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Interesting to WW1 aviation aficionados
4 December 2016
"Hell in the Heavens" is generally a pretty good WW1 aviation melodrama. The main interest, for those who are fans of the genre, is that the script was co-written by Ted Parsons, one of the 38 members of the Lafayette Escadrille. He wrote an outstanding memoir of his time in WW1, "I Flew with the Lafayette Escadrille," and he served as historical consultant on "Hell in the Heavens." Therefore, some of the routine of squadron life and flying in this predictable melodrama ring true. There are some details that refer to the Lafayette Escadrille, though never by name, and the Sioux warrior escadrille logo is painted on the planes. There is also a "bottle of death."

The flying sequences are not terribly interesting, unfortunately, with the best footage taken from "Hells Angels." However, the performances by Warner Baxter and the alluring Conchita Montenegro (who co-starred in "Cisco Kid" a few years before) are good. Andy Devine is fun, as always. See the preceding review for a good synopsis.

This may be a hard film to track down -- I was given a bootleg -- but I hope someone will restore it. It's worthwhile.
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A real treat from pre-Code days
9 December 2009
I have to weigh in on this deliciously fun, kitschy movie. Perhaps one needs a historical perspective to appreciate the fun and absurdity of this very game film. The detracting comments have missed the boat. The appreciative comments have laid out the story and gimmicks well. I'd like to add that the big production number, which looks like the concoction of marching band instructor from a military background who saw a Busby Berkeley movie while stoned, has to be seen to be believed. And, yes, the nudity and sexual innuendo seems risqué enough for the time to be very entertaining. Though short on talent, Buster Crabbe is fun to watch, as is a young Ida Lupino who certainly made good from this unpromising start. For me, James Gleason is the treat. Though not nearly as sharp as later performances -- particularly his great drunk scene in MEET JOHN DOE -- it's interesting to see a pro finding his sea-legs on film in 1934. A diamond in the rough!
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Middling doc on WWII in North Africa by Zanuck
19 October 2009
This documentary was apparently shot by Darryl Zanuck and John Ford while they were both working with the Signal Corps in North Africa during WWII. The footage is in color and opens with a parade of the French Foreign Legion in front of the governor's palace in Algiers. It then follows American troops as they head east on British ships, unload at Bone harbor near Tunis, Allied territory, and proceed inland to engage the Germans. There is an air raid by German planes with a few nice shots, some nice shots of refugees, some camels with a US tank passing by, and a brief shot of John Ford riding a small burro. However, much of the footage is dark and, while taken under fire, is too far away from the action. They also repeat an annoying trick of showing a plane diving, then cut to burning wreckage while hearing an explosion.

Though Zanuck was the only mogul to serve overseas and see action (I believe), he aborted his service early under shady circumstances, came home with the footage, and released the film much to the anger of Ford. It's about 45 minutes. The footage is not nearly as good as Ford's MIDWAY film, nor can it hold a candle to Huston's WWII documentaries. Unfortunately it is of little interest, except as a diary of what Zanuck did during the war. But Zanuck and Ford sure made some other great films together!
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Crackling comedy in archaic film
4 February 2009
THE ROYAL FAMILY OF Broadway is a fascinating snapshot of movie history. The worthy Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman stage play retains its crackling dialogue but is presented in a stilted, amateurish film. After the sound era was ushered in with the blast of THE JAZZ SINGER, the studios dumped many of their writers in the rush to hire playwrights who could write dialogue. Yet, while the Ferber and Kaufman play, adapted for the screen by Herman Mankiewicz, is sturdy and fun, the film seems to have been made right after THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY.

This is interesting. After the sublime beauty and sophisticated techniques of silent films such as SUNRISE, THE CROWD, THE BIG PARADE, even TOL'ABLE David ten years earlier, the medium seems thrust backwards as the filmmakers grapple with sound. Shots are poorly framed, some out of focus; scenes are static with few camera angels as they play out, often in one wide shot. This was George Cukor's third film, still paired as a co-director, but Rouben Mamoulian has already made an inventive and dazzling musical, APPLAUSE, as his first film, and Lubitsch has already demonstrated all one would need to see in how to put together a snappy sound comedy with THE LOVE PARADE.

But this should not deter anyone from seeing THE ROYAL FAMILY, this farcical spoof of the theatrical Barrymore family trying to manage their professional and personal lives. The play still works like a charm and the actors deliver gloriously. Though the great stage actress, Ina Claire, never had much success on film, one wonders why. The movies are the worse for it as she is a very funny and enjoyable comedienne playing the diva torn between her love of adulation and guilt for not settling down. Frederic March displays a flair for comedy, in the John Barrymore role, that I am hard pressed to think he ever equaled. (DESIGN FOR LIVING? NOTHING SACRED? Not quite.) You've rarely been served this much ham, but it is a delectable treat.

All in all, THE ROYAL FAMILY OF Broadway is a very enjoyable comedy and a fascinating look at the movies learning to walk again after the freight train of sound has pulled into the station.
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La bandera (1935)
Birth of the Great Gabin
12 January 2007
If you like your meat salty and undercooked and have already tasted the treat that is Jean Gabin on film, this is about as early as you can step back in his career and still get a satisfying meal. He is marching toward his roguish best in this foreign legion romance, and the locations and decor are alluring, even in the faded print I have on DVD. I'm guessing this might be the first film in which he performs his slow burn to explosion, and MAN is this scene -- in close-up -- great!

