Short Film Saturday: Finding Heart – Shark Conservationist

If you saw last week’s post you saw the beginning of the series. It continues here. This one is a case of subject being a bit more intriguing than the short, however, there it’s still highly effective and there is a definite sense of style and tonality that Harries is achieving here.

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Mini-Review: Shadow Dancer

Introduction

This is a post that is a repurposing of an old-school Mini-Review Round-Up post. As stated here I am essentially done with running multi-film review posts. Each film deserves its own review. Therefore I will repost, and at times add to, old reviews periodically. Enjoy!

Shadow Dancer

This is the kind of film you want to talk about gingerly because there are a few gut-punches in it that bookend the film. Those are great and best left preserved. However, all that you need to know about it going in can be found on the synopsis on the IMDb/box: a woman is arrested in a failed IRA terrorist attack and asked to spy on her family.

While the film is very enjoyable, dramatic and intriguing the intervening majority that sits between the two bookends isn’t quite as tight as it could be. This is a quibble-level complaint though because of how strong it sets things up and closes them out, I just wish the middle met it. However, smart, character-driver thrillers are too hard to find so it doesn’t hurt the film that much. This is very good film that deserves your viewership. The performances by Riseborough and Owen especially make it work.

8/10

Mini-Review: Beyond the Walls

Introduction

This is a post that is a repurposing of an old-school Mini-Review Round-Up post. As stated here I am essentially done with running multi-film review posts. Each film deserves its own review. Therefore I will repost, and at times add to, old reviews periodically. Enjoy!

Beyond the Walls

While the performances by the films two leads (Guillaume Gouix & Matila Malliarakis) are quite good, especially the latter, what passes in this film is ultimately an ineffectual drama. What you have here is a tale where one man discovering his sexual identity falls for another. As fate would have it, when they’ve barely established anything, they are torn apart. The link remains longer than logical, which is fine but there is minimal consequence to it. There is then a bittersweet passage toward the end that is well-rendered but really does not feel earned in the slightest.

5/10

Mini-Review: Venus and Serena

Introduction

This is a post that is a repurposing of an old-school Mini-Review Round-Up post. As stated here I am essentially done with running multi-film review posts. Each film deserves its own review. Therefore I will repost, and at times add to, old reviews periodically. Enjoy!

Venus and Serena

Whenever you’re dealing with a documentary about current athletes there is always a undercurrent of concern about the PR spin or publicity angle of the piece. However, Venus and Serena does manage to a bit more even-handed than anticipated in three notable instances once about an early coaching stint and two times about Serena’s more noteworthy on court outbursts. What is also fortunate is that the film was allowed to be a more human tale as for the most part it chronicled the 2011 season where they both dealt with their share of injuries so the film goes back and forth between the rehab process and personal information and their path to that point.

While the film does lack a bit in narrative thrust, it is a good portrait of their lives and career to that point.

6/10

Mini-Review: Museum Hours

Introduction

This is a post that is a repurposing of an old-school Mini-Review Round-Up post. As stated here I am essentially done with running multi-film review posts. Each film deserves its own review. Therefore I will repost, and at times add to, old reviews periodically. Enjoy!

Museum Hours

This is a film that is most effective in how it examines its two characters in passing glances, much like museum exhibits themselves. That may sound as if it’s sophistry but I think if you were to apply that thesis to the whole of the way the film is constructed, the tales that are being told, you’ll see it holds.

The film is ostensibly about a woman (Mary Margaret O’Hara) who heads to Vienna at her cousin’s side while she is sick. With much time to herself to wander a strange city she spends much time at the art museum and befriends one of the guards there (Bobby Sommer). After he helps her, they become friendly. In the film you see: snatches of their conversations where they talk about their lives, shots of paintings and other exhibits and there’s one extended scene of a tour guide (Ela Piplits) espousing her theories on the works of Bruegel. Her dialogue is key to reading the film, in my estimation.

This is not to say that the film is a difficult one to follow. It’s quite a straightforward one. However, it’s connecting these disparate threads through that notion that give it a greater significance and unity. Leaving those pieces apart it can seem a fine, albeit disjointed effort. When one considers that we look at art and try to interpret the artists, that we speak to others and try to interpret them and that we tell our tales and try to interpret ourselves; but can only so in small strokes, in passing glances, within the short amount of time that “museum hours” encompass, then the whole of this work comes together much more strongly. It’s not a film about Bobby, who is Austrian, or Anne, who is Canadian, or Pieter Bruegel who was a Dutch master, but rather about all of us and our journey to understand and be understood, to empathize and to have empathy shown toward us.

