Friday, April 13, 2018

Classics: A Review of The Death of Stalin By Lauren Ennis


History and Hollywood are overflowing with tales of tyrants who dominated through brutality, repression, and manipulation. What is less widely discussed is what happens when a tyrant’s reign of terror is finally brought to an end. The 2018 dark satire The Death of Stalin explores the outrageous ways that the most elite members of the Soviet government sought to obtain and maintain control in the wake of dictator Joseph Stalin’s sudden death in 1953. At once a slapstick spoof of the corrupting influence of politics and an indictment of the all too real horrors that ran rampant in the Soviet Union, The Death of Stalin is a film that is certain to slay you.

Is anyone going to acknowledge the red elephant in the room?!
The story begins with a darkly ironic glimpse into the daily absurdities of life in the Soviet Union as a Moscow orchestra scrambles to recreate a concert performance in order to appease Stalin’s whim for a recording. Through this opening depiction of the hysterical levels of fear that the mere mention of Stalin’s inspires in the musicians the film perfectly captures the Orwellian nightmare that was everyday life under Stalin’s rule. The film then shifts its focus from the populace that the dictator brutalized into submission to the political cronies and henchmen who enabled his reign to endure. Following a brief introduction to the sycophancy and underhandedness that dominated Stalin’s inner circle, the film portrays the dictator’s sudden death from a stroke. The film then quickly spirals into a madcap race against time as the most elite figures in the Soviet Union face off in a power struggle that will define Russian politics for decades to come.

Made in the tradition of such biting political comedies as Ninotchka and The Great Dictator, The Death of Stalin provides a wry look at politics at their most poisonous. From the moment that Stalin is found unconscious in a puddle of his own urine the film morphs into something akin to ‘Survivor: Soviet Moscow’ as the dictator’s closest allies make and break alliances in accordance with the shifting political climate. All the while the wit remains razor sharp and the insults fly faster than a firing squad’s bullets as the USSR’s most elite bumble, bicker, and double-cross their way to the top. The shenanigans that ensue are comic in their absurdity, even as they highlight the brutality, paranoia, and hysteria that dominate life under repressive regimes. The film wisely maintains its darkly comic focus upon the hapless schemers jockeying to take Stalin’s place, rather than the ordinary citizens caught in the crossfire. As a result, the film functions as a scathing indictment of the lunacy that was Stalinism rather than a tasteless dismissal of its millions of victims. Although the central players are historical figures, the power plays that they ruthlessly engage in remain as startlingly relevant today as they were during the height of the Cold War.
Stay tuned to see who will be voted off the island next

The expert performances of the film’s international cast deftly keep the film balanced between slapstick spoof and historical drama. Steve Buscemi nearly steals the film in his slick turn as Nikita Krushchev, which plays like a Cold War twist on his popular role of Boardwalk Empire’s politician turned gangster Nucky Thompson. Jeffrey Tambor is hilariously inept as the ever one step behind Georgy Malenkov. Jason Isaacs lends roguish charm and plenty of swagger to his role as World War II hero and Red Army chief of staff General Zhukov. Simon Russell Beale manages to be both comic and chilling in his portrayal of notorious head of the secret police Lavrenti Beria. Rupert Friend is wonderfully outrageous in his performance as Stalin’s drunken buffoon son, Vasily. Andrea Riseborough aptly portrays Stalin’s sheltered daughter, Svetlana with an appropriate combination of snobbishness and naïveté.

A historical tale that could easily be ripped from today’s headlines, The Death of Stalin is simultaneously one of the most comic and tragic films of the year. Through its wickedly witty script the film sheds light onto the comically absurd events that transpired after Stalin’s death, while also reminding audiences of the millions who suffered under the rule of Stalin and his cohorts. The ensemble cast turn in expert performances that will have even the most casual students of history laughing out loud. For a film that will have you dying with laughter don’t miss The Death of Stalin.
It's funny because it's mostly true!
 

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Classics: A Review of The Halcyon By Lauren Ennis


Dark days and bright nights beckon at London’s exclusive Halcyon hotel circa 1940. With the blitz raging outside while personal and political passions threaten to erupt inside the scene in ITV’s The Halcyon is set for drama. A Casablanca-esque atmosphere combined with a modern sensibility makes the series an enticing cocktail of the best of classic and contemporary. One visit with the series’ colorful cast of staff and guests is guaranteed to leave viewers wanting a return trip to the intrigue, opulence, danger, and romance that await in The Halcyon.

