Archive for the History Category

Decades Blogathon – The Ten Commandments (1956)

Posted in Adventure, Drama, History with tags on May 18, 2016 by Mark Hobin

The Decades Blogathon (2016) is an online event hosted by Mark (not me – another one) at Three Rows Back and Tom at Digital Shortbread. Two great movie review sites that invite like minded cinephiles to write about any particular film of their choosing. The only provision: choose a picture from any decade with the year ending in ‘6’ (given that it’s now 2016). That’s it.

It began on Monday, May 16 and contributions were limited to 20 so I feel honored to have been able to participate. Here’s my reflection on an old favorite:

three rows back

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May 17, 2016

Decades Blogathon – The Fountain (2006)

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1956Welcome to day three of the Decades Blogathon – 6 edition – hosted by myself and the one and only Tom from Digital Shortbread! The blogathon focuses on movies that were released in the sixth year of the decade. Tom and I will run a different entry each day (we’ll also reblog the other’s post); and today we feature this excellent contribution from Mark at Fast Film Review – Cecil B. DeMille’s epic The Ten Commandments.

This lavish, Technicolor extravaganza shot in VistaVision is Cecil B. DeMille’s last and most celebrated work. Remaking his own 1923 black and white silent movie, The Ten Commandments is a sumptuous religious epic.

Pure soap opera is woven into the Old Testament story about a man whose perspective changes when he realises his…

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Son of Saul

Posted in Drama, History, War on January 27, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo saul_fia_ver2_zpswqogquod.jpg photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgSon of Saul is a Hungarian drama covering a day-and-a-half in the life of one Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig), a Jewish prisoner at the Auschwitz concentration camp. He is forced to work as a Sonderkommando, that is – a captive who assists in the disposal of the dead, his fellow people, from the gas chamber. While there he discovers the body of a boy he takes for his son and tries to find a rabbi to give the child a proper burial.

The Holocaust has been the subject of innumerable pictures presented from a variety of different angles. Judgment at Nuremberg, The Pawnbroker, Sophie’s Choice, Schindler’s List, Life Is Beautiful, The Pianist, The Counterfeiters, The Reader and Ida are merely a famous few that have won awards and accolades. Son of Saul is critically acclaimed as well and is even up for Best Foreign Language Film at the 88th Academy Awards on February 28, 2016. Evidently the topic is ripe for more productions as director Laszlo Nemes approaches the material a little differently.

What separates Son of Saul is the you-are-there vantage point of the main character. Our lead is a prisoner but his own execution has been delayed. A visual perspective from a person thrust into the eye of the storm, so to speak.  The orientation is unique. We see everything from Saul’s viewpoint.  The action is shot in extreme closeup, often slightly behind or right in front of our protagonist. His expression is a blank face of detachment, perhaps immune to the atrocities that inundate him. The events however are often obscured, just out of focus for the audience, and hard to view clearly. We never see the faces of the victims or even their deaths distinctly. That is a blessing. Although the sounds that surround these incidents is horrifying.

Given the theme, Son of Saul is understandably difficult to watch. In many ways it should be. The plot doesn’t follow the traditional narrative that highlights an improbable hero. Its hyper-realistic style addresses the murder directly head on with no relief to alleviate the terror. The brutal efficiency with which the Nazis oversee this evil task is a robotic death camp of mind numbing savagery. A seemingly unending hell on earth from which human life is disposed like a mechanized chore. Even watching prisoners scrub the human blood from the floor of a massive shower can be an overwhelming experience.

Son of Saul is largely a compelling drama. Where the chronicle doesn’t near a masterpiece lies in the conclusion. The fact that Saul and his fellow workers’ days are numbered will inspire questions as the story wears on. Why submit to a ghastly task that only prolongs your inevitable death by days? Some abatement from their chamber of horrors is suggested but after a while Saul’s behavior becomes vexing for viewer. Setting up a brilliant beginning also demands a skillful ending. Son of Saul doesn’t quite deliver at the same level all the way through, but it is still a very powerful film nonetheless.

