Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947)

The Two Mrs. Carrolls (Peter Godfrey, 1947) Fans of Humphrey Bogart don't often mention this dark guignol of a thriller that marks the only pairing of Bogart with the considerable presence of Barbara Stanwyck, an actor as unafraid of projecting a dark side as he is, even if this particular film doesn't exploit it, as it fits in the mold of Stanwyck's other "women in peril" films. Stanwyck always managed to straddle the line between naturalism and theatricality, while Bogart was always uniquely Bogart, self-aware enough to know both his strengths and weaknesses as an actor (and a man) and call them up, albeit with a veneer of artificiality that passed for theatricality and artifice.

At the start of the film, everything is rosy, full of natural light fresh air and pristine waters as painter Geoffrey Carroll (Bogart) and his new love, Sally Morton (Stanwyck) are vacationing in the mountains on a fishing vacation. It's all hearts and flowers and the two are very much in love, Gerry paying less attention to the fish than in sketching Sally. But, a sudden squall puts a damper on things when, while giving Sally a protecting coat, a letter falls out of his pocket, addressed to Gerry's wife. Sally is shocked and breaks off the affair.
Gerry explains the situation. The letter is to ask his wife for a divorce. She has been an invalid since the birth of their child, and her estate will supply all the care she needs. But, when the first Mrs. Carroll dies, Gerry continues to pursue Sally, they marry and she moves in with Gerry and his daughter from his late wife, Beatrice.

Gerry is distant, locking himself in his studio to paint for hours on end. They argue about sending Gerry's daughter to a boarding school, which the kid does not want to go to, preferring to stay at home with Gerry and Sally. Sally talks to Beatrice (Ann Carter), who reveals that the first Mrs. Caroll was hardly an invalid, but actually quite healthy and died suddenly after Gerry had returned from a fishing trip (DUN-dun-dunnn) and finished his portrait of her as an angel of death.
This naturally freaks Sally out, especially after finding the key to Gerry's studio and seeing that he's working on a portrait of an angel of death. Plus, Gerry is acting very interested in a vampiric young socialite (Alexis Smith), who has commissioned Gerry to paint her portrait—maybe she should just wait a while.
The director, Peter Godfrey, was a director-friend of Stanwyck's, and he has a stagey directorial style that is sunny and bright at the beginning of the film and becomes gradually more stage-bound, darker and more closed-in as the film progresses and the second Mrs. Carroll's suspicions become more real. The film has a couple of bizarre touches on top of Bogart's increasingly paranoid and— eventually—deranged performance: one is Gerry's truly horrific artistic style and the other is his means of dispatching his wives—by providing a helpful glass of warm milk before help them sleep, of course. They obviously haven't seen Hitchcock's Suspicion. Or Hitchcock's Notorious.
The chief enjoyments of The Two Mrs. Carrolls is the pairing of Bogart and Stanwyck, a truly unhinged performance by Bogart—he has a wonderful final line—and the generally creepy air permeating the film, even when it becomes ludicrous. Beyond that, there's not much there.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The Cameraman (1928)

The Cameraman (Edward Sedgwick, Buster Keaton, 1928) The first film of Keaton's production deal with M-G-M (which would ultimately prove disastrous for the filmmaker). Believed lost until a print was found in Paris in 1968, it was co-directed by Keaton (who went without credit) and Edward Sedgwick (an M-G-M regular, who is best known for "discovering" Lucille Ball, a debt she re-paid by hiring Sedgwick as a producer for her company, Desilu). Keaton's control over his movies was slightly less than at his own studio, but he managed to retain his producer function, while giving up the "director" credit. Ultimately, though, he would lose management of business decisions to the studio, who would embark on a misguided effort to change the kind of performer Keaton was most popular as. The film of The Cameraman is an odd little prophecy of what would come later in Keaton's career.

Keaton plays "Buster," a humble tintype photographer ("they make excellent ash-trays!"), scraping together a meager living photographing interested passers-by on the streets of New York. While photographing an attractive woman (Marceline Day), the two are besieged by a crowd of people—a big event is happening on the street and they are crushed by innumerable rubber-neckers trying to get a glimpse of what's going on. This includes a newsreel photographer from M-G-M (meta reinforcement), who the woman, Sally, pays a lot of attention to.