10/10

Mini-Review: Three Worlds

Introduction

This is a post that is a repurposing of an old-school Mini-Review Round-Up post. As stated here I am essentially done with running multi-film review posts. Each film deserves its own review. Therefore I will repost, and at times add to, old reviews periodically. Enjoy!

Three Worlds

What you get in Three Worlds is a very compelling situation (a witness to a hit-and-run unwittingly becomes a liaison between the victim’s wife and the culprit) handled in a fairly unconventional way. What this film could turn into is one of histrionics that quickly spirals into things hard to believe or identify with. What instead it chooses to do is be a morality play. As it examines how the incident affects three characters, the push-and-pull, the ebb and flow of each turn of events puts the characters in places they did not expect to be. It’s not as if each decision in the film does not lead to a domino effect, it’s the path that the dominoes take that makes it most enjoyable to watch.

No character in this film is simplistic or one-dimensional, neither entirely altruistic or calculated. This allows for, and requires, much greatness from each of the principal actors and they do bring that. Raphaël Personnaz make me think of what a young Jean-Pierre Leaud would have brought to this film in a different time. Clotilde Hesme’s performance as a woman whose desire to help people, and her inclination to see the good in them, gets the best of her is pitch perfect. Arta Dobroshi, who has perhaps the most demanding tasks assigned her plays conflicting emotions and philosophies such that you always understand her and sympathize with her position.

Three Worlds reveals its characters throughout while still telling a very compelling tale and is worth looking out for.

9/10

The Miriam Hopkins Blogathon: These Three and The Children’s Hour – The Adaptation of Miriam Hopkins

Introduction

One thing I must fully acknowledge before beginning was that prior to signing up for this Blogathon Miriam Hopkins was not a name I could connect to a face. When I checked her filmography on the IMDb I saw that i had seen her in a few things but it hadn’t stuck with me for some reason. At that point I thought I would pass on the blogathon. However, then I got to following links and I realized that she was in not one but two versions of Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour on the big screen. The opportunity to cover the multiple fascinating angles that affords got me more into.

First of all, I find it quite interesting that both she and William Wyler were drawn to the title on more than one occasion. Second, an actor playing two parts in the same story over the course of a career is quite interesting as well. Third, due to the fact that 25 years elapsed between the films it also displays Hopkins at two very different stages in her career. Lastly, what makes these two versions of The Children’s Hour, the earlier called These Three, interesting to compare and contrast is that since the initial adaptation was made in the early days of the Code being fully enforced it’s a rather different treatment of the narrative that removes overt references to lesbianism entirely.

In the structuring of this post I will touch on all these topics while attempting to keep a bulk of the discussion on Hopkins, and extrapolate and disseminate other points from that place.

The Children’s Hour (1934 a play by Lillian Hellman)

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To start with I wanted to finally get to read The Children’s Hour. When I was in college, in one of those oh-so-wise syllabus-requirements I was asked to purchase Six Plays by Lillian Hellman even though we were only going to study the Little Foxes. I don’t mind having extra plays, it just seemed a little silly as required reading.

I happened upon excerpted reviews of the play on Goodreads before I embarked on reading it that I must say disappointed me a great deal. They did so because they said things to the extent of “it doesn’t seem so shocking now, maybe it was then…” and they would proceed to discuss why they think the play is mediocre. The issue there is that they’re missing the point entirely. Firstly, there’s only a halfway decent rationalization of the time period. Yes, discussing the subject of homosexuality in 1934 carried far more weight, however, I do not think that shock was the sole intent of the play – or even the intent, at most it’s the hook. The tale in its original form and in the 1961 film is a tragic one. It’s about perceptions, attitudes, rumors and lies. Furthermore, many of the things that Lillian Hellman wrote in 1934 are still said in America in 2015 when the topic is discussed by some the perceived relationship is described as “unnatural,” “it becomes a great deal more than that when children are involved,” “I don’t understand it. I don’t want any part of it,” “But this isn’t a new sin they tell us we’ve done. Other people aren’t destroyed by it.” Clearly we’re not as advanced as we’d like to think. Some of these very prejudices and perceptions are still bandied about like they make the most sense in the world. Furthermore, a child’s word when they do not understand the totality of what they are insinuating is the same thing that incites the recent Danish film The Hunt. Clearly I think there is still a vitality to this play that belies the date of its first production such that I wouldn’t mind it being revisited anew. However, it clearly struck a nerve in 1934 and remained relevant enough that it was deemed worth of revisiting when film was entering a bolder, new era.

