Monday, July 31, 2006


This film was already ably reviewed and disccused once.

I sat down and watched this movie again with an eye towards reading this movie as an attempt to demystify the "buddy cop" movie, because as I watched I was struck at how unlike so many cooperative detective films it is.

In the same way that Unforgiven effectively destroys the ideal Westerns of the past, Se7en (although an inferior film to Eastwood's classic) may be a nail in the coffin of the Lethal Weapons of the world. Let me be clear: David Fincher did not sit down and aim his film at a genre that his movie could not even be coded as. The intent of Se7en and Lethal Weapon or 48 Hrs. could not be more different, but this movie makes those other "buddy cop" movies seems piddling and trifling.

Brad Pitt's David Mills comes off to me as something of a meathead. The term is rather pejorative but it conveys exactly what I mean. He wants justice. He transfers into the Queens district homicide unit because he wants to catch bad people doing bad things. His character's focus on work and rightness can be encapsulated by his decision to move to a tougher more raw district- the move worsened his home life and wife's disposition substantially.

Morgan Freeman's Somerset is the streetwise, seen-it-all, world weary cop. He's a week from retirement. When they discover the first body he recognizes the work of a serial killer and wants no part of it. He is almost done with his tour of duty in the black depths of civilization, and would just as soon get out.

In investigating the first murder the dynamic between the two partners is clear: Somerset knows what is up, and Mills is a young hothead. Mills makes all sorts of typical Law and Order style wisecracks when they discover the obese corpse of John Doe's first victim. Somerset's glares of derision say it all- wiseacre dark humor doesn't have any part of this business.

That Mills is out of his element is made clear very quickly in the movie. He does not know how to proceed when a second body turns up and Somerset is off the case. He requires the help of Somerset to move to great works of literature to help to understand the relationship of the seven deadly sins to the killer and the crime.

The movie is slow for long stretches. This is because witing is integral to detectivework, according to Somerset. Mills hates the waiting. He wants to go do something. The brash, hotheaded youngster wants to go "kick some ass". When he finally gets a chance to hotdog it, his life is spared through only the (well its not mercy) choice of the killer. Not only is he not a great detective, he's not the most accomplished in a physically demanding footchase. If only the young hothead was played by Mel Gibson, THEN he would've gotten the killer.

The narrative of the film gives almost all the skill and talent to the experienced Somerset. The only exception is when Somerset refuses to go into Doe's house without a warrant- Mills resolves that problem quickly (but in a corrupt way, and police corruption comes full circle in the end of the film). The upshot, though, is that the young Mills gets more than his comeuppance for his wisecracks and hot headed behavior.

What a great film. Watch often.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Superman Returns


Dir: Bryan Singer (X-Men 1 & 2, The Usual Suspects)

Really? I never knew he left. Then again, Superman III and IV were so forgettable, he might as well have left. Expectantly, most efforts to remake films or rekindle franchises result in failure, collapsing under the weight of (un?)reasonable expectations and (un?)fair comparisons. At worst, it is an exercise of directorial hubris hellbent on making loads of cash. At best, it is pointless. However, Bryan Singer, who jumped the X-Men ship to direct this film, realizes that if something is only partially broke, only fix that part. Superman Returns starts where Superman II ends, ignoring the wastes of silver nitrate that were Superman III and IV. Singer's reverence for the first two is evident from the opening credits to John Williams' original score to the casting of Brandon Routh (a Christopher Reeve clone). In fact, Singer's direction of Routh as both Kent and Superman generates some eerie, yet oddly welcome, parallels to Reeve's Superman.

The film starts with Supe returning from a five-year absence. He originally left his salvation occupation to return home on word that astronomers believed they found Krypton (I was hoping for greater exploration of the reasons Superman left for Krypton, but we have to leave stuff for the sequels). The general narrative follows an expected pattern for such a film: Superman returns in dramatic fashion and Lex Luthor has designs to make billions on artificially created land, all the while the man in tights pines for Lois Lane. But, Kent's effort to pursue Lane are frustrated by her commitment to her son and his father.