01-21-16

Spotlight

Posted in Biography, Drama, History with tags on November 12, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Spotlight photo starrating-4stars.jpgThe difference between when a story explodes in the media and the time it actually happens, can be two totally different things. Just ask Bill Cosby. Such is the case with the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston. On January 6, 2002 the Boston Globe ran the first of many reports detailing a shocking pattern of molestation and cover-ups that had been going on for years. The ignominy went deeper than the actual acts. It was also that the Church knew about the crimes and knowingly shuttled priests to different parishes when incidents would rise. The events in the Archdiocese had local repercussions. Cardinal Bernard Law ultimately resigned as the Archbishop of Boston for his administrative role in the crime. However what originally appeared to be a problem within the local diocese caused other victims to come forward in parishes across the United States. The sheer number of people attested to a pattern that went back decades. The ensuing scandal spread and became a nationwide crisis for the Catholic Church.

Confession: The scandal had far reaching consequences. The victims had been harmed directly but the news also disturbed faithful members of the Church. As a practicing Roman Catholic, the scandal shook me. It was a powerful reminder that a religious organization is not God. Of course I knew what Spotlight was about even before I saw it. This was going to be a painful reminder of a very embarrassing chapter in the Catholic Church. What I didn’t expect, however was the balanced level at which the movie treats faith. At one point in their investigation, the Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” team comes into contact with an ex-priest turned psychiatrist. He was not involved in any wrongdoing, but they wanted his comment on it. Incredulous they ask over a phone call, how he can still be a practicing Catholic. His response, “My faith is in the eternal. I try to separate the two.”

First and foremost, Spotlight is about investigative journalism. The story itself is secondary to the way reporters conduct their procedure. The narrative is fashioned as a finely tuned ensemble piece. It’s fascinating that an entire film can be constructed simply out of conversations. But rest assured, these are extremely eye opening discussions. Liev Schreiber is the newly appointed Editor-in-Chief, Marty Baron, presented as a Jewish outsider in the largely Roman Catholic enclave of Boston. At first the exposé appears to be about John J. Geoghan, one former priest found to have a history of abuse, but Marty suspects a systemic problem. Before they publish, he presses the team to dig deeper. Was the hierarchy of the Boston diocese aware of this misconduct? Editor Baron pays a courtesy call to Cardinal Law (Len Cariou). Their chat highlights a happily upbeat Law, who mistakenly assumes the Boston Globe will work WITH the Catholic Church.

At the heart of Spotlight is the investigative unit. Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Brian d’Arcy James portray the core reporters of the team. As Assistant Managing Editor Ben Bradlee Jr., John Slattery oversees them. Spotlight certainly puts the Catholic Church on notice for the way it handled the allegations, but it also has a harsh critique for journalists themselves, even the very ones who finally broke the story. Interestingly, all of the the “Spotlight” reporters admit to being lapsed Catholics. Despite having fallen from organized religion, their lack of desire to offend their readership underlies their hesitancy at first. The way news stories are buried and ignored, sometimes for years, is a very key point of the drama. The information was always there. It just wasn’t reported properly. Lawyers (played by Stanley Tucci and Billy Crudup) are on opposite sides that have represented the plaintiffs and defendants for years. They each have extensive knowledge of the cases and are key to understanding the depth of this problem.

Spotlight is a pragmatic and clear headed approach to investigative journalism. Director Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, The Visitor, Win Win) and his co-writer Josh Singer (TV’s The West Wing) do not sensationalize the subject. For example, there are no flashback scenes of the abuse. Discussions with the now adult victims are carefully handled as fact finding interviews. At one point, a man only offers he was “molested” as a boy. Rachel McAdams as reporter Sacha Pfeiffer, gracefully presses that he needs to be more specific as that word can have a variety of meanings to different people. Our witness to the rest of their conversation ends there. In a later scene, Sacha knocks on the door of another former clergy member: Father Ronald H. Paquin (Richard O’Rourke). Their brief, matter-of-fact interaction is one of the most memorable dialogues in the entire film. It stays with you because it reveals so much in mere mommets. The trust we place in trusted figures of authority, the role of journalists to report the news, the way scandals affect our faith, the lasting effects of sexual abuse – Spotlight touches on all of these issues and more in a 128 minute runtime that flies by. It does all this in the guise of a straightforward drama. The account could have been about almost any report, as long as it were true. The nature of this story obviously gives the chronicle an emotional component, but Spotlight is somewhat dispassionate. Yet that weakness of sorts is also its strength. The drama is efficient, objective and direct and that’s exactly what good news journalism should be.

