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Posts Tagged ‘Drama’

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)

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)

MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY (1935)

In Action, Adventure, Best Picture Winners, Classic, Drama, Epic, History, M, Motion Pictures on June 21, 2010 at 1:51 am

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STUDIO – MGM

CASTCharles Laughton, Clark Gable, Franchot Tone, Herbert Mundin, Eddie Quillan, Bill Bambridge, Movita

DIRECTOR – Frank Lloyd

NOT RATED (MPAA Equivalent: PG)

In April 1789, the HMS Bounty set sail from Tahiti to the West Indies to transport hundreds of breadfruit tree saplings, in order to provide a cheap and readily available food supply for slave laborers there. She never arrived. The next year, the Bounty‘s commanding officer, Lt. William Bligh, returned to England to report that he had been set adrift in a mutiny led by his sailing master, Fletcher Christian. This wasn’t the first mutiny in the British Royal Navy, nor was it the last, but it is the most infamous, inspiring poems, novels, songs, and of course, movies. With that, I wish to introduce to you the Best Picture of 1935, Mutiny On the Bounty.

Based on the novel of the same name by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall, Mutiny On the Bounty is a fictionalized account of the events that took place on the ship’s fateful voyage from England to Tahiti. Captain Bligh (Charles Laughton) is tasked with procuring the breadfruit trees because of his familiarity with the people and customs of Tahiti (It should be noted that, regardless of rank, all ship commanders are called “captain”). His sailing master, Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable, sans his trademark mustache), was in charge of carrying out the captain’s orders, morale, and the occasional midshipman training. One of those midshipmen was Roger Byam (Franchot Tone), whose assignment was to prepare a dictionary of the Polynesian language. It is through his eyes this story unfolds.

Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable) reacts to being called a "mutinous dog" by Captain Bligh (Charles Laughton)

Right away, Byam notices that Bligh is strict disciplinarian, even to the point of carrying out his portion of a punishment known as “flogging through the fleet” upon a dead prisoner. Once at sea, the Bounty tries for Tahiti by way of South America, but turns eastward through the Indian Ocean instead. Meanwhile, Bligh oppresses the crew further by inflicting punishment at whim, including one sailor getting keel-hauled (He dies). Meanwhile, Christian tries to provide a more lenient approach toward the crew, only to have Bligh bear down even more. Finally, their conflict becomes personal, when Bligh forces Christian to sign a falsified log book in front of the crew. Once at Tahiti, things seem to relax momentarily, until Bligh bears down even more harshly, and… well, you only need to look at the title to know what happened next.

Mutiny On the Bounty is an excellent example of Hollywood starting to come of age. From the moment the movie fades in, a sweeping dramatic score sets you up for a tale of truly epic proportions: You, the viewer, are about to bear witness to one of most notorious events in maritime history. From a technical standpoint, nearly everything stands out in this movie. The settings, the cinematography, even the sound quality all hold up very well. From a performance standpoint, Charles Laughton, Clark Gable, and Franchot Tone were quite memorable. In fact, all three were nominated for Best Actor (At the time, there were no Supporting categories. If they had existed, Franchot Tone would likely have received a nomination).

Oh, there are some inaccuracies, as happens with many historical dramas. For example, the actual mutiny was really relatively uneventful in comparison with the movie, keel-hauling was nearly non-existent in the 1780s, and Bligh did not attend any of the mutineers’ courts-martial (He was at sea). But the most telling inaccuracy is Gable’s voice. I say this in mild jest, as Gable seemed incapable of producing an English accent, while Tone fared somewhat better, and Shakespearean-trained Laughton was from Yorkshire, England. I seem to recall another more recent movie, in which an American actor played a legendary English character without an English accent. Fortunately, Gable’s performance was strong enough that we can forgive this transgression.

There are a couple of special features on the DVD. First is a brief clip from the Academy Awards ceremony in 1936, in which legendary producer Irving G. Thalberg accepted the Best Picture Oscar and gave his thanks to the cast and crew of the movie. And there is also a short about Pitcairn Island, the Bounty mutineers’ final destination, which shows how their descendants live in the film’s present day of 1935.

