Month: December 2016

Kirk Douglas in The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)

*mild spoilers*

Kirk Douglas is somewhat of a legend, but to be honest, I don’t know much about him other than him being Michael Douglas’ dad and that Melissa Leo awkwardness during the Oscars. From what I’ve read, he seems to be considered one of the best actors of that era who, according to Wikipedia, “dived into every role, dissecting not only his own lines but all the parts in the script to measure the rightness of the role, and he was willing to fight with a director if he felt justified.

It’s easy to see that pursuit of excellence in The Bad and the Beautiful, because he easily stands out as the shining light of this rather stupid movie. The Bad and the Beautiful tells the story of an unscrupulous producer Jonathan Shields (Douglas), who utilises an actress (Lana Turner), a director (Barry Sullivan) and a writer (Dick Powell in an extremely dull performance) to build his career. The story is told through the three characters recalling their experience with Shields and how he pretty much screwed them over. Never mind that though, cause once they finish telling their stories, they get a stern lecture from Harry Pebble (Walter Pidgeon), who is pretty much like “Yeah, he fucked you up emotionally but hey, he gave you your success too.” It could have been an extremely complex and fascinating morality tale, but the whole thing is just one-dimensional, flat and boring, especially the last act involving Powell’s character. Gloria Grahame’s nomination alone is baffling, much less her win.

To be honest, the performance is written to be a pretty repetitive one, with each act involving Jonathan charming his “target” and then successfully  screwing them over. The first thing that Douglas does to overcome this problem is to inject a LOT of charisma and charm into this role (it’s almost as if he knew how weirdly written his character is), such that you never tire of watching him. His presence is incredibly strong and it’s easy to see why he is considered one of the greatest movie stars.

But beyond the charisma and charm is some pretty strong characterisation that allows us to understand Jonathan as a character and his motivations. In the first act with the aspiring director Fred Amiel, we get to see many excellently portrayed sides of Jonathan, from the incredibly intense energy Douglas exudes to portray his drive, to his charming personality that could persuade anyone, to his brutal nature when he cuts off Fred from directing his next picture. There is not a false note in his performance, and I found it very easy to believe that Jonathan was able to build his success this easily because of how driven, ambitious and charmingly manipulative he is. There’s a kind of bromance between the Fred and Jonathan that works very well, mainly thanks to Douglas. I actually enjoyed watching them build their careers together. There is an especially memorable scene where both of them were brainstorming a rather silly movie about “Cat Men”. Douglas actually made me believe that the movie could work with his enthusiasm.

The second act is also equally strong, once you get over the weird casting of the super beautiful/glamorous Lana Turner as Georgia Lorrison, an alcoholic and depressed actress with a severe inferiority complex (Her performance is actually not too bad though). While it’s pretty much the same formula of him using her to succeed, Douglas displays a suprisingly moving tenderness and kindness when grooming Georgia, and he actually makes their relationship an interesting one. We know from the start that Jonathan doesn’t (want to) love her, and yet the internal struggle is surprisingly believable and intense. His breakdown scene when caught cheating is a surprisingly good mixture of rage, guilt and humiliation, allowing the viewers to see a darker, more emotionally vulnerable side of Jonathan. They also have pretty good chemistry and it’s easy to see why Georgia was charmed over by him.

The last act with James Lee Bartlow, the writer played by Dick Powell, is where Douglas’ performance falters. For one, the writing sucks and I really found it hard to buy this part of the story. Basically, we are introduced to the fact that 2 of Jonathan’s latest films have bombed, and out of desperation, he recruits James Lee to help out with his next project. A major portion of this act focuses on the relationship between James Lee and his vapid wife Rosemary (Gloria Grahame). I suspect this part was intended to be the “lighter moment” of the film, where we get to see Rosemary constantly bugging James Lee and preventing him from getting work done…which…okay? I mean, it’s hardly believable and it doesn’t help that there’s absolutely zero chemistry between Grahame and Powell. So in comes Jonathan, who sends away Rosemary with some big movie star in order to get James Lee the peace he needed. Unfortunately, *spoilers* the plane crashes, killing Rosemary and the movie star *spoilers*. It’s freaking stupid, although I get that it’s supposed to portray Jonathan’s brutal side. Not that he actually caused the crash, but rather the fact that he so “cruelly” caused Bartlow to lose his wife. Credibility aside, Douglas is actually hardly in this act. There are still a couple of good moments, like when he decided to take over the directing of the film himself and then later shelve it when he thought it was terrible. Still, the performance does lose quite a bit of its steam here.

All in all, I thought Kirk Douglas did a pretty great job here. His performance steals the entire movie, which btw, is also kinda boring. He gives the character charisma, intensity and actually a surprising amount of depth. It could have been a 5 star performance, but that last act was so poorly written that I felt it dragged it down quite a bit. Still, it’s worth watching. 4/5.



