Monday, January 15, 2018

"POST" THE MOST



          One of the best new movies in a long time.
          Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks star in a true story about the core American value of free speech.
          An old school throwback hearkening to political thrillers such as All the President's Men (1976), The Post details the leaked Department of Defense admission that the Vietnam War was a losing effort carried on through four Presidents, not because it was necessary, but primarily in order to save face.
          Set mostly in 1971, the film hinges on the decision of America's first female newspaper publisher, Kay Graham (Streep), to run the leak for the benefit of the American people--"Our readers are our leaders"--or bury it per the demands of the Nixon Administration.
          It is a story from a time when journalism had the power to hold elected authority accountable. According to Ben Bradlee (Hanks), the editor of The Washington Post, "We can't have an administration dictating our coverage."
          Meanwhile, the paper is in the process of being purchased by new owners, bankers not remotely interested in First Amendment rights, but rather only desirous of profitability.
          For filmgoers accustomed to seemingly endless special effects-saturated superhero movies, The Post may come as a shocking aberration. Surprisingly fast-paced, the film immerses the viewer in a time when reporters were resourceful, newspapers had teeth, and the concept of a vindictive administration terrorizing democracy with an enemies list was repugnant and unacceptable.
          "We have to be the check on their power," Bradlee asserts. "If we don't hold them accountable, who will?"
          At no point in the film will audiences forget the star power of the lead performers. For Streep and Hanks these are terrific roles perfectly suited to their respective professional caliber. What might surprise is to find the director is some new guy named Steven Spielberg. Keep your eye on him. He's going places.
          True, for historical accuracy, the shirt collars could well be bigger, and ditto for the sideburns. Wisely, the filmmakers chose to reduce the jarring impact of these images, and softened the blow by making the collars and the sideburns less gigantic than in reality. But everything else is remarkably authentic.
          A potent reminder of where we've been, The Post is one of those rare movie experiences with the power to entertain us with a story, and also make us think about where we are long after we've left the theater.




THE POST
Starring Meryl Streep,
Tom Hanks,
Bob Odenkirk,
Sarah Paulson,
Bruce Greenwood,
Matthew Rhys,
Carrie Coon
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Liz Hannah, Josh Singer
Runtime 116 minutes
Rated PG-13




























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Wednesday, January 10, 2018

MOUND-BUILDER DOCS RAISE AWARENESS



          "In 1991, while serving as the director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, historian Roger Kennedy was shocked to learn for the first time that massive ancient city remains existed in North America."
          So opens "Ancient Voices - Cahokia: America's Lost City," one of several fascinating documentaries freely available online.
          "Cahokia Mound is bigger in its footprint than the Great Pyramid of Giza," says Kennedy. "We didn't know that."
          Didn't know it, and in a big way.
          These ingenious and indigenous constructions once dotted the ancient North American landscape. And most Americans have no idea.
          Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, and more US states hold, beneath their cities, the staggering magnitude of one of early humankind's greatest accomplishments.
          No one knows exactly why they were made, and no one knows at all what happened to the people who, like the cliff-dwelling Anasazi, vanished from history. But we know they had trade routes stretching across North America for thousands of years.
          Mounds appear to have been built in stages and added onto over time. At its height, Cahokia held more people than there were in Medieval London or Rome.
          "The Lost Civilizations of North America" and "Ancient America Mounds" (featuring actor Wes Studi) round out the mound-builders search.
          Settlers 200 years ago knew of the Mississippian mound-builders. Indeed, St. Louis used to be known as Mound City. Over time, however, this knowledge was forgotten because the fact of vast ancient North American cities flew inconveniently in the face of the Doctrine of Manifest Destiny. It conflicted with the supposition of American character and uniqueness.
          According to Kennedy, there are "tens of thousands of architectural consequences that are now hidden behind our junk."
          Hardly the first time that the truth was buried to protect political and scientific agendas. Witness, for example, the case of the Piltdown Man hoax, which resulted from someone's attempt to make the world believe that the first human being was an Englishman.
          Keep in mind, these are not major motion pictures. No major motion pictures on Cahokia exist. Yet the information they contain staggers the imagination.
          Because the discovery of antiquities conflicted with the sense of European immigrant importance, and the desire to view Native Americans as savages while shoving and shooting across the West, these ancient cities of an advanced people which undermined wrongly established view were ignored for as long as possible.
          But not anymore.















