Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold, 2009). At it’s strongest, Arnold’s film is as scrappy as its protagonist, a teenage girl in lower class Britain who pushes against what little disinterested authority exists in her life. The film expertly gets at the way passion burns to the surface so quickly at that age, while also considering how simple, inelegant endeavors like hip hop dancing can fuel dreams of escape. As an observant, uncompromising character study, the film is sharp and sensational. As it gets more plot driven, especially in a misguided third act, it falters terribly. The one thing that’s consistent throughout is the performance of total newcomer Kate Jarvis in the lead role. Reportedly plucked from a railway platform where she was delivering a verbal pummeling to her boyfriend, Jarvis invests her headstrong character with the sort of impudent strength that’s all but impossible to fake. She may only have this one performance in her, but it’s a damn good one.
Clambake (Arthur H. Nadel, 1967). Maybe there are lazier movies than those built around Elvis Presley, but finding them would require dedicated efforts in an exceedingly well-stocked film library. Time and again, they just took The King and plopped him in the middle of some insignificant plot, taking great care to make sure he has some cool pastime to indulge in like racecar driving or boxing. Then toss in a few wan songs and make sure the rest of the cast is filled with actors bland enough to be sure they won’t expose the star’s thespian shortcomings and the finished product is all but done. In Clambake, Presley plays the scion of a wealthy oil family who trades identities with a water-skiing instructor on a trip to Florida so he can try to find that elusive groovy gal who likes him for more than his money. For some reason, he still spends all his time pining after lovely beach bunny, played by Shelly Fabares, who does nothing but talk about her desire to land a rich husband. Amidst the songs, Presley’s character also preps for a big speedboat race, so there are all sort of inanities built into that. Not all movies need to have grand aspirations, but those with more modest goals should at least be entertaining. It does include a surprise appearance by the greatest outdoor playset of all time. (Okay, maybe there’s been one that was better.)
A Girl, A Guy, and a Gob (Richard Wallace, 1941). This romantic comedy casts Lucille Ball as a strong-willed woman with an eccentric family who is engaged to a sailor, but she’s also caught the eye of her new boss. There’s nothing especially inspired in the film, although there’s a pleasing rambunctiousness to it, a sense of throwing all sorts of playful goofiness out there and somehow letting it accumulate without ever reaching the point of unchecked hysteria. Ball is especially good in the film, displaying a sharp-minded self-assurance that’s all but unrecognizable given the way that her far more scattered and needy television persona is drilled into the shared pop consciousness. There’s probably plenty of subtext that can be found in weighing the unpredictability of a military spouse versus the stability of the entrenched business upper class, especially given that release date, but I prefer to look at it as a mere pleasurable diversion.
Harper (Jack Smight, 1966). Paul Newman plays a charmingly weary and sardonic southern California private detective in this sun-basked stab at the sort of noirish shuffles that made Bogart’s career. Lauren Bacall even turns up, radiating whipsmart disdain as the woman who recruits Newman’s gumshoe to find her missing wealthy husband. Based on a Ross McDonald novel, the film has a screenplay by William Goldman penned at exactly the point when he could drop ingenious lines of dialogue as easily as someone shaking stray coffee beans out of a burlap sack. Smight’s direction is less riveting. It’s capable but bland, with occasional hints of the TV movie plainness that plagued productions of the day before the cinematic lessons of the French New Wave really started to insinuate themselves into American efforts. Newman is solid, though operating with disaffected cool was never his strongest mode. Without much anguished vulnerability to play around with, he sometimes seems a little bored.
The Godfather Part II (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974). It is, of course, the height of heresy to impugn either of the first two installments of Francis Ford Coppola’s extended epic about the Corleone crime family (I assume no concerted revisionism has kicked in, and Part III remains fair game for mockery), so I may as well get my complaints out of the way immediately, letting those who agree wholeheartedly with its cemented place in the canon get to the business of dismissing my viewpoint without delay. The last third of the film simply doesn’t work for me, beginning with the long, dull grind of Michael Corleone called to testify before a Senate committee about the alleged criminal actions of his family. These scenes are presented with numbing detail and are no more interesting that if Coppola had dredged up some actual footage of dry legislative inquiry and presented it without an edit. That same blanket of languor covers the whole end of the film, which can’t even quicken its pulse with the sharpest scenes of family turmoil. Even the emotional turning point of Michael’s wife leaving has little impact, in part because Kay has been such a non-factor through the film, even with the always creative Diane Keaton returning to the role. Al Pacino is terrific as Michael, and the two film arc of his performance arguably stands as his finest overall work. The first two-thirds of the film is sensational in all the same ways as its duly exalted predecessor: mixing the quietly, resolutely epic with a burrowed-in attention to the inner lives of all the characters. In The Godfather Part II, all that is heightened by Coppola’s artful swinging back and forth in time, alternating between Michael’s increasing command of the empire his father built and a consideration of how the foundation was set in the first place, with Robert De Niro giving a nice performance as Vito Corleone, albeit one that is connected to the work Marlon Brando did as the older version of the don in the first film in only the most superficial ways. The Godfather Part II is good, not great; the echo of a masterpiece rather than its ideal continuation.