Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Short Take: Star Trek: The Motion Picture

This review originally appeared on Pol Culture.

Star Trek has been described as the middle ground between the unabashed pulp fantasy of Star Wars and the philosophical science fiction of 2001: A Space Odyssey. In 1979, the initial TV series received an upgrade to feature-film status with Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The filmmakers, namely producer Gene Roddenberry and director Robert Wise, were clearly eager to identify it with the 2001 end of the genre spectrum. They went ridiculously overboard. The story takes place a few years after the end of the television series. A massive, destructive, and apparently omnipotent alien entity is making its way towards Earth. The Star Trek crew’s ship, the Enterprise, is the only vessel in range to intercept it. This is a solid premise for a science-fiction adventure film, but the picture is too bloated with its own sense of importance to be entertaining. Action scenes are kept to a minimum, and the story seems less about drama than pseudo-philosophical blather, such as questions about the nature of one’s relationship to the Creator, the quest for knowledge’s role in the meaning of existence, and so forth. These never go anywhere worthwhile, and their conceit is insufferable. The screenplay, credited to Harold Livingston and Alan Dean Foster, also has little feel for the character relationships that helped define the TV show. A central dynamic was of the man-of-action Captain Kirk (William Shatner) squaring the circle of the opposed views of his two main lieutenants: the cold, logic-minded Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and the passionate, emotion-driven ship’s doctor (DeForest Kelley). That’s all but gone, and the other series regulars (James Doohan, Nichelle Nichols, George Takei, and Walter Koenig) are little more than extras. Like 2001, the film seeks to end on a moment of lofty existential transcendence, but it’s reactionary rather than hopeful--the threat has been contained--and it seems ridiculously pretentious. The film clearly follows 2001’s lead with other elements, and at times it’s blatantly derivative. One example is the leisurely, symphonic-music scored piece of sightseeing around an immense spacecraft; another is a prolonged effects-laden “Stargate” sequence. The film also mimics 2001’s slow, deliberate rhythms. However, the effect here is tedium; there’s none of the grandeur that 2001’s director, Stanley Kubrick, was able to evoke. The picture was poorly received, and it proved a false start for the movie franchise. The series wouldn’t begin in earnest until the second installment, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The only thing introduced that proved worth keeping was Jerry Goldsmith’s majestic score. The cast also includes Stephen Collins and Persis Khambatta. The cinematography is by Richard H. Kline. Douglas Trumbull oversaw the special effects.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Short Take: Pretty Poison

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Critics’ favorite, cult film, sleeper--these are all terms that apply to Pretty Poison (1968). This quirky film is an intelligently made psychological thriller. Anthony Perkins stars as a young man who was institutionalized in his teens, and is now getting a fresh start in a small New England town. He enjoys fantasies of himself as a spy, and in order to impress a pretty high-school student (Tuesday Weld), he begins acting the part. But the playing out of his fantasies gets increasingly out of hand. The girl’s fun-loving air proves the mask of a psychopath. Industrial sabotage leads to murder, and the young man gets pulled further into the girl’s vicious conniving. The film, quietly and very effectively, pulls off a remarkable dramatic reversal. One starts with concern over the girl getting involved with this rather creepy misfit. However, one ends in complete sympathy with the fellow, and wholly caught up in the horror of watching their relationship upend his life. Director Noel Black, working from an excellent script by Lorenzo Semple, Jr., keeps the pacing loose. The scenes are thoughtfully staged, and the fine use of the western Massachusetts locations helps the story breathe. Black emphasizes character drama over sensationalism every step of the way. The two stars are superb. Perkins is a little hard to take at first. He plays his character's oddball antics with an arch smugness, and it’s off-putting. But he also keeps the viewer aware of the fellow’s insecurities and fundamental decency. His carefully developed performance is a balancing act that’s key to the story’s overall power. Tuesday Weld dazzles. No performer can make giddy thrill-seeking seem more delightful, and as the film goes on, she turns that reaction inside out. The girl’s high-spirited, game-for-anything manner is at first charming, then startling, and ultimately terrifying. The film also stars Beverly Garland as the girl’s brusque mother, and John Randolph as the Perkins character’s probation officer. David Quaid provided the cinematography. The screenplay is based on the novel She Let Him Continue, by Stephen Geller.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Short Take: Bull Durham

This review originally appeared on Pol Culture.

