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Roy and Jessie (Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer) are Americans
who've gone to China with Roy's church to work with underprivileged
children. A train buff, Roy books them passage on the Transsiberian
Express from Beijing to Moscow, before flying back to the States. On
the journey, they meet Carlos (Eduardo Noriega), a sexy, well-travelled
Spaniard who seems to knows a lot about Customs, and Abby (Kate Mara),
a young woman who has run away from Seattle.
Meanwhile, Grinko, a Russian narcotics detective (Ben Kinglsey) is tracking down whoever killed a drug dealer in Vladivostok and vanished with both the drugs and the money.
Jessie, who had a fairly wild past before marrying Roy and trying to settle down, feels sympathetic towards the seemingly lost Abby. And she feels something more unsettling for Carlos, who gives off an aura of raw sexuality and physical danger. When the train stops at a snowy village somewhere in Siberia, Roy goes looking at old coal locomotives with Carlos. When the train starts up again, Roy is no longer aboard.
Hoping that Roy has simply missed the train, Jessie gets off at the next village to make inquiries. Carlos and Abby decide they will stay with her until she finds her husband. They're concerned about her safety. In this isolated, wintry and foreign environment, the sexual tension between Carlos and Jessie begins to heat up, culminating in an abandoned Orthodox church off in the woods near the village.
The pacing of Transsiberian reflects that of the train itself. It starts off slowly -- introducing these people, telling their back stories and actually developing characters and relationships -- and then picks up more and more speed as the film chugs along. The subtle tension in one scene links to another, which links to another, until the total becomes almost unbearable. It's closer to Hitchcock than a contemporary thriller that substitutes action and quick edits for genuine suspense.
Director and co-writer Brad Anderson (The Machinist) offers some good twists and turns on the trip, which keeps the film moving along in surprising ways. The story of Jessie and Carlos doesn't end in the Orthodox church in Siberia, it only marks the beginning of a new stage in the journey.
Despite excellent acting all around, the film really belongs to Emily Mortimer. Transsiberian is Jessie's story in the end, and Mortimer does a great job of portraying the internal struggle between her restless nature, with its wild past, and her desire to live a positive life and love Roy, who saved her both physically and emotionally after she slammed head-on into his car while she was drunk. Jessie makes some really poor decisions on this journey. But Mortimer gives her the dignity of a human being really wrestling with good and bad aspects of herself, and the fact that they may be more intertwined than we normally care to admit. As she says to her husband at one point, quoting Tennessee Williams, "Kill off all my demons, Roy, and my angels might die, too."(So that's where Tom Waits got the line.) But this isn't just a metaphorical journey. It is a physical one as well, through contemporary Russia, and Anderson does a great job capturing the ambiance of traveling through a strange land, both in the small details and in the starkly beautiful shots of the train passing through the Siberian wilderness. While the landscape and people can seem exotic to the Americans, there's also a sense of the chaos, hardship and danger in the post-Soviet Union era. This becomes more evident as the film progresses. As one character says, "In Russia, we have expression. 'With lies, you may go ahead in the world, but you may never go back.' Do you understand this, Jessie?" Where is that line? At what point can you no longer turn back? Brad Anderson has fashioned a fine suspense film that touches on these darker questions as it speeds on its way to a dramatic climax, with action sequences that seem to organically rise out of the need of the moment rather than being a constructed set-piece to show off CGI. The writing and directing are excellent. The acting is consistently great, with special kudos to Woody Harrelson, who has the thankless task of playing a fairly simple guy who's positive by nature, but who imbues Roy with real humanity. The cinematography by Xavi Giménez is top notch. There's a lot going on in this film. It lingers well and leaves you slightly unsettled. And it's the best movie that takes place on a train in a long, long time.
Ernst Lubitsch directs Heaven Can Wait with his usual taste and flair,
but the film is surprisingly dull and sentimental compared to his best
work. It lacks the irony and sophistication of Trouble in Paradise, the
comic energy of To Be or Not To Be, or the humanity of The Shop Around
the Corner. Much of the problem seems to lie in an unusually flat
script from the great Samson Raphaelson. The story of recently deceased
Henry Van Cleve recounting his lecherous escapades to "His Excellency"
down below in order to gain entrance to Hell seems ripe for a Lubitsch
film, and the opening sequence in the amazing art deco lobby of the
Inferno shows great promise, but the story has a maudlin quality that
it never really escapes.
