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A Well Made, but Wrongheaded, Film Hearkening to Pre-Feminist Times
Almost everything about this small film was excellent--the acting first rate, the cinematography accurately capturing the 50's era, good direction--but I actively hated this film. Why? Because not only was the look of the 50's era accurately reproduced, but unfortunately some of the era's most unfortunate sensibilities were also captured without the slightest trace of perspective or comment. What I'm referring to is cinema's earlier tendency to smack down its heroines who dared to step out of their prescribed roles as helpmate, mother or damsel in distress. Over and over in Hollywood's earlier history, women who daringly attempted to take control of their destinies were smartly put back in their place--sometimes comically, sometimes tragically. In this instance, it's the latter. A high school aged woman, living a constrained, suppressed life with her repressive parents, decides to do something a little daring with the urging of a young man she has just met. She sneaks out of her home and goes off on what is supposed to be an innocent escapade. Instead the young man and his two friends--another couple--drive out into the woods where things quickly turn toward the dark side. Our heroine is struck in the face by her hoped-for beau, knocking her to the ground. Then he produces a gun and asks her to walk off into the woods with him, and she meekly complies. Moments later, we hear a gunshot, and the young man returns and states he had just wanted know "what it was like." Ugh. How about a different ending? The two go off into the woods, we hear a gunshot, and the girl returns and shoots at the other two--either killing them or sending them scurrying away. She stands triumphant and perhaps we are given a flashback of her kneeing her would-be murderer in the groin and snatching the gun away (though I myself would probably prefer the details be left unshown). Sure, young girls are sometimes murdered by budding psychopaths in this world, but I've seen way too many movies "celebrating" the meekness and ineptness of women over the decades. This is a new century, and we need films that at least in some measure extol the virtues of this century--not those halfway back into the last. And sadly, this film was directed by a woman. With the ending I suggested, this film would probably have garnered a rating of "9." Instead, it earns a mere "2."

Miss Todd

I happened to catch this little gem at the 2014 Sarasota Film Festival today and was blown away. The story--based on the historical fact that in 2009, the eponymous Miss Todd became the first female aeronautical engineer and pilot, was simply but thrillingly, inspiringly told--though the real treat was the means by which this tale was given life. The characters were watercolor-on-paper cut-outs, given life by means of stop motion animation. These cut-outs were photographed amid both 3-D scale models and other watercolors. It was beautifully, artfully done-- managing to capture both the feel of the period in which these events took place and the nuanced emotions of the heroine. This would be a terrific bonbon by which the developing minds of children might be inspired. But I should think most adults would warm to this creative concoction as well. This adult certainly did.

The Last Days of Patton

A Decent, Ultimately Moving Film
I'm curious about the assertion that some have made that the film was a "character assassination." I myself saw nothing that would lead one to come to such a conclusion. Certainly, the film indicated he was not without faults, but I believe this only served to make this formidable militarist icon more approachable, actually breathing life into a dusty history lesson.

I enjoyed the film a great deal, even though I think it could have benefited by some reduction in the length. The ending was quite moving- -giving us a personal glimpse into the last moments of a living, breathing human being--instead of just a decorated martinet. It forced me to turn my thoughts to my own mortality and the events that have shaped my own life. As a result, I had a long and fruitful discussion with my parents which had been long over due.

I'd recommend the film highly, giving it an "8" out of 10.

The Phantom Wolves of Sun Valley

A Decent First Effort by This Novice Filmmaker
I saw this at the Kansas International Film Festival yesterday, and found it to be an informative and interesting account of the roiling controversy over the US Government's decision to reintroduce wolves into the Rocky Mountains of Idaho and Wyoming. Most of the people she captures on film give reasoned opinions for their stances, though one fire-brand on the "kill 'em all!" side of the wolf debate gives an impassioned rant for the camera on why the re-introduction is one of the greatest evils ever perpetrated by our government (alas, he didn't rank this action against such other problematic policies--like slavery and the extermination of the native Americans). Most of the film was essentially talking heads, though the viewer was treated to some beautiful scenes of the area at the beginning, some shots of the wolf at the end (taken by a National Geographic videographer) and a bit of some of the mayhem wrought by the wolf in between. I think it could have benefited by more dramatization of the issue--film of wolves being trapped/snared/shot for example. It could also have benefited by some more immutable facts. For example, a rancher acknowledges that he would be paid for losses incurred by any predation from the wolf, but says he wouldn't be compensated for the aggregate loss of weight caused by the animals of his herd being terrified by the attacks and subsequently not eating. I'm sure an objective expert could have supplied figures for this claimed loss--or rejected it as illusory. To this viewer, it seemed only a rationalization for the rancher's disdain for the wolf though for someone who shared the rancher's view this would no doubt have engendered agreement--neither of us knowing for sure whether this argument has any merit. Still, I thought this was an impressive first effort by this young woman--done almost entirely on her own. Kudos!

