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Posted: Tue Jun 10, 2008 6:46 pm Reply with quote
Site Admin Joined: 12 May 2004 Posts: 4246 Location: Montreal
7th Heaven
Written by...Syd

7th Heaven was the first film to win the Best Director Award and one of the three films, all silents, for which Janet Gaynor won the first Best Actress Award. I often see it cited as the primary film she won for, but I'm not sure why that is; it could just as easily been Sunrise. Maybe it's alphabetical order.

I had no idea what the film was other that it being a romantic comedy, and I was wrong about that. It's a romantic melodrama. When we first meet Diane (Janet Gaynor) she is being whipped by her sister and being sent out to fence stolen goods to feed her sister's absinthe habit. Definitely not a comedy. We have already met Chico (Charles Farrell), a large, muscular man who works in the Paris sewers collecting rags. Chico is good-natured ("I'm a remarkable fellow") and has dreams of becoming a street cleaner and having a pretty blonde wife. As the film's opening title card assures us, you can rise from the sewer to the stars through courage, so we know he will rise in life. However, Diane is a pretty brunette.

Diane's rich aunt and uncle return to Paris to help out the two girls and take them to live with them. The older sister, Nana (Gale Sondegaard, who would win the first best supporting actress award for a later film) is ecstatic, but when the uncle asks Diane if they're good girls, Diane answers honestly, no. [In addition to being a thief, Nanal is a prostitute, and Diane is probably one too.] The uncle throws some money at them and leaves.

Nana is understandably pissed, grabs her whip, chases Diane into the street, whips her half to death and attempts to strangle her. (Definitely not a comedy.) Fortunately, this is near a manhole cover, and Chico rescues Diane. Diane is unconscious, and Chico asks a friend why, if there were a God, why would he make this creature only to have her whipped and strangled? And did God create Chico? Chico made two donations to the church in his life, the first five francs to raise him to the heights of street sweeping, the second five francs to give him a beautiful blonde wife. Chico is still a sewer worker, the only girl God sent him is this guttersnipe, and Chico is now an atheist. A few minutes later, the local priest gives Chico the appointment as street cleaner. Diane, meanwhile, homeless and destitute, is ready to stab herself with Chico's knife. Chico catches her at the last minute, and starts to walk away. Then stops. Then starts to walk. Then stops. Then starts to walk. Then he turns around because he's starting to feel sorry for Diane. In other words, he's doomed.

Shortly after, the police pick up Nana for soliciting and Nana narcs on her sister. Chico stops the policeman and says, no, Diane is his wife. The policeman says okay, but the authorities are going to have to come around to see if he's telling the truth. Chico's worried that he'll be caught and have to go back to the sewers. Diane suggests she poses as his wife, an idea Chico goes for. ("You have a good head." "And you have a good heart.") Chico is now really and truly doomed. He's also had his prayers answered, but didn't notice. Maybe he has a real thing for blondes.

Chico takes Diane home. We see them climbing the stairs, while the camera moves up with them, through the landings as if the outer wall of the building is transparent. (I really like that tracking shot.) When they get to the sixth floor, there is a ladder leading to Chico's apartment. When Diane enters, she is entranced by the apartment, which is suprisingly big and has an extraordinary view. She exclaims, "It's Heaven!" Since it's on the seventh floor, we have the title of the movie. And since Chico remarks how close it is to the stars, we see he has fulfilled the conditions of the opening title card.

He puts Diane in the bed and she expects/fears he will join him, but he takes a pillow and blanket and goes to sleep under the stars. Diane is instantly in love. Chico will take a little longer.

Up until we get to the apartment, the film has mostly been a melodrama, and an outstanding one. Not it becomes a romance, and often gets cloying. However, when Chico finally asks Diane to marry him (proposing by buying her a wedding dress), the Germans invade a few minutes later, which seems a drastic overreaction which is not usually mentioned as a cause of World War I.

Chico's in the first unit to be activated, and has to leave within the hour, which leaves no time for a formal wedding, so Chico and Diane marry themselves and exchange religious medallions which the priest had earlier given Chico. Chico has to leave (with no time to consummate the marriage). As soon as he's gone, Nana shows up to take advantage of her sister, tries to steal Diane's medallion, and starts to whip her. Diane, who was a timid mouse for most of the movie, fights back, seizes the whip, and gives Nana a taste of her own medicine. Nana runs away, never to return. Diane exclaims, "Chico, I am brave!"

Chico is sent to the front, while Diane goes to work in a munitions factory. At 11:00 a.m. each day (the time of Chico left), they talk to each other, saying, "Chico--Diane--Heaven!," which is how Chico says, "I love you."

Finally Chico is hit and Diane gets the notice of his death. However, she refuses to believe Chico is dead because she believes she would sense it, and, besides, Chico talks to her every day at 11:00 a.m. However, when the priest returns Chico's medallions, and tells Diane that Chico told her he died looking up at the sky, Diane is forced to believe. This happens at 11:00 a.m., November 11, 1918, and the streets erupt in celebration. For the armistice, not Chico's death.

