Category Archives: ★½

I Died a Thousand Times (1955, Stuart Heisler)

Going into the third act of I Died a Thousand Times, the film is in great shape. It’s got a strange pace but it’s all working out, mostly thanks to lead Jack Palance’s peculiar and strong performance, and it doesn’t seem like it could do anything wrong enough to screw things up. Unfortunately, the resolution is one giant choke. One where Palance is basically a bit player (or less) and the script fully embraces the casual misogyny it’s been flirting with the entire time. It seemed like it had gotten over it–Thousand’s casual misogyny has highs and lows, what with slut-shaming female lead Shelley Winters and then damsel in distress Lori Nelson’s arc from sweet young girl to callous, shallow tease (the film’s also got issues with the young people and their fast music, eventually—and perfectly—personified in an uncredited Dennis Hopper, who Palance sadly doesn’t beat to a pulp). But for the finish, when the film’s drained everything positive like sap, it brings back that casual misogyny. It’s not just disappointing and beneath W.R. Burnett’s script, it’s also annoying.

The film opens with Palance driving through the desert, headed west. We get the ground situation in pieces. He’s an ex-con bank robber, paroled after eight years. He’s not hostile so much as guarded. But he lets his guard down right away with kindly old couple Ralph Moody and Olive Carey. And not only because of their fetching, though club-footed and shy granddaughter Lori Nelson. Palance and Moody have a good rapport, which may or may not get some context in the script later on. Writer Burnett’s got some really big first act dialogue problems—when Palance and Winters first meet and shoot really bad slang at each other–but the script’s got a really delicate arc for Palance. It makes some leaps and bounds, particularly with the relationship with Palance and Winters, but it doesn’t ever seem rushed, just truncated. Lots of the credit goes to Palance, whose performance is initially as much about presence as delivery.

We meet Winters after we get the setup—courtesy cop turned crook James Millican (it also doesn’t help the film’s take on law enforcement takes a 180 for the third act)—crime boss Lon Chaney Jr. (who’s delightful) pays to get Palance pardoned so Palance can knock-off the jewelry stored at a swanky mountain resort. Even in 1955 dollars, I imagine it must have cost Chaney a lot to get Palance pardoned—despite being in for life—from a federal penitentiary. Probably more than the heist is worth. And if it was so expensive, why not have good backup for Palance? Instead, Chaney’s hired young punks Earl Holliman and Lee Marvin. Not only do they like fast music, they also bring along a dame—Winters. Ostensibly she’s there with Marvin, but she’s also keeping Holliman on a low boil. It’s because she’s manipulating the young sociopaths Palance lets her stay. See, Palance is actually a big softy. We know it with Moody, then we really know it once he friends the puppy at the tourist cabins where they’re all staying. He never entertains Winters, but he doesn’t disrespect her. He trusts her to handle the boys. It’s a very interesting relationship between them, because every time Palance seems like he’s warming up, he pulls back immediately, no warning. It’s a really nice performance.

Winters has her hands full, in the first act, with Marvin and Holliman (despite not having many scenes with them). Died has that weird structure I mentioned earlier. The first and second acts almost overlap because two such distinct things are going on. There’s Marvin, Holliman, Winters, and inside man at the resort Perry Lopez goofing off at the cabins, then there’s Los Angeles with Chaney and Millican, but also kindly old folks Moody and Carey (not to mention Nelson). When they’re finally gearing up to pull the heist, there’s a shock because there’s been no expectation of seeing Holliman or Marvin actually having to participate. They seem way too passive, not just in their behavior, but also in how the film positions them.

Though, actually, they’re in the background of the heist, just like they’re in the background of Palance and Winters. So it seems Heisler and Burnett agree. Or just didn’t want them in the way during the heist, which is fine. Marvin and Holliman are fine, but they’re not interesting to watch. Palance, Winters, even someone with a lesser performance like Nelson or Millican… they’re interesting to watch. A lot of Died takes place outside, often on location, and the film just feels more natural outdoors—another irony given the ending. Heisler rarely has ambitious shots outside the location shooting, but he and cinematographer Ted D. McCord succeed with that location shooting so credit there—but he’s more interested in the cute puppy than the relationship between aging career criminal Palance and girl with a past Winters, though Heisler does perk up a little once they’re making face. Because Winters falls hard for Palance. He’s a big tough guy who occasionally poetically describes the human condition and likes puppies and is kind to old people.

Winters doesn’t get the best part. Like, her exposition feels like it’s been given a G rating when it needs to be an NC-17. Because 1955. But Winters gets it across. The strongest thing, which the film doesn’t pursue, is how Winters interacts with Palance after she’s realized he’s a sweetie. The end fails the hell out of her too. It’s a real bummer.

