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Fahrenheit 451 (1966)
Fahrenheit 451; or, How Roeg saved Truffaut
Before any discussion of this film, there must be a line drawn between the politics of the film versus the way this film was created. Being a Truffaut fan, I didn't want to miss his idiosyncrasies within a scene merely because the politics of book burning were overwhelming. Yes, one understands that this is a film adaptation of "Fahrenheit 451", a beloved classic that gives booksellers inspiration every time it is read, but also this is a Truffaut film. Several reviews state that Truffaut did an excellent job with the direction, and then spend four paragraphs discussing our society and its apathetic ways toward literature. In this discussion of this film, there will be a solid line between Truffaut's direction and Bradbury's themes. Was one stronger than the other? Did Truffaut's adaptation muddy Bradbury's final thoughts? While you may agree or disagree with my discoveries, one needs to realize that this was a film watched, not a book read. Did Truffaut satisfy the main discourses of film enjoyment? Was it entertaining? Did it spark debate? Did it decorate strong characters? For this reviewer, Truffaut's "Fahrenheit 451" was a mixed bag of cinematic delight. The characters, albeit well fit within the realm of Bradbury, just felt mediocre. Their direction seemed wooden, while the camera focus seemed misplaced for a majority of the film. Again, like most Truffaut, it was colorful, but he just didn't seem himself until the final act – where Bradbury's ideas and Truffaut's direction finally congealed together. "Fahrenheit 451" was an adaption, but not one that stands among the infamous.
Our troubles begin in this film with our lead, Guy Montag (played by "Jules and Jim" lead, Oskar Werner), who obviously hated working for Truffaut and this project. Despite the rumor that the two clashed at every opportunity, Werner gave one of the worst performances seen for a long time. When Truffaut couldn't get Terrance Stamp for his first choice, the lackluster Werner stepped in, and the downfall of this film began. Werner gave nothing for audiences to attach themselves to. There was no emotion, no big moment of empathy, no excitement. Werner went from one scene to the next, allowing his sleepy eyes to provide us with just enough to cope with the hour and a half running time. He was horrible as a "Fireman", and even less convincing as a man with a sudden passion for the written word. There were moments when laughter was more suitable than viable emotion. This is supposed to be a tense film, a confusing film, a film where the emotion surrounding books becomes a greater asset than the material objects that Montag possessed. Alas, this wasn't the case. With the supposed anger surrounding our lead and director, only the lessons of Styrofoam and cardboard were used. Thankfully, there was Julie Christie mixed within the story to heighten the side bits. Feeling a bit Brunel-ian, Christie was used as two characters in this film, providing an opportunity for Truffaut to demonstrate a particular emotion with books and without them. While Christie wasn't Oscar-worthy, she did allow for an appealing appetizer to the dismal main course (Werner). She and Cyril Cusack (The Captain), anointed with the task of keeping the film together, managed to save this film from utter disappointment to sheer mediocrity.
What makes "Fahrenheit 451" an interesting film to self-explode, is not only the odd direction by Truffaut, but the powerful camera work by one Nicolas Roeg (the man who later gave us "The Man Who Fell To Earth"). All of the colors, the shots as they were filmed, and the choices of camera placement were, possibly, the second only greatest moment of this film. I credit Roeg for giving us the unsettling feel of this film. The contrast from the bold colors of red in the community with the bland colors of inside Montag's home (and elsewhere) forced the setting upon us in a good way. As Truffaut and Werner were arguing with each other, Roeg was creating a film – and it is obvious as the visuals of this film looked creative, but everything else came nowhere close.
Finally, without giving away the ending, one has to admit that the ending to this film was Truffaut finally finding his way again. Suddenly, when Montag found his real "home", it became obvious that Truffaut found his comfort zone. He understood this film, and the ending wrapped up brilliantly. The direction, the voice, the visuals – they all seemed to come together in a way that shocked even myself. If only the rest of the film had been this way what a surprising film this would have been.
Overall, I believe this film, if done correctly, could be the first science fiction film ever to win an Oscar for best film. The themes are universal and the looming future is closer than we think. Yet, Truffaut could not handle this. He and Werner's arguing created a difficult mess of mixed emotions and sub-par casting. Roeg's scenes were brilliant, but couldn't save this sinking ship. "Fahrenheit 451" had potential, but failed on nearly every level. If you choose to view this film, check out the final scene in which Truffaut finally understands Bradbury's work. Why did it take so long to discover the true meaning of the written page? Urg.
Grade: ** out of ***** (two stars for Roeg and Christie ONLY)
The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989)
The Fabulous Baker Boys; or, the Art of the Cliché
In this tired tale, two brothers – semi-content with playing a lounge or two here or there – living in the past, consider the option of bringing a female singer into the act. One is the organizer, one is the chain-smoking wild-card that continually impresses the ladies, yet has a stronger passion for the keys. It won't take a rocket scientist to realize which is which based on mere talent alone. Throw into the mix a husky female singer, a mistaken love, and chaos between a seemingly stable piano act. As our film winds down, cliché over recycled cliché is used to tear these brothers apart, and slowly bring them back together – in an awkward way. While the film boasts collaboration between two of Hollywood's biggest brothers (one a recent Oscar winner), great piano music, and the quintessential red-dress-on-piano scene, what this film actually delivers is merely a tired script, an overused plot devise, and lines that could have been promoted by anyone with an Acting 101 degree. While the concept seems dramatic, the final result of this feature (despite the numerous awards) felt disappointing. Brotherly love destroyed by inevitable change?
There were a couple of small elements to this film that worked, ensuring that "The Fabulous Baker Boys" was more than just a one-star movie. Bridges, muscled down by the day-to-day life of being a piano player, is watchable. His apathy towards all situations coupled with his "Joe Cool" smoking-attitude, creates the correct amount of tension with unknown to keep the plot slowly moving in the right direction. Beau, the weaker big-screen actor (better able to manage the television roles), tries to keep up, but what tries to be anger ends up just being a man with big eyes and anger-spit. But, on with the positives the Bridges' music was, for lack of a better word, fabulous. Without making the guess if it was them playing, the tone of each of the songs respectively worked in their scenes. Along with the music, the visions of LA worked to show that in a city that never sleeps, these two brothers will always have work. Keep the drinks flowing, and you are sure to be a crowd pleaser.
With some slight parts to make you enjoy the hour and a half of a band's destruction, the rest just crumbled quickly. To begin, while the pairing of Beau and Jeff seemed powerful on paper, the screen told otherwise. Absolutely, the two were able to play their respective roles well – Jeff the darkened, smoking, looming brother – while Beau played the optimist, looking to keep his dream (or business) alive. The issue with the Bridges' is that they are too far apart. There is never a scene to show their chemistry together as amazing pianists. Instead, we see through posters that at once they were happy, but those days are long gone. We begin our film on a downtrodden note, and it never quite picks itself up from that even when the brothers seem to be back on top again. Director Steve Kloves never gives us, the audience, an opportunity to cheer for Jeff and Beau's happiness. Instead, we are forced to suffer right along with them, picking ourselves up after each depressing hour. The same can be said for Pfeiffer, and while Oscar-nomination, Golden Globe-winning, still means something – her portrayal of Susie Diamond just wasn't breakthrough enough to be remembered after 1990. The prostitute-turned-singer routine has been done in Hollywood, over and over and over; and not to sound repetitive, better. Pfeiffer's husky voice (at times in tune, at times not), and butch demeanor, did create a sex-symbol, but instead another tragic character. While I agree, the story isn't conducive to happiness; somebody should have considered it as an opportunity to see these characters differently. It would have added a new layer to their characters, allowing for a stronger emotional punch at the end.
As our characters floundered through their roles, playing piano and off-beat singing, the story was another part that just fell short – forcing our characters to have mixed material to work with and missed character opportunity. "The Fabulous Baker Boys" as a film doesn't work, as a television mini-series perhaps it would have been better. There is too much left on the table from writer-director Kloves that nothing evolves. Scenes like upstairs neighbor of Jeff's that is like his mother, busting the dog out of the vet, smelling bathroom equipment, and destroying memorabilia, look good on paper, but without the correct backing just doesn't feel finished. That is the overall feel with "Baker Boys", a sense that scenes, moments, and plot-points went unfinished. Kloves isn't the best in handling the talent he has hired. From leaving cameramen in shots to overusing the piano music, Kloves believes in his work (there is no argument there), but his execution is fallible. Why would you use piano music as your theme music when the Bridges are playing piano music as well? This was horrible. With strong keys being played by the brothers, the cheesy background music just diluted the overall feel. It is the perfect example of having authentic reality and a cheap knock-off. With lacking characters, it would be up to Kloves to cover the differences, but he can't control what is happening. His camera direction, musical focus, and story have too many flawed plot holes that instead of a creative story, we are left with a sad overused cliché. I would agree that these boys are "Fabulous", but Kloves couldn't prove it. His scientific directional equation remains a hypothesis.
Overall, I wasn't a fan of this film. Our mood, music, and plot points were all misused and poorly developed. Our story, cliché after cliché, didn't feel original or exciting. There needed to be some brightness at the end of our tunnel, but nobody could demonstrate this. It was corrosive and disappointing.
Grade: * ½ out of *****
A Face in the Crowd (1957)
A Face in the Crowd; or, Andy Griffith's Missed Oscar
Like the roar of a lion or the maniacal laugh of thousands, Andy Griffith burst on the screen with a performance unmatched in the past 53 years. Using the direction of the infamous Elia Kazan, and words by Budd Schulberg, "A Face in the Crowd" transformed from a personal struggle with fame into a political statement of power. Since the birth of radio and television, or even before, the concept of celebrity followed side by side. This select 1% of the population was used to sell ads, promote products, and lastly, entertain the populous. Not much has changed as Hollywood has evolved; the wealthy still control and the audience still depend on their favorite voice to tell them what to get at the grocery store. The interesting point about this, explored deeply in Schulberg's script, is how quickly the mass audiences can casual drop one figure and follow anew. As one reads this review, the teens may have forgotten the Jonas Brothers and found a new follower, our Late Night hosts may all have new faces, and our "Avatar" may not be barreling through the theaters. Even as I write this, it feels stale. Surprisingly, watching "A Face in the Crowd" for the first time, there was a lack of preparedness for these points. One doesn't expect such a modern film found in 1957 (much less lead by the sheriff of Mayberry), but within the first twenty minutes, the average viewer will be surprised by what the screen allows. With bold direction, amazing acting, and valid, detailed points about our entertainment industry, "A Face in the Crowd" makes its mark in 1957 and remains valuable today in 2010 – one could even argue MORE valuable today.
While watching this film, there is one person that steals the screen in the opening minutes and never releases for a solid two hours. His name is Andy Griffith, and while he will always be known as the quintessential small town hero, his film debut proved his range went further. With a diabolical laugh, a country-boy appeal, and a voice that could swoon anyone within an earshot, he takes what should have been a role for a seasoned veteran, and creates this iconic role that, after watching the film, could only be done by Mayberry himself. From his introduction in a cell recovering from a drunken disorderly charge, he finds his escape in the form of Patricial Neal, who in turn, introduces Griffith to the world of radio; aka mass audiences. Using a form of trickery, Neal demonstrates Griffith's power and the world welcomes him (unsuspectingly) with open arms. The small town of Arkansas does anything he wants, but he doesn't stop there. By becoming our very first Howard Stern, he does what he wants and says anything at all – and becomes the infamous "Demigod in Denim". The shift in Griffith's character is subtle, yet somewhat planned. He portrays Lonesome Rhodes as a man inheriting luck, but the calculated look on his face indicates otherwise. That is the perplexity of Griffith, one believes that it is just him being himself, but he peppers within his lines these moments of unknown – where perhaps this was Rhodes' plan all along. Bridled next to both Neal, who adds a strong level of support, sexuality, and madness, and a youthful Walter Matthau who brings the final worded-axe down at the finale; it doesn't surprised the ability and range that Griffith had to accomplish. The acting in this film will not only surprise, but also impress. This is the type of quality that Hollywood could produce, yet rarely do we see.
Having just finished "Cabin in the Cotton", a film that used politics as a miscalculation to cinema, it was impressive to see Elia Kazan handle this issue with artistic talent as well as solid direction. Despite his dismay in Hollywood, his talent behind the camera glimmered in this feature as colors (blacks and whites) were bold, the symbolism was apparent, and the emotions were captured perfectly. He guided Neal through her tragic turn, while keeping Matthau solid as a rock throughout. He controlled Griffith, while allowing him to run throughout the scenes with ease. "Face in the Crowd" is a difficult film to direct, as there is both emotion and intent running rampant, but Kazan proves the he can handle Schulberg's words. There are scenes that just feel, and look, more modern than 1957. The one that immediately pops into mind is the montage surrounding Rhodes' introduction into Vitajex. The blend of animation, perverse snippets, and that disturbing laugh didn't feel old – it felt like a moment taken from 2010 (just in black and white). There are others like that scene throughout. The baton competition was one of the most intensely awkward scenes, as we knew what was happening, but didn't want to believe it. Again, modern ideas strewn throughout 1957, where the average '57 film felt didn't push the envelope – Kazan didn't care about the envelope.
