A World of Fragments

This is a blog for the review and discussion of films; all kinds of film, old and new, good and bad. Participation is always encouraged - even if you disagree! Leave me a comment, drop me a line. Heck, you might even want to recommend a movie...

Wednesday, September 28, 2005


Title: Serenity (2005)
Dir.: Joss Whedon
Stars: Nathan Fillion, Adam Baldwin, Summer Glau

Viewed: theatrically

This review contains NO SPOILERS

Funny old thing about me and Joss Whedon. Every time I come across the guy, it's almost by accident.

It started in 2002. I was laid up in bed, and a friend literally showed up with Buffy the Vampire Slayer season 2 as a Christmas gift, and being unbelievably bored, I was only too pleased to have new entertainment. Obviously, I got hooked. When Buffy ended on TV less than a year later - to my mind, with a whimper - I crossed over to the infinitely more satisfying final season of Angel, and then worked my way back from the beginning with rented DVDs. Then, just earlier this year, another friend sent me the complete series of Firefly for my birthday, something I only just finished last week. And now - well, now I've seen Serenity, and I've seen it early, because of a free bloggers-only press screening. (Imagine my joy - a free press screening and a brand-new, untouched print of the film.) And although I'm not the diehard, he-can-do-no-wrong fan of Whedon's work the way some folks are, I think this finally cements him a place on my short list of Writers to Watch Out For. Whatever he does next, you'd better believe it won't take an accident, a fluke, or someone else's insistence to get me to give it a try.

What's particularly interesting about Firefly is that I actually saw it first - before Buffy, even - by watching one episode on broadcast in fall of 2002. It wasn't a strong episode ("Bushwacked"), and at the time I wrote it off for a number of reasons: the unusual western/sci-fi amalgamation, the somewhat acquired humor, and as I saw it, a overall scenario that took more than a page from the British sci-fi classic Blake's 7. Strangely, these are the same things I think of today as its strengths. Firefly is exciting because it is so unusual, and because it combines so many things you think shouldn't go together. Blake's 7 may be its natural precursor, but Firefly was more ambitious, with more potential to be a cultural impact. And even though was canceled, I think it's safe to say that impact is going to be had anyway - through Serenity, the follow-up film.

Every one of the even vaguely cinematic assets that Firefly had, Serenity has - turned up to about eleven on the dial. The space battles are bigger and grander, the fight sequences are louder and bolder, the cinematography lingers longer and farther, and the scenes in general are far more epic in scale. It's less talky than "Firefly" was, but that's a good thing, because the most dialogue-heavy sequences - chiefly, the first thirty minutes - tend to fly just under the radar, and a few lines that might or might not be important are lost under the sound effects or music. Where it succeeds best is in expanding the feel, the actual breathing space of Firefly's universe, while making it recognizably the same place. This is not a two-hour TV episode slammed on to a theatre screen. This is a film.

To say a lot about the plot would spoil it, but on the small scale, it's a standalone story. On the bigger scale, it flows fairly naturally from Firefly - for the most part, anyway. It naturally helps to have seen that series, and it will take new viewers a while to get a grasp on all of the characters and relationships, but even then it does feel a little like there's a missing piece. Two characters have moved on from Serenity's close-knit family group since the series ended, and only one of those departures is totally understood, even with the bridge of the recent three-issue Serenity comic book. (And make no mistake, all nine core characters are here - two of them simply aren't on Serenity at the start of the film.) Thankfully, every character gets their moment to shine, and you're never left with the feeling so many Star Trek films have that people are simply turning in token appearances. It's very hard to balance so many characters, and Whedon manages it very well.

In terms of the continuing story, fans may be surprised to see certain revelations, but they may be even more surprised that other threads are not followed up. From the trailers, it's clear that this is the story of what River has become thanks to her conditioning by the Alliance - a familiar theme from the series, and introduced very cleverly without a lot of unnecessary exposition. Almost every other thread is abandoned or at least unexplored, including at least one many fans will expect to see. One continuing question seems even to have been cut short, never to be answered even in sequel films (if, as I hope, there are sequels). How that's all handled is a long-term concern for fans and fans only; within the film itself the story is consistent and engaging. And yes, fandom aside, it's nice to see one solid plotline being followed through without a lot of extra baggage.

