28 July 2017

Top Ten: Documentaries!

Welcome to our new Top Tens series in celebration of I Think, Therefore I Review's Tenth Anniversary! These monthly lists will highlight special themes and topics from our extensive archive of reviews.

This time I Think, Therefore I Review presents in alphabetical order...

Our Top Ten Documentaries!

Please see our Documentary tag for even more and visit our Television page for all our documentary viewing lists!

I Think, Therefore I Review began as the blog home for previously published reviews and reprinted critiques by horror author Kristin Battestella. Naturally older articles linked here may be out of date and codes or formatting may be broken. Please excuse any errors and remember our Top Tens will generally only include films, shows, books, or music previously reviewed at I Think, Therefore I Review

25 July 2017

Early Hitchcock Round Up!

An Early Hitchcock Round Up!
By Kristin Battestella

Let's spend a stormy day nestled in with these early mysteries, spies, and thrillers from Mr. Suspense himself Alfred Hitchcock!

Murder! – The 1930 print is jumpy and sometimes tough to see, but the Beethoven overture adds to the eponymous screams in the night as a ridiculous amount of people talk over each other or point fingers while hysterical others pollute the crime scene. Town gossip on which actress didn't like the other adds to the messy as households high and low unite in shock or up turned noses. We get the facts second hand – a fireplace poker, bloody dresses, a brandy flask – and opinions on the case are mixed with common domestic scenery, wry British humor, and no Code wit. A man can't talk about the neighborhood crime until he puts his teeth in his mouth, and folks rush to dress as police knock, winking at the regular people in extreme circumstances and ordinary places with the scandalous behind closed doors. The back and forth kitchen settings create a stage-like design as prop doors, police questionings backstage, pantomime theatre, and cross dressing innuendo match the pomp and circumstance trials, wigs, and robes. The fanfare moves fast as jurors deliberate on our lady killer's well bred family, possible fugue state, or if hanging her is too barbarous. We don't know who the jury members are but can deduce much by their opinions – the pipe smoking alpha male, maternal older ladies, the cowering man fearful of prison, a sophisticated psychology woman, and the dirty old man who thinks a good looking actress should get a free pass. A woman's place in the home serving her man and men versus women aspects feel old fashioned, and there are still silent holdovers with onscreen cursive notes amid the low production values. The obligatory transition and exposition scenes feel roundabout and overlong, lagging with foolish old ladies and crying kids. Some twists are also obvious – regular folks have absurd access to evidence and the whole town has clues yet the police somehow dropped the ball. However, there are progressive undertones, too, with well edited jury room interplay as devil or angel on the shoulder camera cuts and layered voiceovers close in with intense zooms pressuring the lone holdout. The dames are decked out in serious hats, furs, and pearls for jury duty while men look in the mirror over their guilt or doubts with Wagner on the radio becoming a preliminary score. The case should be open and shut, but the court of public opinion lingers and arm chair investigators proceed on the whodunit to prove one's innocence. Such surprisingly modern spins and a fitting circus topper make this an interesting little study with pieces of Hitchcock to come and caper within a caper analysis.

Secret Agent – Madeleine Carroll (The Prisoner of Zenda), Peter Lorre (M), John Gielgud (Arthur), and Robert Young (Father Knows Best) star in this 1936 adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham's tales alongside Great War funerals, one armed soldiers, empty coffins, and a whiff of German Expressionism. Assumed names, false passports, and ominous figures in the doorway create an intimate one man mission amid distant bombs, nearing explosions, fake headlines, and big wartime scale. Hotel meetings, double agents, secret codes inside the chocolate wrapper – it's almost Bond before their was Bond with an opening twist and a debriefing from a man named “R” leading to glum church organs, candlelight signals, mysterious strangulations, flirtatious suitors, and button clues. Our charming novelist cum spy travels to exotic continental casinos with a thrill seeking doll in the bath and a whimsy to their marital farce. When she slaps him, he slaps her back! However, some of the prerequisite over the top humor for Lorre's Hairless Mexican General who's chasing “not only ladies” is unnecessary. His repeated long name and subtle sardonic are much better – he exasperates, “I have anxiety,” and when asked “Do you know any prayers?” he answers, “Don't insult me.” His killer hand should not be underestimated, but the touchy sidekick banter borders on bickering couple, and there's a ménage feeling with our spy trio when up close men whisper how they will be alone without the lady for hours. The women, by the way, are suave thirties glamorous even though it's 1916. Fortunately, the intense factories, train confrontations, and telegram intertitles with their translated codes remain unique. Telescope shots, howling dogs, and mountain photography add suspense with very little, as do later Hitchcock touches such as staircase motifs, reluctant heroes, fatal mistaken identities, and the wronged man on the run. One can tell Sir Alfred has outgrown some of the lower production values and is ready to move on to bigger Hollywood fare, but this precursor formula moves smoothly without underestimating the viewer. Who is the rival agent we're seeking? Have we met him already? Suspicions on who speaks German and understands it or not escalate into a tense finale despite mild obviousness and a slightly abrupt end. I'd almost like to see this redone with a proper budget – not a ridiculous spectacle, just a polished potboiler – but this fun cast and fine story are neat for anyone who likes to compare Hitchcock notes and spy thrillers. And wow, look at those telephone operators! 

