Category Archives: ★½

The Cocoanuts (1929, Robert Florey and Joseph Santley)

The only stand-out sequence in The Cocoanuts comes at the end, when Chico is playing the piano. One of the directors–or both of them–finally had a good instinct and cut to a close-up of Chico’s hands playing. It overrides the first shot of the piano playing, which doesn’t show Chico’s hands at all and barely his expressions; the second shot has hand and expression, so it’s fine. But that close-up is a real surprise, given there’s nothing else impressive as far as the directing goes in The Cocoanuts.

Well, except maybe the emphasis on the dancers’ legs. Directors Florey and Santley can’t figure out depth of field for any other shots, but they sure can when there are dancers’ legs in frame. It’s a little gaudy and more than a little sensational, but it’s competently executed gaudy and sensational.

Otherwise, there’s no competent execution direction in the film. The Cocoanuts’ directors waver between middling and medicore.

The film’s able to coast on the Marx Brothers–and villains Cyril Ring and Kay Francis–into the third act. It gets really long at times (it doesn’t even show a pulse until Harpo and Chico show up twenty minutes in) and musical romantic leads Oscar Shaw and Mary Eaton have a distressing lack of chemistry, but it gets there. Even with Chico and Harpo stuck having to play off Basil Ruysdael’s stuffed shirt detective. Even with Groucho looking visibly bored during some of his monologues, which are usually poorly edited and directed without any energy. Even with Zeppo–top-billed of the Brothers–having four scenes and getting blocked out in most of the third act.

I mean, the back of an extra’s head blocking him out does mean he doesn’t have to look bored during the nonsensical wedding announcement party Margaret Dumont is throwing for daughter Eaton. It’s a gaucho-themed party, though some of the female guests are wearing gowns with crinolines (dome-shaped gowns). The party’s got to be a delight to dissect for costume and production designers.

Cocoanuts takes place in Florida, with Groucho a hotel manager and would-be land baron who can’t attract guests to his hotel (it’s unclear why there the opening establishing shots of the beach are packed with ostensible vactioneers) and can’t sell his properties. One of the scenes the directors screw up is Chico messing up Groucho’s land auction.

Ring is a scumbag blue blood who seems to have lost his money in the Crash, but Dumont’s still got hers and he wants to marry Eaton for it. But she’s in love with Shaw (apparently no one noticed Eaton singing the song Shaw writes for her to serenade Ring at one point makes Eaton even more disposably unlikable). So Francis schemes to help him get rich another–they’re going to steal Dumont’s jewels and frame Chico and Harpo. Their plan doesn’t play out, but still goes their way enough to cause some drama. Cocoanuts is heavy on character setup in the first act (pre-Chico and Harpo, whose introduction turns into a ten minute scene), then completely forgets about the characters. Francis and Ring are still pretty good. The scene where she tries to seduce Harpo is solid (it ought to be great, but for Florey and Santley).

And Ring is a sturdy scumbag.

Eaton’s bad. Shaw is bad with Eaton, but he actually plays really well with the Marx Brothers.

Ruysdael sucks the life out of the film every time he’s onscreen. The third act starts with him getting his own musical number (with a lot of assistance from people who can sing), which gets things off on rocky footing. As if the ornate hacienda, which is apparently part of Groucho’s failing hotel (Dumont and Eaton are his only paying guests), isn’t enough of a credulity pitfall. It actually starts with an excellent shot–kicking off a music number–but that one glimmer of technical hope doesn’t carry through.

Dumont and Groucho have some okay scenes together but nothing great. Her characterization is too thin. She can figure out Groucho (until his manly charms overpower her good sense), but she doesn’t notice Ring’s a scuz? It doesn’t play. And Eaton lets Dumont walk all over her in scenes, even though Dumont’s not trying to do so; Eaton visibly recedes opposite other actors.

Again, the directors.

The sets are good–the whole thing, exteriors included, are shot on interior sets–but the directors don’t really know how to use them. Or they know how to use them for half the frame. There will be a dance number on the bottom half of the screen and its audience ignoring its existence on the top half.

Despite all its problems, The Cocoanuts is still manages to disappoint in the end. The finale is nowhere near effective enough–it doesn’t help Groucho and Chico both look exasperated sitting through a lot of it. Chico in particular seems like he wants to be anywhere else. Harpo at least gets a okay decent drunk scene. Next to them, Francis manages to hold it together though.