I Died a Thousand Times—which actually makes no sense as a title since Chaney at one point talks about how you can “only die once”—really needs a better third act. It’s not even as competent, technically speaking, as it ought to be. Because it’s foreshadowed from the first or second scene, only in a really obvious way where they shouldn’t have really gone for it. Especially not since there’s another bookending device sitting there available, apparently just a passive addition to serve the plot but with a lot more possibility than the actual ending.

Is it worth seeing? Yeah. If it had a solid ending, it would’ve given Palance an amazing lead performance and possibly a great supporting one for Winters. It’s just… a real bummer.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Stuart Heisler; written by W.R. Burnett; director of photography, Ted D. McCord; edited by Clarence Kolster; music by David Buttolph; produced by Willis Goldbeck; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Jack Palance (Roy Earle), Shelley Winters (Marie Garson), Lon Chaney Jr. (Big Mac), Earl Holliman (Red), Lee Marvin (Babe Kossuck), Ralph Moody (Pa Goodhue), Olive Carey (Ma Goodhue), Lori Nelson (Velma), Perry Lopez (Louis Mendoza), Howard St. John (Doc Banton), James Millican (Jack Kranmer), and Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez (Chico).



Advertisements

Free Solo (2018, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin)

Free Solo is ostensibly about rock climber Alex Honnold’s obsession to free solo (climbing alone without ropes, maybe falling to a gruesome death) Yosemite’s El Capitan mountain. You know, from Star Trek V. Does Honnold beat Captain Kirk’s time? You could watch and find out. Or Google.

Only it’s not about Honnold’s obsession because the film takes a year off from the story. So is it about making a movie about Honnold’s preparation to climb El Cap? No. So is it a movie about Honnold? No, not at all. At some point the movie seems to realize Honnold’s not sympathetic at all, even when he’s doing good works (which don’t really figure into his psyche, which would be far more of an interesting subject—how did this affectless person get the idea to start a charity). That discovery of the lack of sympathetic nature comes before Honnold’s girlfriend shows up—but after Honnold says he doesn’t want a serious relationship because it might screw up his climbing—and Free Solo does try to investigate some of his lack of affect. Is it because his amygdala doesn’t register danger? Don’t know, he gets medically questionable MRI and then it’s over. Is it because his mom only spoke French to him as a child? Don’t know, Mom disappears real quick after she shows up (she only speaks English in the movie so Honnold telling the French anecdotes sound specious). Because Honnold’s not a reliable narrator. He’s always lying to his girlfriend, whose interview segments initially seem like they’d be good training for a couples’ counselor but once they buy a house together it becomes the girlfriend’s craven middle class ambitions and Honnold’s utter disinterest. Presumably he’s fixating on his El Cap obsession but we never find out because the film doesn’t get deep with its subject.

Its subject who apparently set up the film project himself for himself. But there’s no ego. Honnold treats the film as an inconvenience, which makes sense. There are a number of rather inauthentic devices directors Vasarhelyi (who’s never in the film) and Chin (who’s in it a bunch) use.

In theory, Free Solo could just be about using amazing camera technology to film this guy free climbing El Capitan for the first time in history but… it’s not. The film’s very shady about how they actually shoot the climb. After eighty minutes of the camera crew being omnipresent, they disappear for the climb itself, even though the cameras are obviously there (and Chin talked to his camera crew all about their placement). But there are lots of cameras. And some really good microphones. At least, there had better have been really good microphones because if they added the sound of Honnold grunting through his climb into the movie? It’d be bigger bullshit than the scenes with the camera crew fretting over possibly recording Honnold fall to his death. They’re not just camera guys, they’re rock climbers and they’re Honnold’s friends. At least as close as he seems to get to friends. They’re going to be really sad if he dies and they’re filming it for this movie.

So the movie ends up being about the camera guys worrying Honnold’s going to fall and die. It’s not about his girlfriend worrying, it’s not about his challenge and achievement, it’s the camera guys feeling like if he dies, they’re partially responsible for turning it into a movie.

But Vasarhelyi and Chin already know if Honnold falls to his death. They know before the movie starts. They present the last third, featuring the footage of his climb, like an exploitative thriller, even hiding where they’ve got cameras and cameramen in the resolution. Wouldn’t it make more sense to showcase Honnold’s ability?

He’s the only guy who’s ever done this climb. This climb, captured on “film,” has never happened before. And they treat it like a chance to terrify instead of champion.

