Change Your Image
Upload An Image
Crop And Save
The Death Ship (1928)
Notable only for Jason Robards Sr.
This heavy-handed bit of trivia serves only to let us see what Jason Robards Jr.'s father looked like.
The son gave us many memorable performances, but on the evidence of this film, the father was mired in the stagger-and-clutch school that we can't connect with.
The short as a whole is stagy, obvious and unrewarding.
The Warners special effects unit brews up a fine storm at sea, but the human interaction remains stiff and lumbering,intense but clumsy.
To its credit, the film is short.
For collectors only.
Secret Beyond the Door... (1947)
Lang was the Teacher; Hitchcock the Disciple
Yes, "Rebecca" is a more successful film, and is certainly a more conventional one. "Rebecca's" story is every bit as tripe-y as this one. However "Rebecca" was an A-film, and this one a B+, and that makes a huge difference. Also "Rebecca" is more familiar to movie buffs, and that makes us like it more as an old friend.
Watching "Secret Beyond the Door" is like watching a Douglas Sirk melodrama (also from Universal). The soapy story is not what counts, it's what the director does with it.
Fritz Lang was a superstar director in Berlin when Alfred Hitchcock was an apprentice set designer over from England to learn his craft. The annoyingly familiar elements in the story of this film (Rebecca, Spellbound, Dragonwyck, Bluebeard, Pandora, Masque of the Red Death, Northanger Abbey, Jane Eyre) are the fault of the producer who bought and shaped the material. David Selznick produced "Rebecca." Can you imagine Walter Wanger producing "Gone with the Wind?" No, neither can I.
In this film, what Fritz Lang brings to a second-rate script is fascinating and unique, and it's no use complaining that he's not Hitchcock.
Joan Bennett gives her usual performance. She seems to have done her best work for émigré directors rather than native-born. She did good work for Max Ophuls as well, sort of like Hedy Lamarr but more "street."
Michael Redgrave is interesting here precisely because he is so ambiguous. It's easy to imagine Laurence Olivier on screen courting and seducing an innocent girl. Maxim de Winter is a very familiar character in romantic fiction, from Mr. Rochester in "Jane Eyre" all the way down to the brooding studs of today's Harlequin romances.
Redgrave, by contrast, has a much more elusive character to portray, attracted to a self-possessed woman of the world, but in unbearable pain and unable to give for reasons he does not understand himself. Maxim de Winter knows what his problem is. Mark Lamphere does not.
Redgrave's usual persona is peevish, someone with a private grievance on the verge of meltdown, and that works very well here. So let's not complain that he's not Olivier. Olivier couldn't have played this part so well.
Quick reminder: no director had final cut in those days. A film was cut by the producer and editor while the director had already moved onto other projects. The uneven pacing of this movie is more characteristic of Universal Studios than it is of Lang.
Stanley Cortez deserves full credit for the cinematography, and Miklos Rosza for keeping the story flowing even when the editing lags. At one particularly eerie point, Rosza recorded the music with the orchestra playing the notes in reverse order, then had the soundtrack itself reversed so the notes come out in proper sequence but with unnatural attacks and releases. This is very advanced stuff and works beautifully.
BTW, it was nice to see Joan Bennett flee at night into the thickly foggy countryside. That set was from "The Wolf Man" and she was darned lucky Lon Chaney didn't leap out from behind the tree.
So rather than complain about what this picture isn't, let's celebrate it for what it is. It's not a masterpiece, but no director but Lang could have put together this film with so little sentimentality. His precision makes us uncomfortable and off-balance, but we don't always appreciate dry and cold.
Hamlet at Elsinore (1964)
The BBC has announced a DVD issue in 2011
It's funny that so many people remember this telecast from almost 50 years ago. And with such uniformly positive feelings.
I remember the pounding waves and the Long Hall. I remember Robert Shaw as the first Claudius I ever saw who was not only sonorous and regal, but violent, and sexy enough to seduce the Queen and make her agree to kill her husband. I remember Donald Sutherland coming in at the end as Fortinbras, and for once saving the character from being a wimpy, pompous letdown.
Until recently, the film could only be seen in America at the Paley Media Centers in New York and Los Angeles.
However Sir Michael Caine was recently reminded of his participation in this long-forgotten film, and he asked the BBC to resurrect it.
