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The Black Dahlia (2006)
A mess. De Palma stole two hours of my life, among other crimes committed...
I don't know where to begin. In some ways it'd be easier just to sum up by saying "what?! like, what the hell, dude?," because it's hard to begin or end thoughts about a film that seemed to have neither beginning nor (in more ways than one) end. For that matter, the sandwich-oriented two-word review alleged in the classic "This Is Spinal Tap" would be entirely appropriate.
The positive: it's nicely shot.
The negative: everything else.
The acting's okay in parts but I can safely say all the principals have been better in other properties. The script and direction conspire to make this an incomprehensible mess, one that also has pretty much nothing at all to do with the reality of the Black Dahlia case (so much so, in fact, that I don't see any point at all in including that murder, let alone naming the film in its honor). Not having anything to do with the the actual case would be okay, really, if the film had at least one thing worth recommending other than the catchy title and the promise inherent in the same (an unsolved and very sensational murder; "Zodiac" did that very well).
At the 84-minute mark, despite having yet to make any sense of this monumental pile of ego-driven self-indulgent crap, I thought perhaps some kind of blessed conclusion to the film was imminent. But, no; sadly, I had another 26 or so minutes left to endure. Admittedly, about 20 minutes later the story started to resolve itself just a little, although Frau Blücher ("whinnnnnnyyyy") delivering her demented soliloquy didn't exactly act to clarify anything, but when the film finally lurched to the glorious sight of a fade-to-black I was still left wondering what, exactly, I'd just watched.
I'm not saying that films should always spoonfeed us the plot, or that a non-traditional narrative or one that's more than a little off-kilter or nonlinear doesn't have worth when executed well, but this film just plain makes (almost) no sense right from the start and proudly never lets up with its puerile nonsense. I have a feeling that the hour De Palma cut from his original print would almost certainly not explain more but, rather, would merely increase the length of an audience's suffering, perhaps finding new ways to totally lose even the most careful follower of whatever it is that in this case stands in for narrative. It's enough to make Richard Simmons frown. I mean, it's really BAD.
"LA Confidential" covers some of the same ground and is not only a more successful attempt at a modern, color ode to film noir but features a story that actually makes sense and characters that we might actually care about or at least see as human archetypes. If you want to approximate this trainwreck of a film without actually exposing yourself to its corrosive nastiness (nastiness is fine, in its place, but in this case it's redeemed by, well, NOTHING), play the "LA Confidential" DVD backwards while listening to "Revolution #9" frontwards and banging yourself on the head with a rolled up copy of "Pretentious Auteur" magazine. De Palma has made some good films; this is most definitely not one of them. In fact, this is the film that should be shown to all who aspire to celluloid creativity so that they might learn from the errors of Brian's ways and, we hope, not inflict upon us the horror of anything remotely like this film getting a big budget and wide release despite being several steps below "Sweet Movie" in terms of palatability and comprehensibility. And, predictably, some who actually claim to have found worth in this waste of money, talent, and film stock seem to assume that they're privy to some truth that eludes the ignorant hoi polloi who dismiss the piece (these are possibly some of the same people who liked "Heaven's Gate"); De Palma's massively expensive joke is on them.
The Spanish Prisoner (1997)
Might've been good in Hitchcock's hands (or pretty much anyone else's)...
It seems that Mamet is one of the Wunderkinder to many, who can do no wrong on stage or screen. Bleh. I've seen a few of the films he's written and, yeah, they tend to be very good. I barely remember "Heist"but vaguely recall that it seemed to go nowhere pretty quickly; I'm sure I enjoyed it to at least some extent merely as a result of the presence of Gene Hackman, one of those actors who elevates anything he's in solely by virtue of his presence. Unfortunately, Mr Hackman wasn't in "The Spanish Prisoner," though I think the main problem here is that a real director wasn't directing the thing.
Early on in the piece I was trying to reconcile what I've always heard Mamet was noted for -- realistic dialog -- with the garbage I was hearing the actors on screen parrot. 'Parrot' being, given Mamet's way of working with actors (well, 'dictating to' is probably more correct), definitely the word. Part of the problem was quoting ancient Phoenician poets or whatever the hell much of the early dialog consisted of, a trait absent in 99% of the world's relatively sane population and less convincing when the direction comes from a man who seems (understandable, from a writer's perspective, as it may be) a total control freak when it comes to actors delivering his dialog. The fact that Ricky Jay (who, though a cool dude, is a very obviously limited and self-conscious 'actor') delivers some of these lines probably has less to do with their failure than Mamet's helming the affair.
I mean, I've spent my fair share of time in some quite diverse subcultures and seen a fair bit of the world, spending a great many years in academia and the like as well as, in common with probably most Americans, in the middle of crowds of people who appear to be Method actors auditioning for "Idiocracy 2," and neither intelligentsia nor your basic Joe Halfwits talk anything like Mamet's model in this film. Oh, so the dialog's STYLIZED? Well, whoop-de-doo; if it's stylized, maybe he didn't stylize it ENOUGH because, really, it's not that interesting. And its delivery in this film is pretty uniformly stilted, wooden, and unconvincing. That's both the fault of the words themselves and of their delivery, but in this case I think we can deflect the blame for that away from the actors (well, most of them) and toward the Director who rules delivery of his sacred dialog with an iron fist. The whole also feels very _stagey_, as in old Dave forgetting or not knowing that film is inherently a different kind of medium than stage performance.
I have the feeling that many who've reviewed this film are praising Mamet because it's the done thing to do. That the emperor's clothes are, at best, somewhat threadbare is of no apparent concern. The plot's interesting enough, though largely predictable fairly early on (and I am one who tends to let myself get immersed in a good movie, who's not ashamed that he didn't see the twists coming in films like "The Usual Suspects" and "The Sixth Sense") and suffering from a tendency toward hammering us over the head with clues, whether real or false. Overall, I think, if this film's any indication then Mamet's work is at its best when directed by someone else. Obviously I have little on which to base this (like I said, I barely remember "Heist" and this one's cured me of any tendency to want to rush out to watch any further Mamet-directed films) but from watching other films for which he only has writer's credit I get the impression that his dialog and plots are far more effective in the hands of directors (and editors) who feel free to play a little more fast and loose with those structures and with actors who're working without metronomes.
Sure, some actors may be thrilled to speak Mamet's words but I know a lot of actors would probably hate working with someone who demanded such absolute control over what was coming out of an actor's mouth. There's inherently a conflict between those who make the film and those who write it, but this film's one indication of how much weaker a film can be when the writer's vision is all that matters. Forcing stutters, incomplete sentences and repetition is NOT the magic key to writing realistic dialog and, anyway, a competent actor (or a halfway-competent actor under competent direction) should be able to improvise such realistic dialog delivery around the lines on the screenplay that, yeah, more often than not probably ARE too clean and neat to reflect real dialog. Mamet's a good writer, sometimes, but the fact that he's recognized that real speech includes stops and starts and tangents doesn't mean he's qualified to make a film that's any more realistic than average and when he does give such a try and fails it's a cop-out to claim that the reason it's not realistic is because it's "stylized," or "hyper-realistic," or that perhaps we just don't understand and couldn't begin to fathom the genius of the man.
I've seen worse -- the recent "The Marine" still stands proudly high as one of the worst films I've seen, largely because I probably ruled out a lot more worthy candidates before I actually tried to watch them -- but this film's a bit of a dud, largely because it's mostly just a non-event and even the climaxes are anticlimactic. The pity is that it's one that probably could have been three or four times as interesting, suspenseful, and engaging if directed by any of the directors who've made successes out of other Mamet scripts. At the very least, it'd have been nice if the movie was as interesting as the blurb on its DVD case...
Did you...? Ahhh... Yes, I...yes, I said that. I did. But...well...never mind. Fishes fly hale, more's the pity.
Professione: reporter (1975)
I just finished watching it and I already like it more now than I did when it finished
I was admittedly rather tired last night when I fell asleep early on in this film but when I went back to the beginning and tried again I discovered that, tired or not, the film is really pretty stultifying in some ways; it's easy to break concentration or just plain doze off while watching a film like this. It's sloooooooow. With a lot more 'o's than I've used, even. 'Deliberately paced' doesn't cut it as a euphemism this time, I'm afraid. And I am not of the MTV Generation, though early on in the piece I simultaneously wondered if (a) this was going to be one of those meandering films that doesn't tell you anything, even if not overtly telling you or spoonfeeding the audience, and (b) that even in today's cinema where average shot lengths of a few seconds duration are considered 'lingering,' having shot lengths that appear to be on average about 25 minutes was not really much of an antidote.
Soon enough, though, my fears were at least partially allayed when a bit of the backstory filled in. Yeah, to Antonioni all that may matter at first is that the dude's looking for something, whereas we quite naturally want some idea of what exactly he's doing; I can't begrudge the director for making us wait a while longer for that information, really. To be honest, though, the story's still a little confusing and kind of wanders here and there, but somehow I get the feeling that the director was less interested in telling a narrative story and more interested in painting a visual journey. To me, really, that's what saved the film and makes it worth watching and already increasingly estimable in my view.
In a more conventional film, perhaps Jack's character would have continued the charade and gone further into the arms-dealing world (in fact, that's what I thought he was, as a journalist, doing all along) but if that was his intent it's sure not very clear. And, again, in the end it doesn't really matter (not to say that such a story wouldn't make a great film in its own right!).
The film is stunningly framed and shot and composed very thoughtfully. That much is obvious from the opening frames. Magnificent use of locations, too, and of local people. Even though, at first (and, ultimately, at the end) I wasn't sure what was happening, I still enjoyed watching the screen and seeing those impressive visuals unfold. The film is of its time in that the pacing is NOT of breakneck velocity, and of course I love the '70s-ness of the dress and all of that cool stuff, but it's shot with such care and timeless vision that the actual film itself and the way the pictures unfold is anything but dated and, in fact, still holds its own among the best products of contemporary directors influenced by the likes of this guy.
Maria Schneider has an alluring quality about her and all the rest of the players involved are fine, but it's Jack's film. It may be his best screen performance, at least of the ones I've seen, and at the very least it's certainly high on the list. I just recently saw him in "The Crossing Guard," in which I thought he revealed again just how good he can be, but here he is similarly perfectly natural and very much believable in the role. I'm neither a huge fan nor a huge detractor of jack Nicholson, and even when I think he's just kind of walking through his role or phoning it in -- and, really, he DOES play 'Jack' a LOT -- he's still a compelling presence and his stock Jack character remains an appealing one. Here he's even better than usual. He has to be, too, because all those great visuals alone aren't enough to carry a film.
In the end, what made me like this film and feel compelled to write about it is that the director's incredible abilities (coupled with, I assume, input from a very talented DP and others) created a visual tapestry that made the main character's external and internal journeys come alive. The acting was good, too, and a few of the lines very much packed with universal truths. That final shot is the real payoff, in some ways, because it really sums up how this film makes its point; at first I started to wonder just when the camera was going to cut to, you know, like, TELL US THE STORY, but suddenly I became aware of something very odd ("hey, wasn't the camera behind bars a second ago?") and as it continued I sat there quite literally amazed at the skill of this filmmaker. It's like the long-lost twin of the opening to "Touch Of Evil," separated by a couple of decades but very much a similar device and just as skilfully rendered. The fact that a brief perusal of this discussion board reveals I was likely wrong in my conclusion regarding the rather open-ended final scene (to be honest, me thinking that our hero had killed the bad guy and escaped in the driving-school car was a result of paying more attention by that point to that amazing shot than to some of the actual details within it). Then again, I think, the actual story was not really the movie's point.
