While we here at SE&L typically hate those smarmy know it alls that throw their considered opinion in your face, we’re about to be guilty of the same thing. That’s because it’s a clear “I told you so” situation this week. In preparation for war with the big summer movies, the studios are pulling out all the stops, presenting prime DVD titles to compete for your expendable cash concerns. This Tuesday alone we have two major Awards season wannabes, a pair of meaningful mainstream efforts, and one of the most anticipated box sets in the history of the medium, among many, many others. These five releases by themselves indicate that the next 16 weeks will be a windfall of hotly anticipated offerings. The only problem will be finding the time to enjoy both the big screen and home theater experience. Whatever you decide, you shouldn’t miss the SE&L selection for 1 May. It’s an incredible cinematic statement:
Other Titles of Interest
The Films of Alejandro Jodorowsky
The Hitcher (2007)
And Now for Something Completely Different
Every summer, critics and film fans alike love to predict the eventual box office champions. They look across the 40 or 50 flicks about to open, manufacture a formula that takes into consideration past performance, their own interest levels, the timeliness of the title and a few other subjective factors, and draw their concrete conclusions. Sometimes, this process is stiflingly simple. After all, Spider-Man 3, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, and Shrek the Third all look like guaranteed money in the bank – and BIG money at that. Even if each one fails to fulfill its promise – either aesthetically or commercially – they will earn back their budgets via international releases, preplanned merchandising, and the eventual DVD release/TV premiere. In fact, it’s safe to say that they are doomed to succeed. There are just so many interconnected interests that it’s impossible for them to truly flop.
So what then, in this multimedia day and age, truly constitutes a bomb? How do you judge a failure in a film world bursting with recoup possibilities? Well, perception is part of it. Many people are pointing their fingers at Grindhouse, arguing that the Weinstein Company’s $70 million dollar exploitation experiment is a true disaster, barely earning $20 million in retail receipts. No matter the critical success, a lack of cash instantly seems to signal defeat. On the other side of the spectrum is something like Pathfinder. The Marcus Nispel Viking epic failed to generate any interest, even in the wake of the similarly styled (and massively successful) 300. Clearly, commercial failure is only one element in the equation. Other factors including buzz, anticipation, and artistic merit are considered as well. When sizing up any film, then, one must look at its path toward potential success, and the facets that also indicate eminent failure.
This still makes forecasting the Summer’s Stinkers difficult. As you will see below, the five films chosen all have some manner of redeeming cinematic qualities. Two are sequels, one’s aimed directly at the kiddies and another features a pair of popular comedians apparently working within the strict demands of their demographic. Toss in a potential genre sleeper, and you’ve got a group of slighty above average prospects. And yet there is also something about each of these movies that just screams debacle. Call it an aura of superfluity or a brazen big fishiness in what remains a mighty large cinematic ocean – whatever you want. These movies seem destined to die the most prominent of box office deaths. Others released between now and 31 August may be opting for a similar seasonal fate, but we here at SE&L are gambling that these projects will be remembered as 2007’s best of the worst. Let’s start with:
Fantastic Four: The Rise of the Silver Surfer
Live Free or Die Hard
I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry
During the first week of September, we will come back to this piece and see just how accurate our predictions were. We’ll take the blame if and when we’re wrong. But if we hit these five unnecessary nails on the head, all we can say is – we warned you.
For Ken Jorgenson (Richard Egan), the trip back to Pine Island is bittersweet. He’s married to Helen (Constance Ford), a woman he can’t stand, and raising a daughter, Molly (Sandra Dee), confused about the difference between his permissiveness and his wife’s frigid primness. Moreover, the residential resort holds a lot of mixed memories for Ken. He was a lifeguard there in his youth, working for the Hunter family and wooing local lass Sylvia (Dorothy McGuire). Desperate to make something of himself, Ken left his love, and she wound up marrying the bumbling son of the owners. As an adult, Bart Hunter (Arthur Kennedy) has squandered the family fortune and spends his days in a half-drunken stupor. Luckily, the couple has a conscientious son named Johnny (Troy Donahue), who wants to help as much as he can.
The reunion between the parties is problematic, especially with Helen acting extremely suspicious and the young people discovering a burning desire for each other almost instantaneously. Things come to a loggerhead when Ken and Sylvia begin an affair, a series of secret encounters that leads to the break-up of their respective families. Naturally, the teens are devastated, hoping to keep their love alive. But with the infighting and legal wrangling, feelings get deeply hurt. Even a new marriage can’t mend the damage. As they struggle to stay together, Molly and Johnny long for A Summer Place, somewhere they can go and be happy—and alone.