Through the eyes of love, Buster sees the future and it is not seen in tintypes. After being rejected by M-G-M Newsreels (where Sally is the receptionist, hence her interest), he takes his savings from his old technology (tellingly nearly destroying his apartment in the meantime) to buy a newfangled cranking movie camera and prove his worth.
He does some testing, both of his equipment and with Sally, taking her on a date around the city. The first doesn't go too well. Being inexperienced, Buster makes a lot of mistakes, his footage being shaky, over-and double-exposed, and useless, which he only discovers when he screens his footage for the Newsreel brass. The other photographers he'd be competing with have a high old time hooting at his rookie mistakes, while the Boss simply tells him he's no good and won't consider hiring him.
Sally, however, takes pity on the hapless schnook and agrees to go out with him when her planned Sunday date falls through. The sequence begins with an elaborate crane shot that moves up and down the stairwell of Keaton's apartment house as he tries to get time on a shared phone in order to talk to Sally. When she agrees to see him, he's so excited that he runs to her boarding-house arriving there before she can hang up the phone.
The date is a battle of logistics: it seems all of New York is in cahoots to separate Buster from Sally and he must come up with unique and frequently dangerous ways for them to be together. This violation of space is a running gag throughout their date, where folks just impose their will on Buster, and he must come up with ways to regain it, change it, or accommodate it. The most bizarre of these is when he must share his cramped changing room at a public pool with a man (Edward Brophy, the film's unit manager) who insists on occupying the same room—the confusion of clothes and limbs (in one extended take, it should be noted) is hilarious, frenzied and unorganized in an un-choreographed awkward tangle.
The date (such as it is) does not go very well, with the intervention of Buster's news-reeling rival (Harold Goodwin) for Sally's affections driving her home in a torrential down-pour with Buster exposed to the elements in the car's rumble-seat.

But, once again, she takes pity on him and gives him a choice assignment when rumors of a skirmish at a Chinatown celebration reaches her desk. She gives Buster the assignment, and he barely survives being shot, run-over, and arrested while recording the event. Although the footage is spectacular, Buster has nothing to show for it, but a three foot roll of film. He evidently forgot to load the camera.
Well, that's how it appears, anyway. In the midst of the film, Buster somehow manages to acquire a hurdy-gurdy monkey who has more than a monkey's paw in having Buster come away with the plum assignment empty-handed. It should be noted that the on-screen chemistry between Keaton and the monkey is amazing, rivaling the affection between Keaton's character and Sally. Perhaps, the primate found in Keaton a fellow-acrobat and relentless performer.
In one of their attempts to inject formula into Keaton's film, the "real" M-G-M brass insisted that a shot of Keaton smiling be part of the end, but preview audiences expressed a dislike for it and it was taken out. It presaged the studio's forthcoming ideas on how to "improve" Keaton's likability to audiences, forcing him to do "talkies" and even sing when they moved into sound pictures. The Cameraman, with its story of a photographer forced to change, uncomfortably, with the times, is a bit of a reflection of Keaton's uneasy relationship with the studio, which would rapidly deteriorate.

It was, however, added to the National Film Registry in 2005 for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." Keaton remembered his move to M-G-M as "the worst mistake of my career."

* Tintype photography still exists, but the process takes 10 minutes per picture and modern life just can't wait that long. But, photographer Victoria Will still makes tintypes, which have the weird effect of looking like someone has been sent back in time.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Finding Dory

I Had a Great Title For This Review, But I Forgot What It Was...

They did it again. Pixar's sequel to Finding Nemo, Finding Dory is such a good movie as to defy any objections. It's one of those rare movies (although not so rare when considering Pixar's output) where I can simply say "just go." Don't let anything, external or internal, keep you from seeing this in the best possible theater experience.

It's that good.

In fact, if you liked Finding Nemo, you may be surprised to discover that its sequel joins that rare list of films that is better than its predecessor.

