New Year, New Reviews: "Bombshell" & "Little Women"

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Bombshell (2019) starring Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, John Lithgow, & Kate McKinnon

There are some fine performances here, esp. from Theron (in role of lawyer- turned-journo Megyn Kelly) and Lithgow (Roger Ailes); they are also transformed through prosthetics, wigs, makeup, etc. Kidman (Gretchen Carlson) was the most easy to empathize w/ (IMO); I wished she was had a bigger role. I have to admit that Kidman is having a great resurgence these past few yrs; I didn’t appreciate her skills (when I was younger). Robbie (I’m slowly warming up to her acting) plays a fictional character who is eager to get onscreen work. McKinnon (from SNL fame) becomes friends w/ her; they have some nice chemistry. As a whole, I was NOT blown away by this film (which may remind you of the works of Adam McKay, director of Vice). There are MANY cameos in to enjoy- I won’t give it away; after all, there are VERY serious themes to explore! If you follow the news/politics, then you should check it out ASAP! Otherwise, wait for it to come to streaming.

Little Women (2019) starring Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Timothee Chalamet, Florence Pugh, Laura Dern, & Meryl Streep

The new adaptation (directed by Greta Gerwig) is VERY good- I went to free screening w/ several friends the week before it was released (on Christmas Day). I’ve seen the major film adaptations- ‘30s, late ‘40s, and ‘90s (my family loved that one). There are a few odd choices w/ the casting, as you will see. This film has unique takes- it plays w/ time (starting from the middle of the book and going back, then forward); has more nuanced characterization of smaller characters; and Chalamet (who I really enjoyed) has a fresh take on Laurie (the boy who wants to belong to the March family in some way). Chalamet, who some feel is getting TOO many meaty roles, gives Laurie a light/humorous bent (one critic compared his movements to Chaplin). I loved Christian Bale’s take on Laurie- it will always be my fave. I thought Ronan made a great Jo; I thought the writing, then trying to publish, scenes were great additions. Pugh (who is a fresh face to me) does a great job as Amy, who is usually the sister people love to hate. Amy’s scene re: the practical side of marriage stands out in my mind. The scenery, clothing (some of which was styled by the actors), and music are great- as expected. I consider this a MUST-SEE for fans of the book or the previous movies!

Re-watching Problematic Movies: Gone with the Wind (1939)

In the late ’90s, one of my history classes (in university) examined this iconic film. Our 30ish professor (like many of us) grew up watching GWTW; she considered it very problematic, yet also admired Scarlett O’Hara as an empowered woman. I recall her getting a bit emotional about the story; I’m sure there are millions of others who admired parts of this movie (and novel). Upon closer examination, we find mixed messages, not only w/ regard to history and slavery, but re: war, social codes, love, and marriage.

I’ll think about that tomorrow. -Scarlett’s motto

No doubt this movie (made for less than $4M) was a technical feat! Students of film have been studying it for decades; on recent viewing, I was esp. struck by how well light and shadow were used (production design). There are 50+ speaking roles and 2,400 extras. Out of the 1,400 actresses interviewed for the part of Scarlett, 400 were asked to do readings. Here are some of the actresses considered for the role (who screen tested): Tallulah Bankhead, Susan Hayward, Paulette Goddard, Lana Turner, Jean Arthur, and Joan Bennett. GWTW also used special effects, most notably the burning of Atlanta. Scarlett is described as having green eyes; Leigh’s eye color was corrected (post-production) from blue to green. As she could not dance, Leigh has a body double in the charity auction ball scene. One thing which amazed my mom, but it’s true- Leigh tightened her corset to 18″ (as Scarlett comments)!

Did you know GWTW went through several directors? David O. Selznick (producer) fired George Cukor as director b/c (as a gay man), Selznick though he would be unable to properly direct love scenes between Rhett and Scarlett. Cukor (who had a reputation of getting strong performances from women) continued to privately coach both Leigh and de Havilland on weekends. The scene where Mammy reprimands Scarlett for not eating is one of the few remaining in the final film shot by Cukor. Leigh wasn’t happy w/ macho director Victor Fleming’s style; when she asked for constructive advice, he said to “take the script and stick it up her royal British ass.” Of course, classic movie fans know that Leigh was involved w/ Laurence Olivier during this time; she must’ve gotten a lot of advice from him!

