Monthly Archives: April 2011

“Scream 4,” “Water for Elephants,” Rio,” and “Kill the Irishman”: Weekly Movie Diary

Scream 4


Some critics have dismissed Scream 4 as being unnecessary, for covering ground that the series has already exhausted. There is some truth in this but they miss the larger point and how Scream 4 relates to the horror genre as a whole. Wes Craven has managed to take this familiar material great fun and reclaimed the horror genre, which has been co-opted by no-talent torture porn hacks. Scream 4 reminds us that horror can do more than turn our stomachs or make us cover our eyes. For the past ten years we’ve seen offerings like Hostel, The Human Centipede, Turistas, Wolf Creek, The Devil’s Rejects, those interminable Saw movies, and distasteful remakes of Halloween, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (in 3D no less!), Black Christmas, and I Spit on Your Grave (which distastefully remade an already distasteful movie). We left these movies feeling vaguely unclean but, more importantly, cheated. There’s nothing remotely entertaining or suspenseful about a movie where we have to watch graphic depictions of skin peeled away and teeth being pulled from a screaming girl’s mouth (and they are most always girls – don’t these filmmaker’s have daughters or mothers that might make them second guess producing how-to films for sadists?) We’re left with the sinking feeling that we’ve been suckered into handing over our money for trash – and not even fun trash.

Craven reminds us that horror can – and often should – be fun. We should leap out of our seats, clutch the guy or girl next to us, and giggle with relief, embarrassment, or both. This was the atmosphere in the theater in which I saw Scream 4 and I was heartened to see audiences haven’t been so numbed by gory crap. There was an upbeat buzz as we streamed out of the audience, lots of laughing and a general feeling of goodwill; we hadn’t been cheated. We had all been on an enjoyable ride, something rare from contemporary horror movies.

Craven does miss an opportunity to really reboot and redirect the franchise by copping out from an almost ingenious direction at the end – by killing off a major character and making the actual killer the new star of the series (unbeknownst to everyone else) – in favor of the standard ending we’ve seen three times before. Though I wish he had had the courage parody our culture of true crime celebrity, we can’t really blame him too much; we’ve been through a lot with these characters and it would be a shame to see them discarded in favor of young hotties with little screen presence. Plus the first two acts are strong enough to erase any regrets from this solid, if not fantastic, horror reboot. (Rating ****)

Water for Elephants

I should warn you that I read Water for Elephants a couple of years ago and really hated it. It’s a sappy, sentimental drag that, like the worst of Victorian novels, relies on convenient episodes of coincidence to push along stock characters that have been populating these dopey romances gussied up as high literature for nearly a hundred years. So, if you can’t tell, I walked into the theater a little biased.

Imagine my surprise when I found I didn’t hate the movie. I only disliked it; it was tedious without being frustrating like the book. The story of Jacob Jankowski, a depression era veterinary school drop out who falls in with a circus and falls in love with the troubled wife of the shows sadistic owner, is equally simple-minded in the movie, but it sheds some of the excess silliness, like Jacob’s clichéd relationship with his belligerent roommate Kinko the Clown. (Unfortunate choice naming him Kinko. It just makes me think of that song…) But even with these welcome changes, there isn’t much anyone could have done with this mess of a book. The quirkily handsome Robert Pattinson is fine as Jacob, but he isn’t really asked to show much range. Christoph Waltz reprises the same character he’s been playing since Inglorious Basterds. The real shame is the waste of Reese Witherspoon who’s asked to do even less than Pattinson and she’s a better actor. All she has to do is stand around and look tragic.

Director Francis Lawrence misplaced the movie’s ambitions. The romance is built up but it’s tepid, uninspired, unemotional. The circus stuff is more interesting, but Lawrence subsumes that material under an insipid, standard romance. Even the promised climatic circus disaster is a mess of bad CGI, looking more like an audience running away at the direction of an assistant director, rather than any true disaster. I would say I had a similar reaction – wanting to run away – but I liked Rosie the elephant; she was enough to keep me mildly interested. It is, however, shameful that an elephant upstages Reese Witherspoon. Francis Lawrence should be ashamed of himself. (Rating **)

Rio


Rio is a competent movie for kids, but it’s nothing special for those of us who’ve ever seen a movie or read a book before. It’s sweet and inoffensive, but it’s precisely these qualities that made me so bitter. When talents like Jesse Eisenberg, Anne Hathaway, will.i.am, Jamie Foxx, Jane Lynch, Wanda Sykes, Carlos Ponce, and Tracey Morgan are wasted on routine material with no edge I get angry. I wish director Carlos Saldanha and his team at Twentieth Century Fox Animation would have crafted a story that could have challenged children’s assumptions about life and growing up the way classic movies like Bambi and Old Yeller and books like The Adventures of Huck Finn and Little Women did. The story of Rio could have lent itself to this more edifying track: Blu, a domesticated macaw, raised as a pampered pet in Minnesota, has never learned to fly or take care of himself. When he is taken to Brazil as part of a mating program he and the only other living blue macaw are stolen by smugglers. They escape and Blu must make his way back to his beloved pet parent despite being woefully unprepared for life in the wild. But instead of grappling with Blu’s push into maturity, something every child will one day face, we’re treated to a typical animated adventure replete with chases, narrow escapes, and sneering villains without a hint of any practical lessons about life. Kids will probably enjoy it; the rest of us, over the age of say 8, will feel a strange sense of déjà-vu. (Rating **1/2)

