Song of the Sea (2014)

Song_of_the_Sea_(2014_film)_posterIn an animation market saturated by the likes of Disney, Pixar, and Dreamworks, those that have become some of the foremost names of the latest wave of animation, we sometimes forget that there are other voices as well. Song of the Sea is one of those alternative stories that is ripe for discovery.

Tomm Moore’s creation is so rich and vibrant, steeped in mythology and Irish folk tales. In some strange way, there’s a very cursory resemblance to some of Hayao Miyazaki’s worlds — the way that this story is similarly immersed in the culture in wonderful ways as well as fantasy elements entrenched in the culture (ie. Selkies), yet it still manages to remain universal, grounded in the everyday relationships of a family that pertain to all of us.

It becomes this grandiose mixture of the depressed and even decrepit streets of Ireland, wind-tossed waves, and hardened rocks. But against that very austere environment is something so luminous, magical, and life-giving. It gives the story an immense character both pictorially and thematically that runs through its entire narrative with every frame reflecting a certain essence of Irish culture, history, and even topography.

We watch with a degree of awe as young Ben is brought up to look at the world with the same wonderment in his Irish heritage. His father (voiced by Brendan Gleeson) is the local lighthouse keeper and his mother raises him up in a loving spirit. But with the birth of his younger sister and the loss of his mother, Ben’s life is different. He’s faced with loss just as his father is but he’s also faced with a promise he must keep. To love and protect his little sister Saoirse — to be her guardian — as his mother entreated him to.

Of course, the story devolves into a tale of annoyance and jealousy as Ben grows a little bit older and slowly becomes peeved with his sister’s ways. She still doesn’t talk and seemingly beats by a slightly different drum. He quickly loses sight of the value in her — only seeing the nuisance that dwells there.

But if anything, Song of the Sea is a story of discovery or even rediscovery if you will. Like Narnia or any such fantasy tale, it asks its main protagonist and the audience as well to grab hold of their child-like sensibilities and lose everything that causes them to grumble on a daily basis. That is the road that Ben is taken on. First, his goals are simple. He’s sent away from the family home he’s lived at forever and so his main objective is to escape grandma’s house in the city and get back to his dad and his dog, the massive, huggable, lovable sheepdog Cu.

However, Song of the Sea’s stakes heighten so much more because he comes to realize, begrudgingly at first, how special his little sister is and as his mother entrusted him so long ago, he must protect her. It’s a struggle but to the end, he honors that promise and it reflects the maturity that comes over him. It makes the film’s conclusion especially meaningful because we have seen the full progression and know truly what is at stake. That’s the sign of quality storytelling that will meet both kids and adults and leave them changed for the better.

In truth, my own name is Irish Gaelic and though I don’t speak a lick and the closest I’ve ever gotten geographically is Scotland (not quite close enough), there’s still a fascination I have with the very spirit of the place embodied so perfectly by this film.

The folk songs are elegantly mellifluous and even in all the chaos, all the darkness, great light can still be revealed. That is the hope of this film and even as families are fragmented and split apart. They can be mended and healed. Even if all the pain and hurt does not evaporate, the fact that we can hold family close, share the laughter as well as the tears together, that is often enough. Because it teaches us to care about others — to leave our petty, selfish endeavors behind to love others well.

4/5 Stars

Bye Bye Birdie (1963)

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Bye Bye Birdie has sunshiny singalong written all over it even before we know the premise. The fact that it’s about the frenzy following the draft notice of a beloved hunky teenage heartthrob Conrad Birdie (a knowing amalgamation of Conway Twitty and Elvis) doesn’t help its case much. It can be rather annoying for the complete and utter squareness of every successive moment. That is true.

But on the whole, that overwhelming peppiness bowls you over with its sheer gaiety and the fervor of teenybopper spirit. So yes, at times it’s nearly suffocating and still intoxicating due to that same excessively sweet 1960s optimism.

Birdie’s unfortunate fate creates the spectacle. In its wake is left a war zone of swooning girls who go absolutely gaga after a particularly spectacular performance. But that’s just the beginning. To set the stage we must look first to a biochemist turned composer named Albert Peterson (Dick Van Dyke) who after 6 years of fruitless toil is looking to leave the business.

But his gal, the chipper Rosie DeLeon (Janet Leigh), hanging onto the hope that he will one day propose marriage, brings a brilliant idea before America’s greatest variety show icon Ed Sullivan himself. Her idea: To have the beloved Birdie kiss an All-American girl as a symbolic gesture of his goodwill towards his booming fan base. Ed, of course, eats it up, and her Albert will pen the song to be heard by millions across the country that fateful Sunday night.

