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Finally, a Mowgli Worthy of Kipling!
It's dismaying how many here regard Disney as the benchmark for The Jungle Book and its central character Mowgli. The benchmark is Kipling's book!
For over a century the fantasy life of young boys and girls was informed by the self-contained story-chapters in the Jungle Book, not all about Mowgli. Kipling was a story teller, who could fire the imagination of kids, which Nobel recognized in one of their wiser prizes. Unfortunately, Disney ruined it for kids by cartoonizing the Jungle Book and turning into a silly musical.
There's a beautiful Korda version of the Jungle Book, from 1942, starring Sabu as Mowgli. Due to the constraints of having animals speak, most of that movie focuses on the humans and in a way closer to the Kipling version. The ripe technicolor of the restored print and the soundtrack of Miklós Rózsa make for an exotic, faraway, almost dreamlike experience. Find this one and compare the Mowglis. I think Sabu and Rohan Chand are wonderful, in their own ways.
The Serkis Mowgli takes advantage of modern CGI to give the animals articulating mouths to speak the lines, so we can be in the jungle more. Though most of the characters are original, Serkis has replaced Shere Khan's sidekick Tabaqui's jackal with a hyena, maybe because hyenas are more grotesque. No biggie. Serkis has departed further from the Kipling plot, but in ways that don't spoil the basic story.
The very end is good enough, but in the Kipling, Mowgli is finally drawn back to the humans by one of them he's oddly curious about--a girl. I thought that was a charming way for Kipling to end it. But the way Serkis chooses to end the film is fine. I'd have given an 8, but add 1, because this movie has done a great service in rescuing Kipling and us from Disney.
Historical fiction can be great fun and a learning experience, too. Good historical fiction writers do lots of research. James Michener was a famous example. More recently come series like Rome, The Last Kingdom, Saving Private Ryan. You take a timeline with historical plot points and fill in the gaps. The further back you go, the wider the gaps and the more fiction to the history. Sometimes you just have people that history only says lived and events that history only says happened and nothing else, and away you go.
We know about the Templars, in general, but not in much reliable detail, so we take what we know and fill in the gaps with believable, plausible narratives. And here is the fraud of this Knightfall and of the History Channel. As others have pointed out, even things we know-historical facts-are presented falsely. About the only thing reliable about Knightfall is that there were Templars.
The moment I saw something billing itself as The History Channel running a series called "Ancient Aliens," I knew it was a fraud. That's fine, as long as you enjoy nonsense presented as if it were historical but don't kid yourself that you're being educated. But to take seriously the likes of this garbage is to buy into fraud.
Under the Red Robe (1937)
I say "unearthed" because the film seems to have been buried -- the condition of the print is pretty bad, and the soundtrack is so worn that half the subtitles say, "Inaudible". Apparently this is an orphaned film, in the public domain, without a decent print to remaster. Considering that many fine films have disappeared, we are lucky that this one survived at all. Lucky, because we see here what made this movie's era "Golden". Even routine costume dramas/comedies such as this one were blessed with fine production values, interesting scripts, and great directors and actors.
You can't have everything, and I wanted to see more of the deliciously ruthless Raymond Massey, who got second billing as Cardinal Richelieu but only a few minutes of screen time. A great discovery for me was Romney Brent. I looked him up, and most of his career was on the stage, so to see this delightful character player on the screen is a real treat. Annabella's heavy accent is hard to decipher, but she's so lovely, who cares, especially when she's framed by Victor Sjöstrōm, who brought us Garbo.
The sets are impressive, and the story is an interesting piece of historical fiction. There really is a Château Foix (subtitles call it "Fiox"), which did have a connection to Richelieu. If you're a movie lover, then look past the poor print and be grateful for this unearthed gem.
The Score (2001)
One of my favorite caper flicks
My favorite De Niro role is some kind of wise guy or crook. He has that predatory squint. Here he's paired with Edward Norton, another favorite. They have a great inter-generational confrontation.
Unlike some others, I have no problem with the "old heist story". ALL heist stories are old! It's how they're pulled off that's fun. And this one is pulled off exquisitely. The plot is tight, the pacing is perfect, the photography is great, and there's a nice payoff in the end. Same applies to Ronin, another De Niro fave.
The only problem here is Brando. Yes, he was always a draw, but I agree with another reviewer who says his character could have been demoted or omitted and not be missed. All he does is waddle around and be Brando. I find myself looking for that little in-ear receiver they say he used for his lines. And I guess they had to get their money's worth having apparently paid by the pound.
