Tag Archives: Historical

Sylvia Scarlett

Way back in 1935 Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant (An Affair to Remember) were to meet for the first time on screen. The results were not what you’d expect given their better remembered history. In fact, there is no romance between the two.

The object of Hepburn’s attention is not Grant but rather Brian Aherne. She and Grant are really more intended as comedy duo along the lines of Abbot and Costello or William Powell and Myrna Loy. But the movie really doesn’t work very well. Even Edmund Gwenn, who plays Hepburn’s father, is wasted in this film as he flails about and attains no sympathy from us, starting with the first scene. 

So, why watch this film at all? Well, it has three interesting aspects to it. Primarily, Hepburn is dressed as a boy for a good part of the film. It is intended to lead to hijinx and hilarity of mistaken intentions and confused sexuality (all with a laugh, of course). It didn’t work then. It works a little better now as gender roles and societal norms have relaxed. A little better. Hepburn is, mostly, a strong character in this story. But there are no guts to the script and barely a good joke, though Hepburn does a game job of jumping back and forth in her makeup and movement. And with Mel Berns make-up, Hepburn almost passes, looking like a young David Bowie in her drag.

The second bit of trivia for this film is Grant. It was, essentially, his breakout. Not with the film itself, but it was the first time his trademark personality on screen was exhibited and noticed. It led to his subsequent stardom.

The final interesting aspect of this film, especially given this summer’s misfires at the box office, was that Sylvia Scarlett was a massive bomb (losing about 350,000 or over 6M in 2017 dollars) when it released. It almost cost Hepburn her career. 3 years later she would return triumphantly, and with Grant again, in Bringing Up Baby (followed in quick succession by Holiday, Philadelphia Story), and then Woman of the Year.

You don’t often get to see what didn’t work from years past. For good reason they tend to fade and be forgotten. In this case, the star power kept it alive until it found an audience, however tenuously. You’d never expect that George Cukor, who would go on to direct My Fair Lady, Philadelphia Story, and Adam’s Rib, just to name a few, was at the helm of this damaged ship. But he did see the spark in the pairing of Grant and Hepburn and got to use it later on.

Sylvia Scarlett is not a great film, even in retrospect. But it is a fascinating piece of film history, with some moments to recommend it. I have to admit, I had to skip a small chunk of the film near the beginning because it was just so uncomfortably bad. But curiosity had me finish it. I also wonder if, in title and nod to theme, they weren’t playing on the previous year’s Marlene Dietrich success: The Scarlet Empress, but I don’t think anyone is left to ask that one anymore.

 

 

This Film is Not Yet Rated

Even I’m appalled that it has taken me 11  years to finally see this documentary about an industry that I’ve been part of most of my life. Especially so as I’ve always felt the ratings system was bogus (at best). Despite its early, stated intentions to end the censorship era, the advent of the MPAA and the rating system simply shifted and made shadier the efforts to control content by a minority band of self-appointed moralists. If that statement left you in the dust, then you definitely need to see this movie.

The sad truth, however, is that even after 11 years nothing has really changed since this Kirby Dick (The Hunting Ground) documentary hit screens. The MPAA hasn’t changed tactics or efforts at all. They are still beholden to the same masters (studios) and are secretive and capricious (and even bigoted) in their decisions. (See 3 Generations for a recent example. )

On the up side, the lay of the land around the industry, in particular with the rise of Netflix and Amazon Prime, has provided distribution avenues that didn’t exist at the time this docu was made. Also, the rise of “Director’s” and Unrated editions of films, only just coming to prominence when this docu was made, allows for the intended vision of films to find their audience. All of this doesn’t nullify the very real concerns or issues raised, but it points to potential ways around the gatekeepers from an artistic point of view. It would be a great follow-up to see how the financial landscape and decisions may be changing (though even Netflix is starting to scale back after years of risk).

Not Yet Rated exhibits Dick’s devotion to the truth as well as his sense of humor and commitment to his subject. It is a set of qualities that has garnered him several awards and nominations. This particular documentary struggles with its narrative, but not its entertainment nor its ability to inform. Which is to say that while it all comes together and there is a lot of information and revelation, the focus is a little soft. However, if you’ve ever wondered where the heck those letters come from on your entertainment, how they are selected, and how we compare to the rest of the world, you need to see this film.

This Film Is Not Yet Rated

A Dragon Arrives! (Ejdeha Vared Mishavad!)

