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Cash on Demand (1961)
Just a Nice Sociable Little Bank Robbery
What I liked most about this crime caper is how it preserves and honours the humanity of its characters, particularly the two leads, the bank manager, Fordyce (Peter Cushing), and the robber, Hepburn (Andre Morell). It's clear from the outset that Fordyce is a troubled man, and that his meanness and pathological obsessiveness cover up deep insecurities. He's a tin-pot tyrant, with little or no understanding of people. Watching his perfectionism as he hangs up his coat is fascinating. He's a lonely man. Later in the film he cries out in desperation, as his world falls apart, begging for mercy for his family because they're all he's got - he has no friends.
Hepburn is the opposite - gregarious, confident, boastful, even charismatic. He sees through people, and he's got Fordyce nailed, and in a tither. He can don an aura of menace that is very convincing, but is it just show? We eventually find out.
Watching these two men go at it is the essence of the movie, and I have to say that I have rarely, if ever, seen a match-up so exciting and exhilarating in a movie. Both actors bite into their roles as if they were juicy plums. The tables are turned on Fordyce as Hepburn baits and humiliates him, just as Fordyce did earlier to his loyal clerk, Pearson (Richard Vernon). And Pearson finally has his moment, too. As the robbery unfolds, and an increasingly desperate Fordyce (actually, both men are desperate) tries to keep it together, the suspense ramps up to unexpected heights.
This is due to a script that is crisp, clean, witty and focused, and to direction by one Quentin Lawrence that is restrained but articulate (I started to notice his cannily placed camera, making the most of the interior spaces and subtly underlining the drama). All of the supporting characters (and actors) stand out. Everyone involved in this project seems to have been inspired and, in the case of Cushing, grateful to get such a meaty role.
I will say one more thing. This is a low budget, black-and-white 1962 British movie with virtually no violence. Yet it is so fresh and natural that, I think, it would play well to younger audiences today if they would give it a chance. A lovely surprise - thank you, Turner Classic Movies / Noir Alley.
The Nature of Evil
The first thing I'll say is that I felt like taking a shower after watching this movie. Then I resolved to stop watching black-as-night movies like this. Then I admitted that I found the movie to be unique and bracing. There are so many movies out there that revel in violence and mayhem, and treat the impulse for revenge almost as a virtue. This is not such a movie. Tom Wells, played superbly by Nicolas Cage, is given a simple, but lucrative, private eye job - determine the veracity of what appears to be a snuff film, then go home to his wife and little girl (he's chosen because he's taken to be stupid, and not a troublemaker - wrong on both counts).
You see, Wells has a conscience, and is a straight-arrow, middle-class guy. But the deeper he digs into the underbelly of the sex industry, the more horrified he becomes by what he uncovers, and the more sympathy he develops for the teen-aged "star" of the film in question. Then, violent reactions are aroused, and he plunges into the grotesque maelstrom of this world he probably barely noticed in his nice, safe life.
I ponder the news, and I don't even want to imagine the horrors of sex-slavery and child-molestation, but I know these things have permeated our society, that women, as in this film, are dehumanized as "pussy". And what kind of men are they who are the customers, the "johns", the pimps, the purveyors? Their victims are real people, however naive they are, but here they are mere commodities. We're used to evil being presented, as in horror films, as something unhuman, outside of ourselves, but here it's all too human, all too mundane. Evil might be Joe the mechanic down the street. There's a scene in the film in which Wells is browsing the pornography in a deeply underground shop. He comes across a section labelled "kids", and a chill ran up my spine. I don't think that the film-makers were as interested in the snuff film per se, as in giving us a tour of this squalid other-world. And what a tour it is! The movie is lewd in suggestion only, and no more violent than many other films of its kind, so what accounts for its visceral jolt? Some of the scenes and images, the way they are filmed, have quite a impact, and the shudders I felt were real. I think that I became totally invested in the Wells character, and because he cared about the girl, I cared too. I could truly feel his pain, and not in the usual jokey sense of the phrase. We talk about graphic sex and violence, but in this movie, it's the emotions that are graphic. Wells' dive down the rabbit hole is truly awful. When he cries to his wife, "Save me!" it's not his physical self he's talking about. And here, too, is a movie in which the sex and violence are not there as a turn-on.
Glancing at some of the critics' comments, I was really surprised. Some were truly outraged by this movie. They wrote as if they were deeply, personally offended by it. The only other time, that I know of, when this occurred, was with the movie Peeping Tom (similar subject matter), and that destroyed director Michael Powell's career. How dare he! Peeping Tom was eventually declared a masterpiece, and 8MM ought to be up on the ladder somewhere. As ugly and unpleasant as the story is, there is a place in movie heaven for films with integrity such as this.
The Prodigal (1955)
Christian Hunk Meets Pagan Babe
I'd never seen "The Prodigal" and had barely even heard of it so, hoping for a little smut and pageantry, I watched it all the way through, a true, dedicated fan of Biblical spectacles.
It's an oft-told tale: boy ditches girl-next-door to date a more worldly doll. In this case the boy, Micah, finds himself inside a sort of pagan revival tent presided over, not by Aimee Semple McPherson, but by Lana Turner, clad in...well, shall we say barely clad. It's instant puppy love. Lana walks solemnly around inside the tent clutching two torches, hoping, no doubt, like a kid in a high-school pageant, that she doesn't blow her Big Moment. Anyway, Lana, a high priestess (and man-eater) heads to Damascus, and Micah high-tails it after her. Geography and distance in this movie feel like, that to get to Damascus you turn left at the next intersection, first sound-stage on your right.
Once in the city, Micah, an astute hero for the ages, is conned out of all his wealth by pimps and assorted riff-raff. He buys Lana a legendary pearl in exchange for a promise to get everything his heart desires, which, I think, means he'll get laid. Sure enough, they end up in the sack, but the tempestuousness is as mushy as a soggy falafel, and you'd need a flame-thrower to ignite any sparks between Edmund Purdom and Lana Turner. Bad things happen, and pretty soon there's a revolt of the underdogs of society, led by Mr. Puppy Love himself. The big battle scene consists of a bunch of men in skirts running around hither and yonder thwacking each other. There's the obligatory storming of the temple. The mob trashes the place, and who can blame them? The interior decoration is hideous. They throw chunks of painted Styrofoam at Lana, the better not to smudge her make-up. Micah heads home with his tail between his legs and makes nice with dad and the girl next door. And that's the end of the movie and my review. I think I'll go watch "Quo Vadis" again.