Kill the Irishman

Ray Stevenson as Danny Greene in "Kill the Irishman"


It’s hard to know what we’re supposed to make of this rambling love letter to Danny Greene, a Cleveland hood who sparked a mafia war in the mid-1970s. Greene survived several murder attempts and this, it appears, is the only reason the movie was made, hardly enough to sustain a feature length biography. The war and Greene’s pesky resilience garnered national attention and, much of the first two acts work fairly well, it is telling that the most interesting sequences are the actual newscasts that Jonathan Hensleigh intercuts with the narrative. And this takes into account a fine cast with Ray Stevenson at the helm as Greene, supported a stellar supporting cast that includes Vincent D’Onofrio, Val Kilmer, Paul Sorvino, and Christopher Walken who, thankfully, tunes down his self-parodying shtick and gives a pretty good performance as a Jewish mobster. As compelling as much of the first part and the cast are, the last act shuffles around gently nudging us towards a conclusion we know is coming. A more nuanced, thoughtful director’s hand was needed here. We’re left wondering what it is we’re supposed to take away, what we’re supposed to think of Greene, and why the Hensleigh wanted to tell this story. Is he really the almost folkloric hero Hensleigh makes him out to be? He was a crook and a killer; is surviving so many attempted mob hits really enough to earn admiration? Apparently for Hensleigh it is, but we’re left with the nagging suspicion that Greene was no hero, just a cheap thug with good luck. (Rating ***)

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Robert Redford’s The Conspirator

Robin Wright and James McAvoy in "The Conspirator"

Robert Redford really fumbles the ball with The Conspirator, his unnuanced, one-sided account of the trial of Mary Surratt, alleged participant in the plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. While watching the film we get the feeling that Redford shifted into neutral and coasted for this one, committing many of the same errors for which he condemns the prosecution – cherry picking evidence, accepting compromised testimony as fact – all to convince us that Surratt was wrongly convicted and executed for a crime her son really committed. The movie is a lackluster, uninspired failure at just about every level. It fails to tell us anything relevant about the 1860s or how Surratt’s trial has anything to tell us about today. It fails as a parable about the thin line between justice and retribution. It fails as a courtroom drama. It fails as a piece of ensemble acting. And, finally, it fails as a movie, being neither thoughtful nor entertaining.

I grew more and more depressed as the film progressed, thinking about how every shot, each sequence, most of the choices felt musty and oppressive, like Redford, the once competent director, has failed to learn any new tricks. The Conspirator could have easily been made in 1985 and would have felt just as stale then.

Since history is my bread and butter I’ll start there. A movie that mines its story from our past should either choose an compelling story or have something relevant to say – preferably both, but at least one makes for a passable movie. What does the trial of Mary Surratt, a woman whose guilt has never been conclusively established, but still railroaded into a guilty verdict by a prejudiced military court tell us? That civilians shouldn’t be tried by the military? Hardly a revelatory position in the years after September 11. Plus Redford undercuts that message with a head-scratching tag at the end of the film that informs us that one of the conspirators did get a civilian trial, but walked when the jury couldn’t come to a decision. So…? Maybe some trials are better left to the military?

Mary Surratt may have been innocent, but then again, she may have been guilty as well. Redford stacks the evidence so we believe she was innocent, but tiptoes around the subject, never really engaging with the evidence against her (leaving out rather damning testimony that would have complicated Redford’s sainted portrait of Surratt). For Redford it is the thirst for retribution fueled her conviction. (He never considers that she may have been both guilty and railroaded, a possibility too sophisticated for a movie as simple-minded as this to explore.) Maybe it doesn’t matter if she was guilty if the message is about our capacity (or incapacity in passionate times) to try all accused criminals fairly, but Redford spends so much time making her a martyr that any larger message is bungled – if it was every intended.

Redford’s refusal or inability to take a stand, his insistence on leaving everything up for interpretation, saddles us with conflicting messages. One the one hand we’re supposed to sympathize with a woman wrongly marched off to the gallows, but on the other hand Mary admits her guilt – to a point. She admits to knowing about a plot to kidnap the president, but didn’t blow the whistle because her son would have been arrested. For this we’re supposed to cut her slack? And we’re supposed to believe she would have known about an earlier aborted kidnapping plan, but was cut out of the assassination plots? Even her defense attorney, Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), who supposedly spends half the movie believing her guilty, never follows this admission up with logical questions like these.

