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Movie Review: Red-Headed Woman (1932)

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Dark, moody and subversively modern in the worst ways, yet undeniably alluring thanks to the magnetism of movie stars Jean Harlow and Charles Boyer and Adrian’s stunning gowns, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s 79-minute Red-Headed Woman offers nonstop sexual suspense.

Played as comedy to smuggle its explicit sexual themes into the vibrant picture, which I saw in 35mm at the Egyptian during TCM’s Classic Film Festival, Red-Headed Woman is really more of a tragic, cautionary tale with touches of melodrama. Based upon Katharine Brush’s scandalous novel, adapted by one of H.L. Mencken’s favorite female writers (another was Ayn Rand, whose We the Living he hailed), Anita Loos, Red-Headed Woman was a hit.

Like Baby Face with Barbara Stanwyck—who wanted the lead in Red-Headed Woman (so did Greta Garbo, according to film scholar Cari Beauchamp, who introduced the picture), this story of a secretary using sex to gain power, money and status is astounding for its plain depiction of a woman whose self-esteem is based on objectifying herself, which is to say denying herself any authentic, reality-based estimate of her own value.

“If the barn door’s open,” Harlow’s harlot deadpans to Una Merkel’s best friend and roommate (one wonders if she’s also Harlow’s lesbian lover on the side), “what’s to keep a girl from goin’ in?” Slither on into the home of her boss businessman’s home she does, knowing that his wife (Leila Hyams) is out of town, seducing him with a conniving sense of delirious mission. As Lillian (“Lil” aka “Red”), Jean Harlow (Wife Vs. Secretary, Red Dust, Design for Living, Libeled Lady) is simply perfect. It’s not her look, as such, or beauty, that taunts boss man Bill (handsome Chester Morris) and drives him wild for sex. As with most sex-starved golddiggers, it’s her constant availability, daring desire and her radically open want for sex. He’s putty in her presence and, it’s hinted, they usually end up going at it on the floor, but every seduction is fully earned. Harlow, who purrs “Beeeeww” when she wants him to want her, pins the part in every scene.

Directed by Jack Conway with panache, Red-Headed Woman has powerful, propellant energy, and part of that emanates from the great performances but part of it also comes from the drama. A marriage is at stake and this sexual power-luster is hellbent to ruin it. Whether she succeeds, and what constitutes success, is the movie’s core. Setting every man from a “coal king” to a French chauffeur (Charles Boyer in an impressive turn) who may be her lowdown counterpart, in her crosshairs, the red-haired woman willing to prostitute herself that Bill’s father (Lewis Stone as the movie’s moral center) calls a “snake in the grass” gets exactly what she wants, it’s suggested, and probably, ultimately what she deserves.

“Do it again,” she tells a man after he slaps her to make her stop making him want to grab her and kiss her, adding with a well-timed punch of her own: “I like it.” Red-Headed Woman is an interesting portrayal of a woman of the flesh—neither endorsement nor repudiation, but stark and honest—who lets men have her so she can really let them have it. In this sense, it’s dark and cynical, an attitude that became prevalent in American culture. The hard and complex Red-Headed Woman, driven by coarse and severe delusions, breaches and titillation, at once dramatizes the slut with sex appeal and forecasts its own function as a culturally self-fulfilling prophecy.

Movie Review: One Hour With You (1932)

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Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald star with Genevieve Tobin as a temptress-best friend who’s double-crossing her gal pal to seduce the husband in Ernst Lubitsch’s witty One Hour With You. This is not as frivolous as it might appear.

With a deft, pre-Code sexual simplicity, terrific cast, rhyming dialogue, fourth wall breakdown and light, charming songs, it’s easy to see why One Hour With You demonstrates the Lubitsch touch. As with everything he did, Lubitsch adds a layer here and there to provide depth to the gay look, feel and music with real, complex attitudes about women, men, sex, friendship and marriage. Though George Cukor had already been asked by Paramount to direct, this movie became a pet project for Lubitsch (The Shop Around the Corner, So This is Paris, The Merry Widow, Ninotchka, Heaven Can Wait (1943) To Be or Not to Be), who apparently bonded with Chevalier in his endeavor to re-cast the film for his own creative purposes.

The result, with Chevalier’s smiling, debonair doctor husband speaking and singing directly to the audience, is 80 minutes of one man’s account, perspective and philosophy of romantic love, which I saw at The Egyptian on Hollywood Boulevard in 35mm during the TCM Classic Film Festival. How One Hour With You begins—in France’s City of Lights, Paris, at a public park being policed for public displays of affection—is crucial as pretext for the surprisingly fabulous plot resolution. Doctor Andre (Chevalier) and his wife Colette (MacDonald) set the terms that wanting sex and being greedy to make love are utterly human and crucial for a healthy marriage. “What a Little Thing Like a Wedding Ring Can Do” is a standout tune for its easygoing wit and intelligence but all the songs are bright, cheerful and entertaining, even if at the root Mitzi’s (Tobin) seduction is both humorous (because it’s played as irony) and arresting (because it’s realistic).

