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Cinderella Man (2005)
Triumphant Tribute to a Real-Life Rocky
"The Bulldog of Bergen," Jim Braddock was a fighter who came out of the depths of the Depression to win the World Heavyweight Championship against incredible odds, one who lived to see himself honored as a folk hero, a legend of sports, and one of New Jersey's first citizens. Had he lived long enough to see Ron Howard's excellent film on his life, "Cinderella Man," he would have almost certainly approved.
A box-office disappointment when released, and all but overlooked at the Oscars, "Cinderella Man" is, nonetheless, one of the best films of 2005 in the opinion of everyone I've known who has seen it, as well as myself. As much as Peter Jackson in "King Kong," Howard and his team take a grimy, unsentimental look at the Depression Era that is both fascinating and unsettling at the same time. The New Jersey/New York area of Braddock's time, as well as such venues as the old Madison Square Garden Bowl in Long Island City, are faithfully and meticulously recreated. Howard's direction is, as always, right on top of things. The pace doesn't slacken for a minute, the storytelling always grabs you.
But technical aspects are only part of what makes a movie great. There are also the performances, and in this respect, "Cinderella Man"'s cast doesn't disappoint. Russell Crowe gives his best performance yet (And, no, I'm not forgetting Howard's earlier "A Beautiful Mind") as Braddock. He doesn't play the part, he IS the part, gentle and loving with his family, a hard worker on the docks, a tiger in the ring. Renee Zellweger effectively de-glamorizes herself as Braddock's loving wife, Mae, tender yet tough. Paul Giamatti definitely earned his Oscar nomination as Braddock's best friend/manager Joe Gould, who won't give up on Jim even when everybody else has. And Craig Bierko gives an appropriately over-the-top performance as Max Baer, Sr., the flamboyant champ, a devil with the ladies and in the ring, whom Braddock challenges for the championship. This was the performance that motivated Baer's son, actor/producer Max Baer, Jr. (Jethro on "The Beverly Hillbillies"), to sue the producers, claiming, justifiably, that they presented a very one-sided view of his father, turning him, for the sake of a good story, into a villain he was far from being.
All in all, a great movie about the triumph of the human spirit. Once you see it, you will never forget it, and always want to come back again.
Incidentally, the DVD of "Cinderella Man" (a nickname for Braddock coined by Damon Runyon) features several interesting bonus features. There is a commentary track by Ron Howard, cut scenes, newsreel footage of Braddock in action, and interviews with Braddock's family.
The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932)
High-budget, racist claptrap, made interesting by the performances
While not generally associated with the great horror films of the early 1930's, MGM certainly made some noteworthy contributions to the genre during that period, most notably Tod Browning's great trio of films: "Freaks," "The Devil Doll," and "Mark of the Vampire." And then there is the fascinating "The Mask of Fu Manchu," directed by the underrated Charles Brabin and starring the man who, by 1932, had established himself as Hollywood's master of the macabre, the great Boris Karloff.
Forget the convoluted plot, involving a lot of twists and turns trying to receive the mask and sword of Genghis Kahn. The script, as with Sax Rohmer's original novel, hews closely to the western view of Asians during the period as a sub-human "race" bent on bringing death and destruction to the good, pure, non-racist (Ha!) Caucasian peoples of the world. Concentrate, instead, on Tony Gaudio's fluid camera-work, Cedric Gibbons' suitably elaborate production designs, and Adrian's equally elaborate costumes.
Focus especially, though, on the performances, which are the heart of this film. Rarely did Karloff convey more sheer, unadulterated menace than here as Fu Manchu. From the first time we see him, his face distorted behind a magnifying glass, to the climax as he prepares to lead his "yellow hordes" on an orgy of death and destruction, he dominates every scene and commands your attention all the way, like the consummate actor he was. Lewis Stone comports himself with the innate dignity he brought to every role as his adversary, Inspector Neyland Smith. Likewise Jean Hersholt as the archaeologist Von Berg. Future Durango Kid Charles Starrett and 1930s ingénue Karen Morley are appropriately bland and attractive as the young lovers. Finally, there is the young Myrna Loy, just on the cusp of major stardom, playing the last of her many early faux-Asian vamp roles as Fu's sadistic daughter. To see her going almost orgasmic at the sight of Starrett being tortured is to witness pre-code high camp at its best.
In short, see "Mask of Fu Manchu" for what it is: A true camp-fest of large proportions and solid performances, particularly by Karloff and Loy.