Bull Durham, Ron Shelton's 1988 directorial debut, is a wonderful romantic comedy, and perhaps the most entertaining movie about baseball ever made. Kevin Costner stars as Crash Davis, a thirtyish minor-league catcher who's called upon to mentor a promising, though dim-witted, young pitcher (Tim Robbins). Both catch the eye of a local baseball groupie (Susan Sarandon), who systematically has an affair with one player per season. It's her version of a mentoring relationship, and the goal is to give the player the best season of his life, all with an eye towards helping him graduate to major-league play. She settles on the pitcher, but her heart is with Crash. He's drawn to her, too, but he wants romance; he has no interest in being her project. Shelton's terrific script does a fine job of playing Crash's mentoring role off his antipathy towards the pitcher's relationship with the Sarandon character, but its real brilliance is in the wealth of offbeat moments and quirky detail. Shelton also gets superb performances from the three stars. Tim Robbins never fails to make his character's dopiness and headstrong behavior charming, and Sarandon and Costner deliver what may have been career bests. Sarandon's character is an eccentric mix of literary pretensions, know-it-all expansiveness, and brazen sexuality, and she plays it all with the deftness of a master comedienne. Costner's role is less flashy, but he shows ace comic timing playing straight man to his co-stars, and he's strikingly charismatic as a romantic lead. The picture keeps one smiling from the first moment to the last. Ron Shelton was once a minor-league baseball player himself, and he couldn't have come up with a more delightful valentine to the game.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Short Take: The Searchers

This review originally appeared on Pol Culture.

Director John Ford's The Searchers (1956) is a mainstay on lists of the best movies ever made, and it is perhaps the greatest picture in the Western genre. It is certainly one of the key American adventure films. The story begins in 1868, when a disaffected Confederate veteran (John Wayne) returns to his brother's home in Texas. Shortly afterward, the brother and most of his family are murdered in a Comanche raid on the house. There was one survivor: the brother's nine-year-old daughter, whom the Comanche have taken prisoner. Wayne's character and the girl's adopted adult brother (Jeffrey Hunter) embark on a quest to rescue her. But there's no easy resolution: when they locate her years later, they find she's become a Comanche. The picture set the stage for the anti-heroic adventure films that came to dominate Hollywood in the decades that followed. The Wayne character is an abrasive, alienated misfit, and a vicious racist to boot. (It's easy to imagine anti-hero icon Clint Eastwood in the role.) The basic plot--an outsider searching for a girl who's been taken from her family, only to find she's been assimilated by the people who have taken her--has been lifted by innumerable films and TV shows since. The picture also set the standard for epic-style location shooting. Most of the picture was shot in Monument Valley, on the Arizona-Utah border, and the use of the landscape pretty much defines the word "spectacular." The scenery would be awe-inspiring by itself, but Ford and his cinematographer Winton C. Hoch make it even more impressive by effectively integrating it with the action. It's one of the few pictures that's worth seeing for the visuals alone. The film also stars Ward Bond, Vera Miles, and as the blue-eyed Comanche chief, Henry Brandon. Natalie Wood plays the kidnapped girl at 14; her sister Lana plays the girl at nine. The screenplay, based on a novel by Alan Le May, is credited to Frank S. Nugent. Max Steiner provided the score.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Short Take: The Imitation Game

This review originally published at Pol Culture.

The Imitation Game, directed by Morten Tyldum from a script by Graham Moore, is a watchable but fairly substandard piece of award bait. This biopic of British computer-science pioneer Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) gives itself two tasks. The first is to dramatize Turing's behind-the-scenes heroism in World War II. He headed the team of cryptographers who cracked the Enigma code, a supposedly impenetrable cipher system used by Nazi Germany in all its communications. (The solving of the code is estimated to have shortened the war by at least two years and saved millions of lives.) The film's second task is to portray Turing as a martyr to the mores of the time. He was homosexual. A few years after the war ended, he was prosecuted for indecency, subjected to a dubious form of hormonal therapy as punishment, and he committed suicide shortly thereafter. Tyldum and Moore do a poor job of reconciling their two goals. They repeatedly interrupt the Enigma project narrative with flashbacks and flash-forwards. The flashbacks tell of a near-romantic friendship the adolescent Turing had with another boy at boarding school. The flash-forwards deal with his prosecution and its aftermath. The time shifts are confusing at first, and they don't add much to the viewer's understanding of the Enigma story. Turing's homosexuality isn't relevant to the Enigma narrative at all. It's only referred to when he tells other characters about it; he's never shown taking a romantic interest in another man. The Enigma story, at least as presented, isn't terribly interesting in any case. Several of the scenes leading up to the code’s solution are hackneyed filler--Turing’s inability to get along with his co-workers, conflicts with the military brass, and so forth. And one can't take it seriously as history. There are just too many scenes that ring false. The most absurd moment is perhaps when Turing's team, in order to protect Allied strategic interests, decides to withhold news of the breaking of the code from their superiors. (This and many other things in Moore's script have no historical basis.) The film isn't even that interesting as an actors' showcase. Apart from the purring-voiced Mark Strong's too-brief turn as British intelligence chief Stewart Menzies, none of the performers are especially compelling. Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, and the other cast members do solid work, but apart from Knightley's amusingly delivered "Oh" during a briefing scene, they aren't very memorable. The film has solid production values, and Tyldum keeps the pace humming, but that's about it. The script is nominally based on Andrew Hodges' biography Alan Turing: The Enigma. The cinematography is by Óscar Faura. Maria Djurkovic is credited with the production design.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Short Take: Terms of Endearment

