Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Anne Frank Remembered (1995)

Anne Frank Remembered is must-see viewing.

Director Jon Blair (Bin Laden: The Early Years) includes interviews with several key people who helped the Frank family, who were Jews, hide from the Nazis in the Netherlands during the Second World War and witnessed the final days of Anne, her sister and mother in 1945. This is vital history captured on film.


This 1995 documentary includes contributions from Anne Frank's childhood best friend and Miep Gies, an employee of Otto Frank, who risked her life to get food on the black market for his family and four other Jews who were in hiding with them. Otto Frank appears in interviews from 1976 and 1979. He died in 1980. There are contributions from Frank's childhood best friend, Hannah Goslar, and the woman who confirmed Frank's death to her father.

The Frank family left Frankfurt in 1933 because of Nazism's rise. They moved to Amsterdam where Otto Frank managed a pectin factory. A year after the Second World War's start in 1939, Germany controlled much of Europe including the Netherlands. Freedoms enjoyed by Jews were gradually reduced. Frank prepared a secret hiding place in his office building and created a cover story that suggested his family fled to neutral Switzerland to throw off authorities.


Anne began to write in a prized gift from her 13th birthday, a diary. Her entries are shown on screen as different passages are read.

There are several fascinating strands that make Anne Frank Remembered compelling to watch.

Otto Frank could have fled to Switzerland, where he had family, but chose to move to Amsterdam instead. There's a powerful scene with the son of dentist Fredrich Pfeffer, one of the eight in hiding, meeting with Miep Gies for the first time. How differently people reacted while in captivity, for two years, is explored. Hopes were raised with the Allied D-Day invasion of Normandy in 1944, but the Franks were betrayed by an anonymous phone call tipping off their location. Everyone but Otto was killed including Anne on March 12, 1945, less than two months before V-E Day.

Anne Frank dreamed of Hollywood stars and becoming a published author who would be known internationally and live on after her death. She achieved her goal, but at a terrible price. Frank was 15 when she died at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

The documentary ends with a brief clip of the only known film footage of Frank from 1941.

Anne Frank Remembered is narrated by Kenneth Branagh with passages from Frank's diary read by Glenn Close.

The film won the Oscar for best documentary in 1995.

RATING: 10/10



Monday, June 20, 2011

The 39 Steps (1935)

Don't walk away from this early Alfred Hitchcock thriller.

The 39 Steps: The Criterion Collection, one of the last films the master director made in his native England before leaving for the United States, is a must-see gem.


The 39 Steps boasts plenty of humour, suspense and several sequences that are a great treat to watch more than 75 years later. How rare it is to see present-day filmmakers create stunning scenes that Hitchcock did, repeatedly, so many years earlier.

A chance encounter at a London music hall brings Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) together with the aptly named Miss Smith (Lucie Mannheim), a female spy for hire.

She tells him sensitive information is in danger of being smuggled out of England. When the woman is murdered in his apartment, Hannay is believed to be the killer. He finds a map of Scotland with a community circled in her hand. The race is on.

While eluding capture from police, Hannay goes searching for a quarry of his own -- those who want to make off with secrets vital to the British government.

He unwittingly walks right into the lair of Professor Jordan (Godfrey Tearle), a well-respected community leader who's good friends with police brass, and the top henchman.


When Hannay is turned over to Scottish police, he escapes and takes refuge in a meeting hall. He's mistaken for the featured speaker at a political rally. What follows is one of The 39 Step's best scenes -- Hannay speaking from all-too-familiar first-hand knowledge of the little guy being persecuted. The crowd becomes wildly enthusiastic during his passionate, off-the-cuff address.

It's at that hall he's reunited with Pamela (Madeleine Carroll). She didn't believe his claims of innocence during an earlier meeting on a train and turned him in to police. There's some nice chemistry between the two, especially when they rent a room at an inn and are mistaken by the owners as illicit lovers having a fling.

When she learns he really is an innocent man on the run, Pamela helps him during a final showdown at another concert hall. Hitchcock used a similar setting for both his versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much. In The 39 Steps, the payoff is the staging of police moving in on Professor Jordan when the curtain literally comes down.


Peggy Ashcroft impresses as a young wife of dour Scottish farmer. Her career would continue for almost another 55 years, including a major role in David Lean's A Passage to India (1984).

Watch for an impressive, quick shot of Hannay standing behind bars of a kitchen chair suggesting the very imprisonment he fears. There's a neat cut between Hannay's apartment building superintendent finding the dead woman's body and a train's whistle. Verbal jabs about clueless police and wisecracking audience members offer solid laughs.

The 39 Steps is great entertainment from one of the best directors ever.

RATING: 9/10

FUN FACTS: Donat appeared as the title character in Goodbye, Mr. Chips in 1939. The 39 Steps was Ashcroft's second film credit. John Laurie, who appeared as Ashcroft's husband, made his film debut in Hitchcock's Juno and the Paycock (1930).