Anyway, it's delicious to see De Niro and Norton doing their stuff.
Manos with gore
It's pretty discouraging to see so many idiots in one place, giving this thing 10 stars and calling it a masterpiece. There is NOTHING redeeming about it. Someone asked if it's a slasher film or a zombie film. It's a garbage film. It reminds me of the little stunt they did for the Halloween party in third grade, playing a recorded horror story in a darkened room while passing around raw chicken parts.
The storyline is inane, the editing is crummy, of course the voices are dubbed. The gore is gore for its own sake unconnected to whatever it's emerging from.
The candidate for worst movie ever made is Manos, the Hands of Fate. This one is just as bad, but without the unintended humor. The continuous and gratuitous gore makes this mess impossible to watch except to those like the infants at the Halloween party, a kind of cult following for spaghetti slasher movies. Getting off on stuff like this isn't so sick as it is mediocre.
Night Into Morning (1951)
An underrated gem
The fifties were pretty alcohol-soaked. World War II had both scarred the collective psyche and ended the Great Depression. The Korea had turned the Cold War hot. Alcohol was the self-medication of choice. It was also just fun, and fun was what filled the leisure that American prosperity had brought the masses.
Yet, this was no longer the era of Nick and Nora Charles or Robert Benchley, when being drunk was cute or comic. So, when imbibing America needed a cautionary tale, Ray Milland was the right protagonist, as he proved in The Lost Weekend. Night into Morning isn't about alcoholism per se but about the response to a horrible tragedy. Lost Weekend was about alcoholism as a lifestyle. Night into Morning is about a binge that is carrying Milland over a precipice.
The casting is flawless. Milland, like Holden, has this seemingly easy way of acting. By being himself, he is the part. I like Nancy Davis better with every new viewing. What I used to regard as wooden, I now see as measured, kind of like the great Anne Revere. Here she's quite believable as a voice of reason, a voice on our behalf, responding to Milland's woes as we should.
And then there's John Hodiak. What can I say? He died so young that everything he was in becomes precious. And this may be one of his best performances, as Milland's best friend and colleague. Hodiak may have been pushed aside when the big stars returned from WWII, but for me he still chews up the scenery. The looks, the voice. It just occurred to me that had Hodiak survived he might well have settled into a Lloyd Nolan career. Dawn Adams gets good screen time as the girlfriend of the lug whom Professor Milland is going to flunk. The bit parts are not neglected. Whit Bissel has a great little turn as a headstone salesman. The cocktail waitress/student appealed to me a lot, and it turns out that Mary Lawrence playing her was 32 at the time!
Aside for the casting, the production is first-rate. There was a trend in the era for location shooting. In this case, Berkeley gets to play the college town, with a long sequence with Davis and Hodiak on campus, and a scene from the Tower. There's also a bang-up crash scene, though by necessity back at the studio.
There are a couple of problems that preclude perfection. There's a a connection with elderly neighbors that doesn't go anywhere. It was great to see Jean Hagan, but her part should have been developed more, in place of the useless footage of the elderly neighbors.
Night into Morning ends with what, to today's ears, seems a corny send-off, "Go with God". As a product of its time, it's not so corny. War hangover, the Holocaust, The Bomb, atheist Communism ginned up by McCarthyism, and the rat race. Plus ordinary misfortune that's always hitting someone, somewhere -- sooner or later you or me. Or just plain ennui. It seems that movies like Lost Weekend, Night into Morning, The Man in the Grey flannel Suit, are appealing to contemporary audiences to use faith and friendship instead of fixes. It's no coincidence that at the same time AA was getting noticed for sending this message.
Crime and Punishment (1935)
Disappointing Hollywood Treatment
Along with "M" and "The Face Behind the Mask," this Raskolnikov is Peter Lorre's finest rôle. Unfortunately, it's not supported by the rest of the production. The stylized von Sternberg lighting and the Madonna look he gives Marian Marsh (Dietrich stand-in?) don't really suit the grim narrative.
Edward Arnold is woefully miscast as Inspector Porfiry. He's ponderous and bombastic, in his usual manner. Aside from Mrs. Patrick Campbell, the rest of the cast play their stock Hollywood characters. The only Russian about them is "the long-winded names by which they address each other." (Kael)
Coincidentally, a great French "Crime and Punishment" was made the same year. Harry Baur as Porfiry is sensational, and if he had been cast as Porfiry in the von Sternberg version, then it would have caught fire.
I give it a 7 for Lorre.
Grand Slam (1933)
Outrageous low score! For bridge fans AND lovers of satire!
