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Studio One: Twelve Angry Men (1954)
A "Work in Progress"
The 1957 movie *Twelve Angry Men* is one of the most popular and critically acclaimed movies of all time -- a masterpiece in acting, directing, writing, and cinematography. This 1954 made-for-television version suffers in comparison, but then practically any movie would, and the producers of the later film had the benefit of this version to make adjustments and changes. I watched this version with that in mind, and also to learn more about early '50s television.
The plot is familiar if you have seen the theatrical version. A jury is "charged" with determining the guilt or innocence of a defendant in a murder trial. They then retire to a jury room, and most of the jurors appear to believe the case is simple; two eyewitnesses and damning circumstantial evidence compel the conclusion that the defendant murdered his father. After an initial vote, however, one juror votes not guilty so he can discuss the case more deeply and see if there is room for doubt. The other jurors' reaction ranges from civilized debate to anger, ridicule, and disbelief. A discussion of the testimony and facts ensue, and the jury reaches its decision.
This made for television version is limited by the medium and its time restraints. I'm pretty sure this is a tape of a live broadcast. After time is made for commercials, it clocks in at just over 50 minutes, or about half the length of the theatrical version (itself not a long film). There are not as many subplots, and most of the characters are not developed. Is this a fair criticism for an hour-long TV movie? Or an unfair comparison to a later, more developed version? Mostly the latter, but it did seem that many of the jurors had little to do.
The cast consists of solid character actors, many born in the 19th century and raised in film before television. I thought the best cast was Edward Arnold as Juror #10, the bigot. Franchot Tone as Juror #3 and Robert Cummings as Juror #8 were not as effective even though they were the chief antagonist and protagonist, respectively. But then again, who knew they would have to live up to the likes of Lee J. Cobb and Henry Fonda in the remake? Two actors in this version reprised their roles in the movie (Joseph Sweeney as #9 and George Voskovec as #11).
The atmosphere in this jury room is pretty angry, with the jury ready to come to blows several times. It is not just less subtle than the remake, but less gradated. We don't have time to find out each of the juror's occupations.
The picture is not clear, but that is a symptom of age and the peculiar chance of finding a copy only recently. On the whole, the picture reflected that television was eager to create serious art for its broadcasts, especially when it came to dramatic features. Still, I doubt I would have seen this had it not been for the fact that it was an early form of an idea that became one of the great works of art of our time. It is worth seeing in that context.
The Contender (2000)
Sacrificed accuracy for drama, achieved neither
I'm a big fan of Joan Allen. Maybe since "Ice Storm", certainly since "Searching for Bobby Fischer" (I'm a chess player) and I bet I will enjoy a lot of her earlier, more reputable films ("Peggy Sue Got Married", for example) just as soon as I get around to seeing them, which has to wait until I've seen all the movies featuring Oscar-nominated performances (so a chess player has a completism fetish; imagine that). But in the line of checking that item off of my lifetime to-do list, I have just finished watching Ms. Allen's most recent nominated performance, that of an Ohio Senator nominated to replace a deceased Vice President, becoming the first woman to be one heartbeat away from the Oval Office. Oh, I had high hopes for this one. And they have been dashed.
First, I don't know when the stakes were raised with regard to accuracy in the visual portrayal of all things related to the White House, but it was no later than "The American President". But someone in this movie's production staff didn't get the memo. It may make a nice comic moment when, five minutes after the President has walked with his Veep nominee onto the front of the White House lawn to have a private conversation, he is finally rediscovered by a cadre of Secret Service agents, but the reality is the time between a president going missing and the Secret Service locking down the West Wing could be measured in seconds, not minutes. Not that reality is important, but that's also in the viewers' perception of White House security, and for me, this ludicrous scene was the most jarring of several that were inauthentic enough to wreck the narrative. The runner-up would be the two men sitting behind the President in his address to the Joint Houses. Those two men would be the Speaker of the House and the Vice President. Oh, wait -- the Vice President is dead? Okay, so maybe these wrong details are unfair quibbles. So let's talk about critical plot points. It turns out the Senator's husband's ex-wife divorced her because he had an affair with the Senator while they were married. Why does the script treat this easily accessible court file as if it were some national secret, only discovered after she was nominated for VP? I found the storyline, and the resolution in particular, unpersuasive. The bottom line is politicians are political animals. A Senator who has never compromised a principle to obtain political power is a noble beast; so is a unicorn. They are also both mythical creatures. John Kerry did not hesitate to go after the lying liars in the Swift-Rove Liars for Bush, and didn't hide behind any principles by failing to answer their lies. (Hmmm. Maybe Senator Hanson had a point.) Other parts of the story were totally implausible, such as the method Governor Hathaway used to try to move his name to the top of the Vice President candidate's list, and the idea that the audience was not supposed to see through the Special Agent's transparent investigation in the subplot.
