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story.lead_photo.caption Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn and James Stewart star in George Cukor’s The Philadelphia Story (1940).

We're coming to the last films of this series next week, so the grab bag of titles is dwindling. Thus, the range of films is more all over the map.

This week, I took in a romantic comedy classic from the '40s, set in my hometown; a great anti-Western from the early '70s that casts a scathing eye to capitalism; a legendary Russian sci-fi psycho freak-out; an 8 ½ -inspired journey through the artistic consciousness of a Broadway believer; and a disappointing home-invasion flick whose reputation far exceeds its grasp.

With a week to go, there are already thematic and stylistic connections to be made between titles, which goes to show you the interconnectedness of a given medium, with one singular auteur influencing countless other filmmakers. Wheezing only slightly, we move onward and upward to the last week.

1. The Philadelphia Story (1940): As far as city-spun films go, this would be the definite other side of the Rocky saga: We aren't in North Philly, the Italian Market, or the steps of the Art Museum; instead, we are out on the tony Main Line, where the demanding, queenlike Tracy Lord (Katherine Hepburn) is poised to remarry after kicking her first husband, the debonair drunkard C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant), since sobered, to the curb some years before.

Her new beau, George Kittredge (John Howard) is rich but priggish, and no one wants to see him come into the family, least of all Haven, who sets up a sort of coup, using reporter Macaulay Conner (James Stewart), and photographer Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussey) from Spy magazine, reluctantly there to cover the high-society event, as a kind of extended decoy.

In the course of the 24 hours before the bride and groom are to be hitched, Tracy's philandering father (John Halliday) returns from a dalliance in New York; Dexter keeps popping over to the mansion to charm everyone; the prenuptial evening party becomes awash in a sea of fine Champagne and, eventually, Macaulay and Tracy hitting the pool together in a sweetly romantic escapade sometime shortly before the sun rises, causing all sorts of other misadventures.

Donald Ogden Stewart's screenplay, adapted from the play by Philip Barry, plays like a poor man's Noel Coward -- all spicy quips and staccato put-downs in short declarative sentences -- but the strong chemistry among cast members and fine turns by a young Stewart, filled with bitter bonhomie, and Hepburn, playing the sort of haughty-but-troubled character that would typify her career, along with the anchoring Grant, gives the film a spiky kind of charm.

It's a romantic comedy, in the end, and not much more, but undeniably amiable. None of its considerable wit is likely to replace "Yo, Adrian!" as a battlecry for the city's sports teams, but it certainly earns its place in cinematic lore.

Score: 8.5/10

Relevancy: 5/5

2. McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971): Few directors got more out of crowd scenes than Robert Altman, whose crisscross conversation verite created a documentary-style feel, even with stylized genre work such as this peculiar anti-Western.

You have a traditional sort of setup: McCabe (Warren Beatty), a largely unknown stranger, comes to a remote town in the Pacific Northwest. With the help of an experienced businesswoman, Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie), as a partner, sets up a renowned brothel. It does big business for a while, until a larger corporate concern wants to buy him out, first with a paltry cash offer, and shortly thereafter with a siege of bullets.

But where it goes from there, including a climactic shootout in which the snow pours down so thickly it's often hard to discern the characters. And with a protagonist spending a great deal of time scurrying away from the hired guns rather than confronting them in a duel, it certainly veers off of the standard course.

As a precursor to other, more realistic-type Westerns such as Unforgiven and the HBO series Deadwood, it works to de-mythologize the idea of the West as a moral crucible with clear-cut villains, heroes, and easily stocked ethical axioms, and instead fixes as a dirty, vile place, filled with desperation, cruelty, filthy conditions, and great injustice.

At the center is the effective-but-callous Mrs. Miller, whose flinty persona, honed, we are to understand, by years of degradation and countless Johns, is almost never lifted. As Christie plays her, there are emotions burning under the surface, but her skin is just thick enough to block the light from seeping out.

Score: 8.8/10

Relevancy: 5/5

3. Solaris (1971): Reportedly, the great Russian auteur Sergei Tarkovsky disdained the comparison between his philosophical sci-fi treatise and Stanley Kubrick's masterful 2001: A Space Odyssey, which Tarkovsky may or may not have seen before making his own film some three years later, claiming the latter was "sterile."

That's debatable, at least as an insult, but it is clear no one could accuse his film of such a transgression: It's messy in every sense of the word, and not just because the production values seem wildly out of whack, and characters flit about in various states of psychotic unwind.

The film concerns a psychologist, Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis), who travels to a remote space station outside a distant planet with a living ocean, checking in on the surviving crew, only to find one member has already killed himself, and the other two are haunted by corporeal visages from their past, the dead and gone reimagined as a kind of 3-D phantasm, somehow manifested by the churning ocean underneath.

