Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Creed II (2018, Steven Caple Jr.)

At no point in Creed II does anyone remark on the odds of Michael B. Jordan boxing the son of the man who killed his father. It’s all matter-of-fact. The sportscasters all seem to think it’s perfectly normal Dolph Lundgren spent the thirty-ish years since Rocky IV training his son to someday defeat the son of his adversary in that film. Well, his first adversary. Because Sylvester Stallone is actually the one who beat Lundgren back in Rocky IV, something this film barely acknowledges. Because Creed II isn’t a father and son movie. There’s a nod to it for Lundgren and son Florian Munteanu, which is weird and cheap as Lundgren’s been mentally abusing musclebound giant Munteanu for decades and probably physically as well. But Stallone and Jordan? They don’t have some de facto father and son thing going here. Neither of them are really in it enough.

Of course, they’re in the movie. Lots. Most of the time. The film splits between Lundgren and Munteanu, Jordan, and Stallone. Stallone visits Jordan from time to time and maybe once vice versa, but they’re separate. Except for training montages and the setup to training montages. Juel Taylor and Stallone’s screenplay is absolutely terrified of developing the relationship between Jordan and Stallone here. The script also isn’t big on… well… good character development. Jordan, Stallone, and Lundgren all have character development arcs. Jordan, for example, has to understand why he wants to fight Munteanu. As well as have a baby with probably wife but they seem to have cut the wedding scene, which is weird, Tessa Thompson. At its best, Creed II is about Jordan and Thompson and then everything else, Stallone and Lundgren filling out the background. They’re looming threats.

But Stallone’s arc? It’s hackneyed and rushed. Creed II moves through its two hour and ten minute run time but it skips over everything to stick to its big boxing match finale schedule. No matter how much time gets spent giving Jordan and Thompson their salad days time, it’s still not enough. Thompson’s initial pseudo-character arc fizzles fast. The subsequent hints at more for her are occasionally deft, but really just keep Thompson in a holding pattern until it’s time’s up and it’s fight night. Jordan’s arc is written with an utter lack of depth or ambition. It’s all on Jordan’s charm to get through some of that arc. It’s like he’s hinting at the better performance in cut scenes. Because Creed II feels light. Even if it isn’t actually light, the character development is way too thin. The script’s mercenary in a way the rest of the film is not.

Director Caple takes Creed II serious. He’s able to get away with the scene where Lundgren tries to intimidate Stallone in Stallone’s picturesque little Italian restaurant. And it’s a lot to get away with because the script doesn’t even pretend they can work an arc for Stallone and Lundgren. Creed II also ignores how Lundgren remorselessly killed Jordan’s dad thirty years ago. It acknowledges it, but ignores it. Lundgren tries in an impossible role. It isn’t a significant success, but it’s far from a failure and–like everyone else–Lundgren’s taking it seriously. It helps.

It also hurts because there are all the missed opportunities. If only the script took itself more seriously, there’d be so many possibilities. But Taylor and Stallone don’t have a good enough story to play it straight. Instead Caple and cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau have to make it play. At one point Lundgren and Munteanu wordlessly survey the Philadelphia Museum of Art with their minds set on destroying Jordan. Because it’s a father and son thing against Stallone and Jordan. Only it’s not. Because Taylor and Stallone haven’t got the story for it. It’s kind of depressing.

Well, the more you think about it, the more depressing it gets. Stallone, as a writer, went cheap on the character for Stallone, the actor, to play. Creed II’s got its constraints and Caple gets the film by with them, but doesn’t play off them. It’s not like the film succeeds through ingenuity. It’s just Caple and the cast, the editors–who never make a bad move until the postscripts–composer Ludwig Göransson (basically remixing old Rocky music selections but to strong effect)–they all take it seriously enough and present it straight-faced enough, the film gets away with it.

It’s a not craven sequel, except when it’s got to be craven. Then it’s craven. But it’s passively craven. Creed II, despite narrative contrivances, is never actively craven. It’s a successful approach. The film’s engaging and entertaining throughout. Great star turn from Jordan, great but not enough of a star turn because she’s not in the movie though Thompson, good support from Stallone and Phylicia Rashad. And, of course, Wood Harris. Who gets a thankless part but goes all in. Lundgren and Munteanu are fine.

Shady fight promoter Russell Hornsby feels like a leftover plot thread from a previous draft. Snipping him for more on Thompson or Stallone would’ve only improved things.

There are some surprises along the way and sometimes the actors handle them well. Even if nothing slows the film from getting to the fight night finale. Not even obvious character development possibilities related to the fight night.

Creed II is a strong fine. With the script–and maybe budget–holding back on the film’s obvious, greater possibilities.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Steven Caple Jr.; screenplay by Juel Taylor and Sylvester Stallone, based on a story by Cheo Hodari Coker and Sascha Penn and characters created by Ryan Coogler and Stallone; director of photography, Kramer Morgenthau; edited by Dana E. Glauberman, Saira Haider, and Paul Harb; music by Ludwig Göransson; production designer, Franco-Giacomo Carbone; produced by William Chartoff, David Winkler, Irwin Winkler, Charles Winkler, Kevin King Templeton, and Stallone; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Michael B. Jordan (Adonis Johnson), Tessa Thompson (Bianca), Sylvester Stallone (Rocky Balboa), Phylicia Rashad (Mary Anne Creed), Dolph Lundgren (Ivan Drago), Florian Munteanu (Viktor Drago), Russell Hornsby (Buddy Marcelle), and Wood Harris (Tony ‘Little Duke’ Burton).