Of course, I liked Joan Allen, though I prefer her long-haired roles more. I thought Sam Elliot was miscast as the bulldog Chief of Staff for President Jeff Bridges; I kept imagining James Brolin in the role, channeling his excellent performance as Governor Ritchie from "The West Wing".
I notice that this movie gets relatively high marks. Perhaps it's because we've become more interested in political thrillers these days, but as President Shepherd told his aide, Lewis Rothschild, "People don't drink the sand because they're thirsty. They drink the sand because they don't know the difference." Well, I apologize for that. It's not like me to attack the opinions of people who disagree with me. I just don't think "The Contender" stands up to investigation.
A film about betrayal
There is an unusual twist to "Unfaithful". The trailers and reviews lead you to believe that the movie centers around a wife's meaningless betrayal of her husband and son, for no apparent reason than a childish impulse to have sex with a ne'er-do-well Frenchman probably 15 years younger than her. But when you reach the theater (or, in my case, pop in the DVD), you learn that the betrayal in this movie is much more sinister. It's the director, producer, and writers who have betrayed the audience, and the cast, with the promise of an interesting psychological thriller, and instead have littered the screen with foreseeable cliché after foreseeable cliché. The scenes aren't even original, until perhaps the denouement, but by then I've given up caring.
The plot is as old as man's sexual urges. Woman marries man, moves to suburbs, has a son and a nice house. Woman runs into little French boy and is mesmerized, since we all know French men can bed any American woman they want at the drop of a hat, or a pair of underwear. Woman has sex with French boy. Woman feels guilty but continues. Man finds out. Man forces himself to confront boy. From here, the movie can take different directions, depending on which script the writers are stealing from.
The plot is probably not completely predictable. Well, yes, it is. I did discover a new rule of thumb for evaluating movies: it's okay for the characters to do stupid things, or to do predictable things, but it's not okay for characters to do stupid, predictable things. If you disagree, run down to McMovie's and rent any one of the "Friday the 13th" films; you'll have a blast.
I watched this as part of my quest to see all Oscar-nominated performances. Diane Lane was nominated for Best Actress, losing to Nicole Kidman's performance in "The Hours". I thought Richard Gere did the best job in the film, but Lane did have to create a character who would betray Gere, who looks about two weeks older than he did in "An Officer and a Six-Pack Abdomen", two decades earlier. (Reminds me of an episode of 'Columbo' where John Cassavetes cheated on Blythe Danner. You've got to be kidding.) You want to enjoy an Adrian Lyne film exploring sexuality and obsession? Please check out "Fatal Attraction".
Roger Ebert once said that "Mad Dog Time" should be cut into ukulele picks to give to the poor. I'm not that clever, but I'd say rent this DVD if you're having a large dinner party and are running short of coasters. (For the record, Ebert recommended this film. What does he know.)
