Category Archives: Epic

Out of Africa (1985)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 9 out of 10

4-Word Review: An illicit love affair.

In 1913 a wealthy Danish woman named Karen Dinesen (Meryl Streep) gets spurned by the man she is in love with, so on the rebound she decides to accept the marriage proposal of the man’s brother, Baron Bror Blixen (Klaus Maria Brandauer) Despite the fact that neither she nor he are in love with the other, but decide to make it a marriage of convenience. They move together to Kenya where they plan to at first start a cattle farm, but it soon turns into a coffee plantation. Through the years Karen’s marriage to Bror begins to sour as he continues to have affairs with countless other women, so Karen turns her attention to the dashing big-game hunter named Denys (Robert Redford) and the two share a passionate and adventurous love affair, but when Karen tries to turn their relationship into a committed one he refuses.

The film, especially the first hour, comes off more like a broad sketch than a fluid story, or a highlight reel taken from a wide outline. I could never really get any type of handle of who this Karen person really was. I never understood why she would want to leave Denmark for Africa, or why she’d be so quick to settle down with a man that she didn’t love. So what if she got spurned by one guy there’s still other fish in the proverbial sea. Why not wait around for someone she could truly be excited about instead of just jumping in with someone that she really wasn’t?

To some degree I did find the marriage-of-convenience idea an interesting one. It’s rare that both parties admit that neither has the hots for the other, but still decide to make a go of it, which seemed like highly modernistic behavior especially for the time period and I was hoping this whole scenario would be explored more, but the film treats this mainly as a side-story that pretty much fades away after the first hour.

The introduction of the Denys character gets a bit botched too as he keeps popping in and out at the most convenient times out of literally nowhere, like when Karen finds herself ready to be attacked by a lion, and then just as quickly disappearing again almost like he were a magical genie.  The fact that Streep puts in so much effort into her Scandinavian accent, but Redford puts none into conveying an English one is off-putting. Supposedly Redford did initially try to speak with a light accent, but director Pollack apparently found it ‘distracting’ and advised him to speak without it, but in the process it makes the acting seem uneven.

It’s during the second-half where the film really comes together as it focuses solely on the affair though in real-life there was only a two year difference between Karen and Denys, but here there’s a 12 year difference between the actors playing the part and it shows, but despite that discretion this segment really works. I loved watching the different things that the couple did like playing a phonograph record to some monkeys and seeing how they responded to it and watching Karen taking an airplane ride for the first time and all the majestic scenery that she takes in.

The cinematography is indeed sumptuous and one of the things that holds it altogether even when the script jumps precariously and sometimes jarringly from one point in Karen’s life to another. The film would’ve worked better had it focused on only one area, like her relationship with Denys, which could’ve helped create a stronger, more immediate emotional impact with the viewer while also cutting down on the excessively long runtime.

My Rating: 9 out of 10

Released: December 10, 1985

Runtime: 2 Hours 41 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Sydney Pollack

Studio: Universal

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video, YouTube

History of the World, Part I (1981)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Making historical events funny.

In 1979 Mel Brooks was riding high after directing 4 hit movies and as he was walking across a studio parking lot a man who had worked on his crew from his previous films asked him what his next project would be. Brooks, feeling the pressure to come up with something big and splashy, told him it was going to be about the history of the world. This film ended up being the result of that conversation although it’s hard to call it a movie at all since it’s really just a collection of vignettes dealing with 4 specific periods: The Stone Age, The Roman Empire, The Spanish Inquisition, and The French Revolution.

At first glance it’s almost shocking that something this overreaching could’ve been produced to begin with. Had anyone but Brooks approached the studio heads with this concept it would’ve been slapped down immediately and the person told not to come back until they had an idea that was more focused, but because of Brooks’ prior success these same executives decided to swallow their better judgement. Not only did they unwisely give it the green light, but they threw more money at it than any of his previous film budgets combined; a whooping 11 million, which all pretty much goes to waste.

It’s not like there aren’t a few funny moments here and there: the musical number during the Spanish Inquisition, the Last Supper parody, and the Jews in space all elicit a few chuckles, but the rest of it’s lame and corny like skits from some mediocre variety show. An overarching character that would’v been in all of the scenes was needed like a time traveler from the modern day who goes back and interacts with all the people from the time periods, which could’ve been a riot.

A lot of familiar faces pop in-and-out, but many of them are onscreen for only a few seconds. A better idea would’ve been to whittle down the cast list to only a handful of performers and then having them play the different roles in each time period instead of just introducing more stars into the mix, which only helps to give the already bloated production a very cluttered feel.

Not only does Brooks cast himself into too many of the film’s major roles, which makes the thing seem like a vanity project, but he also relies too heavily on his aging Hollywood friends in supporting parts instead of introducing a young vibrant talent into the mix that could’ve helped attract new, younger fans. It also doesn’t help that Richard Pryor was set to play a big role in this, but then just two days before shooting he suffered a serious accident that burned his face and forced him to bow out leaving Gregory Hines to replace him who is not nearly as funny or dynamic.

