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Moby Dick (1956)
Better and better each time you see it
19 April 2000
Some critics panned this pic when it came out - Peck too wooden, the script too cliched, etc, etc. Don't believe a word of it. I saw this one when I was 8 or 9, and for years I watched it every time it came on TV - even in B&W! Peck isn't wooden, he's intense and fascinating (my favorite scene: in his cabin, saying to Starbuck, "That bed is a coffin"). The language may sound stilted, but it's MELVILLE'S, and the cast sink into it with conviction.

Some critic (I don't know which) has said that Moby Dick (the book) is an "uncomfortable masterpiece" - or something like that - meaning that it's a hard pill to swallow. The movie is bound to be a hard pill for many viewers as well. But that's their loss. Huston's movie is a great big powerful thing - you believe in Peck's crazy passion, in Starbuck's gentleness, in Ishmael and Quequeg's bond, in the evil of the whale, even.

Another favorite sequence: the Pequot becalmed, the crew lying about under the intense sun, slowly going crazy. The climactic chase is superb and thrilling, of course; what it all adds up to is a film about the elements, and our relationship to them. The whale is just the biggest of a whole slew that constantly threaten to destroy us. Nature, our natures - all the things we fight against with our intelligence, that threaten to engulf us.

Beautiful film, one of Huston's best. I find the analogy with Hitler/Nazis in an earlier comment very interesting. Another would be with an earlier Huston film, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre - another film about people taking terrible chances for reasons that don't stand up to a lot of examination, whose biggest obstacle turns out to be themselves. By the way, will someone please rerelease Moby Dick in a restored version so we can get a really good look at all that glorious Technicolor?
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Gigi (1958)
Collette, Americanized
29 March 2000
Don't get me wrong, I love it - Leslie Caron and the whole cast. And the songs are superb.

But let's face it, this is Americanized Collette. She celebrated the deals and compromises within a sexist order that allowed a lucky few high-class prostitutes to become well-to-do, independent women in fin-de-siecle Paris (and a lot of others to at least make some kind of living). She empowered women, at a time when there just weren't many other opportunities for them to establish real independence (our current categories of PC and non-PC wouldn't have meant much then). It wasn't always pretty, but there was reality in her writing about relations between the sexes that hasn't lost its relevance.

Of course, this had to be soft-pedalled for the American audience - hence the ending, which conforms nicely with middle-class morality on this side of the Atlantic. This is the only "politically" unsatisfactory thing about the movie, however. And it remains superior - both "politically" and as a film - to My Fair Lady, where Eliza is implied to return and submit herself to Rex Harrison at the end, whereas Gigi at least implies that it's Gaston rather than Gigi who is going to have to change his ways.

My only other gripe: Why no dancing from Leslie - and from Vincente Minelli, that peerless director of dance sequences? I guess Lerner and Lowe must have been more in control of this one, and weren't of a mind for rug-cutting. Too bad - there really isn't nearly enough of Leslie dancing on film as it is!
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Variety (1925)
Visually spectacular; Jannings' warm-up for "Blue Angel"
20 March 2000
The print I saw recently did not contain the "prologue" mentioned above, which I assume was lifted from the novel on which the film was based. If it had been included in some form, it would have made several things clearer: 1) where "Boss" got his nickname; 2) why he was so much older than Berta-Marie; 3) why so much older (and less in-shape) a man would still be a trapeze artist; 4) why the couple seemed so puppyishly in love at the beginning, he to the point of slavishness; and 5) why "Boss" would be so jealous when Artinelli shows attentions to Berta.

None of this is absolutely necessary to enjoy the film, however, which has beautifully detailed performances and terrific camerawork by Karl Freund. The trapeze sequences will leave you giddy. The montages of variety acts are witty and vibrant. Berlin nightlife in the '20s looks glamorous. And Jannings surely has one of the classic silent-screen actors' faces, eloquently conveying a wide spectrum of emotions.

"Variete" was a sensation when it appeared, primarily for its camerawork. At the time, director EA Dupont took most of the kudos and seemed launched on a promising career. But he was tapped out after his next flick, the estimable "Picadilly," and in retrospect, Freund is the creative force whose part in "Variete" assumes a place in a major body of film work. That being said, Dupont's work with the actors here is outstanding and a key part of the film's success.
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Panic on the 5:22 (1974 TV Movie)
Or, Scenes from the Class Struggle on a commute train ...
23 February 2000
When I saw this TV flick I was about 13 years old and thought life was a well-tended suburb. This crude little Movie-of-the-Week helped start me on the road to reality.

