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Good Manners (2017)
6/10
Worth a Look (with reservations)
12 August 2018
Warning: Spoilers
MAJOR SPOILERS ahead, so beware... There are some truly wonderful ideas in this film. It's got excellent performances by everyone. Stunning, colorful and very moody cinematography. There are also songs. It's not really a musical, but somehow structured like one. It has things in common with Rosemary's Baby, Alien, and I think it's a variation on Ginger Snaps, which was about a female coming of age story welded into a werewolf yarn. In Good Manners (SPOILER), it's a coming of age story about a woman learning the ins and outs of how to raise a child werewolf and teaching him good manners. Like Rosemary in Polanski's film, the mothering instinct is strong in the lead character, Clara. It's what motivates the plot.

The visual fx range from practical to CG. They are passable, but clearly look like what they are. Even so, they work within the story. Where the film falls down, in my opinion is in structure. It's clearly divided into two parts.

START SPOILERS... The first part is about Clara taking a job as a nanny for pregnant Ana. They become romantically involved and Clara soon finds Ana has odd behaviors, walking in her sleep, for example, and eating cats. As the baby comes to term, Ana keeps having severe pains (ala Rosemary), until finally, the werewolf offspring bursts through her stomach (like Alien), killing Ana. Clara unwraps the umbilical cord, saving it's life, but cannot bring herself to abandon the creature by the river. End of the first part.

Seven years pass and the child is a boy, Joel, raised by Clara. During full moons, she locks him in a small room, chained to the wall. The director has said the visual look of this film was inspired by Disney's Sleeping Beauty. I don't see it, but the chained to the wall idea seems to come from the Disney witch Maleficent visiting the Prince Philip chained to the wall of his cell. I won't spoil the rest of the film, only to say, the story goes on much longer, with Joel learning of his origin and rebelling against Clara. There is a touching, if abrupt ending. ...END SPOILERS

The second half felt very slow. In fact the whole film was paced too slowly, but structurally, we didn't really need part one. That part of the story could have been told in flashbacks, memories, verbal and visual. That way the story would have started in high gear and gotten fleshed out as we progressed and learned how this all came about. That would have been more dramatic I think, and could have cut the film down by 30 min.

Nevertheless, this is yet another interesting take on the werewolf mythology and may not be for everyone, but if you liked Ginger Snaps and Rosemary's Baby, this is well worth checking out if it roars into your neighborhood.
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The Lion (1962)
8/10
Beautiful to watch and young Pamela Franklin shines
28 December 2017
Although Jack Cardiff was a better cinematographer than a he was a director, he wasn't a bad director, and I believe "The Lion," along with "Dark of the Sun" are his best films. In "The Lion" Christine (Capucine) lives in Kenya with her second husband, big game hunter John Bullit (Trevor Howard), and her daughter Tina (Pamela Franklin) from a previous marriage. Tina has so taken to the African wild that Christine fears her daughter will one day just become an unreachable savage, so she contacts her first husband, Robert Hayward (William Holden), to come to Africa and help civilize Tina so she can return to the U.S. and live a normal, less dangerous, life. This idea is acerbated because Tina's best friend is a full grown lion she calls King. They grew up together and she spends most of her time in the jungle with King. She also believes King will do whatever she says, including attack and kill someone.

Of course Bullit resents the arrival of Robert, particularly since it becomes clear Robert continues to have feelings for Christine. The performances of the entire cast are quite good, if very much of their time. Franklin is especially good. She really does wrestle and play with the full grown lion on screen. It's actually quite remarkable to watch and apparently Franklin actually did bond with the animal. On the other hand, the love relationship that grows between Christine and Robert is less impressive, but Holden and Capucine have some effective moments, and the rebirth of their feeling for each other feels natural. So does the gradual changes that happen with hunter Bullit. Trevor Howard plays him in a strong performance that makes you dislike him but also understand his situation. He loves his step daughter and he does what he can to keep her in Kenya. One sequence where Bullit takes his wife, daughter and Robert on a wild drive through the African plain exposes his character. He purposely tries to upset big game like rhino, hippo and elephants in order to scare Robert by driving through the herds, taunting them. Of course this is exciting but annoying to watch because he's showing no respect for the animals. It almost makes you hate him, but there are more sides to him, and as the story plays out, we can't help but feel for him.

Woven through this story are two native tribemen, a chief and his arrogant son who will become chief when his father dies. This is actually well integrated into the plot. The stories of Tina and her lion King, Christine, Robert, Bullit and the two tribesmen all come together in an inevitable climax. Some viewers might see it coming, but I think they might be surprised by how it happens.

The score by Malcolm Arnold is one of his finest, full of thunderous drums and a beautiful main theme. It has a jazzy Gershwin-esque quality to it, which makes sense, since jazz is America's connection to Africa, an art form created by African Americans, and the story is about Americans' connection to Africa. The film is beautiful to watch, but be sure to see it in widescreen. The African landscapes and skies are stunning, and the scenes in camp during the character drama maintain a constant sense of place. You can be carried away by the atmosphere. The cinematographer was Edward Scaife, but the look of the film has Cardiff all over it. Try to find a widescreen version of this film, I think you'll find it a pleasant surprise.
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9/10
Great Early Musical from the Depression Era
8 February 2016
When I was in junior college I took a summer film class and the instructor showed films in the girl's gym every Friday night.  It was free and there was always a big turnout. What was interesting was the selection of films. They were all Hollywood films from the early 30s like "Duck Soup," "20th Century" and "Fury." A sizable part of the crowd didn't have much background in film, and certainly hadn't seen very many older films. This was in the late 60s or early 70s and the new wave of American films was just underway, so audiences were prone to laugh at the old fashioned movies of the past. And indeed they did, but after a few films a surprising thing happened. People started cheering at the end of the films, and even cheering at moments during the films. They were really surprised at how good they were, how adult they were, and how funny they were. By the end of the summer, an amazing learning experience had occurred. At least one audience had grown to understand the value of older movies. One of the films shown was "Footlight Parade which was initially received with guffaws, but ultimately Busby Berkeley won the audience over. He was a visual genius no one has matched, but the film is more than visual extravagance.

"Footlight Parade" has a very intricate plot unfolding in a face paced story with witty dialogue and physical performances by both James Cagney and Joan Blondell. I couldn't decide who was cuter, Blondell or the very young Ruby Keeler. There was even a comment on the greediness of big business when we discover the owners of the production company have been skimming off the top (basically, taking money from the hard working man - James Cagney and the rest - to line their own pockets).  If that doesn't relate to what is going on today I don't know what does.  

The story builds to three song and dance routines, choreographed by Berkeley: "Honeymoon Hotel," "By a Waterfall," and "Shanghai Lil." Each one is spectacular in its own way. "Honeymoon Hotel" was very racy, showing all these couples having affairs with others in the hotel. It's all told in visuals and a very infectious song that alludes to all the sexual chicanery. Really impressive and funny.

"By a Waterfall," good God, what can be said about this?!! Simply stated, it has choreographed female swimmers forming patterns in a large pool, but it was just about the most visually phenomenal phantasmagoria ever produced. How it was achieved boggles the mind. When the camera shoots down and shows the swimmers' kaleidoscopic patterns, it was truly remarkable, and when the overhead lights go off and the pool lights underneath go on we get this languid shimmering, silhouetted spectacle that was just beyond ethereal.

The last number, "Shanghai Lil," has producer/director Cagney forced to dance when the lead performer is found drunk. This was Hollywood encouraging America to pull itself out of the depression and have faith in Roosevelt's New Deal. It was invigorating to say the least!! We need something like this now!!  

James Cagney was just a joy, so energetic and fun. His dancing always impressed me.  He had a very individualistic style. I think I prefer his solo style to Fred Astaire's, and that's saying a lot, but Astaire's paired routines with Ginger Rogers and Rita Hayworth were the best. Joan Blondell had a field day with physical comedy. Her timing was impeccable. This film is so progressive in thought that it's hard to believe Cagney later became a Republican.  

The three songs are easy to like. Very old style 1930s numbers indeed they are, but they're extremely catchy, transformed into little jewels of the era by Busby Berkeley's visual panache. Today's Hollywood may have CG dinosaurs, but they don't make 'em like this anymore.
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Spotlight (I) (2015)
8/10
Everyone is Human
8 February 2016
Warning: Spoilers
There are spoilers herein, but anyone who followed this story in the news knows the outcome.

"Spotlight," about the Boston Globe's Spotlight division investigating the sexual abuse within the Catholic church, is worth seeing for many reasons. It's well made and well acted, but it's primarily a story that needs to get out there in as big a way as possible. A newspaper can break major stories, but a movie is for the masses and the masses would do well to get a 2 hour life lesson about the backside of spirituality and the power of the church.

That lesson is really about a basic misunderstanding the Catholic church had, and maybe still has, about humanity. Yes, the church can demand that their priests take an oath of celibacy, but that very oath is what created this international systemic horror of child abuse that ruined so many lives. Priests are not saints or gods, they are human beings. Whether they are bartenders or clergy, people are in that regard, the same. Sexuality is a strong force, and when members of the church break a sacred oath, the strict discipline of the church naturally forces them to keep secrets. Hence the problem becomes systemic, as the film so perfectly shows.

Spirituality, combined with innocence, make young believers easy prey. This is the nature of the power of religion and belief. Once a person puts their God above all else, laws don't necessarily get in their way. After all, God's law is the supreme law, and this film shows how a priest might justify his own actions of sexual abuse by using a misguided interpretation of God's law to keep his transgressions a secret.

This movie shows how the simple lack of understanding of the nature of humanity can backfire within a strict religious discipline. The problem of child abuse within the Catholic church was not just a result of some bad apples, but became systemic because of a narrow world view. Mark Ruffalo, who gives the most emotionally charged performance, speaks for the humanity of the church when he says at one point that he gave up going to church, but always felt that one day he might want to go back. This systemic abuse in the church, and hidden by the church itself, made him rethink that intention, and sadly so.

The very understated score by Howard Shore, lead primary by piano, adds a sense of solemnity and weight that gives the film a strong conscience. Ruffalo is quickly becoming one of my favorite actors, but the rest of the cast as also effective, including Michael Keaton giving a powerfully restrained performance, with Rachel McAdams, Liv Schreiber and Stanley Tucci also standouts.

"Spotlight" is not a filmmaker's film like "The Revenant," and there's a lot of talk, but it does have some nice visuals, and the sense of time and place is simply, but effectively created. Director Tom McCarthy has the same sure hand first on display in 2003's "The Station Agent."

Highly recommended.
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8/10
The Ensemble Disaster Start of Irwin Allen
7 September 2015
Warning: Spoilers
Although it includes merely adequate acting, has special effects that range from good to bad, uses a ridiculous scientific premise for its plot, and a script that telegraphs its surprises, I continue to love this film. This is probably Irwin Allen's first disaster film, but you could go back to his previous two films as either producer or director, "The Big Circus" and "The Lost World" and see elements of disaster in them as well. In "Voyage," however, the disaster is right up front, and driving the plot. Like his earlier films, it also boasts a large ensemble cast, and confines them in a tight space.

I enjoy stories that take place on trains, also a tight space. It's appealing to be on a moving vehicle with the scenery wisping by out the windows, and also realize a world of intrigue is going on in the various compartments inside the train. "Voyage" appeals for the same reason. The "Van Allen Belt" somehow catches fire and threatens the end of civilization, so the Admiral of the SS Seaview, Admiral Nelson (a well-cast Walter Pigeon) must sail to the Marianas trench within a short time to fire off an atomic missile to break up the belt and send it off into space. Things could go wrong of course.

