"God Is Great... And I'm Not" (Empire Pictures, 2003)
Audrey Tautou (Michele) and Edouard Baer (Francois) unnervingly like Noah Wylie of TV's ER in both his looks and mannerisms
"The Japanese Story" (2003)
"Girl With A Pearl Earring" (Lion's Gate, 2003)
A radiant, visually rich fictionalization of the life of famed Renaissance painter Johannes Vermeer, or, rather, of a brief segment in the life of Vermeer, the period in which he painted the picture after which the film is titled. This is a pleasantly eliptical film, light on exposition and packed with gorgeous cinematography and hotly charged, not-too-subterranean emotional complexities, all set against the canvas of a man creating great, immortal art. Nice to see they still make intelligent, well-crafted films like this... and bravo to Scarlet Johanssen for continuing to pick such classy roles. This is another fine feather under her cap.
"The World In His Arms" (1952)
Yawn. A fairly dull "historical" romantic adventure tale starring Gregory Peck as a bon vivant schooner captain whose sailing run, between Russian-owned Alaska and the newly founded San Francisco boomtown, brings him into conflict with the Tsarist forces in charge of the far North. The film starts out with great promise, but grinds to a halt with a slow-moving romantic plot involving the rather unappealing, pinch-faced Ann Blythe. Unfortunately, when he finally gets back to sea, the action sequences are hardly more lively, or better directed. What was up with this film? Was it just a bad season for director Raoul Walsh? Well, whatever it was, I was mucho bored for much of this film. I did manage to amuse myself with the thought that the loquacious John McIntire's character would stay up in Alaska after the film's end and later found the town of Skagway, which he would rule with an evil, iron fist. (See: The Far Country, from 1954, if you want to get the joke...) Anthony Quinn also co-stars, in yet another broadly played ethnic role. You're better off seeing him play opposite Peck in the vastly superiorGuns Of Navarrone.
"Sun Valley Serenade" (20th Century Fox, 1941)
This light romantic comedy is one of only two feature films to include Glenn Miller and his big band (the other being the superior Orchestra Wives)... Miller himself is stiff as a board onscreen, and his acting parts are entirely unmemorable, although the musical performances are stellar. The orchestra's highly choreographed stage routines translate well onto film, and the visual razzle-dazzle of Miller's well-honed showmanship gives this film its real sizzle. Tex Beneke shines on a hep vocal update of "Chattanooga Choo-Choo," a number which closes with some singing and hoofing by the ever-acrobatic Nicholas Brothers, as well as actress Dorothy Dandridge, who sort of appears out of nowhere, just to take a brief solo. The plot is simple enough: actor John Payne stars as Ted Scott, a featured performer in Miller's (supposedly) struggling band, gets caught between two gals, Lynn Bari's tempremental big band diva, and Sonja Henie, as a perky war refugee from Norway. (War refugee? Norway?? Oh, never mind...) As ever, Henie's appeal may be lost on some; personally, I find her incredibly vapid, and her giant, phony smile is somewhat disturbing. That being said, this is actually one of her better performances, and Payne is a very likable leading man. The film is padded out with extensive skiing sequences and plenty of Henie-delic skating scenes, so the fast-forward button may come in handy. Milton Berle also has a big role as the band's fast-talking, nebbishy business manager -- a surprisingly nonabrasive early performance in the late, great comedian's decades-long career. All in all, a nice bit of pre-war American fluff. A must-see for Glenn Miller fans.
"In America" (2003)
I was keenly disappointed by this film, director Jim Sheridan's highly praised autobiographical memoir of his family's emigration from Ireland to New York City in the early 1980s, when the city's grimy decay was still at a peak. There are moving moments, but overall, the film felt mechanistic and poorly realized, and the acting was only so-so. I was charmed by Emma Bolger, the little girl who played his youngest daughter, and to a lesser extent by her sister, Sarah Bolger, who was a little on the precious side. The adult actors were uniformly unimpressive -- Samantha Morton's character never really takes shape or emerges emotionally; male lead Paddy Considine has some interesting qualities, but consistently overacts his parts, and African actor Djimon Hounsou intones portentiously, in a rather bland and too-easy manner. I just didn't feel like I was seeing much subtlety onscreen, and while the film has some appeal, it never really moved me. Maybe that's only because I'm such a heartless bastard. Or maybe it's because the film wasn't really that well made.
"The Triplets Of Belleville" (2003)
Wow... what a cool film!
