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Killing Kennedy (2013)
Oswald's story the more compelling
Will Rothhaar's portrayal of Lee Harvey Oswald carries "Killing Kennedy." At two hours, with the last 35 minutes completely dominated by commercial breaks, there is simply not enough time to provide any depth or layering to JFK's side of the story. Rob Lowe does a fine impersonation of Kennedy, but ultimately he is the star of a flip book about the highlights of JFK's presidency. Oswald's ideology and personality disorders were the dominant themes of the last years of his life, more so than the outward trappings. Oswald's life was complex, too, yet the script of "Killing Kennedy" gives Rothhaar far more room to move, and this he uses to build a portrayal of a sociopath driven by paranoia, unfocused anger, misperception and arrogance.
Despite the thousands of forests that have fallen so that books might be printed about the assassination, Oswald remains an enigma to many people. Rothhaar's portrayal of Oswald ably depicts his fundamental inability to accurately assess people, organizations and situations, which left him perpetually confused, frustrated and angry. The peculiar, menacing aspects of his personality made him an abusive husband, made friendships impossible, and insured that he would be fired after only a few weeks from yet another menial job.
"Killing Kennedy" makes the case for Oswald as the lone gunman, as do Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard in their self-same titled book on which the movie is based. Whether or not you subscribe to their version of events, their portrayal of Lee Harvey Oswald as political assassin is convincing. Undeterred by his failures and dismissive of his repeated rejections, Oswald maintained the fiction that he was a revolutionary, an insurgent in movements he believed he saw happening before everyone else. There is "misguided," then there is "delusional." The former can evoke some sympathy. The latter, never.
Sociopaths have delusions of grandeur, and a notion that they are better than the groups that reject them. Lee Harvey Oswald had both, and no reason for either.
Superb turn from Dennehy
Deathbed confessional episodes are de rigeur for all police procedural dramas, including every series in the L&O franchise, but not many such stories are as well done as "Scheherzade." The first time I watched this episode was to follow the twists and turns; the second and third times to marvel at Brian Dennehy's wonderful, layered portrayal of a dying man who is going to ease his conscience in his own time on his own terms, in an Emmy-worthy performance that was not nominated. It would have been too easy, and the road many lesser TV series would have taken, to make Dennehy's Judd Tierney just plain evil. He isn't, but neither is he the sociopath Benson and Stabler believe him to be before he begins to gradually let them in on his many secrets.
A complex story told well and without contrivance. Judith Light turns in another sharp, pivotal performance as Judge Donnelly. Paget Brewster as the deeply wounded daughter also does just fine. What the interventionists say is true; "secrets keep people sick."
The Sullivans (1944)
The rest of the story
(I don't remember a time when I didn't know about the Sullivans. I have always been impressed by their character, inspired by their patriotism and certain of their bravery. My comments are in no way intended to denigrate their service to their country, nor the sacrifices of their family.)
"The Fighting Sullivans" compresses the time frame of the Sullivans' long wait for answers about their five sons, all serving on the same ship, and substitutes a firm answer about their status for one that in reality was ambiguous and vague. But Hollywood propaganda movies of the WWII era typically made little angels out of future soldiers, saints out of dead ones, and absolved the military of blame or responsibility in the deaths of those who died to protect All We Hold Dear. The truth is always somewhere in between.
Near the end of "The Fighting Sullivans," there is a scene at the kitchen table where Alleta Sullivan reads a letter from her eldest son, George, while the wife of the youngest brother, Al, reads his latest letter to her. We can assume this scene takes place in the fall of 1942. It's suggested that sitting down to read new letters from the boys is a regular occurrence, but no more is said of this.
Soon those letters stopped coming. The brothers were killed aboard the USS Juneau on November 13, 1942, when it was sunk by Japanese torpedoes at Guadalcanal. Discovery of the fate of the ship was mired in red tape and confusion. The Navy Department, fearful of giving away the ship's position to the enemy ("Loose Lips Sink Ships"), delayed a formal search. When rescue teams arrived at the scene eight days after the sinking, they found that only ten sailors out of a crew of 700 had miraculously survived.
Although approximately 100 sailors survived the ship's explosion, many had life-threatening injuries such as compound fractures or internal bleeding. They died first, and exposure, delirium, shark attacks or some ghastly combination claimed 90% of their shipmates over the next several days. The eldest Sullivan brother, George, survived the sinking in relatively good condition. He searched relentlessly for his brothers until he fell into delirium brought on by the effect of the elements and died just a day or two before the rescue.
The fate of the Juneau and her crew went unknown to the public for weeks. The Sullivan parents must have been out of their minds with worry. Christmas must have been bleak and empty. It's reasonable to assume they made inquiries of the Navy Department, but they would not have gotten very far because definitive answers about the fate of the Juneau survivors would not come for many months. (Ultimately it was learned that there were over 25 sets of brothers on board, and that a family in Connecticut had lost four sons on the ship.)
In early January 1943, their mother heard secondhand through a neighbor, "too bad about the Sullivan boys. I hear their ship sank." But there was no official word given to Tom and Alleta Sullivan about their sons for another week, two full months after the sinking. Even then, when Naval officers arrived at the Sullivan home on January 12 to bring the bad news, they could only tell the parents that their sons were missing in action. That was the official declaration of the US Navy at that time, but the sense of finality it carried for the Sullivan family was surely unmistakable. The desire for a tidy ending and a hasty release for "The Fighting Sullivans" left the story incomplete, but the film can serve as a point of departure for those wanting to learn all the dimensions of a story which went far beyond that of one family's incomprehensible tragedy.
Indecent Proposal (1993)
A lost opportunity
I've always had problems with the title. The word "indecent" means immodest, obscene; unfit for society. When used these days, the word is almost invariably followed by "exposure." "Audacious Proposal" would have made more sense.
The premise is well-known by now, and presents opportunities to muse about the relevance of marital fidelity, personal scruples, and the seductive and emotional power of money, but it sidesteps, muddies or ignores every one of them. It could have addressed any or all of them and still be entertaining and a conversation starter.
Billionaire John Gage (Robert Redford) offers one million dollars to a struggling couple, Diana and David Murphy (Demi Moore and Woody Harrelson), if he can sleep with her for one night. The proposal is intrepid, adventurous and bold, but it is not indecent. Diana accepts the offer and follows through with the assignation, all the while reminding David that she is doing it for him, to further his career as an architect. I suppose her oft-repeated declaration is meant to show us that yes Diana does too have scruples. See? she can call upon them whenever she wants to.
Diana's tight-lipped and blithe insouciance once the tryst is history and the money is in the bank drives David out of his mind. Director Adrian Lyne wisely keeps Diana's and Gage's night on the yacht out of camera range. (Seeing the hideous gray dress he asks her to wear is enough.) It's too bad he didn't do the same with David's petulance, self-pity and masochism, which overshadows everything else in the second act. David is supposed to be a bright and promising architect whose marriage to Diana is solid as a rock. Of course, the only way we know this is through a lightning fast exposition of their courtship and marriage, told mostly through photos shot with a lens metaphorically coated in Vaseline. In "Love Story," Jenny reminded Oliver many times that "love means never having to say you're sorry." These two like to ask each other the equally inane, "have I ever told you that I love you?"
When Demi Moore gives the best performance in a movie, that's saying something. Although Diana is an underwritten role, the character isn't maddeningly one-note like those of David and Gage. She is two-dimensional, which is as fleshed out as any Lyne character ever gets. Lyne is no more secure in his leading lady's acting abilities than most other directors, so he gives her the expected opportunities to show some skin. Sketchy roles never seem to allow Moore any freedom; she tends to hem herself in. But someone has to restrain themselves in the aftermath of Diana's night on the yacht. As noted, David has gone to pieces with rage and jealousy. Diana cannot deal with his meltdown; his suspicions, leading questions and accusations drive her away.
Meanwhile, John Gage is waiting for Diana around every corner. He is essentially stalking her, but his behavior is supposed to come off as charming. When she, on the other hand -- with good reason -- crashes one of Gage's business luncheons, it's cause for alarm; Diana's behavior is "inappropriate" and unacceptable. This is a double standard Hollywood reinforces over and over again. But soon Diana puts up only token resistance to Gage's pursuit. She didn't when he offered her and David that lifetime of financial security with but one little catch.