I always found Superman as a character the most plastic of all the major comic superheroes: he's perfect and indestructible, save kryptonite (never really understood why his home planet would be poison to him on Earth, but that is another issue). So many other comic book characters (Spiderman, Batman, etc.) are humans with serious emotional and fragilities. But, Singer's choice to focus on Superman's devotion to Lane, complicated by the other two men in her life, really opens up a space for emotional exploration of the man of steel. While Routh demonstrates a certain acumen for such complexity, Kate Bosworth as the distant Lois Lane falls flat. In my opinion, Lane must be a difficult part to play; she is the object of desire for the most powerful man in world. Millions of women, and men, would throw themselves at the charming Superman. So, the actress must communicate an intangible quality that makes it at least remotely believable that Superman would fall for her. And while Bosworth eclipses Kidder in the looks department, she does not embody the quirkiness and edginess of Kidder's Lane.

With the exception of Bosworth, I had little problem with the film (although Luthor's scheme seems a bit nonsensical, even for a Superman film). Routh and Spacey are enjoyable as the major characters. While Routh respectfully channels Reeves, Spacey adds even more cunning to Hackman's Luthor. It may have gone a bit long (over 2 1/2 hours), but these types of films are designed to be entertaining while setting up for sequel; and the extra twenty minutes allowed for deeper character development that presumably will benefit the next film(s).

In the past few years, we have enjoyed a slew of exceptional superhero films, and Superman Returns clearly belongs in such company. Although Superman Returns does not usurp the Spiderman films or Batman Begins at top superhero cinema totem pole, it is definitely no League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. It is certainly worth a viewing, especially in the theater where one can relish the outstanding special effects.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

The Turn of the Screw


Dir: Ben Bolt (The Big Town)

Masterpiece Theater adaptation of the Henry James novel. This is a very effective and thought provoking work. Clearly a case of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts, there is little about the acting, set design or direction that stands out. The piece is in line with many other very capable, well worth watching television productions. But here the writing and editing has taken the work of a notoriously difficult author and packaged the main themes very well.

Jodhi May (who has made a career of Victorian period pieces) is hired as a nanny for some rich orphans. The kids, it turns out, were previously in the charge some caretakers who were ambiguously bad. When those dead caretakers return as ghosts, fraternizing again with the children, May must defend the young ones. Not from the supernatural per se, mind you, but from the corrupting influence of bad examples which will certainly make the kids rotten and send them to hell.

It might sound a little absurd, but the story works very effectively as a parable for the overprotection of children and the attempt by proper society to sequester itself from evil, fornication, and bad influence. With contemporary eyes, I think James was alluding to molestation, but that is never unpacked. In any event, it is the nanny's desperation to shield the children from corruption, and the toll it takes on herself and the especially the children, that makes this an interesting pyschological narrative. The main point, that you can screw up someone just as much cordoning them off them letting them run free, is well taken.

The two child actors are fine, especially young Jow Sowerbutts (yikes, sorry about the name kid) as Miles. The uber maturity that authors write children with here actually works, as he exploits the nanny's puritanical nature in his bid for freedom and self expression.

This is one of those films that makes me want to read the original book. The writing in this film is very taught, and I wonder what was left behind. James was famous for exposing the psychological motivations of his characters (in such an impenetrable and long winded way that I find his books quite the struggle), but it is in those motivations that I found the greatest entertainment.

Get great source material, and then get out of the way. That's the recipe for a pretty good picture.


Thursday, July 27, 2006



Dir: Herbert Ross (Funny Lady; The Sunshine Boys; The Sever-Per-Cent Solution; The Goodbye Girl; Steel Magnolias; Boys on the Side)

Can it be I got this far in my life having never seen this film? I guess I had good instincts. But now at least I know the context for that song.

Look, Footloose has its heart in the right place, I suppose. A bunch of kids rise up against their oppressive parents, assert the timeless freedom of youth and claim their own identities. We learn that overprotectiveness can be just as harmful as neglect, that part of growing up is making mistakes, and that the human spirit cannot be contained. It is a fine theme, and has been done well.

