Film Review: Moses, The Law-Giver (dir by Gianfranco De Bosio)


I should probably start this review by admitting that there’s a legitimate question concerning whether or not 1974’s Moses, the Law-Giver should be considered a film or a miniseries.  Though there was an edited version of Moses that ran for 141 minutes and which was apparently released in theaters, the unedited version of Moses is 300 minutes long and was broadcast on television over a period of 6 nights.  The long, unedited version is the one that I watched on Prime for five hours on Friday.  Having watched the entire thing in one sitting, I personally consider Moses, the Law-Giver to be a film, albeit a very long one.

Moses, The Law-Giver tells the story of Moses and how he was exiled from Egypt, just to return years later to demand that Pharaoh set his people free.  The first two and a half hours deal with Moses and Egypt.  The second half of the film follows Moses and the Israelites as they seek the Promised Land.  Moses covers the same basic ground as The Ten Commandments, just in a far less flamboyant manner.

For instance, Charlton Heston was a powerful and fearsome Moses in The Ten Commandments.  In Moses, the Law-Giver, Burt Lancaster is a bit more subdued in the lead role.  Even though Lancaster was far too old to play the role, he still gives a convincing performance.  He plays Moses as a man who starts out unsure of himself but who grows more confident as the journey continues.  He’s also a man who is constantly struggling to control his emotions because he knows that he doesn’t have the luxury of showing any sign of weakness.  Whereas Heston bellowed in rage at the sight of the Golden Calf, Lancaster comes across more like a very disappointed father who is about to ground his children.  Lancaster’s low-key performance pays when, towards the end of the film, Moses is told that he will see the Promised Land but that he will not enter it.  The sudden look of pain on Moses’s face is powerful specifically because we’ve gotten so used to him holding it all back.  For a brief moment, he drops his mask and we realize the toll that the years have taken on him.

In The Ten Commandments, Yul Brynner was a determined and arrogant Pharaoh.  In Moses, the Pharaoh (who is played by Laurent Terzieff) is far more neurotic.  He’s portrayed as being Moses’s younger cousin and he seems to be personally hurt but Moses’s demand that the slaves be granted freedom.  It creates an interesting dynamic between the two characters, though it also robs the film of a credible villain.  Whereas Brynner’s Pharaoh was a fearsome opponent, Terzieff plays the character as being weak and indecisive.  Even if one didn’t already know the story, it’s till impossible to be surprised when Terzieff finally relents and allows the Israelites to leave Egypt.

Most importantly, Moses, The Law-Giver devotes more time to the relationship between Aaron and Moses than The Ten Commandments does.  In The Ten Commandments, John Carradine’s Aaron was an often forgotten bystander.  In Moses, Anthony Quayle plays Aaron and he’s pretty much a co-lead with Lancaster.  The film is as much about Aaron as it is about Moses and it actually takes the time to try to logically develop how Aaron could have been duped into creating the Golden Calf.  Quayle gives the best and most compelling performance in Moses, playing Aaron as a well-meaning and loyal sibling who, unfortunately, is often too worried about keeping everyone happy.  For all of his loyalty to Moses, Aaron still struggles with feelings of envy and Quayle does a wonderful job portraying him and turning him into a relatable character.

As a film, Moses, The Law-Giver is never as much as fun as The Ten Commandments.  It’s almost too subdued for its own good.  On the one hand, it’s possible to appreciate Moses for taking a somewhat realistic approach to the story but …. well, is that really what we want?  Or do we want the spectacle of decadent Egypt and the excitement of the red sea crashing down on Pharaoh’s army?  You can probably guess where I come down on that.

Of note to fans of Italian cinema, the film’s score — which is pretty good — was composed by Ennio Morricone.  The film’s special effects are credited to none other than Mario Bava!  This was one of Bava’s final credits.  Unfortunately, the special effects are never really that spectacular and there’s a few scenes where it’s obvious that stock footage has rather awkwardly been utilized.  But, no matter!  It still made me happy to see Bava’s name listed in the end credits.

Moses, The Law-Giver has its moments but, ultimately, The Ten Commandments remains the Moses film to watch.