Finally, Schulberg's script has to be one of the best Hollywood stories to come out of that town. The images of Griffith laughing stapled behind several TV antennae, just barely scares the average viewer. Schulberg, like Kazan, isn't afraid of his idea. He pushes from radio to television, an audience of one to millions upon millions, and finally guiding politicians into office. Does this feel like an old idea? The modern implications are outstanding. The language as well, coming from Griffith (who had to ad-lib some) is wildly entertaining, but subtly symbolic, and those final thoughts by Matthau require another viewing just to hear again. Everyone, from writing to direction to acting, gave "Face in the Crowd" more than 100% of their talent, and this critic believes that Griffith may have fallen into the Mayberry sinkhole too soon. If this was his ability, he was surely wasted in Hollywood.
Bravo across the board, BRAVO!
Grade: ***** out of *****
The Cabin in the Cotton (1932)
Cabin in the Cotton; or How Two Wrongs Still Make A Wrong
Described as a political film, coupled with love, betrayal, and valor "The Cabin in the Cotton" successfully touches on everything that it promises. There is no denying that fact. Bette Davis plays the sultry love interest. Richard Barthelmess plays the hokey, dumbfounded man caught in the middle. The stage is set, angry plantation owners, angry growers, but (
and here comes the first analogy
) it feels as if "The Cabin in the Cotton" is a house, and while our players and writer may be doing the best they can, the foundation of it all was rushed, crafted by items found at a refuse lot, not new material. This film represents the idea of quantity over quality. Warner, head of the studio at the time, knew that he could use these raw goods and create a political mafioso about the current American economic standard. The problem, which became apparent 15 minutes into the film, is that this film has no direction. The cloud of romance is in one corner, the air of politics is in another, and then we have this deep lacking history of the south that seems to loom all around like a fog - yet none blend together. None built together a strong enough foundation, or subsequent walls, to make "The Cabin in the Cotton" anything more than just an opportunity to see Bette Davis use good lines.
Watched within a group, this reviewer was the only one to question the "Cabin in the Cotton" point. What was the focus of this film? When did poor construction pass for great film-making? From the opening definition of the obscure family to the over-hyped courtroom scene in which the point that two wrongs obviously make a right – nothing is defined or developed. But, let's begin at the start. Our actors. Bette Davis, playing a New York Southerner was worth the 78-minutes alone. She was handed some of the greatest lines, some of the sauciest scenes, and completely went perpendicular to her co-star, Barthelmess, who – honestly, didn't feel comfortable going from silent to sound. He was a classic example of a star that may have been big during the silent era, but couldn't translate well beyond that. As he lurched around everything in this film, he successfully was able to demonstrate that no chemistry was needed to act with Bette Davis. Then, with no emotion for nearly ¾ of the film, he is asked to inspire at the end. He is asked to raise his voice, demonstrate his chops, and ultimately fail miserably. If we couldn't believe that he could "woo" Bette Davis, why would I believe that he could inspire a group of angry men? I couldn't. The remaining actors fell into two categories; either angry or angrier. There was little sympathy coming from anyone, much less our main actors. Again, I ask, why would I then feel emotion for this film?
With our actors causing problems over problems (the excuse, "It was made in 1932" doesn't cut it), you are left with the story. Does "Cabin in the Cotton" work with just the story, as our characters (again, outside of Bette Davis) flounder throughout – does this political film work? To me, it did not. The lacking construction of developing the poor characters makes this film fail, on every level. Director Michael Curtiz, obviously working for the Hollywood factory, didn't even bother finishing scenes. He provided us with Point-A (the boy), Point B (the crime), Point C (the courtroom) and nothing else. There was a random lynching which was used to heighten an already depressed emotion, but it failed. When our only reaction between Barthelmess and his crew was anger, why would he be upset by a lynching? The consistency just wasn't there. Rumor had it that Mr. Norwood provided an education for Barthelmess' character – but again, my argument, there wasn't any connection between anyone. No connection between Barthelmess and his ladies, none between Barthelmess and the cotton pickers, none between him and the plantation owners – nothing. The glue to the film isn't even strong enough to keep our central guys together, why would it care about the background? Questions plague this review, but they plagued me while watching this film. I understood the political nature of the film, I loved Bette Davis' line, but everything else was atrocious. There was no redeeming value to this film, perhaps political, perhaps love story – who knows!?
As this review wraps, I continue to think perhaps I have misjudged what this film represents. Maybe it was only supposed to be a political film, an allegory to the truth of what conditions were like in the south, or in the USA, but then I think about other films, like "My Man Godfrey" made four years later – and how well developed that film was. Why couldn't "Cabin in the Cotton" be more like that? Why did our lead actor have to be so horrid at his job? Questions that will remain unanswered through the cinematic time vault. For anyone new to "Cabin in the Cotton" beware, it is worthy of only seeing a young Bette Davis nothing else.
Overall, in case it wasn't obvious, "Cabin in the Cotton" was a failure. Davis, and her lines, allow for one star, but that is it. Nothing worked, from the acting to the direction to the construction of the film, it just didn't work from one scene to the next. The value of this film was missing. What was this film? Political. Love story. Random family? Nothing made sense, and while I will remain in the minority, I ask you to revisit this film and see what makes it spark. In the end it was a wasted 78 minutes.
Grade: * out of *****
Bure baruta (1998)
Cabaret Balkan; or a dark night in Belgrade
Finding myself on a bit of a VHS watching spree, I settled down with my trusty Toshiba and allowed the tracking to take its course. The first film, a VHS rarity from 1998 (surprisingly no DVD option yet), gave the opportunity to tour the back roads of Belgrade without leaving the comfort of the couch. It was dark, it was disruptive, it was random; it was "Cabaret Balkan". Told in a storyline similar to that of recent films like "Babel" or "Amores Perros", "Cabaret Balkan" takes a socially dynamic state, gives the viewers a smorgasbord of one-dimensional characters, and allows the traveling to begin. As a tourist destination, one may consider booking another location, but as a cinematic endeavor, it packs light punches, interesting stories, and that seedy darkness that seems to follow Serbia wherever it goes. From one sad story to the next, we are forced to enter the lives of virtual unknown, to ask ourselves what would be our response in a similar situation, and to accept – willing or unwilling – that this film speaks the truth. That chaos is normal in Belgrade. To believe that a normal passenger, on a normal night, can easily become twisted in the evil that stirs in this cold city. "Cabaret Balkan" asks quite a bit from its viewers, in essence to extend belief and trust that these "endings" speak for an entire world, but if you allow your mind to watch, your belief to be suspended, "Balkan" proves to be spooky, entertaining, and vividly depressing all at once.
For those unwilling to experiment back with the VHS option, this is a film saturated in colorful characters. From fighting best friends, to a corrupt cop finding his comeuppance, to a bickering couple found in the worst situation possible, all the way to a man determined to win the heart of his sweetheart, "Cabaret Balkan" will take you on one wild ride. Despite our characters moving here and there, "Balkan" is one of those films that initially makes you think, "That was a depressing film", but after thinking further one can still say this was a depressing film, but it worked. It makes you think about the lifestyles of the less-fortunate in these areas, it makes you consider the place and the people – transforming what happens in Belgrade and putting into modern life, no matter where you live. That is why "Balkan" resonates. It takes over-hyper events and somehow settles them into reality. This is not an easy task as each "story" shows a different side of this city, or of the human relation, but as the stories continue to blend, adding layer upon layer – "Balkan" becomes a stronger and stronger film.
Alas, this isn't a film for everyone. Critics would argue that the inconsistent blend between the stories diminished the opportunity for authentic drama. Critics would argue that the disassociation between American audiences and what is political in Serbia would pull from the central focus. Critics would argue that not enough development of our characters hurt the overall effect of Dejan Dukovski's written word. In a small sense, they are right. "Cabaret Balkan" isn't without its faults, and casual film watchers would probably agree as initially this film just feels lackluster, but it is what remains in your mind long after the final credits rolled that makes this film applaud. It is a film that obviously tackled some difficult issues, in a place where difficult situations occur as the norm. The turning point for this film viewer was the story of the man trying to win his woman's heart. With orchestra and dog in hand, we follow him throughout his possible release until the climactic moment, but the eventual outcome of his sincere efforts is what shows the true horror that "Balkan" is trying to bring to light. My argument would be that perhaps it needed to end with this singular story, instead of the choice ending with the sadist and couple. To me, that story felt the least developed and utterly awkward. Realizing that it isn't Disney, it still felt choppy and misappropriated. As one small flaw for this film, in my eyes, would be this choppiness of getting from point A to point B. Perhaps it was the budget or just the lack of experience, but "Balkan" isn't subtle. The flow of scene to scene isn't there, and it demonstrates the struggles of our people (I get that), but a stronger frame to this film would have only heighted the experience.
This was a decent endeavour into a world I knew very little about. It is a film that resonates long after it is over. It continues to surprise that this little independent feature still hasn't seen a DVD light of day yet. A broader audience would appreciate what our director was trying to create here.
Overall, would I suggest this film to a friend or family member? I believe so. It had a strong enough messages, despite the lacking characters, and it felt fresh. It was dark, foreign, and sporadic – but it stayed consistent throughout. There were faults, many of which I mentioned earlier, but because of the final effort – it stood out. A DVD edition would be great, but this little VHS worked its magic well for a night where cinema reigned supreme.
Grade: **** out of *****
Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1920)
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari; or the birth of the horror genre
To watch "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" will mean more than just sitting do with some popcorn, a beer, and relaxing on the comfy chair. It is an experience. For a film that is 90-years old, it will mentally challenge, visually stun, and grossly entertain you for the mere 70-ish minutes that it lasts. The version watched, the "Special Collector's Edition" streamed, also provided with comic-styled flash cards that gave us this silent film's voice. Yet, with all this strength, the film isn't without its flaws. The brevity means quick segments, underdeveloped plot, and a twist that seems to come from left field. Watched within the availability of a group, there was decidedly a mixed feel about this film. Many enjoyed, and applauded, the German Expressionism used to create the world, as it has been eerily used time and time again in modern cinema (i.e. Tim Burton's "Batman"), yet others seemed to mock the unknown. They followed the film throughout the course, confused as to when it was going to wrap up, and when it did – the ending seemed more rushed than surprising. While there were both applause and nays within the group, the one element that stood out – which demonstrates the cinematic power of "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari"" – is that they all wanted to see it again.
"Caligari" introduces a new viewer to the world of German Expressionism, and the creativity doesn't stop there. With bold, "Pee-Wee's Playhouse"-like doors, Burton-esquire buildings, and a dream-like town, director Robert Wiene (along with his set designer and cinematographer) was well beyond the 1900s. Their vision proved that dark can be fun, that the unknown will still scare, and the mind, well, it is a terrible thing to waste. Imagine watching this film in 1920, when the cinema was still an infant. The sheer horror that audiences would have felt ooze from the screen, it is dark, it is disturbing, and - even with standards today - it is scary. Audiences beware, this is no "Saw" or "Hostel", but the creativity behind this feature is stronger than these modern "classics". The argument could even be presented that if it weren't for this film, the horror genre wouldn't exist today. "Caligari" is that impressive. For those that haven't seen, be prepared.
This film worked because of what our group was considerably mixed on, the unknown. For me, the uniqueness of the story allowed for depth and the macabre to soak through. Couple this with the visuals, and "Caligari" transforms into more than just pioneering cinema - it becomes a grandiose story that requires several viewings in darkened rooms. The cerebral nature keeps conversation flowing and that "unknown" that I have spoken of, strong. Yet, there is a fault with this film. While I praise the story, cinematography, and the twist; the development was a bit slow at times. Perhaps it is the fast-paced nature of today's movies, but the center of this film seemed to drag and push nowhere. The pacing begins strong, with an introduction into two stranded unknowns, but as the reveal occurs, one can find themselves dozing off - questioning the reason for one scene over the other (i.e. the entire wrong murder suspect). Yes, the value of those scenes do semi-make sense, but for a 70-ish minute long film, there were moments that were difficult to enjoy. Also, perhaps it is just this special edition, but the flash-card dialogue seemed a bit too uplifting for this film. Yes, they were easy to read, yes, the first couple were fun to see, but overall, the choice of these over your typical ones created a missing sense of dread. The dark elements seemed lighter, while the light elements seemed more positive than they should have been. If there were a fault with this film, it would be these small issues. I believe that the KINO edition perhaps does a stronger job with the flash-card issues.
Due to the brevity of this film, I don't want to sound repetitive with the elements that I loved vs. those that I could have done without, so - to wrap this review up - here are two breathtaking, and innovative, scenes from this film that will go down in cinematic infamy. The use of "special effects" to show the insanity of the word "Caligari" thus into a surprising transformation. Unique for its time, it also showed that this film not only was bold visually, but also technically. The second scene that was favored was when our suspected murder walks away with our quintessential damsel in distress. The camera work, the artwork, the way the body looks real, but obviously isn't was planned precisely. These are two strong scenes from an already great film.
