Cleopatra (1963)

SCORE: 4/5

At 4+ hours in length, I’d been putting this one off for years, but I’m glad I finally got around to it, as this sometimes maligned, big budget film — skillfully directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz — is excellent. As far as swords-and-sandals epics go, this one ranks among the best. The lavish production (a record-setter for the time) is something to behold, tastefully and not egregiously deployed.

The film follows the true-to-life-events of the historical timeline. Per Wikipedia (and the film’s opening credits), the film’s screenplay was “adapted by Mankiewicz, Ranald MacDougall and Sidney Buchman from the 1957 book The Life and Times of Cleopatra by Carlo Maria Franzero, and from histories by Plutarch, Suetonius, and Appian.”

There are fine turns from all of the primary actors: Liz Taylor, Rex Harrison (Julius Caesar), Richard Burton (Marc Antony), Hume Cronyn (Sosigenes), Andrew Keir (Agrippa), Martin Landau (Rufio), and Roddy McDowall (Octavian aka Caesar Augustus). It is Burton’s performance, as the tortured soul of Marc Antony, that really shines here, a bravura performance with some terrific dialogue and line-readings. (Shakespearean dialogue stylization is used in the film, but not in a distracting way). Some of the screenplay’s dialogue – especially the third act’s ruminations on mortality – is poetic and downright beautiful.

My only beef was that, in Hollywood’s narrative need for a villain, such a role is largely filled by Roddy McDowall’s snotty and petulant Octavian (Augustus), something not historically accurate. Augustus wasn’t unusually cruel for the time but was, in fact, a paragon of the benevolent dictator and arguably Rome’s finest Emperor.

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Devs (2020)

SCORE: 4/5

Devs is an outstanding 8-part mini-series with a conservative slant on FX, that I highly recommend to Dissident Rightists. The series, which plays like an extended episode of Black Mirror, is written and directed by Alex Garland, one of the more talented and interesting figures making films today. From his novel The Beach (which was turned into a pretty good movie with Leo Dicaprio) to the excellent film Ex Machina (2014) to the enthralling film Annihilation (2018), Garland has demonstrated a flair for embedding deep philosophical conundrums into his films, particularly philosophy of mind. Garland also often engages critiques of utopianism, especially technology utopianism and the accompanying ethos of accelerationism that we see saturating our culture, all within a cinematography that is part Kubrick, part Nolan, part Fincher.

Fans of corporate espionage flicks (e.g., The Parallax View) will enjoy Devs. The show plays to our current fears and anxieties about Silicon Valley, of their wildly outsized and growing power over our lives (internationally), a power with too little oversight, where the massive wealth involved inoculates itself by campaign contributions to both parties, ensuring oversight is minimized.

In Devs, the fictional company Amaya, is clearly modeled on Google, with its sprawling high-tech corporate campus nestled within a forest of redwoods outside of SF. As with Google, company buses pick up employees in downtown SF each morning, hustling them in comfort to their workplace. In the process, we see San Francisco as a shithole (e.g., litter; homeless people on doorsteps) and as a harbinger for the rest of the country in due time: a small elite class living in high-security, rarified bubbles… and then everyone else.

Nick Offerman (of all people) is terrific as Forest, the joyless and obsessive founder and head of Amaya. A mouthpiece for the implicit (and sometimes explicit) ethos of Big Tech as the altruistic visionary gods of a new age, Forest expresses contempt for both patriotism and national borders. The show’s religious symbolism accentuates both the Jesus complex and the sense of being quasi-gods, that Big Tech can exude. The underrated Zach Grenier (who folks will remember as Ed Norton’s office boss in Fight Club) plays Kenton, the resourceful and merciless head of security at Amaya.

There is at least one overt jab at Wokeness, and the de-sexualization of the show’s female characters is most interesting. As the show’s protagonist, the actress Sonoya Mizuno – who was the highly sexualized AI robot Kyoko in Ex Machina) – here has a plain, boyish look. A similarly desexualized (and completely androgynized) Cailee Spaeny plays Lyndon, a Woke millennial Devs team member who we can’t figure out is male or female.

In Devs, we get suspense and thriller qualities, including subplots involving Russian spies, and passing references to an ascendant China. But the prevailing theme of the show is the playful philosophical speculation about various quantum theories of mind/existence, and paradoxical idealized imaginings of where it all might go, and what a quantum computing endpoint might be. There are references to Roger Penrose and the Wheeler interpretation (multiverse). There are discussions of free will vs determinism, as well as simulation theory (whether we might be information in a higher-level simulation).