The current score for grand slam is astounding for a little movie so well-directed, well-acted and so truly funny.
For those who know bridge and satire, there are some laugh-out-loud moments, particularly the vignettes of husbands and wives fighting across the tables. In fact, Stanislavsky's bridge "system" is all about keeping couples together by doing away with the rules entirely. Of course, this is a goof on the other Stanislavsky's "method" acting, which is not to act at all.
The scenes where the stuffed-shirt bridge establishment meets Stanislavsky are priceless. They just can't imagine how anybody, much less a common waiter, can make an opening bid of 7 spades, much less win. And there's the cleft between bridge players and pinochle players, who consider bridge players sissies.
A younger Paul Lukas is charming as Stanislavsky, a Russian emigré who is not an aristocrat, not a general, but rather "a genius". His wife, the key to his fame, is Loretta Young at her loveliest. They and a great supporting cast are handled, and the scenes expertly paced, by A-list director William Dieterle.
The crucial match is fought as if it were a heavyweight title fight, complete with breathless play-by-play, complete with climactic moment where the whole world stops -- literally! Of course, all of this is over-the-top, and all of it works, if you get the bridge craze that had swept America for the first half of the 20th century to ridiculous extremes.
In fact, it's still going on. Did you know that the 2008 financial meltdown and recession we're still feeling can arguably be put to bridge? One of the key players in the meltdown was investment bank Bear Stearns. There was a run on this bank, while its CEO was out of the loop...playing bridge.
Grand Slam is a good-natured dig at pop fame and enthusiasms. As Stanislavsky said to the microphone as he was being carried of the field of play, "Hello, Ma!"
In fact, the more I think of how delightful this comedy of manners is, the more frustrated I am by the score. This movie deserves at least a 7. I give it an 8.
An Ideal Husband (1947)
Woefully underrated gem
There's nothing to fault with this film adaptation of Oscar Wilde and much to delight. Someone else says it's long on style but short on substance. I disagree: it's long on both.
Like The Importance of Being Earnest, released five years later, An Ideal Husband involves a sticky situation that somehow must be resolved. In some Wilde works, such as Picture of Dorian Gray, the resolution is tragic, but not in Earnest or Husband; both epigrammatize delightfully to the end. But while Earnest's situation is the stuff of farce, Husband's is serious indeed. However, surrounding the afflicted Sir Robert and Lady Chiltern, there is a bevy of comic characters and their priceless Wildian witticisms to maintain a humorous tone even through a serious plot line.
The cast is perfect, with Michael Wilding providing the key Wildian insouciance. Even Paulette Goddard's snake-in-the-garden isn't oppressive but determinedly cheerful. And we have C. Aubrey Smith playing C. Aubrey: "Quite right! Quite right!" Finally, the lovely Diana Wynyard's Lady Chiltern learns that we love each other for our imperfection rather than some impossible perfection. Glynis Johns' part is only needed at the end, but it's a delight to see her popping up in the meantime.
The look of this color production is lush, in the Korda way. The exteriors are wonderful London prospects. The costumes, as they would be in Earnest, are wonders of polychrome and texture.
This movie deserves a far higher average score than it's given. I give it a 10 to raise the average but also because I think An Ideal Husband deserves a 10.
A Man to Remember (1938)
A gloss of sentimentality over deeper stuff
This movie is so good that it transcends the sentimentality of the era and the distraction of Dutch subtitles and substitute graphics (you can figure them out) on the only extant print.
Three things struck me:
First, we know Edward Ellis as the title character (Winant) from The Thin Man. He was compelling, but of course got bumped off early. It was a pleasure to see Ellis in almost every scene of this movie.
Second, Anne Shirley was just as sweet and lovely as an ingénue here as she'd been, playing a little girl, in Anne of Green Gables.
Third, the movie did not succumb to Hollywood's conventional insistence on redemption. Most characters were greedy, parsimonious ingrates, from beginning to end. I think the social conscience of Garson Kanin and Dalton Trumbo had something to do with it.
Here is a forgotten gem, whose preservation fans of American cinema should be grateful for.
Hotel Berlin (1945)
Sorry directing makes for a mediocre movie
Supposedly this movie was popular at the box office. I guess people were eager to see a timely dramatization, such as it was, of the defeat of Germany played as an ersatz Grand Hotel. But the story is so sloppily put together, with so many gaffs, so much broken continuity, and scenes that lead to nowhere, that I wonder wonder what so many reviewers giving good scores are smoking.
