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Posts Tagged ‘epic’

AVATAR (2009)

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

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STUDIO – 20th Century Fox

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

DIRECTORJames Cameron

MPAA Rating: PG-13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 (out of 5)

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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 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)

CIMARRON (1931)

In Best Picture Winners, C, Classic, Epic, Motion Pictures, Western on May 7, 2010 at 2:30 am

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STUDIO — RKO Radio Pictures

CAST — Richard Dix, Irene Dunn, Estelle Taylor, William Collier Jr., Edna May Oliver

DIRECTOR — Wesley Ruggles

NOT RATED (MPAA Equivalent: PG)

The story of the formation of Oklahoma as a state is fascinating in its own right. More than a few movies have depicted the famous “land-rushes” that took place in the late 19th Century, and Cimarron was among the first to do so.

The word cimarrón itself is Spanish. It means “wild”, “untamed”, “feral”. In the context of the movie, the so-called “Cimarron Territory” in Oklahoma was a strectch of about two million acres of land deeded out to settlers in the 1889 Oklahoma Land Rush. It is here, in the moments prior to this event, that we are introduced to Yancey Cravat (Richard Dix), a flamboyant, self-made man and bona fide rolling stone. Nearly everyone knows who he is in some capacity, as if he were some kind of celebrity. He is an attorney, newspaper man, gunslinger, and preacher all rolled into one. He’s a great friend to have, and a dreadful enemy to fear.

Yancey Cravat (Richard Dix) reunites with his wife Sabra (Irene Dunn) after the Spanish-American War

After Yancey’s attempt at staking a townsite in the ’89 Land Rush failed — He was thwarted by a woman named Dixie Lee (Estelle Taylor) — he returned to his wife and son (and in-laws) in Wichita, Kansas, to announce that he’ll be setting up a newspaper in Osage, a new frontier town in the Oklahoma Territory. Despite protests from Mom and Dad, Sabra (Irene Dunn) vows to accompany her husband to this unknown land. So, Yancey, Sabra, and their young son Cim (short for Cimarron) load up a couple of wagons and make the journey south. On the way, they discover a stowaway, Isaiah (Eugene Jackson), Sabra’s parents’ house boy. He asks to come along, and Yancey just smiles and says “Well, you’ve come this far…”

The plot of Cimarron then spends the next hour-and-a-half leapfrogging over the next 40 years. In that span, the town of Osage transforms from a wild frontier town to a bustling city. And Yancey’s paper, the Oklahoma Wigwam, thrives from a weekly one-sheet publication into a daily voice of equal rights for everyone. But Yancey doesn’t stay around long. He leaves for the Cherokee Strip run of 1893, comes back after serving as a Rough Rider in 1898… In fact, he pretty much comes and goes as he pleases, while long-suffering Sabra stays behind to mind the day-to-day operation of the newspaper.

Now, Yancey Cravat is a noble man. He’s devoted to his wife and family. He feels everyone deserves a fair chance in this world. He knows the Bible from cover to cover. But as I already said, he is the quintessential rolling stone. Early on in the movie, he proudly proclaims that the longest he had stayed in one place was in Wichita, and for the rest of the movie, he lived up to that statement, disappearing for years at time, only to blow into town and act as if he was gone only a few days. I do not claim to be an historian, but behavior like that from a husband isn’t normal by today’s standards, and I don’t think it would’ve been tolerated in 1893, either.

This raises some questions: Why on earth would Sabra stay married to this guy? Better yet, why keep his name as editor-in-chief of the paper? Again, I’m no expert, but if one’s name is prominently and publicly listed as the head of a going concern, it stands to reason that he or she is there to run it. But Yancey doesn’t run the paper; he just owns it. In one scene, Yancey tells Sabra that when she replaces his name with hers as editor-in chief, then she can make the decisions about its content. Well, why doesn’t she? The world may never know…

I’d like to address an issue that is associated with Cimarron: racism. Both Edna Ferber’s novel and this motion picture are reputed to be laced with racial stereotypes. I cannot speak for the novel (I’ve never read it), but the movie does contain material some people may find offensive by today’s standards, like black people using “Mammy-speak” and craving watermelon, and Native Americans being labeled as filthy, uneducated savages. But there are two things to consider. First, this movie was filmed in 1930 (and released early the next year). Hollywood (and much of the U.S.) didn’t really know any better. We are talking about a period when white stage performers put on blackface makeup because blacks themselves weren’t allowed to perform, when a popular radio program about two black men, “Amos & Andy”, was voiced by white actors, and when everything from restaurants to restrooms were labeled “White” and “Colored” throughout the country. Yes, it reads like an excuse, and it probably is. But there is no arguing these were societal norms from a now-embarrassing period in American history.

The other aspect, which I feel balances the stereotyping, is Yancey’s outlook on people in general. He accorded everyone, from Isaiah to the Indians to Dixie Lee (who ran a brothel) with the same respect. He treated Isaiah like a member of his own family. He (rightfully) believed the Indians were forced from their lands to make room for the White Man. And he (successfully) defended Dixie Lee in court when no one else would. And his way of treating people would rub off on his wife, and even onto many of Osage’s citizens (even if Yancey was gone for years at a time). Just something to consider when screening this movie.