Nominated for eight Academy Awards, Mutiny On the Bounty is the last movie to win only the Best Picture Award. It is also the third (and last) Best Picture winner produced or co-produced by Thalberg (Grand Hotel and The Broadway Melody were the others). Though not the first movie to test the waters (pun not intended) of historical dramas, Mutiny On the Bounty stands out as a defining moment when the Hollywood Dream Factory finally figured out a way to hone their product and sell it to the masses. With performances nearly as strong as the film itself, it set a new standard in motion pictures (to be eclipsed a few years later by a little-known movie called Gone with the Wind). I recommend this movie as a good place to start for those interested in pre-1940s motion pictures.

4 (out of 5)

8½ (1963)

In #, Classic, Comedy, Foreign, Independent, Motion Pictures, Sci-Fi/Fantasy on June 9, 2010 at 1:15 am

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STUDIO – Embassy Pictures

CASTMarcello Mastroianni, Claudia Cardinale, Anouk Aimée, Sandra Milo, Rosella Falk, Barbara Steele, Madeleine Lebeau, Caterina Boratto, Eddra Gale, Guido Alberti, Mario Conocchia

DIRECTORFederico Fellini

NOT RATED (MPAA Equivalent: PG-13)

For many years, I have heard about , the acclaimed film by Italian director Federico Fellini. But because I generally have an aversion to non-English-speaking movies (I confess, a rather unhealthy centrist conceit), I avoided this movie for fear that I would not understand it. I had seen only a couple of European movies before (specifically, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and the 1949 French movie Gigi, which would later be remade into the Best Picture of 1958). It takes a certain kind of talent to read subtitles and still be able to follow the movie; recall that I had a little difficulty with Inglourious Basterds a few months ago. So, sitting through a film like would appear to pose a unique challenge, and rather than stay safely in my American hole, I took a chance and expanded my horizons.

This movie opens at a health spa at a remote location somewhere in Italy, where film director Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni) is trying to escape the rigors of his everyday life and prepare for his next movie at the same time. Reporters, gossip columnists, producers, diva actresses, his wife, his mistress, and even a Cardinal all play their parts in both running interference and contributing to the movie’s creation. At the same time, Guido’s dreams of escapism and sexually-charged recalled memories from childhood step in to influence his decision-making process. To make things even more twisted, Guido starts incorporating these dreams and fantasies into his movie, causing everyone to wonder just what Guido’s movie is all about.

Guido and his wife Luisa (Marcello Mastroianni, Anouk Aimée) at the café

Confused yet? To blur the lines between art and reality even further, is a movie about the making of… . Now, you’re all mixed up, aren’t you? Well, considering that the working title of this movie was La Bella Confusione (“The Beautiful Confusion”), it is easy to spot that Fellini himself wasn’t sure which direction this movie was going, either. Officially, this is Fellini’s ninth movie, but because it’s a left-turn from his usual fare, and because it is somewhat autobiographical, the title is based on his notion that it’s “movie 8½” to him, nestled between La Dolce Vita (1960) and Giulietta Degli Spiriti (1965). As a result, is about as “meta” a movie can become, with disjointed imagery that actually forms a cohesive whole. For example, early in the movie, Guido and his mistress, Carla (Sandra Milo), are engaging in a little sexual role play. At one point, he takes her eyeliner and draws garish eyebrows onto her forehead. This is a deliberate reference to a beach-dwelling prostitute he’d known when he was a child; she was called “La Saraghina” (Eddra Gale), who is later introduced during a flashback.

Fellini’s use of imagery, from the claustrophobic dream of the traffic jam at the beginning of the movie, to the Dante’s Inferno-esque descent into the spa’s steam room all carry significance; of course, some are more obvious than others. In a fantasy, we first see the lovely Claudia (Claudia Cardinale) as wholesome and pure, dressed in white; when we finally meet her in person, she is glamorous and sexy, dressed flamboyantly in black. It is also no coincidence that Fellini peppered with quick glimpses of a mysterious woman, one of which bearing her likeness on a Virgin Mary. This woman was Caterina Boratto, a renowned Italian actress and Fellini’s “dream girl” from his own childhood.