Now back to the era at hand when this story first rolled onto the silver screen the liberties Miss Hellman was afforded as a playwright were not the same she would be afforded as a credited screenwriter, not to the studio adapting her work seeing as how the Pre-Code madness was snuffed out and the Code was in full force.

These Three (1936)

These Three (1936, Samuel Goldwyn)

In the initial Production Code there is a section on “Impure Love.” In that section is detailed that any sexual congress deemed inappropriate by the Bible were impermissible. It then goes on to detail how things like extra-marital affairs or pre-marital relations should be handled when necessary as plot elements. Banished from even mention in the code was homosexuality. Even miscegenation, was later addressed and strictly forbidden in an amendment. Homosexuality it was understood was not to be broached. It was in fact the “love that dare not speak its name” in his mind.

Thus, when dealing with a narrative wherein a child claims her two female teachers have an unnatural relationship not only can Martha not confess that she believes she has loved Karen “the way they said” the entire insinuation has to be struck or risk being banned altogether. Therefore, the story must be told under the guise of something that can be dealt with, but not glorified: a heterosexual love triangle with jealousy.

To make the story function in this manner two things were highly necessary: first, a meet-cute treatment for all three with Carden (Joel McCrea) being drawn to romantic interest in Karen (Miriam Hopkins), and just friendly interest with Martha (Merle Oberon). Second, Mary has to be even more the villain in this film than she was in the play. Thanks in large part to the rather spectacular scene-stealing performance by Bonita Granville that is accomplished.

Hopkins in this film has a statuesque poise and refinement that make her perfectly suited to the role. There’s a certain authority that lends her character, which while she seems affable enough she also has a no-nonsense approach to dealing with the likes of Mary and a cool patience with the flights of Mrs. Mortar (Catharine Doucet).

It would be tedious to quantify but it seems in this version Martha get a much greater share of the screen time. However, the ensemble scenes such as the initial confrontation with Mrs. Tilford (Alma Kruger) are all beautifully handled.

Hopkins certainly has no troubles engendering sympathy, and being the heroine getting for us to root for her. Now the story in this version does conclude in a standard Hollywood was (again owing to the code), however, while some say that this film reads as even more of a lesbian love story with the change in dynamics, I do not after first viewing. Yes, I did feel the insinuation nipping around the edge every once in a while, but Rebecca this most certainly is not.

The Children’s Hour (1961)

The Children's Hour (1961, United Artists)

One thing that is immediately clear to those that have both read/seen the play and seen this version is that it is far more faithful to the original text than the prior incarnation. With the transformation of the alleged transgression in the first one changing one would think that would be a given, but this film does more closely approximate the play even in its claustrophobic mostly chambered set-pieces.

Part of the film being allowed to be so faithful is not just the different era in which it was made but also the involvement of screenwriter John Michael Hayes. Hayes a two-time Academy Award nominee and WGA Lifetime Achievement Award recipient was prior to this film wrote Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, The Trouble with Harry, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) and many more.

Having William Wyler at the helm again helps this film achieve far greater heights than the one before it. Those achievements further bolstered by the film receiving five Oscar nominations.

The first time I saw The Children’s Hour was during TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar and it’s interesting to note that in an interview segment with Shirley Maclaine she lamented, practically apologized for the fact that the subject matter though known to all was not discussed on set. She felt it showed in the finished product. I don’t believe it did, and it astounds me based on the results. Now that I think on that fact more that could have a lot to do with the way scenes played out on film that the cast was working under the discomfort that people in society felt in even broaching the subject and channeled it into their performance.

From Martha to Lily

These Three (1936, Samuel Goldwyn)

Not to be forgotten in the midst of the tremendous work that Hepburn and Maclaine do in this film is the contribution of Miriam Hopkins as Lily Mortar. As Martha’s aunt and the school’s elocution teacher she plays a pivotal role in the proceedings. Mrs. Mortar is a far more insidious type as she’s an aloof, eccentric actress who seems silly and harmless until she gets angry and uses the words that can all-too-easily be misconstrued, and later damns the pair with her absence.

Interestingly its Hopkins’ refined elegant air that here matured and combined with the eccentric behaviors she employs for the role of Lily that make the transition seamless. I was struck by this notion of playing different characters in the same drama ever since I saw a one-act play about an actress who spent her life in The Sound of Music transitioning from one role to another. It would’ve been fascinating to see Hopkins have completed a trilogy, but that’s just dreaming.