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All that’s left is to find the girl and by the most coincidental circumstances the lucky tween winds up being Ohio’s own Kim McAfee (Ann-Margret). Her best boy Hugo (Bobby Rydell) has just “pinned her” and she sits chatting away on the telephone but it’s peanuts compared to the meteor that strikes her household that evening. Soon the whole student body and her family get carried away in the excitement promising them eternal bliss and stardom on the biggest stage imaginable.

The adolescent masses continue going baddie — namely those of the feminine persuasion — while the boys hate Birdie’s guts for stealing away their dates. In the end, Kim and her family, Albert and Rosie are on the brink of getting pushed off of Sullivan. It all seems for naught until some quick thinking gets them the outcome they were long hoping for. The Russian Ballet gets truncated to put it lightly.

What matters is that everyone gets a happy ending. Each person winds up with their respective significant other and just as it opened, Bye Bye Birdie goes out with Ann-Margret belting out the title chorus with a charisma that conquered many a young heart.

What the screen adaptation does well is act as a fitting forerunner for another cultural explosion that would occur on Ed Sullivan’s Show only a year later. In fact, Birdiemania looks strangely familiar and perfectly personifies the older generations befuddlement with their crazy kids. Paul Lynde is the perfectly idiosyncratic father figure to reflect the changing times.

Meanwhile, Janet Leigh seems to relish an opportunity to tap into one of her more ditzy personalities as Rosie DeLeon. While new to film, the beloved Dick Van Dyke struts his physical comedy and provides a charming performance of “Put on a Happy Face.”

Director George Sidney comes in with an innate understanding that musicals are a communal event and just as importantly with the realization that he had a star on his hands in Ann-Margret. If this story was on the stage, Van Dyke and Leigh would have been the stars and they did indeed have top billing. Still, with the purposeful framing device he chose and the many close-ups and set ups he picked Sidney made this Ann-Margret’s picture no question. She obliges by lighting up the screen with that unparalleled mixture of perky sensuality and early 60s innocence.

It’s all so cute and fluffy and sweetly sincere it’s almost difficult to sense the satire sitting there. But I would like to think that it’s purposefully here from the cameos of Ed Sullivan and John Daly to every other spastic characterization. My only hangup is that instead of Elvis Presley himself we got Jesse Pearson. No offense whatsoever, but he’s not exactly the King and besides having Elvis in the picture would have only accentuated the irony of the whole ordeal. Still, fans can still find solace in the fact that there’s Viva Las Vegas.

3.5/5 Stars

Viva Las Vegas (1964)

Viva_Las_Vegas_1964_PosterPreviously, whenever I thought of Elvis and films, my first inclination was to think musical and then secondly because, by some form of osmosis the culture had taught me this, Elvis went with Ann-Margret. In truth, they were astoundingly only ever in this one picture together but what a picture for them to be in. It left an indelible impact on both stars as much as it did their audience.

Sure, it’s at times utterly laughable, light, and saccharine with gaudy color schemes that make Las Vegas the flashiest spectacle known to man (which it might actually conceivably be), but there’s something still so winsome about it.

The story is one of those contrived Hollywood love stories that we know the rhythms of before they have begun.  Boy meets girl. Boy becomes infatuated with girl. Girl keeps him at arm’s length. Girl begins to fall for him. Girl gets turned off because of some trivial misunderstanding. In the end, girl gets boy or vice versa. Whichever you prefer because either way it still proves a formulaic picture.

But gosh darn it, Viva Las Vegas has a vibrant energy that probably makes every man, woman, and child wish they could go back to that era, especially all those rock ‘n rollers and beboppers who grew up with Elvis for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

There’s no doubt that he had a magnetic charisma that went beyond a voice or a look but the very way he shimmies, snaps, and shakes his way into the heart of every gal. However, the real vivacity of the picture comes from the same kinetic friskiness that seems to charge through Ann-Margret as well. Because in most any given equation Elvis Presley is bar none going to be your dominating force commanding the screen as the indisputable Elvis the Pelvis, the King of Rock and Roll. But put him up against Ann-Margret and they tease and prod each other this way and that — the perfect romantic counterpoints.

It’s as if they both have a sense of the game that they are playing — the back and forth — the one-upmanship and playful toying that gives the story a hint of sensuality while still maintaining that squeaky clean sensibility allowing a picture like this to remain more charming than most films we are introduced to today.

And when it’s all said and done, aside from the title track which will undoubtedly be most familiar and exhilarating for audience members in its numerous refrains, there are quite a few truly dynamic sequences that go beyond tedious asides in a musical love story.