Downton, prepare to eat your heart out
The story begins as the threat of war ominously hangs over London even as life in the Halcyon’s hallways carries on. The problems of the outside world enter the hotel, however, with the arrival of the hotel’s owner Lord Hamilton and his fascist leaning mistress. While the potential for political and sexual scandal threatens the hotel’s reputation, the entirety of the establishment is thrown into upheaval when Lord Hamilton is found dead of a sudden heart attack. The hotel is then left in the hands of his scheming wife, Lady Hamilton, and two well-meaning but untrained sons, setting the stage for a power struggle between Lady Hamilton and the hotel’s general manager, Richard Garland. Meanwhile the guests and staff alike find themselves embroiled in both personal and professional crises as the Nazi bombs draw ever closer.

Although the series may tell a familiar war-time tale of love and glory it does so with just enough of a modern twist to keep audiences on the edge of their seats while still remaining true to the period in which it is set. One way that the script achieves this balance is by including elements that, while historically accurate, would have been censored by the media of the era. For example, the series approaches such adult topics as sexual assault, infidelity, and pre-marital sex with a frankness that, while true to life, would never have passed the restrictions of the Hollywood Hays Code. Similarly the taboo relationships between both interracial couple Betsy and Sonny and homosexual couple Toby and Adil are portrayed with a modern sensitivity, even as both couples confront the prejudice and intolerance of the period. The script also aptly portrays the class and gender struggles of the era and the ways in which World War II ushered in many changes to class and gender norms. Even in the midst of its most modern elements, however, the series never loses sight of such timeless themes as love, family, sacrifice, and patriotism. It is through its focus upon such universal themes that the series connects viewers to its characters and the distant world that they inhabit. Through its nuanced characterizations and multifaceted plot The Halycon is a series that is vintage but never old fashioned, with a modern sensibility that doesn’t sacrifice historical accuracy.

Let's party like its 1939
The stellar work of the series’ ensemble cast brings 1940’s London to vibrant life. Kara Tointon possesses all the sensual charm of Rita Hayworth as sassy nightclub singer Betsy Day. Sope Dirisu conveys equal parts debonair charm and quiet strength in his role as bandleader Sonny Sullivan. Olivia Williams portrays the by turns ruthlessly cold and achingly vulnerable Lady Hamilton with expert skill. Edward Bluemel aptly portrays the insecurity and frustration of the Hamilton’s neglected son, Toby. Akshay Kumar is endlessly endearing in his performance as conflicted bartender Adil. Matt Ryan possesses a world weariness and cynical charm worthy of Humphrey Bogart as reporter Joe O’Hara. Jamie Blackley makes for an admirable hero as the Hamilton’s favored son, ace flyer Freddie. Hermione Corfield expertly captures the warmth, wit, and resilience of receptionist Emma Garland. Steven Mackintosh nearly steals the series in his charismatic turn as the hotel’s enigmatic manager, Richard Garland.

With all the smooth charm of a black and white classic and the grit of a modern drama The Halcyon is far more than just another period piece. Through its array of colorful and fascinating characters and layered plot the series treats viewers to a swinging time that will leave hem begging for more. After checking into one episode of The Halcyon you won’t want to check out.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Classics: A Review of The Muppet Movie By Lauren Ennis


Family films are often dismissed as strictly juvenile fare that have little to offer adult viewers. Some family films, however, earn that family status by providing entertainment that truly is for the entire family. One such film is the 1979 adventure/comedy The Muppet Movie. Over the course of its ninety-seven minute running time the film offers so much laughter, life lessons, and inspiration that even the most cynical of viewers will be cheering for Kermit and company to find the rainbow connection and make their Hollywood dreams come true.

Moving right along, foot loose and fancy free!
The story begins as Kermit the Frog longingly daydreams about life beyond the confines of his swamp. After a chance meeting with a Hollywood talent scout who encourages him to pursue his dreams, Kermit leaps into action and sets out for Hollywood. Kermit soon learns that the road to fame is not paved with gold, however, when relentless restauranteur Doc Hopper attempts to persuade Kermit to become the face of his fast-fried frog legs chain. Despite Kermit’s repeated refusals Hopper will not take no for an answer and doggedly pursues Kermit on what is easily one of cinema’s wildest road trips. Along the way, Kermit encounters a colorful cast of characters including aspiring comedian Fozzy Bear, eccentric dare devil Gonzo, and model/actress Miss Piggy. Through their by turns slapstick and suspenseful adventure the group learn lessons in life and love that will hold equal appeal for the young and young at heart.

