Films Worth Viewing Year 3

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"Baby Face"-Alfred E. Green-1933

The New York Post proclaimed Lily Powers to be " a vixen of the lowest order>" The reviewer probably hadn't seen the original version which was rejected by the censors in New York. Warner Brothers pulled the original and made quite a few changes. The pulled version remained in a Library of Congress until 2004. When that version was discovered it made its way to film festivals, Turner Classic, and to The National Film Registry within a year.. It has been named "one of the top ten films which called the Production Code to be enforced."

Remember this is the depth of the Great Depression. The entire movie industry was at risk. Warner and other major studios were taking major risks in hopes of finding an audience. Warner Brothers were known for gangster films, but that wasn't the only arrow in their quiver. Films with risky sexuality were another option. The story was written by Darryl F, Zanuck, then production head at Warner Brothers. He sold the story for one dollar; he was making $3500 a week, so it wasn't a sacrifice. Barbara Stanwyck (Lily Powers) starred in several early Capra films "The Bitter Tea of General Yen" and "Miracle Woman" which pushed the Production Code boundaries.

The film opens with Lily Powers working in her father's speakeasy in Erie, PA. He had been selling her sexual favors since she was 14. Her friend and co-worker Chico (Thelma Harris) is a young black woman. The soundtrack makes use of two songs, "Baby Face" and the "St. Louis Blues" beneath the action. When the still under the club explodes killing her father, Lily is at a crossroads. She seeks advice from a local shoemaker and regular customer. He is an ardent reader of Friedrich Nietzsche. Her urges Lily to leave Erie and go to the big city. There she should use her beauty and personality to exploit men and get what she wants. Lily takes his advice; she hops a freight with Chico. However, they are discovered and threatened with 30 days jail time. Lily talks him out of this using sex. We never see the sex, but the implication is clear.

The poster advertising the film shows Stanwyck standing next to a ladder. The implication is clear, she will climb to the top man by man. One of her early conquests at the NYC bank where she finds a job is John Wayne. She ends up some years later with the bank president, Cortland Trenholm (George Brent). Brent was the favorite leading man of Betty Davis. Chico remains with Lily throughout her climb, but she appears as a servant. Thelma Harris had a long career in Hollywood; she was a singer and dancer as well as an actress. This film relationship is outside the Hollywood norm. Stanwyck had the ability to make unlikeable characters come alive often with some redeaming qualities. While her performance in "Double Indemnity" is for me the pinnacle, this take is just below the summit.

Unfortunately, free streaming options require jumping through hoops. If you Have Turner Classic, it is available there, and it can be rented on Prime for two bucks. Highly recommended.

Baby Face does show up on Turner Classic Movies from time to time. I have seen pieces of it, but not enough or recent enough to comfortably give an opinion. As far as the pinnacle performances of Barbara Stanwyck, in addition to "Double Indemnity", I would toss in "The Lady Eve" and "Ball of Fire", none of which could be classified as traditional good girl roles.
 
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Baby Face does show up on Turner Classic Movies from time to time. I have seen pieces of it, but not enough or recent enough to comfortably give an opinion. As far as the pinnacle performances of Barbara Stanwyck, in addition to "Double Indemnity", I would toss in "The Lady Eve" and "Ball of Fire", none of which could be classified as traditional good girl roles.
Lady Eve is a personal favorite. She never won an Oscar despite having a huge career in TV after movies.
 
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"Angel-A"-Luc Besson-2005

This is a black and white quickie. It is available on Prime until the end of the month. A con man in Paris is at the end of his rope. He owes multiple criminals big bucks. He sees no way out. He climbs out on a ledge preparing to jump and take his life. He sees a tall young woman on the ledge. She jumps and he follows her and saves her. Her name is Angela, and since this is a love story, it has a happy ending. It turns out that she is a guardian angel. Her mission is to give him the self confidence to turn his life around. The two central characters, Andre ( Jammel Debbouze) and Angela (Rie Riomussen) are compelling. The initial scenes draw the viewer in, but the film becomes somewhat predictable in the middle. The ending is satisfying. This is no "Wings of Desire" in plot or execution, but it is decent. Give this little film a chance; it is worth it.
 
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"Invictus"-Clint Eastwood-2009

In his later years, Eastwood made a very wide variety of films. "Invictus" is a biographical film with an unusual subject, Nelson Mandela. It is set in 1995; Mandela has just become president of the Union of South Africa. This is also the year that the rugby World Cup was coming to South Africa.
For many South Afrikaners one of the worst things about apartheid was the ban on South African athletics international competition. Probably the most popular sport in South Africa was rugby. The national team is called Springboks; the colors are green and gold. The Black African majority saw the Springboks as a symbol of apartheid. The national team had only one black player, Chester Williams. He coached the actors in this film.

