REVIEWS OF RENTED DVDs I GET IN THE MAIL

Posts Tagged ‘Biography’

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

Bookmark and Share

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 GREAT ZIEGFELD (1936)

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

Bookmark and Share

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 BLIND SIDE (2009)

In B, Biography, Drama, Motion Pictures, Sports on May 11, 2010 at 10:43 pm

Bookmark and Share

STUDIO — Warner Bros.

CAST — Sandra Bullock, Tim McGraw, Quinton Aaron, Ray McKinnon, Jae Head, Lily Collins, Kathy Bates

DIRECTOR — John Lee Hancock

MPAA Rating: PG-13

In many parts of the United States, football is more than a sport; it’s practically a religion. This is especially evident through the South and Midwest, where college football reigns supreme. I can testify to this fact, as I have seen Bulldog-themed restaurants in Georgia, Longhorn-themed stores in Texas, and Cornhusker-themed everything in Nebraska. In fact, I can personally support the theory that life all but shuts down on Saturday afternoons in the fall in the state of Nebraska. After spending 16 years of my life there, I have brought back this observation: Go shopping in a department store during a Husker game, and life stands still while a play is in progress. When the ball is snapped, everyone stops in their tracks and listens intently to the radio broadcast (guaranteed to be on in at least 95% of the businesses in the state); if there’s a touchdown, they celebrate like they’re all guests of honor in a massive bachelor(ette) party. Then when the game goes to commercial, as if by magic, they go back to whatever they’re doing. It almost looks like a scene from the classic Star Trek episode “The Return of the Archons” (Just watch through the first sct, and you’ll see what I mean). I do, of course, say this in jest, but it is still fascinating to witness.

There is no mistake in identifying passionate football fans. They support their favorite teams until the ends of the earth, even if they have been “rebuilding” for 15 years. They wear their hearts on their sleeve, their wardrobe is adorned with the team colors of their choice, their cars are littered with flags, decals, and other paraphernalia, and they even plan social events around the games! This is true of nearly all passionate sports fans, but college football fans really love their sport, and they really love their school, no matter where they live. Such is the case of Leigh Anne Tuohy, an Ole Miss graduate living in Memphis, Tennessee.

Michael Oher (Quiton Aaron, right) at Thanksgiving dinner with the Tuohys (from left, Lily Collins, Sandra Bullock, Tim McGraw, Jae Head)

By now, I am sure that you have heard of Mrs. Tuohy, and the remarkable story of how she took in a kid from the wrong side of town because he had nowhere to go. That kid grew up to become Michael Oher of the Baltimore Ravens. They could not have been more different. She was an affluent, pretty, outspoken white woman with a family; he was a very large, very shy, very homeless black teenager with no ambition or direction in life. Yet, she took him into her home, fed him, clothed him, and guided him into becoming a young man who had found his destiny.

Okay, I’m not sure what has already been said about this movie, but I will say that, as sports movies go, this is one of the best I have seen in the last 20 years. One remarkable fact about The Blind Side is that it is the first motion picture with one actress billed above the title (by herself) to gross over $100 million. Now, I have had a soft spot for Sandra Bullock ever since she burst on the scene as the off-beat cop of the future in Demolition Man (1993). She is a quirky, slightly-left-of-normal girl next door, and I knew there was nothing but a bright career ahead for her. But never in a million years did I expect her to achieve serious critical acclaim, and I don’t think she did, either. When she co-starred in Crash (2004), things began to change. I noticed that Sandra Bullock was evolving from a movie star to an actress (there is a difference), and when you are an actor or actress who is also a movie star, really good things begin to happen.

The Blind Side contains fine performances from much of the cast, beginning with Bullock, who won Best Actress as Leigh Anne Tuohy. TIm McGraw was an agreeable Sean, and Quinton Aaron did very well, too. I did have one concern: Did Michael Oher, during the lost days of his youth, really lack intelligence, or did he just not care? Signs seem to point to the latter, and Aaron played from that angle fairly well (Although I did notice a few overly-vacuous spots in his performance). The breakout performance in this movie (to me, anyway) goes to Jae Head, who played Leigh Anne and Sean Tuohy’s son, S.J. First of all, he had all the best lines (“Enough with the rugby shirts! You look like a giant bumble bee!”), and it was very easy to see he and Quinton Aaron bonded well. Also, watching S.J. coach Michael through drills is a sight to behold! Oh, one more cool fact about this movie: The college football coaches in the film are the real deal. Some had retired and others moved on to other positions, but yes, Virginia, that really was Lou Holtz you saw on the screen.