Perhaps the biggest surprise - and a good surprise, at that - is the strength of Joss Whedon's direction. I feared that this might end up another case of a perfectly good TV director going a bit sour on the cinema screen, but that's absolutely not the case. Whedon's direction shows patience and a great grasp of attractive shots and framing. He's certainly very into light - much of the film is spent in different areas with different types of light sources that present wildly differing atmospheres - one is dark, and heavily blue; one is dry and desert-like; another is almost overexposed. That could be really abrasive if it wasn't handled with care, but here they added to the film' even when I noticed the visual schemes, they didn't really bother me. And without going into great detail, their are several scenes shot in a way that really make you sit up and take notice. One is early on, when we see Simon Tam rescue his sister from the Alliance. Another comes much later, during a completely uneven fight. With these techniques, and some surprisingly good special effects, $40 million have really stretched a very long way.

Of course, as a fan, I can't say it's absolutely perfect. I was a little bit disappointed with one character's abrupt (though important) contribution to the plot, and there were a couple of shots that simply screamed "Look at me, I'm directing a movie now!" (One is a rotating tracking shot about two-thirds through the film. I hated it on Titanic, and I hate it now.) And yes, there were a couple things I expected to see elaborated upon that weren't brought up at all. Never mind. These are very minor nitpicks for what is, without a doubt, one of the very strongest franchise films I've ever seen, and a damn fine film in its own right. If enough people will just go to see it, I have little doubt it will be recognized for the quality work it is. And hopefully, it will lead on to another film, another TV series - heck, just about any continuation for this universe Whedon has created. Firefly was his strongest and most mature work yet, brought down by the idiotic minds of broadcasting schedulers and marketers. Had it continued, it would have given every other genre show on television a run for its money. Thankfully, Serenity picks up the gauntlet and offers the same challenge to mainstream entertainment as a whole.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

A Wrinkle in Time

Title: A Wrinkle in Time (2003)
Dir.: John Kent Harrison
Stars: Katie Stuart, David Dorfman, Alfre Woodard

Viewed: on DVD

This review contains NO SPOILERS

It's a funny contradiction, watching movies based on books you loved as a kid. On the one hand, I'm always fascinated - sometimes, morbidly so - to see how the story's been adapted, what's been changed, and how it's otherwise been adapted for the visual experience. On the other hand, I always know that even the best of adaptations is probably going to leave me feeling a little bit flat. A fine example of this is Disney's Alice in Wonderland, a film I certainly enjoy on its own merits, but don't consider a particularly nice adaptation of the book. And Alice is a simple book - at least, when compared to A Wrinkle in Time.

A Wrinkle in Time comes from that strange grey area of 1960s children's literature, when the genre was clearly shifting and evolving away from the more traditional books of the 1950s, but hadn't quite metamorphosed into the ultra-moralistic, realism-beats-all form of the 1970s. A lot of our modern children's classics are from this transitory period: Lewis' Narnia series ended in the '60s, as did the last attempt at prolonging the Oz series in an official capacity; Roald Dahl hit the jackpot with, amongst others, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach; Zilpha Keatley Snyder wrote about The Egypt Game and The Velvet Room; Lloyd Alexander took us to a non-existent past in The Chronicles of Prydain and Norton Juster proved that time is relative in The Phantom Tollbooth. Out of all of these, A Wrinkle in Time - the first of what would ultimately be four books, or more when you consider most of Madeline L'Engle's books link together through the family trees of the characters - is perhaps the only one that would have been absolutely impossible any earlier in team. The main characters are a dull, unlikeable girl, and her overly precocious brother. There's religious metaphor without any overt religious message. And - oh yes - the whole thing hinges on particle physics. Well, you knew it had to happen sometime.

Flash-forward forty-one years, and Disney has finally prepared a TV miniseries of the much-loved classic. Hit the forward button a couple more, and I'm sitting here, watching it on DVD with a rather significant amount of trepidation. The verdict? It's not too bad. Not fantastic, but not too bad.

