Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Doctor Zhivago (dir by David Lean)


Klaus Kinski is the main reason to watch the 1965 film, Doctor Zhivago.

The legendarily difficult and erratic Mr. Kinski shows up about halfway through this 3-and-a-half hour film.  He plays a cynical and unstable prisoner on a train.  The train is full of passengers who are escaping from Moscow and heading for what they hope will be a better and more stable life in the Ural Mountains.  (The film takes place during the Communist revolution and the subsequent purges.)  That Kinski taunts everyone on the train is not a surprise.  Both Werner Herzog and David Schmoeller (who directed Kinski in Crawlspace) have made documentaries in which they both talked about how difficult it was to work with Kinski and how several film crews apparently came close to murdering Klaus Kinski several times throughout his career.

Instead, what’s surprising about Kinski’s performance is that he’s even there to begin with.  Doctor Zhivago is an extremely long and extremely stately film.  It’s one of those films where almost every actor gives a somewhat restrained performance.  It’s a film where almost every shot is tastefully composed and where the action often slows down to a crawl so that we can better appreciate the scenery.  It’s a film that stops for an intermission and which opens with a lengthy musical overture.  In short, this is a film of old school craftsmanship and it’s the last place you would expect to find Klaus Kinski luring about.

When he does show up, you’re happy to see him.  Even though he’s only onscreen for about five minute, Kinski gives the film a jolt of much-needed energy.  After hours of watching indecisive characters talk and talk and talk, Kinski pops up and basically, “Screw this, I hate everything.”  And it’s exciting because it’s one of the few time that Doctor Zhivago feels unpredictable.  It’s one of the few times that it feels like a living work of art instead of just a very pretty but slightly stuffy composition.

Just from reading all that, you may think that I don’t like Doctor Zhivago but that’s actually not the case. It’s a heavily flawed film and you have to be willing to make a joke or two if you’re going to try to watch the whole thing in just one sitting but it’s still an interesting throwback to a very specific time in film history.  Doctor Zhivago was designed to not only be a spectacle but to also convince audiences that 1) TV was worthless and that 2) Hollywood craftsmanship was still preferable to the art films that were coming out of Europe.  At a time when television and independent European cinema was viewed as being a real threat to the future of the film industry, Doctor Zhivago was a film that was meant to say, “You can’t get this on your black-and-white TV!  You can only get this from Hollywood where, dammit, people still appreciate a good establishing shot and treat the production code with respect!”  Even today, some of the spectacle is still impressive.  The beautiful shots of the countryside are still often breath-taking.  The scenes of two lovers living in an ice filled house are still incredibly lovely to look at.  The musical score is still sweepingly romantic and impressive.

It’s the story where the film gets in trouble.  Omar Sharif plays Yuri Zhivago, a doctor and a poet who falls in love with Lara (Julie Christie) while Russia descends into chaos.  The Czar is overthown.  The communists come to power and prove themselves to be just as hypocritical as the Romanovs.  The revolutionary Pasha (Tom Courtenay, bearing a distracting resemblance to Roddy McDowall) is in love with Lara and helps to bring about the revolution but is then declared an enemy of the people during the subsequent purges.  The craven Komarovsky (Rod Steiger) also wants to possess Lara and he’s so corrupt that he manages to thrive under both the Czar and the communists.  Alec Guinness plays Yuri’s half-brother and is the most British Russian imaginable.  Doctor Zhivago is based on a Russian novel so there’s a lot of characters running around and they’re all played by a distinguished cast of international thespians.  However, none of them are as interesting as the scenery.

As for the two main actors, Omar Sharif and Julie Christie convince you that they’re in love but not much else.  Sharif is never convincing as a poet and he feels miscast as a man who spends most of his time thinking.  Reportedly, Lean’s first choice for the role was Peter O’Toole and it’s easy to imagine O’Toole in the part.  But O’Toole had already done Lawrence of Arabia with Lean and didn’t feel like subjecting himself to another year of Lean’s notoriously prickly direction.  So, the role went to O’Toole co-star, Sharif.   Julie Christie turned down Thunderball to do both this film and Darling, for which she would subsequently win an Oscar.

(Speaking of the Oscars, Doctor Zhivago was nominated for Best Picture and, though it won five other Oscars, it lost the big prize to The Sound of Music, of all things.  1965 really wasn’t a great year for the Oscars.  The only 1965 Best Picture nominee that still feels like it really deserved to be nominated is Darling.  Of the other nominees, Ship of Fools is ponderous and A Thousand Clowns is almost unbearably annoying.  And The Sound of Music …. well, I prefer the Carrie Underwood version.)

