GSC Films: S-Z
Saboteur 1942 Alfred Hitchcock 3.0 Robert Cummings, Patricia Lane as not so
charismatic love interest, Otto Kruger as rather dull villain (although something of prefigure of James Mason‘s very suave villain in ‗NNW‘), Norman Lloyd who makes impression as rather melancholy
saboteur, especially when he is hanging by his sleeve in Statue of Liberty sequence. One of lesser Hitchcock products, done on loan out from Selznick for Universal. Suffers from lackluster cast (Cummings does not have acting weight to make us care for his character or to make us believe that he is going to all that trouble to find the real saboteur), and an often inconsistent story line that provides opportunity for interesting set pieces – the circus freaks, the high society fund-raising dance; and of
course the final famous Statue of Liberty sequence (vertigo impression with the two characters perched high on the finger of the statue, the suspense generated by the slow tearing of the sleeve seam, and the scary fall when the sleeve tears off – Lloyd rotating slowly and screaming as he recedes from Cummings‘
view). Many scenes are obviously done on the cheap – anything with the trucks, the home of Kruger,
riding a taxi through New York. Some of the scenes are very flat – the kindly blind hermit (riff on the
hermit in ‗Frankenstein?‘), Kruger‘s affection for his grandchild around the swimming pool in his Highway 395 ranch home, the meeting with the bad guys in the Soda City scene next to Hoover Dam. The encounter with the circus freaks (Siamese twins who don‘t get along, the bearded lady whose beard is in curlers, the militaristic midget who wants to turn the couple in, etc.) is amusing and piquant (perhaps the scene was written by Dorothy Parker?), but it doesn‘t seem to relate to anything. Plot line takes us
from LA sabotage up Highway 395, then over the Hoover Dam (in reality 395 doesn‘t go to Hoover Dam),
and suddenly to New York. The characters are often sappy and incomprehensible, such as the kind blind hermit who believes firmly in Cummings‘ innocence (real Americans know who is good and who bad?); also hard to chart the thought processes and movements of Lane, who changes her mind a lot and tries to turn Cummings in, and who turns up in New York rather inexplicably. The bad guys, who are supposed to be ruthless saboteurs, are easy going and allow our principals to remain impeccably coiffed and never personally harmed. Obviously a bit of wartime propaganda with one good patriotic anti-Nazi and pro-democratic speech by Cummings at the dance party. Debts to previous films abound – the handcuffs and
the antagonistic connection with attractive young woman, being trapped and in danger at a high society party, the cross country journey to find the real culprit (all ‘39 Steps‘), the villain seen against back-
projected movie on screen (‗Sabotage‘), etc. Movie is picaresque and fun.
Sadie Thompson 1928 3.5 Raoul Walsh Based on Somerset Maugham‘s ‗Rain‘. Gloria
Swanson cute, sprightly, gay, good-hearted (treats the simple soldiers well), seductive, tough and independent as the ―brazen woman‖ with dark painted lips and a flashing smile who smokes, chews gum, jokes around and flirts with crowds of drunk marines; Lionel Barrymore as the fervent and powerful missionary reformer (apparently not an ordained minister) who is determined to clean up the morals of the island and who is of course outraged by Swanson‘s behavior – clean-shaven he looks a little like Abe
Lincoln; Walsh as Marine sergeant who becomes Sadie‘s good-humored suitor and who carries her piggy
back when it rains (it never stops). Takes place on rainy South Seas island garrisoned by Marines who are bored stiff and yearn for ―white women‖; Sadie, a former prostitute from San Francisco, stops by on the way to a neighboring island where she plans to start a new life. Film takes a dim view of religious reformers, who don‘t know how to smile, who intimidate politicians, complain about the locals having no sense of sin, and threaten ―sinners‖ with destruction and retaliation, insist that Sadie return to San
Francisco instead of going to Sydney even though it means returning to prison (she claims she is innocent of the crime of which she is accused); ―three tortured days of loneliness – repentance – redemption‖.
When Sadie turns down Barrymore‘s offer of salvation, he has the governor order her to leave the island; she is furious, and with flashing eyes denounces him violently; then she implores him pitifully; and then she is wide-eyed and insane when she faces returning to prison. Donnybrook confrontations between Barrymore and Swanson work well on silent screen – light on the title cards and heavy on mime, facial
expressions, etc. The scene in which Barrymore makes her kneel and pray is heart-wrenching. In another dramatic scene Walsh tries to force Swanson to leave on a fishing boat, but she resists saying that her salvation is the only thing that counts and she wants to go to prison; by this time Sadie has been
thoroughly programmed. Barrymore then becomes obsessed with Sadie and apparently rapes her (or just has sex?) – we don‘t know since last reel of film is missing. The next morning his body is found in the
ocean by a fisherman – an apparent suicide. Film ends happily with Sadie set to go to Sydney to wait for her sergeant. Although film is not well restored (grainy with passages marred by serious damage to the negative and the end missing) one can see that cinematography (Academy Award) is very effective, especially in lighting faces during the dramatic confrontations. Effective use of environmental symbols –
the heavy rain, the wind blowing outside the window. A daring movie before the full Hayes Code; quite arty showing the sophistication of editing and cinematography in the late silent era.
