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Excellent and heartfelt
16 January 2018
This one got lost somehow in the years between School Daze and Dear White People, but it's well worth rediscovering. Multi-story structure played out by a fine ensemble cast is perhaps a bit too schematic and tries to do a bit too much, but Singleton brings the same empathy he displayed in Boyz in the Hood (and a welcome returning cast member, Ice Cube) to Higher Learning. Plus, his filmmaking smarts have improved, if anything, as several very well thought-through sequences demonstrate (particularly the melded-together love-making episode). What Singleton accomplishes, very movingly, is to convey the struggles that college-age people have figuring out who they are and what they are here for. The pain of being midway between adulthood and adulthood itself is always right there on the surface -- especially for the black characters, of course, since they are adjusting to a world much more directly controlled by the white man than they had previously experienced, but for the white characters too, one most tragically. Higher Learning accomplishes this at least as well as the two films mentioned earlier. Biggest asset: Omar Epps. His performance as Malik has a depth and emotional weight that goes beyond the rest of the cast (who are all just fine) and makes clear how much is at stake for him -- and everybody -- in the drama of college.
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The Future (2011)
Entering David Lynch territory - in a good way
26 October 2016
Some fine moments, but overall doesn't hang together. However, the t-shirt dance (which I take it started out as part of a performance piece) conjured the sort of eeriness David Lynch achieved in some of his early films (before they turned all forced and self-conscious). The strangeness and physicality of it transcended the rest of the movie and, perhaps unfortunately, showed up what it was lacking. But it's one of the best film presentations (lighting, music, camera) of a "live" performance I've seen. Also reminded me a bit of the wonderful scene in "Chuck and Buck" in which Buck seduces his old friend in a bar. Are we nothing but human? Are we not also something else?
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Billy Chapin the real star
12 November 2015
Warning: Spoilers
Laughton, in his sole directorial effort, got flawless performances all around. Of course, Mitchum has the showiest part and is impossible to forget. But the real star of "The Night of the Hunter" is Billy Chapin as John Harper. John's twin moral dilemmas -- remaining loyal to his father, even though his father murdered a couple for $10,000, and his tug-of-war with his "new" father, are what drives the plot. Chapin, a busy child actor in the '50s who then left the business completely, is stalwart throughout and conveys the conflict in John very movingly. Study his face -- it's a great lesson in movie acting.

The two most emotionally wrenching moments in the film are when the troopers apprehend John's father at the beginning, and then, near the end, when the scene is almost exactly replayed, only with Mitchum's preacher being apprehended. John's conflicts are right up front here: his agony watching his father being beaten and taken away, and then experiencing the same thing when his "new" father, who he's been running from, is apprehended in the same manner. In this scene, he see how the preacher, who is simultaneously scary and seductive (especially to women), has partially seduced even John -- so much so that the only way he can end the entire nightmare is to give up the money he'd promised his father he'd never tell about. Great acting, great film making.

Interesting side note from last night's TCM presentation: According to Robert Osborne, Jane Darwell was originally cast as Rachel Cooper, but Laughton decided he wanted a smaller women, one who looked almost too small for the shotgun she aims at the preacher. He got that with Lilian Gish; indeed, it's visually striking when she brings her troupe of children into town, because she looks almost small enough to be one of them. Which forces us to ask what the film is getting at when Rachel talks about the abiding nature of children. Another fascinating layer to this wonderful film. (Although I suspect that Laughton, whose career went back to the silent era, was also taken with the idea of importing some of Gish's iconic power into the mix.)
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Was Soderbergh watching this?
13 March 2015
Although made when the period it covered had barely ended, Marker's doc is a superb, incisive film history of the short but eventful period of Third World Revolution and the New Left. He doesn't attempt to explore all the ideological, sectarian byways of the time, but to make us understand what it felt like, and why people involved believed so fervently that they were making history. He also shows us how it all came unraveled, thanks to domestic repression and political fakery in the developed countries and brutal intervention in the developing.

One of the final clips (if memory serves) is most telling: Salvador Allende, months before his violent overthrow, delivering an electrifying speech to Chilean factory workers, urging them to ... accept layoffs and pay cuts. That's what it came down to, unfortunately: a boxed-in socialist president, doing his opponents' dirty work even as they prepared to murder him.

Why Soderbergh? I just saw his marvelous, two-part "Che," and couldn't help but wonder if Marker's film was on his mind when he made it. Although a fiction film with actors, it also puts you close to the action and makes you feel what it was like to be taking part in 1) the momentous Cuban revolution and 2) the bitter failure of the Bolivian insurgency. Rise and fall, very much like the elation and then the dead-end that Marker gives us. Along the way, Soderbergh provides snapshots of his main character (now in black and white) giving speeches, interviews, explaining himself and his cause to American and UN audiences who couldn't be farther from the events Che was caught up in. The revolution is televised. Marker does the same thing with some of the footage he found, and interestingly, another Cuban revolutionary--Castro--was his charismatic star.

