Friday, March 27, 2009

I'm on 'Ask Mick LaSalle

If you've been dying to hear the sound of my voice, you can hear me stumble through half a question on "Ask Mick Lasalle." The first part of the question that got cut off for time was my description of my attempts to like actors who I previously disliked. "I had rousing success with Kay Francis, whom I'd only seen in In Name Only where she plays a really unpleasant character. I watched some of her earlier films that you (Mick) had recommended and I just love her now. I had some success with Leslie Howard, whom I'd only seen in Gone With the Wind. After three or four movies I was about to give up on him and then I found Pygmalion, which I really liked on account of his floppy hair which really worked for me. Then I utterly failed with Gail Patrick who I'd seen play unpleasant characters but still haven't seen her as the heroine where I can stand her."

This is a great podcast as they discuss various adaptations of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Eye Candy of the Day: Cary Grant and Randolph Scott

Is there really no such thing as bad publicity? In the 1930s Cary Grant and Randolph Scott posed for a series of photos that highlighted their domestic lives together as room mates. In one picture Grant is wearing an apron in another they sit close together on a diving board. In the most suggestive of the photos, they are shown in silhouette with the ocean in the background. Scott reaches over to light his cigarette from Grant's. I'm sure that the intention of the publicity campaign was to show how Hollywood stars are just regular people who do normal every day things and to show the camaraderie between their contract players. Over the years the photos have popped up repeatedly usually as evidence of a gay relationship between Grant and Scott. I'm not sure whether the photos actually started the rumors that Grant and Scott were lovers but it's safe to say that they've done nothing to quash them. A book came out last year that maintained that the studio publicity machine actually deliberately created that subtext in order to give the actors a gloss of free-living bohemianism.

My reason for posting this is not to drag up the controversy again since I feel like it's been done to death. I just happened upon this picture and it reminded me that many of the pictures in this infamous photo shoot are among my favorites of Grant. Many of the pictures have an absurd quality such as the one where they are tossing a giant medicine ball around and those who can tear their eyes away from the beefacke long enough will note that Grant is wearing white bobby socks on the beach. I put one of the photos in my book, not only because I felt like it needed to be addressed in as honest a manner as I could, but because I couldn't imagine a compendium of pictures of Grant's life that didn't include some of those photos. They are part of his image, good, bad or indifferent.

Grant spent a fare amount of time in the last twenty years of his life denying as politely as possible, rumors that he was gay or bisexual and Scott's family have come forward also to deny them as recently as last year. Books on Hollywood continue to state Grant's bisexuality with point-blank authority when his more thorough biographers are convinced that at most it is still an open question but more likely to be a case of guilt by association. The fact that these pictures were printed as recently as last year in a major English newspaper makes me think that that more than twenty years of after his death, Grant is still making news, and that there really is no such thing as bad publicity.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Playsuit Always Rings Twice

When I think of film noir, I almost always think of The Postman Always Rings Twice or Double Indemnity, both based on novels by James Cain. While Postman is not my favorite film in the genre , there is one thing I absolutely love in this movie and that is Lana Turner's wardrobe. She is ironically clothed almost entirely in white. We are first introduced to her character by a rolling white tube of lipstick moving toward the camera. The camera follows along with John Garfield's hungry eyes back up toward Lana standing there head to toe in the white playsuit with that quirky turban and those to die for peeptoe platform pumps. She wears white when she sets out to murder her husband-- a white wool trench and matching beret. She wears white to the beach and on the day she dies, her character exiting with a lipstick rolling off camera. I love the iconic white keyhole dress and the dozen matching white waitress uniforms with "Twin Oaks stenciled on the sleeve. I love that one evening she sits while her husband plays the guitar and polishes her white workshoes, a nother pair of to die for white platform maryjanes. Pretty much I love everything about this movie that has to do with clothes.

The wardrobe works wonderfully, as irony but also to complement Turner's platinum locks which read as white on the silver screen. A further irony, her trademark hair makes make but rare appearances as she is often veiled, hatted, hair-netted or turbaned. At one point John Garfield spots a sexy red headed waitress and says "I'm going to try to work that blond out of my system." Appropriately the waitresses dress is isn't white. The subtle message by the filmakers here is that though their relationship is sordid and wrong their is a kind of purity in it. They do love one another. It's not all just about sex.

