Saturday, October 4, 2014

The Old Man and the Sea

Year 6, Day 276 - 10/3/14 - Movie #1,867

BEFORE: I said I'd be back to help you kids with your English homework, and that's just what I aim to do.  The spotlight falls on Ernest Hemingway for the next four films, and English teachers LOVE assigning this book because it's short, and it's about fishing, which is what they'd rather be doing than teaching you little criminals.  Teens don't mind reading this one because it's short, and...well, that's about it.  Linking from "Lilies of the Field", Sidney Poitier was of course in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" with Spencer Tracy (last seen in "Woman of the Year").

THE PLOT: An old Cuban fisherman's dry spell is broken when he hooks a gigantic fish that drags him out to sea.

AFTER: Really, feel free to use any of my musings if they'll help you get through High School English.  The chance of your teacher also reading my blog is a real longshot - and even if he/she did, what can possibly happen to me?  Nothing - you're on the hook for this, not me.  Err, not I.  And if you're looking to me for help, damn, you must be in trouble.

So what's this story about?  Well, there's this old man, and then there's the sea.  Ooh, literal approach, I love it.  Let's call this tack #1.  It's a simple move, but also a bold one.  This story is about a fisherman and the fish he eventually catches.  That's it.  But whatever tactic you use, you've got to have conviction and stand behind it.  But let's assume you want to get into metaphor - and be sure to USE the word "metaphor", trust me, it helps.

Tack #2: The fisherman is Hemingway.  Not bad, there's definitely evidence to support this, in the same way that all of the characters in your dreams are really you, by the same token all of an author's characters could be said to be him.  This should have helped you out with your paper on "The Great Gatsby" because I proved that Gatsby and F. Scott Fitzgerald had a lot in common, and so did Nick Carroway and Fitzgerald.  The old man has memories of spending time in both Spain and Africa, which I believe Hemingway did, and he fondly remembers a particular arm-wrestling match, which sounds very Papa-like.  I think Hemingway also did a lot of hunting and sport-fishing, so there you go.  By extension, the small boy also represents Hemingway in his youth.  But the fish does not represent Hemingway, because, well that's just silly.  The fish is still a fish in this scenario.

Tack #3: The fish is Jesus.  Another bold move, especially if you live in the Bible Belt and your teacher seems like a religious nut.  If you go this route you've really got to sell it, and draw a crucifixion analogy with the fish getting sacrificed and eaten by sharks.  So in this scenario the fisherman represents all of humanity, and the killing of the fish is the Passion Play, and the sharks are, I don't know, Romans, I guess.  The symbolism's already there, because the apostles were fishermen and people are keen on that little Jesus/fish logo.  The eating of the Bonita is like the Last Supper, damn, you can really run with this one.  

Tack #4: The fisherman is every man, and the sharks are the IRS or the U.S. government.  Use this one if your teacher seems like a member of the Tea Party, or really dissatisfied with his job.  The fish represents a man's salary that he works and slaves for, and after the government sharks take their bite out of his paycheck, what the heck is left?  Just a rotting carcass.  And the more successful you are, the bigger bite the guvmint takes - what's fair about that?  

Tack #5: This is a simplified, less political version of Tack #4, it's just that the fisherman's job represents anyone's purpose in life, and every day you've got to get up and get out and do whatever it is you do, even though it seems ultimately like a pointless exercise.  But one day, unexpectedly, opportunity could strike and you've got to be prepared for it.  So here the fishing is a metaphor for job-hunting, or some other form of success.  However, life's ironies also dictate that a great success comes with new problems of its own - you can land that fish, but then you have to protect it from the sharks.  In other words, your success isn't always what it's cracked up to be.  

Tack #6: I suppose you can get into the relationship between man and animals, not from a Biblical perspective but a food vs. pets angle.  Why are cats and dogs regarded as companions, but fish are nothing more than food?  Does the cruelty involved in sport fishing have a deeper meaning?  Forget man's inhumanity to man, what about man's inhumanity to fishes?  Why are dolphins regarded as so intelligent, when sharks are considered mindless beasts?  Why do we need to use sharp hooks, can't we find a nicer way to catch fish?

