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: The Wolfman (dir by Joe Johnston)


I have to admit that I’m always a little bit surprised to discover how many people really don’t like the 2010 film, The Wolfman.

I mean, I’ll be the first to admit that it may not have been the greatest film ever made but the amount of negative feelings that this film has managed to generate over the years seems, to me, to be a bit out of proportion.  Essentially, it’s just a silly film about a werewolf.

Yes, it is a remake of The Wolf Man and we’re all honor-bound to dislike remakes but, if we’re going to be absolutely honest, the original Wolf Man was sometimes pretty silly too.  If anything, the original’s success is largely due to the heartfelt work of Claude Rains in the role of the Wolf Man’s father.  Yes, the original Wolf Man is a classic but remaking it is not exactly sacrilege.

In the remake, Benicio Del Toro takes over the role of Larry Talbot, who is reimagined as a Shakespearean actor who has a history of mental instability.  Del Toro is not exactly convincing as an Englishman, though the same could be said of Lon Chaney, Jr.  However, nobody broods with quite the panache of Benicio Del Toro and that’s what was needed for the remake’s version of Larry Talbot.  If Lon Chaney, Jr. played Larry as being a dumb lug, Del Toro plays Larry as being a tortured artist.

Anthony Hopkins takes over the old Claude Rains role.  Just as it’s difficult to imagine Del Toro as being English, it’s next to impossible to imagine him sharing any DNA with Anthony Hopkins.  And yet, I’m really glad that Hopkins was cast in the role.  Of course, in the remake, the character of John Talbot has been totally reimagined.  He’s now something of a bitter and sarcastic alcoholic, a negligent father who always seem to be amused at some mean-spirited joke that only he can understand.  I imagine that if I asked Hopkins, he’d say that he did this role for the money but there’s nothing wrong with that.  Some of Hopkins’s best performances have been the ones that he subsequently claimed to have done only for the money.  Freed from any obligation to give a nuanced or subtle performance, Hopkins goes totally over-the-top and it’s actually a lot of fun to watch.  In The Wolfman, Hopkins turns the delivery of bitter bon mots and erduite insults into an art form.

Watching the film’s first half, we all know what’s going to happen.  Gypsies are going to show up in the woods near Talbot Hall and paranoid villagers are going to blame them for everything that happens.  Larry is going to get bitten by a werewolf and transform every night when the moon is full.  Larry is going to fall in love with Gwen (Emily Blunt) but, for her own protection, will try to send her away.  An arrogant but clever inspector, Francis Abberline (Hugo Weaving, playing a version of the real-life detective who inspired the role played by Johnny Depp in From Hell), is going to arrive from London to investigate all the recent deaths…

About halfway through, The Wolfman takes a totally unexpected turn.  I won’t spoil it here, just in case you haven’t seen the movie.  I know a lot of people don’t care much for the big twist but I happened to love it.  Yes, it doesn’t necessarily make a lot of sense and it’s all a bit overdone but so what?  It’s exactly the type of weird twist that a movie like this needs.  It all leads to a final confrontation, one that is as exuberantly silly as the original’s conclusion was somber and tragic.

The key to enjoying The Wolfman is to accept it for what it is, an occasionally dumb and definitely not-to-be-taken-seriously movie that features some appropriately atmospheric cinematography, gorgeously gothic production design, and some very talented actors.  (I especially enjoyed Weaving’s performance as Abberline.)  A classic it may not be, but it’s still a fun little movie if you’re in the right mood for it.

Insomnia File #27: Remember My Name (dir by Alan Rudolph)


What’s an Insomnia File? You know how some times you just can’t get any sleep and, at about three in the morning, you’ll find yourself watching whatever you can find on cable? This feature is all about those insomnia-inspired discoveries!

If you were having trouble sleeping last Tuesday, around one in the morning, you could have turned over to TCM and watched Remember My Name, an odd and sometimes frustrating little thriller from 1978.

Remember My Name opens with Emily (Geraldine Chaplin) showing up in a small town in California.  From the minute we first see and hear Emily, something seems to be off about her.  She views the world through suspicious eyes.  Whenever anyone talks to her, you’re never quite sure whether she’s going be friendly or if she’s going to lash out.  When she speaks, there’s something weird about her vocal inflection, as if she’s always struggling to figure out what she’s supposed to say.  She seems to be separated from the world, almost as if she’s walking through a living dream and only talking to figments of her imagination.  There’s nothing about her that feels at all authentic.