The only scene in the film where Turner isn't clad in white is the one in which she and Garfield face down a sleazy cop who tries to blackmail them. Though they aren't exactly sympathetic characters at this point, after all they just murdered a nice man who happened to be in the way of their ambition, they are almost victims of a corrupt authority. As their love affair begins to unravel under the inevitable suspicion and bad karma resultant from their crime, Lana remains in black.

She returns to white in the final scenes as the couple go to somewhat ridiculous lengths to regain their trust and in a way, purify their relationship. They go swimming. They just keep swimming until one of them is about to drown and needs the help of the the other to return to shore. I said at the beginning of my post that Postman isn't may favorite film noir. I think part of it has to do with this kind of nonsensical plot devlopment. It's not just a problem with the movie, but the genre as a whole. As a piece of symbolism, as an allegory about good and evil, Postman works and so does film noir. As a reflection of the way the world actually is, I think the genre is hopelessly muddled. In attempting to show the dark side of life in the paradigm of the Hayes code where evil always had to be punished, we get a very skewed version of reality. I'm much fonder of the 1970s versions of film noir Chinatown (1974), The Long Goodbye (1973) and Farewell My Lovely (1975) which are able to trade in ambiguous morality and remain entertaining detective stories. I hate the remake of Postman (1981) though because rather than address the moral ambiguities presented in the novel in a more honest way, it simply dumps a bucket of sex onto a story that really didn't need it. If there's one thing, besides wardrobe, that the original film really got right it was the chemistry between Garfield and Turner.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Big Chill Part Two

After some delay, the second part of my Big Chill picspam is up!

I've spent so much time with this movie the last few weeks that I'm starting to see it everywhere. While watching Watchmen last week, it occurred to me the similarities between the two stories. They both take place in the 80s, and center around aging baby boomers gathering at the funeral of one of their contemporaries. Much of the drama centers around their unresolved relationships with the deceased. Some of the shots in the funeral scene of Watchmen were eerily similar to shots in the Big Chill and there was a heavy presence of sixties pop music in both films (although in my opinion the music queues in Big Chill are much subtler and more interesting.) Had the Big Chill had more desaturated blood spatters and wire work action sequences (or indeed, any) they might be the same movie.

Friday, March 13, 2009

The war made us really hot: Vacation from Marriage (1946)

Deborah Kerr and Robert Donat look amazing in their naval uniforms.

One thing you can say about the second world war, it really did wonders for the sex lives of the English. For some reason the line from Hope and Glory, comes to mind, "Thank you, Adolf."

In Vacation from Marriage (or Perfect Strangers as it was billed in England) the Wilsons are a nice quiet couple who are feeling middle age closing in fast while they are stuck in a cramped flat with no view and the prospect of another day of uninspiring work ahead of them. Kathy Wilson (Deborah Kerr) has a perpetual head cold and an even more perpetual look of glazed dispair. She eschews dancing and makeup to humor her stuffy, mustachioed husband (Robert Donat) who is a clerk in some sort of soul-crushing British business enterprise. Even their vacations at the requisite Clacton-on-sea have grown stale. You could set a watch by their movements until Mr. Wilson is sent off to the war in the service of the Navy. His wife, bored keeping up with her taxing nose-blowing and clock winding duties joins the The Wrens, a female service corps of the Navy. Their physical health improves with regular exercise and their personalities are spruced up a bit with danger, independence and a change of scene. Kerr especially blossoms before the camera, moving from an almost flat blank face to the pin up girl with a brain we see her as at the end of the film. She pilots a boat up the Themes in an air raid, and I would say it worth the danger for the effect that it has on her hairdo and the amazingly cute sailor's uniform she gets to wear. I would have joined the Wrens just for the duds!