One fine filmmaker paying tribute to one of the medium's greatest, perhaps? But see "Grin Without a Cat," and ask yourself why so few directors have any notion of the medium's potential.
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Arrowsmith (1931)
Interesting early-sound Ford
5 March 2015
Arrowsmith has a lot going against it--principally that Ronald Coleman was too old for the part and had the wrong accent, and that John Ford (according to Helen Hayes's autobiography) edited the script down considerably during filming, leaving the story episodic and with context and motivation in some scenes unclear. That said, it's quite an interesting film. For one thing, it was made when Prohibition was still in force, and portrays the drinking culture of the time (Arrowsmith promising to take Sondelius someplace they can get a "real beer," the quite openly operating speakeasies) revealingly. It was pre-Code, too, and the striking, dialog-less scene in which Arrowsmith (married) returns to his room while Myrna Loy's character is obviously preparing to receive him next door, is quite sophisticated for Hollywood. Most impressive are the angular compositions and starkly lit, off-kilter shots with which Ford fills the Caribbean section of the movie. This was the period when Ford was absorbing lessons from German expressionist cinema (culminating a few years later with The Informer), and they help create the proper woozy atmosphere for an island in the grip of the plague. Even the truncated script helps, in a sense, lending the film a narrative unpredictability that leavens the rather sanctimonious story about an idealistic doctor sorting out his values. When Arrowsmith starts to lose control late in the film, we're just a few steps away from Dr. Frankenstein in his mountaintop lab--which would greet moviegoers just a short time after Arrowsmith premiered.
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Overpoweringly annoying people
29 July 2014
I liked the first two films in the series, but now I'm questioning my judgment. Just saw Before Midnight, the third, which pummels us with how beautiful, wonderful, sensitive, wise, soulful, charming, earthy, tasteful, piercingly perceptive, honest, brilliant, talented, witty, caring, committed, and utterly, ineffably perfect its protagonists are. Of course they are! Everyone says so, including not only the "distinguished" British author, the gorgeous young lovers, and the attractive Greek couple they spend their vacation with, but the woman at the airport who asks for both of their signatures on Jesse's book, "because it would mean so much to my husband." All on a postcard-perfect Greek island, no less.

My apologies to both Erich Rohmer and the recent Woody Allen for ever having complained about how cute and perfect their characters can be. Linklater trumps them easily, to the point I was hoping it was all supposed to be a goof on terminal bourgeois whiteness (one longs to put the script in the hands of a reincarnated Luis Bunuel to see what he'd do with it). There's some kind of serious theme rolling around here in the long conversations, the suggestions of how our younger selves speak to our older selves, etc., no doubt further explored in Boyhood. But the sexual politics are about as profound as Men Are from Mars Women Are From Venus, and there's nothing much to care about in Jesse and Celine's big fight, because by that point in the film, we don't like either of them enough to care.

Before Midnight represents a colossal lapse of self-awareness by Linklater, and an even more embarrassing load of self-absorption from its stars and co-authors.
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An unexpected delight
19 April 2012
I saw this when I was a child and enjoyed it, then ran into it unexpectedly on TV not long ago, and was delighted. I'm not a fan of "Born Free," the more famous Travers-McKenna starrer, with its self-importance, travelogue nature photography, sentimentality ... and that awful Andy Williams vocal at the end. Perhaps this has something to do also with the rather insistent way the move was flogged as "wholesome family fare" at a time of change and - some of us would say - maturity in the commercial film industry. Nevertheless, I wasn't prepared for much on the second viewing of "Ring of Bright Water." I was wrong. Jack Couffer, a veteran of Disney's True Life Adventures, turns out to have been a real filmmaker who knew how to create an ambiance that at times approaches a kind of poetry. The atmosphere seems to proceed out of the characters, not just the settings (from London to western Scotland). The cinematography is lovely (Couffer got his start as a DP). The animals - especially Midj - are not sentimentalized but are endearing and empathetic. The story isn't pumped up with any crude comedy. The (human) performances are nicely low-key. The burgeoning romance between the writer and the doctor is predictable but not oppressively so.

Altogether, Couffer's film has a "naturalness" that almost all other family-nature flicks completely lack. "Ring of Bright Water" has little or nothing to do with the social and political changes happening at the time it was made, nor with current trends in film. It could have been made in almost any year. And it will no doubt continue to provide a strong measure of pleasure for some time to come.
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Holds up extraordinarily well
20 March 2012
I first saw this one all of 32 years ago, about, and just re-viewed it last night on TCM. It's one of those Kitchen Sink/British New Wave films that were all the rage in the early 60s and then fell completely out of fashion with the critics. Lindsay Anderson in particular went from being hailed as a visionary to a being pigeonholed as a pretentious poseur. But time has a way of paring back what's superficially impressive about a film like "This Sporting Life," to reveal what's really remarkable about it. This one holds up extraordinarily well.