Superman II

Campy, idiotic, often entertaining--hardly worthy of the lavish reviews found on "metacritic"
On "metacritic"--a service that compiles movie ratings from established critics and averages those ratings--the film, "Superman II" has the second highest rating of any film rated since metacritic was borne (behind "The Godfather"). That rating of "99" (out of a hundred) has got to be the most ridiculously inappropriate rating in the history of rating film. "Superman II" has a few nice moments--but the villains are too, well, comic-bookish (compare to Heath Ledger's The Joker), and the script has some incredible gaffs--for example, when the trio of super-villains land on the moon, they walk up to astronauts there AND SPEAK TO THEM (!!!!--no matter how super-powerful you may be, you're just not going to be able to use your vocal chords in a vacuum)--and then there was the inexplicable emergence of certain powers in Superman--powers never explicated upon, powers that never existed in ol' Supe before. The first film, in spite of a slow start, was magnificent, thrilling entertainment, blending action and humor perfectly and topped by the still unrivaled portrayal of a super-hero by Christopher Reeve (playing the role straight but with an ever-present twinkle in his eye). Reed was just as good in this sequel, but all in all, the film was a mixture of the entertaining, and the incredibly stupid. How does that admixture rate a 99?

Million Dollar Baby

One of the Great Love Stories Trapped Within a Flawed Film
There is both much to admire, and to despise, within this film. I believe the positives far outweigh the negatives, yet the negatives are so odious, so blatant, that they amount to a major defacement--all the more so because they could have so easily been corrected--marring what otherwise might have been a masterpiece of film making. As a drama about two lonely people who find each other and fall in love (though not in a romantic sense), this film is in a class few others share. As a drama about the sport of boxing, it veers wildly between insightful and ridiculous, and the film as a whole too often embraces caricature and melodrama, crippling our suspension of disbelief and leaving it floundering.

The film revolves about Maggie Fitzgerald--a 30 year old woman who attempts to escape a difficult upbringing in a single-minded pursuit of a boxing career--and Frankie Dunn, a down-on-his-luck manager/trainer and owner of a rundown boxing gym. She basically takes up residence in his gym, working out and trying to persuade him to take her under his wing. He wants no part of managing a "girl"--especially one virtually over the hill--and puts her off with one caustic rebuff after another. She persists, and over time, stubbornly refusing to take no for an answer, finally persuades him to train her. Before long, reluctantly, a bond begins to grow between the crusty old trainer, permanently estranged from his only daughter, and this fiercely determined woman whose father, the only person who ever loved her, died long ago. It is this growing relationship that is the heart of the film, and it is magnificently played out between these fine actors. Hilary Swank is mesmerizing, every gesture, every expression is convincing. The fact that her character is so sweet-natured, so adorable (in an early fight, she shrugs her shoulders to Frankie's mock disgust in such a way that it had to have melted the hearts of anyone with a heart) that it might give us pause later after the lights go on when we might ask, "How could this immensely genial character have been so alone?" but Swank is so compelling that as we watch her, we never doubt her or her situation for a moment. Clint Eastwood is almost as good, and his brusque, brooding, deeply wounded old gym-rat provides an excellent foil to Swank's more hopeful character. We become ensnared in their emotional dynamics, much more than their pursuit of a boxing title. As we watch their love for each other grow (the love between surrogate father and daughter), our love for each of their characters grows as well, so that the ultimate tragedy that befalls them is almost unbearable to watch.

Or at least, it would be if you can ignore the intruding absurdities. First among them are some of the fight sequences. Most of these play well, though there are occasional moments when a punch clearly lands upon air, half a meter from the opponent's face, and yet we hear an accompanying sound effect as if there had been a solidly landed blow. But the principle problem concerns the fights involving a character called "The Blue Bear"--a figure so ludicrous her appearance in a comic book would be jarringly idiotic. We see her perform acts of deranged mayhem in the ring that make the biting off of an ear seem pacifist. A Nazi Storm Trooper would find her embarrassing. Anyone displaying these traits in real life would be barred from prize-fighting years before reaching a title fight. To suggest that such a one could become champion is light years beyond far-fetched. Apparently, every one of her referees, and the two judges at court-side, are carefully selected for their inability to open their eyes. {Brief Spoilers Ahead} In the climatic showdown, we are told the "Bear" wins in spite of egregious violations, including the knock-out punch which occurs 10 seconds after the bell has sounded. {Spoilers End} I thought "Cinderella Man's" depiction of the fighter Max Baer was a bit over the top--but not compared to this. In a hundred other boxing films I have seen nothing to approach the outlandishness of this depiction.

There were other problems. Maggie's surviving family were overwrought, cardboard caricatures. Morgan Freeman, who plays Frankie's closest friend, provides the film's narration, and though he does his usual excellent job, his comments weren't as finely written (or were perhaps over written) as those he voiced in "Shawshank Redemption." Two or three times we hear him talk about being "somewhere between nowhere and good-bye," which was two or three times too many.