But Footloose wants to have it both ways. It wants to embody a transgressive subject matter, but still play in Peoria. So instead of sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll, we get petting, dancing, and Kenny Loggins. I mean, all the kids want to do is dance. That's their big bid against the system? And not even Dirty Dancing, but like doing the hand jive in a line, dancing tame enough to be in Grease! No doubt this is the reason for the film's lasting appeal; a generation of youngsters were able to digest it in a way a really great movie like Rebel Without A Cause eludes. Footloose makes you feel good and want to dance; Rebel challenges you and makes you want to cry. But you can't embody youthful rebellion and make an uplifiting film at the same time!

On its own terms, Footloose is OK. A surprise is a young Sarah Jessica Parker, genuine in this role in way I don't remeber seeing her elsewhere. Bacon is hunky, but the unfortunate Lori Singer is a real eyesore. When even the script is calling you out for being too thin, its time for the casters to develop a little social conscience. John Lithgow really should pick better roles; he is a better actor than most of the scripts he takes on.

The choreography is actually really solid technically, but completely out of character. These are high school kids, they want to dance to pop music, but Lynne Taylor-Corbett has them doing balletic arm swining and expressive full body twists (oh yeah, and doing Tarzan swings on a chain in an abandoned factory). This isn't West Side Story; just have the kids jump around a little, OK?

What happens when you want a safe story line that preaches generational rebellion? You get Footloose, clean and safe and wildly popular.

I've seen worse.


Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Hiroshima Mon Amour


Dir: Alain Resnais (Night and Fog)

Wow. Wow. I am prone to hyperbole here on the BBE, but this movie is really something special. It cuts to the core of the human experience. Consistently it delivers universal insights that blossom from the indiosyncratic stories of extraordinary people in extraordinary situations. It is a poem on love, on death and mutilation, on loss and the flimsy stuff of memory, a tragic and beautiful testament to the power of what humans can do when they put their minds to it. It is a film about unspeakable evil and destruction, told thourgh a powerful love story. It is a moving experience, one of the very best movies I have ever seen.

Emmanuelle Rive plays a French actress who has an affair in Japan. She is filming an anti-war movie with Hiroshima as the backdrop. The film's opening montage is a brief moment of genius, juxtaposing the intertwined interracial lovers with reflections on the representation of the atomic bomb in post-war Japenese public memory. We will soon learn that these people from different worlds hold similar scars, the way that war and destruction rips apart your very identity. Death and deformity abound, and while we may try to preserve our happiness in interpersonal relationships, they too are fleeting and subject to the barriers of time, culture, and our separate bodies.

These are heavy themes, but the film is never leaden. The pace is brisk in terms of plot, but contemplative when telling the small stories that stand in for all of humanity. Really just a few conversations interspersed among shots of Hiroshima voiced over in poetry, the film is enigmatic and yet so focused.

If my descriptions have a strong "one the one hand, on the other" feel, it is a reflection of this nearly perfect movie. It does everything it attempts to well, and it attempts wildly different things. All of the parts are exemplary, making a whole that is even better. Its lines will haunt you, its imagery will stay with you, its story will move you, its acting will grip you, and its effect will change you.

BME. Loved it, loved it, loved it.


The Little Foxes


Dir: William Wyler (Ben-Hur; Roman Holiday; The Best Years of Our Lives; Wuthering Heights)

Very entertaining Bette Davis vehicle, at the height of her enormous powers as the most electrifying actress in American cinema. Almost no one has filled a screen like her, her body a bomb that obliterates anyone with a look, pose, head movement, or just her presence. She plays one of three siblings who seek money for a business scheme in turn of the century Alabama. To get it, they must convince her dying husband to give up the money. He knows the plan will exploit the townspeople, and that the money is what his cold and vindicative wife wants, so he refuses.

Caught in the middle is Davis' daughter, coming of age and searching for her way in the adult world. As my viewing partner stressed on me, all of the political machinations between the siblings are a side story to the mother/daughter relationship, implied throughout the film but brought to a central place in the film's closing scenes. The last shot is so powerful that it is creepy, a perfect combination of Bette Davis' raw talent and a smart script saving its best for last.

