Saturday, March 10, 2018


The three faces of Irene Dunne in Theodora Goes Wild.

As Theodora Lynn, first daughter of the sedate small town of Lynnfield, Connecticut, Irene Dunne is a liberated woman waiting to happen. She seems to exist totally at the service of the town's older, more conservative forces, living with her two single aunts and their cat, and attending meetings of the local literary circle. Their latest agenda item is a stinging condemnation of a salty novel, The Sinner, currently serialized in the local paper. During a New York trip a few minutes into the film, however, the audience learns her secret. She wrote The Sinner under the pen name Caroline Adams. She isn't happy with the situation. After the fuss at home, she informs her publisher that she plans to quit writing.
Then she meets Michael Grant, the book's illustrator (Melvyn Douglas), and a transformation begins. He refuses to accept her prim exterior — all sensible hats and Peter Pan collars — and starts goading her to let her inner self out. At first it's perfectly innocent. She has too much to drink and lets him take her home to his bachelor apartment, only to run out before too much can happen. Then he follows her home to Lynnfield. Pretending to be a homeless man looking for work, he moves into her family's guesthouse and upsets their routine until she falls for him.
This is all the stuff of screwball comedy. James Harvey, author of Romantic Comedy in Hollywood, has called Theodora Goes Wild one of the models for later genre entries (including one starring Dunne, see below). Much has been made about screwball comedy as the province of the idle rich, but in truth, it's more about the liberating power of comedy. In screwball films (and it's primarily a film genre), the romance occurs when a free spirit sets out to liberate someone of the opposite sex in need of freedom. Katharine Hepburn's Susan in Bringing Up Baby (1934) saves staid paleontologist David (Cary Grant) from a life of boredom, while reporter Peter Arne (Clark Gable) in It Happened One Night (1934) shows spoiled heiress Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) how the other half lives. In My Man Godfrey (1936), the ersatz hobo played by William Powell takes on Carole Lombard's entire pixilated family.
As such, screwball comedy has a powerful potential for celebrating queerness. In many of the genre's films, the liberating force upsets the traditional binaries of male-female, respectable-shameful and conservative-progressive. Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby and Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve (1941), in particular, take on aggressive male roles, acting upon their more passive leading men (Grant and Henry Fonda, respectively). It's no surprise when Grant turns up in a frilly nightgown in Bringing Up Baby, which he can only explain by announcing, "I just went gay all of a sudden." Writer-director Preston Sturges shoots a lot of the love scenes in The Lady Eve with Stanwyck clearly in the dominant position. Even without that sexual role reversal, however, the object of screwball comedy's liberating forces often starts out as an incomplete person. He or she has to be queered, forced out of traditional binaries, to find the joy in life.
Bringing Up Baby is probably the most popular screwball comedy with contemporary audiences, partly because it's completely devoid of sentimentality. Director Howard Hawks keeps things moving so fast that even when Hepburn falls for Grant and thinks she's lost him, she has no time for self-pity. She just keeps pecking away at him until he gives in. Nor is there any return to normalcy at the end. When Susan's chaotic presence destroys the dinosaur fossil David's been working on for years, they're left hanging precariously on a scaffold, with only their love to keep them aloft in a world of destabilized norms. By contrast, Frank Capra's screwball films, though hardly without their charms, spend a lot more time on romantic disappointment. Even with actresses as good as the young Colbert or Jean Arthur in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and You Can't Take It With You (1938), modern audiences haven't got time for the tears. In addition, the endings reinforce traditional norms. It Happened One Night concludes with a new norm. Gable and Colbert are married, able share a motel room without a wall of bedclothes separating them. The fall of the Walls of Jericho, as they call it, provides a great punch line, but it's still a return to tradition.  They may have upset the social apple cart by marrying across class lines, but they're still entering a traditional marriage.
There's another reason for Bringing Up Baby's popularity. Having the female character be the aggressor plays better with contemporary sensibilities (as does the presence of feminist icon Hepburn). By contrast, during the first part of Theodora Goes Wild, Douglas' efforts to break down Dunne's reserve reek of chauvinism. Even as the film pokes fun at her conservative small-town existence, his invasion of her life borders on harassment. When he tells her that he's going to keep at her until she tells the world she's Caroline Adams, you may be wondering who the hell he thinks he is.
Fortunately, the film's plot turns the tables on Douglas. Once Dunne confesses her love, he takes off. Then it's her turn to invade his life, particularly when she finds out he's trapped in a loveless marriage because of his father's political ambitions. She moves into his apartment and reveals herself to the world as Caroline Adams. The film is constructed as a series of journeys. Theodora goes from the country to the city, Michael follows her back to the country, she follows him back to the city, and it all winds up back in Lynnfield. With each trip, the characters become more liberated, as Michael helps Theodora express her passions, Theodora frees Michael from his stifling family life, and the whole town comes out to welcome the woman they now know — and love — as a creature of scandal.
The title Theodora Goes Wild says it all, as first Michael queers Theodora's life and then she queers his, at the same time queering her small town. One key element of this is a series of masquerades. At the start, Theodora is already living in disguise, pretending to be the perfect conservative while unleashing her pent-up passions in her writing. Michael uses his disguise as a homeless man to break her out of that stolid conventionalism. Then she creates a masquerade as Caroline Adams, donning outrageous costumes and playing the flirtatious sophisticate. Her clothes calm down as the film goes along, until she's tastefully chic, still a far cry from her mousy costumes when she was just Theodora. Queerness has rendered the once fragmented Theodora/Caroline a complete person.
She does much the same to Lynnfield. At the start, the town is dominated by the retrograde literary circle. Their hold on the town's morals is so great, they even push the newspaper editor to cancel his plans to serialize The Sinner. Yet it's clear from the start that the women who rule the town aren't really happy. One of the members of the literary circle begs for a copy of the paper, so she can read at least part of the book for herself. As the group's leader and the town's chief gossip, Spring Byington manages to evoke both shock and titillation as she breathlessly reads The Sinner's first chapter to the club and later passes on each new tidbit of gossip about Theodora and her wild doings in the big city. When Theodora comes home at the end, she tells the women to stay away from the train station, but still turns up, eager to see their town's first real celebrity. She can barely suppress her delight as the band plays  "There'll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight" to welcome the new Theodora home. It's as if she and Lynnfield were just waiting for something to come along and queer things up.
Dunne had never starred in a comedy before Theodora Goes Wild, and she initially turned down the role. Once she gave in, however, she threw herself into the comedy (reportedly with a lot of help from director Richard Boleslawski, one of the first teachers of the Stanislavsky System in the U.S.). She has a way of playing with her teeth, baring them in moments of distress, that's very funny, and a gift for making some of her silliest lines sound like improvisations. Douglas had done mostly serious roles as well, but he plays against his good looks to generate some appealingly antic moments when Theodora starts messing with his life. In his earlier scenes he also has a surprising grace as he sets his sights on seduction. He's so smooth, you get the sense that this could have been just a momentary conquest if she hadn't gotten to him romantically. While he's queering her life, she ends up queering his.

