SOCIOPATHS AND SUICIDES (At the Multiplex: September through December 2018)

Almost keeping up my movie-a-month pace…Modest spoilers ahead for those who do not know about Adolf Eichmann, Kermit Gosnell or A Star is Born, going in.

Operation Finale (2018)
d. Chris Weitz

A new film about the pursuit (and, to a much lesser extent, trial) of the Nazi functionary Adolf Eichmann years after WWII. The mix (biopic, adventure tale, procedural) is a bit awkward and the Hollywood gloss (for instance, a romance between Eichmann’s lead pursuer and a female colleague that never took place) more than usually unnecessary. The main thing to recommend it is Ben Kingsley’s carefully judged performance as Eichmann. Eichmann’s trial inspired Hannah Arendt to coin the phrase “the banality of evil.” Kingsley catches both the banality and the evil, with special emphasis on the qualities of sociopathy that allow such men to continue thinking well of themselves even after they are caught, judged and sentenced to execution. Whether the actor’s judgment is too careful will be a matter of taste. There’s always a risk some will miss the point. In a movie that needed some authenticity, I found him all too convincing. Persuading others to miss the point of their existence is something the Eichmanns of the world tend to excel at. If they didn’t, we’d be able to spot them in a crowd.

Gosnell (2018)
d. Nick Searcy

And then there’s Kermit Gosnell, in a movie whose full title Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer is less honest–and less effective—than simply leaving it at his last name (as the marquees in my local theaters did). The film makes the point of the longer title well enough, so long as, like me, you didn’t hold contrary convictions going in. But I doubt it will convince anyone who actually paid to see it.

What it might convince somebody to do is to be wary of the smiling likes of Kermit Gosnell, the Philadelphia doctor who pushed the line where fetuses could be terminated all the way into the sort of baby-killing even our modern “laws” had to give a bit of attention.

Even then, his conviction was a rare thing, abetted by a veteran male reporter who, for Hollywood’s usual bogus reasons (I mean, damn, the lead detective is already being played by Dean Cain, no less, and a lady lawyer only gets you so far), is here replaced by a young, independent female blogger who is really on the other side of the prosecution but believes fair is fair. She may not think there ought to be a law, but as long as there is one….well, you know the type. You’ve met her before, if only in movies.

For its intended pro-life audience, Gosnell gets the job done and hits its marks with some skill and sensitivity considering every strike has to be on the nose.

Again, though, the only compelling element is the performance at the center.

Earl Billings’ Oscar-worthy (and, yes, fat chance) Kermit Gosnell, who keeps fetuses who may or may not have been born alive by the hundreds in freezers and petri dishes, plays beautiful classical piano, knows the laws of his land by heart, and never loses his cool, would have made a great cell mate for Adolf Eichmann, if the Israelis had been as forgiving as we are (Gosnell was, after all, convicted of three  murders that should have turned stomachs the way Charles Manson’s did–but then we were a bit forgiving of Charlie too, weren’t we?).

Outside of Billings’ presence, the most effective scene in the movie does take place in the courtroom (which doesn’t take up as much of the movie as that long title suggests), when a “good” abortion doctor wriggles a bit–but only a bit–while trying to explain that the only real difference between what she does and what Gosnell has done is a matter of hygiene.

As to titles, I’d have gone with Baby Snuffer and let the chips fall where they may. But then I never did fit in.

A Star is Born (2018)
d. Bradley Cooper

What a relief. Not a sociopath in sight! Just the sturdy narrative Hollywood has forced itself to remake every now and then for the last eight decades, this being the fourth time it’s appeared under this very name.

The only previous A Star is Born I’ve seen is the Judy Garland/James Mason version and there’s no competing with that. But based on the clips I’ve seen, this one’s miles better than the Barbra Streisand/Kris Kristofferson version and it has a real subversive kick which I won’t even pretend to know was anywise intentional.

In every other version, the ingenue on her way up keeps getting bigger because she keeps getting better, while the older man who discovered and mentored her keeps getting worse because he’s falling apart due to drink or drugs or both.

Here, Lady Gaga’s Ally Maine (née Campana), keeps getting bigger because her music keeps  getting crappier, something younger critics on-line have been more prone to noticing–perhaps because it’s that Gaga (and by that point there’s no more distinction between Gaga and her character than between Judy Garland and the woman singing “The Man Who Got Away”), the one who evolved from a street kid with big dreams and big talent into a Pop Tart with vast riches who is only distinguishable from the next in line by the “Performance” part of her Performance Art, that their generation loved enough to make a superstar.

And, since Bradley Cooper’s performance doesn’t exactly get all the way to why his Jackson Maine would commit the ritual suicide the story requires, we’re left with the possibility that it isn’t about internal collapse, but about the inabiliy to deal with external collapse. That, this time, it’s the culture that’s died, and to the point that even even Bro-country singers with wives they clearly don’t deserve can’t believe there’s anything worth living for.