Billion Dollar Limited (1942)
Best of the Superman Shorts
While all of the Fleischer/Famous Studios "Superman" cartoons are excellent, "Billion Dollar Limited," the third in the series, is probably the best of the lot in terms of overall animation, plot, and pacing. Why it wasn't even nominated for an Oscar as Best Animated Short for 1942 (Incredibly enough, only the first one was) in inexplicable.
Here, Lois Lane is assigned to cover the transfer of one billion dollars in gold to the U.S. Mint. Masked gangsters in their super-powered (for 1942) car take off after the train, determined to get that gold. Without giving too much away, what ensues is a thrill ride for both the characters and the audience, with truth, justice, and Superman triumphant at the end.
As they did in all the Fleischer/Famous Superman cartoons, Clayton "Bud" Collyer and Joan Alexander, who played Clark Kent/Superman and Lois Lane on radio, have the voice work honors here, and Fleischer perennial Jack Mercer gets a little to do as one of the bad guys, as well.
Fun kids' entertainment from a simpler place and time
As with my fellow posters, I, too, grew up in the greater New York area and viewed "Wonderama" as nothing less than a weekly ritual, as hosted by Sonny Fox and, a little later, the late, great Bob McAllister. Both men had a real knack for talking to children without talking down to them. Really, they seemed to be having as much fun as the kids. And the kids were having a ball, obviously. From the exercise segments ("Exercise! Exercise! C'Mon, everybody, do your exercise!"), to the dance contest (where the main songs always seemed to be the Grass Roots' "Midnight Confession" and the Foundations' "Build Me Up, Buttercup," long after both had ceased to be hits), through McAllister's superficially nonsensical, but ultimately unforgettable songs ("Nobody Here Has an Aardvaark," "I've Got You"), to his Professor Fingleheimer creation ("The more you fingle, the less you heimer. Fingleheimer! Fingleheimer! Fingle-dingle-heimer!"), it was the sort of simplistic (But fun!) programming that would never pass muster with today's more sophisticated youngsters. And for that reason, I pity today's kids. They don't know what they're missing.
But we former "Wonderama" fans DO know. It was an irreplaceable part of our childhood, one we'll always treasure.
Beautiful with one fatal flaw
James A. Michener's mammoth novel, "Hawaii," is the subject of this suitably mammoth film, one with a lot to recommend it. Julie Andrews proves that she can handle a dramatic role as well or better than musical roles. Her Jerusha Bromley Hale captures our sympathy the minute she comes on screen and sustains it for the rest of the film. Likewise, Jocelyn LaGarde, a real-life Tahitian princess with no previous acting experience, gives an equally good performance as Alii Nui Ruth Malama Konakoa, for which she was justifiably nominated for an Oscar. There are also good supporting performances from Carroll O'Connor and Gene Hackman, both just a few years away from stardom when this picture was made. Russell Harlan's cameras capture the islands at their most beautiful, and Elmer Bernstein's haunting, evocative score is one of his best.
The one fatal flaw in all this is the actor playing the central male character, Reverend Abner Hale. While Max von Sydow was always good in the great Ingmar Bergman films ("The Seventh Seal"), in most of his English-language films, with the sole exception of "The Exorcist," he always came off as something of a well-dressed stiff. It's an image he upholds here. Perhaps it's the fact that he's working in a language not his own, perhaps it's just the hopeless nature of the lines he's saddled with, but his is an Abner Hale who could transform the staunchest Christian into a Druid. He, quite simply, generates no sympathy. Plus, as many of the best clergymen seem to know, you can win more converts by stressing the kind, loving qualities of Jesus than by belching out fire and brimstone. It seems to me that, for Andrews's character, choosing between this mannered stiff and Richard Harris's vigorous sea captain shouldn't have been much of a choice at all.
But this shouldn't drive you away from "Hawaii." For all the good points I mentioned, it's definitely worth seeing at least once.
Run Buddy Run (1966)
Overlooked and funny. Would be a cult item today.
Produced and written by Leonard Stern, associate producer of "Get Smart," "Run, Buddy, Run" had many similarities to "Smart" in that it combined crime and comedy in equal proportions, with the one never getting in the way of the other. It had two top-drawer character men, Jack Sheldon and Bruce Gordon, as the leads, and it had a good spot on the schedule. Just about everyone I know who saw it, myself included, enjoyed it.
Why, then, did it fail? There could be any number of reasons. The most likely of all, I think, was that too many shows with similar formats had established themselves by then, leaving "Buddy" with, literally, nowhere to run. Also, the somewhat offbeat premise didn't help much, either. Nowadays, such a show would have been given more time to build up an audience. In 1966, it was axed halfway through the season.
Pity, as this was one of the most creative, funny shows to emerge from the Golden Age of Sitcoms.