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Femininity = frivolity when Dunne tries out a new hat, one of the many tiresome sexist tropes in Together Again

The small town in Together Again (1944), another Dunne film packaged on the same DVD as Theodora Goes Wild, is ripe for the queering, too, but the journey isn't anywhere near as satisfying. With the success of the earlier film, Dunne got to star in more comedies, including two classics for Leo McCarey, The Awful Truth (1938) and Love Affair (1939). The latter teamed her for the first time with Charles Boyer, one of her favorite co-stars (and a good friend off-screen). They reunited the same year for the more serious When Tomorrow Comes and then five years later for the aptly named Together Again.
The film repeats more than the star pairing; there are distinct similarities to Theodora Goes Wild as well. Again, Dunne comes from a conservative small town that's invaded by an artist (Boyer), this time hired to build a statue in honor of her late husband, the town's former mayor. There's little in the way of masquerade and what there is (her father-in-law's faking an attack of gout to get out of a civic presentation or Dunne's faking interest in her daughter's suitor when the daughter falls for Boyer) is more standard comic plot contrivance than screwball liberation. The changes in Dunne's appearance are subtler as well. As she falls for Boyer, she lets her hair down (though its just a move into the long hair Dunne usually wore in the early 1940s). When she travels to New York earlier to interview Boyer for the job, she buys a new hat at her father-in-law's urging to try something more feminine, which seems to mean more frivolous.
And therein lies the rub.  Dunne isn't just hiring the artist because she's a widow. When her husband died five years earlier, she took over as town mayor. In the one scene set in her office, she seems to be doing a pretty good job of it, taking on a garbage collector who's left one portion of her town swimming in swill and balancing the other demands of her job. Yet that's not enough for her father-in-law, or just about anybody else. The fact that she doesn't have a man in her life somehow makes her less of a woman. And, according to the town's newspaper publisher (Charles Dingle), the fact that she's a woman makes her less of a mayor.
When she shows up at Boyer's building in her new hat, the elevator operator (a teenaged Carl 'Alfalfa' Switzer), comes on to her, and it's treated as normal male behavior, as if trying to be more attractive turned her into a piece of meat. Later, when she finally admits her attraction to Boyer and they start planning a life together, there's no question of her remaining the mayor. Though he claims he wants to take her away to free her from her stifling small-town life, it's also pretty clear that he wants to take her away so she can stop working at a job she seems to like.
In fact, the whole universe seems to be rigged to get her out of one man's job and into another man's arms. They need the new statue of her late husband because a lightning strike decapitated the first one. Her father-in-law claims it was some kind of message from the deceased to force his widow to get out of town and find a new life. Rain is pouring when Dunne goes to interview Boyer in her studio. When she tries to use that as an excuse not to go out to dinner with him, the rain suddenly stops, clearing the way for their first date. He takes her to a dinner club whose star performer is a stripper (a page out of the Travis Bickle dating book, no doubt). Not only is the club raided, but also when the police catch Dunne in the lady's room without a dress (after an accidental spill at the dinner table), they think she's the stripper and haul her to the paddy wagon right past a conveniently placed photographer. When Boyer uses the potential scandal to blackmail her into letting him create the new sculpture and even move into her garage to do it, it seems as if the long arm of coincidence has conspired to keep her in his crosshairs.
As was the case with Douglas in Theodora Goes Wild, Boyer has to fight against the script's chauvinism. Fortunately, he has a light, technically assured touch with romantic comedy that makes him immensely appealing, and a lot of his scenes float along almost effortlessly. In better material, he'd be the perfect man to liberate someone.
Dunne, by contrast, seems to need liberating from the script. The comic bag of tricks that felt so fresh in Theodora Goes Wild and her McCarey films seems to have congealed in this picture. She can still play a simple scene honestly, and at times she really connects with Boyer and her other co-stars (Charles Coburn as her father-in-law, Elizabeth Patterson as her housekeeper, Mona Freeman as her stepdaughter). When the comic complications arise, however the script doesn't give her anything real to latch on to. She ends up playing comedy instead of objectives, and her efforts to keep the thing afloat fall flat.
She doesn't bear all the blame. The script is so mired in sexist binaries it never really makes it to the level of screwball comedy, no matter how hard it tries to imitate other screwball films. For contemporary audiences, it barely makes it to the level of comedy. This is particularly disappointing given that the film is produced and co-written (with playwright F. Hugh Herbert) by Virginia Van Upp, who also produced the film noir Gilda (1946), a picture swimming in queer subtext. Of course, a lot of that has been credited to Gilda's cast and director Charles Vidor (though they've told conflicting stories about how much of the queerness was intentional). And Vidor also directed Together Again. From other films, it's clear that he wasn't a bad director. He did very strong work on films like Ladies in Retirement (1941), a wonderfully creepy female-dominated thriller, Rhapsody (1954), a heady romance containing arguably Elizabeth Taylor's best performance, and Love Me or Leave Me (1955), a musical bio with an interesting script by proto-feminist writer Isobel Lennart. But he's also had his share of clunkers, and, sadly, Together Again would seem to fall under that heading.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

The Best of 2017

Here are my responses to what I consider the three best movies of 2017, with a few notes on the rest of the year as well. I found these three films deeply moving, generously and observantly written and beautifully played by strong acting ensembles. They're also very personal visions for their directors -- Greta Gerwig, Luca Guadagnino and Martin McDonagh.
      (And yes, I know the middle of February is a little late for a year-end review, but retirement ain't as restful as it's cracked up to be. I feel like I've been touring in Mame…with Ann Miller.)

