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Out of Africa (1985)
Streep is SUBLIME!
15 January 2008
The novel "Out of Africa" was written by Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen) in 1935 and published in 1937 and recounts her life on a coffee plantation in British colonial Kenya from 1913 to 1931.

The movie version of Karen Blixen's memoir was made in 1985 and starred Meryl Streep as Blixen and Robert Redford as big game hunter and naturalist Denys Finch-Hatton, with whom she had a passionate affair whilst estranged from her Danish husband of convenience, the Baron Brors Blixen(Klaus Maria Brandauer).


At least, that's always been my reaction to the description of this film. I'd never seen it out of aversion to it's subject matter. Also, Robert Redford kinda gives me the creeps. Or puts me to sleep. Not sure which. So, I netflixed it and forced myself to watch it, to enrich my film vocabulary, since it was an "important" film of the 1980's I'm very, very glad I did.

Karen Blixen was an amazing woman. She defies utterly any attempt to pigeon hole her. She was fiercely independent, yet possessive and grasping. She was unselfishly devoted to the Kikuyu natives who lived on her plantation, yet she could never perceive anyone else's wants or needs. She was "liberated" ahead of her time, yet still naive about people's motivations. Her romantic choices were unfortunate, choosing only flakes unable entirely to commit, and commitment and thus "ownership" of a man is what she (at least in the movie) craved most. Brors was pathologically incapable of being a decent husband in any way, and didn't care much one way or the other. Denys, on the other hand, though he loved her dearly, suffered from what today is known as "commitment issues".

Meryl Streep's performance is one of her very best, and only proves that the Academy is a very fallible judge of performance, as she lost the Oscar that year. Many people go on and on about the accents she uses and how well she does them, as though that is the hallmark of a great actor. Well, to my mind, that's like saying that a writer is great because he can type well. It's a tool of her profession, a means to and end for her. No, Meryl Streep's brilliance lies in her amazing ability, a genius, of small character moments. She can say more with a pause and a look in her eye than most actors can say in a lifetime.

Now that we are eight years into the new century, we can safely look back and begin to make judgments about the last one. One I would make would be that Meryl Streep was the finest film actress of the 20th century. I know, I know. Hepburn. Davis. Stanwyck.

Still, I stand clear and firm on this. None of the others has (or had) her range. Ethel Barrymore, Helen Hayes…these were great actresses of the stage, whom I do not count as I have no personal way to judge their performances.

As to Robert Redford…well… he WAS charming and dashing as Finch-Hatton, but he wasn't British and Denys Finch-Hatton was a Brit to the backbone. Redford was incapable of convincingly playing it so, and many of his lines were written with a British sensibility, and Redford just threw away the best lines, in my opinion.
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East of Eden (1955)
Dean's legend is Justified
24 July 2007
"And Cain went out from the presence of the LORD, and dwelt in the land of Nod, on the east of Eden." (Genesis 4:16)

East of Eden is, for the most part, the biblical story of Cain and Abel, retold for the 20th Century. James Dean plays Cal Trask, a young, rebellious kid who resents his distant, uptight father( Raymond Massey). He's always kept Cal at arms length and disapproved of his every move. Aron (Richard Davalos), on the other hand is the prefect, if a bit vapid, son. Cal learns that his Mother, whom his father has told them was long dead is in fact the Madame of a nearby town. It's also implied that she's a junkie. When Cal pursues some kind of a connection with her, or a relationship of some kind, much disruption and drama ensues.

Photographed in Cinemascope by Ted McCord (The Sound Of Music, The Sand Pebbles), the film is, I think, an amazing thing to watch. Elia Kazan used extensive locations in and around Monterey and Salinas. The Cinemascope frame is used to amazing advantage, with beautiful central coast landscapes captured stunningly. There is an early scene where Dean rides on top of a railroad car at 55 mph. This is no process shot. They actually put Dean up there and let the train speed along, with a camera mounted on the top of the boxcar. I thought that was an amazing shot, and wildly daring. Dean was an unknown at this time, as was Julie Harris. Still, it was an amazing risk to take. Just one of many interesting shots in this film.

Also used brilliantly is the wide screen potential in interior, intimate scenes. Shot composition is so dynamic. They just don't seem to take the care these days to light and compose images like they did when the medium was still relatively fresh. We've really lost something, I'm afraid. It seems to me that the art of the motion picture is taken for granted or, in the worst cases, never even considered. James Dean was truly amazing, He really was. The veneration and hype of Dean's persona and legend is justified, in my opinion. He had a quality about him that was totally, utterly fresh and new. He approached acting from the weirdest place. Part method, part psychotic, but totally offbeat. Utterly offbeat.If you've never actually seen James Dean act, you'll be really surprised. You'll also understand why he astounded the staid, unsophisticated audiences of 1955. My god, but he must've been a total bolt from the blue. Then he was just dead. Gone. Wiped out. This film was just a few weeks in release, the audience was just turning on to this discovery. "Rebel Without a Cause" was in post production, and Dean was finishing shooting "Giant" when he was instantly killed in a high speed crash on a lonely highway in central California. He was on his way in his Porsche Spyder to a race in Paso Robles when he was creamed.

