The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984, Frank Oz)

There’s something–well, actually a lot–missing from The Muppets Take Manhattan, but when I started the sentence, I was going to write “good songs.” None of the songs are terrible, but when the best song in the movie is the one to advertise the then upcoming “Muppet Babies” series… okay, I’m being a little mean… the “Somebody’s Getting Married” song sequence is really nice. But the rest of the songs are just there. Well, maybe not… I am remembering another good sequence, but the problem is the film is better remembered, than actually engaged, because the story’s so slight, it brings the movie down. But the rest of the songs–those aren’t very good, with the two exceptions and then the “Muppet Babies,” which is cuter than it is good.

Like the other movies, Manhattan uses celebrities in cameos, occasionally to good effect (Dabney Coleman and Gregory Hines), but the cameos are usually throwaways–bits to give the opportunity for Elliott Gould, for example, to show up–instead of actual story content. There isn’t really any story content in Manhattan, because it takes forever to decide what the movie’s crisis is going to be… until the last half hour even. Before that point, it’s all build-up–through possible crises (the Muppets breaking up, Miss Piggy getting jealous)–and the build-up is really boring. The mid-section makes the interesting choice of getting rid of the all the Muppets except Kermit, Piggy in a reduced role, and Rizzo the Rat. I’m not sure if they were grooming Rizzo or something… it sure seems like it, but I think it’s instead just another indicator of The Muppets Take Manhattan’s damning problem–Frank Oz.

As a director, Oz does a mediocre job. He creates a handful of charming scenes, but none of them are particularly special. As a screenwriter, along with a couple other jokers, he breaks the Muppets up and only uses, for the majority of the film, them in vignettes. These vignettes are the best part of the movie, because it’s the Muppets doing what the Muppets do… which should be, I don’t know, the movie… right?

The movie relies a lot on the human cast, particularly Juliana Donald as the object of Miss Piggy’s jealousy–while Donald is fine, she treats the role like a guest spot on the show rather than a person interacting. The other supporting cast are fine too, but their roles are even less import.

The New York locations and setting provides for a lot fewer good scenes than it should; besides a large, amusing Central Park sequence, most of the film takes place indoors. The opening titles suggest a big city adventure–as well as the Muppets, not a reduced cast of Muppets, having that adventure–and Oz delivers a movie centered around a coffee shop.

There’s no grandeur to the movie, nothing exciting overall, and it’s a pleasant disappointment.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Frank Oz; screenplay by Oz, Tom Patchett and Jay Tarses, from a story by Patchett and Tarses; director of photography, Robert Paynter; edited by Evan A. Lottman; music by Ralph Burns; produced by David Lazar; released by Tri-Star Pictures

Starring Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Dave Goelz, Steve Whitmire, Richard Hunt and Jerry Nelson as the Muppets.

Starring Juliana Donald (Jenny), Lonny Price (Ronnie), Louis Zorich (Pete), Art Carney (Bernard Crawford), Dabney Coleman (Martin Price), Gregory Hines (Roller skater), Linda Lavin (Kermit’s doctor), Joan Rivers (Perfume saleswoman), Elliott Gould (Cop in Pete’s), Frances Bergen (Winesop’s receptionist), John Landis (Winesop) and Edward I. Koch (The Honorable Edward I. Koch).


Tristana (1970, Luis Buñuel)

Deliberate, somehow endless–it clocks in at ninety-five–Tristana is something of an anti-Buñuel or, at least, I was expecting something a little more uncanny. Tristana is so normal, it’s something of a surprise (the film occasionally seems ready to leap into the surreal, but it remains grounded throughout). But it’s very boring, in that good way films can be boring. I can’t tell if Buñuel was doing something fantastic with the sound design or if the DVD was just a poor transfer. I think he was doing something with it though, just because some of the metallic echoes didn’t seem right for a bad transfer.

Tristana is the story of a young woman, Deneuve, whose mother dies and she ends up as the ward of Fernando Rey… and, as it turns out, Rey is a dirty old man. He doesn’t quite force himself on her and he doesn’t quite seduce her, something in between, and that development (after he endears himself to the viewer by not being a dirty old man toward her) sets the film’s present “action” (quotation marks for absurdity’s sake) in motion. Buñuel skips through time a few times in the film, so it’s hard to know how much time passes before the end, but less than ten years seems reasonable (it’s from a novel, so I suppose I could check but I don’t really want to know).