I may never again feel the need to see this film again, but the fact that I already like it more than when I finished watching it, and the mere fact of that almost-final shot EXISTING, says a lot about this film's impact. Glad I woke up for it...
The Martian Chronicles (1980)
I miss the '70s
Really, the '70s, looking back now, seem like some mythic age when all seemed possible. Well, yeah, okay, there IS A degree of myth there and much of what the '70s really were was hardly paradise (the legacy of Vietnam, Watergate, gas crises, leisure suits, etc) but, for me, my lingering and increasingly nostalgic affection for the decade is largely forgivable on the grounds that I was a kid then and so a good deal of that affection is more a yearning for the simpler times of kidhood than any particular era's social or other trappings. Still, I think it's undeniable that some pop-cultural highs remain from the '70s -- look at all the truly great films made then, especially by what you might call the American New Wave (Coppola, Scorsese, Spielberg, etc) -- and if you were to look at any Top 40 chart from, say, 1973 you'd see that in those days some stellar music came right to you via pop radio, unlike the garbage on the Top 40 today. In those days, you didn't have to dig deeply to seek it out as you have to do now if you want to hear anything but committee-written, autotuned corporate pablum with synthesized backing music 'sung' by manufactured and largely interchangeable plastic stars-de-jour, country music these days hardly offering refuge 'cos it's mostly the same stuff with steel guitar and hats added. Besides, I'll never get over my devotion to the phenomenon known as "The Six Million Dollar Man," Big Jim dolls....um...ACTION FIGURES...and, yeah, that poster of Farrah. All this basically explains why I'm willing to overlook the '70s stamp that's all over this production. I'm not talking about the production values and special effects -- hey, they're a product of their time and the TV budget, and to their credit are not distractingly bad -- but the hair styles, flared pants, and uniforms that bear more than passing resemblance to the infamous leisure suit. And, yes, it's good to know that disco is alive and well in the piece's 2004 (actually, I guess disco really WAS alive and well in the REAL 2004, as it turned out, and flared pants even made a comeback...the miniseries is more visionary than it might have seemed had we seen it in the pegged-pants '80s). In fact, to me, the '70s touch is one of the cool things about this work.
I have to say that, overall, the miniseries is pretty draggy. It kind of belabors a few points beyond all reason, using ('wasting' would be another word) precious screen time, and here I'd like to point out that I don't believe myself to be either especially short on the attention span side nor a product of the MTV Generation's need for quick cuts and rapid resolutions. From what I've read so far here on IMDb, even the book's author concurred on that point. I should mention that I never read the book(s) and I understand that some of the difficulties I had with this piece (like the totally illogical evacuation of Martian colonists to an Earth on the verge of global nuclear destruction) were in the source material. Yeah, it could have been speedier, and yeah it's stepped in the look and feel of its time, but I did come away from the epic with the word 'interesting' foremost in my mind. Not great, but not bad, either.
There're some great actors aboard. When I discovered that watching this was going to be a lengthy exercise (I'd never heard of it before, though I'd heard of the book, and when I grabbed it at my local library I just figured it'd be worth risking two hours of my time to watch it) it was the list of credited actors that swayed me to watch the thing. Rock Hudson, a few years before his very unfortunate decline and demise, looks as rocky as ever but is never really fully engaged. He's not anywhere near bad, but he's not really pulling out all the stops (if you haven't seen it, I strongly recommend John Frankenheimer's "Seconds" if you have never seen the Rock as anything but a relative lightweight, acting-wise), but he sure looks good and carries about him that certain air of authority and gravity. Most of the other actors with substantial parts at the very least acquit themselves well, and it's great to see some of them in action (though some, like Roddy McDowell, get little play). Bernie Casey is, as usual, very good in his role that becomes more interesting just before he's taken out of the picture. Christopher Connelly as the increasingly flustered Average Joe and Bernadette Peters as the vain goddess combine to provide what may be my favorite part of this episodic compendium. The most excellent Darren McGavin, a few years out of Kolchak and a bit before "Christmas Story" is a real highlight, as always. He was a comedy classic, wherever he showed up, even in the most serious roles. A national treasure, no less, greatly missed. Nice to see Spiderman on Mars, too. Wasn't that a David Bowie project, Spiderman on Mars? Not all the acting is top-notch and, indeed, some of it (especially from secondary characters) is stilted and as cardboard as can be, basically a lot less convincing than acting in the average TV commercial (Keanu Reeves is Olivier compared to some in this cast).
Overall, I'd recommend this for the patient viewer who's able to weather a bit of thumb-twiddling while waiting for some actor to deliver some portentous line or emotion that we already saw coming and have had explained to us once already, about five seconds before. It's...well, it is...it's _interesting_.
Grace Is Gone (2007)
I happened to see this at my local library and, generally liking John Cusack even in lesser properties (really, "2012" takes the big-dumb-blockbuster movie template to a ridiculous level, but it's still watchable in part because of oddballs like Cusack and Woody H.), thought I'd give it a try even though it sounded a tad more somber than what I was in the mood for. I'm glad I watched it. I like 'road movies,' anyway, and this one is built around that classic structure, but there's a lot more said in this film than is actually SAID.
A perusal of comments regarding this film reveals the not surprising ability of _Moron americanus_ to totally miss the point, in this case that group being divided about equally into people who bemoan the fact that every facet of the film was not laid out for them and explained at length, undoubtedly using small words, and those who in true knee-jerk manner decry the whole as 'liberal' propaganda or anti-American, whatever THAT is supposed to mean in today's USA. The first criticism stems, I think, from the film being one that includes some relatively subtle and quite realistic (i.e., not always making narrative sense) aspects to the storyline and the characters' journeys. The second criticism is, predictably, totally off target. This film has no political agenda, at least not one that's going to hit any sane person over the head. The main character's brother gets in a few jibes about the Bush Jr maladministration but he's not without flaws himself and his more hawkish, neocon-enabling brother is similarly not devoid of sense or perspective. The actor and citizen John Cusack IS one of the people who, like me, sees the whole Iraq fiasco as not just flawed from the start but massively criminal (not at the level of those sent abroad to prosecute the war but at the level of the chickenhawks in DC and elsewhere who blithely sent them) but, to his and the film's credit, his character in this piece does not have some sudden epiphany at film's end and start wearing Birkenstocks and sipping lattes.
The bottom line, to my mind, is that in this film the tragedy at the story's core happens to be one with military context but that, when it comes down to it, the very touching and well-presented (cutting to the music was a good touch) beach scene near the end could be ANY situation wherein a parent is telling his or her children that the other parent has died. That's what I felt, anyway, that the film was far more universally relevant and that particular scene universally applicable; to me, that's what made it even more sad, thinking of how many millions of people over the years, around the world, have had moments like that.
The acting is perfect. The two kids are excellent in what, so far, remains the sole film role for each. John Cusack is great, too, not only playing against type to a degree but playing his part completely convincingly. And when I saw the music was by Clint Eastwood I, of course, immediately wondered "THE Clint Eastwood?" -- his music is fitting and used very effectively. A talented man, is old Clint.
Some very good actors and beautiful cinematography...the movie's total garbage, though
Just watched this dreck, forcing myself to persist through its blessed end (more blessed had Lewellen been fatally bitten by a rattler as she waltzed away). The good news is that the film's well shot and somewhat evocative of the South, albeit with typical stereotypes firmly in place. Lots of heavy-handed symbolism, too, the most obvious being the snakes.
Also, most of the actors are top-notch, though they've all been better than in this morass, likely thanks to superior scripting and directing in other properties. David Morse is always great and stands out here for maintaining a little integrity within the story's confines; actually, I think he'd make a great "Simple Jack" if the producers of "Tropic Thunder" decide to greenlight that project. Piper Laurie is good, too, though her role's small and one-dimensional. Granoldo Frazier's a very appealing screen presence with great gravitas despite his role being largely a cliché, the so-called 'Magic Negro' visible in a plethora of films running the gamut from "The Shining" to "The Toy" (not a hallmark of BAD films, necessarily -- many such films are very good -- but undeniably a stock cliché so venerable that if you're going to add to the subgenre you'd better make it a good one).
Dakota Fanning is hard to take here. I remember being taken aback by her competence as an actor in earlier films, and NOT just in light of her extreme youth. But in "War Of The Worlds" she was just terminally annoying. To be fair, any little kid and most adults facing invasion by aliens that nasty would probably spend a good deal of the time screaming and collapsing into gibbering heaps of protoplasm, but it wasn't the situational reactions of her character that bothered me so much as a very tangible sense that, somehow, throughout she's just a little too CONSCIOUS that she's acting, and it shows. It seemed, to me, that she's basically screaming with every line and every look "LOOK! I'm an ACTOR! And I'm a REALLY GOOD ONE!!" In this "Hounddog" fiasco I get exactly the same feeling, and it both distracts and undermines the film, or WOULD undermine the film if the film wasn't flawed fatally from the outset. Actually, I thought that young Cody Hanford, as Buddy, was far more convincing and natural in his role and how he played it.
The film is badly directed. The story's pretty stultifying, anyway. There're a few places where things aren't too clear; the one that had me most adrift was when Robin Wright Penn's character has her car towed and leaves. There're some true Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moments, too, like the caretaker having Big Mama Thornton ensconced in his hayloft and apparently being familiar with the process for making snake antivenin from scratch (okay, that one's slightly more plausible).
I'm a big-time Elvis fan and student of the man's career and so, of course, this film's LOADS of fun for me, or would be if I actually ENJOYED running across rampant and unnecessary inaccuracies. This sort of thing is standard in film but in this case you're talking about a man whose OBSCURE songs are familiar only to a few MILLION and the errors in this film were totally avoidable; correcting them wouldn't at all have diminished the integrity of the piece. First, I find it really, really hard to believe that Lewellen, of all people, would blissfully ignore the fact that the volume was turned down on Elvis during his controversial airing of "Hound Dog" on Milton Berle's TV show and even harder to believe that she'd turn her back to the silent screen while performing her imitation (an imitation based on that very broadcast). Okay, cinematic license but, still... Regardless, given that even the richest families in the '50s didn't have VCRs or Tivo, this scene sets the date as June 5, 1956. It's hard to figure what time-traveling magic allows Lewellen to buy a copy of "Peace In The Valley" (that Elvis recorded in January, 1957) and go even further into the future to learn the lyrics to Elvis' 1961 movie song "Can't Help Falling In Love." Just to add to the fun, when the big night of Elvis' show arrives he can be heard singing "Love Me Tender" with the '70s arrangement, another totally unnecessary and conscious goof. Further, and here I realize that artistic license trumps all, Elvis didn't play anywhere in Alabama during 1956 (or 1957); his final concert in the state, until he returned on tour in September of 1970, was in Montgomery on December 3, 1955. The same error's present in "Heart Of Dixie." Still, these anachronisms are not as bad as the execrable "Cadillac Records," a nicely shot and dressed film with great music and great acting that falsely and terribly accuses a real living (well, dead, now) person of outright murder and, admittedly not quite as bad, shows Elvis in 1956 film footage dubbed to a 1969 performance of "My Babe" on TV and shows jail-bound Chuck Berry looking at (if I recall correctly) Army footage of Elvis, proclaiming something about this being the new King, and all of this AFTER the Rolling Stones and Beach Boys entered the narrative, leading me to the obvious conclusion that Elvis Presley, influenced by the Rolling Stones, Beach Boys, and that famed gunslinger Little Walter, didn't begin his professional rise until about 1968 or 1969.