Now, I’m not about to try to examine this movie. There are college courses in Italian cinema because of , and numerous students have dissected this movie in their Masters theses for over 40 years. But watching this movie was indeed an eye-opening experience, filled to the brim with unconventional cuts, shots, dialogue, and editing, all of which seem to give a life of its own. I screened it twice, first by watching the movie itself, then by listening to the essay commentary which provided some of the tidbits of information I have learned. The commentary examines the reasons why old women were cast as Catholic priests in one scene, and in another the Cardinal (Tito Masini) is shown as nothing more than a naked old man. And then there’s the elephant in the room: the giant scaffolding which is to become a launchpad for a rocket in Guido’s movie. I hope I’m not giving too much away when I say that I knew something was up when a producer shows a two-foot tall matte painting of a rocket to be superimposed onto the full-scale launchpad shown under construction. According to the commentary, Fellini had ordered the scaffolding to be built as high as the workers could get it, but even he had no idea what he was going to do with it.

The two-disk set comes packed with features, including interviews with co-star Sandra Milo, who recounts her 17-year love affair with Fellini (even after she had married someone else), assistant director Lina Wertmüller, who went on to have a distinguished career of her own, and three-time Academy Award-winning cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, who shared his thoughts on how Fellini achieved his vision on-screen. There is also a 1969 pseudo-documentary by Fellini which aired on NBC; in it, he traces the creative process in the casting of his next project. It plays off as a mini-, complete with reporters, actors, and producers all vying for an audience with Fellini.

But what fascinated me was a German documentary about composer Nino Rota, a reclusive musical savant best known for two things. First was his famous collaboration with Fellini, which rivals that of Spielberg and Williams, or Burton and Elfman. A typical meeting between Fellini and Rota would have the two at a piano, trying to hammer out a composition for a given movie, only to give up hours later, exasperated. Then, as Fellini would leave the room, Rota would improvise a piece (probably just to relax after a hard day), and Fellini would exclaim “That’s it! That’s the music I want!” But Nino Rota was also notorious for recycling his music. Did you know that his Oscar nomination for Best Musical Score for The Godfather was withdrawn because it was based on his score for Fortunella (1958)? Listen for yourself, and you will recognize it!

So, I have long last come to the conclusion of another long review. But, as is often the case, there was plenty of ground to cover. Fellini’s is a movie different from any other. Elements and inspirations from Citizen Kane, “Pinocchio”, Dante’s Inferno and even the Keystone Cops, as well as Fellini’s unique ability to draw from memory to feed his imagination, make a standout among classic cinema. You may need to watch it more than once to get it, but this one is worth the effort.

MISTER ROBERTS (1955)

In Classic, Comedy, Drama, M, Motion Pictures, War on June 4, 2010 at 12:44 pm

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STUDIO – Warner Bros.

CASTHenry Fonda, Jack Lemmon, William Powell, James Cagney, Betsy Palmer, Ward Bond

DIRECTORSJohn Ford, Mervyn LeRoy

NOT RATED (MPAA Equivalent: PG)

In 1948, Henry Fonda left Hollywood for Broadway to star in a play about Navy lieutenant on a cargo ship who wanted nothing more than get in some combat duty in the final days of World War II. Six years, four Tony Awards, and over 1,100 performances later, Fonda returned to Hollywood to bring this acclaimed play to the big screen, in 1955’s Mister Roberts.

In Mister Roberts, Lt. (JG) Doug Roberts (Fonda) is executive officer and cargo officer on the USS Reluctant. It is April 1945, and he can sense that the war will be ending soon. For over two years, he had been stuck on “The Bucket”, serving under his tyrannical commanding officer, Capt. Morton (James Cagney). His roommate is a lazy, yet resourceful Lothario, Ensign Frank Pulver (Best Supporting Actor Jack Lemmon), and his confidant is the ship’s doctor, known simply as “Doc” (William Powell, in his last film appearance). He’s a favorite among the crew, who regard Roberts as one of the guys, and they’re willing to back him up over the skipper any day. The centerpiece – and bane of existence – of the Reluctant is a palm tree, a “symbol of our cargo record” awarded by Admiral Finchley to the crew, and the only thing on the ship to which the captain gives any affection.

