Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Hunchback of Notre Dame (TV, 1982) and Hallmark Hall of Fame series

I was watching this movie just as entertainment, not intending to write about it.  But I found myself very moved by Anthony Hopkins’ performance. And it gave me memories of the Hallmark Hall of Fame productions and what a big deal they were when I was a kid in the 70s and 80s.
Hallmark Hall of Fame began as live-taped programs including Shakespeare plays, in 1951 and may have been the longest running anthology series on television, running approximately 58 seasons. Shows like these were an important part of not only entertainment, but culture and literacy in rural parts of the country. With movies like The Winter of our Discontent, All Creatures Great and Small, and Anastasia, Hallmark Hall of Fame introduced areas without libraries and with only one or two available television channels to great works of literature and history that they may not have otherwise even heard of. A complete list of the Hallmark Hall of Fame movies can be found here.
Victor Hugo, who is beyond compare when it comes to detailing the grimy, destitution of the human condition, wrote a much darker story than Hallmark chose to put to film, though.  John Gay did the teleplay for this version, and if you’re at all familiar with made for TV movies back when they were good, he did nearly all of them. The popular Dial M for Murder (1981) and the absolute best versions of both Les Miserables (1978, TV) and A Tale of Two Cities (TV, 1980) were just a few of them. He also wrote screenplays, including The Courtship of Eddie’s Father (1963), Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), and No Way to Treat a Lady (1968). Michael Tuchner, who also worked mainly with TV, directed.

Anthony Hopkins is the main reason to watch this movie. He plays Quasimodo and is brilliant. It’s so hard to tell that it is even him. The way he moves, holds his mouth, even his speech pattern is perfect. I found this a very different and moving role for him. Derek Jacobi is fairly good as the Archdeacon. Leslie-Anne Down, who plays Esmerelda, is very pretty, but her acting falls flat. She also cannot dance and it is painfully obvious when she is supposed to be dancing in the street for money. John Gielgud, Nigel Hawthorne, and Robert Powell all give the movie atmosphere and depth in smaller rolls.
Archdeacon of Nottingham, Claude Frollo, falls inexplicably in love with a young Egyptian woman caught dancing for money in the streets of Paris. He lets her go rather than sending her to the Bastille, and is haunted by her from that moment forth. Consumed by a passion he can only explain as bewitching, the Archdeacon continues to pursue Esmerelda despite her putting him off and despite her marriage- of-convenience to a penniless poet. The Archdeacon decides to handle the problem of Esmerelda by sending out his deformed ward, Quasimodo, to bring her to him. When Quasimodo is captured for kidnapping the girl and assaulting a Captain of the royal archers, the Archdeacon does not go to his rescue, letting him be flogged and left for public ridicule in the courtyard.

In an act of selfless kindness, Esmerelda approaches the bound Quasidmodo and offers him water when no one else dared, creating yet another admirer for herself.

Unable to put aside his physical need for the gypsy woman, the Archdeacon chooses to hand her over as a witch.
This movie is all about the set. It could have been made on any Renaissance Faire site throughout the world, with faire participants as extras, but that is what made it feel so authentic. What better place to find medieval/renaissance authenticity Nazis than at Renaissance Faires and SCA groups.

The movie lacks the tension and horror of the earliest versions of the film from the ‘30s and 40s, and is played more as a romance, but the real focal point is the small sections of set that make the movie stand out among other made-for-TV nonsense. Effort was made in costuming Paris of the period, although there was a little bit of reliance on the generic “medieval man” costume like you would find at costume shops.

The monks and the band of thieves seemed most authentic. The only downside to this was that Leslie-Anne Down stuck out to me like a sore thumb, proclaiming that she was a woman of the 80s. The hair bugged me a little on her, but mostly I think it was the makeup. I always applaud actresses who go for less-is-more in historical pieces where make-up is concerned. This was not one of those times. Every other woman in the movie looked like a woman. Leslie-Anne Down looked like a walking Mary Kay billboard. I don’t think I ever once saw her, only slashes of blush and lipstick walking down the street on a pair of legs.

I recommend this movie mostly for fans of Anthony Hopkins. It doesn’t bring much new to the story and while the other stars are all wonderful and the extras are perfection, it’s still a fairly typical romance.

~"That's not a wart, it's an egg! With the devil inside!" nun present at Quasimodo's birth~

Monday, November 23, 2009

Hombre (1967)

I picked up Hombre when I saw these incredible blue eyes on the cover of the DVD at work. I had already been thinking that when it comes to historical movies, I am very deficient in American history (it was never a subject that interested me much). I figured that I would start there, even though I’d grown up watching some westerns with my dad. Seeing Wynona Ryder in The Age of Innocence practically killed American historical period films for me.

