REVIEWS OF RENTED DVDs I GET IN THE MAIL

Archive for July, 2010|Monthly archive page

DR. NO (1962)

In Action, Crime, D, Motion Pictures on July 25, 2010 at 9:17 pm

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STUDIO – United Artists

CASTSean Connery, Ursula Andress, Joseph Wiseman, Jack Lord, Bernard Lee

DIRECTOR – Terence Toung

MPAA Rating: PG

In 1962, a phenomenon was born. Writer Ian Fleming had written a series of novels about a suave British spy, and Untied Artists (and later MGM) took up the mantle and delivered unto the masses a saga spanning a total of 22 movies (at least, officially, as of this writing) over the next 46 years. This ladies’ man has a penchant for baccarat, exotic locations, fast cars, and vodka martinis that are shaken (not stirred), and he always looks good no matter where he goes. These attributes, and more, are summed up in just three words:

Bond. James Bond.

In his first appearance in the role that would define him, his career, and the character he plays, Sean Connery stars as the newly-promoted 007, sent on an assignment in Jamaica to investigate the disappearance of a colleague (and his secretary), who had failed to check in at his regularly-scheduled time. Upon his arrival, he suspects that someone was alerted to his presence. Later, he discovers that rock samples collected by the missing colleague at a nearby island called Crab Key were radioactive. So, with the assistance of CIA agent Felix Leiter (Jack Lord), he makes for the mysterious island, which has a bauxite operation run by a man known only as Dr. No (Joseph Wiseman).

Honey Ryder and James Bond (Ursula Andress, Sean Connery) walk along the beach on Crab Key

As this is the first Bond movie in the official canon, it is also the most modestly-budgeted of the series, at a mere $1 million (or just over $7 million, after accounting for inflation). As a means of comparison, the last Bond movie, Quantum of Solace (2008)  had an estimated budget of $200 million. The beauty of this movie is that it doesn’t appear that way. For those who haven’t seen this movie yet, I will tell you this: There is no Q, and as a result, there are no gadgets. This is basically a tongue-in-cheek no-frills spy thriller, with Bond relying on only his training, his fighting skills, and his intellect to get the job done.

There are two things for which this movie is famous: Bond’s introduction to the world and Ursula Andress’ entrance. We first meet James Bond enjoying his favorite — okay, his second favorite — recreational activity, baccarat, only his back is turned to us. It just so happens his opponent is a lovely woman (Eunice Gayson) who loses hand after hand to him. Finally, she says to her crafty opponent “I admire your luck, Mr…”, at which time the camera cuts to our hero and he introduces himself in his signature style for the first time, in what is now one of the most famous lines in cinematic history. Later, on Dr. No’s island, Bond (and the rest of the world) watches as seashell collector Honey Ryder (Andress) walks ashore from the water with her latest acquisitions. Today, we would see it as a fairly innocent shot, but in 1962, it caused a sensation. According to one source, the shooting script noted that Honey was supposed to be in the nude (Of course, that wasn’t about to happen, but it’s a nice sentiment).

I had seen several movies in the James Bond series over the years, but this is the first time I watched the one that started it all. While some of the other movies provide great action sequences, others seem to have resorted to becoming caricatures of themselves, but I will visit those movies as I go along. Here, Dr. No is a well-paced straightforward action film, and a game-changing one at that. Throughout the movie, several sound effects and editing techniques were employed to hold the viewer’s attention, and Sean Connery’s witty and sophisticated take on the world’s favorite superspy helped to create a lot of buzz among the movie-going public.

It is also a safe assumption to say that the “action movie one-liner” was born with this movie, and it is even easier to see how another action star, who had followed a path similar to Sean Connery’s (military service, bodybuilding, then movies) was heavily influenced by him. I am, of course, talking about Arnold Schwarzenegger. Looking at Connery in his prime reminded me of some of Arnold’s more dialogue-heavy roles. The mannerisms, the deliveries, even their overall appearances are surprisingly similar. But I will get into that when I dig into the Governator’s body of work.

Dr. No makes for a worthy start to the Bond film franchise. It sets the table for what would become Bond staples (exotic locales, beautiful women, chase scenes, and a good dose of action), but its weakness is that it is a little too lean, in terms of production value. With some scenes that don’t make sense (Bond grinning maniacally as he’s being chased on a mountain road?), it is easy to see that it took a little time for this movie to find its footing. Usually, the first movie in a franchise, like the first season of a TV series, is a little “rough around the edges”, and Dr. No is no exception.

