Tuesday, September 23, 2008

June 2004

The 99 Cents Only store is selling dozens of DVDs of old movies and TV shows that either have no copy write protection or aren’t owned by any studio or production company. While the quality varies from disk to disk, it’s hard to go wrong for 99 cents. Among the films I purchased is this odd, silent version of an L. Frank Baum “Oz” tale; not quite the “Wizard of Oz” that became one of the most beloved of all American movies, but featuring Dorothy and a pair characters that become the Scarecrow and the Tin Man.

While the story involves the evil leader Oz and his attempt to keep Dorothy from reclaiming her rightful place as ruler (in this story she was dropped on Auntie Em’s doorstep when she was a baby), much of the film centers on two farmhands (Oliver Hardy and Larry Semon) who are rivals for the affections of Dorothy.

Semon, who was among the most prolific comic actor-directors of the silent era, also directs the film and has no qualms about bringing the story to a halt so he can perform yet another slapstick bit. Wearing white-face makeup, Semon has all the subtlety of a garbage truck, especially in comparison to Hardy, who displays some of the comic skills that would make him a legend when paired with Stan Laurel starting in 1926. Hardy worked as Semon’s co-star in nearly 30 shorts during the early ‘20s.

Despite directing over 100 shorts (in 1918 alone he starred in and directed 20 pictures, with titles such as “Guns and Greasers,” “Bears and Bad Men” and “Bathing Beauties and Big Boobs”) Semon shows little talent for filmmaking. In the Oz scenes, the same shot of the town’s people listening to the evil ruler and the Wizard is used over and over again. And on the farm, Oz bad guys seem to chase Semon and Hardy back and forth through a single barn.

It’s during those pointless chases that the pair don Scarecrow and Tin Man disguises to hide from the Oz ruler and his soldiers.

Semon’s career lasted just three more years, when he died following a nervous breakdown. No doubt, the dawn of the sound film didn’t help his state of mind. If this silent wasn’t dreary enough, the title cards, in this 1996 re-release, are recited by what sounds like a junior high acting student. Turns out the actress, Jacqueline Lovell, was already a star of adult movies under the name Sara St. James. I’m betting she’s the only porn actress who can say she worked in silents.

Jim Jarmusch possesses, and occasionally displays, the skills of a superb filmmaker, but for the most part he’s all about attitude. He’s an unapologetic hipster whose offbeat sense of humor and determination to radiate cool makes his movies all of a piece, unmistakenly imbued with the Jarmusch sensibility.

His latest film, and first in five years, is a collection of 11 shorts he filmed over the past 18 years, all centering around people smoking, drinking coffee and having the most ridiculous conversations. While a couple of the shorts are quite funny, it would be hard to recommend this collection to anyone who wasn’t a Jarmusch fan. The oddball flock of performers include Jarmusch associates, musicians and a few movie stars, including Roberto Benigni, Steve Buscemi, Cinque and Joie Lee (Spike’s siblings), Iggy Pop, Tom Waits, Cate Blanchett, Jack and Meg White of White Stripes and Bill Murray.

Among the highlights are Waits explaining to Iggy (“you can call me Jim”) Pop that he’s interested in the area where medicine and music intersect; Blanchett playing both herself and a cousin holding an uncomfortable reunion in a ritzy hotel; Alfred Molina getting the brushoff from hotshot young British actor Steve Coogan when he tell him he’s discovered that they’re cousins; and the Whites watching a bizarre contraption give off sci-fi movie-like sparks while sitting under a painting of Lee Marvin. (Jarmusch is one of the founders of the Sons of Lee Marvin, a fan club of sorts.)

The 51-year-old Jarmusch hasn’t come close to equally the originality or wit of his breakthrough movies, “Stranger Than Paradise” (1984) and “Down by Law” (1986). Since then, he’s directed four disappointing features-“Mystery Train” (1989), “Night on Earth” (1991), “Dead Man” (1995) and “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai” (1999)-and a Neil Young concert film. When he first came to prominence, many saw him as the spaced-out version of indie legends John Cassavettes and John Sayles, instead he has become a rather unproductive member of the New York art scene, which doesn’t do movie fans much good.

The best I can say about this overproduced and underwritten Steven Spielberg film is that Tom Hanks plays a surprisingly believable Eastern European. The plot, about a man stuck in JFK Airport for what seems like months because of a coup in his country, seems more suited for a TV sitcom than the latest work of a great director.