But, how does it improve? It takes one of the more problematic of the earlier characters, focuses on it/him/her and provides value to a character that was, basically, comedy relief. At the same time, it teaches family-friendly, inclusive life-lessons that won't raise the blood pressure of either autocratic or laissez-faire parents, be they conservative or liberal. while keeping the whole thing entertaining, without needlessly villifying anybody, and having no scary moments that will necessitate the "hands-over-the-eyes" routine.*
The humor will not go over most kids' heads, but the ironic stuff might (irony being something that kids don't appreciate, as it's usually creates something that bursts their little bubble Universe—irony makes kids frown without knowing whether to laugh or cry). Finding Nemo, at the time of its release, was one of those Pixar bench-marks producing an artistic leap in how the physical world was represented digitally (late-comers to it might wonder what the fuss was about, considering the leaps they've made over the years). Finding Dory is as impressive in its depiction of the underwater world as The Good Dinosaur is showing the surface-world. But, its characterizations are far more sophisticated (and entertaining), while using a poignant story about memory and loss with the forgetful blue tang ( Ellen DeGeneres).
We go forward by going back: baby Dory (Sloane Murray) is being taught by her parents Jenny (Diane Keaton) and Charlie (Eugene Levy) how to introduce herself—"Hi, I'm Dory and I have short term memory loss." Dory's memory-stick is faulty and the parents (voiced by two of the best actors for portraying neurosis) worry about their little juvenile, warning her of the dangers of the deep (watch out for the undertow, don't stray too far from home) and hoping that some of it will make its way into her memory. But, they can only hope, because Dory can't stay focused or still enough for things to sink in. In the meantime, they do the best they can, hoping that it's enough.
We're back in Finding Nemo territory here, which was, basically, a movie about parenting. Yes, it was about finding yourself and taking chances and being more than you think you're capable of, but it was mostly about parenting, about loving something more than yourself that you would do all those things you wouldn't do otherwise. That Dory is a "special needs" child makes the movie even more poignant. The parents can only do what they can. It is up to the child to apply the lessons learned.

But, what if they can't remember the lessons?
Because it's a movie (rather than a short subject), of course Dory gets caught up in the undertow and is separated from her parents and left in the open ocean to say to every fish that passes "Hi, I'm Dory and I suffer from short-term memory loss. Have you seen my parents?" Of course, they haven't. But there are a lot of fish in the sea. And a year later, she encounters Marlin (Albert Brooks) who has also lost something, his son Nemo, and the movie flips to the ending with, that movie having been done thirteen years ago, Marlin and Nemo re-united, and Dory nearby, her own quest unfulfilled (not that she remembers).
But, images keep snapping into her mind. She talks in her sleep. One day, accompanying Nemo on a field-trip, she remembers something about "the undertow," and she associates it with her parents, and, together with Marlin and Nemo, she sets off to try and find a mysterious place she mentions after being knocked out by a migrating school of manta-rays—"The Jewel of Moro Bay, California."
In one of the few call-backs in the film (something that encourages me that a sequel has its own soul), the three catch the California current with Crush and his brood of migrating turtles and make their way to the U.S.'s West Coast, where an encounter with a squid manages to place them right where they want to be.
One of the neat things about Finding Dory is that it has a nice subliminal visual scheme to it. As the clowns and tang get closer to California, the ocean surface is littered with garbage from a Volkwagen beetle (which looks like it dropped out of Cars) and a sunken tanker of containers—at one point, Dory is swimming around with a plastic six-pack ring, which complicates her life for awhile.
And there are lots of new characters—Hank the camouflaging octopus (Ed O'Neill) who has a missing leg ("that would make you a septopus!"), Destiny the near-sighted shark (Kaitlin Olsen) and Bailey the beluga (Ty Burrell) with faulty echo-location, as well as sunning seals Fluke (Idris Elba—brilliant) and Rudder (Dominic West). If you're sensing a pattern in this, it's that "The Jewel" has a lot of damaged oceanographic life, where Dory fits right in.
And yet this doesn't dawn on you until late in the picture. Most of the sea-folk in the larger two-thirds of the movie are parked in a handicapped space, but, when left to their own devices, are just as capable, or even more so, than their blithely-"together" water-buddies. This realization colors the reactions of the schools of fishes that ignore, snub, or scuttle away from Dory's clueless pleas about her parents. It's a story about the invisibility of the handicapped, invisibly woven through an adventure story about the formation of relationships and its strengths...and in the words (improbably, but true) of Warren Beatty "the sanctity of family."
Because it's one thing for Marlin and Nemo to be in jeopardy and for us to feel for their plight. It is quite another for Dory and Hank and Destiny and Bailey to have their own survival systems and networks and feel that everything is going to be okay. Yes, there are tight spots. Yes, there are moments of indecision and desperation. But, the second-guessing and neurosis of Finding Nemo is refreshingly absent. No one needs convincing here (except for Marlin...again)—everybody is heroically zen-Yoda "Do or do not. There is no try." The pay-off is a goofy, ludicrously over-the-top chase sequence capped by a hilariously extended slow-mo denouement with a musical accompaniment that is both entirely inappropriate and dazzlingly perfect.
It's why I find Finding Dory a better film than Finding Nemo. Yes, the former has Marlin learning a lesson about overcoming his fears to find his son. All well and good. But, Finding Dory goes the extra step. It teaches to be fearless, despite adversity, despite handicaps, despite...anything. I like that message for being a life-lesson, rather than an answer to a problem. Yes, fine, don't be so neurotic is a good enough lesson to start. But "just keep swimming" is both a good philosophy and a good course of action.
Do not leave early at the "the end" credit because the movie has a nice end-note that continues issues from the film, but also from Finding Nemo.

