Scott’s Movie Journal #5
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (George C. Wolfe, 2020)
Wolfe – a highly-accomplished and renowned theatre director – brings his stage background to bear in helping fill each minor role with real life, not letting the film scapegoat anybody. He mostly retains the integrity of the piece by isolating the locations, aside from a couple ill-advised trips outside the recording studio and an opening montage that seems to serve only to say “don’t worry, you’re not in the wrong auditorium, Viola Davis is in this movie.” This helps keep the characters at a boil, increasing the likelihood that things will turn physical. And where he does “break” the action – in the montage of attempted recordings – it retains the feeling of ongoing exhaustion. I didn’t find the eventual physical confrontation to be overly convincing; or rather, it was almost too pre-emphasized that it lacked a true psychological depth beneath the most obvious explanation.
At any rate, I really hope someone keeps churning out these August Wilson adaptations; while they are not among my favorites of their given years, the time spent with them is terribly enriching and nourishing, especially given our present extended separation from the actual theatre. Davis and costar Chadwick Boseman are understandably getting the lion’s share of the praise, as they are the most famous members of the cast and have the meatiest parts, but the whole ensemble is extremely good.
Bell, Book, and Candle (Richard Quine, 1958)
(second view; last seen in 2016)
An absolute vibe of a film, just the coolest thing in a very cool period in Hollywood history. Quite remarkable that it came out only a few months after Vertigo, and practically reverses James Stewart’s and Kim Novak’s roles. This is still, to my mind, the best Novak has ever been, and the most confident and compelling she’s come across on camera. Stewart’s almost total lack of vanity in playing the submissive is no less remarkable than his craven turn in Vertigo, and goes to show how he maintained such a long and successful career.
Indiscreet (Stanley Donen, 1958)
(second view, last seen – in Paris, humblebrag – in 2015)
I mention the Paris thing not only as a humblebrag, but also because I saw this at one of Paris’s many(!) tiny, insanely charming theaters that program old American films every single day of the week, and given that setting and especially given this film’s jet-setting premise, (Cary Grant plays a banker who starts working for NATO in Paris, traveling weekly to be with Ingrid Bergman, who lives in London), I didn’t want to discount the opinions of several friends and loved ones who insisted this was actually not that good.
Only this is actually that good, maybe bested only by Charade among Grant’s post-1950 roles, and capping off a stunning decade for Bergman, when she really came into her own. With films like this and Elena and Her Men, she seemed to cast aside her image as a glamorous but troubled woman. Not that Anna – her character here – is free of troubles, it’s just that those troubles don’t clarify themselves until a little past the halfway point of this extremely winning picture. Most of it is just about the sheer pleasure of being in love when you have everything else in the world – Anna as an actress, Grant as a businessman and diplomat. It’s billed as a romantic comedy, and that provides the gas as it goes on, but it’s not that, and not really a drama either. It’s about walking in London and falling in love, which is always a little bit funny, a little bit dramatic, and very very moving. Really, of course, it’s about the sheer pleasure of being Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant, which is everything a good star vehicle should be.
Norman Krasna – one of the best undersung screenwriters of his era – adapts his own play beautifully, opening it up all over London without losing the intimacy between the two of them, though that’s just as much to do with Donen, often undervalued himself, whose talents I cannot overstate and whose touch here is extraordinarily fine. Better known for more bombastic affair – he started his career with On the Town and basically kept riding that groove for a decade, with remarkable success – here he’s stripping it all down to looks and glances and slight inflections. That it’s not one of his very best only speaks to how extraordinary he was.
Little Women (Greta Gerwig, 2019)
(second view – last seen almost exactly a year ago)
Speaking of films that are an outright pleasure! I disagreed at the time – and still disagree today – with the timeline-hopping structure, which too often yanks us out of an emotional moment only to plop us down in a very different tenor, though on second view I at least found more organization than first appeared. And the ending remains far too academic, serving a thesis on the work rather than the work (either the film or the novel) itself. However, scene by scene, moment by moment, you’d be hard-pressed to find many other films made with as much love as this is, and few films directed with so much encouragement and affection as Gerwig demonstrates here. And when you’re settling into holiday fare with the family, a reminder of how nice it is to be together is just the ticket (please note that this writer remained home for the holiday, per local health guidance, but just remembers what it was all like).