Gaslight (1944, George Cukor)

At the end of Gaslight, when all has seemingly been revealed, there’s only one question left. If Scotland Yard inspector Joseph Cotten isn’t an American in London, why doesn’t anyone notice his lack of accent. It’s a wise choice not to give Cotten an accent–presumably he couldn’t do one–but it also means there’s always something a little off about him, which just furthers his likability. And his likability is important, because (intentionally) there’s not much likable in Gaslight.

The film opens in a flashback–teenage girl Ingrid Bergman is being hurried out of London for the continent, presumably something to do with a strangler on the loose (a newspaper headline informs the viewer). Ten years later, she’s training to be an opera singer. Only it’s not going so well and she’d much rather run off with her pianist, Charles Boyer. So she does, meeting a British woman (Dame May Whitty) along the way; turns out Whitty lives just across the street from Bergman’s childhood home, where she fled in the opening scene, following the murder of her aunt.

Bergman’s ready to go back to London, however, so long as Boyer’s with her. He’s always wanted to live in London. How coincidental she just happens to own some property there. Even if she has nightmares about her time in the house.

Until this point–them arriving in London–Boyer’s been the perfect suitor, now husband. But on their initial tour of the house, Bergman comes across a letter from an admirer to her aunt and it drives Boyer into a fit. He snatches it away from her, explaining he’s upset at how upset the house is making her. He’s such a considerate fellow.

The action cuts ahead–using Whitty snooping on her new neighbors, without much success–and it’s a very different household. Boyer’s just hired rude young maid Angela Lansbury, who he sort of flirts with, sort of doesn’t, but definitely implies interest. He’s constantly chastising Bergman for losing things, even though she has no memory of it. Seemingly to prove his point, she loses something that very day, a family heirloom he’s given her.

On one of the few occasions Boyer lets her out of the house, they happen to pass Cotten, who thinks he recognizes Bergman–for her aunt–and begins inquiring into the still unsolved murder. And finds out it was also a robbery; the thief grabbed precious jewels. Boyer and Bergman had just been to visit the crown jewels, where Boyer salivated at the sight of them. Rather suspicious.

For about the next half hour, Boyer is just tormenting Bergman. He’s absurdly cruel and controlling, even though the film doesn’t actually reveal him doing anything criminal. He’s just some guy who married a wealthier woman, took over her property, and treats her like garbage. Nothing too uncommon for 1885 London, though it’s hard to say as he doesn’t let Bergman meet anyone. Especially not Cotten, who’s still trying to figure out what’s going on with the pair.

Then, at about the hour mark (the film runs just under two hours), we finally see Boyer do something rather suspicious and almost obviously devious. The second hour, which has Bergman start further breaking down, Cotten finally figuring out what’s going on, then multiple showdowns, is phenomenal. The first half is setup, the second half is payoff. And Bergman gets some payoff too, which is a welcome change since most of the first hour and some of the second is just watching Boyer mentally abuse her. Boyer’s cruel in his abuse, not charming. Gaslight accounts for Bergman’s isolation as a factor, but has a hard time showing it. If Bergman’s not with someone else or being terrified while alone, she doesn’t have any scenes.

It’s not until she and Cotten get their first scene alone together where there’s just this phenomenal acting and reveal on the character she’s been creating all along. It takes Gaslight a while to get to its payoff, but its worth it right away when it starts.

Gorgeous photography from Joseph Ruttenberg–especially once the walls, proverbially, start closing in on Bergman. That phase of the film is when director Cukor starts getting rather creative as well. There’s not much in the way of visual foreshadowing on Boyer; in fact, Gaslight usually avoids it, not giving him any suspicious behaviors when he’s just gotten down manipulating Bergman. The way it plays him off Lansbury is phenomenal.

Ralph E. Winters’s editing is also crucial. He’s got to keep up the pace, which drags a little first hour, then never slows down for a breath in the second, even during Cotten’s exposition dumps.

The actors are the stars–earnest Cotten, haunted Bergman, quizzical Boyer. There’s obviously some bad going on with Boyer (from his first scene in London), but it’s never clear what. He’s never sympathetic or redeemable, he’s just cruel. Increasingly cruel. In a special way or just in a bad Victorian husband way is the question.

Bergman spends the film pent up. When she finally gets loose–starting with a wordless exclamation–there’s no stopping her.

Cotten gets to be the steady throughout. He’s always cute, always sympathetic. I mean, his first scene has him taking his niece and nephew to a museum, how can he not be likable. Even if he’s got that obvious, inexplicable lack of English accent.

The supporting cast is all good, especially Lansbury and Barbara Everest (as the hearing impaired cook who can’t ever confirm Bergman’s audial suspicions). And Whitty’s fun. She’s in it for the punchlines mostly and she gets them.

The production design and set decoration are excellent. And Ruttenberg’s lighting of them. Cukor’s got some fantastic composition in Gaslight too, particularly for how he moves the actors around the frame. The screenplay is quick and nimble, though maybe more for Cotten than anyone else. Boyer’s big suspicious action scenes are always a little too big. It’s not clear enough, at the start, why Bergman wouldn’t be more concerned with his behavior.

Gaslight’s an outstanding thriller. Just too bad Bergman didn’t get more to do in the first hour.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by George Cukor; screenplay by John Van Druten, Walter Reisch, and John L. Balderston, based on a play by Patrick Hamilton; director of photography, Joseph Ruttenberg; edited by Ralph E. Winters; music by Bronislau Kaper; produced by Arthur Hornblow Jr.; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Ingrid Bergman (Paula Alquist), Charles Boyer (Gregory Anton), Joseph Cotten (Brian Cameron), Angela Lansbury (Nancy), Barbara Everest (Elizabeth), and Dame May Whitty (Miss Thwaites).


