Wednesday, April 18, 2012

DESTRY RIDES AGAIN....and again!

One of my favorite westerns is DESTRY RIDES AGAIN (1939). One of my favorite comedies is DESTRY RIDES AGAIN. And my favorite actor, then and now, is James Stewart. Add a down to earth Marlene Dietrich in her best role and you have a true classic from the best year in film history....1939. More on that later. DESTRY RIDES AGAIN takes place in the fictional town of Bottleneck, a wild and lawless frontier town run by crooks Kent (Brian Donlevy) and Frenchy (Marlene Dietrich with her inescapable German accent). Called into to help the new sherrif, Destry (James Stewart) arrives with wit and charm and no guns. He is at first a laughing stock, but his good sense and calm prevail.

What makes this film really work is the growing relationship between Frenchy and Destry. It begins in one of the great fight scenes. Frenchy has won a patron's pants in a poker game and the loser's wife begins a free-for-all that practically destroys the saloon. Destry finally douses Frenchy and the wife with slop, and a new fight begins between French and Destry. All of this is choreographed with such dexerity and wit that it looks totally natural. Never has Dietrich been less glamourous than in her attack on Stewart. And never has she been more appealing as she falls in love with Stewart. Stripped of those exotic sirens of the 1930's (SHANGHAI EXPRESS, THE DEVIL IS A WOMAN), Dietrich exudes charm, especially in her intimate scenes with Stewart. As for Stewart, he brings his seemingly naive but smart appeal that would be his calling card for decades to come.

As for that unforgettable year of 1939, THE WIZARD OF OZ, DARK VICTORY(Bette Davis, WUTHERING HEIGHTS, STAGECOACH (John Wayne), GOODBYE MR. CHIPS, MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON (Stewart), NINOTCHKA (Garbo), GUNGA DIN, and the ultimate winner GONE WITH THE WIND. DESTRY RIDES AGAIN deserves its place in the pantheon. Rent it and enjoy!

Thursday, April 12, 2012

What were they thinking? Or were they?

The old saying "What were they thinking?" never goes away. A few current examples make my point. THE IRON LADY, which won Meryl Streep her third Oscar in late February, is in reality a mess of a movie and an insult to Margaret Thatcher, one of the great political leaders of the last half of the 20th Century. Instead of concentrating on her political career and her indomitable spirit, warts and all, the film goes into free fall almost from the first shot. True, Streep does a great Thatcher, but she is shackled by a lame frame story showing Thatcher stuck in memories and on-coming Altzeimer's. There is no rhyme or reason to THE IRON LADY, only Meryl Streep.

PBS MASTERPIECE THEATER just wrapped its three hour series of GREAT EXPECTATIONS, one of Dickens' most popular novels. Though true to the familiar story, this version skips back and forth between moving too slowly with agonizingly long close-ups and too quickly with hurried plots and a lack of character development. Beloved characters like Wemmick and Joe Gargery are barely seen. Some of the casting is downright strange. The star of the memorable PBS BLEAK HOUSE, Gillian Anderson plays the insane Miss Havisham as a dotty fourtyish blonde with a falsetto voice. Estella, as a child and an adult, is described as an exquisite beauty, but in this version, she simply isn't. Instead she seems clumsy and hardly refined by her French education. This is accented by the adult who plays Pip. The camera worships Douglas Booth, and it should. He is a professional model who looks as if he just stepped out of one of those Italian fashion spreads in Vanity Fair. We keep waiting for the slightest sign of life in this guy, but he hardly raises his voice. True, he's up against superb British actors like Ray Winstone as Magwich and David Suchet (Poirot) as the seemingly cold lawyer Jaggers, but maybe the casting director should be canned. Though beautifully filmed in almost gray and white, this new version of GREAT EXPECTATIONS disappoints on two many counts.

Also on television, AMC's THE KILLING has returned with two new episodes. Last year I watched this fascinating but frustrating series. The major characters were played by interesting and often unique actors. Though the first season ended in a story-telling debacle, I still had interest in Mereille Enos as the intensely glum Sarah Linden and Joel Kinnaman as her shifty partner. After episode 2 of the second season, I have formally withdrawn from THE KILLING. Why? Frankly, I can't take any more rainy days and nights in Seattle. I prefer Frazier Crane's version. I'm also sick of the Larsen family, who seem to live in an underground bunker where there are no smiles or even electric lighting. Who killed Rosie Larsen? Is she really dead? No more red herrings for me.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Good, Bad, Badder, Baddest

Sorry, folks, but in the last few days I have seen 4 movies that make me wonder about the future of movies (I always say this and then find a goodie).