Doc (William Powell) and Lt. Roberts (Henry Fonda) make a bottle of "Red Label" for Ensign Pulver

Legendary director John Ford worked his magic to bring as much authenticity to this production by filming exteriors on board an actual World War II-era cargo ship in Hawaii and Midway Island (Being a Navy veteran himself didn’t hurt). But, as the story goes, shortly after returning to Hollywood for the interiors, Ford was forced to step down for health reasons, and Mervyn LeRoy took the reins to finish out the movie. Some sources say there was fighting on the set (An IMDb blurb even states that Ford once sucker-punched Henry Fonda), while others say the health issues were real (emergency gall bladder surgery). Still, the end result is one of the greatest World War II movies ever made, and in this one, no guns are fired, there aren’t any battles, and no one is seriously injured. John Ford had a tendency to stick with the same people in his movies. He frequently worked with John Wayne, and there is a connection to The Duke in this movie. Bookser, the young, innocent, wide-eyed sailor who nearly missed the boat after shore leave, was played John Wayne’s son, Patrick.

My father was in the Navy in the late-1950s, so he had a soft spot for this movie. During my formative years, this was one of those movies that, if it was on TV, I would run out to the garage and tell him. He would then immediately drop what he was doing, clean up (if necessary), crack open a beer and spend the rest of that Sunday afternoon on the couch. And I would sit there with him and watch the TV, amazed at how even humdrum life on a cargo ship could be interesting!

A few years later, I discovered that my mother had a book with scripts from great American plays, and “Mister Roberts” was among them. I read it over and over. I reenacted scenes and monologues from it in my Drama class (looking back, maybe not such a great idea to concentrate on one play, huh?). I compared the dialogue between the play and the movie (Some changes had to be made because of The Code). I absorbed as much as I could from it.

It was also during this time, I became a fan of the Hollywood Everyman, beginning with Jack Lemmon and Henry Fonda. These weren’t dashing, sexy stars, like Gable, Flynn, or Connery. These were regular guys who looked and acted like regular guys. They came from regular places (Fonda was from Grand Island, Nebraska, Lemmon from outside Boston). And their roles were by and large unglamorous (Both played the pivotal Juror #8 in their respective productions of 12 Angry Men). I was able to easily relate to their characters almost every time, and even today they still resonate within me.

The DVD has a couple of cool features, including clips from Ed Sullivan’s “Toast of the Town”, featuring Fonda, Lemmon and Cagney recreating scenes from the movie on live television. There is also a commentary track from Jack Lemmon, in which he recounts some stories about working with Ford, Fonda, Powell, and Cagney, and how much he’d learned on the set from these men (One caveat about the commentary: Lemmon himself says that if you get tired of his stories, just go ahead and turn it off!). There is also a clip from a video from Jane Fonda, in which she recalls her father’s Kennedy Center Honors induction.

Mister Roberts is funny, dramatic, moving, and classic. Those of you who know Jack Lemmon from movies like Grumpy Old Men, The China Syndrome, or Glengarry Glen Ross should see the raw talent that broke loose in this movie. Cagney, an expert at chewing scenery, leaves plenty of teeth marks here. Powell, who came out of retirement to play Doc, is ever the bearer of wit and sagacity (“What’ll it be, alcohol and orange juice, or orange juice and alcohol?”). And Henry Fonda, for whom Doug Roberts was created, is forever immortalized as the poor lieutenant desperate to get off “The Bucket”.

“Good night, Mr. Roberts.”

THE LOVELY BONES (2009)

In Crime, Drama, L, Mystery on May 27, 2010 at 8:13 pm

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STUDIO – Paramount/Dreamworks SKG 

CAST – Mark Wahlberg, Susan Sarandon, Stanley Tucci, Michael Imperioli, Rachel Weisz, Saiorse Ronan, Rose McIver, Carolyn Dando 

DIRECTOR – Peter Jackson 

MPAA Rating: PG-13 

Peter Jackson seems to be a popular guy on my blog lately! 