A Tale of Good Breeding
In the old west, Frank Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen), a half-breed American, is dispatched with a message to the military brass that orders the massacre of a tribe of native Americans at Wounded Knee, if necessary. It becomes apparently necessary. Hopkins takes to drink and joins Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show which dramatizes, with flash and fury, and guns a-blazing, the triumph of the noble white man over the pernicious savage. Strange to think how this idea was perpetuated by popular culture (the movies) until the 1950's and beyond. Anyway, fate intervenes - an Arab Sheikh (Omar Sharif) has taken an interest in long-distance horseman Hopkins and his wild mustang, Hidalgo, and soon the two are crossing "the great water" to compete in a prestigious horse race across the Arabian desert, against a different breed of horse – and horseman – altogether.
In "Hidalgo" breeding is everything. In Arabia Hopkins encounters a world in which the privileged few – princes and sheikhs – hold sway over the multitudes, and lesser races are relegated to slavery (Hopkins was born in 1865, during the demise of American slavery). Hopkins and his mustang are sneered at by the breeders of generations of Arabian thoroughbreds, and the valiant riders of these princely animals are not above cheating and engaging in other forms of deadly chicanery in order to win the race. Mortensen plays Hopkins as a particular breed of man – one with honour, integrity, self-reliance and the ability to take care of himself – and this "infidel" eventually endears himself to Sheikh Riyadh who holds similar ideals (a little hokey, I admit, because this type of laconic American hero, the likes of Gary Cooper, has been so prevalent in American movies).
I liked the "breeding" angle, which carries well throughout the movie, and I liked Viggo Mortensen's performance. Most of all, I liked the horse, Hidalgo, who pretty much steals the show. I found the race sequences to be a bit sketchy, and I had trouble believing that the participants actually covered the great distance we're told they did. It's an amiable adventure movie with stock action scenes, though not always that rousing. Writer John Fusco is purportedly a great fan of Hopkins whose claim to have participated in the Arabian horse race is held in question, according to my minimal research. But it's a good tall tale.
A Grim Fairy Tale
The best way to see "Prisoners" is to go in cold, not knowing anything, and be surprised and excited by every new twist and turn. I knew very little and had moderate expectations, so that when the early event – every parent's worst nightmare, the kidnapping of children – occurs I was seized by dread and anxiety which didn't let up until the final moment in the film. I see too many movies that don't really engage me, so it was thrilling to watch a movie that so completely held me in thrall.
Jake Gyllenhaal plays the cop assigned to the case. He's intuitive and methodical and has a history of solving all his cases. It doesn't help, though, that the father (played by Hugh Jackman) of one of the little kidnapped girls, impatient with the cop's M.O., decides to take matters into his own hands. He's a good man who does something unspeakably bad, and what he ends up doing morally rips him apart. This turns the movie from being merely a police procedural into something altogether different, and makes it really interesting. There are monsters in the movie – and in the world – and they're not the big bad wolf living off in the woods, somewhere. Sometimes they live among us, in nice tidy little houses down the street – or maybe they lurk inside us.
I was afraid that the story was going to be too convoluted and that there were going to be gaps in logic (it's a testament to how involved I was in the movie that, for awhile, I was on edge about this) but these were tidied up to my satisfaction. One critic I read thought the movie was way too long, but I wasn't bored for an instant. "Prisoners" is exactly as long as it needs to be. I liked director Denis Villeneuve's careful and methodical pacing, slow and suggestive fades and preoccupation with mood (all of which, for me, increased the suspense). There were moments when this movie messed with my head.
How to Get a Nice Beard Trim
I love a good sci-fi movie. Even in ones with preposterous scenarios, if the film-makers can find ways to make it credible or can display some cleverness in the presentation, I'll buy in. It's called suspension of disbelief. I had some hope for "Elysium", because the idea of a giant, floating space wheel where .01 per cent of the "other half" lives really stirred my imagination. Mind you, I had some questions about its atmosphere and the sun's lethal radiation in space, but these vital scientific issues were never touched upon. Other reviewers on this site have effectively lambasted the film for its suspect science, so I'll merely recap by saying: The film-makers seem to think that if they just show it the audience will believe it.
I'd like to zero in on those cure-all medical pods in the movie. The door opens, you place the sick person inside, the door closes, the machine diagnoses the problem and - presto! - the person is cured. It works for leukemia, severed limbs and faces that have been torn off (and I swear that the face in question grew back without acne scars or grey hairs in the beard - yes, a finely trimmed beard grew back, too!). This isn't science, or science-fiction. It's magic. It occurred to me that with such magical medical machines all over the place this could have been a movie about immortality. Because you could certainly cure death.
I expect more from a big-budget movie in an age bristling with scientific knowledge. Fifty years ago this type of cheese would have seemed pretty nifty, but not under present-day circumstances. It's not even a well-made movie, with its choppy pacing and inability to allow the audience to inhabit any of the physical spaces it shows on screen. Poor Matt barely gets a chance to breathe let alone develop a character; and then there's Jodie Foster, who practically bellows her lines and wears a facial expression that suggests rectal discomfort. Maybe she should try one of those magic pods.
Midnight in Paris (2011)
This Coach Is Just a Pumpkin
"Midnight in Paris" is a time travel fantasy with a taxi as the means of conveyance, like H.G. Wells' time machine or the pumpkin carriage that transports Cinderella to the ball. Gil (Owen Wilson) travels back to 1920's "Lost Generation" Paris where he hobnobs with his arts and letters heroes, and even to "la belle époque" of the 1890's. Me, I'd like to visit the '40's and '50's. There's a few famous folks I'd like to meet. I should have liked "Midnight in Paris", but it, mostly, left me cold, and I wasn't charmed by its many quaint artifices.