The Blind Side is a wonderful and inspirational story of generosity, love, and good ol’ Christian beliefs. And football. Lots of football. If you haven’t seen this movie yet, then get thee to your Queue and line it up!

4 out of 5

HEAVENLY CREATURES (1994)

In Biography, Crime, Drama, H, Motion Pictures on April 12, 2010 at 12:54 pm

Bookmark and Share

 

STUDIO — Miramax 

CAST — Melanie Lynskey, Kate Winslet, Sarah Pierse, Diana Kent, Clive Merrison, Simon O’Connor 

DIRECTOR — Peter Jackson 

MPAA Rating: R 

A reader from New Zealand dropped a request in my lap: Review some of Peter Jackson’s early work. So, I threw a couple of darts at the wall, and one of them landed on Heavenly Creatures, Jackson’s take on the friendship between Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme (Melanie Lynskey and Kate Winslet, both in their big-screen debuts), from the time they met at school in 1952, until their murder of Pauline’s mother, Honora, in June 1954. 

The movie starts as a sort of travelogue of Christchurch, New Zealand, an idyllic city which boasts friendly people, beautiful surroundings, and lots of bicycles. Suddenly, we lurch to a moment of terror: Two young ladies running through the woods, screaming in panic and covered in blood. From that moment, we are taken back in time to when these two girls first met at an all-girls preparatory school two years earlier. Right away, the dynamic between these two becomes very apparent. Pauline is very imaginative, but shy and withdrawn, while Juliet is adventurous, outgoing and worldly. But they form a bond right away because both girls had debilitating illnesses when they were young (Pauline had osteomyelitis, and Juliet had tuberculosis), and they became fast friends. 

Juliet and Pauline (Kate Winslet, Melanie Lynskey) on Easter Sunday, 1953

Prior to making this movie, Peter Jackson was best known for making low-budget horror movies. But when his wife suggested that he try his hand at a movie based on one of most infamous crimes in New Zealand history, little did she know that it would lead him to bigger and better things. But the two of them sat down and wrote the script, using writings from Pauline’s diary as a guide (The title even comes from a passage in the diary). Heavenly Creatures doesn’t focus on the murder and the trial, which were sensational in their own right, but rather it paints a portrait of the two girls’ friendship, the intensity of which brought concerns from both families that they were becoming a homosexual couple (considered a mental disorder at the time). Whether Pauline and Juliet were lovers remains under debate, that aspect of their relationship is explored in a surprisingly innocent way in this movie. 

There is a lot to talk about in Heavenly Creatures. Jackson’s skill as a director becomes apparent in this movie. He weaves a tale in both the real and imaginary worlds, and in such a way as to illustrate how Pauline and Juliet’s friendship grew stronger with each passing day. We, the viewers, are swept into this imaginary “Fourth World”, where James Mason and Mario Lanza are saints, and the girls are king and queen of the fantasy land of Borovnia. Soon, it becomes difficult to see where the real world ends and the imaginary one begins, especially when Pauline and Juliet begin to believe their parents (Pauline’s mother and Juliet’s father, specifically) are conspiring to separate them. 

For the then-newcomers Melanie Lynskey and Kate Winslet, this was a great debut for both of them. Lynskey’s shy and secluded Pauline was both painful and captivating, and Winslet proved she had star power from the second Juliet entered the classroom for the first time. Both of them were perfectly cast for this movie, and both of them have become well-known actresses as a result. They both displayed the youthful exhuberance necessary for girls of that age, as well as their characters’ obsession for each other, and their chemistry together was nearly perfect. 

Heavenly Creatures was shot on location in Christchurch. In fact, Peter Jackson went to great lengths to use as many actual sites of the events portrayed, including the now-demolished tea room where Honora ate her last meal. This lends a degree of authenticity to the movie and holds the viewer’s attention throughout. By the third act, Pauline and Juliet’s friendship had become so close, they began to take on each other’s behaviors, but to devastating effect. Pauline grew so confident so quickly, she overcompensated by lashing out at her mother. And when Juliet’s parents announced they were breaking up, she started suffering from separation anxiety. And this is merely the beginning of what became the two girls’ final act. 

