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I never saw it when I was actually a child. But recently, I thought I'd give it a viewing considering it had music by Jerry Goldsmith and the National Philharmonic Orchestra (together, responsible for such brilliant scores as "The Omen" trilogy, "Legend," and several others). I was instantly blown away. The prologue, in which wise but weary Nicodemus (voiced by Derek Jacobi) ponders some heartbreaking news, is exceptionally powerful. The animation style is simply gorgeous, on par with the best of Disney. The voice casting is universally exceptional (Dom DeLuise, I think, takes home the gold as an eager-to-please, outgoing, clumsy crow who really wants a girlfriend). And although it is geared towards little kids, many scenes are actually quite dark and compelling. The crown jewel in this beautiful treasure trove is Goldsmith's breathtaking score, so elaborately lush, heartwarming, and at times haunting that it's impossible not to be humming the theme music ("Flying Dreams") before the halfway point. You will, unfortunately, notice the early use of Don Bluth's disastrous hallmark as a solo animator: characters who preposterously flail to express every little emotion. But unlike, say, "Anastasia," it evens out because the characters aren't human anyway and the story is so fantastical and so majestically realized. I consider this among the best fantasy films of all time, the best animated films, the best family films, and the best of Goldsmith, and certainly Bluth's best work. You know how "fun for the whole family" is so overused it makes your head spin? Well, "The Secret of NIMH" is, quite simply, wonder for the whole family. Enjoy it.
What makes "First Blood" so bizarrely effective is how it works on more than just a literal level. Fans of simple shoot-'em-up action can revel in the film's near-implausible carnage, but underneath it all is a metaphor that feels more genuine than anything seen in a long time. Rambo struggles to survive via violent, chaotic clashes with the bullying police and the comically inept National Guard that represent something deeper and more common: the struggle of Vietnam survivors to readjust to life in the United States. As he wails and screams in his climactic monologue about the war, he finds himself having his freedoms and rights taken away by the very people whose freedoms and rights he went to Vietnam to protect. It's a brilliantly complex analysis of the war and its tumultuous, far-reaching effects, one that defies politics and platitudes. I've never seen such a seemingly over-the-top action extravaganza done with such a convincing and shatteringly powerful "ulterior motive." Shot in British Columbia, the movie has a dingy, foggy, where's-that-bright-yellow-thing-from-the-sky look to it. There are certain visual parallels to "The Deer Hunter," but "The Deer Hunter" this ain't. Stallone gives what is arguably his one great performance, a sobering blend of anarchic physicality and perfect on-cue histrionics-- combined with a level of articulateness that mercifully takes this character in the full opposite direction from Rocky Balboa, which I was not expecting. And while the music score isn't one of Jerry Goldsmith's best, the main theme is one of his best individual compositions, and the music is well above average for both building suspense and evoking sincere emotion. Though it doesn't have the character name in the title, this may be the only "Rambo" movie that was actually about Rambo-- the real Rambo, not the human action figure-- and as such it is vastly under-appreciated.
Given the epic nature of James Michener's thousand-page novel "Hawaii," if the first film did any kind of positive business whatsoever, a sequel was bound to happen. The result is actually quite good, though nowhere near as good as George Roy Hill's original. Practically none of the original cast or crew has returned. Hill was succeeded as director by Tom Gries; Trumbo and Taradash are replaced on script duty by James R. Webb ("How the West Was Won," "Cheyenne Autumn"), who certainly had a bizarre gift for crafting intelligible and reasonably entertaining stories out of momentous historical hoopla. And since it takes place a couple generations after the end of the first film, obviously the cast is all gone. Charlton Heston adds more than prestige (he also adds presence and strength) to the central character of Whip Hoxworth, with Geraldine Chaplin decent but underused as his odd wife Purity. Mako is terrific as a Chinese peasant farmer who comes to Hawaii after cheating himself a new wife-- Char Nyuk Tsin, played by Tina Chen in a performance that starts off rather uninteresting but blossoms into a real stunner. The story goes on through racial strife, economic and ecological developments on the islands, political turmoil, and personal tragedy, very much in the spirit of the first "Hawaii" but without all the buildup (remember how much time had passed before we saw the islands in the first one?) and with a quicker pace. The film is lush, intriguing, and adequately enacted, but there are a few obstacles to overcome before you can really get into it. The worst of these is Henry Mancini's tacky, obvious, ethnic cliché-infused score, which comes nowhere near the scope, emotion or wonderment of Elmer Bernstein's original. If Bernstein couldn't have been secured, surely there was a better option (Jerry Goldsmith springs to mind) than Henry "The Pink Panther" Mancini. But the score does have a few moments of... well, adequacy. Given that the film obviously failed and-- having never been released on either VHS or mass-market DVD-- both suffers in obscurity while toiling in notoriety, and given that the first film was (at least to this reviewer) almost thoroughly a masterpiece, "The Hawaiians" is much better than can be expected. And compared to the lame sequels that stuff the cineplexes these days, it plays off like a "Citizen Kane" or a "Godfather."
