(On Cable TV, February 2019) With the 1962 version of Mutiny on the Bounty, this is my third take on the same story in less than a year, which is to say that it’s less about the incredible story and all about execution at this point. Using the 1935 and the 1984 as a comparison point, this middle version does act as a natural progression in a series. It’s in colour, it’s less sympathetic toward mutineer Fletcher Christian, and being a major studio film from the end of the Hays Code era, it has strategically placed leis and hair to ensure that we don’t see the nudity of the 1935 or the 1984 version. On the plus side, this film (which cost a relative fortune of $22M in 1962 dollars to produce, spanning two years and two directors) clearly throws a lot of money on-screen in re-creating 18th-century ships and spending time on a lush tropical island. It feels like a lavish film, and the historical recreation is impressive. The colour cinematography is splendid, as are the terrific costumes and set design. But production qualities aren’t sufficient in ensuring a good movie. For one thing, it’s unbelievably long … not just in terms of events, but in the pacing of those events. The film alternately dawdles and rushes through plot points, not quite mastering its narrative rhythm. There are other narrative issues as well: It’s an interesting choice to have the botanist narrate the story … even if he’s not there for all of it. Factually, this Mutiny on the Bounty is better than the 1935 version but nowhere near as nuanced as the 1984 one: There are clarifications on a few breadfruit-related plot points, but Captain Blight is still portrayed as an outright sadistic villain. Then there’s the Brando Problem: The more I see of Marlon Brando past his two Oscar-winning roles, the least I like him—it doesn’t help that his character is initially presented as a foppish cad, but there is something about Brando himself (no doubt tainted by his later performances) that just rubs me wrong. It certainly limits the film’s appeal as much as its duration does. Let me put it this way: the 1935 version has the advantage of staging a big spectacle at its time; the 1984 version has a half-dozen terrific actors. This 1962 version, in comparison, is merely there. It has now been thirty years since the latest major version of Mutiny on the Bounty—ample time for a new version even closer to reality.
(On Cable TV, February 2019) Considering that Sayonara is a late-1950s film about Japan, it’s inevitable that it would be somewhat romanticized—although, notably, not as whitewashed as it could have been. A rather annoying Marlon Brando is featured in the lead role as a very stereotypical American getting seduced by the Japanese way of life (and, obviously, a Japanese woman). Much of it becomes a romantic drama heavily playing off social expectations with the unsubtle style of the time. From today’s perspective, Sayonara isn’t much to talk about: it’s long, melodramatic, plays into some strong clichés of interracial relationships and has a mumbling Brando. It’s very much an adaptation of the James Michener novel, better suited to the page than the screen. While it’s better than many other Hollywood movies of the period in having ethnic-appropriate casting for the white men and Japanese women, it does have Ricardo Montalban play a Japanese man … oh well. And so on. But if you dig down into that the film represented in 1957, then you can understand why the film was nominated for a few Oscars: At the time (and for a few more years afterward). It was one of the few sympathetic and compassionate representation of Japan and to fairly represent interracial relationships. Miyoshi Umeki became the first Asian (and, to date, the only) Asian actress to win an Academy Award, while comedian Red Buttons got an Oscar of his own for a very dramatic role. It has aged, but as a compassion-driven film it had aged far more gracefully than other, more hate-driven ones. While the result definitely feels trying today, Sayonara is a film worth putting in context. I still wouldn’t recommend it to anyone but those trying to complete their list of all Oscar-nominee pictures … but it does have its strengths.