Heavenly Creatures is a look at one of the world’s most shocking crimes of the 20th Century, one I would consider as notorious in New Zealand as Starkweather is in Nebraska, and Manson in California. I do not make this statement lightly, nor does Peter Jackson try to make light of it. Instead, we see two friends willing to do anything for each other, only in this case it went too far. 

3-1/2 out of 5

GOODFELLAS (1990)

In Action, Biography, Crime, Drama, G, Motion Pictures on April 9, 2010 at 1:49 pm

Bookmark and Share

  

STUDIO — Warner Bros.   

CAST — Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Paul Sorvino, Lorraine Bracco  

DIRECTOR —  Martin Scorsese  

MPAA Rating: R   

There is so much I can say about this movie, except that it has most likely already been said before. Goodfellas is, of course, on my short list of favorite motion pictures and, as I did with Patton, I will recount my experience by checking out the two-disk Special Edition of this movie.  

When I received Disk One, I literally watched this movie three times. First, I had to watch the movie itself, which is something of which I will never tire. The kinetic energy throughout this masterpiece grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go until long after you’ve seen it (but more on that in a minute). Sure, there are some anachronistic gaffs here and there (A teenaged Henry Hill selling Black Market cigarettes with UPC barcodes on the cartons — in 1959!), but every performance, every characterization, gave me a sense of what life must have been like in the Mafia during its heyday. The whole first half of the movie shows the glamour, the connections, the camaraderie, and the partying, while the second half follows a steady descent into Hell, with drug addiction, greed, murder, and paranoia.  

Goodfellas recounts the story of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), a half-Italian/half-Irish gangster associated with the infamous Lucchese crime family, and how he met up and partnered with two other mobsters, portrayed here as Jimmy “The Gent” Conway (Robert De Niro) and Tommy DeVito (Academy Award winner Joe Pesci). As you may have guessed by my last statement, some of the names were changed for the purposes of making this movie. Does this diminish the quality of this movie? Not in the least. Anyway, all three performances were mesmerizing, especially Pesci’s. His performance as Tommy was cemented in the now-infamous “You’re a funny guy” scene, and it sustained all way through.  

Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) and Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) enjoy a night on the town

 Also of note (especially for you fans of  “The Sopranos”) is Lorraine Bracco as Henry’s wife, Karen, and a brief appearance by Michael Imperioli in one of his first film roles, as Spider. Another face to watch for is Samual L. Jackson in one of his quieter roles, as Stacks Edwards. Look for a few famous faces as well, including Jerry Vale, Robbie Vinton (as his father, Bobby), and comedian Henny Youngman, in one of his final film appearances.  

Okay, by now, I’m sure you’re asking “Why the subsequent screenings?” Well, there are two commentary tracks, “Crook and Cop” and “Cast and Crew”. In the “Crook and Cop” commentary, Henry Hill and U.S. District Attorney Ed McDonald (who placed Henry and his family into the Witness Protection Program — and plays himself in the movie) give their insight to the events portrayed in the film from both of their unique perspectives. Hill would fill in some gaps in the story or explain why or how something happened, while McDonald talked about how difficult it really was to pin convictions on some of these wiseguys, problems with surveillance, and how the FBI employed what became known as the “Al Capone strategy” for getting a conviction: If you can’t get them for murder, get them for something else.  

The “Cast and Crew” commentary doesn’t cover the entire length of the movie; whole sections of the movie are skipped during the “silent” parts. But, Scorsese, producer Irwin Winkler, co-writer Nicholas Pileggi, cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, and cast members Liotta, Pesci, De Niro, Bracco, and Paul Sorvino, among others, all talk about their own perspectives on the making of this movie. Did you know that Ray Liotta and Henry Hill met up for a drink after the film’s release, and each was star-struck to meet the other face-to-face? Did you know that, as written, Goodfellas has no climax? And remember when I said this movie doesn’t let go? Well, did you know that Paul Sorvino, who had struggled for months to find his character, initially hated the completed film? It took a few hours afterward before he realized how great it really was.  

