Sunday, May 27, 2012

Movie Review: Mildred Pierce (1945)

Joan Crawford was one of Hollywood’s biggest stars in the 1930s and ‘40s, but she’s hardly a screen icon. After watching her signature, Oscar-winning performance as the title character in Mildred Pierce (1945), one can certainly understand why. She’s a bland, limited actress, and her idiosyncrasies--the ramrod posture, the highfalutin diction, and the wide-open, unblinking eyes--make her so arch it’s almost comical. The film overall is an entertaining adaptation of James M. Cain’s 1941 novel about the personal travails of an up-from-the-bootstraps businesswoman during the Great Depression. It lacks the social detail that was the most impressive aspect of the book, but it does well by the melodramatic scenarios that have proven such a model for soap operas and other pop storytelling. The screenplay, by Ranald MacDougall (with the uncredited help of, among others, William Faulkner) takes the liberty of building a murder-mystery framework around the story. This modification works, though, and with director Michael Curtiz’s terrific staging, the pace never falters. The cast, unfortunately, is uneven. Zachary Scott, who has the role of Mildred’s playboy second husband, is an even duller presence than Crawford. The biggest letdown is Ann Blyth, who plays Mildred’s daughter; she makes the book’s monstrously conniving narcissist come off like a smug brat. But Jack Carson does a terrific turn as the lawyer Wally Fay, and Eve Arden always gives an entertaining spin to her lines as Mildred’s best friend. The excellent black-and-white cinematography is by Ernest Haller. (Click here for my review of the James M. Cain novel, and here for my take on the 2011 mini-series starring Kate Winslet.)

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Movie Review: The Runaways

Floria Sigismondi, the writer and director of The Runaways, a docudrama about the trailblazing 1970s all-female rock band, falls into a common trap of the genre: she’s so committed to portraying the figures she depicts as real people that she overlooks the qualities that gave them their renown. In trying to do justice to her subjects, all she manages is to diminish them. The picture is further hampered by the script’s failure to locate any underlying dynamic to the characters and their relationships. Sigismondi focuses on guitarist Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) and lead singer Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning), but she doesn’t make either woman the least bit vivid, and one can’t hook into their friendship. She isn’t helped by the bland performances from Stewart and Fanning, either. No one could envy Stewart the task of playing the extraordinarily charismatic Joan Jett, but there’s nothing to the portrayal beyond the hairstyle and make-up. Stewart doesn’t even try to capture Jett’s larger-than-life bravado; all she manages is to make Jett, of all people, seem sullen and dinky. Dakota Fanning is earnest, but her efforts at capturing Cherie Currie’s sexual swagger seem like half-hearted playacting. She certainly doesn’t manage to reconcile Currie’s performing flamboyance with the insecurities (and substance-abuse problems) that plagued the singer off-stage. The only actor who comes through is Michael Shannon, who delivers a hilarious scenery-chewing special as the band’s manager Kim Fowley. Sigismondi has occasionally inspired moments, most notably the slapstick “heckler drill” where Fowley teaches the band how to play while being pelted with garbage. She also does an excellent job of evoking the 1970s milieu. But she isn’t much of a storyteller. The drama doesn’t build, and one isn’t even sure of where it’s supposed to be.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Movie Review: The Descendants

Director Alexander Payne does a lovely job handling domestic-tragedy melodrama in The Descendants. The picture is beautifully paced and quite affecting—even wrenching at times. The occasional comedy scene keeps the material from getting too maudlin, and Payne makes fine use of the Hawaii locations. He doesn’t get lost in either the scenery or the poetic-ironic effects he uses it for. The story centers on an affluent Honolulu lawyer (George Clooney) and his efforts to come to terms with the impending death of his wife. He also has to take over the role of primary parent to his two headstrong daughters (Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller), as well as manage the dissolution of a large family land trust. On top of everything else, he discovers his wife was having an affair. The dramatic sections are well realized, but Payne does his best work with the comedic material: the efforts of the 17-year-old daughter to play mother to the 10-year-old; the Clooney character’s annoyance with the older girl’s pothead boyfriend; and the high comic moment when the Clooney character and the older daughter confront the wife’s lover. Clooney renders his character’s churned-up emotions with precision, and his comic timing is as strong as ever. Shailene Woodley, who plays the 17-year-old, isn’t as vivid a presence in her dramatic scenes. But she nails the comic ones, with her delivery of her character’s profane dialogue a particular highlight. Payne gets fine work out of the rest of the cast, and the tempo of the individual scenes is just about perfect. The film’s only real flaw is how Shailene Woodley is occasionally presented. Payne gets too enamored with her eye-candy appeal at times, and it works against the tone of the scenes. The Descendants is Oscar-bait, but the picture represents that kind of filmmaking at its best. The elegantly crafted script, credited to Payne, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash, is based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

My Response to Gary Groth

This post is a response to a comment by Gary Groth on The Comics Journal’s website. For context, click here and read down. All the comments under the byline “JS” are by me. The comment being responded to is the April 30, 9:30 PM comment by “Groth.” A link to this post should appear in reply there.