In spite of the drawbacks, which are far from incidental, I found myself spellbound by Maggie and Frankie's relationship. There are other nice things about the film, not least of which is a crowd-pleasing "interchange" between Freeman and a bully/would-be fighter, and Eastwood's direction which, in spite of contributing to the lapses noted above, does a fabulous job of getting the most from his cast and providing a wonderfully paced movie--but it is the strength of the central relationship which buoys the film, keeping it afloat in the midst of its sea of weakness. I cannot help but mourn the loss of what could have been. A more realistic villain, a fine-tuning of the script, and this might have been both the greatest boxing movie of all time, and one of the great love stories. I'd like to shake Haggis (the writer) and Eastwood for failing to fully capitalize on their opportunity.

Sweet Smell of Success

Brilliantly Oppressive Film-Noir
**MILD SPOILERS** It is amazing the number of different ways a great film can weave its alluring web and pull you into its story. Of my 100 favorite films, this one's journey into that rarefied status is unique, based on but a single viewing. I saw "Sweet Smell of Success" when I was too young to really grasp the subterranean motivations of the characters who so vividly populate the film. I did not understand, for instance, why this powerful, loathsome gossip columnist, Burt Lancaster's JJ Hunsecker, who so clearly despised Tony Curtis' Sidney Falco (press agent), nonetheless tolerated his presence. There was much that I DID appreciate--the brilliant and daring acting of the two leads, the beautifully oppressive cinematography, and the scintillating dialogue--but after that single viewing, the film slowly faded from my consciousness. Twenty-five or 30 years later, I decided to make a list of my favorite movies, and came across the title of this film. Apparently, memories of seeing this production had been roiling around my unconscious all this time and now, triggered by the little blurb in the Leonard Maltin book, these half-forgotten images came bounding back into mind, now concatenated with a quarter century of life and movie-going experience. Honing my list over the next few months, and considering this film's merits, I more and more began to realize what a truly marvelous work this was. This was a study nonpareil of two creatures wholly wrapped up in themselves and their ambition, yet bound together in a mutual parasitism (the term symbiosis sounds much too nice to describe their relationship). I understood, finally, why JJ tolerated Falco's presence. He NEEDED Falco. It wasn't just that Falco would occasionally offer up tidbits that he could use in his column. It wasn't that the fawning Falco could be manipulated into performing certain . . . uh, tasks that were too dirty for JJ to touch. No, as a ruthless power-monger, he needed the treacherous sycophant as a constant reminder and test of his superiority. Falco could be demeaned and ridiculed, but he also represented a danger, a challenge. Falco might seem a toady, but he was also a cobra waiting his chance to strike, and Hunsecker relished his role as sadistic snake charmer. Watching these two play at their oppressive games of perfidy, and dealing dirt, provide a fascinating character study perhaps the equal of the more famous examination of one Charles Foster Kane in an earlier film. There are many other characters in the movie, such as JJ's sister and her lover, and some are played with great aplomb, but they are all pawns in this disdainful dance between JJ and Falco, and it is their personalities that stay with you long after the lights come back on.

Everything about this movie seems to be nearly perfect (some have criticised the film for the relatively weak portrayal of the two hapless lovers, but a stronger emphasis on these two would only detract from the real focus--JJ and Sidney) even to the choice of names. JJ Hunsecker and Sidney Falco seem perfect monikers, by themselves conjuring up images of loathsome characters. Unfortunately, for the team that put together this masterpiece of film-noir, "Sweet Smell of Success" was no success, and critics and movie-goers alike left the theaters convinced that the "smell" generated by the film was far from sweet. Amazingly, this film not only failed to garner an Oscar, it failed to receive a single solitary nomination--not for Alexander Mackendrick's direction (this abject failure truncating his promising career), not for the incisive, endlessly quotable screenplay (Ernest Lehman & Clifford Odets), not Elmer Bernstein's wonderful score, nor the tremendous performances of Curtis and Lancaster--not even James Wong Howe's gritty cinematography, beautifully capturing the seamier side of New York City. Fortunately, history has stepped in to provide a more accurate critique of this once ignored masterpiece. I can hardly wait to see it a second time.

The French Lieutenant's Woman

Romanticism without the "base" alloy of actual feeling
This is a real curio of a movie, more a dry experiment with form than a story concerning fleshed-out characters. The primary focus is on the plot developments of a film within the film--a story of two illicit lovers in 19th century England--while a secondary narrative follows the two leads in that film who pursue a similar relationship to the one they portray. The way these two stories intercut back and forth is, unfortunately, one of the few interesting things in the movie. Unique to this presentation is the way the Victorian Era scenes are shown only (with the opening scene being a lone exception) as a finished product, that is, we see that part of the film as its theoretical audience would. There are no shots of cameras in the foreground, no scenes of director and crew watching rushes in a darkened theater. This device might have allowed the viewer to become more involved in the "old-time" goings on--if only we had been given something, anything onto which we could have hung our emotional hats. This is the insurmountable problem of "The French Lieutenant's Woman." While the Victorian Era plot is luxuriantly mounted--while the characters are played by wonderful actors--the "heart" of this film is occupied by this film within a film device. While interesting, it's not enough to keep our interest from flagging. In both story lines, emotions are uniformly muted, or absent altogether. The 20th century story is about two bored actors who engage in their affair simply as a distraction from the tedium of making a movie. No hint of passion here. The Victorian narrative at least provides a HINT of feeling, but always held at arms length--and further attenuated by the inevitable return to the modern story, reminding us that the "costumer" portion of the film is not only not real, but TWICE removed from reality. There is a scene at the end of the movie where all signs point to some grand cathartic denouement--a scene where, finally, we will be swept up into the currents of these players' lives, the promise of romance finally realized. Instead we are given an awkward, bumbled scene without so much as a kiss or an eloquent avowal of love. We are left with a muted, distant view of the two purported lovers on a lake--its surface as calm and unmoved as the film's audience. A disappointing end to a disappointing film.

