Thursday, December 28, 2006

Ella Enchanted

Ella & Book(2004)
Directed by Tommy O'Haver
Written by Laurie Craig and Karen McChllah & Kirsten Smith and Jennifer Heath & Michele J. Wolff
Starring Anne Hathaway, Hugh Dancy, Cary Elwes, Joanna Lumley, Eric Idle, Minnie Driver, Lucy Punch, Jennifer Higham
IMDB Entry

After Shrek, you would think a live-action film with a similar sensibility would be something of a success, especially when its script is superior.  But Ella Enchanted somehow never caught on with audiences, despite a great cast, a witty story, and a fascinating predicament.

It is another postmodern fairy tale, but a tad more original than many others.  Ella of Frell (Anne Hathaway) is put under a spell at birth by her fairy godmother Lucinda (Vivica A. Fox):  a spell that compels her to obey any commands anyone gives her. If you tell her to hold her tongue, for instance, she will literally hold her tongue.  She, of course, keeps this a secret from everyone, including her wicked stepmother, Dame Olga (Joanne Lumley).

Ella is something of a rebel, and meets up with Prince Charming (Hugh Dancy), the teen idol of the land.  She is unimpressed with him -- her first meeting is to protest his visit -- but joins up with him in order to try to break the spell.  And the regent, Sir Edgar (Cary Elwes) has sinister plans for the prince.

Like Shrek, the story plays with fairy tales and anachronisms.  Price Charming is a mainstay in Medieval Teen.  There's an elf who wants to be lawyer.  Ella charms a group of giants by singing Queen's "Find Me Somebody to Love" (Queen seems to work well in medieval settings -- see "We Will Rock You" in A Knight's Tale). But the spell -- and the ramifications of it -- gives it all a stronger plot.

Anne Hathaway is certainly the most charming young actress in films today.  She managed to make The Princess Diarieswatchable, and her role as Ella is her at her best.  She has a quirky sense of humor and is a delight in every scene.

The rest of the cast is first-rate and it's hard to single out a performance that doesn't work perfectly. Vivica A. Fox is terrific as the vain Lucinda, who cannot see beyond the reaches of her own enormous ego.  Cary Elwes makes a great villain, as does Joanne Lumley, with special mention given to Lucy Punch and Jennifer Higham as Ella's dim but cruel stepsisters.  Alas, Minnie Driver is a disappointment, with a role that gives her nothing to do.

For some reason, the film never caught on.  Maybe it was hard to market; maybe it was too sophisticated.  For whatever reason, it flopped.  It definitely needs to be rediscovered.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Million Dollar Legs

Million Dollar Legs(1932)
Directed by Edward F. Cline
Written by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and Henry Myers
Starring W.C. Fields, Jack Oakie, Susan Fleming, Lydia Roberti, Andy Clyde, Ben Turpin, Hugh Herbert
IMDB Entry

These articles tend to skew toward newer films. It's always more difficult to see good old films that aren't well-known to film buffs.

Similarly, older films are hard to find, and become harder as more films are released.  Classics show up everywhere, but good films that have been overlooked are difficult to seek out.

I was bemoaning the fact that I didn't have any films from the 30s -- one of Hollywood's greatest eras -- when I rememberedMillion Dollar Legs.

The film was made to make a quick buck on a national event.  The 1932 Olympics were set for Los Angeles, and the film was put together to capitalize on Olympic fever (such as it was during the Depression).  W.C. Fields is the biggest name, though the star is Jack Oakie, who would be completely forgotten today if Chaplin hadn't given him a plum part in The Great Dictator

Oakie plays Migg Tweeny, a go-getting brush salesman who finds his way into the country of Klopstockia, ruled by Fields.  Klopstockia produces nothing but world-class athletes; Fields is president because no one can beat him in arm wrestling.  The country is bankrupt, so Tweeny convinces them to enter the Olympics to clean up in the gold medal department.  The plan is thrown a monkey wrench when the President's opponents hire Mata Machree, The Woman No Man Can Resist (played by Lydia Roberi) to derail the plans.

The film is hilarious.  Written by, among others, Joseph L. Mankiewitz and Ben Hecht, it's filled with Marx-Brothers-style silliness.  Oakie is a personality much like Harold Lloyd -- breezy and sure of himself.  He romances the president's daughter (Susan Fleming, who left films to marry Harpo Marx) and works to thwart Machree's plans.

Fields was just moving over to star in sound films (it's hard to believe that he was as successful as he was in the silents; Fields without mumbled asides is only a fraction of the man). This movie tends to be ignored when his work is considered.  Mostly that's because he's not the character we're used to -- except in flashes -- and his role takes the back seat to Oakie.  It may be Fields the person, but it's not Fields the movie character. 

Roberti is funny as the femme fatale, and a bunch of old silent comics show up among the Klopstockians.  The film rates up among the best comedies ever.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Star Cops (TV)

Star Cops(1987)
Created by Chris Boucher
Starring David Calder, Erick Ray Evans, Trevor Cooper, Linda Newton, and Jonathan Adams
IMDB Entry

Science fiction on TV tends to be fanciful space opera, fighting alien menaces and traveling through space, stopping for an occasional battle. Hard SF is almost absent.  That's understandable:  it's difficult to do hard SF well.

Star Cops is one of the few hard SF shows on TV.  Naturally, it was done in the UK, where SF is generally more adult, even when it's for kids (US science fiction springs from Captain Video -- a children's adventure; UK science fiction springs from The Quatermass Experiment -- adult SF horror).  It only ran nine episodes, but each was well thought out and cleverly done.  And, they all stuck with the self-imposed restraints of making the show as realistic as possible.

The show was set in 2047 (and the near future is rarely used in TV and film SF).  David Calder starred at Nathan Spring, a career cop who takes on the job of being the chief police officer of the International Space Police Force -- the "Star Cops."  Spring thinks that computers have taken over policing, and that there's still room for good old-fashioned human police work.  So he assembles a team and starts solving crimes in space and on the moon.

This is a police procedural in space.  Spring searches for the solutions to various crimes, and they usually have a hard SF twist.  For instance, the episode "Conversations of the Dead," has Spring talking to dead men to solve their murder.  No, it isn't zombies coming to life:  the victims' ship has fired its rockets, depleting all its fuel, and has sent them off away from the planets, where it's physically impossible for a rescue ship to get there in time.  Their oxygen will inevitably run out, but for now, they are still alive.

The show did its best to stick to the realism.  When people were in space -- even on a spaceship -- they were in microgravity.  No artificial gravity:  either you used acceleration, or you floated.  The effect was a bit crude, especially given BBC budgets, but at least they were trying. 

There were no aliens and computers acted like computers, with the exception of Spring's own proto-PDA, called Box.  And Box was pretty much just a sounding board for Spring's theories.  The show avoided mindless action for thoughtful characters and plotting.

The creator, Chris Boucher, had impeccable SF credentials, working on Doctor Who (he created my favorite companion, Leela), and Blake's 7 (where he was script editor for most of the run).  He did a great job of spinning out mysteries and tales of deceit and keeping them scientifically accurate.

The show ran nine episodes (a tenth was filmed, but never aired) to poor ratings (in a terrible time slot) and so-so critical reviews.  The BBC decided to leave well enough alone and let it drop.

Too bad.  It seems to be getting some recognition now, and certainly is more in tune with the hard SF bias of many fans today.  It worked hard to be intelligent science fiction, and deserves recognition.

Sunday, December 3, 2006

Stevie

(1978)
Directed by Robert Enders
Written by Hugh Whitmore
Starring Glenda Jackson, Mona Washbourn, Alec McCowan, Trevor Howard
IMDB Entry

It's is absolutely no surprise that Stevie has been forgotten.  It was barely noticed when it first came out, for obvious reasons:  it's a biographical film about a poet.  And not even a poet who lived a particularly interesting life:  no struggles, no crises, just poetry.  Yet the film is a tour de force for Glenda Jackson and Mona Washbourn.

Jackson plays real-life poet Stevie Smith, sort of a well-adjusted English Emily Dickinson. Smith spent her life working as a secretary, living with her aunt, and writing sharp, intelligent poetry, often on intriguing themes.  For instance, her "Thoughts About the Person from Porlock" deals with the story of Coleridge and the writing of the poem "Kubla Khan."  Coleridge wrote the beginning of the poem, was interrupted by a visitor from Porlock, and then couldn't finish it.  Smith's poem questions the account, and that possibly Coleridge was just blaming the visitor for his own inability to complete it.

But enough poetry neep.  If you love poetry, by all means seek out Smith's work.  Back to the movie.

Jackson is wonderful in the role.  We get to see Smith's love of life and of words as she quotes from her poems.  But the real gem is Mona Washbourn as Smith's "Lion Aunt," the crusty older woman who is both friend and inspiration to her.

Trevor Howard acts as the narrator and plays most of the men in her life, though Alec McCowan is miscast as Smith's love interest.  McCowan was over 50 at the time, and plays a character in his 20s, and a young twit, to boot.  But that's a minor flaw.

The movie was based on a stage play and doesn't hide its stage roots.  It was released in the US in 1978, and garnered a couple of Golden Globe nominations.  But it didn't make it to New York for until 1981 (originally, for a single performance in a double bill!).  Nevertheless, it won the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Jackson.

