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Heaven's Gate (1980)
The "Final Cut"
It's rather a shame when the Director's explanation of his production is more engrossing than the film itself. That's what I found in listening to Michael Cimino's lecture on Criterion Collection's second disc--a 2012 216-minute "final cut" of this historical epic.
The film has obviously been doctored up on Blu Ray: Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond's work is now clean, scrubbed and brilliant. Gone is the dull haze and smokey pale that reportedly annoyed early critics. In fact, frame for frame this is a marvelous looking film.
However, that alone does not make a complete art work. Coming to the piece cold with no preparation, I simply could not invest myself in the characters or their plight. Not even the opening graduation exercise and ensuing grand waltz particularly captured me.
As the film unfolded, I found it difficult to clearly understand what the conflict was really about. By the time I did the movie was well half over. Then, after all the blood and gore action, I finally learned the story of this series of range conflicts in Johnson County, Wyoming was fictionalized!
I also learned President Benjamin Harrison did not support either the land barons or the European immigrants, rather he sent in troops to quell the general conflict. Therefore much of the gross brutality in Cimino's work is pure fiction. That revelation to me does not argue well for the late, admittedly talented and committed, director.
The performances throughout are all very professional as is the editing.
Southside with You (2016)
A modest, honest film
Writer-director Richard Tanner is largely responsible for creating this biography-drama-romance. A small conversation piece taking place on a single afternoon and evening, depicting a "first date" of an attractive couple who happen to be working in the same office during the day.
The dialogue is constantly engaging and the characters, highly polished and professional, relate their respective backgrounds and life views to one another.
What makes this couple extra special is that it's our now-still-current U. S. President and the First Lady, long before either seriously considered a career in politics.
There's nice Chicago 1989 atmosphere throughout, and the two leads are engaging and fascinating as they strive to learn more about one another. I found myself in rapt attention and enjoyed the eighty-four minutes spent in their company. Both Tika Sumpter is as Michelle and Parker Sawyers as Barak give natural, relaxed characterizations. It's a unique project conceived by Mr. Tanner and well executed.
That Man's Here Again (1937)
It could be a drama, till the end when Hugh Herbert becomes comical. Then it's hard to figure what was the writer's intention.
Whatever the case, this is a truly "lost and forgotten" film, obviously meant to focus on Herbert's talent. However, it's the romantic leads, Tom Brown and Mary McGuire, that peaked my interest.
Brown, though quite youthful here, was a fully seasoned professional, having been an actor for years. His character rendition always rings true which he projects with total conviction. Now there's a natural talent that can't be "learned." Likewise his romantic interest, McGuire, is most photogenic and appealing, playing her part with dramatic security--another genuine talent.
Herbert plays his comedy down till the end when his trademark zaniness emerges. True, this is a "B-film," and an enjoyable one.
The Jack Benny Program (1950)
Benny TV Show Reruns
The images may often be a bit on the slightly blurred side with the stock showing its age, but there are laughs galore to compensate. Thanks to Jewish Life Television (JLTV) the historic Dinah Shore and Jack Benny TV shows are being regularly programed in 2016.
Focusing on the Benny show, here's a man that was downright hilarious. However, behind the scenes a lot of work went into the final product. A small cadre of writers headed by George Blazer contributed to great comedic writing (with Benny an impeccable editor). Then there was as fine a supporting cast as one could hope for. Eddie Anderson, Mary Livingston, Don Wilson, Dennis Day and Mel Blanc, together with guest stars, all constituted a dream company.
Situational comedy skillfully blended with musical interludes, all displaying masterful timing and rhythm. What a wonderful way to start the day viewing these delightful shows. Thank you, Direct-TV for offering these classics from the Golden Age of Comedy.
Far from the Madding Crowd (1967)
A Noble Effort at Adaptation
Given the challenge of adapting a Thomas Hardy novel to the screen, this effort is commendable in many ways. There was a first rate director, cinematographer, composer and production crew all working at the top of their game. The cast was the best England had to offer and only the screenplay was less than brilliant.
Without a fine script, fashioning a great movie is well nigh impossible, and given the challenges of adapting this particular Hardy novel to film, the end results are still impressive.
True, some banality of dramatic situations do tend to emerge; yet the total result is a cinematic statement that is overcoming critical commentaries first applied to the film. In short, the work is outlasting mixed reviews of its time and emerging as a substantial artwork for successive generations of film lovers.
Black Girl (1972)
There are certainly a lot of ideas being expressed in this intimate family drama, and in the end it may be difficult to pinpoint its central theme. The problem seems to be with J. E. Franklin's movie script (following her off-Broadway show and original PBS-TV Special).
