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almost great
28 July 2019
Warning: Spoilers
Quentin Tarantino has tapped deeply into his humanity as he shares with us his take on the Hollywood scene of the late Sixties through the prism of a fading TV Western actor (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his aging stunt double and off-screen pal (Brad Pitt). DiCaprio combines the intensity of his roles in "The Revenant" and "The Wolf of Wall Street" with the sensitivity and vulnerability of his early days ("What's Eating Gilbert Grape," "Marvin's Room"). Tarantino again brings out the best in him as he did in "Django Unchained." Pitt seems to have hit his acting peak about 10 years ago with "Tree of Life" but he has not declined; he's superbly effective when wisely cast, as he is here (and in his mid-fifties he still has the buff physique of a natural-born Greek god).

Both characters have their soft and hard sides. With Pitt, it's the loyalty and sense of responsibility (to man and dog) combined with a killer's capacity to lay waste to adversaries if necessary. With DiCaprio, it's drunken rages and recklessless mixed with empathy and vulnerability, best displayed in scenes with a precocious child actress (Julia Butters, a female counterpart to Iain Armitage's "Young Sheldon"). The emotional high point of their relationship can induce both laughter and tears. Both reactions are appropriate for material of this depth and brilliance.

Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate, who happens to be DiCaprio's next-door neighbor, personifies the appealing side of that cultural Thing called "The Sixties" and does justice to the beautiful spirit of the actress whose life ended so brutally. Although the Tate murders weigh heavily over the "metasphere" of this film, Tarantino has a surprise in store.

We are saturated with period detail (mostly from car radios, but also quotidian consumer products, movie marquees, vintage cars, costumes and re-creations of oldie TV and movie content). We even get dead-on authentic looking sequences from a Nazi-vs-Allies potboiler, hearkening back to Tarantino's send up of vintage German pop culture in "Inglourious Basterds."

What we have here is actually a modern Western, set in the fake West of mid-20th-century Hollywood but filled with car radios blasting pop tunes and news bits as well as the traditional horseback riding and confrontational violence. The scene where Pitt confronts the Manson followers at a ranch where they're living (formerly a TV western set) is the perfect blend of the two genres.

Though it drags in places and some minutes are wasted so that Tarantino can indulge in one of his worst and most unnecessary habits, this film touches the heart.
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The Old Maid (1939)
twice-removed Wharton, but strong acting
2 June 2019
"The Old Maid" comes to us twice removed from the complicated but heartfelt Edith Wharton novella. First, Zoe Akins adapted it for the stage and then Casey Robinson adapted the Akins play for film. So many plot excisions and substitutions occur in the first half hour that one wonders if there will be anything left of Wharton's original. Even the setting is changed from the first to the last half of the 19th century for no apparent reason. Be that as it may, the film finds its footing through basic character dynamics.

In a nutshell, Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins are cousins in the familiar Wharton turf of well-monied Old New York. When Davis bears the illegitimate child of the caddish man Hopkins loves but has rejected in favor of a marriage into the stable and wealthy Ralston family, the cousins agree after various plot convolutions that the child should be raised in the Ralston house in the guise of an orphan. Davis has had the baby "out West" (where she had gone for "health reasons") and covered it up on her return by opening an orphanage for foundlings including her illegitimate daughter. Through the years the daughter (Jane Bryan) grows up believing Davis is her strict and humorless spinster "Aunt Charlotte" and Hopkins is her loving and indulgent "Mommy," and treats each accordingly.

Davis ably expresses her character's inner pain and resentment with a bare minimum of finicky gesturing. She adopts the husky delivery she often used to portray repressed emotions or general maturity in movies such as "The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex," "All This and Heaven Too" and "Now, Voyager," to name a few. She is also photographed in a flattering light and dressed to perfection; in fact, she looks so trim and fashionable in Orry Kelly's perfectly tailored, narrow-waisted gowns that it's hard to believe she could have been a spinster at all. Hopkins is looser and more expressive, but since her character lacks the tragic intensity of Davis's, she makes a softer impact. But as a conflicted pair, they're matchless (as they would be under 1940s circumstances in "Old Acquaintance" four years later).

For no good reason at all, George Brent is cast as the dashing but caddish free spirit who fathers the child. He looks and acts like a rather tired middle-aged man going to flab. This figure is not even physically present in the novel other than as a looming presence who is discussed but never seen. Supporting players include a character invented out of whole cloth who functions as a sort of sounding board for the leads--namely, the Ralston house maid, played flawlessly and unobtrusively by Louise Fazenda. William Lundigan appears briefly and beautifully as a young suitor near the end and Donald Crisp is effectively avuncular as the ever-present family doctor.

The last half hour is as emotionally intense as anything in the Davis canon, appropriately enhanced by a swelling Max Steiner score guaranteed to open the tear ducts. And the curved staircase of the Ralston house is the same one used in numerous Warner Bros. productions of the time.
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unconvincing but mighty diverting
31 May 2019
If you can suppress your disbelief for 99 minutes and get lost in the starry charms of the actors and the set pieces, this dramatically unconvincing film can be mighty diverting.

It's an old-fashioned gothic yarn set in a stately manor house with the stock elements of lavish furnishings, including the essential drawing room with the blazing fireplace, deep shadows, a damsel in distress, a crazy villain, and supporting figures including a stern maid, a jolly drunkard, a clean-cut young hero, a precocious child, an ice-cold femme fatale and the inevitable raging nocturnal thunderstorm with rain lashing the windows and winds howling. "Gaslight" and "Suspicion" and numerous other films immediately come to mind.

This is the kind of movie that would have been perfect for the likes of Vincent Price, Carol Ohmart and other B-level actors of the 50s, but the presence of superstars Humphrey Bogart and Barbara Stanwyck adds depth and lustre to an otherwise far-fetched narrative which holds the interest not only through its fine cast, but also by the insertion of frequently humorous, almost self-parodic dialogue, as if to signal to the audience "We hope you're not taking this too seriously; we're not."

The maid as played by Anita Sharp-Bolster is a standout. She delivers her sour lines with a bold gravitas as she did in her all-too-brief appearance in Fritz Lang's "Scarlet Street."
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boilerplate bio
22 May 2019
If there was any reason to make a motion picture about the life of legendary performer Helen Morgan it would have been to highlight her distinctness, a style both as an actress and as a singer which set her apart. A tremulous soprano whose emotions were so close to the surface that she often seemed to be breaking into a sob, she could also deliver powerful dramatic fireworks as in the 1929 classic early talkie "Applause." Ann Blyth in the title role does a good job of lip-syncing Gogi Grant's voice on the soundtrack, but Grant's strong rich tones barely suggest the Morgan sound. Also, Blythe is too spunky and hard-edged for the soft, sweet, shy, sensitive person she is playing. Even in her prime Morgan looked wan and somewhat dissipated.

