99 ReviewsOrdered By: Date
Get on Up (2014)
Tight as any James Brown track!
7 August 2014
Two viewings in three days, to fully appreciate the magnificent achievement that's on screen. Not one extraneous word, scene, shot or sequence. The whole is as tight as James Brown's hits - or his pants.

The underlying construction of these snapshots of James Brown's life is flawless. Far from being haphazard or out-of-sequence for mere "effect," this non- linear storytelling technique has rarely been used with greater impact. Thankfully, Tate Tayler, Mick Jagger, the other producers and writers, decided AGAINST the boring born-in-a-shack and then this happened, and next that happened, and finally he died structure.

Result? The film has unexpected rhythms that never let go and build to the astonishing, electrifying re-creation of Brown's Paris concert that - even on second viewing - had me jumping out of my seat, fist-pumping the air and screaming, "YES!"

I wasn't alone.

Chadwick Boseman may be the black male Meryl Streep. His technical achievements alone are remarkable: Brown's moves, speech rhythms and timbre - but mainly his lip-syncing to Brown's vocals: flawless!

Even in the final moments, as the aged Brown silences his band, then begins the haunting "Try Me" a capella - in a closeup so tight you practically see Boseman's tonsils, his mouth, tongue placement, breathing and facial emotions are so perfectly and intensely aligned with Brown's voice you'd swear Boseman were doing his own signing.

But Boseman is equally true portraying Brown at any age, any stage, from any distance. You can't fake that level of acting proficiency. Whether he wins best actor, he is certain to (deservedly) be nominated.

Boseman'surrounded by an equally perfect cast, not one of whom rings false: ultimately a tribute to the director - stunningly supported by the script, cinematography and editing.

By comparison, Clint Eastwood's "Jersey Boys" looks exactly like what it is: a tired, clichéd jukebox Broadway musical with great old safe, whitebread hits (distinguished mainly by Frankie Valli's falsetto) and nothing else to write home about.

James Brown, on the other hand, was always in your face. So were (are) Mick Jagger and the Stones. And so, rightly, is "Get On Up" as a rousing cinematic experience that has to be seen to be believed.
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Hedda Gabler (1962 TV Movie)
Fascinating production!
5 August 2014
Yes, the script (from a translation by English actress, producer, director Eva Le Gallienne) is abridged from Ibsen, for television. No matter. This (and Ibsen's other plays) is incredibly difficult, demanding theatre - for performers and audiences. Every character's truth lies beneath the dialogue and action: the rich conflict and drama isn't on the surface.

It's easy for everybody to overplay or underplay Ibsen, and so wreck the carefully crafted builds and effects.

To study the differences in productions, compare this with the much later Diana Rigg production for television. In fact, there is no comparison.

Bergman wrings incredibly detailed and nuanced range from Hedda; always bordering on being "dangerous" without ever appearing "deranged." A consummate actress portraying a consummate, stifled, destructive actress.

Alternately steely cold, girlish, seductive, flirtatious, calculating, distraught, despondent, taunting, sorrowful, gleeful, provocative - sometimes within mere moments - Bergman's skills are a wonder to behold, even at the camera's close range.

So are those of Richardson, Redgrave, Howard and the rest.

Diana Rigg, no slouch as an actress, seems almost one-note when viewed against Bergman's triumph (though that may well be Rigg's director's fault).

Hedda is an easy character to make boring, nihilistic and ugly - which would repulse rather than spellbind an audience.

Bergman never lets go of her audience, or her colleagues; delivering Ibsen's particular, peculiar, tragic Hedda Gabler in all her ultimately monumental crumbling pathos and final loss of any shred of hope.

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Maleficent (2014)
Total Surprise!
30 May 2014
Didn't expect a masterpiece going in, but exited realizing "Maleficent" is one of the best, most beautiful films I've ever experienced.

It is superlative in every way; executed with meticulous care by experts at every level: screen writing, casting, art direction, cinematography, production design, producing, lighting design, CGI, stunt coordination, acting and directing.

Shot after stunningly lit and composed shot, the film is a visual classic from opening to fadeout. If you know even a few basics of how things are done, there are moments where your jaw drops open - and stays there - in amazed appreciation for what this team accomplishes.

It veers delicately, sometimes like lightning, from warmth to laughs to concern to sorrow to tears to majesty and back again; building, building to one moment (just before the magnificent climax) that you suddenly know / hope is coming - about ten seconds before it does - which makes it even more magical and earns your gratitude for what they've done with this timeless fairy tale.

Every inch of the huge 3D screen displays an unbelievably rich collaboration in the joys of virtuoso film making destined to last as long as Disney's original, delivered by artists at the top of their crafts.

Above them all: the remarkable Angelina Jolie (who also co-executive produced).

A milestone in its genre!
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David Niven Deserved His Oscar
31 July 2013
Having recently watched "You Were Never Lovelier" with Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth, it's interesting to notice how she was largely shot and directed throughout her career.

Her dancing in "Lovelier" was fun and fine in "The Shorty George," where she's relaxed and clearly having a ball -- and appears to be keeping up with Astaire. "Appears" is the operative word. Astaire (who choreographed) carefully kept their routines within Hayworth's range, never challenging her beyond her capacities. But Hayworth completely lacked Ginger Rogers' lithe body fluidity and on screen electricity.

Hayworth was stunningly beautiful, of course. But even in "Lovelier" there are moments when, not carefully lit, the forehead lines that were so apparent in later years (unless also carefully lit) were already apparent and fleetingly distracting.

More to the point was how she was directed and photographed in "Lovelier." She actually has very few lines. What she does have are usually brief and delivered in a relatively quick take before cutting away.

She never makes emotional transitions in a scene. Rather, the camera cuts to a new angle when she's called on to register a different emotion. The primary goal at all times is to maintain her seemingly flawless facial beauty. Fine in a fluff piece like "Lovelier."

Cut to "Separate Tables" 16 years later.

Hayworth is still beautiful if more "mature." AGAIN she is never shown making an emotional transition in one shot: cutaways are instead employed. The technique (to disguise her limited acting abilities) is particularly jarring in her dramatic scene in her bedroom with Burt Lancaster. On closer inspection, she "poses" from cut to cut rather than displaying her character's emotional arcs.

Sure, she was supposed to be an aging model, all self-possessed poise. But not in that dramatic scene.

Still, it's a fascinating lesson in how skilled film making disguises limited range. (For a heartbreaking account of the making of her last film, read Frank Langella's "Dropped Names.")

Terence Rattigan's play was forced to disguise the homosexual "scandal" of the Major's (David Niven) being arrested for soliciting men in dark movie houses, though the implication is fairly clear.

Knowing the repression of homosexuality at that time makes Niven's performance even more involving; especially once the scandal is revealed to the boarders at the Beauregard.

Niven's amazing performance (in only 16 minutes of screen time) is disarmingly deep. He goes from an almost comical figure to an exposed fraud with a dark secret since childhood, to a lost late-middle-aged man with no future, to the final hope of redemption.

Niven shows all his character's subtle emotional transitions in sustained takes (unlike Hayworth).

Deborah Kerr is fine and completely convincing, as always.

Burt Lancaster gives another version of Burt Lancaster in not his finest hour. "Sweet Smell of Success," "The Rose Tattoo," "Come Back, Little Sheba," "Birdman of Alcatraz" and "Judgment at Nuremberg" -- even "Trapeze" -- are better records of his talents. But he's always believable.

