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"My Sister Eileen" was a play, (taken from some short stories), and then a film with Rosalind Russell that became the Broadway musical "Wonderful Town" with a score by Leonard Bernstein together with Betty Comden and Adolph Green, which also starred Russell. The musical film of "My Sister Eileen", however, is not a screen version of "Wonderful Town" but an original screen musical with an entirely new score by Jule Styne and Leo Robin. Personally I could never see what was wrong with "Wonderful Town" and no film directed by Richard Quine had me rushing off to see it which may be another reason this film has passed me by until now. Surprisingly, it's really rather pleasant. The stars are Janet Leigh, Betty Garrett, Jack Lemmon and Bob Fosse. Garrett was, of course, a welcome addition to any musical while both Leigh and Lemmon were always welcome additions to any film. As for Fosse, it's great to see him in a proper role and in front of the camera for a change while his choreography is, as ever, a treat, (watching him dance is one of the pleasures of musical cinema particularly when his partner is the wonderful Tommy Rall). The script was co-written by Quine and Blake Edwards and it's good enough to make you wish that maybe Edwards should have directed, too. It's certainly not the greatest musical to have come out of the fifties, (or anywhere close), but it's entertaining in its own innocuous way.
Another movie long considered 'lost', and now mercifully restored, Anthony Mann's "Men in War" is a war film worthy to take its place beside Terrence Malick's "The Thin Red Line", (you can see its influence on Malick's masterpiece); in other words, this is a near-masterpiece and certainly one of Mann's greatest films. The war in question is the Korean and another American patrol find themselves caught out in the open, like so many before them in so many other war films, as they try to survive and like Robert Aldrich's brilliant "Attack" is as much about the conflict between an officer and a sergeant as it is about the external conflict with the enemy. The principle protagonists are Robert Ryan and Aldo Ray whose contempt for each other is only matched by their contempt for the enemy. Both actors are outstanding and others in the exceptional cast include Robert Keith, Vic Morrow, Nehemiah Persoff, James Edwards and L Q Jones. You might call it an anti-war film since few films about men in conflict have painted such a dark picture of the costs of war and what it can do to men in the field. Indeed, this has even been called an 'art-house' war film which is probably just another way of saying that it's different and very intelligent. It's also stunningly well photographed in black and white by Ernest Haller and boasts another very score by Elmer Bernstein. How it ever came to be 'lost' in the first place is something of a mystery, (did audiences simply find it too bleak?). Let's just be thankful, then, that it's been 'found' again.
Okay, so the dubbing's atrocious but in every other respect Damiano Damiani's "A Bullet for the General" is a classic Spaghetti Western which has built up quite a considerable cult since it first appeared. With a cast headed by Gian Maria Volonte, Klaus Kinski and Lou Castel, not to mention cult favorite Martine Beswick, what do you expect but it's Damiani's direction, (he handles the plentiful action sequences splendidly), and Antonio Secchi's superb widescreen cinematography, together with an intelligent and politically astute screenplay, in part written by Franco Solinas, that gives this marvelous film an edge over many of its contemporaries.
When I saw "Jersey Boys" on stage I thought it would make a great film,
a gift for Martin Scorsese; think "Goodfellas" as a musical minus the
killings. Now it's finally, and somewhat inevitably, reached the screen
but under the guidance of Clint Eastwood, who also knows a thing or two
about this sort of milieu; think a New Jersey "Mystic River" as a
musical minus the killings, and I can safely say he has done it proud.
Of course, Scorsese and Eastwood are two very different kinds of
director. Scorsese, now in his seventies, is still the fly-boy, a super
kinetic director of in-your-face entertainments. Eastwood, now in his
eighties, has always been something of a classicist, a film-maker in
the Howard Hawks mold whose films don't necessarily draw attention to
themselves. I think this is why he is the most underrated of all the
great American directors and it may be one reason why the critics have
given "Jersey Boys" a rather lukewarm reception. Even I had my doubts
that Eastwood still had it in him, that he could pull the rabbit out of
the hat one more time. I needn't have worried, "Jersey Boys" is
terrific; a full-blooded, thoroughly old fashioned biopic that totally
transcends the term 'jukebox musical'.