The tedious plot, largely invented, is an indifferently assembled heap of clichés, none of which give insight into how Morgan developed the alcohol habit that figures so powerfully in her life journey. There are four screenwriting credits. At one point Morgan, out of nowhere, reminisces about a childhood bout with scarlet fever and a traumatic episode involving her father. Perhaps those lines were leftovers from a plot layer from one of the writers that was otherwise abandoned.

Paul Newman, still in phase one of his illustrious screen career, is a strong presence but cannot give substance to the sketchily written character of Morgan's (fictional) caddish off-and-on lover. Because the central story is so barren, it's up to the supporting players to keep the viewer's interest. Cara Williams steals the show in the opening scenes as a high-spirited fellow show biz wannabe and Alan King has some effective bits as the second banana to Newman, but later both King and Williams are relegated to supportive wisecracks. Walter Winchell and Rudy Vallee, who operated in the same stomping grounds as Morgan back in the day, play themselves in extended cameos.

Like other 1950s biopics about beloved show biz figures of the Roaring Twenties and Depressed Thirties, the era in question is haphazardly or anachronistically represented in musical arrangements, set design, costuming and, most glaringly, hair styles. The general impression one gets from this bloated but empty effort is that of a large mug of weak tea sweetened with saccharine.
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It's a shame
11 April 2019
"Two-Faced Woman" carries a load of meta-baggage for having been the final film of the celebrated Greta Garbo and for its condemnation by Catholic Legion of Decency for immorality. Efforts to revise the plot after principal photography had been completed added unnecessary confusion to what was already a silly, strained and tedious bedroom farce based on one of those Central European stage plays that Hollywood processed in large numbers into sophisticated film fare from the 20's through the 40's. The MGM money men must have felt that since Garbo's previous film, "Ninotchka," made money by presenting the star in a more lighthearted vein they could profit even more by Americanizing her as well.

It's a shame that Garbo's career ended just at this point. As the ski-instructor Karin, the down-to-earth half of the title character, she exhibits an appealing onscreen naturalness and ease without losing her distinct otherworldly gravitas and depth. But as the amoral, urbane and ultra-feminine Katherine, the fake twin she impersonates to revitalize her impulse marriage to a magazine publisher (Melvyn Douglas), she comes across as an overdressed farm girl with brain damage. In fact, she acts drunk even when sober. To make matters worse, she sports a curly, fussy hairdo that emphasizes the masculine aspect of her features, destroying the intended effect. Some viewers have criticized her dance moves in a nightclub scene and the way she looks in a bathing suit after climbing out of an indoor pool. What were they expecting? Rita Hayworth and Dorothy Lamour? Her dancing fulfils the needs of the scene and her exposed limbs are as fit and healthy as anyone of her age could wish. Nothing objectionable there. The problem is the inane dialogue in several extended scenes with Douglas that unspool like a rehash of "Ninotchka" two years earlier but without the sparkle and wit.

Constance Bennett has some effective moments as Garbo's romantic rival and wins the glamour trophy hands down, but her character disappears too soon. If this film had been made several years earlier, she would have been a good choice for the title role. (She did a fine imitation of Garbo's accent and manner in the opening scene of the 1932 film "What Price Hollywood?") Ruth Gordon and Roland Young appear, not memorably, as Douglas's publishing colleagues, along with Robert Sterling as a young man smitten with the Katherine character. (Twelve years later he would take over the Cary Grant role in the TV adaption of the 1937 comedy "Topper" which co-starred Bennett and Young.)
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Dancing Lady (1933)
moves well, except when it should
30 March 2019
"Dancing Lady," MGM's answer to the smash backstager hit "42nd Street" that made musical film history earlier the same year (1933), has so much going for it right out of the gate that only staggering ineptitude could have ruined it, and fortunately the ineptitudes inherent in the MGM factory process were held in check just enough to yield genuine entertainment.

First, the mind boggling cast. Leading with Joan Crawford and Clark Gable at their alluring youthful peaks, then Franchot Tone as a boozy playboy, then Winnie Lightner as a hardened vaudeville veteran, then Fred Astaire and Nelson Eddy launching their film careers with extended cameos doing what they do best (albeit with sub-par material) - and wait, there's more: the Three Stooges, punctuating the proceedings with their slapstick routines (mostly from Moe and Curly as carpenters with Larry slightly removed as the rehearsal pianist), a battery of supporting-player stalwarts including Grant Mitchell, May Robson, Robert Benchley, Sterling Holloway and even Eve Arden sporting a Southern accent. Virtually all of these actors give their standard performances, but at this stage of their careers their brands had not yet gone stale.

The plot moves rapidly, helped by swish cuts that serve perfectly to propel Crawford's title character from the seamy "downtown" world of burlesque to the "uptown" world of Broadway and the swells.

The songs include the enduring gem "Everything I Have Is Yours" by Burton Lane (barely 22 years when he wrote the music) and Harold Adamson and is beautifully warbled by Art Jarrett in a party scene but given no big production number. "Heigh-Ho" and "Let's Go Bavarian" also by Lane & Adamson are sumptuously staged, but with elaborate set pieces taking the place of real dancing. The title song by Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields is presented laboriously and raggedly as a rehearsal scene. For a finale we get the rousing if less than brilliant "Rhythm of the Day" by none other than Rodgers & Hart. It's audacious in its editing but lacks the structural unity and dynamism of the Busby Berkeley numbers that apparently inspired it, leaving us with a series of striking but unintegrated tableaux. In fact, none of the musical numbers is a knockout.

But for sheer variety it's worth one viewing.
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all in the details
22 March 2019
The subjects of "Beauty for Sale" are three employees of a fashionable Manhattan beauty salon run by the haughty Hedda Hopper. There is Una Merkel, the hardworking but cynical daughter of a rooming house proprietress (May Robson), Madge Evans, a boarder fresh from Paducah, Kentucky hoping to make it in the Big City and Florine McKinney who falls for the charms of Hopper's rakish son (Phillips Holmes).

At various moments the main characters' faces are arranged at sharp angles in close-up as they converse about the hard choices in their lives; or off-kilter flashes of one beauty parlor customer after another engaged in varieties of gossip and small talk; we get glimpses of carefully choreographed throbbing studio-shot street life as we follow characters from plot point to plot point: Eddie Nugent (Robson's loquacious son) on a crowded Brooklyn street as he makes his way home; the minutiae of daily home life: Robson preparing a gargantuan lunch basket feast for a departing tenant; a beauty parlor client (Alice Brady at her ditzy best) fussing with her pillows, her dog, her tea as she chatters away as her long-suffering, patient husband (the elegant Otto Kruger) attends to her every whim. Every scene is filled with little bits of vibrancy and every featured player contributes something solid.

