Friday, May 31, 2013

Across the Pacific (1942)

Our Man Bogart

- Humphrey Bogart starred in six John Huston-directed films (and a couple of others that Huston wrote but did not direct) during his career and if he had not passed away before his time the two would have surely produced more. Many of these Huston and Bogart collaborated films, such as The Maltese Falcon (1941) and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), have been brilliant classics but the two did not strike gold every time. The wartime spy thriller Across the Pacific (1942) is easily the worst of these collaborations.

Huston reunited much of the cast of The Maltese Falcon for Across the Pacific. Bogart stars as Rick Leland, a military intelligence agent undercover as a disgraced and disgruntled ex-Coast Guard captain looking for any army that will hire him. Leland goes into the field aboard the Panama-bound Japanese freighter Genoa Maru in November of 1941. His target is Dr. Lorenz (Sydney Greenstreet), a Filipino citizen of British origin and Japanese loyalties, but he also meets and falls for Alberta Marlow (Mary Astor) whose purpose on board is mysterious.

Across the Pacific was one of the many World War II propaganda films created by or in complete cooperation with the Roosevelt Administration, Leland's individual prevention of a Japanese assault signifying the power of one during the war effort. The story never goes across the pacific; the title derives from an eerily prophetic original storyline of Rick Leland stopping a Japanese plot to attack Pearl Harbor. Of course, Japan did attack Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 so the story had to be changed to Leland trying to thwart a Japanese attack on the Panama Canal. Considering the circumstances, the plot change makes complete sense but one would assume that a title change would have been wise as well.

The propaganda element can be seen throughout the film but the way that the film tries to show that Japan wanted to start a war with the United States for seemingly no reason is especially overbearing. Of course, it is well known now that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was not a foundationless attack but the result of the economic warfare perpetuated against Japan by the Roosevelt Administration. Propaganda films rarely stand the test of time and the shallow, incorrect and sometimes racist portrayal of an unprovoked Japanese attack on the US in Across the Pacific does no justice to the facts.

Unfortunately, Across the Pacific has worse problems than just its feeble propaganda mission. Huston very uncharacteristically weaves a generally lifeless and uneven story. Spy films that feature a slow-burning pace often work very well but the plot and pacing never seems to go anywhere hereThe fluffy comedic banter and abrupt romance between Bogart and Astor also feels absolutely out of place in this spy film even before it is revealed that Leland is a spy. 

Across the Pacific is not a complete waste of time however. A few scenes of note (including an especially thrilling few minutes in a movie theatre) pass by from time to time and the excellent cast of Bogart, Astor and Greenstreet are enough to make the film watchable. So while Across the Pacific lacks intrigue and thoughtfulness, it does work on a semi-entertaining level as a Humphrey Bogart vehicle. This however does not prevent Across the Pacific from ending up as the worst of the six of the Humphrey Bogart-starred John Huston-directed films.

CBC Rating: 6/10

Thursday, May 30, 2013

In the Bleak Midwinter (1995)

Branagh's Band of Misfits do the Bard

- Although a general financial success, Kenneth Branagh's 1994 film adaptation of Mary Shelley's classic book Frankenstein was largely panned. The film's reputation has grown since its original release but Branagh's Frankenstein was at the time labeled "uneven," "manic" and supposedly residing in "dullsville." Once hailed as the next Laurence Olivier or Orson Welles after Henry V (1989), Branagh was being torn apart over Frankenstein only five years later. Obviously, it would be nice for Branagh if his next project was more affectionately received by critics. Branagh's sixth feature-length film In the Bleak Midwinter (1995 - AKA: A Midwinter's Tale, depending on what side of the Atlantic Ocean one lives on) achieved just that.

Written and directed by Branagh (who chose not to act but to write parts specifically for his buddies), In the Bleak Midwinter follows seemingly cursed actor Joe Harper (Michael Maloney) who puts on an off-beat Christmastime production of Hamlet in an attempt to save his sister's church. The play is seemingly doomed from the word "go" as Joe's agent (Joan Collins) does not approve of the idea and the best he can even recruit on such short notice during the holidays is a rag-tag bunch of misfit actors. To make matters worse, everyone brings their own variety of baggage to the set (brought out by the play's content) and the landlord is even more impatient (or greedy) than everyone originally thought. But as the production goes on, this band of misfits begin to grow close and their Hamlet takes on an identity and atmosphere of its own.

This is a surprisingly fun and impressive film - "surprising" only because I did not expect this largely (and unfortunately) forgotten little independent flick to be so enjoyable and impacting. In the Bleak Midwinter is very well written with an extraordinary sense of humor and heart at the center of the story. Branagh did a superb job composing the lightning-fast dialogue and creating some very enjoyable characters, memorable not just for the humor they bring to the film (John Sessions as a gay man cast as Queen Gertrude, for example) but for the chemistry they share and warmth they bring to the story.

The fact that the film is well cast helps make Branagh's characters very enjoyable. Every actor is terrific in their roles; the fact that Branagh wrote each character specifically for certain actors no doubt accounts for this. Michael Maloney is a great lead as Joe Harper, Joan Collins is fantastic as Joe's enabling manager Margaretta, Julia Sawalha is a cast highlight as the cute but troubled Nina and my favorite performance of the film is Richard Briers the seemingly pretentious and cantankerous thespian elder Henry Wakefield.

When viewing Branagh's entire filmography, In the Bleak Midwinter perhaps stands out most notably for restoring Branagh's professional profile after Frankenstein. It was cheap to make (its under-the-radar success yielding a sizable profit as a result) and was a hit with critics, prepping them to also anticipate and hail his next film Hamlet (1996). Branagh is justifiably known best for his brilliant and faithful cinematic productions of Shakespeare such as Henry V and Hamlet. However, a film like In the Bleak Midwinter not only proves that Branagh can also play loose with Shakespeare but displays his genuinely diverse talents as a screenwriter and director.

Unfortunately, this gem has largely been relegated to resting in cinematic obscurity. In the Bleak Midwinter is really witty, fun, warm and, if one can find it, should not be missed. 

CBC Rating: 8/10