I can imagine that no one could figure out how to promote it.  Definitely not not high concept.

Stevie's director, Robert Enders, did nothing of note otherwise. But it doesn't matter -- it's not really a director's movie, anyway. Stevie is a true gem of a movie, and well worth discovering if you love poetry or life.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Brewster McCloud

image(1970)
Directed by
Robert Altman
Written by Doran William Cannon
Starring Bud Cort, Sally Kellerman, John Schuck,  Shelley Duvall, Margaret Hamilton, Rene Auberjonois, Michael Murphy, William Windom, Stacy Keach, Bert Remsen
IMDB Entry

The late Robert Altman is one of my favorite directors, one of the few in the past 30 years that deserves to be among Andrew Sarris's Pantheon directors.  But he could be somewhat hit or miss.  For every M*A*S*H or Nashville or The Player, there were things like Indians or Quintet or Pret a Porter.  And hidden within his output were a few gems that have gotten lost in the shuffle.

One is Brewster McCloud.  This was Altaman's first film after his breakthrough in M*A*S*H.  It had a large cast of newcomers (it was Shelley Duvall's first screen role) and veterans (Margaret Hamilton, best know as the Wicked Witch of the West) and an antiestablishment bent.  But ultimately, it was a fable about dreams.

Bud Cort (a year before Harold and Maude) plays Brewster McCloud, a man obsessed with building a flying machine and taking flight in the Houston Astrodome.  Sally Kellerman is Louise, his muse, helper, and hit man, and who just might be a fallen angel.  People in his way are found dead and covered in bird crap:  Margaret Hamilton's Daphne Heap (whose corpse wears a pair of ruby slippers), Stacy Keach's Abraham Wright (Wilbur and Orville's brother).

Detective John Shaft (Michael Murphy) is out to find the killer, abetted by John Schuck as Officer Johnson (one of the vastly underrated actor's best roles).  Shelly Duvall plays Brewster's love interest, and the entire show is presided over by the Lecturer (Rene Auberjonois), who, as he talks about the habits of birds, becomes one himself.

The movie is funny, with some clever in-jokes and parodies in addition to telling the fable.  Cort is wonderful, earnest and weird as he single-mindedly go about trying to fulfill his dream. Auberjonois as the lecturer is unforgettably weird. 

The movie isn't for everyone (few Altman films are), but it is among one of his best. Altman made a very large number of films for someone directing in the 60s and beyond, a number that's even more surprising because he had so few hits.  But he could attract big name actors who loved to work with him, and, while sometimes hit or miss, they could produce gems like this one.

Monday, November 20, 2006

The Onion Field

The Onion Field(1979)
Directed by Harold Becker
Written by Joseph Wambaugh
Starring John Savage, James Woods, Franklyn Seales, Ted Danson, Ronnie Cox
IMDB Entry

Joseph Wambaugh was a cop who started writing best selling novels.  He was unhappy with what Hollywood did with his first two, so, when his third book came out, a nonfiction account of what was then the longest-lasting case in California history, he refused to sell the rights.  Instead, he raised money and produced it himself to make sure it was done the way he wanted.  The result was The Onion Field

In the movie, small-time crooks Gregory Powell (James Woods) and Jimmy Lee Smith (Franklyn Seales) teamed up to commit a bunch of low-level but violent crimes.  When they are pulled over by policemen Karl Hettinger (John Savage) and Ian Campbell (Ted Danson), they panic, taking the two cops hostage.  One of the cops is killed and the results affect all of the others.

This movie brought James Woods front and center as an actor.  He had been in a few films before, but this was his first standout role and his performance as Powell really leapt off the screen.  Powell is a charismatic and cold-blooded criminal, and the most dangerous part of him is that he thinks he's much smarter than he is.  Woods ignites the screen in every scene he's in.

It may be surprising that Ted Danson plays a dramatic role, but it wasn't surprising at the time, mostly because Danson was unknown.  This was his first film role, so there were no expectations.  I sometimes wonder if one reason he used the name Beckeryears later was to thank the director who gave him one of his best roles.

The rest of the cast is also excellent.  Savage and Seales never made it big, but they are also terrific as men trapped in a situation not entirely of their making and trying to survive it. Savage has had a successful career, but rarely the spotlight, while Seales never got the roles he deserved after this.

This is one of the best cop movies made -- Wambaugh's background and control made sure that the details were right -- but it's primarily the story of a bad situation that became worse.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Lost in La Mancha

(2002)
Directed by: Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe
Starring Terry Gilliam, Johnny Depp, Jean Rochefort
IMDB Entry

Jean Rochefort as Don QuixoteTerry Gilliam is one of the most visually inventive of film directors.  Ever since his Monty Python days, he's been the master of arresting images and off-beat films.  So that was probably why Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe decided to make a documentary of one of his projects.  The result, Lost is La Mancha, is certainly nothing like any one of them ever anticipated.

Gilliam was doing something extremely tricky on all levels.  First, he was putting together a film based on Don Quixote, a work that has not worked all that well on the screen.  There was a pretty good Russian version in the early 70s, and, of course Man of La Mancha on Broadway (the movie version was a notable turkey), but the story of Quixote is hard to put into film terms.  In this case, the hook of the movie -- to be called The Man who Killed Don Quixote -- was that a person from current times (Johnny Depp) finds himself in the middle of the novel.

Gilliam's big problem was that he is not trusted in Hollywood.  It probably stems from Brazil, a film sabotaged by the studio, which then turned around and blamed Gilliam when it flopped.  He has had a few hits (Time Bandits, The Fisher King, 12 Monkeys), but none of the type of blockbusters that allow a director the leeway to be more creative.  So, in order to do the film, he went to a shaky consortium of European financiers, which created the need to do it on the cheap.

The movie would have succeeded if everything went off perfectly.  And the fact that The Man who Killed Don Quixote has never appeared in theaters is testament to the fact that it did not.

Lost in La Mancha documents the entire process.  It's a fascinating look at a filmmaker at work, about the compromises, triumphs, and failures that we never know about.  Gilliam is great as he tries to work his way around a series of disasters that would discourage even the most optimistic of people.  It is a testament to just how hard it is to put together a film.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe (Le Grand blond avec une chaussure noire)

The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe(1972)
Directed by
Yves Robert
Written by Yves Robert, Francis Veber
Starring Pierre Richard, Bernard Blier, Jean Rochefort, Alphonse Toulouse, Mireille Darc, Colette Castel, Jean Carmet
IMDB Entry

Foreign comedies all tend to be forgotten.  If they are any good, an inferior US version is rushed into place and no one sees the original.  Another part of this is the culture gap:  what is funny to a Frenchman may not seem that way in the US.  The Tall Blond Man With One Black Shoe is funny in any language.

I think it’s because of the wide range of humor.  There’s the very European reaction comedy, where the humor is in the character’s very human reactions to situations.  There’s also some bawdy comedy and out-and-out slapstick.

I suppose this could best be categorized as a spy spoof.  Toulouse (Jean Rochfort), the head of a spy agency, discovers his second in command, Milan (Benard Blier) is plotting against him.  In order to ferret out the plot, Toulouse pretends he has a super secret investigator coming, and Francois (Pierre Richard) is chosen to be the decoy solely on the basis of his footwear.

Francois is a classical violinist, and, of course, is oblivious.  Milan’s men get on the case, bugging his apartment, watching his every move, sending a beautiful female spy (Marielle Darc) to seduce him (so it isn’t all bad for him).

Pierre Richard is wonderful as Francois.  He is a tall, gawky actor, with wild blond hair and a perpetually bemused look (he reminds me visually of an older, gawkier version of Napoleon Dynamite).  He is the eye of the hurricane of plots going around him, as the two groups of spies keep trying to turn the tables on each other.

Especially good is Jean Carmet as Maurice, Francois’s best friend.  Maurice keeps stumbling upon the spies and their work:  corpses disappear, he hears his wife having sex in a flower van (actually, the spies' listening post) Carmet’s reaction to the goings on is one of the high points.

There was the inevitable US remake: The Man with One Red Shoe with Tom Hanks -- not a film that Hanks points to with pride on his resume.  There was also a sequel The Return of the Tall Blond Man With One Black Shoe, which I haven't seen, but which seems to be well regarded.

Other than the sequel, none of Robert's movies were particularly well known in the US.  Richard had a comedy success with Les Comperes, which also spawned an inferior US version (Father's Day).  Jean Rochefort was a major European star, and, unfortunately, didn’t star in The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.

So don't let the subtitles put you off:  this is a film worth seeking out.

Wednesday, November 1, 2006

Return to Oz

(1984)
Directed by Walter Murch
Starring Fairuza Balk, Nicol Williamson, Jean Marsh, and Piper Laurie
IMDB Entry

When you come right down to it, making Return to Oz was an act of madness.  Why do a sequel to one of the most beloved films of all time, 46 years after it comes out?  How in the world did anyone ever think it would be a success?

And it wasn't.  But it deserved to be.