The Madge Evans character gets the most screen time as she struggles to figure out whether to pursue her relationship with the older, married Kruger who is taken with her. This could be Evans's most substantial screen role. Merkel provides her customary sassy humor as she stakes out an even older admirer, hoping to marry into riches. McKinney's romance is another story entirely.

Despite its rather hackneyed story (young women navigating the perils of romance) "Beauty for Sale" is well worth viewing for its details of character, perspective and environment.
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Want to buy some illusions?
21 October 2018
The celebrity biographer Lee Israel was in her own way an expert spinner of "alternative facts" and "fake news" decades before both became commonplace in the digital age. Plenty of people who should have known better were willing to accept these "facts" and spread this "news."

Melissa McCarthy reaches an artistic career peak with her performance as the late writer who had been one of the top names in her field in the 70s and early 80s before cultural evolution (or devolution, depending on how you look at it) combined with her own abrasiveness and alcoholism led publishers to shun her work. McCarthy adapts her familiar techniques perfectly to this particular character.

With bills mounting, and facing loss of prestige and income, she began drinking heavily and sinking into a deep, almost psychotic, depression when, half by chance, she discovered that a lot of money could be made by selling letters from famous people like Katharine Hepburn and Fanny Brice. The juicier the content, the more cash they commanded. A talented and witty writer herself, she was familiar enough with the style of the such figures as Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker to forge imitations that convinced professional collectors of their authenticity. Quotes from some of her fakes even ended up in respectable publications. Eventually she resorted to doctoring correspondence which she stole from libraries and selling the results for high prices to sometimes shady dealers. Here was someone who loved and respected outstanding writers and their works but was driven by circumstance to, in effect, falsifying their legacies.

Some of the little touches that deepen our understanding of her character include a scene where she is watching the 1941 film version of "The Little Foxes" and starts delivering the dialogue along with the actors and even accurately imitating Bette Davis's distinctive giggle. Much of the time she is swilling scotch and her ever-so-slightly slurred speech reflects this half-inebriated state.

The movie is shot in New York, making use of locations that still look much as they did more than a quarter of a century ago, when the classic New York of the early-to-mid 20th century, an environment conducive to Israel's own earlier success, had mostly faded out. Julius, the bar where a few key scenes are set, existed then and still exists now. (A conversation therein about her illegal shenanigans is softly underscored by Marlene Dietrich's recording of "Illusions," Dietrich being the subject of one of Israel's Noel Coward forgeries.)

Most of the interiors (book stores, archives, Israel's funky apartment, her agent's more elegant and expansive one) are genuine.

McCarthy is strongly supported by Richard E. Grant in a showy, colorful performance as a fellow alcoholic and partner in crime, Stephen Spinella as a kind but increasingly suspicious rare book dealer, Brandon Scott Jones as a fussy book store clerk who, to his regret, rubs Israel the wrong way, Jane Curtin as her no-nonsense literary agent, Anna Deveare Smith as an old friend and numerous others.

"Can You Ever Forgive Me?", based on and named after Israel's slender autobiographical recap of this period, is a highly intelligent and detailed rendering of a complex human being, by turns endearing and repulsive, brilliant and stupid.
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Empire (2015– )
Fun - for a while
17 June 2018
TV soap operas have come a long way since "As the World Turns" and "Peyton Place" so many decades ago and indeed some way from their 80s heirs, "Dallas" and "Dynasty." They always focused on sex, infidelity, scheming, intrigue, secrets and scandals and always thrived by positioning beautiful babes and chiseled hunks front and center.

This review is based on the first two or three seasons of "Empire" in which rap music and blackness have replaced the oil wells and whiteness of the old "Dynasty" and "Dallas" templates. Driving the plot are the two main characters, Luscious Lyon (Terrence Howard), a rap mogul from the mean streets of Philadelphia and his estranged wife Cookie (the magnetic Taraji P. Henson), who together created the titular music industry entity. This is one hot couple - alternately kissing and slugging, honoring and betraying, sinning and regretting, all the while dressed to kill amidst gleaming splendor. The second tier of characters is a trio of sons: a muscle-bound bipolar accounting whiz (Trai Byers) married to a Waspy white woman (Kaitlin Doubleday); and rival younger brothers, the swaggering Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray) building his rap career while fornicating with a succession of hot chicks, and his gay sibling rival (Jamal, played by Jussie Smollett), also embarking on a singing career, and alternately fighting and supporting not only his macho brother but also his disapproving father who, in flashback, is seen dumping the effeminate toddler into a trash can in a fit of homophobic rage.

Every episode features at least one extended "musical" sequence, which these days means deafening samples of pre-recorded music under which one or more live humans barks out some kind of rant or extended jibberish while gyrating aimlessly against a backdrop of pulsing lights and video imagery, all of which sends the venue's audience into raptures and adds millions of dollars to the practitioners' already bloated bank accounts.

Famous guest stars adorn every episode (including Courtney Love as an aging, druggy diva who has seen better days - type casting, but effective here; Naomi Campbell as Hakeem's much older lover - and boy could she use some acting lessons-maybe this is a supermodel's way of getting them; Jennifer Hudson as a gospel singing music therapist who is a better actress than Campbell, which isn't saying much, but really soars when she lets loose with that roof-raising voice; Snoop Dogg as himself; various rappers whose names and careers are and probably will forever be unfamiliar to me). These cameos serve the same purpose as extra blobs of whipped cream on a 10-scoop sundae. Then we have Gabourey Sidibe playing Gabourey Sidibe in company-executive mode. Contemporary political bits are tossed in but not developed (in the pre-Trump-era episodes I saw there were snarky comments about Obama being a sellout; a reference to the organization Black Lives Matter, which came into notoriety in 2014 Ferguson shooting; and frequent dialogues about anti-gay bigotry).

As with all sensationalistic commercial TV product, extreme passions and emotions play out each week, leaving the characters remarkably unblemished by the next. One of the producers is Ilene Chaiken, who was also responsible for the entertaining and equally trashy "The L Word" in which a group of L.A. lesbians went through emotional meat grinders for several years. Fun to watch - once.
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St. Aubyn well served
17 June 2018
If screenwriter David Nicholls has miscalculated anything in his adaptation of Edward St Aubyn's Patrick Melrose novels it's made up for by the performance of its star, Benedict Cumberbatch, who gathers up all of the elements of the title character masterfully in this examination of the largely parasitic remnants of the British landed aristocracy.

"Bad News," the first and liveliest of five episodes, chronicling Patrick's drug-fueled trip to New York City to pick up his father's ashes, is a bang-up way to start, even though the cycle of novels actually begins with "Never Mind" (episode 2 in the TV series) about Patrick's childhood. In "Bad News" Nicholls and his creative colleagues expertly extract and rearrange particles of the novel in a cinematically coherent and gripping manner, translating fully the power of the words to visual terms. Cumberbatch, even though he looks too fit and healthy for the kind of drug hound he is portraying, thrillingly enacts the highs and lows of booze, Quaaludes, heroin, cocaine and speed.