The Emancipation Proclamation (1863) and the 13th Amendment to the Constitution (1865), which both set slaves free, have minimal effects on the plot of GWTW. The house servants at Tara (Mammy, Pork, Prissy and Uncle Peter) continue to serve the same masters and their families. We are to assume that they don’t want to leave or have nowhere to go. Scarlett thinks to herself (in the novel): “There were qualities of loyalty and tirelessness and love in them that no strain could break, no money could buy.” If this isn’t romanticizing “the Old South” (antebellum) days, then I don’t know what is!

What gentlemen says and what they thinks is two different things, and I ain’t noticed Mr. Ashley asking for to marry you. -Mammy (telling it like it is) to Scarlett

When I watched it as a kid, I was surprised to see that Mammy was more concerned w/ propriety than Scarlett; I also saw that she was crucial to this story and has some memorable lines. After Scarlett and Rhett marry, he admits to his new wife that he wants Mammy’s good opinion. As an adult, I realized that- of course- Mammy had to know all the rules which governed the behavior of young ladies! Her life was inextricably tied w/ that of her owners, the O’Haras, and primarily Scarlett. Miss Ellen, Scarlett’s mother, seems to have been the ideal woman in Mammy’s eyes; Scarlett doesn’t quite measure up.

The fact that Hattie McDaniel would be unable to attend the premiere in (segregated) Atlanta outraged her friend Clark Gable; he threatened to boycott the premiere unless she could attend. McDaniel (in her mid-40s) became the first African-American to be nominated for, and win, an Academy Award. She was criticized by some African-Americans; she commented that she’d “rather make seven hundred dollars a week playing a maid than seven dollars being one.” Before she hit the big screen, McDaniel had a career as a singer, traveling across the South (as many black performers did in the early 1900s). Butterfly McQueen (who played Prissy) said that her stereotypical role totally put her off acting. Who could blame her!? Prissy is characterized as lazy and deceitful. In one scene, Scarlett slaps her hard on the face- ouch! McQueen went on to pursue graduate education in Political Science.

On my recent re-watch, I noticed that the field foreman from Tara, Big Sam (Everett Brown), was given two memorable scenes. Big Sam is walking through Atlanta (w/ his fellow male slaves) on the way to digging ditches for the Confederate Army. He is spotted by (a very excited) Scarlett; they catch up on news from Tara. Later on (after the Civil War), Big Sam is the one who rescues Scarlett after she is attacked by a white man while driving her buggy through the “shanty town.” He recognizes her voice, runs to the road, and beats up the would-be robber- what a heroic moment!

I’m saying very plainly that the Yankees are better equipped than we. They’ve got factories, shipyards, coalmines… and a fleet to bottle up our harbors and starve us to death. All we’ve got is cotton, and slaves and… arrogance. -Rhett comments to gentleman gathered together for the ball at Twelve Oaks

One of the main reasons to watch GWTW is Gable (then in his late 30s); he is full of charm, danger, mischief, and (after Bonnie is born)- a bit of vulnerability. As my dad commented years ago: “Why is Scarlett obsessed w/ Ashley when Rhett is around!?” Though he’s not gung-ho about the war (neither is Ashley), Rhett does eventually succeed as a “blockade runner.” Rhett is not about “the cause” (slavery), he’s in it for profit and excitement. After the burning of Atlanta, he joins “the lost cause.” Once their marriage grows sour, the troubled (and potentially violent) side of Rhett emerges. Modern audiences may cringe at the infamous (and quite disturbing) scene where he carries Scarlett up a long stairway, saying he “won’t be shut out” (of her bedroom) one night.