Murder in the Fleet (1935, Edward Sedgwick)

Murder in the Fleet is a reasonably diverting little B murder mystery; Frank Wead and Joseph Sherman’s script is almost better than the film deserves, given it doesn’t even run seventy minutes and doesn’t even bother pretending it’s got subplots. Well, outside top-billed and sort of lead Robert Taylor’s romantic troubles with blue blood Jean Parker. And then the slapstick rivalry between Nat Pendleton and Ted Healy, mostly over Una Merkel.

It’s visitor day on a Navy cruiser–the film obviously shot on one, sometimes to better effect than other times (the constant projection shots for the exterior deck scenes are flat)–but it’s also the day a new firing system needs to get installed. A top secret firing system. Taylor’s in charge of that installation, Pendleton’s on his crew. Only both men want to see their respective gals, Parker and Merkel. Thanks to the contrived presence of civilian mechanical something or other Healy (who’s had a rivalry with Pendleton for some time), Merkel ends up onboard. Parker’s there to try to get Taylor to quit his low-paying Navy job and go work for her dad. Her character’s a hideous human being, something the captain (Arthur Byron) tells her to her face in a lively scene.

There’s also a foreign dignitary visiting–Mischa Auer in semi-yellowface, an uncredited Keye Luke as his secretary–and the film throws some suspicion their way once the murders start taking place.

Donald Cook is in charge of investigating, but he’s a dipshit (and Taylor’s ostensible rival in general), so whenever there’s action to be taken, it’s on Taylor.

It’s a solid cast and the screenwriters give the supporting characters enough personality in their dialogue to make them somewhat sympathetic most of the time. As Fleet goes on, it gets more and more difficult to suspect any of the crew. Even the obvious targets. Cook, for example, would make a lot of sense personality-wise–he’s jealous no one tries to bribe him, just Taylor–but he’s got an onscreen alibi.

Taylor’s a strong lead. Byron’s great as the captain. Pendleton and Healy are fun. Pendleton and Merkel are cute. The whole thing about her throwing over Pendleton for the odious Healy… doesn’t give Merkel much credit. Parker’s successful being a terrible human being? The movie reforms her along the way, won over by the U.S. Navy, which shouldn’t a surprise given the U.S. Navy’s involvement in the making of the film.

Director Sedgwick does all right too. He’ll occasionally have some really interesting shots, then he’ll also have some really boring ones. The interesting ones tend to be in the cruiser interior, where he’s presumably constrained and has to be inventive. On deck, he’s got the same medium two shot over and over again. Or a long two shot. They’re always the same boring profile shots against projection. But when he’s actually got depth of in the shot? Usually decent. Cinematographer Milton R. Krasner does well shooting both the mediocre and the inventive, he’s more than capable.

Murder in the Fleet is never exciting (the murderer reveal is a shrug), but it’s always fine. Except Merkel taking Healy seriously as a suitor, of course. Pendleton might be a bit of a doof, but he’s an adorable doof.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Edward Sedgwick; screenplay by Frank Wead and Joseph Sherman, based on a story by Sedgwick; director of photography, Milton R. Krasner; edited by Conrad A. Nervig; produced by Lucien Hubbard; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Robert Taylor (Lt. Tom Randolph), Arthur Byron (Capt. John Winslow), Nat Pendleton (‘Spud’ Burke), Ted Healy (Mac O’Neill), Jean Parker (Betty Lansing), Una Merkel (‘Toots’ Timmons), Donald Cook (Lt. Cmdr. David Tucker), Raymond Hatton (Al Duval), Jean Hersholt (Victor Hanson), Richard Tucker (Jeffries), Tom Dugan (‘Greasy’), Mischa Auer (Kamchukan Consul).


Petticoat Fever (1936, George Fitzmaurice)

For most of its eighty minute runtime, Petticoat Fever operates entirely on charm and technical competence. The charm of its cast, not the charm of Harold Goodman’s screenplay (from Mark Reed’s play). Robert Montgomery is the sole operator of a wireless station in arctic Canada (save Otto Yamaoka as his Inuit servant; the film’s moderately gross on Yamaoka’s treatment, though that grossness is front-loaded) who unexpectedly has Myrna Loy dropped in his proverbial lap. She’s fiancée to a jackass, adventuring British lord, Reginald Owen, whose plane runs out of fuel near the wireless station. They need to bunk up with Montgomery, who takes one look at Loy and decides his guests can’t leave and that he’s got to seduce Loy.

Of course, Montgomery’s form of seducing is this amiable, infectous goofiness, which Loy can’t help but find endearing. Meanwhile Owen’s oblivious to the depth of Montgomery’s intentions and his determination to see them through; Owen’s also oblivious to Loy’s reception of said intentions, which isn’t a surprise. Owen’s a complete jackass. Though there is a bit of a first act faux pas when Loy, who’s cynical in her reasons for marrying Owen but not hostilely so, initiates some physical affection, which serves to inform the viewer of their relationship status. Despite the script’s mediocrity, it’s one of Goldman’s only actual obvious narrative missteps. It sets Loy’s character development back five or ten minutes; the movie’s eighty, she doesn’t show up until ten plus in; the time can’t be wasted.

Of course, the audience already knows Montgomery also has a fiancée, he just doesn’t know she (Winifred Shotter) still considers him her fiancé. The film opens with Shotter iced in on a ship on her way to finally join Montgomery, two years later than she’d promised him. That opening bookend, which also has this great playing checkers via wireless transition from ship to Montgomery’s station, is Shotter’s only scene until the end of the first hour. She comes back at the worse possible time, when the film’s finally got Montgomery and Loy on the same page and Owen a fantastic foil. All that setup and character positioning gets flushed for Shotter, who’s not worth it. Not in terms of performance (she’s fine, but utterly disposable) or narrative.