We're never shown any of Henry's love affairs, which, in hindsight, the film could have probably used. Don Ameche is at his best in Heaven Can Wait when he gets to turn on the charm. Instead, we're only told about the episodes indirectly via conversations between Henry and his long-suffering wife, Martha. The story also seems conflicted in its purposes. On one hand, Raphaelson and Lubitsch try tugging at our heart-strings by having us feel sympathy for Martha as she struggles with Henry's indiscretions, and on the other, we're supposed to laugh with Henry precisely BECAUSE he's constantly cheating on his wife. That's just the way he is, we're instructed, and isn't he still wonderful? Even the Devil finds Henry charming and his infidelity a mere trifle. We all know that lovable Henry really belongs in Heaven with the wife he cheated on for several decades. It's a fairly sexist film in that regard. Somehow, the charming scoundrel element doesn't work in Heaven Can Wait as it does in so many other Hollywood films. Perhaps Don Ameche doesn't have the Cary Grant panache to carry it off. He does make a rather listless Lothario in this one. Gone is that dynamic energy he had in a film like Midnight, which is a superior work based on somewhat similar themes. In that case, Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett out-Lubitsched the director they admired so much. But I'm not sure Grant or any other scoundrel could have done much with Raphaelson's script. Ameche does what he can.
The rest of the cast is quite good, with Charles Coburn at his mischievous best, and several fine secondary actors. Gene Tierney does well in a difficult role, though her hairstyle when Martha gets older has not lasted well through the ages. Somehow this very beautiful actress winds up looking a bit like the Bride of Frankenstein. Overall, Heaven Can Wait is a solid film, with some good moments strewn about here and there. But it's not Lubitsch at his best.
Red Garters receives deserved attention for its interesting visuals.
The spare, stagy sets mostly feature two-dimensional building fronts
placed against a brilliant red backdrop, with a few artificial trees
and shining yellow dirt thrown in for good measure. The film has a
stripped-down, cartoon-like quality that's enhanced by the camera-work,
editing, and a general acting style that tends towards caricature.
Frank Tashlin, who went from directing Porky Pig shorts to Jerry Lewis
movies, worked on an earlier version of the project for a year qand
half, and Red Garters shows his influence. As a visual experiment, it's
Unfortunately, as a musical, it's not that great. In fact, Red Garters is a downright preachy and annoying film by the end. Rosemary Clooney gets to use her wonderful voice on several songs, and for that we can all be thankful. Her singing is the best part of the film. But as much as I like Rosemary as a vocalist, she wasn't the most vibrant on-screen personality and can't really carry an entire movie. She was probably better suited for the kind of supporting role she had in White Christmas. Worst of all, her character is the one who preaches the most, and any film that can turn Rosemary Clooney into a grating presence is not a film for me.
In terms of song and dance, Red Garters doesn't offer much that hasn't been done better, or much better, somewhere else. The Evans and Livingston songs are pleasant enough, but you probably won't remember any of them the next day. At least Rosemary sings them, along with Guy Mitchell, who had a good voice. Nick Castle's choreography pales in comparison to Michael Kidd's work on another "Western" musical from 1954, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. And it's hard not to compare them. The best dancing in the film may be Buddy Ebsen's meager 20 seconds, which is a shame because he's one few people in the film with any zing. Though the actors are all okay, there's little chemistry between them, and little pizazz to this movie.
There are some funny moments here and there, but I found myself laughing less and less as the film progressively hammered away at its "message." Edith Head does fairly well with the women's costumes, thankfully, since there's not much else to look at in this film. I'm still not sure what she was trying to do towards the end with Joanne Gilbert's black dress and calico apron thing, but at least it diverted my attention somewhat from the moralizing finale.
For those offended by Hollywood racist portrayals, the token "Injun" in this film Minnie Redwing will probably be unbearable.
Finally, the vaunted visuals of the film only hold for so long. The sparse sets are, well, sparse, and they gradually become boring and a bit claustrophobic. I never thought I would miss Brigadoon or Yolanda and the Thief, but, Lord, if I didn't find myself yearning for the Baroque details of other soundstage worlds.
