★★★½

Pale Flower (1964, Shinoda Masahiro)

Pale Flower opens with lead Ikebe Ryô narrating his first day out of prison. Not what he does—we get to see what he does—but how he feels about being out, what he notices. He’s killed a man, been in prison for three years, and nothing has changed in Tokyo. The dead man’s absence doesn’t matter, Ikebe’s absence doesn’t matter. Ikebe’s indifferent to existence, particularly his own; so what better thing to do with one’s time than the endorphin rush of gambling. Oh… right: Ikebe also talks a little about the thrill of killing. Not anything to get a rush—dope’s out, for example—but almost anything. Ikebe’s looking for a (relatively) safe rush, whether it’s from gambling or hooking up with lady friend Hara Chisako. Hara’s in a bad situation—abused by a now senile stepfather she now cares for, romantically pursued by a civilian at her office, she too is looking for a rush, one only bad boy (again, relatively speaking) Ikebe can provide.

But Hara doesn’t offer Ikebe that same rush. Especially not after he goes gambling and discovers things have changed a little since he’s been gone—there’s now a girl (Kaga Mariko) in the gambling scene. At first, Kaga just slightly piques Ikebe’s interest—he’s busy trying to adjust to the new yakuza ground situation. Ikebe went in for killing one of Tôno Eijirô’s men, on boss Miyaguchi Seiji’s orders. Only there’s a new player in town and Tôno and Miyaguchi have had to team up, something not all of Tôno’s men are all right with; they want to avenge themselves on Ikebe, which ends up providing Ikebe with his only steady acquaintance. Foolish young yakuza Sasaki Isao tries to take on Ikebe and botches it, leading to Sasaki having to apologize (multiple times) and Ikebe taking Sasaki under his wing. Of course, since Ikebe doesn’t do much besides gamble, it just means he and Sasaki play cards a lot.

Most of Ikebe’s time—and Pale Flower’s runtime—is spent with Kaga. She wants a bigger game, bigger thrills, and Ikebe lines it up for her. She’s something of a mystery; besides getting her name and having some suspicions about her day life, Ikebe doesn’t find out much and doesn’t care. He’s protective of her, worries about her, but is also a little awestruck. As the film progresses and the pair reveal more of themselves to each other, it becomes clear just how much they’re alter egos, bound by the thrill seeking. One of director Shinoda’s great successes with Pale Flower is not making it icky as Ikebe’s concern goes from paternal to romantic. He goes from mild disapproval of youthful, apparently wealthy Kaga’s excesses to longing for them, even as his obligations to Miyaguchi make it hard if not impossible for their relationship to continue. Or, at least, to intensify.

When Hara finds out about Kaga, she gets extremely jealous without ever understanding the nature of the relationship, which is an excellent, subtle device for Shinoda to examine it as most of the time spent with Kaga and Ikebe is about the thrills. There are the exquisite gambling sequences—Shinoda could care less if the audience understands the gaming being played (at one point, Ikebe asks Kaga if she understands a new game and she says she’ll figure it out on her own as she plays; the audience has to do the same as they watch)—and then a fantastic, out of nowhere car race. Shinoda’s direction, Kosugi Masao’s photography, Sugihara Yoshi’s editing, and Nishizaki Hideo’s sound design sit the viewer next to the leads, encapsulating their visceral experience of the moments. The down time, when Ikebe sits around his sparse apartment with pals Mikami Shin'ichirô and Sugiura Naoki, is just treading water until he can get to the next game with Kaga.

There’s also the completely silent Fujiki Takashi, a half Chinese yakuza dope addict psychopath; Fujiki interests both Ikebe and Kaga, but for different reasons. For Ikebe, Fujiki presents a threat to Kaga’s attention. Dope’s the easy thrill and Kaga’s too young to understand why easy thrills are wrong. Ikebe’s jealous of Fujiki before he and Kaga even discuss him. And since the exposition is always delayed about ten minutes in Pale Flower, Ikebe’s got to convey the character development in his performance. Shinoda and the crew help, obviously, the way they present Ikebe and his experience of the situations, but Pale Flower doesn’t rush to explain anything. Explanations are overrated anyway, something the film all of a sudden forgets in the epilogue.

After a flawless finale, Shinoda and co-screenwriter Baba Masaru jarringly sync the calmly delayed exposition to scene. Worse, they do it with narration. It makes sense, there’s not enough time left in the film for the traditional delay, but it’s also a needless gesture. Pale Flower needs to be five minutes shorter or five minutes longer.

Great performances all around—Ikebe, Kaga, Hara. Bosses Tôno and Miyaguchi are awesome together, these almost adorable old men as they determine the fates of those around them.

The plotting is excellent; Pale Flower’s expansive but concise. Shinoda’s got these specifically directed sequences with different styles but the same tools used to create them. The car race, for instance, looks and feels entirely different than the foot chase, but it’s the same tone, it’s the same filmmaking techniques applied. And the narrative distance is the same. It’s almost always about Ikebe’s experience of the moments; when it’s not, it’s about Kaga’s and Ikebe’s experience of observing her experience of them.

It’s phenomenal.

It just needs to be a little shorter, or a little longer. Pale Flower’s an objective lesson in the trickiness of epilogues.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Shinoda Masahiro; screenplay by Baba Masaru and Shinoda, based on the novel by Ishihara Shintarô; director of photography, Kosugi Masao; edited by Sugihara Yoshi; music by Takahashi Yûji and Takemitsu Tôru; produced by Shirai Masao and Wakatsuki Shigeru; released by Shochiku Company.

Starring Ikebe Ryô (Muraki), Kaga Mariko (Saeko), Fujiki Takashi (Yoh), Sugiura Naoki (Aikawa), Mikami Shin’ichirô (Reiji), Sasaki Isao (Jiro), Nakahara Kôji (Tamaki), Miyaguchi Seiji (Gang leader), Tôno Eijirô (Gang Leader), and Hara Chisako (Muraki’s lover).


Booksmart (2019, Olivia Wilde)

Booksmart opens with high school senior Beanie Feldstein getting up on her last day of school; graduation is in the morning. She listens to self-affirmations about—politely—crushing your adversaries as you excel past them. Now, Feldstein lives in an apartment building. Not a terrible one, but not a nice one. Her lack of perception of privilege and class are going to bite her a little so it’s an important detail. Similarly, when best friend Kaitlyn Dever pulls up to drive to school, Dever’s not in a great car. Booksmart is going to exist in a very particular bubble and the film’s got no problem with that bubble, it just doesn’t examine it. Because Booksmart is a comedy. Yes, Feldstein’s an overachiever from a different economic class from her classmates and Dever’s an out lesbian teenager living with two Christian but supportive parent. They’ve got things going on. But the film’s more concerned with being funny and fun, which is exactly what it needs to be doing.

