Mar 282019
 

MarilynMonroeFew stars have had such an impact on pop culture, yet there is a strange mixed appraisal of her work. She was mesmerizing on screen, with great comic timing, substantial dramatic chops, unlimited charisma, and a pleasing and memorable singing voice. And, of course, she was breathtakingly beautiful. She was also exceptionally sexy, and neither film critics nor the public at large have ever become comfortable with pure sex appeal. Many denigrated her during her career, discounting her talent and skill. She was never given the accolades she deserved, but while others picked up the Oscars that should have been hers, she is the one that will be remembered.

While critics complain that many of her roles were similar, that’s true of most movie stars. Bogart, Cagney, Davis, Grant, Pacino, and De Niro are all known for taking specific types of roles. What’s important is how well they perform those parts, and Monroe was exquisite. Unfortunately her horrendous childhood caught up with her, leading her into depression, addiction, and death at 36.

First, a few honorable mentions. One goes to the anthology film O. Henry’s Full House (1952) where she has a cameo as a streetwalker. She’s wonderful, as is Charles Laughton who is trying to get arrested as a masher. And another for Ladies of the Chorus (1948), Monroe’s first credited appearance. The film is so-so and occasionally exasperating, but the youthful Monroe is stunning and her songs—sung with a far less breathy voice than she’d adopt later—are charming.

As for dishonorable mentions, I’ll only bring up one: The Misfits. This isn’t a negative comment on her, as she is by far the best thing in the film. Nor is The Misfits the worst film she’d been in, not with the abysmal Let’s Make Love or the sleep-inducing The Prince and the Showgirl hanging about. But everyone knows those are terrible while The Misfits occasionally gets positive reviews for no good reason (My full review).

Her top 8:

#8 – As Young as You Feel (1951) — Monroe has a minor role as a secretary. The film belongs to Monty Woolley, whose character is forced to retire due to his age, so masquerades as the boss’s boss in order to change the company’s rules. The script by Paddy Chayefsky slips in some social commentary, and Woolley’s part of the film is good, though some side business with his family is tiring. Monroe doesn’t have enough time to steal the film, but she controls every frame she’s in.

#7 – The Asphalt Jungle (1950) — John Huston’s second Noir (after The Maltese Falcon) paints a world of disease and hopelessness. Monroe had a small part as the one thing in that world that is worthwhile. Joseph Mankiewicz saw her in this, and cast her in a supporting role in his masterpiece, All About Eve. (My Full Review) [Also on the Best Directors List for John Huston]

#6 – How to Marry a Millionaire (1953) — A constantly amusing comedy of three girls looking for millionaire husbands, it was planned as a showcase firstly for long reigning sex queen Betty Grable (who got top billing), then secondly for Lauren Bacall, and finally for newcomer Monroe, but by the time the film came out, Monroe was the new queen. The other two took being upstaged very well, and both were helpful and kind to the insecure Monroe. [Also on the William Powell list]

#5 – Don’t Bother to Knock (1952) — A tense and effective Noir that gets very little notice now. It was Monroe’s first leading role and showed she could play drama. (My Full Review)

#4 – The Seven Year Itch (1955) — Perhaps the perfect sex comedy (cleaned up for ‘50s morality), it’s a witty farce where a married man, left alone for the summer, fantasizes about the bombshell who moves in upstairs. Monroe agreed to appear in the weak There’s No Business Like Show Business in exchange for getting this part.  [Also the Great Directors List for Billy Wilder]

#3 – Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) — You can spend days analyzing the subtext of this Jane Russell/Marilyn Monroe musical, which ends with Monroe’s Lorelei Lee giving a defense of gold digging that is impossible to refute. The Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend number has become iconic. [Also on the Great Directors List for Howard Hawks]

#2 – All About Eve (1950) — With the exception of Monroe, this was the best film for everyone connected with it. Bette Davis is at her most Bette Davis-ish, playing the ultimate diva being replaced by the conniving Eve (Anne Baxter), all under the watchful eye of the poisonous theater critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders). Monroe’s in a supporting role, as a young actress in DeWitt’s care. It’s a melodrama and melodrama has never been better.

