Tuesday, 8/18 – Cavalcade may be the most obscure Best Picture winner of all time, but at least I can check it off my own list. My thoughts ended up taking up so much space I just decided to share them as a separate review, but to sum up, it’s not too great; it’s stagy, ham-handed, and just has very little to offer a modern audience. It’s not a bad film, and totally watchable if you’re an Oscar completist, but that’s about the only reason you’d have to watch the damned thing. 59/100
Spoilers for some films.
I popped in American Psycho and ended up watching pretty much the whole thing. I’d seen it before, and a film like this could command a full fucking essay if I so desired, so I’ll focus instead on a couple of thoughts I had while watching it:
- I’d really like to do a piece on films which may not be bad in of themselves, but which have a problematic fanbase which taints the films by extension. This is most definitely one such film; even though it was directed by a woman (Mary Harron) and adapted from the novel by two women (Harron and Guinevere Turner, who has a small role), it’s been accused, as has the novel, of being a misogynistic work and a glorification of violence and drug abuse. I don’t believe it is one, but that’s a matter for another, longer discussion.
- This film really feels to me like a rough draft for a longer and broader take on the material. It was made with a much lower budget than previous attempts had been accorded, and it’s not all that long–102 minutes about. It feels like it’s all a bit less than it could have been (Willem Dafoe and Reese Witherspoon, in particular, feel as if their roles were cut down).
Anyway, issues aside, it’s a showcase for a great performance by Christian Bale and it has some great lines in the script. I think I scored it about a 75/100. That seems fair.
Tuesday/Wednesday, 8/19 – I also rewatched Zoolander. Someday I’d like to write an overview of Ben Stiller’s directorial career. He’s got some unusual quirks as a director, and while I don’t think any of his films are perfect, they all have a certain offbeat quality I enjoy. Zoolander is pretty damn offbeat, too–it’s outwardly a silly farce, but the story is more high-concept and the humor less obvious than you would expect. It’s a weird film, and it took me a couple of views to really appreciate it. I don’t know if I’d say it’s a favorite, but it’s hard not to like. I hope the sequel is good.
I scored it 67/100 when I first saw it. That’s obviously too low; I’d probably go somewhere around a 79 instead.
Thursday, 8/21-Friday, 8/22 – Continuing the rewatches (side note: I really want to do a piece on films I find compulsively rewatchable), I saw Murder on the Orient Express again. It too is not perfect (the first act is pretty shaky), but once the murder occurs and Poirot begins his investigation, it’s just dandy. Albert Finney is a great Poirot, and he’s surrounded by a great cast (though how Ingrid Bergman managed a third Oscar for a nothing part is beyond me–Lauren Bacall would’ve been a much better choice) as he negotiates one of the quintessential whodunnits.
I also must reserve special mention for Richard Rodney Bennett’s score, which is absolutely magnificent. It’s centered around two themes: one a kind of “Oriental Express waltz” which is lush and beautiful, and one an eerie, string-heavy “murder theme” which provides an excellent contrast to the waltz. While I can’t argue with him losing the Oscar to The Godfather Part II (especially since the first film was disqualified), he would have been a hell of a choice.
Great entertainment, very watchable, very witty and clever…just highly recommended. 83/100
I then went to see Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence, which I mean to write about at greater length. I’ll just say that, while I have some issues with it (Oppenheimer’s pacing can be sluggish, and the ostensible central figure of the film is somewhat underexplored), it captures some truly horrific and heartbreaking moments, especially those where the perpetrators of the Indonesian massacres, who have long boasted of and been glorified for their crimes, shirk responsibility when confronted with the death of a single man.
It’s a little less singular than its predecessor, The Act of Killing, but I think they’re both required viewing. The murder of a million people is not to be overlooked. I will say more in due time. 85/100
Saturday, 8/23 – As with Cavalcade, I ended up writing so much about Mister Buddwing that I made it a separate review. To sum up, it’s got some interesting qualities to it, and two very good performances from Suzanne Pleshette and Jean Simmons, but James Garner is miscast in the title role (weakness is just not a Garnerian quality–he’s best when he can be slick and snarky), and the resolution is profoundly unsatisfactory. 64/100
The End of the Tour – It wasn’t just the good reviews that made me want to see The End of the Tour, it was that those reviews suggested a film of unusual intellectual depth, a film where the discussion of themes would be a major part of the action–which, when done right, can be the kind of film I absolutely love.
