Saturday, October 27, 2012

Short Take: The African Queen

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

About as much goes wrong as goes right with the 1951 comedy-adventure-romance The African Queen. But what goes right is often inspired, and it’s undeniably one of the most charming films to come out of Hollywood. The setting is colonial Africa during World War I. Humphrey Bogart stars as the captain of a small river steamboat, and Katharine Hepburn plays opposite him as a spinster missionary. Bogart’s character brings her and her brother (Robert Morley) mail and supplies. However, after the Germans destroy the mission and the brother dies, he packs her up into the boat, hoping to evade the Germans and bring her to safety. She has different ideas, namely using the explosives on board to destroy a gunship that patrols a nearby lake. He grudgingly assents, and the two fall in love making their way down the river. The film works marvelously well as a romantic-comedy showcase for Bogart and Hepburn. His coarse, working-class manner plays off her fine-boned, bourgeois primness hilariously. The arc of the two characters coming together, from wariness to respect to love--each stage with its own set of tensions--couldn’t be better shaped or played. Neither actor has had a better performing partner onscreen. Unfortunately, the director, John Huston, never finds a tone that convincingly handles both the romantic and adventure elements. The film is too breezy for the adventure story to have much urgency. The comedy material also feels discordant with the location footage; the documentary realism seems a drag on the sparkling artifice. (About half of the film was shot in Africa.) By the end, Huston gives up trying to make the adventure material work, and plays it for absurdity. He seems to intuit that viewers just want to watch the two stars and smile. The script, adapted from the novel by C. S. Forester, is credited to Huston and James Agee. (The uncredited John Collier and Peter Viertel also contributed.) The color cinematography is by Jack Cardiff, and the overwrought score is by Allan Gray.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Short Take: Bridesmaids

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

In Bridesmaids, Saturday Night Live regular Kristen Wiig plays a single woman in her thirties who's down on her luck. Her business has failed, her love life is depressing, and she’s just scraping by financially. When her best friend (Maya Rudolph) gets engaged, she’s asked to be the maid of honor, and she tries to take on all the wedding planning. But everything she does goes comically wrong, and she finds herself in competition with the wife (Rose Byrne) of the groom’s boss. The wife isn’t shy about flaunting her wealth, and she seems determined to usurp the Wiig character’s place as the bride-to-be’s best friend. The film, directed by Paul Feig from a script credited to Annie Mumolo and Wiig, is too earnest and sentimental to be an entertaining farce. The film gets bogged down in the Wiig character’s self-esteem problems. It isn’t very well crafted, either. It's overlong, and many of the comedy setpieces continue and sputter a good while after they should have wrapped. (There are some badly misconceived scenes as well, most notably a gross-out slapstick sequence in a bridal boutique.) In general, the cast isn’t very inspired. Wiig’s role doesn’t give her much opportunity to play to her talents. On SNL, she’s demonstrated a genius for skewering fatuously self-absorbed personalities. In the film, she saddles herself with an everywoman part. She’s a sympathetic presence, but apart from her character’s drunken bad behavior on an airplane flight, there aren’t many laughs in the performance. Rose Byrne, who plays the role Wiig should have taken, doesn’t have a comedic bone in her body. Maya Rudolph isn’t given much to do, and as two members of the bridal party, Wendi McClendon-Covey and Ellie Kemper appear to have had their roles truncated. Only two performers stand out: Jon Hamm, who is hilariously smug as the Wiig character’s handsome, loutish bedmate, and Melissa McCarthy, in a delightfully wry turn as the groom’s overweight, over-assertive sister. They have the humor and timing the rest of the film is lacking.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Short Take: An American Werewolf in London

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The 1981 comic horror film An American Werewolf in London is a thinly conceived showcase for the wizardry of special-effects make-up artist Rick Baker. Director John Landis, who is credited with the script, didn’t come up with much of a story. A vacationing American college student (David Naughton) is trekking through the English countryside with his best friend (Griffin Dunne) when the two are attacked by a werewolf. The friend is killed, and the student is taken to London to recover from his injuries. The werewolf curse has been passed onto him, and at night, under a full moon, he becomes a monster and terrorizes the city. It shouldn’t have been too difficult to put together an entertaining horror movie from this. But Landis doesn’t flesh out the premise. He instead throws in everything but the kitchen sink to pad out the running time. The amount of extraneous material is just staggering: absurdist dialogues among the bit characters, inane bits of extended slapstick, softcore sex scenes, travelogue shots, discussions of old horror movies, and at least one dream sequence that seems intended for another project. But for all the clutter, the picture does have its moments. The dialogues between Naughton’s character and Dunne’s--the ghost of the Dunne character haunts him--are droll and extremely well played. There are also some good sight gags, most notably when the Naughton character wakes up in the wolf cage at the zoo. And the werewolf transformation sequences are awesome--the Oscar Rick Baker received for this film couldn’t have been more deserved. It’s too bad Landis couldn’t pull his ideas together into a dramatically focused story. Jenny Agutter plays the Naughton character's British girlfriend.