Diane Keaton in Reds (1981)

Been pretty busy doing other things so I didn’t get to watch many films. I was travelling in Japan, doing theatre work, reading and playing Fallout 4. As usual, I haven’t caught any of the major Oscar contenders this year (nope, don’t consider Elle or Nocturnal Animals) and I guess I am going to procrastinate till post-awards again LOL.

I finally found time to watch some film performances and I decided to go back to Diane Keaton. Maybe it’s because she’s my favourite actress, but the fact that she is going to be rewarded the AFI Life Achievement next year suddenly made me want to watch her movies again. She is one of those actress whom I cannot dislike, although I totally understand the issues people have with her. Even when her performances are technically not that good (*coughs*Morning Glory*coughs*), I inexplicably get drawn in because of the way she acts from her heart. In all seriousness though, I have always thought of her as a much more versatile performer than most people give her credit for. I actually think she shines in her dramatic roles much better than the comedic performances she is typically known for (other than Annie Hall of course).

Keaton received her second best actress nomination for her role as Louise Bryant in Reds, a 3 hours 15 minutes epic about the lives and works of journalists John Reed and Louise Bryant during the Bolshevik Revolution. I used to hate this movie a couple of years back and I thought of it as nothing more than a vanity project for Warren Beatty. Right now, well, I still think it is but I did manage to appreciate it with a more mature set of eyes. I think back then I tried too hard to understand the political bits (I am terrible at history and politics), but that’s pretty unnecessary considering the film is actually more of a romantic epic. I mean, if you are really interested/knowledgeable then I guess those parts would be of interest to you, but the impression I got was that they are just scratching the surface of what truly happened. Anyway. Jack Nicholson gives an incredible supporting performance as Eugene O’Neill, and watching his performance reminded me of the unfulfilled commitment I made to watch more of his movies. Maureen Stapleton gives a much better performance than I recalled and even though I still don’t think her performance is that amazing, I don’t really mind her Oscar win now.

If you have loved Keaton as Annie Hall as much as I did, Louise Bryant is going to be hard to get used to. She is simply put, not likeable. She is extremely insecure about her writing skills, annoyingly defensive when she’s called out on her bullshit and in my opinion, very hypocritical on her views of “free love”. And yet, the fact that I managed to take away this much from Keaton’s performance is exactly the reason why I think she shines here. The strength of this performance lies in Keaton’s ability to portray the flaws of this character through a complex characterisation. The first half of Reds is where Keaton really got to shine. Although I dislike Louise as a character, I found myself oddly sympathetic towards her. I felt her insecurities about her writing abilities, and I could understand why she is being so annoyingly defensive when criticised. I could see her struggles as a feminist in admitting that she wasn’t as talented or independent as she would have liked to be. I totally felt sorry for Louise thanks to Keaton’s ability in capturing that “fish-out-of-water” feeling when she was dragged to New York by Reed. Keaton is simply captivating in these few parts, and her sarcastic/snappy attitude never bothered me at all because of how real Louise felt.

Some of her best scenes also are also with Jack Nicholson. I actually think that she has much better chemistry with Nicholson than Beatty, although that could also be due to the fact that Nicholson is giving a much superior performance to Beatty. It was fascinating to watch this awakening of Louise – from a pretentious, idealistic feminist who preaches “free love” to what she truly is at heart: a romantic. We could see a much happier Louise, and Keaton beautifully captures how Louise secretly wishes that she could have been with Eugene O’Neill instead.

The second half of the film after the intermission is where Keaton’s performance falters a little. The focus is diverted to Warren Beatty’s John Reed and his quest to bring communism to America. It is, in my opinion, the least interesting portion of the movie and I also have to say now that I really dislike Warren Beatty’s performance. He is playing it ridiculously lightly, and I felt so annoyed by the fact that such a well-written character (he could have outshone Keaton, imo) is played in such a flat manner. Reed’s character journey and arc, from journalist to disillusion activist, is actually a powerful and fascinating one, but Beatty plays it as if his character from Shampoo had decided to join the revolution. I would say that John Reed was idealistic and perhaps a little naive, but there was definitely supposed to be this fire, power and conviction in him that could make people believe in his vision. Beatty just came across as, frankly, a bit idiotic and I daresay whiny. I also feel like he is phoning it in at times. It might have been deliberate to portray him as someone who had no idea what he was doing since there is some truth to that. Still, Beatty’s portrayal made it hard for me to believe that Reed would have had the tenacity to go to Russia all by himself in hopes of endorsing his party.