It's not truly a sequel, first of all.  Oh, sure, there are references to the MGM film (notably the ruby slippers, which didn't exist in the L. Frank Baum novels), but, really, this is an entirely different film based primarily on a couple of other Oz books.  The intention was the film the books, but the script added references to elements of The Wizard of Oz, probably to keep the audiences from being confused (though it probably just increased the confusion).

Tik Tok and Dorothy from Return to OzReturn to Oz is the dark image of the Judy Garland film.  In it, Dorothy is considered mentally ill for insisting that Oz exists.  When she finally makes it there, Oz is a desolate wasteland.  The main villain (Jean Marsh) is a witch with no head of her own, but who keeps the heads of beautiful women in jars for her own use.  Dorothy meets Tik-Tok, a clockwork man, who has two keys to wind him up:  one that makes him move, the other that makes him think. 

The bizarre imagery comes from L. Frank Baum, and director Walter Murch (his only film; he remains busy as an editor and sound technician) chose to highlight the darkness of Baum's vision of Oz. There are no songs, and parts of the film are truly frightening.

Fairuza Balk was 9 at the time she played Dorothy, about the same age as Dorothy was in the books.  Unlike Garland, who plays Dorothy as being younger than her own age, Balk plays the role as though she were a bit older.  She has a great deal of gravity in the role, and is very believable as the heroine.  Balk is still acting today, one of the few child actresses who go on to a successful adult career.

The film opened to horrendous reviews and audience apathy.  People went into it -- if they went at all -- expecting a duplication of the charming wonders of the original.  No film would have been able to have matched that, but when people saw it was an entirely different and darker direction (and in a Disney film, at that), the knives came out.  I remember seeing Siskel and Ebert bemoaning the darkness of the film without understanding that was the point.  Disney's head of film production said at the time, "The most difficult marketing problem will be to get audiences to come in with an open mind."  That problem turned out to be insurmountable (There also may have been some studio politics in play, and film was set up to fail).

But, in many ways, it was ahead of its time, a dark journey through the nightmares of youth.  It does appear that the film is getting a critical rediscovery as people learn it is . . . well, Great but Forgotten.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

The Court Jester

(1955)
Written and Directed by:
Norman Panama and Melvin Frank
Starring: Danny Kaye, Glynis Johns, Basil Rathbone, Angela Lansbury,
IMDB Entry

The pellet with the poison's in the flagon with the dragonRemember:  The pellet with the poison's in the flagon with the dragon. The vessel with the pestle holds the brew that is true.

I'm not generally a fan of Danny Kaye -- I find him generally too manic and trying to hard to be both "wacky" and "heartwarming" -- but, in The Court Jester, he clearly had found the right role and made the most of it.

The film was written and directed by Norman Panama and Melvin Frank specifically as a Danny Kaye vehicle.  The team were major writer/directors of their time, and had just come off the big hit White Christmas (one of my least favorite Christmas movies). Their comedies were not classic, but it was like hiring a top sitcom writer for your latest sitcom:  they could be depended upon to come up with something fun.

The story is a Robin Hood knockoff, where in order to put the rightful king on the throne, Kaye's Hubert Hawkins assumes the role of the court jester for his evil usurper and romances Maid Jean (Glynis Johns -- who I have fond memories of from her TV series and later as Mary Poppins's employer) as he tries to let the Robin Hood character put things to rights.  Basil Rathbone plays Sir Ravenhurst, the usurper's henchman, and his swordfight with Hawkins is a wonder of humor and danger.

There are some fine supporting performances with Angela Lansbury as a princess with an eye on Hubert, and Mildred Natwick as Lansbury's maid/witch.

Kaye has some great songs, but the highlight, of course, is the "pellet with the poison" scene.  It's an eminently quotable ("But they broke the chalice from the palace.") bit of silliness.  For years afterwards, people would come up to Kaye and spout lines from it.

It's surprising the film didn't do as well on first release:  it's funny and, in the old fashioned way, entertaining.  Silly, yes, but if you're looking for a laugh, this is one place to visit.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Best Boy

(1979)
Directed by:
Ira Wohl
I generally distrust "feel good" movies; they're usually manipulative and forsake any sort of complexity in order to pander to the audience.  However, Best Boy is one movie that not only makes you feel good, but also doesn't go for cheap emotion to achieve its effect.
It's a documentary.  Ira Wohl spend three years filming his cousin Philly, a mentally retarded man at a crossroads.  Philly's parents have always taken care of him, but they recognize that their own health is failing, and that Philly has to learn to live without them.  Ira filmed the process in all its pain and triumph.
The idea of taking a camera and following someone around was still relatively new.  We see Philly grow as a human being, venturing outside the world, but it isn't easy.  Ira has to convince Philly's parents to let him grow. Philly's mother, Pearl (left, with Philly) is reluctant, afraid that Philly will find it hard to cope without them.  But she and her husband Max, realize they cannot take care of him indefinitely.
Philly is unforgettable.  Certainly, he is limited, but we get to know him as a complex human being trying to make his way in life -- just like anyone else.  There's an especially charming scene where he goes backstage at Fiddler on the Roof to meet Zero Mostel.  Mostel takes to Philly immediately, and the two join in a duet of "If I Were a Rich Man."
In the end, Philly makes the transition to an assisted living facility, and you feel a major part of the journey.
The film won a Best Documentary Oscar, but, like most documentaries, has vanished from consciousness.  It is a remarkable film, though, and one that definitely will make you feel good about life -- and not manipulated into being so.

Monday, October 9, 2006

Days of Heaven

(1978)
Directed by Terence Malick
Starring Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, Sam Sheperd, Linda Manz
Cinematography by Néstor Almendros
IMDB Entry

Days of Heaven may be the most beautiful movie ever made. 

What is it about?  Wheat.  How it was grown and harvested in the days before Word War I.  But it's not a documentary.  There's a very highly charged love triangle, brought across in many subtle ways.  The dialog is sparse, and every word has meaning and power.

Gere and Adams portray, Bill and Abby, a couple traveling the country along with his sister Linda (Manz).  They pretend to be brother and sister so they can share living quarters and are hired at Sheperd's farm to help out with the growing and harvesting.

The farmer is sick, maybe dying, and Bill and Abby hatch a plan where she marries him, waits for him to die, then will marry Bill.  It all appears to go as planned -- maybe too well.

The story is told from Manz's point of view.  Her character narrates in an unforgettable accent, and she sees the disaster coming.  It is a great performance, but Manz's career went nowhere after this:  a few small parts in forgettable movies and TV shows. 

It's a slight story, told with glances and expression and mundane dialog that often means more than what it says.  The line "That boy is a son to me," for instance, is spoken quietly as part of a two-sentence exchange.  It may not sound like much, but in the context of the film, it's a dire warning.

The film won a best cinematography Oscar for Néstor Almendros. Every shot is just plain perfect visually, and there are many that stick in your mind afterwards.  There is a long sequence leading up to an attack of locusts, for instance, where the images are breathtaking, yet, on the other hand, at no point does the beauty take away from the plot.  As a matter of fact, it builds from the mundane to the terrifying, the images making it all the scarier.  Some reports indicate that the great Haskell Wexler also was involved.

Terence Malick did an odd thing after directing the film:  he left Hollywood for 20 years.  This may be one reason a lot of actors consider him a genius.  But the film itself is a fascinating look at a forgotten time of life, and shows that good storytelling can work with a minimum of dialog.

Monday, September 4, 2006

East Side Story

East Side Story(1997)
Directed by
Dana Ranga
Written by Dana Ranga, Andrew Horn
IMDB Entry

There are some concepts so goofy as to be irresistible. East Side Story is one of them.

It's a documentary about . . . Communist movie musicals.

Yes.  Communists liked musicals, too, and the film takes footage from them to make an entertaining glimpse of a side of the Iron Curtain that most people don't know existed.

The clips range from charming to just plain bizarre.  There are the singers sailing a boat in Volga Volga (Stalin's favorite film). The woman pig herders telling her pigs to eat up and get fat.  The farmworkers singing as they harvest wheat in Cossack of the Kuban River (perhaps the second greatest grain harvesting scene in film).  Midnight Review, where the songs comment on how hard it is to make a socialist musical.

And, inevitably, a real title that sounds like it's a Mad Magazine parody of a Soviet musical:  Tractor Drivers.

The footage is amazing, especially for the Soviet films.  There just something bizarre about people singing as they work (but then, in some ways, it's no stranger than people singing in an American musical).

After Stalin's death, East Germany became the heart of the Marxist musical: Hot Summer is the German Communist version of Beach Party. You really expect Frankie Avalon to show up. 

In addition to the footage, there are interviews with critics, moviegoers, and some of the actors and actresses (including Karin Schroeder, "The Doris Day of the East").  The films on the screen were lighthearted, but they were all a major battle to produce. The censors thought this was all pretty dicey material and forced the filmmakers to work hard to get approval both beforehand and after the film was shot.  One German film, My Wife Wants to Sing was only released because one of the songs got onto the radio, creating public demand for the movie.

The movie is vastly entertaining, when you're not staring at the screen in disbelief.  And, as the film asks, "Who know how things would have turned out if socialism could just have been more fun?"

