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Nie Er (1959)
A Moving and Sincere Tribute, Carefully Done
29 November 2012
'Nie Er' is an amazing discovery. It is a soulful and credible biopic of the composer who wrote 'March of the Volunteers', which became the PRC's national anthem. His very real travails are presented in straightforward manner, showing how a passionate and very talented man was nevertheless sidelined. Heavy propaganda is quite deftly avoided, because it is unnecessary.

The scoring is both poignant and powerful. I was reminded of Alfred Newman. The acting is excellent, the art direction has that wonderful murky quality found in most Chinese studio productions of that era, and the 'Peoples'Color' is muted and quite faded, but somehow effective. (Based on the DVD available from Beauty).

I watched it without subtitles, and the print obtained for the DVD was scratched and aged, but it only added to the film's mystique. The sound was excellent.

The sincerity of the film is quite moving. Chinese cinema of this genre was to reach its peak with Ping Wang's 'Dongfang Hong' ('The East Is Red') in 1965, and 'Nie Er' is an outstanding member of this remarkable group.
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Tobacco Road (1941)
It Is What It Is: A Great Comedy
30 September 2010
As a longtime Ford fan, I only recently saw 'Tobacco Road', and it more than exceeded expectations. It's instantly one of my favorite comedies. It's actually very edgy and adventurous, sort of a wry antidote to the virtuous 'Grapes of Wrath' that Ford was obliged to be so respectful with.

I howled with pleasure, as I would with any fringe film with a comedic angle. In this film experience, you don't need to be tuned in to 'revisionist film theory' when you're watching it.

Dennis Hopper would have fit perfectly in it. Or Billy Bob Thornton. Or Jack Nance. As it is, the cast is perfect, from Slim Summerville on down. William Tracy's manic goofball performance, which some viewers think is 'over the top', is just plain crazy brilliant and is even ahead of its time (think early Jerry Lewis, Jim Carrey...).

Everything automotive in this picture is particularly hilarious, forecasting 'The Beverly Hillbillies' and 'It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad World'. The frenzied car chaos is inspired, from start to finish.

I know this picture has been either trashed or quickly written off in every John Ford biography, but I find it to be a genuine treasure because I'm taking it just for what it is - not as a book, not as a play, but as an excellent production by the masterful Ford, whose touch is apparent in every shot and speech.

Naturally, it is a companion piece to that other Caldwell examination of Southern oddballs, 'God's Little Acre', which is its own sort of gem due to Anthony Mann's care and attention. Then there's Kazan's 'Baby Doll', which is about as bizarre as they come. Not to mention the Coen Brothers' much lauded 'O Brother Where Art Thou'. How come that film wasn't so derided for 'making fun of poor white Southerners' like 'Tobacco Road' has been? Part of the American Experience has been to point out our oddballs, and show that they are 'possible' here. 'Tobacco Road' is all about such an examination, and Ford pulls it off with just as much aplomb as he does with families in Wales or migrants from Oklahoma. It is what it is: a great and perceptive comedy. Sort of like Balzac. Or for that matter, like Don Knotts' series of Americana comedies.

There is a dandy 'written in sand' title sequence (another counter to 'Grapes' and its rough-sketch titles), and Arthur Miller's lithographic camera-work is typically outstanding, almost like the works of Thomas Hart Benton. David Buttolph's cheerful and (Alfred) Newman-like score is perfectly appropriate without being a parody.

I'm powerful sorry that Erskine Caldwell and Nunnally Johnson were disappointed in the picture, but I think Zanuck and Ford really knew what they were doing.

'Tobacco' is one of the more delightful film discoveries I've had. I only wish Gene Tierney was in it more.
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Quintet (1979)
An Adventurous Film For A Willingly Adventurous Audience
25 May 2010
Fortunately, all films aren't for everybody. 'Quintet' is only for a few.

I saw this picture twice when it first came out, and I was practically the only one in the theatre. Why? Because it is an exploration into existential possibilities, and when you're in such territory, it's not the type of film where everything is explained, which is what audiences want these days.

The problem is, existentialism (in the Sartre sense) is way out of style, if anyone even still knows what that is anymore. Today everybody wants to be cool, so 'Quintet', which is a quiet study of a very controlled situation, probably makes people squirm, and so they can just say, 'what was THAT all about??' 'Quintet' isn't cool (even though the premise is freezing to death), and it just hasn't got the appeal that even supposedly broad-minded film buffs might consider worthwhile.

What I don't understand is that, if people can praise, say, Bergman for 'The Seventh Seal', why would they not give 'Quintet' a bit of consideration? Altman was plainly shooting for somewhat of a Bergmaneque question, only on a less intellectual plane: what the hell do humans do when there are fewer and fewer options available for survival? Answer: they go on anyway.

'Quintet' is what it is. If nothing else, it is a fine example of adventurous film-making, pushing the limits, in the period right before the blockbuster syndrome took over, once and for all.
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A Great Score
23 September 2008
I'm delighted to see so many favorable reviews for this excellent picture. Released the same year CinemaScope made its splashy debut, 'The President's Lady' is a mid-sized production in b&w of typically high 20th-Fox quality. It would have been interesting if John Ford had directed it (it's his kind of film), but as it is, it is a minor classic all by itself, and Henry Levin did a great job.