They reflect how Hollywood seemed to understand the collective power that musicals could have. Director George Sidney is not necessarily a noted name of great repute but if you look down the list of his directing catalog you see many a diverting musical (ie. Annie Get Your Gun, Kiss Me Kate, Bye Bye Birdie, and a whole slew of others).

With Viva Las Vegas it’s easy to acknowledge that he has a knack for the spectacle that remains light and amusing to the end including the notable Ray Charles tune “What’d I Say” played out on a giant roulette wheel, our leads making eyes at each other, surrounded by a crowd of fellow shimmy and shakers. But also the hip swinging, finger-snapping crowd pleaser “C’mon Everybody” that puts our stars on full display. They even end up making the smaller trifles like “The Lady Loves Me” and “If You Think I Don’t Need You” more than a complete drag.

To top it all off, far from being corny, the final Grand Prix sequence is actually quite marvelous as the cars speed through the desert past Hoover Dam and we see Lucky win out against his good-natured rival. The film truly does benefit from the on location shooting only topped by the breezy chemistry of its leads. More than The Rat Pack or Bond, this film gives me at least an iota of desire to visit Las Vegas. Although that might simply be the fact that Elvis and Ann-Margret, in particular, imbue the lifestyle with so much verve. Anyways there are no qualms in proclaiming, Viva Las Vegas!

3.5/5 Stars

Clouds of Sils Maria (2014)

Clouds_of_Sils_Maria_film_posterIt’s my prerogative to respect films that dare to leave me questioning their ambitions and their outcomes. Clouds of Sils Maria is such a film. At times it gets so caught up in its own meta-narrative perhaps too much so.

Still, this is a story about a middle-aged actress (Juliette Binoche) called upon to return to the script that made her famous but this time in the much more unglamorous role. Her stardom is such that she can pick and choose her work still but that doesn’t make growing older and life in general any easier. She must navigate press junkets, paparazzi, divorce proceedings, and on top of it all the death of a good friend — the man who helped make her famous.

The person keeping Maria sane through every bit of drama and every tiresome ordeal is her personal assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart). She is also the one who cajoles her client to take the role. My gut further suggests that there are the inklings of All About Eve echoed in Olivier Assayas story between a mature actress and a rising star who is a prima donna scandal maker of the social media age (played by Chloe Grace Moretz).

But still that dynamic proves to be less fruitul and ultimately less interesting than the relationship that is examined between Maria and Valentine. It is their scenes together that are tirelessly engaging because their interactions run the gamut of emotions. How do you begin to define them?

The dividing line between this play that they are bouncing off each other and their actual lives at times feel perilously close as they jump in and out. Somehow in some unknowable way, it seems to reflect real truths about their relationship.

The meta moments are innumerable including those that suggest Binoche’s earlier film Rendez-vous, Chloe Grace Moretz forays into superhero blockbusters, even a passing coincidental remark Stewart makes about a film featuring werewolves. There’s a Harrison Ford film directed by Sydney Pollack (a lah Sabrina) maybe lightly poking fun at how Juliette Binoche and Julia Ormond could easily be confused.

But if nothing else these feel like only slight nods if not pastiche that do not necessarily aid the aspirations of the film. They mean very little. The far more fascinating suggestion is just how closely the characters of Maria and Valentine read to the figures in the script while they practice the lines in the mountains. But it’s not just that. It’s how their conversation organically reveals bits and pieces of their personal philosophies.

So to clarify it’s not reality intersecting with fiction but the fiction within the fiction that creates a greater depth that complicates matters. That’s what makes the film at times beautiful and perplexing. The fact that Valentine evaporates is tantamount to Michelangelo Antioni losing his main character in L’Avventura. Likewise, Valentine disappears into the clouds never to be seen again and that’s far more interesting than any amount of commentary that could have been crammed into the storyline about Stewart’s actual career.

And in truth, this has to be without question the greatest performance of Stewart’s career thus far because there’s something streetwise, nuanced, and clever about her. There’s a strange sense through her wardrobe and demeanor that this is part of Stewart that we are actually seeing, although I’m not sure how true that is. It feels the very essence of “un-acting” if we can coin that phrase.

Binoche, of course, has a lauded spot as one of the eminent stars of European cinema for very good reason with a career that has been held in regard for well nigh 30 years. Somehow she feels like oil and water mixed with the likes of Stewart and Moretz, products of Hollywood blockbusters, but that’s what makes this film an interesting marriage of backgrounds.

Far from being conflicting, the pairing of Binoche and Stewart is ripe with interesting qualities because their differences make the interactions pop. They can be so diametrically opposed. Their age, backgrounds, and at the very core how they view these central characters of Sigrid and Helena in the film within the film. Yet at the same time, they’re so closely tied together and interconnected — their relationship of a star with her personal assistant that proves to be even closer still to that between friends and confidantes.