Redford’s moral outlook is stark and immutable. Everything is reduced to good versus evil, integrity versus guile, without recognizing the vast gray between them into which Mary Surratt probably fell. But Redford is only interested in outraging his audience (or, if we follow the tone of the film, mildly disconcerting us) that her trial may have been preordained. That Redford chose to depict Surratt as a frail woman who happened to be in the wrong place (or places) at the wrong time is less offensive than his treatment of the pictures’ antagonists. Danny Huston is unimaginatively cast as the prosecuting attorney for the government; he has a natural air of callous arrogance that makes him a dependable baddie, but that is exactly why he was all wrong for the part. Did the man who prosecuted Mary Surratt have to be a snake? Couldn’t he have just been a man dedicated to convicting a woman who, he believed, helped kill a president? Kevin Kline as Secretary of War Edwin Stanton is even worse. He’s one-dimensional at best, worthy of Snidely Whiplash rather than a member of the cabinet trying to keep a fragile country together after four years of civil war. Instead of taking the time to develop Stanton and grappling with his very real concerns, Redford has Kline sneer menacingly – we wait for him to wring his hands like Mr. Burns and hiss, “Excellent.” There were very real and legitimate reasons for him to push military tribunals for the accused conspirators, but Redford declines to seriously pursue them, perhaps feeling any nuance for his stacked indictment against the trial would muddy the waters and undercut his message, whatever it might have been, for an audience unfamiliar with our own history.

That leads me to a purely cinematic complaint. The movie happens to be one of the most poorly edited major motion pictures I’ve seen in a long time, though I hesitate to blame the editor, Craig McKay, who has done some solid if not spectacular work in the past. The sequence following the assassins to their respective targets is needlessly confusing. I suspected it was incomprehensible to viewers unfamiliar with the plot and a friend who saw the movie with me confirmed it to be bewildering. Most Americans (let alone foreigners) don’t know that Lincoln was not the only target that night, that Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward were also targeted for assassination. Intercut with Booth’s approach of Lincoln’s box in Ford’s Theater, we see one presumed assassin drinking at the bar of Johnson’s hotel but chickens out at the last minute, and another assassin bursting into Seward’s bedroom, stabbing the man in the neck. None of this is explained, not even why Seward was in traction (he had been thrown from a horse) or that his neck brace prevented the dagger from puncturing his neck and saved his life. Only prior knowledge makes any of this intelligible. Redford could have salvaged it by some explanation after the fact, but he allows it all to pass by, leaving many in the audience wondering what the hell they just saw.

The story of the conspiracy to kill Lincoln and the trials that followed could have been fascinating and instructive, but Redford desperately wanted to make a point about military tribunals being inappropriate for civilian defendants (I guess). It’s a shame he chose one of the least interesting defendants to make that point. Samuel Mudd, the Maryland doctor who answered his door late at night to set the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth, was almost certainly innocent of any part in the plot. For doing his job, for setting the leg of an unknown man, something he might have done hundreds of times, he spent 20 years in prison. The only interesting thing about Mary Surratt is she happened to be a woman and as shocking as that might have been in 1865 (or 1965 for that matter), it’s hardly a fact to inspire much notice today.

Robert Redford is all but telling us he is irrelevant as a filmmaker with this one. (Has he made a decent movie since Quiz Show?) He has chosen an unfocused and dull story, reduced its moral and legal quandaries to black and white truisms and directed it with all the vigor of Eeyore. I have always enjoyed Redford as an actor and, unless he chooses better projects and tackles them with some measure of creativity, I hope he sticks with acting.

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“Arthur,” “Your Highness,” and “Hanna”: Weekly Movie Diary

Coming several days late after Tax Day and a push to get a draft of my dissertation done, the weekly movie diary is finally being posted…

Helen Mirren and Russell Brand in "Arthur"

Arthur

Arthur isn’t bad because it’s a mediocre remake of a mediocre movie. It’s bad because it reproduces all the bland elements of the Dudley Moore film without capturing any of the few elements that worked. Russell Brand is fine as the alcohol-swilling, immature billionaire (often sounding alarmingly like Moore), but nothing around him really works. The script is flat without a genuine laugh and Brand has no chemistry with his love interest played by Greta Gerwig. We have no idea what they see in each other – she is remarkably undifferentiated from all the floozies that populate Arthur’s life. There are only slight hints of her quirkiness, which can’t be said for Liza Minnelli, who played the same part opposite Moore. With Moore and Minnelli at least we could see why he was attracted to her free-spirit. Gerwig just lays on the floor of Grand Central Terminal to look at the ceiling. And, worse yet, Helen Mirren as Arthur’s nanny Hobson nobly wades into the material, but we can’t help compare her to the brilliant performance by John Gielgud. His dry wit and deliberate delivery are the only things that really made the original Arthur worth watching. Unfortunately this incarnation is lifeless, dull, and tediously unfunny. (Rating **)

Natalie Portman, Danny McBride, James Franco, and Zooey Deschanel can't get one laugh in "Your Highness"

Your Highness

If Arthur was dull, at least that movie started from a concept that could have led to a funny movie. Your Highness, on the other hand, starts from an unfunny premise and executes it even more poorly. A friend of mine suggested that the reason I didn’t laugh once (really not even one chuckle or guffaw) in this fantasy/stoner picture is because I wasn’t high. I don’t think a movie gets a pass because potheads laugh at it. They aren’t exactly a discerning bunch. One of the few times I’ve been stoned I remember finding the alphabet hysterically funny. I can imagine that Danny McBride and this wretched movie might have made me laugh as well.

The running gag, the basis of the entire movie’s philosophy of comedy, is McBride and James Franco, as princes of a mythical medieval kingdom, deliver flowery speeches punctuated with a strategically placed curse word followed by puffing on a joint. Get it? How hilarious would it be to see Charlemagne say “motherfucker” and get hammered? Actually not very.