The score by Alfred Newman deserves special mention. Not only is it moving and poignant in all the right moments, it is positive and robust and helps make the picture succeed on every level. It's a typical Newman score, which means music of extraordinary depth and quality.

Leo Tover's camera-work adds to the luster of this fine film. I can only request that it appear on DVD, for we enthusiasts, if no one else.
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Genghis Khan (1965)
Why Worry About Authenticity? Enjoy!
1 March 2008
Historical accuracy is not very likely in an epic like this, but that's not the point, especially after so many years have passed since it was made. Considering 'Genghis Khan' now, it stands out as a dandy museum piece, not only in the 'they don't make 'em like this any more' category, but because it's such a full-blown try at making a splash in the epic film sweepstakes of the 1960s.

Yeah, it's a tinker-toy epic, but great fun, despite aiming at serious drama. Only 'Marco the Magnificent' outdoes it for 'Mutinational Production Prize' of its era.

Interestingly, it's a 'gap-filler' epic. That is, in the years when every ancient or legendary subject/culture seemed to be tackled by producers, hoping to strike 'Ben-Hur' gold, filmmakers shopped around history, looking for unique subjects to make an impression. Sooner or later the great Khan's number was going to come up. 'The Conqueror' with John Wayne seems more like a western (duh!), while 'Genghis' actually has a central Asian feel to it. Like its mate, 'The Long Ships', this is a Yugoslavian-filmed venture, a mini attempt to emulate Sam Bronston's epic production efforts over in Spain.

After Bronston's great empire unfortunately folded, other attempts to take up the epic gauntlet were made. This is one of the most sincere. A great cast, pretty respectable art direction, a sense of epic sweep, and a predictable but often witty script, they're all here. I'm sure the distinguished cast did it for the money, but at least they probably had a good time doing it. At its best it's a decent try at being epic. At its worst, it's a curiosity, but a pretty amusing one.

Highlights: - Dusan Radic's fantastic score. He achieves a Rosza-like standard, I think.

  • Michael Hordern yelling 'TEMM-U-JEEN!!!' endlessly.

  • Omar Sharif's yoke. Enthusiasts can see who wears his longer: Omar or John Wayne.

  • James Mason's Mandarin parody. Politically correct it ain't.

  • Bob Morley steals the show (as usual), as the effete emperor. The only character in cinema history who is killed just by WATCHING fireworks. Best line, as he hands a featherweight fan to a servant: 'Take it, it grows heavy'.

  • Orson Welles WASN'T in this one, but should have been.

  • Francoise Dorleac is of course very Euro, but not bad to look at.

  • Any picture with Geoffrey Unsworth behind the camera is going to have some stuff going for it. Seeing it in full Panavision on the big screen would certainly give this picture more respectability.

I await its' much-deserved DVD appearance.
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Rhodes (1996– )
In The Tradition of Great Epics
4 October 2007
'Rhodes' takes its place alongside 'The Last Place on Earth' and 'The Jewel in the Crown' as one of the very best British-made series sagas. It has everything: masterful performances (it's Martin Shaw's show, of course, but everyone shines), a sweeping, informative and intelligent script, a magnificent score - reminiscent of John Barry, superb locations, and a whale of a story, a true story.

The character of Cecil Rhodes is thoroughly and fulfillingly fleshed out. He is scarcely admirable, but he commands our attention for sheer audaciousness and dramatic power. The exploitation and double-crossing of the native peoples is portrayed with accuracy and grim detail, with many parallels to the American West. Rhodes was an opportunist and an empire builder in the extreme, who stopped at nothing to achieve his goals. As an epic character study, this drama really delivers as only the Brits can.

Finally, a common complaint: no DVD version exists as if yet. If more viewers discovered this series, it would quickly be known as a classic.
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Ford's Majestic Final Western, Redeemed Through Proper Presentation
4 September 2007
Warning: Spoilers
This picture has long been denigrated, and for the slightest of reasons. No need to list them here, as this comment is overwhelmingly positive. It's not even a case of 'a bad Ford movie is better than most anything else.' Simply put, this is an impressive, cogent, intelligent and epic film, which is more than worthy of the Ford filmography.

The pace is stately, but there is much to absorb, and the rewards are steady and certainly Fordian. The only element which is distinctly different from Ford's previous westerns is the Alex North score. Cerebral, brilliant, martial and passionate, the music elevates the film to a unique level. Perhaps this was a factor in the critics being discombobulated when they first reviewed it. Ford was still evolving as a director, despite his running out of gas physically. The semi-comedic Wyatt Earp sequence works perfectly amidst the gravity of the Trail of Tears. This is because it accurately portrays the superficiality and buffoonery of the whites regarding Indian matters. Though he appears trivial, Stewart's Wyatt is indeed canny in diverting the drunken impromptu army away from the hungry Cheyenne in their exodus. The scene ends right before Intermission. After the Entr'acte, the seriousness of the saga is resumed, right up to the Pyrrhic victory at the end.

It is to Warner Home Video's credit that 'Cheyenne Autumn' is presented in as intact a version as possible. The Overture is also included, which I had never heard before. The title sequence is magnificent. Full realization is made of the 70mm visuals. Ford said, 'Forget about the camera. Just get a good cameraman to capture what you have in mind.' Bill Clothier was such a cameraman, and he is as responsible for the splendor seen as much as John Ford.

