In a weird way, this film was almost like Hitchcock’s clap back against the initial response to Vertigo. His 1958 film struggled at the box office; audiences found it to be slow-paced and a little confusing, with a depressing ending and a mystery that got solved with nearly a third of the movie left to go. With this film, you can almost hear Hitchcock grumbling: “Fine, then, we’ll give y’all lots of action, lots of plot twists, a last-minute save and a honeymoon at the end. So there.” He even terminated his working relationship with Jimmy Stewart over fears that audiences hadn’t bought Stewart as a leading man any more. I can’t say for certain whether Hitchcock was right about why Vertigo didn’t seem to work at the time….but, I have to say, I did like North by Northwest better.
It’s still kind of silly, but in a fun way. Cary Grant is “Roger Thornhill”, an advertising executive caught up in an espionage caper through a sheer case of mistaken identity. One minute he’s meeting some clients for after-work cocktails at the Plaza, and the next minute, two thugs are hauling him off to Westchester at gunpoint and dragging him to a mansion where an oily British man is calling him “George Kaplan” and asking for his cooperation. When Thornhill – understandably – protests that he’s the wrong guy, the two thugs attempt to kill him. He survives, and escapes – but “Philip Vandamm” (James Mason) and his crew have him in their sights, framing him for murder and then staging their own manhunt alongside the police as Thornhill flees across the country, dodging policemen, assassins with switchblades, tanker trucks, and crop duster airplanes. Along the way, he is sometimes helped – and sometimes hindered – by the pretty Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), who may be in league with Vandamm – but also may not be. And the action stays at a fever pitch until the very end, as Kendall, Thornhill and Vandamm are chasing each other across the tops of the Mount Rushmore heads.
There’s also some business about an Aztec statue with microfilm hidden inside it, and some FBI espionage undercover stuff, but that barely registered with me – because it didn’t really need to. It’s the very definition of a Hitchcock MacGuffin – the thing that is the excuse for the whole rest of the story to happen. We don’t even learn about the microfilm until well into the plot, but by that time we’ve been following Thornhill on his race to Figure Stuff Out for long enough that we’re hooked. The charismatic Cary Grant is part of why; he’s not in screwball comedy mode, but he’s got enough of a whiff of it that I was drawn in and wanted to follow along to find out what the heck was happening. I also got a kick out of how forward Eve Kendall was during her first meeting with Thornhill – for the 1950s she is pretty darn racy. She also turns out to be a good deal more than just the pretty damsel who gets swept up into things – she’s got skin and a brain in the game, and ultimately I ended up liking her a lot more than other Hitchcock heroines.
So – yeah, I guess I’m one of the unwashed philistines Hitchcock was trying toplacate after Vertigo. I’m comfortable with that.
Oh, bleah. Okay, yes, this film has come cultural/historical/whatever significance – with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin on hand, it’s considered an early “Rat Pack” film – and the cast gives good performances, but I found the plot irretrievably soapy and wasn’t interested at all.
Sinatra is “Dave Hirsh”, a World War II Vet and middling-successful writer – he’s written two books and wrote for Stars and Stripes, but blew a lot of the money on wine, women and song. At the top of the film, he’s waking up from a bender on a bus en route to his Indiana hometown; his drinking buddies thought it’d be hysterical to send him there, and the cocktail waitress Ginny who’d taken a shine to him (Shirley MacLaine) has joined him. Dave swore he’d never return, but decides to spend at least a few days catching up with folks – including his brother Frank (Arthur Kennedy), a respectable businessman with a social-climber wife (Leora Dana) and teenage daughter (Betty Lou Keim). After gently trying to talk Ginny into returning home and checking into the local hotel, Dave starts his hometown tour.
Dave and his sister-in-law Agnes do not get along; she sees Dave as crude and lower-class, and Dave resents how she’d treated him as a child (Dave is a good deal younger than Frank, and when their parents died she had Dave placed in an orphanage instead of she and Frank taking him in). But Dave’s niece Dawn likes him and Frank wants to mend fences. Also – the prestigious Professor Robert French (Larry Gates) admires his work, as does Professor French’s daughter Gwen (Martha Hyer); Gwen’s single to boot, Agnes realizes, and could maybe reform her wayward brother-in-law. So when Frank asks to have Dave for dinner, Agnes says sure – if she can also invite a couple guests?….Her scheme works, to a point – Dave does fall for Gwen, but she does not reciprocate. Her interest, she tells him, is strictly in his work. It’s still enough to cause Dave to give up drinking and dig out a manuscript he’s been working on, using it as an excuse to win Gwen around.
However, Dave can’t leave the low life behind entirely. He stumbles across an underground card game run by “Bama Dillert” (Dean Martin), another drifter who’s put down roots in town. Dillert introduces him to some of the other less-fussy women in town – including Ginny, who’s stuck around after all, in hopes of catching Dave’s eye again. And thus is Dave torn between two women, and two worlds – the polished, intellectual Gwen, who fascinates him (and may be warming to him) but comes from an upper-class world, or the crude, naive Ginny, who’s a little bit of a ditz but who adores him. …Oh, what ever shall he do?
