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I Know That Voice (2013)
Too many words
This is a terrific 70-minute documentary that goes on for 90 minutes. A huge cast of exceptional voice talent tells how they got to do what they do, why they like doing what they do, why they do and don't get the recognition they deserve, and other green room stories. Each and every interview is compelling and informative in and of itself, but after about an hour the aggregate doesn't seem to be going anywhere. Although the filmmakers have broken the continuity into subject areas and the online editors have done a gorgeous job creating transitions and effects that add to the storytelling, one comes away from "I Know That Voice" knowing what it's like to be a voice actor, but not how a voice actor does her or his job. The film doesn't show it. A major off-putting stylistic decision was having the interviewer sit so far off eye-line axis that the viewer feels excluded from the conversation rather than brought into it. This is a loving tribute to unsung people, pleasant but not memorable.
From Hollywood to Hanoi (1992)
A search for self, a search for peace
Coming to "From Hollywood to Hanoi" after so much history has been added to the stories of the United States and Vietnam since the end of the war between them, one is struck both by how prescient the film was on its 1992 release as well as how optimistic its filmmaker, Tiana Thi Thanh Nga, was when she made it. On one level, the documentary about a Vietnamese-American woman trying to untangle the twisted strands of her bi-national life is a universal quest for self and homeland. On the other, it's an absolution of America spoken without rancor by the people who were attacked by the greatest military force on earth. One expects that any film about Vietnam -- and certainly one that features Vietnamese people remembering the war -- would automatically be an indictment of the people who waged it (Gen. William Westmoreland, Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, Secretary of State Robert McNamara and the special interests whose water they carried). But that doesn't happen. Instead, Tiana -- whose father was press liaison for South Vietnam and remained a staunch Conservative until his death -- draws compassionate, even hopeful statements from the people that the bombs fell on. She is a winning screen interlocutor, a knowledgeable guide, and a dynamic Everywoman who unites rather than divides. I saw the film when it was originally released and found it a compelling character study. Seeing it again after some twenty years -- and after the death of General Vo Nguyen Giap, the architect of North Vietnam's defense strategy -- I am struck by how much has changed and, with regret, how much has not. The tiny nation that America could not conquer by force has instead being conquered by business. It's the people on both sides want to make peace; their governments still haven't come fully around. Maybe they should all see the remarkable "From Hollywood to Hanoi" again.
If one can ignore the annoying re-creations, puerile writing, and gossipy interviews (with two exceptions), this is a dewy-eyed look at Mary Pickford's life and films from which Mary Pickford herself might have flinched. Not that she was a harlot in sweetheart's clothing, but by stressing the bathos instead of the drama in this brilliant actress/businesswoman's career, the filmmakers never demonstrate why Pickford was such an icon, although they say it a lot. What's interesting, upon second viewing, is noticing how hard the documentary struggles to wring sentiment out of a life that was largely (if you read her autobiography, which I have) devoid of it. There is no mention, for example, of Mary's work with the motion picture Academy or her threat to destroy all her films lest they be laughed at by modern audiences. The best thing in this show is Tom Phillips' attentive musical score. It needs more voices and less idolatry.
Hollywood: The Dream Factory (1972)
The First to Crack the Lion's Lair
Anyone who criticizes "Hollywood: The Dream Factory" is naively unaware of the effort it took to get MGM to open its vault to allow filmmakers Irwin Rosten and Nicholas Noxon to make this remarkable compilation documentary. Seasoned by working on the "Hollywood and the Stars" TV series for producer David L. Wolper, Rosten and Noxon brought their expertise to a then-ailing Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. They used the framing device of the MGM auction to flash back to the studio's heyday, offering a concise capsule of the studio's corporate history with a startlingly wry description of its artistic achievements. Having Dick Cavett narrate, and Fred Foy announce, the program begins with a deliciously witty faux trailer that not only sends up every preview ever produced but lets the viewer know that this will be no paean to M, G, or M (in contrast with the bloated, sycophantic 1992 Turner production "MGM: When the Lion Roars").
It's important to remember that, when this film was made, nobody was getting access to studio vaults, especially MGM's, which then had the golden library. Indeed, the success of "Hollywood: The Dream Factory" doubtless gave the studio the idea to go ahead with "That's Entertainment!," made by another Wolper alumnus, Jack Haley, Jr.
"Hollywood: The Dream Factory" is that rare clip documentary with a personality. Picture quality is first-rate, the modern footage is shot by John A. Alonzo ("Chinatown," "Sounder"), and the script maintains a wise balance between nostalgia and pragmatism. It can be found among the special features on the two-disc DVD of "Meet Me in St. Louis," and it also turns up on TCM now and then.
