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Shield for Murder (1954)
Bleak, Hopeless Noir with a Small But Fascinating Performance by Carolyn Jones
Every character in "Shield for Murder," even minor ones, seems worn down by life. The whole film has a bleak, hopeless tone, personified by the principal character, played by Edmond O'Brien, a crooked cop who murders someone for money and then spends the rest of the film dodging both the crime boss who the money was meant for and the police who want to see justice done. The hugely ironic finale finds O'Brien being gunned down on the front lawn of his suburban dream home, which he was going to use the money to buy. The 1950s suburban American dream is not to be had for this prototypical noir protagonist (or should we say antagonist).
O'Brien appeared frequently in films like this, but rarely did he play such an unapologetic bad guy. Usually his characters, if not necessarily nice guys, at least had one foot on the side of what's right and decent. This character is bad through and through, which is a bit of a misstep for the movie, since we're not at all conflicted about seeing him brought down. In so many noirs, the suspense comes from seeing essentially good men wrongfully accused, or watching them land in bad situations because of tricks of fate or wrong place wrong time dumb luck. But in this one, we just want to see O'Brien get caught, and since we're pretty sure he will be given the conventions of the time and genre, there's not much suspense in seeing it all play out.
The film's biggest asset is probably the brief appearance of Carolyn Jones decked out as a bleach blonde. For the time she's on camera, her exotic face was the only thing I could look at.
Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949)
An MGM Musical Dud with an Unwatchable Performance by Gene Kelly
A film that proves even the MGM musical formula of the 1940s could result in some real duds.
Apparently, several principals involved in the making of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" didn't get along while filming, and it shows. But even if they had, I don't know that the film would have been much better for it. Under the best of circumstances, I'm usually pretty resistant to Gene Kelly's charms, but he's nearly unwatchable in this, mugging constantly for the camera like he's playing to the back row of a vaudeville house. Frank Sinatra fares better as his bumbling sidekick, and Esther Williams is inoffensive if pretty bland as the love interest for Kelly. A dingbat plot is strung together with a bunch of songs, which can work if the songs are good enough, but they're not here. In fact, aside from the title tune, which I associate with the seventh inning stretch of Cubs games anyway, not a single song in the film is memorable, and the musical numbers are all the same -- two or three characters standing in a line singing directly into the camera. My attention wandered greatly during this film; in fact, I might have even dozed off.
Three strikes and you're out.
Lilies of the Field (1963)
Wish This Film Had More Guts
Ralph Nelson's inspirational do-gooder film from 1963 can be forgiven some maudlin tendencies because of the era in which it was released, but it's a bit hard to take now.
Sidney Poitier made history by becoming the first black man to win an Academy Award and the first black person period to win in a lead category. But his performance is hammy and exaggerated, another in the long line of examples of the Academy giving actors Oscars for the wrong performances. He plays a handy man who stops off at a convent in the middle of nowhere to service his car and then ends up staying to help the dear little nuns build a chapel. It's a movie about cultural understanding, which is a topic that never goes out of style, but it hasn't aged particularly well, and it feels too safe for the incendiary times in which it was released, as if Ralph Nelson and his screenwriter, James Poe, were too eager to be liked to risk offending their audience with tough subject matter. Topics like racism and World War II are briefly mentioned in passing, but the film quickly skirts away from them in order to give us another cute scene of Poitier teaching the nuns how to speak English.
"Lilies of the Field" is a pleasant movie, and let that description be either thumbs up or thumbs down depending on your personal preferences.
Nominated for five Oscars total, including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress (Lilia Skala, as the head nun), Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Black and White Cinematography (Ernest Haller).
I Married a Witch (1942)
Cute If Instantly Forgettable
I happened to watch two films close together in which I learned that the lead actors did not get along while filming, "I Married a Witch" and "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." Both could be used as examples of what happens when movies with otherwise decent ingredients are hampered by a lack of chemistry between their actors.
Of the two, "I Married a Witch" fares much better. It's a cute but pretty forgettable little comedy about a modern-day descendant (Fredric March) of a family patriarch who was cursed by a witch way back when and condemned to a legacy of bad marriages. March is scheduled to marry rich girl Susan Hayward but doesn't really want to. Luckily for him, a slinky little witch played by Veronica Lake reappears after an absence of a couple of hundred years to make mischief, notably by making March fall in love with her instead. Unluckily for him, the witch's father (Cecil Kellaway) also comes along and gets up to much meaner hijinks (like setting skyscrapers on fire), which include interfering when his daughter starts to develop feelings of her own for the man she's bewitched.
