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Rooting For The Dinosaurs, 1 November 2017

The first "Jurassic Park" was all about the science of bringing dinosaurs back to life. "The Lost World" is about the ethics of same. Ethics have always been tricky territory where Hollywood is concerned. That's true here, too.

Four years after InGen populated an entire island with dinosaurs, the company finds itself on the ropes. Wrongful death suits are expensive; so is bad publicity. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) goes from horrified onlooker to potential hors d'oeuvre when he travels to Isla Sorna to persuade his paleontologist girlfriend Sarah Harding (Julianne Moore) to come back home with him.

Director Steven Spielberg called this film "my first pure sequel," noting his Indiana Jones films are more like installments in an adventure series. But "The Lost World" fails miserably as a sequel, offering none of the joy of discovery while doubling up on carnage. It is a weird, grim spectacle film where logic in thrown out and characterization reduced to the broadest strokes.

The question I am left with: Are we supposed to be rooting for the dinosaurs? The pro-forma good guys are a motley crew of SJWs whose constant virtue-signaling is about the only thing audible over the raptor roars. In between snuggling up to a baby stegosaurus and bringing an injured T. Rex into her trailer, Dr. Harding lectures a photographer not to smoke a cigarette on the island. "We're here to observe and document, not interact," she tells him.

Spielberg could have made a good movie out of this if he dispensed with the idea of making Harding his hero, rather than a big part of the problem. The photographer turns out to be a Greenpeace operative, and we watch him and Harding release some captured dinosaurs which then trample through a camp of fellow humans. They are hunters, so this is apparently positive behavior, even if this "ethical" sabotage winds up killing most of the people we see.

The CGI is more active here than it was in the first film, and much more artificial-looking. Spielberg's A-Team, composer John Williams and cinematographer Janusz Kamiński, plod through the motions in delivering a lot of mood and odd triumphant tones which feel hollow even as they are delivered. The whole film fails as a transportive enterprise, reminding you of past glories while adding nothing new.

There's one performance I really liked in the film. It's not Pete Postlethwaite as Roland the hunter, which everyone else including Spielberg loved; he's a cipher too hemmed in by the silly script. Rather, it's Arliss Howard as Peter Ludlow, nephew of John Hammond (Richard Attenborough), who as acting head of InGen is trying to use the dinosaurs to repair his shattered business, and doesn't care who gets hurt in the process.

Howard is so smoothly smug and mean, I found myself seeking him out in group scenes. He's really not much of a villain, since his motives are less evil than capitalist (the same thing in Spielberg's world, maybe, but not mine), but he adds the right notes of conflict whenever given the chance, like when Malcolm grabs his arm in an early scene to make a point: "This suit costs more than your education."

Howard doesn't do much villain work, so I was happily impressed enough to give him my 1997 Doe Avedon Award for great performance in a bad movie.

What passes for a plot involves watching the various name characters try to avoid the same brutal fate they bestow on those who meet them, and then try and save an angry T. Rex storming through San Diego. This latter piece is so tacked on it betrays "Lost World's" focus on being an effects film. The original "Jurassic Park" was that, too, but the storycraft was good enough to keep you watching.

No luck here. "The Lost World" is as much a slaughterhouse of ideas as it is of people. We can argue about whether Spielberg ever made a worse film ("1941," perhaps), but this stands supreme as his most disappointing.

Camelot (1967)
Nostril Porn, 26 October 2017

When is a motion picture all picture and no motion? To have the answer, see this three-hour collection of close-ups and costumes, a musical ponderously directed by Josh Logan starring three actors who can't sing.

In England's early medieval period, King Arthur (Richard Harris) and his new bride Guenevere (Vanessa Redgrave) bring together the flower of knighthood to establish a new golden era of "might for right." But Arthur's most powerful ally, Lancelot (Franco Nero) becomes the undoing of the realm when he and Guenevere begin a passionate, painful affair.

"How did I blunder into this agonizing absurdity?" is the question Arthur poses in his opening scene. It starts with a musical where the music is not so much performed as presented, shot with abrupt jump cuts and suffocating close-ups that zero right up the noses of the three stars.

