The Morning After #9: August 23, 2010

This week, I’m recapping three films (She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Melvin and Howard and Elmer Gantry) and the final episodes of the first season of Torchwood.

So, here is what I watched this weekend:

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)


The proverbial yellow ribbon worn by women when their loves were sent to war. It’s touched on briefly in this film, but doesn’t really seem to have any importance to the structure of the story. A brief portrait of the life of cavalrymen in the Old West as the U.S. was facing a strong uprising from the Native Americans after they had just defeated General Custer.

Although not strictly a cowboys-and-indians western, the elements of such films are certainly present from the long gallops across the vast expanse of the west to the bar brawls. The only thing really missing are the shootouts. Now, it must be said before evaluating my opinions of this film, that I don’t care much for westerns and I don’t like John Wayne as an actor, and less so as a person. I want to be honest about these things before you take my comments out of context. I have seen a handful of westerns I’ve liked, but this is not one of them. The movie doesn’t seem to be about anything. There are no important story arcs. There’s no convincing emotional development. It seems to just move from point A to point B aimlessly. And with a title like She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, you expect it to be more about the women in the film and their loves than about John Wayne’s character and you also expect something bad to happen to one of the potential yellow ribbon suitors.

Perhaps realism in westerns was a long time coming, or perhaps because this wasn’t about actual cowboys, the movie needed to lack that realism. Sure there’s no unnecessary sentimentalism in the film, but there are no real stand-up-and-cheer moments either. It’s kind of like a lengthy, unnecessary document of military cavalrymen and nothing more. As for Wayne, I didn’t find him nearly as annoying as I have in the past. He does have a softer side to him that I’ve haven’t really seen before. However, there’s also nothing earth shattering or exceptional. It’s a kind of lived-in performance, but not much more than that. The rest of the actors in the film are interchangeable or stereotyped. The only actor I found any interest in was Mildred Natwick and she was underused.

Of course, the film does one thing exceedingly well. It looks gorgeous. The cinematography is breathtaking and after so many other movies before and after took place on sound stages and against faux backdrops, here we have one that takes place in the wide outdoors and is captured beautifully by Winton Hoch who deservedly won an Oscar for his work. It’s almost as if Ford set out to prove that films could be shot on location with little effort and look good, but then forgot to make a challenging and exciting movie to surround the concept.

Elmer Gantry (1960)


The story of a door-to-door salesman with a penchant for evangelism, Elmer Gantry is the title character played by Burt Lancaster who dreams of preaching from a pulpit and finds his opportunity when he sits down to witness a traveling revivalist (Jean Simmons) who is living his dream. However, as he integrates himself into the shows, he begins to create tension for the revival and his actions threaten to bring the whole enterprise down.

When Lancaster is in fire-and-brimstone mode, he’s quite engaging. When he’s talking with others, his evangelistic exaggeration grates quickly on the nerves. He seldom has a down moment, seeming to always be filled with passion and exuberance. In balance, Simmons’ Sharon Falconer is a subdued, down-to-earth woman who uses soft words and a clever tongue to get everything she desires. Unfortunately, when she isn’t using that sharp wit, she feels like a bland, unexceptional woman with no drive or energy. And being in the shadow of Lancaster, any comparison between the two would be a poor one. The cast is relatively colorful all the way down to future Patridge Family matriarch Shirley Jones as a mischievous prostitute whose vengeful actions are in direct retaliation to Gantry’s own.

The film doesn’t hit hard enough against evangelism in my opinion, but considering this was 1960 and there was plenty of contrary thought within the film, I’m satisfied with its ultimate message. Religion is a lot of things to a lot of people and you can energize your faithful only so much before the commonality of life forces them to once again drift away. It highlights the cynicism and the hucksterism along with the devout passion of some of those involved. There is both truth and deceit at work with these types of endeavors and the film does a decent job of balancing them without feeling too preachy.

Melvin and Howard (1980)


After the death of Howard Hughes, who left no known will, a hapless, impoverished father’s brief encounter with the eccentric recluse leads to the potential for fame and fortune, if he can prove it’s real.

