By Steve Greene | Criticwire April 14, 2013 at 1:19PM
Reel Reads is a regular feature that gathers lengthier stories related to the world of film criticism you may have missed during the week. If there's anything you think would be ideal for future installments, please let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
"Jim Kane (Harry Shannon) is a nervous, bulldozed mess, clearly not happy or satisfied with the arrangement on which they are all to sign, while Mary Kane (Agnes Moorehead) is a virtual sleepwalker, grimly exuding no emotion in what should be an emotionally charged moment, and placidly plowing ahead with the custody deal with Thatcher, which is clearly her idea. Watch it again, if you haven’t already committed it to memory, and the one dialogic cue that Welles and co-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz toss at us – Mr. Kane’s impulsive but unconvincing thought to whup the boy after Charlie goes at Thatcher with his sled, and Mrs. Kane’s disassociative-fugue-state answer to send the boy away 'where you can’t get at him' – wilts on the vine as a possible motive for the family’s dissolution and for the parents’ behavior. (Given a choice, any six-year-old would choose the warm Dad over Mom’s cold-blooded depression.) Then without ado Welles jump-cuts forward eighteen years, to the grown Charlie giving Thatcher amused hell with yellow journalistic stunts, and the enigmas of the Kane family are allowed to dissolve into the mists of the past."
Robert Sullivan's New Yorker tribute to the late filmmaker Les Blank is a helpful thematic overview of his various disparate subjects. As Sullivan notes in his intro, Blank was a meticulous craftsman, weaving together a story with patience. With a filmography that spans food, music and a few filmmaker-centric oddities, Blank's work also takes on a particular relevance with viewers of different ages.
"Every man is a philosopher in most Les Blank productions. A polkafest celebrant, when asked to interpret a lyric or a tradition, will most often state the obvious, and, nine times out of ten, the obvious ends up being a variation on an almost Epicurean exhortation to seize the day. Blank often talked about seeing Ingmar Bergman’s 'The Seventh Seal' for the first time. At that moment in his life, Blank was in despair. He had decided, as a young man, that he was not good enough at writing to be the writer he wanted to be. 'The Seventh Seal' changed everything, and, beginning with 'Running Around Like A Chicken With Its Head Cut Off' in 1960, a Bergman homage, Blank was off and running to a life of film. Of course, death isn’t just obvious in 'The Seventh Seal'; it’s a costar, and so it often is in Blank’s work. Then again, the obvious itself needs stating from time to time, and sometimes, when you state it, it even gets a little mystical, despite the smell of cheap stale beer in the air. 'Let’s have a good time while we’re on this earth, I guess,' a polka singer says, 'because its gonna be dry up there. Or down there.'"
Monika Bartyzel's Girls on Film column is a dependably insightful look at the issues and trends facing women in cinema. This week, she turns her attention to the legendary mystery writer Agatha Christie, a woman whose work has been somewhat warped in various screen adaptation attempts. While many recent novel-to-film projects have shifted around their female protagonist's personalities or role in the proceedings, Bartyzel argues that, by tackling a diverse range of characters, Christie's stories would serve Hollywood best if her writing's spirit was properly preserved.
"The blackout on Agatha Christie adaptations has been as much Hollywood's loss as Christie's, because the author's oeuvre is a model of something American film has struggled for decades to find: A female creator that offers progressive views about women young and old. Women had barely earned the right to vote when Christie first made waves as a writer, disseminating what scholar Roberta S. Klein describes as 'unconscious, intuitive feminism.' Thankfully, Christie's first publisher, John Lane, insisted that she be published under her own name, rather than take on a male pseudonym. Poirot might have dominated her pen, with appearances in more than 30 of Christie's titles, but Miss Jane Marple and Mrs. Tuppence Beresford balanced out her masculine hero by offering fierce and capable female detectives unrivaled in comparable stories of their time."
With the re-release of "Jurassic Park" and the lingering discussions of "Lincoln," Steven Spielberg's filmography is still in another cycle of reevaluation. Peter Labuza revisited "Saving Private Ryan" (and the aforementioned presidential biopic) and noticed that both films, while featuring a certain type of heroism, ultimately focus less on perpetuating the infallibility of the federal government and more on the importance of maintaining meaningful interpersonal relationships. Even under grand historical circumstances, the emphasis is the immediate effect on those in close proximity.
"Certainly Saving Private Ryan asks us the memorialize all those who fought in the Greatest Generation, but what the film doesn’t do is ask us to see their heroics in the same way American culture often does. Saving Private Ryan is essentially a response to the Norman Rockwell way of life, often using his iconography to question what the good society is. In the end, Spielberg proposes a radical social democracy that mirrors Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, where democracy and our relationship to it is not built on the principles of the state, but a series of small intimate relationships built around living the good life."
As Karina Longworth's retrospective for Grantland demonstrates, sometimes ambition and video-game adaptations don't make for the easiest combination. Her case study is the now-20-year-old "Super Mario Bros.," a film now derided not simply for failing, but for failing to elicit much other than ambivalence. A first for the console-to-screen movement, the production was fraught with script rewrites, an unruly cast and a slew of bad pre-opening press. In hindsight, perhaps the most curious development is the sense that enough people involved believed the project was tailor-made sequel bait.
"The cast was basically in revolt. The actors would shove each day's new pages aside unread. Hoskins and Leguizamo swilled scotch together between takes, leading to an on-set accident in which Leguizamo drunkenly crashed a truck and Hoskins broke his hand. By the time Stayton got there, the disgruntled performers had abandoned any effort to put on a happy face. When Stayton told Hopper the directors declined to speak to him for the story, the actor responded, 'That's the only intelligent thing I've heard that they've really actually done.'"
Scott Harris points out in his article for Film.com that sports and racial issues dovetail quite conveniently, especially in the realm of "based on a true story." But Harris also points out that the tales most ripe for a meaningful discussion aren't always carried out to their full potential. So, if studio movies are having trouble dealing with this kind of subject matter, is pairing it up with triumphant underdogs in sports venues better than not talking about it at all?
"And while the list of films that tout their racial message could fill a whole column by itself ('White Men Can’t Jump' being just the tip of the iceberg), you could make an equally long list of sports movies that rely on (mostly) unstated racial subtext to power their messages. 'Rocky' may be an underdog story, but it’s also about boxing’s search for the Great White Hope. 'Jerry Maguire' may not make a big deal about the fact that the agents and owners and people with power are all white while the actual working athletes are mostly black, but it’s not easy to miss either. 'Brian’s Song' is first and foremost a story of brotherly love, but the fact that only one of the brothers is a brother is hardly incidental."