Wake of the Red Witch

A Patchwork of a Film, redeemed by the strength of its characterizations
Essentially a "Wuthering Heights" on the high seas, this occasionally confusing film is really a piecing together of two previous films: The 1939 version of the Bronte Classic, and the 1942 Cecil B. DeMille actioner, "Reap the Wild Wind." Scenes from both of these films have been lifted whole from the originals and welded into the flimsy supporting latticework of its plot. What weaknesses the film has, however, are more than made up by the vividness of the characterizations, a powerful romance, and one of the best portrayals of a grudging symbiotic relationship in cinema.

The plot revolves around three characters, Ralls (John Wayne), ship's captain with a dark and dangerous side, Mayrant Sidneye (Luther Adler), an ubber-wealthy shipping magnate, and the beautiful Angelique (Gail Russell)--focal point for the romance. (There is a fourth "main" character, Sam, played by Gig Young, but he serves only as observer and narrator.) Ralls and Sidneye have a curious, bitter rivalry. Clearly, these men have a long history between them--a history which goes back much farther, and is much more complex than can be explained by their competition for Angelique's affections. Indeed, it is the relationship between these two men that powers this movie along, much more than the wonderfully played romance. These men hate and despise one another, yet there is clearly a grudging respect between them--and something more. Here are two men whose very existence and reason for being depends on the other. Every move they make is calculated as to its effect on their adversary. Though their mutual hatred extends well into the murderous range, neither would ever conceive of killing the other. So tied up in each other's fate are they that they would do just as well to kill themselves.

**SPOILERS** The doomed romance plays out between the three principles much as it does in the aforementioned '39 film "Wuthering Heights," complete with a virtual duplication of the dying scene--in this case with Angelique in Ralls' arms, looking out to the sea (instead of the heather), with Sidneye, the husband, looking helplessly on. That this is a virtual copy of the love story from the earlier film does not detract much from its power, as these three actors are at their riveting best, almost making us forget the Olivier/Oberon/Niven flimization. Luther Adler is terrific in his perhaps finest role. He makes his obsession with Ralls palpable, both his hatred and respect seem to ooze from his pores in equal measure. Though his character is confined to a wheelchair, his power is never doubted, making him every bit the match for his more physically imposing rival. Gail Russell is an actress whose flame died out too quickly. Here she gives us one of her two best performances, the other being in "Angel and the Badman" from the year before which also starred John Wayne. Though the main focus is on the two male characters, her luminous, fragile Angelique gives the viewer a sympathetic refuge from the often ruthless machinations of Ralls and Sidneye.

Undeniably, John Wayne gives one of his best--and most complex-- performances here. That he was an excellent actor should be undisputed, though too often he found himself in roles where he played one-dimensional characters that would have bored except for his considerable charisma. Here, his character is alternately charming and broodingly malevolent, given to alcohol fueled bouts of violence and self-loathing, his motivations are often morally ambiguous. Wayne hits all of these notes with perfect pitch, and does something many actors would not have been able to accomplish--he makes us care about this often unlikable personality through the sheer force of his remarkable screen presence. It is this performance, most of all, that keeps "The Red Witch" from sinking under the bleak, sometimes oppressive weight of its plot.

Punch-Drunk Love

"Punch-Drunk Love" a revelation for those who dislike Adam Sandler
I am not an Adam Sandler fan. When you mix moronic with hostility you produce something like, well, like Adam Sandler--it ain't pretty, and, more importantly, it ain't entertaining. But that's just me. I HAVE seen a few of his earlier movies and the experience was like that sweet sound of long, sharpened fingernails being raked over a blackboard (sometimes the experience was so bad it felt as if they were being raked over my juggler). There were a few moments when I thought I might have glimpsed something different, something almost human in his face, but then there'd be that idiot voice, or some wildly exaggerated mannerism--supposedly humorous, but actually cringe inducing--to reaffirm my antipathy. BUT, then I saw a trailer for Punch-Drunk Love, and-- what was this? a movie with A.S. and Emily WATSON?--that most excellent actress from Breaking the Waves? What was SHE doing in a . . . And that director? Wasn't he the one who did Boogie Nights? So, natch, I had to see this movie. I was curious. . . . But soon I was mesmerized.

