Monthly Archives: March 2011

Hattie McDaniel (Gone with the Wind) – Best Supporting Actress of 1939

Other Noteworthy Performances: Arletty (Le jour se lève), Edna Best (Intermezzo), Alice Brady (Young Mr. Lincoln), Joan Crawford (The Women), Olivia de Havilland (Gone with the Wind), Geraldine Fitzgerald (Dark Victory), Geraldine Fitzgerald (Wuthering Heights), Gladys George (The Roaring Twenties), Margaret Hamilton (The Wizard of Oz), Miriam Hopkins (The Old Maid), Edna May Oliver (Drums along the Mohawk), Maria Ouspenskaya (The Rains Came), Nancy Price (The Stars Look Down), Miriam Riselle (Tevye), Flora Robson (Wuthering Heights), Rosalind Russell (The Women), Claire Trevor (Stagecoach)

Hattie McDaniel as Mammy

This is one category that the Academy got right when they handed the Oscar for best supporting actress to Hattie McDaniel for her layered and subversive performance as Mammy in Gone with the Wind. McDaniel took an offensively written character in a vile, racist movie and transformed her into an emotionally complex human being.

David O. Selznick had been working for years to bring Margaret Mitchell’s love letter to the antebellum South to the screen. The novel was a massive best seller so interest in the project was unusually high. Selznick’s turbulent search for Scarlett O’Hara is well known – so well known that the process was turned into a movie in 1980, Moviola: The Scarlett O’Hara War, with Tony Curtis as Selznick. Imagine how different the movie would have been with Paulette Goddard, Joan Bennett, or (gulp) Jean Arthur. (If you haven’t seen them, it’s worth taking a look at some of the screen tests.)

What we remember less well is the intense battle with black groups and newspapers over the explicit racism of the novel, including a celebration of the Ku Klux Klan as protectors of white womanhood against newly free and uncontrollable black men. Selznick did not want to make a movie that would make African Americans cringe the way Birth of a Nation did in 1915. He promised to tone down the racism of the book and scrambled to excise the most offensive parts, like changing Scarlett’s attackers to an interracial group and turning the Klan into an average everyday posse. Selznick also promised to edit out the word “nigger” which was enough to pacify most of the groups. Despite these changes he retained Mitchell’s idealized vision of slavery. “Good” slaves prospered under the watchful eye of their paternalistic masters, and this was embodied by characters like Pork (Oscar Polk), Prissy (Butterfly McQueen), and Mammy. They are portrayed as innocent, simple-minded souls who were content as chattel. Not only did they require the white man’s guidance and supervision, but they thrived under it.

Gone with the Wind was a smash hit and is the highest profile example of a series of Hollywood movies that chided the North for forcing the Civil War with their rabid abolitionist demands and eulogized the South for their level-headed, chivalrous way of life. Slavery is portrayed as an evil in these films, but Northerners ought to have left the South to deal with “their” problem, which would have eventually resolved itself. In other words the Civil War was an unnecessary waste only precipitated by fanatical Northern fiends who didn’t understand the complexities of Southern life. And this is further confirmed by the depiction of characters from each section. Northern characters are dirty and vicious while Southerners are honorable (see John Ford’s Prisoner of Shark Island or Cecil B. DeMille’s Union Pacific). The only movie I can think of from this period in which Northerners are heroes is Virginia City, but even then the Southerners are not villains – they have to add Mexican bandits for everyone to fight against.

The sympathies of Hollywood rested with the South. This was most clearly articulated in the Errol Flynn/Olivia de Havilland adventure The Santa Fe Trail in 1940. The movie recounts the violence in Kansas during the tumultuous year 1854, when hordes of people from both sides of the slavery debate flooded the state to ensure their side won the coming election that would determine the legality of slavery there. The movie casts John Brown, the fervent anti-slavery guerilla fighter, as the only man standing between peace and violence, as though pro-slavery fanatics weren’t rigging elections and perpetuating their own horrors. Largely, the characters of the movie are the honorable members of a West Point class. They are mostly Southerners (including Flynn) and Northerners who might be against slavery personally but prefer to stay out of it. The villains are ardent abolitionists like Van Heflin (who specialized in playing snakes) and Raymond Massey as the monomaniacal John Brown.

The message of these movies is clear: we should do right by African Americans, but let’s not make the same mistakes we made in the 1850s. Let’s not stick our well-meaning noses into a situation only white Southerners could understand. Let’s not agitate against segregation or lynch law. It might not be ideal, but it works for them. Like slavery, any race problems will work themselves out. Let’s pay heed to the lessons of these movies and not stir up trouble when we don’t understand blacks the way white Southerners do. And we certainly don’t want to provoke another Civil War, especially as the United States hovers dangerously close to war with Japan and Germany.

