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Four, Five, Six Stars, 10 April 2014

Remember when there were imminent nuclear attack drills in school? The alarm would sound and students were instructed to crawl underneath their school desks as if the flimsy plastic top and tin would protect them from a nuclear explosion. Yes the threat of Soviet annihilation was a very real thing back then and the dichotomy of the Cold War informed the world-views of baby-boomers and generation x'ers for decades to follow. Thankfully I was not part of either generation yet having lived on both sides of the east/west divide I can tell you that despite the severity of 1960's evening news telecasts, the standoff is hilarious in retrospect.

The hilarity was evident as far back as 1961 when Billy Wilder's One, Two Three hit theaters. Starring James Cagney as a fast-talking Coca-Cola executive, the movie was sly, witty and light as air, masking a cynical and subversive world-view taking the ideologies of the USA and USSR to task. Cagney plays C.R. MacNamara, a dependable company man who is asked to take care of the CEO's daughter Scarlet (Pamela Tiffin) while she's in West Berlin. His wife (Arlene Francis) was looking forward to a vacation in Venice with the kids while his secretary (Liselotte Pulver) was hoping to teach him the sultry phonetics of the umlaut. Naturally no one is happy with the imposition. Things spiral out of control when the seventeen-year-old southern belle falls in love and marries an East Berlin Bolshevik (Horst Buchholz) all while the CEO (Howard St. John) comes in for a surprise visit to pickup his sweet little angel.

The screenplay written by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond based on a Ferenc Molnar play has enough gags to go toe to toe with today's joke a minute youtube generation. Even without prior knowledge of the Cold War, the movie is one heck of a ride featuring, among other things, a high speed chase with a disintegrating Russian car, a constantly heal-clicking lackey who may or may not have been an SS member and the old staple; a man wearing women's clothing. Those who do know their 20th century history will be further rewarded with coy references to Khrushchev, Tito and Yuri Gagarin not to mention the adversarial tones of Cagney's character and the Russians he deals with. "He could use a hair cut…and I'd like to give it to him myself with a hammer and sickle," says MacNamara to the débutante's new liebchen.

The characters are exactly what you would expect from a fast-paced farce; broadly drawn and exaggerated by a single feature or fault. Buchholz's Otto is an overzealous card-carrying Red, bloviating about Coca-Cola colonialism and dead herring in the moonlight. Scarlet is so overwhelmingly dense to the point of annoyance, at one point musing "did you know Otto spelled backwards is Otto?". Meanwhile the trio of Russian dignitaries who complicates MacNamara's plans remind me of an old Russian joke: why do Russians walk around in sets of three? One reads, one writes and the third keeps an eye on the other two intellectuals. If you're looking for anything more than stock characters causing havoc in post-war Berlin, you may be setting your standards unrealistically high.

I have a real affinity for Billy Wilder and his directorial efforts to which One, Two, Three is a splendid addition to my Seen It list. Like The Apartment (1960), One, Two, Three achieves wonders with its cast; like Ace in the Hole (1951) it has the propensity to be cynical yet charming and like Some Like It Hot (1959), One, Two, Three is gut-bustlingly hilarious.

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The Most Wes Anderson Film, 10 April 2014

I feel like Wes Anderson's career has been leading up to this film. It's safe to say that those familiar with the literate, quirky director and his celebrated style will find much to enjoy regarding the goings-on in an Eastern European luxury hotel. Those who come in from the cold will likewise find a rare wistful quality and a very common air of post-modernism stabbed through unfamiliar settings.

Those who know me know I have not been a fan of Anderson's work in the past. Wasting the potential of large, well known casts and keeping everything fussily symmetrical and pastel, I once compared him and his style unfavorably to that of a 1970's pornographer. I always sensed there was a distance between the elaborate set-dressing and stilted dialogue he always seems to employ and the emotional core of what a good story should be.

