J. & C.'s Movie Reviews

Our Notes on Movies Made Public

Archive for December, 2008

Holiday Inn

Posted by J on December 25, 2008

An acceptable song-and-dance movie.  As with almost any musical, the plot is wholly irrelevant and secondary to the200px-holiday_inn_poster music,  which, compared to today’s fare, is top notch.  Would you rather watch Fred Astaire or washed-up minstrels and athletes on Dancing with the Stars?  Bing Crosby or American Idol karaoke?

It’s a wonder that musical narratives haven’t yet evolved to make musicals a leaner, more meaningful genre of film and stage art.  We have sat through most of the most well-known — Oklahoma, Mary Poppins, Singin’ in the Rain, etc., — and clearly the main storyline is irrelevant.  Those that might be relevant, like My Fair Lady, have been radically altered from the original source material.  If you watch musicals at all, you watch them for the songs and the dance numbers.  Why not string several of these together and omit the filler altogether, while making the songs interrelate musically and lyrically?  Or else go back and learn from something slightly more intelligent, like Gilbert and Sullivan.

Note that Holiday Inn is not exactly a Christmas movie.  It does contain Crosby singing “White Christmas,” but the premise is that Crosby’s character owns a getaway inn which has dinner and performances for its guests on each of the year’s 15 holidays.  So Crosby rouses the troops on the Fourth of July and performs in blackface on Lincoln’s birthday. As for the latter, it’s just another reminder of how quickly values change.  Your great-grandchildren might think that you have hideous, unconscionable beliefs, too.

Entertainment:  7

Intelligence: 0

Morality: whatever

Posted in Musical, Okay, But We Won't Watch It Again | 1 Comment »

The Big Sleep

Posted by J on December 24, 2008

The Big Sleep is at least two movies.  The first is a typical private detective story.  Another is the detective-225px-bigsleep2as-superstud story, in which Humphrey Bogart flirts with seven or so females who only appear in one scene, while mummering one-liners each time somebody whips out a gun.  Somehow this combination of narrative objectives works, though the categorization of this movie as “great” or “American classic” is silly because that’s mostly on the basis of Bogart looking cool and scoring chicks.

Maybe we’re just making this up, but the script is all over the place, seemingly because William Faulkner plus two other guys worked on it.  You can hear Faulkner coming through in weighty lines that includes phrases like “the flesh of men,” which doesn’t refer to skin, but to original sin.  But the hipster pizazz in this movie doesn’t seem Faulknerian at all.  Maybe he put in all of the self-referential lines about movies.  One character pulls out a gun, and the other character says, “Are you going to count to three, like they do in the movies?”  Thus the movie sometimes makes fun of itself, even though it is deadly serious most of the time.

This movie is all Bogart’s.  He is Philip Marlowe, private detective on a case for a rich old man.  The old man has two daughters, one of which is a proto-Britney Spears.  The other is married, though her eyes are on Bogart all the time.  We know what will happen, so never mind.  Marlowe’s case seems easy: a simple problem of who is blackmailing the old man.  But then someone is murdered.  Then more murders.  At one point the case  seems wrapped up, but for one reason or another, Marlowe decides to investigate the tangled web of crime without pay.  He’s either after the girl or ultimate truth.  Since there is more than one movie here, it is hard to say which.

The private detective, presaged by the Dupin character in some of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories, is a truth-seeker and truth-revealer.  There is serious Christian theology in characters like this, so little wonder that G.K. Chesterton and Dorothy Sayers embraced the detective figure in their fiction.  Since Bogart’s onscreen detective is a massive flirt — there would be plenty of sex and an R rating if this movie were made 40 years later — there is conflict in exactly what his ultimate mission is.  The Marlowe character here seems to settle for something in the middle: score lots of chicks while bringing the wicked into the light.

It’s a wonder that libertarians haven’t picked up on this movie and given it their blessing.  Here there’s a major contrast between the private detective, working on behalf of his contractor, and the official city police.  Most of the time, Marlowe is way ahead of all the policemen, but he seems held back by having to work with them.  There is a fine scene where Marlowe has to explain to the district attorney why he knows so much about the murders at hand.  It is clear that private enterprise, Marlowe in this case, works far more efficiently and effectively than the bumbling police.  In the end, the economic becomes the personal, as Marlowe doesn’t just work for the rich old man’s family anymore, but practically becomes one of the family.

