Feb 25, 2015
The pastoral romantic epic Far From the Madding Crowd is now available on Blu-ray in a new release from Warner Archive.
Based on Thomas Hardy's first literary success, the film stays close to the novel's plotline, taking its time, but moving along smoothly through its nearly three hour running time. Set in the countryside of England during Victorian times, it tells the story of Bathsheba Everdene (Julie Christie), the strong-willed owner by inheritance of a large farm and her romantic entanglements with three men.
In his review of the film Roger Ebert called Julie Christie, "too sweet and superficial" to handle the complexities of playing Bathsheba. While I haven't read Hardy's book, and can't comment on whether Christie captures Everdene as conceived, I thought that the way she used sweetness to charm, while often behaving in a less becoming way, was a good choice.
She plays a woman who doesn't know the extent of abilities: for attracting men, for feeling passion. She doesn't see how her sweet nature draws admirers and conceals her more turbulent personality. While she knows that she is strong, the complexities of that strength are not yet clear to her, and Christie effectively communicates her developing awareness of herself and the way she affects others.
The men who romance her, Alan Bates, Peter Finch and Terence Stamp are also well cast. As a sheepherder who is at first overconfident in his ability to win Bathsheba, Bates is cast against type as Gabriel Oak, a strong, decent man who otherwise is rightfully certain of his skill and what he has to offer. Finch is appropriately tense and awkward as Boldwood, the neighboring gentleman farmer who takes Bathsheba's joke valentine too seriously and becomes romantically obsessed with her. There's a dangerous hint of sociopathy to Stamp's portrayal of a reckless sergeant, who faces tragedy before he begins to regret his behavior.
Director John Schlesinger has created a beautifully detailed world. You can feel the weight of the farm work and the cast performing it looks authentic, as if he came upon them all by chance and decided to turn on the camera. Aided by director of photography Nicholas Roeg, who would eventually become an accomplished film director himself, he captures a heightened landscape, in which the light turns blades of grass silver and sun rays appear to reach out and caress Christie's face.
The gorgeous spectacle of it all just about distracts you from the curiously flat feel of the drama. Though it centers on romance, it seems lacking in passion. Even in a famously thrilling scene where Stamp demonstrates his skill with the sword by repeatedly endangering Bathsheba, there is excitement, but somehow the romantic element doesn't ignite. You understand why this reckless man would get her blood pumping, but you don't feel it.
It is enjoyable to watch the film though, because Schlesinger trusts his audience to understand all that is necessary. He lets the world of his characters unfold with natural ease. When Bathsheba's sheep begin to collapse from bloat, you don't get a lecture about the danger of livestock eating clover, but the urgency of the situation is made clear. In one of the most revealing moments, Bathsheba and Gabriel work frantically together to save her barley ricks, and you can see how well matched they are, even if there is no moment when the music rises and they lock eyes. In the upcoming version of the film starring Carey Mulligan, the scene has that moment, and loses the subtlety of their strengthening connection.
The picture is sharp and clean, but with enough grain to retain the nostalgic, bucolic feel. This is an extended version of the film, with three additional minutes that were not included in the original North American release. Special features include a trailer and a featurette made at the time of filming, with footage of Christie examining the filming locations.
Far From the Madding Crowd is a lush, inviting film and deserving of a wider audience.
Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the Blu-ray for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.
Feb 23, 2015
Milestone Films continues its six-year effort to release iconoclastic filmmaker Shirley Clarke's films on DVD and Blu-ray with her feature debut, The Connection (1961). In it, eight heroin junkies wait for their fix in a rundown Manhattan loft while a filmmaker and his assistant document their tortured existence.
I'd been warned that it could take a while to get into the film, and it's true, the first few minutes feel like a mess, full of wild chatter and overdramatic gestures. You wonder where this ragged bunch is headed. Once you're locked in its groove though, it's hard to look away.
Clarke creates a gritty atmosphere, absent the gloss of mainstream films, but still artificial. You get a feel for real human weaknesses, from actors who are clearly putting on a show. The contradiction lends the production an odd excitement. Everything feels a bit uneasy and you wonder who will come lunging at the camera next. This is deliberately rebellious filmmaking .
While the film portrays the addict's life as bleak, it has no moral message about drugs. These men are sick and desperate, but it is their human weaknesses and not the narcotics that are held up for scrutiny. This is clear in the final minutes, when an overdose empties the room of several men, their cowardice and lack of loyalty painted much darker than their addictions.
