. Although they set the action in the fictional city of Freeland, Georgia, it's very much a part of contemporary America. There are demonstrations against a confederate monument in one of the city's parks, the black residents are legitimately in fear of the mostly white police force, and one of the first season's big bads, rogue government agent Martin Proctor (Gregg Henry), gleefully exclaims that his project to test a synthetic drug on the city's black residents (some become addicts, others become meta-humans he plans to turn into an army) will "Make America great again."
The series deals with issues within the black community as well. The other big bad is Tobias Whale (Marvin 'Krondon' Jones III), an albino who plans to become the king of the mobs in Freeland. He's the product of a lifetime of prejudice based on skin tone that started with his own father. That's part of his motivation for taking on the town's black criminal leaders. There's even a confrontation between the local preacher and a police captain (Damon Gupton) who complains that the preacher tries to reconcile his flock to their poverty while wearing a designer watch.
The series' superhero is a major departure from most of the CW's other leads in age as well as race. Jefferson Pierce (Cress Williams) is a high-school principle with echoes of Joe Clark. He's used his influence with the local dealers, most of whom are his former students, to keep his school a drug-free zone. His powers, which result from a covert government experiment to control the mostly black Freeland with drugs, allow him to generate electricity with which to shock opponents, block bullets, fly and even read the city's power grid. It's a visual high to watch, though his costume, with its lighted panels, doesn't seem the best choice for covert action. Williams brings a lot of authority to the role, and it's a kick that his sonorous voice can get even deeper when he's in superhero guise (a convention of the CW superhero shows, where the heroes use some means or other to disguise their voices while on duty). Williams connects well with his cast mates and can handle the usual angst for a CW hero well (apparently having daddy issues is a prerequisite for fighting crime). But he's also got a great smile, and he's willing to get silly when he's dealing with his daughters.
The daughters started out as something of a drag. They were somewhat cookie cutter versions of young African-American women: Anissa (Nafessa Williams) the serious activist training to be a nurse while teaching at the school and Jennifer (China Anne McClain), the rebellious, sassy high-school party girl. During the first season, they develop powers, which makes them more than just plot devices. Anissa, as it turns out, is a lesbian (with her parents' support) who discovers she has super-strength. The expression of that, with her using a stomp or a powerful hand clap to disable opponents, provides more visual fun for the show, even if she's also saddled with an impractical costume (long braids don't really work well in hand-to-hand combat). Jennifer discovers powers similar to her fathers, though she rejects the idea of giving her life over to heroics. And by the end of the season, the writers were giving her some good sarcastic lines.
With 13 episodes to fill, the series suffered a bit from padding. Most of the CW shows consist of 15 minutes of action and 30 minutes of angst and recaps so that people picking up the show later won't get too lost, which tends to drag things out. And there are the inevitable plot elements that start out strong and then go nowhere. As the writers developed Henry's efforts to build a meta-human army through drugs, the writers seemed to forget they'd set up Whale as Black Lightning's arch-enemy. For his part, Whale murders a drug dealer (Lala Johnson, played by William Catlett) who caused too much trouble, then pays a ton of money to bring him back from the dead, conditioned to do his bidding. Before Lala gets back under Whale's thumb, he's a promising character, a ruthless dealer haunted by the people he's killed, who become tattoos on his chest. Once Whale takes control of him, that sets the stage for some good conflict, but all Whale can think to do with him is wire him with explosives and send him after Henry's rogue agents. That takes a lot of the bite out of the season finale.
But when the show moves it really moves. And the strong cast (which also includes Christine Adams as Pierce's long-suffering ex-wife and James Remar as his scientific backup) always manages to find interesting things to do. It's off to a strong start, and with little sign of improvements in the real world, it's a great source of wish fulfillment. It's too bad we can't send Black Lightning and his daughters to Washington or at least the Georgia state house.


Monday, March 26, 2018

Leaden Whimsey and Rural Noirs





"You get a universe, and you get a universe. You all get universes!"


