Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Gotham: Better To Reign in Hell Review



GOTHAM: BETTER TO REIGN
IN HELL...

We go into Season Three of the Batman prequel Gotham with an episode that gave us a lot, set up stories for the season, and pretty much left it at that.  Better to Reign in Hell... is not a bad episode, but not one for the ages.

It's six months after the events of Transference, where former Detective Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie) has had his heart broken upon going to find his love Dr. Lee Thompkins and found she has moved on.  Now working as a bounty hunter, he targets the monsters unleashed by mad scientist Dr. Hugo Strange.  His former partner, Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue) keeps pushing him to return, but Jim is a bit lost.

Enter Valerie Vale (Jamie Chung), reporter for the Gotham Gazette (and I suspect, mother to Vicki Vale).  She's convinced that there is more to the spate of recent monsters than the GCPD is saying, and wants Gordon's help.  He is noncommittal, until she gives him info.  Oswald Cobblepot, aka The Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor), has placed a million dollar bounty on his nemesis, Fish Mooney (guest star Jada Pinkett Smith).  His fury and fear of her is unbound, going so far as to consult his frenemy Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith), still locked up in Arkham Asylum, for help, advise, and perhaps a little sympathy.  Nygma's words are simple: Penguin Eat Fish.

Meanwhile, both Fish and Pengy have managed to find lieutenants in their armies: Fish has Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova), and Penguin has his old buddy Butch Gilzean (Drew Powell).  Butch is still mourning the end of his romance with Tabitha Galavan (Jessica Lucas), who now has fully embraced the Sapphic love she shared with Bonkers Babs, Barbara Kean (Erin Richards).  They've opened up a club, with the appropriate name of The Sirens.  Penguin prods them to fall under his umbrella, but both remain noncommittal.  As much as Tabby dismisses her erstwhile lover Butch, it is only Butch's thin hopes for romance that keeps her alive from Pengy's full fury.

For his part, Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) and his faithful manservant Alfred Pennyworth (Sean Pertwee) are still pursuing the mysterious organization behind much of the nefarious works of Gotham.  Bruce goes to the Wayne Enterprise board to confront whoever is their inside man, and they get more than they bargain for when a mysterious (or not so mysterious figure) breaks into Wayne Manor, knocks Alfred out and abducts Bruce.

What is that...his third abduction?  Wayne Manor is seriously one of the worst protected places on Earth!

Gordon, after confronting Fish (no doubt intrigued by that million dollar bounty) agrees to help Valerie.  That means using Bullock to unwittingly give him information to the whereabouts of the person Fish is after: Mrs. Peabody (Tonya Pinkins).  Mrs. Peabody, Fish suspects, can find a way to stop her slow illness that is sapping her strength.  Gordon and Vale either intentionally, accidentally, or both, lead Mooney's gang to a very frightened Peabody, who tells her the only way Fish can recover is to stop using the powers she gained (to control people's minds just by her touch).  Mooney doesn't want that.  Instead, she wants an army, one that only Strange can get her.  With that, she gets another of her monsters to kill off Mrs. Peabody by draining her of life (a Fountain of Youth in reverse).

This killing, along with the attack and potential killing of her friend Ivy Pepper (Claire Foley) devastate and shock Selina.  Peabody's abduction infuriates Captain Barnes (Michael Chiklis), who wants her back. 

For his part, Penguin finds Butch's stubbornness on Tabby a major nuisance when Butch sends thugs to try and intimidate the Sirens.  He wildly underestimated our crazy pair, as Tabitha is adept at killing and Barbara is just bonkers. 

All these various threads are starting to collide, as more remains to be seen. 

As I said, Better to Reign in Hell... is what a season premiere should be: something to get the ball rolling.  We got the introduction of Valerie Vale, whom I figure will be a recurring character.  We got the slow introduction of what I presume is The Court of Owls, and we got what I figure will be at least a small part of the first half of Season Three (Gotham: Mad City): the rise and fall (again) of Fish Mooney.

I cannot believe that the Mooney subplot will be going for long.  First, Mooney has been a divisive character for Gothamites (some love her, some detest her, though I'm not in either camp). Second, I think JPS has no interest in returning given how she seemed pretty happy to leave at the end of Season One.  Three, Fish appears to be dying, or at least suffering greatly due to her powers.  All this, plus the fact that we've got bigger fish to fry (pun slightly intended) leads me to believe that Mooney is not long for Gotham.

The only thing to hope for is one last final, final battle between Fish Mooney and Oswald Cobblepot.  These two deserve a major confrontation (though I'd be shocked if they dropped Pengy).

There are other things in Better to Reign In Hell... that are neither terrible or wonderful.  The love triangle between Butch, Tabby, and Babs is one I hope isn't drawn out.  Seeing Butch be forever lovelorn almost makes him look like the comic relief.

Moreover, why exactly did he go back to being Penguin's stooge?

However, there is much to admire about Better to Reign in Hell..., starting with the performances. Of particular note is Richards as Bonkers Babs (also known as Stabby Babs).  Richards' ability to shift from almost victim to villainess has given the character a wild new lease of life.  From a dull dishrag to a fierce combination of crazy and evil, Richards dominates her scenes.  Guest star Chung also does well as the newest cast member, slowly carving out her space as the intrepid reporter determined to get the story.  A final shout-out should go to Mazouz, who has double duty to play both Bruce Wayne and the mysterious doppelganger, adopting a different voice and manner to his second persona. 

Whether she and Gordon begin a romance or keep it professional remains to be seen (though I hope it's the latter), so we're waiting and watching.

Ultimately, Better to Reign in Hell... is not a knockout opener.  It left some characters a bit out (RLT and especially CMS had little to do, though with the former he made the most of it, showing Penguin can still be ruthless).  However, we're not going to fault an episode for starting to set things up.  Where or how it will end up is another matter.  Given the positive track record Gotham has built up, I'm willing to see things through.      

6/10

Next Episode: Burn the Witch

Sunday, September 25, 2016

The Magnificent Seven (2016): A Review



THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (2016)

2016 will be known as The Year of the Remake.  There have been remakes of Ben-Hur, The Jungle Book, Ghostbusters, and now The Magnificent Seven.  With the exception of The Jungle Book, all the 2016 remakes have not only been pretty much disasters (financial and/or critical) but failed to justify their existence.  They don't add anything original and certainly don't dislodge their more well-known doppelganger.

So now, what about The Magnificent Seven?

If we're going to be technical, this version is the third version of this story, given that the 1960 The Magnificent Seven is itself a remake of perhaps the greatest film ever made, Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai.  With this latest incarnation, we have a movie that isn't a disaster on a Ben-Hur 2016 level, but that is not near to toppling, let alone equaling, the greatness of the 1960 version of The Magnificent Seven.

Evil robber baron Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), owner of a massive mining operation, has stormed into the peaceful village of Rose Creek and ordered the townsfolk to sell their land at a lower price or face his wrath, his wrath being to essentially wipe the town and its residents off the face of the earth.  He and his men burn the church down and have no problem killing anyone who opposes them.  In desperation, Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett), widow of one of those killed, along with her friend Teddy Q (Luke Grimes) go to find someone who will stand up to Bogue and his terrorists.

She finds Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington), a deputized bounty hunter, whom we find out much, much later has a secret past with Bogue.  Chisolm is intrigued by the idea of taking Bogue on, and the search begins to find others willing to stand up to the evil billionaire.  First to be recruited is Faraday (Chris Pratt), a wisecracking gunslinger and drunk who lives off cards and his quips.  In order to get his horse back, Faraday agrees to join this team.  Soon Chisolm and Faraday start getting other men: Faraday is sent to find Chisolm's old Civil War friend Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), who in turn brings his "mysterious man of the Orient" (Robicheaux's own words), Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee).  Chisolm finds the bandit Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), whom he's been tracking down but who in exchange for helping Chisolm will allow Vasquez to leave.  Once they join up they find wild mountain man Jack Horne (Vincent D'Onfrio), and last but not least, as a group they encounter the mysterious and silent Comanche warrior Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier).

We need only a Jewish and Arab member 
to complete the set.

Together, these seven ride into Rose Creek, where the townsfolk fear both the seven or Bogue's Army.  In short order the seven warriors show the small group of Bogue's men there that they mean business.  Bogue, hearing about this in far-off Sacramento, is enraged and decides to bring his wrath down on the people.  The Seven, meanwhile, begin to train the men to defend themselves, even if the farmers and homesteaders are pretty much inept at things.  Robicheaux is struggling with his memories of the Civil War, which makes him pretty useless as a gunfighter.  Not so the others like Red Menace, who is like Hawkeye in The Avengers, shooting his arrow with laser-like precision and never missing. 

