Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox (1976)

I first watched The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox on commercial TV during my college days. I hadn't remembered anything about it other than it was an unfunny comedy-western starring Goldie Hawn and George Segal. One thing I've learned over the years is that you can't really judge a movie if you watch it edited for television. So I was looking for something light to watch and stumbled on this title on Netflix, and decided to give it another viewing.

Guess what? The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox is still a (mostly) unfunny comedy-western, though it plays a little better than my mind remembered. Segal is a con man, and when he makes a big score, the bandits that he conned come looking for him to retrieve their money.  He encounters Hawn, a dance hall girl/occasional hooker who is working a con of her own -- she wants to get out of her business so she attempts to appear as a proper lady and is hired by a wealthy Mormon to tutor his large brood of children.  Segal and Hawn find themselves on the run as they travel to Utah from California. Naturally they fall in love. 

It's to Hawn's credit that she is so charismatic onscreen that she can appear in such a weak movie and emerge with her charm intact.  Segal is also likable here, and audience goodwill toward the two leads carries a lot of weight.  Ultimately, the script betrays Segal and Hawn as it is low on laughs and weak on plot and adventure. 

Melvin Frank directed this mess. He was much more successful in directing Segal and Glenda Jackson previously in 1973's A Touch of Class, which won Jackson a Best Actress Oscar. Here his work is heavy-handed and even amateurish at times.  The highlight of the film for me was Hawn's ribald rendition of a bar song called "Please Don't Touch Me Plums". It is funny, sexy, and strikes the tone that the rest of the movie needed.

The concept of The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox is a good one, and the casting of Hawn and Segal was smart.  It's too bad that the concept wasn't executed well. Director Frank should have scrapped his screenplay and either started over or farmed it out. Most of the blame for the failure of this movie can be placed on him.  Grade: C-.

I watched The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox on Netflix Streaming on February 28, 2013.

Angels in America (2003)

Angels in America is a six hour telefilm made by HBO that is an adaptation of Tony Kushner's mammoth Pulitzer Prize-winning play. It stars Meryl Streep, Al Pacino, Mary-Louise Parker, Emma Thompson, Jeffrey Wright, Patrick Wilson, Justin Kirk, Ben Shenkman, and James Cromwell. Many of the actors play more than one role.  In fact, Streep plays an angel, an elderly male rabbi, the ghost of executed spy Ethel Rosenberg, and Hannah Pitt, a middle-aged Mormon mother who moves to New York when her son tells her that he is gay. The film was capably directed by Mike Nichols, who did a nice job opening the film up so that it didn't feel stagy.

There are many instances when Angels in America flashes brilliance. Then there are many moments with theatrical conceits that may have worked well on stage but are schlocky and cumbersome onscreen. The material also bashes people who don't promote the gay agenda, includes a lot of needless profanity, and ironically, is very naive in its theological discussions. Make no mistake -- Angels in America has a leftist agenda which I found to be offensive at times and patronizing at others, and it mocks traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs.

The heart of the story is really good, however. Prior Walter finds out that he has full-blown AIDS, which is a death sentence in 1985. Louis Ironson, Prior's lover, has trouble dealing with the disease and leaves Prior. Meanwhile, young attorney Joe Pitt, married to pill-popping Harper, is fighting his strong homosexual urges. He meets Louis and eventually the two have an affair. When Joe reveals his homosexuality to Hannah, his Mormon mother, she moves to New York but she and Joe remain distant with each other. Hannah meets Prior and forms an unlikely friendship with him. Joe is a professional acquaintance of Roy Cohn, a real-life personality that was vicious to suspected Communists during the McCarthy Senate hearings in the 1950s. He was allegedly largely responsible for the death sentences of spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Cohn, a closeted gay man, finds himself with full-blown AIDS and tells everyone it is liver cancer. He is haunted by visits from the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, and his hospital nurse is the fey Belize, best friend of Prior.

These plot lines explore a lot of important messages: the boundaries and responsibilities of love, the impossibility of being someone besides oneself, questions of faith and despair, the need for acceptance, what is right and moral, and if attitudes can be changed.  Unfortunately, Kushner's screenplay suffers from being overly ambitious and ventures into heavy-handed meta-fiction which brings the film to a standstill. The most successful of these conceits involves Cohn's interaction with the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg. There is also an angel that proclaims Prior to be a prophet, though his gifts of prophecy are never revealed in the movie. Harper, Prior, and Hannah all have bizarre interactions with angels that really add nothing to the story. Prior even has a laughable visit to Heaven where he proclaims that God deserted mankind and is never coming back.