Aided and abetted by fine performances from an almost unrecognizable Dave Chappelle, a completely unrecognizable Andrew Dice Clay (as Ally/Gaga’s pater) and an aging Sam Elliot (who, as Cooper/Jackson’s role model brother does quite well considering he’s the one with that thankless part, now de rigeur in every “serious” film, where saying “fuck” a lot means he’s really, really passionate!) it adds up to a powerful, chilling statement, whether anyone involved meant it that way or not.

Can’t wait for next year!

 

DISNEY ADVENTURE (A Handy Ten)

For any number of reasons–ignorance, personal or professional jealousy, perceptions (true or false) of Walt Disney’s personal character–the Disney adventure films that linked the Errol Flynn-style swashbucklers of the thirties to the Lucas/Spielberg juggernauts of the seventies and eighties have been unjustly overlooked. Ken Annakin’s films alone represent a treasure trove of invention and style that left a large mark on the genre, and they were hardly alone.

There are plenty of others worth seeing, but these ten stand out to me:

Treasure Island (1950)
D. Byron Haskin

The Disney studio’s first full-length live action feature and it’s a doozy–first rate in every way. Robert Newton buried every portrayal of Long John Silver that preceded him and none since have escaped his shadow. Thirteen-year-old Bobby Driscoll, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, made a nearly-as-definitive Jim Hawkins and they were abetted by a first rate crew of mostly British actors.

It was a big hit and established the model for much of what followed while Walt Disney lived, including the heavy use of English, Scottish and Irish actors and directors who rarely worked in Hollywood (and even more rarely got films of this quality when they did); the plucky, teen-aged hero/heroine; and the new twist Newton provided on the comic villain, with the comedian masking the villain until it’s time for the villain to mask the comedian–who might or might not stage a last-minute comeback.

He was reaching back to Stevenson, if not Shakespeare, but there was none of the suave, unctuous charm Basil Rathbone (who would have made a great, if entirely different, Long John) had defined in an earlier era.

Unfortunately, Bobby Driscoll provided another model–followed by Janet Munro, Tommy Kirk, Johnny Whitaker and others–of the Disney kid headed for a troubled life (he died at thirty-one, the most tragic of all). But that’s another story for another time.

The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men (1952)
D. Ken Annakin

Ken Annakin’s first Disney venture and a spirited revival of the swashbuckling spirit that had died out during the war years. Richard Todd made an excellent Robin. The cast of merry men, led by James Robertson Justice as Little John, were top of the line. The script was at least as good as the famous Errol Flynn version and Annakin was an even better action director than Michael Curtiz (who was one of Hollywood’s best). The only relative weakness is Joan Rice as Maid Marian. Rice was plenty fetching but she didn’t bring the extra something Olivia de Havilland had. For that, Disney, Annakin and Todd had to wait another round…

The Sword and the Rose (1953)
D. Ken Annakin

…for Glynnis Johns, who brought a big-girl-now dimension to the tomboy heroine–and not just the Disney version. Not only is she all grown up, she’s at court. And not just any old court but Henry VIII’s just before he took to beheading wives (James Robertson Justice again, and even better than before, not least because you can see the head-lopper lurking underneath the hail-fellow-well-met exterior). Partial as I am to Annakin’s Swiss Family Robinson, which left such an indelible mark on my childhood, this is probably the best movie the Disney studio ever produced, including the animated and family classics. Johns is a major reason, but she’s hardly the whole show. Disney cast as well as anyone in Hollywood and, with the possible exception of Pollyanna, this is the deepest he ever assembled. The actors get across a great deal that a Disney script could not say in 1953…and not a little that no script could say. This might be the only film in history where a beautiful woman kills a king she doesn’t love by planting big, wet kisses on his wine cup.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)
D. Richard Fleischer

Richard Fleischer is remembered by noir fans for low-budget wonders like The Narrow Margin. But this made him an A-lister. By now, Disney was a big enough player to get no less than James Mason, Kirk Douglas, Peter Lorre to star for him. They are all in fine form here. This joined Forbidden Planet and Ray Harryhausen as the last word in the period’s special effects. The giant squid scared the bejesus out of everybody my age twenty years later. Then again, so did Mason. It took me a long time to connect him to the man with the smiling eyes and suave manner who made so many heroes and villains come alive over a fifty-year career elsewhere. First impressions are indeed lasting ones.

Johnny Tremain (1957)
D. Robert Stevenson

Not great by any means. This is the only film on this list somebody could remake and improve. It’s here, though, because it points up what a lost opportunity to filmmakers the American Revolution has been. Tepid as this often is, it’s still the best film about the Revolution after Drums Along the Mohawk and 1776. Pity that, especially since it could have been so much better. The one great feature is a fine reenactment of the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord, concluding in the long march back to Boston with the Minute Men picking off British regulars Indian-style. Outside that, the movie does catch at least a few of the nuances in Esther Forbes great source novel, just not enough.