At school, Feldstein gets a rude awakening to how the world of college acceptance works from her classmates, who she assumed were all headed to a trade school and it turns out, no, not only are they going to the same school (Yale) or better than her, even the kid who flunked seventh grade twice (Eduardo Franco) has already got a coding job at Google. Feldstein had no fun and excelled but they had fun and excelled, meaning she was wrong and the things weren’t mutually exclusive—which is true, especially once you find out the kids are all rich. Some are 1%, the others are 3-6%. Turns out Dever’s parents have a great house and the old car is just a Dever thing. The class and privilege aspects gradually get brushed over with the comedy. The details aren’t presently important for Feldstein and Dever, who are going to go on to have their own character development—outstanding character development—usually these little moments in the reactions or dialogue amid the comedy. Booksmart’s always working towards a laugh, usually at least medium ones.

The film knows how to get a laugh and it knows what kind of laugh it’s going to get—some of its the script (Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel, Katie Silberman—so maybe the most successful four-writer movie in a while), most of its Wilde’s direction and Feldstein and Dever’s performances. Wilde’s sense of timing is exquisite. She and editor Jamie Gross cut the humor perfectly, but then it turns out they’ve also got these more ambitious sequences. There’s this fantastic dance sequence out of nowhere and then this emotional visually poetic underwater swimming sequence. Both those sequences serve Feldstein and Dever, but they’re also the showiest Wilde’s going to be able to get in the film and she ties the filmmaking ambition to the stars; they’re breathtaking sequences. And right after them, Booksmart turns out not to really have an idea of how to get from point C to point D. The film’s second to third act transition is exceptionally rough. It’s well-acted, it’s well-directed—Wilde even does this “hands off” thing when it gets too intense dramatically; Booksmart is about the comedy. The specifics of the drama aren’t the point. Especially not since it concerns Feldstein and Dever’s friendship—because of course it does, it’s a high school best friends comedy, weren’t you paying attention to the genre tropes; even when Felstein and Dever are spouting exposition about their history, Wilde always takes a hands-off approach with the pair. Their friendship needs to illuminate itself through the performances, not the specifics of the dialogue, which is very important as well because it’s often hilarious and the film needs to hit the laugh.

After some brief pathos for the stars, the third act then amps up the physical comedy in the search of an ending. Booksmart’s got a great epilogue, but the ending of the film’s narrative gets desperate at the end and plays a lot on the film’s goodwill. Nicely, the film’s still generating goodwill through the rough spots; Feldstein and Dever can handle the pathos fine, it’s just not serving a purpose. Kind of like the kind of icky thirty-something teacher and the twenty-year old student. That one is the film’s only actual problem, even though it too is a high school movie trope… it’s just one in need of more examination of how it executes in Booksmart, where it’s a C plot.

Okay, time to go over the supporting cast. It’s big, but the actors are essential to the film’s success. It’s one of those apparently perfectly casted films—even though Booksmart’s got the epical narrative, it’s also a hangout movie. And Wilde knows how to showcase the supporting cast. Billie Lourd’s the richest girl, who doesn’t make much impression in her introduction but becomes the film’s best running joke. And Lourd’s great. Then there’s Mason Gooding as Feldstein’s dope of a vice president… but a really hot one who Feldstein’s got a secret crush on. Meanwhile, Dever’s got a years long crush on skater girl Victoria Ruesga, who wishes Dever would party on weekends so… possibilities. Molly Gordon’s the mean girl who turns out to have a bunch of depth. Noah Galvin and Austin Crute are hilarious as the theater guys. Then Skyler Gisondo is the richest boy, who’s extremely socially awkward and seems to have a crush on Feldstein, which Feldstein’s mortified about.

The way the night unfolds—and the plot perturbs—informs how the supporting cast is going to interact with Feldstein and Dever, which leads to reaction scenes for the two of them as their expectations get realized and dashed. And Feldstein and Dever get the funniest material—Wilde sets the narrative distance constantly inform their relationship (and performances) more than anything else, even when the supporting cast is getting some big comic moment. Wilde’s stunningly good at the directing thing. Booksmart’s always impressive for one reason or another.

Great lead performances, great supporting performances, great direction, outstanding script; technically it’s excellent—Gross’s editing, Jason McCormick’s photography, Dan The Automator’s score, all superb. It’s a humdinger of a first feature from director Wilde.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Olivia Wilde; written by Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel, and Katie Silberman; director of photography, Jason McCormick; edited by Jamie Gross; music by Dan The Automator; production designer, Katie Byron; produced by Chelsea Barnard, David Distenfeld, Jessica Elbaum, Megan Ellison, and Silberman; released by Annapurna Pictures.

Starring Beanie Feldstein (Molly), Kaitlyn Dever (Amy), Skyler Gisondo (Jared), Billie Lourd (Gigi), Victoria Ruesga (Ryan), Mason Gooding (Nick), Diana Silvers (Hope), Molly Gordon (Triple A), Noah Galvin (George), Austin Crute (Alan), Eduardo Franco (Theo), Nico Hiraga (Tanner), and Jason Sudeikis (Principal Brown).


The Big Red One (1980, Samuel Fuller)

The Big Red One is a fairly even split between action and conversation. The film tracks a single squad as they start fighting in North Africa, follow the war into the Mediterranean, participate in D-Day, then go east. The film skips to each event. There’s usually some epilogue to the event, something like character development or character revelation, then it’s on to the next event, starting with the time and place in the war. Squad member Robert Carradine narrates the film, which includes bridging the gaps between the events. He’ll occasionally have something to say about his fellow squad members, something to further reveal their character, but he doesn’t have much opinion of that new reveal. Even if it’s something bad. Even though the film’s about these five men, it’s not about their relationship. We’re not invited. Carradine fills in some details, very occasionally contextualizes, but there’s something going on in One away from the viewer. Director Fuller is telling the audience a story, which is somehow different from telling a story. How he’s telling the story is very important.

