The Great McGinty (1940, Preston Sturges)

The Great McGinty has a gentle surprise ending. Not a twist. More a reveal, which then recasts the previous ninety minutes and change in a slightly different light. Because McGinty has a very deliberate bookending—there’s even a title card to explain the setting. An unnamed banana republic, two American ex-pats on the run from bad decisions, though one is a wrong guy who made a right choice and the other is a right guy who made the wrong choice. Louis Jean Heydt is, presumably, the right guy. He’s drinking himself to death and getting sympathy from good girl bar dancer Steffi Duna, who’s really just looking out for him in one of the film’s many nice humanity observations. Eventually they end up at the bar, where bartender Brian Donlevy (sporting an amazing blond dye-job) tells them if they want to hear a sad story, just listen up.

Donlevy doesn’t narrate the flashbacks; there are occasional mid-shelf bookends where the film checks back in on Donlevy, Duna, and Heydt, but they don’t have any presence during the flashbacks. They’re passively present, which is kind of important for Donlevy’s character arc and the final reveal. Sturges has a gentle touch with the narrative; he never gives too much the impression of guiding the narrative, just as comfortable with slowing down the present action as speeding it up and skipping ahead in time. Donlevy’s story starts on an election night; he’s in a soup line, one of the forgotten men of the Great Depression. If he goes to vote for the mayor, he can make a couple bucks. All he’s got to do is vote. Though not under his own name. William Demarest explains the whole scheme to Donlevy (and the audience), establishing that gentle touch of Sturges’s what will be the film’s many information dumps. Donlevy ends up Great because he’s a success in a city’s political Machine. Sturges has to explain a lot about that Machine’s procedures. And he’s got to make them palatable. So he gives them to Demarest, who’s cranky and hilarious about the whole thing, and to Akim Tamiroff, who’s explosive and hilarious about the whole thing. Tamiroff’s the big boss. Donlevy goes from paid voter to protection collector to alderman to whatever he wants in record time. He makes it because Tamiroff likes Donlevy’s initiative and lack of fear.

Even though there’s constant danger, Sturges makes it feel entirely immaterial to the plot (even though the audience knows Donlevy at least doesn’t die thanks to the bookend). But Sturges doesn’t leverage having those bookends to keep Donlevy safe, he puts it into the script, gets it out of Donlevy’s performance—Tamiroff walks away with every scene he’s in, he’s awesome; Demarest doesn’t walk away with his scenes (except when they’re just his scenes) but he definitely distracts from the action; female lead Muriel Angelus does walk off with the scene, but usually without having to move. More on her soon. But Donlevy doesn’t get to be flashy, he doesn’t get to be outrageous. He gets to show excitement, he gets to show outrage, he gets to show love. But all at very human levels. Angelus’s human, but the way Sturges composes her shots, she’s angelically functional. It’s like Sturges sketches a caricature in the script and, with his actors’ performances, together they make it into a full character. But Donlevy doesn’t get that synthesis, not the same way. There’s no compensating for his performance. Donlevy’s always got to be the straight man, which makes for an interesting character arc. He never gets a dramatic character move. His character development has to lead the narrative, but it also doesn’t get to be directly addressed.

One result of that approach is the ending reveal working so well. Sturges sets up the narrative distance in the opening bookend and never changes it too much. There’s always a definite distance between the film and Donlevy’s protagonist and narrator, making enough room for Tamiroff to live large in the first half, then Angelus in the second. But when Tamiroff’s big, it’s still Donlevy’s movie. When Angelus’s big, it’s kind of more her movie. Because she’s getting to see behind Donlevy’s scrappy, functional exterior. And sometimes the interior is just as scrappy and functional, which then leads to more context for Donlevy’s character and more potential for Donlevy and Angelus’s relationship. She’s the single mom, Machine secretary who sees his potential for greatness, even before she realizes she sees it. She and Donlevy have this quiet relationship in the middle of all this noise and Sturges focuses more on Angelus in those scenes, leading to some awesome little moments in both her performance and the film. Sturges’s direction of the cast on the film is spectacular.

There’s a lot of nice echoing in Sturges’s script. Gentle but deliberate, like everything else. He’s also able to get a lot of laughs out of not necessarily humorous situations. It’s a great script.

The whole thing’s great. So great I wish I’d been making Great puns right from the start. And don’t let the last paragraph of them dissuade you on The Great McGinty—Sturges, Donlevy, Angelus, and Tamiroff do some… exceptional work on it.

The Great McGinty. It’s terrific.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Preston Sturges; director of photography, William C. Mellor; edited by Hugh Bennett; music by Friedrich Hollaender; produced by Paul Jones; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Brian Donlevy (Dan McGinty), Muriel Angelus (Catherine), Akim Tamiroff (The Boss), William Demarest (Skeeters), Libby Taylor (Bessy), Donnie Kerr (Donnie), Mary Thomas (Mary), Allyn Joslyn (George), Louis Jean Heydt (Tommy Thompson), and Steffi Duna (The Dancing Girl).



Advertisements

The Horror at 37,000 Feet (1973, David Lowell Rich)

I should’ve realized there was no hope for The Horror at 37,000 Feet when Paul Winfield shows up the first time and he’s got an English accent but it’s probably supposed to be somewhere from previously colonial Africa. 37,000 is a TV movie from 1973; there’s a cultural context to the only Black person in the movie doing a really silly English accent and being a doctor. Winfield’s there to be a cartoon character more than a caricature. It’s Winfield, of course, so he at least manages to make it seem legit but… he’s not supposed to get to actually do anything. William Shatner, on the other hand, he gets to do something. Nothing really good, but some things. There are a couple moments when it seems like he’s actually engaged with his performance and not just on auto-pilot. No pun intended.

