Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The Other Nanny Diaries: Emma Review


Marie Dressler is a curiosity in the annals of MGM film stars.  The studio that boasted 'more stars than there are in the heavens' developed stars that were beautiful or handsome; they invested much time, energy, and money in developing them with acting lessons, dancing lessons, singing lessons, and publicity.  They started them out in small parts with established stars to build up a fan base.  They worked hard to get their glamorous leading men and leading ladies out there. 

Given how MGM worked hard to bring about these glamorous figures into our cinemas, the portly Dressler, well into her 50s when she made her first sound film, ending up as one of their biggest stars seems downright bizarre. The public, however, loved Dressler, in part because they so identified with her ordinariness.  The fact that she was a great actress too I figure had something to do with her popularity.  Dressler sadly died in 1934 at age 65, her loss mourned by a public that had embraced her as one of their own. 

Dressler won an Academy Award for Best Actress for Min & Bill, and received a second nomination for Emma.  I find it a pity that both Marie Dressler and Emma are not as well-remembered as they should be, given how moving both were in the film.  Sometimes it stumbles slightly, but I think it's pretty impossible not to react emotionally to its gentle tale of a good woman surrounded with bad people.

Emma Thatcher (Dressler) has been the live-in housekeeper to the Smith family for 32 years.  She's known all the children: Bill, Isabel, and Gypsy, all their lives.  The patriarch, Fredrick (Jean Hersholt) is a bit bumbling but a good man and an inventor.  Sadly, Mrs. Smith dies in childbirth to her fourth child, Ronnie.  This comes just at the moment Fredrick has invented something that will make the family very wealthy.

After 32 years, the children are all grown to be rather spoiled and selfish.  Isabel (Myrna Loy) is the most snobbish of them all, her marriage to a French count enhancing her inflated view of herself.  Bill (George Meeker), a lawyer, is equally superior.  Only the easy-going Ronnie (Richard Cromwell), who loves flying, seems to think well of Emma.  This is reciprocated, for while Emma defends all of them, it's clear Ronnie is her favorite.

However, Emma is going on her first vacation in 32 years to see Niagara Falls for a month.  It's going to be tough for them given how dependent the whole household, children and staff, have grown on Emma.   At the train station, Fredrick realizes that he and Emma are two lonely old souls, and he asks her to marry him.  Emma, who isn't in love with Fredrick, sees however his kindness and sees that it might be good to share what time they have with someone.  "Growing old alone is a very dreary business," he tells her, and at the falls, they marry.

All the Smith children save Ronnie are outraged that their father has married 'the help', even if Emma has been basically the only mother they've known.  Things are made worse when a month into their marriage, Emma is left a widow, Fredrick's loving but weak heart finally giving out despite Emma's best efforts to keep him healthy.  Bill, Isabel, and Gypsy are more outraged when they discover their father gave everything to Emma.  The good-hearted Emma plans to give back the family fortune to the children, believing it their birthright, but as soon as she sees them, the wicked three Smith children begin accusing her of manipulating their father into disinheriting them and threatening lawsuits to show their father was insane.  So vicious is their united assaults on both Emma and Fredrick's memory that she finally loses her temper and furiously orders them at of the house.  Only the loyal Ronnie stands by her side.

The Smith children aren't merely determined to show Emma used their father for her own schemes.  A maid who was with Emma and Fredrick when he died gives a deposition, where facts are twisted to suggest Emma actually murdered Fredrick to get the money.  Emma is more saddened that shocked that the Smiths bring her up on murder charges.  Despite what they say, she still believes them good kids.

Ronnie isn't impressed, but outraged, and races back in the planes he so loves back to Emma despite a major storm.  One can imagine what became of Ronnie. 

At the trial, Emma's outbursts defending the Smith children despite what they've said about her convinces the jury that she is too good a person to have done what she did.  However, right after she is exonerated, she learns of Ronnie's death, devastating her beyond measure.  In the end, she gives up the money to the surviving Smiths, who in turn realize how awful they've been.  They beg her forgiveness and ask her to stay at the house, but she declines, sensing her job is done.  At an employment agency, she learns of a young family with many children, and so life begins for Emma.  She is a miracle worker to her new family, who has a newborn son.  Emma makes but one request of her new family: that they name the newborn Ronnie. 

Emma is an early example of what we now call a 'dramedy', for it has moments that are purely comedic and moments that are as weepy as anything from the "Golden Age" of cinema.  Here we see just how good Dressler was an actress, and why despite her frumpy appearance she was so well-loved by the public.  Early on, Emma is determined to stop Ronnie's passion for flying and goes straight to the airport.  Despite herself, she's talked into getting on a practice plane.  At first, she loves it, but when she's told not to touch a lever, she gets huffy and decides no one tells her what to do.  Doing so, however, causes the practice plane to pretty much spin out of control, making the poor woman take unintended loops.  This whole scene is hilarious (even if we can clearly see the screen behind her in some shots).  It's successful because it comes by naturally: her blunt persona clashing with the insanity of an out-of-control plane.

However, later on there are moments that simply break your heart.  Shortly after their marriage, Fredrick, lying on a couch under many blankets, asks Emma to play the piano and sing to him.  She tries to laugh off the request, but agrees.  As she plays her song, looking occasionally at her husband, he dies, only Emma and the maid don't realize it.  Thinking he's merely fallen asleep, Emma shushes the maid away and continues her song, a gentle look of love in her face, as the screen slowly starts fading to black.

Clarence Brown, the director, has many beautiful moments like this, such as when after the trial, he pulls the camera back when Emma learns of her beloved Ronnie's death.  There's also early in the film, when Mrs. Smith dies in childbirth.  We see the dynamics of the family as Emma essentially orders people around, and when she silently tells Mr. Smith that his wife has died as she cradles the newborn with the other children around.

Brown and Dressler managed to balance the comedy and tragedy in Emma quite well.  Dressler's Emma can both stand up to her brood (telling the snobbish Isabel that she wasn't aware her husband lost sleep over how Emma didn't wear a cap when serving guests) but also make excuses for them, almost blind to how rotten all but Ronnie had grown. 