The queer is liberating in the new adaptation of Madeleine L'Engle's juvenile classic A Wrinkle in Time directed by Ava DuVernay. The Mrs. Ws, spirits of light and hope, shake up the unhappy world of Meg (Storm Reid) and her brother, Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), to enlist their help in fighting The IT, a malevolent force that is beginning to gain a foothold on Earth. Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey) describes the IT as a manifestation of all sorts of horrible things, including low self esteem. As examples, she shows Meg that the bully who's been tormenting her at school is starving herself to meet the standards of beauty set in women's magazines and her friend Calvin's father berates him for only getting Bs in school. Only light and, as we will learn, love, can destroy The IT and put an end to the torments this kind of essentialism inflicts on the world. Normally, my little liberal heart would stand up and cheer over such a message. In this 2018 film, however, it's delivered with such a plodding, heavy hand that the battle between good and evil isn't a liberating triumph of queerness over essentialism; it just seems like a contest between two different kinds of stupid.
L'Engle's novel has been through a lot: a Canadian television film that she hated, three stage adaptations, a graphic novel and an opera. Now, it's been Disneyfied, and I'm not sure that it can survive. This new version is so big and heavy-handed it seems to have been directed not by a major talent like DuVernay, but rather by The IT itself (or is that ITself?).
It seems almost unfair to blame DuVernay for the film. There's nothing obtrusively wrong with the direction. Most of the scenes are shot efficiently, and she does a terrific job with the three young actors, particularly McCabe, who's almost frighteningly dead-on in his line readings. But it's been adapted with too heavy a hand. Every time it starts to get an effect going and you think you're about to soar the heights of imagination, something happens to drag it all back into the dust.
The children aren't just saving the universe; they're trying to find their father (Chris Pine), a scientist who vanished while exploring the use of tesseracts in interstellar travel. The Mrs. Ws take them to the first planet he visited and tell them to question the flowers that float around there, because flowers are natural gossips. And the flowers speak by rearranging their petals because, as Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) explains, they speak in colors. That's a great concept. But they only have two colors. It's bad enough that there's no real visual punch to the sequence. You can't help wondering if talking in colors just means using binary code, which any computer science student will tell you is the ultimate in drudgery. Later, when the children set out to explore the planet, Witherspoon transforms herself into a giant flying leaf. Again, it's an idea with lots of potential, but the leaf's face is stuck in one expression. After watching Witherspoon dart from one thought to another in the flesh, her CGI form is another letdown.
In L'Engle's novel, the three Mrs. Ws are elderly eccentrics whose doddering behavior masks their power as eternal expressions of universal light. For this film version, they're younger, and in two instances it works. Witherspoon draws on her comic skills to make Mrs. Whatsit an exercise in mercurial whims. She knows how to shift moods and thoughts at lightning pace without shortchanging anything her character's going through, and the performance is reminiscent of her witty work in Pleasantville (1998), Election (1999) and her HBO miniseries Big Little Lies. Mrs. Who, who speaks almost entirely in quotes, could be a one-joke character played by an actress less resourceful than Mindy Kaling, whose love of all those quotes is almost infectious. And the design team has created a great visualization for the character's referentiality. The Mrs. Ws get new clothes every time they teleport, and Kaling's are like a romp through costume history. She doesn't let herself get swallowed by her succession of saris, mantillas, panniers and ruffles. She embraces them just as she does the quotes.
Mrs. Which is the earth mother of the three, the dispenser of timeless wisdom. This could be deadly in the hands of a really good actress (though I think a Shirley MacLaine or a Judi Dench would have had the wisdom to temper the bromides with a little acid). Winfrey, however, treats all that dispensed wisdom as if she were hosting one of her more inspirational TV episodes. She doesn't thrill; she lectures. With her billowing costumes, geometric hair and bedazzled makeup, she comes across as an overdressed pedant, the spirit of life transformed into your worst college professor.
On a more positive note, Zach Galifianakis takes on the role of the Happy Medium. Instead of L'Engle's vision of a woman in a ball gown and carrying a crystal ball (which always seemed a little too literal), he looks like a hipster yoga teacher, complete with man bun. Galifianakis got his start doing stand-up and has become a darling of the gonzo comedy genre, but it turns out he can really act. He has some touching moments connecting to Meg when she starts to get a sense of her purpose in the universe. It's a nice transition from the comic moments that open his sequence. He has an original, improvisatory rhythm that lifts the film for most of his episode. You may find yourself wishing that he and Kaling had written the film, instead of laboring to bring someone else's leaden conceptions to life.

*   *   *


Not completely good and far from entirely bad — Alice Fay (with Dana Andrews) and Linda Darnell shake up the traditional film noir binary in Otto Preminger's Fallen Angel.

