by request: in the heart of the sea (ron howard, 2015)

In the best of all worlds, I would be able to set aside preconceptions when encountering a new movie. I am not usually up to the task, though, and seeing Ron Howard’s name on a movie leads to certain expectations. It won’t suck, it won’t be great, it will be inoffensive but probably entertaining enough, and I won’t care about it after it’s over.

A couple of times, Howard has surprised me, although even then it’s more a case of “like” than “love”. (My favorites are Cinderella Man and Frost/Nixon.) In the Heart of the Sea has a modicum of ambition, with some big action sequences. But it has a framing device which doesn’t work, and while it’s based on a non-fiction book, I sense it is “based on a true story” the way most such movies are, i.e. it plays fast and loose with the true story when necessary.

The central story of In the Heart of the Sea is the sinking of the whaling ship Essex in the early 19th century. The primary culprit behind the sinking is a white whale so big it is legendary. I found the special effects hit or miss, but the whale is pretty impressive, even if it often looks like the actors are working in front of a screen. The framing device is drawn from the fact that Herman Melville supposedly found inspiration for Moby-Dick in the story of the Essex.

A movie that stuck with the whaling action would have been a bit mundane, but it would have entertained, and it would have been over in 100 minutes, tops. But the frame adds another twenty minutes, and it’s a silly. Herman Melville comes to interview the last remaining survivor of the Essex, in order to get information for the novel he is writing (yep, Moby-Dick). The survivor tells the story, and Melville dutifully writes it all down. These scenes interrupt the rest of the movie, which is bad enough. But the real crime is the suggestion that arguably the greatest novel in American literature grew out of interview notes. There is no feel for what Melville brought to the story.

And while Melville fills his novel with symbolism, Howard’s movie is by the numbers. It works on the level of a simple adventure story, but there is no hint of anything deeper.

Which is often the case with Ron Howard movies. He is a real professional, almost incapable of turning out a bad movie. (OK, Backdraft was pretty bad.) But I rarely see any inspiration behind his work. 6/10.


oscar run: hail, caesar! (ethan and joel coen, 2016)

It’s time to get over my belief that I don’t care for the Coen Brothers. I keep telling myself this, because I don’t think The Big Lebowski is the greatest film ever made, because I didn’t like Miller’s Crossing, because ... hell, I forget all the reasons. But Hail, Caesar! is the fifth movie by the brothers that I’ve given at least an 8/10 rating. So clearly I like a lot of their work.

I don’t know why Hail, Caesar! appealed to me, for it had some of the same things I usually complain about with the Coens. They preen over the notion that they know more than we do, and too often their movies turn into “spot the reference”. But there was some real love for movies here, almost resembling joy, and when that occurs, I’m glad the writer/directors are smart. Unless you have seen as many movies as the Coens, you won’t come close to getting every reference here, but I think you can enjoy the movie even if you don’t spot a single one.

Because Hail, Caesar! takes place at a movie studio, there is a legitimate reason for showing different kinds of movies being made. The dance number, “No Dames!”, is a particular delight, with Channing Tatum showing off his dance moves in a role that “resembles” Gene Kelly. (There is a lot of “resembling” going on ... Tilda Swinton plays twin columnists that are some odd combination of Hedda Hopper, Ann Landers, and Dear Abby, Scarlett Johansson “is” Esther Williams, and George Clooney is ... well, he’s a blend of too many to count, Charlton Heston is probably closest.) The plot is less important than it seems. Manohla Dargis gets it right when she says the film “at times brings to mind one of those old plot-free film revues that featured a grab bag of studio talent performing in strung-together musical, comic, and dramatic scenes.”

Just in case you’re missing the kitchen sink, they also toss in a bunch of screenwriters who turn to Communism (the film takes place in the early-50s). They brag about how they sneak lefty propaganda into their films, and their mentor is “Professor Marcuse” who “is” Herbert Marcuse. At the beginning of the movie, Clooney is in costume for a film, Hail, Caesar!, that looks a lot like Ben-Hur. He is kidnapped by the writers, and later returns to the studio, where he shoots the final scene of the Hail, Caesar! in the movie Hail, Caesar! At which point you realize Clooney has been wearing his Roman costume the whole movie.