Doctor Zhivago is a big, long, epic film.  It’s lovely to look at and it has a few nice scenes mixed in with a bunch of scenes that seem to go on forever.  In the conflict between the state and the individual, it comes down firmly on the side of the individual and that’s a good thing.  (The communist government attempts to suppress Yuri’s love poems because they celebrate the individual instead of society.  And though the government might be able to destroy Yuri’s life, they can’t destroy his spirit.  Again, it’s a message that would have worked better with a more thoughtful lead actor but still, it’s a good message.)  It’s a flawed film but watch it for the spectacle.  Watch it for Klaus Kinski.

Horror Film Review: Taste the Blood of Dracula (dir by Peter Sasdy)


Taste_the_blood_of_dracula

Two years after being temporarily destroyed at the end of Dracula Has Risen From The Grave, Dracula returned in 1970’s Taste The Blood of Dracula!  Returning in the role and uttering only a handful of lines, Christopher Lee gave one of his most intimidating performances in the role of everyone’s favorite vampire.

Picking up where Dracula Has Risen From The Grave ended, Taste the Blood of Dracula opens with a sleazy merchant named Weller (Roy Kinnear) upsetting his fellow passengers during a carriage ride through Eastern Europe.  After they forcefully toss him out of the carriage, Weller comes across a crucifix-impaled Dracula.  Weller watches as Dracula dissolves into red dust.  Weller gathers up the dust and Dracula’s ring and brooch.

A few months later, the plot picks up with three wealthy men in England.  Hargood (Geoffrey Keen), Paxton (Peter Sallis), and Secker (John Carson) pretend to be charitable church goers but, in reality, they spend most of their spare time down at a wonderfully ornate brothel.  One night, at the brothel, they meet a disgraced nobleman named Courtley (Ralph Bates), who was disinherited for attempting to hold a black mass.  Intrigued by Courtley’s promise to give them an experience that they’ll never forget, the three men agree to purchase Dracula’s blood from Weller.

When they go to meet Courtley in a desecrated church, things suddenly go wrong.  Courtley attempts to force the three men to drink from a goblet containing a mix of his and Dracula’s blood.  After all three of the men refuse, Courtley himself drinks the blood.  The men respond by beating Courtley to death and then fleeing from the church.  After the men are gone, Courtley’s dead body transforms into a now living Dracula.  Dracula announces that those who have destroyed his servant will now be destroyed themselves.

And he proceeds to do just that, turning the men’s children into vampires and then commanding them to kill their parents.  Among those possessed are Alice (Linda Hayden), Hargood’s daughter for whom the film suggests Hargood may have incestuous feelings.  Alice is in love with Paul (Anthony Corlan), the son of Paxton.  When both Alice and his sister Lucy (Isla Blair) disappear, Paul sets out to find them and instead, comes across Dracula…

Taste the Blood of Dracula features Dracula at his cruelest (which, of course, makes it all the more ironic that his main motivation here is to avenge the death of his servant).  Whereas Dracula could probably very easily kill all three of the men himself, his decision to use their children to get his revenge adds a whole new level of horrific ickiness to the film.  Fortunately, none of the three men are particularly likable but still, it’s hard not to be disturbed when you’re confronted by the image of a vampirized daughter driving a stake into her own father’s heart.

But then again, that’s a part of the appeal of the old Hammer films, isn’t it?  Hammer films actually “go there” in a way that the period’s American horror films would probably never quite dare.

As for Taste the Blood of Dracula, there’s a lot to recommend it.  Director Peter Sadsy keeps the action moving, both the sets and the supporting cast are properly baroque, and how can you go wrong with Christopher Lee playing Dracula?  Christopher Lee is one of those actors who could do so much with just a glare and the fact that his Dracula says very little only serves to make him all the more intimidating and frightening.

Christopher Lee, of course, has never made a secret of the fact that he didn’t particularly care much for the Hammer Draculas, often complaining that the films failed to stay true to the spirit of Bram Stoker’s conception of the character.  Undoubtedly, Lee does have a point and the Hammer Draculas did decline in quality over the years.  (Just wait until we get to Dracula A.D. 1972.)  But Taste the Blood of Dracula is still a pretty effective vampire film.  Hammer’s Dracula may not have been Stoker’s Dracula but, as played by Lee, he still dominates our dreams and nightmares.