Because Petticoat is about its stars’ charm, not the supporting cast. Except Owen. It needs Owen. He’s utterly believable as a titled jackass.

With a handful of excursions outdoors to the frozen, snowy landscape–including a cute polar bear–the film takes place in the station. Mostly in the large, open living room. A couple other locations inside the station get introduced in the last twenty-five minutes and it’s sort of a shock. Director Fitzmaurice isn’t interested in showcasing the sets, interior or exterior (the snowy exteriors–but soundstage–look great, Fitzmaurice just doesn’t care); he’s all about the actors. Not directing their performances or figuring out interesting ways to support them through composition, just shooting them delivering their lines and relying on them to convey all the emotion and subtext the film needs to succeed.

And, of course, Montgomery, Loy, and Owen can do it. It just would’ve been nice if Fitzmaurice cared enough to ask more from them.

Montgomery’s immediately likable; no small feat as his first full scene–which is very long–involves being a dipshit to Yamaoka specifically and about Inuit people in general. Once Owen arrives–who’s immediately an amusing jackass–Goldman no longer has to leverage entirely on racist jokes to fill minutes. There are still a few, but nothing like that opening scene. Not even when the two girls Yamaoka affably kidnaps–Bo Ching and Iris Yamaoka (Otto’s sister and, no one caught it apparently, love interest)–show up.

And Loy’s Loy. She’s charming, graceful, and affable. The script gives her almost nothing to do for the first fifty minutes of the film; once it does, Loy handles it beautifully. Then it seems like the movie’s going one way and it’ll give her something to do. Then it doesn’t–the aforementioned failed plot foil–but sort of promises to give Loy an even better thing to do. Then it doesn’t. Despite her being essential to the film’s success, Petticoat Fever dreadfully underutilizes Loy. It’s like it knows Montgomery can carry it, so it doesn’t even try sharing that responsibility.

Basically, the film’s charm sustains it until things start getting better, when that elevation suddenly drops, the charm’s still there for Fever to fall back on. In the last half hour, the film all of a sudden gets potentially better only to end up disappointing, which didn’t seem possible for the first fifty minutes. Fever pretends it’s going to get (very measuredly) ambitious, then doesn’t.

It’d help a lot if Shotter were better. Between Fitzmaurice’s flat direction and Goldman’s flatter script, just being fine isn’t good enough given how important Shotter is to the third act.

Rather nice photography from Ernest Haller. Fredrick Y. Smith’s editing could be a lot better; he doesn’t seem to know how to cut for the comedy. Maybe he was having trouble finding it too. Fitzmaurice tends to mute it.

Petticoat Fever is an entirely affable, entertaining, competently executed comedy. It could’ve been more. And should’ve been, given the principal cast.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by George Fitzmaurice; screenplay by Harold Goldman, based on the play by Mark Reed; director of photography, Ernest Haller; edited by Fredrick Y. Smith; music by William Axt; produced by Frank Davis; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Robert Montgomery (Dascom Dinsmore), Myrna Loy (Irene Campton), Reginald Owen (Sir James Felton), Otto Yamaoka (Kimo), Winifred Shotter (Clara Wilson), Bo Ching (Big Seal), Iris Yamaoka (Little Seal), and George Hassell (Captain Landry).


Coffins on Wheels (1941, Joseph M. Newman)

Coffins on Wheels opens with Roy Gordon directly addressing the camera, explaining used car salesman–despite most being all right (check your Better Business Bureau)–can be dangerous. There’s a scrupleless “lunatic fringe.”

Then the narrative starts with trusting Walter Baldwin buying a used car from a genial salesman, John Gallaudet. Once Baldwin’s left the lot, however, Gallaudet goes in to tell boss Cy Kendall about the sale… and it’s clear they’re scumbags.

Coffins runs seventeen minutes, which lets it get away without a lot of depth to the characters. Kendall’s got more than enough time to come across pure evil though. He’s crazy effective.

Baldwin’s bum used car isn’t the focus. Instead, it’s teenager Tommy Baker’s car. He begs his dad to get it–with younger brother Darryl Hickman pleading as well–and the father relents. Allan Lane’s the police detective who gets involved, mostly with Baldwin and then in the extremely manipulative finale.

Decent acting from Lane, kind of grating acting from Hickman and Baker–fellow teen Larry Nunn’s much better.

Newman’s direction is solid. There’s an investigation of the bum cars in the police garage, showing off their defects, which Newman and editor Adrienne Fazan handle quite well. The short does better with the minutuae than the drama.

Coffin on Wheels is effective. It’s manipulative and kind of craven, but it’s definitely effective. Lane being able to sell the concerned copper is essential.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Joseph M. Newman; written by Howard Dimsdale; director of photography, Jackson Rose; edited by Adrienne Fazan; produced by Jack Chertok; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Tommy Baker (Tommy Phillips), Darryl Hickman (Billy Phillips), Allan Lane (Police Lieutenant), Cy Kendall (Nick the Used Car Dealer), John Gallaudet (Williams the Salesman), Walter Baldwin (Mr. Martin), Larry Nunn (Bob), Wade Boteler (Mr. Phillips), Helen Brown (Mrs. Phillips), and Roy Gordon (Commissioner Blake).


Soylent Green (1973, Richard Fleischer)

If you leave the twist–which isn’t even a twist, just a justification for conspiracy–ending off Soylent Green, it’s a detective story. The case–the murder of a wealthy businessman–isn’t as important as how that case affects lead Charlton Heston. He starts carrying on with the victim’s “widow,” Leigh Taylor-Young. The case also has some unexpected consequences for Heston’s friendship and work relationship with partner Edward G. Robinson.