Tack #7: The fish represents Communist Cuba.  A bit of a tough sell, perhaps, but the old man is Cuban, right?  However, you'll have to sort of gloss over the fact that the Cuban Revolution took place in the late 1950's and this was written earlier in 1951.  But maybe Hemingway was a visionary, after all.  Fidel Castro loved American baseball, and so does the old man.  So the fish represents Cuba, and the sharks are the people "sharing" its resources under Communism theory.  (or maybe the sharks represent Capitalism, but only resort to this if your teacher seems like a Bolshevik.  Anti-communism is an easier sell.)  Hey, this may not be far off - I worked on an animated film about a barking dog, and later heard from people around the world who thought the dog symbolized George W. Bush.

Tack #8: Use this only if you're one of those too-cool kids who's only wearing black clothing until they invent something darker.  The other answers are bullshit, man, and the old man represents authority and the fish is just a fish and I don't have to believe your bullshit theories.  And we're right back where we started.  I hope this has been helpful.  

More Hemingway tomorrow, and we'll see if I can crack the code on him somehow.

Also starring Felipe Pazos, Don Diamond, Don Blackman.

RATING: 5 out of 10 sardines

Friday, October 3, 2014

Lilies of the Field

Year 6, Day 275 - 10/2/14 - Movie #1,866

BEFORE: Sidney Poitier carries over from "The Defiant Ones", and in case you hadn't noticed, I'm back on something of a literary track.  I figure by now you school kids have had a chance to settle in with your new English teachers, and it's time to get back to helping you with your book reports.  Based on the number of hits my posting got, I'm assuming that quite a few of you had "The Great Gatsby" on your summer reading list.  Happy to oblige - my review was in fact even shorter than the Cliff's Notes, and probably much more insightful.  Tonight's film is also based on one of those thingies we used to have before movies were invented.  

THE PLOT: A traveling handyman becomes the answer to the prayers of nuns who wish to build a chapel in the desert.

AFTER:  I'm really still reaping the rewards of this past February's "31 Days of Oscar" marathon from TCM.  I know that's when I added "Doctor Zhivago" to the list, along with "The Agony and the Ecstasy", and several more films that are coming up in the next week.  They all just sort of stuck together and floated to the top of the list around the same time.  Cream rises, I suppose...

This film is about a man who feels indebted to a group of nuns, and how you feel about religion will probably determine whether you view his situation as being involved in a charitable venture, or being punished in a form of prison.  I guess in the end there's really a fine line.  Prisons take many shapes, and not all of them are cells with bars on the windows.  

But let's be generous tonight and regard Homer Smith's work with an order of Eastern European nuns (who somehow got transplanted to the Tuscon area) as an act of charity and self-fulfillment.  He offers to fix their roof in exchange for the water they offer him, and this leads to them demanding (not requesting, demanding) that he build them a chapel.  

This is the dirty little secret about religion, and charities in general.  No matter how much money and time you devote to them, they always demand more.  I hate to sound cynical, but this is at least part of the reason I'm no longer part of the Catholic church.  ("I just went to church and gave them some money LAST week, what do you mean I've got to go again?")  My parents have been working for the church in my hometown for decades, and they're not even close to being done. 

As George Carlin famously said on this topic: "You shouldn't be giving money to the church.  The church should be giving ITS money to you."  Have you SEEN the Vatican?  Michelangelo frescoes aside, they have one of the largest collections of Renaissance art there - they would auction some of it off if they were really serious about raising money and feeding the hungry.  

Charitable organizations are not that much better than religions.  Why?  Because of all the mailed requests they send out for money, which costs them money.  I need to know that when I donate money to a charity, it's not just going to be spent in postage for soliciting more donations.  So when it's tax time, that reminds me to donate some money so I'll have a deduction for the current year, and I go through my mail and pick 5 worthy (in my opinion) charities.  I write five checks, and I'm done for the year.  But if I get too much mail from any particular charity, that affects my decision-making, and they could be off the list.