So the Admiral is on a mission and we are flung together with a mismatched group that is often at odds with each other's objectives. Personalities often clash. Peter Lorre, as Commodore Emery, the feisty scientific associate of the Admiral, is good at displaying an irascible disposition driven onward by dedication to his commanding officer.

Robert Serling, unfortunately not much remembered today, plays devil's advocate as Captain Crane, gradually coming to believe that the Admiral's scheme is lunacy. He is engaged to Barbara Eden's character, Conners, and their banter consists mostly of her trying to talk him out of going against the Admiral. It eventually grows tiresome but at least she has that blue uniform which has more sex appeal than one would think. Playing a sort of Iago to the Captain's faith in the Admiral is Joan Fontaine, as Dr. Susan Hiller, brought aboard to do research about men under stress. She believes the Admiral is off balance and tries to convince the Captain, who almost takes charge of the Seaview, but is stopped in typical Irwin Allen fashion when when the Seaview gets attacked by a UN sub intent on ending Admiral's mission.

The interior set of the Seaview probably doesn't seem like much these days with its wood paneling on walls and cupboards, or it's array of flashing Christmas tree lights on the control boards, but it felt modern to me back in 1961. I only had Disney's "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" as a submarine film to compare it to. Disney's film is certainly a more quality production than "Voyage," but it has a lot in common with Allen's film. "Leagues" uses an ensemble cast as well. Peter Lorre is also in the cast. Like Pigeon's Admiral Nelson, James Mason's Captain Nemo is of a single mind with a plan that many others aboard would like to subvert. There is a saboteur on board the Nautlus as well, Kirk Douglas, who alerts the authorities to the whereabouts of Nemo's secret hideaway by setting bottles adrift with messages. And of course both films have a giant squid. "Voyage"'s squid is pretty shameful, fx-wise, but the Disney squid isn't all that realistic either. "Voyage" also has a giant octopus attach itself to the glass window nose of the Seaview and has to be disengaged by electricity. Unlike the fake-looking squid, at least this was a real octopus attached to the front of the Seaview model, and it was exciting to see its suckers glomming on from the inside of the sub windows.

Where the visual effects continue to hold up is in the shots of the sky afire as the Seaview skims the surface of the ocean. These shots are convincing, have scale and do suggest the magnitude of the disaster. One drawback is a view taken from outer space showing the burning Van Allen belt encircling the Earth in a news report. Just as fake as fake can get. And of course, even though it looked good on film, when the Seaview is in the North Pole and the ice floes break apart, sink and bang into the sub exterior, someone forgot to tell the director that ice floats, it doesn't sink.

The music by Paul Sawtell & Bert Shefter uses a swirl of glissando harps and includes a main theme song sung by Frankie Avalon (who also appears in the film) that for some reason, as corny as it is, still seems hip somehow. Maybe I was comparing it to Disney's "Leagues" which had Kirk Douglas singing 'A Whale of a Tale," clearly a song of it's time. At least the main theme for "Voyage" had a pop star as the vocalist.

The film was a big success when it came out, spawned a TV series, continues to show on Netflix and get re-releases on DVD and Bluray. So it has staying power, as dumb as it is. I like it for the reasons mentioned: the ensemble cast in tight quarters, often at each other's throats as they travel through the sea to defy world opinion and save the world from itself. Perhaps I'm the only one who has this much affection for such a silly film, but it has a quality I've not found elsewhere.
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Marnie (1964)
9/10
A perverse drama told with remarkable skill
12 May 2015
Warning: Spoilers
"Marnie," Hitchcock's story of a compulsive thief who cannot stand to have a man touch her, is a movie for movie lovers. It has been criticized over the years for it's overuse of process shots, painted backdrops and old fashioned studio style filmmaking. Some defenders say all that was intended by Hitchcock, that the artificial quality adds an otherworldly sense to the story that reflects the psychological unreality of Marnie herself. I frankly don't think that's the case, but it doesn't really much matter, because Hitchcock has structured so compelling story with such a bizarre set of characters, I'm just overwhelmed, artificiality or not.

People who love what movies can do that no other art form can do will probably appreciate "Marnie" more than others. Sure, the process shots, particularly during the hunt sequence which obviously had background plates matted in behind actors riding a fake horse on set draw attention to themselves. However, all these techniques are so much in service of the plot and characters that every time I see the film I'm just captivated by the totality of it all as a marvelous piece of filmmaking. It's a story well told, and a very bizarre one at that.

Another great thing about "Marnie" is Bernard Herrmann's powerfully romantic score, one of his finest. I believe it was also labeled by critics of the time as old fashioned. That may be the case, but if you watch the hunting scene with the sound off, and then go back and watch it again with sound, you'll see how much Herrmann's music molds the emotion of the sequence like a piece of clay. I can't imagine "Marnie" without Herrmann's music.

After "Psycho" and "The Birds," American audiences were not expecting a jump back to the kind of romantic sweep of Hitchcock's earlier films like "Notorious," "Vertigo" or "To Catch a Thief." On the surface "Marnie" does have the romantic sweep of those earlier works, but it's really a much different animal, far more perverse. Grace Kelly in "To Catch a Thief" seems to be thrilled by Cary Grant because he may be the infamous jewel thief, but Sean Connery as Mark in "Marnie" is attracted to Marnie not only because she's a thief, but more so because she is psychologically disturbed. In some ways he's just as disturbed as Marnie. Mark points out that to him Marnie is like a trapped animal, and he's caught something really wild. Yes, he's got a tiger by the tail and it thrills him because he's calling all the shots. He even forces himself on Marnie at one point, damaging her so much that she attempts suicide. No one other than Sean Connery could have recovered the audience's sympathy after something like that.

It's come to be known that Hitchcock tried to use his contract with actress Tippi Hedren to call all the shots in her life as well. Apparently, she was as much a caged animal to Hitchock as Marnie was to Mark. Hitchcock even thought his contract with her allow him the right to her body, which put Hedren off so strongly that she called him "fatso" on the set, something that infuriated him. From then on, they communicated through a third party. As despicable as this is, it seems to have influenced the film in a good way. What Marnie was living through in the story Hedren was living through in real life, and this clearly added an edge to her performance.

Although Hedren is ridiculed by some, I think she gives one of the finest performances by an actress in all of Hitchcock. She is often unfavorably compared to Kim Novak and Grace Kelly, other Hitchcock blondes, but neither of them gave what you'd call great performances for Hitchcock. What they gave was their cinematic "aura," that thing only motion pictures can capture. Hitchcock knew how to photograph them. Essentially they were his puppets, to be placed as he liked. I don't think this is the case with Tippi Hedren. Yes, she is stunning on film like Novak and Kelly, but she gives a remarkable performance as Marnie as well, one that moves me to tears every time I see it. The only other actress in a Hitchcock film that exhibits as much range as Hedren is Doris Day in "The Man Who Knew Too Much." Day's response to hearing her son has been kidnapped rips your heart out. Hedren's performance, however, is even more powerful. Her character was juggling many more demons. Hedren wasn't just a beautiful clothes horse, she really had to dig deep into her psyche and get in touch with some very dark and ugly realities.

There are those who will give up on Hitchock's "Marnie" after the first few minutes. It may not be everyone's idea of a great film, but I think it is story telling working at an extremely high level. If you can just allow yourself to be swept away by a deceptively subversive romance, you might find yourself returning to it again and again, as I have.
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8/10
"L'Atlantide" in color for the first time - worth a look
14 May 2014
Warning: Spoilers
Note: Spoilers abound herein, in all versions of this story, but "L'Atlantide" is not really about plot, so it doesn't much matter. Read on if you're interested...

As far as I know,"Journey Beneath the Desert" is the first color version of "L'Atlantide," a story first filmed in the silent era. The plot is very basic, and has similarities to H. Rider Haggard's "She," also filmed many times. "L'Atlantide" follows the story of Captain St. Avit, of the French Foreign Legion, who along with his best friend, Captain Morhange, come upon the lost city of Atlantis, which has ended up in the middle of the Sahara Desert when the ocean receded over centuries. Like a preying mantis, the ruthless but passionate and beautiful Queen of Atlantis, Antinea, has the habit of killing all her lovers off and encasing them in gold. She has quite a collection of gilded men. Ultimately, she pits St. Avit against Morhange (who has rebuffed the queen's advances of romance) and St. Avit kills his best friend out of jealousy. One of Antinea's handmaidens, Tanit Zerka, helps St. Avit escape from Atlantis, but she dies in the desert helping him. St. Avit arrives back at the outpost to tell his story, then crazed for the love of Antnea, returns to the Sahara in search of Atlantis, only to die in a sandstorm. That's it in a nutshell. Not much of a story, really, and the original French novel by Pierre Benoit isn't any better. Somehow, though, I am drawn to the atmosphere and lyrical quality of the films.

The first filmed version of 1920 by Jacques Feyder (called "Missing Husbands" on IMDb, but originally "L'Atlantide") is slow and ponderous, but even so, is rich with visual splendor. It's main drawback is Stacia Napierkowska as Antinea. She is too old for the part and hasn't the physical appeal to seduce the men who are supposed to be entranced by her mesmerizing charms. The first sound version "L'Atlantida," was directed by G. W. Pabst ("Pandora's Box") and starring Brigitte Helm (Maria in "Metropolis") as Antinea, is a big improvement on the silent film. Good use is made of Antinea's beautiful spotted leopard that St. Avit finds sitting by her side when he first lays eyes on her. In the next filmed version, 1949's "Siren of Atlantis," the leopard has become a black panther and Antinea is played by Maria Montez. This version is even more visually sumptuous than the Pabst film, and in spite of what some have said about how bad Montez is in the role, I beg to differ. Her Spanish accent doesn't make much sense, but she come across as a lot more dangerous and manipulative than Helm did previously. Color would have helped this production, but it still is beautifully lit with many striking sets.

Then in 1961, low budget director Edgar J. Ulmer and Giuseppe Masini, filmed the first color version in Italy with an international cast. Even Frank Borzage had a hand in directing, his final effort, apparently. Actress Haya Harareet, who two years before played Esther in "Ben-Hur," is Antinea. The other characters have name changes, but they function pretty much the same. St. Avit has been changed to Pierre, and is played by Jean-Louis Trintignant. There are quite a few other differences in "Journey Beneath the Desert." The handmaiden who saves St. Avit (Pierre) does not die, but Atlantis, Antinea and her people are destroyed by nuclear bomb testing. Yeah, modernized.

This version is probably the campiest of the four I've seen, not helped by bad dubbing, but in spite of that it is the most beautiful visually. Being in Technicolor, it's richly atmospheric, and the costumes, particularly Harareet's many exotic headdresses are really something to behold. Harareet is also quite sexy. There is a bath scene that is far more seductive and erotic than a similar scene in the Liz Taylor "Cleopatra" of two years later.

The spotted leopard is used more inventively here. In a sequence where the Morhange character (here called Robert) finds that a friend of his has been killed and encased in gold, his outburst causes Antinea's leopard to attack him. There is a wild fight (a real leopard, not a fake) and the man throttles the beast. In the other versions the leopard is just used as a threat that never happens, and the animal even leads St. Avit through the maze of Atlantis to Antinea's quarters. Color adds a lot to this story, and director Ulmer knew how to get the most out of little money. "Journey Beneath the Desert" is more an adventure film for young boys than the earlier films, but even so the psychological sexual tension the other versions put to good use is certainly on display here.

One of the film's biggest assets is the score by Carlo Rustichelli. It's really a fully realized fantasy mood piece, full of seductive rhythms and colorful orchestration, making good use of an appealing female chorus. In fact, both earlier sound versions have great soundtracks as well, with Wolfgang Zellar ("Vampyr") providing a primitive but flavorful score for the 1932 version, and Michel Michelet composing a wonderfully melody score that includes exotic dances and choral arrangements for the 1949 film.