This might have been funny once or twice, but when it’s the only gag in the entire picture it gets more frustrating than amusing. Like in the South Park movie when the gang went to an R-rated movie and discovered curse words. They began peppering their language with expletives and that was pretty funny for a few scenes, but by the end it was stale.

All of Your Highness is stale, especially with Danny McBride in the lead (and as a co-writer of the script). He proves he can’t carry a picture; his shtick is purely supporting, like his role in Pineapple Express. James Franco, Natalie Portman, Zooey Deschanel, Justin Theroux, and even Rasmus Hardiker as the court jester do their best but their efforts collapse under the twin weights of McBride’s groan-worthy writing and uninspired acting. This is a truly terrible movie. (Rating *)

Saorise Ronan as Hanna

Hanna

Hanna is the kind of movie that holds your attention fairly well while you watch it, but the farther away you get from it the worse it holds up in your memory. It starts off on the right track: a rogue CIA agent Erik Heller (Eric Bana) and his daughter Hanna (Saorise Ronan) live in the arctic wilderness, isolated from civilization. Erik teaches his daughter to hunt, survive, and fight for a battle he knows she will have to fight if she is ever going to be able to enter society and live safely. Another CIA agent, Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett), murdered her mother and wants her dead too. Despite the danger the isolation is beginning to chafe for Hanna as she reaches puberty. She’s never seen television, electricity, or even heard music.

The movie reaches poetic heights as we watch Hanna’s journey towards revenge bringing her face to face with a world she only understands through the books she’s read. We enjoy watching her discover the joys and beauty of the world. She has always longed to hear music and, over the course of the film, she hears a lot of it, not all of which is as melodious as she had dreamed – from a homeless man belting out opera on the street to the head-splitting cacophony of street drummers banging on tin drums. It is fascinating to follow Hanna as she discovers that the natural beauty of the world carries with it an ugly counterpart.

Unfortunately we don’t get to watch Hanna negotiate and carve a place out for herself in the world. Early on, after being apprehended by the CIA and transported to Morocco, she escapes and hooks up with a British family on a camping trip though Morocco and Spain. I like the way their relationship played out, especially with the teenage daughter Sophie (Jessica Barden), a girl so obnoxious only someone as clueless and socially ignorant as Hanna could like her.

But Hanna’s discovery of the world and her relationships disappear (the British family simply vanishes) in favor of a typical and, truthfully, uninspired action climax. Lots of chasing and fighting that we have seen in any other action pic with lesser ambitions. We can almost see the moment when Wright decided to switch off the creative switch and glide on action movie autopilot (when Hanna jumps out of the back of a van). This wouldn’t be quite so disappointing if I hadn’t like so much of what came before.

Cate Blanchett as Marissa Wiegler, a great villain.

Despite the breakdown of the narrative, Hanna does give us a great villain: Cate Blanchett as CIA baddie Marissa Wiegler, desperate to cover up a secret genetics program of which Hanna is the last remaining evidence. Blanchett plays Wiegler with an arrogant cunning, as a woman who covets and abuses the power afforded her by the necessary secrecy of her position in the CIA. She’s matter-of-fact and business-like about the evil she does. Her slight southern draw reminds us of the cowboy (anti-)diplomacy of the Bush years and, like our former president, she loves knowing she can do whatever she wants, maybe vaguely for the national security interests of the United States, maybe for herself. It never is quite clear. I wish Wright had delved more into Wiegler’s story and motivations; we never understand exactly why she feels as though she has to kill Hanna.

Hanna is a movie with high ambitions, but conventionally executed, entertaining but uneven. (Rating ***)

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Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone with the Wind” (Best Actress of 1939)

Other Noteworthy Performances: Jean Arthur (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), Arletty (Le jour se lève), Ingrid Bergman (Intermezzo), Claudette Colbert (Midnight), Bette Davis (The Old Maid), Bette Davis (The Private Life of Elizabeth and Essex), Irene Dunne (Love Affair), Greta Garbo (Ninotchka), Judy Garland (The Wizard of Oz), Greer Garson (Goodbye Mr. Chips), Nora Gregor (La régle du jeu), Kakuko Mori (The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums), Ginger Rogers (Bachelor Mother), Barbara Stanwyck (Golden Boy)

Is this choice anything close to a surprise? Of any category of any year, this one is practically a given, not because Vivien Leigh’s performance in Gone with the Wind has become cultishly unassailable, but because, quite simply, a great actress gave a great performance – possibly the best ever committed to film. It says something that Leigh is almost universally acknowledged as the best actress of 1939. There were several other magnificent turns by leading women that year, any one of whom could have taken the top spot any other year without Leigh in the running. Bette Davis gave two award worthy performances, first as a frustrated woman pining for the love of her daughter in The Old Maid, then as the Virgin Queen torn between duty and desire in The Private Life of Elizabeth and Essex. Ginger Rogers is equally deserving as a woman who, through completely innocent circumstances, finds herself saddled with a baby in the great comedy Bachelor Mother. Greer Garson is utterly charming in Goodbye Mr. Chips, Greta Garbo shows she could play comedy in Ninotchka, and, of course, Judy Garland lit up the screen in The Wizard of Oz.

