Capsule Reviews

A couple of Westerns are being shown this week on Turner Classic. “3:10 to Yuma” is the original of which the recent remake is infinitely better. And the other, “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” is a pretty good Western with Kris Kristofferson, most notable for a small part where Bob Dylan resorts to reading can labels in a dry goods store while the outlaws prowl around outside.

A recent poll by AMC lists their “Greatest Westerns.” They are:

-The Searchers; Stagecoach; Winchester ’73?; The Wild Bunch; Johnny Guitar; McCabe & Mrs. Miller; My Darling Clementine; Unforgiven; The Good, the Bad & the Ugly; Shane.

No, no, no, no No! They must be out of their minds, where is Butch Cassidy on that list? Where is The Outlaw Josey Wales? Where is Red River?

I really like The Big Country with Gregory Peck and The Westerner with Gary Cooper. Where is High Noon, for that matter? This list is basically not credible. Anyone who has watched or written about film cannot seriously think that Winchester 73 should be included on a top 10 list that leaves out Butch Cassidy and High Noon.

This week on TCM: Two films with Errol Flynn. “The Adventures of Robin Hood” is a never-to-be repeated classic. Basil Rathbone is outstanding as the villainous Sheriff of Nottingham. He is such a perfect foil for Flynn in this movie.

There is so much to add with regard to the great character actors working to make big
Movie stars look like movie stars! Basil Rathbone really came into his own when he played Sherlock Holmes, perhaps the best ever to portray Sherlock on screen. (Stay tuned for next month’s big Sherlock Holmes release with Robert Downey). But when he plays opposite Errol Flynn in this film, one of the great screen pairings is born.

This film has been restored and the difference is striking. The color in Robin Hood is second to none, perhaps rivaling only “The Wizard of Oz” with the beautiful costumes and cinematography.
A note of curious trivia in this film comes when watching Olivia De Haviland ride into Sherwood Forest. She is riding none other than the famous Mr. Ed!

The Wizard of Oz and our enduring American Dream

Released on Blu-ray and being shown around the country in select theatres is an all-time favorite, the Wizard of Oz. One can only speculate as to why this movie has endured and endured over the years. There are a number of reasons but they all break down to the essence of the American spirit in its purest form.

Here is a short synopsis of the plot: A young girl runs away from her farm home in Kansas when a mean witch of a neighbor tries to impound her dog. When she decides to return home, there is a huge tornado that strikes the house and she passes out, only to land in a beautiful color-filled landscape known as Oz. Her house has killed a Wicked Witch, and she is warned by a good witch that the sister of the dead witch, the Wicked Witch of the West, is now her sworn enemy.
Aided by the Good Witch and a pair of enchanted ruby slippers, the young girl sets off on a quest to find the Wizard of Oz. She is told he might help her find her way home. She follows a yellow brick road and meets a Scarecrow, a Tin Man and a Cowardly Lion. Each possesses hidden strengths and talents that belie their humble origins.

When they reach Oz, the Wizard puts them off with an almost impossible task, to bring back the broom of the Wicked Witch. Although they are almost destroyed, they manage to overcome the Witch and return to Oz. When they bring the broom before the Wizard, they subsequently find out that he is not what he seems, but instead a stuttering humbug that has pretended to be something he is not.
He admits his failures and plans to help Dorothy return home. When a slip-up occurs and he flies away without her, the little girl realizes that she has possessed the means to return to her home from the beginning.
Once she wakes up she is greeted in her own home by the farm hands that all bear a remarkable resemblance to her fantastic friends from another world.

Not too long ago there was a special that explained why the Wizard of Oz was shown in refugee camps around the world. It translates as proof positive that after all these years, this film still gives hope to people who need to escape from their cares if only for a short time. Another example of the enduring nature of Oz was when someone on a news show described a mental state where they saw the world change from black & white to color, just as it occurred in the Wizard of Oz. Never before or since has this clarity of vision opened our eyes to the possibilities in life like the scene in Ozwhen Dorothy first opens the door onto that new world of Oz.

The scene is a metaphor for a coming of age and for the embodiment of hope. As a house lies in ruins, a beautiful new world is created in the mind and heart of a young woman. That is the essence of the American Spirit and the embodiment of the American dream.

The materialistic period of history where we have endured the ups and downs of capitalistic greed and other deadly sins has ended when our banking house of cards came crashing down. In this Brave New World that we must now fashion out of the ashes, The Wizard of Oz can still serve as a mantra for hope and a purity of Spirit found in our enduring dreams.

The Vampire Movie Craze

Not being a fan myself of the Vampire movie surge that has descended upon the thundering hordes of devotes, I can only speak of the extreme squeals of glee emanating from my niece as she waxes poetic about “Twilight” and anything related thereof. This is not a new phenomena, as I do recall Frank Langella playing Dracula and watching “Dark Shadows” with Vampire Barnabas in decades past.

We all know who Bela Lugosi is and what his signature role was in film. So in the category of “Nothing new under the Sun” comes the Vampire craze of the 21st Century. We have Vampire spin-offs, Vampire TV shows and Vampire novels. There’s even a twist on Jane Austen as she is re-hashed as a Vampire novel in “Pride and Prejudice.”
Hath thou no shame, Vampire-ista’s? Apparently not.

My contention that there is less than 6 degrees of separation in most current film adaptations is born out with this latest fad in Hollywood.