The story of "L'Atlantide" is no great shakes. The appeal is just simply the exotic atmosphere and the visuals. If this sounds appealing, check them out. Both the 1932 and 1949 versions are available on DVD. Unfortunately, the 1961 film is harder to find, but worth some detective work to track down. There are also 1972 and 1992 versions, both of which I have not seen and are not available on DVD, but the soundtrack for the 1992 version by Richard Horowitz is wonderfully atmospheric and available.
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Mako Mermaids (2013– )
7/10
It May Be No H2O, but It's Worth Seeing for Mermaid Fans
23 September 2013
After watching the first 26 episodes, I've come away with mixed feelings. On the one hand, it was great to have a new mermaid show follow up to H2O: Just Add Water, and this new series has much of the same creative team. On the other hand, the writing isn't as good as H2O and the characters aren't as likable. For much of Mako Mermaids the story just treads water. Secrets get held and characters give the same excuses as to why the truth can't be told. This goes on and on. It wasn't until the last four episodes that the story really came together.

H2O remained fresh because the writers kept surprising us with interesting character arcs and surprising plot twists. Mako mostly misses the boat in that regard. What made H2O special was the appeal of its three leads. Phoebe Tonkin (Cleo), Caribe Heine (Rikki), and Claire Holt (Emma) had real chemistry, and were just enjoyable to spend time with. When Holt left the series, Indiana Evans as Isabel blended in nicely, and though the series remained interesting, some of the original magic dissipated.

That dissipation was magnified with Mako Mermaids. This series is sort of an inverse H2O where mermaids get legs to go on land instead of girls becoming mermaids. The three leads of Mako, Lucy Fry (Lyla), Ivy Lattimer (Nixie), and Amy Ruffle (Sirena) spend a lot of time antagonizing each other and those around them. Lattimer tries too hard to be funny, and the writing of her character doesn't help. It seems the writers didn't know what to do with her. Her only lighter moment is one episode where she befriends a boy who has runaway from his parents.

The three girls are joined by Chai Romruen (Zac), as a boy who accidentally becomes a merman. Once that happens the three girls are banned from their mermaid pod and left to fend for themselves. The plot then focuses on the girls trying to get control of Zac, and Zac coming to terms with his newfound powers. Later in the series a trident becomes the second focus, and this just goes round and round until we reach the last four episodes where the show finally gets interesting.

Other secondary characters are a mixed bag. Zac's best friend, Cameron (mostly well played by Dominic Deutscher) is unfortunately too mysterious for his own good. He doesn't really get in gear until the last four episodes as well. Until then, he alternates between friend and nuisance to Zac and the girls. Rita, the school principal who (for reasons I won't mention) poses as the girls' aunt, is shamelessly used as a convenient plot device when mermaid lore or magic information is needed, but she is nicely played by Kerith Atkinson.

Gemma Forsyth as Zac's girlfriend, Evie, is for the longest time a one-note character. This is due to the poor writing. Later in the series she finally comes to life and actually integrates properly into the story, actually doing something interesting. Until then she just fights and then makes up with Zac repeatedly. Rowan Hills as David, who Sirena falls for, is too syrupy sweet for my taste, but perhaps young girls, the audience for this series, would like him.

Amy Ruffle (like Indiana Evans before her) is the musical side of the series, and she sings a number of songs. She has a nice voice and of the three girls, she's probably the most appealing. I had a hard time warming up to Lyla (Lucy Fry). She started off as the most antagonistic of the three girls, but in the end, she seemed to have the most interesting character arc, and Fry is probably the best actor of the three. Chai Romruen as Zac spends much of the show being annoyed, confused or proud of his powers, and none of this makes him all that likable. He too has a bit of a character arc, but it takes too long for that to happen. Romruen, like the girls, looks good underwater. He is part Thai, and his Asian features add a nice international element to the show, something missing from H2O.

Although I've got problems with this series, I need to say a few things in its defense. Overall, the show retains a sense of aquatic magic that began not only with H2O, but with the show's predecessor, the feature film Aquamarine, also shot in Australia. And as I've mentioned, the last four episodes really work well. It's just too bad it took so long to get there. The background music is similar to H2O, and just as effective. Despite its drawbacks, I looked forward to each episode and I hope they continue to make more. I'm surprised there aren't more comments about this show.

This series seems to have had a much smaller budget than H2O, but in general it doesn't show. The underwater scenes are exquisitely beautiful, and the use of the Gold Coast locations are nicely integrated. What a remarkable area that is!
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8/10
Jennifer Lawrence makes it worth seeing
3 September 2012
Warning: Spoilers
In general I enjoyed "The Hunger Games," but as dystopian films of the future go, it is no better or worse than many. It's a genre that hasn't had a lot of success over the years. Of course the quintessential dystopian story is George Orwell's "1984," but the film versions haven't faired that well either. The problem with films like "Soylent Green," "The Handmaiden's Tale," "Brazil," "Logan's Run" and many others is that convincing world building with intelligently thought out societies and all the visual material that goes with it is very hard to do. They tend to go over the top, pounding our heads with the message about the dangerous direction our world is headed. As well, they mostly fail to make the characters believable, not only by the overdone dialog and over the top performances, but by ridiculous costume and makeup design. "The Hunger Games" completely falls down on those latter two categories. The makeup and garish costuming for the people of the totalitarian state of Panem is so caricatured and manicured it reeks of Hollywood production design. Wes Bently's beard is the worst offender.

On the other hand, "The Hunger Games" succeeds in some ways beyond the others because of one thing, Jennifer Lawrence. She's an interesting young actor. I've only seen her in a few films, but found her always believable. If you replace her in "The Hunger Games," with someone who was originally considered for the role of Katniss (Abigail Breslin, Saoirse Ronan, or Emma Roberts for example), it's difficult to say the film would work as well as it does. Not that those other actresses aren't talented, or couldn't do a good job in the role, it's just that Lawrence seems to be perfect casting and she runs with the film. She really anchors the film by underplaying. Also when her insecurities and unlikable characteristics surface, her movements and line readings come across as completely genuine.

The same can't be said about most of the other major players, particularly Wes Bently as Seneca, Elizabeth Banks as Effie, Stanley Tucci as Caesar, and Woody Harrelson as Haymitch. Although Harrelson at least has a bit of a character arc, he and the others mostly play their characters in broad strokes, often the problem in these dystopian films. Donald Sutherland as the president fares a bit better, but his role is written that way. Josh Hutcherson as Peeta, the boy from Katniss' district 12, unfortunately doesn't succeed in making us deeply care for him or make us buy Katniss' affection for him. It's difficult to say what it is about him, because his performance isn't bad at all. Perhaps he was miscast. He just lacks something that would make me warm to him. His scenes with Lawrence seem to lack the needed chemistry to ignite the on screen romance.

What did work far better, however, was Katniss' relationship with Rue, played by Amandla Stenberg. Rue's demise was the only one to elicit emotion in me. Although Rue is still not much developed as a character, she's a nice surrogate little sister for Katniss. Script-wise this works because we already understand Katniss has special warm feelings for Primrose, her younger sister (Willow Shields), having taken her place as her district's female tribute for the games. Stenberg is so remarkably cute that we can't help but fall for her. Her demise is sad indeed, and given weight by the well of emotion from Lawrence.

The rest of the tributes are undeveloped, just bodies to get knocked off one by one. This is a film that could have used more time to develop them. That would have upped the stakes if we understood them better. I've never read the book, but I would imagine they are developed further in it. The script was very manipulative in how the announcements kept changing the game rules right up to the last minute.

What I found a bit disturbing was the idea that Katniss just follows the rules of a dictatorial regime and wins, with only one moment of rebellion when she and Peeta consider a double suicide instead of one of them having to kill the other. The revolt in district 11 at the death of Rue seemed to be quickly vanquished. It lasted maybe 35 seconds on screen. The idea of Katniss and Peeta returning to their district as heroes because of appearing and surviving a game show seems to me to be the ultimate in giving oneself over to the regime. It sets up the sequel, probably with Primrose, but is that reason enough to end the film this way? The ending seemed to glorify the games, which essentially, are just a futuristic variation on TV's "Survivor."

The visuals for the cities and trains were wonderful, but the dog creatures seemed wasted. We couldn't see them well enough to get an idea of how vicious and nasty they were. Then, after chewing up one guy they run off, likely programed to do so. That brings me to the idea of the strategically positioned help modules and tools (very much like "Survivor"), such as the mini parachute with medicine and the packets of items each district needed, or hindering the tributes by starting forest fires, or adding dogs. This made the controllers of the game a bit like the Greek Gods, helping or adding roadblocks along the way. I kind of liked this, but it seemed a bit contrived the way they used it.

I suppose I had a number of negative things to say about "The Hunger Games," but much of it is offset by Jennifer Lawrence. The film is very much worth seeing for her. I'd watch it again just to study her performance. I also liked the music by James Newton Howard. It really did add a glimmer of hope to a troubling world vision.
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Cleopatra (1963)
9/10
1963 may be just as ancient as Ancient Rome
1 September 2012
Warning: Spoilers
For those who like historical epics, you will find much greatness within this film, even though it wasn't completed as originally intended by Mankiewicz. It remains one of the most expensive movies ever made, and looks it. Everything was built full scale, and often shot on real locations. A flawed masterpiece is what it is.

Though I love Elizabeth Taylor, and she is wonderful in many ways here, particularly in the love scenes, when she's assuming the role of queen I think some of her subtlety gets lost. This is most evident in scenes where she expresses anger in the same demanding manner. On the other hand, she is perfectly fine when she's just acting as a woman or a mother. A good example is when she notices her son's ring on the hand of Octavian, which she understands to mean her son is dead. Her reaction, shown in the eyes, is brief, but deftly communicates her thought process. That is the moment she realizes she must end her own life. She is very moving, getting the most out of very little. It was the kind of subtle gesture few actors could do as well.

Her love scenes with Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison), are filled with longing for the future and passion for the moment. They are mostly superior to her love scenes with Antony (Richard Burton). However, she is exquisite in the climax as Antony dies in her arms. Taylor's death scene is also beautifully done, her final line, "Antony… Antony wait" delivered with elegant simplicity. Much of what makes the film work are its visuals and to Taylor's credit, she never gets lost in the pageantry. Her costumes are just as spectacular as it gets. THe gown of gold she wears entering Rome is particularly stunning.

As for the visuals, they are mind-boggling, but the interiors are often let down by the lighting. The night sequences, and especially the final sequence as Cleopatra prepares for death, however, are suitably dark and torch lit, very atmospheric, but day scenes, like the many bath scenes, are lit like a 1960s TV sit com. Where would all that light be coming from? This is ancient Egypt!! Believable lighting for the ancient world didn't really improve for decades. When Ridley Scott made "Gladiator" he understood how dark ancient interiors needed to be.

What "Cleopatra" has all over "Gladiator," however, is authenticity of crowds, and no digital fakery. There are two spectacular set pieces that continue to amaze, the first Cleopatra's entry into Rome, and the second, the arrival of her barge. Both occur in bright daylight, properly so. We need to see everything clearly to understand the vast scale. There is a shot of hundreds of slaves pulling a massive Egyptian sphinx that Queen Cleo and her son are perched upon. The slaves step in time to Alex North's beautifully ornate entry march. In one impressive shot from Cleo's point of view we look down on the men swaying back and forth as they tug the heavy odalisque through a large city gate. The crowd of Roman onlookers is entranced as the sphinx moves slowly towards the awaiting Caesar and his assembly. As you watch this sequence you begin to realize that what you are seeing is something no different than ancient Rome itself.