Monday, June 13, 2011

Batman (1989)

Batman's depiction of how newspaper reporters and photographers do their work is bad, man.

This blogger works for a daily newspaper so hence the nitpicking.


But, come on. Reporter Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl) holds a tape recorder up to a phone when talking to a source. Yeah, that will work.

Ace photographer Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) uses a flash in the middle of the night when Batman (Michael Keaton) dukes it out with the Joker's (Jack Nicholson) henchmen. Sure, those photos will turn out. She must know the flash would give away her location to the bad guys. She has worked in combat zones, right?

Knox's paper is the only one in Gotham City to chase rumblings of a bat-like creature putting the boot to bad guys at night. Hardly. Every media outlet would be chasing that kind of story. Where's the competition?

Politicians scrum with a pack of reporters and only Knox shouts out a question. There's no way that would happen, especially with a major city threatened by a crazed criminal like The Joker.


Here's one more. Vale is supposedly a skilled news photographer, one of the best in the business. Yet, she screams every time the Joker makes an unwanted move on her or Batman (Michael Keaton) tries to get her out of trouble. Come on, Vicki. To do your kind of work, you'd need nerves of steel.

This movie-goer remembers standing in a very long line at the Pen Centre in St. Catharines, Ont., to see Tim Burton's reboot of the DC Comics character in 1989. While watching it again for the first time in 22 years, I wondered what that hoopla was all about.

Burton has made some great movies (Beetlejuice), but Batman bites.

Nicholson's Joker is more annoying than menacing. His saving grace comes from a string of strong one-liners ("This town needs an enema." "Never rub another man's rhubarb.")


Most of the film's action scenes are ho-hum. There's little tension between Batman and The Joker. The Batmobile is cool though. Too bad it couldn't act.

Veteran actor Jack Palance (Shane) gets some screen time as crime boss, Carl Grissom, but doesn't inspire fear as a major kingpin.

"They're great survivors," Wayne says of bats. Too bad the same can't be said of Batman.

RATING: 4/10

FUN FACTS: After working with director Tim Burton on several projects in the late 1980s and early 1990s (Beetlejuice, Batman and Batman Returns), the pair may reunite for the first time in nearly 20 years with Frankenweenie.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Muppets From Space (1999)

Muppets from Space's box office performance was decidedly Earth-bound. It bombed.

That's too bad because there's plenty of good laughs for young, and older, audiences and some sharp cameos by Hollywood talent.


Poor Gonzo is feeling definitely alone. He's the only, uh, whatever exactly Gonzo is. He looks longingly at photographs of other Muppets he shares a home with. They all have family. Gonzo has nobody. A hopeful message spelled out near his breakfast cereal gives him hope he'll finally be able to find his kin. No wonder he hasn't hooked up with them at a family reunion before. They're from outer space.


Gonzo's excited search for his family roots coincides with the efforts of government agent K. Edgar Singer (Jeffrey Tambor) to prove aliens are planning a deadly attack on Earth. He offers plenty of proof, including a re-arranged Stonehenge spelling out an extraterrestrial message, to his less-than-convinced superior, General Luft (Pat Hingle). Singer zeros in on Gonzo's efforts to make contact with his people. This poor Muppet is taken captive and faces a rather unpleasant brain operation unless his friends can save him.

Slapstick comedy and some great one-liners (Gonzo: "I've always had alien tendencies." Miss Piggy calls Gonzo "the geek who fell to Earth.") make for a fun-filled 87 minutes. There's about 10 cameos with brief appearances from F. Murray Abraham, David Arquette, Josh Charles, Kathy Griffin, Hulk Hogan, Ray Liotta and Rob Schneider. Andie MacDowell (Green Card) has the most fun as Shelley Snipes, a tabloid TV show host who Miss Piggy is conniving to replace. Watching the two come to physical blows is a hoot.


Muppets From Space also gives audiences an early look at Pepe the Prawn, voiced by Bill Barretta (Rowlf the Dog, Dr. Teeth). Who knew crustaceans could be this much fun?

This was the first Muppets film, with an original story, released since Muppet creator Jim Heson's death in 1990.

What is strange about Muppets in Space is the absence of an original score. The Muppet Movie, the first theatrical release featuring The Muppets, boasted a strong soundtrack with standout tracks such as Rainbow Connection, Movin' Right Along and I Hope That Somethin' Better Comes Along.


Here, audiences can groove along with a funk-based track including Brick House (Commodores) and Dazz (G. Love and Special Sauce covering the Brick song). Groovy, man!

What was bizarre to see was a suggested sexual encounter between Animal and a security guard. Why is this in a film for children?

RATING: 7/10

FUN FACTS: Pat Hingle was Commissioner Gordon in Tim Burton's reboot of Batman in 1989. Tim Hell went on to direct Alvin and the Chipmunks and Hop. Look closely for Katie Holmes in the climatic beach scene. Hear Gary Owens, the voice of Roger Ramjet, as a UFO Mania announcer. A new movie, The Muppets, opens Nov. 23, 2011.