Whatever Works (2009)
Everything Old is New Again
Reading the positive reviews in this blog, particularly those that note the disconnect between the critics' reactions to this film and that of its audiences, one is struck by a reason why: Critics have followed Woody Allen from the beginning of his career. They have seen him grow. They have watched him falter and brilliantly reconstruct himself. They expect as much from him as he demands of himself (and they know that he can deliver it). The critics understand that "Whatever Works" is a retread, a fiscal necessity to put a shelved script into production to make money during a possible actors' strike. That said, even mediocre Woody Allen is better than, say, the best Wes Anderson. But "Whatever Works" is still a tepid polemic rendered even more so by a rote performance by Larry David (reminiscent of the Woody Allen character from "Manhattan") and a cast of stick figures that lack ensemble chemistry.
Yet to young or unsophisticated audiences who are only now encountering Allen, of course this is a near-masterpiece. This explains the difference between critics and fans. We need both, but we shouldn't confuse one with the other, just as we shouldn't confuse this film with any of Allen's true achievements.
The entire "Brigadoon" can be downloaded legally for private use from www.archive.com, the website of the U.S. National Archives. Apparently the producers failed to renew the show's copyright and it fell into the Public Domain (disclaimers are posted on the website). It's a beautiful production consistent with mid-1960s TV syntax and is especially valuable for its long, unbroken takes where one can watch the actors actually construct a sustained performance. That said, the inevitable cuts to the book undermine the already-fragile premise of a village that comes back to life every hundred years. This "Brigadoon" needs to be watched with a knowledge of the original -- which was, itself, hard to swallow except for (sigh) romantics.
The Producers (2005)
Total disaster on toast
Nothing is more arrogant than a film that assumes it's going to be a hit before it even goes into production. Such a disaster is this musical remake of "The Producers." Stagebound, presentational instead of reactive, and more leaden than an Iron Cross, it betrays everything about the 1968 classic -- not to mention raising questions how anything this klunky could ever work, must less be a hit, on the Broadway stage. Reportedly, Mel Brooks was distracted during filming by his wife's illness and death, and that director Susan Stroman didn't have the clout to override his in absentia presence. Never mind that the new third act ending betrays the first two. Never mind that Lane and Broderick never develop the father-son relationship that Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder did, and which drove the story. Never mind that the musical numbers are not only forgettable, but extraneous. Never mind that the 11 o'clock number is over by 10:59. Never mind that Nathan Lane is made up to look like a Hirschfeld drawing. Never mind that Matthew Broderick is a human marshmallow. Mever mind that Uma Thurman sucks the energy out of movies that she's not even in. Never mind that -- oh, never mind. Like a dumb horror movie where the girl heads up to the attic and you know the monster's there waiting for her but she goes up anyway, "The Producers" is its own train wreck, devoid of any sense of self-awareness, let alone the major one: that it needs an audience.
"Trumbo" personalizes the Blacklist
Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo was arguably the most famous of the "Unfriendly Ten" who were blacklisted in 1947 in the first flash of America's witch-hunts. But that's pretty much all that the casual observer knew about him before his son, Christopher, presented his letters in the two-hander "Trumbo." Now Peter Askin's documentary, which includes dramatized readings from Trumbo fils' epistolary drama, fills in the historical gaps with newsreels, interviews, and a minimum of film clips ($). The importance of this documentary is that it shows how unquiet Trumbo was, how his insistent visibility helped break the Blacklist, and how the forces that tried to make the Blacklistees toe the line are still running things. For any doctrinaire Right-wingers reading this summary, "Trumbo" isn't about Communism, it's about thought control -- something both Left and Right seem to be fixated on imposing. The power of this film comes from its varied, non-manipulative portrayal of an indomitable creative spirit.
Van Wilder (2002)
They Left Out the Best Parts
Finally caught up with "Van Wilder" on DVD for an article on what's happened to Frat/College movies since "Animal House," and the most striking thing about this witless mess is that its best scenes are the deleted ones. They contain the character development, the plot exposition, and the textures (well, sort of) that would have made the rest of the movie interesting if they'd been left in. Oh, yeah, plus has anybody noticed that "Van Wilder" is gay? Not the actor, the character, and not all gays, just the gay stereotype. Lookit: he plays fey, he rolls his eyes a lot, he spends inordinate energy getting other guys laid but not himself, his only heterosexual contact is with the woman as the aggressor, he's always coming on to girls but never following through, there's no kissing, and if his voice was any higher he'd be Tara Reid. On that level, perhaps, "Van Wilder" is a subversive movie. But that's giving it 18 credits more than it deserves.
Silents Please (1960)
A Rose By Another Name
Many of the "Silents, Please" episodes turned up -- sans Kovacs -- retitled as "The History of the Motion Picture" and were made available to public libraries in the 1960s. All footage was public domain. They were released on VHS in 1997 from Critics' Choice Video in transfers made from old ragtag prints, some with spliced-in "History of the Motion Picture" snipes, and others retaining their "Silents, Please!" titles. Alas, they must have been assembled from whatever was in Paul Killiam's and Saul J. Turrell's basements; one of them was even transferred without sound -- ironic, to be sure, but also very sloppy. As wonderful as we remember these shows to have been -- and, indeed, they introduced a whole young generation to the joy of silent cinema -- they don't date well, especially with the arrival of archivists like Kino Video who rescue and restore films.