Diana eventually caves in, and she and Gage get busy making the social rounds. What they find to talk about is anyone's guess, but Moore and Redford do make for an attractive couple. The passage of time is indicated by David and Diana's both getting teaching jobs. He teaches architecture and suggests bricks are blessed with self-determination. I told you he went nuts after Diana slept with Gage. For her part, Diana teaches U.S. citizenship. Her pupils, all well into adulthood, giggle like 8-year-olds when Gage crashes the class to declare he's crazy about Diana. Even though she has divorced David, her days with Gage as an item at gala openings and silly charity functions are numbered. The time comes for Diana to go back to David, having learned what, exactly? "Have I ever told you I loved you?" "Would we have been able to handle the million bucks any better if we'd earned it?" The credits roll before they begin to figure this out.
I want scriptwriters to STOP recycling Mr. Bernstein's anecdote about the girl on the Jersey ferry from "Citizen Kane." Gage gets to give that little speech here, adapted for modern times. The problem is, the conclusion he wants Diana to draw from it is exactly the opposite of what he says.
"Indecent" describes the amount of money the picture took in at the box office -- about $199,000.000 more worldwide than Gage offers the Murphys. If this is Lyne's idea of a "message picture," as they used to call them, he should have used FedEx.
It's much more fun to write about a middling movie than a great one or even a very bad one.
The Memory Keeper's Daughter (2008)
You know you're in trouble when...
a novel has a reading group study guide at the back. It's as if the author or publisher knows that the novel itself isn't strong enough to merit lively discussion without prompts or cues.
That appendix of Kim Edwards's "The Memory Keeper's Daughter" provided a handy script for the Lifetime movie adaptation. But it makes a big gaffe, and it's a doozy: the title character and her brother are almost incidental!
I read the book to the end mainly because I found Caroline Gill to be such a very strong, very compelling character. I never pictured Emily Watson in the role, although she is superb, given what she has to work with. But what is an actress of Watson's caliber doing in a middling TV movie anyway?
Dermot Mulroney, as David Henry, is doomed from the start. In the book the reader doesn't so much feel what David is going through as he is told.
The script doesn't bring the character any more to life, and Mulroney is not actor enough to fill in the blanks, nor to overcome the ghastly work by the makeup department in his final scenes.
In the book and movie, David's wife Norah is used as a coat hanger over which to drape issues afflicting the disillusioned housewife: suspicion, booze, affairs, a time-killing job and self-absorption. In the thankless role, Gretchen Mol follows Spencer Tracy's advice; she hits her marks and doesn't bump into the furniture.
Oh, well. There have been far worse books and far worse movies made from them. The novel "The Memory Keeper's Daughter" touches on so many issues that it explores only a few of them very thoroughly. The movie wisely cuts out many a subplot and yet it still feels long, sluggish and predictable. It's too bad that Lifetime Network, which has a huge following, doesn't spend a little more coin and effort making better movies from better stories.
Faithful rendering of the greatest anti-war novel
Most of us have probably read a wonderful novel and found ourselves casting a movie version and envisioning how certain scenes would appear on screen. Most of us have probably been disappointed in a movie based of a favorite book.
Lewis Milestone's "All Quiet on the Western Front" is in every way equal to Erich Maria Remarque's World War I novel of the same name. Milestone recreates trench warfare in scenes that still have a raw power, with their gut-wrenching depiction of violence and danger, their rodents and dysentery.
How Paul, the young German soldier who narrates the book, gets to the front lines with his buddies happens quickly in both the novel and the movie. Paul's bellicose schoolmaster has whipped his students into a frenzy over the glories of war and service to one's country. He quotes the famous declaration of the Greek poet Horace, "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori." The English translation is "sweet and fitting it is to die for one's country." But Professor Kantorek conveniently forgets the lines that follow: "sweeter it is to live for one's country, and sweeter still to drink of it." As the camera pans around the classroom it reveals only little boys, and even viewers who have not read the book know that they will soon be cannon fodder. Before that happens we learn a little about all of them, enough to care when they are gravely wounded or killed. The war makes men out of these boys in only a few weeks.
Lew Ayres plays Paul as an Everyman for all the boys in Division 2. The story is told through his eyes as it is in the novel, in a straightforward, highly effective narrative. As Paul, Ayres does some of the best work of his career. The horrors of war, and many are suggested here; speak for themselves. The screenplay is faithful to the spirit of Remarque's novel. Subjective commentary is really superfluous. The film does several things the book can't, one of which is to use slow tracking shots over the trenches. It's a subtle effect unusual for its day. The production design is so vividly detailed it's nearly impossible to believe "All Quiet on the Western Front" was shot entirely on studio back lots.
It is only towards the end of the story, when Paul has a lengthy leave and goes home, that he departs from his blunt narrative to ask himself the big questions. He worries if he will be able to live a civilian life, to carve out a career, have a family. His excursion from the front, far away from the constant bombardment of the shells should bring him some respite, some pleasure. But he finds none. And maybe it takes a soldier to understand that a lice-infested redoubt where one false move can leave you holding your intestines in your hands can, in a strange way, feel like home.
Milestone and his screenwriters made a smart move in treating the cast of "All Quiet on the Western Front" as an ensemble. As the men grow up -- and many of them do survive for two years or more -- it is obvious that these young soldiers have formed attachments of a kind they will never have again even if they live to be old men. When Paul is out on leave and runs into old acquaintances, they ask him "so, how is it out there?" What can he tell them? When he drops in on his old Professor he is giving the same rousing call to arms he gave to Paul and his buddies several years earlier. Kantorek wants Paul to echo his sentiments. Paul won't lie, but the truth is impossible to describe.
Rarely in the book or the movie are the names of specific battles given. It doesn't matter; they were more or less the same. Visitors to the battlefields of Northern France might be amazed at how much evidence still exists of the trenches and the battle lines like those where Paul and his comrades fought "The War To End Wars." 90 years later, farmers and hikers in the woods still find unexploded bombs (UXBs). Many a farmer tilling his land has been killed by one. If found before they go off, there are three depots in France where UXBs are taken and detonated safely. Children used to decorate fence posts with rusting German and French helmets. Bone fragments were routinely found by anyone working the soil until the 1960s. There is still so much metal in the ground near Verdun that very little green will grow there. And every few months some country loses its last WWI veteran. They are over 100 years old now. How many of their stories mirror those of the men in Paul's Division? Time and the elements are eroding the memories of WWI, but Remarque's story and Milestone's superb film will ensure that they will last, even if their message is never absorbed by any country preparing for war.
Killer of Sheep (1978)
Simple but not simplistic
Because critical and personal opinions about small films like Charles Burnett's "Killer of Sheep" tend to be vehement and sharply divided, the less you know about such films going in, the more you may appreciate them.
Production cost figures I've seen vary from $10,000 to $20,000. Whatever its price tag, it was far below minimal. But if you are of the right disposition, you may find "Killer of Sheep" to be more powerful and affecting than many studio films with big name stars and multi-million dollar budgets.
With "Killer of Sheep," Charles Burnett manages to create a very good movie even though it has no real beginning, middle or end and an anonymous cast. Nothing happens and everything happens. He documents Stan (the slaughterhouse worker of the title), his family and their friends in Watts over a period that could be a day, a week or a month. Yes, the film is a "slice of life," but that phrase has been applied so often to films critics didn't know how to categorize that it's become almost meaningless.
Shooting in black and white wasn't an artistic conceit, it was an economic necessity. Casting friends and family members wasn't Charles Burnett's attempt -- I'm quite sure -- to say "I can make an actor out of anybody." There's only one scene I can recall where the camera cuts from one character to another, and many setpieces are filmed with a static camera. In this way the film does remind me of 1960s French and Italian movies. But in the early films of Michelangelo Antonioni, for example, the characters seem to merely feign boredom. Burnett's characters often live it.
