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None But the Brave (1965)
The Final Line Says It All!
There's a clumsiness to 1965's "None But The Brave" that you really shouldn't let get in your way of the film. The clumsiness is due to Frank Sinatra's direction -- he was a far, far better actor than a director, and wisely chose never to direct another film -- and it exposes itself most prominently in the film's heavy-handed "flashback" sequences.
Having gotten that out of the way, let's consider the film itself. World War II, a small island in the Pacific: a group of marooned GIs find themselves sharing space with an equally marooned group of Japanese soldiers. Reluctantly, a truce evolves; each side has something the other needs. During that truce, enemies develop -- if not a true friendship -- at least an understanding, an empathy, and a respect for, each other. This truce, of course, cannot endure. The outside world -- and the war -- must impose itself, and each side reacts according to its own sense of honor and duty. Rightly so.
Some reviewers have chosen to label this an 'anti-war' film. Perhaps it is. Myself, I prefer to think of it, rather, as a 'pro-humanity' film, one which recognizes that man will pit himself against man time and time again, and for reasons that may or may not be the best, but that -- in the end -- we can, each of us, even in the midst of the most horrific conflict imaginable, step away, even if only for the briefest of moments (or truces), and deal with each other as human beings.
That's what happens in "None But The Brave."
And if the ending is less than satisfactory, maybe it serves to makes us each wish for a better one . . . and a better world!
"There has to be a cure for the common war"
"There has to be a cure for the common war." This quote (Alan Alda as "Hawkeye" Pierce, MD) best states the theme common to both "MASH" (the movie) and "MASH" (the TV spin-off).
This, in many ways, is the only thing common to the series and the movie which spawned it. The movie (and the novel which inspired it) is much more savage in its outrage against a war and a governmental system which exemplifies "man's inhumanity to man" and at the same time expects medical practitioners to support it; doctors and nurses (both of them sworn to duty, not only by the Hippocratic Oath but by an oath to the Armed Forces) strive to repair their patients and, wherever possible, return them to duty for further savagery (an echo, perhaps, of "Captain Newman, M.D.?"). This TV series, however, rises beyond the initial sense of outrage and presents a possibility as to where the various characters might have gone with their outrage.
There is as yet no cure for the common war. There will, most likely, never be. This particular TV series, however, dares to posit the belief that there may be, at least, a means of coping and -- once we've got that straight -- a means of hoping.
A Flawed Beauty Is Nonetheless A Beauty
I finished reading Doctorow's novel just before it was announced that production had started on the movie. I remember thinking, "How the hell do you make a movie of a book where the central characters are named 'Mother,' 'Father,' and 'Mother's Younger Brother?'"
Milos Forman showed how: In a word, beautifully.
And "Ragtime" is beautiful, stunning in its recreation of early 1900s New York, utilizing a script which somehow ties together the central events and their effects on its main characters as well as one of the finest, most haunting soundtracks (Randy Newman, who went so far as to compose several original 'ragtime' numbers) in the past twenty years, topped off with a first-rate cast.
James Cagney was the big news, of course, and deservedly so: Emerging from twenty years of retirement, he showed that he'd not only not lost anything but had added to his expertise. Add Mary Steenburgen, Mandy Patinkin, James Olsen, Howard Rollins, Keith McMillan and even Elizabeth McGovern (each of them perfectly cast), to name but a few, and you see where Forman wasn't missing a bet.
"Ragtime" suffers, ultimately, due to lapses in editing -- the most grievous lapse the cutting of a short scene which explains Commissioner Waldo's motivation behind the action he ultimately takes with Coalhouse Walker. Some cuts are always necessarily (especially in a movie as sprawling as this), yet that cut -- and several others -- flaw this beauty of a film.
But not fatally. Not at all. More than twenty years later, "Ragtime" is still gorgeous.
The Front Page (1974)
For Billy Wilder, The One That Got Away . . .
Critics justifiably rapped this remake for a very specific reason, and not because it's a bad film. It isn't. The problem is, it didn't live up to their expectations of Billy Wilder. (Wilder himself subsequently expressed disappointment with it.)
Here's the problem: At his best -- "Double Indemnity," "One, Two, Three," "Sunset Boulevard," "The Fortune Cookie" (oh heck, just about every other film he ever wrote and/or directed) -- Wilder's films featured impeccable pacing and timing which made the dialogue -- particularly wisecracks and backchat -- crackle.
With "The Front Page," however, the pacing is absent. Ditto the focus. Take Carol Burnett's turn as Molly as one example: In a role that calls for her considerable comic talents, Wilder allows her first scene to be far too heartfelt as she castigates the reporters for their callous cynicism. There's a flow to this scene that suddenly lurches to a halt, giving the viewer too much time to reflect that yes, there's something truly horrible going on here.
Additionally, Wilder fails to maximize the chemistry between Lemon and Matthau. They simply don't have nearly enough on-screen time together here. As a result, "The Front Page" comes off as far too laidback, a serious problem in a film which takes place primarily (as with the play) in one setting, the newsroom in Chicago's Cook County Jail.
This version has been previously compared with another remake, "His Girl Friday." Whatever else one might say about that version, good or bad, it had at least one facet which this film needs: Split-second timing between its principals.