I didn’t absolutely love The End of the Tour. I didn’t even really like it. Oh, it’s well made, has a great performance by Jason Segel, and has some good writing. But it’s not the great ideological drama I hoped for–and it belongs to that tiresome category of biopics which puts a less interesting character front and center to distract us from who we really came to see.
In this case, David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg), a not terribly successful fiction writer who works for Rolling Stone and urges his editor to let him interview David Foster Wallace (Segel), who’s risen to literary stardom on the basis of his mammoth Infinite Jest. He spends a few days with Wallace in the wintry wastes of central Illinois and Minneapolis (the last stop on a book tour Wallace is giving), and they have their discussions, their tense moments (and a brief falling-out which doesn’t feel dramatized in the slightest), before parting on good terms. It’s bookended by Lipsky reminiscing about Wallace after his tragic suicide in 2008.
I’ve owned Infinite Jest for years (I even remember where I first discovered it–at the Southbank Centre Book Market in London), but I’ve never read it, and my knowledge of Wallace came mostly from an article about his struggles with depression published shortly after his death. That may have put me at a disadvantage regarding the themes broached during Wallace and Lipsky’s conversations–and it’s worth mentioning that some of Wallace’s friends have challenged the depiction of him in the film–but in the end, I found their discourse surprisingly dull.
In what has been a fairly bad year for adapted screenplays so far, Donald Marguiles’ script is still one of the top 5 of the year to date, but I found myself not much engaged by the banter. Wallace is clearly frustrated by the expectations of success and the attendant invasion of his privacy, and Lipsky can’t help but deify him (and become frustrated when his idol shows his flawed humanity), but the hoped-for depth isn’t really there. To paraphrase Capote, that’s not talking, it’s speaking.
Plus, too much of the film focuses on Lipsky, and he proves a less-than-scintillating protagonist. Eisenberg is a good actor, but he can be grating, and when Lipsky gets peevish at Wallace, or at his girlfriend (Anna Chlumsky, wasted) for seemingly flirting with Wallace, he just comes off as petulant and childish. I’ve never read Lipsky’s book and for all I know his behavior was exaggerated for the purposes of drama, but I do know I was not interested in his story. Eisenberg actually does do well, given that he plays the role as it was written, but he was never going to be the highlight of the film.
Luckily, Segel is magnificent as Wallace–haunted, well-meaning, frustrated–and he disappears completely into the role, showing no trace of the comic actor we all know. I don’t know if he’ll be up for Oscars, but I certainly wouldn’t object to some awards attention for him, as he really does make the film worth watching.
James Ponsoldt does a decent job with the direction, Jakob Ihre shoots it pretty nicely, and Danny Elfman provides a good score, which I’d like to listen to on its own so as to better judge it.
If you do want to check out The End of the Tour, I’d suggest doing so in a setting where you can skip the scenes without Segel and just focus on his performance. It’s the best thing about the film by far, and a fitting tribute to Wallace. It’s not a bad film, but he’s its raison d’etre. 73/100
Sunday, 8/23 – Room at the Top was one of those films which made a big splash at the time but faded from prominence when other films routinely surpassed it–especially in terms of depicting sexuality, in which this was an early depiction of non-marital sexuality in a somewhat positive context.
In brief, it deals with Joe Lampton (Laurence Harvey), a working-class young man in 1940s northern England, who takes a job in the city of Warnley, and soon proclaims his ambition to climb the social ladder by winning the hand of Susan Brown (Heather Sears), daughter of a wealthy industrialist (Donald Wolfit). While Susan is fond of him, their relationship is hampered by the class structures still in place, which leads to Susan’s family and circle condescending to Joe, and his own friends and associates warning him to keep to his strata.
Joe develops a relationship with Alice Aisgill (Simone Signoret), an older woman in a loveless marriage, and soon becomes fonder of her than of Susan. Eventually, they plan to run away together, but Alice’s husband refuses to allow it, and Susan becomes pregnant with Joe’s child, leading her father to issue Joe an ultimatum: leave Warnley for good, or stay and marry Susan–but break things off with Alice. Joe reluctantly opts for the latter, and Alice bitterly notes that he was what he wants. She kills herself by driving while drunk, and Joe marries Susan, having achieved his goals at a dear, dear price.