Many Adam Sandler (AS) fans have lamented his radical departure from the kind of films he has done before--an entirely understandable reaction. None of us likes to see that which we love radically changed. People who love the glitz and neon of Las Vegas would reasonably be peeved to find that it had been razed, and a forest planted to take its place. It would be futile to attempt to prove to hard-core AS fans that this is a good film. How can you convince someone that something they don't like is something they should like? I know beets are good for you. I know that some people LOVE beets. I still hate beets. It's regrettable. It's too bad. My beet animus remains. I LOVE Punch-Drunk Love(PDL). **MILD SPOILERS** I love it for all the myriad odd details--the harmonium that is dropped off in the middle of the street for reasons entirely unknown, AS's method of accumulating zillion's of Sky Miles--but then doesn't get to use them. I love it for a plot that is SUNNY in spite of ink-sodden clouds rumbling ominously all around, a plot that clearly originated outside the Hollywood cookie/plot-cutter factory--totally impossible to predict. I loved it for that odd little romance (yes, I admit it. Emily Watson's immediate interest in AS was a weakness in the film. I could see how she could fall for him over time, but how could her first impression have been anything but negative?). I loved the overall arc of the film--AS, insecure, sad, with occasional bouts of unfocused, psychotic rage (here, reasonably explained, unlike in AS's past {reputed} comedies), transformed by love into someone who could take that boiling-over-anger and turn it into a powerful directed force for good (that scene with the blonde brothers ramming AS's car was wonderfully cathartic. As soon as he saw that trickle of blood running down Watson's face, he was transfigured. His protective instincts for this person he cared for transformed his rage into a calm fearsome purpose). I loved it for Watson's luminous presence. Most of all, I loved it for Adam Sandler (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!). Excised from the slavery of less than mediocre cinema, his wildly exaggerated mannerisms were given reason, and he was suddenly nuanced, subtle, even human. It was a pleasure to see him act, to watch his emotional turmoil play out on his face, to be drawn in, to empathize . . . with Adam Sandler? Now THAT is movie magic. I'm not ready for AS to elbow his way onto my list of favorite living actors, much less supplant Paul Newman from his lofty perch on the top rung, but I find myself looking forward to Spanglish. Who would have ever thought?

Number Seventeen

A real mess . . .
Being a Hitchcock fan, I sat down to watch this film expectantly. Within 10 minutes, I was scratching my head, hardly believing what I was seeing. This was not only a poor film by Hitchcock standards, it was bad by ANY measure. This film has it all--horrible editing, inexplicable turns, over acting, ridiculous situations, unbelievable and sometimes stilted dialogue, and yes, inadequate, puzzling direction. A real mess. The plot involves a jewel heist that occurs before the film's beginning. Four men, two women, and a body eventually end up at the house where the jewels (a necklace) are hidden. Just who these people are, is, in some cases never adequately explained. **MILD SPOILERS** There is a deaf-mute, who suddenly begins to speak and hear (okay, she was pretending--but why?). We have the dead body suddenly disappearing, and then reappearing, now walking and talking (why was he pretending to be dead, or why was he unconscious?). Two of the men, who arrive at the house at the same time, have never seen each other, yet there is hardly any suspicion about each other. Why? These and many other questions are left unanswered. Then we have the uneven acting. Two of the jewel thieves are played with such laconic understatement, in SUCH a relaxed manner, it seems completely at odds with their situation. Then we have Ben, played by Leon Lion, for whom the term "over-acting" is an understatement. Because of these, and other problems, the film never generates any tension--until the finale. Even then, the tension is often undercut with some arresting implausibilities, and amateurish editing (e.g., during the runaway train sequence, they use the same bit of film with our two jewel thieves looking out the door of the engine, at least three different times).

This was an awkward era for movies. Sound had been introduced just three or four years previously, and film-makers were still struggling to incorporate the new technology. If generous, we might allow this as an explanation for some of the problems with "Number Seventeen," but by no means all. "Murder," for instance, was directed by Hitchcock two years earlier, and is by FAR a better film. So, whence cometh "Number Seventeen?" In order to make this inexplicable aberration explicable, we need only remind ourselves that, no matter how talented, Mr. Hitchcock was only human, after all, and thus capable of error. This film provides all the proof of that we could ever need. 4/10

Desire Me

A painful, nearly tragic, turn for Ms. Garson
As has been noted elsewhere, during the filming of "Desire Me," Ms. Garson and Richard Hart were swept into the sea by a wave along the rocky coast of California. She nearly lost her life, and as it was, sustained severe injuries that required several surgeries. All this for a misfire of a film.

