The Forsyte Saga (2002). The result of finishing season one of The Wire and wanting something different — from drug dealers to repressed Victorian socialites. This was a well-mounted and adequately done miniseries, well-cast (I think the leading actress got the part solely due to her close resemblance to John Singer Sargent’s Madame X) and absorbing throughout. There were two small things that bothered me. One, the director seemed to enjoy using lots of unsettling extreme closeups on faces, a technique which didn’t fit with this material. Two, having the young architect (portrayed by Fantastic Four‘s Ioan Gruffudd) be visionary to an extraordinary degree was off-putting. To say the least. Although the scene takes place in the 1880s, Gruffudd builds a strikingly designed country house in the “Prairie” style — which was considered new and different 20-30 years later. It would be having a Depression-era film architect building Ranch houses. I think way too much about this stuff.
Fringe (Fox). Eh.
The Great Escape (1963). One of those classic films that I’d assumed I would get to eventually; this week was its time. Good film that really hums based on the letter-perfect cast and the script’s just-this-side of believable happenings. It certainly doesn’t feel like a three-hour movie, the ending was not as pat or happy as I feared, and Elmer Bernstein’s score was fantastic. Now I have to check out the way this film was parodied in the “Streetcar Named Marge” Simpsons episode again.
Passion Flower (1930) and Mary Stevens M.D. (1933). All told, will September 2008 be remembered for a cataclysmic stock market plunge or an escalating presidential campaign? No, not really — it will be marked for the time Turner Classic Movies finally recognized it has Kay Francis fans! I took the opportunity to TiVo a couple of the raven-haired one’s early soapers that I’d previously never seen. Passion Flower is a creaky early talkie that Francis made on loan out to MGM. Despite the predictable storyline, the film surprisingly held my interest. It’s not often that one sees earthy Charles Bickford in a leading man role, and the forgotten Kay Johnson is solid as the pure-hearted woman who loses her husband to conniving Kay. For support, Zasu Pitts (“Oh, dear”) is on hand doing an odd dramatic role. Mary Stevens M.D. treads the same waters, but it’s much better due to its zippy pacing, Warner Bros. pizazz, and pre-Code raciness. At this point, the formula is still fresh and Kay approaches this admittedly different role with gusto. This time, she plays a lady doctor who (among many other things) gets pregnant out of wedlock from the hunky and married Lyle Talbot. The film has a lot going on in only 72 minutes, but Lloyd Bacon directs it with breathtaking efficiency. That man really was an underrated powerhouse at Warners in the ’30s (I think I know who TCM needs to focus on next).
Toy Story 2 (1999). I remember being somewhat disappointed with this when it was originally released. Most people I knew at the time thought it improved on the original Toy Story, a reaction that made me want to find new friends. It just seemed faster and dumber, and with a lot less heart than the original. Luckily the film is much improved from my perspective now. The movie plays like a smarter precursor to the avalanche of snarky DreamWorks-style animated efforts that followed. In that light, this is a fun and engaging ride — not Toy Story quality, but good nonetheless.