A New Leaf-A movie for our economic times

Here is a movie for our times. The plot is simple. Walter Matthau plays a completely self-centered playboy totally wrapped up in his own hedonistic and material pleasures. When he is confronted with the news he is broke, he must regain his wealth by wooing a rich woman.
He latches on to Elaine May, the most nerdy, yet endearingly simple character one could imagine. She lives in a mansion with a staff of greedy, money-grubbing servants who have taken advantage of her largesse and naivety.

The dialogue is priceless and is also what makes this a good match for our economic times. After he receives the bad news about his state of financial collapse, Walter Matthau wanders around in the beginning muttering, “I’m poor, I’m poor” in a state of disbelief.

The servants later congregate gloomily as they are confronted with the new reality. “It was a good ride” they acknowledge when they realize they can no longer rip off their employer and bilk her out of everything she rightfully owns. Elaine May is the wealthy heiress at the center of the economic storm. She plays the part brilliantly and timelessly as she trips blithely through each scene unaware of her scheming lover’s nefarious plans for her demise or for that matter of any part of her economic situation.

This is a movie for our time. The economic meltdown is the embodiment of hilarious suffering that we, the American people, can relate to in this fairy tale for today. We can relate as a society to the man who ran through vast sums of money at an alarming rate with no thought of saving for the future.

As a nation, were we not like the servants in a huge mansion dependent upon the largesse of a crumbling, erratic and unmanageable employer that could bottom out and end our joy ride at any moment? And the character of Elaine May to a large extent symbolizes the inept and tunnel-vision focus that America as a whole represents. The argument for this is that we unknowingly and unwittingly create financial havoc because of our basic philosophy of living in the “horn of plenty” with no thought as to how we sustain our lifestyle and to that end, what drives the economic engine of American prosperity.

Americans should check out “A New Leaf” in a new light when next it appears on our small screens. The crisis of 08 may be over for the moment, but the basic human principles of greed, avarice, incompetence and “irrational exuberance” will be with us for the long haul

Johnny Guitar-Camp at its best/worst

Film Noir is a genre that is currently out of vogue in Hollywood. Film Noir done right can produce great cinema, and if it’s done poorly, it becomes camp. Perhaps that is why most directors don’t try many films in this style.

This weekend, Turner Classic is featuring one of the great Film Noir actors, Sterling Hayden, in a mix of camp and classic Film Noir in “Johnny Guitar” with Joan Crawford. Not too many westerns are known for the “Noir” genre, but the great Nicholas Ray (the director of “Rebel without a Cause”) tries his hand with this quirky Western.

The dialogue is camp at its best/worst, with Joan Crawford hamming it up in the lead as she carries a torch for her lost love, Johnny Guitar. There is no way to describe this movie, it just has to be seen. Perhaps not in its entirety, but speaking from experience, there are many far worse movies out there. (See my review on Bad Cinema!)

I would recommend Johnny Guitar to all lovers of camp and Film Noir. Sterling Hayden is good as the stalwart, guitar-strummin’, lady-lovin’ lead known as “Johnny Guitar.”

"Inglorious Basterds" is definitely a Tarantino film

Pulp Fiction is a groundbreaking film by any standard and is one of Quentin Tarantino’s best films. His latest, “Inglorious Basterds” is presented in much the same style as Pulp Fiction with the action being told in a series of vignettes that somehow tie it together in the end.

Although his work is uneven at times, Tarantino films usually hold the audiences interest if only to see how the peculiarities in each vignette somehow manage to weave together. This movie was billed and reviewed as a “shoot-em-up” war movie. There is a great deal of gore and one “chapter” devoted to the Basterds, but this is not a war movie. This is a Quentin Tarantino movie and those who come with an expectation of an old-style kind of war movie will be disappointed.

Most modern war movies make an anti-war statement or tell a story from a personal level of drama. This film makes a statement and a joke beginning with the fact that Nazi’s are always a parody of themselves and takes it from there.

The smaller intimate scenes in Tarantino films are my favorites. One of his best occurs in “True Romance” between two great actors: Christopher Walken and Dennis Hopper. Walken is a Sicilian Mafioso type and Dennis Hopper is the father of Christian Slater who is being grilled by Walken for information about his son. The action and the conversation turns into something altogether different when the audience realizes that Hopper has just deliberately slurred Walken’s Sicilian background because he knows he is going to die and Walken starts smiling in a totally evil way that suggests he knows it too. It is an extraordinary deft scene for a director that sometimes manages to go totally over the top.

It is the small, intimate details in his movies that are the best ones. “Inglorious Basterds” is no exception. From the beginning, we see the tension built in a scene at a French farmhouse where the Nazi “Jew Hunter” talks with a farmer he suspects of harboring Jews. One of the best vignettes occurs late in the film with members of the team of “Bastards” who get caught in a verbal cat-and mouse game in a bar with a suspicious SS officer. The audience knows that the tension is building and will explode at some point, but the verbal twists and turns sometimes lead in unexpected directions.

If you liked Pulp Fiction, you will like this movie. On the other hand, if you want to see a good action adventure war movie, I would recommend renting “Kelly’s Heroes, Bridge on the River Kwai, The Longest Day, Saving Private Ryan, The Great Escape or The Dirty Dozen.” This movie is one part war adventure, two parts fantasy and pure Tarantino at his best. That sometimes makes for great cinema.