So is this a bad film? Again, no. There are moments when the "Wilder magic" flashes, but they're too few and far in between. "The Front Page" is simply a "tame" film, one which suffers by comparison with what Wilder could have done with it.
One, Two, Three (1961)
Wilder At His Considerable Best
I first saw this film in a theater when it came out. Laughed so hard I fell out of my seat (and was spared considerable embarrassment only by the fact that everyone around me was doing the same thing). I can't count the number of times I've seen it over the years, but I know one thing for sure: I've yet to spot all the gags. (They come so fast upon each other's heels that you're likely to miss two for every one you're still laughing over.)
Wilder plays no favorites -- and he takes no prisoners -- here. Everything within his considerable reach (the Cold War, the postwar era, spy-exchanges, Communism, capitalism, European aristocrats, idealism and cynicism, JUST for starters) is lampooned equally. (Even at least one of Cagney's early performances, in "Public Enemy," takes a shot.)
Frankly, I'm surprised this film today has so many staunch fans who weren't around back when so much of its humor was "topical." Its ongoing appeal has to be attributed both to Wilder's pacing and to James Cagney's hallmark performance as McNamara (a poster child for high blood-pressure if ever there was one). Neither he nor Wilder ever let up, ably aided by a solid cast (Horst Bucholtz in particular, strangely enough!) who manage somehow always to catch up.
"One, Two, Three:" that's how fast the gags fly. See if you can keep up.
Yancy Derringer (1958)
"In every tale of daring-do . . .
. . . they speak of Yancey D."
So went the theme song to this undeservedly short-lived series. Nominally billed as a "western" (Yancey did, after all, wear a broad-brimmed hat, there were horses about, and his best friend was an Indian), this show was hard to categorize, even in the era of the so-called "adult western."
There was always the hint of a dark side to Yancey, all things considered; a feeling that tucked away behind his reserved manner lay a past that may not always have been too cool (or, alternately, as a friend of mine once suggested, perhaps a bit TOO cool). Moreover, unlike most of his contemporary action heroes, Mr. D. didn't always fight fair: forced into a bare-knuckles match against an huge opponent, Yancey took advantage of his knowledge that the guy had spent the previous night guzzling beer, hammering him into collapse with a series of belly punches you could almost feel through the TV screen.
Not the nicest guy in town, in other words. But eminently effective. And thoroughly watchable. A great series.
Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
The Genuine Article, Still A Miracle
There's a "legend" connected with this film, one which has recently gained new life via AMC: Supposedly, upon completion of principle filmmaking, 1947's "Miracle On 34th Street" then had to be submitted to the heads of Macy's and Gimble's department stores who -- had either man withheld approval -- could have cost 20th Century Fox a small fortune in rewrites and reshootings.
Frankly, in view of the fact that much of "Miracle" had already been shot on location in Macy's New York City store (to say nothing of the fact that studio heads of that era -- or any era, for that matter -- were notoriously prone not to take such financial risks), this "legend" is likely just so much "hype," otherwise known as "nonsense."
Thankfully, this is the only trace of phoniness attached to this jewel of a movie. "Miracle On 34th Street" is just that, in every sense of the word: a miracle.
Take a perfectly-crafted, thoughtful screenplay. Add an impeccable cast (from top-to-bottom, by the way; catch, just as one example, Thelma Ritter's uncredited turn as "Peter's Mother"). Throw into this mix an on-location "shoot" (along with Macy's, there's the store's actual 1946 Thanksgiving Parade, footage in a post office facility and a courthouse) which gives this film a nice sense of verisimilitude . . . just in case you're not already prepared (courtesy of Edmund Gwenn, in a totally-deserved Oscar-winning performance) to recapture your belief in Santa Claus.
"Miracle On 34th Street" is many things: a celebration of the Christmas spirit, a heartfelt plea against the "over-commercialism" (even in 1947)of Christmas, an examination of faith itself . . . just to name a few.
It works on every level. Every bit as well today, 54 years after its initial release, as then. Don't waste your time with the remakes -- both on TV as well as theatrical productions (and the less said about an abortive 1963 Broadway musical adaptation, "Here's Love," the better.)
Go for the original film. Go for the genuine article. Again and again and again.
Heaven's Gate (1980)
A Disaster With Some Beautiful Moments
A quick analogy:
Late one night, some musician buddies and I were jamming and (for some reason) we started working out on Dylan's "Knocking On Heaven's Door." Thirty minutes later, we were still jamming on that same song and we suddenly realized we were trapped in it! Oh sure, some of the stuff we'd come up with was pretty good, but we couldn't find a way to close it off. Finally, in sheer desperation, someone shouted out, "When did this turn into 'Knocking On Heaven's GATE?'" and the spell -- thankfully -- was broken. We stopped playing, laughed ruefully, and went on to something else.
This is the essence of director/writer Michael Cimino's "Heaven's Gate," a seductive melange of incredibly well-crafted images and sequences that never add up, once you suddenly realize (somewhere deep within the first hour of this sleep-a-thon) that you don't give a flying hoot about a single one of the movie's characters. (With the possible exception, that is, of Christopher Walken's superbly-rendered Nathan Champion -- and he's one of the bad guys!)