Film Review: The Fall of the Roman Empire (dir by Anthony Mann)


Why did the Roman Empire fall?

Well, historically, there were several reasons but they can all basically be boiled down to the fact that the Empire got too big to manage and that having two separate capitols certainly didn’t help matters.  The Empire got so large and overextended that the once fabled Roman army was no match for the barbarians.

Of course, if you’ve ever watched a movie about the Roman period, you know exactly why the Empire fell.  It all had to do with decadence, gladiators, human sacrifices, and crazed emperors with unfortunate names like Caligula and Commodus.  The Roman Empire fell because the imperial government descended into soap opera, complete with love triangles, betrayals, and whispered plotting inside the Senate.

Another thing that we’ve learned from the movies is that the fall of the Roman Empire was damn entertaining.  Between the orgies and the men wearing those weird helmets with the brushes on top of them, there’s nothing more fun that watching the Roman Empire fall.

Case in point: the 1964 film, The Fall of the Roman Empire.

This three and a half hour epic begins with the last of the good Roman emperors, Marcus Aurelius (Alec Guiness), battling to keep the Germanic barbarians from invading the empire.  Marcus is a wise man and a great leader but he knows that his time is coming to an end and he needs to name a successor.  His daughter, Lucilla (Sophia Loren), is an intelligent and compassionate philosopher but, on the basis of her sex, is not eligible to succeed him.  His son, Commodus (Christopher Plummer), may be a great and charismatic warrior but he’s also immature and given to instability.  Marcus’s most trusted adviser, Timonides (James Mason), would never be accepted as a successor because of his Greek birth and background as a former slave.  (Add to that, Timonides is secretly a Christian.)

That leaves Livius (Stephen Boyd).  Livius is one of Marcus’s generals, a man who is not only renowned for his honesty and integrity but one who is also close to the royal family.  Not only is he a former lover of Lucilla’s but he’s also been a longtime friend to Commodus.  Unfortunately, before Marcus can officially name Livius as his heir, the emperor is poisoned.  Commodus is named emperor and things quickly go downhill.  Whereas Marcus ruled with wisdom and compassion, Commodus is a tyrant who crushes anyone who he views as being a potential threat.  Lucilla is married off to a distant king (Omar Sharif).  Timonides is declared an enemy after he suggests that the conquered Germans should be allowed to peacefully farm on Italian land.  Rebellion starts to ferment in every corner of the Empire and Livius finds himself trapped in the middle.  Which side will he join?

Despite all the drama, Commodus is not necessarily an unpopular emperor.  One of the more interesting things about The Fall of the Roman Empire is that Commodus’s popularity grows with his insanity.  The crueler that he is, the more the people seem to love him.  Soon, Commodus is fighting as a gladiator and having people burned at the stake.  While some Romans are horrified, many more love their emperor no matter what.  People love power, regardless of what it’s used for.  Perhaps that’s the main lesson and the main warning that the final centuries of the Roman Empire have to give us.

The Fall of the Roman Empire is surprisingly intimate historical epic.  While there’s all the grandeur that one would normally expect to see in a film about the Roman Empire, the film works best when it concentrates on the characters.  While Boyd and Loren do their best with their thinly drawn roles, the film is stolen by great character actors like Alec Guinness, James Mason, and Christopher Plummer.  Plummer, in particular, seems to be having a blast playing the flamboyantly evil yet undeniably charismatic Commodus.  Even with the Empire collapsing around then, both Plummer as an actor and Commodus as a character seems to be having a blast.  Add to that, there’s all of the usual battles and ancient decadence that you would expect to find in a film about the Roman Empire and the end result is a truly enjoyable epic.

As I watched The Fall of the Roman Empire, it was hard for me not to compare the film to Ridley Scott’s Gladiator.  That’s because they’re both basically the same damn movie.  The main difference is that The Fall of the Roman Empire is far more entertaining.  The Fall of the Roman Empire, made in the days before CGI and featuring real people in the streets of Rome as opposed to animated cells, feels real in a way that Gladiator never does.  If Gladiator felt like a big-budget video game, The Fall of the Roman Empire feels like a trip in a time machine.  If I ever do go back to 180 A.D., I fully expect to discover James Mason giving a speech to the Roman Senate while Christopher Plummer struts his way through the gladiatorial arena.