Yeah, that “who will Dave end up with” is the big engine of the plot, which always just bores me to tears. Especially since Gwen’s portrayed as a repressed spinster who actually did like Dave all along but was just Afraid Of Her Feelings At First or whatever. I actually respected their initial scenes, where she gives him a righteous smackdown about how she likes his work but that is different from liking him – so then when we got to the obligatory moment where she is finally Overcome With Passion and kisses him, I actually shouted “oh, come on” at the screen. It is such a trite, demeaning character trope; one I admit I used to fall for, but now really hate.
Conversely, and happily, “trite” and “demeaning” are words that Shirley MacLaine seems to avoid with her performance as Ginny. She could have really gone ditzy and crude, but her Ginny seems more like Giuletta Masina’s Cabiria from that film; a little idealistic, a little tough, not quite the brightest but strong enough to command respect from others. Ginny melts and fawns over Dave when he shows her even the tiniest bit of kindness, but when he tries to push her away, instead of dissolving into a puddle she draws herself up and scolds him. “I’m a human being, you know! You gotta be nicer!” She even summons the courage to give Gwen a surprise visit at the school where she teaches, to size her up and have a bit of girl talk straight out of the lyrics to Jolene. ….That talk has some unintended consequences which also made me grumble, but it fleshed Ginny out a lot.
Still, the “which woman will Dave choose” plot bored me. It seems to have even bored the screenwriter, since they threw in a bunch of other subplots that made the whole thing feel like a soap opera – Frank Hirsch flirting with his secretary, Dawn starting to Go Bad, a jealous ex-boyfriend of Ginny’s turned stalker. The film even throws in a Serious Illness subplot for Dillert during the last 20 minutes or so that gets completely dropped 5 minutes later. And that’s the hell of it – a lot of these scenes are well shot and well acted, with a few of the plot threads all weaving together into a tense final sequence with Ginny’s ex, gun in hand, tailing Ginny and Dave through a crowd; but those expert shots and those good performances are supporting a story I just plain didn’t like. One saving grace, at least, is that apparently the book which inspired the film had even more soapy subplots, and reviews of the time praised the film for cutting a lot of them out.
For a couple decades mid-Century, the British film company Hammer was kind of a big deal – particularly for its horror films. Part of the draw for film goers was that Hammer films didn’t shy away from gore and Gothic monster stuff – and as time went on, they leaned into that, to the point that it started to feel a bit over-the-top and corny; when gore no longer was a draw, they tried playing up the sex until that didn’t work either. The later Hammer works sound definitely like they would match anyone’s impression of a 50s or 60s “B-movie” or drive-in feature.
But this 1958 adaptation of the famous ur-vampire story was at the beginning of their heyday – and I think I get why they became a thing in the first place.
I talked a lot about adaptations during my original reviews of the Universal Dracula and Frankenstein, and how sometimes over-faithfulness to the original work can do a film a dis-service. This adaptation definitely plays fast and loose with the original story – ditching some plot threads and characters entirely, changing some other characters’ relationships and completely doing away with some of Count Dracula’s powers. But they were really smart about it, and their tweaks ultimately made up a retelling that was lively, attention-getting and much easier to follow.
For example: in the original work, the character “Jonathan Harker” is a real estate solicitor Count Dracula has summoned for a more mundane business deal, and he gets bit by a couple of Dracula’s minions and turns up in a hospital in Budapest with some mysterious blood loss. No one even suspects Dracula is a vampire until he turns up in England and starts snacking on some women there, and the character “Van Helsing” only comes on the scene when Harker’s fiancée “Mina” sees her bestie “Lucy” start to succumb to the same weird blood loss Harker is facing. There’s a whole weird love triangle between Mina, Harker, and the Count, another one with Lucy and a bunch of guys, and a whole lot of primly-worded letters back and forth to people across three different countries while Van Helsing, Harker, and company all figure out how to corner the Count and do him in.
Here, we cut straight to the chase – Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen) already knows Dracula (Christopher Lee) is a vampire, and has gotten himself a job at Dracula’s castle as part of a plan he’s cooked up with Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) to stake him and get things over with. But Dracula finds him out and turns the tables on him, causing consternation in the home of his fiancée – who instead is Lucy (Carol Marsh), and is only a couple towns over instead of all the way in England. But Lucy herself is mysteriously ill, and is being tended to by Mina (Melissa Stribling), who is already married to Mina’s brother. Van Helsing turns up a few days later in search of Harker, checks in with Lucy and Mina, and quickly figures out not only that Harker failed in his mission, but that Dracula has now targeted Lucy – and after that, he’ll probably move on to Mina. Working with Mina’s husband Arthur (Michael Gough), he comes up with a new plan to track the Count down and do him in once and for all.
That is a way simpler distillation of the plot – doing away with all the extraneous stuff which adds color to the text when you’re reading, but bogs things down when you’re watching. It’s similar to the cuts which the Universal film made, so director Terrence Fisher probably knew it would work. And it does work – this film had a quick pace that grabs you right at the start, and it’s easy to follow the story from the word go – even when they throw in some brief “comic” bits involving a paranoid innkeeper or a bureaucratic guy manning a toll booth. Fisher also had the advantage of some better technology – the special effects that he has just plain work better, and he also has the gift of color film instead of the black-and-white of the 1930s.
