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Frenzy., 16 April 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

"My Man Godfrey", of which this is a virtual remake, was tainted slightly by a strain of silliness that didn't grow out of the plot but seemed inserted later, as an afterthought. "Merrily We Live" is almost all like an afterthought.

I don't mean to be too polyphenolic about it. It's an amusing diversion. But it's a whole lot more amusing if you haven't seen "My Man Godfrey" yet.

In the earlier film, there was an inherent absurdity in the contrast between William Powell's immaculate, articulate, and super-polite butler and the lunatic family he served. Brian Aherne's newly hired chauffeur isn't a Boston-bred Harvard graduate. He's more of an Everyman. The family springs its nonsense on him with éclat and he responds with aplomb. Instead of being willingly bound in the role of chauffeur, he wanders around the estate at will, making remarks about the diseases of roses and such. The gags aren't particularly funny. One longs for lines like Carole Lombard's, "If others can have children, why can't OTHERS have children?" Let me put it this way. Watch this before you watch "My Man Godfrey," because this compares poorly.

In Harm's Way., 16 April 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

There are a goodly number of war-time documentaries available but this one is exceptional in some respects. It's about HMS Belfast, a British cruiser that took part in the sinking of the Scharnhorst, the German commerce raider that was the sister ship of the Bismark.

The Belfast was a light cruiser -- light not in weight or size, but in the sense that she carried only twelve six-inch guns rather than fewer of heavier caliber. Having put to sea, the first thing Belfast did was run into a German magnetic mine that almost sank her. She was out of the war for three years but emerged a more modern ship, equipped with radar and fire control.

In an attempt to intercept an Allied convoy to Russia, the Scharnhorst sailed into a trap laid by the British, who had broken the German naval code. The Belfast was instrumental in sinking the German battleship.

The film consists of newsreel footage of the period, accompanied by the usual stentorian narration about the men spoiling for a fight and so forth, sounding very much like German newsreels of the time. There are also reenacts in color and comments made by survivors of the Belfast's crew. Their responses to the demolishing of the Scharnhorst is of human interest. For some of the men, it was just another enemy ship. And for others, the two thousand German sailors who perished in the freezing waters were sailors like themselves and the prevailing emotion is sadness.

Only thirty-six survivors were picked up, according to orders to save only "a sample" of the Scharnhorst's crew. I have to add that, like the Bismark, the Scharnhorts was more than just another capital ship. She was beautifully designed, as if by an architect rather than marine engineers. She was long, sleek, fast, and perfectly in her proportions. That warfare should make it necessary to destroy such a naval achievement, not to mention the men, is one of the weaknesses of human culture.

It was informative, too, to be taken below decks and shown the responsibilities of the snipes. Everyone working in the engine room had to learn to find his way around to various controls in complete darkness, for instance, something I'd never thought of.

The Belfast also took part in the bombardment of the Normandy coast on D-day and for two days afterward, when it fired its last shot of the war. It's now part of a British museum and is docked on the Thames near Tower Bridge.

As I say, it's exceptional in some respects and worth catching for a number of different reasons.

Dx: Dysfunctional, 15 April 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

I've been trying to figure out what makes "The Brothers Karamazov" a great tale while similar fat books -- and the movies made from them -- turn into kitsch or historical curiosities. Years ago I read Margaret Mitchell's "Gone With the Wind," a story of love, intrigue, conflict, money, and social status. It's an epic, despite its vulgarity and its repulsive sentiment. But, like "The Brothers Karamazov," it's a big fat book with a gripping narrative.

I think the difference may lie in the way the characters are limned in. Everyone in "Gone With the Wind" is bigger than life, but they're not very real. They're animated points of view. The characters may or may not be lovable but they're uniformly dumb. The only person who learns anything is Rhett Butler, and only at the very end.

In "The Brothers Karamazov", the characters are inconsistent, the way people are in life. Fyodor, the dissolute semi-father, is usually drunk and given to orgies, even with his wife in the house. Yet, at a meeting with the Holy Elder, he's so awed by the Monk's humility that he's struck speechless. And he has mercurial bonds with his sons. Mostly he never thinks of them but, from time to time, he weeps with affection for them.