It was only after I watched The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) did I realize his potential not as a filmmaker but as a creator of worlds. Steve Zissou was once again disappointing in its narrative but managed to be something altogether different from the turgid dryness of Rushmore (1998) and The Royal Tenenbaums (2001). Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) and Moonrise Kingdom (2012) successfully took advantage of an all encompassing vision which made me much more aware of Anderson's true potential. It helped that his stories were more whimsical and entered squarely in the realm of crowd-pleasers instead of receptacles of arcane literary trivia. He also hinted at emotional artistic expression ever so slightly; especially in Moonrise Kingdom.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) is a happy marriage of Wes Anderson in all his forms; a whimsical visual artist, a pedantic Eurocentrist and finally an emotional storyteller. Ralph Fiennes stars as a philandering but thorough hotel concierge M. Gustave who takes young Zero (Tony Revolori) under his wing as the Grand Budapest's new bellboy. Gustave and Zero are forced into a series of misadventures when one of his elderly bedfellows dies bequeathing him a priceless painting.

Thematically, Anderson seems to be playing around with ones sense of nostalgia. The story beseeches its audience into an unearthly place and time inside an unknown European country prior to an unknown war. The film begins with a little girl opening a book narrated by "The Author" (Tom Wilkinson); her surroundings are snowy and stark as she stares at a yet unrecognizable statue. The Author recalls a time in his youth when he visited the Grand Budapest in the 1968 and met the elderly Zero (F. Murray Abraham) who had become a man of renown since his time as a bellboy. In these early scenes, the hotel has fallen into disrepair yet while there's evidence of muck and rust, the grandeur of the hotel shines through. He then tells the story of his predecessor who is never without his tyrian purple tuxedo and bow-tie. By the time we get to the story within the story, within the story, the hotel resembles a wedding cake and even the bland colors of Zero's six by ten room pop out at you.

Sometimes looking through rose colors glasses may skew one's perceptions of the past. The artifice of the film is always signature Anderson with a suspicious fakeness especially in times of heightened tension. Yet despite the fakeness and moments of dry wit and levity, there's more than meets the eye. There is a surprising bit of bitterness with the sweet confections cooked up by Anderson and his stellar cast which includes Edward Norton, Jeff Goldblum, Saoirse Ronan, Adrien Brody, and Willem Dafoe. Like in Cabaret (1972), there's foreboding hints of fascism lurking in the shadows; ever present yet not actively driving the plot. Could it be a statement on today's modern political landscape? Could scenes involving Zero and the authorities who jostle him be a statement on immigration? Could the stark clientèle haunting the 1968 hotel, and the hotel itself represent the failed promises of Communism? Perhaps not but there's no denying such sad realities.

The language in the film also serves and important purpose in highlighting the film's bittersweet sensibilities. Like in Anderson's previous works, the dialogue is very formal and composed juxtaposed with the farcical elements on full display. There are piercing moments of obscenities which provide a cheap laugh or two yet I feel they serve another purpose. The film reminds the audience, specifically the true filmophiles that while it may resemble Night Train to Munich (1940) and The Great Dictator (1940), The Grand Budapest Hotel is very much a product of 2014.

Leave no doubt in your mind, The Grand Budapest Hotel is Wes Anderson's best film to date and certainly a film worthy of consideration. It reaches the apex of what the director's sensibilities could be which is to say entertaining, artfully done and literate. It's much more than a dotty wee skid mark and a pretty face, like Moonrise Kingdom before it, the film transcends and becomes emotionally satisfying, signifying that Anderson is finally willing to open up and evolve as an artist.

Drifting in and Out of Romance, 9 April 2014

Gabe (Woody Allen) and Judy (Mia Farrow) have invited their good friends Jack (Sydney Pollack) and Sally (Judy Davis) for a small dinner at their quaint Manhattan apartment. Their abode is full of books and knickknacks all pointing to a comfortable urbanite life in the largest city in the world. Then Jack and Sally reveal some surprising news…after years of seemingly happy marriage, the two have agreed to a separation and eventual divorce. After that bomb is dropped the two couples reexamine their relationships with each other, trying to find meaning in romances both current and past while discovering the good, the bad and the ugly in marriage.

Woody Allen is mostly known for his comedies. But while Husbands and Wives has some pretty spot on observational humor, the story is largely somber and dramatic. Not dramatic in the sense of a Wednesday afternoon soap opera but a benign drama that with a few spikes of activity focuses mostly on the characters. There is no clever high concept or narrative liberties here like say, The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985); the film is more straight-laced and character driven along the lines of Interiors (1978) and Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989).