Dinner at Eight (1933)
One of the earliest mega-cast wonders
It's safe to say that the all-star cast of "Dinner at Eight" was bigger, in its time, than almost any movie made since, but since it's virtually three generations earlier than most movies made today, many of the names are not familiar to most modern movie-goers. And that's a shame. I enjoy a lot of movies just because I like watching great actors at work. "Ocean's Eleven" is a trifle, but it's a trifle with George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Andy Garcia, Julia Roberts, Don Cheadle, and so on. "The Sting" would have been a very good movie even without Robert Redford, Paul Newman, and Robert Shaw; include them and the top-drawer supporting cast, and it's a classic. Ditto for "12 Angry Men" (Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Ed Begley, E.G. Marshall), "Casablanca" (Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henried, Claude Rains, Syndey Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Cuddles Sakall) and on and on. I'd say the cast of "Dinner at Eight" was even bigger than "Casablanca" -- both Lionel and John Barrymore (Lionel and Ethel both won Oscars, but the consensus of the time was that John was the best actor, and this movie is Exhibit 1), Oscar laureates Wallace Beery and Marie Dressler (could a 65-year-old veteran be first-billed in today's youth-obsessed Hollywood? Not likely.), Jean Harlow (Marilyn was never like this), and Billie Burke (it's not clear whether she's the good witch or the bad witch).
The "madcap" hub of the plot is Ms. Millicent Jordan's (Burke) plan to have a large dinner party, a custom of New York high society not interrupted by the Great Depression, featuring the elusive Ferncliffes, visiting America from London. To round out the table settings, she invites Carlotta Vance (Dressler), an aging actress now relying on soured business investments to support her during the hard times; an American stage actor (John Barrymore), as a natural complement to Miss Vance; and a ruthless tycoon (Beery) as a favor to her husband (Lionel Barrymore), who needs help saving his shipping company, unbeknownst to Ms. Jordan, who is reluctant to invite a man married to a low-class woman (Harlow). That's not the end of things she doesn't know -- her daughter is romantically linked to the actor, even though he is old enough to be her father -- or older. The family doctor (Edmund Lowe) rounds out the dinner guests. There are other unknown connections between the guests that create the dramatic tension up until the cast finally sits down for dinner in the last scene.
The plot, or plots, of "Dinner at Eight" are just a frame on which to hang an excellent suite of set pieces. One of the finest is John Barrymore's self-destruction as he is forced to reckon with the end of his acting career, cruelly spelled out for him by his agent (Lee Tracy). There are also several opportunities to enjoy Beery and Harlow behind the masquerade of marital bliss. And last (literally) but not least is the coda scene between Harlow and Dressler, who performs one of the finest double-takes in the history of cinema.
This movie reminded me of many subsequent classic movies, and wondering whether the performers there were influenced by "Dinner at Eight". Was Ray Milland channeling John Barrymore's senseless drunk in "The Lost Weekend"? Did Broderick Crawford and Judy Holliday study Beery and Harlow to prepare for "Born Yesterday"? Did Gloria Swanson owe something to Dressler for "Sunset Boulevard"? The style of cinema in the 1930s, especially the early 30s, takes some getting used to. Talkies were still in their infancy and there was much less background music than films just a decade later, let alone today, and scenes were usually shot with one stationary camera. You should see "Dinner at Eight" more than once (I'm writing this review after the second time I saw it) and see if it grows on you. Much of the pre-Code dialogue will surprise and amuse you. The DVD also features a short film about Jean Harlow (hosted by Sharon Stone -- a protégé?), and a one-reel satire (from Warner Bros., of course!) that picks mercilessly on the characters from the longer movie.
This movie is much more than an historical curiosity, though it is that too. But it's as entertaining as "It Happened One Night", "Mutiny on the Bounty", and several other treasures from the protoplasmic days when movies were starting to become more than stage plays on a flat screen. If you haven't seen this yet, you've missed something good. Why not have your own dinner party and show this afterward?
House of Sand and Fog (2003)
Almost tangibly depressing
I rated this movie a 6 out of 10, perhaps a marginal recommendation, because it was photographed, and acted, brilliantly. I've not read the book, but have read that the movie is faithful to the spirit of the book and hasn't pasted a Hollywood ending onto it. That said, I doubt I will be able to see the movie again.
The plot of the movie is practically recited in the trailers. A woman (Jennifer Connelly) loses her home to a tax eviction to the county for failure to pay a paltry sum of taxes. There is the possibility of a governmental snafu, but then again it appears she bears some, if not most, of the blame. At any rate, an exiled Iranian (Ben Kingsley) sees an opportunity to flip the house and replenish his family's depleted fortune, and buys the home at auction. The conflict erupts into a tragedy shared by the original owner, the Iranian family, and an amoral deputy (Ron Eldard), devastating close to a dozen total characters.
