Category Archives: ★★★

You Can’t Take It with You (1938, Frank Capra)

You Can’t Take It with You has three major plot lines, all interconnected, but separate enough the film often feels stretched. There’s the rather lovely romance between stenographer Jean Arthur and her boss, bank vice president James Stewart. There’s Edward Arnold’s attempt to create a munitions monopoly to take advantage of the coming world war. He’s Stewart’s dad; the only thing standing in the way of his monopoly is acquiring a single piece of property (to build a factory to force his competitor to capitulate). Lionel Barrymore owns the property. He doesn’t want to sell, he’s also Arthur’s grandfather.

Everything intersects eventually, though when Arnold and wife Mary Forbes are disapproving of Arthur, Barrymore, and the rest of the family, they don’t know Barrymore’s also holding up the big deal.

Barrymore runs the house as sort of a hippie commune; albeit a late thirties, Depression-era commune. Arthur’s the normal one. Her mom, Spring Byington, is mildly eccentric, always finding one creative hobby or another. Samuel S. Hinds is Arthur’s dad; he makes fireworks in the basement with Halliwell Hobbes, who showed up delivering the ice one day and never left. Similarly, Dub Taylor came to dinner once and stayed, marrying Arthur’s sister, Ann Miller. Miller’s got a Russian dance instructor (displaced by the Revolution), Mischa Auer. The film introduces Barrymore’s eclectic brood via Donald Meek, who Barrymore recruits away from his awful office job. Also in the house are housekeeper Lillian Yarbo and her fiancé, Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson. Going to have to talk about Yarbo and Anderson and the film’s treatment of them at some point. On one hand, they’re Black characters with decently sized parts. On the other, Anderson is the only person in the film who Robert Riskin’s script portrays as lazy.

Before getting to that aspect… the better aspects of the script, which are many. The movie opens with Arnold’s prospective business deal (and introduces Stewart as the disinterested boss’s son), then goes to Barrymore who meets up with Meek, then brings him home. The family gets introduced. Then, twenty minutes into the film, top-billed Arthur finally appears. And begins she and Stewart’s possibly star-crossed, rich boy, middle class girl (not to mention the commune) romance. The first ninety minutes are about the romance and its possibilities and realities. Stewart’s mom, Forbes, is opposed. Her thin characterization will also have to be discussed in a bit. But Stewart and Arthur are in love and, based on their courting scenes, love might be able to conquer all. Joseph Walker’s photography is never better than during Stewart and Arthur’s date night. The actors radiate chemistry, with Arthur beaming at Stewart’s wooing in the two shots (then getting to beaming in her close-ups). It’s also some of Capra’s best direction, particularly when the action then moves to a slightly slapstick posh restaurant scene (from Central Park where Stewart shows he’s not a snob by palling around with some street urchins).

Capra always keeps You Can’t Take It with You moving, he always moves between the various subplots (everyone in the house has something going on, usually with crossover, even if it’s a throwaway C plot), but his best direction is when it’s Arthur and Stewart or Arthur and Barrymore. There’s this devastating quiet scene where Barrymore and Arthur talk about love. Barrymore’s got some phenomenal moments in the film, but that scene has his best acting. He gets to reflect, not act. Usually he’s acting. Or if he’s reflecting, Capra isn’t showcasing it because there’s a lot of other stuff going on. The scene also establishes Barrymore’s reflection, so it only needs check-ins in the bigger scenes. The film’s beautifully constructed; Capra and Riskin excel at it.

Turns out, however, those scenes aren’t actually Capra’s best directed in the film because the third act reveals the protagonist of the film isn’t Barrymore, or Arthur, or Stewart, it’s Arnold. You Can’t Take It with You, somewhere in the second act, becomes about Arnold and Barrymore, then Arnold. Arnold’s conundrum sequence in the third act is Capra’s best direction in the picture. Arnold gets this long sequence to himself and is fantastic. He goes from being a hideous capitalist to someone you can believe Stewart likes having–or liked having before the film started, in the distant past–as a dad. Unfortunately, the film can’t organically tie all the threads together at the end, skipping over Barrymore and the family’s storyline, mega-contriving a finish for Arthur and Stewart, mostly so Arnold gets a satisfactory one. It’s sort of a good full circle since he started the film, but it’s also unfortunate. All of Riskin’s inventive plotting throughout the film and nothing for the finish.