The 39 Steps – Like Maugham's Ashenden stories, I wish there were more adaptations of the other Hannay books by John Buchan, not just numerous remakes stemming from this unfaithful but no less landmark 1935 picture with Robert Donat (Goodbye, Mr. Chips) joining our original icy blonde Carroll and all the Hitchcockian one can muster including the mistaken man, foreign intrigue, macguffin secrets, and budding romance. Cheeky dance halls host marriage jokes, brawls, chases, and gunshots with shadowed men in trench coats, pipes, and fedoras. Double decker buses, netted pillbox hats, stoles, and more period touches such as newspapers, lanterns, and milkmen contrast mysterious maps of Scotland, missing fingers, knives in the back, and a gal whose name depends on where she is and which country is the highest bidder. The mercenary espionage, air defense hush hush, and ticking clock is upfront in telling us what we need to know whilst also revealing a whole lot of eponymous nothing. Danger tops each scene thanks to suspicious phone booths, perilous bridges, and jealous husbands spotting those knowing glances across the dinner table during Grace. Police at the door and women both helpful or harmful compromise potentially rural calm – news travels fast and a spy must always be on the lookout. Whom do you trust when no one is who they seem? Lucky hymnal twists and false arrest turns escalate from one location to the next with ironic parades, impromptu speeches, cheering crowds, and charismatic escapes despite handcuffs, sheep, and romantic comedy tropes. Filming through doors, windows, and Art Deco lines accent the men in disguise, overheard rendezvous, and small hiking silhouettes against the pretty mountain peaks. Trains, airplanes, and rapid waters add speed to the pursuit. The superb cabin car photography and railroad scenery don't need the in your face action awesome of today, for chitchatting folks reading the daily news is tense enough for the man who's picture is beside the headlines. While some may find the look here rough around the edges or the plot points clichéd, many of our cinematic caper staples originate here. The full circle music, memories, and shootouts wink at the facade of it all, remaining impressive film making for the early sound era with great spy fun and adventure.

Your Call!

Alfred Hitchcock: Master of Suspense – This documentary looks old with dated graphics, sliding photo frames, and low quality movie clips. The dry narration takes time to get rolling with Hitchcock's early childhood, first studio work, and small art direction credits, yet the voiceover also often moves at double speed amid talk of The Lodger and Hitch hallmarks such as the innocent man on the run, macguffins, cameo appearances, and trick shot filming. Brief mentions on family life pepper the transition to talkies, and this spends a surprising amount of time – maybe too much time – on Hitchcock's lesser known pictures including Blackmail, The Skin Game, and Number 17 before detailing the 1934 The Man Who Knew to Much, The 39 Steps, and the controversial Sabotage. Strangely, the forties successes also skip around with The Lady Vanishes, Rebecca, Suspicion, or Cary Grant and Grace Kelly stardom between Lifeboat facts, studio freedom with Spellbound and Notorious, and the technical achievements of Rope. Likewise, the fifties are unevenly packed with Warner Bros and Paramount moves, Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, and Hitchcock's drool television heights. By time we get to the Vertigo innuendo, North by Northwest, Psycho, and The Birds, this overlong hour and forty minutes plus is practically over with little time for Marnie or any other reflection thanks to filler from Hitchcock's lengthy film trailer tours and random hosting moments from Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The narration never gives way to any other talking heads, only quoting “Hitchcock said” and other sources for a somewhat boring, amateur, one-sided book report mood. Rather than serious film study, this poorly paced generalizing of Hitchcock's techniques ironically makes it seem like he did nothing but make the same movie over and over again. Some out of place mentions are insignificant, other sentences are spoken too quickly while other topics linger too long and give away spectacular cinema moments. For hardcore fans, this will be nothing more than a chronological clip show, however such simplicity can be a good starting point for audiences new to Hitchcock – so long as you've seen the movies spoiled here.

21 July 2017

Top Ten: Montgomery Clift!

Welcome to our new Top Tens series in celebration of I Think, Therefore I Review's Tenth Anniversary! These monthly lists will highlight special themes and topics from our extensive archive of reviews.

This time I Think, Therefore I Review presents in chronological order...

Our Top Ten Montgomery Clift Movies!

Please see our Montgomery Clift label and our Classics tag for yet more Old Hollywood Reviews!

I Think, Therefore I Review began as the blog home for previously published reviews and reprinted critiques by horror author Kristin Battestella. Naturally older articles linked here may be out of date and codes or formatting may be broken. Please excuse any errors and remember our Top Tens will generally only include films, shows, books, or music previously reviewed at I Think, Therefore I Review


18 July 2017

Lady Horrors and Thrillers

Lady Horrors and Thrillers
by Kristin Battestella

Moms, cops, daughters, or scientists – our latest round of contemporary horror ladies must battle family terrors, tigers on the loose, cult ghosts, and bad aliens. Oh, my!