Safety Last 1923 Fred Newmeyer, etc. 4.0 Harold Lloyd, Mildred Davis (Lloyd marries her
shortly after the completion of the film in summer 1922). Stunning 20s comedy with almost incredible invention. Lloyd as naïve, somewhat shy, enthusiastic, earnest, serious, extremely energetic, fast movement (not as acrobatic as Keaton?); resourceful, inventive; very amusing rodent walk; great upper body strength. Movie satirizes middle class values: the shopping women in the department store who attack the sales clerks (the women are later referred to as ―women of culture and refinement‖), much disrespecting of police. Advertising need causes HL to scale the 12-story building at the end to make an impression on the buying public. General plot is that MD puts extreme pressure on HL to be a success in the city; he feels the pressure and has to resort to all sorts of pretenses to keep the wool over her eyes. Obvious satire on the Horatio Alger myth – rags to riches; even the climbing of the building is a
commentary on upward social mobility! Great long gags – transportation gag as HL has to return to his
job asap – he fakes a street injury to get the ambulance to take him back; long office gag when he has to pretend that he is the boss of the department store to perpetuate for his girlfriend the myth that he has a management position and is not just a sales clerk; and of course the advertising gag climbing up the building (c. 25 minutes!), which is an obvious satire on upward social mobility and the difficulties associated with it. The film is filled with fascinating glimpses into Los Angeles life in the early 1920s –
the dense traffic in the street, the culture of the department store, relations with the police, etc. The climbing sequence has eight or nine different parts with Lloyd‘s progress impeded by pigeons, an attack
dog, a tennis net, a clock, and mainly the policeman who is chasing the real Human Fly who is supposed to do the climbing for Lloyd; with its dizzying views into the street, really a nightmare for those with vertigo! The sequence, which took about two months to shoot, has several components – a set at Hal
Roach studio in Culver City representing the street level of the building; the Human Fly himself climbing a taller building in downtown Los Angeles in a long shot from the outside (he was attached to the building by piano wire); and principally medium shots of Lloyd climbing on a 18-foot façade that is set on the roof of a four-story building also in Los Angeles (the set is at the edge of the roof so that if Lloyd were to fall straight down he would fall on to mattresses); when Harold gets to about sixth floor, he changes the shooting to another taller building in a different part of downtown LA with a similar façade on top; and then for the finale (where he swings on the big ledge) another taller building in another part of downtown. Inventive final sequence – Harold tottering on edge of cornice after being hit in head by
weather vein, swinging on a rope over the street, ―miraculous‖ reunion with Mildred lips to lips, Struthers
still running from the cop over the rooftop and saying goodbye from a distance with tiny titles, the two lovers walk over the roof with Harold losing heedlessly both shoes and socks when he walks through wet tar. Very daring mise-en-scene showing real street traffic in the background with no special effects used; sequence shows Harold Lloyd‘s great invention, athletic prowess, and daredevil courage.
Salaam Bombay! 1988 Mira Nair 3.5 Shafiq Syed as 12-year-old boy with natural acting and soulful eyes; a large cast of seemingly professional Indian actors and many children and adults recruited from the slums of Bombay. Compelling and moving documentary-style story of boy apparently abandoned by his mother, living in the streets of Bombay, trying to save up 500 rupees so he can return to his native village, encountering many memorable characters and adventures. Almost all the actors are amateurs recruited from the slums; they show remarkable restraint and soul, avoiding the (apparently) Indian vice of overacting. Style is realistic semi-documentary -- all shot on location, episodic plot structure, nonprofessional actors, long takes (sometimes running too long), rather informal editing. Plot thread is Syed's attempt to save enough money to return to his family; encounters several subplots -- a
prostitute's long-term love affair with the house pimp; the prostitute's passion for her only daughter; Syed's touching friendship with the little girl Manju, and his love for Sweet Sixteen, a girl who has recently been sold into prostitution; his friendship with Chillum, who sells drugs for the pimp, but who is fired and, deprived of his drugs, he dies from withdrawal (the kids conduct a traditional Indian funeral). Textures of the poverty-stricken neighborhood are convincing -- shabby building, chaotic situation in the streets and on the sidewalks, mostly sunny and hot with occasional cloudbursts, hot, small interior rooms; too bad we couldn't smell the odors. Film ends with apparent references to Truffaut's 'Four Hundred Blows': Syed escapes from the well-meaning but tyrannical reform school, goes to his hiding place to find that his money has been stolen, and then moves to a spot where he stares disconsolately into the distance, as the camera records his face with a very long shot that evokes the hopelessness of his situation -- things will never change; recalling of course Truffaut's famous shout (and then freeze frame) of Jean Paul Leaud on the beach. Script sometimes seems not to move forward; some scenes are held too long; but the sad plight of the children in the city slums and without hope gets under your skin. Leaves a permanent impression of Syed's expressive face.