The story is deeper, too, than that of Mitchell's novel. "Gone With the Wind" is the story of Scarlett O'Hara. "The Brothers Karamazov" is the story of a struggle within a family and a relationship with God that resembles that between Fyodor and his sons. It has to do with guilt, a universal source of human distress. (Where is the guilt in "Gone With the Wind"?) This particular rendering of Dostoyevsky's novel must have been shot on a low budget. The color is washed out and the musical score sounds like something from a cheap Italian grindhouse movie. Most of it takes place indoors and with a bit of imagination it could easily have been turned into a theatrical production. The director, though, has incorporated some striking visuals. Check out the opening credits. The screen looks like some abstract painting until we finally hear boots crunching through snow and a line of gray-coated men shuffling across the screen.

The small budget makes it possible, or even necessary, for indoor conversations about human conundrums to be left more or less intact. There aren't any wild horse races, as there are in the Hollywood version. The performances here are adequate, not much more than that. Many people made fun of Yul Brynner in the American film, I think mainly because shaved heads were so uncommon. In one of his novels, Anthony Burgess ridiculed a Yul Brynner figure known as "the bald Adonis of Greater London." But Brynner brings a frenzied intensity to the role of Dmitri that Sergey Gorobchenko lacks. As the youngest and most virtuous son, Alyosha, Aleksandr Golubev is a little more convincing than William Shatner was in 1965. Shatner was young and handsome and properly dressed and groomed but he could never help looking a little SLY.

This is an inexpensive movie but not a bad one. It's just long and it lacks color. It's in no way an insult to the writer or the viewer. And the final line is not some banality like, "I'll cry tomorrow."

Give 'Em The Right, Tommy!, 13 April 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

An inexpensive black-and-white film from MGM, strictly minor, but pretty good. Mickey Rooney learns how to be a boxer from his older friend, Mickey Knox. And he turns out to have a certain talent and a dynamite right hand. His second is the endearingly cynical Sam Levene.

Unfortunately, Rooney is saddled with a loving but inadequate father who is a drunken gambler, continually throwing money away. That's Phillip Dunn, who won an Academy Award for a similar role in "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn." Dunn was dogged by a drinking problem in real life, and so was Brian Donlevy, who has the role of the sneaky but sentimental role of Rooney's manager. It's a rather neatly written part because although he operates under a phony name and is terribly rich, Donlevy wants his daughter, Ann Blyth, to keep believing that he runs an investment firm and that's where his wealth comes from. She believes it too. She's beautiful but dumb. (And she IS babalicious too.)

There are all kinds of ups and downs and other shenanigans. Rooney gives a speech defending prize fighters as a kind of nobility that makes a living by spilling its own blood, in contrast to the Suits that manipulate figures on Wall Street and sacrifice nothing. The scene isn't entirely convincing because it's intended to bring Ann Blyth and her snootiness down a notch, but she's said nothing to deserve being scolded with such emotion.

But there are well thought-out scenes too. Bob Steele never had many good roles. He made a few cheap Westerns and serials. But he was okay in "Of Mice and Men" as Curly, and he's quite good here as "Sailor", with whom Rooney has a professional bout. Rooney decks him. Afterward, in a restaurant, Blyth tells Rooney that there must be a great deal of hatred between Rooney and Steele as a result of the knockout. "Nah, we're in the same business," replies Rooney, and just then Steele and his girl friend enter and join Rooney and Blyth, and Bob Steele is all lit up with jollity over some news -- the fight long forgotten.

Rooney was too recherché a character to become a leading man. The guy -- R.I.P. -- was a shrimp and had curiously comic features and boundless energy. Even when he was standing still he look like he was about to pop. But this is a fine role for him and he's not bad. And not to feel too sorry for him. He was married to Ava Gardner for a while.

