Sid and Nancy (1986, Alex Cox)

It takes a while for anyone in Sid & Nancy to be likable. Even after they’re likable, it’s not like they’re particularly sympathetic. They’re tragic, sure, which is director Cox and cowriter Abbe Wool’s point, but entirely unpleasant to spend time with. The film has a bookend–Sid (Gary Oldman) being taken into police custody for murdering–at that point an unseen–Nancy (Chloe Webb). Oldman makes a visual impression, but kind of gets overshadowed by Cox’s New York cops. They’re all outlandish caricatures, including their costuming, which clashes with Oldman’s punk rock chic.

After the bookend, the action goes back in time to London, with Oldman hanging out with Andrew Schofield (as Sex Pistol’s vocalist Johnny Rotten–the film doesn’t offer any exposition to set up a viewer not at least somewhat familiar with The Sex Pistols) and meeting Webb. Webb’s an American punk rock enthusiast–and heroin addict–with a grating voice and an obnoxious demeanor. But she’s being obnoxious to Oldman and Schofield, so it’s hard to fault her. Oldman’s a moron, arguably–as the film starts–Schofield’s flunky. Meanwhile Schofield comes off as a pretentious poser (needless to say no one thought much of Sid & Nancy’s historical accuracy, not its surviving subjects or even the filmmakers).

But Oldman soon becomes sympathetic to Webb and ends up, after some misadventures, getting high with her. From then on, they’re always together. Much to everyone else’s displeasure; well, not band manager David Hayman, who encourages Oldman’s behavior for the media attention. But much to Schofield’s. Sex is anti-punk so Schofield is anti-sex. Until they’re strung out too long, Webb and Oldman like the sex.

Most of the first half of Sid & Nancy is Oldman and Webb getting high, trying to find money for getting high, getting mad about not finding money to get high (Hayman apparently has Oldman on an allowance without a heroin allotment), Oldman messing up band obligations, Webb pissing off Schofield and others with her demands (which become Oldman’s demands, only he’s way too high most of the time to put much force behind them), Webb and Oldman fighting (usually over drugs, sometimes over the band). The dramatic result comes from the actors in scene more than anything in the script. The intensity, which sometimes means Oldman being almost completely inert, or Webb hitting a new level of annoying, propels the film. As a director, Cox oscillates between indifference and dislike for his protagonists; friction keeps the film in motion.

Until the Sex Pistols go on their U.S. tour–leaving Webb in London–and Cox gets a jumpstart, starting with the first shot of the U.S. tour. He finally finds something cinematic to chew on. The U.S. tour itself, the visual juxtaposing of English punk and cowboy hat wearing Americans, Oldman freaking out on payphone in the middle of Americana… it all becomes visual foreshadowing of the second half. The band breaks up on tour; Oldman and Webb head to Paris for a bit, back to London for a bit, then end up in New York. She becomes his manager. They visit her family. Sid & Nancy gets these moments of absurd hilarity, a pressure release as it tracks its protagonists’ descent. Cox doesn’t glamorize their heroin dependency (he does very little exploring it). As it becomes more and more clear Oldman and Webb can’t survive–they quite clearly can’t take care of themselves–Cox focuses in tighter on the two characters and their relationship. It’s always in a nightmarish setting, but often dreamy.

Oldman’s performance gets better and better as the film progresses. At the start, thanks to the narrative, Schofield overshadows him, then Webb overshadows him. After the tour sequence, when Oldman appears to get some agency, he’s always the narrative’s driving force. If not in scene, than in performance. Even when it’s Webb’s scene, like when they visit her grandparents and extended family and are way too punk rock for the late seventies suburbs. Webb gets to be flashy in those scenes, but they’re all built around Oldman’s eventual contribution.

The second half descent also has the film’s most beautifully edited and realized cinematic sequences, always set to music, sometimes (apparently) diegetic music, sometimes not. Roger Deakins’s photography is always phenomenal, but it’s often phenomenal in its dreariness. In the grand cinema sequences, Deakins never changes the film’s visual tone, he, Cox, and editor David Martin just find a way to hold the moment long enough the intensity burns through the dreary. But not visually, obviously. Cox and Martin are aware, the whole time, how to control the mood (and Deakins’s photography’s affect on it) through length of scene, length of shot. They just don’t start doing much with that knowledge until the second half.

And once Sid & Nancy opens itself ot cinematic splendor, there’s always a subtle impatience until the next sequence. The first half is so light on them (and so frequently narratively unpleasant), it causes some de facto resentment. Cox could’ve done more with the film and didn’t.