Still, Dr. No gives us a stripped-down, enjoyable movie, one that lays the foundation for the rest of the series, and it gives us the essence of Connery’s Bond, one which draws comparison to all the actors who would take on the role in the coming years.

3-1/2 (out of 5)

THE ODD COUPLE (1968)

In Classic, Comedy, Motion Pictures, O on July 21, 2010 at 11:34 pm

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STUDIO – Paramount

CASTJack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, John Fiedler, Herb Edelman, Monica Evans, Carole Shelley

DIRECTOR – Gene Saks

MPAA Rating: G

I have a question: When you hear the term “great movie pairs”, who comes to mind? There are several possibilities. Astaire and Rogers. Martin and Lewis. Abbott and Costello. Laurel and Hardy. Hepburn and Tracy. Bogart and Bacall. The list goes on, but no list would be complete without Lemmon and Matthau. They made ten movies together, plus one more (Chaplin) in which they appeared in archive footage, but the pinnacle (and arguably the most famous) of this cinematic pairing took place in 1968, with The Odd Couple.

Walter Matthau stars as Oscar Madison,  a New York sports writer who can be best described in his own words: “divorced, broke, and sloppy”. His wife and kids moved to California months before, and his apartment is strewn with garbage, smells, and a very apparent lack of air conditioning. More, his proclivities to gambling and eating out have led to his alimony being late. Then, during his weekly poker game, he gets shocking news: His friend and colleague, news writer Felix Ungar (Jack Lemmon), and his wife have broken up. Felix is an obsessive-compulsive, anal-retentive, hypochondriac neat freak who has suddenly turned suicidal because his wife had kicked him out. When he finally shows up at Oscar’s apartment for the poker game, Oscar invites Felix to move in with him.

Oscar (Walter Matthau) comforts Felix (Jack Lemmon) after his wife kicked him out

Needless to say, you can already see the conflict in this one. These two men are polar opposites of each other, and the resulting living conditions within Oscar’s apartment are both vastly improved and desperately maddening at the same time! This comedy, crafted from the wily mind of one Neil Simon, has been a personal favorite of mine ever since I discovered it in the mid-1970s. This (along with MASH) was one of those cases of me liking a TV show, then discovering “They made a movie about it, too?” I remember watching it on TV for the first time, thinking “Wait a minute. This isn’t Jack Klugman and Tony Randall!” Then I learned the movie was older than the TV show, and that it was a play before that. Soon, it didn’t matter that the actors were different, because the two guys who were in the movie were really funny together! To this day, The Odd Couple remains on my so-called “short list” of favorite movies.

When I received my rented copy in the mail, I was shocked to learn this movie was (and still is) Rated G. I’m guessing that, because the then newly-formed MPAA was still trying to find itself, and that since there was no violence, excessive language, or nudity, it was deemed suitable for all audiences. Looking at The Odd Couple today, with its adult-related themes of gambling, divorce, and dating, I would be more inclined to modify this to a PG. And, with tobacco use becoming the latest subject of attack against the MPAA (something I personally don’t agree with), some may even go so far as PG-13. I do agree that smoking shouldn’t be in a G-rated film, and at least half the characters smoke in this movie. Mind you, I am not speaking out against tobacco use; if you smoke, that’s you’re prerogative. Just remember, attitudes have changed drastically since 1968, and I am sure they will change again over the next 42 years. But, I’m digressing, so let’s move on…

It was widely reported that Walter Matthau (who had played Oscar on Broadway) wanted to be Felix in the movie, because he wanted an acting challenge. Neil Simon’s reaction: Act somewhere else, be Oscar here. Personally, and this is nothing against his talent, but I cannot for the life of me imagine anyone else but Walter Matthau as Oscar. And the pairing with Jack Lemmon was nothing short of genius. Yes, they’d worked together previously in The Fortune Cookie, but this was the movie that sealed the deal in establishing Lemmon and Matthau as a team, which would also include The Front Page, the Grumpy Old Men movies, and even a sequel to this film, among others

The centerpiece of this movie is the scene following the would-be double-date between Oscar and Felix and their in-building neighbors, the Pigeon sisters (Monica Evans and Carole Shelley). Due to circumstances which will not be spoiled here, Felix bails out on the double-date, which upsets Oscar to the point that, the next day, they are not on speaking terms. What transpires is nearly two minutes of comic genius, without a single word spoken. Gutsy, yes, but even now, after seeing it for probably the 138th time (Sorry, in-joke), it still makes me laugh!