No matter how much I admire any of these performances Vivien Leigh still overshadows them, a bit like a Mikhail Baryshnikov competing against a class of beginners. Leigh’s interpretation of Scarlett O’Hara is perfect – she never hits a false note. We never see acting, we only see the character, as close to a real, living person to any actor could ever create for the screen.

Leigh mixes Scarlett’s selfishness with her flirty charm creating a character accustomed to getting what she wants based on her looks, her coquettishness, her family name. She’s never been challenged in any way, but the Civil War changes that, forcing her to dig deep and discover the resiliency and resourcefulness she never knew she had in her. But her arc isn’t particularly revelatory; through all her trials she still emerges on the other side as essentially the same woman, just a heck of a lot stronger. Despite this, we still find ourselves connecting to and caring for the designing woman.

That is the genius of Leigh’s performance. She plays Scarlett unsympathetically, but the charm she uses to butter up Ashley and Rhett spills over into the audience. We know she is manipulating these men but, in spite of this knowledge, she manipulates us as well. And she never learns to do without manipulation. Often writers and directors believe that a character arc means that their subject needs some kind of grand revelation, some major shift in her consciousness or perspective, some major lesson learned. Scarlett doesn’t learn any lessons, she just learns new ways to get others to give her what she wants.

With the possible exception of Paulette Goddard, the other leading contenders for the part would have had difficulty articulating Scarlett’s subtle shift from frivolous and vain to resilient and vain. With Joan Bennett or Tallulah Bankhead I have a feeling Scarlett would have gotten more and more unpleasant, her flirting grating and desperate and her toughness overshadowing her vulnerability, as we follow her through a large chunk of her life over four hours. Vivien Leigh found a way to retain a connection with the audience and make us care about her while recognizing her flaws.

I have never been a fan of Gone with the Wind as a movie. The second half is especially unfocused, both visually and narratively. But no one can fault Vivien Leigh for the shortcomings of the film. She understood Scarlett completely and, through every line reading and subtle gesture, translated her onto the screen flawlessly. This isn’t just the best performance of 1939 (of any category), but one of, if not the, best of all time for which she richly deserved the Oscar.

 

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James Stewart as Jefferson Smith in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (Best Actor of 1939)

Other Noteworthy Performances: James Cagney (The Roaring Twenties), John Clements (The Four Feathers), W.C. Fields (You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man), Henry Fonda (Young Mr. Lincoln), Jean Gabin (Le jour se lève), Cary Grant (Only Angels Have Wings), Shotaro Hanayagi (The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums), Charles Laughton (The Hunchback of Notre Dame), Burgess Meredith (Of Mice and Men), Laurence Olivier (Wuthering Heights), Basil Rathbone (Son of Frankenstein), Michael Redgrave (The Stars Look Down), Maurice Schwartz (Tevye), Roland Toutain (La règle du jeu)

Robert Donat’s performance in Goodbye Mr. Chips is generally regarded as the best of 1939. He took home the Oscar and retrospectives often back up the choice, but I’ve never understood the almost religious reverence for Donat in this film. While I enjoy much of what he did as the young, introverted schoolmaster, his characterization of the elderly man is some of the worst playacting that ever won an Oscar. It is sentimental teetering on parody, unworthy of an actor as good as Donat. There are many other male leads I would choose over Donat, but only James Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington stands above the rest.

Frank Capra originally intended Mr. Smith as a sequel to his 1936 hit Mr. Deeds Goes to Town but, unable to secure the services of Gary Cooper, Capra shifted to plan B and cast another all-American, aw-shucks kind of guy, Jimmy Stewart.

Everything about Stewart gelled perfectly for his role as the naïve young senator: his artless face and straight-forward way of speaking sparked an instant connection with audiences. But Stewart brought a gravity to the role that Cooper, frankly, probably would not have been able to muster. When the political machine appointed the hapless Smith, they expected him to be a dupe, to sit back and take orders without too many questions, but Smith takes the opportunity to peel back the shiny veneer of government and see the rot of corruption underneath. He pushes back, threatening to expose them of corruption, but the machine strikes first. They frame him for using his office for his own profit and in a dramatic Senate floor trial, Stewart cycles through so many dark emotions that his earlier optimism and faith in the government already feels antiquated. From disappointment in the institutions and people he once revered to frustration that an honest man like himself can be smeared (and the public will believe the lies) to resignation to anger to a stubborn refusal to give up.

Stewart in the dramatic filibuster scene as Jefferson Smith is on the verge of despair

His Senate filibuster scene is almost painful to watch. We feel that Stewart’s exhaustion and pain aren’t entirely put on; he’s reaching down someplace deep to revive emotional memories most of us would rather forget. This is the core of great acting and though Stewart is often criticized for playing the same part over and over, he proved in Mr. Smith (and later It’s a Wonderful Life and Vertigo) that he understands the commitment to recalling and replaying those disquieting emotional episodes his characters demand. Because he is so convincing as the likeable wide-eyed optimist and as the disillusioned man fighting to regain his reputation, his futile one man struggle against public opinion becomes all the more poignant. I love Gary Cooper, but he wasn’t a good enough actor to pull off what Stewart was able to do.