"Heaven's Gate" is flabby, and it is shameless self-indulgence on Cimino's part. (It conjures memories of Marlon Brando's "One-Eyed Jacks," in which Brando at one point held up production for three days while waiting for 'the perfect sunset' in a single shot.) In addition to being an exercise in poor story-telling, it's also an example of how historic events can be deliberately twisted and falsified so as to conform to a contemporary agenda: The actual "Johnson County War" (which, by the way, took place in Wyoming, NOT Montana) was a struggle between large, already well-established, cattle operations versus the smaller "Johnny-Come-Latelies;" the local cattle barons (whether rightly or wrongly) accused the newcomers of "rustling" their stock. In such a context, the question of an individual's "ethnicity" rarely, if ever, came into play. The real-life James Averill (Kris Kristofferson) and Ella "Kate" Watson (Isabelle Huppert), by the way, were allegedly partners in a joint cattle-rustling/brothel operation; in actuality, they met their ends at the hands (and ropes) of a whiskey-laden lynchmob. Strangely enough, however, the actual Nathan Champion's demise -- including the letter he writes in this film -- is historically accurate . . . but then, that meets Cimino's needs here.
Make no mistake: This film is nothing less than superbly mounted. The Harvard commencement, for example, while totally unnecessary to the film, is likely an absolutely accurate recreation of the era's graduation ceremonies (and a beautifully crafted sequence). And I defy anyone to find better individual cinematography than in the "roller-skating sequence" (which ends with a singularly beautiful waltz, haunting in its wistfulness).
Sadly, however, everything's wasted in this film -- cinematography, costuming (excellent, by the way), musicianship and location work. The storyline -- if ever it was really there in the first place -- gets lost; beautiful individual images lead nowhere. By the time (three generations after one began watching this movie) Kristofferson finds himself, inexplicably, on a yacht off Long Island, there's a definite feeling (for me at least) that the five million dollars it took to film this final sequence could have been augmented by another million or so . . . simply to blow that boat out of the water!
Never mind, though: "Heaven's Gate" has already long-since sunk. Of its own weight.
Bell Book and Candle (1958)
A Lesson In Chemistry . . . And Moviemaking
"Bell, Book and Candle," one of two 1958 pairings of James Stewart and Kim Novak, may or may not be a great movie. I've long since given up caring about that question; these days, at the umpty-umpteenth viewing of the film (which dates back to the first time I ever caught it in its "secondary," or "neighborhood release" at San Francisco's Castro Theatre), I find myself still enjoying it as though I were seeing it for that first time.
On the surface, this should rightly be only one among many so-called, and largely formulaic, "sophisticated comedies" of the late-50s era. Wrong!
For one thing, you can't cast James Stewart in such a film and expect it to run true to form! More to the point, you shouldn't expect him to appear opposite Kim Novak (and 'opposite' here is the key word, in that his aura of decency and groundedness were diametrically contrary to the glacial other-worldliness which she personified), and not expect strange sparks to fly. (Hitchcock, after all, relied on this dichotomy, for different purposes, in "Vertigo.")
Add to this mixture certain key scenes which rely upon the comic chemistry between Jack Lemmon and Ernie Kovacs --already well-established in the previous year's "Operation Mad Ball" (and catch this overlooked gem, if you can, if only to see Kovacs at his absolute cinematic best) -- and you're well on your way to understanding why "Bell, Book and Candle" still turns up regularly on such venues as American Movie Classics, to say nothing of its "shelf life" in video rental outlets.
Were that not enough, you get BOTH Elsa Lanchester and Hermione Gingold, a first-rate score by George Duning ("Picnic"), superior production values and -- oh, yeah, by the way -- a storyline that can both make you laugh and pluck at the errant heartstring or two (if you don't watch out!) . ..
You get a lesson in cinematic chemistry. Maybe even . . . alchemy!
Mulholland Falls (1996)
There's an underlying theme to this movie, whether we like it or not: What happens when the good guys are indistinguishable from the bad guys?
It's a worthwhile question, and "Mulholland Falls" might be commended more highly for raising it . . . had not novelist James Ellroy posed it much more effectively years earlier in what became known as his "L.A. trilogy" series, which included (along with "L.A. Confidential") "The Black Dahlia," to which this film owes more than a slight nod for its inspiration.
As a matter of fact, it was Ellroy who first made common coinage of the term, "Hat Squad," a moniker (and even more often an epithet) used by L.A. cops to describe what has been known at various times over the past sixty-plus years as the "stakeout squad," "Metro," "Administrative Intelligence," etc. (Their habit of placing a hat or two up against the rear window of their unmarked cars to warn other officers that they were on a stakeout is still common police practice in a number of departments today. . . although those hats are now usually baseball caps.)
The movie itself, frankly, doesn't work. It creaks. Nolte is Nolte, and that's fine if your main reason for catching a flick is to watch Nick Nolte. Michael Madsen, who rarely gets so good a chance to display his acting chops as in "Reservoir Dogs," turns in his usual yeomanlike performance and ends up largely wasted. Treat Williams comes to a deserved bad end. Jennifer Connelly shows a lot of flesh, and yes, it's very nice flesh, but what of her talent? And Melanie Griffith gets to show short flashes of what she's capable of when she doesn't decide to sleepwalk through a role.
See "Mulholland Falls" on a slow Saturday night . . . if your only option is to sit up with a sick goldfish. And only if you can get someone else to pay the video rental.