People, when you insert one of the most famous and scrutinized people in HISTORY into your films, be ready for some nitpicking. Do it well and we'll forgive you. Do it badly, or in a bad film (like this one), and we'll call you on it.
In the end, the only part of this film worth a damn was in the trailer: Elvis (impersonator Ryan Pelton, who manages a good likeness) blowing the kiss to Lewellen. That was pretty cool.
Ying xiong (2002)
The proverbial visual feast
"Hero" is simply magnificent to behold. It'd be amazing on the big screen, but it's beautiful enough even on my more modest TV. The use of color and landscape, along with close-ups and judicious slow-motion, is masterful. I've seen it twice now and twice it's held me spellbound. Its deliberate (okay...slow!) pacing is fine, because it's not like I wanted the sight and feel of the film to leave me any time soon. Talk about an epic.
I'm a Sinophile from way back and a traditional martial artist (Chinese arts...various styles of 'kung fu' as they're colloquially known) so films like this are something of a dichotomy to me. On the one hand, I can really appreciate the fight sequences and the techniques involved, even if some of the actors are not and have never been martial artists but are carefully choreographed in the action. For that matter, Jet Li and many others in such films are certainly legitimate martial artists but their background is typically less traditional martial arts than the showy new-era performance wushu along with training in Peking Opera and thorough grounding in 'film-fu' (no big surprise: Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung and others had such backgrounds). Regardless, the kungfoolery on display in such movies can be inspiring and, yes, people like Jet Li and Donnie Yen are not only in incredibly good physical condition but are phenomenally fast (and accurate). On the other hand, as a disciple of real martial arts who is often amazed by the capabilities of many within that world, the whole idea of having actors fly about on wires can often subvert the enjoyment of action scenes. I know it's done all the time, in Hong Kong and Hollywood and elsewhere, but I'd generally rather see a real display of martial arts, even if it's unrealistic in comparison to a real street fight (in length and clarity of execution, if nothing else), than someone obviously bouncing around on wires. Really, though, the only times this REALLY gets to me is in films that purport to be to at least some degree realistic; when I saw "Romeo Must Die," for example, I was totally turned off by the too-obvious wire work and puzzlement over why they had to resort to having a very competent and flashy martial films star like Jet Li flying around like some marionette. In films like "Hero" and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" -- and the many older Shaw and Golden Harvest films that came before them -- the wire work may cause a slight wince or two from me at first but, really, such stories are Chinese fairy tales and when you see them in that context all is well...two men skipping about on a lake is obviously not, no matter how entrenched the old fables of the capabilities of the ancient Shaolin warriors and the like, cinema verité. It's highly, highly unlikely that any human, ever, unassisted by various aircraft, rocket packs, or wires, danced atop a forest canopy. At some point, laws of physics do operate. So, yeah, this is a lyrical fairytale and if they really need to invoke flight as a human power then that's their prerogative. Either way, scenes like the lake chase/dance in this film are pure cinematic magic; that was a particularly beautifully presented scene.
The use of color in this film is incredible. It's also very obviously intentionally designed to delineate certain narratives. I'm not entirely sure what the significance of each color is, though I have my ideas, but that's not really the point. It works. And it looks GREAT.
The acting...just right. Mostly very solemn and somber, on the verge of being overdone, but it works in the context of this film and its meaning. All of the principals have great screen presence. Donnie Yen and Jet Li are obviously the martial standouts, but the other three warriors also manage to convince that they're near-immortal fighters.
The kick in the tale (pun intended) here is the film's final outcome. Kind of surprised me but, really, if you consider that the film was enthusiastically supported by the People's Republic of China -- you know, the outfit who for so long dedicated themselves to destroying pretty much every aspect of Chinese culture depicted and celebrated in the film (to the extent that, since the Cultural Revolution, the best proponents of traditional culture, from cooking to martial arts, have been located OUTSIDE China) -- it makes sense. Yep, the commies-in-charge (who are really nowadays just ruthless-capitalist-DRESSED-as-commies, though mostly now without the little Mao suits) would be happy with the ending, I think. They might miss a couple of veiled jabs along the way, though. Besides, there's always been a part of Chinese culture and society that responds strongly to autocratic rule or to authority in general, whether the dictates of feudal lords, Confucianism, Qin Dynasty legalism, Maoism, or whatever. Anyway, the eventual outcome of the film WAS the eventual outcome for China, united in 221 BC by Emperor Qin Shi Huang (who did, indeed, weather assassination attempts). He was a great man. Which is to say that he was a visionary and a tyrant in equal measure. But he sure as hell got the job done.
The ancient and violent growing pains of a great empire aside, and the current political message none too subtly on display in parts, this film is a beautiful thing to behold and it translates well in any language, in any culture.
The Awful Truth (1937)
Every moment pure gold...
They really don't make 'em like this any more. I mean, really. Sure, dialog in films since the '60s, and certainly the '70s, has tended to become more naturalistic and the acting less stylized and 'stagey' than in the old days, but somewhere along the way, amidst all the gains in technology and (sometimes) realism, we lost something. One of the things we lost, I think, was the ability to write, direct, and act pieces such as this. I don't know exactly why this is so but, excellent as many of Hollywood's current actors are, I am not sure that something like this could be pulled off as well today. For one, I think that today's writers and directors, even some of the better ones, tend to cater to a greater degree to the lowest common denominator; compounding that, I'd assert that even with advances in educational resources, technology, and the fabric of society (civil rights, etc, though like these others such facets of American society have been greatly eroded of late), the lowest common denominator today is lower than it was in 1937.
Regardless, this film is a gem from start to finish, in every way. Even the dog, that weird-looking little beast that shows up again in "Bringing Up Baby," is a sterling actor; indeed, he's better in his role and more convincing a thespian than many of today's so-called stars. The writing is incredible. Like the way the film's structured, the dialog is clever (I understand that much of it was improvised, testament to the quality of actors involved working with an already great script) and the themes and situations are ones that transcend time, no matter how long ago the '30s might seem to most of us. It's madcap but it's not too much, and there are many points during which I think the filmmakers were pushing the boundaries to see just how far they could go in that heavily-restricted age of film. Obscene or vulgar language and the like can be funny in the right context (or, obviously, reinforce or suggest other emotions) but there may be some truth also in that old saying to the effect that yelling obscenities, or just pouring them forth as part of normal dialog, indicates a lack of anything more erudite to say. In there, I think, you also find part of the key to what made this older comedies so perfect and so timeless; innuendo, no matter how obscure (even if it goes over many heads) is almost always far more interesting and humorous than a full-frontal attack on the senses. Of course, the makers of these old films had little choice but sometimes out of necessity comes a level of genius and craftsmanship that surpasses by far what might have been the more unfettered route to telling the story.
Have I mentioned that the dialog is great? Check this example out:
Lucy : Well, I mean, if you didn't feel that way you do, things wouldn't be the way they are, would they? I mean, things could be the same if things were different.
Jerry : But things are the way you made them.
Lucy : Oh, no. No, things are the way you THINK I made them. I didn't make them that way at all. Things are just the same as they always were, only, you're the same as you were, too, so I guess things will never be the same again.
I started watching old movies like these, after two or more decades of mostly viewing movies from the '70s and later, when a few viewings of Sergio Leone films got me interested in that director's influences and from there I went to Kurosawa, back to his idol John Ford, and then Howard Hawks and John Huston and so on, starting to re-explore offerings by Bogart, Cary Grant, and others, including some classic films that I don't think I've ever seen ("Gunga Din," for example). Right now I'm in the midst of a major Cary Grant kick -- the man was brilliant on film and was one who could crack the audience up with a single facial expression or slay 'em with a deft one-liner -- and so this film more than satisfies. It's also the film that really catapulted him into the big time once and for all. Irene Dunn is easily his equal in the sparring on screen (she's incredible in this film,and gets to wear some far-out, glamorous clothes and funky li'l hats) and, indeed, all involved are tremendous in their roles. Cecil Cunningham for example, as Aunt Patsy, has few lines but almost all of them are real zingers. It's a perfect blend of slapstick, farce, and deeper insight kept moving along relentlessly, but digestibly, by a highly professional cast and a director at the top of his game.
I've actually heard people disdain older movies because they're in back-and-white (and even, for that matter, newer movies shot monochrome). They're missing out on a vast legacy of brilliant storytelling and film-making from around the world: not just treasures from Hollywood's most golden Golden Age but wonders like Russia's "Ivan's Childhood," "Yojimbo," and so many more as well as movies made in Hollywood as late as the '60s and '70s that intentionally used monochrome (Frankenheimer's "Seconds" and, of course, "Psycho" and many other masterpieces). Besides, the expert cinematographers who shot many such films, both through careful use of light and filters and through the vivid clarity of their work, actually manage to suggest color where none is present.
This one's loaded with color, and fun, and it really is a film that stands up today as it always will. Thank goodness we have such archival materials as videotape and digitized discs that not only ensure the preservation of such treasures but allow us to call them up whenever we wish to be really entertained.
Captains Courageous (1937)
A ripping good yarn, as effective today as way back when
This is one of those films I recall very fondly from my childhood (on TV in the '70s, I hasten to add, my having been born three decades too late to catch its original release) and now, after having watched it again for the first time in probably 30 or 35 or so years, I recall it just as fondly. It's a classic tale from Kipling, a potent mix of morality play and coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of a hazardous and hard-earned way to make a living. The fishing and sailing scenes are, as others have noted, very realistically presented and I see I am not alone in noticing that the actors were capable enough with their marine duties to make it look like they really WERE old hands at that sort of thing (something I noticed first with Mickey Rooney, who carried on his tasks with great efficiency, as if they were second nature, even while delivering dialog...his presence in the film is small but it's still a real standout).
This film is loaded to the gunwales with talented actors, including some of the all-time greats. The incomparable Spencer Tracy, for example, is magnificent (and, yes, the scene where he faces down Carradine's character, with real menace suddenly supplanting his otherwise easy-going demeanor is a very powerful moment), and he here again proves why he is considered one of the very best actors to ever have worked in Hollywood. Lionel Barrymore is absolute perfection as the skipper, totally convincing in every detail. John Carradine, too, is 100% believable and a magnetic screen presence even by now. Melvyn Douglas, too, has captured a very nuanced and understated take on a character who is not in most of the picture but who is vital to its working. Every other actor in the ensemble delivers, too, just right.
