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Fear Chamber (1968)
Karloff is always worth seeing, but . . .
One of those dreary Mexican productions that Boris Karloff made toward the end of his career, "The Fear Chamber"'s only attraction for the great but now aged and ailing star must have been the paycheck. The plot, already described elsewhere, is ludicrous, the set looks like somebody's basement, and the effects are cheap.
It's always worth seeing Karloff, but otherwise the only attraction is the supporting cast which includes various beautiful women, including Isele Vega (best known for "Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia"), who are called upon to add some sex to the mix. The lesbian scenes make no sense within the context of the story, but they may at least prevent you from fast-forwarding to the conclusion.
Ma vie en rose (1997)
"Ma Vie En Rose," winner of the 1997 Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film (its English title is "My Life in Pink"), concerns Ludo, a 7-year-old boy who likes to dress up as a girl and dreams of marrying a boy, even staging a mock wedding with himself decked out in a pink satin dress and pearls.
His parents are appalled. When Ludo makes an appearance at a family gathering dressed as a girl, the father covers his embarrassment with nervous laughter and insists his son is just joking. The mother drags him to the sink to wash off his lipstick. When Ludo continues to cross-dress, they take him to a therapist "to set him straight."
Ludo's attempts to be a typical boy prove disastrous, however. When he tries to kiss a girl, she knocks him to the ground. "I don't kiss girls," she sneers. He proves too gentle for football, and when another boy sees him through the opening of a toilet stall, sitting down to pee, he explains that he's a "girl-boy."
Of course, Ludo is almost certain to grow up to be homosexual or transgender, perhaps opting to change his gender through surgery. The film doesn't take us that far into the future, but does conclude on a note of acceptance. "Whatever happens, you'll always be my child," the father tells Ludo, shortly before the credits roll.
The boy in "Ma Vie En Rose" is adorable, and is very convincing when dolled up as a female. The film itself is quite lovely. Undoubtedly, there are those who would assail it as propaganda meant to promote tolerance toward homosexuals and gender-bending boys. Maybe it is, but the fact remains that there are boys who want to be girls, and such boys would exist even if a film like Ma Vie En Rose did not. If it succeeds in making the life of a "girl boy" easier, what's wrong with that?
Brian W. Fairbanks
The Black Room (1935)
Karloff in a dual role
"The Black Room" is a clever little thriller from Columbia Pictures that gives Boris Karloff a dual role.
Karloff plays twin brothers from a powerful family. The oldest is the kindest of gentlemen, and the youngest is wickedness personified. When Bad Karloff is bad, he's really bad, fond of murdering women and burying their bodies in a basement pit. His subjects are on to him and call on Good Karloff to take his place. If only it were that simple. Bad Karloff adds his good brother to his collection of corpses, confident that a prophecy in which he dies by a knife held by his older sibling can no longer be fulfilled. Again, if only it were that simple.
Karloff is terrific in both parts, and there's a fine atmospheric touch, not surprising since "The Black Room" was directed by Roy William Neill, the unsung genius who guided Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce through 11 of their 12 Sherlock Holmes movies at Universal.
Faithful and engrossing remake of Swedish original
If you saw and liked the original Swedish film based on Stieg Larsson's novel "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," you might be pleased or disappointed with David Fincher's English-language remake for the same reason: this is a pretty straight-forward remake with few surprises for fans of Neil Arden Opley's 2009 adaptation of the same material. Even the leading players, Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara, seem to have been chosen because of their resemblance to Michael Nyqvist and Noomi Rapace.
Despite its familiarity, I found this version as engrossing as the first with the cast more than equal to the challenge of bringing these characters to life. And if you're looking for a great insult to direct at an enemy, the phrase on Mara's T-shirt in one scene is a masterpiece of raunchy perfection. I think Leo the Lion, M-G-M's mascot, may have read it, too, which could explain why his roar was silent for a change when the company logo appeared on screen before the movie.
Be sure not to miss the opening titles which reminded me of the opening of a Bond film as it might appear in a nightmare.
The Cocoanuts (1929)
Technically crude, but charming
"The Cocoanuts" was released in 1929, only two years after sound was introduced to the movies. Not surprisingly, it's a little crude technically, but I find that to be part of its charm. Like most Marx Brothers films, the plot isn't particularly important. It plays second-fiddle to their hilarious hi-jinks, and there are plenty of them to savor. The musical numbers can be a bit tedious, but they're worth sitting through while we wait for Groucho, Harpo, and Chico to take center stage. Oh, yeah, Zeppo's in this one, too, but who really expects much from him?