Overall, despite my minor setbacks when watching this, I loved "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari". The visuals (again) were stunning, the story was breathtaking, and the originality of everyone involved far surpasses that of which is released today. The closest I could come to would be Terry Gilliam, old Tim Burton, or Fritz Lang (who was originally asked to direct this film). I suggest this to everyone, horror fanatics or not - this is just a great film and a strong piece of cinematic history.
Grade: ***** out of *****
Cabin Fever (2002)
Cabin Fever; or a good reason to just drink beer in the woods
Watching "Cabin Fever" reminded me of the fun one could have while making a horror film. One could argue that modern horror is too detailed, over-produced, under talented, and quintessentially making the same mold over and over merely for cinema dollars. The argument is tired, but true. Made in 2002, and only grossing about 21 million, this was a small blip on everyone's radar. Found randomly on DVD one October at my local video store, "Cabin Fever" was a means to merely scare a gathering of friends, or perhaps just gather some laughs. Little did we realize that this was something stronger than just your average teen-horror flick. Director Eli Roth (speaking pre-"Hostel") knew his horror genre. Being an assistant with David Lynch for many years, he understands that spooky doesn't mean linear, that blood does come in gallon containers and the more obscure the better. "Cabin Fever" proved that with mediocre dialogue, great horror shots, and the fear of the unknown (which was left unknown throughout the film). He tells us the fears, but not his characters – giving us tension with the horror. While "Hostel" seems too mainstream and less Lynch-ian for my standards, "Cabin Fever" complete with "pancakes", "Denis", the box, and the fear of this backwoods community, is that diamond in the rough. This singular film demonstrated the power behind Roth, and his missed opportunity for films to come.
There is no arguing that this is an amateur film. The edits are rough, the story is haphazard, and the characters are bland, but what is impressive is the passion behind the camera. The flux of different genres blended together proves that Roth had done his homework, that he loves horror, and wasn't afraid of taking chances. He created a horror film without giving us a monster, the choice of a faceless virus wreaking havoc onto a group of unsuspecting teens was bold, but worked perfectly. Fear was created within the unknown, or more importantly, from what we knew but our characters did not. Cliché to the hilt, our leaders in this rag-tag group of C-actors (of which our leader is the boy from "Boy Meets World") try to break the mold, but nothing spectacular comes of it. This, oddly, works for "Cabin Fever" because the core of the film doesn't need popular faces, but instead a stark need for bleak realism. As horror watchers, we know that the outcome for those with cliché lines is not positive, so Roth plays with that. He builds non-existent characters to run around screaming, while we scream back. "Go out of the woods" – "Get in the cabin" – "Don't stare at the naked woman" – "Get help!" are all things not said within the film, but instead in the audience. Roth pulls you in. Instead of being a mere spectator, "Cabin Fever" asks you to be involved.
Two big scenes (amongst many) stand out as reasons to watch this film. Whether you are a horror fan or not, these two speak volumes of what Roth learned from Lynch when working together. The first is Dennis. The child at the store that has a fascination with biting people that sit next to him, who loves pancakes, and equally enjoys karate moves – was one of those moments that proved Roth's loyalty to the trade. The slow motion karate reminded me of "Twin Peaks" and the music that accompanied added to that feel. The entire station was pulled from a Lynch world, and I would have considered this theft if the two hadn't worked together. Instead, it felt more like a homage, a brief "thank you" to Roth's mentor. With that said, the second scene that speaks volumes of Roth's talent is something that he has carried with him throughout his "Hostel" years. The unknown. Without spoiling anything, when our group of gun-toting locals arrive to the cabin, two have guns while one merely carries a box. When two fall shy of their goals, the other merely attempts to open a box as his form of defense. What was in that box? What could have protected him? This is the unknown makes "Cabin Fever" stand out stronger than others of this genre released at the same time. Sure, it's small – but the effect and conversation that follows with your peers is sublime.
Again, "Cabin Fever" wasn't the bee's knees of horror films, but unlike Roth's future endeavors it demonstrated his ability to take a small idea and blossom it into true fear. Many will probably not enjoy this film, seeing "Hostel" as his penultimate work, this will seem lackluster – but for those nay-sayers against his torture-porn, this is a throwback to a stronger era of horror movie-making. One part David Lynch, one part "Wrong Turn", and one part "The Stand" (that's a lot of parts) – Roth proves that he can handle a camera, a story, and a crew whilst scaring us, grossing us out, and creating a world within a world.
Overall, I am not afraid to say that I like "Cabin Fever". When I first saw it I was impressed by what little I understood and what Roth spoon-fed me. I thought he was a director to watch, and I still think he has quite a bit of potential, but to be remembered merely for "Hostel" just doesn't cut it. "Cabin Fever" is a great entry into the world of horror, creating genuine scares and following a predesigned structure (not a bad thing for this film) – he uses his own techniques to tell his story. "Cabin Fever" remains a strong entry into the world of horror. If you are new to Roth, I say start here – if you are disappointed with his future work – go back and see this again. You will not be disappointed.
Grade: **** out of *****
Cabaret; or how to wave goodbye at emotionless friends
"Cabaret" boasted big songs, big ideas, and big actors
yet it felt long, dull, and convoluted to say the least. Edging on the historical, but focusing mainly on a squabble of young love, the muddled themes of originality, independence, and sexual revolution seemed to take backstage for overacting, choppy editing, and a twisty story that begs for more but desires nothing. In the Oscar world of "The Godfather" vs. "Cabaret", the obvious winner is Coppola's film – but how did "Cabaret" even get in the running? As it took me nearly three viewings to conquer this behemoth, one has to question the 1972 value, and whether this musical stands up next to the others nearly 40 years later. In this reviewer's opinion, it is an obvious "no", but arguments will apparently follow.
If discussing this film around the cinematic water cooler, there would be no doubt Joel Grey would be discussed. His portrayal, as small as it was, as the infamous Master of Ceremonies has yet to be repeated in any film to date. In various moments "Cabaret" felt like it was directed by Terry Gilliam, complete with the flash and darkness subsequent in his features. Joel Grey brought it to the table, and will forever be a frightening, yet influential image in my mind. He made the nearly 2-hours redeemable. The excitement in his swagger coupled with his level of pizazz completely overshadowed his co-star Minnelli whenever the two shared the screen. His performance alone, the transformation itself, is what made "Cabaret" worth a view. It was he and Minnelli's duet of "Money Makes the World Go Round" that saved this film from utter obliteration. It was reminiscent of a modern day "Moulin Rouge", but it was the surrounding story – without surrounding characters – that caused the pain known as "Cabaret". One must also applaud Bob Fosse for his direction, for without him, these dark scene filmed with Grey would have just been as bland as the story. Fosse took this flimsy story of three characters that we are emotionally void for, and pulled in some great song and dance numbers to buffer the pain that was sure to follow. His work on "Lenny" was outstanding, and while this didn't speak as greatly, you could see his influences on the script and final edit.
To bookend the positive, one must also ask "Where did 'Cabaret' fail?" Without wasting pages of words, "Cabaret" failed because of the sloppy editing, the poorly developed historical slant, and due to the massive disappointment from the actors. This could have been a memorable song-and-dance rooted with historical symbolism-esquire film, but instead fell flat thanks mainly to the horrible nature of Liza Minnelli. Her flat voice matched well with her disassociated character, which carried no emotion, flaunted no values, yet tried to win our heart. She sang decently, but I just couldn't stand behind her as a central focus. Her entire relationship with Michael York is flippant. Does she love him? Does she love money? What is her true background? What does she want from life? Mix these unanswered questions with the uncomfortable hint of sexuality between York and Minnelli, and you have nearly 90% of this movie. From Minnelli's undefined character, to the passive aggressive York duel-jobbing as both language educator and African safari supporter, there just isn't a character you can stand behind. As we get close to the middle of the film, our writer seems to realize this and the extremely vague Maximilian is introduced as a man who enjoys the company of both Minnelli and York. For "Cabaret" to work, there needed stronger characters for us to follow – ones that were defined, yet complex, not just jumping from emotion to emotion. How did Minnelli win an Oscar for this mess?
Outside the of intermittent use of Grey, our writer - Jay Presson Allen – tried to incorporate what was happening in Germany at the time with the Nazi movement, with the chaos of a cabaret show. In theory, this would be a great idea – but it failed because of again, the lack of focus with our characters. In one scene we are troubled by York's disagreement with one of Minnelli's haphazard choices (a big decision that was diminished by choice) and in the next, we are dissecting the idea of a German Jew. It just didn't flow well together. In another scene, we are forced to listen to a young Nazi soldier sing a ballad that evokes singing from everyone – and our characters just drive away. For me, to best summarize this film would be one of the final scenes between York and Minnelli as she takes him to the train station. She leaves by merely waving her hand, demonstrating her care for the characters and ours as well. When this film was over, I took it out of my player, walked away waving unemotionally. "Cabaret" failed because there was nothing for the audience to hold onto. When the breakout actor was someone that didn't speak but merely sang that should speak about how the film as a whole turned out.
Overall, both with presentation and delivery, "Cabaret" failed. Minnelli's acting and eyes told a different story, and portrayed a character that just didn't fit for a feature film. What was attempted as original just felt stale after the first several scenes. Fosse's direction and Grey's performance are the only two saving qualities of this film, as the flakey York does his best as a love interest. The dual sexual roles are just too abashing for both the actors and the viewers. I was eager to witness this film, but nearly 40 years later, this film has not held up. Bravo to small part and big directors, "boo" to those that think Minnelli can carry her weight as an Oscar winning actress.
** Waves eagerly as you leave this review **
Grade: * ½ out of *****
Lady and the Tramp (1955)
Lady and the Tramp; or the battle between freedom and family?
The Disney factory (using the word factory is an accurate representation) has been creating childhood favorites since the early 30s – and continue to push the boundaries of animation for children today with partnering with the hugely popular PIXAR as well as their most recent outing, "The Princess and the Frog". There is no child growing up today that doesn't know the name Mickey Mouse in some form or another – and that is an impressive feat for any studio. With that said, Disney's normal focus is animating classic fairy tales like "Pinocchio" or "Cinderella" or "Snow White", but sometimes they take a classic tale and rework it using common household animals. That is the case with "Lady and the Tramp"; my first Disney animated film to review. It is the infamous tale of young rapscallion winning the heart of a wealthy woman, but now instead of people – we have dogs. Made in 1955, this was probably another groundbreaking work for Disney, but watching it now in 2010, it has the feeling of being rushed, underdeveloped, and weak on story. So, I ask again – could Disney have created a film that was merely "mediocre"?
We begin with Lady being given to Darling as a gift one Christmas. She is an obnoxious puppy who desires the attention of her owners. Through years of gift giving and love, she finds comfort in the normality of their life. This is all about to change as our nuclear family decides to add another bundle of joy to the mix. With skepticism abound, Lady learns to love the changes and the new family. It is about this time that Tramp enters the picture. Representing the care-free, baby-less, lifestyle of living without a collar, he demonstrates the power of a small community, but also shows us (the viewers) the darkness surrounding this town. On the run from both the Pound and a sordid past, he eventually runs into Lady and one could say, " it was love at first sight ". As Darling and Jim Dear embark on a trip, an unknown relative comes to stay with two typecast Siamese cats. Songs, chases, and rats round out this story, that goes from light to bleak to dark again as Disney creates this seemingly dystopian world for the child audience.
I am aware that we all know the story, but the recap was needed to show a point about Disney's use of class and status in this film. As a casual viewer, many will argue that this is just a children's film – leave it be, but these are the images surrounding our children. Lady comes from an upper class family, with no worry of consequence; she and her friends go through the day oblivious to the world around them. Tramp, coming from the other side of the tracks (literally) represents the middle-to-lower class people. He finds friendship in the shop owners and transients of this town. What impressed me about this film was how dark and ill-created the lower part of town was, and Disney isn't afraid to show it. The dirt roads, the black (or darkened) buildings, the fact that a storm arrives just as they head to town; it is night whenever Lady is away from her house. Let's not forget as well, the rat comes out of a hole with a poster for the circus right above. This demonstrates another transient profession that is somehow darkened by this film. The stark use of light and dark in this film is used not only for tone, but also a world outside of the white picket fences and collars.
What is the impression handed to children with this imagery? If you want children or the house with the white picket fence, or safety – you need to be like Lady. While if you want to see the world, experience life without a collar, one would need to live like Tramp. What makes this reality odd is Tramp's choice? To see this point clearer, look at Tramp's "friends". Where are they at the end of the film? Nobody comes to visit, they could be dead (Disney handed us that bleak image near the middle of the film), while the entire time they are speaking of him as a saint and great friend. Nobody came to bail Pedro, Toughy, or Peg out. Was this the happy ending we all wanted?