I don't know how they got it by the feel-good police, but this "movie" gave a pretty good accounting of the stark difference between rich and poor and how awful it can be -- the pathetic hopes of the working-class trio of robbers, the frequent hatefulness of their victims, the inevitability of it all when the robbers know they are caught and the system closes in on them.

> Pretty powerful stuff for the time, and almost impossible to imagine anyone in TV Land green-lighting today. Put it down as "Dog Day Afternoon's" poorer but still worthy cousin -- overwritten and pumped up (but then, wasn't "DDA" as well?) and make sure to catch it on the late show.
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Interesting pre-code melodrama
23 February 2000
The plot twists in this movie seem more bizarre every time I think about them -- the turnabout in Dvorak's character foremost, of course (she just didn't seem to have it in her), but also the sudden transition from goofily humorous opening to full-blown meller in the second half. One wonders how the screenwriters were able to sell the studio on a fatalistic tale like this when the Depression was at its height. But this one is well worth catching on late-night TV -- first for one of those pre-stardom Bette Davis performances (her persona is completely different from the one she shortly would make her career on) and second for a chance to see Dvorak in a lead. She's lovely as always, and her tragic end carries some real weight.
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A very amusing life-is-cheap movie
11 February 2000
I don't know why Leonard Maltin's Move Guide gives this one a bomb. It's a quite amusing life-is-cheap movie that affords some of our favorite character actors (James Russo, Jessica Harper, Dean Stockwell, Tovah Feldshuh) the chance to chew some very fine jungle scenery. McDermott spends the whole movie with only one expression on his face (a smirk, I believe it's called) that could stand for the attitude the whole movie adopts towards what goes on therein. Maybe that's what p***ed Maltin off, but I liked it.

Harper, in particular, makes perhaps the best female crime boss since the '70s heyday of the "Mama" subgenre (Winters in Bloody Mama, Dickinson in Big Bad Mama I and II, Leachman in Crazy Mama). Stockwell's neckbrace-and-Coke-bottle-glasses-wearing, Q-tip swabbing secret agent is mighty funny too. Very enjoyable.
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The greatest doc ever of a pop music group
28 January 2000
Sheer brilliance from Robert Frank, one of the great visual artists of our time. Let's say right at the start that the concert footage (the only portions of "CB" in color) captures some of the Stones' best performances ever on film, including a splendid "Midnight Rambler" and a wonderful medley of "Uptight" and "Satisfaction" with Stevie Wonder.

But the meat of this film is in the off-the-cuff, life-on-the-road footage, shot in a beautiful, grainy black and white. Other important filmmakers worked with the Stones before and after (J-L Godard on "One Plus One," Hal Ashby on the regrettable "Let's Spend the Night Together"), but this is the great one because it does the opposite of glamorizing the band -- it reveals the quotidian nature of their antics on the road. Lots of outrageous things happen: roadies shoot up, Keith Richards throws a TV set out the window and displays himself in various states of extreme intoxication and/or nodding off, groupies are abused on the tour bus, etc.

But Frank reveals it all in his unique deadpan style, letting you see the band members as individuals carrying on an everyday existence rather than as celebrities. In his camera, the excess is all of a piece with the mundane details: Jagger sitting on his hotel bed ordering a bowl of fruit, a conversationless walk along a road, etc.

Frank doesn't deglamorize his subject, either -- despite the squalor of some of what he shows us, he isn't out to debunk the Stones and their hangers-on, but to reveal them to us as part of everyday life and the spectacle they put on as a workaday component of the larger spectacle society feeds to the masses as entertainment. The effect is a little like the messier backstage scenes of such films as von Sternberg's "The Blue Angel," Bergman's "Sawdust and Tinsel," or Fellini's "Variety Lights," where the everyday routine that goes on behind the making of an illusion seems somehow harder and crueller than it would in any other setting. But it's life, as Robert Frank observes it in our airbrushed, late-capitalist world.

The wonderful last shot, as Jagger throws his arm into the air amidst an explosion of lights and camera flashes, ends it with a flourish, but by now we've seen the mess behind the flash. This film grows you up.

Officially, "CB" was the film of the Stones' 1972 US tour, but for murky reasons (one hears it was the shooting-up sequences that did it) the band barred its release and only allows it to be shown occasionally. In its place, the relatively uninspired "Ladies and Gentlemen, the Rolling Stones!" was released. Too bad -- catch "CB" if you can, or seek out one of the many bootleg videotapes circulating, although the color repro on the latter can sometimes be lousy.
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Death to Theatre!
3 December 1999
You heard me -- in fact, if I had my way, I'd institute a five-year (at least) ban on all adaptations of "quality" stage plays into movies, as well as ban all major-league theatrical directors and actors from starring in movies. "Six Degrees" was just one too many times I've seen a play that got serious attention from the middlebrow pundits of my fair city turned into a movie that wasted a lot of talent only to prove how shallow and pretentious the original "highly acclaimed" play actually was.