Stan, his wife and their two children live in a rented house which needs constant repairs. The always exhausted Stan has to make these himself, as well as worry about their son who is about 13 and inclined to follow the lessons of his father's friends, who believe any problem can be solved with the smash of a fist. Stan is not like this; he is pragmatic, thoughtful and quiet, and above all, decent. Stan's wife is more restive. She's a housewife with a fierce beauty who has never stopped freshening up for her husband before he comes home. Her sexual frustration is a quiet undercurrent. The one day when she and Stan are on the same wavelength, they dance in silhouette to Dinah Washington's "This Bitter Earth." Even viewers unfamiliar with this song will almost certainly be moved, maybe to tears. Exquisite, tender and understated. Like all the music on the eclectic soundtrack, the use of this song at this time is exactly right.
Stan's wife has given up trying to rein in her unruly son. She doesn't pay a tremendous of attention to her daughter, either. But the five-year-old girl is good as gold and never causes her mother any worry. In one of the most effective scenes in the entire film, the little girl (Burnett's daughter) sits on the floor playing with her dolls and singing along -- loudly and with abandon -- to Earth Wind and Fire's "Reasons."
The only real story thread running throughout the film involves the rebuilding of a car engine, dropping it into an old Dodge sedan and taking it out on a joyride into the country. This provides a little comic relief, and part of this sequence brings to mind the Laurel and Hardy film "The Music Box." But it's ultimately sad, too. Without any money, putting together a working car from "pieces parts" is an exhausting and time consuming ordeal. And once the car, packed with neighbors, is ready for a test drive, it soon develops a flat tire. Of course there is no spare. This calamity is greeted with the weary laughter of despair.
Surprisingly, perhaps, it's a lack of bitterness and frustration and anger that permeates "Killer of Sheep," although some characters are embittered and some prone to violence. Charles Burnett could just as easily have adopted another tone, one just as realistic but far darker. He tones nothing down; Stan and his friends live tough lives, no question. There is little rest for the weary. Some of their neighbors are going hungry. No sooner is one thing fixed than another broken. And through it all, the children -- and there are always many of them around -- amuse themselves with precious few toys.
The scenes of sheep being led to the slaughter could serve as symbols for Stan and his family and friends. But they don't. Everyone in the large cast becomes an individual, and they still retain some control over their fates. Charles Burnett could easily have made his film a social commentary or a polemic, layering pity with sentiment. But he didn't. In the vernacular of the mid-70s, he "tells it like it is." And few American filmmakers have ever documented ordinary lives with such objectivity and compassion.
Mountaintop Removal (2007)
"Stop Destroying My Mountains." --God
Most Americans don't think too much about coal mines until men are trapped inside them. I would venture to say that fewer know that the U.S. still derives 50% of its energy consumption from coal. I had no idea our dependence on coal was so great until I watched "Mountain Top Removal," which illuminates the relentless and creative attempts by ordinary West Virginia citizens to halt the environmental havoc waged by strip mining coal from the tops of mountains.
As illustrated in Michael C. O'Connell's straightforward and intimate documentary, the process of mountain top removal leaves the peaks looking as though they were peeled like an orange. And the fallout from washing the coal leaves toxic waste dumps called slurry ponds which not only poison the land at the bases of the mountains, but induce numerous health problems among the residents below. One story thread follows the Marsh Fork Elementary School, and the efforts to relocate the school because of its proximity to mountain top strip mining that takes place directly above it. Local citizens, beginning with the students themselves, stage fund raising drives to relocate the school, and force a meeting with West Virginia governor Joe Manchin to make him aware of the problem. Manchin acknowledges awareness of this kind of problem. It's for sure he has seen it before; although not stated here, Manchin comes from a coal mining family, and if memory serves his father was killed in a mine collapse. He has consistently supported the efforts of residents to address their grievances with mining companies, and to gain some redress, but on this day he leaves the families and students with only vague promises.
Ed Wiley, the grandfather of one of the students at Marsh Fork -- although he only looks to be about 45 -- spearheads the fund raising efforts and the march on the state capitol. He also takes his cause on the road -- walking from Marsh Fork to Washington, D.C. -- in an attempt to meet with West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd. Wiley emerges as the true hero of this narrative; he has countless facts at his fingertips and a passionate way of expressing the numerous calamities visited upon the communities in the shadow of the mines. For example, Wiley notes that only four men are required to operate the dragline excavators that make strip mining so efficient, as opposed to the 350 men it would require underground to bring in a similar haul. Once-thriving coal mining towns have dried up as a result. Boarded-up storefronts in dusty streets on a weekday afternoon tell that tale.
Massey Energy, the nation's fourth largest coal company with over $2 billion in coal reserves, is the villain here, although none of its executives are shown attempting to defend the company's practices. They don't have to: their actions speak for themselves. How many first-person accounts of the black water that flows from kitchen faucets, how many research scientists does it take to point out that the water in many parts of West Virginia is but a carrier for arsenic, lead, mercury, chromium and other toxins? You can't drink it, fish in it or swim in it. But greed is good; it certainly has been for Massey over the long haul, (although in recent years the company has run afoul of the Clean Water Act thousands of times and faces billions of dollars in fines). It is left to Bill Raney, spokesperson for the West Virginia Coal Producers Association and a local resident, Paulette Ferguson, to defend the mining industry and its flagrant disregard for the environment and the health of the people and their communities. This they do with such a dispassionate recitation of the coal companies' party line it's difficult to imagine that even they believe this canned rhetoric.
Raney and Ferguson would probably argue that things are better now than ever. There was a time, tourists in an abandoned underground mine are told, when the mining companies operated like fiefdoms. Decades ago miners and their families lived in company built housing; they shopped at company owned stores; their rent and grocery bills came out of their pay. The mining companies even issued their own currency! Nowadays they merely force family members to sign release forms before they can go visit family cemeteries on land bought up by the coal companies. For shame.
"Mountain Top Removal" could easily have been a polemic, but O'Connell merely shows the viewer aerial shots of the decapitated mountains, and allows the eloquent, resilient people of Marsh Fork to tell their own stories. The facts of their sad stories will make you angry, but their determination to fight to preserve the land, the environment, and their very lives and those of their children will leave you with nothing but admiration.
Frank Lloyd Wright (1998)
Flawed genius; good documentary
I think the thing to remember about this documentary is that it's called "Frank Lloyd Wright," not "The Buildings of Frank Lloyd Wright." There are many other resources for those wishing to learn about his designs and the structures he built. (A personal recommendation is the 2002 documentary, "Restoration of Frank Lloyd Wright's Heurtley House").
The format that Ken Burns's films use is well known by now: pans of many still photographs, informative narration -- often jam-packed with facts but clearly presented and in a generally objective tone. Shifts in time and place are smoothly integrated such that it's unlikely that an attentive viewer will get lost.
Frank Lloyd Wright died in 1959 at age 91, and there were very few years in his long life that were not without controversy. He broke all kinds of rules with his architectural designs to create some truly remarkable structures -- "Fallingwater," the Johnson Wax Building in Racine, Wisconsin, the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo and most especially the Guggenheim Museum in New York. They are all examples of his iconoclasm. They and other structures sealed his reputation as the most famous American architect of his or any other generation. But it was the personal scandals, generally involving other men's wives, that forced him to flee the country on a number of occasions, and put his career in a deep freeze for long spells.
By his own admission Wright was an absent and negligent father to his many children; he seems to have been serially unfaithful until late middle age, and he was wild and extravagant with money -- particularly other people's. Clips from a 1958 TV interview with a chain-smoking Mike Wallace are interspersed throughout, and a snippet of it concludes the documentary with Wright proclaiming his immortality. Wright the man seems to have been insufferable, and he seems to have gotten little joy out of life.
Yet his doesn't appear to have been a tortured soul; his personal life may have been absent any harmony, and yet that quality repeatedly found its way into his work. Many of Wright's buildings are in breathtaking concert with nature. His interior designs, including that of the Unity Temple and almost all of his stained glass, suggest they are the creation of an unfettered and free spirit. Wright may have been such a man, but if so he directed those energies in many of the wrong places. His self-centeredness, arrogance and certainty of his genius hurt a lot of people around him.
