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The Letter (1940)
great, but let's keep in mind how racist it is
This is one of my favourite movies. The gripping narrative, the acting, all the riveting scenes of high drama -- great stuff.
But I wonder why we give a pass to its racism? We speak out against the racism of Westerns and their portrayal of indigenous peoples, and it's with a sense of embarrassment that we watch those old movies. Similarly we recognize the stereotypes and racism of the Charlie Chan movies. But I think we still need to acknowledge quite clearly how racist The Letter is. I am tempted to list some of the outrageous examples from the movie, but there are so many at every level that it would be a dreary task.
Hollywood, of course, was dealing with a story set in a racist society, written by an English author. Yet Hollywood did nothing to undercut the racism, there is no distancing from the contempt the whites have for others, the language they use about them. Without exception the Asians are crafty, untrustworthy, degraded, living in the shadows, prowling by night, and ultimately murderous.
Enjoy The Letter, by all means. But let's not overlook the ugliness of the milieu. Let's not accept such rank injustice as normal and dull our eyes until we barely notice it.
The Cockleshell Heroes (1955)
waste of time -- plus annoying, abysmal use of music
The reviewers here so far like this film very much but seem to have various kinds of sentimental attachments to it. I don't have any--no memories of seeing it when I was young, no family, friends or acquaintances involved in the mission, no external notions from reading about it. I just watched it as a general moviegoer from the early 21st century. In my opinion The Cockleshell heroes has worn badly over the years.
The first part, covering the selection of the participants and their training, has very little information in it--a tiny bit about limpet mines, a scene of soldiers climbing rock cliffs (no such landscape shows up later in the mission), perhaps one potentially interesting challenge forcing the men to use their wits to move around the countryside, but more close-order drilling than anything.
Apart from the two officers and one soldier who goes AWOL to beat up a man who's been having an affair with his wife while he's away, there is almost nothing to distinguish one character from another. And there is no acting. The little tension between two officers leads only to a few moments of the two exchanging their points of view. Jose Ferrer delivers pretty much all his lines in the same tone of voice: it's a nice voice, it would be great narrating a documentary on some serious subject, but it has no emotional inflection in this movie.
But what really spoils this long first section of the movie is the abundance of "cute" vignettes. A parachutist lands in cow manure, a hitchhiker gets a ride with a ridiculous fast-talking matron, the near-naked men run past a group of nuns. Tired, old tropes even for 1955, and far, far too many of them.
Once the mission begins there is almost no dialogue, mostly scenes of men padding in their kayaks (called "canoes" in the movie). It's pretty dull stuff, and the director obviously thought music would be needed to keep audiences interested. But what awful music! On and on it goes, a symphony orchestra playing meaningless, vaguely military-sounding riffs non-stop, not in the least adapted to what's happening at the moment on the screen, just mindless orchestral noise that never stops. After a while I actually turned off the sound on my television to escape from the never-ending assault on my ears. And-- this is incredible-- during one supposed scene of deep thoughtfulness, when after a night of drinking an older officer is alone in a board room telling the sad story of his life to another officer, the same nonsensical orchestral tooting and shrilling continues ridiculously from beginning to end. It really should go down as one of the worst uses of music ever in the history of film making.
As for action scenes, there's not much and not presented with any suspense. The climax, with explosions, is depicted with a few models in a studio.
It's really terrible writing, terrible directing and an absence of acting.
The Siege of Jadotville (2016)
all action, no story
I was hoping for something special when I saw that this would feature Irish soldiers working as U.N. peacekeepers in the Congo, but in order to highlight the action values of the movie, the producers paid little attention to anything else. Human interest? A soldier has a wife at home, and we see her worrying about him. So much for human interest. Except for the lead character, the Irish soldiers are not distinguished one from another. The villains,a Congolese warlord and an Irish politician, are completely stock characters. How about politics and the background that led to the fighting? A bit of effort went into that, but not nearly enough. What was so special about Jadotville, what made it worth the enemy sacrificing so many of their own lives in attacking it over and over? There might have been a word to explain that, but it was certainly brief and casual, because I missed it. The movie consists of mainly of action scenes, nicely done, but I for one got a little bored, no matter how well done they were. Enemy soldiers attack, you wonder if all is lost, there is shooting and explosions, and the enemy is turned back for one reason or another. Repeat.
If action is enough for you, you will enjoy this movie. I lost interest long before it was over.
