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Archive for the ‘Dean Treadway’s Movie Reviews’ Category

innocents 9

By Dean Treadway

In the realm of horror movies, Jack Clayton’s The Innocents is beyond reproach. And we all realize the horror genre is overflowing with creepy kids. But in the realm of movies about children–the subject of this ongoing series–how does this film fare? The answer is complicated, but assured.

In this exquisite adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, the images are boldly frightening, sexually suggestive, deceptively lush, and idiosyncratically shot in dreamy black-and-white Cinemascope by Freddie Francis. Deborah Kerr, in her own favorite of her many acclaimed performances, plays a repressed nanny whose new charges–the alternately rambunctious and preternaturally mature orphans Pamela Franklin and Martin Stephens–prove to be more than her nerves or her faith can take. Is this secluded mansion she now oversees haunted by the ghosts of two sexually libertine servants? Or is she merely being put through the ringer by a couple of untrustworthy brats?

Even before the credits roll, we hear a thin, girlish voice (meant to recall the young tones of our female ingenue Pamela Franklin, here playing Flora, though it could also be the voice of the deceased governess Miss Jessel). Words are put to a vaguely secluded theme that soon becomes the movie’s niggling, incessant refrain. Written by composer George Auric and lyricist Paul Dehn, it’s a suitably ancient-sounding tune called “O Willow Waly,” and it reeks of a particularly lonely menace as we sit in the dark, waiting for a movie to begin like we’ve never waited for a movie to begin before or since: (more…)

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ponette 2

By Dean Treadway

Many movies in this countdown deal with children confronted with the horrors of humanity–wartime, racism, poverty, crime. Yet, in its own quiet way, Jacques Doillon’s diminutive Ponette is among the most powerful of them all, simply because it gets the details of childhood correct. It also never shirks away from the toughest images of abject grief. One should be warned: it’s pretty nigh impossible not to view this movie through a sheen of constantly falling tears. Victoire Thivisol, in the title role, was only four years old when the film was shot, and this must be regarded as a miracle. It’s tempting to read up on how Doillon actually elicited this highly emotional work from such a young soul, but to do so might spoil our impressions of Thivisol as a performer (she would take the 1996 top prize at the Venice Film Festival–as far as I know, the youngest actor to ever win any sort of major award). And this is deserved: by any measure, her Ponette is unforgettable.

The film is exceedingly, wonderfully simple. With a tiny cast on her forearm, Ponette is the survivor of a car crash that took her mother’s life. As the film begins, her father (Xavier Beauvois) is comforting her in her hospital bed, and getting ready to drive her back to a boarding school. He expresses anger at his deceased wife–one senses that their relationship was on the skids anyway–while Ponette is still unable to accept that her mother is gone forever. As a parting show of love, she gives her daddy her teddy bear to keep, and he gives her his watch, which she sweetly keeps on her wrist throughout the picture. Doillon then follows this girl, with his camera wisely never lifting above her eyeline, as she struggles to come to terms with her loss.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross once broke down the approach of death into five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. One can see each of these stages illustrated here in Ponette’s journey, too, never with a heavy hand and in very much the same order. Some of the film’s most fascinating scenes have her on the playground with her classmates, navigating this process. The film is filled with talk of God and Jesus, and Heaven–both the adults and the kids indulge in this–and we get the sense that Ponette is alternately comforted, confused and infuriated by some of this stuff (at one point, she chides a teacher for feeding her lies). One bossy girl sends Ponette on a playground obstacle course where the ground is a lava pit of Hell, and where there are only scattered islands of safety to which to jump. Her nominal “boyfriend” Mathias listens as she expresses her mind-twisting sadness, and then he kisses her cheek, comforting her in a scene of such aching intimacy that we’re both amused and relieved when he decides to give her his most prized possession: a Batman toy. “You’re nutty, but nice,” he says. All of this dovetails in a superb scene where Mathias and Carla decide to give Ponette one final test, exiling her to a trash bin for five minutes, to replicate the feeling of death and to strengthen her bravery. Just when we think the film is being unimaginably cruel, her friends find pity for the weeping Ponette and rescue her, excitedly telling her she’s passed muster (and Doillon even finds it possible to wring some laughs from the situation). (more…)

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matter-of-life-death-bfi-00o-6ct

By Dean Treadway

Out of the seventeen movies Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger made together, A Matter of Life and Death was their sixth, sandwiched in between two other humanistic yet fantastical tales, “1945’s “I Know Where I’m Going!” and 1947’s Black Narcissus. This team was, at the time, used to dazzling audiences with their idea-dense, often passionate and visually rich (thanks to their collaboration with legendary cinematographer Jack Cardiff) flights of imagination. Yet A Matter of Life and Death feels somehow different, maybe because it’s such a glorious mashup of so many genres. It first feels almost like science-fiction, with that quick, witty tour of the galaxy at the film’s outset (this is the first glimpse of the subtle but often brilliant special effects featured throughout the movie). Then it most certainly feels like a war picture in the spectacular opening scene between David Niven’s presumably doomed RAF pilot Peter Greene and Kim Hunter’s June, the “Yank girl” he radios as his plane is going down (few movies, if any have had the temerity to begin with such florid and unbound emotions—I mean, what gorgeous close-ups we have here–and yet with the two main characters at the edge of being separated not only by space but by life itself).