I don't know much about the beginnings of the poetic realist movement in French cinema, but Duvivier was one of its main practitioners, and this is a precursor to his great PEPE LE MOKO, where the powerful, rash man is driven to destruction by love. Though not as accomplished as the later Gabin romances PORT OF SHADOWS, THE HUMAN BEAST, or LE JOUR SE LEVE, LA BANDERA has its charms. In addition to a great role and performance by Gabin, there is a strong supporting cast including Raymond Aimos, Pierre Renoir, and the indispensable Gaston Modot. Recommended!
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Providence (1977)
A brilliant film, viscerally satisfying
21 July 2006
This film is a rare treat in which both the head and the heart are dazzled by a real work of art. Alain Renais' beautiful and brilliant "Providence" might play as intellectual absurdism at first glance, until one realizes the point of view from which the movie is being told. It's a pity we had to wade through decades of tedious, stilted performances from Geilgud, but it was worth the wait because in "Providence" he springs full flower with a stunning turn as a second-rate British novelist, who will never be as good as Graham Greene. Geilgud is ably supported by Bogarde, Burstyn, and Warner as his seeming calous children. Powerful stuff.
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Trudell (2005)
If you've never heard this man, now is your chance
16 March 2006
John Trudell is a fascinating and troublesome man. His story is complex and unknown by most Americans. I've read two reviews saying the film "Trudell" is too worshipful of the man. The purpose of the film, however, is to illuminate the man and his message to America, which are both very powerful. The audience can critique what Trudell believes however they want.

The film is revealing of the man, his sensibility, and his situation as both an insider and outsider of American culture. The film is also suggestive, in both forceful and poetic ways, as to our responsibilities as American citizens. It's also original in that it has a strong, unfiltered Indian sensibility. If there were more people like John Trudell in America -- and more films addressing the issues of what true freedom and democracy mean -- our country would be in much better shape. Do yourself a favor and see this man, see this film.
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Habit (1995)
A thoughtful vision from an auteur with heart.
27 November 2000
"Habit" is a unique creation from a total filmmaker. The writer/director/editor/star has taken the familiar genres of horror, vampirism, sexual obsession, and addiction, looked at them from the inside out, and blended them into a quixotic journey which leads the audience into a realistic horror of how deadly these afflictions can become. Fessenden shows all the marks of an auteur with heart, and miles to go before he sleeps.
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A beautiful, angry, affecting movie
2 July 1999
What is with those Chinese? I go out of my way to read Chinese history, old and contemporary, and to see their movies, but I am constantly left wondering, 'is it as bad as that?' The very idea of making a movie illegally in China gives me the willies, but Joan Chen did a remarkably beautiful job on her first film. It is shot well and the performances are full and nuanced. However, the male protagonist has been emasculated (an obvious metaphor for the Cultural Revolution), and while having some wonderful qualities, he is unable to overcome the outrages perpetrated in the story. This left me unsatisfied. Making room for the disparities between Eastern and Western culture, I accept Joan Chen and her fine movie as an important cultural view. Chen was born and raised in China, and she is angry. Was it as bad as all that? Apparently so.
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King Lear (1971)
A staggering, breathtaking, fully realized masterpiece.
1 July 1999
I can think of few other films that carry such epic and classical themes, yet have been so fully and masterfully realized on the screen. I have been returning of late to my 25 favorite films, and "King Lear" has not faded one bit, albeit a poor transfer to video. Peter Brook's vision is staggeringly bleak, yet every actor, scene, and line reading is deeply suited to the text and Brook's vision. The camera work and editing, a tour de force. I think it is his finest film.

Paul Scofield may have been the greatest actor in the English-speaking world, yet he made relatively few films, prefering the stage. Yes, he was honored for A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS, but that was an easy roll for him. His Lear demands to be seen: from his opening shot in the stoney silence of his tree-trunk throne to his moaning in the storm with his Fool to his howl of grief at his lifeless, cherished daughter, this is a performance to be returned to time and again.

Plus, there is a supporting cast to beat all: Irene Worth as Goneril (with a surprising death scene), the great Jack MacGowran as the Fool, Patrick Magee as Cornwall, Cyril Cusak as Albany, and Brook stalwart Robert Lloyd in the difficult roll of Edgar. The film was shot in Jutland, Denmark, during the winter, and the setting is as bleak and barren as Lear's eldest daughters' feelings for their confused father.

Why is this film so rarely seen? It deserves a new, letter-boxed print, and it seems a project right up Criterion's alley. In the meantime, make the effort to find a copy. It's on DVD in England.
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Othello (1995)
Respectable new movie of a classic tragedy.
30 June 1999
I applaud Oliver Parker's (first film?) adaptation of "Othello" for being clear and imaginative with the story and text; not an easy task. His film brought out colors I had never noticed or considered. Great handling of Roderigo. (I wonder if some of this was due to the smart Kenneth Branagh.) For me the film suffers by not having a classically tragic scope. It looks nice, but it is missing the momentum of a tragedy ordained by the gods, moving inexorably to its conclusion, which is so apparent in Welles' over-wrought production. Fishburne is a good actor, and I found his Othello very moving, though missing a touch of the stuff myths are made of. Branagh is certainly Olivier's heir: dazzlingly brilliant, but missing the surprise of emotional spontaneity. Though I admire Irene Jacob, I would have preferred an actress with a stronger command of English. I think this "Othello is a very worthy film, however. I enjoyed it and recommend it.
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