Above and Beyond (1952, Melvin Frank and Norman Panama)

Above and Beyond breaks one of my severest rules–don’t start with narration and then drop it. Above and Beyond starts with Eleanor Parker narrating the film, mostly because otherwise she wouldn’t be in it for the first hour. Once she is in the film full-time, the narration quickly disappears. I can’t remember the last time there was narration, but I don’t think it was past an hour and twenty minutes, which leaves about forty percent absent of narration. The film’s about the guy who dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. I’m not up enough on my World War II history (from the American perspective) to know where the film made allowances, but it creates a compelling enough reality of its own. In many ways, the character’s saddled with more immediate responsibility than anyone else ever had before, which creates the condition for its success even though it fails on certain narrative levels.

The audience knows what’s going on and understands what Robert Taylor (as the pilot and commander) is going through. Except Eleanor Parker, as his wife, doesn’t know and the story–for a good portion–is from her emotional perspective. The film takes place over two years, with only the last hour being told in scenic detail. The rest is summary, occasionally tied together with Parker’s narration, occasionally not. The film isn’t quite a biopic, because it’s Parker holding the first hour together. Though Robert Taylor gets a lot more screen-time (maybe ninety-five percent overall), Parker’s a constant. The scenes with the two of them together, therefore, have to be perfect. They have to establish them as a married couple, they have to establish them as characters worth caring about–and co-writers and co-directors Norman Panama and Melvin Frank pull off those scenes. Maybe five minutes in that first hour is dedicated to such scenes and Panama and Frank get the work done.

Parker’s an obviously choice as the film’s best performance because she gets to do so much–play wife, play fighting wife, play new mother, play friend–while Taylor only has two general moods: upset and more upset. But Taylor’s performance is the better one–not through any fault of Parker’s, but because Frank and Panama understand how to address the gravity of the situation. It’s through little moments with Taylor.

The film came out in 1952 and has either a complex morality about the actual bombing or an undecided one. It accepts most reasoning on the subject will end up being flippant, but the film’s not about the overall morality, but the character’s. Occasionally when you turn a big story–a too big story–into a movie, something gels and it holds. Above and Beyond is probably the best of that rather specific genre. Frank and Panama manage to maintain nice filmic sensibilities throughout–giving the audience something to laugh at, making the marriage compelling–while appreciating they can’t actually tell their story… because it’s too big.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Melvin Frank and Norman Panama; written by Frank, Panama and Beirne Lay Jr.; director of photography, Ray June; edited by Cotton Warburton; music by Hugo Friedhofer; produced by Frank, Panama and Allan Fung; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Robert Taylor (Col. Paul W. Tibbets Jr), Eleanor Parker (Lucey Tibbets), James Whitmore (Maj. Uanna), Larry Keating (Maj. Gen. Vernon C. Brent), Larry Gates (Capt. Parsons), Marilyn Erskine (Marge Bratton), Stephen Dunne (Maj. Harry Bratton), Robert Burton (Gen. Samuel E. Roberts), Hayden Rorke (Dr. Ramsey), Larry Dobkin (Dr. Van Dyke), Jack Raine (Dr. Fiske), Jonathan Cott (Dutch Van Kirk), Jeff Richards (Thomas Ferebee), Dick Simmons (Bob Lewis), John McKee (Wyatt Duzenbury), Patrick Conway (Radio Operator), Christie Olsen (Paul Tibbets Jr), William Lester (Driver), Barbara Ruick (Mary Malone) and Jim Backus (Gen. Curtis E. LeMay).


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THIS FILM IS ALSO DISCUSSED IN SUM UP | ELEANOR PARKER, PART 2: TECHNICOLOR.

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Lucky Partners (1940, Lewis Milestone)

Any movie with a Somerset Maugham reference like this one (to The Moon and Sixpence) is going to get me to go a little soft on it, but given how late the reference fully realizes, Lucky Partners was already reasonably safe. When I saw Lewis Milestone directed it, I knew there’d at least be some nice camerawork and Ginger Rogers RKO comedies are also generally decent. I just realized, thinking about it, Lucky Partners is only the second film I’ve seen starring Ronald Colman, which is a mistake. Colman glides through the film. Most of it is his scenes and he carries the whole thing with geniality. From the fourth shot–the film has a nice Milestone opening, so I can remember the shots–Colman’s the whole thing… which is amusing, but also problematic, because Ginger Rogers and Jack Carson’s characters suffer so Colman can remain the protagonist.

The film makes a number of assertions and changes them to keep the film moving. First, Rogers is likable. Then, she isn’t. Then, she is. Then, she isn’t. First, Carson is a jerk. Then, he’s not. Then, he’s an even bigger jerk. First, the film’s set up as a wonderful neighborhood piece with a great supporting cast. Then it becomes a road picture. Then it becomes a slightly mystical romance. Then it becomes a courtroom comedy. The first act of the film moves fast–twenty-five minutes went by in a snap–but the end of the second act drags, as the film desperately tries to tie itself up. The opening is strong and I kept hoping the film would regain some of that quality as it moved through its ninety-degree squiggles–and the film kept showing potential for said recovery–but it never did. The film’s lowest point was just before it declared itself a charming and mediocre comedy. Harry Davenport as the judge, who’s enamored with Rogers, clangs that change.

Given the excellent quality of Ginger Rogers’s other RKO features, Lucky Partners should be a bigger disappointment, but it’s such a pleasant viewing experience, it’s hard to get particularly upset. In fact, I think the film’s a major achievement. Though he’s a wonderful director, Milestone rarely made good films. And Lucky Partners is so close to good, it counts.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Lewis Milestone; screenplay by Allan Scott and John Van Druten, based on a story by Sacha Guitry; director of photography, Robert De Grasse; edited by Henry Berman; music by Dimitri Tiomkin; produced by George Haight; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Ronald Colman (David Grant), Ginger Rogers (Jean Newton), Jack Carson (Frederick Harper), Spring Byington (Aunt Lucy), Cecilia Loftus (Mrs. Alice Sylvester) and Harry Davenport (Judge).


