The Sundowners was nominated for Best Picture in 1960 and is a film about the Carmody’s, a family of Australian sheep drovers. They roam the Outback and never settle in any one place for too long. They herd sheep to any given destination, get odd jobs at that place and then after a few months, move on. The Carmody’s consist of a father, named Paddy (Robert Mitchum), the mother, Ida (Deborah Kerr) and Sean. Ida and Sean want to settle down and build a home, but Paddy, the “grizzled” Australian father, wants to keep moving on. What little money they make is usually spent gambling and/or drinking by Paddy. What was meant to be an epic film about the struggles of a nomadic family traveling through the Outback of Australia turns out to be a long and grueling borefest. It is riddled with random close-up shots of animals unique to the Outback doing things that are probably meant to make the audience laugh. However, a shot of a cute animal, like a koala bear, immediately following the near-death experience of the Carmody’s in a wild-fire is completely out of place. Plus, Koala Bears will tear your face off. I also got the impression that these animal scenes exist to show off the Australian wildlife. Despite the fact that this might be the 1960 audience’s only chance to get to see the Outback, I still think this was pretty lame.
The Sundowners was directed by Fred Zinneman, who made many great films like Oklahoma!, From Here to Eternity, Nigh Noon & A Man For All Seasons. However, he managed to churn out a dud the size of Wolf Creek Crater. The only good thing I could say about this film is the cinematography, which is half-way decent at best but botches many opportunities for great shots and instead goes for those animal close-ups in their habitat.
Einstein’s theory of relativity doesn’t apply in this film. Things seem to happen for no reason. Effects occur despite the fact that there may have been no cause. Reactions take place without there being neither an equal nor an opposite action to put it into motion. Actors laugh at sad things and the audience doesn’t laugh at all. All of this must be chalked up to bad writing, even though it got an Adapted Screenplay nomination. Not only that, but the story has no flow. The film never goes anywhere but the characters are constantly on the road. It’s editing is choppy.
This nomadic family finds a temporary place where they all get jobs and finally seem content. Then the family starts gambling with other workers. They bet on timed sheep shedding contests, coin tosses, and finally horse racing. They win a horse through coin toss betting and somehow, their son Sean becomes an overnight expert jockey and, fully clothed in jockey apparel, races their new horse and wins lots of money.
The Carmody’s pick up a British drifter named Rupert (Peter Ustinov). He’s fat and gives antidotal bits of advice here and there that are meant to be funny, but are not. He drinks tea when the others drink coffee and he smokes his cigarette through a holder. His British habits mixed with the family’s Australian way of doing things show a difference in them, but a difference that is not in the least bit funny nor interesting.
At over two hours in length, the film attempts to capture that “epic-ness”, but it does not. It’s epic in length, but certainly not epic in the ways that we think of when we speak of epic films like, Gone With The Wind, Lawrence of Arabia, Ben-Hur, Titanic, There Will Be Blood. Not to compare The Sundowners to these other masterpieces, but these films at least have substance. The Sundowners is empty; a long, empty movie that hopes the elements it lacks will somehow find their way to the surface.
Being “epic” and set in Australia, one would think that the film would find a way to grab nominations for Cinematography, Art Direction, Costume Design, Editing and Original Music, but The Sundowners received no such nominations. Movies on as grand a scale as The Sundowners attempts to be, must grab some of these nominations, especially given that the film was a Best Picture nominee. Deborah Kerr and Glynis Johns managed to take nominations for Actress and Supporting Actress, respectively. Isobel Lennart was nominated for Adapted Screenplay for her efforts in turning the book into a movie, which seems a regrettable effort now. Fred Zinneman, who won four Oscars in his career, managed to find himself nominated for director.
So I have watched this film in 2010 and did not like it, but I have to ask myself, “How was the film relevant in 1960?” Was it the fondness of the actors by the public that earned the film its nomination? Was it Zinnemann’s track record of making so many great films that it came to the point where he just had to throw something together in order get nominated? Was it the fact that it showcased the Outback, which gave the audience a rare glance at this foreign land? Perhaps, but this film does not stand the test of time.
The Sundowners…Australian for suck.
*1/2 out of ****
Leave Her to Heaven ***1/2 out of ****
It’s been said that jealousy is the deadliest of all the seven sins. That is certainly true in “Leave Her to Heaven”, where envy leads to lust, greed, sloth, pride and ultimately tons of wrath. Leave Her to Heaven was directed by John M. Staul in 1945 and is based on the novel written by Ben Ames Williams. It’s about a woman named Ellen, played by Gene Tierney (Laura, Heaven Can Wait), who becomes so obsessed with her husband, Rich (Cornel Wilde) that she stops at nothing to make sure that she keeps him all to herself.