37,000 is a haunted house story set on an airplane. Roy Thinnes plays a rich guy architect—they were a thing in seventy-three, no doubt—who has rented out the commercial airplane to transport a bunch of English ruins back to the United States. The ruins are from wife Jane Merrow’s estate. Thinnes is just trying to be a good guy and bring them back. Because he cares about his wife’s family history even as he tries to make time with fellow passenger France Nuyen while away Merrow.

So Thinnes is a bit of a prick. Eventually he stands up for Merrow when it counts, even though it’s not particularly memorable. Maybe because most of the supporting cast is plotting to destroy Merrow; see, haunted airplane, they’ve got to make a human sacrifice.

How 37,000 isn’t more amusing after it turns Buddy Epsen into a would-be human sacrificer….

What’s weird about 37,000 is at least one of the writers—Ronald Austin and James D. Buchanan—gets the whole “people in intense situations lose their grip” thing. Professional mansplainer Epsen, Spaghetti Western star Will Hutchins, Shatner groupie Lynn Loring, and supermodel France Nuyen all deciding the only rational response to the haunted airplane is to sacrifice someone? It works. Narratively speaking. Sadly the script’s crap, so it doesn’t matter if it’s got sound character development. The acting’s also crap and Rich’s direction is drab; it’s not all the script’s fault. There’s lots of fault to go around.

Though you can’t really get mad at whatever effects person said the onscreen personification of the haunting was going to be shit coming up from the floor. Bubbling shit. It’s really gross. Unfortunately, it’s a tick in the more frequently ticked narratively unsound column of the movie’s details: no one get sick seeing the bubbling shit.

There are no good performances, though there are terrible ones. Loring in particular, followed by Hutchins and Epsen. Thinnes seems like he’s going to be good, but then isn’t (he and Merrow have marital problems caused by Thinnes’s constant gaslighting and implied infidelity; it’s the early seventies so he’s also trying to have her labeled insane because she doesn’t like those behaviors). Merrow’s bad. Tammy Grimes is almost good, but not. It’s not the script, it’s Grimes. She can’t layer her performance.

Shatner’s kind of fun. When he’s not, it’s not his fault. It’s the script. As the captain, Chuck Conners gets some terrible expository lines and doesn’t really react to his plane being immobilized at 37,000 feet by ghosts realistically, but he escapes mostly unscathed. Flight attendants Brenda Benet and Darleen Carr are fine.

Again, Winfield also gets through it with some dignity, which is probably the most successful thing in the film considering how much malarky the film lobs at him.

The Horror at 37,000 Feet is most interesting as an example of when a bad movie isn’t bad in the right ways to be amusing.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by David Lowell Rich; teleplay by Ronald Austin and James D. Buchanan, based on a story by V.X. Appleton; director of photography, Earl Rath; edited by Bud S. Isaacs; music by Morton Stevens; produced by Anthony Wilson; aired by the Columbia Broadcasting System.

Starring William Shatner (Paul Kovalik), Jane Merrow (Sheila O’Neill), Roy Thinnes (Alan O’Neill), Lynn Loring (Manya), Tammy Grimes (Mrs. Pinder), Paul Winfield (Dr. Enkalla), Buddy Ebsen (Glenn Farlee), Will Hutchins (Steve Holcomb), Darleen Carr (Margot), Brenda Benet (Sally), Mia Bendixsen (Jodi), France Nuyen (Annalik), Russell Johnson (Jim Hawley), H.M. Wynant (Frank Driscoll), and Chuck Connors (Captain Ernie Slade).


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).


The Laboratory of Fear (1971, Patrice Leconte)

The Laboratory of Fear is all about expectation. For the short’s eleven minutes, writer and director Leconte wants the audience to expect something. Lots of foreshadowing. Some of it matters, some of it is red herring.

The short opens very documentary-like, with a voice over explaining the modern (for 1971) laboratory. The lab’s so hip they’ve even got a woman scientist (Marianne di Vettimo); better yet, she’s actually good at her job (just ask any of the fellows, says the narrator). Cue opening titles, which end with a disclaimer: don’t expect too much scientific accuracy. So why open with the documentary style? To control the audience’s expectations.

There’s no way to predict, from that opening tag, Fear is actually going to be about lovesick custodian Michel Such going from annoying crush to possibly dangerous stalker. di Vettimo, however, doesn’t seem to notice his escalation. She doesn’t know she’s in the Laboratory of Fear, she just thinks she’s at work, trying to make some silver iodine and getting messed up because Such needs constant attention from her. He even tries to show off for her, sticking his hand in various kinds of dangerous chemicals. Presumably the actor didn’t have to do it, but who knows… di Vettimo is manipulating the spilled mercury by hand without a second thought (because 1971).

The short seems to be a race—will di Vettimo take notice of Such’s possible threat before Such escalates to the point of being dangerous? But the race is yet another of Leconte’s manipulations. The punchline, which is excellent, is as unpredictable as the setup. Though Leconte has been building to the punchline since after the opening titles; should it have been expected? Probably not. Not even if one is familiar with di Vettimo’s experiments, since Fear’s not about the hard science.

Good creeper performance from Such. Decent one from di Vettimo, who doesn’t really get anything to do. Leconte’s direction is fine, save the occasional visual flourishes. They’re to play with expectation too, of course.

Fear’s a competently executed narrative with a nice kicker.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Written and directed by Patrice Leconte; director of photography, Jean Gonnett; edited by Marguerite Renoir; produced by Pierre Braunberger for Les Films de la Pléiade.

Starring Marianne di Vettimo (Clara) and Michel Such (Antoine)


superior film blogging

Advertisements