Eventually, on eve of battle Robicheaux decides to ride out of town, while the others (like Red Dawn), decide to have one last battle with Bogue.  Come dawn, Bogue sends his men to crush all opposition, and the Magnificent Seven & A Half (Emma not afraid to take up arms, and Robicheaux returning to face his demons), along with the town, make one last fierce battle.

Vengeance is visited on by Chisolm, whose past with Bogue is finally uncovered, and at the end, only three of the Magnificent Seven live out to ride away: The Star, The Mexican, and Red Lantern

If there's a certain mocking tone that I've adopted towards The Magnificent Seven, it's only because at a certain point, I kept wondering who were these guys and what were they doing there.  One of the problems The Magnificent Seven has is that despite being a team, they never appeared to be a unit, a whole.  As the script by Richard Wenk and Nic Pizzolatto has it, the seven themselves didn't have much a reason to join up.  In the beginning both Chisolm and Faraday (aka the Big Stars) had the mention of the money, but after that I can't remember that this was much mentioned.

It was nice to have a multicultural force come together, but there wasn't much interaction between say Vasquez and Red Channels.  With regards to Red Robin, he just appeared and joined...because he had nothing else to do? because he was 'on a different path'?  Why was he there (apart from being the Hawkeye in this Avengers: Wild West and to fight against another random Native American who was part of Bogue's Army in a very clichéd and expected way)?

There was nothing in The Magnificent Seven to see this group was really united as one, let alone what united them.  For long periods of time Vasquez disappeared from the screen, and I speculated he was too busy making margaritas to take much part in the proceedings.

My friend Fidel Gomez, Jr. made a very interesting observation when it came to the film's end.  He noted with great displeasure that the film HAD to give Chisolm some history with Bogue that led him to take him on.  WHY, Gomez despaired, do we HAVE to have the hero have some history with the villain?  Why couldn't Chisolm just agree to take Bogue on just because he feels it's the right thing to do?

I am not fond of comparing films, but in both Seven Samurai and the original The Magnificent Seven we didn't have to have this backstory of the heroic leader and villain having to be connected in some way.  Nowadays this seems to be de rigueur, but we think it's lazy scriptwriting.   It isn't necessary, and worse, takes away some of the potential greatness of the idea that this group of random men do something because its the right thing to do, not for some secret ulterior motive.

Anyway, back to Red Hood.  What was his purpose, his reason for joining, his reason for being in the film (apart from that sense that it needed to have a more inclusive group)?  Same goes for Vasquez: apart from swearing a lot in Spanish and taking a jab at Robicheaux's claims about his Alamo-fighting grandpa, what can the viewer tell us about his personality, his decision to stick it out rather than say, betray Chisolm in order to save himself?

It seems like such a waste to put in so much energy to a bad "revenge against villain by hero" story and "let Chris Pratt be Chris Pratt" business if it means taking the other members essentially for granted.

Again and again The Magnificent Seven seems to go a certain way only to pull back.  The film comes achingly close to suggesting some kind of romance between Faraday and Cullen, only to just drop it.  One wonders why it was introduced in the first place.

At least to its credit Cullen came across as a much stronger woman than most Westerns have, down to not being afraid to use a weapon herself,  hence my suggestion of The Magnificent Seven and a Half (she being the half). 

Certainly, the script is weak, but what about the performances.  Denzel is Denzel, which is a good thing.  He was surprisingly steely as Chisolm, never ruffled, always calm, a commanding presence where he dominated the screen.  He was born for Westerns.  Pratt was Pratt: he was Star-Lord in a Cowboy Hat.  I don't doubt Chris Pratt is a great action star, a bit of a charming rake.  I just question whether he's an actual actor.  I picture him playing the Montgomery Clift role in The Heiress or Judgment at Nuremberg or From Here to Eternity and think...he couldn't pull it off.  In short, I'm trying to find a dramatic role for Chris Pratt that wouldn't require him to rely on his looks, his charm, or his bro persona (all of which are evident to good effect in The Magnificent Seven) and coming up empty.

In fact, his Faraday comes across as slightly creepy and horrible.  He has no problem shooting off a man's ear, suggesting an almost sadistic streak in one who is suppose to be our hero.

Sadly, with the exception of Hawke (with Washington the only actor to be given a character with something of a backstory), who did a pretty good job as well, none of the other Seven had much of a personality or anything that made them anything worth caring about...even Red Mist.  D'Onofrio was downright comical as the mountain man Horne, down to a silly high voice that made him look and sound like an unhinged Santa Claus.   His death, rather than elicited tears, elicited outright laughter.  He was very actory, and that ended up looking indulgent instead of sincere.

Sargaard was having a wild time yucking it up as the villain, delighting in playing evil in a patently over-the-top way.  His mustache needed to be longer for him to twirl, but apart from that it was so clear that nuance was not the order of the day when it came to how any of the characters were played.

I'm not the type to throw the baby out with the bathwater, so let me note some things that did work.  Director Antoine Fuqua knows the motifs of the Western, starting with how Washington's Chisolm appears: slowly, the mysterious stranger appearing almost as if a mirage (though that seems to draw more from Lawrence of Arabia than say, The Searchers).  Visually, The Magnificent Seven has a strong style: the final battle quite epic and brutal.

Sadly though, a lot of times The Magnificent Seven came across as almost comical.  When the villagers were told to come out after the first skirmish, the first thing that popped into my head was "Come out, come out, wherever you are..." from The Wizard of Oz.   Seeing Washington and Lee walk down the street made me wonder whether it could be the start of a joke.  When it is dawn at the final battle, we see each Avenger...I mean, Seven doing something while a dramatic bell rang out, almost funny. 

The Magnificent Seven is not a horrible film.  It's an OK Western, with some nice moments done in by a weak script.  I kept wondering whether this version would stay with the original and if so, which of the three of the seven would survive.  I figured Washington and Pratt (being the two big stars) would, but which of the uninteresting others would.  To my surprise, it is Washington, the Mexican, and Red River who make it out at the end.  Don't know why anyone would care whether the last two make it out alive. 

They didn't even have the decency to point out that at the end, it's the farmers who won, not the Magnificent Seven.  They DID include the iconic theme from the original Magnificent Seven, which I think was a wildly poor decision to remind us that this version won't come close to the one they cribbed off of.

Still, while this version of The Magnificent Seven is not a particularly great film, the fact that it is entertaining makes it just good enough.  It gets extra points for the fact that the Mexican kills whoever Cam Gigandet was playing, and any film that metaphorically kills off one of the worst actors currently working in film is bound to get a positive from me.          

DECISION: C+

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Magnificent Seven (1960): A Review



THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN

The Magnificent Seven faced an extremely uphill battle, and I don't mean the final shootout.  How exactly does one remake one of the greatest films ever made (in this case, the Japanese epic Seven Samurai)?  The answer is simple: to not remake it.  The Magnificent Seven is, technically, a remake, but I prefer to think of it as an adaptation of Seven Samurai.  The film is both faithful to the Kurosawa version and its own unique creation, a wonderful blending where all the elements work.

In an unnamed Mexican village, the bandit Calvera (Eli Wallach) is terrorizing the citizens.  He steals from them and adds 'protection money' to his game.  In desperation, the villagers decide to go to the U.S. border to buy guns with which to protect themselves and fight Calvera.  Upon arrival, they encounter the sight of a pair of gunfighters taking a casket up the hill for burial.  The gunfighters face opposing fighters due to the fact the dead man is an Indian and some in town don't want some heathen on Boot Hill.  Nevertheless, the two gunfighters fight their way to the top of the cemetery where the man will be buried.

The villagers approach the main gunfighter for help in buying weapons. This fighter, Adams (Yul Brynner) advises them it would be cheaper to hire men than buy weapons.  At first, he agrees only to help recruit the fighters, and he does an admirable job of it.

He rounds up six disparate men to join in this battle, ranging from the other gunfighter at the funeral, Vin Tanner (Steve McQueen) to Adams' old friend Harry Luck (Brad Dexter), master knife-fighter Britt (James Coburn), Lee (Robert Vaughn), a shaky hand recently finished with getting revenge, the half-Mexican half-Irish Bernardo O'Reilly (Charles Bronson) and the young hothead Chico (Horst Buchholz).  Reluctantly, Adams agrees to join the other fighters himself.

The seven ride out to the village, and begin training the farmers on the fine art of battle.  The men also begin bonding with some of them: Bernardo finds himself being informally adopted by three boys who are fascinated by him, and Chico finds himself falling for the beautiful Petra (Rosenda Monteros). 