The jazz quartet is one of the most exciting elements of The Connection, giving the surroundings life whenever the confinement of the set starts to become oppressive. Though the musicians spend long periods slumped over their instruments, like they've got nothing left to give, they constantly come to life again, playing as though they have all the energy in the world. It's a great document of some fine jazz artists.
Though the film won plaudits at Cannes Film Festival, New York State censors rejected its release in the United States. Clarke decided to release the film without approval, but the screenings were shut down after two showings and the projectionist arrested.
|The group waits|
While the primary problem was said to be the number of times the characters used the s-word, usually in reference to their fix, there are plenty of other reasons censors had to object. A man looking at gay porn, the still-shocking sight of a needle going into Leach's arm as he gasps on the edge of anticipated euphoria and perhaps worst of all, the fact that black characters were painted as complex human beings, living in equality and nonchalant ease among white people.
With poor distribution, the film didn't make back its production costs, despite it being infinitely less expensive to make than a Hollywood production. It makes you wonder what movies would have been like today had it been readily available to influence budding filmmakers. Thanks to the efforts of Milestone, it now can do just that, and thrill new audiences with its adventurous spirit.
Disc bonus features include a trailer and photo gallery, a very cute home movie from the film set, conversations with the film's art director Albert Brenner and Freddie Redd, audio tracks of a pair of songs used to market the film in 1964 and four minutes of color footage featuring Carl Lee and a poodle named Max.
All photos courtesy of Milestone Films
Feb 22, 2015
Feb 21, 2015
Feb 18, 2015
The new Warner Archive release White Comanche features William Shatner playing half-breed twins at war with each other. If you like Shatner or the kind of oddball films that he picks, or more likely inspires with his presence, then this bare bones Western will not disappoint.
|Miserable Cotten, Brooding Shatner|
But instead you get William Shatner dressed like a cowboy, trotting through the hills on a horse, and not looking a bit lost. The best thing about Shatner is he always knows exactly who he is and where he is going, and he doesn't care what anyone thinks about it. His misplaced, but mesmerizing, confidence colors everything around him and transforms a forgettable flick into an amusing oddity.
Made in Spain while Shatner was on a break from filming Star Trek, he approaches each of the twins with his familiar stoic, but somehow busy intensity. One is Johnny Moon, a good-hearted wanderer who lives among the white people, the other is Notah a psychopathic peyote addict who lives among the natives, when he's not attacking stagecoaches.
Clearly Moon is meant to be the strong, silent Eastwood type in this Espanol take on the spaghetti western. But as in his other roles, Bill plays the Shatner type by managing to overact underacting his role.
He plays the loud version of the Shatner type as Notah, his face smeared with war paint that looks like it came from a pre-school craft table. There must also be a good barber in the tribe, because he is always clean shaven and sports a haircut more appropriate for a desk job than ambushing white people. I smile every time I think of his version of a war whoop.
Joseph Cotten seems like the only one in the cast who knows that he is speaking horrible lines, but he somehow manages to pull off a credible performance. Maybe he couldn't be bad if he tried.
It would all be so sad if there weren't Moon Shatner fighting Notah Shatner, spitting out crazy lines, and inexplicably dressing himself exactly like his brother for the final show-down so you have no idea who is shooting who. It's a baffling experience, and that soundtrack burrows into your head for days, never letting you forget what you've been through.
Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.
Feb 16, 2015
A Touch of Stardust: A Novel
Release Date: 2/17/15
I approached A Touch of Stardust with caution, because I am always wary of novels that fictionalize the lives of my movie idols. As Carole Lombard and Clark Gable are among my first silver screen loves, I felt especially on guard when I learned that they would be supporting players in this story about an aspiring screenwriter set against the backdrop of the production of Gone With the Wind (1939). Their portrayal is plausible for the most part though, and fits nicely into this story of love and ambition in the years leading up to World War II.
In the starring role is Julie Crawford of Fort Wayne, Indiana, who is working in the office of David Selznick as he ramps up production on the legendary GWTW. She and the producer's assistant Andy meet cute at the filming of the burning of Atlanta and begin a tentative affair. Not long after, Julie crosses paths with Lombard, and she is promoted to be her assistant when the star takes a liking to her.
Julie eventually connects with legendary screenwriter Frances Marion and begins to make a name for herself as a screenwriter while she endures a communications breakdown in her relationship with Andy. Lombard becomes her friend and confidante while Selznick's massive production surges on in the background.