(On Cable TV, December 2018) Well huh. Turns out that Marlon Brando was a trend setter on his way up, playing characters with raw honesty in the 1950s, and also on his way down, anticipating the whole self-parody of people such as Robert de Niro with 1990’s The Freshman. The references are not accidental—The Freshman features Brando as a mob boss in a film that has characters (including a film teacher) obsessing over The Godfather. It’s intentional, and it does work relatively well at times: Brando doesn’t look as if he’s having any fun whatsoever, but the characters grimacing around him look as if they do. Matthew Broderick stars as a hapless Midwesterner going to NYC to study film, and is immediately robbed upon arrival. We later discover it’s all a big scheme, but never mind the details. The Freshman is merely fine as a comedy: It doesn’t have big laughs, it does’nt build to an amazing climax, but it does the job of entertaining and that’s that. Director Andrew Bergman keeps things moving in the same direction, Penelope Ann Miller makes for a cute love interest and the focus on animals means some visual comedy as well. I don’t think that The Freshman has any staying power beyond seeing Brando poking fun at himself, even in a very restrained way. But it’ll do if you haven’t seen it yet.
(On TV, April 2018) I’m usually a good sport about watching movies that predate my birth—the world has moved on since then, some have not aged very well but it’s important to put them in context and appreciate them for what they were trying to do at the time. This being said, appreciating a film for its artistic intent is not the same thing as liking a film that goes out of its way to be unpleasant, and so I find myself quite willing to dismiss Last Tango in Paris out of hand from 2018’s perspective. The story of a so-called erotic drama between two strangers meeting in a Paris apartment, this is a film that delights in the more sordid aspects of human nature, adultery and domination being part of the package. Writer/Director Bernardo Bertolucci has his own obsessions, but they’re not necessarily fun to watch. Maria Schneider is cute enough (especially with curly hair) but Marlon Brando is a significant obstacle to any enjoyment of the movie. Shot at a time when Brandon was halfway through his slide from the energetic young man of his first performances to the bloated mess of his later years, he’s suitably repellent here, with balding head, expanding gut, aggressive attitude and twice the age of his co-star—hardly the sex symbol that an “erotic drama” would call for. Much of the events throughout the film are unpleasant, with a number of unbearable moments along the way. By the tragic ending, we feel relief that it’s finally over. I’m not a good audience for the kind of drama that is Last Tango in Paris, so I shouldn’t be surprised if it was such an ordeal to watch.
(On Cable TV, March 2018) It took me a long time to warm up to On the Waterfront. At first, it felt like a chore of a self-imposed viewing. Taking place low down the social ladder in the working neighborhoods around the port, it talks about corruption, coercion and trying to do the right thing when you’re going to be punished for it. Marlon Brando became famous largely thanks to this film (“I coulda been a contender!”), and it’s easy to understand why—compared to other actors in other films of the time, he feels more real, more alive than most of them. Other standout performances include Karl Malden as a tough priest, and a first appearance by Eva Marie Saint. Still, the film is a grim slog for much of its duration—but it gets much better toward the end, as On the Waterfront finally comes into focus and achieves maximum dramatic intensity. The final ten minutes are riveting, which is a good place for a film to conclude.
(On Cable TV, November 2017) The reputation of A Streetcar Named Desire as a theatrical play is well known: Tennessee Williams’ dramatically complex piece features deep yet archetypical characters, plenty of delusions and confrontations, a shattering climax and enough opportunities along the way for actors to show their talents. Much of that is intact in the film, with the added appeal of a well-executed period depiction taking us in late-1940s New Orleans slums. The depth and unsaid elements of the script distinguish A Streetcar Named Desire from shallower entertainment, and despite significant self-censorship, the film does hold up quite well today in terms of characterization. But the most remarkable thing about the film (and the one reason why I consciously restarted watching the film after a distracted first attempt) remains the incredible clash of acting styles between Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando. In a reflection of their respective characters, they each inhabit a distinct reality which comes across through acting styles. Leigh, as Blanche Dubois, is from the older theatrical tradition, emoting to the audience in a self-conscious fashion, lying to herself as much as to others. Brando, meanwhile, shatters the film’s overall atmosphere the moment he shows up, speaking plainly and harshly. He is a realist forced to live alongside a dreamer and the way they react to each other is preordained. While part of this clash comes from the evolution of cinema acting, another part of it is very conscious and helps reinforce the script as it shows the inevitable confrontation between both characters. That neither of them earns our sympathy is one of the reasons why we’re still watching sixty-five years later.