Fuller centers the film around the sergeant, played by Lee Marvin. He’s not just the center of the movie, he’s the hero of Carradine’s narration, which is more important; Carradine’s not the hero of his own narration. It’s not his story he’s telling, it’s Marvin’s, even though Marvin’s an intentional mystery. And not a mystery Fuller’s inviting the audience to solve. Or even attempt to solve. Marvin’s the hero. He’s the older, gruff sergeant with a heart of gold. A World War I vet too (the film opens in a flashback to it; good de-aging makeup). But Marvin’s never a stereotype. Neither are Carradine, Mark Hamill, Bobby Di Cicco, or Kelly Ward. Because Fuller doesn’t even give them that much character in the script. All the personality to the characters comes from the actors, which is an exceptionally odd choice for Fuller to make. And a completely successful one. That open space where Fuller could’ve written character—remember the movie’s half conversation, so these guys are always talking, sometimes about themselves, but nothing about anything to do with themselves. Hamill’s an artist. We find out nothing about it, he’s just drawing all the time. Carradine’s a writer, we find out a bunch about it… but he’s never actually writing. Di Cicco and Ward imply these complicated characters in their deliveries of one-liners. It’s a very strange, very good way to… get out of doing the character work but not let it go to caricature.

Fuller does something similar with Marvin, but gives him more backstory and experience because he’s older and has more experience and backstory. But Fuller’s still relying on Marvin for all the action reactions and processing of the events he’s experiencing.

Because in many ways, the four younger guys—they’re all privates—the four privates, they’re interchangeable. During the action scenes, anyway. When one of them does something significant, sure, then they’re different—usually Fuller forecasts the character’s taking center stage—but some of the point is how everyone in the squad except Marvin is interchangeable. Fuller sets the leads apart from the other four squad members (you usually only know one other squad member at a time, the other two or three are screen filler), but not in any way to make them exemplars. They’re just the guys who hang around Marvin the most and have some unrevealed history together. It’s none of our business, they’re just our protagonists.

And, incredibly, Fuller gets away with it. Di Cicco’s charming enough, Carradine’s funny enough, Ward’s surprisingly alpha enough, Hamill’s sufficiently sad enough. See, Hamill’s the movie’s second-is lead. It’s really Carradine but the movie pretends it’s Hamill because Ukelay Ywalkerskay. And Hamill gets a fairly intense arc all to himself and Fuller makes him do it all on his face. The film charts Hamill’s abilities at emoting improving until they’re finally successful enough they cover the absence of exposition on Hamill’s subplot. Fuller avoids it, then leaves it up to Hamill to make it all right to avoid it.

It’s so well-directed. Fuller’s so thoughtful about it all. He rarely lets the film go off on tangents and usually they’re only because he’s interested in something separate from the main cast, their concerns, their needs. Fuller occasionally checks in with German sergeant Siegfried Rauch, who’s basically evil Lee Marvin. He’s got similar experiences; not just the last war, but also taking on these wet-behind-the-ears new recruits; he’s just really evil. Fuller likes using Rauch to distract from what he’s not doing with the main cast, like developing their characters. Rauch isn’t like the other main characters; Rauch never gets to mug his way through a scene. He doesn’t get free rein to do whatever on his character between his lines. He’s different.

Because, you know, he’s the Nazi.

Good photography from Adam Greenberg, great editing from Morton Tubor, very strong, very often disquieting score from Dana Kaproff. It’s a somewhat traditional war movie score, but Kaproff takes it in different directions, which help to reveal (presumably accurately) more about the lead characters.

Performances—Marvin’s great, Carradine’s great, Hamill’s good, Di Cicco and Ward are great. Marvin’s really great. He gets some great material and makes it even better.

The Big Red One is superb.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Samuel Fuller; director of photography, Adam Greenberg; edited by Morton Tubor; music by Dana Kaproff; produced by Gene Corman; released by United Artists.

Starring Lee Marvin (The Sergeant), Mark Hamill (Griff), Robert Carradine (Zab), Bobby Di Cicco (Vinci), Kelly Ward (Johnson), Joseph Clark (Shep), Ken Campbell (Lemchek), Doug Werner (Switolski), Perry Lang (Kaiser), Howard Delman (Smitty), and Siegfried Rauch (The German Sergeant).



Twentieth Century (1934, Howard Hawks)

Even with its way too abrupt finish, Twentieth Century is rare delight. Would it be more successful if the ending hadn’t wasted Carole Lombard? Yes, but also because it would’ve given lead John Barrymore more Lombard to act opposite and Barrymore’s best opposite Lombard. He’s amazing the whole time, but he’s best working with her. He aggravates him in just the right way. And, after time, she aggravates him in just the right way, which certainly hints at an amazing finish.

Sadly, no. Screenwriters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur kind of choke on it, though no doubt some of the fault lies with director (and producer) Hawks.

Anyway. Done with the negative verbiage. On to the reverse.

The film opens with a stage production doing a rehearsal; it’s model Lombard’s first attempt at acting. The director, Charles Lane, and the theatre accountant, Walter Connolly, don’t think much of her. They think boss and Broadway wunderkind Barrymore just hired her because of her looks. Just before Barrymore arrives on stage to take over the film introduces Roscoe Karns as Barrymore’s drunkard newspaper stooge, who’s there to profile Lombard. For about ten minutes, it’s just Barrymore going nuts directing Lombard through the rehearsal. He’s mean (though not cruel), manipulative, rude, and utterly hilarious. Barrymore gnaws at the scene, practically snapping at the air over Lombard’s shoulders. The scene starts with them apart, ends with them intwined, Hawks and editor Gene Havlick really focusing on how the two actors pace off the other. The air is thick with chemistry.

Even if Lombard doesn’t quite realize it yet.

Because Barrymore’s not just interested in creating a successful contract player in Lombard, he’s looking for love. The “seduction” scene is where Barrymore goes from being a hilarious tyrant to a personable, hilarious tyrant. The film has three time frames. The first opens the film; Lombard and Barrymore getting together, realizing greater success because of their collaborations. Then three years later when things have hit the skids. Then another three years later, post-skids, with one far more successful than the other. That last part is the majority of the film. It’s also where the title comes in—they’re on the 20th Century Limited, on the way from Chicago to New York. The first two phases have a lot of Lombard and Barrymore together. There’s some more character establishing with the supporting cast, Connolly and Karns in particular, as they’re going to be very important in the third phase, but it’s all about Lombard and Barrymore. Second phase is mostly more about Lombard. It’s where she’s got to show all the changes in her character over the last three years; what being around Barrymore will do to an intimate partner as well as creative partner. It’s where Lombard gets to let loose almost as much as Barrymore.