Friday, September 1, 2006

Flower Drum Song

(1961

Directed by Henry Koster
Written by Joseph Fields (screenplay), C.Y. Yee (novel), Joseph Fields & Oscar Hammerstein II (stage play)
Starring  Nancy Kwan,  James Shigeta, Jack Soo,  Juanita Hall and Miyoshi Umeki
IMDB Entry

I'm a big fan of musicals -- both movies and on stage, and Rogers and Hammerstein are among the most successful composer/lyricist pairs in history.  I find they run hot and cold.  The King and I is a truly great musical.  Oklahoma! is close -- it's everything everyone says about it when it comes to influence, but is marred by ultimately disturbing main characters, who gratuitously mistreat Judd Fry.  South Pacific is good overall (though the movie is not as good as the stage show). 

On the other hand, I find Carousel incredibly overrated.  A weak score (except for the Carousel Waltz), dim and cloying characters that are treated with contempt by the script, and ultimately, it specifically equate spousal abuse with love.  Such things were looked down upon even when the play came out, and I can't figure why it's so highly regarded.

Then there's Flower Drum Song. Part of the reason it's less known is the subject matter:  the life of Chinese Americans.  Though Hammerstein was a devoted foe of prejudice, the attitude toward the people is a bit dated.  This is not an unusual issue:  some people who were quite advanced for their time in racial matters suddenly get charged with being racist simply because the tolerance they were trying to advocate has become the norm, and begin to look backward.  Will Eisner's The Spirit also is charged with this, even though Eisner was dead set against racisim.

In the movie, there is some stereotyping, but it is respectful of the people involved, and the characters  aren't ridiculed for their attitudes, even when they are meant to be humorous.

Miyoshi UmekiBut what really makes it work is the performance of Miyoshi Umeki.  I remember when she appeared on television in The Courtship of Eddie's Father, and the critics spoke of her so fondly.  When I saw the film, I could see why. Yes, she's Japanese, not Chinese, but that's not really important.  She is just plain charming, a delight in every scene she's in.  No wonder people wanted to see more of her.

The plot is typical romantic fluff, with the culture of Chinese-Americans adding to the mix.  Nancy Kwan was one of the most successful Chinese-American actresses of her time, and Jack Soo is fine as the man pledged to marry Umeki, but more interested in Kwan.  The songs are generally good, with "I Enjoy Being a Girl," (sung unironically by Kwan), "Chop Suey," "A Hundred Million Miracles," "Grant Avenue," and "The Other Generation" standing out.

A film that full of charm and music:  what more can you ask from a musical?

Sunday, August 20, 2006

It Came From Outer Space

It Came from Outer Space(1953)
Directed by Jack Arnold
Written by Harry Essex (screenplay), Ray Bradbury (story)
Starring Richard Carlson, Barbara Rush, Russell Johnson
IMDB Entry

Jack Arnold should be near the top of the list of directors of science fiction movies.  His films were always surprisingly good, taking pretty stupid concepts and giving them a depth that would seem impossible for anyone else.  Some of his titles are classics:  The Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Incredible Shrinking Man, Revenge of the Creature,and The Mouse that Roared (well, it's only marginally SF, but it is a pretty good film)..

Science fiction was different in the 50s.  The critical cliché is that the films are reactions to the fears of the Cold War and the atomic bomb, but that's a bit narrow.  Fifties science fiction was also firmly in the pre-WWII tradition of written SF where scientists tried new experiments and paid the price (it goes back as far as Frankenstein). Unlike today, where SF is just an excuse for mindless action, there was a real intellectual subcurrent in the films.  They made an attempt to be "scientific" (even if the science was silly) and worked to make statements about the scientific process and tried to be more than just straight "thrill ride" adventure.  Tarantula, for instance, was as much about the scientist involved (Leo G. Carroll, a character actor I hold in great fondness for the TV shows Topper and The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) and his attempt in trying to end hunger as it was about a giant rampaging spider.  Carroll becomes a tragic character, a man who wanted to save the world, but who made a tragic mistake.

It Came from Outer Space was one of Arnold's first films, and doesn't have the flash or monsters of his more famous ones.  In it John Putnam (played by B-Movie veteran Richard Carlson) and his girlfriend see a meteor land near their desert town.  But when they go to look, there is no sign of it.  And the people in the town start acting . . . differently.  As though they have been replaced by aliens . . . .

What made the story stand above other films of this nature is its ending.  It is completely unexpected, and the movie has a surprise message, especially surprising for a movie of its time.  Yes, there are aliens involved, but these aliens are unlike most movie aliens, which even today usually fall into one of two categories:  evil conquerors or godlike beings here to help us.  The aliens in It Came from Outer Space are quite different, and that makes the movie into a classic.

Ray Bradbury got a story credit, and seems to have written some of the dialog, and life in the small desert town is nicely portrayed.

The movie (like Arnold's Creature from the Black Lagoon) was originally released in 3-D.  I was lucky enough to see it that way.  No, I'm not old enough to remember the original run.  But about 30 years ago, a local theater had a 3-D movie night with both Arnold films.  It was a lot of fun.  The big 3-D effect was the crashing of the meteor (in another sign of the film's determination to avoid the obvious, this wasn't saved for the climax, but rather one of the first scenes of the film).  But the effect that was most memorable was much smaller.  Putnam is watching the sky with a telescope.  He swings the telescope around to view another part of the sky.  And everyone in the audience ducked to avoid getting hit by it.  Another thing I like about the film:  Arnold did the unexpected.

It's a shame that 50s SF seems to be so overlooked.  Granted, the special effects could not compare to today's, but the stories of the best of them were way ahead of most current SF, which has devolved into CGI "thrill rides" instead of stories.

So if you get the chance, try to seek out the film.  And if you can see it in 3-D -- drop everything.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Brute Force

Brute Force(1947)
Directed by
Jules Dassin
Written by Richard Brooks (screenplay), Robert Patterson (story)
Starring Burt Lancaster, Hume Cronyn, Charles Bickford, Sam Levine, Jeff Corey
IMDB Entry

One of the noir-est of film noir, Brute Force is the ultimate prison film, the precursor of the famous Stanford prison experiment.  It's is a dark and brutal look a prison life, where the walls form a warehouse of cruelty and neglect.

The biggest surprise in the film is the performance by Hume Cronyn as Capt. Munsey, head prison guard.  We all know the later Cronyn -- the crusty but cuddly old geezer, often appearing with his wife, Jessica Tandy.  It does not prepare you for seeing him as Munsey, a sadistic, manipulative, and cruel little man, who uses his power over the prisoners to oppress them totally.  It is an astonishing performance.  Munsey is the one who runs the prison, and treats his charges like a cat treats a trapped mouse.  He is one of the most sadistic characters in films of that time, and the sadism is psychological more than physical.  It was a clever idea to cast a small man like Cronyn in the part, and see him terrorizing those who are physically much bigger.

Burt Lancaster, in his first starring role, plays Joe Collins, one of the prisoners, who leads a jailbreak attempt.  He is a basically decent man, who eventually is broken down by prison life into becoming as cruel as Munsey himself.  The jailbreak is a disaster, of course, and the film is not for people who want happy endings. 

For its time, its violence was shocking, though this is less to in these post-Pulp Fiction days.  But what makes the film work is the role reversal, where the prisoners were essentially good people while the guards -- especially Munsey -- are scum. Plus the fascination of Cronyn's performance, as Oscar-worth as his wife's in Driving Miss Daisy.

Monday, August 7, 2006

Medium Cool

(1969)
Directed by
Haskell Wexler
Written by Haskell Wexler
Starring Robert Forster, Verna Bloom, Harold Blankenship.
IMDB Entry

Haskell Wexler is one of films' top cinematographers, working on films like In the Heat of the Night, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, among others.  One of his few forays into directing was Medium Cool, a scathing look of American society in the late 60s.

Robert Forster in Medium CoolRobert Forster (who years later was Gumshoe in Once a Hero) plays John Cassellis, a television cameraman working out of Chicago in the days leading up to and including the Democratic National Convention in 1968.  Cassellis is the camera, as the opening sequence shows, where he films a car crash without even thinking of giving help.

Cassellis's attitude changes when he befriends a woman and her young son, who moved to the city from Appalachia.  He becomes more socially conscious and, when the son is lost, he wanders the streets during the rioting around the convention, searching for him.

When I first saw the film, I was amazed at the way Wexler intercut scenes that made it really look like Forster was walking among the Chicago protesters.  It turns out that was no Hollywood effect:  Wexler anticipated trouble at the convention, and shot scenes right in the middle of it.

Wexler is a political director and the movie is both an indictment of the politics of the era and an attack on the media.  The final shot is especially chilling, as we discover just how thoughtless people can be while searching to get the footage, and indicts all of use for watching. 

The title, of course, comes from Marshall McLuhan.  I don't happen to have McLuhan here right now, but Wexler is clearly showing the problems with the coolness of the medium.  For Wexler, the medium is too cool, losing its humanity in the search for sensationalism.

Wexler's politics are clear, and that may be why he didn't direct a lot (though whenever he did, it also was a political film).  But in this one instance, he captured a snapshot of American society, and put his finger on a situation that is just as dangerous today as it was when it was made.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

My Bodyguard

(1980)
Directed by Tony Bill
Written by Alan Ormsby
Starring Chris Makepeace, Matt Dillon, Adam Baldwin, Martin Mull, Ruth Gordon, John Houseman.
IMDB  Entry

The issues of school bullying are now a big social issue.  But, of course, the problem has been around for ages.  My Bodyguard starts out with a unique solution, and ends up being one excellent film.