Futility., 12 April 2014

I'll try to keep this short. In 1915, the UK was at war with Turkey, among other Central Powers. The planned to take Turkey's capitol, Istanbul, by first demolishing it was a bombardment from the sea, then by an invasion. This couldn't be done unless the Turkish guns guarding the approach to Istanbul were silenced. To this end, the British attempted an amphibious landing on the southern end of the Gallipoli peninsula and the Australian/New Zealand troops landed ten miles to the north. Their joint objective was a hill named Achi Baba, about ten miles inland, from which fire could be laid down on the Turkish guns.

The invasion failed. The Brits in the south were laid waste by a few Turkish machine guns. The Anzacs landed against only sniper fire but their attack stalled a short way inland. The battle then turned into what the British wanted least -- a replication of the trench warfare in Europe. All of the British supplies had to be lugged in from the beach, and some of the drinking water came from as far away as Egypt.

The spirit of the Turkish troops had been underestimated. They were outnumbered but they were fighting for their homeland and were inspired by their leader, Kemal Ataturk. Disease sickened and killed many of the British and there was evidence of slack leadership. After eight months of combat, they were no closer to Achi Baba -- which was to be taken the first night of the invasion -- than about half way. They finally withdrew.

It was a great victory for the Turks and an awful defeat for the UK, for which Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, was largely responsible. He resigned shortly after, and it may have been the specter of Gallipoli that partly explains his reluctance to mount a cross-channel invasion in World War II.

However, while acknowledging all these forces, the program examines one of the more neglected factors of the affair -- the absence of adequate intelligence about the terrain and the Turkish position. The Anzacs got ashore, for instance, and carried their advance inland but when they moved to take the heights that were their objective, they found that the river and flat plain on their maps were in actuality a kind of miniature African rift valley with vertical sides. The flat beaches and gentle slopes of the British landing on the southern point turned out to look more like Omaha Beach, with well-emplaced machine guns on each flank.

Like many battles it was horrible and a material loss for both sides. The Turks could claim a victory in having repelled the invaders, but it cost them dearly. The British and Anzacks couldn't even claim a moral victory. As Elizabeth I is supposed to have said, "I dislike wars. They have unintended consequences."

The Heat (2013/I)
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Turn the Heat Down., 11 April 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Hollywood must be getting desperate because they seem to be recycling the same plots again and again. You can practically hear the MBAs sitting around in the board room. "Hey, 'Lethal Weapon' was a mismatched cop buddy movie and it made a lot of money, no? So when is the last time we had a mismatched cop buddy movie about two WOMEN? How's THAT for a new idea!" In "Lethal Weapon", Danny Glover was a cop with a family, slightly up tight about aging, who followed the rules. His new partner, Mel Gibson, is a half-loony anti-nomian who breaks all the rules and imitates the three stooges. It may have been commercial trash -- and it was -- but it was entertaining in its slapstick way. I'd like to point out the scene I found most gripping in that burlesque milieu filled with gun fire and car chases. When we first see Danny Glover, he's in the bath tub. His family rushes in and showers congratulations on him for his 50th birthday, twitting him about his beard turning gray, and kissing him lovingly. The family leaves. Glover sits alone for a moment, his smile fading, then slowly turns an agonized stare towards a nearby mirror and regards his graying beard. (Ouch.) "The Heat" doesn't have any human moments like that. It can't, because human moments have nothing to do with the point of the movie, which is to make money by appealing to twelve-year-old kids. This is the audience that might wonder why Danny Glover was looking at his beard.

Sandra Bullock is an intelligent and attractive young woman, barely attractive enough for the Hollywood mold, which is just fine. She also speaks fluent German. I give her extra points for that because I've lived half an hour from the Mexican border for ten years and I'm still on Chapter Two of "Spanish for Dummies", "How To Find Your Way Around the Airport." She's fifty herself now and is no longer a kid but that's okay because it fits her role as a rigid and friendless, experienced FBI agent. But the writers have done her in. She's Danny Glover without the sympathy. And she's partnered with the vulgar Melissa McCarthy. McCarthy isn't a bad actress, as far as we can tell, but with her weight and with the rapture she finds in using the F bomb she invites a viewer's ridicule. A scene in which she hobbles after an escaping black man and downs him with a watermelon isn't really funny so much as pitiful. It must have been humiliating for the actress, but the people who should have been ashamed were the writers who put this terrible concoction together just to make a few unoriginal bucks.