#1 – Some Like It Hot (1959) — Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon hide out in a women’s jazz band, with Monroe as the singer. Often cited as the greatest comedy of all time, it is certainly a contender, and my pick as the best film of 1959. It’s a buddy, drag, romantic comedy with gangsters and music. What’s not to love?  [Also on the Jack Lemmon List, and on the Great Directors List for Billy Wilder]

Mar 212019
 
four reels

In the mid-1990s, Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) is an amnesiac space soldier of the Kree empire, part of an elite squad lead by Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), tasked to fight the shape-changing Skrulls. A mission goes wrong and she is separated from her team, captured by the Skrull Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), and mind-probed. She escapes and ends up on Earth and encounters SHIELD agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). She sets out, with the help of Fury, to stop whatever plan the Skrulls have for Earth, but discovers that she’d lived on Earth before, and there are multiple mysteries that need to be cleared up.

I didn’t rush to write a review of Captain Marvel as it doesn’t need a recommendation, nor a basic description. It’s a MCU movie, and if Captain Marvel is on your radar, you know what that means. It’s the 21st film in the franchise and all of them are well made, exciting, occasionally funny, often meaningful, adventure romps. MCU films look good, sound good, and move at a decent pace. The mission and the villains matter less than the lead, making all of them almost intimate character films, just ones where things blow up. If you are one of the strange few people who don’t like MCU films (and box office numbers say you’d have to be strange), then you won’t like this one. But if you, like most people, have liked those other 20, then this film is for you. And if somehow you’ve missed them, then go start at Iron Man.

So what can be said about this entry that’s a little different? Well, Captain Marvel is a fun new character for the series, with a great deal more power than the other superheroes, though not close to Superman levels. And Brie Larson does an excellent job of bringing her to life. But that’s to be expected as the specific character might be new, but the MCU is built on fun characters brought to life by excellent performances. New side characters like Talos and Yon-Rogg have enough screentime to make them more than one dimensional cutouts, but little more, and again are given fine performances by solid pros. And again, that’s to be expected. And nope, this isn’t saying “Oh, we’ve seen it all before” because also one of the attributes of a MCU picture is that it is both familiar and fresh.

One newish factor (not new because they’ve done it for short scenes before) is the de-aging technology. 70-year-old Samuel L. Jackson looks easily fifteen years younger and there’s no uncanny valley issues. After a few minutes it’s no longer noticeable—it’s just Jackson playing Nick Fury. It’s perfect. The same is true of Clark Gregg in his much shorter appearance as Agent Coulson; I had to look up current pictures of the actor to see that he looks different now as he seemed natural in the film. That technology allows this film to be buddy cop movie, where a younger, sharp, but less bitter Fury chats with a determined Danvers as equals. It rounds out Fury’s character and adds an extra layer of fun.

The other new item is that this is the first MCU film with a solo female lead. This became a huge issue to small group of very fragile and frightened man-childs who were very upset that this film was somehow “not for us!” Outside of their trolling and outrage—all of which had no effect on the huge box office numbers, but did force the review site Rotten Tomatoes to alter their rules to stop people who haven’t seen a film from lowering its approval score—the gender of Captain Marvel doesn’t have that much to do with anything in the film. I wouldn’t call this a particularly feminist film. It does have a touch of girl power in the childhood flashbacks of Carol always getting up after she’s knocked down. Otherwise, it’s simply a more realist portrait of women’s lives than some are used to seeing on screen. That is, she gets catcalled (because women do), her skills are questioned (as is often the case for women), her emotional state is brought up by others (because that happens all the time), etc. And it’s mentioned that she wasn’t allowed to fly combat missions, because women weren’t allowed to fly combat missions. There’s no preaching about any of this. Apparently, the real world intruding the slightest bit into a fantasy film is too much for some guys.

One can draw some parallels between events in the film and our current immigration policy and attitudes, so there’s certainly some political content if you are looking for it. Of course that’s true of all MCU movies, and this one is in the bottom half with regard to amount of political content, below the much more politically charged Black Panther, Iron Man 1-3, Captain America 2-3, Avengers 2, The Incredible Hulk, and Spider-Man: Homecoming.

Captain Marvel is exactly what it was advertised to be. It’s joyful, smart, witty, occasionally funny, exciting, neither shallow nor too deep, and a worthy addition to the franchise.

Oh, and it has a cat. The cat’s great. If you like cat’s, this is your film. This is unquestionably the best cat movie ever.

 

(My ranking of all MCU movies)

Mar 172019
 

lubitschLubitsch was one of the most important directors of early Hollywood, but he’s mostly known now for those he inspired, particularly Billy Wilder, who coined the term “The Lubitsch touch” to describe the perfect solution to any cinematic problem. Lubitsch started as a silent director in Germany, then moved to the US where he directed sophisticated comedies. He made the transition to sound easily, creating a string of pre-code comedies and musicals that included a theme that would not be appreciated once the production code came in: a bit of adultery is not only acceptable, but can be advantageous for a relationship. Many of these films starred Maurice Chevalier and/or Jeanette MacDonald, both of whom have larger personalities than their parts could contain, and are, for modern audiences, acquired tastes.