Whenever the film’s Lombard or Barrymore, it’s that rare delight. Barrymore manages to get more eccentric by the third phase, set almost entirely on train, while Lombard finally gets to match him. Much of the film is spent either laughing or grinning while preparing to laugh again. Hecht and MacArthur’s script does a fantastic job building up jokes, particularly in the third section, particularly with troublesome train passenger Etienne Girardot. Girardot is a great C plot, which ties into the A plot, but also provides some real texture to the train. He gives the supporting cast something to focus on, giving them their own story arcs. The film is always bustling, as sometimes Lombard and Barrymore need to take a break. They’re both very busy; in character and performance.

Connolly and Karns get a bunch more to do in the third phase, as they’re trying to save Barrymore from himself, which means intruding on Lombard, who’s got her own things going on with fresh beau and stuffed shirt Ralph Forbes. At some point in the second half, it almost feels like Connolly and Karns’s movie. It doesn’t last for long, as they have to involve Barrymore in their activities, but then it becomes the Barrymore, Connolly, and Karns show. Lombard gets downgraded.

Just as the film finally starts remedying Lombard’s reduced station and bringing her back up, giving her some great scenes with Barrymore, the movie stops. Maybe Hecht and MacArthur ran out of ideas to give Barrymore and Lombard something to riff on, but the film needs just a little more. Five minutes maximum. It’s not like Lombard or Barrymore give any signs of slowing, even as Connolly and Karns are literally passing out by this time.

But it’s a magnificent ride to that abrupt finish. And it works, it just doesn’t transcend.

Good editing from Havlick, good photography from Joseph H. August, excellent direction from Hawks. Barrymore and Lombard are wondrous. Twentieth Century is awesome.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Howard Hawks; screenplay by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, based on a play by Charles Bruce Millholland; director of photography, Joseph H. August; edited by Gene Havlick; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring John Barrymore (Oscar Jaffe), Carole Lombard (Mildred Plotka), Walter Connolly (Oliver Webb), Roscoe Karns (Owen O’Malley), Ralph Forbes (George Smith), Charles Lane (Max Jacobs), and Etienne Girardot (Matthew J. Clark).



Wonder Boys (2000, Curtis Hanson)

Wonder Boys has a very messy third act. The film takes place over a weekend, Friday afternoon to Sunday afternoon; it’s the annual writers conference at an unnamed Pittsburgh university, which kicks off some of the film’s events, lines up some other ones, but is really just an excuse for exposition. It’s fine—it’s great exposition—but it’s somewhat redundant because lead Michael Douglas narrates the whole movie anyway. The film’s about how and why Douglas ends up playing hooky from the conference, even though it’s never clear how involved he was supposed to be. Douglas’s professionalism, which is at least seems ostensible at the beginning of the film, slowly evaporates as events start getting… weird.

Unfortunately the first thing to get weird is super-cringey. The film’s from 2000 and it doesn’t think it’s being transphobic and it actually gets somewhere very interesting with the subplot, but… it’s super-cringey. And kind of makes the three generations of Wonder Boys—Douglas, Robert Downey Jr., Tobey Maguire—seem like dicks. It makes Downey icky when he’s supposed to be lovable.

Downey’s Douglas’s agent. They both got famous when Douglas wrote his first (and only) novel. He’s been working on his new one for seven years. It’s over two thousand pages. Maguire is one of Douglas’s students; his best student, who already has a finished novel. And is really weird. He’s not so much moody as peeking at the world from his Nietzschean hole in the ground. The film’s at its best when Douglas and Maguire are bonding. It’s at its funniest when Douglas and Downey are mugging. It’s got the most potential when Douglas is canoodling (or trying to canoodle) Frances McDormand. McDormand is the chancellor of the school. She’s married to Richard Thomas, who’s the chair of the English department and Douglas’s boss. Douglas and McDormand are in love. Douglas’s wife has left him that very morning for unrelated martial strife; McDormand just found out she’s pregnant. Maguire might be suicidal (the movie drops this one hard, like it doesn’t want to take the responsibility). Downey’s about to lose his job (but doesn’t care so it’s a throwaway subplot; also he’s—unfortunately—a glorified guest star). There’s a lot going on.

Throw in stolen movie memorabilia, a blind dog, Katie Holmes as Douglas’s student and lodger who thinks she understands her grandpa-aged crush, and a stolen car. Not to mention Douglas’s unseen wife, who hangs over the narrative but has absolutely no presence. It’s impossible to imagine Douglas married, not to mention anyone else living in his de facto flophouse. Beautifully designed de facto flophouse, but flophouse nonetheless. So the ethereal wife is a problem. And Holmes is a problem. She’s trying to make time with Douglas and he’s aware but completely disinterested. He likes women closer to his own age—McDormand’s only thirteen years younger versus Holmes’s thirty-four. Presumably the phantom wife is somewhere in middle. But Holmes, who either gets to be really insightful or really thin—she’s flirting with Rip Torn, who’s—you know—forty-some years older—never seems to realize Douglas isn’t into her that way. He’s not into her any way. It’s hard to believe they live in the same house.

The film doesn’t exactly have plot holes, it just often has soft plot details. Director Hanson and screenwriter Steve Kloves gloss over things they shouldn’t, then somehow lose track of what the film’s supposed to be doing. During the second act, it falls completely in love with the supporting cast—Maguire in particular, which is fine and dandy because Maguire’s great—but then it chucks him in the third act to bring Downey back in. Okay, Downey’s really good, really fun (not great because he doesn’t have the part), but… wasn’t Maguire supposed to be important. Then it turns out Downey’s not important. What’s important is something the film’s had the opportunity to focus on and hasn’t. Intentionally avoided it, actually, which maybe is supposed to be a metaphor for pot-addled Douglas’s indecision—the film’s also got some really dated pot politics—but it’s a miss. Douglas is phenomenal and a great protagonist, but his narration doesn’t add anything to the film. The occasional smile, the tiniest bit of context for some exposition or another, but there’s never anything important in it.

Especially not after Douglas loses his agency in the third act.

But the script’s still good. It’s a complete mess, plotting-wise, but the scenes are great. The pacing is great. And Hanson knows how he wants to shoot the conversations. There’s a lot of beautiful direction, with outstanding photography from Dante Spinotti. Cool but warm photography, intense but natural. It’s a great looking film. Dede Allen’s editing is great, especially since Hanson’s composing these wide Panavision shots and the cuts between angles ought to be jarring. They’re not. They’re perfectly timed. Sublimely timed. Solid music from Christopher Young, mostly emphasis stuff. There’s a great soundtrack for the film, including an original Bob Dylan song. Though it’s hard to imagine any of the Wonder Boys listening to Bob Dylan.

Going through the acting again. Douglas and Maguire are phenomenal. McDormand’s great. Downey’s good. Rip Torn’s fun. Holmes gets a crap part. Richard Thomas gets cast way too perfectly as a cuckold.

