Category Archives: ★★

De Palma (2015, Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow)

De Palma is director Brian De Palma talking about his films. He’s talking to the directors, Baumbach and Paltrow, but without ever addressing them by name. De Palma’s filmmakers have zero presence in the film, until the epilogue. Matt Mayer and Lauren Minnerath’s editing is magnificent, especially how they’re usually able to keep De Palma from referencing being interviewed. Because when he’s just talking, De Palma’s a natural storyteller. When he’s being interviewed, he wants to converse. He unintentionally implies De Palma has some specific layers, only it doesn’t. Because De Palma didn’t make the film.

De Palma sits in a chair and talks. He’s usually shot from a low angle and his hands gesticulate with almost three-dimensional effect. Then De Palma cuts to film clips. The film clips are fantastic. They emphasize De Palma’s most startingly composition as a director, then also looking at his Steadicam shots.

When the film starts and De Palma is covering his student days, he’ll talk trash about people he worked with. He talks trash about Orson Welles not wanting to learn his lines, which was also a problem with Robert De Niro on The Untouchables. Only De Palma trashes Welles while making De Niro’s identical action seem cute. But there are more stories–Cliff Robertson’s no fun, John Cassavetes hates special effects–and then they stop. No more trash talk. Except the “cute” De Niro story.

There’s more focus on the technical aspects of the films and less about how De Palma got them made. It’s cool stuff.

When De Palma talks about his films, he acknowledges his divisiveness but doesn’t elaborate. He’s telling the same stories he’s always told. He’s not searching for some great introspective eureka, he’s doing an interview. He’s proud of some movies, he’s not proud of some others. Bad movies are never his fault. Pauline Kael likes him, he can’t be misogynistic. He likes some excellent classic movies. He doesn’t understand why people don’t like his movies.

De Palma’s a neat introduction to Brian De Palma movies. It’s well-produced but otherwise simply a lengthy pitch reel for De Palma.

It’s also a little dishonest. Paltrow and Baumbach shot the interview in 2010. There are clips from a 2012 film, integrated like De Palma’s talking about it. And it changes how the epilogue plays.

As far as documentary filmmaking goes, De Palma is basically a “professional” YouTube video, which is fine. At least it’s not pretentious. And De Palma’s a fun interviewee.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow; edited by Matt Mayer and Lauren Minnerath; released by A24.

Starring Brian De Palma.


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Desk Set (1957, Walter Lang)

Despite being an adaptation of a stage play and having one main set, Desk Set shouldn’t be stagy. The single main location–and its importance–ought to be able to outweigh the staginess. Desk Set does not, however, succeed in not being stagy. It puts off being stagy for quite a while, but not forever, which is too bad.

The fault lies with director Lang. He moves between three camera setups on the main set–the research department for a television network (FBC but in NBC’s building). When it comes time to change everything up in the third act, Lang doesn’t change his camera defaults and it really does knock the film down for its finale. Desk Set was already going a tad long–not good considering it runs just over 100 minutes–and the film needed a strong finish. A really strong finish.

It gets a tepid one instead. Worse, it gets multiple tepid finishes. It’s a shame because the film’s often a lot of fun. Spencer Tracy is a mysterious efficency expert sent to Katharine Hepburn’s research department to do… something. Desk Set takes its time revealing Tracy’s assignment, not even providing clues while he’s rooting around the department, often crawling around on the floor. It’s a quirky part; Tracy’s socially awkward, absentminded, and entirely lovable. At least to the audience. The viewer isn’t worried about getting fired.

In addition to Hepburn, there’s her staff who’s got to worry about getting the pink slip. Joan Blondell, Sue Randall, and Dina Merrill. Randall and Merrill don’t get particularly good parts. They get stuff to do, they get a lot of scenes–the film’s mostly set in the workplace after all–but there’s nothing to them. Randall opens the movie trying to get a better price on a dress and it’s more than she gets to do than in the rest of the picture. Merrill doesn’t get anywhere near as much to do. It’s too bad, they’re both extremely likable.

Though likable is what Desk Set is always going for. Take Gig Young, for instance. He’s Hepburn’s boss and her consistently–but not constantly–frisky paramour. Even though he’s an absolute jerk, he’s fairly likable. I mean, he gets everyone Christmas presents; he didn’t need to get everyone Christmas presents.

Blondell gets the best part in the supporting cast. She’s Hepburn’s confidant, although only sporadically and less after the first act. The first act is a very long day at the network, starting with Tracy arriving, then meeting Hepburn, then the focus moves to Hepburn and her strange encounters with Tracy. The ingrained momentum of the day doesn’t keep up after the first act. Desk Set moves over to summary and slowing down for big sequences.