Interestingly, in part because as a whole the impact of The Children’s Hour is so much greater than its predecessor’s that, Hopkins impresses and sticks in my mind more in the newer version with a supporting role than in the original where she was one of the leads. This is due to the aforementioned air, the key role the scenes play and the humanizing aspect Hopkins brings to the part. It can be far too easy to play Lily Mortar as a caricature, but to make her human, understandable even if intolerable is the task of a great actress. It’s an occasion that she more than rises to, but embraces.

Conclusion

La Rumeur (The Children's Hour) (1961, Samuel Goldwyn)

It is quite a small sample size, just two of over 50 credits, but it was great to have a chance to focus on her work in two versions of the same story. It was also great to be able to focus more closely on the adaptation and film-crafting of a story that truly moves me a great deal.

Short Film Saturday: Following Heart – The Violinist (2014)

For those who are not aware Jack and Finn Harries have gone from performers on the British sketch comedy series School of Comedy to YouTube personalities to now writing, directing and producing independent documentary projects.

This title is the first in a series called Following Heart, presented by Skype. It’s a wonderful short subject documentary that refuses to fall prey to talking head syndrome as it wonderfully blends voice over narration, music and visuals to tell its story artistically and viscerally. It’s well worth viewing.

If you want to be skeptical about the commercial presentation there is a clear reason for it. Furthermore, having backing doesn’t automatically taint short subject documentary projects. Another notable example is Xzavier by Werner Herzog for AT&T.

Enjoy!

Rewind Review: X-Men Origins: Wolverine

X-Men Origins: Wolverine is a strange little film. This isn’t necessarily always a bad thing in the case of this film but it’s just strange. It seems as if in an hour and forty minutes that not very much story was told and whatever story was told wasn’t properly focused.
The opening sequence which takes place in the Northwest Territory of Canada in the 1840s is quite strong. Yet it barely keeps its head above water. What drives the first four to five minutes is the performance of Troye Sivan who was great despite little screen time. Michael-James Olsen as young Creed, aside from one line reading, was forgettable and the one line, delivered by Aaron Jeffery, which was supposed to be a surprise wasn’t and was poorly delivered. Aside from a conversation when Victor reveals his clear stand on what he thinks his powers on there is no examination of the impact of young Wolverine’s actions on him and where he went from there.
One of the hardest balancing acts a film has to do is when to age a character. Though it was predictable that once the opening title sequence began that Hugh Jackman and Liev Schrieber would appear and while it’s cutesy to see them going through the major American wars until we get to the present day of the tale a lot ends up getting glossed over and they’re almost immediately through their service and going to be executed, when that fails enter Stryker.
Stryker is rounding up a unit for a very covert task which you discover later and they’re off to Nigeria in search of Adamantium, which the team in unaware of they are just doing a job. Wolverine is not having it and leaves.
He goes back home. He lives in a cabin with Kayla Silverfox (Lynn Collins) and in their most intimate moment lies an example of the problem with the film. She tells him of a native legend of the moon and a creature, a wolverine, being separated and it serves its purpose, like it or not, and it’s over only it’s not because it’s flashed back to twice; once in audio, in short order thereafter. Flashbacks of this kind are typically only necessary when you have a complicated plot or want to highlight a twist and this fell into neither. Logan sitting on his bed and looking stressed could look just as effective without it, more so in all likelihood.
There then comes the unnecessary scene where Logan nearly attacks a jerk on the road because he won’t move his car. The plot that ensues of Wolverine on his way to try and find Stryker and seek his revenge on his terms isn’t unnecessary it just could’ve unfolded quicker perhaps. Did the Blob really need to lead to Gambit? Either could’ve had all the information. It was a very odd mix of action scenes that didn’t necessary have a lot of kinetic energy or the highest stakes and almost completely forsaking character.
It says Wolverine on the poster, he needs to have an antagonist which is Stryker and his other struggle is with Creed. The other characters are kind of like window-dressing it’s fun and fine but doesn’t really accomplish much. The shock that’s supposed to be delivered at the end, seeing Kayla alive when she’s supposed to be dead, doesn’t really hold much weight. In fact, Stryker killing the general is slightly more surprising but still not jaw-dropping. It’s a little strange that she had to say so little to Logan to be forgiven when her character are Logan’s are so underdeveloped, which is saying something when this is the 4th X-Men movie.
Recent articles about the Wolverine sequel have quoted producers as saying that it’s their “responsibility to remain true to the source material.” Which would be good because this was neither like the original three or the comics and if you’re going to change things like that, of course, that’s their prerogative and there’s little that can be done about it but they could’ve been executed this tale differently and better than they did.

5/10