The acting is very stong throughout. The plot is intriguing, and the backstabbing between the partners unpredicatble yet within character. The love story is a little flat, but serves an important narrative purpose. Wyler's mis en scene is very nice, making the entire town come alive with plenty of exterior shots on the streets and among people.

But let's face it; you watch a Bette Davis movie for Bette Davis. I fear she is being lost among the Hepburns as the great actress of the Golden Age. She is always bracing, and a dynamo unlike any other actor.

See this and many more of her films.


Cousin Bette


Dir: Des McAnuff (The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle)

Poor adaptation of a novel by Balzac (steady now!). Jessica Lange is the spinster younger sister of a dead socialite. The family, it turns out, is less well off than they seem. There is some sort of entanglement among a variety of mistresses, attempts to marry people off, and sexual indiscretions that I am sure made lots of sense in the novel. But it is clear from the get go that this film team is not up to the challenge of making a period parlor comedy, with the labrynthine relationships between characters, come off in two hours. A really sloppy job of editing and writing throughout, with great leaps in the story that have no explanation whatsoever.

Hugh Laurie is one of my favorite comedic actors (haven't seen House yet though). He is lovestruck with Elisabeth Shue, another of my favorites but for reasons that have nothing to do with her acting, which has and always will be dreadful (Palmetto, shudder). Bob Hoskins is here too, so with Lange this was not the fault of second rate talent in front of the camera. Throughout the film, I found myself questioning who was scheming and who sincere love, a tragic flaw for a story that relies on our witty understanding that the characters are being manipulated farcically. Aden Young is a starving artist with no work ethic that everyone seems to fall in love with for no reason. But he also is supposed to be seducing everyone to destroy them, or maybe he is double crossing the women who control him? I don't know, and I suspect neither do the writer or director.

The costumes are pretty. The music is really lovely, I mean that. A fantastic score. But as a droll tale of sexual manners, this is pretty confusing stuff. Stick with Balzac (stop that snickering).


The Lower Depths (Donzoko)


Dir: Akira Kurosawa (Harakiri; The Bad Sleep Well; Kagemusha; Ikiru)

A oft flimed play from Maxim Gorky, the Lower Depths examines the dregs of society: bums, gamblers, drunks, thieves, the loveless, the wandering, the sick. Their lives are cyclical dramas of fatalistic recognition of their lot, then dreams, then solace in hedonism. The pressing cruelty of poverty hangs over them all, and any attempts at escape are inevitably tragic.

Kurosawa retains the dramatic feel of the play, essentially using one room for the entire film, with characters coming in and out in different states of sobriety. The pace is almost maddeningly slow, with speech after speech developing the themes. The film requires quite an investment of intellectual energy, since plot is thin and one of the main points of the film is the relentless monotony of the lives of those who have abandoned ambition or self improvement.

Toshiro Mifune is a thief who has fallen in love with the sister-in-law of the oppressive landlord of this boarding house. The mistress of the house is jealous, and devises a Double Indemnity like plot to off her husband. This is all rather secondary, just one personal narrative in a film dominated by the supporting actors and an ensemble story.

This is certainly a love it or hate it movie, with the pace even getting to this viewer at times. This is Russian literature at its bleakest, with no escape from the inevitability of pain and suffering. If one can stomach the subject matter, Kurosawa has certainly given room for his stable of actors to embody the play.

This film stands alone on the source material. I'm not sure there is a ton of value added here from AK. But not messing up an already good thing is often harded that it sounds. Jean Renoir also made a version of this play; I will be interested to see how the two compare.


Monday, July 17, 2006



Dir: Jean-Luc Godard (Breathless; A Woman is a Woman; Masculine-Feminine; Week-End)

I believe this was my first Godard film, but I Just Saw's own Ron has praised him before me. He finds Godard difficult, clearly brilliant but opaque. Alphaville may be exhibit A in that reading, a movie with a lot going on but stubbornly unwilling to open itself up to interpretation.