But again, let's assume that Homer Smith got something out of this process as well, that it wasn't just as one-sided as it seems.  He built the nuns a chapel and taught them better English, and what did he get?  A sense of purpose, perhaps, or pride in his accomplishment.  Friendship?  Perhaps, with the nuns and with the community at large.  If I were him, I'd be pissed when the nun said, "God built the chapel."  Hell no, Mother Superior, a man built the chapel!  Can a brother get some respect? 

I never dealt with German nuns, but I had a German grandmother, and the work ethic displayed in this film was evident in her personality as well.  She moved in with my parents after my grandfather died, and she hated it when I acted lazy or slept late over the summer - she'd whack my bed with her cane and yell at me to get up and mow the lawn.  I couldn't wait to be old enough to get a summer job and be out of her reach - in the end that made me want to work.  Ooh, now I see what she did - well played, Grams. 

In the end you need to find the thing that motivates you, and take pride in your work at the same time, no matter if you're painting the Sistine Chapel, or building a wall, or working a booth at Comic-Con.  Money also helps, of course, but if you can't get that, you can live off the pride and the sense of community that you foster.  Yeah, right.

Also starring Lilia Skala, Lisa Mann, Isa Crino, Francesca Jarvis, Pamela Branch, Stanley Adams, Dan Frazer.

RATING: 5 out of 10 bulldozers

Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Defiant Ones

Year 6, Day 274 - 10/1/14 - Movie #1,865

BEFORE: It's October 1, firmly fall now, and I'm not quite ready to start Halloween films.  I know some people have already decorated their houses and bought fun-size candy, but first I have to survive the New York Comic-Con, which starts next week.  I've already started having PTSD stress dreams about working the booth.  Movie-wise, I have to go through Ernest Hemingway, Bette Davis, Adam Sandler and Charlie Chaplin to get there. That seems weird, I know.  

Linking from "Doctor Zhivago", Rod Steiger was also in "In the Heat of the Night" with Sidney Poitier (last seen in "To Sir, With Love").

THE PLOT:  Two escaped convicts chained together, white and black, must learn to get along in order to elude capture.

AFTER: It's almost as if there are two different types of prison films - one where people remain in prison ("Dead Man Walking", "The Green Mile") and the other when there are escape attempts.  The escape ones tend to be more exciting, just because of the action involved, the thrill of the chase - it's a prison film mixed with a quest film, even if the goal of the quest can be a little murky sometimes.  Men are on the run, they don't know where to turn or who to trust.  Some of my favorites are "The Great Escape", "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" and of course "The Shawshank Redemption", but it's not hard to draw a connection between tonight's film and something more modern, like "Con Air" or "Law Abiding Citizen".

Of course, the metaphor here is not subtle at all - chaining two people together and forcing them to work together is a simple concept, and has also become a sitcom staple the same way that serving on a jury nearly always becomes an homage to "Twelve Angry Men".  But making two men different races work together to escape and survive obviously strikes a chord due to the setting in the American South. We're told that the warden had "a sense of humor" as an explanation of why he would authorize a white man and a black man to be shackled together, and the policemen who are chasing them have pretty much resigned themselves to the fact that two men will probably kill each other before they're found.  

In a way they're correct - familiarity breeds contempt - but they're also wrong, because one man can't survive without the other.  When they do come to blows, this is most vividly realized, as one man can't throw the other one down a hill without also falling down it himself.  A fist-fight is similarly problematic, especially if the shackle is on the dominant punching hand - I wonder if prison chain gang leaders figure out who's left-handed before they put the chains on the convicts?

The story felt sort of hampered by its own parameters - there are really only three ways it can end (escaped, captured or killed) but I think it still managed to do a lot within the confines of the plot.  The men find a lonely woman with a son, and after forcing her to cook for them, the story takes a bit of an unexpected turn, and the question is raised - are these two men better off apart, or together?  Since the police are looking for two men together, logic would dictate that they'd double their chances of escape by separating and blending in. But the world is not always logical.  