I just finished watching this for the first time and I just have to comment on it. I've been quite pleased with Samuel Bronston's mega-productions before. "El Cid" was cheesy but wonderful; "King of Kings" was an excellent dramatization of an overdone story. "55 Days at Peking" has so many highlights. Charlton Heston gives the performance of a lifetime-- it's seriously almost as good as his "Ben-Hur" and "Planet of the Apes" work. David Niven is also very good, and Ava Gardner is wonderful simply because she plays a Russian character without choking on a thick Russian accent. Dimitri Tiomkin also does some career-topping composing and conducting here. Bronston, as usual, threw a lot of money into the mix, but you can see every single penny and it pays off tremendously. The explosive battle sequences are much more effective than anything Michael Bay could crank out, and it's always so satisfying to know that every single person in every single frame is a living, breathing human. And actors like Flora Robson and Leo Genn play their Chinese characters with the awkward touch of "The Good Earth," but they do manage to eschew caricature and (mostly) stereotype. Someone ought to release this in America as a valid DVD.
With its less than thirty seconds of vague, dimly-lit, barely-intelligible same-sex sex (in 1985, no less), "My Beautiful Laundrette" sets itself above all the bad gay movies that have ever been made: not only the insultingly evasive but also the cheap and tawdry. It addresses so many vastly different cultural issues-- including, obviously, homophobia and racism-- with such a smooth and deft hand that I think just about every other movie ever made on the theme of intolerance (dating right back to DW Griffith's aptly named "Intolerance") has been rendered obsolete. The focus is on a diverse gay couple (not only racially diverse, either): tough-guy Johnny (Daniel Day Lewis in a career-best performance) and initially naive, star-reaching Omar (Gordon Warnecke, likewise). Through their unity, Omar's vision, and Johnny's hard work, they raise up a South London laundromat from roach trap to ritzy. What really sets the film apart is the generally light, this-too-shall-pass tone it boldly maintains in spite of its rather hefty subject matter. There are many dramatic moments, but it never becomes too heavy-handed or too depressing to continue. The cinematography is so innovative and the actors are so engaging that it's hardly possible to overpraise them. You may not feel comfortable watching "message" movies, but the message of "My Beautiful Laundrette" is so universal that it never feels like there is a message. That's how you know they did it correctly.
I saw this movie for the Alfred Newman soundtrack (outstanding, but a little too punctuated by the folk music) and a handful of the overwhelmingly star-studded cast (Carroll Baker, Gregory Peck, Brigid Bazlen, Debbie Reynolds, and, of course, Carolyn Jones). I have never been a fan of Westerns, but this one actually made me officially lift my "Western embargo." It's less than a masterpiece-- the 2.89:1 Cinerama aspect ratio is uncomfortable, though I imagine it looked quite special on that enormous screen-- but considering the sheer scale of the production and the number of well-known headliners thrown in (almost enough to rival George Stevens' tacky "Greatest Story Ever Told") it's pretty good. Reynolds and Baker are marvelous all through the movie; other big-name actors pop up when you least expect them but it's not as distracting as in other "extravaganzas." The story of the family trying to go out west is touching in its simplicity. And most films with multiple directors betray a certain lack of unity, but I was taken aback to discover that this one is made in a flowing, uniform style. Extravagant? Yes. Kitschy? You bet. But it's a Western I'm not embarrassed to be caught watching. And every time I hear Alfred Newman's driving, adventurous theme music, I can't help but feel just a little bit better about the corny mythology that comes standard in every American history textbook. Movies like this really class that up a bit.
I've never seen the point of making another biopic of Jesus Christ four
years after the definitive (if highly fictionalized) cinematic version,
"King of Kings." That version at least had developed characters,
remarkable imagery, and a strong storyline that was greatly enhanced
and deepened by clarified character relationships and a rich historical
context. George Stevens did "The Greatest Story Ever Told," however,
just to be seen doing it. As opposed to the more extrovert Biblical
spectacles (think "The Robe," "The Ten Commandments," and "King of
Kings," all great or near-great movies) this one focuses less on the
pageantry and more on the human drama-- or, at least, that was the
plan. But it failed for a number of reasons.
