2015 Blindspot series: The Ten Commandments (1956)

Along with Planet of the Apes and Ben Hur, The Ten Commandments features arguably Charton Heston’s most iconic performance. Cecil B. DeMille is known for making epics, and this is generally considered his best work. In this extravagant big budget retelling, Heston plays Moses from he is a young man and his journey to help his people. At the time of its release in 1956, it was the most expensive film made.
I knew the mythical story but had forgotten how it all fits together, so it was a reminder of The Book of Exodus. They take liberties with the original text for the sake of pacing and coherence. Yul Brynner has second billing as Rameses, and was convincing in the role. Anne Baxter does solid work as the love interest Nefretiri, she is given plenty of screen time and is perhaps the most ambiguous of the main characters, having interests on both sides.

In the introduction, we are told:
“The theme of this picture is whether man should be ruled by Gods law or by the whims of a dictator like Rameses. Are men the property of the state or are they free souls under God. This same battle continues throughout the world today”  

Nowadays, the Moses story can be viewed as allegory rather than fact. It has strong messages about self-sacrifice for the purpose of change, how you should never give up in the face of adversity, and that oppression of slaves is wrong. Another lesson is you shouldn’t try and be above the Gods, because there are forces bigger than man.
What I’m less enthusiastic about, is how the Old Testament showcases God’s violence to achieve peace, and intolerance to those who oppose God’s will, for example when the earth opens up and the sinful fall away, while the men who follow God’s Commandments survive. This aspect feels dated, that God is disapproving and you were punished if you were an atheist or had another God. “Those who will not live by the law, shall die by the law!” The Commandments should be guidelines, and God ought to allow man to follow his own path and learn from his own mistakes.
I prefer the teachings in The New Testament, with the tale of Jesus, who can withstand anything, even death, and who is a symbol of love, no matter what. To forgive instead of to condemn.
It’s interesting whether the Moses story is predetermined or if the characters have free will. Perhaps God is so powerful that he already knows every twist and turn.
In the film, the miracles display Gods power, although the voice of God is unintentionally funny, and much of the dialogue in the film is quite pretentious and a product of its time. In most films this type of grandiose dialogue would fall flat but here it feels justified because of the biblical proportions. I was entertained, the special effects are impressive for the 1950s, so overall I think DeMille’s vision holds up well as blockbuster filmmaking and as spectacle. It’s long at 3 hours 40 min, with an intermission.

Won an Oscar for Best Effects, Special Effects. Was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Costume Design, Best Sound, and Best Film Editing.

2015 Blindspot series: Patton (1970)

A WW2 epic which won 7 Oscars. The opening is what the film is best remembered for, with General Patton walking onto a stage with a huge American flag behind him, delivering a quotable speech to the (hidden) soldiers in the audience. At this early point, it’s already clear Patton is passionate about making a difference in World War II, and wants to empower others to do their best. We are made to feel like we are the soldiers he is addressing, which adds to the power of the scene.

George C Scott gives an Oscar worthy performance as General George S. Patton Jr, he spreads fear wherever he goes, among his group of soldiers, and as a tactician in the battle with the Germans. The film follows Patton during his North African and European campaigns from 1943-1945, celebrating the army as a war machine, yet justifying controversial independent thinking. We witness realistic battle scenes in Tunisia and Sicily. Apparently the film is fairly accurate as to what really happened.

General Patton perceives himself as a poet, war historian, and reincarnated soldier and is man essentially born in the wrong century. Patton says he’s nothing and “in the dog house“ if he’s not part of the war effort. He lives for the excitement of war. Unfortunately he also has a big mouth and has an old-fashioned tendency to strike out at shell shocked soldiers who he considers cowards, which gets Patton into trouble with his superiors. Yet you could also look at his instilling discipline as motivating the soldiers to rise above their condition. At times, Patton cares more about personal glory than the fate of his soldiers, which causes friction. In a memorable supporting role, Karl Malden plays Patton’s second-hand man, he is both a friend and an advisor. The story is not only told from the allied side, the Germans are also attempting to get one step ahead and figure out Patton’s strategy, so part of the film is subtitled.