And as I said yesterday, movies often remind us that no matter how bad things get, they could always be worse.  So when I'm doing a 10-hour shift next week in a tiny 10x10 booth with people getting on my nerves, I should be thankful I'm not chained to another man while trying to escape from a Southern posse.

Also starring Tony Curtis (last seen in "Sex and the Single Girl"), Theodore Bikel, Charles McGraw (last seen in "The Birds"), Cara Williams, Lon Chaney, Jr., Claude Akins (last seen in "Return of the Seven"), with a cameo from Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer.  

RATING: 5 out of 10 transistor radios

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Doctor Zhivago

Year 6, Day 273 - 9/30/14 - Movie #1,864

BEFORE:  Another long film tonight - clocking in at 3 hours and 17 min.  That's a bad sign for any movie that doesn't have either Hobbits or a sinking Titanic in it.  Linking from "Doctor Dolittle" (see what I did there?) Peter Bull was also in the 1972 version of "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" with Ralph Richardson.  (Alternately, Richard Attenborough was also in the 1969 version of "David Copperfield" with Ralph Richardson.  Either path gets me to the same place.)

THE PLOT:  The life of a Russian physician and poet who, although married to another, falls in love with a political activist's wife and experiences hardship during the First World War and then the October Revolution.

AFTER: Well, I'm going to place this one in the same category as films like "Schindler's List" and "The Killing Fields", and not just because these films are all about various wars.  "Doctor Zhivago" is mainly set during the closing days of World War I and then the decline of Tsarist Russia.  No, what links these films is the reminder that whatever might be going wrong in our lives, things could always be worse.  You can sit in the audience of a theater (or in your living room) and take comfort in the fact that you're not in a German concentration camp, or living in Russia during a harsh winter during the rise of Communism, freezing and starving.  

War films in general, they may instill feelings of patriotism or scratch that action-film itch, but more and more I find myself thankful that I've never been in the military, never had any interest in serving in the military, and never been forced to serve in the military.  I literally dodged that bullet.  That's not to say that any army would want me, I'm more of a support staff, behind-the-scenes kind of guy than a front line, carry this gun and charge up that hill kind of guy.  

So there's SOME benefit in watching "Doctor Zhivago" - but that's the flipside of depicting the horrors of war and the scarcity of food and housing during a Moscow winter.  For the most part this movie was much too long, much too boring, and much too depressing.  

I think some women swear by this movie as an example of a great romance - but I'm not sold on this point.  Supposedly Lara was the "great love" of Yuri Zhivago's life.  But he was married to another woman, and she was married to another man.  How am I supposed to distinguish between all these romances going on in this "love rectangle" - and what makes one "better" or "greater" than the others?  
If Zhivago loved Lara so much, why didn't he leave his wife to be with her?  It seems to me he was hedging his bets - he had a relationship of convenience with Lara while they were serving at a military hospital together, but I don't think that makes that relationship "better", only easier.  

And the flip-side of that is, didn't he affect the relationship with his wife by getting involved with Lara? What sort of a man does that make him?  Why is the relationship with his wife somehow regarded as "less than" when compared to the one with Lara?  Because he disregarded it so easily?  This is one of those chicken vs. egg things, right?  Did the relationship falter because he cheated, or did he cheat because it was faltering?  

Either way, I don't really regard adultery as romantic, and if that makes me old-fashioned, then so be it. If Zhivago truly wanted to be with Lara, fine, just be honest about it and break off the marriage first.  Instead he ended up in a situation where he was probably thinking about the other woman all the time, no matter which one he was with, he wanted to be with the other one.  Not cool.  

Was it a different time?  Sure.  Under certain circumstances all things are acceptable.  But just because there's a war on and you've been drafted into military service for the Bolsheviks (or whoever), that's no excuse to cheat.  At least Lara believed her husband to be dead when she entered into the relationship.  But she still knew she was sleeping with a married man, so again, not cool. 