The same said about the arrival of Cleopatra's barge. In this digital age, massive space craft and spectacular vistas are commonplace, but this barge was the real thing. It may pale in comparison to what digital effects can do, but when viewed on the big screen, you can realize what a different time it was. Things were real. Crowds were real. And "Cleopatra" is perhaps the best example of this extravagance. The film is a testament to another age of cinema.

Direction by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, is intelligent and forward moving, often accompanied with witty dialog. Many smaller roles are superbly played, Roddy McDowell's Octavian being a standout. And though it's common to tear down Burton's performance, he is perfectly fine as Antony. The problem, however, is the character Antony itself. He's a weak man, and he not only gives up all for his love of Cleopatra, but even battles against his own people. He's somewhat of a fool and he doesn't garner a lot of sympathy. Unlike "Ben-Hur" with the spurned Messala battling Judah in a chariot race, or dictator Crassus battling the slave revolt in "Spartacus," in "Cleopatra" there really isn't any villain. We only have the frailty of human emotion. This may be more complex, but doesn't pull us through the story as emotionally. "Cleopatra" is basically two love stories. One ends with an assassination and the other with suicide. Not a happy ending. Still, tragedies are often more compelling than films with happy endings.

So, as long as you know what you're getting yourself in for, a four hour movie with some depth and spectacle delivered at a moderate pace, you'll probably enjoy yourself. Mankiewicz got his original two-part, 6 hour film ("Caesar and Cleopatra" and "Antony and Cleopatra") cut down by two hours to become a single film. That the story still plays as well as it does says much about the quality of the extant material. In spite of its weaknesses, "Cleopatra" does hold up. Viewers with patience will find the experience rewarding.
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9/10
Better than it's reputation would have you believe
26 August 2012
Warning: Spoilers
I've seen many Spencer Tracy films, but he isn't one of my favorites. He was rarely convincing. Couldn't buy him as Portuguese in "Captain's Courageous," less convincing in "Tortilla Flat" as a Mexican-American, too old for his role in "Bad Day at Black Rock," and not believable as a Cuban in "The Old Man and the Sea." He was better in comedies like "Libeled Lady," and "Adam's Rib," but where he really shined was as doctors. He plays opposite Hedy Lamarr in "I Take This Woman," a not very good film, but with a fine and believable performance by Tracy as the doctor in love with her.

His finest performance, however, is "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," a film often unfavorably compared to the '31 film. Frederick March is on par with Tracy as an actor. He too overplayed, but Tracy could reach a higher level when he was in top form, and there is no better example of this than the two "Jekyll and Hyde."

Part of the problem with the '31 directed by Rouben Mamoulian was the concept for Hyde, a hairy Simian type beast. March does the best he can with that mouthful of teeth, but his Hyde is too much a monster and less human than the Tracy. This is where the '41 directed by Victor Fleming, excels. March overplayed Hyde, and his Jekyll had many corny moments. What Tracy brought to Jekyll was believability as someone in the medical profession, someone who even before transforming himself, somehow conveys a perverse longing to visit the dark side.

March never scares me like Tracy. What Tracy brings to Hyde is subtle and insidious. Remarkably evil. You can see it in his eyes, in his smile, in how he uses his voice like a snake constricting around Ivy. Tracy's scenes with Ingrid Bergman are uncomfortable to watch because of the hideous way he plays with her sense of well-being. These same scenes were in the March version, but don't create the same pathos.

Miriam Hopkins was a fine actress, and she did very well opposite March, but she's no Bergman. Neither was the character Ivy in the early film as well conceived. Hopkins' Ivy is a somewhat unhappy tart, and her tease of Jekyll at the beginning where we see her swing her leg back and forth is more a conniving entrapment than Bergman's playful Ivy. The 1941 version is far more emotional because of Bergman's Ivy. Her Ivy may be a tart, but Bergman convinces us she's got a sweet inner core deep within. When she is terrorized and murdered by Hyde, it's hard to take. The girl Hyde destroys in the '41 has a steeper fall from grace, and her end is more pitiable.

The scene where Ivy comes to visit Dr. Jekyll and shows him the wounds inflicted on her back by Hyde has more resonance than the earlier film. This is not because of Hopkins, who is on a par with Bergman in that scene, but because March lays it on thick. Tracy's guilt is more palpable, and we want to believe him when he tells Bergman's Ivy that she will never see Hyde again. When Hyde does return to Ivy, his appearance is all the more hurtful for we, like Ivy, wanted to believe Jekyll.

I do prefer the '31 gas lit London and its enclosed, more claustrophobic, rickety streets, but the fog enshrouded London of the '41 is suitably moody and depressing.

Years ago I saw a screening of the '41 with a friend who was put off by how depressing it was. Yes, this is true. "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" is a very dark, depressing story. Hyde kills Ivy, he kills his fiancé's father, and he actually kills Jekyll as well. He's a vicious brute that brings calamity wherever he goes. I've seen both films many times, but the '41 is the one that continues to pull emotion. This is due to Tracy and Bergman, as well as Fleming's direction. Mamoulian was a great director, but Fleming was his equal.

The score by Franz Waxman is beautifully tragic, something missing from the '31. In the earlier we have Bach's Toccata and Fugue as a segue to the famous POV sequence reveal of Dr. Jekyll. The Waxman score works in the song "Can You See Me Dance the Polka," and it becomes a taunt for Hyde to invade Ivy's soul. "Champagne Ivy" in the '31 doesn't have the same gaiety.

The '41 has some laughable symbolism during the first transformation of Jekyll riding a carriage and whipping his horses, which become Bergman and Lana Turner (the fiancé). This stands out as a bad decision by the screen writers. Fortunately, that sort of thing is not repeated. The '31 has more of it. There's the statue of the angel embracing a woman that we see as Hyde kills Ivy, the cat attacking the bird when Jekyll is overwhelmed by Hyde in the park and the boiling cauldron at the end. These are just as heavy-handed. The park scene in the '41 is improved by Jekyll's whistling suddenly becoming Ivy's song, the suggestion Hyde is taking over. Much better.

The '31 is lauded for it's transformation scenes, but the makeup is obvious, particularly the painted nostrils and the use of filters to reveal the make-up. Tracy depends more on his performance. He brings believability to both Jekyll and Hyde.

There have been many versions of this story and I've seen most, but the Tracy remains my favorite. It's main drawback is it's similarity to the '31, but in just about every case, the '41 has more impact. If you haven't seen the '31 see the '41 first, then go back and see the older. You'll see how much subtlety gets lost.
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8/10
Much Underrated Romance with Yvette Mimieux
2 November 2011
I think this film is among the most underrated of its era. It has what is likely Yvette Mimieux' finest performance, and it's in a difficult role as well. Though the story centers around Clara (Mimieux), who is 26 but has the mind of a child, it is really her mother Meg's story, nicely played by Olivia de Havilland.

Meg has brought Clara to Florence, Italy, to get her daughter away from a boy back in the states Clara had gotten close to. What drives the plot is Meg's desire for Clara who had been kicked in the head by a pony at age 10 and is mentally stunted, to have a normal life. When Clara is pursued by a young Italian Fabrizio (George Hamiliton), Meg doesn't really know what to do. On the one hand, she doesn't want Fabrizio and his family to discover Clara's "condition," but on the other, Fabrizio has an amazing effect on Clara. They are truly in love.

Things get more complicated when Meg meets Fabrizio's father, who takes more than a friendly interest in Meg. She is very capable of taking care of herself, though. What really upsets her is a visit by her husband (Barry Sullivan), who has long ago given up on the idea that Clara could have any semblance of a normal life.

Though Mimieux and de Havilland shine, the whole cast works well, including Hamilton as Fabrizio. Hamilton seems to be the whipping boy of the critics. I'm not sure why, but perhaps it's his good looks and that he looks privileged. It may be acerbated by the fact that he often played characters of privilege. Two years before he was a rich playboy in MGM's "Where the Boys Are," so perhaps critics couldn't buy him as an Italian. Nevertheless, Hamilton is really appealing in "Piazza." Even his Italian accent blends with the real Italian actor who plays his father, Rossano Brazzi. Hamilton's scenes with Mimieux often surprise with their level of emotion.

If you haven't figured this out already, this film is for romantics, and if you find these sorts of films corny, you'll probably have the same reaction here. However, for those of us who enjoy a nicely told romance in an idyllic setting, "Light in the Piazza" is hard to beat. It's much better than Warner's "Rome Adventure" the same year, a film full of beautiful locales but more soap than genuine opera. In "Piazza" director Guy Green unfolds the drama naturally, and keeps a tight grip on this character driven story all the way to the glorious ending.

Green continued working with Mimieux in her next film, "Diamond Head," where she plays the sister of Charlton Heston. It's another exotic love story, but not as successful as "Piazza." Yvette Mimieux, who made a big splash in George Pal's "The Time Machine" and "Where the Boys Are" in 1960, never really reached her full potential, but she came awfully close to giving a great performance in "Piazza." To play a 26 year old who throws tantrums, has physical fits and sleeps with teddy bears without garnering audience disdain, is quite a feat. A role like this could easily become obnoxious or succumb to treacle, but Mimieux manages to make us care and root for her. As crazy as the idea of a girl so mentally stunted ever having a normal life might be, we come to want it for her. We never lose our affection for Clara, as crazy as some of her actions are. Mimieux plays her as a likable, lovable daughter and an appealing lover. A pleasant person. As Mimieux' performance shows us, it's clear why Fabrizio fell for her.

Meg is the anchor of "Piazza," and de Havilland pulls us through the twists and turns of the story with a likable display of perseverance. Her scenes with Clara are filled with warmth, but tinged with unease, as they should be. de Havilland and Brazzi have many wonderful and amusing scenes together as they get to know each other, while at the same time keeping secrets from one another.

The lush score by Mario Nascimbene is very much of its time, but is well suited to the film. It never seems to intrude, but adds that touch of European exotica appropriate for the time and place. Following "Piazza" and "Diamond Head," director Guy Green went on to do what is probably his best film, "A Patch of Blue," another unusual romance. He apparently liked them.

There are things in the film that date it, primarily the use of rear screen projection for the scenes with de Havilland and Brazzi driving around in a small car. The filmmakers even removed the windshield so as not to block the view of the actors and this makes the scenes so ridiculously fake they are laughable. Interestingly, I recently saw 2010's "Letters to Juliet," which is also a romance that takes place in Italy, and the car scenes were done the same way. The only difference is that technology has gotten much better and the effects were harder to spot. Nevertheless, I spotted them.

For some reason, some films made at MGM in 1962 were poorly received and heavily criticized. "Mutiny on the Bounty" with Marlon Brando, and "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" with Glenn Ford (and Mimieux as his sister), are two other examples. This was the same year as "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "Lawrence of Arabia," both of which were well received. "Bounty" and "Horsemen" seemed to have been reassessed in recent years and if you read comments on both they are much better appreciated these days. Perhaps the reason "Piazza" is late in being reassessed is because until now, it has not been available. The Warner Archive has finally put this film on DVD and for those romantics willing to take a chance, they will probably enjoy it immensely.
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Saratoga (1937)
Worth a look for Harlow and Gable fans
4 August 2011
Warning: Spoilers
This was the sixth film Jean Harlow made with Clark Gable. She died before completing her scenes. It's a curiosity more than anything, but not a bad film at all. In fact, there are many of entertaining scenes between her and Gable. One of them may be the most iconic scene they ever had together. It has to do with a cigar. I won't say more. The film was directed by Jack Conway, a very under appreciated director. Among his films are "Tarzan and His Mate," " A Tale of Two Cities," "Red-Headed Woman" (one of Harlow's best), "Libeled Lady" (another good Harlow performance) and "Crossroads" (with Hedy Lamarr) - all quite good films. He sure knew how to direct Harlow.

