Sunday, May 27, 2012

Short Take: Mildred Pierce (1945 film)

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Joan Crawford was one of Hollywood’s biggest stars in the 1930s and ‘40s, but she’s hardly a screen icon. After watching her signature, Oscar-winning performance as the title character in Mildred Pierce (1945), one can certainly understand why. She was a bland, limited actress, and her idiosyncrasies--the ramrod posture, the highfalutin diction, and the wide-open, unblinking eyes--make her so arch it’s almost comical. The film is an entertaining adaptation of James M. Cain’s 1941 novel about the personal travails of an up-from-the-bootstraps businesswoman during the Great Depression. It lacks the social detail that was the most impressive aspect of the book, but it does well by the melodramatic scenarios that have proven such a model for soap operas and other pop storytelling. The screenplay, by Ranald MacDougall (with the uncredited help of, among others, William Faulkner) takes the liberty of building a murder-mystery framework around the story. This modification works, and with director Michael Curtiz’s terrific staging, the pace never falters. The cast, unfortunately, is less than ideal. Zachary Scott, who has the role of Mildred’s playboy second husband, is an even duller presence than Crawford. The biggest letdown is Ann Blyth, who plays Mildred’s daughter. She makes the book’s monstrously conniving narcissist come off like a smug brat. But Jack Carson does a terrific job as the lawyer Wally Fay, and Eve Arden always gives an entertaining spin to her lines as Mildred’s best friend. The excellent black-and-white cinematography is by Ernest Haller.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Short Take: The Runaways

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Floria Sigismondi, the writer and director of The Runaways, a docudrama about the trailblazing 1970s all-female rock band, falls into a common trap of the genre. She’s so committed to portraying her subjects as real people that she overlooks the qualities that gave them their renown. In trying to do justice, all she manages is to diminish them. The picture is further hampered by the script’s failure to locate any underlying dynamic to the characters and their relationships. Sigismondi focuses on guitarist Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) and lead singer Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning). But she doesn’t make either woman the least bit vivid, and one can’t hook into their friendship. She isn’t helped by the bland performances from Stewart and Fanning, either. No one could envy Stewart the task of playing the charismatic Joan Jett, but there’s nothing to the portrayal beyond the hairstyle and make-up. Stewart doesn’t even try to capture Jett’s larger-than-life bravado. All she manages is to make Jett, of all people, seem sullen and dinky. Dakota Fanning is earnest, but her efforts at capturing Cherie Currie’s swagger seem like half-hearted playacting. She certainly doesn’t manage to reconcile Currie’s performing flamboyance with the insecurities (and substance-abuse problems) that plagued the singer off-stage. The only actor who comes through is Michael Shannon, who delivers a hilarious scenery-chewing turn as the band’s manager Kim Fowley. Sigismondi has occasionally inspired moments, most notably the slapstick “heckler drill” where Fowley teaches the band how to play while being pelted with garbage. She also does an excellent job of evoking the 1970s milieu. But she isn’t much of a storyteller. The drama doesn’t build, and one isn’t even sure of where it’s supposed to be.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Short Take: The Descendants

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Director Alexander Payne does a lovely job handling domestic-tragedy melodrama in The Descendants. The picture is beautifully paced and quite affecting. It's even wrenching at times. The occasional comedy scene keeps the material from getting too maudlin, and Payne makes fine use of the Hawaii locations. He doesn’t get lost in either the scenery or the poetic-ironic effects he uses it for. The story centers on an affluent Honolulu lawyer (George Clooney) and his efforts to come to terms with the impending death of his wife. He also has to take over the role of primary parent to his two headstrong daughters (Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller), as well as manage the dissolution of a large family land trust. On top of everything else, he discovers his wife was having an affair. The dramatic sections are well realized, but Payne does his best work with the comedic material: the efforts of the 17-year-old daughter to play mother to the 10-year-old; the Clooney character’s annoyance with the older girl’s pothead boyfriend; and the high comic moment when the Clooney character and the older daughter confront the wife’s lover. Clooney renders his character’s churned-up emotions with precision, and his comic timing is as strong as ever. Shailene Woodley, who plays the 17-year-old, isn’t a vivid presence in her dramatic scenes. But she nails the comic ones, with her delivery of her character’s profane dialogue a particular highlight. Payne gets fine work out of the rest of the cast, and the tempo of the individual scenes is just about perfect. The film’s only real flaw is how Shailene Woodley is occasionally presented. Payne gets too enamored with her eye-candy appeal at times, and it works against the tone of the scenes. The Descendants is award bait, but the picture represents that kind of filmmaking at its best. The elegantly crafted script, credited to Payne, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash, is based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings.