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Pride & Prejudice (2005)
Very Pleasantly Surprised; a star is born in Keira Knightley
The 1940 version of "Pride and Prejudice" has always been one of my favorite movies, despite the M.G.M. hokum, due to the great performances of Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson. However, I don't generally like English-themed costume dramas of the Masterpiece Theatre mode -- the last one I can think I liked, aside from Roman Polanski's "Tess" (decidely not a M.P.T. production) was Ang Lee's 1995 "Sense and Sensibility," due primarily to the acting. I didn't expect much from this (it was the only movie playing when I was visiting Peterborough, New Hampshire), but I was very pleasantly surprised by the film.
What struck me, aside from Keira Knightley's performance, was that for once, the actresses playing the roles of the Bennett sisters/Austen heroines were age-appropriate. The sisters even looked like sisters in this production. I found the acting to be good (if not as satisfying as that of Thompson, Alan Rickman, Tom Wilkinson and Kate Winslet in the '95 S&S, though Donald Sutherland gave a pleasing performance that should have won him an Oscar nomination) and the interchanges between the characters (and the ensemble acting) to be very well-directed. The detailing of the period seemed to be spot on also. The presentation of the story, though highly familiar, never lagged but propelled forward in a fine, natural rhythm. It was a very good movie-going experience.
What I wasn't counting on was the star power of Keira Knightley. At this stage in her career, she is a good though unspectacular actress (though it certainly would surprise me if she didn't develop into a very fine thespian in the near future as she gains more experience), but most importantly, she has a real STAR presence. She DOMINATED the movie. They say that a good actor must have good eyes, that the ability to express oneself on screen comes from the eyes. Knightley certainly does have good eyes. In fact, she has spectacular eyes, warm and luminous eyes that are incredibly expressive.
Keira Knightley has a beautiful face (though an immature, that is, undeveloped body, but it helps in this film as it bolsters her youthfulness), but beyond her physical beauty, she projects a true inner beauty. (Some actresses can be technically beautiful, but lack an inner warmth that is the root of true beauty. Some women not so pretty have that warmth that makes them beautiful.) Knightly displays a warmth that animates her face and that radiates on screen. What a remarkable gift, and it was most pleasant to experience.
I believe that this woman is going to be a major star soon and that her star will shine for generations. She reminds me of a young Julie Christie in the uniqueness of her presence and gift. Keira's acting will improve (as gains more control over her instrument), but her starpower -- something that cannot be learned, but simply is -- is in full-flower right now. Go see PRIDE AND PREJUDICE and you'll agree with me!
The Worst Film Ever to Win a Best Picture Oscar
Critics around Oscar time are fond of tagging Cecil B. DeMille's "The Greatest Show on Earth" (1952) with the title "Worst Film Ever to Win a Best Picture Oscar," but they are wrong. Such a declaration reveals that their knowledge of motion pictures is limited. "Greatest Show" actually is an entertaining picture; one cannot say the same for such early Oscar winners as "Cimarron" and "Calvacade." While "Cimarron" at least has some value as a spectacle due to its depiction of the Oklahoma Land Rush, "Calvacade" has no such redeeming virtues.
This is simply, the worst film ever to win a Best Picture Oscar. It is incredibly boring and primitively made. It is the epitome of the type of film that gives the early talkies such a bad name. The film should have been called "Calcified" rather than "Calvacade." The photography stinks, the acting is wooden, and the story is so hackneyed that it would cause even the most devoted "Masterpiece Theater" fan to contemplate suicide.
What is it about boring, stilted English films about the upper middle class or the aristocracy that gives Hollywood hot rocks? Anthony Holden, in his book "Behind the Oscar" (1993) quotes one wag as saying "If there is anything that moves the ordinary American to uncontrollable tears, it is the plight -- the constant plight -- of dear old England." This is just rubbish, and badly made rubbish at that! One out of ten stars.
