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Ziegfeld Follies (1945)
Don't bother (and don't judge) unless you can see a good Technicolor print
No doubt the jaded postmodern cynical viewer will find plenty to pick apart in this fluff (facile metaphysics, etc.). That is their loss.
This is not one of the great MGM musicals, but at its best it does what great musicals do: it sweeps you along in a kaleidoscope of color, movement and sound. And because of these qualities this trifle IS art as surely as Citizen Kane or La Promesse are. Cinema is not just an art of--or forum for-- philosophy; it is an art of the color palette, and with The Ziegfeld Follies the technical forces of a great studio created a sometimes exquisite canvas to behold. Unfortunately, like many old films, the canvas is fading.
I first saw this film 20 years ago projected from an exceptional 16 millimeter print that brought out the full richness of the Technicolor cinematography. None of the video versions I've seen since have come close. The same is true for the 1949 John Ford western, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, which I saw many years ago in an unbelievably painterly 16mm Technicolor print. Prints of that film shown on the AMC network don't even come close to the richness of that print.
Its color alone is enough to make The Ziegfeld Follies visually entertaining for me, and that print I saw long ago convinces me that is one of the 10 or 20 most beautiful color films ever made. The merry go round scene (with Lucille Ball as I recall) in hot garish pink was particularly striking visually.
I contend that any film, even marginal or bad ones, made in the extinct and impossible to resurrect Technicolor process is worthy of seeing, because its very usage constitutes a lost art form in and of itself.
Like Ziegfeld Follies, middling films such as Kid Millions (1934), Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936), Jesse James (1939), Down Argentine Way (1940), The Gang's All Here (1943) and The Captain from Castile (1947) are worth seeing almost exclusively because of their amazing color schemes.
The biggest crack about "Tech," as cine buffs call it, is that it was not "realistic" color. Bogus line of reasoning, as no cinematic color process can ever be realistic in the sense of replicating human sight. OK maybe Roger Deakins came close in "Sid and Nancy." Admiring Ziegfeld Follies solely for its color may not be enough for you, but it's enough for me in our era of dreary cinematic color.
Le trou (1960)
Sweat-inducing suspense classic
Jacques Becker's "Le Trou" is one of the greatest of all prison-break films. No film lover should miss it. It is every bit as masterful and tense as other milestones of this subgenre, including John Sturges' "The Great Escape," Robert Bresson's masterpiece "A Man Escaped," and Don Siegel's "Escape from Alcatraz." The meticulous preparation for the escape is a nail-biter, with many adrenaline-inducing close calls. The ringer: Will the newly exonerated prisoner stay with the group and escape or rat on the others? Those seeking pure entertainment or those seeking existentialist philosophical fare will be equally pleased. A memorable movie experience.
Behind the Rising Sun (1943)
Loopy, intriguing WWII propaganda
We'd call it racist today, but this constantly amusing bit of rabble rousing did what it had to do at the time, while allowing somewhat refreshingly that not all Japanese were monsters. When this was made, the outcome of the war was still not assured, although the bombing raids over Tokyo were in full swing, as the end of the film shows. Along the way there's an incongruous mix of white RKO stock leads unconvincingly playing the main Japanese characters while actors of actual Japanese descent play minor supporting parts. J. Carrol Naish may seem silly as a Japanese businessman, but he is surprisingly sincere as the misguided father who goads his nonviolent, Americanized son with jingoistic pleas to enter military service. To the father's eventual dismay, the son, played by Tom Neal in one of Hollywood's more notable instances of miscasting, becomes an increasingly callous savage who comes to relish Japanese atrocities while on duty in China. Showing that Hollywood could do the Goebbels thing with the best of them, the film proceeds to show Japanese soldiers pushing opium on children, yanking mothers away from crying infants, hauling Chinese women into prostitution houses, bayoneting children, and--worst of all--slapping around American nationals! The highlight is a wacky, drawn-out duel of strength between an American boxer (Robert Ryan doing his "The Set Up" thing six years before the fact) and a Japanese jujitsu expert. The film's opening titles claim that the whole thing is 100 percent true and authentic, a perfect red flag to take it all with a grain of salt.