Here are just a few examples: In one scene Fay Emerson introduces Helmut Dantine, in an SS major's uniform, as Major, then she and others call him, still with his major's pips, Captain. The bombers practically wreck the air raid shelter, but leave the hotel above it untouched. Alan Hale, as a Nazi official, is disposed of, as a suspect in an SS officer's killing -- completely out of the blue (he's innocent and not connected in any way) -- because, well, his character needs disposing of. Emerson and Dantine are strangers one moment and intimate lovers the next, with no exposition. Peter Lorre does his stock "drunk and dissolute" scene and then is suddenly neat, spiffy and sober. Andrea King's Lisa Dorn gives up Dantine to the SS, for coffee, but it's Emerson who gets shot. (Well, this is a Faye Emerson vehicle.) There's also a lame reprise of Lewis Stone's "doctor waiting for a message" in Grand Hotel.
Raymond Massey has a great part, as a doomed general, and the other actors do their stuff well, but none are allowed to develop their characters. It's really too bad their efforts, and a potentially interesting story, are wasted on incompetent direction and slapdash editing.
I tried but couldn't.
I tried, I really did, to watch this thing, but writing this review is a better use of my time on earth than the movie. I admit, that's pretty pitiful.
People here have ventured that they did it for the paycheck. Of course it's true. All the stars had already made their names and their fortunes. It was an easy paycheck. Atlanta is a nice town and easy to get in and out of.
This was what prompted the likes of John Huston and Glenn Ford and Mel Ferrer to have their names on the credits. Nobody would take it seriously. But being pros they earned their pay -- they found their marks and did their lines. The producer/director/editor did the rest.
By the way, Huston had done this kind of nonsense before, in Beat the Devil. He and Truman Capote made it up from one day to the next. The great cast would party, while Capote, also partying, would slap together tomorrow's script, which Huston wouldn't see until that morning. Despite this, the brilliance across-the-board turned out a pretty good flick.
Alas, in the case of The Visitor, think Manos: the Hands of Fate, with an all-star cast.
Way Out West (1937)
The perfect scores here are astounding. The reviewers must be oblivious to what made Laurel and Hardy great, or else they are so besotted with L&H that they give them a 10 just for showing up, like opera fans do for divas past their prime.
This may be the best "feature length" L&H, but that's not saying much. As other reviewers have pointed out -- and been voted down for their perception -- feature-length -- even short feature-length like this -- is too long for L&H. L&H did short subjects, extended jokes, not the overproduced shaggy-dog stories of the feature- length era. MGM had done the distribution from the 20s, but I think they had a hand in replacing the shorts with the feature-length in the mid-30s.
We get a hint of trouble already at the start of the opening credits. Instead of L&H's trademark Cuckoo Song, with screechy clarinets -- primitive notes in keeping with the antics of the shorts -- we get boilerplate orchestration, which continues relentlessly and intrusively throughout the movie, smothering the charm of the interplay between Laurel and Hardy.
We don't see L&H for the first 6 minutes, instead we get a stock dance-hall scene with hoochy-koochy girls and carousing cowboys, serving only as padding. This kind of waste goes on and on. As for the songs, etc. L&H are not a song & dance act, as MGM made them in many of the feature-lengths. Which is to say, more padding.
I was looking forward to seeing a feature-length L&H. After all, if 20 minutes is great, then imagine over an hour! Alas, I discovered that comedy wasn't added, just the runtime. Film historians, critics and Hal Roach himself agree that L&H's decline began when the MGM-labeled feature-lengths replaced the shorts. They're right.
Starlit Days at the Lido (1935)
Extraordinary Time Capsule
I think this MGM color short is quite underrated. You need to look past the, to us, cornball routines to the vivid color which makes Starlit Days an extraordinary time capsule. Look at the daytime clothes of the era. People would dress up in public whether out shopping or at an afternoon "tea dance." Look at the couples holding each other like they used to do, dancing the foxtrot to an elegant turned-out band. This was long before Hollywood was invaded by the tourist hordes and paparazzi. It was a company town, and you could see the stars on the streets or buying groceries or watering their lawns.
I give Starlit Days a Nine because of its quality and rarity. The Technicolor print has survived very well, including the sound. Yes, by the mid-30s there were a few full Technicolor features, but MGM was late to the party. To make it up, the studio released a series of shorts that were dripping with color and shot at notable venues around Hollywood, such as the Cocoanut Grove nightclub, Catalina Island and Mission Santa Barbara.