Wonder Boys is, problems and all, outstanding. It’s just frustratingly close to exceptional and when Hanson and Kloves so completely bungle the third act… it takes some real damage. But it’s still outstanding though. And Douglas and Maguire’s performances are exceptional… the parts just don’t end up being so.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Curtis Hanson; screenplay by Steve Kloves, based on the novel by Michael Chabon; director of photography, Dante Spinotti; edited by Dede Allen; music by Christopher Young; production designer, Jeannine Oppewall; produced by Hanson and Scott Rudin; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Michael Douglas (Grady Tripp), Tobey Maguire (James Leer), Frances McDormand (Sara Gaskell), Robert Downey Jr. (Terry Crabtree), Katie Holmes (Hannah Green), Rip Torn (Q), Richard Knox (Vernon Hardapple), Jane Adams (Oola), Alan Tudyk (Traxler), and Richard Thomas (Walter Gaskell).


The Mind of Mr. Soames (1970, Alan Cooke)

The Mind of Mr. Soames is preternaturally gentle (which, getting ahead of myself, is kind of the point) but it’s always a surprise how much more gentle it can get. The film doesn’t forebode or foreshadow, even though doing either wouldn’t just be predictable, it might even be appropriate given the subject matter.

The film opens at a private British medical institute, where everyone is very excited because they’re going to operate on star patient Mr. Soames (played by Terence Stamp). Stamp was born comatose due to a super-rare condition in his brain stem and this institute has kept him alive for thirty years. They’ve been waiting for medical science to get to a place where it can help Stamp. And it has. American surgeon Robert Vaughan (sporting a very cool beard) crosses the pond to do it. He’s not interested in Stamp’s recovery process, just the surgery.

At least, not until he realizes Davenport wants to train Stamp like a pet, not raise him like a child. Because even though Stamp’s got an adult brain, he’s pristine tabula rasa.

Also in the mix is scuzzy TV journalist Christian Roberts. He’s got Davenport’s permission to turn Stamp’s “childhood” into a documentary series. Part of the film’s gentle is how much the filmmakers trust the audience. The script trusts them to keep up, director Cooke trusts them to keep up—a big thing in the first act is American doctor Vaughan realizing British doctor Davenport is less concerned with Stamp recovering than with him making the Institute famous. But it never comes up. The whole arc of the film turns out to involve Donal Donnelly as Davenport’s underling, who gradually learns how to be a good doctor. Vaughan’s a big influence on him, but so’s Stamp.

Even though it’s almost a spoiler how much agency Stamp gets in the film given he starts it inanimate, kept alive by a roomful of machines. When Mind starts, it’s a split between Vaughan, Davenport, and Roberts, with Donnelly bouncing between Vaughan and Davenport. But once Stamp wakes up, the film starts its gradual transition into being his story.

It’s a great film, but it’s very hard to imagine it being able to do any more than it already does. Stamp eventually encounters all sorts of other people—most importantly kindly (potentially too kindly) miserable housewife Judy Parfitt—and Mind treats them as caricatures. Only Stamp, with this necessarily reduced agency and potential of it, gets to be a full-fledged character. These people he encounters are caricatures from his perspective, but from the film’s, which I guess is where the only real problems (outside the wrong closing music) occur. Everyone relies on Stamp to handle his perspective, which is understandable, he’s phenomenal. But if the film adjusted the narrative distance to track Stamp more closely, it’d necessarily lose the doctors.

Mind of Mr. Soames can’t be a character study, but it also can’t be a medical thriller because it can’t maintain the medical procedural. It also can’t do straight drama because it’s got a speculative air to it. Director Cooke does that gentle thing instead of trying to hit various intensities. It’s never calm, it’s never placid, it’s just gentle. Mind is based on a novel and there’s definitely the potential for some sort of comparison to Frankenstein, maybe with the book but definitely with the film; whether or not Stamp is going to go Frankenstein is one of the film’s many questions, but never one of Stamp’s and it’s Stamp’s film.

The film doesn’t exactly have charm—it’s too intense, stakes-wise—and it’s never overly stylish, but the deliberate but still surprising way the narrative unfolds is rather agreeable. Mind of Mr. Soames does a lot, provides its cast a lot of great scenes, and it’s not an easy story to do. So when it works out so well… not charming, but nice.

It’s a story very well told.

Outside the occasionally too obviously shot in the studio night time exteriors, Billy Williams’s photography is always good. The actual exterior shooting—when Stamp and the film get outside his “playroom”—is excellent. Really strong direction from Cooke, both with the actors and the composition. The film seems to get a certain patience from Cooke, while it gets a different one from John Hale and Edward Simpson’s script; the story’s about agitated people but the story’s never agitated.

Pretty good music from Michael Dress (except the closing track, which is fine but not good enough for what the film has just accomplished).

Great performance from Stamp (you can’t imagine anyone else in the role after he does it). Excellent support from Vaughan, Davenport, and Donnelly. They’re ahead the other caricatures because, well, they get enough time not to be caricatures.

Stamp, Cooke, and everyone else make something special with The Mind of Mr. Soames.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Alan Cooke; screenplay by John Hale and Edward Simpson, based on the novel by Charles Eric Maine; lighting cameraman, Billy Williams; edited by Bill Blunden; music by Michael Dress; production designer, Bill Constable; produced by Max Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Terence Stamp (John Soames), Robert Vaughn (Dr. Bergen), Nigel Davenport (Dr. Maitland), Christian Roberts (Thomas Fleming), Donal Donnelly (Joe Allan), Norman Jones (Davis), Dan Jackson (Nicholls), and Judy Parfitt (Jenny Bannerman).



What We Do in the Shadows (2014, Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi)

What We Do in the Shadows is strong from the first scene. An alarm clock goes off at six. A hand reaches over to hit snooze. Only it’s six at night and the hand is reaching from a coffin. Shadows’s a mockumentary (though I sort of want to start calling them docucomedies after this one); the unseen documentary crew’s subjects are four Wellington, New Zealand vampire flatmates—directors Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement, Jonny Brugh, and Ben Fransham. The vampires have promised not to eat their documenters.

But there’s a lot of eating. Shadows is straight comedy. It’s funny when Waititi can’t figure out how to properly eat a victim, even though he’s almost four hundred years old. See, Waititi (as Clement tells the camera during the first act setup) was a dandy. Waititi is Interview with the Vampire, Clement is London After Midnight in terms of look while Vlad the Impaler (actually poker) in backstory. Brugh’s just a vampire. Fransham is Nosferatu, in some great makeup.