The remaining cast, especially the nuanced Wendy Hiller, are terrific.

Still, it's Hayworth's impression -- not her character's -- who lingers as something not quite real, not untalented, but unrealized and somewhat vacant. It's not her mental deterioration. It was there on screen from the beginning. She tried gamely throughout her career, and looked magnificent thanks to careful costuming, lighting and cinematography. But even with careful cutaway direction she seems little more than a paper doll -- and finally, tragically, just as fragile.
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Chrystal (2004)
Hear the flowers grow . . .
24 September 2012
Warning: Spoilers
Fascinating, to see so starkly one man's talents (Ray McKinnon) and faults on display, like the chipped old rhinestone engagement solitaire my dead granny handed me just before she gave up the ghost beneath that faded quilt she made for her sister Lula Mae when they shipped her off to that place for people teched in the haid, while autumn leaves of red and gold fell to earth outside the shack where she fixed possum and dressin' fer Thanksgivin' back in the holler and winter crawled in like a blind old moonshiner breathin' his last wasted breath.

McKinnon, here, cain't write too good. He can act (his "Snake" is the best and most electrifying thing in the film). He can direct; but so can loads of TV soap opera folks. His cinematographer (Myron Kerstein) is good. His actors do the best they can with this material (except Grace Zabriskie, who's supposed to be comedy relief except when she's supposed to be waxing wise and in any case seems to be channeling Rue McClanahan's Blanche from "Golden Girls," without benefit of that show's polished dialogue).

The script's the problem. One wants to empathize with these people. ANY of them. One waits, and waits, as things get worse and worse and the lines more smarmy and sentimental and unbelievable. But there's no one to care about or root for as the dialogue ricochets between pseudo-hard-boiled hillbilly and pseudo-Tennessee-Williams poetic.

So out of synch with reality are the words and situations that one laughs uncontrollaby and / or shakes one's head at all the wrong moments that keep piling up like Momma's mulch in the compost heap by the outhouse . . . .

Until Chrystal's supposedly moving reveal about her granny telling her, when a girl, that if she listens she can hear the flowers grow and now that she's a far-gone nutty self-pitying self-destructive backwoods drama queen she CAN hear 'em growin'.

Then Billy Bob Thornton shows back up in grizzled Howard-Hughes-near-the-end makeup and a filthy foot-long beard, with a kidnapped infant to replace the child he and Chrystal lost in the clumsily-shot no-budget opening accident sequence, before getting predictably killed by the cops in the squad-car headlights outside and Chrystal (as in Snake's meth? It's that kind of symbolism) marries the widower Good Cop, presumably finds redemption and some common sense, and the cop's little daughter by his dead wife climbs the artistic / symbolic welded sculpture Billy Bob topped off with a tricycle and sits there pedaling toward nowhere fifteen feet off the ground (like this film) and smiles wistfully, trying to jerk some genuine emotion from an audience searching vainly for any shred of meaning or reason-for-being in this pretentious vanity production, and credits roll while we (I could swear, y'all) hear flowers growing under the soundtrack and our tired behinds ache for sweet freedom.
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All an Imitation of Heaven Can Endure
17 October 2011
Warning: Spoilers
"Magnificent Obsession" is Douglas Sirk's rehearsal for "All That Heaven Allows" and "Imitation of Life." The story (from Lloyd Douglas' novel) is a ludicrous drug-store romance with a smarmy tinge of Woolworth spirituality that DARES you not to take all this seriously.

Through a series of unintentionally tragi-comic coincidences, Rock Hudson gamely goes from rich bad selfish playboy to -- what else? -- selfless neurosurgeon who saves the sight and life of the comatose woman he loves, eight years his senior.

Oh, for the days when doctors and patients offered each other cigarettes in their offices: When even small out-of-the-way hospitals out West were staffed with full orchestras and choirs stationed just outside OR.

The actors are fine. Particularly Wyman and Moorehead, who somehow make their impossible lines sound genuine. Sirk's direction, design and cinematography are, as usual, outstanding. But the script is insurmountable.

One tries and tries to go with the implied emotions of these contrived situations, but succumbs to chuckling disbelief with every ham-handed twist.

Thankfully, all was redeemed just one year later, when the major players returned in the superlative, "All That Heaven Allows." Followed, four years after THAT, by Sirk's incomparable masterpiece of the genre, "Imitation of Life."
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The Debt (I) (2010)
Pluperfect Filmaking!
13 September 2011
Brilliant script. Not a spare word, unnecessary shot or action.

Brilliant direction and cinematography. Brilliant direction. Brilliant acting.

Total believability, every moment. You wonder if you're watching a documentary, or a true story.

You wonder about a lot of things, as the film unwinds. Not least: the inevitability (or not) of Truth, and the virtues (or not) of Lies. Not just to individual people, but to nations and to the world and its future.

The central action set-piece (a kidnapping) is shot and cut with crystal-clarity. You know where you are, who's who and what's what, every crackling split-second.

One of the most rewarding films in a long while.

The ending? Who dies? Who lives? It's in a hospital. Life-saving care is around the corner.

Or is it?

60 years after the War, after these horrific events, after lives sacrificed for Truth, who dies? Who lives? Who lies?

Who wins?
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Start Grinning Ear to Ear. Start Right Now! Sheer Joy!
12 August 2011
If you've seen TTOIA before, even once, even long ago on its first release in 1963, you may not remember ALL the treats you're in for under the tree, but you know it's one of Santa's most memorable Romantic Comedy deliveries in motion picture history.

If you've NEVER seen it, you still can't help grinning, from the opening frames until the brilliant payoff.

"Santa" being, in this case, one of Hollywood's finest collaborative teams at the top of their game. It's a huge team! Carl Reiner (Dick Van Dyke show), Larry Gelbart (M*A*S*H) conceived it. Reiner wrote the screenplay.

Ross Hunter produced it, along with Day's then-husband, Marty Melcher, who got titular co-producer credit and a nice paycheck, but whose actual contributions are questionable at best. It's a Ross Hunter Production all the way. "Hire the best and keep them happy."

Reiner's script is tight as a drum. The continual builds and arcs he and Gelbart constructed are emotionally riveting, revealing of character, increasingly funny and broad (just pushing the edge of believability without ever violating it), with a foolproof "ticking clock" and jaw-dropping tender-yet-hysterical climax sequence unlike any before or since.

Amazing! The production visuals are as brilliantly developed as the script. This is a lavishly complex and technically challenging piece of film-making.

Ross Hunter nailed down the script, brought in Norman Jewison to direct. He cast Doris Day and James Garner as the irresistibly appealing leads. He also cast second leads to perfection: Arlene Francis and Edward Andrews. The supporting players, from Zasu Pitts to the two children – Jewison got stunning work from them too! Jewison's coordination of camera and technical work, color, set design, physical comedy touches, tweaks of his actors' close-ups – flawless.

He hired Jean-Louis to design the most beautiful costumes (LOTS of them!) Miss Day ever graced. The man was a genius and Day never looked lovelier.

