Saturday, December 12, 2009

Holiday Farce From Film Noir Folks at Warner Bros.

By Steve Evans

Christmas in Connecticut (1945)
Warner Bros. // 1945 // 101 Minutes // Not Rated

“Barbara Stanwyck keeps pace with a happy holidaze!” ~ from the promotional poster.

Opening shot…
This screwball comedy/holiday picture offers entertaining moments, but I prefer Babs when she plays double-crossing dames.

Warner Bros. plucks a bit of Yuletide fluff from the vaults with the release of this old holiday chestnut. A shimmering print and an Academy Award-winning short on the extras menu help compensate for a farce that stretches suspension of disbelief beyond the tensile strength of taffy. The results are at once pleasantly diverting and instantly forgettable—at least until the next Christmas season.

A Bit of Plot…
Journalist Elizabeth Lane (Barbara Stanwyck, Double Indemnity) is a fraud. In her Smart Housekeeping magazine column, she represents herself as a skilled chef and elegant homemaker, happily married and living with hubby and baby on a sprawling farm in Connecticut. Her publisher and adoring public don't know that Elizabeth is actually a single New Yorker, cranking out her column from a high-rise apartment. As for her culinary skills, she could burn water. Elizabeth's sumptuous recipes actually come from her friend Felix, who owns a Manhattan restaurant. Her tales of a bucolic life on the farm are utter fantasy.

Elizabeth's magazine publisher Alexander Yardley (tremendous character actor Sidney Greenstreet, The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca) learns of a heroic World War II sailor, Jefferson Jones, just returned to the states after a sea rescue. Jones has no family and no place to go for the holidays. Touched by his harrowing war stories, the publisher decides that Jones (Dennis Morgan, God is My Co-Pilot) should spend Christmas on Elizabeth's farm. But he also harbors an agenda: A bull-headed man, Yardley reasons this random act of kindness will be good for circulation. It might even give him a chance to sample some of Elizabeth's famous cooking. Yardley orders his columnist to welcome the sailor home for Christmas, then invites himself over as well.

Elizabeth knows her career is ruined if her publisher finds out she's been fabricating stories. So she persuades her would-be fiancé, an architect, to pose with her as a married couple. Conveniently, he owns a mansion in upstate Connecticut. Together with a baby borrowed from the neighbors, and chef Felix, who agrees to hide in the kitchen and do all the holiday cooking, Elizabeth invites the sailor to her "home." When they meet, their eyes lock. Lust at first sight soon blossoms into love. Fumbling about as a faux domestic goddess, Elizabeth must remind herself that she's "married," all while falling in love with a handsome sailor, pretending to cook fabulous meals, and fooling her portly publisher into keeping her on the payroll.

Her boyfriend's getting steamed over this fraud in his house. Felix is one sarcastic remark from exposing everyone. And Elizabeth can only make moon eyes at sailor Jones. What's a city girl to do?

Historical Context and Significance
By 1945, when Christmas in Connecticut was released, screwball comedies were on the wane and the moral ambiguity of film noir was in. Warner Bros. divided much of the studio resources between films noir and nutty flicks like this one, Bringing Up Baby, and The Libeled Lady, a genuine classic made a decade earlier. It's amusing, then, that a classic femme fatale such as Stanwyck would show up in a frantic farce, where most of the characters are panting desperately to keep track of their tangled lies. She danced this tune to perfection in Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity, released a year before Christmas in Connecticut, which was her next picture.

Although this holiday film was a hit on initial release in August 1945, contemporary viewers must swallow a lot of preposterous plotting, even for a screwball comedy. It's hard to believe that a publisher could get away with ordering an employee to welcome a stranger into her home for Christmas. Harder still to accept that this employee could persuade her chef pal, as well as her boyfriend, and a neighbor — who loans a baby for the duration of this silly ruse — to fall in with her scheme. And she does all this for the salvation of her career, which was built on deceit in the first place. This throws a damper on the comedy and flat-out drowns what little credibility is required, even for farce. Frank Capra (It's a Wonderful Life) and Howard Hawks (Bringing Up Baby) always understood how far they could push this kind of material down the throats of an audience before they would gag.

On the flip side of this argument, astute film lovers may perceive a subversive streak in this innocuous little holiday picture. The movie presents a slice of cherished Americana as a fraud. Christmas in Connecticut depicts the perfect Norman-Rockwellian lifestyle as an unattainable ideal ripe for ridicule. Comparisons between Stanwyck's character and domestic doyenne Martha Stewart are tempting, but perhaps a tad obvious. The film is a spoof — even Stanwyck's character doesn't buy into the spew she pours into her column — while Stewart would appear to be grimly businesslike in her promotion of ultimate domesticity. So let's just say the same unrealistic values still linger, minus the humor, more than six decades after this picture was released.

Stanwyck and Greenstreet dominate the film. As top contract players for Warner Bros., both actors in 1945 were at their peak of popularity and the height of their powers. They riff and romp around this material like seasoned jazz musicians. Morgan, by contrast, is a lightweight with a pretty face. He's as airy as the film itself. The remaining players are serviceable, if not memorable.

A sharp digital transfer and clean Dolby Digital audio in the original monaural recording make for a pleasing home-theater experience. Christmas in Connecticut may be studio schmaltz, but it's good-looking schmaltz.

Trivia note: the Connecticut house sets are the same used seven years earlier for Katherine Hepburn's elegant mansion in Bringing Up Baby (1938), according to the IMDb.

What’s on the disc, Steve?
I’ll tell ya. First up, check out the photo of the mighty fine Miss Stanwyck, left. Rowwwr. Makes you wanna climb aboard a time machine with a bottle of Veuve Clicquot, no? Yes, and extras on the disc before us include an awkwardly edited trailer and a real surprise: the 1945 Academy Award-winning short, Star in the Night, directed by Don Siegel (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Dirty Harry)! This 21-minute film follows the Christmas Eve of a bitter motel manager played by J. Carroll Naish (Beau Geste). While his guests complain and he snipes back at them, a benign stranger stops in to warm his hands by the woodstove. The stranger softly explains the meaning of Christmas to the world-weary manager just as an out-of-town couple arrive, seeking shelter. But the motel has no vacancy on this cold night. We realize the young woman is about to give birth, even though she's bundled under a thick winter coat. Just as the revelation hits, this gentle short film deftly turns into a parable of a night long ago in the little town of Bethlehem. The manager's wife guides the couple to the barn — the only room left at the inn. It's a sweet tale told with lean economy by expert director Siegel, here at the beginning of his career. Kudos to Warner for dusting off this gem and serving it up as an extra on the DVD. Star in the Night is superior holiday entertainment; in many ways better than the feature presentation it supports.

Bring it on Home...
Warner Brothers delivers a sparkling print of a mid-level title and deserves praise for unearthing a few quality extras to complement a film on DVD. Christmas in Connecticut is flawed, but festive fun.

Copyright © 2009 by Cinematic Cteve // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Roger Corman Cops an Academy Award

By Steve Evans

One of the great entertainers in Hollywood finally gets his due.