Robinson is the best thing in Soylent Green, both in terms of performance and narrative impact. Heston doesn’t have the most affect, even when he’s trying to have affect, but Robinson humanizes him. And that lack of affect, which in turn helps with the Taylor-Young subplot.

It also helps Chuck Connors–as the victim’s suspicious bodyguard–is terrible. He gives the kind of bad Charlton Heston performance Heston is now obviously not giving. The more the film gives Taylor-Young to do, the better her performance. The more it gives Connors, the worse. Luckily, Connors isn’t around a lot.

It’s also a future dystopia movie–sorry, I meant to mention that part earlier. Heston’s a cop, Robinson is his assistant (a “book” who does research, which shouldn’t matter for police investigations but whatever), Taylor-Young is “furniture” (a live-in combination maid and sex slave for rich men–there are no rich women). Heston’s boss is Brock Peters. Heston and Peters are great together. The murder involves the a friend of the governor (an occasionally appearing Whit Bissell–he’s in lots of posters, but rarely in scene).

The Earth is dying due to greenhouse effect; high temperatures, no food. Unemployment is at fifty-percent. Manhattan has 40,000,000 residents. Everything outside during the day looks a grimy green thanks to a filter. Everything at night looks like it was shot on an empty backlot (there’s a curfew to explain the lack of extras).

More than anything else, the limited budget is Soylent Green’s greatest problem. The film does all right showing the misery of future living through Heston and Robinson (they live together and are adorable, curmudgeon roommates) and their daily life. You ride the bike for electricity, you have limited water (not much showering, the future must smell something awful), you get food rations.

The things they do to survive weighs on them. There’s only so much anyone can take (i.e. Robinson’s fits of guilt when Heston, as a standard–if off the books–police procedure, robs the victim of soap and groceries). It turns out to be one of the themes of the film, the despondence of living in the future.

Almost all of the film is interiors. The crappy apartment for Heston and Robinson, the great one for Taylor-Young and her “boss,” Lincoln Kilpatrick’s church, the police station. The film’s great about packing people into the interiors. The exteriors not so much. There are a couple set pieces where the crowds are big enough. Director Fleischer doesn’t do much with them, of course, because the budget is still limited. During a riot scene, there’s some great editing from Samuel E. Beetley; it almost makes up for Fleischer’s too-tight composition.

The end falls apart a little. It’s got a rushed finish, where the film hangs it all on the “twist” revelation instead of the characters. Maybe if the film had emphasized the investigation a little more, but it didn’t. It emphasized Taylor-Young and Heston’s canoodling.

But it’s pretty good. There are some great small performances to make the future function. Paula Kelly, Celia Lovsky, Kilpatrick. Not so much Leonard Stone, who gets to be way too much way too fast.

And it’s got Robinson. He’s fantastic. He acts circles around Heston without ever looking like he’s doing it because he’s too concerned in making the scene work for both of them. It’s a patient, giving performance. And Heston steps up. And their relationship is this beautiful thing in Soylent Green. It’s not hopeful, because hopeful isn’t a real thing in Green, but it is beautiful.

Money would’ve made the difference. Slimy green filters don’t a future New York make. So either it needed money or a different directorial approach. Fleischer does a lot of things, none of them badly, none of them well. Fleischer’s direction lacks personality. The film lacks personality.

So thank goodness for Robinson, who exudes enough to cover it until the end.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Richard Fleischer; screenplay by Stanley R. Greenberg, based on a novel by Harry Harrison; director of photography, Edward H. Kline; edited by Samuel E. Beetley; music by Fred Myrow; produced by Walter Seltzer and Russell Thacher; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Charlton Heston (Thorn), Edward G. Robinson (Sol), Leigh Taylor-Young (Shirl), Brock Peters (Hatcher), Chuck Connors (Fielding), Paula Kelly (Martha), Celia Lovsky (Exchange Leader), Whit Bissell (Santini), Leonard Stone (Charles), Lincoln Kilpatrick (Priest), Joseph Cotten (Simonson).


2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, Stanley Kubrick)

2001: A Space Odyssey has five distinct parts–the “Dawn of Man” sequence, then the space station and moon visit, then the main action before the intermission, then the main action after the intermission, then the “Jupiter” sequence. The prehistoric sequence, where an advanced alien device puts the vegetarian, prey-to-carnivores missing links on track to become carnivorous and murderous human beings. Given the setting and characters, it’s no surprise Kubrick changes style a bit when he gets to the future. 2001 starts with a shot of the planets aligning, then goes to the missing links. Kubrick visibly changes the film’s presumable trajectory. The prehistoric stop-off.

That sequence is done in vignettes, the first time editor Ray Lovejoy gets to astound. Kubrick characterizes the apes, but never anthropomorphizes them. The film establishes their regular lives–bickering with boars for plants, bickering with other tribes for water, getting killed off by hungry big cats. Kubrick and Lovejoy hold each shot just long enough. Kubrick establishes mood, then reveals the narrative. But he never gets overenthusiastic for big events; even with 2001’s always magnificent sometimes dramatic choice of music, the visual pacing of the film never changes. The music accompanies, never dictates (which leads to some interesting effects in the second section).