With three hours, and the Excalibur legend to play with, you would think there is a lot of story here. But there isn't. For ninety minutes, about the same screen time it took Rick and Ilsa to make their plans or Charles Foster Kane to leave his wife, you get a pair of mistaken-identity cute meets and a pointless joust which somehow prompts the previously distant Gen and Lance to fall in love. The next 90 minutes are for watching everything fall apart.

Logan indulged his actors famously on set, even allowing Harris to flash Redgrave for cheap laughs and letting Redgrave mess with the Alan Jay Lerner lyrics. Despite its reputation, this isn't Lerner and partner Frederick Loewe's best score; yet the movie makes matters worse by overusing the strings and robbing the songs of any pull. The title song should be a thrusting, raucous number; it's Muzak here.

In a promotional show made at the time of the film's release, Logan emphasizes the word "texture" a lot. There is a lot of this on display, what with its touted "45 sets and 3,500 costumes." The costumes look okay; the sets decked out like Christmas trees in "GoodFellas." But where's the story?

The Arthur legend is a sprawling epic; to fit something digestible into even three hours you have to make choices. Here, Logan and the production team seemed to decide to zero in on the three main characters and ignore everyone else, except for cheap comic relief from Lionel Jeffries as Pellinore, a king who can't remember where his kingdom is; and David Hemmings as sly and slinky Mordred, the bad guy of the piece. Neither manage to do more than annoy.

Of the principals, Harris and Redgrave talk-sing while Nero is dubbed. Nero has negative comic presence, rendering his opening number "C'est Moi" inert; Redgrave is cool and unlikable throughout. Only Harris has a pulse, but as his character is all over the map his energy becomes a weight as the story flips around. Nothing is really established about what makes his Camelot special; the only time I noticed the Round Table was when a horse galloped across it.

If you want to celebrate the notion of a land dedicated to the principle people matter, why undercut it by ignoring everyone but the king and his two favorite subjects? It's reflective of the sort of star service Logan made his career; the result is even worse than usual for him.

Jumping To Conclusions At The Lazy M, 22 October 2017

The Lone Star westerns John Wayne made for Monogram Pictures became his cut-rate purgatory before stardom. Some go down easier than others; "Texas Terror" mostly just goes down.

Sheriff John Higgins (Wayne) is fooled into believing he shot his best friend in a gunfight with robbers. It's decided the friend, an old man who happened to be carrying a wad of dough, was part of the robber gang, so Higgins is off the hook. He turns in his badge anyway.

"When duty makes it necessary to take the life of a man like Old Dan Matthews, then I'm through with duty," Higgins declares.

"Texas Terror" is the kind of movie where things happen abruptly. Coincidences abound unexplained. People deliver long exposition in the form of conversation, stiffly and at one point, staring directly at the camera: "I'll be so happy to get home. You see, I'm Bess Matthews, and I own the Lazy M," a woman tells a driver after he has presumably been driving her awhile.

Bess (Lucile Browne) is the daughter of the slain man, and for some reason new sheriff Ed Williams (George Hayes, not yet going by his better-known moniker "Gabby") decides Higgins is just the man to help Bess get Pa's ranch up and running. Never mind the fact he supposedly killed her father. Is this sort of thing supposed to be a secret forever, or does Ed think they will laugh it off when she finds out?

Wayne's Lone Star pictures were mostly sub-par films, often worse than that. But most of them do feature Wayne coming into his own as a solid anchor performer. Here, however, he seems flustered and bored. At one point, when talking to the second male lead, villain Joe Dickson (LeRoy Mason), he seems to forget the character's name, awkwardly stopping mid-line.

Director Robert N. Bradbury plays with spatial reality a lot here. In the beginning, we see Higgins right behind the robbers, even shooting one off his horse. The wounded man stumbles into a house where Dickson shoots Dan Matthews. This would have been heard by Higgins, you'd think, except somehow now the guy is ten minutes behind, so he can be led to believe he shot Matthews himself in a later battle, never mind the corpse is lying in the middle of a room, not near a window.

