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Combat!: Finest Hour (1965)
Extraordinary performances from two Hollywood greats!!
It must have been quite an occasion in 1965 when two of MGM's greatest pre-war stars returned to the MGM lot to film this episode of 'Combat'. Ramon Novarro, who MGM had dumped thirty years earlier after 14 years, and Luise Rainer, who had dumped MGM in 1938 after winning two Oscars, were both outstanding actors and they throw their full star-power into this little war-time drama.
They play a French Count and Countess who find themselves sheltering a couple of American soldiers while their château is being occupied by Nazi officers. The total emotional control these two great artists exhibit here is extraordinary and they make the episode deeply moving and completely engrossing, despite conventional plotting and over-the-top direction.
Novarro's final scene is particularly fine and seeing Rainer and him perform scenes in extreme close-up, you cannot help but be impressed by their total emotional honesty and their extreme physical beauty (although Novarro was in his mid-sixties and Rainer in her mid-fifties).
Hollywood was spoilt for choice in the mid-sixties, and these two great stars should have worked a lot more at this time. So it is a rare privilege to be able to see them in this aptly titled episode 'Finest Hour'. It is certainly one of the finest hours of television you will ever see.
War Story (2001)
An overlooked silent gem, made ten years before "The Artist".
"War Story" (2001), like "The Artist" (2011), is a beautifully realised homage to silent cinema - this time the silent comedy one-reelers of people like Charles Chaplin. John Baumgartner does a truly amazing job in writing, directing, producing and starring in the film, creating a charming on-screen character, and some beautifully timed slapstick routines. Like Chaplin, Baumgartner also adds some serious themes, and pathos, to the comedy, because, somewhat surprisingly, the film centres on a romance between two men, one a soldier, the other a waiter, in 1918.The romance is so sweet, that it makes the often violent reactions of the other characters to it, seem absurd. This is an absolute gem and I am surprised at its lack of profile - I hope this is not because of the gay themes, but I suspect it is. "War Story" is, in its way, as fine a work as "The Artist", and well worth seeking out.
The Iron Lady (2011)
Brilliant Meryl, disappointing film.
Something of a missed opportunity, this is a film not worthy of its brilliant leading lady. Meryl Streep is astonishing as Margaret Thatcher but director Phyllida Lloyd (who also directed Meryl in "Mamma Mia") seems uncertain about what she wants to say about the women. Evidently hampered by an inadequate budget, the big events of Thatcher's life are depicted with an awkward cobbling together of real news footage and re-enactment, while in other scenes Lloyd tries to disguise the lack of budget by using more crazy camera angles than an episode of "Batman". The low budget also might account for us seeing more of the elderly dementia ridden Thatcher than the Prime Minister Thatcher. Nonetheless Meryl makes this film unmissable - it is sometimes hard to believe we are not looking at Thatcher herself! Maybe she could play the part again in another, better film!
The Sign of the Cross (1932)
Stunning combination of debauchery and drama!
How did DeMille do it? How did he make a film that is wildly decadent, revelling in the debaucheries of Ancient Rome, while still making it a moving tribute to the Christian martyrs of the time? The way he balances spectacle, comedy, drama, moralising and debauchery is pure genius! If you've never seen a pre-Hollywood-production-code movie before you may be surprised to see a glimpse of Claudette Colbert's nipples as she's bathing in milk, to see an erotic lesbian dance sequence, to see a naked young man sitting next to the very gay Nero of Charles Laughton! And then DeMille joyously recreates a whole day of gruesome spectacles in the arena in all their gruesome detail. But then, somehow, he switches the whole mood and, thanks to excellent performances from Fredric March, Elissa Landi and young Tommy Conlon, creates a deeply moving finale, that tragically anticipates the horrors of the Holocaust. An amazing film in every way, and so much better than "Quo Vadis"!
It's a shame they couldn't sack the producer!
As a kind of antidote to "Quo Vadis" I watched this fascinating film last night. It's probably a more realistic depiction of Ancient Rome and its debauchery, which is shown in explicit detail. There is the kernel of a great film here, with stunning sets and costumes, Oscar calibre performances from Peter O'Toole and Malcolm McDowell, and a script by Gore Vidal. Sadly the director was replaced by Bob Guccione from Penthouse, who was producing the film, because the film wasn't explicit enough for Bob's taste. So he re-edited it, and added some completely gratuitous hard-core porn sequences. The result is something of a mess (if you excuse the pun), but the controversy ensured the film's big box-office success. This is the first time I've seen the uncensored version and it is pretty full-on! Sad really because this could have been a great film instead of just being an infamous one.
Quo Vadis (1951)
Grand Spectacle but Poor Drama!
