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Ziegfeld Follies (1945)
Don't bother (and don't judge) unless you can see a good Technicolor print
No doubt the jaded postmodern cynical viewer will find plenty to pick apart in this fluff (facile metaphysics, etc.). That is their loss.
This is not one of the great MGM musicals, but at its best it does what great musicals do: it sweeps you along in a kaleidoscope of color, movement and sound. And because of these qualities this trifle IS art as surely as Citizen Kane or La Promesse are. Cinema is not just an art of--or forum for-- philosophy; it is an art of the color palette, and with The Ziegfeld Follies the technical forces of a great studio created a sometimes exquisite canvas to behold. Unfortunately, like many old films, the canvas is fading.
I first saw this film 20 years ago projected from an exceptional 16 millimeter print that brought out the full richness of the Technicolor cinematography. None of the video versions I've seen since have come close. The same is true for the 1949 John Ford western, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, which I saw many years ago in an unbelievably painterly 16mm Technicolor print. Prints of that film shown on the AMC network don't even come close to the richness of that print.
Its color alone is enough to make The Ziegfeld Follies visually entertaining for me, and that print I saw long ago convinces me that is one of the 10 or 20 most beautiful color films ever made. The merry go round scene (with Lucille Ball as I recall) in hot garish pink was particularly striking visually.
I contend that any film, even marginal or bad ones, made in the extinct and impossible to resurrect Technicolor process is worthy of seeing, because its very usage constitutes a lost art form in and of itself.
Like Ziegfeld Follies, middling films such as Kid Millions (1934), Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936), Jesse James (1939), Down Argentine Way (1940), The Gang's All Here (1943) and The Captain from Castile (1947) are worth seeing almost exclusively because of their amazing color schemes.
The biggest crack about "Tech," as cine buffs call it, is that it was not "realistic" color. Bogus line of reasoning, as no cinematic color process can ever be realistic in the sense of replicating human sight. OK maybe Roger Deakins came close in "Sid and Nancy." Admiring Ziegfeld Follies solely for its color may not be enough for you, but it's enough for me in our era of dreary cinematic color.
Le trou (1960)
Sweat-inducing suspense classic
Jacques Becker's "Le Trou" is one of the greatest of all prison-break films. No film lover should miss it. It is every bit as masterful and tense as other milestones of this subgenre, including John Sturges' "The Great Escape," Robert Bresson's masterpiece "A Man Escaped," and Don Siegel's "Escape from Alcatraz." The meticulous preparation for the escape is a nail-biter, with many adrenaline-inducing close calls. The ringer: Will the newly exonerated prisoner stay with the group and escape or rat on the others? Those seeking pure entertainment or those seeking existentialist philosophical fare will be equally pleased. A memorable movie experience.
Behind the Rising Sun (1943)
Loopy, intriguing WWII propaganda
We'd call it racist today, but this constantly amusing bit of rabble rousing did what it had to do at the time, while allowing somewhat refreshingly that not all Japanese were monsters. When this was made, the outcome of the war was still not assured, although the bombing raids over Tokyo were in full swing, as the end of the film shows. Along the way there's an incongruous mix of white RKO stock leads unconvincingly playing the main Japanese characters while actors of actual Japanese descent play minor supporting parts. J. Carrol Naish may seem silly as a Japanese businessman, but he is surprisingly sincere as the misguided father who goads his nonviolent, Americanized son with jingoistic pleas to enter military service. To the father's eventual dismay, the son, played by Tom Neal in one of Hollywood's more notable instances of miscasting, becomes an increasingly callous savage who comes to relish Japanese atrocities while on duty in China. Showing that Hollywood could do the Goebbels thing with the best of them, the film proceeds to show Japanese soldiers pushing opium on children, yanking mothers away from crying infants, hauling Chinese women into prostitution houses, bayoneting children, and--worst of all--slapping around American nationals! The highlight is a wacky, drawn-out duel of strength between an American boxer (Robert Ryan doing his "The Set Up" thing six years before the fact) and a Japanese jujitsu expert. The film's opening titles claim that the whole thing is 100 percent true and authentic, a perfect red flag to take it all with a grain of salt.