Alphaville is a futuristic technocracy, increasingly ruled by a genocidal computer that turns the city's population into unfeeling robots themselves. A secret agent from abroad arrives to retrieve that computer's programmer. Half noir, half science fiction, the film is at one level right out of the series of minimalist French detective films that I have been watching lately. On the other hand, it often feels like a script of the original Star Trek. Think of the scene is South Park when the home schooled girl is asked out to the dance.

The movie is at its best when it is highly poetic. Alpha 60 is certainly the most learned maniacal computer ever filmed, philosophically self aware and dedicated to a peculiar noramtive vision of existence. Godard does not really address the AI question, but this computer is something more than machine. The hard boiled detective stuff is always welcome, and the dark sexuality of it is well done here.

There were some things that rubbed me the wrong way, though. I know it's petty, but the voice of Alpha 60 continually reminded me of someone who was burping their way through the alphabet (Alpha 60 beers maybe?). More seriously, I never understood exactly why people followed the oppressive rules either. Peple seemed aware of the outside, even people who immigrated into Alphaville towed the line. Small violations seemed to go unpunished. What is the appeal of the emotionless way of life?

But the movie works as a series of aphorisms and puzzles. Our hero, Lemmy Caution, in another Star Trek move, gives the computer a philosophical puzzle that it cannot solve in order to defeat it. Often times, characters speak lines that drip with poetry and insight. Alphaville is in that class of reflective science fiction like 2001 or Solaris, using the future to make very lofty proclamations about the human condition. I can dig that sort of stuff, absolutely.

Very hard movie to blog. I didn't hate it, but I didn't really enjoy myself either. It's like reading high theory; good for you, but a real workout. No wonder Ron says the academic film scholars love Godard!


Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The Grapes of Wrath


Dir: John Ford (Wagon Master)

I know I am supposed to critique a movie within the technological and cultural possibilities of the times. It makes no sense to look at the original King Kong and say it was a bad film because it wasn't as visually stunning as the remake. You work with what is available at the time.

And I also realize that filming this novel was itself a risky political move, with its fierce defense of unionization and the rights of workers. For that, Ford is to be commended. But I had forgotten about the cardinal sin of this film, the glaring omission of the novel's stroke of genius at the end. Seeing it for the second time, I remembered my anger at leaving out the final scene, so intense that I run the risk of hating the film.

This is entirely a product of my reverance for Steinbeck's book, without a doubt one of the most moving and technically perfect works of fiction ever created. It is definitely on my short list of favorite novels, and I am protective of it. And I know that I am commiting a Kong fallacy by expecting them to put that final scene into a film from 1940. But I can't help myself.

Other than that, The Grapes of Wrath is tremendous. Fonda is the perfect Tom Joad, cold and distant but intense and powerful. The entire family is cast of chracter actors who convincingly pull off the desperate poverty of the family. The politics remain strong yet seductive, just like in the book. And Ford has really pulled off a triumph with his camera. If you have never experienced the candlelight scene near the beginning of the film, you don't understand what lighting can do for a picture. Numerous examples of great camera work are rife in this film.

My gut reaction, though, is anger; not at Ford but at the times. That such common sense subject matter would be controversial is one thing; but censoring such a moving image of human compassion and desperation as Steinbeck's ending is a real crime.


Tuesday, July 11, 2006


Dir: Paul Haggis

See my previous review.

Whereas Brokeback Mountain improved under a second viewing, I found that Crash diminshed somewhat. Not that it is less than awe inspiring, not that it still isn't one of the best race pictures I have ever seen. But the visceral reaction to the intertwining plot lines, the shock at the characters and the unexpected twists that occur in seemingly every scene loses some of its punch when we know what is going to happen.

I panned the acting in the first review, but that was too judgmental. I was letting Fraser and Bullock stand in for the the rest of the cast. Ludacris continues to stand out for his performance. Cheadle and Dillon are really great. And the rest of the supporting cast seemed much more compelling than it did last time. The plot and writing are so good that the first time through you can't really pay attention to anything else.

Boy, tough call between this and Brokeback. Two very, very good films.