Much like Jim Henson’s previous success, The Muppet Show, The Muppet Movie succeeds by prioritizing being a good movie over being a family film. The film merges the best in family entertainment and cinema at large to relate its wonderfully wacky tale. The central premise of a protagonist looking to find himself on the open road would be at home in a number of coming of age films directed towards adult audiences, as would the characters’ struggles to find success in Hollywood. Similarly, the dynamic between Kermit and his cohorts recalls the best in buddy comedies past and present. While the film’s inclusion of these cinema staples maintains the interest of adult audiences, the film’s child-friendly approach ensures that it is still age-appropriate. The script strikes an ideal balance between adult and child humor by including pop-culture references that will largely be lost on young viewers as well as more universal slapstick gags. In this way the film is able to maintain its madcap sensibility while still carrying broad audience appeal. The innovative visuals which largely utilize hand-made puppets in place of actors brings the whimsical world of the Muppets to vibrant life. The inclusion of Broadway-style songs also enriches the story by lending valuable insight into the characters while still keeping audiences’ tapping their toes. The now famous Rainbow Connection particularly stands out for its inspiring message and wistful melody.

Piggy believes in miracles...where you from, you sexy frog, you
The cast perfectly captures the anarchic spirit of the Muppets as actors work alongside their puppet co-stars, to bring the antics of the beloved puppets to life. Charles Durning and Austin Pendleton make an ideal comedic pair as the deranged Doc Hopper and his conflicted henchman, Max. The host of celebrities who pepper the film with cameos also lend apt support even as the spotlight remains firmly upon our felt heroes. The efforts of the voice actors and puppeteers combine to create top-notch performances that will have viewers forgetting that the leads aren’t flesh and blood.

Equal parts comedy and adventure, The Muppet Movie is a journey for the eyes, ears, and above all the heart. Through a combination of song, dance, and setting the film creates a whimsical version of our own world in which even our wildest dreams can come true. The film defies genre expectations through its use of witty but gentle humor, loveably flawed characters, and resonant but not forced life lessons, earning it a spot amongst the best in family entertainment. Nearly forty years after its release The Muppet Movie remains a must-see for the lovers, the dreamers, and the child within us all.

 


Saturday, March 3, 2018

Classics: A Review of Stranger Things Season 2


In 2016 Netflix viewers partied like it was 1983 with the release of the hit series Stranger Things. Inspired by the pop-culture of the 1980s’, Stranger Things proved itself to be more than a mere homage to cultural icons past by becoming one of the most hotly discussed and debated series of the new millennium. Following the first season’s success fans and critics alike wondered if a second season would, or even could, reach the standards of excellence set by the series’ debut. As 2017 approaches its end the question remains; was 1984 in Hawkins, Indiana as chilling, thrilling, and downright strange as we had hoped?

Who you gonna call?
The story begins roughly one year after the events of the first season as the residents of Hawkins attempt to return to some semblance of normality. For the series’ central players the emotional scars that they sustained in season one remain painfully raw one year later. Just as the characters come to terms with their traumas, however, events begin occurring across Hawkins which suggest that the government experiments in Hawkins’ Lab were just the beginning of the strange things to come.

This season largely manages to avoid the pitfalls typical of most sequels by continuing to build upon the events of season one, rather than placing the characters into a whole new adventure. The most obvious example is the use of the overarching theme of trauma to highlight the ways in which the characters cope with the losses that they suffered in season one. This exploration of trauma allows viewers crucial insight into the characters, while grounding the often fantastic plot through the inclusion of an all too real issue. This theme also offers ample opportunity for the script to address the questions raised in season one such as how will his time in the Upside Down affect Will and what were the consequences of Barb’s death. The series also provides viewers with much needed insight into the inner workings of the mysterious Hawkins Lab and Upside Down in a way that enrichens the story while still leaving room for future surprises.