Hail, Caesar! is amiable and moves along with ease. I have yet to see a Coens film that matched Fargo, but Hail, Caesar! is one of their better ones. Oh, and it’s Oscar nomination is for Production Design.


they shoot pictures, don't they: 2017

The 2017 version of the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time has arrived.

Site master Bill Georgaris, who does this as a labor of love, details several changes to the methodology used to compile the list. Honestly, I don’t understand them, but I trust that Bill has a reasonable system, and it is fun to follow those 1000 films (and try in vain to see them all). He notes that the changes result is realignment, rather than a complete overturning of the past. One result is that more recent films have a better chance of improving their position on the list. (At one point a few years ago, he added a Top 250 films of the 21st century list, because too many movies were left out of the more tradition-bound original list. Since then, he has expanded that list to also include 1000 films. I wonder how these changes will affect the relationship between the two lists.)

You can read much of this information on the site, but to summarize the highlights ...

The top ten films are the same, but in slightly different order:

1. Citizen Kane (1)
2. Vertigo (2)
3. 2001: A Space Odyssey (3)
4. The Rules of the Game (5)
5. Tokyo Story (4)
6. (7)
7. The Godfather (6)
8. Sunrise (8)
9. The Searchers (10)
10. The Seven Samurai (9)

The biggest leap since last year was by Brokeback Mountain, which went from #718 to #323. The highest first-timer was Hunger, at #726. The biggest fall was Ashes of Time, which went from #686 to off the list.

Over on the I Check Movies site, I find that I have seen 624 of the top 1000 movies (actually 1012 due to multiple-part works). This puts me at #687 on the list of ICM users who have submitted their viewing history to the site. Here are the top 10 ranked films on the TSPDT list that I haven’t seen ... call this the “Goals for 2017” list:

#29: The Mirror

#59: Stalker

#71: Journey to Italy

#76: Pickpocket

#83: Gertrud

#101: Satantango

#102: The Mother and the Whore

#109: Once Upon a Time in America

#113: Letter from an Unknown Woman

#117: Hiroshima mon amour


oscar run: the lobster (yorgos lanthimos, 2015)

I try, but usually fail, to come to a movie cold, with no plot spoilers. In the case of The Lobster, I actually pulled it off. All I knew about it was that it was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, and that it had disturbed my friend Charlie very much. (He eventually wrote a piece about it, “Consider the Lobster”.)

Halfway through the movie, I had to pause and go to Facebook, where I wrote the following:

"We all dance by ourselves. That's why we only play electronic music."

Just reached the halfway point of The Lobster. All I knew about it going in was that Charlie Bertsch was very disturbed by it. I didn't realize it was a comedy.

If I’d read up on the film in advance, I would have found that The Lobster was “a black-hearted flat-affect comedy” (Sheila O’Malley), “wickedly funny” (Guy Lodge), a “terrifically twisted satire” (Peter Travers), and an “absurdist romantic tragicomedy” (Stephanie Zacharek). But it was nice being surprised, nice to realize that while The Lobster thinks it is serious, it is also intentionally funny.

I was reminded of other things I’d liked or hated. For the latter, there was Kevin Smith’s Tusk, which disturbed me so much I never wrote about it (madman gradually turns a human into a walrus ... 5/10). The title of The Lobster comes from one of the essential plot points: single people have 45 days to find a mate, or they will be turned into an animal of their own choosing (the main character, played by Colin Ferrell, chooses a lobster, “Because lobsters live for over one hundred years, are blue-blooded like aristocrats, and stay fertile all their lives.”

I was also reminded of the TV series Black Mirror, which I like very much. Like The Lobster, Black Mirror shows dystopian versions of the near future, laced in many cases with sly humor. The TV series is an anthology with standalone episodes, but all revolve to a greater or lesser extent on the technology of our lives, futurized just enough to differentiate slightly from the present. It’s a standard trick of dystopias, to create a world recognizably related to our own.