Dir: Martin Ritt (The Spy Who Came In From the Cold; Hombre; Norma Rae; Stanley and Iris)

Paul Newman is the greatest ever screen actor. I have been known to say that about James Stewart, but a recent run on Newman's films has me reconsidering that question. Hud is yet another film that showcases his power, intensity, sexuality and undeniable likeableness even while being a heel.

Philosophical Western that tells the story of three generations of ranchers. Hud is the son of a traditional man of the land, steadfast in his virtue and unwavering in his belief in doing the right thing. Hud's impressionable newphew Lonnie admires his womanizing and hard living, and the youngster stands on the precipice of making decisions that will shape his character as a man. When the family ranch faces a crisis, each man must come to grips with his ethics and his mettle.

Patricia Neal, so good in A Face in the Crowd, is again remarkable as the men's sexually frustrated housekeeper. She flirts with Hud, is desired by Lonnie, but is eventually hurt by the family's destruction. She is beautiful through her acting, and never seems to disappoint.

When Hud's faults as a man cause him to fail as things go south, Newman's acting gets a real chance to shine. He becomes frighteningly self destructive, angry, unethical, and hopeless. Hud does not shy from this tradgedy. The movie is shot with reverence and emotion, with long sunset vistas and grand sweeping looks at the wide prarie. Many memorable scenes are to be found, especially surrounding the cattle who represent love of land to the great Melvyn Douglas.

Larry McMurtry provided the source material, and also wrote the beautiful Brokeback Mountain. I have not read any of his novels, but his films certainly are powerful. I highly recommend Hud, Paul Newman with yet another expression of his genius.


Friday, July 07, 2006

The Big Lebowski


Dir: Joel Coen

A bit of a lost Coen Brothers movie for me, I saw it in the theater and that was about it. But it has gained a cult following despite me, so it was high time to reintroduce myself to it.

The strength of Lebowski is in its collection of anti-heroes, Jeff Bridges and John Goodman. This may be the big man's comedic masterpiece, a well written character that is taken to the next level but his empassioned performance. The combination of paranoia, fool's confidence, intelligence and total ignorace is very fun to watch, and gives Goodman a great platform to show off his talents. Bridges is far more constrained, reduced to befuddlement at his predicament. He is stoic and selfish while the crazyness surrounds him. But "The Dude" does get the best catch phrases, a dynamic that contributes to the film's popularity more so than the story itself.

The weakness of Lebowski is in that story, an attempted deconstrcution of the kindapping mystery that I think trips over its own cleverness at times. In Raising Arizona, the humor was character based and the silly plot never got in the way. Here, the Coens put a lot of stock in twists and turns in the story, and that can be tricky if you don't pull it off prefectly. The Usual Suspects gets it; Hitchcock got it; Lebowski misses the mark.

The film has some very interesting characters who unfortunately get all mixed up in a passable but hardly transcendent storyline. This is like a high class SNL skit, some resonant phrases and crazy characters but not much else. That's entertaining, sure, and "The Marcus abides" may even make it into my lexicon. But this is not among the Coen Brothers' best.


Thursday, July 06, 2006

Autumn Sonata


Dir: Ingmar Bergman (The Magic Flute; Hour of the Wolf; Persona; Scenes From a Marriage; The Virgin Spring; Cries and Whispers; Fanny and Alexander; Wild Strawberries)

One day I will see a Bergman film that isn't amazing. The day I watched Autumn Sonata was not one of those days. The hands down greatest moviemaker ever to live astounds once again with this examination of a mother-daughter relationship. Tried and true subject matter, the perfectionist and distant mother and her reserved and resentful daughter, eleveated into high art by the true genius of Bergman's writing. I am now ready to call him the greatest contemporary dramatist as well; each movie could be staged in a theater. His dialgoue is brilliant, and his ability to capture emotion and expose it completely is among the greatest writers I have ever encoutered.

At some point, I will have to get away from my Bergman hyperbole. But every film I encounter from him just reinforces my awe. In this one, we also get the talents of Ingrid Bergman (no relation), no less compelling in her older years. She plays a concert pianist, fovever on the road and neglectful of her family. Liv Ullmann (as always, wonderful Liv) is the mousy daughter. The first half of the film captures the awkwardness of their relationship when Ingrid makes an unexpected visit after years away. The unknown presence of her other daughter, crippled by a musular disease, immediately sets the visit off on the wrong foot. After ably trying to make things work, and cover up their mutual dislike, the mother and daughter have it out in the film's second half.