The second disk has a few documentaries, including a short with Henry Hill, called “The Workaday Gangster”. In it, he tells us, the audience, that the essence of what we see in Goodfellas is “99% accurate” from his perspective. Another features several directors influenced by Scorsese and/or Goodfellas, including Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption), Antoine Fuqua (Training Day), and others. As a special treat, there’s even a four-minute snippet called “Paper Is Cheaper Than Film”, which literally illustrates how Martin Scorsese visualized some of the shots by writing notes and thumbnail sketches on the shooting script. 

Many people have argued for years which of Scorsese’s movies is his best. Some say it’s Raging Bull. Others would say Taxi Driver. Another camp might even cry out, “Well, The Departed won Best Picture”. Then there’s the Casino crowd. Exciting, visceral, unflinching, and unrelenting, Goodfellas is not only a classic gangster movie, it is a film for the ages. And to me, this is the epitome of Martin Scorsese’s filmmaking career. 

OUT OF AFRICA (1985)

In Adventure, Best Picture Winners, Drama, Motion Pictures, O, Romance on March 30, 2010 at 12:31 am

Bookmark and Share

 

STUDIO — Universal 

CAST — Robert Redford, Meryl Streep, Klaus Maria Brandauer, Michael Kitchen, Iman 

DIRECTOR —  Sydney Pollack 

MPAA Rating: PG 

In the summer of 1986, I was a strapping young lad of 21, stationed at Camp Red Cloud, in Uijongbu, South Korea. I had a girlfriend at the time named Lynda; she was also in the Army. One day, we were walking by the AAFES (Army and Air Force Exchange Services) movie theatre on post, when I noticed that Out of Africa was playing. I had heard it just won Best Picture at the Academy Awards, so I suggested to Lynda we go see it. To this day, Out of Africa remains as the only motion picture I had paid to see in a cinema which made me fall asleep. 

Naturally, one can understand my resistance to screen this movie again. But it was placed on my Request List, and I figured it was better to get it over with early on. Well, after watching it again with fresh eyes (and staying awake through the whole thing), I came away with a somewhat surprising opinion of this movie: It’s not as bad as I remember! 

Okay, hear me out. My memories of seeing it in Korea were those of disappointment, to say the least. Visually, Out of Africa is stunning, but the story had about as much “oomph” in it as an Andy Disk right hook. But today, I am different man than I was then. I am more open-minded, wiser, and more… seasoned. And on that note, let’s get into how I see Out of Africa today. 

Karen (Meryl Streep) entertains Denys (Robert Redford) at dinner

The movie stretches over many years, beginning in 1913, when a young Danish lady named Karen (Meryl Streep, in one of her myriad Oscar-nominated roles) enters into a relationship with a Swedish gentleman, Bror Blixen (Klaus Maria Brandauer). He brings her to Kenya, marries her, and they settle onto a nice, large plot of land for their cattle ranch coffee plantation. It quickly becomes a loveless marriage, and Karen is left in charge of the property, while her husband traipses around the far reaches of the Serengeti. Meanwhile, a somewhat free-spirited big-game hunter named Denys Finch Hatten (Robert Redford) quickly becomes enamored with her, and the two soon form a bond. 

If you are looking for action, this isn’t the movie to see. The most thrilling parts involve lions on the hunt, of which there are three, but then again, this is a romantic movie. Without a doubt, Out of Africa is a so-called “chick-flick”, even going so far as to follow certain modern romantic movie formulae. On the other hand, if you are in film school taking a course in cinematography, this movie is required viewing. If there is one good thing I can say about Out of Africa, it’s that it is one of the most beautifully filmed motion pictures I have ever seen, and I doubt few movies will ever top it (Another movie in this elite category is 1990’s Dances With Wolves). 

And speaking of Dances With Wolves, the musical score has a recognizable sound to it. That is because those sweeping violins you hear come from the trademark style of John Barry, who understandably received his third Oscar for musical score (and fourth overall) for his work in this film. As for the script, it is a good one, though some parts found me checking the time upon occasion. Meryl Streep’s performance was very good, and I have a lot of respect for the character she plays in this movie. Here, Karen is portrayed as an independent woman who was willing to work alongside her field workers; I have a lot of respect for bosses who don’t mind getting their hands dirty. Robert Redford is charming enough, and he was still a major box office draw in 1985, but I get the feeling the part might have been better served going to Mel Gibson, who at the time was just coming into his own in America, and a “serious” movie at that time would’ve proven him a capable actor who could do more than Mad Max. 