The directors sink the picture.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Florey and Joseph Santley; screenplay by Morrie Ryskind, based on the play by George S. Kaufman; director of photography, George J. Folsey; edited by Barney Rogan; music by Frank Tours; produced by Walter Wanger; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Zeppo Marx (Jamison), Groucho Marx (Hammer), Harpo Marx (Harpo), Chico Marx (Chico), Oscar Shaw (Bob), Mary Eaton (Polly), Cyril Ring (Yates), Kay Francis (Penelope), Margaret Dumont (Mrs. Potter), and Basil Ruysdael (Hennessy).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE FAVORITE FOURSOME BLOGATHON HOSTED BY STEVE OF MOVIE MOVIE BLOG BLOG.


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Soylent Green (1973, Richard Fleischer)

If you leave the twist–which isn’t even a twist, just a justification for conspiracy–ending off Soylent Green, it’s a detective story. The case–the murder of a wealthy businessman–isn’t as important as how that case affects lead Charlton Heston. He starts carrying on with the victim’s “widow,” Leigh Taylor-Young. The case also has some unexpected consequences for Heston’s friendship and work relationship with partner Edward G. Robinson.

Robinson is the best thing in Soylent Green, both in terms of performance and narrative impact. Heston doesn’t have the most affect, even when he’s trying to have affect, but Robinson humanizes him. And that lack of affect, which in turn helps with the Taylor-Young subplot.

It also helps Chuck Connors–as the victim’s suspicious bodyguard–is terrible. He gives the kind of bad Charlton Heston performance Heston is now obviously not giving. The more the film gives Taylor-Young to do, the better her performance. The more it gives Connors, the worse. Luckily, Connors isn’t around a lot.

It’s also a future dystopia movie–sorry, I meant to mention that part earlier. Heston’s a cop, Robinson is his assistant (a “book” who does research, which shouldn’t matter for police investigations but whatever), Taylor-Young is “furniture” (a live-in combination maid and sex slave for rich men–there are no rich women). Heston’s boss is Brock Peters. Heston and Peters are great together. The murder involves the a friend of the governor (an occasionally appearing Whit Bissell–he’s in lots of posters, but rarely in scene).

The Earth is dying due to greenhouse effect; high temperatures, no food. Unemployment is at fifty-percent. Manhattan has 40,000,000 residents. Everything outside during the day looks a grimy green thanks to a filter. Everything at night looks like it was shot on an empty backlot (there’s a curfew to explain the lack of extras).

More than anything else, the limited budget is Soylent Green’s greatest problem. The film does all right showing the misery of future living through Heston and Robinson (they live together and are adorable, curmudgeon roommates) and their daily life. You ride the bike for electricity, you have limited water (not much showering, the future must smell something awful), you get food rations.

The things they do to survive weighs on them. There’s only so much anyone can take (i.e. Robinson’s fits of guilt when Heston, as a standard–if off the books–police procedure, robs the victim of soap and groceries). It turns out to be one of the themes of the film, the despondence of living in the future.

Almost all of the film is interiors. The crappy apartment for Heston and Robinson, the great one for Taylor-Young and her “boss,” Lincoln Kilpatrick’s church, the police station. The film’s great about packing people into the interiors. The exteriors not so much. There are a couple set pieces where the crowds are big enough. Director Fleischer doesn’t do much with them, of course, because the budget is still limited. During a riot scene, there’s some great editing from Samuel E. Beetley; it almost makes up for Fleischer’s too-tight composition.

The end falls apart a little. It’s got a rushed finish, where the film hangs it all on the “twist” revelation instead of the characters. Maybe if the film had emphasized the investigation a little more, but it didn’t. It emphasized Taylor-Young and Heston’s canoodling.

But it’s pretty good. There are some great small performances to make the future function. Paula Kelly, Celia Lovsky, Kilpatrick. Not so much Leonard Stone, who gets to be way too much way too fast.

And it’s got Robinson. He’s fantastic. He acts circles around Heston without ever looking like he’s doing it because he’s too concerned in making the scene work for both of them. It’s a patient, giving performance. And Heston steps up. And their relationship is this beautiful thing in Soylent Green. It’s not hopeful, because hopeful isn’t a real thing in Green, but it is beautiful.

Money would’ve made the difference. Slimy green filters don’t a future New York make. So either it needed money or a different directorial approach. Fleischer does a lot of things, none of them badly, none of them well. Fleischer’s direction lacks personality. The film lacks personality.