Both of the Wilsons have wartime romances with partners far more dashing than the spouses they left behind, meanwhile they describe the other to their friends in a mixture of affection and loathing that is really unique to the film. The war scenes are short, but well-filmed and effective. There is a feeling of genuine danger, perhaps owing to the fact that they were filmed in authentically blitzkreiged London. After three years apart, the couple are reunited on a ten day leave. Each plans to ask the other for a divorce. What I expected was a quick denoument, the equivalent of the Pina Colada Song with air raid helmets, but the actual ending was more fulfilling than that. After fighting all night long, the couple who never had so much as a harsh word before the war, are reunited as the sun comes up and it is suddenly clear that German bombs have taken out the high wall that encloses their suburban neighborhood from a spectacular view of the city below.

Though the film is billed as a comedy it is pretty short on laughs. Vacation from Marriage is still an absorbing romance with excellent acting and production values. Director Alexander Korda makes war-torn London seem beautiful and exotic.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Wives under Suspicion (1938)

I have not seen the original pre-code version of this film "The Kiss Before the Mirror," also directed by James Whale. Presumably it was too racy to be re-released so it was remade, with one of the great actors of the pre-code period, Warren William as its star. Gail Patrick (My Favorite Wife, Stage Door) co-stars as his long-suffering wife. William plays a prosecutor whose work has begun to poison his whole life. He keeps a ghoulish abacus on his desk to keep track of the criminals he's sent to the chair, the beads on which are little skulls. He neglects his wife who spends her time changing clothes and hanging around with her young unmarried cousin and her fiancee. He takes on the case of a University Professor who murders his wife in a crime of passion. As we see the prosecutor's own home life unfold, it becomes clear that there are a number of striking parallels. It all becomes a little too clear, actually. The story telling is heavy handed and any subtlety in William's acting is pointless since the film posits a very unsubtle scene to explain every nuance.

Gail Patrick is an actress I've never liked. In part because the movies I've seen her in she plays unpleasant people, but here, when she's supposed to be sympathetic, she still isn't likeable. I really tried honestly, and maybe I'm blaming her for the weaknesses in the script, but I feel like she doesn't give her character any kind of arc. She is supposedly a long-suffering, adoring wife, who becomes distanced from her husband because of a case he's prosecuting. Her tone in every scene is the same. She seems like she doesn't really love the guy from the beginning. Maybe it's that Patrick and Warren don't seem to have any heat together. He is far more enjoyable playing off Cecil Cunningham (Aunt Lucy from The Awful Truth) as his faithful Gal Friday, Sharpy. After a while I wanted Hollywood to drop it's deeply entrenched age double standard, its production code and abandon the whole belabored point of the film and have him run off with his secretary. Cunningham was only six years older than William, and he just doesn't seem to have any chemistry with the woman almost twenty years his junior who was cast as his wife.

Warren William does have one really great scene in the movie, that made it worth watching for me. He takes a confession, playing the "good cop" and listens to the professor pour his whole heart out. His reactions are so sympathetic and human and given the parallels to his own marriage, you start to wonder if he's going to cut the guy a break. As soon as the prisoner is taken from his office he cackles with delight that he wormed the confession out of him. The about face is startling and chilling, owing a good-deal to the gloomy, rainy night atmosphere in the office during the confession. If James Whale would have used a script that was more sparse and let his camera tell the story more, this would have been a much better movie. The forced "happy" ending also sucks away any tension or feeling of "noir" that he might have built up.

This movie isn't a complete waste of time, but it's not one I'd recommend either. I don't give stars or anything like that in my reviews but if I did, the gratuitously racist "comic relief" would be enough to subtract a star. I can cringe and bear the occasional "simple" african american stereotype popping up in an old movie. Generally, I hope it ends as quickly as possible. Lillian Yarbo, a talented black actress who was relegated to playing maids in many films, gets an unfortunate amount of screen time as the Stowell's dim-witted maid. One line in particular made me just about fall out of my chair. Gail Patrick says to her guests, "well at least she can cook which is more than you can say for most of them." Yikes.

Friday, March 6, 2009

One Way Passage (1932)

One Way Passage is an implausible pre-code melodrama about a couple who fall in love on a cruise ship. The implausibility comes in because he just happens to be on his way to death row and she is dying of a fatal disease. I guess prisoner transport ain't what it used to be, eh?

