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The Manitou (1978)
7/10
Trash...But Really Great Trash
4 April 2007
The post-EXORCIST 70s produced a variety of quirky, old-fashioned horror films with big name stars whose careers were winding down but who were happy to still be working and who added a touch of class to the proceedings. PSYCHIC KILLER with Jim Hutton, TOURIST TRAP with Chuck Connors and SHOCK WAVES with John Carradine and Peter Cushing immediately come to mind. And then there's THE MANITOU. I saw this movie when it first came out in 1978 and thoroughly enjoyed it. There's something for everyone here... black magic, Native American lore, cool 1970s furnishings (check out Tony Curtis' pad -er- apartment), possession, a séance, demonic birth and a STAR TREK like finish. It's like a summing up of the themes of 1970s horror films with a few well placed shocks and one truly memorable sequence. Curtis takes the Bob Hope approach (complete with quips) to his role as a fake mystic who is suddenly confronted with the real thing. Susan Strasberg makes a suitably vulnerable heroine and Syrian born Michael Ansara is quite believable as an Indian medicine man (no Native Americans in 1978) brought in to fight the evil. Stella Stevens, Ann Sothern, and Burgess Meredith add fun to the proceedings and director William Girdler (ABBY, GRIZZLY) doesn't give you time to think long enough on how preposterous it all is. Sadly this film was to have been his ticket to the big time and would have been (it was a box office hit) had he not been killed in a helicopter crash while scouting locations for his next film. Avco Embassy for whom the film was made was sold to Norman Lear in 1982 and this and other Avco Embassy films disappeared into ownership limbo. Thanks to Anchor Bay THE MANITOU and other 70s A/E films like MURDER BY DECREE and WINTER KILLS have made it to DVD in beautiful widescreen transfers. THE MANITOU may be trash but it's really great trash and I'd rather be watching it than any number of present day horror films. Its well crafted approach to its material (no matter how ridiculous) rather than explicit effects from suffering victims makes it a guilty pleasure that I'll be happy to return to.
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8/10
A Film Whose Time Has Come.
4 April 2007
Panned and patronized at the time of it's initial release, Elia Kazan's adaptation of his best selling book THE ARRANGEMENT plays much better now than it did in 1969. Made after a 6 year hiatus from film-making at a time when movies were enjoying unheard of freedom due to the demise of the production code, THE ARRANGEMENT clearly shows that Kazan was still a director to be reckoned with. The basic premise was nothing new. A highly successful businessman (Kirk Douglas) suffers a mid-life crisis and attempts suicide. How he and the other characters deal with the aftermath make up the rest of the story. Kazan has always been an actor's director and the film provides a showcase for the young Faye Dunaway as Douglas' mistress who gets him to reexamine his life but wants out to be with someone else. Deborah Kerr in her last major film appearance is superb in the difficult role of the wife who tries to understand what Douglas is going through but doesn't want to give up the rich lifestyle she's become accustomed to. Strong support is given by Hume Cronyn as the family solicitor who has plans of his own and from Richard Boone in a rare non-Western role as Douglas' ailing father. His slide into dementia is both heartbreaking and terrifying. Marlon Brando had originally agreed to play the lead but bowed out allowing Kirk Douglas who really wanted to work with Kazan to step in. While not stage trained like the other principals, he acquits himself well in an emotionally as opposed to a physically demanding role. The combination of raw emotions, alternating points-of-view including black humor, and touches of surrealism was ambitious then and still is today (think American BEAUTY). The movie is not without its flaws. It runs too long and is occasionally sloppy in everything from editing to make-up but the powerful writing and intense performances make THE ARRANGEMENT provocative film-making nearly 40 years later. Called everything from a harrowing emotional ride to a self-indulgent mess, it is ultimately for the home viewer to decide (my rating indicates where I stand). Kazan will always be a controversial figure because of his HUAC testimony in the 1950's but his greatness as a director cannot be denied and remains captured on film for all to see.
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7/10
This Is A D.W. Griffith Film?