Nothing extraordinary happens in this film; it’s all about the small things that Hanks’ universal everyman manages to overcome to survive this unlikely dilemma. The movie might have been more effective at a smaller scale, but when Spielberg epic dimensions surround Hanks’ humble outsider, when the director and writers turn him into a heroic figure, the entire production sinks under its own weight.

By the movie’s second half, the filmmakers are grasping at any plot device they can think of to liven things up. An attempt at a romance between Hanks’ Viktor and a flight attendant (Catherine Zeta-Jones) all but grinds the film to a halt; Zeta-Jones’ character seems to have walked in from a different (probably more interesting) movie.

This isn’t a bad movie, but when you have Spielberg and Hanks above the title, you expect something more than a second-rate TV movie-of-the-week.

While this entertaining actioner is set in post D-Day France as American troops marched across Europe battling Nazis, any similarity to World War II remains tentative. Populated by characters more in tune with the late ‘60s than the 1940s--including a tank unit modeled after Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters--and featuring a plot that’s pure Hollywood fantasy, “Kelly’s Heroes” is part “Catch-22,” part “MASH,” part “Dr. Strangelove,” packaged as a fast-paced, explosive adventure.

Clint Eastwood plays the stoic Pvt. Kelly, a soft-spoken soldier who seems to have little interest in the war, but finds his calling when he learns of a small-town bank filled with Nazi gold bars. Recruiting an eclectic collection of “heroes,” Eastwood arranges an assault on the town for the sole purpose of bringing home some valuable souvenirs.

Filling out the offbeat cast are comedian Don Rickles, perfectly cast as Sgt. Crapgame, a supply officer who can get anything Kelly needs; Donald Sutherland, the hippie-style commander of the tank crew named Oddball who talks of positive vibes and fires paint and plays music while attacking the enemy; Gavin MacLeod as his combative mechanic, appropriately named Moriarty (from the novel “On the Road”); Carroll O’Connor as a wild-eyed general who doesn’t understand why his incompetent staff can’t generate some war action; and Telly Savalas as the typically gruff sergeant who serves as Eastwood’s foil and brings a small slice of World War II reality to the film.

This was director Brian G. Hutton second war film starring Eastwood, having previously made “Where Eagles Dare” (1969). Since then, Hutton has made just four films, but did direct the effective Frank Sinatra thriller, “The First Deadly Sin” (1980).

THE SQUAW MAN (1914) and THE CHEAT (1915) Long-forgotten and rarely shown, “The Squaw Man” had more to do with establishing Hollywood as the center of the filmmaking world than any movie ever made. It was the first feature film produced in that small enclave north of Los Angeles, the product of the partnership of musician Jesse L. Lasky, glove salesman Samuel Goldfish (later altered to Goldwyn) and Broadway actor-producer Cecil B. De Mille. The company quickly became the first major movie studio, renamed Paramount Pictures, mostly based on the extravagant showmanship of De Mille.

This is at least the fourth time I’ve tried to see “The Squaw Man” on Turner Classic Movies, but inevitably they instead show De Mille’s 1918 or 1931 remake. Finally, TCM showed the historical original, which De Mille co-directed with Oscar Apfel.

Not surprisingly, the print is pretty bad and the filmmaking crude, but the story features the kind of over-the-top melodrama that became De Mille’s trademark. The film follows the adventures of a British nobleman who, after taking the blame for a fraud committed by a friend, deserts his true love and heads to the American West to restart his life. De Mille understood right from the start what would establish the American cinema as the world’s best and most popular: sex and violence. In “Squaw Man,” the Brit marries an Indian woman after he impregnates her. But their happy life is doomed by a killing committed by the squaw to save the man she loves.

The movie became a major hit and the template for tragic romance, a genre that remained central to every Hollywood studio’s palette for the next 45 years.

By the time De Mille made “The Cheat”--just one year, but about 20 films after “Squaw Man”--he was an accomplished filmmaker. This fascinating picture could easily have slipped into out-and-out racism as its plot centers around a flirtation between a bored wife of a stock broker and a Thai playboy, but De Mille’s even-handed presentation mostly lets that aspect simmer below the surface. Fannie Ward and Jack Dean are excellent as the unhappily married couple, but Sessue Hayakawa steals the show as the slick, cold-hearted gigolo. The Japanese actor was one of the top stars of the era until he moved to Europe in the mid-1920s. He continued to work in European, but didn’t appear in another American film until “Tokyo Joe” (1949).

