Charlton Heston + Ben-Hur = Liza Minnelli + Cabaret

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There exist a multitude of constraints that prohibit me from witnessing first-run films in theatres. Time and finances are the strongest of those constraints. And when I do have the time and money, more often than not I see films with my children. So Frozen (2013) and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013) take precedence over films such as Gravity (2013), Nebraska (2013), and Inside Llewyn Davis (2013). In an effort to feed my film watching fix, I resort to Turner Classic Movies and my disparate DVD collection.

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When choosing DVDs, I like to do so randomly, as though I am surprising myself. My method of random selection led to my viewing of Soylent Green (1973) on Christmas Day. Few things radiate a joyous holiday spirit more than Charlton Heston discovering the horrible truth about Soylent Green’s gruesome origins. (But then again, Soylent Green probably had fewer contaminants and more nutritional value than Wyngz, Gogurt, or Cool Ranch Doritos.) My random selections can also lead to rather surprising conclusions, including how films that would seemingly have nothing in common are quite similar. This is what I discovered when I viewed Ben-Hur (1959) and Cabaret (1972) back to back. These two films appear most incongruous. It is difficult to imagine meshing any parts of either film into the other. The directors, actors, and scripts are all at odds. It is almost impossible to imagine Bob Fosse directing Ben-Hur or Heston attempting to seduce Liza Minnelli and Michael York.

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Still, these vastly incongruous films rang more similar than different in a variety of ways. Both of these films are older than my forty year-old self, and while I still feel that they hold up impressively well, I could not help but think that both films would have a terrible time getting produced today. Or if either were made/re-made, current cinematic impulses would ruin each. I do not know of a studio that would willing allow Ben-Hur’s famous and amazing chariot race scene to be filmed with actual horses and chariots. What makes the entire sequence so fantastic are the actual people, animals, and props involved. Yes, Peter Jackson and his ilk can do impressive things with CGI, but imagine how much more impressive those battle scenes from Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) would have been had all the horses and animals been real rather than computer images.

Similarly, not only would the sexually and romantically complex relationships in Cabaret be neutered in today’s Hollywood, but the wonderfully decadent and sexy burlesque scenes would no doubt become boring and horribly unsexy with efforts to make them into clichéd Vegas stripper shows: something that the dudes from The Hangover (2009) would think is totally awesome but actually totally sucks because those guys really are not that bright. Both Ben-Hur and Cabaret demonstrate that despite that vast number of films produced, fewer possibilities for innovation and risk-taking exist. And that which poses as innovation and risk-taking is actually formulaic clap-trap.

The final bizarre similarity between Cabaret and Ben-Hur rests in the career arcs of their Oscar-winning stars: Heston and Minnelli. While an eager individual might be able to connect these two via a six degrees of Kevin Bacon game, it would be difficult to find to more divergent Hollywood personas. Yet while as silly as it is to imagine Heston and Minnelli opposite each other, they could probably relate to each other’s careers. Each had tremendous success early in their careers, with the previously mentioned films representing their pinnacles of cinematic achievement. Yet the qualities that made each actor so successful in those roles proved to be, if not their undoing, the chains that limited them.

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Heston’s absolute earnestness and ability to avoid any and all irony served him well as Judah Ben-Hur. He is brave, resilient, and valiant. Yet these same qualities, particularly visible in his later sci-fi adventures, turn him into a figure of fun, one to be mocked. Indeed, my first real exposure to Heston was through former Saturday Night Live comedian Phil Hartman’s impersonations of Heston. Hartman’s Heston is drawn not from Ben-Hur, but from Soylent Green and Planet of the Apes (1968). This caricature of Heston became even further reified through his cryptic statements made while a member of the National Rifle Association (NRA). Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine (2002) helped substantiate that image of Heston.

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Minnelli suffers from a similar fate. While her caricatured figure possesses radically different politics, she has still been reduced from her former glory into a thin representation of what she once was. As Cabaret’s Sally Bowles, Minelli is funny, witty, vulnerable, sexy, and likeable. However, this range has slowly been reduced. Now, she exists solely as a gay-themed songstress, one who has given birth to countless Liza Minnelli impersonators. In fact, Minnelli is now hardly much more than an impersonation of her own impersonators. See Sex and the City 2 (2010). It is hard to now watch Minnelli and not think of her simulacrum in the same way that Heston’s interview with Michael Moore resembles those Phil Hartman SNL skits.