And what of the characters or rather the actors who flesh them out? Judy Davis, Mia Farrow and Juliette Lewis are the obvious standouts, representing three very different women all of which are looking for the same thing; someone to love and someone to love them back. Davis received an Oscar nomination for her role as a bitter divorcée trying to come to terms with her ex-husband's infidelity and being single again. She's continually frustrated and confused by the yearnings of the heart occasionally even lashing out on her boyfriend Gates (Liam Neeson). She's cynical and wary of attachment yet deep down she knows that her entanglements with Jack aren't over.

Mia Farrow is a stark counterpoint to Diane Keaton's brassy personalities of Allen's earlier work. Farrow's intensity lies always below the surface, providing the perked looks and mousiness of a young ingénue with the mind and body language of a veteran in the trials of love. It's a shame that out of the twelve Woody Allen films she has been in (for which Husbands and Wives was most famously her last) she had never received recognition by The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for her stellar work.

Juliette Lewis who plays one of Gabe's young students from his Literature course, has the appearance and vulnerability of a dewy-eyed devotee. Yet when the amiable Gabe discovers he might be the object of desire here and Lewis's Rain the controller, he recoils. There's a scene where the two are in a cab discussing the latest draft of his book. Unable to take criticism, Gabe calls Rain a 20-year-old twit and says "I'd hate to be your boyfriend, he must go through hell." Rain cavalierly responds "Well, I'm worth it."

Those who bemoan Allen's post-Annie Hall (1977) work won't find relief from his more meditative works of the 1980's. While most of the characters are likable they sometimes do unlikeable things, each on their own journey of discovery. I suppose we all do things we regret for love and those with a mature outlook on the subject matter will find a lot to enjoy and a lot to flinch at in Husbands and Wives. I suppose the heart wants what the heart wants.

The Hollywood Machine Gets One Right, 7 April 2014

Thank you Captain America. Thank you for reminding me that while Hollywood may by a cynical churner of money-making goop, when its done right it's really done right. Ignore the naysayers who claim the film is too ostentatious or too predictable. They fail to realize that movies like this are not meant to be inceptive or beholden to reality. It's still the golden age of superhero movies and the genre is well on its way to making as big a mark on the American cinema firmament as the western, the noir and the musical.

Captain Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is back from the 1940's and back from saving the world with the rest of The Avengers (2012). He carries with him a little notebook of things he has to catch up on including Rocky (1976), the 1966 World Cup final and Marvin Gaye's Trouble Man Soundtrack all while working as Nick Fury's (Samuel L. Jackson) glorified henchman. He's not a fan of what he has to do for his "boss" but he soldiers through, especially if it means keeping America safe.

Things however get turned upside-down when attempts are made on Fury's life prior to the launch of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s new Heli-carriers. Narrowly escaping multiple assassins and a frightening ghost story known as The Winter Soldier, the only man Fury can trust to get to the bottom of things is the man who trusts him the least. Can Captain America get to The Winter Soldier before it's too late? Is there a sinister connection between tenuous ally Natasha Romanoff aka The Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and the bad guys? Who ultimately are the bad guys, and who are the good guys?

Co-starring Robert Redford, Anthony Mackie and Cobie Smulders, all actors take a backseat to the razzle-dazzle of high-flying special effects provided by Daniel Sudick and his army of Imagineers. Every wham-bam explosion, hail of rat-tat-tat gunfire and snap-crackle-pop fighting sequence rivals Joss Whedon's work in The Avengers yet thankfully never quite reaches Transformers (2007-2014) level idiocy.

Before I continue to shower Captain America with complements and jabbering onomatopoeia I might as well take the time to address those who have not seen it and those on the fence about it. You really do have to go in with the proper mindset; and that mindset is "fun". Those who praise the film for its introduction of themes like the modern surveillance and data collection complex and how it can turn sour are deluding themselves into thinking the movie is smarter than it really is. I doubt the Obama administration is going to be knocking on Stan Lee's door asking questions while George W. Bush releases a statement defending the NSA on account of this movie.