The Lost Battalion (2001)
Impressive, sobering, not for the faint of heart
In late September-early October 1918, an obscure U.S. infantry battalion, the 308th, led by an equally obscure citizen-soldier, Major James Whittlesey, was ordered to take and hold the mill at Charlvaux as part of a major allied offensive in the Argonne forest. Soon cut off from its supporting forces (both French and British units had fallen back), unaware of their exposed position (and misled on this by the general staff), the battalion seized its objective and held it in the face of overwhelming enemy forces. Fully two-thirds of its men never returned.
This TV-movie dramatizes those events and depicts them superbly. This is due to a number of factors: there's the incredible amount of research, for example, which results in an uncanny feeling of accuracy; this accuracy is further heightened by excellent cinematography, often using handheld cameras to catch the frenetic pace of hand-to-hand combat, unflinching in its depiction of slaughter and yet never gratuituous in that depiction. A word should also be said for the casting: the actors here have the look -- and the sound -- of mostly a bunch of streetwise New Yorkers ("gangsters," as one terms it).
And then there's Rick Schroder, letter-perfect in his portrayal of the bespectacled Whittlesey, having to reconcile his sense of responsibility for his men with his sense of duty as he ultimately comes to win their trust, their admiration, even their love.
"The Lost Battalion" is a balanced and honest look at the savagery of war, rendered with care to the very end.
Ride with the Devil (1999)
A frightening movie -- utterly true to the times it depicts
"Ride With The Devil" deals with a side of the Civil War which moviemakers (and Civil War historians, for that matter) rarely explore: the totally vicious, take-no-prisoners, no-holds-barred guerrilla warfare of the 'border states,' in this case, Missouri.
On this battleground, there was precious little if any thought given to issues such as "states' rights" or "preserving the Union," let alone the question of slavery. The partisans on both sides, frankly, were intent on "payback," on settling old scores, resolving generational feuds and grievances which they had inherited in many instances from fathers and grandfathers who had migrated to Missouri from elsewhere. (The call of these ancient grievances was such that even a family's black slave could feel their pull and identify with them more than with a pro-Unionist outloook which was ostensibly more to his personal advantage, a point which Ang Lee ably illustrates here.)
Most of the film's characters -- save, primarily, for the failed schoolteacher-turned guerilla leader William Quantrill (here portrayed hypnotically, chillingly by John Ales) -- are apocryphal. This makes them no less real or authentic. (Jesse James, as one example, was no older, nor less baby-faced, than the fictional Jake Roedel when he joined his childhood friends --and older brother Frank -- in the bloodbath.)
What makes this film succeed? Several things.
There's a sense of objectivity, for one: a lack of judgment, based on the larger issues at hand, an insistence on examining its characters on their own merits and motivations -- rather than what others on either side might insist were the "larger issues" -- and which leads us to treat them as individuals. There's also an uncanny sense of time and place, which speaks as much to screenwriter James Schamus' dialogue (it captures both the relatively declamatory nature of even the common man's speech of that era as well as the post-romantic notions which Walter Scott's novel had imparted) as to the sense of pacing and nuance which Lee imposes upon the film. There's an uncanny feeling of "You Are There" (minus Walter Cronkite's narrative in that '50s TV program), but there's also a sense of ultimate optimism, a feeling that this nation (personified by at least one of the film's characters) will grow -- and flourish -- beyond the conflict here depicted. A sense that the evil which individual men might commit for their own ends may well yet subordinate itself to the ultimate good of all.
It's a film well worth watching. Again and again.
The Devil's Disciple (1959)
Maybe THIS was the original "buddy movie"
Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas shared a chemistry -- offscreen as well as on screen -- which was rare even by Hollywood standards. There's a legend about them, as a matter of fact (and I'd hate to think it apocryphal), that -- at the onset of each of the many films in which they co-starred -- they flipped a coin to see who would play which role.
In their film adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's "The Devil's Disciple," the coin-flip would have been at best symbolic -- or perhaps ironic is the term here -- inasmuch as the plotline concerns role reversals and identity switching. Set during the closing days of the American revolution, Dick Dudgeon, the town rakehell (Douglas), having previously admitted to Reverend Anderson, the local minister (Lancaster), "Pastor, there's something about you I respect, and that makes me want you for my enemy," allows himself to be mistakenly arrested as that minister by British troops. It's an act which even he, at the time, is at a loss to explain. While Dudgeon keeps the local British commandant, General Burgoyne (Laurence Olivier in what turns out to be one of his finer screen performances), alternately amused and bemused, Reverend Anderson discovers within himself a call to action as he rallies the rebel troops to rescue Dudgeon and to cut off Burgoyne's reinforcements.
Purists may note that the film adaptation tampers with Shaw's more typically cynical resolution in the original stage presentation (yes, it is much more 'upbeat' and true to the Hollywood dicta of the day) . . . and yet the Shavian quality of the dialogue between Dudgeon and Anderson -- not to mention the barbed repartee between Dudgeon and Burgoyne -- is preserved virtually intact here. It is also brilliantly rendered by all parties.
Although Douglas manages to 'steal' much of this film, Lancaster affords us more than a glimpse of the ability which will, in little more than another year, garner him an Oscar -- for 'Elmer Gantry'-- (and put an end to the yearly ritual of his and Douglas' comedic "It's So Great Not To Be Nominated" performance at the awards ceremonies).