Oldman’s great, Webb’s (annoying as all hell and) great, Schofield’s great (regardless of historical accuracy). None of the supporting performances are bad and there’s a large supporting cast, but they just don’t have much to do. Or they don’t have much to do for long. Sometimes getting out faster is better. Sy Richardson, for instance, has a great scene as Oldman and Webb’s methadone caseworker. But it’s a scene. Meanwhile, Hayman’s around so much without any character development, he suffers. Ditto Xander Berkeley (as Oldman and Webb’s New York drug dealer) and Courtney Love. The more scenes they have, the more it matters they’re caricatures.

Transfixing lead performances, excellent direction, great cinematography, sublime music (original score and soundtrack)… Sid & Nancy is a technical marvel. It just should’ve been more of one, which matters since Cox isn’t invested in the narrative.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Alex Cox; written by Cox and Abbe Wool; director of photography, Roger Deakins; edited by David Martin; music by Dan Wool; production designers, Lynda Burbank, J. Rae Fox, and Andrew McAlpine; produced by Eric Fellner; released by The Samuel Goldwyn Company.

Starring Gary Oldman (Sid), Chloe Webb (Nancy), Andrew Schofield (John), David Hayman (Malcolm), Anne Lambton (Linda), Perry Benson (Paul), Tony London (Steve), Debby Bishop (Phoebe), Courtney Love (Gretchen), Xander Berkeley (Bowery Snax), and Sy Richardson (Methadone Caseworker).


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Vivacious Lady (1938, George Stevens)

Vivacious Lady strengths easily outweigh its weaknesses, but those weaknesses have a way of compounding on each other as the film moves to its conclusion. The most obvious–and usually forgiveable–problem is how the film can’t decide what to do with Ginger Rogers, the Vivacious Lady. Not the film, sorry, the script. Director Stevens, photographer Robert De Grasse, costume designer Irene, Rogers’s costars, they can all work with Rogers to great success. The script just can’t figure out how to make her “vivacious” and sweet simultaneously. Unless it’s opposite leading man James Stewart, because the film is able to sail over any troubled scenes on their chemistry alone. It’s how the rest of the world treats Rogers where there are problems. Read: how the script has the rest of the world treat her.

And it’s not Code consideration because Vivacious Lady establishes very clearly early on Rogers and Stewart are anxious get a bed of their own. It’s the film’s most vibrant theme, no less.

The film starts with New England college professor–associate professor–Stewart in New York City trying to collect his ne’er-do-well, womanizing cousin, James Ellison. Ellison has fallen in love with nightclub performer Rogers, though she hasn’t fallen for him. One look into her eyes and Stewart falls for her too. Turns out the feelings mutual and after spending the night out on the town, they elope and head back to Stewart’s home town.

Only he hasn’t told his overbearing father (and boss) Charles Coburn about it. College president Coburn’s got big plans for Stewart, so long as he stays in line, which means marrying harpy blueblood Frances Mercer. When they arrive in town, Ellison–very affable for a jilted suitor–entertains Rogers while Stewart tries to figure out how to tell dad Coburn and mom Beulah Bondi about the marriage. And to break off his existing engagement to Mercer (who he forgot to tell Rogers about).

Vivacious Lady runs ninety minutes. It takes about twenty minutes to get Rogers, Stewart, and Ellison from New York to the town–Old Sharon. The next half hour is gentle screwball comedy of errors with Stewart trying to tell his parents, but Mercer screws it up or Coburn is such a verbally abusive blowhard–aggrevating Bondi into heart problems–it just never happens. It culminates in Rogers and Mercer getting into a fight. Those thirty or so minutes, ending in the fight, all happen in the first day.

I think the movie takes place over three days. Maybe three and a half.

Anyway. The next portion of the film has Rogers pretending to be a college student so she can spend time with Stewart, who’s now not telling Coburn about their marriage because of the fight. Stewart’s always got some reason for not telling Coburn–a couple times it’s Bondi’s heart condition–it’s mostly just contrived fear of Coburn. Only there’s no way for Stewart and Rogers not to moon at one another, beautifully lighted by De Grasse; their scenes are the best in the film, they radiate infectous chemistry.

But everyone else just whistles at Rogers (she’s vivacious after all), which just draws attention to how little character development she’s had around Stewart. She has more character development with Ellison, Mercer, and Bondi throughout the film than with Stewart. Even during their whirlwind courtship, as Stewart–the film points out–never shuts up about himself. That radiant infectous chemistry covers up for a lot of it, but it’s still a major script deficit.

