Film Reviews

Film Review: The Big Parade (1925)

The Big Parade (1925)
directed by King Vidor
Frames in this review are taken from the 2013 Blu-Ray release.
Originally written May 2005 from a viewing of the 1988 VHS release.

There two halves of The Big Parade are so different in tone that they're almost two films. If we were to give them titles, the first half could be called Life in the Army, a nostalgic look at the camaraderie of basic training and garrison duty. The second half could then be called War is Hell, a nightmarish experience of the trench warfare that dominated the First World War on the Western Front. This intentional stylistic dichotomy gives the film the same perspective as the American doughboys had in the Great War. A rapid transition from peace to war, a burst of patriotism, a baptism of fire in intense combat, and then victory just 19 months later.


While All Quiet on the Western Front achieved its impact by soaking up the desperation as it accumulated over four long years, The Big Parade shocks the viewer with its rapid change of tone that quickly drives out any naïveté about war.  We are first treated to an hour of horsing around and chasing French girls, lulling us into a false sense of security.  Then WHAM!  The paradisiacal world comes crashing down, and the protagonist is thrown into the relentless whirlwind of combat.

That so much bitterness can develop from a (comparatively) brief exposure to combat makes a rather different and even more forceful statement on the horrors of war. [...]

Film Review: The Crowd (1928)

The Crowd (1928)
directed by King Vidor
Frames in this review are taken from the VHS tape, produced by Thames Silents and released by MGM/UA in 1988.

Hollywood has the convention that a director with a smash hit gets to write his own ticket for at least one more film.  King Vidor had just come off a massive success with his 1925 anti-war film The Big Parade [link to my review], which would've made him a millionaire had he not sold his share of the profits to MGM.  But as a rewards, he got to make The Crowd with the understanding that he could make it an art film rather than a crowd pleaser. This is exactly what he does, for the film questions the attainability of the American dream at a time when the stock market boom of the Roaring Twenties was still going strong.


Film Review: Shoes of the Fisherman (1968)

The Shoes of the Fisherman (1968)
directed by Michael Anderson
Frames in this review are taken from the 2006 Warner Brothers DVD.

I first stumbled onto The Shoes of the Fisherman by chance as I was organizing a collection of 35mm trailers. As it happens, Shoes has quite a compelling trailer, coming from the period when exclamation-laden title cards began giving way to voice narration. When I heard the tagline about "the first Russian pope," I was hooked. How could such an incredible plot be told without seeming ludicrous? Besides, the film has got Anthony Quinn and Laurence Olivier as the protagonists. Either one of them might do a bad movie for lots of money, but probably not both.

But it never came off my list of films to watch "some day," until the 2005 papal conclave. I was reading one of the better-written news analysis pieces, from a journalist who actually knows something about the process. That journalist reminisced about the previous pope, John Paul II, and recalled visiting then-Cardinal Wojtyla in Poland and looking over the books in his study. The only piece of fiction on that bookshelf was Morris West's 1963 novel The Shoes of the Fishermanalt.


Film Review: High and Low (1963)

High and Low (1963)
[Tengoku to jigoku]
directed by Akira Kurosawa
Frames in this review are taken from the Criterion DVD released in 1998.

This is a series of two articles.  The second article compares this film with its source material, Ed McBain’s detective novel King’s Ransom.

Akira Kurosawa is often mentioned in film critique as a Japanese director who was too Western to be successful in his own country.  This might seem strange, for his best-known works are largely set in Medieval Japan — Seven Samurai, Rashomon, Yojimbo.  Some of them are based on works of Shakespeare, but the the settings are unmistakably Japanese and the themes are surely universal.  In addition, several of his samurai adventures were later remade into Hollywood or spaghetti westerns, but you can’t blame that on him.

High and Low, one of his less well-known films, supplies an explanation.  Although it is set in bustling Tokyo, the film’s atmosphere comes practically right out of film noir Los Angeles.  There are beachfront locations, remote hideaways, kidnapping plots, corporate power plays over a company that makes women’s high heels, and even little kids playing with cowboy hats and toy revolvers!  What's more, the film is based on an American crime novel, Ed McBain's King's Ransom.  Shakespeare in a Japanese setting is high art, but adapting an American detective thriller?!


Film Review: La Cage aux Folles (1978)

La Cage Aux Folles (1978)
directed by Edouard Molinaro
Frames in this review are taken from the MGM DVD release in 2001.

It's a funny thing, but humor doesn't translate very well across generations. Bob Hope's wisecracks come across today as merely pleasant banter, and many movies thought riotously funny in their day are now merely bizarre. For example, the James Bond spoof Casino Royale is simply incomprehensible).