On the downside, the material is somewhat dated. Among the now-outmoded items mentioned in this movie include telegrams, milk bottles, and the AutoMat. There is even one scene which takes place at Shea Stadium, which was torn down after the New York Mets moved to Citi Field following the 2008 season. A dream of mine is to rewrite this movie to update it, but keep the story basically intact. Of course, to do that, I would need to a) write a screenplay of my own, b) get Neil Simon’s blessing, and c) get a studio to okay it. Until that day comes (or when the planets all align on the same side of the sun), I will be perfectly happy with the movie as it is.

The Odd Couple is far and away my favorite of Neil Simon’s work. Sharply written, perfectly cast, and funny from start to finish, this comedy classic takes a look at divorce in a such a way that few other movies have even glimpsed. This is a must-add to your Queue!

NOTE: There is a Special Features disk with this movie which is currently unavailable from Netflix. As soon as it does become available, I will rent it and write a follow-up here as soon as I can.

4 (out of 5)


THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG (2009)

In Animation, Family, Motion Pictures, Musical, P, Romance on July 18, 2010 at 7:36 pm

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STUDIOWalt Disney Pictures

CAST – Anika Noni Rose, Bruno Campos, Keith David, Michael-Leon Wooley, Jennifer Cody, Jim Cummings, Peter Bartlett, Oprah Winfrey, Terrence Howard, John Goodman

DIRECTORS – Ron Clements, John Musker

MPAA Rating: G

Back in 1937, Walt Disney did something that no other movie studio had ever done before: produce an animated motion picture. It was called Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and it became both an instant sensation and the start of an enduring legacy. Over the next 67 years, there were over 40 traditionally-animated Disney motion pictures, ending with Home on the Range, in 2004. At the time, computer-animated motion pictures were coming to the forefront (2002’s Treasure Planet had employed CG backgrounds from start to finish), so the Walt Disney Company announced the closure of their hand-drawn animated studio. They released a few non-Pixar computer-animated movies, with mixed results. Then, in 2009, Disney marked the return of its traditional animation studio, and a return to the studio’s roots, with The Princess and the Frog.

In 1920s New Orleans, Tiana (voice of Anika Noni Rose) is a waitress, working two jobs in order to save up enough money to open her own restaurant. When her best friend Charlotte (voice of Jennifer Cody) announces that the visiting Prince Naveen (voice of Bruno Campos) will be at her masquerade ball that evening, she pays Tiana to cater at the event. Now that she has enough money, Tiana buys an abandoned sugar mill and sets her sights on her dream.

Prince Naveen (voice of Bruno Campos) tells Tiana (voice of Anika Noni Rose) she has to kiss him

Meanwhile, Prince Naveen, a happy-go-lucky kind of guy, encounters Dr. Facilier (voice of Keith David), a local witch doctor. Dr. Facilier unleashes a plot to take over the city by transforming the prince into a frog, and his valet Lawrence (voice of Peter Bartlett) into the prince. The plan: Bartlett attends the ball in the prince’s place, proposes to Charlotte, and gains access to her family’s fortune. Later, at the ball, Tiana learns from the realtors she had been outbid. Heartbroken, she wishes on the Evening Star, only to find a frog sitting beside her. She mockingly asks if he wants a kiss, and when he answers, she gets the surprise of her life.

Based on the Brothers Grimm fairy tale “The Frog Prince”, The Princess and the Frog takes you on a journey of discovery, temptation, greed, and love. This is the first entry of Disney’s animation studio (which now uses a clip from the classic cartoon “Steamboat Willie” as its billboard) since its announced return in 2006. Disney’s forté in animated cinema once was fairy tales, but they had lost their direction beginning in the 1990s, with some hits (The Lion King, Tarzan) and more than a few misses (Atlantis, Treasure Planet, Home on the Range). This movie not only marks the return of conventional animation for Disney, it brings back a tradition which has been a Disney staple for 73 years (and counting).

