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Viktor und Viktoria (1933)
What surprised me most about this film, since it's famously the inspiration for the 1982 Blake Edwards/Julie Andrews musical "Victor/Victoria," is that it's so CLEAN. The fact that its release date is 1933 may mean it was produced under Nazi censorship, or on the other hand it might be an example of how innocent and yet sophisticated filmmaking could be in Weimar Berlin. Notably, there's absolutely no homosexuality in it; the Robert Preston character (a wonderful piece of clowning by Hermann Thimig) is straight, and the James Garner guy (the incredibly sexy Anton Walbrook) suspects all along that Viktoria is really female, and his courtship of her consists of teasingly playing up to her pretensions of maleness while tweaking her feminine tendencies. The through-line of this version is the charming reactions of the skittish young Susanna-Viktoria (an endearing performance by Renate Mueller that's a poignant reminder that it's possible for actresses to be both beautiful AND skilled performers--a point usually lost on Hollywood) to the strange and excellent adventures of passing as a man, and then falling in love while trying to pass as a man with the man she loves.
Anita: Tänze des Lasters (1987)
The structure of "Anita: Dances of Vice" is like a postmodernist updating of Karel Reisz's "The Loves of Isadora," with its framework of the fat, decrepit, middle-aged Isadora Duncan just before her death interposed with vignettes of herself as a revolutionary modern dancer. Even more it reminds me of Ken Russell's wonderful docudramas about composers and artists, with their combination of razzle-dazzle showmanship and compassionate insight into the personalities involved. But "Anita" is very much a tour de force on its own terms, stylistically and substantially.
As befits a German film about a German heroine "Anita" is filled with classic Germanic motifs. There is the Nietschean superwoman Anita who turns the tables on her audience: revealing her naked body, it is SHE who leeringly objectifies THEM, joyfully savoring their reactions to her defiant poses. The film is also filled with Doeppelgangers. There is the beautiful, sharp-as-a-tack Anita whose double is her raddled, cocaine-crazed dancing partner Droste; there is also the doubling effect of the terrifyingly seductive young Anita in her dancing days juxtaposed with the comical old fat woman who "channels" Anita's soul, articulating the meanings behind the dance. Naturally, the subject of Hitler comes up, with Anita explicitly embodying the anarchic life force that flourished between the two world wars--and that we would do well to recognize and respect in our own time, uncomfortable as it may make us.
A River Runs Through It (1992)
Montana goes Hollywood
I have very mixed feelings about the book "A River Runs Through It." Its "lyrical" passages about fly fishing bring to mind newspaper sports feature writing at its worst, and the creepy antics of its macho protagonists are not pleasant from a civilized female perspective. But the very point of the story it seems to me is that these men are so emotionally immature and alienated that their only true joy in life is the self-absorbed (and highly competitive) act of luring a strong healthy fish to its death. Maclean expressed these experiences with tremendous honesty that makes his painful attempts at "fine writing" worth squelching through.
The film version hangs on to the Hemingwayesque flourishes (replicated in its prettily photographed vistas of mountains and rivers and a tendency to hit overcrank when something significant is happening at the end of one of the fly fishermen's lines) but regrettably jettisons the honesty. The story's setting is changed from 1937 (in the depths of the Depression, when an ability to catch good fish for supper had a very different connotation) to sometime in the twenties, and the brothers are correspondingly in their early twenties, which gives their bawdy, irresponsible antics a much different connotation than it did when the same characters in the book pulled them well into their thirties. Refocusing the story line from the brothers' inarticulate love for one another to a standard "meet cute" romance between Norman and his future wife Jess was probably good for box office, but all I could think of watching Brad Pitt with his strawberry blond dye job and Emily Lloyd slinking around in her blonde finger-wave wig and fragile linen dresses was that Redford was reliving some fixation that originated twenty years previously during the filming of "The Great Gatsby."
I think this is a bad film, and I found myself horribly impatient with it. But I can also see why so many people enjoy it. The romance, the Sierra Club cinematography and cheap thrill gags like the pop-up scare after the whitewater boating adventure and the ride through a train tunnel in a tin lizzie are all calculated audience pleasers. And it's nice that Maclean's heirs got the royalties for the use of the old man's title.
My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002)
THIS is what independent filmmaking has come to?
