Movie Roundup: Four Days of Rain Edition

The Lusty Men – In director Nicholas Ray’s low-key and grungy sports film, Robert Mitchum plays a broken down rodeo star who tries to go straight as a ranch hand but ends up igniting the bull-riding dreams of a young cowboy (Arthur Kennedy, always solid in supporting roles and quite good in a bigger part here).  Much of the plot of The Color of Money follows, with Kennedy’s early success leading to the kind of arrogance that alienates his wife.  Susan Hayward, as the stick in the mud wife that’s become a cliche in modern sports films, is a revelation here.  I’d only seen her before in Beau Geste and I Married a Witch, in neither of which does she convey the weary steeliness she displays here and she manages to make her stock character easily the most sympathetic one in the film.  Ray sticks so tenaciously to the modest dreams of his characters and makes so real their world that for awhile we actually believe that managing to stay on a bull for 10 seconds in Calgary is enough to make a man legendary and wealthy beyond imagining.  And of course it is.  The #11 film of 1952.

Greenberg –  Strange that this and The Social Network would come out within a few months of each other, both being attempts by aging Gen Xers to understand the younger generation.  Or maybe not, I guess these things can come in pairs, like volcano or asteroid movies.  In The Social Network, David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin try a few different ways of filtering 26 year old billionaire Mark Zuckerberg through the nerd stereotypes of their own generation, never coming up with an adequate solution to the mystery of why he seems like such a jerk.  In Greenberg, Noah Baumbach and Jennifer Jason Leigh use Ben Stiller’s character as a kind of generational surrogate.  He’s the Chris Eigeman character from Baumbach’s masterpiece Kicking and Screaming, 15 years later and having never grown up.  That’s not the right phrase though, as it implies maturity, which no one in Baumbach’s films ever achieves.  Rather, he failed to adapt as the world changed.  He’s a musician who refused to sell out (a Gen X ideal if ever there was) and now spends his time writing letters to the editor.  While house-sitting for his (successful) brother, he has a tentative romance with mumblecore starlet Greta Gerwig, as much an avatar for her generation as Stiller is for his.  The film follows Stiller as he tries, via his relationship with Gerwig, to adapt to the new while resolving and moving on from the old (via his relationships with his old bandmate (Rhys Ifans) and girlfriend (Leigh)).  It’s a mid-level film for Baumbach, I think, not as funny as his first two films, but less angry and misanthropic that his last two (The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding).  It instead provides the best balance between those two strains in his work, and Stiller gives his best performance in years.  The climactic scene when Stiller monologues about how much he hates and fears these kids today is one of the best scenes of the year, and comes closer than anything I’ve seen yet at really understanding this generation gap.

Undercurrent – A variation on the Rebecca/Suspicion/Secret Beyond the Door formula, though it isn’t nearly as good as any of those, wherein an innocent young woman marries a man who may or may not be a murderer.  Katharine Hepburn’s the woman, trying her best to appear naive, who marries Robert Taylor, a wealthy businessman who gets unusually angry whenever his brother, missing for some time now, gets mentioned.  Did he kill his brother?  How does Robert Mitchum fit into this?  And most importantly, is this really a Vincente Minnelli film?  It has few of the obvious touches that would mark it as Minnellian, as this kind of noir isn’t really a genre he’s known for (is The Bad and the Beautiful the next most noir Minnelli?).  But still in its early sections, with the focus on Hepburn’s humble, science-devoted life with her father and then her troubles fitting into her new husband’s high society world, there are flashes of the man who made Meet Me in St. Louis, Gigi and Tea and Sympathy.  Unfortunately, it’s not enough to inject more than a little life into the formula, and the film drags much more than it should, without any of the compensatory weirdness of the above Hitchcock and Fritz Lang films.  The #17 film of 1946.

The Canterville Ghost – Margaret O’Brien stars as the child owner of a big English estate that serves as a home to American troops during the war.  Said estate also happens to be haunted by the most notorious ghost in England: Charles Laughton, sporting his second worst mustache ever.  Laughton was ghostified 300 years earlier when he failed to come to the aid of his brother, Peter Lawford(!) and was walled up in the house and cursed by his father.  Only if one of his descendants commits an act of courage will he be freed.  It turns out one of the GIs, Robert Young, is just such a descendant, so the three of them contrive various ways to be brave.  It’s based on a story by Oscar Wilde and directed by Jules Dassin, and despite the greatness of Laughton and O’Brien (who is almost as brilliant as she was this same year in Meet Me in St. Louis), who share some great scenes together, it’s really never as good as all that talent would lead you to believe.  Still, it’s a fun little movie.  The #16 film of 1944.

St. Martin’s Lane – A much better Laughton film is this one, known as Sidewalks of London in the US (which I think is actually a better title).  He plays a street performer who earns his money reciting poetry very loudly and with little feeling before lines of theatre-goers.  Vivien Leigh steals his hatful of money, he chases her, espies her dancing in a moonlit, shadowy abandoned mansion (a lovely scene) and convinces her to join up with him in the performing business.  Being Vivien Leigh, though, her talent is uncontainable and she’s soon a star, performing indoors and dating Rex Harrison and leaving poor Laughton drunk and in the dust.  It’s a variation on the A Star is Born formula, and one of the best, buoyed by a heartbreaking performance from Laughton and an electric one from Leigh.  You do have to get past their outrageous accents though, they are well over the top.  Director Tim Whelan began his career as a writer with Harold Lloyd and went on to be one of the directors behind the 1940 Thief of Baghdad.  The #7 film of 1938.
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