It’s rare–and I suppose it’s appropriate Buñuel does it one of the handful of times I’ve seen it done–a film can cover so much time, so much change to a character (I never really understood Deneuve’s reputation as an actress, but she’s astounding in Tristana), with so little deliberate action and be so affecting in the end. Tristana works because of its end… but it wouldn’t make any sense without what came before. Even though, for the first bit and sometimes again throughout the film, Rey is the central character, it’s all about Deneuve and seeing what terrible effect Rey has on her. It’s a tragedy, but one so quite and common seeming… especially when one is waiting for a sword fight for most of the first half.

The setting of a small Spanish town and the sound design–along with the maid (Rey’s, also Deneuve’s only friend for most of the film) having a deaf son–create an odd atmosphere for the film… if it weren’t for the setting, I’d say it were practically Gothic, feminist revisionist, if such a genre exists. Buñuel has an interesting way of shooting the empty streets too–he has ornate camera setups he never allows to complete, big crane shots only get a few feet off the ground before he cuts away, creating a sense of incompleteness. The whole film–no spoilers, though one could just go to IMDb–but the whole film is about incompleteness and the terrible, selfish things people do to each other.

The only real indicator of the uncanny–besides being suspicious of Buñuel–is a dream sequence, which lays the groundwork, early on, to be suspicious of everything. But it could be me.

Deneuve’s character’s arc in this film is one of those singular filmic tragedies. Buñuel’s handling of it makes it all the more effective, but her performance makes everything possible. It’s an odd thing–a choice role, one anyone could succeed in, filled with a performance proving no one else could succeed in it.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Luis Buñuel; screenplay by Buñuel and Julio Alejandro, based on the novel by Benito Pérez Galdós; director of photography, José F. Aguayo; edited by Pedro del Rey; produced by Buñuel and Robert Dorfmann; released by Maron Films.

Starring Catherine Deneuve (Tristana), Fernando Rey (Don Lope), Franco Nero (Horacio), Lola Gaos (Saturna), Jesús Fernández (Saturno) and Antonio Casas (Don Cosme).


An American Dream (1966, Robert Gist)

I can’t believe I’ve never heard of Stuart Whitman before–I just went through his filmography and nothing jumped out (except Interrupted Melody and it’s a bit part, but going to be amusing in a moment)–anyway, I can’t believe I’ve never heard of him because he’s kind of like a Glenn Ford who can’t act. An American Dream is no winner–after a wonderful opening, one suggesting director Robert Gist was going to do something interesting in terms of filmmaking–but Whitman is real awful. Janet Leigh’s terrible too, but her bad performance is clearly the script. Whitman’s bad performance is all his own.

Eleanor Parker is in it for a bit (she plays Whitman’s wife who he murders) and she’s got some amusing scenes, making the melodramatic trashiness of the film entertaining, but once she goes it becomes intolerable. The nice Johnny Mandel score also changes around that point too, becoming annoying and predictable instead of understated and thoughtful.

Gist turns out to be a sixties director in the worst sense, the kind who can’t–in traditional TV scene situation–think of setups besides the ones on television. Gist directed mostly TV, so there’s a reason for it, but that opening certainly suggested otherwise. For the first five minutes, I thought everything I’d heard about the film was wrong….

But it isn’t.

There are so many heinous performances in the film I can’t list them all, but Joe De Santis is extraordinary. Only Murray Hamilton and Parker–in many ways, more so Hamilton–emerge unscathed.

It’s truly something awful, though, I suppose, an interesting example of a bad period of American filmmaking. Like now, when music videos have come to define cinematic style in bad movies, except it was television defining artless style….

Amazing opening though.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Gist; screenplay by Mann Rubin, based on the novel by Norman Mailer; director of photography, Sam Leavitt; edited by George R. Rohrs; music by Johnny Mandel; produced by William Conrad; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Stuart Whitman (Stephen Richard Rojack), Janet Leigh (Cherry McMahon), Eleanor Parker (Deborah Rojack), Barry Sullivan (Lieutenant Roberts), Lloyd Nolan (Barney Kelly), Murray Hamilton (Arthur Kabot), Joe De Santis (Eddie Ganucci), J.D. Cannon (Police Sergeant Walt Leznicki), Susan Denberg (Ruta), Les Crane (Nicky) and Warren Stevens (Johnny Dell).


