The Morning After #14: September 27, 2010

This week was a bit slower for me, but I did get four films watched (A Patch of Blue, National Velvet, Bullets Over Broadway and Long Day’s Journey Into Night) and the first new episode of Glee this season.

So, here is what I watched this weekend:

A PATCH OF BLUE


Topping this week’s list of best features is the 1965 feature starring Elizabeth Hartman as a blind young woman trapped in a hate-filled life. Forced to string beads for her domineering mother played brilliantly by Shelley Winters as a way to bring in extra income for their small, rat hole apartment. When she convinces her employer to walk her out to the park one beautiful day, she becomes enchanted with the open sky which holds her only memory of color, a patch of blue.

While enjoying the peace and serenity of the park, a passerby befriends the innocent young waif and begins to care for her well being more than a normal stranger should. Sidney Poitier takes on the role of Gordon Ralfe, the compassionate black man whose race matters little to the blind girl, but affects those around her a great deal. It’s a lovely story built on two major points. The first is how those with sight often take advantage of those without, forgetting the simple joys vision can provide. The second is that being blind to color helps foster a sense of unity and acceptance. Yet, it’s the people with sight in the film, the hateful mother, the drunken grandfather, the concerned brother, who seem to be blind to the magical innocence unwavering friendship and the desire to succeed at all costs when what has been denied to you for so long becomes the only thing worth living for.

Hartman and Poitier are dynamic together. Hartman shows a bit too little training in her performance of Selina, but somehow her haphazard naivete helps give the character an add dimension. Poitier on the other hand does what he seems to do best: strong and stoic, conveying the confidence all great actors possess. Wallace Ford brings the drunken malfeasance of his doddering old codger to his performance sensationally. Yet, despite being surrounding by strong central and supporting performances, the most powerful presence of the film is Winters.

She has done a great many different types roles in her career, from lovelorn innocence to frightened arrogance and several layers in between. However, this may well be her greatest performance. She gives the audience every reason to despise her character, wish for her failure and yet create a humanity at the heart of it that suggests a woman who once had dreams, aspirations and potential, but squandered it out of fear, desperation and lack of support. She isn’t able to recognize those same positive qualities in her daughter and, perhaps because of her carelessness which caused Selina’s blindness, she doesn’t want to see the young girl make the same mistakes she did, but is unable to let her prejudices and insecurities keep her hand or her tongue as she abuses Selina as only a mother could know how, but shouldn’t.

And the last, but most effective element of the film is Jerry Goldsmith’s beautiful score which accentuates all the right moments and stays with you long after the final reel.

BULLETS OVER BROADWAY


Years seem to sail by between viewings of movies I enjoyed originally. 1994’s Bullets Over Broadway is a film I should have revisited sooner. The film is about a struggling playwright whose past work has been butchered by careless directors who has finally decided to step up and force himself on his next play as a director. However, to get the film financed, his producer decides to take on a business partner of questionable means, a mobster who demands his moll’s receipt of a part in the finished play.

Woody Allen’s films are most often set during the present where New York intellectuals spout endless platitudes and philsophies expounding the virtues of their beliefs while seemingly acting hypocritically towards them. Bullets Over Broadway is one of his rare period pieces set during the Prohibition era. And with prohibition comes mob violence and in New York City, it’s an integral part of the town’s history. John Cusack plays the semi-neurotic writer trying for a hit and Jack Warden is his anything-to-get-funding producer. Joe Viterelli takes on the role of the mafia don with his acting-aspiring moll played by Jennifer Tilly and his right-hand man and her bodyguard Played by Chazz Palminteri. Joining Tilly in the cast of the play are legendary stage veterans played by Dianne Wiest and Jim Broadbent, and a young thespian portrayed by Tracey Ullmann. The star-studded cast also features Mary-Louise Parker as Cusack’s girlfriend, Rob Reiner as his playwriting best friend and Harvey Fierstein as Wiest’s agent.

The film blends most of Woody’s best assets: engaging dialogue, interesting characters and strong performances with all the grace and beauty you would expect out of a mob film set in the 1920s and 1930s. It’s an amazing blend that works exceedingly well, managing to be both entertaining and revealing. I’m often on the fence when it comes to Woody, but this has to be one of my favorite films of his. It’s genuinely funny and appealing on more than just an intellectual level.

Although everyone delivers top-notch performances, the film would be nothing without the undeniable talents of Dianne Wiest. Helen Sinclair is somewhat of a departure for Wiest whose characters have tended to lack confidence, but which were ultimately likable. She has the ability to play awkward with the best of them and although she still managed to be typecast in those types of roles, here she was exuberant, confident and egomaniacal. And she did it all while remaining believable and hysterically funny.

NATIONAL VELVET


The homespun story of a young girl with big dreams and the rebellious horse that tests her courage and determination. Elizabeth Taylor won early acclaim as Velvet Brown, the headstrong twelve-year-old seeking to win the Grand National horse racing competition. She is certainly deserving of praise for managing to lead the film at such a young age and it’s evidence of a strong career.