"The Last Samurai" (2003)
A surprisingly strong script, and a pleasantly enjoyable film... I normally loathe Tom Cruise in just about anything, and while it's still hard to detach his persona from his character, this Kurosawa-esque epic has a strong enough narrative flow that it doesn't really matter that it doesn't matter that it's a vehicle for one of Hollywood's most overpaid pretty-boy actors. Cruise stars as a retired US Army officer who took part in the decimation of the American Indians, and is haunted by his war crimes... In 1876, he is brought over to Japan for a repeat performance, helping to quell a rebellion by the honor-bound samurai caste, and naturally enough he is drawn into their elegant, spiritually-defined way of life. The Cruise character's conversion into the martial arts and zen lifestyle is hardly as preposterous or as pretentious as one might imagine, in fact, it's handled with great subtlety and emotional strength, and across the span of the film, we are given a strong story arc with a convincing dramatic core... some great battle scenes as well, not gory, just engaging... A fine film, not as tremendous a work of art as, say, Seven Samurai, but certainly in the same tradition, and worthy of favorable comparison.
"The Egg And I" (Universal, 1948)
A genuinely funny, old-school comedy, featuring Fred MacMurray as a city slicker gone country boy, a white collar executive who decides to chuck it all in and become a chicken farmer, somewhere deep in the boonies, and Claudette Colbert as his long-suffering, stand-by-her-man, newlywed wife. Both actors have superb comic timing, and their chemistry together-- he blithely missing her every disatisfaction, she gulping back her exasperation -- is quite good. This was also the first movie to feature the iconic "hick" couple, Ma & Pa Kettle, a Lil Abner-ish pair who went on to make several films together after this debut. I suspect this film, however, is the best of the lot. Recommended!
[PS - Weird rental note: One central plot note deals with MacMurray mentioning Mother's Day, May 11th; this year it came on the 9th... But hey, close enough!]
"Lover Come Back" (MGM, 1962)
Oh. My. Gawd. I mean, for years and years and years, we've all heard the feminist critiques of how Doris Day was an example of the retrograde sexism of her times -- the Eisenhower era and the early, pre-feminist Sixties -- but in movie after movie, I've seen her portray a capable, cheerfully assertive participant in the battle of the sexes -- no doormat here! This film, however, is the first one of the classic Doris Day-Rock Hudson bouts I've seen in which Day is, quite simply, a victim and a sap. Hudson co-stars as a rival advertising executive, who uses tacky boy's club tactics to steal Doris's clients out from under her. Rock takes a guy out drinking, provides a few prostitutes and --zingo!!-- he lands the MagnaSoap contract. Doris stammers and clenches her fists, struggles to give him a piece of her mind, while he in turn jeers at her, calls her frigid, and flaunts his sexual mastery at all possible junctures... Of course, their first round is fought, as in Party Line, over the phone, so she hasn't had a chance yet to see what a hunk he is. In Round Two, Doris assertively hauls him in front of the review board of the chamber of commerce, a decisive act that boomerangs when, with a nudge and a wink, Rock makes a fool out of her in front of the all-male panel and walks away unscathed. From that moment on, he's got Doris under his thumb, besting her at every turn, and, finally, gets her so drunk that she beds him, winds up pregnant and is forced to marry him and live, um, happily ever after. The script is peppered with the most aggressively sexist dialogue of any of their films -- it's as though, after having set the formula and worked through it in several previous films, the Hudson-Day producers felt they had to one-up themselves and make it more extreme, punchier, harder. The humor has an underlying mean-spiritedness and misogyny, a lack of balance that's exemplified by the Hudson character's near-complete lack of growth. You assume, early on, that during his seduction of this hapless female, that he will unwittingly fall in love with her and become a better person, but througout the course of the film, the only moderation in his behavior comes at the very end, when he realizes he would rather stay married to her than not. Nonetheless, he's never actually contrite or abashed, Hudson's still pretty much a jerk when the curtain closes and it's up to Day to recognize that her physical attraction to him trumps their past history. Plus, she's all knocked up: what's a good girl to do? As a result, the film isn't as enjoyable or as pleasant and frothy as other Doris Day films, in fact, I found it a bit jarring, although the glimpse back at old-school male chauvinism can be pretty instructive. On a more entertaining note, this has some of the most delectable and blatant homoerotic/demi-gay undertones of any of Hudson's films. The scene in which Hudson cradles Tony Randall's head in his hand (to help swab some dye off his face) is charged with erotic power; in the next scene, we find that Randall has spent the night at Rock's apartment, and not long after that, Hudson announces that he's giving up New York and is going to move to San Francisco(!) It's all semi-coincidental, of course, but pretty rife with campy thrills, given the later disclosures about Hudson's private life. In sum, this film is super-retro and Neanderthal, not as much fun as early versions of the same material, but it does have considerable camp value, if that sort of irony-laden anti-notalgia is your kinda thing.