3 April 2007
Conventional wisdom says that D.W. Griffith didn't make a good movie after he lost his Mamaroneck studio in 1924. Between SALLY OF THE SAWDUST with W.C. Fields (1925) and THE STRUGGLE (1931), Griffith made 6 feature films for United Artists and Paramount. Most of these have been dismissed out of hand since they first appeared and a few are no longer available. THE BATTLE OF THE SEXES (1928) garnered him some of the worst notices of his career (to be outdone by his last film THE STRUGGLE) although preview audiences loved it. I have seen a restored version of the film and am hard pressed to understand all the negative reviews. The settings by William Cameron Menzies are lavish, the photography by Karl Struss is top notch, and the editing, normally Griffith's Achilles heel, is smooth and polished. It clearly shows that Griffith could take advantage of the Hollywood studio system when given the chance. So why all the bad press? Part of the problem lies in the way the film was promoted. BATTLE OF THE SEXES was billed as a Jazz Age comedy when it was actually a domestic drama with several comic moments. Although the story is melodramatic and features the required happy ending, the emotions of the characters ring true. This was Griffith's greatest strength as a filmmaker. No matter how trite or objectionable the plot you believe his characters even when you don't agree with them. Best known for his epics, Griffith was essentially a miniaturist as his Biograph shorts clearly demonstrate. His feature films are more successful when done on a smaller scale and while dealing with people and their relationships (BROKEN BLOSSOMS, ISN'T LIFE WONDERFUL). Jean Hersholt gives one of his finest performances as a philandering husband. His encounter with a reducing machine in order to make himself look younger is both comic and pathetic. Phyllis Haver is the ultimate Jazz Baby and she lights up the screen with a performance that is both funny AND sexy. The robe she wears to seduce Hersholt must be seen through to be believed. Belle Bennett (THE IRON MASK) as the spurned wife also deserves special mention. THE BATTLE OF THE SEXES proves that Griffith had not lost his touch after he lost his independence. Thanks to Image Entertainment for upgrading this title to DVD as part of their D.W. Griffith collection. Now if they could just rescue ISN'T LIFE WONDERFUL and THE STRUGGLE from VHS oblivion as well.
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9/10
Griffith's Last Independent Production Was His Last Great Film.
3 April 2007
ISN'T LIFE WONDERFUL was D.W. Griffith's last independent production before he was forced to sell his Mamaroneck studio to help pay off mounting debts from his Revolutionary War epic America and his bad business practices. Though little known today compared to earlier films like BIRTH OF A NATION or INTOLERANCE, this little film, in my opinion, is Griffith's last great film. It incorporates the best elements of intimate dramas like BROKEN BLOSSOMS with a large scale backdrop like HEARTS OF THE WORLD. In fact it has been said that Griffith made this film to atone for the rabid anti-German sentiments of HEARTS (just as INTOLERANCE was supposedly made to respond to the rabid racial bias of BIRTH OF A NATION). This story of a poor family's trials and tribulations in inflation ravaged post World War I Germany is remarkably grim and is presented realistically. Griffith came under heavy criticism for presenting a sympathetic portrait of a family in Germany (they had to be changed from German to Polish although one character still tears up a picture of the Kaiser) and for shooting the film in Germany itself. His protégé' Carol Dempster gives the performance of her brief career showing what she could have been capable of had Griffith used better judgment as to what he put her in. She plays Inga, a poor girl trying to keep her family's spirits up while trying to realize her own dreams. As the wounded veteran Paul who hopes to marry Inga, Neil Hamilton (who would play Commissioner Gordon on TV's BATMAN 40 years later) gives a sensitive and engaging performance. The film plays like an early neorealist drama and surely had an impact on later filmmakers such as G.W. Pabst, Sergei Eisenstein, and Vittoria De Sica. It is starkly but beautifully photographed and full of social criticism which did not go down well at all with Jazz Age audiences. For modern audiences the film looks like the forerunner that it is and it brings out the best of what Griffith had to say both personally and professionally. Hopefully this will soon be released on DVD to join most of Griffith's other films which despite his fame/infamy are still awaiting major restoration.
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Eternal Love (1929)
8/10
ETERNAL LOVE is a real find!
9 July 2001
It has only been in recent years that some of Ernst Lubitsch's silent films have become available on video. They prove that "the man with the golden touch" certainly had it before his more famous films of the 30's and 40's. I was unfamiliar with ETERNAL LOVE until this VHS/DVD incarnation and based on the few reviews I had seen I wasn't expecting much. Imagine my surprise and delight when I found myself totally captivated. I thought the four principals all gave fine performances (especially John Barrymore) and the photography (shot in the Canadian Rockies) was some of the best I've seen in an American silent film. The ending ,while not unexpected, still managed to have a terrific impact. Of the 3 Lubitsch silents I have seen (THE STUDENT PRINCE IN OLD HEIDELBERG and THE MARRIAGE CIRCLE are the other 2), this one tops the list. My thanks to the UCLA Film and Television Archive and to Milestone Films for making it available on video.
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