One of Hollywood's more successful adaptations of a stage play, this is also a film which, more than most, stands the test of time.
A brilliant bit of casting solves a riddle . . .
Over the years, while admiring the craftsmanship inherent in "Othello," I had always been bothered by one question. I'd studied the play in school, of course (seems to have been mandatory in my day), and I'd seen the usual versions (Orson Welles, Laurence Olivier, etc.), yet always this one nagging question kept gnawing at me, kept me from fully appreciating this play . ..
How in hell could Othello ever let himself be taken in by so obvious a viper as Iago?
Enter the BBC with its production of "William Shakespeare's Othello," with a particularly brilliant bit of casting: Bob Hoskins as Iago. Roly-poly, giggling, everybody's friend and more than a bit of a buffoon, to boot -- until, that is, he's by himself and you suddenly understand the true nature of evil.
And suddenly, I gained a true appreciation of the play. Simply because some casting director stretched himself (or herself) beyond the tried-and-true glowering serpentine approaches (a la Frank Finlayson in the Olivier production, etc.) which had been the norm.
It also helps, of course, that Hoskins is one truly fine actor.
At last, the movie that demythologizes Wyatt Earp
Wyatt Earp comes to Tombstone to establish a business with his brothers Virgil and Morgan. He's given up law enforcement, he's tired of being poor, and he's reasonably content in his common-law relationship with a laudanum-addicted ex prostitute. He basically wants to get ahead by getting along. So he thinks. Brother Virgil (Sam Elliott at his considerable best) and adventuress Josephine Marcus (slyly seductive Dana Delany) soon pull him into twin maelstroms which force him to confront questions of loyalty, honor, love and happiness -- all questions which Wyatt would just as happily avoid. But he can't dodge them. And so the events of director George Cosmatos' definitive "Tombstone" unfold. Wyatt, as here presented (and in contrast to the usually iconic treatment) is not "the fastest gun in the west." He's good but, as he verifies with Doc Holliday (Val Kylmer in a landmark performance), he probably can't take Johnny Ringo. The 'gunfight at the O.K. Corral,' as here presented (and again in contrast to the usual treatment), is not a climactic resolution; with superb pacing in the circumstances leading up to it, it's depicted -- accurately -- as a vicious 30-second streetfight which nobody wanted, which resolved absolutely nothing, and out of which many of the ensuing events of "Tombstone" take their impetus. Wyatt Earp has come down to us through the years as a larger-than-life icon, both in literature and in movies/TV -- not to mention the tourist industry in present-day Tombstone, AZ, which focuses primarily on those 30 seconds on a chilly October afternoon in 1881. He has been portrayed, alternately, as a stalwart, grim-faced pillar of law enforcement, or as a sham. Director George Cosmatos here chooses to present him, for once, as something infinitely more complex: a human being. And, in a surprisingly well-crafted performance by Kurt Russell, he does it exceedingly well.
Space Cowboys (2000)
Good news/Bad news . . . even though the good outweighs the bad
There are some movies that are so well-done, and so likeable, besides, that a person can feel like more than a bit of a heel for criticizing anything about them at all. "Space Cowboys" definitely falls into this category. (In fact, I'm already feeling so lowdown that, once done here, I'll probably go out and pick a blind man's pocket.)
The good news in this film -- and it's very good news -- is that Eastwood the director sublimates Eastwood the actor, allowing Tommy Lee Jones the central focus. Jones, a superb actor in virtually every assignment he undertakes, is more than up to the task here, giving one of his very finest and balanced performances.
The bad news, however, is that in putting the focus on Jones (and upon the decades-old rivalry between Jones' and his own characters), Eastwood largely wastes the talents of co-stars James Garner and Donald Sutherland, both of whom are allowed to only tantalize us with glimpses of what they might have brought to the table with their characters in a more balanced approach.
The result of this oversight is disappointment. Expectations which the simple presence of Garner and Sutherland automatically raise go largely unfulfilled. A better approach might have been the casting of two lesser "name" actors in their roles.
But is the movie itself a disappointment? Far from it! To be sure, it's fairly predictable, yet when predictability's done even half so well as here, when the result is a truly amiable, engaging and ultimately satisfying movie, then predictability is hardly a crime. If the various "heavies" of the piece (James Cromwell and William Devane, principally) and their motivations become at times fairly muddled and convoluted, so be it; Eastwood, Jones and co. still manage to hit all the high notes in perfect pitch.
Now then, where's that blind man . . . ?
Kingdom Come (2001)
There is only ONE thing wrong with this film
There is only one thing wrong with "Kingdom Come": not enough people are going to see it, simply in the mistaken belief that this is a "black" film, which it is not. The film is universal, both in theme and message. It likewise deserves to be universal in its appeal.
The plotline is simple: a "mean and surly" man (widow Whoopi Goldberg's description of him) dies suddenly, leaving the disparate members of his family to struggle with their feelings for him -- and for each other -- as they prepare for his funeral. How they each manage to reconcile their feelings for him -- and, in some cases, reconcile with each other -- is at the heart of the film. And "Kingdom Come" has PLENTY of heart, make no mistake. That heart rings through loud and clear, amazingly enough, in a film that can be outrageously hilarious while simultaneously remaining touching and true.