The interesting thing is that they seem to have tried, as much as possible, to respect the book. The plot is not very different, and sometimes that's an outright flaw - there are sections toward the end that suffer from the "Dune effect" (as seen in the eponymous David Lynch film), where you simply won't understand everything that's happening unless you've read the book. On the other hand, though, Disney apparently cut it from a two-part miniseries to a two-hour movie, and only restored part of that material for the DVD release (which runs 128 minutes - a miniseries, surely, would've been around 180). It's possible, even likely, that some such explanations were lost in the editing room.

Aside from the limits of the length, however, the script is remarkably keen at keeping what needs to be kept and ditching the rest. Sadly, that's very much undone by a bombardment of truly poor CGI effects. The children land on an alien planet? The planet, the dust, even the buildings are CGI. One character magically transforms into a centaur? The centaur is completely, and obviously, cheap CGI. Someone needs to run down a series of linked corridors? CGI, CGI, CGI. I played more realistic video games in the late '90s. All of the money seems to have gone toward the actual "tesseract" effect, which while important, did not need to be so grandiose, especially at the expense of all else. I mean, for cryin' out loud, when there's an overhead shot of trees, the trees should look real.

And the special effects are my main beef with the TV movie, because in most other respects, it's at least acceptably successful. The three child/teen leads are all quite well cast, even David Dorfman as Charles Wallace, who is required to play the most precocious 6-year-old ever. Most of the adults do quite well, too, with the exception of Kyle Secor, who as the main villain plays it so eeeeeevil it hurts, and Alfre Woodard, who is simply channeling overcooked ham. It's hard to play alien eccentrics, after all, and her role as one of three mysterious celestial ladies is, essentially, Tom Baker's Doctor from before Doctor Who ever existed - and it's only at the very end that she finally realizes she doesn't need to emphasize every other word that comes out of her purple lips. Perhaps she took a hint from Sean Cullen as the Happy Medium, who utterly ruins his one scene. Fake laughter is not actually funny, nor is it endearing. Alison Elliott's rather dotty Mrs Who actually grew on me, though, as did Kate Nelligan's somewhat overly-sympathetic (even overly-corporeal!) Mrs Which. They're not quite what I read in the book at age seven, but they're not lightyears away, either.

You may get the impression from these paragraphs that I'm not sure whether I liked the film or not. That's essentially true. It's not as bad as I feared, but it's still kids'-TV-movie territory, and it can be a little hard to take at times. I think I fall just barely on the side of liking it, though. I checked it out for free at the library, after all, and I had a fair idea of what I was getting into. I'm just happy the core of the story, bad CGI or otherwise, is very much intact.

The DVD actually has a couple of nice features. The first is a series of five deleted scenes, almost all of which take the story much, much farther away from the source novel than anything in the finished film, by rather needlessly giving background to several characters and the Tesseract project. One is a particularly noxious "training" sequence where the three ladies try to get the children to understand their weaknesses, making room for some completely unnecessary references to Harry Potter and Star Trek. Together, these deleted scenes are almost twenty minutes long, and they left me wondering if I'd really like that original cut after all. More pleasant is a 10-minute interview with the original author, Madeline L'Engle, who very succinctly describes why she wrote the book and the message she was trying to get across. If you bother to watch the film, you should definitely check her out.

So, do I recommend it? Reservedly. I've seen much poorer adaptations in my time, and I'd sooner watch it again than a fair few shinier, more expensive ones - for instance, to use my earlier literary example, Henry Selick's James and the Giant Peach, which is shiny and slick and a travesty of the book. If you've read and enjoyed A Wrinkle in Time, and are ready for a few differences, a cheap rent or a library loan of this DVD wouldn't hurt. Afterward, you can always go back to the book.

Oh, and if you were wondering: the DVD cover is a marketing lie. There's no pegasus in the film. Nor is there a castle, nor anything like it...

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Title: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)
Dir.: Tim Burton
Stars: Freddie Highmore, Johnny Depp

Viewed: theatrically

This review contains MILD SPOILERS

Coming tonight.

The Commitments

Title: The Commitments (1991)
Dir.: Alan Parker
Stars: Robert Arkins, Johnny Murphey, Colm Meaney

Viewed: on DVD

This review contains MILD SPOILERS

Coming soon.

John Ford Appreciation, Part Three: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Title: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
Dir.: John Ford
Stars: Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, Lee Marvin

Viewed: on DVD (feature only)

This review contains MILD SPOILERS

Coming tonight! Really, I promise!