When I asked Gary to get an opinion from Kenneth Norwick [comment here] about the legal situation regarding the ownership of Jack Kirby's original art, I hope it was clear that I would have accepted Norwick’s opinion on this matter. Norwick is a highly respected New York attorney specializing in media law. He knows what he is talking about. If he offers an assessment for journalistic purposes, it can be trusted.

I expected Gary to respond in one of two ways.

One, he would provide the text of Norwick’s (or another lawyer’s) assessment. If Norwick contradicted me on any point, I fully expected that contradiction to be rammed down my throat.

Or two, Gary would provide a long-winded rationalization for not getting a legal opinion, from Norwick or any other lawyer. This would be followed by an extremely ugly personal attack on me.

He did the latter. As to why, people can draw their own conclusions.

[Note 5/10/2012: Gary Groth has since denied asking Norwick's opinion of the legal situation regarding the art during the mid-1980s. Note 12/13/2012: Tom Heintjes, TCJ's news reporter at the time, has told me they did not consult with Norwick or any other attorney about the matter. Please read what follows with this in mind.]

My hunch is that Gary asked Norwick about the matter when the stand-off between Kirby and Marvel was going on in the mid-'80s. As a rule, The Comics Journal has always included an attorney’s view in news stories that concern themselves with legal issues to any significant degree. Norwick was representing The Comics Journal in a lawsuit at the time. He would have been a natural choice for Gary or a TCJ staffer to ask. All we know for sure is that TCJ never published a lawyer’s opinion about the legal merits of Kirby’s claim.

If Gary received a legal opinion back then that reflected my layperson’s view of the situation, I can appreciate a decision to bury it. He was an ally of Kirby, and a leader of an intense public relations campaign on Kirby's behalf against Marvel. It is my view that Marvel, regardless of the legal ownership, had an ethical obligation to return Kirby’s art. Informing supporters of Kirby’s cause that he didn’t have a legal right to the art could have diminished the intensity of their support. Without that support, Marvel likely wouldn’t have budged.

However, this is now a historical matter. Kirby settled with Marvel in 1986 and received around 1,900 pages of his original art. There’s no reason for the truth of the situation, if it was not to Kirby’s advantage, not to come out. It most likely will eventually, in any case.

The only casualty might be Gary’s reputation. Or his ego. Publicly acknowledging that the hated Marvel was legally in the right would probably be embarrassing.
In addition, he would likely detest admitting that I am right and he was wrong. Our relationship is a hostile one. This is largely due to a series of payment disputes in 2010 and 2011 that ended only after I formally threatened a lawsuit. I also resent his plans to include my copyrighted articles in The Comics Journal online archive. The writers’ guidelines in place when I began writing for the magazine stated that no article would be permanently archived without permission. Gary refuses to honor that promise.

I believe Gary’s comment is a transparent effort to avoid admitting the truth of the Kirby situation. But as I said, people can draw their own conclusions.

I’m not going to dignify his personal attacks on me with a response.

UPDATE--May 3

My response to Gary's latest comment, posted to the thread:
Gary--

Temper, temper.

For those reading, please look at this as a chess game. Gary has only one move: Get a lawyer on the record about this. Now, maybe he'll win with that move, or maybe he'll lose. He won't play it.

Instead, we get a lot of sound and fury to justify not playing the game anymore. His April 30 comment starts with him arguing like a third-rate Stanley Fish imitator and ends with him comparing me to a serial killer. Make of it what you will.
An aside, for the benefit of your own personal bullshit detector: When someone starts arguing that there's no way of knowing the truth because everything is relative, chances are pretty good that person knows (or at least strongly suspects) that the truth isn't on his or her side.

My "hunch" was a rhetorical stratagem designed to give Gary a face-saving out. He was so committed to the justice of Jack Kirby's cause that he sacrificed his journalistic integrity to help achieve it. I thought it would be a natural for Gary. Ah, well.