Waititi is the Felix, Brugh’s the Oscar, Clement’s in between. He does his chores, but he thinks Waititi is too much. Fransham is in a cement crypt in the basement and basically just eats people. He never cleans up either; his hallway is strewn with spinal cords and bones. It’d probably bother Waititi more if Brugh weren’t causing such problems upstairs. Plus, neither Brugh or Clement want to take the time to cover furniture before killing their victims. The blood’s getting on the nice furniture.

The first act sets up the life of modern Wellington vampires. How they get their victims—either seduction or Brugh having his familiar, Jackie van Beek, procure them—and how they socialize (they can’t get into many night spots because they need to be invited in). van Beek ends up introducing Cori Gonzalez-Macuer to the fellows, giving the film its main narrative. Gonzalez-Macuer becomes a vampire and, for about three minutes, it seems like the film might move to his perspective but no. Young know-it-all vampires are dopes; Gonzalez-Macuer is a dope and the film’s more about how the flatmates deal with having him around.

It’s not too bad, however, because he’s got a really cool friend (Stu Rutherford) who comes along. Rutherford’s human, but he’s so cool nobody’s going to eat him. Especially not after he shows the vampires how to use the Internet.

The film’s got a built-in structure—the documentary is about this annual undead ball and they’re going with the vampires. The ball shows up late in the film and, while it functions as the climax (or immediate precursor to it), it never feels that heavy. The “documentary” doesn’t change in tone. There’s no added emphases. Action just plays out like action plays out the rest of the time. The film’s meticulously edited, with this occasional asides to subplots. The asides are so successful you want the documentary filmmakers to show up just because they’ve got such an interesting take on their subjects. They’d be interesting characters. And not just because they’re so dispassionate about all the killing.

The killing is incidental.

All of the performances are great. Directors (and writers) Clement and Waititi are the best. Clement’s got something of a less showy role (though a more showy wardrobe) but gets to have some subtext while Waititi plays for more obvious laughs. He’s got his own subplot, but it doesn’t do anything until the end, when it’s just for a great laugh or two. Lots of great laughs in Shadows. Meanwhile, Clement’s subplot turns out to be tied to the main narrative. It’s complicated for the narrative but not so much for Clement, who instead has to imply a bunch in his performance. It all works out just right, of course, because Clement and Waititi do a fantastic job with Shadows. They’ve always got the right tone, the right joke, the right plot development.

Brugh, Gonzalez-Macuer, and van Beek all give strong performances. Brugh’s Oscar Madison so he’s mostly for a certain kind of laughs, but he’s also got great quirks. Gonzalez-Macuer is a sincere doofus. van Beek quietly suffers (she wants to be a vampire but Brugh keeps putting it off because vampires are shitty to their familiars).

There are a lot of vampire movie references in the film, including ones you might miss even if you’ve seen the movie. It’s more important to get the reference being a reference than to actually get the reference. The film leverages obvious genre tropes for humor, not specific references. Shadows is exceptionally well-executed.

And the special effects are perfect too.

Also—superb supporting performances all around, particularly Karen O’Leary as one of the cops who gets called out to check on the vampire house; superb supporting performances are no surprise because everything in What We Do in the Shadows succeeds.

Clement and Waititi, their costars, their crew—everyone does spectacular work.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi; directors of photography, Richard Bluck and D.J. Stipsen; edited by Tom Eagles, Yana Gorskaya, and Jonathan Woodford-Robinson; music by Plan 9; production designer, Ra Vincent; produced by Emanuel Michael, Waititi, and Chelsea Winstanley; released by Madman Entertainment.

Starring Jemaine Clement (Vladislav), Taika Waititi (Viago), Jonny Brugh (Deacon), Cori Gonzalez-Macuer (Nick), Stu Rutherford (Stu), Ben Fransham (Petyr), Jackie van Beek (Jackie), and Elena Stejko (The Beast).


Primrose Path (1940, Gregory La Cava)

Primrose Path gets fun fast. Given the film opens with nine year-old Joan Carroll stealing a neighbor’s tamales (instead of buying them) for her and her grandmother, Queenie Vassar, it sort of needs to be fun. Vassar’s the maternal grandmother, not related to despondently alcoholic dad Miles Mander. Ginger Rogers is the older daughter, who we soon find out has forced herself into a kind of functional naïveté about her family’s situation. See, Mander’s a drunk because wife Marjorie Rambeau is out as a professional mistress. But he can’t work because he’s a complete drunk. Vassar trying to break the two up doesn’t do any good for their relationship either. Meanwhile Rambeau lives in a somewhat forced naïveté of her own, at least as far as Mander’s concerned.

Path opens about this family barely surviving—with Carroll apparently already lost, Vassar poisoning all the fresh water—and then there’s Rogers, who’s figured out a way to navigate herself through it. Until she takes a ride from kindly and silly old man Henry Travers when she’s on her way down to the beach. Path takes place in a small city (or large town) on the California coast. Closer to San Francisco than L.A. The contrast between Travers’s beachfront hamburger diner and Rogers’s regular life is striking inside and out. But definitely out. Path’s first half is full of fantastic location shooting, with director La Cava and cinematographer Joseph H. August delivering some fantastic scenes.

So once Travers and Rogers start bantering and she realizes he’s not an old pervert, she agrees to let him forward her a lunch. Once in the diner, she meets banter-master Joel McCrea, who works the counter. Except Rogers doesn’t like McCrea’s banter so he tries to get a rise out of her, which continues for a sequence of scenes, culminating in McCrea kissing Rogers. Well, once he’s kissed her, she’s smitten, leading to her telling a few small lies to get out of her life and into his.

For a while Rogers is able to avoid her past, but it’s not too far away, just on the “other side of town.” There’s never a “wrong side of the tracks” remark, but there are a couple audible train whistles. La Cava can be subtle and La Cava can be obvious. He can also be subtly obvious. He saves the straight obvious for the romance between McCrea and Rogers. It doesn’t take long for him to get just as smitten.