I will say the film is a little overlong and while George C Scott does his best with the material he’s given, the screenplay is slightly heavy-handed in some places, spelling out Patton’s strengths and weaknesses. Even so, I like that the filmmakers don’t simply praise Patton as a war hero, which a lesser war film might have done.
Questions what is right and wrong for those in high ranks during a war. Should you push your men to the extreme in order to gain an advantage over the enemy, or is the well-being and survival of the soldiers most important? Many would agree with the latter, yet if it’s the difference between winning or losing a war, it’s a tough decision. In some ways, the battles themselves are secondary to the character study of Patton.

Also worth noting is the award-winning screenplay co-written by an up-and-coming Francis Ford Coppola, as well as Jerry Goldsmith’s impressive war appropriate score. The Main Theme gives you a taste of the soundtrack.

Won 7 Academy Awards, Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, Best Writing, Best Art Direction, Best Sound and Best Film Editing.

In 1986, George C Scott reprised his role in a made-for-TV sequel, The Last Days of Patton. The movie was based on Patton’s final weeks after being mortally injured in a car accident, with flashbacks of Patton’s life.

Agree or disagree? Have you seen Patton (1970)? As always, comments are welcome 

2015 Blindspot series: Nashville (1975)

My contribution to Ryan McNeil’s 2015 blindspot series blogathon where I watch a film each month that I have never seen before.

When you think that my blog is both music and films, then it was only a matter of time before I reviewed Nashville (1975). Robert Altman’s take on the country music capital of the world and considered one of the director’s best. A very American movie, we follow a group of singers hopeful of making a name for themselves. There are many characters, yet Altman manages to juggle the elements into an entertaining whole. Ensemble casts ultimately became his identifiable trademark as a filmmaker and this film is a great example of his craft.
Particularly memorable is the young waitress Sueleen (Gwen Welles), who appears at the all-male Walker fundraiser, but is booed off the stage when she sings poorly. Her refusal to recognize her lack of singing talent and the ulterior motives of those she encounters gets her in trouble.
The other sequence that stood out for me is the ending, which surprises with its violence and career making platform for aspiring singer-songwriter Winifred (Barbara Harris). Music at the right time and place can have a profound impact.
The movie is not perfect, the dialogue is often difficult to decipher so watching with subtitles was the only way I could understand what was said a lot of the time.
Perhaps if I loved the soundtrack and country music, I would be a bigger fan. I like it, but it isn’t among my top 3 Altman movies. To be fair, the story isn’t strictly about country, it’s about people, the American dream, and what that entails.
There’s also a fierce political campaign going on that is a character in itself and, like the country music, holds the film together. The politicians and reporters are aspiring to make it big as well. The film is dated in some respects, yet the aspirational aspects are still fresh.
A long film, so watching in one sitting can feel exhausting, so I would recommend not starting if you are feeling sleepy.
The performances are generally good by most of the cast, especially considering the actors are not seasoned musicians. I’m not saying the songs are classics, but they are performed competently at least. A couple of nice songs, but I wouldn’t listen to the soundtrack as a stand-alone album.

In the interview book Altman on Altman, the director talks about the making and how he went about it. Surprisingly, Altman had never been to Nashville, so he asked a screenwriter friend to do research. The following are excerpts from the book:

“I said to her. Ok, Joan get on a plane and go to Nashville, and just keep a diary of what happens to you. And from that we’ll write some Nashville movie… She arrived at the airport, got in a hired car, and there was a traffic jam caused by a boat falling off a pick-up truck, so she was stuck on the freeway for three hours. That made a great scene to introduce many of the characters. And everything that was in the eventual script was like that, something that had occurred to her.