In reviewing another great coming of age tale directed by a woman — Gillian Armstrong's 1987 High Tide — Pauline Kael pointed out that female directors often say that's the kind of film they want to make rather than conventional, male-driven action films. As she states, action films are actually much easier to make. To make a coming-of-age film as effective as High Tide takes a real command of the craft. The same could be said of Greta Gerwig's Lady Bird.
Working from her own semi-autobiographical script, Gerwig focuses on the senior year of Lady Bird McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), a disaffected teen who, as Gerwig had done, attends a Catholic high school in Sacramento, California. While her workaholic mother (Laurie Metcalf) pushes her to attend a state college her family can afford, Lady Bird dreams of going to NYU. Having displayed no discernible talent for anything except aggravating her mother, she thinks that moving to another coast, away from family and friends, will give her a chance to find herself. As a first step, she's even dropped her given name, Christine, to call herself Lady Bird. Through her senior year, she experiments with doing student theatre (an hilariously bad production of Stephen Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along), drops her best friend since childhood (Beanie Feldstein) to hang out with one of the school's resident mean girls (Odeya Rush) and tries out two different boyfriends (Lucas Hedges and Timtohée Chalamet).
It would be easy to write and shoot this film entirely from Lady Bird's perspective, turning her parents and friends into caricatures, but Gerwig is too smart for that. The girl's unemployed father (Tracy Letts, in a really good performance) could have been a two-dimensional emasculated father, but Gerwig takes us inside his problems, with a lovely scene in which he discovers that his competition for a much-needed job is his own adult son. Lady Bird's first boyfriend seems the perfect choice until she catches him making out with another boy. Again, that could be played as a quick joke, but Gerwig then gives the boy a beautifully written scene in which he begs her not to tell anybody. And Lucas Hedges -- who with this film, last year's Manchester by the Sea and his role as Frances McDormand's level-headed son in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, is fast becoming the screen's everyteen -- manages to be both heartbreaking and silly in his desperation. Her second boyfriend is a self-righteous hipster wannabe who smokes hand-rolled cigarettes, plays in a dreadful band and puts down everything he can. Chalamet makes him as maddening as a high-school sophisticate can be. Yet when Lady Bird finally sees through him, he's rather sad. You can't help thinking he'd be happier dropping the façade and making out with Hedges.
Where the film really soars, however, is in its depiction of mother-daughter relations. Lady Bird has a surrogate mother in the school's principal, Sister Sarah Joan, played to perfection by stage veteran Lois Smith. I've been a fan of hers since she played Dr. Conrad's dotty wife on The Doctors back in the 1960s. She's such an expert actress, she must moves into the part and breathes. You may even be thinking Ronan is lucky to have had the chance to work with her.
Lady Bird's real mother provides a great vehicle for Metcalf, the Steppenwolf member who's been the best thing about just about any film, play or TV show she's been in for a couple of decades now. Her pained reactions to her daughter's latest transgressions could easily be the stuff of sketch comedy. But she adds more dimension. You're always aware of the love and pain beneath the exasperation. This is a woman who feels as if she's single-handedly fighting to keep her family together, and it doesn't just make her angry when they don't cooperate. It breaks her heart. One of Metcalf's best scenes occurs when she's just listening to Lady Bird go on about her dreams. Even with her back to the camera as she washes dishes, she's totally involved in the moment, giving Ronan something to work from and keeping the monologue a scene.
As Lady Bird, Ronan is just a wonder. The 23-year-old, Bronx-born, Irish-raised actress has a light inside her, even when the character is at her most withdrawn. When she jumps out of a moving car to escape one of her mother's harangues, it's not a cheap laugh. You can see the fire burning in her throughout the scene, and you know it had to break out somehow. She also has the intelligence to pace the character's development. She never tips us off too soon that she's going to grow up and start connecting with her family. Rather, she works through a series of little awakenings as she sees through her douche of a boyfriend and the mean girl who had once seemed glamorous.  Gerwig has paced those moments carefully throughout the script, and Ronan brings them to life beautifully. Their teamwork makes Lady Bird a thing of beauty, and that's no easy task.