Undergångens arkitektur (1989)
Provocative documentary undermined in English version
"The Architecture of Doom" is the best surgical picking apart of Hitler's brain I've seen. It thoroughly examines Hitler's aesthetic worldview and how it could have lead to an artistic obsession to recreate the world to fit that vision. Its thoroughness is something Hitler himself might have admired! However, the power of this film is regrettably blunted quite a bit by the poor English narration. Perhaps Bruno Ganz's original narration with subtitles would have been better--though I haven't seen the latter to say for sure. In any case, narration is crucial in films like these (For a great example, listen to Trevor Howard in "Memory of the Camps"), and this lifeless, inflectionless reader really hurts a film that deserves a lot better treatment.
Searing and unforgettable
As with Frederick Wiseman's "Titicut Follies," the Maysles brothers' "Salesman" is truly a landmark for the "cinema verite" documentary movement of the 1960s. Although the former is shockingly realistic in a sensational way, "Salesman" is actually the more disturbing for showing the Hell-on-earth that marks the workaday world for most of humanity. If ever a film shows that most people "lead lives of quiet desperation," this is it. In my lifetime of viewing films, I've never seen a non-fiction film more affecting and poignant. That this film didn't make the AFI Top 100 is practically scandalous. Be forewarned, this is an oppressively sad, yet slyly funny, film that is not easy to watch. It speaks volumes about American business practices, the ties between business and organized religion, the exploitation of religious belief (and its perversion via materialism), the dehumanization of workers, the crushing wisdom that can come with aging, the scary mindset of suburban denizens, and a lot more. If ever anyone had the right to ask the question, "Is that all there is?" it would be Paul, an aging Bible salesman having trouble meeting his sales quota, who serves as the film's central character. The film is brutally honest, yet powerfully manipulative. It does beg the question: how much is real and how much is affected by the presence of the cameras? One does feel, after seeing this, that reality is just as bad as Dorothy Parker said it was. For those who fail, the American Dream is a nightmare. In short, a film you'll never forget.
Blood and Wine (1996)
A splendid "Florida Noir"
Infrequent director Rafelson brings his good eye for Americana to a rollicking good crime tale with shades of the classic "Key Largo." Although the heist itself may seem a bit too high risk to stretch credulity (all those witnesses!), this is a smart, sexy movie that knows that greed and the compulsion to break the law have their own inner logic irrespective of risk. The plot is full of the expected twists and turns without becoming confusing or ridiculous, as is often the case with crime films these days. Right now, we're in a second golden age of film noir, with John Dahl and others bringing a contemporary slant to classic noir conventions. Enjoy it while it's happening and see this film, a key entry in this renaissance.
The Boxer (1997)
A real sense of place and character
"My Left Foot" was the underdog crowd-pleaser with a contemporary edge, "In the Name of the Father" was the rousing grand statement, but with "The Boxer" Sheridan has made his most mature film. The characters and their motives are all extremely well developed, and if Sheridan occasionally slips into cliche' (the obvious villain, for example) it's all in service to keeping the plot manageable. The tender love story, too, seems right for a change, and its ramifications (not all good) are well explored. One really has a sense of these characters' histories and how they've changed because of their personal and political circumstances. Danny's struggle to not be "used" by any agenda groups, as he had before and ended up in prison, is interesting, inasmuch as he is the one who wants to determine his actions and their symbolism. The boxer is just as doomed to failure as the brief shining hope for peace he represents. Every character has a great stake in the outcome of the cease fire, and Sheridan does a good job of exploring those stakes. In revolutions, some of the revolutionaries forget the original thing they were fighting for and chose to exist solely for the fight itself. The film is good at showing the difficulty of change, even for those have to grudgingly bury the hatchet of past injustice. This movie gets off to an extremely slow start and seems aimless for the first half hour, but stick with it and you'll get in its groove and be on the edge of your seat by the end.