Mammy coyly exerts power over Scarlett

At first glance Hattie McDaniel’s performance seems to confirm this loopy meta-narrative, but she is able to rescue Mammy from the script’s insidious racism. Her position in the O’Hara family is that of nurturer and protector of the children. She might derive her sense of self-worth from her position in the family she serves, but she subtly wields power within it. There’s a wonderful moment in her first scene where she is trying to get Scarlett to eat before going to a barbeque so as not to be too hungry and make a pig of herself in public. When Scarlett refuses and says Ashley Wilkes told her he likes a woman with an appetite, Mammy almost off-handedly remarks that she hasn’t noticed Ashley offering to marry her. Scarlett stops, looks back, and Mammy demurely smiles and looks away, knowing her comment cut to the bone. Scarlett desperately wants to marry Ashley (though Lord only knows why) and Mammy uses her knowledge to manipulate someone who, on paper, exerts much more power over her. (See the scene below.)

What McDaniel manages to do in this scene is show how some slaves could negotiate the limits on their freedom for whatever scraps of power they could manage. Her relationship with Scarlett is never equal, but McDaniel contributed a level of subversive power that suggested characters like Mammy were never the content simpletons Margaret Mitchell wanted us to believe slavery had shielded the country from.

McDaniel is able to show off her true range as an actress, most notably the heartbreaking scene where she describes the death of Rhett and Scarlett’s child to Melanie in that long shot that follows them up the sweeping staircase. Her pain is palpable and we forget – we suspect she does as well – that she isn’t really a part of this family. She is mourning . Her performance suggests how slavery could blur the lines between master and slave and give the illusion that they could live as though they were part of the same family. But Mammy would always be aware that she was property and no matter how close she was to them, they could sell her whenever they wanted.

Like Stepin Fetchit, Hattie McDaniel took a lot of flack for playing roles that seemed to confirm black stereotypes for white audiences, but as an actress what was she supposed to do? She is famous for saying something along the lines of she would rather play a maid for $700 a week rather than actually be a maid for $7 a week – and good for her. I’m sure she would have rather played less racially charged parts, but she took what she could and added a humanity to her characters that either the screenwriter, director, or both neglected. She thought about Mammy in her historical context and humanized her in a way that has taken several generations for people to truly appreciate. When she won the Oscar in 1939 it was probably for being a “good Negro,” but today we can look back and appreciate the nuance of what she did in Gone with the Wind and confirm that she was a fine African American actress.

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La régle du jeu (The Rules of the Game) – Best Pictures of 1939 (#1)

Christine entertains friends in the country, including Jean Renoir as Octave

Modern non-French audiences might scratch their heads over the controversy Jean Renoir’s classic  La régle du jeu (The Rules of the Game) caused in pre-war France. What we might see as a harmless satire on the silliness of the upper class actually cut to the bone at a particularly sensitive and insecure time and place. Renoir ripped away the illusion of reverence for the upper class, depicting them as frivolous and vain people who surround themselves with equally frivolous and vain friends and employees. These were the same people who were buckling under the pressures of Nazi Germany and advocating their own version of Franco-fascism to stave off the Aryan threat. Renoir directly challenges the ruling class with this farcical melodrama that follows the loves and lusts at a French country estate among the hosts, guests, and servants. Audiences would have walked away gobsmacked that these profoundly unserious people could have any legitimacy in a situation as serious as government and relations with belligerent Germany.

The story plays like a Molière farce capped with Shakespearean tragedy. At the center is the Marquis de la Cheyniest – Robert to his friends – and his wife Christine. They are hosting a weekend getaway at their country estate with their equally vacuous friends. Both have been involved in extramarital dalliances – Robert with Geneviève and Christine with the famed aviator André Jurieux. For various reasons both Geneviève and André are invited. The Cheyniest’s  complacency and arrogance shade them from reality and their money and power protects them from consequences, so they feel safe inviting marital disaster into their homes. Having their lovers so close heightens the danger and raises the stakes. Are their lives really so boring that they need this manufactured and unnecessary drama? (The answer seems to be yes – Robert, like a king in The Thief of Baghdad dotes over his collection of windup toys rather than his wife.)

