REVIEWS OF RENTED DVDs I GET IN THE MAIL

Posts Tagged ‘prison’

THE LIFE OF ÉMILE ZOLA (1937)

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

Bookmark and Share

STUDIO – Warner Bros.

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

DIRECTOR – William Dieterle

NOT RATED
(MPAA Equivalent: PG)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 (out of 5)

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

Bookmark and Share


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)

GOODFELLAS (1990)

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

Bookmark and Share

  

STUDIO — Warner Bros.   

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

DIRECTOR —  Martin Scorsese  

MPAA Rating: R   

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE ITALIAN JOB (1969)

In Action, Comedy, Crime, I, Motion Pictures on February 2, 2010 at 11:53 pm

Bookmark and Share

STUDIO — Oakhurst Productions/Paramount

CAST — Michael Caine, Noel Coward, Benny Hill

DIRECTOR —  Peter Collinson

MPAA Rating: G

For years, I had heard about the now-famous cliffhanger ending in 1969’s The Italian Job, and I wondered why would the makers of this movie allow it to end this way. Now that I have seen the movie, I must say that it works. Normally, I’d consider this a spolier, but in this case, the movie is about the journey, not the destination. At the end of the movie, the bus carrying the crooks and the gold skids out of control and hangs precariously over the edge of a cliff, the crooks at one end, the gold at the other (It’s pretty easy to guess which is at which end). Then Charlie Croker (Michael Caine) says he has an idea, and… roll credits!

Frankly, it is gags like this that make this movie so irreverently 60s, so amusing, so… British. On top of Caine’s ex-con with a shot at the big time, there is Noel Coward’s incarcerated flambouyant ringleader with a just-this-side-of-creepy fascination of Queen Elizabeth II, Maggie Blye as Croker’s girlfriend, who arranges a welcome home “party” with several ladies for him (only to go into a fit of rage when he tries to bed three more girls on his own), and Benny Hill’s nutty professor with a perverse predaliction toward women who are, shall we say, plus-sized.

The Mini Coopers make their escape from Turin

Yes, this is a Rated-G movie. By today’s standards, it would likely be a PG, but it sill makes for a fun-to-watch caper movie. I, for one, find it suitable for nearly all audiences. But if you like classic exotic automobiles, you’d better prepare to weep. Fiats, Lamborghinis, Jaguars and (of course) Mini Coopers get literally tossed over cliffs throughout the film.

And who could forget those Mini Coopers? The chase scene of the three Minis escaping from the overly-congested streets of Turin, Italy, is one of the most unique ever filmed. Some indoor sequences of the chase undoubtedly were an inspiration for the infamous mall chase in The Blues Brothers 11 years later. Watching these three cars jump over roofs, crawl up the sides of sewers, and plow though a river was purely entertaining.

I would not consider The Italian Job a classic. But it is fun, energetic, and very British. If you like wry comedy, this would fit in just nicely.

3-1/2 out of 5