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The Savage Innocents (1960)
Unusual film sure to offend for all the right reasons
This film stands poised, as if between an iceberg and a deadly chill sea, between the condemnation of past and future. What I mean is, I'm sure when it was released it angered conservatives, and at this point in time I'm sure it will anger liberals. It tells the story of one Inuit man, played by Anthony Quinn ("Quinn the Eskimo"), who often refers to himself as "somebody" or "a man." We're told that this is the way Inuit people speak.... I don't know about that, any more than that they relish raw meat, but it certainly gives the film a universal quality that must frustrate all sorts of people who prefer to think politically.
The story is a bit rambling, as it takes about an hour to get to the real crisis: Quinn's character accidentally kills a white missionary, and is hunted by police even though he does not understand what he has done. In truth, he's sorry for killing the white man, but the white man was also guilty of breaking his own laws. Whose law is valid? As his wife, played excellently by Yoko Tani, says "when you come to someone's house, bring your wives, not your laws."
The movie is full of outrageous content, but the purpose of pushing the audience so far out of its comfort zone is to make us feel empathy for those who do not buy into our "civilization." What we take for granted certainly seems a luxury or even a trivial thing when it is contemplated in the midst of an environment where life and death are barely separable, where a slip into the water just means "he's dead", not "oh i better save him." As Quinn says when the one cop falls in the water, "he's dead, and you're stupid to try to save him." White values mean nothing in this environment, not because some liberal decided that it was so, but because survival is more real than white values.
I thought the performances were all excellent, with O'Toole being handed the difficult job of the sympathetic white man. I think it was brave for Nicholas Ray to depict white civilization in such a negative light. Like all his best movies, this film depicts a small community of outsiders, people who exist outside the normal law and morality but who create their own values and way of life. It is an admirable, if sometimes flawed, picture that will not leave your mind anytime soon.
Anything Goes (1956)
There are some problems with this movie..... no, it's not the cast, although some of the talented performers (Bing Crosby in particular) seem bored or listless. Donald O'Connor and Mitzi Gaynor have no chemistry, Zizi Jeanmarie is a bit out of place but has plenty of talent to spare.
The film doesn't follow the plot to the original play at all. Some of the songs are replaced with new songs by an old composer (Jimmy Van Heusen). But that's not the problem either. The original play was pretty dull, basically a rip-off of Anita Loos' play "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes." And, at least, most of the action here takes place on a transcontinental cruise, so I don't think removing a corny story about missing jewels really hurt anything.
Director Robert Lewis may be the problem. There's gotta be a reason he never did a real film again. He does not know how to use the widescreen (whenever somebody moves on camera, he moves the camera with them, and he uses too many medium shots), and his direction is generally uninspired. The plot and the dialog can barely hold the film together between the songs. Lewis isn't helping things along. There's no "wow" factor here. Everybody is fine, the songs are pleasant, but there's absolutely no real passion on display.
Doctor Zhivago (1965)
Heavy production clashes with story
David Lean directs the heck out of Boris Pasternak's novel, providing an opportunity for solid performances from a cast that includes Omar Sharif, Julie Christie, Rod Steiger, and Alec Guinness (the latter giving one of his less impressive performances). Unfortunately, the story just doesn't really have enough weight to support Carlo Ponti's production, and Lean doesn't really seem to be helping because he obviously wants to top "Lawrence of Arabia" even though the story here should be more intimate and personal.
There are a number of action sequences that are a bit overblown -- the only one that really feels necessary is the scene of the Cossacks attacking the revolutionary activists. There's a particularly drawn out and overindulgent battle scene that takes place with horses on an icy lake, which exemplifies the film's tendency to make a big fuss over things that are not integral to the film's story.
Jarre's theme is effective, but not very versatile.... it keeps reminding us that we're watching a love story. Sharif and Christie are excellent, Steiger holds his stuff down admirably, but most of the smaller roles (particularly Tom Courenay) come off all wrong.
Django Unchained (2012)
Quentin Tarantino has delivered an uneven product over the years, if you ask me, but his high points have so far always been worth sticking around for. This film is one of them. Regardless of plot conveniences that are piled on at an almost comical pace, the story and the action are compelling, and the excess of dialog only weighs the film down a little bit. Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz are perfect in their roles, bringing that old movie magic where you really root for the good guys.