Undergångens arkitektur (1989)
Provocative documentary undermined in English version
"The Architecture of Doom" is the best surgical picking apart of Hitler's brain I've seen. It thoroughly examines Hitler's aesthetic worldview and how it could have lead to an artistic obsession to recreate the world to fit that vision. Its thoroughness is something Hitler himself might have admired! However, the power of this film is regrettably blunted quite a bit by the poor English narration. Perhaps Bruno Ganz's original narration with subtitles would have been better--though I haven't seen the latter to say for sure. In any case, narration is crucial in films like these (For a great example, listen to Trevor Howard in "Memory of the Camps"), and this lifeless, inflectionless reader really hurts a film that deserves a lot better treatment.
Searing and unforgettable
As with Frederick Wiseman's "Titicut Follies," the Maysles brothers' "Salesman" is truly a landmark for the "cinema verite" documentary movement of the 1960s. Although the former is shockingly realistic in a sensational way, "Salesman" is actually the more disturbing for showing the Hell-on-earth that marks the workaday world for most of humanity. If ever a film shows that most people "lead lives of quiet desperation," this is it. In my lifetime of viewing films, I've never seen a non-fiction film more affecting and poignant. That this film didn't make the AFI Top 100 is practically scandalous. Be forewarned, this is an oppressively sad, yet slyly funny, film that is not easy to watch. It speaks volumes about American business practices, the ties between business and organized religion, the exploitation of religious belief (and its perversion via materialism), the dehumanization of workers, the crushing wisdom that can come with aging, the scary mindset of suburban denizens, and a lot more. If ever anyone had the right to ask the question, "Is that all there is?" it would be Paul, an aging Bible salesman having trouble meeting his sales quota, who serves as the film's central character. The film is brutally honest, yet powerfully manipulative. It does beg the question: how much is real and how much is affected by the presence of the cameras? One does feel, after seeing this, that reality is just as bad as Dorothy Parker said it was. For those who fail, the American Dream is a nightmare. In short, a film you'll never forget.
The Boxer (1997)
A real sense of place and character
"My Left Foot" was the underdog crowd-pleaser with a contemporary edge, "In the Name of the Father" was the rousing grand statement, but with "The Boxer" Sheridan has made his most mature film. The characters and their motives are all extremely well developed, and if Sheridan occasionally slips into cliche' (the obvious villain, for example) it's all in service to keeping the plot manageable. The tender love story, too, seems right for a change, and its ramifications (not all good) are well explored. One really has a sense of these characters' histories and how they've changed because of their personal and political circumstances. Danny's struggle to not be "used" by any agenda groups, as he had before and ended up in prison, is interesting, inasmuch as he is the one who wants to determine his actions and their symbolism. The boxer is just as doomed to failure as the brief shining hope for peace he represents. Every character has a great stake in the outcome of the cease fire, and Sheridan does a good job of exploring those stakes. In revolutions, some of the revolutionaries forget the original thing they were fighting for and chose to exist solely for the fight itself. The film is good at showing the difficulty of change, even for those have to grudgingly bury the hatchet of past injustice. This movie gets off to an extremely slow start and seems aimless for the first half hour, but stick with it and you'll get in its groove and be on the edge of your seat by the end.
Blood and Wine (1996)
A splendid "Florida Noir"
Infrequent director Rafelson brings his good eye for Americana to a rollicking good crime tale with shades of the classic "Key Largo." Although the heist itself may seem a bit too high risk to stretch credulity (all those witnesses!), this is a smart, sexy movie that knows that greed and the compulsion to break the law have their own inner logic irrespective of risk. The plot is full of the expected twists and turns without becoming confusing or ridiculous, as is often the case with crime films these days. Right now, we're in a second golden age of film noir, with John Dahl and others bringing a contemporary slant to classic noir conventions. Enjoy it while it's happening and see this film, a key entry in this renaissance.
