Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)

Four_weddings_poster.jpgI’ve been of the certain age where it seems like every friend you have is getting married in the next year. It’s an exhilarating time albeit expensive and a bit taxing (if you’re even able to go to all of them). But most of us wouldn’t trade the joy of being a part of these experiences for anything.

Weddings in themselves have always been a marvelous enigma to me. Because the days before and after are full of preparation, stress, and a barrage of feelings. But the actual arrival of the ceremony is almost surreal. It’s a moment captured in the hinterlands where you’re suspended in this euphoric high that can either be magical or come crashing down thanks to some inexplicable faux pas. Emotions are heightened. Love and romance are on everyone’s minds.

That’s what makes the narrative conceit of Four Weddings and a Funeral such a smashing idea because we know already what weddings do to people and that makes the prospect interesting. Imagine you only really ever meet someone at these regal affairs. She has a fashionable hat. You’re dressed to the nines. Mutual friends are being wed. The bubbly is flowing. She’s an American. You’re British. Well, anyway that’s the preliminary outline of this story.

Charles (Hugh Grant) is perpetually running late to big day after big day. But each one is special and each one of them puts him face-to-face with a gorgeously remarkable woman named Carrie (Andie MacDowell).

First, they connect in the aftermath of a mutual friend’s wedding, getting to know each other rather well at their hotel. Then the next time they meet his heart goes flutter once more only for her to introduce a fiancee at least 30 years her senior. Charles is devastated. Still, only a little while later, they spend the night together again.

Wedding three belongs to Carrie and you can already feel the dissonance going on as she slept with Charles but is willfully marrying another man. However, they both take it in stride as do their many friends. Until one of the more boisterous members of their crowd, Gareth, dies from a heart attack.

So in the final stretch, we have Charles looking to tie the knot with one of the various girlfriends we’ve met at the subsequent gatherings, Henrietta. That is until the news hits about Carrie’s marital status when they cross paths quite by chance. She’s no longer married. The Pandora’s box of doubt has been busted open right on the eve of his wedding day and he’s stricken by indecision as he teeters on the edge of this monumental event.

What Alan Curtis’s script captures exquisitely is the vast network of people and relationships that link and interconnect over the years when you share a friend group and it slowly begins to grow and expand with the passing years. It provides the perfect cultivation ground for myriad characters, budding couples, best friends, priests, parents, and the crotchety elderly. All mainstays of the wedding circuit.

However, the final conclusion arrived at in this romantic comedy feels, in one sense, outmoded and by other estimations, rather selfish and unrealistic. Maybe they are one in the same.

The lovely, whimsical idea of finding “the one” remains intact to the very end but at what cost? Surely it doesn’t matter that another woman has been left at the altar and a whole wedding has been canceled because of what we might pragmatically term one man’s indiscretion or closer yet, his selfishness.

That ethereal feeling of the quintessential movie romance is unfortunately sullied. Perhaps I’m perceiving too much of reality and not enough of the lens of fairytale magic that might be afforded such a narrative, but I cannot help it.

Like I already mentioned, I’ve been in those moments where people you know and love were getting married. I’ve seen the affection in their eyes and on their faces. There was not an ounce of visible apprehension there. Everyone in the room, the chapel, or the banquet hall, knew it full well. These were people who were in it for the long haul. This was not a flippant decision, a momentary fling, or a mere consolation prize.

This was the joining of two people through thick and through thin. Maybe it is soppy but to me, it proves far more fulfilling than its alternative. In my naivete, I’d like to believe that there are still people out there who are committed to marriage and they’ll willingly dig in together for better or for worse. My assertions might fly in the face of this film but I’m okay with that.

Four Weddings and a Funeral has its moments of delight, however, in the end, it cannot do complete justice to the utter jubilation when you’re with your friends or family celebrating the union of two people you dearly love. Perhaps that’s as it should be. Each wedding is personal and unique all to its own.

3.5/5 Stars

The Commitments (1991)

The_Commitments_posterThe Commitments is a very coarse film, extremely rough around the edges, and yet to its credit, the real appeal of this crowd-pleaser from Alan Curtis is the way that music is able to bring so much good into a dire situation. Because in some ways The Commitments are not just the christened “Saviors of Soul” but for one brief shining moment, they’re the “Saviors of Dublin” too.

It feels almost unfair to call The Commitments a cover band because although their debt is to soul and they cover soul tunes from the likes of the late great Wilson Pickett, from those tunes we begin to see the individuals coming into their own as together they create a sound that has the local crowds cheering in the bars and pool halls.

Their visionary leader is Jimmy Rabbitte a young man with ambitions to create a successful band that will play real music and in his humble opinion soul is where it’s at. Not the Beatles. Not the Stones. Not even U2. But the likes of “The Godfather of Soul” himself James Brown.

Far from being mere cultural appropriation, taking a very much African-American inspired music and imitating it, with The Commitments, their allegiance to soul seems to suggest mimicry is the highest form of flattery. And it seems like Jimmy as manager and the main ringleader sees this clearer than anyone else.