The film does have some grace notes. A milking contest brings some country charm, with lovable Fern Emmett as Bess's Aunt Martha going toe-to-toe with a competitive but amiable old coot. You also have a scene where rustlers threatening the Lazy M are set upon by local Indians who act at the behest of their friend, Higgins. The Lone Star productions were death on stunt horses, but nobody in the 21st century can fault them on their handling of Native Americans. Throughout Wayne's run there Indians are depicted as his wise and loyal friends.

Whatever the intentions on view, the movie is so draggy, unbelievable, and lifeless I struggled to sit through it, short as it was. Even Hayes seems less invested in his character this time around. Wayne looks formidably scruffy for a while after leaving the sheriff's job, even sporting a beard for a while, but he is hemmed in by the same exposition-laden dialogue that does in everyone else. "Texas Terror" wound up more like Texas Tedium to me.

Asphalt And Fear, 13 October 2017

This solid chillfest presents what happens when two ordinary men take an unlucky road trip and meet up with the title character, a merciless killer with a taste for sadism.

Collins (Edmond O'Brien) and Bowen (Frank Lovejoy) are war buddies who take off for a planned fishing trip to Mexico when they pick up Emmett Myers (William Talman), standing beside a stopped car. But Myers isn't the owner of the car, whom he murdered some distance away. He's a serial killer who sees Collins and Bowen as his next victims, as soon as he gets clear of the U. S. He wastes no time pulling his revolver and telling them the score:

"You guys are gonna die, that's all. It's just a question of when."

Director/co-writer Ida Lupino puts you in the car with the two doomed men, making every pit stop into a nail-biting exploration of how people deal with madness-induced pressure.

There are three enjoyable anomalies worth considering along the ride. Two of them are much commented upon: the fact a glamorous film actress is at the helm of such a hard film, with no female speaking parts in English and informed throughout by a kind of Hemingway tough-guy sensibility; and the fact the heavy is played so absorbingly by Talman, that future law-and-order foil to TV's Perry Mason.

The third: Of the two actors playing the prisoners, the one with the biggest name, O'Brien, who made such an impression three years prior as a similarly put-upon innocent in "D. O. A.", is something of a second banana here. Lovejoy's character is the one who employs patience and courage. He's got a wife and children, and as Myers taunts, "Just keep thinking' how nice it'll be to see 'em again."

Lovejoy and Talman, not to mention Lupino, deserved more chances to stretch themselves as effectively as they do here. All three put up stellar work.

Lupino and husband co-writer Collier Young set a quick tempo, punctuated by Myers' sneering jibes at his fellow travelers. No attempt is made at making him sympathetic, yet his terse, flat commands keep you riveted.

When he relaxes, he's even more unlikable. He mocks Collins and Bowen for being "soft" and even brags later on how one of them might have gotten away if they weren't that way.

"You kept thinking' about each other, so you missed some chances," he says.

You get the feeling Myers enjoys torturing the pair even more than he does the prospect of killing them. His fleering eyes, even with his right eyelid always half-closed, tell all you want to know about him.

The film moves even more quickly than its 71-minute running time suggests. Occasionally there are breaks in the action while we see an American fed talk strategy with a Mexican police commander (Jean Del Val, recognizable as the first actor seen speaking in "Casablanca.") This feels a bit canned, though, as do the radio bulletins telling of Myers' progress whenever he tunes in. The climax comes off a bit flat, too.

But "The Hitch-Hiker" entertains with its strong tension and its lack of gushiness or fat. This is a man's movie, no less manly for being the product of a woman who knew what men like, and how to deliver same.

Come Together, 10 October 2017

When the surviving Three-atles got together for a 16-minute conversation featured in The Beatles Anthology in 1995, they spent much of the time talking about another icon: Elvis. Like which of them met him last (George) and what he was like.

So it figures that when Elvis himself met another icon, Richard Nixon, in the Oval Office in December 1970, they wound up talking about the Beatles, finding common ground on how much the two men disliked them.

"They may not actually be in the employ of the Communists, but if encouraging revolution doesn't sound like subversive behavior, I don't know what is," the King (Michael Shannon) tells a nodding 37 (Kevin Spacey).

Whether this was the actual spark that transformed a trivial historical footnote into the stuff of legend is hard to say. But director Liza Johnson and the writers do what they can to make sure the viewer is amused and engaged.

