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La vis (1993)
A rare treat, worth seeing if you can find it
This one is kind of hard to find, but worth seeking out. After seeing it years ago on a cable channel here in the USA, I spent a long time unsuccessfully trying to find an out of print French DVD collection of short films that contained it, and finally snagged a copy. It's very nice to see it again. It has a sort of retro look and surrealist atmosphere that admirers of Terry Gilliam's "Brazil" will appreciate, and the made-up language spoken, besides resembling French and German, contains the odd English word or phrase tossed in at times. It's an outstanding little film with great style and imagination. It probably wouldn't have wide appeal, but it's a tasty tidbit for a film connoisseur.
King Kong (2005)
I've certainly seen a lot of people carping about the quality and quantity of the special effects here, and complaints about "CGI nerds," etc. But having seen this film on DVD yesterday, I can't really get behind their often annoyingly whiney point of view. I never did see this on a huge theater screen, and that might make a big difference in how the FX register, but I really found them great fun to watch even without having my disbelief entirely suspended. I see King Kong as a film fantasy, and shackling the storytellers into utter fidelity to the laws of probability, physics, gravity, trauma medicine, the hypothetical tensile strength of wholly fictitious plant species, etc. might make for an interesting academic exercise, but I'm not sure how entertaining the result would be. Talk about CGI nerds? Some of the negative reviews I've seen here are about the nerdiest things I've EVER read!
But purely in terms of dramaturgy some of them do have a point. I did find the subplot about Hayes and Jimmy a bit pointless, and some of the characters were not particularly well fleshed-out. Still, I'm not sure it's wise to hold up the 1933 original as a standard. Don't get me wrong I love that film but the acting and dialog in THAT film were pretty wooden as well, and in proportion to their differing run-times, I don't think the original got to the adventurous parts all that much quicker.
In case it's not obvious, I enjoyed this film a lot. I also get annoyed with people who blithely make statements like "avoid this film at all costs." Really? Can you actually guarantee that I'll share your own jaded viewpoint? Do get over yourselves.
A lesson well-learned
I very well remember the bad press this film got because of the producers' court order against Clayton Moore using the name "Lone Ranger" or donning his black mask at personal appearances. Quite apart from any consideration of the film's quality, this was the absolute height of nearsighted arrogance and stupidity on the part of the producers and their attorneys. And I suspect that the lesson was well-learned after this film tanked, which was widely perceived as some sort of karma for the jerks responsible for the court order against Moore.
In more recent times it has become the custom, when reviving a legendary film or TV project, to invite the original star or stars for cameo appearances, and rightly so. Show some respect, you idiots! And even if they turn up their noses at the prospect, which has happened, at least the offer was made. This is proof positive that film producers, studio executives, and entertainment attorneys are not quite too stupid and arrogant to be taught by example.
Dive Bomber (1941)
Care for a smoke?
I saw "Dive Bomber" for the first time last evening. I'm certainly glad to have finally seen it, and I don't know how accurate the depiction of aviation medicine research was, but seeing what the issues were at the time was interesting.
What called attention to itself, to the point of distracting me from the film itself, was the amount of smoking taking place in it. Yes, it might well be said that people smoked a lot more then, even medical men, but it's taken to a ridiculous level here, almost to the point where I tended to wonder if some agenda was at work. At the very start of the film, three pilots central to the story take out gold cigarette cases, symbols of their fraternal bonds and sense of pride in their duty. Fair enough. But there is hardly a single scene where cigarettes are not taken out and smoked. Even when one of the three pilots is dying in an ambulance, he's given a smoke. Doctors are smoking while handling blood samples in a research lab. In fact, every time anything at all happens in this film, the first thing you see is one of the men lighting a cigarette. Not only was it NOT essential to the plot or characterizations, it became downright distracting. From an early 21st century point of view, it was hilarious to see the flight surgeons' concern for the pilots' safety and state of health, while everybody in sight was continuously sucking on coffin nails. I'm well familiar with films of the era, and I've NEVER known it to call attention to itself to such a degree. Did the tobacco industry actually pay for this sort of thing in films? What else am I to think? It just seemed excessive to the point of being laughable.
Anyway, I enjoyed seeing this nicotine-stained oldie, but the second-hand smoke almost gave me emphysema.
Beach Red (1967)
Like an old cinematic friend - where's it been all these years?
I was really delighted to see the DVD of "Beach Red" in a video store last week, and of course I immediately bought it. I see that several commentators here have said something like "where did this come from, and how come I never saw it before?" Indeed, it's become something of a rare film over the years. I saw it in 1967 with my uncle, who was a World War II veteran who served in Europe. I was about 14 then, and its style, which was strikingly progressive for that time, made a deep impression on me. To me it seemed moody and dream-like, and it's been so long since I saw it, or even any discussion of it, that I almost felt as if I had dreamed seeing it in the first place. I was bowled over by it at the time. My uncle didn't care for it, as I think he expected a more traditional war film. He was one of those "sees things in black and white" types of guys, and though he didn't bother to explain it to me, I think the internal monologues, flashbacks, sexual encounters, and humanizing of the enemy in a war film just didn't wash with him.