The performances are uniformly good, except for the angel played by Emma Thompson -- but that's such a seriously stupid role that I doubt any actor could have emerged unscathed from it. Pacino's Cohn is written to be a vile and nasty character -- and perhaps Cohn truly was. Pacino gives a larger-than-life performance, and somehow finds the humanity in the core of Cohn. Streep excels as Hannah, especially during her scenes with Prior. Harper, played by Parker, annoyed me throughout the film, though admittedly her husband had not been honest with her. Louis was well-played by Shenkman, though I found him unlikable. The best performances were from Wilson as Joe, Wright as Belize, and Kirk as Prior.

Pacino, Streep, Wright, and Parker won Emmys for their work in this production, and Kirk, Shenkman, Wilson, and Thompson were Emmy-nominated. Wright reprises his Tony award-winning performance.

Angels in America would have been a masterpiece had a third of the running time been excised (all the stuff with the literal angels and the demagoguery). The point that should have been more clearly made is that even in the worst of times, angels walk among us -- both natural, as exemplified by Belize, and unlikely, as seen in Hannah. The human interest story here is exceptional but the bloated esoteric material nearly sinks the production. The movie always kept my attention, even when it irritated me. It's a missed opportunity. Grade: B-

I watched Angels in America on DVD on March 18-21, 2013.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Holy Smoke (2000)

Holy Smoke is an Australian drama starring Harvey Keitel and Kate Winslet and directed by Gillian Armstrong. When the story opens, Ruth (played by Winslet) has joined a cult and moved to India, to the consternation of her family. Her mother travels to India to see her daughter and initially has trouble gaining access to her, but eventually Ruth sees her mum and tells her that she is happy in her life. Troubled Mum returns hone where the family makes sacrifices to hire American deprogrammer PJ Waters (Keitel, in a strong performance). Acting on Waters's advice, the family lures Ruth back to Australia by telling her that her father is near death from a heart attack.

Ruth finds herself in the middle of a family intervention and is then left in an isolated ranch house with Waters for his three-day deprogramming process. Ruth is furious with her family and Waters, and refuses to cooperate in any fashion. She finally realizes that she has sexual power, and seduces Waters repeatedly to destroy his credibility.

The film is very well acted by the leads.  Julie Hamilton, as Mum, gives a nice supporting performance. If only I bought into any of he drama. There are two points that I thought were particularly glaring. One, Ruth is a smart and independent woman. I don't believe she would ever get sucked into a Hare Krishna-like cult. Secondly, she never seemed desperate enough to seduce a man nearly 40 years her senior -- no matter how charismatic he was. (Maybe director Armstrong has a thing for Keitel? She used him as Holly Hunter's leading man in 1992's The Piano.) No doubt about it, Keitel is used to good effect here, but the age difference is as creepy as his moral shortcomings.

A third thing that bothered me is how Ruth, presumably an adult, was held against her will. I don't know anything about Australian law, but I question the legality of the situation - even if her family was behind it. Nor do I know anything about customary deprogramming tactics, and I suppose I might feel differently if cult brainwashing happened to a loved one of mine. The script wasn't strong enough to make me believe in Armstrong's interpretation, though.

And what is the title Holy Smoke supposed to mean in the context of this movie?

Despite all the annoying aspects of Holy Smoke, I never found it dull. Keitel, Winslet, and Hamilton are fascinating to watch.  I only wish they had found a different film to be in.  I'm sure that there is a good movie to be made about deprogramming a cult member, but this isn't it.  Grade: C.

I watched Holy Smoke via Netflix Streaming on February 19, 2013.

Me and Orson Welles (2008)

Me and Orson Welles is a fun "what if" look at Welles's Mercury Theater troupe and their acclaimed production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar in 1937. Zac Efron plays Richard Samuels, a teenager who lands a small role in the play. He is thrilled to be among such a vibrant and talented cast, and enjoys working with the demanding but talented Orson Welles. Richard falls for Sonja Jones, Welles's pretty assistant. When Richard realizes the lengths that Sonja will go with Welles to advance her career, he manages to deeply offend Welles. The antagonism between the two threatens Richard's theatrical ambitions.