The basic plot is about a family that raises race horses. Of course gambling plays a big part as well. Gable is a bookie, not a noble profession. His character is a bit dodgy. Walter Pidgeon, sans mustache, plays Gable's competition for Harlow. He doesn't have a lot of scenes, but he's suitably debonair where he appears. Gable is joined by Hattie McDaniel, both of them pre "Gone With the Wind." She even sings and is quite funny to watch. There is a long train scene (I love scenes on trains), and this is a highlight of the film. There is a wonderful sequence between Frank Morgan (the wizard of Oz), and Margaret Hamilton (wicked witch of the west), 2 years before "Oz" was made. A great cast.

The last 20 min. of the film was where Harlow's stand-in was used, since Jean had died. Three women apparently were used to create the illusion. But it was rather obvious. Suddenly, Harlow's character pretty much disappears and we see her from the side or back or with a hat covering her face. Since films are shot out of order I thought there'd be more of Harlow intermixed, but in the last 20 min. there are really only two scenes with the real Harlow, which are connected with shots of the stand in. Harlow had such a distinctive walk, the stand in couldn't possibly have matched. Luckily, for the most part, the studio didn't try. Mainly what the studio did was rewrite so scenes that were originally to have Harlow were done without her, with other characters saying where she was or talking about her.

Up to this point I'd say the movie was quite good, and the lead up to a final horse race was well set up. The outcome of the race would determine the love between Harlow and Gable, and so not to be able to see her expression as the race was underway, was a major drawback. We see the stand in with binoculars over her face throughout the sequence. It lessened what impact the film's climax could have had.

Harlow was very sick when she made this film, but aside from a couple of scenes where she looked heavier than usual, she was still beautiful. What is really strange is that in the film Harlow plays a character who is often sick. It's rather creepy watching those scenes, knowing that she really was sick, dying, in fact. It almost seems like the studio knew something we didn't know, but more than likely, if it wasn't coincidence, the studio knew Harlow wasn't feeling well, so put her in scenes where she could perform lying down. Who knows?

What is also unsettling to watch is understanding that Gable and the rest of the cast had to perform the rest of the film without their beloved star. And she was beloved. Everyone (except Joan Crawford), loved Harlow. It's pretty obvious in the film when the real Harlow had died, and yet we watch the cast perform like real troopers without her.

Harlow was 26 when she died, but she left a substantial number of good films. Quite a legacy, really. She had appeared in bit parts in a number of silent films, two with Laurel and Hardy, before being discovered by Howard Hughes, who cast her in "Hell's Angels." That film is remembered more for its aerial footage than for Harlow, but it has Harlow's only color sequence, in 2-strip Technicolor.

The young Clark Gable was really a lot of fun to watch. In "Night Nurse," a Pre Code film years before "Saratoga," Gable plays a truly hateful, bad guy. Very unusual to see him in a role like that. He was chilling. Too bad he didn't do more films that that. He was really good at it. Gable acted alongside Jean Harlow in the 30s, was paired with Hedy Lamarr in the 40s, and made it all the way to the sixties, finally being paired with Marilyn Monroe in his last film. I wonder if Marilyn, a big fan of Harlow, felt as though she'd come full circle, to be playing opposite Harlow's co-star of the 30s? Did she pump Gable with questions about Harlow? I don't know if anyone but Gable and Monroe know the answer to that.

"Saratoga" is definitely worth a look, but it's not a great film. Even if Harlow had lived to finish it, I don't think it would be considered one of her best. The horse race sequence and the ending would have been much better, but wouldn't have sent it over the top into greatness. What is interesting about this film in relation to the rest of her work is that it's the only film she made that hints at what she would have been like in the 1940s. One of the great losses of Hollywood is that Harlow never made it to the 3-strip Technicolor era. She will forever remain the platinum girl of the platinum screen.
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6/10
As travelogue, glorious, as story - eh
26 May 2011
There is a time for most people when, as children, they become aware.  It's the time when suddenly, the world opens up and you see yourself fitting in.  Things you took for granted or never noticed over night become worth investigating.  You become aware of not only your surroundings, but the time in which you find yourself.  Just like that things get emblazoned on your brain like never before.  For me, that happened in 1960.  It has always been a special year.  It was the year I discovered girls.  It was the year art had new meaning for me.  It was the year I learned to type and it was the year I realized movies would be a part of my life forever.

When I watch films from 1960 they bring back that connection to becoming aware.  They aren't all my favorite films, but it doesn't matter.  When I see pretty much any film from the early 60s I get a jolt.  Even if I've never seen the film before, movies that were made in the early 1960s, somehow trigger a response.  It's a combination of the hair styles, the fashion, automobiles, the film stock and lighting use of that time, the cast, acting and scoring style.  Films from 1960 through about 1962 have this in spades, including "Rome Adventure."

Suzanne Pleshette and Troy Donohue just radiate early 60s like nobody's business, as does Max Steiner's score, the cinemascope cinematography and the dialog.  Even watching the credits in combo with Steiner's music swept me back to that era.  In this regard the film was a joy to watch.  It's very romantic, but you know that going in.  

Having said that, essentially, "Rome Adventure" is a travelogue romance, and pretty much nothing more.  I enjoyed it but I can't say it was very good.  Though it has some of the same cast members, it doesn't hold a candle to Delmer Daves' previous film, "Summer Place."  It's no where near as well written and quite shallow by comparison.  The visual symbolism (the candelabra, for example, representing Donohue's integrity) was more than heavy-handed.  I wonder what most women today would think of the scene where Donohue tells Pleshette that women's role on Earth is to be the anchor for the man?  I can understand the meaning behind the thought, but in todays PC environment, the way it was handled in the big love scene at the climax is totally chauvinistic. It comes down to script.  It could have been written in a way that suggested Donohue was talking about just he and Pleshette themselves, but the grand gesture of suggesting that the notion that all women were put on earth as the anchors for men is a cage many people (men and women) would bristle at. And the use of Al Hirt gives new meaning to the term "shoe-horned in."

I really enjoy Suzanne Pleshette in most things I've seen her in.  She ended up being cast often as the world weary but intelligent woman who harbors an old love. This is exactly the character she plays in Hitchock's "The Birds," losing out to Tippi Hedren for Rod Taylor's love.  Pleshette's small role is still one of the most remarkably well-developed of any secondary character in all of Hitch's films.  When Rod Taylor discovers what has happened to her during a bird attack, it's a powerfully emotional moment.  Amazing how much sympathy she created for herself with so little screen time. Pleshette in "Rome Adventure" doesn't start out playing the world weary woman she became in later films, but she sort of becomes one as the film progresses.  Of course, the ending pretty much disregards that concept of her character, but it's there nonetheless.  

Troy Donohue, who gave a very good and believable performance in "Summer Place," is pretty wooden here.  He's actually the film's greatest flaw, which I find hard to understand.  He had the same director and writer as "Summer Place," yet Donohue just doesn't connect.  There is little chemistry between he and Pleshette, certainly no fire like he had with Sandra Dee.  

The real star of "Rome Adventure" is Italy.  It was photographed to look quaint and romantic, but the choice of locations, the time of day and consideration of lighting were all beautifully realized.  The film has many similarities to another film from that same year (which also gives me that early 60s jolt), "Light in the Piazza."  Rozzano Brazzi, who stars in "Rome Adventure," was also in "Piazza," playing a similar character.  In the case of "Piazza," however, he's after the mother (played by Olivia deHavilland).  "Piazza" also stars ingénue of the day, Yvette Mimieux and up and coming heart throb, George Hamilton.  Hamilton plays an intrinsically happy Italian who falls in love with Mimieux' childlike character.  "Piazza" is much more successful as a Euro romance than "Rome Adventure" because its plot takes some truly unexpected turns.   "Rome Adventure" unfortunately telegraphs all its surprises along the way.

Yet, in spite of all this, I found there was a lot to enjoy, and I think it's even a film worth revisiting on occasion, if nothing more than to give me another early 60s jolt, but to also re-experience that idyllic world of Rome the filmmakers created.
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See this for Ann Dvorak
26 May 2011
I highly recommend this Pre-Code film, an early directorial effort by Mervyn LeRoy. "Three on a Match" is more frank about life than many other films from that early era. Though Bette Davis is in it, she was still an ingénue with a very small part. She makes no major impact, but the real star of the show is Ann Dvorak (pronounced Vorzhak in case you didn't know).  I have only recently gotten acquainted with this exquisite actress and have yet to see a bad performance in the half dozen or so films I've seen of hers.  She was amazing in "Match," just so very natural, believable, one of the best at making not great dialog zing.  And her eyes!!  Wow!  

The concept of the film comes from a superstition that grew during WWI about three soldiers lighting cigarettes from the same match being bad luck for one of the three.  This is not a war film. The girls are civilians, who at one point light up cigarettes with one match, recalling that superstition. The three are:  Ann Dvorak, Bette Davis and Joan Blondell (she's also good). What is surprising is how their lives change and how straightforward the film is in depicting one woman's downfall. It's very intense, with a shocking and heartbreaking ending.

We get to know three girls as children first and then see them again years later when they reconnect after becoming young women. As children they were very different. As adults their lives take different paths. The film is segmented by yearly dates, jumping ahead every few years to see where they are and how things have changed.

The story becomes a bit predictable, but it's still very much worth sticking with because of how honest the portrayals are and how good Dvorak is. She made an even bigger impact not too long after this by playing Paul Muni's sister in Howard Hawks' "Scarface." "Three on a Match" is worth seeing for a view into a short period of early sound films when they approached their subject matter fearlessly, and had more realistic female characters. Once the production code was instated, female roles became more constrained. This is one of the must-see Pre-Code films.
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White Cargo (1942)
7/10
Hedy's eyes and teeth glow through the makeup
26 May 2011
Warning: Spoilers
This review is full of spoilers, but I knew the ending before seeing it, and it still affected me.

Although this is really one heckuva dumb film, I found it entertaining in many ways. Hence the rating of 7. I've seen quite a few Hedy Lamarr films, and have a pretty good handle on her style and the breadth of her talent, but nothing prepared me for this.  She plays Tondalayo, a native girl in Africa (half Egyptian and half Arab), who seduces and destroys men at a rubber plantation in the jungle.  Like many native female types of the time, she speaks in pigeon English (me go, me stay, etc.), that is fairly ridiculous, particularly if you understand how intelligent Hedy Lamarr really was.  Her eyes and teeth literally glow through the dark makeup that covered her body.  And in spite of how insane the whole idea of this casting was, she came across as hot, potent and sexual, something she hadn't done for me in any of the other films I've seen her in.  

As seductive as she tried to be in Technicolor in "Samson and Delilah," the calculated coldness of her character and clunky dialog didn't amount to much.  On the other hand, "White Cargo" was shot in b&w, and Tandalayo only appears in night scenes, allowing shadow and light to play across Lamarr's face in interesting ways.  She was more beautiful in this than in anything else I've seen her in.  Something about the darker skin set off her bone structure in a way her normally porcelain skin tones never did.  At least for me.  A scene where she dances to a phonograph record is full of sexual fire.  Her playful and sensuous moves were quite titillating, so much so that apparently the studio shied away from using as much footage of her as originally intended, cutting away to Richard Carlson watching her with lustful glee.  This film was even more jungle sweaty than Clark Gable and Jean Harlow in "Red Dust," ten years before. This time the male leads were played by Walter Pidgeon and Carlson, but in a much different story than "Red Dust."  