Hombre was directed by Martin Ritt who directed The Molly Maguires and Norma Rae to name a few and the novel was written by Elmore Leonard (whom I LOVED as a kid long before I shoulda been reading his stuff) who also wrote the novels 3:10 to Yuma, Be Cool, Jackie Brown, and Kill Shot.

Paul Newman plays a man who was taken by Apaches as a child and raised as one of their own. He was found working on a detention center with other Apaches when he was a young adult, recognized by someone, and taken into the town. He was shown his family, given his birth name, and chose to return to the Apaches. Years later, when his birth father dies and leaves him an inheritance, he ventures into the white man’s town again, cuts his hair, and decides that he is going to sell the boarding house his father willed to him. He only needs to get to the next town to make the deal.

Only it seems there are a lot of people who want to get out of town. John Russell, for that is Newman's character's American name, ends up on a coach with a doctor and his wife who are very shifty and seem hellbent on getting out of Dodge, so to speak; a very nasty man who bullied a young soldier out of his ticket; the woman he put out of a job when he decided to sell the boarding house; and a young , dissatisfied couple on the brink of divorce.

In true dark hero form, Russell is pushed aside, distrusted, and forced to sit up on the boot with the driver. But who do they turn to when things go terribly wrong?
I know little about the costuming of the American west, the native Americans, and anything in American history that does not involve Gone with the Wind. I have photographs of family members from that time period and the clothing worn by the characters looks very similar, especially the women. There is a good section of society represented in the movie, showing the costumes of the upper-middle class, the sheriff, the working class couple, and the Mexican immigrants, as well as what the Apaches were wearing now that they were basically at the mercy of the white men. There weren’t any of the 1950s beehive hairdo fiascos on the females. It all felt very authentic. It made me want to check into that time period a bit closer.

The cinematography was beautiful. The scenes of the desert and the composition of the shots during the standoff were very nice. Directing was flawless. It was one of the more perfect movies I’ve seen where technical stuff was concerned. The remastered DVD made the entire film look as if it had been made five years ago rather than 1967.

Best part? The writing was brilliant. There was some brilliant dialogue that I had to run the DVD back and listen to again. It was witty, intelligent, and did not use what I call the typical sit-com trick of pausing before and after a particularly good line to be sure you got it. You either get it or you don’t.

My favorite such scene was when Jessie, the feisty, widowed boarding house keeper (is there always one of those?) is throwing a proposal to her sometime bedpartner out of desperation. She says to him:

“I won’t turn your pants pockets inside out, I don’t say no in the middle of the night, when you got the stomach ache I’m ready with the bicarbonate soda. When you get a cold I’m the one who brings up the croup kettle. I know I’m not 20 anymore, but that’s not too bad either, cause over the years I have learned how to control my temper.”

I mean, what more does someone need in their favor? If I ever propose to anyone, that’s the speech I’m using!

Paul Newman was amazing. He was serene and steady and…well…Paul Newman. What else needs to be said? I was surprised to find that I knew a lot of the people in the film from other things and seeing their performances here was a nice deviation from how I normally pictured them. Frederic March played the doctor, the character that we see change and go through many stages throughout the film. He played Christopher Columbus in 1949, Norman Maine in 1937s A Star is Born, and has about 100 credits to his name on IMDB, including for playing on the soundtracks of silent films. I hardly recognized him in this movie, but his brilliance follows him throughout the film. He was a genuine star.

Richard Boone, who plays the bad guy, also has a wealth of credits on IMDB. I don’t think I saw a single one of them but after seeing Hombre, I am going to pick out three or four of them, including 1953s The Robe where he played Pontius Pilate. He was very scary without being an overdone “evil”, all bad person. He was real and alive.

This movie is definitely one I would recommend. It is a very good one for people who are not into classic westerns because it doesn’t contain a lot of gritty cowboy speak and cattle rustling, or whatever it was that they did. It’s a good introduction to this genre of movie.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Tears of the Black Tiger (Thai, 2000)

I didn't expect much story from this film, since the most story I've ever noticed from a Thai movie was Ong Bok, but it surprised me.  I got it as sort of a blind buy.  It was the first Thai official selection for the Cannes film festival, which was all I knew about it. First of all, it had style.  It wasn't overly done like some movies that try to go for style over substance.  The style fit.  You are never really told what year the events take place in, but as it follows the lead characters from the age of twelve into their adulthood, the movie has an almost consistent 1940s-1950s look and feel, with a little bit of 1880s tossed in for good measure.