Also, go early enough that you see Alan Barillaro's pitch-perfect short piper, which is amazing in its visual story-telling, mind-boggling in its photo-realistic animation, and admirable in its refusal to anthropomorphize its subjects.

*I missed roughly 20% of To Kill a Mockingbird when I was 7, thanks to that move. Thanks, Mom!

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Don't Make a Scene: Up in the Air

The Set-Up: I was already loving Up in the Air, but this scene was "the closer."

One of the strengths of the film is that everybody in it has their established worlds rocked, and frequently by a means they're all too familiar with. Nobody's safe, not the guy who's losing his job, and not the guy who telling him he's losing it. Irony plays upon irony in a cruel way, not unlike in a Billy Wilder film, but leavened with an understated understanding. These are self-aware people, not on the cusp of discovery, but settled into the muck of their worlds, and making the best of it, only to find that the best of it has its drawbacks.

Look, kids, I'm an old guy. One of the amusements of my dotage is sagely (but kindly) smiling at the unironic stating of "the obvious" from kids on their way up, from the vantage point (lofty, but getting less so on the way down) of someone "of my age." Fact is, goals are great, but once they've been achieved, where do you go from there? More of the same? Lateral move? Accelerating off-course? "Settling?" Life is not a sprint-race. It's a marathon.

And Natalie's plight—being left "up in the air" of her relationship—is only the disaster it seems to be right out of the blocks. It probably wouldn't have worked, anyway. Both are kids devoted to their jobs, and this stage, those are more than they are than to each other.  

But, don't tell her that. She doesn't know what she doesn't know. None of us do and in the process of living is the way we learn. Victories and losses are only temporary things and get lost in the big picture. Temporary jobs (not careers—and even them) or relationships. And the further down the road one travels, the less "perfect" are the dreams we hold. We grow older. We grow wiser. And, hopefully, at an equal rate ("hopefully"  being an unrealistic expectation, itself).

There's a lot of wisdom in this scene, rueful though it is. And it's played dexterously by all involved.

The Story: Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) has a good job informing others they've been deprived of theirs. But, on the side he is a guest lecturer on business travel in today's jet age. Rootless, a vagabond, a lone wolf, for this particular trip, he's saddled with Natalie (Anna Kendrick) a young up-and-comer with an idea towards using the Internet and Skype to cut down on the expenses of letting people go.  Turnabout, however, is fair play.  She's just been dumped by her boyfriend and seeks out advice from the old folks—Ryan and his casual partner in frequent flying, Alex (Vera Famiga)—in an airport bar.