Private Parts (1997)
Self serving, but funny
Seeing the scene in which Stern bathes with the horny nude woman but never removes his underwear and never follows through reminded me of Bill Clinton saying he never inhaled (or never "had sex with that woman," for that matter). Uh, yeah, right. It's just another example of Stern having his cake and eating it too: he's a bad boy, but not really. Like any Hollywood bio, you have to take a lot of it with a grain of salt. If nothing else, it proves why he's the "king of all media." No matter what he says, you still like him and want to believe him. As for plot, it's just the old "underdog/misfit makes good" story--with an attitude. What makes Howard Stern funny on the radio is his lack of pretension, and the way he skewers everything equally. The movie is best when it shows this in action. The love story works surprisingly well too. What's refreshing about the movie is that it never gets stuck in a groove. It finds the right balance in its elements. Cutting to Bababooey, for instance, auditioning women on the street, then cutting back to Howard's home life, then cutting to Howard's battles with network execs such as "Pig Vomit" and cutting to the show itself. The portrait of Howard as a gawky nerd in the seventies is something that all us gawky '70s nerds can identify with. It's got some of the funniest tasteless humor this side of the Farrelly brothers (ie., the Match Game parody and the woman with a special orgasmic attachment to stereo speakers.) When I give acquaintances the one-sentence description of "Private Parts," I say it's an X-rated "WKRP in Cincinnati." Somehow, it all works beautifully.
The New Age (1994)
Mess or Masterpiece?
Critics seem to have split widely on this film, and it's easy to see why. It's a rather painful, plodding thing to sit through--yet one can't get it out of the mind afterward. Writer/director Tolkin has a lot of disturbing things to say about post-industrial affluence in America in the 1990s, and in trying to say everything in one movie he has piled it on so thick that the brain requires a postmortem to reflect. Judy Davis, as she was in "Husbands and Wives," is dynamite, and the film is worth seeing just for her. The film has an uncanny eye and feel for the bleak interiors of the contemporary American service economy: the boutiques, the high-rise telemarketing boiler rooms, the house-poor interiors of career people who are hardly ever at home, etc. The film's title refers to the spiritual quest of the couple to find a meaning to their existence, or at least some alternative approach to life to their destructive materialism. How they go about it is all wrong, of course. In true hedonist fashion, they try everything. At the same time they seek a simpler, spiritual, non-materialistic life via a bunch of wacky gurus and cultists, they are indulging in carnal and other pleasures as diversions. When they open a small business, ostensibly to gain more control over their lives and income, the forces of the world are worse than any bosses. In all of this, they seem to be outside of everything they do, as in dreams when you watch yourself and are powerless to control the changing scenery. Despite their doldrums and hostility, this is a couple who have too much in common to split. During the course of all this, Tolkin gets plenty of jabs in about an American economy that seems to be teetering on wisps of hope rather than on any true productivity. By the end, the "new age" looks uncomfortably like a very old one, in which the law of the jungle reigned.
Seven Waves Away (1957)
A sane alternative to "Titanic"
I haven't seen this film in many years, but I have never forgotten it. It proves you can make a harrowing high-seas adventure with life-and-death philosophical overtones on a tiny budget in a tiny set without going overboard (pun intended) like the bloated "Titanic." In some ways, I prefer this gritty, direct film more than Alfred Hitchcock's very similar "Lifeboat." This film has fewer glamorous eccentricities and gets down to the painful, shocking task of sacrificing lives. Tyrone Power might seem miscast as the captain, but this is not a glamor-boy role and as I recall he handles it quite well. If you're in the mood for hard-hitting, serious drama, this is the picture for you.