Room was nominated for six Oscars and won two, so let’s just go through those noms:
- Picture: It makes sense, given when the film came out (1959). It was unusually mature for its time, the start of the angry-young-man cycle, and though the story may center around the social norms of postwar England, the Faustian deal Joe makes in the end certainly can apply to the illusion of the “American Dream”, which was increasingly scrutinized at the time. That it beat out Some Like It Hot, Imitation of Life, Wild Strawberries, North by Northwest, and The 400 Blows (all of which received Oscar nominations in other categories) for a nomination doesn’t look so great 55 years on, but it’s certainly not a bad film and in the context of the times, it works.
- Director – Jack Clayton: Clayton’s direction is fine, the setting is fairly well established, and there are a few moments which score some artistic points (Joe and Alice’s trip to the seaside, for example), but it’s nothing that really needed a nomination. I can’t remember that much about it, other than it wasn’t anything that special. But when a film is sufficiently acclaimed, it sometimes gets a directorial nod whether it merited one or not.
- Adapted Screenplay (WON): Neil Paterson’s script, from John Braine’s novel, actually took the Oscar over Anatomy of a Murder, Ben-Hur, Some Like It Hot, and The Nun’s Story. At least two of those would’ve been far better choices. Again, the script might have packed more of a punch at the time, and it’s not bad, but it feels a bit pat now, a bit like the necessary forerunner for superior successors. Joe and Alice are well-drawn characters, and the dialogue is mostly pretty good (there is one moment, where Joe loses his temper when Alice reveals she posed nude years earlier, which feels very out of place), but many of the supporting characters are fairly one-dimensional; Alice’s husband in particular seems to be an asshole for the sake of being an asshole. (I should also note the DVD lacked subtitles, which combined with the accents and sound quality made understanding the dialogue rather difficult at times.)
- Actor – Laurence Harvey: Harvey’s great here. He had a great voice for playing cold anger, and while Joe’s rage burns a good deal hotter than Raymond Shaw’s, his voice is no less pleasurable to listen to. Harvey conveys Joe’s simmering resentments perfectly, his fierce ambition, his cynical humor–and his growing affection for Alice, which makes his scenes with Signoret so powerful. Certainly Harvey deserved to win the Oscar more than Charlton Heston, and given the film’s acclaim I’m touch surprised he didn’t take the Oscar, but what matters is not the award but the performance, and the performance nary puts a foot wrong.
- Actress – Simone Signoret (WON): My only issue with Signoret’s win is that she’s awfully close to being a supporting role; Alice doesn’t become a major player in the action for a good 20 minutes, she’s offscreen for extended periods in the middle, and leaves a good 15 minutes before the end (her death is offscreen). Beyond that, she does a very good job here; she’s charming, touching, and sympathetic, and we really get a sense of how out-of-place the French Alice is in industrial England, and how trapped she is by her loveless marriage. She and Harvey are excellent together, and their shared scenes are definitely the film’s best. I haven’t seen any of the competing performances, so I can’t say if she absolutely deserved to win, but she is very good indeed.
- Supporting Actress – Hermione Baddeley: Now, this nomination is notable for one reason: Baddeley’s is the shortest performance ever nominated for an Oscar, with about two and a half minutes of screentime. Baddeley plays Elspeth, a friend of Alice’s who lends her apartment to Alice and Joe for their trysts. She warns Joe not to break Alice’s heart, tries to console her during a break in their relationship, rages at Joe after Alice’s death, and watches at Joe and Susan’s wedding, her face falling in despair when Joe says “I will”. She’s okay in the role, certainly, but I’m not sure why the Academy took notice of her. Certainly in a year with Juanita Moore and Susan Kohner’s incredible performances in Imitation of Life, Baddeley should never have won (and they all lost to Shelley Winters for The Diary of Anne Frank), but for the sheer novelty of it, I’m fine with the nomination. (Coincidentally, she was in a relationship with Harvey years earlier.)
Room at the Top is not much remembered now, perhaps the most forgotten film to get Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor, and Actress nominations, especially of the postwar era, and while it’s not the masterpiece it was once acclaimed as, it’s well made, solidly written, and at times very well acted. It’s worth seeking out at least once. 77/100
After finishing Room at the Top, I put on Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. I was watching it somewhat passively while doing other things (it was also very late), so I don’t have much to add, other than it’s still a good if overly tidy film elevated by some superior acting. Still, 10 days is way too soon to get married. Seriously. Did these people learn nothing from Frozen? 78/100