Our Man in Havana (1959, Carol Reed)

As Our Man in Havana opened, I couldn’t help thinking of Touch of Evil. Reed uses a cock-eyed angle a few times throughout the film and it looks like Evil. The music doesn’t hurt either. Except, I hadn’t realized it was Reed–the opening titles start a few minutes in to the film–and then all I could think about was The Third Man for the opening titles. The film picks up immediately following, so the preoccupation didn’t last.

Our Man in Havana is a quiet film. A quiet film with a loud music, but a quiet film. It’s hard to explain, or maybe not so much–it’s quiet in the scenes where Maureen O’Hara and Alec Guinness communicate silently and it’s quiet in the scenes where Guinness has to do things and can’t tell anyone, including the audience. It gets even quieter than those two examples, but I don’t really want to spoil anything.

The film is an odd mix of comedy and suspense. Reed handles the mood perfectly, even treating some of Guinness scenes–the early ones–like old Ealing comedies. It all changes when O’Hara arrives, then the film becomes strangely Hollywood–before, with just Burl Ives and Ernie Kovacs, Havana seems small and peculiar, but when O’Hara shows up (in one of those quiet scenes) she signals a change–not just to film’s atmosphere or to the second act accelerating, but to Guinness’s character as well. The small British comedy–albeit in Cinemascope–has all of a sudden gotten out of his hands.

There’s not a false step in the film, from the first few moments with Noel Coward’s small role as Guinness’s recruiter. It’s an Ealing comedy about British people abroad, mixed with a spy thriller, but the result is … obviously, quiet. It’s a quiet film about expatriates and the friendship among them. For some of it. Towards the end, it shaves off even the expatriates part and just becomes about friendship. (Quietly, of course).

Guinness is perfect and Ives and O’Hara are both great–their scenes together, Guinness and Ives and Guinness and O’Hara, are wonderful–but the most surprising performance is Kovacs. He brings this humanity and a sadness to his performance, in a role those traits would seem to be incompatible and creates a lot of beautiful moments in the third act.

Our Man in Havana is shamefully unavailable in region one (it’s out in the UK). It’s certainly a reason for one to investigate as a region-free DVD player.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Carol Reed; screenplay by Graham Greene, based on his novel; director of photography, Oswald Morris; edited by Bert Bates; music by Frank Deniz and Laurence Deniz; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Alec Guinness (Jim Wormold), Burl Ives (Dr. Hasselbacher), Maureen O’Hara (Beatrice Severn), Ernie Kovacs (Capt. Segura), Noel Coward (Hawthorne), Ralph Richardson (‘C’), Jo Morrow (Milly Wormold), Grégoire Aslan (Cifuentes) and Paul Rogers (Hubert Carter).


Nadine (1987, Robert Benton)

There’s got to be some kind of story behind Nadine, one explaining why it makes no sense in its plotting, why the ending makes no sense and why it only runs seventy-eight minutes. Unfortunately, I can’t find any reference online to those issues, so I guess they’ll remain a mystery.

As it stands, Nadine is a couple great characters in search of a story. Well, not even a story–the characters have a story. They’re separated and they get back together. It’s everything around that story. Benton’s script moves real fast–without a lot of bridging scenes; it’s frequently confusing–and he spends some real nice time on the couple, ably aided by Howard Shore’s score.

But the rest of the film–involving a land deal, Rip Torn as a lame villain (he’s Rip Torn, no other explanation for villainy needed apparently), Jeff Bridges’s dumb bar and Kim Basinger hating the dumb bar–is a mess. The bar in question barely appears in the film, but everyone’s always talking about it or mentioning it–at least as much as something can be talked about in seventy-eight minutes.

Bridges and Basinger are both fantastic, whether together or apart, but together’s a lot more fun. But I really don’t know what Benton thought he was doing with the film. There’s a visible lack of content, even if there were bridging scenes in place, because–well, it appears he’s trying to tell the romantic comedy equivalent of Chinatown, which isn’t even necessarily a bad idea (I guess), but there’s no setting beyond the cars and the title announcing the time and place.

There’s three action set-pieces too. There’s a car chase, which isn’t bad and is somewhat amusing, but it’s not a movie with car chases… then there’s a suspense sequence, then there’s a gunfight.

Oh, no, I think Benton was trying to do a non-traditional traditional Hollywood comedy here… argh.