This review originally appeared on Pol Culture.

Until its shamelessly tearjerking final act, Terms of Endearment (1983) is an entertaining, quirkily funny treatment of the close, if stormy, relationship between an uptight middle-aged widow (Shirley MacLaine) and her unpretentious adult daughter (Debra Winger). The picture follows them through the daughter’s marriage to a philandering college professor (Jeff Daniels), and the mother’s affair with an astronaut neighbor (Jack Nicholson). There are also the daughter’s assorted domestic dramas, including a brief fling with an insecure banker (John Lithgow). James L. Brooks, who wrote and directed, was previously known for the TV sitcoms Taxi and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and the picture isn’t far removed from their style. Oddball characters of varying eccentricity are played off each other for pleasantly contrived humor. The actors are directed to stay loose, breathe with the material, and shine. The film is enjoyable enough for a viewer to forget about the its distastefully manipulative closing section. As with Brooks' sitcoms, the cast is first-rate. Debra Winger is probably the most impressive. She’s an astonishingly vibrant presence as the daughter, and in her quieter scenes, the character’s feelings seem to be emanating through her skin. Shirley MacLaine plays the cantankerous mother with terrific, almost show-stopping skill. She’s perhaps a bit too theatrical at points, but she demonstrates time and again how to use her timing for maximum comic and dramatic effect. As the astronaut, Jack Nicholson isn’t called on to play much beyond his standard over-aged bad-boy persona, but he may never have handled it as hilariously as he does here. John Lithgow’s earnest wistfulness is note-perfect, and while Jeff Daniels isn’t given much to do beyond playing straight man to the two female stars, he certainly holds his own. Among the behind-the-scenes artisans, production designer Polly Platt deserves special kudos; the mother’s grotesquely overcultivated garden is witty perfection. The screenplay is based on Larry McMurtry's 1975 novel. (The Debra Winger, Shirley MacLaine, and Jeff Daniels characters first appeared in McMurtry's 1970 novel Moving On; Jack Nicholson's role was created by James L. Brooks for the film.)

Friday, May 22, 2015

Short Take: Still Alice

This review was originally published at Pol Culture.

Julianne Moore won a belated Best Actress Academy Award for her work in Still Alice. That’s pretty much all the film is notable for. It’s a tastefully made melodrama about a middle-aged Columbia professor (Moore) and the efforts of her and her family to cope after she develops early-onset Alzheimer’s. Her life is close to perfect--a prestigious career, a happy marriage, loving relationships with her adult children--and her fulfillment in it gradually and entirely slips away. Beyond the reversal of fortune the story begins with, there’s not much in the way of irony or dilemma; the film just tracks the professor’s deterioration and plays it for sentimental effect. The only scene that rises above the ordinary is when she tries (and fails) to follow through on a suicide plan. She has no awareness of what she’s doing; it’s darkly farcical and devastatingly poignant all at once. The rest of the picture is fairly conventional, but it’s well done for what it is. Moore capably plays her role, as does Alec Baldwin as her husband, and Kristen Stewart, who appears as their bohemian youngest daughter. The couple’s other two children are played by Kate Bosworth and Hunter Parrish. The screenplay, by the film's co-directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, is based on the 2007 novel by Lisa Genova.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Short Take: Brief Encounter

This review originally appeared on Pol Culture.