"We're all connected." Gee. And isn't it nice that dubious black kids like the Will Smith character are around to fulfill their life's mission of transforming the lives of bored rich white people like the Stockard Channing character. What does he get in the end? A trip to jail. As for her, she gets a slick fadeout shot courtesy of classy Aussie director Fred Schepisi. Cheap self-laceration for comfortably well-off.

"Six Degrees" joins "Agnes of God," "Children of a Lesser God," "Fool for Love," and assorted other contraptions whose film adaptations merely prove that film has a knack for exposing the creaky workings of "quality" drama for the cheap fakery they really are. Ditto for Channing's "acclaimed" Broadway performance, which simply looks like a lot of scenery chewing over some claptrap dialog when seen on the screen.

Want to waste your time brow-furrowing over the self-important inner lives of a lot of cardboard rich-Manhattan stock characters? Then see "Six Degrees." Otherwise, have a martini and slip in a video of something that wasn't designed for the tasteful upper-middle class suburban theatre tourist -- like maybe a good John Woo flick.
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Lolita (1997)
Worth seeing if you love the novel
22 November 1999
Nabokov's best novel save for Pale Fire will probably never get an "ideal" filming, unless someone decides to actually commit Nabokov's own script to celluloid (he wrote it for the 1962 version, and his name appears in the credits, but the finished product was almost wholly the product of Kubrick's pen and Peter Sellers' ad-libbing). But I like both the Kubrick and the Lyne versions, with reservations.

With Kubrick's, the only real problem is that it's not Nabokov. James Mason's performance contains the core of an accurate portrayal of Humbert, and he's often moving. But Sue Lyon was too old for her part and Sellers' Quilty is an altogether different conception from the author's (not that he isn't lots of fun). The film also suffers from having been filmed in the UK. Nabokov had a complex vision of America - vast, tacky, seductive, and grindingly mundane all at the same time - and this just can't be conveyed in a studio and with a few well-chosen locations.

That's where Lyne's version excels. His compositions (or his cinematographer's) are indeed beautiful to look at, and (I think) capture suburban and roadside America very much the way Humbert would have experienced them. Irons is fine as Humbert, although the typecasting was initially painful to contemplate, and Swain is a vast improvement over Lyon as young Dolores: still a bit too old for the part (an inevitable problem, perhaps, for anyone who wants to film this book), but her intelligent performance makes up for this. Despite his cheesy reputation, Lyne wisely refrains from making his Lolita a teenage bombshell, something the more artistic Kubrick couldn't resist.

Again, however, the problem is Quilty. Both directors obviously felt compelled to render in three dimensions a character who is one of Nabokov's phantoms: Does he really exist? Who is he and what do we know about him, outside of Humbert's increasingly paranoid imaginings? Can we trust anything at all that's said about him in this book? I expect that Nabokov himself regretted having to bring Quilty out of the shadows at all for the denouement.

Sellers carried off the role with style, making you forget for a moment that his routines seem to have wandered in from another film. Lyne turns the final confrontation between Humbert and Quilty (there is no flashback framing device, as in Kubrick) into pure Grand Guignol, and so we have to endure watching poor, paunchy Frank Langella running down a hallway of his ridiculously overstuffed house, his bathrobe falling open to reveal his endowments to our embarrassed gaze before being blown away Dirty Harry-style by the avenging Humbert. A major wrong note to say the least.

So Quilty, in the end, defeats both of Nabokov's filmic approximators. But if you love the book, see both movies: Kubrick and Lyne each capture different aspects of the master's great story in valuable ways, and the new Lolita is clearly Lyne's best work yet, proving that a great novel can inspire excellent filmmaking, if not guarantee an "ideal" adaptation.

What we really need now, however, is not a third version of Lolita, but finally, a filming of Lolita: A Screenplay. Nabokov had fun writing this, and any fan of his should read his script as well. Wouldn't you like to see a move of Lolita in which Humbert, searching through the woods for his Lo, encounters a butterfly collector named Vladimir Nabokov? Of course you would!
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The Golden Bowl (1972– )
Good, deft take on a difficult novel
17 November 1999
Masterpiece Theatre productions of the 1970s get a lot of kidding, most of it no doubt deserved, these days. But this one gets high marks from me for taking on a novel that's extraordinarily difficult to film (how to build a nearly six-hour drama around a series of events that hardly add up to a story?) and getting it amazingly right.