I liked the production values of the movie, and the name-dropping of acting icons of the day such as Joseph Cotten, Norman Lloyd, John Houseman, Martin Gabel, and George Coulouris. These actors were all ably portrayed by the supporting cast, with James Tupper as Cotten and Ben Chaplin as Coulouris being the standouts. Claire Danes seems to be having fun playing Sonja.

The leads are excellent. Efron brings a lot of innocence and naive charm to the role of Richard. Christian McKay thunders magnificently in his performance as the brilliant, temperamental Welles. He reminded me a lot of the real Welles, and he received some acclaim for his performance, including a Supporting Actor Independent Spirit Award nomination. Richard Linklater skillfully directed this little gem. I know that he's been around awhile, but I haven't seen much of his work. After seeing this and Bernie a few weeks ago, I need to be on the lookout for some of his other films. Kudos also go to screenwriters Holly Gent Palmo and Vince Palmo for their adaptation of Robert Kaplow's novel. I don't know if the character of Richard was based on a real person; it seems that he was entirely a fictional creation set among the actual Mercury Theater company.

The form of Me and Orson Welles reminded me a lot of My Week with Marilyn, though not as meaty. Entertaining as this little film is, it doesn't seem to have any substance to it other than as a heartfelt paean to the brilliant personalities of 1937 Broadway. That's fine with me, because it makes for an entertaining movie night at home. Grade: B.

I watched Me and Orson Welles via Netflix Streaming on February 16, 2013.

The Bourne Identity (1988)

Long before any of us knew who Matt Damon was -- and Damon may still have been in high school --  there was a two-part miniseries of Robert Ludlum's novel The Bourne Identity. It starred popular television actors Richard Chamberlain (then King of the Television Miniseries) and Jaclyn Smith. I never had the opportunity to watch the original version and decided to rectify that oversight.

I read Ludlum's novel prior to seeing Matt Damon's 2002 remake, and it was one of the best spy thrillers that I've ever read -- not that I've read that many. I thought that the Damon movie did a nice job using it as a starting point and then going in its own direction without adhering too strictly to Ludlum's story. This 1988 version is a lot more faithful to the Ludlum novel. If it lacks the great set pieces that are included in the Damon version, well, it compensates by having a more logical plot and a little more detailed character development.

The plot is compelling. An amnesiac (Chamberlain) awakens from being nursed back to health from a serious injury. He follows a few clues to his life and seems to have an identity named Jason Bourne. After he discovers that he has mercenary-type skills, Bourne comes to believe that he is a notorious European assassin. While he is trying to get away from people who seem to want him dead, he involves the beautiful Marie St. Jacques (Smith), an Canadian attending a convention in Europe. Romance ensues, and the story becomes very James Bond-like with exotic settings, close escapes, action sequences, and a lot of globe-hopping.

Chamberlain's performance as Bourne is a little uneven, though he undoubtedly fits the character of Bourne as written by Ludlum much better than Matt Damon would 15 years later. That's not to say that I don't prefer Damon in the role because I am a fan of the Bourne franchise. Smith really isn't a very good actress at all, but she certainly is pretty to look at. This 1988 version of the story also had the smarts to cast some acclaimed actors in key roles: Anthony Quayle, Donald Moffat, Denholm Elliott, Peter Vaughan, and Yorgis Voyagis among them.

This 1988 version of The Bourne Identity has the better script, but the 2002 remake is the better movie, making use of great special effects and utilizing good casting as well. As it is, the original is fine popcorn entertainment. If I had seen it in 1988, I might have been quite impressed. 25 years later it is a solid telefilm but the action sequences are dated. Grade: B.

I watched The Bourne Identity on DVD on February 15 & 16, 2013.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Side Effects (2013)

I hate to throw out the overused term "Hitchcockian" in describing a film. Far too often, the word is used for any run-of-the-mill thriller, even when there's virtually nothing in the movie that resembles
any film of Hitchcock's. The last films that I saw where the word "Hitchcockian" could reasonably be applied were directed by Brian De Palma in the 70s and 80s (and De Palma was trying to emulate Hitch). Then there was the fabulous Bound from the Wachowski siblings in 1996, which was Hitchcockian in the grandest sense. I would also argue that the Coen brothers' debut film Blood Simple was Hitchcockian. That's about it - but wouldn't you love to see Spielberg or Scorsese try their hand in a Hitchcock-like film?

