WWW: Weekend Wrental Wreviews 39

Let's see what I saw this week for Weekend Wrental Wreviews in my 39th WWW:

1) Miller's Crossing:
Joel and Ethan Coen bring us a 1920s gangster film as only they could, and I wonder how I missed this gem when it was in theaters. I think there was a reference to it in an episode of Psych that first pointed to this glaring hole in my mental pop culture database. Gabriel Byrne, in one of his best roles, is Tom Reagan, chief aide to an Irish mobster played by Albert Finney. Finney controls everything in town, including the mayor and the chief of police. Character actor and frequent Coen collaborator Jon Polito is an Italian crime boss with a problem, a Jewish guy who owes him money, who he wants dead. The problem is, this Bernie Bernbaum(John Turturro) is under Finney's protection, because Finney is involved with his sister Verna(Marcia Gay Harden). Polito and his bodyguard The Dane leave without having their request fulfilled, and Reagan warns his boss that protecting Bernbaum for the sake of Verna isn't worth having the Italian and Irish mobs clash. But Reagan has problems of his own, both his debt from horse racing and his own secret affair with Verna. Miller's Crossing is a very stylish piece with some fine acting and great action sequences. There's a lot of brawls and tommy guns and jumping out windows. Finney shows why his character is on top and not to be messed with. Polito killed me several times, perhaps the funniest bit when his fat son comes in trying to get his attention while he's talking with Tom. He slaps the kid and yells at him to be more stoic like Reagan. After a moment of stunned silence, the kid bawls while Polito hugs him: “There there, whatsamatter, somebody hit you?” Turturro is appropriately weird and creepy, more than once appearing just waiting in a darkened room seated in a chair. Harden is surprisingly fiery, manipulative and seductive, different from other roles I've seen her in. And Byrne? He's just a man of honor trying to hold on to his hat, stay alive, and hold things together. He's cool under pressure, a quality that shines when everyone around him is yelling, crying, screaming, or generally freaking out. He has a haunting dream of the woods from which the film gets its name, of an ever symbolic hat being carried off by the wind. It's foreshadowing for sure, and you'll be fully invested as you watch to learn his ultimate fate. A must see for fans of the Coens and/or old-timey gangster flicks.

2) Lolita(1962):
James Mason enters a mansion looking for a man named “Quilty”, and finds a very drunk, very hilarious Peter Sellers. Mason isn't laughing when he pulls a gun, and as the situation deteriorates, we eventually go back a few years to find out what brought these two men into conflict. Mason's Professor Humbert, looking for lodging, decides to rent a room from a widow played by Shelley Winters. His decision is sealed by an attraction to her underage daughter Lolita(Sue Lyon, and Stanley Kubrick subsequently submits his audience to several sitcom-like situations as Mason struggles with his inappropriate attraction, while an oblivious Shelley Winters makes advances on his oblivious character. When Lolita is sent off to Summer camp and Humbert faces the prospect of losing her, he agrees to marry her mother in order to remain in the house. A subsequent sequence of events puts Lolita in his care, and while on the road they run into Sellers' Quilty, an old acquaintance of the family. The film, based on a novel of the same name, was quite scandalous for its time, even though most things are left to the audience's imagination. When Lolita first whispers to Mason about some “game” she played at camp while the two are in a hotel room, the camera fades to black. The film is also ripe with double entendres. Quilty's brother was the family dentist, and Winters' character talks about him “filling Lolita's cavity”. The camp her daughter stays at is known as “Camp Climax”. Mason's Humbert seems almost a comic figure, so sympathetic that we sometimes forget we're watching a pedophile on a cross-country sex trip with his “daughter”. Quilty is equally deviant, and as he messes with Humbert in various disguises showcasing Sellers' chameleon skills, it's clear that he's just as drawn to the young girl as Humbert is. In the end, it comes down to two men who are simply different sides of the same coin, one revered as a playwright and the other a professor, both ultimately destroyed by their lust for the forbidden. It's a well-acted piece that dances around risqué subject matter, leaving the worst to our imaginations, and its one flaw is probably the text epilogue, although that's a personal pet peeve of mine. I hate to be told “this is what happened to these characters next” written on the screen as though they ran out of film to show us.

3) Lolita(1997):
From what I understand, the 1997 adaptation was apparently more faithful to the novel than Kubrick's. Jeremy Irons is much creepier as Humbert, as he justifies his attraction early on by recounting a lost love from his teen years, a girl who died when he was only 14, marking him for life. He seems less comedic and more tortured, in pain every time he looks upon Lolita. Melanie Griffith takes on the Shelley Winters role as Charlotte Haze, although she's not in the film long enough to make much of an impression. Dominique Swain is perfect as Lolita, switching from child to seductress with the subtlest of details. She's lying on the lawn next to a sprinkler when Irons' Humbert first sees her, her clothes soaked to transparency. He's clearly breathless at the sight of her, even as she flashes a smile and a mouth full of braces, reminding the audience that this is a child. It's hard to tell, with Irons' narrating, how much of what we see is accurate. I think at times when Swain is sexualized, we're seeing her through the eyes of the Humbert character. The film leaves some things to the imagination and thankfully there are no explicit sex scenes, but we do see them kiss and a lot more is implied. In the Kubrick version, I was never 100% sure if Humbert and Lolita ever got together, but there's little room for doubt here. When she begins to undo his pajama bottoms after whispering to him about the “game” a boy taught her at camp, it's a little easier to guess what she's talking about. Perhaps the biggest difference between the two films is in the character of Quilty. Frank Langella is a shadowy, devil-like figure that we never quite see until the end of the film. Humbert first sees him in darkness, sitting on a porch beneath the ominous light of a bug zapper. Sellers was an amusing adversary; Langella is a demon, a pure evil pervert. When both pedophiles have their inevitable confrontation at the Quilty mansion, we see what a pathetic, sick wretch he truly is. Once again, we get a text epilogue, but this time there's an additional sentence that makes the ending doubly tragic and depressing. This version might be closer to the novel, and Swain does a better job with the dual nature of the title role, but beyond that I'd say the Kubrick adaptation was better.

More reviews to follow next week after I've spun a few more discs!



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