The Morning After #4: July 19, 2010

A rather busy weekend again, but I managed to put away my three Netflix rentals (Rosemary’s Baby, Key Largo and Jezebel) and get to the local theater to watch Inception. And, of course, there was more Soap-y goodness.

So, here is what I watched this weekend:

INCEPTION

Christopher Nolan may have finally proven that he is one of our finest contemporary voices. Inception is a tight science fiction action film about the limits of the human subconscious, the manifestation of dreams and the mind-bending reality that only he can create. His past films have all been solid efforts, with Memento remaining his best film until now. Nolan takes the genre farther than it has been in some time crafting science fiction that may not say much about the times we live in, but does have a great deal to say about who we are as people and how we relate to one another and those events in our lives we wish we could go back and change.

The performances aren’t as stellar as those in his past films, but the cast is nevertheless superior to nearly every other blockbuster action film out there. Leonardo DiCaprio plays a dream thief who uses his targets’ dream selves to help him unlock their secrets for his own personal gain and to hopefully bring him one step closer to returning home. He is joined by fellow dream walkers played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Ken Watanabe and Dileep Rao. Watanabe’s character has hired DiCaprio’s team to implant an idea in the mind of an energy mogul’s son (Cillian Murphy), a concept which carries significant risks if they are unable to keep him from realizing it has been planted there. The key figure opposing them is played by Marion Cotillard who does a fine job in a small role attempting to convince DiCaprio to stay with her in the dream world for all eternity.

The movie asks a number of deep questions which should promote plenty of philosophical and occasionally esoteric questions about the nature of the human psyche, but this is only one element of this astounding film. The music, Hans Zimmer’s finest work to date, is a pounding beat that almost inserts itself as a secondary character in the film. It swells at the perfect moments and creates a gravity in the film that supports its staggering visuals. Blending CGI and physical stunts to create a perfect simulacrum, Nolan shows he knows how to make every cinematic aspect at his disposal leap to his command and display itself to the audience in near perfect form. (full review should follow later this week)

ROSEMARY’S BABY

I am not a huge Roman Polanski fan. I’ve found the two films of his I’ve seen (Chinatown and The Pianist) rather distant emotionally. You never connect with the characters as they move through their films, which in the case of The Pianist is a major problem. However, with Rosemary’s Baby, perhaps because it was earlier in his career, not only does he connect with his character, her internal and external turmoil is the driving force of the film. And like Polanski, I’ve never really felt that Mia Farrow has had the ability to give her characters emotional resonance, yet she does an excellent job conveying the pain, fear and cascading insanity Rosemary is taken through over the course of the film.

Most of the rest of the performances are fairly unimportant, though some of the minor characters are a bit over-the-top, but that’s understandable considering where the film ultimately resolves. The story revolves around a young couple who move into an apartment in an old building in New York City where they plan to raise a family. Yet her husband (John Cassavettes) seems more focused on the potential of his career than with having a child with Rosemary, but after a time he relents and agrees to her hopes. They share the floor with a nosy couple played by Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer. Gordon who dons some amazing old-age makeup gives a cooky performance as the eccentric Minnie Castevet. She won an Oscar for the performance which does not surprise me considering how much she put into it.

The film features a couple of musical interludes that effectively convey the disturbing nature of the film, though music is sparsely used. The effects are effectively creepy and even though a couple of the dream sequences are a bit too lengthy, the film breezily passes. Polanski’s narrative skill is at full flourish here. His attention to detail, deliberate creation of false leads and lingering self-doubt make for a strong feature. That this horror film manages to avoid gore in favor of psychological terror makes for a rather pleasing experience. I am further impressed with how Polanski manages to create a credible sense of tension leaving the question “is she really making herself crazy over bizarre but unimportant coincidences, or is there really a coven of witches moving against her and her child?” until the very final reel, a satisfying conclusion.