For a while, the film becomes a fantasy, as we are taken into another world…a world that may be Heaven (though Powell and Pressberger purportedly wanted to avoid inferring anything such; they balked at the American retitling Stairway to Heaven) or it may be simply another dimension that exists only in a dusty corner of Peter Greene’s brain. It does feel like if the directors truly wished to erase the concept of Heaven from the film, they wouldn’t have had new arrivals in the black-and-white world picking up their made-to-measure wings at the sign-in desk, nor would they have given the young Richard Attenborough—as a breathless newbie–his only line in“It is Heaven, isn’t it?” Either way, the film works in the possibility that all Peter Greene is experiencing—including a ghostly visitation by an erring French “conductor” (Marius Goring)–is a hallucination suffered as a result of something nasty pressing down on his brain. In this way, with the introduction of Roger Lievsay’s Dr. Frank Reeves (he’s magnificent here), the film also becomes a tense medical drama. (more…)

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by Dean Treadway

Before its tremendously successful 1982 release, the odds were against TOOTSIE working at all. For one thing, the project, spearheaded by its star Dustin Hoffman, had gone through an endless series of script reiterations over the previous four years. Based on a Don Maguire play called WOULD I LIE TO YOU?, the original screenplay, penned in 1978, was by Charles Evans (Robert Evans’ brother and the film’s eventual co-producer), director Dick Richards and screenwriter Bob Kaufman. Then Hoffman came on-board, and handed the project off to many of the era’s sharpest comedy voices, including Larry Gelbart, Elaine May, Murray Schisgal, and Barry Levinson. By the time Hoffman and the film’s director, Sydney Pollack, were putting the pieces together, the script reportedly looked like a ragtag, mismatched pile of colored scrap paper (with even a few scenes written on napkins to complete the melange). This is rarely the optimum way for a screenplay to begin its life.

On top of this, the ultra-serious Pollack was not known for his comedy stylings, and Hoffman was, on-set, a sometimes dictatorial presence–indeed, the sort of exasperating, exacting artist he plays in the film. In TOOTSIE, his Michael Dorsey is a struggling, out-of-work actor who’s told by his agent George (Pollack, in a role Hoffman urged him to take) that he’s too difficult to work with, and that directors all across New York City are refusing his services. He’s patently unemployable. So, having accompanied his harried best friend Sandy (the superbly flustered Teri Garr) to an audition for a soap opera called “Southwest General”–an audition she loses immediately–Michael decides to don hair, dress and makeup and go into the audition as “Dorothy Michaels,” a strong-willed, Southern-accented character actress (based partially on Hoffman’s friend Polly Holliday, who memorably appeared with him in ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, and partially on Hoffman‘s aunt, who used to call him “Tootsie,” thus the film‘s title). (more…)

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Note: Today there will be two reviews on the same film in deference to the two requests made in the early stages of the project, but also to continue a tradition started in last year’s musical countdown where certain films will receive multiple treatments.  It happened twice last year and will be happening twice during this countdown.  Personally I love the idea.  Mr. Treadway’s review was sent to me first so I set it first, but Sachin Gandhi sent his on shortly afterwards.  Readers are urged to take a look at both pieces, and to comment on both threads if possible.

by Dean Treadway

My first solid memory of BLAZING SADDLES–a movie that absolutely shaped my view of movies–came upon its 1974 release, when my young eyes paid note to its dazzling one-sheet. The film‘s rustic logo was set upon a background that reflected the film‘s unique structure. There was its hero, Sheriff Bart (played by a dauntless Cleavon Little), riding a rearing steed, wearing incongruous mirrored sunglasses while a silvery boom mike hovers overhead. This image was backed by an Indian nickel featuring Mel Brooks, the film’s co-writer, co-star, and director, as a war-painted Native American (a role many Jewish actors filled in the Western genre’s heyday). Around the edges of the coin ran the words “Hi, I’m Mel. Trust Me.” Even though I didn’t grasp all of its implications, the colorful chaos of this ad sent my movie-loving mind into a tailspin, and I had to know more.

But, generous as my parents were about taking me to any movies I wanted to see at the drive-in, they never gave in to my request to see this one–perhaps because of its R-rating but most probably because of my mother’s abject dislike of almost all comedies. It would be years until I finally saw BLAZING SADDLES properly projected in widescreen 35mm, probably on a double bill with Brooks’ twin 1974 hit YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN or maybe with his 1976 film SILENT MOVIE (both of which I also love). This first REAL viewing insisted on my adoration of the film’s underappreciated photography, sound, art direction and location work (aspects that are usually lost on pan-and-scan TV prints). (more…)

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