The production code neutered him, resulting in the horrendous Design for Living; the play featured an on-again, off-again threesome and was prime material for Lubitsch, but had to be gutted to make it passed the censors. It took a few year’s for him to gain his footing, but he found a way to adjust to the new rules.

I can’t call Lubitsch one of the greats, not with Hitchcock, Hawks, Wilder, Huston, and Curtiz. Considering two of his top films were written by Billy Wilder, it’s hard not to think that perhaps Wilder had more to do with Lubitsch’s legacy than Lubitsch did. And of his best films, only two are truly great. But those two are great, and any look at golden age directors needs to include him.

An honorable mention for his segment of the anthology film, If I Had a Million (1932). It would be 3rd on his list below, but “The Clerk” lasts only a few minutes, and that is too small a percentage of the film for me to count it. And another honorable mention to The Love Parade, considered to be the first musical—with songs that are part of the story, and not stage performances of the characters. For the first half, it is the best of Lubitsch’s musicals, but it switches tone and loses its fun.

I’ll give one dishonorable mention, because if I didn’t mention The Shop Around the Corner, people would ask. It often pops up in the top 5 for Lubitsch, but it doesn’t deserve it. It is too solemn for a comedy and to silly for a drama. It is never funny, and it often drifts into being maudlin. Jimmy Stewart plays it with sincerity turned up to 13. And the romance is creepy. So lets get to some better films.

#8 – Cluny Brown (1946) — A strange film about the meaning of life, class structure, and politics in general. It is very witty, shot well, acted well, and seems to be on the verge of greatness, but can’t dig in its claws. It’s also annoying, making me want to punch most of the characters multiple times. Perhaps a bit more subtlety. Or more humor. Or…something…

#7 – Heaven Can Wait (1943) — Using a Film blanc frame where a man tells his life’s story to the Devil, this is really a gentle comedy romance with no real fantasy. The humor is light and never causes laughter, but it wasn’t meant to. The word “nice” was invented for this movie.

#6 – The Smiling Lieutenant (1931) — The oddest of Lubitsch’s musicals, it keeps his often cast Chevalier, but replaces MacDonald with Claudette Colbert and Miriam Hopkins (neither known as singers). It seems like it will be a pretty traditional rom-com, with true love being interrupted by an interloper, but it doesn’t go the way I expected.

#5 – The Merry Widow (1934) — The best, if also the most predicable, of the Lubitsch/Chevalier musicals. MacDonald is the richest person in a small mythical European country and her leaving will destroy the tax base, so the king sends a loveable scoundrel to attempt to woo her back. It’s definitely pre-code as Chevalier spends much of his time in a brothel.

#4 – Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938) — Lubitsch begins to get the hang of the new rules of Hollywood with this rom-com about a very rich man who wins a woman without informing her he’s been married seven times before. Colbert is her normal self which fits the picture well while David Niven excels as a submissive friend. Cary Cooper is a questionable choice for the lead, but he pulls it off well enough.

#3 – To Be or Not to Be (1942) — A pair of ham actors (Jack Benny and Carole Lombard) get mixed up with spies and the Nazis. It was castigated at the time for being in the worst taste, but has been reevaluated in recent years (particularly after the Mel Brooks remake) and is often considered a masterpiece. I find its current status to be an overreaction to the original silly one. It was a good film then (and in good taste) and is one now. Not great, but good.

#2 – Trouble in Paradise (1932) — Here’s where the Lubitsch touch is really seen as he takes a film that seems like it would be nothing special and makes it one of the greats. It’s wildly romantic and unlikely, with a gentleman cat burglar, a beautiful pickpocket, and a sublime millionairess. The script is sophisticated fun with love, sex, and robbery crossing paths. It takes serious study to identify all the innuendos. Both stars Kay Francis and Herbert Marshall had never been better, nor would they be as good again, and Miriam Hopkins shines in the supporting role.

#1 – Ninotchka (1939) — Lubitsch directed, Billy Wilder & Charles Brackett wrote, and Greta Garbo starred, and they are all at the top of their game. It’s funny, charming, romantic, and meaningful. Garbo is a communist agent sent to deal with a legal battle involving a White Russian Duchess’s jewels and a Western playboy. It manages to rip apart communism, capitalism, Russia, and the West, while being sympathetic toward all of them. I can’t award it best picture of 1939 (due to The Wizard of Oz), but it is my favorite.