A Great Ship Needs Deep Waters., 10 April 2014

I was stuck on an Indian reservation some years ago and with little reading material available I tried to tackle Tolstoy's "War and Peace." I'd read "Anna Karenina" as a teen and found it interesting. And I positively enjoyed "Crime and Punishment" later in life -- an AXE MURDER! But "War and Peace" was simply too big. So, since I can't compare the novel to Bondarchuk's movie, I'll just make a few comments in passing.

Natasha is a doll-like figure resembling Audrey Hepburn, with her long neck, slender figure, wide eyes, and fragile features. She's elfin with a touch of the Tatar brush. She looks as if you could take one of her long bones and snap it like a twig. Only her lips are plumper than Hepburn's, suggesting she is prepared to be debauched more thoroughly than Audrey Hepburn ever was.

Still, she looks like an adolescent throughout, and has an adolescent's impatient, flighty notion of love. She pines for Prince Andre and he finally proposes, but there is no formal engagement, and he tells her he will spend a year away to give her time to think. She thinks. Then she leaps headlong into a glandular love with some already-married Schmuck who tries to sweep her away and ruin her. She's eager but her family prevents it. She may have had dance training because when she's thirteen she runs like a trained ballerina.

The Battle of Borodino, a Russian victory that didn't save Moscow, is long, action filled, gory, smoky, hard on horses, and confusing. Half the time I couldn't tell who was who. Andre is in the midst of the fighting, and Pierre is covered with mud while observing, but it was possible to identify the French in long shots only because their headgear had a kind of plume sticking straight up, and in close ups their blue blouses could be clearly seen. I said that it's hard on horses because of the obvious use of a device called the "running W". Wires were attached to the horse's front legs and the horse was made to gallop until the wire ran out to its full length, yanking the horse's legs out from under him.

It's extremely impressive. At any given time there may be literally hundreds of soldiers galloping, marching, or running across the screen amid the racket and puffs of exploding shells, often in aerial shots. But it's impossible to follow the developments. It's all done by editing or montage, rather than from a particular individual's point of view. I'd contrast it with a much briefer and equally effective, studio-bound scene of combat from "Pride of the Marines." In some ways the most harrowing scenes are those of executions, not battles. We get to know a little about the people being tied helplessly to the stake, blindfolded, and shot. In battle you can defend yourself, but this is murder.

Bondarchuk, the director, has given himself the part of Pierre, a nice sympathetic role, but he doesn't try to become a matinée idol. How could he? He looks like James Coco. He has a fine scene in which he has a duel with some smart aleck and almost by accident shoots the fellow in the ribs, after which, filled with guilt, he runs drunkenly through the snowy woods, stumbling over everything.

The night before Borodino, Andre and Pierre have a chat in Andre's dark cabin. Andre is full of misgivings about tomorrow, certain he will be killed. And he rhetorically asks some simple questions. Tomorrow hundreds of thousands of men will try to butcher one another and he, Andre, will be among the most enthusiastic. The side that kills the most will be the winner. But everyone, soldier and civilian alike, will suffer. If God is good, how can He allow all this crap to continue? It's a conundrum that has no satisfactory answer although most world religions have been at pains to find one. Christianity decided that God gave man free will as a kind of test. He can create evil if he likes. In other Eastern religions, suffering is working off some bad karma leading to redemption in the next life. But Andre never answers his own question. He's just perplexed by it all.