A Summer Place is a movie about sex. And hate. Actually, it’s a film about the unbridled passions of ardent lovers separated, either by distance or design, and how they will stoop to all manner of anger-based schmaltz to realize their throbbing biological urges. Based on the scandalous novel by Sloan Wilson (also famous for The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit), this overheated sudser, loaded with more histrionics and innuendo than a tent full of Cub Scouts with a National Geographic, does almost anything to draw us in. It provides one of the most heinous, hissable villains of all time—a woman who has basically boiled life down to a series of prejudices, predilections, and presumptions. This porkpie shrew, expertly essayed by Constance Ford, is the kind of cow who makes you want to reach out into the screen itself and choke that smug smirk off her obviously overfed face. She delivers such devastating attacks on everyone in the film—her fragile daughter, her dour husband, the innkeepers of the vacation spot—that you wait in desperation for her well-earned comeuppance. In fact, you beg the movie for the moment where all the cards she’s carefully stacked against the rest of her brood come falling back on top of her. Unfortunately, A Summer Place doesn’t provide that kind of denouement. Instead, it has other things on its mind, issues involving carnality and its expression, both physically and emotionally.
If you weren’t aware that it wasn’t invented until the mid ‘90s, you’d swear the entire cast of this film was strung out on maximum-strength Viagra. Wild cats with biologically modified animalistic urges aren’t in this much heat. Our primary horndog is Richard Egan, playing the husband of the horrid housefrau mentioned before. His position as a lowly teen lifeguard was especially helpful in wooing the ladies, and as he’s aged into a man of wealth, he’s got lovin’ on his brain morning, noon, and night. Having never gotten over his affair with Pine Island local Sylvia, he despises his wife for withholding her prudish favors and preaches a kind of corporeal clemency to his hormonally hopped-up daughter. In fact, it’s safe to say that if he didn’t invent the hedonistic philosophy, Egan’s Ken Jorgenson was a staunch advocate of the “if it feels good, do it” mantra. As a result, his offspring, essayed with a syrupy strangeness by ‘50s cinematic chastity belt Sandra Dee, is simultaneously stunted and sizzling, ready to rock and roll once the right guy comes along, only to feel tremendous guilt afterwards. In essence, she’s organized religion without the burden of the “Big V.” Lucky for her then that Troy Donahue is in residence. The minute she meets him, it’s major lip lock time, with just a few cautionary words about “being good” before proceeding through the rest of the adolescent “bases.”
Naturally, all of this makes Donahue’s parents all the more unhappy. In fact, the filmmakers felt so bad for mother Hunter, played by Dorothy McGuire, that they had to put a glaucoma-level of soft focus on her just to keep the lust issues in check. In a scene guaranteed to give the casual viewer a compositional headache, Egan and his former love have an attic assignation where, half the time, you can barely make out the features on McGuire’s face. Granted, she was five years older than her costar, but the more unbelievable element was the film’s apocryphal timeline. Sylvia and her swim stud were teens when they made their “mistake.” He hasn’t been back to the island in nearly 20 years. He has a daughter whose 16, while she has a 17-year-old. Math majors out there will see that the McGuire, pushing 44, is trying to pass for mid-30s. Even worse, Egan, who looks like a bulldog beaten about the face and head with a case of bourbon and Old Spice, is also in his post-20s prime. Call it an old-fashioned casting conceit, but these two make youthful indiscretion seem positively prehistoric. And then there’s Arthur Kennedy. As McGuire’s husband Bart, this constantly inebriated loser is like old money gone to super seed. Aperitif glass permanently glued to his hand, conversational skills both enhanced and exaggerated by his constant snorts of booze, he’s supposed to be the unredeemable harlequin of this menagerie. His bon mots are aimed at making him seem witty despite his permanently pickled nature. He simply turns out as pathetic as a human can possibly be without resorting to stories of childhood molestation.
In the end, it’s all in service of cheese so ripe and sensationally stinky that we anticipate every amazingly aromatic moment of it. Writer/director Delmer Daves, whose pen was responsible for the whacked-out weeper An Affair to Remember and whose eye delivered Dark Passage and the baby-on-fire masterpiece Susan Slade, is an expert at making this kind of potboiler pulp percolate with sentimentality and spice. Not one for subtlety, he keeps his characters cranked over to “11” and never once stops to examine the authenticity of his moments. Instead, he takes the standard soap opera material and makes an elephantine opera out of the smallest situations. Preempting John Waters in the Christmas tree defilement department, and letting each face slap—and threat of medical virginity checking—sink in like an interpersonal war crime, he’s not just making a regressive romance picture. No, Daves is delving into the heart of human darkness, illustrating the actual ways in which people decipher and destroy each other. Rendering every conversation an experiment in socio-anthropology and reducing the slow sensual burn into an aberrant art form, the end result is an unapologetic campfest fashioned onto a cleaned-up copy of The Kinsey Report. You’ll hate yourself for loving every insinuation-laced minute, and the aftershock is akin to a hangover from too many bottles of Boone’s Farm strawberry wine. But you’ll be as happy as a casino-ed clam once it’s all over.