Daisy Miller (1974)
Unwatchable. A sad sack of a film by a director with an unraveling career
It's been said that Peter Bogdanovich's ruin as a director was when he ditched his wife and artistic collaborator Polly Platt for ingénue Cybill Shephard. Platt had worked with Bogdanovich on all his early successes; after they parted company, Bogdanovich's career promptly slipped from the heights of a wunderkind to a has-been pursuing epic folly. "Daisy Miller" is one of his follies.
I found the film unwatchable, primarily due to the poor acting. I then tried to watch the film for Bogdanovich's commentary, since I find his books such as "Who the Devil Made It" to be very informative. It didn't help.
In his comments on the DVD, Bogdanovich praises Shepherd's performance and that of the juvenile James McMurty as Daisy's brother Randolph: both are execrable. Shepherd, at least, is a looker, but McMurtry gives an amateurish performance. Bogdanovich tells us that he cast leading actor Barry Brown after he and Shepherd interviewed him and liked him. He praises Brown's performance in the film, another bellwether indicating that Bogdanovich is -- and was -- painfully out of touch with the reality of "Daisy Miller." Brown promptly returned to obscurity after "Daisy Miller." You can see why watching his performance: He has no weight, and no voice, no real PRESENCE.
Obviously, Brown was cast so as not to overwhelm the relatively talentless Shepherd in her "breakthrough" role. (Bogdanovich, always the name-dropper, recalls that Orson Welles said that Shepherd was "born to play the role." Does he understand the irony of Welles' comment? That Daisy Miller is a flighty light-weight?) The name-dropping Bogdanovich points out that Cloris Leachman, who plays Daisy's mother, won an Academy Award. If you consider Leachman's career, you realize that that role was her sole outstanding work in motion pictures. While she won multiple Emmies in TV as a comedienne, TV acting in comedy is not equivalent to the rigors of dramatic cinema work: just check out the career of Shepherd, generally considered a talentless washout in motion pictures but honored as an "actress" in the TV comedy genre with four Emmy nominations. Leachman is not up to playing Mrs. Ezra Miller; she lacks the gravitas. Why isn't Joanne Woodward playing the role? Woodward or Lee Remick, so notable in the Ivory-Merchant-Jhabvala adaptation of Henry James' "The Europeans" (1979), could have brought some needed weight and class to the film.
There is nothing of weight in this film, aside from the lush costumes and beautiful scenery. This film needs to be anchored by fine acting to get across the psychology and internalized conflicts that are critical to James, but it does not get it from the principals. Shepherd was, and is, a fashion model in this film. There is nothing in the acting, aside from Mildred Dunnock, to attract and hold your attention.
Bogdanovich whines in his commentary that audiences just didn't "get" this film, aside from Harvard students (Bogdanovich is forever the snob) who saw a screening and who had read the James' short-story. He continues whining that it wasn't until much later, with the Merchant-Ivory films, that Henry James came into vogue (as if this was all a matter of fashion!). NOTE: There were 26 films and TV plays based on James' work before "Daisy Miller" appeared, and 39 more after-wards. Boggdanovich's film was one of four James works in 1974. So much for the audience not "getting" Henry James!)
Bogdanovich is as clueless as a commentator on "Daisy Miller" as he was as the film's director. The film is AWFUL and AWFUL precisely because of the director. He doesn't know how to bring out the film's theme.
Bogdanovich tells us that the main conflict is that the character of Winterbourne is guilty over the seductions he has made in the past, and that he assumes that the innocent Daisy is as corrupt as he is. (Bogdanovich also says that Winterbourne remains clueless throughout the story, a clear case of projection of the director's own state of mind about his own film, about his own "Daisy Miller.") In the scene, with Dunnock, in which this thematic point is "made," we watch Brown twirl his mustache to indicate his great experience with women, as if he were some 1920s silent-film Lothario. Dunnock has to do the heavy-lifting via dialog in the scene. Yet, nothing comes across as Brown doesn't have the chops to indicate the existential state of his character.