Yes, all the characters are Afro-American. And yes, the settings, the surrounding culture and the conventions are all Afro-American (by the way, the writers indulge in some sly -- but on the whole, affectionate -- digs at that culture and conventions). More importantly, however, the underlying emotions and motivations have nothing to do with ethnicity. These are people, nothing more and nothing less, coping or at least learning to cope with a traumatic time in their lives. How do they achieve this? How does anyone? Certainly not by being black or white or this or that, but by . . . growing.
And grow these characters do, each of them, propelled by a cast that is universally both standout and stand-up, in a film that is fully as wise as it is wild. The gospel number at the end is, perhaps, a bit over the top in its implausibility, and maybe in real life not all of the characters will manage to accomplish all the goals that the film implies, but what of it? Perhaps, in the end, what redeems us as a species are our aspirations, rather than our achievements. That, too, is universal.
Just like this film.
Far from Marlowe's finest hour
"Marlowe" is based on Raymond Chandler's fifth novel, "The Little Sister," which he wrote as an examination of both postwar Los Angeles and the encroachment of organized crime upon the film industry. Much of the material Chandler included was based upon actual people and incidents of the period. The novel, whether good or bad or indifferent, does deserve better than the film adaptation it got.
For whatever reason, the producers decided to set their story in contemporary (late 60s) Hollywood, which has the effect or rendering much of the original plotline irrelevant. What might have been a major scandal in 1949, say, is barely worth the blink of an eye in the "anything goes, let it all hang out" 60s. The screenplay does a lot of fancy stepping trying to overcome this flaw . . . all to no avail. The result is a plodding storyline that makes little if any sense to anyone who hasn't read the book.
That initial mistake is then compounded by the casting of James Garner as Phillip Marlowe, presumably on the rationale that Marlowe is tall and dark, as is Garner, and Marlowe is known for his wisecracks -- which Garner can handle. Unfortunately, Marlowe is also known for adhering to a fairly strict code of honor which leads him to a certain ruthlessness of behavior when pushed into a corner. Here is where Garner -- who excels in roles which call for a pragmatic opportunism -- finds himself swimming against the tide . . . and drowning.
As does everyone else in this film, unfortunately. There are no lifelines to be thrown, let alone grasped onto, and everybody winds up ill-served as they sink for the third time into this goop of a story.
Radio Days (1987)
Well, waddaya know, Woody does have a heart after all . . .
In preface, let me say that I was born at the tail-end of the "golden age of radio," but just in time to experience a touch of its magic and the hold it had on households night after night in that pre-TV era. Add to that a favorite aunt who had worked in radio for years on the West Coast and who regaled her nephew with story upon story, which in turn led to the years I later spent in radio (luckily, prior to the "formula radio" days). It all adds up to my absolutely having to go see "Radio Days" when it first came out, despite the fact that I'd never been the world's foremost Woody Allen fan. Too much of his work, for me, lacked that indefinable but oh so recognizable element of "heart."
Well, I was wrong about Woody. This film shows it.
Autobiographical -- or perhaps semi-autobiographical -- in nature, "Radio Days" evokes the time when people returned "to those thrilling days of yesteryear," and for whom, quite probably, it was equally thrilling to contemplate the magic of a box in their living room that could cause them to "watch" the stories unfold in their minds. "Remotes," or on-the-spot broadcasts transported them to the scene of unfolding tragedies or triumphs in a way that newspapers never could (and which TV, for all its advantages, rarely matches).
And yet the film, for all its authenticity in recreating studio practices (watch, for example, how the actors drop completed script pages onto the floorrather than turning them and risking a tell-tale rustle of paper), isn't really so much about radio itself as it is about the people who listened, as personified by one raucous, cantankerous and loving Brooklyn family. Beautifully evoked, particularly by Julie Kavner (Mother), Michael Tucker (Father), and the incomparable Dianne Wiest (as the perenially lovelorn Aunt Bea), it is their reactions to what they hear on the radio -- whether listening breathlessly to the war news (at a time when the end result was anything but certain) or Bea's abandonment in the middle of nowhere by a panicked suitor as Orson Welles' "War of the Worlds" broadcast takes hold -- that bring to life the era and the power of that medium.
Standouts? The whole cast is perfect, but for me, in addition to those previously mentioned, I have to cit Mia Farrow's portrayal of the dim-bulbed Sally White, who transforms herself with the aid of speech lessons into a radio personality. (For that matter, catch Danny Aiello as a less-than-brilliant hitman, particularly his scenes with Dina DeAngeles as his mom.)
Criticisms? One: At the end of a poignant scene in which young Joe has finally discovered what his dad does for a living, Allen insists on falling into some standby "schtick" in his voiceover. (I guess he couldn't resist; thankfully, it doesn't ruin the moment.)
Ultimately, of course, it is the era itself that this film celebrates. Faithfully, and lovingly, it is recreated with a skill that points up its absurdities at the same time it makes one hopefully nostalgic. And, if you're not very careful, you wind up falling hopelessly in love with this funny, obscure Brooklyn family.
And to the end of my days, I'll always wonder whether poor Aunt Bea ever did find her "Mr. Right" . . .
Are you someone's parent? Are you someone's child? SEE THIS MOVIE!!