Still, thanks to the acting (and the previous material) the finale is still quite effective. So effective you can almost forget about the plotting problems. Almost.

All of the acting in the film is good, some of it is superior. Stewart and Arthur are great as the romantic leads; they both get some rather dramatic moments as well. Arthur’s better than Stewart in them (but her writing is better). Byington and Hinds are lovable, Taylor and Miller are cute, Auer’s awesome. Meek’s adorable. Harry Davenport is great as the judge who presides over the end of second act night court where everyone’s in trouble (including the narrative because that point’s where things could naturally finish).

Arnold’s fantastic. Barrymore’s fantastic. Arnold gets more of the dramatic acting, Barrymore has to do his dramatic acting (for the most part) amid slapstick absurdity. It’s their movie in the end.

Now the more obvious problems. Riskin tries to avoid getting into Barrymore’s political philosophy too much, but what’s left in the film is some nonsensical jingoistic anti-organized capitalism thing. There’s a funny sequence with an IRS investigator (Charles Lane) where Barrymore’s raving against the government and the film never clarifies whether it’s just federal he hates or local too. Barrymore’s a de facto progressive, but it’s not like Yarbo or Anderson ever get to dine with the family. And as dismissive as the film gets about Yarbo, it’s nothing compared to how it characterizes Anderson solely as a relief defrauder.

And Riskin (and Capra) have nothing but ire for Forbes, who’s really the second biggest female part in the film–Byington’s omnipresent but as support–and Forbes is a thinly sketched society harpy. The filmmakers go so far as to pay her heartlessness off Arnold; as he starts to see the humanity in the poors and reflect on his ways, Forbes doubles down and gets even more shallow. Or at least maintains the shallow.

Makes for a handful of queasy scenes where Riskin and Capra go for the cheapest jokes possible.

Nice enough Dimitri Tiomkin score. Okay editing from Gene Havlick; the actors do so well in their two shots and group shots, you almost never want it to go to close-up. It feels empty.

Look fast for an uncredited Ward Bond.

You Can’t Take It with You has some great dialogue, some fine direction, some exceptional performances; Capra and Riskin are willing to go long with the things they care about (Arthur and Stewart’s chemistry, Arnold’s character arc, the whole pre-court jail sequence), but they don’t know how to make it fit in the narrative. The result is an often glorious, very busy mess of a motion picture.

CREDITS

Directed by Frank Capra; screenplay by Robert Riskin, based on the play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart; director of photography, Joseph Walker; edited by Gene Havlick; music by Dimitri Tiomkin; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Jean Arthur (Alice Sycamore), James Stewart (Tony Kirby), Lionel Barrymore (Martin Vanderhof), Edward Arnold (Anthony P. Kirby), Mary Forbes (Mrs. Anthony Kirby), Spring Byington (Penny Sycamore), Samuel S. Hinds (Paul Sycamore), Dub Taylor (Ed Carmichael), Ann Miller (Essie Carmichael), Donald Meek (Poppins), Mischa Auer (Kolenkhov), Halliwell Hobbes (DePinna), Lillian Yarbo (Rheba), Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson (Donald), Clarence Wilson (Blakely), Charles Lane (Henderson), and Harry Davenport (Judge).



blogathon-barrymore

THIS POST IS PART OF THE FOURTH ANNUAL BARRYMORE TRILOGY BLOGATHON HOSTED BY CRYSTAL OF IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD.