A Charlie Brown Christmas (Bill Melendez, 1965)
(rewatch; couldn’t begin to count how many times I’ve seen it)
The masterpiece of the half-hour holiday special. I watch it every year, know the beats through and through, and still – no matter how much pleasure I take in the incidental moments of snowballs and ice skating and tree lights – I’m caught off guard by how terribly moving Linus’s speech and the ending is. Every single time.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams, 2015)
(third view – last seen January 2016)
I get why many value The Last Jedi more, and while I like that movie very much, this remains the best of the new batch for me. Jedi is a bit more of a literary work, examining psychologies and interiority, and what it does in at least attempting to expand the universe was absolutely the right move. But as someone who always preferred Star Wars to Empire, what I get off on in this franchise is the group dynamics, the action rather than dialogue revealing theme and character, some visual wit, and no shortage of imagination and wonder, all of which this has in spades.
There are so many little bits that make the film for me, from Poe’s irreverence when captured at the very beginning (“So who talks first? You talk first?”) to Boyega’s hyper-eager line readings to Rey exasperatingly trying to get Finn to grab the right tool to BB-8 suddenly revealing he has these tether cables (and why wouldn’t a rolling robot have them) as the action heats up in the Falcon to…well speaking of the Falcon, you basically could have had a throwaway shot of it and it’d get a cheer from the audience, but the fact that Abrams builds it into a genuine comedic beat in the midst of the film’s star chase sequence is the mark that they weren’t taking much for granted in this film, a fatal flaw that marks basically every other iteration of the franchise since the original. The film never forgets that the “adventure” part of the action-adventure genre is not the close calls or the high stakes, it’s a feeling you create and convey in the cast and their performances.
In that way, Abrams was well-suited to the task, having honed his chops building teams on TV, and in far less time – with TV, you basically have an hour, maybe less, to convince your audience that a group of people is worth tuning in for every week. Similarly, he does the same thing here in about 45 minutes, giving us every reason in the world to just want to watch Rey and Finn and Poe and Kylo before Han Solo even shows up. In a simple shot-reverse-shot, wherein Rey looks at an old woman doing exactly the work she’s doing, we get every big “I’ve gotta get out of here” speech Luke gives in Star Wars. So, while we’re still glad to see Han, he feels like a contributor to the film, not the entire point of it, which would have been incredibly easy to do.
Wonder Woman 1984 (Patty Jenkins, 2020)
(first view – spoilers)
A few criticisms that I can’t ignore – there’s a troubling depiction of Arabs in the film, and the whole thing where Steve takes over some random dude’s body for a few days was perhaps not thought through terribly well.
That said, I liked this very much indeed. Like the last film, it goes for the weird comic book thing where many other films of its ilk hesitate, so you get stones that grant wishes and sudden invisibility powers and a lasso of truth that seems ever-more-powerful as the film goes. It’s all make-believe, why not go and do the weird crazy thing that has no easy explanation?
But the really fine element of all this make-believe is that it lets the hero be just as culpable in the villain’s plan as anyone else. Not only does Diana hesitate to give up Steve when the fate of the world hangs in the balance, she doesn’t even try to start to prevent it because she’s so caught up banging him (again…I get it, the whole body-possession was not really considered). Whom among us hasn’t blown off responsibility for sex or love or both. Furthermore, as the wishing-stone gets more and more powerful through its new human embodiment Maxwell Lord (a very game, and very good Pedro Pascal), the fate of the world gradually hangs on people letting go of their hate for one another and their own selfish pursuits, a notion all too familiar over this past year especially.
There’s also a very cool car chase showdown midway through the movie.