Stewart’s Jefferson Smith is the embodiment of the American ideal: honest and hardworking, but also a tad green when it comes to the shady worlds of government and corruption. Capra explores what happens when the ideal (Smith) meets reality (D.C.). They will surely clash and without an actor who could take even more cynical modern viewers on the journey from the wide-eyed idealist who treats his Constitution and myths of the Founding Fathers as articles of faith to painful disillusionment, we could never believe that Smith would stand and fight as hard as he does; and we wouldn’t care all that much whether he wins or loses. Luckily Stewart rose to the challenge and helped deliver an American classic.

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“Source Code,” “Win Win,” “Hop,” and “Sucker Punch” – Weekly Movie Diary

I had to take a week off from movie going the week before last so there was no diary last Monday. Have no fear, gentle readers, I made it to four new releases on Friday and have compiled a new weekly movie diary for your edification, enjoyment, ridicule, or any combination of the three.

Michelle Monaghan and Jake Gyllenhaal in "Source Code"

Source Code

I largely enjoyed this sci-fi adventure yarn, but I didn’t lose my head over it. Duncan Jones’ alternate reality mumbo jumbo only works if you don’t think too much about it. Luckily everything is just interesting enough to distract us from the logical loopholes. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Capt. Colter Stevens who wakes up in the body of another man (yikes). He eventually discovers that this is all part of a government experiment where they send a subject (who meets some mysterious, ill-defined qualifications) into the mind of a recently deceased person. Supposedly the mind retains about eight minutes of memory after death and scientists have found a way to access this. They have sent Stevens into the victim of a terrorist bombing on a train in Chicago. Everyone on board was killed and, a la Groundhog Day, Stevens is sent back to the same eight minutes over and over again until he can identify the bomber to prevent a larger attack in downtown Chicago.

As far as it goes, I can buy all that (though why someone hell bent on mass destruction would warn authorities that a massive attack is coming by bombing a train is a little beyond me) and Gyllenhaal is effective, much more so than in his last action foray, The Prince of Persia. He is sympathetic and attractive while still believably tough without excessive machoness. More traditional action stars would have had a harder time selling his connection with Christina (Michelle Monaghan), which is rooted a deep sense of empathy

While the story mostly works, I never understood how capturing the memory of someone who is dead would allow someone else to wander around that reality and see things the dead man never saw. The scientist in charge of the project, Rutledge (Jeffery Wright), claims it isn’t real, but if Stevens can peak around a corner and see things unknown to the dead man or have conversations he never had, how would this be anything but time travel? – something Rutledge vehemently denies. And if it is time travel, how would this process work? It isn’t enough to say it’s super-complicated so you couldn’t possibly understand it. That’s a cop-out. In a less interesting movie that would have been a fatal flaw; here it is merely annoying. (Rating ***1/2)

Paul Giamatti and Alex Shaffer in "Win Win"

Win Win

Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) is a New Jersey lawyer on the verge of financial ruin. His business is drying up and his office is falling apart. To make matters worse, his high school wrestling team that he coaches hasn’t won a match all season. Things begin to look up when he concocts a scheme to pocket $1500 a month from one of his elderly clients, Leo (Burt Young), suffering from early onset dementia. Mike gets the court to grant guardianship of the man (and his money) with the understanding that Mike will take care of Leo in his home. But Mike plops the old man in a nursing home and pockets what’s left over from the checks. Things get complicated when Leo’s grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer) shows up, fleeing from an absent, drug addict mother in Ohio. Mike struggles between balancing on the needs of his own family with those of the family he has inadvertently adopted, especially the troubled young man Kyle.

Win Win shines when it explores Kyle’s tentative relationship with Mike and his wife Jackie (Amy Ryan), or the too few tender scenes where Kyle builds a relationship with his often incoherent grandfather who he has never met. We are less interested in the trials of Mike and his friend Terry (Bobby Cannavale), which takes up large chunks of time and diminishes our goodwill. Kyle’s journey into acceptance in Mike’s family and wrestling team is the heart and soul of this movie, so what do we care about Terry’s divorce and creepy need to recapture his youth? And Mike’s unethical actions lead to predictable and unnecessary results, feeling more writer-y than anything approaching the emotional strength of the relationships. I liked Win Win, but I wish it could have dispensed with gimmicky plot points.

Paul Giamatti is fine, but the real stars are Alex Shaffer, Burt Young (who is always welcome in any movie I’m watching), and Amy Ryan, all of whom overshadow the movie’s star. Young Shaffer is especially impressive in his film debut, creating a flawed by goodhearted young man through his monosyllabic grunts and inexpressive face. He is a young man who has been forced to fend for himself and opening up is difficult. He keeps all his feelings, good and bad, bottled up inside, but as he builds relationships with Mike, Jackie, and Leo he slowly lets his guard down (which makes Mike’s double dealing so deadly dull – we know where it is leading and where it will end up in this formula). Performances like these in a limited release movie from March are usually forgotten come Oscar time, but I hope they will be remembered. (Rating ***1/2)

Yep. James Marsden went from Cyclops to this...