Hayakawa is best know as the Japanese prison camp officer in “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957), a performance that earned him a supporting actor Oscar nomination.

I’ve never thought much of De Mille’s later films, but his lurid, over-stated style is well suited to silents. He even finds room for his love of spectacle in this domestic drama by turning the courtroom conclusion into a wild riot.

Director William Dieterle isn’t as well-known as other filmmakers (Billy Wilder, Fritz Lang) who left Germany as the Third Reich came to power, but he had an excellent Hollywood career, highlighted by a string of biographical pictures for Warner Bros.

He became the master of the formulaic studio biography, directing “The Story of Louis Pasteur” (1936), “The Life of Emile Zola” (1937)--which won the best picture Oscar--“Juarez” (1939), “Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet” (1940) and this story about the founder of the still-flourishing news wire service.

If Reuters wasn’t played by the energetic Edward G. Robinson there would be no reason to watch what is probably the weakest of Dieterle’s bio-pics. Since I knew nothing about Reuters or how he came up with the idea of supplying news for newspapers, it was educational, but then it’s hard to tell how much of the film relies on truth and how much springs from the screenwriters’ imagination.

The film tells the story of German inventor Reuters who used carrier pigeons to pass messages from one town to the next and then later was the first to use telegraph wires to transmit breaking news. The key drama of the film occurs when Reuters is condemned by city leaders for reporting the assassination of Lincoln days before the incident is confirmed.

Robinson, who also appeared in Dieterle’s “Dr. Ehrlich,” understood that making these long-forgotten characters come alive was through the small details: how he treats his homing pigeons, the way he persuades editors to take his service, the surprise when he learns he’s going to be a parent. Unlike Paul Muni, who stars in Dieterle’s more famous bio-pics “Louis Pasteur” and “Emile Zola,” Robinson downplays the big, award-fodder speeches to create a smaller, humbler famous man.

I DOOD IT (1943)
This Red Skelton musical comedy produces few laughs but plenty of great music. The highlight of the picture is the performance of Hazel Scott, a brilliant Trinidad-born boogie-woogie pianist who was a popular entertainer of the 1940s.

Scott was the first black performer to headline a television show, “The Hazel Scott Show,” which aired during the summer of 1950 (six years before “The Nat King Cole Show” debuted) and was married for a time to controversial Harlem politician Adam Clayton Powell. Reportedly, her TV career was cut short when it was revealed that she was once a member of the Communist party.

In “I Dood It,” after displaying her stunning technique on the piano, she and her band accompany Lena Horne on a rousing version of “Jericho.” I can’t tell you how disappointed I was when the movie returns to the silly Skelton-Eleanor Powell romance. Early in the film, Powell does an impressive cowboy-themed dance number featuring incredible lasso tricks (accompanied by the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra), but otherwise, the black performers steal this wartime entertainment.

This was soon-to-be legendary director Vincente Minnelli’s second movie, having made his debut with an all-black cast in “Cabin in the Sky” (1943), which he had also directed on Broadway. That film features great performances by Horne, Louis Armstrong, Ethel Waters and Duke Ellington and His Orchestra. The next year, Minnelli made his first great musical, “Meet Me in St. Louis,” with future wife Judy Garland.

FAHRENHEIT 9/11 (2004)
Despite all the polls and the chaotic, deadly state that reigns in Iraq, I hadn’t given John Kerry much of a chance to defeat George W. Bush in November. Then on Monday afternoon I went to a south Orange County movie theater to see Michael Moore’s incendiary rant against the president. Here, in the heart of a region that elects Republicans to every office virtually unanimously, was a nearly sold-out 1:50 p.m. showing of “Fahrenheit 9/11.” And, equally amazing, enthusiastic applause accompanied the closing credits. It was as if every liberal in the county had decided to attend this showing; or had some Bush loyalists crossed over to the other side?

Of course, it was Moore’s brilliant marketing campaign--playing up his outrage over the Disney decision to not release the movie, the R rating it received and the right-wing groups’ attempts to block showings--that turned a political documentary into the must-see movie of the early summer. It did win the Palme d’Or at Cannes, but I don’t remember that helping last year’s “Elephant” at the box office.