Despite the script’s efforts to remain true to the spirit of first season, the second season contains enough twists of its own to keep viewers coming back for more. Most notably, the inclusion of the newest Upside Down villain the Shadow Monster/Mindflayer infuses the plot with psychological thrills that will have viewers keeping the lights on long after the final credits fade. Perhaps the most satisfying changes are those that the central characters undergo as they grow and evolve in response to a set of all new challenges. In spite of this season’s many praiseworthy aspects, however, season two did contain flaws which were largely the result of the writers’ efforts to expand the story’s universe too much too quickly. The script’s stumbles are most glaring in the scenes featuring new kids in town Billy and Maxine, who could have been compelling characters had they been given back stories that were more developed and more directly connected to the central plot. Similarly, Eleven’s adventures beyond Hawkins proved a distraction rather than a story thread, with her encounter with fellow lab experiment Kali/Eight significantly slowing the season’s momentum. Overall, however this second visit to Hawkins, Indiana was a worthwhile trip that already has this reviewer anticipating what thrills season three will have in store.

In a world full of tens be an Eleven
While Stranger Things contains a plot that is truly out of this world, its greatest draw remains the humanity at the heart of the performances of its ensemble cast’s performances. Wynona Ryder continues to shine in her complex portrayal of Will’s struggling mom, Joyce. David Harbour adds an essential vulnerability to his role as cynical sheriff Jim Hopper, particularly in his scenes opposite Millie Bobby Brown. Natalia Dyer infuses Nancy with an empowering spunk and resilience as she evolves from teenage follower to confident young woman. Charlie Heaton enlivens social outcast Jonathan with a boyish charm, especially in his scenes opposite Dyer, which crackle with chemistry. Joe Keery proved to be this season’s breakout star as season one’s stereotypical jock turned season two hero Steve Harrington. Gaten Matarrazzo rightfully earned plenty of buzz in his reprised role as the always endearing Dustin, with his scenes opposite Keery lending the season some of its most memorable moments. Caleb McLaughlin turned in another winning performance as Lucas, while adding a new dimension to his role as Lucas struggles with changing group dynamics and girls. Noah Schnapp finally gets the chance to show off his acting skills as Will evolves from plot device to compelling and tormented protagonist. Finn Wolfhard adds an edge to his role as Mike through his portrayal of Mike’s grief following the disappearance of Eleven. Millie Bobby Brown electrifies the screen once again as the enigmatic Eleven as she aptly portrays Eleven’s full range of conflicting emotions. Series newcomer Brett Gelman is endlessly entertaining in his performance as an eccentric freelance journalist. Sean Astin proves to be the series’ best addition in his role as underdog turned surprising hero Bob Newby.

Science fiction, supernatural thriller, coming of age tale, and homage to all things 1980’s; whatever its classification Stranger Things has become nothing short of a cultural phenomenon. Through its innovative scripts and heartfelt performances, the series continues to push the boundaries of television. Both a horror story with a heart and a period piece with lessons for today, Stranger Things is strange in all the best ways.

I don't think we're in Hawkins anymore, Toto

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Classics: A Review of Blades of Glory By Lauren Ennis


The Olympic Games are an event that has become synonymous with excellence, team work, and overcoming the odds. Perhaps no Olympic team has defied expectations with the originality and sheer hilarity of male pair skaters Jimmy McElroy and Chaz Michael Michaels in the 2007 comedy Blades of Glory. At once an uproarious satire of Olympic sports and a valentine to sports films, Blades of Glory is a comedy that goes for the gold.

The story begins with judges’ darling Jimmy (John Heder) facing his rival, fan favorite Chaz (Will Ferrell) in the Olympics. Both skaters turn in flawless performances; leaving skating’s ‘little orphan awesome’ and ‘lone wolf’ in a tie for the gold. Outraged at the prospect of sharing the title, they begin bickering in the midst of the medal ceremony in what escalates to a brawl that leaves both permanently banned from male figure skating. Years later, both hit hard times as Jimmy struggles to make ends meet selling skate equipment, while Chaz battles alcoholism and sex addiction as he drifts between kiddie skating shows. When Jimmy’s former coach, Robert (Craig T Nelson) approaches them with the unorthodox plan of returning to skating as a pair team, Jimmy and Chaz scoff at the idea. The lure of the ice proves too strong for both skaters to resist, however, as they embark upon an Olympic journey that is easily one of the most outrageous in sports history.