It's well to ask why anyone wanted to work under him, and yet the waiting list for the scholarship program he operated at his Taliesin West studios in Arizona in the 1930s, 40s and 50s was a mile long. Students of Wright's were bent to his will; they had to do four hours' manual labor a day, grow their own food, submit to having their love relationships and even some marriages orchestrated by his wife, Olgivanna. The place was run like a boot camp, but the opportunity to work side by side with Wright was enough to keep the applications flowing in. Several graduates of the school are interviewed in the documentary, and for all of them working with Wright seems to have been the seminal experience of their lives -- they don't recall the hoops they had to jump through and the indignities they signed on for in order to have that privilege.
To truly love and appreciate the works of Frank Lloyd Wright, it's almost better if you don't know too much about their designer. Still, the dichotomy between the man and his sublime creations makes a great story, and this documentary is a largely successful attempt to bridge that gap.
An unlikely combination: lovely and repugnant
I think we can pinpoint the time at which Peter O'Toole stopped being an Actor (with a Capital "A") and became a Movie Star with the 1982 film "My Favorite Year," in which his character, Alan Swann, actually says "I'm not an actor, I'm a movie star!" (Jack Nicholson has passed through the same metamorphosis; he now plays the "Jack Nicholson role" in every one of his movies.)
Why tamper with success?
I was anxious to see "Venus" because I am such an O'Toole fan, and I was intrigued to see how much of his innate dignity he would maintain while playing a character, an old thespian named Maurice, who was largely billed as a "dirty old man." My frustration came at seeing Maurice, who quotes from Shakespeare so mellifluously and has had such a storied career on the legitimate stage reduced to his baser instincts. His best friend and roommate, a fellow actor named Ian (Leslie Phillips) requires a caregiver, and a young woman whom Maurice dubs Venus (Jodie Whittaker) is hired for the job. What neither she nor Maurice expect is that he will attempt to relive his salad days as a randy young actor through Venus, but not with her.
Whittaker comes off quite well in her first film, and doesn't seem intimidated in the face of playing practically all her scenes with a legend. But the things the script asks Maurice to request and Venus to provide debase both characters.
When sex is not Topic A, O'Toole infuses his role with his customary élan, and a touch of (perhaps) unexpected pathos. Another unexpected joy in "Venus" is the presence of Vanessa Redgrave, as Maurice's ex-wife. She is truly luminous and on screen far too briefly. In their scenes together, O'Toole and Redgrave are acting on the same plane, and I yearned for more of that throughout the film. The scenes with Ian and Maurice come across as childish and infantile by comparison, a fate the occasionally witty barb they toss in each other's direction can't conceal.
The same writer, Hanif Kureishi, and director, Roger Michell, brought us "The Mother" in 2003, a film which might or might not be equally off-putting as "Venus" depending on your point of view. But I greatly admire "The Mother," partly because its lead character, marvelously played by Anne Reid, retains the viewer's sympathy throughout almost the entire film. She is so vulnerable and such an emotional wreck that her plight is understandable even if her attempted resolution is not. The same might be said of Maurice, except that he seems to be more manipulative than vulnerable. Yes, he's suffering the vagaries of old age, but he is emotionally balanced. (Maurice does know who he is, despite his protestation to the contrary to Redgrave.)
The desire to recapture lost youth is a perennial one, and Maurice's character is an Everyman in that regard. I just wish that his journey had been more dignified and "respectable". Had it been so, I believe Peter O'Toole would have at long last received the competitive Oscar that has eluded him for decades.
Death of a Salesman (1951)
Miller seems to have been pleased
In his autobiography, "Timebends," playwright Arthur Miller says he was pleased with this version of "Salesman" and felt that Fredric March was effective as Willy. I would love to make that determination for myself. I have always been a big fan of March, and the rest of the cast all seem ideal choices for their roles. I don't believe it is in TCM's library. I think it deserves a DVD release, as does the 1966 (German?) version of "The Crucible."
I check on the DVD availability of this version of "Salesman" every now and then, as well as the 1949 version of "The Great Gatsby" with Alan Ladd, along with some other films that are (surprisingly) not on DVD, such as "Last Year At Marienbad" and "Sundays and Cybele." Good things come to those who wait.
Indeed, even if you have to wait seven years. The Fredric March version of "Salesman" made its way to YouTube in October, 2014. The print is not very good, but the movie is fine. March is wonderful, even if he does start out the movie at something of a fevered pitch rather than working up to it, as another reviewer says. The two sons, Biff and Happy, are such ne'er do wells and so dishonest that they are thoroughly unsympathetic. Kevin McCarthy and Cameron Mitchell play them to perfection. Mildred Dunnock's Linda may be the best performance in the movie. She mediates, observes, cajoles, admonishes, plays on sympathies, comforts and encourages. It's amazing how many dimensions there really are to this character, and Dunnock finds and plays them all beautifully. "Death of a Salesman" is so stagebound that it's hard to find ways to open it up for the screen, so why bother? The story and performers draw audiences in to "Salesman," and because the subject matter is so unremittingly bleak and despairing, the acting has to be of a very high caliber to sustain interest. This is a feat the 1951 movie version pulls off handsomely.
Notes on a Scandal (2006)
Can't get it out of my head
I saw "Scandal" once and was mesmerized, and sent it back to Netfix too soon. And now I want to read the book. I agree with many others here that Judi Dench had a far more meaty role than Helen Mirren did in "The Queen,"and that Dench should have won Best Actress.
Dench owns the screen, and it's hard to picture anyone else playing Sheba besides Cate Blanchett.
I was reminded of "Vertigo" when Dench's Barbara goes and gets herself a makeover -- even bringing flowers like a suitor -- when she visits Sheba's home for the first time. Sheba's daughter Polly asks Barbara why she's "all poshed up." But she doesn't keep up this new look, instead reverting back to her drab, haggard self.
I was also reminded of "The Collector," in that Barbara "cages" someone who represents things she wants and wants to be. She holds them down like a bug under glass, and then rejects and torments the person she has ensnared.
In "Notes on a Scandal," Sheba, (Blanchett) the new art teacher at a school where Barbara has reigned over the history department for decades, is a perfect specimen for Barbara to draw into her web. And once Sheba has begun an affair with one of her students and confides in Barbara about it, Barbara finds the chance to expose her "friend" a gleeful and very simple exercise.
Voiceovers don't always succeed in movies, but Barbara's reading from her diary seems to me to be essential here. Her pen drips with venom and she occasionally awards gold stars on its pages to those who have pleased her. Her musings are by turns grim, wry and sad. It's all pathetic of course to hear Barbara's divergent point of view from reality, but with Dench's perfect, arch enunciation of its words the diary becomes a whole other character.
At one point, Barbara tells her diary words to the effect that Sheba is one in a series of "projects" she has taken on; we later learn what happened to the last object of Barbara's attentions, and we see that there may be another "project" who may take Barbara's bait.
Barbara is nothing if not relentless. In a way she objectifies Sheba. It's possible she did the same to Jennifer Dodd and may do the same with Annabelle. But to what purpose? It's hard to define the purpose of evil -- it seems to sometimes exist merely for its own sake -- but it's not difficult to miss its defining characteristics. Barbara and her diary are portraits of evil dressed in plain, drab wrappers which belie that which they truly are.
It's not Christmas without "The Homecoming"
"The Homecoming" is steeped more in nostalgia and familial love and faith rather than empty sentiment. It also contains a very strong Christian message, which stems from the beliefs of its characters, not out of some ham-handed political agenda on the part of its producers.
It's essential for the children to see that there are people like Charlie Sneed (The Robin Hood Bandit) or the Missionary Lady in the world; people who in some way corrupt the meaning of Christmas, in order to realize the blessings they have. Hawthorne, the minister, is flawed, too, of course; he's not exactly doing the Lord's work by making whiskey runs for the old lady bootleggers. But, as he says, you can't feed your kids on faith.
Patricia Neal is the real treasure in this story. She was only 45; a reasonable age for a woman whose 7 children's ages span ten years. In 1965, when she was 39, Neal suffered a near-fatal stroke which left her temporarily paralyzed. She had to learn to talk over again. She had made a screen comeback in 1968 in "The Subject Was Roses," but this film was her *real* homecoming.
