Monday, October 24, 2011

Existential Cool, Chinese Revolution, Jean Harlow's Pair and Myrna Loy is the One

I went to the 4 Star on two consecutive nights. I saw:

Drive starring Ryan Gosling; with Carey Mulligan, Ron Perlman, Bryan Cranston, Christina Hendricks & Albert Brooks; directed by Nicolas Winding Refn; (2011) - Official Website
1911 starring Jackie Chan & Winston Chao; with Bingbing Li, Joan Chen & Jaycee Chan; directed by Jackie Chan & Zhang Li; Mandarin with subtitles; (2011) - Official Website


I've read Ryan Gosling's performance in Drive described as "existential cool." After seeing his performance, I'm not sure if it was his performance or the film which was "existential cool." Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name or Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator was "cool." Gosling's unnamed character is more somber than cool. I guess at some level, he is cool as in ice water in his veins. Even while stomping someone's face in or slapping around Christina Hendricks, the Kid doesn't lose his temper. Gosling gives a measured performance which is a little too measured for my taste. It gives the film an austere feel which may not have served the film the best possible way.

The premise is that Gosling plays a stunt driver/mechanic who moonlights by driving getaway cars. He is extremely disciplined in this endeavor - 5 minutes (no more, no less), never work with the same person twice, etc. The Kid, as he is referred to by some, falls into the most obvious trap. He gets involved with his next door neighbor (Carey Mulligan). She is a single mother who husband soon is paroled from prison. To ingratiate himself with Mulligan, the Kid agrees to drive the getaway car for a job the husband has to pull off to square it with some gang members. However, a double cross is pulled and the Kid finds his life is at risk.

At the screening I was at, three young ladies were in the audience. After the showing, I passed them on the sidewalk outside the theater. I overheard them saying that the film was "profoundly disturbing." I just shook my head. Today, I read that a Michigan woman has filed a lawsuit against Drive's distributors for misleading trailers. She was expecting something akin to Fast and the Furious. According to the suit, Drive exhibited "Extreme gratuitous defamatory dehumanizing racism directed against members of the Jewish faith, and thereby promoted criminal violence against members of the Jewish faith." I didn't sense any anti-semitism in the film. I guess the biggest jerk in the film was Ron Perlman's character who was Jewish and ripped off the East Coast mob "for calling [him] a Kike to [his] face." Honestly, I thought that was just a self-serving statemen on his character's part although he did exhibit signs of Italophilia.

I don't think that is what the three ladies in my audience were referring to. The film has, apparently, been marketed as a fast paced action film. Instead, it's more of a character study with the aesthetics of film noir and Michael Mann films. However, the Kid doesn't have much in the way of character so he is blank slate for other more volatile character to react to. Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman take turns outdoing each other in the violence department. Bryan Cranston is a desperate mechanic looking to score as the Kid's sponsor on the racecar circuit.

The best scene was in an elevator. A hitman has been sent to kill the Kid. In slow motion, the Kid is aware of the hitman's identity while Carey Mulligan is not. The Kid lays a extended and passionate kiss on Mulligan. Upon releasing her from his embrace, he stomps the killer's face in. Mulligan looks on in shock.

I thought Drive was a remake of Walter Hill's The Driver (1978) but found out it was based on a James Sallis novel by the same name. Frank Lee described Drive as the best film of the year in his weekly newsletter. I'm not sure if I agree with that but I was impressed by the film and its style.


1911 was timed to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Xinhai Revolution in China. I can't recall the films I've seen before which depict the revolution but I was familiar with several of the plot points (perhaps I read something). 1911 reminded me of another Chinese film The Founding of a Republic (2009). The latter film told the story of the founding of the People's Republic of China upon its 60th anniversary. Both films featured large casts with a perfunctory and superficial exploration of important events and people. Anyone not familiar with the actual events quickly became lost among the abridged scenes and numerous characters. I did not enjoy 1911 for these reasons.