Yes, Giorgio (1982)
Ain't no way, Luciano!
There's Pavarotti, at the height of his powers and popularity, in glorious voice, and some beautiful photography, and that's about it for this misguided attempt to turn Luciano Pavarotti into the Mario Lanza of the 1980's. The whole thing was totally uninspired by anything except the desire to make a quick buck out of Pavarotti fans. All the critics panned it when it came out, but thought it would succeed on the strength of Pavarotti's (then) huge fan base. They were wrong. Talent or no, the rotund Pavarotti was nobody's idea of a romantic leading man. The fans wanted to hear Pavarotti sing, not see him try to act, and "Yes, Giorgio!" sank like a stone at the box office. Only Eddie Albert managed to rise above the mess with his dignity intact, giving his usual good, understated performance (Was he ever capable of giving a BAD performance?).
In short, if you want to see and hear Pavarotti at his best (roughly 1973-90), watch one of his videos/DVDs, either of his opera performances or his concerts, and avoid this best-forgotten failure.
The Passion of the Christ (2004)
NOT your father's Bible epic!
After seeing "The Passion" on opening night, I sent an e-mail out to friends with my thoughts. The following comments are taken therefrom:
"The Passion" is more than a movie, it is an experience, in several senses of the word. Yes, it is as brutal as you've heard. You're repulsed, even sickened, by the scenes of the scourging of Christ by Pilate and the crucifixion itself, yet you can't look away. It's that riveting. I found myself thinking, again and again, "This isn't the traditional image we all have of Jesus's last hours. It's not like you've pictured it in the Bible, it's not what you see in religious art, and it's not how it's been presented in other biblical movies, like 'King of Kings.' And yet, given what we know of the history of the times, this is probably the truth."
Several men and women at the showing I attended were in tears. At least a couple beat a hasty retreat in the direction of the bathroom. I found myself so emotionally drained by it all that I went to bed almost immediately after getting home. There was prolonged applause at the end.
To paraphrase the old advertising slogan, this is NOT your father's bible epic ... nor your mother's, nor your grandparents'. In fact, it's so totally unlike any previous film on the life of Jesus that it's, in every way, unique unto itself.
It is also one of the best, most moving films I have ever seen.
He Who Gets Slapped (1924)
Chaney and cast deliver in the first MGM film
Bravo to Turner Classic Movies for making available, once again, the cinematic art of one of the best actors ever, Lon Chaney. As Andreyev's disappointed scientist turned circus clown, Paul Beaumont, Chaney makes the most of every scene he's in, and never disappoints. We feel the agony of his hopeless love for the lovely bareback rider Consuelo, as well as the seething anger toward the man who ruined his life, the despicable Baron Renard. It's a far better performance, in my opinion, than his similar role four years later in "Laugh, Clown, Laugh," much more understated and, therefore, much more involving.
But that's not to take away from the other performances, by any means. Norma Shearer, in her first major role as Consuelo, is suitably attractive and gives a good performance, but to see her at her best is to see such '30's classics as "A Free Soul" and especially "Marie Antoinette." There, she was a mature actress; here, she was a promising newcomer. John Gilbert already shows that he had the goods to become one of the top leading men of the '20's, managing to convey virility even in multicolored tights. And Marc McDermott and old veteran Tully Marshall make two of the best silent villains ever as the aforementioned Baron and as Consuelo's father, an impoverished nobleman ready to force his daughter into marrying the Baron just to improve his fortunes, respectively. You're genuinely glad, at an almost visceral level, when they wind up getting what they deserve in the end.
I don't know who composed the music score used in the print seen on TCM, but it's excellent and really compliments the action.
Victor Seastrom's moody direction is perfect, especially his use of a globe-spinning clown to serve as sort of a Greek chorus at various points in the film.
In short, this is a true silent classic, silent film making at its' best, and well worth seeing.
Barefoot in the Park (1970)
Early Simon adaptation tried hard, but ...
In the fall of 1970, two Neil Simon adaptations premiered on ABC, "The Odd Couple" and "Barefoot in the Park." Both were based, of course, on hit plays and the hit films adapted from those plays. "Odd Couple," thanks primarily to the solid chemistry of Tony Randall and Jack Klugman in the leads, caught on immediately and went on to a successful four-year run. "Barefoot in the Park" wasn't so fortunate. One of the first all-black TV shows on a major network, it always suffered from just a tinge of blaxploitation as far as the situations and characters were concerned. The whole cast, including leads Scoey Mitchell and Tracy Reed and the always funny Thelma Carpenter and Nipsy Russell, tried their best, but just couldn't overcome a succession of weak scripts. As I recall, the show was canceled mid-season.