31 August 2012

Cinematic Capsules: August 2012

Zoolander (2001)

Ben Stiller's fashion world farce is nothing more than a cameo-filled waste of time. Blame most of the failure on Stiller himself, who in addition to directing and starring in the picture, also co-wrote the clichĂ©-addled screenplay. The usually-reliable Will Ferrell is only intermittently funny because he is given absolutely nothing to do. The one shining light is surprisingly Owen Wilson, who plays an up-and-coming rival of Stiller's with just the right amount of oblivious gusto. The film provides a few genuine moments of laughter but they are fleeting.

Overboard (1987)

An outlandish, crude, and surprisingly cruel picture from director Garry Marshall that is saved solely by the undeniable chemistry of stars Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell. Hawn plays a rich and spoiled shrew living on a yacht who hires handyman Russell to remodel her closet. When she is unsatisfied with the work she fires Russell without compensation. That night she falls off the yacht and is taken to a nearby hospital where it is discovered she has amnesia. Russell takes her in as revenge, leading her to believe that they are married and that she is tasked with raising a household of four unruly boys. The romantic comedy hits all of the familiar beats and the ending is telegraphed from the very first scene, but it has its odd charms to it. However, it is still hard to stomach Russell's lying despite Hawn's previous cruelty, especially after he falls for her and they consummate the relationship. It all feels a bit too close to rape for me but maybe I'm over-thinking it.

Mildred Pierce (1945)

A very good lead performance from Joan Crawford is not enough to salvage this pedestrian production of a thoroughly mediocre screenplay. Crawford plays the titular character, a grass widow who waits tables and eventually opens her own business, all to provide every possession and opportunity to her pretentious, petulant daughter. The film opens with the murder of her second husband and the events preceding the killing are then told in flashback. Michael Curtiz's direction is fairly rote throughout with a few glaring technical flaws, an out-of-focus shot here, the distracting shadow of what appears to be a boom mic there. Due in part to the structure and some very poor supporting acting, the film's climactic twist is telegraphed from the very first reel, which leaves little room for surprises or excitement. Getting back on my high horse for a moment, it is also a sad state of affairs to see the portrayal of hard-working, entrepreneurial woman in the 1940s be completely undone by blind devotion to such a one-note villain.

Johnny Guitar (1954)

The Western with the greatest title of all time justifiably warrants such a decorous demarcation. Director Nicholas Ray's deft hand guides this intense tale of jealousy and mob rule with an assuredness that blazes onscreen. A hard-bitten, hard-scrabble, hard-working woman played by none other than Joan Crawford, sets up shop on the outskirts of a close-minded community, a town filled with people that want nothing more than to run her--and any other sign of progress--out of the country. The familiar gender roles of the archetypal Hollywood Western are completely thrown out the window here as the film depicts the bitter battle of two tough women that wholly consumes the lives of a town filled with meek men. The film can also be read as an allegorical tale of the Communist witch hunts but it is never once heavy-handed, it refuses to dip into proselytizing. The screenplay by the blacklisted Ben Maddow is a treasure, rife with tense exchanges and a plethora of memorable lines. A cavalcade of familiar Western mugs (including Ward Bond and Royal Dano) dot the supporting cast, while Sterling Hayden and his sonorous voice play the titular hero. But the film belongs utterly to Crawford, who runs the show much like her character Vienna runs the saloon and the broken-hearted lives of the men who love her.

Pickup on South Street (1953)

This raw and gritty noir from director Samuel Fuller sees a two-bit grifter (Richard Widmark) embroiled in some very serious Cold War danger when he inadvertently heists some microfilm meant for the Commies. Fuller and cinematographer Joseph McDonald pull off some incredible camera work here, repeatedly swooping in to a series of subtle and dramatic close-ups from a variety of off-kilter angles. Fuller's screenplay and direction depicts the criminal underworld and their no-nonsense approach to life with a deep understanding. The only thing that doesn't quite jive is pickpocket victim and unknowing Communist carrier, Jean Peters, falling so quickly for Widmark's straight talk and sleazy moves, but that's rather small potatoes. The best actor in the whole picture is Thelma Ritter, who plays a stool pigeon with her own moral code. Ritter imbues her tired, broken down character with a gentle heart and a quiet resignation. Her final appearance late in the picture is not only the best scene in the film, but one of the greatest in cinema history. It is the quietest moment in an otherwise knockabout film, punctuated with a splendid monologue on mortality. "I have to go on making a living, so I can die." 

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