When Stewart disappears from the story much of what was interesting vanished from the picture but then again because she vanished it made the picture’s denouement more interesting.

By the end, as an audience, it feels as if we have little stake in the trajectory of Maria’s career. It’s hard to care too much about her at this point because she’s been a star, she is a star and she probably still will be one unless her own temperamental nature gets in the way. It doesn’t leave us with the same empathy that comes with All About Eve because our heroine still has a career fully intact.

Clouds of Sils Maria’s immaculate classical music played over elegant tracking shots, matched by soft fade outs between sequences is pleasant if not a tad pretentious. But its ambitions thematically, by the time the curtain falls, feel noticeably more nuanced than its predecessor. It leaves us with something mystifying to ruminate over and that is nearly enough if not wholly satisfying.

4/5 Stars

The Kennel Murder Case (1933)

The-kennel-murder-case-1933It’s happened in some well-documented cases that the same actor has played two characters that feel nominally similar and based on this cursory level of comparison the general public has been forever befuddled. You could cite some notable examples being Bogart playing Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe the archetypal pulp private eye heroes of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.

Even the fact that Fess Parker played Davy Crockett for Disney and then Daniel Boone on the small screen undoubtedly still has the less historically inclined folks to question if there is any difference between the two men.

A still earlier example would be William Powell who was famed as Nick Charles in The Thin Man Series pairing him with Myrna Loy but about that time he also did pretty well for himself as the eponymous Philo Vance in a handful of mystery serials. In truth, this installment would be his last time performing the role but he slid rather seamlessly into The Thin Man series that arguably allowed him more freedom for comedy.

Other actors took on the mantle as well including Basil Rathbone, Warren William, Paul Lukas, and even Alan Curtis. But it was The Kennel Murder Case directed by one of Warner Bros. top craftsman Michael Curtiz that remains the hallmark of this Pre-Code franchise.

Although Raymond Chandler called Philo Vance, “the most asinine character in detective fiction,” much of that quality was toned down in the feature adaptations and after all, with a charmer such as William Powell, how could he not be at least a bit compelling?

In this particular storyline, there’s initially no case at all only Vance missing out on the big prize at a prestigious dog show. But on his way to Italy riding an ocean liner for a much-needed vacation, he catches wind of the death of one of his kennel acquaintances Mr. Archer Coe. Although the authorities including the straight-laced District Attorney Markham (Robert McWade) and the lovable police detective Heath (Eugene Palette) assume it is suicide, Vance comes in on the proceedings with a hunch of his own.

It has murder written all over it but the circumstances are most peculiar and the extensive array of suspects makes it no small matter to pinpoint the culprit. But that’s the fun of the chase as our perceptive detective looks to derive the correct conclusion and the audience along with him (without much success I might add, at least in my case).

It’s very easily to surmise that nowadays we are so culturally well-versed in crime, mysteries, and whodunits that this film’s script feels clunky at times because the characters say all the things and hit all the marks that we might expect. It’s a rite of passage to have the police constantly dismiss our hero’s deductions as it is to hear the shots ring out in the house or the various suspects nervously fib and cover up for this reason and that person.

However, to its credit, the resolution gets so lost among the various characters with numerous motives and the like that when the killer is revealed it still provides a certain amount of satisfaction. So in some sense, you could say that The Kennel Murder is a successful mystery because it does hit all the marks.

Yes, a no-nonsense Powell isn’t quite as fun as a snarky slightly tipsy Powell, although he still makes for an enjoyable lead. But supporting spots for the always jovial Eugene Palette and noir icon Mary Astor add a dash of character across the rank and file of the cast. Meanwhile, James Lee plays a rather fascinating character for the time, a Chinese cook who nevertheless attended Columbia and is highly educated in Chinese porcelain.

And there is undoubtedly an efficiency to The Kennel Murder Case such that a great deal is able to unfold and be resolved without feeling tedious or overlong aided by Curtiz’s direction and plenty of screen wipes. It proves to be just about the right length to make the payoff worthwhile and the story’s mystery generally engaging. More character development is always a plus but with a whodunit that’s usually not your main concern.

3.5/5 Stars

Ride in the Whirlwind (1966)

Ride_in_the_Whirlwind_(movie_poster)Anyone who takes the time to search out this movie whether the reason is a young Jack Nicholson who wrote, helped finance, and starred in this western or because it’s directed by cult favorite Monte Hellman,  they probably already know it was shot consecutively with The Shooting. Whereas the first western has an unnerving existential tilt as the plot takes us through an endless journey across the oppressive desert plains, you could make the claim that Ride in the Whirlwind is a more conventional western.

