"King Kong" (Warner Brothers, 1933)
Y'know... I had forgotten just how much fun this film is, and how cannily produced it was, perfectly designed to wow the audiences of its time. Totally worth staying up, bleary eyed, 'til 1:30 am to catch the tragic ending. Poor Kong! I always feel sorry for the guy, every time I see this film... (Seen on KQED TV)
"Private Live Of Henry VIII" (London Films, 1933)
Charles Laughton is typically wonderful in his broadly-played role as England's King, Henry the Eighth, who infamously married six different queens, divorcing or executing them as circumstances warranted. The script to this magnificent Alexander Korda production is a witty jab at English history buffs, touching only briefly on the supposed treachery of Ann Boleyn, concentrating instead on the preposterous emotional life of the lusty, capacious King. Laughton, as ever, is a marvel, skillfully presenting Henry at first as a thinly-cariacatured lout, and gracefully embuing him with gradual shades of pathos and humanity. Viewers who look to this film as historical drama are clearly missing the point: this is all about the cleverly-rendered script, which turns British schoolboy lessons on their heads, and on the classy ensemble acting, which admittedly may be hard to focus on with the lamentable quality of the current print (I'm writing in the year 2003; perhaps Criterion or some other class-act movie restoration company can correct this problem soon). Still, fans of early British cinema will enjoy this film a lot.
"Last Holiday" (1950)
A young Alec Guinness stars in this clever story of a mild-mannered, average sort of fellow who is told by his doctor that he has only days, perhaps weeks left to life. On medical advice, Guinness quits his job, liquidates his life savings, and goes off to a posh country resort on one last, luxuriously bittersweet holiday. Naturally, once he's given up all hope, everything in his life starts coming up roses: mistaken as a man of means by the hotel's inquisitive clientele, Guinness finds all sorts of new creative, financial and romantic opportunities arising out of nowhere. J. B. Priestley's script is in part a wry, piercing comment on Great Britain's class-bound society, where initiative and imagination were stifled by prejudice and regimentation... Only because he feels he has nothing left to lose does Guinness's George Bird work up the nerve to give business tycoons and Lords of Parliament a piece of his mind; once he does they recognize him as a man of great standing. Politics aside, though, this is also a very entertaining and somewhat sad little comedy, with an twist ending that happy, happy Hollywood wouldn't touch with a ten-foot pole. Recommended.
"Lord Of The Rings I: Fellowship Of The Ring" (MGM, 2002)
Okay, I admit it: I'm a big old, giant size, gooberific fanboy geek, and once I saw the second of Peter Jackson's LOTR movies, I rushed to the nearest computer terminal and bought the deluxe 4-DVD "remix" version of the first film. Man, am I glad I did. This film, in all it's various manifestations, is a fascinating study in how new media have adapted to meet different audiences. When I saw the first film in the theatres, I thought, "WOW.", but I still felt some nagging doubts about what I had seen. The film was spectacular, but felt like it was missing a little bit here, and a little bit there. Well, it turnsout that all the things I was looking for were in the film, but were skillfully nipped out to make the big screen version a physically-endurable event. The other, longer, more nuanced film is one that was made to be seen at one's own pace in the comfort of our hobbit-like little homes. So there it is: the little links in the plot, the extra shadings of character, the elf-y stuff, the snug splendor of the Shire, the extra connective tissue that makes this film move along at a slower, more deliberate keel, and which makes all nagging doubts vanish like some subtle magical spell. Both versions make sense -- the theatrical release felt just about right -- my attention didn't wander, and my butt didn't hurt when I headed for home. Then the DVD version felt more satisfying and has all the geely behind-the-scenes stuff that I'm still watching now. Plus, it had additional Liv Tyler footage: I'm in heaven!
"And God Created Woman..." (1957)
One of writer-director Roger Vadim's best film's with ur sexpot, Bridgette Bardot, this slight little comedy actually placed French cinema on the map, at least as far as Middle American was concerned. Of course, it didn't hurt to have a buxom, pouting, playful and moody beauty such as Bardot to play the camera upon, or a plot that (at the time) must have seemed scandalous and risque to the appallingly repressed denizens of the Eisenhower-era U.S. of A... The film was also beautifully shot, if a bit self-consciously geometric and formally composed, but essentially full of cinematography every bit as gorgeous as the film's star. The script is really the weak point, but not so much so that you can't or shouldn't enjoy the film. I can't see revisiting this film the way you might a true classic or a cherished favorite, but it's certainly worth checking out once, especially if you want to see what all the fuss was about with Bardot, the international sex symbol. Although the film is hardly visually or sexually explicit, she is breathtakingly sensual, and a pretty good actress as well. Plenty of films, French or otherwise, have more depth that this, but many other have much less.
"Lawman" (MGM, 1971)
Burt Lancaster and Robert Ryan star in this grim, hard-edged western, wherein Lancaster is a unremitting and efficiently violent lawman, who will give his all to get his man, even if he doesn't believe that justice will be served once the accused is brought to trial. Everyone butts up against his hardass attitude, and he rebuffs repeated pleas to take things easy and turn a blind eye. To Lancaster's marshall, it's not so much about right and wrong as it is about doing the job right: if you falter or give an inch, you'll probably wind up dead. The first half on this film is tautly scripted and relentless; it kind of falls apart by the end, at first in little bits and pieces, and then all at once. Overall, though, it's very good, and if you're looking for a superior western, this is definitely worth checking out.