Le salaire de la peur 1952 Henri-Georges Clouzot 4.0 Yves Montand tall, sexy and charismatic
as more or less amoral drifter in somewhere near Venezuela, Vera Clouzot as his hapless, gypsy-like girlfriend who dances the waltz at the end when she hears that he has emerged unscathed from the delivery, Charles Vanel is pudgy, bourgeois-looking (contrast with Montand) as shady character who turns out to be a coward, Peter Van Eyck and Falco Lulli as the two other truck drivers chosen to make the run. Unforgettable film set at the frontier in South America; begins with strong sense of place in a forgotten oil town in Venezuela where a lot of foreigners speaking a polyglot of languages are lounging around looking for jobs; a well fire 300 miles away finally offers highly dangerous job to four of them; the long sequence of driving the two trucks loaded with volatile nitroglycerine (intended to put out the well fires) to the wells over dangerous terrain; and the denouement. Montand is fetching as the charismatic male lead – lean, wiry, handsome, reckless, throws challenges to fate and the world. First section that sets up the situation and the characters is a little long, but the truck-driving sequences are Cracker Jack thriller suspense: the trucks, one of which is massive like fate itself, drive very slowly on the road (except when the ruts are so bad they have to drive fast to glide over them); at one point they have to drive out on a rickety wooden ramp to make a hairpin turn in the mountains (it collapses spectacularly just as the second truck emerges from it); at another they have to stop and blow up with some of the nitro a large boulder that has blocked the road; at another Montand has to drive painstakingly through a bog of crude oil since there is no other way to make it to the oil fields. Editing and pacing are expert as events slow to a crawl and we hold our breath waiting for disaster -- explosion of the nitro and complete obliteration of the truck and its occupants. Disaster finally happens in an eerie long shot of Montand and Vanel startled by a sudden explosion and looking off several miles in front of them at the huge explosion cloud where their two friends have been annihilated; when they later arrive at the explosion site, nothing is left of their friends except a cigarette holder. Film shares Clouzot's usual misanthropy and existential negativism: the film begins with a shot of cockroaches trapped/tied together by strings attached by little boys; the men are trapped in the town under the undying hot sun (cf. Camus‘ L’étranger), no work,
nowhere to go (the roads out of town go nowhere and the airfare is too expensive), and relations with women are completely unsatisfactory; the lot of the drivers is hard, but they persist because that is their fate and they have no alternative ($2000 awaits each of them at the end of the road); they do their duty and remain faithful to their fate and to the male bond/friendship that builds between the men, even between Montand and the pusillanimous and weak-nerved Vanel. At the end Montand is the only one of the four left; the film leads us to believe that he is returning joyfully to reunion with his girlfriend Clouzot, but his swerving of his big truck on the road in the mountains becomes extreme and he goes over the edge and to his death in the canyon below; it is apparent that he has committed suicide; it is shameful and disloyal to be the only one of the four men that survives; the consolation of returning to the arms of a woman is little compared to the loss of his male friends; death is where he belongs. Several elements relate the movie to Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) – male bonding, the existential condition, the
power of fate; Salaire has perhaps less humor, and lacks the delicious irony of the end of the other movie. Some obvious critique of international (American) capitalism: the Americans control the economy, and
don‘t hesitate to send men off to an almost certain death; the company boss O‘Brien is a hard-bitten,
business-only guy, although he does share some camaraderie with the other expatriates. A great nail-biting thriller with the existential bleakness of the postwar era, and a charismatic star lead to rivet our attention.
Salvatore Giuliano 1961 Francesco Rosi 3.0 Semi documentary examination of the social
and cultural reality of the bandit career of the famous Salvatore Giuliano in the immediate post-World-War-II years. Giuliano barely appears in the film. There are no characters fictionally presented so that the viewer can become attached, although we are occasionally impressed by something one of the characters does – e.g., the grief of Giuliani‘s mother, the indignant confusion of a shepherd boy who has been captured by the police after he was forced (?) to join Giuliani. Almost all the actors were non-professionals from the region where the events took place; most of the scenes were shot on location in Montelepre and in the surrounding hills (only a few miles from Palermo). Sicily seems barren, desolate, poor, picturesque, very old-fashioned and undeveloped. The film is an obvious precursor of ‗Z‘ and ‗The
Battle of Algiers, where a political scandal is gradually revealed. Giuliani and his band helped free Sicily of the Germans in 1943; then they were recruited by the local politicians to fight for Sicilian (semi-) independence; when that was granted in 1946, the partisans somehow did not get their amnesty and they continued operating in the hills – kidnapping, ransom, murder. The authorities seemed not to care much;
perhaps they were afraid their connection with the banditi would come out; the bandits had numerous complicated relationships with the mafia, the carabinieri (national police), and the local civil authorities. Film jumps rather confusingly from the time of the murder of Giuliano (1952 – many journalists were
suspicious), back to the immediate postwar years and then to the trial of Giuliano‘s men, many of whom
were acquitted, and others condemned to life in prison. With flashbacks at the trial it emerges that Giuliano was not killed honorably in a gun battle with the carabinieri, but that he was murdered treacherously by one of his lieutenants, who was cooperating with the authorities. The film rakes up an Italian political scandal that doesn‘t mean much to foreigners. It does fill us in on an historical event that
no one outside Italy knows anything about; and it gives us a vivid picture of Sicily in the 1950s.