Calvera's men return and are shocked to find not only have the villagers hired men, but that they themselves are not afraid to fight the bandits themselves.  Calvera rushes back to his base, and the Mexican (!) Chico infiltrates their camp, where he hears Calvera's plans to fight again.  An attempt to raid his camp fails, for Calvera has gone to the village and taken over.  He suppresses the villagers and orders the gunfighters to lay down their arms, escorting them out and convinced that they won't return.

Despite this, six of the seven decide to make a last stand, with only Harry opting out of the plan to save the village.  A fierce gun battle ensues, and even with Harry coming back at the last minute, the only ones of the seven to make it are Tanner, Chico, and Adams.  The villagers, inspired by the Magnificent Seven, rise up simultaneously and defeat Calvera, who is shocked to see that the gunmen have returned for these simple peasants.

As the three begin to ride out, Chico opts to stay with Petra, and Tanner & Adams lament their fallen comrades, observing that in the end, it's the farmers who are the real victors, not the gunfighters.

Anyone who has seen Seven Samurai knows that sentiment, given that was the same conclusion Kurosawa's film came to.  It was wise for The Magnificent Seven to keep most of the structure of the original in its own version in that it keeps the story both simple and epic at the same time: the themes of honor, courage, and a fight against injustice despite the odds permeating through it. 

What is fantastic about The Magnificent Seven is that one doesn't need to know Kurosawa's masterpiece to appreciate it (though by all means, you should SEE Seven Samurai).  Director/producer John Sturges and screenwriter William Roberts adapt Kurosawa's tale to fit the ideas of the Old West, with all the trappings of the genre not interfering with the story itself.

We also are allowed a few moments where either individually or as a group, the members of the Seven are not just given moments, but also display their character.  In the film, the seven are enjoying a good meal when Bernardo points out that the villagers are not eating the same lavish dinner.  Without making much of it, the seven quietly begin distributing their meal to the villagers.  The scenes with Bernardo and the children also reveal the humanity underneath the tough hombres.

It's a battle of who gets our attention between Brynner and McQueen, with each determined to be in the spotlight.  It's clear that McQueen is determined to upstage Brynner by making small actions to take attention from Brynner, but I don't think McQueen manages to outshine Brynner. Each manages to shine in the various scenes, and neither takes away from the other.



Out of all the other seven, I wonder the most about Buchholz.  It's one thing to cast Eli Wallach as a Mexican (though he seems to have been the go-to guy for "Mexican" given The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly), but Buchholz's performance (complete with German accent) makes it all the more bizarre if not downright laughable.  Not that Wallach wasn't more on the camp side of things with his Calvera (as a side note, 'Calvera' sounds similar to the Spanish word for 'skull': calavera). 

A performance I never understood was Vaughn.  It's not so much that he gave a bad performance so much that I never got his character or what he was doing there.  He was pretty much floating about, fearful of using his weapons but that part was not widely explored.

One thing that I enjoyed greatly about The Magnificent Seven is the more positive portrayal of Mexicans.  It was the Mexican censors who insisted that the villagers not be seen as weak (thus the gun-buying element) and the Hispanics did not have an exaggerated accent. 

Another brilliant aspect is Elmer Bernstein's iconic score.  It is surprising that he lost Best Original Score (though given he lost to the equally iconic music from Exodus, maybe not a surprise). Still, the music richly captures the thrill and courage of our heroes.

The Magnificent Seven is not the exact equal to the original Seven Samurai, but in its own way the film works so well that it does not have to compete.  Instead, The Magnificent Seven serves as a compliment to the Japanese epic, working on its own as one of the finest Westerns made...and a tough act to follow. 



DECISION: A-


HE is a more believable Chico 
than Holtz Buchholz!

Saturday, September 17, 2016

The Heiress: A Review


THE HEIRESS

If anyone ever has an Olivia de Havilland binge-watch, The Heiress is probably one of at least two films they would have to have (the other: Gone With the Wind).   It is the film which earned her the second of two Best Actress Oscars.  I cannot say whether her first Oscar for To Each His Own was warranted, but in regards to her second, the centenarian more than deserved it.  The Heiress is a brilliantly acted and directed film, a bit stagey perhaps but nonetheless a remarkable piece of filmmaking.

Dr. Austin Sloper (Ralph Richardson) despairs over the future of his very plain daughter, Catherine (de Havilland).  She is a very wealthy woman in her own right, and will be much wealthier when Dr. Sloper dies.  However, Catherine pales in comparison to his late wife: she is rather plain, with no conversational skills and limited social graces.  Moreover, Austin constantly lets Catherine know she is not like her mother at all.  Catherine's Aunt Lavinia (Miriam Hopkins) also despairs for Catherine, but holds hope her niece will find someone, anyone, who can love her.

Enter Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift), a dashing young man who appears attracted to the plain, shy, naïve young woman.  He has, in Dr. Sloper's estimation, only "a handsome face and figure and a very good manner" to offer, and is convinced that Morris is nothing more than a gold-digger.  He tries to dissuade Catherine, who is too deep in love with Townsend to believe him.  Furthermore, his very bad manner with her, blunt with no real love to express, only hardens her views.  Austin takes her on a European trip to get her to forget the only man who has given her the time of day, but nothing doing.

It doesn't hurt that Townsend has ingratiated himself so thoroughly with Aunt Lavinia.  When they get back to Washington Square, New York City, Lavinia has conspired to help Morris elope with Catherine.  Dr. Sloper threatens to disinherit Catherine, but she is simply too much in love.  She also has her own smaller fortune.  Catherine spots Morris and suggests they elope that very night, even if it means sacrificing her father's fortune.  He says he will, and she quickly packs her bags for a midnight flight to freedom.  Lavinia comes upon her niece, waiting for the carriage, and waits with her...and waits...and waits.

Catherine has been abandoned by her lover.

The chill Dr. Sloper came down with in Europe is fatal, and he knows it.  Catherine, who rages at her father over his mistreatment of her, his constant belittling of her, and of her own lost love, will not come to him in his final hours.  However, Sloper did not disinherit her, and she becomes a very wealthy woman.  Catherine appears to have moved on, but does she still have feelings for Morris?

Now is the time to discover that, about five years later, when the ever-hopeful Lavinia tells her niece that Morris has returned, him having taken flight to California.  Morris is still poor, but he returns with more words of love.  He begs her forgiveness and tells her he ran away that night because he could not be the one responsible for her losing her fortune. 

Catherine takes this all in, and agrees to elope with him again that night.  However, in the tradition that revenge is a dish served best cold, Catherine quietly plots her own revenge on one she observes has grown greedier with time.  "First he wanted my money, now he wants my love too," she remarks to her shocked aunt.  The heiress will finally lock her heart...and bolt the door.


The Heiress is made infinitely richer due to the performances.  This is Olivia de Havilland's finest hour as an actress, and while her Melanie in Gone With the Wind is better know, The Heiress showcases her at her finest.  She is perfect whenever Catherine has to be hesitant, shy, aware of how people can be cruel due to her plain nature.  Early in the film, she is abandoned by a man at a party, and when she sees him dancing with a prettier girl when he had told her he was getting her punch, the mix of hurt and overwhelming shyness breaks your heart. 

However, once she finds her own voice, we see that the tigress lies beneath the soft, weak exterior.  When she and Townsend reunite and he appears at first hesitant to run off with her right away, there is an edge of anger to her voice.  This tightening of her voice, along with her face when she strikes back at her disapproving father and Morris' return, signals to us that Catherine has been made wiser through bitter experience.  She is brilliant in her anger, and seeing that evolution is a fascinating piece of acting.

Equal to de Havilland is Richardson as her disapproving father.  In a certain way, Dr. Sloper was not evil.  He did care enough for Catherine to be wary of Townsend's intentions, but his manner was so awful that you tended to root for someone who was almost obviously a bad man.  In turns endearing and patronizing, Richardson is just so good as the doctor who knows his daughter is not his wife's equal and lets his flesh and blood know it in ways overt and subtle.

Looking at Montgomery Clift, despite the somewhat obvious nature of Morris' sleaziness, you could believe just about anything that shockingly handsome face tells you.  His role was very tricky, as he had to make us believe that maybe, just maybe, Morris was genuinely in love with Catherine, while also suggesting that perhaps he was what her father knew him to be: an opportunist who was a fortune hunter.  Clift managed that balance pretty well, leaving slight room for him being wicked or just a desperate young man in love.

Hopkins was all fluttery as Lavinia, but that was how the role was, so she did it correctly.

In other aspects, you have Aaron Copland's brilliant Oscar-winning score to suggest the tenderness of the failed love story and the genuine anger within Catherine.

If there is a flaw within The Heiress, and it's a minor one at that, is that director William Wyler made the film a bit too stagey, bound to its theatrical roots.  Sometimes the film looks like a filmed version of the play, even when the characters were suppose to be away from the confines of the square. 