I don’t mean this intentionally, yet in four short months, this is the fourth movie for which I have done a write-up with his name on it. Of the first three, he directed two of them (Heavenly Creatures, Dead-Alive), and the third (District 9) he produced. This time around, we take another imaginative step into the past to uncover a murder mystery in The Lovely Bones

Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) is a 14-year-old girl in Norristown, Pennsylvania. She’s the oldest of three children, she wants to be a photographer, and she has a crush on a boy who’d just arrived from England. In other words, she is a normal adolescent in a quiet suburban community. But one day, on her way home time from school, she encounters George Harvey (Best Supporting Actor nominee Stanley Tucci), a doll house builder who lives down the street from the Salmons. She is neither seen nor heard from again.

A self-portrait of Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan)

Peter Jackson’s eye for camera angles and visual effects makes for a visually striking movie, but I could not help noticing some similarities with his past work. What stood out for me was the metaphoric shifts between the real world, where Susie’s parents (Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz) contend with the loss of their daughter, and the “purgatory” in which Susie resides were strongly reminiscent of Heavenly Creatures. Also, some of the “blink-and-you-miss-it” shots of Susie’s realm look strangely like locations from the Lord of the Rings Trilogy (I guess it stands to reason, since Jackson filmed these scenes in his native New Zealand). Now, I’m not disparaging New Zealand at all. From what I understand, it is a lush, green country with some of the world’s most beautiful scenery. My concern is that the Kawarau Gorge may become to Peter Jackson movies what Vasquez Rocks is to Star Trek

There are some good performances in this movie, and some not-so-good. Tucci was particularly creepy as the killer, and Miss Ronan did well, too. But, as much as I like Wahlberg and Weisz, I could not get past the notion that they simply turned on their respective “grieving parent” switches for this one. And Susan Sarandon, another otherwise talented actress, was quite forgettable as the “helpful grandmother”, who just happens to have a whiskey glass and a cigarette in her hands every chance she gets. I’m sorry, but even her portrayal of Janet in Rocky Horror was better than this! To me, the best (and most understated) performance in this movie goes to newcomer Carolyn Dando, as the mysterious Ruth Connors, who seems to have the unique ability to “touch” Susie’s lost soul. It’s a fairly small role, but a meaty one, and Dando handled it well. Keep an eye on her; I think she may be going places. 

As for the script (co-written by Jackson and his wife/writing partner Fran Walsh), it seemed somewhat incomplete to me. It’s almost as if to say there is more to the story, and as an adaptation from a novel, this is usually the case. But still, I feel as if the clairvoyance angle of the story could have been better explained (at least, from the family’s point of view). Jackson’s employment of various symbolisms (nearly all of which are explained throughout the course of the movie) works for the most part, except for the icicles. I had a hard time wrapping my brain around that one; as a result, the ending left a somewhat bad taste in my mouth. 

The Lovely Bones is visually beautiful to watch, but it is far from a classic. To me, it plays out like a fictionalized version of Heavenly Creatures, only replace “repressed daughter” with “creepy single guy” and “mother” with “innocent teenager”, and place the murder at the beginning of the movie rather than at the end. I know Pater Jackson is a better filmmaker than this. I just hope his next project offers some redemption before he turns into New Zealand’s version of M. Night Shyamalan. 

GRAND HOTEL (1932)

In Best Picture Winners, Classic, Drama, G, Motion Pictures, Romance on May 25, 2010 at 5:08 am

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STUDIO — MGM

CAST — Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Wallace, Beery, Lewis Stone, Jean Hersholt

DIRECTOR — Edmund Goulding

NOT RATED (MPAA Equivalent: PG-13)

“Grand Hotel. Always the same. People come. People go. Nothing ever happens…”

This now immortalized line, spoken by Dr. Otternschlag (Lewis Stone), heralds the beginning of the Best Picture of 1932, Grand Hotel, a motion picture which holds a unique record in Academy Awards history, and also has a unique history of its own. It is the only movie to win Best Picture without so much as a nomination in any other categories. It is also one of the earliest examples of what is now known as the “ensemble cast”, which included Greta Garbo, Wallace Beery, Joan Crawford, Jean Hersholt (as in the Academy’s humanitarian award), and not one, but two Barrymores (Lionel and John, in their second of four films together).