Nicholls chooses to source Patrick's adult drug dependence on disturbing half-buried memories of childhood sexual abuse by his father (Hugo Weaving), but in the novels there were other examples of sadistic abuse against Patrick and other characters that could hardly be considered nurturing influences upon a growing boy.

Although Sebastian Maltz, the actor who plays Patrick as a boy, looks nothing like Cumberbatch, either in coloring or bone structure, he registers the proper emotions of a hurt child, confused and undermined by the nasty, insensitive behavior of his elders.

Pip Torrens is a good choice for Nicolas Pratt, the club-man pal of the father; it's as if he were the evil twin of the decent Tommy Lascelles he played in "The Crown." Both Torrens and Weaving unnervingly embody their characters' brutish, smug arrogance, expressed with the refined classically trained articulations. Weaving plays against his trim good looks by delivering his lines in a piggish, heavy-breathing manner as if possessed by the ghost of Sidney Greenstreet. Torrens is the epitome of the soulless, old-school imperial team player; he is particularly hilarious when confronted by a New Age-y hanger-on of Patrick's wealthy American mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh, again playing a zonked out casualty, not only of her cruel husband but of her own family history). Holliday Grainger, so memorable as Lucretia in "The Borgias," brings her talent and charisma to the role of Bridget, appearing first as Nicolas's callous, young social climbing trophy mistress and then years later (in rather unconvincing "aging" makeup) as the disillusioned wife of another titled personage (Tim McMullan) who is getting ready to dump her for a younger, more attractive substitute. Among the many well-acted character bits is Harriet Walter as imperious Princess Margaret, even though she looks far more like Wallis Simpson (who is not portrayed here). In the same episode St. Aubyn himself is seen but not heard in a brief cameo.

Enough of the author's razory wit is preserved to keep things stimulating, though some of the best lines tend to be tossed away. These stories could probably be just as effectively adapted to the stage where the dialogue would get more notice.
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Empress Dietrich
17 June 2018
This biopic about the rise of the German Princess Sofia to Empress Catherine of Russia, from naive and deferential innocent to rapacious predator, is accurate only in the broadest outlines. Even the opening credits indicate a loose approach to fact: "Based on a diary of Catherine," "arranged by Manuel Komroff."

In the first half Marlene Dietrich in the title role overplays breathless awe so emphatically that one can only wonder if she was strictly directed to do so; after her sexual awakening after months of resisting the stirring of her passions by a rakish courtier (John Lodge) and crazed with frustration by her unconsummated marriage to the repellent Tsar-to-be Peter (Sam Jaffe), she melts into the arms of a palace guard during a sudden moonlit encounter.

It's hard to believe this film passed the 1934 censors, given its open suggestions of out-of-wedlock sex (and subsequent pregnancy); Dietrich's posturings call to mind pre-Code Mae West (who was a friendly acquaintance of Dietrich's on the Paramount lot where they were working at the same time). Perhaps the keepers of the Code were too distracted by the shimmering vision of the blonde icon as lit by Josef von Sternberg. And make no mistake about it, this movie is a paean to Dietrich as a work of art. The "Catherine the Great" plot, scenic design and supporting players are the scaffolding and trappings supporting and surrounding the living goddess.

These trappings are highly stylized and elaborate as, for example, the Lubitsch-like ritual of Princess Sophia (the future Empress Catherine) kissing the hands of all adults present whenever she enters or exits a room; when she isn't engaged in strictly supervised activities she is kept locked in her bedroom several flights above the main floor of her house; her mother is such a disciplinarian that she scolds the child even when the child obeys. Empress Elizabeth of Russia (Louise Dresser) is introduced on a grand throne in forbidding surroundings decorated with huge grimacing gargoyles festooned with dripping candles and attended by over-dressed lackeys, only to open her mouth and jabber like a bilious small-minded housewife. And the future Tsar Peter whom Sophia is sent to Russia to marry is an imbecile and described as such repeatedly in intertitles in case we miss the point.

In fact the flow of exaggerations and extremes is more or less constant so that the viewer is alternately hypnotized and amused. If Dietrich is not your cup of tea, the movie will repel you, because it's all about her.
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They meant well
4 February 2018
The creators of "The Greatest Showman" meant well - to give us an uplifting film about inclusiveness, loyalty, true love, high principles, spreading happiness and making dreams come true. They chose to flesh out these notions by distilling the multifaceted life of P.T. Barnum into a 105-minute musical, sort of an "essence of Barnum" or, as it turns out, "Barnum Syrup." Sometimes their abridgments work splendidly as cinema, as in the early song-and-dance sequence that takes us from Barnum's childhood in rags to shipping clerk in business suit. At other times they asphyxiate us with musically inert anthems of victimhood or declarations of pride. Not one song is memorable. Some are okay while they're being sung, helped by swooping camera movement, acrobatic choreography and some excellent vocals, but you won't be humming them on the way home. Some are cringe-inducing, particularly the weirdly misconceived presentation of the famous Swedish soprano Jenny Lind, whom Barnum famously made even more famous by bringing her to America. For one thing, she is played by Rebecca Ferguson who despite being half Swedish speaks with a British accent even though the script clearly points out that she is Swedish. For another thing, the song she sings to an enraptured crowd of New York society swells is dreary, monotonous early 21st-century power-pop. If you're going to ignore historical context, even musically (as did the execrable "Moulin Rouge" in 2001), at least give the audience some indication of Lind's actual appeal (a vocal purity, as legend has it, but definitely not belting and other pyrotechnics).

Regarding historical context, it goes without saying that the scenario ignores every 19th century reality except, to some degree, sets, costumes and of course the social and racial prejudices of the time, but only to score identity politics points. Of course, with writers like Jenny Bicks (very much at home in the 1990's world of "Sex and the City") and Bill Condon (whose uneven depiction of James Whale in "Gods and Monsters" was made bearable by Ian MacKellan's inspired acting and whose "Kinsey" was a bore) you're not going to get much of a feel for past eras.

The score by the "La La Land" team of Justin Paul and Benj Pasek is almost entirely forgettable. The previous film had one catchy tune ("City of Stars"). The music here is boilerplate, the lyrics only very occasionally above banal (if you can hear them; most of the songs begin clearly and softly and intimately but quickly expand into heavily orchestrated extravaganzas which mask the paltry musical and lyrical substance).

As for casting, you can hardly miss with the charismatic and multi-talented Hugh Jackman. Michelle Williams as his wife is largely wasted and gets stuck with some of the most embarrassingly obvious dialogue. Zac Ephron, who seems to be thickening in his middle age, plays an invented character, a high-society playwright who is miserable and empty until he teams up with Barnum, exchanges the pen for the emcee's baton and falls in love with an African-American trapeze artist (Zendaya).