The Belcourt will be screening a new 35mm print of Leave Her to Heaven this Saturday-Monday, September 11-13.
Ellen meets Rich on a train. Ellen falls in love and tells everyone that they are getting married before Rich, himself, is even aware of the fact. Ellen then proposes to him. Rich and Ellen get married and she wastes no time getting obsessed. She gets jealous of her own family members. She resents any attention that Rich gives to anyone that’s not directed at her. Through a series of desperate and tragic acts carried out by Ellen in an effort to retain her control over Rich’s attention, lives are lost, the family is torn apart and their relationship to each other deteriorates.
Ellen, in the beginning of the film, is made to look elegant with wavy, shiny dark hair and deep red lipstick. Her wardrobe is fierce and every scene is taken as an opportunity to show off her fashion. Immediately following the first tragedy and during her pregnancy, Ellen’s look becomes slightly sinister. Her hair is up most of the time and, being pregnant, her wardrobe is maternal.
Resenting her pregnancy and becoming increasingly jealous of her cousin, Ruth (Jeanne Crain), the stunning woman from the beginning of the film now looks down right evil. At the same time, Ruth seems more grown-up and, with the passing of each scene, looks increasingly beautiful. This only helps to support Ellen’s on-screen allegations of a relationship between Rich and Ruth.
Gene Tierney received a Best Actress nomination for her role as the obsessed wife. The film was also nominated for Best Sound and Art Direction. Leon Shamroy (Planet of the Apes, Cleopatra), won the Oscar for Best Cinematography.
Leave Her to Heaven is quite bold for a film made in 1945. The subject matter suggests moral issues that were mostly censored in the mid 40’s. For instance, Ellen and Rich sleep in separate beds, but she moves over to his in the morning and wakes him up with a kiss. Being based on a novel, the film is pretty well written except for the ending courtroom scene, which contains a line of questioning by Ellen’s ex-fiance, Russell Quinton (Vincent Price) that seems to herd the audience toward how the writers want us to feel, however unrealistic it might be. Cornel Wilde is by no means a thespian, but the other actors do a decent enough job. Leave Her to Heaven is shot well, focusing on the actors and what they’re doing more so than on the background and scenery. The colors seem over-accentuated and pop right off the screen. The overall beautiful and magnificent color of the film is a great contrast to the pure evil that is going on within the film itself.
A new 35mm print of Leave Her to Heaven is playing at the Belcourt Theatre this Saturday-Monday, September 11-13. Following the 2:10 screening on Saturday, Megan Minarich, Ph.D Candidate in English at Vanderbilt University, will provide a post-screening commentary on the film, which has been recently restored by the Academy Film Archive. Check out the Belcourt’s website for a video clip of Martin Scorsese introducing Leave Her to Heaven.
The only wide release this week isn’t even worth mentioning, but I’ll mention it anyways. Resident Evil: Afterlife (in 3D) is the fourth installment of the Resident Evil series and, for some reason, is getting released to 3,203 screens this weekend. What was once a horrifyingly entertaining series of video games has now become a grotesque, dead-on-its-feet series of movies, just like those zombies infected by the T-virus in Raccoon City all those years ago.
Resident Evil: Afterlife (in 3D) is the latest film to jump on the 3D bandwagon; no doubt to increase its ticket sales from pitiful to just plain fail. The Resident Evil films have each barely made over $50 million at best and I don’t see any reason why Resident Evil: Afterlife (in 3D) would be any different. Evidently, this franchise is taking a theistic approach, being that following an Apocalypse and then the subsequent Extinction, there must needs be an Afterlife. In Resident Evil: Afterlife (in 3D), the team roams the earth in search of survivors. It’s illogical to apply logic here, but there’s no point in searching for survivors after extinction. In fact, if you find yourself having survived extinction and then decide to go looking for survivors, then suffice it to say that you’re in an afterlife of some sort, although, it doesn’t sound like a very good one.
There are plenty of other films still out that you might want to go see besides Resident Evil: Afterlife (in 3D) like Machete, Going the Distance, The American, Piranha 3D, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Salt, Inception, Despicable Me & Toy Story. Click here for theatres and show times for Resident Evil: Afterlife (in 3D).
Another option for this weekend could be the independent film, Get Low, directed by Aaron Schneider and playing at several theatres in the Nashville area. Get Low has accumulated a vast amount of buzz over the last few months. The film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this year and stars Robert Duvall, Bill Murray, Lucas Black and Sissy Spacek. Look for a Best Acting nomination for Robert Duvall.
