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The Long Goodbye (1973)
Quirky, Atmospheric, Unique Altman Spin to Chandler!
I admit, when I first viewed "The Long Goodbye", in 1973, I didn't like the film; the signature Altman touches (rambling storyline, cartoonish characters, dialog that fades in and out) seemed ill-suited to a hard-boiled detective movie, and Elliott Gould as Philip Marlowe? No WAY! Bogie had been perfect, Dick Powell, nearly as good, but "M.A.S.H.'s" 'Trapper John'? Too ethnic, too 'hip', too 'Altman'! Well, seeing it again, nearly 34 years later, I now realize I was totally wrong! The film is brilliant, a carefully-crafted color Noir, with Gould truly remarkable as a man of morals in a period (the 1970s) lacking morality. Perhaps it isn't Raymond Chandler, but I don't think he'd have minded Altman's 'spin', at all! In the first sequence of the film, Marlowe's cat wakes him to be fed; out of cat food, the detective drives to an all-night grocery, only to discover the cat's favorite brand is out of stock, so he attempts to fool the cat, emptying another brand into an empty can of 'her' food. The cat isn't fooled by the deception, however, and runs away, for good...
A simple scene, one I thought was simply Altman quirkiness, in '73...but, in fact, it neatly foreshadows the major theme of the film: betrayal by a friend, and the price. As events unfold, Marlowe would uncover treachery, a multitude of lies, and self-serving, amoral characters attempting to 'fool' him...with his resolution decisive, abrupt, and totally unexpected! The casting is first-rate. Elliott Gould, Altman's only choice as Marlowe, actually works extremely well, BECAUSE he is against 'type'. Mumbling, bemused, a cigarette eternally between his lips, he gives the detective a blue-collar integrity that plays beautifully off the snobbish Malibu 'suspects'. And what an array of characters they are! From a grandiosely 'over-the-top' alcoholic writer (Sterling Hayden, in a role intended for Dan Blocker, who passed away, before filming began), to his sophisticated, long-suffering wife (Nina Van Pallandt), to a thuggish Jewish gangster attempting to be genteel (Mark Rydell), to a smug health guru (Henry Gibson), to Marlowe's cocky childhood buddy (Jim Bouton)...everyone has an agenda, and the detective must plow through all the deception, to uncover the truth.
There are a couple of notable cameos; Arnold Schwarzenegger, in only his second film, displays his massive physique, as a silent, mustached henchman; and David Carradine plays a philosophical cell mate, after Marlowe 'cracks wise' to the cops.
The film was a failure when released; Altman blamed poor marketing, with the studio promoting it as a 'traditional' detective flick, and audiences (including me) expecting a Bogart-like Marlowe. Time has, however, allowed the movie to succeed on it's own merits, and it is, today, considered a classic.
So please give the film a second look...You may discover a new favorite, in an old film!
A Good Year (2006)
Gentle Humor, the beauty of Provence, and Russell Crowe!
In a change-of-pace from the heavy dramatics and CGI-heavy spectacle that Russell Crowe and director Ridley Scott offered up, in "Gladiator", the warmly romantic "A Good Year" shows a charm and humor that should make this film a favorite of fans of a good love story and the beauty of Provence, for years to come! Based on Peter Mayle's 2006 novel, which, in turn, was loosely based his 1993 work, "A Year in Provence", the film is reminiscent of Diane Lane's 1993 comedy/drama, "Under the Tuscan Sun", and also brings to mind the 1961 Rock Hudson/Gina Lollobrigida comedy, "Come September"; all three films offer romance, a glowing Mediterranean atmosphere, and characters as unconventional as they are, endearing.
Crowe is a high-power, unscrupulous but wickedly funny British investment broker, who inherits the French estate and vineyards of his late uncle (Albert Finney, who plays the endearing codger in flashbacks). Under investigation for a more-than-a-little-shady stock transaction, the trip to France gives the broker a chance to let things simmer down, while he unloads the property...but childhood memories, old friends, the arrival of an unknown, illegitimate heir, from America (Abbie Cornish), and a feisty, beautiful local French girl (Marion Cotillard) all conspire to force Crowe to rethink his priorities, as he falls under the spell of Provence.
While the film offers few real surprises, the characters are all likable, the dialog is crisp and witty, and there is a tangible magic in the glorious French landscape.
All-in-all, "A Good Year" makes a GREAT date movie, and may have you booking a trip to France!
Lust for Life (1956)
Brilliant, Yet Painful Classic Offers Douglas' Finest Performance...