But it's the grins that start from the first frames, with Miss Francis' deliriously happy laughter – soon explained – that grow and balloon into remarkable comedy set-pieces (punctuated with razor-sharp satirical on-screen bits featuring Carl Reiner himself) – and gradually explode into eye-popping visual comedy sequences that hark back to silent-film pioneers like Chaplin and Keaton – ending in the must-be-seen-to-be-believed, brilliantly staged and directed and played and edited, final sequence in stalled traffic – that lands TTOIA in the top ten Romantic Comedies of the last 100 years.

As good as all Doris Day's romantic comedies were – and they WERE – TTOIA is as good as this incredibly difficult, deceptively "easy," genre gets.

Watching it is a privilege.
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The Visit (1964)
25 June 2011
I'm ashamed I've never seen this film till now. I've always known "of" it, as I've always known "of" the play, and "of" Friedrich Dürrenmatt's controversial take on "epic theater." So its allegorical aspects don't put me off at all. It's amazing to see how realistically and cinematically this play is filmed and acted.

Co-Produced by Anthony Quinn and Ingrid Bergman, who co-star, this entire enterprise is a work of love and art: not commercial entertainment.

And what a payoff! The suspense, the emotional builds, are incredible. Yes, you can see the act breaks that were in the play. No matter. The film surges along seamlessly to the unexpected and shattering climax.

And the acting, from the entire cast, but especially Quinn and Bergman, is something to behold.

The conclusion cuts like a knife.

Watch it again and again for the layers in Bergman's performance. The transitions in her close-ups alone are astonishing.
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"For its time . . . "
18 June 2011
Warning: Spoilers
That's the only thought that keeps running through one's head while watching this 1934 version of "Imitation of Life": "For its time . . . ."

"For its time," this must have seemed a breakthrough in some ways, mainly its depiction of '30s racism. The same can be said for the 1957 Douglas Sirk version: "For its time . . . ."

Certainly, in terms of film making, writing, directing and acting, the 1934 version is nothing out of the then-ordinary. It's stagy, slow and poorly written.

Seriously: After the supposedly emotionally draining sequence of Louise Beavers' death scene and funeral, with the return of passing-for-white daughter Fredi Washington ("I killed my own mother"), followed by the ludicrously insulting coda of Claudette's utterance of the film's immortal last line, "I want my quack-quack," one can only wonder that this was all received as anything but a cheap joke posing as sloppy sentimentality.

Colbert is terrific, as always. A wonderful actress throughout her long career. Still, knowing she early on insisted the left side of her face was more photogenic than the right, it's fascinating to witness her actor's vanity at work in every scene. But regardless of the quality of her material, Colbert never delivered a false line-reading, on screen or on stage. Even in French (which she spoke fluently).

Louise Beavers is good, "For its time . . . ," but hardly gives a "breakthrough" performance, for 1934 or any other year. ESPECIALLY compared to Juanita Moore's amazing performance in this role 23 years later (with a better, but not THAT much better, script).

Fredi Washington seems good, but it's hard to tell, since she was given so little screen time. Was her part so small because of the racism of the time? Probably. But it's unfair to compare Fredi Washington's bit role here to the electrifying Susan Kohner in Sirk's version.

Note too that sound films of the early '30s were still not yet comfortable with "scoring" except for titles and end-credits. Incidental music had to come from an apparent on screen "source" like a radio or orchestra (the party sequence, here), it was thought.

So, when a low off-screen Stephen Foster dirge underscores Louise Beavers' death scene, Colbert's daughter has to open the bedroom door to reveal a trio of heretofore unseen black household servants singing it outside in the hallway like some black-face "coon" trio, as they were called, suddenly dropped in from vaudeville's yesteryear Keith-Orpheum circuit.

Even "for its time," there's no excuse for the sappy last line, meant to hearken back to the "innocent" days when the film began with Mommy bathing her two year old. Bad enough the line has to be said once, much less TWICE. But there it is.

"I want my quack-quack."

Sure, Douglas Sirk's version has 23 years of film making experience on this one. But SOME films from the early '30s still shimmer and shine even today, nearly 80 years later.

This one doesn't. Except as a curious relic whose only value is as an archive "for its time." Sirk's version is the definitive one, say what you will about its over-the-top "camp" elements. Yes, it too is "for its time." But it still packs a powerful emotional wallop and always will, as one of the best-produced, best-realized film melodramas of all time.
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"I need you to live. To go on living."
15 June 2011
"I need you to live. To go on living." Those lines, or similar, have been uttered by every actress since talkies.

Watch what Anna Magnani (speaking phonetic English) does with them in closeup, in that amazing scene with Marlon Brando, to see where two acting legends began.

In fact, every scene with Brando and Magnani is a revelation of what REAL screen acting is.

Add Victor Jory's masterful, monsterful performance as Jabe.

Magnani, Brando and Jory (brief though his screen time) make this show work.

Sidney Lumet's direction is wonderful. But it's those three classic performances that elevate "The Fugitive Kind" into genuine art.

Tennessee Williams, by then, had already become a mannered, pretentious, self-consciously "poetic" playwright.

The 1989 Broadway production starring Vanessa Redgrave was the final, long-polished and best-realized production of "Orpheus Descending." Redgrave was astonishing and heartbreaking. She played Lady Torrance barefoot. You could hear every trace of her character's Italian birth, her family's living in Argentina, and finally landing in the American south. How Redgrave did it, I'll never know.

The play is ridiculous for its strained melodrama and forced Southern Gothic "poetry." The film, "The Fugitive Kind," eliminated at least SOME of over-the-top silliness, especially in the last act. The film is believable, where the play's climax is ludicrous. (Though Redgrave somehow made it work.) But the film is still stuck with the artificial "poetry" delivered by Joanne Woodward (game, but overacting), Maureen Stapleton and most of the supporting players.

Within the claptrap, like diamonds in dung, are the electrifying performances of Brando (more subtle and nuanced than in "Streetcar Named Desire") and Magnani (who simply has to be seen in this role to be believed). And Jory.

The last third in particular, which largely focuses on Magnani and Brando, is a jaw-dropping display of what great actors can do with even so-so, pretentious, dialogue.

That's followed, unfortunately, by a Joanne Woodward coda that's completely unnecessary and pathetically "artsy" (dialogue-wise) and serves, sadly, to expose her as a less talented actor than her co-stars.

Magnani and Brando, on screen together, in closeups, even with this script, are beyond compare.
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8 June 2011
Roger Ebert gives Douglas Sirk's "Written on the Wind" laudatory props for being subversive, ironic, a commentary on 50s materialism, ahead of its time, the forerunner to TV soaps like "Dynasty" and "Dallas," and god knows what else.

But watch it.

I love Sirk's "All That Heaven Allows" (truly brilliant, and brilliantly executed, for its genre) and "Imitation of Life" (the ULTIMATE in the lush romantic melodrama genre and a tearjerker that EARNS its tears, thanks largely to the performances of Juanita Moore and Susan Kohner).

By comparison, "Written on the Wind" is an insult on virtually every level. Not least, the sad revelation of the utter lack of talent in two of its leads.

One snickers uneasily, at first, then recoils at the shoddiness of what's on screen.

Humphrey Bogart, when he saw WOTW screened, had the wisdom to tell his then-wife, Lauren Bacall, not to make any more crap like this. She didn't.

Bacall is the ONLY actor (aside from supporting ones like Robert Keith, Grant Williams, Robert Wilke, Edward Platte, etc.) able to elicit genuine emotion or audience empathy from this carny sideshow hurly-burly script.