The film isn't any less exploitative than "Inglorious Basterds".... where he was treading on "Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS" territory, now he's in the terrain of Russ Meyer's "Blacksnake." Why does it bother me less? I'm not sure, but I've always been more partial to Westerns than War movies, and I thought the characters in this film were a lot more compelling.
Morricone's music is better used here than it has been in his other films (it feels like like fanfilm and more like appropriate film music) -- helps that Morricone did an original song for this one (Tarantino obviously reads my posts here, since I mentioned he should just hire the maestro way back in the 90s).
Sequel, please! It would be fun to see how Django deals with the civil war in America.
The Sun Also Rises (1957)
Dull melodrama goes nowhere
If this is a faithful adaption of Hemingway, I can understand why I've never particularly enjoyed reading him. Of course, a bad Hemingway yarn can still a great film make -- as witness Howard Hawks' "To Have and Have Not." Sadly, Henry King and Co. are not up to the task.
The film's characters describe themselves as bohemian war veterans, and there's a feeling that what we're watching is supposed to pass for some form of "disillusion" or maybe even "debauchery." But the sad old person's 1950s style American version of extreme Parisian debauchery makes the beach party movies look like porn. Nobody does anything in this movie except drink too much and say idiotic things, occasionally (but not often enough) get into fights, etc.
The performances are not bad at all, especially from Mel Ferrer and Errol Flynn. Everybody is too old for their roles, but that's not really the big problem..... the film is caught up in the same old Hollywood dilemma, of how to present broken-down and tarnished humanity without making the glamorous actors and actresses playing them seem drab. As a result, probably due to King's careful direction, everyone acts as if they are hiding under a wet blanket. There's not a moment in the film where anything seems spontaneous. Ty Power was an excellent actor, but Ron Reagan could have played this role with this director just as well. King doesn't know how to use the widescreen to good effect, so he over-uses medium shots and there are a lot of exterior sequences that just feel like travelogues (Leo Tolver had no particular talent for color photography, and simply saturates the screen).
I was surprised that the story basically went nowhere, and nothing was revealed about the characters that wasn't obvious immediately. I like Ava Gardner and Tyrone Power, so I was disappointed that they didn't get to take these characters anywhere interesting. Gardner has none of the spontaneity and shine that she shows off in better films like "Barefoot Contessa", and to get a good performance from Power you need to give him some element of regret or self-loathing. I don't really know who would have made this story believable, though. Everyone says the stars should have been younger, but would this be a good film with, say, Grace Kelly and Rock Hudson? No.
Milius epic with Oates has a lot going for it
While it falls short of real greatness by an inch here and a mile there, John Milius' debut film "Dillinger" is a nasty treat, packed with a Peckinpah-ish cast headed by Warren Oates and Ben Johnson, with Harry Dean Stanton, Michelle Phillips and Richard Dreyfuss in strong support. While dialog is often rough and cartoonish -- you can almost feel Milius' strain as he attempts to write dialog that is both romantic and cynical for the love scenes between Oates and Phillips -- the action scenes are top notch in both staging and execution. The cinematography is crisp and just lightly overstated, Milius' direction is assured if never subtle, and the performances rise well above the script.
Although it's a rare pleasure to see the incomparable Warren Oates in a leading role, this film is not as rewarding in that sense as Peckinpah's "Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia" from the following year. There's a feeling that Oates and Milius are a bit too concerned with making Dillinger a macho badass, although they do a good job of showing how his farmboy roots shine through. A few too many scenes verge on hero-worship. As good as Oates is, I thought Ben Johnson was perhaps even more impressive, particularly since he's been cast here well outside of his normal comfort zone. He's very impressive, for example, in a brief scene where he connects with a young boy who idolizes Dillinger and admits he "wouldn't wanna be a G-man."
Chinatown, it is not. Milius stages mythology in an impressive manner but with no subtlety and very little flair. The film does have a special sort of quality about it, but we don't feel the exhilaration that a good bank-robbing movie should impart. There's too much focus on the Phillips/Oates relationship, which begins with a beating, rape, and kidnapping and suddenly veers into romance. It's all very confusing and feels, like much else in this film, like a attempt to "top" the earlier "Bonnie and Clyde" (dismissed in the film as "amateurs").