In a small, but effective bit, Angela Lansbury also shows her early potential as Velvet’s lovelorn older sister. But it’s Anne Revere who won the Oscar for her matriarch, a kind, benevolent, strong-willed mother who guides the young Velvet into making decisions that suit her and not the whims of her father or those around her. She is a powerful central character and reps one of the film’s best performances, second only to Taylor. Mickey Rooney who didn’t look his 24 years at the time, plays the wayward drifter taken in by the Brown clan whose past in the racing helps stoke Velvet’s dreams of grandeur even if his initial motives were not noble. Although he acquits himself well enough, it’s poor casting on the producer’s part as his general look and height makes him appear too young for the character.

Film history has shown a willingness to use morality plays to teach youngsters how it is appropriate to behave. And while modern films are no strangers to happy, unquestionably victorious endings, the one that accompanies National Velvet is admirably bittersweet. Velvet is taught humility, responsibility and the value of hard-fought success without making her tough decisions seem pointless and trivial because things would have worked out well in the end regardless of what she decided. Some scenes are a bit sugary, but the overarching message is one of character building and not one of placating the masses. As for the structure of the film, it’s extremely well edited, especially those tense scenes at the track when Velvet is riding for all she’s worth towards the winner’s circle. These scenes can be drawn on as inspiration of how to effectively cut such events on film and that inspiration can be seen in several racing scenes in many later films, including the famed chariot racing scene in Ben-Hur.

LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT


There are great films and there are great plays, but melding the two is an often difficult task. So, when going into a nearly 3-hour film like Long Day’s Journey Into Night based on Eugene O’Neill’s Pulitzer Prize winning play, you have to hope for more than just a stage-on-screen adaptation. However, if it weren’t for the astounding performances of the cast and the soundness of the material, this unequivocally stage-bound production would have been a painful experience.

The play centers around four members of an upper middle class family in a seaside Connecticut home where the foghorns plaintively punctuates the narrative both literally and figuratively. James Tyrone Sr (Ralph Richardson) is the patriarch of the family, an acclaimed actor in his day, is frequently lambasted for his frugality and defends himself with his tale of growing up in poverty. Mary Cavan Tyrone (Katharine Hepburn) is a melancholy woman constantly lamenting the past and attempting to relive the glory as an escape for the devastating saga surrounding her. James “Jamie” Tyrone Jr. (Jason Robards) is the eldest son and a perpetual troublemaker leeching off his father while plying his father’s profession and using it as a springboard to woo women and drink excessively. Edmund Tyrone (Dean Stockwell) suffers from a summer sickness, so his mother declares, that everyone suspects is consumption. His past excursions overseas are accused of causing his illness, but as the film plays on, everyone finds a way to blame someone else for his devastating state.

For me, Richardson is the weakest of the performers infusing his dialogue with the occasional Irish brogue but preferring to pontificate in a controlled Shakespearean dialect, a byproduct of his years on the stage where he was once declared as the perfect Othello. While entirely within reason for the character, it comes off pretentious quite frequently, which is at odds with the description of the character in the play. Stockwell acquits himself nicely against actors who seem significantly more trained. While he doesn’t seem the boisterous boy he’s described as being, he’s a sympathetic character that almost feels as if he’s from a completely different family, taking on few of his relations’ mannerisms or quirks, picking up the most unfortunate of them: the drink.

Robards is terrific as the drunken elder son, proclaiming his victory in teaching the young Edmund how to avoid all of the pitfalls he had already suffered and frequently going head-to-head with his miserly father. Their interplay is blended equally between outright hatred and grudging manners. He has most of the bombastic deliveries in the production, but never feels like he’s cresting the banks of good taste.

That leaves Hepburn who is simply outstanding. Although her early scenes are hard to watch, seeming to be too literally adapted from the stage, as she progersses into her moody despair and eventual drug-infused rambling late int he production, she kicks the performance into perfection, creating a genuinely troubled woman stuck in the past when her life was Utopian and fearful that her depression could lead to further trouble for the family, a fear which permeates most of the film.

Sidney Lumet gives the actors plenty of room to ply their trade, never letting the camera get in the way of the performance. Unfortunately, that proclivity keeps the film from feeling more robust and realistic. We are aware constantly that this is a stage production put onto the big screen. While there are a few exterior scenes that set the place, the interior is the key focus of the film and it is so sequestered that you can’t really understand why film was the necessary medium to which to bring this event.

GLEE, episode “Audition”

The second season of Glee started off with a bang as all your favorite characters return to sing and dance and entertain for an hour. The first episode this season is titled “Audition” and follows New Directions as they try to stave off the smell of defeat handed to them at regionals at the end of Season One and attempt to bring in new blood. Two new students are on their radar, one a blond football player and the other a quiet Filipino foreign exchange student. While the football player has a nice voice, it’s the new girl, named Sunshine, who is the real powerhouse of the show, delivering a vocally masterful rendition of “Listen” from the Dreamgirls movie. Yet it’s when she’s taking on New Directions diva Rachel Berry in the girl’s bathroom in a dueling rendition of Lady Gaga’s “Telephone” that she sees this new potential recruit as a threat and begins work to sabotage her.

The episode is very heavy on music, featuring no fewer than eight songs. The selection of music is some of the best in the series to date, but the episode felt a little forced, trying too frequently for humor that didn’t play out the way it should have. However, the introduction of a few new characters including the heartfelt Dot Jones as Shannon Bieste suggest we may get quite a bit of fun new characterizations this season. All-in-all, it’s not a bad episode but I hope that the rest of the season gets better.

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