Chris Makepeace is Clifford Peache, who has just moved to Chicago, where his father managed a hotel. With a last name like that, you know he's going to be a target, and he soon is targeted by the confident and cruel Moody (played by Matt Dillon).  In desperation, he goes to Ricky Linderman, a dark and moody giant of a boy who is reputed to have murdered his own brother.  Peache offers to pay Linderman to be his bodyguard and protect him from Moody.

Linderman is played by Adam Baldwin in his first film role.  You used to have to say that he wasn't one of the Long Island Baldwin brothers; but Adam now has now gotten a bit of cult fame in the role of Jayne in Firefly and Serenity.  I hadn't made the connection until Serenity came out and went back to look at Baldwin's earlier roles.  When I saw My Bodyguard on the list of his credits, it was a classic "That was him!" moment.

Adam Baldwin, Matt Dillion, Chris MakepeaceAnd Baldwin is great as Linderman, portraying an air of menace that clearly hides a deeper pain.  He was only 18 at the time, but his acting captures the character perfectly.

But even better than Baldwin is Matt Dillon as Moody. Moody is loud, likeable, cruel, and totally sure of himself.  Even his walk is that of someone who knows he's in charge.  He takes over the screen every moment he's shown.  I've been a fan of Dillon ever since this film, and was gratified to see his Oscar nomination in Crash

The film is uneven.  There's a romance between Ruth Gordon and John Houseman that pretty much just pads out the screen time.  But the scenes with Baldwin and Dillon are all just perfect.  It really captures the issues of being a victim in the dog-eat-dog world of school.

Director Tony Bill has stuck most to TV and appearing as an actor since this.  I'd love to see him do something else, since his touch with actors is so great.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Movie Movie

Movie Movie(1978)
Directed by Stanley Donen
Written by Larry Gelbart, Sheldon Keller
Starring George C. Scott, Red Buttons, Barry Bostwick, Trish Van Devere, Eli Wallach, Harry Hamelin, Ann Reinking, and Art Carney
IMDB Entry

Stanley Donen should be high on the list of overlooked directors.  For instance, he directed a film that now, 50 years later, still makes critics top ten lists (and my #1 favorite) Singin' in the Rain.  True, Gene Kelly co-directed, but it's unusual that the director of such a well-known film is so unknown himself.  Other hits of his were On the Town (also with Kelly), Royal Wedding (Fred Astaire dancing on the ceiling), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, The Pajama Game, and the original Bedazzled.  He did two first-class Hitchcockian thrillers, Charade and Arabesque, and the two-person drama Two for the Road.  Of course, being a director of musicals probably is a drawback, since musicals are out of favor, but it's a shame that his reputation seems to be in eclipse.

Movie Movie was one of his later films. It is clearly a labor of love, a pastiche of 30s films.  What is a pastiche?  Well, a parody pokes fun at a film or genre; a pastiche shows loving admiration for it.  Written by Larry Gelbert, best known as the writer/creator of the TV version of M*A*S*H, Movie Movie is exactly what the title says it is:  two movies in one, the equivalent of a double feature (complete with coming attractions) in the 1930s. 

The first film, "Dynamite Hands," is a pastiche of the old boxing dramas of the 30s -- in black and white (at least, originally; I've heard some versions have it in color).  Harry Hamlin plays a young boxer who really would rather be a lawyer; George C. Scott is his crusty old trainer, Gloves Malloy.  The entire story is a loving cliché (the boxer was asked to throw a bout, of course, since that scene was in every boxing film of the time) and is filled with funny lines and other silliness.

The second film, "Baxter's Beauties," is a full-color old-fashioned 30s musical. Barry Bostwick -- channeling James Stewart with a touch of Dick Powell-- is the writer/star of the latest do-or-die production by crusty old producer Spats Baxter (Scott again).  Bostwick is perfect.  And the plot is straight out of 42nd Street.  Bostwick is a heck of a talent, and would have probably been a big star if musicals had still been in fashion.

Everyone here has a lot of fun.  Many were reliving the films they saw as kids, and know that the best way to be funny is to play things straight.

The biggest problem is trying see it.  There isn't a DVD, and it hasn't been on tape in years.  You may have to haunt eBay to find it, but it'll be well worth the effort.

Sunday, July 9, 2006

Max

Max(2002)
Written and Directed
by Menno Meyjes
Starring John Cusak and Noah Taylor
IMDB Entry

There are some subjects that may be too controversial to film.  Max takes one of these on, and does it brilliantly.  But the subject matter -- understandably -- angers people.  It is a film where one of the characters is Adolph Hitler, and -- worse -- Hitler is not an out-and-out villain.

The movie is based on a wonderful conceit:  that Hitler, penniless in Vienna after World War I, actually had some talent as an artist.  And Jewish art dealer Max Rothman (you can see why I had to see the film) recognizes this and encourages it.

Max is played by John Cusak, who has made a career of edgy films and characters.  He is a World War I veteran, losing an arm in the conflict, and begins to make friends with Hitler (Noah Taylor).  It is, to say the least, an unusual relationship.  Max actually keeps Hitler grounded, ignoring his rants and acting as a voice of reason against his oncoming madness.  He sees Hitler's art, encourages him to do better.

Portraying Hitler -- in any other way than the epitome of evil -- is a difficult proposition.  Noah Taylor is excellent in the role.  His Hitler does have some good qualities and Max is able to keep his bad qualities in check -- in the beginning.  Max does become friends with Hitler (saying, "You're an awfully hard man to like, Hitler, but I'm gonna try.") because Max believes, ultimately, that everyone is worth of respect.  Hitler thrives (in a good way) under his tutelage. 

The story isn't meant to be history.  It sees Hitler's career as a metaphor:  politics as an art and way of expression much like painting.  Hitler's speeches are theater, and they allow him to break loose and express himself (unfortunately). 

Ultimately, the film asks "What if?" and says "If Only."  It's wishful thinking (and has a tragic ending), but it's a fascinating way of looking at one of history's greatest villains.

Thursday, July 6, 2006

The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T

The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T(1953)
Directed by Roy Roland
Written by Dr. Seuss & Allan Scott
Starring Hans Conreid, Tommy Rettig, Peter Lind Hayes, and Mary Healy
IMDB Entry

If there ever was a film ahead of its time, it's this one.  Not due to the story, but due to art direction, costume design, and wordplay.  It's a bit dated now, too, but four words would make it a hit today:

Live action Dr. Seuss.

And this isn't the adapted Dr. Seuss they've been cranking out lately:  Seuss wrote the story and screenplay, and the design was clearly his influence.  You can look at most scenes and see they were taking his drawings and bringing them to life.  It's filled with surrealist images and visual jokes, and, unlike the live action versions of How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Cat in the Hat, this has enough story to fill out an entire film.

Tommy Rettig (the original owner of TV's Lassie), plays Bart Collins, a kid under the thumb of his fanatical piano teacher, Dr. Terwilliker.  Tired of being force to practice, he falls asleep and dreams he's trapped in Dr. T's school, forced to be one of 500 boys playing on Dr. T's enormous piano.

Terwilliker is played by the delightful Hans Conreid, a busy TV actor with a distinctive voice (Disney used him a lot, and he was the voice of Snidley Whiplash in Dudley Do-Right).  Conreid is a fine comic villain, megalomaniacal, vain, untrustworthy, and just plain fun to watch.

Bart discovers Terwilliker's plot and with the help of the plumber Mr. Zabladowski (Peter Lind Hayes) tries to foil it.

There's some amazing stuff here.  There a musical number in the dungeon that could be taken right out of anything Seuss illustrated -- the long, curved horns, the odd musical instruments.  It is truly a delight.

Peter Lind Hayes and his wife Mary Healy (who plays Bart's mother in the film) were a pretty active couple in early TV, headlining a couple of shows.  Hayes reminds me a bit like Robert Cummings -- charming, a little flustered -- and he definitely is enjoying his role as Zabladowski.  He has a way of throwing off funny lines as though they're normal dialog -- an impression of ease and confidence that makes him even funnier and more charming.

The movie was a massive flop when it first came out.  Dr. Seuss was not yet the institution he became, and I think the surreal Seuss imagery could have scared children and confused their parents.  It might be worthy of a remake — but keep Jim Carrey or Mike Meyer's far away.  But, if Tim Burton and Johnny Depp got together a la Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, it could be a wonder.

Wednesday, July 5, 2006

Jean de Florette/Manon of the Spring

image(Both 1986)
Directed by Claude Berri
Written by Claude Berri and Gerard Brach from a novel by Marcel Pagnol
Jean de Florette stars Gerard Depardieu, Yves Montand, Daniel Auteuil
Manon of the Spring stars Emmanuelle Béart, Yves Montand, Daniel Auteuil
Jean de Florette at the IMDB
Manon of the Spring at the IMDB

People misunderstand tragedy.  They think it involved something bad (like death) happening to the main characters at the end of the film.  But true tragedy, involves a character who is fatally flawed.  The death at the end becomes inevitable due to the character's own problems. 