"The Charge Of The Light Brigade" (MGM, 1968)
A prideful vendetta between bullying English Lord Cardigan and a talented but hot-tempered junior officer is set against the disasterous British rout at the hands of Russia during the Crimean War. I can't speak to the supposed historical innaccuracies of this Tony Richardson film, since most of what I know about the infamous Charge I've learned from either Tennyson's rah-rah romantic poem, or Douglas Frasier's sardonic Flashman novels (with which it shares a certain mordant, antiauthoritarian darkness), but I did find it pretty entertaining and well-produced. It's also quite similar to Peter Wier's Gallipoli, although this is more bluntly class-conscious and hysterical in tone. Richard William's animated sequences, used in the titles and interludes, are wry spinoffs of Gilded Age cartoons, and prefigure Terry Gilliam's animation in the Monty Python series. The closing battle is a bit muddled, but the drama of the first half is engaging.
"The Pianist" (2002)
Roman Polanski's indescribably powerful portrait of wartime life in the Jewish ghetto of German-occupied Warsaw, the site of the famous Jewish uprising of 1943, is a film that will really knock the wind out of you. Polanski himself barely avoided being trapped in the ghetto; his parents and family died at Auschwitz, along with countless others -- mothers, fathers, children; innocent people from all walks of life. The film opens with renowned concert pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman, on whose life this film is based, performing Chopin on Polish state radio, at the very moment that the bombs start dropping on the capital city. Characteristically, Szpilman refuses, or is unable to stop playing, until literally forced out of the building by eminent disaster. This serves as an opening metaphor for Szpilman's coming struggle, as his mix of stubborn pride, ongoing haplessness, sheer luck, and artistic soulfulness all prove, inexplicably, to be the combination that enables him to survive one of the most horrific chapters in human history. The day by day degradation and oppression of the Polish Jews is shown in precise, undeniable, haunting detail -- Polanski doesn't linger on the most tawdry details of the Nazi sadism, but he does give one of the most coherent and heartbreaking pictures of what happened to Warsaw's once-vibrant Jewish community, which was all but annihilated during Hitler's genocidal "final solution." Szpilman is actually one of the few Warsaw Jews who never left the city -- he survived the war in the most precarious circumstances, and took up his concertizing career again after the conflict ended. What he saw, as shown in this movie, is truly amazing, and a profound testament to the beauty and resilience of the human spirit, even in the face of the worst horrors our species can conjure. Actor Adrien Brody portrays Szpilman in an astounding performance, not only learning to play Chopin himself, but also introjecting an astonishing range of subtle, crushing emotions into a mainly nonverbal role. This is one of the best made, most meaningful movies you are ever likely to see.
Toquinho/Various Artists "Toquinho" (Biscoito Fino, 2001)
A beautiful historical portrait of acoustic bossa guitarist, Toquinho, performing in concert and in informal sessions along with his own band, and with several of MPB's biggest stars. Cameos by Paulinho Nogueira, Gilberto Gil, Chico Buarque, Jorge Ben -- and an uncredited Antonio Carlos Jobim -- light up the screen, all aided by Toquinho's graceful, sympathetic accompaniment. The glimpses of him working with Vinicius in the early 1970s are tantalizing and all-too-brief... Is there some other film out there that has more footage of their long, grand collabortation? A nice portrait of one of Brazilian music's most solid and professional performers... Recommended viewing!
"The Band Wagon" (MGM, 1953)
A muddled Fred Astaire musical, which starts out with a brilliant opening sequence wherein Tony Hunter, a thinly-veiled Astaire stand-in, returns to a modern, new, 1950s New York, which has adopted a brash, gritty form of glitz which feels foreign to the debonaire star of 'Thirties film and stage. Broadway has been overrun with garish and pretentiously lofty Big Concept plays, and the good clean fun of Fred and Ginger's era seems hokey and out-of-date. Still, his loyal pals, a successful playwright and librettist, hustle him up some work, which turns out to be with the most pompous of the new theatre elite. Astaire's outsider-looking-in view of Broadway in transition -- the sort of big city symphony that director Vincente Minnelli excelled at -- is fascinating (while Fred's visit to an old Times Square theatre that's been renovated into a penny arcade is amusing in retrospect, considering that the neighborhood soon became overrun with porno parlours...) Teaming Astaire up with Cyd Charisse is a joy to behold as well... Apparently he is quoted as saying she was his favorite dance partner (Ginger Rogers fans, all gasp now...) but you can kinda see what he means... Where the graceful Rogers was a perfect partner to Astaire, the statuesque Charisse is more of counterpoint, an equal presence, if not as intuitive and inventive a dancer. There's a much greater physical charge between them, and it's a very different viewing experience. Anyway, long story short: this film has a great premise, but falls apart when they actually find a barn and start to put on a show. The highbrow producer stages a flop, and Astaire and company decide they can't quit now, so they're just going to put on some good, old-fashioned singing and dancing revue, like folks loved in the old days. That's all very well and fine, but the big old, sockaroony extravaganza that takes up the last quarter of the film simply makes no sense. It's a bizarre Technicolor pastiche of old routines: a hick skit, a terrible old Vaudeville routine ("Triplets"), and a fun (but overlong) parody of then-contemporary film noir craze, featuring Astaire in the tough-guy role. It just doesn't hang together, which is a pity, since the film ultimately doesn't deliver on its promise to give the "new" theatre its comeuppance... Maybe with a little more delicacy or stronger writing, they would have, but the Really Big Show is kind of half-baked. Stiil, Astaire & Charisse... what's not to like?
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