Rock Hudson doesn't have to do anything but be a stoic hunk and stunt-fighter. Watch him in Sirk's "All That Heaven Allows" if you want to see what Hudson was really capable of in roles like this. Still better, watch his evolution into a first-rate light comedian in his Doris Day pictures or his final incarnation as the same in TV's "McMillan and Wife."

Beyond Bacall and Hudson, and the excellent supporting players, WOTW is shocking. Not for Sirk's always superlative visuals and camera direction, but for his Community Theater cast. Why were they EVER considered talents, much less stars?

Robert Stack could do ONE thing. His role on "The Untouchables" exploited that fully. What he COULDN'T do was nuance, or a drunk scene. So clenched and anal-retentive was he as an "actor" that he couldn't even laugh or giggle convincingly.

WATCH him! Stack's drunk scenes here are painful to watch. They're supposed to display layers of his character's background and depth and pain and sympathetic hurt.

Instead, they're just a shallow amateurish actor's attempt, given a lousy script, to infuse dramatic depths beyond his talents.

Lauren Bacall's lines are no better, but look at what she does with them. Namely, she UNDERPLAYS them, to relatively great effect. Same with Hudson.

Not Stack. In person, he was "nice." Conservative. Didn't rock boats. Had a long career in wooden roles. But he simply couldn't rise, convincingly, the the occasion when cast as tortured bastards like Kyle Hadley.

Dorothy Malone? Saddest of all. You really have to watch WOTW to appreciate her. She won an Oscar for this performance.

Bless her heart! ANOTHER one who never should have been a "star," nor an "actress." A nice gal who got to Hollywood and got bleached and coached into "sexy" and finally wised up and left it and went home.

Malone's is an amazing performance here because, in EVERY scene, no matter where in the plot's emotional arc it falls, she plays it EXACTLY the same.

"Sultry." In quotation marks.

Apparently, for Malone, "sultry" meant raising her chin defiantly, lowering her eyelids, looking down her nose at her co-stars or the camera, pouting, parting her lips, then lowering her chin, looking up from under her eyelids at her co-stars or the camera, pouting some more, parting her lips some more, writhing in place for no discernible reason, and sounding "breathy." Up . . . down. A face on a slo-mo fork-lift.

WATCH her! Looks terrific till she has to speak or move. Over-emotes with the same heave-ho histrionics to a sound-stage tree in a voice-over scene! Priceless!

Malone can't even dance seductively, as required at the party sequence, or after her motel shack-up with the star of "The Incredible Shrinking Man" (Grant Williams), upstairs in her bedroom with her mock-striptease inter-cut with her father's heart attack on the stairs while a "hot" arrangement of "Temptation" blares from her record player.

That sequence is so totally contrived, badly executed (largely by Malone's quick-cut lack of ability to embody or sustain her character's wanton lust in-the-moment) and hysterically obvious that today's audiences burst into spontaneous applause and laughter at its sheer inept audacity. "TEMPTATION!"

The camera has to cut away from brief shots of Malone in her pink peignoir swirling across the lens because Malone simply isn't capable of being genuinely "sexy" on screen, though she labors mightily.

Ostensibly her "best" performance was in "Man of a Thousand Faces." Even there Malone was an amateur among professionals, but her role was more sympathetic and better written.

In "WOTW," in her big courtroom scene with her glycerin tears, she's still doing the slo-mo fork-lift facial up-and-down sultry shtick we've seen since reel one.

Then Hudson and Bacall drive off into the sunset, or something, accompanied by the Four Aces -- the FOUR ACES! -- singing the unforgettable title song.

A song long since forgotten unless you watch this film again. Which you should. Simply to marvel at how mediocre actors (but no doubt wonderful people) like Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone were ever ranked as box-office, much less Oscar winners, in the 50s.
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Watch Wyman!
4 June 2011
There is nothing to add to all the other comments about Sirk's wonderful direction, color palette, camera placement, etc. Sumptuous visual story telling!

What compels repeated viewings, though, is Jane Wyman's amazing accomplishment here. Especially compared to Sirk's subsequent sudsy masterpiece featuring Lana Turner, "Imitation of Life."

Wyman was always good and always INTERESTING. She held the camera. No doubt about that. Was she a great actress? Did she ever get a script that let her PROVE she was? It's arguable.

But here I think she truly WAS. Line for line, this is fairly pedestrian material. ("I let others make my decisions for me.") Each scene, like a string of pearls, is well-constructed. The plot too contains emotional conflicts and arcs that sustain the whole and reward us in the end.

But the lines themselves? In lesser hands the entire enterprise would have laughably bombed.

The supporting cast is top-notch. They ALL know their way around a line. Especially Agnes Moorehead and Jacqueline de Wit.

Even the early Rock Hudson, another star not known for impressive acting chops, who later found his REAL niche in light comedies with Doris Day, in which he was terrific, shines here. What he's asked to do he does naturally, easily, sincerely and affectingly. His sexual heat, jaw-dropping good looks, that voice and, yes, manliness, were perhaps never before or afterward captured so effectively on screen.

But "All That Heaven Allows" is Jane Wyman's picture all the way, and she's heavenly in all of it.

Though everything she does looks unstudied and completely naturalistic, hers is a consummate technical display of film acting on the highest level.

Listen to her vocal inflections alone. Completely naturalistic. Except dramatically varied and supported by heightened emotion that is anything but "natural" and is all "art." (She could also sing, and sing well.)

Watch her movements. Same thing. All in character, not an ounce of phoniness. But so precise, economical and scaled for the camera that, again, you're watching the art of a well-trained professional performing at a high level.

Then, watch her amazing close-ups. You can read her every thought and emotion and reaction -- widely varying throughout the emotional plot arcs -- without her saying a word. Without an ounce of overplaying.

Her seeming simplicity here, as an artist, an actress, is so focused yet subtle that she pulls you in and holds you completely every moment she's on screen.

That, without being a natural or classic "beauty" like Lana Turner or Elizabeth Taylor, and without the aggressive showiness of actresses like Bette Davis or Joan Crawford or Katharine Hepburn.

The script doesn't offer Wyman the histrionic fireworks of more flamboyant roles given some other actresses.

But the layered richness and honesty of Wyman's performance here is the central achievement that keeps you returning to "All That Heaven Allows" again and again.

Yes, it's a great performance.
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Pinky (1949)
Prejudiced? That's me, sadly . . .
23 April 2011
I've never wanted to watch "Pinky" because of my own prejudices.

Jeanne Crain? Beautiful but mediocre actress. (The weak link, so I thought, in "A Letter to Three Wives.") A film about racial predicaments circa 1949, falling between "Imitation of Life" (Claudette Colbert, 1934) and Lana Turner's (1959) and Douglas Sirk's classic glossy tearjerker of the same title? Who cares about "Pinky?"

Turns out (now that I've seen it), like most prejudices, I was wrong about everything.

It's all in the story and the script, as usual.

"Pinky" bypasses every sudsy cliché of "Imitation of Life" in either incarnation and proceeds directly to the heart of characters far more real, and a story far more incisive, deeply conceived and developed, than Edna Ferber or Ross Hunter ever imagined.

The wonderful revelation of "Pinky," among many, is that Jeanne Crain could act.