Then we see that through the crowds, a man is fighting his way through the crowds. It's Chico! He staggers up seven flights of stairs, shouting Diane, and they are reunited joyfully, although Chico is now blind. (How he managed to find the house and climb seven flights if he's blind is not explained.) Chico may be blind, but he's regained his faith, and the remembered sight of Diane in her wedding dress still fills his eyes. Besides, he's a remarkable fellow and thinks he'll regain his sight, and Diane is now brave.
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Posted: Sun Aug 03, 2008 11:49 am Reply with quote
Site Admin Joined: 12 May 2004 Posts: 4246 Location: Montreal
Just Imagine (1930)
Written by...Syd

Just Imagine (1930) is a film that Nancy describes as the "first sf musical," and it probably is or at least comes close. It's also weird as hell, which seems to have been par for the course at the time. We've also seen mention of The Lottery Bride, Let's Go Native, Glorifying the American Girl and Madam Satan. Also check out The Hollywood Revue of 1929, which will be showing on TCM next month, the best picture nominee which is nothing so much as a glorified talent show. There presumably were normal musicals at the time but it seems to have been a golden age for really strange musicals.

This one starts out with a New York street scene in 1880 where there is very little traffic, it's safe to cross the street because the horse-drawn carriages will stop for you and you and the horses can nod greetings. Then we see the same corner in 1930, when trying the same thing has you dodging traffic and getting hit by a car. So just imagine what 1980 will be like!

And we see a fantastic New York skyline with all the lanes of flying cars orderly rushing to work, where people are given alphanumeric codes as "names" (which, since none seem to be more than 4 symbols long, means there are only about two million possible "names"), and where the government chooses who you marry, although you get to submit requests. And this is a problem, because LN-18 (Maureen O'Sullivan) and J-21 (John Garrick) want to marry, but MT-3 Kenneth Thompson) also wants LN-18 and men get to file the applications. (Sexism is not dead, just computerized.) MT-3 runs a publication, which is deemed more of an accomplishment than J-21 being a pilot in a world of autopilots, so it looks like he is out of luck. The two meet in traffic, and go out of lane to park, which entails turning on the rotors within each wing and turning off the propeller. (If you did it in the opposite order you'd be a hole in the sidewalk.) J-21 walks the wing of his plane to show RN-18 the notice that MT-3 has been approved. He has four months to appeal. What can he do to impress people? RT-42 (James Albertson) is his roommate, who has a thing going with D-6 (Marjorie White, a dead ringer for Joan Blondell) but the marriage question doesn't seem to be coming up there. D-6 drops by and shows off her reversible dress, giving us a nice view of her skivvies.

Meanwhile, scientists are attempting an experiment to revive a man who was struck by lightning in 1930. This man is El Brendel, a faux-Swedish comedian who was popular at the time and had a long career. He's partly in the film to give people a chance to explain what's going on, and partly to crack one-liners in his fake Swedish accent.

Since he needs to get acclimatized, J-21 and RT-42 take him in. He calls himself 0 (Single O), which name, surprisingly, hasn't been taken yet. (No word on 007.) They take him out to eat (a hearty meal is now a pill), drinks are now round pills served in tiny bottles but have quite a kick. (Light wine and beer, it explained, may approved again in a couple of years. So apparently for now people have to settle for highballs.) And babies are dispensed from a vending machine, which makes Single-O long for the good old days.

Anyway, J-21 and LN-18 are forbidden to see each other, but of course do anyway, and kiss passionately, and J-21 gets to sing several boring songs. ("I Am the Words, You Are the Melody" and "There's Something About an Old-Fashioned Girl") MT-3 shows up, but not R2D2 or MST3K. J-21 hides, but Single-O, looking for more booze pills, blows his cover, and there is a somewhat wimpy confrontation.

What J-21 needs is to do something impressive and B-26 (Mischa Auer (!)) has a suggestion: the legendary inventor Z-4 has invented a rocketship to go to Mars and needs a pilot. The round trip, including five days on Mars, will take four months, which will enable J-21 to make a last minute appeal and save LN-18 from a fate worse than having babies!

The training is interesting because there are about thirty people trained and the rocket has only a crew of two. The reason for this is so we can have a production number, "The Drinking Song," with all the trainees slamming their little bottles on the table, two by two, and lifting them again. This sounds silly, and is, but is also a catchy song and a fun production. They could have cut all the other songs out, but this one is worth seeing.

So J-21 is the pilot, RT-42 goes along because they're roommates, and Single-O stows away because he's their roommate too. Fortunately there must be excess food pills and oxygen, because Single-O is not thrown out the airlock. (It doesn't occur to J-21 and RT-42 to stash LN-18 and D-6 aboard.)

They all get to Mars (another spectacular set), which is mostly inhabited by scantily clad Mars women and few Mars men. The queen of the Mars Women, Loo-Loo (Joyzelle) is really, really friendly, as are her subjects, including the male Loko (Ivan Linow). Lots of gay innuendo here, and not subtle. Loo-Loo is the woman wearing the mica dress in the picture that Nancy downloaded for us a while back.

Loo-Loo is trying to warn our astronaut about something or someone called Boo-Boo, but she can't communicate except by gestures and few words and the Martians are pretty much brain-damaged anyway, so it is hopeless. However Boo-Boo shows up, and is not a little cartoon bear or a companion of Rat-Pfink, but Loo-Loo's twin, as evil and murderous and Loo-Loo is sweet and very, very friendly. As J-21 soon figures out,
every Martian has a twin, one twin being good and one evil. Loko's evil twin is named Boko, and, instead of tweaking guy's cheeks, he conks them over the head.