As for the movie itself, the characters are for the most part believable, the pacing is fairly quick, and the story doesn’t feel too contrived. Oh, there is a mild case or two of deus ex machina, but not enough to distract you from the enjoyment of the movie. And this movie is quite enjoyable. There are a few scenes involving Dr. Facilier’s voodoo magic which may be a bit intense for the younger set, but he wouldn’t be much of a villain without them. And, because Tiana is Disney’s first “princess” of African-American origin, and the setting is 1920s New Orleans, there are a couple of moments of veiled racism to provide a sense of credibility to the plot and some historical accuracy. Fans of Tennessee Williams will enjoy John Goodman’s turn as Charlotte’s father (whom she calls “Big Daddy”), and whose dog is named Stella (You can almost hear the “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and “A Streetcar Named Desire” references now, can you?). And Randy Newman, who had previously done musical work for Disney/Pixar projects, succeeds in his first foray into the traditional animated world.

The DVD includes the usual string of Disney promos and trailers, including a teaser trailer for the next animated movie, Tangled, based on the story of Rapunzel. There is also a set of deleted scenes, hosted by directors Ron Clements and John Musker, which are presented in sketch, storyboard, or rough animation form; these provide a rare glimpse into the creative process used in feature animation. For the kids, there is an interactive game of identifying Disney princesses; it isn’t random, but once you get through it, you are then presented with a series of thumbnail stories of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin, including clips from each movie.

The Princess and the Frog is not without its flaws, but it is the beginning of a renewed tradition sure to last for years to come. It is vibrant, entertaining, and romantic, with valuable life lessons such as “It takes hard work to capture a dream” and “It’s okay to go after what you want, as long as you remember what you need”. Overall, this is a solid movie, suitable for almost any age.

3-1/2 (out of 5)

AVATAR (2009)

In A, Action, Adventure, Epic, Motion Pictures, Romance, Sci-Fi/Fantasy on July 16, 2010 at 3:01 pm

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STUDIO – 20th Century Fox

CASTSam Worthington, Sigourney WeaverZoe Saldana, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, Joel David Moore, Wes Studi

DIRECTORJames Cameron

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Following the success of Titanic, James Cameron took some time off from making movies. Oh, he produced an IMAX documentary about the doomed ocean liner, but when it came to his next dramatic film, he had an idea which he claimed would be ground-breaking. It would take place on a mysterious forest planet called Pandora, made with as-yet invented technologies in CGI and motion capture. It promised to be more expensive than Titanic, take years to complete, and it would do it all in 3-D. Finally, in December 2009, Avatar bowed. It was everything Cameron said it would be, and it eventually shattered box office records.

Sam Worthington stars as Jake Sully, a paraplegic Marine veteran recruited to replace his late twin brother Tom, a scientist, on Pandora, a lush moon orbiting a gas giant light-years from Earth. On Pandora, a major corporation has set up a mining operation for a substance called unobtanium. But the indigenous population, a ten-foot tall humanoid species called the Na’vi, are intent on protecting their home, so a paramilitary defense presence, headed by Colonel Quatrich (Stepen Lang) is required. To provide a more diplomatic solution, exobiologist Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) has developed human-Na’vi hybrid bodies called “avatars”, which are “driven” via mnemonic transfer, in order to interact with the Na’vi more easily. Despite Augustine’s protests (she wanted a PhD and not a grunt), Jake becomes part of the team.

Jake Sully and Norm Spellman (Sam Worthington, Joel David Moore) on their first expedition in their avatar bodies

Now, just in case you are among the dozen or so people left on this planet who have yet to see this movie, I will stop here. Avatar is one of those movies that, no matter what you have heard about it, needs to be seen to believed. James Cameron spent over a decade developing this movie, and it shows. Visually, this is among most striking motion pictures ever released. It was filmed in 3-D from the word “Go”, but even in 2-D, it is a visual feast for the eyes. I had seen this movie in 3-D when it was released in December 2009, and I can tell you that there are few “3-D gimmicks” in the movie. This allows for fairly easy translation into the 2-D world upon which many of us still rely in our home entertainment systems. The CGI and motion-capture effects are so photorealistic, that it’s difficult to tell the difference between a physical set and a virtual one, even when you know which one you’re looking at.