It is not enough to say the films of British director David Lean are well realized. They often feel more completely realized than seems possible. His extraordinary command of detail can be felt in every aspect of a production. Sets, locations, costuming, music, lighting, shot compositions, staging, editing, and, of course, dramatic effects--they are thought out and presented with the utmost care and meticulousness. His work sets the standard for storytelling craftsmanship. It's true of the spectacles for which he's most famous, and it's also true of small-scale efforts such as 1945's Brief Encounter. Adapted and expanded from the Noël Coward play Still Life, it tells the story of two married upper-middle-class train commuters (Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard) who meet and, in spite of themselves, fall in love. Lean builds the film around Johnson's extraordinary performance; she fully catches the viewer up in the agonizing conflict between her blossoming affection for the Howard character and her deep sense of commitment to her marriage and children. Every element of the picture, from the richly atmospheric depiction of the train station to the inspired use of Sergei Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2, enhances the dramatization of the woman's dilemma. This is one of the most powerfully intimate love stories ever filmed. The performances by Howard and the supporting players are uniformly excellent. The screenplay is by Lean, Anthony Havelock-Allan, and Ronald Neame. Robert Krasker provided the beautifully moody cinematography.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Short Take: Rome, Open City

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

This 1945 Italian melodrama, about the World War II underground resistance in Rome, is as pulpy as the gaudiest Hollywood thriller. The director, Roberto Rossellini, shot it in strictly-from-hunger circumstances. The lighting is variable, several of the actors are non-professionals, and since there was no money for sets, the action had to be staged in actual streets, buildings, and apartments. The documentary-like atmosphere Rossellini captured--the style was dubbed Neo-Realism--became a hallmark of the existentialist aesthetic and revolutionized the art of film. Rome, Open City has a fair claim to being the single most influential movie made after World War II. It's such an important part of cinema history that one may feel reluctant to approach it as an entertainment. But the picture is entertaining. The gritty detail and sense of immediacy largely redeem the hackneyed contrivances of the plot, which includes resistance fighters on the run from the Nazis, a priest playing a central role in the intrigues, and a resistance hero being betrayed by his lover. If the film were more slickly made, it would seem laughably trashy. Some elements, such as the seductively chic lesbian Gestapo agent, may have one chuckling regardless. Others, like the scene in which a pregnant woman is shot to death in the street, prompt conflicting reactions. One may think this particular moment devastatingly powerful or offensively over the top, or perhaps both. Sergio Amidei is credited with the script. (Federico Fellini contributed some dialogue and other small bits.) The large cast includes Anna Magnani as the ill-fated expecting mother, Aldo Fabrizi as the stealthy priest, and Maria Michi as the treacherous paramour. Renzo Rossellini provided the cheesy thriller-style score.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Short Take: The Best Years of Our Lives

This review was originally published at Pol Culture.

Director William Wyler’s 1946 film The Best Years of Our Lives has a promising subject: the experiences of three World War II servicemen while they readjust to civilian life. Dana Andrews plays a de-commissioned Air Force captain who was a bombardier during the war. Fredric March co-stars as a middle-aged banker who served as an Army infantry sergeant. The third protagonist is a young sailor (Harold Russell) whose hands were replaced with prosthetic hooks following a ship explosion. (Russell, a non-professional actor, was an actual double amputee.) The film eschews an upbeat treatment of the men's circumstances. The bombardier comes from a working-poor family and has no marketable skills; he can only find work as a drugstore floor associate and food-counter server. The banker struggles with alcohol abuse and doubts about his family and profession. The sailor feels shame over the challenges his disability creates for his loved ones. One wishes the film were better than it is. The dramatic situations, such as the banker’s conflicts with executives over veterans' loans, or the unhappily married bombardier’s growing involvement with another woman, are too simply conceived and too cleanly resolved. The negative aspects of alcohol abuse are downplayed; drunken behavior is tastelessly used for comic relief. The picture actively shies away from any moral ambivalence towards the characters. The attempts at allegory, such as the bombardier walking through an airfield filled with idled, stripped warplanes, are generally heavy-handed. But for all the film’s flaws, it’s an affecting piece of work. The men’s alienation is powerfully rendered at times, and this stays with one long after the picture is over. It was an enormous popular success and a multiple Academy Award winner, including Best Picture and Best Director. Fredric March and Harold Russell respectively won the Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor prizes. The cast’s standout, though, is Teresa Wright, who gives a strikingly expressive performance as the banker’s adult daughter. Robert E. Sherwood is credited with the screenplay, which was based on the novella Glory for Me, by MacKinlay Kantor. Gregg Toland was the cinematographer. Other cast members include Myrna Loy, Virginia Mayo, and Hoagy Carmichael.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Short Take: The Southerner