Fisher also had some really smart people working on the film – particularly Christopher Lee in the title role. In a later interview, Lee confessed that he found the famous Bela Legosi depiction a little ridiculous – ” Surely it is the height of the ridiculous for a vampire to step out of the shadows wearing white tie, tails, patent leather shoes and a full cloak.” Lee ignored all other actors’ takes on the character and instead studied the book – and picked up on an erotic note to the character which other actors had previously ignored. He leaned into that – Legosi’s Dracula stares creepily at his prey, but Lee’s Dracula stares lustfully. It’s a much more “magnetic” performance, and better explains the compulsion Dracula has over his victims. Fisher worked that erotic undercurrent into the rest of the film; when filming one scene, in which Mina comes home after having been lured out by Dracula, Fisher advised Stribling to play it as if she’d just come home from one hell of a one-night stand.
These same elements – the quick pacing, the erotic subtext, the willingness to diverge from the source material – probably shot Hammer in the foot later on. But here they got the balance precisely right, and it was easy for me to see how Hammer Horror was able to capture people’s imaginations for so long.
Some people use their own good fortune to turn themselves into cultural ambassadors. They become patrons to artists or playwrights, throw chamber concerts in their homes, provide big endowments to dance troupes, or the like. They may be in part motivated by a sincere artistic appreciation, or a sense that their privilege carries a responsibility; William Randolph Hearst claimed that he bought up a lot of European artifacts for Hearst Castle because “not everyone in the USA would have the chance to go there and see it in its homeland”. But they may also be motivated by wanting to show off (let’s be honest, how many of his fellow citizens did Hearst really intend to invite into his house to show off his treasures?).
It’s difficult to say which mix of factors motivates Biswambhar Roy (Chhabi Biswas), an aging member of India’s gentry. As a zamindar, or “landlord”, Roy was a semi-autonomous ruler of his family’s lands in Bengal; in his heyday, he lived in a fine mansion, enjoyed riding a beautiful white horse and a gaily-dressed elephant, and doted on his son Khoka (Pinaki Sen Gupta). He had strict rules in place to protect his subjects from moneylenders like the weaselly Mahim Ganguly (Gangapada Bose). But most of all, he loved hosting recitals in his mansion’s music room, sparing no expense to hire the finest talent or serve the finest wine or offer any number of other trimmings – even if he had to sell off some of the family jewels to do it. His wife Mahamaya (Padma Devi) didn’t love that bit, but she tolerated his whims.
But at the start of the movie, all that is in the past (and retold via flashbacks). Mahamaya and Khoka are long gone, as are most of the servants and most of the money. Roy has been a recluse in his mansion, save for occasional annoying visits from Ganguly, and the music room has been locked up for years after a tragic incident. But one afternoon Roy learns that Ganguly wants to host a recital in his own house, featuring the latest rising star – and, well, that simply won’t do if that boor Ganguly shows him up. Even if it takes everything Roy has left, he has to prove himself with one last recital.
I did find this film a little slow going in places; unsurprisingly, it showcases Indian music a lot, but the music sequences at each of the three recitals featured in the film felt a little long for someone like me who’s unfamiliar with Indian music as a rule. Or perhaps I’m just too accustomed to quicker cuts, and the long static shots of a tabla player or a dancer just didn’t grab me. But the performances were still affecting – particularly that of Roy’s faithful manservant Ananta (Kali Sarkar), who is almost canine in his devotion to Roy and who greets the news of the re-opening of the music room with unbridled glee. There is a whole “cleaning” montage to prepare for the recital, with Ananta scrubbing and polishing and shining and dusting for all he’s worth, a big grin on his face the whole time, and during the concert he is grinning just as broadly, dancing in the back of the room and having the time of his life. He seeks Roy out after the concert, once everyone’s gone home, to celebrate with him – but finds that Roy has maybe made a bit too merry and Roy’s various bills, fiscal and emotional, are now all due.
Ultimately, this is an affecting story about how Roy realizes he is now a relic of the past – and decides to make one last stab at dignity,
So my reaction to Hitchcock’s Vertigo followed three rather unique and distinct phases, namely:
Wow, I….suddenly miss seeing films on a big screen.
What the hell.
No, seriously, what the hell.
Allow me to explain.
I miss seeing films on a big screen.
For as long as I can remember, I have been largely indifferent to the visual element of the films I’ve seen. Not completely so – if there’s a shot that is set up especially well, I’d notice that (there are shots in the Tom Hanks film Road To Perditionor the sci-fi film The Cell I’m thinking of in particular), but not to the point where I’d feel deprived if I saw them on home video. “So I see a pretty picture or a good shot in a smaller size,” was my attitude. “So what, it’s still the same image.”
So I was very surprised to find myself watching Saul Bass’ title credits and viscerally wishing I was seeing them on a big screen. I imagined what it would be like to have those dizzying, Spirograph-like patterns completely overwhelming my field of vision, wrapping around even into the peripheral, and for the first time, I felt deprived not having that experience. I can’t say for sure whether that is because of my becoming more immersed in film as a whole, or whether I just miss being in movie theaters; but it was a reaction I wasn’t expecting.
And there are certainly shots during the film where I knew a big screen would have enhanced things as well. The “vertigo” of the title is the bane of detective John “Scottie” Ferguson’s existence (Ferguson is played by Jimmy Stewart); a debilitating fear of heights that hinders him during a rooftop chase. When he slips during the chase and another officer falls to his own death, Ferguson throws in the towel altogether, settling in to a bit of a life sabbatical spent idling around San Francisco and bugging his ex-girlfriend Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes). But an old college friend turned shipping magnate (Tom Helmore) persuades him to take on one last it of detective work as a favor.