To be honest, I haven’t an f’ing clue what this movie is about. But it was fun trying to unpuzzle it, and it is a hypnotic bit of storytelling, except when it wants to slap you in the face.

This is one of the joys and issues with film festivals: you gamble. Based on the description on the site I was expecting a Persian mashup of a film that could have been made by Stephen Chow.

Police Inspector Hafizi wakes up on a desert island and must piece together the puzzle of his abduction while working a murder case in this delightfully unconventional and entertaining Iranian mashup of gumshoe noir and phantasmagorical ghost story.

OK, noir, sort of, unconventional for sure, but entertaining was a poor choice of words and they have the setup considerably wrong. Despite that mismatch, it is captivating, though uneven in its flow. It is also more, I think, a political allegory than it is a ghost story, but I’m making a huge guess. Writer/director Mani Haghighi (Men at Work) has a strong viewpoint as a film maker. He certainly is willing to tackle challenging narrative. Where I think this falters a little is in translation. There are some cultural assumptions that left me in the dust. Either that or there really were bigger gaps in his film making than I realize.

As I said, you gamble at film festivals. This one got my attention and I’m certainly not sorry I went to see it; I wouldn’t have gotten the chance to be exposed to it otherwise. And it certainly has put me on a path to research a number of historical incidents and Iranian culture to see if I’m right in my ultimate parsing of the tale (particularly the ending).  It’s good to bend your brain, particularly these days when we get such an homogenized view of the world through bigger media as they try  package items for everyone rather than have strong points of view or too specific affinities for a region.

A Dragon Arrives! Poster

We are X

Sometimes a trailer catches you by declaring similarity to something you do know. In this case, We are X claimed affinity with Searching for Sugar Man, which was a delightful and unexpected treat of a documentary. It was not an apt comparison by any stretch, but the movie has its own merits.

So, let’s start with the obvious: Who is X Japan? Probably the biggest band that you’ve never heard of. I certainly hadn’t, as their rise to popularity beyond Japan was outside of my music exploration days. Learning about their path was interesting, but not overly different from any other big rock group. They met young, they had trials, they had losses, and they had triumphs.

However, what sets this docu and the group apart is Yoshiki, the drummer (amongst other instruments) and primary brains behind the band (and primary filter for this movie). Not because of his songs or playing, though both are notable, but because of his drive. Yoshiki is definitely not the typical drummer personality. He is the primary lryics and tunes man, the business manager, and the primary front personality of the band. I couldn’t think of a single, prominent band that had a drummer in the same role, though I’m sure someone out there will prove me wrong now that I’ve stated it. Rush comes close, but they really are more ensemble.

The docu is much less about music than it is about artistic integrity and life. Sure, it is a little self-conscious and controlled, but it is also fascinating, empowering, and inspiring in many ways. What is missing is the insight into creation of their music. This is more an homage to X Japan and/or their fans (it sort of works in both directions). That is a great gift if you were a fan, but of less value if you didn’t know them going in.

Gimme Danger was a better look inside a band, in large part because a third eye was brought to the tale. History wasn’t only lensed through the eyes of the band itself, there was some critical thought to it all, however filtered.

Beyond the emotional journey, what We are X does have to offer is some nice behind the scenes views of their Madison Square Garden concert. No matter how many times you see that kind of event being put together, it is awe-inspiring what it takes to create it and how simple they make it look during performance.

This is an oddly compelling story. Seeing what an artist like Yoshiki will sacrifice (quite literally everything) in order to create is pretty fascinating. How much of this is promotion and how much bald fact, frankly there is no way to tell. And he did get me interested in digging out their tunes and learning more, so perhaps it served its purpose.

We Are X

The Salt of the Earth

I’m not entirely sure where to begin with this powerful piece. Perhaps the right way is with the director, which is counter-intuitive, but the result of this movie is directly related to Wim Wenders’ (Pina) involvement.

Making a film about a photographer is fraught with issues. A medium of moving pictures trying to elicit an understanding of a medium that relies on single, frozen moments is practically at odds from the start. Wenders, who narrates a large part of the film, comments on that in a way at the top of this documentary. But Wenders was a perfect choice as a man who could take this story and make the film feel like a Salgado photo from beginning to end. He captured the sense, sensibility, and framing of the great photographer’s works and filmed Salgado commenting on his photos while looking at them. The overall feel is often like an intimate, private show.