11-09-15

Suffragette

Posted in Biography, Drama, History with tags on October 29, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Suffragette photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgYou’d think a period piece concerning the women’s suffragette movement in the U.K. would be an uplifting slam dunk. I mean championing a women’s right to vote is not exactly a controversial notion unless, according to the movie’s closing credits, you’re Saudi Arabia. It’s the kind of accessible femininism that everybody can get behind. Unfortunately what should have been an unimpeachable drama becomes a tedious chore with a mangled narrative that thwarts an inspiring true story.

The screenplay has fashioned the UK suffrage crusade around a fictional group of working class women. If your knowledge about their struggle is centered around actress Glynis Johns singling “Sister Suffragette” in Mary Poppins, then this movie should be quite an education. Yes they do in fact wear those sashes and bonnets, but they aren’t interested in peaceful protest. These women are violent. First it starts with throwing rocks at store front windows. Then it’s on to blowing things up, first mailboxes, then the prime minister’s home.

Meryl Streep pops up briefly to inspire the masses as a leader of the British suffragette campaign. And by briefly, I mean if you use the restroom, you’ll miss her. She plays political activist Emmeline Pankhurst, one of the few roles literally based on a real person. Women have been fighting for more representation in Parliament for some 50 years, she laments. Civil disobedience has now given way to a radicalized cause prone to violence as the sole route to change. She inspires Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) to go from law abiding housewife to rabble rouser. “We break windows, we burn things, because war’s the only language men listen to” she cries.

A great actor can rise above conventional, even bland, filmmaking. I thought this as I watched Carey Mulligan in Suffragette. She is convincing as Maud, a working wife and mother, who is indirectly recruited into the movement. This occurs when she is asked to read a speech detailing horrible conditions at the laundry to a cabinet committee, on behalf of her co-worker Violet (Anne-Marie Duff). Maud does this because her friend’s face is badly bruised after having been beat by her husband. It would seem that condition would actually lend more power to Violet’s words, but that idea is never even considered. Carey Mulligan as Maud is barely concerned about the vote at the beginning, but her transformation into a raging extremist becomes a compelling character arc.

Maud’s conversion from mild mannered housewife into left wing revolutionary is effective in Carey Mulligan’s hands. She transcends the material. The same cannot be said for the rest of the cast. The film is filled with clichés not people. Meryl Streep’s part is too small to make a difference. Helena Bonham Carter, Anne-Marie Duff and Romola Garai all portray fictional composites that represent types. Natalie Press, on the other hand, is the very real Emily Davison. It’s unfortunate she’s more of a plot device than a person. She provides a climax of sorts. Oh but the men fare even worse. Ben Whishaw plays Maud’s husband as an unforgiving man who’d rather kick his wife out into the street and give up his only child for adoption, than have a conversation with his wife. Maud’s boss (Geoff Bell) is a snarling sexual predator and shop-floor tyrant that does everything but twirl his mustache. Meanwhile the police bash lady demonstrators senseless with batons.

Suffragette is a pedestrian account that fails to be incisive. The screenplay by Abi Morgan paints their experience in broad strokes. These are supposed to be our mothers and daughters, but they aren’t human, they’re shortcuts to character development that short change a powerful saga. It’s interesting to note that Abi Morgan also wrote The Iron Lady which was another narratively weak script. Maud loses her husband, child, job, home, basically everything in her life. She’s even thrown in jail and force fed with tubes in a particularly hard to watch scene. On paper, this chronicle should’ve been a soft sell for today’s viewer. It’s the ultimate indignity to the struggle of these brave women that you unwittingly start to question Maud’s decisions. Was becoming a domestic bomber and arsonist really the correct path? This shouldn’t happen in a tale about courageous women fighting for equal rights, but strangely it does.

10-24-15

Everest

Posted in Adventure, Biography, Drama, History, Sports with tags on September 28, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Everest photo starrating-4stars.jpgLace up your boots, strap on your pack, and let’s hit the trails. Everest concerns an ill-fated climbing expedition in 1996 to summit the world’s tallest mountain. The account mainly focuses on a crew in the Himalayas headed by Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), a guide for Adventure Consultants.