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The Southerner, a 1945 Hollywood effort by the great French filmmaker Jean Renoir, has a gritty beauty. Its sympathetic though unsentimental portrayal of U. S. tenant farmers has much the same tone as Jean-François Millet's paintings of rustic life in France. Zachary Scott stars as a seasonal farm worker who decides to begin a new life as a sharecropper. The house on the plot he rents is a rundown hovel, and the ground is harsh and untilled. But he, his wife (Betty Field), his grandmother (Beulah Bondi), and his two young children make a dedicated go of it. Their travails are many--a hard winter, one child's illness, sabotage from a resentful neighbor (J. Carrol Naish)--but they maintain their resolve to see things through. There are also happy times, such as the beauty of the blossoming fields, the affectionate hijinks at a wedding reception, and the use of a giant catfish to settle a feud. Many filmmakers would treat this material with a patronizing eye, but not Renoir; his magnanimous sensibility suffuses it all. His cinematic mastery is also on full display. The action is staged to take maximum advantage of the deep-space compositions. The visuals always keep one aware of the farmers relative to their environment. They're sometimes the land's masters, and sometimes its fools. Zachary Scott, best known for playing cads and scoundrels, embodies the quiet nobility of the farmer as completely as can be. The screenplay, attributed to Renoir, is based on Hold Autumn in Your Hand, a 1941 novel by George Sessions Perry. Hugo Butler wrote the preliminary adaptation. William Faulkner and Nunnally Johnson made uncredited contributions. The fine cinematography is by Lucien Andriot.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Short Take: The Bells of St. Mary's

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The year 1945 saw the release of The Bells of St. Mary's, director-producer Leo McCarey's sequel to his 1943 Oscar-winning hit Going My Way. To say The Bells of St. Mary's eclipsed its predecessor at the box office is an understatement. It was the most commercially successful live-action film of the 1940s. Its profile has faded, though, and it's not hard to see why. While amiable, it doesn't have the heft or sophistication of an enduring film. McCarey, screenwriter Dudley Nichols, and stars Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman were just looking to put together a breezy good time for audiences. Crosby reprises his Going My Way role as Roman Catholic priest Father O'Malley. The film begins as he undertakes his new assignment: he's to be the pastor at St. Mary's, a rundown inner-city parish school. The supervising nun is played by Ingrid Bergman, and the two quickly find themselves at friendly odds about how to run things. The story is mostly a series of vignettes that take place over the school year. The most amusing scenes are those involving the nun's efforts to teach a bullied boy how to box. The most charming is the nativity play put on by the school's first-graders. There are a few storylines that thread through the picture, such as the efforts to get a miserly local developer (Henry Travers) to donate his new building to the parish. Bing Crosby performs several songs, although the standout musical scene is probably Bergman's rendition of "Varvindar Friska (Spring Breezes)" in her native Swedish. It all goes down quite pleasantly. Ingrid Bergman's smile is especially memorable.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Short Take: The Naughty Nineties

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

There aren't many films that deserve classic status for just a single scene. But The Naughty Nineties is one of them. This 1945 vehicle for the Bud Abbott and Lou Costello comedy duo features what is perhaps the finest recorded performance of their renowned "Who's on First?" skit. The sketch has the pair talking about baseball players, and the players have commonplace words and phrases for nicknames. (Who's on first base, What's on second, I Don't Know is on third, etc.) The joke is that the Costello character doesn't realize the words and phrases are the names, and he thinks the Abbott character is jerking him around. It's a witty, masterfully sustained piece of extended wordplay, and Costello's handling of his character's mounting exasperation is hilarious. The rest of the film is a better than average Abbott and Costello comedy. The setting is a showboat on the Mississippi River in the 1890s. Abbott plays an actor who oversees the boat's stage shows, and Costello is his sidekick and gofer. In the first act, the captain (Henry Travers) loses most of his equity in the ship in a crooked card game. The gamblers who now have controlling interest turn the boat into a floating casino. The actor, the sidekick, and other ship personnel connive to restore ownership to the captain. The plot is slight, and it has a quick, easy resolution. It doesn't strive to be anything more than a scaffolding for Abbott and Costello's comedy routines. The standout after "Who's on First?" is probably "Eating Catfish," in which the Costello character believes his catfish dinner has been prepared from a (still meowing) housecat. The "Lower/Higher" sketch, which has Costello's character mistaking orders to the stage crew as singing directions, is pretty funny as well. The director, Jean Yarbrough, keeps the pacing brisk.