Anyway, our three astronauts are abducted for four days, where they get to witness a really hot dance number where scantily clad evil Martian women cavort around a big-eyed four-armed idol which would later be used in other movies. Rescued with two hours to spare, our heroes make their ship barely in time despite getting chased by both good and bad Martians, and blast off for Earth. But what evidence do they have that they were on Mars to begin with?

It's now the day they're expected, which, of course, is also LN-18's wedding day. B-26 looks mournful (he is Mischa Auer, after all) because he hadn't heard from the spaceship, but then the word comes. But it's too late for LN-18, or is it? D-6 runs off to delay things by claiming MT-3 has, er, compromised himself with her, and she lays it on think to delay the judge long enough for the astronauts to arrive. But J-21 still needs to prove his accomplishment, and apparently having a rocket screaming through the atmosphere is not enough. However, when they were leaving Mars, Boko was trying to stop Single-O from leaving, and Single-O found his glass jaw, or, rather, glass earlobe. He abducted Boko and presents him to the judge, which proves (1) J-21, RT-42 and Single-O have been to Mars, and (2) They just traveled for two months in a small spacecraft with a homicidal maniac and survived.
So this is an odd blend of World of Tomorrow, Brave New World, social satire, vaudeville routine, the Three Stooges go to Mars, and the March of the Time Machine, and songs, most of them dull, but one good refugee from "The Student Prince," and one number with dancing girls and a leering idol. Does it work? Noooooo, although it did have enough camp appeal to keep me watching. Some of the sets, particularly the Martian ones, are impressive and would be stolen by future sf pictures, so it's of historical interest, and shows what passed for entertainment in 1930.
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Posted: Fri Jan 02, 2009 11:15 am Reply with quote
Site Admin Joined: 12 May 2004 Posts: 4246 Location: Montreal
The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button (2008)
Written by...Lshap

In the center of The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button lies a big hole where my empathy should have been. It's a sprawling mammoth of a movie with some great actors, top-notch photography and music, but the sum of its wonderful parts never coalesced. Why? Probably because the central character never became more than the sum of his gimmick. Granted, this gimmick came from a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, but that just proves that a gimmick with a good pedigree is still just a gimmick.

But it is a cute gimmick: Benjamin Button is a man going backwards in time. He's born sick and elderly, and ages backwards towards middle-age, youth and, finally, infancy. It's an interesting "What-if?" conversational piece and the stuff of Hollywood big-budget dreams. What it's NOT is a strong story with a great main character, and no amount of technical fluff can fix that fundamental gap.

I say this with a degree of sadness because I really wanted to like this film. But despite every attempt by some talented people to layer this fairy-tale with meaning and an emotional arc, the story of Benjamin Button is more about what he looks like than what he feels like.

As the film continues and Button simultaneously ages and 'youths', more of my brain was engaged with the math than the character. He looks 90 but he's really newborn; then he's 60-ish but really a teen; then he's 40-ish and really...uh...40-ish. Brad Pitt plays the part as well as possible, and extraordinary makeup enhances the weirdness of his reverse chronology. But it's a paradox of physical form, not substance. Yes, there's a wrinkly-boy-meets-girl subplot that's intended to warm up the special effects, and Pitt and Cate Blanchet make a good onscreen couple. But rather than enhance their romance, Button's de-aging just confuses it. I get it - he's a man-out-of-time, but unlike other misanthropic characters who don't fit in, like the Elephant Man or Forrest Gump, Button's condition is neither historically real nor emotionally progressive. Despite the weirdness of being the world's oldest-looking teenager, he doesn't actually do anything that cool, nor does he learn anything that profound along the way.

Benjamin Button is just an odd-looking guy, which, in the end, makes his case not curious enough.
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Posted: Thu Mar 05, 2009 6:18 am Reply with quote
Site Admin Joined: 12 May 2004 Posts: 4246 Location: Montreal
Repo! The Genetic Opera
Written by...Syd

Repo! The Genetic Opera is, as you might guess from the title, a very strange film. It’s about exactly as gruesome as you would expect in a musical about live organ repossession. Organs get removed without anaesthetic, brains get thrown across the room, faces get transplanted, and the stage gets flooded with blood. Think of it as Reanimator done as a musical, with elements of Sweeney Todd, Rocky Horror and Saw. The director is Darren Lynn Bousman who directed Saw II, III and IV. However, the warped minds behind it are Darren Smith and Terrance Zdunich, who wrote the play on which it based. The movie has been running mostly underground, so it’s made less than $200,000 domestically, which it has probably already made in video sales.

In the near future, there is an epidemic that causes widespread organ failures and millions of death. Rotti Largo (Paul Sorvino) founds GeneCo, which supplies organ transplants on the installment plan. GeneCo also gets a bill passed allowing organs to be repossessed if you can’t keep up the payments, even if the repossession kills you. (This background is supplied on-screen as comic-book panels.) The voice of GeneCo is Blind Mag (Sarah Brightman) whose blind eyes have been replaced by artificial ones. However, we soon find out that there is fine print in her contract that keeps her dependant on GeneCo.

Rotti has three monstrous children, Luigi (Bill Moseley), who is a sadistic gangster type, Pavi (Nivek Ogre), who likes to wear other people’s faces as masks, and Amber Sweet (Paris Hilton), who is addicted to getting transplants and not above going to the black market to get them and Zydrate. Zydrate is an anaesthetic used to remove the pain of transplantation, and I gather also helps in organ rejection. The legal supply comes from GeneCo, the black market supply comes from corpses and is extracted by grave robbers, one of which, known simply as Graverobber (Terrance Zdunich himself), is Amber’s supplier. Rotti is now dying of something even GeneCo can’t cure, and doesn’t really want any of the monsters to succeed him.