Hop

This is a rotten movie. I know it’s a kids movie, but that doesn’t mean a paint by numbers script is acceptable. Worse than being predictable Hop is painfully unfunny, even with Russell Brand voicing E.B., the Easter Bunny dauphin. Brand was one of the few successful choices of the filmmakers. The only smiles (not even laughs) come from what we suspect are Brand’s ad libs, not anything inherently funny in the dialogue or the plot. The story of the Easter Bunny’s heir apparent who wants to be drummer and not take over as the Easter Bunny and an unemployed, though hunky, slacker (James Marsden) who team up to …? I’m not entirely sure why they team up, but the script says they must so they do, forcing Fred O’Hare (Marsden) to get E.B. to an audition for a talent show hosted by David Hasselhoff before the elite guard of the Easter Bunny, the Pink Berets, can return E.B. back to Easter Island and thwart his dreams. The entire premise of the movie is as flimsy as they come – they even have to awkwardly insert an uninspired villain to stretch things out. But it becomes even flimsier when we ask ourselves this simple question that could have ended the movie after 10 minutes: why can’t E.B. be a drummer and the Easter Bunny? Easter is only one night a year. By the time everyone works this tricky equation out, we’ve wasted an hour and a half of our lives. (Rating **)

 

Samurai swords, flintlocks, skimpy clothes, and the trenches of the Great War: Emily Browning lives every girl's fantasy in "Sucker Punch."

Sucker Punch

It’s hard for me to describe how insulting Sucker Punch is. Aesthetically it reconfirms Zack Snyder as a visionary directory, but not a great story teller. That combination would have made for a merely boring movie, but Snyder’s faux-profundity ends up sucker punching the audience with a corrupt comment on women in culture and society that only ends up confirming the repression and exploitation the movie should be attacking. Film critic Scott Mendelson has assumed the dubious honor of defending the movie’s philosophical and critical grounding (though he admits to not loving the movie, only liking it in his essay). Mendelson, who I often enjoy reading at Mendelson’s Memos, contends that Sucker Punch is “an angry feminist screed” and “a critical deconstruction of the casual sexualization of young women in pop culture, the inexplicable acceptance of institutional sexism and lechery, and whether or not images of empowered females on film can be disassociated with the sexual undercurrent of those same images.” This all sounds good, but I think he is conflating the intention with what’s on the screen. I didn’t see much to support the “feminist screed” tag when the movie takes every opportunity it can to squirm out of truly dealing with these issues in favor of a boring and narratively pointless action sequence.

Snyder may (or may not) have intended on commenting on these high-minded issues, but instead of grappling with them he turned them into any 14-year-old boy’s masturbatory fantasy, mingling the violence of modern video games with flimsy excuses to get beautiful young women to take off as many clothes as possible without getting an R-rating. Is this really “a critical deconstruction of the casual sexualization of young women in pop culture”? No, it is casual sexualization. It’s a great trick to do everything an exploitation pic would do, then step back and claim the movie is critiquing those exploitation pictures. The audience gets all the same titillation, then can feel good about “getting something” out of it. If anyone, including Mr. Mendelson, can explain where the movie explicitly critiques casual sexualization of women in pop culture, I would love to hear it.

Everything happening on the screen is meant to be in the mind of Baby Doll (Emily Browning), a young woman unjustly confined to a mental institution. If this was a serious “feminist screed,” why would her fantasies look like an X-Box game? Isn’t it more likely that this woman would want to directly attack the sources of her imprisonment – her lecherous stepfather or the exploitative orderly Blue (Oscar Isaac)? I know I’m generalizing here, but let’s face it, these are male fantasies – adolescent male fantasies at that. Of course a woman could come up with these violent fantasies but there was nothing to indicate this particular young woman would. Furthermore, there was nothing to indicate that she had long been a victim of a patriarchal society. Her ordeal is specific, her hyper-stylized revenge fantasies are not.

This isn't exloitation, but ignore the sexy bodies!

In the end, I can’t buy that this is any serious attempt to interrogate the exploitation of women in culture and society. If it was, Snyder should have stuck to the story in the mental institution, which was always much more interesting than the bizarre and pointless fantasies in the bordello or the action sequences with giant Chinese warriors, sleek robots, and steam-propelled zombie soldiers in the trenches of World War I. But leaving the women in the mental institution would have limited Snyder’s perverse obsession with action and forced him to truly wrestle with how women are portrayed and exploited. I think it’s telling that Zack Snyder wrote (with Steve Shibuya) and directed the movie, and of the seven producers there was only one woman, Zack’s wife Deborah Snyder. This is a movie made by men for boys. It’s odd that anyone as intelligent as Scott Mendelson would get anything deeper out of Sucker Punch. (Rating **)

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Robert Preston (Union Pacific) – Best Supporting Actor of 1939

Joel McCrea, Barbara Stanwyck, and Robert Preston in a publicity picture for "Union Pacific"

Other Noteworthy Performances: John Barrymore (Midnight), Richard Barthelmess (Only Angels Have Wings), Humphrey Bogart (The Roaring Twenties), Brian Donlevy (Beau Geste), Sydney Granville (The Mikado), Cedric Hardwicke (The Hunchback of Notre Dame), Thomas Mitchell (Only Angels Have Wings), Thomas Mitchell (Stagecoach), Claude Rains (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), Ralph Richardson (The Four Feathers), Bob Steele (Of Mice and Men), George Zucco (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes)