TEXT READS: "I think it's time we c other people"
The three share a booth.  Natalie is sipping a drink.  She seems to have settled a little.
ALEX He broke up with you over text message?
RYAN (soft dig) That's kind of like firing people over the internet.
Both Natalie and Alex shoot Ryan a look.
ALEX (re: the ex-boyfriend) What a weasley prick.
NATALIE Yeah, but what does that make me? Someone who falls for a prick?
ALEX We all fall for them. Pricks are spontaneous, unpredictable, and fun. And then we're surprised when they turn out to be pricks.
NATALIE I followed him to Omaha.
RYAN You did?
NATALIE I had a job waiting for me in San Fran, when he got an offer from ConAgra. He told me we could start a life together. So I followed him.
RYAN To Omaha Nebraska.
NATALIE I look in the mirror and I just see compromise... I'm supposed to do something.
ALEX You'll do plenty.
NATALIE I just can't... I thought I'd be engaged by now.
(catches herself)
NATALIE No offense.
ALEX It's alright.
RYAN None taken.
NATALIE When I was sixteen, I thought by twenty three, I would be married, maybe have a kid... Corner office by day, entertaining at night.  I was supposed to be driving a Grand Cherokee by now.
ALEX Life can underwhelm you that way.
NATALIE Now I have my sights on twenty nine, because thirty is just way too...apocalyptic. I mean, where did you think you'd be by...
Natalie catches herself, having no idea how old Alex is.
ALEX It doesn't work that way.
RYAN At a certain point, you stop with the deadlines.
ALEX They can be a little counterproductive.
NATALIE I don't want to say anything that's... anti-feminist. I mean, I appreciate everything your generation did for me.
ALEX (my generation?) It was our pleasure.
RYAN Well done.
NATALIE But sometimes it feels like no matter how much success I have, it all won't matter until I find the right guy.
ALEX You really thought this guy was the one.
NATALIE Yeah, I guess.  I don't know. I could have made it work. He just really fit the bill.
RYAN The bill?
NATALIE My type. You know, white collar. College grad. Loves dogs. Likes funny movies. 
NATALIE Six foot one. Brown hair. 
NATALIE Kind eyes. 
NATALIE Works in finance but is Outdoorsy, you know, on the weekends.
(we think she's done)
NATALIE I always imagined he'd have a single syllable name like Matt or John or... Dave. 
NATALIE In a perfect world...
NATALIE ...he drives a Four Runner and the only thing he loves more than me is his golden lab. 
NATALIE Oh... and a nice smile.
(back to Alex and Ryan)
NATALIE How about you?
This catches both Alex and Ryan off guard.
RYAN I'm not sure if...
NATALIE I meant Alex...
RYAN Right.
ALEX Huh, let me think for a sec.
(mulls it over)
ALEX Well, by this time you're thirty four, all the physical requirements are pretty much out the window. I mean you secretly pray he'll be taller than you.
Ryan smiles.
ALEX Not an asshole would be nice? Just someone who enjoys my company. Comes from a good family -
ALEX You don't think about that when you're younger.
ALEX Wants kids... Likes kids... Wants kids. 
ALEX Healthy enough...
ALEX play catch with his future son one day.
We can tell Ryan is taking a serious interest in this.
ALEX Please let him earn more than I do. 
ALEX That doesn't make sense now...
ALEX ...but believe me, it will one day. Otherwise it's just a recipe for disaster.
ALEX Hopefully some hair on his head...? 
ALEX But it's not...
ALEX ...exactly a deal-breaker anymore. 
ALEX Nice smile...
ALEX Yep, a nice smile just might do it.
Alex looks at Ryan. He has a nice smile.
NATALIE Wow. That was depressing.
Alex and Ryan react - It's not that bad.
NATALIE I should just date women.
ALEX Tried it. 
ALEX We're no picnic ourselves.
Natalie looks worse than when the conversation started.
NATALIE I don't mind being married to my career, and I don't expect it to hold me in bed as I fall asleep.
(looks up)
NATALIE I just don't want to settle.

ALEX You're young. Right now you see settling as some sort of failure.
NATALIE It is. My definition.
ALEX Don't worry, by the time someone is right for you, it won't feel like settling... And the only person left to judge you will be the twenty four year old girl with a target on your back.
Natalie cracks a smile.
Ryan looks at Alex.  They've grown closer.

Up in the Air

Words by Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner

Pictures by Eric Steelberg and Jason Reitman

Up in the Air is available on DVD from Paramount Home Entertainment.