I'd say the only part that felt forced was another comedy bit, when Fredrick inadvertently opens Emma's luggage, causing things to spill out without realizing it (including her very large corset).

However, Emma's basic goodness always came through, and that's an immense credit to Dressler.  It's also incredible to see Loy, who would become the epitome of the loving mother, play a bitch and play it so well.  It's no surprise given how good Loy was as an actress, but to those who know her best from the Thin Man films or say, The Best Years of Our Lives, to see her as a rotten selfish snob is a bit of a revelation.  Cromwell's easy-going Ronnie (who always called Emma 'beautiful' despite her objections) was a delight, never going overboard with the breezy nature of the character.  He showed his dramatic abilities when he sends a telegram that is sadly received after his death, telling her to keep her chin up and that he's on his way.

We as the audience know that he won't make it, which makes the eventual discovery of this all the more sad.

It is heartbreaking to see her goodness and genuine love for the children so badly rewarded, and even more sad when at Ronnie's wake (a mirror image of his birth with Emma looking down at the sight), they all realize what they've done and beg her forgiveness.  As Emma shuffles off away from the family she's devoted her whole life to, it is hard not to cry.

Emma is a very moving picture, with moments of comedy and tragedy that are balanced quite well.  Marie Dressler's performance is also in equal terms funny and touching, showing her range as an actress.  I hope people do find Emma, for both the film and Dressler simply should not be forgotten.  For those who do see Emma, that is unlikely to happen.  


Monday, November 30, 2015

The Librarians: And the Broken Staff Review


'Staff' has two meanings.  The first is a piece of wood that one uses for walking or as a scepter of sorts.  The second is the group of people working at a particular location.  I think both meanings apply to And the Broken Staff, the second part of the two-part season premiere of the second season of The Librarians. We have the main story involving the first meaning, and then we get how the second meaning applies, but as with all things Librarian-related, the second has a pretty strong and happy ending.

After Prospero (Richard Cox) and his associate Moriarty (David S. Lee) escape, main Librarian Flynn Carsen (Noah Wyle) is none too pleased about the turn of events.  He also isn't particularly thrilled about having to hold a staff meeting with the other Librarians, but under pressure from the Guardian/girlfriend Eve Baird (Rebecca Romijn) does so.  Flynn deduces that Prospero is after his magic staff which will give him great power.  In The Tempest, Prospero breaks his staff as a way to reject his magic, but now he's no longer playing by the book...so to speak.  However, no one knows what happened to the pieces.  They don't seem to be part of the Library's collection, but Annex Librarian Jenkins (John Larroquette) lets it be known that ever since the Library was restored, some of the collection is unaccounted for...and the rooms seem to be in flux.

Well, Eve and Flynn go searching for clues regarding the staff while the other Librarians do their own research.  Only a slight hitch: Prospero and Moriarty have managed to break into the Library itself.  Soon, their nefarious scheme is revealed: Prospero no longer wants his old staff, he wants to make a new one out of the Tree of Knowledge, hidden within the Library's core.  Jenkins isn't about to stop them, what with Prospero freezing him in a case of ice and all.  Librarians Stone (Christian Kane) and Cassandra (Lindy Booth) want to overcome the security Jenkins had triggered, but master thief Jones (John Kim) tells them they simply can't break it.

Eventually they do, but to locate the heart of the Library requires teamwork and triangulation.  Flynn and Jones in the Antiquities Room, Stone and Baird in the Reading Room, and Jenkins and Cassandra in the Annex itself.  Prospero has a few tricks up his sleeve though: he leaves The Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland to fight Stone and Baird, and in the Antiquities Room, Flynn and Jones face off against Frankenstein's monster.  They are able to defeat them and the race is on to stop Prospero and Moriarty from finding the Tree of Knowledge. 

Prospero is tricked about the destruction of the Tree of Knowledge and Flynn leaves to find more missing artifacts on his own, while the other Librarians begin to plan their next steps.

And the Broken Staff has some of the patented Librarians wit.  Eve at one point complains about the apparently inept security at the Library.  "This is the third time this place has been broken into since I started here," she hollers.  When Jones tries to fight Frankenstein's monster with a lighter, he is astonished that the creature does not flee in terror, but stands there with almost disdain.  "Frankenstein's monster is afraid of fire," Jones says.  "In the movie," Flynn corrects him, "not the book".  Jones looks back in surprise.  "You mean there's a difference?!"

I like how some parts were extremely clever.  Flynn reveals he tricked a Fictional with fiction by having him destroy a tree that was not the Tree of Knowledge.  The Tree of Knowledge, Flynn reveals, is not old, but a mere sapling, as Knowledge is young, always growing.  We also see that there is a curious homage to the Holmesian Canon. 

Eve threatens to throw Prospero's fob watch which holds Ariel over a cliff, reminding Moriarty that falling off cliffs wasn't exactly his strong suit.  Moriarty reminds her that Holmes was never the same after the events of The Final Problem, so much so that some scholars suggest it wasn't Holmes who returned from the Reichenbach Falls, but Moriarty claiming to be Holmes.  I confess to never having encountered this theory, but it is a nice touch and fascinating bit of speculative fiction.

What I found perhaps slightly disappointing was that Vanessa Vander Pluym's Queen of Hearts proved a bit of an anticlimactic villainess, really doing nothing but shouting "Off with their heads!".  It wasn't a complete waste given that it gave Romijn and Kane a chance for action/comedy, but I think she could have been written better. 

I also thought the giving up of the fob watch was a bit too easy.  Rather than have a real battle (or battle of wits), Moriarty just basically says 'let me have the watch or Prospero will do something terrible to me' and she agrees.  Still, the fact that Lee is proving to be such a charming antagonist (both cultured and dangerous) makes his Moriarty a delight (and I might add, a damn sight better than Andrew Scott's hysterical and camp take on Moriarty on Sherlock, whose popularity thoroughly escapes me).