1) Movies set in the historical past (and, by the way, the future) are inherently showy because they require showy sets and costumes. In spite of Stevens' intent, it's still a bunch of ancient designs on a super-wide (too wide) screen. 2) The movie is cluttered (as you well know) with tacky cameo appearances ranging from the understandable (Roddy McDowell as an apostle, Sal Mineo as a cripple) to the absurd (Shelley Winters) and the downright obscene (show me John Wayne!) Even this would be understandable, however, if the characters had any sort of depth. The only character who is truly explored to the fullest potential is Jesus. More on this in a minute. 3) Stevens seems to lean far too strongly on his artistic homages. Using DaVinci's staging of the last supper (all on one side of the table!) is forgivable, but the slightly altered version of the Sistine chapel featured at the beginning is a bit much, and he lost me completely when two of the giant miracles (one at the beginning, one at the end) were underscored by the "Hallelujah" chorus from Handel's "Messiah," which clashes drastically with Alfred Newman's gloriously powerful (though not very ambitious) score. Newman valiantly wrote his own "Hallelujahs" to make for a less awkward transition into the Handel music, but it's still jarringly familiar.
Max von Sydow delivers one of his truly great performances as Christ-- quiet when necessary but always full of grandeur and solemnity. He outdoes Jeffrey Hunter ("King of Kings") every step of the way. And Charlton Heston makes a compelling John the Baptist-- but our connection to the character of John is that of watching and hearing a great orator deliver speeches we've all heard millions of times before. It's like, for instance, Barack Obama delivering the "I Have a Dream" speech. I'm sure it's a wonderful performance, but it doesn't offer any psychological insight into the man who originated it. It is, in fact, just one man temporarily inhabiting the persona of, never actually evoking, a rare mind. The worst of all in the film's voluminous list of disappointingly flat characterizations is David McCallum's Judas (for which I don't blame McCallum, but Stevens and his co-screenwriter James Lee Barrett). As is often the trap, Judas is given absolutely no discernible motivation for that certain deed of his. When he enacts it, we knew it was coming but we still feel completely and totally blindsided. And shallowly so. How can you feel pity for people who exist only to adhere to a millennia-old story as familiar as your own hometown?
The film as it exists today is presented in a 199-minute version with 45 seconds of overture and nearly six minutes of intermission and exit music. It was originally 225 minutes (!). "King of Kings" runs 171 minutes with 3 minutes of overture and about six minutes of intermission and exit music. They both tell the same "story" but only "King of Kings" resembles any sort of dramatically valid presentation. "Greatest Story Ever Told" fails to achieve in 199 what "King of Kings" excelled at in 171. Of course, "Greatest" is still closer to the subject matter-- but only because of its slavish script, stilted dialogue (which uncomfortably fuses Jacobean grandiloquence with contemporary Sunday school jargon) and artistic self-indulgence.
Unlike some particularly grating Shakespeare adaptations of recent years, Charlton Heston's overlooked "Antony & Cleopatra" manages to work as cinema and as an adaptation of a work by the world's most famous playwright. The production values-- giant panoramas, expensive battle sequences, glorious period costumes-- are staggering, and Heston comports himself quite well in the triple role of screenwriter/director/actor. Not that I intend to use all my Shakespeare film reviews to bash Kenneth Branagh, but compared to Heston, he's awful, unpalatable in all three capacities. He is that anyway, but even Heston's just-decent acting is well balanced by his expert direction of others. The exception to that is Hildegard Neil, an awful Cleopatra. She has zero dignity in the role, and manages to bear a creepy resemblance to "Rock 'n' Roll High School"'s Principal Togar every now and then. John Castle's performance as Caesar is obviously the best in the film, but still doesn't touch Roddy McDowall's bold, furious, intense Octavian in the Liz Taylor mega-film. Comparisons with that other movie are inevitable, and the winner is hands-down the earlier epic. This version is not very well paced, and, let's face it, it wasn't exactly Will's best dialogue. And Hildegard Neil really drags the movie down a bit, although she's not as bad as everyone says. Visually it's majestic, and that John Scott/Augusto Algero score is certainly pleasing to the ears (though it can't rival Alex North's "Cleopatra"). It's okay, but I can't say I recommend it unless you're on a really serious Shakespeare kick and the only other movies available are Branagh's.
