Category Archives: ★★½

Adam’s Rib (1949, George Cukor)

Adam’s Rib has a great script (by Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin), but outside director Cukor not being as energetic as he could be—he might’ve been able to compensate—the script is the biggest problem with the film. There are the really obvious problems, like when Spencer Tracy gets reduced to a supporting role in the third act but instead of giving that extra time to Katharine Hepburn, which would make sense because she’s the other star, it spreads the time out way into the weeds. Not the courtroom resolve, of course, but every other scene is just contrived to not get too close in on the lead characters. And there are some communication issues—like were we supposed to get Tracy’s bigger philosophical objection to Hepburn taking her case, which is his case too.

Let me back up.

The movie opens with this great exterior sequence in New York City, following Judy Holliday as she stalks some guy (Tom Ewell). Turns out he’s her husband and he’s cheating on her so she’s got a gun and she’s going to do something about it. He doesn’t die; she’s arrested and charged with attempted murder. Hepburn wants to defend her—the jilted husband gets a pass on shooting at cheating wives and their lovers, why not women too. Tracy’s the assistant district attorney. He doesn’t agree with Hepburn’s opinion, then really doesn’t agree with her becoming Holliday’s defense attorney.

Most of the movie is them fighting it out in the courtroom, then catching up with them in the evenings, seeing how the professional competition is taking a toll on their marriage. But a comedy.

A comedy with what turn out to be a lot of big ideas, which it would’ve been nice if they’d talked about during the movie instead of doing a big subplot around Tracy and Hepburn’s neighbor, David Wayne, who’s a popular musician; he’s also got the hots for Hepburn and sees his chance as the case starts to destabilize the usually wonderful marriage.

That usually wonderful marriage is what makes Adam’s Rib so much fun. Tracy and Hepburn are phenomenal together. Their married banter, thanks both to the actors and their script, is peerless. And they’ve got a great relationship. The script does a great job in the first act establishing their wedded bliss separate from their careers, which then collide and spill over, but not in a way the first act’s handling would predict. The script’s much tighter in the first act as far as establishing the ground situation but it doesn’t do anything to set up the character development. Again, great script, but a big problem one too.

Also in the first act the film seems like it might take Holliday’s murder trial seriously. Like as a procedural. Because the film tries not to utilize screwball humor. It can’t resist, which is a problem as the film’s set up to not be screwball so the screwball scenes don’t play. That lower energy Cukor direction; he respects and enables the actors but nothing else. He doesn’t even showcase them as much as their ability to execute the routine. Good, but not as good as it should be.

Anyway, Holliday—who’s sort of the protagonist of the whole thing, or ought to be—disappears into background. She’s great, but she gets almost nothing to do. There’s potential for some kind of relationship, though not friendship, between Holliday and Hepburn—even a client and attorney one—but the film doesn’t do anything with it. And Tracy never gets shown presenting his case. Or working on his case. So not a good procedural, which is a bummer since—once the finale reveals Tracy’s motivations—it could’ve been a great courtroom drama.

Instead, it’s a wonderfully charming and almost always entertaining Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn picture. The production values are strong, Cukor’s more than adequate, the script’s great, Holliday’s excellent, Wayne doesn’t get too tiresome even though it seems like he might, George J. Folsey’s photography is nice, George Boemler’s editing not so much, but… it works. It all works. It just doesn’t try hard enough. Maybe some of it is Production Code related. But the way the script compensates really doesn’t work, leaving Tracy and Hepburn with good roles in a fun comedy instead of great parts in a better film.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by George Cukor; screenplay by Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin; director of photography, George J. Folsey; edited by George Boemler; music by Miklós Rózsa; produced by Lawrence Weingarten; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Spencer Tracy (Adam Bonner), Katharine Hepburn (Amanda Bonner), Judy Holliday (Doris Attinger), Tom Ewell (Warren Attinger), David Wayne (Kip Lurie), Jean Hagen (Beryl Caighn), Hope Emerson (Olympia La Pere), Eve March (Grace), and Clarence Kolb (Judge Reiser).