Now, close to 40 years later, I finally saw it for a second time. I can see some clumsiness in the characterization and dialog that didn't strike me way back then. But I can also see why it seemed so audacious in 1967 as well. From my perspective, this was the first of what I would consider a "modern" war film that I experienced, and as such I tend to regard it as sort of a landmark. I can appreciate it more now as a pure ANTI-war film than I could back then, when it just struck me as strange, exotic, and titillating both for its sexual content and graphic violence. Just like the Sergio Leone spaghetti-westerns made traditional American westerns seem old-hat overnight, I could never look at traditional war films with the same eye again after seeing this back in 1967. I'm very glad to make its acquaintance again after all these years.
A Face in the Crowd (1957)
Who it lampoons today depends on who you ask
Like a lot of people who've commented on this film, I didn't get around to seeing it until late in life, and it seems as relevant today as ever, maybe even more so. I find it interesting that different people, depending on their own viewpoint, project different contemporary personalities into the mold of the film's detestable hero, Lonesome Rhodes. The list of various people Rhodes is compared to includes Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Howard Stern, Rush Limbaugh, Michael Moore, or George W. Bush, suggesting that there's enough BS from all sides to go around. I did a double-take on watching this film when the reactionary right-wing presidential candidate that Rhodes promotes begins to pontificate about how un-American the notion of social security is, and how it's high time it was dismantled. That was 1957, and that cause is being worked harder than ever today. I was not aware, until reading some of the other comments here, how central a target Arthur Godfrey was in this story. In fact, I believe Godfrey is actually mentioned by name in the film when Rhodes says something like "Have Arthur Godfrey fill in for me, and tell him I'll return the favor some time."
Anyway, while this film hardly needs yet another accolade, I'll add mine to the list and say that it's one of the great under-appreciated films of its time, and only grows with stature as the years go on. And hallelujah there's now a well-made DVD of this film that includes an interesting documentary in which we hear from Schulberg, Griffeth, Neal, Franciosa, and some film scholars. About time, too.
Impressionen unter Wasser (2002)
Beautiful film - makes me sad for what might have been.
I watched this film on an imported Hong Kong DVD, and it is spectacularly beautiful. I would guess that this was Riefensthal's last project. She was 98 years old at the time of making it, and some of the footage shows her swimming underwater (with a shock of white hair floating above her diving mask) and examining the aquatic wildlife up close. Presumably she did the majority of the editing, but she did have a camera operator to do the shooting. Giorgio Moroder's electronic synthesizer score is serenely beautiful, with occasional snatches of eeriness suitable for the more unnerving scenes such as a fragile, spindly shrimp-like creature nimbly scrambling into the gaping, sharp-toothed jaws of some large fierce-looking beast to clean its mouth. The dazzlingly myriad, colorful, and bizarre variety of forms that this undersea life takes outdoes the imaginations of the most outlandish science fiction writers and film-makers. No movie alien is stranger than these creatures.
At the start of the film Leni Riefensthal addresses the audience directly, in German (the DVD had English subtitles), explains the form and style of the film, and makes an urgent plea to preserve the great coral reefs and their fantastic wildlife. Watching this frail-looking woman of 98 earnestly making her case for the conservation of these natural wonders, it's easy to forget that she is still reviled by some for her role as Hitler's favorite documentary film-maker. Whatever guilt she may be perceived to bear for that, she paid a heavy price for it. Despite a few projects such as this film, and her still photography, it could be said that for the remainder of her life a potentially great artistic legacy in film was lost because of it - so much talent gone to waste.
I Dream of Jeanie (1952)
What a sorry hero this film presents
I also watched the DVD that resurrected this forgotten film. The minstrel show scene aside (and that was not considered particularly hateful by white society in 1952), the racism isn't any more offensive than anything you might see in "Gone with the Wind." Ray Middleton is fun to watch as an egotistical hambone of a showman, but he is not the hero of this story. This film's real crime is to make the film's subject, songwriter Stephen Foster, the most unappealing, weak-willed, limp dishrag of a person ever to have a film centered around him, and there was no compensating spark of personality, wit, or nobility to counterbalance that impression. There was a sense of romance about him, in a wan, hopeless, tear-in-the-eye Pierrot sort of way. But really he was portrayed as such a sad sack human doormat that you couldn't even feel sorry for him. I found it altogether puzzling.
Jeux interdits (1952)
A lost prologue and epilogue for this film -- Who knew?
This great film has been well-described here and elsewhere, and I don't know that there's a lot more to be said about its worth. It made a great impression on me when I first saw it in an English-dubbed version on late night TV many years ago, and it has always been a favorite of mine since then.
