Like an old late movie show, you’ve seen it all before

The Other Boleyn Girl (Justin Chadwick, 2008). Chadwick’s feature directorial debut suffers from many of the problems that make costume dramas one of the most dreaded of film sub-genres. It shoves needlessly complicated castle intrigue to the forefront in place of thoughtful plotting and intricate characterization. It is marked by static visuals that accomplish little more than sustained examination of the efforts of the costume designers and art directors. And actors emote wildly, flinging words aimlessly at one another with little apparent interest in finding depth in the language. Simply, it entirely forgoes imagination and probing details in favor of rigidly adhering to the mistaken notion that simply being a costume drama is enough to elevate it to the realm of serious cinema. The film also stands as a ominous lesson for other filmmakers who may be inclined to cast Scarlett Johansson in material that’s outside of her range. None of the actors involved needs to be particularly boastful about their work here, but Johansson is the only one who looks absolutely baffled throughout.

Sweet Smell of Success (Alexander Mackendrick, 1957). There’s a reason no one can resist quoting the line about a cookie laced with arsenic when discussing this film. It’s hard to think of another instance in cinematic history in which a line of dialogue manages to be both beautifully representative of its film and a tidy description of that film’s charms. Dark charms, perhaps, but still charms. The Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman screenplay (adapted from Lehman’s novella) is a dense dictionary of bruising banter and acidic asides. In depicting the desperation that comes from operating in an entertainment business so delicate that a few unkind column inches can devastate a career, director Mackendrick builds a film with a pulsing urban vibe, driven by a sharp jazz score and language so elegant that it becomes its own sort of rhythmic, jazzy genius. Burt Lancaster is a shady, seething wonder as the vindictive columnist at the film’s rotting core. The only thing holding it back is the unfortunate performance by Tony Curtis as the anxious press agent protagonist. The film largely overcomes his tone-deaf work, which is as strong of a testament to the strength of the script as you can get.

Sweet Bird of Youth (Richard Brooks, 1962). Four years after working together on the film version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, writer director Richard Brooks and star Paul Newman reunited to take a swing at another Tennessee Williams work. The hot southern summer night setting is the same, as is the wastrel male protagonist smarting from youthful promise unfulfilled. The other details have shifted, most notably the addition of a anxiety-ridden, drunken movie star fearful of a sudden fade to obscurity threatening on the horizon. This role is played with incredible fervor by Geraldine Page, earning her the third of eight Oscar nominations. Watching her tear into this juicy role with precise abandon clarifies exactly why F. Murray Abraham was reduced to fanboy gushing when he presented Page with the trophy she finally won on the eighth attempt. The rest of the film is suitable enough, perhaps too cautious. Aside from Page, there’s a surprising lack of zest to it. It is fun, though, to see Rip Torn in an early role. He’s not great as a scheming flunky of the patented Williams’ ominous fatcat patriarch played by Ed Begley, but he’s already sporting that wide, devilish smile, like a nasty crack in the earth that threatens to swallow you whole.

That Certain Woman (Edmund Goulding, 1937). A boilerplate melodrama from the thirties starring Bette Davis as a strong, put-upon woman whose romantic prospects with a wealthy scion are dashed by the classism of his father. There’s a child involved and a wheel-chair bound woman and lots of anguish and noble emotional pain. It’s three-hanky hogwash, basically. Davis is incapable of delivering dialogue without some snap, so she remains interesting. Henry Fonda is less impressive in an early role, plain as white paint until he’s called upon to be indignant. That he manages to still be bland in those scenes is remarkable in all the wrong ways.

Rabbit Proof Fence (Phillip Noyce, 2002). Noyce has signed his name to enough really bad movies that it’s too easy to ignore it when he locks on to something worthy. Fence tells one of those amazing stories of human perseverance that will have a place in the movie-house as long as projectors and popcorn do. It involves some Aboriginal girls who were torn from their families and placed into an internment camp, only to escape and cross the harsh Australian Outback in a simple, moving quest to go home. More importantly, the film delivers a condemnation of the Australian government’s longtime mistreatment of indigenous people simply by presenting the undisputed facts of that treatment. Noyce’s film has a mild shakiness that’s nearly inevitable when working largely with a cast of novice child actors (not to mention the challenge of getting a good performance out of Kenneth Branagh), but his assurance with the camera, the shots, with the simple mechanics of storytelling gives the film a fitting gravity.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s