Then Playing — Ashes and Embers; Brewster McCloud; A Star is Born

ashes and embers

Ashes and Embers (Haile Gerima, 1982). Made around forty years ago, Haile Gerima’s experimental drama opens with Black men driving in a city who get pulled over police officers that immediately escalate the situation, presuming guilt as a default for no other reason than skin color. That’s how far we haven’t come. That’s only one piece of Gerima’s powerful film that also addresses the lingering psychic wounds harming U.S. veterans of the Vietnam War and the general and persistent troubles faced by Black citizens as they tried to operate safely and fairly in a nation that too often demonized them just for being. Gerima’s approach is about registering impressions rather than clicking through plot points, giving the film a quiet, impassioned verisimilitude that was a hallmark of independent film of the era. John Anderson gives a strong, committed performance in the lead role, but it’s Evelyn A. Blackwell, as a worldly-wise, no-nonsense grandmother whose responsible for the most engaging acting.

 

brewster

Brewster McCloud (Robert Altman, 1970). The same year as M*A*S*H, Robert Altman offered this delightful oddity, as if he felt compelled to rapidly signal the Hollywood establishment that having a box office hit on his resume didn’t mean he was going to play by any recognizable set of rules. Brewster McCloud follows the title character (Bud Cort), a virginal young man who lives in the utility corridors of the Houston Astrodome, dreaming and scheming in pursuit of the freedom of flight. He also works briefly for a corrosive nursing home magnate (Stacy Keach, under a thick slab of old age makeup), falls in love with a sweet oddball (Shelley Duvall), and avoids the probing of an out-of-town police detective (Michael Murphy) trying to solve a series of mysterious killings in the city. And that’s only describing the portions of the film that are remotely conventional. Working from a screenplay by Doran William Cannon (who also wrote the nutso Skidoo), Altman is in rascally mode, with a false-start opening credits, slippery satire in every narrative nook, and René Auberjonois escalating in lunacy as a lecturer-narrator who drops in periodically to expound on birds, gradually adopting the behavior and demeanor of the feathered creatures in the process.

 

a star is born

A Star is Born (William A. Wellman, 1937). The original take on the muchfilmed tale of star-crossed showbiz figures on opposite career trajectories might very well be the best of the lot. It has a zingy efficiency and cheery bravado, the melodramatic tragedy of the plot nicely balanced by comedy that takes some bold swipes at the still-emerging entertainment industry. In this A Star is Born, Janet Gaynor plays the hopeful ingenue whose dreams of being in the pictures are trod upon until she catches the eyes of a boozy movie star (Fredric March), who becomes her champion at the studio where he works. Her career takes off and his tumbles down. Both actors are in fine form, with Gaynor especially charming in a handful of moments where she clearly gets to play, such as a bit set in the studio commissary where she tries out a half dozen iterations of the throwaway line she’s been given in a movie. William A. Wellman gives the film a buoyant energy and demonstrates especially crack timing with the smart, funny script that was touched by several, including Dorothy Parker. I’m assuming she was responsible for the many sharp lines about downing drinks.

Then Playing — The Innocents; Marshall; Things to Come

innocents

The Innocents (Jack Clayton, 1961). A horror movie that favors spooky atmosphere over jolting shocks, The Innocents is adapted from the Henry James novella The Turn of the Screw. Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr) takes a position as a governess at remote estate, looking after the young niece (Pamela Franklin) and nephew (Martin Stephens) of a notably uncaring businessman (Michael Redgrave). What begins as the normal patience-testing behavior of rambunctious children longing for attention soon escalates to more unsettling mischief, and Miss Giddens grows certain that the house holds dark, perhaps supernatural secrets. Director Jack Clayton and cinematographer Freddie Francis work little wonders with hazy light and thick shadows, giving the film a constant hum of low menace. Kerr plays her role with her customary focus and steely elegance, helping to elevate the material above cinematic potboiler.