All Ferguson’s buddy Gavin wants him to do is follow his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak) and protect her….from herself. Sort of. Madeleine has been slipping into weird fugue states, Gavin claims, temporary trances where she loses all sense of where she is and seems unaware of what she’s doing; she has no memory of them when she snaps out of it, either. Gavin even offers a far-fetched theory that Madeleine is being temporarily possessed. But Ferguson of course finds this ridiculous, and agrees to follow Madeleine around and at least get more info on her actions.
While possession doesn’t seem likely, Madeleine does seem strangely obsessed with a specific dead person. On his first day, Ferguson tails her first to a florist’s, where she selects a very specific bouquet. She visits the grave of a woman named Carlotta Valdes, lingering there for several minutes. Then she visits an art museum, staring at a portrait of that same Carlotta Valdes – who bears a striking resemblance to Madeleine and holds a similar bouquet. Finally, she wanders into the McKittrick Hotel, a bed-and-breakfast run out of an old Victorian mansion, and takes a seat by the window of a top floor room. Ferguson slips in, asking the clerk to escort him up to Madeleine’s room – but when they get there, she’s vanished. Hmm.
Midge and Gavin help Ferguson fill in some holes. Midge is a local history buff and digs up Carlotta Valdes’ story; she’d been the mistress of a wealthy man during Gold Rush San Francisco, but when she had a child, her lover had kept the child as his own and dumped Carlotta, who spent the rest of her days as a recluse in the house now operating as the McKittrick. Gavin adds the detail that Carlotta was Madeleine’s great-grandmother – but that Madeleine didn’t know any of this. Intrigued by the story – and by the beautiful Madeleine – Ferguson rededicates himself to his duties, so he is fortunately on hand the next day when instead of ending up at the McKittrick, Madeleine drives to Fort Point on San Francisco Bay and throws herself in. Ferguson heroically leaps to her rescue, bringing her back to his place to dry off and warm up and snap out of it.
A grateful Madeleine offers to hang out with Ferguson the next day as a companion instead of having him follow her. Over the course of the day she tells Ferguson about the weird dreams she has sometimes, disjointed images from Carlotta’s life – the McKittrick, an open grave, a convent at a Spanish mission – and both of them realize they’re strongly attracted to each other. Ferguson takes her to a mission which could be from her dreams, and Madeleine says she recognizes it – so much so that she is suddenly seized with a compulsion to run up into the bell tower. Ferguson chases after her, but his vertigo slows him down – so all he can do is watch helplessly as she disappears up the stairs ahead of him, and then moments later, her body plummets past him to the ground below.
What The Hell.
Now, that felt like it could have been one heck of an ending right there. But there was another good bit of the story after this – after a seriously depressed Ferguson, consumed by guilt, checks himself into an asylum for nearly a year. When he gets out, he revisits some of the same spots from his brief relationship with Madeleine – the restaurant where he first saw her with Gavin, the museum with Carlotta’s portrait, the florist’s shop where she bought the bouquet. Occasionally he’s started when he sees another woman with a similar blond updo or a similar gray suit, but each time, when he looks closer, it’s not Madeleine. How could it be.
So it’s odd when he sees another woman – brunette instead of blond, saucy instead of refined – who reminds him of Madeleine. He follows her to the boarding house where she lives and confronts her in her room, which understandably alarms her and forces her to prove that she’s not Madeleine – her name is Judy Barton, a secretary from Kansas who’s been living there in that boarding house for three years now. An apologetic Ferguson offers to take her to dinner for her trouble; and on this rather odd foundation, the two begin dating. Except as time goes on, Ferguson gradually encourages her to wear different jewelry. Then he buys her a suit to match Madeleine’s. Then he persuades her to tone down her makeup, like Madeleine did. Then he persuades her to dye her hair blond, and wear it in an updo…
So, yeah. This was the part where I started thinking “what the hell.”
Mind you, shortly after we meet Judy there is a revelation about her which makes Ferguson’s obsession make a sort of sense in context. But it’s still really, really creepy watching Ferguson fall into the same depths of obsession with a dead woman that Madeleine had – and watching how he’s manifesting it by turning a different woman into Madeleine. There’s a famous scene where Judy has finally fully transformed herself into “Madeleine” – the same suit, the same hair, the same makeup – and as she and Ferguson study each other, she looks profoundly disturbed, while he looks elated and lustful. Other reviewers have spoken about how poignant this scene is, how it plays up how trapped Judy is – but they’re reading Judy’s discomfort as heartbreak, while what I see is fear.
No, Seriously, What The Hell.
I started watching this alone, and Roommate Russ came home at this point. He’d already seen it; so when I paused the film to give him my initial “what the hell” quip, he simply smiled and said “you’ve got another ten minutes to go, right? ….there’s more. Buckle up.” He refused to elaborate further, saying that if he did so it would be “a crime against cinema.”
He was right. There is more. And it would indeed be a crime against cinema for me to elaborate. But it was enough for me to renew my “What the hell” reaction, this time for an entirely different reason, and enough to start me wondering just how many psychological studies may have been done about Hitchcock over the years. Because – based on that ending, and given some of his other works, dude had some issues, y’all.