The film is reminiscent of some of the low-budget, episodic but energetic biopics that rolled off the Hollywood assembly line in the 1930s except here the spending is lavish and the song-and-dance sequences, which at their best advance the narrative rather than overstate the obvious, are eye-poppingly elaborate. There seems to be a deliberate attempt to recapture the sentimentalism and syrupiness that was commonplace in many old-time movies, but mixed with the 21st century mindset of the writers and director, it becomes self-parody.

The main message seems to be the old reliable one: love is the most important thing of all, even more important than material success and it's better to put love first, and that we all, no matter what we look like or where we come from, are valuable individuals worthy of respect.
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Okja (2017)
action-packed social commentary
25 January 2018
The title character of "Okja" is one of several super pigs (that look more like hippos and to one degree or another elephants and dogs) genetically engineered by a multinational corporation called Mirando (suggesting the real-world Monsanto) to help feed the planet and make huge profits. To publicize this innovative food source, the company distributes twelve of these creations around the world to be raised "naturally" for ten years after which the most impressive of the bunch will be pronounced winner. "Okja" is sent to an isolated mountainous area of Korea to be tended by an old man and his granddaughter Mija (An Seo Hyun) who grows up loving the creature and will not part with her when Mirando's minions come to retrieve her for display in New York City (a nod to "King Kong"). So Mija implausibly but entertainingly pursues the interlopers to the Big Apple, encountering en route an animal rights militia led by Paul Dano. Together they run afoul of Mirando's CEO (Tilda Swinton).

The film successfully employs action, eastern and western fighting techniques, foot and vehicle chases, explosions and impressively detailed CGI work with Okja herself (including her copious excretions) and her intimate and not-so-intimate interactions with humans and their hardware. The performances range from remarkable (Tilda Swinton, who also briefly plays her character's even cruder sister), over-obvious (Jake Gyllenhaal as a TV personality promoting the product), plain old solid (Giancarlo Esposito as a corporate type allied with Swinton and Paul Dano's complex activist-how far he has come from his "Little Miss Sunshine" days). The film could be described as a combination of action-adventure and broad, heavy-handed social satire, but it also covers a wide range of themes: respect for nature and the simple joys of life, the bonds between animals (even genetically engineered mutants) and humans, the vulgarity and corrosiveness of big business excess and the urban environment, and sympathy for the plight of factory farm animals.
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unsatisfying, unforgettable
24 January 2018
Daniel-Day Lewis is back as yet another obsessive, re-teaming with writer-director Paul Anderson to play Reynolds Woodcock, a soft-spoken, finicky, middle-aged fashion designer, strongly set in his ways, who in close collaboration with his sister runs a fashion house catering to celebrities and aristocrats in 1950s London. He has a habit of engaging young women as assistants and part-time models, then dropping them when they begin to chafe under his strict, undeviating daily routines. He finally meets his match in Alma (Vicky Krieps), a waitress who attracts him upon first sight and whom he gradually grooms as a sort of factotum. His interest in Alma is wrapped up in an oft-referenced but never fully explained obsession with his late mother and primary professional mentor, an obsession shared in a different way by his sister Cyril (superbly and frostily played by Lesley Manville).

Red herrings and unresolved mysteries abound. Anderson will point a character or a situation in a distinct direction only to change course unexpectedly, most notably in Cyril's behavior and utterances which seem to be leading one way - until they don't. The major unresolved mystery involves Alma who has no back story whatsoever, not a hint other than a German accent, all the more reason to be riveted by her every move, wondering if her motives will ever be revealed. The actress herself suggests at various times Kate Moss, Hannah Schygulla and Meryl Streep. The other two leads are equally compelling and inscrutable in their own way.

Much screen time is devoted to small visual and aural details--ordering meals, buttering toast, chewing food, pouring tea, poking sewing needles through fabric, arranging objects, dressing and undressing. Some prickly verbal sparring around the breakfast table or during workaday routines beautifully and humorously captures the way familiars get on each other's nerves and start arguments over trifles, each feeding the flames. Jonny Greenwood's delicate, sometimes melancholy musical score perfectly complements the proceedings.

In short, this is a unique film, unclassifiable, unsatisfying, uncomfortable, unforgettable. You can't pin it down, and you can't look away.
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Scarlet Dawn (1932)
unsatisfying sketch
3 December 2017
"Scarlet Dawn" has an incomplete, unfinished feel. Perhaps it was filmed in haste and some scenes were botched and not redone. Who can tell? In any event, there is a touching performance by Nancy Carroll as a servant girl to a lusty young baron (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) who carouses and womanizes (among his girlfriends is the elegant Lilyan Tashman, splendidly portraying a fellow corrupt aristocrat). Comes the 1917 revolution, the aristos must flee, and Carroll loyally accompanies Fairbanks rather than turn him in to the revolutionaries. After a cross-country escape (a sort of abbreviated version of Marlene Dietrich and Robert Donat's trek several years later in "Knight Without Armour") they end up in Constantinople where he sinks from high cavalry officer to low dishwasher. The rest of the story will not be revealed here except to say that it seems strangely truncated.

The backstory unfolds with the liberal use of ultra-simplified newspaper headlines (""Czar Nicholas Denies Rumor of Revolution"; "Communists Stage Demonstration Despite Czar's Denial of Revolutionary Rumors. Thousands Gather to Parade Under Communist Banner"; "Communists Riot in Moscow"); the dramatized corollary to these headlines is a scene in which Fairbanks returns to his troop train after a 2-week leave; an anti-government soldier is hissing "no!" at fellow soldiers as their commander orders them to entrain for a return to the front. They refuse and fire on the officers.

Lastly, as in "Knight," the heroine's eye makeup and lipstick remain intact through the ordeal).
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worth a look for Bennett
1 July 2017
"Lady with a Past" is Constance Bennett as an unlikely bookish wallflower who sails from New York City to Paris where she engineers a fake sex scandal hoping it will make her the talk of the town by the time she returns and thereby attract the attention of young men who find her literary chatter a big bore. She also talks to herself and pretends to be singing out loud when caught in the act.

Her co-conspirator in Paris is the golden voiced Ben Lyons whom she picks up at a sidewalk café after he tricks her into paying his food and drink tab. But her heart really belongs to David Manners, a handsome member of her social set who is looking for someone more exciting.