As much as I dislike remakes I think The Heiress is one that could be remade if they had the right cast & crew behind it.  I'd like my love Mia Wasikowska in the de Havilland role.  As for who could play the Montgomery Clift role, I cannot think of an actor who is both handsome and talented enough.  Suggestions welcome.

The Heiress is a bit stagey but despite that the film moves well with top-notch performances from three great actors.  Olivia de Havilland creates a tough woman beneath that soft exterior, one who leaves us wondering up until the end whether Catherine will fall or rise. 

The Heiress rose...



DECISION: A-

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Spartacus (1960): A Review


SPARTACUS

Much has been made over the fact that Spartacus broke the blacklist by placing screenwriter Dalton Trumbo's name on the credits rather than using a front or a pseudonym.  Much has also been made over the fact that Spartacus is not a Biblical epic but just feels like one.  Much also has been made about Spartacus' censored scene involving a provocative bath between Laurence Olivier and Tony Curtis where Trumbo's dialogue suggests homo/bisexual intentions.  This scene, as overt as anything during the last days of the Eisenhower era was so risqué that it was cut and restored with Anthony Hopkins 'voicing' the late Olivier's dialogue while Curtis, still alive at the time, coming back to redub the daring dialogue.

Another time, as part of my The Politics Of... series, I'll tackle any subliminal or overt political messages spread in Spartacus, suspect due to Trumbo's history and leftist political views.  For now, let's concentrate on the film itself, a rousing epic that thrills, entertains, moves remarkably fast, and while not perfect, has many more positives than negatives.

Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) is a Thracian slave condemned to die after attacking one of the Roman guards in the mines he is enslaved at.  In a fortuitous turn of events, gladiatorial school owner Batiatus (Peter Ustinov) comes across Spartacus and buys him along with other slaves to become gladiators.  Taken to Batiatus' gladiator school in Capua, Spartacus meets his trainer, Marcellus (Charles McGraw), who selects him as his personal whipping boy.  Spartacus meets another slave, the beautiful Varinia (Jean Simmons), with whom he falls in love with.  It's not an easy courtship, given they were introduced when Batiatus and Marcellus sent her to serve as Spartacus' "companion". 

Into this enters Crassus (Laurence Olivier), one of the major patrician leaders of the Roman Senate.  He brings with him his protégé, Marcus Publius Glabrus (John Dall) and two women.  Crassus calls on Batiatus to bring four gladiatorial students to put on a private show for them...to the death.  Despite Batiatus' best efforts, he cannot dissuade the party from violating his no-kill policy, and he reluctantly gives in.  Spartacus fights the Ethiopian, Draba (Woody Strobe), but Draba refuses to kill Spartacus and attacks the patricians instead.  Only Crassus stays in his seat and mercilessly kills Draba.

Crassus also buys Varinia, and the mixture of her sale and Marcellus' one-too-many tauntings drive him over the edge: he kills Marcellus and begins a riot in the school.  Batiatus, seeing the situation start spinning out of control, offers to 'deliver' Varinia personally while his servants and guards attempt to stop the rioting slaves.  Nothing doing: Batiatus barely manages to escape with Varinia as Spartacus and his fellow slaves overrun the school and begin a full-scale slave revolt.



Back in Rome, the ensuing uprising becomes a political war between the patrician Crassus and the republican Gracchus (Charles Laughton). The bitter rivals each see in the rebellion a chance to defeat the other: Crassus using his protégé to easily crush the rebels, Gracchus, along with his protégé Julius Caesar (John Gavin) to stop Crassus' power grab.  Spartacus now has decided to not just free every slave he can find, but to lead them out of Italy thanks to Cilician pirates.  This sends the Roman empire into a full-scale panic, as Spartacus and his men plunder the estates to gather the gold to buy the pirates. 

Glabrus bungles his mission to defeat Spartacus disastrously, forcing his sponsor to retirement (though Gracchus is not fooled).  Batiatus takes refuge with his old friend Gracchus, even offering Varinia to his collection of female slaves once she's captured.  Fat chance, as Varinia and Spartacus have found each other.  Into this mix enters Antoninus (Tony Curtis), a 'singer of songs' whom Crassus has taken a very particular interest in, so particular that Antoninus flees at the first opportunity to join the insurrection.  Given that Antoninus can read, Spartacus takes him as his aide-de-camp.

The wily Senators attempt to outdo the other in their bitter feud: Gracchus has bribed the pirates to take the slaves once they reach the coast (horrifying the patrician-born Caesar), and Crassus, not to be outdone, bribes the pirates to run away as soon as the slaves reach the coast.  Crassus also organizes two opposing armies to meet Spartacus, forcing the slave commander to march towards Rome itself to save his fellow slaves.  In despair the Senate makes Crassus dictator (his ultimate goal), and he goes to meet Spartacus in battle.  At first, Spartacus' men appear to be winning, but they are surprised by Crassus' secret army that has arrived.  After their defeat, Crassus offers their lives in exchange for Spartacus living or dead.  Defiant to the end, the survivors all begin shouting, "I'M SPARTACUS!"  Crassus orders the survivors crucified.

Crassus has also found Varinia, along with her and Spartacus' child, among the few female survivors.  He dismisses Batiatus from his camp, enraging him enough to lock arms with Gracchus in one final assault on the absolute dictator: to steal Varinia from Crassus.  Crassus loses no time in squashing his political opponents, Gracchus especially.  He orders him exiled, believing him to be a good puppet to control the mob.  Caesar by this point has joined his fellow patricians, but Crassus has little illusions about Caesar's ascension.  Crassus orders Antoninus and Spartacus to fight to the death, and after Antoninus' death, Spartacus is the last to be crucified on the Appian Way.  Gracchus commits suicide rather than be used by Crassus, but not before giving Varinia and her child freedom and along with Batiatus a pass that will help them escape.  Varinia sees her husband crucified, and holds their child to him, telling him that he is free...and that his story will not be forgotten.

Spartacus is an epic, and is fully aware of it.  The massive nature of the film at times dwarves the actors, who sometimes compensate by being so wildly over-the-top that it veers close to parody.  Chief practitioner of the overacting is Douglas himself.  For all the grief that Charlton Heston gets for his at-times grandiose style of acting (and at times, rightly so), Douglas seems to be a fervent follower of that broad, broad, broad style.  His clenched/dimpled jaw tightening even in love scenes, Douglas has only one mode: perpetual intensity.  Even in those moments which call for a more gentle approach, Douglas' Spartacus appears to be always tense, always on edge.

It's surprising that some of the other performers appear to have a similar theatrical style.  Another good (or bad) example is Herbert Lom, in a small role as the Cilician pirate go-between.  His few scenes are theatrical to where one wonders whether he wants us to know he is 'acting'. 

In fact, I think it's fair to say that Spartacus isn't for the faint-of-heart acting-wise.  Almost everyone is a bit of a ham.  Ustinov, who won Best Supporting Actor for his role, can be forgiven in that Batiatus was meant to be obvious in his sycophancy and obsequiousness.  There was no subtlety to his character.  Still, given that Spartacus was a chance to see two veteran actors duel it out, one can enjoy seeing the interplay between Laughton and Olivier.  The two old masters figured this was going to be an epic and acted as they were fully aware they had big roles to play.

I think Simmons did a good job as Varinia, though in her last scenes she too went a bit theatrical.  Same can't be said for Gavin, who made stoicism his sole acting style.  Perhaps he figured with all the grandiose goings-on around him, being almost wooden would set him apart.  I'm not sure Spartacus was Curtis' best performance, but given that Antoninus was a bit sheltered as the 'singer of songs', this is another one we're willing to be more lenient with.



One aspect to Spartacus that even now is pretty shocking is the infamous "snails and oysters" scene.  The censors of the time were not the naïve simpletons they may have been painted out to be.  Reading the screenplay, even if they weren't aware who exactly wrote it, they could read between the lines perfectly well and figure that there was subvert hints of homosexuality in the dialogue.  Essentially, Crassus is telling Antoninus that his tastes include snails (penises) and oysters (vaginas), while giving the very good-looking young man the once-over.  The only way it could be more overt would be if Olivier were naked in bed and beckoning Curtis to him.

That scene was so outrageous that while it was filmed, it was cut from the release.  Restored thirty-one years later, Curtis was brought back to re-record his lines, with Anthony Hopkins reading for the late Olivier by doing an Olivier impersonation (and a pretty good one too).  Even now, with the advent of same-sex marriage, the racy dialogue and subtle glances are still pretty daring.

