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Spanish Television Finest Hour
The life and times of Francisco de Goya y Lucientes served as the base material for this memorable 6-episode miniseries. Appropriately produced by TVE and filmed on historical locations, it is an spectacle of interest not just for art lovers or Goya connoisseurs but for anyone into well-crafted drama. A painter who begun himself a revolution of proportions, Goya was a witness of the Napoleonic wars and of a nation in arms resisting the aggression with undismayed heart and soul. He was that ancient paradox of the artist: An extremely sensitive individual who was also a bullfighting aficionado. He was a womanizer in his own aesthetic and impassioned way; he was friends with kings and poets, and a victim of social and political prejudices. He was an exhaustively troubled man: Deaf, neurotic, literally mad. Goya was no saint and his richly contrasted self is what makes him a hell of a subject for a movie or a television project. This one succeeds in honestly portraying him and making a valuable statement on the origins of his essential oeuvre.
The Dirk Diggler Story (1988)
This amateurish production was the first work of Boogie Nights and Magnolia's director P.T. Anderson. Boogie Nights discovered his undeniable skill for cross-over, interweaving dramatic narrative, while Anderson's attachment to each of his ever lonely and singularly moving characters was perfected and even dared to take a more in-depth look into their existentially-challenged lives within the equally epic frame of the lyrical Magnolia.
Kind of a homage to the all too brief "golden age" of '70s porn cinema, the large scaled and somewhat overblown melodrama that Boogie Nights effortlessly made the audiences care for was first rehearsed in the half hour-long Dirk Diggler Story. Exclusive focus on the main character, his rise and fall, is a major difference between the two versions; we are supposed to catch a glimpse of the real human being behind the big star mostly through interviews with the recently deceased Dirk's close friends and collaborators, who are basically the same people in the 1997 film, and flashback images. Anderson's inventively makes it up for the lack of any actual production values, taking advantage on the obvious limitations in the making of the short feature to give it the appearance of a false documentary or rather a home-made movie, both of which types are some of the most recognisable traits in the video-based adult industry style.
Also, Anderson's sense of humour, his wit and his powers of persuasion as a storyteller are already here in a way; still not enough in order to relating this title to the misfits odyssey of Boogie Nights without embarrassing afterthoughts. Its significance lies in the context that has its writer and director as one of the most promising figures of American cinema since 1996.
This Gun for Hire (1942)
The blonde raven
Two of the most beautiful actors in film history, Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake got together for the first time in this crime drama that also launched the former's career; a combined fact that in itself is enough to make this a must-see feature. Ladd is justly remembered as the star of Shane, the classic George Stevens' revision on the Western mythology, but his legacy remains overlooked beyond that great achievement. He could be a fine performer, against the average public opinion, and a film like This Gun for Hire proves his neglected status as one of Film Noir's prime antiheroes.
As witty as she's a long-haired blonde, Miss Lake has a sexiness and a childlike casualness about her that only underline her smartness. Her character is neither a typically passionate nor a bitchy femme fatale, and it's kind of a relief that we see the Ladd's character through her eyes ultimately. I can't remember another female role in the genre -- or any noiresque role for that matter -- of such a personal balance and empathy.
This is a Graham Greene movie that somehow looks more a Dashiell Hammett one*. Greene's concern with morality puts things in motion as it would do in The Third Man and Our Man in Havana, both films directed by Carol Reed. Lake apparently plays the angelic symbol of redemption to the fallen angel of her captor, a reminder of the peculiar Catholicism the novelist professed.
* Next to This Gun for Hire, Ladd and Lake did make a Hammett film: The Glass Key (1942).
Boys Town (1938)
Mickey Rooney is terrific in Boys Town!!!
This is a well-known classic, and deservedly so. The subject is one of the highest social importance, and it's needless to say that is as relevant today as it was then; but my point is, the directing work is great: there's no "sentimental garbage" about the treatment of the homeless kids issue, unlike one of the characters points at regarding Father Flanagan's (Spencer Tracy) enterprise. The film remarks the honesty with which the seemingly utopian idea of such a community -- a true town of little men -- comes to life, and identifies with it all the way.
