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Saturday, September 27, 2008

The African Queen (1951)

During the early half of the 20th century, in the tension between Germany on the one side, and England on the other side, Africa was an important battle ground. Along with France and Portugal, all of them had empires in the region, and wars ensured that there was intense competition to attack at the territories controlled by the other. This political scenario sits at the background, and catches up with the finale of the movie and the novel on which the movie was based on. The movie was based on a novel of the same name, written by .S. Forester, and published in 1935. The 1935 period was a time when Britain was seemingly in decline, unable to catch up with an economically and politically resurgent Germany under Hitler. The novel, set in 1914 (at the start of the First World War) is also construed as an attempt to show citizens of Britain that the English were on the winning side of the First World War, able to capture the Empire earlier controlled by Germany.

The African Queen (1951 film)

The African Queen was directed by John Huston, and produced by Sam Spiegel (billed as "S.P. Eagle") and John Woolf. The movie was shot in both Central Africa (at some amount of hardship to the Queen), but since health concerns prevented the lead stars from getting into African river water, the water scenes were shot back in England. The movie revolved around the lead pair of Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Katharine and her brother Samuel Sayer (played by Robert Morley) are British missionaries in a village in German East Africa (now known as Tanzania), who get supplies through a boat (The African Queen) run by the rough Canadian Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart). He warns them that German troops will soon arrive, but they refuse to leave. The Germans dutifully appear, and start forcing the local villagers to serve as soldiers in the war. When Samuel tries to oppose, he is beaten, and dies soon after. Cliff arrives soon after, and helps Rose in burying her brother, and she leaves with him. She wants to go via the lake downriver, and he tells her that the Germans are blocking the entry to the lake with a gunboat, and they will also be in danger.
Cliff is hesitant, but Rose is firm on moving toward the lake, even though it will be a tough journey and there will be 3 rapids on the way, along with all the other dangers about more troops, and wild animals. They have a tough journey with many adventures, but manage to overcome the challenges that they keep on facing. As they approach the lake, Rose proposes to convert the boat into a torpedo boat and sink the gunboat by colliding with it and using explosives to blow up the gunboat. As they attempt this, the African Queen seems to sink, effectively sinking their plan as well. They are caught, and before being executed as spies, Bogart, as a last wish, asks for them to be married. As they are married, in a miracle, the gunboat collided with the sunken African Queen and caused the explosives to blast, sinking the gunboat.

- Best Actor in a Leading Role - Humphrey Bogart (his only Oscar for Best Actor)
- Nominated: Best Actress in a Leading Role (Katharine Hepburn)
- Nominated: Best Adapted Screenplay (James Agee & John Huston)
- Nominated: Best Director (John Huston)

High Noon (1952 Film)

High Noon is a classic Western movie, counted as among the top 100 movies of all time. The movie was released in 1952, and one of the classic devices used in the film was that it almost seemed real time, with the action depicted in the movie happening from a time period of around 10:40 AM to 12 noon (high noon) over the 84 minute time period of the movie. The movie was made in a time of the vicious (and mostly uncontested) anticommunist witch-hunt carried out by Senator Joesph McCarthy, and there is a lot of speculation about whether the scenario of the movie, the hero being abandoned by everybody else in the town under the threat of the killer coming to town was a play on the fact that the Senator's witch-hunt was not opposed (and in fact, many people actively collaborated on the same theme) by most people. It is only when several careers had been damaged, people had their reputations damaged, that questions and opposition started emerging.

High Noon (1952 Film)

High Noon is a classic tale of the contest between duty vs. love, the question that puts most men, including honorable men in a tizzy. When you have promised something to your love, and yet your duty is pushing you to take a step in the other direction, how does a good and just person decide what to do. You make the choices that duty forces you to make, knowing that you may be losing out on something that you love the most.
The movie is about this Marshall of the town of Hadleyville, Kansas called Will Kane (Gary Cooper); he has managed to clean the town and keeps it clean. However, his new wife Amy (Grace Kelly) is a Quaker, with pacifist tendencies, and he has promised her that he will become the same way, and give up this life of violence, death and law-enforcement. Accordingly, he is all set to give up his badge and become normal citizen, a storekeeper. And then he learns the news that will cause him to go into a moral dilemma. A convict he had captured, Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald), was freed on a technicality; and he has vowed to revenge himself on Will. The good way is for Will to go away from town, this will save the town from violence, and keep the promise he has made to Amy.
At the same time, Will is a honest law-enforcer and knows that Frank will not rest till he has hunted Will down, so he decides to remain and fight. Unfortunately, he finds that he has no support; his new wife is aghast that he has broken his promise and wants to leave on the train, with or without Will; the townspeople want to avoid a confrontation, and in a highly controversial stance, refuse to support Will (this was controversial, that American citizens would refuse to get involved in supporting their Marshall due to cowardice, a stance for which the movie was criticized). In the end, you have the classic scene of Will walking on the empty street, dressed in typical Western Gear, waiting for the train carrying Frank Miller to arrive.
In the fight, Will is against 4 enemies, and in a final situation, his wife helps him by shooting one of the gangsters in the back, and then fighting with Frank when he has held her hostage, till Will manages to kill Frank. In the final epic scene, Will leaves town with his wife, throwing his Marshall's star in the dirt in sheer contempt of the cowardly attitude of his townspeople.