I've never seen Pidgeon this intense.  He plays Witzel, the man in charge of the camp, a hot head with a short fuse.  Being stuck in the jungle for years, broken down by the heat and difficulty dealing with natives, certain phrases by newcomers like, "Are the natives friendly?" set him off.   His temper exploded so often, it became annoying. On the other hand, it added to the discomfort these characters felt in the situation they found themselves.  

Carlson plays Langford, who has arrived to replace a foreman who has been reduced to a drunken sot.  Witzel warns Langford that exactly the same thing will become of him before the end of his four year contract.  And he warns Langford about Tondalayo.  Witzel was seduced by Tondalayo at one time but lived to tell the tale.  Within five months, however, Langford has succumbed to both the jungle, drink, and Tondalayo, who seduces him behind Witzel's back.  Soon it becomes clear that Langford is on the road to ruin, but he hates Witzel so much because of his animosity towards Tondalayo, he figures out a way of allowing Tondalayo into the camp without her being chased away.  Langford marries her.  

Tondalayo finds this loads of fun at first, but all she really wants is power and "trinkets."  When she comes to understand her wedding vow of "til death do us part," she plots her strategy.  Langford succumbs to drink, and her interest in him wanes. He loses his power.  What Tondalayo really desires is control over the man in charge, and Witzel is that man. She goes after him for a second try.  He almost falls for her seduction, but soon finds that she has been poisoning Langford. She has taken "til death do us part" literally.  

In one extremely intense scene, Witzel finds Tondalayo administering what he finds to be poison to an unconscious Langford, grabs the bottle and forces the liquid down her own throat.  It's really hard to watch this scene, and both Pidgeon and Lamarr play it well.  Tondalayo runs off to collapse and die in the jungle.  Still unconscious, Langford is sent on the next boat back to America.  As they carry him off to the boat, Witzel calls him "white cargo."  Hence the title.  

What I find appealing about films like "White Cargo" beyond the exotic setting, is the opportunity for atmosphere and raw, intense drama that takes place in "another world."  It's likely that the reason these films aren't made anymore is because science fiction and alien planets have taken the place of jungles and plantations.   But science fiction is just too far removed from reality.  "Avatar" is probably the closest thing we have these days to something resembling "Red Dust" or "White Cargo."   There were a few last gasps of these sorts of films in the 1950s and 60s like Audrey Hepburn in "Green Mansion," or the Marlon Brando "Mutiny on the Bounty."  Both films bombed.  Even Disney's "Pocahontas," an exotic love story that takes place in a jungle, did poorly compared to its previous hits.  Like musicals, exotic adventures stories of these types necessarily had to be transformed into something more contemporary.  

"White Cargo" is not a great film by any means, but not all entertaining films need be masterpieces.  The story moves with intensity, is well paced, the cinematography exquisitely moody, and there is a beautiful score by Bronislau Kaper, which was one of his first jungle movies.  Coincidentally, he went on to do "Green Mansions" and "Mutiny on the Bounty." The main reason to see "White Cargo," however, is Hedy Lamarr.  She never did anything like it again.   
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9/10
Delicately told and heart felt
3 April 2011
As an American married to a Japanese woman this movie really surprised both me and my wife for it's honest depiction of racism in America shortly after WWII. For a Hollywood film of 1952, "Japanese War Bride" is a balanced portrayal of race relations between white Americans and both Japanese nationals and Japanese Americans. It's a hard film to find and the DVD available is a DVD-R, with decent but not great quality. Still, the disc I found is very watchable.

Wounded during his service in the Korean War, American Jim Sterling falls in love with his Japanese nurse, Tae Shimizu, and visits her home in Japan to ask her father for permission to marry. Actually, the film makers never went to Japan. That scene was shot at what is now the Yamashiro Restaurant, in the Hollywood hills, overlooking Grauman's Chinese Theater. But most the story takes place and was shot in Salinas, California.

Upon arriving at the family home with his new bride, Jim is confronted by suppressed and not so suppressed hostilities towards his new bride. Initially, Jim's mother has a hard time relating to Tae, but the good nature of Tae and her desire to win over the appreciation of her husband's mother succeeds. Watching the mother finally open her hardened heart to Tae in a scene where Tae massages her mother-in-law's back, is quite touching, nicely performed by both Shirley Yamaguchi as Tae and Louise Lorimer as mother Sterling.

Marie Winsor, who made a career out of vengeful, hateful women in films like "The Killing" and "The Narrow Margin," excels here in the same kind of role, as Jim's sister-in-law who still holds a torch. Nobody seemed to do these kinds of roles as well as she did.

In fact, the whole cast is good, if a bit obvious and stilted in places, due to the acting style of the day. Nevertheless, the raw emotions people display in this story come across as honest and not forced. Yamaguchi's performance as Tae is easily the most polished and subtle of all the actors. Watching her learn and respond to the various attitudes white America shows her as she struggles to maintain her dignity is beautifully portrayed by Yamaguchi. Clearly, this actress knew quite well what she was portraying.

And Don Taylor as Jim, who may be a bit too vigorous for some, still he comes across as fair-minded and the genuine affection he shows for Tae is heartwarming. Their love scenes evoke a lot of charm. It took many years for Hollywood to show a white male movie star kissing a black actress on screen. it didn't happen until 1971 when Charlton Heston kissed Rosalind Cash in "The Omega Man." Yet, in "Japanese War Bride" there are very many scenes where Don Taylor passionately kisses Shirley Yamaguchi on screen. Although Taylor was not a big star like Heston, this film was clearly ahead of it's time.

My wife told me that a large percentage of the men who married Japanese war brides ended up in divorce, some of the women coming to America to find their husbands already married to white women. Yet, this film does a good job of capturing a shameful period of American history that did exist, and still exists in some places today.

The director, King Vidor, was clearly a romantic, and though many of his films are somewhat dated, they still pull strongly at my own heart strings. As a romantic myself, I respond to his films. "The Crowd," "Bird of Paradise," "Stella Dallas," "Comrade X," "H. M. Pulham, Esq," "Duel in the Sun," and even his less than stellar version of "War and Peace" all have moments that get through to me.

Though the ending is a bit overly dramatic, as a film about relations between Americans and Japanese, "Japanese War Bride" is, in my opinion, superior to and less soapy than 1957's "Sayonara," a much higher profile film. If you're a romantic and can find a copy of "Japanese War Bride," I think you'll be surprised by it's depth and honesty.
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Nine (2009)
8/10
Not Fellini but good in it's own way
8 March 2011
I love Fellini's "8 1/2," but I know that some people have a problem warming up to it. Perhaps it's the idea of why should we care about a rich film director with problems? Or perhaps it's the free form structure that could send us into the thoughts or dreams of it's main character, Guido, by visual or aural association without warning. Or maybe some people just don't like Fellini.

Whatever the reason, it's a story not everyone can relate to. Perhaps the reason "Nine" was poorly received and poorly attended was for some of the reasons noted above. On the one hand, some people who love Fellini's film blasted "Nine" because it wasn't enough like the original. Others who didn't see "8 1/2" blasted "Nine" because perhaps it seems like a whole lot of fuss over nothing. And maybe they were expecting something more along the lines of "Chicago," director Rob Marshall's previous musical film.

From my own perspective, "Nine" did a good job of capturing the angst of Marcello Mastroianni's character, Guido Anselmi, here renamed Guido Contini, for no good reason as far as I can tell. When Federico Fellini was making "8 1/2," he really was going through a creative crisis, and he decided to make his film about that creative crisis. But it became more than that. It basically mirrored everything that was going on in his personal life at the time. Fellini was married to Giulietta Masina. Guido's wife, Luisa, was played by Anouk Aimee, pretty much a stand-in for Giulietta. In "8 1/2" Guido was having an affair with Carla, played by Sandra Milo. In reality, Fellini himself was really having an affair with Sandra Milo. The director was being totally honest about himself, exposing the world to all his foibles.

Fellini's film became a filmed session with a psychiatrist. All thoughts, memories, dreams, and wishes were displayed on screen. A very personal statement.

"Nine" couldn't possibly have any of that. This is not Rob Marshall baring his private life and soul to the public. If anything, it's a homage to Fellini, and to film directors in general. In that regard, it has a lot going for it. In some ways, Daniel Day-Lewis is more emotive than Mastroianni, though he doesn't have that Italian's sly sense of humor. His angst is more intense than Mastroianni's. His singing performances and Italian accent have been criticized, but I could see no fault in them. Day-Lewis is just one of the best.

The film itself is easier to follow than Fellini's. It's been simplified. There are less flashbacks and dreams. This is where Marshall pales in comparison to Fellini. There was a long sequence in "8 1/2" where Guido plays along with a mind reader who writes down on a blackboard what he is thinking. ASA NISI MASA, she writes. And these words from Guido's mind, trigger the memory of a warm and loving time from his childhood. It's one of my favorite sequences in all of Fellini, and I missed it being reborn somehow in "Nine."

Yet even so, "Nine" improves on Fellini here and there. Marion Cotlillard as suffering wife, Luisa, is magnificent, surpassing Anouk Aimee, who was great in the original. Cotillard is one of the best actors there is working today. And as good as Sandra Milo was in "8 1/2," Penelope Cruz gives her a run for her money. She's actually much funnier than Milo, though perhaps not more effective. Cruz is very sexy, and in fact, the film has plenty of sex appeal to go around. The muse character, Claudia, played by Claudia Cardinale in Fellini, and by Nicole Kidman in "Nine," never was much developed in "8 1/2" and even less so in "Nine." Catherine Zeta-Jones turned the role down for that very reason. Sophia Loren, as Guido's mother, was given next to no screen time, and because of that the relationship between mother and son does not have the familial quality that brought the memories to life so beautifully in Fellini's film.

Fergie is fine as Saraghina, and she has the best song in the film, though some may be wondering why Marshall cast such an American-looking woman for the role of an Italian whore. The thing is, the woman who played the hefty whore in black in Fellini's film, Eddra Gale, was surprisingly also American - from Chicago. They should have dropped Kate Hudson's character of the reporter completely. There was no comparable character in "8 1/2" and she didn't add anything to the story. Her dance number and song are the weakest of the bunch. Judi Dench's Lili was a nice blend of Rossella (Luisa's friend in "8 1/2") and a new costume designer for Guido in "Nine." And Dench was fabulous as Guido's conscience.

I enjoyed the way the songs were sometimes interrupted by the characters speaking. This surprisingly made it flow better, when you'd think just the opposite might be true. Visually, "Nine" is stunning. Location work, lighting, sets, choreography and costumes are all top notch. That they shot at Cinecitta in Rome didn't hurt either. Though the songs aren't as memorable as in "Chicago," they all have a nice Italian feel to them, and the score by Andrea Guerra has the flavor of Nino Rota without copying. I enjoyed it enough to see it again and would recommend it.
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8/10
As a time capsule of early 60s So Cal it's amazing
8 March 2011
Warning: Spoilers
As a movie "Bachelor in Paradise" is not great. Perhaps it's better than most Bob Hope movies of the period, but as an historical document of a time and place, that is, the tract home developments of Southern California of the early 1960s, this film is nostalgic joy for baby boomers who grew up in the valley. The film captures what it was like better than a more serious film could. And though it's not great, it's not a bad movie either, particularly if you can appreciate Hope's physical grace Woody Allen found so appealing (and tried to copy), and enjoy Hope's distinctive verbal delivery. If that's the case and you're a child of the 60s, you'll likely have a good time.