One of the delights of "The Cocoanuts" is the presence of a pre-stardom Kay Francis who would soon sign with Warner Bros. and become one of their highest paid stars. Sadly, her reign as the queen of Warners was short-lived, and she is rather obscure today, but she was not only a great actress, but an absolute babe! Having seen her in this, I now look forward to seeing more of her films.
Brian W. Fairbanks
Morte a Venezia (1971)
A pedophile fantasy
I never read "Death in Venice," but I'm sure it concerns more than an artist's homosexual longings. Luchino Visconti's 1971 film is interested in little else. Considering that Visconti and his star, Dirk Bogarde, were both gay, that is hardly surprising. In Mann's novel, the artist is a painter. Visconti makes him a composer, an odd choice for a film maker who one would expect to relate better to another visual artist. Maybe Visconti was attempting to distance himself from the character, to make his film appear less autobiographical and less scandalous.
The object of beauty with which Bogarde's composer becomes obsessed is a young boy of 15 with delicate features and a long mane of wavy blonde hair. Played by Bjorn Andresen in his film debut, he dresses in a sailor's suit through much of the film and resembles a doll. He is, indeed, an "object" to admire like a painting or piece of statuary. He has almost no dialogue. He is present to be observed and to occasionally acknowledge Bogarde's stares with a teasing glance. The boy is wise enough to know this man is enthralled by his beauty and seems to enjoy the power it gives him. The boy could literally bring the man to his knees. If "Death in Venice" was a porno film, he would, too, but this is art, you know, so the boy keeps his nice white sailor's slacks on and Bogarde communicates his passion only through longing gazes.
"Death in Venice" has an intellectual veneer, but it's really about a gay pedophile. That doesn't disqualify it from consideration as art. Indeed, sexual passion has likely inspired some of the greatest masterpieces, and when the passion is forbidden, all that pent-up desire needs an outlet. But homosexuals have never been stigmatized in the arts as they have been in other professions. As a film director, Visconti likely had many opportunities to indulge his sexual appetite that would not have been available to a closeted accountant or grocery store clerk. Still, he channeled his passions into his work. There's little doubt that Bjorn Andresen was cast as the boy who ignites Bogarde's passion because Andresen ignited Visconti's. In later years, Andresen acknowledged that Visconti had a sexual interest in him and took him to gay bars during filming.
Visconti's homosexuality informs "Death in Venice," but there is a larger theme even though the director reduces it to a footnote. An outbreak of cholera in Venice leads not to concerns about the artist's own health as might be expected, but to fear that it will harm the boy and wipe his beauty from the earth. The artist is also sad about the passing of his own youth and lets a barber dye his hair and powder his face to improve his appearance. Age, the inevitability of decay, etc, are what "Death in Venice" is supposedly about, and the symbolism in the ending is a little too obvious.
The theatrical trailer included on the DVD flashes the word "Masterpiece" on the screen, but does not attribute it to any critic. Visconti was an artist, but that doesn't make every film he made a masterpiece. "Death in Venice" doesn't make it. Other than the lovely shots of Bjorn Andresen's face, the imagery makes no lasting impression, and without memorable images, all we are left with is music by Gustav Mahler accompanying an emotionally muted and ultimately shallow homosexual fantasy.
Brian W. Fairbanks
Jack Nicholson is lucky that actor Rip Torn quit "Easy Rider" after butting heads with director Dennis Hopper. If he hadn't been hired as Torn's replacement, where would he be now? Before finding belated stardom in the 1969 biker flick, Nicholson dabbled in screen writing, but his most notable credit, 1968's "Head," wouldn't be remembered at all today if not for the film's stars: the Monkees. The faux pop quartet consisting of two real musicians (Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork) and two actors (Davy Jones and Micky Dolenz) were created as TV's answer to the early Beatles. In an example of killing two birds with one stone, "Head" marked both their big screen debut and their last gasp as stars of any medium.