That second section follows scientist, bureaucrat, and questionably dedicated father William Sylvester to the moon. Lots of beautiful filmmaking here, the music against the exquisite, ageless, and all around perfect special effects sequences. Spaceships, space stations, the Earth, the moon. It’s magnificent. It’s also where Kubrick lets himself have a laugh or two. If not a laugh, then at least a smile. Because despite 2001 being a literal travelogue of the future in the Sylvester section, Kubrick’s got no interest in exposition. Except when it develops Sylvester’s character and reveals the strangeness of future folk. But Kubrick is interested in doing the travelogue–so there are lots of things with instructions, lots of placards. Lingering shots, giving the viewer long enough to consider the possibilities. And the ten steps to the zero g toilet.

And through most of the second section, 2001 feels very epical. Sure, the first part of the movie was doing a serious ape-man prologue, but there’s rising action in the second part. There’s mystery. There’s Sylvester maybe forgetting about his daughter’s birthday. There are Russians. There’s bureaucracy. The Sylvester as bureaucrat scenes are so weird, in such a good way. Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke’s script saves the best dialogue for the main action and for someone in particular, but the future decorum in the Sylvester section is peculiar, intriguing, and wonderful.

Shame it doesn’t turn out to be the main plot. When 2001 cuts from ape-men to space men, it does so with a lot of grace. When it cuts from space bureaucrats to space explorers, it’s done so with metal machine music.

Besides having a single setting–the Discovery spaceship–and a set cast (bland leading man types Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood and then the red eyed computer, voiced by Douglas Rain), the third section also has an entirely different feel, visually and aurally. The tone of the music has changed. It’s still lush, but it’s not magnificent. Because space is empty in the third and fourth sections of the film. It’s empty, it’s quiet, and it’s lonely.

Kubrick and Clarke quickly establish the setting and characters, doing so as part of a lengthy summary montage. Kubrick’s expository interest is a little different now. The second section was the commercial for space travel, the third section is the lonely reality for Lockwood and Dullea. It’s also the section where Kubrick shows off the most with the interior special effects. There’s a lot of exterior stuff in the second part, but the third and fourth parts just have the one or two spacecraft. It’s otherwise empty space. So the future gawking is on the interiors, with all sorts of gravity-related design choices. And it’s all just functional. Dullea and Lockwood just getting through another day.

But, really, Kubrick is just setting up the computer to be a full character. That omnipresent red eye. Rain’s soothing, dulcet voice. Kubrick and Lovejoy cut Rain’s scenes–and Dullea and Lockwood’s interactions with him–deliberately, with a lot of time for deliberation, as Dullea and Lockwood (and the cast) wonder what Rain is really thinking. Except it’s just that voice and that red eye.

The fourth section has the same setting, same cast, no music, completely different editing pace. It’s got the action, it’s got the drama; it’s got the Frankenstein. And it’s also got completely different needs of the cast. Well, Dullea and Lockwood anyway. When things go wrong, Kubrick and Clarke don’t offer any expository outbursts. The quiet of the fourth section extends to the characters–they work intensely and silently.

The third and fourth parts have their own epical build too. Yes, the style changes after intermission, but not the narrative drive. Except it turns out Kubrick’s not really interested in that narrative drive. He’s had action in exterior prehistoric, exterior future, and interior future. For part five, most of it, the film is a point-of-view shot as the explorer encounters the unimaginable. Kubrick starts with special effects shots, then moves on to photographic process ones. For ten minutes, the film mesmerizes, free of time, free of plot. But with music again. Music comes back for part five.

Rain’s performance is a startling creation. Rain, Kubrick, Lovejoy, cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth, whoever came up with the red eye. It’s an achievement and probably the film’s finest. Maybe the finest. There are quite a few achievements happening in 2001; big ones, little ones. Technical ones (so many technical ones), narrative ones (many less of these, but significant ones). But Rain and the red eye, it’s where Kubrick excels. Kubrick shows off a lot in 2001, but never with HAL.

Dullea and Lockwood are good. Dullea’s a little better. Sylvester’s good. Lead ape-man Daniel Richter is good. Technically it’s fabulous. Lovejoy’s editing keeps getting better; the fifth section needs a lot of cutting and Lovejoy’s always got the right one. Unsworth’s photography is great. Production design is great. 2001 is a phenomenal film.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Stanley Kubrick; screenplay by Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke, based on a short story by Clarke; director of photography, Geoffrey Unsworth; edited by Ray Lovejoy; production designers, Ernest Archer, Harry Lange, and Anthony Masters; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Keir Dullea (Dr. Dave Bowman), Gary Lockwood (Dr. Frank Poole), William Sylvester (Dr. Haywood R. Floyd), Daniel Richter (Moon-Watcher), Leonard Rossiter (Dr. Andrei Smyslov), Margaret Tyzack (Elena), Robert Beatty (Dr. Ralph Halvorsen), Sean Sullivan (Dr. Bill Michaels), and Douglas Rain (HAL 9000).


This post is part of the Outer Space on Film Blogathon hosted by Debbie of Moon in Gemini.

Westworld (1973, Michael Crichton)

Westworld is a regrettably bad film. It doesn’t start off with a lot of potential. Leads Richard Benjamin and James Brolin are wanting. But then writer-director Crichton starts doing these montages introducing the behind-the-scenes of the park.

Oh. Right. Westworld is about an amusement resort with humanoid robots. Benjamin and Brolin are guests. Benjamin’s not over his divorce, so he’s got to man up. Brolin’s a man of few words, less facial expression, and no mystery. Crichton’s direction of the actors in the first act should’ve been a clue for problems later on.

The behind-the-scenes procedural about the maintenance of the robots has a lot of potential. It eventually fails because the set is so poorly designed and Crichton and his cinematographer, Gene Polito, often shoot through walls. Everything looks like a set. Even when it shouldn’t, because Polito’s photography is so bad. And someone needed to explain head room to Crichton because he really doesn’t understand it.