Private Parts (1997)
Self serving, but funny
Seeing the scene in which Stern bathes with the horny nude woman but never removes his underwear and never follows through reminded me of Bill Clinton saying he never inhaled (or never "had sex with that woman," for that matter). Uh, yeah, right. It's just another example of Stern having his cake and eating it too: he's a bad boy, but not really. Like any Hollywood bio, you have to take a lot of it with a grain of salt. If nothing else, it proves why he's the "king of all media." No matter what he says, you still like him and want to believe him. As for plot, it's just the old "underdog/misfit makes good" story--with an attitude. What makes Howard Stern funny on the radio is his lack of pretension, and the way he skewers everything equally. The movie is best when it shows this in action. The love story works surprisingly well too. What's refreshing about the movie is that it never gets stuck in a groove. It finds the right balance in its elements. Cutting to Bababooey, for instance, auditioning women on the street, then cutting back to Howard's home life, then cutting to Howard's battles with network execs such as "Pig Vomit" and cutting to the show itself. The portrait of Howard as a gawky nerd in the seventies is something that all us gawky '70s nerds can identify with. It's got some of the funniest tasteless humor this side of the Farrelly brothers (ie., the Match Game parody and the woman with a special orgasmic attachment to stereo speakers.) When I give acquaintances the one-sentence description of "Private Parts," I say it's an X-rated "WKRP in Cincinnati." Somehow, it all works beautifully.
The New Age (1994)
Mess or Masterpiece?
Critics seem to have split widely on this film, and it's easy to see why. It's a rather painful, plodding thing to sit through--yet one can't get it out of the mind afterward. Writer/director Tolkin has a lot of disturbing things to say about post-industrial affluence in America in the 1990s, and in trying to say everything in one movie he has piled it on so thick that the brain requires a postmortem to reflect. Judy Davis, as she was in "Husbands and Wives," is dynamite, and the film is worth seeing just for her. The film has an uncanny eye and feel for the bleak interiors of the contemporary American service economy: the boutiques, the high-rise telemarketing boiler rooms, the house-poor interiors of career people who are hardly ever at home, etc. The film's title refers to the spiritual quest of the couple to find a meaning to their existence, or at least some alternative approach to life to their destructive materialism. How they go about it is all wrong, of course. In true hedonist fashion, they try everything. At the same time they seek a simpler, spiritual, non-materialistic life via a bunch of wacky gurus and cultists, they are indulging in carnal and other pleasures as diversions. When they open a small business, ostensibly to gain more control over their lives and income, the forces of the world are worse than any bosses. In all of this, they seem to be outside of everything they do, as in dreams when you watch yourself and are powerless to control the changing scenery. Despite their doldrums and hostility, this is a couple who have too much in common to split. During the course of all this, Tolkin gets plenty of jabs in about an American economy that seems to be teetering on wisps of hope rather than on any true productivity. By the end, the "new age" looks uncomfortably like a very old one, in which the law of the jungle reigned.
Seven Waves Away (1957)
A sane alternative to "Titanic"
I haven't seen this film in many years, but I have never forgotten it. It proves you can make a harrowing high-seas adventure with life-and-death philosophical overtones on a tiny budget in a tiny set without going overboard (pun intended) like the bloated "Titanic." In some ways, I prefer this gritty, direct film more than Alfred Hitchcock's very similar "Lifeboat." This film has fewer glamorous eccentricities and gets down to the painful, shocking task of sacrificing lives. Tyrone Power might seem miscast as the captain, but this is not a glamor-boy role and as I recall he handles it quite well. If you're in the mood for hard-hitting, serious drama, this is the picture for you.