Advertisements

Downton Abbey (2019, Michael Engler)

I’m trying to decide if Downton Abbey is wholly incomprehensible to someone who didn’t watch the television show, or if they’d appreciate it. Julian Fellowes’s screenplay is very tidy, no loose strings, always the right mix between A, B, and C plots, so one can at least appreciate the pacing without knowing exactly why it’s so especially funny when footman Kevin Doyle makes a fool of himself in front of the King and Queen, but one would still get the surface humor. Downton’s got a bunch of great surface humor, including Maggie Smith and Penelope Wilton, which is a rather impressive feat for Fellowes, Smith, Wilton, and director Engler because the film doesn’t do any setup. There’s not just very little ground situation establishing going on, there’s none. The movie opens with the hook—the King and Queen send a letter to Downton Abbey, let’s watch the letter get there via 1920s transportation, oh, how lovely and quaint, thanks to Ben Smithard’s gorgeous photography (they go Panavision for the movie, which is full of lingering shots on the country house itself, also showing off the increased helicopter budget)—plus the letter getting to the town and the familiar sights before the house itself. Maybe, with the quaintness, the lovely photography, and John Lunn’s always very effective theme… an unfamiliar could get in the right mood.

Because while it’s impressive how successfully Fellowes writes the almost two hours, with the fifteen or twenty person principal cast, it’s not a surprise he’d accomplish it. Fellowes wrote many years of the show, including some extended length holiday specials. Downton Abbey: The Movie feels very much like a very special holiday episode. There’s not a lot of progress from when the show ended, at least not in terms of new cast. There aren’t any new regulars, there are a lot of previously emphasized, sort of unresolved subplots examined—Sophie McShera still hasn’t decided if she’s getting married, Robert James-Collier’s still miserable in the closet, and… um. Okay, maybe there’s not a lot on that front. But James-Collier gets one of the bigger B plots, and McShera’s got a solid C. The only reason James-Collier’s subplot, involving actual romance for him, isn’t an A plot is Fellowes keeps it on low until the third act when he needs some drama to juxtapose with the chaos at the royal dinner. It’s a very smart script, just self-indulgent enough, just pleasant enough.

Is it particularly ambitious? No. The biggest A plot—besides everyone in the movie preparing for the royal visit in one way or another—is Allen Leech. Leech gets to do the “Irishman under investigation” subplot and he gets to do a “maybe the widower finally move on” subplot. Laura Carmichael gets a solid B plot. Michelle Dockery, however, is seated at the “here to support other people’s plots with none of my own” table, along with Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern. There are good moments for everyone and all the acting is good, they just don’t get anything special to do. No heavy lifting.

Though Dockery does get a little at the end, as she’s the one who gets to have the big moment with Maggie Smith. In its last few minutes, Downton: The Movie unintentionally reveals its great potential would not have been as an extended, Cinemascope holiday special, but as something from Smith’s perspective. The ambition isn’t there though. The film’s got just the right amount of fan service as well as new material.

Technically the only complaint is, occasionally, Engler chooses the wrong character to—literally—focus on in a shot. It’s like he doesn’t have the right sense of some scenes’ emotionality. And, of course, it’s over too soon. It’s not too short. But it is over too soon.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Michael Engler; written by Julian Fellowes; director of photography, Ben Smithard; edited by Mark Day; music by John Lunn; production designer, Donal Woods; produced by Fellowes, Gareth Neame, and Liz Trubridge; released by Focus Features.

