#39. Grand Piano (2014, Mira)
Full review over at Criterion Cast: http://criterioncast.com/reviews/catherine-reviews-eugenio-miras-grand-piano-theatrical-review/
#40. The Gang’s All Here (1943, Berkeley)
Busby Berkeley, taking on Technicolor, pushes the visionary of geometric extravaganzas as far as he, or anyone in the studio era, was apt to go. I love getting to that certain point while watching a film when you are asked to just let go and hop on for the ride. The answer may be no as often as yes but those ‘yes’ moments are ones to cherish. My answer to The Gang’s All Here was ‘yes, Yes, YES!’ Color is used for grand elegiac expression, such as the “Paducah” under an all-encompassing lavender swirl that predates what An American in Paris would do with dancing and color eight years later. The camera, and the effects work, is periodically used to disorient, heightening our sense of movement and curiosity to a drug-inducing degree. Eugene Pallete’s disembodied head croaking out a song. A camera that arches and lilts over women holding sexualized bananas. The mere fact that a number called “The Polka Dot Polka” serves as a finale with women in purple outfits that look like futuristic workout gear holding neon-pink lit hula hoops.
It’s also, quite simply, a lot of fun despite a central storyline that can exhaust with boredom. Although it must be said that Berkeley himself seems to view it as filler. What makes up for this is that Alice Faye grew on me, that James Ellison is blissfully absent for the entire second act, and that their romance is amusingly resolved with barely a shrug, an afterthought that clearly doesn’t deserve center stage when there are polka dots to be had.
Carmen Miranda is Queen. It’s taken me this long to actually see her in a film, though I was obviously well aware of her before this. A lot can be said for the ways in which her nationality was used as a gimmick as well as a garish ‘foreign’ stereotype, but what about what’s actually there? How about the performance and the work and the fact that she was able to secure a spot for herself within the studio system where every other star also, it must be said, had a minutely constructed screen persona. Miranda is vibrantly hilarious here, with an innate sense of comic timing, over-the-top in every moment (not just when she has dialogue), with the English language locked-and-loaded as her plaything (notably mainly restricted to our idiosyncratic sayings, not the foundation of the language). To say she steals the movie is an understatement. Berkeley sets up a world where the more heightened the better; a world fit to hold and showcase Miranda at the center. She is the purest harbinger of future camp and drag queen aesthetic and performance in the 1940’s.
Charlotte Greenwood, hip society matron and proto-Marcia Wallace with high-swinging legs is a favorite.
#41. Flesh and Fantasy (1943, Duvivier)
Julien Duvivier’s follow-up anthology film to the previous year’s Tales of Manhattan. Dead ringers for three future “Twilight Zone” episodes, the stories address beauty, fate and self-fulfilling prophecies as they are linked to the occult. The first and second shorts, with their darker twinges, were my favorite. The first suffers a bit from its lack of prelude material. That Henrietta’s experience causes the beauty within to not only materialize but to then transition to the outside is frustrating, mainly because it suggests that the two are inseparable. But I loved this for its vaguely Von Sternberg vibe, its haunted yearning, and for Betty Field with her ratchety voice and hollow-lit face. The second story; “You’re going to kill someone Mr. Tyler”. Still cannot get that oft-repeated line out of my head. Who doesn’t relish watching Edward G. Robinson lose his mind, feverishly talking down an imaginary double and his own self-fulfilling impulses? This is some creepy stuff, with a horror-noir lit sensibility. The third story, featuring Charles Boyer and Barbara Stanwyck, is solid if less interesting. Fate is a central sentiment in many romances, and so this plays out more straight-laced than an occult-led story might have you believe. But Boyer and Stanwyck have enough chemistry together to carry it through, as well as the shimmer of Stanwyck’s lyre earrings. The entire film is beautifully photographed, with a constant tangible sense of the other-wordly just within reach.
#42. Lady of Burlesque (1943, Wellman)
Notable if only for the opportunity of seeing William Wellman and Barbara Stanwyck re-team for a B-movie at the height of her career (or was it?) based on a novel by Gypsy Rose Lee. Stanywyck sings (badly), does splits (!) and cartwheels (no, seriously, it’s awesome). Highlights include the antagonistic romance between Dixie and comic Biff Brannigan and a lived-in seedy setting that the film supports and backs 100%. But this is largely dull, with endless group interrogations and no central mystery for the audience to grab, even if the killer’s motives fall in nicely with the notion of burlesque camaraderie.
#43. The Human Comedy (1943, Brown)
Exactly the kind of film that theoretically worked like gangbusters on an American WWII audience looking for idyllic patriotism. Also a prime example of a WWII Hollywood film I find fascinating, for lack of a more original word, as a cultural artifact. It is one of the most inconsistent films I’ve ever seen, wavering from a poignant and studied slice-of-life to the pushed-to-the-hilt brand of saccharine Americana that reads as nauseating today. This was Louis B. Mayer’s baby, with heaven always in sight and lessons always one step away from being learned, all in warm deep focus. The loose vignette-like structure is slightly ahead-of-its-time for Hollywood; narrative takes a backseat to the on-goings in the microcosm homefront town of Ithaca.
Any genuine moments, and there are quite a few, are subsequently undercut by five unbearably syrupy developments or beats that undo anything that rang true mere moments ago. You know it’s rough when they make the illiterate kid’s struggles unintentionally funny by way of overbearing. A prime example of The Human Comedy’s chronic overkill habit comes at the end. The film’s loveliest moment occurs when Mickey Rooney’s Homer (in by far the best work I’ve seen from him) plays horseshoe with James Craig during his walk home; a brief respite before having to deliver some devastating news to his family. This segues into the final scene in which the loss of death is immediately substituted by an orphan character looking to weasel his way into the family before they’ve even learned the horrible news-to-come. What would normally be seen as creepy and invasive and stalker-like is welcomed and championed by the film. Hell, it’s even supported by the dead! We get it; The Human Comedy, like many WWII-era films, promotes a set of ideal and wholesome standards and values with which to strive towards in turbulent times. But by the time the kid in the library just keeps repeating “All these! All these!” over and over again, patience has long lost the battle.
#44. Finding Vivian Maier (2014, Maloof & Siskel)
Review coming soon
#45. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014, Anderson)
Short review coming soon
#46. Jane Eyre (1943, Stevenson)
At a certain point, watching the 1943 adaptation of Jane Eyre becomes something approaching painful. This surely has to be one of the worst adaptations of a classic novel out there in the vast world of filmic interpretation. Moves from event to event, unforgivably skipping some (see ya formative Red Room incident), botching others (we don’t even get to see Bertha? Seriously?) to grossly failing to convey or understand the material in any way that would service even a mediocre motion picture. Joan Fontaine brings her permanently pained look to Jane, where characterization fears to tread. Orson Welles seems like he is talking to himself the entire time. He acts for himself, as if unaware that maybe, just maybe, he may want to consider playing a scene with the other people in the room. So the central romance, Jane’s arc, and connecting her emerging adulthood to her childhood experiences all fails to register. Restructuring the purpose and role of Rivers makes little sense from virtually every angle. The sets and photography help us through, evoking an effectively unfamiliar Gothic sensibility.
The last scene is a tour de force of unintentional hilarity. Welles, forever stumbling through his own ruins, momentarily turns into Ron Burgundy, only to then plant the most aggressively awkward kiss of the studio era.