Too cliched and predictable for Hollywood, too retro and unrealistic for Harlequin. What got to me most was the film's flat-out SEXISM--attention from an attractive man and a few strokes of blusher transforms a neurotic zombie into an emotionally mature, vibrant sex bomb. Is marriage really going to cure Tula's quasi-incestuous dependence on her tyrannical father? What a sick, dysfunctional excuse for "romance."
Bowling for Columbine (2002)
An important film from an unexpected source
I've always thought of Michael Moore as a good showman and a fair editorialist, but not much of a filmmaker. "Roger and Me" was a funny movie with a discouragingly weak thesis, and that business of going after corporate executives with a camera and microphone and getting turned away wore pretty thin after the third or fourth episode of "TV Nation." (We won't even get into "Canadian Bacon"--that was just a mistake.)
Along the line however Moore has either matured as an artist and polemicist, or more likely has learned how to collaborate with artists and polemicists as good as or better than he is (which is really the secret of all good film directors) and has made a fantastic film that is both entertaining and genuinely moving. I was expecting a shallow screed against gun nuts, but this film is so much more complex and open-minded than that. It locates the horrors of American gun culture not in guns themselves (though it does carry a strong argument against non-sporting weaponry) but in the paranoid American attitude towards our fellow human beings that causes us to turn our backs on each other and hide behind locked doors with our guns cocked rather than pooling our resources to build a civil society (Canada is offered as an example of how gun-nuttery and positive interpersonal relations can be effectively reconciled.)
I am wondering now about the coincidence of Charlton Heston announcing he has Alzheimer's just as "Bowling for Columbine" hit the theaters. Heston comes across as such a cold, lying man in this film that he and his handlers may well have felt they had to dredge up some excuse for it.
"The Candidate" North
The 1960s-1970s pastiche style of this telefilm was so very well accomplished that it made me realize again why I HATED films of this era so much--the semicoherent lets-pretend-we're-tripping mise en scene, the syrupy musical interludes, the overall style-over-substance approach. But then around the three-quarters point I realized how RIGHT this approach is to this particular story. What "Trudeau" says to me is that Trudeau was put into office because he seemed to fit the style of the times--as one of his handlers terms it at the beginning of the film, he's "sexy"--but, as is demonstrated over and over, he utterly lacked the stuff of a real statesman, as reflected not only in his fumbling of various Quebec separatist uprisings but in his personally and politically suicidal choice of the immature, abusive narcissist Margaret Sinclair as his consort. I found "Trudeau" painful to watch, especially the scenes in which the aging Trudeau is browbeaten and humiliated by his hystrionic child-wife, the objective correlative of his former glamorous self, which contrasts with smarting irony with the progressive revelation of his inability to deliver the goods ("What do you want me to do about it?" he squawks to an aide, not the first or last revelation of this very hollow man's essential cluelessness.) I bought "Trudeau" wanting to see more of Colm Feore after being enchanted by his portrayal of Glenn Gould, another stupefyingly complex late 20th century Canadian mass media icon. Weirdly, and appropriately I think, Feore's Gould comes across as a far warmer, more authentic personality than his cold, brittle Trudeau. Polly Shannon's whimpery Margaret just made me want to slap her in the mouth, which I think is perfectly appropriate to the character. Most of all I just loved the way the director used Patrick McKenna in this film, not giving him that much to DO but posing him strategically near Feore at crucial moments, his chubby, mobile face and beautiful huge gray eyes telegraphing perfectly all the ideas and emotions that the fuzzy, chilly stick figure next to him just isn't grasping.
Duct Tape Forever (2002)
Dance 10, looks 3
Essentially this is a dreadful film with a few features that may or may not redeem it for you, depending on how much you want them to. In "opening up" "The Red Green Show" for the big screen, the filmmakers jettisoned the rustic charm carefully honed over a decade's worth of episodes set in and around Possum Lodge in favor of a blandly-photographed "road movie" with a ghastly faux-Hollywood "big" musical score and profoundly boring storyline that's not embellished with enough good gags to make it as entertaining as even the most mediocre episode of the TV series.
Having devised a plotline that keeps most of the members of Possum Lodge offscreen for most of the film and requires virtually everyone concerned to be despicably mean to the loveable Harold (who's the hero of the film, the usually affably crusty Red being relegated in this incarnation to nothing more than the role of head Harold abuser), the only performers who really get to shine are Patrick McKenna and Peter Keleghan as Harold and Ranger Gord, who deliver satisfyingly large-screen versions of their small-screen characters.