The film isn't as smart as it is incredibly pulpy. There are Mexican standoffs, emotional flashbacks, disguises, traumatic deaths, hostage situations, big reveals and double crosses; it pulls out all the stops to provide panem et circenses to the masses. The grabbed-by-the- headlines Wikileak angle is just a cherry on top of the massive all- American sundae that we're all eating and loving. ABC might have cancelled All My Children (1970-2011) but soap operas are alive and well in the world of superheroes to which Captain America is only the most recent example.

Yet unlike most of your grandmother's soaps, the script is bare-bones; mostly show and less tell. It's exactly what you need in an action movie. I just wished that all the advanced technology on full display has less of a Deus ex Machina, everything-works-exactly-as-it-should- type feel. I'm a little jealous that S.H.I.E.L.D. has a portable laser capable of piercing armored trucks and concrete with ease yet my Galaxy 5 can't call outside the U.S. and Canada. Though I suppose these movies are less about giving the guys at Google something to work on than they are selling action figures and red, white and blue Frisbees.

Yet despite my natural cynicism, it's hard not to love movie. It takes itself a little more seriously than The Avengers and the Iron Man series (2008-2013) which might disappoint some viewers but since the films protagonist is supposed to be the fuddy-duddy of the ensemble that can be forgiven. There are just too many well done special-effects and too much childlike wonder to escape Winter Soldier's bombastic charm. Go out to the theater this weekend and check it out…for America!

America: We Have Created a Monster, 2 April 2014

Larry the Cable Guy reminds me of the idiot on the high school debate team who seemed to win his competitions winging-it. You know the guy; he's the one who can't spell Amazonian but manages to win the audience by saying the phrase "save the rainforest because…trees and s***." So it goes Daniel "Larry the Cable Guy" Whitney has been catapulted to super-stardom being a singularly obnoxious character comedian. His routine is infused with false goofball bravado and a bloated sense of self; callously "standing up" for red blooded Americans who drive a beat-up pickup truck and eat Hot Pockets for lunch out of a tin pale.

I get it Middle America; Hollywood and the media are overwhelmingly liberal so out of the assortment of comedians you have to latch on to your mascot. But why would you plague us with this gleefully ignorant, aggressively offensive, boar? This film (which made a hefty profit), along with his comedy albums, standup tours and voice work for Pixar has elevated this guy's credibility. You've created a monster!

If you need proof of dear Larry's now unstoppable stupidity, look no further than his 2006 film Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector. He plays a city official who isn't particularly good at his job and doesn't really take his job seriously. So why do we care about this guy? Good question. Because of his unorthodox methods Larry is partnered with a by-the-books partner (Iris Bahr) who he constantly dubs a man due to her choice in wears and lack of voluptuousness. Funny. He then goes to a variety of ethnic restaurants with his new partner making imbecilic comments about restaurant owners and workers though because they're familiar with his banter the heed no mind. Funny. He also annoys his coworker Jack (Tony Hale) who is a paraplegic. Funny. He bungles into a mystery involving poisoned food before a local cuisine competition involving people in their Sunday best barfing and farting. Funny. Oh and there's the love story which starts with Larry staring at shop worker Jane (Megyn Price) as she removes the bras off of mannequins. Again, so funny!

Actually no…no…not funny at all! The cardinal rule of a comedy is be funny which this film is resoundingly not. Larry's character cannot provide any cleverness, insight, intuition or even irony. The man tows the line between amiable redneck and ugly American managing to isolate all but his most die hard fans. He slings his brand of gross-out humor with a soupçon of racism and sexism but any time it gets blatantly offensive he falls back into "I'm-just-doing-me" mode as the supporting characters catch him by being straw-men or shoulder shrugging bystanders.

Comedians like Groucho Marx did the thick shtick with a clever pomposity that irked the victims of his command of the English language. Jerry Lewis wasn't as sharp or presumptuous but he brought physicality to the fool role which was copied to great success by the likes of Jim Carrey. Larry the Cable Guy brings nothing to the table. His interpretation of the ignorant fool is one of a sad, second-hand Don Quixote. He looks to exemplify an ideal that never existed nor should; an Amrican who lacks all beneficial qualities but gumption and adulates his own numb-nut-ness while chomping down Moon Pies and day old pizza crust.