Burning Bright – Suspicious animal sales and “Never touch the cage” warnings make for a shady Gulf Coast mood as a young woman is trapped in a boarded up house during a storm with her autistic little brother and a hungry tiger who has an evil streak and a taste for pretty things. The family argues over their overdosed mother's will, our step-dad is silencing everybody with his Benjamins, and there's a life insurance policy afoot, wink. Big sis does care – the smothering dream is unnecessary – but deferring her scholarship to raise her frustrating brother is not what she had in mind. Fortunately, blue shadows and the tiger silhouette on the wall accent the animal perspectives and predatory camera panning. Sinister growls, attack sounds, and banging on the door frights pepper the little dialogue in tense solo scenes while cat zooms, giant paws, and a bone crunching teeth create fear. He's a beautiful orange, electric predator, but it's downright terrifying when he looks up and you’ve caught his eye. How do you defend against a tiger roaming your household? Where can you go with an unaware autistic child that a tiger can’t? At times, obvious horror clichés and plot contrivances detract from the unique animal siege. Padding opening credits waste time on whirlwind effects when the hurricane a'comin news on the radio would suffice. The drinking step-dad and college bound daughter in her wet white tank top and tiny shorts also don’t look that far apart in age – or we're annoyingly accustom to seeing older leading men romancing ladies decades younger – and “No inmigración!” is the bare minimum diversity in a sea of white people. We know the internet is down without seeing outdated computers and under the bed is not the place to hide despite a tiger that is apparently unable to smell sweating humans. Baiting the tiger with hamburger laced with mom's old pills or spreading perfume to deflect scents are underutilized while the kid is left roaming alone. Nobody searches for tools or household weapons, a late revolver with precious few bullets does diddly, and hello flammable alcohol and you know, fire. We can't really see any way out of this, and viewers shout at the TV recoil despite apparent composite trickery and forgivable CGI tweaks for the intimate tiger scenes. Mirrors and glass doors add to the tiger leaps and desperate chases, but our still child not reacting keeps himself off the tiger’s radar. One older autistic protagonist using a hidden wit to survive might have been intriguing, as the heroine's family doubts feel hollow. They nor the tiger get realistically beat up in the battle, there's hardly any blood or gore, and lengthy end credits skimp more time off the so-called eighty-six minute duration. Our desperate dad could have been more sadistic with a generator and surveillance cameras to watch the pussyfoot – seeing him damage the tiger cage or rehearse his animal alibi might have clarified some of the thin veneer. This isn't trying to be deep, but it could have something more, perhaps with a trio of soul searching adults drawing straws or aligning to sacrifice one, and opening evil talk or any potential paranormal autistic connection between boy and beast remains unexplored. Thankfully, the well filmed trapped animal intensity carries the weaker moments, and the twists don't overstay the welcome. That tiger however certainly has enough personality to be a franchise star – a ne'er do well tomcat roaming the coast in search of supple ladies. I can dig it.

Last Shift – A phone call gets the viewer up to speed for this 2015 rookie lady cop on the night shift. Dad was killed in the line of duty and mom's worried her baby's alone in her closing precinct, but the incoming calls are rerouted to the new station a block away and cleaners are coming to discard leftover hazardous material. What could possibly go wrong? The rules and uniforms add formality but there's also hardened language and attitude resisting the ticking clock and boring desk – not to mention icky food, gross bathrooms, creaking pipes, a nasty vagrant, and a prostitute with tales of a Manson-style cult family hung in this very lock up. Buzzing lights, strange voices, banging doors, and mysterious calls disrupt the quiet while blackout scenes force the viewer to pay attention to how many people may or may not be present amid radio static, sirens, and fallen flashlights. The camera moves with officer Juliana Harkavy (Arrow), letting the unexpected simmer build with long hallway tracking and slow zooms. Internal televisions and cameras likewise create spooky eye witnesses and ghostly interrogations. References to pigs the animal, the nasty female nickname, and cop slang pepper unhelpful conversations with male colleagues on the other end of the line. Our new gal is alone, but equipped and capable despite eerie spins on night sticks, tasers, and handcuffs – the usual occupational hazards. She's scared but calm, reciting police codes to combat phantom sing songs when most of us would get the heck out of there. Is this a haunting, imagined hysteria, an occult set up, or a rookie prank? Every person is suspect amid men versus women toughness, flirtatious fellow officers, and layered female roles – good girl daughter, mother, whores, victims, and willing cult women. Ties to a previous police raid and anniversary clues help us piece together what is fact or paranormal, yet meta within meta supernatural redials keep one and all questioning what is really happening, including an apparent acknowledgment that suspicious activity may be the reason for the station house move. Gruesome photos, gunshots, bodies, and choice horror visuals don't over rely on fake boo jumps, allowing the poltergeists, hangings, and shootouts to escalate the entire ninety minutes as the confined location becomes a disturbing house of horrors with twisted revenge and room for post-viewing discussion. Of course, the spinning chairs are a bit silly and the haunting versus prank or dozing unreliability herrings are obvious, however the well filmed suspense avoids mainstream horror cliches and found footage gimmicks by using very little for a fine sense of unease and edge of your seat atmosphere.

Orphan – Grieving couple Vera Farmiga (The Conjuring) and Peter Sarsgaard (Flightplan) adopt the precocious Isabelle Fuhrman (The Hunger Games) in this 2009 thriller with bloody pregnancy gone wrong dreams, snowy landscapes, a frozen lake, isolated woods, tree house perils, and mod cabin architecture. These yuppies eat off square plates, but nun C.C.H. Pounder (The Shield) is stereotypically reduced with the same old black person in horror sage and sacrifice treatment. Other trite genre elements such as evil foreigners, the internet research montage, useless police, and false jumps complete with the cliché medicine cabinet mirror ruse are lame and unnecessary – as are the dated Guitar Hero moments and a jealous son with a porn magazine stash like it is 1999. The twisted horror suspense builds just fine with realistic threats and mature family drama amid the escalating child shocks. The Sign Language and silent subtitles create a sense of calm and innocence for the youngest deaf daughter, contrasting her mother's drinking temptations as the old fashioned dressing Esther says everything their parents want to hear. She wants to sleep next to her new daddy, and the couple is intimately interrupted with who's watching photography and peering perspectives – not to mention that is some luxury playground equipment with crazy bone-cracking injuries! There's Russian roulette, razor blades, vice grips, vehicular close calls, and fiery accidents. The adoption history doesn't add up and the children are clearly terrified by their titular sister, but of course dad doesn't believe his wife's theory that Esther is at fault. Do you confront your new daughter or take her to a therapist? At times, the adults act stupid just to put the kids in peril, and these two hours feel a little long – how many disasters are going to happen before someone gets a clue? This isn't as psychological as it could be, dropping its uniqueness for a standard house siege and apparently leaving more pushing the envelope elements on the page to play it safe. However, the female familial roles are an interesting study with surprises and an unexpected reveal. Choice gunshots and broken glass accent the silence and maze interiors, using the home, weapons, and weather for full effect. Though partly typical and not scary, the dramatic interplay, thriller tension, and wild performances give the audience a yell at television good time.