Danger lurks for Lisette and Marceau

Like any romantic farce the weekend devolves into a comedy of errors – and the hijinks aren’t confined to the hosts and their extramarital companions. Christine’s maid Lisette flirts with the new servant Marceau under the jealous eye of her husband Schumacher. Eventually Schumacher, fed up with Marceau’s shameless pursuit of his wife, loses his cool and, in the most absurd scene of the movie, chases the man with his gun through the guest filled house, firing almost at random. The guests are shocked, but it seems less at their own personal danger and more at the impropriety of servants quarreling before the guests. Schumacher may as well have thrown custard pies and he would have gotten the same clutch-the-pearls reaction.

Schumacher’s bullets, though not taken all that seriously, indicate that these romantic entanglements are not harmless. The film ends in sobering tragedy with murder, but, closely following the rules of the game, the event is explained away as an accident, rather than as a logical outcome of their reckless behavior. Renoir seems to have wanted this story to shake France awake from the looming Nazi threat and the rulers of France who flirted with the enemy, anxious to retain their position and privilege. But Renoir wouldn’t let them play the same game without exposure because he understood there would be no way to go back and explain away the coming disaster as an accident. No matter how charming Robert and Christine may be (and Renoir was smart enough to make them charming people), their empty-headed arrogance is, according to Renoir, leading the entire country to disaster. It’s amazing how prescient so many of these pre-war French movies were and none more so than the best movie of 1939, La régle du jeu.

 

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The Wizard of Oz – Best Pictures of 1939 (#2)

What a joy it must have been to sit in a theater and watch The Wizard of Oz in 1939. The classic story of young Dorothy Gale transported to the magical land of Oz by a tornado and pursued by an evil witch for her ruby slippers had been filmed before, but this version shamed the rest. Visually there had been nothing like it before, especially the breathtaking transformation from the sepia-toned scenes of Kansas to the eye-popping Technicolor scenes of Oz. The film is still spectacular to look at even after years of sumptuous Technicolor and increasingly elaborate special effects, so an audience in 1939 must have been doubly awed by the visual realization of Munchkinland, the witch’s dark castle, talking trees, an expansive field of poppies, and the Emerald City.

Aside from the stunning visual aesthetic, the movie has enchanted audiences for decades because of many other elements like its music, its memorable characters, and pitch-perfect performances. The most notable of which is Judy Garland in a wide-eyed, good natured performance as Dorothy. It has been reported that producers originally intended Shirley Temple for the role of the eleven-year-old, which made sense, but Temple would have contributed a different tone to the movie. It’s impossible to know if that tone would have been better, worse, or indifferent, but I suspect using an actual child would have rendered some of the darker scenes cringe-worthy, even with an accomplished performer like Shirley Temple. (Much like the tragically misguided 1985 Return to Oz with the appropriately aged Fairuza Balk being traumatized in a mental institution before being pursued by a queen with a detachable head, which must have terrified children.) With sixteen-year-old Garland we can see she is feigning youth and her natural strength can withstand the threats of the Wicked Witch of the West and her flying monkeys. Shirley Temple had pluck, but didn’t have the same strength of character that Judy Garland did. Besides, can we really imagine an alternate universe in which Shirley Temple sang “Over the Rainbow”?

Furthermore, Garland stood up well alongside her stellar supporting cast, who created equally iconic characters. Ray Bolger as the Scarecrow, Jack Haley as the Tin Man, and Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion weren’t defined by their elaborate makeup and costumes. They brought their characters to vivid life that matched the strength of Garland’s characterization and contributing plausibility to director Victor Fleming’s implausible world. Margaret Hamilton is joyfully evil as the Wicked Witch of the West, but, like the others, she uses the heavy makeup to buttress her performance rather than define it, and stands as a perfect villain opposite the eternally sweet Dorothy. And Frank Morgan shines as the blubbering Wizard (in addition to several other parts) handing out lessons to the movie’s characters and the audience. Their strong work, alongside Judy Garland, helps cement this movie as one of the most beloved of all time.

Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West

It’s a beautiful fantasy for both children and adults – so beautiful in fact that we wonder why Dorothy would want to return to Kansas at all. Her life there was drab and everyone ignored her, except maybe Toto, who the nasty Miss Gulch has threatened to take away and have put down. It is in Oz that she finds adventure and real friends who accept her and love her as she is. She realizes there is “no place like home,” but do we really buy it? Maybe not, but we’re happy that Fleming helped to create this world and allowed us to go on this journey with Dorothy and her friends. It is a rich and memorable film stock full of classic, hum-able songs and dynamic characters. It is the most entertaining movie of 1939, almost – missing by a smidge –  the best.