If not for the luminous presence of Greer Garson, this movie wouldn't be worth anyone's time. Considering the cast and director (George Cukor, who removed his name from the credits before the film's release) it's a wonder how it turned out so relatively poor. One would think the script's weaknesses should have been readily apparent. {SPOILERS AHEAD} The outline of the plot is fine: Paul (Robert Mitchum) is imprisoned during WW-II in a German POW camp. He spends his time telling a fellow prisoner, Jean (Hart), details about his life with his wife, Marise (Garson). Jean, whose life has been less than idyllic, becomes absorbed in these tales, and soon begins to think of these stories as HIS stories. When he and Paul attempt escape, Paul is shot, but Jean succeeds. He goes to Paul's home he has come to know so well and tries to claim Marise, who has been faithfully waiting for Paul for several years, as his own--in spite of the fact that he knows (or at least strongly suspects) that Paul is actually still alive. That outline could have been turned into a fine film--but the details were its undoing. Crucial to the story is the devotion Marise and Paul have toward each other.

Unfortunately, this supposed great love is spoken of, but never dramatized. We get one brief flashback of their marriage ceremony. We don't see their love grow, never observe its intensity. Yet we are supposed to be invested in their relationship. Without that investment the final reconciliation fails to move us, and so the ending falls flat. An even bigger failing is how the relationship between Marise and Jean plays out. He immediately begins to pressure her to form a relationship with him--this in spite of the fact that until he tells her that he saw Paul die, Marise still believed him to be alive. No matter how lonely she might have been in the years she awaited Paul's return, she obviously would need some months to grieve her loss. To have someone pushing her into a relationship the very day she hears the news would be off putting to say the least--terrifying and enraging being even more likely reactions. Instead, we are to believe that Marise would experience only some relatively vague misgivings, and within about a week is sufficiently recovered to consider marrying this man (so much for this supposed great love between Paul and Marise).

For this bit of absurdity to work, all one would need do is, first, provide more background (lots more background) to the relationship between Marise and Paul. Second, make Jean more crafty. Instead of fairly pouncing on Marise, have him offer his friendship and support. Have their relationship grow over the course of MONTHS, not days. These two changes alone might have turned the movie into a classic--IF Ms. Garson and Mr. Mitchum could have developed some chemistry between them. As it stands, they had none. With only 4 minutes of screen time together, how much could they be expected to generate? It's too bad. They were two such great stars . . . it would have been interesting to see them together. Still, for all its considerable faults, I give the film a 5 out of 10 on the basis of the great Greer Garson's presence, some great cinematography and an interesting, if poorly realized, premise.

All in all, it's too bad Ms. Garson didn't elect to work in some other, more rewarding--and less painful--project.

Young and Innocent

Wonderful Hitchcock Fare
A truly charming film from the Master of Suspense. Being a rather huge Hitch fan, I recently sought out some lesser known films from his early period. Of those I viewed ("Number 17," & "Murder!" among others) this one was my favorite--among the best of his Pre-Hollywood films. There is the usual mixture of humor and suspense, some nice camera work (including a wonderful precursor to the "key-in-hand" shot of "Notorious"), and most importantly, Nova Pilbeam. I'm not sure how this actress managed to play her scenes SO appealingly, and yet managed to have fallen SO completely off the acting radar. How many people today have her name rattling about their cerebral attic? Virtually none, I'd hazard, and yet she is terrific here--worth the effort of finding the video for her performance alone.

This film certainly is not in the same league as Hitch's best, but still is vastly superior to the average suspense film coming out of Hollywood today--or any other day, for that matter.


Falling Just Short of Greatness
There have been quite a number of comments here which either praise this movie to the heights (making it sound like the second coming of "Citizen Kane"), or note that it really, really sucks (making it the resurrected corpse of "Howard the Duck"). Variety, Extremes: Isn't that one of the things that makes us humans great?

I tend to take a more moderate position on this film, though far closer to the sugar end than the fuzzy end of the lolly-pop. This film has some wonderful things going for it: Some brilliant casting (Nicol Williamson is incredible--Helen Mirren terrific), great use of music (I don't care for Wagner, but his bombast is perfect for this movie. Carl Orff was a good choice as well), some beautiful cinematography and sets (some scenes almost take my breath away, like when The Sword is thrown into the water), imagination (I've never seen intercourse in full armor before), and a great story.

Unfortunately, it also has some bad casting (who in the world picked Cherie Lunghi to play Guenevere?--flower child as mythological queen? They could have done better by Lancelot as well), a few not so great lines, and, worst of all, the pacing is often too frenetic. If one is going to film the entire Arthurian legend, there is no way you can squeeze it into 2 hours and 20 minutes--not and have coherence. Some have said it was too LONG, and I can understand why they might come to that conclusion--so many scenes, so much plot thrown at us, that for some it must have had a dulling effect. The mind can only absorb so much in 2 & 1/3 hours. So cut it down so there isn't SO much to take in. Understandable, but the wrong remedy. It should have been extended by at least an hour, giving us more time to appreciate all the beauty, all the personalities (Merlin could have used more screen time, and some of the Knights could have stood further development), all the carnage, all the story in this film. Still, the good out weighs the bad by a considerable amount, imho. I can't help feeling disappointed, though. Just a few changes and we would be talking about the film in the same breath as "Casablanca," "Vertigo," or "The Third Man." Too bad. We could always use another masterpiece. [8.5 out of 10]