I'm hurting myself by reviewing this movie immediately after I've seen it, but I am at a loss to discern what I was supposed to get out of the film. Some critical details of the book have been omitted from the film (see my comments in the discussion boards) that would have influenced me much differently, but as it was I found many of the characters totally unsympathetic. Thus I missed the conflict between "pretty good" and "also pretty good", and saw the plot simply as good and amorally evil. It did not help that the tragedy fell hardest on the good guys.
I'll try to revisit this in the future to see if a second viewing changes my mind. I would have to term this movie a disappointment, given the potential and the cast.
The Last Detail (1973)
Overlooked Nicholson gem
Jack Nicholson has been very good in some recent blockbusters, but I enjoy his performances in lesser-known movies even more, especially in the 1970s. The movies "Five Easy Pieces", "Carnal Knowledge", and "Chinatown" -- and Nicholson's performances -- are famous, but fewer people are familiar with "The King of Marvin Gardens" or this movie, "The Last Detail". I remember watching the Oscars in 1974; when they played a clip from the movie after announcing Nicholson's nomination for Best Actor, the network had to beep out half the words. It's definitely salty.
The plot of the movie, like many Nicholson flicks of the 1970s (and Hal Ashby films), is just a frame to hang several set pieces on. A young sailor (Randy Quaid) has been sentenced to go to the brig for eight years, a disproportionately harsh punishment for his petty crime. Two sailors are assigned the task -- the "detail" -- to transport him to Portsmouth where he can report to prison. It's actually soft duty for the sailors (Nicholson and the late Otis Young), since they have a leisurely schedule for their own return to home base.
Nicholson's photo on the DVD cover captures his characterization of his role, "Bad Ass" Buddusky. Watch as he gets the poor prisoner his first beer, his first girl, and so on. We also discover what the Navy thinks of Marines, and vice versa, in a scene where Nicholson's grin almost swallows his ears.
If you're a Jack Nicholson fan and haven't seen this movie, give yourself a treat and rent it soon.
Mister Roberts (1955)
Tremendous cast that deserves a wide-screen performance
I recently saw "Mister Roberts" for the first time in a theater, part of a double-bill with "Twelve Angry Men". The latter is one of my all-time favorite movies, but I've always had reservations about "Mister Roberts", in large part, I think, because I'd always seen it in pan-and-scan on AMC instead of the original CinemaScope perspective of the original. Well, even on a movie screen, I think some of the scenes had to be chopped (or Mervyn LeRoy just liked including William Powell's shoe in a screen-shot, but not the rest of him) but I enjoyed this movie much more in a theater than on a TV screen. For one small example, I'd never noticed the detail of the warships passing by during the opening credits before.
The story of "Mister Roberts" is a bit melodramatic for my taste -- after all, it started out on Broadway -- but it doesn't matter because you have five huge headliners to carry it, all at different stages of their careers -- William Powell in his last feature film; James Cagney, James Fonda, and Ward Bond in their mid-career phases (though Bond would be cut down too young in 1960); and Jack Lemmon in practically his first movie. There is an outstanding photo of these five actors singing together accompanied by Cagney's guitar in the photo gallery. Anyway, Mister Roberts is a college-grad who felt a duty to be involved in WWII, but who had the bad luck to be assigned to a cargo ship that is never involved in combat duty. What's worse, the commanding officer is a petty Merchant Marine who got in the Navy because they needed anyone they could get, and he resents Mister Roberts and anyone else who he thinks looks down on him. Roberts shares a room with Ensign Pulver, not exactly a coward but someone who'd be happy to go through the entire war without meeting his Captain. The ship's surgeon is played by William Powell with the same wit and facile mastery that he brought to the "The Thin Man" series decades earlier; but you can tell he's not Nick Charles because of his gray hair. Finally, the great Ward Bond is the top noncom in the cargo hold.