KEY LARGO

One of the many pairings of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, Key Largo is a taut suspense yarn about a large hotel on Key Largo, the largest island of the Florida Keys, where a war-weary soldier seeks a compatriot’s family to set their minds and his own at ease about his death. Bogart plays the soldier with Bacall as his compatriot’s sister and Lionel Barrymore as her wheelchair-bound father. Unfortunately, he has arrived just as a nefarious group of gangsters, exiled from the United States, have come to make a transaction with those who were still within the U.S. All of this is further complicated by the arrival of a nasty storm (a Big Blow as they prefer to call it) and a pair of Native Americans wanted by the police.

The plotting of the film is well integrated, carefully playing out across the span of the film. Although some elements are mildly predictable, the film is surprising and twisting enough to be immensely pleasing. Bacall gives a strong performance, though one which doesn’t seem to have a lot of purpose outside of providing a semi-romantic entanglement for Bogart, the unquestionable lead. Yet Bacall still manages to act circles around Bogart who has always struck me as a somewhat monotonous actor, seldom expressing more than a couple of emotions. This worked suitably well in both The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca, here it just managed to ring a bit hollowly and is the main reason the film doesn’t feel like a complete success.

The other is how stereotypical most of the gangsters are in the film with Edward G. Robinson the lone exception. Robinson is wonderful as the lead gangster, but that may be because of his regular portrayal of such characters throughout this period of cinema. He perfected the role and carries that understanding of such characters into the film. Barrymore is also terrific as the lithe-tongued enfeebled father trying to do right by his Native American neighbors and the memory of his son despite his own infirmaries. The last major role is that of Robinson’s alcoholic ex-moll Gaye Dawn played perfectly by Claire Trevor. All of the power and precision in her performance is captured in the song she sings mid-film as she slowly breaks down after years of abuse and self-destruction.

JEZEBEL

Bette Davis gives a fine performance as a Southern Belle in Louisiana longing to break free of societal restrictions but not realizing just how dangerous such maneuvers are. Wearing red to a ball where every woman is traditionally to wear white turns her into a cultural pariah and ends up driving a near-permanent wedge between her and her fiance, played by Henry Fonda in a rather bland performance. The film also features Fay Bainter as Aunt Belle, a compassionate woman who despite her niece’s antics still acts as a rock where she can return when her misguided ways threaten to destroy her.

Davis was rumored to have been offered this role after David O. Selznick turned her down for the part of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind. Releasing the year before the all-time box office champ (considering inflation), there was certainly an opportunity for Davis to show she could outshine Vivien Leigh in the role of Julie, yet there is something lacking in the performance. Davis is still quite good, but if this is any indication, she would have been ill-suited to carry Gone With the Wind the way Leigh did.

Even though Jezebel does a fairly solid job treating the black cast with respect. They maintain the period setting’s treatment of slaves, but through words (Fonda’s Preston Dillard coyly speaking out against the South while supporting Northern ideas) and actions (Julie speaks to and treats the blacks on her plantation with respect and even sits with and holds them during one pivotal scene in the film), showed a modern and perhaps even forward-thinking approach to dealing with not only characters of color but actors of color as well. It was the one thing Gone With the Wind did too little of and Jezebel managed to do better. Had the rest of the film had as much compassion and foresight, it might not have felt so hypocritical in its treatment of women as strong characters. While Julie is portrayed as strong-willed and prideful woman, she is nevertheless constricted by her society, but instead of continuing the rebellion, she eventually sequesters herself back into tradition and an inferiority position.

SOAP

The third season of Soap is now complete. The show still remains funny while losing a bit of its lunacy. Still, much of the last half of the series dealt with a couple of important issues (a gay parent’s child custody battle and political blackmail), which harkens back to the days of soap operas tackling tough problems facing society. So, the series continues to fit in with the boundary-breaking period of television history. Still, the show continues to fade in my estimation and with only one season left, I’m not sure whether it can maintain its cleverness. Though, I have to give credit to Katharine Helmond for creating one of the greatest characters in television history. Jessica Tate is funny and touching with Helmond rooting her with humor, compassion and near-perfect timing.

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