Yes, Anderson is a bit arty and affected (the spider, etc). But what an amazing character study he's produced! Harris deserved all the acclaim he got for his Frank Machin, but it's the way Anderson places him in the frame, in the shot, that makes the character and the story work and that underpins its tragedy. Consider that there's not a single scene where Machin looks comfortable and unselfconscious - not even when he's hanging out with his friends from the rugby club. Machin is a great cinematic portrait of an unsocialized person, and the price his disability extracts. Director and actor collaborated, brilliantly, to give us this.

I think it's been noted, but "This Sporting Life" is also a landmark of sorts in gay cinema, since it's informed by a fascination with a certain kind of rough male physicality that helps to make Machin a palpable human being and must be an expression of Anderson's sensibility. Machin is a complete outsider without at all intending to be, and as a gay man, Anderson seems to have had total empathy for this extremely difficult character - even though Machin is otherwise the type of person the director would likely have found physically threatening in real life.

What else to say? Rachel Roberts is superb, of course; at times, one wonders if the film is really more about her than about Machin. In the whole thing, there's a hint of "Streetcar Named Desire," if the accent mark had been removed from Blanche and placed on Stanley. Supporting roles all filled terrifically. Anderson also benefited from a good, tight script by David Storey - the film doesn't seem a bit too long at 2hrs 15mins or so.

Harris and Anderson were both tragic figures in life, to some extent - Anderson, curiously, was the one who didn't have a satisfying "second act," as Harris did after he appeared in "The Field." Makes one wonder how much of themselves each put into "This Sporting Life," and at what cost.

What about the other films of the period? Critics get carried along by the zeitgeist too, and the Kitchen Sink genre fell away in the mid-60s in part because the public mood in Britain improved with the economy and - not least - the emergence of the Beatles ("A Hard Day's Night" seems, looking back, to have shared some of the attributes of the genre - I'm thinking partly of Ringo's solitary walk - and to have been a transitional work moving away from it). The social structure loosened up, at least superficially. And the Kitchen Sink films were always fundamentally grim, even a comedy like "Billy Liar." The public can stand only so much of that. Further, they were succeeded by the much less self-consciously arty and perhaps more "authentically" working class films of Ken Loach, Mike Leigh, and a few others. But TCM is right to be giving the films that paved the way for those, a fresh look.
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Bug (2006)
How not to adapt a play into a movie
29 December 2011
Warning: Spoilers
"Bug" began life as a two-character, off-Broadway play taking place on a single set (as I recall). Either in spite of, or because, the playwright adapted it himself, what we have here is yet another misguided attempt to "open out" a claustrophobic, set-bound story into a more expansive, naturalistic movie format. The author and the director - the redoubtable William Friedkin - don't do any one thing especially wrong. But by the end of the film, the whole situation has become preposterous and unengaging.

Ironically, this is not because they added anything far-fetched to the story - rather, it's because they added some establishing material at the beginning film, no doubt intended to make the whole thing more believable to a movie audience. The result was to make the extreme, theatrical elements that slowly take over in the succeeding scenes, harder to take.

As I understand it, "Bug" is an exercise in showing two characters who slowly drive each other deeper into a shared delusion, that finally engulfs them. It worked as a play because there were essentially no other characters, and no other, more conventional settings, than the motel room that the woman lives in. In other words, the setting was already extreme enough that the viewer didn't bother to ask certain basic questions, such as, why didn't anyone look in on her? didn't anyone notice the noise, the smells, etc? You can do that in a small theater with only two characters involved. But if you start by introducing the characters - even one of them - in a more naturalistic setting (at work, in a bar, etc.), the viewer has to then reimagine them in that one-set, theatrical netherworld. It's hard. The Ashley Judd character goes from being a fully fleshed out person to The Woman, the Michael Shannon character becomes The Man, and they might as well have no actual names. We're in heavy theatrical symbolism territory, where the writer and director should have had us right from the start.

Too bad. Friedkin did good work years ago filming another very claustrophobic piece - Pinter's "The Caretaker" - and it would have been interesting to see what he might have done with a screenplay that wasn't struggling a little too hard to be a movie-movie. Performances all good, by the way.
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Interiors (1978)
Outstandingly funny
26 March 2010
The second attempt by a New York intellectual in less than 10 years to make a "Swedish" film - the first being Susan Sontag's "Brother Carl" (which was made in Sweden, with Swedish actors, no less!) The results? Oscar Wilde said it best, in reference to Dickens' "The Old Curiosity Shop": "One would have to have a heart of stone not to laugh out loud at the death of Little Nell." Pretty much the same thing here. "Interiors" is chock full of solemnly intoned howlers. ("I'm afraid of my anger." Looking into the middle distance: "I don't like who I'm becoming.") The directorial quotations (to use a polite term) from Bergman are close to parody. The incredibly self-involved family keep reminding us of how brilliant and talented they are, to the point of strangulation. ("I read a poem of yours the other day. It was in - I don't know - The New Yorker." "Oh. That was an old poem. I reworked it.") Far from not caring about these people, however, I found them quite hilarious. Much of the dialog is exactly like the funny stuff from Allen's earlier films - only he's directed his actors to play the lines straight. Having not cast himself in the movie, he has poor Mary Beth Hurt copy all of his thespian tics, intonations, and neurotic habits, turning her into an embarrassing surrogate (much like Kenneth Branagh in "Celebrity").