Finally, to answer the question that started this review, why did the Roman Empire fall?

It was all Christopher Plummer’s fault, but at least he had a good time.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Winner: Hamlet (dir by Laurence Olivier)


(With the Oscars scheduled to be awarded on March 4th, I have decided to review at least one Oscar-nominated film a day.  These films could be nominees or they could be winners.  They could be from this year’s Oscars or they could be a previous year’s nominee!  We’ll see how things play out.  Today, I take a look at the 1948 best picture winner, Hamlet!)

Hamlet is a film of firsts.

It was the first British production to win the Oscar for Best Picture.  In winning, it beat out three American films (Johnny Belinda, The Snake Pit, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) and one other British film (The Red Shoes).

It was also the first adaptation of Shakespeare to win Best Picture.  Of course, it wasn’t the first Shakespeare adaptation to be nominated.  That honor would go to 1935’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Adaptations of Romeo and Juliet would be nominated in 1936, 1961, and 1968.  Henry V (which, like Hamlet, was directed by and starred Laurence Olivier) was a 1946 nominee.  Then there was 1953’s Julius Caesar.  The Dresser featured scenes from Shakespeare.  Shakespeare in Love imagined the circumstances behind the writing of Romeo and Juliet.  However, Hamlet was the first to win.

It also remains the only traditional Shakespearean adaptation to win.  West Side Story updated Romeo and Juliet while Shakespeare in Love … well, let’s just not get into it.

It was the first Best Picture winner to be directed by the man starring in the movie.  Laurence Olivier was nominated for both Best Director and Best Actor.  He lost the directing Oscar to John Huston but he won for his performance as Hamlet.  In winning, he became the first actor to direct himself to an Oscar.

Finally, Hamlet was the first of 24 films to feature both Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee!  In fact, this was Lee’s film debut.  Now, before anyone gets too excited, I should point out that Cushing and Lee don’t actually interact.  In fact, Lee doesn’t even speak in the film.  He appears in the background as a Spear Carrier and it’s pretty much impossible to spot him.  He has no dialogue and wasn’t even listed in the final credits.  From what I’ve read, I don’t think Lee and Cushing even knew each other at the time and, when they later met, they were surprised to learn that they had both appeared in the film.  For his part, Cushing plays Osiric, the courtier who everyone remembers because he had such a cool name.

It’s always fun to play “what if.”  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do not appear in Olivier’s adaptation of the play.  To modern audiences, that might seem strange but, really, that’s just because we’re all familiar with the two characters from Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.  When Olivier filmed Hamlet, he excised portions of the play in the interest of time.  (Hamlet uncut runs over four hours.  Olivier’s version clocks in at nearly three.)  Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Fortinbras, and the second gravedigger are all dropped from Olivier’s version and, to be honest, none of them are particularly missed.

And yet … as I watched Hamlet, I found myself wondering what would have happened if Olivier had kept Rosencrantz and Guildenstern around and had cast Cushing and Lee in those roles.  It probably wouldn’t have happened, of course.  Cushing maybe but Lee was a total unknown at the time.  Still, how amazing would that have been?

As for the actual film, Olivier’s Hamlet turned out to be far more cinematic than I was anticipating.  Olivier’s camera snakes through the darkened hallways of Elsinore Castle while Olivier’s Hamlet veers between self-righteous fury and apparent madness as he seeks revenge on his Uncle Claudius (Basil Sydney).  As Hamlet grows more obsessed with death and vengeance, the castle seems to grow darker and the hallways even more maze-like, as if the castle’s changing shape to conform with the turmoil in Hamlet’s mind.  Among the cast, Jean Simmons is poignantly fragile as Ophelia while Eileen Herlie is the perfect Gertrude, despite being 12 years younger than the actor playing her son.  Olivier gives a wonderfully physical performance as Hamlet, killing Polonious with a demented gleam in his eye and literally leaping towards his uncle at the end of the film.