If this all seems terribly unexciting, it is. Then why watch? Miss Bennett, of course. They don't make 'em like that any more. In the pre-production publicity it was said that Miss Bennett was being fitted for 17 gowns to wear in the film. I didn't count, but she probably did.
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uninvolving oddity
11 March 2017
When he isn't dispensing cynical and often profane comments or cruelly taunting and teasing underlings, he alternates cigarette smoking with workouts on high-tech gym equipment. He is cold, remote, manipulative and downright repellent. In fact he has no redeeming qualities. Even his sketchy back story as an unwanted boy left in a Catholic orphanage by hippie parents fails to elicit enough sympathy to sustain interest in his trajectory through ten episodes. Such is the title character, played by Jude Law, of this undramatic and unsatisfying series, straining for irony at every turn, about the inexplicable election to Pope of a 40-ish American upstart with a murky past.

The stilted dialogue comes off as carefully memorized line recitations. This is particularly evident with Silvio Orlando, the Italian actor who plays Cardinal Voiello, Law's chief rival in the Vatican viper's nest, who also sports a hideous black wart on his left cheek as if to symbolize something morbid and ugly in his nature. If the Vatican hierarchy is as rotten, cynical and hypocritical as depicted here, then upheaval is surely called for. Many supporting characters whose place in the tapestry is unclear enough as it is, also speak with thick accents, requiring yet more effort from the already fatigued listener. In fact there are four languages dominating: English, Italian, Spanish and Latin – the latter used in extended ceremonial sequences. Law's dry, generic American accent is technically correct but lacks individualistic character. Diane Keaton seems bewilderingly miscast as the nun who has been in charge of Law since his abandonment, but her character as written is virtually unplayable.

The ultra-formal staging of scenes and artsy camera angles further distance the proceedings. Fellini-esque touches involving a kangaroo imported by the Pope that pops up now and then around the Vatican garden and interludes with a disabled youth apparently under the care of Cardinal Voiello draw attention to themselves but serve no worthwhile purpose.

Jude Law has a few memorable, original and beautiful moments in this uninvolving oddity but they are so extrinsic to the whole that their power is diminished.
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good balance of emotionalism and humor
29 January 2017
"A Dog's Purpose" combines reincarnation, coming-of-age drama and a lot of skilfully staged bits involving humans with canines as well as canines with felines and other critters.

The film bonds us to Dog #1 as the animal's thoughts are transmitted to the audience by voice-over (Josh Gad). He narrates his life from birth through puppyhood to maturity and death and then rebirth a new dog over the course of roughly half a century. This happens four times in the course of the film, with four breeds, reborn into locations apparently around the Great Lakes. It's as if a Dog Spirit who doesn't understand the why of life randomly selects certain newborn dogs to inhabit in certain places so that after several reincarnations its purpose is ascertained. We are not told if this means this ultimate wisdom applies to all dogs or only some dogs. In any event, for dog lovers at least, the drama is gripping and deeply moving with much humor folded in.

The most persuasive part of the narrative involves a boy named Ethan whose father reluctantly allows him to adopt Bailey, an irresistible golden retriever pup, after the boy and his mother rescue him from suffocation in the back seat of a locked truck on a hot day. Episodes involving two subsequent incarnations are more or less routine. The film concludes on an emotionally satisfying note.

The most memorable and magnetic performances by humans are by K.J. Apa as the teenaged Ethan and Dennis Quaid as the same character decades later. Even Peggy Lipton shows up looking quite good for seventy.

Director Hallstrom has a feel for dogs and even manages to stage some convincing indoor scenes with an elusive Maine Coonish-looking house cat, though cat aficionados will notice the audio dubbing of hisses and meows during confrontational moments.

Although the script makes amusing references to human sexuality as sensed by dogs, the issue of the dogs' sexuality is left alone except for a few romantic but strictly verbal interactions between Dog #3 and a larger female he encounters in a playground.

One of the supporting actors in the Dog #3 episode is Pooch Hall (of the "Ray Donovan" series). Well, why not?
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the price of war
29 January 2017
The print of "Germania Anno Zero" discussed below was hard to watch because although it takes place in the post-WW2 ruins of Berlin, the German cast is overdubbed in Italian and the subtitles are in English. As if this weren't enough, the abundant dialogue is delivered very rapidly, in the Italian style, so the eye and attention are constantly darting from the actors to the subtitles and missing the emotional and visual element. And if you don't follow the subtitles you miss telling details of what's going on. Reviews from the period of its initial release indicate that it was once screened in German with English subtitles. Perhaps that print has been lost; if so, a shame. The Italian language, being so very different from German in its feel and cadence, not only disorients us but dilutes the essence of the experience.

Another problem is the acting, which is mostly on the wooden side so you never get under the characters' skin. At the heart of the film is a little boy, and simply because he is a little boy he touches our hearts – but only to an extent; his acting is so robotic that it's hard to tell what he is feeling so that the film's resolution comes as quite an arbitrary shock. The whole film, in fact, has a perfunctory and contrived structure like a diagram hastily drawn on a blackboard brought to life.

That said, this film is worth seeing simply because of where and when it was filmed. It's a quasi documentary showing the price of war on human beings. But it's not the only one of its kind. "The Big Lift" and "A Foreign Affair" were also filmed in post-WW2 Berlin and dealt with the effect of war on the populace. I think what added to the impact made by neo-realist films of the late 40s was their immediacy, use of actual - and usually harsh - locations and non-professional actors. Those elements seemed refreshing and bracing to audiences who had been accustomed to the artificiality of the Hollywood template.
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Hacksaw Ridge (2016)
good, grueling Gibson
6 November 2016
Mel Gibson makes the same film over and over. Nothing wrong with that as long as each successive mix of his favorite ingredients (brutish violence, morality, vengeance for wrongdoing, exhausting feats of endurance – all seasoned with humor) –adds depth to what we have already experienced. With "Hacksaw Ridge" Gibson sheds the more cartoonish excesses of his previous blockbuster, "Apocalypto," and manages to hold our hearts and minds for more than two grueling hours. Perhaps the last ten years of his public excoriation have taught him something pertinent to his art.

This true story of a conscientious objector (7th Day Adventist variety) who as an unarmed medic saved a staggering number of lives while under fire on the island of Okinawa in the closing days of World War Two is just as brutal as other Gibson epics and also contains a compensatory number of tender and quiet moments between parents, siblings and lovers on the home front. The pattern of "Hacksaw" is set early in the main character's childhood during one of those typical Gibsonian horseplay sequences when the hero-to-be nearly kills his brother by slamming a rock against his skull during a roughhousing episode. The shock of what he has almost done shakes him to his core and contributes to his understanding of the fragility of human life and his conviction that killing is a primary evil. His ordeal begins in basic training when his fellow soldiers ridicule, taunt and even assault the rather scrawny fellow who carries a Bible and refuses to even touch a gun. One by one they realize what an extraordinary human being is in their midst as his strength of character and valor are revealed by degrees through basic training, near-court martial and eventually to the shattering test of battle.