"Lust for Life", Vincente Minnelli's rich interpretation of Irving Stone's Vincent Van Gogh bio-novel, is a film both compelling and repelling; in delving into the psyche of the artist (unforgettably portrayed by Kirk Douglas), one can see an untrained, unbridled genius smashing convention to open viewers' eyes to a world defined by passion; yet in doing so, we share in the growing nightmares and agony of his creative mind, teetering toward the madness that would destroy him, and it is an unsettling experience, to be sure!
This is a film so rich in visual imagery (with a Technicolor 'palette' that attempts to recreate Van Gogh's view of his world), that it demands repeated viewings, just to savor the details. From wheat fields 'aflame' in color, to night skies that nearly writhe in waves of darkness, the elemental nature of the artist's vision is spectacularly captured. And in experiencing the world through his eyes, the loving, yet uncomprehending concern of his brother (James Donald), and more hedonistic, shallow patronizing, and gradual disgust of fellow artist Paul Gauguin (Anthony Quinn, in his Oscar-winning performance), become elemental 'barriers', as well. Van Gogh wants to 'speak', but no one can understand his 'language', not even the artist, himself!
Kirk Douglas never plunged as deeply into a portrayal as he did, in "Lust for Life", and the experience nearly crushed him, as he related in his autobiography, "Ragman's Son". His total immersion in the role SHOULD have won him an Oscar (Yul Brynner won, instead, for "The King and I"), and his bitterness and disappointment at the snub would haunt him, to this day. With the passage of time, his performance has only increased in luster and stature, and it certainly shows an actor at the top of his form!
"Lust for Life" is an unforgettable experience, not to be missed!
3 Godfathers (1948)
Ford 'Christmas' Western Showcases Wayne, 'Stock Company'...
"Three Godfathers", John Ford's second version of Peter B. Kyne's oft-filmed story of three outlaws finding redemption, has been hailed by some critics as an unsung Ford masterpiece; while I wouldn't go quite THAT far, it is an exceptional western, with Ford's 'Stock Company', headed by John Wayne, offering warmly sentimental performances.
The film was created as a 'tribute' to legendary actor Harry Carey, who had passed away in 1947, and had been young Ford's mentor, starring in his first version of the tale, "Marked Men", in 1919. This production would introduce Carey's son, Harry Jr., as likable young horse rustler, William Kearney ("They call me 'The Abilene Kid'"). Wayne took on the elder Carey's role ('Bob Hightower' in this version), the more pragmatic, but caring leader of the trio; and Mexican star/Ford regular Pedro Armendáriz completed the band, as sweet-natured, if wild-talking Pedro Roca Fuerte. The three are unrepentant outlaws, arriving in Welcome, Arizona to rob the bank, but it is quickly established that they are not 'bad' men...in fact, there are NO real villains in this film. Their antagonist, Sheriff Perley 'Buck' Sweet (Ward Bond), is introduced while gardening outside his home, and he and Hightower have a quite jovial conversation...until the trio discover what his occupation is! The bank robbery goes off without a hitch, but young Kearney is wounded during the getaway, and Sweet and his posse (including Ford regulars Hank Worden and Ben Johnson) are soon in pursuit.
To this point in the film, it could be said that this was a fairly standard tale; but the trio's convoluted escape through the Arizona desert leads them to a broken-down wagon at a destroyed waterhole, and a woman (Ford favorite Mildred Natwick), stranded, dying, and about to give birth. Pedro delivers the child, whom she names Robert William Pedro Hightower, entrusting the men, as the child's Godfathers, to take him to safety. She dies, and the three face a responsibility that will change their lives, forever...
Released by MGM (although filmed by Ford and Merian Cooper's Argosy Pictures, which explains why the film lacks the usual MGM 'gloss'), the production was ripe with entertaining 'back stories', the most famous involving barrel cacti, and Ford's legendary stubbornness. When Ford told his production team that the outlaws would survive by siphoning water from a barrel cactus, it was quickly pointed that the plants he selected were the wrong species, and wouldn't work. Ford loudly and colorfully disagreed...and, secretly, the night before shooting, liberally soaked all the cacti with so much water that when the cameras began rolling, the next morning, water flowed freely from the chunks cut out of them! There is a prophetic moment in the story; Pedro, his leg badly broken, is left with Hightower's pistol, which he uses to kill himself, rather than face a long, painful demise. Less than fifteen years later, Armendáriz, dying of cancer, would kill himself with a gun, rather than face the disease's ravages.