We'll all have a chance to check our memories soon.
Dunces and Dangers (1918)
A Skyscraper Thrill Comedy a Year Before Harold Lloyd's First
This one-reel comedy will have you screaming and sweating, as Larry Semon and his girl are chased up and down the sides of buildings, fighting heavies on rooftop ledges, skittering across rickety bridges in mid-air and see-sawing on ladders over the city far below.
Hans Koenekamp was the cinematographer, and he later became senior visual effects wizard at Warner Brothers. This short will help show you why.
And it's all a full year before Harold Lloyd stepped out on a ledge for the first time.
Beautiful Images, Limp Storytelling
The riot at the premiere of "The Rite of Spring" was much more raucous than this film depicts. The accompanying "Making of" featurette on the DVD shows much more violent action than made it into the final film.
All of Stravinsky's music throughout the movie is played slowly and sentimentally, which is not what this composer was all about.
We can only conclude that the director is more interested in baroque visuals than telling his story. In fact, it's impossible to believe that a blank stick like Mads Mikkelsen wrote such violent music. The lens is much kinder to Anna Mouglalis, who effortlessly steals all their scenes together, except for the bloodless sex scenes, in which neither are interesting.
But I can't believe we'd be talking about either of these personalities today if they'd been as boring and cataleptic in real life as they are in this film. If you want to see character in action, watch Alain Resnais's "Last Year at Marienbad" which compared to this is one long firecracker display.
War & Peace (1972)
Staggeringly uneven - the BBC bit off more than they could chew.
British television has a mystique among some American viewers. This version of "War and Peace" is a useful corrective. Parts of it are quite good, but much of it is barely competent, and some is even less than that.
Many scenes combine lackadaisical pace with yelling and over-acting, a lethal combination. Some of the acting would be OK on the stage, but the camera is merciless in revealing miscalculations. "Faster and softer" across the board would have helped a lot.
It is not always the actors' fault. Sometimes the players look like some firm guidance from the director might help a scene, but that help often doesn't come. I suspect the director had his hands full just getting stuff in the can on schedule and under budget.
"Excuse me, can we do that again? I think I can do it better." "Sorry, we haven't the time. That take was good enough." Over and over again.
The one actor who covers himself with glory is Anthony Hopkins as Pierre. Hopkins could be awful elsewhere ("Legends of the Fall"), but here he rarely puts a foot wrong. He is what you will remember from all this.
Alan Dobie fails to convey Prince Andrei's aristocratic bearing, and looks lumpish and unattractive at the Great Ball where he is supposed to dazzle Natasha. But after fitful attention earlier, Dobie focuses wonderfully in his deathbed scenes, and winds up quite moving.
Angela Down makes an unexpectedly effective Maria, making the most of a part that often recedes into the woodwork.
Morag Hood is unbearable as the young Natasha. As the character ages, she quiets down considerably, and by the end she is merely annoying. But the giant shadow of Audrey Hepburn has stunted her growth, and Hood's inadequacy is a central concern.
Faith Brook is generally good as Mama, though she goes seriously off the rails when the Rostov house is emptied out ahead of Napoleon's occupation. Rupert Davies as Papa seems to think he's playing Dickens, not Tolstoy. When the Rostov family gathers noisily, I wind up looking for Tiny Tim.
David Swift's Napoleon is neither charismatic nor evil, just baleful. Frank Middlemass buries Kutuzov's humanity in a welter of eccentricities, in a performance that never quite adds up. Harry Locke is a blessedly underplayed Platon Karateyev - perhaps the best in that part that I've seen, but that doesn't make up for the other 12 hours.
The filmed Serbian exteriors are dreary without being impressive, and the muddy color doesn't help. The battle scenes boast a cast of hundreds rather than thousands, but they are sabotaged by clumsy staging and the lack of background music. Somebody's decision to restrict music to balls and salons was a major mistake - the dramatic scenes are rarely good enough to survive without orchestral support.
The sense of strain never leaves this enterprise. Actors force some encounters and trudge through others. All too often, we look at something that is one take short of merely OK.
You're far better off with the Vidor or Bondarchuk versions. This second-rate attempt is for completists only.