However, it’s still highly intriguing for its main premise and the dilemmas that evolve as a result. But that’s enough with the big picture. Here are a few more details to fill in between the lines. The action begins with a holdup, a true western staple. True, a pair of men get injured but it’s about what you expect from such a skirmish. In the end, the stage rides off generally unimpeded and the bandits retreat to their lair up in the nearby mountains to wait it out for a while. Maybe they know a posse is on their trail and maybe not.

Either way, they’re mighty careful when a trio of riders make their way through the main pass. Of course, they don’t know that these are only a few cowhands making their way to Texas and they’re looking for a place to bed down for the night.

Both sides have a general sense of the other but rather than make waves they do the mutually beneficial thing and everything goes about their business nice and easy. There’s no need for guns and no ones looking for any trouble.

But the next morning a posse that means business rolls in and they’re not about to wait and ask questions. They set up posts to pin down their adversary and they hardly discriminate between who was a bandit and who is innocent. That’s not the way their righteous form of justice works.

Rather like the early Hollywood Classic The Ox-Bow Incident, they are searching for the men to lynch and it hardly seems to make any difference if the men are innocent or not. They shall be avenged. However, an interesting observation is that in once sense this does not seem like mob rule. The posse is calculated and cool in executing their objective although that’s no comfort to those who are actually innocent.

In the ensuing standoff, one of the ranch hands, caught in the crossfire gets it and the two bandits who come out with their lives get about what we expect. The second half of the film follows the two men who were able to escape and they just want to find a pair of horses so they can ride away from the whole business.

Their quest on foot leads them to a nearby homestead and this latter half of the story brings to mind earlier pictures such as Shane or Hondo where families are seen trying to make a life for themselves out on the plains.

Wes (Nicholson) and Vern (Cameron Mitchell) are desperate to get away yes, and they sneak into the families home but what makes them so different is the very fact that they are not real criminals. They are only doing this out of necessity. They treat the womenfolk respectfully including the ranchers taciturn daughter Abigail (Millie Perkins) but they’re also bent on taking for themselves a pair of horses.

First off, Evan ain’t so keen on having his home invaded or his family held hostage and he’s especially not obliging that they’re going to run off with some of his stock because they’re his after all.

This is in itself another brooding film like The Shooting but for different reasons. It’s filled with genuine tension because the irony of the situation is that we know these men are innocent and yet in order to survive in some ways they must take on the mantle of criminals just to live another day. There’s no space for a rational third way. There’s no grace or any type of understanding and so they’re forced to play by the rules already set up by the posse that’s pursuing them. That’s the moral conundrum at the core of this tale.

Ride in the Whirlwind has the dismal type of ending we expect with a bit of a silver lining but it’s that very shred of hope that makes it an affecting western. It feels right at home with the sentiments of the 1960s where the world is not as innocent as it used to be and the world often does not function by the most equitable standards. Some would say that’s why the western fell out of favor because in the classical sense, it no longer reflected the perceived world at large like it once did.

3.5/5 Stars

The Shooting (1966)

ShootingHellmanCrime films, westerns, and horror. It’s easy to see why these genres make arguably the best B-pictures, all things considered. It lies in their ability to deliver thrills with minimal capital and a bit of inspiration. Film Noir is by far my favorite but a film such as The Shooting makes me love shoestring westerns too. Except that’s just an initial gut reaction. What happens over the course of this film truly plays with our preconceptions. Its ambitions being rather curious.

The players are set fairly early on.  The cult favorite Warren Oates is cast as the laconic Gashade who however indifferent he might seem has some shred of decency in him as signified by his friendship with Coley (Will Hutchins) a needy and rather dimwitted miner.

His genial personality makes the addition of our third player all the more important. She’s a woman (Millie Perkins) who comes upon them unannounced and generally unwanted by Gashade. But she also comes with a proposition and money to boot.

Our protagonist is lukewarm to the whole undertaking but for some inexplicable reason agrees to become her guide in tracking someone. He wins a spot for Coley in their caravan as well and it’s easy to see Coley is very much taken with the lady to make up for his buddies complete lack of interest.

The acerbically biting Millie Perkins rivals Jane Fonda and Raquel Welch in the pantheon of cinematic Western women as she verbally spars with her fellow travelers. While the ever-leering Jack Nicholson, here in a very early role as a hired gun robed in black, adds another layer of tension to this extremely peculiar western exercise.