He'd been famous for about 6 weeks only.

6 weeks.

Elia Kazan thinks James Dean was too eccentric to have lasted long. He believes his fame would've been transitory. Perhaps Kazan is right. We'll never know. I think he would have endured, and branched out as a writer. He would've lasted somehow. He never had the chance to grow.
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Sicko (2007)
Sicko proves that our system is what's really sick
5 July 2007
Sicko! covers much more than the idiocy and ruthlessness of our own failed health care system. It illustrates how we've been propagandized into believing that all forms of socialized medicine, such as they have in Britain,Canada and France, for example, are much MORE functional than our system.

I, for one, believed the stories of long waits for treatment and longer waits for simple doctor visits that are supposedly typical in these countries. Do I believe everything I saw in the movie at face value? No, but it's made me think, and it's made me curious to find out about more it. That's what good agitprop film making is supposed to do.

For instance, did you know that in France, Doctors still make house calls? Moore rode shotgun one night with a travelling Parisian Doctor and went from call to call with him. These countries just take it for granted that they don't have to risk losing everything they have if they get sick. The people he interviewed are both amused and appalled when they hear of our predatory medical system. It's as if we're a third world country. We might as well be…we're ruled by third world despots.

Which brings me to another thing.

Why do we take it? Why don't we DO something about it? We're supposed to be a government by the people, of the people, and for the people. When did we lose that? When did we become so passive? When did the response to bull***t simply be to write a snarky blog entry or laugh at some comic's send up of it or just bitch and moan? WHAT DO WE DO????
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Top notch Ford
7 March 2007
One of John Ford's last efforts is also one of his better ones. Curiously, the limited budget Ford was given for this picture forced him to use more indoor sets, less elaborate locations (no monument valley) and even a few sound stage exteriors. This gives the film a curious and unique "look" of an early 1960's T.V. western, but with a decidedly "A" movie cast and script. The film explores the themes of authority versus anarchy, encroaching civilization upon the fading "old west." James Stewart represents law and order and progress as (in flashback) a youngish eastern lawyer who comes to the western town of Shinbone to introduce literacy and lawfulness to the people. He runs afoul of the symbol of lawlessness and anarchy in the person of Liberty Valance, a thoroughly amoral, heartless terrorist, here masterfully portrayed by Lee Marvin. John Wayne plays the intermediary character of Tom Doniphon, a rough, tough, straight talking, take no bull@#t type who recognizes the value of law and order, but knows that a gun is the most expedient and reliable persuader and peace keeper, if wielded skillfully. Doniphon befriends Stewart's character, Rance, and eventually helps Rance bring order to Shinbone. I won't give the method away except to say that Rance becomes successful due to the way in which he dispatches Valance, thus making his political ascendancy possible. He is the legendary "man who shot Liberty Valance". He must live with the truth behind the hyped up legend. The performances in this picture are a joy. Everyone is at the top of his game here. Lee Marvin should have won an Oscar. Hell, they all should have. Edmund O'Brien and Ford staple John Carradine were a bit over the top, however. Both seemed under the impression that they were performing gaslight melodrama. Vera Miles Plays the love interest in a rivalry triangle between Rance and tom, and she's appropriately saucy, irascible, and enjoyable here. Her Hallie is a virtual continuation of Laurie from "The Searchers". Great Western, well made.
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Sunset Blvd. (1950)
the REAL Gloria Swanson
12 December 2006
I just want to clear up a misconception about Gloria Swanson and her performance as Norma Desmond. Gloria Swanson was NOTHING like Norma Desmond in real life. At the time she was offered the role, she was very busy (thank you very much) in New York with, among other things, pioneering early live television. She had a very busy family and social life, and wasn't that keen on returning to California and the silver screen. She was, however, very intrigued with the script, and was talked into it by Wilder. When she got to the coast and began to make contact with some of her old friends from the silent days, she was very disturbed and a little freaked out to discover that there were indeed many "Norma" cases hidden in the Bel Air hills. She was shocked to find many of her old acquaintances were stuck in the past, where as she had moved on and never looked back. She then actively sought out these people and began studying them, incorporating parts of each of them into her portrayal of Norma Desmond.

A couple of interesting stories about the making of this movie are worth relating. In 1948, Billy Wilder and his collaborator, Charles Brackett were searching for story ideas. They were lunching at Chasens restaurant in Beverly Hills and Wilder noticed an aged, apparently "homeless" man hovering around C.B. Demille's table. Wilder observed DeMille motioning the old bum over and whispering something to him. The bum shuffled out. Intrigued, Wilder filed the incident away. Several days later he ran into De Mille on the Paramount lot and asked about it. "Oh yes, that was old Griffith asking for work again." Aghast, Wilder asked "Griffith …WHO?" "D.W. Griffith" Demille simply replied, and walked away. It so shocked Wilder that such a titan of the film industry could become such a severe has–been, could have fallen so low. It gave him and Brackett the germ of the idea that eventually became "Sunset Blvd"-the true, unvarnished look at how Hollywood treats its "living legends".