Arn: Tempelriddaren (2007)
A Limp Dishrag
Gosh, things were clean in 1100! Here I thought people were living in a certain degree of squalor, and now we find out they were all as perfectly spotless as fashion models.
The landscapes and cinematography are pretty. Some of the character actors, notably Skarsgard and Callow, are effective. But most are wooden megaphones for not-terribly-good dialog. The Cecilia enjoys her own acting entirely too much, and the Arn looks constipated most of the time, as if he didn't want to soil his costume.
The film's handling of time and space, flashbacks and intercutting among various plot lines, was simply incompetent. The opening narration was out of a Bronston epic, which worked well in "King of Kings," "55 Days at Peking" and "El Cid" but not here.
For all the money and ambition involved, this film was strangely muted and small, as if being boring was a virtue. Hollywood pictures, for all their faults, try not to be as spineless as this one. Here the size of their budget apparently frightened them. This picture goes on for hours muttering softly to itself, while the subject matter cries out for occasional therapeutic yelling.
I haven't read the books by Guillou, a psychotic anti-Semite who drank himself to death. He doesn't sell outside Sweden, which is probably a good thing. But the plot as presented here was cliché'd and predictable every step of the way, with the dreary superficiality of an airplane paperback. This film does not make me curious to explore any further.
Rent "El Cid."
America's Sweethearts (2001)
If You Have to Deal with Crazy People, This Comedy is Great Therapy
OK, it's an 8, but I voted 10 to raise the average a little bit.
The script is funny, and the one-liners are vintage Crystal.
The actors are uniformly fine, with Catherine Zeta Jones and Hank Azaria having the most fun, Alan Arkin showing the most restraint and John Cusack doing well with the toughest assignment. He is a national treasure.
Joe Roth, the director, gets good performances out of the cast, and keeps things moving.
If you have to put up with BS from impossible people on a regular basis, you'll laugh twice as hard. Go ahead and laugh.
Playhouse 90: Heart of Darkness (1958)
A Lot Less Interesting Than It Looks
Conrad's short story was very short, and deliberately unspecific in order to avoid lawsuits.
This 90-minute telecast features writer Stewart Stern's free variations on Conrad's story skeleton, filling out the narrative in a way that is wholly inadequate when compared to Michael Herr's Vietnam fantasy in "Apocalypse Now."
Roddy McDowell gets most of the screen time, and wears out his welcome quickly. The rest of the cast looks great on paper, but they're at far from their best and are pretty much wasted. Karloff completists will be frustrated by a brief appearance as Mr. Kurtz that is wholly lacking in power or magic. Overall, the studio-bound production strains to a poetic level that is more embarrassing than inspiring.
Sterling Hayden's introductions are stiff and uncomfortable, and the commercials included in the version I saw were far more engaging than the show itself.
Not one of Playhouse 90's better evenings.
Marjorie Morningstar (1958)
Gone Rancid in the Can
I saw this film as a kid in its initial release, and was very moved. I just watched it again tonight, and was very annoyed. There is not a genuine note in this film from beginning to end.
Hollywood had dealt before with cultural assimilation and and the complexities of mixed marriage, but with the introduction of the Production Code in 1934, a lot of the old ethnic clichés became out of bounds. Identifiably Jewish character actors like Benny Rubin suddenly couldn't find work. Ed Wynn, Jack Benny and the Marx Brothers prospered, but without the Jewish jokes.
This film was one of the major entries in a renewed attempt by Hollywood to deal with the old stories. I can't review the book, as I have no plans to seek it out for the purposes of "compare and contrast." But the film is so thoroughly confused about who and what it is about, that it winds up being about nothing.
I believe Herman Wouk was a party to the compromises. The film credits Beachwold Productions, which points directly to Wouk's summer house at the time.
Natalie Wood can do everything she is asked to do, which is a relief - that wasn't always the case. Gene Kelly is a bit stiff and heavy, as he always was in non-musical roles. By casting him, the film gives up on any more subtle characterization of Noel Airman, and turns into the umpteenth remake of "Abie's Irish Rose." I don't buy Kelly as a renegade anything and neither did the original audience. The film becomes just another story of the princess and shaygetz dancing around each other for two long hours, and never rises above dreariness. Even Ed Wynn is dreary.