Young Freddie Bartholomew, of course, has the significant burden of basically carrying the film -- somewhat daunting even if your co-stars didn't include such as Tracy and Barrymore -- and he succeeds magnificently. He's utterly on target and convincing as the spoiled little brat who finally gets shaped into some sort of a better person, on the road to being a better man than he would have been had he not fallen off that ship. He's really a wonder in this film, perhaps one of the very best child actors ever. The depth of his hero-worship and love for Manuel, who he obviously contrasts to his more distant and workaholic father, is tangible and touching. He may be young still but, by the end, he's a man, or well on his way to being a real man, and not the kind of 'real man' who's some overbearing macho blowhard; he's had better examples than that aboard the schooner and his father's own journey, off-camera, suggests he'll do his best to be such an example. Manuel would have been very proud.
Into the Wild (2007)
(1) Brilliant film (2) the protagonist and his story is simultaneously inspiring and idiotic
Sean Penn and crew did an excellent job here. Cinematography and editing are great and real locations are used to full potential. Emile Hirsch is phenomenal and Hal Holbrook also really stands out. Special mention of Brian Dierker, acting for the first and (so far) only time, as Rainey: a feat even if he IS basically that character, because getting in front of a camera instantly turns most of us into anything but who we naturally are. His chemistry with Catherine Keener is stellar and the two are part of the film's heart and soul.
Supertramp's journey is compelling in many ways, whether followed by book or by film. But there's much polarization regarding whether Alex/Chris was a visionary prophet of the road (or, at the very least, a free spirit on a Thoreau kick) or an utterly self-indulgent moron. I'm one who emphatically sees him as BOTH, and then some.
I grew up in settings that allowed me access to a lot of outdoor experience, including formative years living at an outdoor-pursuits center where my parents worked. Thus I had easy entrée to outdoor activity and the tools with which to hone skills necessary to survival in the wild, to deal with things when it all goes wrong (as it surely will) without freaking out excessively and letting panic doom me or anyone else. I also saw for myself that Nature is wonderful and Gaia-licious but that she really doesn't care if we live or die; I see the natural world with both a 'romanticized' and a very pragmatic, survival-based eye, both being part of the truth.
My whole life's involved study of Nature, including years of field research experience (PhD in ecology) diving on coral reefs in far-flung places on the edge of the blue horizon. Did I have near misses with my own mortality during that time? Sure did. Was I 'adventurous'? Well, yeah, in terms of having what might be called 'adventures' in exotic places around dangerous animals (I studied one for my doctorate). I have also more than once hit the road and vagabonded, the longest such bout being at age 20 back in the '80s. So, yeah, I can relate very strongly to Chris' drive, and to what he felt out there on the edge, where you never know from day to day where you'll be at nightfall and, indeed, even if you'll be alive. It's simultaneously exhilarating and scary.
The BIG difference between someone like me and someone like McCandless, though, is that he went flat-out against the wall at every turn, rashly leaping into things way above his head. You can only get away with that kind of thing so long. If I 'have an adventure' I know my capabilities and where they start to fade. It's risk management. Some of what such people do may look bold and brave but you can't tell, from looking, what they're REALLY doing: if they're well trained and aware of the risks and their environment they may actually be playing it quite cautiously within bounds of experience and ability. Film stunt players are good examples, too: what looks totally out of control is actually carefully planned (well, ideally) and rehearsed by specialists. Pushing boundaries is fine but in doing so you want to control the risk you know is there; you may still mess up, but at least the fall may be survivable.
Sometimes you have the adventure and sometimes the adventure has you. The idea is to minimize that last possibility. You must know what you KNOW and know what you DON'T know. Young Chris was woefully unprepared for many of his adventures, pushing boundaries without knowing what they really WERE, careening off boundary after boundary. It's amazing he made it as far as he did. On one level I salute him for that, and admire his zeal and passion, but on another I recognize him as irresponsible and self-centered. He was a sensitive, intelligent, self-indulgent young man with a mind full of pithy quotes and concepts from Literature who failed to see past the most superficial of those lessons and parables. He was an idealist, and I can appreciate that, but he forgot that we all have to get by in the real world and that cost him everything.
Is he the sage hero some proclaim? Well, if his story inspires you, go emulate his ideal but PLEASE first learn a thing or two about what your journey might require. I'm disconcerted to find a whole Internet subculture that basically worships Chris and his folly. Idiots. Chris' death was unnecessary and stupid, but a likely outcome. He basically failed to remain humble in the face of Nature. Whether clueless or arrogant, that sort of thing doesn't make for happy endings. His should be a cautionary tale in this aspect, not an inspirational one.
Regardless, as a film this succeeds on every level; a masterpiece. If it was mythology it'd be just as powerful. Sean Penn comes uncomfortably close at times to painting Chris as Jesus-like, the Magic Hobo, but he does at least acknowledge the cruel effect of Chris deserting his parents (and his sister) and the final realization that his journey's epiphany was, thanks to the Nature in which he sought to immerse himself, impossible to realize. The film also shows that, for all Chris' vaunted self-sufficiency, throughout his travels he relied on help from others, many portrayed as surrogate parental figures: the clues to his final realization were there all along, every step of the way. When he finally found what he wanted it did him no good because he could not go back again. Forget all the back and forth over whether Supertramp was a wise wanderer or a self-indulgent little jerk, really, because this consideration is a timeless thought, and this film manages to convey a few of those.
Excellent job, all involved. Rest in peace, Christopher Johnson McCandless.
Everyone should see this
I just watched this after seeing a trailer for it on another DVD and it's one of those films that I think will stick with me a while yet. The movie succeeds on every level. It's a parable based in the Holocaust, a fictional morality tale told against the backdrop of that great atrocity (and, though a fictional story, in most ways true to the reality of the time and place, including the oft-inaccurate diversity of German uniforms), but its also a story of the human condition, independent of setting, for both the better and the worse. Hope, friendship, unconditional love, family, exploration and curiosity about the world, deception, self-deception, lying, propaganda (the Big Lie), rampant nationalism, unquestioning obedience to authority and their policies, racism and other bigotry, unconditional hate: it's all here. The guts of the story could be set anywhere. Again, this is true on several levels, including that of a family eventually torn apart through deception and betrayal of trust, that of friendship between two people of very different backgrounds, as well as the cold hard reality of genocide (though rarely plotted quite as coldly, logically, cynically, and dispassionately as by the Nazi hierarchy) being a human tendency that is still very much with us.
Yeah, I didn't see the ending coming. I think it's perfect. Not what I wanted, of course, but that's what makes it so apt. I think the film may have been just as effective with any one of a number of outcomes, including that likely to be criticized as a 'Hollywood' ending but the piece as it exists is certainly a stark piece of testimony to the reality of the Final Solution and, ultimately, the broader and more all-encompassing sweep of human nature's dark side. The fact that it's a fictional story is basically irrelevant to these points.
As for the acting, set dressing, costuming, and cinematography; like the writing, it's all top-notch. In particular, the two boys at the center of the film are nothing less than supernatural in their portrayals, not only each possessing compelling command of facial and other gestures and unspoken language (and, yes, both have extremely expressive eyes) but each able to make the viewer totally forget that they're watching an actor at work on a set. That is not always easy for an adult to do, let alone a less experienced kid.
Pretty heart-wrenching stuff. I think it should be seen by everyone, not just to remind us of what happened to those deemed untouchable subhumans (Jewish and otherwise) by a bunch of power-mad authoritarians decades ago but to remind us of who we are: the good side of us and the other side, the side regarding which our kind are inevitably too often surprised by the ease with which it's possible to slide that way. The German people, 1933-1945, and even most of those in the Nazi machine, were not necessarily inherently evil people; likewise (as well depicted in Bruno Ganz' stunning portrayal in "Downfall") even Hitler himself was not a monster, he was just a man. Sociopaths aside, these people were not inhuman but all TOO human. The point here is that not only COULD this happen again but, in different ways and on different scales, it already HAS, just as it (close to home, think US Cavalry vs the locals here in the USA) had already happened time and time again in centuries past. Rwanda, Sudan, East Timor, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Bosnia, parts of Central and South America, the 'Democratic' Republic of Congo...the list of recent and ongoing centers of mass atrocity, not to mention the attitude of hate and xenophobia and lust for aggressive war and its spoils that is rampant in many countries (including my own), is depressingly fresh and vital.
Bringing Up Baby (1938)
Breakneck pacing, brilliant dialog, and great comic acting, setting the standard for decades to come
This is a film I hadn't seen since my teens, back in the early '80s, and I am blown away anew by it now, having just watched it on DVD. The film's a masterpiece of American cinema. The great Cary Grant is in his element as the victim of a series of madcap circumstances -- his reactions throughout are priceless, as are his verbal responses (many of them ad-libs)-- and Katherine Hepburn is absolutely adorable, not the way she normally plays it, in her crazed role. Both actors turn in a very physical performance, too, including some falls that must have left a mark.
Howard Hawks was unquestionably one of the best film directors of all time, and one of the most influential, though largely unheralded during his life. He could direct anything, it seems, and this is a prime example of his facility with comedy. Not just comedy, either, but frantic, madcap, slapstick, screwball comedy, comedy of a type so unrelenting and fast-paced that it could easily undermine the film or create fatal viewer fatigue were it not for the fact that it was written (and subsequently improvised upon) so perfectly sharply and featured such great actors in every role. The lines voiced by the actors are superb, but some of the unspoken communication is even better. Even the leopard (a jaguar, actually, as would be expected from a South American origin) was great, and one beautiful cat, as was the terminally annoying little yappydog that I was hoping Baby would eat. Just as Hawks was under-appreciated during his career, perhaps in part because in hindsight we can now see how far ahead of his time he always was, so this film suffered upon original release; indeed, this film was detrimental to the career trajectories of its director and two stars.
To say that they don't make 'em like this any more would be an understatement. The fact is, really, that they NEVER made 'em like this, though some other highly entertaining 'screwball' comedies of the time (including Cary Grant properties) also provide excellent viewing even today. The dialog is not only rapid-paced but very edgy and loaded with double entendres, and overlapping dialog paved the way for similar devices by the likes of Robert Altman and the makers of "Hill Street Blues" and other works intentionally grounded in non-cinematic reality.
The two main stars, of course, make the film, but every part here is cast to perfection. In the DVD commentary, a very interesting Peter Bogdanovich (he seems a fascinating dude, too) points out that all of the characters in this film are off-center and that Howard Hawks later realized that was the fault with the film and in the future never repeated his mistake, always including characters who were more 'normal' just to provide a basis for comparison. Regardless, every one of the quirky and halfway-nuts characters in this film is perfectly executed and adds to the whole; somehow, the film succeeds brilliantly despite, or perhaps because of, every player being way off-kilter, a feat perhaps not possible with actors of lesser caliber.
My one concern here is that, eventually, someone will get around to pitching a remake of this with Ben Affleck and J Lo in the lead roles...
Last Man Standing (1996)
Ry Cooder on soundtrack duty and Chris Walken as a psychotic with a tommygun? Count me in!
A familiar story, well executed.
For me the key with this film is not that it's basically been done before, but (as with any remake, 're-imagining,' or sequel)whether it succeeds in its own right as a good film and a good story. I'd say yes to both, in this case.
Bruce Willis is a good actor, often unfairly pigeonholed as one of limited range. He acquits himself well in this piece, as do most of the other lead parts. Christopher Walken, a phenomenon and one that elevates even substandard fare, is great in this as yet another over-the-top villain, albeit a softly-spoken one. Some of the supporting actors vary a bit but, as an ensemble, it's all fine. The cinematography is great.