So thank goodness for Robinson, who exudes enough to cover it until the end.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Richard Fleischer; screenplay by Stanley R. Greenberg, based on a novel by Harry Harrison; director of photography, Edward H. Kline; edited by Samuel E. Beetley; music by Fred Myrow; produced by Walter Seltzer and Russell Thacher; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Charlton Heston (Thorn), Edward G. Robinson (Sol), Leigh Taylor-Young (Shirl), Brock Peters (Hatcher), Chuck Connors (Fielding), Paula Kelly (Martha), Celia Lovsky (Exchange Leader), Whit Bissell (Santini), Leonard Stone (Charles), Lincoln Kilpatrick (Priest), Joseph Cotten (Simonson).


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An American in Paris (1951, Vincente Minnelli)

For most of An American in Paris, Gene Kelly’s charm makes up for his lack of acting ability. Even after it turns out the story’s about him stalking Leslie Caron until she agrees to go out with him. It’s okay after that point because she falls immediately in love with Kelly once she does. He makes her laugh.

Funny thing about Caron’s part being so razor thin? She’s the only one with a backstory. She’s the orphan of French Resistance fighter parents. Georges Guétary took care of her. And now she’s legal age and so of course Guétary wants to marry her. So there’s a lot of potential character development.

The script–by Alan Jay Lerner–does none. Caron’s introduction is a series of dancing vignettes, as Guétary describes her. Her personality changes with each. Then later it turns out she doesn’t get a personality at all.

Anyway. Adding to Kelly’s creep factor is how he picks up Caron when he’s out on a date with Nina Foch. She’s a wealthy American who likes Kelly’s paintings and wants to be his patron. Kelly thinks she’s after his bod. But he still harasses Caron on a real date. There’s even a scene where Foch yells at him and Kelly blows her off.

Immediately after it’s forgotten–as in, the script has Foch and Kelly talking about how it’s forgotten; basically Foch is around for American to mock. Not really for comic relief, but in a vaguely mean-spirited way. Because the movie’s not actually about Kelly arriving as a painter.

Oh, right. Kelly’s an ex-G.I. who stayed behind in Paris to become a painter. He lives above a café. His neighbor and pal is Oscar Levant. Levant’s old friends with Guétary, leading not to a love triangle so much as some situation comedy regarding Guétary and Kelly being after the same girl. Both men are old enough to be her father (though in Guétary’s case, only because he’s French).

The film opens with Kelly, Levant, then Guétary narrating an introduction to themselves. The film almost breaks the fourth wall and just has the actors directly address the audience. Given how laggy the device gets–not to mention how the film completely abandons it–a direct address might have worked better.

So while Kelly starves and struggles–before Foch shows up to save him in the second scene–but he’s actually an amazing singer and dancer. Everybody on the block loves it when he and Levant (a concert pianist who’s never had a concert) does a big musical number. The traffic stops. The pedestrians stops. Everyone watches and applauds.

You’d think Kelly would just get a job singing and dancing then.

His numbers are all good. Guétary’s not so much. He only gets one, though he also drags at one of Kelly’s. Sure, he’s French, sure, it’s Paris, but the French-ness overwhelms the musical number value. The accent. It’s distracting. And Paris’s Paris is already a little too fake. It’s beautifully constructed, beautifully lighted (Alfred Gilks’s Technicolor is gorgeous), but there’s barely anyone but Americans around. Foch, Levant (Levant’s gutturally American), an uncredited Noel Neill. Except Guétary getting a number to himself (and a slight subplot) takes up time and An American in Paris is always looking for ways to kill time.

Like Levant’s daydream where he’s playing all the parts in a concert performance. Pianist, audience member, accompanying musician. It’s funny. It’s utterly pointless. But it’s funny. And it’s beautifully executed with the photography effects.

Caron might as well be American. She gets so few lines it barely matters her accent is authentic.

The movie moves along pretty well until the third act, which has a seventeen minute ballet. It’s sort of where Kelly’s heart is broken and he finds himself in the Paris of his paintings but not really because the film never spends enough time on the paintings. Though Kelly can’t make the painting thing work. He dances great. He acts not great.

Spectacular choreography, beautiful sets, great photography, awesome editing from Adrienne Fazan. Okay direction from Minnelli.

American is an expertly executed musical. Shame about the script and acting.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Vincente Minnelli; story and screenplay by Alan Jay Lerner; lyrics by Ira Gershwin; director of photography, Alfred Gilks; edited by Adrienne Fazan; music by George Gershwin; produced by Arthur Freed; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Gene Kelly (Jerry Mulligan), Leslie Caron (Lise Bouvier), Nina Foch (Milo Roberts), Georges Guétary (Henri Baurel), and Oscar Levant (Adam Cook).