Then Jerry Weintraub who was in the music business and was managing singers at the time, came to see me at my office, and said he wanted to get into the movie business, how could he do it? I said, well, here’s a script about Nashville and country-and-western music. Get me the money to make that and you can produce it and you’re in the business. He came back in a day or two and he said, I got Marty Starger at ABC interested. They came back over to my house and I played him two of the songs that Keith Carradine had done, I’m Easy and It Don’t Worry Me, and they said, OK

How would you describe the subject of the film?
It was about the incredible ambition of those guys getting off the bus with a guitar every day, and like in Hollywood, trying to make it. Nashville was where you went to make it in country-and-western music.

Chaplin’s Opal is the one character who interacts with all the others. Her slip of the tongue that she’s working for the British Broadcasting Company is the clue that she’s a complete fraud, though.
Opal was our tour guide, the connecting tissue. She was based on a lot of people I’ve met at the Cannes Film Festival, who you never know if they’re really who they say they are. I had to have some connection in my head why I was doing all these disparate scenes, so as a reporter with this ruse she was working for the BBC, she was able to go through this world and became the voice who could ask the questions the audience wanted answering. She was wonderful at improvising her scenes.

You got some criticism for letting your actors write and perform their songs.
Richard Baskin was the musical director, and he helped some of those people write their songs. He arranged all the music in the film, and it was all shot live. I thought, why should I go out and buy a lot of songs that were tried and tested? And also, this wasn’t about his songs; most of the songs were not meant to be hits. Actually one of them was a hit, I’m Easy, though Keith wrote that five years before we did the picture.
The country-and-western people in Nashville all said, Oh the music’s terrible, it’s no good, to which I would reply. Well, I don’t think your music is that good either. They felt I should have used their stuff. But I was satirizing them. Their stuff would have been too on the nose.

At the end, everyone just joins in singing It Don’t Worry Me!
Shit happens, and life goes on, I think that’s what happens. We don’t take any kind of lessons from these events. We accept whatever has occurred because it occurred”

(Altman on Altman, page 87-94)

2015 Blindspot series: Mary Poppins (1964)

My contribution to Ryan McNeil’s 2015 blindspot series blogathon where I watch a film each month that I have never seen before.

Included in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, and received 13 Oscar nominations, winning five Academy Awards for Best Actress, Editing, Visual Effects, Original Song and Original Score.

The fantasy elements can be interpreted as happening in the children’s imagination. Mary Poppins is the new nanny and encourages play, while the kid’s father is in favor of adult virtues such as purpose, discipline and learning about real life. I loved the scene when Mary pulls objects out of her magical bag of tricks, which any child would love, the film definitely leans towards play as important and inspiring.

Great special effects for the time it was made. Animation and live action is combined, the animated animals sing together with Mary Poppins and Bert. Although it was odd during the song and dance that Bert and Mary seem to forget about the children for a while. Even though Bert (Dick Van Dyke) was my least favorite character due to his annoying happy face, his dance with the penguins is a highlight of the movie and impressive from a technical standpoint.

The characters are exuberant the whole way, even when I began to tire during the middle part, involving the laughing uncle, bird lady, and visit to the bank. It’s a long film at two hours and 20 minutes, and maybe some of that middle section could have been cut. The story picks up again when they go up the chimney, and the smoke staircase is fun. The London rooftop scenes are spectacular, especially for the view over the capital.

A Disney musical, the reasons to watch are for the groundbreaking visuals, memorable sing-along music, and feel-good factor. Ideal to watch together with the family and children of your own. The iconic soundtrack contains classics such as Chim Chim Cher-ee, A Spoonful of Sugar, Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, and Let’s Go Fly a Kite.

With most of the film, the reasons for doing things remains unclear, about just having fun, and attempting to get the dad to see the world differently. The latter is a theme that will never get old.

I was surprised Julie Andrews’ character Mary is quite similar to her role in The Sound of Music (1965). I prefer the 1965 movie for the story, but both films have amazing soundtracks. If I had discovered Mary Poppins as a 7-year-old, I’m sure my enthusiasm for it would have been stronger. I wasn’t really the right age group to see it for the first time.