 

marshall

Marshall (Reginald Hudlin, 2017). Chadwick Boseman’s everlasting acting tour of towering figures of the twentieth century makes a stop at Thurgood Marshall. Rather than a biographical tour through the legal legend’s life, Marshall largely sticks with his work as a NAACP attorney on the case The State of Connecticut v. Joseph Snell. Settling comfortably into the familiar rhythms of a big-screen courtroom drama, Reginald Hudlin is able to slip in the valuable social commentary more discreetly, winning over the audience with clear heroes and villains that smooths the way for hard — and, sadly, enduring — truths about bigotry in policing and U.S. justice. Boseman, as usual, radiates charisma, even if he struggles a bit to get deeper into the man he’s portraying. The supporting performances are generally strong, with Josh Gad turning in impressively nuanced work as the small town lawyer Marshall ropes into serving a lead counsel on the case. It’s also entertaining and sort of endearing to see James Cromwell, one of the most devoted of the celebrity lefties, playing the surly, hard-right judge presiding over the case. Dan Stevens doesn’t fare as well in the role of the prosecuting attorney. He plays too many scenes with the mustache-twisting brio of a silent movie scoundrel itching to tie a damsel to some train tracks.

 

things to come

Things to Come (William Cameron Menzies, 1936). Based loosely on an H.G. Wells book published a mere three years earlier (the author himself reworked the material for the screen), Things to Come posits a future riven by global war. The creeping fascism of Nazi Germany was obviously on the minds of the filmmakers, but the nation’s incursions into the rest of Europe were more threat than reality at the time, lending the film an unnerving prescience. In Wells’s imaginings, war stretches on for decades, leaving civilization in rubble, susceptible to the bullying of a preening warlord (Ralph Richardson, performing with admirable gusto) until a more measured and scientifically advanced human tribe forcibly takes over, forging a lasting peace. Human nature is a prickly beast, however, and reactionary rebellion eventually starts to simmer. Fairly typical of the era in which it was made, the staging is often amusingly stiff, as director William Cameron Menzies struggles to coax believable interactions out of Wells’s didactic, occasionally academic language. When the film’s timeline stretches to a full century beyond the point when it was made, the effects and art direction are impressive, standing as a reasonable — if far less inspired — successor to Fritz Lang’s landmark Metropolis.

Then Playing — Fast Color; Monty Python’s Life of Brian; Blinded By the Light

fast color

Fast Color (Julia Hart, 2019). Black girl magic made tangible, Fast Color lightly adheres to the superhero origin story template that’s unexpectedly become a cinematic mainstay. In the film, Ruth (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) returns to her Midwestern childhood home at a time in the not so distant future when a devastating spell of rainless days has spread to years. She reunites with her family while carrying clear trepidation about the homecoming. There’s a sad history that’s initially hinted at and then made more clear as it’s revealed Ruth and the other women in her family all have superhuman powers that allow them to disassemble matter into something akin to astral dust. Director Julia Hart (who is also co-credited on the screenplay, with Jordan Horowitz) doesn’t have much plot to work with, getting by effectively on mood, meticulous visuals, and earnest commitment to the film’s themes. Hart also has the benefit of Mbatha-Raw in the lead role. She brings an intensity of concentration to the performance that goes a long way towards filling in gaps in the story.

 

life of brian

Monty Python’s Life of Brian (Terry Jones, 1979). The scampish sacrilege of this comedy, the second wholly original work brought to the big screen by legendary comedy troupe Monty Python, strengthens the material mightily. Beginning with the birth of Brian (played in his adult years by Graham Chapman) a couple mangers down from Jesus Christ, the film expertly, savagely lampoons the shaky reasoning that can lead to global religions when left unchecked. The jokes range from truly inspired to musty with vaudevillian dust, even for the era, but the fervent dedication to making every punchline land evens it all out to one bright, brilliant comic statement. On top of everything else, Monty Python’s Life of Brian is fearless. Terry Jones’s directing is fairly basic. Luckily, that’s all the film really needs.

 

blinded

Blinded by the Light (Gurinder Chadha, 2019). Growing up in England in the nineteen-eighties, a Pakistani teen (Viveik Kalra), wracked by uncertainty and buffeted by abuse from bigots, finds his first real sense of purpose through his love of the music of Bruce Springsteen. Based loosely on the experiences of journalist Sarfraz Manzoor, Blinded by the Light is exuberant and pedestrian all at once. Even as the film cycles through the most familiar beats — familial conflict, sweet romance that turns rocky before being salvaged — it effectively captures the unshakeable sensation of newfound belonging when a great music discovery bores into the very soul. I’d be far less charitable about director Gurinder Chadha’s choice to regularly render lyrics as words on screen when our hero listens to Springsteen if not for the fact that I must concede it’s a reasonable approximation of how prominently those same words exploded for me when I was a teenager enthralled by the Boss’s expressions of melancholy rebellion and wounded romanticism.