Moore is a special case, but I also think we are seeing a change in the image a typical moviegoer has of documentaries. For decades, reality was the stepchild of both TV and feature films. Now that television viewers have embraced every form of nonfiction--from the unending string of TV biographies to “Survivor” and its offspring--it makes perfect sense that theatrical reality would take off.

Even in Southern California, as recently as three or four years ago, the only place to see even the most popular documentaries was at one-screen theaters on the Westside of Los Angeles. Now, documentaries are being booked at hundreds of theaters across the county. I used to go years between screenings of documentaries; in 2004 I’ve already seen three, renting last year’s Oscar winner “The Fog of War” and seeing “Bukowski: Born Into This” and “9/11” on the big screen.

Errol Morris’ “Fog of War,” a bizarrely edited, feature-length interview with JFK’s and LBJ’s Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, is just as political as “9/11,” questioning any attempt by a foreign power to occupy a country.

McNamara, one of the key architects of the Vietnam War, had a change of heart a few years ago and now feels guilty for his lifelong war-mongering. His insight into the behind-the-scenes decisions that led to the Vietnam quagmire are fascinating, but his warnings about future war hardly make up for the damage he did when he was in a position of power. And even in his confessional mode, McNamara remains vague on many issues and Morris lets him get away with it.

Morris’ filmmaking style (established with “The Thin Blue Line”) is an acquire taste that I’ve never warmed up to. He turns inserts--like a repeated shot of a line of dominoes falling over a map of Southeast Asia --into an art form, but too often they seem clever for clever’s sake. For me, this film doesn’t offer much beyond what was in the TV interviews McNamara gave when his confessional book came out in 1995.

A more traditional documentary, “Bukowski,” directed by John Dullaghan, makes use of numerous interviews the offbeat poet-novelist gave over the years, along with new interviews with his publisher, ex-girlfriends, widow and the famous (Bono, Tom Waits, Sean Penn) who helped make Bukowski a celebrity late in his life. Walking into the film, I knew little about Bukowski other than what I had seen in the fictionalize feature “Barfly” (1987). Not only did I gain a greater appreciation of the man and his work (he was a bit more than a womanizing alcoholic), but I found this to be one of the better explorations into what it takes to be a writer.

And then there’s Michael Moore. Making a huge leap forward from his Oscar-winning last effort, “Bowling for Columbine” (2002), the director has fashioned the kind of film the Republicans dreamed of making about Bill Clinton.

Moore does in “Fahrenheit 9/11” what no responsible media organization could: make logical, if not provable, correlations between Bush family oil concerns, their longtime connections to the Saudis and our policies in the Middle East. And along the way, he takes some cheap shots at George W. but not as many as I expected. A week’s worth of David Letterman’s sendups of Bush (such as “George W. Bush’s jokes that aren’t jokes”) easily top Moore in compiling stupid statements and facial expressions by Bush. Unlike his previous films, Moore stays focused on his goal: to show how the Bush Administration has used the Sept. 11 attack as an excuse to follow a self-serving agenda. I don’t really think many Bush supporters are going to buy Moore’s thesis, instead it will become a rallying point for the anti-Bush camp.

Beyond the political positioning, Moore opens the window to the heartbreaking reality of war. Graphic images of death and mutilation suffered by both sides (sanitized by TV with the encouragement of the administration) bring the cost of this conflict into the equation. This stuff is hard to watch, as is the articulate Michigan mother who is trying to understand what exactly her son died for. In these sections, “Fahrenheit 9/11” makes its best case for reassessing the need for this war.

What struck me after seeing “Fahrenheit 9/11” was that despite the endless stream of news that we now are exposed to and the thousands of reporters that cover our government, the truth about the most important decisions made by our leaders remains as elusive as it was 35 years ago during the Vietnam War. I’m not saying that Moore knows any more than Dan Rather or Wolf Blitzer or any of the great newspaper reporters covering this administration, but a filmmaker plays by different rules than journalists. The media, always leery of being perceived as too liberal, have failed to explain how and why Bush and his minions have hijacked the principals of 230 years of American democracy, all in the name of fighting terrorism. Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” at least attempts to shine some light on this dark period in American history.

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