The other major problems in the script are structure and Coburn’s character. P.J. Wolfson and Ernest Pagano’s script frontloads one supporting cast member and shortchanges another, only to flip their positions in the last third. Wouldn’t be a problem if the movie’s conclusion didn’t rely on that character with the increased presence so much. It works out–pretty well–because the cast’s great, the direction’s great, and the script is (scene by scene) excellent. But the narrative structure is disjointed.

And Coburn. Coburn’s an unlovable bastard. He’s such an unlovable bastard you forget he’s Charles Coburn and he’s (probably) secretly going to turn out to be a lovable bastard. But he’s a bad guy, who gets worse–the script doesn’t imagine anything about these characters before the first scene–and no one seems to acknowledge the level of internal disfunction. And it’d definitely have external effects.

Stewart would be so browbeaten he couldn’t order a meal without consulting Coburn, much less be sent to New York to fetch Ellison; Coburn wouldn’t trust him to do it.

So problems. The film has some big problems. And they’re script problems (though Stevens also produced so he’s not off the hook). But Vivacious Lady is still an outstanding romantic comedy. Rogers and Stewart are glorious together. Separate, Rogers is better. She gets good material on her own. Stewart doesn’t. He’s still funny and charming, but the material’s nothing special. Rogers’s material–whether it’s showing down with Mercer or teaching Bondi to dance–is dynamic.

Ellison’s the film’s secret weapon. He’s a little annoying at the start, but once Vivacious Lady is in its second act and Stewart abandons Rogers for mean Coburn and Mercer (and suffering Bondi), it’s Ellison who provides the picture its affability. The script shortchanges him, but it shortchanges everyone at one point or another.

Bondi’s phenomenal. As wondrous as Rogers and Stewart’s chemistry is onscreen, when Bondi and Rogers get a scene together here and there, they’re able to do so much with the material. Their performances compliment each other beautifully.

Mercer’s fine. It’s a lousy part. Ditto Coburn. He’s a caricature of himself playing a caricature of himself.

Some good comedic bit parts–Phyllis Kennedy as the maid, Franklin Pangborn as an apartment manager. Willie Best is good as the Pullman porter, but the part is gross.

Vivacious Lady is a definite success. However, Rogers, Stewart, Bondi, and Ellison deserve to be a resounding one.

It almost recoups all (or most all) with the final gag. Then tries to one up itself and loses that ground. It’s particularly frustrating.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by George Stevens; screenplay by P.J. Wolfson and Ernest Pagano, based on a story I.A.R. Wylie; director of photography, Robert De Grasse; edited by Henry Berman; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Ginger Rogers (Francey Brent), James Stewart (Peter Morgan Jr.), Charles Coburn (Peter Morgan Sr.), James Ellison (Keith Morgan), Frances Mercer (Helen), Beulah Bondi (Martha Morgan), Phyllis Kennedy (Jenny), Franklin Pangborn (Apartment Manager), Willie Best (Train Porter), and Grady Sutton (Culpepper).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE FRED ASTAIRE AND GINGER ROGERS BLOGATHON HOSTED BY MICHAELA FROM LOVE LETTERS TO OLD HOLLYWOOD AND CRYSTAL OF IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD.


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The Sound Barrier (1952, David Lean)

There’s a lot to The Sound Barrier. Outside the truly magnificent aerial photography, not much of it has to do with the film itself. Other than director Lean and writer Terence Rattigan rewriting actual history to make it so a private British aircraft company “broke” the sound barrier some five years after Chuck Yeager did it for the United States Air Force. And Rattigan and Lean didn’t keep it technically accurate? I guess… anglo-pride or something.

So the gross historical inaccuracies aside, Sound Barrier adds up to being about why toxic masculinity is wonderful and women–like de facto lead Ann Todd–are silly for doubting men in their heartless pursuits. See, Todd’s dad is the owner of the private aircraft company–Ralph Richardson in a performance far better than the film needs or deserves–and he’s willing to sacrifice anyone to break that sound barrier.

Five years after it actually happened. But whatever.

I mean, even if the film’s set in 1947 or whatever–one of the events portrayed happened in 1946–it should’ve been technically accurate. Lean goes out of his way to use that amazing aerial photography of the test flights and so on, why not have an accurate script. But there’s also the problem of John Justin, who’s got kids presumably born after the war ended and they’re not three or four.

The film starts during the war–another weird thing about Sound Barrier is how assured everyone is the war’s end is imminent even when, you know, it’s not–with Todd marrying flier Nigel Patrick. Patrick and Justin are pals. Todd brings Patrick home to meet dad Richardson and brother Denholm Elliot. Elliot’s the best thing in the movie, though Justin’s all right too. Rattigan and Lean don’t have much use for Elliot, however, because he’s not the real man flier Richardson wants him to be. Thank goodness Todd married one in Patrick.