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Enemy Mine (1985, Wolfgang Petersen)

Enemy Mine has one great performance from Louis Gossett Jr., one strong mediocre performance from Dennis Quaid, one adorable performance from Bumper Robinson (as a tween alien), and terrible performances from everyone else. The film’s most impressive quality is a tossup. It’s either Gossett’s performance (and makeup) or it’s how well Mine hides director Petersen’s ineptitude at directing actors for so long.

The film opens with Quaid narrating the history of the future. Humans in a space war with aliens. There’s some human fighter pilot stuff; not great acting, but it’s hurried and the emphasis is on the sci-fi. Petersen’s a lot more comfortable with showcasing the sci-fi setting than doing anything in it. Anyway, in the first act, the terrible performances from the actors are passable. Their presence is brief; once Quaid crashes onto an uncharted planet, they’re gone.

For a while, Enemy Mine then becomes this xenophobic look at Gossett’s alien–all from Quaid’s perspective–until the two finally clash. Some speedy contrivances lead to the two marooned warriors realizing they need each other and teaming up. There’s a lot of bickering, with some particularly mean stuff from Quaid (the movie opens with some casual misogyny from Quaid’s character, so the mean streak is well-established), but they learn to get along.

Despite being awkwardly plotted, the second act of the film is a big success. The scenes with Quaid and Gossett are fantastic, always because Gossett’s performance is so exceptionally good. It doesn’t matter how silly the scenes get, or how thin Edward Khmara’s dialogue for Quaid gets. Enemy Mine all of a sudden delivers on promise the first act didn’t even suggest it had.

The plot eventually comes in and takes away screen time from Gossett. Quaid goes on an exploration quest with troubling result. The exploration scenes are where some of Petersen’s narrative distance issues start to present. Petersen’s only comfortable with extreme long shot–to showcase the filming location–and reaction close-up. And the reaction (for Quaid) has to be to something dire. Otherwise, Petersen has no interest in how Quaid’s experiencing the exploration. Strange since he’s the narrator.

As the film goes into the third act, with Robinson coming into the film, it’s in a weaker condition. Not because of Robinson, who’s good (and gives Quaid something new to do with the performance), but because Khmara doesn’t write summary well and Petersen doesn’t direct it well. Then comes the action-packed third act, where Petersen is only comfortable in his extreme long shots. There are some close-ups to the action, but it’s poorly choreographed and terribly edited (by Hannes Nikel).

All of those third act long shots are of spacecraft. There’s the space station, there’s the bad guys’ spaceship. Somehow Quaid manages to never go anywhere with cramped quarters. And the production design is great. Rolf Zehetbauer’s production design on Enemy Mine is outstanding. All the set decoration. Just not Petersen’s direction of that design or decoration. Petersen’s misguided and committed.

Technically, Enemy Mine is a mixed bag. Tony Imi’s photography is all right. It doesn’t have any personality, but its lack of intensity slows down the rushed summary sequences in the first act. It helps give the film character. As does Maurice Jarre’s somewhat infectious and saccharine score. It too gives the film character. Not good character, as Jarre’s score is way too indulgent and detached, but character. Enemy Mine isn’t the most original film, but it’s distinct.

Terrible supporting performances. Brion James is worst because he’s in it the most. Then Richard Marcus and Scott Kraft. There’s something seriously wrong with how Petersen directed the supporting actors on Enemy Mine. Everyone’s bad but those three are just godawful.

But Quaid steps up for the third act and makes up for it. As much as he can. The film’s against him. It goes from the poorly directed Petersen action to a rushed finale. Quaid ingloriously loses his narration privileges for the denouement. A new, omnipotent (uncredited) narrator closes off Enemy Mine on a rather low point.

It’s unfortunate but not a surprise given how much trouble Petersen and Khmara have with, you know, the storytelling.

Great performance from Gossett. Truly amazing given the make-up and so on. Quaid provides able support to Gossett, stepping up when he’s got to do the same for Robinson. They make Enemy Mine something special.

Well, them and Chris Walas, who does the makeup.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Wolfgang Petersen; screenplay by Edward Khmara, based on the story by Barry Longyear; director of photography, Toni Imi; edited by Hannes Nikel; music by Maurice Jarre; production designer, Rolf Zehetbauer; produced by Stephen J. Friedman; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Dennis Quaid (Davidge), Louis Gossett Jr. (Drac), Bumper Robinson (Zammis), Brion James (Stubbs), Richard Marcus (Arnold), Carolyn McCormick (Morse), Lance Kerwin (Wooster), Scott Kraft (Jonathan), and Jim Mapp (Old Drac).


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