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
I saw this film in 3D at the Sony Metreon in San Francisco.... 3D certainly enhances the visual aspects of the film, which already manage to evoke Star Wars/Star Trek while remaining unique and appealing. There are also a host of solid performances in the film, especially from perennial oddballs and villains like Benicio Del Toro and Michael Rooker. The story is engaging enough, though not particularly original.
There are certain aspects of the film that are disconcerting to me.... the main character's chauvinism, to some extent, but mainly the feminized villain and the sadism present in some action scenes. The film follows the trend from bad films like "300" of presenting a villain who is practically a Gothic drag queen. He's neither memorable nor scary. More disturbing still is the sadism in a couple scenes, especially a cantina scene that features a gruesome game involving large aliens devouring smaller aliens (surely the film would have been banned if it had featured a cockfight, but this is the sci-fi equivalent). There's also the scene where somebody tosses the raccoon a gun and the whole movie slows down and pauses to accentuate his "Oh yeah" before he indiscriminately opens fire on a crowd of prisoners and guards. I've never been big on the gun worship in this culture and I wished it hadn't been transferred to this sci-fi film. One of the cool aspects of "Star Wars" was the fact that the good guys fought with "elegant weapons from a more civilized age."
But hell, the movie's fun..... right from the first moments with Chris Pratt's "Star-Lord" performing a karaoke version of Redbone's classic "Come and Get Your Love" using a rat as the microphone, you know that this film is going to be goofy and weird. Which makes sense, since it's director, James Gunn, started out in Troma Films. This film does a nice job of balancing the characterization with the sometimes corny jokes, and makes you want to feel positive about everybody. Also, it has a really excellent femme fatale in Karen Gillan. While a lot of the jokes seem pretty obvious, some are more visual and subtle (for example, the little decorative collector's items that Michael Rooker's character installs in his spaceship).
All in all, it's a big budget re-imagining of the sort of sexualized and campy vibe that permeated Roger Corman's "Battle Beyond the Stars" -- some of these films in the Trek and SW franchises really take themselves too seriously, and this film has a lot more freedom and spirit. It's not a great movie by any means, but it stands by itself as a solid achievement while stretching the boundaries of the "big comic book movie" in a way that, perhaps, George Lucas only dreamed of doing with his "Howard the Duck" film. Which, fittingly, this film refers to. While the references stretch far beyond expectations ("Footloose", really?) they rarely enter into the domain of the outré. This makes the film an offbeat, but accessible, summer blockbuster that should spawn a series of its own sequels.
Man Hunt (1941)
Gripping propaganda film by maestro Lang
This film wastes no time getting started -- no speeches, no anthems, no introduction. We simply see a man (Walter Pidgeon) maneuvering between Nazis in some forested region. When he finally reaches the cliff, his destination, we see him expertly assemble a scope rifle and train its cross-hairs on Der Fuhrer himself. One can just about hear the 1941 audience shouting at the screen, "Pull the trigger! Pull the trigger!" Something goes wrong, of course, and our aristocratic hero spends the rest of the film on the run from nefarious Nazis led by George Sanders and John Carradine.
Pidgeon is unusually animated in this film, and there are a lot of reaction shots of him which bear a similarity to Lang's work with Spencer Tracy (they hated each other) in his American masterpiece "Fury." Carradine and Sanders are suitably nasty, a lot of fun too watch (too much fun? perhaps that's a debate for another day). Joan Bennett shows up as a prostitute who falls for Pidgeon's man on the lam, exposing herself to fatal danger in order to help him and win his heart in return. Her accent is terrible but her performance is passable.
Lang handles the suspense of the chase scenes around foggy London-town with great skill and style. The only real problem that I had with the film was in a lot of the dialog between Pidgeon and Bennett; Pidgeon always has a sort of paternal edge, but in this case it is more of a patronizing razor's edge. Hilariously, Bennett bursts into tears when Pidgeon chooses the couch over her bed, and Pidgeon holds her head and calls her a "poor, dear little child", or words greatly to that effect. There are a lot of those scenes. Certainly we're missing the vital and overtly sexual Bennett of later collaborations such as the infamous "Scarlet Street." In the Lang world, Bennett must either play a saintly whore or a predatory whore, and no room in between for argument or confusion.
