Tuesday, February 06, 2024

This Week in Tickets: 29 January 2024 - 4 February 2024 (Jean Arthur Week, Part I)

Been doing this over a decade and still feel kind of weird about splitting Brattle rep series up like this. It's one thing when they're vertical, or something occasional like with the HFA/Coolidge/Alamo, but my desire to make a big post is often what gets things derailed.

This Week in Tickets
So, last week was one of those weeks where showtimes just didn't work - temperature's low enough that I'm not hanging around anywhere before the movie, but there's not enough time to do anything at home before setting out, which is why there are two things seen at 8pm or so She Is Conann on Tuesday, which I quite liked, a bit more than I expected from the directors' previous films, and Poor Things on Friday, which left me about as cold as I expected from the directors' previous films.

After that, it was Joan Arthur time, as the Brattle started off their year-long celebration of Columbia Pictures's centennial with a tribute to one of the studio's biggest stars of the 1930s and 1940s.

Arthur is an interesting one; a friend mentioned being surprised to find that she was born in 1900, because it means that in her 1935-1944 heyday, she was making romantic comedies at an age when a lot of actresses were playing mothers and housewives. You would absolutely believe the sources that placed her birth in 1905 or even 1908, especially since her going blonde after leaving Paramount makes it easier to memory-hole her silent-movie years.

It's kind of interesting that she's not considered iconic in the way that others of her era are, maybe in part because her career doesn't extend much past 1944 - just two films afterward, some television, stage, and teaching - so she didn't pick up that second generation of folks who appreciated her work. She also didn't have the associations with other legends that would keep later generations coming back to her - though there are three films she did with Frank Capra in this series, she turned down It's a Wonderful Life, and she never worked with, say, Humphrey Bogart or Alfred Hitchcock. It made her legacy someone you'd occasionally come across when investigating some other group of films, but only rarely someone you know.

Which is fine; time filters the canon. But, gosh, she's fun, and I'm glad she's getting this spotlight. Anyway, the for films that played over the weekend were some of her better known ones, with major directors and two-hour runtimes: Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Talk of the Town, and Only Angels Have Wings.

More to come, most of which are shorter, fluffier comedies, more typical of the period. They're already showing up on my Letterboxd account, of course, but they'll be here next week.

Poor Things

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 2 February 2024 in Somerville Theatre #1 (first-run, laser DCP)
Where to stream when it's available to stream

It's kind of funny to me that I'm composing this in the same space where Beau Is Afraid led off last week because, while I'm sure that there are a few of these every year, it sure seems like 2023 had more films than average that have relatively little interest to say but are sure given free reign to say it in very elaborate fashion. There's nothing terribly clever or insightful beyond the very ordinary here, but even that is muddled by the fact that director Yorgos Lanthimos has a tendency to abstract and exaggerate to the point where it's hard to recognize his characters as human. It's great-looking and there's bits of good in it, but there's also a lot of extravagance that perhaps suggests profundity more than actually containing it.

Victorian medical student Max McCandles (Ramy Youseef) is our way in, taking a job with Dr. Godwin "God" Baxter (Willem Dafoe) to monitor Bella (Emma Stone), whom he eventually discovers is a chimera, the body of a young suicide with the brain of her unborn child transplanted into her skull. Bella is learning at an accelerated rate, and is soon ready to run off with Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), the rakish lawyer whom Godwin intended to prepare a marriage contract between Max and Bella.

You can see Emma Stone's Bella mature, because she stops using baby talk, but it plays as something that just happens as if it's automatic, not one thing leading to another, except in the most obvious cases. And yet, everything's drawn out, like somewhere between Lanthimos, screenwriter Tony McNamara, and novelist Alasdir Gray, they found each step of Bella's journey fascinating but didn't much care to dig particularly deep, and it often feels like she's growing without being challenged or engaged.

It looks gorgeous, though, and the work Emma Stone does is impressive as heck, especially toward the start where it's all face and body language; it's kind of amazing just how expressive she is. It's a shame she spends so much of the movie paired with Mark Ruffalo, who just isn't good here; his performance is smirkingly charmless, relying on other people to say that others find him amusing and charismatic, rather than being a deadpan version of it the way everybody else' is.

I don't suppose I'm ever going to like Yorgos Lanthimos; I think it was The Killing of a Sacred Deer that felt like he a movie about robots imitating human behavior where he didn't mention they were robots, and while this isn't that inhuman, it's just weird enough that I don't connect to it in any real way.