But it seems there's often a bit more to learn about an old favorite film. In this case, I acquired a foreign DVD edition of "Les Jeux interdits" which contained, besides some interesting outtakes, a later-deleted prologue and epilogue to the film which I had never heard of before. These did not have English subtitles, so I had to guess what was being said, but Clement's direction and the acting of young Fossey and Poujouly are so good that I could follow almost all of it without knowing very much French at all. They establish a sort of framing device for the story, in that the plot of the film is in fact a story from a book being read by the boy to the girl. In the prologue we see Fossey and Poujouly, not dressed in grimy peasant clothes at all, but clean, scrubbed, and in their Sunday-best, sitting on a log over a stream. The boy begins reading the story of Paulette and Michel out of the book, and we fade into the film as we now know it, beginning with the refugees on the road. After the sad ending of the story, we fade back to the epilogue, where the boy has just finished reading. The heartbreaking ending of the story has the girl in tears of despair. So the boy, in an act of kindness to her, pretends to read a blank page at the end of the book and makes up a happy ending to the story to dispel her grief.
I guess I can see why it might have been deleted later, as it tends to soften the force of the central narrative a bit and the devastating sadness of its ending. But it really is a beautiful and touching bit of film, and I'm very happy to have a chance to see it, as I don't think it's been seen much over the years, or that many fans of this film are even aware of it.
The outtakes are quite interesting as well, as they show some alternate takes of familiar scenes, including the snapping of that little blackboard thing with the title of the film at the start of the shots (what's that thing called, anyway?). There is also some footage of the old owl in the rafters of the mill, in which you can occasionally see Clement coming into the frame to turn the owl's head around toward the camera when it keeps turning away.
With or without the missing prologue and epilogue this is a great masterpiece that you should experience.
Listen Up (2004)
Off to a rocky start but, I think, improving rapidly
Did you ever watch the very earliest episodes of Seinfeld back in 1990? I can remember seeing them when they were new, and thinking that the show was nothing to get excited about. It improved at an almost imperceptible rate, until I eventually realized I was watching something inspired. I think this show, too, has shown gradual improvement in the quality of its scripts and the interaction of its cast. The show is really built around its star, Jason Alexander, and as an old Seinfeld fan I have a lot of good will toward Alexander and am willing to give any project of his a fair chance. Is there a certain amount of George Costanza in the role of Tony Kleinman? Undoubtedly, but it's a shtick that I still enjoy.
You can't go far wrong with Malcolm-Jamal Warner, a seasoned sitcom veteran and just plain likable guy. The interaction between him and Alexander is fun to watch, and they make a good team.
I know almost nothing about sports, and absolutely nothing about Tony Kornheiser, so that element of the project means nothing to me. To me it's not important, anyway, because as an earlier commentator pointed out, the show isn't about sports in the slightest. Although every once in a while a sports figure is trotted on to add a bit of color to the show, these scenes are just brief distractions.
I will admit, though, that the very tired sitcom stereotype of "smart wife and kids, dumb dad" is a little grating at times, and I'd appreciate it if this formula was not quite so overstressed in the show. One kink in that formula, though, is Will Rothhaar as Tony's son Mickey. This character started out as a cipher because of the scant amount of lines and screen time accorded him (the earliest plots seemed to be dominated by the relationship between Tony and his fairly obnoxious daughter). But Rothhaar, a highly experienced young actor, seems to bring a much-needed element of calm and softness amidst the more grating personalities of the other characters. The delivery of his lines are never overdone in the slightest but always note-perfect, and always get a laugh out of me. He turns what could be a cartoonish stereotype of a simple-minded slacker kid into an interesting, likable, and funny character, and I get a big kick out of the scenes where he's intimidated by his harpy sister.
I hope this show is given a chance to continue to grow and improve. I like its progress.
A Christmas Carol (2004)
A qualified success
I was unaware that this was adapted from an actual stage musical. When I first heard that it would be a musical I thought it would be an adaptation of the 1970 Leslie Bricusse version, which was originally a film and was made into a stage musical that is still done today. Anyway, this score was new to me, and the fact that it had to be condensed to fit into a time frame of well under 2 hours is a bit obvious in the very first set piece where they zip through several different scenes, all of which have been moved from their original settings in the story to take place in one production number at the London Stock Exchange. This was certainly theatrical in style as opposed to cinematic, but it gave a very rushed and overcrowded feeling to the action as they raced through all these scenes, fairly shouting them over the music and dancing.
I like Jason Alexander I really do but... as Jacob Marley, ehhhh. In his ghost costume he rather distractingly reminded me of Danny DeVito as the Penguin. His ensemble number with several other ghosts was certainly funny, which of course took away from the spooky atmosphere it traditionally is supposed to have. Also distractingly, it sounded a bit like something from "Fiddler on the Roof," and I expected Marley and the other ghosts to join hands and start dancing a hora. Not what I expected, but kind of cute, I guess.
I also found it a little distracting to have Jesse L. Martin play the ghost of Christmas Present. When he approached Scrooge on the streets of 19th Century London, I couldn't help imagining Scrooge shouting "I say, constable, I'm being accosted by an African." His Christmas pantomime musical number was fun, though, and Grammar showed his mettle in physical comedy well in that scene.
Jane Krakowski as the Ghost of Christmas Past looked a bit like a pole-dancer or a high-priced hooker. That's a remarkable body I just don't think it served the story or its atmosphere at all.
I don't agree with an earlier reviewer who thought the dancing in the "Fezziwig's Party" scene was amateurish. There were some superb dancers there. It was a bit hectic, though, and it seemed to evoke more frenzy than the joy and warmth that I think it needed.