Alan Oppenheimer plays the park supervisor. He’s okay. Okay is pretty good in Westworld. Benjamin is occasionally likable, but he’s never good. Crichton avoids him too much to ever give him the chance to be good or bad. When there’s the big chase scene–robot gunslinger Yul Brynner is out to kill Benjamin–Crichton sticks with Brynner for the first half. There’s a changeover to Benjamin after an atrociously executed ambush sequence where the footage between Benjamin and Brynner doesn’t match. It’s not just lighted differently, it’s obviously different locations because Polito and Crichton also don’t understand how depth works.

Westworld has a bunch of Western genre standards; Crichton executes them all poorly. And tediously. Every set piece in Westworld gets tedious. Crichton and editor David Bretherton can’t do the “action” sequences. They can almost do the mood sequences, when they’re showing the uncanny behind-the-scenes stuff. Then Fred Karlin’s music takes a turn for the worse and Crichton holds a shot too long and Polito’s lighting mistakes kill the verisimilitude. Westworld is a failing movie about something failing. Crichton has some great ideas. Not just for the story, but for set pieces. He just can’t execute them. He tries though. And it’s painful.

Karlin’s music is terrible. Set against Western tropes, it’s belligerently terrible. Crichton’s direction of the Western tropes is awful. It’s like he’s never seen a Western before. It’s singular, I suppose. It’s a singular way of directing action on an Old West set. It’s terrible too. Singular and terrible.

Around the halfway point, Crichton starts focusing more on Norman Bartold’s story. He doesn’t even get a name. But he’s guest in Medieval World, not Western World (Division Thirteen alert). It’s not like Bartold’s interesting–he’s trying to seduce multiple robot women without success–but Crichton still finds him more interesting than Brolin and Benjamin. And Crichton’s not wrong. They’re tiresome.

There’s a lot of future technology and Crichton does manage to showcase those effects well. He really does. It’s like forty-five good seconds of eighty-five minutes. But some of its dumb. Like when Brynner gets a visual upgrade and can see in super-pixelated vision. He can’t make out detail because the pixels are so big. Crichton does point of view with the computer visual stuff. It too kills the moment.

If there are any moments with Brynner. Crichton’s bad direction becomes clear when Brynner shows up. Along with Polito’s inability to match lighting between shots. But it’s kind of fun to pretend when Brynner’s smiling, it’s because his robot is evil. It doesn’t matter.

Because Westworld, even with killer robots and defenseless guests, has no stakes. Who cares if the guests are danger? Benjamin is divorced and no one cares. Brolin is so thin he doesn’t even have that story. Bartold maybe had an implied wife in the setup in the first act but not once Crichton decides he’s more amusing than Benjamin and Brolin. He doesn’t have a name. Oppenheimer doesn’t have a name. Dick Van Patten’s got a recurring cameo. But no name.

Westworld is like a disaster movie’s set pieces strung together. More should make it better but the film’s so terribly made, more would just be worse.

Worst of all, Westworld gets worse as it goes. It disappoints, continuously. And it’s not the story disappointing, it’s how badly Crichton directs the scenes.

Campy would help Westworld. Not much else would help, given Polito and Crichton’s risible composition choices, but camp might help.

Oh, and Majel Barrett’s good. She’s good. Ninety-nine percent of the rest isn’t.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by Michael Crichton; director of photography, Gene Polito; edited by David Bretherton; music by Fred Karlin; produced by Paul N. Lazarus III; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Richard Benjamin (Peter Martin), James Brolin (John Blane), Norman Bartold (Medieval Knight), Alan Oppenheimer (Chief Supervisor), Dick Van Patten (Banker), Linda Gaye Scott (Arlette), Majel Barrett (Miss Carrie), Anne Randall (Daphne), and Yul Brynner (Gunslinger).


An American in Paris (1951, Vincente Minnelli)

For most of An American in Paris, Gene Kelly’s charm makes up for his lack of acting ability. Even after it turns out the story’s about him stalking Leslie Caron until she agrees to go out with him. It’s okay after that point because she falls immediately in love with Kelly once she does. He makes her laugh.

Funny thing about Caron’s part being so razor thin? She’s the only one with a backstory. She’s the orphan of French Resistance fighter parents. Georges Guétary took care of her. And now she’s legal age and so of course Guétary wants to marry her. So there’s a lot of potential character development.

The script–by Alan Jay Lerner–does none. Caron’s introduction is a series of dancing vignettes, as Guétary describes her. Her personality changes with each. Then later it turns out she doesn’t get a personality at all.

Anyway. Adding to Kelly’s creep factor is how he picks up Caron when he’s out on a date with Nina Foch. She’s a wealthy American who likes Kelly’s paintings and wants to be his patron. Kelly thinks she’s after his bod. But he still harasses Caron on a real date. There’s even a scene where Foch yells at him and Kelly blows her off.

Immediately after it’s forgotten–as in, the script has Foch and Kelly talking about how it’s forgotten; basically Foch is around for American to mock. Not really for comic relief, but in a vaguely mean-spirited way. Because the movie’s not actually about Kelly arriving as a painter.

Oh, right. Kelly’s an ex-G.I. who stayed behind in Paris to become a painter. He lives above a café. His neighbor and pal is Oscar Levant. Levant’s old friends with Guétary, leading not to a love triangle so much as some situation comedy regarding Guétary and Kelly being after the same girl. Both men are old enough to be her father (though in Guétary’s case, only because he’s French).

The film opens with Kelly, Levant, then Guétary narrating an introduction to themselves. The film almost breaks the fourth wall and just has the actors directly address the audience. Given how laggy the device gets–not to mention how the film completely abandons it–a direct address might have worked better.