Even with the contrived premise, it's a genuinely moving scenario, and really ups the ante on the holiday romance genre. It's not enough that they fall in love on vacation and can never be together. They have to die as well. The movie manages, due to a short 70 minute run time to keep a brisk pace as well as providing adequate character development. Powell's character plans to escape from his captors when the boat lands in Hawaii with the help of two con-artist accomplices, Skippy and Barrel House Betty, (Aline MacMahon and Frank McHugh), but decides to return to the ship when Francis collapses.

Francis and Powell had great chemistry together and their scenes are light and breezy with an undertow of angst. Francis doesn't seem particularly sick. She faints twice, but that isn't an inordinate amount of swooning even for a healthy ingenue in old movies. I think it's rare when an actor who is supposedly dying in a movie actually looks sick so I'm willing to forgive it. MacMahon McHugh provide some necessary comic relief as the scheme behind the scenes to get the couple together. Warren Hymer as the cop who is Powell's guardian manages a layered performance as he gradually comes to like Powell's character, but still has to do his duty.

An interesting historical footnote about One-Way Passage is that it takes place on a cruise ship during prohibition. All the characters drink non-stop including our lovers who literally bump into one another and spill their drinks. Cocktails actually become an obvious metaphor for their love affair, which is interesting, I think given that drinking was still technically illegal in the United States. I guess there must have a booze cruise mentality and that one of pleasures of boat travel was being able to drink legally in international waters.

Monday, March 2, 2009

X-files: The UST is still out there

I'm sure by now you all realize that I started this blog just so I could post pretty pictures like this one.

The year was 1993. I was a senior in college and I lived with three to five other girls in a two-bedroom apartment with no television. We heard rumors about this amazing new TV show that was part science fiction and part cop drama. It revolved around an FBI agent, Fox Mulder (David Duchovny), who we quickly dubbed a HOBL (hunk of burning love). For some reason it was on Friday night, but we didn't care. Every week-end began with locating a TV, usually in a dorm lounge or maybe at a laundromat, where we could follow the exploits of our HOBL and his red-haired, bad-ass female partner, Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson). Every episode, whether it was a monster of the week or an alien conspiracy plot, seemed as good as the best movie we'd seen in a long time: scary, smart, funny, sexy and occasionally moving. As the years went by and my access to television and the internet improved, I became more obsessed with the show and especially the relationship or "ship" as it was known, between Mulder and Scully. Some of the first hours I ever spent online were posting to message boards about the Unresolved Sexual Tension (UST) between Mulder and Scully and by season three, I no longer cared about that aliens were colonizing the earth as long as Mulder and Scully could have a real kiss on screen.

By the time the show ended it had spawned a host of copy-cats. I don't think the CSI franchise would even exist if it were not for the X-files systematically desensitizing the public to decomposed bodies week after week. For that matter the entire Whedon-verse would be different since it was the the success of the X-Files that surely gave Buffy a chance to break through. An empire was built on flashlights bursting through foggy gloom, heroes in pant suits fighting evil and the unspoken rule that men and women who fight crime together could never sleep together. Duchovny left the show and new agents were brought in and though I didn't stop watching the show, it lost much of its magic for me. There were only so many times that Scully could caress Mulder's desk nameplate to keep this shipper's appetite fed.

When I saw in the kiss in the trailer for the new film, The X-Files: I want to Believe, I went mental. I couldn't believe that after all these years, after last minute bee attacks, alternate universe kisses, forehead pecks and making a baby off-screen between seasons we were finally going to get the kiss. I was finally going to get some closure on this ridiculous obsession that I'd held for years. And then something weird happened. The movie came to the theaters and I didn't go. At first it was because I couldn't get a sitter, and then it was because so many of my online friends said it was bad. But really I think that it was just that I didn't really want the UST to end. Eventually it came up in my Netflix queue and I bit the bullet. So here is my review. It is possibly the single nerdiest thing I've ever written with the exception of the eleven page review/recap I wrote on the Phantom Menace in 1999.

