Sunday, October 29, 2006

The Court Jester

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

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

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.