Thursday, August 25, 2005


Title: De-Lovely (2004)
Dir.: John Ford
Stars: Kevin Kline, Ashley Judd, Jonathan Pryce

Viewed: on DVD (feature only)

This review contains MILD SPOILERS

A few months ago I had the absolutely intense misfortune to see Night and Day, the 1946 biopic of Cole Porter starring Cary Grant. It's not a good film - even the songs are, largely, ruined by someone overdubbing Grant with a very unlikely baritone. Worse, if you know even the tiniest smidgin about Cole Porter, you'll instantly realize what a candy-coated picture it is, not just because of the absence of Porter's many homosexual relationships, but because it's just so...well...irritatingly Hollywood.

I didn't see De-Lovely in the theater, at least in part because no one wanted to go with me and there were other films I'd rather see alone. I come to it now, months later, having happened on it at the library - and I'm actually a little sorry I didn't go to the theater for this one. It's not a full-scale musical like Moulin Rouge! (another one I foolishly disregarded), but it has enough larger-than-life elements of the form that I think I would have found it more affecting on a big screen. Possibly, however, I might also have found it more disjointed.

It has a rather strange structure. The whole thing revolves around Cole Porter, on the day of his death, being taken by a mysterious man (Jonathan Pryce) to see a musical of his own life. This isn't really a spoiler - it's immediately apparent from the outset of the story. We then have long stretches of Cole's life, occasionally interrupted by his older self and his mysterious companion. Usually, Cole's famous songs are woven into the drama as performances, but very occasionally they follow a more Hollywood pattern as the characters break into song. Sometimes it's even a combination of the two. And all that confusion of style - is this supposed to be real? Is it a show? Is it Cole's imagination? - is a bit disarming.

To add to that disarming quality, we have the musical cameos by famous singing stars. This is the element that's sure to either make or break the audience's appreciation of the film, and for the most part, I found it irritating. I had the same reaction when I saw Mona Lisa Smile and noticed Tori Amos' cameo - it's just plain distracting, and it rips you out of the film, even when you have classy, appropriate voices, like Natalie Cole, Diana Krall, and even Robbie Williams (who seems to be making a second career out of swing music). And then it's downright upsetting when one of the celebrities doesn't match the music, as with Alanis Morrisette's all-too-modern "Let's Do It, Let's Fall in Love," or Elvis Costello's (and I love Elvis Costello's music) physically uncomfortable "Let's Misbehave." It's a tiny portion of the film, but one that has a lot of bearing on whether the film "works" or not - and that, to my mind, is a rather serious flaw.

The dramatic sequences are far better, as are the few songs sung by genuine Broadway actors, who aren't so familiar we pay more attention to their faces than their voices. I particularly enjoyed John Barrowman's (recently so charmingly devilish in the new Doctor Who series) take on "Night and Day." Kevin Kline himself does a number of songs very well, balancing on the wire between professional and talented amateur (and obviously dumbing his own singing talent down a bit - he's a great singer - which is, in its own way, quite an achievement). And Kline is a great Cole Porter, even if he is slightly too old; a charmer, a rogue, and a rather needy creative genius. I was able to buy his performance far more than any attempt at vulnerability by Cary Grant, and you can tell Kline was the only person ever considered for this role - the lines are tailored to his style of delivery. Ashley Judd is good as his long-suffering wife, Linda, although she seems a less vital casting choice.

As for how accurate the film is - well, there seem to be conflicting reports on that score. As far as I can tell, nobody is quite sure what the truth about Cole Porter's life was, especially regarding his and Linda's relationship. Enough facts are here to acquit the existence of the film, and although some characters are combined, there's such a roster of them you can't really feel things have been glossed over. No biography is going to be perfect, and any fictionalization will crimp and cut and reorder events. (There's already been a bit of controversy that Porter's songs are slightly chronologically out of order.) Perhaps this one's greatest success is that it doesn't resort to the standard Hollywood biopic technique of outright lies.

The fantasy framework of Cole's death is peculiar, but at no time are you supposed to really take it seriously. As the characters say, it's a bad idea to end the story of a life on a total downer. So the movie makers want to assure us Cole met peace in death? Okay, I can swallow that. It is a Hollywood musical, after all, and the final musical sequence is a humdinger (though slightly better in its original cut, as available in the DVD special features). It's a rather depressing film, and it seems to me a little bit of redemption at the end is no bad thing.