To paraphrase Martin Mull, writing about Call Me By Your Name is like dancing about architecture. Luca Guadignino's film, adapted by him and James Ivory from Andre Aciman's novel about a 17-year-old coming of age when he has an affair with his art historian father's male graduate assistant during a beautiful summer in Italy, is so much of a piece, so completely thought out and realized, that it's hard to pick the pieces apart. For its two hour plus running time, it simply is.
The film's emotional relationships develop gradually and subtly. At times the scenes between the young Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and the older Oliver (Armie Hammer) are so delicate watching them is like listening to chamber music. They start out distant from each other. The more introspective Elio is put off by Oliver's brashness and even makes fun of it.  When they go to an outdoor dance, Elio sits and watches while Oliver dances with abandon (this is repeated later, during their final three days together in Bergamo). Even as they grow closer, Oliver remains a mystery to Elio. He can't understand why he would wear a star of David in a world where Jews are still sometimes treated as outsiders (the film is set in 1983). When Oliver picks up some American cigarettes delivered to him in Italy, Elio points out that he doesn't smoke. Oliver agrees, while lighting one. Later they start to make out after swimming together in a secluded lake where Oliver likes to go to think. But Oliver stops them, saying they shouldn't do anything they'd regret.
That line, which sounds like something out of an old Hollywood romance, provides one key to the careful jousting that comprises their relationship.  This is the world of the 1980s, still early in the liberation process and one in which the appearance of HIV infections has become a tool for the bigots. At one point, Oliver tells Elio he envies the boy his parents, whom he's sure know the extent of their relationship. If his own father had been aware of something like this, he says, he'd have sent him to a correctional facility. Elio's a part of that world. Like his mother, he derides a gay couple his parents know as "Sonny and Cher" (and the aging men are presented as stereotyped effeminate gay men, the image of homosexuality with which Elio and Oliver would have grown up). Elio initially deals with his attraction to Oliver by losing his virginity to his girlfriend. In the film's last scene, Oliver announces that's he planning to marry a female friend. In the 1980s, that often seemed the only path open to gay men hoping to get ahead in academia.
If the film errs at all, it's that it's almost too much of a piece, too complete, and some of the choice seem almost self-consciously precious Does the academic paper on which Oliver's working have to be about the concept of time as a river, a classic trope that also calls up memories of Gore Vidal's seminal gay novel The City and the Pillar? Does Elio's father have to be studying erotic male statuary. Early in their relationship, Elio and Oliver accompany him to a seaside archaeological expedition that's recovered a naked male statue. The image of it rising from the sea is beautiful, but it's almost too much. Symbolism at a time like this? Towards the end of the film, Elio's father tells him he knew of his relationship with Oliver and approved, partly because in his youth he had been tempted to a relationship with another man. It's a great acting moment for both actors, with Michael Stuhlbarg, a character actor who's been almost ubiquitous this year with strong performances in two other films (The Post and The Shape of Water) and the third season of TV's Fargo, delivering the lines with great compassion as Chalamet listens actively. But the character's focus on male statuary makes the speech seem almost too pat. As if the father had been set up from the beginning to sympathize with his son's emerging sexuality.
That's really just a quibble weighed against the overall achievement of the film and its cast. After learning that Oliver is going to marry a woman, despite his assurance that he remembers everything, Elio stares into the fire in a lengthy close-up that ends the film. It's a great acting test, and Chalamet passes it. It's almost impossible not to see in it echoes of the great final shot of Garbo in Queen Christina (1933), and the fact that it can stand up to that memory is a testament to Guadagnino's overall conception and Chalamet's talents.