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Avengers: Infinity War (2018, Anthony Russo and Joe Russo)

Avengers: Infinity War has quite a few significant achievements. Special effects, for example. But the two most salient ones are Josh Brolin’s performance (of a CG character, no less) and the pacing. Directors Russo and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely do an extraordinary job juggling the large cast and various storylines, which start splintered, then come together. But it’s the tension is the thing. The film opens with the introduction of a countdown clock, with the literal fate of the universe in the balance–the introduction’s both to the audience and the majority of the characters–and with that threat, the countdown is always present. There’s always more tension they can ratchet as things get more and more dire. It culminates in big finale, of course, with lots of moving pieces needing to sync up for that finale to work. But the most impressive thing is when, at around an hour and fifty minutes into the film (which runs two and a half hours, albeit with a questionable ten minute end credit sequence before the Marvel movie post-credits teaser), it becomes obvious they aren’t going to have time to wrap it up. The film’s so good at maintaining intensity, so good at latching on to the characters’ determined hopefulness, when defeat becomes visible and probable… it’s a shock. Even though there can’t be much other outcome, given the movie can’t really go on forever, can it?

Even if one of the big finale twists is a bit of a cheat since it relies entirely on something the audience (not to mention the characters) have any idea is possible.

Of course, what’s possible is what’s in question in Infinity War. Giant blue space alien (Brolin) is searching for six “infinity” stones, which–explained in a first act lecture to the audience (and Robert Downey Jr.)–will allow him to remake reality. Brolin starts the movie fighting with Chris Hemsworth out in space, but then goes off on his own storyline–arguably the film’s most successful, though it’s got limited competition and is the only consistent arc (thanks to Brolin’s shockingly good performance). How Brolin’s not just able to bring depth to the CG giant–which has far better CG than when Mark Ruffalo hulks out–also in terms of how he never gets caught up in the gooniness of the whole thing. Directors Russo play the whole thing straight–one of their greatest touches is treating Infinity War like an impromptu trip through the galaxy–but it wouldn’t work without Brolin. Everyone else who has to deal with the gooniness? Well, either it gets worked through like with Downey, Tom Holland, and Benedict Cumberbatch or utterly avoided like with Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson. Hemsworth is somewhere in the middle. He spends most of the movie with Bradley Cooper’s CG wiseass mercenary raccoon and straightfaces it through the gooniness. Everyone else in his scenes is CG (they also bring along the talking tree “voiced”–or audio filtered–by Vin Diesel).

Anyway. With Brolin, there’s gravitas in the fantastical alien stuff. With Downey’s plot line or Evans’s, there’s not. Even with Downey on a space ship hurtling through hyperspace (presumably, otherwise the Marvel universe is real small), no one wants to get too bogged down with the logic. Hemsworth, hanging out with Cooper and the rest of the Guardians of the Galaxy crew, acknowledges the existence of the fantastical without wanting to deal with it. It’s a wise move from the filmmakers. The Russo Brothers get better performances out of Galaxy regulars Chris Pratt and (especially) Zoe Saldana than their feature movies ever suggested possible. Though Pratt’s still way out of his depth opposite Downey, which is made even more clear when Holland and Cumberbatch are able to keep pass. With Holland even surpassing Downey, in no small part thanks to Downey’s acquiescence. They have a wonderful rapport.

The storylines follow the ostensible Avengers “big four”–Downey, Hemsworth, Evans, and Ruffalo. Though Ruffalo is just moving through where he’s playing second fiddle. First it’s to Hemsworth, then to Downey, then to Evans. Ruffalo’s fine and likable as ever, but… Infinity War goes far in showing, while Ed Norton might be regretting the profit sharing, he didn’t miss out on any great acting opportunities with the franchise.

Evans also ends up supporting other storylines, like Paul Bettany and Elizabeth Olsen trying to figure out how they’re going to survive the movie. Bettany is an android superhero (though he’s a distressingly weak android superhero in Infinity War) who has one of the rocks Brolin wants in his head. Olsen’s the woman who loves him; she’s also a superhero and the only one who can destroy said stone to save the universe, if need be. Evans protects them? He brings along sidekicks–Johansson, Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle, and eventually Sebastian Stan–to help, but even they get a little more to do. Johansson bonds with Danai Gurira (after Evans and company become second–or third–fiddle to the Black Panther cast), Mackie and Cheadle have some rapport. I guess Stan doesn’t really get anything. But then neither does Chadwick Boseman, who’s the actual Black Panther. He’s scenery.

And then they get Ruffalo lumped in too because… the movie doesn’t actually need him. It’s kind of shocking how good the CG works with Brolin’s character versus Ruffalo’s Hulk. I know I mentioned it already, but it’s really striking.