"Ninotchka" (MGM, 1939)
Another yummy Ernst Lubitsch comedy, this time starring the dour Greta Garbo as a humorless Soviet agent who is seduced by Western materialism (and a dashing, jovial Melvyn Douglas) while on a mission in Paris. Some may find the film's political aspects to be dated -- but hey, that's totally the point! Lubitsch manages to lampoon both Stalin-era communism and the American stereotypes of the French (as libertine sensualists) all at one time... And while the Soviet state is roundly mocked, the plight of its people is not, so that Garbo's character is given her dignity and honor... as well as some swell close-ups and nice clothes! The best part of this film is her transformation from a robotic, literal-minded Party functionary into a fully-rounded human being... The scene in which Douglas tries to crack Ninotchka's icy facade, telling jokes and acting up in order to provoke a laugh or a smile, while she rebuffs his every overture in a clipped, chilly monotone, is one of Garbo's best performances, and a brilliant comedic stroke for Lubitsch. In effect, the manic, wisecracking Douglas is turned into a straight man for Garbo, whose minimalistic delivery controls the scene, in an almost Steven Wright-like manner. And, of course, the rest of the film is a delight as well. A fascinating, frivolous look at prewar European politics, and a real humdinger of a screwball comedy, with a clever, snappy script co-written by Billy Wilder. What's not to enjoy, comrade?
"Shattered Glass" (2003)
This highly-praised film version of the story of star reporter Stephen Glass -- who faked dozens of stories in the late 1990s -- includes one really great performance. It's not, as many felt, that of the lead, Hayden Christensen, who perfectly mimics the mannerisms of the real-life Glass yet never gives his performance enough warmth to explain why the guy was such a good con man. Rather, it's Peter Sarsgaard, who plays Glass's editor at The New Republic, who proves unflappable and resolute in the face of a manipulative, weasly -- yet wildly popular young reporter. It's a beautifully measured, deliciously nuanced performance, and well worth the price of admission alone. Provocative script as well, which can really make you think about the issues at hand.
"Gabriel Over The White House" (MGM, 1933)
A somewhat bizarre Depression-era political drama, which transforms the Capra-style populist comedy into a grim, protofascist litany. And I don't use the term "fascist" lightly -- it's meant quite literally. Walter Huston stars as Judson Hammond, a newly elected Republican President, appropriately cynical and snugly placed in the pockets of big business, who faces the same challenges as Roosevelt did in '32, namely, the continuing misery of the Great Depression and the disaffection and anger of millions of working class poor. Hammond has no intention of meeting any of his lofty campaign promises, and sees the Presidency itself as a bit of a lark. An ardent isolationist, he even jeers at the congratulatory telegrams sent to him by other world leaders ("Siam? Where's that?" he asks, in an early scene, prompting an easy comparison to our own geographically-challenged G.W. Bush, back in the days of the 2000 campaign...) Everything changes, however, when Hammond has an automobile-related brush with death, and comes back from the brink with a newfound commitment to saving his fellow man. Initially his impulses are markedly Rooseveltian -- he asks Congress to authorize a gigantic public works program to get the working poor back on their feet, and fires any of his old cronies who object. Faced with a backlash from his own party, and legislative opposition in Congress, he counters the accusation that he seeks to become a tyrant by embracing the idea, claiming that a benevolent dictatorship is more moral than neglecting the interests of "the People." Later, as he confronts an ongoing wave of gangster-related violence, Hammond takes a can-do attitude, and annihilates a Mob boss who won't buckle under... The scene in which the criminal kingpin is sentenced to die is spectacularly fascistic: Hammond's aide-de-camp (played by an under-used Franchot Tone), dressed in a gleaming military outfit, sits behind a huge Greco-Roman, art deco tribunal bench, and ardently praises Hammond's ability to "cut through the red tape of legal procedures and get back to the first principles -- an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life." Finally, Hammond uses a gigantic display of American military power to blackmail and intimidate the other nations into disarming, summoning an apocalyptic (and sadly, somewhat prophetic) vision of the horrors that await the world if the arms race should continue. The film is quite remarkable in its outright emulation of fascistic, authoritarian politics, and is unlike practically all other American political films of the era (which are much more prone to upholding the nation's fundamental democratic ideals). Still, it does capture the zeitgeist of the times -- the anxiety and desperation, the urge to find stability and salvation, and the fear of a renewed global war -- it just comes down on a side which didn't get much credence on this side of the Atlantic. Admittedly, this film is a dramatic failure -- for one thing, Huston was a horrid actor; and secondly the script is a bit brusque, talky and shrill -- but historically speaking, it's a fascinating document and deserves consideration in that regard. Those who see it as a parable for the New Deal are sadly mistaken, however -- I think the film's creators may have been far more enamored of Mussolini than they were of good old FDR, who actually did pull us back from the brink.
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