All the reviews I've been seeing of this film keep talking about how silly it is. Actually, it's a well-constructed, well-written and highly original approach to making a feature film geared to please "Crocodile Hunter" fans as well as delivering a strictly earnest message about what the Irwins are truly all about. Though in tone and style it can be compared to nothing else so much as a really big-budget special episode of one of the "Crocodile Hunter" TV programs (as befits a film created by the Croc Hunter TV team), in concept the films it reminds me of most are "A Hard Day's Night" and "Help," also films that successfully married a satisfying depiction of a real-life media phenomenon with an amusing and stylish fictional framework.
The through-line is a semifictional depiction of a day in the life of the Croc Hunter and company, illustrating the various things that they actually do for a living. This includes on-camera animal demonstrations (Steve chasing a gowana and pointing out what its "poo" tells about the animal's habits and status in the ecosystem), wildlife rescue (scooping a fear snake off the road so it won't get squished, saving an orphaned kangaroo joey), providing specimens for science and medicine (snagging a bird-eating spider to milk for antivenom), and providing humane solutions to human-animal conflicts (capturing and relocating a crocodile who's been attacking a rancher's calves.) The wholly fictional subplot, with its absolutely dead-on parody of an American action-technothriller (this is a film with a wryly Australian viewpoint--the top American agent is a humorless, oversexed nerd obsessed with his gun) provides the title's "collision course" with the Irwin's mission to save endangered wildlife, which is anything but inconsequential to the film's overall message. No synthetic "adventure" that Hollywood can dream up is more exciting than the truly fun and absorbing spectacle of Stevo capturing, admiring and saving his beloved animals. It's a message all Croc Hunter fans can agree with--it really is a thrill to see Steve interacting with a big spider or croc or snake on the big screen, something that wouldn't come through on the little screen.
The best and worst Hollywood has to offer
One one hand this film sets the standard for what a Hollywood superhero movie should be. Instead of camping it up or trying to take the story to another level that throws away the fundamental ingenuous appeal of the original comic (which is what happened with both the television and film incarnations of "Batman") it is a true live action comic book, presenting its juvenile, melodramatic subject matter with sincerity and a straightforward graphic flair that without being at all obvious about it provides a genuine analog to the classic Marvel style.
On the other hand, the fact that it is nothing more than another extremely costly Hollywood comic book come to life makes it infuriating viewing for anyone watching with a brain not on idle. Seldom has a contemporary film dared to present such a blatantly retro-Hollywood misogynist worldview, with its musclebound, power-obsessed male protagonists demonstrating only the most primitive interests in the only two female characters, a deferential old lady (ROSEMARY HARRIS???? isn't this a little like casting Laurence Olivier as Grandpa Walton?) who mainly exists to serve food and a young woman (Kirsten Dunst, augmented breasts jutting awkwardly from anorectic ribcage) whose purpose is to totter on high heels between encounters with males bent on raping/murdering/courting/protecting her. Watching pretty Toby Macguire ecstatically shooting through the air on threads of spermlike "silk" and stolidly rejecting the woman he "loves" because he has more important things to do than actually stick around and have a relationship with her--like zipping around in the night chasing other muscular fellows in tight suits with his sperm-thrower--tells you all you need to know about subtext here. Yeah, just keep telling yourself, it's only a movie.
The Story of Mankind (1957)
What a piece of work is "Mankind"
Leave Ed Wood alone. To call "Plan 9 from Outer Space" the worst film ever made would be to deny this abysmally vulgar heap of Hollywood guano its rightful title. This pretentious fusion of witless whimsy and bathetic sociopolitical "commentary" actually does seem to be formed along the lines of "Plan 9," with badly-staged scenes of down-on-their-luck actors on cheap sets interspersed with what appears to be footage of battle and crowd scenes cribbed from higher-budget epics. But whereas "Plan 9" occasionally manages to be funny when it means to be and reasonably entertaining overall, this tacky pageant is appallingly lacking in basic showmanship, with scenes ranging from offensively unfunny (the disgusting burlesque of Groucho Marx stealing Manhattan from the Indians) to low camp (Hedy Lamarr attempting to impersonate Joan of Arc hearing her "voices") to tedious (Dennis Hopper doing absolutely nothing with the role of Napoleon) to the unexpectedly poignant performance of Peter Lorre as the psychotic Nero. Give the worst director trophy to Irwin Allen, for turning so much into so little.