Anyway. Hemsworth teams up with Pratt, Saldana, and the other Guardians team members who get almost nothing to do in the film–especially not after their first scene confronting Brolin; an Infinity War needs cannon fodder, after all. He’s got his quest with the CG Guardians and some fun moments with Cooper; Peter Dinklage shows up at some point in there too.

Then there’s Downey, who’s got Holland and Cumberbatch with him as they hurtle through the galaxy for a showdown with Brolin. They think. They eventually team up with the Guardians cast, leading to those scenes where we have to pretend Pratt can hold his own opposite Downey. Oh, right. It’s after Pratt can’t hold his own opposite Hemsworth and every single character in the movie makes fun of him for it. Good scene, but whatever.

So a lot going on. Because then there’s also Brolin’s whole arc, which involves adoptive daughter Saldana (he took her in after killing her mother and half the population of her planet). Lots going on, all at once. When the movie gets to the third act and all the storylines are going fullsteam–Brolin can instantly teleport between them, which helps to streamline–it’s truly astounding what editors Jeffrey Ford and Matthew Schmidt manage with their cutting. The film has a rhythm to it already, but they’re able to rev it something spectacular for the finish. Infinity War is a technical marvel. No pun.

Alan Silvestri’s score even recovers from the first act, when it’s focusing on repeating franchise themes.

Performance wise… Brolin’s best. Then Downey. They get the most to do. Their showdown, for instance, hints at some great nemesis possibility. The movie’s just too big (and already too long when they get together) for it. Then Holland? Holland doesn’t get a lot to do after the first act, especially not once Pratt and company join his storyline, but he’s always great support for Downey and he’s got the film’s best single scene (for a non-CG actor, anyway). Then Hemsworth. Because after Hemsworth everyone is fine, but not particularly standout. Though Saldana, Bettany, and Olsen all have some rather good moments; Saldana because it’s opposite Brolin’s CG giant alien, Bettany and Olsen because they’re able to ooze chemistry even though Bettany’s caked in red body paint.

Evans, Boseman, Cumberbatch, whoever. They get their jobs done. The movie doesn’t task them with a lot and always implies if they got another scene or two, they’d be quite good. The rapport between Johansson and Gurira, Cheadle and Mackie, whoever. The film implies potential, but keeps it in check because the trains have to run on time.

Even Pratt’s fine. Karen Gillan’s still not good. And the movie doesn’t do poor Pom Klementieff any favors.

Just getting to the finish line with Infinity War is a win for directors Russo and the screenwriters. Getting it to the finish line with so much good stuff along the way… the film’s a lot more successful than should even be possible, given it’s so seeped in franchise continuity and bloated with characters. The filmmakers nimbly hop through it all. Because, frankly, they get to leverage it all with Brolin’s singular, phenomenal performance.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo; screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, based on the Marvel comics created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby; director of photography, Trent Opaloch; edited by Jeffrey Ford and Matthew Schmidt; music by Alan Silvestri; production designer, Charles Wood; produced by Kevin Feige; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Josh Brolin (Thanos), Zoe Saldana (Gamora), Robert Downey Jr. (Tony Stark / Iron Man), Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Benedict Cumberbatch (Doctor Strange), Chris Pratt (Peter Quill / Star-Lord), Paul Bettany (Vision), Elizabeth Olsen (Wanda Maximoff / Scarlet Witch), Mark Ruffalo (Bruce Banner / Hulk), Tom Holland (Peter Parker / Spider-Man), Chris Evans (Steve Rogers / Captain America), Bradley Cooper (Rocket), Scarlett Johansson (Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow), Dave Bautista (Drax), Pom Klementieff (Mantis), Tom Vaughan-Lawlor (Ebony Maw), Carrie Coon (Proxima Midnight), Terry Notary (Cull Obsidian), Michael James Shaw (Corvus Glaive), Chadwick Boseman (T’Challa / Black Panther), Karen Gillan (Nebula), Danai Gurira (Okoye), Tom Hiddleston (Loki), Don Cheadle (James Rhodes / War Machine), Peter Dinklage (Eitri), Benedict Wong (Wong), Anthony Mackie (Sam Wilson / Falcon), Sebastian Stan (Bucky Barnes / Winter Soldier), Letitia Wright (Shuri), Winston Duke (M’Baku), Idris Elba (Heimdall), Gwyneth Paltrow (Pepper Potts), Benicio Del Toro (The Collector), and William Hurt (Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross).