The story? Well, as soon as I watched the trailer, before playing the film, I knew it was "Yojimbo" revisited. Of course, Walter Hill (like many, a fervent admirer of Kurosawa) makes no secret of this and the story is credited to the writers of that influential Japanese film. Indeed, I have a very strong feeling that the rain sequence in this film (one noted on the boards here..and, yes, it certainly does rain in US deserts)is tribute to Kurosawa, because it seems like it rains on most Kurosawa films, especially during heavy action pieces. If you've perused IMDb regarding this film at all you'll already know that this is derived from that Kurosawa film as well as Sergio Leone's "A Fistful of Dollars" that, in turn, was basically a remake of "Yojimbo," Kurosawa's masterpiece in itself basically lifted from a book or books by Dashiell Hammett. So the story's hardly original but, to be fair, neither was that of the two films to which everyone compares this piece and, indeed, the story's such a timeless one that it's likely been written down or part of oral traditions many more times than we know of.
One thing is apparent in comparing this film to "Yojimbo" and even Leone's film: the humor is much less apparent. In this, if nothing else, the edge goes to the earlier films. Certainly, with no offense intended to Messrs Willis or Eastwood, Toshiro Mifune was a powerful actor and it'd be hard to top his performance in anything. Still, this is a worthy effort, with the firepower amped up considerably, and worth a look even to fervent admirers of directors Kurosawa and Leone.
Besides, Christopher Walken going nuts with a tommygun? That's classic cinema, right there...
Gunga Din (1939)
A timeless classic that still holds up
I'm not sure I ever saw this film before this past week (perhaps when I was a child, long forgotten) but, in a way, on viewing it I knew I'd seen it before a hundred times: such is the perfection of the narrative and way it's presented that elements from this film have been presented over and over again in subsequent projects. I'm not going to call those projects derivative, either, because it's more a case of later generations of screenwriters and directors knowing a good thing when they see it and many grew up with this film as a treasured part of their experience (in the extras that accompany this film on DVD, screen writing legend William Goldman claims that this film had more of an effect on him than any other, when he was growing up). The second Indiana Jones movie, of course, owes a huge chunk of its plot to this film and even the excellent 1968 Peter Sellers comedy, "The Party" included a reference so obvious that for me it acted as a spoiler in terms of knowing how the tide of war in the closing scenes of "Gunga Din" would be changed by the title character. It's an influential film, for sure, but it's also a ripping good yarn, expertly showcased in glorious monochrome. As for my seeing it now, better late than never.
I picked up the film because I've lately been exploring some of the older films that I hadn't paid much attention to in years (most of my movie viewing these past couple of decades has been devoted to films made since the '70s) and because I recently, after again viewing one of my favorite films ("North By Northwest"), started replaying some of Cary Grant's films, courtesy of my local library, including such brilliant outings as "Father Goose," "Suspicion," "Operation Petticoat," "Houseboat," and others. I happened to see this film and, knowing it was considered a Hollywood classic, decided to give it a try. Cary Grant was an old-school movie star, for certain, but he was also a gifted actor and pretty much everything he did, even when he played a bad guy (that he did, against type, so well), was imbued with a comedic sensibility. Sure, he was charming and debonair but, to me, of vastly greater appeal was that he mercilessly skewered that very image at every turn and seemed not to take it all too seriously, including his own leading-man image. His comic timing was impeccable and, not surprising if you consider his gymnastic background, he was very adept at strongly physical comedy. In some ways this is his film, but he is joined by some very fine players who solidly share the glory with him.
Douglas Fairbanks, Jr (contender for title of 'The Perfect Man' for his ability to swash the buckle and be a strong film actor as well as war hero, humanitarian, and all around cool guy who never let it go to his head, perhaps because he saw what happened around his wilder father) is excellent in this piece as basically the straight man of the film. He's a man of action but also of thought, and a good foil to Cary Grant's impish and headstrong Cockney. Victor McLaglen, an actor I was not immediately familiar with, is also perfect in his role. He's at turns jovial and threatening, and the face of British imperialism and racism is most apparent in this film in his relating to the locals, including water-bearer Gunga Din. That message is not one with which the film hits us over the head, but it's there.
The film's biggest surprise to me was the casting of Sam Jaffe, a New Yorker, as Gunga Din. At first I kind of winced at yet another darker-skinned role being co-opted by a white, American actor, but the man was perfect in the part. And, to the producers' credit, they DID try to find a suitable Indian actor for the part. Jaffe refrains from stereotype and makes Gunga Din and endearing and inspiring unlikely hero. The film's ending really is touching.
And yes, this is very much a man's film. Joan Fontaine isn't given too much to do and part of the film hinges around the machinations of her fiancé's two fellow sergeants to thwart matrimony, a fate they see as intolerably cruel. I hasten to add that the film isn't misogynistic, just that in this subculture settling down and becoming a -- gasp -- tea merchant is anathema to the minds of these career military reprobates.
Beautifully shot, mostly on location on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada range in California (even before I read or saw any back story on the film I recognized the setting as the Owens Valley around Lone Pine even though I hadn't been there since 1987; it's a very distinctive landscape, hard to forget, that also doubles extremely well for Indian's Northwest Frontier), this film deserves all the accolades it's received. Some of the acting is, of course, a little stylized as was current to the times, but the whole still holds up well today. The action scenes, too, really do have the feel of reality despite constraint with blood and guts in comparison to more recent films; George Stevens treated the mass battle sequences as large-scale improvisation and the apparent spontaneity of these scenes is a marked contrast to similar large-scale battle scene sin other movies that look more obviously choreographed.
A brilliant piece of work. One for the ages.
Perfection from John Huston and company...
In recent years I've taken to availing myself of the extensive DVD collection held by the Las Vegas Clark County County Library District and have as a result seen some excellent films, ranging from the latest blockbusters to Kurosawa and more. A recent move put me nearer a branch that's pretty depauperate in their holdings (I can still order DVDs from the main collection and have them delivered to this branch, but sometimes the week is a 'dry' one in terms of what among my requested titles is available) and most of what they do have consists of older titles and television shows. This has lately turned out to be a happy situation, though, encouraging me to look at some old films -- until recently, it'd been a long tome since I'd watched much in the way of films dating from earlier than the late-'70s -- and discovering and rediscovering some excellent work. "Red River," "The African Queen" (pretty sure I went my whole life 'til now without seeing this brilliant piece), "Some Like It Hot," "Father Goose," "The Searchers," and many others, some of which I'd perhaps seen as a kid but that now resonate far more. This film rates right at the top of those old films and, indeed, right at the top of films ranked by ANY criteria.
A good thirty or so years ago (man, where does the time go?) I saw this film on TV and I loved it. Stumbling across it in the library yesterday, and having recently seen and loved "The African Queen," I decided to give it another whirl. Good move. I have to say it: John Huston, as with John Ford, Kurosawa, and others, is highly at risk of being overrated by consensus but the truth is that he can't be rated highly enough. The man was a visionary. And the actors he so expertly films are uniformly excellent. Every of the principals turns in a solid performance, nuanced and grittily realistic; this is no mean feat given the highly stylized and theatrical screen acting style that was still pretty much de rigeur even in the late '40s. The acting in this film would not be terribly out of place in a film made 50 years later. This and "The African Queen" reminded me, given that I hadn't seen one of his films in at least two decades, that Humphrey Bogart was more than just the weird-looking little dude with the characteristic voice and overbite; the man could act! The great Walter Huston, of course, steals the show with a portrayal that's both at turns comedic and deadly serious but that is utterly convincing. I like the use of Spanish dialog in the film, too. The film's components blend seamlessly to fairly ooze atmosphere. And, as with many films from the period by such luminaries as John Ford and Howard Hawks, the scenery is used to magnificent effect even within the constraints inherent to black-and-white film (a medium that also, of course, provides some dramatic advantage if used well).
This is truly a film for the ages. A ripping good yarn, expertly told and flawlessly crafted. It's over 60 years old now, monochrome, and constrained by the screen censorship of the time, but it more than holds up and remains a true classic for all time. Hmmm...I may just have to see about checking out this other thing, a little film called "The Maltese Falcon," before too long...
Red River (1948)
A brilliant work...exceeded my expectations by far.
I watched this just now because, a few days after once again watching "City Slickers" (wherein the film's "yee-ha scene" is referenced), I happened upon it in my local library and decided to give it a try. I wasn't expecting TOO much, though the involvement of Montgomery Clift gave me cause to think this was perhaps not just another standard John Wayne cowboy film and I knew it was directed by some heavyweight like John Ford or that Hawks fellow. Well...all I can say is that I am sure glad I picked the film up. It's possible I saw this when I was a kid, I guess, but even if I'd remembered doing so I doubt I'd have appreciated its intrinsic worth quite as much then. The film's a masterpiece.
I'd only recently watched again "The Young Lions," and I knew that Montgomery Clift suffered bad injuries not long before from a car crash, so when I saw on the title roll that this film was made in 1957 (I swear that's what I saw, though perhaps I'm a little too tired today to be deciphering Roman numerals) I figured that it was shot not long before his crash and the physical changes that resulted. Now I find it was made in 1948...all I can say is that it was way ahead of its time. Thematically and in the acting style, this film reads more like a movie made by very skilled filmmakers a decade later, or even later than that. The cinematography rivals the best, John Ford included, and the acting is first rate from all concerned. Montgomery Clift is subtly compelling -- not an easy quality to get across on the big screen -- but John Wayne is also at the top of his game and ably demonstrates that, with good direction and inspiration, he was more than many think him to be as an actor. Perhaps he had somewhat limited range, but he could act, no question about that. As in "The Searchers" (a film I recently watched after getting on a Kurosawa kick and then wanting to go back to see what it was about John Ford, and that film in particular, that so inspired Kurosawa), John Wayne plays a character of questionable moral rectitude, a realistically paradoxical and ambiguous character with flaws, and his character is all the more interesting for it. Walter Brennan, too, is classic in his role and behind the Gabby-Hayesish exterior there's a more insightful and naturalistic aspect to the character that this veteran character player manages to project onto film. John Ireland, too, has a fairly minimized role but burns up the screen when he's on it.
The cinematography, in living black-and-white, is nevertheless stunning. There's some innovative camera work, too, including some really cool shots from within the chuckwagon (and, yep, ol' Walter's actually in the driver's seat) as they cross the Red River. It's a long film, too, for the time.
For the time, as with a few other true classic Westerns ("Shane" leaps to mind, and not just because of the hero's excellent name), this film was grittily realistic in its portrayal of the West as a dusty, muddy place and a cattle drive as the real domain of exploited blue-collar workers just trying to get by. The film somehow manages to mythologize what has become our earlier revisionist view of the West -- the domain of modest heroes and laconic cowpunchers fast on the draw, with many sunsets and beans for dinner -- and foreshadow the later revisionism that portrays the West in a much more realistic light, placing it squarely in terms of the social dynamics of today. It may not be the truth, or even the idealized version thereof, but it is a masterful wrapping of the legend within layers of reality with the additional benefit of a morality tale for the ages.
The Art of War II: Betrayal (2008)
BETRAYAL, all right...