Rotti was to marry Marni (Sarah Power) who jilted him in favor of Nathan (Anthony Head). They had a daughter, Shilo (Alexa Vega). Marni came down with a blood disease and Nathan accidentally killed her trying to cure her, and Nathan was forced to save the baby. Shilo has been confined and medicated all 17 years of her life because of the same disease. (There’s more to it than that, but that would require spoilers.) Rotti has blackmailed Nathan into becoming the Repo Man.

Shilo does escape, and discovers the underground world of Graverobber, who somehow has come across the contract for Blind Mag. Rotti also contacts Shilo and promises her a cure. Shilo, who has lived an innocent life, has to grow up fast.

This all is presented early in the movie, hence no spoilers. The plot all converges on what Blind Mag has announced will be her last concert, “The Genetic Opera.”

The movie is hit-or-miss, and represents an attempt at creating a cult film, with a fair amount of success. Alexa Vega doesn’t sing all that well, but is pretty good in her big number, “I Didn’t Know I Loved You So Much.” Sorvino, Anthony Head and Terrance Zdunich are quite good, and Sarah Brightman is a major singer. Paris Hilton got a Razzie for her supporting performance but didn’t deserve it; she acquits herself respectably as a character who has the most disastrous opera debut in movie history, including Citizen Kane. Instead, the Razzie should have gone to Bill Moseley, who pretty much ruins any scene he’s in.

The staging’s often very good. There are some excellent songs here, including Alexa Vega’s number, “Zydrate Anatomy,” “At the Opera Tonight” and “Aching Hour.” There are also some where you really don’t want to see the lyrics, but they move the story along.

Probably not to everyone’s taste, but it’s making its way around the office pretty quickly and people seem to like it.
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Posted: Mon May 11, 2009 5:18 pm Reply with quote
Site Admin Joined: 12 May 2004 Posts: 4246 Location: Montreal
Star Trek (2009)
Written by...Lshap

Let's start with a Trek-worthy metaphor: Star Trek the movie exists in two parallel universes. Universe one is for the non-fans who'll be entertained by an action-fueled thrill ride about two centuries in our future. On that level, as a simple Summer-flic, it's entertaining as hell, a joyride of cool toys and iconic characters zooming through space and fightin' over the fate of two planets. Plus - admit it - you know who Kirk, Spock and Scotty are, and you'll probably smile when you hear the familiar names and vocal quirks coming from the mouths of a fresh, wrinkle-free cast.

Then, of course, occupying the same place in time and space is universe two, the other movie, the one for the fans. That's the story written between the seams visible only to us long-time Star Trek watchers. Actually, it's more backstory than story, as almost every name mentioned is a reference to someone from Treks' past. For starters there's Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood), a supporting character for non-fans, but a recognizable name with his own backstory for fans. And then there are the other sly, offhanded references to Nurse Chapel, Admiral Komack, Admiral Archer, Sulu's fencing expertise, etc, a database of names doing the nudge-nudge-wink-wink to 40 years of Trek mythology. And that's not even counting the near-religious presence of Leonard Nimoy. I mean, wow!

As an homage it's great. As a film it's only very good. What's missing is the Big Lesson, the Moral Metaphor, whatever you call it that got us hooked on the TV show in the first place. Sure, watching the main characters meet and evolve is a great story in itself, but once they're all together on the Enterprise you expect them to set course on a mission worthy of their reputation. And that's where the film is a bit weak. There's a mean Romulan blowing things up; your mission: stop him. Okay, I'm simplifying, and I've seen a lot worse. But I've also seen a lot better. Star Trek at its best tackled themes like war morality, racism, leadership, duty. It took cool roundtable discussions and set them in space alongside phasers, Klingons and Borg. Laugh if you want, but few TV shows were as message-heavy as the original series in the 60's with Kirk & Spock, and few shows as cerebral as the Jean-Luc Picard successor in the late 80's and early 90's. Great characters in opposition to great obstacles was the formula that spawned decades of fan loyalty.

This year's Star Trek is more glands than brains. It's got the male-bonding part down, which is a solid start, and thanks to the chemistry between Chris Pine (Kirk), Zachary Quinto (Spock) and Karl Urban (McCoy), they could group-cook an omelet and still be entertaining. Star Trek 2009 succeeds as a terrific reunion of old friends for a franchise founded on friendship. On that score making the film was a great idea. However that's what it lacked - a great idea.

Are they coming back for sequel seconds? I hope so, but once the novelty of the reunion is done they better come armed with more than loaded phaser banks.
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Posted: Thu Jul 30, 2009 2:03 pm Reply with quote
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Ballet Russes
Written by...Syd

Ballet Russes is a surprisingly absorbing documentary, even more surprising because I don't care for ballet. Ballet Russe was a dance company from 1909 to 1929 that featured such luminaries as Vaslac Nijinsky, Léonide Massine and George Balanchine. After the Russian Revolution, they performed in exile. That was directed by Sergei Diaghilev and fell apart at his death. This movie is not about that Ballet Russe although it looms in the background, many of its dancers and choreographers playing a role in what is to come.

