Screwball Nanny


Linney puts Johansson in her place.

Unfortunately for Scarlett Johansson and Laura Linney ( ⇒ ), and especially Chris Evans, The Nanny Diaries emerged from the hands of filmmakers who abjectly adhered to Hollywood formula. Maybe it was by choice, maybe they were forced to do so by producers Weinstein, Weinstein & Etcetera– either way, it’s a shame. The movie has appeal, and it had promise, if only because of the anthropology angle which, unfortunately, is treated more as a gimmick than a motif. But there is a fatal flaw and it is basic: the ill-conceived title role, Annie the nanny, is a young woman in need of a spine transplant.


On the job.

We’re not supposed to notice that she’s a doormat, of course; we’re supposed to be charmed by her, and it is a tribute to Johansson that we almost are. She hides her character’s weakness under a veneer of shyness, a wise and largely successful strategy to manage the pipe dream of a story. She is in very nearly every scene, interacting with characters who are exaggerated stereotypes, which is why this movie qualifies, in my view, as screwball, though it can only be considered a comedy in the Classical sense: happy ending, nobody dies. More accurately, of course, it’s just a flat-out chick flick with every bell and whistle sounded: attractive female leads, no realistic males, children as plot devices, lots of psychodrama played out in sumptuous interiors.


Boy meets nanny

Annie is, needless to say, not a nanny. That’s a job for swarthy women, to judge by the other nannies we glimpse. Annie got the gig after she saved a towheaded boy from a vehicular accident in Central Park. They bond instantly, of course, and suddenly she’s surrounded by overdressed Upper East Side mothers who need nannies. She happens to be at loose ends, having just graduated from a New Jersey college (thus establishing her non-Ivy League regular-girl credentials), so she accepts the job “for the summer” with the towhead’s mother (Linney, in fine form as a rich bitch). This lands her in a vast apartment in Manhattan’s most blindingly white precinct, the Upper East Side, a world of high-and-mighty Caucasians who– in this movie– consider it perilous to cross the park to the other, slightly less white Upper West Side.

Nanny Lansbury

Angela’s devilish domestic

Her snobbish new employer doesn’t bother with the names of servants (not that there seem to be any others; the producers evidently didn’t want to spring for more actors), so Annie  gets rechristened Nanny, and in keeping with her acceptance of this unabashed insult,  Annie/Nanny becomes a menial. She’s the cutest menial since Angela Lansbury donned a fetching lace veil in Gaslight, but Lansbury played a cocky Cockney parlor maid (and she played her to the hilt: aged seventeen, she won an Oscar  nomination). In contrast, Annie is a wimp. She cannot stand up to the boy’s mother, or even her own overbearing mother, Judy (Donna Murphy, also in fine form as a stressed-out single parent). Judy’s sole purpose in the script is to pressure daughter Annie to give up her plan to study anthropology and get a degree that would lead to Wall Street wealth. Annie’s resistance takes the form of cowardice: she lies to Judy about being a nanny, and even goes so far as to pretend she’s living with her best friend, Lynette (Alicia Keys, unmemorable except as a pretty face).

Nanny_Evans and Grayer

Neighborly negotiation for new nanny

The one time  Annie rises to boldness is when her hormones get the better of her: she races after and pounces on the male half of this romcom. Enter Chris Evans, a versatile actor who is showing signs of being more than a museum-quality specimen of male pulchritude. Behind the camera, Evans did a solid job directing himself and Alice Eve in Before We Go, a refreshingly equivocal film about two people helping each other through unhappy romances. That movie was also set in Manhattan, but over the course of a night. In contrast, The Nanny Diaries, occupies a decidedly candied Big Apple, all sunshine and wealth. Evans is cast as Romeo– Romeo minus the Montague. In fact, he has no name at all, none, first or last. Throughout the movie, including the credits, he is referred to as Harvard Hottie. That’s as generic as a Romeo gets, and a stupid mistake here, for two reasons. First, it makes Annie no better than the boss-lady who rechristened her. Second, Evans has dramatic nuance, and he brings heart and humor to his character– a character who deserves a name. I will at least honor him with initials.