As for the overall script itself, give Trumbo credit: he knew how to deliver witticism and make the political battles between Gracchus and Crassus interesting.  Whatever overtones to Trumbo's own history or politics that found their way into Spartacus will be for another time.  For the moment, Trumbo's script showcased the epic nature of the story, with grandiose verbiage to compliment the grand, epic nature of the setting.

Finally, one has to complement Alex North's brilliant score (though there are many brilliant Alex North scores).  His love theme for Spartacus and Virinia does what Douglas and Simmons couldn't: make you believe these two were passionate and tender with each other.

Spartacus is not a perfect film by any means.  Some of the acting (particularly Douglas) is so over-the-top as to be ripe for parody, and somehow the love story between Spartacus and Virinia seem a bit forced, almost out of place among the battles and political intrigue.  Despite all this, Spartacus still holds up rather well, with a rousing story that while at times perhaps clunky, still moves and moves one. 

Epic in just about every way, Spartacus lives on...




DECISION: A+

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The Power of Oscar Compels You

John Houseman:
Best Supporting Actor for
The Paper Chase

TUESDAYS WITH OSCAR: 1973

The 46th Academy Awards had some of the most memorable winners, and one jaw-dropping moment that the cameras didn't quite capture.

We were coming to the end of the ceremony, and David Niven was introducing Elizabeth Taylor, who would announce the Best Picture nominee.  As he was speaking, Robert Opel, a man who had mysteriously managed to get a very rare pass, ran behind Niven completely nude and flashing a peace sign as he streaked across the stage.  The audience was shocked and amused, the orchestra quickly playing Sunny Side Up

Niven was clearly at a loss for words, but soon rebounded magnificently.


"Isn't it fascinating to think that probably the only laugh that man will ever get in his life is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings," the veteran raconteur quipped.  Taylor, who had the unenviable task of following THAT up, quipped herself, "That's a pretty hard act to follow".  When presenting Best Picture, she was visibly flustered by it all, remarking that it really upset her, then adding, "I think I'm jealous". 

To this day no one knows exactly how Opel managed to get the pass or make it past the various security levels.  Moreover, rumors that this was a publicity stunt to boost ratings have emerged, though that has been denied by both Opel and the Academy.  If that was the case, neither Niven or Taylor were let in.  Sadly, Opel is not here to reveal more (no pun intended).  Five years after this, Robert Opel was murdered in a robbery at his studio.

Adding to this rather shocking moment is the fact that Taylor's announcement made history.  The Sting, announced as the Best Picture winner, had as one of its producers Julia Phillips, making her the first woman to win a Best Picture Oscar.  Another female made history, when ten-year-old Tatum O'Neal won Best Supporting Actress, making her the youngest Oscar winner in history.  Her Best Supporting Actor counterpart, John Houseman, was 71 years old and had made very few films before The Paper Chase, known mostly as a producer and acting teacher. 



We also had the very rare moment of Katharine Hepburn making her only Academy Award appearance.  Despite her four wins and twelve nominations (the former yet matched, the latter outdone by Meryl Streep), she never appeared when she was a nominee.  However, to honor her friend, producer Lawrence Weingarten, with the Irving Thalberg Award. 

The 46th Academy Awards were indeed historic, chaotic, wild, elegant and outrageous.

As always this is just for fun and should not be taken as my final decision. I should like to watch all the nominees and winners before making my final, FINAL choice. Now, on to cataloging the official winners (in bold) and my selections (in red). Also, my substitutions (in green).

1972 Academy Awards

BEST ORIGINAL SONG



(You're So) Nice to Be Around: Cinderella Liberty
Live and Let Die: Live and Let Die
Love: Robin Hood
A Touch of Class: A Touch of Class
The Way We Were: The Way We Were

Well, let's put this in perspective.  Live and Let Die is among the greatest Bond Songs in the franchise (screw you, Skyfall and Writing's On the Wall).  In any other year, it would have been a no-brainer to have had Paul McCartney win.  HOWEVER, it was up against one of THE songs from film, the title theme to The Way We Were.  Everyone knows the first line "Memories...light the corners of my mind", and it is such an iconic song, with an incredible delivery by Barbra Streisand that there is no way I could disagree with this choice. 

My own memory of The Way We Were was that I didn't want to see this chick flick at first, but by the end I was all but crying and yelling at the screen, "NO, NO...YOU NEED TO STAY TOGETHER!"  It's one of the few chick flicks that I openly admit to liking. 

Despite this, I select another song, creepy, haunting, erotic, and so brilliant.


From The Wicker Man, Willow's Song, music and lyrics by Paul Giovanni.

Zuckerman's Famous Pig: Charlotte's Web
Live and Let Die: Live and Let Die
Knockin' On Heaven's Door: Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid
The Way We Were: The Way We Were
Willow's Song: The Wicker Man

Willow's Song, also known as How Do, is a brilliant song that works within the film.  Few melodies can evoke the pagan elements within the story and mix it with both hints of eroticism and almost innocence.  As the temptress attempts to seduce our virginal evangelical through song, the song becomes a charged one, tinged with sex and desire along with the need to suppress said desire.  Willow's Song evokes the temptations of the pleasures of the flesh wrapped in loveliness.  All the other songs I named are brilliant in their own way, and it was not easy not picking something like Knockin' On Heaven's Door by my beloved Bob Dylan.  However, how can I not say, 'How Do?'

BEST DIRECTOR

Ingmar Bergman: Cries and Whispers
Bernardo Bertolucci: Last Tango in Paris
William Friedkin: The Exorcist
George Roy Hill: The Sting
George Lucas: American Graffiti

I have nothing against Hill winning, as The Sting is a great film with a very slow and methodical conclusion.  I will say that I had figured out the twists a bit before I was suppose to and found them quite logical. Having said that, and with Friedkin's masterful work of the demonic possession film, I am going with a more critically acclaimed filmmaker and giving it to the Swede for his portrait of sisters in spiritual despair.

Ingmar Bergman: Cries and Whispers
William Friedkin: The Exorcist
Robin Hardy: The Wicker Man
George Roy Hill: The Sting
Terrance Malick: Badlands

There was some strong competition from both nominated and non-nominated directors, but I'm going with the forlorn Bergman this time too. 

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS



Linda Blair: The Exorcist
Candy Clark: American Graffiti
Madeleine Kahn: Paper Moon
Tatum O'Neal: Paper Moon
Sylvia Sydney: Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams

We had two children fight it out as ten-year-old Tatum O'Neal and thirteen-year-old Linda Blair fought it out for Best Supporting Actress.  That sadly left Madeleine Kahn, one of the great comedic actresses, in the dust.  How does one compete against both a child and the figurative spawn of Satan?  Now, it has been argued that O'Neal was "in the wrong category" and that she was really a leading character, and that her inclusion in Supporting was more to give her a better chance to win. That I cannot say, but I think that it is Blair's performance that is more remembered.

Also, we should add that perhaps Blair lost due to a controversy that was not of her own making.  Mercedes McCambridge, who had won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for All The King's Men, performed the voice of the demon in The Exorcist.  It's unclear whether McCambridge had asked for no credit for her work on the film or not.  Regardless of the truth of that, the fact that it was McCambridge's voice and not Blair's might have hurt with the Academy voters.  This is speculation of course, but one wonders whether the controversy revolving around Blair/McCambridge cost one person an Oscar. 

Finally, we have a rare moment: a time when two actresses nominated in the same category from the same film didn't cancel each other out.



Linda Blair: The Exorcist
Eileen Brennan: The Sting
Madeleine Kahn: Paper Moon
Diana Rigg: Theater of Blood
Kari Sylwan: Cries and Whispers

For the longest time I had Rigg win for her turn as the devoted daughter of the deranged Shakespearean actor in Theater of Blood, part horror film, part camp.   However, I decided that such a thing might be a bit much.  Instead, I turned to the overlooked Brennan as the moll who helps bring down the kingpin in The Sting, one of the few female characters of importance in this almost all-male show.  I'm genuinely surprised that despite some really great performances, The Sting managed only one acting nomination.  Even stranger, The Sting marks Robert Redford's only acting nomination. 

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR



Vincent Gardenia: Bang the Drum Slowly
Jack Gilford: Save the Tiger
John Houseman: The Paper Chase
Jason Miller: The Exorcist
Randy Quaid: The Last Detail

Out of all these nominated performances, only one became so well-known that the actor recreated it for a television series based on the film.  Houseman was not known in film circles, though he was a highly respected teacher and had worked with Orson Welles when both were on Broadway.  Out of all the nominees, it is Houseman's tyrannical Professor Kingsfield that stands far above them, perhaps to Houseman's regret.