In 1931 René Blum and Colonel Vassily de Basil decided to bring it back and hired George Balanchine to choreograph. At the time there were a bunch of young Russian girls who were being trained in ballet but facing an uncertain future; Balanchine decided to turn three of these absolute unknowns into his stars. The company became the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, and Tatinia Riabouchinska, Irina Baranova and Tamara Touranova became the first of many new stars. (Tatinia was the model for the hippo prima ballerina in the "Dance of the Hours" in Fantasia. Fortunately, there's no resemblance. Her husband, choreographer, David Lichine was the model for the crocodile, but David had fewer pointy teeth.)

Balanchine was pushed out and replaced by Massine, who created the symphonic ballet (i.e., ballets done to symphonies). He also brought his lover Alexandra Danilova back to the stage. (Balanchine had refused to hire her because she was an ancient 27 years old. She was also his ex-girlfriend.)

Eventually de Basil got Blum out and quarreled with Massine, which led to the formation of a yet another Ballet Russe, beginning the process by which the Ballets Russes formed new companies by budding. Fitting because the original Ballet Russe was spun off by the Imperial Russian Ballet (now the Mariinsky Ballet). The New York City Ballet, for instance, was formed by Balanchine after another stint with the Ballet Russe of Monte Carlo.

De Basil's company became the Original Ballet Russe after Massine won the name of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. (De Basil got to keep most of the choreography.) Both groups wound up in the US at the beginning of World War II under the same backer. De Basil being insufferable, he lost the backer and took his group on a long tour of Latin American, after which they fell apart. The Monte Carlo group declined in the 1950s and died in 1962.

Many of the people in the Ballets Russes were still alive during the making of the documentary, although, poignantly, five of them are thanked posthumously in the credits. Many of the rest have become professors of dance or founders of schools that teach kids to be starving dancers. (I suspect Yvonne Craig made a lot more money as Batgirl than she ever did in Ballet Rouge, and the dancers who made it into movies actually got to eat.) Some of them are still on stage, though not doing the athletic maneuvers. Considering many of them are in their eighties and early nineties, their water must be supplied by the Fountain of Youth.

Tons of ballet clips, lots of history I knew nothing about before. Okay, I'd heard of Nijinsky, Yvonne Craig and Maria Tallchief, but that's about it. It's really fascinating stuff. Thanks to Leigh, because this was one of the Netflix films she chose for her birthday.
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Posted: Tue Nov 03, 2009 8:16 pm Reply with quote
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American Splendor (2004)
Written by...Syd

I saw American Splendor last night. It was sponsored by the Other Film Club, the alternative film group on campus, but their publicity was late and they only had a half-dozen people. (Last year, they started out with Jesus Christ, Vampire Hunter and nearly filled a large auditorium.)

I greatly enjoyed the film. To tell you the truth, I had never heard of Harvey Pekar or the comic American Splendor before the movie. He made frequent appearances on Letterman in the late eighties, but since I don't like Letterman, I missed them. Some of those tapes appear on the show, and they look like typical Letterman. The real Pekar is much stranger than Paul Giamatti can play him. Hope Davis plays his wife, and seems a bit too strange until you see the real wife and realize her portrayal is dead on. Giamatti does a pretty good job as Pekar, but doesn't bother to do the voice. This didn't bother me because I found it hard to penetrate Pekar's voice to understand what he was saying.

The story is how Pekar. a file clerk at a VA hospital, found a way to deal with his obsessions and anger as a comic book writer (he can't draw at all) and became a cult figure as a result. This was partly because he was observant, morose and sometimes witty, and partly because he had the fortune to be friends with R. Crumb, who already was a legend in underground comics. (The R. Crumb here is a hell of a lot more normal than the R. Crumb in the documentary Crumb.) Eventually the comic and/or the play based on it got the attention of the Letterman Show, and Pekar got to be a guest. Since he seemed to be a humorous eccentric, he became a semi-regular item on the show (but not enough, apparently, to quit his day job), until a big blowup occured. Some of his appearances are shown as clips in the movie with his wife watching them on television, but the blowup is acted.

As the movie has it, Pekar was undergoing tests for a suspicious nodule that turned out to be testicular cancer, and his wife was in Palestine doing charitable work, and Pekar was done with the nonsense and frustration.

Pekar, meanwhile, is writing his coworkers, casual acquaintances, his wives, and his rather nebbishy wife in the comics. One day, Joyce, working in a comic store in Delaware, is upset because the 8th issue of American Splendor is sold out before she has a chance to read it. She contacts Pekar, they get into conversations, and eventually she goes to Cleveland to meet him. After a weird, pretty disastrous first date, she decides they should get married right away. They're still married 20 years later despite or because of their neuroses. (This first date would fit without any trouble in a Woody Allen movie, and is reproduced in the play in a manner that only superficially resembles what happens in the movie. The play looks quite awful.) Eventually, they acquire a daughter in a rather odd manner and she winds up in the comic as well.