H.H. and A/N

H.H., when he first meets Annie in the elevator of her employers’ building, has trouble connecting with her. Of course. Such is the way with chick flicks, romcoms, screwball comedies, and indeed most screen romances: screenwriters use animosity and/or a star-crossed situation to foment sexual tension. It was unnecessary here, yet the writers persisted through the first several meetings of A/N and H.H., including one where Annie’s in a Betsy Ross get-up, a bit of business that showcases the comic timing and light touch with dialog shared by Evans and Johansson. These two charismatic young players could independently generate chemistry with anything short of a tree stump or the thespian equivalents thereof (Megan Fox and Mark Wahlberg pop to mind).


So idealized they’re anonymous

An early false note sounds during those quasi-hostile meetings because there is no reason for anyone to dislike H.H. Especially not Annie, and this is key: her great interest and hope for a profession is in the field of cultural anthropology, which is usefully defined by Duke University as “the study of the human as at once an individual, a product of society, and a maker of history and culture.” Any student needs two things: curiosity and objectivity. Annie has neither about H.H. She views him only as a product of his Manhattan milieu, so she assumes he’s a privileged jerk, and treats him as such. It would have sufficed if Annie had been suspicious of how decent a guy he seems to be, or cautious about trusting him because white privilege tends to produce assholes. That more thoughtful approach would have made Annie kinder, more considerate, and we wouldn’t be left wondering why any man with H.H.’s qualities (and, it is safe to assume, opportunities) would persist in trying to overcome her stubborn prejudice. Continue reading

And then Barrymore said to me…

Phantom Lady_Barrymore and the contortionist

Polonius and the contortionist

Phantom Lady is a reasonably well-regarded film noir from 1944, though no one considers it a classic. And no wonder. It is the most unholy mess of a glorious movie that I think I’ve ever seen. This photo ⇒ is a clue to understanding it, by which I mean, not taking it too seriously, except as a cinematic stunt. The frame is from a brief scene — a few seconds only, as the camera pans past these two–  set backstage at a wrap party. The dialogue is one line, said by the half-drunk actor, “Then Barrymore said to me, Claude, you’re the greatest Polonius of your day.” These two characters, who represent opposite ends of theater spectrum, are never seen or heard from again, and the scene has nothing whatever to do with the plot; its purpose, instead, in the guise of comic relief, is a sly poke at all things Thespian. It manages to sneak in a reference to the greatest actor of his day, John Barrymore, who was also the foremost souse of his day. The line is heard by the girl, who has probably never heard of Barrymore, or of Polonius, the wrong-headed father of Ophelia whom Hamlet refers to as a “tedious old fool” before he kills him by mistake. Buffoonery is afoot.

Phantom Lady_long bar

A hunt for alibi witnesses beings… where else?

So is incoherence. Critics and IMDb reviewers have pointed out some of the flaws in the film, but not all. How could anyone? The plot has more holes than Legoland. Nearly every scene involves a contradiction (the alleged murderer has a best friend in one scene, no friends in another), or fickle and deceitful women (Miranda the lying songstress, Ann the lying hysteric, Payton the lying milliner), or implausible motives (why would the real murderer return to New York after he’s made a clean escape to South America?), or incredible coincidences (foiled at every turn, the heroine finally spots the name of her prey by happening to notice a label on a hatbox), or preposterous dialogue (as when the jazz drummer claims, “I’m an authority on hats”), or implausible situations (why are the characters in this murder mystery invited to wrap party for Miranda’s revue?).

Phantom Lady_elevated train

Third Avenue El never looked better.

There was too much incoherence, too little buffoonery, until I finally realized– or, rather, concluded– that the director, Robert Siodmak, and his D.P., Woody Bredell, had wilfully thrown verisimilitude to the wind. They focused all their considerable skills on form, and made content their bitch. Pay too much attention to the plot and you miss the point, and probably won’t like the movie. But scenes such as the near-murder on the elevated train platform are not to be dismissed, and that is the point: formally perfect filmmaking can string you out on suspense even when the plot is mashed potatoes. Continue reading

Formula Weddings and an Autopsy

Vaughan, Wilson

Vaughan, Wilson

The first time I saw Wedding Crashers, I thought it was fun. So, when it showed up on television, I time-shifted it to see it again, and wow. It’s a comedy, I get it, so silliness is part of it. But again, wow. Never in my experience has a movie exposed its slick skeleton– the formulaic structure and cheap laughs– faster or more thoroughly than this one does upon a second viewing. As I watched, I felt more and more like a medical examiner doing an autopsy than a film fan revisiting David Dobkin‘s movie, a comedy that I had found rather fresh and funny the first time.