Elia Kazan's acute direction elevates Crain and everybody else. Ethel Waters, Ethel Barrymore, William Lundigan? The supporting players? Flawless.

Shot and lit on sound stages, "Pinky" looks completely artificial by today's naturalistic standards. In its day, the studio stylization wasn't given a second thought. Painted cycloramas, fake Spanish moss, brilliant "mood" lighting, "classic" cinematography and all.

Yet you're almost immediately lost and involved in the plot, which NEVER takes you where you expect.

The entrance of Ethel Barrymore's character, for her brief duration in the story, is quietly amazing. Hers is the pivotal role upon which all else hinges. She realistically underplays every moment – only once ever leaving her deathbed.

Even prone, as an actress, Barrymore makes mincemeat of the rest. Not a false note nor strained effect, nothing overwrought, no begging for sympathy . . . just the character. Listen to the simple naturalistic throwaway variety in her breathing and inflections!

Same for Ethel Waters. Utter, believable simplicity and economy, always in character. Watch her eyes. (Offscreen and offstage, she could be a something of a monster, according to those who worked with her, though she always piously crossed herself before entering from the wings.) William Lundigan and every other supporting actor rises to the occasion.

But it's Jeanne Crain who is the revelation. She was deservedly nominated for an Academy Award for this performance.

Yes, she's beautiful. Yes, she's constantly artificially lit. Yes, she's photographed from all the right angles. But within those cinematic constraints of the times, she gives a truly honest, strong, intelligent and forceful performance as Pinky.

As Ethel Waters' granddaughter, that's next to genetically impossible and implausible for Jeanne Crain.

But she does it. You forget the "star" artifice in five minutes and she steadfastly carries the film. (Compare this to her somewhat "actory" though still delightful portrayal in "Letter to Three Wives.")

"Pinky's" plot turns out to be far richer and more nuanced than the expected, "She passed for white," claptrap (still tear-duct manipulative and effective) of either version of "Imitation of Life."

And no film explores to more devastating emotional effect the tragedy of race prejudice in the south than, "To Kill a Mockingbird."

But "Pinky" is the adult, intelligent and perhaps best plotted, if not best scripted, of them all, because it eschews sensational interracial rape and murder ("Mockingbird") for more mundane but still heartbreaking human relationships and realistic consequences, given the period.

It's a shame Jeanne Crain was never given an equal script or director to fulfill her talents.

But there's "Pinky," and any actress would be proud.
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The Heiress (1949)
A Triumph of Craft
17 April 2011
"The Heiress" is that most difficult of cinematic challenges: the filmed stage play.

Some filmed plays succeed: "Harvey," "Dial M for Murder," "Wait Until Dark," "Long Day's Journey into Night." Some don't: "The Bad Seed," "Bells Are Ringing," "Damn Yankees." "The Heiress" presents particular problems in that it was produced for the stage in 1947 and embodies all the classical construction of the "well written" play. Both the play and film were written, masterfully, by Ruth and Augustus Goetz.

Director William Wyler, that genius, "opened up" the play JUST enough, unobtrusively and plausibly, to make a true film out of a drawing room drama.

The actors are superb. The lighting and cinematography add depth and emotion.

But it's the Goetzs' script that ensures "The Heiress" its place in stage and cinema history.

Not "showy," as Tennessee Williams was already becoming after his brilliant "Glass Menagerie," nor fraught with his "titanic" and increasingly drug-addled overwrought emotions and histrionics in "Streetcar Named Desire", "Orpheus Descending", and "Suddenly, Last Summer", "The Heiress" is set in the previous century, the late 1800's, and embodies an earlier theatrical tradition, though written in the late 1940s.

"The Heiress" is entirely dialogue-based and depends wholly on words rather than Williams-esque "nervous breakdowns" and then-"perverse" sexual undertones for its power (and its stellar performances of that dialogue).

The era of its period social setting demands emotional repression, graceful self-containment and surface noblesse oblige, which make the seemingly quiet emotional whiplashes so ultimately devastating.

The script is so brilliant and the characters so perfectly (and economically) delineated that, on repeated viewings, there is NO "bad guy"! Everybody's motives and character-arcs are clearly understandable and justified.

Nothing and nobody is cut-and-dried or predictable, which makes each character all too human and, finally, haunting.

Everybody loves each other . . . everybody hurts each other . . . in little ways that subtly, inexorably, build to a shattering climax.

Both on stage and screen, "The Heiress" is truly a remarkable achievement of craft.
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Great lighting! . . .
29 March 2011
Starring Rock Hudson, Dorothy Malone, Robert Stack, Jack Carson and an uncredited offscreen violinist hired, apparently, to let us know when we're supposed to feel moved during certain scenes.

Otherwise, without that violinist, who could tell? Douglas Sirk directed this in between (starring the same leads) "Written on the Wind" and (different leads) "Imitation of Life." For various reasons, those are two of the greatest and most entertaining melodramas ever filmed.

On every level, "Tarnished Angels" was phoned in.

George Zuckerman's script intermittently strives for Faulknerian something or other, particularly in Hudson's drunken newsroom monologue in the last reel. But nobody ever talked Faulknerian in real life so it sounds like pseudo-poetic "depth" when it's really just Woolworth pretension.

Maybe better actors could have carried it off, but we'll never know because "Tarnished Angels" is the nadir of everybody's career.

Hudson, thankfully, went on to find his true screen persona as a light comedian with Doris Day. Here, early on, he already looks slightly soft in the face, though still handsome. (But Robert Stack is handsomer, and strips to a t-shirt to boot.) Hudson just reads weak and incompetent as an actor here. One views "Tarnished Angels" from the retrospective of the present and thinks, "Damn, he's dull." Nice guy, but mediocre.

Dorothy Malone? Same thing. You can't help liking her on screen, though her range consists of about three expressions, all phony.

Offscreen, you intuit Malone was a great, down-to-earth, loving gal. Heaven knows she was pretty. But she's so busy "playing" sultry, seductive, sexy and sinful -- jutting her chin defiantly, lowering her eyes and generally imitating Lauren Bacall -- you just want her to retire and go back to Texas and find suburban love and happiness as somebody's wife and mother. Consistently miscast by Hollywood as a sex symbol, she's like watching the president of the PTA, or your Mom, bleached under contract to play "slutty."

Her most (perhaps only) fully realized dynamic performance was in "Man of a Thousand Faces." She was memorable.

Even the great Jack Carson comes off half-mast in "Tarnished Angels." If you pay attention, it's because of the lines. He's fine, except when the dialogue requires him to be "poignant."

Robert Stack is Robert Stack is Robert Stack.

But the shot compositions and lighting are terrific.

Everybody except the violinist, including Douglas Sirk, phoned this one in.

Before the days of 911.
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Peeping Tom (1960)
More Than Meets The Eye . . .
28 March 2011
Warning: Spoilers
To watch Alfred Hitchcock discuss "montage," which is to say cutting and editing of filmed pieces, is to be let in on the secrets of one of cinema's great masters.

Above all else, I think, Michael Powell's "Peeping Tom" is a film about film making -- voyeurism, detachment, observation, lighting, camera placement, focal length, color, set design, acting, pretending, cutting, slicing and dicing -- to produce strong emotions in audiences through projecting a montage of sequential shadows on a giant screen.