I don't know, maybe I'm missing something.  I know about the fall of the Tsar and all that, but once you get into the difference between communism and socialism, between Bolsheviks and Leninists, I'm kind of lost.  Really this seems to be an example of how much bad fortune can come into people's lives, sort of a Russian version of "Les Miserables".  I guess maybe I was hoping for more of a Russian version of "Gone With the Wind", but it's just not.

It's an odd coincidence that this week's films have all depicted characters who seem incapable of love - Michelangelo, Doctor Dolittle, and now nearly every Russian citizen in this film.  They seem to be a very stern people, these Russians. 

Also starring Omar Sharif (last seen in "Hidalgo"), Julie Christie (last seen in "Troy"), Geraldine Chaplin (last seen in "The Impossible"), Rod Steiger (last seen in "In the Heat of the Night"), Alec Guinness (last seen in "The Scapegoat"), Klaus Kinski.

RATING: 3 out of 10 balalaikas

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Doctor Dolittle (1967)

Year 6, Day 272 - 9/29/14 - Movie #1,863

BEFORE: Well, I've set myself up with some rather longish films this week.  But I'm at home 4 days a week now, so I've got some extra time.  Rex Harrison carries over from "The Agony and the Ecstasy".  

THE PLOT: After the animal communicating veterinarian goes too far for his clientèle, he and his friends escape their hometown to sea in search of the Great Pink Sea Snail.

AFTER: If you hear "Doctor Dolittle" and immediately think of Eddie Murphy, it means you are a child of the modern age.  The Eddie Murphy vehicle has very little in common with the original books about the character, three of which were squeezed together into a film adaptation in 1967.  "Mary Poppins" had been a hit for Disney three years earlier, and no doubt the race was on among rival studios to comb through children's literature for a character that would resonate on the screen in a similar fashion.  

About the only things the two films have in common are the facts that Dolittle is a veterinarian, and can somehow understand the way that animals communicate.  In the Murphy film this was done with voiceovers and animal mouth animation, another product of modern times, but back in the 1960's this was done with some puppetry and forcing an acclaimed British actor to make animal sounds. See, he talks to THEM, not the other way around.  The Eddie Murphy character LISTENS to animals, which is not exactly the same thing.  

I was probably forced to watch this as a small child, but since I don't remember a thing about it, I'm forcing myself to re-watch it as an adult.  My mother was huge on Disney films and movie musicals, plus I think she wanted me to develop an interest in veterinary medicine.  Or maybe she just needed something that would distract me for two and a half hours.  

The original Dr. Dolittle was not only a veterinarian, he was perhaps the first animal rights activist.  In one incident he stands up to a fox hunter, defending the noble fox of course, and in another, he helps a lonely seal escape from the circus to find her husband.  Before realizing the evils of the circus, however, he first made a lot of money by exhibiting a double-sided llama called a Pushmi Pullyu there - so that's a bit of a mixed message.  Are circuses a good place for animals or bad for them?  

Of course, he's a vegetarian as well.  This is discussed in a song about a vegetarian veterinarian, which made me wonder how many of those exist - are people who work with animals more or less likely to eat meat?  If you think of farmers, you think of hearty meat-based foods, but perhaps farmers also eat a lot of grains and vegetables, so maybe in the end it's a wash.  Plus I suspect there are a lot of people who work closely with dogs and cats who don't think twice about eating pigs and chickens.  

The song about being vegetarian had some clever rhymes, like linking "roast beef" and "leaf".  By contrast, the Oscar-winning (and very cloying) song "Talk to the Animals" cheated quite a bit, by making up rhymes for "hippopotamus" and "rhinoceros" - like "Why not-apus?" and "Of course-eros!" Double-ugh.  I think the song I most enjoyed was called "Fabulous Places", and it could make any geography lesson fun for kids.  If you can rhyme "Trinidad and Tobago" with "Tierra del Fuego", I'm already on your side. 