This 1958 Egyptian work has an impressive reputation; some reviews I’m reading compare it to Hitchcock’s work, and others compare it to the Italian neo-realists. I can see cases for both – and I can also see a uniquely 21st-century resonance, as the main character is basically an incel before there was a word for such a thing.
That main character is Qinawi (Youssef Chahine), a lame drifter who ends up at Cairo’s main train station. The kindly newsstand owner Madbouli (Hassan el Baroudi) takes him in and gives him a job selling newspapers on the platforms, and also finds a shed somewhere in the trainyard for the homeless Qinawi to live in. However, that’s all backstory for the main event, dispatched in a quick montage with Madbouli narrating things for us; the montage ends with Madbouli stopping by the shed to find that Qinawi has practically wallpapered it with pin-ups of half-naked lingerie models, and warns us in the narration that “I probably should have forseen where Qinawi would end up.”
Madbouli pretty much drops out of the main narrative after this, leaving the story to Qinawi, and his desperate and unrequited obsession with Hannuma (Hind Rostrum), one of a group of women who peddle bottles of soda to train passengers. Hannuma and the others aren’t exactly allowed to do this, mind you, so they’re also trying to always stay one step ahead of the police and the station’s manager. But Hannuma’s hunky fiancé Abu Siri (Farid Shawqi) is one of the station’s porters, and is also trying to start a union that will bring equal opportunity to all who work at the station – legalizing the soda girls, getting equal pay for the porters, and generally improving work conditions overall. On the day of our story, Siri and Hannuma are both on their last day at work before they hop a train themselves, heading to Hannuma’s home town to get married.
Even so, Qinawi goes for broke and proposes to Hannuma, formally presenting her with a gold necklace of his mother’s and promising her a fine house by the sea in his own home village, lots of children and a whole herd of cattle. The saucy Hannuma teases him as she shoots him down – she’s already marrying Siri, she laughingly tells him, and besides how could he give her all that when he’s flat broke with a bad leg? As she flounces off, the heartbroken Qinawi glances at the papers he’s been selling – especially at the cover story, a lurid article about a woman’s headless torso that was discovered in a crate at another train station. She must have been murdered elsewhere and then shoved into the freight compartment, the article states, but it’s not clear where, and police are stumped and the killer may get away with it. This inspires Qinawi – he will give Hannuma one more chance, and if she still turns him down, then she’ll be sorry…
Another couple subplots turn up now and again, like Siri’s unionizing efforts and another low-key tale of a young woman trying to secretly meet her boyfriend at the station before he leaves for a job across the country. There are also other little slice-of-life moments with the various passengers and travelers passing through – customers squabbling at ticket counters, women scolding kids, men asking for directions. There’s a whole sequence where Hannuma jumps aboard one train to sell her soda and finds a rock band rehearsing in there, complete with band members’ girlfriends throwing a dance party, and she joins in with the dancing until she sees Qinawi leering at her through a window and books it. But Qinawi’s obsession with Hannuma was the real story for me – even Siri’s unionizing took a back seat, as it ultimately just involved him making a couple of impassioned speeches and the station manager making a couple of straw-man arguments against him. Siri even seems to get bored with the unionizing at one point and slips off to canoodle with Hannuma mid-day (although, that sequence did start with him scolding her for taking too many risks, and it’s implied he slaps her a couple times – which wasn’t that great a look).
But all the other stuff serves to anchor Qinawi’s story in a place – the weird and bustling underworld occupied by the staff at Cairo’s station. So when the film moves into its dramatic final act, and suddenly all the station’s workers are caught up in figuring out where Hannuma is and whether Qinawi’s done anything to her, you get that this isn’t just a bunch of strangers getting swept up in the story, this really is a bunch of co-workers coming to the rescue of one of their own – and at the same time, they’re also sympathetic to Qinawi’s backstory and want things resolved as painlessly for him as possible. Because he’s not a random stranger, he’s Qinawi, and he also needs help.
Hello folks! I’ve tried liveblogging Oscar ceremonies in the past with limited success – I’ve had batteries die and an entire entry just erase itself spontaneously. But this year I’m at home on a much more reliable computer, and I am PLUGGED IN, so let’s see how this goes.
I’ll start with one nod to the red carpet – it is now 7:48 pm, Eastern time, and right now one of the biggest stories about Red Carpet Looks is Colman Domingo – who was in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and is someone I worked with once upon a time – rolling up in a neon-hot-pink Versace suit. Colman is a delightful person and he is basically living his best life.
Right – time to wait for the show proper.
And we’re off – in a train station. But Questlove is doing the music for this! Interesting.
Aw, I love this little “meet the nominees” thing they are doing with the screenplay nominees.
And the Best Original Screenplay – Emerald Fennell for Promising Young Woman! ….Okay, I’ll take it.
Best Adapted Screenplay – The Father! Yeah, I’ll take that too – it was a unique approach.
Me to Roommate Russ: “Do we think that Another Round is the one that won Best International Feature because people know who Mads Mikkelson is?”
Roommate Russ: “Yeah, probably.”
For the record: both LaKeith Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya should have been Best Actor nominees, not Best Supporting Actor, in my opinion.
Daniel Kaluuya, damn straight. But this was a tight one.
There should be way more applause at Daniel Kaluuya’s speech….
Boy, Viola Davis was really excited about the Makeup team from Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom winning their Oscar.
