Friday, 11 December 2009

An American Tragedy (1931)

And another one bites the dust! Yes, I've managed to track down another of my 'must see' movies and, sorry to say, it was another disappointment. In fact the background story to this film's genesis is rather more interesting than the movie itself.

Theodore Dreiser's weighty novel, based on an actual 1906 murder and trial, was long considered 'the great American novel' (trademark) and is still thought of as one of the landmarks in American fiction. The acclaimed Russian director Sergei Eisenstein was invited by the studio (Paramount) to transfer this sacred cow to the screen, but his treatment was firmly rejected as incomprehensible, heavy as it was on political and sociological argument. So Paramount turned to Josef von Sternberg who had produced some popular hits for them and it is his version that we now have. Dreiser was so enraged by all of this that he attempted to prevent the studio from releasing the film -- and lost his case!

So what is wrong with the movie? Well nearly everything! It is competently filmed with a heavy emphasis on water symbolism which features meaningfully in the plot, but it is appallingly and stiltedly acted. I have seen sufficient early 30s movies to know that this is not the result of early sound techniques, since there are plenty of wonderful movies from this period, including those that von Sternberg made with Marlene Dietrich. The handsome but weak-willed lead is played by Phillips Holmes who preens and wimpers on the long road to self-knowledge. He never graduated from B movies before his early death in 1942. Sylvia Sidney in an early role is relatively appealing as the poor farm girl who stands between him and social status, but her playing is not as layered as it might be. Frances Dee as the society girl who captures his fickle affections is attractive, but any actress could have taken the part. As for the final courtroom scenes, I have seldom seen such over-the-top barnstorming by a group of actors. It all felt like a performance by some third-rate provincial theatrical troupe.

Of course the story was remade in 1951 as "A Place in the Sun" which is a definite example of the remake being better thought of than the original. This is down to its charismatic casting of Montgomery Cliff, Shelley Winters, and a beefed-up role for Elizabeth Taylor as the rich girl. It's the more watchable movie, even if its basic elements are simplified and romanticized. I think Dreiser would have hated that version as well.

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Hi there folks. I have had something of an accident which prevents my typing easily, so there will be an unavoidable hiatus until these old bones get themselves together again. Hoping to be back soon to avert a second American Tragedy.

Monday, 7 December 2009

Last Week's Miscellany

It's been a while since I posted a multiple review -- well, not that long actually come to think about it. Apart from festival summaries, I tend to do this when there is not much amongst my recent viewings which I really want to discuss at length. This is a selection of what I've been up to over the last seven days, bunched into suitable categories:

Disappointments: I actually managed to delete three items from my famous list of movies that I have never seen and really want to view, but unfortunately none of them lived up to their hype. "Song at Midnight" (1937) is one of the few films still extant from the legendary Chinese director Ma-Xu Weibang (who directed some 500 or so), but apart from some interesting camera work, this Chinese version of 'The Phantom of the Opera' was a plodding affair. "Ascent to Heaven" (1951) is one of Luis Bunuel's lesser efforts during his long Mexican sojourn; the slight story has occasional touches of the director's surreal style to come, but it stops too abruptly, as if the producers had run out of dosh. Finally I managed to trace a copy of "Forbidden Zone" (1980/82) a cult item from composer Danny Elfman's brother which is a series of surreal musical sketches performed by a large weird cast including the two brothers and their Oingo Boingo Band, all of whom seemed to be performing under the influence.

Visiting the past: Every week in this cinematic household there are some re-visits to previously viewed movies. It's been quite a while since I last saw "Seventh Heaven" (1927), director Frank Borzage's classic silent romance, and I wish I could report that this Janet Gaynor/Charles Farrell pairing remains as charming as my recollection of it. My memory is also to blame for the re-viewing of "Silent Hill" (2006) since I could remember almost nothing of this movie based on a video game, most of which involves Radha Mitchell running around in the dark; a good ending however. Still holding its appeal is "Dreamboat" (1952) with college professor Clifton Webb's past as a silent movie swashbuckler coming back to haunt him; the patische movies remain amusing and Webb is always more than watchable.

Worthy but heavy-going: Too many films that I watch seem to fall into this category, but I guess that is preferable to juvenile gross-outs which account for much of the current offerings. "The Baader-Meinhof Complex" (2008) is a German film dealing with the left-wing terrorist group of the title, whose protests only proved to underline the fact that all fanatics have a very blinkered view of right and wrong. "The Ballad of Jack and Rose" (2005) was written and directed by Rebecca Miller and stars her husband, Daniel Day Lewis, as the last holdout of a hippy commune, still fighting progress; the best turn is from Camilla Belle as his teenaged daughter, but it was hard to like the remainder of the relatively starry cast. "Tokyo Sonata" (2008) is a Japanese movie about a salaryman who loses his job but who can't bring himself to tell his dysfunctional family; while it is reasonably well done with interesting characters, one has seen the basic premise too many times previously for it to totally satisfy.