Author Margaret Mitchell’s first choice to play Rhett Butler was Basil Rathbone. The only four actors David O. Selznick seriously considered for the role were Gable, Gary Cooper, Errol Flynn and Ronald Colman. The chief impediment to Gable’s casting was his MGM contract; this was the era of contract players. He was not drawn to the material, didn’t see himself in a period film, and doubted that he could live up to the public’s anticipation. He was persuaded by a $50,000 bonus, which would enable him to divorce his second wife and marry actress Carole Lombard. Gable disliked his most famous film, which he called “a woman’s picture.” Leigh said she hated kissing Gable b/c of his bad breath. He was rumored to have false teeth (a result of too much smoking). Gable would sometimes eat garlic before his kissing scenes w/ Leigh- ugh!

Open your eyes and look at me. No, I don’t think I will kiss you. Although you need kissing badly. That’s what’s wrong with you. You should be kissed and often and by someone who knows how. -Rhett says to Scarlett (after he returns from Paris)

Selznick always wanted Leslie Howard to play Ashley Wilkes, but Howard felt that he was too old (the character was supposed to be about 21 at the start of the film). My dad agrees w/ that! Howard wore extra makeup and a hairpiece to make him appear younger. Selznick was only able to persuade him to take the part by offering him a producer credit on Intermezzo (1939). Vincent Price, Dennis Morgan, Douglass Montgomery, and Melvyn Douglas were among the actors who tested for the part of Ashley. Many viewers on Twitter (during my re-watch) were annoyed w/ the fact that Howard kept his English accent. Also, some women noted that he was a jerk for “giving Scarlett hope” and “leading her on” in several scenes. I realized that scene where Ashley and Scarlett talk re: maybe running away from Tara (and their responsibilities) was done very well- acting and the look of it.

While Scarlett is colorful/rebellious/independent, Ashley’s cousin/wife, Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Havilland), is the epitome of a demure/calm/traditional lady. Her hairdo is simple (no curls), she dresses plainly (not seeking attention from men), and is 100% devoted to just one man- Ashley. Others (incl. elders of her society) look to her to determine what is “proper.” Melanie is selfless and giving (tending to wounded soldiers w/o complaint); Scarlett is selfish (wanting to run away from nursing, marrying her sister’s beau- Frank Kennedy- for his money, etc.)

In one memorable scene, when a Union soldier comes to rob Tara, Melanie (weak after giving birth) grabs a sword and clambers down the stairs in an effort to help Scarlett. There is a moral strength to Melanie; Scarlett (who is physically much tougher) eventually realizes that. These two women (who perhaps would be “frenemies” today) are like two sides of a coin; they have to rely on each other. In McDaniel’s pivotal scene (after the sudden death of Bonnie), Mammy cries and gently pleads: “If you can’t help us, who can? Mr. Rhett always set great store by your opinion. Please, Miss Melly.” Gable was reluctant to cry (in his following scene), but de Havilland convinced him that it would be the right thing to do for his character.

Holiday Film Noir: "The Reckless Moment" (1949) starring James Mason & Joan Bennett

This splendidly nuanced work has emerged as one of the standouts of the noir cycle…

Ophuls… drew from Bennett her most natural, believable performance. She has never been better.

Near perfect, this is a marvellous and magical non stop emotional thriller with the camera moving with such fluidity we can only stare in wonder.

James Mason is great as a refined crook who suddenly finds himself feeling empathy for others. Can’t think of too many actors who could pull this off…

Traumatic as Lucia’s experience is, Donnelly’s devotion to her connects Lucia with the love and sexuality that may be missing from her marriage.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

Lucia Harper (Joan Bennett, then 39 y.o.) is an upper middle-class wife/mother w/ an energetic teen son and stubborn/beautiful 17 y.o. daughter. Lucia’s husband, Tom, has to go away on business to Berlin (during the holidays). The family lives in an ocean-front home in Balboa, 50 miles south of LA. Bea, who is an art student, is involved w/ an older man, Ted Darby. He is sleazy and lives in a sketchy hotel in LA. When Lucia realizes what’s going on, she warns the man to stay away from Bea (who is underage). Ted ends up dead on the beach, not far from the Harper’s house. Lucia thinks Bea was responsible, so quickly takes action to protect her daughter (as well as her family, respectability, and lifestyle).