Soul represents something so simple and powerful and moving. A sound that speaks to the working class Dubliners in a way other strains of music simply cannot muster. So yes, Irish Soul sounds like an oxymoron but The Commitments prove that far from being incongruous, Irish Soul is capable of quite the following.

Part of the enjoyment is getting to know all the figures who play a part in the band’s journey and there are quite a few. Deco is the lead singer, a slobbish jerk who also has an impressive pair of pipes. Lead guitarist Outspan (Glen Hansard of Once fame) with other local lads filling in on saxophone, bass, and drums. The backing vocals are provided by a trio of gals including the fawned over beauty Imelda.

But the oldest member of the band Joey “The Lips” Fagan is a rather mythical figure with a laid back almost spiritual streak. It’s also no joke that he’s played trumpet with some of the biggest soul brothers out there. He too provides guidance to the band’s vision but sometimes he’s not as zen as he lets on. Getting so many different people together is bound to cause friction — namely shouting matches, fistfights, and more than a few hurt feelings. Strangely enough, these are some of the very places the story finds its comic inspirations. People constantly bickering and getting on each other’s nerves in this way or that.

Equally enjoyable are the actual rehearsals and jam sessions which in truth are the heart and soul of this film. No pun intended. The music is what matters in the community from street corner performances of Cathy’s Clown, a father belting out his best rendition of Elvis, and the most wholesome member of the Commitments, Steven, playing a rather soothing version of Whiter Side of Pale on a grand church organ. That’s the stuff that makes the movie buzz.

We see the energy that gets people to notice. Sure, it’s not the type of coverage that will make them into international sensations but with this film much like its progeny like Sing Street, you see the pure ability of music and song to enrich the world. They not only give the musicians a powerful avenue of expression and joy but those performances can evoke an equally gripping reaction from their audiences.

In the end, The Commitments as a group begin to split at the seams after a number of promising gigs, even a bit of cash for their efforts and a spot in the local paper. But in the end they implode and it’s probably for the best as everyone goes their separate ways. Maybe they never quite got around to jamming with Wilson Pickett, but they did play with him in spirit every time they put all their passion into one of his songs. It didn’t turn into some profound watershed moment in musical history, but like this film, it was a recurrently lively ride.

3.5/5 Stars

High Sierra (1941)

high-sierra-1They Drive by Night is a surprisingly engrossing picture and I only mention it for its obvious relation to High Sierra. It came out a year earlier, helmed by Raoul Walsh starring George Raft, Ann Sheridan, Ida Lupino and, of course, Humphrey Bogart. The important fact is that if Walsh had gotten his way, he would have cast Raft again as Hollywood’s perennial tough-guy leading man.

But Bogart saw what this film, based on the work of W.R. Burnett, could do for him and he talked Raft out of the part while lobbying Walsh for the role. Reluctantly the director agreed and as it turned out it was the perfect vehicle for Bogart’s big break as he had foreseen.

High Sierra functions as a crossroads of sorts between America’s standard genres. There’s no question that Roy Earle is a gangster in the former sense of the word. And even as an actor Bogart was used to playing second fiddle to the likes of the Cagneys, Rafts, and Robinsons. But if there was ever a poster boy for the emerging film-noir movement Bogart is the shining example carrying that tough as nails persona from gangster films but also functioning as a fatalistic antihero in the same sense. We see it with Spade, Marlowe, and all the rest. Also, as an early heist drama, High Sierra ushers in a trend that would be explored further in films like The Asphalt Jungle, Kansas City Confidential, and The Killing (notably all gritty cogs in the film-noir canon).

To understand what Bogart saw in this picture and to comprehend what a lynchpin it was, it’s necessary to delve into the story itself penned by Burnett and Bogart’s long time future collaborator John Huston.

Veteran gangster Roy Earle (Bogart) has just earned a government pardon with a little help from a powerful friend. It’s this aged gangster from the old days Big Mac who pays his loyal henchman a favor so he can run point on a new bank job. Big Mac is on his deathbed and the changing of the guards seems all too imminent, still, Earle is beholden to him. He’s a loyal son of a gun and tough as all get out. He’s not about to trust a copper and just about scoffs at the men who are supposed to help in pulling off the job.

high-sierra-3He’s not about to lose his nerves or take his eyes off the objective but the two young bucks he’s thrown in with (Alan Curtis and Arthur Kennedy) carry the tough guy bravado well but there hardly as experienced as him. He’s not too happy about the girl (Ida Lupino) they have hanging around either because she’s an obvious liability. In his experience, women squawk too much. The man on the inside (Cornel Wilde) is even worse, a spineless hotel clerk with even less nerve.

Earle’s philosophy is nothing out of the ordinary. It’s what we expect from a gangster picture. However, there are several elements to suggest that we are on the brink of a new movement to reflect the changing American zeitgeist. High Sierra is actually composed of a great deal of on location shooting throughout the Lone Pine area that adds a layer of credence to this entire tale but also a certain visual tranquility. And although it’s difficult to know precisely how much involvement Huston had on the script, there’s no doubt that his impact on noir was crucial with The Maltese Falcon released the same year.