Early in the film Mandela uses his personal prestige to prevent a national sports committee from changing the name of the national team. They keep the name and the colors. The entire situation was the subject of a highly regarded book ""Playing the Enemy: Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation" by sports journalist, John Carlin. Mandela famously emerged in front of the immense crowd for the championship wearing the Springboks green and gold jersey. He wore a #6 jersey, the same number worn by the captain Francois Pienaar. Mandela wanted the whole nation to identify with the team. He hoped that the world wide audience of one billion would see South Africa in a new light. That would help in two ways. Nationally it would help unite the country. All races would see themselves as South Africans. Internationally he hoped that this emerging unity would make South Africa a good bet for foreign investors.

There are two key roles in the film; Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela and Matt Damon as Francois Pienaar, the team captain. Mandela involves directly with the team. He visits them several times during training, and he invites Pienaar to afternoon tea at the presidential residence. Mandela is interested in Pienaar's character. He knows that for South Africa to make a good showing in the World Championship, the Springboks willhave to raise their game. They talk about leadership. Mandela brings up a poem "Invictus" he memorized during his imprisonment on Robben Island.
The author, William Earnest Henley, wrote the poem while dealing with the amputation of a leg. I remember reading the poem in high school; it has two very memorable lines. The first is "my head is bloody but unbowed." The second is :"I am master of my fate, I am captain of my soul." One of the themes of the film is that n individual can make a difference. Pienaar made a difference to the team, Mandela made a difference tothe team and the nation.

Morgan Freeman was a friend and supporter of Mandela. He was both Mandela's and Eastwood's first and only choice. Those who knew Mandela said that he was Mandela in voice, posture, gait, and style in the picture. Damon struck up a friendship with Pienaar. Damon joined Pienaar in a marathon bike race for charity. Damon physically doesn't resemble Pienaar, but he got into great physical shape for the film. It was filmed on location in South Africa. One of the emotional high points is the team's visit to Mandela's cell on Robben Island. Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in prison in that cell. (For a more detailed story of Mandela. check out "A Long Walk to Freedom" starring Idris Elba. Remember "The Wire"?)

The film is an accurate and uplifting story. However, there is some quibbling about several points. The film doesn't mention that almost the entire New Zealand team, The All Blacks:, came down with food poisoning before the championship game. Many believe it wasn't an accident. Some knowledgeable fans were critical of the rugby. This film holds up to repeated viewings. Damon is quite good and Freeman is excellent. This merits a very high recommendation.
 
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"J. Edgar"-Clint Eastwood-2011

I have one major unanswered question about this film; why did Eastwood choose Hoover as a subject? Eastwood has a well earned reputation as a conservative. He had a famous role at the Republican Convention where he addressed an empty chair. The script by Destin Black portrays Hoover as a complex character. His virtues include helping to develop the card catalogue of the Library of Congress, elevating fingerprinting to a science, and developing forensic science to help solve crimes. He took a despised government agency, the Bureau of Investigation, and oversaw its development into the premier investigative service in the world. Like many of my contemporaries, I visited the FBI as a child. Our tour took us through various departments and we were fingerprinted. I mention this to show just how central the FBI was in the American Experience.

Hoover built his personal reputation through his careful use of the media. He was a central figure in comic books and in films. His career began with the post war "Red Scare" investigations led by then Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer. Hoover became his principal deputy in attempting to round up subversives. In 1924 Hover became the head of the Bureau of Investigation. He reformed it by raising the standards for agents. You had to be either an accountant or a lawyer to become an agent. Agents were held to high standards of character, dress, and physical ability. He got rid of all female agents, and he prevented Afro-Americans from becoming agents. He developed secret files on suspected threats, but he also collected salacious material on may prominent Americans including politicians. He used this material to build and to maintain power.

Toward the end of his career information came out about his dubious practices and his affronts to civil liberties. The Bureau's investigation of the Kennedy assassination came under negative scrutiny. Rumors swirled about his private life which included homosexuality and cross dressing. Vincent Gardenia gives an excellent, but very negative portrayal of Hoover in the very solid 80's mini-series "Kennedy." This film spans over 50 years of Hoover's life private and public. Casting Leo Di Caprio was a major coup. This is clearly against type; the only comparison is casting Tony Curtis as Albert De Salvo, the Boston Strangler. Armie Hammer plays Clyde Tolson, Hoover's second in command and great friend. There were persistent rumors about their relationship, and Hoover left almost his entire estate to Tolson. He left $5,000 to his secretary of 54 years, Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts). She was charged with the destruction of his secret files after his death. The final key character is his mother played by Judy Dench.
She was delighted to work with Eastwood. Eastwood has a stellar reputation with actors ,but in this film he and Di Caprio had some difficulties. Eastwood likes to shoot as few takes as possible. Di Caprio wanted some re-takes on one scene. The reputation was strained for the rest of the film. Dench, Hammer, and Watts were full of praise for the experience.