That's not everything that has fluttered across my eyeballs last week. I can tell you the very worst of the lot: another miserable offering from the Sci-Fi Channel entitled "Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus" (2009) which was only redeeemed by one shot of a low-flying passenger plane being devoured in a mouthful by the said shark. Where do they manufacture this rubbish? The best by far was a first viewing of "True Heart Susie" (1919), a sentimental D.W. Griffiths' offering starring the enchanting young Lillian Gish. It portrays a rural world which was fast-disappearing even then, as Gish sacrifices all for her childhood sweetheart, who rewards her devotion by marrying a jazz-age floozy, before the necessary eventual happy ending.

Bring on the next week! And the clowns...

Friday, 4 December 2009

Anna M. (2007)

To my amazement, this is the third time this year that I find myself writing about the French actress Isabelle Carre whom I honestly had never heard of previously, probably because she confines her efforts to her quite extensive filmography of French-language movies rather than seeking international exposure. To put it mildly, I am impressed by her talent -- she is one hell of an actress!

This movie adds another string to her bow of characterizations as she believably becomes a mentally-deranged young woman. The film's title suggests a classic study, something out of Freud's casebook. She plays a book restorer who lives with her mother and absolutely no background is given for her sudden suicide attempt, throwing herself in front of a car on a busy highway. But she survives, and as her damaged leg is tended by surgeon Gilbert Melki (one of the recurring characters in Lucas Belvaux's 2003 Trilogy which my friend Michael has recently reviewed), she develops an obsessive crush on the married doctor, convincing herself that he is also madly in love with her. Her behaviour spirals out of control as she imagines receiving coded messages from him to meet him at a rendezvous hotel, moves in as a menacing nanny in the flat above his, contemplates pushing his wife into an oncoming metro train, tricks her way into and damages their flat, and generally morphs into a nightmare stalker.

This is one scary scenario. The film it most reminded me of was Polanski's "Repulsion" (1965) where Catherine Deneuve goes bonkers in London. Anna may not yet be a murderess, but her slide into obsession and madness is frightening. Even a stay in an asylum where she manages to convince the doctors that she is now a responsible, rational being does not alter her behaviour on her release. The strange coda which shows her some years later out in the countryside with the child she has conceived at the lovenest hotel (not with Melki let it be said) and in the company of a faithful female friend -- a loyalty never explained -- suggest that she is far from cured as the doctor and his wife walk into view. But being a French film, of course things stop there!

I didn't really like the movie, but it was compulsively watchable, anchored by another great performance from Carre.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

The Women (2008)

I admit that I am prejudiced and that I will always prefer a classic film, especially from the landmark year of 1939, to a modern remake or "update". Unfortunately my normal net reaction to these is: 'Why did they bother'? I think it is safe to write that this feeling surfaces in spades for the above movie. The strange thing is that there has been talk for years of re-making the story, with a shifting roster of potential actresses, especially since it offers the prospect of juicy roles for actresses who might be considered slightly over the hill.

The final rendering here focuses on a group of four best friends (unlikely since they span a 13-year age gap) with the two main leads going to Meg Ryan playing a cheated-upon society wife and Annette Bening playing a childless and frantic-to-keep-her-job glossy magazine editor. The other two roles are taken by Debra Messing -- the most amusing of the bunch -- playing a serial baby machine in the hope of producing a son to add to her collection of daughters and Jada Pinkett Smith playing (for some unknown reason) a lesbian. Certainly neither Ryan nor Bening are shown to their best advantage, but at least none of the culprits are among the movie's producers. While they may be getting more desperate for roles, at least one can not accuse them of starring in a vanity piece, which is just as well considering the critical reception to the film.

The gimmick here as in the original stage play and the 1939 movie is that all of the roles are taken by women with nary a man in sight, even where you might expect to find them like on the street or as waiters. Men are reduced to unheard voices at the end of a telephone line, but ironically they still seem to be the ones who wield the economic power. Where the original film had something like 130 speaking parts for women, this movie focuses too heavily on the above four with the only other major (but thankless) role for Eva Mendes as the perfume salesgirl turned homewrecker -- and she is no match for the icy Joan Crawford from the original film. There are brief words of wisdom from Bette Midler and Candice Bergman as the 'older' generation, a neat turn from Cloris Leachman as Ryan's housekeeper, and a brief cameo from Carrie Fisher. The reworking has kept the action too firmly based in the New York City area, whereas the original moved out to Reno, and we soon tire of the needy leads. Even a fashion show, included in the original as indicative of the women's life style, is here turned into a vehicle for Ryan's empowerment. And the bit after the end credits -- if people hang around that long -- is embarrassing as the four leads philosophise on the joys of womanhood.

The film is not without a few pleasures. Messing's birth scene at the movie's end is fairly amusing and the script has a number of very sharp lines, although these are undone by the focus on the preening leads. Unfortunately the original closing bon mot about certain women being best described by a term normally only used in dog kennels is thrown away here in the opening minutes.