Come Back, Little Sheba (1952)
Heartbreaking, heartfelt film with a world-class star turn
Not everyone can make four films in an entire movie career and win an Oscar for one of them. Shirley Booth was already a 3-time Tony-winning actress when she repeated her stage success in the film "Come Back, Little Sheba," and she would go on to win two Emmy Awards as the title character in the long-running TV series, "Hazel." Shirley Booth was born to play Lola Delaney, and deserved every accolade that came her way for her performance.
The secret to playing Lola Delaney is something that we don't see enough of in contemporary American movies, and that is great acting, pure and simple. Shirley Booth simply becomes Lola. She isn't playing a real-life character, so there are no models by which to judge her skill at mimicry. She isn't playing a monster, or a woman triumphing over crippling adversity; she isn't a tragic figure or a powerful woman.
The Lola Delaneys of this world are so ordinary they practically fade into the wallpaper. They live their lives through and for other people. Lola is composed of bits of all such women. She is lonely in a childless marriage, desperate in her desire to please, overly sentimental, naive, guilt-ridden and utterly lacking in self-esteem. She and her husband, Doc (Burt Lancaster) have a marriage that consists mostly of tolerance of each other's foibles and occasional forced gaiety.
William Inge, the last century's most unjustly forgotten playwright, probably knew a great many Lolas growing up in Kansas. But many of Inge's female characters are stronger than they realize, including Lola. Madge in "Picnic" and Cherie in "Bus Stop" also come to mind. Many of them know what they want from life and have a clearer, more pragmatic idea of how to get it than the men around them.
Most of Inge's plays are deceptively simple not only in the characters they depict, but in setting and structure as well. "Little Sheba" derives a lot of its power from its author's constraints, and it's a bit more true to its source than some other movies adapted from his plays. As with most Inge plays, this one "starts in the middle", and as the story plays out we see how the characters got to where they are, and whether they will stick with what they've got or make a break for an unknown future.
In "Come Back, Little Sheba," we meet Lola and Doc at a time when their marriage has become purely an exercise. It was the product of teenage lust, lived in shame and out of a sense of convention its first year. Gradually the couple lapsed into codependencynot a word that Lola and Doc would have knownbut appropriate to describe their existence as she made excuses for his alcoholism. He has been sober for a year, but he's on a slippery rope.
And now, Lola and Doc are in a holding pattern, that is, until they take in a college student, Marie (Terry Moore), as a boarder. Her mere presence, her youth and vitalitynot to mention the overt sexuality that she representsforces the Delaney house into crisis. It is likely that Marie leaves the Delaney home under the same cloud the Delaneys came into it, but her brief stay and sudden departure have grave lessons to teach both Lola and Doc.
Lola learns to stop dwelling in the past and yearning to undo past mistakes. Marie's smoldering affectalthough to be fair she really does not try to lead Doc onsends him reaching for the bottle again. In the end, Marie may never know that she has forced the Delaneys to re-examine their marriage. The final scene ends on an optimistic note, brighter than anything Lola has ever said in an effort to be a lively conversationalist or to feign happiness. It rings quite true, just as does everything in Shirley Booth's brilliant performance.
Rok spokojnego slonca (1984)
The best movie romance you never heard of
The settings and the color palette of this quiet film are bleak and lifeless, but from them arises a love story that is by turns tentative, frustrating, poignant and triumphant. "A Year of the Quiet Sun" tells the story of an extraordinary romance in three languages, the most powerful of which is silence.
Like most Americans, I had not heard of Polish director Krzysztof Zanussi. I've since learned of his considerable reputation in world cinema. If it was cemented solely on the basis of this improbable -- but entirely believable -- story of hope and love among the ruins, it would be almost enough to secure him immortality.
It's Poland in 1946. WWII is over, and Emelia (a radiant Maja Komorowska), and her ailing mother (Hanna Skarzanka), are Polish citizens returning in a crowded boxcar to a town they don't recognize, to lives so shattered rebuilding them seems beyond hopeless. Yet Emilia is philosophical, determined and nonjudgmental. She manages to create a one-room apartment for her and her mother in a bombed-out building. It's dismal, but it's home. Her fortitude is is remarkable, and her optimism begins to rub off on her mother, who slowly reverts to her sentimental, jubilant self.
Both women have earned a kind of beauty survivors often have; there is light in their eyes. Their shared sense of humor provides healing and serves as a coping mechanism. We may not understand the jokes, but it's a privilege to watch mother and daughter laugh to the point of tears.
Occasionally, Emelia goes into the countryside on her bicycle, where she sits in a burned-out car and paints. One afternoon, an American GI stops by the side of the road and proceeds to relieve himself next to the car. He is shame-faced and deeply embarrassed when he learns the car is inhabited, but also in awe of someone who can still find beauty amid such desolation. He is immediately touched by and fascinated with Emelia. Somewhat unnerved, she leaves quickly, and the soldier makes it his mission to find her again.
We have previously learned the GI's name is Norman (Scott Wilson), and that he has elected to stay behind after the war to investigate war crimes. When younger soldiers ask why he will stay when he can return home, he tells them he will leave the glory to them. Besides, he has nothing to return to in the States that holds any meaning for him.
Norman does find Emelia again, and begins making periodic visits, always bearing gifts. He brings Emelia some paints on his first trip, and later, once he's learned that she is a baker, he brings her a large box of sugar and other goods she needs to make her cakes. By prevailing standards Norman is a wealthy man, and he has connections.
But it's the gestures more than the gifts that touch Emelia, although she resists his gentle advances. She is scared, and scarred; still grieving for the husband she lost after a marriage of only a few months, and whose body she has never been able to locate to even give a proper burial.
The two cannot talk to each other. She knows almost no English; he knows no Polish. The mother hopefully asks if he speaks French. He does not. But gradually the two of them connect, and soon Norman is hopelessly in love. He desperately seeks out translators; they are hopelessly inept. Ultimately, Norman and Emelia come to see that words are unnecessary, he faster than she. They plan to marry and leave for America, but Emelia will not leave her mother behind. A subplot suggests there is a way for all of them to leave together which involves something like the "letters of transit" in Casablanca. But things fall apart, despite the mother's sacrifice for her daughter's happiness. Years later, another chance for Emelia to reunite with Norman presents itself, but is thwarted no sooner than it's begun.
The film's coda is elegiac. It is an homage to the films of John Ford, and to love that transcends language barriers, time and distance. It metaphorically reunites the lovers in Monument Valley and provides the film's final showcase for the work of cinematographer Slawomir Idziak. Emelia and Norman reprise a dance from an earlier scene in the movie which is at once joyless and technically proficient, and in its own way, elegant. It's a version of the Lindy, and it seems both utterly out of place and totally in keeping with the uncomplicated, resolute natures of the characters.
It's reasonable to ask how American actor Scott Wilson became involved with "Quiet Sun". He has never been any American director's idea of a romantic lead. He is still best remembered as one of the killers in 1967's "In Cold Blood". Wilson answers that question in an interview on the Kino DVD. He and director Zanussi met through a mutual friend in the mid-70s. They were aware of each other's work and interested in making a movie together, but it took ten years for the pieces to come together.
This is far and away Scott Wilson's best work. When he sings "Amazing Grace" on an empty train platform your heart will crack. More than 20 years later, Wilson remains in awe of Maja Koromowska and of Zanussi and his crew, who resorted to subterfuge and sometimes bribery in order to get the film they wanted made in a Communist country. Wilson is justifiably proud of his performance in "A Year of the Quiet Sun," and humbly acknowledges his wish that this wonderful film had found a larger audience.
The Snake Pit (1948)
Imperfect, but far ahead of its time
Year by year, the stigma of mental illness in the U.S. is easing, but it is still with us nearly sixty years after the release of "The Snake Pit." That a major Hollywood studio was willing to address such a frightening and misunderstood issue in 1948 in a sensitive and reasonably intelligent way is remarkable.
Although the film is imperfect, I think it is a fairly accurate portrayal of treatments, conditions in state mental facilities and attitudes towards mental illness in the late 1940s. What makes "The Snake Pit" work as well as it does is the truly extraordinary work of Olivia de Havilland as Virginia, and Leo Genn as the benevolent, determined Dr. Kik. Their characters have to work with what mental patients and their doctors had at the time, which was precious little. Virginia is fortunate enough to have a husband, played sensitively by Mark Stevens, who sees no shame in seeking treatment for his wife. This seems unusual for a man of that time, but he obviously loves her and he is patience personified.