The movie depends on a lot of stereotypes that feel like crutches to me -- sailors ogling women, sailors getting drunk, sailors going nuts on liberty, etc. The high points of the action involve the interaction of the headliners, or their solo moments. Jack Lemmon's outstanding (and Oscar-winning) performance established him as an up and coming star, and presaged his great work in "The Apartment", "Some Like it Hot", "The Days of Wine and Roses", and the other masterpieces of his "Early" period. The final scene is one of the best in Lemmon's career.
I strongly recommend you find a way to see "Mister Roberts" in widescreen format. This is a movie, like "Lawrence of Arabia" or "Anastasia", that is just ruined when presented full-screen.
The White Cliffs of Dover (1944)
Just a brief comment, not a full review
I only had one thing to add to the other reviews. But first I'll note that this is one of those "Golden Age" movies where every member of the cast is a pro. What a great scene between C. Aubrey Smith and Frank Morgan, both extolling the virtues of their own countries to the other's detriment (England v. USA). And the star of the movie is the great, under-rated Irene Dunne.
But, if for no other reason, you should see this movie just to hear our (America's) national anthem, played in a context that will absolutely make you cry. It rivals the "Marseillaise" performance in "Casablanca" for bringing a lump to your throat -- only this time, it is not a gesture of defiance, but of gratitude.
Absence of Malice (1981)
Overlooked Newman performance in a good movie
"Absence of Malice" doesn't fit comfortably into any particular genre. I suppose it's a cross between a heist movie and a thriller, with the newspaper business as its canvas and a dollop of revenge thrown in. Its strong cast and story average out a journeyman production that looks more like a TV movie, resulting in an entertaining drama.
The movie's action begins when the FBI, frustrated that its investigation of the death of a local mobster has reached a dead end, tricks newspaper reporter Megan Carter (Sally Field) into thinking that Michael Gallagher, a liquor wholesaler (Paul Newman), whose late father was connected with the Mafia, might be under investigation. The paper runs with the story, resulting in the destruction of Gallagher's reputation, disaster for a woman offering him an alibi, and Carter's realization that she was used by the feds. But Gallagher throws some fine counter punches, turning the tables on the feds and requiring a trip to Florida by "Assistant United States Attorney General James Wells" (Wilford Brimley in a career role) to mop up the mess.
Newman, whose fine performance in "The Verdict" and reprise of Eddie Felson in "The Color of Money" were still ahead of him, gives a fine nuanced performance as Gallagher, and is complemented by the younger Sally Field, back in "Norma Rae" form after a string of less-than-memorable films. As always, one of the hallmarks of quality films is the depth of the cast, and besides the two headliners, Wilford Brimley won't soon be forgotten with his short screen appearance as the AG leading the finale. While this movie was nothing close to Bob Balaban's debut, it is the first role of his that I remember and I remember it fondly; he brings a nonchalance to the amoral detective for whom the end will hopefully justify the means. Finally, Josef Summer's appearance as Carter's editor adds both compassion and reality to the press's day-to-day world.
With a great cast and a very good story (that seems natural enough, but was probably not created easily), "Absence of Malice" had the makings of a great movie. I wish that it did not appear so washed-out, or photographed so unambitiously. I can't put my finger on it, but the movie is not visually stimulating, even though it's cognitively compelling. Maybe the Florida location provided too much sunlight, but I found the imagery of the film to be only average. That aspect does not keep me from recommending it.
Tibet: A Buddhist Trilogy (1984)
Works better as a ritual than a movie
This 1979 documentary has just been released, apparently, and I saw it this evening before it left Austin. The trilogy refers to three glimpses of the exiled Buddhists of Tibet -- the Dalai Lama in his residence; a monastery performing a beautiful ritual entitled "The Beautiful Ornament"; and monks in another monastery performing a death ritual for an old man with no family in a nearby village. If you are a student of Buddhism (I am), this is a good account of the various rituals, but it is difficult to watch as a movie until the third part. Not difficult emotionally, but mentally; it's very hard to concentrate during the chanting. The imagery is beautiful, and also demonstrates Buddhism's emphasis on impermanence. The final third of the movie works best AS a movie, and looks more directed than the earlier parts.
I imagine that this film may be released as a DVD in the near future. If so, it would be a great source for Buddhist visualizations or meditative imagery.