I couldn’t help but connect this thing with Bill Cosby’s mega-flop Leonard Part 6.  Apparently many people on the production crew of that film felt the material was subpar, but too afraid to approach Cosby, who was such a big star at the time, to tell him. I can only presume there were also people on the crew of this film who felt the same way, but didn’t want to jeopardize their careers by speaking up, which is too bad. While this movie did ultimately make money it was mainly during its first week and enthusiasm due to bad word-of-mouth quickly dwindled afterwards. Brooks reputation never fully recovered, which is why no one even a big star should be above constructive criticism, which  might’ve helped modify this clunker into becoming something better.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: June 12, 1981

Runtime: 1 Hour 32 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Mel Brooks

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: DVD, Blu-ray

Reds (1981)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: He fights for socialism.

The film centers on the life of John Reed (Warren Beatty) who was a socialist activist that covered the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and later published his account in ‘The Ten Days That Shook the World’.  He became instrumental in forming the Communist Labor Party of America and marrying noted feminist Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton) before returning to Russia and eventually dying there becoming only one of three Americans buried at the Kremlin Wall Necropolis.

The project was a labor of love for writer/star/director/producer Warren Beatty who first became inspired by Reed’s story in the mid-‘60s and spent over15 years battling to get it produced. Unlike most actors-turned-directors Beatty was notoriously disliked by his cast and crew for demanding many different takes for even the simplest of scenes forcing his friend Gene Hackman, who agreed to appear in the film for free, to do 100 takes to convey only a few brief lines. Beatty also strangely decided to keep the camera running continuously even between takes resulting in three million feet of footage that weighed five tons to ship and if played continuously on the screen would’ve resulted in taking two and a half weeks to complete.

The story is okay and moderately compelling, but I felt too much emphasis was placed on Reed’s and Bryant’s relationship. Supposedly this was a biography on a famous historical figure, but the story gets lodged more on the rocky, unconventional marriage aspect and seemed at times to be more focused on Keaton’s character than Beatty’s.

I was also confused as to what exactly had Reed done that was so special, or elicit us to sit through such a long movie about him. In a normal epic the main character is instrumental in causing the events that we see, but here the protagonist is nothing more than a sideline observer with no direct control on what goes on. Technically he doesn’t change anything and the film is just one long look at how whatever he strived either fizzled or got corrupted before he eventually dies in virtual obscurity, which hardly seems inspiring or worth the time to watch.

The supporting cast helps significantly particularly Jack Nicholson as Eugene O’Neill who has an affair with Bryant. It’s always interesting to seeing Nicholson play a subdued character since he’s usually so flamboyant and Jack makes the most of it, which helps give the story a little extra edge. Maureen Stapleton won the Academy Award for supporting actress even though her character is only seen sporadically, but she probably deserved the Award either way since she became a victim of Beatty’s overzealous need for multiple takes, which so infuriated her that she apparently screamed ‘Are you out of your fucking mind?” when Beatty demanded that she redo her scene for the 80th  time which got the rest of the crew to cheer their approval.

It’s also fun to see Jerzy Kosinski as the communist politician Grigory Zinoviev. Kosinski was best known for having written the novel ‘Being There’, which inspired the film of the same name, but later he was accused of having plagiarized the story from an earlier Polish novel and it was revealed that many of his other stories were ghost written by assistant editors, which is ironic since his character in the film gets accused by Beatty of having tampered and re-written his speeches and writings.

As a whole it’s adequately done, but the pace ebbs and flows. The interviews with people who actually knew Reed, or were connected to his life in some way are a highlight as is the scene where Reed tries to escape Russia by riding on a hand cart along a train track in the dead of winter, but everything else gets overblown.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: December 3, 1981

Runtime: 3 Hours 15 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Warren Beatty

Studio: Paramount

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video, YouTube

Nicholas and Alexandra (1971)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 9 out of 10

4-Word Review: The last Russian Tsar.

This film chronicles the life of Tsar Nicholas II (Michael Jayston) of Russia and his marriage to Alexandria (Janet Suzman). Based on the novel by Robert K. Massie it examines the height of his power and his apathy to the poverty of his people and his reluctance to listen to their needs, or consider a more democratic form of government. It also looks at his personal life including the birth of his son Alexei (Roderic Noble) who is diagnosed with hemophilia and his wife’s over-reliance on Grigori Rasputin (Tom Baker) a man pretending to have divine connections who ultimately uses his influence on Alexandra to take control over her political affairs when her husband is away. The film also portrays Russia’s involvement during WWI as well as the Tsar’s downfall and eventual exile in Siberia with his family.

The film is basically split up into three parts with the first hour looking at Nicholas’ family life while intercutting with scenes showing the discontent of the Russia people and the efforts of Vladimir Lenin (Michael Bryant) to create a revolutionary form of government. The second hour examines Russia’s war involvement and the many warnings that Nicholas is given not to get involved in it, but foolishly decides to anyways, which ultimately creates massive upheaval. The third hour looks at his abdication of power and the family’s exile and virtual imprisonment at the Ipatiev House in Yekaterinburg where they nervously await their fate.