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Daisy (2006, Andrew Lau), the director's cut

Here’s a rule: if you’re going to have your three principal characters each narrate parts of a story (the first act, for example), make sure they keep doing it through the rest of the drama. Multi-character, scene-specific narration is a terrible idea, but at least stick with what you set-up. Not surprisingly, Daisy doesn’t stick with it. Watching the exceptionally long first act (I’m guessing forty-five minutes), I kept wondering how these narrated storytelling would work once the film–presumably–stopped being told in summary. Once it switched over to scenic storytelling, the narration stopped… so much so, at the end, I couldn’t remember the last narration I’d heard. I think there was some from the girl–Daisy is sort of a love triangle, but not really–through the second act, but definitely not in the third. She’s mute by this time and has been for quite a while, so it would have been nice. In the third act, the film makes its second attempt (the first being the relationship between the two suitors) at something interesting. It reminded me, for a minute, of Hitchcock, when the woman discovers her man isn’t the man she thought.

Korean romantic comedy–well, he’s too old to be a wunderkind, but think a late forties wunderkind–Kwak Jae-young wrote Daisy. His regular lead female actor, Jun Ji-hyun, is in the film and so I was really looking forward to it. He didn’t direct it (Chinese director Andrew Lau directs the Korean actors in the Netherlands), but if he had, Daisy wouldn’t have been any better. It’s an attempt at a tragedy. I say attempt because it never really connects enough to achieve that label. The narration keeps the characters distanced from the audience and Jun’s muteness keeps her distanced from the other characters. The long first act makes it boring and the short third act makes it unbelievable. There’s still a few good things about the film, but nothing to particularly recommend it. Lau’s direction is fine. His editing is occasionally fast in a good way, using the film to create connections in the viewer’s mind. Neat stuff. Of the two suitors, Jung Woo-sung and Lee Sung-jae, Jung is better. He’s the bad guy. He also looks a lot like Skeet Ulrich, but he can act. He can’t surmount the impossibility of the script however.

I’ve read Jun described as Kwak’s muse, but Daisy is no example of that relationship. If it had been one, she’d have been in the film enough to make an impression. Kwak didn’t like her character more than any other ones and he didn’t like her character at all, which explains everything faulty in Daisy.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Andrew Lau; written by Kwak Jae-young; directors of photography, Lau and Ng Man-Ching; edited by Kim Jae-beom, Kim Sang-beom, Wong Hoi and Chan Ki-hop; music by Chang Kwong Wing and Shigeru Umebayashi; produced by Teddy Jung; released by Showbox.

Starring Jung Woo-sung (Park Yi), Lee Sung-jae (Jeong Woo), Jun Ji-hyun (Hye-young), Jeon Ho-jin (Detective Jang), Dion Lam (Yun Joon-ha) and David Chiang (Cho).


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A Scanner Darkly (2006, Richard Linklater)

For a while–during the film–A Scanner Darkly is a great film. It sets itself up as a significant examination of man’s identity and its relation to the people around him. It’s based on Philip K. Dick and that theme is one Dick used at least one other time (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?). When adapting the novel, which I haven’t read, I get the feeling Richard Linklater kept it a little too close, keeping summary storytelling. The film races through its last act, which is around eleven minutes long, and never solidifies the many excellent elements. They don’t quite disappear, they just don’t get the attention they deserve. For example, Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder have this wonderful relationship, which even endures a “surprise,” but Linklater doesn’t finish it up. It isn’t like he sacrifices it for anything. The problem with A Scanner Darkly is its length. It’s not long enough.

The film’s pseudo-animation style–Linklater filmed the actors, presumably together–then had computers draw over them, works perfectly for the film. Linklater doesn’t account for the style, however, which is probably a mistake. Besides certain special effects considerations, the style is appropriate because Darkly is about drug addiction and its effects. The style works as a visual representation of those effects. I imagine Linklater didn’t want to label the style, but it just seems another thing he withheld.

Where Linklater did good–wonderfully–was his casting and his directing of his actors. Keanu Reeves probably gives his best performance and there are these scenes between Robert Downey Jr. and Woody Harrelson… Linklater’s scenes about drug addicts are easily the best since Trainspotting, but he’s also got a great feel for the rest of the material, the alienation material. Throughout, the film’s scenes are, like I said, great. Winona Ryder is so good, I was wondering who was playing her role, as the animation made it possible it wasn’t her and she was so good, I couldn’t believe it was Ryder. The only acting problem is Linklater regular Rory Cochrane, who mugs for the camera. With one exception, an excellent scene, Cochrane’s bad when he’s alone. When he’s with other actors, he’s fine. Alone, he mugs the whole scene.

A Scanner Darkly ultimately fails. Actually, it ultimately achieves something more than mediocrity, but it does offer an excellent eighty-five minutes. Unfortunately, the film runs a hundred minutes (and should run around 135 minutes).

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Richard Linklater; screenplay by Linklater, based on the novel by Philip K. Dick; director of photography, Shane F. Kelly; edited by Sandra Adair; music by Graham Reynolds; production designer, Bruce Curtis; produced by Anne Walker-McBay, Tommy Pallotta, Palmer West, Jonah Smith and Erwin Stoff; released by Warner Independent Pictures.

Starring Keanu Reeves (Bob Arctor), Robert Downey Jr. (Jim Barris), Woody Harrelson (Ernie Luckman), Winona Ryder (Donna Hawthorne) and Rory Cochrane (Charles Freck).


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