There is no plot and no story, but in the waning days of the LSD-drenched 1960s, that didn't matter much. Few things geared to youth made sense back then, including some of the best music made by the Beatles ("I am the walrus, goo-goo-goo-joob"). Clarity and coherence weren't "hip," baby, so any amateur with access to a typewriter could tap out a screenplay and be taken seriously as an artist. What counted was the "Statement" you made about the "System," man, or about the "Man" himself, whoever he was. Television was always a good target, and it is the subject of some "commentary" in "Head," just as it was in Nicholson's equally lame and all but forgotten directorial debut, "Drive, He Said." The boob tube's crimes are not made clear. We see a TV as someone flips through the channels, and the clips of old movies (including 1934's "The Black Cat" with Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi) are better than anything that Nicholson and director Bob Rafelson can come up with. We also see news footage of Vietnam, Rita Hayworth in "Gilda," and an ad for Playtex Cross Your Heart bra. At some point, the Monkees are trapped in a box which is probably meant to symbolize TV. We see the boys on television, as well, until Victor Mature (yes, Victor Mature of "Samson and Delilah," "The Robe," and the original "Kiss of Death") kicks the set and sends them rolling down a hill of sand and over a bridge, and . . . well, who really cares?
The 1970 film version of "Myra Breckinridge" also used a lot of vintage film clips. Like "Head," it proved that the filmmaker who cannibalizes other, better movies for his own film has no worthwhile ideas of his own. "Head" has some decent music, notably a dreamy Gerry Goffin-Carole King effort called "Porpoise Song," which the Monkees only managed to take to # 62 on the Billboard chart in October 1968. Less than a year earlier, they were outselling the Beatles and spent four weeks at # 1 with "Daydream Believer" and two weeks at # 3 with "Valleri." If their appeal hadn't already waned, "Head" surely would have killed it.
Brian W. Fairbanks
American Teen (2008)
Seemingly staged "documentary"
Although I like documentaries, I tend to favor those about historical events or historical figures with film clips and an off-screen narrator rather than those in which a camera follows "real" people around, supposedly capturing events as they occur without benefit of, well, you know, a script. The presence of a camera changes everything, does it not? The presence of a camera is only too obvious in "American Teen," a supposed documentary that I found as believable as any TV "reality show" or your average bestselling memoir.
In this film, the subject is a group of Idaho teenagers who are experiencing their final year of high school. The kids themselves are all stereotypes, even if they are "real." There's the popular girl, the jock, the nerd, the misfit, etc. These are all average kids, we're told, but how many average kids would be willing to subject themselves to exposure in a documentary? Of course, I speak as someone who grew up in the days before the Internet and Facebook, both of which seem to have led to an epidemic of narcissism and a complete lack of concern about something as silly as privacy, so maybe I'm out of touch. Still, it's rather apparent that some of the incidents in "American Teen" are staged.
The most obvious example of pre-planning is when Megan, the popular girl, gets back at someone for an offense I don't remember, by spray-painting a nasty word and a nastier drawing on his window. She does it even though she's well aware that she's being filmed. Later, while the cameras are still running, she worries about the possibility of getting caught. Of course, she is caught and called on the carpet by the principal, and it's all caught on film.
"American Teen" is a phony, and proof that, if you really want to tell the truth, do it with fiction.
Brian W. Fairbanks
Dances with Wolves (1990)
"Dances With Wolves" won seven Academy Awards for 1990, including best picture and best director, both of which were claimed by the film's star, Kevin Costner, whose performance was also recognized with a nomination. There's been grumbling from film buffs that Costner's triumph was undeserved, that Martin Scorsese's gangster epic, "Goodfellas," should have won, with Scorsese taking the director prize, and there's been a tendency to sneer at Costner's directorial debut ever since. If the Academy was turned off by "Goodfellas"'s violence and misanthropic characters, they could feel safe voting for "Dances With Wolves" since it seemed more noble, in the same vein as "Gandhi." As Kevin Costner's Calvary officer makes peace with an Indian tribe and they welcome him into their fold, it speaks well of the human race, certainly more so than Ray Liotta talking fellow mobster Robert DeNiro out of "whacking" a fellow hoodlum. "Dances With Wolves" has its villains, all of them white U.S. calvary soldiers, whose anti-Indian actions make them racists, and, therefore, deserving of the audience's hatred.
Native American issues were big at the time, thanks in part to the critical and popular success of Forrest Carter's "The Education of Little Tree," a "memoir" of the author's childhood as the member of a Cherokee tribe that continued to be popular long after Carter was exposed as Asa Carter, a pro-segregationist former Klansman and speechwriter for Alabama governor George Wallace, and definitely not a Cherokee. A true Native American author, Sherman Alexie, was also making a mark at this time with such novels as "Reservation Blues." In short, Costner's feel-good epic was the right movie at the right time, very appealing to audiences, who made it a several hundred million dollar grosser, and the Academy, who could vote for it and feel as though they were finally addressing the grievances that Marlon Brando introduced when declining his Oscar for "The Godfather" 18 years earlier in protest of Hollywood's treatment of Indians in all those John Ford westerns.