I suggest renting the film if you're interested in the composer and his music, although - as with any biopic - I would also recommend further reading and study to round out the experience. It's possible that the features on the DVD would help in this regard - there are two commentaries and a plethora of featurettes - but I personally didn't view anything more than the deleted scenes. Some films leave you wanting to know more about their production, and some don't. This one didn't, for me. I'd rather read up more extensively on Cole Porter the man, to be honest, and leave the film to itself. I enjoyed seeing it once, but after that, I'd just as soon listen to the music.

John Ford Appreciation, Part Two: Fort Apache

Title: Fort Apache (1948)
Dir.: John Ford
Stars: John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Shirley Temple

Viewed: on VHS

This review contains MILD SPOILERS

The video's introduction, provided by TCM movie guru Robert Osborne, describes this as "the typical John Ford western." That may well be. Unfortunately, it doesn't really compliment Ford as an auteur, or even a director, because this is the one Ford film I've seen so far (out of eight) that I would truly call unfocused. It does snap into a decent plot by the last forty-five minutes, but until that time the main thrust of the picture is watered down by too many characters, too many "side moments," and too many changes in tone.

Maybe it's because the plot is so basic, and has to be dragged out to the prerequisite, John Ford just-over-two-hours. Lt Col Thursday (Henry Fonda) is a somewhat failed Civil War general, reassigned to lead the cavalry regiment at Fort Apache, who sees his one chance for true military glory in what should be a small dispute with the Indians. Opposing him, in various ways, are his daughter Philadelphia (Shirley Temple!), her sweetheart Lt O'Rourke (John Agar), the far less uptight Captain York (John Wayne), and most of the men of this rag-tag regiment. Where York sees an opportunity for peace, Thursday sees a major battle - and a place in history.

It doesn't sound bad, right? And it's not. It is, however, terribly wayward. There is a lot of time - more htan is necessary - spent on Philadelphia's romance, and there are loads of aggravating "comic relief" scenes with the rowdy, hard-drinkin' officers. Ward Bond makes a strong impression as Major O'Rourke (Agar's character's father), but John Wayne himself - the guy with top billing - doesn't make any sort of impact until the film is half over. And the lead casting is downright odd; I find it very hard to swallow Henry Fonda as a militaristic hard-ass, a role one would more typically associate with Wayne. To his credit, though, Wayne actually comes across well in a softer vein than usual, and for those (like me) who have always wondered about his range, it's a pleasantly surprising performance.

The Indians themselves don't make an appearance until about forty-five minutes from the end, and it's there that the line between Fonda and Wayne - hinted at, but not acted upon, for most of the second act - is finally drawn. The film abruptly realizes that it is, indeed, a film with a point, and quickly staggers into some semblance of a consistent tone and narrative. What's left is quite good, and Ford handles the battle sequences skillfully, as well as the slightly corny epilogue, but I found myself wishing I actually cared a little more. There's good characterization in the movie, for sure, but it's thrown out in such tiny little morsels that, pretty much, only Fonda, Wayne, and Bond feel like anything more than ciphers. I thought The Grapes of Wrath had pacing trouble, cramming so much into two hours? This is the precise opposite problem. At 90 minutes Fort Apache might well have been a classic. At 127 - it's simply too long. Recommended if you're a particularly great fan of the Western, I suppose, but I would still wait til it showed up on TV.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

John Ford Appreciation, Part One: The Grapes of Wrath

Title: The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
Dir.: John Ford
Stars: Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, John Carradine

Viewed: on VHS

This review contains MILD SPOILERS

This is the first in my three-part series of articles on classic John Ford movies, chosen less by design than by simple accident - I've never seen a lot of Ford movies in the past, and now, suddenly, I've seen three in just a few weeks (indeed, Liberty Valance was the first of the three I viewed - but it is third here thanks to its later release). I don't think I've ever really had a grudge against John Ford himself, merely a disinclination; I'm not a big John Wayne fan, and my viewing of Westerns tends to be rather sparing, and together those two elements make up a bulk of his work. However, through an audience with these three pictures, I've gathered a healthy respect for the director - though I'm still not what you'd call a "fan."