For the most part, Alcott does well weaving movie history into her fictional world. Occasionally the details can be awkward (I can't imagine Lombard informing anyone that she is known as "The Profane Angel"), but for the most part I found the mix of fiction and fact entertaining and smoothly combined. I enjoyed the scenes on the movie set, which really gave me a feel for what it would have been like to be part of such a massive production.
The characterizations of Gable and Lombard are sympathetic and believable, and I appreciated that Alcott did not make Ms. Carole too cartoonish as has often happened in fictional portraits of the wild and crazy star. I also loved her saucy, intelligent rendering of Vivien Leigh.
While I found Julie's story engaging, at times her character didn't feel plausible. She never struck me as a 1930s woman. Even for a feminist ahead of her times, she felt overly modern in some respects. The rest of the characters, including those based on real people, fit into the era more comfortably.
Overall this is an interesting read though, with a great respect for the history it uses as a backdrop and just enough novel twists to save it from cliché.
Many thanks to Doubleday for providing a copy of the book for review.
Labels: Book Review
Feb 15, 2015
My mother and I were at a film once, and we came out through the lobby and she said, 'I want to see you do that someday.' And that was all that was needed. Because I already wanted to do it. But you have to have somebody tell you, or you need to be pushed a bit. And that's the only thing she's ever said to me about acting. Was she wanted to see me do that.
Feb 13, 2015
Feb 11, 2015
I love the high-spirited, incredibly silly flicks that Warner Archive has been releasing lately. The new batch is as much fun as the pair of 60s films I reviewed last Wednesday.
This week's double feature is headlined by two very different female characters who are heading towards domestic life, while embracing a bit of wildness along the way.
The Wild Affair (1965)
I've always been disappointed that Nancy Kwan didn't have a bigger career, though her performances in The World of Suzie Wong (1960) and Flower Drum Song (1961) are enough to grant her minor legend status. While both of those roles were seriously sexy, she didn't allow herself to be a vapid bombshell. There was always an air of amused wisdom about her, as if she knew she had a lot more to offer than her beauty, but she wasn't going to let just anyone in on the secret.
In The Wild Affair, Kwan gets the chance to play this type with a more modern flair. She is completely hip to the times as Marjorie Lee, a young secretary on the verge of plunging into matrimony, but still curious about the shifting tides brought forth by the sexual revolution. Looking for one last blast before embracing domesticity, she throws an orgiastic company party on her last day of work.
Marjorie is twenty years old, not long a woman, but already wise. This is partly because every man she meets feels the need to paw at her. You can't stay a child long with all that groping. Her boss, played with lecherous glee by Terry-Thomas, was especially grabby. I wanted to shout at the man to leave her alone!
But this woman knows how to take care of herself. She's got all the energy of youth, and she's willing to experiment, but she's also smart enough to know when to get out of a bad situation. This is the savvy, unapologetic female I'm always craving to see in films. That such a part is played by Nancy Kwan is too good to be true. It's great to see her break free in an adventurous, sharp and playful role.
Kwan is clever, funny, and gracefully walks the line between sweet and street smart. While her character shows hints of being resigned to a conventional life, you get the feeling that a woman that alive could never truly roll along with the status quo.
A lot of supposedly swinging sixties movies can make you cringe with their stilted, but farcical interpretations of the sexual revolution. This flick jumps headfirst into the lusty insanity of it all.
To make it all even more of its time, Kwan rocks a mod Vidal Sassoon bob and a hip wardrobe created by London designer Mary Quant.
Side note to silent film/early talkie fans: Bessie Love is delightful in a brief appearance as Marjorie's mother.
Born Reckless (1958)
Mamie Van Doren was Universal's attempt to launch its own bleach blonde bombshell in the fifties, a la Marilyn Monroe. She certainly looked the part, but just like Jayne Mansfield and Diana Dors, she possessed an entirely different kind of charm than the breathy queen of 1950s sex symbols. Energetic, playful and ready to rock, Van Doren always seemed the most happy-go-lucky of the sexy blondes.
In Born Reckless Van Doren plays one of her most vibrant roles as cowgirl singer and trick rider Jackie, who travels with rodeo star Kelly Cobb (Jeff Richards) and his handler Cool Man (Arthur Hunnicutt) through the competitive circuit. She pines for Kelly and wants to settle down with him on the ranch he's buying with his winnings, but he's still sowing his oats and pays little attention to Jackie.
