Monthly Archives: February 2011

Varvara Massalitinova (The Childhood of Maxim Gorky) – Best Supporting Actress of 1938

Other Noteworthy Performances:

Fay Bainter (Jezebel)

Billie Burke (Merrily We Live)

May Whitty (The Lady Vanishes)

May Robson (Bringing Up Baby)

Billie Burke (The Young in Heart)

Una O’Connor (The Adventures of Robin Hood)

Jean Dixon (Holiday)

Ruth Donnelly (A Slight Case of Murder)

Varvara Massalitinova is not a name many of us would claim to recognize but, despite her obscurity, she turned in the best supporting performance of 1938. Massalitinova perfectly captured the idealized portrait of Maxim Gorky’s grandmother. She’s a physically imposing presence – a thick and strong woman who looks as though she has spent a lifetime at work and only death could slow her down – but Massalitinova balances her physical strength with a tender, grandmotherly love. Her face – which at first appears hard and unfeeling – blossoms into warmth, compassion, and affection with a single genuine smile.

We read her hard life in the lines of her face, but her good nature always shines through. After years of beatings from her diminutive (and rather stupid) husband, she still proclaims affection for the man. After years of watching her sons perpetuate one horrible deed after another (eventually leading to the death of her beloved Ivan), she still supports them as only a mother could. To little Aleksei (later to become the great Russian writer Maxim Gorky) her deference to physically and emotionally weaker men is dumbfounding. Stand up and fight, he will eventually urge her, but she can’t do it. It isn’t in her nature.

To fight back would mean shirking her duty – to her husband and her sons no matter how flawed they may be. Aleksei – not to mention most modern audiences – can’t understand her slavery to duty when she has not only the right, but also the strength to stand up for herself and possibly redirect her family’s energies in more positive directions. She is a woman, however, of a different time and place, well before Communism proclaimed equal status for women or, in this country, Betty Freidan and Gloria Steinem spearheaded feminism, both of which have helped shape our perceptions of Massalitinova’s character.

Her emotionally rich characterization makes her relatable and sympathetic even as we shake our heads at her unnecessary subservience. She folds her strength and acquiescence into a fully realized supporting character, embracing the contradictions to give us a clear sense of how a woman like her would have lived and felt in Tsarist Russia. And, not incidentally, she committed to film a character most of us would have loved to have had for a grandmother.

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The Past Week in Theaters: “The Rite,” “The Company Men,” “Animal Kingdom,” “Biutiful,” and “The Mechanic”

Colin O'Donoghue and Anthony Hopkins discuss the finer points of demon possession in "The Rite"

Director Mikael Håfström makes an attempt at a more thoughtful kind of exorcism movie, the story still reduces down to the standard possession goofiness we’ve been seeing since Linda Blair threw Max von Sydow out a window. Let’s face it, a line like “We cynics are always searching for the truth, but the question is, what on earth would we do if we found it?” sounds deep, but it’s only something someone who isn’t a skeptic or an atheist could have written. Speaking as an atheist myself, I’ll tell you exactly what I would do if I found proof that God existed: I’d get my ass into confession tomorrow morning. The movie treats skepticism like the pursuit of the disaffected troublemaker and the emotionally deficient snob stunted by reading too much Freud rather than a serious grappling with what we actually know and can know which has lead to little things like, you know, science.

Anthony Hopkins has a bit of fun as a priest who specializes in exorcisms, especially in the last part when he is possessed by a demon himself, and Colin O’Donoghue is fine in his big screen debut as a young priest battling with his lack of faith. The performances and good intentions are wasted on all the same stuff we’ve seen before: creepy voices, discordant music, supernatural strength, etc. But The Rite also suffers from another problem all exorcism movies suffer: the viewer must accept Catholic sensibilities and mythologies for the story to work. Now I can accept all kinds of craziness in a fictional world: magic, ghosts, vampires, and, yes, even demons and demon possession. But none of these worlds wrap themselves in the ideology of a specific religion. I always wonder how Muslims or Jews feel watching the power of Christ compelling a demon. Does it undercut the movie’s credibility? If producers of a exorcism movie decided to turn it into a story of a rabbi or imam battling a demon I would venture to guess that many people wouldn’t be as accepting of the religious overtones. (Rating **)

Tommy Lee Jones and Ben Affleck in "The Company Men"