Outsiders invade the coastal town of Walton, California, in Otto Preminger's 1945 Fallen Angel, intended to follow up on the success of his earlier Laura (1944), one of the screen's great film noirs. When it turns up in film noir, small-town America usually functions as either an idyllic refuge from the corrupt world of the city or a facade masking the decadence invading every aspect of human life. In Fallen Angel, Walton may have its secrets, but it's more idyllic than not. For the most part, it's a place of good people living honest lives that keep getting screwed up by interlopers from the big city.
Walton has been invaded previously by a con artist who made off with much of the fortune the late mayor had left to his older daughter, Clara (Anne Revere). More recently, their police detective (Charles Bickford) arrived from New York. Though he claims to have been worn out by the big city's harshness, he's brought it with him, making him the perfect film noir cop. At one point he beats up a murder suspect not because he thinks he could be guilty, but because he had a face Bickford just wanted to hit.
The film opens with the arrival of another outsider, Eric Stanton (Dana Andrews), forced to stay in Walton when he can't come up with the extra $2.25 to get him to San Francisco. The titles play out as road signs seen through the bus' front window, so except for a few scenes without Andrews, Joseph La Shelle's cameras pretty much are Stanton. They prowl through the town with him as he looks for some way to survive, particularly after he falls for hash-house waitress Stella (Linda Darnell). When he realizes that all she wants is someone to fulfill her dreams of domesticity, he sets his sites on Revere's younger sister (Alice Faye) and her $25,000 trust as the ticket to winning Stella. Faye's character adores him, but he spends the wedding night chasing after Stella, only to have her turn up dead the next morning. Corruption has come to the small town, and if you pick up on the clues in the filmmaking, you'll know whodunit before the big reveal.
To do that, of course, you have to avoid getting sucked in by Preminger's filmmaking expertise, which is a tall order. From all reports, Preminger wasn't too thrilled about doing another murder mystery after his success with Laura. On the plus side, however, he enlisted much of that film's production team for the return bout — LaShelle, composer David Raksin, most of the art and costume departments and leading man Andrews. Together they weave a powerful spell that adds some dimension to a script that's not quite up to Laura's level (the climax, in particular, seems to come out of nowhere except the film's style). The greasy spoon where Darnell works, for example, is the perfect place for secrets to hide. It's on the ground level of an apartment building, with steps on one side leading to Stella's room. Preminger and LaShelle work the angles and shadows there to build suspense, first as Andrews stalks her and later as he and the police try to find the clues to her murder. When Andrews decides to put the moves on Faye, he drops in on her while she's rehearsing for a church organ recital. She's improvising, and the music Raksin supplies for her is dark, with surprising dissonances that suggest there's more to her character than her bland blonde surface. There's also a great contrast between two seaside dates Andrews has with his leading ladies. When he takes Darnell out the camera points inland. All you get in the background are the backs of buildings and a bit of boardwalk, which creates a tawdry, closed-in feel for the relationship. By contrast, his date with Faye is shot with the camera facing the ocean. It's so bucolic you know which woman he'll end up with in the long run.
Faye and Darnell represent the standard roles women take in film noirs, the Madonna and the whore. Preminger tries to shake this up by suggesting a dark side to Faye's good girl and a positive side to Darnell's femme fatale. There isn't much he and Faye can do, however, with the bland scenes she has to play. Although known as a musical star (this was her only starring role in which she doesn't sing, though she recorded a song that was cut), Faye had some pretty decent acting chops. She even managed to steal a film from Shirley Temple, Stowaway (1936), something nobody except Jane Withers had ever managed to do, and Withers was a kid, so it probably shouldn't count. In Stowaway, however, Faye had a character with some dimension. Here, the writers have made her such a goody two shoes there's not much she can do, and a lot of her readings fall flat. The character is so relentlessly virtuous that even when she suspects Andrews is after her money she doesn't care. Now that they're married, it's his, too, even if he leaves her penniless. Faye has two good moments, however, one when she loses her patience with Andrews and another when she defends him to Bickford. That's not enough to build an entire performance around, but it suggests she could have made the transition to non-musical roles. Faye had great hopes for Fallen Angel. When she screened the picture and realized her best scenes had been cut so the film could better showcase Darnell, she left the studio and didn't make another movie for almost 20 years.
By contrast, Darnell and Preminger work a minor miracle with Stella. After years of playing young innocents in thankless roles, she had turned heads playing a seductive vixen on loan to United Artists for Douglas Sirk's Summer Storm (1944). Twisting her virginal smile into a smirk and posing provocatively in a hay loft turned her into a top pin-up and also revealed she had a real talent for femme fatale roles. Her Stella is more than just a vamp, however. Even though her entrance, all decked out for a failed romance, almost screams "Isn't she cheap?" and she blithely pockets money from the hash house till when she thinks nobody's looking, she's not the heartless schemer she seems. When Andrews comes on to her, she says she wants more than just a few tawdry gifts in return for sex. She's looking for a man who'll make a home for her. Fleecing Faye is entirely his idea. When he suggests his plans, she does nothing to lead him on. She even tries to get rid of him. It's a great turn on the femme fatale role, and it would work even better if Faye's character were a more suitable opposite.
There's one other small triumph in the film. As Darnell's lovestruck boss, Percy Kilbride is a revelation.  Three years before he was forever typed as the country bumpkin in The Egg and I (1947) and the Ma and Pa Kettle films that followed, he shows how much he could do with a different type of role. He makes his devotion to Darnell so touching there's never a question that he could be the killer. And in the big reveal scene he pulls off some impressive dramatics when he realizes who stole his love. Performances like that are among the treasures of Hollywood's golden days, when the studios built up stock companies of character actors like Kilbride and Bickford.

