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Jaws Meets Titanic in Major Disappointment
The torpedoing of the USS Indianapolis in shark-infested Pacific waters, during late World War II, was a harrowing tale of survival. Having completed a strategic mission, the ship was officially not located where it was. The eventual rescue was bungled and delayed, which was fatal for many who survived the sinking and resulted in subsequent finger pointing and scape-goating. Unfortunately, Mario Van Peebles's screen treatment of the events is more "Jaws" meets "Titanic" than a graphic war film. "USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage" rips off bloody shark attacks from the Spielberg film and underwater escapes and sailors sliding down sloping decks from the Cameron opus. No need to be creative, when plagiarizing classic films is so easy. Even the Japanese perspective of the submarine attack on the Indianapolis owes much to Clint Eastwood and his two Iwo Jima films.
A miscast Nicolas Cage heads the cast as Captain McVay, and he looks tired and old in contrast to his crew of young, squeaky-clean hunks, who play at war on a ship with clean Tide-white sheets and freshly swept gun emplacements. No grime, no grease, no sweat on this movie ship; war is a video game until the fins start circling survivors and the water boils with blood, but even then there is time for laughs, reminiscing, and camaraderie, while clinging precariously to rafts and watching the survivor count diminish. The model work and special effects are obvious and unconvincing, blatantly second rate in an age of state-of-the-art CGI. The shore scenes are cardboard attempts at 1940's atmosphere and costumes, flimsy at best, laughable at worst; hairstyles and fashions are anachronistic; the sailors and their girls perform swing numbers with the skill and dexterity of Broadway hoofers; and the period automobiles are pristine collectors' pieces, all freshly polished and gleaming. Teeth are pearly white, uniforms spotless, interiors decorator perfect.
The acting is passable at best, lots of toothy grins, macho strutting, and over emoting. The clichéd use of genuine footage of the rescue, recent film of the survivors, and a parade of old photographs of the victims fail to rescue the film in its final moments, and the "USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage," which cries out for the sure hand of a Clint Eastwood, rates as a major disappointment and lost opportunity.
The Promise (2016)
Lengthy Clichéd Historical Romance
A romantic triangle played out against the background of war and upheaval. No, not "Dr. Zhivago," not "Gone with the Wind," not "Casablanca," although such lofty aspirations are there in director Terry George's "The Promise." Mikhael Boghosian, a young Armenian, leaves his family and his betrothed to pursue medical studies in Constantinople. There, he meets the lovely Ana Khesarian, who is involved with American journalist Chris Myers. The ensuing entanglements, improbable hair-breath escapes, and impossible coincidences occur while Turkey is enmeshed in the first world war and enforcing the "resettlement" of its Armenian population.
The Armenian genocide and Turkey's denial are well known, and "The Promise" has a strong political agenda. However, agendas are not entertainment, and the film succeeds or fails on the credibility of its characters and situations. Despite the film's major assets, the central romance is clichéd; well-bred young woman torn between an idealistic crusader and a passionate healer. Throw in Armenian orphans singing "Alouette," pistols that click but don't fire at critical moments, and a watery scene torn from "Titanic," then mix with lingering overwrought reunions, tender words and kisses while hell-fire rains, and movie buffs will chuckle as they recall each film being plagiarized.
However, large-scale crowd scenes, skirmishes between Turkish troops and Armenian refugees, and arduous treks through rugged mountains take place against striking locations in Malta and Portugal and are backed by Gabriel Yared's fine score. The huge production budget is evident on screen, and the cast is strong as well. Oscar Isaac as Mikhael is especially good as the Dr. Zhivago character; torn between a promise to his mother and fiancée and a passion for Ana, Isaac holds the film together as dedicated healer, passionate lover, and Armenian patriot. Charlotte Le Bon as Ana, however, is perhaps too prim and ladylike to survive the rigorous treks her character faces; while she is fine in the early drawing room scenes in Constantinople, her romance with Mikhael seems to blossom overnight and her ordeal as a fugitive would have quickly killed a woman of her fragile nature. The third member of the triangle, Christian Bale, gives a solid performance as Myers, although the part demands little of his talent.