On the whole, I did enjoy this show, though. I've always loved this story, and am willing to see any reasonable adaptation that does not try to update it (no Bill Murray, no Susan Lucci, no Henry Winkler, please). I very much liked the fact that, as a musical, it didn't stint on the music -- and very little of the dialog was spoken. If you're going to do a musical, I think you should commit to the idea, and this was composed almost all the way though. I don't think it comes up to the standard of the 1970 Albert Finney musical, which (I don't care what anybody says) I think is a superb film -- one of the last in the style of the big musicals of the 1960s. I've always found that one very moving, despite its own touches of comic shtick.
So, I don't think this production had the soul and sincerity of some earlier ones, and the casting was a bit distracting, but on the whole I still enjoyed it. I like the story so much, that they really have to do some violent harm to it to render it unpalatable for me (i.e., bring on Henry Winkler). A qualified success, in my view.
Blast of Silence (1961)
Yeah, rememberin' da time when you was a kid and saw this movie on late night TV. Even then you was wise that it was a shabby-lookin' lowdown no-budget job and the cast was not so good lookin' -- but that's OK, you liked it that way. These was the kinda people you could see all around you, every day in da neighborhood, downtown, on the street corner, in the subway. Yeah, this looked like life in the city, but wit' a special kinda danger, a certain mystery. You ain't never forgot this movie, didja? Oh, you didn't remember what it was called or who was in it, but it stuck wit' ya and bounced around yer brain like the beatin' of a conga drum in a Greenwich Village beatnik club. Didn't think it would ever catch up with ya, didja?
Ya seen it again tonight, huh? The actin' still ain't so great and the people still ain't so good-lookin'. But that's OK, 'cause it's still the coolest damn thing ya ever seen. Ahh, Hollywood is for saps. You want somethin' gritty and dark, don't ya? 'Cause that's the way you like it.
Les triplettes de Belleville (2003)
Not hand-drawn, and not quite the anti-Disney
While a lot of the comments here seem to see this as the antithesis of American Disney- or Pixar-style animation, its blood lines are not as far removed from those examples as you might think. Chomet explains in short documentary features on the DVD that the film was meant to look hand drawn, and though the character designs originated as loosely-rendered blue pencil sketches on Chomet's drawing pad, much if not all of what you see in the film itself is indeed computer animation. The look of the film, according to Chomet, is actually heavily influenced by Disney's "new" animation style of the 1960s that was unveiled in the film "101 Dalmatians."
At the same time, it can't be denied that this film is distinctly European in style, and likely to bore people who expect an animated film to be bright, colorful, loud, and not particularly subtle or complex. Its wealth of detail is staggering, and can't be taken in through one cursory viewing. The little quirks of characterization and character design are numerous, but all the easier to discern because it's cinema in the classical sense of being primarily a visual medium, and there's not a lot of yammering for the sake of plot exposition or as a shortcut to characterization. Those are meant to be gained through observation, and what a feast for the eyes it is. This is another example of a film at which simple people with simple tastes lob the tired old warhorse criticism "pretentious." There's nothing wrong or shameful in having simple tastes, bit I wish they wouldn't feel thus obligated to publicly pee all over any work of art more subtle than a Roger Rabbit cartoon.
I think special mention should be made of the soundtrack, which is a rich brew of sound layered on sound, but with a decidedly delicate touch. Note the sound effects in the climactic car chase through the streets of Belleville. Most filmmakers would be temped to goose up the excitement and chaos of the scene with loud, piercing sounds of crashing, screeching tires, gunshots, etc. While these noises are present, they are in fact applied very lightly and delicately, sounding almost like the collision of toy cars and the shooting of toy guns, which lends the scene a surreal, otherworldly quality that the more conventional choice of loud, overbearing sound effects wouldn't yield. It's been remarked here that the combination of minimalist dialog, strange characters, and baroquely complex settings are reminiscent of Jeunet, and I think that's the most apt comparison, particularly his earlier style as in "Delicatessen."
The first scene is of particular interest in that it is in a different style from the rest of the film, designed to look like old black and white animation from the 1930s. One of the conventions of animated shorts in that era was to include bizarre caricatures of celebrities. Now I recognized Django Reinhardt, Josephine Baker, and Fred Astair, but who was the orchestra conductor supposed to be? He has very distinctive features which lead me to believe he represents some specific real person, but nobody comes to mind. Maybe he's someone better known to a French audience? I'd be very interested to know.
Some people seem to think there is a strong anti-American bias to this film. Does it poke fun at North-Americans? Sure it does, but it also makes fun of the French (note the huge noses, receding chins, and tiny little mustaches, along with the Triplets' penchant for regarding whatever slimy thing they can yank out of the swamp as a succulent delicacy). Admittedly this French caricaturing is not quite as barbed as the swipes at American culture. But come on, we're big boys. We can take it! Just gnaw on a few freedom fries and suck it up already. Actually, this film sort of sums up the history of France's attitudes toward American culture over the last 70 years. They adored us in the 1930s, but the honeymoon has been over for a while.