When the dead body of the man is discovered by police, they suspect murder! Lucia is visited by an Irishman, Martin Donnelly (James Mason, then just 40 y.o. in his third American movie). He has love letters written by Bea to Darby; these could be damaging if turned over to police or the press. The price for the letters is $5,000 (which Lucia doesn’t have on hand). Donnelly’s boss Nagle wants payment- fast. Soon, the crooked man finds himself empathizing w/ – something you don’t expect- and developing feelings for the housewife.

She’s lucky to have a mother like you. -Donnelly comments

Everyone has a mother like me! You probably had one, too! -Lucia retorts

This is a tight, tense, and quite effective movie (which I learned about when browsing online through holiday classics playing at AFI). It’s an unique blend of melodrama and noir; you can see it (free) on YouTube. The director, Max Ophuls, is an immigrant from Germany; he worked in several European cities before coming to the U.S. in 1941. Often times, the outsider has a fresh take on something that others take at face value. Mason here may remind you of Gregory Peck (tall w/ high cheekbones and dark hair), BUT w/ potentially dangerous vibes. IMO, to be an effective leading man, a actor MUST be able to project a hint of danger. Some actors didn’t stray (or perhaps get chances to stray) from the “gentleman” role. Though Mason is British, his Irish accent is very good. Bennett does a great job- her character is quick-thinking, determined, and tough as a mother. Lucia gets drawn into the seedy side of life, much to her dismay and discomfort, but she has the guts to go there.

Thieves’ Highway (1949) starring Richard Conte, Lee J. Cobb, & Valentina Cortese

Thieves’ Highway opens with a view of sunny Fresno, California… not the setting you’d expect for a film noir. But as this movie shows, the business of transporting and selling fruit and vegetables is as cut-throat and corrosive as any criminal enterprise.

Revenge, hope and desperation drives Dassin’s intelligently constructed noir forward. It’s a film very much interested in its characterisations as it doles out a deconstruction of the American dream.

Richard Conte brings a stunning physicality to his role as a hot-headed yet intelligent man who is easily the world’s most elegant truck driver. Valentina Cortese is a mercurial blend of playfulness, hurt and defiance.

The love story is very sincere, and very simple, and dare I say it- very touching.

-Excerpts from reviews on IMDB

In his introduction to this must-see classic on TCM’s “Noir Alley”, Eddie Muller stated this was the picture that got him hooked on film noir as a teen while playing hooky from school. Film critic Thom Andersen identified this as an example of “film gris,” a suggested sub-category of film noir incorporating a left-wing narrative. Most of the movie is shot on location, in produce warehouses, back alleys, and country roads. The story takes about 15 minutes to get going, but from there it delivers in big ways! Soon after WWII, with people desperate to believe in the American dream, this film suggests that that dream isn’t for everyone. A.I. “Buzz” Buzzerides (who was of Greek Armenian heritage) based this movie on his working-class roots, before he became a novelist and screenwriter in Hollywood. Director Jules Dassin (who came from Ukrainian Jewish parentage) does a terrific job; he was blacklisted in the McCarthy era and moved to France to pursue his career.

Nico “Nick” Garcos (Richard Conte, then in his late 30s) is a first gen Greek-American who returns home from the Navy to his loving parents and blonde/”girl-next-door” fiance, Polly (Barbara Lawrence). After a few moments of domestic happiness, he discovers that his father has lost his legs. He was involved in a truck accident after dealing w/ a San Fran fruit dealer, Mike Figlia (Lee J. Cobb), who refused to pay a fair price for a truckload of tomatoes. Figlia also had his thuggish employees get Mr. Garcos drunk. Nick, who is both ambitious, clever, and hot-headed, is bent on getting revenge.

Nick goes to see Ed Kinney (the local man who bought his father’s old truck) and says that he will buy it back, but Ed proposes a deal with Golden Delicious apples, where they may both make a lot of money. Nick invests most of his savings in another truck and buys apples from a Polish farming family. They plan to drive directly to the market (w/o sleeping) to keep the fruit fresh. The trucks’ journey is brilliantly captured by the filmmakers; there are scenes that are exciting and dangerous (before the time of special effects). Ed’s truck has a problem with its axle, and Nick arrives first in San Fran.

