Star-powered screwball comedy: The Philadelphia Story (George Cukor, 1940)

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A few things about The Philadelphia Story (to which I can’t even begin to do justice):

1. Katherine Hepburn, James Stewart and Cary Grant are wonderful. The other actors are a little unlucky to be onscreen with such star power (especially John Howard, who has to be compared to Grant and Stewart), but I think Virginia Weidler is great – she has to do some strange things, but still has a better grasp on what she’s doing than any other child actor I’ve seen in a long while.

2. TPS has got me thinking about the relationship between cinema and theatre. It seems like many a great older film is adaptated from a play, but this hardly ever happens anymore. Perhaps you could say that film, like television, tried to draw on theatre as a source of respectability in its early years, and no longer needs to do this. Or you could say that audiences nowadays demand spectacle and speed. Maybe neither statement is true. I’ll just say that I do love watching an adaptation from a play that’s cast with fine actors, full of complex characters, and packed with dialogue that does your head in. If the story that TPS was filmed without any retakes is true, then it speaks volumes about the quality of its actors.

3. I’m not going to suggest that TPS is more sexist than, say, Knocked Up or I Don’t Know How She Does It, but a hefty portion of the film is built around some unsettling assumptions about Hepburn’s Tracy Lord. Sure, she has some valid character flaws, but these could have been written in a way that didn’t make it seem like she’s being punished for being independent-minded. Her apology to her adulterous jackass of a father is hard to watch. It’s even more uncomfortable to think that contemporary audiences saw Hepburn herself as arrogant and enjoyed watching her learn humility.

4. Despite this, TPS is fun whilst being awe-inspiring. I love the lapse in time between Tracy downing several glasses of champagne in quick succession and her carousing with Mike on the night before her wedding. Stewart’s surprised “Wheeee!” as Hepburn pushes him around in a wheeled chair is a standout, as is the way Hepburn delivers the greetings to each of Tracy’s love interests the next morning.

5. I saw quite a few James Stewart movies in 2012 (Anatomy of a Murder, Harvey, No Highway in the Sky, Mr Smith Goes to Washington, Winchester ‘73, The Flight of the Phoenix, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance), but I like his performance in this one best. He seems more grown-up, perhaps, and just makes everything look easy.

Hey, I like the ending: Sunshine (Danny Boyle, 2007)

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Some people say that Sunshine‘s third act betrays the first two. They say that it’s unintelligent, that it’s nonsensical, that it ruins the entire film. I heard this opinion enough times before watching Sunshine that I expected to feel the same way. However, I found that while I can see why they take offense, I don’t agree with them at all.

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Someone film the original script, please: Die Hard: With a Vengeance (John McTiernan, 1995)

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I had ranked this as on par with Die Hard, but it’s really not. The script’s origin as a standalone film, unrelated to John McLean, is pretty clear in how the quality changes as the film progresses. Things go awry after Simon’s plan really gets underway, which is a shame, as the twist about his identity and his true motivation deserves a better follow-through.

The film gets off to a great start as McLean and Zeus careen all over NYC to meet Simon’s demands. The last half, unfortunately, doesn’t match up to the beginning. The set pieces get bigger and use fewer physical effects, which makes them look less convincing. They also involve too much coincidence. (I’m not saying everything in the first half of the film is believable, but it doesn’t have to be: McLean shouldn’t have survived throwing the bomb off the train, but at least the carriage looks real as it slides across the platform.) And there’s just not enough imagination behind them: Simon’s games are unpredictable, but the tunnel sequence feels rote and has no sense of threat.

Taking the action off Manhattan Island, let alone all the way to the Canadian border, lets down the character of the film’s first half. The handling of the bomb at the school is genuinely tense, and a promising hint at how good the film could have been if it had somehow stayed within NYC.

These flaws aren’t enough to keep the film from being enjoyable, particularly since Samuel L. Jackson and Jeremy Irons are such brilliant additions to the cast. The police team also provide solid support, and it looks like a rare instance of colour-blind casting for Graham Greene.

On another note: I saw this on TV in Japan, and the voice actors dubbing for Willis and Jackson both sounded like generic tough guys, which was pretty disappointing when they were substituting for actors with such distinctive voices!

The one with the big punchup: The Spoilers (Ray Enright, 1942)

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The Spoilers is an insubstantial western that’s pleasant enough to watch but mostly forgettable when it’s over – except for a single scene. It happens to feature one of the most over the top baroom brawls you’re ever likely to see onscreen.

John Wyane and Randolph Scott butt heads throughout the movie, over gold claims and over the affections of Marlene Dietrich. When it’s time for them to have at it, the fight is five glorious minutes of destruction and brutality. The stunt doubles are a little distracting, but were necessary because Wayne and Scott actually injured each other while filming.