When "Parenthood" first came out, I did my level best to avoid it, certain that it seeing it would be roughly akin to being embalmed with maple syrup. Then came that dreadfully slow night at home a couple of years later, faced with a choice on the ol' tube between endless reruns of "Three's Company" and HBO showing -- oh, no! -- "Parenthood." So I clicked on HBO, gritted my teeth, prepared for the worst . . .
And was wrong.
Ron Howard is one savvy filmmaker. Maybe one of the savviest, I'm not sure. But I do know that, to make "Parenthood," he combined his savvy with all the heart he could muster (which was plenty, apparently) and that the result is a masterpiece.
Virtually every aspect of parenting is examined; moreover, it is done in a way that -- miracle of miracles! -- causes you to think, and to feel, every bit as much as it makes you laugh. Throat lumping up? Not to worry, here comes another belly-laugh to smooth it out.
The key to the film's message may lie with Jason Robards' speech --"There's no goal line in parenting, no end zone where you spike the ball and that's it . . ." -- or it may lie with Keanu Reeves -- "You know, Mrs. Buckman, you need a license to drive a car or buy a dog . . ." -- or it may simply be Gil Buckman's (Steve Martin) heroism in salvaging his emotionally disturbed son's birthday party; then again, it might be embodied in the frantic, stressed out stoicism of Dianne Wiest's single mom character as she comes to grips with her teenage daughter's choices and impending motherhood. But wherever you find it herein, the message is simple and profound: Parenthood is nothing less than heroism on a daily basis. Quiet, unheralded, underappreciated heroism.
One of the finest things about this movie is that nobody steps out of character. There are no miraculous revelations, no nick-of-time cavalry charges or character transformations. Characters here solve their individual dilemmas by growing WITHIN their characters. And realistically, at that.
It's been said that a really good story leaves its author crying as he/she writes the final pages. Sometimes -- not often enough -- a really good movie can leave a reviewer the same way as he finishes his commentary, crying and laughing simultaneously.
Well, don't just stand there! Someone get me a Kleenex!!
Rally 'Round the Flag, Boys! (1958)
Do Newman a favor: Read the book instead
Max Shulman was an absolutely brilliant comic writer/satirist ("The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis," "Anybody Got a Match?", etc.). In the mid-50s he published "Rally 'Round The Flag, Boys!" taking on everything from Madison Avenue, the New Haven Railroad, the U.S. Air Force to the space race in a hilarious farce that shows how seemingly unconnected lives, priorities and events can converge to produce a disaster of epic proportions. Even little league gets a drubbing at his hands.
This movie took the title and many of the book's characters. For some reason, the writers and producers chose to discard everything else.
Newman could have been GREAT as Harry Bannerman, harried Peter Pan-type account exec facing the prospect of fatherhood and settling down. Unfortunately, the script sabotaged him. Joanne Woodward is relegated to standing around looking hastled and confused-- probably trying to decide exactly how she's going to kill her agent for getting her into this dog. Veterans like Gale Gordon, Jack Carson and Murvyn Vye are similarly wasted.
The only cast member who doesn't disappoint, strangely enough, is Tuesday Weld as Comfort Goodpasture . . . but then, her character didn't have much to do in the book either, come to think of it.
This is what happens when Hollywood bends over backwards to avoid offending anyone . . . after having purchased the rights to a book that's guaranteed to offend just about everyone.
There is a character named Hoffa in this film. Oscar, not James. Probably the best thing that could be done with this turkey of a movie would be to take the master copy, seal it up in an empty bottle of "Newman's Own," and bury it about six feet under Hoffa. James, not Oscar.
After the Thin Man (1936)
The saga -- and the fun -- continues, with nary a missed beat.
Alluding to her 1950s screen personna, Oscar Levant once wisecracked about Doris Day: "Hey, I knew her BEFORE she was a virgin!" Well, no, Ms. Day isn't in this film, but one of the (many) treats offered up by "After The Thin Man" is a chance to get to know James Stewart BEFORE he was James Stewart. Appearing here in a supporting role, he gets to show off some acting chops he didn't always get a chance to display in his later career.
Add to the mix a topnotch screenplay, the chemistry between William Powell and Myrna Loy that is so strong you find yourself believing that only a week has lapsed since their previous outing (rather than two years), at least one sight gag worthy of Groucho Marx (Nick when he and Nora go to visit her stuffed-shirt relatives), and -- oh, yes -- some vintage location footage shot in San Francisco back in the days when "the city that knows how" still knew. (Yep, that really is the old 3rd and Townsend depot, and yes, as a matter of fact, that really is Lotta's Fountain on lower Market Street, and how about that driveway leading up to their palatial home, complete with the breathtaking view? None other than the approach to Coit Tower!)
If the storyline's a bit thinner than the original, the fun is no less. The madcap drinking (sheesh!) and the razor-sharp banter continue on their merry way. As do Nick and Nora. And oh, yes, not that it probably matters that much, but there is a mystery and it does get solved.