Kingsfield was a villain only in that he had great power, knew he had great power, and used it coldly over those he had power over.  Highly intelligent, his wit and disdain was what made him frightening.  He was also aware of who he was and how he was perceived.  When one of his law students, in a rage, called him "a son of a bitch" to his face in the midst of the entire class, Professor Kingsfield retorted as his errant student walks away, "That is the most intelligent thing you've said today".  Houseman's towering performance was so great he reprised the role for a successful television series of The Paper Chase, and did a variation of it in Smith Barney Brokerage Company commercials where he told people Smith Barney made money "the old fashioned way...they EARN it!"

For better or worse, the haughty Kingsfield was now permanently tied to Houseman.  In later years, he would play variations of Kingsfield, whether as the disapproving father of the man-child in Silver Spoons or in guest spots like on 227 or The Naked Gun

Finally, I can say that after watching The Paper Chase, I was so unnerved by Kingsfield and the whole legal education system that I opted not to become a lawyer.  Thanks, John Houseman...





John Houseman: The Paper Chase
Christopher Lee: The Wicker Man
Jason Miller: The Exorcist
Edward G. Robinson: Soylent Green
Robert Shaw: The Sting

In this category, I'm going for the actor who never got the credit he deserved.  Christopher Lee was an iconic figure in horror, though he was much more than just a bogeyman.  Highly cultured and educated, with a superb voice, Lee was essentially pigeonholed into being the heavy.  Out of all his roles, I think his Lord Summerisle is perhaps his best role: seemingly charming, sophisticated, yet downright bonkers in his beliefs about sacrifices.    We're rather spoiled for choice where I think any of them would have been magnificent recipients, but this year, it goes to Christopher Lee in The Wicker Man.

BEST ACTRESS



Ellen Burstyn: The Exorcist
Glenda Jackson: A Touch of Class
Marsha Mason: Cinderella Liberty
Barbra Streisand: The Way We Were
Joanne Woodward: Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams

Well, we are in a bit of a quandary, aren't we? We have Babs in one of her most iconic performances, and we have Glenda Jackson picking up her second Oscar.  Maybe it isn't too much of a quandary, as I would make the long-suffering mother to a demonically-possessed child my choice.  I love Ellen Burstyn, so maybe I'm a bit prejudiced in this area.




Ellen Burstyn: The Exorcist
Tatum O'Neal: Paper Moon
Maria Schneider: Last Tango in Paris
Sissy Spacek: Badlands
Liv Ullman: Cries and Whispers

Well, I've looked around and am puzzled as to why Maria Schneider, partner to the nominated Marlon Brando, was overlooked.  I moved O'Neal from  Supporting to Leading, but there's something about Ullman that makes me wonder whether Cries and Whispers should have made her at least a nominee. 

BEST ACTOR



Marlon Brando: Last Tango in Paris
Jack Lemmon: Save the Tiger
Jack Nicholson: The Last Detail
Al Pacino: Serpico
Robert Redford: The Sting

I don't dislike Jack Lemmon by any stretch, but wonder whether the fact that the funnyman went dramatic had anything to do with his win.  All I can say is that people still talk about Brando's performance in Last Tango in Paris, and it is on reputation alone that I make this choice.



Marlon Brando: Last Tango in Paris
Charlton Heston: Soylent Green
Vincent Price: Theater of Blood
Martin Sheen: Badlands
Edward Woodward: The Wicker Man

I am going for another choice, and that is Woodward as the devout Christian police officer caught up in a web of pagan decadence in The Wicker Man.  As an evangelical myself, I can say that Woodward's Sergeant Howie is not too far off the mark, though perhaps a bit harsher than I would image my brothers to be.  However, the rigidity of Howie was not indicative of a bad or stilted performance, but of one who was determined to avoid sin and all its lures only to end up devoured.

BEST PICTURE



American Graffiti
Cries and Whispers
The Exorcist
The Sting
A Touch of Class

I don't have an issue with The Sting winning, though initially I had pegged The Exorcist as my choice.  I think The Sting is a great film, worthy of its reputation as a clever romp.  I also think The Exorcist, the first horror film to be nominated for Best Picture, still stands as a landmark in film.  Giving this a lot more thought, I am going by reputation again and selecting the foreign-language exploration into the sad heart.

My friend Fidel Gomez, Jr. loves Bergman, and it was he who introduced me to more foreign-language films.  I don't know if he has this Bergman film, but from what I know of it, it is a masterful work; with that, I select Cries and Whispers as the Best Picture of 1973. 



Cries and Whispers
The Exorcist
Soylent Green
The Sting
The Wicker Man

I many times have referred to something as "the Citizen Kane" of XYZ to denote that it is the apex of whatever I'm talking about.  The Wicker Man has been referred to by others as "the Citizen Kane of horror" and I think with justification.  This tale of a devout Christian investigating the disappearance of a girl on an island where paganism and the occult are celebrated, where the pleasures of the flesh are taught openly in school, and where rituals are commonplace has one of the most shocking twist endings in history.  I was stunned by the twist in The Wicker Man and horrified by its fiery conclusion.  It is one of the great films of any genre, much better than the silly remake (which curiously, starred my beloved Ellen Burstyn.  Seriously, what were you THINKING!?).  The original is almost always the best.

With that, I select The Wicker Man as the Best Picture of 1973.

Next Time, the 1974 Academy Awards.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

They're Real. And They're Spectacular. S.O.B. Review



S.O.B.

I've seen S.O.B. three times, and each time I arrive at the same conclusion: it's just as funny as it thinks it is.  S.O.B. now is famous for one moment, a shocking moment for audiences that perhaps mirrored the events in the film.  Curiously, this one jaw (and bodice-dropping) moment is S.O.B.'s greatest claim to fame. 

In the ensuing years since I have seen S.O.B., I think I have grown slightly more appreciative of the bitterness, the anger, the cynicism behind it. I still think it was trying too hard to be funny when pulling back a bit might have done the trick. 

Wildly successful producer Felix Farmer (Richard Mulligan) has had nothing but hits after hits, usually starring his wife, Sally Miles (Julie Andrews), an actress with such a squeaky-clean image that she won an Oscar for playing Mary Poppins...err, for playing Peter Pan.  That is, until a film produced by Farmer and starring Miles called Night Wind flops...hard.  Farmer is more than devastated by this.  He's in genuine shock, despondent, and suicidal.

Sally cannot cope with his slip into insanity and leaves him, but he has other problems.  Studio head David Blackman (Robert Vaughn), enraged that he's got the biggest flop in his studio's history, is determined to save Night Wind by recutting it to his specifications.  Unfortunately, Blackman can't because Farmer owns all the rights and won't let the studio "improve" the film.

Blackman recruits director Tim Cully (William Holden, in his final role) to help reshoot Night Wind and get Farmer on board.  Cully, who brings two nubile young hitchhiking girls, is shocked when he finds Farmer rolling down from his garage to the ocean (Farmer having attempted suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning but having been stopped by the gardener unaware of what Farmer was up to).  Also involved in the efforts to pull Farmer out of his funk is his friend and agent Ben Coogan (Robert Webber) and Dr. Irvin Finegarten (Robert Preston), a "Doctor Feelgood"-type who freely admits he's a 'quack'.

Somehow, all of them at Farmer's house leads to something of an orgy, where the various hangers-on are unaware of Felix's unhinged condition, or the dead man outside on the beach who died of a heart attack.  Felix keeps bumbling his efforts at doing himself in until he gets a corrupt policeman's gun.  About to shoot himself, one of the high girls slips underneath his covers and distracts him long enough for him to get THE idea: rework Night Wind from a family-friendly feature into a pornographic epic!  As Farmer puts it, giving the public what it wants: vice instead of virtue, instead of the American dream, the American Wet Dream!

He buys back all the rights from Blackman, news which outrages his wife since he's used their money. Sally is more shocked when Farmer hits on another idea: have her go TOPLESS!  Sally Miles, G-Rated Queen.  Sally Miles, who has gone from 15 years of nun's habits and turtleneck bathing suits to showing off what she has kept hidden.

Her agent, Eva Brown (Shelley Winters) and lawyer Herb Maskowitz (Robert Loggia) appear willing to go along with this in order for her to recoup some of her money, and therefore, with a lot of drugs courtesy of Finegarten, agrees to go and "show her boobies" to the world. 

The reworked Night Wind then is shot, and gives the world one of the most jawdropping moments in film history...



It's now that Blackman and his flunkies suspect that Night Wind may end up being a success, but they've lost all rights to it.  They now want ownership of this pornographic spectacle, at least distribution rights (which would give Blackman a chance to get in and recut the film).  Under advise, Sally agrees to a distribution contract with Blackman without telling Felix, which snaps him back to insanity.  Determined to hold on to his film, he essentially steals the prints by using a toy gun he took from his son, and is shot to death when he tries using it on the police.