There is an awful lot of comedy here, which is a real treat.  Seeing Kane, Booth, and Kim all working together so well when they rush off to an actual public library to retrieve the one book all libraries have (The Complete Works of William Shakespeare) shows they've got their individual characters down pat.  Seeing them have to pay to get the only copy of the book the library has from a little girl was a highlight of the episode (as was when Frankenstein's monster finds he can find love online). 
"This is how Librarians solve problems: with our minds and our hearts," Flynn tells Jones and Frankenstein's monster as he hugs it out with the big beast.  And the Broken Staff continues The Librarians mix of wit and whimsy, unapologetically family-friendly entertainment that is fun and clever.  All the actors (regular cast and guest stars) know to take this seriously but are also aware this isn't suppose to be serious.  The Librarians is a fantasy show, and by embracing its premise, it ends up being a fantastic show.


Next Episode: And What Lies Beneath the Stones

Saturday, November 28, 2015

I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang: A Review


We don't have chain gangs anymore, and I'll leave it up to you whether that's a good thing or a bad thing.  I think on how Cool Hand Luke was also about a chain gang, but not as dour or brutal as I Am A Fugitive from a Chain Gang.  The title might sound sensationalistic, but the film is not.  An intense story of a victim of circumstance, I Am A Fugitive from a Chain Gang is one of the best examples of how to make a 'message' picture without being preachy, a picture of dignity, a true canvas of the suffering of humanity...with a little sex in it.

James Allen (Paul Muni) comes home from the war dreaming of being an engineer.  Instead, he finds his hero's welcome consists of going back to the routine of a desk job that he doesn't like.  Despite the misgivings of his mother (Louise Carter) and preacher brother (Hale Hamilton), James strikes out on his own.  However, workers are cheap and work hard to come by, even one for someone as enthusiastic as James.  He falls on hard times and turns into a hobo.

One night, he meets up with a fellow tramp who offers to buy him a hamburger.  To James' shock, the other man holds up the joint, forcing James to be his accomplice at gunpoint. Unfortunately, the police wander into the hamburger joint right at that time, killing the other bum and catching James when he tried to flee.  James was sentenced to a certain number of years in this Southern chain gang (the film never specifies which state he was in).

This place is a living hell, where men are whipped for minor infractions, the days begin at 4:20 a.m., the prisoners demeaned, degraded, and humiliated.  The food is barely fit for human consumption, and the only way to leave is either work out or die out.  James eventually hatches an escape plan, and manages to pull it off in dramatic form. 

However, he can't stay on the lam forever, and he goes to an old ex-inmate friend for help.  James eventually goes to Chicago, where with a new name, Allen James, he rises in construction from a mere laborer at $4/day (or what I make at my job...just a joke) to an Assistant Supervisor at $14/day.  He finds not just respectability, but a purpose, and begins a relationship with his landlady, Marie (Glenda Farrell).  Marie has found out about his past and threatens to expose him unless he marries her, so he reluctantly goes along with it.

His job is his only happiness, until he meets Helen (Helen Vinson), a girl who claims "I'm free, white, and 21".  They fall in love, and while Helen knows he's married, she doesn't know about his chain gang work.  James begs Marie for a divorce, but she won't hear of it, seeing him as her meal ticket.  He won't stand for it and tries to call her bluff, but she wasn't bluffing: she called the police on him. 

The case becomes a public scandal, with Illinois refusing to turn James Allen over to the Southern authorities (despite being in jail).  James has contributed to the betterment of Chicago, engineering some great bridge projects, and they see him as a productive member of society.  The Southern officials tell them that if he volunteers to return and serve a token 90-day sentence, on the chain gang (a clerk position they say), the governor will grant a full pardon.  James wants to clear the whole business and start a life with Helen, so he agrees.

At the end of the 90 days, he is denied parole or a pardon, told it would be for a year.  When the year's up, he's told his parole/pardon request have been suspended...indefinitely.  It looks like the state is determined that he serve out his full ten year sentence as punishment for speaking out publicly against their chain gang system.  Enraged at this betrayal, he makes another daring escape and eludes authorities again.

One night, about a year after his second great escape, Helen is shocked to find him there.  "It was all going to be so different," she cries.  "It IS different.  They MADE it different," he replies in anger. As he is forced to return to the darkness, Helen asks if he'll write or if he needs any money.  "But you must need money.  How do you live?" she cries out in agony.

"I STEAL!" he responds in the darkness, and then hurried footsteps are heard.

I Am A Fugitive from a Chain Gang is a devastating picture, and I think it is one of the best examples of using sound in early talking pictures (in 1932, sound was a mere five years old).  Director Mervin Le Roy for example, has absolute silence when James is underneath water in a swamp, breathing through a reed, then jumps to sound when we see above water, the hounds and guards searching him out there.

Le Roy also created great visuals to go along with sound, such as when we see the sledgehammers being used to hammer away the months on a calendar while their banging continues. 

That gripping final scene is one of the great endings in film: James, now totally ruined and turned into the criminal he became rather than the honorable man that he'd been due to the pettiness of other men, slipping into physical and metaphorical darkness.  His chilling final line, "I STEAL!" says it all.  He now has been reduced to a criminal, forced into it by the same system that was built allegedly to rehabilitate the criminal (only of course he was never a criminal to begin with, just someone at the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong person).

What is fascinating about I Am A Fugitive from a Chain Gang now is how daring it was, and not just with regards to its portrayal of the chain gang system and advocacy against it.  In those aspects, we don't get gruesome imageries, but just enough to repel us (such as the whipping James gets when he says an off comment about how the guards are treating someone else getting whipped). 

What I am talking about is in regards to sex.  Again, nothing is overt, but how the film dealt with sex shows how filmmakers of the 'Golden Age' were able to squeak things past censors while trusting the audience to figure things out for ourselves.  When we get to the hideout, we meet Linda (Noel Francis), James' ex-inmate pal's moll.  She offers James a drink, which he declines.  However, he can't help looking at her in her slinky outfit, and she coolly comes over and sits next to him, telling him that he knows what he's thinking, and that it's OK.  He's among friends...before we fade to black.

We think they had sex, but whether the censors realized the suggestion was strongly implied I cannot say.  Same goes for Marie, for we figure with her brazenly flirtatious nature she was passing him a bit of nookie with the monthly rent.