The Spoilers may be worth a look for Wayne and Dietrich fans – the two make the best of some mediocre material, with Dietrich’s wardrobe and hair offering nary a dull moment. Everyone else can watch just the fight here.

Sarandon and Spader have at it: White Palace (Luis Mandoki, 1990)

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Do you like Susan Sarandon? Do you like James Spader? Do you like them both? Then here’s a film for you! If not, ehrm, you probably shouldn’t bother with White Palace, an enjoyable but inessential romance that‘s not quite a comedy. Max is a young Jewish lawyer still getting over the death of his wife. Nora is a tough 43-year-old waitress at a burger chain who has a Marilyn Monroe fixation and deep-seated insecurities. Can they find happiness together?

The leads are without a doubt the biggest draw. Their fans would probably enjoy seeing them here, and not just because there’s a fair bit of sex and nudity. Sarandon commits totally to her role, and Spader plays a fairly nice guy for a change, while showing his unusual adeptness at allowing himself to be looked at. They’re a good match for each other. The movie isn’t exactly funny (especially given that most of the humour rather ill-advisedly involves Jewish stereotypes), but as a well-acted drama and romance, it does have enough surprises and nice character moments to keep things from feeling rote.

There’s obviously some choice dichotomies going on between the protagonists, but I think the movie could have explored them a little better. Spader’s character can be a cipher, and his big realisation and confession is interesting (the core issue goes beyond ‘she’s old’ or even ‘my wife is dead’), but I think it could have been interwoven throughout the story a bit more. I suppose that’s common in romantic movies, but I think the catharsis is lessened if the viewer doesn’t know what a character needs to let out until they actually do it.

Overall, the film’s mood is pleasantly low-key. Apart from the Jewish stuff, it has a cohesive feel, and it’s enjoyable to spend time in these characters’ world. I think it could actually benefit from being longer. Apparently there was an extra storyline involving Max’s work that got cut, which perhaps could have improved things. With a little more time spent detailing the characters and their lives, it would be more easily recommendable.

The power of Burton: The Medusa Touch (Jack Gold, 1978)

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The only two Richard Burton films I’ve seen are The Medusa Touch and Where Eagles Dare, which is pretty unfortunate, I know. But while anyone could have played his role in Where Eagles Dare, I don’t even want to consider someone else portraying John Morlar in The Medusa Touch.

Morlar is a novelist who somehow survived having his skull stove in and his brains spilled onto his living room carpet. Brunel (Lino Ventura), the police inspector investigating the attempted murder, finds that Morlar’s psychiatrist, Doctor Zonfeld (Lee Remick), has some unusual things to say about her patient. He believes that he caused terrible things to happen with the power of his mind: not just the deaths of his nanny, parents, and wife, but disasters larger and far more dangerous.

Although Morlar is presently in the hospital, comatose and attached to a variety of machines and with his head held together by bandages, Burton is an inescapable presence. He appears in flashbacks neatly tied into Brunel’s conversations with people who knew Morlar, and as a voice when Brunel reads the author’s diaries.

Burton is perfect as Morlar because he does not so much as play the part as get under your skin. Who else could so effectively haunt the story from the past, could make Morlar such a forceful, memorable figure, could make you go “Eeyargh!” every time he appears unexpectedly onscreen? Morlar is sharply intelligent, with the verbosity of a natural writer, and filled with contempt for the human race that is born out of his isolation and his perceived capacity for (self-)destruction. With his weathered face and depth-filled eyes, Burton gives Morlar intensity and madness and a melding of passionate emotions with an ever-working mind. He hardly seems to need supernatural powers to compel a woman to leap to her death. He makes a startlingly brilliant choice of how to deliver “Telekinesis!” as Brunel’s eyes fall across that single word written by Morlar’s hand. His threat to put his fist through Zonfeld’s face, should she suggest that what happened to Morlar’s only child was a mere coincidence, is unbelievably vicious. TMT is a tangibly unsettling film, and much of the credit for that goes to Burton.

I won’t say that the film would be worthless without Burton, but the last fifteen minutes, in which he hardly appears, are pretty poor. They involve an interminably long build-up to a disaster that is unsatisfying because it barely involves any characters that we care about. It’s quite a letdown, though the unrelentingly bleak ending nearly makes up for this.

TMT does have other things to recommend it. Nearly every character is written with some interesting or unusual detail. Brunel is a Frenchman working in England for a short time, which is a point of discussion during several scenes. We don’t see Zonfeld’s personal life, but the hints at it show that there’s more to her beyond her role in the plot. From Morlar’s neighbour (Robert Lang) to his publisher (Derek Jacobi!), this film’s minor characters are not flatly written or played, which keeps it feeling fresh, and keeps the story’s direction unpredictable.