Perhaps Kelly is suffering from an overload of attention from gorgeous cowgirls, because it is impossible to believe that he wouldn't at least give Jackie a tumble, even though her torpedo-boobed bombshell appearance is at odds with the domestic-minded singer's wholesome values.
It doesn't matter though. This movie isn't concerned with plot. It's about rip-snorting rodeo scenes, bar fights and excellent rockabilly cowboy songs. Van Doren takes on most of the singing duties, and her numbers are a lot of fun because she looks like she's having a blast. Something to Dream About in particular had me tapping my toes for days afterwards. Rockabilly Texan Johnny Olenn and His Group also tear through a couple of raucous numbers, including the memorable title track.
It's uncomplicated fun. There are no surprises. This is the kind of movie you watch when you need to be cheered up, but don't want to save for a rainy day.
Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing copies of the films for review. These are Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVDs. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.
Feb 10, 2015
I've been thinking lately that I'd like to buy a new tote. What better than to get a bag that reflects my classic movie love? Deciding what to buy hasn't been as easy as I expected though. I found thousands of choices on the first site I searched. Look at these amazing picks from Red Bubble:
|Novak & Stewart/Bell,Book & Candle|
|Robert Mitchum/Night of the Hunter|
|Cary Grant/North by Northwest|
|Voyage to the Moon|
|Anna May Wong|
It has been torture deciding which one I want, but I think I may need to go with this:
I received no compensation for this post. I'm just a fan.
Feb 9, 2015
The Sound of Music Story
St. Martin's Press, 2015
The Sound of Music Story begins just as the famous movie does, with Julie Andrews purposefully striding up a green hillside and effortlessly twirling as she begins to sing. The only difference: this time she is flung to the ground by the force of the helicopter filming her from above. After ten takes, many of them ending with her face in the grass, the rising star screamed that she'd had enough.
I'll never look at that opening scene the same again, but I don't mind, because The Sound of Music is as interesting behind the scenes as it is onscreen. In his thorough history of the musical, Tom Santopietro tells the story of the real von Trapp family, the first appearance of their fictional counterparts onscreen in a pair of popular German comedy-dramas, the stage musical and blockbuster film to follow.
The notes on casting are worth the read alone. Imagine what the movie would have been like if Walter Matthau had been cast as Captain von Trapp? Or if Mia Farrow and Sharon Tate had been seriously considered to dance through a gazebo as Liesl? What if Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly had accepted the offer to direct? Or if William Wyler hadn't eventually admitted his dislike for the show and took this on as his first musical instead of Funny Girl (1968)?
Maria Von Trapp was not much like her stage and screen counterparts. The product of a rough childhood, she was tough, controlling and difficult to impress. She exerted great control over her singing family, which naturally caused some resentment, though many of the children would participate in some way in the family legacy when their stage career was over. They even capitalized on their fame by opening the Von Trapp Family Lodge in Vermont, which still attracts sentimental musical lovers to this day.
So the petite, cheerful Mary Martin was not much like the real Maria Von Trapp, but the women became friends and she won the sturdy Austrian's approval for her portrayal in the stage musical version of her family story. The show was an enormous hit, the last Rogers and Hammerstein score, and many thought their best. It took a few years, but it was inevitable that the show would eventually make it to the screen.
The process of casting and pre-production reads like a journal of missed catastrophes. There are so many ways this movie could have gone off the rails with bad casting, the wrong director or ill-advised staging, but these disasters are all avoided, sometimes barely. Robert Wise was the perfect choice for director, he had a knack for finding talent he could trust, so he could step back and let them work their magic. Finding this dream team is perhaps his biggest accomplishment, because once they were assembled, this was a remarkably happy production, one that cast and crew were sorry to leave behind when filming ended.
Santopietro's text is full of detail, but flows nicely with an almost airy feel. He gets the meat of the story, but makes plenty of asides for amusing anecdotes, like the time Christopher Plummer and Julie Andrews were trying to film their romantic gazebo scene, but kept breaking into laughter because the lights overhead were making fart noises. You also get a good feel for the social dynamics of the set, with a cranky Plummer, the cheerful, team-building Andrews and charming elements like the enormous crush Nicholas Hammond (Friedrich) had on his screen stepmother (you can see how much he adores her as they perform alongside each other for the Lonely Goatherd number).