The saddest part about Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector is that despite naughty language, reference to bodily functions, sex and Kid Rock, the film got a PG-13 rating guaranteeing young people have and will see this asinine movie. In my youth when I lacked good taste I thought films like Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994) and Happy Gilmore (1996) were the best I've ever seen. Even today I will defend their quality while acknowledging serious filmgoers will dismiss them and deride me for them. It saddens me to think out there somewhere there are youngsters willing to defend Heath Inspector. Worse still is the notion that as they get older Health Inspector will crystallize in their minds with other "cherished" childhood memories.

"Would Make a Rock Cry" - Orson Welles, 6 March 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

During Leo McCarey's acceptance speech for the Academy Award for Best Director he walked up and thanked the Academy then said "…you gave it to me for the wrong picture." The picture he won the prize for was The Awful Truth (1937) which was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Actress, Supporting Actor and Writing. The movie he claimed he should have won for was Make Way for Tomorrow (1937) which got a big goose egg that year. Since 1937, Make Way for Tomorrow has grown in stature to become one of the most revered American movies and certainly among the best films depicting melancholy in old age.

Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi star as Barkley and Lucy Cooper, an elderly couple who despite a lifetime of happiness and five children to prove it, are in dire straights. Their home is in foreclosure due in no small part by the depression. They summon four of their five children and try to come up with a game plan deciding that Barkley is to move in temporarily with Cora (Elisabeth Risdon) their impatient daughter in town while Lucy lives with eldest son George (Thomas Mitchell) and wife Anita (Fay Bainter) in his Manhattan estate. Of course as the temporary situation becomes…less temporary, the couple long for each other while the kids look to move them out.

Make Way for Tomorrow is arguably the saddest movie ever made; certainly the most tragic of the 1930's. It isn't a classically tragic story like "Oedipus" but a subdued, somber film that gently settles into its wistful conclusion. I say this without caution. Those who feel that cinema provides much more than idle entertainment and happy feelings should waste no time in watching this absolute gem. It brings to mind the classic Tokyo Story (1953) and the recent Amour (2012) in its touching yet unsentimental portrayal of the elderly.

The film doesn't demonize the children who push their parents out of their lives for various reasons. One can easily identify with one or more of the kids due to the exemplary acting on the part of Thomas Mitchell, Elisabeth Risdon, Minna Gombell and Ray Meyer. They have their own problems both financial and social which are further complicated by the parents. Anita helps support her family by teaching bridge to socialites yet finds her young daughter running off with older men. In an effort to form trust with her granddaughter, Lucy keeps her social life a secret which understandably insights Anita to say, "What right have you to keep secrets about my daughter from me?" Yet while we as the audience can identify with the children and their own myriad of problems, we know the couple is left with little prospects for the future. The final elongated day-walk through New York City is a particularly bittersweet fifteen minutes. The couple walk hand-in-hand, being provided niceties by strangers who find their love quaint and adorable. Yet while their long-awaited day together is joyous, deep in their minds is the thought that they're still separated and likely to be so for the rest of their lives.

Living in a culture that values the young, the new and the adaptive over the old, it's easy to see how this movie may one day disappear into the ether; even if it was submitted into the Library of Congress's National Film Registry. Like it's characters, the film was out of step for its time and likely even more so with today's hustle and bustle. At least the aforementioned and immortalized Tokyo Story was released by a culture that dichotomizes old vs. new instead of shoving its aged things onto the proverbial ice flow like we do. Hopefully with our median population getting ever older we'll reach an understanding where the elderly achieve a little more dignity than decades past. If not, I suppose there are pleasant things to be said about making way for tomorrow.

Severely Underrated Film, 4 March 2014

You have to give it up for a director like Ridley Scott. Since the late seventies, Scott has managed to make a handful of contemporary classics that have managed to enhance and elevate the medium of film. Yet for every Blade Runner (1982) there's a mediocre A Good Year (2006); a Prometheus (2012) to every Alien (1979) if you will. So what of his 2005 effort Kingdom of Heaven? Failing to make a killing at the box office, not even reaching its $130 million dollar budget, the question must be asked; is it really that big of a misfire? The answer may surprise.