Deepwater Horizon (2016)
serious subject turned into empty action flick
This was a major disappointment. Despite so much of the story depending on technical details, the movie communicated next to nothing. In the early scenes on the rig, people were shouting at each other, unable to understand each other because of the background noise. However, the audience was made to suffer the same thing, having no idea what people were saying. It turns out they were asking if a "cement test" had been completed, and after some time, after they were indoors and checked with various people, they discovered that the test had not been completed. So why was the audience made to go through the nonsense of not hearing what people were saying? It seemed a ridiculous plot point to portray in such an annoying way. The significance was that the test had not been completed, not that it took a few minutes to find that fact out because it was too noisy outside for people to talk.
Then began a number of discussions about technical matters. Little effort was made to help the audience understand any of it. Even the few diagrams and supposed shots of what was happening beneath the waves were far from enlightening. I think we were just supposed to let us the technical talk slide over us as mumbo-jumbo only engineers would understand. For my part, I began to think I'd rather have been watching a PBS documentary about the incident that so that I would know exactly what happened.
Once the disaster begins, very little effort is made to continue the narrative. There's a skeleton story of a few crew members saving each other and trying to get off the rig, but the vast majority of the time we just see explosions and flying debris, over and over and over, an endless series of quick cuts, each scene lasting only a few seconds, with lots and lots of noise, of course. Despite the action and colour and noise, it all became a tiresome.
At the end of the movie we see photos of the actual people involved in the incident. None of them, of course, looked like glamorous movie stars like Marky Marky or Kate Hudson. The roles required no great acting talent. Did the producers really have to hire big-name Hollywood names to fill those roles (one of the producers was Marky Mark). It seemed to be a great opportunity to use some lesser-known actors.
7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964)
Awful. Excruciating to watch.
I was stunned to watch this awful piece of amateur garbage after hearing the glowing introduction on TCM. What was that host thinking? What are all these reviewers on IMDb thinking? Could they really be watching the same movie I watched?
Where to start? You have to start with Tony Randall playing a "Chinese gentleman." That's bad enough just to watch, but when he opens his mouth you know you're in for something beyond the bounds of bad taste and beyond high-school amateurishness. His voice is pitched high and thin, and he speaks in the worst stage-Chinese, the kind of phony accent some idiot everyone hates would put on at a party--"So solly,"Please to ask question," Velly good." That alone pretty much makes the movie unbearable.
But the writing! Who wrote such clunky drivel? Something happens, then eight people stand in front of the camera, as if posing for a group photograph, to react. Spectator A makes Comment A. Spectator B makes comment B. Spectator C makes Comment C. Clunk-clunk-clunk. If a machine could write a play, it would write like that. There's often something clunky, too, about the transitions to close-ups.
Another example of amateurish writing. One scene is supposed to establish that an attractive young widow is burying herself from The Joy of Life, turning down the advances of a handsome young suitor. But the handsome young man is made so aggressive, even clutching at her against her will, so utterly without charm, that it is perfectly understandable that the widow would not want to go out to dinner with him. The scene was meant to show her as repressed and unable to respond to love; instead she seems spirited and perfectly right in turning away the loutish suitor.
The movie is peppered with touches of "humour." Every 30 seconds or so there's a so-called funny bit of business--a man bending over and being hit on the ass by a tossed newspaper (Ha ha!), a woman stepping onto her porch in her bloomers (Ho ho!). None of it is funny, and the steady stream of such bits is truly annoying.
Yes, this was made back in the sixties, but even that doesn't excuse the pathetic costume of the Abominable Snowman. Spare us, please.
Oh, and will I ever forget Tony Randall's big dance number? He plays Pan, the half-man, half-goat satyr, the ancient symbol of lust. Lord help us, there is Tony with his shirt off, turning and twisting (that passes for dancing), leering at the woman over a set of pan pipes held to his mouth. It verges on the ridiculous, if it weren't quite so yukky. Yet the camera shows her getting hot and bothered, her clothes loosening, her hair coming undone, her breath an erotic panting. And, please, producers, since this was Pan, couldn't the music play some real pan pipes instead of the flute?
I could go on all night. There's nothing to redeem this wreck of a movie. Even the casting is bad. The villain, a wicked businessman man who wants to buy up the property of everyone in town. who thinks human beings have no redeeming qualities, is played by Arthur O'Connell, that nice character actor who specialized in lovable, easily confused, old guys like Virgil who tries to rein in the young buck in "Bus Stop" or Elvis Presley's Pappy in "Kissin' Cousins"
No, you'd have to go a long way to find a worse movie than this one, something that fails on as many levels as this. All I can think of to explain the positive reviews on IMDb is that people are turned to goo by the smarmy messages the movie paints in huge block letters over the junk canvas of this movie.