NITPICK POINT: Two of the songs make it seem like the film is trying to establish a relationship between Dr. Dolittle and the female lead character, Emma Fairfax - but he's, what, 30 years older than her?  40?  (Ugh again.)  I'm guessing this must be a carry-over from the books, because on film, with these actors, it doesn't make much sense.  Earlier in the film, she kisses Matthew Mugg, who seems to be closer to her age, and even though he seems affected by the kiss, their relationship seems to go nowhere.  

Apparently this bothered the filmmakers as well, because in the original cut of the film, Emma falls for Doctor Dolittle, but then the scene with the song "Where Are the Words?" was re-filmed with Matthew instead.  The film's soundtrack features Matthew singing that song, but neither version of the scene made it to the final cut of the film.  Hence the love-triangle related confusion.  

Once Doctor Dolittle is freed from the asylum (and I'm not completely convinced that he didn't belong there), the film takes a weird turn as our heroes seek out the giant sea snail.  This brings them quite arbitrarily to Sea Star Island, a place where the natives are bound by all kinds of arbitrary rewards and punishments, like for when things get colder, things get warmer, or when a rock falls into a volcano.  There's something oddly like "Gulliver's Travels" here, with weird societies having weird rules, only without the Swiftian satire, or without much of a point, really.  

In the end it's a bit of an odd duck - the first half makes some great points about activism and the way animals should be treated, and then the second half just wanders off to an island on a weird quest.

Also starring Anthony Newley, Samantha Eggar, Richard Attenborough, Peter Bull, William Dix, and Geoffrey Holder (last seen in "Live and Let Die").

RATING: 4 out of 10 seaweed pies

Monday, September 29, 2014

The Agony and the Ecstasy

Year 6, Day 271 - 9/28/14 - Movie #1,862

BEFORE: First off, let me congratulate Saturday Night Live for kicking off their 40th season.  Wow, that means they haven't had a proper ending to a sketch in the last 30 years.  I watched the season opener just to confirm this, and yep, they still don't know how to write a punchline.  Which is odd because the "Weekend Update" segment is full of punchlines (except for the lame character interviews, which, like the sketches, go absolutely nowhere...) so with all the writers they have, why can't they ever end a sketch on a joke?  This episode was particularly bad, with characters merely shrugging their shoulders and walking off camera - not once, but TWICE.  Time and time again, they create situations that are the equivalent of painting themselves into a corner, with no exit plan - no skit ever ends, it just sort of stops.  I still watch it, but just for the phony news and the phony ads, the only highlights left, in my opinion.

Linking from "Midway", Charlton Heston carries over.

THE PLOT: The biographical story of Michelangelo's troubles while painting the Sistine Chapel at the urging of Pope Julius II.

AFTER: Since I'm getting close to the end of the year, I'm really starting to think about what my annual wrap-up's going to be about.  Woody Allen and Hitchock, of course, but I hit on a lot of films this year that had something to do with the creative process, whether that was writing ("Ruby Sparks", "Sylvia", "Shadowlands"), singing ("Coal Miner's Daughter", "Sweet Dreams", "8 Mile"), acting ("Cradle Will Rock", "My Week With Marilyn", "Postcards From the Edge") or filmmaking ("Hitchcock", "Saving Mr. Banks" and umm... "8MM"?)  Also in the mix was the making of art, thanks to "Pollock", so I fought hard to get this one into the conversation also.

I really wish there had been more included in this film about Michelangelo's process - sure, the film starts with a 15-minute presentation of his best sculptures, but you can get that from any art history or art appreciation class. (I will debate, however, on the narrator's complimenting of some of his sculptures being intentionally unfinished, because he clearly didn't want to disturb the art he had created up to that point, for fear of destroying it.  I'll posit that maybe he just got busy with something else, or perhaps distracted.  Unfinished is unfinished, he shouldn't be commended for walking away from a half-done Pieta.)  