Of course, most of these plot details come out late in the film after an hour of generally pointless narrative. Paul Le Mat, whose never had a fame-filled career, stars as titular Melvin who picks up the badly-injured Hughes in the desert after stopping to relieve himself. He doesn’t believe the reclusive millionaire is who he says he is and treats him as he would any random stranger he picked up on the side of the road, going so far as to force him to sing a corny Christmas song he wrote the lyrics for. After this 15-minute introduction, the film drifts off into standard slice-of-life territory as we watch Melvin slowly screw up his life with poor decisions and idiotic actions. His wife (Mary Steenburgen) runs away with his daughter who ends up going back to him, and they divorce. Then, after several encounters with his wife in strip clubs and bars, they eventually get back together again and re-marry. This time, they win success and a small trove of money on a Let’s Make a Deal-like game show which leads to overspend and his wife leaves him for the last time. He then marries someone from work, they move away to purchase a small gas station and only then, what feels like two hours later, we get the infamous will.

It’s a clunky film that doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be about. Melvin isn’t a very likable character. You don’t care if he wins or loses. He’s not a very interesting person and his bad choices range between terrible to unimportant, but each one is given an arbitrary amount of detail. By the time the will enters play, you’ve stopped caring about this schlub and hope that the film will eventually have a reason for being, an outcome which is never realized. The performances are about the only laudable aspect of the film with both Jason Robards and Mary Steenburgen providing some measurable tenacity. Robards does extremely well with the Hughes character, creating an interesting, zany character that isn’t unnecessarily so. Steenburgen is fun in her few scenes and you actually hope for her success after being married to a borderline jerk like Melvin.

I read a number of comments about the film from the likes of Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert that called the film lyrical. I couldn’t, for the life of me, figure out what they were talking about. It drifts aimlessly and almost feels like two different and distinct films were trying to get out, but with neither emerging successfully. Was this a product of the time. An exciting evocation of an era? Or was it simply a film that ends up aging poorly as a result of changing societal priorities? I would probably go with the latter over the former.

Torchwood


A lot of series these days seem to be delivering half-seasons as full ones. Such is the case with the British adult-favored Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood. The show is a strange, Wales-based sci-fi drama in the vein of The X-Files except with the full knowledge that aliens are already here, not suspected to be. Having now completed the first season, I can safely say that I both admire the series and am getting annoyed by it. Although the Rift mentioned in the first few episodes, doesn’t play a large part of the vast majority of episodes, the last several finally dig into that idea and push the show to a satisfying conclusion. Where the show can go from here is probably linked to the mysterious origin of John Harkness (John Barrowman) who we learned borrowed his name from an ill-fated World War II captain. All of this is revealed in a rather poignant and well structured episode late in the season.

Now that the characters are fully developed, I can find myself being entertained by most of them, though the Owen (Burn Gorman) character is quickly becoming an irritating asshole instead of a lovable one. Of course, the show doesn’t seem to care that it’s flaunting stereotypes and promoting a unified, “we’re all beautiful and we’re all equal” mentality. This is noticeable in the prominence of characters Gwen (Eve Myles), her boyfriend Rhys (Kai Owen) and the aforementioned Owen who are not ravishing beauties, but have quiet, unfettered sexuality that is frequently missing from American series who want their stars to be overtly sexy and draw in the male and female audiences accordingly. The show also doesn’t make a big deal about sexuality in the program. Although there are a couple of strong same-sex relations scenes, they aren’t played for a purpose of exposing social prejudices or highlighting the need for tolerance, they simply exist. The show acts as if its gay and bisexual characters are just normal people and there is nothing abnormal about their proclivities. You don’t have episodes where the characters worry about the spread of AIDS or about gay marriage or similar storylines often portrayed in American series. You just have a show whose sexual exists as a part of its character and nothing more. It’s a respectable decision and one of the reasons why European programming is more socially liberated.

The show’s most annoying qualities are in the fact that there are so many seemingly superfluous shows. Although this is fairly standard for the first season of a science fiction program, which explores its component characters and helps the audience come to know, respect and root for them. For part of its run, the series is clearly episodic in nature, but some episodes are serial in nature. And although some shows like Star Trek: Deep Space Nine are cleanly adept at blending the two, Torchwood feels disjointed at times. This does not mean I won’t be interested in catching the second season, I definitely will. However, it’s also not a show that I will push ahead of others with a rabid desire to continue the saga.

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