There's certainly talent abundant in the cast, with the likes of Claudia McNeill, Brock Peters, Leslie Uggams, et al. It's just that amidst all the domestic quarreling and squabbling the main point(s) have been obscured.
However, the cast can only do so much (ditto for Ossie Davis' direction) as all are thwarted by a somewhat unfocused screenplay. It's a good looking film, though, and fond kudos can be offered to its hard-working cast and production company.
Pal Joey (1957)
Fine, bouncy musical
Everything seems to work in this Columbia Pictures offering. The cast is outstanding: one of Sinatra's best roles, with strong work by Hayworth and Novak. As the saying goes, the parts "fit them like a glove."
The top score by Rodgers and Hart sounds wonderful, the arrangements by Nelson Riddle are sparkling, and the editing and and production values are all expertly crafted.
It's the kind of picture that, in spite of its original period locale, doesn't seem to age much. After the era of Richard Rodgers the music scene changed dramatically. And why not? There was no where left to go but in a totally different direction. Richard and colleagues did it to perfection.
Cattle Town (1952)
Toward a Noble Swansong
He rides, he romances, he's fast with his fists and--best of all--bursts into song at the drop of a hat, displaying a formidable Irish tenor. It's talented and quite beloved Dennis Morgan, nearing the end of a lengthy film career.
The story's about the governor of Texas who sends Cowboy Morgan to keep the peace between ranchers and a land baron. After many film roles from heavy dramas to light comedies, Dennis still looks good and plays his hero role with substantial conviction.
Morgan gets to sing more songs and in more varied situations than you could shake a stick at, and even his adversaries seem to have their savage beasts tamed by this cowboy's melodious strains.
The film isn't ever going to win any prizes; it's just interesting and enjoyable to see and hear one who was born to be a star go through these western paces before riding off to the sunset. Also of special interest is a young (and most attractive) Rita Moreno in an early--and of course Mexican--role.
South Pacific (1958)
The creators and copyright holders of the successful stage production certainly went all out to make this a blockbuster. South Pacific Enterprises, owned by the composer and lyricist, was created especially for the film. These enterprises encompassed Magna Theatre Corporation, owners of Todd-AO, later 70MM, and the film was all under the supervision of 20th Century Fox. Add to this second unit aerial footage and color filer special effects, and we have a gigantic work from the start.
With a final box office of $36.8 mil. against a budget of $5.2 mil., one can't say this project was a financial failure. It wasn't exactly an artistic success either.
There is something staid and bland about the whole thing, try as the cast does to breathe life into the proceedings. It's hard to pin down just what went wrong, but the sea-bees look almost like mannequins going through their paces. Their lips move (obviously to a pre-recorded track) but their hearts don't seem to be in it. The leads are all professional enough, yet there's something stagy and stock in their work. Bloody Mary in particular looks lame and lifeless (probably because they didn't allow Juanita Hall to do her own singing). Finally the controversial use of color filters look extreme and overdone.
The entire production's deficit must lay at the feet of Josuha Logan, who seemed to have a very spotty directorial career, veering from the brilliant to the average. This was not one of his banner products.
Yet, with all the initial battering ammunition pumped into the proceedings, it really couldn't fail. It's an acceptable, inoffensive filmization of a genuine Broadway classic.
The Four Feathers (1939)
This isn't a review, only a comment. The gung-ho, militaristic philosophy of A. E. W. Mason in his 1902 novel I find repulsive. That a lad should be pushed (against his will) into a military life is, to be blunt, quite unfathomable.
The entire family and their associates are all of this ilk, making it appear the lad to be a coward simply because he prefers to read poetry and engage in more academic endeavors. When he grows up and joins the armed forces "to suit his tradition," he resigns his commission when his father dies. That's more a cause for celebration than scorn.
Mason proceeds to take his hero through a series of brutal encounters to finally "prove his manhood and courage," while his resignation was the most courageous thing he ever did. In the end he has his "tradition" venerated, but is a pitiful soul, physically and emotionally.
The 1938 film by Zoltan and Alexander Korda may be an eye-popping production, but alas novelist Mason's twisted philosophy thwarts it from being a fine work.
The Red Shoes (1948)
This Powell-Presburger film certainly has stood the test of time, one that many consider a masterpiece. Unfortunately, after multiple viewings, I remain a fair appreciator.
On the plus side are its beautiful production values, including Jack Cardiff's outstanding cinematography and a powerful cast headed by Anton Walbrook, Moira Shearer and Marius Goring. The story is interesting, though the love interest of Walbrook and Goring with Shearer never quite seemed convincing.