People I've spoken to who have seen this movie are quite tickled by its whimsical premise. It's a pretty, dreamy soufflé that, unfortunately, sinks and congeals very quickly. I, myself, was quite eager to follow our wide-eyed hero as he tumbled down the rabbit-hole, bumping into the celebrities of the day, the likes of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Bunuel, Baker, Porter, Picasso, Dali, Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec and on and on and on. There were so many celebs that I'm surprised that Woody Allen didn't simply roll out a red carpet.
And what a dull, boring, inane lot they all are! They're not characters, or even caricatures – they're cardboard cut-outs (or cut-ups), and Allen hasn't penned a memorable line of dialogue for any of them. In fact, the screenplay is devoid of any wit, and the characters (all of them) lack any flesh or blood, depth or weight. Shouldn't great artists be just a little bit dangerous, if not in their behaviour, at least in their ideas? In one pointless scene Gil and Adriana (Marion Cotillard, easily the best thing in the film) encounter a suicidal Zelda Fitzgerald by the Seine. Just so that Gil can draw upon historical knowledge and convince her that F. Scott really loves her ("I know. Take my word for it") and offer her a Valium. Suicide? Just a gag.
Why must Woody Allen write protagonists who are merely variations of the Woody Allen screen persona? This often bothered me with Owen Wilson's Gil, who I didn't, for a moment, believe was a successful Hollywood screenwriter, hack or no hack. And as for his relationship with the shrew played by Rachel McAdams – that strained credibility even further. By the way – I just have to ask – wouldn't Gil do re-writes on a computer, and what font do you suppose he used in the original manuscript he presents to Gertrude Stein? Just a thought.
"Midnight in Paris" is a one-note wonder with a script that is lazy and shallow. It's practically an insult to the great men and women of arts and letters who litter its scenes. Around the time that I saw "Midnight in Paris" I also caught Richard Linklater's dreamy, but alive, "Before Sunrise". Now, there's magic for you.
People Watching with Monsieur Tati
Oh, why do I love this movie so much? It must be its bright, sun-drenched beach setting, its sunny disposition, its sweet optimism and untempered innocence, its cheerful, gentle depiction of a bygone era when a disparate group of folk gather to vacation at a funky Gallic seaside resort. Whatever it is, this 1953 farce fills me with joy every time I see it. It was my wide-eyed introduction to French comic Jacques Tati eons ago.
It's obvious that Tati was an inveterate people-watcher. He depicts the foibles and peccadilloes of his eclectic array of characters with insight, charm and wit. Tati's view of humanity is both loving and generous. His main character, M. Hulot (played by M. Tati), is a somewhat daffy and eccentric bumbler who interacts with the other characters and lurches about leaving havoc in his wake. There's no plot to speak of, just a series of comic and nostalgic vignettes that segue effortlessly from one to the next.
This is the kind of comedy where you feel compelled to recount your favorite funny moments afterwards. Is it the recalcitrant horse, the gravity-prone mass of taffy, the ping-pong ball that propels Hulot to throw a peaceful card game into chaos, Hulot's wildly eccentric, but brutal, tennis serve that decimates his opponents, the deflatable wreath at the funeral, the restless tiger-skin rug, the suspense-ridden trek of the little boy holding the two ice-cream cones? You name your own.
I tittered, I chuckled, I laughed heartily and, occasionally, I guffawed. Yet there is a tinge of sadness at the finale as the activities wane, the guests depart and the hotel is shuttered up. Another endless summer finally ends. "See you next year!" is the parting refrain. "See you next time!" I say of this movie treasure.
Day of the Evil Gun (1968)
Take This Gun and Shoot It
"I'll be the same man when this is over," claims Owen (Arthur Kennedy), Lorne's side-kick in "Day of the Evil Gun". Uh, not quite. Owen is learning to kill, quite efficiently, and maybe Lorne (Glenn Ford) ought not to turn his back on him. It's a marriage of convenience between the two men. Both are on a quest to rescue Lorne's wife and daughters from a band of Apaches and Owen, due to ex-gunfighter Lorne's long absence from the homestead, figures he has dibs on the wife. Along the way they get into several adventures involving a grungy town without pity, Apaches (a highway robbery chase sequence is a hoot), Mexican riff-raff and a group of self-described blue-coat "renegades" (has a more heroic ring than "deserters").
"Day of the Evil Gun" is a laconic western that aims just high enough and succeeds entirely. Technically it does much with little and uses the landscape and backdrops to maximum effect, employing imaginative camera angles to describe the action. One reviewer has described the direction (by Jerry Thorpe) as "laid-back" - that doesn't mean "lazy", however. I would use the word "measured". Good widescreen photography and an evocative, but sparse, musical score make the movie seem more expensive than it likely is. Then, too, the movie is buoyed by the presence of Glenn Ford, late in his career, adding conviction to the story, while not too sluggish in the action scenes; also, the ever-welcome, somewhat bedevilled Arthur Kennedy; and Dean Jagger in a delightful cameo as a crazy trinket salesman (crazy like a fox).
I doubt that B-western writer Charles Marquis William pays much attention to historical reality. "Day of the Evil Gun" isn't Peckinpah or Leone, and It isn't bristling with "meaning", but all things being equal, it deserves to be seen and enjoyed. And referencing its title the movie is book-ended by two scenes that are practically the same, but different in a suitably ironic way. One question. To what extent does the 31 buck shopkeep debt trigger the outcome?
The Wrong Man (1956)
Men with Good Intentions
In "The Wrong Man" Henry Fonda plays Manny, an Italian-American, and family man to the core. He's gentle to his wife (Vera Miles) whom he loves very much, and he handles their two young boys with tact, diplomacy and affection. He seeks to understand and to provide judicious insight and fairness when there are differences of opinion. He listens carefully to both sides of the story. He doesn't tear down but builds up their self-esteem. He's reliable, punctual, patient and quietly optimistic. Manny seems a bit reserved, emotionally. The family is in debt and never seems to be able to get ahead. If it's not one thing it's another – now it's necessary dental work that will put them in the hole again. Perhaps his job playing the bass fiddle at the Stork Club eases the tensions of weighty responsibilities. Both his boys are budding musicians, as well, so he's surging with pride. When disaster blindsides him he doesn't see it coming. His qualities as a man, a husband, and a father will be essential in the dark days ahead. More to the point, they are in stark and frightening contrast to what he encounters in the outside world. The way I've written this, the movie sounds like an episode from "The Twilight Zone". It could very well be. But it's an Alfred Hitchcock masterpiece, one that has eluded me until now.