The story is simple. Writer, A. J. Niles (Hope), who has been writing about the the sex lives of bachelors around the world, finds himself stuck back in the U.S. because his accountant ran off with his money and he's in hock big time to the IRS. In order to make a quick buck, he's forced to move into a small community of tract homes called 'Paradise Village' and write a book about how the Americans make love. Of course his name is Adam. He lives in Paradise Village. He meets a single woman there played by Lana Turner. Why her name is Rosemary instead of Eve, I don't know, but romance ensues.

I grew up in Canoga Park, and am very familiar with the type of neighborhoods, super markets and people that inhabited that world back in 1962. Canoga isn't exactly like the town Paradise Village is supposed to be located in, but it's close enough. Seeing those rows of brand new pastel-painted painted homes with identical lawns and freshly planted trees puts me in a time machine blasted back decades.

Yet, it's more than just the location that documents this place in time. It's the way people dress, the attitudes they have about sex and steamy European movies, the places people considered 'romantic' - a Polynesian restaurant, for example - and the way supermarkets were filled almost entirely with housewives, that give context to this period of Southern Californian history. What people considered funny back then, may not be funny as originally intended, but the gags are so much of their time the statement they make about the developing middle class certainly is amusing. When Jim Hutton (very funny in this movie) comes home, he notices his wife (Paula Prentiss) has put a birdcage over his youngest kid's head so he won't eat anything dangerous. Hutton is not shocked at all. It's a strategy they apparently both agree on.

Another example is when Hope tries out his new washing machine and overloads it with soap. The entire house becomes engulfed in soap foam. A dog gets lost in the suds. Hope calls the fire dept. When they arrive they ask, "Where's the fire?" and Hope says, "Would you have come if I yelled 'soap'?" You get the idea.

The music score by Henry Mancini backs up the period nicely. The score never was released at the time, but is available now through FilmScore Monthly, and for Mancini lovers, this is a good one. The film even uses the first three notes of the main theme for the doorbell of Hope's house.

MILD SPOILERS START NEXT PARAGRAPH FOR THIS FILM AND "PUNCH DRUNK LOVE"--

Coincidentally, I saw "Bachelor in Paradise" and then watched Paul Thomas Anderson's "Punch Drunk Love," a day later. I'm a big fan of Anderson and love "Punch Drunk." Parallels between the two films stood out. Both take place in the So Cal valley (also where director Anderson grew up). Both stories are about men who are overwhelmed by women. Adam Sandler has 7 sisters who overwhelm him in PDL. Hope deals with a neighborhood of females who overwhelm him in BIP. The main characters in both are victims of theft, and the theft is what gets them in trouble and motivates the plots. Both are considered sexual perverts by others in the story. Both are pretending to be someone they are not, finding themselves in love while initially trying to avoid getting involved. Hope & Lana Turner and Sandler & Emily Watson fall in love in a Polynesian setting about mid-point through the film. And both have key scenes that take place in super markets.

END SPOILERS

"Bachelor in Paradise" was directed by Jack Arnold, best known for the science fiction films he made in the 50s - "Creature from the Black Lagoon" and "Incredible Shrinking Man" among them. But Arnold had a way with comedy as well. His "The Mouse That Roared" is probably the best movie satire on living with the 'bomb' other than Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove." "Bachelor in Paradise" is a wonderful showcase of a time and place long gone. If baby boomers watch it from that perspective, they might have a fine time reliving their childhood. Hope fans won't be disappointed either.
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7/10
Venezuelan jungle competes with Audrey Hepburn's beauty
7 March 2011
Warning: Spoilers
Major spoilers isolated below.

"Green Mansions" has been hard to see for many years. WB finally released this MGM film in their Archive Collection, so since it's now available, here's some words of encouragement for people who might have read that this is just an atrociously bad film.

Yes, it does have its faults, but contains an engrossing plot with some surprising twists and is buoyed by some beautifully conceived atmosphere. Some jungle shots are truly stunning. The film was partly photographed on location in Venezuela, which has waterfalls, flora and fauna unlike other jungles. Yes, many of the jungle scenes are obviously a set, but more often than not artificial jungle and real jungle blend well.

Some shots of the jungle have real depth. They remind me a bit of the fanciful jungle created in the 1933 "King Kong" by use of matte paintings and miniatures, except in "Green Mansions," the jungle foliage fades off into the mist in full color.

Perhaps both Anthony Perkins as Abel the revolutionary and Audrey Hepburn as bird girl of the jungle, Rima, were miscast, but Lee J. Cobb's overacting as bird girl's 'grandfather' bothered me more. Both Perkins and Hepburn look good, Hepburn a bit too much, with not a hair out of place. She never really gets down and dirty like a girl raised in the jungle would. I wanted to see her suck the poison from Perkins' leg, but fat chance. She's just too sophisticated, and Hepburn never tried another role like this one, with the exception of the Kiowa Indian girl in John Huston's "The Unforgiven." She didn't fare much better in that one either.

Still, in "Green Mansions" Hepburn was blended into the jungle scenery magically by her director (and husband at the time), Mel Ferrer. There is one shot where Perkins' character, Abel, wanders through the jungle looking for bird girl Hepburn. When he leaves the shot, Hepburn moves down from a tree. She'd been there the whole time and just blended so well, she became a part of the tree.

Henry Silva, as the chief's son, Kua-Ko, fares much better than the leads. Kua-Ko has some perverse psychology that gives the film a depth not found in Abel or Rima. Sessue Hayakawa speaks no English as the tribe chief, Runi, and although Hayakawa is Japanese, he doesn't look out of place with the other South American natives.

The film has a fairly high quotient of "kitsch," with Perkins strumming guitar and singing to Hepburn being the highlight. Some of the matte shots are obvious, while others are beautifully realized. One shot of the camera tilting up from the jungle set to the tall trees and vines reaching up through streaming sunlight is as good as anything done today in the digital realm. Some of the matte shots are obvious, but still richly atmospheric. A conversation between Abel and Rima on a cliff side with with two distant waterfalls beyond them made for lush eye candy. So see the film for the visuals if nothing else.

MAJOR SPOILERS START HERE:

Storywise, I liked how the Cain/Abel story was woven into the subtext. There were actually two Abels, with Kua-Ko being Cain who slew is brother, and Perkins' Abel being a replacement for the brother Kua-Ko killed. And though many may disagree, I really liked the ambiguous ending. Was bird girl alive or dead? We see her, but the shot is so magically composed and majestically lit, like a view of heaven, that it could easily suggest otherwise.

SPOILERS END

It should be mentioned that beefing up the enjoyment of "Green Mansions" is the marvelous score by Bronislau Kaper and Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos.

Fans of Indiana Jones might not find much to appreciate in "Green Mansions," but if you like a good story, seeping with atmosphere, you could do a lot worse than spend two hours in this magical Venezuelan jungle.
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8/10
From the inside looking out
12 January 2011
Warning: Spoilers
Here is a film that much improves on a second viewing. The first viewing, unfortunately, may turn a lot of people off because of its moderate pace and what comes across as bad writing and bad dialog. But give it a try... or two tries. All that seeming badness is there for a reason.

This is the story of Jane, a woman on 'vacation', whose car has a flat. She gets out and walks, ending up at the house of a very powerful and apparently evil man, Caligari, who keeps her captive. Others she meets at the place come across as characters from the Twilight Zone. In fact, everything about this place and its characters, plus the way they interact with Jane, is very off. Characters seem to appear for no reason and sometimes deliver dialog that is purposely over the top and even wildly campy.

The plot focuses on Jane's relationship with Caligari, who appears to be some whacked out psychotherapist, and her attempts to escape his psychological as well as real hold on her. Other people at this house try to help her escape... or do they? By the end of the film, though some may see it coming a mile away, everything is put into focus. I wanted to re-watch the film right away, but decided to give it some breathing room. When I finally did re-watch, I was amazed at how much more interesting it was, knowing what I knew from the first viewing.

*** SPOILERS NEXT PARAGRAPH:

Of course what we learn is that we have been viewing the world through the mind of a mentally deranged woman. Once we see that, as we watch the film the second time, we can see that all the weirdness, bad dialog and bizarre character behavior was really Jane's mind playing tricks on her. The tricks reveal what a state of denial Jane is in about her fear of aging and losing her beauty. I'm sure many women have problems facing this aspect of their lives. The visuals of the film and concepts like a revolving door to enter Caligari's office, the twisted stairwell, the stark lighting, and effective use of still images, all contribute to creating a very uneasy state of mind. When I first watched, some scenes truly creeped me out, though they made me laugh at the same time. On second viewing, they still creeped me out, but the laughter was gone. The major flaw in the script is that following a major mental trauma Jane is considered "cured" and well enough to leave what we find out is not Caligari's 'home', but a mental institution.

*** END SPOILERS

This movie is certainly not everyone's cup of tea, but I think it's an imaginative remake of the 1919 expressionist "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," minus the somnambulist and the bizarre sets. Yet the remake's visuals hearken back to the design of the original. The twisted stairwell, an amazing hallway dream sequence that could have been right out of the 1919 film, the psychologically conceived sets and often artificial lighting really recreate the mood of the old film.

Glynis Johns is quite effective as Jane. She plays her right on the edge. Her conversations with Caligari (Dan O'Herlihy) are laughably disturbing. Often Jane's shock of what she sees is our shock as well. I know many find this film just plain terrible, but I think it has many surprises if you give it a chance (or two!).

Gerald Fried's inventive score fleshes out Jane's state of mind beautifully. "Caligari" may have been pitched as a horror film, but it's not. If you go into it thinking it's a fright film, you'll be disappointed. As a voyage into the depths of insanity, though, it has a lot going for it. Just like Jane, who enters a house expecting one thing only to find something very different, you need to know what you're getting yourself into before watching!
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10/10
Polanski in great form
28 February 2010
Warning: Spoilers
I was trying to figure out why this film was so much more tense than say something like "Taken" (2008), which has lots of action and very high stakes, but didn't get to me like the Polanski film did. I believe it's a result of three things: Camera placement, length of shots, and editing. Perhaps I'd add Polanski himself, because you are never really sure about the route he takes you on, though they tend to climax in a downer.

In this regard, even though I could see where the film was going, generally, I couldn't grasp exactly who was behind the mystery and how many people were involved. Because of this, I didn't know who to trust. I only knew Ewan McGregor's character wasn't involved, but he wasn't too smart either, so this added to the tension.

Like the scene on the ferry, where McGregor finds himself cornered with two hit men after him, the tension was ramped high because of the filmic techniques I previously described. Also, McGregor's character kept making silly mistakes, revealing far too much about what his intentions were to the wrong people, so anyone, including the maid, could not be taken for granted as trustworthy. This kept things on edge, whereas in "Taken," after about 10 minutes it becomes clear who the bad guys and the good guys are. And the cuts in "Taken" come fast and furious, so by contrast, when you need things to speed up, there's nowhere to go. In "The Ghost Writer," when the pace increases, we notice, because the quick cuts come in sharp contrast to what we had gotten used to.

This movie had parallels to "Chinatown" in terms of it's unraveling mystery and political corruption; to "Frantic" in terms of someone out of his element; and to "The Ninth Gate," in that the detective work involved a book. As well, the reoccurring theme of the "predecessor" that shows up in so many of Polanski's movies, "The Tenant," being the best example, with its main character, a new tenant, finding himself under the same influence that drove the previous tenant insane.

And of course, water plays an important role, as it did in the director's previous "Knife in the Water," "Cul de Sac," "Macbeth," and "Chinatown." It's almost always a negative driving force, with the exception being "Frantic," where the "maguffin" is destroyed by water, a curious world savior. Not so, in "The Ghost Writer." Water only adds to the dark tone, and emphasizes the conspiratorial weight pounding down on McGregor.