Apart from months and months of confinement to a state-run hospital, Virginia's course of treatment consists of electric shock treatments (now known as electro-convulsive therapy -- this software will not allow me to call it by its initials as is standard practice in the mental health community) and "truth" serum to aid her in recovering past memories. This was a routine course of therapy for the mentally ill at the time. The two cancelled each other out, however; the primary side effect of shock treatment is loss of short term memory, and truth serum is more a product of wishful thinking than an effective therapeutic method.
Dr. Kik reduces the number of shock treatments he has scheduled for Virginia, yet one particularly sadistic nurse attempts to prep her for another, presumably to make Virginia even duller and more listless than she has already become. Making patients compliant by force and induced trauma to the brain was the extent of professional psychiatric care for decades. Psychotrophic drugs (which are true miracles) and talk therapy, which when used in tandem have given millions back their lives, were years away. Actually, by the standards of the time, the facility and staff of the hospital to which Virginia is confined are fairly humane.
The ultimate diagnosis of Virginia's illness is a classic Freudian guilt complex, arising out of events beyond her control. Armed with this facile explanation and with no further therapy available after leaving the hospital except to return should her symptoms reoccur, Virginia is reunited with her husband and sent on her way. But not before assuming the role of wounded healer in a couple of touching scenes with a catatonic patient played by Betsy Blair, that ring quite true. The penultimate scene of "The Snake Pit" takes place at a dance for the patients. It's awkward and uncomfortable to watch until a patient (Jan Clayton) takes the stage and begins singing "Going Home," a lovely spiritual the theme of which Dvorak incorporated in his "New World" symphony. Her voice trembles until she begins to listen to the words she's singing. As the entire gymnasium full of people begins to sing with her, the room begins to swell with a haunting optimism. It is a little-known but profound and inspiring movie moment.
Just plain bizarre
If you came in after the credits, you'd have no idea that "Arrowsmith" was directed by 4-time Oscar winner John Ford, adapted by Pulitzer Prize winner Sidney Howard, or based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Sinclair Lewis. Lewis had refused the award. Too bad the cast and crew of "Arrowsmith" didn't follow his example. I've seen better community theater productions of "Antigone." I wish I were kidding.
What a mess. This is one Sinclair Lewis novel I haven't read, but it's obvious that entire chapters were crammed into what becomes a ludicrous montage of Dr. Martin Arrowsmith's rise from med student, to country doctor to preeminent medical researcher. My favorite part of this sequence is the first: the 16- or 17-year-old Martin (and here sanity prevails because he is not played by Colman) is poring over "Grey's Anatomy." His mentor tells him a doctor needs a very small library: "Grey's Anatomy," the Holy Bible and Shakepeare. He forgot to mention a script.
On the way to the top, he courts Leora Tozer (Helen Hayes) in one day and marries her the next; they move to South Dakotafrom where we don't know; wasn't it supposed to be Minnesota?the next day, blah blah blah. He delivers a baby. Extraordinary. He pulls a child's tooth in a truly bizarre ritual involving a piece of twine and a flaming newspaper. Building on the success of these medical breakthroughs, Our Hero brings a bovine plague to a speedy endthus gaining the attention of a world-renowned medical laboratory in New York City.
Shortly thereafter, I went into the Caribbean jungles with Dr. Arrowsmith to eradicate the bubonic plague, only I never came back. And it wasn't the plague that killed me, but boredom. Rats.
Sometimes I wish Ronald Colman had been born around 1906 instead of fifteen years earlier. He was too old for almost every role he played in the sound era. But Hollywood and the public loved him, and he was a superb actor. In the silent era, his aristocratic good looks and unstudied grace allowed Ronald Colman to convincingly play both swashbuckling hero and gentle swain. When the talkies revealed Colman was blessed with a mellifluous voice and clipped British accent, that was the icing on the cake.
Oh, well. "Arrowsmith" was a colossal misfire on the part of everyone involved. If I had been Colman, I'd have gently eased my agent into the line in the jungle hut where they were handing out the placebo serum.
The Two Jakes (1990)
Oil and water don't mix
I can't imagine anyone who isn't familiar with "Chinatown" being able to follow the plot of its long-delayed sequel, "The Two Jakes." So many of the elements that insured the success, if not mythical status of its predecessor are here, including talent before and behind the camera. And yet "The Two Jakes" is self-conscious; the plot labyrinthine to the point of irritation rather than intrigue, the period detail exaggerated to the point of parody.
"Chinatown" eschewed any number of stereotypes of film noir to almost singlehandedly usher in a new era of private eye films. It did not require voice-over narration to keep the audience on the right track or smooth over deficiencies in the plot, or illuminate character. In "The Two Jakes," J.J. Gittes's running commentary is at the same time vital and intrusive. Despite its complex plot, "Chinatown" unfolded in a linear fashion. There were no flashbacks, and the audience was never ahead of investigator Gittes.
The plot of "The Two Jakes" is not only complex, it's almost incomprehensible. The audience is not in lockstep with Gittes, it's just as bewildered as he is; except about the identity of a character which is made known to us eons before it is to him. The dialogue is a pale imitation of that of its predecessor; in fact, the best lines in the film are lifted directly from "Chinatown." Several characters from "Chinatown," most notably Lou Escobar, (Perry Lopez) are still around to give Jake a hard time. If Jake has mellowed a bit, so has Lou. Loach, the cop who fired the fatal shot at the end of "Chinatown," has apparently died in the interim. His son is played here by David Keith, and the second of his two scenes concludes with an unfortunate, scatological joke of the kind the "Chinatown" script so assiduously and deftly avoided. A couple of cameos from other original cast members provide a chuckle or two.
You know you're in trouble when even three earthquake temblors can't shake things into place. There is good work from a large cast that includes Harvey Keitel (as the other Jake), Richard Farnsworth and Ruben Blades. Eli Wallach and Frederic Forrest are wasted. "The Two Jakes" remains at best a curiosity that might seem better had it not tried to equal, let alone surpass, its predecessor.
Playing the notes but not the music
Like many people, I devoured E.L. Doctorow's sprawling novel, "Ragtime" prior to the release of the film. I also wondered how a director could handle characters known in the book only by their positions in the family. And how could more than a dozen threads that run contemporaneously throughout the novel be woven neatly together in a 2 1/2 hour movie? The answer to both questions is, "imperfectly."
Robert Altman was originally hired to direct "Ragtime." But he had a falling out with producer Dino DeLaurentis and backed out of the project.
So Milos Forman was brought on board. He had directed "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" to 5 Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director in 1975, and would achieve even greater success three years after "Ragtime," when "Amadeus" picked up eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture and a second Best Director Oscar for Forman in 1984.
For "Ragtime," Forman assembled a first-rate cast. James Olsen as Father, Mary Steenburgen as Mother, and Brad Dourif as her Younger Brother just seem to spring off the pages of Doctorow's book. The bedeviled, ill-fated Howard Rollins, Jr. plays the equally doomed Coalhouse Walker, Jr. with great charm, passion and intensity. His is a star-making performance.
Numerous others in the large cast bear mention, but when "Ragtime" was released in December 1981, James Cagney's heralded return to the screen after a 20-year absence got the most ink. Cagney most likely would not have appeared in the film had Altman remained director. Milos Forman lived in the same New York neighborhood as Cagney, and persuaded him to play the fictional Police Commissioner, Rhinelander Waldo. He does so with a crusty, irascibility that is fun to watch, until he is an accessory to murder.
Robert Joy is memorable as the maniacal Harry K. Thaw; Moses Gunn is suitably dignified as Booker T. Washington; and Donald O'Connor and Pat O'Brien (who had made many pictures with James Cagney in the 1930s) are thrown in for nostalgia's sake and for good measure. "Ragtime" also helped to spark some new careers. Elizabeth McGovern, in only her second film (after "Ordinary People"), plays Evelyn Nesbit as somewhat ditzy, but she is certainly lovely to look at. Jeff Daniels made his film debut here, and Mandy Patinkin convincingly moves from tenement-dwelling street peddler to visionary silent film maker with great dash and style.
