Friday, January 23, 2015

Gone With the Fuzzy-Wuzzys: The Four Feathers (1939) ✭✭½

The Four Feathers, produced in that seminal cinematic year of 1939, is a rousing adventure epic that, for better or worse, reflects the popular mentality of its times. Produced by Alex Korda’s London Films, a massive operation known for sprawling costume dramas that took themselves way too seriously, The Four Feathers is all about the British military’s colonialist escapades in North Africa circa 1898. Based on a best selling novel by A.E.W. Mason, the story has been committed to celluloid at least six times - most recently as a Heath Ledger vehicle in 2002 – with each incarnation taking degrees of narrative license. But this production, directed by Korda’s brother Zoltan, is generally considered the definitive version. While it’s inherently unfair to apply today’s standards to a screenplay of this vintage, even the most tolerant appraisal would have to conclude that, despite its historical basis, this Four Feathers is guilty of excessive condescension and aggressive pandering. The film’s storyline simply isn’t believable, and its three acts range from sentimental to melodramatic to outright preposterous.

The film reduces the African conflict to a tale of four newly-minted British lieutenants: Willoughby (Jack Allen), Burroughs (Donald Gray), Durrance (Ralph Richardson) and Harry Faversham (John Clements). All are from upper-class military families, and strut about with gung ho, stiff-upper-lipped propriety reminiscent of Graham Chapman’s twitty General from the Monty Python skits. All except Faversham, a quiet, reserved chap who spends his evenings reading poetry, much to the disgust of his father (Allen Jeayes), a flinty retired officer who loudly complains that all the young men of England, especially his son, are “turning soft”. But young Faversham has other things on his mind. Along with deep, nagging doubts about the virtue of Britain’s war efforts, he’s also set to announce his engagement to the fetching Ethne; an elegant lass who, by Victorian standards, is quite the hottie. This bit of news hits the crestfallen Durrance quite hard – he was also vying for Ethne’s attentions – and a bitter rivalry develops between the two men; a rivalry that will serve as a prime mover for the rest of the film.

These expository scenes rank among the film’s best, with some wonderful technique driven acting and sumptuous, colorful sets. The Four Feathers is an early Technicolor production but unlike many of its peers, it strikes a good balance between saturated hues and realistic production design. Zoltan Korda’s fine touch with actors is evident, as the older generation puff on cigars and amusingly recall – some could say exaggerate - their youthful heroics in the Crimea. Clements, often derided as a wooden performer, is convincing here as a sensitive man struggling in a privileged world devoid of nuance, while Richardson is excellent as the jilted lover who cunningly decides to wait it out. Act One reverberates with a solemn sense of duty enlivened by moments of jaunty esprit de corps, and serves up enough grim foreshadowing to make viewers giddily anticipate the coming splendors.

Unfortunately, it’s at this point the wheels begin to fall off. On the eve of his unit’s deployment to Africa, Faversham abruptly resigns his commission. His excuse is pressing business at home, but he is soon declared a coward, and receives an envelope in the mail containing four feathers (one each from his former friends and fiancée) as an unsubtle hint. Eventually Faversham grows to regret his decision, and embarks for Egypt where he hatches a scheme to disguise himself as a Sudanese peasant, and act as a sort of guardian angel and unofficial spy for the British; secretly returning the feathers to his estranged friends in the process.

All manner of political incorrectness, and just plain idiocy, ensues as Faversham meets a kindly doctor in Cairo who agrees to “darken his skin” – no mention of how this will be achieved – in order to affect the charade. Somehow, despite the millions of souls involved in this war, a disguised, somewhat less pasty Faversham makes his way on foot – over hundreds of sweltering desert miles - to the precise encampment he seeks. Meanwhile, his former army buddies have discovered that service in the Sudan is no weekend in Brighton, as one has been struck blind (Blind, I tell you!!) by the broiling sun while the others have fallen victim to the perfidious Fuzzy Wuzzys. Yep, the local rebels are called Fuzzy Wuzzys, and it’s sort of a catchall epithet that appears not just in the dialogue, but on the intertitles as well. One would expect more sensitivity from the Kordas; after all, they were a Jewish clan from Hungary who spent much of their lives keeping one step ahead of the Nazi genocide.

The Four Feathers includes a number of impressive battle scenes involving thousands of extras, an equally high number of charging camels, and a perpetual hailstorm of bullets. The results will please action junkies, but given the script’s massive absurdities, it all seems like wasted spectacle. Logic is abandoned entirely during the climactic Battle of Omdurman sequence, when an improbable plot device allows scores of prisoners to escape and immediately find a cache of carbines, complete with inexhaustible supplies of ammunition, at their disposal. The action becomes so incoherent that as Faversham desperately attempts to complete his sacred mission, viewers are left amid a smoldering pile of blowed up Fuzzy Wuzzys, wondering what the hell just happened.