The film finds a creative way to give the feel of the comic. The real Pekar narrates it, appears in the film clip, and sometimes appears in the movie. In one cool bit, Giamatti and an actor playing a coworker are discussing jellybeans, then wander off the movie set, where the real Pekar and the real coworker are, and there is a donut spread, and, yes, a box full of jellybeans. Comic-book style versions of Pekar appear and interact with people on the screen, there are captions on screen, and sometimes you see the real versions of the people in his life. It's all odd, and works quite well. I suspect it's sanitized for human consumption, but it's good anyway.
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Posted: Tue Nov 03, 2009 8:19 pm Reply with quote
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All Quiet on the Western Front
Written by...Syd

All Quiet on the Western Front: James Berardinelli is going through the Academy Awards’ Best Pictures and this was the earliest I hadn’t seen.

We start off with a man opening the door to show soldiers marching down the street. His postman is a sergeant in the reserves and has just been called up for the beginning of World War I. We switch to a classroom where a teacher of Greek gives a long speech to his all-male classroom, revving them up by talking about the glories of war, patriotism, the pride of nations and the effect of a man in uniform on young ladies. There are several long speeches in the movie, but they’re really great speeches. The boys promptly go off to enlist, including five young men who aim to spend their war together. (During the speech, we get looks into the kids’ minds to see the effect of the teacher’s speech).

They are delighted to find the former postman is their drill sergeant until they find out he’s all business and not their buddy, and the process of turning schoolboys into soldiers does not leave them much time to show off their uniforms to the young ladies. It also gives the former postman the pleasurable chance to be on top of people who in the civilian world would be his social superiors. However, the kids get some revenge.

Then it’s off to the front, where they discover that all that talk of glory is a lie. Soon they’re wondering what happened to their supply lines, ducking enemy fire, or waiting out an artillery bombardment in a dugout while the shells are showering dirt from the roof and one of the soldiers is going mad.

A little less than halfway through, there is a battle with initial artillery bombardment followed by an enemy sally across no-man’s land and chaotic bayonet fight in the trenches. This is one of the best pieces of battle footage I’m seen in any movie. For those impressed by the opening scene in Saving Private Ryan, this film was there almost seventy years earlier. A bit later Paul (Lew Ayres) is fighting in a graveyard with his former drill instructor who now gets to find out what it’s like under enemy fire. Then Paul finds himself in a crater with a French soldier he has mortally wounded, but who he now feels sympathy for. Paul has a speech here that is one of the few really bad ones in the movie, but the scene itself is haunting.

Ayres became famous for his role here, and sometimes he’s good, as with his big speech near the end, or the one in the graveyard, but during the first half of the movie, I was having trouble telling which kid was which. Considerably better is Louis Wolheim as Kat Katczinsky, the weatherbeaten company scrounger who takes the kids under his wing to teach them the ropes. I also liked Arnold Lucy as Professor Kantorek, who keeps stirring up the blood of his young charges so they’ll enlist, and John Weay, who plays the mailman turned drill sergeant.

All in all, the antiwar message of the book is preserved undiluted. It’s certainly one of the most uncompromising antiwar movies ever made.
Apparently a remake is now being cast, but it’s going to have an almost impossible task matching the impact of the original.

No wonder Germany and Austria banned this film in the 1930s.
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Posted: Wed Jan 27, 2010 6:45 am Reply with quote
Site Admin Joined: 12 May 2004 Posts: 4246 Location: Montreal
Julie & Julia (2009)

Written by... inlareviewer

The first image of "Julie & Julia" is a vintage car lowered by crane to a dock from an ocean liner. Accompanied by the sounds of a cracked French lesson, the contours of Paris, circa 1949, emerge like garnishes around a striking mismatched couple. As compact U.S. government employee Paul Child shows 6', 2" wife Julia their soignée new locale, something beyond nostalgia renders itself against the caramelized Franco-whimsy of composer Alexandre Desplat's score. Embodied by Stanley Tucci and the incandescent Meryl Streep, the Childs' mutual regard is immediately appetizing.

An unannounced change of courses and easy-listening twinkle slices us ahead to Queens, New York, 2002, and another pair relocating, in a Jeep, to an apartment over a pizzeria. This is magazine editor Eric Powell and wife Julie, an unpublished novelist working for lower Manhattan development services in the wake of 9-11. In the persons of Chris Messina and a valiant Amy Adams, the Powells are scarcely as singularly happy about moving as the Childs are, yet valid comparisons percolate, and writer-director Nora Ephon liberally stirs the oddly analogous ingredients to concoct a piquant specialty with a subtly lingering flavor.

Ms. Ephron, whose unwieldy skills may never again gel with such Mike Nichols-on-Estrogen adroitness, molds two true stories into her own idiomatic aspic. Using Ms. Child's memoir, ghostwritten by Alex Prud'homme, about how Embassy-wife longueurs led to Le Cordon Bleu studies and the landmark "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" as base stock, Ms. Ephron folds in Ms. Powell's account of her Internet-recorded project: to cook every recipe in Julia's magnum opus within a year.

The narrative, leavened by voiceovers culled from letters and blog entries, swirls across the similes like meringue, courtesy of ace film editor Richard Marks. Julia withstands a caustic Cordon Bleu doyenne (Joan Juliet Buck) to display a prowess that wows her male classmates. Julie cooks from the stress of coping with bereaved New Yorkers and her self-entitled careerist "friends" (bluntly satirized by Vanessa Ferlito, Casey Wilson and Jillian Bach). Julia writes to longtime correspondent Avis De Voto (Deborah Rush, unrecognizable), Julie launches her blog, only skeptical Mom (dryly voiced by Mary Kay Place) initially responding. Meanwhile, Paul and Eric enjoy fantastic meals, largely manage their jobs off-screen and remain aroused by their spouses.