B-movie maestro Roger Corman, 83, received an Academy Award for lifetime achievement during a special ceremony this month hosted by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Corman bragged in his 1990 autobiography how he made “100 Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime.” Although the claim is as redolent with hyperbole as the overripe posters for his films, truth is, the man directed and produced scores of profitable pictures on wee budgets for exploitation studios like American International Pictures. The famed AIP logo at the start of a picture was a guarantee that low-budget drivel was about to unspool.

My own misspent youth included hours squandered in front of the television watching Corman movies with irresistible titles like Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957) and The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent, made the same year as Crab Monsters and, incredibly, the seven other films that Corman directed in ’57.

Think about that. How does a man direct nine movies in a year? By knocking them out in a matter of weeks, including writing the script, casting and pre-production, shooting principal photography, cutting, scoring the film with public-domain music from the local library, making prints and distributing the finished product.

Corman could go from an idea to a premiere in less than a month.

This is not to say the films he made were particularly good. Sure, there were a few notable films of exceptional quality. The Fall of the House of Usher comes to mind. Ray Milland in X: the Man with the X-Ray Eyes (right) is another. But most of Corman’s oeuvre consists of exploitation schlock. His movies are the cinematic equivalent of a microwavable burrito from a convenience store; not good for you, but filling and maybe even tasty ’round midnight when your mood is just right.

So why does a man with a mediocre movie resume get an Academy Award?

I suspect the honorary Oscar Corman received was more for his magnanimous nature than for any innate talent he ever demonstrated as a filmmaker. Corman gave everybody a shot at the movie bidness. The list of individuals who got their break working on a Corman film is positively staggering. What this legendary producer-director developed early in his career – aside from an uncanny knack for tapping into the public unconscious to determine what would lure teenagers to drive-in theaters – was his ability to identify undiscovered talent and hire it on the cheap. When you’re working with a budget that barely covers the film stock, you’ve gotta find good people who are hungry and willing to work for nothing. Corman excelled at finding those people.

Francis Ford Coppola was shooting naughty sex movies before he made one of his earliest films for Corman, a psycho-killer flick set in Ireland with the lurid title Dementia 13. This was a rip-off of William Castle’s Homicidal, which in turn was a blatant copy of Hitchcock’s Psycho, so you see how far Corman’s productions ranked along the food chain.

The story of Coppola's first "serious film" is apocryphal, but fascinating. His boss, Corman, was filming The Young Racers in Ireland. Corman's 24-year-old second-unit director, who simply called himself Francis back then, banged out a story on a typewriter one night and handed Corman a script the next morning about an axe-wielding maniac.

Coppola asked for feedback.

Corman said, “Fine, Francis, you direct it.” Corman gave Coppola $30,000 and let him use the stars of The Young Racers. Coppola shot his horror movie around Corman’s production schedule, which meant filming mostly at night, and got his first legit directing credit. Critical success and Oscars would follow within a decade, beginning with The Godfather (1972) and continuing with the first sequel to the Corleone gangster saga. Look fast during the Senate committee hearings in The Godfather Part II (1974) to see Corman, in a cameo as a U.S. Senator, on the panel investigating Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) for criminal conspiracies. Coppola honored his mentor with a bit part in what is now routinely acknowledged as one of the greatest films ever made.

Coppola's Dementia 13 was originally to be titled simply Dementia, but an earlier picture already held that name. (No one seems to know what happened to Dementias 1 through 12, ho, ho.)

Director Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show) made his first film for Corman, a sniper thriller (with shades of Lee Harvey Oswald) called Targets, starring Boris Karloff in one of his last films.

Martin Scorsese’s freshman effort, Boxcar Bertha, was a Corman production. Corman even offered to finance and produce Scorsese's follow-up effort, Mean Streets (1973), provided that the young director jettison the Italian-American mafioso plot in favor of a blaxploitation picture featuring black gangsters. Corman was undoubtedly considering the success of recent hits like Shaft and Superfly. Scorsese declined.

James “Titanic” Cameron got his start making spaceship models for Star Wars rip-offs produced by Corman. Cameron’s directorial debut, Piranha Part 2: The Spawning, featured Corman’s name in the production credits. Little of the talent Cameron would later bring to The Terminator, Aliens, True Lies or Best Picture winner Titanic is on display in his first effort, but he got his Director’s Guild card and that was a start.

Oscar winner Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs) made the sleazy women-in-prison flick Caged Heat for Corman.

Long before he won an Oscar for directing Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind, Ron Howard directed his first movie, Grand Theft Auto, for Corman’s Concord Productions while Howard was still starring in the television sitcom Happy Days.

Before he made The Howling and Gremlins, the latter for Steven Spielberg, director Joe Dante was editing trailers for Roger Corman. Dante got his big break a few years before James Cameron by directing the first Piranha movie, which was a carbon copy of Spielberg’s Jaws, right down to the promotional poster.

Legendary screenwriter Robert Towne, who won an Oscar for writing Chinatown, launched his career as an actor and the scribe of Corman‘s The Last Woman on Earth.

Famed actors who jump-started their careers in Corman pictures include Charles Bronson, Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern, Peter Fonda, Robert De Niro and Sylvester Stallone.

It is said that successful men stand on the shoulders of giants. Corman’s legacy proves that the opposite is true. Corman didn’t make great movies, but he supplied a successful training ground for those who would.

Copyright © 2009 by Cinematic Cteve // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Salieri's Humble Origins in Underwear Sales

By Steve Evans

"Many of life's failures are men who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up." ~ Thomas Edison.

The next time life gets you down and the brass ring seems just out of reach, think about F. Murray Abraham (below), the actor who played Mozart's nemesis Antonio Salieri in Best Picture winner Amadeus (1984). His performance is so note-perfect that Abraham's presence overshadows every other actor in the film. Here is a character drawn from history (Salieri's life spanned 1750-1825) whose jealous obsession with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart ultimately defined his tortured life and eventual descent into madness. Abraham won the Best Actor Oscar for his performance as a court composer in 18th century Venice whose desperate desire for success is undone by his own mediocrity and futile competition with Mozart, a man-child genius.

Not long before director Miloš Forman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) cast the actor in the crucial role of Salieri, Abraham toiled in television advertising as a talking leaf in a series of Fruit of the Loom underwear commercials. Only a churlish malcontent unencumbered by deep thought could fail to see how these humble beginnings informed Abraham's flawless performance as a modestly talented musician whose principal misfortune was to be a contemporary of one of the greatest composers in the history of classical music. No matter how talented we may be, there will always be someone better. And even when we are at the top of our game, a virtuoso like Mozart will surpass our greatest efforts with ridiculous ease, laughing like a child all the while.

As a struggling actor, Abraham shilled underwear to pay the bills while he honed his craft. The Pittsburgh native also appeared in at least one commercial for Listerine mouthwash. His caustic performance was an early indication of the suppressed rage Abraham could muster in films such as Brian De Palma's Scarface (1983), as a foul-tempered drug dealer who is more than he appears to be.

Abraham never gave up in the pursuit of his dreams. Nor should we.