In the final analysis, 'Cheyenne Autumn' stands firm, and by itself. It is not a perfect film, nor is it what many viewers hoped it would be. But it is still an outstanding picture. Restored, at least to 156 minutes instead of 170, it is nothing short of a triumph.
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Jack Benny's Bag (1968 TV Special)
You Can't Go Wrong With Benny
28 June 2007
I remember seeing this when it was broadcast (How else could you even know of its existence, except to scan way down on his IMDb list?). Not surprisingly, it was hilarious. Jack was trying to be hip by using the term 'bag' in the title. It was '68 and even the old-timers had sideburns, but Benny remained one of the most endearing entertainers ever. You could always rely on him and his gang. I bet these latter day TV specials in his career would hold up pretty well, and would probably be funnier than when they first came out. The TV Special or Variety formula was basically vaudevillian, which is where these guys learned their trade. I can't remember the content really, but it doesn't matter. Enjoyable entertainment always resulted.
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I Really, Nearly Trust You!
12 July 2006
There are so many classic lines in this script, they all quickly add up to a masterpiece. If you haven't seen this picture but want to know what it's like, check out an earlier post that has the text of the entire wedding scene, which is, I agree, one of Donald Sutherland's finest moments. Gloriously outrageous! And Lou Jacobi gets to let loose with his own crazed monologue. Everybody shines, from Vincent Gardenia to the smallest bit part, especially the actor, shockingly unlisted in IMDb's obviously incomplete cast list, as Arkin's 'normal' detective assistant. (Can anyone supply his name? He's great!) John Randolph and Doris Roberts, as Elliot Gould's intellectual but clueless parents, are priceless. EVERYBODY shines.

Alan Arkin's direction (as well as his manic cameo) is nothing short of inspired. He is in perfect harmony with the actors, translating the stage play into a brilliant cinematic 'alternative' classic. One of his most effective surprise touches comes just after Alfred (Gould) does his monologue into a tape recorder. His speech has been low key and sustained. He stops speaking, and there is a silent pause. Then Alfred gets up, causing a loud scrape sound when his chair is pushed back, thus shattering the whole effect of the monologue.

To me, every scene is a favorite. Just one example: Alfred and Patsy (the incredible Marcia Rodd) are having an argument. A heavy breather caller has been hassling Patsy regularly. He calls in the middle of their argument. Alfred answers. The caller breathes heavily. Alfred says: 'She can't talk now!' and hangs up.

The very welcome DVD transfer is quite good, especially after so many viewings of a Betamax-taped TV airing (censored) from the early 80s. Its letterbox presentation shows off the glories of Gordon Willis' camera-work. It's plain to see why Coppola and Woody Allen snagged him to lens their own masterpieces.

'Little Murders' holds up well because that's what classics are all about. Indeed, it is funnier, more sardonic, just as relevant, and better than ever.
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It Doesn't Get Any Better
23 January 2006
From start to finish, and based on the other pictures the boys were in, this is without a doubt the best of the Martin & Lewis series. For some bizarre reason, 'You're Never Too Young' has been buried in obscurity. Maybe it was because there was just a bit too much M & L exposure in '55, so it got lost in the shuffle. By this time, Paramount was giving M & L pictures the 'A' treatment, in full VistaVision and Technicolor, with a great score of specially-commissioned songs and big production numbers. The Sidney Sheldon script they used in this case wasn't too shabby either, and was more ambitious and wide-ranging than their previous films. There's plenty of the customary wackiness, but more sophistication as well, and the boys can handle it. Lewis is in top form. His multiple role playing is inspired, whether doing a Bogart imitation, or a French barber, or, for most of the picture, posing as an early teen in order to escape tough guy Raymond Burr. Thanks to Norman Taurog's competent direction, he is always 'under control' and consistently hilarious. Dean cruises through effortlessly, and does his usual dandy job. Highlights: crooning to Diana Lynn in his sparkling DeSoto station wagon, and helping Jerry get through 'I Like to Hike' at the girls' school concert. Great supporting roles supplied by Veda Ann Borg, Romo Vincent, Hans Conried and Mitzi McCall as Skeets, who's mad about Jerry. All in all, the best produced, the most rewarding, and the best-managed Martin & Lewis vehicle - not to mention the funniest. Now, Paramount, lift this gem up from the vaults and give us a DVD version. Please? Trust me, you'll get your investment back. UPDATE: Paramount came through: the DVD is outstanding, and the film is better than ever!
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The Loved One (1965)
Mom Joyboy Almost Steals The Show
13 January 2006
No need to add too much here, but I also cry out for a fit and proper DVD version of this classic.

Lovers of 'The Loved One' should seek out the book, 'The Journal of The Loved One', text by Terry Southern himself, with outstanding photos by William Claxton. It's one of the best books about the making of a film ever, and is just as funny as the picture it profiles.

Everything about this picture got the 'A' treatment. If MGM hadn't been in decline, it never would have been made there. And if Filmways hadn't had such a success with 'The Beverly Hillbillies' Terry S. & Co. never would have been able to talk them into greenlighting it.

In addition, everything about the film is oddball, especially the cars. Sir Francis' Bentley convertible, Miss Thanatogenous' Metropolitan convertible, and especially The Happy Hunting Grounds' bizarre Citroen van! It takes cinematic geniuses to come up with stuff like this, as well as the whole film itself.