And given Honnold’s really questionable take on reality—he blathers about being a warrior and is a possibly obnoxious vegetarian (but not vegan, so it’s like, what are you bragging about). He’s also an emotionally absent boyfriend, but, hey, his girlfriend likes him… for reasons.

Is there a great movie in Free Solo? With better editors, a more earnest, more authentic narrative distance, not to mention better music… probably. But the filmmakers sit on some amazing climbing footage, which they tease out, set to iffy music by Marco Beltrami and Brandon Roberts and lackluster cutting from Bob Eisenhardt. It’s a bummer.

Especially since Honnold’s probably best observed through a telephoto lens.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin; directors of photography, Chin, Clair Popkin, and Mikey Schaefer; edited by Bob Eisenhardt; music by Marco Beltrami and Brandon Roberts; produced by Chin, Vasarhelyi, Shannon Dill, and Evan Hayes; released by National Geographic Documentary Films.


The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (2018, Terry Gilliam)

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote opens with a “twenty-five years in the making” title card; it seems for every year it took director Gilliam to get the film made, he added another ending. Don has a troubled third act, with Gilliam and co-writer Tony Grisoni tacking on false ending after false ending, trying to get the story where it needs to go for the film to get its finish. Is it an effective finish… no. The finish looks pretty–Don always at least looks pretty thanks to Nicola Pecorini’s photography, even if some of Gilliam’s Panavision aspect shots are a little boring. Another thing you’d think he might’ve been more ready with—especially since there’s a plot point about storyboards in the first act.

The first act is less successful than the second act and better than the third act; it’s a little lazy, a little disingenuous, but it doesn’t have the herky-jerk narrative of the third act (when the film moves from ending to ending). Don is about wunderkind commercial director Adam Driver, who’s having a disastrous shoot on his latest project. He’s doing some kind of commercial—either the product isn’t mentioned or it isn’t repeated enough for me to remember—and he’s using a Don Quixote character, filming on location in Spain. Why Spain? Not sure. I mean, we soon find out Driver shot a student film in the area (about Don Quixote) but apparently forgot about it until confronted with a bootleg of said film. He’s just a whiny prima donna director, surrounded by a sniveling entourage. If Driver’s got enough charm to get through this portion of the film, Gilliam didn’t have him use it. The leads’ ineffectiveness ends up playing a big part in why Don fails.

Anyway. Pretty soon Driver’s remembering he spent two months making a zero budget Don Quixote film and goes off to visit the village where he shot it. There are a bunch of flashbacks to the first film’s production, with the moppy-headed Driver far more likable than his slick commercial auteur; it softens Driver up enough to get him sympathetic for the second act. It also introduces Don Quixote himself, Jonathan Pryce, and impressionable, vivacious teenage girl, Joana Ribeiro. Before the film, Pryce was a shoemaker and Ribeiro was just daughter of the restaurant owner. When Driver gets to the village, he finds out Ribeiro has—in the ten years since—become a fallen woman and Pryce has gone insane and thinks he’s actually Don Quixote.

After Driver reunites with Pryce, sees what’s happened, and flees, there’s a little bit more with the commercial-making—the film relies heavily on a subplot involving Stellan Skarsgård as Driver’s boss, Olga Kurylenko as Skarsgård’s wife and Driver’s occasional lover, and Jordi Mollà as the Russian oligarch who Skarsgård’s wooing—but it’s all water treading to finally team Driver up with Pryce. So they can go on great adventures.

Are the adventures great?

Eh.

There are moments during the adventures when Driver and Pryce click. Not enough of them. And not after Ribeiro returns to the story and Driver decides he’s got to save her from the really bad situation she’s in. Don is very paternalistic with its female characters, which is rather unfortunate since Ribeiro and Kurylenko are much better than the male actors in the film.

Neither Driver or Pryce have enough star wattage for the film. Not the way Gilliam directs it or writes it. Neither of them command the screen. They’re constantly upstaged by supporting players. They also have a lack of rapport they really need. Again, some of it is the script, some of it is the direction, but more compelling leads would get Don where it wants to go a little more smoothly.

Mollà’s either miscast, poorly directed, or bad; he doesn’t actually have enough material for it to matter. But he certainly doesn’t have the heft the part seems to require. Skarsgård’s in a similar situation, but he’s at least affable and enthused.

What else… oh, the ostensible political asides. Gilliam doesn’t want to commit to any of them but he does want to acknowledge “reality.” Not sure why. It just tacks needless minutes onto the film’s laborious runtime.

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote could be a lot worse. Driver and Pryce are never bad, they’re just not… good enough. Ribeiro and Kurylenko are good enough, they just never get enough material. Though, to be fair, neither of them belong in the film. Without their subplots, maybe Driver and Pryce would spend enough time together to find some rhythm.