What's fascinating is that the frescoes on the Sistine Chapel are regarded as some of the most elegant and famous religious paintings of all time - everyone knows the image of God's outstretched hand touching Adam during Creation, or the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden.  But other than demonstrating a stenciling technique for transferring line art to the ceiling, there's very little here about Michelangelo's process.  How did a sculptor transition from making 3-D art out of marble into making 2-D art from paint?  What about chiaroscuro?  Sfumato?  How did he develop his color palettes, after working with plain white marble for so long - did they just come out of thin air?

All we really see is Michelangelo seeing an image in the clouds that looks a bit like the famous God/Adam figures - and this is while he's hiding out from the Pope after trashing the frescoes he had done up until that point.  So... the whole thing comes from a cloud?  Is this supposed to be a metaphor for divine inspiration?  

Actually, not many people know this, but since I took A.P. Art History in high school, I'll let you in on a little secret - the whole Sistine Chapel thing was a wacky mix-up.  Pope Julius had recently noticed that the paint was flaking on the ceiling, and he really just wanted a new coat of a solid color up there.  Nothing too showy, you know, maybe just a basic gray or something - but not a DRAB gray, of course, something of a lively gray.  He was in a bit of a rush and heard about a couple of painters who could get the job done quickly, and their names were Michael and Angelo, they ran a little home contracting business on the outskirts of the Vatican.  ("When in Rome, call Mike and Angelo to paint your home")  Of course, this was before someone invented the Yellow Pages, so one of the cardinals screwed up and contacted Michelangelo by mistake - he went ahead and made these glorious plans for religious frescoes, and he put so much work into it that the Pope didn't have the heart to tell him the truth.  

Creative process aside, we do get to see the toll that painting while lying for months and months on a wooden scaffold several stories in the air takes on Michelangelo's body.  (That's the "agony" part...)  But what about the ecstasy?  Ol' Mike had a girlfriend in the Contessina de Medici, according to this film, but he also says many times that he's incapable of expressing love.  Oh, sorry, that's right, you're an artist, so you must be COM-plicated.  The film makes allusions to him getting in trouble for writing sonnets, but conveniently fails to mention that those sonnets were rather racy ones, written to other men.  So there's that.

Also of interest is the depiction of Pope Julius II, also known as the "Warrior Pope".  Seeing a Pope leading troops into battle doesn't really make sense from a modern perspective - can you imagine John Paul II or Pope Benedict discussing military strategy? - but this clearly was a very different time.  He had to defend his papacy, in a military sense, from the Borgias in Venice, who had allied themselves with France.  He also had several children before becoming Pope, at least one daughter who made it to adulthood - this is something else that we'd consider unthinkable for a Pope today.

Also starring Rex Harrison, Diane Cilento, Adolfo Celi, Harry Andrews, Tomas Milian.

RATING: 4 out of 10 cranky cardinals

Sunday, September 28, 2014


Year 6, Day 270 - 9/27/14 - Movie #1,861

BEFORE: I've covered World War II films at least 20 times during this project, with everything from "Patton" and "The Dirty Dozen" right on up to "Red Tails" and "U-571".  It's obviously been fertile territory for Hollywood films, both then and now.  But as far as telling the tales of particular battles, I've covered Pearl Harbor ("From Here to Eternity" and "Tora! Tora! Tora!"), Guadalcanal ("The Thin Red Line") and Iwo Jima ("Flags of Our Fathers").  I can't say I did everything in the right order, because the Battle of Midway (June 1942) preceded those last two battles - but I'm backtracking anyway to see what got us there.  

Linking from "Ensign Pulver", both Walter Matthau and Larry Hagman link back through "Fail-Safe" to Henry Fonda (last seen in "Mister Roberts").

THE PLOT:  A dramatization of the battle that turned out to be the turning point of the Pacific Theatre of World War II.

AFTER: I'm using this as an excuse to also read up on the true details of the Battle of Midway, to see if this film got it right.  Everything mostly checks out, the breaking of the Japanese code alerted the U.S. Navy to the impending attack on Midway, but since their code changed shortly after, there's still the possibility that Yamamoto was trying to lure the U.S. fleet into a trap.  And the timing of the attack on Midway was critical, with the Japanese having recently damaged the USS Lexington and the USS Yorktown one month earlier in the Battle of the Coral Sea.  