The Sad Sack (1957)
The only memorable thing about this bland, tacky, cheap-looking comedy is Liliane Montevecchi. That this beautiful, spectacularly entertaining creature could have been intentionally included in this otherwise nastily drab picture is almost beyond belief. Peter Lorre is also brought in to jazz things up a bit, mostly to no avail, though thanks to his efforts one of his scenes with Jerry Lewis is very nearly funny.
You'll Find Out (1940)
That's right, I was wrong!
In a previous post I expressed my opinion (heavily influenced by the Maltin guide) that this movie sucked. Subsequent viewings have radically changed my mind. This is a NICE little picture!
It's one of those so-corny-it's-hep 1940s comedy-horror farces that came into fashion with "The Ghost Breakers" and reached its full flowering with "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein." Here, Kay Kyser and his Kollege provide rather more palatable comedy relief than Bob Hope or Bud and Lou, as well as some first-class musical interludes. Horror fans may regret that Lugosi and Karloff are not given quite as much screen time as Ish Kabibble, but will be pleased to find they are both handled with warmth, delicacy and a certain gravitas befitting such grand gentlemen of the cinema. As for the top-billed "bad humor man" Peter Lorre, in no other film has his exotic decadence been showcased so deliciously.
Hell Ship Mutiny (1957)
Jon Hall, who starred in several exotic adventure-romances with Dorothy Lamour and Maria Montez in the thirties and forties, seems to have had a dual purpose in making this rather retro sarong film. One was to promote his new underwater movie equipment rental business (the plot provides for lots of shots of Jon and friends diving for pearls, engaging in underwater tussles, looking at fishies, etc.) The other was to express a love that dared not speak its name, at least to Dorothy or Maria. The lumpish Polynesian princess that's Jon's nominal love interest appears to take second place in his affections to a puckish little brown boy in an abbreviated pareu, and there's a lot more buff male bodies on display on his island paradise than the expected female ones. As ever, however, the cutest item on display is Peter Lorre, in an all too brief comic turn as a visiting colonial circuit judge.
Scent of Mystery (1960)
Of historical interest only!
Some movies created to be used with in-theater tricks such as 3-D or Sensurround or whatever are entertaining to watch even without the gimmick. This isn't. The young Denholm Elliott makes a most unengaging leading man/narrator, and though Peter Lorre as his dirty old man sidekick perks things up a bit it's basically a low octane assemblage of corny gags and sub-Hitchcockian intrigue. Still, it's the film that inspired John Waters' classic Odorama classic "Polyester," which is quite a claim to fame in itself.
Beat the Devil (1953)
John Huston, Truman Capote, Humphrey Bogart and the gang must have had one heck of a swell time on location to make this film, partying down all night and improvising a scene or two between cocktails during the day. It's not such a pleasure to watch, however. There's no plot, no real characters (though Jennifer Jones seems to be doing some sort of Grace Kelly impression, or something, that makes you want to smack her silly) and the attempts at witticism are pretty witless. Even veteran improvisor Peter Lorre doesn't manage to make the meandering proceedings very amusing, though he looks awfully cute with his hair dyed Capote blond.
Hotel Berlin (1945)
Hollywood was probably just as good and sick of making this sort of anti-Nazi propaganda picture as audiences were good and sick of seeing them. This stale, bitter melodrama has little to recommend it except for Peter Lorre's heartfelt tour de force as a former political prisoner who is (rather implausibly) released from a concentration camp to join the underground.
The Face Behind the Mask (1941)
A good film, theoretically
This is one of the most solid examples of early noir, with a tight, compelling story, nice performances and a pleasingly unornamented look. It's also a hideously grim story, and Peter Lorre appears uncomfortable in a constrictive role that requires him to be systematically broken, humiliated and stripped of his humanity. For this characteristically jovial performer, it's as unpleasant to watch as it was for him to play out.
Crime and Punishment (1935)
Inconsolable over his enforced separation from Marlene Dietrich, Sternberg took a passive-aggressive approach to this assignment from Paramount, sabotaging it by neglect at every turn. Given a star performer with infinitely more to offer than Dietrich, the fresh-from-the-continent Peter Lorre, Sternberg chose to work against rather than with him, squashing his attempts to create a coherent interpretation of Raskolnikov and photographing him to look as fat as possible, while mournfully doing his best to make Marian Marsh look Dietrichlike. In squandering the raw materials given to him, from which an ordinary director could have concocted at least a very respectable "Crime and Punishment," Sternberg not only shafted Paramount but did significant damage to Lorre's career (this was meant to have been the prestigious American debut he deserved but never got) as well as his own.
