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Denofcinema.com: Saturday Night at the Movies by Dennis Hartley review archive

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Hullabaloo


Saturday, March 28, 2015

 
Saturday Night at the Movies
     
People they do bad things: Serena and Ride the Pink Horse

By Dennis Hartley



Off the rails: Cooper and Lawrence in Serena
















It’s a damn shame to see a good cast wasted. Such is the case with Danish director Susanne Bier’s curiously off-putting period melodrama Serena, which gets inextricably bogged down somewhere between torrid soap opera and watered-down Shakespearean tragedy. It appears Bier, despite having several acclaimed films to her credit (including 2011 Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language Film, In a Better World), may have nodded off at the wheel this time out.

The story is set during the Great Depression. Bradley Cooper stars as George Pemberton, a burgeoning lumber baron who is carving (well, more like chopping) out an empire from the rugged woodlands of North Carolina. Being one of the most eligible bachelors in the holler, George is ever on the lookout for a wife. One day, while he’s out shootin’ at some food, he spots the eponymous protagonist/future missus (Jennifer Lawrence), who literally comes riding into frame on a white horse; confident, mysterious and purty as all get-out. Serena, as it turns out, is no shrinking violet. In fact, she is so headstrong that George’s second-hand man (David Dencik) takes an immediate disliking to her, especially after she muscles her way into hubby’s business. She’s also a sociopath, which becomes apparent as she morphs into a backwoods Lady Macbeth.

The machinations that ensue in Christopher Kyle’s muddled screenplay (adapted from the 2008 novel by Ron Rash) are at once so underdeveloped and over-the-top that, coupled with the somewhat histrionic performances, the film just misses qualifying as an “instant camp classic” (Fifty Shades of Grey is the one to beat this year). There are a few steamy, pseudo-explicit moments with Cooper and Lawrence that may make you sit up straight and pay attention, but as the bard himself said…two or three inspired hump scenes alone do not a good melodrama make.




















If you prefer your dark tales of avarice and deception served up with a more palpable sense of style and atmosphere, you might fare better with Ride the Pink Horse a forgotten film noir gem that has just been reissued on Blu-ray by the Criterion Collection. Previously unavailable for home viewing (save for the occasional airing on Turner Classic Movies), the 1947 crime drama was the second directorial effort from actor Robert Montgomery (his debut, an adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe mystery Lady in the Lake, came out the same year). Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer adapted the screenplay from the 1946 book by Dorothy B. Hughes (Hughes also penned In a Lonely Place, the source novel for Nicholas Ray’s classic 1950 noir).

Montgomery casts himself as a poker-faced, no-nonsense customer named Gagin (no first name is ever mentioned). Gagin rolls into a sleepy New Mexico burg, where the locals are gearing up for an annual fiesta blowout. Gagin, however, has but one thing on his mind: putting the squeeze on the mobster (Fred Clark) who killed his best friend. Gagin’s plan is to hit this professional blackmailer where it’ll hurt him the most…in his wallet. Much to his chagrin, a wily G-man (Art Smith) already has his mark staked out…and has taken a pretty good educated guess as to what Gagin is up to. This setup sounds conventional by noir standards; what ensues is anything but.

Ride the Pink Horse is unique in that it skirts several genres. In its most obvious guise, it fits right into the “disillusioned vet” subgenre of the classic post-war noir cycle, alongside films like Act of Violence, Thieves' Highway , The Blue Dahlia and High Wall. It also works as a character study, as well as a “fish out of water” culture-clash drama. The insular Gagin unexpectedly develops a surrogate family bond with a big-hearted carousel owner (Thomas Gomez, whose performance earned him an Oscar nom for Best Actor in a Supporting Role) and a taciturn, semi-mystic teenage Indian girl (Wanda Hendrix) who inexplicably gloms onto Gagin. Montgomery skillfully mines the irony from the cultural contrasts, in a manner uncannily presaging John Huston’s 1982 film adaptation of Malcom Lowry’s Under the Volcano (which, weirdly enough, was published in 1947, the same year that Ride the Pink Horse was released!). Criterion’s restored print really sparkles, highlighting Russell Metty’s atmospheric, beautifully composed cinematography. Extras include an insightful commentary track by two noir experts. Genre fans will not be disappointed.


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