Then Playing — American Made; Dark Phoenix; Hellboy

american made

American Made (Doug Liman, 2017). Now that Tom Cruise has moved entirely into the phase of his career that involves constantly putting his own well-being in peril to the delight of the audience, more serious fare — even something as aspirationally gonzo as American Made — sits very awkwardly on his gym-sculpted shoulders, mostly because he apparently is going to operate with the same lunatic zeal no matter what. In playing Barry Seal, a pilot who both smuggled drugs and worked for U.S. government agencies during the nineteen-seventies and -eighties, Cruise can’t quite figure out the source of the character’s opportunism, amorality or pure survival instinct. Director Doug Liman is similarly confused, making no real distinction between the mounting of schemes and the points at which they’re moving recklessly forward under their own momentum. The whole movie is the Goodfellas sequence where Henry is so coked up that he gives equal import to helicopters following him and his brother tending the tomato sauce.

 

dark phoenix

Dark Phoenix (Simon Kinberg, 2019). Having already signed his name to the screenplay of one botched adaptation of the X-Men comic book story known as the Dark Phoenix saga, Simon Kinberg evidently wanted another crack at it. And he felt so strongly about the cinematic do-over than he decided to make it his feature directorial debut, too. Using the versions of Marvel’s merry mutants established in the film X-Men: First Class, Kinberg tracks the tragic tale of Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), a mutant with psychic and telekinetic abilities who is infused with the awesome power of the Phoenix Force, leading her to dabble in malevolence. Kinberg makes the same mistake as he did before, jettisoning nearly everything that made the original story work in a desperate hunt for cool movie mayhem. Perhaps nothing is more damning of Kinberg’s rendering of the story than the moral churn Jean’s friends go through in defending her is handled more artfully in a forty-year-old comic book that was created with adolescents in mind. Dark Phoenix is little more than a good guy who becomes a bad guy and everyone shouts and grimaces around her as it happens. Turner isn’t very good in the title role, but she’s hardly alone in underwhelming. All of the actors show signs of indifference, none more so than Jennifer Lawrence, playing shapeshifter Mystique for the fourth time with the benumbed spirit of contractual obligation.

 

hellboy

Hellboy (Neil Marshall, 2019). This absolutely disastrous attempt to reboot the film series featuring Hellboy, Mike Mignola’s dandy comic book character, suffers from a lack of purpose and an even more gaping absence of creative vision. Working from a screenplay by Andrew Cosby, Neil Marshall slings a lot of stuff on screen with little feel for logic or wit. Taking over the title role, David Harbour does a lot of yelling and comes across as merely flabbergasted any time an expression of more intricate emotion is required. The movie is glued together like a broken mirror with several shards missing and others put in upside down.

Then Playing — Alita: Battle Angel; A White, White Day; Harlan County, U.S.A.

alita battle angel

Alita: Battle Angel (Robert Rodriguez, 2019). Based on a nineteen-nineties manga series, Alita: Battle Angel is right in line with all the other sci-fi lite and reductive girl power product that bears the sticky fingerprints of James Cameron, who produces this feature and is credited as a co-writer. Alita (Rosa Salazar, in a motion-capture performance) is a cyborg girl in the twenty-sixth century, revived without memories from a mechanical surgeon (Christoph Waltz) who alternates between kindly and cranky. There’s a dreamy boy (Keean Boy) for Alita to pine after, a nefarious power structure for her to rebel against, and a riff on rollerball where she can prove her physical mettle. Robert Rodriguez directs capably — the action set pieces are blandly imagined but rendered with welcome clarity — but there’s only so much that can be done with material this hackneyed. Mahershala Ali and Jennifer Connelly are shockingly bland in supporting roles.