I suppose someone at Warner Brothers saw the business Universal was doing with Ross Hunter's hyperventilating melodramas, but I hate to say this: Natalie Wood is no Lana Turner. Director Irving Rapper takes part of the blame: he's no Douglas Sirk. Rapper was a weak, compliant, flabby director who needed a strong producer and editor to assemble his takes into something watchable. Unfortunately this film just flails around like a dying fish on a dock. It doesn't begin to succeed on any level.
I hope no one is ever crazy enough to try a remake. This one is really over.
A Walk with Love and Death (1969)
Neither Fabulous Nor a Failure
This film bends over backwards to look like old paintings and tapestries, and succeeds better than some others with ten times the budget.
Dayan is not a strong actor, and baby Angelica is even worse, but the film is worth watching if you're in a poetic frame of mind.
The story wanders and is lumpy in shape, yet I'm glad to have seen this movie and finished it with strong, lingering emotion.
A doodle from a great artist can be more interesting than a strained masterwork from a lesser talent. Worthwhile for those who still have nerve endings.
Nice enough content RUINED by letterboxing!
Yes, it's nice to trot this material around one more time, and there are anecdotes here that may or may not be new to you.
But Buster Keaton said that comedy is in long shot, and these boneheaded producers chose to zoom in for widescreen and hack off the top and bottom in their clips of both movies and TV.
You can't show physical comedians cut off at the knees. These are full-body performers. You lose the feet, legs and space that contains the action, as well as the location information at the top of the screen. In the scene from "Animal Crackers" where policeman Basil Ruysdael pumps Harpo Marx's arm and several hundred knives fall out of his other sleeve, you can hardly see the knives appearing and the entire gag is killed stone dead.
To show the entire frame would have entailed black bars at the sides, but that would have been a lot better than destroying the visuals of Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, Fields, Caesar, Ball and just about everybody else who worked in standard format rather than widescreen.
An absolute waste of time. Don't bother.
Big Milligan Fan disappointed in this damp squib
Spike Milligan was one of the funniest men I've ever seen, and a huge influence on my life.
This movie is limp and awful, and does his memory no credit. The script is cluttered and preserves too many lines from the book intact (the leg jokes here are incomprehensible). The actors' performances are uniformly ineffective, a great cast wasted, and the lead, Sean Hughes, delivers Milligan's belligerent hostilities in a plaintive whine, which misses the point completely.
The gentle pacing is a killer as well. Farce should accelerate towards the end. The Goon Shows often did, the novel "Puckoon" definitely did, but this film, if anything, slows down just when you want the various elements to smash together in a final climax.
Milligan narrated an abridged audio recording of "Puckoon" in 1980, with T.P. McKenna, Dermot Kelly, Norma Ronald and Jack Hobbs. Now, that's funny. Ten minutes of that is funnier than this whole film. I believe the LP was transferred to CD, but don't know if it's still in print.
There is a movie of "Adolf Hitler: My Part in his Downfall" with Jim Dale and Arthur Lowe. It too is a godawful mess, but it's funnier than this thing.
It's possible that Milligan's spirit is too rambunctious for the screen. The other reviewers here are indulging in politeness and wishful thinking. This film fumbles virtually every opportunity and never misses a chance to disappoint.
The Blues: Godfathers and Sons (2003)
No Valentine for the Chessmen
The title "Godfathers and Sons" tips you off right away that though the entry figure in the documentary is Marshall Chess, he's not getting a pass from the producers. It's not possible to understand Chicago blues without Chess Records, but far from being an uncritical tribute, the Chess family is shown to have both good and bad sides, something which has apparently confused the other reviewer here.
Though it's a documentary, not a concert film, you also get some good live performance footage, some fairly rare archival clips of greats like Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Willie Dixon and others, and interviews with young rappers who are developing their own relationships with their musical heritage.
Not a great documentary for the ages, perhaps, but there are far worse ones in this subject area. And I would hesitate to evaluate this documentary one way or the other solely on the basis of the director's last name.
A Performance of Macbeth (1979)
MY, there's a lot of acting going on here!
This is a VERY theatrical production of Macbeth, with everybody rushing the camera, gargling in their own slobber, assuming contorted poses, wandering around aimlessly and generally beating the living stuffing out of the play.