It's not long until Dr. Kelvin is greeted by his own ghostly vision -- his long dead ex-wife (Natalya Bondarchuk), with whom he finds himself still very much in love -- only it's a facsimile of her, a fact she is all too aware of, which drives her continually mad.

It is a deeply serious film, even if some of its stylistic conventions are rudimentary. If you find yourself distracted by the peculiar costumes -- Dr. Kelvin's "space suit" on arrival at the station consists of weird stirrup pants, a black leather jacket, and a mesh shirt you were likely to see on the dance floor of Studio 54 some years later -- or paltry effects, you are most definitely missing the point.

The opposite of high-minded, huge budget sci-fi fare (Interstellar comes to mind), with spectacular special effects designed to knock any narrative objections you might have out of your head, Tarkovsky instead presents his material largely unadorned with such modern refinements, which actually proves to the film's advantage in various ways. With its use of flashbacks as memory precursors, and satisfyingly twisty ending, it, as with 2001, set the stage for much of the sci-fi fare -- see Moon, Pandorum, Arrival, or this year's Annihilation -- that has come after it.

Score: 7.8/10

Relevancy: 5/5

4. All That Jazz (1979): Bob Fosse's brilliantstyle self-reflection is another peek inside the tortured (and torturing) consciousness of an artist. In this case the artist is Fosse himself, a successful filmmaker and Broadway choreographer, who leads a life rampant with booze, drugs, endless work, and countless women.

The film plays like a rhapsody, if you will, of a man perilously close to killing himself before dying outright, but doing it in a fantasia-type style that allows him to go out the way he might have wanted to. In truth, Fosse held on another eight years before dying at 60.

As played by Roy Scheider, Joe Gideon is successful and revered in theater circles, putting together a new show ostensibly for his ex-wife (Leland Palmer), while also putting final edits on a new film called The Standup. Between the stress of both projects, a bad chain-smoking habit, too much booze and Dexedrine, and trying to keep up with his various paramours and exes -- not to mention young daughter (Erzsebet Foldi) -- all vying for his love and attention, Joe eventually breaks down.

Hospitalized, and facing serious heart surgery (yikes!), he stages a fantasy closing show in his mind's eye. With a similar wit and style to Fellini's masterpiece (see Week 3), Fosse takes us deep inside his subconscious, much of which is represented by an ongoing conversation with a beautiful muse (a very young Jessica Lange) in a backstage dressing room.

Candid and unsparing, Fosse captures the intense narcissism and neediness of the theatrical artist without veering into melodrama or excuses. Unafraid to die, at least at first, Joe well realizes the life he leads can't last forever, but is unwilling to change in order to hang on any longer.

Released in 1979, a hell of a cinematic year for American studios -- including Apocalypse Now, Alien and Being There, among others -- Fosse's ode to death and dying stands right alongside the best of them, both as a kind of requiem, and a time capsule of late '70s Broadway, before AIDS, Ronald Reagan, and the rise of the yuppie: cynical, but infectiously joyous.

Score: 9.2/10

Relevancy: 5/5

5. The Strangers (2008): A weak, quasi-remake of the vastly superior French home-invasion film, Them, the film stars Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman as a young couple already suffering a rough night -- he has asked her to marry him and she has rejected his offer. Things get much, much worse by the advent of a random, nonsensical trio of mask-wearing sadists who terrorize the couple for an interminable hour before they (and Bryan Bertino, the film's director) finally have their way with them.

Among other things, the film suffers from a lazy capitulation -- the killers are constantly given the advantage of precision choreography such that every jump scare moment is perfectly timed to work to their advantage. At one point, a friend of the couple drives over to pick them up, but unwittingly arrives at the exact moment Speedman's character has a gun and is primed to use it indiscriminately.

Given the idea that this was a random, ill-conceived murder plot, it greatly dulls the film's effectiveness that the murderers are afforded such supernatural good luck and timing. As the invaders are masked, faceless, seemingly unstoppable and their motivation is annoyingly vague ("You were home," one says simply when asked why they've gone to such lengths), there's never any actual tension point, the movie ham-handedly tips its own climax.

I've certainly seen worse, but there's very little here to support its reputation among horror/thriller aficionados. After viewing this, I might have to re-assess my harsh review of Michael Haneke's Funny Games, a film that took to task Americans' penchant for just this type of senseless onscreen sadism. Perhaps he had more of a point than I gave him credit for.

Score: 2.2/10

Relevancy: 2/5

MovieStyle on 07/20/2018

Print Headline: 30X30: Penultimate list a mishmash

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