Grand Hotel spans three nights at the eponymous hotel in Berlin, where the lives of prima ballerina Grusinskaya (Garbo), Baron von Gaigern (John Barrymore), stenographer Flaemmchen (Crawford), businessman Preysing (Beery), terminally ill bookkeeper Otto Kringelein (Lionel Barrymore), war veteran Dr. Otternschlag (Stone), and porter – and expectant father – Senf (Hersholt) overlap, and in some cases collide. Grusinskaya is depressed, and her performances of late have reflected her mood. She is in such a funk, that she no longer wants to perform (It should be noted that this is the movie in which Garbo speaks her most famous line, “I want to be alone”). The Baron is a smooth operator, an easygoing gentleman who also happens to be a thief with a heart of gold, as well as a chaser of anything in a skirt. Flaemmchen is a stenographer and sometimes model called to the Grand Hotel to take dictation for Preysing, a business magnate with a solid reputation. Kringelein used to work for Preysing as a bookkeeper until he fell ill, so he decided to spend his final days in the lap of luxury, regardless the cost. The good doctor is a local who frequents the hotel and observes the goings-on. Finally, poor Senf the Porter, forced to work while his wife is in (very protracted) labor, cannot break free from his duties out of fear he’ll lose his job.

Baron von Gaigern, Otto Kringelein, and Dr. Otternschlag (John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, Lewis Stone) at the baccarat table

Now that you know how everything starts, let me just say that Grand Hotel is an absolute delight to watch. I will caution that there are parts of this movie which belie its age, but in the grand scheme of things, it still shines as one of the best motion picture of the early years of the Academy Awards. Joan Crawford had already been a veteran in motion pictures by the time of Grand Hotel, but her role as the stenographer is among the first of her many meaty roles during her acting career.

Meanwhile, there was much ballyhoo about the pairing of John Barrymore and Greta Garbo, so much that the normally (and notoriously) reclusive Garbo actually allowed backstage publicity photos of her with him. This unique union of The Face and The Great Profile proves to be one of the many captivating storylines in this movie. Finally, John Barrymore’s brother, Lionel, has a memorable scene when Kringelein confronts his boss, Preysing (Beery), at the hotel’s lounge and tells him how much of a slave driver he really is.

For a place where “nothing ever happens”, a lot seems to be going on at the Grand Hotel. It is a story of star-crossed lovers, of unscrupulous businessmen, of happiness and tears, and (most important) a story that follows the Latin expression “Carpe diem” (Seize the day). It is a story of love discovered and of fortunes lost, and at the end of the movie, another busload of weary travelers step off the bus for their stay at the most famous hotel in Berlin.

The special features on the DVD include footage of the premiere of Grand Hotel at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, trailers for the movie (including a “Time is running out” trailer made for the Chinese Theatre), and a short from Warner Bros. called “Nothing Ever Happens”, a spoof of the movie. There is also a trailer for a remake released by MGM in 1945 called Week-end at the Waldorf, starring Van Johnson, Lana Turner, Walter Pidgeon, and Ginger Rogers (As of this writing, it is not available from Netflix; I will review it if and when it is released).