Entertainment: 8

Intelligence: 5

Morality: 7

Posted in Mystery, Pretty Good | Leave a Comment »

Doctor Zhivago

Posted by J on December 20, 2008

After reading around the web, few movies attract as many conflicting opinions as Doctor Zhivago, and so it was in our drzhivago_asheetown little household.   Was it too long?  Does it praise Zhivago’s adultery? Are the characters’ actions unrealistic? Go elsewhere and others will answer with a raging “yes” or a shoulder shrug and a smile.  We hardly know what to say ourselves.

It’s even hard to say what this movie is really about.  Yes, it’s about a poet/doctor who apparently loves one woman (his wife) but desires another, the lovely Lara, whom the movie equates to yellow flowers and the blazing sun.  Yes, the movie is also about the Russian Revolution and its aftermath.  It’s also about poetry versus ideology, Zhivago’s private world of family life and writing versus the political reality of the Bolsheviks.

It’s even arguable that this is about the framing device.  The movie is really one long story told by the Alec Guinness character, a high-ranking Soviet who is looking for his niece.  Finding a girl he believes to be the one, he tells her of the father she never knew, the story of the renowned poet, Doctor Yuri Zhivago.  So the entire movie is a Soviet officer’s romantic tale of events, many of which he may be inventing.  Why exactly is he telling it to this poor worker girl?  We think it’s because the girl is orphaned and the officer is alone, both isolated by the grim ideology of the Soviet system.  The story of Zhivago offers them a rare chance to connect relationally, and the audience a chance to see a Soviet humanized.

But above all else, this movie is about movies.  You will see Lara dissolve into a flower.  You will see several seconds of a completely black screen, as a train travels through a tunnel.  You will see the camera pointed at the tops of trees.  You will see a Russian mansion’s interior covered in ice.  These are formal techniques you won’t find in other mediums.  Attach a sprawling Victorian-era plot, a love triangle, and pretty pictures courtesy of David Lean, and it’s not so unclear why people have always liked this movie, despite numerous features easily characterized as flaws.  Doctor Zhivago feels like an event.

Calling Doctor Zhivago a “love story” would be too hasty.  Zhivago does have a inexplicable obsession with his mistress, and the movie accentuates this obsession by showing us yellow flowers and playing the four-note “Lara’s Theme” over and over and over.  But Zhivago is also obviously an adulterer, a fact which the movie makes clear.  For one, his wife is unwaveringly faithful and sweet.  “How could anyone cheat on her?” C. repeatedly kept saying during the movie.  Also, when Zhivago first considers Lara lustfully, we see him only in the shadows, which suggests the blackness of his desire.  Lara herself, a fallen woman of sorts, has been used and abused by two other men in the movie.  When Zhivago asks one of them about her, before he fully knows her, the man replies that he will give Lara to Zhivago as a wedding present.  So Zhivago is one in a line of men to dominate Lara, who consents after initially refusing him. Most telling of all, Zhivago loses his wife forever and is enslaved in the Red Army precisely because he is returning home from a tryst with Lara.

So Zhivago’s adultery is not necessarily mishandled.  Recall the early scene where Lara goes to church.  After she confesses, the priest reminds her of the story of the woman whom Jesus told to “go and sin no more.”  What happened to that woman,the priest asks rhetorically.  We do not know, he answers, and then he exhorts Lara to heed the commandment.   The rest of the movie offers us a chance to see what happens when the characters do not heed that command.  The ones who suffer most: Zhivago’s family.  In the end, Zhivago collapses and dies while frantically pursuing Lara.  This final scene may be unforgivably sentimental, as Roger Ebert argues, but it is anchored in a relevant moral point.