And of course there's Mom Joyboy. Unforgettable! In the 'Journal' book, there's a great photo of Ayllene Gibbons, taken during lunch break, holding a full tray of food. The caption reads:'You can call me anything you want, just don't call me late for chow!'
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Æon Flux (2005)
High Expectations Met
16 December 2005
Warning: Spoilers
This is an action/adventure picture to really get excited about. That is, if you want something refreshingly different from the assembly line-produced high impact/plot twisted/irony-obsessed schlock in the mainstream.

Like the MTV animated series, audiences should know from the get-go that 'Aeon Flux' is going to be different. While it is plainly inspired by Truffault's 'Fahrenheit 451', and its wonderful production design is torn from the pages of 'Wallpaper' magazine, 'Aeon' achieves a whole universe of its own, largely devoid of cliché and full of invention and development of all kinds. There is dialog to grab onto, characters to care about, but without anything cutesy or pandering to other more banal formula films. Karyn Kusama's direction is well disciplined, the cast are right on point, and there is both style AND substance everywhere. Naturally, Charlize Theron is both tantalizing and touching in her lonely role. Her character is deep and meaningful, and egads, does she look the part. In the supporting cast, Sophie Okondido, Paterson Joseph, and Amelia Warner particularly stand out.

Everything in the picture makes sense and is well explained. Audiences should have no cause to complain that it is too cryptic or over their heads. Yet, everything about it is sophisticated, intelligent and superbly executed. Some of the acting is a tad lacklustre, or, to use a better term, understated. But when we know more about the characters, we know why this might be so. One line uttered by Aeon Flux tells it all (one SPOILER only): that the generations of cloning/inbreeding have resulted in an intellectually deficient populace.

This is a film that really works. It is not overdone or meant for candy-like consumption. It is as lean and shapely as Ms. Theron. It is multi-dimensional, and it sets a great example in bringing action/adventure-seeking audiences back from the hog-trough of over-indulgence.
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Closer (I) (2004)
A Trenchant Analysis of Tony Blair's Britain - Yeah, Right
15 August 2005
Other reviewers here have given good evidence as to why this film is a failure, so I need not go on about it here. I would like to add however, that 'Closer' does show, without any sort of brilliance or depth, just what a bland bore Tony Blair's 'Cool Britannia' has become. Where boring people are content with being snotty and obnoxious and self-centered, and there's really no outstanding reason NOT to be. The emptiness is everywhere. And what are two American women doing in all of this? The story might as well be in Dacron, Ohio. London is as nothing. And Mike Nichols! Once a master director, now, his talents ebbing, attempting to make a hip picture with hipper stars, should have known better. This rubbish, from the man who brought you 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf' and 'The Graduate'! Think about retirement, Mike. Every opportunity for making this story into something noteworthy was spitefully thrown away. At least the petulantly 'victorious' so-called dermatologist Clive Owen could have tossed in a scabies or eczema joke or something when he has just reduced delicate Jude Law to tears. And this, in the Land of Monty Python! It almost makes one pine for the Thatcherite days, when at least the Great British spirit of satire was alive and well. Now we have a sort of transatlantic blandness. Yak yak yak, blah blah blah. So I have to assume that the cast and crew thought they were making some sort of intellectual statement, either via a modern existentialism, or via a much baser technique: by bludgeoning the audience softly with just plain boring and uninteresting empty characters. If they wanted to dabble in this sort of water, they could have at least done a viewing of Peter Greenaway's masterpiece, 'The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover'. But boring is safer and does not require so much depth or imagination.
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A Masterpiece of Americana
3 June 2005
This picture is easy to rave about. I don't know how many times I've seen it, but 'Chicken' never fails to work its magic. A thesis could be written on its gentle lampooning of small town America, the travails of the 'little guy', and the character studies which show the human comedy which surrounds us every day of our lives. Pretty much every scene is a classic of comedy, from the malfunctioning elevator operator to the repeated motifs of 'Atta boy, Luther/Carlyle/Judge' and 'And they used Bon Ami!' It's also a treasure trove of fine performances, from Burt Mustin to Jesslyn Fax, not to mention Don K., of course. Reta Shaw, James Millhollin, Harry Hickox, Hope Summers, Philip "Phil" Ober, Harry Hines, Eddie Quillan, Herbie "I'm almost up to my Jell-o" Faye, Charles Lane, and the great Al Checco, what could be better? Everything is genuine, from wise-apple Skip Homier's matching with (former Playboy model) Joan "Above Average" Staley to Luther's accurate but frenzied punching of the transmission buttons in the center of the steering wheel of his 1958 Edsel. Vic Mizzy's score is incredible, and his crazed organ toccata will burn itself into your memory even more than his trademark electric guitar accents. Everything is well-composed in Techniscope. This picture, along with the rest of the Knotts Universal contract (climaxing in the very odd but hilarious 'The Love God?'), plus 'Angel in My Pocket', and even 'Cold Turkey' form an amazing comic vision of Americana, created by brilliant minds who knew how to capture it without resorting to cheap shots or vulgarity. 'Chicken' is a great comedy, a classic, and its greatness is found in its humbleness.
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An Important Score
27 April 2005
Nixon, while in China, was treated to an abbreviated performance of this ballet, and he became a fan! And why not? It's a great show. And a great score, full of emotion, catchy tunes, and real Hollywood Golden Age-style heart, enough to win over a Republican president! Because, that's what really matters in art and show biz: appealing to the audience. The Chinese Cultural Revolution was a nightmare, but in the midst of the chaos were sincere and hardworking artists who did what they could to produce the best quality productions they could, even though they were propaganda. The other outstanding film in the same vein from China at this time was 'Dongfang hong' (aka 'The East is Red'). It is to these (largely anonymous) artists' credit, and an honor to their memory, that the art in what they did survives, and can be rediscovered.
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Dongfang hong (1965)
One of the Best of its Kind
25 March 2005
Warning: Spoilers
What sort of film would have resulted if, in the mid 1960s, Busby Berkeley, fresh from his gig on 'Jumbo', had been invited by none other than Chairman Mao to realize a project styled 'a song and dance epic', for the benefit of the entire People's Republic of China to digest as a picture show entertainment? Something flashy, but with a message. Something to enliven and uplift the people in ways that even the 'Little Red Book' could not achieve. Well, Buzz never took up the 'offer', but the film which emerged, 'Dongfang Hong' (aka 'The East is Red') certainly ranks as one of the most impressive musicals ever made, despite being buried in obscurity. Film critic Elvis Mitchell, upon seeing clips of 'Dongfang', thought first of Vincente Minelli as far as style is concerned. It's true, there's more of 'An American in Paris' here than '42nd Street', but that's where the film's message comes in: wow the people.