After the war, Patrick starts test piloting jets for Richardson. They’re going to break that sound barrier, even though the whole thing traumatizes Todd. She goes off to the movies during his flights so she doesn’t have to hear it. She’s just a silly woman, however. Patrick tells her so, Richardson tells her so, and by the end of the movie, The Sound Barrier tells her so.

The film’s a melodrama without much in the way of melodramatics. Todd’s performance is flat, ditto Patrick’s. Patrick at least seems like he should be superficial and (not maliciously) insensitive, but Todd is ostensibly the heart of the film. Not so, because she’s not a man. And only men, it turns out, can really experience things. Women are too busy worrying about winter coats and trying to one up the Joneses. Dinah Sheridan, as Justin’s wife, has the entirely thankless role of exemplifying how Todd’s worry-warting is so dumb.

And even though Richardson is awesome, he’s utterly devoid of any humanity. The film revels in it.

There’s no tension, there’s no suspense (the ending is forecast from literally the first scene), there’s no romance. Todd and Patrick do manage to have some chemistry, but it’s only because they’re being held prisoner by controlling Richardson. Silly Patrick even thinks Todd might be right about Richardson being bad news. Thank goodness he comes around; so the film’s not just great fodder for toxic masculinity discussions, there’s also the exceptional patriarchal bent.

Lean’s direction is competent. Rattigan’s script is exceptionally boring. Maybe at the time, if you were a British moviegoer who really hated Americans and willfully ignored recent history, you could get jingoistic about it. But not really, because it’s not about British ingenuity or anything, it’s about Richardson being awesome because he’s a bastard and Todd better come around to realizing it and embracing it. It’s about Todd realizing she’s a silly woman who just needs to listen to the man. It’s all very yucky.

Great photography from Jack Hildyard.

The Sound Barrier is never good. It’s never compelling. It’s absurdly lacking in any kind of insight, whether into its paper thin characters or its made up flight science. It’s not even interested in technical minutiae, which–for a while–seemed like it would be. But it’s never anywhere near as bad as the third act turns out to be. Maybe having a full stop false ending in the second act hurt. It doesn’t matter. The third act and then the finale crash harder than the jet planes do and they make these huge holes in the ground.

Not even plane designer Joseph Tomelty, who’s lovable from five minutes in, can survive that last act.

The Sound Barrier’s bunk.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Produced and directed by David Lean; written by Terence Rattigan; director of photography, Jack Hildyard; edited by Geoffrey Foot; music by Malcolm Arnold; released by British Lion Film Corporation.

Starring Ann Todd (Susan), Nigel Patrick (Tony), Ralph Richardson (J.R.), John Justin (Philip), Denholm Elliott (Chris), Dinah Sheridan (Jess), and Joseph Tomelty (Will).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE DAVID LEAN BLOGATHON HOSTED BY MADDY OF MADDY LOVES HER CLASSIC FILMS.


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An Untitled Portrait (1993, Cheryl Dunye)

When it starts, An Untitled Portrait is about Dunye’s brother. But it’s also going to be Dunye’s family in general. But it’s also going to be about Dunye herself. The short runs three minutes, Dunye’s narration set to home movies, old film clips, but also some stylized original footage of shoes.

Dunye’s recollection starts with her brother’s shoe size (but really her family’s shoe sizes). With memories of his shoes as the frame, Dunye gets to her father, her mother, herself, while still keeping her brother (and her relationship with him) at the forefront of Portrait.

It’s short–three minutes is very short, with only enough time for a couple distinct anecdotes–with the visuals shifting in style as the film progresses. The visuals of shoes, active and still, are where Dunye does the most stylizing. She doesn’t shy away from the videotape medium, even doing the squiggly rewind at one point. She also finds a way to edit videotape sublimely, with the action pausing and then restarting, but with a calm flow. Videotape editing is often herky-jerky (it’s just a “feature” of the medium). Not here.

The film clips (formal parties with Black Americans) change the scale and context of some of Dunye’s rememberences. Her brother goes from being an unseen “Star Trek” nerd to a classic film action hero (there’s the possible additional layer of Black men not getting to be classic film action heroes very often, and certainly not in mainstream Hollywood productions).

At the end, Untitled Portrait gets positively playful. Joyous. After zooming in so close on her specific subjects, Dunye pulls back and–thanks to a jarring shift in music set to a familiar visual motif (shoes)–captures (or creates) an entirely different emotionality for the finish.

An Untitled Portrait is thoughtful and well-executed throughout and more than worth it regardless (it’s three minutes and Dunye’s masterful with the medium), but its entirely unexpected capstone makes it a delight.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Cheryl Dunye.


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