Two things lift this film out of its curious anecdotal substance: Sharp editing by Michael Taylor and Sabine Hoffman that pops off the screen with the help of a fine vintage Memphis-soul-infused score; and Shannon's solid performance as "E."

It's true he doesn't look the part, or sound that much like Presley, but Shannon grounds his performance in Elvis's well-known sensitivity. He knows he's a star and will get the big treatment wherever he goes, and you can see he's uncomfortable with that, as well as the responsibility of being gracious to the people he meets even when they are acting like idiots. He may not remember this moment, but he knows they will, and wants to do right by them.

"When I walk into a room, everybody remembers their first kiss with one of my songs playing in the background," Elvis explains, in between dabbing his eye sockets with Preparation H to conceal the bags. "But they never see me."

Spacey is more of a caricature, but a good one. He's not the subject but the object of the piece, and plays his few scenes for comedy and some surprising moments of empathy. For all his bigness, it appears Nixon is a little star-struck, too.

"Elvis & Nixon" is a deliberately minor effort, weighing in at well under 90 minutes. It features some tangents about one of the people behind that meeting, future manager Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer), and his anxieties about meeting his prospective parents-in-law, which feels belabored and concocted in the direction of serving Schilling's ego. (He was a producer of this project.)

In the end, though, the takeaway I got from this was pleasure, particularly a final section where Elvis and Nixon finally meet, and discuss the miracle that is America for both of them. It reminds me of the HBO films they used to make in the 1990s, before it became about big ratings and "Game Of Thrones" and the idea was to give a platform to a film that wasn't likely to draw big box-office. I just hope Amazon keeps it up with this kind of original programming. "Elvis & Nixon" is a promising start.

Invitation To Dine...Or Die?, 5 October 2017

Ten people come together at a mountain mansion, guests of a mysterious U. N. Owen who keeps them waiting, and waiting...

"I find a singular lapse of manners a house party and the host the last to arrive," huffs Judge Cannon (Wilfred Hyde-White).

For Judge Cannon and the other nine, a lapse of manners is just an appetizer for what follows: Accusation, isolation, and eventually, a menu full of murder.

"Ten Little Indians" is a delightful jaunt of swinging-'60s ambiance that plays a bit with the conventions of a classic Agatha Christie mystery while still delivering the goods. A Mancini-ish jazz score and a cast that features Fabian, Bond girls Shirley Eaton and Daliah Lavi, and slumming luminaries like Hyde-White and Dennis Price keep fun in the foreground.

I love Elsa Grohmann (Marianne Hoppe)'s one-word review of Lavi's actress character, Ilona Bergen; and how Fabian's singer character Mike Raven gets on everyone's nerves singing about their "strictly nurseryville" situation. Butler Grohmann (Mario Adorf) even asks, after the guests begin dropping like flies: "How many do you think there will be at dinner tonight?"

At the same time, the film works hard building up the classic Christie structure of constant mortal danger, and in places even refining it a little.

For example, you wonder how the actress and the general know each other, and if the "dab hand" of detective Blore (Sterling Holloway) has something to do with a sudden power cut. Why does Hugh Lombard (Hugh O'Brian) carry luggage with the initials "C. M."? Why would Ann Clyde (Eaton) take a job as secretary to a man she never met? Yes, it's done with yuks, especially watched a second time when you see the red herrings clearly and the crafty culprit right in front of you, but amid all the frosting there's a wickedly fine cake, dark and deadly and cold as hell.

Director George Pollock and producer-writer Harry Alan Towers (writing here as Peter Welbeck) previously developed several successful if slightly irreverent film adaptations of Christie's Miss Marple stories. Here they work that same comic touch into the darker material of "Ten Little Indians." They even pause the action for what they call a "Whodunit break."

Of course this shouldn't work, especially with a cast that seems to strain at the self-conscious celebrity of a "Fantasy Island" episode a decade or so later, yet the pieces come together. There's an especially well-delivered twist at the end, as scott-palmer2 points out in his August 2009 review unique to this particular adaptation, which is ironically set up by that most clichéd film convention, a sudden romance involving our sexy leads.

