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Movie Journal 8/17/15

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“Fuck tha police, comin’ straight from the underground…”

 

Wednesday, 8/12 – Having previously been blown away by Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life (one of my top 50 films as ranked here), and having also enjoyed his Written on the Wind, I decided to tackle Imitation‘s primary competition for the rank of Sirk’s masterpiece–All That Heaven Allows.

I think it falls a hair short of Imitation‘s brilliance, but it’s still a rather amazing film, and Criterion’s Blu-Ray is beyond reproach. The story, which was a major influence on Todd Haynes’ Sirk homage Far From Heaven, involves Cary (Jane Wyman), a well-to-do widow in a small New England town, who one day takes notice of young Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson), son of her longtime gardener, and is soon impressed by his passion for life and nature–especially compared to her own circle, who are fixated on gossip and social mores, and to Harvey (Conrad Nagel), a pleasantly passionless hypochondriac who seems her most agreeable suitor.

 

She and Ron fall in love, and begin to discuss marriage, but her children–arrogant, ambitious Ned (William Reynolds) and Freud-obsessed Kay (Gloria Talbott)–find the prospect repellent, and give Ron the cold shoulder when he visits; he and Cary then visit her country club, and when another suitor of hers, the brutish alcoholic Howard (Donald Curtis), is put in his place by Ron, scandal ensues, and it seems as if Cary and Ron’s happiness is a lost cause…

What struck me most about the film, and what makes Criterion’s edition of it such a gift, is Russell Metty’s awe-inspiring Technicolor cinematography. From the bright green lawns to the bright blue sky, to Wyman’s (and Agnes Moorehead’s) vivid red hair, to the lush glow of Ron’s hearth, Metty and Sirk give us a riot of color, and it’s endlessly pleasing to the eye. The composition is masterful as well; the shot of Cary reflected in the television which supposedly will ease her loneliness is one of the great shots of the 50s, and the image of her and Ron framed by the snow-speckled window of his home (an old mill restored to quaint livability) is also frequently cited, as symbolic of the film’s lush romanticism.

 
Sirk has gained much latter-day attention for his subversive nature, and certainly All That Heaven Allows doesn’t go easy on 50s America, showing its values as hollow and repressive and its obsessions as vapid. When Harvey tells Cary that he is not a passionate man, but suggests that love and companionship are what truly matter, the look of barely-concealed agony on Cary’s face is a rejection not only of 50s puritanism, but of the all-too-resilient ideas that sexuality is not for the aging (though Cary can hardly be much more than 40), and that women should not seek sex. If the specific situations are of their time, the emotions are timeless.

Sirk was also a masterful director of actors, and certainly much of the film’s power comes from Wyman’s beautiful performance. We see Cary blossom in the face of new experience and fresh passion, and we see her repress her frustrations and sufferings for the sake of decorum; both modes are poignant in their own way, because Wyman never sets a foot wrong, striking the perfect balance between restraint and release. It’s a truly stunning piece of work.

Hudson is nearly as good, the role suiting his slightly wooden style perfectly. Ron might as well have stepped out of a romance novel, so perfect is he, half passionate lover and half rugged individualist. That latter facet of his personality, along with the revelation that he drew a friend out of the rat race to join Ron in living among nature, and along with Ron’s steadfast defiance of society’s attempts to pigeonhole him, make him almost seem like an Ayn Rand hero. That his ruggedness is subverted at the end only makes him more perfectly Sirkian.

(It’s interesting to compare Hudson’s work here to his work in John Frankenheimer’s fascinating Seconds a decade later. Both films deal with the repressiveness of WASP society and the efforts of the protagonist to choose their own destiny. But Seconds is a bleak, paranoid nightmare, and All That Heaven Allows is not quite that.)

The rest of the cast is solid, though aside from Moorehead’s waspish performance it’s really Wyman and Hudson’s show–which I really have no issue with.

The script by Peg Fenwick does rush through some plot points, especially near the end, and at 89 minutes it feels a little over-brisk, but that’s about the worst thing I can say about this otherwise beautiful film. I call it a must. 90/100

Thursday, 8/13 – I finally went ahead and saw Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, despite not having seen any of the other films in the series. I confess there’s not much to say about it, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

The plot, involving a mysterious terrorist group known as The Syndicate, is mostly an excuse for the action sequences, especially a suite in the middle that begins with an underwater heist, leads into a car chase, and then ends with a motorcycle chase. On one hand, the action is superbly executed and exciting, and the cast is having a ball with the action and with each other, and the action scenes are not unlike lavish musical numbers linked by a simple plot and snappy patter–as indeed we get here.