Those scenes are so powerful, so honest, so well acted and written that I was dumbstruck. Bergman is the best writer of female characters I have ever seen, in any genre. Father/son movies are common, but I found this to perfectly and uniqulley capture the other familial binary without the customary sap or maudliness, at least as far as I can understand that relationship. The trademark Bergman closeups are here, long takes that do indeed feel like scenes in a play with intense focus on facial expressions and the nuance of reaction that great actors can convey.
The movie, by the way, is worth seeing just to experience Ingrid Bergman working in her native language. That husky voice she used so well in her sheepish role in Murder on the Orient Express is here confident, demonstrating her amazing range as an actress, truly one of the best ever.

This is definitely among the best of the best catalogoue of film. Yet another entry into the essentials. I cannot be more effusive in my praise for this man and his art.


Monday, July 03, 2006

The Caine Mutiny


Dir: Edward Dmytryk (Murder, My Sweet; Back to Bataan; The End of the Affair; The Carpetbaggers)

One of favorite movies from my youth, The Caine Mutiny is a real sleeper of a character study. It chronicles the slow deterioration from sanity of Navy Capt. Queeg (Humphrey Bogart) and the eventual displacement of him from command at war by a disparate group of officers aboard the U.S.S. Caine. While the first half seems to plod a bit, obsessing about small details to build the case for mutiny, it is the second half of the films that is truly brilliant. This is one of those films that, whenever it is on TV, I find myself watching, making that court martial sequence of my most familair in cinema.

The film has flaws, for sure. Robert Francis does nothing for me as the green Lt. Keith, and his love story with May Wynn is pretty silly. But other than that, the acting is exemplary. When you have Lee Marvin and Claude Aikens in bit supporting parts, you are doing OK. Van Johnson is very compelling as the number two in command, who makes up for his lack of intelligence with courage and strength of convinction. Fred MacMurray, easily one of my favorite actors, is great as the oily and cynical novelist whose theories of psychology drive the bid for mutiny.

Bogart gives one of his best performances as the paranoid Queeg. The iconic rolling steel balls in his hand is just one great touch. The "strawberries" scene has made its made into popular culture as an example of paranoia. Bogart shows a real range here, very subtly moving from crusading captain to broken old man. Casablanca is, obviously, his masterpiece. But I think The Caine Mutiny belongs on the list of his most compelling triumphs.

Jose Ferrer steals the show, though. As the shrewd defense lawyer, he is the driving force behind the fascinating defense as it unfolds. What I love about the second half so much is that it gets you to sympathize with the mutineers, and then turn all of that on its head, forcing us to reconsider who was really at fault. Ferrer's closing speech of the film is one of the best acted, written, and narratively satisfying climaxes to a film that I have ever seen. I invariably repeat it if I have Caine on DVD (which I did this time), and never grow tired of it. A real perfect storm of the elements that can make films so interesting.

The Caine Mutiny is a very thoughtful exploration of duty and the psychological impact of war. There is a whole lot of acting talent on the screen, and the film is able to overcome its more trite elements. I very highly recommend it for those interested in either war or courtroom movies.


Sunday, July 02, 2006



Dir: Kenneth Johnson (V [writing and directing]; Lots of other TV work, first feature film)

Let me quote Ron; "The value of superhero films (comic books, etc.), at least the good ones, is that they operate from a spectacular premise that provides the intellectual and narrative space to ruminate over more complex ethical and social issues." Then I guess Steel is not "one of the better ones," unless space age sonic pulse military weapons manufactured by a video game company and placed in the hands of Los Angeles gangs so that they can defeat a seven foot tall motorcylcle vigilante dressed in a home-smelted steel suit is a "complex ethical and social issue."