Jean de Florette/Manon of the Spring (Manon des Sources) is tragedy on the grand scale.  It is really one movie, telling one story in two parts, and moves along to a tragic conclusion that makes you see the characters differently.

Cesar (Yves Montand) and his nephew Ugolin (Daniel Auteuil) are farmers in rural France.  Auteuil concocts a plan to raise carnations.  But carnations need a lot of water, and the nearest source is on the land adjoining theirs.  Before they can buy the land, it is sold to hunchbacked Jean de Florette (Gerard Depardieu*) along with his wife and young daughter, Manon.  So Cesar, who don't see how a hunchback can run a farm, dams up the spring, hoping to discourage Jean and buy the land cheap from him.  But Jean is not one to become discouraged by anything.

Depardieu, as usual, is a marvel; his Jean is a man who is willing to work as hard as possible to get the farm to work, taking on the Sisyphean  task of carrying the water he need to survive.

I can't really discuss Manon of the Spring without spoiling Jean de Florette.  It continues the story several years later, and leads to a conclusion that resonates across both films.  I'd suggest renting Jean the Florette and not even look at the box for Manon until after you've seen it.

(I will say that Emmanuelle Béart is wonderful at Manon, Jean's daughter.)

Not a cheery film, of course.  But if you're in a mood for tragedy at its best, well worth the time to watch.

__________________________________________
*France's greatest actor of the 80s

Sunday, July 2, 2006

Little Voice

Little Voice(1998)
Directed by Mark Herman
Written by Mark Herman, from a play by Jim Cartwright.
Starring Jane Horrocks, Ewan McGregor, Michael Caine, Jim Broadbent, and Brenda Blethyn.
IMDB Entry

Like Brassed Off, Little Voice is about the redemptive power of music. But Jane Horrocks's LV has her own, much more personal, reasons for hers.

Horrocks is best known in the US for the role of "Bubbles" and "Katy Grin" in Absolutely Fabulous.  She was also great as the voice of Babs in Chicken Run.  But Little Voice shows a truly astounding talent.  If the movie musical were in full swing (instead of limping along), she would have been a major star.

Horrocks plays LV -- also know as Little Voice -- a young woman who has the talent to imitate -- no, become -- some of the great singers of the past:  Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, and others. (Horrocks actually does all her own singing -- this was originally a stage play.)  But LV is terminally shy and has no interest in performing on stage.

Enter Michael Caine as Ray Say, a sleezy agent down on his luck.  He hears LV and knows this his ticket back to the big time.  But LV doesn't want to perform.

The cast is stellar.  Jim Broadbent is there, and I'm beginning to think he has never appeared in a bad film.  Broadbent was (and still is) one of the busiest actors in films.  Wait a minute . . . Yes, much of what I said about Pete Postlethwaite also applies to Broadbent.  Take a look at his credits, which include The Crying Game, Widow's Peak, Bullets Over Broadway, Richard III, Topsy Turvy, Bridget Jones's Diary, Iris, Gangs of New York, Moulin Rouge, and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Here, he plays Mr. Boo, who runs the night club where LV is going to make her debut.

Ewan McGregor once again shows the charm that had made him a major star as LV's love interest, and Brenda Blethyn plays her mother. The film is charming and a lot of fun, and Horrock's performance -- both as acting and as a singer -- make it well worth seeing.

Brassed Off

Brassed Off(1996)
Written and Directed by Mark Herman
Starring Pete Postlethwaite, Tara Fitzgerald, Ewan McGregor
IMDB Entry

Brassed Off bears some similarity to another British film that is far from obscure:  The Full Monty.  In both, people are struggling against unemployment and are looking for wash to cope.  The Full Monty(released a year later) has nudity as a selling point, which, of course, made it a big hit. Pete Postletwaite

Pete Postlethwaite was for a time, one of the busiest actors in films.  In the 90s, he seemed to be showing up everywhere.  You probably don't remember his name, but you certainly remember him in his most famous role, Mr. Kobyashi in The Usual Suspects.  He also appeared in Romeo + Juliet, The Last of the Mohicans, Amistad, Alien3,and Dragonheart, with memorable supporting parts.  He was certainly not leading man material, but always putting in a memorable performance.

Brassed Off is about music (so is Little Voice) and how important it can be in the life of a community.

The radiant Tara Fitzgerald (see Hear My Song) is an efficiency expert (and flugelhorn player) named Gloria, who comes to the mining town of Grimley to see if their colliery (a type of coal mine) can be made viable into the 21st centure.  Postlethwaite plays Danny, the leader of the Grimley Colliery Band, a group of brass-playing miners that has been a fixture in the town for over a century.

Gloria joins the band, the first woman ever, falls in love with Ewan McGregor (who did several very good small British films before being picked to be young Obi-Wan), and comes to take on the mission of trying to save the mine, the band, and the village.  Danny, whose life is the band, makes it his mission to compete in the national championships.

The main difference between this and The Full Monty is one of tone.  Monty is playful about its subject (like Andy Hardy, "Let's all get together and put on a show!" is the solution to the issues).  Brassed Off is . . . well, brassed off -- a British phrase meaning angry as hell.  The final scene is giving the finger to the greed that may have killed the band, not just making the best of things.

Saturday, July 1, 2006

Hear My Song

image(1991)
Directed by
Peter Chelsom
Written by Peter Chelsom, Adrian Dunbar
Starring Adrian Dunbar, Tara Fitzgerald, Ned Beatty, David McCallum
IMDB Entry

An irresistible English comedy-drama.  Adrian Dunbar plays Mickey O'Neill, a concert promoter down on his luck (with acts such as Franc Cinatra), who vows to bring the legendary Irish tenor Josef Locke (Beatty) back to England for a concert.  The catch is that Locke is a tax exile and will go to jail as soon as he set foot in the UK (and David McCallum is out to catch him after Locke made him look the fool).

First, O'Neill tries a scam, but, when that falls apart, he is off to Ireland to track down Locke and win the heart of Nancy Doyle, played by Tara Fitzgerald.  Fitzgerald is just a radiant actress.  I'm reminded of the description in a Theodore Sturgeon story I read, about how a woman in it looked ordinary until she smiled -- and they you would do anything to see her smile again.  Tara Fitzgerald's smile is like that.  She has had several impressive roles in a couple of films I plan to write about (Brassed Off and The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill and Came Down a Mountain), and is best known in the US for her role in Sirens, but she doesn't like Hollywood, and her work stayed on the UK side of the ocean.

Of course, finding Locke is only the beginning:  how can they give the concert without McCallum catching him?

Ned Beatty is billed as the star of the film, but it's really more a supporting role.  It's also one of his best.

The movie is a small triumph.  Chelsom never made much of a splash afterwards (though his Shall We Dance is badly underrated).  But in this film, he had created a real gem.

Monday, June 19, 2006

The Body Snatcher

(1945)
Directed by
Robert Wise
Written by Philip MacDonald and Carlos Keith (Val Lewton) from a story by Robert Louis Stevenson
Starring Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Henry Daniell
IMDB Entry

In the debate over who is better, it's not popular to prefer Boris Karloff over Bela Lugosi.  I'm in the minority:  I think Karloff was the better and more interesting actor; Lugosi, even in his best roles, was not up to the same level.  Maybe it was his accent, but I don't find him particularly sinister (or even erotic) inDracula. On the other hand, Karloff was superb as Frankenstein's monster and managed to keep up the good performances for much of his career (I'm particularly fond of his appearance -- in drag -- in The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.).

Lugosi's talent was wasted due to his drug addictions, and that's one reason for his popularity -- it's a much better story than Karloff's more sedate life (and, of course, the Ed Wood connection is fun).  I recognize him as an icon, but, though he did made a few good movies (including films with Karloff, notably The Black Cat and Son of Frankenstein), he was never more than a competent character actor, and just not in Karloff's class.

The Body Snatchers was Karloff's moment. It was an Oscar-worthy performance as John Gray, the character who gives the movie its name. Gray supplies corpses for Henry Daniell's medical school.  Of course, Gray does not just snatch corpses from graves; he will go out and find people and turn them into corpses. (BTW, this was a real issue in 18th and 19th century medical schools:  the book The Italian Boy gives an account of the time, when medical schools kept wicker hampers outside their gates for the convenience of body snatchers.)  Karloff dominates every scene he's in, smiling and gently sinister. 

Lugosi has one of his last good roles as Joseph, a worker at the medical school man, who foolishly tries to blackmail Gray, with predictable results.  Lugosi does a nice job of portraying the poor man, but it's all Karloff's film.

One nice touch of the film is that Karloff's Gray is not entirely evil; and Daniell is not entirely good.  Both have both good and evil sides, but Karloff is much more aware of the dichotomy that the doctor is.

One nice bit of history is that this was directed by Robert Wise, who went on to direct an even greater horror:  The Sound of Music.