The first of the three movies in question is The Grapes of Wrath, quite possibly his most famous film, and one of the few I've seen before. I saw the picture when I was eleven or twelve years old; at the time, I had an intense dislike for John Steinbeck's writing, and my so-so reaction to the film was probably the best to be expected under the circumstances. Ten years later and the situation hasn't changed very much. I still don't like Steinbeck as a writer, and I still have some problems with the film. It is, by no means, a clunker, but at the same time I think its individual parts work better than its whole. I certainly don't agree with its placement on AFI's Top 100 American films, though I can understand how it got there.

The story of the Joad family - and more than anyone, Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) is simple, realistic, and pretty heartwrenching. They are thrown out off their family land in the Dust Bowl and forced to move west, seeking mythical work as fruit pickers promised by some well-circulated handbills. Along the way, they deal with death, sickness, poverty, cruelty, oppression by the wealthy and jackal-like need by their fellow impoverished. It's not a happy story, and really, no one would expect it to be. The lead is played quietly but effectively by Henry Fonda, always very good as the somewhat yokel-ized, simple and silent everyman (as opposed to his friend Jimmy Stewart's monopoly on the clumsy but smart average guy). His performance is overshadowed, though, by Jane Darwell as Ma Joad, and John Carradine (yes, that John Carradine) as former preacher Casey. These are also quiet, strong performances, and it's in these performances that the real strength of the story comes out. You can relate to these people, to their hardship, and to their various reactions.

Unfortunately, the film has a significant pacing issue that gets worse with every passing scenario. When the film starts, we get a good ten minutes of pure dialogue - no doubt lifted straight from Steinbeck - between Tom and Casey. This is riveting film because the characters are coming to life before our eyes. The same trick is repeated later, in other sequences that take their time: Ma Joad going through old possessions before the move, Pa Joad and the youngest kids trying to buy bread in a diner, and the climactic speech by Tom. As a director, Ford really seems to want to take his time with the material, and I wouldn't be too surprised if he'd originally wanted a four-hour film. As it is, though, we get a film of just 129 minutes (still at the long end, for the time), and for each of those remarkable sequences there's two or three that fly by so fast they don't have time to make an impact. In fact, a fairly pivotal point - that they lose more and more family members with each stop - is glossed over because there's not enough time to see every departure. You just hear the decreasing number, and the family drives on. Other scenes that should have been important, like the shocking death of one character, seem thrown away as transitions between bigger scenes. By the end of the film, it starts to feel so episodic that the ending just pops out of nowhere.

The ending is a problem, too. The book's original ending - exceedingly bleak, and a bit scandalous - would have been far too controversial for a film in 1940. (Although, ironically, the silent era would probably have done just fine with it.) Instead, we get an "inspiring" speech from Ma about how the Joads will just keep going and going, representing the "common people" - stirring sentiment, yeah, but it doesn't make any sense. The Joads have been torn apart as a family unit, and the idea that their ship is going to suddenly come in just over the next rise is laughably silly, and a betrayal of these characters. The whole point is that they, most likely, won't survive, and they'll be left as one more sacrifice on the road to progress. It's the same sort of goofy speech, patriotic or nearly so, that heralded the end of so many '40s-era pictures, especially B-movie adventures like the Sherlock Holmes series by Universal. It's okay in that sort of context, because the material has an inherent cheesiness and, often enough, a propoganda message; The Grapes of Wrath is neither cheesy nor particularly complimentary toward the government. You can tell a producer forced this decision.

I haven't mentioned John Ford much in this review because he is, to me, almost an "invisible" director. His guiding hand is there - you can see it in the pacing, in the lingering close-ups on faces and long-shots of the truck moving slowly down the road, but he eschews the visual tricks of many other filmmakers of the time. In fact, the entire visual feel of the film is largely down to award-winning cinematographer Gregg Toland's beautiful photography (perhaps better remembered for Citizen Kane, the following year). No, the main way to tell a Ford movie is by this quiet, studious pace, and the use of a certain "company" of actors; many of those seen here, and especially Henry Fonda and John Carradine, would be seen again (or had been seen) in other Ford pictures. That's not a problem for me. The "invisible" touch is just as valid as the showier approach, and there's certainly no denying Ford was a talented man. I do feel, however, that this is not one of his more successful films - possibly, as I've suggested, because he might not have had as much control over the end product as he liked. It's still worth seeing, and it's still a good movie, but there are many other films - Ford films, even - that I would put above it.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