Everest has an extended cast of famous names. Most don’t get more than a few lines of dialogue, but nevertheless their familiar presence aids in our affinity for their characters. Rob’s clients include Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), a seasoned hiker, Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), a former mailman pursuing his dream, and climbing veteran Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori), who has scaled 6 of the 7 summits. Only Everest remains for her. Another excursion is led by Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal), the chief guide for Mountain Madness. These tourist treks highlight the commercialization of Everest, which is an underlying theme. Initially they happen to each meet at the base camp first, in preparation for their attempt to reach the apex. The two caravans communicate with Helen Wilton (Emily Watson), who manages the base camp compound. Everest is loosely inspired by the book Into Thin Air by Outside magazine journalist Jon Krakauer. He’s portrayed here by Michael Kelly.

Icelandic born director Baltasar Kormakur (Contraband, 2 Guns) ups the ante over his previous American films and produces something far more ambitious. Granted this isn’t intellectually deep or technically rich. Narratively it’s fairly straightforward. However there is grace in trusting that the genuine drama of the true story will captivate the viewer….and it does. Green screen technology is used sparingly. Everest was shot on location at Everest base camp. The Dolomite mountains in northern Italy stands in for higher elevations. At times, the chronicle has such a visceral quality, it almost feels like documentary. It does a nice job in depicting the physiological effects of the climb. At higher altitudes even breathing becomes a task because the percentage of oxygen in the air is lower. The conditions force the team to acclimate to the low atmospheric pressure first before continuing.

Everest is a rather simple tale about a quest that ended in tragedy. It’s an old fashioned rip roaring adventure ideally suited to the big screen. Early theater engagements were shown exclusively in IMAX 3D. The attributes of those formats serve this subject well. The visual splendor is beautifully conveyed. Sweeping vistas and aerial photography convey a sense of grandeur. One dizzy overhead shot above a high suspension bridge triggers feelings of acrophobia. This is a saga where nature is the enemy. A grueling storm, frostbite, blindless and the wind all threaten the safety of our courageous explorers. I am neither an experienced mountaineer nor was I present on the actual expedition. Therefore I am not here to vouch for the authenticity of facts of the sport or what really happened. What I am is a film critic, and I can say that Everest absolutely delivers thrilling entertainment.

09-24-15

Best of Enemies

Posted in Documentary, History with tags on August 13, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Best of Enemies photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgThe proliferation of political punditry on TV wasn’t always so ubiquitous. Before Jon Stewart, Rush Limbaugh, Bill Maher, Glenn Beck, Rachael Maddow and Bill O’Reilly, there was William F. Buckley, Jr. and Gore Vidal. In the summer of 1968, ABC news needed something to punch up their coverage of the Republican and Democratic conventions. They were dead last in the ratings behind more established news teams on NBC (Chet Huntley & David Brinkley) and CBS (Walter Cronkite). Conservative Buckley and liberal Vidal didn’t just detest each other, they viewed the other as dangerous to the very fabric of American society. This was a culture war and it would played out on a TV screen. It was an audacious attempt to try something different. Millions tuned in. Ratings soared.

If the idea of two erudite minds with diametrically opposed ideologies duking it out in the intellectual arena sounds exciting to you, then see this movie. We are of like mind incidentally. The way this documentary is constructed is kind of brilliant. Directors Robert Gordon (20 Feet from Stardom) and Morgan Neville masterfully orchestrate a drama built around a battle of wills. The vitriolic hate is palpable. I suspect this chronicle is indeed more interesting than the debates themselves. The forums do not appear in their entirety. We are given sound bites, the selection of which no doubt at the discretion of the filmmakers. However the sampling seems fair and both sides are comparably represented by their apparent friends / fans / devotees. Each of which get equal time to expound on the merits of their idol.

Best of Enemies centers on ten televised debates in 1968 between William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal regarding the Republican National Convention in Miami Beach and the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Most of the conversation is heated but diplomatic. The climax is fashioned around what is essentially an infamous altercation of name calling between these two loquacious rivals. The discussion centered on freedom of speech in regards to American protesters displaying a Viet Cong flag. Their polite discourse ultimately condensed to a hostile exchange. Gore Vidal baits Buckley with a personal low blow. Buckley strikes back in kind. Buckley and Vidal, these intellectuals with aristocratic bearing, had been reduced to children. According to the documentary, both had a hard time ever forgetting the incident. It was the seed that inspired an article in Esquire that led to a lengthy lawsuit that took years to settle. Individually, these debates had profoundly affected their lives, but more universally it changed the landscape of political punditry. Given the mostly civilized, highbrow rhetoric seen here and what we are now accustomed to, I’d say things have deteriorated considerably.