Given the property's dualistic objectives, Julia's story would be less tangy without Julie's idealized fantasy kinship, half as resonant in its roseate Parisian glow -- Stephen Goldblatt's cinematography is deliciously evocative -- shorn of the claustrophobic contrast of Queens. When Julia ferociously chops away at a mountain of onions, or Julie squeamishly handles an invulnerable lobster, the parallels are their own comment. Beneath the cooking-as-salvation and marriage-as-foundation layers, Ms. Ephron considers how prior generations affect antecedents; how modernity isn't all a gain; and how it's always up to women to carve out their own identity in a male-dominated world, even with supportive mates.

"Julie & Julia" lets the themes simmer, often by default, whether scene-devouring Jane Lynch as Dorothy, Julia's even taller, equally ebullient sister, or Mary Lynn Raksjub, as Sarah, Julie's truest friend other than Eric, agreeing that, yes, Julie's a bitch, "but who isn't?" Despite synthetic kernels of prophetic-speak -- "Your book is going to change the world" -- this must be the most gratifying effort of Ms. Ephron's erratic oeuvre , tartly condensing marital dynamics, fricasseeing conservative bureaucracy and publishing practices. Its weakest component is probably that, while Paul Child was reportedly as mad for his wife as Mr. Tucci's invested performance depicts, it is tougher to buy Eric Powell's documented forbearance, even when it snaps. Nor does Mr. Messina (fondly recalled as Lauren Ambrose's boyfriend Ted on "Six Feet Under") exactly impress with his blandly competent journeyman's turn. Even so, Eric's actual worth is what Julie finally realizes; also, that the Julia Child she envisions is not the PBS icon she reveres. Accordingly, Julia discerns that Joseph McCarthy's Washington does not value Paul as she does, and boundless joie de vivre alone cannot get a cookbook published. Such splashes of pungent real amid the flânerie make their triumphs doubly satisfying.

The sautéed scenarios enjoy a brace of vivid support: Linda Emond and Helen Carey, très amusant as Julia's French collaborators; Brooks Ashmanakas as Julie's boss; a delirious Frances Sternhagen as the author of "Joy of Cooking"; Stephen Bogardus as a McCarthy toady; N.Y. Times food writer Amanda Hesser as herself, and more. Still, all rotisserie-turns on the title pair, and their portrayers comport themselves with élan. It would be trying to stomach Julie's trek sans Ms. Adams, whose innate warmth offsets the admitted self-absorption -- "I could write a blog. I have thoughts" -- her meltdowns cooking in a virtual closet painfully familiar to this fellow space-challenged chef. Julie's growth from whiny insecurity to glowing confidence -- a soft-grained cousin to Cynthia Nixon's "Sex and the City" Miranda -- steadily registers in Ms. Adams' neon-sign eyes to the sentimental finale at the Smithsonian exhibit of Julia's kitchen.

Which brings us back to Ms. Streep, and her preternatural buoyancy is ample reason to sample the film, Star Actress combined with Grand Personality to delectable effect. Not so much literal impersonation as interpretation of the Julia Child that Julie and, by extension, the audience imagines -- hence the film's usage of Dan Aykroyd's deathless "Saturday Night Live" parody -- the specifics of vocal attack, facial nuance and expansive gesture are magical. Merely Ms. Streep's infinite gradations of the "ooh" vowel -- "I do, I dooo" -- or rending reaction to Dorothy's pregnancy -- Paul and Julia couldn't procreate -- denote a sublime blend of artist and subject, as supreme in its swooping portraitist way as Helen Mirren's Elizabeth II or David Strathairn's Edward R. Murrow.

Understandably, many observers find the Julia portions more ingratiating than the sour-edged Julie segments -- but "Julie & Julia" is neither Child biography nor Powell dialectic. Purposely echoing Golden Age studio films -- with confectionary contributions from designers who keep the eras in focus, particularly costumer Ann Roth, and some invaluable cuisine stylists -- it's a post-feminist food-lover's reverie with a bipolar rhythm all its own. Hardly a deep-dish offering, not for every palate, merely an old-school buffet of charm with a dash of bitters, the populist pleasures growing more pronounced upon repeat servings. Ms. Ephron ineffably manages to have her boeuf bourguignon and eat her soufflé de chocolat too, laden with butter. This reviewer found it tastily, elegantly delightful. Bon appetit , indeed.
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Posted: Wed Dec 01, 2010 7:51 am Reply with quote
Site Admin Joined: 12 May 2004 Posts: 4246 Location: Montreal

Written by... Syd

Sweetgrass chronicles six months of Montana sheepherding, from the spring shearing, moving the herd to summer pastures in the Absaroka-Beartooth mountains, tending the sheep in the mountains (which does not include gay sex), and the return in the fall. It was actually filmed over three years, 2001-3, and 2003 was the last year the shepherds were allowed to summer their sheep on these public lands, so it's sort of the end of an era.

There is no narration; indeed, for the first eighteen minutes, there are no words at all, just occasional signals from the shepherds to the sheep and the dogs. Later on, the shepherds do get to talk to each other, sing songs, swear at recalcitrant sheep who are absolutely determined to strew themselves across a cliff face, trying coax a ewe into feeding an orphaned lamb including the old wrap-the-orphan-in-the-dead-lambs-skin trick.