The music? Alfred Newman or Johnny Green could have scored it! A lavish, full-blown symphonic soundtrack, with ancient and modern folk instruments expertly integrated. A huge Robert Shaw-ish chorus provides vocal bulwark duty. The music is properly grand, yet frequently touching and even moving. The camera-work, in mural-like anamorphic widescreen (probably old Bausch & Lomb CinemaScope lenses, obtained via Hong Kong) is marvelously fluid and competent, even stately. Hal Rosson or Leon Shamroy might have shot it! The art direction, settings (ostensibly in the mighty Great Hall of the People), and costumes have all the panache of a Metro or 20th-Fox production, coming at you in blazing 'People's Color'.

Can we assume that, in the almost total absence of cultural and commercial exchange at this time between the West and China, bootleg reels of, say, 'The Goldwyn Follies' or 'The Dolly Sisters' or 'Invitation to the Dance' were smuggled into deepest Red China and dissected as far as style and technique are concerned? In the absence of teachers and colleagues, film viewing itself is an amazingly effective instructor. If one has the hardware, the on screen talent, and the cash, certainly the rest is do-able by example.

But it isn't all just showy technique. The collective performance by the anonymous actors, dancers and musicians is utterly sincere, totally professional, and undoubtedly dedicated. It's as if their lives depended on it(!). Some of the moments of drama brought forth in this cinematic instrument of persuasion beggar description as far as epicness is concerned. The exaggerations employed are both glorious and have a traditionally ancient quality. They are not so much preposterous when one considers all the extreme travails that China went through in the first half of the 20th century. On the other hand, it's really quite hilarious to see machine gun-toting partisans frolicking in and out of marsh grass to the bouncy rhythm of a coy song, and the goofball depictions of the Western-ish slave owners and merchant creeps are basically pretty silly. But most of the picture is sheer wonder, and the pace does not let up. One sequence is particularly inspired: followers of the Chairman grow in number; they carry torches in the form of neat little oscillating 'bubble-lamps', which increase exponentially as they progress across the vast landscape of the painted backdrop, 'spreading the word', all done with thrilling stagecraft (and not cinematic) technique.

The profoundly serious pronouncements by the on screen 'narrators', which usher us from scene to scene, look like something out of 'The Ten Commandments' (1956), what with the stylized lighting and portentous tone in which they are done.

At the end, the conductor of the orchestra, who has been herculean in his efforts to guide this massive entity through its course with all the confidence of a Bernstein or a Stokowski or a Toscanini, is able to give one final gesture: a grandiose rendition of the 'Internationale' to wrap up the show, and bring down the house.

With the knowledge that China's Cultural Revolution was such a tumultuous and horrific period in which untold numbers of Chinese suffered and died, it is perhaps awkward to praise such a propaganda piece such as 'Dongfang'. For those who know Chinese or, if one is watching a subtitled version, there is the predictable anti-Western and naturally pro-Communist rhetoric woven throughout the whole, but the film is actually quite accurate in the story it tells. Glorifying the regime of Mao is certainly the imperative. This is accomplished by sheer epic theatricalism. A touch of Hollywood, a touch of Peking Opera, and lots of great tunes, tableaux, acrobatics, and triumphalism accompany the mega-powerful purpose of this picture: propaganda. Nevertheless, 'Dongfang' is no 'Triumph of the Will'. It is indeed a 'song and dance epic', which brings far more fascination and sheer entertainment qualities with it, rather than the baggage of uneasy guilt. It is important to remember that this picture was shot before the Cultural Revolution really got started, and its message is downright innocent compared to what was to follow. The only real similarity with 'Triumph' (besides propaganda as choreographed showbiz) is that the director of 'Dongfang was also a woman. Ping Wang was respected enough to be given this prestigious assignment in a climate where certain women, despite everything else that was going on, attained opportunities of consequence. Chairman Mao's wife was heavily involved in motion pictures.