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The Lincoln Lawyer; Limitless; and Paul: Weekly Movie Diary

I also made it to Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. It’s a wonderful movie (*****), but I don’t feel like I can do it justice in a small review here. Hopefully I will get motivated to write a longer review in the near future.

Matthew McConaughey defends Ryan Phillippe in "The Lincoln Lawyer"

The Lincoln Lawyer

The Lincoln Lawyer is refreshing if not spectacular courtroom drama that reminds us of those intricate legal procedural thrillers of the 1970s and 1980s like And Justice for All and The Jagged Edge in which smart characters trying to outwit one another had audiences guessing. Matthew McConaughey plays Mick Haller, a shark of an attorney who lives for getting his clients off. He knows most are guilty, but over the course of the film we realize there is an underlying psychological motivation that isn’t all about greed or winning in the courtroom. When Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe), the son of a wealthy real estate family, is accused of beating and trying to rape a young woman, he calls on Haller to defend him. It quickly becomes clear that not all is as it seems, everyone is lying and the only one interested in the truth is Haller, the so-called shady defense attorney. McConaughey brings the right mix of charm and sleaze to Haller in a performance that resurrects his career from mindless romantic comedies and tabloid exploits. He is effective as a man who uses the cover of greed to get his clients off in the desperate hope that one may be innocent. His cynical and jaded persona masks a man who passionately cares about justice; he would just rather see ten guilty men walk to ensure one innocent man is spared a jail sentence.

So it’s nice to see McConaughey back. Phillippe is also good. Like McConaughey he is both smarmy and attractive – almost a mirror image of the man he hired to defend him. Marisa Tomei, William H. Macy, and Josh Lucas also turn in nice supporting performances. The movie is fairly intelligent, has audiences guessing, and its relative success at the box office should reconfirm for studios that there are audiences for grownup entertainment.  (Rating ***1/2)

Bradley Cooper kinda gets smart in "Limitless"

Limitless

The major flaw of Limitless is the script is not nearly as smart as it needs to be. If a pill gives a character access to parts of his brain previously dormant and becomes wickedly smart, then we shouldn’t see his mistakes coming a mile away. Credibility crumbles when we are able to see supposed twists coming that catch Eddie Morra, the uninspired slacker writer who for some unexplained reason is given smart juice, by surprise. If he’s so smart and can truly, as he says, see every scenario and puts him 50 moves ahead, would he make some of the dumb mistakes he does that any schmuck sitting in the audience can see through? If he’s really so smart and has found a way to ensure profit on the stock market, why would he be in such a hurry to make a fortune? (A plot point that is never really explained.) Why would he then go to a Russian loan shark to borrow one hundred thousand dollars? Us idiots in the audience know that even if Eddie can pay back the money, he won’t be able to shake the guy. (Especially since he doesn’t pay him back after making a couple million – super smart.) He also knows some unscrupulous people have killed to get their hands on these pills. If he makes a splash on Wall Street – from slob to star overnight – wouldn’t that be a sure sign that he has the pills and make him a target? And why is it we in the audience know he should never trust anyone with the pills, but he happily hands them over to his lawyer?

For this movie to be successful, it needed to outsmart us, to outthink us the way Eddie would have been able to (until a tacked on, unearned ending). Instead, he does nothing amazing with his new skills, except finish his book in a few days and learn some languages. Screenwriter Leslie Dixon just couldn’t think past the clichés of the genre, turning the movie into a tiresome mash-up of Flowers for Algernon and The Maltese Falcon, without the intelligence of either. He gets into the same jams anyone in a thriller would and the filmmakers don’t have the patience or the time to wrap them all up. (If you’re going to introduce a murder subplot, don’t leave it unresolved and hope your audience will forget it by the end.)

One last flaw: if he’s so smart, why would he want to be in the Senate? Anyone with a brain knows that would be a soul-crushing place for a genius. (Rating **)

Simon Pegg, Kristen Wiig, and Nick Frost on the run with Paul

Paul

Simon Pegg and Nick Frost star as British sci-fi nerds who trek to San Diego for Comic-Con and an RV tour of the Southwest’s UFO landmarks. Along their journey they pick up an alien named Paul (of course) on the run from Area 51 and, in the spirit of E.T., help the little guy get back to his own planet. If that sounds fairly predictable and like a movie you’ve seen before, that’s because it is. But it is a loving tribute to science fiction featuring references to Alien, Battlestar Galactica, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, among others and, unlike another genre pastiche Rango, it uses them to create a fairly successful movie.