Where this film seems to differ from previous work by this director, is the bold-faced international political stance he takes. Clearly, Polanski and the writer of the novel, Robert Harris, have strong feelings about the direction world governments are taking. The same could be said about "Chinatown," and perhaps in a simpler way, "Frantic," with its anti-nuke point of view at the end. But with "The Ghost Writer," Polanski grabs the political direction of world leaders by the horns and runs with them. The outlook is bleak.

Polanski's modus operandi has never been to tie things up neatly with a happy ending. He's always felt that people aren't motivated to do anything about an issue if the ending is happy. He leaves audiences with their stomachs torn out, saying essentially, "Yes, things are this bad, yes they are. Start thinking about why."

Polanski seems to be borrowing from himself more than usual with this film. I found the dependency on the high tech, which began in "Frantic," and was expanded in Johnny Depp's detective work in "The Ninth Gate," used to an even greater extent in "The Ghost Writer." Cell phones, GPS systems, computers, the media, all play important roles in furthering the plot.

The scene where McGregor leaves Tom Wilkinson's character's (Paul Emmett) house to find a car waiting for him, likely intending to follow and kill him, was created almost identically, in smaller form, in "The Ninth Gate," when Depp leaves the estate of the man who owns the second book Depp was researching. A car waits for Depp just outside the gates and tries to run him down. Polanski even staged it the same way in "The Ghost Writer," except extends the chase to the ferry, surpassing the tension of the earlier film immeasurably.

I'm looking forward to seeing this film again. I'm sure there's much more to uncover.
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10/10
Overshadowed by Pandora's Box, but a Louise Brooks film not to miss
22 December 2009
Warning: Spoilers
While it was common during the silent era for Europeans like Greta Garbo and Rudolph Valentino to cross the Atlantic and make it big in America, Louise Brooks, as was her nature, went against the grain and headed in the opposite direction, where she made it big in three European films, two directed by G. W. Pabst. Of the two, "Pandora's Box" is the better film, but "Diary of a Lost Girl" is the film that made me fall in love with the girl in the black helmet.

"Diary" doesn't have the sure hand of Pabst's direction in "Pandora," but it does have a story and characters that are more easily accessible. And though I feel "Pandora" is one of the greatest films ever made, it took me a few viewings to recognize the scope of its originality. And Brooks' character Lulu, though fascinating and exquisitely performed, is somewhat impenetrable.

Thymian, the character Brooks plays in "Diary," is an innocent caught up in circumstance and the social mores of her time. The very nature of her character makes us care what happens to her. Without resorting to cloying sentimentality, Pabst manages to create a character in Thymian that gets under our skin emotionally, even when she succumbs to manipulation by others. (Big spoilers in next sentence, so skip to next paragraph if you haven't seen the film): After being raped, giving birth to an illegitimate child and sent away by her family to an institution for delinquent girls, then losing her baby and becoming a prostitute, Pabst keeps us rooting for her to succeed in life, however she chooses.

Pabst's effectiveness is due in no small part to Brooks' performance. Her detractors have suggested that she wasn't much of an actress, just a pretty face playing herself. Yet, all anyone has to do is see the two Pabst films back to back to realize what different characters Brooks created from two, in many ways, similar roles. I do not see an ounce of Lulu in Thymian. If Brooks was channeling just herself, she had some far ranging personality facets to select from. But whatever she was doing, I'm just very glad it was captured on film.

I prefer not to say much about the plot of this film, because there are some nice surprises throughout and though I've checked the spoiler box for this comment because of the brief description of what happens to Thymian, I don't want to spoil the film's wonderful twists and turns for those who happen to read this.

Technically, the film is beautifully shot, and although it doesn't possess the dark atmosphere of "Pandora," it does have it's own distinctive look via locale, set design and some spectacular camera moves, particularly a wonderful shot that follows Thymian up a stairway. The secondary characters, particularly in the girls institution, are far more caricatured than need be, and the humor is overdone in spots, but none of that detracts from the unusually forward story being told. Like "Pandora," the film is ahead of its time. And although Pabst did not shoot the ending he wanted, I find the ending used one of the most satisfying things about the film.

See this film and fall head over heels for the girl in the black helmet.
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7/10
Not James Whale, but worth a look for William Castle fans
15 November 2009
Warning: Spoilers
Of course this film doesn't hold a candle to the James Whale film from 1932, but if you put that film out of your mind and go into this William Castle film and take if for what it is - a William Castle film - you'll probably enjoy it. Like no other film I can think of, this "Old Dark House" is like a Mad magazine movie satire come to life. Actually, it's more like Mad magazine when it was a comic book back in the 1950s. It has none of the sophistication and witty dialog that mark the James Whale film, and neither does it have much to do with the J. B. Priestly book 'Benighted' that the earlier film followed so closely, but it does have a highly surreal wackiness that has more in common with a Tex Avery cartoon than a live action horror comedy.

As a Hammer Film, it is also sumptuously art directed, with nicely dressed, if overly-lit, sets. Whereas the original film was about a group of travelers who find themselves stuck in a strange house inhabited by some insane, and in some cases, psychotic and dangerous family members, the William Castle film focuses on a single visitor, played by Tom Poston, who delivers a car to the Femm mansion to give the roommate friend who happens to be a member of the family.

Upon arriving at the mansion, the car is ruined and Penderel is instantly "invited" into the house via a trap door at the front porch (that becomes a running gag); and he proceeds to watch family members killed off one by one. Each family member, you see, must stay in the house, or forfeit the family fortune. Does it make any sense? Only in weird William Castle logic. The film does have a bit of the Charles Addams black humor to it, particularly when the family keeps lowering the flag at half mast every time one of their members dies.

These family members, while not as frighteningly bizarre as in Whale's film, are indeed a strange bunch. There's Roderick Femm, avid gun and canon collector, played by Robert Morley; Petiphar Femm, who plans on saving the world by building a new ark and populating it with Tom Penderel (Poston) and Morgana Femm (Fenella Fielding), as the ark's human specimens; Tom's roommate friend Caspar Femm and his twin brother, Jaspar, both played by Peter Bull eventually laying side by side dead in coffins, one strangled by fireplace stokers; crazy knitter Agatha Femm, played by Joyce Grenfell, who is offed by her own knitting needles; totally crazy and psychotic Morgan Femm (Danny Green), who seems to fill the threatening role of crazy Saul from the first film; but it is Cecily Femm, played by the sexy and beautiful Janette Scott (of "Day of the Triffids" fame) who brings the biggest surprise by being revealed as the actual psycho murderer amongst this crazy bunch.

No, this is not a classic, but the atmospheric surroundings, a stuffed animal being shaken by someone off screen to suggest a fearsome hyena (the audacity of the cheapness!), the weird Noah's ark thing, and the sheer oddness of the whole production makes it very watchable. And it has a very good score by Benjamin Frankel, of all people. Only William Castle could have put something together so utterly surreal as this. Truly bizarre. Don't expect James Whale, and know what you're getting yourself in for and you'll probably have a good time.
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Cleopatra (1934)
7/10
Colbert and production design rise above it all
22 August 2009
Warning: Spoilers
With the DVD release of this first sound version of "Cleopatra" in newly restored form, the hype labeling this the best of all filmed Cleopatras is hard to avoid. Although I like this version and enjoy Claudette Colbert, the overacting of other key players and obviousness of Cecil B. DeMille's direction as well as the serious condensation of the story holds me back from loving it.

Although Colbert is witty and conveys a lot through expression (particularly her eyes), I really can't buy her as Queen of the Nile. Though the actress was born in France and schooled in New York, her accent and manner echoes more mid-west America than Ancient Egypt. The same could be said of Elizabeth Taylor, but Taylor's physical features evoke the middle East more than Colbert's. Still, Colbert's performance is enjoyable if taken as Hollywood hokum masquerading as high art - like the Liz Taylor version.

The production design and costumes of DeMille's film shimmer and glitter on screen like an ancient living dream. The look of the film is undeniable. The huge pillars with patterns of reflective design, though black and white, suggest gold everywhere. Colbert's gilded headdresses emblazon themselves to memory, becoming Hollywood fashion icons in the process. The sets of Egypt, Rome, and particularly Cleopatra's barge, are pure silver screen eye candy. The highlight of the film is the stupendous crane shot that starts on Cleopatra and a drunken Antony, then pulls back to reveal the oarsmen rowing methodically in time to the suggestive pound of a drum as the barge sets off back to Egypt, reinforced by a pulsing score. It is both sexual, romantic and remarkably cagey, transforming power from Antony to Cleopatra, cleanly ending the act and setting the stage for the rest of the story. It's a phenomenal sequence, probably the single finest moment in DeMille's career.

So with all this wonderful stuff, what's not to like? It's the character relationships, which come across as simplistic and unbelievable. The time Cleopatra spends with Caesar is supposed to make us buy her passion for him, but it felt rushed and forced. The one high moment is when she kills a man hiding behind a curtain with a knife. Did this man intend to kill Caesar or Cleopatra? She would have Caesar believe the man wanted to kill him, when more likely he was there to kill her. The ambiguity is wonderful, and there should have been more material like this. Yet, even before their relationship solidifies, Caesar is assassinated and Cleopatra is off to Egypt. Warren William as Caesar is physically right for the role, and much older than Cleopatra, which is historically accurate, but the obviousness of his dialog and the "beware the ides of March" foreshadowing is thick enough to be cut with every dagger plunged into Caesar's chest.

Even worse than William is Henry Wilcoxon as Antony, who when told Cleopatra intends to poison him, gives us not only one unrelenting fake over the top laugh, but gives us another when he relates the notion to Cleo herself, even laughing himself sillier. Cringe inducing. It is this sort of heavy-handedness that brings the film down to lower than pulp quality. Yet it is more than Wilcoxon's performance. When Antony is told Octavian is marching to Egypt, Cleopatra, who indeed had intended on poisoning Antony for the sake of Egypt's future, suddenly finds herself filled with admiration when she watches him order his men about. This is a short cut by the writers to transform Cleo's feelings for Antony, but like most sequences (with the exception of the barge sequence where enough time is given to show Cleo seducing Antony with her physical charms and exotic wonders), the writers cut to the chase before any expository groundwork is laid.

The battle of Actium is sandwiched among a montage of land battles. Not all that much is conveyed until the end when we see Antony sitting atop an Egyptian gate, defeated. This episode is far more effective in the 1963 version, with Antony (Richard Burton) charging Octavian's troops single-handedly after his men have deserted him. With DeMille choosing montage as the way to wow the audience, the sequence becomes a bit tedious. There's only so many times you can watch men swing swords at each other before it becomes repetitious. And neither is the montage all that dramatic. Mostly we witness choreographed crowds in action. Actium was a sea battle and that is where the focus should have remained. How Antony was defeated we can only surmise via the montage.

Claudette Colbert made me care for her, in spite of the simplistic relationship development, anachronistic dialog and Cliffnotes ancient history. Had someone like Roger Livsey played Caesar and Laurence Olivier played Antony, perhaps even their own poorly written dialog could have been overlooked as well. So, ultimately, Colbert is the only one who comes out the winner, mid-west Americana Queen of the Nile and all. She's loads of fun to watch.

Still, in spite of the film's shortcomings, I highly recommend it. There is much to admire. Fans of Colbert will not be disappointed, and it's a complete feast for the eyes. I might add that this version as well as the Taylor 1963 version and the 1999 epic with Leonor Varela, all end identically with a camera move back from the dead Cleopatra, the bodies of her handmaidens nearby as the Romans view the scene with disappointment and humility. Apparently, all three directors agreed there was no better way to end than to copy Shakespeare.
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