While the tail end of the third act is a bit disappointing, the journey there is absolutely terrific.

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Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)

SCORE: 4/5

On many ‘best film noir’ lists, I thought I was going to hate this film due to the “racist white guy and good black guy” aspect of the film. Boy, was I wrong.

Robert Wise’s late-era noir features Robert Ryan, Harry Belafonte (a passable but not very good actor), and an excellent Ed Begley, with smaller roles played effectively by Shelly Winters and Gloria Grahame. The arcs of individuals who are all down on their luck, or who otherwise or painfully conscience of what little their lives have amounted to, intersect with the prospect of a bank robbery scheme planned out by a jaded ex-cop (Begley).

In terms of plot and conflict, one has to get over the film having a black jazzman with a serious gambling problem (Belafonte) as its moral center. (This is established rather clumsily via his relationship with his young daughter and his estranged wife, as well as his hesitations to join the caper). But this dimension does not reduce the film to mere racial sermonizing. Sure, Robert Ryan’s cheating ways, general contempt for blacks, and racial insults – delivered in a slight and elusive southern accent (his character comes from Oklahoma) – make him the ‘racist’ cad of the film, but… so what? In one way or another, all the characters have flaws. While they don’t’ have much screen time, Winters’ desperate neediness and Grahame’s lax marital scruples (and desire to be dominated by a ‘bad boy’) make for terrific performances.

Stylistically, metaphors of doom and foreboding creep into the frame and aural experience: the ominous wind that will sweep things away; the balloon that pops; the image of a dilapidated wooden bridge displaying a river that cannot be crossed. There is an uncanniness, an oddness, to this film, of the sort that Wise put to great effect with his masterful horror film The Haunting. The unusual and jazzy score is also quite effective in punctuating manic emotion as well as a quieter sense of foreboding as well. Exterior shots are effectively framed by the architectural largeness of NYC, dwarfing individuals to accentuate what bit players we are on the stage.

In terms of the cinematography, there is more kinetic camera movement than in typical 1950s noirs, and in this regard Odds Against Tomorrow (much like 1958’s Touch of Evil) serves as a transition point between the standard 1940-1950s noir and the more exploratory if not radical stylizations of 1960s and 1970s films.

There’s an almost Shakespearean feel to Odds Against Tomorrow, with an overarching theme that man’s fate is overdetermined by chance and chaos. The film’s final sequence leads to a great and unexpected ending, a variation of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, where failure to cooperate leads to a less than optimal outcome for all involved.

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The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965)

Score: 4/5

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965) is director Martin Ritt’s beautifully shot, b/w adaptation of John Le Carre’s Cold War spy thriller. It features a terrific Richard Burton as Alec Leamas, a jaded, alcoholic MI6 double agent ultimately working for the British. Oskar Werner is very good as Fiedler, a zealous (almost puritanical), Jewish, communist agent working for Moscow who believes he is facilitating a genuine defection to the East by Leamas. Claire Bloom plays Nan Perry, a naive British Communist whom Leamas uses as part of his mission to ‘defect’ to the Eastern bloc, but with whom he ultimately falls in love with, against his ‘better judgment’. (Leamas is portrayed as a perpetual loner. “I have no friends,” he says at one point in the film.)

Le Carre’s novels often have clever symbolism within prosaic dialogue or events. There is some interesting and mainly indirect commentary on Jewish radicalism within this film. For instance, Wikipedia notes:

“One exception [from the novel] is that the name of the principal female character in the novel, Liz Gold, is changed to Nan Perry in the film, reputedly because the producers were worried about the potential confusion in the media with Burton’s then wife, Elizabeth Taylor.”

Given that the Liz Gold / Nan Perry character is a young, idealistic, British Communist, ideologically committed to Stalin’s Soviet Union, I would contend that the name change was to remove the character’s Jewishness.

Of Fiedler — the East German Mundt’s second in command, who despises Mundt (and vice versa), Control (who heads MI6) tells Leamas:

Fiedler’s a Jew, of course, and Mundt’s quite the other thing. Believe me, my dear Alec, Fiedler is the acolyte who one day will stab the high priest in the back.

Later, towards the end of the film, Leamas tells Liz/Nan:

We’re witnessing the lousy end to a filthy, lousy operation to save Mundt’s skin… to save him from a clever little Jew in Mundt’s own department… who had begun to suspect the truth. London made us kill him… kill the Jew. Now you know.