I think in terms of performances, Paul Muni did some of his best work here.  It's curious (and I think, slightly sad) that his Tony from the original Scarface isn't as well-remembered by the younger set as is Al Pacino's version.  In Scarface, Muni was an unapologetic criminal.  Here, he was a good man who had some bad turns, and while we cheer for his escape and enjoy his evolution to a productive member of society, we also see how eventually James was worn down by forces outside his control. 

There is an evolution from war hero to hardened criminal, and a dangerous one at that (what is to prevent him from killing), and Muni was powerful and heartbreaking and intense.  Muni did an extraordinary job as James Allen, even putting in a bit of humor to things. 

While on the lam, he gets a shave.  To his surprise, a policeman comes in but fails to recognize him.  "How was it?  Close enough?" the barber asks.  Muni, trying to avoid tell-tale signs to be seen by the cop, answers, "Plenty", the double meaning of 'a close shave' obvious.

Vinson as Helen is also well-acted, if brief.  I would say that at times Farrell as Marie was a bit wild and overdoing things, but given the character's nature, it is something one can accept as realistic (at least when it comes to her).

I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang is a brilliant film, well-directed and acted , moving briskly while keeping the energy going.   Good thing we don't have chain gangs, and I think it was due in no small part for this expose of the brutality of the system.  It's a message picture perhaps, but the message is so well-delivered we can see the film as either a straight narrative or an advocacy picture.  Modern filmmakers take note: THIS is how a message gets delivered.   


Friday, November 27, 2015

The Crowd: A Review


The Crowd was considered too downbeat for MGM, which is why the studio did not push for it to win the Academy Award for "Unique and Artistic Production", a now-defunct category that could be said was an artsier version of Best Picture (Sunrise having won, rightly so I think).  MGM wanted lighter fare, things that cheered people up, and in a sense, the studio was right: The Crowd failed at the box office. Despite this, The Crowd now rightly has been placed among the pantheon of great American films, certainly great silent films.

John Sims seems destined for extraordinary things, straight from his birth on July 4, 1900.  His father instills in him a sense of destiny, but Mr. Sims dies when John is 12.  At 21, John (James Murray) sets out for New York City, determined to accomplish great things.  He starts working at an office, one of many (his number is 137), and one night, rather than go to study as he planned, he's talked into going on a double-date with his coworker Bert (Bert Roach).  John's date is Mary (Eleanor Boardman), and he is instantly smitten.  So smitten is he that he proposes marriage on their first date, and Eleanor agrees.  After the wedding, Bert gives them two years, tops.

When they've returned from their honeymoon in Niagara Falls, John continues to dream big, but Mary's mother and two brothers don't think much of him or his lofty goals.  John can be arrogant and thoughtless, but also loving and kind, especially when Mary gives birth to two children: a boy and a girl.  John continues to search out for his ship to finally come in, and while Mary loves him, she at times grows agitated that he dreams while she sees Bert actually moving up in the insurance company.  However, things do turn for the Sims' when John wins a tagline contest: $500.  He buys gifts for everyone and calls for the kids to come back home.  However, his daughter is hit by a truck driver when she rushes off, and she dies.

So devastated is John that he can no longer concentrate, and he quits his job the day before the company picnic, not telling Mary until they are on the company ferry.  She stands by him as he goes from job to job, but finds things harder to bear.  Eventually, she has had enough of his dreaming and in frustration slaps him.  John goes walking with Junior, and comes close to committing suicide, but can't go through with it.  Junior comes up to him and tells him he wants to be just like him.  This unquestioning love from his son pulls John together enough for him to take any job he can get, going so far as to get a job as a juggling clown to attract attention for a company.

John goes home with Junior, thrilled by this bit of good news, when he comes across Mary and her brothers.  She tells him she's leaving him, and while he understands, he asks if he can take Junior to a show that he'd bought tickets for: three tickets in fact.  Mary cannot leave the man she loves, and The Crowd ends with the three of them, enjoying the show, a tiny group among a mass.

When I finished The Crowd, I did not get the sense that there was any 'downbeat' ending.  Yes, there were extremely downbeat moments (the death of the little girl, John's near-suicide), but I thought the film ended if not on an upbeat note (an alternate ending where the Sims had suddenly won the lottery was laughed off the screen by preview audiences), at least a hopeful one.  In this complex final scene, John, Mary, and Junior are enjoying the show when Mary gets sight of the playbill.  In its pages is "Slight of Hand: The Magic Cleaner", the tagline John had created and won $500 for.  She points this out to him, and he in turn points it out to the man next to him, who is also enjoying the show.  As the camera pulls away, we see that they are laughing with everyone else, finding some joy within the despair they live in.

For me, this doesn't indicate a somber, sad ending.  On the contrary: it says to me that there is still hope for the Sims, for them to rally back, for them to eventually find joy in their lives, even if John and Mary will never end up as President and First Lady.  If anything, I finished The Crowd not with a sense of despair, but with a sense of hope.

King Vidor, the legendary director, showed why he is a legendary director with this film.  In terms of technique, The Crowd is an extraordinary achievement.  There's the extraordinary sequence where we go from the massive New York City streets (The Crowd was shot primarily on location) to a particular building, then panning up to a particular window, then to go into a mass set filled with hundreds of men at desks, moving until we get to Number 137.  Even now, such a shot would be remarkable, but given that this was all done either in-camera or with models, the transitions are beyond extraordinary. 

Vidor uses symbolism to great effect, particularly whenever he draws emphasis on how John is really one of "the crowd", a single figure lost among thousands, no greater than anyone else.  The special effects of when John and Mary's daughter is run down may be weak by today's standards, but we can see how Vidor was working hard to create real innovation.

We also see how powerful he was when it came to getting performances out of his actors (especially his then-wife Boardman).  She was sympathetic as the loyal wife who loves the man even when he drives her to despair.   It's a very gentle and tender performance, and a real one too when she finds a beach picnic brings out her frustrations at raising three kids (her son, her daughter, and her husband, who is happily playing his ukulele while she struggles to keep the food warm).