Through its by turns slapstick and sentimental approach, the film captures figure skating at its most ridiculous, while simultaneously showcasing the skill, teamwork, and perseverance that have helped make it an Olympic fan favorite. The gags surrounding the extravagant costumes, dramatic music, and over-the-top artistic gestures that have becomes skating hallmarks will have even casual viewers laughing out loud. Similarly, the references to the incomprehensible scoring system, and skating greats past and present will have ice aficionados roaring with laughter. Even in the mist of its most outlandish shenanigans, however, the film’s humor avoids attacking the sport by also paying tribute to its most admirable qualities as well as those of its competitors. This homage to all things ice shines through in the film’s depiction of the grueling training that athletes undergo, the pressures that they face, and the devoted fans that they win over. The film’s highest tribute to the sport by far, however, is its surprisingly inspiring portrayal of the bond between Jimmy and Chaz. Through its unique approach, the film merges the very best in comedy and sports cinema for a viewing experience that is truly glorious.

While the film’s premise made its script ripe with comedic potential, it is the expert performances of the cast that brings its slapstick world of sports to riotous life. Craig T Nelson is excellent in his straight-man role as dedicated coach, Robert. Amy Poehler and Will Arnett are wonderfully wicked as Jimmy and Chaz’s greatest rivals, the creepily close Van Waldenberg siblings. Jenna Fischer turns in an impressive transition from television to film as the Van Waldenberg’s conflicted younger sister, Katie. Nick Swardson is endlessly entertaining in his role as the duo’s biggest fan/stalker, Hector. Even while surrounded by superb performances, the film belongs to Ferrell and Heder as ultimate odd couple Jimmy and Chaz. Heder’s wide-eyed innocence is a perfect complement to Ferrell’s bad-boy machismo. Together, the two make a comedy team that is unbeatable on or off the ice.

Through its hilarious send-up of all things figure skating, Blades of Glory is an Olympic level comedy. The film’s combination of an uproarious script and expertly comedic performances ensure that it has plenty to offer both comedy devotees and skating connoisseurs alike. For a winning comedy, hit the ice with Chaz and Jimmy in Blades of Glory.  

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Classics: A Valentine's Day for the Young and Young at Heart By Lauren Ennis


With the plethora of chocolates and teddy bears lining the store shelves there’s no doubt that its beginning to look a lot like Valentine’s Day once again. In keeping with the holiday’s celebration of all things romance, this week I’ll be turning the spotlight on three films that lent many a viewer their first glimpse of romantic love. While all of these films are geared towards young audiences, their exquisite animation, lilting tunes, and compelling storytelling capture the full sweep of romance at its most thrilling, transformative, and powerful in a way that will inspire both the young and young at heart. Tell us your favorite Valentine’s picks in the comments!

The days when carbs were still acceptable on dates
Lady and the Tramp: Easily one of the most iconic love stories in all of cinema, this 1955 Walt Disney film has come to define romance for several generations. The film tells the deceptively simple tale of a well-bred cocker spaniel and her whirlwind courtship with a mutt from the wrong side of the tracks in turn of the century middle-America. The film’s use of two dogs as protagonists allows the filmmakers to tell a surprisingly adult tale of romance against class lines, as affluent Lady pursues an unlikely romance with worldly rogue Tramp. When her human family push her aside in favor of their newborn son and leave her in the care of a borderline abusive aunt, Lady finds unexpected solace in the street-smart stray, Tramp. While she initially rejects him at the urging of her prejudiced fellow house pets, she begins to see him in a new light after he rescues her from an attack by a gang of vicious strays. When she learns that he has suffered similar rejection from his former human family the two eventually bond over their shared trauma, and she begins to appreciate the freedom of his life without a leash and collar.  The two then embark upon a journey across town in which each begins to see the world from the other's very different perspective . While the pair’s adventure includes some truly magic moments (particularly the famed spaghetti dinner), it takes a decidedly sober turn when the revelation of Tramp’s past as a womanizer and stints in the pound make Lady question his feelings. The film continues on this mature trajectory when Lady breaks off her relationship with Tramp only to face the full weight of her actions when she returns home to confront her ruined reputation. Even the plot’s final resolution is surprisingly gritty, as it is not until Tramp risks a fatal trip to the pound for the sake of Lady’s human family that the two are finally reunited. Rather than diminishing the film’s romantic sensibility, the script’s mature tone lends the film greater emotional resonance as the characters face all too real obstacles and consequences that set their relationship apart from the studio’s usual idyllic fairy tales. Beyond its emotional maturity, the film contains some of the most charming characters ever to grace the big-screen, and a date night that put’s many a real-life couple’s romance to shame. For a bella notte to remember look no further than Lady and the Tramp.