Again, though, casting played a role. I can’t help looking at Hal Stalmaster’s bland, pleasant features, prominently displayed as he’s the title character, and wonder what might have been had a certain someone who was already on the lot been substituted in his place…

Old Yeller (1957)
D. Robert Stevenson

Not that I would want Tommy Kirk to go missing from Old Yeller!

His Travis Coates doesn’t get mentioned often enough in the best-ever child performances. It should. The film could just as easily fit the “family” category. But the believability of the frontier setting and Robert Stevenson’s handling of Yeller’s intense fight scenes give it a home here. As for Kirk’s performance, put it this way: It’s a rare fifteen-year-old boy who could keep other teenage boys from missing Fess Parker (who appears only briefly). And, of course, few films–let alone action films–have ever made as many teenage boys pretend they had a cold…or wish they were a girl for five minutes so they didn’t have to pretend.

Thank Tommy Kirk for that.

Third Man on the Mountain (1959)
D. Ken Annakin

Annakin’s third, and least-known, feature for Disney. It’s a treasure worth seeking out. Another stellar cast, with James MacArthur and Janet Munro a consummate pair of young lovers. He plays the youngest of a family of Swiss mountain climbers, whose attempts to scale an impossible mountain have led to tragedy before and seem destined to do so again. Herbert Lom is, as usual, a standout, but the real force of nature here is the mountain itself. Annakin delivered climbing scenes that have never been matched. Certainly not for excitement and probably not for authenticity. Those alone lift an already fine film into another realm. If you catch the family’s name, and know anything about the Alps, the  name of mountain that defeats them until the last few frames will be no surprise. Just the same, I can’t promise there won’t be a lump in your throat when its full shape is finally revealed.

Swiss Family Robinson (1960)
D. Ken Annakin

In many ways, the jewel in the Disney crown. His most popular live feature, his greatest collaboration with Ken Annakin and, by far, his most influential. Stories of whether George Lucas named Anakin Skywalker as an homage have never been completely confirmed or denied. All you really need to know is that Lucas and Spielberg between them stole every trick in this book–including many Annakin invented. But it’s better than that, because Annakin (unlike Spielberg and especially Lucas) insisted on putting people first (a lesson that would be lost when a split between the director and the hypersensitive Disney likely kept him from helming In Search of the Castaways, which, everywhere but the box office, was undone by several disastrous mistakes it’s hard to imagine Annakin making, even with Walt Disney pressing him). I first saw this when I was eight. I’ve never watched it since without feeling a thrill that transcends nostalgia.

The Moon-Spinners (1964)
D. James Neilsen

Often described as Hitchcock-lite. But Hitchcock was often at his best in that mode and he wasn’t making this kind of movie anymore (he didn’t do anything “lite” between 1959’s North By Northwest and 1976’s Family Plot) and The Moon-Spinners fills in nicely. It’s a heist flick, which is the best kind of adventure to have. And Hayley Mills–who had become the ultimate Disney tomboy–closes down the concept in style. Eli Wallach makes a lovely bookend for Robert Newton. And silent star Pola Negri came out of retirement to ask Mills if anything like this has ever happened to her before.

“No,” Hayley says. “This is the very first time.”

“I have a strange feeling it won’t be the last.”

It was,though, really.

Too bad for us.

The Fighting Prince of Donegal (1966)
D. Michael O’Herlihy

The last adventure film overseen by Disney himself (there would be one more family picture, Follow Me Boys!, before his sudden death in December of 1966). By now, the sudden climate change of the mid-sixties had rendered this sort of film an anachronism. For someone born as far from his time as I was, it’s probably fitting that the first film I remember seeing in a theater was the story of a young prince fighting for his throne in a time and place far, far away. Imagine my delight when, after years of searching in the age of video, I finally got a chance to see it again some thirty years later, and found it well up to snuff. Barely released on VHS or DVD (it’s going for thirty-two bucks used on Amazon as I type–I got my copy some years back by joining Disney’s video club), I’ve managed to see it many times since.

You don’t need nostalgic memories of the Vanguard Theater in downtown Cocoa, Florida to feel this one: It’s got a burning lead by Peter McEnery that would nave made a nice model for a new kind of swashbuckling hero if there had been any justice; the usual fine cast and stirring battle scenes; a surprising feel for Irish history even if no less (though no more) of the usual liberties are taken; and, not least, a dramatic castle siege that manages, in five minutes, to convey the degree to which the English and Irish have hated each other for centuries better than a thousand speeches or either island’s fleet of fine writers.

If it had to end, Donegal castle was a great place for it.

My six-year-old self couldn’t have asked for better.

And neither could the self that approaches sixty.