Within this same conversation is a great bit of dialogue from the world-weary Leamas to the naïve and idealistic Liz/Nan, which obliquely condemns totalizing ideologies and idealist moralizing, whether religious or secular:

“What the hell do you think spies are? Moral philosophers measuring everything they do against the word of God or Karl Marx? They’re not. They’re just a bunch of seedy squalid bastards like me, little men, drunkards, queers, henpecked husbands, civil servants playing “Cowboys and Indians” to brighten their rotten little lives. Do you think they sit like monks in a cell, balancing right against wrong? Yesterday I would have killed Mundt because I thought him evil and an enemy. But not today. Today he is evil and my friend.”

The ending of the film is quite powerful and unexpected, with Leamas’ final act signifying a quixotic gesture against the nihilism his life has become.

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Crashout (1955)

Score: 4/5

Terrific hidden gem, B-movie thriller made by Standard Productions and directed by Lewis R. Foster. A cross-genre film, with some parallels to Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

Prison breakout film, w film starting at the point of breakout. The great William Bendix plays Van Duff, the thuggish and ruthless con who organized the whole breakout and escape plan, but who has been shot badly in the shoulder during the escape. The six cons meet in the designated hiding spot (a cave with a small opening). Each of the cons is played by an effective character actor: William Talman is terrific as the sociopathic Luther Remsen (aka Swanee Rawlins aka Rev. Remington), a former priest, now with vacant eyes, who follows every command of Van Duff. Luther Adler plays Mendoza, a loud braggadocio always playing card tricks with his constant companion deck-of-cards; Gene Evans (an actor who is stunningly good as the lead in The Steel Helmet isn’t given many lines in this film, but is passable as Monk Collins; Marshall Thompson plays Billy Lang, the young, 20-something con, who has a softer side; Arthur Kennedy is very good as Joe Quinn, who was not invited to the breakout attempt, and whom Van Duff has never liked (probably because Quinn was only in for robbery, while the others were in for murder), but is now Van Duff’s weary accomplice.

Part of Van Duff’s plan, which he is adamant the others stick to, is to wait in the cave for 3 days (with no food, but a water supply), so that the guards will have long moved on to other areas of the mountain range they are at the base of. In order to convince the remaining cons to not leave him behind, the wounded Van Duff promises them all an even split of $80,000 in bank robbery money he has stashed in the mountains. They all agree, except Quinn, who is skeptical that Van Duff is being honest about the amount he has stashed. Van Duff relents and then says it is actually $180,000. Quinn is now onboard.

A long-ish but effective opening scene in the cave possesses a stage play’s interpersonal dynamics, but then gives way to action and movement throughout the rest of film. Van Duff orders two of the men to find him a doctor. They break into a nearby remote gas station, closed for the day, and use the phone, asking the operator to send a doctor, under the pretense that a garage mechanic has had a jack fall on him. The doctor arrives, and they force him into the cave to mend Van Duff. They tie him up, but Quinn objects, noting that the doctor treated them fairly, etc. Van Duff says we’ll call his wife tomorrow and tell her where he is. The men all leave the cave, and when the others are out of earshot, Van Duff tells the Reverend to kill the doctor, who we then see pick up large stone the size of a football and re-enter the cave.

The film’s 2nd act moves along at a swift clip, with two budding-romance interludes (which might easily have turned saccharine in less competent directorial hands) actually unfolding as mini-tragedies, as both women reveal their own backstories to be ones of sadness and misfortune. Over the course of the movie, one-by-one, the escaped cons meet deadly fates.

The 3rd act finds us down to just 3 men left: Van Duff, Quinn, and the Reverend. Van Duff leads them — on foot and during a snow storm — up a mountain pass to where the money is buried. Quinn is quite a bit ahead of them in going up the mountain, leaving Van Duff and the Reverend walking together a bit behind. They get into an argument, which culminates in the Reverend screaming at Van Duff: “It’s you! YOU are the Devil!” Van Duff shoots and kills him, and lies to Quinn, telling him that the Reverend went crazy and tried to kill him.

The still-injured Van Duff guides Quinn to where the money is buried and has Quinn dig it up, which he does. Quinn opens the small trunk to reveal wads and wads of bundled cash. “This is it!” yells Quinn. “Yes,” Van Duff says, pulling out his gun and aiming it at Quinn, “this is it.” However, when Van Duff pulls the trigger, it turns out he’s out of bullets. The two then struggle, with Van Duff getting the better of Quinn, knocking him unconscious by hitting him over the head with the small trunk.

When Quinn comes to, he staggers over a rise, to find Van Duff lying dead, the case of money next to him. Quinn ignores the trunk full of cash, the last shot being him walking through the snow blizzard alone, to an uncertain fate.