Through a series of flashbacks interspersed throughout the movie, we are shown the meeting of Dum and Rumpoey, the former being a young peasant boy in a rural Thai village and the latter being a society girl visiting from Bangkok.  They are instant friends until a slight misunderstanding and demands from the girl's father separates them.  The two love-struck youths continue harboring fondness in their hearts for each other over the coming years.  The couple meet again in their college years when yet another event, triggered mostly by Rumpoey once again, causes trouble for poor Dum and right on the heels of that, a personal tragedy that sends his life spinning into disastrous circumstances.

The Tigers are a local mob, constantly hunted by the police.  They offer Dum a position as the leader, Fai's, right hand man when it becomes known that Dum has an uncanny ability with a gun, leading him to be known as The Black Tiger.

With gangsters on horseback and wearing cowboy clothes, the movie has a distinct spaghetti western feel to it at times, complete with scenes of beautiful, painted, pastel sunsets.  The colors are very pretty without being overdone and taking too much away from what is going on.  Sometimes there is a watercolor look to it, with one color standing out strikingly above the others.  Costumes and props sometimes take the forefront over characters.  And there is even an outlaw midget!

There is also a hint of emphasized action, reminding me of the old Hong Kong Theatre movies.  Gesturing, posturing, and facial expressions abound.  There are also some very pretty songs throughout, with the lyrics showing in the subtitles and sometimes written in script lightly across the backdrop as gangster ride in the distance.  None of the actors, nor the director, are very experienced, none of them with more than a handful of credits to their names that I could find, but they are passable. 
There were a couple exceptions.  The outlaw leader, Sombat Matanee, has a few credits to his name in the 1970s and a few up to 2005.  Dum's best friend, Mahesuan played by Supakorn Kitsuwon, had some interesting credits.  He was in Art of the Devil 3 (2008) , which I haven't seen yet but have been interested in, and something else I found interesting, Frances Ford Coppola Presents: The Legend of Suriyothai (2001). Most notably, he was in Rambo and Ong Bok 2, uncredited, as simply "Guard in Golden Armor". I wondered why he would have been uncredited when he obviously is a decently known Thai actor. Then again, from what I hear about Ong Bok 2, he might have asked not to be credited.
Wisit Sasanatieng, the director, was an art school graduate and a commercial director. Tears of the Black Tiger was his first film to direct.  He's since directed about 3 or 4 other movies, that I'm not sure if I care to look up or not.  Tears picked up a few minor awards at various film festivals.

Rumpoey, Dum's true love, does not appear very Asian at all, and her name is Stella (with a Thai last name). She is also safe to watch for those of you who tear your hair out listening to most of the actresses in Thai movies.  She has a deep voice, though a bit nasal at times.  I would say that she gives a very good performance, though being unfamiliar with the Thai language, having only experienced a handful of mediocre to horrible Thai films, I hesitate to add the "very" in there.

There is, I will warn you, an over usage of pastel bandanas tied suspiciously like ascots which American westerns could never get away with, but somehow the lithe forms of the Thai cowboys pull it off nicely.

Overall, the movie is a safe one if you're wanting to watch something Thai. I've had some really scary experiences with Thai movies.  I've read that this one is compared to Tarrantino, but I didn't really see that in it.  I also felt, that while it was a solid movie, it didn't really bring anything new.  The description on the DVD box was a bit misleading as well. I thought I was getting a totally different sort of movie.  As it is, there's nothing really spectacular about it, the acting is passable, the story typical, but the artistic style is nice to look at and the humor is nice here and there.  It made some really pretty pictures.  That would be the best thing about it.  I can see the comparison to Pulp Fiction that I've heard before; I don't want to give a bad impression of it.  It's considered a cult classic of Thai cinema so maybe that's a good enough reason to check it out.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Mary Poppins (1964)

I know there are many reviews out there about the classic children's musical Mary Poppins, but I don't think any of them have looked at the film with anything but a child's eyes.  I've seen it described many times as a whimsical fairy tale about children who are paid a visit by a magical nanny.   But the film is more than that.

Having been a fan all my life, I began to wonder as I rewatched it with my daughter tonight, just why my favorite scenes differed from hers when I was a child and what gave me that feeling of melancholy as I watched it.  I realized it quickly this time.  When I was a child, my favorite part of the movie was the bird woman, followed by the chimney sweeps, and for reasons I'll maybe discuss later, those scenes not only effected the way I have viewed movies even more than 30 years later, but also the way I view reality.

Mary Poppins is the story of a man not much different from any other.  He works at a stressful job, has a wife who, while very attentive to his needs, has her head in her own amusements, to even the exclusion of their two children.