Unfortunately, during these scenes, Keaton isn’t given much to do other than to stand in the background and sigh at Reed’s bullshit. There is an impressive scene where she calls him out for it, but other than that, she actually disappears for quite a bit. This is also a strong but brief trial scene where she bitches out at her prosecutors, although it felt a bit out of place in the film. She does get a chance to portray Louise as a romantic heroine who goes all out to find Reed when he was stuck in Russia, but you actually don’t get to see much other than Keaton trudging through the snow or throwing up in the ship. Still, this is all salvaged by the final reunion scene at the train station – her brief smile and sigh when she hugs him amazingly captures her strong devotion and love to him. It is dragged down a little by Beatty’s “Don’t leave me” line, which somehow annoys me for no particular reason. Still, I thought that scene is actually one of Keaton’s best acted scene in her career. An amazing lesson at subtlety.

All in all, I am totally biased here, but I have always thought of Keaton as my favourite part of Reds. Her character is actually the least politically involved after Nicholson’s O’Neill, and it does feel like she is in her own movie at times because of this. Still, I was engaged mostly when she was around, which really shows how little I actually cared about the main story. A great performance by a favourite of mine. 4.5/5.

Quick thoughts: Elle (2016) and Nocturnal Animals (2016)

*Mildly spoiler-ish*

I haven’t been watching a lot of films recently, mainly because I was occupied with schoolwork, exams, theatre and, well, reading. Still, during my absence from this blog, I did catch some movies, 2 of which I am going to discuss briefly now.

Both movies can be classified as psycho-thrillers in their own rights, with similar elements such as sexual assault and emotionally wounded female protagonists. In general, I would say that I am in no hurry to rewatch both films since they left me feeling kinda “wtf” at the end, but I think there are things worth praising.

Elle (2016) – 3.5/5

Was I super enthusiastic about catching this? No. Somehow, the trailer gave me some Basic Instinct vibes, and that is a movie I absolutely hated and yes, including Sharon Stone’s performance. While I liked Total Recall well enough because of how entertaining it is, let’s just say that I am not a huge fan of  Paul Verhoeven in general.

Elle is, simply put, a movie about crazy people. Of course, it digs deeper into the different kinds of crazy since every character (no kidding) is pretty much nuts in some way. It was entertaining enough with its vulgar and violent content, but I really just saw it as a big ball of camp. There is also this discussion ongoing about whether the film glorifies rape; in my opinion, it doesn’t because it does a rather decent job in distinguising “sexual assault” from “violent sexual fantasies”. A lot of it is also due to Isabelle Huppert’s strong leading performance as the emotionally damaged, unpredictable and calculative Elle. It is not a performance played for tears – more along the line of Rosamund Pike’s Amy Dunne – but she does a great job in capturing your attention as a viewer and making you interested in her batshit crazy character. For me, she is the mvp of this movie, portraying the complexity of Elle as a character without succumbing to the film’s campiness. Her performance really elevated the film from “average” to “good”, accounting for that 0.5 point.

Nocturnal Animals (2016) – 2.5/5.

Didn’t like, didn’t get it, and certainly don’t get the hype. Or from the critics at least – it seems like many others disliked it too, I guess making it THE divisive movie of this year Conincidentally, another such movie was The Master (2012), which also starred Amy Adams.

Visually, Nocturnal Animals is a gorgeous and stylish film, creating a certain energy and atmosphere that draws you in. It also features strong performances from Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Michael Shannon. But honestly, that’s all I have to praise about it. I found this movie kinda pretentious in its way of trying to be deeper than it actually is. A jaded art gallery owner Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) feels threatened by the manuscript written by her ex-husband, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal). I am not going to spoil too much here, but honestly, the whole “story in a story” concept was pointless to me (The French Lieutenant’s Woman all over again, albeit differently). If you are looking to examine the
complex relationship between ex-husband and wife, you are probably not going to find it here. The whole thing just came across as Edward screwing around with Susan’s head through writing a stupid and distasteful story that makes Elle look like a masterpiece.

I get that Susan’s storyline is supposed to be about how empty and artificial her life is, but man, her conversations with the various characters also come across as really plastic and artificial. It is like a textbook/stereotypical portrayal of empty people, if you get what I mean. I happen to like Amy Adams as an actress, and I think she does a decent job here despite the artificiality of her lines, but she is also given painfully little to do. To her credit, I felt more interested in her than Edward’s stupid story – too bad Susan’s life is only examined in bits and pieces, never properly explored. Jake Gyllenhaal had the actor’s dream of playing 2 characters, but I thought he was just okay. I didn’t particularly like his performance as Tony, the character in Edward’s book. His earlier nervousness and fear was well played, but the subsequent parts, like his character’s inner conflict about revenge, just fell flat to me.

Nocturnal Animals is certainly stylish and has good atmosphere, but other than that, I have to admit I was a bit disappointed. It feels a bit unfinished to me, frankly, like it could have been a real masterpiece had it dug deeper into the characters’ issues and tidied up the sloppy writing. Might be blasphemous to some that I gave Elle one point higher than this, but in all honesty, I preferred that film.