GOOD: I was pleasantly surprised by the newest version of the Snow White legend: MIRROR, MIRROR, which stars Julia Roberts as the evil and also crazy as a loon Evil Queen, Lily Collins as the adorable Snow White, and Armie Hammer as the handsome prince who is also a klutz. The movie's style is over the top with fairy tale castles, magnificent but surreal costuming, and comedy relief from the Seven Dwarfs, who are as far away from Disney as possible. Though the film lags several times, it is witty and exciting enough to please family viewers. And, like THE HUNGER GAMES, the heroine becomes the hero who saves the day. Roberts chews the scenery with relish, and Nathan Lane provides some great one liners.

BAD: WRATH OF THE TITANS is the sequel to the messy CLASH OF THE TITANS and stars some of the original cast. Sam Worthington is back as Perseus, the half mortal, half god son of Zeus. Liam Neeson as Zeus and Ralph Fiennes as his brother Hades, two of our most distinguished thespians are back to pick up healthy pay checks for sounding godlike. As for the story, it almost doesn't exist. The gods have lost their powers, and Perseus most travel to Hades to save his father. The action is so illogical, the filming so frantic, the acting so bad....Yes, I am ashamed. I went to see it, even though I refused to see the first one. Forgive me. And I paid more because it was in 3D!

BADDER: The above movies are in theaters now, the next two we watched at home. For once, Betsy agreed with me about two movies in a row. MARTHA MARCY, MAY, MARLENE was praised roundly by the big critics last year, so I looked forward to seeing it. Boy, was I wrong! This is the story of a younger sister who escapes a cult physically but not mentally. It's a strong idea, but the execution is muddy and often confusing. The performances are strong, but the movie is so darkly filmed with close-ups of Martha that seem to last forever that I felt relief when it was over...wait it wasn't over! Like most French movies, it just stops in the middle of a suspenseful scene. @#&*^!

BADDEST: CARNAGE, based on the play GOD OF CARNAGE. Sounds pretty profound, right? Forget about it. The popular play has been adapted into an even worse movie by Roman Polanski. Filmed on one set that is supposedly a New York apartment, CARNAGE tells the story of two sets of parents trying to figure out why one son belted the other son with a stick and knocked his teeth out. It all begins in a civil way, but by the time the film ends, they have screamed and bullied, one has thrown up on expensive art books, they all get drunk on expensive scotch. And they are no closer to detente than they were 100 minutes ago. The only possible sympathetic character is Michael Longstreet(John C. Reilly) a hard working salesman who is truthful, while the others are deceitful and even despicable. Jodie Foster screams like a harridan in a one-note performanc. Kate Winslet and Cristoph Waltz as cold and snobby parents of the assailant try hard, but their stereotypes are over-whelming. CARNAGE is an effective title for this unlikable disaster.

Monday, April 2, 2012

But is it ART?

Last night on CBS's 60 MINUTES Morley Safer attacked contemporary modern art for the second time. Back in 1993, Safer didn't make any friends with artists, dealers, or collectors when he savaged artists like Cy Twombly, Jeff Koons, and Jean-Michel Basquiat, among others, with the help of conservative art critic Hilton Kramer (he died recently). It was all over-hyped trash, "the emperor's new clothes," according to Safer and Kramer.

Let me be frank. For many years I taught art history and tried to be objective about post-modern styles, but the more I saw in museums (I made a trip to NY every year from 1985 to 2003), the more I realized how bad most of the new stuff was and is. I grew bored with seeing stuff like a bunch of lumber and rope thrown in a corner, as if a worker had forgotten to do anything with it. I watched enough video installations with the same tired "freshness" that I grew to mistrust the medium as well as the message, if there was one.

So Morley Safer's second foray into the rarified world of collecting only emphasized what he had said back in 1993. But this time it was all about the money, the emptiness, the one percenters. Safer spent several hours with the hip crowd at Art Basil Miami, a major art fair that draws private jets from all over the globe. Safer interviewed artists, buyers, and dealers, all of whom came off as shallow, insincere, and from another planet. At first I thought this was deserved.

But then, after talking with my wife, I realized this wasn't just silliness. It was just dead wrong, even sinful. Forgive me for proselytizing, but the world is too full of hurt and need to countenance the kind of mindless greed and lack of caring exhibited in this foolishness of art collecting.