The director's cut of the film challenges its audience to accept a depiction of the crusades that is over three hours long and helmed by a milquetoast Orlando Bloom. Balain, a lowly blacksmith (Bloom) is given the chance to redeem his wife's suicide (among other things) by joining his newly found noble father Godfrey de Ibelin (Liam Neeson) on an odyssey to the Holy Land. The Crusaders plan on making their way to a land where everyone speaks Italian. "Then keep going until they speak something else." The journey and destination however is fraught with dangers, seductions and intrigue.

While Bloom's command of the movie slips under its lofty premise, the crux of the film remains a testament to Ridley Scott's detailed depictions of history. The same eye he used to recreate the Roman Colosseum in Gladiator (2000) or the Santa Maria in 1492: Conquest of Paradise Scott recreates a stunningly exotic Jerusalem which alone is worth the rental price. While my medieval history is a little rusty, Kingdom of Heaven's 1187 siege of the fabled city is likewise breathtaking and somewhat accurate. There was no mention of selling anyone into slavery after the films impressive climax and I doubt Sibylla Queen of Jeruselem (Eva Green) was that drop dead gorgeous but let's not split hairs here.

There are some wildly off the mark portrayals of famous Crusaders yet I doubt Scott was going for imitation. No his, thankfully spiring ambitions go much further than simply putting a history textbook on the screen. Like Karen Armstrong's book "Holy War", Scott wants to juxtapose the geopolitical and religious conflicts of the 11th century and those we're faced with today. The movie exposes many conflicting worldviews from the religious tolerance of Messina, the moral torpor of Christian occupied Jerusalem, the absolutism of religious fanatics both Christian and Muslim and the ambitions of the power-hungry.

Loyalties are forged for different reasons much like they are in today's world. Yet many times moderation, prudence and compromise are sacrificed in the face of what is politically expedient. In 2005, during the film's release the United States was dealing with sectarian violence in Iraq. Back then there were only hints of our tragic misstep in the region many of us too blinded by our zeal to see the bigger picture. Today Russia is forcing a stand-off in Ukraine upsetting the established peace of Europe. It's politics but its also religious, also personal and also ancient history in repeat. As Balain shouts before the battle "We fight over and offense we did not give, against those who were not alive to be offended."

Presently do you feel Islamic terrorism is a symptom of a larger economic problem or the subterfuge of millions of years of aggression by outsiders? Do you think the west's emphasis on the region is due to an unquenchable thrust for world domination and influence or misplaced idealistic fervor from centuries past? Your answers to these questions will ultimately inform your perspective on Kingdom of Heaven. Yet while the huddled masses might assume the film is serviceable if overlong and gain no insights from it, others who know their history and their current events will be rewarded by arguably Ridley Scott's most underrated project to date.

Lifeboat (1944)
One of Hitchcock's Minor Masterpieces, 26 February 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Lifeboat (1944) is considered one of Alfred Hitchcock's minor films. Much like Vertigo (1958) there are well defined and brilliantly acted characters, like Dial M for Murder (1954) the setting is tight and confined, in this case a sole lifeboat and not a London apartment. Also like Foreign Correspondent (1940) and Saboteur (1942), the movie has a blatant and obvious political purpose. It's a propaganda film through and through, myopically grappling on the zeitgeist of WWII. But just like all the aforementioned films, Lifeboat is likewise a well made masterpiece.

The film begins just after the torpedoing of an allied ship by a German U-Boat (which was also destroyed). A single lifeboat carries an assorted crew including reporter Connie Porter (Tallulah Bankhead), millionaire Charles Rittenhouse (Henry Hull), crew members John, Gus, Joe and Stanley (William Bendix, John Hodiak, Canada Lee and Hume Cronyn respectively), Nurse Alice (Mary Anderson), solemn passenger Mrs. Higgins (Heather Angel) and a German U-Boat officer the rest dub Willy (Walter Slezak). At first the group is suspicious of their fellow German survivor. Will the group be able to get out of their predicament? As you can imagine in an adapt-and-survive tale like this there are a lot of man versus the elements moments which up the suspense. The group faces raging winds and storms, a lack of potable water, navigation without a compass and illness and injury. If solely taken for a survival story, Lifeboat may just be among the best the decade had to offer. The fact that the entire movie takes place in and around a mid-sized dingy is a testament to Hitchcock's singularly brilliant direction. Of course the well drawn characters were made whole by John Steinbeck who distanced himself from the film for its "positive portrayal" of the Nazi character.