One cannot avoid the questions of historical accuracy about such a film. I'm not in a position to be able to assess these questions. Principal among them are the personal relations of Hoover with his mother and the Tolson relationship. There is one device in the movie, the dictating of his biography to an agent which is clearly a dramatic device rather than history. The central actors' performances are all excellent; the period detail is very much on point. The film is slow moving in parts. This is a film where the sum of the parts are greater than the whole. It is worth viewing, but it probably is not a film which most will be interested in re-visiting.
 

ClifSpliffy

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One of the startling bits of information I uncovered is that Donald Trump claimed that this was his favorite film. oh wait he later revealed that "Deadly Bloodsport" was his favorite film. For film buffs, this is ticking off a big box. I admit to being a contrarian, but I'm not above questioning my judgement. It has been opined that the film doesn't change, but the viewer changes. The film sometimes does change, Ebert remarks how much one can see in the 35 millimeter version than the original prints. Of course the nitrate prints burned up in the 70's. Ted Turner was supposed to be trying to colorize "Citizen Kane." Let's accept that the viewer brings his/her experiences to the movie. Watching the two commentaries gave me a different subtext when I watched the film a third time in two days. I was a consciously more informed viewer. What did I see?

The film opens with shots of Kane's mansion, Xanadu. We see the metal fencing and the No Trespassing sign. We also view a light in one window. There is a quick wipe into a news reel (News on the March). This was s takeoff on "Time" magazine's "The March of Time." Welles appeared on the CBS radio show. After the newsreel is shown for professional news personnel , one journalist is given the task of discovering the "meaning" of Kane's last word "Snowbud." Thompson, William Allard, begins his research with Kane's second wife, Susan Aldrich Kane ( Dorothy Cummingore), she won't tell him anything. Thompson (we never see his face} next visits the library of Thatcher. He was the banker who oversaw Kane s' development untilhe turned 25. Then he would come into his inheritance which began with a huge goldmine. Reading the unpublished memoir setup flashbacks to the boy in Colorado. Rosebud remains illusive, and Thompson interviews Bernstein, Kane's business manager. The flashbacks can cover long periods of time. There is the famous flashback of Kane having breakfast with his first wife, Emily Norton (Ruth Warwick) through several years. They groe both more emotionally and physically distant over the years.

Of all his holdings Kane is interested in one, a second rate NYC daily, "The Inquirer." When he comes into his fortune at 25, he throws himself into the development of the paper. On the first day of his management, he has a statement of purpose appear on the front page. This avows that the paper will protect the interests of the working class. When Kane returns to manage the paper, he brings along his closest friend, Jed Leland (Joseph Cotton). Cotton becomes the drama critic. At one point it looks like Kane will become governor of New York. A scandal derails him. The depression hits his group of newspapers hard. Kane has spent money building up a print and radio empire. The bank takes over his empire. He retires to Xanadu, his unfinished palace in Florida with his second wife. His attempt to make her a great opera singer has been a total failure. After several years in Xanadu, Susan leaves him. Kane grows old alone. He has no friends or family. When he dies, a snow globe falls from his hand and breaks as he utters "Rosebud." The snow globe was in Susan's apartment the night they met. Kane has been buying things from all over the word for decades. After his death, they are catalogued and put up for auction. Thompson arrives to photograph the mass of goods, and perhaps to find Rosebud. He is unsuccessful, but he states that finding Rosebud wouldn't explain Kane's life. We are let in on what Rosebud is, but the reveal doesn't really help us How did Kane's life go so wrong?

I couldn't find a free streaming service. The film is a technical masterpiece, an arresting story with excellent acting. I recognize the achievement, but it doesn't move me emotionally. This was Welles" first film, in the estimate of critics and directors it is his best. Welles wasn't portraying himself in the film. Most actors wanted to work with him; Charlton Heston insisted that Welles direct "A Touch of Evil" as a condition of his signing on to star. Both Wise and Toland were fans. You really need to watch this on a big screen; the next best thing is to get a DVD with lots of extras.
'How did Kane's life go so wrong?'

'I cannot think of any need in childhood as strong as the need for a father’s protection. Sigmund Freud
'Give me a child until he is 7 and I will show you the man.' Aristotle
'How dear to the heart are the scenes from childhood when fond memories recall them to view.' as best as i can tell, a spliffy family motto for generations.

the charlie kane story is an easy read. kid got hosed at the getgo, as his joyful and simple youth was ripped from him.
a lesson horribly lost to our world today. after decades of tiger moms and helicopter parenting, all set against a backdrop of health and 'dirt' paranoias, comes the sars2 mania and the accompanying ruination for the dreams of youth. that mental health tragedy only begins. rosebud, indeed.

'One of the luckiest things that can happen to you in life is, I think, to have a happy childhood.' agatha christie
 
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