"Three Godfathers" is a western story of redemption, set at Christmas, making it an essential for the holidays. While it can't be called 'top-drawer' John Ford, even an 'average' film by the legendary director is better than 99% of Hollywood's product...and not to be missed!
First Television Version of Classic is Entertaining Retelling!
Thanks to the recent 'Special Edition' release of the 1947 classic "Miracle on 34th Street", this first 'remake' of the tale, included in the 'Special Features', is available for everyone to enjoy...and while it lacks the magic of the film, it is certainly entertaining in it's own right!
There were, surprisingly, five versions of the Valentine Davies Christmas story produced over 47 years, each offering a different emotional 'spin' to the question, "Could Santa Exist in a Materialistic World?". The 1955 version, aired as an episode of "The 20th Century-Fox Hour", was certainly the closest in 'look' to the original (utilizing footage from the film, to help offset a tiny budget, and offering Herbert Heyes, reprising his role as Mr. Gimbel), and benefits from a first-rate cast of major stars (Teresa Wright and MacDonald Carey, who had worked together in Hitchcock's "Shadow of a Doubt", John Ford 'stock company' stars Thomas Mitchell and Dick Foran, Orson Welles' Mercury Theater alum Ray Collins, and veteran character actors Hans Conried and Whit Bissell). While 10-year-old Sandy Descher lacked the skeptical sweetness of Natalie Wood in the key role of young Susan, veteran director Robert Stevenson, juggling a large cast and short running time, kept things moving so quickly that her shortcomings were easily overlooked.
I'm a great fan of Oscar-winner Thomas Mitchell, and his portrayal of Kris Kringle is a gem, but he seems more a bearded leprechaun than Santa Claus, with a 'snap salute' greeting, and Irish mischief concealed behind those twinkling eyes! In a major divergence from the film, he actually DOES strike Sawyer (John Abbott), in front of a roomful of children, for attacking his claim of being Santa Claus (which, in the original, was a trumped-up charge to get Kris committed). Edmund Gwenn's portrayal was, and still is, the yardstick by which all "Santa Clauses" are measured...and, truthfully, no one else has ever come close.
The major problem in the 1955 production isn't in the casting, however; it is in the brevity. A magical story of renewing one's sense of wonder and innocence, of rediscovering love and why we need Santa Claus, requires time to unfold, and less than an hour simply isn't long enough! Despite all of the talent involved, this version never comes across as more than an 'abridged' copy of the original, and would be easily 'passed over' without it's classic ancestor's name attached to it. But it is still fun, and worth viewing!
Remington Steele (1982)
Wonderful Private Eye/Romantic Comedy, with Sparkling Brosnan Performance!
"Remington Steele" has become such a 'cult favorite' since it's 1982 debut that the show's many fans can recite episodes, plot lines, dialog, even the 'unrevealed' aspects of both Laura Holt and the mysterious Mr. Steele's past, and, amazingly, their futures, as well! For a show that some critics initially brushed off as a "Moonlighting" clone, the series has proved to be far more enduring, and beloved...with much of the credit going to the leads, beautiful and talented Stephanie Zimbalist, and the remarkable future 'James Bond', Pierce Brosnan. The premise of the show was clearly stated in the first season's opening credits; a brilliant young investigator, Laura Holt (Zimbalist), decides to start her own agency, but the era's chauvinistic attitude toward women prevents clients from hiring "a woman". So she invents a fictional 'boss', Remington Steele, brilliant, charismatic, but always busy on other cases, so potential clients would deal with his 'associate', Ms. Holt. The scheme works brilliantly, although, as the client list increased in stature, it became increasingly difficult to fend off their demands to meet Mr. Steele...and then HE appeared! A young, lean, enigmatic Irishman (Pierce Brosnan), initially involved in a smuggling operation (although on the "side of the Angels"), gets out of a difficult situation by declaring himself "Remington Steele", and quickly discovers the status (and available funds!) the 'Nom De Plume' gives him. Although Holt is initially furious at the pretender, an important client happily passes his business to 'Mr. Steele', and his physical 'presence', documented by the press, forces her to accept the mysterious stranger...on condition he NOT meddle in cases! Of course, the new Steele, whose passion is Classic Hollywood movies (as, indeed, Brosnan's was, as well), simply can't miss the chance to 'live out' the 'Film Noir Detective' lifestyle, creating a constant source of episode plot lines...and Holt and Steele would develop an increasingly romantic bond, as well, which would, eventually become a full-fledged romance. For many "Steele" fans, the first season's episodes are the most fun, with Brosnan less-than-competent as the master