So, it is not exactly that One Hour With You equivocates about infidelity (someone today is sure to call Chevalier’s smiling and singing “mansplaining”) or rationalizes its potential wreckage. This is a man of medicine who resists temptation, says “phooey” to the anti-sex police and knows a hussy when he sees one (and Tobin’s performance as the tramp is delivered with conviction). Andre loves Colette and all the songs, silk pajamas and Parisian airs, charms and sets only reinforce that he loves his work, life and sex, which only makes what happens perfectly understandable and, in a certain context, enjoyable. An hour can feel like a moment, One Hour With You demonstrates in melody, rhyme and lightness, and a moment’s yield to whim can lead to an hour’s agony. What to make of any given moment, and hour, is ultimately up to you.

Movie Review: Gifted

Gifted starring Chris Evans (Captain America) is foremost a movie about people of ability. This differentiates Gifted from most child-themed movies. The kid that plays the girl, McKenna Grace, is not precocious. In fact, the actress is very good in the role, with a sharp tongue that reminds me of a younger Quinn Cummings (Family, The Goodbye Girl) and, directed by Marc Webb (The Amazing Spider-Man) working with Tom Flynn’s screenplay, hitting every mark without trying too hard or coming off like she’s a miniature 36-year-old. Gifted is better at dramatizing the psychology of guiding a life, and parenting a child, than it is at portraying philosophy in action.

Reuniting with his Snowpiercer co-star, Octavia Spencer (Black or White, Hidden Figures), Evans essentially plays himself; the likable, good-looking, sensitive, strong and silent type who does the right thing for the right reasons and does so without bravado. Here, he plays Frank, who’s raising his suicidal sister’s kid in a Florida home rented from Spencer’s character. He fixes boats, steps on Lego pieces and tries to protect the girl from whatever hard-boiled family secrets and mysteries linger in the past, which the audience knows they’re going to learn as this chipper, bright Fox Searchlight movie rolls along. Learn the audience does, with an elementary schoolteacher (Jenny Slate, who voiced Bellwether in Zootopia) pushing for answers to the puzzle of this exceptionally bright child, and a granny up north in Boston (Lindsay Duncan, Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass) who wants the best.

That secrets pit mother against son comes as no big surprise. The folksy wisdom is too pat, a false dichotomy underpins the plot’s conflict and a custody courtroom speech comes out of left field (even though it’s true, despite what the filmmakers may think). But the script’s sincerity wins you over in what plays as a kind of antidote to the Whiplash theme that being the best means pushing harder. With biting lines about bearded academics, porn producers and saying things we don’t always mean, Gifted, which unequivocally embraces making value-judgments for being one’s best, manages to be both thoughtful and moving (with help from a cat named Fred). Like Jon Turteltaub’s Phenomenon, Gifted gives being the best and brightest its due, dramatizing the tradeoff, too. And, while it doesn’t quite achieve the balance or serenity it seeks to showcase, it depicts that as the proper goal.

Movie Review: Wilson

Based on a comic book (or graphic novel, if you prefer), Wilson purports to have, in the words of its title character (Woody Harrelson) the “courage to go your own way.”

With a cute dog and Harrelson—appearing with talented The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio co-star Laura Dern (Wild, The Founder, Jurassic Park) as his ex-wife—perfectly cast as a rambling type of angry white male that’s commonly ridiculed and rarely depicted with any depth, let alone with good humor, Wilson might have scored. Unfortunately, the movie based on the works of Daniel Clowes, who also wrote the movie’s screenplay, draws a blank.

As that guy, i.e., an unfiltered, unhinged and apparently unemployed man who’s a case of arrested development, Harrelson plays to type in what should be an outstanding role for him. He’s suited to this sort of quirky film character. As his junkie ex-spouse, Dern feeds him plenty of set-ups. They reunite after a long introduction in which Wilson appears to have no means of financial support, except perhaps for a dying father who doesn’t love him, though whether he leaves Wilson any money is unclear. In the sort of scene that could have been a springboard to thematic coherence and isn’t, Dern’s waitress and nomadic Wilson hide behind mannequins while stalking the kid she gave up for adoption.