Red Army

Posted in Biography, Documentary, History with tags on February 14, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Red Army photo starrating-3stars.jpgRed Army is a documentary about hockey in the Soviet Union. More precisely, it concerns a nearly unbeatable unit known as the “Russian Five” on the national team. But even more specifically it profiles one member, hockey captain Slava Fetisov. It’s his point of view that shapes the perspective.  The film is essentially a chronicle of how cold war politics played a role in his life.

Most Americans knowledge of US-Soviet hockey centers on what went down at Lake Placid in 1980. Gabe Polsky’s documentary certainly addresses the American hockey team’s victory at the Olympics. However that is presented as merely an aberration in “ the most successful dynasty in sports history.” The Russians won nearly every world championship and Olympic tournament between 1954 and 1991. The groundwork was set by coach Anatoly Tarasov. His development of innovative training techniques centered on passing. The intricate maneuvers of the Soviet team are compared to the grace of the Bolshoi Ballet. Their mental strategies correlated to that of a chess player. Indeed watching the Soviet team skate circles around the cruder tactics of the Americans is a startling contrast. Then in 1977, the coach that everyone loved was replaced by former KGB agent Viktor Tikhonov – the coach everyone hated, at least by the athletes. He was even more successful making the Soviet team the most dominant in the world. Despite his accomplishments, he does not come across well. Their life is a nightmare under a totalitarian regime. He puts the players in training camps isolating them from their families for 11 months out of the year. Yet there is a link between his dictatorial methods and the well oiled machine that he elevated under his tutelage. Not surprisingly Tikhonov declined to be interviewed. He died on November 24, 2014 so his voice remains silent here.

Soviet Player Viacheslav Fetisov or Slava, as he is known, is front and center in this documentary. His transformation from national hero to political enemy is the dramatic arc of this tale. He’s a cantankerous old man and director Gabe Polsky doesn’t hide this fact. Right from the start, Slava keeps his interviewer waiting while he fiddles with his cell phone, even flipping him off (and the audience) when asked a question. It’s a defiant behavior that pops up occasionally throughout their conversation. A former KGB agent trying to speak about politics is constantly interrupted by his young granddaughter playing nearby. It’s these unexpected asides that make the account a bit odd at times. Mostly the parallels between sports and politics are highlighted. The rise and fall of the Red Army team with that of the Soviet Union forming the underlying background for everything that happens. Their success was proof “that the Soviet system was the best system”.  Fetisov’s career is profiled with various ups and downs. Through it all he remains a very patriotic fellow despite remaining embittered toward his past coach. Perhaps the “bad old days” of the brutal regimen under which he trained weren’t really so bad in his eyes after all. You’ll understand when you see how this ends.

Mr. Turner

Posted in Biography, Drama, History on January 11, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Mr. Turner photo starrating-2stars.jpgIn Mike Leigh’s world, artist J. M. W. Turner (Timothy Spall) is a buffoon. An uncouth slob who grunts when he’s content and grunts when he’s despondent. An unpleasant beast that possessed a lot of skill but wielded it much in the same way a laborer would paint the walls of a room, with little care for passion or joy. The usual road for a biography such as this would be to present the master as a hero and tempt the audience with his impressive level of talent. There is no question in my mind that Turner was a genius in real life. I’ve seen his art. I knew this going in. What I was expecting was a deeper appreciation for the artist’s craft, technique or style. Oh you silly silly critic, I thought 75 minutes, merely halfway, into this interminable slog. This is a Mike Leigh movie. When has the director ever done what is expected? Unless of course it’s pitching a meandering chronicle with little plot or purpose. Then he sticks to the blueprint with rigid tenacity.

Mike Leigh’s filmmaking method is legendary. His lack of structure is pure catnip to those who worship at the altar of non conformity. In some circles, I suppose that’s the highest compliment I can pay – it’s a Mike Leigh production. The director has long been the cultural zenith for people who hate films that adhere to the norms of storytelling like having a climax or being like, ya know, interesting. Perhaps the lack of preparation has been exaggerated into more of a myth by now. No script. No order. Just a discussion with the actors on where to take the characters. The “story” will happen organically as the actors interact. Only after these improvised acting exercises does the narrative take shape. At least one would hope it comes together. As far as I’m concerned the jury is still out on that.