The Mask of Zorro (1998)
Commercial, but full of irresistible touches
I rented this not with great enthusiasm, but to have something safe to watch with the kiddies--and wound up enjoying it. It is, on balance, every bit as good as the classic Zorro films, notably the 1920 and 1940 versions of "The Mark of Zorro." While the earlier films have their superior aspects (Douglas Fairbanks' stunt work in 1920 is still the best and the Tyrone Power/Basil Rathbone climactic duel in the 1940 film is still unsurpassed), this one adds the right amount of color, dash, eroticism, and genuinely funny verbal and slapstick humor to keep the more melodramatic aspects of the story palatable. In addition, there's a real feel for the West that gives the film the occasional look of a 1960s Clint Eastwood Western. The presence of L.Q. Jones in an important character part reinforces that feeling. Only in the final showdown did I think the film was piling it on too thick. Oddly, it reminded me of the end of "Star Trek Generations." Between the wit, well choreographed swordplay, and a charming and sexy pseudo-tango scene, this candy bar really satisfies.
You know you're in trouble when Chairman Mao saves the picture
"The Last Temptation of Christ" and "The Age of Innocence" were Scorsese's most artistically successful departures from his usual street grit. "Kundun," I'm afraid, will be misconstrued by many as a great picture because of its stunning imagery. That's enough to make an interesting film, but not a great one. A biography of one of the world's great spiritual leaders and the long struggle of an oppressed nation should be compelling. Alas, this is not. The Dalai Lama in his youth may have been naive, but was he really as stupid and dull as portrayed here? It's actually a relief when Chairman Mao's hordes overrun Tibet--at least in dramatic terms. Goofy parallels popped into my mind between the good monks and their little acts of defiance against the Chinese and the nice nuns in "The Sound of Music" when they pulled the battery cable on the Nazi's car. In contrast to the Dalai Lama, the sinister portrait drawn of Mao here is fascinating. One can easily see how his charms might undermine suspicion; how one might sign a treaty with him even when you knew he'd break it. Mao, the charming snake, has the depth here that the Dalai Lama seems to lack. In a way, this film is sort of like Stephen Spielberg's "Empire of the Sun," a big, bloated, visually pretty, self-important historical film that, for all its big statements and atrocities, is respectable and rightfully forgotten today. The best scene in the movie is at the end, when the Dalai Lama sees a vision of the near future: the corpses of his monk entourage atop their horses. Too bad we had to wait more than two hours for the movie to get interesting. Whatever the case, Roger Ebert was, as usual, dead-on correct in his analysis. Scorsese is so respectful of and dazzled by the Dalai Lama and what he represents that he fails to create a three-dimensional portrait of a human being, and ends up with a poorly defined icon. Too many of the posters here, awed by the icon, have let their faith get the best of their critical judgement.
FairyTale: A True Story (1997)
Hope in the unreal
Based on a famous "Cottingley fairies" hoax perpetrated by two English girls during World War I in 1917, "FairyTale: A True Story" presents alternate views of reality to suggest that, like the view of Aborigines, dreams are as real as conscious reality. If you take the special effects fairies too literally in this film, you will miss the point. The film plays a trick on you, just as the original incident played a trick on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in 1917. Houdini, as played by Harvey Keitel, gets the point. Although he's one to debunk mystics who defraud the gullible, he too trades on people's need to believe in magic. The girls' deception is also a sort of benign fraud. As any magician, they should never reveal their "secret." The film invites comparisons to the famous French classic, "Forbidden Games" in which children construct an elaborate fantasy world as a way of coping with the reality of war. Here too, the girls use fairies to fill the void in their lives left by their father, who has gone "missing" on the front in France. "I know what they mean by 'missing,'" says one of the sisters, conscious of reality but hoping to "believe" in the unlikely event of his return. This is not a kiddie film, but a langorous period piece on the nature of belief and faith in the face of empirical skepticism. The film reinforces its theme with beautiful details, as at the end when the father says he smells the perfume which isn't there, or in the ghostly intrusion of a dead brother that changes the mind of a skeptical reporter. Even the final sequence, involving fairies, is so charming it steers clear of cynical manipulation. Although there are moments when the plot seems to become arbitrary or plodding, it's all tied up neatly and beautifully in a magical finale. I'd hesitate to call this a classic, but it is a worthwhile "sleeper." Just bring an open mind and heart.