I avoided "Dances With Wolves" for years, having dismissed it as politically correct, New Age slop in a pretty package. I finally caught up with it in 2006 and was impressed. Slow moving and rather boring at times, especially when Costner reads from his diary in a monotone that would have gotten him kicked out of any high school drama class, it is nonetheless an extraordinary achievement overall, with lovely cinematography and a John Barry score that's already a classic. When it comes, the action is well-staged, particularly a buffalo stampede, and the Indian's attack on the Calvary troop that has taken Costner hostage. There's a lot of mystical nonsense, including the shot of a wolf howling from a cliff, but it's moving regardless, especially set to Barry's majestic score.
Although it's often classified as a western, "Dances With Wolves" is more of an historical epic, though a fictional one. I don't think it deserved the Oscar over "Goodfellas," but it was far more deserving of that prize than many other films that the Academy has honored through the years, and Costner gambled with his career to make it.
Brian W. Fairbanks
Harry & Son (1984)
"Harry and Son" must have meant a lot to Paul Newman because he not only played Harry, but co-wrote the story and screenplay, as well as co-produced and directed the film. His wife, Joanne Woodward, also got dragged into this mess in a small supporting role.
Before Clint Eastwood, Warren Beatty, and Newman's buddy Robert Redford stepped behind the camera and won Oscars for directing, Newman won a lot of praise and some awards for his 1968 directorial debut, "Rachel, Rachel," for which Woodward received an Oscar nomination. The film was also nominated for best picture, but Newman was passed over by the director's branch who nominated Stanley Kubrick for "2001: A Space Odyssey" instead (although it might be more accurate to say the Academy gave the best picture nomination that "2001" deserved to the Newman-Woodward film). Whatever promise Newman showed behind the camera wasn't fulfilled, however, and Newman directed only a handful of other films, the best of which, in my opinion, was 1971's "Sometimes a Great Notion" from Ken Kesey's novel about a logging family in Oregon that featured a remarkable scene involving a drowning.
"Harry and Son" suggests that, as a director, Newman was spent. His first mistake was in casting himself as a construction worker, an ornery guy who would have been more suitable for George C. Scott, but made his biggest misstep by casting Robby Benson as his son. Robby Benson!? There was a time in the '70s before the Brat Pack era of the next decade when the soft-voiced, overly pretty, and annoyingly coy Benson seemed to get all the major male roles between the ages of 16 and 25. Fortunately, until the Brat Pack era of which he was not a part, there weren't too many major roles in movies for males aged 16 to 25. Movie audiences, even the 18-25 year olds said to represent the demographic Hollywood covets most, preferred stories with adult characters played by middle-aged actors, whether it was Sean Connery (or Roger Moore) as James Bond, Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry, or any of the roles played by Newman, Steve McQueen, Jack Nicholson, Burt Reynolds, and the other box-office draws of that era.
Benson was awful in just about everything he did, and always too goody-goody and sensitive to be believed. He's not convincing as Newman's son, nor does he believably portray a writer which the construction worker's son aspires to be. He sits grimacing at his typewriter, aggressively pounding the keys, and when his father asks why the stories he writes are always being rejected, he calmly says, "It's part of the ritual." That sounds like a remark that a neophyte writer would write for a character who is a writer. It's not what a writer would likely utter while watching the rejection slips piling up, suffering a crisis of confidence on one hand, and feeling defensively superior on the other.
Newman isn't much better. I guess he couldn't help it if he looks too handsome and physically fit for a 58-year-old laborer, but that's because he wasn't a laborer. He was a 58-year-old movie star who kept himself in tip-top shape and resembles a male model more than a construction worker even in his snug jeans and flannel shirt. Newman would convincingly play a blue collar guy a decade later in the excellent "Nobody's Fool," but he didn't write the script for that and left the directing to Robert Benton. As for Benson, he went on to voice the beast in Disney's animated "Beauty and the Beast," and has mercifully remained behind-the-camera ever since. Sorry, Robby, but as an actor, you stank.
Brian W. Fairbanks