Mr. Turner spotlights the painter’s final quarter century of life when his more experimental side was being explored. He’s already in his 50s at the beginning of this tale. Leigh’s aim is to offer little vignettes in Turner’s life that almost subvert the traditional biopic. To Leigh’s credit, he doesn’t elevate his subject, so I guess that’s unexpected in a drama detailing the work of a great artist. The director’s focus is to wallow in the depths of a boorish clown – a man more inspired to shag his housekeeper (Dorothy Atkinson) than to paint great works of art. His biography could hardly be used as a way to learn about the man. An array of historical figures are paraded before the camera with no regard for establishing who they are or why they‘re important. I learned more information from the first paragraph of Turner’s Wikipedia article than I did from this nearly three hour film. But for those who like some facts, Turner is a preeminent British painter, “the painter of light” noted for his gorgeous landscapes. The production’s biggest merit is the cinematography where several cinematic vistas are captured that do convey the picturesque subjects Turner paints. Unfortunately most of Mr. Turner is a limp portrait presenting a repulsive man that happened to create transcendent art. If that’s Mike Leigh‘s idea of an ironic joke, I’m not laughing.

01-11-15

Selma

Posted in Biography, Drama, History with tags on January 2, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Selma photo starrating-4stars.jpgSelma begins with a bang – literally – showing the horrific 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. That terrorist act by white supremacists became a catalyst in the 1960s Civil Rights Movement – a spiritual wake up call. The quiet solitude of pretty little girls in their Sunday best, interrupted by the deafening blast is a frightening crime that hangs in the viewer’s mind. It’s an inflammatory start that incites anger over the attack on innocent life. Selma recounts the three protest marches that traveled the 54 mile highway from Selma, Alabama to the state capital of Montgomery. These were to challenge segregationist policies designed to keep black people from exercising their right to vote.

David Oyelowo is the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He is impassioned yet understated and utterly believable as the heartfelt orator. His addresses to the masses have all the influence you’d expect from an individual responsible for one of the most famous speeches we still quote. Yet his “I Have a Dream” speech never appears here. No Selma concerns the movement King spearheaded that contributed to passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. A big part of the film is the relationship between President Lyndon B. Johnson (a memorable Tom Wilkinson) and Dr. King. The reverend exhorts Johnson to sign the proposed legislation into law. The provisions of which abolished the poll tax and other means of keeping blacks and poor people from voting. The Civil Rights Act of 1960 was already in place but King argued it didn’t go far enough. Their back and forth negotiations in the political halls are an interesting and sometimes depressing window into the deal making of the political process. His backroom sparring of words with the President are captivating.

Dr. King is aware that Alabama, under the leadership of Governor George Wallace, had a poor reputation when it came to civil rights. If Johnson comes across as more of a troublesome stumbling block that King needs to convince, George Wallace is the unrepentant racist devil that with whom King cannot reason. The pro-segregationist policies of the governor largely credited by his critics for creating an atmosphere of intolerance. King courts the cruelest nature of man with his civil disobedience. He understands that gentle protests confronted with the expected violent response will show the American populace the need for change. Indeed the first march ends with 600 peaceful citizens attacked by state and local police with batons and tear gas. It’s a galvanizing scene of epic proportions. The result has the desired effect. The horrific sight resounds as a call to action to every God-fearing churchgoer watching TV in the comfort of their own home. The demographics of the next march joining Dr. King is now a mixture of both black and white Americans from near and far.

David Oyelowo is mesmerizing at Martin Luther King, Jr. However it is important to note that the title of director Ava DuVernay’s movie is Selma and not King. For this is not a biography of the man but a chronicle of the Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965. The narrow focus affords the story the consideration needed to handle the detailed issues involved. The account does justice to a very specific moment. The narrative even details the various infighting amongst fellow protestors that don’t always agree with King’s methods. These are enthusiastic people and their passions frequently engage the audience. The drama judiciously extracts raw anger at the trampling of freedoms we take for granted. It’s hard not to get caught up in the blatant disregard for human rights. The police brutality on display resonates even more strongly today. It’s almost impossible to ignore how perfectly this tale corresponds with recent events. The story couldn’t come at a more appropriate time. It makes Selma an even more powerful film.