The Four Feathers reflects the spirit of a hip-hip-cheerio age of expansionist entitlement; when Anglo-Saxons wrong-headedly assumed a divine right of world domination. This is not the fault of the film, as motion pictures, like people, cannot choose their date of birth. But the film can be taken to task for its implausible twists and unreasonable demands of belief-suspension. While The Four Feathers may have resonated deeply with the audiences of 1939, today’s viewer will find it little more than a diverting, at times appalling, antique. The short, almost mocking, shrift given to Harry Faversham’s anti-war impulses speaks volumes about the ugly prevailing thought of the era. Ultimately, the suspect Faversham can only prove his bravery by going out and killing Fuzzy Wuzzys. Fortunately, at least for the most part, the civilized world has said goodbye to all that.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Sunlight Jr. (2013) ✭✭✭½

Sunlight Jr  is a grimy, unvarnished tale from the American underclass; a sort of anti-Downton. Set in a crumbling, un-touristy burg in Florida, the film stars Naomi Watts and Matt Dillion as a struggling couple living a hand to mouth existence in the minimum wage economy, one meager paycheck away from homelessness. When an unplanned pregnancy shines a harsh light on their paltry prospects, the couple’s emotional tether begins to unravel.

Writer/Director Laurie Collyer (Sherrybaby) has obviously studied the works of Haneke and the Dardennes and brings a similar gritty sensibility to this production. Some will also find the film reminiscent of Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine from 2010, but Collyer’s approach is more assured and natural, rendering superior results. Sunlight Jr. never relies on jiggly cameras, overlapping muttering or other tropes of cinema verite to sell viewers on the film’s authenticity. Collyer tells her downtrodden tale with appropriate vigor, but refreshingly doesn’t feel the need to beat up her audience in the process.

By any honest appraisal, Watts and Dillion are each about 20 years too old these parts, but that concern ultimately seems like a nitpick for their scenes spark genuine heat. Watts spends her chaotic life as a cashier at a thinly disguised Circle K franchise, ringing up cigs and Lottos for a clientele coping with equally dire finances. Her one hope is to someday qualify for a gauzy sounding college scholarship program offered by corporate headquarters. When this mysterious perk is finally revealed as just another example of corporate feel-good hokum lacking in substance, Watts sees the last chance to better her life discarded like a worthless scratcher ticket.

Some of the film’s best moments are supplied by the supporting cast. Norman Reedus, who does inbred despicable better than just about anybody, weaves in and out of the narrative as an old boyfriend with a passion for causing trouble. He has recently inherited a moldy tract house from his mother, making him the closest thing to landed gentry in the scruffy world of Sunlight Jr.  He has leased the house to Watts’ mom, played by Tess Harper, who eeks out a clamorous living by taking in foster kids. While there’s certainly been a lot of water under the bridge since Harper’s heyday in the 1980s, she still retains the unpolished earth mother ethos that made her a star.

While the film’s overall rating barely nudges it above “worth seeing,” the aspects it does well it does very well, and its crafting of an impoverished human landscape gives a fascinating glimpse at the results of 30 years of economic trickle-down. It is one of the few recent films to look soberly at the plight of poor women facing unplanned pregnancy and the crucial safety net offered by those women’s health organizations red state politicians so despise. Sunlight Jr.  neither celebrates nor demeans the working poor, but paints an involving, unsentimental portrait of an American Dream gone off the rails.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

New on TV - January 2015

Episodes ✭ 

Season Four Showtime

Yes, that's right, one star. Considering I could barely make it through a single 30 minute installment, I was stunned to learn that this show has been running for 4 years. Complete rubbish.  How can we miss Matt LeBlanc when he won't go away?

Togetherness ✭✭✭ 

Season One - HBO

This show was created and written by the Duplass Brothers and apparently some people consider that a good thing. It has some potential, namely the presence of Melanie Lynsky. The first episode was heavy on backstory and light on laughs, but hopefully that will get sorted as things progress.