The Thin Man (1934)
The first, and the best, in a very good series
There's a story, perhaps apocryphal, that when Ian Fleming was first introduced to the actor who would bring his 007 to life in "Dr. No," his immediate reaction was a loud and emphatic, "Oh, NO! Anybody but HIM!" Luckily, of course, no one paid him any attention, and a largely unknown actor and former bodybuilder named Sean Connery was off and running toward stardom. Likely enough, had anyone thought to run the idea of William Powell as Nick Charles past Dashiell Hammett -- always assuming, somewhat blithely, that the author would have been sober at the moment -- his reaction would have been identical to Fleming's years later. Powell, insouciantly dapper and suave, almost as slender as the silly mustache he affected, was virtually the complete antithesis of Hammett's concept of Charles, the hard-drinking, two-fisted former New York detective who married an heiress much younger than he and yet somehow managed to remain uncorrupted by his good fortune. Yet Powell -- as would Humphrey Bogart several years later, when similarly physically miscast as Sam Spade in the third film version of "The Maltese Falcon" -- went on to make the character of Nick Charles so totally his own that even today, six films and almost sixty years later, it is well-nigh impossible to envision anyone else in the role. Powell was always at his best when playing opposite a strong leading lady -- i.e., Rosalind Russell, Carole Lombard, Irene Dunne -- yet he was never better than when paired with Myrna Loy as Nora in the six "Thin Man" films. Every bit his equal at the backchat and martini-tossing, Loy proved the perfect collaborator in making the Charleses lovely people to visit (but you wouldn't want their livers) time and time and time again. Particularly in this, the adaptation of Hammett's novel, which created the audience demand for the ensuing series. And which also shows that, even if you do consult the writer, it's not necessarily wise to give him/her final approval over casting.
Underrated, undervalued, almost designed to be a cult film from the onset
In the background/historical notes to his novel, "Hammett," author Joe Gores says of one character, ". . . and if you don't know who he's based on, you need to read more Hammett." The movie, more or less based upon the novel, takes Gore's dicta to heart with several key characters. The result can be a whole lot of fun if you know your Hammett; if you're a little weak in that category, the result is merely a lot of fun.
Set in 1927 San Francisco, the film catches Dashiell Hammett in transition: Trying to firmly put his Pinkerton days behind him while establishing himself as a writer, dealing with the twin scourges of his World War I - induced tuberculosis and the alcoholism that will plague him almost to the end of his days, he finds himself drawn back into his old life one last time by the irresistible call of friendship and to honor a debt. By the time he's done, he finds himself having paid a far higher price, learning that he had only thought himself to be totally disillusioned beforehand.
"Hammett" the movie is as much an homage as "Hammett" the novel. It is a rare thing for neither a movie nor a novel to suffer by comparison to each other -- especially when the two are so divergent -- but that is exactly what happens here. The screenplay is strong, the production values uniformly excellent (check out the 1920s Market Street Railway streetcar which passes by in the background briefly in one scene, for example; only one in a thousand viewers might recognize it, and only one in possibly two thousand might appreciate the verisimilitude it provides), the direction and pacing authoritative.
Frederic Forrest is virtually perfect as Hammett; by turns ravaged and buoyant, hardboiled and outraged, at every turn ultimately unstoppable. By the film's close, he makes it very clear that, for Hammett, there will be no turning back; those moodily tapping typewriter keys which formed such an eerie backdrop for much of the action will also provide his salvation, and that this is a good thing.
And anyone who disputes that, as Joe Gores would say, needs to read more Hammett.
L.A. Confidential (1997)
Author James Ellroy published his "L.A. Confidential" as the third (but not final) part of his "L.A. Trilogy," a series of four (that's where he wound up) increasingly dark, frightening, savagely cynical and brutal novels. In it, he interwove fictionalized accounts of actual events (i.e., the Christmas Eve Massacre, the Night Owl murders, the chain of gang murders arising out of the Cohen-Dragna wars), thinly disguised portrayals of actual people (Walt Disney as the most singular example) and a trio of protagonists, each of whom was equally corrupt in his own way. Ellroy also lost control of his material before he was finished. Too many subplots and counterplots culminating in a truly comic book climax.
So how do you adapt that novel to the screen while simultaneously changing key elements (including the ending), somehow turning a real downer of a message into an affirmation, yet emerge with a result that is not only true to the novel but REDEEMS it? Put Messrs. Hansen and Helgeland to work on the screenplay, assemble the finest ensemble cast of actors to grace a project in the last thirty years, set Hansen to direct it with pitch-perfect attention to pacing, mood and nuance, and you've got a pretty good chance of success. (Even Ellroy reportedly liked the result, but then he's mellowed over the years.)
No one was going to pick up a Best Actor nomination in this film (they were all too good), but next time you watch it, check out Kevin Spacey a little more closely: Beyond the flash and the swagger of Jack Vincennes, catch the glint of self-loathing that peeps out from the corner of his eyes, even in his most cynical moments. Or the reaction that tells you, in the midst of that jail fight, he's angriest at the way blood got splattered on his tailored white shirt. For that matter, watch Spacey when he's not the main focal point of a scene; textbook acting in a rolling textbook of superb filmmaking.
Hansen manages to almost perfectly evoke the feel and the pace of early 50s L.A. (I was there) and, by extension, the rest of the nation, a time when titillation and indignation rubbed shoulders a lot more intimately than either liked to admit, a world that was chomping at the bit to go mad (backyard bomb shelters and that ol' "devil music rock & roll" were already on the horizon). It was a society that was growing uneasy with itself and scared of the enemy outside, one that was desperate for the placebos of "Dragnet," even though the truth was a lot closer to . . . L.A. Confidential.