Copyright © 2009 by Cinematic Cteve // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Ghost of Kubrick Loiters in Times Square

By Steve Evans

Stanley Kubrick was on to something.

When the late director filmed 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), he had the brilliant idea to use a shiny, black monolith as the medium for triggering an evolutionary advance in the intelligence of Primitive Man. The awestruck apes encountered the monolith, touched it, and the next morning were seen using bones as rudimentary tools. The monolith sparked enlightenment in their little monkey brains, causing neurons to fire and bridge the connection between synapses heretofore unused.

I was reminded of this while exploring Times Square on Halloween with my wife and infant daughter, who got her mind blown by the animated billboards for which this “Crossroads of the world” is justly famous. Annabelle stared, mouth agape, at the illuminated Spectaculars, as the billboards are known, towering hundreds of feet overhead on the skyscrapers. At one point she seemed to go cross-eyed, just like astronaut Dave Bowman during the climactic stargate sequence in 2001.

The next morning, Annabelle began to crawl, used a spoon to feed herself for the first time and said “daa-daa-daaaa...da-da” whenever I entered the room. Not exactly "Thus Spake Zarathustra," but it caught my attention.

While the child may not be ready for interstellar flight, she unquestionably changed overnight, perhaps as a result of seeing one of the most famous landmarks in the world pulsating with light like a forest of gargantuan Christmas trees. Something clicked in her baby brain, which became open for the first time to … possibilities.

Yup, and Manhattan is a lovely place to be in late fall, with the wind whistling through the concrete canyons and the trees in Central Park glowing orange, amber, burnt sienna and golden brown, like Gordon Willis’ memorable cinematography in The Godfather (1972), Annie Hall (1977), The Godfather Part II (1974) and III (1990)... and….

Right. That’s enough.

Copyright © 2009 by Cinematic Cteve // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Woooooooo! A Spooky Film Marathon for Halloween

By Steve Evans

“I runne to death, and death meets me as fast, and all my pleasures are like yesterday.” ~ Holy Sonnet VII.

Psychological research into the appeal of the horror film suggests that scary movies supply a way to deal with the inevitability of death in a controlled situation. The mantra "it's only a movie" reminds us that the credits will eventually roll and the imaginary terrors will fade away with the brightening of the house lights. We flirt with oblivion in the safety of the cinema.

Stephen King a quarter-century ago published Danse Macabre, an excellent thesis on the appeal of horror, with two superb chapters on the horror film and intriguing analysis of prime movies in this genre. It is recommended reading for anyone who enjoys a good adrenaline jolt from celluloid terrors.

With Halloween just 10 days away, I would like to offer something similar, but without King's exhaustive analysis on the enduring appeal of horror films. Instead, here is the list of what I consider to be the 10 most outrageously terrifying movies made to date, all suitable for a Halloween marathon. Criteria for the selection includes influence. Each of these movies had a profound impact on the horror film genre.

Why no Exorcist? Because it is just a silly picture. Slick and effectively directed, sure. But it's not scary. Anyone frightened by The Exorcist (1973) took Sunday School far too seriously.

I've also compiled a list of 10 more fantastical flicks that evoke not so much fear, but an uncanny sense of unease and dread that will creep into your subconscious and lease permanent space in your mind.

Ready? Set? Boo!

10. Spoorloos (The Vanishing; 1988) directed by George Sluizer. This Dutch psychological thriller follows the mysterious disappearance of a young woman and her lover's obsessive three-year search for answers. Along the way, he meets a psychopath who holds the key. The ultimate revelation haunted me for days. Avoid the director's needless American remake with Jeff Bridges and Keifer Sutherland.

9. Night of the Living Dead (1968) Directed by George Romero. This hugely influential film launched Romero's career as king of the zombies. Seldom has low-budget, black & white filmmaking with documentary techniques been put to such effective use in scaring the hell out of an audience. When the dead become reanimated and attack the living, 7 people hole up in an abandoned farmhouse to make a last stand against armageddon. That nihilistic ending still has the capacity to shock.

8. Rosemary's Baby (1968) Directed by Roman Polanski. Waif-like Mia Farrow is the eponymous Rosemary, who wonders if her mind is unravelling or if she really was raped by the Devil.

7. The Mist (2007) Directed by Frank Darabont from a script adapted from a Stephen King novella. A ragtag group of individuals representing a microcosm of society board themselves up in a grocery store when an ominous mist descends over their quiet New England town. Savage creatures lurk inside The Mist, but as Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption) demonstrates convincingly, there is nothing more deadly than zealots who envelop themselves in a shroud of religious belief as justification for their evil deeds. Here is another example of how the delicate threads holding together the fabric of society will unravel at the first sign of genuine crisis. That's more frightening than any beastie lurking in this movie.

6. Night of the Hunter (1955) Directed by Charles Laughton from a screenplay by James Agee. Robert Mitchum, in his greatest performance, plays a psychopathic preacher with a switchblade hunting two little children across the American heartland during the Depression. A classic parable of Good and Evil, with silent film star Lillian Gish representing the former human quality in one of her last screen appearances. "Did I ever tell you the little story of right hand, left hand? Of love and hate?"

5. The Shining (1980) Directed by Stanley Kubrick from a script adapted from Stephen King's novel. This eerie mood piece posits the provocative idea that nothing is more terrifying than one family quietly going insane together. My main problem with the film is Jack Nicholson flies off the rails so quickly that his descent into madness doesn't seem like much of a stretch. But Kubrick creates an aura of dread over the proceedings so profound that the elliptical ending can be forgiven. Let's just say Kubrick's point is to create a Moebius Loop of cyclical terror and leave it at that. Jack has always been the caretaker of the Overlook Hotel. The result is existential horror that would make Camus proud.

4. The Silence of the Lambs (1991) Directed by Jonathan Demme. Everybody remembers Anthony Hopkins' Oscar winning performance as the charming, malevolent Dr. Hannibal Lector. Few people are aware that he occupies the screen for less than 17 minutes during a nearly 2-hour run time. Now that's what I call making an impression. Silence of the Lambs presents a sympathetic and sturdy heroine in Jodie Foster, who also won an Academy Award, facing implaccable and utterly insane evil so bizarre and incomprehensible that her situation seems beyond hope. Dr. Lector steals the show. By comparison, Buffalo Bill is a girly-man, figuratively and literally.

3. Alien (1979) Directed by Ridley Scott. The most terrifying science fiction movie ever made, exploiting our fears of boogeymen creeping around in the dark and, yes, inside our own bodies. Word is, Scott is attached to direct a prequel to his 30-year-old blockbuster. Here's hoping he explores the origins of that weird space jockey (above, right) who our unfortunate friends from the Nostromo stumble across during their explorations of planetoid LV-426.