Tackling this subject also meant finding the story of Salgado’s life, the narrative by which Wenders captures your imagination and exposes the root of the art. He went with the title as it is now, but it could also have been “The Life, and Death, and Life of Sebastião Salgado” given the shape of his life and tale. Salgado has led a fascinating life both in deeds and trajectory.  His story is as inspiring as his art, not only for its unlikely path but also for its intensity and dedication to the purpose and result. To discuss it would be to rob you of the journey and revelations, so I won’t.

I discovered Wim Wenders as a narrative filmmaker. His power, however, as a documentarian is proving to be equally or more emotionally and artistically impactful for me. He embraces his subjects and holds them close, for years in some cases, before embarking on trying to tell their story in the right way. This movie is no exception and the result is something that has to be seen.

The Salt of the Earth

The Tree of Wooden Clogs (L’albero degli zoccoli)

I tucked in for this 3 hour, year-in-the-life of late 19th century Bergamo peasants in Italy thinking it was going to be a story; that wasn’t exactly what I got. It is beautifully filmed and it has moments, but doesn’t really satisfy as a story. Because, if it is a story, the only message is that the Church destroys peoples lives, and I don’t really see that as the intended message. What I believe documentarian Ermanno Olmi, wrote and directed instead is a well-researched and nicely depicted slice of life.

Clogs released in 1978 and gathered up a number of awards. Today, if this film were to be made, it would probably have ended up as a mini- or event-series. There are through-lines, but no investment in a character by the audience is rewarded. People go about their lives, and life goes about its pounding of the peasants.

As an artistic achievement, it is quite the accomplishment. Criterion has also done a beautiful job on the restoration of the print and sound. If I had approached it as a documentary, my response may well have been different. If you are fascinated by, or curious about history, particularly the late 1880s in Italy, it is a must see. It is also disturbingly resonant with today’s world in both politics and economy. But as a movie, as a piece of fictional entertainment, it failed for me.

The Tree of Wooden Clogs

Gimme Danger

Music is a visceral thing. It gets into your head, your blood, and your bones as you grow up. It is all about time and life, love and loss. It is why a few notes can bring back memories, both good and bad, for just about anyone on the planet. The Stooges were a powerful force in the evolution of modern rock, by personality if not by talent. They fought manufactured music, created the stage dive, and were a large part of the force that ushered in what would become Punk rock.

Director Jim Jarmusch (Only Lovers Left Alive) corners the members and gets from them some of the most jaw-droppingly honest interviews about an icon I’ve seen captured. Jim Osterberg/Iggy Pop, in particular just lays it all out there, not that he was ever particularly shy. But none of the interviews, current or past, try to hedge who they were and how utterly messed up things got for them. The film never devolves into wound-licking, however. It remains poised and comfortable with itself, perhaps a bit too much so as it glosses over some of the darker aspects of their lives. I don’t know if it is a weakness in this film that we never really see into that dark mirror clearly or a strength that it can be acknowledged and skipped over. You can infer a lot, but it does feel like you hear the story and, on reflection, realize you’re missing big chunks of information. If you want some nice intersections with their tale, watch CBGB and Velvet Goldmine within proximity to this docu; Iggy and The Stooges show up in both.

Jarmusch starts the story at the end of the band’s original career and then rebuilds your respect for and understanding of them. It is an intriguing way to attack such a seminal group; understanding how they dropped off the cliff is as much a part of how they climbed the mountain. Their collaborations, particularly in the UK, are mentioned, but a lot of that is also left to your own memory and/or researching.

There is a ton of archival footage and, of course, music. I would have liked a bit more of the latter, but it is just as interesting to hear how the band viewed their music and their approach to creating it; the structure under the chaos. This is a compelling film if you have any interest in rock music, particularly of the late 60s into the 70s and beyond.

Gimme Danger

I Am Not Your Negro

Probably the most brilliant aspect of Raoul Peck’s challenging documentary is that he doesn’t make you work to understand how it applies to today. Very often, the footage playing to Baldwin’s writing is from today. It is clear how far we’ve come and how far we haven’t. Another powerful choice was his selection of Samuel L. Jackson (Kong: Skull Island) as the voice of Baldwin. Though he pointedly tried not to imitate Baldwin, by his own interviews, it fits with all of the archival footage almost seamlessly.

James Baldwin was a scholar, an icon, and a man with the ability to bring an outsider’s view to the troubles and hypocrisies of American life and the history of the country. He was a quiet, but intense revolutionary bringing his intellect to bear in both printed and live forums. We could sorely use him today, but his lessons are all still applicable, if not any more as immediate.