If you’re one of those people who thinks that Shakespeare is boring … well, Olivier’s Hamlet probably won’t change your mind.  One thing I’ve noticed about the “Shakespeare is boring” crowd is that nothing can change their minds.  But, for the rest of us, Olivier’s Hamlet is an exciting adaptation of Shakespeare’s more difficult play.

You won’t miss Rosencrantz and Guildenstern at all.  And seriously, Fortinbras who?

Lisa Marie Does The Wrong Man (dir by Alfred Hitchcock)


Since today is Alfred Hitchcock’s birthday, I figured why not take a few minutes to recommend one of his films that you may not have seen.  First released in 1956 but still painfully relevant today, The Wrong Man is one of Hitchcock’s best but it’s also one of his most underrated.

The Wrong Man deals with a common Hitchcock theme — i.e., an innocent man has been accused of a crime and, despite all of his efforts, cannot seem to convince anyone of his innocence.  The difference between The Wrong Man and something like Saboteur or Frenzy is that The Wrong Man is based on a true story.

Manny Ballestro (Henry Fonda) is a struggling musician.  He makes $85 a week, playing in a small jazz club.  But even though he may not be rich, he’s happy.  He loves his job.  He loves making music.  Even more importantly, he loves his wife, Rose (Vera Miles).  But Rose needs to have her wisdom teeth removed and it’s going to cost $300.  (As a sign of how much things have changed, I would have been relieved if it had only cost me $300 to get my wisdom teeth taken out.)  Desperate for money, Manny tries to borrow money on his wife’s life insurance plan.  What Manny doesn’t know is that the insurance office has been held up twice by a man who bears a vague resemblance to him.  A clerk calls the police and Manny soon finds himself being taken down to the police station.

Two detectives say that they need Manny’s help but they don’t tell him why.  But Manny knows he’s innocent of any crime and he believes that the police are on his side and he agrees to help.  When they tell him to walk into a liquor store, he does so.  When they take him to a deli, he goes in there as well.  When they demand to know why he was trying to borrow money on his wife’s life insurance, he tells them.  When they ask him about his financial difficulties, he tells them about that as well.  Why shouldn’t he?  He’s innocent and the police are just doing their job, right?  And when the cops finally ask him to copy down a few words that were used in the note that the robber slipped the clerk at the insurance company, Manny does so.  And when they then ask him to take part in a line-up, he does that as well…

And when Manny is arrested and charged with a crime … well, that’s when he finally understands that the system is not on his side.  His wife manages to hire a reputable attorney, Frank O’Connor (Anthony Quayle), to defend him but it quickly becomes obvious that the world has already decided that Manny is guilty.  When Manny and his wife try to track down some people who could provide Manny with an alibi, they discover that two of them are dead and one of them cannot be found.  For once, in a Hitchcock film, it’s not a case of conspiracy.  Instead, it’s just bad luck.

And, through it all, Rose continues to blame herself.  In fact, she is so wracked with guilt that she has a nervous breakdown.

It all leads to an amazingly disheartening courtroom scene.  As quickly becomes obvious, the judge has little interest in what’s happening in his court.  Even worse, the jury is unconcerned with the evidence.  Most of them are just annoyed at the inconvenience and punishing Manny seems like the perfect way to release their own frustrations…

It’s a bleak picture of the American justice system.  Watching The Wrong Man today, it’s tempting to say that the film is just a reflection of society in the 1950s and that things have changed today.  But really, have they?  True, the police may now be required to read someone their rights when they’re arrested.  A suspect can now ask for a lawyer.  We’ve got laws against entrapment and all the rest.  But that doesn’t matter.  We still live in a society where people are still widely presumed to be guilty, even after they’ve been found innocent in a court of law.  We still live in a society where the wrong man can have his life ruined because of one mistake.

The Wrong Man doesn’t get as much attention as some of Hitchcock’s other films.  In many ways, it’s an atypical example of his work.  Hitchcock was notorious for his dark sense of humor and his habit of waving away most plot points as just being mere “macguffins.”  With the exception of two scenes, both of which are meant to depict Manny’s mental state, The Wrong Man is filmed in a documentary style, one that occasionally seems more like Sidney Lumet than Alfred Hitchcock.  There’s next to no humor, nor are there any big or flamboyant twists.  In short, The Wrong Man finds the director of Psycho, Vertigo, and Rear Window at his most sincere.  It takes some getting used to.