One sequence near the end, involving a staircase and a revolver, is played too cute and feels forced. Also, there are some minor contrivances, like when two characters have a fight for no other reason than to give one of them an excuse to make an abrupt exit from the story.

You may not like the characters, but empathy is not the object here, no more than it was with Christie's novel. Here, suspense is alleviated by comedy, and while no substitute for reading the disturbing book, what you get is high-class entertainment with a game cast and a crafty script.

He Hasn't Begun To Fight, 1 October 2017

When Woodrow Truesmith comes marching home, it's to the happiest homecoming any U. S. Marine ever saw: Marching bands, a mortgage- burning ceremony for his mother, even a campaign for mayor. But Truesmith's not only a reluctant hero, he's no hero at all.

Transforming a false-flag endeavor into the stuff of comedy would be a challenge for any writer-director circa World War II: Preston Sturges handles it with steady aplomb. Truesmith (Eddie Bracken) is no fraud; rather he's found himself with six real Marines who take to him and his failed effort to join their ranks, and decide to grant him the stature that hay fever denied. The fact Truesmith himself wants no part of this only makes it more interesting.

"They want heroes, we got six of 'em," says Marine Sgt. Heffelfinger (William Demarest). "All right, we throw in a seventh for good luck. Who's counting?"

Bracken and Demarest have some great back-and-forths, two overbearing actors who find just the right backboards in each other. When Truesmith refuses to wear a Marine uniform because it's against regulations, Sgt. Heffelfinger waves it off: "That only applies to Marines."

When the other five Marines take turns telling terrible Truesmith tales to the tipsy townspeople, Truesmith complains they are lying. Heffelfinger again holds firm: "Every one of those boys is telling the truth except they changed the names a little so as not to give out military information."

Why are the Marines so gung-ho on selling Truesmith so high? Some of it has to do with his father, a war buddy Heffelfinger saw fall at Belleau Wood. Heffelfinger probably senses Truesmith would have turned out the same had hay fever not gotten in the way, and he's keeping faith with the old man. Also, these six Marines still have a war to fight. By championing Truesmith, they are getting maybe their only chance at a heroic homecoming of their own.

And what a homecoming! Norman Rockwell couldn't have painted it better. Georgia Caine as Woodrow's mother makes breakfast for six new sons, while Ella Raines as the girl Woodrow left behind keeps putting off breaking the news that she's gotten engaged to someone else. This is comically difficult when everyone in town including the fiancé's mother is pulling for Woodrow.

The usual Sturges stock company shows up here; this time there's no awkward shoehorning as the characters have just enough time to make their unique impressions without clogging up the works. It's actually a marvelous thing how the movie flows together, a thrusting narrative that makes time for diverse voices by having everyone interrupt everyone else. Raymond Walburn as the narcissistic mayor even interrupts himself.

Just when things seem to be reaching critical mass, Sturges cuts to a tender moment between Bracken and Raines, or a tense one between Woodrow and one of the Marines (Freddie Steele) who suffers from undiagnosed PTSD and is fixedly determined that Woodrow not disappoint his mother, being he has no mother of his own. Even this isn't beyond Sturges' comedy.

"Are you nuts or something?" Woodrow asks him.

"Maybe," the Marine answers.

Sturges works a political campaign into the story, coded messages about greedy Republicans doing battle with selfless Democrats with a war hero thrown in the mix. It's very simplistic, but adds to the fun.

Sturges films can be exhausting, but "Hail The Conquering Hero" hits all the right notes. It has a lot to say about military service, and how people can contribute to a larger cause with or without putting themselves in combat. There are many ways to be a hero.

Second-Tier Duke, But Pretty To Look At, 23 September 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

If you want an easygoing movie that employs likable actors to pleasing effect, you may wind up accepting "The Undefeated" for what it is. But if you are like me and want a story that keeps your attention and moves you to a satisfying conclusion, this makes for a tough sell.

At the end of the American Civil War, a Union and Confederate colonel separately lead their people into Mexico. The Yank, John Henry Thomas (John Wayne), is bringing 3,000 horses to the Emperor Maximilian at $35 a head. The Rebel, James Langdon (Rock Hudson), is escaping the ignominy of surrender.