As he lays dying, he tells the security guard, whom he knows, to not worry...this ought to add another $10 million to the gross.

Sally is essentially dragged back for the elaborate funeral, down to singing Promise Me at the service.  Cully, Ben, and Finegarten, drunkenly appalled at all that's gone on, decide to steal Felix's body and give him a private, Viking funeral, taking advantage of things to switch the body over to that of the dead man on the beach (who was once a beloved television star).  As his friends set Felix's boat on fire, all Hollywood inadvertently pays tribute to a forgotten star.

S.O.B. is cynical down to its cold, cold heart, skewering the industry that had more often than not screwed writer/director Blake Edwards and his wife Julie Andrews.  In fact, the title S.O.B. was a term they adopted between themselves, which didn't stand for "Son Of a Bitch", but for "Standard Operating Bull****". Everything about it is cold, cynical, if not strictly heartless at least with a hard and jaded heart.

It's also a much smarter script than I gave it credit the first time I saw it. Right from the beginning it played with the public's perception of Miles/Andrews with the two versions of Polly Wolly Doodle that she performs.  The song itself, this sickeningly sweet little ditty is so excessively cutesy and sweet that it borders on downright parody of Andrews' image as this perpetual virgin.

The first version which plays over the credits to the faux-Night Wind looks like something out of a children's television show, a very idealized version of the Andrews screen image. However, the first cracks don't come when we get the erotic, unhinged Polly Wolly Doodle revamp (emphasis on 'vamp').  It's actually when she is consulting her staff about starting divorce proceedings.  After being reminded that to the public, Miles is "Peter Pan", Miles/Andrews utters a sad "Damn", then quickly adds, "Sorry".

It's almost as if S.O.B. is acknowledging to the audience that, as far as they're concerned, Miles/Andrews does not swear (let alone have erotic overtones to her as a performer or a private woman).  S.O.B. is very thinly veiled, particularly with regards to Andrews' screen image, which despite some efforts at being more adult (such as The Americanization of Emily), stubbornly did not shift from that of either Mary Poppins or the nun Maria from The Sound of Music.  Despite herself, she was stuck at being seen as this almost saintly figure, and while S.O.B. wasn't the first time she'd tried to shift from that, it was the most daring step she had taken (or would ever take) to shake it once and for all. 

In terms of performances I think S.O.B. is one of Andrews' better moments, playing up and playing against her screen image.  She's actually quite funny when she rages against Felix, down to in her fury throwing her Peter Pan Oscar at him, then screaming when she realizes what she's done.   Whether in the dramatic moments (such as when she's leaving Felix) or her most outlandish (when she is extremely tight right before she shoots her 'boobies' scene), Andrews never overdid anything. 

After watching her infamous breast-bearing moment, I think that for Andrews, it was a particularly liberating moment for her personally and professionally, where if nothing else she showed that she was more than a singing nun or flying nanny.

Mulligan was broad as the out-of-his-mind Felix Farmer (wonder if they took inspiration from Frances Farmer) but the role called for him to be wildly bonkers.  Holden, who would die after S.O.B., brought what little heart there was to the film, though his character too had a great flaw (he had a weakness for young girls despite his own advanced age).  He was a good man in a bad industry, and in his final performance was still the professional he was.  Maybe Preston went a touch overboard with his quip-ready Finegarten (who looks like he's auditioning for Edwards/Andrews' next foray into altering her image, Victor/Victoria). 

Edwards spared no one in his takedown of Hollywood, from the busybody studio heads to the gossip columnists (here played by Loretta Swit).  It's here though that I wonder whether Edwards, in his anger, couldn't have pulled back.  We get some of that slapstick he couldn't resist which you know is coming (such as when the ambulance that is holding Swit's Polly Reed drops the heavily-casted Polly when applauding Sally's tatas.  Other times, it seemed to go wildly overboard, as if trying to show how outrageous things could be.

Right after we see Andrews bust out, we see Blackman in bed with his mistress (whom he is unaware of is sleeping with the hot young actor who wants in on an upcoming film).  When we see Blackman in his romp, we discover he's in a garter.  As he calls Eva, we see that SHE in turn is sharing a bed with a black woman.  These two scenarios (Blackman's cross-dressing, Eva's lesbian) just come out of nowhere and add nothing to the plot except perhaps a moment of more outrageousness, as if anything could top Dame Julie's knockers.

In the end, it takes a couple of viewings of S.O.B. to get the full effect of what Edwards was going for. It isn't the funniest film, but in certain ways, the cynicism and anger within S.O.B. proved prophetic, as topless scenes which may/may not be relevant to plots (scenes which I dub "Julie Andrews Moments") are now more commonplace.

Given how adrift Hollywood is, perhaps we could see an S.O.B. remake...

Fare Thee Well, Fare Thee Well...



DECISION: B-

I'd recommend you type in "Night Wind Remake" on YouTube to see the reworked Polly Wolly Doodle number (and them) in all their glory.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Willkommen, Bienvenue, Oscar

Sacheen Littlefeather Refusing Oscar
on Behalf of Marlon Brando:
Best Actor for
The Godfather

TUESDAYS WITH OSCAR: 1972

The 45th Academy Awards is remembered not so much for who won (though one of the greatest films of all time did manage a surprise win), but for who came for one of the winners.  This is the Oscar where an obscure Indian actress and activist became forever linked to the Academy Awards, to her eternal infamy warranted or not.  Sacheen Littlefeather went in the place of Marlon Brando, nominated for his 'comeback' role of The Godfather.  Proxies had accepted for others before, but leave it to the mercurial actor to upend things on this night.

The story of Sacheen Littlefeather is a fascinating one.  Having formed a curious relationship with the eccentric Brando, she had been summoned to go on his behalf, with all sorts of odd moments.  Brando had written out a very lengthy speech decrying the portrayal of Native Americans onscreen and on recent Native American activism such as Wounded Knee.  The speech would have been far too long to deliver even if Brando had appeared, but there was no way the producers would have allowed it to have been made, Brando or no Brando.  Ultimately, Littlefeather was forced to wing it, and the grief she has received over it has not abated.

Richard Roeper, with whom I maintain a one-sided feud, made a most interesting point about all this.  He said something along the lines of what exactly Brando playing a gangster has anything to do with Native Americans has yet to be explained.

This sadly would not be the last time the Academy Awards would be used to promote a political viewpoint, though given what would occur in the future, this brouhaha would be rather tame by comparison.

In other Academy news, Cabaret would set a record for the most Oscar wins without winning Best Picture, eight versus The Godfather's mere three.  Four of Cabaret's wins were in categories where it bested The Godfather

As always this is just for fun and should not be taken as my final decision. I should like to watch all the nominees and winners before making my final, FINAL choice. Now, on to cataloging the official winners (in bold) and my selections (in red). Also, my substitutions (in green).

1972 Academy Awards

BEST ORIGINAL SONG


Ben: Ben
Come Follow Me, Follow Me: The Little Ark
Marmalade, Molasses & Honey: The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean
The Morning After: The Poseidon Adventure
Strange Are the Ways of Love: The Stepmother

And we're back to the most square of square choices as our official nominees.  Out of all these, The Morning After seems to be the best one.  It's a curious, almost comic juxtaposition: this gentle, optimistic song to one of the great disaster films, one that kind of set the model for all other future disaster films. The Morning After also fits the hope the survivors of the Poseidon hold as one by one they meet a grisly fate. 



From Super Fly, Freddy's Dead.  Music & Lyrics by Curtis Mayfield.

Ben: Ben
Marmalade, Molasses & Honey: The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean
The Morning After: The Poseidon Adventure
Strange Are the Ways of Love: The Stepmother
Freddy's Dead: Super Fly

Perhaps it was because Shaft had won last year that the powers that be opted not to go 'urban' again.  All the pity, as Freddy's Dead is, perhaps not the equal to Theme From "Shaft", at least far more memorable than Strange Are the Ways of Love

BEST DIRECTOR

John Boorman: Deliverance
Francis Ford Coppola: The Godfather
Bob Fosse: Cabaret
Joseph L. Mankiewicz: Sleuth
Jan Troell: The Emigrants

Having seen three of the nominees, I can vouch for the strong directing in Sleuth, Cabaret, and The Godfather.  Fosse did a fantastic job in his musical film, where the songs weren't integrated into the story but performed on stage as they would in a real cabaret club.  However, I still hold out that Coppola's masterwork was a stronger effort, the mix of family loyalty and business into that toxic mix of tragedy.