Monte Hellman follows a script penned by Carole Eastman that leads us through the blistering deserts of Utah on a very certain quest that nevertheless becomes increasingly vague and ambiguous as the film progresses. The very fact that The Shooting takes one of the archetypes of a man with a burning vendetta (for example The Searchers or The Bravados) and subverts it so completely denotes how unique this film manages to become.

It’s all orchestrated with a certain idiosyncratic paranoia both musically and otherwise. The opening moments prove just how effectively a score can impart a level of anxiety into a film without anything of much consequence actually occurring. It complements the slow burn that follows for the next hour — slow, brooding, perplexing, all those things — as we wander along with them like the Israelites in Exodus. But there’s an underlying goal to it all, the resolution that we expect to bring everything that has happened thus far to fruition. There will be a cathartic showdown where all is revealed if not made right.

Hitchcock’s long since overused quip that I will nevertheless mechanize one more time goes something like this and seems apt for this film. There is no terror in the bang only in the anticipation of it. That’s the key here. The “bang” as it were, comes but it comes in such a way that we were never quite expecting. The sequential narrative points that we are used to traversing are never quite passed in the succession that we are used to.

There’s a penchant for throwing out names that feel vaguely relevant such as Beckett or Kafka but not being literary enough I will forego such pieces of analyses to simply state in many ways The Shooting feels perfectly at home in the 60s. It’s a real trip and not simply on horseback. More in a precursor to Easy Rider sense. I believe the coined term is an Acid Western.

Paired with another Hellman-Nicholson collaboration backed by Roger Corman and filmed consecutively, The Shooting is made for a double bill with Ride in the Whirlwind. This number, in particular, proves just how mind-bending a western can be. There are no small films only small budgets and with enough vision, not even that can inhibit a truly inventive endeavor like this.

3.5/5 Stars

Woman on the Run (1950)

Woman_on_the_RunB-films have little time to waste and this one jumps right into the action. In a matter of moments, a man is shot, another man has killed him and a third witness gets away into the night. Although Frank Johnson (Ross Elliot) is rounded up by the police to be a witness he gives them the slip for an undisclosed reason and they must spend every waking hour trying to track him down.

What’s important to this particular story is that he left behind his wife Eleanor (Ann Sheridan) to be questioned by the police and they are hurting for a break. They need answers so they slam her with all sorts of inquiries.

She’s not all that cooperative though and the reasons are rather hard to discern. Is it belligerence, fear, or sheer apathy to the entire ordeal? Because you see, Ms. Johnson for some time had been drifting apart from her husband an accomplished painter who nevertheless put little stock in his own skill.

And that’s where the film’s two themes begin to intertwine.  The police surmise that the runaway man is fleeing a killer, but for his wife the implications are twofold. In her eyes, he’s just as likely running away from a marriage he couldn’t cope with. That is her dilemma which she masks both pointedly and inadvertently with various diversions to keep the police reeling.  After all, she’s not particularly keen on helping them or sticking around for that matter.

Whereas in earlier roles Ann Sheridan was always slightly overshadowed by other performers, most notable of those being the always electrifying James Cagney, here she gives perhaps her finest performance and she’s at the center of it all. That’s not to say she isn’t surrounded by a stellar supporting gallery.

Dennis O’Keefe, remembered as a gritty leading man in pictures such as T-Men and Raw Deal, showcases a new playful side as a journalist trying to nab a scoop on the runaway witness and at the same time making eyes at the man’s bride. But he manages to give the part some life that goes far beyond a one-dimensional characterization. There’s more to him as we soon find out.

The other important player turns out to be Inspector Ferris (Robert Keith) who as the long arm of the law is looking to find his man before his adversary does. But he’s not about to take flack from anyone and if ever there was a cop who was no-nonsense he fits the bill. His croaking voice always interrogating his subjects in a continuous effort to get his job done. Too bad he wasn’t quite counting on Ann Sheridan.

A relentless climax aboard a roller coaster at a local amusement park precedes Hitchcock’s Strangers on the Train when it comes to making carnival games such a deadly ordeal. And there are hints along the way ratcheting up the tension whether it’s a familiar cigarette lighter, a striking coincidence, or a passing remark that initially goes unnoticed.

The script strikes a strange path at times given to clunky expositional dialogue that feels as trite as can be and then in the very next sequence there’s a bit of patter or a dry quip that makes things all the more interesting. Also, a pair of small supporting roles for Victor Sen Yung and Reiko Sato add another layer of authenticity to the characterization only surpassed by the on location shooting that catches the essence of mid-century San Francisco.