Don't Waste Your Time!

Moontrap: Target Earth – This 2017 unrelated science fiction sequel to the 1989 Moontrap doesn't have its own Wikipedia page – the first indication of its college film project quality before a terrible opening dream sequence, embarrassing special effects, and shitty intergalactic props. Poor acting, dumb pillow talk, and obnoxious phone calls make it tough to hang on in the first five minutes. People keep talking about presenting alien relics newly discovered in Navajo country, but what could be interesting SF ends up late on its pseudo science capitalizing with bad dialogue actually quoting Ancient Aliens, Chariots of the Gods, and “Fake News.” The attempted science is ridiculously unrealistic with no archaeology teams, digging equipment, or research documentation yet killer shadow government agents know all the details thanks to easily read love letter hieroglyphics that keep promising “But wait, there's more!” hyperbole combining Stargate and Prometheus. Nineties music video visions allow our lady scientist aptly nicknamed “Scout” to magically contrive answers – she's not strong or intelligent, just bossy with an obnoxious attitude joking that this was so easy Ray Charles could translate it without needing a Rosetta Stone. The messy plot and fast moving editing are ridiculously presumptuous with its science on top of some sort of esoteric statements, and the bottom of the barrel performances and fly by night production look like a soft core movie without the actual porn – but there's nudity of course. This is the absolutely wrong way to make a shoestring picture; proof that not everything with crowd source funding is going to be good or even watchable. After skipping ahead, I ultimately quit before she even got to the damn moon.

16 July 2017

Wild River (1960)

Wild River Remains a Lovely Film Study
by Kristin Battestella

I'm so, so pleased to announce that this essay is part of the Montgomery Clift 99th Birthday Blogathon Celebrations! 

In support of the new Making Montgomery Clift documentary, The Hollywood Scrapbook is inviting Bloggers to share their admiration and enter for a chance to WIN a digital copy of Making Montgomery Clift. You can Pre-order your own edition on Apple TV here

This post has been revised to celebrate the new release of the new documentary Making Montgomery Cliftnow available on iTunes, YouTube, Amazon as well as on DVD

Thanks for the opportunity to participate and onto Wild River! 

Chuck Glover (Montgomery Clift) is the third Tennessee Valley Authority Officer sent to pressure Ella Garth (Jo Van Fleet) to sell her home as part of the TVA's Depression era relocation project to build a new dam up river. Mrs. Garth refuses to leave her island homestead, and Chuck finds himself in a sudden romance with her widowed granddaughter Carol (Lee Remick) despite his intention to leave Garthville once the dam is open. While some families welcome the chance to work and receive modern homes as compensation for their move, other townsfolk and businessmen object to Chuck's final construction plans – causing racial tension, mob violence, and family divides amid the already coming to blows Garth versus Washington battle of wills.

Elia Kazan (On the Waterfront) produced and directed Wild River, a sad 1960 story opening with black and white footage of raging river destruction and distraught eyewitness testimony hitting home the reasoning behind the Tennessee Valley Authority's dam and relocation program. The TVA is buying land soon to be underwater at a fair price and providing homes for the thousands displaced while taming the flood waters. It's necessary New Deal progress, but our elderly hold out wishing to live and die where her loved ones are buried has every right to stay put. We admire her spirited allegiance to the rugged American way of life and feel for the TVA's use of force as a last resort. Neither side is wrong, but someone has to budge in this painful dilemma and nobody is really going to win. The bureaucratic D.C. committees don't have time for this refusal making them look bad, and Wild River has both the grand nature, water, and government scale as well as the personal qualms and one on one conflicts. Incredible vistas balance the intimate car conversations, tender love triangles, and tense rivalries while the all around Method mood transcends into bleak realism with fast moving, natural dialogue. Transition and transportation moments flow smoothly from one conversation to the next, and there's even humor when some good ole boys in overalls toss officials into the river for talking bad about their mama. TVA employees say it's time to let this stubborn old broad drown, but excellent debates question the taking away the soul of a land in favor of electricity or of one losing a small island so thousands more won't die in seasonal floods. Many arguments are outdoors with two people face to face – there's no need for camera embellishments, fancy editing, or even much action as each pleads his or her case, young versus old and man versus woman. Sadly, there are of the time racial slurs and stereotypical African American workers talked down to like children who need white folk to look after them. However, Wild River responds with the radical notion that it's better when any man can look after himself, and taboo talk of paying the black worker $5 on par with a white man adds racial undercurrents to the titular dilemma as opportunistic businessmen speaking so fine with their racist threats and lynching farmers with 400 acres of cotton living like its the nineteenth century take advantage of the TVA. Lawyers circumvent with fit to sell or unfit incompetence declarations, and the intensity is done with men sitting on opposite sides of a room calmly saying what one is going to take from the other unless he gets his way – using words to carry the conflict rather than today's in your face thrills. Construction deadlines move fast, and there's not supposed to be any time for human beings in all this man made harnessing of nature's wrath. The argument over standing pat in the face of progress never gets old, and Wild River remains a time capsule example of its onscreen era, the behind the scenes mid-century turmoil, and today's ongoing off the grid defiance. Can the river be tamed or should nature be left wild? Loyalty and family ties run deep, the poor wait in line for food, and there's no time left for talking as progress plows ahead whether you hitch a ride or not.