detective, Zimbalist displaying great comic timing in her reactions to his "successes", and James Read ("North and South", "Charmed"), providing a rugged sex appeal as her more dependable, skilled associate/'boyfriend'. But the Steele/Holt chemistry was so strong that Read would eventually be written out (as well as the two-dimensional secretary, Bernice Foxe, played by Janet DeMay), and a stronger character, motherly Mildred Krebs (the wonderful Doris Roberts), would be introduced as the new secretary/confidant, in the second season; her presence provided a stability that actually improved the show. So much has been written about the series, and so many legends surround it (the most famous being that NBC, on the verge of canceling the show after four seasons, upon hearing Brosnan had been chosen as the new James Bond in "The Living Daylights", quickly reprieved it for a season of 'made-for-TV' "Steele" movies, to take advantage of the publicity...costing Brosnan the 007 role, for a decade), that "Remington Steele" has achieved a fame that has far outlasted the series' five seasons. Certainly, the warmth and camaraderie of the cast and crew throughout the run made the production 'special' (unlike the frequently explosive atmosphere on the "Moonlighting" set), and there is ALWAYS talk of a 'reunion' show, reuniting Steele and Holt for a new adventure, even after a twenty-year 'retirement'! Not bad for a "Moonlighting" 'clone'!
Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
Best Version of the Classic, with a PERFECT Cast!!
Maureen O'Hara, the top-billed star of 1947's "Miracle on 34th Street", has proudly proclaimed that all three 'remakes' of this story were flops, which may sound a bit conceited...but she was absolutely right, the original IS the best!
Based on a story by Valentine Davies (who wondered how the real Santa Claus would react to the commercialization of Christmas), with an Oscar-winning screenplay by director George Seaton, the film is a triumph of perfect casting, perfect timing, and a sentimentality and humor that post-War America desperately needed. Contrary to general opinion, 20th Century Fox did not treat it as a 'minor' film (studio head Darryl F. Zanuck loved the story), but location shooting (at the first Macy's parade since the war began, as well as inside the store, during the Christmas 'rush') would push the budget to the limit.
O'Hara (unhappily yanked from a long-awaited return to her Ireland home), and popular Fox leading man John Payne were cast in the leads, but the real 'stars' of the film are Oscar-winning 71-year-old Edmund Gwenn (who is absolutely perfect as 'Kris Kringle', and convinced everyone on the project that he really WAS Santa Claus), and 8-year-old Natalie Wood (the most gifted of the post-War child stars), who brings young Susan brilliantly to life. Their scenes together are so sweet and irresistible that the film positively glows!
While elements of the story are 'dated' (the competition between Macy's and Gimbel's, the Postal information, etc.), it simply gives the 1947 version a 'timeless' quality that the 1994 version lacked...and in not attempting to incorporate 'magic' into the story (as the Attenborough production uncomfortably does), it actually seems MORE magical!
Several supporting players should be singled out; Thelma Ritter (in her screen debut), is wonderful as a frazzled mom; Gene Lockhart (the judge) and William ("I Love Lucy") Frawley (as the judge's campaign manager) are hilarious together; and Porter Hall, as the hiss-able 'psychologist', Sawyer, is a perfect foil for Gwenn. The entire cast is simply inspired!
While the film was, indeed, originally released in the summer of 1947 (to maximize profits), it is a bona fide Christmas 'Classic', and should be an essential part of your holiday collection!
The Lake House (2006)
Lovers Across Time in Entertaining Romance...
While the concept of lovers from different eras is hardly new (Bing Crosby's love of Arthurian-era Rhonda Fleming in "A Connecticut Yankee", Tyrone Power falling for Ann Blyth in Revolutionary War England in "I'll Never Forget You", and Christopher Reeve's bittersweet affair with Gilded Age beauty Jane Seymour in "Somewhere in Time", are just a few examples), the novelty of 'fated' lovers separated by two years, bonding through letters in a magical mailbox, gives "The Lake House" a unique poignancy all it's own.
Certainly, there are leaps of logic to contend with (Sandra Bullock could have easily have tracked down Keanu Reeves at any point, without protracting their rendezvous an additional two years, her relationship with her boyfriend is never resolved, nor is the fate of Jack, the dog, who simply disappears), but taken on it's own terms, the film is a very satisfying and romantic odyssey. Reeves and Bullock, who had a wonderful, goofy chemistry in "Speed", prove than they can handle a deeper, more mature screen relationship very well, with Reeves giving one of his best performances, and Bullock, whose career had stalled after "Miss Congeniality", proving again that she is underrated as a dramatic actress.