Rachel McAdams

Rachel McAdams

The heroine, Claire Cleary, is the key to the fact that this movie works at all, on any level. She is the only believable character, and Rachel McAdams is one of those rare actors who can generate chemistry with almost anyone. She’s the female equivalent of Mark Ruffalo: both actors are engaging and expressive, simultaneously exuding strength and vulnerability, and intelligence and emotion, all of it in a fully integrated way. That is not an easy affect to manage, let alone keep in balance with a preposterous plot like this. (By the way, I name Ruffalo in particular because he and McAdams will co-star in Spotlight, opening later this year, about the Catholic sex-abuse scandals in Boston. The two of them together — and I don’t think this is a romance– could prove to be a powerhouse.) (Update, January 2016: Spotlight is indeed a powerful movie, but it’s an emsemble cast, with no one actor standing out above any other.)

Walken and his family of cliches: sex-crazed daughter Isla Fisher, sex-crazed wife, Jane Seymour; gay son, Keir O'Donnell

Walken in a family of skit-level cliches: spoiled nympho daughter Isla Fisher; sex-crazed wife in a French twist, Jane Seymour; gay son with mad look, Keir O’Donnell

The rest of the characters in Wedding Crashers— with the exception of Christopher Walken, who manages to bring dignity to his role as patriarch– are stereotypes, and despicable stereotypes at that, though the strong cast almost brings it off. Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughan are in halted adolescence. Vaughan is always up to motor-mouth comedy, and here he handles physical comedy well enough. A good thing, because he gets knocked around plenty: wounded in football; again in a hunting accident; an old lady fires a shotgun at him; Claire’s sex-crazed sister (Isla Fisher) gives him a handjob at a family dinner, then later ties him to the bed so she can have her way with him; and, still tied up, he becomes the toy of another stereotype, the brother, a gay artist. The least effort went into the creating the grandmother (Ellen Albertini Dow, 92 at the time), who is a standard foul-mouthed old woman, and the mother (Jane Seymour), a horny middle-aged woman. The butler (Ron Canada, fine as always) is, of course, black and long-suffering.

Wedding sniper Cooper

Wedding sniper Cooper

The most thankless role, without doubt, belongs to Bradley Cooper as Owen Wilson’s nemesis, the insufferable fiancé of Claire, and he absolutely nails the soulless, upper-crust frat boy. That she would have anything to do with him is perhaps the least plausible part of a movie that is almost wholly without credibility. Cooper’s character is actually on par with Will Farrell’s funeral crasher, because Farrell’s character is never anything but preposterous. Played shamelessly and badly, his one-note Lothario is standard for his ilk, the over-rated SNL alumni.

The movie is, of course, also predictable. Formula films are. A lot of talent went into this, but the writers and filmmakers aim to make every scene outrageous, with McAdams as the quiet heart of this rich-white-folks-be-crazy comedy. That she makes you care about her is no small feat.

Nature and its shipwrecks

Spall as Turner

Spall as Turner

Timothy Spall is a busy actor of considerable skill; unfortunately, tackling the lead role in Mr.  Turner requires more than he seems capable of delivering. He plays J. M. W.  Turner with one note: phlegmatic, complete with actual phlegm. He won the Best Actor award at Cannes, but his Turner is a grunting, rutting grotesque. Unfortunately, because he is in every scene, Spall’s portrayal in many ways is the film, and his limited range of reactions and emotions, as well as his freakish looks, make watching it more like witnessing an accident than revealing or even just celebrating a great artist.

Spall with Marion Bailey

Spall with Marion Bailey

There are wonderful scenes — the magnetism experiment using a prism with Scottish scientist Mary Somerville (a lovely turn by  Lesley Manville), the scenes at the Royal Academy, and anything with Marion Bailey as Turner’s mistress, or Martin Savage as painter Benjamin Haydon. But they do not build or even cohere. At most they can be said to offer impressions of a prototypical Impressionist. But the sad fact is this:  Mr. Turner is viscerally disgusting more often than not, and I don’t even refer to the maidservant (Dorothy Atkinson) and her progressive skin disease. Such medical conditions certainly reflect the reality in the 19th century. But director Mike Leigh indulges in repulsive images well beyond the needs of realism.