James Bond Review: Octopussy (dir. by John Glen)


 

We’re at the home stretch in the Roger Moore-era of Ian Fleming’s James Bond film series. During his time in the role as Britain’s super spy extraordinaire we’ve seen him put his own personal stamp on the role. It was a daunting task seeing the role had been played by Sean Connery early in the film series and had done such a great job of making the character such a cultural icon that anyone following him would forever be compared. Moore doesn’t just hold his own, but has built such a loayl following in the role that many consider his portrayal of Agent 007 as the best in the series.

His Bond when compared to Connery’s portrayal was more the witty charmer who tried to use his wits and brains to solve problematic (usually dangerous ones) situations he finds himself in. Connery’s Bond was more the physical type whose charm belied a much darker personality streak that Moore’s portrayal could never pull off no matter how the writers tried.

The Roger Moore-era also redefined the franchise as more more about action and less and less thriller with each new film. This culminates in Moore’s most action-packed film in the role with the 13th Bond film (produced by EON) in Octopussy.

The film begins with one of the more impressive opening sequences in the series as we find Bond in the middle of an undercover mission in Cuba. This intro’s stunt work with Bond piloting a mini-plane in and around Cuban airspace to escape and, at the same time, fulfill his mission remains a highlight in the series where each new film tries to raise the bar in terms of well-choreographed and very complicated action scenes.

Octopussy sees Bond traveling to India, East and West Germany to halt the nuclear and warmongering ambitions of a Soviet general who sees his country’s nuclear disarmament talks with the West as inviting defeat for the Soviet Union. We also have the theft of priceless Russian treasures like the Faberge Eggs being used to finance this general’s plan to complicate bond’s main mission. The plot for Octopussy is a reminder of the time it was filmed in. Reagan and Thatcher had a strong control of the West and their confrontational attitudes towards the Soviet Union and it’s satellite states made people believe that the world was on the brink of war. This public sentiment affected the fiction and entertainment of the time with Cold War thrillers becoming ascendant once more.

As much as the basic outline of the film’s plot looked to be impressive on the face of it the way the story unfolded was quite a hit-and-miss affair. I put some of this on the shoulders of it’s director John Glen who seemed more interested in moving the story from one action scene to the next while paying just the minimum of lip-service to the quieter scenes that occur in-between.

This being Moore’s sixth Bond film we pretty much know how his Bond operates. So, it falls to fleshing out his rivals and enemies to help create a much more interesting film beyond the extravagant action scenes. We learn about the agendas and personalities of Bond’s rivals through too much exposition info dumps. Even the title’ character of Octopussy (played by Maud Adams) we don’t get to learn much of other than a brief personal history dialogue she has with Bond the first time we meet. Of Bond’s two enemies in the film one is the warmongering General Orlov (played by Steven Berkoff) who comes off like an over-the-top caricature with a distinct speech pattern to match. The other is the exiled Afghan prince Kamal Khan who comes off a bit more fleshed out as Octopussy’s covetous partner-in-crime. Louis Jourdan as Kamal Khan plays the role with a sense of panache and joie de vivre that at times he’s able to match Moore’s Bond in the charisma department whenever the two share the screen together.

What should interest people about Octopussy are the very action scenes I spoke about earlier. From the opening sequence in Cuba to a thrilling race against time that traverses from East Germany to West Germany to stop a nuclear weapon from detonating it’s no wonder some people consider Octopussy as a favorite. I enjoyed the film for these very sequences despite missteps in the overall execution of the plot and inconsistencies in the performances of the cast. Yet, the film had the DNA to be much better and after repeated viewings one could see that in the hands of a different filmmaker and changes in the cast this sixth Moore-era Bond film had the potential to be one of the best.

Octopussy would mark the start of the franchise’s decline in the face of much more violent and action-packed action films of the 80’s. The film tried to keep up with this rising trend in action filmmaking during the 80’s. It was able to succeed in a fashion in making the series much more action-packed (though quite bloodless in comparison to what was about to come out of Hollywood in the coming years), but in doing so the film’s storyline and characters suffered that the film doesn’t hold up the test of time unlike some of the early Connery and Moore films.

On a side note, the film did have one of my favorite Bond song’s with Rita Coolidge singing “All Time High” in the intro sequence. A song title that was quite ironic considering that the film definitely didn’t hit an all time high.

James Bond Film Review: The Spy Who Loved Me (dir. by Lewis Gilbert)


For the past few days, the Shattered Lens has been taking a journey through the history of the James Bond film franchise.  Today, we continue that journey by taking a look at 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me.  This was the 10th film in the “official” James Bond series and the 3rd to star Roger Moore as 007.  It was also the first of Moore’s films to be embraced by contemporary critics and it’s still considered to be one of the best films in the entire series.  It’s also one of my personal favorites.