With her powerful profile and unflinching glare, Frances McDormand presides over the many moods of Martin McDonagh's Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri like one of the heads on Mt. Rushmore. In a film whose music and compositions position it as a modern day Western, she performs a similar function to Henry Fonda's in some of his John Ford films. She's a living embodiment of integrity, or what we could call integrity in the morally shifting postmodern 21st century. Yet she's also distinctly female. Her response to confrontation is verbal aggression, at which the script and actress are both quite good, and hard work. When someone burns down the billboards she's rented to call out the town's police chief for not solving her daughter's rape-murder, she sets her jaw, tries to put the fires out and then rehangs the posters. She's the American pioneer spirit struggling to find a foothold in a contemporary world of moral corruption. Moreover, she captures the script's many emotional shifts, transitioning almost effortlessly from cynical anger to guilt to fear as the film moves from ironic comedy to social drama.
Films are conceived, written and shot so far in advance of release it's almost impossible for them to deal with immediate issues, yet Three Billboard seems the perfect film for late 2017. McDormand's fight to find some kind of justice for her daughter seems a reflection of the current "me, too" movement, particularly when she has to deal with a violent, aggressive male who may or may not be the girl's killer. The references to one police officer's habit of beating up black suspects with no real evidence and the arrival of a new, African-American chief who has to cope with his force's racism call up powerful echoes of the Black Lives Matter protests. From the way people in Ebbing act, it seems a town about to explode from unresolved racial and gender issues.
It isn't all McDormand's show. McDonagh writes and directs with great generosity towards his array of small-town eccentrics. Woody Harrelson's police chief is a fundamentally decent man, trying to keep the peace while dealing with a case that's almost impossible to solve and fighting his own losing battle with cancer. McDormand's ex-husband (John Hawke) is capable of physical and verbal abuse but also has moments of tenderness dealing with the memory of his daughter's death. His teenaged girlfriend (Samara Weaving) starts out as a joke of a character, the girl who may be shacking up with McDormand's ex- but could never replace her in the audience's heart, but also has a fundamentally good heart as she tries to help Hawke deal with his anger issues.
      At one point, McDonagh's generosity seems to go too far. When the police chief commits suicide, he leaves notes for McDormand's Mildred, his wife (Abbie Cornish, proving her dreadful performance in Geostorm wasn't necessarily representative of her talents) and his protégé on the force, Dixon (Sam Rockwell). In the note to Dixon, he tells him he has the makings of a good police detective, but his letter is the only indication of that. It's not Rockwell's fault. He's a master at grounding off-the-wall characters like Dixon and throughout the film he pulls off a great balance of goofy and ferocious. One thing Dixon isn't, however, is savvy. When he comes close to solving the murder case, he shows some presence of mind, but the whole thing is just a case of being in the right place by accident. However well Harrelson reads his note to Dixon, it's not enough to convince us that there's much of a brain in there.