But, once you do get used to it, The Wrong Man emerges as a powerful and bleak portrait of two innocent people at the mercy of a soulless system.  It’s a must see so be sure to see it!

The-Wrong-Man-poster

Cleaning Out The DVR, Again #8: Anne of the Thousand Days (dir by Charles Jarrott)


Anne

After I finished writing my review of Rolling Thunder, I continued the process of cleaning out my DVR by watching the 1969 film, Anne of the Thousand Days.  How does a film like Anne of the Thousand Days compare to a film like Rolling Thunder?

They might as well have been conceived, written, directed, and released on different planets.

I recorded Anne of The Thousand Days off of TCM on March 26th.  The main reason that I set the DVR to record it was because Anne was a best picture nominee.  It may seem strange to think that this rather conventional film was nominated the same year as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Z, and Midnight Cowboy.  It gets even stranger when you consider what wasn’t nominated that year: Medium Cool, If…, Last Summer, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, Alice’s Restaurant, The Wild Bunch, Once Upon A Time In The West, and a long list of other films.  In fact, if I wanted to, I could probably spend this entire review listing all of the 1969 films that feel like a more appropriate best picture nominee than Anne of the Thousand Days.

And yet, Anne was nominated for best picture.  In fact, it received a total of 10 Oscar nominations, the most of any film that year.  Tellingly most of the nominations were in the technical categories and the only Oscar that it won was for its costumes.  Genevieve Bujold received a nomination for playing the title character and Richard Burton became the third actor to receive a nomination for playing King Henry VIII.

As for the film, Anne of the Thousand Days tells the oft-told story of King Henry VIII and his marriage to Anne Boleyn.  Told in flashback as both Henry and Anne wait for her to be executed on charges of adultery, the film shows us how middle-aged Henry VIII first met and fell in love with 18 year-old Anne Boleyn.  Standing in the way of Henry’s pursuit of Anne was the fact that 1) Anne intensely disliked him, 2) Anne was already engaged, 3) Anne’s sister was already Henry’s mistress, and 4) Henry was already married to Catherine of Aragon (Irene Papas).

Fortunately, Henry happens to be king and being king comes with its perks.

For instance, as king, he can order Anne and her fiancée to break up.  As king, he can casually dismiss his former mistress.  And, as king, Henry has the power that Anne finds to be the ultimate aphrodisiac.  At first, Anne merely loves the fact that Henry is obsessed with her.  But slowly, she comes to love Henry as a man as well…

The only problem is that Henry is still married and Catherine is still popular with the people.  Even after Henry divorces her and marries Anne, the common people refuse to accept Anne as their queen.  When Sir Thomas More (William Squire) refuses to recognize Anne as queen, Anne demands that More be executed.  When Henry initially shows reluctance, Anne announces that she will not sleep with him until More is dead.

Needless to say, Thomas More is quickly executed.

However, Henry’s attention has already moved on to Jane Seymour (Lesley Paterson) and, desperate to get Anne out of his life, he arranges for Cardinal Cromwell (John Colicos) to frame Anne on charges of adultery and incest.  With Anne facing a humiliating trial and the possibility of execution, Henry makes her an offer.  If she agrees to an annulment, he’ll free her.  However, their daughter — Elizabeth — will lose her claim to the throne…

It’s telling that Charles Jarrott did not receive an Oscar nomination for his work as Anne of the Thousand Day‘s director.  There are a lot of technically good things about Anne of the Thousand Days but, despite all of the melodrama and sex and historical detail to be found in Anne, it never comes to life as a movie.  The costumes are to die for, the sets are impressive, and the cast is full of talented British character actors but the whole movie just feels oddly flat.  Try as it may, it can never convince us that either Henry VIII or Anne Boleyn is worth all the trouble.

Anne of the Thousand Days was obviously a big production, which probably explains all the Oscar nominations.  But otherwise, it’s one of the more forgettable best picture nominees.