 

white white

A White, White Day (Hlynur Pálmason, 2020). This Icelandic thriller starts off promisingly before sort of losing its way in its final act, but the lead performance by Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson is powerful all the way through. He plays a former police officer and recent widower who has a loving, attentive relationship with his granddaughter (Ída Mekkín Hlynsdóttir) and harbors a deep well of anger, the latter exacerbated when he begins to discover secrets involving his departed wife (Sara Dögg Ásgeirsdóttir). As a character study, A White, White Day is wise and graceful. The film grows weaker as the understated revenge plot asserts itself over observations about how this emotionally wounded man gets through his days. Director Hlynur Pálmason, who also penned the screenplay, has a shrewd eye for visuals and manages pacing that is deliberate without growing languid.

 

harlan county

Harlan County, USA (Barbara Kopple, 1976). The feature debut of documentarian Barbara Kopple remains dismayingly pertinent nearly five decades after the events it depicts. Kopple effectively embedded herself with Kentucky coal miners as they went on strike against Duke Power in the early nineteen-seventies, capturing the weariness of the struggle for better wages and safer working conditions. There’s a remarkable thoroughness to what she captures, including the sniping interplay of labor activists who feel their cohorts aren’t doing enough to the blatant — and, it should be noted, highly illegal — tactics used by the “gun thugs” employed by Duke to intimidate the strikers. Kopple is measured, but not particularly even-handed. She sees injustice and cruelty and depicts it accurately. It is a quintessential example of storytelling and advocacy combined to share a hard truth. But the film is no bland history lesson. It’s also thoroughly engaging, mostly by astutely capturing the personalities of everyone on camera. I could have happily spent a couple hours watching the conversation between a New York City police officer and miner picketing in front of the stock exchange. Harlan County, USA is a tremendous piece of work and deserves further credit for setting the rough template and fundamental knowledge Kopple would use several years later to top herself.

Then Playing — Toni Erdmann; Wildlife; The Seagull

toni

Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade, 2016). German filmmaker Maren Ade puts pathos and comedy together in a way that’s borderline magical in Toni Erdmann. The title character, as it were, is a pseudonym commonly adopted by Winfried (Peter Simonischek) when he’s up to prankish behavior, gently gibing others with the gently unorthodox. When he visits his busy businesswoman daughter, Ines (Sandra Hüller), as she’s courting an important client, his restless tomfoolery tests their already strained relationship and leaves her in a state of rattled reevaluation. Ade’s sense of narrative timing is remarkable across the film, especially given a running time that exceeds two and half hours. Every piece of the film matters, but is also delivered with just enough stealth to give the weight of surprise to the emotional blows that land in the last act. Simonischek and Hüller are both similarly cunning in their performances.

 

wildlife

Wildlife (Paul Dano, 2018). For his feature directorial debut, Paul Dano looks to a 1990 Richard Ford novel that feels dated in its sensibilities, which isn’t a reference to the story’s 1960 setting, but instead to the wounded manhood archetype of that era of Great American Writing, when the likes of John Updike and Philip Roth reigned supreme. In writing the screenplay with his partner, Zoe Kazan, Dano doesn’t provide the sprucing up required to make the narrative feel sharp and relevant. A teenage boy (Ed Oxenbould, straining to find the nuance needed to make the role work) is trying to find some solidity in his family life, recent transplanted to rural Montana. The effort is complicated when his father (Jake Gyllenhaal) treats his insecurity around professional failure by signing on to fight nearby wildfires. In response, the boy’s mother (Carey Mulligan), who starts from a place of disgruntled unhappiness, comes a little unhinged as she tests out her newfound — and not entirely welcome — forced independence. Dano treats the material seriously, almost with reverence, which serves to deaden it. But he also allows room for Mulligan to tear into her role. She sometimes tear into dialogue with the unapologetic hamminess of late-period Bette Davis, and other times she lets a line collapse like a broken lawn chair. The performance may be too loose to be accurately termed great, but it’s a consistent pleasure to watch.