James Murray, an unknown when cast, makes John a curious mix of dreamer and fool, someone who is at times likable but arrogant, thoughtless but loving, despondent but hopeful.  It is a well-rounded and powerful performance, and I think one of the best of the silent era (even if at the scene when his daughter dies, it does become a bit theatrical in the silent film clich├ęd version).  However, when he is weakly asking firefighters rushing to a fire to keep quiet for his little girl, or when he sees his son still looks up to him, Murray breaks your heart.

Tragically, James Murray in real life became John Sims, only without the hopeful ending.  The Crowd was his only major role (though he did get some work in other films), and a few years after his triumph he became an alcoholic, eventually turning to panhandling on the very streets where he had filmed his great triumph.  In 1936, at age 35, he was found floating in the Hudson River, and no one knows whether it was accidental or suicide.  It is a tragic end to someone with great potential, and serves to underscore the reality of The Crowd's theme of the ordinary man being brought low due to his inability to fulfill his own lofty dreams.  The fact that James Murray too thought he was destined for great things and that he was only a year younger than his character who faced a similar fate makes all this all the more tragic.

I would say about the only real flaw I found in The Crowd was when we had a long scene on the train on their wedding night, which I though was a bit too long and comical and taking up too much time.  However, that is really a minor point that doesn't take away the brilliance of the film. 

The Crowd, I think doesn't make the case that the ordinary man is a failure if he remains ordinary.  I think it says that sometimes one isn't destined for 'greatness' as the world sees it.  There is greatness in humility, in being a caring husband and father, in being a good friend, in being yourself.  It is good to have ambition, but it is better to have a good life. 


Thursday, November 26, 2015

I Wouldn't Cut A Frame From It: Greed Review


In a certain manner, Greed was bound to fail.  The idea that anyone would sit through an eight or nine-hour film, even one as astonishingly brilliant as Greed, is insane.  It's a pity that director Erich von Stroheim isn't around today, for I think he would have found the limited series concept of television to have been more up his street: allowing him to tell his epic story in pieces where at the end it could be put together today.  Greed a lost film in that the original-length cut of it is lost, probably forever.  There was a four-hour reconstruction with stills, but at the moment we have a three-hour version that is probably as close as we will get to seeing what von Stroheim wanted.

Even in this 'short' version, Greed remains of the greatest silent films and among the Great Films in All Cinema, its visual impact and story of the corrupted nature of man still powerful and relevant today. 

Based on the novel McTeague (which I suspect is pretty much forgotten save for Greed), the film is about John McTeague (Gibson Gowland), a gentle man with a violent nature when aroused to anger.  He begins as a miner, but after seeing how successful and respected a visiting dentist is, Mother McTeague (Tempe Pigott) persuades her son and the dentist to take him on as an apprentice.  While Doctor "Painless" Potter is a quack, he is successful enough to get McTeague set up as a successful dentist in his own right.

Enters Trina Semple (Zasu Pitts), the beautiful girlfriend of his best friend Marcus (Jean Hersholt).  For the first time in his life McTeague is aroused by a woman, but he is also conflicted by the fact that she's with his bestie.  Marcus graciously steps aside for McTeague, and Trina finds herself courted by the dentist.  Eventually, they marry, and it is on their way to a celebratory dinner after the wedding that Trina and McTeague get a shock.  Trina had bought a lottery ticket when she first went to the dentist's office, and now they are astonished to discover she has won $5,000!

This sudden fortune is a true misfortune for the McTeagues.  Marcus becomes bitter and angry at the thought that if he had stuck with Trina, he would have had that $5,000 he believes are rightly his.  Trina becomes obsessed with saving every penny to where she will not spend one cent of that $5,000 (and apparently won't put in the back).  She polishes all the gold coins lovingly, treasures them, nurses them like a mother.  McTeague at first isn't interested in all that: he's just generally happy to have Trina with him and a flourishing practice at something he loves. 

However, before Marcus leaves to strike out on his own in the desert, he informs the state dental board that McTeague is not registered or licensed.  They promptly send a 'cease-and-desist' letter, devastating him and enraging Trina.  At this point, maybe breaking out that $5,000 might be a good idea, but Trina won't part with one bit of it.  They are reduced to poverty, McTeague finding work hard to come by, and Trina becoming a toy whittler and even scrubwoman rather than use a single bit of her $5,000.  Soon, she pushed McTeague past his breaking point when she refuses his request for a nickel to use public transportation despite his protests that he might get caught in the rain.  Insisting a good walk will do him good and that it won't rain, she sends him immediately to look for more work less than an hour after coming home when he got fired.

It does happen that it does rain, and from there things go downhill fast.  He leaves her and she goes to being the scrubwoman, but on Christmas he finds her at the school.  He demands she give him her $5,000, but she in a mix of terror and defiance will not.  In his rage he murders her and takes the money, fleeing to Death Valley.  Marcus, out in the desert, learns of Trina's murder and McTeague's flight, and he goes after him, convinced he has that $5,000 he wants.  In his mad search for McTeague, his horse dies and he runs out of water.  However, he does catch up with McTeague, but by now both of them are at least 100 miles from the nearest water source, and while McTeague manages to kill Marcus, in the fight between them Marcus had handcuffed McTeague.  With the gold intact but with no water, food, shelter, and condemned to die, McTeague sets his pet bird free, perhaps with the hope that it will find happiness...

The power of Greed, even in its 'disheveled' form, is still there, and for those watching it for the first time, we can marvel at the strengths of von Stroheim as a director.  He is a brilliant director in terms of drawing astonishing performances out of his cast.  I am particularly struck by Zasu Pitts, who is best remembered now as a comedienne.  Her performance shows that she should rank with other great silent film actresses like Mary Pickford and Lilian Gish, or at least perhaps would be if she had done more dramas.  Pitts goes from this sweet, innocent woman (so innocent that she becomes terrified by the wedding night) into this cold, hard, greedy woman consumed with passion for her gold and ends as this tragic victim of her own mania.  It is such a totally immersed performance that one marvels how and why she wasn't given more dramas, even when she managed to transition to sound well.

In a small gesture, in an angry glance, in a terror-filled face, Pitts goes through all the emotions and has us feeling them to, from warmth to near-hatred for what Trina has become and turned McTeague to. 