If there is a drawback to Grand Hotel, it’s that the character names are among the most difficult to remember, let alone pronounce. And, as I said earlier, there are a few areas which show the film’s age, but it isn’t such a bad thing because I feel it enhances the movie’s charm. In 1932, the term “ensemble cast” was a practically unknown term, but Grand Hotel showed the world that seven of Hollywood’s biggest stars of the day can indeed work together and create a masterpiece. And that masterpiece is set at the Grand Hotel, where people come, people go, and nothing ever happens…

4 (out of 5)

THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER (1940)

In Classic, Comedy, Drama, Motion Pictures, Romance, S on May 15, 2010 at 8:37 pm

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STUDIO — MGM 

CAST — Margaret Sullavan, James Stewart, Joseph Schildkraut, Frank Morgan, Sara Haden, Felix Bressart 

DIRECTOR — Ernst Lubitsch 

NOT RATED (MPAA Equivalent: PG) 

When I first set up this little blog of mine, I did back-to-back reviews of the two movies called The Italian Job. In it, I said that I would be doing this from time to time. On that note, a question: What do James Stewart, Judy Garland, and Tom Hanks all have in common? Well, they all starred in movies with the same premise. First up is 1940’s The Shop Around the Corner, starring Mr Stewart and Margaret Sullavan as co-workers who can’t stand each other, but don’t realize they’ve been developing a budding romance through the mail. 

Based on the play “Parfumerie”, by Miklós László, The Shop Around the Corner is set at a small department store in Budapest, Hungary. Alfred Kralik (Stewart) has been working there for nine years, under his boss (and store’s namesake) Hugo Matuschek (Frank Morgan). Other members of the staff include the cowardly and family-concsious Mr. Pirovitch (Felix Bressart), the smug and oily Ferencz Vadas (Joseph Schildkraut), two long-time female clerks named Flora and Ilona (Sara Haden, Inez Courtney), and an energetic errand boy named Pepi Katona (William Tracy). One morning, an out-of-work store clerk named Klara Novak (Sullavan) approaches Aflred for a job. He says that Mr. Matuschek is not hiring at present. She then asks Mr. Matuschek, who confirms Mr. Kralik’s answer, so she improvises. A customer spots her holding a cigarette box, so Klara takes the initiative. She approaches the lady, who asks if it’s a candy box (Klara says it is), and opens it. It starts playing “Ochi Tchornya“, and the lady balks, saying how silly it would be to reach for a candy and to hear that song every time it opens. Klara says that the box will make ladies who tend to indulge themselves to be “candy conscious”, and she makes the sale — at a higher price! She gets hired. 

Klara and Alfred (Maragret Sullavan, James Stewart) bicker about each other's wardrobe before work

Practically from that moment on, Klara and Alfred seem to have nothing better to do than argue with each other at work. But they do have something in common: They each have a secret romantic pen pal. Meanwhile, the usually charming Mr. Matuschek becomes more and more distant toward Alfred, and Mr. Vadas has suddenly made a splash about town, wearing expensive suits, fur coats, and even a pinky ring (Not bad for a store clerk’s wages, eh?). Anyway, I won’t give the whole story away, except for one thing: Klara and Alfred can’t stand each other face-to-face, but they are really each other’s romantic pen pals! 

This is a charming little movie, which still holds much of its luster. Jimmy Stewart was such an underrated talent, his “aw-shucks” style of delivery makes him both a leading man and an everyman. Margaret Sullavan seems a little too forward for my taste, but softens up nicely whenever she smiled. The supporting cast was fairly good, with one exception. Pepi intervenes on a very dramatic moment in the movie. Afterward, he drops many not-so-subtle hints about what happened (though the affected party wanted discretion) and takes advantage of his position. The way William Tracy played it, I kept thinking “This guy is a real jerk!” If that was the intention, then he did well, but I didn’t like him for doing this. 

There are some nice gags in this movie, too. Remember those musical cigarette boxes? In one scene, when a character is unceremoniously sacked, he is pushed into a display of those boxes. They all fall to the floor open, and everyone swoops in, not to pick up the now ex-employee, but to close the boxes up again! 

It is worthy to note that The Shop Around the Corner was such a success at MGM, that it spawned a musical remake nine years later. This is a good movie to pop into the DVD player if you’re a guy who’s invited your new girlfriend to your place. If you really want to impress her, tell her you were looking at a copy of You’ve Got Mail and learned this was the source material of that movie, so you decided to get it instead. Trust me on this one, guys. Part Two is next… 

3-1/2 (out of 5)