Jack Pulman, the BBC's longtime great books adapter, does a sturdy job creating credible scenes out of sparse dialog, too much dialog (in other cases), and sometimes yards and yards of descriptive prose that burrows into the characters' minds in ways that would seem impossible to make clear on film.

The result is wordy, with an intrusive narrator, but I can't imagine how else it could be done. As a tale, the novel stands on James' ability to convey the slowly evolving, almost imperceptible changes in the characters' attitudes towards each other. The fact that it took 6 hours to spool out with much of James' intentions intact makes me wonder about the Merchant Ivory version we're about to be graced with: how could they possibly squeeze it all into less than 2 hours without making the whole thing seem like a trivial, almost implausible love affair of little intrinsic interest (although very well dressed!)? This version makes it all seem predestined, almost uncanny, full of wider meaning.

Direction serves the script well, given obvious limitations in production values. One real flaw: acting is perhaps too low key, even from a couple of distinguished veterans as Barry Morse and Daniel Massey. The female leads are passable, and Gayle Hunnicutt as Charlotte has some vivid, passionate moments, but overall their performances come off as less than fully fleshed out. Could be the director's fault: subtle doesn't necessarily mean dampened-down. Best - fortunately - is Cyril Cusack as the narrator, Bob Assingham. Without his witty delivery, the narrative-driven script would feel leaden.

Kudos for a fine adaptation that had me running back to the book.
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Casanova (1987 TV Movie)
A fine, quick ride through a very long memoir
7 October 1999
I caught this on TV one night by chance, and was cheerfully drawn in. Only later did I find out why it was so much fun.

George MacDonald Fraser, author of the "Flashman" novels, should have been signed up by Hollywood a long time ago and put to work reworking classics of the swashbuckling and devil-may-care varieties into entertaining and literate movies. As it is, he's only had a handful of chances to do so, principally "Octopussy,", Richard Lester's "Musketeers" movies and Lester's (regrettably lackluster) adaption of Fraser's own "Royal Flash."

So we're lucky to have this TV film, a quick and highly entertaining run through some of the highlights of the rascally Venetian's memoirs. Chamberlain is fine in the title role, Faye Dunaway is fine too as one of his lady friends, and everybody clearly has a great time. For a "prestige" TV production, the direction is surprisingly zippy, although it could have shown a bit more visual wit to match the writing -- but that's a minor problem. Enjoy the work of a great parodist. Now, if they'd just let Fraser adapt his wonderful satirical novel "The Pyrates" for the big screen (Oops! "Cutthroat Island" seems to have sunk any chance of that happening...)
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Cherished Moments in Film, No. 158
23 August 1999
The scene where Harris (Pickens) tells Pat Garrett (Coburn) that he'll work for him to bring in the Kid, but Garrett will have to pay him in advance. They both know their world is coming to an end, that there's no way money can ever mean that much anymore now that they're hunting their own kind for an evil cattle baron. The look they exchange when Garrett (in a beautiful gesture) flips Harris a single shiny gold coin says it all -- loss, shame, a tragedy already unfolding that they can't do anything about.

Other scenes could easily take the prize, and surely do for other viewers: Peckinpah himself as the coffin builder, Pickens looking at the river after his wife (Katy Jurado) has been killed, and of course, the opening credits as a much older Coburn pulls his wagon to a halt to face the corporate killers he always knew would come for him.

Just a gorgeous movie. That it was butchered by MGM and dumped into second-run theaters, and was not restored so we could see it as it should have been until after its creator died, is a crime.
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Mesmerized (1985)
Where have we seen this before?
20 August 1999
While watching this on late-night TV recently, I couldn't help but think back to an Oscar-bedecked offering that was released about seven years later - The Piano. Both set in New Zealand, both about mail-order brides who can't stand their husbands ... etc. Mesmerized doesn't indulge in the florid touches with which Jane Campion pumped up her rather empty opus (chopped off fingers, Harvey Keitel's Maori facial tattoos and frontal nudity, etc.), and this is certainly a serious effort by co-producer Foster, but that doesn't mean it's better filmmaking. In fact, despite the cast, it's flat and unimpressive visually and for the most part boring storywise. So if Campion did any ripping off, it was at least in the interests of high camp.
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Why is everyone so down on this movie?
19 August 1999
Spike of Bensonhurst is a lot of fun. It's an only slightly idealized look at life in Brooklyn's ethnic enclaves in the 1980s, by former Warhol co-conspirator Paul Morrissey. With amusing and well deployed performances by Mitchell and by Borgnine as the neighborhood Mob boss he runs afoul of, it's one of the few Brooklyn- or New York-set movies from that era that actually looks like it was filmed there, not on a set. (Even Martin Scorcese's films of the period - although not his 1970s movies, of course - look slick by comparison.)