There are some lovely big sequences, like Tracy and Hepburn getting caught in the rain and having an impromptu dinner date. All of their scenes one-on-one are good–at least, until the third act–with Tracy playing somewhat coy. He’s incredibly impressed with Hepburn and doesn’t seem to know what to do with that admiration. If the third act were stronger, it’d become a problem when Tracy’s crappy to his own employee (Neva Patterson). But it’s not because by that time, Desk Set is about ten minutes overdue for an ending.

Phoebe and Henry Ephron’s script is fine. Leon Shamroy’s photography is decent. Robert L. Simpson’s editing is too jumpy but it seems like director Lang didn’t give him enough to work with. Again, makes no sense since there’s basically just the one location. It’s inexplicable how Lang can’t get enough coverage for it.

Tracy’s great, Hepburn’s better. She energetically embraces her part’s particularities–like reciting full poems or elaborating on her memory shortcuts. She does a lot with those moments. And Lang seems to get it because he just lets the camera watch her deliver the impossibly wordy lines.

It’s just a shame Hepburn’s character becomes a complete moron whenever Young shows up. She does his work for him–her abject deference to such a tool is a big disconnect. Though it does give Blondell some good lines when she’s chiding Hepburn about it.

Tracy and Hepburn make Desk Set, but not even their ability and charm can make up for director Lang. He’s too concerned with making it feel wide–it’s Cinemascope–and fitting as many actors in frame as possible. The third act in the script is problematic too, but better direction might have gotten it through.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Walter Lang; screenplay by Phoebe Ephron and Henry Ephron, based on the play by William Marchant; director of photography, Leon Shamroy; edited by Robert L. Simpson; music by Cyril J. Mockridge; produced by Henry Ephron; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Spencer Tracy (Richard Sumner), Katharine Hepburn (Bunny Watson), Joan Blondell (Peg Costello), Sue Randall (Ruthie Saylor), Dina Merrill (Sylvia Blair), Gig Young (Mike Cutler), Harry Ellerbe (Smithers), Neva Patterson (Miss Warriner), and Nicholas Joy (Mr. Azae).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE SPENCER TRACY & KATHARINE HEPBURN BLOGATHON HOSTED BY CRYSTAL OF IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD.


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All Is Lost (2013, J.C. Chandor)

All Is Lost is the harrowing tale of an unnamed man (Robert Redford) on his damaged yacht in the Indian Ocean. The film runs 106 minutes. It’s harrowing for all of them. Director Chandor knows how to harrow.

The film has a mundane reality about it. Redford has no back story, no character development, almost no “character” at all. The film opens with a mildly damaging voiceover from Redford; he’s doing a combination apology and goodbye. There’s no indication of who he’s addressing–wife, child, maybe he’s a CEO who sailed off on his yacht after Bernie Madoffing, it doesn’t matter. All Is Lost is about Redford’s struggle during a constantly harrowing experience, with failure more and more certain with each passing moment.

But the opening voiceover informs how the viewer perceives Redford and his actions. Well, except when Chandor’s just dirt cheap about it. Redford risks his life (more than usual) to save a package, opens to reveal a gift, then takes a long pause to consider whether he wants to read the note. Chandor dangles revelation and rescue in front of the viewer throughout. But Redford can’t see it, because then he couldn’t be stoic. And Redford’s stoicism is impressive.

Anyway, one damage is how the voiceover affects viewer interpretation of Redford’s behavior. He has maybe six lines of dialogue after his opening voiceover; five of them are on the radio and the sixth is a single word. The other damage is how that opening voiceover fits into the narrative. Voicever, film title card, then a title card setting the film back eight days. Presumably, Redford’s not going to make the recording for eight days. So what’s going to happen in between?

Lots of harrowing boating things, starting with Redford’s yacht colliding with a shipping container while Redford’s asleep below deck. Bad things frequently happen in the film when Redford’s asleep. He’s either a heavy sleeper or a slow waker.

Once the shipping container situation is resolved, which takes most of the “first act,” other disasters befall Redford and he has to try to figure his way out of them. Chandor does a fantastic job making Redford’s actions make sense. Redford’s not talking, most viewers aren’t going to understand his seamanship activites. Chandor’s juggling quite a bit. Redford’s strong performance makes it all work. While Chandor’s composition is good–though occasionally too fixated on the pretty–and Pete Beaudreau’s editing is phenomenal, Redford’s bringing the humanity. He never voices his fears or anything else, which is frustrating since the opening voiceover is very talky; Redford’s just doing it with his psychical perfomance, his expressions, how he moves around the yacht interiors and exteriors.

Going into the second act, the film downshifts. Summary storytelling is over for a while. Redford’s broken yacht is about to get hit by a huge storm. Is he going to survive? Is something else going to go terribly wrong?

And it does. And then something else. And something else. Redford’s sprinting through a micro-disaster movie (which actually might best describe All Is Lost), which changes the pace of the film quite a bit. Then Chandor changes it again around halfway through.