Whatever the film's flaws and excessive length, "The Promise" does throw light on an historical event that has been suppressed and denied. The movie can be termed a missed opportunity; a "must see" film would have drawn audiences to the romance and educated them to the history. As the film stands, only those already familiar with the history will likely be interested; the romance is an overly familiar yawn.
The Only Game in Town (1970)
Taylor and Beatty Give the Game a Try, But Fail
Based on play by Frank D. Gilroy that ran only 16 performances on Broadway, "The Only Game in Town" was adapted for the screen by Gilroy and misused the talents of two stars and a director with five Academy Awards between them. Evidently, the play and Gilroy's services to write the adaptation were purchased before opening night, otherwise Elizabeth Taylor, Warren Beatty, and George Stevens would have been more effectively employed on other projects.
Fran Walker, an aging Vegas showgirl, whose stylish apartment and flashy wardrobe belie any financial struggle, becomes involved with Joe Grady, a bar pianist, who subsists on tips and gambling. The pair get to know each other over the course of the two-hour running time, Fran's married paramour appears and disappears, the bar owner has problems with the undependable Grady. In other words, not much happens, and, considering the paucity of dialog, the play's brief life on Broadway is understandable.
In 1970, Elizabeth Taylor was probably the most famous woman in the world, and her image, bearing, and demeanor are definitely not working class. In a part originated by Tammy Grimes and more suited to Shirley Maclaine, Taylor tries her best, but she lacks the physical attributes of a dancer and, at this point in her career, is definitely a grande dame. However, not all the blame falls on Taylor. While she is obviously miscast, hairstylists Alexandre and Claudie Ettori bear responsibility for the puffy hair styles and wigs that overwhelm Taylor and detract from her legendary beauty. When Taylor's coiffures are not demanding attention, Mia Fonssagrives's and Vicki Tiel's unflattering costumes elicit giggles and gasps, especially an outlandish yellow mini-skirted outfit with a pillbox hat that parodies earlier fashions successfully worn by Jackie Kennedy and Audrey Hepburn. If Razzies had been awarded for costumes, Fonssagrives and Tiel would have taken them home.
Fortunately, Alexandre and Fonssagrives kept their hands off Warren Beatty, and he does fairly well, although neither he nor Taylor are convincing as lovers. Equally unconvincing is the supposed Las Vegas location; filmed in Paris, the obvious rear projection to fake Nevada settings is distracting at best. "The Only Game in Town" was a disappointing finale to the career of director George Stevens, who retired after the film's failure. More than four decades after its release, the movie is difficult to sit through, despite the efforts of Taylor and Beatty to inject some life into a moribund story. Only die-hard fans of the two stars and students of George Stevens's career will likely find much of value.
The Cowboy and the Flapper (1924)
Routine Silent Western
A routine western programmer from 1924, "The Cowboy and the Flapper" will likely appeal primarily to silent-film fans, who are always starved for movies that survive from the pre-sound era. However, the plot is slim; the strapping hero, Dan Patterson, played by western star William Fairbanks, finds himself caught up with a gang of bank robbers, who mistake him for another criminal. Meanwhile, the grimy unshaven outlaws kidnap Dorothy Revier, who plays Alice Allison, the "flapper" of the title, who seems to have wandered off a local dude ranch. Directed by Alan James, the short film plays out predictably and comes up short on action. Although the image is clear, the surviving print has enough scratches and tears to intrude at times.
Fairbanks and Revier are adequate in undemanding parts, and the unsavory gang members are appropriately unsavory. Described as a "vamp," Revier projects little of that quality here, and her title "Queen of Poverty Row" seems more apt. Fairbanks, no relation to Douglas, has the physical assets for a western hero, but, like Revier, lacks charisma and is a colorless, if pleasant looking, leading man. While Fairbanks retired at the end of the silent era, Revier survived the transition to sound and made B-grade talkies throughout the 1930's. While "The Cowboy and the Flapper" is no classic, the film has historic value and interest as an example of the silent western genre and for its largely forgotten stars.