The main let down, though, was the musical score throughout. While Jack Cardiff was an accomplished composer his aesthetic values are simply not mine. Bereft of strong themes, logical structure and comprehensive form, the score supported dance sequences that for me lacked logical progression. Too, the initial themes seemed weak, followed by passages that lacked strong connection to the fundamental statements.
The ballet's been compared to "An American in Paris," though the latter was buoyed by Gershwin's incomparable themes and design. In short, I was underwhelmed by both the "Red Shoes" ballet music and its contrived love triangle.
At the same time I can see where this movie had great influence in subsequent films using dance as an important foundation. For that I do appreciate its value.
Listen to Me Marlon (2015)
Informative and Fascinating
This documentary is full of many bits and pieces from Brando's life and career. I found it all most fascinating, and agree it's a good documentary.
What I found less fulfilling was the choice to use a patchwork approach to its formal structure It jumped around quite a bit, skimming over surfaces; I would have preferred a more chronological, in-depth approach--but that's my own opinion.
For instance, Brando got a lot of "bad press flack" for his so-called "erratic behavior" in "Mutiny on the Bounty" and "Apacolypse Now." This documentary had an opportunity to clarify the controversy, but didn't.
What was a treat, though, was viewing live footage of Stellar Adler at work in the formative U.S. stages of teaching the "Method," along with samplings of Stanislavsky's initial philosophy on acting technique.
The inclusion of scene clips from Brando's various films were also engaging, though a number of his films were omitted (perhaps by not having the studios' approval). The reported clash between Brando's training and Chaplin's directing style was also not covered, only snippets from "A Countess from Hong Kong" were shown.
Finally, Brando's having a 3D image of his likeness was shown, but it wasn't made too clear exactly what he envisioned the final utilized product would be. Again, this documentary brought up many fascinating topics and then didn't really demonstrate their significance.
On leaving this film, I thought, "here's a topic that could be made into a larger, three-part work and probably still have much footage to spare."
Eastern Boys (2013)
There's no doubt the production department of this film is accomplished. The cast, direction, photography and editing are all up to par. What the problem is a rather implausible plot.
After Mr. X, obviously a seasoned professional, picks up a moody youth-hustler in the train station and makes arrangements for him to come to his apartment the next day, a motley gang (of which the youth is a member) shows up instead and ransacks the apartment. Then the following day the doorbell rings and there's the initial youth standing there wanting to come in! What does Mr. X do? Allows him not only to enter but engage in a lengthy affair.
Sorry, but I don't buy that. Mr. X is not only unusual but must be a bit daft. The entire plot then centers around this odd couple's relationship, and unfortunately it lost my interest.
All the production values are in place and the film is obviously the product of a polished crew. Still, the quirkiness of character motivation diminished my interest and appreciation of an otherwise interesting European drama.
On the one hand, many scenes are soft and serene, on the other brisk and agitated. There is a fine drama lurking somewhere in between. The actors are all well cast and very skillful, as is the production department.
What seems to be lacking for me is a clear focus on the main theme. The physical look of the two leads unfortunately get mixed up with many of the supporting players. Only a quarter way through the film was I able to distinguish the leads from the rest.
When races were run, there didn't seem to be a clear picture of who was the main team, who were the challengers, and exactly who was winning. The same can be said for characters' objectives--the leads vs. the supports. (Also the American title, Boys, seems too generic to make a distinctive impression.)
The problem apparently is in the basic design and execution of the script. Otherwise, the film is well shot and the entire cast quite accomplished.
Staying Together (1989)
Touching Family Drama
Writer Monte Merrick had his work cut out for him here: crafting an intimate, average American family drama that takes place in a small town. Opportunities for high drama seem limited from the start. Unless one creates a "Peyton Place" or "King's Row" type situation full of scandal, there's really not much excitement going on in these environments.
Merrick wisely chose a "coming of age" situation with the boys, matched with parental business ambition, and worked up an engaging script. Director Lee Grant likewise fell right into the small town environment and keenly expressed the hopes, dreams and ambitions of its key residents.
The result is an often touching enactment with interesting characters and situations. True, it often rings familiar with TV sitcoms, but then there's just so much one can make of these basic ingredients.
The cast is uniformly strong, with Sean Astin, Dermot Mulroney, and Tim Quill as the boys and Stockard Channing as an ambitious local politician.
I saw this film when it first came out and I must say it made a positive impression, so memorable that I've returned to it via DVD over the years. There are not many small town, average family dramas out there, and "Staying Together" is a touching piece of work in this limited genre.
Här har du ditt liv (1966)
Beautifully Mounted Film
Jan Troell's debut film is a pleasure to view. It's realistic, yet artful, and shot in tasteful black and white. He takes great care with poetry of nature, along with picturesque composition.