2. Jaws (1975) Directed by Steven Spielberg. It may be difficult to understand the phenomenon that was Jaws unless you saw the film during its original theatrical run nearly 35 years ago, in an auditorium packed with people who scarcely had a clue what they were in for. The best thing that ever happened to Spielberg's career was a giant, rubber mechancial shark that never really worked like it was supposed to, so he had to improvise by suggesting the presence of a monster while seldom giving us more than a glimpse. The result, as Hitchcock had long understood, forced the audience to use their imagination to visualize something dreadful below the calm ocean surface. And the imagination is always more vivid than any monster a special effects expert can display on-screen, whether it be made of rubber or gigabytes of computer generated imagery.

1. Psycho (1960) Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Because nothing is more terrifying than the prospect of losing one's mind, unless you happen to be showering at a hotel managed by a quiet young man and his domineering mother. Hitch always said he intended Psycho as a comedy. It is indeed an amusing picture if you know where to look. "My mother, what is the expression...? Isn't quite herself today."

Here are 10 films in order of release year that are guaranteed to evoke a chilling mood 'round midnight (I like to think of these as tone poems):

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) is the granddaddy of films about madness and one of the most important pictures in German Expressionism during the Weimar Republic before Hitler seized power and unleashed real horror on the world. Dr. Caligari and Cesare, his zombie-like somnambulist in a box, roam the countryside as part of a travelling carnival. Wherever they go, the corpses pile up. More importantly, they inhabit a world of jagged angles and steep slopes, where rooms shaped like triangles open onto surrealistic landscapes dotted with buildings on which shadows are painted to the walls. The production design is both the key to the plot and the reason Caligari remains a classic of the cinema. Essential viewing.

Nosferatu (1922) directed by F.W. Murnau is another silent classic from the German Expressionist movement. The full title, Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens, translates as "A Symphony of Horror" and that is precisely what Murnau delivers in this blatant adpatation of the Dracula novel by Bram Stoker (Stoker's widow sued unsuccessfully to have all prints of Nosferatu destroyed). The titular vampire is a terrifying creation as embodied by the aptly named actor Max Schreck. Rat-like and riddled with disease, Nosferatu creeps from his casket to caress the pale, white throats of his lady victims. If some silent films can be described as dreamlike, this is a black & white nightmare.

M (1931) directed by Fritz Lange stars bug-eyed Peter Lorre as the psychotic child murderer of Dusseldorf. When the police are unable to apprehend the fiend, the Dusseldorf underworld engages in a manhunt for the killer because he's bad for business. Lang's masterstroke in this early taking picture is the use of sound to indicate the presence of the unseen madman. As Lorre approaches his young victims off screen, we hear him whistling "In the Hall of the Mountain King," an incessant, intensifying melody from The Peer Gynt Suite by composer Edvard Grieg. An eerie evocation of madness.

Vampyr (1932) directed by Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer is a haunting, dreamlike ephemera so delicate the picture feels like it might evaporate before our eyes like a poltergeist. The intrigue of the plot is secondary to the hypnotic quality of the imagery. The Criterion Collection edition offers the most complete print available of this important film.

Freaks (1932) nearly ruined director Tod Browning's career. MGM challenged him to make a picture more disturbing than Dracula, which he helmed a year earlier at Universal. He succeeded beyond their wildest aspirations when the film was exhibited in '32 to an appalled public. Banned for decades in Europe and seldom seen on American television, Freaks acquired a cult following among 1960s hippies more than 35 years after its release. The Warner Bros. 2005 DVD release of this incredible film belongs on your shelf.

The Mummy (1932) directed by Karl Freund is essentially a remake of Dracula made a year earlier, for which Freund served as cinematographer. Same essential plot. Same supporting cast. Same peculiar use of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake. With a mesmerizing performance by Boris Karloff, billed here as "Karloff the uncanny." The first 5 minutes will raise the hair on the back of your neck. The rest is merely excellent.

I Walked with a Zombie (1943) was directed by Jacques Tourneur for legendary producer Val Lewton at RKO. Lewton knew how to get mileage out of his production dollars; in this case, cribbing from Charlotte Brontë. Yes, I Walked with a Zombie is Jane Eyre on Voodoo Island. An unforgettable mood piece that will haunt you for days.

Venus in Furs (1968) also known as Proximus, is a psychedelic thriller with a pounding jazz score directed by Spaniard Jess Franco, the prolific maestro of b-movies. A jazz trumpeter wandering the beach finds the nude body of Wanda, who was the victim of a sadomasochistic cult, we learn in flashbacks. Later, the musician meets a woman who may be Wanda reincarnated. Soon, her killers begin to die one by one. Shot on location in exotic Rio and half a world away in Istanbul. Wildly inventive. Trippy as hell.

Phantasm (1979) directed by Don Coscarelli played the drive-in circuit on its original release, but don't be fooled by the low budget. This independent horror film about 2 brothers investigating weird goings-on in the local cemetery will scare the bajeezus out of you. Ghoulish Angus Scrimm plays The Tall Man, an inspired character in the pantheon of horror pictures. With a trip to another dimension, diminutive hommunculi armed with daggers, sex in a graveyard and an unforgettable flying steel ball with spikes for impaling victims in the forehead.

Jacob's Ladder (1990) directed by Adrain Lynne lifts the thoughts of German philosopher Martin Heidegger to tell the tale of Vietnam veteran Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins) whose war flashbacks and horrifying visions threaten his sanity. Contains some of the most unsettling imagery ever committed to film. Makes a terrific double-feature with An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (1962) when you're in the mood to ponder perception and the nature of our fleeting existence.

Copyright © 2009 by Cinematic Cteve // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

Friday, October 9, 2009

My Sharona

By Steve Evans

In the news, U.S. President Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace prize today. Bully for him.

More importantly, I heard My Sharona by The Knack on the radio this afternoon and a flood of 30-year-old memories washed across my troubled mind.

There is nostalgia. And then there is The Knack.

A quartet of misogynistic bastards they may have been, but those sonsabitches crafted a perfect power-pop song with the greatest guitar solo -- I said, the greatest guitar solo -- laid down by any band in 30 years.


My Sharona will tell you everything you need to know about rock-n-roll, post-Beatles.

Scroll to track 58 on my jukebox and goose the volume. Or check this video:

Yeah. That's right.

Copyright © 2009 by Cinematic Cteve // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Sharon Tate's Killer Dead at 61

By Steve Evans

Sharon Tate's unborn child would be 40 years old this month if she and her baby had not been stabbed to death on Aug. 9, 1969, by a woman named Susan Atkins.

Tate (left) was married to Oscar-winning director Roman Polanski and was pregnant with his child when she was murdered.

For those of you who don't remember or were not born when it all went down (and the sixties came to a crazy conclusion), Susan Atkins was a follower of Charles Manson. Now, little Charlie Manson had already spent more than half his life in various prisons when he was finally incarcerated for leading a cult of drug-addled misfits to murder in furtherance of a half-assed revolution during the humid days of August, 1969, effectively killing the spirit of the 1960s and forever tainting a classic Beatles album with his feverish interpretations of Helter Skelter.

By her own admission, Atkins (in her mug shot, lower right) was blitzed on LSD when she murdered the Hollywood starlet and participated in the killings of at least six other individuals on Manson's orders, all stemming from the cult leader's chimerical belief in Helter Skelter -- what Manson deemed a "race war" that would result when blacks would revolt against whites -- leaving him in charge of a New World Order. All of this was "prophesied" by Manson's deranged interpretations of lyrics in the Beatles' classic White Album from 1968.