The performances in The Lobster are designed to throw us off ever so slightly. There’s Colin Farrell, except he doesn’t quite look like Colin Farrell, he’s a bit dumpy (he gained 40 pounds for the part) and decidedly un-sexy. Léa Seydoux may be incapable of un-sexiness (although the same might be said of Farrell before this part), but there is a hard-nosed bad-assery to her here that comes not from action scenes as much as from the determined look on her face, daring you to underestimate her. And Ben Whishaw has established great versatility in his previous roles, so you never know what to expect from him. (He also shares with Seydoux a 007 connection: she was a Bond Girl in Spectre, he is the most recent Q ... another actress from the film, Rachel Weisz, adds a trivia-answer 007 connection as well, since she is married to Daniel Craig.)  Suffice to say, everything is a bit off in The Lobster, so when you realize things are actually very off, that realization sneaks up on you.

So no, I wasn’t disturbed by The Lobster, perhaps because while I was aware Lanthimos had a larger theme in mind, I never connected with it, whatever it was. I just took in the pleasures of the film. I can’t leave without mentioning a couple of my favorite actresses, Olivia Colman (Broadchurch, Fleabag) and Ashley Jensen (Extras, Catastrophe). I wouldn’t go so far as to call The Lobster fun, or say I wanted to watch it again. But for the most part, the fun was what appealed to me. 7/10.


the killer (john woo, 1989)

I’ve been a bit sick the past few days, and so I sat down to watch an old favorite to pass the time. I wandered around the On Demand menus until I saw this, and cranked it up.

I wrote an essay back in 1994, “The Meaning of Chow (It’s in His Mouth)”. I spent a lot of time explaining why I thought I could never penetrate the essence of Chow (and HK films in general).

It is odd and charming ... yet I feel like my words have been spoken before, by other American dilettantes, taking pleasure in the 'exotic' Orient. Charming, because different. Odd, because different. Above all, different. However Hong Kong action movies are perceived in Hong Kong itself, in the U.S. they are first and foremost different, alien, even as they freely borrow from our own movie traditions. It is that difference, in part, that I am responding to when I watch Chow Yun-Fat. Perhaps I even make a fetish of that difference; I embrace the alien, make it, for a moment, mine.... I am confronted with the barriers between my experiences and Asian culture. For an American to watch a Chow Yun-Fat movie is to partake in an ultimate experiment in audience-response theory. We don't understand the culture that produced a Chow Yun-Fat, so we are left to the subjective experience we bring to the movie theatre.

Ironically, this “theory” of the unknowable “meaning of Chow” was proven wrong in a connecting essay by a friend, Jillian Sandell, whose writing on John Woo was so on target she heard from Woo, who said it was one of the best things he had read about his work (she managed to get an interview with Woo out of this exchange). My disconnect was personal, not universal.

In my own essay, I argued that without the cultural context of growing up Chinese, I ended up focusing on more surface tendencies, on things I could fetishize, like his mouth (“Blowing smoke, dangling his toothpick, eating chocolate, or just smiling ... ultimately, when trying to explain why Chow Yun-Fat is cool, it comes down to his mouth.”)

I’ve watched a lot of Chow Yun-Fat movies since then, and a lot of John Woo films, as well. And a lot of Hong Kong movies ... while my passions have dimmed somewhat, throughout most of the 90s, I obsessed about the movies, seeking them out wherever I could (I once went into a Chinese video store where no one spoke English, pointed at a picture of Chow, and said, “I want his movies!”). Gradually their popularity in the States grew ... one repertory theatre in Berkeley showed HK double-bills every Thursday night. But for me, The Killer is where it started.

I was at the video store, and I saw a life-size cardboard cutout advertising The Killer. I no longer remember the details, but it was so striking that I knew I had to rent it. Thus, The Killer stands as the movie that introduced me to Hong Kong films, especially of the urban action genre.

I once showed The Killer to my students in an introductory class at Cal. I had many Asian students in the class, and I remember one of them telling me that their parents were pissed off, that they didn’t pay all that money to send their kid to Cal only to have them watch trashy HK movies. I was surprised, since I thought of The Killer as an art film.