In the background of Zhivago’s follies is the destructive transformation of an entire nation.  Living under the old Russian czar wasn’t so pleasant, but communism couldn’t be said to be much of an improvement.  The movie presents multiple views of the Russian Revolution, primarily from the eyes of Zhivago’s upper-class family.  At times they praise the removal of the old injustice, but what dominates is the fact that everybody gets really poor, really quickly.  Zhivago’s family is hounded by Bolshevik officials, and Zhivago himself is nearly accused of corruption on multiple occasions, though he has no political affiliation.  So the family travels from Moscow to the deep countryside, fleeing the poverty and political oppression of the big city.  The countryside provides respite, but we find civil war raging even there, and the Red Army’s operation, we discover, are everywhere.  For Zhivago and company, there is no escaping a time of terror.  The movie does a good job of conveying the general feeling of catastrophe and economic loss, and this in fact is probably the best reason to see it.

Entertainment: 9

Intelligence: somewhere between 2 and 8

Morality: 7 (a couple of risque scenes, and this score will drastically drop if you think the adultery is glorified)

Posted in Great, Period Drama | Leave a Comment »

The Dresser

Posted by J on December 9, 2008

The Dresser is about a dynamic master/servant relationship, much like the relationship between the Fool and King 200px-481391020aLear in Shakespeare’s famous play.  In Lear, the relationship is  reversed.  The Fool is the wise man, and Lear, the powerful ruler and king, becomes a senile fool.  So it is in this movie, and it is fitting that the backdrop of this story is a stage production of Lear.

The impossible task for the servant, Norman the “dresser,” is that his friend and employer, a great actor who we only know by “Sir,” has had a senile episode.  “Sir” is supposed to play King Lear that evening, but his ravings combined with his egomania make this seemingly impossible.  Yet the effeminate Norman perseveres, enduring the selfishness of his employer.   What’s in it for Norman?  This is one of the central questions of the movie, and it is not certain that we ever fully find out, though there are several possibilities.

Perhaps the reason is simply what “Sir” calls “struggle and survival.”  That, Norman reminds him, sums up life.  The two are engaged in a production of King Lear during WWII-era Britain.  German rockets land perilously close to the theater.   Lear was the most popular Shakespeare play of the twentieth century, perhaps primarily for its powerful grimness.

The movie focuses on the backstage preparations, and then production, of this version of Lear.  “Sir” has acted in the play 227 times, but he has never been less prepared or more prepared to play Lear.  Less prepared, because his mania overwhelms him.  More prepared, because he is senile and manic.  Off-stage, Norman prods “Sir” to apply his makeup, to put on his frocks, to remember the lines.  Norman is as much a moral supporter as he is a personal assistant.  The other actors, fearing or disdaining “Sir,” couldn’t possibly understand Norman’s drive to get “Sir” onstage.  The show should be cancelled, but Norman persists.

What transpires during and after the production of Lear is for you to find out, but we recommend being familiar with King Lear before watching this movie.  It is an acting tour de force, centering on long scenes with the two men, Norman and “Sir.”  You must beware: this movie is extremely rich, but it is also exhausting.  It feels like a Wagnerian opera, invoking so many emotions over a short span that it feels longer than it is.  It is very funny, but as a tragicomedy, it has what might be called a grim worldview.  Yet the final emotion offered here, like the one Lear invokes, is perfectly reasonable, as long as it is not meant to be overwhelming.

Yes, the movie is rich. It goes deep into the following topics:  senility, servanthood, egomania, male-male bonding, aging, death, romantic longing, and acting versus being.  A far from exhaustive list.    Watch “Sir” apply his makeup for the part of Lear, and you watch a man age quickly.  He knows it.

Entertainment: 9

Intelligence: 10

Morality: see above

Posted in Great, Modern Drama | Leave a Comment »

The Spirit of St. Louis

Posted by J on December 8, 2008

It was just a plane trip across the Atlantic ocean.  So a simple viewer might think of The Spirit of St. Louis, the story of 200px-the_spirit_of_st_louis_vhs_coverthe first flight across the Atlantic, made by Charles Lindbergh in 1927.  It’s quite easy to take Lindbergh’s flight lightly.  After all, dozens if not hundreds of planes now cross the Atlantic each day.