One more detail. To an earlier commentator who found it hilarious that in the song "Belleville Rendezvous" the Triplets sing the phrase "ca-ca," they are in fact singing "can can" ("voodoo, can-can"). The characteristic French pronunciation "cahn-cahn" just makes it sound a lot like "ca-ca."
Just a Clown (2004)
Why is this clown so angry?
If you check on the commentary for "Capturing the Friedmans" you can see that many novella-length dissertations have been posted on that film, and there's not a heck of a lot more to say about it. "Just a Clown," however, is included on the DVD edition of "Capturing." and much less has been written about it. It was the film that Andrew Jarecki started out to make, which led to his larger and more famous opus.
I regret having seen this very short film right after having viewed "Capturing the Friedmans," the power of which completely overshadowed the content and intent of "Just a Clown" for me. It was, of course, completely impossible to see David Friedman, AKA Silly Billy, out of the context of "Capturing the Friedmans." I was a bit incredulous that Friedman's Silly Billy act constituted the very pinnacle of the children's party clown business, though. To me his act looked the least interesting of any of the characters in the film, his professional persona seeming to have been put together with a bunch of random stuff from joke shops and thrift stores. Then again, I'm not a 7-year-old, and maybe that's high art to a 7-year-old. I just got the impression from the film that his success is more the result of organizational skills than creativity, and it's certainly more efficient to throw on a pair of oversized glasses from the dime store a second before knocking on the client's door than to deal with wigs, makeup, etc. David's edgier "Dr. Blood" act, which he came up with for the very practical purpose of keeping the slightly older kids' families on his client list, certainly seems more interesting, with more potential for his mass media ambitions. Anyway, David seems to know what he's doing, and you can't argue with success.
It's been speculated, though, that "Capturing the Friedmans" may be harmful to David's career, and I fear that may be true considering the light it casts on his family background combined with the nature of David's business. Unfair, yes, but perhaps inevitable.
Starik Khottabych (1957)
I've seen a few other Soviet era children's films before, but they were mostly of the fairy tale or folk tale genre and were set in distant times and/or places. "Old Hottabych" is set in contemporary (mid 1950s) Soviet Russia, which helped facilitate the strong dose of socialist propaganda in this film. A translation of the original book can be found online, and it seems that the propagandic nature of the story was there from the beginning. I suspect that the screenwriters were strongly encouraged to retain all the socialist talking points in the process of condensing the story for the screenplay, and this causes the propaganda elements to seem more dominant in the film then they might have seemed in the original book. This film is certainly a product of its time and place, and it may seem a bit weird or creepy to western audiences to see a 10 or 11 year old school kid berating a classmate for "hooligan" behavior in school, and threatening to take it up with the "Young Pioneer Council." I was never in the Boy Scouts when I was a kid, but I wonder if they ever cultivated that same kind of cultish fervor here in the west.
I do find it interesting to get a glimpse of what mid-50s Moscow and its citizens looked like, and the story is certainly colorful if you can look past the Soviet propaganda, which is admittedly difficult. The kids are appealing enough too when they're not acting like fanatical little commissars, but even that aspect is interesting to see. As a lifelong US citizen I look at this film as a remarkable artifact of a vanished culture, access to which was once strictly prohibited. Mr. Sidorov's comment below about Soviet fantasy being a unique and not often encountered thing is certainly true, and I'm glad of the opportunity to see it. The Russian Cinema Council (RUSCICO) just released a beautiful DVD of the film with optional subtitles or English language voiceover, which is probably the only way I could have managed to see it. For the adventurous film lover, this is an interesting detour.
Fantastic design and Barrymore in his prime.
The remark of an earlier commentator below caught my eye when he stated that the change in perspective from comedy to serious drama in this film didn't work for him. I've found this to be a most striking feature of the film as well, but I always thought it very effective in giving the film, and the characters, more scope than the average uniform, by-the-book comedy, thriller, horror film, drama, etc. A bit like real life, no?
Anyway, I've always been a fan of this film, and I don't think the acting is at all hokey for its era or genre. The stylized acting of the time, which appears artificial by today's standards, seems to me to go well with the weird expressionist set design in evoking a fantastic world where fantastic things can occur. Also, the chance to see Barrymore ham it up in grand style as Svengali is, in my view, a rare treat, like experiencing a bit of show biz history. I bristled a bit at the review of this film by Scott Weinberg of the Apollo Movie Guide (see "external reviews" link). He states that in 1931 you could entertain people by showing 75 minutes of an airport runway, and that his being born in the 70s may explain why this film put him to sleep. Maybe so. I myself was born in the 50s and also did not grow up with this style of filmmaking, though I probably saw more of it on TV than he did. That doesn't preclude my appreciation of it, any more than it precludes my appreciation for films of the 70s, the 80s, or the 20s for that matter. Good film is good film, and having no appreciation for the first 3 decades of cinema and some of its greatest innovators seems a severe handicap for anyone who writes about film, but at least he was honest about it.
I'm not saying that this film is on a par with the work of Murnau or Eisenstein, but I do think it's a fascinating and stylish look into a bygone era of cinema, and can be appreciated as such.