If a movie could float on Jeff Bridges’s considerable charm, Nadine would certainly be a candidate. Except, it’s disqualified, because Basinger’s really appealing and the two of them are wonderful together.

Glenne Headly has a bit part and is great, big shock, as is Jay Patterson. Jerry Stiller is in it for a minute and a half, but it seems like keeping him around would have been a better idea.

I just wish I knew the “making of” of Nadine.

1/4

CREDITS

Written and directed by Robert Benton; director of photography, Nestor Almendros; film editor, Sam O’Steen; music by Howard Shore; production designer, Paul Sylbert; produced by Arlene Donovan; released by Tri-Star Pictures.

Starring Jeff Bridges (Vernon Hightower), Kim Basinger (Nadine Hightower), Rip Torn (Buford Pope), Gwen Verdon (Vera), Glenne Headly (Renee), Jerry Stiller (Raymond Escobar), Jay Patterson (Dwight Estes), William Youmans (Boyd), Gary Grubbs (Cecil) and Mickey Jones (Floyd).


The Saint Takes Over (1940, Jack Hively)

Speedily paced. The Saint Takes Over is somehow fast, running sixty-nine minutes, but quite full of content. It’s so full of content, in the first act, I was convinced George Sanders was somehow going to remain non-central to the picture, since so much time was being spent establishing the ground situation he finds himself in. And there’s no mystery either… the murder, if not the motive, is revealed rather early on. But it all still works–and this Saint is my first (besides the tragically unappreciated Val Kilmer one); I waited until after it was over to check IMDb and now I understand I would have known what was going on were I familiar with the series.

The story is engaging because, instead of revealing clues, the characters are continually wrapped tighter and tighter in an impossible situation. Eventually, it’s all up to Sanders to get them out of it, which of course he will, but he does so in a–while not unpredictable–always entertaining way. It’s a solid amusement.

The whole thing, in terms of being entertaining, rests on Sanders’s shoulders. I wanted to see one of his Saint films because it’s Sanders and he’s usually enough… except, I had no idea how amazing his performance was going to be. The film starts on a cruise ship and Sanders intrudes into an existing situation, establishing himself very quickly. It’s a series and establishing the main character in a series is always difficult. What if someone hasn’t seen the previous film or what if the character were played by a different actor… whatever. But Sanders sort of–well, oozes sounds bad–he’s funny, charming, and sophisticated. He’s just amazing. His comic delivery, his sarcastic comments, all perfect. But there’s also another element to the film, the one pushing it beyond the b-programmer. It’s sensitive. The Saint is sensitive and so is the film. The director has some really nice moves for showing the emotional effect of these fantastic, b-movie situations on the characters.

Besides Sanders’s unspeakably great performance, there are a handful of other good ones. Most are mediocre, especially Wendy Barrie, who’s too much the mystery woman, but she does have a couple good scenes. Paul Guilfoyle and Jonathan Hale are both good and after that lengthy establishing period is over, it’s really all about the three (Sanders, Guilfoyle, and Hale) hanging out and being really funny together. It’s a pleasure to watch them, though Hale’s the only one who wouldn’t have anything to do if it weren’t for the others’ great comic performances.

The film is rather simple, but it’s not condescending and it is centered around its characters, even if it sets itself up as being centered around its setpieces. It’s got some depth to it, making it funny, engaging, and deep, which a lot of a-list movies are not. And they don’t have Sanders as the lead… and Sanders makes a great leading man. He’s an acting leading man–that uncommon variety, though there are always the rather obvious exceptions–but he’s actually able to shrink (and Sanders is a big guy) when the Saint needs to shrink. He’s just great.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Jack Hively; screenplay by Lynn Root and Frank Fenton, based on the character created by Leslie Charteris; director of photography, Frank Redman; edited by Desmond Marquette; produced by Howard Benedict; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring George Sanders (Simon Templar), Wendy Barrie (Ruth Summers), Jonathan Hale (Inspector Henry Fernack), Paul Guilfoyle (‘Pearly’ Gates), Morgan Conway (Sam Reese), Robert Emmett Keane (Leo Sloan) and Cy Kendall (Max Bremer).