The basic plot - dysfunctional family with quietly domineering mother - seems to be lifted more or less from Bergman's "Winter Light," the basic family melodrama tricked up with a lot of existential angst. It all comes through in the shopworn visual/aural tricks: the deafening scratching of a pencil on paper, the towering surf that dwarfs the people walking on the beach. etc, etc.

Allen's later "serious" films are less embarrassing, but also far less entertaining. I'll take "Interiors." Woody's rarely made a funnier movie.
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District 9 (2009)
Not about apartheid
10 February 2010
Some people who've seen District 9 conclude that it's an allegory of sorts about apartheid. I certainly haven't had the opportunity to ask the writer or director, but I suspect it's about something else.

For quite a few years now, South Africa has had an influx or economic refugees from Zimbabwe, Congo, and other nearby states. Blacks, almost more than whites, have become very upset, accusing these people of taking away jobs, boosting the crime rate (which is already bad enough), and generally being too culturally "different." There have been calls to isolate them, remove them, etc.

This is the predicament the movie takes off from, I think. People in South Africa must get a real shock of recognition during the scenes where locals attack the aliens, kill them, burn their shanties, etc. It's also interesting to see the portrayal of MNU: the arms makers and dealers and gaggle of mercenaries left over from the apartheid days, coming back in mega-corporate form to haunt the successor, black-majority regime, perhaps even dominate it.

So this isn't an "allegory" about a bygone time. It's a very contemporary, "what kind of a country are we becoming?" film, full of disillusionment at what's happened to the hopefulness of the early post-apartheid days.
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Fascinating, bizarro variation on Grand Illusion
15 January 2010
Warning: Spoilers
Whatever liberties the filmmakers took with the actual incident, it seems they were also inspired by a desire to critique - and not pay tribute to - Renoir's classic prison-camp drama. The elements of Grand Illusion are all here: two tradition-bound officers gradually forming a bond of mutual respect; a somewhat earthier group of prisoners bent on escape; one of the officers (SPOILER) ultimately sacrificing himself for the cause he put on a uniform to serve; and the close-up view of the pecking order and odd arrangements between the prisoners and their guards.

There's even a cabaret performed by the prisoners, some of them in drag, much like the one staged in Grand Illusion. (In Bridge, of course, the prisoners cap it by singing God Save the King rather than La Marseillaise, of course.) But what Lean and his screenwriters do with the material is quite different. The bridge itself is a giant folly, and whether it's the prisoners or their captors who are the biggest fools is debatable. Different characters on several occasions refer to the Japanese and British commanders - either one or both - as insane. Guinness's sacrifice at the end is accidental, almost farcical; Hayakawa, the Japanese commander, is clearly prepared to kill himself if anything goes wrong. No one comes off well. Even Jack Hawkins, the commando leader, (SPOILER) leaves the scene in disgrace at the end, having shot two of his men for fear they would be captured and talk.

The last words we hear, from the medical officer who all along has been a sort of moral center of the story, are "Madness! Madness!" It's unclear, deliberately so, whether he's referring to something specific, or the whole episode: the bridge, the commando raid, the war itself. An unbelievably bleak ending for a '50s WWII pic, only rivaled by Robert Aldrich's Attack! What Lean has done is drain the romanticism and hopefulness out of Renoir's story, and the gallantry out the prisoner-of-war genre that was already quite familiar by the time Bridge came out. The reason it works is that the filmmakers pitch their story so perfectly. None of the characters is ever condescended to, even Guinness's officer, who is clearly quite brave and wins a victory over his captors early on. If there's madness here, we have to detect it in the general situation as it develops, not in anything specific the characters do.

This was the beginning of Lean's career directing blockbusters; over the years, he became the Great White Explorer of the film world, each of his films a bit more romantically overwrought than the last. But that process hadn't started yet when he made Bridge. As to the cast, the only clinker is Holden, clearly injected to appeal to American audiences but given little more to do than utter cynical zingers and show off his bare chest. Guinness is perfect, always keeping his character just the right side of Col. Blimp parody. Hayakawa does the same, matching him note for note.