As the X-Files: I want to Believe begins, Mulder and Scully have left the FBI. She has returned to medicine, working in a Catholic hospital and he seems to sit in his home office throwing pencils at the ceiling all day while clipping items from the newspaper. The FBI wants them both back to help them solve a case where their main lead has been provided by a pedophile priest with ESP abilities. Scully is grossed out by the priest, so want no part of it, but Mulder after a bit of cajoling from Scully, makes his way back to bureau. There is a tedious sub-plot about a case Scully has at the hospital, which touches on more religious issues. If feels tacked on to try give some fullness to the characters who've been floating in the ether since we left them. Either that or it was a deliberate attempt to get Gillian Anderson a guest spot on Grey's Anatomy. Even with the medical drama padding, the plot is a bit thin to support a feature length film and I would say if it were aired as an hour-long episode of the show it would have merely been an average or better than average installment. Early in the film they mention Mulder's work with Leonard Boggs and Clive Bruckman and it's kind of painful because this script isn't half as good as Clive Bruckman's Final Repose. Even so, it is still pretty darn good. Living up to an average episode of this great show is actually an acceptable standard for a film. I want to Believe is as moody and tightly-wound as the best constructed episodes of the series. As a stand alone story, I think it worked pretty well because you don't need to have a lot of background on the characters or situations of the series to follow the plot.

The movie is almost better if you don't know the back story. You won't be worrying, How is William's adoption affecting their relationship? Are they married now or what? Where's Skinner? What about the aliens? Aren't aliens taking over the Earth? Shouldn't Mulder's beard be bigger after seven years of living like the Unabomber? What about the lone gunmen? What about Dogget and Reyes? If you are able to disconnect from all those things and just enjoy it as you would an episode from an early part of the series, it works just fine.

Mulder and Scully still interact with each other in more or less the same manner, even though they are now living together as a couple. They still call each other by their last names. They still don't have sex, although now that seems down mainly to the fact that Mulder has dropped out of life, as evidenced by his bushy survivalist beard. The best scenes in the movie are those in which they interact just like they always did: a female FBI agent flirts with Mulder a tiny bit and Scully looks jealous (of course she winds up dead, since that's the fate of every minor character who ever flirts with Mulder or Scully); Mulder grazes Scully's hand with his and gives her a soulful sidelong glance when things are going badly with the case. So yay! The UST is still out there.

One of the really enjoyable moments for me as a True Fan came when Skinner finally turned up. He has a totally romantic/slashy scene saving Mulder from shock by giving him his top coat. A million fanfics were born with that 90 seconds of celluloid.

It is also nice to see the old Mulder/Scully scepticism dynamic. Mulder and Scully argue, as they always did, about the case when one of them believes in the priest's psychic powers and the other doesn't. This is of some interest, since I couldn't remember where we were on the whole Scully believes in God/has lost her faith question. It turns out she still believes in God, but she's having trouble with the "judge not lest ye be judged" portion of the homework. Mulder as usual refuses to believe in God, but buys into every supernatural phenomon in the world.

The supporting actors are a mixed bag. Who knew Billy Connoly was this good? He is just terrific and spooky. This movie wouldn't work half as well without him. Exhibitz as the skeptical FBI agent was a bit distracting (I couldn't stop making pimp my ride jokes) and not that convincing. His part was also completely under-written. It is fun to see Battlestar Galactica regulars Rennie Callum and Lorena Gale in small parts. Again, a million crossover slashfics were born when Leoben was dragging Mulder around in the body part graveyard. Sometimes I had to pinch myself that I was actually watching cannon, and not dreaming it up out of my fevered fangirl imagination.

For a summer popcorn movie, I want to Believe has a snowy, wintry atmosphere, that fits with the dark material. One of the strengths of the series was its location scouting. They always managed to make Vancouver look like a lot of different places and gave every episode a unique terrain and tone. My husband and I were both annoyed that Mulder went through the whole thing with his coat unzipped and I can't help but think that if the film were just a bit better we wouldn't worry about stuff like that. In the end, the case is solved and spring arrives. Mulder shaves off his beard and finally, finally, FINALLY kisses Scully properly. Then they go on a much-needed vacation.