Le Samouraï 1967 Jean-Pierre Melville 3.5 Alain Delon as Jef Costello, the solitary,
impassive, impossibly handsome hit man, Nathalie Delon (his quite beautiful wife at the time) as a woman in love with him (he does not reciprocate) who gives him an alibi, François Perier as the police commissaire (again shades of Maigret) who is determined to track down Delon. Understated, laconic crime picture focusing on a few days in the life of a hit man. Delon completely underplays his character with almost no emotion, only occasionally a telltale movement of the eye; he is tall, thin and handsome; he lives in a dilapidated apartment, but is compulsively neat and dapper in his neat suits, trench coat and fedora hat that he always adjusts carefully on his head before he steps out; "a beautiful destructive angel of the dark street." (David Thomson) The quotation in the beginning of the film suggests that he is following a code of honor, but he seems to be completely self-interested – he does his job with no hard
feelings. Virtually his only "relationship" is with a single (solitary) caged bird in his apartment that chirps constantly when he is present; it is the bird's chirping that seems to tip off Delon that there is a listening device in his room (the bird is his unconscious or his intuition?); and the lamentable condition of the bird in Delon's last visit to his room presages Delon's end not long afterward. As the film progresses, however, he seems to develop a real feeling for the night club singer who witnessed his first killing; his unwillingness to kill her at the end (the chamber of his pistol has no bullets in it) indicates his willingness to die because he has "betrayed" his code. Arresting is the film style: it is in cool color (rather faded with lots of blues and grays); the shooting tends toward steady, long shots with clean, matter-of-fact editing (in an era where cinema vérité techniques and handheld camera were the rage); there is little dialogue – the
film can roll up to ten minutes with no one saying anything: perhaps seven or eight minutes with the garage mechanic who changes license plates for him yields only a few words at the end of their second meeting. There are not many surprises and not that much suspense (exception is the gunmen breaking the glass right next to the camera when Jef characteristically goes to his wardrobe to hand up his suit coat). Melville develops long sequences in virtual silence: Jef's car theft and killing of the nightclub owner; the police putting a bug in his apartment (a very long sequence); an exciting police chase in the metro –
despite Perier's intense organization, Jef leaps barriers, exits and enters metro cars, etc. to elude the police (a sequence that has had a lot of influence in Japanese and American movies, e.g., in DePalma's 'Dressed to Kill'). As mentioned, Jef does seem to change at the end – he seeks revenge against the mob and he
has a feeling for the singer; the ending of the movie seems like a virtual suicide (he is shot down defenseless in the nightclub). Movie is obsessively focused on a single character in a restricted time frame, quite different from 'Cercle rouge' that has much more variety. The pace is slow, and one has the impression that the director was sometimes more interested in the technical challenges of recording a complex action on film than in the progression of the story or suspense. Nevertheless, a lot of fun to watch.
The Sands of Iwo Jima 1949 Allan Dwan (Republic) 3.5 John Wayne as Sergeant Stryker, John Agar as Conway, the soldier with a chip on his soldier, Forrest Tucker as Thomas who makes a careless mistake that cost one of his buddy his life, James Brown as Charlie Bass, the only man in the squad who is a friend of Sergeant Stryker. War movie about a squad of marines, who take Tarawa and then Iwo Jima, being chosen to raise the flag on top of Mount Suribachi. Follows their exploits and experiences from original training in New Zealand to the top of the mountain; focuses almost exclusively on Stryker and his men with little reference to higher ups. Camaraderie is developed among the men, and a lot of mourning at the end when casualties are high on Iwo Jima (Stryker is among those killed). Individual dramas and melodramas: Stryker is hard ass who learns from his men and his experiences how to be more flexible and to begin communicating with the son he left behind; Conway despises Stryker because of the latter‘s relationships with Conway‘s father, whom he had not got on well with; Conway meets a girl in New Zealand and leaves a baby behind. Stryker is hated by most of his men in the beginning, but by the end they admire him and appreciate that he was concerned for their safety. Wayne gives excellent performance – Stryker is tough, though bitter and in the beginning a drunk; he is solid and has a great bulk on the screen; by the end he has matured a bit and regrets his sins and imperfections (AA nomination). The strength of the movie is in the battle footage: individual stagy scenes featuring the Stryker squad are interspersed with excellent newsreel footage that gives the flavor of the battle. The bitterness of the fighting on Iwo Jima comes across pretty vividly; the defenders, who in general are dug in and don‘t come out to fight above ground, have to be flushed out with flamethrowers. One soldier:
―That‘s war for you. They trade soldiers‘ lives for a little real estate.‖ Minimum of name-calling and
contempt for the Japanese defenders.
Saturday Night Fever 1979 John Badham 2.5 John Travolta in breakthrough role, Karen Lynn Gorney uninteresting and forced as his dance partner, Donna Pescow as small, cute lost soul who wants Tony to be her boyfriend, a bunch of deadend kids from the streets of Italian New York. Legendary dance movie, part dance musical, part uplifting social drama, that feeds on the cocky energy of Travolta: he has a lot of energy and pizzazz in his real life set against the background of his job in the paint store (he charms the socks off customers) and his family, most of whom are clueless second generation Italians who are traumatized when Tony's brother decides to give up the priesthood. The social background is vivid -- kind of 'Mean Streets' without the organized crime; the friends of Tony aren't really mean, just clueless and obviously going nowhere; the highlight of the week is going to the Odyssey 2001 Saturday night to dance their shoes off. Sex is also important; they cruise around in an ancient huge Chevy and take turns using the back seat for quick sex while friends often watch casually through the window as they 'make it'. Several dance sequences shot in red light with a lot of camera movement and angles (very different from the classic camera work of Fred Astaire); the scenes in which Travolta dances with a partner are pretty dull and unexceptionable (Gorney who is not a strong dancer), but his solo performance about halfway through the movie is a showstopper with his cocky hip movements and prancings. You have to like the disco music of the Bee Gees to enjoy the dance sequences. Tony moves toward a sort of salvation, which is not however embodied in winning the dance contest at the end (he is honest enough to know that he should not have won and that the contest results were rigged to make sure the home boy came out on top), but in his rather hazy decision at the end to move out of his parents' home and to set out on his own, helped along by Gorney who is constantly dropping celebrity names somehow associated with her glamorous job. In the meantime he has to go through a personal catharsis of remorse after his
abortive rape of Gorney and a realization of his deadend status after one of his friends falls from the Verrazano Straits Bridge. The main weak point of the movie is the casting of Gorney in such an important role -- she is not a good dancer, she is not attractive, and her acting usually seems false: we don't believe it when she plays dumb with a thick New York accent. Entertaining but less than ―Strictly
Ballroom‖ that plays it strictly for laughs and wows.