Alas, when it comes to original narrative, Mr. Troell doesn't demonstrate that's his forte. The film for me felt largely redundant, as though almost half could be deleted for a stronger cumulative statement.
Later on in his career, "The Immigrants" and "The New Land" revealed the film maker's talent best realized. In contrast, "Here's Your Life" merely shows technical promise in its photographic imagery. What's needed is a skilled writer.
It's easy to understand the work being selected by Sweden as its entry in the Academy Award foreign language category--and the Academy's rejecting it's qualification.
Today it's a "forgotten film" shown occasionally on the TCM network.
The Fountainhead (1949)
Film to be Cherished
King Vidor outdid himself in fashioning Legendary Ayn Rand's philosophical novel for the screen. Generally misunderstood and under appreciated on its initial release, "The Fountainhead" has gained a great amount of respect as time goes on.
Gary Cooper was challenged to the hilt in playing Howard Roarke, as was Patricia Neal in projecting Dominique Francon. Still, their work is constantly intriguing and fascinating.
The way Rand saw the world and society is totally unique and courageously revealing. Given the usual level of philosophical insight of most American films, Rand--and Vidor--projected genuine daring in revealing clandestine societal truths.
This is a film for the ages to be devoured and cherished.
Children of Giant (2015)
Fine 2015 PBS Production
Sixty years after the initial release of George Stevens' Giant, this documentary reveals the inner workings of the creation of the original novel, screenplay and filmization. A small Texas town (Marfa) was used for the production, with a full array of Hollywood cast and crew to engage in this on-location work for 45 days in 1955.
I was surprised to learn of the hostility Edna Ferber faced from local Texans over her revealing novel; likewise, the sensitive line Stevens drew in fashioning his film. With Studio Head Jack Warner himself trying to pressure the director to remove some key elements in the film, it is to Stevens credit that he held on to his vision and respectfully refused.
Also to Stevens' credit is his studio contract: he would work for free for the three years of film preparation, then be given a financial percentage of the film and full control. It was an offer Warner Bros. couldn't refuse and an ingenious stroke of good fortune for Stevens.
One surprising revelation of the documentary is that the school administration and teachers attempted to make Latino school children speak only English, going so far as to have a mock funeral wherein all Spanish texts were literally buried in the ground behind the schoolhouse. Likewise the segregated cemetery for Latinos which existed in 1955 still exists in 2015--with a barbed wire fence separating the other side reserved for Anglos.
No wonder the oil-rich Texan barons were roiled with both Ferber and Stevens for exposing their clandestine social culture for the world to see. Yet Stevens was careful not to incur a defamation law suit of characters still living when the film was released by maintaining it to be a work of fiction. Yet worldwide audiences recognized the social truths being exposed in this daring production.
The 86-minute documentary is both interesting and informative throughout, and is rich in candid film shots by cast and crew along with actual excerpts from the finished film. This is a worthwhile documentary of a still highly relevant social drama.
Tab Hunter Confidential (2015)
Well made biopic
This new film held the audience spellbound at the 2015 Cleveland International Film Festival. It was especially effective having the actual subject serve as narrator. Hunter's narration was very honest, truthful and insightful. His voice was sonorous, statements rich in humor and warmth, and his attitude toward himself rather laid back.
The photography and direction was of a high level with editing that kept the pacing alive and energized. Besides looking at the main subject, the film also revealed a candid slice of the film industry of the 50s-- qualities still with us in 2015 (the film's release year).
Hunter had more of a varied career than one might normally think--he played a variety of parts (particularly some stark TV dramas) and kept a cool attitude throughout. The film also reveals the actor's relationship with his mother and his rich past time with horses.
All in all, a very engaging biopic.
The Fly (1986)
Engaging Sci-fi Film
Had David Cronenberg's 1986 re-inventing of the 1958 film of same name remained a sci-fi piece, it would have been better. For two thirds of this film it was on a pretty high level of character development and situation unfolding.
I appreciated getting to know these characters, particularly those effectively played by Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis. Their rapport was strong and convincing, as was the general story line.
However, as the script got more gross and it entered its third act, the proceedings turned more into a standard horror-shock piece. I would have preferred it remained on a higher, more scientifically astute plane.
Even so, the over all project was nicely scripted, designed and acted and thus can be considered an above average sci-fi effort.
Great Film for Halloween
Jodie Foster, at age fourteen, gives a remarkably compelling performance in this cult oddity. It is Foster who keeps us riveted to the screen, as she is surrounded by a fine array of ensemble players, including Martin Sheen and the incomparable Alexis Smith.