Other parts of TMT are also effectively creepy. Take the fakeout scare when Brunel’s sergeant surprises him in Morlar’s apartment. It works because of Michael J. Lewis’s subtle, unnerving score and the suggestiveness of the eerie art prints in Morlar’s collection. Who would have “The Scream” in black and white? Morlar does. And there’s a moment of catastrophe that may involve some dated special effects (this is 1978, after all), but is a brilliant coming together of acting, sound, and cinematography.

With use of films taken of supposed paranormal experiments, intense excerpts from Morlar’s writings, and suggestions that The Powers That Be are interested in his abilities, TMT creates a strong feeling of paranoia. It may not be Burton’s greatest film, and it may have a disappointing ending and a couple of red herrings left unexplained, but it is a frightening and inventive oddity well worth seeking out.

Squandering its talent: Thunder Bay (Anthony Mann, 1953)

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Thunder Bay reunites the director of Winchester ‘73 with three of its principal actors, James Stewart, Dan Duryea and Jay C. Flippen, but it’s definitely not a western. This film is about a pair of down on their luck entrepreneurs, Steve (Stewart) and Johnny (Duryea), who have a plan to build an offshore oil rig in the prime shrimping grounds of a small Louisiana town. Keen as I was to see Mann work with these particular actors again, I ignored the poor reviews – only to find that Thunder Bay is, indeed, a disappointing film.

Thunder Bay’s story is thin, with the occasional action scene that feels forced rather than necessary, and doesn’t serve any of its actors well. Stewart only has one moment in the entire film, a single reaction to good news, that requires him stretch himself at all. Johnny, meanwhile, is the devilish sort of role that Duryea should be able to charm and weasel his way through in his sleep (despite being more moral than how he’s usually cast) but the quality of dialogue just isn’t good enough to keep the character interesting. It doesn’t help that Stewart and Duryea are old enough that they shouldn’t be winning over women in their 20s with little more than a look, which puts a strain on the movie’s credibility.

Thunder Bay has some uncomfortable themes, when watched in today’s times. It’s all about oil, the necessity of it and the magnificence of it. Although the film clumsily says that oil and shrimping can coexist, this doesn’t lessen its insistence that oil take precedence over other industries and livelihoods. There’s also sexist attitudes, with the film’s most outspoken female getting slut shamed and treated like a shrill, unreasonable prude. The film’s dated, of course, but it doesn’t have enough good attributes for the bad ones to be tolerable.

Though Anthony Mann made significant contributions to the western and film noir genres, he had his share of lesser pictures, and Thunder Bay is one of them. I won’t hold it against him – here’s hoping Quickflix sends me Bend of the River sometime soon…

An essential western: Winchester ’73 (Anthony Mann, 1950)

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Winchester ’73 follows the one-in-a-thousand, unfailingly accurate weapon of the title through the hands of a string of owners, its story inextricable from Lin McAdam’s (James Stewart) efforts to avenge his father’s murder. Across dry plains and down Tombstone’s dusty thoroughfare, past Saguaro cacti and up rocky hillsides, from the opening marksmanship contest to the closing gunfight, this film always has an eye for camera positions that pull the viewer into the physicality of its world. In this, as well its interest in the psychology of its characters, it seems to fulfil some of the most rewarding potentials of the genre.

The film’s dialogue never rests, offering a sly or neat or witty turn of phrase at any moment, be it in the villains’ bickering, the soldiers’ reminiscences about their wives and children, or the heroes’ discussions of friendship. This makes each scene enjoyable and brings life to the characters that Lin and the Winchester ’73 encounter, no matter how familiar their types, or how brief their screentime. A weary cavalry Sargeant, played by Jay C. Flippen, is particularly memorable, especially in his interactions with Lola Manners (Shelley Winters).

The hooker who has a heart of gold, and may be redeemed by embracing domesticity, is not a character type to be enthusiastic about. Still, I like Winters in this film. Lola can be wonderfully sarcastic and indignant, and the oblique references to her profession are often amusingly wry. She’s a practical, brave and likeable character despite the problematic dichotomy she‘s a part of.

Though much of the cast acquits themselves well (Tony Curtis tries a little too hard in a small role), Dan Duryea makes the biggest impression, despite not appearing until late in the second act. Waco Johnny Dean is irredeemably, extravagantly bad, and a pleasure to watch. Just as he knows when to keep his cool, though, Duryea keeps enough control to avoid being totally hammy (watch him showing what’s going through Dean’s head when he first meets Lin). Dean and Lola are such an quippy, odd double act that they could practically have their own movie (if she had fewer morals, anyway).