Paul does have a lot going against it. The foremost complaint is Seth Rogan voicing the alien. As I’ve said before he just isn’t funny and, to make matters worse for a voiceover part, his voice is grating and unsympathetic. He turns Paul into yet another wise-cracking, slacking, stoner slob, an overplayed comedic characterization of aliens from Alf (minus the stoner part) to Roger on American Dad. I’ve always felt like this is a cynical ploy to portray highly evolved extraterrestrials as much like doughy, videogame stoners who make up much of the audiences for these movies. What an affirmation of their sedentary, stoner lives it must be when they see E.T. loves pot too. (And when are we going to get over pot gags? It was barely funny when Cheech and Chong did it, but we’re getting the same stuff again and again, as though it’s fresh and subversive.)

Despite these substantial complaints there was enough in the picture to win me over. Making the main characters British gave them a great opportunity to shine a critical, but funny, light on some of the quirks of the United States – like Kristen Wiig’s crazy Christian fundamentalist who gleefully shows off her t-shirt of Jesus shooting Darwin in the head. The movie makes a mistake, though, when her faith is overturned early (in one scene!); it would have been funnier if she remained firmly faithful and Graeme (Pegg) still falls in love with her, having to balance her nuttiness with his love. Pegg and Foster do a good job as lifelong friends and are supported by a great cast, including Wiig, Jason Bateman as a single minded federal agent, Jane Lynch as a waitress, Jeffery Tambour as an arrogant science fiction writer, Bill Hadder as an incompetent agent, John Carol Lynch as a gun-toting Jesus freak, Blythe Danner as the crazy old lady waiting for aliens, Sigourney Weaver as a Cheney-esque villain, and even Steven Spielberg in a clever voice cameo. Paul is hardly a great comedy, but once you get over Seth Rogan, it turns out to be pretty good. (Rating ***)

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The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums – Best Pictures of 1939 (#3)

Kenji Mizoguchi came into his own as a director in the late 1930s with Sisters of the Gion and Osaka Elegy, both from 1936. But in 1939 he released his early masterpiece, The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums, a tragic tale of love and art set in the late nineteenth century. The story follows Kikunosuke, the adopted son of Japan’s most respected and beloved actor. Kiku has followed his father on the stage, dutifully playing the parts his father assigns him. He basks in the applause and drinks in the praise of everyone in the troupe, but the audiences love him for his name and the other actors know he simply can’t act. He’s terrible, but no one is honest enough to tell him he needs work to become a great actor.

That is until he meets Otoku, a wet nurse helping raise his newest young sibling. They are immediately smitten with one another, but when he asks her what she thinks about his acting, she tells him he stinks. Everyone who praises him, she tells him, only do so because of his father. He is hurt, but she argues honesty is the only way to he will ever improve. She encourages him to hone his skills, rather than resting on unearned accolades. Kiku falls in love with the woman and wants to spend his life with her, but his father won’t hear of it, dismisses the girl, and forbids Kiku to see her again. His son resists, vowing to run off with her and become a great actor without his father’s name. So, Kiku and Otoku go off to live a long life of deprivation as he slaves to become a better actor under an assumed name, assuring he will not get any undue breaks.

Mizoguchi follows the young couple over many years, through the ups and downs, soul crushing poverty, opportunities, and disappointments. Their relationship is not storybook. Often the poverty gets to Kiku, who grew up in luxury and, as he moves from one rinky-dink troupe to another, his growing sense of hopeless failure consumes him, lashing out at the woman who loves him. However, the deprivation pushes Kiku to hone his craft until he becomes the actor all the sycophants of his past life once claimed he was. Then the dilemma becomes whether he can return to his father with the woman he forbade Kiku to see.

At its base the tension in the movie is the struggle between personal liberty and social constraints, but there is a curious benefit to this conflict for an artist even though we often associate artists with a freer attitude toward life. Before he met Otoku, when Kiku had all the freedom he wanted he was never forced to question his ability and had no experiences on which to draw. Only when his father threatened to take away the woman he loved was Kiku able to face the life of want and heartache that his roles often required him to express. Never before could he truly empathize with his characters but his life with Otoku thrust him into them, branding the experiences into his subconscious ready for him to draw on on the stage. It is through the hard life he lived with Otoku that he becomes a great actor.