When scholars and movie lovers look back on the best performances of 1939, young Robert Preston is rarely acknowledged. The greatest of the supporting actors of the studio era, Thomas Mitchell, delivered two fine performances in Only Angels Have Wings and Stagecoach (which makes me feel a little guilty for passing him over again). Claude Rains masterfully played a conflicted corrupt senator in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. And John Barrymore turned in his last great performance in Midnight. While there would be good arguments for any of these and several other less well known performances, I decided to stick with my original instinct and go with the underrated Robert Preston as Dick Allen in Cecil B. DeMille’s Union Pacific. Preston deserved recognition for his skillful ability to capture the worst instincts of the American character in the nineteenth century counterbalanced by Joel McCrea’s character who embodies our best instincts.

Preston’s Dick Allen is a gambler and a shark, looking out for himself no matter the cost to others. His philosophy of greed is a perversion of U.S. freedom and pursuit of happiness. He is willing to undermine the community and country for his own immediate gain, subverting what Alexis de Tocqueville once admired about American society when he toured the U.S. in the early 1830s. Merchants, farmers, politicians, and other groups promoted “self-interest, properly understood.” By that he meant everyone was looking out for their own welfare, but understood that an unstable, insecure society for others meant their own welfare would eventually be threatened. Looking out for the best interests of one’s community then would ensure (or at least allow) greater personal enrichment in the future, even if it meant an immediate sacrifice in wealth, a lesson many of today’s top one percent would be wise to reexamine as they drive this country further down the path to third world-dom. DeMille uses Allen against McCrea’s hero Jeff Butler as symbols of the competing instincts of the American character. Of course in the movie, Butler beats back the forces of greed and destruction, but the actual outcome of their battle has never truly been resolved (and Butler would be losing today).

In the movie Allen works for Sid Campeau (Brian Donlevy, always a reliable snake in the movies) who has been engaged by a powerful eastern banker to slow the Union Pacific’s eastbound construction of the first transcontinental railroad in the late 1860s by any means necessary. Campeau and his right hand Allen follow the line across Nebraska and Wyoming setting up makeshift towns to serve – and inflame – the vices of the railway workers, thereby weakening their commitment and thinning their numbers.

The Union Pacific, anxious to fulfill Lincoln’s promise to finally join the east and west coast by rail, hires Capt. Jeff Butler (McCrea) clean out the bad elements following their work and to maintain order. Allen is sure he can handle to tin-star lawman, until he recognizes his soon-to-be enemy as a friend with whom he served in the Civil War. There is a moment when both men believe their friendship will be enough to overcome their differences, inserting a bit of level-headedness into the explosive situation. Their missions, however, are contrary to the maintenance of amity. Butler wants to ensure peace and, by extension, more economic and social opportunity for all. Allen only sees what he can get out of a situation, willing to sacrifice the greater good to fill his wallet. Both grapple with doing their jobs, fulfilling their own interpretations of what it means to be an American, with maintaining fidelity to their friendship forged during the war.

Old friends Robert Preston and Joel McCrea stand together, but are on opposite sides of the fight.

If being on opposite sides would not have been enough to force a rupture in their relationship both men fall in love with Mollie Monahan (Barbara Stanwyck), the operator of the railway’s post office and daughter of an engineer. Competition over Mollie pushes both Butler and Allen to consider just how far they would go to get what they want.

The reason I am choosing Robert Preston over some other fine performances is because Preston creates a genuinely likeable villain while grounding him in reality. He understands that Allen isn’t a villain because he’s just a bad man. On the contrary, he is a genuinely fine person, but has bought into the rhetoric of greed that would come to define the coming Gilded Age. Intellectually he justifies everything he is doing by the promise of economic advancement without moral or ethical restrictions. At the same time, Preston plays him as a completely charming man, a man who we believe can still be friends with the morally upright Jeff Butler. Their past relationship only makes sense if we are able to reconcile Allen’s actions in Wyoming with his wartime friendship. Preston ably balances these demands. We see why Butler admires him and, later in the film, we are chilled by some of the actions he takes, especially when he blackmails Mollie into breaking Butler’s heart and hide a bag of money he stole. In return he vows not to kill his old friend. With the three in the room, each trying to outguess the others and read minds, the scene is tense and only works because we believe Allen will kill Butler if Mollie doesn’t do as he says. That Preston is able to alternately inspire admiration and hate in the audience speaks to his skillful interpretation of this complex villain. In lesser hands we would have only seen the superficial cardsharp, but Preston took the character as written and added emotional layers that others would have missed.

Robert Preston is a sadly underrated – or at least underappreciated – actor. Today most remember him either as Prof. Henry Hill in The Music Man or as Toddy in Victor Victoria, (both fine performances) but he had a rich career both on the stage and screen that is overlooked by the casual movie watcher. Though he never really broke through as a leading man in his younger years, he delivered many fine supporting performances. It’s a shame he didn’t receive more attention for his acting prowess early on because he could have easily taken challenging leading roles. It’s easy to forget just how good he really was, but watching him work in Union Pacific and we see a naturally gifted actor at the beginning of his promising career.

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Filed under 1939, Yearly Best Performances