She moves into a small apartment and enters into a relationship with her handyman (Moses Gunn), a relationship that seems to be largely defined by her refusal to open up about herself.  She gets a job at a grocery story that’s managed by a Mr. Nudd (Jeff Goldblum).  Mr. Nudd mentions something about Emily knowing his mother.  Apparently, they met in prison.

Soon, Emily is stalking a construction worker named Neil Curry (Anthony Perkins).  When Neil spots her, he calls out her name and Emily runs away.  And yet, Neil doesn’t bother to tell his wife, Barbara (Berry Berenson), about Emily.  Soon, Emily is even breaking into the Curry home, silently shadowing Barbara as she walks through the house.

I described Remember My Name as being a thriller and I guess that, technically it is.  There are a few moments of tension, especially when Emily is stalking Barbara.  However, the film itself is directed in a detached manner by Alan Rudolph.  Rudolph was a protegé of director Robert Altman (who also produced Remember My Name) and Rudolph’s approach is very Altmanesque, often to the detriment of the film.  (Chaplin and Jeff Goldblum had both appeared in several Altman films, most famously in Nashville.)  Though the film is dominated by Chaplin and Perkins, it’s still very much an ensemble film and the action plays out in a deceptively casual, almost random manner.  It tries so hard to be Altmanesque that Remember My Name gets a bit frustrating, to be honest.  Chaplin gives such a good and memorable performance and she works very hard to make Emily a character who is both frightening and, at times, surprisingly sympathetic but, for the most part, Rudolph’s technique makes it difficult to get emotionally involved in any of the action unfolding on-screen.  Rudolph observes the action but refuses to comment on it.  As a result, Remember My Name is occasionally intriguing but, just as often, it’s rather boring.  Just like real life, I suppose.  And, just like real life, it’s not for everyone.

That said, it was interesting to see Anthony Perkins playing a role other than a knife-wielding inn manager.  Without resorting to any of the familiar tics or the neurotic speech patterns that typecast him forever as Norman Bates, Perkins plays Neil as just being a regular, blue collar guy and he actually does a pretty good job.  Watching the film, I got the feeling that this was perhaps Perkins’s attempt to change his image.  (Whenever Neil appears shirtless, both the film and Perkins seem to be saying, Check out this physique!  Would someone only capable of playing a psycho have abs like this?)  Neil’s wife, Barbara, was played Perkins’s wife, Berry Berenson.  Neither one of them is with us any longer.  Perkins died of AIDS in 1990 while Berry Berenson was on one of the planes that flew into the World Trade Center on 9-11.  They both did good work in this film, as did Chaplin and Goldblum and, really, the entire cast.  It’s just a pity that the film itself isn’t as good as the performances. 

Previous Insomnia Files:

  1. Story of Mankind
  2. Stag
  3. Love Is A Gun
  4. Nina Takes A Lover
  5. Black Ice
  6. Frogs For Snakes
  7. Fair Game
  8. From The Hip
  9. Born Killers
  10. Eye For An Eye
  11. Summer Catch
  12. Beyond the Law
  13. Spring Broke
  14. Promise
  15. George Wallace
  16. Kill The Messenger
  17. The Suburbans
  18. Only The Strong
  19. Great Expectations
  20. Casual Sex?
  21. Truth
  22. Insomina
  23. Death Do Us Part
  24. A Star is Born
  25. The Winning Season
  26. Rabbit Run

Playing Catch-Up: A Monster Calls (dir by J.A. Bayona)


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As our regular readers are undoubtedly aware, I was born in Texas and I grew up all over the Southwest.  I don’t believe in trigger warning and quite frankly, I lose respect for anyone who I hear whining about having to have one.  That’s the way we are down here.  If you can’t handle potentially being upset by something or someone, that’s you’re own damn problem.

That being said, I do feel like I should give everyone a heads up about A Monster Calls.  Don’t consider this to be a warning because a warning suggests that something bad is going to happen and A Monster Calls is actually a very good movie and one that I highly recommend.  But I do think I should say that I sobbed almost all the way through A Monster Calls and I wasn’t alone.  When I saw this movie on Sunday, there wasn’t a dry eye in the Alamo Drafthouse.

That’s just the type of film it is.  It’s a movie that deals very sincerely and very forthrightly with what it means to lose someone who you love.  It’s a coming-of-age story that deals with fear, loss, guilt, and those moments when — even while dealing with unbelievable pain and sadness — we can still find happiness in the moments that we have and in the imagination that all people — especially young people — possess.