The initial audience reaction to the film was of intense, overwhelming love. One preview audience was so impressed that it rose for an unheard of standing ovation at intermission. Even the real Maria Von Trapp was entranced, becoming so wrapped up in the movie that she walked down the aisle of the theater as if she were a part of the onscreen re-enactment of her own wedding.
Critics were not as kind. The filmmakers thought they had it made with that rapturous audience response, but film criticism in the 1960s was already brutal, and a sweet story like The Sound of Music raised ire to the point of almost seeming to offend acerbic critics like Pauline Kael. It didn't make a bit of difference for the film's box office though, and it also cleaned up during awards season, winning the Academy Award for best picture, director, music, film editor and sound.
The final portion of the book is dedicated to life after the film's reception, from the impact it had on its cast and crew to its cultural influence. While there is much of interest here, the text starts to lose momentum, getting slightly bogged down by all the details and analysis. That said, it's fun to know what happened to the kids in the cast. It can't be easy to weave together details like that Liesl would eventually become an interior decorator and help her friend Michael Jackson with his Neverland Ranch or that The Sound of Music is hugely popular in China because for several years it was one of the only five movies that Chairman Mao allowed to be screened.
While the image of Julie Andrews being slammed to the ground by a helicopter or giggling with Christopher Plummer over flatulent lights strips away a little illusion, it was encouraging to learn that the set of third highest grossing film of all time (adjusted for inflation) was a happy one and a world as rich and fascinating as the musical on the screen.
Labels: Book Review
Feb 8, 2015
Feb 7, 2015
Feb 2, 2015
I had a lot of fun checking out the oddball sixties comedies Panic Button and Kill or Cure this week, both new releases from Warner Archive. Offbeat flicks like these are a huge reason why I love MOD (Manufacture on Demand) discs so much.
Panic Button (1964)
Just from reading the cast list I knew that Panic Button was going to be unusual. Maurice Chevalier, Eleanor Parker and Jayne Mansfield in the same low-budget production? I had to see how that would pan out.
A somewhat frail, but still jaunty Chevalier stars as a washed up actor who lives in his ex-wife's (Eleanor Parker) hotel for women. He is delighted when a business group hires him to appear in a television pilot of Romeo and Juliet. It's all a scam though, the businessmen are looking for a tax write-off and have purposely hired an unpopular star in anticipation of being rejected by the networks. Mansfield is recruited to be his Juliet.
While the film seems to be going down the same road as The Producers, the only similarity is in the basic idea. Panic Button is nowhere near as good as the Mel Brooks hit, but everyone involved seems to know they're in a lousy production and not care a whit. Most of the cast appears to be having a blast, especially Chevalier and Parker, and that's what makes the movie so much fun.
Parker and Chevalier are the friendliest exes you'll ever see in a movie. The elderly actor is clearly living in his former love's hotel because of her generosity and their conversations, while not all sweet, are based in a sort of affectionate respect. Of course, you never believe for a minute that they could have been married. Their father-daughter vibe is as much about the kind of chemistry they possess as their 34-year age difference.
|Parker, Chevalier and Croccolo|
Though the film often feels padded, with long establishing shots and superfluous Chevalier songs, there are enough comic moments to give it zing. I especially loved a scene where Parker, Chevalier and hotel worker Carlo Croccolo dress up as nuns and sneak away to the Venice Film Festival with the film. It's the sort of set-up that usually makes you cringe, but they seem so amused to be trotting around Italy in habits that you have to smile.
Kill or Cure (1962)
Kill or Cure is more conventionally successful than Panic Button, but it has some of the same off-kilter goofiness. Gap-toothed British comedian Terry-Thomas is a private investigator who is hired by a wealthy woman to go under cover to investigate suspicious activity at a health hotel where she is a guest. Once he arrives, he is horrified to realize he is expected to live on grass salad and putrid juice drinks while enduring rough salt rubs and ice cold showers.
His nemesis is a disciplined doctor at the hotel, played by Dennis Price, who is perhaps best known for playing the sinister lead in Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949). The good doctor believes fervently in the cuisine and health regime that so horrifies the PI. He also insists on conducting his own investigation when Terry-Thomas' client is murdered and the hotel is thrown into a panic.
Price and Terry-Thomas have great chemistry, and the movie is most amusing when they are playing off each other. As different as their lifestyles are, they have a similar way of approaching a problem, and their mutual realization of that both infuriates and impresses them. It would have been great to see them headline more comedies together.
Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing copies of the films for review. These are Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVDs. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.