Bridge was a huge hit, and it makes sense. It's one of those films that subverts a genre while delivering all the emotional and visceral thrills people love in such stories. The back-and-forth transitions between the POW work camp and the preparation and execution of the commando operation are beautiful, building exquisite tension. The let-down - the "What was it all for?" moment - only kicks in right at the end, as it should. "A first-rate job" indeed.
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Herzog's continuing discovery of America
19 December 2009
Put this between covers with "Huey's Sermon," "God's Angry Man," and Stroszek" as another chapter in Herzog's long-term discovery of America. The madness, the obsession, the crazies. Where do they get these people??

To be realistic: Nicholas Cage's performance is a shuck. There's more madness, real and performed, in one casual look over Klaus Kinski's shoulder in any of the films he made with Herzog than in all the rants and fits Cage throws in "Bad Lieutenant." But isn't that the point? This is America, not Europe. We're all watching ourselves on TV, and that includes Lt. McDonagh (similar to the name of his character in "Raising Arizona"). Is his craziness the result of chronic back pain, drug addiction, or an act he's putting on as he desperately tries to get himself out of the multiple jams he's in? Part of this movie is set in a casino, and in a way the BL's whole story is about a roll of the dice (or two). Part of what you see is real, part of it's performance. Maybe, by now, Herzog knows us better than we know ourselves.

FYI, Cage played a similar role, disturbingly, in the unjustly neglected "Vampire's Kiss." This one is more mature, more thought out. Outrageous and brilliant.
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Mayberry R.F.D. (1968–1971)
A word for Ken Berry
8 December 2009
I've never seen more than a couple of episodes of the Andy Griffith Show. But for some reason, I saw probably the entire run of Mayberry RFD in reruns during the mid-70s. Mainly because it happened to be on after I got home from school, most likely.

What surprises me looking back is how good an actor Ken Berry was. Generally a comic actor (and a fine dancer to boot), as Sam Jones he was essentially a straight man and his performances here were always nicely understated (too much so for some people, judging from other comments here) and very believable. From time to time, he showed quite a bit of depth.

I'm thinking right now of a couple of episodes. 1) Sam's struggling with a mild depression after some of his crops fail. 2) He and Millie are in Los Angeles (don't remember why), they have a fight and make up. Something about the emotion Ken Berry delivered in these - not too much, always knowing just how far to step outside his character's ordinary range - made then unexpectedly powerful.

I also remember an episode in which Sam does a very funny eccentric dance as part of a talent show of some kind.

The secret to a really good sit-com is that it convinces us we're watching real people, even when some of the characters are a bit outlandish. Ken Berry in this show always kept me believing I was watching real people.
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Paging W. Shakespeare!
28 August 2009
Not a great movie, or even a very successful one in conventional terms, but quite fascinating to watch. A lot of people are put off by the semi-deliberate artificiality of the acting and the fanciful nature of the story, at least up to the moment where Hepburn reveals herself as a woman to Aherne.

But I think this is the point. Cukor (and Hepburn) were striving for something a bit like A Midsummer Night's Dream (which Hollywood was filming around the same time). A bunch of con-artist misfits meet up and then find a spot for themselves as a sort of traveling commedia dell-arte stage act. They fetch up in an artists' colony in Cornwall, where they are presumably more accepted than elsewhere. A kind of 1930s Forest of Arden.

There, Sylvia's masquerade is not scandalous but amusing. And just as there's actual enchantment in Shakespeare's play, the manner in which Hepburn is revealed as a woman to Aherne (an artist, of course) suggests that on some level she wasn't just masquerading. She literally is transformed back from a boy to a girl, who has to be taught once again what a girl (they never say woman in the movie) behaves like. Instead of appearing threatening to conventional notions of gender, the film underlines Sylvia/Sylvester's vulnerability and innocence.

The gay angle is clear: The theater, and the world of artists, is where Hepburn and her companions (impecunious, emotionally unstable father; odd, flighty servant girl; amoral con artist) are accepted and not judged, where her masquerade isn't a crime but an artistic achievement. Sylvia Scarlett is an effort to make American audiences embrace and find the charm in ways of life it officially rejected.

The whole concept is pretty stagy, but of course Cukor and Hepburn both came from the theater.

But while it all must have looked doable good on paper, it doesn't really work on screen. The script undermines it, for one thing: the plot is full of holes and soon after the big scene with Aherne, the enchantment and strangeness start to drain out of the story, which turns into conventional girl-meets-boy. The only remaining question is whether Kate will find up with Cary or Brian, and that just doesn't hold much interest.

One reason for this is Cukor. He was a fine director of actors, and with a good script he could make a marvelous picture. But he wasn't a great visual artist, like Ford or Welles or Hawks, who could often take mediocre writing and make it sing on screen. This is the highest-concept film he ever made, except possibly Justine late in his career, and he doesn't really have the knack for it. The broad playing and semi-Shakespearean humor never really work the way they should, and Cukor can't seem to make Sylvia's father, the darker character in the whole thing, mesh with the rest.