In the end, Woman on the Run turns out to be one of those wonderful treasures that has rather unfairly gotten buried in the dusty attic of film noir. But far from being an antique, it plays fairly well today with an underlying tension running through Sheridan’s performance as she not only reflects on her own dwindling marriage but stresses to discover her husband’s whereabouts in fear of his very well-being.

It’s surprisingly entertaining and you get the sense that if Norman Forster (a fairly prolific actor, director, and screenwriter) were someone other than Norman Forster, this picture might have been scrutinized more closely. As it is, it’s just waiting for more people to dredge it up. How did I get here? If you’re a sucker for film noir and Ann Sheridan there’s no better place to go than Woman on the Run.

3.5/5 Stars

My Man Godfrey (1936)

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There’s a key moment in My Man Godrey where the ditzy Irene Bullock (Carole Lombard) giddily announces to her mother, “Godfrey loves me. He put me in the shower!” Her mother’s response could best be described as one of indignance but it’s a barrel of laughs for the audience. Because this film is full of off-the-wall remarks which taken out of context are so peculiar you don’t even want to attempt to understand.

That’s the beauty of this screwball comedy from the often underrated Gregory La Cava, best known for this picture and the following year’s Stage Door. Otherwise, the script is courtesy of Morrie Ryskind a veteran of some of the Marx Brothers’ comedies.

It opens as a biting satire of the affluent masses occupied by inane decadence and a multitude of frivolous diversions from scavenger hunts to parading livestock around in front of their friends. The screenwriter’s efforts were well worth it no doubt but the cast indubitably breaths incredible gales of life into the material with each battling for laugh after laugh.

The following interludes repeatedly exhibit perhaps the wackiest, most melodramatic family of comedy from most any decade. It comes from having too much time on their hands, too much money, and not enough sense. They’re a real screwy bunch. We meet the two Bullock daughters (Lombard and Gail Patrick) as they try and outdo each other in the middle of the previously mentioned scavenger hunt, searching out “a forgotten man.” They have no concern for who he is and how he lives. Only that he might win them the game.

Still, the said man plays along and somehow finds himself hired on by young Irene as the family’s latest butler to not only spite her older sister but also so that she might have a protege and maybe due to an inkling of a girlish crush. It makes little sense, only to say her mother’s protege is a musician named Carlo (Mischa Auer) who is good for very little except offering up the pretense of culture and eating them out of the house.

But Godfrey proves to be just about the best butler that the Bullock’s ever could muster, navigating their morning routines of hangovers and playing straight-man to the incessant chaos that constantly swarms around him. On their part, they are so self-absorbed and obliviousness, they never seem to question how perfectly he has transformed into a butler. Surely, he cannot actually have been “a forgotten man” from off a trash heap? But no, they don’t concern themselves with such things. It goes unnoticed.

It seems like each member of the family has their special calling card.  They are a bunch of bubbleheads and Carole Lombard is the queen of them all, though mother (Alice Brady) is equally effervescent and a tad asinine. That’s  a part of her charm. She also flatters very easily.

Meanwhile, the other daughter Cornelia (Patrick) is more acidic, purring like a feline ready to pounce and make her sister pay for whatever trivial affront she’s perpetrated. Because, truthfully, they’re just a whole clan of boorish rich people who have no idea what’s happening to the world on the outside — if that point has not already been asserted enough. They’ve probably never heard of The Great Depression much less felt its true effects.

Mr. Bullock (Eugene Pallette) probably has it the worst as the long-suffering father — the nearest thing to a sane individual in the entire family. Still, you can’t live in a house of such madness and not have a few unhinged moments of your own. He’s constantly finding himself piping up amid the bedlam his gravelly voice trying to secure even a moments peace. He rarely succeeds.

Again, Godfrey is the calming force that brings a modicum amount of stability to such a place. He along with the veteran maid Molly (Jean Dixon) navigate the choppy waters of melodrama every day as Irene becomes increasingly infatuated, her emotional outbursts becoming more frequent, and Cornelia looking for any way to possibly make his life miserable to get him fired. Still, he goes about his duties.

And that’s part of the joke at the core of this film. The “forgotten man,” this tramp coming up against their own upper-class sensibilities and coming out looking like the true human being with brains and class and culture. Except it’s really a joke within a joke because maybe Godfrey is more than we first perceived him to be. In fact, he’s a lot more.

Pair such a raucous cast with some top tier comic patter that sizzles with wit and you’ve just happened upon the most wonderful mess imaginable. There might be other screwball comedies I enjoy more, but few are as hairbrained as My Man Godfrey and that is a grand word of praise for this brand of comedy. If it’s not stark raving bonkers it can hardly claim the name screwball honestly. No such problem exists here.