In a theater it would rivet you to your seat. It worked in "Marat/Sade" and on stage it worked here. However the television camera mercilessly reveals a procession of theatrical strokes and tricks, and there isn't a human being in sight.
Wait, there is one exception. The late, great Bob Peck is completely emotionally honest as Macduff. When the poor man hears of the death of his wife and children, for one brief shining moment there is some communication of human truth. It's the best performance in there and he steals the show.
The rest, including Judi Dench's famous scream in the sleepwalking scene, is a triumph of artifice and directorial narcissism. This is the kind of horrorshow that gives the word "theatricality" a bad name.
It's like being locked in a closet with a bunch of loony puppets. Noisy loony puppets. This traversal is not a tragedy, it's kabuki, and misunderstood kabuki at that.
People who are impressed by a bunch of great names will marvel happily at the assembled starpower, but this is a misfire on just about every level. Avoid.
Better than Nunn, but BBC is still best
"Twelfth Night" continues to reveal delights with every re-acquaintance. It is warm, sympathetic, funny, wise, theatrically canny and occasionally dangerous.
This particular version of the play is chamber Shakespeare, based on a fairly intimate theatrical production. It is not particularly outstanding in any way, but it works. The old Shakespeare magic culminating in the final scene builds and releases as it should, and that is the ultimate test.
The cast is good, just good, across the board. There is one standout performance, and that is Richard Briers as Malvolio, and he is considerably better than good.
I found Anton Lesser's Feste a little strained and complicated, plumbing the part for depths not to be found. This is not Hamlet, nor was meant to be.
Some production decisions can be questioned, with anachronistic Christmas elements injected, along with a wholly awkward Christmas carol. The whole winter motif and monochromatic production can be challenged as well, but it all works nonetheless. Unlike some of Mr. Branagh's inspirations, no Bards were harmed in the making of this DVD, and that's a relief.
Many will tell you that Trevor Nunn's feature film of "Twelfth Night" with a potluck cast of stars is the best choice, but I find it a gross miscalculation in tone, scale and pace, and a complete misfire.
There is an 1969 ITV production floating around with truly towering performances by Sir Alec Guinness and Sir Ralph Richardson, but they unbalance the rest of the cast and threaten to capsize the play.
The best overall version with an ensemble cast that is beautifully balanced in every way is the 1980 BBC version from their complete traversal of the canon, with Felicity Kendal, Sinead Cusack and Alec McCowen. That is a delight from beginning to end.
Two giants unbalance the play
Sometimes you'll see an actor who makes such a huge impression that he overwhelms the dimensions of the play. That's what happens here, only there's two of them. Sir Ralph Richardson and Sir Alec Guinness are each so powerful that they burst the confines of the performance like an exploding hot dog casing, and their combined presences unbalance the whole proportion of Shakespeare's play.
Richardson's Sir Toby Belch is a magnificent drunk act, never straining to be funny, but always effortlessly conveying the character's humor. Guinness's Malvolio is also gigantic, a self-deceiving fool who is strong enough to be a physical threat to the other characters who make fun of him. His capering in yellow stockings goes beyond silly past eccentric all the way to menacing. Guinness's delivery of Malvolio's longest speech is a lesson in how to perform Shakespeare.
However the play is about Viola and her travails and the unsuccessful courtship of Olivia by the Duke, and these mere mortals don't have a chance. Joan Plowright was not an experienced Shakespearian, and appears to have been spoonfed her performance by her husband, whom you may have heard of. Time and again, she rolls her eyes or finishes a couplet in a way to make you see the ghost of Lord Olivier hovering over her. It's not a bad performance, but she's too busy coping to find the humanity in the part, and overall is not terribly effective.
The rest of the cast is simply obliterated. Most are fine but they don't have a chance. The glaring exception is Tommy Steele. Unknown in the U.S., he was Britain's first manufactured rock star, famous at home mostly for doing cover versions of American hits for the U.K. market. As Feste, he's merely obnoxious, seeming to think the play's about him, and that he's doing Shakespeare a favor rather than the other way round. Thanks but no thanks.
There is an overrated "potluck Shakespeare" film from 1996 with a whole bunch of stars, but Trevor Nunn's direction is lethargic and diffused and sabotages almost the entire cast. The movie gets wonderful reviews from people who don't know any better, and should be avoided.