Next up is the Great Recession movie The Company Men, starring Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones, Chris Cooper, Craig T. Nelson, and Kevin Costner. It is the story of a several employees of a major corporation as they get laid off so the CEO (Nelson) can maximize profits. Affleck is good as Bobby Walker, the young, but not young enough sales exec thrown into the unfamiliar world of unemployment, previously the exclusive domain of the chronically lazy or stupid. The movie does a good job of depicting his long search for a job and feelings of inadequacy and unmanliness. The pain and resentment caused by the impersonal vicissitudes of the economy feels real, though the story doesn’t always hold together. Tommy Lee Jones’ deteriorating marriage and his affair with Maria Bello is hollow and Chris Cooper’s sycophantic yes-man is one-dimensional. And, yes, the end is too easy. But if the movie had focused on the plight of one man, Affleck’s Bobby Walker and his family, this could have been a movie that really resonated. (Rating ***1/2)

Oscar nominated Jacki Weaver with two of her "boys" in Australia's "Animal Kingdom"

Animal Kingdom is far from new; it has been making the rounds at the Laemmle Theaters here in Los Angeles for what seems like months. It finally made it to the Sunset Laemmle which is within walking distance so I couldn’t put off seeing it because I had to drive to Encino or Beverly Hills (which may be close but can still be a pain during rush hour). It still turned out to be something of a disappointment. The story is weighted down by the “point” director David Michod wanted to make. More good movies have been ruined by directors trying too hard to deliver a message. Characters are forced to emotionally contort themselves to do things they wouldn’t do to get to the end the director wants.

Furthermore, why is it interesting to watch a bunch of idiots be stupid? Why not introduce one character with a brain and some courage? That would have changed the dynamic of the entire picture and given someone for us to relate to. James Frecheville does a good job in the lead as the quiet Joshua, thrown into his morally bankrupt extended family after his mother dies. His character, though, is so passive he may as well have been sitting in the audience. He doesn’t actually do anything until the very end, but what he does is so unbelievable we feel the hand of the writer and director making their dreaded point. Jacki Weaver also gives a very good performance as the jovially menacing matriarch of her small time crime family, but I have been hearing so much praise about it (and now she has an Oscar nomination), that I was expecting more. I don’t mean to run her down. She’s good, but she has so few scenes that I was disappointed. She only has two really good scenes, though I know Oscars have been earned with less, like Beatrice Striaght’s amazing one scene in Network. (Rating **1/2)

Javier Bardem tries to get his life together in "Biutiful"

Biutiful has been getting mixed reviews, but it is a surprisingly thoughtful and sad movie. I say surprisingly because director Alejandro González Iñárritu has in the past sacrificed story to his message, like Animal Kingdom above. This was most evident in the alternately sublime and ludicrous Babel. Because Iñárritu is dealing with some of the same issues like globalization and immigration, I think some reviewers stopped paying attention and missed how much better this movie is to some of his past work. Javier Bardem delivers a hauntingly realistic performance as Uxbal, a Barcelona small time hood who has just learned he’s dying of cancer and only has a few months to live. With the few weeks left, Uxbal scrambles to get together enough money to support his two children whose manic-depressive mother Marambra (in a fantastic performance by Maricel Álvarez) is unfit to raise them. Uxbal earns most of his money from the exploitation of immigrant workers: Chinese sweatshop workers and Senegalese vendors selling bootleg movies and counterfeit name brand handbags. Several characters and their stories intersect, but Iñárritu learned his lesson after the goofiness of Babel. The story focuses squarely on Uxbal and the others are side stories (though the gay affair between the Chinese men who run the sweatshop felt tacked on and remained undeveloped). Iñárritu manages to tell a quiet and poignant story without becoming a slave to his message. David Schleicher has a great review of the movie over at the Schleicher Spin. (Rating ****)

Jason Statham kicks ass as always in "The Mechanic"

I slipped into The Mechanic after seeing some good reviews. This remake of the Charles Bronson film of the same name stars Jason Statham as an assassin out for revenge is fine without being really good. Statham, as always, has a strong screen presence and he does a good job of whispering his lines with his signature raspiness as he goes after the men who tricked him into killing his mentor (Donald Sutherland) along with the murdered man’s son (Ben Foster), who, not incidentally, doesn’t know his partner murdered his father. Aside from some well staged action scenes there isn’t much else the movie has to offer. I suppose action movies don’t have to deliver much more, but it’s always nice to get a tightly constructed plot and three dimensional characters. We don’t find those things here, but the movie will work for a late Netflix movie night. (Rating ***)