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 3 February 2024 in the Brattle Theatre (first-run,DCP)
Available to stream/purchase digitally on Prime and to purchase on Blu-ray on Amazon, or elsewhere

What an odd way to build a movie - Mr. Deeds Goes to Town starts out with a fun concept - small-town man Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper) unexpectedly inherits a fortune and travels to New York City to start managing it, with reporter Babe Bennett (Jean Arthur) insinuating herself by his side for the benefit of her readers - and a bunch of potentially good subplots: The lawyers are hiding malfeasance! There's a ne'er-do-well alternate heir! He's a commercial poet now expected to fund the opera and juxtaposed with the literati! Most of these are cast away because Gary Cooper and Jean Arthur being cute together is really all you need, but then the movie stops dead for a real clunker of an ending. It really feels like you could just ditch the whole last act for one more scene with Copper and Arthur after Deeds has discovered "Mary" has been deceiving him, except that Capra or someone felt weird making a movie about sudden wealth during the Depression.

That end picks up some of the pieces that were raised and dropped early on, but there's also something about the last act that doesn't sit right in how it sort of concentrates a sort of "it's not good to be mean to people unless you're doing it back attitude. Deeds also punches a lot of people in the nose, and that's okay (in retrospect, this probably makes for a better candidate for an Adam Sandler remake than we thought at the time). It also renders the sharp, active Babe to a wailing woman clutching her editor's shoulder when we've spent the whole movie seeing that this isn't her.

Of course, I wonder a bit of how I'd see this movie if it weren't playing as part of a Jean Arthur series, making me view it as her movie. She's great, shifting in and out of fast-talking lady newspaper reporter and fake working class gal modes in a way you can feel but not necessarily watch happen; there's no click as she code-shifts and it makes it easier to buy that Deeds is drawing something out of her. She's a sensible counter to Cooper's odd title character (honestly, he may be the manic depressive they try to smear him as being), though Cooper is a nice center, putting just a little bit of rural smugness into the sweetness of the character to keep him from becoming saccharine.

The center of the movie where it's mostly the two of them is pretty great - the first sign in the series that Arthur is really good at playing off a guy without subordinating herself to him in a scene - and makes her becoming a better person what the movie is about And, hey, that may make a finale of Deeds skewering others feel like the wrong ending, but at least the movie doesn't lose steam during it.

Plus, you can come out wondering, wait, it's this really the first time most people heard the word "doodling"?

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

* * * (out of four)
Seen 3 February 2024 in the Brattle Theatre (first-run,DCP)
Available to stream/purchase digitally on Prime and to purchase on Blu-ray on Amazon, or elsewhere

Wait - we're supposed to root for a filibuster here? Spewing constant nonsense because the Senate is lined up behind someone else's pork-barrel project? Obviously, that's an unfair description of the finale, but it's a different world today from when you could more easily make a movie where the problem in Washington is generalized corruption, although we often still tend to think in those terms.

Get past that, though, and it's kind of amazing that this movie balances its earnest seeming naivete and its cynical satire as well as it does, because it openly invites you to scoff at literal Boy Scout Jefferson Smith (James Stewart), appointed to fill out a dead Senator's term because he's well-liked but unlikely to learn the ropes well enough to actually do anything, but never really makes you feel bad about it so much as angry. The things being aligned against him in the back half, specifically the media consolidation and ruthlessness of those behind it, are pretty relevant today, and James Stewart's despair in the last act is exceptional.

And in a lot of ways, he's not the hero of the movie so much as Jean Arthur's aide and the rest of the folks who are deep inside the system but maybe can see a chance to be the people they were. Harry Carey's president of the Senate is a little delight as he sees exactly what Smith & Saunders are doing and clearly approves,and Claude Rains is really terrific as the mentor questioning just how far he's gone right up until the end. It creates a more believable connection between outright corruption, passivity, and certainty that sophistication means compromising one's values that can sneak in underneath the earnest crusading.

It's also a pretty terrific-looking film at times - the Senate chamber, for example, feels bigger than most sets in films that aren't specifically meant to be epic, and the lighting is allowed to accentuate the emotion even when there's not necessarily an on-screen reason. Cinematographer Joseph Walker and his crew get to work the darker shades of black-and-white here in a way that allows images to be very striking.