Let's see you top that, Pixar
Beauty and the Beast: Arguably Disney’s most ambitious effort, Beauty and the Beast remains one of the most successful animated films from any studio. While most animated films feature life-altering quests and evil villains, Beauty and the Beast maintains a firm focus upon the relationship between its characters, and is all the better for it. Even in the midst of enchantment spells, talking furniture, and a beastly hero, the film possesses a surprisingly human core as it chronicles the unlikely relationship between its leads. The film manages to move beyond its fantastic premise by revealing the ways in which the ahead of her time Belle and the Beast are able to relate to each other through their shared status as social outsiders, despite their obvious physical differences. The film also adds realism to its story by showing the ways in which their relationship progresses from mutual respect, to friendship, before finally blossoming into romance. The story further engages audience by making Belle and the Beast’s own inner demons a far greater obstacle to their happiness than any of rival suitor Gaston’s schemes. As a result, audiences are able to invest in both characters’ emotional development in a way that other animated films cannot. Perhaps the film’s greatest romantic draw is its portrayal of the ways in which love can ultimately change us for the better. While the Beast’s transformation into the handsome prince is indeed a sight to behold, it is the inner transformation that he undergoes earlier in the film that lends the script its greatest emotional resonance. In an act of self-sacrifice the Beast shows his love for Belle by putting her happiness above his own and finally letting her go. It is in that moment that the Beast undergoes his true metamorphosis and it becomes obvious that, regardless of his unchanged physical appearance, his love for Belle has helped the Beast to become a better man.  For a tale as old as time that remains truly timeless, hit the ballroom floor with Beauty and the Beast.

Proving that dogs can make the best wing-men
One-Hundred and One Dalmatians: Although this film is best remembered as a children’s take on the classic style crime caper, it is the love stories between two dogs and their owners that forms the heart of this Disney classic. When we first meet Pongo and his ‘pet’ (a/k/a owner), Roger, the two are living a less than swinging existence as London bachelors. Frustrated by their monotonous lifestyle, Pongo becomes determined to find a wife for Roger and a mate for himself. After a hilarious montage of Pongo’s search for woman and dog pairs that are reminiscent of a Match.com date search, Pongo finally locates the ideal pair in Anita and her Dalmatian, Perdita. In a fairly realistic representation Anita and Roger initially fail to notice each other, and even after Pongo intervenes by tangling his leash with Perdita’s the two nearly clash before bonding over the absurdity of the situation. The film breaks with most traditional love stories by placing its focus upon what happens after happily ever after through its depiction of the struggles of married life. While both couples truly love one another, their relationships are continually challenged by financial difficulties as Roger struggles to make ends meet as a songwriter, even as Pongo and Perdita begin their own large family.  In spite of their troubles, both couples’ bonds grow stronger in the face of adversity as Anita supports Roger’s artistic career, while Pongo and Perdita share the responsibilities of parenthood. When Anita’s fur-loving acquaintance, Cruella De Ville, arranges the dognapping of Pongo and Perdita’s puppies, both couples doggedly pursue the case until the puppies are safely returned. As Pongo and Perdita face one danger after another in pursuit of Cruella’s henchmen the two remain admirably united as they rely upon each other for support and refuse to give up hope. Even when faced with the challenge of what to do with the other eighty-four puppies Cruella’s held captive, the couple remain united and mutually agree to adopt and raise the other puppies as their own. Similarly, Roger and Anita rely upon one another as they grieve over the supposed loss of Pongo and Perdita and the puppies.  While it may not hold the full romantic sweep of its counterparts, One-Hundred and One Dalmatians offers viewers some of the best relationship role models in cinema and reminds us all that some of the greatest happiness comes after happily ever after.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Classics: A Review of In a Lonely Place By Lauren Ennis


Moral ambiguity, suspicion, smoldering femme fatales, and the ever present threat of menace are just a few of the features that have become synonymous with film noir. The 1950 noir classic In a Lonely Place twists these familiar elements to create a unique entry in the genre that remains startlingly fresh nearly seventy years after its release. Equal parts 50’s kitchen sink drama and 40’s whodunit, the film takes noir off of the mean city streets and into the supposed comfort of the home as it explores the ways in which a murder upends a couple’s life. Easily one of the most haunting entries in the noir genre, In a Lonely Place turns genre and social conventions inside out in a way that will leave viewers questioning the darkness lurking within us all.