With the undertones exposed, how was the remainder of the film? While it carried some iconic images, the overall pacing of the film was a bit sloppy. As this is a story with two sets of eyes, we are never quite given a full story on either. Lady's story is further developed, while Tramp just seems to be inserted for merely the "cause and effect" storyline. The voice work was decent in this film. The 76-minute run seemed nothing like a sprint. I think it was because I cared nothing for these dogs. They were beautifully drawn, but more development was needed. The "evil" rat was introduced twice, and represented the darkness creeping into suburbia, but it just wasn't enough to pull Lady and the Tramp together. What did Lady really want in life? My ending question – why was she denied it?
Overall, this wasn't a bad Disney movie; it just wasn't one of the greatest. I felt the symbolism was overbearing as well as the choices made to be a bit misleading for children. The characters of Lady and Tramp seemed one dimensional at times, lacking in the ability to pull me back into a second viewing. The songs were low-key and outside of the Siamese cats' duet, forgotten.
Grade: *** out of *****
The Ladykillers (1955)
The Ladykillers; or how to waste an actor's talent...
Sir Alec Guinness. Young Peter Sellers. An Oscar-nominated screenplay by William Rose. An old British woman who foils them all. With all of these factors racing towards the finish line, one could imagine the hilarity that was to follow. Alas, after the first twenty minutes, it seemed to all come to a screeching halt. Yes, there were comic moments, genius creativity, and excitement in the air, but as a whole, "The Ladykillers" was more a hodgepodge of could-be-great ideas mixed together with poor execution and a misuse of the actors' ability on-screen than a laugh-out-loud comedy. Yes, this was a "dark" comedy, and the ending solidifies that idea, but what was lacking within the story was the actual comedy itself. With such actors like Guinness, or Peter Sellers, or Danny Green; director Alexander MacKendrick had loads of opportunity to transform this film into a cult classic, to unleash the potential hidden within his players. Too bad he missed the opportunity. With a intriguing story, a fun old lady, and a misused cast, "The Ladykillers" may have been bold for the time, but today it just felt stale, slow, and misplaced. How could a film with so much potential fall so flat?
Our story begins promising; with a little old lady (Ms. Lopsided) talking to the police about how there weren't aliens in her friend's garden. As she travels home a looming figure follows her. MacKendrick does a great job of creating early tension, this unknown of who is going to arrive at the door or what the motives may be. As Guinness rings the bell, the shadow is revealed to have large fake teeth and a comb-over. This random act of costume design demonstrates the ability of comedy on both the part of the actor and the director. As Guinness swoops into his charming devilish self, the dynamic between him and the old lady becomes the crux of this film. MacKendrick must realize that the two have chemistry (or that the two were the obvious focus of the film) because he focuses his entire remainder of the film on these two alone, oddly leaving everyone else in the wake of unknown. As we are introduced to the rest of the string quartet, as audience members, we have hope that these actors will provide us with genuine laughs. Perhaps some comedic parody or defined character humor, but there is none. Sellers is left with a cardboard character worthy of mere facial expressions and overblown acting. He is wasted because MacKendrick is too focused on Guinness. The same can be said for everyone else in the background the focuses more on cliché than on actual substantial characters. Major Courtney, One Round, Harry, and Louis are lost within the scene, leaving the audience to care nothing for them, giving us a less-involved ending.
With our major actors in no position to lead, we are left with a story that remains the excitement of this film. The heist scene alone is worth watching this movie for 90ish minutes. To have early scenes (and scenes after) carry the same theme song throughout, but then have no music at all during the heist – only enhanced the experience. Again, MacKendrick had to have known that he had a great script, I just wish he could have managed his actors a bit more. The choreography for the heist, as well as the cinematography, was pure caper. It was executed as well as any Michael Mann film could have dreamed. Everything from the actual robbery all the way until Mrs. Lopsided's role in the scheme was introduced was finely tuned. Even the escape, which kept me on my toes, seemed well developed and enjoyable – but then again, we seemed to come to another hodgepodge thematic and tone downfall. The introduction of the other old ladies was fun, but after that – when the group begins to implode, it just doesn't feel right. I was ready for the dark comedy, but there are always two parts to this – both the darkness and the comedy – and "The Ladykillers" was lacking in the latter.
So, the mix of bad characters with substantial plot really made this should-have-been great film into just another decent 50s British film. If MacKendrick would have focused a bit more on the actors' abilities than I think he would have had a solid film, but without it – it just felt disjoined, poorly edited, and a splattering of good points with bad. Overall, just a mediocre film.
Overall, I just wasn't as impressed as I wanted to be. It began with quite a bit of excitement and creativity, but by the end I just wanted it to be over. I wanted to get to know the other characters more; I wanted to see them evolve like I did the story. I had high hopes for Sellers, whom is merely a background character – demonstrating none of his ability. Guinness does shine, but he cannot carry this entire film. The old lady made me laugh, and while the reimagine is no better, I can see why the Cohen's wanted to remake their version. That final scene with the old lady was phenomenal, but why couldn't the rest of the film follow suit. Decent – but nothing worth keeping or watching again or again.
Grade: *** out of *****
The Lady Vanishes (1938)
What else rhymes with "JOY"?
"The Lady Vanishes" demonstrated that even with a small budget, a relative unknown cast, and a strong macguffin; that no special effects were needed. Money is not the solve-all for Hollywood. As films are released today, big effects and big budgets, nothing can compete with the power of a strong story. Hitchcock was aware of this, and thus, "The Lady Vanishes" was born. Criterion has included it, with a plethora of special features, in their growing collection, and for me – it stays as one of my favorite films of all time. Like a jigsaw puzzle, Hitch gives you only small piece by small piece, not even telling you which lady is going to "vanish", and with each viewing – the suspense grows deeper and stronger. As with most Hitchcock, it is not just about what happens in front of the screen (the introduction of the characters, the scenery, the time), but also what happens behind. It is this discovery which allows future viewings of "The Lady Vanishes" and proves Hitch's cinematic worth.
As I sat down to write this review, draft after draft was tossed out because I wasn't sure what to discuss on a film that has been dissected by some of the biggest film critics (Geoffrey O'Brien, Charles Barr, Robin Barr) and discussed by another great film maestro, François Truffaut. What could I say that hadn't been said before (also ranked #235 of the Internet Movie Database's Top 250 Films), so why not pick three scenes and discuss why they impacted my decision to name this one of my top 10 favorites a tough list to be on – especially today. So, here are the three moments in "The Lady Vanishes" that confirmed its honorarium in the Criterion collection as well as the accolades that Hitch has received for this body of work alone.
The first scene has to be the brief introduction of our characters in the small inn. Upon first viewing, there was no indication which of the multiple ladies would not be the one "vanishing", nor was there any direct way of knowing how these groups of different individuals would eventually come together on one train. Just sitting there, waiting for the avalanche to be cleared, we see adulterers, comedians, cricketers, wealthy Americans, musicians, and a little old lady who would eventually be at the crux of all this madness. It is this unknown upon first viewing, the sweetness with the second viewing, and the complexity of the third viewing that makes this nearly opening scene one that cannot be shaken from the mind. Hitch presents you with the early "who" of the film, but without that sense of direction, the darkness allows your mind to discover all possibilities, no matter how many times you watch it. Exactly how many were involved with the plot? Who knows, and that my friends, is only half the fun.
The second scene that stood out in this film was the cult window scene. Without indulging in spoilers, early in the film the window dirt is used as merely a greeting, and later as a divergence from madness. It is during the scene where the name is revealed a second time that always sends tension through my veins. The word in question is just staring at you within the scene, it evokes the need to scream from your couch to look up, to see what we all see, like Hitch is toying with his audience – to say that the beautiful Margaret Lockwood's sanity may not be in question. With merely one word, Hitch has created audience involvement, a level of excitement, and tension beyond belief. It is as if he is flaunting it. It is an iconic scene, but also one of those that speaks for itself. This dirty "word" proved that with a small budget (and no special effects) that you could pull your audiences in deeper. I would challenge any modern film to do the same, alas; I don't think they would have the same result.
Finally, the remaining scene that makes this film more than just print through a projector is actually not a scene at all, but Hitch's involvement of music into this entire film. Yep, it is a broad (and perhaps cheat) third scene, but from the beginning opening scenes a certain tune is flaunted in front of us as maybe just a mere theme music, but as the film continues we learn it is much, much more. Like the name on the window, the missing woman, the confused passengers, the music has a double meaning. It not only represents the mood of the film, but it also sends another message. What is that? Oh, I'm not telling, but Hitch smartly includes it whenever possible. Listen to the scenes, each one, there is a hint of this music throughout – almost including you within the overall story. "The Lady Vanishes" is not just a movie to watch, but also one that should be listened to. The score (if it can be called that) carries nearly more meaning than the characters. That, again, is the power of Alfred Hitchcock.
If you haven't guessed, I love "The Lady Vanishes" not just because it is a great film, but because it best represents Hitchcock's work. There is something for everyone, young audiences and mature cineophiles alike. The characters, the sound, the visuals all blend together to make a phenomenal cinematic journey. Every detail within "The Lady Vanishes" is important – and this is a film that should be watched – again, and again, and again. Impressive.
Grade: ***** out of *****
The Lady from Shanghai (1947)
Advice: Be prepared when talking to a blonde in the park...
Orson Welles has done it again. For $50,000 and a promise to Columbia to direct a book with a different title, he was able to save the costumes for his "Around the World in 80 Days" theater performance as well as give us another butchered masterpiece. Being a relative "newbie" to Welles, one always argues that "Citizen Kane" remains his magnum opus, but after watching "The Magnificent Ambersons" (a stronger, more genuine film) and now, "The Lady from Shanghai", the argument seems a bit too one-sided. Welles is a powerful director, a decent actor, and a detailed storyteller; one doesn't need to argue that all day. Yet, it is impressive that he is known only as a one-film man, when everything else watched has continued to get stronger and stronger. "Magnificent Ambersons" proved that he could tackle the family drama as well as a social commentary on the wealthy, and with "Shanghai" he proves that he can transform a movie star from pin-up girl to sadistic lover. Part noir, part travelogue, part confusion, "Shanghai" was an experience all within itself. Harry Cohen, head of Columbia, has stated that if anyone could tell him what this film was about, he would pay $1000. That speaks volumes about the ability that Welles had to construct an intelligent, gripping noir. "Shanghai" is about love, it is about revenge, is about mirrors, and it is about the law – all brought together in a way only Orson Welles could do it.
Originally two and a half hours, the version viewed was under 90-minutes, meaning quite a bit of Welles vision was lost in the editing room. One even hears stories that his original score was cut and replaced with cartoon music and constant repetition of the theme song. It would be hard to imagine what Welles' original vision would have produced, but even with his missing elements – "Shanghai" proves thought-provoking, entertaining, and downright diabolical. It begins with two actors, Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles, together in a park, learning that even the most beautiful women come with baggage and history. From the very bizarre car park sequence, we soon get the impression that this isn't going to be your normal film. Welles pulls you in with the unknown, and unique characters. His portrayal of Michael O'Hara is possibly the weakest element to this film, as his accent fades in and out of existence with each scene. Welles is good as an actor, but adding the Irish element to his voice diminished the ability to truly believe who he was meant to be. On the other hand, Rita Hayworth was phenomenal. Her transformation in this film could be likened to a modern day Theron's "Monster" or Swank's "Boys Don't Cry", shedding her long red hair for a short platinum look. She was not only impressive physically, but as mysterious as noir women come. From the opening scene, she is always someone she is not – and when Glenn Anders looks at her from his binoculars several scenes later – it is as if Welles is saying, we all need to be watching her. Up until the final moments, we don't know where her loyalties remain, and that speaks value of both the director and the actor.
With Hayworth giving her best, Welles taking strides behind the camera (not quite in front of), the other one to watch is Everett Sloane, who plays the handicapped Arthur Bannister. Welles gives Sloane this meaty character who drinks, worries, plans, and is the best lawyer in town – yet has this crippling physical attribute which creates this darker, more diabolical character. Sloane was my favorite character in this film, because, like Hayworth, we were never quite sure what his next play was, or who he was doing this all for. With "Shanghai" Welles has crafted this amazing noir that keeps you guessing from beginning to end, impressively shot, and delivers an ending that remains a cult favorite – attempted to be recreated time and time again, but always lacks that panache only Welles could film.
This is a character driven film, and despite my flimsy nature on Welles the actor, the other background characters have enough heart to carry what he lacks. The power of Hayworth, Sloane, and Anders alone is worth watching. Who are these guys? How did they choose O'Hara? Why be so elaborate? The twist and turns continue to come, and "Shanghai" has that repeatable feel that your DVD player will love. I cannot wait to rewatch this film and see what was missed. There had to be more clues, something in the background that the virgin eye would miss. This was noir at, well, maybe its best looking, but well represented.
Thank you Mr. Welles for continuing to impress me with each passing film.