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Mad Debating Skilz

A great blast from the past. You couldn’t make this shit up if you tried.

“The 2014 Cross Examination Debate Association’s national championship was held at Indiana University.  The all African American female team from Towson University defeated the all African American male team from the University of Oklahoma.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fmO-ziHU_D8

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3:10 to Yuma (1957)

SCORE: 4/5

Loosely based on Elmore Leonard’s far leaner 1953 short story, 3:10 to Yuma (1957) is a superb adaptation directed by Delmer Daves. Shot gorgeously in crisp black and white, Director of Photography Charles Lawton Jr. effectively deploys Tolland/Wellesian-styled deep-focus cinematography for a near perfect western. Both Van Heflin (Dan Evans) and Glenn Ford (Ben Wade) are at the top of their game, the psycho-drama of their exchanges the work of a superb screenplay by Halstead Welles, who greatly expands the story’s characterization as well as moral terrain. The casting choices here are terrific, as the grizzled weariness of Van Heflin’s face perfectly matches his character’s Job-like difficulties in life, while the smooth handsomeness of Glenn Ford (playing against type) aptly reflects his character’s sociopathic powers of effortless seduction and psychological manipulation. Felicia Farr (Emmy Evans) delivers an effective performance as Dan’s loving but long suffering ranch wife.

It is hard to find a more compelling and complex Western character than Ben Wade, the leader of a 12 man criminal gang, ruthless and effective in his trade, but who displays a surprising and bizarre code of ethics when it comes to Dan Evans, his wife, and two sons. Wade is like the proverbial snake in the garden, a Satanic like figure who offers Dan huge sums of money to let him escape.

It is the arc of Van Heflin’s character, however, that drives this film’s morality play. Dan’s financial duress (a long drought is putting his small ranch at risk of complete failure), coupled with his looming doubts about his worth as a man, lead him to a potentially tragic path of desperation. Tortured by the financial temptations that Ben Wade dangles before him, Dan’s stoicism and Christian underpinning (his sons are named Matthew and Mark) prevail, even though rationality clearly dictates he will ultimately be killed by Wade’s gang.

I loved James Mangold’s 5-star 2007 remake, with a substantially revised script written by Michael Brandt and Derek Haas, which featured Christian Bale, Russell Crowe, and a scene-stealing breakout role for Ben Foster. The tragic ending sequence of this remake is, dare I say, far superior to the relatively ‘happy ending’ of the 1957 original, especially given the arc and honor-at-all-costs element of the Dan Evans character, although this 1957 version does have a terrific and almost biblical final shot of Dan (on the train with Wade) seeing his wife in the distance: without words, both of them simply look at each other, then look up to the sky and smile at the down-pouring rain which has just begun.

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Lenny (1974)

SCORE: 4/5

Lenny (1974) is Bob Fosse’s well made, black and white biopic of Lenny Bruce (born Leonard Alfred Schneider), which is itself based on a play by Julian Barry. Dustin Hoffman does a terrific job channeling the manic energy of Lenny, and Valerie Perrine is equally terrific as Honey, the former stripper and “shiksa goddess” whom Lenny becomes obsessed with and eventually marries. (For her performance, Perrine won the Best Actress award at the 1975 Cannes Film Festival). The film cuts back and forth in time, from the events of Lenny’s life to the ‘present day’, where various people from his life are talking to an off-screen interviewer.

Having failed with his comic act based on impersonations and standard one-liners, Lenny transitions into a profanity-laden, improvisational, and confessional style of blue ‘humor’ that became a major countercultural force of the era, and which proved hugely influential to later comics such as Richard Pryor and George Carlin. Rhythmically, Lenny fancied his act as the linguistic equivalent of be-bop jazz musicianship. In terms of his subject matter, Bruce represented the quintessential urban, liberal Jew who revels in being the fly in the ointment, who gravitates towards deviancy and subversion.

Regarding the depictions of his act, of particular note is his Jews-as-Christ-killer bit, and a later bit where he’s criticizing a Time magazine profile that called his act “sick humor”. Of the latter, he says what is “really sick” is Zsa Zsa Gabor making $60,000 a week in Las Vegas, while the average school teacher in NV makes only $6,000 a year. But, as is soon revealed, he admits that his liberal virtue-signaling on the matter is just that… virtue-signaling. In the same act, he says “I’m not a moralist,” while the film intercuts to images of his newfound wealth in the Hollywood hills. He tells the crowd “I’m a hustler. If they give it, I take it!”