You need only see photos of Manson to know the score. He was clearly insane in 1969 and remains so to this day at the age of 74. It's not really necessary to check out the Swastika that bug-eyed Charlie carved into his forehead. (In the photo below, right, Manson passes behind Atkins during their 1970 murder trials.)

Susan Atkins died Thursday in a California prison hospital of complications related to brain cancer after being denied parole 13 times. She lost a leg to amputation in recent years as a result of her cancer. She appealed for parole again last year under California's merciful release laws for terminally-ill prisoners and was turned down by the state parole board. Again. Despite her pleas for mercy.

Susan Atkins showed no mercy for Sharon Tate, who was just beginning to gain recognition as a serious actress after mostly frivolous roles in films such as Valley of the Dolls and her husband's horror-film spoof, The Fearless Vampire Killers (both 1967). Atkins hacked Sharon Tate with a knife and later testified that the starlet had begged for the life of her unborn child until both of them were dead. The coroner's report noted that Tate was stabbed 16 times. Five of the wounds "in and of themeslves" were enough to have been fatal, according to the autopsy report.

Atkins said she scrawled the word "PIG" on the front door of the house Sharon Tate lived and died in, at 10050 Cielo Drive in Benedict Canyon outside Los Angeles. The letters were written in Sharon Tate's blood.

LIFE magazine published pictures of Roman Polanski inspecting the murder scene and one image (left) of the director seated outside the house near the front door with the faint lettering P-I-G down the middle. He appears as a man haunted, mere feet from the fading, rust-colored blood of his dead wife.

The images were taken shortly after Polanski returned from London, where he was preparing to shoot a film when he received the news his wife and child had been murdered. If Polanski had been in the house that night, there would be no Chinatown (1974) or Tess (1978), based on Thomas Hardy's immortal classic Tess of the D'Ubervilles. Polanski never would have won an Academy Award for directing The Pianist (2001). Such are the vagaries of fate.

More importantly, Sharon Tate would be 66 years old today. Her baby boy would be 40.

Atkins claimed she became a born-again Christian during her 39-year stay as a guest of the California penitentiary system. She renounced Manson and expressed remorse for her crimes.

And yet.

I am reminded of the closing line in the film Se7en (1995). William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) intones softly in voiceover before the credits roll:

"Ernest Hemingway once wrote, 'The world is a fine place and worth fighting for.' I agree with the second part."

Copyright © 2009 by Cinematic Cteve // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Disney Chairman Resigns; Paltrow Vanishes

By Steve Evans
Walt Disney Studios Chairman Richard Cook tendered his resignation Friday.

"I have loved every minute of my 38 years that I have worked at Disney ... from the beginning as a ride operator on Disneyland's steam train and monorail to my position as chairman of The Walt Disney Studios," Cook said in a statement. The executive's departure was effective immediately.

Disney President and CEO Robert Iger in a statement said that Cook's work had "significantly impacted Disney's great legacy."

Neither executive offered an excuse for Chicken Little (2005).

In a bizaare, unrelated incident on a Los Angeles playground, Oscar® winner Gwyneth Paltrow mysteriously vanished while sitting on a see-saw. Uncorrorborated witness reports indicate Rosie O'Donell ran onto the playground with a carton of Häagen-Dazs and plopped on the opposite see-saw, catapulting Paltrow into space.

Copyright © 2009 by Cinematic Cteve // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Scorsese's Shutter Island Shoved Back 4 1/2 Months

By Steve Evans

Paramount Pictures will push back the release date of Martin Scorsese's hotly anticipated psychological thriller Shutter Island by 4 1/2 months to Feb. 19. The film was originally slated to hit theaters Oct. 2.

The suits at Paramount hinted in a statement about exorbitant marketing costs for Scorsese's adaptation of the Dennis Lehane period novel. It's a corker of a tale with a (too-clever-by-half) twist ending: a U.S. marshall investigates the disappearance of a murderess on an island institution for the criminally insane off the coast of Massachusetts. Scorsese's adaptation is undoubtedly an expensive picture, headlined by Leonardo DiCaprio with supporting work from Sir Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow. Truth is, Paramount is reportedly pumping a lot of green money into Peter "I ain't no hobbit" Jackson's The Lovely Bones, a grim little picture based on the 2002 novel by Alice Sebold, whose story follows a teenage girl raped and murdered and who later feels compelled to tell her tale from beyond the grave. Jackson's cheery movie doesn't come out until Dec. 11, so Paramount's dark hints about saving marketing dollars on Shutter Island until next year don't make a lick of sense.

Worse, releasing Shutter Island in February makes the picture and Scorsese & Co. ineligible for Oscar gold until 2011. Now, Academy voters have notoriously short memories. It's not likely they'll be thinking about a Scorsese thriller released in February 2010 when it comes time to vote for the Oscars in January 2011. The last time a winter release ran amok at the Academy Awards was 1991 when The Silence of the Lambs cleaned up a bloody mess with best picture, director, actor, actress and screenplay statuettes.

So what the hell is going on here?

At Cinema Uprising, we've got all the faith in the world that Marty Scorsese will deliver the goods. Has the man ever made a bad film? But the truth is, February is a dumping ground for all the movies that Hollywood studio executives think will tank at the box office anyway. They run perceived garbage to the cinematic landfill from late January through February, book their financial losses for the first quarter, then shrug and promise shareholders the rest of the year will be better. And you know the suits at Paramount have all seen Shutter Island. Somebody got cold feet after the original marketing push was underway. Hell's bells: my local AMC theater already has promotional posters the size of a Buick hanging in the lobby.

Lordy, I hope I'm wrong. I'm just sayin' it doesn't sound good....

Copyright © 2009 by Cinematic Cteve // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Casablanca, Caligari & Conrad Veidt

By Steve Evans

Sometimes mediocrity in movies reminds us of greatness. For me, this almost always involves watching a contemporary picture and being reminded of something much better that unspooled years ago for a lucky audience.

Recently watching Brian DePalma's rather disappointing adaptation of James Ellroy's wicked noir novel, The Black Dahlia (2006), I was pleased to see an oblique plot reference to the tremendous silent film The Man Who Laughs (1928) starring Conrad Veidt. This 81-year-old film was part of the German Expressionist movement that began to bloom (and arguably reached full flower) with the 1920 release of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, also starring Veidt, who is unforgettable as the sinister somnambulist Cesare. As The Man Who Laughs, Veidt's horribly scarred face served as the inspiration for Batman's archenemy The Joker.

Veidt fled his native Germany for the United States when the Nazis seized power. In one of life's inevitable ironies, the German actor would gain his greatest fame stateside playing villainous Nazis, none more memorable than Maj. Strasser in Casablanca (1942). Bogart's Rick Blaine got the drop on Strasser and shot him dead when the vile SS Officer refused to put down the phone at the film's climax, prompting Claude Rains' immortal line, "round up the usual suspects."