Unfortunately, neither character is being entirely honest. While Rogers’s lies don’t have any further repercussions after she and McCrea are joined at the hip, McCrea’s kind of been on holiday. Path gets away with a lot during the Production Code—there’s adultery, there’s sex work, there’s drunken Mander, there’s the thieving kid, whatever—but it’s most impressive moves are with Rogers and McCrea. They never get their big blowout scene, which is simultaneously disappointing and understandable–Path has got to keep light on its feet before the realness can grab it. Vassar’s downright evil at times and McCrea’s got a hideous mean streak. The film plays the former almost for laughs (as well as keeping Vassar’s understandable despondence and her unforgivable cruelty separate) while the latter just sets up La Cava’s third act commentary on people. The film’s very focused on the family. Rogers shares time with McCrea more than he gets the time to himself. Same goes for Travers. It’s a long time before he gets anything to do separate from Rogers (and then it’s just to talk about her with McCrea). It’s Rogers’s movie. Then Rambeau’s. Then Vassar’s. Then McCrea’s. McCrea still gets a full character arc, he just doesn’t get it on screen. So when La Cava opens things up—pretty much for the first time (the diner scenes are all about Rogers and McCrea’s salad days)—it’s for the finale. And the finale is really subtle and amusing, but it also informs some earlier plot points. Allan Scott and La Cava’s script is incredibly patient. The film’s a stage adaptation but never feels stagy; quite the opposite. It’s hard to imagine the story told any other way.

The music from Werner R. Heymann’s excellent. Sound is important in Primrose Path and La Cava and editor William Hamilton are careful how they reinforce the narrative with it. The film’s full of echoed moments, with only one of them being at all obvious. La Cava keeps the rest of them submerged and they more reverberate than sound off. So Heymann’s music has to fit perfectly and it always does, not just the scenes content but in place among the echoes. Path runs just over ninety minutes but it never skimps, never rushes. La Cava, in direction and script, is casually deliberate. He does excellent work here.

Great performances from Rogers and McCrea. He doesn’t get the lead role but he does have some breakout moments. For a while it seems like he’s going to be most successful for his toxic male behavior stuff but it turns out there’s going to be more to his character arc and McCrea keeps excelling. Meanwhile Rogers has to keep a lot mildly submerged too and she gets to go full bloom at finish to great success as well. The parts are good. Better than than the showier ones like Mander or Vassar. Vassar’s character is just a little too hurtful for the performance, but she’s still good. Mander is great. Rambeau is great. Rambeau’s part is far less showy as the film progresses.

Primrose Path is an outstandingly nimble romantic drama. La Cava, Rogers, and McCrea can keep it loose enough for sincere and affable romance, while still getting into the hard family drama stuff. It can’t go either way fully because, well, it wouldn’t be a vehicle for Rogers and McCrea then, but La Cava finds an ideal balance.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Gregory La Cava; screenplay by Allan Scott and La Cava, based on the play by Robert L. Buckner and Walter Hart; director of photography, Joseph H. August; edited by William Hamilton; music by Werner R. Heymann; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Ginger Rogers (Ellie May Adams), Joel McCrea (Ed Wallace), Marjorie Rambeau (Mamie), Miles Mander (Homer), Queenie Vassar (Grandma), Joan Carroll (Honeybell), and Henry Travers (Gramp).


Jour de fête (1949, Jacques Tati)

It’s about fifteen minutes before lead (and director) Jacques Tati appears in Jour de fête. The film opens with a travelling fair arriving at its destination and starting to set up. Paul Frankeur and Guy Decomble are the two main fair workers–actually they’re the only fair workers with anything to do except Santa Relli as Decomble’s wife. Besides starting to set up the merry-go-round, Decomble has time to make eyes at local girl Maine Vallée. Delcassan plays another resident, an old woman who narrates the goings on for the benefit of the audience–and, presumably, the goat she’s always got with her. The device is rather charming. Tati usually employs long shots, letting the action play out gradually, individual elements building until they intersect–for example, Tati, as actor, gets introduced in dialogue when Relli sends Decomble to mail a letter instead of making eyes at Vallée.

Jean Yatove’s music perfectly accompanies the gentle action.

Tati–as actor–arrives as some men are trying to put up a pole for the fair. Decomble and Frankeur are on the sidelines, offering unhelpful commentary, then draft Tati into action. He’s a bicycle postman, he gets around, he should know how to put up a pole. For most of the film, Jour is a series of intricately connected vingettes. Tati and cowriters Henri Marquet and René Wheeler occasionally pause one vignette to move on to another–Tati’s postman is easily distracted, whether by putting up a pole or getting blasted at the café, making the movements organic.

There’s a lot of physical comedy and callbacks to previous gags. Tati introduces himself biking into town and battling a bee. As he moves, in the distance, across the frame, the bee jumps forward to pester the farmer who’s in the foreground of the shot, before returning to Tati as the bicycle moves past the farmer. There’s a lot of subtle, inventive shots. There are also some obvious sight gags, which usually work–and manage to be charming thanks to the filmmaking and, particularly, the music–but are still kind of cheap.

After introducing Tati’s postman and getting the fair setup on track, the film jumps ahead a bit–with Delcassan offering some more commentary–as the townspeople head to square for the fair, which includes a cinema. The cinema becomes important later. Before it does, however, there’s a lot more with Tati. He can’t refuse the multiple invitations to drink at the café, culminating in Decomble and Frankeur–in a genial malice–getting him incredibly drunk. Sober, Tati’s postman is scatterbrained. Blasted, he’s wholly incompetent.

In between some of the drinking, Tati sees a short film in the cinema showing the U.S. postal service, which implements all the latest technology to deliver the mail. Latest technology like helicopters and skydivers and stunt motorcycles. How can the French compete. Especially since Tati spends the rest of the day in the bar before heading out at night to finish his deliveries. The townspeople have gone to bed, leading to multiple complications, before Tati just passes out drunk.

The next day, however, he’s invigorated and ready to show off how fast he can deliver the post. No surprise, Decomble and Frankeur have given him multiple bad ideas on how he can increase his efficiency.

Tati’s wild ride–which includes some incredible physical comedy and elaborate action direction–happens about an hour into the film’s ninety minute runtime. It doesn’t take the whole last third, but most of it. It’s always inventive, always amusing (or better), but somewhat detached from the rest of the film. Jour’s no longer about the townspeople or the fair, now it’s all Tati and the hyper-speed mail delivery.

Tati, as director, brings it all together for the finish but far less organically than anything else in the picture. The long sequence works–Tati’s hitting familiar places populated by now familiar faces–but it doesn’t fit with the rest. The wrap-up is well-executed, effective, closes all the open threads, but is far from seamless. It treats Tati’s wild ride as a tangent, while the rest of the film built up to the wild ride as though it were the intended result.

So a disjointed–while still more than adequate–finish.

Wonderful direction from Tati throughout. Great composition, great pacing, whether he’s setting up for comedy or narrative–though, really, it’s always both. Mostly excellent cinematography from Jacques Mercanton and Jacques Sauvageot. The day-for-night is somewhat lacking but the content makes up for it. Similarly, Marcel Morreau’s editing only has any hiccups when they’re trying to get goats and chickens to behave.