Wild River is a rare color picture for Montgomery Clift (A Place in the Sun) coming in his difficult post car accident era. Maybe he's not as pretty as he was the decade before but that just adds to Chuck Glover's hardened veneer. He's stepping into a messy ongoing case with this dam opening (the puns just write themselves) all on his shoulders. Chuck isn't supposed to care, but he doesn't underestimate Mrs. Garth's spirit or intelligence either. He tries talking to her, speaking both with confident declarations and hope or try doubts, but his polite introductions are stonewalled lo though he persists. It's Chuck's job to ruffle Ella's feathers and pit sons against their mother – a lightning rod catalyst embodying the changes to come. Chuck isn't a bad guy deliberately taking advantage of the situation. He does his job in the most honest way possible, bluntly speaking his mind and insisting that the eroding land isn't the problem but when your passion for living erodes. Chuck wonders why nobody ever thought of moving just to see the river from the other side, but he knows how to listen to every aspect of the case. He fights for jobs for local blacks despite risking white townsfolk ire for – gasp! – paying all colors the same rate for the same job. Unfortunately, Chuck isn't very tough and lets enemies take advantage of him, but he doesn't complain to police about threats he receives, calling them mere bumps on the road to progress. He desperately asks what Mrs. Garth is trying to prove yet he understands she is fighting for her dignity and won't use mentally unfit legalese against her. Of course, nobody said this relocation would be easy, and Chuck ends up moving in on a dead man's girl with a ready made family when he is supposed to leave. When he came to Garthville, Chuck wanted to best anyone standing in the way of the TVA program. After falling in love with Carol, however, he realizes he wasn't really a complete human being. There's more to life than an office or dam statistics – such as a porch and a river view. Maybe Chuck can't stand up to the man or win a fight on his own and needs a good woman, but he's going to stick it out all the same and appreciates how far he has come, arriving to end a home but finding his instead. Wild River could be all about Chuck – today the handsome, man pained white guy earning his morality is ridiculously abundant in Hollywood. However, rather than dominating every scene, Clift transitions from leading man to supporting strength. As in Suddenly, Last Summer the year before and The Misfits after, he knows how to listen to strong female characters and embraces the excellent chemistry here for the onscreen equality it is.

Lee Remick's (Days of Wine and Roses) Carol née Garth is a lovely young widow, a mother returning to her childhood home with two kids and some education – as if life is over and now she's supposed to sit silently beside her grandmother on the porch. She hears what Mrs. Garth is saying, but she's grown beyond this backward island and is looking for something more. Carol has to do what's best for her children and has her own life to think about, but she's conflicted by her love and fear for her grandmother. She doesn't really love the new guy she is going to marry, but she won't let Chuck to use her against Ella, either. Naturally then, she falls in love with him while objecting to the idea that having a fellow is the answer to everything. Carol's confused and getting impatient in her buttoned up white sweater, and Lee's always on the brink of tears pretty is real, fresh, and unabashedly honest to match the simmering but innocent innuendo. Carol hasn't “talked” to someone in so long and asks Chuck to get the key to her boarded up marital house as she invites him across the threshold wherein she parts the dusty bed curtains. Talk about electricity! This is a sex scene – and it's done with nothing but laden conversation and a suggestive camera. The audience knows what's happening behind closed doors, and that's the sexiest thing of all. The winking of the time risque is Southern steamy without being today's vulgar, remaining mature as the interior camera framing reflects Carol's unsaid feelings. One picturesque snapshot captures Carol standing on the river bank next to a “Keep Off” sign – as if she too is untouched thanks to this island's boundaries and she begs to be taken on the ferry to the mainland twentieth century. Do you grieve and live in the past or is it time to move on with the current? Carol becomes strong, staying in her house alone wearing jeans and pulling her hair back as she takes charge of her romance. She's going to be on the other side of the river with a modern kitchen and all the conveniences whether her grandmother likes it or not. She loves Chuck even if he isn't ready to marry her but she won't be hurt again. Carol puts on lipstick and admits she knows what she is doing is perceived as wrong, and she doesn't care. Nowadays we're lucky if we have cardboard female characters even talk to each other in one movie, but Carol becomes independent and progressive thanks to her love, and Remick gives an excellent, multifaceted performance as a daughter, mother, widow, lover.

Jo Van Fleet – Best Supporting Actress winner for Kazan's East of Eden and just as deserving here didn't have to be made up so old to play the small but standing tall Mrs. Ella Garth, but she did it anyway because this grandma has that kind of over her dead body Method grit. Mrs. Garth's sad little exterior belies her holding out against the man power, for big men don't want to hear anything spoken against this feared matriarch and when she speaks, the crowd listens. Why is she resisting this move when there is such flood danger? Is she senile or sentimental and not understanding? Hardly! Ella sees this New Deal project is for making the White House look good just as much as it is about the dam. She doesn't like to be used or blamed for an ulterior motive despite good that could come from the move. You are either with her on the island or on relief with the government – there is no in between but anybody is free to do either. Mrs. Garth speaks plainly with superb analogies regarding who has the right to make one sell anything dear to them, such as a dog or a home. Her headstone is already waiting in the island's high point cemetery, and Ella's proud to tell of the blood, sweat, and tears that turned this swampland into workable fields. She's harnessed this land, but refuses to recognize man's attempt to tame nature by going against it. Neither she nor the river is going to crawl just because government says so. Mrs. Garth does however make her son apologize for throwing Chuck into the river before chastising the scandalous Carol by calling her a cat in heat. She considers those so easily convinced by the TVA as betraying her, yet stubborn Ella respects those who would stay with her by telling them to get while the getting is good. Mrs. Garth's stance is layered with generational attitudes, and kids today perhaps won't relate to such notions of my generation's grandparents with ice boxes, butter churns, and gas to electric lamps – much less the idea of hard work and tilling hand to mouth as a pioneer reward rather than desperate circumstance. Fortunately, anyone who has worked their own land can understand Ella's point of view, reaping and sowing success that isn't owed to anybody else yet passes on to your future kin. Mrs. Garth chops down the ferry pole herself, and those fields soon to be underwater are going to get plowed nonetheless. Her porch is going to be swept, but that new rocking chair won't do. Here's Ella's sixteen cents she owes for two pounds of sugar, and she'll carry her own bag thankyouverymuch.