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Lawn Dogs (1997, John Duigan)

There’s a lot going on in Lawn Dogs. Lots of good things, lots of strange things, lots of bad things; the worst is probably housewife Kathleen Quinlan’s lover molesting her daughter, Mischa Barton. The film doesn’t want to deal with it. Lawn Dogs is lots of visual splendor, courtesy director Duigan and cinematographer Elliot Davis–set in a affluent Kentucky subdivision–and the film uses that visual splendor and the film’s general quirkiness to pivot away from ever dealing with the more difficult elements. On one hand, the story needs it to maintain its lyrical quality. On the other, it means there’s only so far the film can get.

Because even though it’s from ten year-old Barton’s perspective, it’s filtered. Barton knows what’s going on with mom Quinlan and the late teenage lover, David Barry Gray, but never shows how that knowledge affects her. She gets around to telling her parents–Christopher McDonald is the dad–about it, only to recant because Gray’s father is more affluent than McDonald and McDonald’s got political ambitions; Barton then recants. For a moment, Quinlan is about to become more than a precisely performed caricature and then Lawn Dogs drops that idea. McDonald only gets some depth at the very end, so it’s exactly disappointing but it’s a definite decision Duigan and writer Naomi Wallace are making with the narrative distance. These people are pushed back. Barton’s closer, Sam Rockwell–as the neighborhood lawn mower and Barton’s secret buddy (Rockwell’s twenty-one)–is closer. But McDonald and Quinlan? They’re so far back and so two dimensional and played for such dark humor, they don’t even cast shadows.

At the start of the film, Barton–who’s recovering from two open heart surgeries and being a social pariah before the family moved back to Kentucky for McDonald’s political ambition–happens across Rockwell’s trailer. He runs her off, she keeps coming back. Eventually he relents and allows himself to be befriended. The film is split, mostly, between Barton and Rockwell. While Barton gets a lot of time but not a lot of insight (she’s ten after all and living partially in a fairytale of her own mental construction), Rockwell gets a little less time but there’s the insight. It’s subtle, but it’s clear. Wallace’s script makes sure–without exposition–Rockwell’s character is clear. The most efficient aspects come when it’s how the rich people treat Rockwell, the subtle ways they humiliate him and, in some cases, objectify him. And his poverty. There’s a lot about class in Lawn Dogs, even if Barton’s too young to really understand it and Rockwell’s not going to talk about it. It’s quietly devastating; he wants to protect her from the damage she does with her privilege. She’s ten, after all.

Bruce McGill is the subdivision rent-a-cop. He’s worked his way up; not enough to live in the subdivision, but enough to crap all over Rockwell every chance he gets. McGill’s got the third best part in the film. He’s just pretending to be a caricature so he can fit in with the rich people.

The film hints at a timeline–Barton’s got her last heart doctor checkup–but doesn’t stick to it. It’s about she and Rockwell’s friendship and how the discovery of it destroys lives. Along the way, there’s a bit of fun, a lot about how living with crappy parents McDonald and Quinlan weighs on Barton (even if she can’t express it), and then some about Rockwell. There’s this vignette, completely separate from the rest of the film, where they visit his parents–Beth Grant and Tom Aldredge–in a mobile home park.

From the first shot of the park, it’s clear this lower working class existence is far more rewarding than the sterile perfection of the subdivision. Kids playing, for instance. In the subdivision, there’s only this one other kid–Miles Meehan–who’s younger than Barton and an already accomplished sociopath. The interlude with Grant and Aldredge, which deepens Rockwell’s back story without actually informing his character at all, is fantastic stuff. It just doesn’t much matter to the rest of Lawn Dogs because even if Barton gets to see Rockwell’s soul laid bare… she can’t really understand it. She’s ten.