If this movie were to be remade today (2010), I get the feeling that Kate & Leo would reunite to do it. As it stands, with Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, I got the impression of an “off -the-rack” suit in a tailor-made environment, which I think is the primary weakness of Out of Africa; mediocre chemistry between the leads can hurt a film like this, and in this case, it did. Still, it makes for a beautiful postcard for the African continent, and even 25 years later, women will still swoon over the sparkle in Redford’s blue eyes. 

PATTON (1970)

In Action, Best Picture Winners, Biography, Classic, Drama, History, Motion Pictures, P, War on March 22, 2010 at 1:47 pm

Bookmark and Share

 

STUDIO — 20th Century Fox 

CAST — George C. Scott, Karl Malden, Michael Strong, Karl Michael Volger, Richard Münch, Siegfried Rauch, Michael Bates, Edward Binns, Paul Stevens, James Edwards 

DIRECTOR —  Franklin J. Schaffner 

MPAA Rating: PG 

I received a request from a friend of mine shortly after I set up this blog. It read “I would like you to freshly watch what you consider your favorite film and give me a review of it.” Well, since Patton is my favorite movie, and since I already have a copy in my personal collection, I elected to rent the two-disc Special Edition and give it a fresh look. 

The two-disc DVD includes a five-minute introduction by co-writer Francis Ford Coppola (yes, that Francis Ford Coppola), as well as a commentary track by him in the movie itself. Having just viewed the movie again, I came away from it with an observation that I hadn’t noticed before, which is that General Patton (at least, as portrayed in this movie) and I seem to share a dubious trait: Neither of us seems to know when to shut up! To me, a hallmark of a great motion picture is one you can watch again and again, and still notice things you had not seen before. And to me, Patton is such a movie. 

Gen. George Patton (George C. Scott) and Gen. Omar Bradley (Karl Malden) discuss Operation: Cobra

This movie opens with one of the greatest monologues ever put to film, as General George S. Patton, Jr. (Academy Award winner George C. Scott) addresses the audience as though they were his troops, in front of a giant American flag. This sets the stage for a motion picture which paints Patton as leader and renegade, romantic and tactician, contemporary and anachronism, pious and profane. To me, this is far and away the best performance I have yet to see out of any actor in any movie. George C. Scott nailed this one, and whomever it was who had recommended him for the part deserves recognition. In my opinion, of course… 

Why Patton? Even when I first saw this movie at the age of 11, I was immediately attracted to the complexity of the character, and of the man himself. Here was a man who, in one of the movie’s most (in)famous scenes, nearly weeps as he silently pins a Purple Heart on the pillow of a severely wounded soldier one minute, then angrily smacks around another with “battle fatigue” the next. The dichotomy of General Patton is reflected throughout the movie, but it is strongest here. Very quickly, Patton became one of my favorite subjects in my spare time, and, by extension, I soon began to absorb as much as I could about World War II as well. 

The cinematography may appear a little dated by today’s standards, but it symbolizes Patton’s solitude, first as a commander, then as an outcast. Earlier, I had alluded to the fact that both Patton and I had a history of our respective mouths being our own worst enemy. I won’t divulge any details here, but I can assure you that when you say the wrong thing, either by accident or by omission, it will backfire on you. In this movie, Patton’s encounters with the press appeared to cause him more trouble and more controversy than all the casualty lists generated under his command. But that apparently did not phase the Germans (at least in the movie), who believed him to be a brilliant commander; they followed Patton’s every move, even while he was little more than a glorified tour guide in the Mediterranean (a decision by Gen. Eisenhower which did prove a successful diversionary tactic in the months prior to the invasion of Normandy, in June 1944). 

As for the supporting cast, Karl Malden is convincing as Omar Bradley, Patton’s friend and colleague who had advanced to become his superior. Michael Bates is a dead ringer for British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, widely regarded as Great Britain’s greatest commander during the war, and portrayed here as Patton’s rival. And though I’m sure this was unintentional, I became a little leery of Patton’s aide and bona fide spin doctor, Lt. Col. Charles Codman (Paul Stevens), who seemed to know exactly what to say and how to say it to his fearless leader. Still, the story is solid, the battle sequences are memorable (and well-done for 1970), and nearly all the performances are spot-on. 