The film has a lengthy text prologue which is accompanied by a much-repeated rendition of the 'Internationale'.

Fans of 'Dongfang' will note that there exists a companion piece, 'The Long March Melody' (aka: 'The Red Army - No Afraid of Long March (sic) - Song Series of Long March (Documentary of Stage Art)', also directed by Ping Wang (1976). It is a 'song series program re-edited and acted according to "Song Series of Long March" composed by comrade Xiao Hua', (and presumably, Ding Shande).
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Consummately Gothic
16 November 2004
I saw this picture in, of all places, New Delhi. So, viewing a dark Russian tale in such a colourful, lively environment added to the already heightened feeling of high quality weirdness that 'Stakha' (English title: 'The Savage Hunt of King Stakh') conveys. The wonderful and adventurous strangeness of later Soviet era films, so little seen in the West, is here evident, but with an added ingredient of genuine gothicness, somewhat akin to Herzog's 'Nosferatu', but with a thrust further into undiscovered corners and shadows. Rather than discomfort though, this film brings with it a certain coziness, more Poe-like than horrific, much more Byronic than Stephen King-ish. There is a sort of perversity in the art direction, which perfectly accompanies the singular mood of this obscure picture. It was 20 years ago that I saw it, and it is the mood of the piece, not so much the imagery or the soundtrack, which remains in the memory. Naturally, I wish it were accessible. At least one sale of a DVD version would be assured.
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The Egyptian (1954)
An Ancient Saga as Wide as the CinemaScope Screen!
23 August 2004
One of the most pleasurable aspects of movie viewing is to get lost in a film. To have it totally wash over you, so that you absorb it as it is, and thus, experience it to the fullest. Every time I see it, 'The Egyptian' is such a film. Over the years it is a picture critics have loved to hate. Many have thrown darts at its vulnerabilities. But perhaps it is because of the very tone the film brings with it rather than its most obvious characteristics. It is at once forbidding, remote, possibly dangerous; beware of what lies within! The haunting chords of the music, seen over the 20th-Fox logo, usher us into titles of other-worldly turquoise lettering.

Strange! Archaeological! Decadent! It is as if we are descending into some vault of antiquity, wherein might be great treasures, mixed with uncertain hazards. (One might imagine Darryl Zanuck commanding: 'Make it ancient!') Then, what a darkly dramatic story unfolds, all within the same tone set at the start.

Of Hollywood's mid-50s 'Egyptian Trilogy', 'The Ten Commandments' portrayed the civilization's sternness, the phenomenal 'Land of the Pharaohs' its nuts and bolts, while 'The Egyptian' shows it all, from glamour to tragedy, for us to wonder at.

No need to say much about the players here, but I think that, with the passage of time, Bella Darvi is being redeemed. What a perfect face for the role, right out of a Symbolist painting. If her acting does not please some, it might be argued that, in her role as a 'courtesan', she is obviously better in bed than yakking to some poor helpless admirer. I think that Curtiz captured the kinkiness of her sado-masochistic relationship with Edmund Purdom's character with aplomb, censorship being what it was at the time. Sir Peter Ustinov, in his memoirs, was pretty kind to 'The Egyptian', writing that it was 'like being lost in a huge set for 'Aida'. His pronunciation of the word 'beer' I have adopted myself ever after.(One of the film's historically accurate references: the Egyptian's invented beer!) Henry Daniell, egads, what a perfect performance. Gene Tierney, what a screen treasure. Bless DFZ for giving her this 'late' role. C'mon folks, don't be so hard on Victor Mature! He's a cheesemaker's son! Who rose to be pharaoh! Sounds like a peculiarly American opportunity. One of the best moments: John Carradine's existential observations on the sands of time. And Purdom's utterance about dwelling beyond the sunset of the world. If that isn't Grade 'A' epicness, what is?

Of course, along with everything else, the music is sublime. It is frequently noted that Alfred Newman and Bernard Herrmann created one of the screen's most compelling scores, perfectly harmonious, yet each theme is well developed, with a life of its own. Newman, pressed for time by DFZ, called in Herrmann, someone he could trust implicitly, to take up half the burden.

Benny, not the easiest guy to work with, obviously respected Newman enough to really deliver inspiring music. They alternated cues, an ingenious approach. No spoilers as to who did what here, but Benny brings an edge with him, mysterious, awesome sounds. Alfred brings fulsomeness, longing, poignancy. Both are consummately epic. Even when seen on a squeezed TV print, the effect of seeing the two composers' names side by side in the main credits, which the ultra-wide anamorphic screen could comfortably accommodate, is spine-tingling.

Leon Shamroy, the Dean of CinemaScope, does not let us down here. The lurid greens and moody shadows (probably distortions in all the terrible TV prints I've seen through the years) perfectly accompany the multi-dimensional script (by the great Philip Dunne and WB vet Casey Robinson, whom Curtiz must've brought with him to 20th). How remarkable it is that Shamroy, who was as much of an institution of cinematography at Fox as Newman was with music, would lens 'Cleopatra' a few years later, but in the brighter, sharper images of '60s Todd A-O. These old studio guys are really heroes of mine.