It is, of course, the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, or rather The Four Seasons, the band that included Valli, and who rose to inclusion in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame despite their connections to the Mob. In some respects it's a gangster musical along the lines of "Love Me or Leave Me" but with a rock n'roll slant. It's not perfect; there is still a soap-opera feel to some of the more emotional moments but luckily these are dealt with reasonably quickly. For the most part it zips along buoyed by a handful of highly credible performances.
John Lloyd Young recreates his Tony award winning performance as Valli. He's great in the musical scenes but his lack of experience as a serious actor tells as the drama progresses, (for here was a band that didn't just have to worry about breaking up but maybe even staying alive). On the other hand, Vincent Piazza, Michael Lomenda and Erich Bergen are all excellent as fellow band members, (Piazza, in particular, is superb), and Christopher Walken, as always, raises the bar with what is basically a glorified cameo as an old-time Jersey gangster. And then there are those songs, which are still some of the best in the pop canon and which, thanks to this marvelous show, have now been given a new lease of life. Oh, what a night!
Alexander Dovzhenko's "Earth" is as great as "Battleship Potemkin" or anything else in the Eisenstein canon and yet not many people have seen it, However, I don't doubt that anyone who has seen it will easily forget it for this is one of cinema's great masterpieces. The theme is solidarity or more appropriately humanity as this is one of cinema's great humanist films. It is also, of course, propaganda, a paean of praise to the doctrine of communism that some may find objectionable. However, others with broader minds will see in that doctrine of communism a need and a willingness for the oppressed to rise up and to take a stand against the oppressor and I doubt if anyone can argue with that philosophy. Of course, that in itself doesn't make the film a masterpiece but Dovzhenko's film, made in 1930 and silent, employs filmic techniques like few others before or since. Frame after frame dazzles the eye, the mise-en-scene is sublime and the editing, (remember this was 1930), breathtaking. If I see anything as good this year I will be very surprised.
The young Romanian director Cristian Nemescu was killed shortly after completing this tragicomedy set during the conflict in Bosnia. His death was a double tragedy; the loss of a young life, (he was only 27), to be sure and the loss of a potentially major talent in international cinema. However, despite it's setting "California Dreamin'" isn't so much a comedy of war but a biting satire on bourgeoisie attitudes in a country struggling to make itself heard. It may not be quite in the same class as some of Milos Forman's early Czech films, though on occasion it does come close, and there were times when I was reminded of Jiri Menzel's similarly set "Closely Observed Trains". The plot revolves around a group of US soldiers, part of NATO, caught between a group of striking villagers and the corrupt station-master who refuses to let their train pass through his station and it is apparently based on fact. Nemescu manages to poke gentle fun at all sides; no-one finally emerges intact with both the Americans and the Romanians coming off equally badly and he does a wonderful job in evoking the boredom of village life. The performances throughout are superb with perhaps Ion Sapdaru as the mayor and Razvan Vasilescu as the station-master the standouts. Those icons of both American and Romanian culture, Elvis and Dracula, also make an appearance.
It has to be seen to be believed though you need to be in a very giddy frame of mind to sit through it. "King Richard and the Crusaders" was Hollywood's idea of what Sir Walter Scott's "The Talisman" might look like as a film and it's a howler from start to finish. It was directed, if that's the word, by that master of mediocrity David Butler and a cast who really ought to have known better and were obviously only in it for the money, included Rex Harrison, (in black face as Saladin), George Sanders, (looking very sorry for himself as King Richard), Laurence Harvey, (as a Scots knight) and Virginia Mayo, (as an English rose). But it's the dialogue that 'elevates' the film to something approaching cult status. "War, war, that's all you think about Dick Plantagenet" says Virginia at one point and there are many more where that came from. Atrocious but all the better for it while, of course, young boys, surely its target audience, will love all the derring-do.