Starring Laura Carmichael (Lady Edith), Allen Leech (Tom Branson), Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary Talbot), Maggie Smith (Violet Crawley), Elizabeth McGovern (Cora Crawley), Hugh Bonneville (Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham), Penelope Wilton (Isobel Merton), Phyllis Logan (Mrs. Hughes), Jim Carter (Mr. Carson), Robert James-Collier (Thomas Barrow), Joanne Froggatt (Anna Bates), Brendan Coyle (Mr. Bates), Sophie McShera (Daisy Mason), Lesley Nicol (Mrs. Patmore), Michael Fox (Andy Parker), Raquel Cassidy (Miss Baxter), Kevin Doyle (Mr. Molesley), Harry Hadden-Paton (Bertie Hexham), Imelda Staunton (Maud Bagshaw), Tuppence Middleton (Lucy Smith), Kate Phillips (Princess Mary), Geraldine James (Queen Mary), Simon Jones (King George V), Max Brown (Richard Ellis), Stephen Campbell Moore (Captain Chetwode), Susan Lynch (Miss Lawton), David Haig (Mr. Wilson), Mark Addy (Mr. Bakewell), Philippe Spall (Monsieur Courbet), and Richenda Carey (Mrs. Webb).


The Three Musketeers (1973, Richard Lester)

The Three Musketeers is so much fun, you barely notice when the film takes a turn in the last thirty or so minutes. The Musketeers are on a mission—they’ve got to deliver a letter to England to save at least one lady’s honor, possibly two—and just as the film reunites them all with the promise of action… it starts shedding them. They get in individual fights or duels, leaving Michael York to go on alone. Well, he brings faithful servant Roy Kinnear along, but Kinnear’s just there for the (very good) laughs. It’s not like he’s going to tell York the important things, like how to get off England since it’s an island.

York’s the film’s protagonist, though George MacDonald Fraser’s script isn’t great about treating him like it once all the “guest stars,” not to mention Raquel Welch’s cleavage (once Welch’s cleavage arrives, it’s all anyone present gives any attention, cast and crew alike), come into the film. York’s D’Artagnan, would-be Musketeer, who happens across a trio of real Musketeers who could always use another partner in literal crime. See, the Musketeers work for the King, meaning they brawl (sword brawl) with the Cardinal’s guards. The film never bothers explaining why there’s the animosity between the groups or why, although loyal to the King (Jean-Pierre Cassel), his Musketeers fight with the Cardinal’s men, even though the King is allied with the Cardinal. Charlton Heston, with what appears to be a fake goatee, is the Cardinal.

Doesn’t matter, the guys in red are bad, the guys in (mostly) black are good. The good guys are Oliver Reed (Athos), Frank Finlay (Porthos), and Richard Chamberlain (Aramis). Reed’s the drunk pensive but heroic one, Finlay’s the vaguely inept dandy, Chamberlain’s the adept dandy as well as the trio’s Don Juan. Chamberlain, we’re told, likes the married ladies. So does York, as Welch is married, and the film gets a lot of laughs out of mocking her cuckold (a fantastic Spike Milligan).

The first half of the film introduces York, the Musketeers, evil (he’s eye-patched so there’s no mistaking it) Christopher Lee, and the political ground situation. See, Cassel is useless fop who’s going to let Heston do whatever Heston wants to do, so long as Heston at least pretends Cassel isn’t a useless fop. The film shot on location—in Spain, not France, but still in palaces and such—so you’re seeing the intrigue play out with these impeccably costumed (Yvonne Blake’s costuming is magnificent) “royals” lounge around palaces and deserve a Revolution more by the minute. It adds a wonderful subtext to the film, which showcases and romances the grand opulence of historical royalty without being able to not show it also as, you know, utterly pointless and a really bad way for society to function. Because the Musketeers are alcoholic gambling addicts who end up stealing from the commoners. Arguably, the Cardinal’s guards are “better” civil servants. Though—again, Fraser doesn’t dwell—the Musketeers are mercenaries between wars; adventurers in the sense drunken carousing is adventuring.

And, arguably, the big mission at the end is against the King, though arguably for France. Musketeers is lightly bawdy adventure comedy for the whole family—though, unless she really, really, really likes Michael York, there’s nothing anywhere near approaching the male gaze equivalent of Raquel Welch—so no dwelling on politics, infidelity (klutzy Welch doesn’t even seem aware her husband might mind being cuckolded), or even its characters. See, one of the things you realize in the finale—besides how, outside a cat fight between Welch and bad lady Faye Dunaway in ball gowns (and what glorious gowns they are), the ball Welch and Dunaway are dressed for, and some solid sight gags, the finale’s action is rather uninspired and unenthusiastic—you also realize the titular Three Musketeers are totally unimportant to the film at this point. York getting the most to do makes sense, but the film goes so far as the make the other Musketeers comic relief. Brief comic relief.