This is a tough, somber film that captures the absurdities involved in
war, and, ultimately, in life. The French Resistance "heroes" in the
story are never shown conducting sabotage or planned attacks against
the Germans, as one would get in a traditional World War II movie.
Instead, we follow their claustrophobic and paranoid lives as they move
from one hiding place to another (or one prison to another), constantly
hounded by those in power, haunted by their own actions and the
inability to communicate with those dear to them. Melville shows us
their doubts and questions as they deal with betrayal, cowardice, and
the murky ethics of killing their own to preserve the larger good.
Every episode in the film seems to lead to a darkly ironic conclusion, and the meaninglessness of their efforts becomes almost overwhelming, except that, somehow, these ordinary people continue to offer resistance in the face of death, so that their heroism lies not in the ability to stop the Germans but in taking action at all while facing the abyss.
While the acting is excellent all around, Lino Ventura's performance as Gerbier deserves special attention. It's hard to imagine any other actor bearing the tremendous weight of this film as well as he does. Gabin, at an earlier age, might have had the physical and emotional strength, but I'm not sure he would've been capable of Ventura's unassuming portrayal, which is so necessary for his character. The "shadows" at the core of this tale are seriously dark, and Ventura's Gerbier is strong enough to face them, yet modest enough to realize he can't conquer them on his own. The only way the Resistance makes sense by the end of this film, is in the collective effort of its members. Similarly, each of us, individually, cannot conquer death, but we as a group of human beings can continue to live on. _L'Armée des ombres_ ultimately moves beyond a story of the French Resistance in World War II and serves as a powerful existentialist epic, with Ventura's performance responsible for much of the film's dignity and humanity.
As with _Léon Morin, prêtre_ (1961), another story set during the war, Melville seems more emotionally present in _L'Armée des ombres_ than he does in his policiers or noir pieces, and after seeing the film, his overall body of work suddenly seems much heftier. While the movie isn't as visually daring of some of his other works, it has a dark beauty all its own, and his pacing, editing, shot selection, and use of sound show him in great artistic control. Forty-eight hours after seeing it, I still find myself caught in its world.
I've always thought William Holden was an underrated comic actor and at his most charming in some of his comedies (Sabrina, Born Yesterday, Moon is Blue). Since he didn't make a lot of comedies, I was looking forward to this one with Lucille Ball. But it's not Holden's film. It's Lucy's film, with Holden playing the straight man. I'm not a big Lucy fan, but she's quite funny in this. Holden, on the other hand, seems a little stiff or disinterested. To be honest, there's not much to work with. Lucy probably succeeds because she's very good at physical comedy and can make us laugh without saying anything, which helps when the script is so weak. Holden's humor tends to come from his intelligence and his timing, which is harder to make work when the screenplay is mediocre or you don't want to be in the film to begin with. Miss Grant Takes Richmond came out the year before Sunset Blvd., so I imagine that Holden's frustration with his roles during much of the 1940s was reaching its peak around this time. But James Gleason and Frank McHugh, two wonderful actors, also seem to struggle a bit in this film, so I pin much of the blame on the writing. There are some funny bits here and there, but it's all a little sugary for me. Lucy fans will probably enjoy it, though - she does the best.
Fred Astaire and Frank Morgan play a couple of con artists trying to
strike it big in the make-believe South American country of Patria.
Lucille Bremmer plays Yolanda Aquaviva, who has just come out of a
convent school and is suddenly heir to a vast fortune. Overwhelmed by
her new responsibilities in the world, Yolanda prays to the statue of
an angel for guidance, a prayer which Johnny Riggs (Astaire) overhears.
He then pretends to be her guardian angel in order to cheat her out of
her fortune. But there are complications, mostly of the falling-in-love
Yolanda and the Thief is a strange film, kind of a Catholic Technicolor fantasy, with very little dancing but lots of overly done (almost psychedelic) colors, and the obvious influence of Salvador Dali in one long dream sequence. Astaire and Morgan work well together, and Mildred Natwick provides some comic relief, but Lucille Bremmer's portrayal of the overly naive Yolanda makes for tough viewing. The "Coffee Time" dance scene has some energy and verve and is worth watching, despite- some absolutely terrible (beyond Kitsch!) costumes by Irene. But there's not much here for song-and-dance fans.
