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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)

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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)

THE GREAT ZIEGFELD (1936)

In Best Picture Winners, Biography, Classic, Drama, Epic, G, Motion Pictures on June 29, 2010 at 6:28 pm

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STUDIO – MGM

CAST – William Powell, Myrna Loy, Luise Rainer, Frank Morgan, Virginia Bruce, Ernest Cossart, Fanny Brice, Ray Bolger, Nat Pendleton, Buddy Doyle, A.A. Trimble

DIRECTOR – Robert Z. Leonard

NOT RATED
(MPAA Equivalent: PG)

From the beginning of the 20th Century until the beginning of the Great Depression, the entertainment world was focused not just on New York City, but on one man who can arguably be attributed to giving Broadway its charm, luster, and appeal, Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. He was a charming man, but at the same time he was very reckless. If he had two nickels to rub together, he’d spend it. His shows (most of them a series of “Ziegfeld Follies“) were renowned the world over, but Ziegfeld himself never kept any money. He spent it on lavish production pieces, the cast and crew, his women, and of course, the many wolves knocking at his door. He died a poor man in 1932, forcing his widow, Billie Burke, to work in motion pictures to pay off his debts. But his influence in show business has since reached out even today, both on Broadway and in Hollywood. Four years after his death, The Great Ziegfeld opened nationwide, and the next year, it became the first biographical motion picture to take home the Oscar for Best Picture.

The story opens during the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, where a young Ziegfeld (William Powell) and his friend and rival Jack Billings (Frank Morgan) hold court at their respective booths, barking for their shows. At first Billings, with his exotic dancer known as Little Egypt, is drawing the large crowds, while Ziegfeld’s show, featuring muscleman The Great Sandow, has been threatened with eviction from the midway. Then, as if by miracle, a female admirer approached Sandow and asked to feel his muscles; from that moment on, he became a sensation, and Ziegfeld was on his was way to bigger and better things. The movie then traces what would be the final 30 or so years of Ziegfeld’s life, including his relationship with Anna Held (Best Actress Luise Rainer), the creation of the Follies, his marriage to Billie Burke (Myrna Loy), and his fall after the Crash of 1929.

Florenz Ziegfeld (William Powell) recruits Anna Held (Luise Rainer) to perform on Broadway

Let me get this out of the way now: Though full of musical numbers, The Great Ziegfeld is not a musical. It a dramatic motion picture of a man who gave the world groundbreaking entertainment on such a lavish scale, that some examples of his work (and a few tributes as well) were added to the story. For example, the centerpiece of this movie is Irving Berlin’s “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody”, an elaborate seven-minute long trek up a spinning spiral staircase featuring additional music by Strauss, Liszt, Dvorák, and Gershwin (among others). It plays out as a staged production, and is not a song Florenz Ziegfeld sings to upstart actress Audrey Dane (Virginia Bruce), who, by the way, was the titular “Pretty Girl” at the top of those stairs.

What I can tell you about this movie is that it’s a costume designer’s dream. Every Ziegfeld number is a veritable orgy of sequins, silk, and silver lamé, each one more extravagant than the last. And another of the musical numbers, entitled “You Never Looked So Beautiful”, features a parade of costumed beauties in the Ziegfeld style, with ornate trains and flamboyant headdresses (some weighing as much as 50 pounds!). Each of the sets for these numbers was equally elaborate, including one which redefined the term “thrust stage” by having five individual sections of the stage come out toward the audience, choreographed and on cue, even while dancers were performing on them. By far, this and the “Pretty Girl” number are among the most ambitious musical set pieces ever performed in motion picture history, and by themselves, just might be worth the price.

But the drawback to these set pieces is they sometime take away from the movie’s intent. William Powell’s performance of Flo Ziegfeld was nearly spot-on; he even bore a slight resemblance to the great showman. Billie Burke made sure that the screenplay didn’t tarnish her late husband’s image, but that didn’t stop Virginia Bruce from chewing the scenery (wine bottle in hand) as a composite of Ziegfeld’s mistresses. And though Ms. Burke did not appear in the movie, she was competently played by Powell’s favorite screen partner, Myrna Loy (They made 14 movies together). This leaves Luise Rainer’s performance of Anna Held. At the time, Ms. Rainer had never heard of the legendary French-Polish actress, so she drew her performance from the script, resulting in an overdramatic characterization that falls nothing short of potential diagnosis of histrionic personality disorder, including the prototypical and now-famous “good luck through the tears” phone call in her last scene.

The Great Ziegfeld also features scenes of famous performers of the early 20th Century. Aside from Eugen Sandow (for whom the Mr. Olympia trophy is named), Anna Held and Billie Burke, singer/dancer Eddie Cantor (Buddy Doyle) and legendary humorist Will Rogers (A.A. Trimble) are placed on exhibit in brief scenes. And, as an added treat, both Fanny Brice and Ray Bolger play themselves as a tribute to Ziegfeld, and both shine in their respective performances.