Gowland's McTeague is not as strong as Pitts, but he still manages to convey the duality of McTeague: at times gentle and innocent, at times fury-fueled and murderous.  We see that early in the film, when he gently takes a bird with a broken wing from the ground and begins to tend to it.  When another miner brusquely knocks the bird out of McTeague's hands, McTeague responds by lifting that miner and tossing him down into the river.  Again and again Gowland is asked to make us sympathize and be repelled by McTeague, and he does it so well that it ends up being a strong performance.

I think Hersholt, with a certain validity, can be accused of giving a performance that can be considered stereotypical for silent films (broad and over-acted).  However, in some of his better moments, the happy-go-lucky nature of Marcus makes that slow shift to a man consumed by his own greed all the more effective.

Von Stroheim was also a great director visually.  He tells us so much with his visual style instead of spelling it out for us, trusting the audience to figure things out.  Von Stroheim uses all sorts of symbolism that highlights the story.  There is now Marcus shifts visually into a cat who looks with hunger at the two golden canaries, obviously symbols of Trina and John.  The cat is there, waiting to pounce on them. 

As a side note, the canaries, along with certain other symbols (the dentist's tooth symbol, the wedding ring, and the coins) are all color-tinted in the black-and-white film, pointing out the promise and peril of the gold in the characters' lives.

One of the best and most brilliant shots is at the wedding, where von Stroheim manages to show the wedding ceremony in the foreground while in the background passes a funeral procession.  The score also intercuts brilliantly between Felix Mendelsohn's Wedding March and Fredric Chopin's Funeral March, underscoring the fact that this wedding will lead to several funerals.  The final moments in Death Valley, with blood splattered on the golden coins that have led to the ruin of three lives, also serves as symbolism to the tragedy we have seen.

We also see how brilliantly von Stroheim uses symbolism with the wedding photograph of John and Trina.  We see it shift from beautifully framed above their beds, to eventually discarded, torn in half (symbolically separating McTeague and Trina) and unframed (like an old poster), to tossed in the trash, to serving as part of McTeague's wanted poster.  Here, we see through the wedding picture how the McTeagues have come undone.

Von Stroheim's use of focus, of symbolism, of location shooting, and intercutting between real and symbols (such as when Marcus sees an ocean taking the place of people at the pier, symbolizing his overwhelmed emotions of losing either his girl or his friend) are as revolutionary as something from The Birth of a Nation, Battleship Potemkin, or Citizen Kane (even if Greed preceded the last two). 

Any virtue taken to extremes can become a sin.  Trina's virtue of saving was taken to an extreme, and it became the sin of greed.  Marcus' virtue of giving something up for a greater good was taken to an extreme, and it became the sin of jealousy.  McTeague's virtue of kindness was taken to an extreme, and it became the sin of wrath.  Erich von Stroheim's virtue of creating a thoroughly faithful adaptation and of something brilliant was taken to an extreme, and it became the sin of arrogance, creating a feature-length film of unmanageable length.  The studio's virtue of wanting a commercial film was taken to an extreme, and it became the sin of ignorance, tearing apart a brilliant piece of art.

Despite all that, what we do have, this version of Greed, still astounds one with its brilliance, with its insight into the darkness of man, and should rightly rank among the greatest films ever made, up there with Citizen Kane, with Vertigo, with Metropolis, with Sunrise, and with Seven Samurai.  Whether the complete, massive eight-hour cut of Greed will ever be found is unknown (I think the answer is no).   Mercifully, title cards help pull a silent film together and can cover things lost now, and more merciful, this version of Greed, the one we have now, is enough. 

No need to be greedy.


Tuesday, November 24, 2015

War Room: A Review


Despite my growing albeit flawed Christianity, I am an 'art before theology' film critic.  I look at a film first, not the message behind it (even if I agree with it).  I have been pretty critical of the Kendrick Brothers, Alex and Stephen, in their ouvre of faith-centered cinema.  I have found at least two of the five films they have made to be pretty bad in terms of cinema (Courageous and Facing the Giants). I have not having seen Flywheel and I thought Fireproof was 'competent' (though I should see it again just to be sure).  Alex Kendrick's two other features where his work was just in front of the camera (The Lost Medallion and Mom's Night Out) at least weren't ruined by his amateurish acting.  Maybe ruined by other things, but not at least by him. 

We now come to the Kendrick Brothers' fifth film, War Room.  This is the Kendrick Brothers' most polished, most accomplished, most competent film, a massive leap in terms of both their own work and Christian independent filmmaking.  It's by no means perfect.  However, it's a testament to what can happen when writers/director get out of their own way, not make themselves the center of attention, move minorities up-front and center, and acknowledge(albeit in a small way) that there is such a thing as sin.  That may be the biggest miracle in War Room.

Elizabeth Jordan (Priscilla C. Shirer), a successful real estate dealer, has a beautiful daughter, Danielle (Alena Pitts), but her marriage is not.  Her husband, pharmaceutical representative Tony (T.C. Stallings) is a man of the world: one for wealth, status, being Number One, and not ashamed to flirt madly with Veronica Drake (Tenae Downing), a woman he just met while making his latest sale.  In fact, the fact that Tony is married comes as a bit of a twist in the story.

Elizabeth finds she is growing resentful and angry at her husband, and Danielle is the one made to suffer, for her parents give her things but know nothing about her life.  Into her life comes Miss Clara Williams (Karen Abercrombie), a widow who is in need of selling her large home.  Elizabeth's problems are clearly visible, and Miss Clara asks the younger woman to come over to not just discuss business but also her problems.  These problems can be solved through prayer, particularly through a 'war room', a quiet area where Miss Clara can pray and seek wisdom from God.

Elizabeth tries her hand at a 'war room', at first with very limited results.  As she grows closer to Miss Clara and grows in her relationship with Christ, things do start turning around for her.  Not so much with Tony, who still is the cock-of-the-walk until his inflated numbers are discovered and he is fired.  With his world crashing, he sees that Elizabeth is not bitter or angry, and Danielle seems to be happier.  At last Tony has his own 'come-to-Jesus' moment, and he too becomes a Christian.