The Patsy (1964)
A tale told by an idiot
In this celluloid atrocity Jerry Lewis moviestar/filmmaker/screenwriter/egomaniac at large rips off his former director Frank Tashlin's "The Girl Can't Help It," substituting himself for Jayne Mansfield and surrounding himself with a phalanx of veteran performers (Peter Lorre, John Carradine, Phil Harris, Keenan Wynn, and for that extra touch of "Citizen Kane," Everett Sloane) in an apparent attempt to make himself look classier, or funnier, or something. Whatever he was trying to do with this picture, it didn't work.
The Buster Keaton Story (1957)
Buster Keaton and Sidney Sheldon--not a good mix
The weird thing about this film is it's NOT the Buster Keaton story at all. The main character is a fictional studio executive named Gloria who falls in love with Buster (inexplicably, as he's portrayed as a graceless, unattractive slob) and puts her happiness and career on the line in order to nurture and protect him as he chases another woman, blows all his money and drinks himself silly. The surprisingly faithful recreations of classic Keaton routines dropped in awkwardly here and there do nothing to relieve the tedium of this glum, sour women's picture masquerading as a biopic.
Congo Crossing (1956)
Not bad noirish adventure
As an antidote to the sweetness of "The African Queen," try this raunchy little rough-and-ready tale in which a passel of sleazy bums from Europe and America sort out their differences in and around the Congo, while decent African citizens just try to get on with things. Peter Lorre is radiant as the chief bum, a combination Capt. Renault/Ugarte character in a natty gold braided uniform who rules by dint of outclassing everybody.
One of life's little ironies
One can only imagine what Peter Lorre, who had been a morphine addict since 1928 (during which time he had become an internationally acclaimed film star), made of this hystrionic anti-drug thriller in which he was cast as a wicked pusher who will stop at nothing to keep an innocent young singer as his client. As in most films in which he was cast as the putative villain, he's by far the most attractive and interesting creature in sight. His flashy pinstripes and spats (meant to mark him as a member of the criminal class) look good on him, as does his shaved head, a style that he would sport to even more advantage a few years later in "Mad Love."
Five Weeks in a Balloon (1962)
Not bad, for the dreaded Irwin
Definitely one of the more tolerable of Irwin Allen's widescreen "family" pictures, this one particularly rewards contemporary viewers with its forward-thinking social conscience (the plot turns on the protagonists' attempts to thwart African slave traders) and the uncanny resemblance of Red Buttons' spoiled, bumbling rich boy character to George W. Bush, visually and otherwise. The titillating presence of Barbara Luna and Barbara Eden as feisty slave chicks and Peter Lorre's turn as a slave trader (his whip-wielding entrance into a sultan's harem is definitely the film's highlight) also add palatability.
Grumpy old men save the world!
The main thing wrong with this movie is that it was made in color with too much money. Some nice grainy black and white film stock, a cast of relative unknowns, and it would have been just about right. But in full-color widescreen with all those big-name (if aging and relatively inexpensive) performers it's just embarrassingly overproduced. The film's only really graceful element is Peter Lorre, giving his patented demonstration of fifty different ways to smoke a cigarette as Walter Pidgeon vigorously emotes besides him. Questions: has anybody ever looked into the eerie similarities between this movie's theme song and "An Octopus' Garden"? And what exactly IS that octopus doing to the Seaview?
Rope of Sand (1949)
Corinne was a BAD little girl!
This is a film of considerable charm and interest, a postwar noir updating of the Warner Bros. "Casablanca"-style foreign intrigue routine that substitutes a refreshing toughness for the earlier films' cotton-candy romanticism. As usual, the stalwart leading man plays second fiddle to the character roles. Claude Rains takes his wry-and-witty routine to the level of sublime high camp, Peter Lorre purrs lyrical philosophy in a rumpled linen suit and three-day beard, and Paul Henried does much better as the arrogant, sadistic villain (reminiscent of Ronald Merrick in "Jewel in the Crown") than he ever did as a leading man. There's even subtle criticism of the apartheid system thrown in. What could have been a minor classic and certainly the best of the "Casablanca" clones is severely compromised however by the presence of Corinne Calvet, whose ferret face and rusty-hinge voice make a potentially pleasurable film difficult to watch, let alone enjoy.