All in all, The Great Ziegfeld is a prime example of ROI (return on investment) in motion pictures. Opening to critical and popular acclaim, this movie, budgeted at $2 million, made about $40 million in its initial release. Can you think of a movie made by a major studio in the last 30 years that recouped 20 times its budget (or more) on just its first-run domestic theatrical release? With the exceptions of E.T.: The Extraterrestrial (1982), which grossed 33.2 times its $10.5 million dollar budget, and Airplane! (1980), which brought in 23.8 times its $3.5 million budget, you’d be hard pressed to find one.

The Great Ziegfeld is a spectacle which has some substance, though you may need to find it upon occasion. A bit on the long side (just over three hours, including the Overture and Exit Music), it is still a worthy member of the best that Oscar has to offer.

4 (out of 5)

THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (1975)

In Comedy, Horror, Motion Pictures, Musical, R, Sci-Fi/Fantasy on June 25, 2010 at 12:45 am

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STUDIO – 20th Century Fox

CASTSusan Sarandon, Barry Bostwick, Tim Curry, Richard O’Brien, Patricia Quinn, “Little Nell” Campbell, Meat Loaf, Charles Gray, Peter Hinwood

DIRECTOR – Jim Sharman

MPAA Rating: R
(UK Version Not Rated)

A funny thing happened on September 26, 1975. A movie based on the musical “The Rocky Horror Show” opened in theatres nationwide. It tanked. But an even funnier thing happened a few months later. Those same movie theatres, who were obligated to keep prints of this musical disaster for a certain amount of time, relegated it to screenings at Midnight on the weekends. Over the next 15 years or so, The Rocky Horror Picture Show evolved into a cult phenomenon unlike anything else in cinematic history. In its heyday, millions of people the world over dressed in costumes, performed the movie in front of the screen in real time, talked back to characters, and threw items at the screen on cue. In essence, this was interactive cinema in its truest form, and (to my knowledge) the first known wide-spread case of it. I went to exactly one screening with a roommate in 1985; it was the singularly most bizarre experience of my life, and one of the most fun as well. On this occasion, with the movie’s 35th Anniversary upon us, I have decided to try to watch The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Normally, this is where I set up the plot for the movies that I see, but the plot to Rocky Horror is so incomprehensible, I can only try, so here goes: Love birds Brad Majors and Janet Weiss (Barry Bostwick, Susan Sarandon) have just left a friend’s wedding. On their way out of town, they get caught in a storm and find they have taken the wrong road. But when they try to turn around, the car gets a flat tire and (wouldn’t you know it?) the spare is no good. So, our intrepid vagabonds walk back up the road  to a castle they’d seen earlier, so they could borrow their phone. When they get there, they are greeted by a strange-looking handyman named Riff-Raff (Richard O’Brien) and his master, one Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry). From there, it gets… weird. The plot (such as it is) moves forward, courtesy of a Criminologist, aka “No-Neck” (Charles Gray), who tells the audience of Brad and Janet’s ordeal at Frank-N-Furter Castle as the movie plays out.

Brad and Janet (Barry Bostwick, Susan Sarandon) meet Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry)

This is one of those movies that, by itself, is confusing and convoluted. Riddled with so much camp and cheesiness, it is amazing to note that this movie was the launchpad for the careers Susan Sarandon, Brian Bostwick, Tim Curry, and Meat Loaf. Full of overt pansexual imagery, Rocky Horror is not for the uninitiated. It may not be Mary Poppins, but what makes this movie special is the audience participation. The DVD has two versions of the movie, US and UK (The UK version has one extra song). I strongly recommend that if you decide to screen this movie, you do so during a party, because the overall experience will play out better if the crowd is into it.

The special features of the DVD have the customary audio commentary, but there is also an audio track (which plays in the rear surround speakers) of an audience shouting out at the movie. It’s a bit chaotic, but entertaining nonetheless. Another feature that got my attention is the Multi-view feature; when activated, a set of lips will appear on screen, prompting you to see theatre audience members perform that scene live. Finally, there is the “Audience Participation” feature, which cues the audience to do something during the movie. For this, I recommend you lay down a sheet of plastic, or at least have a non-carpeted surface, for easy clean-up. Here are the items you’ll need to take part (Just be careful not to damage the video equipment):

  • Rice
  • Water pistols
  • Newspapers
  • Candles/Cigarette lighters
  • Party hats
  • Noise makers
  • Household cleaning gloves
  • Confetti
  • Toilet paper
  • Toast
  • Frankfurters

The Rocky Horror Picture Show essentially posits the question “What if Dr. Frankenstein was an alien drag queen who was trying to create a boy-toy of his own?” Oh, there are a few hints of “Frankenstein” here, including the requisite castle and thunderstorm, the fact that Rocky Horror, aka The Creation (Peter Hinwood), is afraid of fire, Riff-Raff has Igor’s hunched back, and Magenta (Patricia Quinn) appears in a Bride-of-Frankenstein wig in one scene. But where it is different from the Mary Shelley classic is… well, everywhere else! So, the next time you invite 20 of your closest friends to your home (At least that many, or it just won’t work), break this ol’ chestnut out and make it a real party!