For a well-balanced, almost ideal video performance of this play, the 1980 BBC version features Felicity Kendal, Sinead Cusack, Alec McCowen and an ensemble cast that just about vibrates together. It's a family, and you can actually imagine them all living in the same village together. That would remain my first choice for "Twelfth Night."
But if you want to see evidence that giants once walked the earth, this Richardson/Guinness video would be a good place to start.
Antony and Cleopatra (1974)
None better for Shakespeare's play
No, if you want spectacle, get the Taylor/Burton and forget about Shakespeare. This DVD wins on the Royal Shakespeare Company's deep bench and Trevor Nunn's meticulous direction. All do well with the verse, and there is none of the glaring miscasting that strangles the BBC version from 1981.
Richard Johnson was briefly married to Kim Novak. He also turned down the role of James Bond because he didn't want to be trapped in a long term contract. Here he hides his good looks behind a thick beard, and if he is not as grand as Antony might be, he's certainly got most of it right. Janet Suzman braves the considerable difficulties of Cleopatra without ever becoming unbearable, which you can't say of her competition. Octavius is played by Corin Redgrave, who once again projects his father's perpetual air of irritable grievance minus the family charm.
Patrick Stewart as Enobarbus pounds his competition to dust, and Ben Kingsley and Tim Pigott-Smith in minor roles are testimony to the strength of the company. Philip Locke and Derek Godfrey also make strong impressions.
This version is shot entirely in a TV studio, now a lost and unfamiliar art form. There are virtually no constructed sets. The actors are usually in limbo, with perhaps some waving gauzes, or diffusion on the lens. This may confuse some viewers who need literal settings, but it frees the rest of us to concentrate on the people, the plot and the poetry. Shakespeare is not about architecture; the movies do that better.
Until the Caedmon audio recording with Anthony Quayle and Pamela Brown resurfaces, this DVD is the best way to absorb a packaged version of Shakespeare's play.
If you love someone big, skip it! California fat-phobic self-righteousness
This film starts well, as it is righteous about global warming and trashing the planet.
But as soon as it gets into space, righteousness turns to self-righteousness. According to this film, fat people are stupid, weak, passive, infantile, helpless and self-absorbed, and they represent all that's bad about our contemporary culture.
As Daniel Engber points out in Slate.com in his article on this film, 80% of variations in body weight are determined by your DNA, not your eating patterns; you might as well blame environmental ills on tall or short people. And 97% of diets fail, so there's not much to hope from there.
Pixar's stern lecture on the sedentary life style doesn't prevent them from offering a video game of the film to keep you firmly planted in one place, nor are their action figures biodegradable. So they don't set much of an example.
If you or someone you love is heavy, do not see this film and don't let them see it either. It can be emotionally devastating.
The movie reflects no great insight into our world. It is merely a reflection of California's stupid body-consciousness, intolerant of natural human variations in size and shape.
Les misérables (1934)
The Best, now on DVD
This version of "Les Miserables" is very much the best I've ever seen.
I've read the book, and the author Victor Hugo has a certain kind of great, rolling oceanic rhythm, where he starts to set up a scene, appears to wander around adding elements, then slowly brings people and events to a staggering, shuddering climax two- or three hundred pages later. And he manages it several times in the one book. It's a remarkable technique, and no other film version of Les Mis that I've seen manages to capture that feeling of majestic, gigantic tension and release the way this one does.
Now, I've only seen the three-hour version of the Depardieu/Dayan version, not the original six-hour, which I've never been able to track down in a version with English subtitles.
But I've seen just about every other version, and they all have a disjointed sense of pace and continuity that comes from jamming a huge novel into a Cuisinart and filming the pages that survive.
For overall achievement, this one takes the prize. Individual scenes have been done more effectively in other versions, but for capturing the feeling of actually having read the book, this movie is the best.
Other versions have gone deeper into the dirt and filth of Old Paris; much of this film was shot on backlot streets where even the dirt is clean, like a Sam Goldwyn picture. Director Raymond Bernard is also a little too fond of tilting the camera for dramatic effect, but you get used to it quickly, and some of the German Expressionist lighting is very effective.