Oh, there are better movies out there, but Patton remains at the top of my list of the most influential movies of my life, and (to me) the standard by which biopics should be measured. I should note that Mr. Coppola drew from several different source materials in order to provide the most authentic and balanced portrayal of both Patton the general and Patton the man. And the score by composer Jerry Goldsmith, with its haunting trumpets that echo into the distance, puts the icing on the cake for this nearly perfect movie. 

JULIE & JULIA (2009)

In Biography, Comedy, Drama, J, Motion Pictures on March 1, 2010 at 11:47 am

Bookmark and Share

STUDIO — Columbia

CAST — Amy Adams, Meryl Streep, Stanley Tucci, Chris Messina

DIRECTOR —  Nora Ephron

MPAA Rating: PG-13

When this movie came out in 2009, I was skeptical about it. I had heard about the “Julie/Julia” project, but to make a motion picture about two separate lives about two different women who lived in two different time periods seemed far-fetched to me. And I must be up-front about this: Julie & Julia is not the kind of movie which (on the surface, at least) I would just pop in the DVD player and watch. But, since Meryl Streep received her 40th Academy Award nomination, I gave it a shot.

(Okay, I kid about Meryl Streep. But, as of this writing, she has received 15 Oscar nods – with two wins – since 1979. Nothing against Ms. Streep; she is an exceptionally talented actress. But it’s almost as if to say she’s the Academy’s “go-to” girl if they need a fifth name to fill out the Best Actress category, especially if she alters her voice in any way. But I digress…)

Julie Powell (Amy Adams) recalls her mother making Julia Child's boeuf bourguignon

About 25 minutes into this movie, I actually exclaimed out loud “I get it!” I actually began to see this as one portrait of two women who led parallel lives. And the parallels are almost uncanny! In case you are not aware, the late Julia Child was one of the most popular TV personalities of the 1960s and 1970s. In 1961, her book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, was published. And her cooking shows, beginning with “The French Chef”, ran off-and-on from 1963 to 2000, and she is one of the reasons The Food Network exists today.

So, what are the parallels? For starters, Julia Child (Meryl Streep) was a former OSS file clerk in post-war Paris who became the first female graduate of Le Cordon Bleu. Julie Powell (Amy Adams), an occupant of a cubicle in a government office in post-9/11 New York City, decided to take on the ambitious project of re-creating all 524 recipes in Julia Child’s book. In one year. And write a blog about it. Both women overcame obstacles on their way to achieve their goals. For Julia, it was writing and re-writing her book for years, only to be rejected by numerous publishers untill one finally said “yes”; for Julie, it was the ridiculous idea of actually starting this blog of hers (at her husband’s suggestion), wondering if anyone would ever read it anyway.

Now, starting a blog is something I can personally relate to. I have just started this blog myself, and I can relate to Julie’s frustrations in the early days of her blog, whose only reader at the time seemed to be her mother. As of this writing, only my brother and a couple of friends have read these reviews. With that cloud of uncertainty hanging over me, I sometimes wonder if my efforts will ever bear fruit. Watching this movie reminded me that all I have to do is keep pressing forward; some day, this little blog of mine will have a life of its own. But, I digress again…

This movie was fun to watch. Seeing Meryl Streep as Julia Child, I began to ask myself in some scenes, “Where’s Meryl?” That is usually a good indicator of a good performance. And the food! Oh, my God! I could almost smell some of those dishes! Here I am, writing a review about a movie featuring gourmet cooking, and I’m eating a toasted bagel. It’s almost as if I’m saying that I’m practically insulting the film!

Writer/director Nora Ephron is a food lover, or “foodie”. That’s a little snippet of information I picked up while watching the “making of” featurette on the DVD. But her love of food comes through in spades here. There’s an old adage in the culinary arts that “presentation is everything”. If it doesn’t look appealing, you may not want to try it. Here, the presentation was delicious, tender, and rich, with butter! Lots of butter (a Julia Child trademark)! Julie & Julia is a great date movie, sure to bring out the passion in all of us.

Bon apétit!

4 out of 5