Nick parks his truck directly in Figlia’s loading dock and goes to compare prices for his cargo. After talking to a few smaller sellers, he meets Figlia (who has a reputation for being crooked). Figlia is surprised, and maybe also a bit impressed, by the younger man’s confidence. Nick says that his partner is still on the road, so he’ll return later. As always, Cobb does a great job as a fast-talking villain.

At a small diner nearby, Nick is approached by an alluring Italian refugee- Rica (Valentina Cortese)- who he is almost too sleepy/tired to notice. She asks him for a light, though there are several other men ready w/ matches. Then, she leans across him to get a container of sugar for her coffee. He’s bemused by her actions and walks away. She boldly asks him if he wants to come rest in her room (from where he can observe the market).

Film noir romances usually lead to the hero’s downfall, but it’s the opposite case here. Sparks fly between Conte and Cortese in their scenes, incl. one where she plays tic-tac-toe (on his bare chest)! Censors had rules about women revealing too much skin, so the director went the other way. As for Cortese, her hair is dark, short, and curly and (unlike her Italian peers who moved to Hollywood in this era), her face and body are angular. Most amazing- she hadn’t yet learned English, so spoke her lines phonetically!

Conte grew up in Jersey City and worked as a trucker; he was discovered (at age 25) by director Elia Kazan and actor John Garfield while waiting tables. Like Garfield, Conte is short (for a leading man), w/ deep-set dark eyes and thick brown hair. Kazan helped Conte get a scholarship to study acting in NYC; the young man quickly revealed his potential. All the actors, incl. the colorful sidekicks, do a great job in their roles.

SPOILER-FREE Review: Parasite (2019) directed by Boon Joon-ho

A struggling family in Seoul, South Korea scheme to enter an upper-class/well-connected household in this genre-bending thriller from director Bong Joon-ho (Okja; Snowpiercer). As a young boy, Boon saw a (censored) version of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, and was “overwhelmed” by the music and structure of the house (behind the Bates Motel). Parasite is the first Asian film to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes. It was described by Bong as “a comedy without clowns and a tragedy without villains.”

Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) is an unemployed family man and head of the Kim family, which includes wife Chung-sook (Chang Hyae-jin), a 20-something artistic daughter Ki-jung (Park So-dam), and idealistic college-aged son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik). One day, a former school friend of Ki-woo’s drops by w/ a gift (and possible job opportunity). While Min is studying abroad, he wants Ki-woo (who he trusts) to take over as the English tutor for a teen girl, Da-hye. At first, Ki-woo is hesitant; Min explains that it’s fine since he has a recommendation. The Parks live in a mansion which wouldn’t be out of place in southern California. The coldly handsome father (Sun-kyun Lee) has studied abroad and works in his own tech company. Da-hye has an 8 y.o. brother, Da-song, who loves anything connected to the Boy Scouts. The mother (Yeo-jeong Jo), though still youthful and pretty, is also “simple” (gullible).

There are quick changes in tone, as the audience is taken on a journey from the Kim’s crowded sub-basement apt. to the Park’s spacious house (designed by an internationally-known architect). The musical score fits seamlessly w/ the movie; Boon recommended baroque music and works of Bernard Herrmann (one of Hollywood’s finest composers) to his own composer. It’s not only clever, it’s also suspenseful, scary, and darkly funny w/ pointed social commentary. Though all the main 10 characters get their time to shine, the heart of this tale is Woo-shik, a youthful 29 y.o. w/ a slim build who grew up partly in Toronto. The audience I saw it w/ definitely was rooting for him, esp. during the (wild) third act. The crux of this story is the relationship between the son and father (the director noted); Song Kang-ho (who is a star in his native land) gets the chance to show many different sides to being a man getting by somehow in today’s society. This is a must-see, even if you don’t get hyped for scary films! I had passes to a free screening at Landmark E St the night before opening.