Turner seascapeIndulgence is, indeed, a fault here. Mr. Turner is badly bloated at 150 minutes. Every scene is slow, and many drag on and on. To be sure, the land- and seascape photography by Dick Pope (a frequent Leigh collaborator) is beautiful, but the characters are, like Spall’s Turner, nearly all reduced to the grotesque.

Sunrise with Sea Monsters, by Turner

Sunrise with Sea Monsters, by Turner

Humor is attempted occasionally, and achieved a few times. In at least one egregious case, however, the attempt is at a sophomoric sub-Python level: the insulting portrayal of the young John Ruskin (Joshua McGuire) as a lisping, pompous coxcomb, the object of everyone’s ridicule and the possessor of no worthy opinions. Ruskin was famous for his sexual peculiarities, but his scholarly criticism was, and is, respected.

Spall limns Turner

Spall limns Turner

Finally, what was the point, the theme of this cinematic colonoscopy of Turner and his art? It wasn’t clear what connection director Leigh was trying to make between Mr. Turner’s phlegm and his paintings, except when Spall actually spit on his canvas to moisten the paints. Perhaps Turner, who describes himself as a “gargoyle,” inserted himself symbolically into his impressionistic landscapes, as the shipwreck, the belching train– as the ugliness that man brings to the world. That would be a nice point to make, but Leigh didn’t make it, and I had to do a lot of interpreting to come up with it myself.

William Wyler: autopsy and appreciation

Wyler, Nobody, Barrymore

Wyler directing John Barrymore in Counsellor at Law (1933)

Skillfully written and directed under circumstances that amounted to censorship because of the industry’s Production Code (1930-1967), Detective Story is a superb ensemble movie, released in 1951. My analysis here will be less a review of the film (that comes at the end), than an examination of it as a work by an decorated Hollywood director, William Wyler. This project was right in his wheelhouse, because it isn’t cinema, it’s a filmed play. It’s good, as I say, it’s solid, but it won accolades from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which too often settles for emotional drama (Terms of Endearment, Driving Miss Daisy, Kramer vs Kramer, Marty, Ordinary People–all Best Picture winners) with little regard for cinematic strengths. That disregard by the Academy is the underlying subject of this analysis. Did Wyler deserve a nomination in 1951 for Best Director for this stagey effort? He’s more mechanic than artist, I think, so his gift is knowing what to do with genuine talent. To wit:


Superb cast, superb composition

The story is centered in a New York police station, with various cops, criminals, and witnesses as characters. The main plot, however, has to do with one detective and his wife, played by Kirk Douglas and Eleanor Parker, who are pictured here with Horace McMahon, a character actor with 95 movies to his credit, and many more TV episodes. Though Parker turns in one of her finest performances as a woman with a secret, and Kirk Douglas is a commanding presence, McMahon quietly and authoritatively steals every scene he’s in, something Wyler obviously allowed, perhaps even wisely encouraged.

DS_Lee Grant

Lee Grant as a shoplifter

It’s also the first movie  for Lee Grant, whose understated performance won her the best actress award at Cannes, as well as nominations for an Oscar and a Golden Globe as a supporting player. Her performance could have been the start of a more remarkable career than she enjoyed because it was the McCarthy era, and her new husband, Arnold Manoff, was blacklisted. After she refused to testify against him before the House Unamerican Activities Committee, she too was ostracized. She didn’t get another film role until Cornell Wilde hired her in 1955 for Storm Fear, his directorial debut in a film noir written by Horton Foote.

Strong-arming both witness (Gladys George) and perp (George McReady)

Strong-arming both witness (Gladys George) and perp (George Macready)

Every single actor in this ensemble delivers a strong performance. Most notable, perhaps, is a truly neglected actress, Gladys George. She appears as a brassy witness whose refusal to coöperate with the police may have to do with protecting her suspiciously expensive fur coat, or her principles. She makes it impossible to tell. (This is one of seven films she made in the final four years of her life.) Another character actor, George Macready, is the principal villain, and in his few scenes he manages to simultaneously create sympathy and disgust for Dr. Karl Schneider, whose crimes are equivocal, to say the very least.