 

seagull

The Seagull (Michael Mayer, 2018). This adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull proves the no source material is bulletproof when it comes to clumsy cinematic construction. The main issue is the unfocused approach of director Michael Mayer, exemplified by the wildly varying tone and quality of the performances. There are old-hand theater pros who instinctually understand how to maintain their stage boldness and precision while simultaneously dialing it back for the greater intimacy of the screen (Annette Bening, Brian Dennehy, and Mare Winningham land in this category) and younger actors who seem to be feeling their way through, so respectful of the revered writing that they are unable to invest it with the needed life (Billy Howle, Corey Stoll, and, I’m sad to report, Saoirse Ronan). And then there’s Elisabeth Moss, who, as always, operates inside an emotional kaleidoscope imported from another planet’s afterworld. Mayer’s handling of the material is so haphazard that it seems as if the film was put together by pure guesswork.

Then Playing — Foreign Correspondent; The Rape of Recy Taylor; In Fabric

foreign c

Foreign Correspondent (Alfred Hitchcock, 1940). Alfred Hitchcock’s second Hollywood picture is basically a trial run for all slam-bang entertainments that would follow in his career. On the leading edge of World War II, a New York newspaper sends a metro crime reporter (Joel McCrea) to Europe, hoping that his bulldog instincts will yield hotter stories than the usual foreign correspondents’ drab transcribing of diplomatic pronouncements. Sure enough, our dogged journalist stumbles upon a broad scheme of espionage, centered on the faked assassination and kidnapping of a Dutch official (Albert Bassermann), which allows Hitchcock to play around with a regular Joe thrust into extraordinary circumstances, a longtime favorite scenario. Hitchcock’s almost unrivaled command of the mechanics of narrative cinema is fully in evidence in Foreign Correspondent, even if his greater ingenuity only flits in now and then. A set piece inside a raggedy windmill is prime example of the Master becoming the Master. The film is probably most notable for its startlingly direct efforts in urging U.S. audiences to support their nation coming to the aid of European nations beset by the aggressions of Nazi forces. It’s a remarkable example of plain entertainment as stern political advocacy.

 

recy taylor

The Rape of Recy Taylor (Nancy Buirski, 2017). As the title suggests, Nancy Buirski’s documentary isn’t an easy watch. As best she can without diminishing the crime, Buirski tries to be relatively restrained in recounting the violent sexual assault perpetrated on Alabama woman Recy Taylor in 1944, perhaps because there’s plenty of outrage to be had from the institutionalized injustice that followed. Taylor was blocked by bigotry at every turn, her basic human dignity cast aside in favor of the perceived importance of preserving the reputations of the white teens who took her to the outskirts of town and raped her. Even decades after the fact, after the Alabama legislature (hardly a hotbed of woke activism) voted to issue an official apology to Taylor, Buirski can still find heartless ghouls, such as a self-proclaimed state historian, who will gladly signal their disdain for her and her story to the camera. The intent of the documentary in unassailable, but it sometimes feels like Buirski is straining to get limited material to feature length. With little archival footage of Taylor available, Buirski relies heavily on old movie dramatizations of similar crimes, and a long digression about Rosa Parks, who took up Taylor’s case as part of her activism, is interesting but feels out of place. Mainly, the passage about Parks implicitly makes the case that the Civil Rights icon is overdue for a fresh documentary about her life, one that showcases the amazing range of her social justice efforts beyond that one day on the bus.

 

in fabric

In Fabric (Peter Strickland, 2019). A wild, warped horror film and consumer culture satire, In Fabric swirls its narrative around the vicious acts perpetrated by a sentient, murderous red dress. Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) is a divorced woman struggling with a series of cloddish men as she reenters the dating scene. In an effort to boost her self-esteem, she springs for a lush new garment. As hoped for, the dress turns heads, but it also swoops ominously around the flat at night and thrashes the washing machine into metallic debris. Writer-director Peter Strickland is admirably committed to the bit and occasionally approaches levels of bleak, weirdo comedy not seen much in this type of fare since the days when David Cronenberg was at his most delightfully unhinged. The gag isn’t strong enough to sustain the film’s nearly two-hour running time, though, and it grows deeply boring well before the conclusion. Fatma Mohamed gives a consistently amusing performance as a department store clerk with a proclivity for ornate language and ludicrously complex sentence structures.