Oh, I am so glad that Bong Joon Ho is appearing with his by-now-ubiquitous translator Sharon Choi for his appearance instead of just having him subtitled.
So yeah, Sound of Metal winning for the Sound Design makes absolute sense.
I have to admit it does not surprise me at all that Soul won for best Animated Feature – it was the Disney film, after all.
That personal recollection from Steven Yeun watching Terminator 2 was kind of adorable.
Yuh-Jung Youn for Best Supporting Actress – and she is JUST as fun as I hoped she would be.
Okay, I can accept Mank for art design. But that music choice Questlove had for when they were taking the stage was….odd.
Harrison Ford kicked off the intro to Best Film Editing by reading some editing notes made for Blade Runner; he is such a delightful snarker that now I want to see him do a buddy comedy with Yuh-Jung Youn.
So I was in my 20s when Nine Inch Nails was big, and seeing Trent Reznor winning for the Best Score for a Disney film is surreal.
I really really want to know what Andrea Day said that got blocked out for that game Questlove was playing. Or Glenn Close.
Me: “So…I want to make sure I really did just see Glenn Close doing Da Butt at the Oscars. Did you see that too?”
Roommate Russ: “I mean….I did put a lot of gin in this drink, but I’m pretty sure I saw that too.”
….Why is Rita Moreno covering the Best Picture before we’ve given out the acting nominations?
I’m not mad at Nomadland winning for Best Picture. But – I would very much like to know why the Acting awards aren’t given out yet?
Yeah, this shakeup of the traditional order is almost an unofficial confirmation that Chadwick Boseman will take it for Best Actor.
…And let’s see what Frances McDormand does for her speech this year.
Best Actor goes to – whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat.
Okay, we have switched off the Oscars here, and that ending honestly felt super-weird – Anthony Hopkins winning but not being there to make a speech, and so the ceremony felt super-rushed at the end there.
It seems that my final two films also have a theme – they both deal with the 1960s counterculture, and the events referenced briefly in one are the entire content of the other.
The Trial Of The Chicago 7
In any of my reviews, I try to own up if I have a particular background or perspective which I suspect might influence my opinion of a film. Now, you wouldn’t think this film – an Aaron Sorkin legal drama about the trial of the seven men accused of conspiring to promote a riot at the 1968 Democratic convention would have any particular resonance with me.
In early 1968, just where the film begins, my parents were newlyweds. The film opens with a montage of the government amping up the draft and young men receiving their draft notices; my father worked at a shipyard in Connecticut designing subs for the military, which exempted him from the draft. Midway through this montage there is a clip of Robert F. Kennedy’s campaign; my father worked for the Kennedy campaign, and RFK’s assassination soured my father on political activism for years afterward. Shortly after Nixon’s inauguration in 1969, right about the time when John Mitchell charges his lawyers with prosecuting the Chicago 7 on the film, the draft laws changed and my father was no longer exempt and was entered into the draft pool. He actually had his number called up a few months later and even received an appointment for his physical – but then my mother discovered she was pregnant with me, and my father was released from the draft. This film ends on February 20th, 1970, on the date when Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) made a statement at the Chicago 7’s sentencing hearing; five days after that, I was born.
So for the entire action of this film, I kept thinking about how just off camera, while all this was going on, my parents were going to doctors’ visits, preparing a nursery, having a baby shower, and bracing themselves for parenthood, and I was waiting to make my entrance into the world. Hayden’s statement during their sentencing was simply to read a list of all of the servicemen who had died in Vietnam during the course of this trial, and all I could think was that these names stood for 5,000 couples who were never going to get the chance to do what my parents were doing, and 5,000 children who were never going to be born.
…And then, the film ended. And….I snapped out of it.
Roommate Russ has his own quip akin to my “Oskar Flatpack” one: “Sorkin’s gonna Sorkin.” Aaron Sorkin has by now cornered the market on idealistic depictions of government, and of quixotic courtroom dramas; they’ve often got enjoyably quippy dialogue and attention-getting dramatic moments, but they can also be very polemic. There are several scenes where Abbie Hoffman (remarkably well played by Sacha Baron Cohen) locks horns with co-defendant Tom Hayden; they’re from two very different progressive organizations and have two very different approaches to activism, with each frequently accusing the other of endangering the cause. So of course Sorkin includes a scene towards the end where they make peace, and Hoffman admits to admiration of Hayden’s passion and dedication. And of course there’s a scene where the buttoned-up prosecutor Richard Schulz (Joseph Gordon-Leavitt) starts to feel some compassion for the defendants, even as he is prosecuting them.
It’s good that the events of this film be told. It’s a story of a definite moment of overreach on the part of our government. However, I question whether Aaron Sorkin should have been the one to tell it.
Judas And The Black Messiah
Judas And the Black Messiah, ironically, offers a very good argument in favor of who could have told the story of the Chicago 7 Trial instead. However, it’s better that they told this story instead; the story of the government’s assassination of Fred Hampton, chairman of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panthers. Fred Hampton appears very briefly as a character in Trial of the Chicago 7, in fact, and his assassination is addressed; but with none of the weight and sensitivity this film brings to the events.