Much is likable about the film, but little sparkles. Lake wasn't a great actress, but she could be quite winning and fetching under the right direction. Here she's allowed to be too languid, and what I think was supposed to pass for alluring comes off instead as a bit lifeless. March is good -- he was one of those rare actors who seemed as at home in comedies as dramas -- but the movie around him doesn't allow him much room to build a memorable performance. There isn't really anything egregiously wrong with "I Married a Witch," but there isn't anything to make me whole-heartedly recommend it either.
Roy Webb received an Oscar nomination for Best Dramatic or Comedy Score back in the days when the average year found 15 to 20 titles nominated for that particular award.
If you already know a lot about Jackie Kennedy and what made the woman tick (which I don't), this film named after her and chronicling the days surrounding the assassination of her husband and our nation's president might be fascinating. Those looking to this film to teach them something about the former first lady will be sorely disappointed.
"Jackie" is a tone poem of moods, one that remains frustratingly superficial when one wants it to delve deeper into the psyche of this woman who made such a deep impression on American popular culture. Natalie Portman, who received an Oscar nomination for bringing Jackie Kennedy back to life, is pretty good I guess, but she's really only asked to convey a procession of emotions that exist independently of one another rather than create a complete character. "Jackie" is about all of the things in relation to JFK's assassination that I didn't care much about (Jackie wandering around the White House trying on gowns while chain smoking) and about none of the things that I would have found interesting (like the actual impact the event had on her and her legacy).
Billy Crudup appears as an interviewer, Greta Gerwig is on hand as Jackie's right-hand woman, and Peter Sarsgaard makes no attempt to look or sound like Bobby Kennedy. But this is Portman's film all the way.
The film received two additional Oscar nods, one for Best Costume Design, which went to Madeleine Fontaine for recreating Jackie's signature period style (including the famous pink suit) and the other for Best Original Score, for Mica Levi's sparse music.
The Road Not Taken
Adam Driver gives a terrific performance as the title character (which also happens to be the city in which the film is set) in this quiet Jim Jarmusch film about the different paths life can take.
Driver plays a humble bus driver in a loving relationship living an unassuming life but with a rich artistic impulse rumbling just under the surface. He moves through his daily routine creating poetry out of the mundane details he sees, and we occasionally sense that he's more frustrated with his place in life, and the stifling of his artistic sensibilities, than he ever lets himself convey. "Paterson" is one of those movies that I think captures something inherently true about the discontentment present in most everyone's life, whether or not they want to admit it's there. Routines aren't necessarily bad, and one can build a quite content and even intermittently happy life out of simple pleasures, but it's the rare person who doesn't spend a good portion of his/her life wondering how much happier he/she might have been if she had taken it in a different direction.
Because this is Jim Jarmusch, whether or not one likes the film will probably come down to whether or not one likes Jarmusch's style of filmmaking.
A Non-Musical Musical About the Declaration of Independence
"1776" is one of the least musical musicals I've ever seen. Long stretches of film go by with nary a song in sight, and there were times I actually forgot I was watching a musical and then was surprised when someone burst into song. But the drama, though about something that could have been dry as dirt, is riveting enough that I didn't really even need the songs.
The film is a small miracle of screen writing, though credit probably really goes to the writer of the original book on which the screenplay was based. It's not like we don't know how the story ends, yet the film manages to build a good deal of suspense out of the question of whether or not the Declaration of Independence will be adopted. The film feels crazy relevant right at this particular time, its question about what kind of country we want America to be, and the like-it-or-not-truth that we have to figure out how to work together though we'll never agree on some things, one we're dealing with at this very moment. And the songs about how ineffectual the U.S. Congress is would have been funny had they not been so painfully true.
Most of the original Broadway cast were reunited for this film, and though none of them were big-time movie stars, they all ably carry the show.
20th Century Women (2016)
Coming of Age without a Male Influence
An ode to women and the chaos they inspire in the world of a fatherless teenage boy.