The Doctor's Dilemma (1958)
Terribly dated, artificial, tiresome
Shaw can be good sometimes, but in The Doctor's Dilemma he is not. At the very heart of the play, the central dilemma is a forced, utterly artificial situation. The contrast between the deserving patient and the undeserving patient is stark and amateurish. The sick doctor is too wonderfully simple, fantastically modest, uncomplaining, virtuous,a complete paragon. And look how the undeserving sick artist is portrayed--undeserving because he is "immoral," illustrated not because he murders people, worships the devil, or sells opium to children but because he borrows money without any intention of paying it back. And it is suspected he lives with a woman who is not his wife. How can anyone believe such a reprobate deserves to live? And then there is what stands as the argument that he should be chosen to live over the modest doctor--he is an artistic genius with such transcendent gifts that one glance at his drawings is enough to identify him absolutely as a genius. Wouldn't it be nice in the real world if recognition were so immediate and complete? Not for a second does one believe in the central situation on which the entire play depends. The devotion of the artist's wife adds to the general air of falsity by being exaggerated to impossible heights.
Only one doctor in the whole world has the cure for tuberculosis? And he can guarantee the cure? Remarkable. He can handle ten patients at a time, maybe squeeze in an eleventh, but a twelfth is impossible? Really. How can we be expected to believe in such an artificial situation? In a philosophical argument such a strained case would fit nicely, but hardly in a drama, which purports to put the flesh and blood of real people on the philosophical abstractions.
As for being dated, perhaps in Shaw's time there was some credibility about the idea of doctors playing the role of virtuosos, each hanging his reputation on his proprietary "cure," but it is sadly out of date today, when medical procedures are derived out of scientific testing and universally shared.
The banter of the doctors has its entertaining moments, although their offhand willingness to let their patients die is another example of the play's artificiality.
Reviews here praise the acting. Perhaps that is true of the bantering doctors, but John Robinson as the main character caught on the horns of the dilemma of the title is so stiff and proper that he conveys no emotion, no humanity, nothing real. In the later scenes I was sure the play was going to have a twist ending with Dirk Bogarde somehow being miraculously cured because I did not for a moment believe he was sick and at death's door. Itès hard to say whether that was because I didn't believe much of anything about the play or because of Bogarde's acting.
The positive reviews here leave me puzzled. I wonder whether Shaw isn't being given a free pass because of some of his other plays?
Mexican Spitfire Out West (1940)
Great fun for a first-timer
This is the first Mexican Spitfire movie I've seen, and I found it great fun. Lord Epping is a howl--yes, probably a vaudeville standard for Leon Errol, but a very good one. The sputtering, the exaggerated English accent, the little comments made under his breath, the funny walk (Monty Python was right about how far a funny walk can take you in getting laughs), what's not to like? As for Lupe Velez, this is the first time I've seen her, and I understand completely why her first appearance in an earlier movie led to a series of follow-ups. She's pretty, and with all her comedic turns you can hardly take your eyes off her. She definitely left me wanting to see more of her. People are right her to say that she plays a secondary role to the Errol characters in this movie, but if you haven't seen her before, it just may leave you looking for more. I'll certainly tune in any time I see another Mexican Spitfire movie playing. I'm glad I discovered this one. Simple, farcical comedy, but an amusing way to spend an hour or so.
What a terrible shame success didn't bring Lupe Velez happiness.
First Comes Courage (1943)
I was able to watch for only an hour before I gave up and walked away. It's really quite awful.
Other commentators here are impressed by Merle Oberon's acting. Maybe it gets better in the last half hour, because in what I saw she wasn't called upon to do much. She was, however, stunning to look at, a real beauty, about the only thing that kept me watching for an hour.
The rest of the film was worse than mediocre. Some of the sets looked like they belonged in a Little Theatre production. The music kept intruding with exaggerated emotion. The fight scene in the barn had that odd, speeded-up, Saturday morning serial look to it, with two guys tossing each other around in the most unconvincing way. But mostly the storyline could not be believed at all sorts of crucial moments. For example, the moment Oberon falls under suspicion. Why would she put herself under the spotlight? And why didn't he suspect her long before that moment? There was nothing special about that moment that he should suddenly suspect her for the first time. Her plan to get into the restricted area of the hospital is ridiculously complex, relying on so many things going precisely the way she hoped they would. The method the optometrist uses to convey secret information back to Britain is depicted at some length, unfortunately not in a way that is very clear--something about glasses, but how it all works was a mystery to me.
It just wasn't worth watching. But Merle Oberon is an actress I will watch out for in the future. Maybe she can act, maybe she can't, but she can sure light up the screen.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015)
I'm not even going to read what other people have written about this film, because whatever they find praiseworthy in itsome technical things, certainlynothing can make up for the horror of what you're watching on screen. You are watching 102 minutes of child abuse. In many scenes it's portrayed graphically, but from beginning to end child abuse makes up the content of the story.