A lusty theme of nationalism runs through the film. The narration tells us about the role of the Russian spirit in turning Napoleon away from Moscow. It's believable enough. In what the Russians call "The Great Patriotic War" and we call "World War II", it's doubtful that many involved were fighting for Josef Stalin. I found the narration a bit much, rather like Basil Rathbone's patriotic platitudes at the end of his Sherlock Holmes movies. But there is a warm little scene at the time of the wolf hunt. In a humble wooden cottage, after a simple meal, a servant in the next room is playing a balalaika and the patriarch at the table takes up his guitar and begins to play an unpretentious ballad. He begs Natasha to dance and she holds her skirt wide and glides from place to place with tiny graceful movements. The tempo picks up and she spins madly and joyously. Afterward the old man applauds and wonders how -- what with her French nanny and her cosmopolitanism -- Natasha could still be so aglow with Russianism. The later part of the film gets all spiritual, as Tolstoy himself did.

I don't know what it was about the Napoleonic wars but Russian General Bagration, who became a hero at the Battle of Austerlitz, had a salad named after him. No kidding. You can look up the recipe easily. And then, of course, Napoleon is a creamy pastry and Beef Wellington is roasted in a pastry shell. Something about food and the French, I expect. A Gallic influence seems to be everywhere. And now, please excuse me as I warm my baguette over the bidet.

Conflicting Allegiances., 6 April 2014

This hour-long documentary combines news footage with talking heads and close ups of important files. It isn't about the fall of Singapore. It's about two British flying officers who fell in love with Japan and acted as spies for the Japanese during the 1920s and 30s.

Sempill was one of the earliest pilots in the naval air arm. He was a hero and a peer, a member of the House of Lords. He visited Japan in the 20s and more or less showed them how to build an aircraft carrier. It was legal enough, but after he returned to England he continued to supply the Japanese with secret information about the RAF and its technology.

Rutland also worked in Japan and, if Sempill showed them how to build aircraft carriers, Rutland showed them how to build small airplanes, fit them with bombs and torpedoes, and fly them on and off carrier decks. In the 30s he was sent to Pearl Harbor where he continued his spying for the Japanese.

The results of the activities of these two men were, of course, disastrous for both England and the United States. The Japanese had their own spies in Hawaii and in Malaya so the Japanese had all the information they needed.

There is no footage or detailed description of the fall of Singapore, but it's a fascinating lesson in the making of unwarranted assumptions. Singapore is an island just off the Malay peninsula and it was assumed by the British that the expected attack would come by sea. At great expense, the island was turned into a fortress that could repel any invasion from the sea. Of course, the Japanese knew all about the 16-inch guns and instead of attacking from the sea, they landed troops on the Malay peninsula and fought their way down to Singapore until it was isolated and finally bombed into submission. The British lost two iconic battleships in attempting to thwart the Japanese advance. And the Japanese army outmaneuvered the British, Australian, and Indian troops at every encounter on the peninsula. They already had accurate maps of the roads, paths, swamps, and likely choke points, as well as all the fortifications of the naval base in Singapore. The film doesn't mention it but the Japanese army moved far more swiftly than anticipated because instead of marching they rode BICYCLES.

But there's very little about the fighting that went on. Mostly, it's the story of Sempill and Rutland. When they were both found out, Sempill was given the choice between resigning and commanding an isolated post in Scotland. Rutland went to jail and killed himself. As one expert commented, "Sempill was a peer and Rutland wasn't."

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It's a Bird; It's a Plane; It's a -- No, It's a Bird., 5 April 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Lots of recognizable names in the cast as well as a couple of talented newcomers, and the story is complex, with several somewhat confusing flashbacks. But at heart it's just the old story, reminiscent of one of the later sequels to the original "Superman" of 1978, with Christopher Reeves, plus a stylish and cadaverous green pallet and an absolute cornucopia of computer-generated graphics, with added hints of "The War of the Worlds" and "Mars Attacks." Cavill is the alien from Krypton who is adopted by a farming family in Kansas and must hide his latent status because, as the editor of the Daily Planet, Laurence Fishburne, puts it, it would start a panic if people knew. He communicates this in a hushed voice to Lois Lane, Amy Adams, whose presence is appealing.