Back in ’27, however, Lindbergh had to endure almost forty hours of nonstop flying, in a plane he couldn’t see out the front of, with technology that no one was sure about.  Before Lindbergh, several flights across the Atlantic had been attempted — there was a $25,000 prize for completing the flight — but none obviously succeeded.  Most that didn’t succeed resulted in death, so when Lindbergh took his plane up, he was taking the ultimate risk.

The movie honors this risk in a glorified way, and we admit we were sucked into it.  Lindbergh exemplified the best of American pluck and determination, which is what this movie celebrates.  Lindbergh even put his own money into his plane — $2000 of the $15,000 cost, according to the movie.  The story begins with Lindbergh seeking private investors for his plane, then the construction of the special plane, then Lindbergh’s gritty, mostly boring but harrowing at times, flight.  This movie is all about how private risk earns bountiful rewards, and how a determined soul can push creative and geographical boundaries.  Good grief, we wish people nowadays could catch this fever.  If they made an exemplary biopic of the 2000s, it would be of some greedy banker begging at the feet of the Treasury and the Federal Reserve.  Give us Lindbergh and the pre-WWII generation any day.  These people had a much better understanding of what it was to be free and responsible.  This movie, and not To Kill a Mockingbird, should be required viewing in American classrooms.

Jimmy Stewart plays Lindbergh here, and though he’s too old and his toupee is quite bad, his agitated determination and jittery voice are perfect for a role that could otherwise be dull.  Half the movie takes place in the tiny cockpit of a one-man plane, so Stewart had to deal with not being able to move.  Much of the movie is propelled by his voiceover narration, which heightens the suspense considerably even though you know the result of the flight.  Lindbergh indeed deserved the nickname “Lucky Lindy.”  What disasters he avoided during his transatlantic flight are amazing to behold. It is fitting that he, though not apparently a praying man, utters a pray to God right before he lands.

The movie is based on Lindbergh’s Pulitzer-Prize winning memoir of the flight, and it is surely ten times better than this movie.  YetThe Spirit of St. Louis does offer the visualization of the event, and this at least got us thinking.  What would it have been like to be a shepherd in Ireland, watching Lindbergh’s plane come from the ocean?  Or what would it have been like to have lacked sleep for 72 hours, only to be mobbed by 200,000 people after you landed your plane?  These and dozens of other intriguing circumstances make Lindbergh’s more than just a simple flight across the Atlantic.

Though the movie probably would lose its power during a second and third viewing — one of our qualifications for deeming a movie “great” is its rewatchability — we make an exception for this.   Surely not all viewers will care for it as much as we did.  But no doubt, it is a great movie.

Entertainment: 9

Intelligence: 5

Morality: 10

Posted in Great, Modern Drama | Leave a Comment »

Ice Station Zebra

Posted by J on December 6, 2008

Finding Ice Station Zebra on the library shelf, we wondered why an old action movie like this had been long 200px-icestationzebraforgotten.  Just look at the poster!  John Sturges, director of The Great Escape and Bad Day at Black Rock.  Jim Brown with a rifle.  Nuclear submarines and gun battles at the North Pole.  This has promise.  You’d think it’d be a staple of Saturday afternoon TV, like Conan the Barbarian and First Blood.

But this movie is a pompous exercise in blockbuster action.  It starts with the prelude.  Whenever a movie makes you sit through five minutes of its score at the beginning, it’d better be good.  No go here.

Then Rock Hudson appears on-screen, and the entire thing falls apart.  It makes sense that the most famous thing this guy is known for is getting AIDS.  He’s a Cary Grant lookalike with no charisma.  Put him in the confined space of a nuclear submarine, and everybody in the audience feels like getting out real quick.

The movie has one excellent sequence in which the submarine plunges towards the depths.  If you have seen Das Boot, or any other submarine movie, you will have seen something similar.  The plot of this movie is not worth mentioning, except that the submarine at one point is sabotaged, only we NEVER find out who sabotaged it.  Huh?  We stopped watching this one at the intermission.  Yes, it has an intermission, which is an invitation to leave if you so choose.  That’s probably why there are no more intermissions in movies.