This is the only version I've seen that shows the actual revolution Hugo describes with sympathy and patience, and the character of Marius gains terrifically from it. By contrast, the attitude towards revolution is nervous and dismissive in the 1935 March/Boleslawski version, as Hollywood was run by Republicans in those days, and Marius inevitably comes off like a twerp. Not here.
Also, the class distinctions among the characters are etched far more clearly than in other adaptations. Today's egalitarian impulses usually tend to bland out such niceties, but our contemporary demands for comfort with these interactions are ignored in this movie from 1933.
Harry Baur as Valjean is a dramatic giant, a stocky, massive bunch of nerve endings. He is from the same school as Emil Jannings, but fortunately never plumbs the depths of Jannings' abysmal, moist self-pity. It should also be noted that Baur is better here than in Abel Gance's film about Beethoven. Some of the actors surrounding him in Les Mis are a bit obvious, but OTOH this has the best Gavroche, period.
Charles Vanel is the only Inspector Javert you are likely to see who was not affected by Charles Laughton's remarkable portrayal of the character, as that was not to be filmed until two years afterward. Laughton's Javert was so intense that it unbalanced that picture, so that the film wound up being about his agony, not Jean Valjean's, which is wrong.
Charles Vanel's Javert appears to be offhand, methodical, restrained, banal; unlike Laughton, he has no speech about why he does what he does, and he gets very few closeups. There is next to no exploration of his interior life, if any, and his death is handled very differently from what we have come to expect.
Past the initial surprise, I think that is one point of the film, that Javert is not a flamboyant, obsessive madman. Vanel's Javert is not a twitchy rogue cop like Anthony Perkins or a reptilian boogeyman like John Malkovich; this film is not a Homeric one-on-one duel to the death like "The Fugitive." Here, Javert symbolizes a government of anonymous and casual brutality. He is a willing cog in a machine that metes out rigid punishment and has no mechanism for tempering justice with mercy. This approach will definitely provoke you to thought, which you can't say about most movies.
Anyway, forget the star-studded comic book adaptations that are the norm for this title, and curl up with a good book. This one is on two DVDs, takes around five hours to watch, and you'll never regret it.
Les Misérables (1935)
Good, but the 1933 version is much better
Advantages here: Charles Laughton's Javert, Gregg Toland's cinematography, um, um.........
This film was made by 20th Century as a remake of the French version of two years earlier. The French version totals five hours in all, which allows a more grownup script, a better sense of pace, a fuller exploration of the characters and a more authentic flavor all around.
There is something vaguely infantile about this version and Fredric March has about as much European savor as corn-on-the-cob. Charles Laughton unbalances the film with his famous portrayal of the obsessed cop Javert, and the film becomes about his agony, not Jean Valjean's, which is wrong.
The Raymond Bernard film from 1933 is available now in a two-DVD set, and is the closest you can get on film to the experience of actually reading the book, which is long and spacious and worth it. Certain individual scenes are done better in other versions, but the Bernard film is the best overall.
Strictly Dishonorable (1951)
Cheerful Musical, and Oh Whatta Voice!
First of all, Ezio Pinza had a voice. If you've never heard an opera, you'll still respond to this man's singing.
Pinza had a lyric bass unlike anyone alive today, and it's the kind of sound that makes women sit up and take notice - it's an animal communication that has nothing to do with high culture.
Secondly, he's enjoying himself here. Like another refugee from the Metropolitan, tenor Lauritz Melchior, Pinza seems to enjoy acting in MGM escapist froth. His reactions while listening to a bad soprano are worth the price of admission right there.
The script is formulaic, the plot twists and turns visible a mile ahead of time, the overacting of the Italian characters very much of its era.
But they're all having a good time, and you'll have a good time too. "Mr. Imperium" is equally amiable, and features more great singing.
Disregard any negative reviews you may find here: you don't watch MGM musicals expecting "Anna Christie." This film knows exactly what it's doing, and it does just fine.
If this is the best Commander Hamilton movie, I have no curiosity about the others.
A movie actor's greatest tools are his eyes, but when Peter Stormare wants to show great emotion, he closes his, so for five or six seconds we get to admire his eyelids while his feelings remain unknown behind them. Lousy acting technique.
Stormare also flinches sometimes when he fires a gun, turning his head away and clamping his eyes shut. Watch carefully. James Bond can rest easy with competition like this.