The Talk of the Town

* * * (out of four)
Seen 4 February 2024 in the Brattle Theatre (first-run,DCP)
Available to stream/purchase digitally on Prime and to purchase on DVD on Amazon, or elsewhere

Among the delightful bits of this silly-but-earnest movie in which escaped prisoner Leopold Dilg (Cary Grant), Supreme Court-bound scholar Michael Lightcap (Ronald Colman), and schoolteacher Nora Shelley (Jean Arthur), I particularly love the little moment of Arthur doing a "hey, I look kind of cute in these" thing in the mirror right after the audience starts thinking she looks cute in her borrowed pajamas. I'm not sure filmmakers really know how to leverage that sort of movie-star charisma quite so well any more, especially in comparison to something like this, which has so much that you hope the characters can end up in a nice happy polycule.

It's kind of goofy on the way to that, admittedly - it opens with one of the longer spinning-newspaper montages you'll see to some genuinely ridiculous amateur sleuthing. In between, though, there's some great single-location farce, with the first half of the film where Nora has just stuck Leopold in the attic and is trying to find reasons to deal with both him and Michael while other people tramp through good enough to make one hope the whole film takes place in this one location over the course of a day or something. It's good door-slamming stuff, occasionally in a literal sense, although it does open up nicely for a while when it becomes difficult to move the story forward within those walls.

And, as mentioned, it's got a fun trio at the center, with a good part of the fun being that Cary Grant and Ronald Colman have as much chemistry with each other as either does with Arthur, perhaps more (if this isn't cited in The Celluloid Closet, especially considering the closeups of Rex Ingram as Lightcap's long-time assistant tearing up at the potential loss of their shred monastic life, someone made a major oversight). There's a sense of fun to all of that which makes the whole thing seem up to grabs despite one corner of the triangle being Cary Grant, and just enough screwiness to its screwball that the randomness of the plot fits right in.

The downside, perhaps, is that the chemistry between Grant & Colman undercuts the expected pairing a bit too much - the film does a fair job convincing the audience that Nora would trust and respect Dilg, and having her gripe about how she resents the attempts to foist her off on Lightcap, but romance is mostly in corners like his calling her the prettiest girl in town and her doting over him more than Lightcap in a spot where she has the chance. That's fine, but it doesn't entirely push the film into standard romantic comedy territory, even as it makes the effort.

Only Angels Have Wings

* * * (out of four)
Seen 4 February 2024 in the Brattle Theatre (first-run,DCP)
Available to stream/purchase digitally on Prime and to purchase on Blu-ray on Amazon, or elsewhere

I watch Jean Arthur and Rita Hayworth in this movie and think of Fay Wray brought along for "love interest" in King Kong: Not really much reason for them to be there but you're glad they are anyway, even if it's kind of silly. It takes a bit of the macho idiot edge off, makes one contemplate the danger a bit more.

It uses Arthur's Bonnie Lee to get the audience into the film's world, as she arrives on a ship bound for Panama from somewhere else in South America, meets a couple of nice young pilots, and through them Geoff Carter (Cary Grant), the one partnered with local businessman Dutchy (Sig Ruman) to establish a mail route between their coastal town and the mines in the country's interior, over the mountains. He seems harsh, but charismatic, and she winds up waiting a week for the next boat. Meanwhile, the new pilot, MacPherson (Richard Barthelmess), turns out to be using a false name and to have history with Carter - as does his wife Judy (Hayworth), though MacPherson doesn't know that.

It's good soap set against the backdrop of a new, modern frontier - not quite an updated Western, but not that far off - whose main fault is that it doesn't really have a spot for Bonnie; there's a stretch where she's listening at a keyhole seemingly just to remind the audience that she's there, although it doesn't exactly go better when she's directly participating in the plot later (one could, I suppose, contrast the bravery of a woman traveling alone with that of the pilots, but movies didn't necessarily like to be so explicit about those dangers); it's also got a scene or two where one can't help but notice how explicitly the filmmakers are prioritizing MacPherson's guilty feelings over the question of whether or not Judy can trust him to look out for her. "Love interest" stuff, I guess, which is a shame, because there's good drama about physical and emotional courage here, and it plays across Grant's face wonderfully.

And, on top of that, there's thrills aplenty here, including a sequence built around landing a single-engine plane on top of a mesa and taking off again that reminds a viewer of just how real stunts in old movies can be. There's miniatures and matte work as well as impressive flying, but it's put together in a way that puts the more real stuff in context, augmenting it, crazy good and effective effects work for 1939. 85 years later, the surrounding performances are good enough that the aerial sequences don't have to rely on being something audiences rarely see, and the drama is straightforward enough to keep the movie going for a couple hours.

She Is Conann Poor Things Mr. Deeds Goes to Town & Mr. Smith Goes to Washington The Talk of the Down & Only Angels Have Wings

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