The Spy Who Loved Me opens with one of the most of brilliant pre-credit sequences in the history of the franchise.  British and Russian submarines are mysteriously vanishing.  M (a returning Bernard Lee) summons James Bond (Roger Moore) to investigate.  Not surprisingly, Bond is with a woman at a ski resort when the summons comes.  As Bond starts to leave, the woman says, “But James, I need you.”

“So does England,” Bond replies.

Now, this was long before my time so I can’t say for sure but I always like to imagine  that line got some applause when it was first heard in theaters.  It is with that line (and, even more importantly, with his self-assured but humorous delivery of that line) that Roger Moore truly claims the role of James Bond as his own.  No, this scene seemed to be telling us, Moore would never be Sean Connery.  But he would be James Bond.

After leaving the chalet, Bond finds himself being pursued by several Russian agents.  This downhill ski chase, filmed by real people who were truly putting their lives in danger in the days before CGI, is one of the most exciting of all the chases to be found in Bond films and it builds up to a perfect climax.  After Bond manages to kill one of his pursuers, he skis right over the edge of a cliff.  Luckily, he has a parachute in his backpack and, of course, it’s a union jack parachute.  Again, I like to imagine that audiences applauded at this moment.

Bond’s escape leads to the opening credits and, even more importantly, Carly Simon singing the film’s theme song, “Nobody Does It Better.”  Seriously, I love this song.

Both MI6 and the KGB discover that the plans for a submarine tracking system are being sold on the Egyptian black market.  Suspecting that this is connected to the missing submarines, both James Bond and the Russian agent Anya Asamova (Barbara Bach) are sent to Egypt.  Bond and Anya team up to find the plans.  Along the way, they are attacked multiple times by Jaws (Richard Kiel), a hulking man with steel teeth.

Eventually, Bond and Anya discover that the man responsible for the missing submarines is Karl Stromberg (Curt Jurgens), a shipping magnate who is planning on destroying the surface world so that he can start a new society underwater.  The two secret agents work together to defeat Stromberg even though Anya assures Bond that she’s going to kill him as soon as their mission is completed.  Remember the man who Bond killed during that opening ski chase?  It turns out that man was Anya’s lover and she’s only putting off getting her revenge so that she and Bond can save the world first.

With its confident mix of humor, intrigue, and spectacular action, The Spy Who Loved Me remains one of the most popular of the Bond films.  It’s certainly one of my favorites.

Along with From Russia With Love and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, this is the most romantic of the Bond films.  Roger Moore and Barbara Bach have a very real chemistry and, as a result, you actually care about whether or not Bond and Anya will still be together after the end credits.  As played by Barbara Bach, Anya is one of the strongest of the Bond girls.  For once, Bond and his lover are truly equals.  For anyone who doubts the importance of having a strong Bond girl, I invite them to compare this movie to The Man With The Golden Gun.

For those who are more into action than romance, The Spy Who Loved Me will not leave them disappointed.  This film features some of the best set pieces in the history of the Bond franchise.  Along with the ski chase at the start of the film, there’s also a genuinely exciting car chase that features Bond and Anya being pursued by a helicopter piloted by Caroline Munro.

(Speaking of cars, this film also features one of my favorite Bond gadgets — a car that doubles as a submarine.)

Karl Stromberg makes for an interesting villain.  His plan makes absolutely no sense but he may be the first Bond bad guy to motivated by perverted idealism as opposed to pure greed.  As you would expect from a Bond film, his secret underwater HQ is quite an impressive set.  However, the best thing about Stromberg is that he employs Jaws.  With his stainless steel teeth, Jaws was the best henchman since Goldfinger‘s Oddjob and he proved to be such a popular character that he actually returned in the next Bond film.

One final note: As has often been noted, The Spy Who Loved Me was the first Bond film to have absolutely nothing in common (beyond a title) with the book that it was based on.  This is largely because the literary Spy Who Loved Me wasn’t really about James Bond.  Instead, it told the life story of Vivienne Michel, a Canadian woman who just happens to meet Bond towards the end of the book.  Fleming reportedly considered this book to be a failed experiment on his part and reportedly he only sold the film rights when he was assured that only the book’s title would be used.

That said, I recently read The Spy Who Loved Me and it’s not that bad.  Vivienne Michel is a compelling character and it’s interesting to, for once, see James Bond through the eyes of a lover as opposed to the other way around.  If it is a failed experiment, it’s still an experiment that’s worth reading.

As for the cinematic James Bond, he conquered the sea in The Spy Who Loved Me so it only made sense that, in his next film, he would attempt to conquer space.  We’ll take a look at Moonraker tomorrow.