His relationship with his father (Hugo Weaving), an emotionally damaged, alcoholic World War One veteran, expands the story's perspective, setting the son's experience in a larger context of how each generation has to come to terms with war - that ugly primal fact of civilization.

Some negatives: Although the movie's opening seems off-puttingly reminiscent of the sentimental 70's TV series "The Waltons," it goes its own way soon enough. One line you could anticipate: Son, commenting on the father's nastiness: "Why does he hate me?" Mother: "He doesn't hate you, he hates himself – sometimes." Or this unlikely line: Sergeant, after soldiers have arrived on the smoldering shores of Okinawa: "We're not in Kansas any more, Dorothy." (Was that line really common jargon so soon after "The Wizard of Oz"s initial theatrical release? Didn't it really catch on later after the Baby Boom generation embraced the film on TV?) The netting of thick rope that enables Doss's company of soldiers to climb up and down the titular ridge somehow remains intact from day to day despite fierce and stubborn Japanese resistance. What prevented the Japanese from destroying this means of access during lulls in fighting?

A note on gore, which "Hacksaw" displays dozens of times: Global popular culture has become so saturated with images of dismemberment, death and decay that the only way an audience nowadays can be jolted by the sight of rats gnawing on blackened corpses or a pile of guts lying where there was previously a torso is when the editing introduces them by surprise, perhaps with a synthesizer blast as accompaniment. As with most extended battle sequences in movies, the explosions and blood spouts become a tedious blur and come to life only when the focus narrows to an individual or two making their way through the pandemonium. One of the more effective of such points in "Hacksaw" is when Doss conceals a wounded soldier by covering his head with dirt and all we see is a naked blue eye staring out in terror and wonderment at the passing thud of Japanese boots.

There are so many excellent performances by charismatic actors that it's hard to single one out over others. Teresa Palmer shines as Doss's wife; Vince Vaughn is very entertaining as the borderline sadistic wisecracking sergeant, who like a whole succession of characters slowly succumbs to the radiating power of Doss's singular faith. Several blond actors who play Doss's fellow soldiers give effective performances but after the movie ends it's hard to recall one from another.

Andrew Garfield as Doss just happens to be on screen most often and is definitely the center of the experience. He looks a bit like the young Richard Benjamin and as many have said, also resembles young Anthony Perkins, particularly Perkins as the Quaker Civil War soldier in "Friendly Persuasion," another movie about a pacifist caught in war.

Most of all "Hacksaw Ridge" is about the triumph of an underdog, courage, love, faith, human potential (from frailty and baseness to redemption and forgiveness) and how they are intertwined. And all of these themes are touchingly tied up at the end in a way I will not discuss here.
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Streep and Grant - good team
3 September 2016
Meryl Streep adds another rich characterization to her matchless resume with Florence Foster Jenkins, the deluded patroness of the arts whose singing voice could have found a happy home in a Three Stooges featurette but whose entourage didn't dare let her know how bad she was for reasons varying from true love to pure greed. Streep, whose own singing voice is sound and trained, has a grand time imitating someone who could barely hit the easiest notes. Jenkins sincerely believes she is technically proficient. Her supportive husband (an excellent Hugh Grant) is also a wannabe artiste, in his case a failed actor, formerly an impoverished illegitimate son of an English earl, who enables his older wife to live out her fantasies by encouraging and promoting her concerts and recordings.

There are times in this rather overlong trip back to 1944 New York City when "Jenkins" feels like a standard Woody Allen comedy – same era, background music, social set, cultivated banter – but the actors liven it up. In a scene set at Carnegie Hall, director Stephen Frears and his team create a good sense of the bacchanalian and heady atmosphere of the Big Apple at the beginning of its heyday as the greatest city on earth, the virtual capital city of the big victor in World War Two, a cultural energy center enlivened further by swarms of soldiers on leave. Viewers with some musical background, of course, will be the ideal audience for this film because they will be better able to appreciate the nuances of Jenkins's vocal efforts.
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Downstairs (1932)
nasty fun
3 September 2016
Based on a story by none other than its lead actor, John Gilbert himself, and coupled with his distinctive performance, "Downstairs" shows what a fertile creative mind Gilbert had and what a loss it was that he self-destructed before he got a chance to get a second wind going after a career slump. Coulda happened to anyone. In any event, this wickedly decadent tale set in an Austrian country estate examines the interactions between upstairs (Reginald Owen as a baron and Olga Baclanova as his philandering wife), and downstairs, kicking off with the wedding of the head butler (Paul Lukas) to innocent young maid (Virginia Bruce) with Gilbert as the newly hired chauffeur who shows up at the reception. Right off the bat he is revealed as a slick weasel. When a countess at the reception (Hedda Hopper) recognizes him she loses her cool in such a way that we know there was some hanky-panky in their history; when guests line up to kiss the bride Gilbert delivers a seriously inappropriate lip lock and later arrives uninvited to the newlyweds' bedroom to continue the dalliance while the husband is momentarily absent. And that's just for starters. In fact, the unmitigated rottenness of Gilbert's character borders on camp but is somewhat justified artistically the way the whole thing wraps up (something I won't reveal here).

For Gilbert to have written this character and then played him must have taken guts. Long after his loathsomeness has been established, we are treated to an extended scene in which he clips his nose hairs and picks at his ears and fingernails. He has the chiseled sexy good looks, cultivated speech and dapper sartorial sense of a worldly gentleman but the physical manners of a vulgar lout: he has a habit of lolling on table tops and indiscriminately gulping liquids and wolfing down food wherever he finds them. These two sides of his nature fuel the volatility of his relationship with Bruce who resents his aggression but succumbs to his skillful lovemaking. She has a very effective angry monologue about this matter during a climactic confrontation with Lukas whose devoted, martinet-ish butler is the straight-arrow opposite of Gilbert. Lukas is at his best when he too is consumed with rage.

The downstairs Gilbert turns the tables on the upstairs crowd, playing by their own rules in his own way.
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Hail, Caesar! (2016)
that old-time Hollywood religion
8 February 2016
The Coen brothers return to the olden days of Hollywood with a witty and eye-pleasing comedy that recycles several legends familiar to antique movie buffs but mixes them up just enough to hold the interest.

"Hail, Caesar!" is set in 1951 at the height of the Red scare and Cold War, and follows a tough but sympathetic hands-on studio producer (Josh Brolin) whose responsibilities include, in addition to budget, casting and moral code enforcement, defusing potential scandals that could damage Capitol's reputation and box office. He also happens to be a by-the-book Catholic who regularly goes to a priest to confess minor sins like cigarette smoking.

There is not a single boring or bad performance by any of the huge cluster of actors. Clooney as the doofus leading man whose kidnapping drives much of the plot, gives an inspired performance. Alden Ehrenreich is impressive on all levels as the wholesome and good- natured singing cowboy. Allison Pill is the embodiment of classic pre-feminist womanhood as the pretty, positive, loyal, uncomplaining, blonde cupcake of a wife who maintains the home front for the rugged breadwinner Brolin.