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Monday, January 1, 2018

BEST "BOUNTY" OF THE BUNCH

         
          Talk about Island Power.
          It's been made at least three times, and all three times well done. Because of Charles Laughton's unique performance as the savage Captain William Bligh, the 1935 version of Mutiny On the Bounty set the standard for all future adaptations.
          Based on the real events of the 1789 mutiny, Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall, both volunteer WWI pilots serving in France, wrote a trilogy beginning with the publication of Mutiny On the Bounty in 1932. By '35 for the Laughton film (with Clark Gable as a virile Depression-era hero standing up to authoritarian abuse of privilege) both Men Against the Sea (1933) and Pitcairn's Island (1934) had already been published.
          Together Nordhoff and Hall were great, but their collaboration did eventually end and neither prospered the better for it.
          Authoritative though the condensed adaptation by the screenwriters was, and precisely because a generation later the story still resonated as a tale of rebellion with something akin to Biblical heft, the next big version (the first one in color) starred Marlon Brando as Fletcher Christian.
          Supposedly Brando almost sank MGM by--allegedly--taking command of the film's director's chair, embodying the role of one of the world's most famous rebels, and thereby causing director Carol Reed (of The Third Man fame and more) to be replaced by Lewis Milestone. And this one was that guy's last picture.
          Interestingly, an actress named Movita played the Tahitian love interest opposite Clark Gable...and then years later became Marlon Brando's 2nd wife. She lived to be 98.
          Further, Brando bought a French-Polynesian island because of his experiences filming (and conducting) Mutiny, Tetiaroa. Today a millionaire's playground.
          The 1984 version certainly favored millionaires. Anthony Hopkins has all the eccentric verisimilitude and power of Laughton as Bligh, to be sure, but the production unwisely favors Bligh's perspective. There is a moment when Mel Gibson as Fletcher Christian cries out, hand on forehead, "I am in hell!" in a way that just makes ya wanna take over the remote, but otherwise the quality production value and atmospheric music by Vangelis, plus memorable performances by not only Hopkins but also young Daniel Day-Lewis and young Liam Neeson, keep the third take on the story always at least entertaining.
          The 1935 version is eclipsed, however, by the superlative 1962 film. Lavish in every respect--it has an Overture and an Interlude--Mutiny on the Bounty, starring Tarita as Maimiti, plus Marlon Brando, is the classic account of trying to get bread-fruit gone awry like no other.






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Monday, December 25, 2017

"EYES" WORTH SEEING

          In this sometimes disturbing and always fascinating French film from 1960, a surgeon causes an accident which disfigures his daughter--and tries to repair the damage he caused...but requires victims to do it.
          Director John Carpenter says he was influenced by this film. The rubber mask of William Shatner which his character Michael Myers wears in Halloween (1978) has a similar placid quality which accentuates horror because we are programmed to respond to facial features. When we see a mask, we want to know what is behind it. For that matter, Eyes Without a Face seems inspired in some measure by the Lon Chaney version of The Phantom of the Opera (1925) and perhaps Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) .
          The daughter, Christiane (Scob), ethereal and doll-like, stays hidden at the doctor's house because almost everyone else thinks she died in the accident. The only other person who knows is the lab assistant Louise (Valli), whom the doctor successfully helped with a mysterious surgery sometime earlier.
          Part of what makes Eyes Without a Face (and yes, Billy Idol liked the title enough to use it for a song) so interesting is the pleasant, matter-of-fact manner by which Louise goes about assisting Dr. Genessier (Brasseur). Sure, she seems like a nice lady who drives around with the quirky theme music from "Curb Your Enthusiasm" playing all the time. But appearances deceive.
          Like Haxan (1922) and Freaks (1932), Eyes is considered by some viewers excessively disturbing for its time--and perhaps for any time. Two scenes in particular stand out uniquely in film. Suffice to say, a well-done film does not need computer special effects.
          Eyes exemplifies sheer filmmaking, pure storytelling. Based on the filmmaking trend of the last couple decades, wherein most of Hollywood's feature films rely on CG effects and automatic sequels in franchises imitating previous successes, Eyes Without a Face is a fresh face in cinema, and a wonder to behold.
          Freely available online.