Sweet Smell of Success ****
I’ve always said that what makes a film timeless is its script. Those old classics are considered so because they were good back then, but when those films are watched today, do they really stand the test of time? Sweet Smell of Success was considered a box office failure upon its release. However, you can’t watch it now without appreciating the film for its noir style and witty dialogue. Director, Alexander Mackendrick (The Guns of Navarone), very obviously knew what he was doing at the time.
The film is set in the nightlife of New York. For most of the film, we follow Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis), a young press agent, around smoky jazz clubs and crowded bars as he sets out to do the dirty work for the big-time gossip columnist, J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster). Hunsecker’s got power and everyone knows it. He is either revered or feared by all depending upon the level of association with him. He’s heartless and does what he wants to get what he wants. You do what you’re told or you pay the price. Falco is more than willing do anything to get a write-up in Hunsecker’s column and in this film he’s charged with spreading dirt on a talented, young jazz guitarist, Steve Dallas, (Marty Milner) who just happens to be the boyfriend of Hunsecker’s sister, Susan (Susan Harrison).
The characters in the film are larger than life. Falco is the main character, but he’s by no means the protagonist. He’s low-down and dirty. He blackmails. He lies. He pimps out his own vulnerable girlfriend as a trade-off for a fake gossip story in another columnists’ paper. The classic face of Tony Curtis is anything but likeable in Sweet Smell of Success, but as an audience we’re deeply invested into his character. Despite our expectations for Falco to redeem himself, he never does pull through as the hero. In fact, when Falco comes to the crossroads of either doing his final dirty deed or doing the right thing, he botches his moment of glory and digs his own grave even deeper.
Hunsecker has a deeply disturbed obsession with his sister. Susan whimpers in his presence and in almost every scene wears a mink coat given to her by her brother; marking his territory and symbolizing his power over her. Hunsecker wears browline glasses, but his towering figure gives the impression that he could overpower anyone that got in his way. It is said that part of the reason for the lack of success that Sweet Smell of Success had was the fact that both Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster played such unlikeable characters. This alienated the audience who were used to both actors playing more friendly characters; a relative non-issue today.
Barbara Nichols as the cigarette girl has an extremely elegant, noir look with platinum blonde hair and wears almost entirely all black clothing throughout the film. She’s vulnerable and easy to manipulate, making her a useful tool for Falco’s debauchery.
The film is extremely well shot by cinematographer, James Wong Howe (Funny Girl & Hud). His style was decades ahead of its time and reminiscent of Scorsese’s “After Hours” or any number of films from Altman or P.T. Anderson. The camera follows behind our main character as he maneuvers his way through crowded bars and late night hot spots. We catch pieces of conversations here and there. The camera turns and pans quickly in places, leading the audience through the story and matching the tone of the film. It is said that Paul Thomas Anderson was inspired by Sweet Smell of Success. Upon watching the film it is not difficult to point out similarities between it and Anderson’s work, namely Boogie Nights. The repeated musical note in Sweet Smell is actually used in Boogie Nights. I can’t wrap this review up without mention the quality of the film itself, which is shockingly pristine for a film made over 50 years ago.
Sweet Smell of Success is class noir to the bone. It’s got dark and smoky atmosphere. It’s got quick and biting dialogue. Every word of the script, written by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman (North by Northwest), seems absolutely necessary to the film and even though the dialogue is, for the most part, heavy and dark, one can’t help but appreciate the cleverness of their usage. Sweet Smell of Success is one for the ages and will be just as relevant 50 years from now as it is today and as it was 50 years ago.
In new releases this week we have an assassin flick called The American. The film is based on the 1990 novel, “A Very Private Gentleman”, by Martin Booth, and actually opened this last Wednesday, September 1 to over 2,700 screens and grossed an estimated $1.6 million. The American is directed by Anton Corbijn, who was behind the criminally under-rated 2007 film, Control, about the short life and career of the Joy Division front man, Ian Curtis. It seems that Corbijn stuck with a lot of the same team to make The American that he worked with on Control. Martin Ruhe, the cinematographer on Control, will be doing the same for The American as well. Andrew Hulme was the editor for Control and also one of my favorite films, Lucky Number Slevin. If Corbijn and his team bring their same style that we saw in Control, then The American should be a very cool film, indeed. The American stars George Clooney. I can’t help but recall Clooney’s last thriller, Michael Clayton, and how that might have been the best performance of his career to date. If we can anticipate Clooney’s performance in The American to be comparable to his in Michael Clayton, then we have a possible Acting Nomination on our hands.