Tunes of Glory (1960)
A few details about "Tunes of Glory"
These are just a few notes on one of my favorite films, "Tunes of Glory," which I recently watched again in its new Criterion DVD release. The plot is well-described by many posters below, so I won't bother with that.
The more I watch this film, the more I appreciate the wealth of detailed characterization it contains. On Barrow's first meeting with the officers of the regiment, as he is introduced to the rotund Major "Dusty" Miller, note John Mills' quick downward glance of disapproval at the Major's corpulent gut. In the following scene, where Jock Sinclair offers Barrow a whiskey, Barrow courteously replies that whiskey does not agree with him, to Jock's dismay. We later learn that Barrow is emotionally unstable, has problems controlling his rage, and that his family life has broken up. Could alcoholism be an issue, explaining his aversion to whiskey? While Guinness and Mills are justly praised, I find the performance by Dennis Price as Major Charlie Scott to be very interesting as well. Bringing to mind Ralph Richardson, he exudes an oily, genteel but detached sort of upper-crust English manner that Colonel Sinclair gleefully mocks ("old boy, old boy, old boy"). When RSM Riddick (Percy Herbert, distractingly bringing to mind Michael Palin in appearance and exaggerated military manner) tries to officially express the doubts of those in his own strata in the military hierarchy about the prosecution of Jock Sinclair, Barrow's first reaction is curiously bemused and sarcastic ("you astonish me"). Barrow subsequently snaps into martinet mode and brusquely dismisses Riddick's petition. His initial bemusement, though, is telling in that his instinct is not to take this man, from a lower level of the social and military hierarchy, seriously at all, treating him almost as an unruly child who needs be put in his place. Having seen power struggles, personality clashes, and class divisions like this in my work experience, I see that this all rings true. As foreign, exotic, and strange as the setting, characters, and language are to an American like me, the themes of this story are so universal that they can be immediately appreciated by almost anyone who's experienced life to some degree.
As for the language, it's a delight to finally have a DVD with English subtitles to clarify some of the spoken lines. The picture, by the way, is excellent on the new DVD, except for the intermittent appearance of a dark streak down the right side of the screen near the end of the film. I would have thought this could be fixed with digital restoration, but the cost of that might have been prohibitive, and though a little distracting, it really doesn't spoil my enjoyment. I think it's fitting that there are no negative reviews here thus far.
Hilarious, inspired show!
Probably like a lot of people, I discovered this show while idly channel-flipping. At first the games themselves fascinated me. I'd heard about Japanese game shows for years, but only seen brief snippets of them. I started laughing hysterically as a succession of hapless schmucks got slammed by huge fake boulders rolling down a narrow channel. But it took a while for the bizarre and clever dubbed-in voiceovers to register. Once they did, I realized that I'd found a new favorite. This show combines elements of "Fear Factor" with "Mystery Science Theater 3000" and "What's Up Tiger Lilly?" The completely made-up spoof of Japanese game shows called "Banzai" that was briefly popular a few months ago was somewhat amusing, but this show just delivers HUGE and consistent belly laughs, and that's as healthy as a tub of granola and tofu, and lots easier to take.
An earlier poster listed the fake names given to some of the games in this show, but I just heard my favorite tonight. In this game, a contestant clings to a huge spinning mushroom that is propelled over a pool of muddy water, trying to land on a small platform at the other end of the pool. The name of the game was "Eat Shitaki." I almost ruptured myself.
I watched the final "Becker" episode last night, and will miss this series. Critics have beaten up on this show quite a lot lately, but I watched it regularly and always enjoyed it. The characters are diverse and likeable, and I particularly admire Shawnee Smith, who played Linda, for taking a character that could have been annoying in the extreme and making her sweet and funny. One of the funniest things I've seen in a sitcom is when Linda, in trying to fix the hanging skeleton in Becker's office, managed to crazy-glue her hand to that of the skeleton. She ended up walking around the office all day holding hands with the skeleton, which rolled alongside her on its stand (you had to see it to appreciate it).
Ted Danson was quoted in TV Guide as saying that they decided to end the show with some grace, which I think they did quite nicely, tying up loose ends for the various characters. A couple of the jokes were particularly apt, i.e. Dr. Becker looking at the chart for a patient named "Mr. Nielsen" and saying he didn't know what he was complaining about because "these numbers don't look so bad to me." Danson's wife, Mary Steenburgen, appeared briefly as a deluded patient, and Becker exclaimed after she left "I pity the poor man who's married to her."
Anyway, I commend the makers of "Becker" for giving some closure to the characters in this show while they had the chance. As a regular viewer I appreciated it, and found it a very satisfying end to the series.
American Chopper: The Series (2003)
Soap opera for men
While watching this show and hearing Paul Sr. and his sons interact, it occurred to me that this is sort of a soap opera for men. In between shouting matches and tantrums over short deadlines, missing tools, bad welds, etc. you see Paul Sr. and his sons sorting out their issues with each other and trying to work together. Sometimes these struggles end in slammed doors and hurt feelings, and sometimes (particularly when younger son Mikey is involved) they end with a joke, a few laughs, and smiles all round. Awwwwww! I think Mikey learned long ago that the best way to survive his father's wrath is to make him laugh. It works almost every time. Very clever.