12-15-14

The Ten Commandments

Posted in Adventure, Drama, History with tags on April 30, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Ten Commandments photo starrating-4andahalfstars.jpgLavish, Technicolor extravaganza shot in VistaVision is Cecil B. DeMille’s last and most celebrated work. Remaking his own 1923 black and white silent movie, The Ten Commandments is a sumptuous religious epic. Pure soap opera is woven into the Old Testament story about a man whose perspective changes when he realizes his true origins. Few films have attained such an unqualified level of sheer excess. Over the course of almost four hours, the picture dramatizes the life of Moses. That the script treats this topic with only the most holy reverence, is never a question. A viewing is akin to a religious experience. However it presents its subject with such unrestrained grandiloquence that at times, the exhibition verges on pageantry. Nevertheless the drama is an unqualified success.

Two mesmerizing performances highlight the saga. Charlton Heston is front and center as the main character. He embodies every bit the part with honor and authority. Cecil B. DeMille had been responsible for his breakthrough as a circus manager in The Greatest Show on Earth. As successful as that picture was, The Ten Commandments would prove to be much more iconic. “Let my people go!” he demands in one of his signature lines. Matching Heston for sheer magnetism as his arch nemesis is Yul Brynner as the Pharaoh Rameses II. He will not relent seemingly ending every proclamation with “So let it be written, so let it be done.” For Yul Brynner, 1956 was a phenomenal year. The Ten Commandments was sandwiched right between The King and I which had come out 3 months prior and Anastasia which was 2 months away. His subsequent Oscar win for playing the King of Siam overshadowed his work here. It was well deserved but Yul is quite extraordinary as the unrelenting pharaoh. This is Heston’s film but Brynner’s importance cannot be underestimated. He is a charismatic villain yet he engenders some sympathy. One would not expect a ruler who advocates slavery to have any redeeming qualities. A scene where he pleads with a statue of a falcon-headed Egyptian god to resurrect his firstborn son has an unexpected emotional nuance.

Cecil B. DeMille doesn’t know the meaning of moderation and thank goodness for that. Ornate sets, crowds of extras, special effects, it is a magnificent spectacle unlike any other. A director with a well tended ego, he even appears as himself at the beginning intro. Perhaps in an effort to silence critics of the liberties he took with the story, he freely admits that the narrative is compiled from sources that include other ancient texts. Occasionally the script veers into unintentionally hilarious dialogue. Perhaps chief among them, “Oh, Moses, Moses, you stubborn, splendid, adorable fool!” These actual words are uttered by Anne Baxter as Nefertiri, a part enhanced by her lustily exaggerated dramatics. She’s joined by a host of solid supporting performances. These include blacklisted actor Edward G. Robinson in a comeback role. He is memorably evil as Dathan, the unethical Israelite who betrays his own people.  There’s sultry Yvonne DeCarlo as Moses’ loyal wife Sephora.  This was before achieving TV fame as Lily Munster.  Joshua, a young slave played by actor John Derek, later known for launching the career of wife Bo Derek, and  Jewish slave girl Lilia, portrayed by 50s starlet Debra Paget. Even Vincent Price and John Carradine show up in minor roles.

The Ten Commandments is certainly extravagant. It was the most expensive film ever made up to that point. All exterior shots were actually photographed on location in Egypt. It employs a cast of thousands with 70 speaking parts. In an era where they really had to hire all of those people you see in the background, this was truly an epic undertaking. No computer animation. This is all practical effects. In a surprising bit of restraint, only 3 of the 10 plagues are depicted: the water turning into blood, thunder & hail storm, and killing of the oldest sons. The latter features an Angel of Death imagined as a thick, green mist that creeps through the streets claiming the lives of Egypt’s firstborn sons. As memorable as that was, it pales next to one of the greatest special effects sequences of all time that follows the Exodus of over 12,000 extra. The production culminates in Moses’ parting of the Red Sea in the climatic scene. Even now it’s a visual feat to be admired. It was nominated for 7 Academy Awards winning 1 for Best Visual Effects. To this day, the movie is the sixth most successful ever when adjusting for inflation. It remains the yardstick by which all biblical stories must be measured..

P.S. I’m well aware Ben-Hur is technically set during biblical times but it’s NOT a biblical story.

04-23-14

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