This is a nice, atmospheric horror film (the final scene in the carriage is quite powerful) with some great performances.  Overlooking Karloff is one of the MPAA's biggest Oscar omission.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Cry Uncle

Cry Uncle!(1971)

Directed by John G. Avildson
Written by David Odell from a novel by Michael Brett; Additional dialog by Alvilson and Garfield.
Starring Alan Garfield, Madelyn Le Roux
IMDB  Entry

When the MPAA rating system when first implemented, some directors decided to make the most of their new freedom with sexual matters.  The X rating was not solely for porn (as it soon became), a handful tried to make good movies that were still more explicit than the R, seeing how far they could push the envelope.  Cry Uncle tore up the envelope and stomped on the pieces.  Even today, it is still probably the raunchiest film put out by a major studio.

Director John G. Avildson made a career to turning actors into stars.  His first major film, Joe, brought Peter Boyle and Susan Sarandon to the attention of the movie-going public. His best-known film is Rocky, which made another unknown actor into a star.  Jack Lemmon, though established, won an Oscar in Avildson's Save the Tiger (seven actors got Oscar nominations for their work in Avildson's films) and The Karate Kid promoted Ralph Macchio and Pat Morita to movie presences. 

Cry Uncle did the same for Alan Garfield.  Admittedly, Garfield (sometimes billed as Alan Goorwitz) never became a star, but he was one of the top character actors in 70s and 80s, and is still working today.  He showed up in dozens of TV shows and movies (including The Conversation, Nashville, The Stunt Man, Cotton Club and Beverly Hills Cop II), a chubby, balding guy, with a whiney voice and thick New York City accent.

When it came out, Cry Uncle was rated X -- one of a handful of legitimate films of the time to get that rating.  Today, of course, it would be an R -- barely.  It reveled in its raunchiness and sex.  Nowadays, there are films like that (e.g., American Pie), but they tend to focus on teenagers, and the issues with getting someone to bed.  They are sex comedies for teens. 

Cry Uncle is a raunchy sex comedy for grownups.  It's set up as a detective film:  Garfield plays Jake Masters, private eye, investigating the murder of a porn actress/hooker.  It takes him into a world of sexual intrigue.

And all the sex is upfront.  The movie is never coy about it:  this is true bawdiness, where the sex is there for all to see.  Though it's portrayed a bit more discretely than porn, the dialog is filled with blatantly blunt talk of sex.

And it's funny.  Part of the joke is that the dumpy Garfield is able to get as much sex as he wants (sometimes more than he wants).  And the scene of the inadvertent necrophilia is priceless.

The film was probably never shown on TV (there was no way to  cut it down and still make sense), and by the time HBO came along, it had been forgotten.  The movie is not for everyone, and the language is going to put a lot of people off.  But if you have the sense of humor that thought American Pie was too tame, this may be worth a shot.

Monday, June 5, 2006

Putney Swope

Putney Swope(1969)
Written and Directed
by Robert Downey (a prince)
Starring Arnold Johnson, Alan Garfield
IMDB Entry

Nearly forgotten today, Putney Swope was a sensation when it came out.  Directed by Robert Downey (before you needed to put a "Sr." after his name), it was a brazen and bizarre little black comedy that tweaked consumerism and race relations in the 60s.

The set-up was simple.  The head of a struggling NYC ad agency drops dead during a meeting of executives.  They have to elect his replacement and scribble on ballots until it's pointed out they can't vote for themselves, at which point the ballots are all discarded.  They vote again.  The winner is Putney Swope, the agency's token black man, who everyone voted for because they thought no one else would.  Swope (Arnold Johnson) stands at the head of the meeting room and says he doesn't plan to make many changes.

Cut to a few weeks later.  All the white faces are gone from the agency, and its name is now "Truth and Soul, Inc."

There's little plot.  Mostly the agency makes ads -- hilarious send-ups of consumerism. For instance, there's Ethereal Cereal:

Commercial Narrator: Jim Keranga of Watts, California is eating a bowl of Ethereal Cereal, the heavenly breakfast. Jim, did you know that Ethereal has 25% more riboflavin than any other cereal on the market? Ethereal also packs the added punch of .002 ESP units of pectin!
Jim Keranga (grinning): No shit.

Swope is out to outrage society; his motto is "Rockin' the boat's a drag. You gotta sink the boat!"  The film is a nasty-funny over-the-top attack on everything.  There are running gags, scathing satire on the concerns of the day, and a lot of weirdness.  The film is in black and white, but the ads are in color. 

It was an impressive film for Downey (he even dubbed all of Johnson's lines; Swope's/Downey's voice is still memorable after 40 years -- a gravelly roar)  Alas, his follow-ups were flops, and he's struggled along, known now only for being the father of his actor son (drugs had something to do with it).    It's not a film for everyone, and certainly not as revolutionary as it was in 1969, but worth a look.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Resurrection

Resurrection(1980)
Directed by
Daniel Petrie
Written by Lewis John Carlino
Starring Ellen Burstyn, Eva La Gallienne, Sam Shepard
IMDB Entry

The obscurity of this film is purely due to the deliberate sabotage by its own production company.  That's a little surprising, but then, this is Hollywood, and if you'd rather lose money on a film than have it succeed, no one thinks you're nuts. 

It garnered a couple of Oscar nominations (for Burstyn and La Gallienne), a Golden Globe nomination (Burstyn) and was among the top films of 1980.  Yet now it seems to have been forgotten.  If Burstyn had won, things might have been different, but the film deserves to be mentioned with the best of the 80s.

Despite the title, resurrection really isn't the theme of the film.  Burstyn plays a woman who "dies" in a car crash, but who is revived after a brief time of being clinically dead (sort of like Buffy).  But she comes back with a new ability:  her touch can heal the sick.

She returns to her family, who try to understand what's going on.  They are religious, but Burstyn refuses to ascribe her ability to God; she doesn't want to give it any supernatural explanation.  This causes a great deal of conflict with her family.

Burstyn has explained why the film did so poorly.  Universal, who produced, wanted Sissy Spacek to win the Oscar for Coal Miner's Daughter that year.  When Burstyn got great reviews, the company pulled the movie from the theaters so she wouldn't compete with Spacek. I don't know how true this is, but it may explain why the film had a weak box office.

The film was written by Lewis John Carlino, who had scored renown a couple of years later with the screenplay to The Great Santini (which he also directed).  Carlino practically vanished after this, though, another talent who deserved more of a chance in Hollywood.

And Eva La Gallienne was a major Broadway actor, producer, and director (and translator of Ibsen) who made far too few movies.  Her performance as Burstyn's grandmother is a wonder to behold.

What really makes the film is the final scene.  It is one of the most beautifully heartwarming scenes in the history of cinema and deserves to be a film icon.  Alas, that sort of thing is not popular any more, but it leaves you feeling just plain good.

Friday, May 5, 2006

Cobb

(1994)
Directed by Ron Shelton
Written by  Ron Shelton, from books by Al Stump.
Starring Tommy Lee Jones, Robert Wohl, and Lolita Davidovich
IMDB Entry

I've always been a fan of Ty Cobb.  Oh, sure, he was nearly psychotic,
but his record on the baseball field was unsurpassed.  Cobb was a nasty racist bastard, but a fascinating character.

And Cobb does him justice.  It's a fascinating film.  Shelton (best known for Bull Durham) had an interesting take:  he would show Cobb at the end of his life, when he was writing his autobiography a few years before his death.  Cobb chose a sportswriter Al Stump to work with him — even though he had never met Stump (it's believed he chose him because Stump was a top writer at the time).  The early part of the movie is based on one of Stump's articles, describing a terrifying drive from Cobb's mountaintop home to visit Reno, Nevada.

Tommy Lee Jones is superb as Cobb.  The character is essentially a bastard to everyone around him.  But he's a funny and entertaining bastard.  In a way, he's like Gregory House (from the TV show), though he is far less likeable. 

Still, at odd moments, little hints of humanity are shown.  The scene with Lolita Davidovich starts out frightening, and becomes sad and pathetic.  As portrayed, Cobb is aware of what a jerk he is at times, but can't behave in any other way.  And he does have a positive side, like what he does to help Mickey Cochrane.

Wohl is also great as Stump -- a man fascinated and repelled by Cobb, and who discovers he's becoming like him.

The movie went nowhere.  I happened to see Ron Shelton at a showing of the film, and in the Q&A session afterwards, he was asked why.  He couldn't explain it.  The film opened to great reviews, had a recent Oscar winner in Jones, and was quite entertaining.  But it's likely the subject matter was the issue.  Cobb was unpleasant, and there were too many people who had never heard of them (alas, baseball is no longer the national pastime: a loss for the nation, but I'll write about that at another time).

What was also interesting was Shelton's answer to another question.  In the movie, Stump is secretly making notes on Cobb — writing down the truth that couldn't be put into the biography. Someone asked Shelton if the film was accurate (a concern that I find completely stupid, but that's another essay).  Shelton said it was — except for one thing.  In the movie, Cobb found these notes; in real life, he did not.  And Shelton said, "Once the notes were introduced, I couldn't go without Cobb finding them."  The perfect answer, and one more reason why being accurate is not the point.

But, in any case, even if you like accuracy, give the film a shot.