But given that twenty-five year lead time, you’d think it’d be a lot tighter of a production.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Terry Gilliam; written by Gilliam and Tony Grisoni; director of photography, Nicola Pecorini; edited by Teresa Font; music by Roque Baños; production designer, Benjamín Fernández; produced by Mariela Besuievsky, Amy Gilliam, Gerardo Herrero, and Grégoire Melin; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Adam Driver (Toby), Jonathan Pryce (Don Quixote), Joana Ribeiro (Angelica), Olga Kurylenko (Jacqui), Stellan Skarsgård (The Boss), Óscar Jaenada (The Gypsy), and Jordi Mollà (The Oligarch).


It Happened Tomorrow (1944, René Clair)

At first blush—with the way too obvious exception of Jack Oakie—It Happened Tomorrow seemingly has all the parts needed for success. Seemingly. Dick Powell’s an affable lead; only the role requires no heavy-lifting, which is problematic considering he spends much of the film in one mortal danger or another. Linda Darnell’s an appealing love interest; only she gets less than squat to do in the film. Director Clair does really well with some of the sequences; only other ones he doesn’t. Powell and Darnell are at least consistent—he’s consistently affable and his role consistently requires very little, she’s consistently appealing and she consistently gets treated like scenery. Sometimes inanimate scenery. Clair’s frustratingly back and forth.

Tomorrow has some really saccharine bookends, which Clair and co-screenwriter Dudley Nichols sort of bungle. It goes on way too long, it’s never as cute as Clair seems to think, and it’s just there to manipulate audience expectation. The film then settles into the flashback setting—the late nineteenth century (as embodied by studio backlot) newspaperman Powell has just gotten his big promotion to reporter. He’s written his requisite 500 obituaries, it’s time for the front page. Only he’s nervous about it (and completely blotto); kindly newspaper archivist John Philliber talks fancifully about how if only Powell had tomorrow’s paper, he’d know what he was going to do. Powell doesn’t think much of it and goes out for more drinking, ending up at Oakie and Darnell’s magic show.

It’s love at first sight for Powell and Darnell (well, Powell anyway). Oakie’s her protective uncle, who starts the film with a bad Italian accent, which later disappears without any comment because apparently he’s not actually Italian. It never gets mentioned but it’s also not like you could tell if Oakie was doing a bad sincere Italian accent or a bad insincere one. His performance is abysmal. It must have played different in 1944 because Clair lets him crowd everyone out of his scenes with these protracted deliveries. They never amount to anything. The main plot is Powell and the future newspapers Philliber (who’s not good) ends up giving him, but the ostensible main subplot about Powell and Darnell becomes Powell and Oakie. Once Darnell gets some potential, the film dumps her back into the set dressing category.

At least guys aren’t just ogling her then.

Everyone’s ignoring her. I’m not even sure she’s in some of the shots she’s supposedly in. At one point she doesn’t get to participate in Powell trying to get rich quick because nineteenth century sexism but it’s a movie about magical newspapers so why can’t Clair and Nichols let her into the betting room?

Because there’s not enough room. Because Oakie’s already pushing Powell out.

The first half or so Tomorrow is okay build-up; the second half is constant disappointment.

Edward Brophy has a small part as the betting guy and you wish you could hug him. The film doesn’t have very many wholly successful performances, big parts or small. For example, Edgar Kennedy ought to be great as the police inspector who knows something’s up with Powell and his fortuneteller reporting-style, but it’s—again—a lousy part.

There are a couple great moments in the film. Powell and Darnell’s first date, where they get distracted by their chemistry. And when Darnell’s got to wear one of Powell’s suits. There’s some promise in that scene. Shame Darnell gets downgraded right after it.

The scene where she protests she won’t be treated like anyone’s property then somehow gets treated even worse is foreboding, but even it doesn’t foretell the excessive use of Oakie in the second half.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by René Clair; screenplay by Helene Fraenkel, Dudley Nichols, and Clair, based on a play by Lord Dunsany and a story by Hugh Wedlock Jr. and Howard Snyder; directors of photography, Eugen Schüfftan and Archie Stout; edited by Fred Pressburger; music by Robert Stolz; produced by Arnold Pressburger; released by United Artists.

Starring Dick Powell (Lawrence Stevens), Linda Darnell (Sylvia), Jack Oakie (Cigolini), Edgar Kennedy (Inspector Mulrooney), John Philliber (Pop Benson), and George Cleveland (Mr. Gordon).


This post is part of the Made in 1944 Blogathon hosted by Robin of Pop Culture Reverie.