The film is interesting because of Astaire and because of all the strange elements going on: the gaudy colors, the Baroque sets, the supernatural Catholic themes, bits of Surrealism, the hyper-unreal view of South America. I'm sure some graduate students could have a field day with "Patria" and its representation of Latin American society. Even compared to typical Hollywood portrayals of South America at the time, it's rather unusual and almost hallucinatory. There are llamas to help create the right exotic mood. Can't go wrong with a llama in a movie.
And where was Carmen Miranda? She could have given this flick some zing.
Astaire made 29 musicals between 1933 and 1957. This is not one of the better ones. As he said in his autobiography (_Steps in Time_), "We all tried hard and thought we had something, but as it turned out, we didn't." No, they didn't. But if you're in the right mood (drugs?), it might be worth watching. Mostly for serious Astaire fans. And maybe devout Catholics who long for Technicolor.
With a little editing and a better finale, Let's Dance could've been a great musical. It starts out with a bang, and rides along on a fun and energetic high for the first 2/3 of the film. Then, the storyline of Hutton trying to retain custody of her child starts to drag on too long. As if to make up for the slow last third of the movie, the director then tacks on a short and overly simplistic ending, as if he wasn't sure how to get out of the film. Even with these problems, though, I was pleasantly surprised by how much fun this was. Hutton had tremendous energy as a comedienne and singer, and she sparkles through most of the film. Astaire also seems to be having a great time and shows a zany side that's quite delightful. There are several good musical numbers and two "must-see" dance pieces. In the first, Fred dances around, under, on top of and inside a piano, and he also gets to show off his lesser-known but fairly impressive skills as a pianist. This number has to rank among his all-time most enjoyable. The second great number has Fred and Hutton dressed as cowboys in a saloon, and it's a hilarious and wonderful routine. I cringed a bit when I read that Astaire was doing a cowboy number, but he's just as great in boots and blue jeans and he was in top hat, white tie and tails. There's some very good comedy writing in the film, and the secondary actors all do a fine job. Despite its slow and repetitive last section, Let's Dance is definitely worth watching. And some of the dance numbers deserve repeated viewing. An unexpectedly fun and funny film.
It's a shame that someone couldn't have written a better screenplay for
the Belle of New York, because there are some wonderful elements in
this film. Fred Astaire and Vera-Ellen made a great team. A seductive,
charming and talented dancer, Vera-Ellen's graceful yet physical style
was a good match for Astaire's smooth elegance. As it is, we only get
to see them dance together a few times in the Belle of New York, and
most of the time Vera-Ellen is bound up in an unflattering Salvation
Army-type uniform. But, hey, it's something. And they do have several
good solo turns. Astaire dances on top of the Arch in Washington Square
in New York City (or Hollywood's version of New York circa 1900), which
is kind of fun. Vera-Ellen does a great job in "Naughty But Nice,"
finally shedding her austere clothes for a colorful and sexy French
Can-Can outfit. And Astaire also sings and dances to what could have
been his signature tune, Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer's "I Wanna Be a
Alice Pearce provides some much-needed comic relief in a secondary role, and Keenan Wynn and Marjorie Main do their best, but they're pretty much defeated by the weak writing and the undeveloped and uninteresting story. The score by Warren and Mercer is mostly strong. And, as always, Fred's sheer talent, joy and artistry make up for a lot. If you want to see Fred dance on a horse's back (or the Hollywood version of a horse's back) this is your film. But you'll have to get through some pretty campy and technically suspect special effects that show people "dancing on air." For the general viewer, I'd recommend about 20 other Astaire musicals before this one. The Belle of New York is mostly for serious Fred fans, Vera-Ellen fans or those who are in the mood for an inoffensive Technicolor musical about ye olde New-York.
The more films I see by Jules Dassin, the more I wonder why he isn't
better known or regarded as a director. It's been 56 years since he was
blacklisted by the McCarthy-ites, but his reputation never seems to
have recovered, at least not in the United States. Hopefully, more DVD
releases like the Criterion version of Night and the City will bring
deserved attention to his excellent body of work.