True, James Cameron makes an eye-popping movie nearly every time out of the gate. His philosophy is that visual effects should enhance the story, not drive it. Here, however, the visual effects do both, but in such a way as to not be obvious. Does this mean it’s “the perfect movie”? No. There are flaws, some obvious, some subtle. For example, for a screenwriter, James Cameron is an excellent director. While the screenplay in this movie exceeds that of Titanic by leaps and bounds, it still has a few rough spots to stumble through in the telling of this story. For example, when Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) first encounters Sully’s avatar, her first instinct is to kill him (he is, after all, the enemy), but because of a “sign” from Eywa (the Na’vi deity), she takes him to her peoples’ village, instead. Overall, it was handled all right, but I feel this could’ve been written better.

Another weak point I noticed right away in this movie is its similarities with Dances With Wolves. Both feature a military man learning the culture of the indigenous people. Both have a romantic subplot between the military man and a prominent native woman (in the case of Dances With Wolves, she was a white woman adopted by the Sioux). Both have the military questioning the central character’s loyalties. And both feature Wes Studi (He was the “angry Pawnee” in Dances With Wolves, and in Avatar, he is the Na’vi leader and Neytiri’s father). These similarities were pointed out, by the way, prior to Avatar‘s release in this “South Park” episode (Caution: NSFW).

And what about the mining operation? I’m fairly certain more than a few people let out a snicker or two when they heard that the substance in question was called “unobtanium”. Well, as it turns out, as silly the name of this stuff is, this is not the first movie which uses the term (It was also used in 2003’s The Core). And it is based on the engineering term “unobtainium“, which was first coined in the 1950s. In Avatar, it’s a metallic grey substance that fetches “20 million a kilo”, and the largest deposit of it sits underneath the Na’vi village, known as Home Tree. Again, silly name, but it fits.

There has also been a recent “3-D backlash” of sorts because of this movie. Several movies this year which were released in 3-D, including Clash of the Titans, Alice in Wonderland, and The Last Airbender, suffered from critical and popular derision, because these were originally regular (2-D) movies which were converted to 3-D in post-production. Interestingly enough, the 2-D versions of these movies fared better. These are just a few of the many cases of Hollywood trying to capitalize on a trend based on one very successful movie, and charging a higher admission for people to see it. But if too many of these “bad 3-D” movies come out, people will refuse to see all 3-D movies, even ones intended to be in 3-D, like Avatar. Are you listening, Hollywood? By changing the movie to take advantage of a trend, you are changing the director’s vision. Remember when you converted Gone With the Wind to CinemaScope in the 1960s? Yeah, that went over really well, too…

Avatar is a visual and aural feast, to be digested over and over. Even though it comes thisclose to being “Dances With Wolves in space”, it is still a ground-breaking motion picture, and one of the best science-fiction films to come along in years.

4 (out of 5)

YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU (1938)

In Best Picture Winners, Classic, Comedy, Family, Motion Pictures, Romance, Y on July 11, 2010 at 10:53 pm

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STUDIO – Columbia

CASTJean Arthur, Lionel Barrymore, James Stewart, Edward Arnold, Ann Miller, Spring Byington, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Samuel S. Hinds

DIRECTORFrank Capra

NOT RATED
(MPAA Equivalent: G)

Many moons ago, I was an eighth-grader going to what would later be my high school to attend a production of “You Can’t Take It With You“, the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman. To be honest, I don’t remember much, except that it was required for my Drama class, and that I did laugh during the show. Then, more than a few moons later, I learned that not only did Frank Capra direct a movie based on the play, but that it also was the Best Picture of 1938. I have now seen it a few times, and I am happy to report that You Can’t Take It With You still makes me laugh!

Lionel Barrymore stars as Martin Vanderhof, patriarch of a household of eccentric people. Please pay attention, for there will be a pop quiz later in the article. Vanderhof’s daughter, Penny Sycamore (Spring Byington), took up writing plays because a typewriter was accidentally delivered to their home. Her husband, Paul (Samuel S. Hinds), makes fireworks in the basement with Mr. DePinna (Halliwell Hobbes), a long-time guest in the house. Paul and Penny have two daughters, Essie Carmichael (Ann Miller), who constantly dances and makes candy which her husband Ed (Dub Taylor) sells on the street, and Alice Sycamore, a stenographer for the vice-president of a major bank. As you can see, Alice seems to be the least eccentric of the bunch! Ah, but there’s more!