I've long kinda liked Wesley Snipes as a screen presence; "Murder At 1600," "Passenger 57," "Rising Sun," and the two Blade films that I've seen all entertain well, for example, and one thing I always liked about him was that his characters usually differed from the action-hero norm by having odd little foibles not common to the genre and often being all too human in a self-effacing way ('til he saves the day, of course). I've seen "The Art Of War" a couple of times and liked it, though it's neither his best work nor the best film of its kind ever produced...it's still a good, solid enough effort.
I just watched most of the this alleged sequel. It's horrible. I didn't watch it all because I kept falling asleep, and that turned out to improve the experience considerably. In fact, it's 5 AM now and I need to try to get back to sleep, but I felt compelled to wander over to the computer to warn my fellow astronauts of the dire nature of this cinematic failure before another potential viewer wastes even 20 minutes in attempting to endure it. I got the DVD from the library but some of you may resort to renting or even -- and this prospect sickens me -- BUYING it, and I can't go another minute with that possibility weighing heavy on me.
To be honest, I was really tired so perhaps it's not entirely a shock that sleep might finally overtake me, but the real catalyst for my finally giving in to the arms of Morpheus was that the only dramatic tension that the film imparted to me -- what, exactly, does it have to do with the FIRST film? -- was at some point answered by the sheer pointlessness of the plot (for want of a better word; 'anti-plot'?). This piece has nothing to do with the first film, a fact that in itself would not be such a big deal if the film had anything to do with anything ELSE. This waste of digital video tape was exceedingly poorly written, if it was actually written at all, directed by a person who apparently is, talent-wise, several rungs down the ladder from the typical executor of a birthday party home movie, and for the most part the acting was not acting at all, but in the sense of it being incredibly BAD rather than being at all naturalistic. This piece of garbage fails on every level. Even dozing off and periodically waking up, after a while realizing that the film doesn't even warrant the usual rewind to see what I've missed, didn't rob me of any understanding of what they substituted for an actual plot. In fact, it might have improved the whole. You might notice, of course, that this review contains no spoilers; spoilers are simply not possible when the film has no discernible plot. Calling this dreck 'amateurish' would hint that it might actually have some charm, a quality that (like every other positive quality) it is sorely lacking. Indeed, this film is one that would realize its true potential if subjected to that one-minute-long-movie-acted-by-bunnies approach, though I doubt any bunnies would be desperate enough to resort to remaking this one.
Avoid it. Cross to the other side of the street if you see it coming. If you feel bad for the star's tax strife, just mail him a check; maybe if he gets enough of them he'll stop pumping out egestae like this...
I'm off for some more sleep. The only stay I have against having nightmares about this film is that it's so forgettable a property that as you watch it your memory of the previous scene fades blessedly from mind.
Sucked worse than any tornado
This is absolute garbage, unless it's some kind of subtle parody of the entire disaster film genre. If the latter were true, I'd submit that it's a little TOO subtle. Pretty much every scene, especially during the second half, fails on multiple levels.
I didn't realize that this was a sequel, though that explains my extreme confusion at the start of the piece when a rapid succession of events and locations made me wonder if I'd grabbed a copy of the "Reader's Digest" version of the film or had somehow started the second half of it and was watching a recap. It was so confusing that I went back to the DVD menu to see which half of the thing I started watching.
There're some good actors in this, as well as actors capable of more than they're often handed (Randy Quaid, for example), but there're also some whose acting skills I doubt; I've never really admired Shannen Doherty's thespian skills and some of the interchangeable-but-mostly-good-looking younger cast members likely belong to the "I'm pretty, so I'll be an actor" school of performance art. Even the best actors aboard this piece, including seasoned veterans like Tom Skerrit, Robert Wagner, and James Brolin, couldn't save the day. After a while, toward the end (finally!) of proceedings, I began to drift away with eyes wide open, realizing that I'd missed exactly who was dispatched by tornadoes and realizing simultaneously that I didn't care any more.
I'm a scientist but I'm not a climate scientist. My knowledge of severe weather events falls pretty much into the general knowledge category, with some extra edge provided by working around climate researchers, reading tidbits relevant to my research interests in coral reefs and fishes, and having endured a few hurricanes because of exposure attendant to the nature of my research field. But even my minimal knowledge related to these kinds of weather events was offended by blatant errors in the script.
First, obviously, there's no such thing as a Category 7 (or even Category 6) hurricane. Sure, the way things are going we may well have to extend the scale that far, so perhaps we can give them this one. There is still no excuse for rattling on about a Category 6 tornado, though -- they don't come in categories. And, particularly offensive to me even when I'm NOT wearing my scientist hat, the alleged scientists on screen here should be completely ashamed for referring to 'data' as a singular, as in "that data" (the correct, and ONLY correct, form would be "those data"). It's a small point, perhaps, but it's indicative of the sloppiness that's apparent here. Such sloppiness totally contrasts this piece with a film like "Dante's Peak," that quite well captured the feel of a field research team and for the most part did its homework (thanks to technical advisers and to the director's long-term interest in geology). These actors better never let me catch them again saying such things as "that data." Any real scientist who ever deploys such an atrocity should similarly be punished severely, perhaps by forcing them to watch this dreck.
On the bright side, I did get to look at Gina Gershon for a while. In fact, looking at Gina Gershon -- generally a good idea -- will for me likely remain the most (only) memorable part of this entire production.
I'm willing to lay off the production values, especially the special effects, given the budget and timeframe constraints they obviously faced. For the most part, the special effects are well done and where they fail it's usually more as a result of the bad science or other inaccuracies involved, not the actual effects themselves. The annoying, gimmicky cinematography, undoubtedly intended to portray hyperkinetic action throughout (this film rarely pauses, obviously its creators never heard how the most important parts of music, among other things, are often found in or bolstered by the pauses), at least helps cover for the general lack of perceptible peril in half of the perilous scenes.
Also, there's lots of bright sunny weather for being in the middle of a gynormous weather event. And surprisingly little rain, as is sometimes the case, and what rain there is somehow manages to fall vertically during a hypothesized Category 7 hurricane. The most severe hurricane that I've endured (so far) had sustained winds of 120 mph and gusts up to 164 mph. There was talk of it still being a Category 4 when it struck (≥131 mph sustained), because the Weather Service's recording instruments were destroyed partway through, but it definitely was a good, solid Category 3. It's hard to keep a field scientist out of the field and, knowing that I was risking a Darwin Award, I was outside for a good chunk of the storm and (dodging all sorts of things that were flying about me and painfully aware of my fragility) videotaping the show. The force of that storm was such that I was able to do a handy Marcel Marceau leaning-into-the-wind impersonation with ease and peeking around the corners of buildings into the full force of the wind would not only snap my head back but really do a number on my eyes. Now, in this film we're supposedly talking about sustained wind speeds twice that and the actors are running around as if it was just a 50-mph breeze? And the rain's falling straight down, rather than coming in sideways like a billion bullets? Well, sure, I guess, in a universe in which a telephone pole affords protection form an incoming trailer home. Really, even if the science was right, this'd still be execrable simply because the writing's so dire.
It's also how amazing how unbelievably (literally -- as in being absolutely unbelievable) quickly this unprecedented storm dissolved in the wake of DC turning off its power. I'd say it was an anticlimax but, really, by this point it was just a mercy killing.
Double Trouble (1967)
Hear Elvis say "bikkies" (a kick for me, as one who grew up with that contraction of "biscuits," in America known as cookies), see Elvis lay his kenpo down on a bad guy who dies as a result, see Elvis drive a VW bug, witness Elvis smash windows, marvel at Elvis in a mustache and glasses mask, and watch him beat up a beautiful woman! Those are some of the highlights, anyway. In truth, this film is among my very least favorite of Elvis films, even judging by the somewhat unique standards of the '60s travelogue Technicolor musicals that became the standard by 1962. The formula had worn thin by 1965 ("Frankie And Johnnie," "Harum Scarum," "Paradise, Hawaiian Style"), to say the least, and -- other than some bright points in "Spinout" and the entirety of "Easy Come, Easy Go" (like "Double Trouble," shot in 1966...for some reason, I like that crazy film) -- nothing got better, in my opinion, until the formula changed radically with 1968's "Stay Away, Joe" and "Live A Little, Love A Little."
The period 1965-1967 was Elvis' nadir, in other words, though the May, 1966 Nashville sessions (that yielded the immaculate "How Great Thou Art" gospel album and a few stellar secular songs, including a definitive take on one of Bob Dylan's songs) and recently-surfaced home recordings from that period show all too well how phenomenal Elvis' talent was at the time, a contrast that would anger and frustrate anyone who cared about his place in American and world culture and history. But we have what we have, and the criminal waste of talent that to a great extent represented Elvis' film career during this time is undeniable but shouldn't necessarily result in us writing off the results out of hand for that reason alone. There are a few moments in this film that are good, and a few when Elvis seems to actually be engaged rather than bored with the whole proceedings and just sleepwalking through it to fulfill contractual obligations.
There're some great actors in supporting roles, too, like Leon Askin (General Burkhalter!), Chips Rafferty, John Williams, Norman Rossington (the only actor to appear in films with the Beatles and Elvis), and Michael Murphy. Annette Day is kind of lackluster in the lead female role. Yvonne Romain is much more like it. And the Wiere Brothers have always irritated the hell out of me in this film -- wish they were not in it, because they really stupid things up.
The songs are not the greatest even compared to other songs from Elvis movies of this time, but I do like the title track, "Long Legged Girl" (a tasty song, actually, written by Joy Byers, who usually contributed great songs even to otherwise not-so-great movies, such as "Let Yourself Go" in "Speedway"), and the jazzy "City By Night." "Could I Fall In Love" is a nice ballad, a duet of Elvis with Elvis, but the entire June, 1966 session for this movie suffered from sonic problems and I believe it's one that Elvis complained vociferously about. I also believe that Elvis walked out on recording "Old McDonald" before he'd produced an acceptable master take, being totally disgusted by the task, and the master was spliced from what the engineers had captured. Not his greatest recorded moment, anyway. And, darn it, it (and the rest of the soundtrack) was recorded on my second birthday.
IMDb mixes up the screen character credits for Chips Rafferty and Norman Rossington but, to be fair, so does the end title sequence in the film. Oops.
Paranoid Breakdown Blues...
A few spoilers...
"Breakdown" is an exceptionally well-conceived, well-acted, and well-filmed piece of work that toys with its viewers' emotions in much the same way as did many of Hitchcock's films. There's a Hitchcockian element throughout, actually, and I could imagine the Hitchster putting together a film very much like this were he still going. Most of the movie is steeped in paranoia, aided by interesting camera work and tight close-ups that capture Kurt Russell's totally convincing acting the part of a man whose life has suddenly fallen to pieces. The many faces of paranoia (justified paranoia, as we soon discover) in the film include the red-herring kind as embodied by the 'characters' on display in a desert diner. The air of intrigue and bad deeds, and conspiracy, is palpable in the two scenes set within the diner but, in the end, the diner's manager and patrons turn out to be benign. Well, maybe. I've spent a fair bit of time poking around the Mojave Desert (by the way, one apparent biogeographical error is showing a Joshua tree in what I believe is supposed to be Arizona) and can attest that you'll see the darndest things out there. That includes people. So the desert setting really struck a chord with me, too. Taken as a whole, the encounter with the diner's denizens and a run-in with the 'necks who soon turn out to be the bad guys may give the viewer a feeling of deja-vu for something along the lines of "Deliverance," but the menace here is far more prosaic and firmly focused on the bottom line.