Everyone Says I Love You (1996)
Woody as pastry chef and magician
Like a great chef who whips up a delicious airy confection or a magician who seems to pull substance from the air, Woody has made a wisp of a film that somehow is full of life in every scene. This movie WORKS, yet you can't see the strings. I'm dumbfounded at how Allen has pulled it off. The film harkens back to frothy musical comedies of the 1930s and 1940s, but manages to pull in jabs at voyeurism, politics, and the manipulations of love. Like Roger Ebert, I had a stupid smile on my face the whole time. Why it was rated R is inexplicable--the F word is said only once, and even then very quickly in a rap song as part of a funny running gag involving the song "I'm Through with Love." The rest of it is squeaky clean. There are adulterous affairs, but nothing is ever explicit. Most PG-13 films are far more objectionable. The dance in the funeral parlor is a wonderful affirmation of life. The choreography and singing aren't exactly first rate (and Woody's bald top in the charming "flying" dance with Goldie Hawn at the end is a bit distracting), but who cares. It even makes a romantic liaison between the likes of Allen and Julia Roberts plausible, but only because of a massive and quite unethical deception. The film has the courage, in our cynical and unsentimental age, to extol the joys of romance without apologies or shame. Some of the younger posters to this database, used to their glum, "cutting edge" view of life and cinema, are sadly missing out on the film's charm. Perhaps with age will come more sensitivity. Even so, the film itself shows that sweetness doesn't have to be syrupy. Allen continues to make one great film after another. When will we realize and appreciate what a prolific filmmaker we have working in our lifetime at such a consistently high level of quality? Contrast this film's optimism with the vicious, profane, but wildly funny view of life Allen presented in his next film, "Deconstructing Harry." Now, that's diversity. In good moods or bad, his films are almost always unique and fun. In short, this is an intoxicating creation.
Jud Süß (1940)
Disturbing mix of entertaining camp and deadly propaganda
There's a histrionic death scene in "Jude Suess" in which the corrupt Duke, finally realizing his mistake in trusting his Jewish treasurer, makes grand theatrical gestures before collapsing to the ground. It's a moment as goofy as anything in Sergei Eisenstein's "Ivan the Terrible," and really very unintentionally funny. Evil sneers and clenched fists abound in this ridiculous historical melodrama--allegedly based on "fact" if you believe Josef Goebbels, he of the big lie--and as such it's something of a bizarre guilty pleasure. This is all very disturbing of course because this is a film that the German public in 1940 took with dead earnest seriousness. Along with the abhorrent propaganda "documentary" "The Eternal Jew" of the same vintage, this is the kind of film that manipulates and fabricates historical fact in the service of genocidal hatred. If you can put the film in proper historical perspective, understanding its socio-political implications, it is fascinating and perversely entertaining. With "Birth of a Nation" and a few others, it's certainly a notable addition to the cinema of hate. Its cracked dialogue includes such dubious gems as: "No, Jews aren't more clever--just more cunning."
Marvin's Room (1996)
Beyond the conventions of the tear-jerker
This film took this jaded, tough-to-manipulate moviegoer and reduced him to a blubbering mass of water. Instead of the usual over-the-top death scene, the film finds a clever, non-contrived way to end by leaving these characters at a magical moment of mutual understanding. It is one of the most powerful endings I've ever seen in a film, and believe me, I've seen thousands. What I found most remarkable about it was how the film reveals--despite the sisters' major character differences--how similar they really are. Both abandon one part of their family to sacrifice for another part--they each merely take different parts, and that's why Lee's character is not as bad, selfish or one-dimensional as she first seems. Lee's problem was understanding love. Despite all her lovers, Lee (Streep) had to learn the real meaning of love from her spinster sister Bessie (Keaton).