HERE IS THE SPOILER: You see absolutely NOTHING in any given frame that a child could not safely see without adverse effect. Yet, so controversial was it, this film "wrecked" Powell's career.

In fact, in one scene, a young girl familiarly enters a corner store to buy some candy -- happily and innocently oblivious to the soft-core "girlie" and lingerie magazines prominently displayed among the newspapers, soft drinks and cigarettes.

WE know, though the girl doesn't and couldn't care less, that these scantily clad women are photographed in a shabby room upstairs by a shy psychopath who works at a movie studio as a focus puller by day, and moonlights at night as a mentally tortured stalker and murderer of women, documenting their last moments of fear and death with his Bell & Howell and deadly tripod.

That corner drug store scene juxtaposes a dirty old man negotiating with the proprietor for under-the-counter porn; the disturbed psychopathic killer waiting in the store to go upstairs and murder a half-naked soft-core model; and their interruption by an innocent young girl buying candy. The scene as a whole is unbelievably perverse and tense.

But LOOK at it. As actually staged and shot by Michael Powell, the actress playing the girl is exposed to NOTHING that we "think" she is while she's in the store. The actress sees no "dirty" pictures anywhere because there are just innocent pin-ups of the day on the set.

They're "dirty" in our mind's eye and our overall impression of the scene because of Powell's brilliant montage and cutting. So it's incredibly disturbing and "wrong," when in the actual shooting it was quite innocent and harmless.

Same with the infamous black-and-white shots of the killer as a boy being purposefully terrified and filmed by his sadistic scientist / psychologist father for "research." The boy was Michael Powell's own son.

Shot by shot, frame by frame, there is NOTHING in the least disturbing about these sequences. The boy's in bed "asleep" (fairly obviously an amateur actor pretending). A light shines on him. He "wakes up" when his offscreen father drops a salamander on his bed. There's a CU shot of the salamander on the blanket, crawling toward the camera (us) that would have been impossible for the "father" to get in the context of the scene. It's complete artifice. Then shots of the boy "crying" and wiping his eyes (again, unconvincingly, per an amateur actor performing to Daddy's instructions).

But the way these quick snippets are cut together doesn't give us time to consciously realize this is an amateur actor who isn't really crying (no tears) or that the CU salamander shot would have been impossible. The montage makes the sequence appear absolutely horrifying and cruel and almost unwatchable.

More than meets the eye.

Powell's technique of showing us nothing in "Peeping Tom," but evoking revulsion and horror and pity and fear by making us think we're seeing "everything," is to me superior even to Hitchcock's "Psycho." Not that Powell was a "better" director. But he sustains the art of cinema montage, in "Peeping Tom", from opening sequence to the last stunning suicide of the lead character, better and more consistently than Hitchcock (with his notorious penchant for humorous breaks and sequences to "relieve" audience tension) ever did.

"Peeping Tom" never lets up. Does it achieve the spectacular electrifying tensions of Hitchcockian montage sequences in "North by Northwest" or "Psycho" or "Notorious"? No.

Powell's accomplishment in "Peeping Tom" is far subtler and ultimately more disturbing because it's sustained from first voyeuristic montage sequence (we watch the killer stalk and kill a hooker through his camera's viewfinder) to the last grueling and brilliantly unnerving climax.

That climax is like a symphony: a mad orgy of self-destruction accompanied by the cries of terrified children on multi-track tapes, the killer / lead character rushing across his darkened studio to ram his throat onto his razor-sharp extended tripod-blade, triggering an array of pre-planned rapid-fire flashes to photograph his own jaw-dropping demise and staring finally at his own frightened face in the circular mirror around the camera's lens -- "I'm frightened! I'm GLAD I'm frightened!" --

Then calm, as he collapses to the floor, dying, hearing Daddy's voice: "Don't be a silly boy."


The actors, thanks to Michael Powell's direction, are uniformly brilliant and underplay everything with total believability and sympathy.

Everything (on purpose) looks cheap and oversaturated and tawdry, like a Piccadilly carnival or Madame Tussaud's Chamber of Horrors.

"Peeping Tom" still has the power to disturb, thanks to Powell's mastery of montage.

Because, frame for frame, in reality, it's visually as innocent as "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm." People look scared in close-ups, a bewildered salamander inspects the lens, the sound track of unseen crying children (because of the montage and context) is unsettling, and the minimalist script and superb acting make the whole enterprise feel almost like a subversively-filmed documentary (like the one the killer is shooting).

But in the end, all the twisted perversity takes place in our minds. More shockingly, really, than even Hitchcock, (this film effectively ended Powell's career, so successfully did he achieve what he set out to do), Michael Powell makes us the ultimate voyeurs, ultimate psychopaths, and manipulates our emotions through the transporting power of cinema's supreme technique, of all the arts: montage.
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Psst! Wanna see something amazing? Watch THIS! . . .
7 March 2011
Ever wonder what made some on-screen actors (and behind-scenes talents) great? Why they lasted so long in show business? There's no better proof than the astounding IHTJ!

The old axiom, "If it ain't on the page, it ain't on the stage," generally holds true. But IHTJ demonstrates conclusively and joyously what GREAT talents can do with an average script.

In any hands other than these consummate pros, this script would be standard B-movie fare: stock characters, contrived situations, late-50s sit-com dialogue.

The best line in the film is Jack Lemmon's – "Live!" – delivered to a lobster. Yes, a lobster. (To the writer's, Norman Katkov's, credit, it's been perfectly set-up and placed. But look what Lemmon DOES with it!) Go back and read the full credits with deep appreciation. Every scene has been beautifully lit, staged, shot, directed and edited.

But in the end it's these incredible actors who turn this otherwise forgettable fluff into a genre masterpiece: funny, moving, tender, rousing film making!

We think we "know" Doris Day's oeuvre because she made everything look so easy. In fact, singing, dancing, acting or all three, she was NEVER the same in any picture. She was a natural from her debut in "Romance on the High Seas." An incredibly disciplined, professional, ambitious "natural." Yes, she got handed her share of "perky" characters. But even THOSE performances are different from film to film. She handled drama with equal aplomb, in "Storm Warning," "The Man Who Knew Too Much" and "Midnight Lace," for instance.

The same may be said for Jack Lemmon. Contrast "Days of Wine and Roses" with his other star turns, from "Some Like It Hot" and "The Apartment" to "Missing" and "Save the Tiger" and "Glengarry Glen Ross."

Now, watch what Day and Lemmon (and Richard Quine, director) do with the most improbable and ostensibly silliest "reverse proposal of marriage" scene ever filmed, in IHTJ. On a moving train (no green screen), with Day in a spotless white dress crawling atop the coal car and Lemmon blackened and shoveling coal.

Just watch in awe! Never a false note, never an ounce of overacting, every second totally believable and heartfelt until your own heart leaps for joy at the sheer improbability of the myriad combination of screen talents – on and off camera – that carry off this scene and this picture! (The dialogue? You've heard similar before, and since.)

Ernie Kovacs, all but unrecognizable as "Malone," is pluperfect as the comedic villain who finds his heart before Fade Out. He would steal the picture . . . except he CAN'T, because everybody else delivers their lines with genius too!

As an interesting exercise, contrast the terrific, spot-on, human-scaled FILM performances in IHTJ with those of the vaudevillian / Catskills comedians (wonderful though they were) overplaying to the balcony in Stanley Kramer's desperate, straining and ultimately off-putting sledgehammer, "It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World."