There are John Woo movies I like more than I like The Killer. Hard-Boiled is the standard, Bullet in the Head an over-the-top favorite (OK, all of these movies are over-the-top), A Better Tomorrow solidified the “Heroic Bloodshed” genre’s popularity. Not to mention Woo’s films in other genres, like Once a Thief and Red Cliff. But The Killer will always be first.

The Killer excels in the staging of action scenes, of course, but what marked this film, and many others in the genre, is the relationship between the male leads. Sandell wrote:

[T]his homoeroticism always occurs within moments of excessive violence, a violence that is invariably represented as beautiful, stylized and desirable. The very filmic techniques used — such as soft focus, slow-motion and subtle colors — characterize the violence as romantic. Moreover, in shoot-outs between the heroes and villains, the heroes seem to almost 'dance' and 'swoon' as they fire their weapons, and such scenes are inundated with discharge (bullets and blood) being expelled from male bodies and weapons.

And, describing the final shootout where cop and assassin join forces:

[T]hey do more than merely join forces; they fire their weapons in harmony, they gracefully leap away from flying bullets, they gaze lovingly into each others eyes, and they move in synchronized time and motions, employing a kind of mutuality not found elsewhere in the film. Thus, the relationship between the two men is characterized as being not merely homoerotic but also, in some senses, transcendent.

I was pleased to find that The Killer holds up well. I'm still astonished both by the violence and the emotionalism, but my reaction is much as it was in the past. The movie doesn’t seem sillier now. It is quite the same. #635 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 10/10.


film fatales #23 / oscar run: 13th (ava duvernay, 2016)

This documentary from Netflix joins ESPN’s O.J.: Made in America as Oscar nominees that were made for television. The subject matter is named in the title, which refers to the 13th amendment. This amendment intended to abolish slavery, but DuVernay’s film argues that the key phrase, “except as a punishment for crime”, left the door open for the continued oppression of blacks. Instead of slaves, whites could draw on a supply of black criminals, and they made sure there were plenty of such criminals to pick from.

DuVernay isn’t addressing slavery straight on, but using it to get to her key theme, that America’s prison system is abhorrent, and has grown rapidly in recent decades. Prisons have replaced plantations. She points particularly to Richard Nixon, who promoted himself as a “law and order” president. None of the subsequent presidents escape DuVernay’s wrath, with Bill Clinton receiving the most pointed attacks for his awful Omnibus Crime Bill, which did more to create prison overcrowding than anything else.

DuVernay marshals an impressive array of talking heads for 13th. It is no surprise to see former inmates articulating life in prison, nor is it unusual to see, for instance, Angela Davis, herself a former inmate, offer intelligent analysis. A few people from Nixon’s circle admit that they specifically singled out black Americans. There are even some surprises ... Newt Gingrich, of all people, adds a measured, reasonable voice.

A movie like 13th is a work of activism, and to some extent, an evaluation of the film demands that we examine how well it makes its points. DuVernay isn’t “fair” in the way old-school journalism believed in. The film is not objective. But it does use facts to buttress its points, and all of those talking heads make for quite a board of experts. It is arguably too short ... DuVernay packs the films with so much information, it is sometimes hard to process, and she might have been better off with a multi-episode television series.

There is one artistic move she makes that I found extremely irritating, although I haven’t seen many other people complain. Her talking heads regularly speak towards some space off camera, rarely looking directly at the viewer. It’s as if she saw Mr. Robot and decided she’d like to try something new. But there seems to be no reason for this. It is just distracting, which is certainly a problem when you are presenting so much information.

There is plenty to learn from 13th, and DuVernay is a passionate artist. But the overwhelming pile of information, and the distractions of the stylistic selections, detract from some of the power. Nonetheless, 8/10.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


oscar run: o.j.: made in america (ezra edelman, 2016)

Nominated for Best Documentary Feature, it played at a few festivals and had a limited run in theaters before airing on ABC/ESPN in five parts, in June. I don’t know for sure, but it feels like this is the first time an ESPN documentary was nominated for an Oscar. TV documentaries have crossed over at times .. my favorite documentary of all time, The Sorrow and the Pity, was made for French TV. But it is shown in theaters, at least in the USA. Made in America runs for almost 8 hours, and so is perfect for viewing on television over multiple days.