The Captive (1915)
Entertaining Silent Highlights Forgotten Balkan Wars
Early in the 20th century, four independent Balkan states formed the Balkan League and defeated the Ottoman Empire during the years just prior to World War I. Set in Montenegro, one of the four independent states, Cecil B. DeMille's "The Captive," filmed in 1915, depicts events that took place only two years earlier. A peasant woman's brother is killed in a battle with the Ottoman Turks, and she is left alone to care for the family farm. To alleviate the labor shortage in Montenegro, authorities force Turkish prisoners of war to labor on local farms.
Lovely Blanche Sweet is Sonya Martinovich, the young widow who loses her brother and, left with a son and a small flock of goats, struggles to work her farm alone. Meanwhile, Muhamud Hassan, played by House Peters, is a Turkish nobleman soldiering in the Ottoman army. Hassan is captured and assigned to work for Martinovich. Needless to say in this simple, but touching story, Hassan befriends Sonya's son and an attraction develops between Sonya and Hassan. Based on a play by Jeanie MacPherson, the short 50-minute film has no time to delve into any impediments to romance, such as religious, linguistic, and cultural differences, not to mention the dangers of Hassan's taking sides against his own troops.
Although supporting players mug and twirl their mustaches, Sweet and Peters give naturalistic performances that largely avoid the pitfalls of the "grand style." While DeMille maintains a good pace, budgetary limits restrict his battle scenes, and the town's capture and re-capture appear to occur in one room. Appropriately tinted, the cinematography by Alvin Wyckoff is clear and sharp, although the landscapes are Southern California and not Montenegro. Despite quibbles that are largely a product of the period, aficionados of early silent films will definitely find "The Captive" worthy and perhaps essential viewing. However, European history buffs may also find the film of interest, because it throws light on the little-known Balkan Wars that were precursors to World War I. With a talented actress of early cinema, a rising directorial talent, and a surprisingly engaging story, "The Captive" is more than an historical curiosity, it is an entertaining movie.
Children of Divorce (1927)
They Had Faces Then
Early in the 20th century, divorced ex-pat Americans living in Paris dropped their unwanted children at the local convents and visited them only when their busy schedules permitted. Kitty and Jean were among these lonely children, and the pair quickly become friends. One day, a young boy, Edward, who was also a child of divorced parents, appears, and both girls are smitten with him. Years pass, and the three meet up again in the U.S., where a romantic triangle develops, which expands into a square, when a gold-digging prince enters the scene. "Children of Divorce," which was written by Adela Rogers St. Johns from a novel by Owen McMahon Johnson, is a sudsy melodrama, whose dated appeal lies, not in the story, but in the stars.
The "It" girl herself plays the adult Kitty; vivacious Clara Bow is wonderful as the sexually aggressive woman, who needs to marry well. Jean, Kitty's protector as a child and now described as the richest woman in America, has grown into lovely Esther Ralston. Ralston, who seems to have been largely forgotten, gives a naturalistic performance as a caring understanding woman, who is capable of self sacrifice. However, Jean's money is like catnip to the impoverished Prince Ludovico, played by Einar Hanson, and his uncle, Duke Henri, played by Norman Trevor. But the Prince and his uncle have to compete with tall lanky Gary Cooper of the piercing blue eyes, who captivates both Jean and Kitty. As the adult Edward, Cooper has it all: startling good looks, wealth, education, and lack of ambition. Besides the three stars, Hedda Hopper as Kitty's self-absorbed mother also makes an impression, although the rest of the cast has unfortunately fallen into obscurity.
Besides the melodramatic plot, a few aspects of this silent film may be off putting to general audiences. While the sets are convincing, they are so tall they disappear into the clouds, and the gargantuan doors dwarf the performers. Although a few flourishes of the grand style intrude, the acting is generally natural and underplayed. The film is short, even shorter if the inter-titles are taken into account, and director Frank Lloyd maintains a good pace. However, "Children of Divorce" will likely appeal primarily to silent-film buffs. Already attuned to both the limitations and the pleasures of pre-sound movies, aficionados of silent cinema can overlook the unconvincing drama and relish the luminous stars. Indeed, they had faces then, and Clara Bow, Gary Cooper, and Esther Ralston provide ample evidence herein.