History recalls Veidt as a quiet, unassuming man who is believed to have self-identified as Jewish on Nazi questionnaires as an act of protest. There is no record to show Veidt himself was a Jew. Yet as Maj. Strasser and in a dozen more menacing roles, the great actor practically oozed malevolence.

Veidt died the year after Casablanca was released, collapsing from a heart attack while playing golf in Los Angeles, less than 3 months after his 50th birthday.

As a star in two of the greatest films of the silent era -- Caligari and Man Who Laughs -- Veidt's place in cinema history is secure. As the catalyst driving the plot in Casablanca, he is immortal.

Veidt appeared in more than 100 films. You should see them.

Copyright © 2009 by Cinematic Cteve // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Transformers 2 Transforms Brains into Guacamole

By Steve Evans

Took my kids to see Transformers 2: Revenge of the Leaky Alkaline Batteries, I think it was called.

Fabulous special effects undone by Michael Bay's direction, and if you're hip to that, as I know you are, then the point already has been made. I will add only this comment on the film: the Transformers sequel is the most noisy, overly plotted action flick I have seen in a 40-plus love affair with the cinema. The sonic booms mixed on the soundtrack could knock monkeys out of trees in Zimbabwe. This might actually be an enticement if you are an 11-year-old boy, which unfortunately I no longer am.

It is rumored that Michael Bay is the bastard child of the late John Frankenheimer who, if he had only directed one film called The Manchurian Candidate (1962), would still be a cinematic immortal in my book. But Frankenheimer also directed The Birdman of Alcatraz, Seconds, Black Sunday, and Ronin, plus Grand Prix, Prophecy, The French Connection II and Reindeer Games, for those of us who enjoy guilty pleasures.

John Frankenheimer was a tremendous director who worked in almost every genre. He was also a quiet, unassuming, thoughtful man whose DVD commentaries are among the most insightful I have had the pleasure to hear.

It is said that talent skips a generation. I am sure Michael Bay's children are going to be geniuses.

Copyright © 2009 by Cinematic Cteve // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

Friday, June 26, 2009

World-Famous Pedophile Mikey Jackson Dead at 50

By Steve Evans

Faded pop phenom Michael Jackson died yesterday, reportedly of cardiac arrest. The pedophile and perennial oddball nearly took the Internet with him, as scores of news sites and Google itself were almost crippled by the influx of queries regarding the man-child with one white glove.

Beyond the anthropological fascination such behavior provides, those of us encumbered by intelligent thought are left wondering: who the hell cares that Michael Jackson is dead? And, won't I be pissed if the Internet crashes and I can't do my work today, all on account of some grief-stricken frenzy over one of the most overrated and easily one of the most peculiar pop-cultural freaks in American history?

Michael Jackson possessed a thin, reedy voice and a squealing falsetto that made him sound like one of the prepubescent girls who swooned over his dance moves, which could be fun to watch in the early days, but were ultimately repetitive and eventually just boring. Every cat in The Temptations could dance better than Michael Jackson. Most of 'em could sing better, too. So could Smokey Robinson and every last one of his Miracles. Sam and Dave. Otis. Sam Cooke. Yeah.

But Jackson offered something no one else could deliver, and, I'll wager, he did it all unintentionally. What, you ask? I'll tell ya:

Michael Jackson was more entertaining offstage than he could ever be under the limelight. He put on a good show, alright. And that's because Michael Jackson was out of his mind, boys & girls. Tinfoil-chewing, bug eyed looneytunes, dig? I really hope this doesn't come as news.

Jackson's money bought him a "get out of jail free" pass on more than one occasion. His unquenchable passion for eccentricity made him the darling of the tabloids, the Holy Grail of paparazzi, and all the attention brought him millions more to indulge in the sort of bizarre behavior and sexual perversions that would have gotten half a dozen Nazi officers hanged 70 years ago. One wonders how history would look upon Charlie Manson if only he could have carried a tune and had indulged a fetish for plastic surgery.

True, Michael Jackson never killed anyone or ordered anyone murdered, to our knowledge. But he paid millions out of his personal fortune to hush up tongue-wagging boys who had fallen under his spell and to whom Gawd Knows What had occurred while alone with Jackson when no adults were around. Actually, according to leaked grand jury documents, quite a lot went down at Neverland Ranch, where the boys drank "Jesus Juice" (wine) and gallons of other libations, some laced, some perhaps not, so everyone could get a little loose and Michael could have his fun with young boys. As Robin Williams observed in his stand-up act, while visiting Neverland "you must be at least this tall to ride Michael." Williams held his open palm about four feet off the ground and we all got the idea.

Jackson also spirited away much of the Beatles' song catalog when the collection went on the auction block in 1985, right from under the nose of competing bidder Paul McCartney, which reportedly annoyed the hell out of Sir Paul, but really aggravated the unholy hell out of me because for the next 20 years I had to listen to so many Beatles songs being pimped in commericals to sell products that I instantly boycotted on general principle -- all because Michael Jackson bought the rights and immediately turned around to license those classic songs for commercial use. Doesn't matter if news reports are true that Jackson willed the rights back to the Beatles' bassist. Too little, too late. God Damn you, Michael Jackson. Ya money-grubbing, lilac-lavender, fancy-lad freak.

So aside from the "Thriller" video -- a fairly amusing and expensive-looking zombie short starring Jackson and directed in 1983 by John "An American Werewolf in London" Landis -- and maybe two good recordings with the Jackson 5, I will only remember Michael Jackson, if I bother to remember him at all, as the weak vocalist who warbled a tune called Ben, which was the titular theme song for the sequel to Willard (1971), which was a creepy and ultimately stupid movie about an extremely disturbed young man who communicated telepathically with rats, one of which was named Ben (released in 1972), and who made them do his bidding.

And so we come full circle, as life imitates art, art mirrors life, and we kick around cinematic subreferences galore.

This ain't called Cinema Uprising for nuthin', film fans.

Copyright © 2009 by Cinematic Cteve // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Still Walkin' on the Wild Side

Lou Reed: Spanish Fly: Live In Spain
Sanctuary // 72 Minutes // Not Rated

Reviewed by Steve Evans

Opening Shot

“It’s all downhill after the first…kiss.”

Do Ya Need Some Lou Reed?
Aging rock nihilist Lou Reed performs 11 tracks of his best-known work both as a solo artist and from his glory days with the Velvet Underground. Yes, this man is still alive. So is his music, trapped not so much by history (or a cult of personality) as it is by his relentless devotion to a despairing vision: misanthropic and existential. The DVD is a document of Reed and his band at the Festival Internacional de Benicàssim in August 2004.

Reed’s vocals, by turns sarcastic, cynical, world-weary, and exasperating, remain an acquired taste after nearly 40 years. Really, how much sneering can ya groove on before turning to something else? But when the man with the simian smile works up a heart full of angst, well, Good Gawd a’mighty, it’s difficult to remain uninvolved. His music could be the soundtrack for a nocturnal road trip across some post-apocalyptic wasteland scattered with twisted iron beams, castaway hypodermics, and bleached bones, glowing pale in the serious moonlight.At times you wonder how a man with this much pain oozing from his soul could bear to live so long. But Reed remains elusive, deliberately ambiguous; it’s a mystery whether he cares about anything beyond an obsession with abstract romanticism.