The fact that many critics at the time dismissed the film for being too pro-Nazi is an attestation to the fear and hatred shared by the allies, particularly the British towards the Germans. In newsreels, magazines and comic books the enemy was seen as subhuman and bloodthirsty. In Lifeboat the character Willy was sneaky, untrustworthy and manipulative and for that he was considered not villainous enough? Who were they expecting; Beelzebub? Sauron?

I was half-expecting the survivors of the shipwreck to be more symbiotic. The other half was hoping that if and when things do get all "Lord of the Flies", when the survivors are rescued there'd be a moment of contrition. Neither of these things happens and we're left with a little too much chest-pounding for my taste; the voice of reason and law muted by mob rule.

Of course I am too far removed from the realities of the time. Hitchcock wanted to represent a group of squabbling allies who mobilize to confront a seemingly invincible foe; a microcosm of the larger conflicts of WWII. The animosities of the time were due to perceived stakes and luckily I have never had to experience the cruelties of the Third Reich first hand so who am I to talk? Transplanting a modern perspective on an aged piece of art is like putting a CD player in a 1965 Mustang; it diminishes the art.

Lifeboat ultimately is a masterpiece of the highest order. Engrossing, technically flawless and thematically brilliant, the movie about a band of survivors faced with the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean is yet another feather in Hitchcock's derby. More than that, it's a telling piece of cinematic history that accurately sums up the frightening uncertainty of a world consumed by war. Do yourself a favor and set sail for Lifeboat.

Salacious and Silly, 25 February 2014

Imagine you live in Germany. Only a decade has passed since the end of WWII. The Cold War is in full swing and your country is separated by east and west. Infrastructure is back to normal but the scars inflicted by the war have only begun to heal. You were an SS officer who used to have a job that was unpleasant, yet in your mind necessary. Now you're a lowly night porter for a swanky hotel in West Berlin.

Thus starts the story of Maximilian Aldorfer (Dirk Bogarde) a man who lurks in the shadows along with a small cabal of surviving Nazis. They quietly meet to conduct "trials" to conceal any inkling of their past before the authorities find out, going so far as to kill possible witnesses. Max's life is unassuming and guilt-ridden; "I want to live like a church mouse" he says. That is until the arrival of Lucia (Charlotte Rampling), a former concentration camp prisoner whom he had a sadomasochistic relationship with and was her pseudo-protector. They recognize each other right away and the question becomes what will they do about it? The movie devolves from its tension inducing premise to a sensationalistic exploitation film. Don't get me wrong its leaps and bounds above Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS (1975) but the intention is artistically the same and the fact that director Liliana Cavani tries to claw for deeper meanings beyond its trashy premise makes the film more manipulative than engrossing. There are references to the book of Mark and John the Baptist, a near naked ballet sequence of Mozart's Die Zauberflote and comparisons between Pelleas and Melisande all of which amount to a bucket of filth. It a film that attempts cultural literacy but makes the fatal mistake of being alienating, unpleasant and ultimately wearisome to watch.

The Night Porter (1974) is not so much a movie as it is a forceful invitation into the minds of two severely damaged people. As the relationship between Max and Lucia turn into a despairing echo of what it used to be we see the extent of Lucia's Stockholm syndrome and the depths of Max's depravity. Yet what is forced upon us is the notion that this sordid love story 1: matters and 2: is tragic in a saccharine Romeo and Juliet kind of way.

There is an uncomfortable, long-running juxtaposition between sadomasochism and Nazis. Perhaps it's because even today we equate Nazism with death, destruction and absolute authority. In some circles it's hard not to get aroused by staring death in the face (especially when it's carrying a whip). But while I'm sure this sexual predilection pre-dates The Night Porter, Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975) and The Producers (1967) I can't help but feel this kind of treatment makes light of the Nazis and their resoundingly negative contribution to world history. Perhaps instead of dressing up in black leather and swastikas it would be wise to downgrade to a Vichy Greatcoat and Kepi, you know, just in case a friend goes rummaging through your closet.

Ultimately while the premise is intriguing and there are touches of artistic merit, The Night Porter is an insipid, opportunistic treatment of history. It makes menial attempts at making its characters believable and relatable but sequentially removes them from a realm of reality within the films final, grueling half hour. What should have been a movie about history, human frailty or lacking that credible love, became a kinky provocation offering little other than cheap thrills.