And here we come to the tragedy of the picture. In the end, Otoku cannot be redeemed and live a life of respectability. Like Anna Karenina, she is permanently soiled – cast off by her family, shunned by the community, she is forever the woman who ran off with a man of a higher social class and lived with him outside of marriage. And like Karenina’s Count Vronsky, Kiku merely has to leave her and all is forgiven. His name, position, and respect are all restored. Otoku understands this and, in an act of supreme sacrifice, steps aside so Kiku can have everything he wanted – professionally anyway. In most, if not all of his movies, Mizoguchi explored and lamented the degraded social status of women and in this film he pointedly shines a light on the fundamental inadequacies of a romantic relationship when one member is considered by society as lower, a less valuable member. No matter how much Kiku loves her, Otoku can never be an equal partner. This might help bring him artistic success, but it leaves him empty and Otoku ruined.

Like most of his movies, Mizoguchi deliberately paced this movie slowly without boring us. We feel as though we are watching real people make life-changing decisions, as though Mizoguchi was able to place a camera in a room and capture real dramas. This approach emotionally links us to Kiku and Otoku, making the climax all the more tragic, which could have played fairly sappy. Last Chrysanthemums has been tough to find in the U.S. – I don’t think it has been released on DVD here – though you can find it on You Tube here courtesy of Memoirevisuelle, who has quite a collection of hard to find movies posted. It is well worth seeing.

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The Stars Look Down – Best Pictures of 1939 (#4)

(Note: There is some confusion among various sources about whether this is a 1939 or 1940 release. IMDB claims the movie was released in January 1940 and I suspect that is correct but I didn’t figure that out until recently, after I had already put the list together. So, for the time being, it will stay in 1939. One day, when I confirm this, I will fix it.)

Michael Redgrave and Margaret Lockwood in "The Stars Look Down"

In Carol Reed’s classic The Stars Look Down Michael Redgrave plays Davey Fenwick, an intelligent young man in a northern English mining community who works with his father Robert (Edward Rigby) in the mines while saving for college. Life for the Fenwick family and the entire community is thrown into disarray when Robert claims to have seen a plan for the mine in which they are working which shows a mountain of water dangerously close to the operations. The company denies the existence of the plan and demands the workers continue to dig, but Robert insists he saw it and the workers go on strike.

The strike is only the prelude to the story of Davey and his family, which turns out to be one of the best portraits of working class life ever committed to film. It would have been easy to focus on the strike, but as important as the event is in the lives of the miners, it does not define them. Davey is the center of the picture, but his brother Hughie (Desmond Tester), an aspiring footballer, and their long suffering father help complete and humanize a people that can be easily overlooked or discounted. An especially rich performance by Nancy Price as Davey’s mother Martha allows Reed to explore the emotional complexities and adversity of life in a mining town. She is strong – rigidly so. She voices her complaints quietly, almost as if she were talking to herself, but clearly meant to sting whoever may be sitting nearby, usually her husband. She doesn’t understand why her husband is leading the strike when her father, also a mining man, worked for years without striking and failing to bring home a paycheck. And she doesn’t understand why Davey would turn his back on his family’s profession and go to university. Is he, she wonders aloud while going about her chores, too good for the rest of the family? Martha isn’t heartless, but this passive-aggressive callousness may be the only way she knows to let her son know she will miss him.

Davey does eventually get to university but he is sidetracked by the beautiful though frivolous and vain Jenny Sunley (Margaret Lockwood). He rushes into marriage, fails to complete his studies, and, missing the professional opportunities the degree would have conferred, he takes a teaching job at his hometown’s school. Jenny bristles under the economic hardship of a village teacher’s salary and the social restrictions of the small town. Their marriage falters under the burden of poverty and unfulfilled expectations. This was quite a different pairing for Redgrave and Lockwood from their teaming in Hitchcock’s more lighthearted film The Lady Vanishes.

Davey meets the alluring, but destructive Jenny

Reed demonstrates great affection for the working class characters. Even the owner of the mine is not completely unsympathetic, though his decisions lead to disaster and tragedy. (Maybe Jenny is the only character for which we feel no sympathy.) It is, Reed argues, bad choices, not stock movie bad guys, that are the true villains. Throughout this film we watch characters sacrifice long term security for short term gain, destabilizing families, industries, and societies. Sometimes these ill-advised decisions are understandable, like when hungry strikers dramatically loot the butcher shop. That action, however, cured their immediate hunger, but doomed the strike. We see long term security traded for immediate profit again and again – Davey’s marriage to Jenny before graduating, the mine owner’s decision to mine where he knows there is a danger, etc. Just as the stars always look down, people will always consider their own immediate benefit and ignore the larger picture. It may be a sobering thesis, but it’s a fact that Reed sees as a danger on both the micro and macro levels, and a fact with which we have to come to try to overcome in order to truly heal some of the ruptures society faces. Life, especially in an industrialized capitalistic and democratic society like the one depicted in the film, will never prosper when owners only think of their profit and workers only think of their rent and the next meal (though it is certainly easier to privilege those needs).