The location here is the Lido Spa behind the Los Angeles Ambassador Hotel. The "guests" are screen icons we still remember, plus pop stars who were hot at the time. MC Reginald Denny (whose later namesake won notoriety as a victim of the 1992 Los Angeles riots) played mainly second leads but had a fine career on-screen and then off, as proprietor of a popular Hollywood hobby shop and a radioplane works that employed a much-photographed girl named Norma Jeane Mortensen.
Luminaries present include heartthrob Francis Lederer, who does something kinda kinky with a beach ball. Then, there are Buster Crabb, Robert Montgomery, Richard Barthelmess, Lili Damita (soon to cross swords with Errol Flynn), John Boles, Clark Gable, Constance Bennett, Johnny Mack Brown. There's a novelty act called The Tic-Toc Girls with their hands all over a prone, cross-eyed Ben Turpin who exclaims joyfully, "Can I take it!"
Then, there's Cliff Edwards aka Ukulele Ike aka Jiminy Cricket, strumming his uke while a lovely lady works her cigarette magic on him, which he reciprocates for the finale. There is also a trio of radio impersonators, playing George Arliss, Jimmy Durante and a wacko Ed Wynn.
My favorite part is Henry Busse (pronounced "Bussy") and his band. Henry was a founding member of Paul Whiteman's orchestra. (It's his trumpet that starts off Rhapsody in Blue.) He also played with Bing Crosby and the Dorsey brothers. Here he plays two numbers, the first with vocalists Judy Randall and Carl Grayson, the lyrics comically acted out by Arthur Lake aka Dagwood Bumstead. Grayson would later become a front man and then novelty singer for Spike Jones.
The second number is Busse's great Hot Lips, vocalized by Miss Randall and accompanied by the amazing chorus line of the Franchonettes. Those hat brims, I think, were cut from gel filter sheets by studio wardrobe. Watch those shoes when they're kicking! And look closely at each of the pretty, shapely, bra-less girls (one amazing shot got past the censors), hoping for their big break.
The stars' sunlit faces look un-made-up (except for the pale, sunglassed Miss Bennett), giving them a vitality you don't get in their movies. This is a "typical lunch in Hollywood" fantasy, but through the silliness and artifice are the everyday styles, fashions and looks of a black & white world now given startling immediacy by vivid color. We see beyond just a show to a glimpse into another world -- a real world long past.
This and other Technicolor Louis Lewyn shorts are part of a 4-disc set, "Classic Musical Shorts from the Dream Factory," currently available.
Double Wedding (1937)
Powell and Loy click, the rest doesn't.
This is meant as a screwball comedy, with clever banter and crazy scenes. There are a few, especially when Powell and Loy are together. It's Nick and Nora except that Nora is liberated here. In fact, so liberated she's domineering, and it's up to Nick to take her down.
The storyline, told by other reviewers, is fine, and there's one classic exchange:
Powell: What were you going to say?
Powell: Don't you want to talk about something?
Loy: Yes. Do you take dope?
But the rest is talky and flat. The pratfalls are derivative and contrived, even the chaotic ending, which actually lifts a drunk "He's a Jolly Good Fellow" routine from the previous year's After the Thin Man. And John Beal playing Ralph Bellamy is just annoying. I love Jessie Ralph, but here she's a bit over-the-top, not as funny as she was playing the old battle-ax in After the Thin Man. All this I lay on Richard Thorpe, a routine director, who was prized more for coming in under budget than doing anything outstanding.
If you're a Powell-Loy fan, they have their usual enjoyable encounters, but its a slog getting from one to the other.
Hi, Nellie! (1934)
A great movie title and a Paul Muni showcase
Hi, Nellie is one of the most arch, hilarious movie titles I've ever encountered. At first it sounds banal, but as it's tossed around in different scenes by different characters, it gets funnier and funnier. There's a barroom scene that's a howler.
But rather than just a prop for the title's running gag, the story is quite interesting on its own. It involves a newspaper and corruption and a missing banker, and things aren't what they seem. We're taken through some amazing sets. it's impressive to see how many resources were plowed into them by the studio, from tracking shots of the cavernous newsroom, of teeming city streets, of the interior of an elaborate nightclub, all following Paul Muni, who, by the way, is a rough-and-tumble editor relegated to the lovelorn column by his publisher.
And this is a great showcase for Muni. Most of his scenes show him in closeup. Remember, Cagney had Public Enemy and Muni had Scarface, both intensely focused on their personas. I think Muni, because of his stage background, overdraws his character in movie closeups. (He may have won the Oscar for Louis Pasteur because he wore a beard that restrained his over-expressiveness.) But hey, it's Muni, and it's fun to see him do his stuff.