Wild River is crisp, colorful, and even more breathtaking on blu-ray – Lee Remick's eyes alone, my word! Sad brass notes and bittersweet strings accompany the aerial location footage capturing the Tennessee Valley rustic and its earlier Southern rural way of life made poorer by the Great Depression. Plain fashions, fedoras, retro glasses, oil lanterns, wood stoves, and a lone radio where everyone gathers round match the little white house above the river simplicity and rocking chair on the porch quiet sense of stillness. Vintage vehicles only take one so far before one must walk the dusty dirty roads amid wagons, work songs, hymns, humming, and evocative natural sound effects. Our titular water is a beautiful divide between its deserted island only accessible by a rickety ferry and the budding main street infrastructure – smoke, burned brush, and timber clearings sell the man power construction. Wild River begins in a late blue summer before changing to fallen Autumn leaves, bare trees, and a rusted patina. Mrs. Garth's homestead is made of worn, seasoned wood matching its overgrown surroundings and looking ready to come down itself in favor of refreshed white homes and seeded green lawns. Likewise, office candlestick phones, paperwork piles, pictures of FDR on the TVA wall, and a burning home with the American flag waving in the foreground symbolically contrast the government ready versus the innocent laughter of switching a light on and off in a new home with electricity. We don't have to stay in the stubborn past like Mrs. Garth, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't appreciate how far we've come. Of course, I must shout out to my favorite ye old contraction “oughtn't,” and hello $1.44 to fill up the entire gas tank. Remember when it that was cheap per gallon?

Although some audiences may find this a slow, Southern potboiler with no real doubt on how it ends, Wild River layers its resilience, emotion, and sadness into a complex us versus them and then versus now interplay. Thanks to decades toiling on VHS only before its recent blu-ray release, Wild River is also somewhat obscure – unjustly ignored between Kazan's controversial Baby Doll and his Splendor in the Grass glory. The cast and crew spoke fondly of the picture, but its post-McCarthyism release perhaps contributed to the lack of awards recognition, adding an intriguing side study on how Kazan's career was impacted and if his legacy is totally forgiven now. Fortunately, Wild River stands on its own as a beautiful little piece about people against nature, the nature of bureaucracy, and the unavoidable tide of both – literally, figuratively, and maybe ironically considering that HUAC history. Wild River succeeds as a drama and a romance in all the right ways with character subtext, social strata, and all the ills in between continuing to provide new relevance with every viewing.

14 July 2017

Top Ten: British Television!

Welcome to our new Top Tens series in celebration of I Think, Therefore I Review's Tenth Anniversary! These monthly lists will highlight special themes and topics from our extensive archive of reviews. 

This time I Think, Therefore I Review presents in chronological order...

Our Top Ten British Television!

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06 July 2017

The Heiress

The Heiress is a Cinematic Master Class
by Kristin Battestella

Wealthy but dowdy Catherine Sloper (Olivia de Havilland) is pursued by the penniless Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift) in producer and director William Wyler's (Ben-Hur) 1949 The Heiress, based upon the Ruth and Augustus Goetz play inspired by Henry James' Washington Square. Despite his widowed sister Lavinia Penniman's (Miriam Hopkins) support of the romance, stern Doctor Austin Sloper (Ralph Richardson) fears Morris is nothing but a fortune hunter after the even larger finances Catherine stands to inherit. He insists the couple wait to marry, testing Morris and holding his daughter to unrealistic comparisons of her late mother – leading to lifelong bitterness and cruel revenge.

Well! The good doctor spends a family party whispering over how he doesn't like his unmarriageable daughter, looming large in the foreground in his shiny top hat while his meek daughter is off to the side, small within the picture frame. Who is this suitor asking for all her dances? He's far too charming to like her, and the fortnight courting moves whirlwind fast with multiple visits, flowers, and songs. The Heiress does have awkward humorous moments thanks to innocently deadpan responses as Catherine drops her bag in shock when she's complimented. However, increasing skepticism and hindrances progress as the camera reflects each tug and pull – men debate on either side while she remains tiny in the middle. Visual parallels mirror the one-on-one confrontations per act with father and daughter, daughter and lover, or father versus suitor scenes all carrying dual symbolism. The basic man courts daughter and dad objects story may appear simple, but the focused performances and character interplay tell the who's who suspicion on all sides. Who is right and which one is wrong? Catherine can't fathom Morris wanting her for her money, even though her father already views her as the unworthy price of her mother. The Heiress is dialogue laden thanks to the play source, but the extra subtext translates in the positioning and postures onscreen. One superb two-hander halfway through presents the dilemma almost as a courtroom case, escalating the conflict with protocol, well spoken arguments, and fallacies disguised as pleasantries. Romantic scenes, three second kisses, swelling music, and cinematic embraces plead for love and honesty, and every encounter is all the more intense because The Heiress does its bitter tragedy with words instead of unnecessary bells and whistles. There's no need for visual deflection because the script is so strong; stage directions or men pacing create little need for major cuts or editing. Catherine grows bold by turning back and forth between the two men, leaving the camera as a witness to the unexpected twists. One night of tense waiting hits home with ticking clock anticipation, and nineteenth century perspectives as well as today's interpretations can be debated as father and daughter go head to head. By the second half of The Heiress, Catherine's stature dominates the frame – growing larger upon the ascending stairs as her cruelty spreads across the screen, warning those who would try it to keep clear in an excellent, turning tables master course finale. 