William Powell is a natural in this role showcasing that typical dry wit of his that effortlessly pokes fun at these people but also seems to appreciate them for all their shortcomings even finding time to truly respect them in the sincerest of ways. As per usual, Carole Lombard is so over the top to the nth degree with her sniveling zaniness spilling over into every scene.

In the past, I mistook her performances as a sheer annoyance but now I see how perfect she is for such a part. There’s an overwhelming commitment to the craziness that pays heavy dividends and by the film’s end, she’s overrun everyone with her energy — even Godfrey. He has no rebuttal.

For a time she was no doubt the greatest screwball actress though over the subsequent years the likes of Katharine Hepburn, Jean Arthur, Rosalind Russell, and Barbara Stanwyck no doubt gave her a run for her money. Still, there’s something undeniable about being the first and, in many ways, she was that woman.

If there were any residual ill feelings between Powell and Lombard now three years out from their divorce, there’s no visible animosity and together they succeed in forging My Man Godfrey into a classic screwball through and through.

4.5/5 Stars

 

The Thin Man (1934)

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“What were you doing on the night of October fifth, nineteen-hundred-and-two?” ~ William Powell as Nick Charles

“I was just a gleam in my father’s eye.” ~ Myrna Loy as Nora Charles

With The Thin Man, Dashiell Hammet successfully crafted several archetypes that go beyond the basic pulpy film noir standards that he also helped to define. Nick and Nora Charles were a cinematic power couple even before the word was in vogue and as their real life counterparts, William Powell and Myrna Loy were quite the pair in their own right being matched in a mind-boggling 14 films together.

The Thin Man became one of the most beloved pairings, helmed by W.S. Van Dyke and spawning a wildly popular series of sequels that continued throughout the 30s and 40s. At the very least it suggested that it was not so much the story lines but more so the characters that resonated with the general public.

It’s true that casting William Powell as Nick Charles was one of the hand in glove situations. He had a certain dashing even debonair quality with his pencil mustache perfectly thrown askew by the scenarios he gets himself into. Above all, he has a witticism or lithe quip handy for any given situation. He’s a real riot at dinner parties. One of those men who has a perpetual smirk on his face.

But Myrna Loy is just as impeccably cast as his fun-loving wife who is as game as he is to have a rip-roaring good time. She’s constantly keeping up with his droll wit while continually chiding him good-naturedly to get back into the amateur detective game.

For the time, with no children to speak of, their beloved wire terrier Asta (the famed Skippy who was also featured in other such classics as The Awful Truth and Bringing up Baby) rounds out their happy clan.

It really is a strategic depiction of marriage and family circa 1934. The Great Depression still had a fresh imprint on the nation and yet in Nick and Nora you see no indication of any such malaise.  Their days are spent drinking martinis and gallivanting around town while their nights are filled with fancy dinner parties and the occasional crime caper.

These forms have been so often parodied to this day but at the time it seems obvious that The Thin Man whether subconsciously or not was an escapist fantasy that indulged the desires of those less fortunate. Because if nothing else, they could at least spend some fun taking a load off and joining the Charles for an enjoyable evening. Everyone laughs. Cops and citizens have close knit connections. Excessive drinking is only a delightful diversion. The only ones who were in need were the slothful and the greedy.

Although The Thin Man employs admittedly incomprehensible plotting at times it’s hardly a knock. So many characters get thrown in and chatted about it becomes difficult to keep them all straight much less figure out what their bearing on the plot is. And it is the oddest cross section of individuals to be sure.

Much like The Third Man, this precursor, The Thin Man acts as a nifty MacGuffin in a pinch, driving the plot forward with his spectral presence. The fact he’s hardly on screen does not detract from his overall importance in this film. Meanwhile, his invested daughter (Maureen O’Sullivan), wife, mistress, and various other involved parties all get tossed around as culprits and accomplices including Porter Hall and Cesar Romero.

While not noir in the typical sense James Wong Howe’s photography does give the film certain dark sensibilities at times to contrast with the plethora of more comic moments in drawing rooms and the like. It also shares in the tradition of Agatha Christie and other such detective fiction narratives with bits of amateur sleuthing and all the subjects rounded up for a dinner party so the culprit might be revealed.

But what The Thin Man truly explored was the capabilities of crime when paired with comedy. In some sense here is a film where you have certain screwball aspects but I hesitate to call this film a true screwball just as I hesitate to call this a gangster picture though there are cops and thugs.

It’s that immaculate blending of comedy and crime that makes The Thin Man go down like a perfectly mixed martini. It was the charisma of Powell and Loy that allowed the series to exist well beyond the parameters of a one hit wonder.

4.5/5 Stars