Joseph Wiseman

Joseph Wiseman

More substantial roles go to two other character actors, both in fine form. William Bendix, appearing a decade after his Oscar nomination for Wake Island, plays a cop with conscience enough for two men. He ultimately redeems his partner (Kirk Douglas). The other scene-stealer, Joseph Wiseman, was a stage actor and this was only his second movie. His performance as a low-level wise guy sent me straight to the internet, to learn more about him, and find more works of his. In the process, I found this fabulous quote: “Acting may begin out of vanity but you hope that it’s taken over by something else. I hope I’ve climbed over the vanity hurdle.”

More about the plot further down, and for a fuller analysis of the movie, I recommend this fine blogspot article by Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. Here, I’m writing mainly about the director Wyler, whose talents often escape me, but who has nevertheless racked up record numbers of accolades. Continue reading

An instant classic in a fertile (and subversive) genre

Your army against mine

Clarity between opposing forces rules a chess board, not a war

X-Men: Days of Future Past is close to flawless, which is high praise indeed for a movie with as much background and complexity as it has. The seventh feature in a popular but uneven action series, it is packed with freakish characters, extensive back-stories, two distinct time frames, and an ambitious sci-fi plot that centers on the sticky wicket that is time-travel. But nothing is disappointing here, or damned little. This X-Men has substance as well as virtuoso technique.

Heartless industrialism in Iron Man

Heartless industrialism in Iron Man

Best of all, in my view from planet Chomsky, it respects sedition. Rebellion against governments (including actual governments, particularly Russia’s and our own) is not unusual in modern movie plots, though it is by no means the norm. In the flourishing and lucrative superhero genre, however, nakedly subversive ideas are finding plenty of fertile ground. Consider one of the best: the original 2008 Iron Man, in which Tony Stark (R Downey Jr) fights his way free of his own iron weapons (ironically), which were made for the U.S. to deploy in Afghanistan. He survives only to turn against his own company’s purpose and its financial interests, and its mogul (Obadiah Stane, played by a sinister Jeff Bridges). Now a part-time Iron Man, he retools Stark Industries, transforming it into a force for good. In the 2012 The Avengers, Stark says, “Stark Tower is about to become a beacon of self-sustaining clean energy.”

Mr. Smith in the Senate

Smith in the Senate

Subversive politics are not unique to superhero pictures, of course, because defiance in the face of oppression isn’t a new theme to any art form. Far from it. Like Washington’s political cartoonists, Hollywood’s writers have always toyed with sedition, and gone for the throat of the government, especially Congress. In 1939,  Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was written by Sidney Buchman, who was blacklisted by HUAC in 1953. Under the direction of Frank Capra, it is powerhouse propaganda in which one man, James Stewart as freshman Senator Jefferson Smith, faces down a thoroughly corrupt Senate in a shamelessly dramatic filibuster. Even earlier, in the bizarre Gabriel Over the White House (1933), a corrupt president survives a car accident and wakes up enlightened. Corrupt politics are a given in most countries, including ours, and they make for a lot of tough political movies, though few moviegoers consider action pictures in that light. We should. One of the best-ever action pictures, The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), has one of my favorite-ever seditious lines, which is actually only one word. When confronted with the accusation, “You speak treason!” Robin replies, “Fluently.”

Oldman creates Robocop

Scientist Oldman creating Robocop

The evil entity in a lot of the 21st century’s super-hero movies is our own U.S. Government, or its contractors in the military-industrial complex. The Defense Department and/or its contractors are often embattled by one or more of the Avengers. Captain America, Hulk, and Iron Man all qualify. In Watchmen, destructive Dr. Manhattan is a government-sanctioned agent.  In José Padilha’s under-rated Robo-Cop, a scientist (Gary Oldman) is instructed to turn Alex Murphy into an amoral killing machine by Omnicorp, or else lose funding for his otherwise worthy research.

Sentinels summoned to the White House

Citizen-targeting Sentinels assemble at the White House

In one way or another, those films reflect the realities of the military industrial complex, sugar-coated though it is in adult fantasy (read: sexy, violent). X-men may be the most overtly seditious of all, because in it, the U.S. government is relentlessly waging war against its own citizens, a minority population of mutants. America is the bad guy– the ruthless and powerful entity that destroys what it cannot understand or control. Continue reading

Godzilla deserves better

The original.

