MIDNIGHT COWBOY (1969) ***½
I've read or heard more than once that this movie, the Oscar winner as Best Picture of 1969, is one that hasn't dated. I cannot, however, totally agree. The first 40 minutes or so—with their fussy, stream-of-consciousness direction and editing—strike me as dated indeed. The story of Joe Buck (Jon Voight), a naive, Candide-like Texan who travels to New York with dreams of striking it rich as a gigolo, the movie is remembered by those who have seen it for the graceless Joe's episodic encounters with a series of satirically exaggerated New Yorkers, his friendship with the pathetic Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), and its sad ending. These parts of the movie are very good indeed.
But Joe Buck is not a particularly deep or complex character, and except for his connection with Ratso and his becoming a bit more realistic in his expectations, he doesn't really change much during the course of the movie. So the first part of the movie, with its complicated flashback-and-dream structure that tells the backstory of Joe, seems unnecessarily detailed, just so much showy padding. It only delays the arrival of the genuinely interesting parts of the movie and tells us far more than we really need to know about Joe to appreciate his experiences in New York. Ratso's background is dealt with far more briefly and directly, without resorting to cinematic gimmicks, and yet tells us enough about Ratso to understand him.
Fortunately, the last two-thirds of the movie is very entertaining, and the performances are uniformly excellent (Brenda Vaccaro is especially good in a supporting role), although Hoffman's interpretation of Ratso is at times perhaps just a bit too colorful. Both he and Voight received Oscar nominations for Best Actor. If the first part of Midnight Cowboy were as compelling as the rest of the movie and better integrated in terms of style with what follows, this film might well deserve a full **** rating.
BLUE VELVET (1986) ****
This is one movie that for me hasn't dated a bit. It's still just as unique and thrilling an experience as it was when it was first released more than twenty years ago. From the beginning it is clear that sinister things lurk beneath the placid surface of the small lumber town where the film takes place, just as in the opening sequence predatory insects lurk beneath the picture-perfect lawn of Jeffrey Beaumont's (Kyle MacLachlan) home. The movie's beginning is deceptively innocuous, almost like a Hardy Boys story, as Jeffrey and his girl friend Sandy (Laura Dern) set out to solve the mystery of the severed ear. Things soon get pretty strange, and every time you think the movie couldn't possibly get any more bizarre, director David Lynch throws another bomb at the audience.
The cast couldn't be better. Besides wholesome MacLachlan and Dern, it includes exotic Isabella Rossellini as a troubled night club singer known professionally as The Blue Lady, a heavily made-up Dean Stockwell as spaced-out Ben the Sandman, dreamily lip-syncing to Roy Orbison, and, most memorable of all, Dennis Hopper as the demented villain Frank Booth, a morass of volatile psychosexual obsessions. The movie also contains astonishingly hallucinatory images, haunting music, and a 20-minute long slam-bang roller coaster ride of a finale.
Lynch keeps his propensity for over-egging the pudding with too much weirdness successfully controlled, and the movie lands squarely in the middle between the surrealism of Eraserhead and the more conventional narrative style of The Elephant Man, without sacrificing the visual genius of those earlier films. Lynch delivers a gloriously mind-boggling, eye-popping, candy-colored thrill ride of a movie that keeps the viewer guessing and on the edge of the seat the whole time. When normalcy is finally restored at the end, it's like waking up from a particularly vivid nightmare.
THE PAINTED VEIL (2006) ***
Rather lost in the Christmas deluge of movies released in 2006, this film got very good reviews, but my reaction to it is mixed. Based on a novel by Somerset Maugham, it is the story of an inhibited bacteriologist, Walter Fane (Edward Norton), who rashly falls in love with a young London socialite, Kitty Garstin (Naomi Watts). She marries him largely to spite her domineering mother and returns with him to his post in colonial Shanghai. There she has a passionate fling with the local Lothario, and when Walter finds out about it, he relocates them to a remote inland area where a cholera epidemic is raging.
In a recent interview on Turner Classic Movies, Norton, along with Watts one of the film's producers, spoke of how much he admires Out of Africa, and in many ways The Painted Veil is reminiscent both of that movie and of the later films of David Lean, its scenery so gorgeously picturesque that it overwhelms the human element of the story. And the human element of The Painted Vail is none too compelling to begin with. As Walter, Norton, an excellent actor, seems petulant, cruel, and emotionally aloof. Watts fares a bit better with her vapid and self-centered Kitty, but Kitty's shallowness keeps her from being more interesting, and her transformation at the end seems awfully abrupt. No doubt these characterizations were intended, but that doesn't make these people any less remote and unappealing.
The British actors Diana Rigg and Toby Jones make stronger impressions in more sympathetic and nuanced supporting roles. Besides those performances, the film benefits from its stunning landscapes, its depiction of the hardships of the villagers, and its portrait of the political turmoil and resentment of colonialism in 1920's China. The Painted Veil is worth seeing for its glossy surface virtues, but the inability of its lead characters to fully engage the emotions is a definite hindrance to complete enjoyment.
THE YOUNG IN HEART (1938) ***½
This Selznick production is a charming comedy about the Carletons, a family of con artists exiled from the Riviera after their professional deceptions are discovered by the authorities. On the train to London they are befriended by a gullible and lonely rich old lady named Miss Fortune (!) who has no living relatives, and they quickly concoct a plan to fleece her. She essentially adopts this family of scoundrels, who then set to work subtly persuading her to leave them her money in her will.
To make themselves more credible to her, they temporarily assume the appearance of conventionality and even get jobs. The more fond they grow of Miss Fortune, the more they unexpectedly find their new lives of respectability growing on them, and she becomes a sort of moral fairy godmother, granting the family not riches but ethics. Under her influence they find themselves in the end transformed into honest citizens. The movie, released the same year as You Can't Take It with You, is in a sense a Capra comedy turned on its head, with a family of eccentrics finding happiness by forgoing their nonconformist ways and becoming conventional.
The Carletons are expertly played by Roland Young (Topper) as the father, a blustering former actor who pretends to be a British colonel retired from colonial India and is called Sahib by his family; Billie Burke (the good witch Glinda in The Wizard of Oz) as the dithering, scatter-brained mother; Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., for once quite good, as the son, Richard; and winsome Janet Gaynor as the sweet-natured and intelligent daughter, George-Anne. The stage actress Minnie Dupree plays the childlike Miss Fortune, and lovely Paulette Goddard plays Richard's love interest. The movie also includes an incredible-looking automobile called a Flying Wombat that at several points plays an important part in the proceedings. The typically high Selznick production values (including an elaborately staged train wreck), appealing cast, and plot that balances the roguery of the Carletons with the guilelessness of Miss Fortune, and humor with sentiment, results in one of the more unusual comedies of the 1930's and a very entertaining viewing experience.