Side Effects stars Jude Law in the Cary Grant role, Rooney Mara as the icy female protagonist, and, incredibly, Channing Tatum evoking strong memories of Janet Leigh in Psycho (or perhaps Angie Dickinson in Dressed to Kill). Law -- in his best performance in years -- plays a psychiatrist who prescribes a new drug for the depressed Mara. Tatum plays Mara's husband who has just been released from a stint in prison. Catherine Zeta-Jones is a colleague of Law's. To say anything more about the plot would be a crime.

The script by Scott Z. Burns is smart and tightly plotted. Director Steven Soderbergh, who professes to be retiring from directing movies, has delivered his most compelling film in awhile, and it is only 2013 release so far this year that has piqued my interest at all. Side Effects isn't perfect, by any means. Soderbergh insists on filming with a yellow filter which irritates me, though the effect here is much less disastrous than it was with the recent Magic Mike. The character of Law's wife -- ably played by Vinessa Shaw -- has a bizarre character reaction about three-quarters of the way through the film that seems to be there only to heighten the drama rather than being believable. And as good as the film is, it seems a bit too low-key to me, though I'm not sure what needs to be done to jazz it up a little. All of the performances are quite good, with Law being the standout. Mara shows that her performance in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo wasn't a fluke. Some of the supporting players include Polly Draper from TV's thirtysomething, and Mamie Gummer, who is Meryl Streep's lookalike daughter.

Soderbergh has a biopic about Liberace still to unveil on HBO this spring. He has delivered some compelling movies in his career like sex, lies, and videotape; Traffic, Erin Brockovich, Out of Sight, and Ocean's Eleven and its sequels. I really hope Soderbergh just needs a respite from directing and that his creative juices will start flowing again. Side Effects proves that there is still a lot of creativity still left in him, and I would hate for this film to be his theatrical swan song. Grade: B+.

I watched Side Effects at the Huntington Mall Cinemark Cinemas on February 15, 2013 with my cousin Zack.

Battle Cry (1955)

Battle Cry is one of those films that surprised me because it was better than I imagined. To begin with, I was under the impression that it was a black-and-white film (and that isn't a negative to me). It isn't -- it is a beautifully photographed color movie. I also thought this was a heavy duty war film, but 80 % of the movie involves down time during World War II. The movie also features a lot of female roles, which is unusual for most war films of the 1950s.

Battle Cry follows a group of men from basic training after the start of World War II until most of them return home in 1944. Van Heflin, one of the great character actors of the 40s and 50s, got top-billing even though his role is more supporting as this is definitely an ensemble cast. Heflin portrays a tough Marine colonel who trains his soldiers thoroughly and has them ready to be called to action at any time.  The recruits are an assorted lot and include Aldo Ray as a lumberjack from Wisconsin, Tab Hunter as a teenage boy-next-door with a girl at home, John Lupton as a studious volunteer, Fess Parker as a musically-inclined Texan, and L. Q. Jones as a southern country boy. James Whitmore is the sergeant who gets involved in the lives of the men under him. Heflin, Ray, and Whitmore deliver outstanding performances. Hunter is surprisingly good after a weak start.

The female cast members include Nancy Olson, Dorothy Malone, Allyn Ann McLerie, Anne Francis, and Mona Freeman. One of the film's shortcomings is that there isn't a lot of distinctive personalities between the women. Olson gives is the strongest performance of the bunch as the young widow who falls for Ray's brawny soldier. The movie also has a scene with Raymond Massey playing a general, and character actor Frank Ferguson appears as the irate father of Hunter's character's girlfriend.

Famed Hollywood director Raoul Walsh, who helmed many war movies in his career, does an excellent job with the sprawling cast and the layered interactions. Battle Cry is an adaptation of a novel by Leon Uris, and it is interesting enough that I wouldn't mind reading the novel someday. The cinematography is excellent, the script is sound, and the editing sharp. The soundtrack is exceptional; in fact, Max Steiner's score was Oscar-nominated.

There are multiple plot lines in the movie; some better-developed than others. The film is long but never boring. While it is certainly a Hollywood studio film complete with a heavy dose of patriotism, Battle Cry manages to present a wide array of details about Marine life. Maybe the film veers a little too close to soap opera, but it managed to keep me involved and its production values are top-notch. In fact, Battle Cry is one of the better war movies that I've seen that was made prior to 1960. It hits all the right notes. Grade: A-

I watched Battle Cry on DVD on March 6, 2013.