Oscars won:

- Best Actor in a Leading Role (Gary Cooper)
- Best Film Editing (Elmo Williams and Harry W. Gerstad)
- Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture (Dimitri Tiomkin)
- Best Music, Song (Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington for "Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin", sung by Tex Ritter).

Best Director, Best Picture, and Best Writing, Screenplay.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

By the 1920's, violence in Mexico had largely subsided (after the Mexican Revolution). However, Mexico has to contend with a large number of bandits around the countryside, and in a manner of using a blunt weapon, the Mexican authorities relied on the Federal Police, also known as the 'Federales' to bring peace to remote areas. Both the bandits and the Federales relied on extreme violence. While getting caught by bandits meant death for travelers, bandits caught by the Federal Police faced a similar fate, often having to dig their own grave before being shot. This is the scenario of the remote areas of Mexico where the book and the movie are set.
With most of the shooting being outside the United States (most of it in Mexico), and some of it in sets in Hollywood, the scenes of the movie totally complement the situation, with some harsh yet beautiful locations.
The movie (directed by John Huston) is based on the 1927 book of the same name by German-English bilingual author B. Traven. It stars the famous Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston, and Tim Holt in the title roles of the 3 main treasure-hunters; who set out together, find the treasure, and are then beset by greed and wanting to claim the treasure for themeselves, in the end, losing it all.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

The movie is about these 3 Americans who get together (with the younger ones being Fred C. Hobbs (played by Bogart), and Bob Curtin (played by Tim Holt) being the younger ones; the 3rd parter is an old grizzled prospector Howard (played by Walter Huston, the director's father)). When Dobbs decides that his current wage-working job is not likely to lead anywhere, he decides to stake all he has on prospecting for gold. He is joined by his 2 partners, and they set out to the remote Sierra Madre mountains.
They meet trouble enroute, running into bandits, but surviving. Eventually, due to the experience of the older Howard, they strike gold, and managed to extract a fair amount. And this is when the movie turns into a fine study of the extent to which greed can turn a human character, with Dobbs getting increasingly paranoid, and desiring to possess the entire gold for himself. They meet more bandits (pretending to be Federales, with the famous line, "Badges? We ain't got no badges. We don't need no badges. I don't have to show you any stinkin' badges!"). They manage to beat the bandits off, but soon internal struggles turn more problematic. When Howard has to go away to help some others, Dobbs and Curtin have a confrontation, and Dobbs wins and goes away with the gold. However, he soon is killed in another fight with more bandits, who mistake the gold for sand (a bit hard to accept), and who spread it over the desert.

Oscar Awards:

John Huston won the Academy Award for Directing
John Huston won the Academy Award for Writing Adapted Screenplay
Walter Huston, John Huston's father, also won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role in this film, the first father-son win.
Nominated: Best Picture award, but lost to Laurence Olivier's film adaptation of Hamlet.

Dead Man Walking (1995)

The death penalty has always been controversial, the debate over whether society and laws have the moral and ethical right to take another person's life. There are a large number of countries where the death penalty no longer exists, with the major nations where the death penalty still holds being Russia, China, India, United States, Iran, Saudi Arabia (and other Islamic countries), Singapore, etc. In the United States, the debate has been a long one, with many people being strong proponents of the death penalty, and others arguing against it (this is getting more heated now that DNA testing is revealing wrongful convictions, link to Innocence Project).
Dead Man Walking is based on a book of the same name by Sister Helen Prejean, a Roman Catholic nun, a passionate advocate of abolition of the death penalty in the US. The title of the book and the movie comes from the traditional saying by guards walking the condemned man to his execution, "Dead man walking, dead man walking here".

Dead Man Walking (1995 Film)

The movie (directed by Tim Robbins) won great critical acclaim, and was nominated for a number of Academy Awards. It deals with the story of Matthew Poncele (played by Sean Penn - and based on 2 different characters whom Sister Helen Prejean counselled, both of whom were on death row. In the movie, Matthew has been in prison for 6 years now, awaiting his execution for the crime of having killed a teenage couple (after having raped the girl); his accomplice Vitello was sentenced to a lighter prison sentence due to a better lawyer.
Matthew appeals to the Sister to help him in his final appeal; and he is not the image of a repentant person - instead he comes across as both arrogant and sexist, and with not the slightest tinge of remorse. Instead he claims to be innocent. While visiting him over a period of time, she gets to know his mother, as well as the family members of his victims (who cannot understand her motives for trying to save a convicted murderer). Poncele does not get remission, his appeal for denial of execution is denied, and his date for death is set. Sister Prejean will finally hope to save his soul, for him to confess his deeds. In the end, Matthew does indeed do so, confessing his crimes and pleading for forgiveness from the family members of his victims (just before his execution).