Based on the 2000 Korean film, "Il Mare", screenwriter David Auburn has given the production a 'Classic Hollywood' luster, with Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman's "Notorious" playing on TV, and an ill-fated rendezvous reminiscent of "An Affair to Remember"; the presence of veteran star Christopher Plummer as Reeves' father enhances the 'feel'. While some may find this approach 'old-fashioned', Argentine director Alejandro Agresti recognized that a classic romance needed a classic approach, and, in my opinion, it succeeds quite well!
"The Lake House" certainly deserves a look!
Lucky Number Slevin (2006)
Style Over Substance, But an Entertaining Ride!
OK, so "Lucky Number Slevin" falls easily into the Tarantino/"Pulp Fiction" mold, from it's graphic violence and plot twists, to the off-beat humor and quirky characterizations. And it won't take long to guess what the big 'secret' is that holds everything together (although it is intriguing to see who fits where in the scheme of things). Saying all this, however, I really enjoyed "Slevin"!
A lot of the entertainment of the film comes from first-rate actors obviously enjoying themselves. Trapped in a case of mistaken identity, Josh Hartnett, sporting a broken nose and lack of wardrobe in the early part of the film, takes every mishap and disaster with such aplomb that it's easy to see why mob bosses Morgan Freeman and Sir Ben Kingsley look at him in stunned bewilderment (remember the gangster in the Marx Brothers' "Monkey Business" hiring the totally whacked-out Groucho and Company as shipboard bodyguards? Hartnett has that same "Are we on the same page?" attitude). Even more fun is the relationship between Hartnett and neighbor Lucy Lui (who has never been cuter or more energetic). When she walks into his 'borrowed' apartment, sees him naked, leaves, then pops back in, hoping to catch "the next show", you KNOW there is chemistry! And when was the last time you saw verbal sexual foreplay consisting of obscure James Bond trivia? That scene has such a Kevin Smith 'feel' to it that I looked for his name as a screenwriter!
Bruce Willis is also fun, as a very smug hit man (he seems nearly 'typed' as a hit man or cop, these days). Stanley Tucci, Danny Aiello, and "Forrest Gump's" Mykelti Williamson also shine (it was nice seeing Aiello and Williamson, who I haven't seen much of, of late).
Certainly, the ultimate 'pay-off' lacks the 'punch' of "Pulp Fiction", "Memento", or "Go", but it does reveal a compassion that is surprising, considering the body count!
Taken as a whole, Paul McGuigan's jaunt into 'Tarantino Land' is stylishly diverting!
Take the Lead (2006)
Clichéd Misfire, Redeemed, Somewhat, by Performances...
The life of Pierre Dulaine would, in itself, make a great movie or documentary; of mixed heritage, growing up in the Middle East, he discovered ballroom dancing as a teen in early '70s London, became a champion dancer, then emigrated to America, where he conceived the concept of teaching PS children dance, to build confidence and share in his passion, creating an urban program which has become a spectacular success.
Sadly, little of this reaches the screen, in "Take the Lead"; in it's place, you get a bored society dance instructor (Antonio Banderas), who, after seeing a car vandalized, decides to enlist his services at the local high school, where he turns detention into a makeshift dance studio for a stereotyped collection of misfits. Equal parts "Romeo and Juliet", "The Breakfast Club", and "Footloose", the film suffers from too predictable subplots, particularly of two black teens (Rob Brown and Yaya DaCosta), enemies after of a shared tragedy, who, naturally, fall in love. While Brown and DaCosta both give excellent performances, it takes precious time away from the dancing that provides the film it's magic. Equally distracting are the 'class distinction' jabs between the 'society' dance students, and intercity teens, and an attempt to meld classic pop 'standards' and 'modern' music, to create a new hybrid dance style, which immediately finds favor at a ballroom dance competition...a concept that was silly in the disco days of "Flashdance", and is even more ridiculous, today!
Frequently lost in all the 'baggage' is a restrained, yet charismatic portrayal of Dulaine by Antonio Banderas, and another of Alfre Woodard's tough-talking, 'heart of gold' School Principal roles; the chemistry between the pair is great fun, whenever they share the screen.
"Take the Lead" is, ultimately, an average film that misses an opportunity to be truly special; the kids, Dulaine, and dancing, itself, deserve far better!