But the bottom line is Bogart’s character has another side. With the gears of the heist in motion, he wryly notes, “Of all the 14 karat saps, I start out this caper with a girl and a dog.” And it’s true he has a certain soft spot for Marie Garson, and the yippy dog Pard (Bogart’s own pet Zero) but that’s not the extent of his character. In the stories most striking B plot, he befriends a trio of poor country folk led by their patriarch the always amiable Henry Travers and important to Roy because of their pretty granddaughter (Joan Leslie) who also happens to be a cripple.

high-sierra-2In an unassuming act of charity, Roy has a doctor friend take a look at Velma and ultimately pays for the surgery that heals her ailment completely. Still, if the story ended there it would be a happy ending but with the heist in the works, Roy is not so lucky. He pulls off the job and makes his getaway but with most any cinematic criminal activity in Hollywood’s Golden Age there must be repercussions. After all, that’s what keeps things interesting and it’s true that Roy and Marie are able to lay low for a time but soon the word is out and the gangster is a wanted man.

Walsh orchestrates the tense finale stirringly in a way that still has the power to excite with editing, score, and camera all flowing seamlessly for the most crackerjack of endings. It’s true that big shots are brought low and the irony was that it was hardly a woman or a dog that caused his downfall. It was himself. In those faltering moments, Bogart won his audience over as a leading man and would never lose them again. Certainly, we have the rather unfair added benefit of hindsight, but High Sierra stands as a monumental picture.

4/5 Stars

 

 

Review: The Phantom Lady (1944)

phantom-lady-1Robert Siodmak might not be the foremost of lauded directors, but it’s indisputable that film noir as a genre, a movement, a style, whatever you want to call it, would be a lot less interesting without him.

Phantom Lady is a perfect illustration of that fact as it takes a simple plotting device and rides it through the entire story to a fitting conclusion. It’s not a taut thriller or really anything of the kind but the characters and even the cinematic choices make it a surprisingly shadowy delight.

As the title suggests, any explanation of the narrative must begin and end with this phantom lady who, if you want to use storytelling terms, is the MacGuffin, the entity driving the plot forward to its final end. She’s necessary but as we might predict she’s at the same time integral to the story and not at all important.

Because the fact that she is missing is simply a pretense that leads to a response from our hero. And at first, our hero seems pretty obvious, the handsome down on his luck Joe with a pencil mustache (Alan Curtis). Once upon a time, I confused him with another noir regular Brian Dunlevy but no more. Anyways, our actual hero comes to the fore after the inciting incident. This man Scott Henderson all of a sudden comes back from a crummy night at the theater to find himself accused of strangling his wife. The cops seem to have a guilty until proven innocent modus operandi. True, the eyewitnesses for his alibi seem knee deep and yet everyone has hushed up, including a bartender, a jazz drummer, a flamboyant performer. Worst of all his female companion for the evening has vanished into thin air.

With no alibi, Scott still sticks to his ridiculous story that no one believes and he winds up sentenced for the murder of his wife. If you’re still following, it’s at this juncture where the story really begins. Henderson’s plucky secretary “Kansas” (Ella Raines) is smitten with her boss and determined to prove his innocence. So she becomes our intrepid noir hero digging around in the sleazy bars and dance halls, tracking down possible leads. A tight-lipped bartender is subjected to her merciless tailing and she even ingratiates herself to a swinging jazz drummer (Elisha Cook Jr.) who can really make his sticks fly.

They get her closer to the trail but each one becomes a successive dead end. She gains some encouraging allies in the initially skeptical detective Burgess (Thomas Gomez) as well as Scott’s best friend who has just returned from a trip to South America (Franchot Tone). Together they try and wrap up the loose ends. Of course, as an audience, the dramatic irony sets up the tension as we know what’s going on behind the scenes. So this is still partially a mystery as the search for the phantom lady continues but the joke’s really on us because soon enough we know what’s happening. However, whether it’s too late for our heroes is quite another question altogether.

Siodmak does well to develop a stylized atmosphere and there are some especially intriguing touches. The foremost is how many sequences, including the tailing sequence, function without music and yet jazz is utilized in a frenzied interlude that is almost unheard of in noir for its sheer vivacity. It’s oddly disconcerting, the juxtaposition suggesting this utter contrast between personified joy and the darkness that is seeping into the story. After all, a man is about to be sentenced to death. Jazz certainly does not fit the mood.

There’s also the paradigm of the noir working girl played perhaps most iconically by the audacious Ella Raines. In many ways, this is her film and she’s as good and almost better than many a gumshoe and insurance investigators. It’s a role that Raines embodies with great resolve and a certain amount of drive that we can appreciate in a female character of that day and age. She’s far from an objectified figure because she has brains and desires of our own — even if they are all for the well-being of a man.

It also should be noted that this was the first production credit for pioneering British screenwriter Joan Harrison. She was only one of only three woman producers in Hollywood at the time and this is a film that she could certainly be proud of with an impressive noir heroine.

3.5/5 Stars