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William Talman (center) queers Frank Lovejoy and Edmond O'Brien's already off-kilter fishing trip.

Traditional values were beginning to crumble by the time Ida Lupino directed her signature film noir, The Hitch-Hiker, in 1953. That rot was apparent in the film's production history. Although he made major contributions to the script, Daniel Mainwaring received no credit because RKO head Howard Hughes suspected him of Communist sympathies (Mainwaring was never blacklisted, but he served as a front for Paul Jarrico on a few films). On-screen, the tale of two buddies (Edmond O'Brien and Frank Lovejoy) whose fishing trip is hijacked by an escaped serial killer has a fascinating subversive side. The two have told their wives they're vacationing in Arizona, but they've come to the Baja, partly because O'Brien dreams of going back to the Mexicali bars and reconnecting with a woman he had met there years earlier. When they get to Mexicali, it's a nightmare drive through crowded streets where strange men come up to the car to lure them into the nearest bar. Although O'Brien panics and drives on, it's clear he's not some cookie-cutter family man from '50s TV. This guy is looking for an escape, even if he ultimately lacks the courage to go all the way. For Lupino, the scene is a tour-de-force in low-budget filmmaking. She shoots mostly inside the car, with the camera just behind O'Brien's head as the men come up to the window. She's clearly setting the viewer up for more attacks on the bubble of imagined safety within the car.
When they stop to pick up a hitchhiker having car trouble, their limited walk on the wild side takes a queer turn. Though the camera hasn't shown his face to that point, we've seen the man (William Talman) commit other murders as he's hitched his way to the Baja. Once he's in the car, he pulls a gun on them, and basically takes over their lives for the next 60 minutes of screen time. He derides their failures to get away, forces Lovejoy to take turns with him shooting at a tin can O'Brien has to hold up and rails about his life of anger and rejection. That life story makes him a queer figure. Talman points to one eye that refuses to close all the way. It's been with him since birth, leading his parents to reject him. But it's also one of his strengths. He warns the men that they'll never know if he's asleep or not, so there's no chance of escaping in the middle of the night.
Lupino shoots all this in a nightmare landscape, most of it in Big Pine and the Alabama Hills in California. There's flat desert and an abandoned airfield, but most if it is a jumble of rocks, reflecting some natural order beyond the characters' comprehension. The few times they venture into civilization, the locations are cluttered, breaking up the visual field as much as had the rocks. The only really clean compositions come when Lupino cuts to the police trying to find Talman. It's a welcome relief from the tension of the scenes in the desert, but it's not entirely hopeful. The closer they get to figuring out where Talman is, the more likely he is to kill his two hostages.
There's an absurdity to the plot that adds to the suspense as well. Talman's plan to get to a town on the Gulf of California so he can ferry to the mainland doesn't make a lot of sense. Because of his eye condition, he can't exactly blend into the crowd. And he boldly tells Lovejoy and O'Brien that he'll kill them before he gets on the boat to the mainland and probably kill the pilot and crew before they land. He's killing his way to freedom he'll never find.
This was Lupino's next-to-last feature as an independent producer, which is a pity. She had a great sense for matching images to action. The rape scene in Outrage (1950) is a visual tour de force, all dark streets and jarring angles, with the camera pulling upward as the leading lady is finally cornered by her assailant. At the end of Hard, Fast and Beautiful (1951), Clare Trevor finally loses her hold on the tennis champ daughter she's been ruthlessly exploiting. She's left alone in a deserted tennis court, with the wind blowing debris around, a powerful visual expression of her sense of loss.
Lupino was also a whiz at getting performances out of people. She developed a lot of young talent in her independent films, and actors like Mala Powers, Sally Forrest, Robert Clarke and Keefe Brasselle were never as good as they were working with her. With pros like Trevor, Lovejoy, O'Brien and, especially Talman, her work sings.
Talman was so convincing as the vicious Emmett Myers, a character based on real-life killer Billy Cook, he was once punched by a fan who had taken the film a little too seriously. With his strong jaw and lined face, he seems to be part of the film's perverse landscape. It's an intense performance, and it hasn't dated a bit. To a contemporary viewer, he seems like a cautionary tale about the dangers of toxic masculinity. And when he forbids Lovejoy to converse with the locals in Spanish because he doesn't speak "Mexican," he seems to embody a school of thinking that's holding the entire country hostage at the moment.



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