One of the film’s greatest successes–of the actors, the direction, and especially the script–is never to make Rockwell and Barton’s friendship creepy. Rockwell’s character is aware of its inappropriateness, but he’s filled with (a previously unknown ability to capacity for) compassion for Barton. Meanwhile Barton has cast Rockwell in her mental fairytale, though his role keeps changing. Though the fairytale thing is really only first and third act. It doesn’t keep up through the second, which is too bad. At least in Barton’s understanding of her life through the fairytale’s lens, there’s some effort to show her understanding.

The acting from the leads is great. Rockwell’s better, obviously, because some of Barton’s performance is just about being a naive kid. It doesn’t always need a lot. Duigan and editor Humphrey Dixon edit the performances to maximum effect. It’s not so much Barton is wise beyond her years than Rockwell isn’t wise enough for his own. They’re wonderful together.

Good music from Trevor Jones; he toggles ably the cockeyed modern fairytale, the yuppie condemnation, the rural poverty, and the working class redemption. Again, there’s a lot going on in Lawn Dogs and–at the very least–Rockwell and writer Wallace (and McGill) get it. Even if Duigan wants to avoid it by doing some gorgeous composition with cinematographer Davis. The film’s gorgeous and quirky and intentionally distracted from itself.

The other supporting performances–Eric Mabius as Gray’s friend and a rich boy with an illicit crush on Rockwell, as well as Angie Harmon as a rich girl having an illicit affair with Rockwell–are good. Gray’s the weakest performance in the film, but also the thinest part. He’s just a dangerous predator.

McGill is really good. He gets overshadowed, sure–and rightly, Barton and Rockwell are great–but he’s really good.

Lawn Dogs is an accomplishment. Just could’ve been more of one if Duigan and Wallace wanted to deal with the tougher issues they raise instead of avoid them.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by John Duigan; written by Naomi Wallace; director of photography, Elliot Davis; edited by Humphrey Dixon; music by Trevor Jones; production designer, John Myhre; produced by Duncan Kenworthy; released by The Rank Organisation.

Starring Mischa Barton (Devon Stockard), Sam Rockwell (Trent Burns), Christopher McDonald (Mr. Stockard), Kathleen Quinlan (Mrs. Stockard), Bruce McGill (Nash), Eric Mabius (Sean), David Barry Gray (Brett), Angie Harmon (Pam), Beth Grant (Mrs. Burns), and Tom Aldredge (Mr. Burns).


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Stormy Monday (1988, Mike Figgis)

Stormy Monday is beauty in despondence. The film is set over a few days in Newcastle, where the local businesses have given up hope on any economic recovery of their own and instead are letting shady American businessman Tommy Lee Jones spearhead an “American week.” You get a discount for being American, there are U.S. flags everywhere, the radio is playing American music. There’s even a scene where Jones addresses politicians and businesspeople and tells them there’s no hope but for them to embrace the American way of… not life, exactly, but mode of corruption. Jones wants to build a development.

The only thing standing in his way is Sting, who owns a little jazz club. Turns out Sting isn’t what he appears (and Jones is less than he appears). They’re playing a chess game against one another, though neither are fully aware of it. Not at the start at least.

But Sting versus Jones for the economic and development future of Newcastle-upon-Tyne isn’t the main plot of Stormy Monday. The main plot is Sean Bean and Melanie Griffith falling for each other. Bean’s new to town and finds a job at Sting’s night club. Griffith is a waitress, but also under contract as Jones’s femme fatale. She convinces politicians for him. When the film starts, it’s been a while since they’ve seen each other and Griffith’s kind of done with it.

Figgis–who, in addition to writing and directing, did the music–has a very gentle hand when it comes to exposition. Bean’s backstory is a note in a read fast or it’s lost shot in the beginning montage. There’s some dialogue, some setup, but for at least ten minutes of Stormy Monday, it’s just Figgis arranging some of the chess pieces with protracted narrative distance, set to an expository radio program. Bean and Griffith are both listening to it on headphones, walking around town, cut off from the world, but–unknowingly–connected to one another.