It was, and is, impossible to consider this film without also commenting on The People vs. O.J. Simpson, a docudrama series that ran on FX in early 2016, not only because they cover the same ground, but also because they were released so close to each other. The FX series won many Emmy awards, and was seen as retroactively vindicating Marcia Clark, with Sarah Paulson’s portrayal showing the human side of Clark. In general, the focus of the mini-series was on the characters, and it’s an impressive list and an impressive cast.

Made in America takes a different approach. In the FX series, it seems that O.J. was acquitted because his lawyers were smart and the prosecutors kept making mistakes. But the documentary gives a broader cultural context. We watch O.J. go from growing up in the projects in San Francisco, excelling in football, going to USC, winning the Heisman Trophy, moving to Buffalo in the NFL, setting records, winning an MVP award, eventually ending up in the Hall of Fame. All of this, plus his forays into acting and especially his success as a spokesperson, made Simpson one of the most popular and admired of athletes. This sets the stage for his subsequent fall.

Then the documentary steps back to look at current affairs at the time, specifically the relationship between the LAPD and the African-American community, most famously the Rodney King beating and the acquittal of all the officers who were involved. Other events are highlighted, including the murder by cops of Eula Mae Love, which gives an understanding of the negative feelings of many African-Americans to the police, and to the justice system that never seemed to bring justice to black people.

It is this background material that is most revealing in the documentary. The Simpson trial is famous for being interpreted differently by black and white people. Blacks cheered O.J.’s acquittal, whites wondered how he went free considering the evidence. But Made in America shows how Simpson became a symbol for oppression. His dream team of lawyers played that angle, and while the film doesn’t necessarily convince the viewer that O.J. was innocent, it does transfer the primary guilt to the system that had historically worked against African-Americans. You can imagine being on the jury and thinking, “I can’t find this man guilty”.

The irony is that Simpson had lived much of his public life as the black man white people could love. He lived in Brentwood, one of the only blacks in the neighborhood. He was very rich ... he could afford a Dream Team. Once he got off, he went back to playing golf.

None of this mattered. Simpson-as-symbol had beaten the system, Simpson-as-black-man stood in for all the African-Americans who had been screwed over for centuries.

The film goes on to show how Simpson’s life fell apart over the years, but the sections placing his case in a social context remain the core of the film. If you watched The People vs. O.J. Simpson and felt for Marcia Clark, O.J.: Made in America makes you feel for the entire oppressed community of Black Americans.

Neither approach is “right” or “wrong”. The two series illuminate each other. But the documentary will stand as a record of the times, while the mini-series will stand as a dramatic actors’ showcase. 9/10.

The trailers for the two series suggest their differing approaches.


the magnificent ambersons (orson welles, 1942)

He had his freedom when making his first film, the all-time classic Citizen Kane, but it wasn’t a box office hit, and Welles ended up signing a new contract with RKO take took away final cut rights. The Magnificent Ambersons is a great film, but the loss of the final cut made this, Welles’ second film, to be the first of many Welles movies to be less than they deserved. In this case, RKO famously cut almost an hour from the movie while Welles was in Brazil, then shot and inserted a different ending. (Welles wasn’t the only one who suffered. The great Bernard Herrmann’s score was chopped up so much, Herrmann had his name removed from the credits.)

For a long time, I wondered how The Magnificent Ambersons could be a classic if what we saw was only 2/3 of the intended film. But the part of the movie that belongs to Welles is brilliant, so cry if you wish for what could have been, but don’t deny yourself to experience what we have.

The movie’s look is stunning. Welles switched from Gregg Toland to Stanley Cortez for cinematography, and his contributions are crucial. Cortez’ filmography is remarkable, not only for Ambersons, but for the atmospheric The Night of the Hunter. But in the 60s, his name turns up on movies like Dinosaurus!, The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini, The Navy vs. the Night Monsters, and They Saved Hitler’s Brain. He got one of only two Oscar nominations in his career for Ambersons.