Liv Ullmann is one of the most talented, visionary, and literate performers in modern acting’s history. She also happens to be a hopelessly addicted to Henrik Ibsen’s simple and eloquent play, A Doll’s House. Throughout her long, illustrious career, the plum role of Nora has lingered in her work, making her (in this writer’s opinion) one of the actresses to best equipped to navigate the tricky depths and glossed over surfaces of this complex character.
Ullmann, who like Ibsen is Norwegian, has said she has a strong connection to Nora. There are many similarities between the actress’s real life and that of the character: she had a long, ongoing relationship with a much older, semi-controlling man (Swedish director Ingmar Bergman), her fame and personality were largely related to her relationship with Bergman, and as a performer, Ullmann is always putting on appearances like Nora; she has many great, fascinating layers. As Ullman puts it:
“This woman, who uses and manipulates those around her while at the same time wanting to help and love them, refuses to do something she feels is morally repugnant to her when the decisive moment comes. It is beyond her imagination to conceive of exploiting the situation when Dr. Rank declares his love and begs to give her the money she so badly needs… When she finally sees, she also understands the anger she feels over everything that is false between them is directed just as much against herself as against him. Her responsibility was as great as his. She hopes that the change will also take place in him—not for her sake, but for his own… In the first acts Nora is not just the songbird and the squirrel; neither is she pure wisdom and feminine strength in the last.”
Her first appearance as Nora would, technically, have to be in the early 1970s, as Marianne in Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage. The film is a thinly veiled, more modern version of Ibsen’s domestic epic. Scenes tells the story of a brutally unhappy couple examining their relationship; he is older, she seems easily controlled by him. Like Nora, Marianne must put on appearances for the couple’s friends and the general public.
By the end of the film, Marianne comes into her own. She finally lets her strong personality shine through, allowing her marriage to Johann disintegrate in the process. As Marianne says in the film “For my sisters and me, our entire upbringing was aimed at our being agreeable”—something that could also ring true for Nora. It’s as though she is able to, for the first time, be on her own without the punishing influence of her overbearing husband.
One other interesting detail of note is the fact that Scenes takes place mainly in the mundanely decorated living room of the middle-class couple. It’s a nice representation of the couple’s bourgeois normality. Early on in the film, Bergman even has Johann and Marianne returning from a performance of A Doll’s House as if to really drive his point home.
Many Swedish film scholars would argue that Ullmann has played versions of Nora in just about all of her films with Bergman. In efforts such as Hour of the Wolf, Autumn Sonata, and even in Cries and Whispers, she essays variations of the sheltered woman-child wife, each creation seemingly fragile but ultimately steely.
Ullmann originally played the stage role of Nora in its native Norwegian language, and said she found it incredibly difficult to transition to English when she brought an acclaimed version of the play to Broadway in 1975. Nonetheless, she managed to overcome the language barrier with an acute, complex performance. The actress explains some of the challenges in working in both languages:
“Performing ‘A Doll’s House’ in a foreign language, after having played it in Norwegian is extremely difficult for me. I set my alarm for 5 a.m. Read and read. Make a lot of changes in the translation because Nora’s words are so full of meaning for me. I know them so well, and I think the English translation has missed a lot of what is Nora’s distinctive quality.
One of the problems I have is ‘washing’ the Norwegian text from my head. It is essential for me now to think in English and I cannot leave the Norwegian associations behind me, I will never be able to manage this.
Here, I have to acquire a new set of images, a new grid of references; Nora in New York can never be the same as Nora in Oslo.”
In her later life, as Ullmann left her relationship with Bergman, she abandoned acting for a new career as a stage and film director. Her long-planned big-screen version of Ibsen’s play was never realized, but it was set to star Kate Winslet as a Nora for the new millennium, and co-star John Cusack as Helmer. It is a damn shame that this Doll’s House expert was not allowed to give us yet another brilliant interpretation of this classic. After all, she knows this material better than anyone. She lived it.
Perhaps it was Meatballs that said it best – are you ready for the Summer? It will definitely be an interesting four months. Instead of giving us one or two major blockbusters to contemplate over the next 16 weeks, Tinsel Town is dropping one on us each and every Friday. That’s a lot of popcorn product to digest. To make matters worse, the major cable channels are finally scheduling those long delayed hits from last year to turn the weekend watching decision into a real dilemma. Thank God for TiVo and DVR. While you’re standing in line waiting on the next available seat for Spider-Man 3 or Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, you can be recording the pay movie networks and their equally entertaining offerings. Beginning with this last week in April, it should be a battle between big and small screen for your leisure time attention, starting with:
The Hills Have Eyes (2006)
Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.
Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!/ Mudhoney
The Thing Below