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Bringing Up Baby – The Best Pictures of 1938 (#1)

It has been pointed out to me that my choices on these lists reflect a bias toward comedy. If I wanted to dispel that notion, choosing Bringing Up Baby as the best picture of 1938 would do little to that end. (Thankfully I don’t care to dispel it.) Despite this bias, I don’t think any movie lover could seriously argue an affection for the antics of Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant under the skillful direction of Howard Hawks could only be explained by a unshakeable prejudice for comedy. It is a brilliant movie by any measure.

Other comedy directors like George Cukor and, a little later, Preston Sturges kept their stories rooted firmly in the real world peppering their realms with eccentric characters. Hawks on the other hand only used the real world as a rough outline for this picture. Every character is, to varying degrees, a nut. The straight man is missing from the comedy equation here – the cast is all Gracie Allens, Bud Abbotts, and every other comic half of comedy duos. The only exception is Mr. Peabody, the long suffering, serious attorney in the midst of all the loons. (Then again he may seem normal because we see him so little. Had Hawks decided to give him more screen time I have a feeling he would have turned out just as ridiculous as everyone else.)

It might sound like a risky strategy to pack the movie with so many wackos. With whom, after all, can the audience identify? And when do they get a chance to catch a breath? The genius of the movie is there is no one to identify with and there is never a chance for the audience to catch our breaths. It’s a whirlwind of zaniness that never feels real, but is always engaging. It simply works.

And how can it not featuring a scatterbrained paleontologist (Cary Grant) trying to find a lost intercostals clavicle, the final piece he needs for his brontosaurus, while trying to wed to his all-business fiancée Miss Swallow. Getting in the way of both are hare-brained heiress Susan Vance (Katherine Hepburn), her gruff aunt (May Robson), a yappy fox terrier named George, a jittery big game hunter, an alcoholic gardener, an over-zealous constable, an arrogant psychiatrist, a man-eating leopard, and a tame,  affectionate leopard named Baby.

Hawks created a world where it is plausible that two leopards could be loose in Connecticut at the same time, that Susan could pass herself off as crime moll Swingin’ Door Suzy, that Susan just happens to be the niece of the woman Grant’s character David is trying to get a one million dollar grant from, that David could pass himself off as a man recovering from a nervous breakdown, that Susan could try to pass David off as a big game hunter the very night another big game hunter is coming to dinner, etc. It’s a world of misunderstandings and mishaps, of coincidences, disasters, accidents, and ruses all crafted, engineered, and executed by a master filmmaker for our laughter. What more could we ask for from a film?

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The Lady Vanishes – The Best Pictures of 1938 (#2)

Conspirators all around...

This is Hitchcock at his pre-U.S. best. The Lady Vanishes is the closest to cinematic bliss there is without being terribly important or deep. Hitchcock doesn’t have anything to say about the diplomatic tensions in Europe, nor does he take the adventures of the protagonists all that seriously. It’s a lark, a lighthearted brush with danger that grips our attention from the beginning and holds on without ever seriously considering deep or resonate themes. It’s what we might call a light masterpiece, but a masterpiece nonetheless.

Part of the success of the film is Hitchcock’s willingness to take the story to unexpected avenues and jar our expectations. What else could he do with a story so fantastic, a story that tickles our childhood sense of adventure? When an elderly British woman disappears from a train in a fictionally fascist central European state, plucky Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) sets out to find out what happened to her, despite everyone’s insistence that there never was an English lady on the train. Either Iris is crazy or there is a mysterious conspiracy involving almost everyone on the train.

Since this is Hitchcock we know it could only be a deliciously nefarious conspiracy, but to what end? Why would anyone kidnap or murder a harmless old woman and then get a trainload of people to feign ignorance? Even the other British passengers on the train don’t fess up to seeing her, afraid of what will happen if they confirm Iris’ story. Sure, they saw her, but the magistrate traveling with his mistress doesn’t want to be implicated in an official investigation and a pair of chums fear the search will delay the train which would make them miss a crucial cricket match. Only a flirtatiously impertinent folk musicologist named Gilbert (Michael Redgrave) believes Iris and joins forces with the determined young woman to solve the mystery.