Mexico, alas, is in the throes of a bloody revolution. If they are to survive, they must set aside their differences and work together.

As John Henry explains it: "We got Maximilian on one hand and Juárez on the other, and bandits in between. And on top of that, we're Americans in Mexico taking a cavvy of horses to a very unpopular government. Why should we expect trouble?"

A product of that last great year for Westerns, 1969, "The Undefeated" has amazingly crisp and dynamic cinematography. William H. Clothier knew about shooting horses and horizons, and showcases both talents to majestic effect. The dialogue is often funny. But the film itself offers a hodge-podge of undernourished subplots, sweet talk, and sudden bursts of action that never gels.

Director Andrew V. McLaglen liked to cram his films with lots of different stories and people. Sometimes, like with his Wayne movie the next year, "Chisum," it worked. Here it doesn't.

There's a listless quality to the crux of the movie, John Henry and Langdon working together. Hudson's character is introduced as headstrong ("I got no taste losin' to a lot of Yankee rabble") but seems too easygoing with his former foe. Much time is wasted on a gormless romantic subplot involving Langdon's daughter and John Henry's adopted Cherokee son. Ben Johnson as John Henry's chief buddy has little to do but shrug and make wisecracks. The cast list includes John Agar and Richard Mulligan, but there's only a brief glimpse of the former and no sign of the latter in the finished film. McLaglen must have bit off more than he could chew in post- production.

Wayne is perfectly adequate, settling into the role of senior presence rather than a major player. McLaglen has fun setting up Duke's gruff charm and understated reactions, but as Oscar material, he hardly posed a threat to that year's winner, John Wayne in "True Grit."

Goofy subplots include surly cook Dub Taylor, whose main bit of business is telling everyone but his faithful tabby to go to hell; and a Rebel civilian no one will talk to because he didn't serve in the war. So why did he join them on this dangerous journey? It's never explained, but you hardly notice when nothing else is.

SPOILER ALERT - The ending is a strange one, where John Henry and Langdon turn on Maximilian after Juárez's people take the Southerners hostage. To spare their being massacred John Henry gives up the horses and rides home. Perhaps he realizes the Juáristas despite being ungentlemanly have a point, it being their land, but it's never explained: "You win one, you lose one," John Henry shrugs, and that's that. SPOILER END

There are fun scenes in the movie, and everything is beautiful to look at, so I won't carp too much at all the loose ends. My real beef is wishing McLaglen, a solid pro in other efforts, did more with his cast and opportunities here.

Silence Is Golden, 21 September 2017

A lot of old movies work despite the fact they are silent. "The Big Parade" is unique to me in that it is hard to imagine it working so wonderfully if it wasn't a silent.

There's no gainsaying the greatness of silent comedies, like those of Keaton or Lloyd. Silent horror films like "Nosferatu" pack an eerie power. But dramas usually work for me when I can hear the actors talking. Not so "The Big Parade."

Here you see American soldier James Apperson (John Gilbert) and French farm girl Melisande (Renée Adorée) struggle to build a connection despite not speaking each other's language. With no sound, their pantomime becomes more engaging, more amusing, and cuts to the heart of what their relationship is about.

"I don't know a word you say," Apperson says, "but I know what you mean."

Watching Apperson's unit walk into action, we hear nothing but the tick-tock of a metronome, broken only by an odd pling of string whenever a flying bullet connects with one of his comrades. We see officers and non-coms give direction, but have no idea what they are saying. Everything about the battle is surreal.

Apperson's comrade, Cpl. Slim (Karl Dane), gives us the only hint of strategy: "We're gonna keep going' till we can't go no more."

"The Big Parade" is a film that draws on various tangents of wartime experience, from pathos to terror to humor. A long opening section has Apperson, Slim, and their buddy Bull (Tom O'Brien) bonding over mail calls and wine cellar raids. You are encouraged to relax and enjoy their company, but you pull back. It's like bonding with a puppy in a kennel you know you can't take home.