Mrs. Banks (played by the very talented Glynnis Johns) was a suffragette, fighting for the right of women to vote in England.  Of course, they eventually won, but the price was very high, including imprisonment, maiming and death, not singing and dancing.  The addition of Mrs. Banks' suffragette status was made by the movie makers as a way to explain why she sometimes neglected her children; she was not involved in the movement in P.L. Travers' books.

As the saying goes, it sometimes takes losing everything for a man to realize that he has something to lose.  Mr. Banks has very few kind words throughout the movie, painting him as a stern man obsessed with work while his children continually seek his approval and attention only to get sent to their rooms under the care of an endless parade of incompetant nannies.
Jane and Michael, while very cute and lovable, are scamps who deliberately run away from nannies, put pepper in their tea, and other bits of mischief. Being neglected and being treated roughly by household staff and nannies alike could be responsible for this.  Even Mary Poppins, who brings them a week of happiness, judges them as soon as she meets them.
The children are taken around the city by Mary Poppins to see sights that they never would have seen before, because they live in the world that their father helped to create for them. They live in a beautiful home with a father who is obviously well-to-do and a proper English gentleman.  However, with these new developments, their rogue nanny takes them along with her on outings with her love interest who is a friendly bum, picking up odd jobs as a screever, a chimney sweep, and a kite seller to name a few. 

The world of the children consisted of the upper crust Cherry Tree Lane and the nearby park, while their father, seeing only what he wants to see of the world around him as Mary tells the children, goes to his job at the bank and home.  Mrs. Banks seems the one who is most in tune with the outside world but the lives of the family members never cross outside the home.

It's not until Mr. Banks is fired and humiliated from his job that he begins to see that he had more to lose than his respectable facade.  He had children whose childhood was rapidly spinning away from him and years of his own life that had already been wasted with his head lost in his job.  When he is as far down as he thought he ever would go, he becomes free to say and do anything he wishes, and what he wants to do is mend his son's kite and take his family back.

Yeah, I took the joy out of it, right? It's all there, it's just glossed over.  And how did it effect my life for so many years?  There is a most marvelous song in the middle of the film, what you might call the pivotal event, where Mary Poppins sings to the children about sights they will see on their outing with their father the next day.  She points out that there, beneath the surface of everyday things that everyday people see as they go about their business, lies another world, a darker world, that only those few who dare to look can see.

Well, not in so many words but she does say it.  She tells them to keep their eyes open for the bird woman who sits on the steps of St. Paul's cathedral and takes money in exchange for bread crumbs to feed the birds.  The woman is another street person Mary seems to be acquainted with, like Bert.  When Mary opened the children's eyes to the bird woman, whom they most assuredly would have bypassed on their trip, she also opened my eyes. I was perhaps six or seven the first time I saw the movie.  I remember the scene where the children walk with their father toward the bank and then suddenly see the woman there and it was as if all the manufactured grime on the pavement, the dampness, the starkness, even the smells that likely would have been there, were opened up for me and them.

To this day, when I watch movies, I am always accused of watching a different movie from that which others see and when I go to a place I feel as if I'm seeing something different than others around me.  I was on that journey of discovery that the second half of the movie takes its hero and heroine on, not of the self, but of the existance of other people, other worlds than their own.  After being awakened, the Banks children are then taken down the rabbit hole, or rather up the chimney, to a world that is there, existing above the rooftops, fantasy and reality mingled.  I think that this was the single moment in my personal film history that defined the types of movies I would enjoy and the way I would look at them, and the world.

I remember walking out of the theatre with my father sometime around 20 years after the movie first came out, when it had a 2nd theatrical release.  We walked down the sidewalk and it had been raining while we were inside.  The sound of my shoes hitting the wet pavement was changed, the feel of the darkness around the theatre was different.  I was so changed by the scenes of the loss of innocence of the children as they ran from the bank and into the alleys of the city, unfamiliar and scary, and learn lessons from Bert about life and loneliness and bravery that should have been taught by their parents.   But that's the way it goes.  The lessons that are most needed are rarely taught by those who should be teaching them.  The Banks children grew up in that alley, talking to Bert about their father and life and responsibility, and on the walk home, where they gave the tuppence to Mr. Banks, a profound act of kindness, the tuppence being the one thing in the world that belonged to Michael, for he had earned it, saved it, and fought for it in the scuffle in the bank.