I don't know anything about motorcycles, so I'm sometimes a bit puzzled by the tribute theme bikes that the Teutuls put so much effort into. Interesting as they are mechanically and artistically, the show doesn't really make it apparent to me how they help the firemen or war veterans they honor. The honorees always seem to love and appreciate them, though, so maybe that's enough.
Watching the Teutuls and their crew of craftsmen, artists, and master mechanics is addictive and fascinating. It's like looking into one of those old medieval workshops where everything was done by hand and designed and built in the shop under the supervision of a guild master. I really envy them. This is probably a way of life and doing business that's disappearing, so it's nice to think that it still flourishes in some places. See this show!
Yamato Takeru (1994)
Sword and sorcery, Japanese style
I saw this film in the form of a DVD with the title "Orochi: The Eight Headed Dragon," and found it very entertaining. The comment below about a mix of styles is apropos. To me, it almost seems like different directors and/or art directors were in charge at various times. Approximately the first 1/4 of the film is exquisitely stylish, with beautifully composed shots in which color is delicately harmonized, (an upward shot of the hero Prince Yamato with cherry blossoms in full bloom overhead, a procession of people in pastel-hued costumes zigzagging up a path on a green hill, Prince Yamato at the edge of a brook in the middle of a forest), and the costumes and interiors are of strikingly beautiful design. As the scope and action of the film picks up it seems to take on a garish, cartoon-like look, and becomes more reminiscent of the old Ray Harryhausen monster and magic films. Near the end, it seemed to me to take on a more familiar Japanese monster style, with huge puppets and actors in rubber or plastic suits. The special effects are also an oddly mixed bag. Most of them seemed dated by today's standards, but nevertheless pretty to see. There were, however, two or three morphing effects that were obviously done by CGI.
The stylistic schizophrenia aside, I found the whole thing quite enjoyable. Not being too familiar with the Japanese sword and sorcery genre, I can only take others at their word that this sort of thing has been done better in Japan, but I had a good time seeing it and found more than one point of reference to more familiar genres.
Exotic eye candy with a cracking good story
I watched the shortened Coppola cut of this film on DVD, and on the whole found it to be a cracking good story that kept me engaged, and I particularly enjoyed the high production values, the exotic costumes, sets and props, and the beautiful cinematography. The elements of nations at war, political power struggles, palace intrigues, and murderous treachery in the royal family of Thailand seemed to me very reminiscent of "I Claudius," a great favorite of mine, and I found some of the comments below referring to the film as having no plot totally inexplicable. I tended to wonder whether the deadpan acting style frequently commented-on here might be a cultural artifact, as modes of expression can vary to some extent in different countries, but judging from the remarks of some Thai commentators this wouldn't seem to be the case. The bottom line for me, though, was that I thoroughly enjoyed all two and a half hours of this film.
I do take issue with some commentators who declare without hesitation that a particular film is a complete waste of time, that you should "save your time," or "save your money," etc., and not even consider seeing it. Why on earth would these people presume to urge me (or anybody else) to reject this film sight unseen? One thing I've learned in the course of seeing hundreds of films is the absolute folly of trying to predict who will like which film. Those I've recommended to friends more often than not lay an egg with them, while they rhapsodize over stuff I couldn't care less about. I'm always interested to hear a variety of opinions on films, which is why I love the IMDb, but an opinion loses much of its credence for me when the commentator comes off as an opinionated blowhard.
Anyway, for what my own opinion is worth, I see "The Legend of Suriyothai" as a damn good story, told effectively with exotic and stunningly beautiful visual elements. I don't in the least regret spending a few dollars and two and a half hours experiencing it.
Superb Musical "Christmas Carol"
I watch this musical version of "A Christmas Carol" every so often, and have always found it exhilarating and moving. On viewing it again recently in its new DVD edition it occurred to me what a wonderful stage production it would make, and I was surprised to read in a comment below that someone had attended such a production with Anthony Newly in the title role. I would love to have seen that, but it probably couldn't live up to the extravaganza of my imagination.
For me, the highlights are "You...You," Scrooge's sad reverie about his having lost the love of his life, the "Oliver"-like "Thank You Very Much," the joyful crescendo at the end of "I Like Life," in which Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Present crash through the windows and fly into the night sky, and the pull-out-all-the-stops, throw-in-everything-but-the-kitchen-sink finale. A few reviewers seem to find that finale excessive, but I always get a kick out of it. I don't find the music in this film the at all "forgettable," as a couple of reviewers have claimed, and some of these tunes stick in my memory for days after seeing the film.
I think Albert Finney is phenomenal in the title role. He wasn't a singer by any stretch of the imagination, and yet I find his performance of "You You" and "I'll Begin Again," done in the creaky voice of an old man, incredibly moving and beautiful. I really can't agree with the reviewer who found his artificial ageing through a wig and makeup unconvincing. On the crystal-clear DVD I saw I found it highly successful, and Finney's meticulous physical performance completed the illusion of age excellently.