But La Cage Aux Folles remains humorous today, despite having the additional hurdle of being a Franco-Italian co-production, with the dialog in French and many roles acted by Italians. Admittedly, the film has lost some of its sparkle in the three decades that have passed, and indeed, most films involving homosexuality would probably feel dated today. But that favorite device of situational comedies, the dinner meeting between the parents of young lovers, manages to packs so much misadventure into a short time span that it easily redeems any missteps.


Film Review: One in a Million (1936)

One in a Million (1936)
directed by Sidney Lanfield
Frames in this review are taken from the VHS tape released by Fox Video in 1993.

When you see a Hollywood studio film from the Golden Era, you know pretty much what you'll get.  However much the plot may twist and turns, Judy and Mickey will put on a show, Fred and Ginger will dance round and round, and Esther Williams will find a way to get wet.  If the film happened to come from Twentieth Century-Fox and star Sonja Henie, then you’ll be sure to see a skating exhibition.  The Norwegian figure skater Henie was one of the first to cash in on her athletic prowess on a grand scale, and is often regarded as the prototype for Olympians on cereal boxes.


Film Review: The Decline of the American Empire (2003)

Le Déclin de l'Empire Américain
(The Decline of the American Empire) (1986)
directed by Denys Arcand
Frames in this review are taken from the Koch Lorber DVD, released in 2004.

The Decline of the American Empire is a satirical title, because the film is actually about sex. Look at the movie poster: three people holding up placards with the letters “S E X!” marked in pink. Except that the characters in Decline are academics at a Canadian university, so what they actually do is sit around and talk about their sexual escapades. Indeed, this is a very stagy film, one that has barely been opened up for film with only moderate use of location and camera moves. And these are more eye candy than a visual language -- as when the camera focus-pulls back and forth as a character exercises on a weight machine. A stage version could make do with only three sets: a kitchen, a gym, and a living room.

The film recounts one day among a group of academics in Québec. Rémy (Rémy Girard) is hosting a dinner party for his friends, and is spending the afternoon cooking with the help of three male buddies. His wife is off at the college gym, working out and swapping girl talk with the three other female invitees. As the dinner takes shape, both the men and the women talk frankly about sex — about lovers, partner-swapping, dangerous hitch-ups, drug-enhanced orgasms, and more.

The ensemble characters are defined principally in terms of their sexual relationships. Diane (Louise Portal) reveals red whip marks on her back in the locker room, and explains that she's been pursuing a masochistic relationship with a guy she met at a bar, the rough biker type Mario (Gabriel Arcand). Diane previously could never stand to be dominated by a man, but now she loves getting her hair pulled "like a horse's mane" while crouching doggy-style. [...]

Film Review: The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967)

Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (1957)
aka. The Young Girls of Rochefort
Directed by Jacques Demy and Agnès Varda

Frames in this review are taken from the Miramax DVD, released in 2003.

Could life ever be as fanciful and carefree as it is in Les Demoiselles de Rochefort?  In this third film of Jacques Demy's romantic trilogy, which he codirected with his wife and longtime collaborator Agnès Varda, France is basking in a ray of pastel colors and joyous song.  The troubles of Algeria are behind her, the student protests of 1968 have yet to arrive, and summertime love is in the air.  Soldiers have nothing to do but go on practice maneuvers, money is unimportant, and lost loves … well, let's not spoil the ending.


Film Review: Becket (1964)

Becket (1964)
directed by Peter Glenville
Frames in this review are taken from the MPI DVD.

Some Kings and Queens of England just make for better subjects of drama than others.  George IV isn't nearly as interesting a character as George III, and Anne can't hold a candle to the various Henries.  Such audacious and colorful characters they were, those Henries!  There was Henry VIII, who converted England to Protestantism for purely selfish reasons, and ended up changing the course of history.  There was Henry V, as forever immortalized by Shakespeare [link to film review], who established the English claim on the French throne and brought back a French bride from his continental wars.

But it is an even earlier Henry who features in Becket, only the second King of England to carry the name.  Although the credits award first billing to Richard Burton in the title role of Becket, the film is as much about Henry as it is about Thomas à Becket.  Becket is straightforward and uncomplicated — at first a worldly and scheming advisor to the King, he later becomes resolute in his godliness after becoming Archbishop of Canterbury.


Film Review: Easter Parade (1948)

Easter Parade (1948)
directed by Charles Walters
songs by Irving Berlin
starring Judy Garland and Fred Astaire
Frames in this review are taken from the Warner Brothers DVD.

Easter Parade was finally released on DVD in time for Easter 2005.  Of course they did it for the marketing tie-in, but the film’s Easter theme is merely incidental.  It’s one of those happy musicals churned out by the MGM Dream Factory, and it’s appropriate year-round.  Particularly notable is the fact that this was the only musical in which Judy Garland starred alongside Fred Astaire.  (Notice who goes first in the billing.  Fred may have been the better dancer by far, but Judy was the bigger box office draw.)



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