A.P. Kirby (Edward Arnold) and Martin Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore) in jail

In the opposite corner is Anthony P. Kirby (Edward Arnold), banker and Wall Street mogul. His drive and ambition drove him to his position, thanks in part to his high-society wife (Mary Forbes). His latest project the development of 12 blocks currently occupied by homes, apartments, and small businesses into a munitions factory intended to be the dominant contractor of the U.S. War Department. And one of those homes is owned by one Martin Vanderhof, and he refuses to sell. By the way, A.P. Kirby had just promoted his son Tony (James Stewart) to vice-president of the corporation. But, despite his parents’ protests, Tony seems to be more interested in his stenographer than his job. Yes, you read that right: Alice works for (and is in love with) Tony! What a tangled web, indeed!

Considering it took two paragraphs to set up the story, I will not even begin to tell you how it unfolds (or unravels, depending upon your point of view), but I will say that You Can’t Take It With You is a timeless comedy sure to make you stop and ponder your life, and make you smile doing it. Lionel Barrymore is so easygoing as Vanderhof, that, before long, you forget he has crutches (by the time filming started, Lionel Barrymore had severe arthritis and a recent hip injury, so they wrote in an ankle injury for Vanderhof). Edward Arnold’s take on Kirby was somewhat cliché in the Capra style, but his performance proved to be a strong counterpoint to Barrymore’s.

The central core of the story is the star-crossed romance between Alice and Tony. This subplot plays out like a sort of comedic “Romeo and Juliet”: He is the son of a powerful banker, and she comes from a middle-class family who just happens to live in the house the banker is trying to buy. The twist occurs when Alice suggests to Tony that he bring his parents over to meet her family, and he does… one day early! Needless to say, the already awkward situation suddenly becomes downright messy!

Finally, You Can’t Take It With You is the story of A.P. Kirby’s journey to gaining that property, and what he did with it once he had it. Along the way, he learns an important lesson: True happiness isn’t measured in fortune, but in kindness and generosity. People should be entitled to do what they want to do, and not what others expect of them. For example, Tony has no ambitions of working in the family business, but he feels obligated because Kirbys have been bankers for “9000 years”. What he wants to do is figure out how to make the “green in the grass” into an energy source.  You have to admit that this idea was way ahead of its time; biochemical engineering was unheard of in the late-1930s!

On a personal level, this brings back my previous idea to reenter my intended career field, which I first mentioned in my write-up of Up in the Air. For too long, I have been trying to do what others want or expect me to do, and, for whatever reason, I kept running into roadblocks, setbacks, and an overall plain ol’ lack of direction. Again, I am not quite prepared to relay any details, but I have hatched an idea which I’m sure will give me a chance to freshen my skills and put my foot in the door. But enough about me; I promise to tell all when the time comes.

You Can’t Take It With You is nostalgic, irreverent, touching, poignant, and most important, fun. It has a great story, a wonderful cast, and running gags aplenty. The quality of the film itself is not the best (there are occasional black frames, for example), but don’t let that distract you; this is the true definition of a “feel-good” movie, guaranteed to make you cry tears of joy!

THE LIFE OF ÉMILE ZOLA (1937)

In Best Picture Winners, Biography, Classic, Crime, Drama, Epic, History, L, Motion Pictures on July 7, 2010 at 1:31 am

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STUDIO – Warner Bros.

CAST -Paul Muni, Gale Sondergaard, Joseph Schildkraut, Gloria Holden, Donald Crisp

DIRECTOR – William Dieterle

NOT RATED
(MPAA Equivalent: PG)

One of the darkest incidents in military history took place between 1894 and 1906. For over a decade, a man wrongfully convicted of treason languished on Devil’s Island, off the coast of South America, while the French Army knowingly and willfully covered up their mistake by deliberately acquitting the real guilty party at a subsequent court-martial and allowing him to continue to serve his country. For years, a nation was divided, and its most famous author, who had exposed the scandal, was convicted of libel, labeled a pariah, and forced into exile. This incident has since been known as The Dreyfus Affair, and the man who brought it into the open was Émile Zola.