There are scenes that are really magnificent. This is beautiful landscape, and the camera makes the most of it. It's stirring to see a large herd of sheep being driven down the main street of a small Montana town, and through a forest on their way to the high pasture. And the return is pretty spectacular. At one point we have a distance shot of a pyramid-shaped mountain, and the camera gradually zooms in as we try to spot the sheep. And once you do spot them (it's like trying to spot Lawrence of Arabia coming out of the desert), you realize just how many sheep you're looking at--then you realize that one edge of the pyramid is sheep, too.

A lot of this--the herding, the shearing, feeding the sheep--is surprisingly absorbing, although there are times when the director is trying to increase your attention span. If you're having problems sleeping, the sheep have numbers on their back. And the film is really a joy to look at.

"Are you suggesting coconuts migrate?"
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Posted: Tue Jul 03, 2012 7:53 pm Reply with quote
Site Admin Joined: 12 May 2004 Posts: 4246 Location: Montreal
The Gaucho(1927)
Written by... Syd

The Gaucho (1927) is a rather odd blend of swashbuckler and religious film starring Douglas Fairbanks.

The film starts with a teenage shepherdess (Geraine Greear*) falling about 50 feet. When she comes to, a vaguely human-shaped outcrop or rocks turns into a vision of the Virgin Mary (Mary Pickford) and the shepherdess is healed, and soon discovers she has the power to heal others. Over the next ten years the spot becomes a shrine and the City of the Miracle grows up around it, attracting pilgrims and beggars. The shepherdess has grown up to be the Girl of the Shrine and is now played by Eve Southern as a madonna, and oddly is now a brunette.

The pilgrims also leave gold and other valuables which the local Padre** used to feed the poor. This attracts the attention of El Gaucho (Fairbanks), the roguish leader of an outlaw gang. It also attracts the attention of Ruiz the Usurper (Gustav von Seyffertitz), a general who is so powerful he actually has a name.

While crossing the Andes, the outlaw gang stops in a mountain town perched precariously above a huge canyon. There the Gaucho meets the Mountain Girl, who both idolizes and wants him. This Girl is 19-year old Lupe Vélez, burning up the screen in her first full-length movie. When the Gaucho is ready to leave, she demands to go with him, but first insists on finishing her supper. The Gaucho asks teasingly if she wants to bring the house along. Then he looks around, tells the gang to gather lots of rope and proceeds to do exactly that.

A detachment of Ruiz’s soldiers has taken over the City of the Miracle, and, seeing its treasure, decides that the money would be better in Ruiz’s coffers. However, the Gaucho succeeds in capturing the town by a ruse. He then releases the beggars, who have been imprisoned for no good reason by Ruiz’s men, and begins to dispense justice with the help of the Padre. One of the beggars is a leper***. The Gaucho tells the leper that he should go off and kill himself, which is what the Gaucho would do if he had the disease.

Up till this point, except for the opening scene, the movie has been a fun swashbuckler of the kind that Fairbanks excelled at, but now a new theme comes in, that of redemption, and the Gaucho obviously needs a lot of that. He is fascinated by the Girl of the Shrine, who stirs feelings in him he doesn’t understand since he has never thought much about religion and is now face to face with a saint. Unfortunately, the Mountain Girl mistakes this fascination for lust and attacks them with the knife. The Gaucho’s hand is injured, and, after the Mountain Girl is subdued, the leper grabs the Gaucho’s wounded hand, spreading the deadly disease.

At this point the Gaucho’s men have been sent off on a ruse so Ruiz’s men can arrest the Gaucho, and Ruiz himself comes with his army. However, the Gaucho has gone off to kill himself, jauntily saying farewell to the Mountain Girl. The Girl of the Shrine follows the Gaucho to stop him, but the Mountain Girl, not knowing the Gaucho has been infected, assumes he has left her for the Girl of the Shrine, and seeing them enter the shrine, tells Ruiz where they are. However, when she goes to the shrine, she witnesses the real reason the Gaucho and the Girl of the Shrine are there, and is horrified by what she’s done. Ruiz arrests the Gaucho, the Girl of the Shrine, and the Padre and sentences them to death.**** The Mountain Girl has to ride to get the cavalry and save them. Ah, but Ruiz’s soldiers have them vastly outnumbered. What to do, what to do…

I really liked this film; to me it’s the best of Fairbanks’ swashbucklers. (I consider The Thief of Bagdad as more of a fantasy.) It’s also his best acting performance, particularly in his scenes with the Girl of the Shrine. Lupe Vélez is also great; this is easily the sexiest film Fairbanks ever made. Greear was very good as the younger version of the Girl of the Shrine, but Southern’s attempt to look saintly mostly look like she’s half-asleep. The religious themes work very well alongside the swashbuckling. Fairbanks' stuntwork here is among his best, and the scene where they move the house is delightful.

*Greear later became Joan Barclay and made eighty films in the 30s and 40s. This was her first film role.
**The Padre is Nigel De Brulier, better known for playing Cardinal Richelieu in four films. He’s also the model for the Sorcerer in Fantasia.
***His disease is called the Black Doom, but it’s indistinguishable from a very fast-acting form of leprosy. It’s not explained why he doesn’t ask the Girl of the Shrine to heal him, except that he rejoices in his disease.
****This is also killing the source of the wealth of the town, but he is too authoritarian to think of that.

"Are you suggesting coconuts migrate?"
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