Initially I thought the third hour would be the weakest as we all know they get shot and killed execution style, but to my surprise it is actually the strongest part of the film. To an extent tearing the characters away from their plush surroundings and forcing them to exist in bleak, squalor-like conditions actually humanizes them and allows the viewer to empathize with them particularly the four daughters who had nothing to do with their father’s harsh policies and just wanted a chance to grow up and live a normal life. The scene where the family is herded into the basement of the home in the early morning hours and forced to sit silently while awaiting their executioners is quite possibly one of the most intense moments ever captured on film.

The performances are uniformly strong particularly Suzman’s as well as Baker as the evil Rasputin who’s drawn out death scene may be one of the longest in movie history. Laurence Olivier in a small, but pivotal bit as the Prime Minister gets two commanding moments including his speech after the Bloody Sunday massacre and later his strong misgivings about the country’s war involvement.

The film is full of brilliant cinematography, direction, costumes and set pieces and is certainly something that must be watched on the big screen to be fully appreciated. I enjoyed the lavish interiors of the Winter Palace especially their walks down the elegant hallways that are lined with Royal guards, but found it equally interesting when Nicholas returns there after the war and forced to walk down these same hallways, which are now darkened and rundown. The many long distance shots of the flat and majestic landscape is also impressive particularly a view of a rolling sunflower field.

Although this film has never attained the well-known classic status of Doctor Zhivago, and in fact this was producer Sam Spiegal’s answer to that film when he was blocked from working on it, I still found it to be every bit as compelling and well directed.

My Rating: 9 out of 10

Released: December 13, 1971

Runtime: 3Hours 8Minutes

Rated GP

Director: Franklin J. Schaffner

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Instant Video

 

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

lawrence of arabia 1

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 9 out of 10

4-Word Review: Lawrence unites the Arabs.

Due to the death of actor Peter O’Toole on December 14 we will be reviewing each Sunday of this month 4 films that he did during the 60’s with this one be his most famous role and one that jettisoned his career into stardom.

The film chronicles the life of T.E. Lawrence who helped unite the Arab tribes during World War I and allowed them to fight back and eventually overpower the Turks. The film starts out with his motorcycle death in 1935 at the young age of 46 and then flashes back to his days in the army as a young intelligence officer. It examines his unique personality, determined headstrong ways as well as his ability to unite varying warring Arab tribes and get them to work together to defeat a common enemy.

Director David Lean and cinematographer Freddie Young are the real stars here. Filmed mostly in the countries of Morocco and Jordan Lean manages to capture the barren, hot landscape of the desert better than anyone else as he gives it an almost surreal and exotic quality that takes over the rest of the story and leaves the strongest impression. I loved the sun slowly coming up over the horizon and onto the flat terrain. I also liked the longshots showing characters enveloped by the majestic landscape and looking almost nonexistent when seen against some of the towering rocky formations. Omar Sharif’s characters entrance while on horseback and seen from a distance as he rides up through layers of heat that rises from the ground is also excellent.

The action is well captured although there isn’t as much of it as you might think. Their raid on Aquba is for my money the best. I loved the bird’s-eye shot of seeing all these soldiers looking almost like ants scurrying from the desert and into the fortress through the buildings and property and then eventually into the sea that sits on the other side. The bloody battle that they rage against an already weakened Turk army near the end is also a strong visual as is the Lawrence’s visit to an unsanitary hospital housing the wounded Turks.

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O’Toole’s portrayal of Lawrence was controversial at the time and to some still is. His bright, clear blue eyes makes him look like he is in a trance and the way he says his lines sounds like he was under some sort of spell and gives the character a certain mystique that isn’t quite human. Still I thought the part fit O’Toole’s personality well. My favorite moment of his is when he first tries on the Arab robes that he is given and he goes running around in them in an almost child-like manner. It is also nice seeing a story about a true-life character that isn’t preachy and more open about their flaws particularly his propensity for violence which becomes increasingly more evident as it goes along.

Sharif is excellent is support and in some ways gives the film’s all around strongest performance. I liked the adversarial relationship that his character has with Lawrence. They start out at odds with each other, but slowly become friends and yet continue to have their differences. Arthur Kennedy is good as a glib and detached photojournalist and Alec Guinness was to me initially unrecognizable as Prince Feisal.

The movie does not stay completely accurate to the real life events. Some of these are minor and while others are more major, but are too many to elaborate here. The truth is there is probably no movie pertaining to a true life event that is completely accurate to what really happened and no one should be naïve enough to expect it to be either. On an entertainment and cinematic level this one scores high. My only real complaint is the scene where a character gets swallowed up in quicksand, which in reality is very unlikely to happen, but a prevalent feature in a lot of 60’s movies and the one point where it got a bit too ‘Hollywood’.

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My Rating: 9 out of 10

Released: December 10, 1962

Runtime: 3Hours 47Minutes

Not Rated

Director: David Lean

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Instant Video