The Morning After: May 28, 2013

Welcome to The Morning After, where I share with you what I’ve seen over the past week either in film or television. On the film side, if I have written a full length review already, I will post a link to that review. Otherwise, I’ll give a brief snippet of my thoughts on the film with a full review to follow at some point later. For television shows, seasons and what not, I’ll post individual comments here about each of them as I see fit.

So, here is what I watched this past week:

The Thin Man

Apart from its black-and-white style, there’s nothing aged about Nick and Nora Charles in the first of a successful franchise of films surrounding a retired detective, his equally brilliant wife and their terrier Asta. Played by William Powell Myrna Loy, the bantering couple try to avoid getting involved in a sordid murder involving a prominent inventor and his menagerie of relations, partners and children. Powell was nominated for Best Actor that year along with the film’s nominations for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Writing Adaptation. Sadly, Loy wasn’t to earn a deserved nomination and the film went home empty handed.

It would spawn a number of different murder mystery films over the next several years, some involving hard-boiled detectives, others adaptations of popular radio shows and novels. Yet, all of them owe a debt to The Thin Man, which spins its yarn deliberately, bringing together a strong cast of actors in a riveting whodunit. While there aren’t any clues to help you guess the killer, it’s still a great deal of fun getting there.

Little Women

One of literature’s most prominent stories for and about young women has been adapted and re-adapted more frequently than all but Shakespeare’s various incarnations. The story revolves around the March clan, sisters Jo (Katharine Hepburn), Amy (Joan Bennett), Beth (Jean Parker) and Meg (Frances Dee); mother Marmee (Spring Byington); and crotchety Aunt March (Edna May Oliver). They find love, tragedy and various tests of their loyalty, friendship and survival.

The novel is admittedly more expansive than the limited big screen adaptation of 1933. But what the film loses in terms of depth, it makes up for in pluck and heart. Hepburn delivers a devilishly entertaining performance as middle child Jo whose love for a neighbor boy (Douglass Montgomery) forms the central through-arc of the film. While none of the other performances in the film quite match up to Hepburns, Byington and Oliver are all strong while Bennett, Parker and Dee aren’t given nearly enough to do.

While some of the film’s tearful moments are calculated almost too strictly, one of the best scenes comes as a bit of a surprise when a scarlet fever-ravaged Beth miraculously begins walking again simply so she can great her father with a hug. It’s a moment we’ve seen too frequently in other films, but what makes it so deliriously marvelous is the way its presented without dramatic underscore, without overemphasis and with a very simple line of dialogue commenting on her newfound footing. Even if the rest of the film weren’t marvelously engaging, this scene alone would merit your viewership.

The Great Gatsby

If you sit down to a Baz Luhrmann film, you must expect something visually sumptuous, grand and exciting. The Great Gatsby delivers on every mark while bringing a compelling vision of the classic F. Scott Fitzgerald novel to the screen. If it’s not a perfect film, the penchant Luhrmann has for anachronistic music and a periodic desire to exceed the realms of good taste are to blame.

Tobey Maguire plays the novel’s narrator Nick Carraway, a bond salesman caught up in the pomp and circumstance of neighbor Jay Gatsby’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) extravagant lifestyle, but as he discovers, Gatsby’s exuberance is a direct result of his desire to secure the hand of the woman he gave up five years prior, Nick’s beautiful cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan). The plot is complicated by mistresses, bouts of anger, lies and various forms of selfishness and selflessness. All of these are embodied in a colorful, exotic picture that has every stylistic flourish we’ve come to love and despise about Luhrmann.

Maguire is solid, the best he’s been in some years; DiCaprio is superb as expected; as is Mulligan is dazzling; Joel Edgerton is fine as Daisy’s husband Tom Buchanan; and little known Elizabeth Debicki is a revelation in her second feature film as Daisy’s friend Jordan Baker. While the style of the period dictates a touch of excess to mirror the decadence of The Roaring Twenties, the necessity for nuance and gentility at times are given too little attention.

The Public Enemy

One of three films to establish the stylistic distinctiveness of an era of gangster films, The Public Enemy doesn’t age incredibly well, but has enough uniqueness and influence to mark its place in film history.

Film legend James Cagney played a convincing petty criminal, Tom Powers, drawn into the dangerous world of organized crime during the Prohibition era. Cagney’s unmistakable style helped cement him as one of the go-to actors for gangster toughs. While his humanity is seldom displayed, there’s enough richness to the performance to showcase Cagney’s talent as an actor. That he looked a bit too old for the part is easy to gloss over when surrounded by a gang of actors whose performances are far from exceptional.

It’s always interesting to see how films suggested violence without showing it. The Public Enemy, in spite of being one of the films that encouraged development of the Production Code, is incredibly light on the visual violence. The few scenes where individuals or groups were murdered by gunfire were largely held off screen with the lone exception of the death of one of Tom’s close friends. And while much of the film seems dated, the closing scene when Tom is returned to his home by his kidnappers is a shocking and well-handled scene.

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