This is without a doubt the worst Shakespeare adaptation I've ever
seen. That includes Baz Luhrmann's nauseating "Romeo + Juliet." I
wasn't really sure what to expect going in-- no expectations
whatsoever. Except that it would be a full-text adaptation of the play,
something so unusual it was surrounded by a good deal of pomp and
praise upon the film's initial release. Surely it was a brave thing to
do, but was it in the best interests of the story? Absolutely not. In
reality, "Hamlet" was probably never performed in its entirety even in
I was never a big fan of Branagh, but he did a reasonably good job with "Much Ado About Nothing," both directing and starring. Sadly it's the only halfway decent thing he's ever done. His "Hamlet" is most foul. It takes a great actor and a great director to be able to police oneself well enough to take on both roles in one of the most famous stories of all time. Branagh fails miserably. The film is largely constructed on two gimmicks-- the first being the percentage of text used (100%, obviously) and the second being its jarring update from medieval to 19th-century Denmark. The first gimmick mortally wounds the film right off the bat. Characters either pompously expound for minutes on end or shout with breakneck speed just to fit it all in. As for the second gimmick, it doesn't serve the story at all. It merely serves to distract us. After all, the primary reason to update the setting of a Shakespearean play is to make some kind of statement. It worked in "Titus," and, in theory, even worked in "Romeo + Juliet." But all it says here is, "I'm Kenneth Branagh and I can do whatever I want." The performances are so-so at best (Julie Christie, Derek Jacobi and Kate Winslet) and gut-wrenchingly awful on average (Branagh, Branagh, and more Branagh). It was nice to see Charlton Heston doing serious work again as the Player King, but crucial casting missteps were made virtually across the board, the worst being Robin Williams as Osric and Jack Lemmon as Marcellus. Indeed the film had almost as many irritatingly pointless "cameos" as "The Greatest Story Ever Told." Say what you will about Mel Gibson. But his performance as Hamlet, mediocre though it was, is leaps and bounds over Branagh's because Gibson had an amazing director, Franco Zeffirelli. Branagh merely thought his own director was great. His ridiculous arrogance bleeds through every frame. No movie in history has ever been so difficult to sit through, so gimmicky, so over-produced *and* so self-indulgent. Siskel and Ebert was right-- it does show Branagh's virtuosity. His virtuosity at making horrible decisions because he wanted to. The Bard would be disappointed to say the least.
Derek Jacobi's wonderfully proud, winking Chorus and Patrick Doyle's interesting (but barely) score are the sole redeeming features of this early Kenneth Branagh misfire. A gritty (in a BBC sense of the word) take on Shakespeare's mostly tedious historical play, "Henry V" gives far too much power to one man in the worst way that Branagh repeated so often to such bewildering acclaim. He not only directs and, rather pretentiously, "adapts for the screen" the words of the Bard, but also plays the title character. And sadly, he is by far no Olivier. The man has talent, to be sure, but it either wasn't here yet or it had fled temporarily when he took up this triple task. The only "flat, unraised spirit" here is Branagh himself, who essays a monotonous monarch with all the emotional depth of Keanu Reeves after an all-nighter. He even fumbles his one good instinct as a filmmaker: flashing back to "Henry IV" is an excellent way to provide backstory for people who aren't too familiar with the soap opera nature of some of Shakespeare's histories (which is primarily important here for the character of Falstaff), but the technique doesn't mesh with the rest of the picture. And why keep the Chorus? He's a purely theatrical device. He's there to tell us we have to imagine that we're in France or Southampton-- a necessity of the theater, in which all you can see is a stage and what's on it, but somewhat disconcerting in a film because the entire point of a film is to show us someplace we normally wouldn't see. Did he keep the Chorus to make his job, as a director, of sustaining our illusion that much easier? Whatever the motives (and no disrespect to the vibrant Jacobi), it was not the right decision. It's a boring, slow-to-evolve adaptation of a terrible, impossible-to-read play. (I am a fan of ol' Will, but his history plays are some of the most tedious dramas ever to plague the page.) If you're a fan of the kind of epic battle scenes of films as diverse as "Platoon" and "Gladiator," you'll definitely enjoy that aspect of the movie. Action-wise, it has its moments. But after a while, you just want Branagh to stick to doing one thing. Unfortunately, he's too self-indulgent to get that idea into his head.
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