Ironically, the plot sounds almost trite itself. Bill O’Neill (LaKeith Stanfield) is a thief who makes his scores by posing as an FBI agent and “confiscating” his targets’ cars; when he’s caught, FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) points out the FBI-impersonation business carries a much harsher penalty than theft alone. But he can drop those charges if O’Neill does something for him – infiltrate the Black Panthers and turn FBI informant, reporting on the actions of Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). O’Neill starts out indifferent to the Panthers’ cause, but over time comes to admire Hampton – and becomes profoundly conflicted about his assignment.
Kaluuya and Stanield are just as good – if not better – than the cast of Chicago 7. And for certain, the script is much better – there’s more nuance, more intimacy. There’s a heartbreaking sub-plot involving Hampton’s girlfriend Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback), a poet turned activist; in one scene, when she is pregnant with the couple’s child she shares a poem with Hampton when he asks her whether her pregnancy gives her concerns about his activism. She manages to convey both support for the cause while simultaneously arguing against dying for it.
For the Black Panthers were not just the terrorist organization the government made them out to be. Most of Hampton’s activism in the film involves free meals for schoolkids, a free medical clinic for people of color, and outreach towards other groups of disenfranchised people – including one eye-popping scene where they visit a group of poor white activists in a room bedecked with a Confederate flag, and actually win them over. Hampton is O’Neill’s best hope for a life of dignity – and O’Neill has been sent to betray him.
I won’t divulge the information – but the title cards at the end, detailing how everyone else in the story fared after Hampton’s assassination, were heartbreaking.
And that’s our Best Picture roundup for 2021! We’ll be watching the ceremony tonight, and I may try liveblogging it – I may have better technical equipment on hand than I did last year. Fingers crossed.
This is Jacques Tati’s second film to feature Monsieur Hulot, casting himself as the gently rumpled character we first saw in M. Hulot’s Holiday. Here we get to see a little bit about Hulot’s home life, but more so that of his nephew Gérard (Alain Bécourt).
M. Hulot lives in the top floor apartment in a crumbling building in Paris, one he has to navigate a bizarre maze of hallways and stairs to reach. He has no phone; people must call the payphone at the cafe next door and ask whoever answers to go fetch him. He has no family of his own, but he’s got a lot of neighbors who know him, and the daughter of his landlady has a crush on him, one he indulges while maintaining decorum. He has no job, but still manages to bumble along okay – and this makes him the perfect after-school sitter for Gérard, collecting the boy from school every day and keeping an eye on him for a couple hours before seeing him back to his parents’ ultra-modern house in a new suburb just outside the city. Hulot’s sister (Adrienne Servantie) tolerates her brother’s quirks, but her husband M. Arpel (Jean-Pierre Zola), a high-placed executive at a rubber hose factory, thinks Hulot needs way more order and structure in his life (and is also secretly a little jealous of how Gérard seems way more attached to his uncle that to his father); the Arpels come up with a couple plans to try to get Hulot either employed or married off.
As with M. Hulot’s Holiday, a lot of the action is just….stuff happening. This is still gentle observational comedy poking fun at quirky situations and little absurdities, only this time Tati also lampoons the ostentation of the materialist Arpels, who’ve over-designed their house to the point that it looks like a sterile modern art gallery. The kitchen appliances all work via push button – but there are so many of them Mme. Arpel needs to remind herself each time how to work everything; there’s no dining room so the family has to set up a table in the garden for every meal; and when M. Hulot babysits Gérard one evening, he can’t figure out how to sleep on the oddly-shaped sofa and ends up turning it on one side and treating it as a hammock. The Arpels themselves are also overly focused on the house – Mme. Arpel especially, who spends every morning meticulously dusting everything, including M. Arpel’s car as he is driving off to work, and who greets every guest by starting up a ridiculous fish-shaped fountain in the front lawn.
Tati is a little more sympathetic to Hulot’s way of life, but even so we don’t really get as much of a sense of Hulot himself. It’s pretty understandable Gérard thinks hanging with his uncle is way more fun – he gets to ride around on the back of his little bike and raise Cain with the kids in Hulot’s block and gorge himself on cheap street food and romp in an old brickyard – but we don’t see Gérard actually playing with Hulot that much. Moreover, we don’t see Hulot that much, nor do we see the inside of his apartment; we only catch glimpses of him passing by the various windows and doors as he navigates his way up to his house, and we see him leaning out his front window a couple times, and that’s it. We don’t even see the inside of the cafe where Hulot ostensibly spends much of his time. Hulot does have to cope with a couple of scrapes – calming a malfunctioning machine at the hose factory, accidentally breaking a branch off one of his sister’s trees, a leak in the fish fountain – but he just…does stuff, wordlessly, to try to fix things and that’s it. We spend just as much time on running gags involving the street sweeper in Hulot’s neighborhood or M. Arpel’s secretary or a roving pack of stray dogs.
So while I enjoyed what I was watching, and appreciated the cleverness, towards the end things started feeling a little one-note, and Hulot’s neighborhood started feeling a little twee and romanticized. I still don’t know all that much about M. Hulot himself, other than the fact that he has a nephew and a sister and that he’s a little bit of a klutz. But we knew most of that from his previous film, so this ultimately was kind of….more of the same. Fortunately “more of the same” includes some fantastic physical comedy and visual gags, including one that made me laugh out loud, where the Arpels peer out of a pair of porthole-shaped windows in their house and their silhouetted heads turn the windows into a pair of googly eyes.