It's a Gift

Peerless Comedy!
As was my habit as a teenager, I often would stay up late at night watching old movies (which were just about the only things broadcast after midnight back then). One night, I turned on the tube and a W. C. Fields movie had just started. It wasn't long before I found myself laughing. My father, for some reason unable to sleep, got up to join me. Soon he was laughing out loud too, and he wasn't one who laughed at just anything. When the scene came in which Fields tries to take a little nap alfresco--both of us began laughing uncontrollably. If someone could have seen us through a sound proof window, I'm sure they would have thought we were having seizures. NO scene in ANY of the great comedies exceeds this one in hilarity, and few even approach it. Not the seduction/dance scene in "Some Like It Hot," not the hitchhiking, not the "piggy-back" scenes from "It Happened One Night," not the "water-in-the-face" scene in "City Lights"--no scene from "Tootsie," no scene from "The Miracle of Morgan's Creek," not any of the zany scenes from "The Court Jester," or "A Night At The Opera"--none of these beat Fields' pitiful attempt at catching a little shut-eye. And this is just one sequence in a film filled with wet-your-pants laughing.

W. C. Fields was one of the screen's greatest comedians. His bumbling, surly, dipsomaniac is a creation right up there with Chaplin's Little Tramp. As a gift from the gods of comedy, Fields was given an APPEARANCE of a bungler, but he was, in fact, physically adroit to a level most athletes could only dream of. Thus, he could get away with doing things SO bungling--like accidentally putting his hat on his walking stick (resting on his shoulder) instead of his head, and then not be able to find it, or trying to walk out the wrong side of the door--that if someone else tried them, they'd only look ridiculous. Fields makes you think these things could actually, comically, happen. He was truly a comedic genius.

One of cinema's greatest comedians, in one of cinema's funniest films: Do yourself a favor--wear a diaper and SEE THIS MOVIE!

For Whom the Bell Tolls

One Of The Greats!!!!
Reading some of the comments here left me wondering, in some cases, whether the writers had this film confused with some B-movie potboiler. Some have written scathing contumelies with not a single positive remark to be found. It's amazing how differently two people from the same planet, same culture, can view the same thing. For me, this has always been one of my favorite movies, with very few flaws to be found. Gary Cooper could never be accused here (or anywhere else) of over acting. His style has always been one of understatement. He, in fact, was one of the actors who helped change the style of acting from the theatricality of the silents, to the more realistic method still in vogue today. Here, he is perfectly cast (Hemingway would accept no other)--the quiet, stoic, ruggedly handsome American.

Ingrid Bergman is my favorite actress, so it's probably hard for me to be objective, but I feel this is one of her greatest roles, playing the damaged, yet still innocent, Maria (it was, in fact, the role for which Bergman felt she would be most remembered). True, her accent could hardly be mistaken for Spanish, but this seems trivial when this is stacked up against her immense talent as an actress. The criticisms about her appearance have no justification at all, as has been pointed out by others. All Spaniards do not look alike. Ms. Bergman is absolutely radiant, luminous, stunningly beautiful. Her scenes with Coop are wonderful. You can see "Roberto's" interest in her immediately, first of a carnal nature, but increasingly with tenderness and concern. Their's is one of the best love stories on film.

The supporting characters are superlative; Akim Tamiroff is fine as the once courageous but now cowardly (and possibly treacherous) Pablo; Vladimir Sokoloff as the lovable aging guide--but where did they find Ms. Paxinou? Her Pilar is a fascinatingly vibrant character, full of grit and valor and indomitable courage, and yet capable of being deeply wounded by the thoughtless actions of a child. She apparently never did another film either before or after this one--just taking her well deserved Oscar and slipping away {Edit (Dec. 2005): I've since discovered that Ms. Paxinou DID appear in a few less prominent films after this one.}

It's true that war is not romantic, and the film shows some of the horrors of this enterprise. It is also true that it does to some extent romanticize this war in that it emphasizes the self-sacrifice and courage of these people. In any case, I feel most people will find themselves moved by the sacrifices and **SPOILERS** the doomed romance of the leads. The story has been altered a bit from the wonderful novel, but this is inevitable. Still, it follows it much more closely than most Hollywood filmizations. The scenery is spectacular--the color, the cinematography are top notch, and Victor Young has composed a lush and moving score that wonderfully underscores the action and emotions of the players--his creation being among the best in cinema history. The direction strikes an excellent balance between showing us the details of day to day survival by these hunted insurgents, the suspense of battle, and the growing romance. Some have criticized the dialogue, but I find it quite believable. That last speech of Jordan's and his thoughts right after, have in particular been singled out for scorn. But for me, it is extraordinarily real. He doesn't utter some plasticized ideal of what a parting speech should be--no it's something someone might actually say, filled with simple but heartfelt phrases.

Well, dear reader, you simply must see this film. Then judge for yourself whose comments are more accurate--those above, or those who have reviled the film. I know where I'd put my money.