The production design, costumes and set decoration are jaw-dropping. Randy Newman's score is by turns wistful and jubilant. It's one of the best film scores of all time. Creating the look of this film and its soundtrack were obviously labors of love.
Where "Ragtime" goes wrong is in scrapping about 75% of the text of the novel. Perhaps it would not have been possible to do Doctorow's novel full justice except as a miniseries. Even so, devoting the bulk of the screenplay to Coalhouse Walker's search for racial justice throws the movie off-kilter. There is no reason why the movie could not have woven a carefully selected group of Doctorow's plot lines into a more satisfying whole. As it is, screenwriter Michael Weller's choice to concentrate on the sad crusade of Coalhouse Walker at the expense of other, equally interesting characters and their stories is a misstep. It's not a fatal one, but it drains away much of the tremendous energy built up in the first, glorious hour of "Ragtime."
In 1906, America was a cold, lonely and sometimes very dangerous place for women, immigrants and minorities of all kinds. The movie alludes to what the book thoroughly explores—that wealthy white men lived lives of bloated excess, while women were hamstrung by lack of opportunity, and seldom accorded any real respect. They were often exploited sexually and rarely taken seriously. First generation Americans of various nationalities pitted themselves one against another. Blacks occupied the lowest rung of all, and risked their lives if they tried to get ahead playing by white men's rules.
Coalhouse Walker's desire for equality with white men is, of course, reasonable, fair and just. In a very effective montage, Coalhouse pursues every legal means of redressing the original grievance committed against him. Understandably, when he gets nowhere, he decides to fight his battle on his own terms. He gains some unlikely allies along the way, in a subplot that provides both optimism and some comic relief, Coalhouse's tragic story finally eclipses those of all the other characters who are also victims of prejudice or injustice in one form or another.
"Ragtime" is not a failure, not by any stretch. The acting is uniformly fine, and it is a marvel to look at. Despite its flaws, "Ragtime" remains a well-intentioned film that yields many pleasures and reveals a good many truths about American life one hundred years ago.
They Drive by Night (1940)
Caution: Dangerous Curves
When people say "they just don't make 'em like that anymore," "They Drive By Night" is the kind of movie they're talking about. Yes, it is two movies in one and the second half doesn't work quite as well as the first. Even so, this is a well-paced melodrama that highlights the dangers and frustrations of trying to be a go-it-alone truck driver, and the inevitable domestic difficulties that arise from living life on the road.
Warner Brothers pictures of this era had a finesse to them. The casting was perfection down to the smallest, even uncredited roles. Directors like Raoul Walsh, who directed "They Drive By Night," and his contemporaries Lewis Seiler and Michael Curtiz, among others, were insistent on good scripts. They were also meticulous about mood, atmosphere and music. Film critic Andrew Sarris has described the pictures of Curtiz in particular as being "directorless." And that's not a knock. The look and feel of "They Drive By Night" is gritty and unsentimental, yet nostalgia for a decidedly unglamourous era in our past may come over you in waves. (70 gallons worth of gas and a can of oil for *fifteen* dollars! Arrrggh!) This film contains what may be George Raft's best performance. Although I like his lampooning of his own movie image in "Some Like It Hot," I have never been a fan. But here he is tough yet decent, hard working and ambitious, but with a soft side he seldom displayed on screen. But who wouldn't fall for the brilliant, brassy Ann Sheridan? Both of them scrape off the veneer of each other's toughness, find the gentleness underneath, and have a believable, viable future thanks to their (surprising) chemistry.
Humphrey Bogart, as Raft's brother and partner, fares less well. His part is underwritten, for one thing, and Bogart hams it up in a way quite uncharacteristic for him. Obviously, better things were to come. Warners perceived Raft and Bogart as interchangeable for a time; Raft couldn't stand Bogey and would not do his next assignment, "Manpower" if Bogart was cast. Raft was the bigger name and got his wish; in "Manpower" Edward G. Robinson got what was to have been Bogey's part. But in two years' time, Bogart was top dog. It's impossible to imagine "Casablanca" with George Raft playing Rick, but it almost happened.
Finally to Ida Lupino, whose "Mrs. Carlsen" represents a far greater danger than what the brothers encounter on the road. Lupino was only 22, and this was her first picture for Warner Brothers; she was to fulfill a seven-year contract there under which she often played roles like this: vixenish, cold-hearted with a soul (if she had one) brimming with larceny. Lupino excelled at playing that kind of woman, which led to her being typecast. She escaped that trap by becoming a screenwriter, producer and director while still in her 30s. Now that's pretty impressive. Three cheers for Ida Lupino.
Three cheers for "They Drive By Night" as well. It has a something to satisfy nearly everyone, and excels at almost all it sets out to do.
The Wind (1928)
Late, near great silent film
When TCM airs "The Wind," the film is preceded by an introduction by Lillian Gish filmed in 1988 when she was 85 years old. (She passed away in 1993 at age 90.) Her remarks not only put the film in context, but allow modern audiences to see that the passage of 60 years had not dimmed her beauty or charm. Miss Gish is predictably modest about the power she wielded in Hollywood in the late 1920s, but without her considerable clout this film would most likely not have been made.
To be effective, silent films require imagination, creativity and the eye of an artist in order to tell a story without words. Many great silent films have very few title cards; the visuals tell the story. Different prints of the same film may have different music scores, some better than others, so it is what's on film that really matters. It took the eye of faith to visualize a force of nature, the wind, as a living, breathing character. Thanks to the ingenuity of director Victor Sjöström and his crew, that happened here.
More effective than any tricks the camera can play is the beautiful, winsome face of Lillian Gish as Letty. To paraphrase Norma Desmond in "Sunset Boulevard," Gish could say anything she wanted to with her eyes. Equally dramatic are the wild stallion superimposed on the clouds to represent the dread "norther'", (the most powerful wind of all); the corpse that will not stay buried in the shifting sands, and the twister that threatens the town during a big dance.
Most unforgettable is the set piece which occurs before the forced "happy ending." Letty and her dog are trapped in their tiny cabin at the mercy of the wind. The Thames Silent Orchestra plays discordant, wild sounds that not only mimic the wailing wind, but mirror the spiraling madness that threatens to engulf Letty. There is seemingly no let-up. Table lanterns overturn, the storm shatters the window panes. Letty remedies these small calamities purely on instinct as the dog cowers, and an oil lantern suspended from the ceiling glides back and forth in a slow-moving arc.
Several of these images are so haunting and so emblematic of the silent era that they are used in TCM's montage that introduces its "Silent Sunday Nights."
* * *
I worry that the audience for silent films is dying out. Watching a silent requires patience and a full attention span, neither of which is commonplace any more. When you watch a silent you can't really do anything else, and with the most involving silent films, you don't want to. Silent movie acting may seem hopelessly old-fashioned and title cards annoying to those seeing these movies for the first time in the 21st century. It's helpful to remember that moving pictures were still a technical marvel in the late 1920s, about thirty years after their inception. Filmmakers were still creating the language of film, e.g., how to indicate the passage of time, how to demonstrate that events were occurring simultaneously, how to "make" audible things that could not be heard and on and on. So much movie shorthand was devised and employed so rapidly it quickly became commonplace, and moviegoers quickly forgot that the movies had ever told stories any other way.
There is something magical about the great silent films. Whether they are American or foreign films, silents present no language barrier. The stories they tell and the people who populate and propel the stories are universal, and can be understood by audiences the world over. As with sound-era movies, many more poor silent films were made than good ones. Many silents, good and bad, are lost forever. But the good ones that are still with us—and some are extraordinary—deserve a wider audience. "The Wind" is certainly one of them.
Raintree County (1957)
Montgomery Clift and the making of "Raintree County"
"Raintree County" is one of those movies like "Ishtar" or "Waterworld;" troubled productions remembered as much -- if not more so -- for what went on behind the scenes as in the finished picture. Patricia Bosworth's definitive biography "Montgomery Clift" (1978) is the source of the facts that follow.