It is always hard to know where to assign credit in an Orson Welles film. He was a genius who seemingly could do anything. But it isn’t true that all of the good stuff in his movies are due to his direct contribution. No doubt, he had a lot of input into the look of The Magnificent Ambersons, but there is no reason to ignore the work of Cortez.

There is some great acting, as well, especially Agnes Moorehead in a showy role that was right up her alley (she got an Oscar nomination, as well). Moorehead always had the willingness to act up a storm, and some find her over the top here. But I think she is not only appropriate in Ambersons, she is crucial in personifying the breakdown of everything she believed in.

Welles does wonderful things with sound here, as he did in Kane. Coming from radio as he did, that was no surprise. It is one of the saddest aspects of his problems making films in later years that the sound was often the first thing to suffer.

Several of Welles’ Mercury crew are along, and Joseph Cotton is his usual underrated/understated self.

What matters most of all, though, is how successful Welles was at making the movie he wanted to make. His Magnificent Ambersons is a dark tale of change and decay, and for an hour, that’s what we get. But once the studio takes over (and if there isn’t any one point where you know this has happened, in retrospect you can feel the change), we get a choppy series of events, just as you might expect from a movie with 40 minutes missing. Individual scenes work, but the flow is gone. And then we get the attached-on “happy” ending, which is completely outside of the tone of the film as a whole.

My opinion of The Magnificent Ambersons has risen over time. I still think it’s a flawed masterpiece, rather than a straight-out classic. But the masterpiece part is so much more than the flaws. #90 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 9/10.


film fatales #22: 2 days in paris (julie delpy, 2007)

I saw this film and its sequel, 2 Days in New York, in the “wrong order”, having seen the latter four year ago. I don’t think it matters ... both are enjoyable, I might have gotten a bit more enjoyment from New York if I’d known Paris, but they are both standalones.

This truly is “A Julie Delpy Film”. She produced it, she wrote it, she directed it, she starred in it, she composed music for it, she sang one of the songs, she edited it, she cast her parents to play her parents in the film and used their house as their house in the film. (Roger Ebert claimed, “When a women takes that many jobs, we slap her down for vanity. When a man does, we call him the new Orson Welles.”) She has been a film actress since she was a kid, so it’s not like she was new to the world of film.  And 2 Days in Paris is a confident film ... Delpy has a feel for how to make a fictional movie seem almost like a documentary, which won’t surprise anyone who has seen her work in the “Before” series.

Adam Goldberg plays a fish out of water, visiting Paris with his French girlfriend and finding himself clueless and suspicious when, as can be expected, everyone speaks in French. He is not instantly likable ... I’m not sure the character ever becomes likable ... but gradually we see how this mildly irritating fellow not only suffers, but is to some extent our representative in the film (speaking only for Americans here). Goldberg also seems like a stand-in for another character, specifically Ethan Hawke as Jesse in the “Before” movies. As Mick LaSalle wrote, “Millions of men have been psychically dating Julie Delpy for years, thanks to ‘Before Sunrise’ and ‘Before Sunset,’ and we've come to accept Ethan Hawke as an acceptable surrogate. But Adam Goldberg in ‘2 Days in Paris’ takes some getting used to.” (In the sequel, Goldberg’s character is gone, and Chris Rock plays the love interest.)

Perhaps it’s unfair to compare 2 Days in Paris to the Linklater films. It has some slight similarities, but that is all. This film is pure Delpy. And she is very fair to her characters. Goldberg may be annoying, but no more so than Delpy’s character. I wish I’d seen this movie when it came out, because my love for Delpy has only grown over the years, and it would have been nice to see her take on the director’s chair. 2 Days in Paris is slight, but engaging, and convinces me I need to see some of her other work as a director. 7/10.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


guess who's coming to dinner (stanley kramer, 1967)

I’ve seen a handful of Stanley Kramer movies ... a few more if I count the ones where he produced but didn’t direct. I have a pre-conceived notion about Kramer that poisons my ability to fairly evaluate his work. I don’t like his movies. But I realize that it’s been a long time since I’ve seen any of them ... I have never given a rating to his films, because I haven’t seen one since I first began assigning ratings. So I’m revisiting Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, but I’m rating it for the first time.