There’s another plot line involving a Polish jazz ensemble who’s going to be playing at Sting’s club. One of Bean’s first job tasks is to get them from the airport. Coincidence will have them show up in Jones’s story line (they’re all at the same hotel), but eventually Andrzej Borkowski–as the band’s manager–and Dorota Zieciowska, as a Polish woman living in Newcastle, become familiars in the supporting cast. They have their own romance narrative running alongside the main plots. It’s one of the film’s truly lovely details, as none of the principals have much illusion about the unpleasantness around them.

Bean and Griffith pursue romance knowing that unpleasantness, actively working against it, dreaming against it, juxtaposed against Borkowski and Zieciowska’s hopeful one. Not naive though. One of Stormy Monday’s other themes is how ignorance isn’t just bliss, it’s simultaneously dangerous and necessary.

But Figgis never talks about it, of course, because Figgis never really talks about anything. Griffith and Bean will have these intense moments, deep moments, with short dialogue exchanges and endless mood from Figgis (as writer, director, and composer), cinematographer Roger Deakins, and editor David Martin. Deakins’s contributions to the film are outstanding, but don’t define it in the same way as Figgis and Martin’s cutting of scenes, cutting of sound. Stormy Monday is never rushed; there’s tension, there’s danger, but Figgis never races to get there. Even when he’s got a brisk pace, he’s more interested in keeping the established tone and making the dramatics fit into it.

Everything is precise; the film’s just over ninety minutes and Figgis, not changing the tone (which he sets in those first ten or fifteen minutes), employs numerous subtle devices for exposition and plot development. For example, how Figgis handles Sting’s character development (Stormy Monday is Sting’s story, we just don’t follow it). Bean’s fortunes change once he overhears a couple of Jones’s hired goons–James Cosmo and Mark Long, both terrifying–talking about confronting Sting. So Bean’s at Sting’s house for breakfast, telling him about it (information the audience already has; audience actually has more information it turns out), and Figgis does the whole thing from Prunella Gee’s perspective. She’s Sting’s wife. It’s her one scene. But it’s more character development than Sting gets almost anywhere else.

Figgis sets up the audience’s narrative distance, which is different than Bean’s, different than Griffith’s. Even though Bean and Griffith are the leads, co-protagonists. Well, after the first act, Griffith mostly takes over. I’m also using first act rather loosely. Figgis is as exuberant as he can be–stylistically–about breaking plotting expectations. Not plot expectations so much, Stormy Monday has some predictable twists (or maybe more not it just doesn’t have twists as much as reasonable developments), but how the plots run concurrent and where they intersect.

The acting is all good. No one’s particularly spectacular. Figgis doesn’t really ask a lot from his cast in terms of performance; they serve the film, which Figgis is going to precisely cut, precisely score. Lots of silent, thoughtful moments for Bean and Griffith, who both essay them beautifully. For their characters, the saying isn’t as important as the hearing, the sitting with what’s been said. It even comes up as a minor plot point later.

If Figgis’s ambitions for the narrative were stronger, Stormy Monday might be singular. Instead, it’s a phenomenal style exercise (with a solid script). If it were more narratively ambitious however, Jones and Sting would probably be liabilities. Sting gets a lot of help from Figgis’s direction, while Jones always seems like he’s just about to be exasperated with the thinness of the part. Figgis knows how to pivot to a better angle on the character, always implying more depth.

Stormy Monday is a masterfully, exquisitely, intelligently made film. It just doesn’t want to be anything more. Figgis fills it with content–good content–but no potentiality.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Mike Figgis; director of photography, Roger Deakins; edited by David Martin; music by Figgis; production designer, Andrew McAlpine; produced by Nigel Stafford-Clark; released by Atlantic Releasing.

Starring Melanie Griffith (Kate), Sean Bean (Brendan), Sting (Finney), Tommy Lee Jones (Cosmo), Andrzej Borkowski (Andrej), Scott Hoxby (Bob), Dorota Zieciowska (Christine), Mark Long (Patrick), Prunella Gee (Mrs. Finney), and James Cosmo (Tony).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE 5TH ANNUAL RULE, BRITANNIA FILM BLOGATHON HOSTED BY TERENCE TOWLES CANOTE OF A SHROUD OF THOUGHTS.


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