Brown is supposed to be WORLDLY! according to Bogdanovich. (In an early scene, Daisy's brother Randolph doesn't believe Winterbourne is American, mistaking him for an Englishman or a German. Was it Barry Brown's California accent that fooled him? For a person supposedly raised in Europe and schooled in Geneva, he sounds like he strayed remarkably little from Brown's hometown of San Jose.) Well, Brown's Winterbourne doesn't come across as worldly, or a guilty seducer; he comes across as a spoiled little boy, not much older emotionally than Randolph. Far from being a corrupter, he comes across as a brittle, timid soul who would be startled and severely off-put by the sound of a servant passing gas!)
Rather than being the cornucopia of riches that is a Henry James novella, Peter Bogdanovich's "Daisy Miller" is a sad sack film made by a sad sack of a director whose strings were unraveling without his collaborator Polly Platt to draw them tight.
This film should be viewed in film schools along with the Bogdanovich-Platt "The Last Picture Show" (1971) to debunk the "auteur" theory. Bogdanovich's career gives truth to the contention that film is an industrial process with many "authors," not just one (the director). If the auteur theory were true, Bogdanovich would have returned to form eventually and produced more good films, if not another masterpiece.
He didn't -- he didn't even come close. Bogdanovich will remain a footnote in cinema history, more valuable for his contributions to the literature of film than the medium itself.
A Classic That is The Greatest Spaghetti Western of All Time
"The Good, The Bad and The Ugly" not only is a classic, the greatest spaghetti Western of all time (edging out Sergio Leone's own "For a Few Dollars More" (1965), but is remains a remarkable cultural artifact, one of the watershed films of the 1960s. The combination of violence, amorality and black humor set the tone for a generation of films to come, a pedigree shared with the Sean Connery James Bond films.
Eli Wallach is outstanding "in the role of Tuco." In fact, it could be argued that this is really his film, as he is on screen longer than Clint Eastwood. Wallach's Tuco is one of the great screen performances, in all its vital, overblown vulgarity (and as we can see with the best performances of Laurence Olivier and Marlon Brando, genius in acting often skirts the boundaries of vulgarity). A brilliant performance in a brilliant film. Aside from Leone's outstanding direction, Wallach is the engine that drives this masterpiece down the rails into cinematic immortality!
Eastwood is Eastwood The Icon, the great star of the post-John Wayne era. Clint's interactions with Wallach's Tuco are wonderful. Lee Van Cleef makes an outstanding villain as Angel Eyes.
Not to be missed by any student of the cinema! Tonino Delli Colli's cinematography is a text book example of how to shoot a widescreen film, equal to the great Academy Award-winning work of Jack Hildyard and Freddie Young in David Lean's "The Bridge on the River Kwai" (1957) and "Lawrence of Arabia (1962), respectively.
A fascinating evocation of the times
This rather ludicrous exchange takes place at the end of David Lean's adaptation of Boris Pasternak's epic novel DR. ZHIVAGO:
Gen. Yevgraf Zhivago: Tonya, can you play the balalaika?
Tonya's Boyfriend: Can she play? She's an artist!
This dialogue, as well as the scene within the framing device of Yuri Zhivago's brother Yevgraf finding Yuri's love child with Lara and telling her about her "past," appears nowhere in the novel. Instead, in an epilogue in the novel, two of the many characters, after the end of the Great Patriotic War (World War II), talk about how one had met this love child at the front. Their ruminations illustrate the great dislocations caused by the Revolution, Stalin's Terror, and the War. Nowhere does something as silly and trivial as the question "Can you play the balalaika?" appear in the novel.
Movies that use great events as backdrops to personal stories tend to trivialize the great events and make the intimate lives of their characters rather absurd and trivial (ironically, the very charge Strelnikov makes to Zhivago, in reference to his poetry, in Lean's movie). Great events such as revolutions wash over everyone and have to be handled with the greatest care to avoid this fundamental absurdity of the events being greater than the individuals.
Before "The Dreamers," Bertolucci already made his film that ruminates on the events of '68 and its aftermath in the year itself:
"Partner" ("Il Sosia"), based on Dostoyevsky's "The Double." It is very interesting, and very honest, look at the spirit of the times and I highly recommend it.