So while Kelly starves and struggles–before Foch shows up to save him in the second scene–but he’s actually an amazing singer and dancer. Everybody on the block loves it when he and Levant (a concert pianist who’s never had a concert) does a big musical number. The traffic stops. The pedestrians stops. Everyone watches and applauds.

You’d think Kelly would just get a job singing and dancing then.

His numbers are all good. Guétary’s not so much. He only gets one, though he also drags at one of Kelly’s. Sure, he’s French, sure, it’s Paris, but the French-ness overwhelms the musical number value. The accent. It’s distracting. And Paris’s Paris is already a little too fake. It’s beautifully constructed, beautifully lighted (Alfred Gilks’s Technicolor is gorgeous), but there’s barely anyone but Americans around. Foch, Levant (Levant’s gutturally American), an uncredited Noel Neill. Except Guétary getting a number to himself (and a slight subplot) takes up time and An American in Paris is always looking for ways to kill time.

Like Levant’s daydream where he’s playing all the parts in a concert performance. Pianist, audience member, accompanying musician. It’s funny. It’s utterly pointless. But it’s funny. And it’s beautifully executed with the photography effects.

Caron might as well be American. She gets so few lines it barely matters her accent is authentic.

The movie moves along pretty well until the third act, which has a seventeen minute ballet. It’s sort of where Kelly’s heart is broken and he finds himself in the Paris of his paintings but not really because the film never spends enough time on the paintings. Though Kelly can’t make the painting thing work. He dances great. He acts not great.

Spectacular choreography, beautiful sets, great photography, awesome editing from Adrienne Fazan. Okay direction from Minnelli.

American is an expertly executed musical. Shame about the script and acting.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Vincente Minnelli; story and screenplay by Alan Jay Lerner; lyrics by Ira Gershwin; director of photography, Alfred Gilks; edited by Adrienne Fazan; music by George Gershwin; produced by Arthur Freed; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Gene Kelly (Jerry Mulligan), Leslie Caron (Lise Bouvier), Nina Foch (Milo Roberts), Georges Guétary (Henri Baurel), and Oscar Levant (Adam Cook).


Two-Faced Woman (1941, George Cukor)

Two-Faced Woman is the story of a successful New York magazine editor, played by Melvyn Douglas, who marries his ski instructor (Greta Garbo) while on vacation. It’s a whirlwind courtship, with one condition of the marriage (for Garbo) being Douglas is giving up New York. Turns out he’s not and off he goes to New York.

Once in New York, Douglas keeps putting off returning to Garbo. Fed up, Garbo comes to the city and finds Douglas out on the town with mistress Constance Bennett. Garbo just wants to go home, but then she’s about to be discovered and decides instead to pretend to be her own twin sister. Hence the film’s title.

While one Garbo is “proper,” the other is a “vamp.” She goes out with Douglas’s business partner, Roland Young, and attracts Douglas (out on a date with Bennett). Then he finds out she’s really his wife and spends the rest of the movie tormenting her.

There are some Catholic Church-mandated (yes, really) changes to the film, which make Douglas’s arc a lot more manipulative in regards to Garbo, but the film still ignores the Bennett situation. The extant version has Douglas dumping Bennett to prime Garbo for mental abuse. Without the changes, he’s just done catting around with Bennett and ready to cat around with his wife’s twin sister.

Needless to say, S.N. Behrman, Salka Viertel, and George Oppenheimer’s script doesn’t have much going for it. Ruth Gordon–as Douglas’s assistant and Garbo’s confidant–has some great scenes, but it’s more in Gordon’s performance than anything else. It’s the presence of the scenes and Gordon. Gordon and Garbo’s relationship is about the only positive to come out of Two-Faced Woman and it seems entirely accidental.

Cukor’s direction, as far as composition goes, is fine. Joseph Ruttenberg’s photography is solid. The matte paintings of the ski lodge are distractingly weak. Cukor’s direction of actors is similarly fine. He doesn’t do anyone any favors, but he doesn’t hurt anyone too much either.

The performances are generally fine or better. Douglas is not. Even without the mandated revisions, his arc in the script is a mess. He starts the film is a doofus, then gets to romance Garbo. In their first scene together, Douglas can’t stop pawing at her and there’s some energy and brewing of real chemistry. But then it’s back to work and the movie’s then double deception and no more real scenes for Douglas and Garbo. No more chemistry.

Garbo’s good. Her parts aren’t well-written, but she tries and sometimes succeeds. The movie’s tone is all off though, thanks to the edits, so it’s hard to know if she’s succeeding because of something revised or something intentional.

There’s a great ski finale. The script runs out of ways to prolong the third act and instead there’s a ski chase sequence. It’s lots of physical humor and expert stunt skiing. Almost like a reward for sitting through more now humorless scenes of Douglas teasing Garbo. Again, maybe they were humorless before.

Either way, Two-Faced Woman doesn’t do anyone any favors. It does Garbo the most disservice and was her last film, though she didn’t intend to retire because of it. But even if it wasn’t responsible for Garbo’s retirement, you wouldn’t really blame her if it were.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by George Cukor; screenplay by S.N. Behrman, Salka Viertel, and George Oppenheimer, based on a play by Ludwig Fulda; director of photography, Joseph Ruttenberg; edited by George Boemler; music by Bronislau Kaper; produced by Gottfried Reinhardt; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Greta Garbo (Karin), Melvyn Douglas (Larry Blake), Constance Bennett (Griselda Vaughn), Roland Young (O.O. Miller), Robert Sterling (Dick Williams), and Ruth Gordon (Miss Ellis).


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