Jour de fête is superb. Sure, the last third has its problems, but they’re masterfully, sublimely executed problems.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Jacques Tati; written by Tati, Henri Marquet, and René Wheeler; directors of photography, Jacques Mercanton and Jacques Sauvageot; edited by Marcel Morreau; music by Jean Yatove; produced by Fred Orain and André Paulvé; released by DisCina.

Starring Jacques Tati (François), Guy Decomble (Roger), Paul Frankeur (Marcel), Jacques Beauvais (Bondu), Santa Relli (Germaine), Maine Vallée (Jeannette), and Delcassan (Old biddy).


The Apartment (1960, Billy Wilder)

The Apartment does whatever it can to remain a dramatic comedy when it shouldn’t be anymore. And sort of isn’t. When the film shifts into real drama, there’s no going back. Director Wilder gets it too. The film has a good comedy opening, a breathtaking dramatic middle, and a decent comedy end. The comedy in the opening and the end is very different. The opening comedy is sort of bemused–oh, isn’t it funny how office drone Jack Lemmon gets into management because he lends out his apartment to company managers to use with their girlfriends. You know, away from the wives.

Now, there’s drama of some kind forecast in the opening comedy. The comedy, drama, and comedy split doesn’t exactly fit the three acts. But is sort of shoe-horned to fit. Anyway. There’s some inevitable character drama forecast during the comedy. Lemmon’s got a crush on elevator girl and confirmed non-dater Shirley MacLaine. Turns out she’s not a non-dater, she’s just more discreet than the rest of the office staff. And by office staff, there are thousands of employees. An absurd number of them, actually, for the space. Because before The Apartment becomes a romantic pursuit comedy, it’s a modern office comedy.

Writers Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond do pretty well at the modern office comedy. It all hinges on Lemmon, who’s really got to do everything for twenty-five minutes. It’s a two-hour and change film. So the first fifth is all Lemmon and the modern office comedy involving his apartment. MacLaine shows up, but she’s just another piece of the office comedy.

It’s when Lemmon finally gets busted and big boss Fred MacMurray demands use of The Apartment does the film start moving. All the setup is Lemmon–quite spectacularly–spinning his wheels. There’s no narrative drive to Lemmon’s promotion goals because it’s unclear they’re goals. Certainly why they’d be goals. Lemmon’s character is the force of his personality and performance. It isn’t until the scene with MacMurray Lemmon has to do anything different. That scene changes the whole movie.

Then there’s sort of this mini-first act to the dramatic material, moving the film away from the comedy, bringing in MacLaine’s story. Told in exposition. There’s a lot of character revelations through exposition in The Apartment and they’re often spectacular, but never explored. Lemmon and MacLaine never get to develop in their scenes together. They spend most of the dramatic middle together. The middle of The Apartment is this short film within the film, where the direction changes, the script changes, the performances change.

And the middle is wonderful. Both Lemmon and MacLaine are fantastic. They have this parallel development arc. Lemmon’s falling for MacLaine, MacLaine’s getting back together with MacMurray. There are dramatic stakes involved; the film doesn’t prepare for them. Wilder and Diamond have some absurdism at the beginning, then they’ve got some shock value. But all very mild. The script relies on these sturdy narrative devices, but always carefully; making sure they never creak.

Wilder’s direction is outstanding. He, cinematographer Joseph LaShelle, and editor Daniel Mandell create a seamless visual experience. So seamless when it detaches from Lemmon and MacLaine in the last third, the second comedy section, it does so ahead of the story. The filmmaking and the writing are both phenomenal. Even when The Apartment is skipping character development for these short, tragic, cynically comedic set pieces in the last third. Wilder and Diamond make the film into a drama–almost entirely straight drama–in the middle, then try to avoid having to do a dramatic finish.

Because they want to do the romantic comedy, which is cute–Lemmon and MacLaine are cute, MacMurray’s great as the sleazebag boss–but they haven’t really set up. There are some big Lemmon revelations in the finale and they don’t fit with the rest of the character. Not how Wilder and Diamond handled him in the opening. The script also has a problem with MacLaine’s naiveté. Sometimes she has so much she couldn’t have gotten to where she’s gotten. She also gets some big revelations, but in the middle dramatic area–so not played for comedy like Lemmon’s later revelations–and they scuff with some of the earlier character development; the finale could fix it. But doesn’t. Because as much as the final third distances itself from Lemmon, it abandons MacLaine.

And when she is in it, Wilder and Diamond keep her as flat as possible. It’s very strange. The finale just feels perfunctory. Technically inspired, beautifully written, but perfunctory. The film stops worrying about its characters and concentrates on the most efficient way to finish things up.

The acting’s all great. Lemmon, MacLaine, MacMurray (whose paper thin character never gets any thicker). David Lewis and Ray Walston are awesome as a couple of Lemmon’s apartment leches. Jack Kruschen and Naomi Stevens are Lemmon’s neighbors, who think he’s a sex addict with all the activity in his apartment; they play a big part in the middle. They go from being bit comedy background to this spectacular dramatic support.

Hope Holiday is hilarious. It’s kind of an extended cameo; the part’s beautifully written and Holiday’s fantastic. The other thing about The Apartment is how little Wilder and Diamond try in the final section. They employ these particular, different, precise narrative devices–always beautifully executed–and then they give up on trying for new ones in the finale.

Edie Adams is good as MacMurray’s secretary. She too goes from background to… well, not support, but also not background. The way the script makes room for bigger parts for the characters is another phenomenal quality of it. And another one the finale ignores.

The Apartment is rather frustrating. It’s spectacular film. Masterfully, exquisitely produced. But still disappointing. It pulls off this great transition from comedy to drama and then shrugs at the transition back. It never runs out of enthusiasm just ambition.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Billy Wilder; written by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond; director of photography, Joseph LaShelle; edited by Daniel Mandell; music by Adolph Deutsch; released by United Artists.

Starring Jack Lemmon (C.C. Baxter), Shirley MacLaine (Fran Kubelik), Fred MacMurray (Jeff D. Sheldrake), Jack Kruschen (Dr. Dreyfuss), Edie Adams (Miss Olsen), Naomi Stevens (Mrs. Mildred Dreyfuss), Ray Walston (Joe Dobisch), David Lewis (Al Kirkeby), Johnny Seven (Karl Matuschka), and Hope Holiday (Mrs. Margie MacDougall).


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