There are some interesting supporting performances from other actors, but not enough to hang a whole movie on. The cinematography is good-looking, doing a fine job of capturing the Nordic cold. Even the Sahara winds up looking cold. Perhaps Hamilton carries his own climate with him.
There are some individual good action sequences here. Unfortunately, the only sense of humor on screen belongs to the villain, which turns the hero into a big pill. James Bond's jokes may not be particularly good, but at least he doesn't look constipated all the time.
One positive point in the movie's favor is that the psychotic, contorted, vicious hatred of Israel in Guillou's books has been left out. What has been kept in is worship of a noble, heroic PLO, that he shows us functioning in Libya without the dictator Khaddafi's knowledge or supervision. This fantasy is hard to believe, since Khaddafi actually threw the PLO out of Libya for four years at a time. And at the end of the film, Hamilton gives the PLO a very disturbing gift. Where will they use that gift? Hamilton doesn't care.
We're a long, long way away from "For Whom the Bell Tolls" here.
Commander Hamilton will remain a local phenomenon. While Henning Mankell's books sell well around the world, Jan Guillou will never have the same success.
As for this film, bleeeeaaahhhhh.
My Son the Fanatic (1997)
Warm, powerful drama that predicts the London bombings
Om Puri as the character Parvez, opens this film playing a clumsy, overenthusiastic, embarrassing Pakistani immigrant in England, mangling the language and missing every possible social cue. Oh, no, funny little foreign man. Yuk.
But then something wonderful happens. We watch Parvez's life fall apart, and he gradually and inexorably turns into a real person of depth and moral struggle. By the end, he has become a person who will live with you long after the film ends.
In order to make a living, Parvez drives a cab at night. He also fixes up randy passengers with local hookers, though he is not motivated enough to sample them himself. He feels dirtied by this way of surviving, but does not become a bad person himself.
His son, on the other hand, abandons a lovely English girl to join some local Muslim fundamentalists. They are deliberately not clearly identified with either a Sunni or Shiite affiliation, as that is not the purpose of the story. The group imports a radical mullah from the old country, and as he stays in Parvez's house, the son becomes irretrievably estranged from his father.
As the action progresses, the son pursues his concept of holiness and purity, and becomes a bad person. Eventually, Parvez's world collapses completely. As Parvez, Om Puri gives a superb performance.
What is remarkable about this film is not only the human story, which is real and absorbing, but also a discussion of second-generation Brits turning their backs on Western secular society and reaffirming a rigid, medieval orthodoxy from a country they may never have seen. Now, this is not a documentary and shouldn't be judged as such. What matters here most is the way humans relate to each other in the context of religious zealotry.
The scale of violence in this film is modest, but Google "Finsbury Park Mosque raid 2003" and "7 July 2005 London bombings," and you will see the eerie predictive power of art. While watching this film, it's hard to remember that it dates from 1998.
This is a worthwhile film in terms of human drama, and a tribute to the power of the artist to see into the future. Highly recommended.
Shooting Fish (1997)
Never Mind the Fish, Shoot ME!
This film has a promising First Act.
After around 20 minutes, you begin to suspect that things will go wrong.
Then they get much worse than that, they get terrible.
The Third Act is in slow-motion, with nine too many plot twists and no pace at all. By this time you are clawing the stuffing out of your couch.
I hate these people for having wasted a night out of my life.
Dan Futterman, a kind of low-rent baby Richard Gere, plays the American the English love to hate - smug, glib, an updated version of "over-paid, over-sexed and over here."
Stuart Townsend plays a shambling English wonk, good hearted and socially undeveloped. Hey, there's something new in films!
Kate Beckinsale's charm is unable to salvage the proceedings, and she projects none of the intelligence one would hope to find in a budding doctor. Totally implausible. And there are some very good character actors who are completely wasted in unrewarding roles.
I suspect the script was written using one of those screen writing software programs, as the characters, twists and paradoxes are all arbitrary, every single last blinking one of them. Including the blow-up dolls.
If the Surgeon General's Office could place a Health Warning on this film, the world would be a safer place.
I can't imagine where the positive reviews for this film originate - probably in a misplaced sense of charity. As Jay Sherman, of "The Critic," would say, "IT STINKS!"