Susan Sarandon won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role.
Sean Penn was nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role
Tim Robbins was nominated for Best Director
Main track, "Dead Man Walkin" by Bruce Springsteen nominated for Best Song

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Duck Soup movie starring Marx Brothers (1933)

The Marx Brothers were very famous for their films during the earlier part of the 20th century, and 'Duck Soup' was the last movie with Paramount where the Marx Brothers starred (there were a total of 5 such movies with Paramount). During the making of Duck Soup, contract disputes became paramount in the relationship, and both the Marx Brothers and Paramount decided to part ways after the making of the movie. In addition, this was the last movie where Zeppo had starred, and hence can be considered worth seeing just for that particular reason.
The movie did not do so well at the box office, almost being considered a failure, yet, as always happens, the movie was re-evaluated over a period of time, and was seen as a classic, a great comedy and designated for preservation in the National Film Registry (wikipedia) of the United States.

Duck Soup movie starring Marx Brothers (1933)

The Marx Brothers specialized in comedy, and this movie was no different, with several comic scenes that would have you enjoying the movie. One of the iconic scenes from this movie is the mirror scene - where Harpo Marx copies the action of Groucho Marx to the last detail to avoid detection and to make the character of Groucho Marx believe that he is seeing himself in a mirror. Although this was not the first time that this type of scene has been depicted, the sequence in 'Duck Soup' is probably the best known instance of this scene in a movie.
The movie is a comedy depicting activies on a national level, where a country, Freedonia, wants assistance from a wealthy lady Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont). She in turn insists that Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) be made the leader of the country. At the same time, since Freedonia is in such a bad state, the neighboring country Sylvania wants to take advantage and take over Freedonia. To that purpose, Sylvania's ambassador Trentino (Louis Calhern) stirs up trouble, trying to create a revolution in Freedonia; he also woos Mrs. Teasdale, and sends in Chicolini (Chico Marx) and Pinky (Harpo Marx) to spy on Firefly.
Firefly spots Chicolini as a vendor on the street and appoints him Secretary of the War, and tries to insult Trentino so that Trentino can attack Firefly and thus be forced to leave the country. However, the plan reverses and Firefly instead slaps Trentino and this brings the 2 countries to the brink of war. There are further comic scenes, and eventually the 2 countries go to war, with lots of song and dance involved. In the final battle scenes, in order to provide another great comic effect, Firefly keeps on changing his costume almost in every scene, wearing uniforms belonging to different armies, and even the Boy Scout Scoutmaster uniform.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Mr. Smith goes to Washington by Frank Capra

This is another great movie by Frank Capra; one that is not so famous right now, but very famous and controversial in its time. Because it was about corruption in Washington, in the seat of Government and in the legislature, the Washington Press and Congress members labeled the movie as a movie pandering to Communist interests and against American interest. This was not only a US politician reaction, with the other dictatorships (Nazi Germany, Stalin's Soviet Union, Fascist Italy and Spain under Franco) all banning the movie as well. Other countries took liberties in the dubbing of the movie to alter the tone of the script and the dialog.
The movie was well-received (it got 11 Academy nominations after all - not a small number by any standard, although it did not win any of the major ones, and in fact won only one Academy award, for Best Screenplay).

Frank Capra presents Mr. Smith goes to Washington

The movie was released in 1939, and starred James Stewart in the lead role (the movie also had the effect of giving a major filip to his career); it had some well know stars of that era such as Claude Rains, Edward Arnold, Guy Kibbee, Charles Lane, and Thomas Mitchell. The movie was based on a novel called 'The Gentleman from Montana' (by author Lewis R. Foster), with the script of the movie written by Sidney Buchman.
The movie is about a guy called Jefferson Smith (James Stewart), who is the head of the Boy Rangers and seen as a non-corrupt guy. When a senator for a US state (the state is not specified in the movie) dies, the Governor, Hubert "Happy" Hopper (Guy Kibbee), has to balance between the public demand for a honest person to be the next Senator vs. the demand from the political chain to have another corrupt and connected politician. Eventually, the Governor decides to select Smith to be the next Senator; soon, he is condemned by the Washington Press as not being like a Senator, more of a bumpkin.
Goaded into making a name for himself, Smith decides to float legislation for getting Government money to buy land for a boy's camp, with the money coming in from donations by kids all over America. Unknown to him, politics and corruption is already involved in this bill. Soon, things are manipulated such that Smith is soon shown to be owning the land, and Smith decides to run away. However, he is beseeched by his formerly cynical aide / secretary to try and do a legislative tactic called a 'filibuster' (wikipedia) to stall the vote to expel him. He tries to stay the course, and starts drawing support while he is talking non-stop (and the political opposition clamps down on the media to prevent his statements from being displayed). His tactic is to continue speaking, and he does so to the point of exhaustion; when he faints, the Senator who had manipulated him, Senator Paine, has remorse and confesses all.