Michael Redgrave and Margaret Lockwood

Like a roller coaster, The Lady Vanishes is an exercise in adrenaline rushes. Each character presents a sinister and often funny obstacle to Iris and Gilbert’s investigation, including a tight-lipped baroness, a grinning Italian magician, a dower imposter, a cheerful doctor, a bandaged burn patient, and a mute nun. And, in Hitchcock’s estimation, a plot this absurd deserves an equally fantastic execution, climaxing in an unlikely but exhilarating stand off between the conspirators and the few British passengers not in on the plot.

The movie has none of the dark motifs and heavy themes of Hitchcock’s later, more finely crafted films, but it is still a ripping good time at the movies. Hitchcock always wanted his audiences to have fun in his pictures, even when he dealt with heavier themes like in Vertigo and Psycho. (OK, maybe not in Vertigo.) It’s action and adventure with a strong undercurrent of humor, satisfying and eminently entertaining.

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Quai des brumes (Port of Shadows) – Best Pictures of 1938 (#3)

Jean Gabin and Michele Morgan

There’s an almost prescient fatalism in many French movies of the late 1930s. Dark themes, shadowy aesthetics, and shady characters articulate a cynical outlook for France’s future and none embodied that trend more than Michel Carné’s Quai des brumes (Port of Shadows). Carné succeeded in capturing the festering pessimism and ennui of French culture and society in this film so well that it supposedly prompted one French government official to blame the fall of France to Nazi Germany on Quai des brumes. Carné is said to have responded to the charge by saying one doesn’t blame a barometer for a storm. Whether this story is apocryphal or not, it is worth noting that Carné viewed his film as a barometer of sorts for the unease and discontent of the French people that would, in a matter of months, prove founded.

The movie follows a fateful day in the life of Jean (Jean Gabin), a deserter from the French Foreign Legion as he arrives in the port of Le Havre, on the look out for a ship to get him out of the country before the authorities apprehend him. He finds refuge at a seedy bar on the outskirts of town where other outcasts and runaways gather and it is there that he meets and falls in love with the beautiful Nelly (Michèle Morgan). She has also run away, but from her lecherous step-father Zabel (Michel Simon). Their relationship pits Jean against Zabel and Nelly’s wanna-be tough guy boyfriend, Lucien (Pierre Brasseur). Jean gives Nelly the courage to finally stand up to Zabel’s unwanted advances and envision a life away from the drudgery, but Jean is trapped between his new love and the need to get out of the country.

Nelly (Morgan) struggles against Zabel (Michel Simon)

The genius of Carné’s film is, like most people, no one in the movie is particularly noble. Our protagonist is Jean, but he isn’t a paragon of virtue. And on the flip side, the villains aren’t particularly evil. Simon and Brasseur play them more as weak, scared little boys, unable to chart any other course for their lives. Like Jean, they are trapped by their own misdeeds and flail around in an attempt to appear in control. Zabel clings to a thin veneer of respectability, covering his dabbling in crime, and Lucien pretends to be a tough guy, mimicking the movies of James Cagney or Paul Muni., when he’s really a cowardly little boy.

Carné is unsparingly brutal in his condemnation of French society. Jean and Nelly have to flee from two institutions meant to protect its citizens (the military) and nurture new ones (the family). They don’t find safety anywhere except for a dingy bar that, since we have the virtue of hindsight, eerily feels like a hideout for the French Underground. Carné populates the bar with anyone who might feel left behind by the collapse of the Popular Front and the rise of fascism throughout Europe, including a disillusioned young poet who takes his life early in the picture, leaving his clothes for Jean.

Quai des brumes is a melancholy portrait of a specific time and place. Everyone knew they were headed for disaster, but no one knew what they could do to prevent it. Some retreated and escaped, like Jean and Nelly, while others tried to make the best out of it for themselves with little regard for who they might wrong, like Zabel and Lucien. And still others took their lives, unable to face the world without the France in which they grew up.

In some ways the (apocryphal?) French official who claimed they fell to Nazi Germany because of this movie is correct. Carné gave voice to the unchannelled discontent and frustration with the direction of their country without suggesting solutions. The tragic ending of the film told its audience there was nothing they could do, the end for them and their country is coming. All they could do was sit back and wait.

 

 

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