Tracy plays Flanagan, the moral center, as a deeply charismatic man. His acting is actually reacting; the great actor's best features as a human being are on display when the camera just focuses in his eyes. On the other hand, there is Mickey Rooney's antics as Whitey Marsh: bold gestures and speeches, all in the most histrionic fashion. However, what on the paper might look bad (or dated, for a better word), it turns out to be the key performance of the movie. Whitey is a comic and almost tragic figure at the same time. He looks up to his elder brother, who is a hoodlum, and so smokes cigars and dresses as a 12-year-old grown-up. And he is protecting himself from others, in this tough-kid disguise, for he really is a damaged, vulnerable, sensitive boy. At first, he is cocky and thoroughly arrogant, like a shorter version of James Cagney. Rooney seems to have had also the same kind of energy and electricity. As a matter of fact, he infuses these elements into Boys Town, yet improving upon its smoothly delivered pace and finely orchestrated melodramatic moments. Rooney's not only is a scene-stealer role, but a dramatic work that is real, timeless and epiphanic.
Mean Streets (1973)
The church and the streets
It's Little Italy and the mob world, the underworld, the poison within the hearts of possibly too many Italian-Americans at the time, the immigrants and their sons and grandsons. It's the religion, Christianity and the Catholic Church, and its toll in the spirits and consciences of too few a gangster. And it's the violence, and the redemption, and the Shakespearean-like taste of it all. Last but not least, it's Martin Scorsese, already at his best. Starring the sublime Harvey Keitel, Mean Streets is a slice of life made into a motion picture without compromises of any kind. It certainly is one of the real essential films of the '70s.
The Desperate Hours (1955)
I didn't think Bogart would amaze me more than he did as Mad Dog Earle in High Sierra; well, he has almost done it, if that's possible. The story allows him -- and us -- to come back to the days of The Petrified Forest, and, what is even better, Bogie is in top form and all up to the task. Hours was his penultimate film, but Glenn Griffin is as tough a character as Duke Mantee was, to say the least. Bogart was a great actor and all you have to do is see him perform here to fully confirm it.
And then, there is Fredric March. His is the other anthological role, an every-man character which very few actors would have fleshed out to the point March brilliantly does, letting the nobility in his persona coexist with his darker side, in a turn every inch worthy of that from Rouben Mamoulian's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; between him and Bogie certainly there is no room for doubt about the top-notch quality regarding the acting department.
Of course, there is another core reason why Hours is a classic on its own right, and that reason is William Wyler. For a rather lesser-unusual story, it has the Wyler touch nonetheless. The distinctive cinematic theatricality of his mise-en-scène helps to build the suspense up effectively, and this along with his finely attuned cast make it a memorable title.
East of Eden (1955)
Kazan's Paradise Lost
Elia Kazan is the most accomplished actors director Cinema has ever known, and East of Eden is possibly the best example of that fact. Not only it is the most beautifully crafted description of a (young) man's inner struggle at his own constant longing for his father's love, but also a character study ideally rendered through the unique performance of its lead actor. Previously, James Dean had just made some theater and television stuff that had already gotten him a fair amount of recognition, mainly due to his signature neurotic style. Dean was a hard-core Brando fan, which puts in perspective the apotheosis of Stanislavskian acting East of Eden represents. Kazan knew who he was dealing with: an Actors Studio dropout with a cause.
His obvious artistry in communicating an issue as personal as any from the Cinemascope canvas (still during its early years) is astonishing. Such an inventive use of the frame in scenes like the opening of the film, the lettuce train scene and the birthday party scene, certainly would have been out of reach for any man just a bit less adequate to the medium. And his use of music -- a poignant work by Leonard Rosenman, who following East of Eden would score the Kazanesque Rebel Without a Cause in 1955 -- is superb as always, matching the heights he had already arrived at himself in On the Waterfront (1954) and Viva Zapata! (1952).
Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956)
Rebel without a clue
Starring Paul Newman in one of his most interesting performances, Robert Wise's "Somebody Up There Likes Me" is a haunting piece of cinema.
Newman wasn't the first choice for the career-making part of the rash and real-life champion Rocky Graziano. It's just impossible to think of James Dean as a more suitable actor, though. Come to think of it, perhaps not even Brando himself had pulled it off better than Newman, who made "Somebody Up There Likes Me" in Brando's shadow.
The picture also showcases the gift of director Wise for social commentary and, ultimately, human comedy. Good boxing movies are always gritty and noirish, but not nearly often as sensitive as this one. Featuring a rare mixture of well-balanced tragic, realistic and lyrical undertones, the work of both Newman and Wise focuses on the study of its anti heroic main character, only to transcend the boxing set-up and to reach the vast realm of human condition. So Wise improved upon his then already classic work in the genre and managed to give us an almost forgotten masterpiece.