It’d be fine if the sword fights were better, but they’re not. Three Musketeers starts with a gymnastic training sword fight scene between York and his father and then some more nonsense with York (he’s naive to the point of buffoonery, which is rather endearing as York plays it completely—and very Britishly—straight); it takes the film awhile to deliver a great sword fight, but then it does deliver a great one, with Lester’s best action direction, John Victor Smith’s best cuts, but also Dons Challis and Sharpe’s sound editing. Three Musketeers goes from being a “handsome” period piece to a considerable period action picture. And then the fight’s over and it’s back to handsome period piece, funny, active. But once Welch’s cleavage enters the literal frame, Lester and the film’s ambitions for an action picture disappear.

There’s a decent night time sword fight with the opponents using hand lanterns to see, but the finale’s fireworks-lighted long shot swordplay brawl isn’t anything special. The most impressive thing about a grand action picture’s third act shouldn’t be the awesomely ostentatious costume ball costumes but then you also wouldn’t think David Watkin’s photography would be so much better on the ball than the action sequences either. Three Musketeers goes into the third act somewhat soft and never really recovers.

At least solid performances from everyone. It’s hard with Welch because she’s got a lousy role and you almost wish she was bad so she wouldn’t work in the lousy role. But she’s not. She’s not a comedic genius but Lester’s not interested in her performance, he’s interested in her anatomy. York’s a good lead. Reed’s awesome. Chamberlain’s got like six lines. Finlay’s good. Supporting cast… Milligan and Kinnear are great, Cassel’s fine, Lee’s great, Dunaway’s okay (again, crappy part), Heston’s tolerable.

Of course, I’ve skipped mentioning the subplot about French Queen Geraldine Chaplin and British prime minister Simon Ward, somewhat unintentionally, but suffice to say, it’s an important subplot and both actors are good. Even if theirs is the far more interesting story than anything else going on in the picture. Especially the Welch cuckolding Milligan subplot, which is sometimes hilarious, usually funny, but not interesting. It’s cheap laughs. Chaplin and Ward… Fraser and Lester could’ve done something. They do not. Nice roles for both actors though. Thin but nice.

The Three Musketeers is glorious, gorgeous adventure. It has the pieces to be better but not the ambition. It’s easy; sometimes easy is good enough.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Richard Lester; screenplay by George MacDonald Fraser, based on the novel by Alexandre Dumas; director of photography, David Watkin; edited by John Victor Smith; music by Michel Legrand; production designer, Brian Eatwell; produced by Alexander Salkind, Ilya Salkind, and Michael Salkind; released by CFDC-UGC.

Starring Michael York (D’Artagnan), Raquel Welch (Constance de Bonacieux), Oliver Reed (Athos), Richard Chamberlain (Aramis), Frank Finlay (Porthos), Christopher Lee (Rochefort), Geraldine Chaplin (Queen Anna), Jean-Pierre Cassel (King Louis XIII), Faye Dunaway (Milady), Spike Milligan (M. Bonacieux), Roy Kinnear (Planchet), Simon Ward (Duke of Buckingham), Georges Wilson (Treville), and Charlton Heston (Cardinal Richelieu).


This post is part of the Costume Drama Blogathon hosted by Debbie of Moon in Gemini.

Return to Oz (1985, Walter Murch)

Return to Oz has gumption. It’s got confidence and professionalism too, but its gumption is something different. Director Murch is making it work with what he’s got—a scale limited by budget and reality—because he’s sure of the project. Gumption.

He knows he’s got the right lead—eleven year-old Fairuza Balk as Dorothy. He knows the special effects he’s going to rely on are going to be impressive, whether the grand claymation as stop motion finale, the various mechanical aspects of the suits (Return raises the question of whether it’s people in costumes or people in suits), the talking chicken as second lead for the beginning of the second act, all of it. Except the street gang villains, who have wheels attached to their hands and feet. The effects are fine because they’re doing it and the design of the outfits is… inventive, but they’re still nerdy white guy street gang villains from the eighties. It’s campy—eighties camp. And Return’s never campy.