King Vidor makes a nearly perfect movie. There are slower stretches, and a late bout of overacting from Gilbert, but "The Big Parade" has a solidity to it that rewards watching over and over, a tough-nosed story buttressed by a clear sense of mission. At the same time Vidor avoids making too much of a Big Statement. His focus is on war's dislocation, not its folly.

Vidor based his film on a treatment by a World War I veteran, Laurence Stallings, for whom the emotional toll was at least as important as the physical. According to Jeffrey Vance's illuminating DVD commentary, Stallings was focused more on military life behind the lines. It's here the film pulls you in, before any violence sets in, with the cooties and the way the soldiers settle in to their new environment.

Gilbert is terrific to watch, whether he's walking around a village wearing a barrel or trying to teach Melisande how to chew gum. Usually love scenes kill a good war movie, but Gilbert and Adorée are such fine company you enjoy their lulls together. I don't know if Gilbert had a real issue with his voice when sound came in, or if its myth, but his scenes remind me of Norma Desmond's claim about the superiority of silents: "They had faces then."

If I had to recommend a silent movie to a person wary of them, and I didn't want to stack the deck with one of the great clowns or a horror film, I would choose this. It may not be the greatest silent movie, but "The Big Parade" draws upon the unique strengths of the form to create a multi-layered, involving entertainment that holds its value a hundred years later.

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Overcoming The Idiot Plot, 8 September 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

A triumph of movies in its realistic depiction of a man alone bucking the system, "On The Waterfront" scores in another department for me. It's a prime example of a film overcoming what the late Roger Ebert liked to call "the idiot plot."

As Mr. E. put it, the idiot plot is where a movie depends on its characters acting like complete dolts in order for it to function. Here, an idiot summons a pal to a roof knowing his bully buddies who want to silence the pal wait there, not figuring that they might, you know, push him off said roof and silence him for keeps.

A priest kicks off a tense meeting by asking who killed the guy, thinking somehow someone will just blurt it out and not figuring a public forum might intimidate them into further silence.

A union boss figures the best way to keep idiot #1 quiet is to kill his brother and hang him on a hook for him to see the night before said idiot is scheduled to give testimony. Oh, and when the guy tells what he knows anyway, the boss blows his top and attacks him in front of the press.

Still, "On The Waterfront" triumphs over such qualms and delivers a solid story, aided by powerhouse performances. Marlon Brando centers everything with an assured turn as Terry Malloy, a former boxer turned goon for Longshoremen's Local 374. Sure, Terry's an idiot, but he has a lot of heart: "I figured the worst they were gonna do was lean on him a little bit. Wow. He wasn't a bad kid, that Joey."

Brando's scenes with Eva Marie Saint as Joey's sister, Edie, retain a kind of raw power, of two people finding each other in a cruel world and making something good amid the carnage. Their scenes together have an intimacy and subtlety that make them stand out more. One critical moment between them, easy to miss, is when during their first extended time together, after she lets him do most of the talking, she quietly reveals she has had her eye on him for a long time, back at school when he was a troublemaker and she was just a mousy kid in braces and braids.

Director Elia Kazan was at the midpoint of his distinguished career, and gets a lot of mileage off of scriptwriter Budd Schulberg's tough-talking script. The scenes around the pier hut where the union boys run their scams are crisp and flavorful, dominated by Lee J. Cobb's nasty Johnny Friendly. "Everything that moves in and out, we take our cut," he boasts.

Here and elsewhere, there is an "on-the-nose" quality to the dialogue, and to the way the film is constructed. It's manipulative the way we see Terry shot in the mesh of his pigeon coop like he's in a web, or how a crossbeam gives an aspect of a crucifix whenever Edie appears. Yet it works. "On The Waterfront" is a kind of passion play for organized labor, arguing successfully that tolerating corruption makes for a sin of omission.

The famous "coulda been a contender" scene with Brando and Rod Steiger as his brother Charlie remains parody-proof, and the socko ending with Terry's big confrontation at the dock remains one of the great moments of cinema. They are rare big scenes that fully earn their acclaim.

I don't love "On The Waterfront." I find it too pushed in places, and not very convincing. But it still holds up well as a testament to what movies can do, and how they can make you feel.

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