As for the music, Reed’s forte is the brutal honesty of his lyrics, invariably confessional and self-loathing. His journeyman rhythm guitar playing was seldom more than serviceable, though Reed could always lay down a few hypnotic licks to keep the heroin crowd entranced. Even on his best albums with the Velvet Underground, Reed was always a brittle eccentric, often addled by drugs and a tiresome devotion to the imagery of William Burroughs. But he continues to fascinate his dedicated fan base. You know who you are, and if you’ve read this far then you’ll hang to the coda.

Truth be told, Reed has begun to mellow. He’s blunted the edge from several classic songs on this DVD and even censored himself on a few key lyrics. This will no doubt disappoint the cognoscenti in the crowd (if they are sober enough to notice), although Reed could argue that he’s merely evolving with the times. Still, a politically correct Lou Reed may be the ultimate oxymoron.

There is good news.

Cellist Jane Scarpantoni is an inspired addition to the band. Her solo on the haunting classic “Venus in Furs” is achingly beautiful — an extended serpentine run along four strings — flavored with Mediterranean and Middle Eastern influences that give emotional resonance to a song about unspeakable lament and a dangerous addiction to sadomasochism. This is the finest track on the disc and remains among Reed’s greatest compositions after nearly four decades. Scarpantoni transforms her solo into breathtaking moments of mad, feverish transcendence. It’s only fitting, then, that Reed segues straight into the familiar crowd-pleasing chords of “Sweet Jane.” She certainly is.

What’s on the Disc, Steve?
Let me tell ya. With some amperage behind it, the 5.1 audio delivers the sonic rush of the concert. Videography is crisp and expertly shot, focusing on the musicians on a minimalist stage. Extras are limited to a brief gallery of the band and crew photographed by Reed himself. These portraits are not so astounding as to be memorable for anyone not affiliated with Reed’s band or entourage. In terms of added-value content, the best that can be said about the photo gallery is that it’s better than nothing.

“Walk on the Wild Side” closes out the set, perhaps inevitably, as this sly, cynical tale of a transvestite groupie remains Reed’s best-known song. The doo-wop refrain is familiar to anyone past a certain age (I said, ‘hey, babe.’), although Reed’s perfunctory delivery makes for a disappointing finish.

My thoughts on the disc may sound like so much damning with faint praise, but in fairness this is a good concert DVD, just not the great one I had hoped it would be. Is this Reed’s fault? Yes, he shares some of the blame. Reed has made a career out of tantalizing his defenders with hints of greatness, promises of musical genius gone largely unfulfilled in the wake of failed experimental music, occasional crises of identity, and a self-destructive bent fueled by a taste for decadence. He raises our expectations with the occasional flourish of brilliance, then fails to follow through. None of this detracts from the essential fact that the magnificent live performances of “Venus in Furs” and “Why Do You Talk” make this reasonably-priced disc a must-have for fans.

At minimum, there’s something curiously reassuring in the knowledge that “Venus in Furs” has not been — and probably never will be — co-opted for commercials by Madison Avenue advertisers hungry to sell cars, condoms, textiles, or tampons.

And so, aging hipsters can rejoice: Reed’s anarchy has yet to become anachronism. Certain pop artifacts are so outré they may never be absorbed and assimilated by mass culture. They stand outside, taunting, mocking, flaunting their defiance. This might give Lou Reed a reason to smile.

Set List:
• “Modern Dance”
• “Why Do You Talk”
• “Venus In Furs”
• “Sweet Jane”
• “Jesus”
• “Romeo Had Juliette”
• “Satellite of Love”
• “Ecstasy”
• “The Blue Mask”
• “Perfect Day”
• “Walk on the Wild Side”

Copyright © 2009 by Cinematic Cteve // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Yes, Virginia: Good Things Come in Threes

Revisiting The Godfather: Part III
Paramount // 1990 // 169 Minutes // Rated R

Reviewed by Steve Evans

Author’s note: I gallantly stepped in to review this DVD when my predecessor vanished mysteriously during a business appointment in the meat-packing district. Yeah, and it turns out this picture is a helluva lot better than I recall thinking on opening day, Christmas 1990.

“All the power on earth can’t change destiny.” ~ From the promotional poster.

Opening Shot

Vowing to take the family business legit, mafia godfather Michael Corleone seeks redemption in a business deal with the Catholic Church, realizing too late that the Vatican is as rife with corruption as organized crime. The film was savaged upon its original release almost 19 years ago, but time has a way of altering critical opinion. Today Part III can be seen as a fascinating but flawed coda to an absorbing, richly metaphoric and compulsively entertaining trilogy about the rise and fall of a mafia family in 20th century America.

Plot of Plenty…
Amassing incredible wealth from mob-owned casinos in Las Vegas and other criminal enterprises, Don Corleone (Al Pacino, Scent of a Woman) resolves to atone for his sins, including the murder of his brother Fredo. Michael gives $100 million to the church. With the help of a corrupt cardinal, he buys a controlling stake in Immobiliare — an international venture-capital consortium that is minority-owned by the Vatican. Vincent (Andy Garcia, The Untouchables) lurks on the fringe of the Corleone family, convinced that protecting their interests means clinging to the old ways of theft and extortion, backed by violent death. Vincent is the bastard son of Michael’s brother Sonny, who was machine-gunned to death at a toll booth 30 years ago. Michael’s naïve daughter Mary (Sofia Coppola) falls hard for Vincent, though he rebuffs her, knowing the Don would not approve. The family, including Michael’s conniving sister Connie (Talia Shire, Rocky, and with opera glasses, above right) and his ex-wife Kay (Diane Keaton), travel to Rome, where Michael will conclude his nefarious business and celebrate son Anthony’s premiere as an opera singer — all during a particularly savage performance of Cavalleria Rusticana.

The Corleone saga moves at a studied pace to an inevitably tragic conclusion, as Michael confronts his fate and faces divine punishment beyond the endurance of any man, no matter how evil.

Whew. That’s a lot of plot.

Historical Context and Significance
More than 14 years after The Godfather: Part III set a box office record for a Christmas Day premiere, and four years after the pricey DVD boxed set of the Godfather trilogy originally hit store shelves, Paramount Pictures released Part II and Part III as individual DVD titles (Keaton and Pacino flank George Hamilton during a night at the opera, left). The milestone original film, which established director Francis Ford Coppola as a formidable filmmaking talent, was issued as a separate DVD in 2004, shortly before Marlon Brando died. For film lovers who could not or would not buy the boxed set, the option of purchasing separate titles was long overdue. Now the only incentive to buy the box is the supplemental disc of extra features missing from these individual DVDs. For some consumers, this may not matter.