"The Wrong Man", in Hitchcock's hands, is a breathtaking police procedural that has a few things in common with Terry Gilliam's "Brazil", in which the wrong man is named Tuttle, not Ruttle (or is it the other way around?). "The Wrong Man" examines the minutiae of the process that ensnares an innocent man and his family in a legal and judicial system run by men with good intentions. It picks away at the kind of man that Manny is and his cherished belief in understanding, fairness and open-mindedness, and declares them irrelevant in this alien world of tersely-barked commands and tediously-issued judgements amid the drone of an uncaring bureaucracy.
Fonda is amazing. He keeps his body still and gestures minimal, and acts with his eyes (like Ryan Gosling in "Half Nelson"). He reveals just enough of the grinding panic behind Manny's stoic demeanour. His eyes dart everywhere, seeking to decipher events as they crowd into his field of vision and consciousness. What's happening? What does it mean? Why don't they believe me? Evidence is lined up in a configuration that is logical to THEM, those bureaucrats, all men with good intentions. Alone in his jail cell Manny stares out of his barred window at a featureless brick wall.
Anything else I might say would result in unwanted spoilers, because there are some startling twists in store, and they are better appreciated fresh. I have to add, though, that Vera Miles' performance is stunning, and it's easy to see why she was Hitchcock's first choice for the female lead in "Vertigo".
The Mercenaries (1968)
Rumble in the Jungle
I first saw "Dark of the Sun" when I stumbled across it on TV. I was prompted to phone a friend and urge him to switch on this wild movie I was watching. Yesterday I saw the letterboxed version, and it's every bit as good as I remember it, plus it's not just a bone-head turn-on, but a fairly intelligent piece of cinema with an introspective hero and interesting themes. It reminds me of the Leonardo DiCaprio flick "Blood Diamond". Both films portray mercenaries, rough and cynical men who are on the edge and are pushed toward a state of grace.
It's a guy thing. "Dark of the Sun", on the surface, is a violent, kick-ass action yarn about two mercenaries (Rod Taylor and Jim Brown) heading by train deep into the interior of the Congo to retrieve a cache of diamonds and, if convenient, some white refugees. A savage civil war is going full tilt. There's a nasty Nazi with an agenda, lots of blood-letting, total breakdown of law and order, wild, drunken black revolutionaries raping nuns and sodomizing young white guys. Polite it is not. Lots of brawn, muscle and sweat. It's as if the director (Jack Cardiff) grabbed a megaphone and screamed at the actors and extras: " Alright! Are you ready to ROCK?" To say that the action is energetic is an understatement. To quell your misgivings, though, I should add that much of the goings-on has a frenetic comic book feel. The poster for the movie actually gives a good idea what the movie is like. If you're a fan of Roberto Rodriguez, particularly his "Planet Terror", this movie should be right up your alley. I admit that there's a place in cinema and in my heart for heads-on bad taste.
Joan of Arc (1948)
"Joan of Arc" feels rather vacant. Even the restored version, with all its lavish production values, gorgeous sets, vivid Technicolor, huge cast of stars in cameo roles and Ingrid Bergman's face it doesn't amount to much. It sort of washed over me.
We meet Joan running through the fields, then being chided for not paying attention to the everyday things that matter. She knows she's destined for something big. She's pious. She prays. One day she gets the call. Off she goes to lead the king's army against the enemy. There's something about her that humbles and draws respect from all who meet her. She's a medieval celeb. Soon this humble farm girl is seen in a series of tableaux. Look! There's Joan discussing strategy with the generals. There's Joan in a Mastercard front-of-the-line spot for the king's coronation. There's Joan leading the army. There's Joan, in her shiny, brand new designer armour, waving her sword and calling the troops to battle. There's Joan receiving a blue ribbon in the ratatouille cook-off (just kidding).
Director Victor Fleming takes full advantage of Ingrid Bergman's incandescent features, and she's not bad, but she didn't really convince me. There's little depth to her character. There's nothing in the film that shows Joan as so dangerous as to provoke the Church to prosecute and execute her. "I see angels". So what? Enough already with the piety and artificially imposed charisma. Let's have a closer look at the Joan who claims to have visions and a hot-line to God. Jose Ferrer bites vigorously into his role as the wimpy king of France, but it's a one-note characterization. I lost track of the horde of other characters. Many of the scenes seem perfunctory, and Joan's burning at the stake didn't move me.
The production design and costumes are absolutely stunning, and a lot of research seems to have gone into creating authenticity to a period of European history that's not often carefully depicted in movies. Many of the tableaux remind me of paintings I've seen of the Middle Ages (another film that takes a similar approach to its visuals is Laurence Olivier's marvellous "Henry V").
Recently I watched Otto Preminger's "Saint Joan", filmed in black-and-white. That film, essentially, tells the same story, but it was convincing, and really grabbed me.
Half Nelson (2006)
The Eyes Have It
"Half Nelson" is one of the saddest movies I've ever seen. It's a sharp, insightful look at crack cocaine addiction - the social sickness the drug perpetuates and moral compromises it provokes. In particular, it's an almost elegiac portrayal of an addict and the contradictions of his life. It's a quiet, observant movie that avoids melodrama and the usual addiction movie clichés, yet the cumulative effect is powerful. It has stayed with me.
Ryan Gosling plays Dan, a teacher who attempts to teach his African American students more than the curriculum. He's trying to prepare them for the real world, the world of power structures and social inequality. The "machine". Dan admits that, as a white schoolteacher, he's privileged. But he's also a crack-head and straddling two worlds. Dan has given up. He's accepted himself as a hopeless case, a perpetual loser. When things fall apart he doesn't put up a fight. He just packs his bags and moves on. Gosling's performance is a thing of beauty. He acts with his eyes. When Dan more or less summarily dismisses his ex-girlfriend during her impromptu visit at the school, you can see the sadness, the necessary cruelty and his bemused observation of his own behaviour - all in his eyes.