In The Life of Émile Zola, Paul Muni stars as the controversial writer from his early adulthood in 1869, until his death in 1902. In the beginning, we see Zola living in a drafty attic flat with non other than Paul Cézanne (Vladimir Sokoloff) as his roommate. Here, both Zola and Cézanne are depicted as literally “starving artists”. After being dismissed from a job as a literary clerk (for writing “bad” books), Zola and Cézanne chanced upon, and befriended, a prostitute (Erin O’Brien-Moore) who would become the inspiration to Zola’s breakout novel, “Nana”. With “Nana”, Zola became an instant success, spawning many more books exposing the harsh reality that is life in the underbelly of Paris.

Émile Zola (Paul Muni) reads from "J'Accuse..." prior to its publication

Fast-forward to 1894, when a hand-written communiqué intended for the military attaché at the German embassy is intercepted by French military intelligence. Senior officers gather to determine who could be responsible for this treasonous act. At first, the name of Major Walsin-Esterhazy (Robert Barrat), known to be of Hungarian descent and with access to sensitive information, comes up; but the preceding name, Captain Alfred Dreyfus (Best Supporting Actor Joseph Schildkraut), a Jewish officer from the Franco-Prussian border region, is selected instead. The next day, he is arrested for treason and, a few months later, publicly stripped of his rank and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island. From the moment of his arrest, Dreyfus repeatedly protests his innocence, but his words fall on deaf ears. For the next three years, his wife Lucie (Gale Sondergaard) does everything she can to absolve her husband’s name. Desperate, she calls on the one remaining man she feels can help her: Émile Zola. At first, he resists, but ultimately takes the challenge head-on by publishing J’Accuse… (“I Accuse…”), an open letter to the President of the French Republic, on the front page of the newspaper L’Aurore.

The Life of Émile Zola packs a lot of story within its just-under-two-hours run time, making it one of those movies that requires attention, or you may miss something. The script, though a little choppy in spots, provided a (mostly) accurate portrayal of Zola and the people in his life. Paul Muni’s performance gave Zola a certain degree of humanity (including a humorous gag involving umbrellas) and courage. Joseph Schildkraut’s performance is one of the better examples from the 1930s. Though I was initially put off by Dreyfus screaming “I’m innocent!” over and over, Schildkraut also demonstrated powerful restraint and dignity during key scenes, such as the last time Dreyfus saw his wife before transferring to Devil’s Island. And, speaking of Mme. Dreyfus, Gale Sondergaard’s performance as Lucie Dreyfus is easily the best in the movie.

At every turn, Zola seemed to spend most of his life hitting barrier after barrier in order to get his works published. With the Dreyfus Affair, Zola became an enemy of a people who had been blinded by the very corrupt military he had been trying to expose. In the movie, there was one subtle element which actually bore a stronger punch in the historical record: anti-Semitism. One of the main reasons (if not the sole reason) Dreyfus was railroaded was because he was Jewish. Anti-Semitism was rampant in the French Army at the time, so any opportunity to kick one to the curb was, in the mindset of the time, a “good thing” to do. This aspect was downplayed in the movie, partly because of the Hays Code, and partly because of fear. Remember, this movie came out in 1937, not long after a certain Chancellor of Nazi Germany came to power. At the time, the Unites States was a neutral nation, unconcerned with the affairs of Europe, which would be thrust into war two years later. But that is another story for another time…

The DVD features three shorts from the period. Two of them, “The Littlest Diplomat”, starring a Shirley Temple-like girl named Sybil Jason as the granddaughter of a British garrison commander in India, and “Romance Road”, featuring Walter Cassel as an RCMP officer trying to keep the peace between fur trappers and a railroad gang, are live-action musical pieces in Technicolor. And both of them are a bit on the cheesy side. The third short, a cartoon called “Ain’t We Got Fun”, is a treat for animation fans, because it’s an example of the legendary Tex Avery’s work from his Warner Bros. days. Of course, it doesn’t feature the classic gags for which he is known (Warner Bros. kept him on a short leash), but you can still make out bits and pieces of his trademark animation style, for which he would become famous once he landed at MGM. And, for all you old-time radio fans, there is a Lux Radio Theatre broadcast from 1939, in which Paul Muni reprises his role as Zola.

There were two Best Picture winners in the 1930s which were biographical motion pictures, and The Life of Émile Zola is the better of the two, in terms of brevity and substance. Unlike The Great Ziegfeld (1936), which is a classic in its own right, The Life of Émile Zola did not need to pad its story with unneeded material. The bare-bones approach suits this movie just fine, and in the end, provides us with a look into the life of a man who, in today’s world, may otherwise be forgotten.