Peck took Baldwin’s surviving notes for a planned book to create this film. It is full of archival footage and, as mentioned, brilliant voice over of Baldwin’s writings. As a window on the soul of this country, and any country where there was an institutionalized underclass, it is more than a little disturbing and unflinching. The power of the message and insight is uncomfortably bare and unavoidable.

As a film it is a bit less effective. Though there is the stated conceit of telling Baldwin’s life through his friendship with Medgar Evers, Malcom X, and Martin Luther King Jr., it isn’t really about that at all, though they all play roles in the narrative. We get little of Baldwin’s personal life… instead, the material lectures (brilliantly) on the world around him.  While impactful, it doesn’t feel personal.  It is more of a survey course of American history with the touch-points of the assassinations. Part of Peck’s challenge, no doubt, was the incomplete outline that had survived Baldwin he was working with, which was all framework and little flesh.

Regardless, this is a film worth seeing; particularly now. The reflection of today against the past is chilling, even if you have already recognized the similarities. We all want to believe that as we move forward as people and as a country we learn and improve. I Am Not Your Negro reminds us that mistakes, beliefs, fears, and self-delusions are not so easily shed and remain as ongoing subtext or repeat themselves until they are acknowledged in full and faced.

I Am Not Your Negro

Anne (Anne with an E)

When I was probably the right age to be reading Anne of Green Gables, my nose was, instead, buried in books like Stranger in a Strange Land. Which is to say, I missed this literary series growing up. And, in truth, given its sensibility, it wasn’t high on my radar, which is why this CBC production surprised me so much. I had no intention of watching the 8-part broadcast. But the lead, Amybeth McNulty (Morgan), was so engaging and the writing so clever at times, that I found myself sucked in. In fact, there was only one episode I cringed through (the 4th, as I recall).

There is quite the ensemble that support McNulty and pull together this series. They are primarily led by her adopted parents, Geraldine James (45 Years), and R.H. Thomson (Jesus Henry Christ). In addition, Lucas Jade Zumann (20th Century Women) fills an important smaller role. Like McNulty, his character feels out of time on the Island and in that period. He was a bit more jarring in his portrayal, but his character was very accessible. 

As I said, I haven’t read the books so I had no expectations around the tale. From those that do know the books, I’ve heard there are some big changes. Not all of those changes are being happily embraced, though some are. Like any classic series, there is risk when adapting it. I can say that as an outsider, I didn’t find any of the choices objectionable given the genre of the story.

Though it was aired originally on Canadian TV, it turns out this will soon stream on Netflix under the new moniker, “Anne with an E”. Give it a shot, you may may be as surprised as I was. Do bear in mind that it is set up for a second series (whether that matches the books, I have no idea, but I doubt there is a correlation). It isn’t overly cliff-hangery, but there are definitely some purposefully loose threads. I will admit, however, that the set up for going forward is less intriguing to me than I’d like it to be given this inaugural season.

Anne

Far From the Madding Crowd

This is a tale of the other Miss Everdeen, Miss Bathsheba Everdeen rather than Katniss. This sprawling period drama is gorgeously shot and is full of angst and misfortune, ending in, well, you’ll have to read the Thomas Hardy book or see the film to find out.

What this comes down to is whether your not you like Hardy and/or period pieces from this era. Honestly, they are a hard sell for me. Despite some excellent craft in the film, I was left with a middling feeling about the result. Carey Mulligan (An Education) is one of my favorite actors and doesn’t disappoint here in her ability, though her character is a little uneven. Michael Sheen (Passengers) and Martin Schoenaerts (A Bigger Splash) are no schlocks either. Tom Sturridge (Pirate Radio), on the other hand, was a miss for me. The bad guy just shouldn’t look like a weasel when he steps onto screen from the start. Seriously, that is no spoiler, you can’t miss it.

But this story is set in a period and about a set of mores for which I have little patience, particularly when they are played into rather than played against. And, despite the strong female character Mulligan begins with, she devolves in ways I cannot find it in myself to forgive; and, certainly, Nicholls’s thin script did little to provide the foundation for much of that. Director Thomas Vinterberg (The Hunt) did what he could, but it often fell short on motivation and believability for me.

On the other hand, the cinematography by Charlotte Bruus Christensen (Fences) and the costumes by Janet Patterson  are brilliant. Both won awards for their work in this film (and others).

So, if you’re looking for period romance, you could do worse. If you’re looking for a great and satisfying film, you could do better.