Those weren't the only pleasures to be found at the movies this past year, just the most consistently joyful.  The year also featured Taika Waititi bringing his sketch comedy sensibility to the Marvel cinematic universe in Thor: Ragnarok (and Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo and Tom Hiddleston gleefully going along for the ride), easily the best of the Marvel superhero movies to date. Jordan Peele made one of the year's most assured directing debuts with Get Out, another film that seemed perfect for its time with its look at the paranoia underlying African-American life. On the acting side, there was Holly Hunter's incandescent work as the mother of a sick woman in The Big Sick, particularly in the way her relationship with the girl's ex-boyfriend (Kumail Nanjiani) evolves, Meryl Streep's character growth as newspaper publisher Kay Graham in The Post, another film that seemed made for the 2017 zeitgeist and Gil Birmingham's towering strength as the father of a murdered Native woman in Wind River. His work brought some much-needed weight to what was essentially a noble-white-woman story of an inexperienced FBI officer (Elizabeth Olsen) running the investigation into a Native woman's rape and murder. There was a lot of good stuff in Wind River, but when the script suddenly cut short Birmingham's grieving so white leading many Jeremy Renner would tell us how he felt when his daughter was killed, I wanted to set fire to the screen.
There were some clunkers, too. After making two great visionary films with Pi (1998) and Requiem for a Dream (2000), Darren Aronofsky crashed and burned big time with Mother!, an uneven grafting of a home invasion suspense thriller with a big symbolic whatsis about poetry, rabid fandom and eating babies that only succeeded in making talented actors like Javier Bardem and Jennifer Lawrence look bad (fortunately, Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer can rise above just about anything). Geostorm, the latest environmental disaster flick, may have been set in a world wise enough to elect Andy Garcia president, but it mainly succeeded in making Gerald Butler look like crap, though at least they cast James Sturgess as his brother. His plastic overplaying guaranteed that Butler wouldn't give the film's worst performance. And Flatliners seemed an abject lesson in how not to make a remake. First, don't start with a film that wasn't that good to begin with unless you have the talent to improve on it. Second, don't cut the one thing that worked in the original, in this case the humor (hint, instead of giving Kiefer Sutherland from the original a few scenes to snarl at the hapless medical students as one of their teachers, have him pop in with sarcastic one-liners the way he did in the original). Third, don't kill off your best actor, Ellen Page (often the best actor in whatever she does, even in better company than this), so we can spend screen time watching Nina Dobrev play "To be beautiful" as her superobjective.
Fortunately, even crap can have its good moments. Suicide Squad may have been too noisy and bordering on incoherent, but at least it had Viola Davis as the angry Amanda Waller of any comic geek's dreams and Margot Robey, who made Harley Quinn — the Joker's over-sexed, obsessive female sidekick — into a ferocious comedy machine. It's interesting that the women are the sole bright spots in the DC comics universe (with Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman bringing a lot of light to their dim, depressing world as well). With Robey slated to star in and produce her own Harley Quinn feature (rumored to be based on the Gotham City Sirens comics that teamed her with Catwoman and Poison Ivy), things could be getting very bright indeed.


Monday, August 21, 2017


The word "schlock," meaning something "of low quality or value" (Merriam-Webster), is derived from the Yiddish "shlak," which can mean a fatal blow, something evil or a nuisance. Little wonder then that so much entertainment labeled as schlock falls within the more violent genres--horror, science fiction, action-adventure, crime, etc. Of course, there's more to it than that. It encompasses most (but not all) B movies, over-produced soap operas, failed musicals, etc.

Often dismissed outright by critics and the more serious cineastes, schlock can be the site of deeper, more perplexing meanings about the culture than are found in mainstream films. The slasher films of the '70s and later said more about changing gender roles in society than many more serious films of the era. When society catches up to those meanings, schlock ascends to the level of cult film. Think of Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly (1955), now viewed as a trenchant commentary on '50s nuclear paranoia, or the original Night of the Living Dead (1968), which puts '60s America into the microcosm of a remote farmhouse under siege by zombies.

We mine schlock, then for these hidden meanings, but there are other pleasures--the stray solid performance in the midst of scripts that defy any sensible analysis, surprising achievements behind the cameras, the work of talented filmmakers on the way up or struggling to survive after being inexplicably cut loose from the mainstream. And if you're a gay male, there's always the chance not just to discover some elusive (or sometimes over-the-top) sexual subtext but also to ogle some hot guys (schlock thrives on the objectification of the male and female forms). If none of that turns up, schlock's saving grace is usually brevity and, under the best circumstances, speed. Most schlockmeisters know enough not to linger over their shortcomings. So if you've done your duty to society -- you've written some deathless words, taught some students, posted something meaningful on your social media platform of choice or, I don't know, maybe invented something to solve one of the world's more pressing problems -- there are worse things you can do with your time than to settle back at the end of a day with the latest Netflix delivery or your favorite streaming service and go hunting precious minerals among the hours of dross out there for the partaking.