Kurt Russell is perfectly cast as the Massachusetts yuppie traveling with his wife to a new life in San Diego. His aspiring yuppie credentials are established by the bright red SUV with leather interior, his powder blue polo shirt, and paper cups of designer coffee. This is a pretty insipid Kurt Russell character -- certainly a 'wimp' in comparison to the larger-than-life (and inevitably self-parodying) heroes that he played with such tongue-in-cheek bravado in films like the stellar "Big Trouble In Little China" and "Escape From New York." But that's where the key to the effectiveness of his character resides. He's so totally unprepared for brutality and action that most of us watching -- most of whom would also soundly qualify as 'wimps' when measured against the fictional prowess of movie action heroes -- can identify all too well with the situation that he suddenly finds himself in. He does the best that he can with what he has, and the fact is that he is not as adaptable and resourceful as McGyver and not even in the same league (and therefore more truthful) as any of the larger-than-life action heroes that've proliferated in such abundance since the original James Bond movies. It's also what makes so much more triumphant his victories over the bad guys, who have a definite advantage over him in terms of numbers, firepower, experience, and ability to deal violence. But old Kurt's Jeff character has outrage on his side, once he finds out what's happening. Before long his polo shirt is dirty and he has transformed himself into a makeshift action hero who feels about as real-life an example of that category as we're likely to see in a fictional Hollywood movie. And so it makes it all the sweeter when he kicks the main bad dude in the head, or gets one up on the mustachioed psychopath who thinks he has him totally cowed. It's hard not to feel redeemed when the tide begins to turn in the favor of Kurt Russell's 'everyman.' This kind of thing happens, too -- how would we fare under identical, wholly plausible, circumstances?
The supporting cast in this film is excellent. Kathleen Quinlan, the wife who's kidnapped, doesn't have all that much screen time but is effective in her interaction with Kurt Russell's Jeff Taylor. MC Gainey is wonderfully despicable in his role as desert redneck Earl, a man who possesses no obvious redeeming qualities. Jack Noseworthy is also chilling as the young bad guy, Billy. It's JT Walsh, though (the somewhat unhinged sergeant-major in "Good Morning, Vietnam"), who -- along with Kurt Russell -- really carries this film forward. He was an inspired casting decision, and his icy calm and absolute believability as he denied his obvious actions to both Jeff and to the local Sheriff are pure menace, totally understated in delivery but there in the movie's context. And when he gets nasty...well, then he's even nastier.
Beautiful setting, too. There's something about the American Southwest that speaks -- to me, anyway -- of freedom and possibility (try riding a motorcycle around it one day!) and those elements are subtly woven into this story with both positive and negative connotations.
Having spent more than a few years in Georgia, I've experienced first hand the unwelcome attentions of some of the more drugged-out or perhaps just plain psychotic drivers who push their trucks across the country and this movie also plays on the fear of anyone who's ever had a belligerent trucker threaten to squish 'em. Disclaimer: I'm not some rabidly bigoted anti-trucker type...my father drove trucks for a long time, my favorite performer -- Elvis -- started out as a truck driver, and I bought the whole trucker and "Convoy" craze in the '70s and, indeed, love the Peckinpah movie of that particular song. In real life, in the US, I've just had some unfortunate encounters with various defective members of that subculture.
The renegade truck driver thing's been done before -- Steven Spielberg's freaky and excellent "Duel" in 1971 being a notable film -- but this film definitely stands alone as a uniquely effective whodunnit/journey/revenge movie. Jonathon Mostow wrote and directed it and I give him full credit for creating a suspenseful masterpiece on only his third outing in those combined roles. Unfortunately, he then went on to make U-571 on the strength of this movie's success.
The Princess Bride (1987)
"Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die."
There, I said it. Why is this such a classic line in the minds of many? I don't know, really. But I do know that the way that Mandy Patinkin delivers it in this film has 'classic line' written all over it. It's one of many classic lines, though, really, and with William Goldman the creative force behind the screenplay and the book on which it was based, it's no wonder. Rob Reiner, who by the time he started this project had only had the superb "This Is Spinal Tap" released to the public as evidence of his directorial talent. The rest of the credit belongs in large part to the perfectly-cast actors and actresses who peopled the slightly off-kilter fairytale realm in which the story is set.
I first saw this film (most of it -- I missed the very beginning) when, one night, I randomly turned on the TV and -- what are the odds -- was surprised to find something that actually seemed worth watching. I didn't know quite what the heck I WAS watching, but I knew that it was something right up my figurative alley. The self-aware and self-mocking humor and somewhat skewed dialogue and perspectives appealed almost as much as the obvious genre blending that, as I found out later, was probably largely responsible for the studio's failure to effectively market the film. I even recognized Christopher Guest, who played Spinal Tap's incredible lead guitarist, as one of the bad guys -- all right! You just know it's gotta be a classic, right? During one of those annoying too-frequent commercial breaks that mar US network television I found that the movie's title was "The Princess Bride." I'm glad that I didn't see it advertised by name first because the odds are good that I'd have never bothered finding out that this movie is far, far more than the sum of its title. I sat happily rapt through the rest of the movie and a few years later, holed up sick in a motel room on a tropical island, again saw all but the first part of the movie. Finally, a few weeks ago, I bought the Special Edition DVD of the thing. I'm glad I did. I've watched it twice with no voiceover commentary and one time each with commentary by Rob Reiner and William Goldman, respectively. And I'm just beginning!
My guess is that this has basically become a cult movie, and it seems that its popularity these days is largely based upon discovery of the movie via word of mouth when it was first released on videotape. I seem to like some of the quirkier 'cult' movies, and this is one I like very much. It's also unusual in that it truly is a 'family' movie, but one that'd appeal to a good number of the Rambo-wannabe young males who'd ordinarily have nothing to do with something titled "The Princess Bride." Actually, I guess I was among that number to an extent.
One of the film's greatest qualities is that it simultaneously manages to be both fairytale and fairytale parody. It lampoons the whole world of fairytale and fantasy while, at the same time, celebrating it. Most of the characters within play it for laughs, for the most part, other than the title character (who is, after all, a fairytale princess and not a female Groucho Marx) and Mandy Patinkin's Spanish revenge-bent swordsman, Inigo Montoya.
The cast, largely composed of lesser-known talents (at least at the time) and notably absent the big megastars that were then dominating the box office, is superb. The leads were basically unknowns, the beautiful and talented (nice English accent!) Robin Wright, who'd later go on to play Jenny in "Forrest Gump," and the suave and handsome Cary Elwes, who'd make a great Errol Flynn. Cary Elwes was a rare combination of male beauty, physical ability, and a sense of humor. Those qualities make him perfect for the part. Wally Shawn is also perfectly cast as the supremely intelligent (or so he thinks) Vizzini. Andre the Giant plays the role of giant that was (literally) made for him to play -- he does a good job and is very appealing as the archetypal gentle giant. Chris Sarandon gets to go way over the top to great effect as Prince Humperinck (apologies to Englebert, but did they choose the name just 'cos it's inherently funny?) and Christopher Guest shows off both another flawless British accent and the ability to quite effectively and quietly capture the feel of your basic model psychopathic sadist. Peter Cook even gets to make an appearance as a clergyman with a speech impediment. Billy Crystal is amazing in this film, in his role as a 'miracle man.' His ad-libs, too, add to the film. Carol Kane is also effective -- both of them in extreme make-up -- as his wife. Back in the present day reality, Peter Falk is great as the grandfather who's patiently reading the tale to his grandson, well played by young Fred Savage. I've saved Mandy Patinkin for last because of all of the stellar performances within this film it's his that is perhaps my favorite. Maybe some of it's empathy with his character -- some of us unreformed romantics empathize more with the lyrics of "The Impossible Dream" than others do -- but I thought that his was the performance of a career. And the initial swordfight between him and Cary Elwes was incredible, even moreso because the two actors trained long and hard to do all of it (other than a flip or two) themselves. Most impressive.
The story's packed with great lines -- it's not that the story is overly complicated or deep as much as it is that the characterizations are so intriguing and the lines so good -- but I'm outta room and all I can say is that you've got to catch this one for yourself. Have fun storming the video store.
G.I. Blues (1960)
Gee, I don't know...
Those of us who're into Elvis' music and other parts of his considerable musical and cultural legacy should probably hate this movie. After all, it was the first symptom that something fundamental had changed in Elvis' career after his two years in the US Army. This film, obviously inspired by recent events in Elvis' life, gives us a sanitized King who's family-friendly and anything but the threat to society's moral fabric that he was perceived as being a few short years before. At 25, Elvis was now vetted as suitable for family consumption. Not that that's a bad thing. The March, 1960 recordings that produced some of Elvis' biggest hits ("Are You Lonesome Tonight" and the phenomenally-successful "It's Now Or Never" among them) featured some of the best material that he'd ever recorded, but generally confirmed a shift -- or perhaps really a broadening -- in focus. Maybe the two years in the Army and his first real exposure to the world beyond his own country had matured him, especially given that he'd suffered through the loss of his mother during that time.
Still, the version of Elvis that "GI Blues" presented went a step further than just maturity. If it'd been a one-off deal there'd have been no problem -- the problem was that they kept trying to remake the film, as Elvis himself complained. And the problem with THAT, when you come down to it, is that the man was capable of much, much more. Certainly, he was able to act more effectively than we'd see in later properties like "Clambake" and "Double Trouble." The two films that followed this one, the great "Flaming Star" and "Wild In The Country," ably proved that. Then along came the box-office smash "Blue Hawaii," giving Elvis his biggest film receipts since "GI Blues" and cementing to a great extent his Hollywood future. As if the loss of a potentially great and certainly charismatic acting talent weren't enough, the focus on the bottom line led inexorably to weaker and weaker soundtracks. It didn't take long before Elvis was, with a few exceptions, turning out substandard recordings that would eclipse in volume and sales the still-great studio work that he too seldom did during the '60s. As catchy as I find some of these movie songs, and despite the redeeming qualities to be found in many, the sad fact is that most of what he recorded for the movies was far, far below what he was capable of even on a bad day. Take the movies, but leave the man his music. That is the real tragedy of Elvis' movie career, I think, and the reason why we should cringe at the thought of "GI Blues," the movie that started it all.