So, Mr. Banks learns his lesson and the children learn theirs and the family goes off to fly Michael's mended kite in the park, surprising all their neighbors.  But it's a bittersweet ending.  Mary Poppins openly denies the words and actions of love to the children, which they have deprived of all their short lives.  And while Mr. Banks has been a changed man for less than 12 hours, he is informed that he has not only been given his job back, but has also been given a partnership.  More prestige, more money, more responsibility, which may not leave him time to continue the new joy of parenthood that he began that morning.  Does reality let us believe that he remained a changed  man? Or did he go back to the aloof, neglectful man he'd been before, maybe worse now that he is a partner in the bank? It's a nice picture at the end, if you let it end there.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Remember, Remember

~Do you know what day it is Evey?~

~It’s Novermber the 4th~

~Not anymore.~

From a bungle in the history books came a brilliant and beautiful madman, V, from the mind of Alan Moore, who also created From Hell and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. His word was the first I heard that told me that the V for Vendetta adaptation would not live up to the comic. He loathed the film and begged the movie makers to keep his name out of credits. Can you blame him after his rotten luck with other adaptations?

Despite that, I think the movie got a bad rap. Hugo Weaving was enchanting as always. Even without a glimpse at his face, without a raised eyebrow, a scowl, a smile, a nervous tick of the lips, he gave us anger, shyness, gentility, nobility, love, regret, sadness, and loss. His voice can melt me faster than anything.

For me, the story was solid. The mysterious V, having spent his adult life planning revenge, is nearing his goals. On his way to what will be a calling card for his visit on the next November 5th, he runs into Evey Hammond, a shy girl in trouble with the authorities for breaking curfew. In her, he sees a possible aid at a time when he was going to need someone to trust, possibly the first time in his life. With visions of a world avenged, V recruits a very unwilling Evey into his slightly villainous endeavor.

Cultivating her friendship through the age old methods of water torture, disfigurement, starvation, and scalding water, V slowly lets Evey into his world as he finalizes his plans to create a better life for the nation, and possibly the entire war-torn world.

Dashing in the very definition of the word, a master swordsman, a wordsmith extraordinaire, and with a few random screws loose, V carries on with Evey in activities including mass mailings, kidnapping, and murder.

Light on the romance, which suits me perfectly, the movie had a nice mix of action, plot, and politics. There were some stunning scenes, straight from the Matrix. Big coincidence? The Wachowski Brothers and James McTeigue (writers and director) all worked on the Matrix movies. I’m a huge fan of those so maybe that’s why I am an apologist for what they did to V. I loved the bring-a-knife-to-a-gun-fight scene near the end, where V moves through a circle of armed gunmen slicing them stem to stern with knives. Light tracers flow along behind the knives as if they emitted their own glow. And the red and black domino scene was beautiful as well.

I am not, however, an apologist for what Natalie Portman did to V. Natalie’s accent was atrociously annoying. As pretty as she is, she cannot act and was a stale note in an otherwise fun movie. Her performance brought the entire thing down. Just listening to her say more than 2 sentences gave me a pulsing migraine. She was so bland that V’s jukebox had more personality. The only time I ever saw a passable performance from her when in the character she portrayed in Goya’s Ghosts who hardly spoke a word due to her misshapen mouth.

Other than her lack of acting skills, kudos to her for being so smart! She is fluent in Hebrew, German, Japanese, and French and studied at Harvard. Too bad she didn’t take some acting classes.

Society’s great heroes are those who are slightly maddened by what they see around them, and that has always been V’s appeal to me. His drama, his madness, his unconditional quest for a world that has never, and will never exist. I think that no one could have done a better job than Hugo did. He was perfect.

Stephen Rea was good, but he’s gotten very typecast in the past ten years or so. He seemed a bit bored. Also, for some reason, having him play the role of the Inspector, I knew that V’s plan would not get thwarted by him. He always plays the one who lets the good guy go, even when the good guy is also the bad guy.

Stephen Fry played the lovable and courageous Deitrich. For a bit of dorkish trivia, he was the narrator voice on the Harry Potter video games. He is also currently writing Peter Jackson’s remake of The Dam Busters.

Interestingly, the movie’s release date was postponed due to similarities between the scenes in it and the London bombing attacks in 2005. The film makers refused to edit the underground scenes that were too vivid in the minds of Londoners at the time. It ended up not even being an issue due to the few people who even bothered to go see it. After being predicted as being that year’s first opening night blockbuster, the movie made just around 26 million that weekend.

If you haven’t seen it, give it a try, ignore Natalie, and just listen to the hypnotic words from Hugo’s lips. If you’ve seen it and hated it, try to give it another look. The character is too vivid not to at least draw some fondness.

~Ideas are bulletproof~