I guess now I am able to watch the Tom Hanks film Saving Mr Banks (2013), which is about the making of Mary Poppins.

Will be interesting to see which direction the upcoming reboot goes in, word is Emily Blunt is rumored to play the lead in the new Mary Poppins. Wonder why it took so many years to make a follow-up?

Favorite quote: “I wouldn’t stay in this house another minute, not if you heap me with all the jewels in Christendom!”

Rating 7/10

Agree or disagree? Have you watched Mary Poppins (1964) and what did you think? Which is your favorite film starring Julie Andrews? 

2015 Blind spot series: All That Jazz (1979)

My contribution to Ryan McNeil’s 2015 blindspot series blogathon, where I watch a film each month that I have never seen before.

Based on director/writer Bob Fosse’s own life, and was inspired by his manic effort to edit his film Lenny while simultaneously staging the 1975 Broadway musical Chicago. The story is a semi-autobiographical account of workaholic Broadway director/choreographer Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider). He sleeps around with his dancers and his health is not good.

We repeatedly see him each morning, putting his cassette on with Vivaldi, using eye drops, medication, and taking a shower, followed by saying to himself in the mirror “It’s showtime folks”. The showtime sequence works well visually (and may have inspired Guy Richie’s Snatch), but the story doesn’t grab me emotionally. Joe is a jerk towards his wife and daughter, and it’s tough for me to care what happens to any of them. A film I admire rather than love. The film is saved by the musical numbers and a superb ending sequence with a great cover of Bye Bye Love, originally by The Everly Brothers.
The opening scene is also a highlight, a brilliant mix of music, dance and editing, using George Benson’s catchy cover of On Broadway.  I have to admit I’ve never been to Broadway, so I can’t attest to whether it’s authentic. On the impressive opening, Bob Fosse is quoted as saying:

“Well, I tried to use a documentary style first of all, and it is what my life has been like since I was 25 years-old, it’s been those sort of auditions. And I’ve seen many film auditions of one kind or another, acted in a few films that had auditions, and they’ve been so unrealistic, that I tried very hard to show an audience exactly what happens. I did it in a very stylized way because you can’t spend that much time, it was paramount to show what Roy Scheider’s did, what his occupation was, and the way he handled people, and how many no’s he had to say, and the few yes’s he had, and how he was gentle with people“

In Bob Fosse’s Cabaret (1972), the characters were easier to root for. All That Jazz is darker and more ambiguous. The sequences involving his discussions with an angel played by Jessica Lange are interesting, maybe Joe’s meditations with himself, dreams, or idea of heaven.

In the middle of the film, there’s a script reading scene when they laugh and he doesn’t appear to hear anything, as we watch people laughing out loud in silence. This is quite disturbing. Cinematically it’s very effective, he seems very alone in this moment, and to me it suggests he’s losing his grip on reality. You could interpret the whole story as a near death scenario. An artist who can’t stop creating, can’t stop working.

All That Jazz is a film that champions creativity, and also the invisible creativity going on in the mind we don’t see. Joe really had show business in his blood. Yet it also is a film about a workaholic who can’t balance his personal life with his own ambitions.

Won 4 Oscars. Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, Best Music. Was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Writing, and Best Cinematography. The film won the Palme d’Or at the 1980 Cannes Film Festival.

I’m not a huge musical fan. Even so, it’s a technically masterful film I think any serious cinephile should watch at least once in their life. If you are a workaholic, you may relate to the main character.

Favorite quotes: “To be on the wire is life. The rest is waiting”

“No, nothing I ever do is good enough. Not beautiful enough, it’s not funny enough, it’s not deep enough, it’s not anything enough. Now, when I see a rose, that’s perfect. I mean, that’s perfect. I want to look up to God and say, “How the hell did you do that? And why the hell can’t I do that?”

Rating 8/10
Agree or disagree? Have you seen All That Jazz (1979) , and what did you think? Which is your favorite Bob Fosse film?