4 (out of 5)

THE MESSENGER (2009)

In Drama, Independent, M, Motion Pictures, Romance, War on July 5, 2010 at 3:25 am

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STUDIO – Oscilloscope Pictures

CASTWoody Harrelson, Ben Foster, Samantha Morton, Steve Buscemi, Jenna Malone

DIRECTOR – Oren Moveman

MPAA Rating: R

According to legend, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman was said to have uttered the infamous axiom “War is hell”. Starting in 2002, when American troops invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, we were re-introduced to the hell that is war for the first time since Vietnam. We have seen many a motion picture about soldiers on the front lines, soldiers behind the lines, and the brave faces on the home front. There have been portrayals of both the glory, spirit, and camaraderie, and the pain, claustrophobia, and chaos that is war. But, until The Messenger came along, there hadn’t been a motion picture which focused exclusively on the men and women who perform the solemn duty of informing someone their husband, wife, son, daughter, brother, or sister had died in combat.

Ben Foster stars as SSG Will Montgomery, who had just returned to the States after recovering from battle wounds sustained in Iraq. With only a few months remaining on his enlistment, he is ordered to Fort Dix, New Jersey, to act as a Casualty Notification Officer (CNO). There, he is introduced to Capt. Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), who is to be his trainer and partner in performing this duty. From the word “Go”, Montgomery doesn’t like this job nor the man who came with it, but he is a soldier; he is given a job, and he sets out to do it the best he can.

Capt. Stone (Woody Harrelson) gives last-minute instructions to SSG Montgomery (Ben Foster) prior to his first CNO assignment

The Messenger is one of those movies that sinks into you slowly. And while, by co-writer/director Oren Moveman’s own admission, the tone of the movie is politically liberal, there aren’t any “in your face” moments that speak out against this (or any other) war. Rather, it is an intimate look into the lives of the military personnel assigned to perform this difficult task, and of the families impacted by them. This is a side of war that most of us never see, and that every military family wishes they never do see. It is grim. It is sad. It is gut-wrenching. It is also, unfortunately, the truth.

There are six scenes in this movie  in which families are notified of a soldier’s death, and each one plays out differently. There is the father (Steve Buscemi) who spits in SSG Montgomery’s face, the father (Angel Caban) who breaks down and cries when he looks back at his grandchild, the mother (Portia) who slaps Capt. Stone upon hearing her son was killed, and the father (Kevin Hagan) who throws up when he receives the news in a store (That last one, by the way, is against current military protocol, but it is based on an actual event in the U.S. Marine Corps during the Vietnam War). Of the other two notification scenes, one is so moving and so poignant, that describing it here would not do it justice, and the other becomes the genesis of an unlikely romance between Montgomery and the widow of a fallen comrade, Olivia Pitterson (Samantha Morton).

I had a problem with how this relationship started out, because for one thing, a soldier performing as a CNO should never get personal with the people he encounters while he performs his duty. To me, the whole thing started out as some kind of twisted obsession, but (thanks to wonderfully low-key performances by both Foster and Morton) it evolves into a tender and nurturing relationship with a possible future. Woody Harrelson gave a powerful performance as Capt. Stone. Harrelson proudly proclaims himself to be “pro-peace” (as opposed to “anti-war”), so to see him playing a military officer with such drive and intensity was not only surprising, but brilliant, as well. And though this is very much an independent movie, his performance did not go unnoticed; Woody Harrelson received many accolades for his work in this movie, including an Independent Spirit Award, and Golden Globe and Oscar nominations, all for Best Supporting Actor.

There are several special features on the DVD, the most important of which is a companion-piece documentary called “Notification”, in which both Army CNOs and family members of the fallen share their stories on how the casualty notification process works. There is a behind-the-scenes look back by the cast and crew after finishing the movie, and a Q&A hosted by Variety magazine. And, for all you aspiring screenwriters out there, the DVD also features a .pdf version of the shooting script, which provides an excellent template for how movies should be written.

The Messenger is a powerful and moving motion picture that not only shows you just how difficult it is to be a CNO, but it is also smart enough to know when to let its hair down and enjoy the moment. Subtle and nuanced performances by Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson, and Samantha Morton make this movie required viewing. And on this weekend, in which this nation observes its anniversary, it serves as an invaluable reminder for all of us to honor those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for us.

4 (out of 5)