EYES WITHOUT A FACE
(LES YEUX SANS VISAGE)
Starring Pierre Brasseur,
Edith Scob,
Alida Valli
Directed by Georges Franju
Written by Pierre Boileau, Thomas Nacejac,
Claude Sautet, Pierre Gascar
Based on the novel by Jean Redon
Runtime 90 minutes




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Monday, December 18, 2017

"LAST JEDI" FIRST-RATE



          The eighth film in the franchise is one of the best.
          Remaining intentionally vague to preserve the experience, suffice to say that the First Order, spearheaded by Supreme Leader Snoke's Darth Vader-worshipping disciple, Kylo Ren (Driver), is on the verge--yet again--of crushing the Resistance. Meanwhile, Rey (Ridley), having finally found Luke Skywalker (Hamill) at the end of Episode 7, The Force Awakens (2015), must now try to persuade the legendary Jedi master to return, thereby giving the Resistance hope.
          This much any fan of the franchise can gather from the prevalence of posters.
          In the aforementioned Episode 7, which famously reunited original core cast members, we saw the return of Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia. Sadly, however, she died one year ago. Audiences may well then wonder whether the filmmakers will choose to use a computer-generated version of Fisher in the way that they did with Peter Cushing. Thankfully, they do not. Fisher finished scenes for the movie before her passing. The mistake of using a deceased actor's stiff and waxy CG likeness is not repeated in this film.
          The two latest Episodes do share in common three new characters simply not as interesting as the ones from the original films. Rey, Poe (Isaac), and Finn (Boyego) still fall fairly flat. But at least they aren't Ewoks, and at least there's no Jar Jar Binks.
          Writer-director Rian Johnson terrifically presents the proper atmosphere in keeping with the 1977 original. So far, this makes Johnson the fifth director to do so. Irvin Kershner did it for The Empire Strikes Back (1980), as did Richard Marquand with Return of the Jedi (1983); J.J. Abrams did it with The Force Awakens, and even so did Gareth Edwards in last year's franchise extension film Rogue One. Only George Lucas has proven himself unable to re-capture the proper atmosphere. And that happened three times.
          But this one's quite good.
          It's not science fiction. It's space opera--put forth by the Empire, so to speak, solely for the purpose of making money. Irony, therefore, can at some level be found. But in some weird way, the mighty Star Wars franchise, in all its varied forms, is also the national film. The anti-human forces, the forces of mechanization and globalization, which deny nature, and deny the individual, come spectacularly into conflict with the forces of life, and love, and what it means to be human. This is why it affects us. This is what makes it great.
          Well worth a trip to the theater.




STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI
Starring Mark Hamill,
Carrie Fisher,
Adam Driver,
Daisy Ridley,
John Boyego,
Oscar Isaac,
Kelly Marie Tran,
Laura Dern,
Andy Serkis,
Benicio Del Toro,
Frank Oz
Written and directed by Rian Johnson
Runtime 152 minutes
Rated PG-13