Best Actress Oscar winner Olivia de Havilland (Gone with the Wind) is a beautiful woman but Catherine Sloper is dowdy with a severe bun, sullen face, and ill-fitting gowns. Her shy, bumbling naivety makes her seem younger than she really is, and she messes up everything she does. Catherine is guided around with little will of her own and told what to do. She can't even hold her fan right and men forced into a dance ditch her. She thinks no one listens to her, letting others lead the conversation by only giving yes, no, or agreeing answers – but above all, Catherine wants to please her father. Why does everyone have to push and manipulate her? Why can't she just mature or wallflower at her own pace? She's not stupid and has no time for a snobby hospice committee uninterested in cleaning or kitchen work. Catherine has some witty banter with her aunt as well – when asked if her late uncle is watching over them, Catherine answers, “That depends on where he is, Aunt.” Of course, she doesn't realize when Morris is flirting with her, and is shocked that he wants to dance every waltz. Catherine physically bends to Morris, literally leaning back against doors or furniture as he comes closer. She's apprehensive at his hold over her but understandably falls in love with him. She already has a hefty monthly sum from her mother's estate, enough to live on if her father disapproves of a marriage and leaves his wealth to his clinic, but Catherine says she would never defy her father. Morris, however, asserts she is her own of age woman, and she looks at herself in the mirror anew and carries herself differently once kissed. Catherine tells her father they are engaged rather than asking for his approval, for a beautiful man who has everything a woman wants wants her. Her aunts describe Catherine as a new woman radiant and happy at the proposal, but her father insists Morris is worthless and Catherine is his willing victim. Further dialogue clues suggest she is aware of his abusive tone, and later Catherine admits a life with Morris couldn't have been as bad as her life with her father has been. Catherine learns how deep the despising goes after her father's terrible tirade, and she will not relent against his scorn – thus risking her elopement as a result. I want to quote The Heiress word for word, but can't give everything away! Catherine's mousy unassuming voice becomes hardened as the love she thinks will take her away from home turns into a surprisingly progressive story about how a woman need not be bound by a father or a lover. Unfortunately, she will be defined by their negative ebb and flow, master makers turning the once kind girl rigid and cruel.

Is Morris Townsend only after Catherine's money? Montgomery Clift (From Here to Eternity) is the epitome of fool me once, shame on you in The Heiress, and every time I see this, my opinion on our suitor's ambiguous intentions changes. Morris has an empty dance card, too; he has to count out his waltz and promises not to kick Catherine if she won't kick him. He always has an upper hand with a joke, wink, or smile. He makes her blush at his improper touchy feely, and it's easy to be swept up in the charismatic moment with that “Can't Help Falling in Love” Plaisir d'amour. He brings the piano music but doesn't need to look at the rehearsed notes – he clears his throat and asks for pity if his falling in love with her makes him sound stupid. Morris does seem to like Catherine and her genuine manner, however, he already knows who she is when he approaches, and his flirtatious words are hiding in plain sight responses. Did he plan this courting or is he an opportunist taking the chance presented to him? He's the only opportunity she has anyway, right? Isn't the affection he offers her more valuable than money? It might not be bad if he married her for her money but was kind and took care of her. Morris already squandered his own inheritance touring Europe, so is Dr. Sloper right to suspect him as a manipulative fellow? Morris has an answer for everything, and Catherine defends him against her father, opening her eyes to his dislike of them both. He pushes her to stand up to her father and run away with him after only two weeks because her father claiming he is after her money doesn't matter if she loves him. Morris is working harder to win Catherine because he's poor and loves her, isn't he? He isn't wrong in saying her father enjoys making her miserable, but Morris won't marry without his approval and agrees to wait six months to avoid causing Catherine further unhappiness. However, he grows smug at her father's challenge, smoking the house cigars while sipping claret with his feet up by the fire. Morris admires Dr. Sloper as a man of fine taste – they hate each other but like the same things. He cheats at games with Aunt Lavinia, and Morris can for sure prove his con one moment while pleading his defense as an unworthy poor man in love in the next minute. He remains passionate with Catherine, ready to elope with the reverend waiting. He and his dear girl and shall be happy – until she stands up to her father, that is. I simply adore the scene when Catherine wishes to leave one night early, as Clift's brief oh...sheeettt look to the camera becomes a stunning cinematic moment amid the sweeping kisses and devoted promises in the rain. Can a man who really loves a women let her lose so much for him? Or is the bluff called and Morris gets his just desserts? The Heiress is the first film in which I saw Montgomery Clift – taping it off AMC way back when they showed commercial free classics – and I've been praising him ever since. We see Morris' slick internal puppeteering but his suave cast just enough reasonable doubt. Today's actors would willfully break the fourth wall in scene chewing obviousness, unable to play such subtle, shady perfection. The irony, of course, is that Clift himself disliked his performance and walked out of the premiere. Damn son!