Technically, A Monster Calls is a fantasy though it actually deals with very real emotions and events.  Conor O’Malley (Lewis McDougall) is a shy and introverted 13 year-old who is haunted by nightmares, one in particular.  His parents are divorced.  His father (Toby Kebbell) lives in America and is barely a presence in Conor’s life.  His mother, Lizzie (Felicity Jones, giving an amazing performance), gave up her own artistic ambitions when she became pregnant.  Now, she’s sick and every day, Conor is told that his mother is starting yet another new treatment because she’s “not responding as expected” to the previous treatment.

With Lizzie growing more and more ill, Conor finds himself living with his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver).  To Conor, his grandmother appears to be overly strict and unemotional but, as the film makes clear, she’s not.  If she seems strict, it’s because she knows that she will soon have to take over as Conor’s guardian.  If she seems unemotional, it’s because she’s trying to stay strong for both her daughter and her grandson.

Meanwhile, at school, Conor finds himself targeted by a strange bully named Harry (James Melville).  The scenes with Harry are some of the oddest in the film.  At times, Harry seems to look at the perpetually miserable-looking Conor with almost an expression of empathy and you wonder if he feels some sort of guilt over what he’s doing.  But whenever Harry approaches Conor, a viscous sadism emerges.  Though Harry always seems to be the one who is staring, he continually demands to know why Conor is always looking at him.  When another student tries to hit Conor, Harry announces that only Harry is allowed to hit Conor.

And then there’s the Monster.  At night, the Monster visits Conor.  A gigantic, humanoid tree, the Monster speaks in the voice of Liam Neeson and he alternates between being threatening and being almost paternalistic.  When Conor gets angry, the Monster encourages him to destroy things.  When Conor gets sad, the Monster taunts him for thinking that his sadness is somehow different from everyone else’s sadness.  The Monster is frightening but, at the same time, he seems to be the only thing in Conor’s life that he can depend on.  The Monster’s words may be harsh but there’s also something oddly comforting in their harshness.  It helps that he sounds like Liam Neeson.

The Monster tells Conor three stories, all of which are full of ambiguity and end with uncertain lessons.  The Monster tells Conor that, after he finishes the third story, Conor will be required to tell him about his greatest nightmare.  Conor finds himself both frightened and fascinated by the Monster but, as quickly becomes clear, his main fear is talking about his nightmare.

A Monster Calls is a beautifully done story about dealing with loss, one that will make you cry but, at the same time, will leave you feeling almost grateful for those tears.  The Monster is a truly spectacular creation and Liam Neeson does a perfect job voicing him.  What makes A Monster Calls so special is the way that director J. A. Bayona deftly balances Conor’s apocalyptic encounters with the Monster with the small, every day details of real life.

It makes for a powerful film.

Just make sure you’re ready to shed some tears.

Shattered Politics #38: Nashville (dir by Robert Altman)


Nashville-Cover

“Oh we must be doin’ somethin right to last 200 years…”

— Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson) in Nashville (1975)

The 1975 Best Picture nominee Nashville is the epitome of an ensemble film.  It follows 24 characters as they spend five days wandering around Nashville, Tennessee.  Some of them are country music superstars, some of them are groupies, some of them are singers looking for a first break, and at least one of them is an assassin.  The one thing that they all have in common is that they’re lost in America.  Released barely a year after the resignation of Richard Nixon and at a time when Americans were still struggling to come to terms with the turmoil of the 60s, Nashville is a film that asks whether or not America’s best days are behind it and seems to be saying that they may very well be.  (That’s a question that’s still being asked today in 2015.)  It’s appropriate, therefore, that Nashville both takes place in and is named after a city that everyone associates with perhaps the most stereotypically American genre of music that there is.

Nashville follows 24 characters, some of whom are more interesting than others.  For five days, these characters wander around town, occasionally noticing each other but far more often failing to make any sort of connection.

Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson) is a veteran star, a somewhat comical character who sings vapid songs about home and family and who smiles for the public while privately revealing himself to be petty and vain.  His son, Bud (Dave Peel), is a Harvard graduate who acts as his father’s business manager.  Oddly enough, Haven is an unlikable character until the end of the film when he suddenly reveals himself to be one of the few characters strong enough to keep Nashville for descending into chaos.  Meanwhile, Bud seems to be a nice and modest guy until he takes part in humiliating another character.

Haven’s lover is Lady Pearl (Barbara Baxley), who owns a nightclub and spends most of the film drinking.  Much like Haven, she starts out as a vaguely comical character until she finally gets a chance to reveal her true self.  In Pearl’s case, it comes when she delivers a bitter monologue about volunteering for Bobby Kennedy’s presidential campaign.