Entertainment: 4

Intelligence: 0

Morality: not worth bothering about

Posted in They Spent Millions on This?, War | Leave a Comment »

Quiz Show

Posted by J on December 6, 2008

200px-quizshowposterQuiz Show is a fine morality play about lying and its consequences.  What’s even better is that it binds this moral problem to the medium of television.  You see, as TV watchers we don’t even realize the fiction of television.  It’s quite easy to get sucked into passive-viewing mode when watching the TV.  In that mode, we believe everything we see.  But everything on TV is carefully constructed for entertainment purposes, for the sake of ratings, which means advertising money.  That includes reality shows and real-time events.  But we rarely watch TV with that in mind.  We are mere consumers of TV programs, which means we set ourselves up to be suckers.

In Quiz Show, Charles Van Doren has been sucked into the world of game shows.  As a contestant on Twenty One, he finds instant celebrity.  He likes the attention, the cameras, the cover of Time Magazine. What’s worse, Van Doren chooses to be part of Twenty One’s rigged outcomes.  The producers of the game show choose which contestants will win the show, in order to boost the ratings.  They like Van Doren, and Van Doren likes being on the show.  So he cheats.

But Van Doren is the latest in a line of old New England WASPs, and as a literature instructor at Columbia with a master’s degree in astrophysics and a Ph.D. in literature, he also realizes that game shows are silly entertainment.  His father is a Pultizer-Prize winning writer, his mother a famous novelist herself.  Van Doren’s fame is different than theirs, inferior in every way, and he feels it.  Public scandal would bring the family dishonor, and so Van Doren tries his best to lie to cover up the game show fraud. Lying here begets more lying.

Pushing Van Doren to reveal the truth is Dick Goodwin, a government agent who’s investigating quiz shows.  Goodwin befriends Van Doren while pursuing him, and this complicates Goodwin’s investigation.  Goodwin has to use witnesses such as Herbert Stimpel, a former Twenty One contestant and a doofus who loves the limelight.  Goodwin hates having to side with the likes of Stimpel — at one point he vomits after hearing Stimpel’s egotistical ravings — but Goodwin would rather not publically implicate his friend, Van Doren.

Quiz Show‘s strengths are numerous — acting, directing, writing — which is why it’s imminently watchable.  Best of all, perhaps, is the melancholy outcome.  Justice is served, but not in the way which implicates the big boys.  Quiz Show intimates that the government (here, Congress) and the highest levels of corporations are in cahoots, and that — at least at the show trials known as Congressional hearings — the truthtellers are only those who feel the weight of their own guilt.  Consequently, when money is on the line, personal guilt is a rare thing.  Goodwin’s summary of the hearings is apt: “We were supposed to get television, but television got us.”  His statement implies that television will continue to get us, and here in 2008, this seems accurate.

It is worth mentioning that there are moments of incoherence in Quiz Show.  Goodwin’s one-man investigation has no motivation, apart from the fact that he seems to have nothing else to do.  Worse, the end of the movie suggests that government regulation of the television industry would be a good solution to the problem of rigged gameshows.  This makes little sense.  If Congress can’t conduct a show trial honorably, would it regulate gameshows more honorably than NBC and Geritol?  Of course not.  But the idea that government regulation of communication networks and freedom of speech can even co-exist is a joke.  When the government regulates a medium, it has the authority to say what can and cannot be said or aired.  Liberals like Robert Redford (the director) have never figured out this contradiction.   Give them a government hostile to their views, and they’re all for freedom of speech.  Give them a government favorable to their views, and they’re for regulation.  Same for so-called conservatives.  The nerve.

Quiz Show is based on a real scandal from the 1950s, but we don’t take it to be accurate history.  We prefer not to even consider its relation to history at all.  Goodwin, for example, became a speechwriter for John F. Kennedy, and any presidential speechwriter is not exactly the kind of person we’d expect to be the exemplar hero who strives for truth and justice.  The movie should’ve changed the names of its characters — if you aren’t striving for accuracy, why characterize living people as something they are not?  At least the movie tries to put game shows, and TV for that matter, in a proper perspective.

Entertainment: 8

Intelligence: 6

Morality: 9 (about six unnecessary words)

Posted in Modern Drama, Pretty Good | Leave a Comment »