The film is full of irony. One such moment is when Lee, rather tactlessly, says to Bessie that she finally feels as though her life has begun. To which Bessie, who is surely about to die, can only sigh. The greatest irony, of course, is that Lee finds herself at the same juncture she was 20 years prior. Will she choose to sacrifice to care for her sister, just as her sister had chosen to do with her father and aunt? Bessie, in contrast, had come to find that she hadn't "thrown it all away" to care for sick relatives. What first seemed a sacrifice had become transformed, through her own experience, into another valid way of experiencing life. To Lee's perspective, the elders where millstones, hindrances, inconveniences robbed of their humanity--almost the antithesis of life. Yet, behind the eccentricities of Aunt Ruth (Verdon) and other-worldly silence of her chronically ill father Marvin (Cronyn), she had found, and reveled in, their uniquness, their humanness. Making Lee's two sons very different also added complexity and depth to the film. It's obvious that Hank (DiCaprio) is his mother's son, it's just that his mother doesn't realize it. Hank too is at a crucial moment of choice: Will he abandon his selfishness, or will he abandon his familial and moral obligation to help Bessie? And what accounts for the polar opposite behavior of the younger son Charlie (Scardino)? The movie doesn't give an answer. Genetics, environment, relationships and all the other things that make us who we are are complex things. The scriptwriter is smart enough to realize that. Touches of humor keep this from becoming an oppressive Bergmanesque angst-fest, and its patient character development steers it out of obvious soapy (ie. "Terms of Endearment") territory. Although the thing has a sort of TV-movie aesthetic in the staging and the scoring, the writing and acting are everything you'd want. Beautiful.
Used Cars (1980)
For those who didn't notice, it's an astute political movie.
Although it's driven (no pun intended) by funny vulgar humor that predates the Farrelly brothers, "Used Cars" is also a film that could be on a double feature bill with "Nashville" or "All the President's Men" as a revealing look at post-Watergate attitudes to American politics. The film is full of the apathy, cynicism, and sense of aimlessness that marked the Carter years. The allegory of used car salesman = politician is just about perfect. After all, they'll say anything to make a "sale," right? It's also a sharp commentary on the American way of doing business, as well as the corrupting influence of money in politics. OK, so it's pretty broad and not exactly subtle, but I think it is effective. The film's slapstick bent doesn't really illuminate the film's more serious points, but it doesn't invalidate them either. In America, perception--or the face you put on something--is everything. It's why used car dealers string balloons and multi-colored flags over their lots to lend a "festive" atmosphere to their ugly collections of other people's unwanted auto nightmares. (Come to think of it, all those balloons make used-car lots look a lot like Democratic and Republican conventions.) These are not used cars, these are "previously-owned, one-owner vehicles." As one actual ad I've heard says: "Why pay the difference, if you can't TELL the difference!" Isn't a new coat of paint on a car of dubious merit the same as a politician's phony smile? What's REALLY under that hood? The unsubtle guy above who said this film is awful and should be "destroyed" needn't apply for a job as a film critic anytime soon. However, if the job of "Imperial Wizard" should become available. . .
A zany capper to a great series
The sixth and last of the "Lone Wolf and Cub/Baby Cart" series of films shows how artistically well-done films can make even the most ludicrous ideas work. During Ogami Itto's journey to the final showdown with his arch-enemy Retsudo, leader of the evil Yagyu clan, we witness everything from incest bordering on necrophilia, zombie samurai who can burrow in the ground like worms, the usual assortment of mutilations, a battle on snow skis, and the most elaborate baby cart weaponry yet--including automatic armor plating! As usual, the images are beautifully composed, the action is splendidly choreographed, the plot ideas are wonderfully outrageous, and the funky music score is cool perfection. Any of this out of context would be silly; in context, it's almost sublime.
A masterpiece finally widely available in the West
"Chushingura" offers one of the screen's finest and most powerful depictions of the personal qualities of integrity, loyalty, and personal sacrifice. This exquisite-looking film, photographed in rich color for the wide screen, is much more compelling than Mizoguchi's rather stolid WWII era telling of the oft-filmed story of the loyal 47 ronin. Although this one might have benefitted from slight trimming in the middle, it largely holds the interest for more than three hours and ends with a final showdown that's one of the most exciting ever filmed. Its release in the West on video should go far in increasing the underrated director Inagaki's reputation. This, and Masaki Kobayashi's "Harakiri," also released in 1962, are two of the greatest films made in Japan.