To me, who wants to fret about all the imperfections and criticism opportunities in a picture like this? I'd rather yield entirely to its spell, and dive off into its sea of lavishness, to emerge after the inspiring climax of 'The End' refreshed, moved, and hungry for more.

And yes, we should cry out to 20th-Fox for a DVD release worthy of DFZ's legacy.
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Sayonara (1957)
Now that Brando has left the building...
3 July 2004
Brando's position in the pantheon of the greats is secure. Now that

he is gone, (his life expired just yesterday) it will be worthwhile to

review his legacy. Pictures like 'Sayonara', which were grade 'A'

productions, but subject to criticism when they came out ,can now

be viewed in a new light. We can now see the care lavished upon

them. 'Sayonara' is a superb film in every category.

Brando's odd (to say the least) 'southern' accent proves to be a

brilliant choice in defining his character's contrasting presence in

the Japanese scene, an approach he would employ later in his

amazing, bizarre interpretation of Fletcher Christian. Whatever one

thinks of Brando's choices in tackling a role, he was never dull,

and watching him experiment is a viewer's treat. And Miyoshi

Umeki: what a discovery! The portrayal of those in Japan who are

just living their lives is done with sensitivity and humanity.

Just as important as the stars' performance and the story itself, is

Franz Waxman's music. It cannot be praised too highly, and is a

perfect example of a meticulously crafted score: mature, totally

sincere, and without one trace of cynicism or misdirection. Film

music like this is safe from being taken for granted. Waxman's

theme for the Red Buttons/Miyoshi Umeki relationship is among

the most poignant and haunting even written for the screen. Its

variations range from wistful to heartbreaking.

None other than Irving Berlin supplied the title song (he gets as

much screen credit as Waxman!). No pop hit, it nevertheless

integrates well with Waxman's score.

Ellsworth Fredericks' masterful Technirama lensing makes this

picture one of the best of the 50s. Seeing it in widescreen is a

thrilling event. The title sequence, in red lettering, is a fine example

of how every department, even one which deals with the 'job' of

giving credit, made sure that each element of a film like this

worked in concert with each other, to create a cohesive whole.

What a pleasure it is to have a proper introduction to a film, with

visuals and overture tailored to the drama to come. Such was the

style then. Bill Goetz produced. Thanks, Bill!

Josh Logan as a director is often reviled, but why is it then, that his

pictures are especially enjoyable, particularly with repeat

viewings? His huge closeups are terrific! He really went for the

gusto in splashing his stories on the screen, and made the most

of the 'big Hollywood production' thing.

Jack L. Warner's mid to late 50s productions rivaled 20th-Fox's in

lavishness and quality. Fortunately for us, the fans of pictures like

'Sayonara', he and Zanuck always tried to outdo each other.

Tonight, to honor the memory of Marlon Brando, I'm rolling

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Quo Vadis (1951)
The Big One!
29 December 2003
It is a great pleasure to see so many comments here that are enthusiastic about 'Quo Vadis'. I just saw it again last night after about 15 years, and I marvelled at what a high quality spectacle it is - better than ever, in fact.

In his autobiography, 'Take One', Mervyn LeRoy has some great stories about 'Quo Vadis'. Such as: while filming one of the really big crowd scenes, a voice pipes up from the extras: 'Hey Moy-vin!', and it's Jack Benny. And in a scene right out of one of his pictures, when 'Quo Vadis' is screened in San Francisco, and LeRoy is present, the theatre happens to be right near the corner where the big-time director once sold papers as a kid. He revisits the corner after the screening and sheds a few tears. LeRoy was an extra in C.B. DeMille's first 'Ten Commandments', so the desire to deliver something DeMillian was realized at last, and with smashing success.

We all agree on Peter Ustinov's ingenious performance, so all I need to add is that in his own autobiography, 'Dear Me', Sir Peter's recollections of the filming are as wonderful as his performance.

Whatever his capabilities as an actor, I always thought that Bob Taylor's performance was pretty darn good, and appropriate, too: what high-ranking Roman officer wouldn't be pompous? In any case, the story is much larger than Marcus' character, and the story comes to dominate the picture.

It is indeed a pity that the excellent Rozsa score wasn't handled by the Warners sound department, where it would have been been presented to full effect Much of its impact is squandered by its being kept in the background. I don't think Merv LeRoy had so much to do with this decision, as his alma mater was Warners (try watching 'Anthony Adverse'!) It seems that it was probably MGM policy. With sensitivity, a DVD version could perhaps offer the picture with a 'sweetened' soundtrack.

The quality of the camera work by solid professionals Bob Surtees (later MGM's UltraPanavision 70 specialist) and Wm V. Skall (his work on 'The Silver Chalice' was outstanding) really cannot be overstated.

Along with the delights of Sir Peter's performance, I still get choked up when noble Buddy Baer takes on that bull, and when Marina Berti's character displays so much love and devotion to Leo Genn's. Genn is right up there with James Mason in quality, and indeed, Mason may have taken a few pointers from Genn's performance for his own acting in subsequent epics. Patricia Laffan is decadently sexy without being campy.

Trivia: scenes for the burning of Rome were sensibly used in MGM's 'The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao' and 'Atlantis, The Lost Continent' to great effect.