While "Raintree County" was in rehearsals, Montgomery Clift's drinking was out of hand, and threatened to hamper production. Elizabeth Taylor had no real influence on him, despite being his dearest friend and soulmate. Many in the cast and crew expressed their concerns to MGM higher-ups. This led to a series of meetings between Clift and MGM Production Chief Dore Schary. "Raintree" had a $5 million budget, the highest of any American film up to that time, so it was up to Schary to solve problems on the set or behind the scenes before they happened.
Schary left the meetings believing Clift was sincere in his desire to straighten up and behave himself. But he was not convinced that Monty would be able to do it. His demons were too powerful; every picture he made was held hostage to Clift's self-destructiveness. Schary decided to take out a $500,000 insurance policy on "Raintree County" just in case there was a halt in production for whatever reason.
Schary had never done this before, but his "funny premonition" tragically came to pass.
On May 12, 1956, half of "Raintree County" had been filmed. Elizabeth and other of Monty's friends had prevailed upon him to stay sober during shooting, and he was trying to live up to his side of the bargain. At a party at Elizabeth's and husband Michael Wilding's that night, Monty was sober and quiet. He had one glass of wine, and made his excuses and left. He was uncertain about driving down the steep hill to Sunset Blvd., and asked his close friend, Kevin McCarthy ("Invasion of the Body Snatchers") to lead him to the road.
McCarthy described many times in later years seeing Monty's headlights move wildly from one side of the road to the other in his rearview mirror. Then he watched in horror as Monty's car slammed into a telephone pole.
Montgomery Clift's impossibly beautiful profile and the planes of a face the camera adored were destroyed. He was crumpled on the floor of the car, his face and jaws crushed. Elizabeth Taylor resisted all attempts to keep her from going to his side. When she got to him, she straightened him up and pulled his two front teeth out of his throat before he strangled on them.
Recovery was long, slow; unbearably painful. Monty had friends sneak liquor into the hospital. Three weeks after rebuilding his jaws, Monty's doctors realized they had done the job incorrectly. They re-broke his jaws and wired them again.
Production was shut down for weeks. With over $2 million already invested in it, MGM was not about to abandon "Raintree," nor replace its star. Resumption of the project was primarily a question of money for the studio, but to Monty and those who loved him it was a question of pride.
Weeks after the accident, Monty was allowed to see himself in a mirror for the first time. He was not elated with the results, but relieved to see he looked enough like himself that he could continue acting in front of cameras. Greater than his pain had been the fear that his career was over.
Montgomery Clift returned to work on "Raintree County" knowing that the picture was no better than when he left. He returned knowing that audiences would come to see it to play a ghoulish game: they would try to spot him "before" and "after." He returned to the production numbed and dulled by painkillers and alcohol.
Despite his horrific ordeal, despite the liquor and the pills that eased his pain and enabled him to complete the picture, I still believe Montgomery Clift's performance of Johnny Shawnessy to be one of his best.
Clift had an unusual voice and unorthodox phrasing. On screen he was intuitive and sensitive, his portrayals always highly intelligent. However much he rehearsed (and he was notorious for doing things to death) Clift's readings always seemed quite natural. The accident changed none of these things. And equally fine performances were to come, in "Lonelyhearts" (1958), "The Misfits" and "Wild River" (both 1960); and "Judgment at Nuremburg" (1961).
Montgomery Clift died 40 years ago this week, on July 22, 1966. He was 45 years old. But part of him had died ten years earlier on a twisting road in the Hollywood hills. The accident that nearly killed him left him prey to his weaknesses but also to the enormous strength and passion that informs his later performances. "Raintree County" divided Monty Clift's life into "before" and "after."
Le papillon (2002)
Sweet and ephemeral
I can't remember the last time I watched a movie to the end of the credits and immediately went back to the titles and watched it all over again. I was in need of some cheering up. Parents can watch "The Butterfly" with their children and everyone in the room will enjoy it.
It is a pleasure to see a child actor who is as natural and believable as Claire Bouanich. I'm guessing she didn't know she was working with a legend -- but maybe she did. Anyway, she more than holds her own with Michel Serrault.
Some of the "life lessons" taught in "The Butterfly" are a little pat. Some of the coincidences are a bit contrived. But that's OK. The beautiful scenery, witty banter between the two leads and the lessons they learn from each other make up for any deficiencies. Sometimes what we need or want most in our lives really is right under our noses. This movie is a gentle reminder of that basic truth. Very sweet and endearing.
Gone with the Wind (1939)
Further comments are redundant. . .
nonetheless, I'll throw in my two cents.
"Gone With The Wind" is surely the best-known American movie ever made, but as is obvious from many other comments here, it is beloved the world over. No one film can claim the title of the "greatest movie ever made," but there are plenty of reasons for the enduring, almost mythical popularity of GWTW.
This was the finest hour for many of the principals involved, most notably producer David O. Selznick, whose baby it was and who was as ruthless as his heroine in getting exactly the movie he wanted. Every scene bears his stamp, with its exacting attention to period detail, costumes, music and lighting.
Focusing purely on the spectacular look of GWTW for a moment, it owes many of its special effects to the painstaking efforts of talented glass painters (as shown in the excellent documentary "The Making of a Legend.") William Cameron Menzies's production design and Lyle Wheeler's sets are so strong as to almost be secondary characters. Setting afire to many old MGM sets to simulate the burning of Atlanta was a master stroke. It's clear you're watching a real fire, not just CGI. And what about that scene's conclusionwith the railroad cars full of ammo going POW! POW! POW! and then the facade of the burning building falling in graceful slow motionjust as the wagon rattles past. (Film buffs know that burning building was once the gates used in "King Kong" (1933), and that stagehands pulled guywires to bring the facade down on cue. Doesn't matter. It's wonderful film-making.)
And I haven't even mentioned the depth and clarity of the Technicolor process, seldom used to such great advantage as it is here. Painstaking restoration work in recent years has revived the vivid colors captured by Ernest Haller and Ray Rennahan. Over time the film had begun to look like a slideshow of faded picture postcards, but no more.
Finally, it's Hattie McDaniel's portrayal of the indomitable Mammy that seems to improve year after year. More so even than Olivia De Havilland's Melanie, Mammy is the moral compass of the film. Even before she becomes a free woman midway through the film, Mammy is dignity personified. She is also pragmatic and bursting with common sense. Only she can prevail upon the headstrong Scarlett in every area (except matters of the heart).
I've long been convinced the scene that won for Hattie McDaniel the Oscar she so well deserved is the staircase scene with Melanie, who she's summoned to console Rhett. Rhett has said earlier that Mammy is one of the few people "whose respect I'd like to have." By the film's end, he has it, and so do we.
A Great Day in Harlem (1994)
A "Great Day" plus a worthwhile bonus disc
Jean Bach does the seemingly impossible with "A Great Day in Harlem. She makes a 40-year-old B&W photograph come alive.
Art Kane's first photo assignment for Esquire magazine in 1958 must have been his own personal Everest. Get 50+ jazz musicians in one place at one time, stand across the street, point and shoot. Sure, no problem. But the cats came in droves, some of them having not yet gone to bed after a gig the night before. Some were probably nursing hangovers. But Kane captured a photo that is a cult icon, a time capsule of the heyday of hard bop, with many seminal figures from an earlier day standing proudly beside them.
The late great bassist, Milt Hinton, who is one of the warmest and most charming people interviewed, was also a fine photographer. His wife captured much of the Great Day with a color 8mm movie camera, and it's a treat to see the ensemble milling about on the street and taking their places for the final picture.
Many of the people in this photo are not and never were household names. But the musicians Jean Bach tracked down to give their reminiscences are quick to give them their due. They recognize their skill and talent and recall the personalities of their lesser-known counterparts. Perhaps those just getting into jazz will be motivated to seek out CDs by Benny Golson, Roy Eldridge and others by virtue of the "props" given them by their old buddies and bandmates.
The Bonus Disc is worth watching, if only for the segment on "copycat" photos, and there have been many. A restaging of the original photo is quite poignant. But nothing on it is filler: the jazzmen really did warm up to Jean Bach if they didn't already know her, and they ended up talking about everything.
This documentary was as great an idea as the Art Kane photo that inspired it. Highly recommended.