But I can't do that. I really can't hate such a good-natured film. Even this early in his '60s formula-movie days the music is watered-down to a great extent but most of the songs are still of high quality and some are exceedingly catchy or well done (e.g., the title song, the beautiful "Doin' The Best I Can," "Shoppin' Around," and even the sometimes-maligned "Wooden Heart"). The soundtrack sold like hotcakes -- over two years on the US charts! -- and the movie did huge business. Yes, indeed, Elvis was back! It's not the movie's fault that it became a turning point and one with, ultimately, dire consequences. Elvis' performances is, as befits the material, not as gritty or edgy as that of his previous role (in 1958's classic "King Creole") and this is more a straight musical-comedy of the kind that'd sustained Hollywood for decades. There are a few twists, though, such as the acceptance of one of Elvis' bandmates having fathered a child out of wedlock, and Elvis gets to show off his comic skills to great advantage in several scenes, including those that center upon that baby, 'Tiger.' Actually, it's the scenes with 'Tiger' that I always remembered above all else from when I first saw this movie back in the '70s. I like some of the things that indicate a self-awareness in the movie: Elvis' line at the movie's end, delivered to the camera, is most obvious, but the whole "Blue Suede Shoes" jukebox scenario's pretty funny and Elvis makes two references to "All Shook Up" during the narrative. Elvis does get to flash a couple of looks of anger and even arrogant confidence across his face a couple of times -- he was utterly convincing, just with a look, at portraying such emotions -- but for the most part he's a fairly happy-go-lucky sort in this film. He radiates charm throughout, echoing the sentiments of his "Love Me Tender" costar, Richard Egan: "That boy can charm the birds right out of the trees." Elvis' male and female co-stars all do a competent job throughout, and someone evidently thought enough of Juliet Prowse's long-legged dancing routines to include two of them in the film.
The producers shot scenes while Elvis was still in Germany but used a double for his long-shots. All of the German scenes that we see are either projected behind the principals or are scenes shot on location with other people, while Elvis was still over there finishing his tour of duty. They obviously put a lot of thought into storyboarding the film and getting costumes and everything else sorted out so that location shots would match soundstage scenes. This was not a quick and nasty 'quickie' film -- that would come later, beginning with the filming of "Kissin' Cousins" in 1963.
"GI Blues": it's a nice, entertaining movie, so it does its job. No heavy themes or messages, just the kind of thing that lets you spend a little time in the land of escapist, lightweight, boy-meets-girl stories. It has its place. It's just a pity that its place turned out to be right at the pivot point in the career of the most exceptional vocal and stage performer of the century.
Lola rennt (1998)
Technically, the piece is a bit of a marvel. The thing is packed with incredible shots and perspectives, some of them familiar from the work of others and some like nothing I've ever seen before. The shot with the nuns is just one that leaps to mind. In fact, some of the camera and editing techniques are the kind that you see in TV ads, when the producer is pulling out all the stops to catch your attention. It's definite fodder for those in film school, but it all kind of blurred together in my eyes after a while. Maybe it was too much. Maybe I just got tired after all of that stridency. The fact is that I've never had any use for MTV - the fact of its existence or the incredibly annoying stylistic hallmarks, like jerky camera movement and a succession of rapid cuts, that have always been integral to its broadcasts. And this is a film steeped in the MTV sensibility. Maybe post-MTV...whatever.
I began to suspect that this was not going to be a straight narrative when the cartoon Lola kicked in as she ran down the stairs and out of her home. Actually, the cartoon - changing each time, albeit quite subtly - is very fitting given that this whole movie has the look and feel of a video game. Methinks the producers and directors must've spent a lot of time playing such games, because it's apparent to me in everything from the cartoon sequence to her running around to pick up things that may be of use to the fact that she was given three lives' during which to reach her goal. I don't know about you, but I'd love to have the ability to do three re-takes of various situations within my life. That was a nice little twist, and the film is executed skillfully enough that the three different versions of reality each seem fresh and new. Trying to keep it so, yet retain temporal continuity, must have been a challenge. Then again, perhaps it wasn't all that much different than compiling the various takes normally required for any film, the only difference being that each take featured different dialog and action. Regardless, the whole was flawlessly executed. I definitely get the feeling that the postproduction staff pored over every frame of film at length, completing the vision that must have been firmly established during principal photography. Interesting use of DV in some places, too, to contrast the mood with that filmed on film stock. The use of "What a Difference A Day Makes" in one of the alternate-reality sequences was particularly effective, too, and a nice break from the overbearing techno' core.
In some ways this movie's all about action and less so involved with character. In particular, Lola's character is too busy running around to take the time to develop before us. Then again, Franka Potente was so good that we could sense much of her nature without anything overt being revealed, and the elements that comprise her life can be glimpsed in interactions with her father and others. And she can scream loudly, too.
In some ways this film irritated me. I'm not entirely sure why. Sure, those rapidly-cut explorations of the various futures of ancillary characters were interesting and kinda cool, but they also seemed to distract and detract from the film. To some extent I wasn't totally sympathetic with the characters, though Lola was basically appealing and I felt her anguish and rising panic. I was disappointed in the ending, actually - if I were Lola, I'd have decked that SOB Manni. On the bright side, Ms Potente must've really been in good shape by the time they finished filming this thing. I do really get into the big-effects-from-small-causes thing, too, because the truth of such things never fails to amaze me. And there's within a film a core conflict that's also explored in "Forrest Gump" - fate versus chance. Deterministic versus stochastic.
The bottom line for me is that it's a technically brilliant film, beautifully filmed, ingeniously plotted and twisted, and expertly acted...but it never really struck much of a chord with me where it really matters. I think it was great but it's never going to make it to my considerable list of favorite films, and certainly not among the ranks of films that I could watch over and over again. Maybe it was just too highly stylized. Maybe I'm destined to forever remain immune to the charms of art films.' Oh well...I'll always have "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure."
Elvis Meets Nixon (1997)
The President lives in the White House, the King lives in Memphis...
It was perhaps THE most surreal and weird time of Elvis' life, a life marked by more than a few such times. How can an entire film revolve around the December 21, 1970 meeting of Elvis Presley with President Nixon? As it turns out, quite effectively. We're talking the moment in time when the path of history's most phenomenal entertainer intersected with that of the most notorious US President yet. Before Nixon's Vietnamization policy wound down a war that irrevocably fractured a nation. After a decade of civil-rights unrest influenced in no small way by the race-barrier bridge that was Elvis Presley. Before the revelations of Watergate and the end of Nixon's Imperial Presidency in August, 1974. Before Elvis' untimely death at 42, almost exactly three years later. The film raises an interesting point at its outset, in the parallels between the two men's lives and their professional fortunes. By late 1970, each was secure at the top after a stunning comeback, but neither was fulfilled or truly happy. Elvis, tired of being Elvis Presley and feeling as if he'd done it all, grew increasingly bored and restless. The triumphs and excitement of his first seasons in Vegas and his first touring schedules since 1957 gave way to interminable nights spent watching movies and breaking speed limits with his hangers-on, the Memphis Mafia. Nixon, despite working political wonders and demonstrating considerable prowess in foreign affairs, was the target of millions who protested the conflict in Vietnam and his growing personal paranoia did nothing to alleviate that weight.
This is the backdrop against which this Showtime movie was set. It's an entertaining film - one I can watch repeatedly - though it has some factual flaws. Elvis did not hate the Beatles. He may have objected to their comments regarding drug use, but the bottom line is that Elvis went to DC primarily to secure a narcotics-agent badge and title. The key ingredient missing in this film is explicit portrayal of Elvis' almost obsessive interest in law enforcement - he'd always wanted to be a policeman but he ended up at Sun records in 1954 and the rest is history. One ingredient in that interest was collecting law-enforcement badges, preferably those with real (not honorary) credentials and powers attached. Yes, although apolitical, he considered himself a patriotic American. But what he really wanted was that badge. Elvis was like a little kid in some respects. And Elvis knew how to get what he wanted out of anybody. He got that badge, but he first had to get to the President.
Yes, it was an argument over money with his father that precipitated his uncharacteristic flight from Graceland and, yes, he'd never traveled solo before. He really did have no idea how to buy things and no cash with which to do so. And, yes, he really did wear a caped purple velvet suit. Nobody knew where he'd gone to, and Graceland was in an uproar. For the only time in his adult life (such as it was), he'd broken free. He jetted to DC, then to LA, and then back to DC. Most of the script appears true to accounts from Jerry Schilling and Sonny West, the two real Memphis Mafians who were there, and from others to whom Elvis recounted the story. As unbelievable as it may seem, that includes the classic scene in the DC-ghetto doughnut shop as well as his trouble with carrying guns on to an airliner and his giving all his money to a soldier.
Other inaccuracies add to the storyline. For one, I don't think he wandered along Sunset Boulevard while he was in LA. Also, though he did shoot out a TV screen at least once when the hated Robert Goulet was on it (and, yes, he uttered the same quip used in the film: "that'll be enough of that s***"), he didn't do it during this time period. The fact is that the King was fairly restrained in killing TVs and didn't make a particular habit of it.
The film's very well done, with a lighthearted and ironic feel appropriate to the actual events. There're even two references that foreshadow Elvis' daughter's doomed marriage to Michael Jackson. The actors are all perfect in their roles. In particular, Rick Peters makes an excellent Elvis. He doesn't look entirely like him (well, in some shots he looks eerily like him) but he's closer than most and he's pulled off the best characterization since Kurt Russell's 1979 turn as Elvis. The voice, the mannerisms...it's all there. A little over-the-top and far more oafish' and less cool than the real thing but, hey, there was only one Elvis. And this Elvis is basically likeable, too, even if he's not the self-aware revolutionary or rockin' rebel that some in the film (and some viewers) might wish him to be. There's innocence there, too. Bob Gunton also pulls off his role of Nixon with gusto, and he does a letter-perfect job. He has the mannerisms down, the voice, the look, and the paranoia. I was surprised to find that neither seems to have played their respective characters in any other properties - they're so good at it that it's hard to believe. Richard Beymer's also good as Haldeman, the foil to Nixon and the voice of relative sanity in the Oval Office. There's even a Forrest-Gumpish moment in which Nixon appears to get the idea of taping meetings from Elvis. Cutting back to contemporary interviews with people both real and imagined (though Wayne Newton was not, as he claimed, an exceptionally close friend to Elvis) is a nice touch and helps bridge scenes and put things in perspective.
The random insanity of it all (at least, apparently so...remember, Elvis had a Plan) is compelling and the story flows like a rollercoaster. You never saw Elvis like this. And he never went out by himself again.
And, no, I don't think Elvis ever really understood the extent of his impact on the world.
Never makes it across the intersection...
I'm not quite sure what this movie's about. I'm not saying that I suspect that I missed some deep, subtle secret concealed within the narrative that only a select few will ever grasp (this, I assume, is true of the alleged comedy that I've missed in various 'comedic' films) -- rather, I'm just not entirely sure that this film delivers what it might have had it had a more coherent flow and some semblance of actually going anywhere. Not that that sentence that I just penned is a great example of those qualities, but I digress...
The movie features fine performances from all involved, including Lolia Davidovich and Sharon Stone and the pretty-much-always excellent Richard Gere. Gere's character is convincing and real, but perhaps a tad too real because he's a pretty wishy-washy fellow and his is not the most compelling of roles. Then again, neither is anyone else's, really. The two female leads get marginally more to wrap their skills around, but the whole is way less than the sum of its parts.
A 98-minute film, "Intersection" seems a lot longer and I found myself calculating time-elapsed and time-remaining at more than one point. Hardly a good sign. Sure, there are no Ramboesque explosions and car chases (though a high-speed driving theme is at the movie's heart) but I'm not the type of male who has to have that kind of thing to keep me engaged. A story might be nice, though. I mean, a story that hangs together. In the absence of much direction, and in the presence of multiple and confusing layers of flashback, the actors' great work is sabotaged. It just doesn't really seem to go anywhere.
When the film finished I felt the sentiment echoed in that old Peggy Lee song..."Is that all there is?" And I don't like Peggy Lee, darn it!