Reed seems to think we must be doomed to continued social and economic disaster, and I can’t say I entirely disagree. I think Reed intended the movie to be read on a more personal level, but there are larger implications. Look at the world today. As Japan nears nuclear disaster after a massive earthquake, we discover that California’s nuclear plants have no earthquake emergency plans, potentially setting up a radioactive disaster here in California. Reasonable people would immediately begin work making sure the plants are upgraded to meet new seismic requirements, and plans are instituted to deal with a situation should those retrofits fail in an earthquake. But I can almost guarantee that won’t happen because it would cost boatloads of money, and that would cut into short term profits. (Ignore the billions of dollars worth of lawsuits should southern Orange and northern San Diego counties require evacuation if the San Onofre plant goes kaflooey – but the scary thing is, I am sure they have considered that in their cost analysis, believing it to be more cost effective to risk a nuclear disaster.) This is a dramatic modern example (and there is a laundry list of others I could tick off), but it illustrates the continued relevance of Reed’s film.

I don’t want The Stars Look Down to sound like a heavy socio-political treatise against self-interest. There are certainly strong elements of that theme, but at the end of the day it is a movie about personal relationships in and among the Fenwick family, the workers of the mining union, and the entire community. In these days of increased attacks on the working man and their unions it is a story that deserves to be seen and appreciated.

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Weekly Movie Diary – “I Saw the Devil,” “Battle Los Angeles,” “Red Riding Hood,” “Hall Pass”

Byung-hun Lee out for revenge in "I Saw the Devil"

I Saw the Devil

Movies tend to get it wrong with revenge stories. I’ve never understood why killing the object of one’s hate would be satisfactory payback. They’re dead, feeling nothing, while the seeker of revenge goes on with life probably still struggling with the grief they deferred. It seems like it would be a bit anti-climatic. In I Saw the Devil Kim Soo-hyeon (played by Byung-hun Lee) gets it right in the stylish ultra-violent revenge fantasy from Korea. He doesn’t want to kill the man who abducted, murdered, and chopped up his fiancée. No, he sets in motion a plan to torment the sadistic killer, Kyung-Chul (Min-sik Choi), to beat him and torture him to the point of death and then let him go, again and again. His wants to make Kyung’s life a living hell before taking his life, which sounds like a proper, more fulfilling form of retribution than just killing him.

Despite the graphic violence, which more than once felt pointless and gratuitous, I did like the movie. I do wonder, however, what we’re supposed to take away from a movie like this. As one character tells Kim, revenge is something from the movies and she’s right. Kim’s plan may torment his fiancée’s killer (until Kyung turns the tables on him), but in the process he has to reach dark places within himself that match Kyung’s evil. The devil referred to in the title is both the serial killer and Kim as he becomes more and more vicious in his torture. That’s fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t really tell us much we didn’t already know. Still the movie is well made, relatively gripping (though there’s probably one too many fight scenes), and Byung-hun Lee is an attractive lead, proving he can be more than just the window dressing that he was in the horrible G.I. Joe. He turns in a haunting performance as a man so focused on revenge that he doesn’t see – or doesn’t care – what it is doing to his own soul. (Rating ****)

Aaron Eckhart in “Battle Los Angeles”

Battle Los Angeles

Battle Los Angeles is about as uninspired as they come. I haven’t been so bored while watching gun fights, explosions, screaming, running, and all other types of so-called action since I watched neighborhood kids put on their own production of War of the Worlds. There is nothing fresh, original, or witty going on here. Aliens invade the world and Marines are deployed to defend the City of Angeles. (Well, technically Santa Monica, but I guess it’s all the same.) There are no characters worth speaking of so I don’t know why the movie bothered to give many of the soldiers stock, one-dimensional back stories, like Aaron Eckhart’s character on the verge of retirement, another marine on the eve of his wedding, the rookie, the hot dog, the inexperienced young officer, etc. We’ve seen all these cardboard cutouts before and this movie adds nothing, to them or the genre. Director Jonathan Liebesman tries to get cute, but even that falls flat. One of the many, many battles has our group of Marines and civilians trapped on the Santa Monica freeway. Get it? Because it’s Los Angeles, they’re stuck on a freeway! – as if traffic doesn’t infest every major city in the world. But that is the depth of this movie’s comment. The rest is uninspired action. The only thing you will root for is the end credits. (Rating *1/2)