Larger Than Life Keel, Colorless Damone Lead Kismet
A successful Broadway musical that opened in 1953 and won the Tony Award for Best Musical, "Kismet" was brought to the screen by MGM under the guidance of producer Arthur Freed and director Vincente Minnelli. Despite those gilded credentials, the film is a mixed bag that flies high when Howard Keel sings, and plummets when Vic Damone is on screen. Keel has a strong baritone voice that, coupled with a physique and screen presence to match, enhanced such great musicals as "Show Boat," "Kiss Me Kate," and "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers." If a younger Keel had been cast as the Caliph in this film, his rendition of "Stranger in Paradise" alone would have rocked the theaters. However, cast as Hajj, Keel has lesser songs, and, while he gets a girl, he does not get the girl. Although Vic Damone had a successful recording career, his on-screen presence is pallid, and his voice, while good, fails to match Keel's by any measure. As the Caliph, Damone is a wimpy colorless ruler.
Beyond the two male leads, Anne Blyth appears as Marsinah, Hajj's daughter, and Dolores Gray plays Lalume, the Wazir's wife. Both are adequate, but Gray displays her extensive musical experience, although her broad performance is better suited to stage than screen. Set in a never-never land called Baghdad, which should not be confused with the capital of Iraq, the slight predictable storyline involves a young caliph seeking a wife, a strolling inventor of rhymes, the rhymer's lovely daughter, a power-hungry wazir, and the wazir's neglected wife. While admittedly derived from a stage production, the on-screen silliness plays against obviously fake backdrops derived from some production designer's fantasies. Perhaps the art director over-indulged in curry, kebabs, and hummus, then fell asleep reading "The Arabian Nights." The sets are garish and flimsy, and the costumes are equally gaudy. However, cinematographer Joseph Ruttenberg captures all the vibrant color, which is undeniably eye catching, and Andre Previn adapted the fine Broadway score, based on melodies by Alexandr Borodin.
Unfortunately, the skilled hands of Freed, Minnelli, Ruttenberg, Previn, and Keel could not lift "Kismet" above a second-tier MGM musical. Despite some memorable songs, energetic choreography by Jack Cole, and a bold brash performance by Howard Keel, the film can be tough going at times. What should have soared, instead lumbers. Movie musicals petered out in the years after "Kismet," and, while this adaptation did not hammer in the last nails, it did not help either. However, for MGM musical completists and fans of Howard Keel, "Kismet" is essential viewing; for others, passable entertainment at best.
Hit the Deck (1955)
MGM's Musical Parade's Gone By
If three sailors on shore leave in New York made "On the Town" a hit, then three sailors ashore in San Francisco should make "Hit the Deck" an equal success. Not quite, but not for lack of effort. MGM cast three top female musical stars, Debbie Reynolds, Jane Powell, and Ann Miller; hired choreographer Hermes Pan to stage the dance numbers; added veteran support from Walter Pidgeon, Jane Darwell, and Gene Raymond; used George Foley to crisply photograph the lavish sets and production numbers; and included some tuneful songs like "Hallelujah" and "Join the Navy." So, why is "Hit the Deck" only intermittently entertaining and a prime example of a film that is less than the sum of its parts?
Principally, "Hit the Deck" was torpedoed by a silly script; the boy-girl situations are childish, fluffy, and ridiculous even for a light-weight musical. Rather than hire a Vincente Minnelli, MGM employed director Roy Rowland, who was a novice at musicals and whose prior work was a string of largely forgotten movies. The male casting did not help either. While Russ Tamblyn is a terrific dancer and has a bright boyish presence, he alone cannot carry a movie. His two male co-stars, Tony Martin and Vic Damone have great voices, but their bland good looks and colorless screen personalities cannot compare with Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra. Even Jane Powell and Debbie Reynolds are not at their best, which leaves Ann Miller to carry the show, and she gives it her all. Miller is at her tap-dancing best, and her performance as the eager-to-wed Ginger is quite good. When Miller is on screen, the film takes off, even when the musical numbers are less than sterling.