Redford can weather a lot of the pacing issues. Only because the film asks so little of him after a certain point. The more difficult Redford’s reality becomes, the more Chandor pulls away, only to dangle the narrative red herring again. But the movie’s in a far different place and Chandor and Redford have already had some successes. Red herrings can’t bring it home.

Though the herring is so well-prepared, it ends up righting the yacht enough to recover a bit.

Good music from Alex Ebert. Frank G. DeMarco’s photography is fine. The film goes for realism most of the time and DeMarco delivers it. Beaudreau’s editing is the technical standout.

All Is Lost has a great performance from Robert Redford. He just can’t save the ship–Chandor’s style and narrative clash throughout the film, without ever sustaining the right rhythm.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by J.C. Chandor; director of photography, Frank G. DeMarco; edited by Pete Beaudreau; music by Alex Ebert; production designer, John Goldsmith; produced by Neal Dodson, Anna Gerb, Justin Nappi, and Teddy Schwarzman; released by Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions.

Starring Robert Redford.


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Love with the Proper Stranger (1963, Robert Mulligan)

Love with the Proper Stranger has a lot to resolve in its third act. There’s a somewhat sizable supporting cast, the act two cliffhanger for leads Natalie Wood and Steve McQueen’s romance is precarious–there’s a lot. So it’s striking when Proper Stranger just doesn’t do a third act. Director Mulligan loves the New York location shooting and he just embraces it for the ending, doing a big crane shot but otherwise being very vérité.

Proper Stranger is a melodrama about Wood getting pregnant, McQueen being the daddy, them not being married, and McQueen not really remembering Wood anyway. It doesn’t want to be a melodrama. Mulligan and writer Arnold Schulman do everything they can to avoid traditional melodrama; long, fantastic portions of the film are just McQueen and Wood looking at each other, trying to figure out what to say. Milton R. Krasner’s photography holds the actors’ faces, Mulligan giving them time to deliberate on how to approach the other. It’s a shame this method is entirely gone by the lead-up to the end. McQueen will be furtive, then not, with Wood’s reaction expresses slow to catch up. They’re wonderful to watch together.

Shame the script doesn’t keep up with them.

Schulman gets easily distracted. He’s got a lot of depth in his scenes, which focus on Wood and McQueen, but make sure to provide a lot of activity around them. So when the film quiets that activity to spotlight Wood and McQueen, it’s affecting. Mulligan trains the viewer how to watch the stars, how to wait for them to act out.

Oops, I got distracted by something wonderful in Proper Stranger, which writer Schulman never does. Instead, he gets distracted by the Italian ethnic comedy subplot he’s got going with Wood’s family. When Wood moves out, mother Penny Santon goes into bedridden conniptions. It seems like a significant subplot, given how much time is spent with Wood’s family during the film, but maybe not. Because resolving it would be difficult and Proper Stranger eventually just wants to ride it out on Wood and McQueen’s charm and the lovely, rending Elmer Bernstein score.

Schulman and Mulligan try very hard to give Wood her agency and McQueen some unpredictability, but they don’t know after the character and actor have had that moment. Both actors have big character arcs, which the film first embraces, then ignores. Once Wood moves out, she’s no longer a protagonist, she becomes subject. Her embrace of agency reduces her part. It’s real unfortunate. Especially since it’s not like McQueen gets the extra space. It’s just wasted. Schulman and Mulligan bungle the finish without any clear motive, except it’s time for the movie to stop.

Nice support from Edie Adams, Tom Bosley (in a way too thin part in Schulman’s ethnic comedy plot line), and especially Herschel Bernardi as Wood’s most protective older brother. It’s not a great part, but Bernardi does a lot with it. Because Mulligan gives him time to react and process the plot as it unfolds. Love with the Proper Stranger goes from being patient and deliberate to dispassionately rushed.

McQueen’s good, Wood’s good. Both have some great moments, both have some not great ones. Wood’s are usually because of the script, while McQueen’s are his ambitions for the performance just not clearing. There’s a very occasional Italian accent thing he does and it never works. But their great moments more than make up for the rest.

Krasner’s photography, Bernstein’s score. Excellent. Aaron Stell’s editing, not excellent. Some bad cuts, but it might be because Mulligan’s trying different things in scenes. He’s trying to avoid the melodrama, like one more New York location shot will elevate the film. Except he just goes with Schulman’s depressing comic sequences for Wood’s family. It doesn’t make any sense.

Kind of like how it doesn’t make sense the movie doesn’t have a third act. What Proper Stranger does get done is good, but should be better. Wood and McQueen deserve better. Their performances deserve a film wholly worthy of them.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Mulligan; written by Arnold Schulman; director of photography, Milton R. Krasner; edited by Aaron Stell; music by Elmer Bernstein; produced by Alan J. Pakula; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Natalie Wood (Angie Rossini), Steve McQueen (Rocky Papasano), Herschel Bernardi (Dominick Rossini), Tom Bosley (Anthony Columbo), Edie Adams (Barbie), and Penny Santon (Mama Rossini).


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