Malice (1993, Harold Becker)

Malice starts relatively okay, but it’s got a terribly flawed first half. Until the point Bill Pullman takes over as lead character, especially as Alec Baldwin and Nicole Kidman are spiraling through their lawsuit, it seems like Malice is going to be a well-produced disaster. It’s well-made, reasonably well-directed–Becker does a good job for the most part, but he has some really poor setups–and well-written. As it started, I wondered who was going to have written it… Aaron Sorkin and Scott Frank (which is probably why I queued it). It’s got a good Jerry Goldsmith score, lovely cinematography… Pullman’s good, Bebe Neuwirth is good, Alec Baldwin has some good scenes. Why would it, had the story not focused on Pullman, have been such an unmitigated disaster?

Nicole Kidman gives one of the singularly worst performances of the 1990s, though probably not the worst of her career. Hearing her speak lovely Sorkin dialogue makes the ears bleed. After a while, someone caught on, because they were using her hair to express emotion. It’s astounding and proof the Hollywood star machine has never gone away (because there’s no reason Kidman should have gotten as far as Malice in her career without a critic calling her laugh-out-loud funny).

But once it switches gears and follows Pullman–the scenes with Pullman and Neuwirth really help and, along with the production value, make the movie–it turns into a revisionist Hitchcock. It’s like a modern Suspicion with Bill Pullman as Joan Fontaine. And Nicole Kidman is one of the tires on the car at the end of Suspicion.

Anyway.

The film has an unnecessary thriller element added to the first half (because it’s not really a thriller) and it’s an afterthought, even when watching. When the mystery gets near being resolved–after giving Gwyneth Paltrow a well-acted cameo–I’d forgotten it was a subplot. Thrillers tend to be geared towards first viewings. Repeat viewings either reveal one is just an immersive story without anything going for it besides the final resolution or if it’s one with some more content to it. Malice, very surprisingly, turns out to be one with some more content.

Anne Bancroft’s small role alone probably justifies a second viewing, but Baldwin’s character is actually rather complicated and there are some very interesting scenes near the beginning, considering the ending, which carry some weight. There’s also that Pullman and Neuwirth chemistry.

Malice would be a lot better if Pullman and Neuwirth’s names came first. It’d also benefit from a longer running time and a female actor in Kidman’s role who could believably sit in a cafe in the background of an action movie during a chase scene, remaining onscreen for a quarter of a second.

But, I suppose, Kidman’s atrocious performance is a testament to Malice’s qualities.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Harold Becker; screenplay by Aaron Sorkin and Scott Frank, from a story by Sorkin and Jonas McCord; director of photography, Gordon Willis; edited by David Bretherton; music by Jerry Goldsmith; production designed by Philip Harrison; produced by Rachel Pfeffer, Charles Mulvehill and Becker; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Bill Pullman (Andy Safian), Nicole Kidman (Tracy Kennsinger), Alec Baldwin (Dr. Jed Hill), Bebe Neuwirth (Det. Dana Harris), George C. Scott (Dr. Martin Kessler), Anne Bancroft (Mrs. Kennsinger), Peter Gallagher (Atty. Dennis Riley), Josef Sommer (Atty. Lester Adams), Tobin Bell (Earl Leemus), William Duff-Griffin (Dr. George Sullivan), Debrah Farentino (Nurse Tanya), Gwyneth Paltrow (Paula Bell), David Bowe (Dr. Matthew Robertson) and Diana Bellamy (Ms. Worthington).


The Hill (1965, Sidney Lumet)

The Hill is quite a few things–Sidney Lumet doing another stage adaptation, almost in real time, a la Twelve Angry Men, a prison drama, a race drama, a military drama, and an example of a decent Sean Connery performance (not a particularly good one, but a decent one). It’s incredibly contrived–desert British prison camp in World War II, new prison officer comes along the same day Connery arrives along with four other men, who aren’t split up. The guards heckle Ossie Davis for being black, get in to with Connery because he struck a superior officer, and tease the soldier who wants to go home to his wife. The other two new prisoners are just there to hang around. Over the present action of the film, a day and a half, one prisoner dies and the entire power structure gets threatened by all these elements brought conveniently together for a hundred and twenty minutes.

A good deal of the film is deceptively good, until it becomes clear the present action is going to take place in that practical real time. Lumet’s direction is fantastic as well. Starting the film, I thought how it’d be funny if it were Connery cast against leading man-type… unfortunately, it is and the film quickly descends into a common (relatively) innocent prisoner against sadistic prison guard, without doing anything more interesting than setting it in the British army.