But even the best musical sequences often seem forced and tacked on, rather than connecting with the story, although Debbie Reynolds and Russ Tamblyn have an amusing, if irrelevant routine in a fun house. The rousing finale, which features legions of sailors in their dress whites, serves only as an all-singing all-dancing curtain call for the cast. Lacking the touch of producer Arthur Freed or director Stanley Donen or star Gene Kelly, "Hit the Deck" is an MGM musical from the years after the Golden Age had passed. While the film is harmless and fitfully entertaining, only Ann Miller at her best makes "Hit the Deck" worth seeking out.
Bite the Bullet (1975)
Endurance Race Tests Riders and Horses Alike
Nine hardy, adventurous individuals set out on a 700-mile endurance horse race during the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, the rough rider himself. Written and directed by Richard Brooks, "Bite the Bullet" profiles the eight men and one woman, who are refreshingly less stereotypical than usual. Gene Hackman's Sam Clayton has a tough exterior, but an inner kindness and a love of animals. James Coburn as Luke Matthews is equally tough, but, with less scruples, is eager to win, even if the race has to be fixed. The impeccably beautiful Candice Bergen as Miss Jones hides an ulterior motive behind her flawless make-up. Ben Johnson as an old timer, Jan-Michael Vincent as a newbie, Ian Bannen as an English man, and Mario Arteaga as a Mexican family man with a toothache are good, but more types than characters. The cast is uniformly excellent, with the arguable exception of Bergen, who is too cool to be a former prostitute in the Old West and too refined and proper to compete in a wild horse race through mountains and deserts.
And oh those mountains and deserts! The location cinematography by Harry Stradling Jr is stunning. Stradling's striking work captures all the dazzling beauty of the Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico shooting sites; the scenes filmed in White Sands National Monument are awesome, in the original sense of the word. Alex North's Oscar-nominated score is another major asset, especially when backing Stradling's scenic landscapes.
Compared to Brooks's earlier western, "The Professionals," "Bite the Bullet" has less action and lower star wattage. However, Brooks focuses on character in "Bullet" and provides enough action to sustain viewer interest throughout. To his credit, Brooks does not shy away from the suffering of the horses or from the needless cruelty towards them; a news reporter covering the race rides an early motorcycle, which heralds the end of horses as the primary means of transportation and to much of their mistreatment. Although "Bullet" is a bit long and pales in comparison to "The Professionals," the film is nevertheless quite entertaining, and Brooks provides a literate script, fleshed out characters, and a decent pace. A somewhat neglected, seldom seen western from the 1970's by an award-winning writer-director, "Bit the Bullet" merits rediscovery and re-evaluation.
Wagon Tracks (1919)
Legendary Star in Short Silent Western
A tidy western from the early days of silent films, "Wagon Tracks" stars William S. Hart as a buckskin-clad scout for a wagon train crossing the plains to Santa Fe. As Buckskin Hamilton, Hart pursues the truth behind the shooting death of his younger brother on a Mississippi river boat. Conveniently, the suspects and witnesses to the killing are traveling with Hamilton on the same wagon train. The plot is simplistic, the inter-titles border on florid, and the villain wears black and sports a dark mustache.
Made before the heights of silent film-making in the mid-1920's, "Wagon Tracks" is close to what many consider a typical silent film. The interior backdrops appear fake and flimsy, the acting is at times over-wrought, men are men, and women are, well, the weaker sex. Despite the age-related flaws, the nearly century-old film is worthwhile for many reasons. Among them, fine location photography, appropriate tinting to reflect time of day, and a formidable silent western star, William S. Hart. While not matinée-idol handsome, Hart was the epitome of the strong silent type, who preferred his horse over women, and, as Hamilton, his performance is not above showing emotion or nuance. Robert McKim is an appropriately dastardly villain, Lloyd Bacon is a weakling accomplice, and Jane Novak the easily manipulated female lead.
While "Wagon Tracks" is not a film to introduce silent movies to a new audience, this short western with a legendary star is a good follow-up for those who have sampled silent cinema and want to explore more films of the pre-sound era.