However, the Yorktown was repaired in record time at the Pearl Harbor base, and was set back out again to join the fleet.  The Navy was still having something of a rebuilding year after Pearl Harbor, but the strength of U.S. resources and construction was perhaps better than the Japanese anticipated.  Meanwhile, the Japanese fleet was still short a few aircraft carriers because of that Coral Sea battle.  

The Japanese had four aircraft carriers available, and the U.S. only had three, but the U.S. carriers had larger air groups.  Meanwhile, the breaking of the Japanese code meant that the U.S. forces knew the size of their opponent's forces, while the Japanese admiral had no idea how many ships he was facing.  

Much of the battle's screen time in this film is devoted to U.S. airplanes locating the various Japanese ships - reconnaissance may be an important part of wartime strategy, but in the film this became too repetitive - it was just the same concept over and over again.  Obviously you need to find a ship before you can send planes to attack it.  But couldn't we just take this as a given and cut right to the action?  

Anyway, the point is that knowledge of one's opponent is key to a battle.  The Japanese planes were equipped with bombs to drop on land-based targets, then when Admiral Nagumo was made aware of the size of the U.S. fleet, he ordered the bombs to be replaced with torpedoes, which I assume would be more effective against ships.  But switching the ordinance took time, and since the aircraft carriers needed to receive returning scout planes, as a result the Japanese planes were not ready to launch in time.  U.S. planes from the Enterprise and the Hornet were already en route to strike the Japanese ships, and a third attack later came from the Yorktown.  

Japanese planes were eventually launched as a counter-attack, taking down the Yorktown, but the damage had already been done.  Plus the majority of the U.S. forces had already withdrawn for refueling.  

One reason this is seen as a turning point battle in the war is that the Japanese military refused to acknowledge this battle as a defeat - wounded soldiers were kept in secret hospitals and those not wounded were transferred to more dangerous duties in the South Pacific, so many did not survive.  The sudden need for replacement pilots meant that training regimens were shortened, which then resulted in a decline in the skills of Japanese pilots going forward, while the American air groups continued to improve.  

Wow, who says films can't be educational?  I learned a lot about battle tactics in the Pacific today.  Unfortunately, along with the real historical figures like Admirals Nimitz and Fletcher and Spruance, the film adds a fictional (I think...) Capt. Garth as the central character, and the storyline with his son as a Navy pilot in love with a Japanese girl seems very tacked-on, as an attempt to add some human drama to the whole thing, to keep it all from being too technical.  My feeling is that screenwriters are sometimes good at writing battle scenes or love scenes, but rarely both.

A disclaimer at the start of the film claimed that actual battle footage was used "whenever possible", but it also failed to mention that footage was also recycled from such films as "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo" and "Tora! Tora! Tora!".  The goofs section on IMDB is therefore filled with instances of planes looking different from shot to shot, but I admit I don't really have an eye for military aircraft.  I just wondered why so many planes were shown with open cockpits.  Didn't the pilots have trouble breathing at high altitudes?

Also starring Charlton Heston (last seen in "Tombstone"), Glenn Ford (last seen in "Gilda"), Hal Holbrook (last seen in "Julia"), Edward Albert (last seen in "Butterflies Are Free"), James Coburn (last seen in "California Suite"), Robert Mitchum (last heard in "Tombstone"), Robert Webber, Robert Wagner (last seen in "The Towering Inferno"), Cliff Robertson (last seen in "Three Days of the Condor"), Toshiro Mifune, James Shigeta, Pat Morita (last heard in "Mulan"), Clyde Kusatsu (last seen in "Volunteers"), Robert Ito, with cameos from Dabney Coleman, Erik Estrada, Tom Selleck, Steve Kanaly.

RATING: 4 out of 10 dive bombers