This is a comedy-crime flick, fast-paced, with rapid-fire dialog between great Warner players, so you have to pay attention. There's a scene where a dim young reporter tells Muni that the children's picnic he was assigned to cover didn't occur because the boat taking the kids to the venue ran aground on a sandbar and broke up, so he only had one paragraph to report. This is great stuff!
Beware of Mr. Baker (2012)
The Greatest Drummer of the Era as a Thoroughly Rotten Person
Ginger Baker illustrates how artistic greatness can be fed by a loathsome character that we see close-up and personal, thanks to brave filmmaker Jay Bulger. Just how brave you will see in the film.
It's not hard to see how Ginger Baker was formed. He was a child in one of those horrible, dreary, violent British working-class neighborhoods. He started out life by losing his father (killed in war), then getting his face slashed with razors for not joining a local gang. Then, he gets a posthumous letter, the only input he every got from his "hero" father, advising him that "your fists are your best friend". So, partly for survival, partly out of values, Baker became a young tough.
The watershed occurred when Baker was introduced, at the same time, to African drums and heroin. Drums fed into his violent nature, and heroin, he claims, gave him insight into "time," which Baker considers the key to drumming and which very few have.
Deserted his wife and kids for a bimbo who left him, introduced his 15- year-old son to cocaine to do a gig, then kept the proceeds, sending the son home on a bus. Chronically unpleasant to be around, except to the four drummers he worships. Calls dogs and horses the only creatures he can depend on, while at the same time being utterly undependable to his family. Complains about his poverty, after blowing millions on drugs and polo ponies.
The plus side of the ledger is that Ginger Baker is arguably the greatest drummer -- rock or jazz -- in modern history. His long-suffering son, whom he finally kissed-off, says that Baker should never have had a family, that he is only about the drums.
It's not ironic that the only person in the film who seems to adulate Baker is Johnny Rotten. Even the colleagues who prize him as a talent can't stand him as a person, except perhaps, Jack Bruce, of Cream, who says he "loves" Ginger, but goes on to say that living on a different continent from Baker is still "a bit too close".
The Book Thief (2013)
Horrible directing, manipulative, flat story
I saw someone else say, "Beautifully made." No, it wasn't!
I liked the authentic sets, and the casting was appealing. Brian Percival's directing is abominable. The accents are OK, but now and then comes a distracting ja or nein. Are they speaking English as a second language? Percival makes every knock on the door, no matter how innocent or routine, sound like the Gestapo, so he can gin up the tension. He completely mushes up the title character Liesel's love interest. The boy next door has a crush on her, and (maybe) she has a crush on her Jewish cellar-dweller, but nothing much happens. We never know what either are to her. Sophie Néllisse has a big, expressive mouth. She'd make a good Disney character.
The "book thief" part of the movie seems incidental, more like a prop than the title. The beautiful blond Rudy is the most interesting character, whose story could have been made into its own movie. But he remains, like the title, just a prop.
The voice of Death, the narrator, is almost identical to Goeffrey Rush's voice, which helps muddle the story line. So, Death is Leisel's foster dad? The ending was an unnecessary downer -- on a cheap, melodramatic note. It's as if the director had run out of things to say or do and just killed everybody off. Here sentimentality trumps substance. Maybe the book ends this way, too, but it could have ended with everybody surviving -- quite possible -- with the message intact. But it would have required more work by the author...and the director. As it is, the message seems to be, "Books are good, Nazis are bad". OK.
Our Man in Havana (1959)
A Very Underrated Classic
The critical reviews miss the mark on this one. The great Pauline Kael liked it, though she thought it was "too controlled". The "control" is Carol Reed's fidelity to Graham Greene's trademark atmospherics. Think, The Third Man set in Havana.
It's a miracle Our Man got made at all, filmed on location in Cuba not long after Castro took over, but with a pre-revolution setting that's thoroughly convincing and fascinating to observe, from the street scenes to Havana's fifties Vegas-style nightclubs. The running gag -- vacuum cleaners as secret weapons -- frames the comedy that turns black.
Noël Coward and Ralph Richardson, who plays "C" before there was an "M," are suitably farcical. Maureen O'Hara's part is mainly decorative, and Burl Ives has trouble with a German accent. But these quibbles pale before the treat of watching Alec Guinness and Ernie Kovacs play opposite each other. Kovacs almost walks away with the movie. Guinness has a classic scene at a country club. This is one of the few films I never tire of watching; it's one you can curl up with.