Also impressive are the voice performances. Denise Bryer as the chicken, Sean Barrett as the steampunk robot, Brian Henson as the effects-heavier Scarecrow-stand in, Jack Pumpkinhead. Murch knows how to time the effects shots to get the later effect. Return is beautifully edited; director Murch cut his teeth editing before directing it and the film editor Leslie Hodgson has some wonderful cuts. The film’s technically strong. It’s principal cast is good. Balk’s great. So what’s the problem. Besides the budget and effects only being able to do so much? It doesn’t have a good ending. It’s way too small. While the film isn’t a sequel to The Wizard of Oz: The Movie, it does acknowledge that film’s legacy. Return is grittier, late nineteenth century Kansas far less idealized, Balk is a tween in definite danger, there is a villain who takes off their head, and there’s electro-shock therapy. And there’s Piper Laurie as Aunt Em, which is an interesting casting decision and maybe not the best one. Laurie’s playing a literal “Piper Laurie mom-type” to the point I wondered who they got who looked so much like Piper Laurie. Because I assumed Laurie would be able to handle the accent and she’s not. It’s not good. It’s a missed opportunity. Same goes for Uncle Owen (sorry, Uncle Henry) Matt Clark. Missed opportunity. Clark’s fine, but he’s got no added value presence. Return is a perfect franchise starter thirty years too soon; Murch is too busy focusing on how they’re going to realize the magic to worry about the supporting performances. Same goes for Jean Marsh as the bad witch. She’s got no charm, no energy.

On the other hand, Nicol Williamson is amazing as the villain. Like, Murch gets it with Williamson, because he’s voicing the villain; the visual villain is an effects sequence and Murch knows he’s got to sell that effects sequence. So Williamson’s performance matters. Again, bigger budget, more time, it’d probably have been fine. But Return is very much a victim of reality. Besides the budget, there’s the weight of the de facto sequel, there’s the state of special effects. Most of Return is really, really good. They just don’t have the ending. It’s too little. The film’s promising Balk’s Return to Oz, Oz meaning her friends—and the familiar characters—it’s promising the magic. Balk finds herself having to fight through a lot of darkness to find the happy again. She’s got a hero arc and needs a solid resolution to it. Murch doesn’t have the money for it and rushes it, minimizes it. Maybe it could be rushed, maybe it could be minimized, but it can’t be both. It’s too little for what the film’s built up.

And then the epilogue is sweet enough but not strong enough. Return to Oz is almost there. It’s so close and for a good while, it seems like it’s going to make it. And you want it to succeed because, maybe Henson’s Jack Pumpkinhead aside, the new sidekicks are good enough, especially in the grittier Oz.

Finally, David Shire’s score. It’s a perfect metaphor for the film. It gets really close to clicking, then doesn’t. Shire’s music is perfectly adequate for a “kid in the olden times” picture, but not for a magical adventure.

Return to Oz is rather awesome, but it’s also a bummer. They made the magic, they just didn’t know what to do with it.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Walter Murch; screenplay by Murch and Gill Dennis, based on novels by L. Frank Baum; director of photography, David Watkin; edited by Leslie Hodgson; music by David Shire; production designer, Norman Reynolds; produced by Paul Maslansky; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Fairuza Balk (Dorothy), Mak Wilson & Denise Bryer (Billina), Michael Sundin, Tim Rose, & Sean Barrett (Tik-Tok), Stewart Harvey-Wilson & Brian Henson (Jack Pumpkinhead), Stephen Norrington & Lyle Conway (Gump), Jean Marsh (Mombi), Piper Laurie (Aunt Em), Matt Clark (Uncle Henry), Emma Ridley (girl), and Nicol Williamson (The Nome King).


This post is part of the Wizard of Oz Blogathon hosted by Rebecca of Taking Up Room.