Saved! 2004 Brian Dannelly 2.0 Jena Malone, Mandy Moore, Macauley Culkin, Mary
Louis Parker. Teenage movie with paper cutter characters, and rather objectionable idea that religious fundamentalism is ridiculous, anti-human, objectionable. Studies the impact of living in an environment where Jesus is on the top of everything, the force on everybody‘s mind all the time (instead of a mysterious presence lurking under epiphenomena). Movie does have energy, good music, attractive teenage actors, but the sympathetic kids are the ones who object to, refuse to give in to, make fun of the Christian fundamentalists. The Goth Jew and the paraplegic skeptic (Culkin) are the characters we sympathize with; we are led to sympathize with the gay kid, who is delighted that he has fathered a child with Jena, but who, after being sent to a fundamentalist deprogramming center, comes back with a homosexual life-long partner (not of course with a penchant for free gay sex). Most of the fundamentalists are intolerant, and it turns out that the leader of the ‗Jewels‘ is a hypocrite, who actually spray painted anti-Christian slogans on school walls in order to frame the good, non-religious kids. Feel-good ending that appeals to teenagers. An acceptable teen movie.
Saving Private Ryan 1998 Steven Spielberg 4.0 Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore, Matt
Damon. Outstanding film about Normandy Invasion and war: Hanks in charge of expedition into Norman hinterland to find James Ryan, last surviving of four sons, three of whom killed in action. Battle scenes absolutely terrific: 1) first 30-minute segment – unbelievably brutal and bloody and from soldiers
eyes with little rhyme or reason as to what is going on (cf. Waterloo scene in ‗Red and Black‘); 2) others
including the battle for the town, the taking of the radar installation, and the late defense of bridge where battle is expertly choreographed, enormously involving the spectator. Sometimes exciting, as when wall falls down and Germans and Americans facing one another, and when Hanks‘ advancing tank (he is shooting his pistol at it) is suddenly destroyed by a Mustang! Hanks usual affable self – sensitive, good
soldier (experienced), with fair amount of weariness, but always does his duty. All six or seven soldiers well delineated without becoming overly maudlin; only sentimental scene is frame scene beginning end with older guy (Ryan?) tearfully visiting graveyard in present day Normandy. In part antiwar film: men are called on by General Marshall to find Ryan when the real issue is to defeat the Germans! Men gripe a lot but still do what they are told; the group ―revolts‖ by taking on Germans when they get the chance –
e.g., radar installation and the defense of the bridge at the end. Beautiful tragic sense at the end – all these
young men sacrificed including Tom Hanks who dies after the tank is destroyed and the Germans flee -- such a waste, and yet they did a great thing.
Say Anything 1989 Cameron Crowe 3.5 John Cusack as unpredictable high school grad with no educational or professional plans who acts on impulse, i.e., he has to have Ione Skye, Ione Skye as valedictorian brain who has very close relationship with her father and who is unconsciously looking for a nice guy to help her escape despite receiving a scholarship to study in England, John Mahoney excellent as Skye's divorced father -- he deeply loves his daughter and will sacrifice anything (say/do anything?) to further her happiness, Lily Taylor as quirky best friend of Cusack who advises him to go for it with Skye despite being obviously mismatched. Wonderful minor masterpiece about two unlikely kids hooking up in the most unlikely of circumstances (they seem completely unsuited for one another). All the actors are charming and yet real -- no Hollywood stereotyping or predictable outcomes (impossible to predict how the film will turn out). Excellent deep characters whom we become attached to and care about: Cusack is so pleasant, easy-going and malleable -- he will do (say?) anything to please the woman he is convinced is his match made in heaven; Mahoney turns out to have broken the law and stretched morality in order to please his daughter (he is pursued by the IRS and ends up in prison at the end of the film); Skye has to work through many things -- her attachment to her father, her sense of betrayal by him when she learns that he has been cheating the old folks that he pretends to be helping, how much of herself she will give to
a guy whose passion in life is kick-boxing. The film is terrifically optimistic: at the end on the plane they are taking together to London (Skye is afraid of flying and very nervous), Cusack tells her that as soon as the 'Fasten Seat Belts' sign goes on, then you know everything will be ok; and they wait and wait, and then 'ding!' and that is the end of the movie. We know that they will live happily ever after, however mismatched: they will live through the England experience, the father will be out of prison and rebuilding his life in a few months (Cusack has already had a heart-to-heart with Dad in the visiting yard), and somehow the three of them will work out the situation. Film has genuine low-key humor (while Skye is giving her gloomy valedictorian address, all Cusack can say is 'Look at those eyes!). The viewer is totally involved in the film because the characters are so lovable and sympathetic. A great first film!