Grade: ***** out of *****
Young Lady Chatterley II (1985)
You have just been Adam West-ed
Nearly a month later, it is done. What began as a simple five films to watch, suddenly turned into a month long disaster, with the penultimate cinematic "triumph" arriving (and ending) with the uber-classy "Young Lady Chatterley II". For those unfamiliar with this series, it centers on the exploits of a young American whom has newly discovered that she is the heir to the infamous Chatterley estate. The first film sets the groundwork, or perhaps she does all the grounds people, but none the less – Young Lady Chatterley (youngly played by Harlee McBride) discovers her inner urges and never looks back. This second film, which doesn't stray too far from the original's course, Chatterley is bombarded with new issues, disastrous sex, and a comedic Adam West. Will the Chatterley estate become a nuclear power plant by evil developers? Will West discover a historical nude ride that took place on her grounds? Will she ever have naked time with the gardener? Answer all of these questions AND throw in a priest for good luck, and you are just barely scratching the surface of this film. Does this self proclaimed sequel live up to the lackluster excitement of the original? This is a question to be answered by all those who watched Cinemax after midnight
or for those eager enough to continue reading.
Hesitancy was in the air when this film arrived; an import from another land and the disappointment of the original; this was not a film one could get excited about. The original tried to prove that lush scenery would already enhance the draw to an erotica film, and without worrying about plot, they poured the "classic" scenes on hot and heavy. But, "Young Lady Chatterley" needed the plot to survive, due to the surprising inability for Harlee McBride to carry a scene. Yet, in this sequel, she seems to have acquired a bit more talent (not to mention, being a bit more top-heavy) and the surrounding plots (as cheesy as they are) actually strengthens this sequel. "Young Lady Chatterley II" is not a tour de force of cinema, but in comparison to the original, this one stands prouder. The story is the initial keeper. With the addition of the hilarious Adam West (who gets to throw in a "Batman" reference just for fun) and the evil developers who want nuclear power – it helps to keep this film's flow intact. Keeping in mind that Chatterley still continues to be with any man that moves, it is what surrounds the frame – the path from A to B – that makes this more than just an erotic film.
Surprisingly directed by the same Alan Roberts that brought us the first film, he seems to have grown as well (no pun intended). His editing was much stronger in this film as well as the fuller-wide shots and actual background seemed to be stepped up with more dedication to the story. While some will argue that this is not quite a sequel, but instead a fresh retelling of the original "Young Lady Chatterley", for this reviewer it felt more like a sequel. Nobody returned except for McBride (even the gardener – Peter Ratray – must have requested more money) and that is alright. McBride seems more comfortable in the already flimsy role, and that works. Her strength makes us ignore her tantalizing scenes and focus on what is happening around her. We learn more about her character – by going to her past – which again, strengthens the plot; leading back to my earlier discussion.
This is not a great film. Don't get me wrong. My excitement for this film being stronger than the original comes from some of the issues I griped about earlier being answered – but it is not a film that needs to be watched again and again. Adam West (a point to directors, if you don't think your film is funny enough or needs that cult stamp, throw in an Adam West and it jumps up several notches on the "great" scale) was a trip. He had no real character, he kept looking into the camera, and he never was nude, but his lines were the most memorable out of the bunch. Despite the West appearance, it still isn't cinema. This entire series could have been a cult staple, perhaps like the "Emmanuel" series, but instead flopped due to lack of everything except erotica.
Overall, I cannot suggest this film at all. While there were improvements, the overall completion of this series didn't make me want to go back and start again. For me, it rests on Harlee McBride who is a terrible lead. She cannot seem to control any of the scenes that she is in, and quintessentially always leads with her top. Not surprisingly, the only excitement with this film is Adam West. For those fans of his, this needs to be watched.
Grade: * 1/2 out of *****
The Year My Voice Broke (1987)
Should be an instant addition to the Criterion collection
"The Year My Voice Broke" is one of those unknown, quintessential diamond-in-the-rough films that can't seem to find its way into the DVD market, but breaths Criterion throughout the entire viewing. The daring, honest, and descriptive story of a young boy, his love for this older girl, and the tribulations of growing up in a small town are merely scratching the surface to what this film has to offer. It speaks, and pays homage, to those classic films from the late 40s, early 50s by creating a town with character, mythology, and individuality. One could argue that the town in which this film takes place is our fourth character, behind Danny, Freya, and Trevor – but perhaps this enthusiast is getting ahead of himself. Watching this import on a used VHS, the picture was grainy, the player made noise, and the sound was utterly destructive – yet the heart of this film oozed from the screen. The power of the characters, the detail of our story, and the truth in director/screenwriter John Duigan's words went from having meaning in a 1987 film (that was supposed to take place in 1962) to creating a story that didn't feel dated or old watching it today, at the end of 2009. That is the legacy of "The Year My Voice Broke", the raw emotion harassed in this film continues to be relevant today – perhaps even more. As Hollywood uses every CGI possible to recreate the same effect, all one needs to do is look back at films that used the old-fashioned method
great actors, a daring script, and a background that could knock your socks off.
To applaud this film, one would need to pat the back of a very young, a very talented, Noah Taylor. Taking on not just an awkward role, he needed to show his anger, his teenage frustration, as well as his headiness for brains instead of brawn. Noah Taylor, known to me as Technical Support in "Vanilla Sky", succeeded gracefully and with the power of most of our top paid American stars. His ability to show us his unconditional love for Freya, his quizzical hatred for Trevor, as well as his sleuthing skills proved that this kid was ready for anything. His co-workers inhabiting each scene worked with his dynamic and equally pushed their talents. Freya, played by Loene Coleman, a newbie to the screen, was enchanting as the love interest. While she wasn't quite the level of Mr. Taylor, her ability to carry her scenes worked. She was the classical bad-girl-next-door with secrets. Her chemistry with Taylor kept me glued to the screen. The same can be said for Trevor, played by Ben Mendelsohn, who's diabolical, nearly irritating, laugh created a character all his own. As the wildcard, we never knew what he was going to do next, and both our characters and our audience were scared of that. To demonstrate the intensity of these actors, watch closely the scene in which they spend the night in the "haunted" house near the railroad tracks. Each one has a motive, each actor/character delivers their emotion, and with each line the scene gets more and more powerful. I wasn't expecting this with children so young.
With these three dominate characters; one may ask what else would be needed for an independent film to succeed? One more, the town. As mentioned before, the town that these three (and many others) reside is reminiscent of our American "Bedford Falls". There are residents that have been their all their lives and secrets many of them keep to protect their town. Throughout the film, our characters are continually building their moments via smaller lives within the town. We learn about Danny's passion for the black arts, that Trevor knows the police firsthand, and that Freya's unknown secret keeps the town at bay. Without the closeness of this town, "The Year My Voice Broke" wouldn't have worked. If filmed in a bigger city, the intimate feeling of a protective yet destructive town would have floundered. The town drunk would have been less poignant, Danny's dad's role would have felt less personal, and the idea of home being safe would have felt less comforting. The town had to be a character in this film. Duigan knew it, developed it, and built it strongly into his film.
This was a character driven film. Without Noah Taylor, Loene Coleman, or Ben Mendelsohn, this film would have failed. It is hard to imagine anyone else being able to carry these characters, or that an American reality would pack as much of a punch. It was impressive to see Australia in 1962, a place we don't explore in cinema enough over past centuries. Director Duigan, if I haven't already drooled over him enough, understood this film, wrote a genuine story, and built a cinematic triumph. Alas, this film has been forgotten, but look closely at the cinematography, the lavish landscapes, the devotion of our characters, the above mentioned town – these all could not have been accomplished without a passionate eye. I applaud Duigan for his talent and ability to transform this 1980s film into a universally emotional and exciting moment of cinema.
Overall, I have said enough. I loved this movie. It was detailed, emotional, and beautiful. Everyone, from director to actors performed superbly. It was a rough couple of prior films, but "The Year My Voice Broke" provided that classic niche. It felt fresh and new, despite the age. I recommend this to everyone. Buy a VHS player and get a copy of this movie, you will not be disappointed.
Grade: **** 1/2 out of *****
Young Lady Chatterley (1977)
When did a lush background replace a decent plot?
The world of cinema does come in threes. For the past two weeks, films have come through my viewing palettes that have befouled my overall excitement for cinema. In a standard rut, one hopes that these final two films will prove otherwise, but keeping my fingers crossed will not be helpful. From nurses in love and an Americanized Harvey Keitel, nothing could have prepared me for the upcoming triumph known as "Young Lady Chatterley". Tagged as the first "X-rated movie to touch you where it counts
your heart", one pleads with the DVD box to please allow some semblance of a story to push through the "romps" on the grass, but alas, my voice went unheard. This entry into the world of D.H. Lawrence's classic story proves that the naughty bits do make a film, and the late 70s were not afraid to experiment. With lush backgrounds, deepened British accents, and the downtrodden theme of finding an unbridled love free of boredom, "Young Lady Chatterley" attempts to mask the honesty that it is a softcore erotica film. It attempts to say that with these other elements thrown into the mix, we are not just your normal late-night darkened viewing, but instead something of some class and/or cult standing. As a reviewer of this film, one must look at both elements to examine if this film accomplished what it set out to do. How was production value? Was there a determined story? How were our characters? Because it is softcore erotica, should it not be placed within these same rules? While others will argue "no", "Young Lady Chatterley" is a film, and how does it rank among other films of this nature? Not to disappoint, but poorly.
Classical England would ask, "Doth a scenery make strong erotica?" While it seems the general reviewer of this film would agree, I had trouble seeing the production value or lush scenery in "Young Lady Chatterley". There wasn't anything that stood out, minimal sweeping wide shots, over-lighting throughout, and that soft camera filter that made the 70s what they are today were staples within this film. If anything, they were overused to the point of obscuring the actor's work. Leaning further towards the notion of softcore cinema than actual plot-induced cinema, we can look at our actors, to see what their production value was within this 1977 classic. Harlee McBride, our lead and lady-in-waiting, begins bored, with both life and obviously this role, but as soon as she steps on our twice-removed-once-loved-Chatterley estate, the love and life begin to pour out of her - literally! With everyone imaginable, she shares herself and takes into form an unrecognizable character. Was she married to Phillip? Was she just engaged? How did it go from Phillip to every person at the estate? The transition, like her character, just didn't fit. She lacked that sexual manipulation that was needed to make this film into something more than just the overabundance of love. There was no change in her or her character, we were handed nothing to begin with - and just expected to believe everything that occurred. Poor direction by Alan Roberts lead to disinterested characters. Not only with Harlee McBride, but also with everyone else. The burly young gardener, the maids, the obviously oblique servants, everyone invited to the finale cake party - just seemed disjointed from the rest of the film.
With no strong characters, a plot that left nothing to the imagination or hope, there really was nothing left of "Young Lady Chatterley". In fact, I am rather surprised that the Lawrence estate allowed the name to be used for this film. What did stand out, as the only creativity within a mile, was the surrounding story of the first Lady Chatterley and her first run in with the gardener. The character depth, the excitement of young love, and the passion that could not be surprisingly were all there for these brief sub-scenes. The connection between the original lovers vs. that of the new "Young" version, was surprisingly different. The first had purpose and meaning, while the other was just softcore dribble. The conversations between the first Lady Chatterley and the gardener seemed responsive and open for discussion, giving at least one purpose to this film - while the rest, well, was utterly disappointing.
Overall, another milestone has been hit. The third bad film in a row provides me with an opportunity to watch my first adult classic, but let's me down entirely. The sub-stories was creative, but the rest of the film was meant for one sole purpose. "Young Lady Chatterley" may have been pioneering for the time, but over the decades, it has just been forgotten and replaced. There is a way to create a story like this and actually be artistic, but it was ignored in this film. This wasn't a cult classic, it was just cinematic garbage. The story didn't work, our characters were merely naked, and no development to anything was created. While others boast the lush scenery as being a positive mark on this film, it just wasted time. The soft-lens treatment of this film blurred away anything interesting from this film, and delivering another cinematic flop.
Grade: * 1/2 out of *****
Young Nurses in Love (1987)
Get your malpractice insurance ready...
In the attempt to watch every movie ever made there will always be those speed bumps. During the attempt, they could arrive in any shape, genre, or format of film. One must always keep a strong eye out for those that may cause a snag, or a possible distrust in cinema, but you can't catch them all. Occasionally, these films will fly well below the radar and deep within your homes. They may create a souring taste for cinema, but continue forward
remember, there is always a light at the end of the theater. Twice, in nearly a week, different films have been viewed, randomly, which caused a slight disgust. The first was the previously reviewed, utterly chaotic "The Young Americans" with Harvey Keitel – now, three days later, it is the low-budget direct to VHS cinematic exploit, "Young Nurses in Love". A combination of "Grey's Anatomy" (sans the medicine and overplayed music) and about a baker's dozen shots of espresso, "YNiL" begins with the gumption of any 80s sex-romp, full of Cold War innuendo and half-dressed nurses, all the while never slowing down, never asking for forgiveness, and never requiring any part of the mind. It a film that is unknowingly intense due to the amount of jokes, characters, and frivolous story attempted to be packed into a mere 90-ish minutes. It is also a film that is excessively frugal with its budget, allowing our nurses' humor to fall flat, be overwhelmingly repetitive, and never quite reaching the level of comic gold. With independent features like this, a viewer could be guaranteed one crass joke or impressive scene of genius, with "YNiL", it never approached the thought. Sure, it was crass, it was vigorous, it was completely out there – but it was a parody, and it was in that idea that this entire film faltered.