Monday, May 1, 2006

Hearts of the West

Hearts of the West(1975)
Directed by Howard Zieff
Written by Rob Thompson
Starring Jeff Bridges, Andy Griffith, Blythe Danner, Donald Pleasance, Alan Arkin
IMDB Entry

Howard Zieff is a director who never quite reached his promise.  He started out with a funny road picture called Slither (No, not the more recent horror film of that title), about search for a missing fortune, then went on to direct several successful and easy to like comedies:  House Calls (with Walter Matthau and Glenda Jackson -- a big hit in its time), The Main Event (Barbra Streisand and Ryan O'Neill) and Private Benjamin(Goldie Hawn), and My Girl (Macauley Culkin, which he was still big).  Then, his career came to a halt:  nothing since the early 90s. 

It's a shame.  Zieff was able to create quirky and interesting characters, and certainly seemed to have a commercial touch.  I don't know what happened to him, but I wish he did more.

Hearts of the West is my favorite.  It's set in the 1930s, where Lewis Tater (Bridges) a wide-eyed farmboy with dreams of being a writer of westerns, leaves home for Hollywood.  Without planning it, he ends up being a western movie star and wooing Blythe Danner.  Andy Griffith (an actor I didn't care for previous to this*, but the role made him a favorite) was an older, more experienced movie cowboy who turns out to be Tater's hero.

It's a move that loves moviemaking.  Bridges makes some rookie mistakes, like volunteering for a stunt without asking for more pay and suffering the consequences, and getting involved in a couple of crooks.  And it's also about one of my other favorite subjects:  writing.  It does contain one of my favorite movie lines of all time:  "Anyone can say he's a writer. But when someone else says you're a writer, then you're a writer."  Very true, not only in the context of the movie, but in writing overall.

_____________________________________________
*No, I don't like The Andy Griffith Show, thank you.  Too bland.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Once a Hero

(1987)
Created by
Dusty Kay
Starring Jeff Lester, Milo O'Shea, Robert Forster, Caitlin Clarke, and David Wohl
IMDB Entry

Abner, Captain Justice, and WoodyThere are some TV shows that just don't deserve the treatment they get:  great shows that just never find an audience.  Once a Hero flopped badly, running only three episodes in 1987 (including the two-hour premiere) before cancellation, and racking up the worst ratings of the year.  Yet, in a just world, it would have been seen as the classic it was.

The idea was a brilliant one (and part of its problem):  what happens when a comic book superhero tries to live in the Real World, where there are no superpowers?  The hero in question was Captain Justice (created for the show, though Marvel did a two-issue tie-in).  In the set-up, the Captain realizes that he's repeating adventures, and, in the Real World, his creator, Abner Bevis, realizes he's in a rut.  So the Captain crosses over from his home town of Pleasantville to talk to Abner.

But the Real World is much different than it is in comics.

I watched the show on a whim.  Its two-hour premiere was on a Saturday night and it didn't look promising, but Milo O'Shea -- an actor who I know had a great reputation -- was listed in the cast.  I also had a rule to try to catch every SF TV show I could, since so many came and went, even good ones.  So I sat down to watch.

I was delighted.

What made the show work for me was the sly sort of logical humor that Joss Whedon later made his trademark.  Just like in Buffy, clichéd situations would be turned on their head in perfectly logical manners.  For instance, in the pilot, a kid (Woody -- one of the series regulars, if such a term makes sense here) was being relieved of his lunch money (and more) by a high school extortion racket.  He gives a speech to the head of the gang telling him he'll get even with him one day.  One of the thug's thugs punches Woody.  The leader of the gang chews out the guy who did the punching:  Woody had paid for his protection that week and should not be touched.  He then gives Woody a rebate.

You've got to love touches like that.

Later, there's an exchange that any comic book reader will also enjoy.  To understand, you have to realize that Captain Justice's name in the comic was "Brad Steele."  Woody's mother, Emma (a divorcee and reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper), asks about him, thinking he's the Big Brother who is supposed to help Woody.  And she begins to ask questions.

Emma:  And where do you come from?
Captain Justice:  Pleasantville.
Emma (highly amused):  Pleasantville?  You mean the place where Captain Justice comes from in the comic books?  That's hilarious.  What's your last name, Brad Steele?
Captain Justice:  No. Brad . . . Kent.

The plot of the pilot involved a small-time crook and extortionist named Edward Kybo.  Kybo's son is the one shaking down Woody.  Captain Justice insists that the way to solve the problem is to go to Kybo and tell him what his son is doing.  After all, a parent is supposed to be appalled at this, rPleasantville -- a real nice place to raise your kids upight?  But when he tells Kybo, the gangster looks at his son and asks, "How much do you clear a week?"  When he hears the number, he beams.

Later, Kybo thinks Emma is getting too close; he goes to his boss and says that she's a threat and should be knocked off.  His boss shakes his head.  "We don't knock off reporters anymore."

And finally, when Gumshoe (a hard-boiled detective who follows Captain Justice to keep an eye out for him) meets with Emma, he tells her about a potential story about the extortion in town.  Emma is uninterested, leading to the line, "Lois Lane, you ain't."

Captain Justice has to adjust with not having powers in the Real World.  There was a wonderful scene where he keeps trying to leap in the air like a kid playing Superman. Eventually, he copes, smashing in to rescue Emma (with the help of some explosives).  He grabs Kybo and forces him to repeat after him:

Captain Justice:  Repeat after me.  Crime . . ."
Kybo: Crime . . .
Captain Justice: doesn't. . . .
Kybo: Doesn't.
Captain Justice: (looks at Kybo, expecting him to finish the sentence)
Kybo: (After a long pause)  Pay!  Crime doesn't pay!

And the Captain decides to stay in the Real World.

The second episode involved the Captain's comic book girlfriend going looking for him.  Gaining the help from the Great and Powerful ("I am the Great and Powerful . . ." he begins by way of introduction, to which Gumshoe replies, "Save that for the Munchkins."), she sees the Captain is staying there, so she ties herself to the railroad track to get him to rescue her.  At one point, Gumshoe explains to Woody about women using an analogy, "A girl is like a baseball," that's something out of the hard-boiled world he's from.  Woody thinks it's the stupidest thing he's ever heard. And it was actually quite touching when Rachel returned back to Pleasantville, unable to cope with the real world.

The third episode had the Captain's arch enemy, Lazarus, making the trek to the Real World.  Again, it was sprinkled with clever bits.  For instance, Captain Justice applies for a job as an archeologist (his identity in Pleasantville) and his dressed down by the interviewer for using fictional credentials.

Later, they discover that Lazarus is in the Real World.  Abner and Gumshoe think he's probably going to blow up a dam and flood the city.  Captain Justice insists that Lazarus is probably planning to kidnap the Russian ambassador's daughter.  Kybo (who evidently finally was able to finish that sentence he had trouble with and turned into a cuddly comic relief guy) rushes in saying, "We have to do something!  Lazarus has kidnapped the Russian ambassador's daughter!"  Captain Justice pumps his hand, "Yes!" he says, going into a victory dance to Kybo's mystified look.

Lazarus meets with Abner, furious that he always loses to Captain Justice.  "Why do you hate me?" he asks.  Abner tells him that Lazarus is his favorite character, since it's so much fun writing a villain.  There's a lot of father/son interaction between Abner and Captain Justice, too, and the creator = God angle is clearly present throughout the show, though not enough to create controversy (which may have helped the show, alas).

Later Lazarus captures Captain Justice and, instead of fighting it out, the Captain surrenders.  "You win," he says.  "I've lost." (Certainly one of the few times you've heard that from a comic book character.)Lazarus is delighted.  "Let's do it again," he said.  But the Captain insists that this is the Real World now, and not a game.  That was something of a theme for a show:  the difference between the Real World and the world of comics, with something of a longing for the more uncomplicated past, but a realization that we have to live in the real world. 

Sounds a bit heavy, but it really didn't get in the way of the fun.

The fourth episode of the show never aired.  But in the previews, it was clear that the plot involved an actor who had played Captain Justice on TV and had gotten sick and tired of being associated with the role of a TV superhero and wanted nothing more to get out.  And who did the cast to play this?

Adam West. Just perfect, isn't it?

Why did the show fail?  In StompTokyo's discussion of it (read it:  it's nearly as good as this one), they talk about how Captain Justice was too old fashioned and unsophisticated for the Dark Knight generation of the time.  But if the show were to succeed, it needed to attract more than just the fanboys, and I think the old-style hero was hardly the problem.

It was more complicated.  First of all, the show appeared on Saturday nights.  That's the night with the lowest audience (today, they don't even bother putting on original programming on Saturdays), so the show was in a hole.  It was also going up against The Facts of Life

But the main problem is that not all network affiliates showed it (for instance, that it was never shown in the Boston area).  Evidently, after the show was picked up, they fired the actor who played Captain Justice for not playing the part straight enough.  Some affiliates took this as a sign that the show was a disaster waiting to happen, and thus they didn't show it.  It's hard to get ratings when a market like Boston isn't broadcasting your show.

It's also a hard concept to explain.  It was metafiction, after all (and I love metafiction), but that word would certainly scare off most viewers.  It also required a good deal of explanation that couldn't be summarized in a thirty-second spot. 

So the show was cancelled (remember, this was a time that if you got a month to make a ratings splash, it was a long time).  I remember Robert Forster (who played Gumshoe) being interviewed in a newspaper article trying desperately to get people to watch.

It's too bad.  It definitely deserved better.