I wonder if the story wouldn't have been more at home in the silent cinema, where there was more latitude for enchantment and masquerade and make-believe? How would FW Murnau (Sunrise) have handled this material, for example? Hepburn herself is at her best and most entertaining in her scenes as Sylvester. She's acrobatic and rambunctious and fun to watch. The other characters treat her as a sort of adorable boy, kind of like Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro. Very much in keeping with the deliberately theatrical atmosphere the movie tries for. Once Hepburn puts on a dress again, however, she tends to subside into that familiar Hepburn wonderfulness that can be annoying in some of her other films. The rest of the cast is just fine.

Could this have been a better movie? David Thomson suggests that another director and star (Hawks and Stanwyck, perhaps) could have made it work. Perhaps - but it would have been more conventional. I doubt that anyone else would have opted for the enchanted-forest, Midsummer Night's Dream approach that makes it so interesting. Again, I think it would have had a better chance in the silent era.

Too bad, however, that someone didn't try again!
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Wonderful performance, so-so movie
1 April 2009
Starting Out in the Evening is a glum variation on the tasteful middle-brow tales Woody Allen has been churning for years about sophisticated New Yorkers working through their personal issues. Some of the dialog is thuddingly silly - count the number of times the word "brilliant" is used, constantly reminding us that these characters are talented and so must be taken seriously. As with Allen's stories, there's something oddly dated about this one. Although it takes place in the present day, the characters might seem more at home if the time frame was, say, the early to mid-'70s.

That said, Frank Langella's turn as the aging novelist is wonderful. His tone of voice and the way he carries his body are perfect. He never overplays, inhabiting the role, as they say, rather than broadcasting it. He's helped by the fact that his character gets the most understated lines of the script. At times the movie seems to work better than it does overall thanks to the contrast between the quiet, deliberate pace at which Langella plays the aging writer and the less physically comfortable manner of the other characters.

Sadly, it's all in the service of a well-worn story about artistic and personal renewal and creative purity. It would be nice to see Langella recycle his characterization in service of a better script and a director with a bit more verve.
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Body of Lies (2008)
A marvelous character study
22 October 2008
Amidst all the slam-bang, Body of Lies is actually a superb character study of two preening, bumbling CIA (presumably) agents trying to save the world in the Middle East. Roger Ferris (Di Caprio) is the agent on the ground, and Ed Hoffman (Crowe) is his remote-control boss in Washington. Their collective M.O. is to overreact and improvise at every turn, aided and abetted by their deep attachment to high-tech gadgetry and fundamental disregard for human lives. Their ally and foil, the Jordanian head of intelligence (Mark Strong), prefers more patient methods informed by a less skin-deep understanding of the people(s) involved.

All three are trying to penetrate and take out a shadowy, violent Islamic fundamentalist group and its leader. The plot is serviceable, the elements familiar, but it all works well to coax out Scott's and screenwriter William Monahan's critiques of the American way of unconventional war in the Middle East. The movie itself is funny, visually fine (Scott's touch hasn't deserted him), and engaging. Its center is the uneasy but highly entertaining partnership between Di Caprio and Crowe. At times verging on pure comedy (their semi-serious macho argument over which of them could beat up the other 10 years ago is a high point), the film never tips too far in this direction thanks to the two actors' easy skill and Scott's sure hand at maintaining a certain tone.

Is Body of Lies an antiwar statement? I don't think so - it's possible Monahan and Scott even think the Americans' grotesque imperial venture has a chance, if only they could learn a few lessons from the likes of the self-possessed Jordanian. But this seems unlikely. At the beginning, Crowe makes the very good point that it's precisely the Americans' mastery of (by?) their high-tech appurtenances that makes it nearly impossible for them to see their foes, who use much more down-to-earth techniques - like passing instructions by word of mouth. He then proceeds to ignore his own advice throughout the movie. Di Caprio rips into Crowe for his disregard of the lives of their local operatives, then goes on to thoughtlessly place in mortal danger an architect and an Iranian refugee nurse with whom he's infatuated.

They just don't learn. If they did, they wouldn't be who they are: the gallant spreaders of justice, democracy, and casual calamity. If that's what Scott and Monahan are trying to tell us, it's antiwar statement enough, the same news that Graham Greene brought us over 50 years ago with The Quiet American, updated and just as pertinent.
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Couldn't they have just found a Polish actress?
21 October 2008
I'm baffled by the write-ups here. This is pure middle-brow soap opera, "quality" Hollywood at its dreariest. The writer-director and actors take themselves way too seriously, the three main characters and their interactions don't add up, and the ending comes out of nowhere. Holocaust-ploitation is too strong a word only because this is just too earnestly boring to tread those waters.

Streep? It's a stunt, not a performance. We watch her to see whether her accents slip up, not for any warmth or magnetism or emotional intensity, like the kind that presumably captivated the two men in Sophie's life, because it's not there. Maybe a Polish actress could have brought some quality of a life actually lived to the character.