Downton Abbey ✭✭✭✭½

Season Five - PBS

We're two episodes into the fifth season here in the States and so far not a lot has happened. The biggest deal is it looks like Lady Mary is about to do the wild thing with one of those indistinquishable fops that keep chasing her. However, you can tell much awkward unpleasantness is being set up for later in the year. And yes, a season six is in the works. I bet Dan Stevens is glad this show isn't holding him back anymore. (cough)

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Oscar Game Theory

Oscar nominations will announced Thursday, January 15. Here’s a quick look at two of the films sure to be in the running:

The Imitation Game (2014) ✭✭✭✭ tells the story of Alan Turing, a British mathematician who cracked the complex message coding system used by Germany in WWII, and was later prosecuted for homosexuality. Directed by Norway's Morten Tyldum (Headhunters), the film is very well done, with high levels of craft in every aspect of its production. Benedict Cumberbatch is excellent as Turing, and his performance is sure to get an Oscar nom.

The Imitation Game is quite the visual feast, with Maria Djurkovic’s impeccable production design illuminated by DP Oscar Faura’s soft, yet moody, sources. While Cumberbatch rightly dominates the proceedings, the film also features yet another fine performance by the great Charles Dance, as a stiff-upper-lip Army officer at a loss as to how to deal with Turing’s unconventional methods and brooding genius.

Despite its stately, textbook perfection - or perhaps because of it - The Imitation Game is a film that keeps viewers at arm’s length. It’s difficult to feel a true emotional connection to the characters and it seemed somewhat like an episode of Downton Abbey minus the lords and ladies and the estate overrun by commoners of dodgy provenance. And did it really take two years for the brightest minds in Britain to realize every German message ended with "Heil Hitler"? At any rate, The Imitation Game is certainly worth seeing, but I wouldn't drop everything and rush out to the theater. It will play just fine on the home screen.

On a similar track is The Theory of Everything (2014) ✭✭✭✭, a feel bad then feel good film that should please your entire entourage. Here we have the extraordinary story of world renown physicist and best selling author Stephen Hawking, who rose to prominence despite being diagnosed with ALS while a graduate student at Oxford in the 1960s.

Based on the memoirs of Hawking’s first wife Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones), the story more closely resembles a grand romance than a biopic, as Jane devotes herself to the care of her beloved - and increasingly incapacitated - genius and their three children. The Theory of Everything is intelligently written and well paced, with the excellent design and period details one expects from top notch British productions. James Marsh’s direction is dialed in perfectly, giving even the grim moments a life-affirming bounce.

Most amazing of all is the work of Eddie Redmayne as Hawking, who never fails to capture the warmth and sly, impish wit that resides deep within Hawking’s tragically contorted frame. Redmayne has received Golden Globe and SAG noms for this performance, and I suspect the Oscars will follow suit. As an interpretation of a disabled character, it ranks right along side Daniel Day Lewis’s turn as Christy Brown in My Left Foot (1989).

As a way to spend two hours, I would give a slight advantage to Theory over Imitation but the films are both of such superb quality you really can’t go wrong with either choice. In fact, these movies are so similar that in a way they seem to cancel each other out. That’s not an accident, for as 2010’s The King’s Speech proved conclusively, high gloss, high execution - and highly inoffensive - British biopics can be a gilded road to Oscar glory.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Happy Birthday J.K. Simmons

J.K. Simmons was born on January 9, 1955 in Detroit, Michigan, USA as Jonathan Kimble Simmons. He is an actor, known for Spider-Man (2002), The Closer (2005) andJuno (2007). He has been married to Michelle Schumacher since 1996. They have two children.
(Bio from IMDB)

J.K. Simmons turns 60 today, and it's great to see this career journeyman actor finally getting the recognition and praise he deserves. His astonishing portrayal in Whiplash has received SAG and Golden Globe nominations, and the Oscars will likely follow suit. This should be an exciting awards season for Simmons. I hope he's made some room on his bookcase.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

News and Notes from Hither and Yon

  • Soundstage Studios has pieced together an assortment of behind the scenes videos for a number of popular films. If you're interested in movie magic, you'll love this set. Check it out.

  • Nicolas Bell of Ioncinema is compiling the 100 Most Anticipated Foreign Films of 2015, with lots of interesting info. Start here and click through the list.

  • J.B. of The Fantom Country waxes poetic about Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice. If the film is half as interesting as J.B.'s review, it will be a winner.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Briefly Noted - January 2015

Non-Stop (2014) ✭½ 

The first 20 minutes or so are actually pretty good, but then it all goes to shite in a hurry. My vote for Stupidest Movie of the Year.

The Dreamers (2003)✭✭✭

I avoided this movie for 10 years. I could have continued that trend and not missed a thing. Meh.

Mystery at the Moulin Rouge (2011) ✭✭½ 

Not even the divine Emilie Dequenne can save this dumb thing.

Living Afterward (2011) ✭✭✭✭ 

Haneke-style meditation on a family's grief. Gray, bleak, minimal, moving.