The Best Racing Movie Ever
I've been to the German Grand Prix and driven the Nürburgring. I've known drivers and racing directors. When Niki Lauda told the BRM guys the car was too heavy, it gave me a chill. When I hung around BRM, they were struggling to develop a new motor. They came up with a contraption called an H-15. It was massive, and it was heavy. The Nürburgring is not just dangerous, it wrecks cars with its dips and rolls. A heavy car bottoms out and destroys its undercarriage, and sure enough...well, so much for BRM. The H-15 was before this story. Obviously, BWM never learned their lesson.
Of course, there's the human element. I've often thought that bullfighters and race car drivers are the only successors to the gladiators. The personal and professional rivalry between Niki Lauda and James Hunt reveals the mentality behind men who flirt with violent death. For one it's a means to an end, for the other it's the end in itself. And this is the hub of the story.
Rush is the real thing. It is simply the best racing movie ever made. It's a crime that it wasn't nominated for an Oscar.
Deserved the prize at Cannes
Here is a child-and-horse story that goes beyond Hollywood clichés. It's idyllic and untamed, with an undertone of menace.
The somewhat artless execution is redeemed by the sublime theme and photography. And the ending blew me away.
Then, there's the wonderful acting of the principles. The boy is beautiful and earnest, his little family achingly sweet. Notice the little sister. At very young ages they tend to be undisciplined. But this tot is fully into her part, doubtless thanks to director Albert Lamorisse, who later directed his masterpiece, The Red Balloon. Of course the old grandpa is completely natural. The herders are less convincing as actors, though spectacular as horsemen.
The poignancy of the story reminds me of The Little Prince (book), also by a Frenchman. The French are very good at childhood themes. See Forbidden Games, War of the Buttons, the 400 Blows, the aforesaid Red Balloon, and Zero for Conduct, the masterpiece by Jean Vigo, whose eponymous prize White Mane won, as well as Cannes.
The Freedom of Silence (2011)
Moronic, delusional propaganda
Actually, you can believe how bad this is, when you consider that this piece of garbage was made to pander to self-pitying, paranoid, delusional, right-wing, fundamentalist fruitcakes.
Behold the producers, in their own words: "Robertson 6 Productions is an Christian owned and operated company in Kansas City, MO that is focused on the budgets of our clients instead of our own. We are a completely independent, which allows us to do such budget minded projects. We are very selective on the project we choose also."
Need I say more? Well, suffice it to say that this thing is no more about Christianity than Al Capone was about the olive oil business.
Forbidden Planet (1956)
The Benchmark of Great Science Fiction
Forbidden Planet is pure science-fiction. It is not the cliché cowboys-in-space or (despite the "monsters from the id" tag line) gratuitous monster aliens. Star Wars? Alien? That's too easy, too trite, the same old same old in a future setting. Despite comparisons with Shakespeare's The Tempest, the story of Forbidden Planet stands on its own. And its soundtrack has never been equaled.
A machine that materializes thought "without instrumentalities". Instrumentalities -- when I heard that word I realized this movie is speaking to adults, not adolescents.
Pure science fiction is about the future itself. Forbidden Planet and Blade Runner come to mind. Some Star Trek episodes achieve this. For my money, though, Forbidden Planet is the benchmark against which all other science fiction movies should be measured.
Yes, there is a little dating. Earl Holliman's comic relief character isn't necessary (neither was R2-D2's prissiness). And there was a lapse in the otherwise cool f/x, when the spaceship landed on Altair: The powder puffing though holes in the ground was pretty cheesy. But these are minor quibbles which don't detract from the overpowering story.
7.7 IMDb score Forbidden Planet gets is insulting, a comment on the audiences not the movie. 8.7, which the slicker but inferior Star Wars and the Matrix get, would be far more fitting.
The World of Tomorrow (1984)
An Unappreciated Classic Documentary
It is a shame that one of the finest, most poignant and important film documents in history is not in video distribution. Thus, the sparse vote count. And it's shameful that, as of this writing, the average score is an absurd 6.6.
Finest, not only because it is narrated by one of our greatest actors and narrators, Jason Robards, Jr., but the source material comes largely from a home movie Robards' father made of their family visit to one of the most famous and important of all World's Fairs, the New York World's Fair of 1939. So, the history here is first-hand.
Famous, because it was a grand fair, perhaps the grandest of all, because it was the closest to how we think of fairs, not only as exhibitions but as entertainments; and being a *World's* fair, both were on a grand scale. And being in 1939, technology, the showcase of World's Fairs, was not just modern, it was beyond modern. In fact, the title of this film, The World of Tomorrow, was the title of the Fair.