The Irish 'Troubles' might seem an unlikely subject for an Ealing film of the early fifties but when you consider it's a Basil Dearden/Michael Relph movie then perhaps not, for Dearden and Relph were the team behind "Sapphire" and "Victim" which tackled racism and homosexuality at a time when such subjects were considered taboo. It's set during the Second World War and it's about the IRA doing their bit to heighten the Blitz in London and casts John Mills and Dirk Bogarde as very unlikely Irish brothers, one for the use of violence and the other against it. Bogarde, in particular, is miscast, (he never wanted to make the movie), and his attempt at an Irish accent is pretty awful but Mills, once again, proves the better actor and turns in a fairly credible performance while Dearden ensures the suspense quota remains high. An excellent supporting cast includes Jack MacGowran, Liam Redmond, Robert Beatty and Barbara Mullen. It's unlikely it will ever go down as one of the better films to deal with the Irish question but neither is it negligible and it is worth seeing.
Elia Kazan made "The Arrangement" in 1969 after having first published it as a novel. It's a difficult film but ultimately a rewarding one. It begins along the lines of a rather heavy-handed satire on consumerism before turning into a very late sixties psychodrama about a mid-life crisis which Kazan chooses to film in the fractured style of a European art-movie. The central character is Eddie Anderson, (not his real name; he changed it from the original Greek), and from flashbacks we are lead to believe he's the son of the boy from "America, America" who has now become Richard Boone. The film opens with Eddie's bizarre suicide attempt when he drives his sports car under the wheels of a truck and as it moves forward, to some kind of redemption. It also keeps skipping back to the events in Eddie's past that have lead up to that moment when he felt his life was no longer worth living. Kirk Douglas plays Eddie superbly, in what is really a very difficult role. His long-suffering wife is an equally superb Deborah Kerr, mixing acidity and sweetness to an almost alarming degree as she tries to comprehend what it is that's driving her husband. In the role of Eddie's mistress Faye Dunaway is less successful simply because her character is too much of a contradiction; she seems to undergo a complete change of personality. However, there's fine work from Hume Cronyn as Eddie's slimy lawyer and Boone is splendid as the gruff, seemingly uncaring father. The movie itself wasn't a success and critics were heavily divided, many feeling that Kazan had stepped outside of his comfort zone and had largely failed. However, the magazine 'Films and Filming', a bible of British film criticism at the time, selected it as the year's best film from any source. It was hardly that but it is still Kazan's last really good movie, an utterly essential part of one of the great canons of work in world cinema and it certainly shouldn't be missed if you get the chance to see it.
Adapted by its director, Hossein Amini, from a little known novel by Patricia Highsmith "The Two Faces of January" turns out to be a highly satisfying tale of murder most foul very typical of Miss Highsmith. OK, so it's not on the same level as "The Talented Mr Ripley", "Plein Soleil" or "Strangers on a Train" but with its emphasis on plot rather than 'action' it's still a cut above a good many of today's so-called thrillers. Also typical of Highsmith is that the principal relationship in the film is between two men, (though one of them is married while the other starts to fall for the wife). The married one is Viggo Mortensen, apparently rich and touring Greece but also harboring a dark secret. The wife is pert little Kirsten Dunst and the man who falls for her is tour guide Oscar Issac. At first Issac thinks he has the upper hand, swindling Mortensen out of a few thousand dollars only to realize quite early in their relationship that he has bitten off more than he can chew. After awhile Dundst's character becomes almost redundant as the men start to play power games with each other. Whereas the male/male relationships in other Highsmith adaptations were mostly homo-erotic with at least one of the characters clearly drawn as gay. Here the relationship is meant to evoke a father and a son, (Issac's character has issues with his dead father). This slightly dilutes the dark heart of the picture. Movies like "The Talented Mr Ripley" and "Strangers on a Train" worked as well as they did because the villain was clearly homosexual and psychopathic and you never knew where his temper and jealous rages might take him. In this movie Mortensen is undoubtedly the jealous straight guy while Issac is just too nice, (he's too sweet to be a real con-man). Still, all three leading players are excellent and Amini tightens the screws very nicely as the film progresses. Filmed, for the most part, in Greece it will also prove something of a boost for the Greek Tourist Board this summer.
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