Now that we have that behind us, let’s spend a little time on the movie itself. There are moments of brilliance in Cimarron, most notably in the land rush sequence at the beginning. It is amazing to watch, especially when you consider the logistical hurdles involved. In all, over 5,000 extras and 28 cameras were used over the course of a week to shoot it, and the end result is a thrilling joyride through the Oklahoma wilderness. It’s a shame most of the rest of the movie seems bland by comparison. The performances were mixed, from the over-the-top nobility of Richard Dix’s Yancey, to the melodrama of Irene Dunn’s Sabra, to the stereotypical comic relief of Edna May Oliver’s society woman, Mrs. Tracy Wyatt.

There are two shorts that accompany the DVD. One is an early Warner Bros/Vitaphone cartoon called “Red Headed Baby”, one of the first Merrie Melodies produced by Leon Schlesinger. It’s rough around the edges, even for early cartoons, but still fun to watch. The other is a truly rare piece called “The Devil’s Cabaret”. The acting is cheesy and the humor is awful, but what makes it special is that it’s a 1930 two-strip Technicolor film, one of the earliest known to exist. A real treat for fans of early cinema!

I never thought in a million years that my review of Cimarron would be the longest I have written to date. But there was a lot of ground to cover. This is not the best of the Best Picture winners by any stretch of the imagination, but it is a time capsule into cinematic history nonetheless. I would recommend it only to those who specialize in the history of movie-making. For the rest of us, I suggest going with a better Ferber adaptation, 1956’s Giant.

ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (1930)

In A, Action, Best Picture Winners, Classic, Motion Pictures, War on April 14, 2010 at 12:33 pm

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STUDIO — Universal       

CAST — Louis Wolheim, Lew Ayres, John Wray, Arnold Lucy, Ben Alexander, Slim Summerville    

DIRECTOR —  Lewis Milestone     

NOT RATED
(MPAA Equivalent: PG-13) 

Once in a while, a motion picture comes along that is ahead of its time and so artistically and socially relevant, that it stands the test of time, even 80 years after it release. All Quiet on the Western Front is such a movie.

Winner of Best Picture and Best Director (Lewis Milestone) of 1930, All Quiet on the Western Front follows a young student in Germany named Paul Bäumer (Lew Ayres), and the events which take place as he and his friends enlist to fight in The Great War (known today as World War I). The movie begins with a professor (Arnold Lucy) stirring up the collective patriotic spirit of his students, while an enthusiastic parade of soldiers marches off to war outside. Swept up in the pomp and circumstance, Bäumer and his friends enthusiastically enlist to fight for the Fatherland.

Paul Bäumer (Lew Ayres) prepares for battle

Right away, the young men realize that being a soldier is anything but glamorous, when their drill instructor turns out to be Himmelstoß (John Wray — no relation to King Kong’s Fay Wray), the friendly mail carrier from back home, except now he’s a hard-nosed sergeant hell-bent on making his charges forget everything they thought they had known about him. Once training is completed, our heroes deploy to the front lines, where they are introduced to the grizzled veterans Stanislas “Kat” Katczinsky (Louis Wolheim) and Sergeant Tjaden (Slim Summerville). They show the rookies the ropes, and prepare them for the war they have come to fight.

As this movie was made before the Hays Code went into effect, it is violent, gritty, graphic, claustrophobic, and quite realistic for its time. In one particularly graphic shot, a shell explodes in front of a soldier at a barbed-wire fence; when the dust settles, all we see are that soldier’s dismembered hands hanging on the wire. We are introduced to the maddening effects of war when rats overrun a makeshift bunker that caves in from the shelling. Watching these footsoldiers lose their cool bit by bit from the constant shelling, the dirt, the lack of food and sleep, and the rats was very effective.

Over the next few years, we see Bäumer change from an idealistic young man to a hardened veteran in his own right. When he comes home on leave, everyone expects him to be the way he used to be, but they don’t understand him anymore, not even his own family. And as for the professor who made that stirring speech so long ago, Bäumer confronts him, too. He becomes a changed man, and in the end, all he wants is peace.

All Quiet on the Western Front is a truly unforgettable movie with an undeniably long reach. A disclaimer at the start of the movie claims that it isn’t statement for or against war, but merely an observation of what it’s really like. And with that unflinching eye, Lewis Milestone drew out battle scenes so realistic, they can be easily confused with actual World War I stock footage. The DVD features a re-release trailer, as well as an introduction from film historian and Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne. In it, he sets up the movie by giving details of the making and the impact of this movie. For example, because of the impact of this film, Lew Ayres became a conscientious objector when the US joined World War II in 1941. While many people branded him a coward, he still enlisted — and served with distinction — as an army medic.

All Quiet on the Western Front is a timeless classic, and the first truly great Best Picture winner. While it shows its age in spots, it holds up magnificently by showing us the dark, grisly, horrible world of combat with frightening realism and mesmerizing performances. 

GOODFELLAS (1990)

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

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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

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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

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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.