The only time I saw it was more than 40 years ago, and my memory is that I hated it. This time, I felt obliged to bend over backwards to see its good points, and I admit there are a few.

Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy are very good. Beau Richards is OK. Having said that, too many actors here are hamstrung by the parts they are asked to play. It’s not that Katharine Houghton, in her first movie, is bad, but she is given a character with no shadings. Houghton plays the wide-eyed idealist in love as well as can be expected, but like almost every character in the movie, she isn’t playing a person but a placeholder in a framework. Roy Glenn seems to exist solely to give Sidney Poitier one scene where he can turn on the fire. Cecil Kellaway is the Irish monsignor, a part he could do in his sleep. And he, too, is only in the film to show the expansive liberal nature of Spencer Tracy, whose best friend is a monsignor even though Tracy’s character isn’t Catholic.

You can already see how hard it is for me to say something nice. I began the above paragraph noting some of the movie’s good points, only to quickly move into attack mode.

Your reaction to film’s approach to Poitier’s character, Dr. John Prentice, likely colors your reaction to the film as a whole. The film exists to make a comment about interracial marriage, and Dr. Prentice is the black half of that relationship. Prentice is perfect: he’s a doctor, he does good all over the world, he’s on his way to Zurich to do more good, he’s great looking, he is, in short, the Perfect Man. Some of us feel this perfection undercuts the film’s seriousness ... wouldn’t it make a better point if Prentice was a real person with real problems, instead of an idealized man the likes of which have never walked the earth? In fairness, Kramer knows this ... in fact, he did it on purpose. His idea was to remove any possible objections to Prentice, so that the only possible reason why you wouldn’t want him to marry your daughter is because he is black and your daughter is white. For Kramer, the focus is unmistakable, which forces the audience to consider race and only race.

Kramer doesn’t trust that audience. He clearly doesn’t think we have the ability to ascertain character in a person who is as complex as any other person. He reduces Prentice to “Black Man” because he worries that otherwise, we won’t be sympathetic to Kramer’s central (i.e., only) theme.

One result is that Kramer turns Poitier, one of our most dynamic actors, into a quiet man who wants to please. By turning off Poitier’s capacity for anger, he makes Prentice more like a stereotypical “boy” than like the man he is supposed to be. And while Kramer does give Poitier one scene where he lights up, he directs his anger at his father ... he never lets any of the white characters see what might be seething underneath the mask.

The film benefits greatly from the presence of Hepburn and Tracy. I’ll be kind and say that while Kramer knew the backstory of the two, he didn’t necessarily milk it. Well, I think he did, but I have no evidence. It was known that Tracy was dying ... it was known by the audience, since Tracy had died before the film’s release. This adds poignancy to every scene between the two stars. When Tracy gives his final soliloquy, talking about true love, Hepburn is crying real tears, because she hears Tracy in the context of their love affair. At one point, we get a one-shot of Hepburn and her tears, and Kramer holds it for a few seconds, after which he switches to a one-shot of Tracy looking at Hepburn, also for a few seconds. The two shots are designed to elicit tears from the audience, and even I can’t say Kramer shouldn’t have given us that moment.

It reminds me very much of a scene that tears me up every time I see it, and I’ve seen it a lot of times over the years: the deaths of Bonnie and Clyde. Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway are great in that movie ... as fine actors, they convince us of the connection of their characters. And when they die, we get a brief moment where they look into each other’s faces. But the real impact comes from the brilliant editing of Dede Allen, who uses quick cuts to give us the last seconds of the two outlaws. Is that any more “artistic” than Kramer using longer cuts to draw emotion out of the last scene of Tracy and Hepburn? I know which one I prefer. But I must accept that I am unfair if I don’t accept the power of Kramer’s work here, as well.

So I still want to hate Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. But it’s time I pulled back. It’s not a very good movie, but it’s not worth the energy of my ire. 6/10.