One afternoon one of his teen-aged girl students, Drey (Shareeka Epps), catches him smoking crack in a school washroom. Dan has a minor seizure, and she helps him. She sizes up the situation and doesn't blink an eye. Drey lives with her mother, who works as a security guard. The crack scene is all around her. She knows the score. Her brother is in prison and her estranged dad is a drug dealer. Epps gives Drey a quiet, guarded alertness. Drey is mature for her age, yet you can also catch glimpses of the girl that she is, and the fire inside her. She might just be a survivor.
Dan and Drey fall into a friendship that raises eyebrows, to be sure, but it's a pairing of equals. Drey brings out Dan's better instincts, and he provides solace and lack of pretence. Dan assumes, quite naturally, the role of a father. He's absolutely livid and catches fire when he finds out that Drey's real dad is using her as a drug runner. He summons the courage to confront him on the street, a very dangerous thing to do in a drug-infested black neighbourhood. It's a welcome surprise in Dan's passive persona.
"Half Nelson" is an authentic depiction of the world of drugs and addiction. Though made on a small budget, director/ writers Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden reach high and succeed. All the pieces fit together. It's an intimate film of many small pleasures. And it made me feel. Which is good.
Great Catherine (1968)
Party Time at the Palace
George Bernard Shaw? If you say so. Historical? Umm...maybe hysterical. Educational? It has a decidedly fresh take on the Battle of Bunker Hill. Farce? Yes!!! Whatever the original material looked like it has been turned into the broadest and most exuberant farce for the movies. The bottom line is if you're paying good money to see a flick at the local Bijou it had better be entertaining. 5.0 IMDb rating? C'mon! You're kidding me! Slip out of those new shoes that are pinching your bunions and snap loose the suspenders. This is a very funny movie. I laughed a whole lot. In fact, I guffawed (I don't get to guffaw often). All of the actors are truly into the spirit of this enterprise, quite happy to be buffoons. Zero Mostel not only chews the scenery but the paint off the soundstage as well. Peter O'Toole is a revelation as a comic, unless you've been lucky enough to have seen "My Favorite Year". His laugh, believe me, inspires much more laughter. Even Jack Hawkins is funny! And Moreau...well, she's Moreau. Rhymes with "sublime". She stirs up some pretty subliminal feelings in O'Toole (and in me). Then there's the party at the palace that starts out as a mannered Grand Ball and degenerates...oops! No spoilers, here. There's a wild dance sequence featuring a horde of drunken Cossacks that's the highlight of the movie. And included in the admission price are the talents of some of the brightest in the movie business: Dimitri Tiomkin (music), Anne V. Coates (editing), Oswald Morris (photography), etc. Great production values never hurt a good comedy. There's a real sense of shared enthusiasm by all concerned, and it shows. And now, my little mothers and little fathers and my little sleepers in cradles of red roses, all the sweetest of my little darlings...enjoy!
Ziegfeld Girl (1941)
I Stepped Into a Dream
I don't know if it was the gathering dusk outside, or the feeling of contentment that crept through me, or maybe the fact that I just couldn't move my butt out of the chair, but while I was watching "Ziegfeld Girl" I went into a trance. I became aware of it while Judy was doing that silly, delightful Caribbean number near the end. When she was lifted way up in the air by all those long bamboo poles brandished by hunky guys a "wow!" dropped from my lips. As much as I chuckled at the outlandishly tacky costumes in the musical sequences and the inherent Hollywood goofiness of it all I was totally captivated. The story - three young women (Judy Garland, Lana Turner, Hedy Lamarr) dream of making it big on Broadway. The musical numbers - Busby Berkeley extravaganzas. Nothing new or original here. Yet as the movie unfolds it becomes clear that this is no musical comedy, but a darker look at the forces that shape the lives of the three women, particularly Lana Turner's character. This is Turner's movie, and she is dazzling. I couldn't take my eyes off her. James Stewart's portrayal of her shunned boy friend, a punk who can't betray his heart no matter how hard he tries, is a pleasant surprise. Eve Arden is on hand doing her usual shtick as a hard-bitten showgirl displaying her bracelets like wearable trophies.
Edward Everett Horton plays Noble Sage, a theatre man who has seen it all. His early prediction of the three paths open to showgirls has the eerie feeling of a seer looking into a crystal ball. Judy achieves success and the big time, Hedy gets the white picket fence, and Lana is doomed to self-destruct. Her slide into alcoholism is presented with astonishing detail and clarity. Her maid, subtly portrayed as a woman of questionable breeding, is her chief enabler. Lana Turner, young, beautiful and shiny, is touching as a woman who compromises everything but tenaciously holds onto the little flame that is her own true self. The movie becomes more dark and strange in the final sequence, which cross-cuts between Lana's last descent down the theatre's grand staircase and the extravagant dream-like number before a starry sky on-stage where hushed, dirge-like poetry bemoaning the final curtain call floats ominously outward. It has an unexpected touch of grand guignol, it's melodramatic to the hilt, and I loved it. Staircases, the movie's predominant motif and dramatic device, serve the story well. Whenever Lana Turner got on one I held my breath. "Ziegfeld Girl" has been criticized for not being in colour. I can't imagine it, and wouldn't want it, in anything other than its beautiful black-and-white tonalities.
The Way Back (2010)
The Long, Long Journey
Australian Peter Weir is one of the great artists and craftsmen in cinema of the past 40 years. As a storyteller he seems interested in the the plight of the stranger in a strange land, the man who stumbles into a world where he is totally out of his element and the rules of the society he knows and believes in no longer apply. The two films that brought him to the world stage, "Picnic at Hanging Rock" (1975) and "The Last Wave" (1977) depict the fragility of our civilization as it crashes full tilt into a spiritual world that exists beyond time and space and rational comprehension. In the truly wonderful "Witness" (1985), violent cop Harrison Ford, wounded and pursued by crooked cops, hides out in an Amish community in Pennsylvania. A real fish out of water tale. I saw this film on its opening in a packed Toronto theatre. There was such a hush from the audience I swear you could hear a pin drop, and at the end the entire audience broke into spontaneous and prolonged applause. Okay, pardon my digression. I once knew someone knowledgeable who illuminated some of Weir's earlier films for me and helped to made that director a personal favourite.