Going the Distance opens this Friday, September 3 to over 3,000 screens. Starring real life couple Drew Barrymore and Justin Long, Going the Distance is about a couple that try to power through a long distance relationship. It’s pretty cut-and-dry so I don’t feel it necessary to drone on any longer here except that it’s directed by Nanette Brustein (American Teen) and also stars the loveable Christina Applegate.
If you’re like me, then Machete is the film excites you the most. We’ve been waiting for this since early 2007 when you first saw a glimpse of the trailer. Only then it was a fake trailer and advertised an imaginary movie with no plans of ever getting made. Fortunately for us, Robert Rodriguez thought it prudent to make a film based on this fake trailer. Machete has the makings of an instant cult classic. The film is jam-packed with an all-star cast including: Danny Trejo as Machete, himself, Robert De Niro, Jessica Alba, Steven Seagal, Cheech Marin and Don Johnson. Machete is an ex-Federale and takes revenge out on his former boss. Judging from the sundry resume of Robert Rodriguez, which includes films like Desperado, From Dusk Till Dawn, The Faculty, Spy Kids, Sin City & Planet Terror, this film promises to be, at the very least, entertaining. Machete opens in 2,670 screens this Friday.
All three movies are playing in several theatres in the Nashville area.
Directed by Robert Rossen (All The King’s Men), The Hustler was nominated for both Best Picture and Director. The film also garnered several acting nominations: Paul Newman for Actor, Piper Laurie for Actress and George C. Scott and Jackie Gleason for Supporting Actor. The Hustler was nominated for Adapted Screenplay and won the Oscars for both Art Direction (Harry Horner & Gene Callahan) and Cinematography (Eugen Schufftan, inventor of the Schufftan Process).
The Hustler, based on the novel of the same name by Walter Tevis, tells the story of a young pool shark named Fast Eddie (Paul Newman) who travels from pool hall to pool hall across the country suckering patrons out of their money. Eddie is young and talented, yet he’s cocky and doesn’t know when to quit while he’s ahead. The opening scene of the film shows us how a typical day in the life of this hustler might go. Eddie flaunts his cash, gets drunk and pretends to be someone who is horrible at pool but doesn’t realize it. As soon as the stakes are high enough, he sobers up and nails the shot.
Cue (no pun intended) the opening credits which consist of various scenes of Eddie winning money and the shocked looks on the suckers’ faces, frozen on the screen, when they realize they’ve been hustled. The opening credits are very Guy Ritchie-esque. They remind me of films like Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. They serve somewhat of a purpose to the development of the overall story. The credits cram a few days worth of hustling into a minute or so of film backed by bright, jazzy lounge music. The film uses these techniques well. There is a scene where Minnesota Fats, played by the all-business Jackie Gleason, nails shot after shot with overlapping/dissolving scenes of on looking patrons counting and collecting their money. This tells us a lot in a very short amount of time. Minnesota Fats is winning a lot and fast and so is everyone else that’s in on the action.
The Hustler consists of a handful of actors that play their parts well. Jackie Gleason is Minnesota Fats, the renowned pool player who never loses. Bert Gordon plays the reserved, yet powerful and controlling benefactor of young and talented pool sharks that he can use for his own hustling purposes. Piper Laurie plays the drunk, lame, single woman who falls in love with Eddie. It also helps that the film has a decent script. For a film to become timeless and relevant today, like The Hustler, the script must be well-written and not simply a product of its era.
The relationship between Sarah and Eddie might seem slightly unnecessary, but it serves a purpose. The two fit together well. They’re both down on their luck, lonely and love to drink. However, they both benefit from each others’ company. One gets the impression that Sarah benefits more, at least in the beginning. In the end, though, it was Eddie’s relationship with Sarah that was the sole contributing factor to his growing as a person.
One of the great things about this film is it’s revelation of the act of hustling. I love the elements of mystery regarding the pool players’ strategy. They lose or win by a lot or a little on purpose all as a strategy to fool the other guy. The thing is, the audience is never really sure what those strategies. We’re not sure who’s hustling who. It keeps us guessing even after the games are over. Eddie’s great at pool and a decent hustler, but in the beginning of the film, he doesn’t know when to quit. Eddie’s true love is pool and has very little interest in anything else, except perhaps, Sarah. By the end, Eddie’s character has evolved into a more poised pool player and decent human being. He has become less of a hustler and more of a man. He’s learned when to quit.