Another interesting story occurred at the films Hollywood première. It was, of course a huge, star-studded affair. Everyone who was anyone was there. After the screening, L.B. Mayer, then recently deposed head of MGM and one of the most powerful of all movie moguls stormed into the lobby. Billy Wilder was there, holding court, and enjoying praise from all. "You muckraking scum! You've ruined this town with this filthy picture! You and your kind are ruining our industry!" Mayer barked in Wilder's face. Wilder, with an ever so faint smirk on his face clucked his tongue and said "Go f@ck yourself"
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The lost art of CINERAMA
18 September 2003
`How the West Was Won' was recently exhibited in Hollywood in the original CINERAMA format. I went into the Cinerama dome on Sunset Blvd mildly interested. After all, westerns really aren't my cup of tea, and Cinerama was really just a gimmicky ancestor of panavision and IMAX, right? I must say I was totally unprepared for the experience. I'll first say a few things about the technical aspects, then discuss the film itself. Cinerama was a process whereby a film was shot with three separate cameras and lenses mounted together, producing a center field of vision, as well as right and left separate fields of vision. So when the three separate 35mm films are blended together and projected, via three interlocked cameras on a curved screen, it gives a startlingly realistic impression of three dimensionalism. The effect is far, far more effective than the IMAX or 70mm Panavison format. In effect, it really puts you into the action and engages you on a whole new level. Moreover, the lenses created for this system were 22mm lenses, most closely approximating the human eye. The effect was an astoundingly true, virtually grainless picture. The closest analogy I can give is watching a letterboxed film on television in old vhs and comparing it to a remastered dvd version. The difference is that pronounced. Combine this with a restored 7 track magnetic stereo soundtrack booming out of the dome's state of the art sound system, and it's an experience that I'll remember for the rest of my life. Unfortunately, this process was far too unwieldy and expensive, and swiftly gave way to the artistically inferior, economically superior TODD-AO, SuperPanavision, VistaVision, etc. formats.

As to the film itself, it follows the fortunes of the various members of the Prescott family as they travel westward from New York, via the Erie Canal and Ohio River down through the old western frontier and on to California. The story is separated into different segments, each directed by a different director, Namely John Ford, Henry Hathaway, and George Marshall.

Standout performances from James Stewart, Gregory Peck, Debbie Reynolds, Robert Preston, Richard Widmark, Agnes Moorehead, and especially Karl Malden and George Peppard make this an incredible picture, but the heart of it belongs to the unbelievably gorgeous photography of the enormous, majestic American west. The action sequences are amazing, truly amazing, and NOTHING made today can surpass them. In fact, it seems to me as though this picture has directly influenced many of today's directors. The final scenes, as the camera flies away from the Rawlings family as they journey west to their destiny and soars into the future, over tamed fields and eventually over modern day Los Angeles and San Francisco, as Alfred Newmans triumphant score thunders throughout the theatre, still gives me goosebumps. What stays with me now, 5 days later, is the power of the story. We have so little concept today of the mind boggling hardships which those pioneers faced as part of their everyday lives. Especially moving to me was `the rivers' sequence, when Zeb Prescott (Malden) and his poor wife (Moorehead) are killed when they make a fateful wrong turn at a fork in the river and are drowned in the rapids. The fragility of our lives and the randomness of death is really brought home here. I bought the DVD version and was jarred by the distortion of the picture. When projected `flat' as it is here, the depth of field is all thrown off. A pity, since this is the only way most people will ever see it.
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Superb film making
8 May 2003
This picture was recently released to DVD and I must say that the transfer is excellent. The film loses nothing in the translation to the small screen because its main strengths are its superior direction and acting. Leo DiCaprio not only appears in nearly every scene, but he carries this film with amazing, amusing and seemingly effortless panache. He portrays Frank Abignale, a 17 year old youth who, in 1963, managed to flit across the country impersonating, variously, A Pan Am pilot, a Pediatrician, and a lawyer. He also succeeded in passing over 1 million dollars in forged checks, all the while eluding the F.B.I. man dedicating to catching him, a man named Carl Hanratty, played by the ever amazing Tom Hanks. It's a rare pleasure to watch these two top notch actors play off of each other, aided by a nuanced, witty, and intelligent script. Not to be forgotten (except by the Academy)is the fine supporting performances from Christopher Walken as Frank Abignale Sr.,Amy Adams, and the luscious, amazing cameo by Jennifer Garner as the high priced hooker who gets beaten at her own game in one of the funniest scenes that I've seen in a long time. Mixing this all together in one fine dessert is the direction of Steven Spielberg. The style of this picture marks a total departure for him, allowing him to pace this film like no other. It's an excursion that I'm glad he took. Kudos also to D.P Janus Kaminsky and a totally mesmerising jazz influenced score from John Williams.
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