Being a Christian doesn't resolve your problems.  Sometimes it compounds them (don't I know it).  Tony has been secretly keeping extra samples as an informal cushion in case of financial calamity, and now he has a terrible choice to make: live by his principles and return them (even if it means potential prison time) or keep quiet and if not sell them, at least not disclose their existence.  In the end, his newly-found faith convinces him he has to return them, which shocks Coleman Young (writer/director Alex Kendrick), the company head.  The Jordans pray hard about what will happen and are at peace with whatever fate they are handed.  Coleman comes and tells them that he sees the sincerity in Tony and agrees not to press charges. 

Things end pretty well for the Jordan family.  Tony, Elizabeth, and Danielle grow closer, and Tony manages to bounce back on his feet with a job at the community center which, together with Elizabeth's income, will keep them from having to shift wildly in their lifestyles.  Speaking of feet, the running gag about how Elizabeth's feet make others gag gets a humorous resolution, and Miss Clara sells her house and moves in with her son, who happens to be the City Manager.  Together, the Jordans in their war room now have a battle plan, and Miss Clara prays for a new woman to come to serve as mentor.

For me, someone who has been highly critical of the Kendrick Brothers collected work, War Room is shocking for many reasons.  Chief among them is that War Room is actually good.  I didn't sense that they were attempting to give us a sermon or treat the fact that there is such a thing as sin as something unnatural or even relevant to a Christian's life.  The curious thing about the Kendrick Brothers is that while they are making Christian-themed/centered films, they stubbornly refuse to acknowledge the existence of sin in their films, let alone entertain the idea that Christians themselves commit sin or are even aware of it.  The Kendricks always go out of their way to imagine a world that exists in a parallel universe, where only unsaved people fell from grace.  Their Christians do not swear, do not have premarital/extramarital sex, drink, use drugs, or if their films are to be believed, even realize such things exist.

That is a far cry from the Christians I know, who not only do that but sometimes even divorce.  In short, the Christians I know struggle between their flesh and their spirit.  The Kendricks version of a Christian has little struggle, let alone such errors of judgment as getting divorced while still going to church, or having a beer, or having real flaws that make them similar, but not exactly like, their unsaved friends and family. 

I think their thoroughly unrealistic worldview, one that has the real fallen nature of man as being something 'out there' and removed from their characters, is what always made me wary of looking at their films as good.  War Room changes that because for the first time that I can remember, a married man is sexually tempted and comes close to committing adultery (something that would NEVER happen if Alex Kendrick were the lead...and allow me to be a little mean in saying that the LAST thing we need to see is Alex Kendrick in a love scene with anyone.  Yes, I'm a Christian, but I can be sarcastic and cynical too...in short, a sinner saved by grace and not by my own works).  Tony's lecherous nature and his willingness to sleep with Veronica are handled realistically, which shows to me that the Kendrick Brothers are finally growing up. 

Even the resolution that keeps Tony from schtupping Veronica is handled well (Elizabeth prayed for him--the Christian response, and Tony got food poisoning that killed the romantic mood--the 'rational' response).  The fact that they were willing to treat sin as something real that affects people is a step in the right direction (and it might even lead one to wonder if they would be willing to let a Christian character stumble).

Another major aspect of War Room that makes this the best Kendrick Brothers film is that they finally acknowledged the existence of African-Americans as people, not supporting players who might need rescuing from the good white people.  I still remember cringing at Facing the Giants, which had only one black character who was this short of calling Alex Kendrick's character 'Massa'.  In all their other films, African-Americans were either supporting players or virtually non-existent, keeping with their rather curious worldview of a predominantly white world (I still also fume whenever I consider how the Hispanic character in Courageous was asked by Kendrick's character if he 'had permission' to work, something I'm sure he wouldn't have contemplated, let alone dared ask a black or white character).  The Kendricks have been tone-deaf at the very least to how they see minorities.  With War Room, we see something sorely lacking in films/television in general: a successful black family who are also relatable to non-African-Americans.  It's as if the Kendrick Brothers finally entered Obama's America. 

I find it a wonderful turn that Alex and Stephen decided to switch from their original plans to have a white family at the center and create a world where African-Americans are equal, where they have homes, businesses, make mistakes, and find redemption. 

I think that in short, they finally recognize that the world is more complex and diverse than their usual cinematic universe of upper-class Anglos who have a token 'black' friend and who carry that burden of being wise and empowering to all poor minorities that cross their paths.  In their recognition of sin, of human frailties, and of racial diversity, War Room is a landmark in the Kendrick Brothers film work.

And for the record, Danielle does have a token white friend, so in that sense that too is an improvement.

There are a few things still a bit off.  An unnecessary hold-up is made more bizarre by Miss Clara's declarations to the would-be robber that she overpowers him in Jesus' name.  I still don't know whether the robber left them unharmed because Miss Clara had genuine faith or because he thought she was a nutter.  The screenplay also doesn't make clear if Veronica was aware that Tony was married or not.   In terms of actual acting, I don't think Shirer or Stallings will be submitting their names For Your Consideration (though as a side note, the scene between Shirer and Pitts where Danielle asks her mother if she knows anything about her life now was moving), and Abercrombie was veering close to comical at times, though given she was playing much older than she actually is, I should commend her performance on the whole. 

While Miss Clara I figure is somewhere in her 70s, Miss Abercrombie is probably somewhere in her 40s, maybe 50s, as even IMDB doesn't have her age listed.

As a director, Alex Kendrick still has some difficultly drawing full emotions from his cast and making them be completely real people instead of 'actors playing roles'.  However, he was wise in giving himself a very small part rather than being the focus.  Maybe he finally realized that he either just can't act or doesn't have the training to be the lead (his gray hair and balding head are also tacit acknowledgements that Kendrick is getting older, and perhaps better as a filmmaker).  Paul Mills' score was appropriate when it needed to be (swelling when Elizabeth commits to Christ, light when there was need for humor).

As a side note, one of the actors who played a cop in Courageous, Ben Davies, plays a cop in War Room.   It would have been a clever in-joke if he were playing the same character, tying the Kendrick Cinematic Universe together.  Alas, it might be too much to hope for, but one can hope.  Still, I digress.