Does it matter if the 15-year-old girl is curious about sex and asks for it from the 35-year-old boyfriend of her mother? Does it make it better? Does it matter if she enjoys having sex with him, or if she wants to continue when, after many months, he wants to stop? The girl is 15, naive, she doesn't understand the implication and the consequences of what she's doing, so doesn't think there's anything so terrible about what's happening, and because the story is told from her point of view, it all proceeds, scene after scene, for such a long time, as if there's nothing really so wrong about it. I think that's the worst part of it. But of course it's statutory rape. It's child abuse, a grown man taking advantage of a young girl's curiosity and budding sexuality (he tells her she gives him a hard-on, and when she's likes the idea, he takes her hand and shoves it down his pants), taking her into his bed when he should have gently turned her down and done a little fatherly counselling.
Even at the end, there's no sense of the horror of the abuse. The man who abused the child loses his sexual privileges with the mother and her daughter, but he doesn't pay any price. He walks away a free man, a little chastened after being rejected by them, but free and untouched. Neither the mother nor the daughter report him to the police. Nobody tells the estranged father, who would certainly have taken severe action. The movie treats the abuse as just an experience, just something that happened, just part of the girl's growing up. There's a tiny hint of the profound repercussions that would follow in real life, when she finds she can't make love to a boy of her own age, because she is too experienced for him, she knows too much about sex. It's a small sign; her life will be marked in many other ways, too. In the final scene we see her dancing crazily in her bedroom like a normal 15-year-old. Are we to believe that this is the end, that now she'll go back to being an ordinary 15-year-old? In real life it won't be anything like that. She'll be carrying with her the load of the many forms of depravity she's experienced. She will be deeply scarred. She knows from practical experience that if she needs money she can always give men blowjobs. Doing it once for money makes it much easier the next time. She's crossed so many boundaries.
Here's how my wife and I reacted through the whole movie "Oh my god, no, no! This is awful, horrible! This is wrong!" I couldn't believe the film was showing this story. I was waiting for someone to show some regret, some reluctance, some conscience, some sense of right and wrong, but it never came until a little, just a little sense of morality, near the end.
And, as if sexual abuse wasn't enough, the girl is introduced to sniffing cocaine at a party her mother holds in their apartment, she approaches men in a bar and gives them a blowjob for $15, she is seduced by a heroin-addicted lesbian, and she almost agrees to having sex with a strange man as payment for her lesbian "friend" getting heroin.
Why weren't the producers charged with child pornography? They show a 15-year-old girl fully nude in various shots, they show her multiple times naked in bed with a naked man on top of her, they show her giving oral sex. If these scenes were not in the context of a "major motion picture," if they were just shown on their own, I'm sure they would count as child pornography.
I watched in open-mouthed horror from beginning to end. No, I didn't walk out. I was hoping for some kind of moral turn in the plot, some retribution against the abuser, some sense on the part of the mother and the girl of the profound harm that was done, but it never came.
I wish I hadn't seen this film. It left me with the nastiest feelings I ever remember after seeing a movie. I am going to do my best to put it out of my mind (this lengthy review, I hope, will help get rid of some of those feelings). I wish it hadn't been made. I wish the police would charge the producers with child pornography.
depressing picture of utterly wasted, depraved lives
How to account for the positive reviews this movie has gotten, especially out of the Sundance Festival, where it established its bona fides? Perhaps some people were impressed by the rawness of the depiction of the lives of these prostitutes and pimps, the violence, the fighting, the screaming, the nasty little moments of furtive sex in back alleys. Perhaps it was the use of hand-held cameras, constantly moving along the sidewalks, and the mean streets of Los Angeles used as a backdrop, not blockaded off for the filming but with real people and real street activity used as background for the actors.
But let's focus on the essentials, not just the voyeuristic thrill of glimpsing into a world the average person knows nothing of. Let's ask what we take away, what the effect is on us of seeing for 90 minutes lives reduced to such depravity, lives lived from moment to moment, with an act of prostitution to pay for the next meal or a bit of drugs, where a woman who needs love believes that what she gets from her pimp is love, and where we only see the world beyond the world of pimps and prostitutes in a family man who drives a taxi and secretly has sex with a transvestite or a carful of young people who throw urine on prostitutes. It's really a disgusting picture. For the price of that little shiver you get at turning over a stone and seeing the insects scuttle around, you feel dirty all over at the end of this movie and want to take a shower.
This is not Zola, who depicted the hard life of French miners in order to rouse the conscience of the nation to improve their lot. This is just peering into the abyss for the momentary thrill it gives you. I pitied the women, and wondered whether they had any choice in getting into that world, but the movie offered no explanations, no exculpation, and no hope of redemption. It really is a bad movie.