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The alien invaders in writer-director Joe Cornish's Attack the Block (2011) are black puffballs with row upon row of glow-in-the-dark teeth. They're not really big enough to seem truly threatening, despite the film's body count, but when they chase the cast of South Londoners through the halls of their high rise (the "block" of the title), it's like an image out of a Chuck Jones cartoon. You may be expecting Bugs or Daffy to pop up from around the corner and bean them with a giant sledgehammer.

The block's defenders are a gang of street thugs, teenagers growing up with a minimum of adult supervision and a maximum of unvoiced rage at the system. Initially, they're a difficult group to root for. In the first scene, they mug a young nurse (Jodie Whittaker), their leader, Moses (John Boyega), holding a threatening knife to her face. When the first alien attacks, Moses drives it off. He then gives chase with his gang so they can kill the thing for no purpose other than to kill it.

When more creatures land, however, and their attacks seem to be focused on the youths' block, they set out to defend their turf, something they do very well. The film becomes a comic book illustration of Simone Weil's contention that the most effective members of the French Resistance were criminals, people who had been jailed for the same behavior before the German's took their country. As the film develops, Moses and his gang even reveal their own moral code. Attempting to hide from one of the aliens, they force their way into the nurse's apartment. As soon as they realize she's a neighbor, they tell her they never should have robbed her. Moses even makes one of his cohorts return a ring they had taken from her.

Cornish's direction of all this is increasingly kinetic. There's a real showcase sequence in which the kids take to bikes and motor scooters to hunt down the invaders, only to become the hunted themselves. Cornish makes great use of the various walkways, staircases and ramps around the high rise to create a thrilling ride with moments of slapstick to leaven the horror. He also has an eye for humor based on the characters' inexperience and cultural markers. One of the group's female friends refuses to touch the dead creature for fear of catching chlamydia (a line Cornish heard while interviewing South London teens to get their slang right). When the gang wants to get the word out and warn their friends to stay inside, they start comparing notes on who has the most minutes left on their cell phones. The task seems hopeless, or as one of them complains, "This is too much madness to explain in one text!"

Although the action mainly focuses on Moses' gang and the nurse who ends up on their side, there's a really fun bit in which they hide out in a female friend's apartment (because she has a security gate, and do you expect for one moment that that's going to protect them?). When the critters break in, the boys make a muddle out of fighting them off. Instead, it's the women who get rid of them, suggesting that maybe their female friends were just as deserving of focus as the guys.

Cornish tried to cast unknowns as the street gang and came up with some really strong choices, most of them still in their teens. John Boyega made his film debut as Moses and manages an effective transition from closed-off mugger to more open if unconventional hero. His teammates include Franz Drameh, before he came to the U.S. to play Firestorm on the CW's superhero block, and a passel of other screen debutants -- Alex Esmail as the wise-cracking, flirtatious Pest, Simon Howard as Biggs, who spends the night in a recycle bin with a monster prowling outside, and Sammy Williams and Michael Ajao as Probs and Mayhem, two younger wannabes who go after the monsters to win a place in the gang. The more experienced cast members include Jodie Whittaker, who makes the nurse's transition from hostility to camaraderie believable and sympathetic. She takes on her role as audience surrogate gracefully and helps us change our views of the gang as she does. There are also two nice comic turns from Nick Frost and Luke Treadaway as pot dealers who get caught up in the action. Treadaway, star of the original London production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, has some regrettably brief but inspired bits of physical comedy.

There are moments of seriousness, of course, where Cornish feels compelled to underline the social issues underlying the characters' lives. The most turgid of these are over fast. There are some, however, that really hit home. When the nurse mentions that her boyfriend is a doctor volunteering with the Red Cross in Ghana, Pest asks, "Why can't he help children in Britain? Not exotic enough, is it? Don't get a nice suntan." And when it's all over, you may be wondering what they future holds for these kids when they don't have any more alien invaders to fight off. Can these junior-league criminals adjust to life outside the resistance?

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One look at James Wan's producer credit for Demonic (2015), and you may wonder if you should be giving 83 minutes of your life to this haunted house thriller. Although he did a decent job directing The Conjuring (2013), he came to that with the script already completed by another writer. His own writing efforts have been less that fortuitous, no matter how many critics jumped to praise Insidious (2010), a truly insipid film, because it was that rarity, a relatively bloodless horror film. Of course, he's not a credited writer on Demonic. That film's three writers appear to have managed to muck up the script all on their own.