"Young Nurses in Love" felt like a knock-off Troma film, without the Lloyd Kaufman touch. It had a raunchy plot; steal the livelihood of famous dead people so that the Russians can overtake the US of A. Agents from both sides are placed in a hospital where the nurses care more about the wealth of the doctor than the actual practice of medicine and the doctors are riddled with clichés from being drunk to providing false diagnosis. The remainder of the plot falls quickly into place, a storyline that we have seen over a dozen times in multiple films, the two agents *gasp* fall for each other. Introduce to the plot very angry and unsatisfied side-characters, and you basically have the entire film "YNiL". As mentioned before, the immediate script is quite simple and could have provided a laugh or two, but due to the hyper nature of our characters and the inability for anyone in our cast to deliver a joke, it just fell short. This wasn't a film with high expectations, but there was a hope for at least one gold nugget or two of genuine comedy, alas – it was never found. The two main characters, Alan Fisler and Jeanne Marie are horrible as our love-interest slash spies. They are so focused on making sure they deliver the correct lines that no development is ever produced, no chemistry is even studied, these two actors flop around like fish out of water and we are to consider this a soap-opera medical parody? Add into this mix another cliché take on the mafia and the introduction of Twin Falls, played by the infamous adult-film star Annie Sprinkles. These are all elements that could have worked, making this a cult classic – it had all the robotics to do so – but director Chuck Vincent couldn't pull it together. "Young Nurses in Love" is embarrassing, not only to watch, but for those involved in the creation of this film.
Let's recap. Our story was simple, yet horribly developed. Our characters were amateurs, caring nothing for development only delivery of lines and the fast paced nature of the film corrupted both of these already failing elements. Our music, perhaps the only excitement of this film, was quintessentially 1980s. With bands like Zen for Primates, Buzzard Luck, and Tiger Lily every moment was successfully synthesized, perfectly harmonized, and ironically upbeat. It kept my toes tapping and my nostalgic feel for a decade lost to rock and or roll. Yet, outside of the sound, this film failed. If it were a Troma film, perhaps Lloyd would have pushed it to the next level, but Vincent kept adding, and adding, and adding without any hope of development. I had strong hopes for this film, but none of them came true.
Overall, as if you couldn't already tell, "Young Nurses in Love" provided only the slightest form of entertainment – and that was merely in the sound. Everything surrounding this film was low-budget, which isn't bad if handled better, but the intensity of the script, the lack of development with the characters, and the painful stretch to try to make this into a feature length film just fell short. Chuck Vincent, our director, should have created a strong cultish film with these elements, but he couldn't put the puzzle pieces together. If another production company had handled this, I think we may have had a winner – but instead we had a movie stuck in VHS-land forever. "Young Nurses in Love" also boasts an R-rating, which by 2009 standards, would have been a soft PG-13. There was nothing positive surrounding this film, and it will ultimately disappoint.
Grade: ½ out of *****
The Young Americans (1993)
Old Man Keitel tell the Youth of Britain a good, knee-slapping story
Films, no matter low-budget, high-budget, no-budget need to have one essential element to ensure that the time dedicated to the characters, emotions, and themes is not futile. That, singular strong moment, has to be story. Whether it is a horror film, a sci-fi film, or even a Bergman avant-garde film, there needs to be at least a small strain of story carrying the viewer from point A to point B, if that is missing – the entire structure of the film will collapse. Characters you can ignore, emotion can be faked, and the themes can be murky, but without that central story – your film will ultimately be found in the dollar bin at the nearest retail chop shop. Despite Harvey Keitel, Viggo Mortensen, Thandie Newton, and a slew of British accents – that is why "The Young Americans" failed. Absolutely it was a dark crime noir, a family retribution, and a love story, but the story in "The Young Americans" was so weak, that getting to the different point, the different scenes, felt rushed, unfamiliar, and murky. This jumbled, muddled mess of a film boasts cheapness from every angle, but due to the missing story – "The Young Americans" fails to be anything more than a random Harvey Keitel stumble at the store, or a cheap recommendation because you rented "Reservoir Dogs".
With the sound of raves in the background, the viewer is pulled right into the youth of Britain circa mid-90s. Dance parties, gangs, and late nights plague the screen as groups of genuine unknowns get killed in the night. This should have been an indication of what the remainder of the film would be like, but I trudged onward – and definitely not upward. After the brutal killings, we are swooped into the world of Harvey Keitel, or anti-antagonist (seemingly blending together every cop cliché/genre) John Harris. Brought in to help with a murder, we soon learn that there is a secondary motive in play – something that has to do with a very young, an extremely overacted, Viggo Mortensen. As we jump from one frame to another, one initial drawback are the dark, character building scenes literally, there is the concept of symbolic lighting to set the tone but director Danny Cannon used so much darkness some scenes are blank on the screen. Missing more than a fourth of the film, we are forced to follow an unknown path between Keitel, Mortensen, love-interest Thandie Newton, and relative newbie Craig Kelly. It is his story that transfers the power from Keitel, but is equally as unappetizing. After the death of a family member, Kelly's Christian decides to turn against the crew that did it, becoming a powerful tool for Keitel, but the whos, whats, wheres, whens, and whys are never answered – still giving us nothing but quick scenes, literally teleporting us from point A to point B, without reason or consequence.
As mentioned, the story is the ultimate failure of the film. There were actions made by our characters that did not seem to fit within the realm that Danny Cannon had created, but he continued to push through. Nothing was answered, situations were randomly created, and why was Viggo Mortensen's character so underdeveloped, yet so vital to the story? Who knows. That question became the downtrodden central theme to this film, and a reason why "The Young Americans" will never see success. With our story a clustered mess, how did the rest fair beneath the control of Cannon? Not surprisingly, the British were believable and grounded. The minor characters, perhaps outside of Craig Kelly, felt like real police and the setting (due to extensive British TV watching) felt like Britain 1993, but the influx of the American presence just ruined the rest. Keitel could have been Steven Seagul or JCVD, he was not cunning, nothing brilliant, just an American cop-dislocated and fighting against the shadow of a drug dealer. The entire subplot with his ex-wife was nothing short of embarrassing. Used to build his character, it just felt more like a cheap trick instead of honest emotion. The same can be said with Viggo Mortensen, who with choppy editing by Danny Cannon, never quite developed past the notion of "creepy guy". With a voice that sounded like a Lynch character, an unknown occupation, and a purpose to be in Britain (let's not forget his peculiarity towards young men), Mortensen felt more like a placemat than a villain. On the other side of this film, Newton read her lines well, and Craig Kelly attempted to work around Cannon and David Hilton's catastrophe of a script. It was obvious the actors were found, the script was heavily edited, and the final product was a rushed pile of poorly constructed LEGOs. One flick of your finger, it will all go crumbling down.
Overall, in case it hasn't been noticed, this was an abomination of a film. From the darkly lit scenes (you have to watch to believe how dark this film was), to the atrocious acting, to the story that went nowhere but somehow ended up at the final credits, "The Young Americans" was a direct to video release for a reason. Shot in 38 days, this film felt rushed and incomplete. Mortensen's character is the one I struggle with the most, as the ending leads us to believe that this was supposed to be a different film than the one we began or watched. There were too many wild-cards (see Jack Doyle) that muddled the main story. It is a murky mess that is easily forgotten and should be avoided. Danny Cannon may have given us "CSI" and "Judge Dredd", but this is an incompetent film that will appeal to nobody and fails miserably.
Grade: * out of *****
Chôjikû Yôsai Macross (1982)
Macross; or how to avoid the "Minmay" problem
It has been a long time since an updated review. Here is why. The name of the series, "Super Dimensional Fortress Macross", the year 1982, the unwilling participant - me. Randomly drawn one evening, and eventually finding a copy of this difficult to find complete original series, I first ventured into the first episode nearly a month ago. With nothing under my belt, no knowledge, limited anime experience, I began. It was traumatic, it was intense, it was hated - but eventually, I can successfully say to strangers on the street, I have completed the entire 36-episode original run of "Super Dimensional Fortress Macross". As they run, fear in their eyes, at least I know that this sense of completion is over. Onto more cinema, perhaps more anime, but will my life ever be the same again?
For those unfamiliar with this series, you are not going to get a recap here. The length of this review, and my dedication to the cause will not allow it - but I will leave you with these not-so-random words. Songs. Love Triangle. Roy Focker. Protoculture. Cousin love. Robotech. Death. Rebuilding. Destruction. That get's most of the groundwork out of the way, now a more formal review. "Macross" (to keep it short) is a series well before its time. Despite the ups and downs of the series, the overall sentiment is defining and will continue to propel this series into further cult status. As a non-anime watcher, I was enthralled with the power of the story. The darkened themes, the obvious symbolism to modern culture, and our characters pushed me through each episode. It was emotional and intense as the battle for survival and culture of humanity came into each finely drawn frame. It was visually beautiful, the music was grandiose, and again, the characters did keep your attention - but - "Macross" is not for everyone. I would love to recommend this series to everyone, but the dry, tedious nature of some of the episodes just forbids me to be excited about repeat viewings. Again, "Macross" was, now that it is finally over, a powerful series that will always remain a staple in future anime viewings, but to view this again - one just couldn't enjoy Minmay's annoying attitude, Ichijo's inability to make a decision, and the lemming-ish way this series was filmed. "Macross" transformed 36-episodes into a defined "love-hate" relationship.
After defining what was enjoyed by this series, one needs to prepare themselves for what just doesn't work. We have all driven home after a tough day at work, blaring our favorite song, and allowing the rough edges to fade away - and in "Macross" that idea is developed through Minmay's voice. Alas, it is beaten over our heads, submerged in water endlessly, and flashed into our eyes again and again and again. Confused. Don't worry, just watch "Macross" and you will understand. I will be the first to say, that I hated Lynn Minmay. She was annoying, childish, and forced our favorite characters into situations that were just in place for drama. Don't hate me if I kept hoping for her to be finished off early in the series. The passion between Ichijo and another character was far superior, and more interesting to watch. Minmay's possible love interest with another family member only heightened this hatred. This was followed by the daily destruction of the cities within the Macross and further within the story. It seemed as if every day attacks would ravish the built city, and with an endless supply of resources suddenly they could easily rebuild? It was like watching "Fraggle Rock". Death of citizens and other soldiers that were outside of the story, again, seemed to be in no-short supply. These seemed like larger elements that should have been developed, or at least understood, despite the series released in 1982. For some scenes, it just felt like cheap animation. Finally, in the version that I watched, the ending credits which were done in Ichijo's photo album in live action - it just felt again, further cheapened and not well fit within the series. These are just three obvious issues with this series, while there were smaller problems (the length of 36-episodes felt extremely too long - and lack of character development), these stood out.
Overall, "Super Dimensional Fortress Macross" isn't perfect. I can see the value in the overall story, the power of the symbolism and idea of culture, but there were small issues within the episodes that I couldn't handle. Minmay was the downfall of this series to me. She was annoying and misleading - not the power character everyone has quoted her to be. Yet, despite the negative elements that rage through my mind, there were scenes, episodes, and moments that I just loved. The ending was as big as any summer-blockbuster and remains in my mind as I write my review. The progression of the story was fabulous as well. To see one small ship's discovery on Earth to the eventual decline of everything was impressive. I loved this series for that - and perhaps the slight religious undertones - but (now that I am thinking about it - maybe it is a good thing) there were just parts I hated. I would, against my will, suggest this to die-hard fans of anime. This shows the birth of something big, but just poorly executed. I think I am going to go as Global this year for Halloween - but "Macross" is a chapter in my life I do not want to repeat. Good, just not great.
Grade: *** 1/2 out of *****
La haine (1995)
How can a film made in the 90s still resonate in the 00s? Ask Kassovitz!
"La Haine" is a political film. "La Haine" is a humanistic film about the realities of ghetto life. "La Haine" is a film about France, specifically the turmoil surrounding rebellion, honesty, and sacrifice. "La Haine" will anger you. It will make you cringe in your seat. It will make you question the values within your own community. That is why this film swept in 1995 when it was released, why other directors have attempted to recycle the story, and why even today - 14 years later - it still remains a relevant film, not just about French society, but a dedicated relevance towards American society as well. Director Mathieu Kassovitz has pulled this story directly from the headlines, taking the injustice of the police and the corruption of the streets and transforming it into the lives of three multi-national boys hell-bent on initiating revenge for the sake of their fallen friend. It is a dark story that uses drugs and violence off the scene to build the suspense within. Filmed in a stark black and white, Kassovitz takes away the glory, wealth, and American-ized culture of project life (see Baltimore's "The Wire") and allows us to experience one day in the life of these boys and their discovery of a gun.