In "The Way Back" (2010) a group of political prisoners and one bona fide crook and con artist, in Stalin's Russia ca. 1948, escape from a prison camp in Siberia. Their journey takes them across frozen Siberia, the Gobi desert and the Himalayas to their ultimate destination, India and freedom. Some of them don't make it. The elements are the enemy. The film does a fine job of juxtaposing the most minuscule details with the vastness and harsh beauty of the landscapes (the photography is by Oscar-winner Russell Boyd). Along the way the men discover that the world they once took for granted has been recast in the molds of the hammer-and-sickle and the red star. Colin Farrell plays the hard-done-by con man who, nevertheless, will brook no mockery of his tattoo of Stalin. Ed Harris plays an American known simply as Mr. Smith, a grumpy old bear and an expert at survival, who harbours a deep hurt. He's the weight at the movie's core. Jim Sturgess is the new guy, a Polish army officer and resident artist, who has an especially compelling reason for making it back. Then there is the persistent, stray young woman (Saoirse Ronan) whom the men, some grudgingly (a laggard and another mouth to feed), allow to tag along. Observant, talkative and direct, she brings the healing power of conversation to the men and a much-appreciated softer texture to the movie.
"The Way Back" has a feel to it reminiscent of the epic films of David Lean ("Lawrence of Arabia", "Doctor Zhivago", "A Passage to India") and Steven Spielberg's "Empire of the Sun". It's a nice change from the testosterone-charged epics currently ruling the box office. Weir hasn't culled a melodramatic storyline from the true-life material he is working from. The struggle to survive, physically and spiritually, seems dramatic enough, and the movie is never plodding or boring. It's been edited to just the right length, a trim two-and-a-quarter hours. The Himalayan leg of the journey is quickly dispensed with because, after all, the story that Peter Weir wanted to tell has been told by that point. Well, almost. The journey is not over. Using "walking" as the movie's predominant metaphor, there is a bold and thrilling final sequence that made me gasp with delight. It's a leap of the imagination that few movies manage to take.
For anyone who likes "The Way Back" I can't recommend highly enough the 2003 mountain-climbing survival movie "Touching the Void", a dramatization of a true story. Go out of your way to get hold of it.
A Clever Man and a Wrong Move
"Illegal" is an intelligent and nimble little crackerjack of a crime thriller starring Edward G. Robinson as a D.A who's maybe a little too smart - and smart-assed - for his own good. He's ruthless because his job requires him to be. He wins cases. That's what he's paid for. He's quick of wit and tongue. He's ambitious, canny and - technically, at least - in compliance with the law. He's, at heart, a good man, and he's in the public eye, but he's not universally well-liked. One day, he sends the wrong man to the chair. And he comes undone.
This sets in motion a plot that winds and twists without becoming outlandish. The picture, which doesn't strike me as a "noir", moves at a nice clip, each of the broad spectrum of characters is painted with a defining brush stroke, and the dialogue is efficient and snappy. It's the kind of movie that hooks you and hooks you good. It did me.
"Illegal" is, above all, an Edward G. Robinson picture. It doesn't seem like a star vehicle. Robinson shares the screen with everyone, yet he is such a forceful presence and creates such a complex and complicated character, sympathetic yet warped, you search him out in every scene. You want to watch him. He's magnetic. I'm becoming a real Edward G. Robinson fan on the strength of his 40's and 50's films alone, some of them comic reminders of his earlier gangster persona. He's as good in this movie as he is in "Scarlet Street", which I saw recently for the first time and which, well... kinda sorta blew my mind. I've lived a little and can recognize the truths that some of these lively, well-written B-movies shine a light on.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Still Nasty After All These Years
I first saw "Night of the Living Dead" upon its release in the 60's at a packed art house near the university campus. I bumped into a female friend in the lobby. We exchanged a few words and went our separate ways into the auditorium. The next day I spoke with a mutual friend who informed me that my female friend had fled the theatre before the movie ended and had wound up at his place shaking badly and needing a drink. I just watched "Night of the Living Dead" again today and I can tell you that nothing has changed. It hasn't lost any of its impact. It's still a nasty piece of business.
"Night of the Living Dead" is B-movie schlock on a low budget, nothing less, nothing more, and it pulls out the standard radiation-from-space explanation for the goings-on; however, it takes a giant leap beyond its genre limitations. It sets us up with a generic story and stock characters then pulls the rug out from underneath us. The hero is not only African-American but is clearly the smartest and most capable character in the picture. Remember, this is 1968 and there are few African-American role models in mainstream American films other than Sidney Poitier. There's a social sub-text in the movie leading to an ending that should not be revealed. Horror movie endings are a touchy subject. I don't need a happy ending, but I don't want a gratuitous, gimmicky twist at the end, either. I prefer an ending that's a logical extension of the story. It can be the ultimate horror, maybe the result of a fatal warp in the protagonist's character or some overwhelming desire that blinds that person, or the ironic twist of fate that the protagonist never saw coming.
"Night of the Living Dead" opens in a graveyard. There's a spat between siblings, a graveside visit, some bitching about the wreath, a tasteless joke, a gaunt old man lurching toward them - and wham! The movie's got you by the throat. Ten or so minutes into the movie and either you can't leave or you want to leave really badly - the option my friend chose. This time around I understood one crucial thing. This movie means business. It's lean, mean, grim and macabre. It's not particularly gory by today's standards, but many of the images are genuinely shocking, and the panic of the opening minutes never quite subsides. George Romero made this film with a great deal of care and skill, and the results are there on the screen. The musical score, in particular, gets under your skin. The actors are very convincing, particularly the actress who plays the woman in shock. I wonder if my friend ever watched this movie again.
The Last Frontier (1955)
Civilization and Its Malcontents
Victor Mature plays Jed Cooper, a rough-and-tumble mountain man, ostensibly in need of a few social graces, who, along with his two companions, is hired on as a civilian guide at the local army installation, a fort on the edge of nowhere. He wants two things: a soldier's uniform, and commander Col. Frank Marsden's wife, Corinna (a blonde Anne Bancroft). She isn't altogether turned off. Her husband has been shuffled as far west as possible by the Army to escape his quaint reputation as the "butcher of Shiloh". A sizable native army, just beyond the fort, is waiting. Marsden dismisses them as stupid savages with no concept of military strategy, then falls into one of their bear traps.