All of the performances are quite good (except Michael Redgrave, who spends his screen-time looking confused)–Harry Andrews in particular–but when the film goes off track, fitting so many consequential events into such a short period, it’s impossible for it to recover. The screenwriter (who adapted his own play) doesn’t just have a dumb plot, he has incredibly careless dialogue–one of the men says goodbye to Connery and says something about suggesting they’d known each other for a long time… instead of thirty-eight hours or so.

Ossie Davis is the best in the film; he gets the most interesting action after a while–once the script turns Andrews into a caricature, after almost promising he was going to remain a character throughout–and many of Davis’s scenes are a joy to watch. Because Connery is visibly against type, intentionally against type, he doesn’t really have a character to work with. He needs to remain mysterious, to draw attention to himself for not being a leading man. The result is his performance not being as good as it could have been. He has some real potential in a few scenes, but again, the script’s more concerned with being a momentous condemnation of the British military mindset.

By the end, almost everything interesting has been drained from The Hill. Characters are presented, at the beginning, as being this sort of person or that and then later flipped around to get the film to the necessary conclusion. They don’t change, they aren’t revealed to have been deceiving everyone. They just flip. It’s the filmmakers are deceiving the audience, packaging their film as a social message as opposed to a narrative.

I do appreciate the film is without any musical score, but it’s not a surprise (I noticed at one point there should be one and there wasn’t), as Lumet doesn’t do anything wrong the entire time. Except, of course, not getting a decent rewrite on the script.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Sidney Lumet; screenplay by Ray Rigby, based on a play by Rigby and R.S. Allen; director of photography, Oswald Morris; edited by Thelma Connell; produced by Kenneth Hyman; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Sean Connery (Joe Roberts), Harry Andrews (R.S.M. Bert Wilson), Ian Bannen (Harris), Alfred Lynch (George Stevens), Ossie Davis (Jacko King), Roy Kinnear (Monty Bartlett), Jack Watson (Jock McGrath), Ian Hendry (Williams) and Michael Redgrave (M.O.).


Twelve Monkeys (1995, Terry Gilliam)

Twelve Monkeys is one of the more unhappy films. Unhappy films are difficult to pull off–The Godfather Part II is the finest example–but Monkeys does it. When I say unhappy, I don’t mean a sad ending or an unpleasing one or an unrewarding one. Not even a cynical or downbeat one. An unhappy film, if it does its job, sucks the empathy from the viewer and chucks it in an incinerator. The unhappy film leaves the viewer spent and unwilling to try again. They’re tragedies in the truest form and films, being the most commercial form of fiction–in a reasonable sense, I’m not counting television (with some notable exceptions, of course)–tend not to go too far in to real tragedy. A person wouldn’t want to see it again or, more modernly, double-dip on the DVD releases. To do it right is to make an experience worth the draining effect. These films are not infrequent (at least not during the period Monkeys was made), but they are somewhat occasional.

Monkeys has something else to make it a rarity, anyway. It has a script from David Webb Peoples, who hasn’t had a new script produced since Monkeys came out in 1995. While Gilliam might bring the mood of the film, the sets, the warped technology (and, according to IMDb, Willis and Pitt’s excellent performances), the Peoples (and Peoples, written with his wife) script brings the perfect plot structure–including a fantastic, three-act structured forty minute first act–and the romance.

If Gilliam is responsible for getting Willis’s great performance out of him, the Peoples got the stunning work out of Madeleine Stowe. I’m a big Stowe fan, lamenting her absence from cinema on a weekly basis, but I’d forgotten her performance in this film. It’s easily one of the finest performances in the 1990s, but probably since then too. Stowe’s function in the film is to convince the audience and she takes it to a level beyond, the one where it’s possible for Twelve Monkeys to be so depressing, but also so rewarding.

The film moves through time and frequent settings–whether the future or mental hospitals–the first act definitely establishes some common grounds. Then Stowe and Willis go on the road–the only defect has got to be some of the blue-screened driving composites, I was hoping they were some homage to Hitchcock, but I don’t think so–even though the settings still repeat and become the familiar, the terrain the film crosses in to is new. There’s a scene in the woods with Stowe and Willis fighting–she’s kicking him–and I realized I was watching a wholly unique moment of cinema. The best moment in the film, direction-wise, is that scene in the woods (as well as the scene returning to the woods). Gilliam is showing the viewer something he or she cannot see anywhere else; more, it’s impossible to incapsulate–to get the most from that scene, one has to watch what comes before and what comes after, regardless of how it turns out–which is what makes Twelve Monkeys one of those films. The rewards are in appreciating it.