Le Scaphandre et le papillon 2007 Julian Schnabel 3.5 Mathieu Amalric plays Jean-
Domnique Bauby, a 42-year old editor of Elle, who is completely paralyzed (except for movement in his
left eye) after a stroke, while he maintains complete use of reasoning and imagination; Max von Sydow, a ―rogue of the old school‖, who shows deep emotion as the elderly father of Jean-Do; Emmanuelle
Seignier as his loyal and loving former partner (never married) and father of his three children; Marie-Josée Croze as the pretty and sensitive speech therapist who teaches Jean-Do how to communicate with his left eyelid; Anne Consigny as his amanuensis who helps him write his book. Very moving film about the short life of Jean-Do from his stroke until his death (seemingly less than a year later) from pneumonia. In the meantime, he writes the famous book upon which the film is based, showing enormous patience and determination. The film is shot entirely from Jean-Do‘s point of view: at the beginning and the end
through his remaining functioning eye (objects slowly come into focus in the beginning, and slowly dissolve at the end as he dies); and the rest of the film through an objective camera that records his actions and experiences. Jean-Do‘s experiences are filled with emotion and imagination: he regrets the harm that
he has done to his loved ones (especially Seignier), he tries valiantly to deal with the deep emotion of his elderly father, he is determined not to indulge in self-pity but to glory in what remains to him – his mind,
his emotion, his memory, his imagination (which is visualized through metaphorical images of alpine scenes, a glacier calving into the water, and flashbacks to his former life – the women he mistreated, his
glamorous and powerful life as editor of Elle, the moment when he has the stroke in his sports car with
his son; his predicament is often presented as a visual contrast between the diving suit [imprisoned, confined] and the butterfly [imagination, freedom]). The film is very moving: despite being 99% imprisoned inside a body that would not respond (so-called ―locked-in syndrome‖), he is determined to
retain his ―humanity‖, to be creative and active, not to give in to self-pity and despair. Despite
appearances, the film is not depressing, but is a moving tribute to a man‘s courage and will. This is a film
that leaves a permanent mark on the viewer.
Scarface 1932 Howard Hawks (prod. Howard Hughes) 4.0 Paul Muni, George Raft, Ann
Dvorak, Boris Karloff. The original version remade by DePalma. Very hard-hitting with a lot of gang violence with cars roaring down the street and machine guns sputtering blowing out windows of restaurants and other automobiles. Set in Chicago where rival gangs (all Italians) are battling for control of the beer, etc. trade in the Depression. DePalma reproduces the plot pretty faithfully. George Raft is iconic in his fancy dress (always impeccable) and his continual flipping of a coin, sometimes by habit sometimes to show his bravado. Dvorak as Tony‘s sister is a bit flat as an actress until she gets very upset.
Muni is convincing (although less mannered than Pacino) as the Italian Tony – uneducated, not too smart,
verbally challenged (he is no match for Poppy‘s vocabulary), wants success and power, extremely ambitious, and basically over his head -- he thinks the answer to all issues is to blow away the opposition. Film works as drama because of focus on the tragic progress of Tony; he causes his own destruction and drags his family and all his friends into the abyss. (Hawks‘ Tony is easier to relate to than the monster
DePalma creates in his version.) Direction is good -- expressionist. A lot of deep shadows in quiet scenes, and inventive cutting, mise-en-scene, and camera movement in action scenes. The opening murder where only visual is shadows, and the murderer whistles a Verdi theme as he stalks his prey; calliope, Poppy, Raft scene with coin flip and cutting; murder of Boris Karloff, where he is shot while he is bowling the ball, then camera cuts to pins, with one spinning and then finally falling; Johnny threatening, then killing Johnny Lovo after he punches out the glass door; the final shootout with the
police (much less violent and apocalyptic than DePalma‘s version). Movie sometimes adopts a propaganda theme: we know we are showing you terrible things; we want you the citizens to do something about organized crime; the only solution is action by the federal government. Nice visual metaphor in neon sign: ―The World is Yours: Cook‘s Tours‖ repeated several times. Really an elegant movie – the key scenes, the way it is put together.
Scarface 1982 Brian DePalma 3.5 Al Pacino, Bauer, Michelle Pfeiffer, Murray Abraham,
Robert Loggia, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. Very bloody and garish remake of 1931 Howard Hawks classic, set this time in Miami at time of Cuban criminal ―invasion.‖ Pacino as small-time crook, who by
utter obsessive ruthlessness rises to the top of Cuban organized crime pyramid, becoming king of the cocaine trade in South Florida. Pacino plays long movie in Cuban accent. Tony Montana seems almost insane from the beginning; a man who cares about nothing but success and money, who never has any fun, or lets his hair down; his only friend is Manolo (Bauer), whom he murder brutally in a rage when he learns that he has married his sister, whom he has been trying to ―protect‖ (dominate) from the beginning of his success; Tony‘s early affection for Elvira (Pfeiffer) soon degenerates into indifference and contempt. Tony has gutter language; barely a sentence that does not have ―fuck.‖ Completely ruthless drive for power that can result only in destruction; the ultimate ―crime doesn‘t pay‖ moral. Pacino spirals downhill violently; seems paranoid; has terrible bad temper; gets into trouble with his Bolivian partner; goes over the edge in last half hour when he is snorting large amounts of cocaine (last scene he has large piles of it in front of him on the desk and it is smeared on his nose every time he takes a big scoop into his nostril). Miami has ‗Miami Vice‘ look with art deco buildings, and fluorescent neon colors; earlier crime
boss Lopez (Loggia) has a little taste, but Pacino with his massive red walls, baroque statuary, and black draped, massive office, is baroque grandiloquence beyond any Italian opera. Final scene is an incredible burst of terminal violence, with heavy weapons and many deaths, as Tony with his heavy artillery fights to the end with heroism and cocaine-induced fanaticism; seems almost inhuman and indestructible. A certain pathos for Pacino, since he is incapable of stopping halfway or restraining himself, but he must follow his star to utter destruction. Film has trademark DePalma operatic sense: big gestures, grand sets, many deaths, and impressive music score – often symphonic but also pop – by Giorgio Moroder. Movie
is a monument to excess and at times drives away the viewer, but it holds your attention and generates wonder and even some pathos.