You Can't Take It With You

Title: You Can't Take it With You (1938)
Dir.: Frank Capra
Stars: Lionel Barrymore, Jean Arthur, Jimmy Stewart

Viewed: on DVD (feature only)

This review contains MILD SPOILERS

I've come upon this film so many times on the Turner Classic Movies channel, it's nearly ridiculous. Unfortunately, each and every time, I've come in more than halfway through the picture, thus rendering it rather pointless to stop and watch. When I saw the DVD at the library this past weekend, though, I decided it was time to take the plunge and finally watch You Can't Take it With You for real. I'm glad I did.

If I sit back and think of Frank Capra pictures, I usually come up with the image of an "American experience" movie: well-intentioned, pleasing, grass-roots common-people patriotic, and sometimes a little overzealous. This film is no exception, but it's rather different from the Capra films most people remember - It's a Wonderful Life, of course, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington - in that it's far more comedic. To the modern viewer, that might seem like a strike against it; even I'm a bit skittish with the "controlled chaos" aspect of 1930s comedy. However, the bulk of the film is so sweet, so idealistic, and so good-naturedly funny it's impossible to dislike. And underneath it all, there's a message that still applies today: money is the root of all evil. Or, as the characters would be more likely to put it, money's not the point of living.

It's a simple setup. There's a wacky family, all engaged in their own hobbies and small moneymaking endeavors, who live in a big house presided over by Grandpa Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore). Vanderhof is the only guy in town to resist takeover by the monopolizing banker Anthony P. Kirby (Edward Arnold), but little does he know that his granddaughter (Jean Arthur) is seriously involved with Kirby's son (Jimmy Stewart). You can see where this is going, right? Simple American folk bungle their attempts to impress the rich future in-laws, while at the same time holding onto their values? Big businessman's cold heart is slowly but surely melted by honesty and happiness? Right, you've got it. No surprises here. It's all been done before, will all be done again, and in this case, it's a Pulitzer Prize-winning play - which are often moralistic to begin with - adapted and actually made more populist by that most moral of directors, Frank Capra. It feels like a play, sometimes to its detriment, and on occasion it feels like a moral tract. But it's a very entertaining one at that.

The joy of the film lies in the great characters. Everyone gets something to do, which is quite rare with a cast of some twenty individually-defined characters. Jimmy Stewart, of course, makes a great impression by sheer screen presence, even though he's one of the simpler, more obvious characters; at the same time, though, Harry Davenport (a very recognizable character actor), is just as memorable in a single scene. The standout performance is by Lionel Barrymore, and if you only know him as Mr Potter of It's a Wonderful Life, you've got a surprise coming. His character here stands for everything Mr Potter did not - and while we're on the standing issue, how cool is it that Barrymore is one of the very few truly successful disabled screen actors? This is the first film where his health required the use of crutches or a wheelchair, and it's explained in the context of the film in the most charming way I think I've ever seen. He steals whole scenes with quiet speeches and folksy humor; an early one, with the bank clerk Mr Poppins (Donald Meek, another notable character actor), is just possibly the highlight of the whole film. If you ever catch the start of the film but can't sit through it all, make sure you experience that scene, at least. It's magical.

The film is not without flaws, of course. Capra greatly restructured the second half of the play to fit his own pet themes, and it does feel like a sudden shift in tone. It also makes the film about twenty minutes too long, with what seems like a false ending - and then, oh wait, there's more. And while the family's various hobbies and tricks are all very entertaining, they do wear out the third or fourth time we're trotted through that same, very '30s "controlled chaos." (By then they start to remind me of the nadir of "zany" families, the Brewsters of Capra's later Arsenic and Old Lace, a film Cary Grant hated - and so do I.) Modern viewers will probably also be dismayed to see such an open-minded family with black servants (one of whom is the slightly underused Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, of The Jack Benny Show fame), but that's simply a product of the time - not only of the film's production, but of the earlier play.