Indeed.

He repeatedly cheats on his “shiksa goddess” wife with various other women. The one woman shown is another blond WASP-looking nurse at the hospital where his wife was recovering from a car accident. His wife later speculates to the interviewer that he cheated on her repeatedly due to his need “to prove himself… due to his insecurities.” (There is a disturbing scene where he’s engaging in a threesome with an attractive bisexual woman, his wife and himself. The scenario has clearly been manufactured by Lenny; we later see his wife crying, saying that he “talked her into the freak scene.”)

Lenny’s mother is depicted throughout as a staunch (and rather unscrupulous) defender of his act, as well as an active participant and promoter of his career, in a quasi business manager capacity. She even managed the finances at the strip clubs where he worked. She says something to the interviewer about how if a Protestant mother moved to California to help her son “you wouldn’t call her Protestant. Well I’m a Jewish mother.”

Lenny’s multiple obscenity charges became a major turning point in his life. After each such arrest, his subsequent acts became less a comedy routine and more a series of obsessional riffs on his cases (“You need the deviant!”), his martyrdom, and testing the limits of public tolerance. As with many other Jewish culture producers (e.g., pornographers; the soft pornography of 1970s-era Hollywood, etc.), Lenny hid under the pretext of the First Amendment, exploiting it for all it is worth.

And, as with many of these aforementioned Jewish culture producers, he was an ‘extreme’ personality: neurotic, paranoid, narcissistic, excessive in ways of the flesh.

Unsurprisingly, he died of a morphine overdose in 1966, at the age of 40.

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How the West Was Won (1962)

SCORE: 3.5/5

How the West Was Won (1962) was a big budget, ‘5-part’ Western was co-directed by Henry Hathaway, John Ford, & George Marshall. Its all-star cast includes James Stewart, Henry Fonda, Karl Malden, Gregory Peck, George Peppard, Debbie Reynolds, Eli Wallach, John Wayne, and Richard Widmark.

The film is an unapologetic celebration of Western expansionism and, as such, would never get made today. Spencer Tracey provides voiceover narration which connects the 5 separate vignettes, each of which do have continuity overlap with each other. Overall, none of the stories is very gripping. The vignette directed by Ford is hokey and disappointing. The best vignettes are the last two, especially “The Railroad” (directed by Marshall), with Henry Fonda and Richard Widmark, followed by “The Outlaws” (directed by Hathaway), with Lee J. Cobb as the representative voice of newly established law struggling for replacement of the previous, anarchic frontier justice. In this last vignette, Eli Wallach is particularly good, in a performance that anticipates, and likely led to his being cast as, ‘Tuco’ in Leone’s immortal The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (1966).

The stunning Metrocolor print is hampered by the gimmicky, 146° arc, Cinerama technology, which distorts close-ups, and forced directors to use center-focused, medium- & long-shots only (looking for the Cinerama ‘sweet spot’). Cinerama was a short-lived technique which involved filming with 3 synchronized cameras (correlated to 3 vertical planes of the picture’s content). The finished film was then projected onto special, curved, theater screens, to minimize bleeding between the 3 separate, synchronized projectors to simultaneously projected the film. Despite the no-doubt careful job transferring this to a clean, 2.89:1 aspect ratio for Blu Ray release, the annoying aspects of Cinerama (which do occasionally account for a stunning shot) are distracting.

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The Molly Maguires (1970)

SCORE: 4/5

Directed by Martin Ritt, with great leads and a solid supporting cast. Based on the real-life, Irish immigrants who were an extension of Ireland’s secret-society ‘Molly Maguires’, this extension being present in Pennsylvania’s coal-mining towns of the 1870s. Pro-union and anti-exploitation in orientation, the group partook in violent, ‘eye for an eye’ reprisals, kidnappings, and mine sabotage, for which 20 of them were ultimately hanged, which this film is a fictionalization of.

Sean Connery & Richard Harris are at the height of their powers here, with Harris playing Pinkerton detective, and Irish native, James McParland, who goes to great lengths (both in terms of personal risk and in willingly partaking in some of the Maguires’ violent acts) in order to infiltrate the group and gain their trust.

James Wong Howe’s gritty and grimy cinematography conveys the misery of Coal Region life, where children begin their lives working in unimaginably harsh and dangerous conditions, at disturbingly young ages. Surprisingly, the film is a poignant allegory for today, where the idealistic promises of neoliberalism are quickly morphing into a neo-feudalism, with new incarnations of the exploitative ‘factory towns’ of old.

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