Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Gentleman's Agreement (1947)

How did Gentleman's Agreement win the Oscar for best picture in 1948?

Was this drama's win then the equivalent of James Cameron's retch fest, Titanic, besting L.A. Confidential in 1998?


The Bishop's Wife, Crossfire, Great Expectations (1946) (The Criterion Collection) Spine #31) and Miracle on 34th Street (1947) were also nominated alongside Gentleman's Agreement.

This Oscar winner is one tough slog to sit through. Elia Kazan's film seems more interested in fancy parties, stunning locations and plenty of embraces between Gregory Peck and Dorothy McGuire than any serious look at anti-Semitism.

For a supposedly sharp magazine writer at the top of his game, Philip Schulyer Green (Peck) is awfully dense. It takes him about two weeks of frustration in front of his typewriter before making a startling discovery.


If he's to write a series of stories for a top New York City weekly about how some people discriminate against Jews, maybe he should pretend he's Jewish. This, coming from a character who talks about going underground so he could write convincingly about coal miners. Maybe all those cigarettes Green smokes affects his memory and how to draw readers into a story. He initially talks about accessing the magazine's research department. Hello, Philip?!?

But Green never hits the streets, as it were, to see how he'll be treated being Jewish. Instead, he clashes with his girlfriend, Kathy Lacy (McGuire), who might be anti-Semitic herself. Green's old army buddy, Dave Goldman (John Garfield), shows up in the Big Apple. He's Jewish. He needs a place to live so he can accept a much-better job. Hmmmm. Guess how easy it'll be for Garfield to find a place in this film?


That's the trouble with Gentleman's Agreement. There's nothing subtle here. Director Kazan whacks the audience over the head with a crowbar whenever he wants to make a point. A drunk bumps into Goldman in a bar. The drunk asks his name and then comments on not liking Jews? How many drunks would act like that?

There are a few bright lights here. Celeste Holm shines as fashion editor Anne Dettrey. She won best supporting actress. It's also fun to see a young Dean Stockwell as Green's son, Tommy. There's some snappy dialogue too.

But beware the speeches of America, all it stands for, and the disease that is anti-Semitism.

Gentleman's Agreement should have saved the platitudes and aimed for something grittier, and much more real.

RATING: 3/10

FUN FACTS: Jane Wyatt, who appeared in television's father knows best tv series
, appears as Lacy's sister. Most of the main cast lived to be very old, but not Garfield. He died of heart problems in 1952. He was justg 39. Holm, who turns 94 on April 29, is still active with recent credits including College Debts and Driving Me Crazy. Stockwell made his film debut in The Valley of Decision. Peck also appeared in the 1945 release. JULY 2012 UPDATE: Celeste Holm died July 15 at age 95.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

X-Men (2000)

Painful memories of just how bad Star Wars: The Phantom Menace was still hurt.

The first three films in the series were a treat, defining moments of wonder at the movies for audiences between 1977 and 1983.

The franchise's magic was definitely in a galaxy far, far away when The Phantom Menace was released in 1997. Pity those who waited in line, for days, to be the first to see that dreck.

X-Men, based on the long-running Marvel comic book, offered hope of a new science-fiction franchise with brains, thrills and a good sense of humour.

The 2000 release from director Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects) is brisk, funny entertainment without an avalanche of action to weigh down the story.


Powerful Senator Kelly (Bruce Davison) wants mutants, or humans with special powers, to be registered. "Mutants are very real," he warns. "We must know who they are."

There are shades of Communist hunter Joseph McCarthy in his early scenes. Watch for signs held by his supporters including, Send the Mutants to the Moon For Ever.

One of those so-called mutants is Eric Lensherr (Ian McKellen), a Holocaust survivor who knows painfully well what it's like to be hunted down. He wants to take out Kelly and other world leaders who want to out those with special powers.

Opposing him is his old friend, Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), a principal of a school for mutants. Xavier is also the head of the X-Men, a group of adult mutants who oppose Lensherr, also known as Magneto.

Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is the X-Men's newest recruit. His skeletal frame is filled with metal. He has some nasty metal claws that can do real damage when he's angry. He befriends Rogue/Mane D'Ancanto (Anna Paquin), a young woman who can literally drain the life out of people, even those she loves.

Magneto wants Rogue to back his evil scheme. Wolverine pairs up with Cyclops (James Marsden), Storm (Halle Berry) and Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) to confront the mutant gone bad and his cronies, including a really creepy Toad (Ray Park).


Cyclops and Wolverine both have eyes for Grey, prompting plenty of barbed comments between the two. Stewart and McKellen are great to watch as two long-time acquaintances who have taken very different turns in life. Paquin's a great actress, but is largely limited to screaming a lot.

X-Men was a promising start in the franchise, as was Spider-Man when he spun his first web in 2002. The magic was back for sci-fi franchise films.

RATING: 8/10

FUN FACTS: Singer worked with McKellen and Davison in 1998's Apt Pupil. Janssen appeared in one episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The Perfect Mate aired in 1992. Park was Darth Maul in The Phantom Menace.

Raising Arizona (1987)

Raising Arizona is a hoot.

Filmmaking siblings Joel and Ethan Coen made their debut, to much critical praise, with 1984's Blood Simple.


Raising Arizona, their third film, could very well be the most slapstick effort from this talented duo.

H.I. McDunnough (Nicholas Cage) is a small-time thief with a penchant for holding up convenience stores and then getting quickly caught.

He takes a fancy to Edwina, 'Ed', a female police officer, who takes his mugshot after each failed hold up attempt.

McDunnough vows to reform. She leaves the force. They marry and try, repeatedly, to have a child. Edwina can't conceive. They're devastated.


When they learn unpainted furniture king Nathan Arizona (Trey Wilson) and his wife have quintuplets, H.I. and Ed reason that's too many children for one couple. They steal one of the five boys, possibly Nathan Jr.

Their dream is finally realized, but troubles soon arrive. Deciding on a consistent story about their son is one.

When McDunnough's boss and his wife, Glen and Dot (Sam McMurray and Frances McDormand), they bring their destructive brood. Dot besieges the new parents with concerns ranging from health care to financial planning.

Add jailbirds, and brothers, Gale and Evelle Snoats (John Goodman and William Forsythe) and Leonard Smalls (Randall 'Tex' Cobb), a bounty hunter possibly from Hell, and the McDunnoughs are overwhelmed with challenges.

There's hints of the Coens remake of True Grit with poetic language from several of the characters. Besides plenty of pratfalls and frantic chases, there's plenty of great dialogue to savour in this film.


Several supporting performances are top notch too including Wilson's Arizona, eager to promote his business even when his child is abducted, and McMurray's Glen, a boss with a penchant for Polish jokes and open marriages.

Raising Arizona also offers some very interesting perspectives on human emotions - from the need for love to outright greed. Many characters have a genuine affection for baby Nathan, but a $25,000 reward for the boy's return encourages greed too.

John Crowder's yodeling is a treat throughout the film's 94-minute running time. Even with all the silliness, the ending is a warm treat.

RATING: 8/10

FUN FACTS: Cage's character finds a job at Hudsucker Industries. The Coens made The Hudsucker Proxy in 1994. M. Emmet Walsh, a key actor in Blood Simple, has a small role as Cage's very talkative co-worker. Cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld became a director himself helming films such as Men In Black and Addams Family.