In somewhat belated honor of his NBA championship, and in the interests of bad movie night, I watched Shaquille O'Neal's third film. He is D.C. comic "legend" Steel, a former weapons designer for the military (work with me here) who resigns after his sort-of love interest is paralyzed by the negligence of a rival designer. The bad guy gets a job with an arms dealer, who has a front business making aracade games, but at night hires gang members to rob banks for him. Shaq figures out what is up when the weapons make the news, and with the help of his friends becomes the armor wearing vigilante. His character name is John Steel, and his mighty hammer (which he never hits with anything, I am incensed to inform you) that becomes a laser gun blows up lots of stuff good.

Obviously, the story is dumb. My favorite part is how no one in the government really seems to care that their top secret weapons are now being used by 18 year olds to rob the Federal Reserve. It's up to Shaq to save the day, because the NSA can't be troubled to track down the only three people in the world who can build these things. But we don't watch bad movies for good plot!

The film becomes Robocop in the second half, as the metal encased Shaq starts dispensing one liners while kicking ass. Is it bad when you are getting out acted by a cyborg? How could Peter Weller be more human playing a robot than Shaq is playing a human? Everyone else in the film is acting up a storm, though. Judd Nelson (yes!) is our villian, just sinister enough to make you think twice about having a beer with him. Annabeth Gish is the friend interest, and does everything her role calls for without cracking up at playing opposite Shaq.

The best part of the film was definitely watching Shaq's image managment. The bad guys get to kill people, but Shaq does not. I keep alluding to the weird status of his relationship with Gish. They are very close, he has deep feelings for her (at least the script implies that, of course Shaw can't quite communicate an emotion, any emotion, through his acting) but nothing remotely sexual is allowed to take place. Where every other movie would have them kiss, here they hug. Is Shaq not allowed to fall in love with a wee white woman in a wheelchair? Clearly the PG-13 rating does not preculde a little deeper intimacy between these two. Or are they really only supposed to be good friends? Is the spectre of hulking O'Neal swallowing up the white woman just too much for Peoria?

Shame on this movie for balking at such a plot point. Shame on Judd Nelson for acting like he does. Shame on the movie for thinking that Steel and half of the L.A. underworld can find the bad guy's hideout by looking on the internet, but the entire US military can't figure that out (they literally advertise an auction for the weapons on a webpage; I guess the Special Forces don't have Google). And shame on this movie for not being quite bad enough to really be a great bad movie night experience.

For those really interested in the cultural constuction of race only. Wait a minute, maybe Steel is a place to work out social and ethical issues; it is a great movie!


Beat the Devil


Dir: John Huston (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre)

Remember in Capote (see also here), when Truman is sitting around the kitchen table relating stories of the movie he wrote for Bogart that was filmed in Italy? He said no one understood that movie. And he was right; it is very odd.

Beat the Devil is a satire, but it refuses to let you in on the joke. Bogart is with a group of uranium speculators who are trying to make a land deal in Africa. Then end up on a boat with a British couple, he a pseudo-gentleman and she a beauty with a penchant for embellishment. All of these characters are over the top; the paranoid speculators, the flighty femme fatale, the super-British Brit. The increasingly bizzare set of circumstances they find themselves in, and their steadfast refusal to meet those circumstances with anything but more scheming and backstabbing, is where the humor lies. The movie is like Huston's Maltese Falcon, but so much so that we laugh at it.

None of this is clear on its face. The first half is just the prelude to the obviously satirical elements of the second half. Actually, the first half is a bit of a jumbled mess, which you would see as part of the humor if you knew it was humor in the first place. But once the boat ride begins, then the movie settles into a good comedic groove, giving me several out loud laughs.

The cast certainly helps things along. Bogart, Peter Lorre, Jennifer Jones, and especially Robert Morley (one of my favorite character actors) all do their roles without a hint of being in on the joke. Capote and Huston have written a comedy that constrains their actors within dramatic acting conventions. That is supposed to be the humor, but it is very difficult to pull off.

Beat the Devil is an interesting movie experience. I wager subsequent viewings would unlock more of the script. But it is hardly necessary to track down, unless like me you had a curiosity about Capote's work after the biopic.