The Scarlet Empress 1934 Josef von Sternberg (Paramount) 4.0 Marlene Dietrich as
young innocent Sophia, who then learns the way of the Russian court, and who becomes ambitious when her unpredictable, loony husband becomes Emperor, Sam Jaffe as balmy, quirky Peter III who is locked in his own childlike (although cruel) world, Louise Dresser absolutely marvelous as Empress Elizabeth, who plays the role like a fussy, scolding, though canny Midwestern matron concerned mainly with her son producing an heir to the throne, John Lodge as officer and lover of both empresses, always hidden under his big fur hat and massive uniform and speaking through clenched teeth. Extraordinary excessive, baroque movie sprung from the febrile imagination of Sternberg. Follows the life and career of Catherine from her innocent childhood, whence she is shipped off to marry the future Emperor of Russia; arrived at the court, she is seduced by Lodge and takes lovers; the mésentente with Peter blossoms into hatred and her murder of him; the triumphant climax of the film is Catherine and her guard riding up the steps of the throne room on their horses to the exultant ringing of bells. Catherine is particularly good – sexy and
riveting – as the innocent young Sophia; she tends to retire behind Sternberg‘s mise-en-scene in second
half of movie. Close-ups of her are entrancing; she is often shot through gauze, veils, in shadows, etc. Russia is depicted as wild, barely civilized, always on the verge of anarchy, completely decadent (allowable since Russia was an adversary Communist country in 1934; one would never have treated England that way). The art decoration of the palace is truly bizarre – characters are surrounded by images
of gargoyles, twisted crucifixions, emaciated sickly old people, people being put to the torture, always in deep shadows, candles flickering, huge doors that take several people to close them, etc. Images inside the Orthodox churches are more realistic (minus the morbid baroque), but there as always the mise-en-scene is cluttered, rich, complex, where it makes trouble for Catherine. Beautiful sequence when Catherine throws her locket of Lodge out the window, and it laboriously but gracefully drops from one
exquisite tree branch to another until it touches the ground. Makes much use of the music of Mendelssohn and especially Tchaikovsky. Sternberg makes over generous use of long montage sequences: the young Catherine imagines the cruelty of state power through a montage of torture scenes; at the end, a long sequence details the gathering of the anti-Peter military forces, their entry into the church where they receive the blessing of the priests, the ringing of Russian bells, and then on their horses into the palace and the throne room to take power for Catherine; meanwhile, Peter is strangled to death by one of Catherine‘s lover officers under a huge Orthodox cross. Such films are rarely seen in Hollywood.
Mise-en-scène run amok. A good thing it came out in 1934, since it would have never been approved by the Breen Office after then.
The Scarlet Pimpernel 1934 Alexander Korda (Producer) 3.0 Trevor Howard makes his name as a star as an effete English baronet who doubles as a daring activist who rescues French aristocrats from ‗Madame Guillotine‘ (1792); Merle Oberon high foreheaded beauty who is wife of baronet and wishes he were a real man like he used to be; Raymond Massie as low-key but persistent French ambassador with a sly smile who is commissioned by Robespierre to find and destroy the Pimpernel (a common red flower that Howard leaves on the scene after his rescues); Nigel Bruce as jolly, empty -eaded Prince of Wales. Entertaining but often static ‗swashbuckler‘ that specializes in dialogue (well written) rather than action or sword play. Scene is 1792 and heads are falling in France as the bloodthirsty Revolution – depicted by leering, cheering crowds on the site of the executions – decapitates
hundreds of poor French aristocrats. The only action scenes are in the beginning of the film, when executions are depicted in the Place de Grève and the Pimpernel rescuers ride through the countryside to elude the furious French pursuers. Oberon does creditable job, as does Massie, but the show belongs to Howard, who plays the role of the court fop pungently with catty talk, limp wrists, and lace cuffs: he refrains from revealing his true identity when his wife expresses her displeasure in his wimpish behavior; he entertains groups of stylish ladies with his witticisms often at the expense of courtiers who don‘t get their fashions right; he teases a bamboozled Massie more than once about his awkward and unstylish way of tying his cravat. Behind the scenes he commands a group of commandos who are masters of disguise (an early scene has Howard convincingly disguised as an old hag) and ready to move into action at the drop of a hat. The parallel to Douglas Fairbanks‘ ‗The Mask of Zorro‘ 1920 is unmistakable. Film is a
bit confused from political point of view: the liberty-loving and idealistic English nation puts its best men on the line to save well-dressed French aristocrats, who – according to Massie – have been oppressing
theirs serfs for centuries. Online print is very poor – fuzzy picture and crackling soundtrack.
Scarlet Street 1945 Fritz Lang (Wr. Dudley Nichols; prod. Walter Wanger) 4.0 Edward G.