"The Last Frontier" is about civilization and what it means to be civilized. Jed is an outsider and he wants to belong. For him, to be civilized is to wear a uniform and to attain domesticity. He grapples hard with this civilization thing and learns that there are some confounding complexities. Col. Marsden flaunts the veneer of civilization, but he's a rule-toting bully.
I've probably said too much already, but I love the dry, adult westerns of Anthony Mann. For all his tackling of a complex theme Mann doesn't forget the action scenes. The climactic Indian attack is exciting, with the dust that's whipped up providing a nice visual touch, and Jed's one-on-one fight with a Marsden flunkie is raw and brutal. The fort in this movie appears to be authentic and detailed, and we get to see its layout. Victor Mature's performance as a rough frontiersman is well realized and convincing, a far cry from the oiled-up Samson wrestling a stuffed lion in a certain Cecil B. De Mille soaper. A special nod to Guy Madison for his portrayal of a sane, all-round nice guy. This is hardly a "lesser" Mann picture. It's up there among his best.
Stepping Out (1991)
Two Left Feet
I wanted to like "Stepping Out" for its heart and to cheer for the underdogs in the story, members of a Buffalo, N.Y. tap-dancing class who are catapulted onto the stage as part of a big charity event, along with other acts featuring professional dancers. A cursory search reveals that the original play was a hit in London's West End, but a flop on Broadway. The original took place in London. This kind of film has been done before, usually in a sports setting, in films such as the superb "Hoosiers" and "Breaking Away".
I'd watch Liza Minnelli in anything, but she doesn't convince me that she's a washed-up Broadway hoofer giving tap classes in a rundown church hall and, with her voice and charisma, a blue-collar bar crooner performing sets with her guitar-playing boy friend. Anyway, niggling aside, here she is, so she's given a couple of musical numbers, one a solo spot in the empty church hall with the stained-glass windows ablaze with colour and a spotlight shining down on her from above. There are two films here. One is a Liza Minnelli showcase. The other is the underdog story: a group of amateur dancers with two left feet get their big chance to strut their stuff, and in the process, learn something about themselves. The problem, for me, is that everyone's a "type". There's Ms. Obssessive Compulsive who will prove that she's just folks, after all; there's Mr. Clumsy Nerd, the only male in the class, picked on by the women, who will finally prove that he's a man; there's Ms. Mouse, and so on. Liza, I must say, is game in this ensemble cast. There's a scene stealer at work, here, and that's Shelley Winters, who is both hilarious and touching as the group's long-suffering piano-player. The long-awaited Big Night performance by the troupe itself is fun and strikes the right balance between being quite good and endearingly goofy.
Susan Slade (1961)
Love with the Proper Hero
In viewing movies from different eras I often find it necessary to put on different glasses to adjust my vision. It also helps to have seen all kinds of films from different time periods, for the sake of comparison. Tolerance helps, as well. By today's standards, cultural and moral, "Susan Slade" is hopelessly out-dated, but it does contain some ideals that are - to the jaded - refreshing, and in point of fact, timeless (in movies, stories don't age and die; they're merely re-cycled and re-packaged for modern audiences). And I enjoyed it as much for its lustre and polish as for its story, its stars and the prurience that is the hallmark of this brand of teen melodrama.
Very early in the movie sweet, young, naive Susan (Connie Stevens) gets knocked up. This is several years after young Natalie Wood, in "Rebel Without a Cause", declared: "I'm not a tramp!" Neither is Susan, and the film goes to great lengths, in these early scenes, to prove that she isn't, and to present her relationship with the worldly young man in the most hushed, breathless, reverent way possible. These scenes, though they only show the couple necking, are incredibly erotic. But the young man in question is predisposed to sleeping around. He's a rock-star of mountain climbers, soon checking out to climb a mountain, leaving Susan in the lurch. Eventually the girl finds herself free to consider other suitors, a rich, anal-retentive young man of good breeding and the hunk one longs for, Troy Donohue. Just in case you thought that the social climate had improved since "Rebel Without a Cause" Susan is pregnant, and the parents, ever practical and ever loving, insist on pretending that they're having a baby, going so far as to move to Guatemala for two years to camouflage the pregnancy. One is tempted to treat a storyline such as this with derision, but other films of this era from other countries, the wonderful 1962 British film, "The L-Shaped Room", for example, also deal with the fear of being unwed and pregnant. "Love with the Proper Stranger" goes so far as to suggest other means a woman might consider to deal with the problem. I think that the biggest strength of "Susan Slade" is its overwhelming depiction of family love - a family that sticks together through thick and thin. Conflict erupts in the struggle between mother and daughter for "possession" of the baby. A mother's bond with her child has consequences for the charade that they're trying to pull off.
I recently saw "Parrish", and the romantic sub-plot in that film is an uncanny reflection of that of "Susan Slade". Naive young man is seduced by a girl who sleeps around, dallies with an a troubled rich girl and finally ends up with a practical, down-to-earth girl who saves herself for him. Donohue, in both films, plays a rugged individualist who works hard to achieve and won't put up with any nonsense. A real American hero. He even joins the Army for a couple of years and returns a man, just as Susan returns a woman after her stay in Guatemala. Donohue and Connie Stevens are as good as they need to be, and Stevens, who was also the sleep-around girl in "Parrish", is so hot and sexy that it's amazing she didn't ignite the prints in theatres everywhere.
Death Line (1972)
Urban Myths and Legends
"Death Line" is a horror movie that hits all kinds of unexpected notes on the horror scale. The film strikes deep into urban myth territory with its tale of something alive deep in an abandoned section of the London underground, snatching hapless victims from a nearby subway station. It preys on our deepest fears regarding our vulnerability in such places. In one extraordinary tracking shot the film takes us alone into the lair of the beast. There we find a scene of incredible rot and decay, including the man/beast himself, himself decaying, mourning the death of his only companion, a pregnant woman. He emits a primal scream that raised the hairs on the back of my neck. This is classic horror, reminiscent of films as diverse as "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" and Cronenberg's version of "The Fly", as well as tales of Appalachian inbreds. The monster that invokes both pity and dread. And yes, there's a beauty involved. There is such pathos here that it actually augments the horror of the story. The lair itself is simply indescribable. I'm used to superior art direction in British horror films, but this is a rare achievement. The other elements of the story, the police procedural plot, for example, are relatively mundane, though efficient, and Christopher Lee makes a cameo appearance that stops the show. There's a genuine scare, done without shock SFX, but by using timing, silence and suspense. Films like "Death Line", and Cronenberg's early low-budget horror films are unique and ought to be cherished. You'd be hard-pressed to do it the same way, today. You'd want CGI creatures, faster editing and more violence. The director of this film achieves a lot with little, and all that's required of the viewer is to sit back and allow oneself to be drawn in. This movie is a real find.