Imagine yourself living in the late 1930s. You were weaned on science fiction; to live in the future -- in fact, to be a "space cadet" -- was to be cool. The old dynasties that gave us World War I were gone, and a brave new world of flight, electronics, robotics, high-speed travel -- of color! -- was out of the labs and into the grasp of ordinary people. The future was actually palpable. But just as present was the past, the folk traditions of the peoples represented at the Fair. To be there had to evoke the wonderment of being transported in time and space. And this sense of wonderment is transmitted to us by a child who was there as his father recorded it. I believe the 1939 New York Word's Fair was the template for Disneyland.
And then, there's the poignancy. This bright World of Tomorrow, as Churchill warned, was about to "sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age, made more sinister...by the lights of perverted science". It was an understatement. The 1939 of the happy, festive and confident New York World's fair brought the most horrible war in history. Some of the nations exhibited at the fair would no longer exist a year later. I'm reminded of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. By 2001 the human race had colonized the moon and was sending a mission to "Jupiter and Beyond". And in 1968, when the film came out, 2001 seemed like a perfectly plausible future, given that we were in the midst of the Apollo mission. But just like 1939, 2001 became a milestone of human depravity.
In the important ways, our civilization has usually fallen woefully short of optimistic prognostications. I say, "in the important ways" because who cares if the instrumentation of Flash Gordon's spacecraft was quaintly non-digital -- it got them to the planet Mongo, didn't it?
Finally, The World of Tomorrow poses the most important question for the human race: Will we ever measure up to our promise?
Phil Spector (2013)
A Minor Masterpiece
I don't know what the negative reviews were looking for, but this is neither biopic nor docudrama. It's pure Mamet, for those who know what that means.
Phil Specter is perhaps the most insightful and dramatic study of the Hollywood mind since Sunset Boulevard. Indeed, it's is a spot-on updating of the 1950 classic.
Phil Specter, the character, is Norma Desmond, the character: an archetype of what is called in Hollywood, "the talent". While "the talent" sow the profits, the packagers, promoters and distributors reap them. And when "the talent" no longer sow profits for the industry to reap, they become has-beens. Of course the talent also reap for themselves, but not always profits, for they can also reap the consequences of themselves as a career. The proof is in the converse, in the talent who have managed to separate themselves from the business of themselves. This is the talent that have stable marriages, long lives, stability and happiness, regardless of career arc.
"Hollywood" is a culture which, as you go east of Beverly Hills, becomes more sordid -- Laurel Canyon and then the Tenderloin of Hollywood proper. Specter, though he lived in suburban Alhambra, was of Laurel Canyon, a neighborhood favored by the rock music and porn crowd. Though Norma Desmond was of Beverly Hills, her taste and temperament were, like Specter's, luxurious yet tawdry, seemingly frozen in time, like Miss Haversham's wedding cake.
Like Norma Desmond, Phil Specter was "the talent" with a vengeance. Unfortunately, the egotistical and obnoxious temperament that often accompanies great talent persists after the talent fades. Al Pacino's twitching, bombastic delivery is a perfect rendition of an egomaniac, producing, directing and scripting his own reality, oblivious to the input from others.
Writer-director David Mamet specializes in one-on-one confrontation, and as the foil for Pacino's Specter, Helen Mirren, as Linda Baden, the lawyer who sticks, is also perfect. (The fact that her British slips through occasionally is quite trivial.) We see her disarmed, then despairing, as she is slowly worn down, first by Specter's mental bullying, then by pneumonia. She achieves our compassion but not pity. She is a strong, decent person whose legal fee amounts to combat pay.
Almost as entertaining as Specter and Baden is Baden and co-counsel Bruce Cutler, played flawlessly by Jeffrey Tambor. Most of their exchanges are like moot court, with Baden and Cutler trading devil's advocate.
I think the climactic scene is when, before a crucial trial appearance, Specter shows up having chosen, among his myriad toupees, an outrageous two-tone Afro. His response to the look of abject horror on his lawyer's face is, that everyone will understand it's a homage to Jimi Hendrix and not to worry, "I know about these things, they're my business," painfully unmindful of the fact that a trial court is NOT his business.
In the end, we are left with the realization, that the only one who knows for sure about Phil Specter's guilt is Phil Specter. The genius of this movie is that we are made to understand, almost completely outside the trial, that Phil Specter, innocent or guilty, was bound to be tried for being a malign freak on whom the public, without remorse -- after the frustration of seeing O.J., John Landis, Robert Blake and Michael Jackson beat the rap -- could finally hang the hat of guilt.