On the other hand, it’s hard for a film with a fairly generic plot to make a real impression on me, and while I enjoyed MI6, it didn’t truly stick with me. It didn’t help that its main villain (Sean Harris) isn’t terribly memorable. But it most definitely entertained me as it ran, and that isn’t nothing. Tom Cruise is in good form, Simon Pegg is in good form (especially given how bad his recent solo films have apparently been), Jeremy Renner is arguably better (or at least more interesting) than he is as Hawkeye, and Ving Rhames, while underused, is Ving Rhames.

 
Many reviews have made mention of Rebecca Ferguson’s work as the mysterious Ilsa Faust, and I must say, she makes a hell of an impression. A true femme fatale, she’s glamorous and tough at the same time, and one never doubts her capability in the field, even as we wonder just which side she’s on. She’s the type of character designed to steal the show, and Ferguson does so without diminishing the other characters. I hope to see more from her.

That’s really all there is. It’s genuinely exciting, it’s genuinely fun, it’s technically accomplished, and doesn’t leave a hangover. What more can you reasonably ask for from a blockbuster? 82/100

Sunday, 8/16 – Continuing my trek through the movies I took out of the library, I viewed one of the seemingly more random entries in the Criterion Collection, Delmer Daves’ 1956 Western Jubal. At the end of it, I wasn’t really convinced it deserved to be part of the Criterion canon, but it’s certainly a solid film in its own right.

The plot gets a bit thick, so here goes: Jubal Troop (Glenn Ford), is a hard-luck cowhand who’s found lost in the wilderness by cattle rancher Shep Horgan (Ernest Borgnine), and brought back to Shep’s ranch, where he’s given a warm reception, except by Pinky (Rod Steiger), who mocks Jubal for having herded sheep to make ends meet. Jubal discovers that Shep is married, and his wife Mae (Valerie French), is less than in love with her crude, boisterous husband. She soon begins a flirtation, which Jubal rejects, but which nonetheless deepens Pinky’s hatred of him, as Pinky was previously the object of Mae’s attention.

Pinky’s disgust is multiplied when Shep makes Jubal his new foreman, and when a caravan of religious settlers (possibly Mormons) stops on Shep’s land, drawing threats of violence from Pinky, Jubal’s decision to let them stay as long as they need to intensifies their feud. Naomi (Felicia Farr), a member of the caravan, is much taken with Jubal, and when the word (much exaggerated) gets around to Mae, she is devastated. Jubal becomes closer to Naomi (without making romantic overtures), and is threatened by another member of her company (can’t recall his name offhand), who reveals Naomi was “promised” to him.

Shep, hitherto oblivious to Mae’s dislike of him, has his suspicions raised by Pinky after Jubal accompanies Mae back to the ranch house from their camp and does not promptly return. He goes to the house and finds Mae alone, and when she calls out Jubal’s name in her sleep, he demands to know if she and Jubal slept together. She affirms it, even though Jubal rejected her advances yet again. Shep finds Jubal in a saloon with Reb Haislipp (Charles Bronson), another ranch hand who came with the caravan, and shoots at Jubal, not killing but wounding him. Reb throws the unarmed Jubal a pistol and he regretfully kills Shep.

A manhunt ensues for the two of them, goaded by Pinky, who expects to recapture Mae’s affection–but the truth will out, as the principals learn to their regret and/or redemption.

 
Othello is frequently mentioned as an influence on Jubal, and certainly Pinky has an Iago-esque quality to him; he may be less cunning than Iago, but he has the same relentless manipulative nature, while Shep’s pathetic gullibility is not totally dissimilar, if much simpler, than Othello’s “loving not wisely but too well”. But Jubal isn’t much like Michael Cassio and Mae is nothing like Desdemona, so the comparison isn’t perfect.

The acting is strong, with Ford showing both how Jubal has been beaten down by life and how morally steadfast he remains in spite of it. I haven’t seen much of Ford’s leading man-era work, but he’s very good here indeed. Borgnine, who got to play more sympathetic roles in the wake of Marty, makes Shep’s obtuseness cheerful and likable and tortured and pathetic with equal skill. Steiger is convincingly hateful, while French, a shaky accent aside (she was British; we’re told Mae is Canadian), makes Mae’s frustration and disgust, which eventually finds an outlet in flirtation, likewise believable.

The most memorable aspect of the film is Charles Lawton Jr.’s CinemaScope cinematography, which makes striking use of light and shadow and good use of the wide frame. The scenes of Mae watching from a window or from the shadows are especially memorable–along with French’s performance, they take the film close to Sirk territory. David Raksin’s score isn’t bad either.