It is a credit to Merv LeRoy for allowing great actors like Peter Ustinov and Leo Genn to 'do their thing'.

'Quo Vadis' is a classic: a stunning spectacle, intelligent, good script, fine performances by practically everybody, and it remains long in the memory, and holds up well indeed.
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Good Earth, Good Show, One of the Best of its Era
17 October 2003
In the 30s and 40s, MGM had a penchant for (then) contemporary Chinese-oriented stories ('The Son-Daughter', 'Dragon Seed', 'Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo', etc.), and whether this was a preference, or whether there were just a lot of Chinese-design sets to keep occupied at the studio, the results were strangely moving. 'The Good Earth' is of course the finest of its genre, for any number of reasons.

From the very beginning of the picture, right after the lion's roar, we see the poignant tribute to Irving Thalberg, and we know that we are embarking on an important viewing experience. The scope of the story is very wide, and the filmmakers are up for the task. I was always struck by the abruptness of the final scene, but its power and beauty form an excellent example of the art achieved within the often cynical Hollywood film factory. And Lotus - the strangeness of her, and her dance, contrasted with the goodness of O-lan!

Aside from the oft-mentioned attributes of acting, photography and special effects, a major element in 'The Good Earth' is the score. Herbert Stothart may not be in the ranks of Hollywood's 'mighty handful' (Alfred Newman, Steiner, Tiomkin, Waxman, Herrmann), but his 'MGM-sound' scores regularly deliver the goods. True, Stothart had no hesitation in applying the syrup at first opportunity (one can imagine Louis B. Mayer positively ordering it), but in this picture, syrup gives way to sympathy. One of the pleasures of Hollywood's Golden Age films is that all the elements of a given film support each other, and great scores support not only the characters, but the entire film. Stothart's score is so sympathetic and so sincere, from the Main Title all the way through, and it enhances the story and the performances so naturally and at times transparently, that it must be considered a classic score. No great 'tunes' specifically, but plenty of effective mood, atmosphere and unabashed emotion. Many of today's audiences may find little to enjoy in such a combination, or they may be embarrassed by it, but I revel in it, as cinema such as this, which is delivered with such heart and good will is, especially in these times, nothing short of a gift.

The issue of non-Chinese playing Chinese characters has already been discussed on these pages, but I can only add: please, viewers, consider the film within the era that it was produced. The same kind of incongruity still happens today, perhaps not so much racially, but certainly culturally: Brad Pitt in 'Seven Years in Tibet', Keanu Reeves in 'Little Buddha', and other Americans getting plum roles in British-originated stories that become Hollywoodized, etc. When making 'Bhowani Junction', George Cukor considered using Indian actors, but vetoed any candidates in favor of familiar Hollywood faces. Never mind that in the 50s, as today, India had a huge film industry. It's just that those actors didn't fit into the Hollywood scheme of things. That speaks of box office more than political incorrectness. There is no doubt that fine actors like Philip Ahn should have gotten lead roles in pictures like 'The Good Earth', but at least we can enjoy them in supporting roles which carry a lot of weight in their own right. As time goes on, the context of past eras fades, while the films themselves, the really good ones, live on. There's plenty of opportunity for revisionist theses about issues like racial inequality in 1930s Hollywood, but for 138 minutes, it is compelling and moving to absorb onesself in the story and the atmosphere of 'The Good Earth'.
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Superbly evocative of tropical colonialism.
17 September 2002
This is a big picture, which deserves more exposure. In the early 60s Universal was more known for fluffball (but high quality) Doris Day product, but here they show their diversity by presenting what was obviously a prestige picture. Bob Mulligan, who scored a hit with 'To Kill a Mockingbird' in the same year, got to try his hand at an epic. The main titles are perfect to set the mood: youthful Jerry Goldsmith's talents as a composer are spectacular and atmospheric. He of course used gamelans in his score, but he uses them with concise effect, and without cliché. The graphics of the titles are very fine: colourful maps guide us in to a strange 'exotic' place. Such a relief from the sterile titles of today.

This film really made a big impression on me as a kid when I saw it on TV in the late 60s. 'Pan and scan' TV viewing had a definite mystique to it, as the process of squeezing anamorphic images into The Box automatically made the picture in question important. 'The Spiral Road' was no exception. But it IS important. I can imagine the grandeur of seeing it in a full-blown picture palace. Everything in the film is competently executed. I even remember the props, such as Rock's intriguing spherical fan on his bedside table.

The performances are excellent, reliable, and everyone really delivers. Burl Ives practically steals the show (as usual), and gets some good 'honeylamb' lines in. The aged Sultan is memorable. The fabulous Larry Gates, one of the greats, never disappoints. This role was a warm up for his deeper part as the missionary in 'The Sand Pebbles', a more profound companion to this picture.

'Lord Jim' of 1965 explores the same 'dark side of the jungle', only a century earlier. All three are outstanding examinations of the many dimensions of tropical and Asian colonialism, albeit from a Western viewpoint.

I agree that it's time this picture, and many more like it, was allowed into wider exposure via video/DVD. Vendors, take note!

PS: I just saw the DVD edition, and I was not disappointed. The picture holds up very well, though I would have wished for more Burl Ives in the last sequences. Russell Harlan's camera-work is outstanding, only matched by his work on 'Hawaii' a few years later.
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