Haven’s lawyer is Delbert Reece (Ned Beatty), an obsequies good old boy who is married to gospel singer Linnea (Lily Tomlin).  They have two deaf children.  Linnea has learned sign language.  Delbert has not.  Over the course of the film, both Delbert and Linnea will be tempted to cheat.  Only one of them actually will.

And then there’s Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley), a mentally unstable singer who has come to Nashville with her manipulative husband/manager, Barnett (Allen Garfield).  Almost every character in the film wants something from Barbara Jean.  A mostly silent Vietnam veteran named Kelly (Scott Glenn) claims that his mother knows Barbara Jean.  A nerdy guy named Kenny (David Hayward) comes to Nashville just to see her perform.

Both Kelly and Kenny end up getting to know Mr. Green (Keenan Wynn), a rare Nashville resident who doesn’t seem to care about music.  However, Mr. Green’s spacey niece, L.A. Joan (Shelly Duvall), is obsessed with having sex with as many musicians as possible.

Among those being targeted by L.A. Joan is Tom Frank (Keith Carradine), one-third of the folk trio Bill, Mary, and Tom.  Unknown to Bill (Allan F. Nicholls), Tom is sleeping with Bill’s wife, Mary (Cristina Raines).  Unknown to Mary, Tom is sleeping with almost every other woman in Nashville as well.  When Tom takes to the stage at Pearl’s nightclub and sings a song called I’m Easy, the audience is full of women who think that he’s specifically singing to them.

Another one of Tom’s songs, the appropriately titled “It Don’t Worry Me,” is frequently sung by Albuquerque (Barbara Harris), who spend the entire film trying to get discovered while hiding out from her much older husband, Star (Bert Remsen).

Another aspiring star is Sulleen Grey (Gwen Welles), who is a tone deaf waitress who suffers the film’s greatest humiliation when she agrees to perform at a political fund raiser without understanding that she’s expected to strip while singing.  Trying to look after Sulleen is Wade (Robert DoQui), who has just been released from prison.

And then there’s the loners, the characters who tend to pop up almost randomly.  Norman (David Arkin) is a limo driver who, like everyone else in Nashville, wants to be a star.  The hilariously bitchy Connie White (Karen Black) and the bland Tommy Brown (Timothy Brown) already are stars.  (The character of Tommy Brown is one of Nashville’s oddities.  He’s listed, in the credits, as being a major character but he only appears in a few scenes and never really gets a storyline of his own.)  There’s the Tricycle Man (Jeff Goldblum), a silent magician who mysteriously appears and disappears throughout the film.

And, finally, there’s Opal (Geraldine Chaplin), an apparently crazed woman who is wandering around Nashville and pretending to be a reporter for the BBC.  (It’s never specifically stated that Opal is a fake but it’s fairly obvious that she is.)  How you feel about the character of Opal will probably determine how you feel about Nashville as a whole.  If you find Opal to be a heavy-handed caricature, you’ll probably feel the same way about the rest of the film.  If you find the character of Opal to be genuinely amusing with her increasingly pretentious musings, you’ll probably enjoy Nashville.

There is one more very important character in Nashville.  He’s the character who literally holds the film together.  He’s also the reason why I’m including Nashville in this series of reviews about political films.  That character is named Hal Phillip Walker and, though he’s never actually seen in the film, he’s still the driving force behind most of what happens.  Walker is a third-party presidential candidate, a man who seems to be universally admired despite the fact that his campaign appears to just be a collection of vapid platitudes.  Walker’s campaign manager, John Triplette (Michael Murphy), comes to Nashville and sets up the Walker For President rally.  That’s where Nashville reaches its violent and not-all-together optimistic climax.

Reportedly, Nashville is a favorite film of Paul Thomas Anderson’s and you can see the influence of Nashville in many of Anderson’s films, from the large ensemble to the moments of bizarre humor to the refusal to pass judgement on any of the characters to the inevitable violence that ends the film.  Also, much like Anderson’s films, Nashville seems to be a film that was specifically made to divide audiences.  You’re either going to think that Nashville is a brilliantly satirical piece of Americana or you’re going to think it’s a self-indulgent and self-important mess.

As for me, I think it’s great and I think that, after you watch it, you should track down and read Jan Stuart’s The Nashville Chronicles: The Making of Robert Altman’s Masterpiece.  It’s the perfect companion for a great film.