Two more down for this year’s roster of Best Picture nominees – one of which was, for me, an “also-ran.”
The term “Oscar-bait” gets applied dismissively to some films; the accusation is that the subject matter or the casting or some other aspect of the film is catering expressly to stack the odds of the film receiving a nomination of some kind. I don’t use that term, however, because often the artistic choices people see as opportunistic still work for me. But I know what they mean, and have started using my own term – “Ikea OSKAR flatpack movie” – to describe the impression I sometimes get that a given film is not made so much as assembled, as if the creators weren’t actually making anything fresh but were rather following a well-established formula designed to Produce An Oscar Nominated Film. There are no hard-and-fast rules I can point to, like “it’s always about history” or “there’s always a duck in it” or whatever – it’s more of a feel, a sense that I can predict exactly what kind of tone a given scene is going to take or what kind of a pace the film’s going to have or what kind of relationship the two main characters have or that “yeah, right on time, this is about where the hero has the crisis of conscience and they get a pep talk”. This isn’t to say that the film is necessarily bad – often it is well done, and everyone involved does their jobs quite well. I’m just not surprised by any of it.
Mank was my flatpack movie this year. Ostensibly it is about how screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz developed the first draft of the screenplay for Citizen Kane, but it’s also about how Mankiewicz went from being a mercenary party animal to actually giving a damn about things, at a time when it was almost too late for him to do something about it. The film uses a similar time-jump framework as did Kane – skipping frequently between the seedy hotel room in 1941 where Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) is holed up and writing, assisted (or babysat) by a pert British secretary (Lily Collins), and to various moments throughout the 1930s, starting when Mankiewicz first meets William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and Marian Davies (Amanda Seyfried), and is charmed by Marian’s wit and bemused by Hearst’s bombast. He’s equally bemused by his own boss, studio head Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard), but keeps his opinions to himself for the sake of continuing to get a paycheck. But the political scene of the 1930s causes Mankiewicz to question his principles, especially when he starts suspecting that Mayer and Hearst are conspiring to manipulate the voters against the Democratic candidate.
Again, everyone is fine – the black-and-white design of the film mirrors Old Hollywood nicely, and the actors are all doing perfectly fine. (I was particularly pleased with Seyfried as Marian Davies.) But it just felt like…well, of course they’d shoot in black and white, right? And of course there’d be a couple of Kane shout-outs and of course Mankiewicz’s brother would have a hard talk with him in the third act and of course Mankiewicz would turn up blind drunk at a party and embarrass himself, and…the various plot beats just felt kind of inevitable. Even the bare-bones plot arc the film sees fit to give Lily Collins’ character is predictable – when she gets a telegram early on stating that the ship her naval officer husband is on has sunk, and he is “missing and presumed dead”, you know that by the end of the film she’s going to get another telegram saying that he’s been found alive.
Roommate Russ cynically observed that movies which are Love Letters To Old Hollywood tend to do well come Oscar season. I suppose I’d be happier if this were like a Love Letter to Sundance or something.
In a sense, Minari was also kind of formulaic in its tale – we have seen a lot of stories of Immigrant Families Trying To Assimilate And Make Good. But the telling of this story had some surprises in it that kept it out of flatpack territory for me.
Set in the early 1980s, the film follows the Korean Yi family – Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica (Yeri Han), and their two kids Anne (Noelle Kate Cho) and David (Alan S. Kim). They’ve just moved to rural Arkansas, following Jacob’s ambition to start a farm specializing in Korean vegetables for the surrounding cities’ burgeoning immigrant populations. And yes, there are plenty of “fish out of water” moments for the family – other local kids asking David and Anne rude questions, Monica feeling isolated as the only Korean woman in town, and a running gag with the Yi’s constantly guzzling Mountain Dew soda because Jacob assumes the name means it’s a health drink. There are also a few “comic misunderstanding” moments after Monica asks her mother Soonja (Yuh-Jung Youn), a foul-mouthed, chain-smoking card shark, to emigrate from Seoul and move in to look after the kids.
But these elements are all secondary to the film. The bulk of the story is about the nearly insurmountable strain that Jacob’s gamble is putting on his marriage to Monica, and about the blossoming relationship between David and his weird grandma Soonja. It’s implied that David was born in the United States, and so Soonja is a near alien presence to him – she doesn’t make cookies, she swears when she plays cards, she smells funny. But she also sees potential in him the rest of the family can’t see yet, and he gradually comes to rely on that when the tension between his parents starts growing.
And the film handles that tension between Jacob and Monica very well. Other such “immigrant stories” where it is a couple trying to adapt condense their characters’ conflicts into one or two dramatic arguments, where one or the other finally snaps under their tension and lashes out. But here, you have the sense that Jacob and Monica have been having ongoing debates, and raising their voices doesn’t really help because it’s never solved anything before. You have the sense of a much longer history between the two – the ongoing negotiations, debates, and pet peeves, some of which weren’t even about the farm or their move to the United States but are more the particular issues all couples face, when two unique individuals try to coordinate the merging of two separate life paths into one. That kind of negotiation is a lifelong journey – there is no final end point when all the differences have been hashed out and everything’s fine ever after, it’s a continual process as life and fate throw curve balls at you. And the film’s ending is equally open-ended, with some curve balls not quite yet resolved and some obstacles still to dodge, but you are left with a sense of how the family is going to attempt to face things.