Then Playing — Zombieland: Double Tap; Hale County This Morning, This Evening; A Separation

zombieland double

Zombieland: Double Tap (Ruben Fleischer, 2019). This sequel to Ruben Fleischer’s winning horror-comedy of a decade earlier isn’t good, but its pedestrian nature is almost charming. It calls to mind a bygone era, when new installments of film series were less preoccupied with world-building and instead just slapped together more of the same with the most modest of additions and expected audiences to queue up for the undemanding reassurance of the familiar. In an era of expanded cinematic universes, Zombieland: Double Tap is a Beverly Hills Cop II for whoever might need it. The film reunites the original quartet of geographically-named survivors of a zombie apocalypse, and sends them traipsing around the dystopian landscape with vaguely defined goals. The narrative moves forward because it must, and everyone is game enough. It’s nice that Emma Stone returned, presumably out of loyalty, but it’s also odd to see her stroll through a role that she now seems well beyond, like a PhD student returning to middle school for a little intellectual batting practice. Only Zoey Deutch truly impresses, injecting sparkling comic verve into her Midwestern valley girl.

 

hale county

Hale County This Morning, This Evening (RaMell Ross, 2018). This documentary relies on feel and impression rather than a conveyance of cold, hard facts. The film lands somewhere in between the patient, unadorned observations regularly delivered by Frederick Wiseman and the more overt visual poetry of a more experimental film, such Robert Persons’s General Orders No. 9. While working as a coach and teacher in Western Alabama, RaMell Ross decided to capture the lives of his fellow residents — largely African-Americans subsisting on lower incomes — in an attempt to give expression to a marginalized community. There’s beauty to Ross’s filmmaking, but it’s also telling that Hale County This Morning, This Evening works about as well condensed down to a trailer as it does as a full-length feature. In opting for glances rather than commitment, Ross makes a film that provides more of an introduction than an understanding.

 

separation

A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, 2011). An absolute powerhouse from Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi, A Separation begins as a married couple — Simin (Leila Hatami) and Nader (Payman Maadi) — meets in family court to discuss their differences. She wants to move away from Iran, he feels obligated to stay because of his ailing father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi), and neither wants to be away from their teenaged daughter (Sarina Farhadi, the director’s own offspring). At a seeming stalemate, Simin moves out, and the decisions that follow cascade into major problems for Nader. Farhadi brings incredible psychological insight to the narrative, with every turn emanating directly and clearly from established aspects of the well-drawn characters. Pride and stubbornness prove to be especially troublesome instincts. The storytelling in handled with enviable elegance, and Farhadi’s visual sense is unerring. Although framed as a melodrama rather than a thriller, Farhadi’s film anticipates Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite in its astute and ingenious exploration of social divisions.

Then Playing — Bacurau; Maiden; Through a Glass Darkly

bacarau

Bacurau (Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles, 2020). A wooly mash-up of a modern Western, a riff on The Most Dangerous Game, and a roaring revenge potboiler, this Brazilian film is gonzo is all the right ways. Well, it’s probably more accurate to downshift that observation to most of the right ways, since Bacurau, both co-written and co-directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles, also has a tendency for overindulgence in its frothing mania, leading to a running time that would have benefited from some pruning and tightening up. The film’s title refers to the name of the backcountry town where a series of bloody skirmishes take place, mostly due to the incursion of international trophy hunters who’ve decided to train their rifle sights on human beings, arrogantly ignorant to the idea that these humble folk might be more than capable of responding in kind to the aggression. What elevates the film above its grindhouse instincts is a fiercely firing central nervous system of anti-colonialist commentary. The film offers a welcome and timely condemnation of capitalistic instincts that make moneyed individuals expect to operate with impunity.

 

Maiden

Maiden (Alex Holmes, 2019). The skillful documentary recounts the voyage of the good ship Maiden. An aspiring sailor who was frustrated by the chauvinism she faced when trying to join established crew for major competitions, Tracy Edwards made her own opportunity, assembling a group of women to participate in the Whitbread Around the World Race, in 1989. With modern interviews and a plethora of old footage, director Alex Holmes tells the trailblazing story with assurance, tacking into the real details that play like gripping Hollywood heroism, including the elbow-grease refurbishment of a dilapidated ship and the mix of heartbreaking setbacks and spirit-boosting triumphs experienced by the Y chromosome–free tars. If someone isn’t already scrambling to mount a fictionalized film version with Florence Pugh as Edwards, then the movie business simply isn’t working right.