The first part seems more creditable than the latter as characters are introduced and the story line unfolds in a spooky manner. There are a few loose ends in the script's second half that are effectively covered up, and the quickie production is good-looking throughout.
In reading Foster's biography, I was amazed she began acting at age three and chalked off nearly fifty film and TV appearances before attending college. In addition to her acting credits she directed the unusual Little Man Tate, one of my favorites.
Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lame is an effectively off-beat yarn that holds our interest throughout--particularly at October Goblin Time.
The Normal Heart (2014)
Another TV Movie on Same Theme
While I found Randy Murphy's "The Normal Heart" a most worthy TV film on the heart rending subject of the introduction of AIDS in America, another TV film kept coming to mind. Twenty years earlier Roger Spottiswoode directed "And the Band Played On." That 1993 drama sported a star-filled cast, including Matt Mondine, Alan Alda Richard Gere, Anjelica Huston, Lilly Tomliin, Ian McKellen and many more. It covered the identical time period and subject matter as the 2014 entry, and did it equally as well. In fact, recollections from the earlier movie kept ringing in my head, making the more recent one seem more like a remake.
I suppose that's the challenge of a production attempting to cover material previously done. After twenty years you'd think it long enough for one to forget the former. In this case, not so, which makes "And the Band Played On" even more powerful than it seemed on first viewing.
Both films are worthy entries on this unique period in US history. Mark Ruffalo particularly shines in the more recent, and contemporary viewers will undoubtedly find "The Normal Heart" most compelling and informative.
An Act of Murder (1948)
Daring Morality Play
The concept of tempering legality with compassion is a daring, slippery slope. It is today as it was in 1948 when this challenging film was released.
Fortunately, this drama has the great acting team Florence Eldridge and Fredric March in the lead roles, lending both power and sensitivity to their characterizations. While conceding that the law must by its nature be clear and committed, one can also empathize with the human challenges faced in the case of a terminally ill loved one who is in great pain and suffering.
Where does one draw the line in such cases, especially when a spouse accused of murder emphatically pleads guilty? It's a tough situation created here, and one that must either tread the path of legal justice or find extenuating circumstances to help relieve the inevitable sentence.
"An Act of Murder" manages to walk this tightrope with considerable balance, thanks to an outstanding cast and some petty talented writers. The film also may be considered a "lost work," despite the pairing of Mr. and Mrs. March in the lead roles.
It's also interesting to see only a single bona fide professional review in the IMDb, as though this subject may have been (and still may be) too tough to handle. The most complete review (by Bosley Crowther of the NY Times) expresses the critic's general reaction without declaring a firm stance on the controversial subject of euthanasia. And perhaps this is the best we can ever get, for the topic may be too challenging for us mortals to ever definitively solve.
Ordinary People (1980)
Somehow I missed this 1980 film when first released. Today, thirty-five years later, this work comes across as a timeless "contemporary drama" that penetrates below the surface of its suburban characters.
Everything works in this Robert Redford-directed family drama. Mary Tyler Moore's challenging assignment is remarkably successful, as she penetrates a woman who has been severely hurt and has erected a safeguard wall of protection. Nineteen-year-old Timothy Hutton's performance is complete and penetrating, creating as full a characterization as one could imagine. Donald Sutherland's contribution is subtle and painful, a moving dramatic portrait.
The Oscars won by Redford, Sargent and Hutton, as well as the Golden Globes awarded Moore and Sutherland are all well-deserved. Lastly, Judd Hirsch's psychiatric counselor is likewise memorable.
This is a brilliant piece of work. Kudos to all!
Christmas Holiday (1944)
A Real Treat
What a surprise treat to see this rare film as part of a Robert Siodmak Festival at the Cleveland Art Museum in the summer of 2014. It put me back in the mid-WWII period and the beautiful, pristine 35mm print was shown as originally presented on the big screen, thanks to Film Curator John Ewing.
The major attraction here is that Deanna Durbin and Gene Kelly both play against type in a "doctored up" Somerset Maugham story. Siodmak direction is dark, atmospheric and smoothly executed throughout. Deanna sings Irving Berlin's "Always" in a pop style very effectively. A good portion of Wagner's "Liebestod" from Tristan and Isolde is heard in an orchestral setting to heighten the dramatic proceedings.
Both stars work surprisingly well in their very heavy roles, and I found myself glued to the screen during Durbin's depiction. Her acting style has often been subtle, and this performance was one of her most understated. Kelly's role challenged him to reach dramatic heights, and he rises to occasion.
While some of the script is dated, Deanna dominates the screen whenever she's on, and is matched by a fine supporting cast. Truly a worthwhile viewing.