Earlier in October, the Castro screened a Jean Harlow double bill.

Dinner at Eight starring Marie Dressler, John Barrymore, Wallace Beery, Jean Harlow & Lionel Barrymore; directed by George Cukor; (1933)
Libeled Lady starring Spencer Tracy, Myrna Loy, William Powell and Jean Harlow; directed by Jack Conway; (1936)

Jean Harlow, The Blonde Bombshell, is part of Hollywood lore. The first bad girl of the talkies era, Harlow consorted with gangsters, posed for nude photographs, slept in the nude, believed underwear to be unnecessary and died young at age 26.

I've never been an admirer of Harlow's beauty. There is something crass about her on screen but that is probably the roles I've seen her in. Her face has an indifference about it which suggests casual cruelty. Lauren Bacall had the same look but I'm drawn to Bacall like a moth to a flame whereas Harlow is constantly overshadowed by her co-stars. Some women get in my head and some don't.

Dinner at Eight was one of those MGM star vehicles. Released during the lowest depths of the Great Depression, Dinner at Eight is set among the moneyed class in New York. If I may digress for a moment, during the Great Depression, these stories about the wealthy and glamorous were quite popular among the masses. MGM made a cottage industry filming them and F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote about them during the 1930s. During the Great Recession, the masses are protesting them with Occupy protests. Putting aside the politics of the current situation, I find it extremely interesting how the wealthy are portrayed and judged by the rest of society.

Back to Dinner at Eight...I found the whole affair to be a bore. Some people are losing money & prestige, others are gaining them (with the same savoir-faire), love affairs, death, etc. I thought I would enjoy the film based on the synopsis but I just couldn't get into the film. I fell asleep for an extended period of the film - that means the film was not to my liking or I was becoming ill.

I think it was the former because the next film on the double bill, Libeled Lady, kept me awake despite having seen it before on television. Spencer Tracy plays Haggerty, the editor of a New York newspaper. The paper is slapped with a libel suit by Connie Allenbury (Myrna Loy), the heiress to a fortune. The best defense against libel is to the tell the truth. Haggerty's paper is being sued because it wrote that Allenbury was having an affair with a married man. Haggerty hires Bill Chandler, an unscrupulous newspaper reporter, to seduce Allenbury and deliver the scandal to Haggerty's rag. The problem is that Chandler isn't married. Not a problem; Haggerty is engaged to Gladys (Jean Harlow) but the wedding keeps falling through because of pressing newspaper business diverting Haggerty's attention. Haggerty coaxes Gladys into marrying Chandler. After they bring down Allenbury, she'll take an extended vacation in Reno to get a divorce at which time she'll become Mrs. Haggerty. They don't make screwball comedies like they used to...

As you can imagine, Allenbury falls for Chandler. Unfortunately, so does Gladys. Chandler (played with comic zeal by Powell) tries to find a middle ground but both women are pressing him along with Haggerty who suspects something is amiss. Not surprisingly, Powell and Loy shine in their roles. In the fifth on-screen pairing of Powell and Loy, they spar with each other throughout the film. Allenbury suspicious of Chandler's intentions and Chandler falling in love with his mark. Loy's beauty and radiance are stunning. To hell with Jean Harlow, give me Myrna Loy everyday of the week and twice on Sundays. In a juicy bit of on-set romance, Powell and Harlow were an item during the filming. Indeed, Harlow wanted Loy's role but mindful of the success of The Thin Man and other Powell-Loy pairing, the studio insisted Allenbury's role go to Loy.

The film ends on odd note. Instead of tidying up the loose ends, it gives closes with the somber note that someone has committed bigamy; no way to make a joke out of that! Not unusual as a lot of films in the 1930s ended abruptly with a head-scratching moments. Up until that point, the comedy in Libeled Lady was sparkling with Tracy and Harlow giving strong performances in secondary roles. Libeled Lady is the film that reminded me how much taken I am with Myrna Loy.

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