The Siege at Red River (1954)
Boy's Own Tales
Here's the situation: I'm about 9 years old and I'm standing in front of either the Regent or Gay, small, box-like, moderately ornate cinemas known to me for their triple-bills, smokey interiors and sticky floors. In the display case is a poster for "Siege at Red River" The large lettering is red. A guy is holding onto a beautiful woman. Behind them is a burning fort and a horde of injuns battling the cavalry in blue uniforms. Cool! I note that the movie is in Technicolor. That's a plus. I pay my quarter and go in. At the candy counter I buy a cherry ice cream bar and enter the darkened auditorium.
I've probably sat down in the middle of a movie, but that's okay. It's fun trying to figure out what's going on. Then "Siege at Red River" starts. The grand 20th Century Fox logo with the moving floodlights. My favourite. I sink into my seat and a surge of anticipation rushes through me. Van Johnson is blonde, sturdy and stalwart - and maybe a scoundrel. There seems to be questions about his courage, but he sure gives that soldier bully what for! The beautiful lady doctor with the red lips likes him, then hates him, so I guess they'll get together at the end. He's up to his eyeballs in trouble regarding a Gatling gun and he's mixed up with a shady character with a whip played by Richard Boone, who's really, really nasty. Hiss. Boo. There's lots of good story, some funny parts, and tons of action with guys on horseback riding furiously around. The Technicolor is vivid and the outdoor scenery, with those huge pink/orange granite cliffs, is beautiful. There's a spectacular climax, with the cavalry, trumpet blasting, arriving in the nick of time. Too bad the injuns never win, though. Funny how the guys who are shot and fall off their horses never stay on the ground.
I don't know for sure if I saw this movie as a kid - there were so many - but I probably did, and I probably sat through the entire triple bill twice. As an adult I still find this movie entertaining. It delivers what it promises. I don't know, as one reviewer has suggested, if it's a metaphor for the Cold War, but its equivalent in contemporary cinema might be a Matt Damon movie with a hero who can take care of himself, nasty arms dealers and Arab strife. One thing, though - I miss the cherry ice cream bars.
The Seventh Cross (1944)
Night of Dark Shadows
This film stars Spencer Tracy as a concentration camp escapee named George Heisler who navigates his way to freedom through the perils of Nazi Germany. Along the way he meets many people who help him, and his cynicism and fatigue fade away. Early in the story, soon after he's left the camp, he meets a little girl, and in his mind he's sure that he'll kill her if she attracts the wrong kind of attention to him. Next he lurches into the home of his ex-girlfriend, frightening her. And no wonder, because his face has a twisted expression on it that frightened ME - in this moment Tracy is almost unrecognizable. This man's an animal, he's been through hell and he has no reason to believe that the world is anything other than a sewer. For my money this is a pretty startling opening for a 1944 movie.
Not to throw definitions around too freely, I'm tempted to describe this film as Nazi noir. Heisler weaves his way through German society of 1936, where it's the criminals who are in power, and scuttling through the streets are the folks who are merely trying to survive, in any way possible. At the back of our minds is the worrisome knowledge that things are going to get exponentially worse. Fred Zinnemann, the director, creates an atmosphere of claustrophobia and palpable dread where the night is filled with dark shadows and any tiny act of resistance to the Nazi regime is a colossal act of courage. There is almost no violence in the film, yet the threat of violence hangs heavy in the air. Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy play Paul and Liesel Roeder, a couple who are old friends of Heisler and who befriend him. Paul is politically neutral. He doesn't follow the news, and one gets the feeling that he would rather not know anything about what's going on. One of the fascinating threads in the film is his growing awareness. The scenes with Cronyn and Tandy are wonderful - real chemistry is bubbling here and they seem to belong together (and we all know what happened in real life). I must mention that George Macready and Agnes Moorehead are very good in small roles. There's considerable art and intelligence in "The Seventh Cross", and a preview of what was to come in Zinnemann's illustrious career.
Advance to the Rear (1964)
All's Silly on the Western Front
Comedy is a funny animal. You never know when laughter is going to strike next, and you just never know what you're going to find funny. Recently, I laughed in child-like glee during Walt Disney's "Pinocchio", and all the way through the 1931 French farce "Le Million". I found the 2009 romantic comedy "I Love You, Man" delightful, and I almost had to call 911 I was laughing so hard during "The Sunshine Boys". but Stanley Kramer's laborious, sour, mammoth wannabe laff-fest "It's a Mad (etc.) World" didn't elicit a single chuckle from me. I believe that the harder the film-maker seems to be trying, the less likely it is that he'll succeed. The best comedy, no matter how many hours are spent setting up a gag, must appear as if it happens totally by accident. But one thing for sure - laughter is a gift. I'll take it wherever I can find it.
"Advance to the Rear" is a funny movie. It made me laugh. There you have it. That's my review. Part of me feels that this movie shouldn't work. It's a total contrivance. But it's so feather-light, so airy, so unpretentious, and so good-natured that one just gives in to it. It's as if the film-makers and the actors are saying: "We've put together this little concoction for your amusement, and we hope that you have a good time." It helps that Glenn Ford and Melvyn Douglas are the stars - Ford taking things way too seriously and becoming seriously undone, and Douglas, demoted to Captain, wincing at every mishap and quite beside himself about what his wife will think ("I married well! All my friends are generals!"). Even if you don't think that men running around in their long-johns is funny you might get a hoot out of the injun from West Point, the guy whose scent attracts horses and the ski attack on water barrel rings. As for Stella Stevens - she can be the angel on top of my Christmas tree anytime.