The script is fine; it’s a little too knotty for its own good, and the ending is pretty abrupt, but the characters are solidly drawn and there’s some shocking innuendo for the time (“Used to be, if you ever wanted some wood, you just called for Pinky”).

I still don’t really know why Criterion added Jubal to their catalog, besides wanting to twin it with Daves’ 3:10 to Yuma. But here it is, canonized for the nonce, and it’s certainly far from the worst entry in the Collection (Heaven’s Gate–coincidentally, another Western–is far, far, far worse). By all means worth a watch for Western completists. 80/100

 

Finally, I saw Straight Outta Compton, and I mean to see it again before I rank it for awards or write a longer review, in part because I went from not expecting much (other than vaguely hoping for it to be good), to being bolstered by the strong reviews and epic running time (147 minutes), to not quite knowing what to make of the film before my eyes.

I confess I’m not tremendously familiar with N.W.A., their music, or their biographies. I knew the basics, I knew “Fuck Tha Police”, and I’d experienced the work of Dr. Dre through listening to The Chronic and of Ice Cube through seeing the Friday series (one scene actually shows him working on the script of the first film). But a lot of what occurs in the film was new to me, and the film seems to assume familiarity with the history on display, which meant that I found parts of the film less than illuminating.

But it wasn’t just my lack of historical knowledge that made the film rough going at times. The script is uneven, trying to fit too much in and trying to include too many characters who go undeveloped, while large chunks of screentime are devoted to parties and poorly explained business machinations. Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and Eazy-E all get ample screentime, but MC Ren and DJ Yella are mostly relegated to the background. There are other characters–the wives, mothers, brothers, and associates of the members of N.W.A., but aside from Jerry Heller and Suge Knight, most don’t get much to do.

The film’s moderate messiness might be in part the fault of director F. Gary Gray (director of the original Friday); I suspect a more dynamic director would’ve held the film together better, or compensated for the scripting issues with style. Gray just doesn’t quite get there, and one can only wonder what Spike Lee (or John Singleton) would’ve done with it.

Ice Cube and Dr. Dre were executive producers, and one might well argue they’re both portrayed in too faultless a light; Ice Cube’s lyrics for “No Vaseline” were accused of anti-Semitism, and Heller is clearly offended, but his offense is ignored and when an interviewer asks Cube about it, he is blown off. Meanwhile, Dre’s assault of Dee Barnes is essentially ignored; her name is certainly never spoken in the film.

 
But, despite the issues (which perhaps some additional research and another viewing will resolve), there’s a lot the film has going for it. The acting is extremely good for the most part: O’Shea Jackson Jr., Ice Cube’s son, plays his father, and is not only a dead ringer for the old man, but conveys the same defiant flippancy; it feels as if we’re seeing the real Cube, and not an impersonation. Corey Hawkins’ Dr. Dre overcomes the script’s sanitizing of his character and convinces us of Dre’s vision and ambition. Jason Mitchell is Eazy–E and has perhaps the greatest arc; the film begins with him taking part in a criminal transaction before the LAPD literally breaks down the door with a tank, and ends with him dying of AIDS; the script doesn’t fill in quite enough of the in-between, but Mitchell is also thoroughly believable.

The film doesn’t quite know how to handle Heller; initially he seems to be genuinely concerned for their well-being and artistry, but he seems to become a villain near the end, with only generic references made to managerial chicanery on his part. Giamatti is so dynamic a performer that he can’t help but make Jerry more compelling–and more likable–than the script seems to intend.  And R. Marcus Taylor is fearsome as Suge Knight; I for one hope he’s able to reprise his role. Lakeith Lee Stanfield, a fine actor who was wasted in Dope earlier this year, barely gets a look in as Snoop Dogg.

 
And while Gray isn’t a consistently great director, he manages some viscerally powerful moments; the opening LAPD raid, where the battering ram on a police tank knocks a woman aside like a rag doll (a moment which horrifies because it’s so far beyond the pale), a gang confrontation on a school bus, an N.W.A. performance in Detroit where attempts to ban “Fuck Tha Police” are defied, resulting in an uprising which ends with N.W.A. under arrest–and their points about police brutality proven.

I’ll stop there, because as noted, I want to revisit the film and review it in full elsewhere. I don’t know what score I’d give it or just how I feel about it. I’m somewhere in the middle right now. But I can say for sure that I’m glad of its success.

See you next week.

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