Stand alone jokes earning a chuckle every 15 minutes and an eventually obvious reason for Wilson’s inappropriateness aside, Wilson putters along like a series of situational skits without a point, most of which are not funny. Actress Judy Greer (Ant-Man, TV’s Archer, Grandma) as the dogsitting love interest does add value but it’s not enough. All the wandering, stalking, joking and rambling adds up to an Apatow-style vulgarity message about procreation as the purpose of one’s life, with an emphasis on blood and carrying on your own DNA, not exactly a humanistic or interesting notion. Like the manic, raunchy movies in which the sleaze is rationalized because everyone decides to settle down, settle for less and just make more babies and conform, Wilson is purely an exercise in bland traditionalism in the final analysis, which makes Wilson a middling trip into one man’s damaged psyche.

At one point, Wilson watches icicles melt. It’s the kind of scene that might play well in a cartoon strip, as a wry, knowing look at middle-aged man’s lament. But, when one character deadpans that “this is gonna be fun,” you’re already in on the fact that it isn’t, which makes Wilson flatter than it already is.

Movie Review: Kong: Skull Island

A new adaptation of King Kong, a Warner Bros. picture titled Kong: Skull Island which debuts in theaters this week, is better than expected.

That’s not saying much. The 1933 original was spellbinding to me as a kid when I first saw it on TV, but I think it’s overestimated at the expense of other great adventure-themed classic movies, such as Wings, Red Dust and Gunga Din. The effects-heavy 1976 film is mediocre. The Peter Jackson version, which included characters running with dinosaurs (years before the godawful Jurassic World), is one of the worst movies I’ve seen. To be clear, Kong: Skull Island is a monster movie.

That is its best asset. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, working from a story by John Gatins (Coach Carter) with a script by a few writers including writers partly responsible for a Godzilla movie and that godawful Jurassic film, shrewdly downplays everything that Peter Jackson overplayed, such as the giant gorilla’s affection for the human female, in favor of a wider and deeper cultural framework. This keeps Kong from getting too campy, though camp comes with the package. Still, while it is not as clever as its makers apparently think, Kong works several angles—America’s slide toward military statism, hollowing out from the irrational Vietnam War, the fall of man—into its loss recovery theme that mind trumps muscle.

After a prelude in the South Pacific in 1944, the journey starts in Washington and Da Nang, South Vietnam in 1973, as Kong leads with exotic voyage pitchman John Goodman (The Artist) and his more rational right-hand man (Corey Hawkins) to sell a key politician on funding the trip to a “place where myth and science meet”. First, they tap a military leader played by Samuel L. Jackson (overacting and no stranger to fighting ferocious jungle apes as he recently did in The Legend of Tarzan). Jackson’s gung-ho type mulls over war medals with a Budweiser within reach.

Rain falls, things get slippery and, passing a sign that warns to “Think Safety”, it’s off to Saigon where Tom Hiddleston (outstanding in I Saw the Light and Thor‘s Loki no more) is hired as the rogue to lead the way. In Bangkok, Brie Larson (Room) comes on board for the modernized Fay Wray role, happily neither as a hyper-butch kickboxer like most female characters in action movies nor as a hyper-feminized vixen like many of today’s female characters—she’s a competent war or, as she puts it in one of the better exchanges, anti-war, photographer—and the cast is capable, notably leads Larson and Hiddleston but also actors in smaller roles such as John Ortiz (A Dog’s Purpose) as a quiet soldier and John C. Reilly (Chicago) as a lost soldier. Add period songs including a David Bowie ditty, crisp lines of dialogue and excellent graphics, sound and visual effects and clarity in exposition and Kong, sufficiently scored by Henry Jackman, keeps the plot moving.

Kong looks as realistic as one can expect from a computerized depiction of a gigantic gorilla.

With references to John Wayne, Chicago’s Cubs and a classic Forties tune hinting (with an after-credits scene) at a series, the director seems to be striving for American cultural commentary. With noble savages in a habitat hailed as being free from “crime and personal property” (except apparently for treasured private property such as a camera, cigarette lighter and a soldier’s wartime letter to his faraway child) and an overly arranged multiracial cast, results are mixed. Certain parts are too broad or obvious, such as 1973 Vietnam War soldiers posing for pictures like they’re on Facebook in 2013, a dragonfly shot with a helicopter, a Nixon bobblehead, Apocalypse Now imagery and a killing field, all of which are exaggerated but not as poorly as a near-drowning which exceeds plausibility. But Kong, amid other plus-sized island monsters, convincingly beats his chest, saves the girl and reaches down like his is the hand of God, which makes his breaking of chains in favor of using his brains an interesting proposition and, in any case, entertaining enough for a matinee monster movie. Comparable to The Hunchback of Notre Dame this is not, but don’t be surprised if you notice who is more like a monster and who is more like a man.