I would have killed to see this movie if it had been available when I was a child, during the comic book age. Now it all seems to much and too little at the same time. Too little depth but so much action that it set my nerves on edge and I had to dash for the scotch. The action -- the visual f/x in general -- aren't deliberately paced. They come at you in bundles. WHAM! BANG! Bodies are flung around at the speed of light with abandon. The attacking Weasels of the US Air Force ought to know better than to try destroying an alien space craft on a small town street. Haven't the authorities ever seen a science fiction movie? The armed forces always lose. Except in "Tarantula", in which Clint Eastwood manages to set afire a spider the size of Greenland. A disgusting sight. But just try something like that with Gort -- or with these evil-intioned goons.

Everyone is either good or bad, as in a comic book, and sometimes that's fun, as in "Indiana Jones" or the original "Cape Fear." Just sit back and let it wash over you. But the sort of things on screen here -- the tornadoes, the cars flung through the air, the anti-gravity machine turning Metropolis into a black hole -- have all been done before, and the people of the city running in panic from the massive cloud of dust raised by a collapsing building is genuinely tasteless.

On the other hand, reducing the broth, if you enjoy a bonanza of destruction and fist fights and so on, this is your movie. I outgrew it about the time I lost my sense of the absurd.

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The Elusive Muse., 4 April 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Pope Julius (Harrison) has an enormous chapel and he wants the ceiling painted. Maybe pictures of the Apostles. He hires Michelangelo Buonarotti (Heston), a sculptor, to do the job. But Michelangelo is hesitant to take the job because he thinks of himself as a sculptor and is not a member of the International Guild of Sistine Chapel Ceiling Painters. But he's finally persuaded, although the Pope is always behind in his payments.

The movie is all about Michelangelo's troubles with the Pope, with his own vision, and with his capacity for love. Diane Cilento, a Roman noblewoman, makes herself available to him but his love is only for his art. So he says. I'm not so sure historians are all agreed on that point but if it's true, it's a good example of what Freud would call "sublimation." Heston does a pretty good job of being a sloppy and contentious artist. Rex Harrison seems somehow misplaced as the Warrior Pope. He exudes elegance and wit but not a thirst for power. Rafael makes a few brief appearances as a handsome young man with a page boy haircut or whatever it is. Devotees of the Mutant Teenage Ninja Turtles may be surprised to find that there actually was such a man. The rest of the cast has a few well-known names but they have virtually nothing to do except say lines like, "If your Holiness permits, may I show you something?" There are lots of extras, some dubbed into English.

Director Carol Reed had some some fine work over the past thirty years but the pace here is slow and deliberate, despite all the shouting and arguments. The undistinguished musical score veers from holiness to majesty and back again. Production design and set dressing are unusually well done, and wardrobe and make up are exceptional. Heston looks like a filthy bum. We never see him in full, blazing Renaissance panoply, or with that comely forelock he was given in "El Cyd." Instead he has the kind of haircut my barber, Francisco, gives to me. Someone has lifted Heston's hair, clump by clump, and taken a machete to it. Rome looks like we imagine Rome to have looked, not like a set at Cinecittà, except for the absence of horse manure on the streets. Let's not be offensive.

Speaking of that, the only close up we see of Adam in The Creation is by candle light. Adam's dingle was small enough to begin with, but here it's kept in dark shadow so as not to offend the ladies in small towns. I have in my possession, somewhere, a post card from Rome sent to a lady in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, purchased for five cents from some local busker. The text runs thus. "Dear Helen. We visited museums today. Some of the statues are undraped. Love, Agatha." The date is 1902.

I don't know for sure that the movie is all that historically accurate. Some of the dialog must have been invented, not that it matters much by itself. The problem is that the dialog has little cleverness and no sparkle at all. It's a long movie and rather dull at times. Yet, for all that, it's educational and should be seen by people who never heard of Michelangelo Buonarotti. That includes an awful lot of high school kids and some liberal arts majors.

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