I do heartily recommend the film, because even if it is a bit too long or a bit too moral, there's so much to enjoy it almost doesn't matter. It's nice to occasionally see a movie so irrepressibly idealistic and optomistic, and I challenge you not to finish watching the film without a big ol' happy grin on your face.

Sadly, what won't make you grin is the quality of the DVD compared to the price point. If it were a budget MGM or Fox disc of $10, the unrestored, slightly jumpy print would be acceptable, but not as a Columbia Classic of nearly three times that cost. There are no extras, only trailers - and don't be fooled, they're not even trailers for the film in question, nor films of the period (indeed, the included Mr Deeds is not the appropriate Frank Capra original, but the Adam Sandler remake!). Columbia seems to have missed the entire point of the film, haven't they? Unless you can find this disc extraordinarily cheap, give it a rent, or better still, find it at a library or on TV. The Vanderhof family would surely approve, and so do I.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

A Star is Born: Song and Dance and Shattered Lives

Title: A Star is Born (1954)
Dir.: George Cukor
Stars: Judy Garland, James Mason, Charles Bickford

Viewed: on TV (TCM restored version)

This review contains NO SPOILERS

A Star is Born is one of those films I've been meaning to see for years and years and years, but I've never really had the stamina to sit down and do it. My mother has single-handedly tried to get me to watch it for months, always to be put off: "Oh, but it's so long!" And it is - nearly three hours - but, more than that, I think I was afraid I wouldn't be having any fun for all that time. We all know that it's a sad story, of course, and not exactly light viewing. And I know I'm committing sacrilege here, but to me, a little Judy Garland goes a long way. While she was a great, even tremendous talent - you need only to pop in any of her earlier musicals to see it - she has a way of being a showstopper...literally. Her songs are often set pieces, little movies in miniature, and unlike dance sequences in many musicals they tend not to carry the film - they stop it, cold, and I sit there and go, "Wow, that was really good. Why bother going on?" Add to that the simple fact that I have trouble watching the older Judy (it's very hard to watch such a beloved figure literally deteriorating before your eyes), and you can perhaps see why I avoided this film, no matter how illogically.

Having now seen it, I think my fears were, in part, justified. It's a very depressing story, especially the second half, and though Judy Garland is extremely good at what she does, she's at least ten years too old for the part. Then there's the songs. They are mainly 'serious' songs, as befits the film, and few of them have any relevance on the story, which again has the effect of stopping the action dead each time there's a number. This is particularly true of "Born in a Trunk," which is a really lovely little twenty-minute montage - and then it's over, and you suddenly realize the movie is back. It's disorienting. The one great exception is "Someone at Last," where the two leads actually appear to be having fun as Judy cavorts around her living room, pretending to be on sets representing locations around the world. That's pretty fantastic, and easily represents the height of the film.

I seriously think the big misstep is the running length, whether that be in the slowness of the story or the amount of musical numbers, because otherwise everything really does fall into place. James Mason is an extremely effective drunk, and has great chemistry with Judy, while Charles Bickford and Jack Carson weigh in (somewhat typecast, admittedly) with good supporting roles. Clearly Warner Bros. agreed with me, too - after the premiere, they cut a solid half hour of material from the film. Unfortunately, it's not a film that'd be easy to cut - it's not as if there's just oodles and oodles of subplots - so that has the exciting effect of simply rendering the story unintelligible.

The version I saw, presented on the Turner Classic Movies channel, has restored the missing footage with the original soundtrack, snippets of footage (both real and 8mm), photographs and animated transitions. At first I thought I was watching a particularly avant-garde film! There's a good, solid (consecutive) reel's worth cut from the film's first act alone, and without it, the story is insensible - so the restoration is extremely welcome, even if it does take getting used to. (For the record, I've only seen one other film restored in this manner - 1937's Lost Horizon, which has significantly fewer missing scenes.) I have heard, though, that the DVD is even more fully restored, including a cut musical number (another one!) that isn't present in the version I saw.

So...a mixed bag, this one. I liked it, and if you're a fan of either James Mason or Judy Garland you'll probably like it, too. I do, however, feel that it's a rare example of a Hollywood musical where the parts are much greater than the whole. I'd almost rather sit through certain sequences - "Born in a Trunk" or "Someone at Last," for instance - as part of a clip show than sit through the entire film again.