Many characters loosely suggest real figures of the studio era: George Clooney = Clark Gable; Tilda Swinton as twin-sister gossip columnists = not only Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons (who were definitely not sisters) but also carrying a whiff of rival siblings Olivia deHavilland and Joan Fontaine, born of British parents in the Far East, who famously hated each other throughout their parallel star careers; Scarlett Johansson = Loretta Young who covered up her out-of-wedlock birth by disappearing for a few months and resurfacing with an "adopted" daughter; Ralph Fiennes = a British variation on director George Cukor who was rumored to have had sex with pre-stardom Clark Gable; Alden Ehrenreich = Roy Rogers (whom he actually resembles); Channing Tatum = a dash of Gene Kelly and a dab of Dick Powell. And others.

This is not the first Coen film to incorporate musical performance and begs the question, why doesn't this team make an all-out film musical? The Channing Tatum song-and-dance number, vaguely reminiscent of Busby Berkeley's "Shanghai Li'l" from "Footlight Parade" and Ehrenreich's pitch perfect warbling in a Western musical scene are high points.

Memorable and brilliantly written scenes include a theological roundtable of religious leaders assembled by Brolin to vet the production of the titular film-within-the-film, a "Ben-Hur"-ish epic about a Roman centurion's encounter with Jesus Christ (the scenes from which are stylistically dead-on perfect take-offs on the post-WW2 widescreen ancient epics); and a parallel gathering of Hollywood Communist Party screenwriters strategizing philosophically about ways to use dialectical materialism as a guide to insert Party propaganda into film scripts and hasten a new world (goof: a Communist refers to making a cash "contribution to the Comintern" which had been long dismantled by the time this film takes place); a fey director's frustrated attempts to coach the miscast cowboy actor's delivery of high-toned cocktail party dialogue.

Finally we are reminded that movie-going in studio-era Hollywood was a kind of organized religious experience; no matter what traditional religious practices moviegoers or producers may have observed, the paganism of the screen experience was an equal influence on their lives.
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The Revenant (2015)
Inarritu in Winter
3 January 2016
Alejandro Inarritu has made gripping movies set in such places as Mexico, Tokyo, Morocco, Barcelona and Manhattan and now he conquers the Canadian Rockies and Tierra del Fuego (standing in for the U.S. Rockies) in winter with this tale of brute survival, loyalty to loved ones and humane principles and the limitations of revenge.

Leonardo DiCaprio gives another of his super-charged performances as a white fur trapper who, in the company of his half-breed son and other trappers hunts for a fur trading company in the years immediately following the Lewis and Clark Expeditions that jump started U.S. expansion west of the Mississippi. En route he runs afoul of an emotionally damaged and brutal fellow trapper (Tom Hardy) and encounters a sympathetic Indian who is looking for the killers of his family.

There are similarities in look, theme and situation to earlier Westerns ("The Treasure of the Sierra Madre," "The Searchers," "McCabe and Mrs. Miller," "Jeremiah Johnson," "Dead Man") and even an Eastern ("Dersu Uzala") and a Mid-Eastern ("The Passion of the Christ"). The mostly male cast is appropriately grizzled, bearded, unkempt and squalid, with Hardy notably vanishing into grungy dishevelment with a dead-on Texas accent to boot.

Gore is everywhere from the earliest scenes, as is fantasy. It is impossible to believe that DiCaprio or any human being, no matter how fit, could survive the bear attack that sets the tone for the grueling survival narrative that follows. Further tests and trials are no more convincing, but DiCaprio gives it all his actorly oomph to make it seem believable. His struggle takes on a mythological quality after a while; you don't believe the literalness of it but you are carried by the spirit of it. Over the course of more than two hours he is repeatedly mangled, frozen, crushed, starved, drenched, sliced and punctured. He probably even dies for a while before emerging reborn from the bloody slit of a horse carcass he has gutted and into which he has crawled naked to keep from freezing after the animal and he fall off a cliff into a snow bank.

The sparsely swelling chords of Ryuichi Sakamoto's musical score complement the intensity and obsession of the journey.
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a man for a moment
29 September 2015
Warning: Spoilers
Francis and Margaret Macomber, a wealthy, sophisticated American couple whose marriage is on the rocks, go on an African safari under the supervision of Robert Wilson, a professional game hunter. All Macomber wants to do is to be a "real man" and prove it to his wife by facing and killing dangerous wild animals in her presence. But then boom, she "accidentally" shoots him in the back while trying to protect him from the charge of a wounded buffalo. This moment is the culmination of two days of anguish during which we have learned about Mr. Macomber's fears and obsessions, from his panicked reaction to a charging lion, his subsequent turmoil and feelings of personal redemption after a successful buffalo hunt. Finally he is happy, for the few minutes before his death. Hence Hemingway's brilliant original title, "The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber."

This adaptation is virtually spoiler-proof because it gives away the ending at the beginning. On paper it was a tersely told tale with deep subtext to which the screen version adds dollops of Freudian-tinged expository and explanatory dialogue. For a Hemingway-based film, it's quite talky. Substantial framing material has been added at the beginning and end to explain the Macombers' unstable relationship and a scene midway is awkwardly extended into physical violence to emphasize Macomber's insecurities about his manliness.

Wilson has been Americanized and prettified by the casting of beautiful young Gregory Peck, who actually better fits Hemingway's description of Macomber (played ably but unexcitingly by Robert Preston). Trevor Howard would have been a closer match; the character's colonial- era Brit-flavored dialogue, retained intact in the screenplay, often falls flat delivered in Peck's American accent and he is just too clean-cut cute to convince as a veteran hunter in the hot and dusty wilds. (It is said that Hemingway based this character on Denys Finch Hatton, the real-life big-game-hunting English lover of "Out of Africa" author Isak Dinesen; coincidentally, in the glossy 1985 screen adaptation of Dinesen's story Hatton was effectively Americanized and glamourized by the miscasting of Robert Redford.) Also retained from the original story are numerous remarks about the fair-skinned Wilson's "red face" which make no sense because (a) the film is in black-and-white; (b) Peck's complexion does not lend itself to redness, even theoretically; he is basically as cool as a cucumber throughout. Margaret Macomber's screen embodiment is straightforward and loyal to the source: a glamour puss with attitude, just beyond the flush of youth, played appropriately by Joan Bennett during that interesting phase of her career when she was working with Lang, Renoir and Ophuls.

The outdoor hunting scenes look authentic. Miklos Rozsa intensifies the proceedings with strong musical strokes, but they sound like borrowings from his "Double Indemnity" score from a few years earlier.
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