3-1/2 (out of 5)

(Group Screening)

(Alone)

CRAZY HEART (2009)

In C, Drama, Independent, Motion Pictures, Romance on June 23, 2010 at 1:11 pm

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STUDIO
– Fox Searchlight

CAST – Jeff Bridges, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Colin Farrell, Robert Duvall, Jack Nation

DIRECTOR – Scott Cooper

MPAA Rating: R

In the days before this year’s Academy Awards ceremony, I was watching TV at my mother’s house, when the trailer for Crazy Heart came on. After seeing the trailer only once, I said “I have got to see this movie!” I immediately put it into my Queue, and when Jeff Bridges took home the Best Actor Award a few weeks later, I moved it up. Now that I have seen this movie, I can say it is worth the wait.

Jeff Bridges stars as Bad Blake, a once-famous country music star who, because of years of hard living (and hard drinking), has been relegated to playing bars and bowling alleys to make a living. Traveling by himself cross-country, just him, his guitars, and his ’78 Chevy Suburban, a day in Bad’s life constitutes wandering into town, meeting the pick-up band of the night, checking into a motel, procuring his nightly bottle of McClure’s, doing the show (with the occasional emergency trip off-stage to throw up), then finishing off the bottle, quietly leaving the groupie of the night asleep at the motel the next morning. Not exactly what you would call a glamorous life.

Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) performs in Santa Fe

While in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Bad meets Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a single mother and reporter from the local newspaper (and niece of the keyboard player in the local band). At first, their relationship is professional (she’s there to interview him), but they quickly form an unlikely bond. Soon, his agent has him diverted to Phoenix, where he is slated to open for Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), Bad’s one-time protégé, who is now a major recording star in his own right. Bad resists at first, but the prospect of performing in front of thousands of people again (and getting decent pay doing it) appeals to him, so he agrees. Later, on his way home to Houston, he makes plans to stop over at Jean’s for a few days.

To venture any further into the story would mean spoilers, but I will say that Crazy Heart is a movie about living a hard life and paying dues. I think many of us can relate to that in one way or another; I can say that I’ve been paying my dues for some time. Anyway, Bad likes doing what he does, but sometimes he doesn’t like where he does it (As stated earlier, his first performance in the movie is at a bowling alley), but he keeps plugging away, hoping his next gig is better than his last.

His relationship with Tommy seems to have some drama involved, but I don’t think it had to do with Tommy himself. From the looks of things, the rift between them was actually caused by the record label, but when your blood is 80-Proof, your judgment get clouded and you don’t see the outside influence; you only see what’s in front of you. In Phoenix, Bad and Tommy talk about the old times, and that night’s show went off pretty much without a hitch, so it’s obvious these two really still like each other. But Bad is set in his ways, much to the chagrin of those around him.

I’ve always liked Jeff Bridges. He has an easygoing way about him that makes him look so natural on the screen. Here, his performance is very solid, and his portrayal of Bad (who says his given name will be on his tombstone) is among the best of any movies I’ve seen in the last five years. Those of you who are familiar with country music from the 1970s will recognize the name Kris Kristosfferson, himself a one-time hard-drinking former star who later got a second chance. Bridges channels Kristofferson so well that in some of the performance scenes, he nearly looks like him. By the way, both Jeff Bridges and Colin Farrell did their own singing, and from the looks of it, all the performances were recorded live on location (either that, or the sound editors were vastly underpaid for their services).

Though this may be considered a romance film, I put this in that rare field of “romance films for men”. It’s a movie told from a man’s perspective, it’s not a “five-tissue” movie (though it is still powerfully emotional), and it doesn’t have a typical romantic ending. In fact, I think the ending is about as realistic as can be, given the circumstances surrounding a key incident between Bad and Jean regarding her son, Buddy (Jack Nation). There is also an influence from the movie Tender Mercies, thanks to co-star and producer Robert Duvall (who won his Oscar in that movie). The songs are all very good, too. One of them, “The Weary Kind”, written by T-Bone Burnett and Ryan Bingham, resulted in this movie’s second Oscar. On a side note, it isn’t often that a character and a real person who share the same name are mentioned at the same Academy Awards ceremony (Goerge Clooney’s character in Up in the Air was also named Ryan Bingham).

Crazy Heart isn’t for everyone, but this is one of the better films of 2009 that I have seen so far. Anyone who has an appreciation for country and/or blues should see it. I may not be a country fan, but I do like the blues, and this movie is definitely about having the blues!

3-1/2 (out of 5)