Though IHTJ is considered a throwaway picture in retrospect, it's really testimony to what geniuses can do with a so-so script when they're under contract and dedicated to giving the audience their best.

Plus Jack Lemmon drives a Studebaker convertible. Who could ask for anything more!
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Baby Doll (1956)
Sho' Nuff Po', Pitiful . . .
27 February 2011
"Gone With the Wind," with umpteen writers (including Selznick on benzedrine), a fistful of directors, Brits talking "Southern" and a cast of thousands -- though hardly Shakespeare -- still holds up brilliantly.

"Baby Doll," with Kazan and his New York's Actors' Studio "method" players treating Tennessee Williams' "controversial" claptrap as if it were Art didn't hold up then and completely falls apart today.

The laughable "Southern" accents from Strasberg's Yankees are so far removed from actual Southern speech that they render Williams' clownish characters immediately insulting. (Any of the local extras from Benoit, Mississippi are more real and affecting, in their brief moments and lines, than anybody else on screen.) Coming off "Streetcar," this dreck is especially disheartening from all participants.

It doesn't know whether it's drama, comedy, farce, tragedy, Southern Gothic, Dixie neo-realism, minstrel show, sexploitation or social commentary. So it showcases every tawdry cliché in the book: including howling hound dogs and clucking chickens roaming through the house for "atmosphere." The leads, at various points, actually imitate the sound of clucking chickens. Symbolism. Get it? (An old cliché used to devastating effect at the climax of von Sternberg's "The Blue Angel" with Emil Jannings 30 years earlier.) "Baby Doll," for all its pre-publicity carny-barker "sexiness" and slip-wearing female lead (another cheap Williams cliché, pathetic in retrospect) is nothing but anti-climaxes. There's only stagy "chemistry," nothing builds, nothing goes anywhere, nothing explodes -- except a cotton gin.

"Baby Doll", though almost unbearably boring to watch on any level, is interesting only as a halfway marker between Williams' magnificent lyrical genius in "The Glass Menagerie" and his bottoming-out in the embarrassing pseudo-poetic desperation of "Suddenly, Last Summer" and "Night of the Iguanas" (rendered intermittently worthwhile only by the incomparable Deborah Kerr).

Here, Williams tries and fails to rescue his woozy would-be white-trash dramedy (as if we hadn't stopped caring 90 minutes ago) with Carroll Baker's final immortal line to Mildred Dunnock: "We'll just have to wait and see . . . if we're remembered or forgotten."

Cockadoodledoo, Blanche.
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A revelation . . .
25 April 2010
Warning: Spoilers
Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine have delivered consistently impressive performances throughout their careers (Miss MacLaine, still active, still does).

In 1961, the year Miss Hepburn made "The Children's Hour," she was nominated for an Academy Award for "Breakfast at Tiffany's." Talk about acting versatility! (Sophia Loren won for "Two Women.") It's enlightening, on so many levels, to revisit "The Children's Hour" from today's perspective, fifty years later.

Lillian Hellman's play was written 30 years before THAT: or EIGHTY years ago, from today.

Obviously, attitudes about same-sex love have changed in a century, thanks to greater knowledge and human understanding. Yet the self-loathing depicted in "The Children's Hour" -- and yes, the suicide -- are honest for their time. And still today, sadly, in many locales.

The script borders on soap-opera cliché and melodrama at times. But eighty years ago these WEREN'T clichés or melodrama. Lesbianism and the murderous prejudice against it (and same-sex love in general) had never been this directly addressed on Broadway before.

The "revelation" is in the performances of trite lines that would fall flat and earn snickers in any other actors' hands but these, even in 1961, or under another director / producer than William Wyler. (And note the careful scenic compositions with his cinematographer, Franz Planer.)

But it's the acting that packs a wallop. Audrey Hepburn, Shirley MacLaine, Fay Bainter and Karen Balkin as the girl. (Bainter was nominated for Best Supporting Actress.) These really are some amazing performances -- even in light of these actors' OTHER amazing performances. (Except for Karen Balkin, a terrific actress who never became a star.)

James Garner is fine. He's not quite on a par with any of the lead women, simply because he can't quite fully inhabit these overwrought lines and situations. His acting chops aren't on the other three leads' level -- not a criticism; just an observation.

Though MacLaine and Hepburn can tear your heart out with hackneyed lines like, "I feel so GUILTY (for loving you like that horrid little brat said), and "You're guilty of NOTHING!" . . . James Garner's not so convincing when the script requires him to break down in vulnerable sobs on the mantle in front of stoic Audrey. James Garner, actor, don't cry or do vulnerable so good.

But that's fine because he's on the money in every other scene of his. And he always has been.

Karen Belkin is wonderful. She goes a little obvious and broad (directed that way?) when she's in the midst of a lie (often), but she's frighteningly threatening in scheming malicious mode (again, often).

Miriam Hopkins? Well, she never did quite drop her southern accent birthright completely, despite overlays of theatrical pseudo-British soft-r's. "Have a seat in that chay-ah." What a ham. Still, always watchable.

Hepburn, MacLaine and Bainter in particular are consummate screen actors who understand the face, the camera, and underplaying. And, of course, so did Wyler.

There are a lot of silences here. A lot of long motionless moments.

What these old pros (then young) accomplish here is genuinely heartbreaking, devastating and breathtaking as much for their almost overwhelming acting technique as for the maudlin, dated words and situations they're required to portray.

If you've forgotten how brilliant these performers were, and are, "The Children's Hour" is a revelation.
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Disney Does Dixie . . .
10 April 2010
Warning: Spoilers
Quick: name ONE film ever made with even ONE black character, that wasn't racially "exploitive." "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?" "Imitation of Life?" Superfly?"

Now, name ONE film ever made with even ONE white character, that wasn't also "exploitive." "Psycho?" Denigrates matricidal caucasian closet queens. "Ben-Hur?" Stereotypes Jews and Christians. "Tyler Perry's 'Madea' "? Don't ask.

The notion that Disney's "Song of the South" fosters negative black stereotypes fails at first glance. Does it "reflect" stereotypes? Of course. "Foster?" No. It's popular entertainment of its day.

It was made 65 years ago. 81 years after the Civil War. Or, from our present, nearly a century and a half after the film's period.

The truth of this film? It was SUBVERSIVE, for its day, in its casual depiction of warm friendships and loves between a young white boy and blacks. Particularly an old black story-telling man.

The only sympathetic white character (besides child-stars Bobby Driscoll and Luana Patton) is Lucile Watson as Granny -- the identical "exploitive" "stereotypical" role she played in "The Women."

ALL the blacks in "Song of the South" are wonderful and wise and ever-ready to shuck and jive for the grownups, but so what? They're STILL wonderful-er and wiser than 98% of the white cast. And the two white-kid leads (and we) know it.

So enough of the "criticism" of "Song of the South" on historically myopic "racist" grounds.

You tell me: Who's the "worst" stereotype? Uncle Remus or Blacula?

Disney's 1946 "Song of the South" broke new technical ground for cinema as the first full-length combination of live action and animation.

It broke FAR more important (and subversive) ground as the first mainstream (and "color" film, ironically) with a black lead.

SO subversive was building a major motion picture around a black lead that nobody ever mentioned it at the time. Or much since.