Robinson as respectable timid cashier who falls for the dangerous woman; Joan Bennet as beautiful femme fatale, gum-cracking, venal and low class, who has contempt and distaste for Robinson; Dan Duryea as wiseacre, not-so-smart, low-life boyfriend. An obvious follow-up to 1944‘s ‗Woman in the
Window‘ with the same production company, director, and cast. Engaging melodrama about mousey
cashier in financial institution, who falls for femme fatale when he saves her from a beating by Duryea in the dark streets, and then progresses inevitably toward his destruction dragging the girlfriend‘s boyfriend
with him. Set in studio-created New York, usually night and dark either in the streets or in dark apartments. Joan Bennet good scene – she appears to be crying on bed, but when she turns toward
Robinson, she is laughing hysterically, which drives EGR into rage and he murders her with an ice pick. Cast all excellent, including Duryea. Marvelous filming: Lang uses roving camera tracking telltale objects; tracks in at key moments, shifts to include new persons in dialogue; high camera to show feeling of insignificance, shooting Robinson through the window of the cashier‘s cage to show his isolation. A
lot about art, since Chris (EGR) is an amateur artist, whose works begin to sell (in epilogue his portrait of Bennet goes for $10,000), but Bennet gets credit for being the artist; his art is a kind of naïve, surrealist fantasy style that catches on in modernist-friendly New York (paintings have no perspective); the expressionist portrait of Bennet with the blank face and the outsized eyelashes that he paints toward the end is his masterpiece. The focus of the film is increasing corruption of Robinson: he begins to steal from wife and from his business (he is almost arrested toward the end) to support his girlfriend (he apparently has had no sex however); he entices wife‘s ex-husband to burglarize her apartment; he murders Bennet;
then he remains silent while Duryea goes to the chair; all of this because of being a sucker for a woman! Few films noir show such a devastating impact of the femme fatale. Production code is preserved at the end, since, although Robinson is not legally punished for the crime, he is attacked by conscience qualms that turn him into a street person; last scene is wandering down a New York street with the voices of his bad conscience whispering in his ear. Music is mostly one version or another of ‗Melancholy Baby.‘
Very effective tragic melodrama; few Hollywood films of the era are quite so pessimistic/realistic in showing the destruction of a good man.
School Daze 1988 Spike Lee 2.5 Spike Lee plays Half-Pint (shaved head, backwards cap, sports sweatshirt), a nerd determined to be a Gammite pledge; Giancarlo Espinoza as precise-talking head of the Gammas; Larry Fishburne as cousin of Half-Pint and rabble-rousing, anti-South Africa leader in Mission College (Morehouse College in Atlanta), ―all Black image‖; Tisha Campbell-Martin as head of
the Wannabes and a good singer and dancer; Ossie Davis as football coach who pumps up his guy before the game by appealing to the Bible; Bill Nunn as normal undergraduate; Samuel L. Jackson as provocative townie who mocks and denounces the college guys when they are eating in Kentucky Fried Chicken. Often slow-moving, highly political film critiquing disunity among young blacks, and ending in the famous (and awkward) shout by Fishburne ―Wake Up!‖, later joined by his arch-enemy Espinoza.
Film focuses on the rivalry – even hostility – between conformist kids who brag constantly about the
number of women they have had, work within the system, and just want a good job when they graduate; and Fishburne, who wants Blacks to unite behind his ―back to Africa‖ movement and force the university to divest of companies invested in South Africa. Much satire of Black fraternities that ape the antics of fraternities in mainstream American colleges chasing girls, conducting elaborate (and long-winded) initiation ceremonies (e.g., blindfolded squishing bananas in a public toilet), putting on a homecoming dance, going into town with friends to get some fried chicken, etc. The most amusing aspect of the film is the rivalry between the two groups of girls, the Gamma Rays, who are the light-skinned, Wanna-Be girls with styled, straightened hair, and the rival Jiggaboos, who have nappy hair, bigger butts, and overall a more African appearance: they have the face-off dance about hair styles between Jiggaboos and Wannabes in Madame Re-Re‘s Beauty parlor – energetic jazz dancing to hot trumpets with a lot of
bumping and grinding, leaping and running. Otherwise, a lot of musical interludes that have little to do with the film‘s narrative line. Male-female relations are depicted as dysfunctional and exploitative: guys at least have to pretend they are chasing women; the girls are confused; Espinoza forces Campbell to have sex with Half-Pint so he can reproach her with infidelity and break up with her. The film has little plot worth following, but presents a series of romantic, political, and cultural conflicts among the Black kids, until Lee suddenly stops it all with Fishburne‘s cry; the film ends with the whole cast looking at the audience challenging Black Americans to bury their differences in a common cause (which he leaves ambiguous).
The School of Rock 2003 Richard Linklater 2.5 Joan Cusack as well-played uptight principal (with unattractive darkened teeth, thin, nervous face, lines around her mouth) of an expensive private prep school – she affords lots of laughs when confronted with cool rockers. Sarah Silverman in small role as shrewish, bossy, martinet girlfriend of Joe Black‘s friend (Mike White) – she completely
dominates her hyper nerdy, weak-kneed boyfriend. One-character show – Jack Black – a slacker who
needs money, takes a substitute teaching job at the prep school, and somehow gets away with teaching his thkids (6 grade) how to play and perform rock music without uptight Cusack finding out (is she deaf or stupid?). Black is big, aggressive, hyper-active, very mobile facial features, scenery chewing almost all the time, mugging rock performance, over the top with energy, an accomplished bullshitter able to come up with the right story for every embarrassing occasion; but with a heart of gold, a natural affinity for the children whom he doesn‘t intend to corrupt, and an uncanny ability to communicate with them and motivate them. All the children are very cute and gifted musicians and singers. The aim in this classic formulaic plot aimed at box office success is to get the kids into a rock contest, ―the Battle of the Bands‖.
Cusack is quite funny about her insecurities as principal when Black manages to get a beer in her, and when confronted by a near naked rocker at the end. Rather cleans up rock and roll – rockers who get high
aren‘t really musicians; anger is an important part of it; you need to challenge authority and ―stick it to the