Best Supporting Actor nominee Sir Ralph Richardson's (The Four Feathers) Dr. Sloper slams the door to make his presence known to the courting couple. He's sophisticated, wealthy, educated – and embarrassed by his dim-witted daughter. Sloper traded a radiant wife for this mediocre child he dislikes but expects her to reflect well on him rather than merely embroider neatly. He forces her to socialize, sent her to the finest schools for failed training in music, arts, and dance, and compliments her ballgown by saying she looks wealthy in it but the color was worn better by her mother – who's ear was also so impeccable she could tune her own piano. Dr. Sloper contests Morris' feigned modesty, suggesting he go West to make something of himself and suspecting him of looking for an upscale position in his very house. If he had a job would Sloper feel differently? The doctor takes his time, sits properly, and talks smoothly – a older man of leisure himself who, while he complains about how mousy Catherine is, likes his superiority. Morris may be the strong son he may have wanted, but having a tough son-in-law who doesn't stand for insults or indignities won't do, and Sloper goes on his own quest to disprove Morris. He doubts his opinion that Catherine is delightful, for the doctor himself values her cheaply. Sloper lies to keep her miserable, unable to understand his refusal of the match will break Catherine's chance at happiness – despite every single person telling him he expects too much of people and will always be disappointed unless he proves his own deductions. Arranged and loveless marriages were common then, so why not tie up the money in detailed will stipulations or trust allowances? Dr. Sloper takes care of himself when he becomes ill after their voyage, for he's more interested in looking after his property and legacy than his disappointing daughter who would tarnish his respectability with this union. He's right in making sure Morris knows he wasn't born yesterday, but the doctor is wrong to presume he will dictate their lives. Sloper has bent Catherine with the unkind version of his unrealistic truth, and maybe she wouldn't have fallen for the first questionable man to come along if he had given her the attention she deserved. He unleashes decades of cruel thoughts on Catherine when she grows a backbone over Morris, and he only comes to admire his daughter too late – after her thorny outlook turns her into an abrasive image of himself.

Despite being a little over the top and intentionally flaky, the perfectly cast Miriam Hopkins (Becky Sharp) earned a Golden Globe nomination as Catherine's widowed aunt Lavinia Penniman. Dr. Sloper's sister is surprisingly giggly for a minister's wife, a busybody who's spent a lot of time drinking, observing others gossip, and waxing on romance. She's still suppose to be in mourning and continues to wear black, even briefly wondering if it is appropriate to socialize at her sister's party. However, Lavinia says she'll just be grief stricken wherever she may be – which happens to be on the dance floor. The Heiress almost requires Aunt Penniman for some expected levity or humorous moments, but such a character is also a necessary audience avatar and counterpoint to our stern father. Dr. Sloper keeps his sister on at Washington Square to help Catherine mingle and mature, but Lavinia almost seems smitten by Morris herself. She says one thing and does another, placing both sides of the dilemma into one supporting player who can like Morris, rebuke the elder Sloper, or otherwise address what the viewer is thinking. As much as her father is against the affair, Lavinia pushes Catherine in the opposite way, telling her to be gracious to a man who's come courting. She repeatedly tells her brother this could be a good match to be thankful for and volunteers as a chaperon before faking a headache to leave the lovebirds alone. Lavinia eurekas over the proposal and acts as a go between with her letters during Dr. Sloper's insisted wait, but even the romantic aunt comes to see the truth will out between father and daughter has gone too far. She stands by Catherine when things take a turn for the worst, but even she wishes her niece had indeed been just a little more clever when it came to her inheritance versus her romance rather than letting cruelty get the best of her.

The Victorian finery of The Heiress is distinctly 1840s New York rather than the casually thought of nineteenth century southern belle, but gloves, top hats, fans, cameo jewelry, and petticoats set off the absolutely divine Edith Head (Samson and Delilah) Black and White Costuming wins alongside calling cards, white tie formality, and old fashioned protocol. Men need to dress like this again! Period clutter with crystal, glass, silverware, and candles create a shiny silver screen glitter and shimmer reflecting the family's titular wealth. The splendid furniture is worthy of the Art and Set Black and White Decoration awards, and superb interiors with pocket doors open scenes or divide players as needed – not to mention that critical multi-storied staircase. I want to live in this townhouse with its sweet cobblestone courtyard, fountains, carriages, gazebos, and park views. The black and white photography is crisp with bright staging inside and out thanks to mirrors, gaslight chandeliers, oil lamps, and large windows. There's a beautiful glow about the screen before the night time scenes become progressively darker as The Heiress turns frosty with Oscar winning music romantic or chilling to match. Bleak capes and dark clothing add to the gothic atmosphere, shadow schemes, and long cast silhouettes. The Heiress remains a brilliant production, a known classic essential nominated for Best Picture, Director, and Black and White Cinematography with more awards praise. However, the Universal Cinema Classics DVD edition is bare bones but for an introduction from the late TCM host Robert Osborne and the required subtitles, leaving The Heiress ripe for a proper blu-ray release. None of this currently unavailable, phantom region, non-existent nonsense! The 1997 Washington Square sourced directly from James' page also isn't that bad a period drama as today's period dramas go, but when you see The Heiress first, it's bitter panache just can't be surpassed.

The Heiress takes multiple viewings to study each scene. It never gets old, and the more times you see it, the more likely you are to see something new. No one can really tell you about The Heiress, one just has to see it and make up his or her own mind on the maybe, maybe not payback. You can watch this from Catherine's point of view and see her need to be loved, or from Dr. Sloper's point of view that Morris is a louse. One can also watch The Heiress looking for Morris in love or purely as a fortune hunter – and there will be evidence for each case thanks to the must see mastery here.