"20th Century Women" has a laid back vibe and lots of period detail that will probably appeal to the audience members who were themselves coming of age in the period -- late 70s and early 80s -- in which the movie is set. It follows three principal female characters and charts the influence they have on our teenage protagonist. Annette Bening is the freewheeling mom, doing the best she can without someone to provide a positive male influence for her son. Greta Gerwig is the boarder who teaches him about girls and music. And Elle Fanning is his female friend who refuses to be his girlfriend. The conclusion he and the movie comes to seems to be that women are necessary but confusing. I found myself irritated by all of them. They spend all of their time trying to teach him what and how to think without ever letting him develop an identity of his own.
The film is entertaining enough, but there is something lacking, and I'm not surprised that it wasn't one of the stand out movies of the year. I love Bening and would watch her in anything, and she does as much as she probably can with her character, but one can't help but wonder how much better a performance she could have given with better writing and directing at her back.
Easter Parade (1948)
Garland Upstages Astaire at Every Turn
A colorful confection that more than anything proves what a powerhouse performer Judy Garland was, as she manages to upstage Fred Astaire at every turn, no mean feat.
Garland plays a showgirl that Astaire plucks from the chorus line and decides to turn into a star, just to prove to his fame-hungry ex (played by a miscast Ann Miller) that he can. This shoestring of a plot is used to thread together a bunch of hummable Irving Berlin tunes, including the title number.
The laughs in the film go almost exclusively to Garland, who's especially hilarious in a scene where she and Astaire dance for the first time in front of an audience and she louses it up. The most memorable musical moments are one in which Garland and Astaire dress up as hobos, and one that opens the film, featuring a solo dance performed by Astaire in a toy shop. Miller gets her moment to shine as well, and she's a dynamo, making you forget for a brief moment how ill-suited she is to play the glamorous girl that got away.
Johnny Green and Roger Edens won an Oscar for adapting the film's musical score.
Rachel, Rachel (1968)
Repressed in New England
In the turbulent cultural and political year of 1968, movies hadn't quite yet figured out how they wanted to address current events, or indeed whether they wanted to address them at all. The year's Oscar winner for Best Picture was "Oliver!," an entertaining but utterly irrelevant big-budget musical; "Funny Girl," another stage-to-screen musical that hasn't aged at all well, was also among the nominees. "The Lion in Winter" found Peter O'Toole and Katharine Hepburn bickering in period costumes, while "Romeo and Juliet" gave Shakespeare a jolt of sexiness for the younger generation. Movies that actually felt like they had their finger on the uneasy pulse of the changing times, like "2001: A Space Odyssey," "Rosemary's Baby," "Faces," and "The Battle of Algiers," were nominated in lesser categories but none were up for the big prize. That fifth slot went to "Rachel, Rachel," in which Paul Newman directed his wife, Joanne Woodward, to a Best Actress nomination.
"Rachel, Rachel" certainly did not deserve a place at the Oscar podium above those titles just mentioned that weren't even nominated, but it does have much to recommend it, and the themes it's about speak more to a modern-day audience than those of many of its contemporaries, because they're both universal and timeless. Woodward plays a woman in her 30s, living with her annoying and needy mother and watching her life slowly drip away from her day by day. It's about that moment -- and I have to believe anyone over a certain age has experienced it at least to some degree -- where one realizes that he/she isn't so much living a life as dying a slow and inevitable death. What one does with the time in between suddenly becomes urgent in a way it hasn't ever felt before, and one understands how easy it would be to do nothing and let that slow death gradually come. Woodward's character, brought up in a mortuary and morbidly obsessed with death, doesn't exactly figure out what to do with the time left to her, but she does figure out that she needs to try something different, which is perhaps the best any of us can hope for. Woodward gives a beautiful and nuanced performance as a shy turtle coming out of her shell one painful inch at a time. The movie is melancholy and sad, but it's also hopeful in its conclusion that it's never too late to at least make a grab for, if not happiness, then at least contentment.
In addition to its nominations for Best Picture and Best Actress, the film also received nominations for Best Supporting Actress (Estelle Parsons, as Rachel's closet lesbian friend), and Best Adapted Screenplay (Stewart Stern). Newman himself was not nominated for Best Director, which doesn't really surprise me. The Academy has always shown a penchant for acknowledging the showy over the subtle when it comes to that particular category.