Giant (1956)
James Dean's Best Picture, 25 February 2014

Ah James Dean. Before Heath Ledger, Brandon Lee and River Phoenix became hagiographical symbols of what could have been, James Dean reined supreme as king of his own morbid death cult. Adorning the walls of many a young women's bedrooms since his tragic death in 1955, James Dean is still immortalized today despite that fact that he only been in three movies before his fatal car crash.

Yet out of those three films, Dean garnered two posthumous Academy Award nominations for Elia Kazan's East of Eden (1955) and George Steven's Giant (1956). This in addition to gaining heartthrob status in the stupefying Rebel Without a Cause (1955) a film about a troubled teenager arriving in a new suburban town. Before Giant, Rebel Without a Cause was the only James Dean flick I had seen. I honestly thought his work in that film was over-the-top to the point of parody. I understand without Rebel we wouldn't have teen movies along the lines of John Hughes but do you really expect me to swallow Dean's conniption fits in front of his parents? Giant sees the capable actor putting much more depth into his character Jett. The film starts with Bick Benedict (Rock Hudson) and Leslie (Elizabeth Taylor) falling in love and marrying each other. Jett is in love with Luz (Mercedes McCambridge) Bick's sister and fellow stakeholder in the Benedict family fortune. After Luz's tragic death, Jett is bequeathed land which becomes profitable through oil. As the extended family matures and becomes embittered by rivalry, both Jett and Bick become richer through oil and cattle ranching respectively.

The movie spans generations with the closing scenes taking place with Bick and Leslie in their 60's. The rivalry between Bick and Jett remains the focus for the first part of the film while the second part is dominated by Bick's frustration toward his three children played by Carroll Baker, Fran Bennett and Dennis Hooper who go their separate paths instead of becoming ranchers. Hooper desires to become a doctor while Baker would like a small modest place with her high school sweetheart. The young Fran Bennett who lights up the screen seems to be the only one interested in life on the ranch but things get complicated when it's revealed her character is dating the much older Jett.

They all don't want to be ranchers like generations before them which highlight another theme in the film; the changing attitudes and customs of younger generations. Bick is forced to accept the changing attitudes of his family and society sometimes unwillingly but nevertheless looks to provide everything he can to his family. At the beginning of the movie, Bick treats the Mexicans who work on his ranch with indifference and inflexibility to the chagrin of the more socially enlightened Leslie. By the end of the film Hooper's character falls in love with a Mexican girl whom he later marries.

Jett on the other hand becomes consumed with animosity towards the Benedicts after the death of his beloved Luz. All of his actions serve not to destroy them necessarily but to show them he's better than they are. A perfect example of this is when he confronts Bick to allow oil exploration to help the war effort (WWII). While they're technically working together at this point in the film, Jett looks to lord his patriotism and later his wealth over the Benedicts heads. His plans to live better however are undone by his alcoholism and greed.

Throughout this review I have made little mention of the film from a technical point of view. That's because the film is for the most part technically flawless; as is the story. George Stevens adapted Edna Ferber's novel brilliantly and the set direction is rich, elaborate and gorgeous to look at. I can see how this sprawling epic can be Texas's unofficial official film. They're obsessed with big things down there so it only makes sense the movie of their choice is called Giant.

Yet it's the films size, or rather length that can be too much for some viewers. 3 hours and 20 minutes plus an intermission is a daunting proposition to generations of filmgoers used to 90 minute movies. I was put in the embarrassing position of having to watch half the movie twice because I didn't realize the DVD I was watching was two sided and accidentally watched the second half first. Derp. If I had to choose one sweeping epic film to sit down and make a day of it, I'm sorry to say it wouldn't be Giant.

Still Giant is a sight to see and one of Hollywood's greatest epics ever made. The acting on the part of Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, Dennis Hooper and Mercedes McCambridge is absolutely outstanding. Yet the real draw here is Dean who for better or for worse is the quintessential Hollywood "they died too young" stories. While East of Eden is still on the ever expanding Must See List, Giant remains in my mind the best example of Dean's method acting mastery.

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