War Room has many positives that outweigh its negatives.  It is diverse, it has an interesting story with believable characters, it has logic mixed with faith, and it looks and feels like a genuine movie instead of the filmed sermons I'm used to from the Kendricks (in Courageous, the film ended with a sermon...still shake my head at that).  I was thoroughly impressed with War Room, and hope that the lessons in filmmaking that Alex and Stephen Kendrick learned from it are good ones.

Chief among them: this is how you make not just a Christian film, but a good film.        


Monday, November 23, 2015

Pan (2015): A Review


You can't force whimsy. 

You just can't force people to find things magical no matter how much money or effects you throw at them.  You can't force whimsy, but Pan did its absolute best to try and convince everyone how wonderful, how magical, how fantastical it all is.  Billed as a family film about the origins of The Boy Who Never Grew Up, Pan ends up being almost a horror film about the shameless overproduction of visuals at the expense of just about everything and a cautionary tale of what happens when you craft a film to try and force-feed audiences instead of giving them something worth their time.

London: The Blitz.  12-year-old orphan Peter (Levi Miller) is in a place that makes the orphanage from Oliver! look like Willy Wonka's factory.  The nuns are cruel beyond measure, down to hoarding food for themselves.  Peter is also troubled by the disappearances of other orphans, but he can't make sense out of it.  That is, until we learn that the nuns are in cahoots with pirates with flying ships that kidnap the children.  In their latest raid, among those taken is Peter.

Once in Neverland (where for reasons the script never makes clear, the ship and new arrivals are greeted to Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit), they find that they are all at the mercy of Captain Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman).  He uses the children as miners to locate pixium, the rare material that usually comes from pixies but which Blackbeard hunted to near or total extinction.  Pixium keeps him looking young, so obviously the idea of an old Wolverine is unspeakable.

One day on the job and Peter manages to find some...and promptly accused of trying to steal it.  Blackbeard has only one punishment for this: he has to walk the plank and fall to his death to The Ramone's Blitzkrieg Bop (again, for reasons no one knows).  Surprising all, Peter manages to fly!  This alarms Blackbeard, as he knows of a prophesy involving a flying boy. 

At this point, it's a bit muddled exactly what the prophesy says, since I understood to mean that the flying boy was the product of a fairy prince and a mortal woman, but for most of Pan his mother is a fairy and his father I think was also fairy...I think.

Well, Peter makes his escape, with a little help from another miner, an adventurous fellow named James Hook (Garrett Hedlund).  They make their daring escape and as much as Hook wants out of all this, Peter is adamant about finding the truth of his mother.  This means searching for the Fairy Kingdom, which I think is protected by the Indians, among them the Princess Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara, about as Native American as Elizabeth Warren, but that's neither here nor there).  Blackbeard goes after them because he wants to kill the boy who is prophesied to kill him, and it helps that Blackbeard already killed Pan's mother. 

They do find the Fairy Kingdom, James Hook and Tiger Lily join Peter in doing battle with Blackbeard, and Peter at last has full confidence in his ability to fly by leading the fairies to do battle.  We end with now-Captain Hook going back to get the other orphans to join Peter as the Lost Boys.

Pan just is a disaster, though through no fault of its lead.  Levi Miller, who is making his film debut with this production, and it is such a shame that he landed in this turkey.  He does a remarkable job as the wide-eyed Peter who rises to become the hero he is 'destined' to be.  He has the hallmarks of a good young actor, conveying rage, hurt, sadness, fear, and wonder with total conviction.

Everyone else though is off on another world, with each other lead apparently in another movie of their own imagination.  Hedlund, I figure, might be having fun with Pan serving as a nearly two-hour audition tape for the Han Solo prequel.   He was off doing a Harrison Ford impersonation, switching from Han Solo to Indiana Jones and either wildly overacting or deciding it wasn't worth the time even trying to make anything regarding Pan rational. 

The fact that we got 'children forced to work in mines' and a ship's captain who comes in to help the hero at the last moment as parts of Jason Fuch's jumbled and chaotic script does not help in the Indiana Jones/Han Solo comparisons.               

Nothing, however, can prepare you for the clearly insane...thing that Jackman was doing.  Was it some avant-garde theatrical style?  Was it him thinking, "oh, it's for children, so I can go so over-the-top they can see my performance all the way to the second star on the right"?  Was it a cash-grab?

If HE or ANYONE can explain why Smells Like Teen Spirit or Blitzkrieg Bop had to be sung in Neverland (or how they came to be known at least thirty years before they debuted) or why Blackbeard was even here to provide a rather dull antagonist, please feel free to drop a note.

Mara was, well, I'm not sure what she was...apart from not being Native American.

There were more problems than just the performances save Miller (and that's saying an awful lot).  As I stated, there was no story, origin or otherwise.  Sometimes, at least at the parts I was conscious in (since I did nod off...it's almost impossible not to at Pan), one wasn't sure what was not so much going on but why anyone would care.  So, Blackbeard killed Peter's mother, so he knew who Peter was...yet he didn't bother to, like, kill him when he arrived (too busy doing a drag queen impersonation and singing along to Nirvana I guess). 

Everything was so frenetic, so rushed, so convoluted, so chaotic, so tossed wither-and-yon that it soon overwhelms you in a bad way.  You don't care what is going on because you don't care what happens to those people, that is, if you can actually follow what is going on if you're still awake.  Pan drowns in its visuals, which sometimes are pretty (the Mermaid Lagoon sequence being nice), but when it actually has nods to the future (Hook quickly pulls his hands out of the water when told they are infected with alligators), it won't take advantage of what could be a good set-up.

Would it have killed Pan to come up with the story of how Hook got his hook? 

Pan could have been something good.  Pan, with a little more thought and a lot less special effects (and another director, for Joe Wright's forte seems to be more elegant, Merchant Ivory-style productions than fantasy...and I was not a fan of his action film Hanna) could have created something wonderful.  As it is, what we end up with is just a horror: in equal measures boring and rushed, confused and idiotic, dull and overblown.  

There is nothing in Pan to recommend except for Levi Miller.  I hope no one holds this against him.  Hugh Jackman on the other hook...