Coppola hasn’t had a hit in years. That’s why in late 2008 he went back to the editing suite, tinkered with the coloration and sound of his masterpiece trilogy and, by Gawd, Paramount soon after released a restored, director-approved, super-whoopie, definitive Godfather trilogy set, billed as a restoration. Fans of the film got the real bill, what by now is at least the fifth release of this seminal trilogy if we count VHS editions.

Nearly 19 years since the released of Part III, critical consensus remains virtually unanimous: It is the weakest of the Godfather films. In 1990 much of the vitriol (and it was considerable) centered on the thespian limitations of then 18-year-old Sofia Coppola, the director’s daughter (right, with Andy Garcia). Critics were not kind to her performance then, and time has not altered anyone’s judgment. She remains an amateur devoid of presence or conviction. While this child of a cinematic dynasty would evolve into an infrequent director and Oscar-winning screenwriter, anyone who saw her Academy Award acceptance speech for Lost in Translation witnessed proof positive that Sofia Coppola is a dull, inarticulate woman whose family name has clearly done more for her film career than any innate talent she may possess.

With that venom out of the way, let’s look at the uphill battle this unfairly maligned film received in 1990. Just by virtue of being a Godfather film meant expectations were running well beyond anything a mortal could deliver, even a master filmmaker like Coppola.

Part III also had serious competition on its initial release. Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas was an unexpected dynamite blast of energy and exuberance that reinvented the crime film while besting the French New Wave directors at their own stylistic game, albeit three decades later. The Godfather: Part III is positively stately, even sedate, when contrasted with the snap-crackle-pow of Scorsese’s kinetic vision of organized crime. Comparisons between the two films may have been unfair, but they were inevitable. Francis Ford Coppola had always taken the Godfather mythos quite seriously, but by 1990 he had confused solemnity with ominous foreboding. A generation had come of age since the original Godfather films were released, and audiences were ready to embrace the jittery, live-wire assault of Goodfellas. Never a director known for his sense of humor, Coppola remained mired firmly in the past, in both his material and his technique.In the end, as far as Oscars were concerned, it didn’t matter. Though it seems inscrutable today, Dances with Wolves would win Best Picture for the year Part III and Goodfellas were released.

Film lovers who keep up with cinema lore also know that Coppola signed on for Part III because he needed the money to keep his Zoetrope Studios alive after the 1988 commercial failure of Tucker: The Man and His Dream. And that Coppola lost a fight with Paramount to name the film The Death of Michael Corleone. And that Robert Duvall (Apocalypse Now) wanted too much money to reprise his role as concigliere (mafia lawyer) Tom Hagen, so Coppola killed off the character before Part III begins. And that Pacino wanted so much cash up front that Coppola threatened to open Part III with Michael Corleone’s death, and Pacino ultimately backed down, accepting a lesser fee. The same savvy viewers will also know that editing continued right up to the drop-dead point for striking and distributing prints to the premiere. So what does it all mean? All of these factors suggest that Part III was a work in progress rushed into theaters to meet contractual obligations.

None of this detracts from the fact that Part III is solid entertainment, a seriously good film, albeit a flaw in the cinematic jewel that the Godfather trilogy represents. There are only a handful of American films so poignant, produced so gorgeously, directed so brilliantly, that any films that attempt to remake or expand them will inevitably bring disappointment. The Godfather and its 1974 sequel are among the former — Best Picture winners that paint the death of the American dream in allegorical tableaux of greed, treachery, violence, and fate. And, it comes as no surprise, Part III is among the latter. Given the economic exigencies behind this final production, it is perhaps a small miracle of modern cinema that Part III turned out so good.

Coppola even remembered to include oranges, the presence of which always signifies imminent death in a Godfather film. Rich in detail and situation, the film falters on a convoluted script that tries too hard to condemn the governing powers of the Catholic Church. Left to its own devices, the church would ultimately condemn itself, as revelations of sexual abuse by priests and cover-ups by bishops have proven. Give Coppola credit for penning an ambitious and controversial script with Godfather novelist Mario Puzo.

The acting by the principals — Pacino, Shire, Keaton, Garcia, and Eli Wallach (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly) as a wily, aging Don — is always competent and often inspired. Their interpretations suggest a logical evolution of the characters from the earlier films (Wallach’s Don is a new character in Part III). Secondary players like lawyer George Hamilton (Love at First Bite), newspaper reporter Bridget Fonda (A Simple Plan), and crime lord Joe Mantegna (Searching for Bobby Fischer) come off more as texture, as fleeting plot devices, than real human beings. Fonda is in the film no more than 10 minutes during the first act, then vanishes like a virgin on prom night. As Tom Hagen’s son, John Savage (The Deer Hunter) portrays a young priest in a glorified cameo. He’s around for three scenes and delivers a like number of lines. Who knows what was left in the chaos of the cutting-room floor as Coppola & Co. struggled to deliver a final cut to Paramount under an impossible deadline? But this is less a criticism of the actors’ work than it is of the overreaching and complicated script.

Gordon Willis’s cinematography is beyond reproach, captured in shades of burnt sienna and golden, autumnal hues, complemented by Dean Tavoularis’s achingly beautiful production design. Coppola’s direction is tight and purposeful; his primary misstep was the sentimental casting of his daughter in a key role originally intended for Winona Ryder (Girl, Interrupted), who bowed out during preproduction, allegedly due to exhaustion. As an infant, Sofia Coppola had appeared as Michael Corleone’s nephew in the famous baptism scene. Portraying a squalling babe in arms was precisely suited to her talents at the time. Casting her in Part III was the director’s supreme hubris, an act of nepotism that audiences would not forgive. During the film’s initial run, Sofia Coppola’s final scene was reportedly greeted at some screenings with cheers, hoots, and a smattering of applause. These were not compliments.

Part III climaxes with the signature montage of the trilogy: a massacre of villains in novel and excruciatingly violent ways. Juxtaposed with Pietro Mascagni’s exquisite opera, this sequence was obviously intended to finish the greatest trilogy in all American film on a high note — and very nearly succeeds, were it not for Sofia Coppola’s inappropriate and utterly unconvincing line readings at the vital climactic moment.

What’s on the Disc, Steve?
I’ll tell ya. The DVD is virtually flawless. Video and audio are sterling. Coppola’s running director’s commentary is insightful, if occasionally bitter, especially when he recalls the harsh critical treatment of his daughter. This commentary track appears to be identical to the audio recording that accompanied the disc in the original boxed set.

The Contrarian View
Extras are limited to Coppola’s commentary track. Given the wealth of supplemental material that came in the boxed set, Paramount is just being cheap to omit added-value content with these individual titles. Sure, a bare-bones disc may help hold down the price, but the boxed set has been on the market so long that any profit it was going to earn has long since been booked. Here’s hoping Coppola pocketed some of that cash, as he perpetually needs it.

The Godfather: Part III is a fascinating but flawed conclusion to one of the greatest achievements in American film. Michael Corleone’s final moment is deeply moving, even if it did not become the cinematic iconography that Coppola undoubtedly intended.

Better than most movie lovers probably remember, the picture improves on repeat viewings. See it again.

Copyright © 2009 by Cinematic Cteve // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.