News of the World (Paul Greengrass, 2020)
Would not have expected Greengrass (or star Tom Hanks, for that matter) to shift to a western, but am delighted they did. The script’s a little limp in several regards – Hanks is transporting a young German girl who’d been held by Native Americans for years and doesn’t speak any English, which gives him opportunities to monologue about his life, which doesn’t totally work – and has a lot of the tepid sentimentality that marked co-screenwriter Luke Davies’s other work (Lion, Beautiful Boy). But Greengrass helps shave the edges off for long enough (before totally giving in during a mismanaged finale), allowing some excellent set pieces (there’s an extended chase and eventual showdown between Hanks and three other guys that’s as good as it gets) and letting Hanks do this really lovely understated work that he’s been honing over the past ten years. It remains remarkable that someone as successful as Hanks would even want to become a better actor anymore, let alone that he’s actually getting it done.
Minari (Lee Isaac Chung, 2020)
Suffers a bit from familiar problems in low-budget/independent films, especially in the fringe characters, who feel too often like the result of local casting sessions and not enough directorial attention, and I really don’t think the ending works on any level beyond the metaphor it’d already established long, long before we got here, but there’s no denying the appeal of the main cast (who’d have guessed, of everyone in Armageddon, Will Patton would have build the most compelling career twenty years later?), most especially Alan Kim as the young boy at the film’s center, tasked with carrying a great deal, much of which is very delicate material, and whose natural charisma is more than sufficient for it.
Christmas in Connecticut (Peter Godfrey, 1945)
Barbara Stanwyck plays a homespun, Martha Stewart-esque cooking writer who can’t cook, but must fake it for real due to an elaborate series of strange circumstances over the wartime holidays. Probably most oddly, she must pretend to be married, though of course her fake husband is a real drip and the guy she’s showing off for is quite a charmer, which leads them into all sorts of situations and conversations no married woman would ever be in in any other movie from 1945. Mostly, though, it plays a little awkward, with Stanwyck begging her future beau to flirt with her, and the movie doesn’t quite have the verve to find the kink in it.
Nevertheless, while the romance is a bit of a stretch, the comedy really plays, thanks to its stellar cast. Sydney Greenstreet, S.Z. Sakall, and Reginald Gardiner are more than able supporting players, but I liked best Dick Elliott as the frequently-inconvenienced but all-too-accommodating Judge Crothers, who is called to and dismissed from the household over Christmas Eve and Day with alarming frequency and always with a smile.
Soul (Pete Docter and(?) Kemp Powers, 2020)
I don’t really know what to do with that Kemp Powers credit. Dude gets a whole separate card to note he is specifically the CO-director, not also the director. Okay.
I really didn’t care for Inside Out, which was far more egregious in creating a specific mechanism for every damn thing we think and feel that then has to be explained and then has to be beaten or challenged or subverted and you’re like “I just learned about this a half-hour ago, why do I care if they can race to the whatever before whenever.” Or anyway, I am. Strikes me as a very unimaginative take on an imaginative realm. So the first half of Soul was a real chore, let me tell you, and while it picks up emotional and aesthetic steam as it goes, it’s essentially held back by doubling down on the most obvious lesson possible, and by a pair of very-not-good central performances by Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey, making an extremely convincing case for why celebrities should never do voice work. Every line reading is just far too much.
Moneyball (Bennett Miller, 2011)
(second view – last seen upon original release)
Where everyone else has been racing to get Aaron Sorkin dialogue out as fast as possible, Miller makes the bold and very astute choice to slow it down. Whereas speed was appropriate for The Social Network, a film about life when it starts moving faster than we can speak about it, this is a slow and methodical film about what is mostly a slow and methodical game – and within that, a slow and methodical approach to that game. Further, while Sorkin was once over-credited for writing how people talk (like most who received this praise in the 90s, it came mostly from critics who thought far too highly of their own conversational skills), Miller actually makes a case for it, overlapping the dialogue not in a clever way but in a way that reflects the way people genuinely, often accidentally, interrupt others and then have to repeat something back to get their point across. The sort of conflict Miller sets up between his sort of leadened pace and Sorkin’s clippy dialogue makes this far and away the former’s best film, forcing space into a scenario that never asks for it, rather than elaborating on space in scenarios with far too much.