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Thursday, December 14, 2017

"HIDDEN FORTESS" WORTH FINDING


          He is one of the world's most respected directors, but he made more money suing Sergio Leone for making A Fistful of Dollars (1964), an unauthorized re-make of the samurai picture Yojimbo (1961), than he did with any of his highly influential films. From Akira Kurosawa's masterpiece, Seven Samurai (1954), Hollywood derived the classic Western The Magnificent Seven (1960). Perhaps less well-known, however, is the Kurosawa film which helped inspire George Lucas making Star Wars (1977).
          The Hidden Fortress (1958) concerns two bickering peasants in Feudal Japan trying to cross enemy lines. In the mountains they find a secret cache of gold, and each man's insatiable greed instantly kicks in. But they also meet a mysterious stranger (Mifune) who knows of the gold, and wants to escort an equally mysterious young woman (Uehara) with the gold from a fortress hidden in the mountains across the same enemy lines.
          In some respects, echoes of John Huston's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948).
          True enough, one could easily watch The Hidden Fortress and never notice any connection with Star Wars. Lucky for us, Lucas freely discusses the film's influence, chiefly in the use of the two lowest characters' point of view. But there are other aspects, as well. To compare the character of Hyo with Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi (1983) is to see influences in terms of story events and visual elements.
          Even the word "Jedi" itself comes from the Japanese word for historical dramas, "jidaigeki". In fact, Lucas tried to get Toshiro Mifune to play Obi-Wan Kenobi, but Mifune turned down the part because he didn't want to undermine samurai honor with space opera frivolity.
          Superlative cinematography, excellent acting, and an engrossing story highlight this film gem regardless of Star Wars. The performance by Minoru Chiaki, the taller of the two peasants, merits particular attention, especially considering how wildly different this character is from Heihachi, the woodchopper, in Seven Samurai.
          Freely available online.


THE HIDDEN FORTRESS
Starring Toshiro Mifune,
Minoru Chiaki,
Kamatari Fujiwara,
Misa Uehara,
Susumu Fujita,
Takashi Shimura
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Written by Ryuzo Kikushima, Hideo Oguni,
Shinobu Hashimoto, Akira Kurosawa
Runtime 126 minutes

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Wednesday, December 6, 2017

"FALCON" FLIES

          The benchmark in film noir.
          The Maltese Falcon (1941), directed by John Huston, stars Humphrey Bogart as San Francisco private eye Sam Spade.
          Based on Dashiell Hammett's third novel, published in 1930, the film takes material which crossed the line from pulp writing to great literature and turns what was standard movie fare twice into a film classic.
          Hammett himself was originally from Baltimore, the city where the creator of the detective story, Edgar A. Poe, is buried, so it is fitting that Hammett carried the literary torch. His experiences working as a Pinkerton's detective before joining the Army proved invaluable. Subsequent to an honorable discharge due to the very Poe-ish ailment of tuberculosis, Hammett moved to San Francisco, got married, and supplemented his small pension by writing hard-boiled detective stories for Black Mask.
          Behind Sam Spade's own wry, sardonic mask is a guy twice as jaded but who nonetheless has a moral compass and more or less follows it.
          Huston's screenplay, generally faithful to Hammett's novel, dazzles audiences with a kaleidoscope of dysfunctional criminals seeking a fabled treasure from the days of the Knights Templar.
          Yes, The Maltese Falcon! Starring Mary Astor as the femme fatale who has it all...Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo! Vaguely exotic, alternately simpering and demanding, his watery boiled-egg eyes long to behold...The Maltese Falcon!
          "When you're slapped, you'll take it and like it!"
          Sydney Greenstreet as Kasper Gutman, aka The Fat Man: "By Gad, sir, you are a character! There's never any telling what you'll say or do next, except that it's bound to be something astonishing!"
          Elisha Cook Jr. as Wilmer: "I'm warnin' you..."
          Interestingly, the great character actor Dwight Frye played the role of Wilmer in 1931, the same year he played Renfield in Dracula.
          Gritty and timeless, funny and stylish, packed with danger and intrigue, treachery and romance, The Maltese Falcon is the cinematic treasure to pursue!
          For more film noir, check out The Third Man (1949), Double Indemnity (1944), and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946).
          "The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter, huh?"


THE MALTESE FALCON
Starring Humphrey Bogart,
Mary Astor,
Sydney Greenstreet,
Peter Lorre,
Elisha Cook Jr.
Written and directed by John Huston
Based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett
Runtime 100 minutes

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