For me the biggest irritant in this film is Alec Guinness camping it up ridiculously as Jacob Marley's ghost, and I can't quite comprehend what he was trying to accomplish with it. Was he demonstrating disdain, boredom, or disrespect for the role -- in which case, why bother with it? I just find it distracting in the context of the scene, and disappointing coming from a great artist like Guinness, from whom I would have expected a more dignified and apropos portrayal. Was the part done so many times by so many people that he just couldn't find a new approach? Granted, the part has little opportunity for depth, but to paraphrase a motto from the medical profession, "at least do no harm." If you can't bring any novelty to it without damaging it, I say do it traditionally but well. I would not have faulted him for that, and I'm sure he would have pulled it off handsomely. Oh, well, water under the bridge.
For the reviewer below who asked why Guiness, as Jacob Marley, seemed to bow whenever he mentioned the name "Lucifer," I can only speculate that he did so because as an inhabitant of the Underworld, he owed this gesture of respect to the Lord of the Underworld -- an interesting bit of characterization.
Does anybody recall watching "The Carol Burnett Show" around the time that "Scrooge" debuted? In what must have been a deal to promote the new film, they presented a custom-made dance number built around the tunes from this film which, humorously, featured an entire troupe of dancing Scrooges, each shouting "Humbug" in turn. I'd love to see that again, as I still remember it vividly 33 years later.
Il Natale che quasi non fu (1966)
1960s Christmas Kitsch with some nostalgic appeal
For those who love this film, it's now available on DVD, which I just got through watching. I guess I discovered it much too late in life. The review accessible via the "external reviews" link here pretty much sums it up for me. I found Alberto Rabagliati to be a rather drab and depressive, even depressing, Santa, and in 1966 veteran character actor Mischa Auer was as frightening to behold as the Crypt Keeper himself. Also, Paul Tripp's portrayal of the lawyer Mr. Whipple reminded me that I never wanted to see another singing attorney since the cancellation of "Cop Rock."
Oh well, maybe I shouldn't sneer at this film. I did appreciate it as an interesting relic of the 60s, and I can see it's well-loved by people on whom it was imprinted when they were young. After all, that's the very reason I still get misty over "Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol." Merry Christmas!
Bizarre, but interesting, communist-era satire of traditional American Westerns
The concept of this film (an affectionate send-up of old-fashioned American cowboy films) is one that seems to have been kicked around in the movie business, both here and abroad, for quite a few years. The first realization of it that I'm familiar with is the 1949 stop-motion puppet animation short "Arie Prerie," or "Song of the Prairie," by the Czech animator Jiri Trnka. With no more dialog than some snickers and shouts, along with an operatic-style song performed by the singing cowboy hero and his heroine, it does a nice job of satirizing the old conventions of the singing cowboy movie. It's a charming film, well worth seeing.
"Lemonade Joe," done in 1964 by yet another Czech filmmaker, Oldrich Lipsky, seems to be expanding greatly on the subject in order to extend it to feature length, and aside from the basic concept the plot bears no relation to "Song of the Prairie." Yet, anyone who's seen "Song of the Prairie" will immediately see the connection. In fact the soaring, operatic song belted out by a tenor over the opening title turns out to be the very same song that the puppet protagonists of "Song of the Prairie" sang. To an English-speaking person like myself, the lyrics sound tantalizingly like English, even finishing up with the repeated phrase "goodbye, goodbye." Yet, if you look at the lyrics spelled out (as they are in the Czech DVD that I watched), you can see that they mean nothing at all in English. Are they in fact Czech, or some gibberish concocted to sound like English? Not understanding Czech, I can't really say.
Laurie Edwards' sourpuss review (see "External Reviews" and "CultureDose.net") demonstrates that not everyone will appreciate this film's style, which is certainly foreign in comparison to typical Hollywood fare. While the film's basic concept appeals to me greatly and I enjoyed its bizarre, surreal, and anarchic qualities, I can see how it might rub people the wrong way, particularly those with more conventional tastes. One user comment suggests that its humor is quintessentially Czech and cannot be fully appreciated by outsiders, and as one of those outsiders I'm not in a position to dispute that. I wouldn't argue that it's a paragon of good taste, perfect form, and artistic refinement, but I did get a kick out of it and wasn't bored or irritated, as Ms. Edwards was. Besides being a satire of the American singing cowboy genre, there seems to be some jabs at American commercialism, and perhaps even racism. This film was made in a communist country during the height of the cold war, after all. On the other hand, far harsher criticisms were made by American filmmakers in American films during the same era, so I wouldn't dream of taking any offense at it at this point in time.
The most recent attempt to satirize the singing cowboy genre that I'm aware of is Hugh Wilson's 1985 film "Rustlers' Rhapsody," starring Tom Berenger as the western hero. It seems to me more subtle and complex than "Lemonade Joe," but not nearly as stylish or entertaining.
I enjoy seeing all three of the above films, but I think perhaps the cartoon format is the best for this concept after all. "Song of the Prairie" is my favorite, being an actual animated film, followed by "Lemonade Joe" which is a live-action film that is decidedly cartoon-like, followed by "Rustlers' Rhapsody," which to my taste seems a bit tame and conventional in execution.