Like von Trier's "Dear Wendy", "La Haine" focuses on the gun, a rarity within the youth of the French projects, and builds this momentum that the unknown will eventually happen. This onset of violence, which has been haunting us throughout the film, a la "Mean Streets", finally comes face forward in our third act in a shock provoking scene that will rattle you each time "La Haine" visits your DVD player. Yet, this is just a small indication of what "La Haine" has to offer. Yes, it is a film about violence, it is a political film, and you better believe that it is a youth film, but there is something universal about this mid-90s film that continues to resonate with each viewing. For me, it rests powerfully on the actors. Vincent Cassel absolutely steals this film. From his opening dance, until the unique dilemma surrounding the skinhead, he proves throughout this film that he was passionate about the material. For those doubting the power of his ability, see his body language, emotion, and intensity behind his words - what Cassel does in this film is rare in today's Oscar-caliber films. I recently had the opportunity to watch his film, "Eyes Wide Shut" - again, another independent film in which he gave over 100% of his ability to bring to the screen a genuinely unique character. That is the ability of Vincent Cassell. Yet, in "La Haine", we have two other players that bring even more of a dynamic to this group. Hubert Kounde's performance of Hubert is jaw-dropping. There is this subtle level of intelligence that rounds out our group consisting of himself, the wild-card, and the jokester. Hubert shows that life in the ghettos of France are not just a status symbol, but instead merely abilities to get by. When selling drugs, the money doesn't go towards jewelery or cars, it goes back to his mother to pay the gas bill. In this scene alone, Hubert shows his humanity, while Kassovitz demonstrates the truth behind the scene. Said was equally as good, keeping up with the other two, but for myself, Hubert and Vinz were our stand out roles. They played against themselves so much, that the two of them became closer as the film progressed.
Watching Criterion's release of this film, it is impressive how much they put together for this double-disc set. The interview with Jodie Foster is a bit long, but interesting. She talks about her first impressions of the film, and her excitement about bringing "La Haine" to the US of A. While it showed a different side to Paris, the universality of the message Kassovitz was trying to bring to the screen; youth's anger towards leaders, corruption within the police, and unnecessary casualties of protest is still relevant here today. Albeit, the language is different - the message is the same. Kassovitz's audio commentary is a political one, occasionally discussing how the scene was created and the shortfalls of creating a independent film, he talks in length to his experiences within the ghetto, and the truth behind the police in France (as well as its leaders). He also interestingly enough, talks about his influences on this film, and throughout his career. Obviously, you can see the Scorsese references throughout (see "Taxi Driver"), but he talks in length about "Mean Streets", and how that film spoke to him more than any other big-budget Hollywood film he had seen. Included on the second disc are plenty of behind the scene moments as well as extended and deleted scenes that further demonstrate Kassovitz's ability, and how he transformed this color film, into a cinematic triumph.
Overall, I love "La Haine", but be forewarned. This is not a "sit-down-on-a-Saturday-with-some-friends-and-a-beer" film. This is a thought-provoking slice of international cinema that demonstrates amazing actors in their craft, a film with a message, and a director who had little to work with, but used what he had with artistic talent. "La Haine" will remain with you long after the short credits roll, the shock of the ending will make you jump again and again (no matter the amount of times seen), and the discussion to follow remains a pivotal part to this film. I cannot watch this film back to back, but when I come across a need to experience cinema as it should be created, "La Haine" will be the first to come to mind. Impressive.
Grade: ***** out of *****
Hail the Conquering Hero (1944)
Buy War Bonds; or Sturges' missed opportunity
Preston Sturges' little film, "Sullivan's Travels" has been a favorite of mine for a very long time. Since my discover of it through the Criterion collection, I have been impressed with the comic mind of Sturges and his ability to use dark modern issues as a backdrop for something that audiences could laugh at. In "Sullivan's Travels" it was the story of a Hollywood director trying to become a hobo to learn about life. While it seems dismal, it provided quite a bit of laughs with an ending that not only solidifies Sturges' ability, but also creates brain candy for hours afterwards. Thus, it was no surprise that when "Hail the Conquering Hero" arrived to view - that same excitement for Sturges' overcame me. I was ready for laughter coupled with a sensitive discussion about an ageless topic. Alas, what was viewed, was a cute movie that felt longer than necessary, a comic film with repetitive jokes, and a satire on patriotism that merely scratched the surface to what could have been another ageless film. Instead, "Hail the Conquering Hero" felt dated, lacked the push to make it pioneering, and honestly, felt safe. This was a rushed Sturges film, despite the Oscar nomination, and like Eddie Braken's speech at the end, needed to have a stronger voice of truth. Too many missed elements coupled with repeat jokes caused "Hail the Conquering Hero" to miss it's mark and remain a "cute" movie.
The concept is an easy one. You probably have seen it a dozen times before in other films; the son of a war hero is discharged from the army for chronic hay fever, and refuses to go home to face his mother. Enter a band of surly, obvious Army-type figures who influence him into going home looking like a decorated war hero. Hilarity attempts to ensue as the town welcomes him with open arms with such grandiose statements as a parade in his honor, the burning of his mother's mortgage, and the eventual nomination for mayor. As much as Eddie Bracken tries to avoid the applause, he gets further thrust into it. This is a moment where Sturges doesn't quite live up to his comedic hype. There are moments where the scenes are very funny, but Sturges overuses the same jokes again and again that it eventually infects the rest of the film. What should have been witty jokes to move the pace, instead become so repetitive that the nearly hour and half feels like two-plus hours behind the wheel of this vehicle. Braken gives the stationary look of shock throughout, Sgt. Heppelfinger gives the same stern look, and moments of comedy are replaced with awkward settings that should have been funny, but instead failed. Scenes which are reminiscent of this failure are; Braken's arrival home - the entire set up for his grand arrival was funny at first, but as the scene pathetically continued - it just felt claustrophobic and stagnate. This could be said again for the scene where he is about to be nominated for mayor. What should have been funny wasn't - and I think it is because Sturges couldn't control the scenes. Too much in too little time provided minimal laughs.
While I claim that our characters were feeling a bit stale, I do argue that they were the strongest element in this film. There were secondary characters that Sturges gave a small string of screen time, and they stole each second. Look out for the priest who burns the mortgage, hilarious; look for the southern Mayor who owns the Chair factory; again - hilarious. I could even laugh again at the Army man who had this fascination with people's mothers. Yet, our major characters couldn't quite reach this level. While the characters were disappointing, the scene structure was obtrusive by Sturges, the actual story was relatively exciting. I loved this concept, the themes of battles not only happening on the front lines, but also at home was impressive. The constant reminders that WAR BONDS were for sale was a small jab at the Government by Sturges, and the universal mind of the soldier who also turned out to be the Braken's guardian angels was delicious. Sturges had a strong mapped film, one just wonders if he was happy with the final product. Again, there were smart elements and there were mediocre moments, all together just making a "cute" one-time viewing movie.
Overall, Sturges again entertained, but he did not impress. This was a "cute" film that just felt too long at certain scenes and at others it felt like missed opportunity. This could have been a stronger satire on patriotism, but jokes fell flat. Sub-characters took control and created a strong town, but the ones that were leading us felt stale from the beginning. I was looking forward to this film due to my admiration towards Sturges, but "Hail the Conquering Hero" didn't live up to the hype. "Sullivan's Travels" continues to be my favorite as I continue to view more from this infamous director's cannon. I was happy to see that the screenplay was Oscar nominated, but not surprised that it didn't win. Good, not great - "cute" - not classic.
Grade: ** 1/2 out of *****
H.M. Pulham, Esq. (1941)
Magnificent Ambersons + Wonderful Life = Pulham, Esq
Throughout this project of watching nearly every movie ever made, or at least in every attempt possible, I am beginning to discover which films speak to me. There are those that entertain, those that mentally challenge, and those that transform your cinematic experience all together, but for me, the type of film that excites me these days are the delicate semi-biographical pre-1950s story. With a cautious blend of "Citizen Kane" and "Magnificent Ambersons" with that of the modern "Mad Men", the barely watched film, "H.M. Pulham, Esq." finally arrived at the doorstep. Unbeknownst that this film would be reminiscent of such films, I began with the unknown. Available only via Warner's print-on- demand DVD Vault, there was a level of uncertainty as to why this had never been released, or would the print be so destroyed the experience would be lost (see review of "The Lady and the Monster"). To my surprise, it wasn't – and this two hour epic ("epic" is correct; due to the emotion, landscape, and themes of this film) quickly filled the cannon that was once overpopulated by Orson Welles. With dry characters like Harry Pulham and Kay Motford countered with the exciting Marvin Myles and Bill King as well as the quintessential sledding scene (needed in every semi-biographical film), "H.M. Pulham, Esq." pulled ahead in the ranks as I settled down for an amazing feature. It was shocking, intelligent, slow, predictable, and a bit pioneering for the date – and I loved every minute of it.
"H.M. Pulham, Esq." tells the story of a man, Harry Pulham (played simply by Robert Young) as he randomly gets a call from a Harvard friend requesting that he write a bit of a biography for the upcoming reunion. Coincidentally, he gets a call the same day from an old flame, and Harry uses the entire day to give us the "It's a Wonderful Life" flashback scenario where we learn about his life, and current consequences. As we travel back and forth, we fall in love with a core of four characters, Harry (of course), Marvin Myles the sassy co-worker, Bill King the obnoxious lady-killer, and Kay everyone's safe bet. It is these four characters that take us from New York to the country, from love to hate, and from passion to comfort. As Harry continues to look back onto his life, he begins to question his decisions, and the world of possibilities available.
"H.M. Pulham, Esq." would not have worked had it not been for these four characters. It is a driven character drama, thus without our actors taking full opportunity, it would have transformed into this two-hour snooze-fest, but instead they embraced, and allowed us to get to know each one individually, as well as a whole. Robert Young's Harry is probably the easiest to swallow, because is portrays him as this unguided everyman, lured by the life of NYC, but focused on family and dedication. His friends pull him in every direction, but he is grounded must make the decision between love and comfort. Each one of our characters builds upon this story, and where it succeeds the most is that director King Vidor (you know, the one that gave us the Kansas scenes in "Wizard of Oz" as well as "War and Peace") isn't afraid to push the limits. Or, at least the limits allowed in 1941. Again, I cannot stress that this is a fictional biography story that melds well within the folds of society. Vidor has succeeded greatly in this little feature because he has taken the great elements of "Magnificent Ambersons" and "It's A Wonderful Life" and plopped them into this unknown feature. Yes, at times it is long - and you better believe that there are moments that date this film - but in the end, it will warm your heart, but also make you look within your own life.
"H.M. Pulham, Esq" feels like a universal film. It is one of those movies that goes great with snow outside and a warm glass of cider. It shows a side of cinema that we forget about when we think of classic cinema. During this project, I have watched two films that stood beyond the norm - that Hollywood seemed to snub - and fell in love with both of them. One was the film I have repeated throughout this review, "The Magnificent Ambersons", and the second is this little film. Again, it is a simple film that presses a message relevant in 1941 or 2009, the idea of choices and consequences.
Overall, I may sound repetitive with this, but I loved with this film had to offer. Perhaps it was my mood for the evening, or the sense of nostalgia for this style of film, but this film took me back to a simple cinematic experience. There was booze, talk of sex, and infidelity all within the two hours, which surprised me greatly. The actors did their parts with great effort, and each point went to the next. There was a purpose behind each person's actions, and it was developed. Not just dropped to the floor. King Vidor did a fantastic job behind the camera giving us lush landscapes and power driven characters. If you don't mind spending some money for this film, I would suggest a viewing. It was impressive.
Grade: **** out of *****
Habeas Corpus (1928)
Turtles in the Dark; aka Habeas Corpus
Tonight, it was proved – comedy never dies. Nearly 81 years ago a comedy duo by the name of Laurel and Hardy broke through the sound barrier (quite literally) to bring humor, a dazzling array of both slapstick and intelligent, to the masses. Could today's audiences still laugh at what simple jokes these two men brought to the screen? With a group of friends we put that theory to the ground, and surprisingly our level of entertainment combined with humor was not disappointed. After aging gracefully over eight decades, Laurel and Hardy continue to combine random, interesting scenarios with engaging, well-planned humor. Add to this the fact that "Habeas Corpus" was their first sound film; i.e. sound effects not speaking – yet continued to make our audience laugh hysterically. Their ability to take small gestures, and expand them into laugh-out-loud situations, using merely their facial expressions and their body language would put some modern comedians to shame. Yet, their style didn't seem dated. In one scene in "Habeas Corpus", our duo watches as a man puts his ashes from his cigarette into his pocket. Each time he does this, the camera pans to Laurel and Hardy, as they make these exclusive expressions of confusion. Through just their eyes, they are able to convey this level of humor which had our virgin Laurel and Hardy group in stitches.