Demonic falls into the "ghostbusters-gone-wrong" sub-genre. A group of paranormal investigators go to a haunted house only to awaken something evil that knocks most of them off. Like most sub-genres, it has its good entries (the scenes with Beatrice Straight and Zelda Rubinstein in 1982's Poltergeist or 2012's Grave Encounters 2, which improves on the 2011 original simply by virtue of casting the very gifted oddly attractive Richard Harmon in the lead), and it's produced a lot of utter crap.

The gimmick this time is that the action starts after the investigation has fallen apart. A man from the house next door (Do haunted houses have neighbors? Who would want to live next door to all that bad plotting?) hears strange noises, comes over to investigate, finds the house wide open and, in a moment of clarity rare for the genre, calls the police without going in. When the police detective (Frank Grillo) comes to investigate, he finds three dead bodies, a survivor (Dustin Milligan) in shock and indications that two other people got away. He enlists police psychiatrist Maria Bello to question the survivor, who claims to have forgotten everything, while his tech team goes over the video footage captured during the investigation.

That's where the trouble starts. After making Stage Fright (1950), Alfred Hitchcock stated that he made a big mistake in opening the film with a flashback that lied. Instead of showing the crime as leading man Richard Todd related it, he should have just had him tell the story in a monologue (he wasn't too happy about working with Jane Wyman, either, but that's another story). In Demonic, it's not just the flashbacks that lie; even the video footage can't be relied on. Nor does it help that the policeman assigned to videotape Bello's interviews with the survivor has to be one of the world's most incompetent videographers, for reasons I won't state for fear of spoiling the ending for anybody still interested in seeing the film.

Were the film entirely focused on the investigation, one would at least have the consolation of time spent with Grillo and Bello, who bring a kind of grizzled authority to everything they do. Since the days when Dinah Marler killed him because he'd dumped her for Cassie Winslow on Guiding Light, Grillo has carved a nice niche with supporting roles in top-budget action films like The Grey (2011) and Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) and leading roles in lower-budget fare like the Purge sequels, roles that take advantage of his chiseled physique and taciturn presence. Bello has more quality credits, though that hat on Prime Suspect was a huge mistake, but has been moving into the realms of schlock a bit more recently. She somehow seems able to rise above even the worst scripts, and goddess knows, she and Grillo try to create a relationship when the writing doesn't give them much beyond the fact that he stood her up to go investigate the haunted house.

The problem resides in the fact that more than half the film is devoted to those duplictous flashbacks featuring a mostly less authoritative cast.  Scott Mechlowicz is the only shining light in those scenes, and there's really not enough of him to justify them. Mechlowicz, who looks like the product of a scientific experiment to mix the DNA of Anthony Perkins and James Dean, has given some interesting performances in the past, particularly his daringly stylized turn in the justly acclaimed independent thriller Mean Creek (2004). Here, he's cast as the head of the paranormal team, who also happens to be bitter because his girlfriend dumped him for Milligan. He's got some nice brittle moments and tries to find the subtext beneath a text that's rarely worth the trouble. For the most part, however, the flashbacks focus on Milligan and his girlfriend (Cody Horn), who seem to lack the talents to pull anything out of the sorry script (Where are Beverly Garland and Jonathan Haze when you need them?). Their profiles are poorly supported by their approximations of hysterics.

So what we're left with is a script that lies to us to create the expected shocking twist at the end. That doesn't work when M. Night Shyamalan does it, but at least he knows how to write a scene. Take a look at Demonic's trailer, and see if you can count all the clichés crammed into just a few minutes:

That's probably more time than you needed to spend with Demonic. Grillo, Mechlowicz and Aaron Yoo, who plays a paranormal tech geek, are all attractive in different ways, but you can see them to better effect in other films. I'd suggest you watch them instead.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Getting Started

Well, this isn't the least bit daunting.

I want a place to share my feelings about TV and movies, old and new, because, well, I can. I mean, it's free, I've got the time and being hideously over-educated I'm sure I've got something important to say.

So, what do I want to say right now. Um...

OK, it's almost time for bed, so let me just share something fun to watch. Here's Virginia O'Brien, a personal favorite of mine, from DuBarry Was a Lady (1943). I'll probably write more about her later, but for now, just enjoy.

Virginia O'Brien singing "Salome" by Roger Edens and E.Y. Harburg


The three faces of Irene Dunne in Theodora Goes Wild . As Theodora Lynn, first daughter of the sedate small town of Lyn...