I watched this last night on blu-ray, and greatly admired the restoration work. But it's really not a very good movie. Despite moments of grand spectacle, and the gloriously camp performances of Peter Ustinov and Patricia Laffan as Nero and his wife, the film takes itself way too seriously to be enjoyable. Robert Taylor and Deborah Kerr play such boringly pious characters that you can't care for them, but Leo Genn as a clever senator is excellent. Ultimately the film is also too historically inaccurate to forgive. It exaggerates the importance of Christianity during Nero's reign, it was still just a tiny sect and certainly never blamed for the fire that destroyed Rome. Nero didn't light the fire either, and apparently acted quite bravely during it, saving thousands of lives by opening up his private gardens to the fleeing citizens. His downfall, and death (murder or suicide), only followed, years later, after his grandiose rebuilding plans nearly bankrupted the Empire. The film also leaves out, understandably for 1951, the fact that, after Nero murdered his wife, he had one of his slave-boys castrated and made him impersonate her for years!
The Great Lie (1941)
The quintessential Warner Bros melodrama.
To my mind this film is perfect - a classic example of what the studio system of the golden years of Hollywood could achieve. Strong direction, witty dialogue, beautiful music, sublime cinematography, crisp editing, gorgeous production design and costuming, brilliant performances - every element of this film is perfect.
Add to all that the daring (for its day) story-line, Bette Davis at the height of her dramatic powers and at her most beautiful, and Mary Astor delivering what I think is one of the great screen performances of all time, and you have a very special film indeed.
Although the film may seem to have dated elements, especially in the depiction of the African-American characters, if you let yourself watch the film with 1941 eyes you will be richly rewarded. Besides which the wonderful Hattie McDaniel brings so much depth to what could have been a simple stereotype.
As you can tell, I love this film. I understand Bette Davis and Mary Astor loved working together - and you can see that on the screen. The scenes between the two of them are electric, with so much being said beyond the words. Thank God Astor won an Oscar for her work here. She truly deserved it.
Bonanza: The Brass Box (1965)
Ramon Novarro makes this episode a must-see.
Ever wanted to hear Pavarotti sing "Baby One More Time", or see Gordon Ramsay make a hamburger, well that's what it's like watching the great silent film star Ramon Novarro act his heart out in this episode of "Bonanza". It is extraordinary to see him playing his scenes with such an intensity of emotion that you could swear his dialogue was written by Shakespeare. More than anything his performance reveals what a wasted talent he was in Hollywood. It is sadly ironic too that his character is physically tortured in one scene, given the terrible nature of his murder just three years later.
To give the episode its due, it is actually pretty good. The story of an elderly Spanish man who claims his family legally own the Ponderosa, and a large part of the land around it, has resonance with the the land rights claims of indigenous people all over the world today, and Novarro manages to capture the dignified humiliation of a once great family reduced to being an object of ridicule living on the fringes of society. Perhaps he was drawing on his own fall from being a major Hollywood star. In any case he gives his scenes a greater depth than they perhaps deserve, and makes this episode unforgettable. Lorne Greene especially seems to pick up on this and matches him well in their scenes together.
This episode is a must-see for all actors.
A genuine masterpiece.
Ana Kokkinos' Blessed is a heartbreaking tale of the love between mothers and their children, and is one of the finest achievements of Australian cinema. The flawless screenplay follows a number of characters through a single day, deftly telling their stories from different points of view until we develop a full understanding of the day's events. Geoff Burton's stunning cinematography focuses on unexpected things a pattern on a wall, a flash of fabric and then moves in close to the characters, creating a rich visual texture. The music of Cezary Skubiszewski is one of the finest movie scores of recent years, gently enhancing the drama and the brilliant performances of the actors. The entire cast is superb, but I must make special mention of Frances O'Connor, who gives the performance of her life, and the splendid Monica Maughan, whose brief appearance in the film is truly unforgettable. Blessed represents a triumphant return to form for Kokkinos, after the disappointing Book of Revelation, proving that the astonishing Head On was no fluke. Her uncompromising, insightful, deeply humanist eye makes her one of the most exciting directors working today. Blessed is a deeply moving film that you will never forget, and deserves to be showered with awards.
In Bruges (2008)
Quite simply, the best film of the year (so far)!
The wittiest script since "All About Eve", combined with deep insights, magnificent performances, brilliant scenery, fine cinematography, excellent music - it's hard to fault this great film. At its core is the superb performance by Colin Farrell, proving yet again that he is one of the finest actors of his generation (check him out in Woody Allen's "Cassandra's Dream" as well and you'll see what I mean). A perfect blend of comic timing, rough charm and vulnerability - it's a knockout performance. And that's not to diminish the work of Brendan Gleeson, Ralph Fiennes or any of the other cast members - even the bit part players are terrific. Best not to say too much about the plot, as it's better to see it with fresh eyes - but Martin McDonagh deserves to be showered with awards for his work as both writer and director (and it's his first feature!). And it's not a bad tourist ad for Bruges either! I hope this film comes up at Oscar time - it truly deserves to.