Love means never calling the homicide unit
The story begins with former hit screenwriter Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart) descending into alcoholism and depression as he struggles to revive his fading career. He reluctantly accepts an assignment to adapt a trashy bestseller, but refuses to read the book, opting instead to hire the hat-check girl at the local watering hole to summarize the plot for him. The girl, Mildred Atkinson (Martha Stewart), happily obliges and accompanies Dixon to his apartment, but is promptly sent on her way the moment that her summary is complete. When the police discover Mildred strangled to death on the side of the road the next morning, Dixon becomes the prime suspect in her murder. Fortunately for him, however, his sultry neighbor, Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame) saw Mildred leave his apartment and provides him with an alibi. After meeting at the police station Dixon and Laurel strike up an acquaintance that quickly surpasses neighborly as she becomes his muse and consuming obsession. Even as the couple grow closer, however, Mildred’s unsolved murder remains an unspoken but palpable barrier between them. When continued pressure from the police causes Dixon’s notorious temper to resurface Laurel begins to question if the man she loves could be capable of murder.

In a Lonely Place stands out from its fellow noirs by subverting the conventions of its genre and era to reveal the dark side of post-war America. The film takes viewers on a twisted journey from almost its first frame as Humphrey Bogart appears on the screen in what appears to be another of his signature world-weary hero roles. As the film continues, however, it becomes apparent that the trademark Bogart cynicism is actually an indication of something far more disturbing, as Dixon careens through an evening marked by drunkenness, belligerent arguments, and bar fights. When Mildred Atkinson’s body is found just minutes into the film, audiences are already questioning if he might be the villain after all. As his character falls under the spell of Gloria Grahame’s captivating Laurel, however, Bogart’s familiar charm resurfaces, leading viewers to further question Dixon’s actions and motives. Through its warped portrayal of the persona that made Bogart a lasting cinematic icon the film calls into question not just viewers expectations, but also the cynicism and vigilantism consistently promoted in noir as a whole. Similarly, the film calls gender roles and sexual double standards of its era into question through its sympathetic portrayal of Laurel in spite of her checkered past. As the film progresses, Laurel evolves from the brassy moll role that Grahame was so often typecast as to something far more substantial; a complex and tormented woman. As the story’s focus shifts from Mildred’s murder to its effect upon Dixon and Laurel, the film toys with viewers yet again as the central question becomes not who committed the murder, but how vast a shadow can one crime cast over a community. By the time that the film reaches its emotionally shattering conclusion the notoriously warped film noir genre will look more distorted than it ever has before or since.

Does this mean I might not get the girl in the end?
Even with its superb script, the film easily could have become just another b-thriller if not for the brilliant work of its cast. Frank Lovejoy’s sympathetic portrayal of Dixon’s friend sergeant Nicolai highlights his character’s inner conflict. Ruth Gillette lends the film much needed comic relief in her role as the couple’s sassy housekeeper, Martha. Art Smith imbues his performance as Dixon’s agent and confidante with an essential warmth and good humor. Martha Stewart approaches her brief role as Mildred with an infectious enthusiasm which ensures that her character resonates as more than a mere plot device. Even while surrounded by apt supporting performances, Bogart and Grahame own every frame in which they appear. Bogart captures the nihilism beneath the surface of Dixon’s charisma in a brilliant inversion of the cynical brand of cool that he made famous. Grahame is every bit his match as she portrays Laurel’s outward confidence and inner vulnerability with equal skill. Together, the pair expertly bring their characters to life in a way that makes each fracture in their damaged souls achingly real.

In a Lonely Place captures the isolation and disillusionment concealed beneath the surface of post-war America with a poignancy that sets it apart from other noir films of its era. Through the combination of its intelligent script and raw performances the film more than earns its status as a classic. For a visit to the not so good old days, join Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Graham for a haunting journey In a Lonely Place.