Viva La Claude Rains
As I sat down to watch "Deception" for the first time some years ago, my mother, who was a huge Betty Davis fan, nonetheless said Claude Rains' performance in this film blew Davis' out of the water. I had my doubts about the accuracy of that comment, but from the moment Rains makes his first appearance my doubts were dispelled and it was clear which of these players was going to leave me slack-jawed with appreciation of the enormity of their talent. It has been noted by others how strong Rains' performance is. No matter--it cannot be stated too often. His acting here has the force of a hurricane, obliterating the relatively flimsy acting of his peers. Claude Rains is one of the greatest actors ever to step in front of the camera, yet except for his performance in "Casablanca", he would be virtually unknown today. He was much, much more than the performer that gave us that memorably dapper chief of police. He was a notorious scene stealer, filling the molds of his cinematic characters so completely it is virtually impossible to think of another actor in his place. In this film, several times I felt the plot sinking under the weight of its overwrought script and a number of laughable implausibilities. Fortunately, Mr. Rains was always there to right the ship. His character is all arrogance, insufferably backed up with prodigious talent, a powerful intellect, and a razor sharp wit which he uses without qualm to taunt or torture those around him. {Semi-Spoiler} In the final confrontation with Davis' character, you can almost (but not quite) believe she would resort to using the means she does in a futile attempt to level the playing field, so much more powerful is Rains' personality.

This film should not be missed, mainly on the basis of this towering performance. I would think the Oscars should award him with a posthumous career achievement award. No one could be more deserving. All his performances are true gems, from "The Invisible Man," to a heartbreaking characterization on TV's "Dr. Kildare" in 1966. His name in the credits guarantees there being at least one thing in the film worthy of your interest.

East of Eden

Powerhouse Film, Powerhouse Performances
Ever felt lost?--have trouble finding your place in the world?--feel jealous of, or ignored by, a family member? If you answered yes to any of these questions, beware--the resonance you may feel toward the characters of this film may be so intense, the emotional pull of its story so overwhelming, that at its end you will find yourself exhausted, spent, trembling in its cathartic wake. I find it so every time I see it. As an examination of the terrible undercurrents in family relationships, of adolescent angst and loneliness, of the universal need for love and the awful consequences of its being withheld, it is nearly peerless. Movies that toyed with similar themes, like "The Graduate" or "Rebel Without a Cause," though great films, do not come close to packing the emotional wallop this film delivers.

To a large part, the intensity of the affective response generated by watching "East of Eden" must be attributed to the strength of the performances. No false notes here. Raymond Massey, a truly superb actor who has largely, and undeservedly, been forgotten, gives one of his best performance as the father with a secret, a man with the best intentions in the world, who has nonetheless unwittingly crippled his son Cal with his sometimes harsh criticisms and his favoritism of his brother Aron. Julie Harris is simply wonderful as Abra, a young woman who gradually becomes disenchanted with the "perfect" brother, Aron, finding herself becoming more and more interested in the vaguely frightening, yet vulnerable Cal. Her "speech" near the end of the film to Cal's father is heartrending. Everyone else is fine, from the always dependable Burl Ives to Albert Decker, and Jo van Fleet deserves special mention as the supposedly dead mother. The vehicle which propels the film, however, is James Dean who not only gives the best performance in his all too short career, but one of the best in cinematic history. It is truly amazing to watch him work here. The viewer becomes like putty in his hands, bending and rending our emotions at will. It's a performance not to be missed.

The movie has received criticism because it does not follow the book, and leaves out at least the first two thirds of the novel. "East of Eden" is one of my favorite books, yet I have no trouble accepting this film on its own merits--which are considerable. A movie CANNOT be a book, though there have been several directors who seem blithely unaware of this giving us plodding movies straight-jacketed by their literary source. One cannot judge this movie solely by comparing it to the book, and with each deviation from the source, give it a demerit. I believe this movie is every bit as great as the book--but it is NOT the book. And John Steinbeck himself loved this movie, reportedly saying that the movie was a greater achievement than his book had been. That's a recommendation good enough for me, and should be enough for the lovers of the book. You CAN love both. I do.

Miss Tatlock's Millions

Overlooked screwball comedy
**MILD SPOILERS** I personally know of no one, other than myself, who has heard of this movie, let alone watched it. Miss Tatlock's millions in no way deserves to be relegated to obscurity. It's genuinely funny, sidesplittingly so at several junctures. John Lund (who plays an obscure actor) is hired to play the part of a long "lost" relative who has just inherited the "millions" in the title. Actually, this relative happens to be more than a little daft--a pyromaniac (a comic pyromaniac, of course, who goes about singing, "I Just Want To Set the World On Fire") who has spent 20 years or so in an insane asylum. The mayhem that follows is quite fun--and needless to say, there is the usual love interest, the confession that he is not what he seems, the rejection, the reconciliation, and (no surprise) the sudden appearance of the real heir. Obviously, it isn't the plot elements that make this worth watching--it's the hilarity gleaned from the trip. It certainly isn't a masterpiece, but it IS worth retrieving from the abyss of forgotten movies. 8/10

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