The climax becomes a little bit weird, but the film deserves props for actually allowing the Bennett character to die. The fact that her death, as well as the torture scenes involving Pidgeon earlier in the film, are shown strictly off-screen, may represent a compromise between producer Zanuck and Joe Breen's office, which was extremely cautious about anti-Nazi propaganda prior to the official U.S. entry into WWII. This is a significant film in the development of U.S. propaganda -- recent refugee Lang wants to pull no punches, but in retrospect (or compared to his later "Hangmen Also Die") the film's treatment of Nazi villains is almost light-handed, Hollywood villain-ish.
Note, by the way, how Lang manages to get Sanders' monocle and the glasses of several other German spies to gleam menacingly in the scarce lighting -- Spielberg would later use this effect in his nostalgically anti-Nazi films. Considering how much attention Lang paid to his own monocle, it's hardly an accident or a casual effect.
I was interested in the scene where Bennett and Pidgeon go into a jeweler's shop to buy her a hat-pin (the fatal hat-pin, as it turns out). After entering, the distinctly Jewish-looking shopkeeper speaks to them with a heavy German accent, and Pidgeon and Bennett's characters are visibly disturbed for a moment, then continue on with the purchase. This man may have been a refugee from the Nazis, but his accent makes him momentarily suspect. I believe Lang probably included this brief bit of business as a way of expressing his own frustration with the racism that was inevitably being directed towards German émigrés during the propaganda-heavy times leading up to the conflict.
Tepid late Peckinpah
A film of extreme silliness, degraded rather than elevated by its pretensions, this film finds the great director Sam Peckinpah at the end of his career and the nadir of his talent. Star Kris Kristofferson tries rather too hard to lend a mythic or larger-than-life air to the proceedings, while Ali MacGraw looks and acts weirdly out of place in this trucker fantasy. Most of the good scenes involve Kristofferson's rivalry with bad-guy cop Ernest Borgnine. There is a rousing bar fight about halfway through the film, the consequences of which lead to the formation of the titular "convoy" of semi-trucks.
Rarely has the aimlessness and lack of inspiration of the "counter-culture" been on more effective display than in this film. While reaching for some kind of epic outsider/modern outlaw style, the film instead reveals the emptiness of its ideals. Unlike "Easy Rider", which is a flawed film but at least has some real heart, this film does not dwell on the void it has revealed, nor does it advance our poetic understanding of anti-heroes and outlaws. There's very little poetry in a semi-truck, and the film is too self-serious to indulge in the kind of outright farce that made the films of the late 70s with Burt Reynolds at least watchable.
If you want to retain your positive feelings about Sam Peckinpah, best to skip this one. It's entertaining enough, if you watch it with a six pack and don't try to pay too much attention.
Angelina Jolie gets to play, in the film's words, "hero and villain at the same time", and makes a good show of it. Unfortunately, the film's supporting characters, particularly Elle Fanning's Aurora and Sharlto Copley's Stefan, could have used more work and more development. The visual imagery is excellent, even in 3D -- it avoids the over-the-top tricks that one would usually associate with Disney 3D presentations or 3D in general, and creates a visually appealing fantasy world.
I guess I particularly have a problem with the way this film depicts male characters in an uneven manner -- we never get much of a sense whether Stefan or the negligible Prince Charming character who shows up later (mostly for a joke and some really half-hearted drama) are supposed to be the best that the male gender can promise, or not. "True love" is talked about a lot but never shown. Jolie's character's cynicism is supposed to be upended by the conclusion, but I still found myself feeling cynical and dubious about the characters, particularly, again, of the male gender. Also, if Stefan had been a more rounded character, or if he had been developed enough so that redemption would be possible for him, it would have given the film much more dimension.
As it is, it's a fine pseudo-feminist take on classic faerie tale tropes, or at least Disney movie "fairy" tropes. There's fun bits with Imelda Staunton, always a bonus with fantasy movies lately. Robert Stromberg feels free to let his story speak for itself, trusts his actors (even those that he really shouldn't.... but even bad acting such as shows up from time to time in this film has its charm), and doesn't feel the need to add a lot of flair (like Sam Raimi did a few years ago with his Oz movie for Disney, or Tim Burton's embarrassing Alice in Wonderland film).