But there it is. James Baskett delivering Uncle Remus (AND additional character voices) -- and some of the most clichéd and simplistic dialogue ever written -- with all the natural ease and compelling nuance of an Olivier.

Without Uncle Remus -- without the lead -- there's no picture.

Without James Baskett this collective historic artistic achievement wouldn't exist.

Walt Disney knew exactly what he was doing here, in shaping and casting this film. Giving Hattie McDaniel something extra to do to showcase her talents (the "Sooner or Later" ditty). Hiring the wondrous Bobby Driscoll to register deeper and truer emotions than any child actor of his era.

In the end? The interracial live-action kids, holding hands with the animated Br'er Rabbit, pause atop an animated hill for their tried-and-true live-action story-telling buddy, Uncle Remus, to catch up with them, take their hands and zip-a-dee-doo-dah with them into the painted sunset.

Black? White? Everybody's the same shade: silhouettes. Happy hand-holding silhouettes.

It's Disney. It's 1946. "Song of the South" is revolutionary cinema in more ways than one.

That's why kids of all ages love this film.

Nobody's taught them bigotry yet.

The only people today, of any color, who find "Song of the South" ideologically objectionable as a work of art, sadly, trivialize and cheapen its historic achievement with their own projected, uh, racism.
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Amazingly Primitive Film . . .
26 January 2010
"Island of Lost Souls" was made one year after "Dracula" and "Frankenstein." Silent films had matured brilliantly to classics like "Sunrise." Then along came sound and the box-enclosed camera, which severely limited cinematography techniques.

But there's no excuse for a shoddy script or poor acting. "Island of Lost Souls" is simply a poor "exploitation" picture, even for its time. "Shocking?" Reportedly, for those days anyway.

The makeup on the creatures is excellent -- except for Bela Lugosi's, which looks like it came from a child's Halloween kit.

Charles Laughton was a wonderful actor. But here he is stagy and campy and overacts constantly.

At least he's acting. Nobody else is -- or CAN. Except Kathleen Burke -- the "Panther Woman." Unfortunately for a half-animal / half-human woman on a remote jungle island, she wears more layers of exotic makeup than a Lancome saleslady at Bloomingdale's.

Despite all the techniques developed since the dawn of film, every sequence ends with a slow fade-out, then a slow fade-up for the next sequence. There was far better cutting and editing even in "Dracula" and "Frankenstein." Acting? Laughton here can't hold a candle to Karloff's majestic (and silent) Monster.

No doubt the hints of live vivisection upset the original audiences. But neither they nor this film hold up today -- though "Dracula" and "Frankenstein" (for instance) are still appreciated for what they were and are.

The script is completely amateurish.

"Island of Lost Souls" is a curiosity piece and nothing more. No wonder it's not in the same league with "King Kong" or "Frankenstein" or "Dracula."

It's just bad. Though not quite as bad as Lugosi's "White Zombie."
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So good, even when you've seen it before you forget Whodunit!
2 September 2009
MOTOE is a B-movie in an A-list package. It's not anybody's "fault" it's a B-movie. The nature of whodunits is the red herrings and the final reveal in the last reel or two, so the structure is formulaic from the start and we've seen it countless times.

But when the formula is as beautifully conceived and realized as this, on all levels, it becomes a rare jewel to be admired and loved over and over.

Largely due to Christie's original story, then the magnificent yet economical script, Lumet's precise direction and (mostly) the once-in-a-lifetime playing by the incredible cast . . . it's really true: you can know who did it and yet be so swept up by these compelling characters and magical filmic structure that you almost have to FORCE yourself to remember whodunit! Finney (38 at the time) totally convinces as 55-60 Poirot. Amazing.

Then again, ALL these actors, many of them working in accents completely foreign to their actual origins and playing delightfully against "type," embodying vivid characters from a tightly-written script, present a virtual workshop of what great acting is all about.

Save, perhaps, Anthony Perkins. It's not that he isn't good -- he's wonderful. But we've seen it all before, from him. There's nothing new in his performance here, as there is from the rest of the cast.

In fact, in retrospect, one becomes increasingly aware of Perkins' narrow range as an actor. "Tall Story," "Friendly Persuasion," "Psycho," "Phaedra" -- in ALL his films he involvingly and believably portrayed a variation of the same man.

Of the entire cast, Perkins seems most camera-aware and "actorish." Ironically, his role is closest to his own natural "American" persona.

Everybody else (but Connery, who is what he iconically is, no matter the role or the subtlety of his playing, so overwhemingly magnetic is he) gives us characters we haven't seen before and are obviously delighted doing so.


So brilliantly-produced is MOTOE that it's endlessly watchable and enjoyable for all the great talents in front of and behind the cameras.

Yes, I know whodunit and how.

But every time I sit down to MOTOE it sucks me in and I find myself thinking, "But how can that BE?" And delight, once again, at Christie's jaw-dropping construction and this -- the film adaptation of her work with which she was most pleased.

It's a ball!
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"All the shining gifts . . . "
17 August 2009
One reason I keep returning to "The Bishop's Wife" is its brilliantly supportive score. I don't know which of the three credited composers composed the emotionally irresistible theme, but it's fascinating to realize how it's used.

It plays first as snippets of incidental music underscoring certain scenes. It imperceptibly builds throughout the film until the Bishop's Christmas Eve sermon and the last lines of the picture: "Loving kindness, warm hearts and the stretched out hand of tolerance. All the shining gifts that make peace on earth." Then the theme explodes in final full orchestral triumph over the end credits. So even the "incidental" music turns out to have an enormously gratifying emotional arc and payoff -- like every other element in this expertly crafted piece.

"The Bishop's Wife" is, really, a small intimate story with none of the elaborate allegorical scope of Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life." I constantly discover nuances in the performances I hadn't noticed before; inventive camera angles and compositions by legendary cinematographer Gregg Toland ("Citizen Kane"); and flawless pacing by director Koster.

Every scene, every sequence, has an arc and a payoff and builds naturally to the next. The actors are simply brilliant.

Cary Grant is especially remarkable for his easy layering of subtle comedy, warmth and other-worldly spirituality in his tricky role.

All the shining gifts of Hollywood artists at their finest. That's "The Bishop's Wife"'s reward.
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Up (2009)
Raves? No Wonder? Historic Film Making!
29 May 2009
First, the 3-D is flawless. The goggles are comfortable, even over glasses. The matinée audience I saw it with was full of moms and dads and hundreds of small children who ooh-ed delightedly when sparks flew off the screen during previews of coming attractions. (See it with children in the audience if you get the chance: they are absolutely rapt and spellbound and emotionally involved -- no fidgeting, no talking -- amazing, "Up's" effect on them.)

Though not essential for full enjoyment, 3-D really DOES serve this film and not the other way around. The process is breathtaking in the flight and action sequences. But it works surprisingly beautifully in the interiors and closeups as well. The rich details and depth of field, even in quiet moments, are jaw-droppingly realized.

But it's the story, not the effects, that keep even kids glued to their seats. The old adage about film making ("Show, don't tell") has never been better served than in "Up." Or better visually designed and executed.

The voice actors are, to a man and a dog, perfect.

There's a reason the opening night audience at Cannes gave this film a standing ovation.

They knew, and so will you when you see it, why "Up" is an historic film achievement.
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