Francis Ford Coppola: The Godfather
Bob Fosse: Cabaret
Werner Herzog: Aguirre, The Wrath of God
Joseph L. Mankiewicz: Sleuth
Robert Neame: The Poseidon Adventure

Having said that, I believe that Herzog's exploration into the dark recesses of a madman as he goes into his own Heart of Darkness is a much more astonishing achievement.  I was stunned by Aguirre, The Wrath of God visually and emotionally, and is one of those films that haunts you long after you see it.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS



Jeannie Berlin: The Heartbreak Kid
Eileen Heckart: Butterflies Are Free
Geraldine Page: Pete 'n' Tillie
Susan Tyrell: Fat City
Shelley Winters: The Poseidon Adventure

I have nothing against Heckart, but I still have a soft spot for the nice Jewish fat lady who is in her words, 'a very skinny lady in the water'.  It isn't just the kvetching that Winters did in The Poseidon Adventure (curiously, the only cast member in an all-star cast to be nominated from the film), but her final scene, as she gives her all for the sake of others, is genuinely moving. 



Eileen Heckart: Butterflies Are Free
Diane Keaton: The Godfather
Susan Tyrell: Fat City
Talia Shire: The Godfather
Shelley Winters: The Poseidon Adventure

I'm starting to lean towards Keaton's WASP in Italian nightmare, but for the moment, I'm sticking with our dear Mrs. Rosen. 

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR



Eddie Albert: The Heartbreak Kid
James Caan: The Godfather
Robert Duvall: The Godfather
Joel Grey: Cabaret
Al Pacino: The Godfather

Normally, the fact that three actors nominated in the same category for the same film would be enough for me to say why none of them won and another grabbed the Oscar.  However, while Caan, Duvall, and Pacino were all brilliant in The Godfather (as was everyone in the film), it is Grey's turn as the somewhat gleeful, somewhat demonic Master of Ceremonies that is to me the clear standout performance.  Recreating his stage role as the frightening yet impish MC from the original stage production of Cabaret, Grey's performance, if you look at it technically, is built entirely around song.  Not once does he utter one word of actual dialogue. 

Every time he is on screen, it is to perform a number (starting and ending with Willkommen), and every time you see him, he sings.  However, the impression he leaves as this merry figure of mirth as the world he lives in slips from the decadence of the Weimar Republic to the horror of Nazi Germany is so strong, I simply cannot give it to another of the nominees.

Sorry, Eddie. 



Despite the brilliance of Grey in Cabaret, if I were given a choice, I'm going to go for another musical performance.



James Caan: The Godfather
Howard Da Silva: 1776
Robert Duvall: The Godfather
Joel Grey: Cabaret
Al Pacino: The Godfather

As the wise, worldly Benjamin Franklin, Howard Da Silva stole the show in 1776.  His Founding Father was not a monument, and he knew it.  He was a man, one who advised the more temperamental John Adams into the ins and outs of forming these United States.  Shrewd, slightly manipulative, with a twinkle in his eye and yet as serious as anyone when needed, it is as strong a performance as I've seen.

Kind of makes one wonder how it would compare to the more hip-hop oriented Hamilton.

BEST ACTRESS



Liza Minnelli: Cabaret
Diana Ross: Lady Sings the Blues
Maggie Smith: Travels With My Aunt
Cicely Tyson: Sounder
Liv Ullmann: The Emigrants

Minnelli now is pretty much a sad parody of herself.  I've yet to recover from the horror of seeing her in Sex and the City 2, doing her own whacked-out version of Single Ladies...and wondering which of the three was the REAL Liza Minnelli and which of the others were impersonators.  However, give credit where credit is due: Minnelli is iconic as that chanteuse Sally Bowles, embodiment of Weimar devil-may-care who deep down has a heart.  Her mixture of worldliness and naïveté is brilliant and a bit heartbreaking.  She can sing, and she can dance, but in Cabaret, she shows she can act: a true successor to her mother, Judy Garland.

Perhaps in any other year, I would have leaned towards Ross' turn as the somewhat real-life Sally Bowles, Billie Holliday in Lady Sings the Blues.  However, this year I'm going for LIZA!  Curiously enough, when Ross lost Best Actress she reportedly wept, and if I understand it correctly, someone (perhaps a fellow nominee, perhaps not), told her there would be other chances.  "Not for a black actress", was Ross' sad reply.

It would be 30 years before Ross would be proven wrong (although since 2002, there has yet to be another minority actress to win Best Actress).   

No Substitutions

BEST ACTOR



Marlon Brando: The Godfather
Michael Caine: Sleuth
Laurence Olivier: Sleuth
Peter O'Toole: The Ruling Class
Paul Winfield: Sounder

I would have been pretty happy to see any of the nominees win, a rare moment when we got a good slate of Best Actor nominees.  Here, however, we have another case of two actors in the same category cancelling each other out.  Curiously, with the nominations of both Caine and Olivier, we have a rare film where the entire cast of a film was nominated.  However, it is clear that Brando's mob boss, a man who loves his family yet has damned them to disastrous lives, is the dominant, standout performance.

Then we get to this...




One feels for Sacheen Littlefeather, an obscure figure dragged into a worldwide platform where she will be scrutinized, condemned, mocked, reviled, and held up as a heroine. 

Listening to her speech, I found it remarkably composed and elegant given the very intense pressure she faced as an ordinary woman thrust into the spotlight.  I agree with my one-sided nemesis Richard Roeper about how Brando's gangster having anything to do with Indian rights is yet unexplained, and I'm not a fan of the Academy Awards being used to push a political agenda (even if I agree with it).  Having said that, Brando deserved the Oscar and Littlefeather deserves praise for her dignity...even if perhaps I would have been displeased at Brando's actions.

The best reply was given by John Wayne, who flat-out refused to make any comment about it.  I think he was elegantly angry about it, saying that this was the one time of the year that the industry presents itself to the public...and if they wanted to talk to anyone, they should go get Brando.

I love Brando in The Godfather, but he wouldn't be my choice.



Marlon Brando: The Godfather
Michael Caine: Sleuth
William Daniels: 1776
Klaus Kinski: Aguirre, The Wrath of God
Laurence Olivier: Sleuth

There is no doubt for me as for who was the Best Actor of 1972.  Klaus Kinski is frightening as the evil, perhaps deranged conquistador Aguirre (skipping over the fact that they're all speaking German or English, as Kinski spoke both).  His performance is intense and powerful, an evil man slipping into total power-madness (if not madness itself), one who will take his fellows into the true heart of darkness, left alone to rule the monkeys with his unhinged plans to commit incest and necrophilia simultaneously.   Kinski was not the easiest or most rational of actors (in another Herzog/Kinski collaboration, Fitzcarraldo, the actor so terrified the natives they offered to kill him for Herzog...and one wonders whether Herzog was tempted to take them up on the offer).  However, few performances have been as searing and as brilliant as his in Aguirre, The Wrath of God.  For that one performance alone, his legacy as a great (albeit slightly bonkers) actor is assured.

It is among the most powerful and greatest performance in film, testament to Herzog's vision, Kinski's craft, and the strange power of their collaboration, one which had Herzog refer to Kinski in a documentary about their work as My Best Fiend.

BEST PICTURE



Cabaret
Deliverance
The Emigrants
The Godfather
Sounder

Well, when The Godfather managed to stop Cabaret's march to final victory it was a bit of a surprise.  Let's keep in mind that Cabaret had already taken eight Academy Awards and four of those at The Godfather's expense: Best Film Editing, Best Sound Mixing,  Best Supporting Actor and Best Director.  Let's also keep in mind that Best Director and Best Picture usually correlate.  Finally, let's remember that by the time we got to the Best Picture category, Cabaret had eight Oscars while The Godfather had struggled to get two (the declined Best Actor, for which Cabaret did not get a nomination in, and Best Adapted Screenplay, the only category at that point for which they had been in competition).

Therefore, when The Godfather pulled it off in the end, it was if not a surprise at least one that came at a particular cost.  It should be remembered that The Godfather, with its three Oscars, is only one Oscar more than two other Best Picture winners: The Greatest Show on Earth and Spotlight, which managed only two Oscars including Best Picture. 

In any other year, I probably would have gone with Cabaret, but since I've got one of the greatest films ever made here, I would name The Godfather the Best Picture of 1972.

That being said, if push came to shove I would go down another path.



1776
Aguirre, The Wrath of God
Cabaret
The Godfather
The Poseidon Adventure

The Godfather is a brilliant, extraordinary film, among the greatest ever made.  However, I cannot shake the haunting, terrifying, extraordinary work that is Aguirre, The Wrath of God.  Few films equal its power and brilliance, and stay with you long after the film ends.

I stand by The Godfather, but I would name Aguirre, The Wrath of God as The Best Picture of 1972.

Next Time, the 1973 Academy Awards.


Still among the most frightening things I've ever seen.  It's scarier than Aguirre, The Wrath of God.