Sometimes I think I’m remembering wrong and the 1990s wasn’t such a superior decade for filmmaking. Then I watch a film like Twelve Monkeys.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Terry Gilliam; written by David Webb Peoples and Janet Peoples, based on the film La Jetée by Chris Marker; director of photography, Roger Pratt; edited by Mick Audsley; music by Paul Buckmaster; production designer, Jeffrey Beecroft; produced by Charles Roven; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Bruce Willis (James Cole), Madeleine Stowe (Kathryn Railly), Brad Pitt (Jeffrey Goines), Christopher Plummer (Dr. Goines), David Morse (Dr. Peters), Frank Gorshin (Dr. Fletcher), Jon Seda (Jose) and Joseph Melito (Young James).


Manhattan Melodrama (1934, W.S. Van Dyke)

It’s funny how obvious writers’ contributions can be in certain films. For instance, Joseph L. Mankiewicz very likely wrote some of the best scenes in Manhattan Melodrama and Oliver H.P. Garrett wrote some of the worst. The clue is the dialogue. Mankiewicz has distinctive dialogue, even in a film relatively early in his career, and it’s very good dialogue.

Unfortunately, uneven writing isn’t the only problem with Manhattan Melodrama. Running ninety minutes and covering thirty years, it plays like a summary of a longer film. The characters exist only in their scenes, never in between. Myrna Loy’s got a particularly troublesome role in that regard, because her character rarely makes sense for longer than ten minutes at a time. She’s good in some of her scenes and a little lost in the others, the fault clearly resting on the script. Her character is constantly yo-yoing between, she thinks, Clark Gable and William Powell. Except, rather specifically, Gable informs her she is not. But the script keeps it up, because without it and with the rapid pace, there’s not enough… pardon the term… melodrama.

Gable gives a fantastic performance, a great leading man performance. He’s amazing in every scene, bringing both a sense of humor and sadness to the film.

Nat Pendleton and Isabel Jewell help with the humor when Gable’s being sad and their comedic scenes–along with some of the romantic scenes between Powell and Loy–are when Van Dyke’s doing his best work in the film. His worst work is when he’s being melodramatic and, oddly, a little artistic. Way too artistic for him. There’s a clear divide in the film–the good scenes sound like Mankiewicz and have good direction, the bad scenes don’t sound like Mankiewicz and have poor direction. It’s just not Van Dyke’s kind of film–the ninety minutes sounds right and I can even understand some of the lack of coverage (Van Dyke shot notoriously fast)–but Manhattan Melodrama occasionally feels like The Godfather in terms of its potential and it doesn’t (or couldn’t) even acknowledge them.

It’s clearest at the end, when Gable and Powell shake hands, when it’s perfectly honest–even in this film–they need to hug. Well, it was 1934 and they couldn’t hug and that reality is probably what makes Manhattan Melodrama a doomed effort.

The film does feature some of Powell’s best acting. I’m not familiar enough with his work outside the Thin Man series and a handful of other films–all comedies–but he had a very definite ability as a dramatic actor. So, of course, most of his more important scenes are the ones poorly written. Also, the film ends abruptly, resolving itself in the alloted time (with a really, really unfortunate scene).

I’d seen Manhattan Melodrama before and I remember it being a disappointment, but certainly not as disappointing as it turned out this time. However, Gable’s performance (and Powell’s too, but not in the showy, movie star way) is incredible.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by W.S. Van Dyke; screenplay by Oliver H.P. Garrett and Joseph L. Mankiewicz, based on a story by Arthur Caeser; director of photography, James Wong Howe; edited by Ben Lewis; produced by David O. Selznick; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Clark Gable (Blackie), William Powell (Jim), Myrna Loy (Eleanor Packer), Leo Carrillo (Father Joe), Nat Pendleton (Spud), George Sidney (Poppa Rosen), Isabel Jewell (Annabelle), Muriel Evans (Tootsie Malone), Thomas E. Jackson (Snow), Jimmy Butler (Jim as a boy) and Mickey Rooney (Blackie as a boy).


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