Nuanced and well-made, Winchester ’73 shows every sign of having being helmed by one of the genre’s most significant directors. It’s my first Mann film, and I’m glad that I have so many more ahead of me.

Irresistibly endearing: Marty (Delbert Mann, 1955)

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Is it a waste of time to critique the gender politics of old films? Haven’t things changed since then? Or is it too easy to simply presume that contemporary films are always less offensive? The issues in Marty are still common today, and besides, this film does deserve credit for the ways in which it is actually quite progressive.

The regrettable fact about onscreen stories that involve a character learning to love someone regardless of what they look like is that that the ‘ugly’ person is usually a man. Beyond that, ‘ugly’ women who are significant characters, especially those who get to be in a relationship at some point, are often played by conventionally beautiful actors who should have everything going for them, looks-wise, in our culture. Nonetheless, we’re supposed to see these women as unattractive simply because other characters keep saying they are, or because they’ve been styled in a less flattering way. Meanwhile, there’s a far greater variety in how male actors are allowed to look, even those who get major roles.

Marty blatantly shows these double standards in its casting of the good-hearted but ever-overlooked Marty and Clara with Ernest Borgnine and Betsy Blair. I have no wish to say anything unkind about Borgnine’s looks (and if you do, I will cut you), but he wasn’t a matinee idol. Meanwhile, Clara is supposed to be just as ‘ugly’ in the world of this film, but this is entirely a matter of styling and not at all convincing. As the Hollywood Homely entry on TV Tropes points out, Blair had been a model and was once married to Gene Kelly, and yet in this film her character is constantly referred to as a ‘dog.’

Apart from all that (oh, and a decidedly unendearing moment when Marty throws a tantrum because Clara doesn’t let him kiss her), Marty has some interesting things to say about women. It strongly advocates that they should live their lives for themselves, not just for their family. It does this by showing the sad circumstances of two elderly women who devoted themselves to husbands they outlived and to children who are now too old to need their mothers as much as their mothers need them. This film recognises that being a devoted wife and mother is not necessarily rewarding.

Clara may want a loving husband, but she also has a job that means something to her. Even if things don’t work out with Marty, he’s encouraged her to do what she wants with her life, not what she’s supposed to. A few years earlier, Margo Channing in All About Eve famously expressed the prevailing beliefs of the time when she spoke about a woman’s true career being marriage. It’s notable that Marty suggests something different.

Lastly, here’s a few reasons to watch Marty. It may be sentimental, but writer Paddy Chayefsky (who also penned Network and The Hospital gives it an edge. Borgnine puts in a lovely performance. And the best thing about Marty is surprising, given that it’s adapted from a play: it has a great sense of place. With many scenes filmed on the streets of New York, or on real-seeming sets, this film feels like it’s happening in a community. You get shown what these people do with their weekends, how they get around, and the places they go if they want to find each other. Marty is an interesting look back at life in New York in the fifties, and although it’s dialogue heavy, it certainly doesn’t feel stagebound.

Jamie James – The Snake Charmer: A Life and Death in Pursuit of Knowledge

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Jamie James has written a respectful biography of Joe Slowinski, a passionate and perhaps obsessive herpetologist who was fatally bitten by a many-banded krait while on an expedition in Burma. Slowinski was only 38 and his accomplishments gave every indication that he had a distinguished career ahead of him, if his often difficult personality didn’t alienate his colleagues. His fascination with dangerous snakes, however, made the manner of his death near-inevitable.

The book proceeds methodically through Joe’s life, detailing the hyper-masculine world of herpetology along the way. It also focuses on Burma, a place that Slowinski had a particular affection for. Foreign scientists face a dilemma if they want to conduct research in this country. Do they acquiesce to the government in the name of ground-breaking research, and do they risk the dangers? With many potential discoveries to be made, personal egos remain bound to scientists’ decisions – as was Slowinski’s.

James continues his stubbornly slow pace while describing Slowinski’s final mission, his fatal bite, and the desperate struggle to keep him alive. This increases the tension and makes the latter part of the book the most readable. James’ careful establishment of Slowinski’s teammates’ personalities helps give impact to their behaviour during and after those terrible hours.

The Snake Charmer is an unassuming and not often deeply involving read, with the diffcult Slowinski himself not helping to charm the reader. However, the involvement of some of his friends and family makes it feel quite personal. And although he keeps the tone quiet and detached, James’ respect and liking for Slowinski and his life, accomplishments, and ideals permeates the book.