Maybe people don't like the fact that Spike implies strongly that life goes on even amidst crack, ethnic violence, and corruption and doesn't preach about these things - just presents them as facts of the local situation, without letting them get in the way of humor? Somehow, the movie leaves you amused and feeling good in spite or even because of some of the more graphic stuff it shows you.
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Candyman (1992)
Madsen and Rose make a great horror move
17 August 1999
Virginia Madsen is one of THE underrated American movie actresses, and Candyman gave her one of the strongest roles an American movie actress has had in the past decade at least. Why she doesn't get higher-profile roles I don't understand.

Bernard Rose showed with Candyman that he's got a terrific visual style - rich, hypnotic. That he's chosen to concentrate on pretentiously "literate" subjects like Beethoven and Anna Karenina since Candyman is a waste: We need him to turn his camera on some more contemporary settings, to show us the weirdness that lies behind them.
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Startime: The Turn of the Screw (I) (1959)
Season 1, Episode 3
A real gem from the Golden Age of Television
4 August 1999
I saw a theatrical screening of this last year - always a treat with live TV productions, because the seams show so amusingly. But well worth seeing on the small screen, too. Bergman's first dramatic TV appearance, and she gives one of her best performances. Her incredibly expressive face and body language make the suspense and mystery really palpable. Supporting cast good, although not quite in the same category. Production is simple (only a couple of sets) but effectively atmospheric. Frankenheimer really knew how to make these shows work.
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This movie is NOT about sex!
22 July 1999
Kubrick's last film has been getting some unjustified negative press (slow, ill-matched mix of ponderous and comic, Cruise can't act, etc). There are some inconsistencies in editing, color quality, sound mix, but these don't take away much from one of the defining American films of the decade. Biggest complaint seems to be that the sex isn't very, well, sexy. But when was the last time Kubrick made a movie in which sex was fun (A Clockwork Orange? George C. Scott and his girlfriend at the beginning of Dr. Strangelove?)? And anyway, sex isn't what EWS (or any other Kubrick film) is about. Like Schnitzler's novel, it's really about the deeper insecurities of a young couple on their way up the social ladder. They had such people in turn-of-the-century Vienna, too, which is why this was such good material for an update to the nouveau riche '90s, especially for a cold fish like ol' Stanley.

Schnitzler wrote about bourgeois up-and-comers fascinated and repelled by the decadent world of the aristocracy - however real or imaginary that decadence turned out to be. Same thing here - our young couple don't know why the mysterious Victor keeps inviting them to his Christmas parties, but they're dazzled and drawn into his world, which makes theirs look suddenly boring. Tom and Nicole, with their unshakeable image as Hollywood's young naifs, are perfectly cast. And it doesn't matter that their performances aren't especially impressive: Cruise, who reacts to everything with the same clenched, defensive grin, IS Bill Harford, the doctor out of his depth in the weird world of the super-rich. Kubrick wickedly uses the truths and rumors about these two stars to add dimensions to the film, even throwing in a scene where a bunch of frat-kids gay-bash Bill.

Wife Alice's fascination confines itself to her dreams; husband goes out on the town. He doesn't have sex with the hooker who picks him up, because sex isn't really what he's after -- it's adventure, something to take him out of his narrow existence. What's all that money he's making for, anyway?

Sure, the much-derided orgy-in-a-mansion scene is ludicrous, but it's probably just the kind of fantasy a guy like Bill Harford would dream up if you asked him to think decadent. (What's dream and what's reality? consider that the one-night stand that's Alice's fantasy is pretty tame compared to what Bill "actually" sees - yet he didn't have sex, and in her dream, she does.) Think of it as wish-fulfillment: Bill gets exactly the kind of outre experience he was looking for, and in the end gets exactly the lesson he probably knew was coming all along: don't meddle with things you don't understand. The ending confirms one of the defining truths about the middle class of either 1900 or the 1990s: that when confronted with such advice, they will take it, circle the wagons, defend their immediate material world, and let the mysterious remain the mysterious. Yes, life is elsewhere; it'll just have to stay there. The title is perfect: Eyes wide open - but only for an instant. Then shut tight again, probably for good. Fine film, and a most timely note on which to end an extraordinary moviemaking career.
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