I want to call Night and the City a classic film noir, which it is, but that seems too limiting. It might be better to say that Dassin uses film noir to dig a little deeper into our human strivings and sufferings. There's a lot of sweat and desperation in the midst of this entertaining and well-paced film, and not just on the part of Harry Fabian, the small-time hustler who dreams of being great. We encounter a typically smooth and dangerous mobster who also happens to have a difficult relationship with his disappointed father. A wealthy but thugish club owner, who might be a caricature in another film noir, can't seem to express his powerful and animalistic feelings for his beautiful wife. She seems like a scheming femme fatale but turns out to have an almost quaint dream of her own. In the end, we're in the muck and mire of human foibles, a kind of low-level Shakespearean tragedy that we all live out to one degree or another. This story just happens to take place in the shadowy underworld of 1950 London.
There's a poignancy to this film that separates it from others in the noir genre. Part of this lies in the strong writing, part in the excellent acting ensemble. This is one of those rare and remarkable films where the secondary and minor actors seem like they were all giving the performance of their career. Richard Widmark probably could have done with a bit more subtlety as Harry Fabian; he feels a bit histrionic at times, but his manic energy is important to the pace of the film and the feeling of increasing desperation. Gene Tierney and Hugh Marlowe don't get to do much and seem a bit lost among all the other great roles. In an interview with Dassin included with the DVD, the director says he put Tierney in the film as a favor to producer Daryl Zanuck, adding her role at the last minute, and it feels like that at times. But, hey, it's Gene Tierney.
Herbert Lom delivers a chilling performance as Kristo the mobster, and Stanislaus Zbyszko is a miracle as his father, the once-famous wrestler Gregorious who can't stand that his son has helped kill the great tradition of Greco-Roman wrestling with his shoddy wrestling matches. The great Mike Mazurki does well as The Strangler, and the wrestling match he gets into with Gregorious may be the highlight of the film. Zbyszko and Mazurki were both former wrestlers, and the realism of their fight heightens the emotional intensity of the scene. It's the brutal scruff and claw of existence brought to life on screen for a few powerful moments.
I had never seen Francis Sullivan before, so I was pleasantly surprised by his masterful work as the club owner Nosseross. Googie Withers also does a great job as his wife Helen, managing to bring some good shading to an underwritten role. And some of the best moments of the film are delivered by minor characters such as Anna, the woman who works down on the docks; Figler, the "King of the Beggars;" and Googin the forger.
After a brief voice-over intro, Dassin starts the action with a bang, as one man chases another through the darkness of late-night London, across what looks like the plaza in front of the British Museum (???). The camera angle on this opening is fantastic, the kind of shot you want to turn into a poster and hang on your wall. And the camera work remains excellent throughout the film. The final long sequence of Harry running all over London in the foggy darkness, with the whole world seemingly after him, is an exciting and powerful climax. Quite a memorable ending to this excellent film.
Made at pretty much the halfway point between Melville's Bob le
Flambeur (1955) and Le Samourai (1967), Le Doulos contains elements of
both. Belmondo plays Silien, a man thought by some to be a police
informer. ("Doulos" means informer or Finger Man, which is the title in
English.) Reggiani plays Maurice, who has just gotten out of prison and
is getting involved with another robbery attempt. His friend Silien
offers to help, and the film revolves around the tension over whether
Silien is an informant or not. It's another exploration by Melville of
the grey area between those who enforce the law and those who break it,
of the uneasy yet powerful relationships that can develop between
people on "opposite" sides of the line.
Belmondo and Reggiani are both excellent. The black and white photography by Nicholas Hayer - who also did Cocteau's Orphée and Clouzot's Le Corbeau - is superb, from the wonderfully atmospheric opening sequence (Melville may be THE master of opening sequences) to the stunning, Cocteau-like shot of a man staring into a mirror that closes the film. The plot line gets a bit complicated at times, with rival gangs, a previous jewel heist, murder, betrayals, love affairs, etc. Hard to follow. Which is to say, it's a classic example of film noir. And the jazzy soundtrack by Paul Misraki heightens the cool, noirish sensibility of the film. Whatever his failings as a director, Melville definitely knew how to create a great atmosphere.
Le Doulos is definitely worth checking out, especially by fans of film noir, Melville or Belmondo.
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