Kline, who I've always found an overbearing presence, can't do much with a character whose antics probably made as little sense on the page as he does on the screen. "Tragically glamorous"? More like cornily theatrical. As for MacNichol, an actor of no magnetism whatsoever, someone forgot to tell him that even when you're playing a boring nebbish, you have to bring something to the character that'll make the audience want to watch him mope around for two hours. He doesn't.

The story is contrived, the various points of development - the revelations about Nathan from his brother, the denouement after Sophie leaves Stingo - feel like they exist only to move the plot along. Sophie's account of her tragedy in the camps feels like something trumped up to goose a wan story about a romantic threesome. Maybe this is Holocaust-ploitation after all.
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Alice and the March Hare
18 June 2008
Perhaps it goes without saying that Celine and Julie is a terrific riff on Alice in Wonderland, but FYI, I'll reiterate it and give a few details. Julie chasing Celine at the outset = Alice following the March Hare hurrying down the rabbit hole. There's a (Cheshire) cat, of course. EAT ME and DRINK ME are key instructions throughout. There's even a tea party, complete with over-sized utensils.

This superb, incomparable movie is a thing of wonder for sure. And of all the feminist and quasi-feminist works of art of the period, I don't know of another that revels so delightfully in the sheer fun of being a girl and/or women (and that blurs the differences between the two so tellingly). I also can't think of another film that has so much twisted fun with the ritual of watching TV (the only thing better than following the melodrama playing out in C&J's minds is watching their reactions to it).

Two caveats: Much as I love long movies, C&J is a bit overlong - the boudoir melodrama plays out a bit more than it has to, and loses some of its fascination as a result. And Labourier's performance in the last third turns somewhat arch and cutesy (NOT in her "audition" scene, however, which is for the most part wonderful).

Lastly, I'm again struck with wonder at the New Wave filmmakers' ability to make something extraordinary out of next to nothing. No fancy sets or costumes (the production even in the upperclass melodrama sections is refreshingly threadbare), plenty of available light, no special effects of any kind. Godard, Rivette, Rohmer, etc, were Dogma avant la lettre, without being, er, dogmatic about it. One can pore over their self-referential filmic-ness all one wants, but what they give us so generously is real people (stars deglamorized without constantly nudging us in the ribs for congratulation) and real places. Cinema that gives us the world.

C&J, like all the best of the school, is something lived in.
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Too cartoonish
5 July 2007
Little Big Man is a fun, picaresque western with some fine visual sequences and plenty of good acting. But it's a major step down from the book, one of the finest American novels of the '60s. The difference is in the handling of the characters. The movie presents Custer, Wild Bill Hickok, Rev. Pendergast and his wife, the patent medicine seller, and the rest as comic "turns," not as full-fledged people in their own right. Maybe this is how Penn, with his theatrical background, instinctively saw the material, and it gives the movie too much of a Blazing Saddles feel. The script (or perhaps what Penn uses of it) boils much of the dialog down into one-liners (doubtless, the task of condensing such a sprawling story into a movie of less than three hours didn't help). Even Chief Dan George, as Old Lodge Skins, the best developed character here, often comes across as merely a lovable schlemiel. Much of it's funny, but it doesn't cut very deep.

The book is more human, giving each character Jack encounters three dimensions and avoiding the trap of rendering any of them either all good or all bad. The moment in Penn's film that best evoke the book is the scene where Custer catches Jack approaching to kill him and instead of killing his stalker, lets him go. Throughout this wonderful novel, characters do unexpected things that seem at first to be totally out of character, and thus serve to remind us of the complexity of human beings. As someone suggests here, the film may intend to say something about the random, unpredictable nature of the universe. The novel does something a lot more difficult and down-to-earth: It reminds us that it takes a lifetime to know even a few of our fellow humans. And especially for Jack, who has to navigate two distinct cultures.

So if you liked the movie, by all means read the book. You'll finish it loving this tall tale way more.
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The American Parade: Song of Myself (1976)
Season 1, Episode 8
Unforgettable performance by Torn
30 April 2007
Not a great film, of course, but a fine showcase for a superb performance by Rip Torn - possibly the best thing he's ever done. He looks remarkable like the Whitman of the first edition of Leaves of Grass; to say he brings the poet to life is both an over- and an understatement. No scenery chewing here: Torn's Whitman is a real person; the actor doesn't have to shout in our ears for us to believe we're entering into the life of a marvelous and unique individual. The scenarist handles Whitman's homosexuality head-on but without implying more than we actually know. I'd guess this ranks with the greatest theatrical "impersonations" I've ever seen, up there with Hal Holbrook as Mark Twain and Julie Harris as Emily Dickinson.
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Papillon (1973)
Hollywood's first non-stereotypical gay character?
6 April 2007
Does anyone remember the name of the medic who escapes over the wall with Papillon and Dega - is it Maturette? In any case, he may mark the first time Hollywood created a gay character - at least in a big-budget film - who is sympathetic, not stereotypical or ridiculous or treacherous, and is given his fair share of personal dignity. First, Papillon wants to prostitute him to distract a guard so that he can escape: He lets Papillon know in no uncertain terms that he's "not a whore" and that "Between the two of us, I'm the one who's killed a man." Later, he shows bravery, solidarity, and resourcefulness equal to the two leads'.