Amanda Seyfried in "Red Riding Hood"

Red Riding Hood

Narratively this is a movie we’ve seen before. It’s a glossy, stylized version of Neil Jordan’s 1984 riff on the Little Red Riding Hood fable The Company of Wolves. She omits the anthology of werewolf stories and substitutes the more traditional granny-like Angela Lansbury for Julie Christie as sexy granny. (Is no one allowed to just be plain old in movies anymore? Even Granny in Little Red Riding Hood? And where did she get that face lift in this isolated village?) In Red Riding Hood Amanda Seyfried plays Valerie, a young woman in a remote village that has been terrorized by a vicious werewolf. The villagers came to a sort of understanding with the wolf by leaving offerings of livestock every full moon. But when Valerie’s sister is murdered, the peace is broken and the villagers demand vengeance. They call in famed werewolf hunter Solomon (Gary Oldman) and, being convinced that the wolf is a villager, he goes on proverbial and literal witch hunt to find the wolf. Naturally Valerie is in love. She pines for her childhood friend Peter (Shiloh Fernandez), but has been promised to a wealthy man’s son, Henry (Max Irons). Suspicion naturally falls intermittently on both, so we know it can’t be either.

Catherine Hardwicke shows she has some skill constructing an intriguing world and appealing aesthetic (I especially appreciated the use of real snow falling and dissipating on the characters’ clothes – a nice touch that is missing even from many superior movies), but she also illustrates her fumbling inability to coax good performances out of her young actors. Only the veteran actors like Gary Oldman and Julie Christie squeeze any juice out of the script, while the young actors at the center of the story are pale and wooden. Fernandez and Irons glare and glower at each other and everyone else while their characters nurse an unrequited love for Valerie, but rarely get anywhere near a plausible human emotion. Even Amanda Seyfried, who has been good in past movies, stumbles and fails to connect to her character.

 

Max Irons and Shiloh Fernandez glare at each other.

The story, however, did have me guessing. There are about 20 charactersthat could have been the wolf and the mystery did have me stumped. Everytime I settled on the person it had to be, I had to switch it up. And, as I said,the visuals are striking. If only I cared more about the romance(s) and the acting was better I would have really enjoyed this one. (Rating **1/2)

Too much wasted talent in "Hall Pass."

Hall Pass

I finally caught up with the Farrelly Brothers’ latest movie Hall Pass and I am sad to say I’m sorry I did. I’ve never been a major fan of the Farrelly Brothers’ movies. The only one I’ve ever had any affection for is Kingpin; even There’s Something about Mary is so uneven that I can’t muster any goodwill toward it. Hall Pass represents the distasteful and unfortunate spiral that movie comedy is in today. Generally gross-out humor is terribly unfunny and is evidence of lazy uncreative writing, but they even resort to a so-called gag that is blatantly homophobic and racist at the same time. Owen Wilson falls asleep and almost drowns in a gym jacuzzi. He is saved by two naked men from the steam room, one of whom is black and has a large penis. The Farrelly’s relish showing off his penis, their camera lingers so we don’t miss the fact that they want us to see it. After pulling Wilson out of the jacuzzi, they plant his face as close to the massive member as they can, eliciting uncomfortable groans from straight men and appreciate snickers from their girlfriends. The only message to take away, the only reason they would even think this works as a gag, is they believe there is something repulsive, abhorrent, and comical  about big black penises and comedy today is all about repulsing audiences. This racially insensitive and homophobic joke is indicative of the rest of the movie. Using an unlikely gimmick about wives fed up with their husbands juvenile flirting with other women, they give them a week off from marriage where they can do whatever they want. This could have been a sly parody of modern matrimonial and casual relationships, but they have nothing of consequence to say or satirize about marriage, sex, or anything else. They just repeat the same tired routine about women being mature while their husbands are big kids lost in the world without womanly guidance. It’s a desperate attempt to re-establish their relevance in the world of comedy that has moved past them. (Though I would argue it was past them when they were relevant.) The best comedy is still on television: Modern Family, The Simpsons, Community, 30 Rock, South Park. What sets them apart from so much movie comedy is topical humor told through sharp writing and great performances. Their writers don’t need to resort to easy scatological humor; they’ve got intelligence and, thankfully, something to say. (Rating ½ star)

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