 

through a glass

Through a Glass Darkly (Ingmar Bergman, 1961). This Ingmar Bergman family drama nabbed the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, giving his work the prize in back-to-back years. The film follows a family at their rustic island vacation home. They’re trying to settle into some warm, affectionate time together, but there are lingering shadows, partially due to the emotional distance of the author patriarch (Gunnar Björnstrand), but mostly because of lingering worry about the mental health of Karin (Harriet Andersson), who was recently institutionalized. As usual, Bergman navigates tricky terrain with a grim astuteness, capturing the large and small ways troubles come to the forefront, especially as people try to hold them in. Blessed with a part that calls for boldness, Andersson gives it her all, tearing into the heaviest, hardest moments with a bracing fearlessness. The great Max von Sydow gives a performance of graceful understatement as Karin’s husband, who struggles remain calm and positive despite mounting certainty that there’s no good outcome for him and Karin.

Then Playing — The Helen Morgan Story; Cabin in the Sky; Jimmy the Gent

helen morgan

The Helen Morgan Story (Michael Curtiz, 1957). It’s like A Star is Born if the venerable tale of showbiz melodrama was overtly based on a true story. Helen Morgan (played by Ann Blyth) was a singer and actress who made her name in the original Broadway production of Show Boat, staged in 1927. From there, she had brief ups and deep downs, ending in booze-soaked tragedy. The Helen Morgan Story doesn’t have the gumption to see the story through to the sad end, but the destitution, alcoholism, and suffered abuse is otherwise depicted with a heavy hand, in part because Blyth launches into the most grim moments with more vigor than deftness. The film is also unbalanced by the clear charge for director Michael Curtiz to include as many musical performances as possible, so the narrative stops dead repeatedly so Blyth can deliver a torch song. The film’s main curiosity is the presence of Paul Newman, playing the thuggish schemer who keeps crossing paths with Helen. Still in the earliest stage of his career, Newman is locked into an Actors Studio intensity, especially in the many scenes that call for flashes of quicksilver temper. The star quality is already there, but he hasn’t yet figured out how to properly harness it.

 

cabin in the sky

Cabin in the Sky (Vincente Minnelli, 1943). The feature directorial debut of Vincente Minnelli, Cabin in the Sky adapts the hit Broadway musical of the same name, retaining much of the cast of the stage production with a few key changes. One of those new names is Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, moonlighting from his more famous gig as Jack Benny’s foil to play Little Joe Jackson, a scoundrel whose long-suffering wife, Petunia (Ethel Waters), prays will find his way to a straighter path. Little Joe’s wavering ways are further tested by a near-death experience that results in angelic and devilish forces engaged in a battle for his immortal soul. As might be expected for the era, the film veers perilously close to deeply unpleasant stereotypes. At the same time, it’s a rare showcase for gifted black performers, and there are time when the frame is filled with a staggering number of vibrant performers who would likely find no other outlet in their lifetimes. Minnelli crafts the film with skill, if not quite the level of boundless inspiration that would show up in later efforts. There are wonderful performances to be found in the film, including Lena Horne as devious temptress and Rex Ingram as Lucifer Jr., who joyously schemes to undermine Little Joe’s efforts at pious purity. Louis Armstrong also turns up in a brief acting role, and it turns out he’s pretty great at it.

 

jimmy the gent bette

Jimmy the Gent (Michael Curtiz, 1934). This crackling comedy stars James Cagney as Jimmy Corrigan, an ethically flexible businessman who specializes in tracking down heirs of recently deceased individuals. (The film opens with a spectacular montage of flashy deaths and jolting headlines.) His favorite gal, Joan Martin (Bette Davis), works for the a refined competitor in the field, and much of the film is concerned with Jimmy’s attempts to spruce up his operation as he and his professional foe simultaneously pursue the same enticing case. Jimmy the Gent has some of the slaphappy rat-a-tat of the best screwball comedies, even if director Michael Curtiz is a little too workmanlike in his approach to really make the material pop. Both Cagney and Davis are sharp in their roles, and the couple of scenes that allow them to unleash on each other with full force are like gifts from classic Hollywood heaven.