It's a fairly large role, the actor makes a strong impression, yet (almost as important) the filmmakers don't showcase him in a self-congratulatory way ("Look how progressive we are!"). He's not offset by any more "typical" gay characters to lessen his impact, nor, thankfully, by one of those ritual gang-rape-of-the-male-lead scenes that seem to be obligatory in prison pictures (e.g., "The Shawshank Redemption"). This is all especially remarkable in that Hollywood movies at the time were still rife with abysmal gay stereotypes (see "Play Misty for Me," "The Eiger Sanction," "The Producers," any number of others in all kinds of genres.) I'd love to know if this was a conscious decision by Schaffner or the screenwriters (Trumbo and Semple both had good progressive credentials, after all).

By the way, if you're going to see this film, see it letterboxed - it loses much of its visual impact in a standard TV pan-and-scan format.
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The Show (1927)
Excellent, but what about that ending?
30 January 2007
Warning: Spoilers
"The Show" is one of Browning's best, but the happy ending seems tacked on. Viewers will be reminded of Fritz Lang's "Liliom" and Edmund Goulding's "Nightmare Alley" for the carnival setting as well as the fatalistic, doomed aura that hovers around the main character. Like Charles Boyer and Tyrone Power, John Gilbert's Cock Robin is physically arrogant, cruel, feverishly ambitious and greedy, and very slightly crazy. (The main character of Pasolini's "Accatone!" wouldn't be a bad comparison either, minus the carnival setting.) Yet it was only in Lang's French production that the inevitable sorry ending was allowed to play itself out. That's Hollywood, as they say! Gilbert, with his swaggering good looks, is perfect. Rumor has it that he resented being cast in such a louche role, and this perhaps was a positive, as he conveys great anger simmering just beneath the surface. I agree with a previous reviewer that Lon Chaney in the role would have been a bit much. Barrymore controls his natural hamminess, and Adoree brings some nuance to her role as Salome. The excellent Budapest sets are detailed and impeccably squalid and Browning's setups convey just the right touch of eeriness.

Once again, we're left to wonder what happened to the sensuality, down-and-dirtiness (this was an MGM production!), and creepy allure of movies once sound came in.
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Cabaret (1972)
Very much of its period
2 August 2006
That period being, of course, the early 1970s. Here, Liza Minnelli gets the Barbra Streisand treatment from Bob Fosse - right down to the fingernails - and becomes a big movie star by essentially playing herself - or, to be more precise, the "Liza" character she'd already been honing in her nightclub act for several years. Everyone else just fills in the scenery. Whether you love it or hate it depends very much on how you take Minnelli and her frenetic, arm-waving style - and how appalling you find Fosse's choreography, which was already entering its drill-team, fingers-snapping-in-unison final period. Some things please endlessly. Some, unfortunately, just date.

The passable Weimar-pastiche songs of Kander and Ebb and the leering, "decadent" Kit Kat Club MC and his orchestra of doxies can't hide the fact that the whole conception is pure candy-cane American Entertainment. The subplot about the meet-cute couple played by Marissa Berenson and Fritz Wepner is pretty bland, and the movie's attempts at seriousness vis a vis the Nazi threat are ham-fisted and obvious. (Just because they're "Serious" doesn't mean we have to take them seriously.) The relationship between Sally Bowles and Michael York's Isherwood stand-in is more interesting, given the sexual politics of the early years of the post-Stonewall era, but only up to a point. Is it really so much of a surprise that "Brian" has slept with the rich Maximilian, I wonder, when we already know that he's sleeping with Sally, who's done up more or less like a drag queen in every scene? I suspect some of the trouble has to do with Jay Presson Allen's script, with its typically telegraphed Big Points, rather than with Fosse, who was trying to transpose a musical to film in an imaginative way. I suspect also that without Minnelli, there wouldn't be much to look at, and the pretentiousness of the original musical would just be lying there in painfully plain view. With her, however, it's all her show - if that's your pleasure.
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Bed of Roses (1933)
Let me direct your attention to ...
15 July 2006
... the scene in the second half of the film in which most of the principals attend a costume ball. Connie Bennett and Pert Kelton both appear in fancy dress, in masks, with cordial smiles on their faces and the main chance in their hearts. It's a delicious moment that sums up the whole movie: the way life is about role-playing, the way it delights us and defeats us. Playing the game is the point, according to our preceptor LaCava, and here everyone plays it most engagingly.

Cheers also for the scene where Bennett visits McCrea one morning on his scow, and watches him shave. No doe-eyed innocents here: he knows the score, so does she, and we, of course, can read between the lines.
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