For 20 minutes, this short film kept us entertained. The level of the humor, the fact that what they were doing seemed original for the time made us question what modern comedians are doing today. Laurel and Hardy are still present in today's group of comedians. See John Candy or Chris Farley within Hardy, or even Rowan Atkinson's work influenced from Laurel. These guys were at the top of their game in the late 20s and beyond, and what makes this impressive is that they have not fallen from their trade. "Habeas Corpus" is a prime example of this. Their first sound film, it pits the two as guys who need to dig up a body for a scientist for money. As they attempt to get the body, everything imaginable occurs. The body is second nature to actually getting to the grave site. Everything they do, from jumping up poles, to continually trying to get over a troublesome wall, to fighting Laurel's fears of turtles. Everything will make you laugh out loud, like it was 1928.
Overall, I loved this short. This reviewer could have watched another hour and half of Laurel and Hardy's shenanigans with this mad scientist, but twenty minutes was perfect. It left you wanting more and a strong desire to have multiple repeat viewings. It ended on such a high note that the laughter filled the room with a group of friends. This was a delight – a pure joy to experience. A modern day "Tom and Jerry" for a more intelligent and mature audience.
Grade: ***** out of *****
H.M.S. Defiant (1962)
Down with the Defiant; Up with Morale...?
As a bookseller, there are always customers that are on the hunt for the newest (or oldest) nautical adventures. In a world dominated by Jack Aubrey and Horatio Hornblower, it is easy to forget the others that forge the same path. Luckily, there is a little film out there entitled "H.M.S. Defiant" (or "Damn the Defiant" for those non-Brits out there) which dismally explores the world of pre-union sea faring days. With horrid living standards, spoiled food, and tensions leading to rebellious shipmates, "H.M.S. Defiant" is not only a film that de-sugars the myth of living on a naval ship, but also keeps the audience in such close quarters that the claustrophobia oozes right from the screen into your living room. It is a powerful film that takes you below deck and plants you deep within the world, giving you the details of a mutiny, the engaging warfare that takes place, and the destructive nature of both a good captain and a violent one. This isn't a film for everyone, the underdeveloped pre-story forces you to try to understand why these men were being rounded up and why this mutiny would need to happen - but it doesn't take long. Outside of Alec Guinness and Dirk Bogarde (who both are fabulous respectively), the rest of our cast is rather thin and at times, too cliché. Yet, "H.M.S. Defiant" stands proud, it isn't the most remarkable sea-faring film out there - but it keeps pace well, giving us a equal helping of action and emotion.
To this viewer, "H.M.S. Defiant" worked because of Guinness and Bogarde's repertoire towards each other as well as to the other crew. The counter nature of both of these men, one the reliant, steadfast, determined iconic Captain, the other a violent-ridden, order defiant, angry Lieutenant keeps you glued to the screen, pending whatever their next move may be. Director Lewis Gilbert realizes the power of these actors and chooses to use everything on the ship as his cache of weapons between them; from Guinness' child, to French ships, to the constant unknown threat of a mutiny, nothing is spared as either Guinness or Bogarde debate nautical semantics. Every action pushes these two characters apart, from disagreeing on destination to how to discipline the crew. Which further demonstrates Gilbert's ability behind the camera, not only do you have these two strong actors creating their own tension above and below the ship, but then he builds sympathy for the crew. He does this by providing us with little information, by making us impartial to the actions - but away of the consequences. Take for example that first scene where the shipmate holds his fists up to the Lieutenant, an action that would typically require six-dozen lashes. In that one scene alone, we are witness to the evil of Bogarde, the strong yet sympathetic Guinness, and the mere chaos of the crew. Within this scene, the taste of this ship is experienced, and yet we are only slightly prepared for what is going to occur in the upcoming scenes.
While I applaud Gilbert's use of all of these elements to give us a stronger, more human element to this craft - the "H.M.S. Defiant" isn't a perfect film. There are trouble spots. One happens to be the lack of development between these smaller shipmate characters. Yes, the Bogarde's violence does allow us to build sympathy towards them - but that is all. The random aside about the doctor being a drunk is evidence that not much thought went into creating whole characters. The anger towards Bogarde by a singular shipmate, blinded by anything else, was not only thick foreshadowing (who didn't see that coming), but again, was this man's only characteristic. The faux-gentleman lawyer, who suddenly had a plethora of knowledge about the law, was another stunning example. Characters, instead of given names, were handed abilities to carry the story. It was as if Gilbert was determined to have Guinness and Bogarde as our only defined characters, yet still have emotion behind this inevitable mutiny. There was no need to pull the story into more than two hours, but definitions were needed to solidify the "Defiant". Also, while the battle scenes were intense, the editing of each battle was sloppy. During the battles, one couldn't help but rewind to see who was where and fighting whom. Was Gilbert testing the nature of chaos battles on the sea, or just haphazard with his direction. Gilbert could manage some moments admirably, others - seemed to falter to the wayside.
Overall, I enjoyed the experience of "H.M.S. Defiant" though I doubt I would watch again. If I had anyone ask me what film (outside of "Star Wars") they could watch Guinness perform, I would say either "Great Expectations" or this. He, coupled with Bogarde was intensely satisfying. While I hated the missed opportunity to develop the minor characters, these two primed actors carried this film. The action was strong, the emotion was high, and those darn whippings were tough - but it just wasn't enough to make this anything but a standard film. I liked what I saw, but I don't think I could enjoy it again.
Grade: *** out of *****
Cuts like a dull razor (and that is a good feeling)...
Imagine what TV was like back in the late 80s. Can you? My mind races to horrid sets, bad acting, and amateur dialogue ... yet, there was always a level of creativity. Television, especially made-for- television films pushed the envelope for what they could do, what they could say, and while the stories were full of one-line clichés and overproduced images, the stories had some heart to them. In today's cinema, this is what is lacking. We have great special effects, tremendous actors delivering great lines, but the stories feel and are quite bland. Not the case for the 80s. Recently, I had the opportunity to watch a forgotten 80s gem (which is only discovered on VHS or late night TV) that demonstrates this great dynamic shift. It has some great creativity, but utterly lacks in all other categories. "Ladykillers" uses the talent of Marilu Henner (from TVs "Evening Shade") as a cop determined to find the killer of male strippers as well as make sure that her secret relationship stays together. Can you have said that with a straight face? Not me, and that is my entire argument there - creativity! Combining male strippers, cop love, a cool weapon, and a villain that uses merely 70s glasses and a bad wig - and you have all the elements of "Ladykillers" that makes it memorable, despite the obvious lacking sets, acting, and dialogue. Can you look past the bad to see where the good blossoms?
Let me restate that this isn't a film that needs to be watched over and over again - the story could become tedious, the acting is so bad, and the music obviously dates this film, but for the 91-minutes that I watched of this film, I have to admit - I was pulled in. To begin, Marilu Henner sinfully pulls off the difficult cop determined to solve the case as well as keep her relationship together. Her flip-flop nature of trying to be this sex-symbol and a hard-nosed cop, just doesn't work - but in several scenes, you believe her. She makes this role simply unbelievable that you are tricked into believing that she could fill this part. Coupled with the fact that her relationship is with the quintessential newbie cop, Cavanaugh (no first name), aptly played by Thomas Calabro from "Melrose Place" fame, you know within the first minutes this is going to be a full-fledged layer cake. Cavanaugh, who is known for his muscles more than his brain, uses this male stripper case to boost his career within the force, which he oddly finds out is his passion in life, to be a male dancer. Again, I can't state this enough, where else are you going to find stories like this? Our actors are bad, but they keep you glued to the screen because you have no idea what is going to happen next. This isn't your A to B to C story, it has absurdest depth, which can confuse even the novice of film watchers. Adding to this already deflowered chemistry, is a band of 80s-hair male strippers, crazy women (literally), and a rag-tag group of police (quite literally the entire squad) whose sole case is to solve this one. These are the layers, and they only get better from minute to minute.
"Ladykillers" is also memorable for the killer and weapon. A unique choice which we are introduced to in the second scene, the weapon seems like it would only scratch your skin, but be forewarned, these razors are lethal. The weapon is interesting, and genuinely spooky, but what takes the cake it the killer. Using merely a wig and a pair of glasses, our cinematography for this film used every bit of light imaginable to freak out the audience. While there was not real threat, there were some well staged scenes throughout with this killer. Whether it was in the clubs or just looking behind our police friends, there was quite a bit of thought that went into this anti-hero. Not to sound like a "Ladykillers"-nerd, there was another great layer to this film. "Ladykillers" introduces this premise of a prostitute turned housewife late in the game, but it adds this undercoat of dirt that a typical made-for-TV film wouldn't even touch. The grand finale is a darkened ride into a world that wasn't otherwise that spooky. "Ladykillers" obviously gained momentum as the minutes passed, and for that I applaud this film.
Overall, I was happy with the final product. I wish there was a DVD, but the VHS transfer did make it seem more ... authentic? Though, I should warn, not everything was a glorious as I portray it. There were horrible elements to this film. Cavanaugh being one of them. The lady that owned the strip club being another. The running scene with Marilu Henner was painstakingly bad, but it was the basis for this story - how the creativity flowed when the story needed to come together. The producers knew that they wouldn't have tons of money for everything, so they put their money where it counted, and it worked. The bad guy was spooky, the weapon (despite the science) was frightening, and the actors did fit their parts. Know what you are getting into when you watch this, but I was expecting the worse, and found something watchable. Be prepared - but enjoy
Grade: *** out of *****
The Lady and the Monster (1944)
Our Ambidextrous Killer
After four nights of trying to decipher a transfer from actual film to a home-made DVD, with dark lighting and noir-styled settings, my adventure into the world of "The Lady and the Monster" was finally complete. This suddenly became a very difficult film to discuss. With nearly 20% of the film being lost to a dismal transfer (actually a decent transfer for what was available, but difficult to experience the film as a whole), would I be able to fully understand the filmmaker's tones, themes, and characters to the fullest extent? Continuing my horror/mystery binge, the basis of this 1944 sleeper begins very simply with a mad scientist and a plan, but then, as the paranormal begins our story goes from the strange to the confusing. As our characters are asked to do more than just turn knobs and scream, their strengths and weaknesses become more prevalent on the screen. As our story becomes more sinister, the ability to contain opportunity slowly gets devoured. "The Lady and the Monster" then transforms from an original sci-fi storyline, to a chaotic mess, leaving you eager to see how the 1953 remake "Donovan's Brain" may have learned from these mistakes.
Perhaps it was the way films in the 40s were made, or maybe it was just the filmmaker's way of attempting to move the plot forward, but instances occurred in this film that seemed to carry no consequences. Easily our limpy mad scientist and his assistance were able to find a brain, confuse the local medical practitioner, keep the brain alive, hear thoughts, and perhaps solve a five year crime. Consequences were handed down at the end, but instead of reason it felt rushed and foolish. What begins as a film based on science fiction and horror, easily changes to this CSI-style of storytelling. "The Lady and the Monster" teeters on the border of noir and B-grade film-making. It felt like a hybrid, or a mistake by science gone horribly wrong. To begin, the hints given by Donovan's brain to help Patrick Cory (played devilishly by Richard Arlen) are executed well, making the viewer strain to hear what or where these planted words may take Cory. The switch from right to left handing writing seemed kitschy, but ultimately effective in witnessing the transformation. Alas, these were the only two "special effects" within the whole story, so they were used over and over and over again, making it fun to guess which of the two tricks would be used in each scene. It became tedious and boring to see any plot hurdles crossed by merely these two tricks. If it weren't for Arlen, his menacing face, this would have taken another four days to plow through. Secondly, the addition of Vera Ralston as not only the love interest, but also the damsel in distress was out of place. Perhaps Ralston couldn't control her character, discover her true-self, or maybe she just didn't feel like memorizing her lines, but each scene she walked into was dry and emotionless. Even as the tension builds, she is unable to give us a glimpse as to who Janice Farrell was; how she fell into this world, and why love conquered all. Finally, the ending was absurd. Stringing together several different ideas, none of which were developed at all, to give us a climax that was more based on the first half of the film than the second seemed random.
Despite my gruff nature towards Ralston and the repetitive nature of the film, the science behind this feature was actually quite fun. The idea that a brain could be kept alive has been used in dozens of sci-fi films over the ages, and this was a uniquely new way to see it. Thinking of the infamous "The Brain that Wouldn't Die" made in 1968, one should question the originality of that story penned with the concept behind this one. The notion that, with a blank slate (aka mind), that the brain could control another person was exhilarating. While the execution wasn't up to par, it was enjoyable to see the science behind it. I also liked the cliché mad scientist known as Franz Mueller (played diabolically by Erich Von Stroheim), who fit into every mold created since this film. There were fun parts to this film, elements that were conceived as a good idea, but failed because ill-development and lack of detailed story forced it to go south. Parts were enjoyable, but "The Lady and the Monster" as a whole seemed to fail.
Overall, I liked certain elements to this film, but others just failed completely. The repetition of one idea failed, and the introduction to the millionaire's world as a "who-dun-it" instead of a straight forward sci-fi felt cheap. There were also huge bombs of twists dropped on us near the end without any warning to excitement. There were two moments I had to rewind to make sure that I didn't miss something earlier, because these plot twists came out of nowhere. "The Lady and the Monster" was enjoyable to watch once, but a second viewing would be overkill.
Grade: * ½ out of ****