The original.

The original Gojira by Ishirō Honda has had 30 remakes or sequels, each of which has been scored by IMdB. Honda’s 1953 classic gets the top score, so it is No. 1, which establishes some crediblity for the calibrations. The latest version, from 2014, ranks about the middle, No. 13, with a score of 6.4.  But do you remember the 1998 Godzilla? The one with Matthew Broderick? the one nominated for six Golden Raspberry awards, and won for the female lead (a flesh-in-the-pan named Maria Pitillo who made 16 movies in 14 years, last one in 2000)? The one with the planned sequels that never happened because it was such a bomb? I never saw it, but have to wonder if it was really worse than the latest one, the blockblustering 3-D version directed by a Brit named Gareth Edwards. .

A good boy, really.

A good boy, really.

This Godzilla has only one redeeming quality, and it’s a dubious one: It could be taught in film school because it is a compendium of filmmaking errors, which is common enough with small, cheap, and indie films, but this one had a $160 million budget, more than enough to hire prestigious actors, including Juliet Binoche, Bryan Cranston, Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins, and, crucially, Andy Serkis– or as I prefer to identify him for his motion-capture performances, Andy Circuits. I don’t know how much of that budget was spent on talent, but some of it should have been diverted to writing. The screenplay is almost a tour de force of corny dialog. The cliches are so relentless that I wondered if it was the result of writer Max Borenstein meticulously collecting all the trite dialog in horror films since The Monster Walks (1932, with an IMDb rating of 3.9). If so, it was a Herculean task, and the result stinks like the Augean Stables.

Banal babes

Predictably pretty

The writing is the worst flaw, of course, because it’s the basic element of any form of literature. But the story stinks, too. On exiting the theater, one of my companions said, “I’d ask someone to explain that plot to me, but I don’t care.” Fans may (and do) forgive action pictures for flawed story and writing, but they expect a lot from the production values, especially sound,which the action genre has all but perfected. Disappointment awaits. Both the sound and sound editing, by veteran Erik Aadahl, are amateurish. To be fair, that’s largely the part of the director and his editor, Bob Ducsay, whose career got off to a gangbusters start with Spielberg on Catch Me If You Can. Edwards left no room for small moments. The punishing noise reminded me of Spinal Tap: turned up to 11. Ditto the pounding, theme-less score, which was written by the usually reliable Alexandre Desplat, who earlier this year provided the only reason to see Grand Budapest Hotel. I wasn’t the only person sitting in the theater with 3-D glasses on my face and my fingers in my ears.

Bryan Cranston with director Edwards and Aaron T-J

Bryan Cranston with director Edwards and Aaron T-J

The characters are− well, there aren’t any, really. The two leads, Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen, are ciphers. Mr. T-J has established talent and range– he was a credible Vronsky in Anna Karenina (2012), and a better Quicksilver than his predecessor Evan Peters, in Captain America: Winter Soldier–but he’s no match for Godzilla. As it happens, he’ll be reunited with Olsen in 2015 in Avengers: Age of Ultron, so let’s hope that the phenomenally gifted and skilled Joss Whedon can elicit lifelike performances from them. Genuine talents are wasted, including Binoche, Watanabe, Hawkins, David Straithairn, Richard T. Jones, and Bryan Cranston, who here proves that even an actor at the top of his game can add to the stench.

Serkis at work on "Rise of Planet of the Apes"

Andy Circuits at work.

Gareth Edwards appears to know nothing about how to structure a story, control action, direct actors, or even manage continuity. The news that he will be directing one part of the final Star Wars trilogy was not welcome. Based on Godzilla, Edwards should have stuck to his original career in visual effects. He knows what he’s doing with CGI. Godzilla itself (himself? herself?) is a fun creation to watch, as are the Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms (MUTOs), perhaps because Andy Serkis consulted behind the scenes on the emotional range of all three radiation-guzzling creatures. Too bad Mr. Edwards didn’t realize that he also needed a consultant on human emotions, or perhaps just a slap upside the head from one of his talented leads.