So while each are similar in how their former glory has been distilled into silly comic fodder, I would like to remember that both also share histories and performances that are far greater than their current representations would have us believe.

- Todd Starkweather

Posted in Film, film studies | 2 Comments

Labor On Film: Screenings In Solidarity

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By Michael Jones

For May Day, the international holiday commemorating the working class everywhere, or America’s Labor Day, a rough chronological selection of films in the workers’ honor. This list is composed of fiction and nonfiction films, domestic and international and is an initial offering, by no means complete. Labor and the film industry have a long history—mostly off-celluloid–there were violent battles outside Hollywood’s studio gates in the 1940s. Still today, Hollywood and the film industry world-wide remain one of the most unionized of industries.

Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory, Loading the Boiler, Drawing out the Coke, Demolishing a Wall- Lumiere Bros., c. 1895-96, Fr.
The earliest documentaries in existence—actualities, performed by working people—one shot, one reel, no edits. The subject is the everyday—and in these instances workers’ doing what they do everyday. The filmmakers’ father owned the factory in the title, but we’re barred from its interior.

Available on DVD.

A Visit to the Peek Frean and Company’s Biscuit Works – c. 1906, GB
Supposedly the first documentary ever filmed inside a factory, workers turning out tins and tins of cookies!

Available on DVD.

Corner in WheatD.W. Griffith, 1909, US
Roughly based on the bread riots of the turn of the century, a striking expose of corporate manipulation at the expense of the consumer and the producer/farmer. Fortunately, karma intervenes.

Available on DVD.

StrikeSergei Eisenstein, 1925, USSR
Just a year ahead of his groundbreaking Battleship Potemkin, a chronicle of a proletarian strike violently squashed by the factory owners, the police and the Tsar’s own agents. Noted for the metaphoric slaying of an ox, before the massacre of the strikers.

Available on Blu-ray and for streaming on Amazon Instant Video.

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MetropolisFritz Lang, 1926, Ger.
More than a sci-fi, this a treatise on the eternal struggle between capital and labor. Once seen, the viewer never forgets the worker drones headed, head down, to work in the fiery underground of Lang’s futuristic nightmare. Happily, love and a growing social awareness intervene.

Available on DVD and Blu-ray.

Giorgio Moroder’s 1984 colorized re-edit is also available on DVD and Blu-ray.

Liberty is Ours (A Nous la Liberte)Rene Clair, 1931, Fr.
Clair’s charming Cinderella story – an escaped con becomes a factory mogul – bursts when a cellmate, in line for employment, recognizes him. Later, on the lam, the factory is left behind to the workers’ collective, living an idyllic existence on the fringe of nature and technology.

Available on DVD from the Criterion Collection.

Our Daily BreadKing Vidor, 1934, US
Despite his studio credentials, Vidor (The Crowd) couldn’t get this one made in the depths of the Depression, so he did it out of pocket. A utopian view of a farming collective, composed of diverse specialists, that finds a way to employ themselves. The final ten minutes is an euphoric montage, almost religious in tone, as the struggling farmers triumphantly divert water to their crops.

Available on DVD.

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Modern TimesCharles Chaplin, 1936, US
With this release, there were no more ambiguities about Chaplin’s cinema – his political heart was there on the silver screen for all. He’d met Ghandi on tour in England, and he’d resolved to try to say something among the laughs. Countless memorable sequences with The Tramp run amok in the Industrial Age.

Available on DVD and Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection.

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You Can’t Take It With YouFrank Capra, 1938, US
Capra finds a comfortable vehicle in the Moss HartGeorge S. Kaufman play, with memorable roles by Lionel Barrymore, as the downright practically anti-American patriarch who rejects a 9-5 lifestyle and encourages the same from his resident pack of anarchistic, firework-producing in-laws, and Jean Arthur, hoping to bridge the social strata by marriage to her corporate boss’s son, Jimmy Stewart. Capra was America’s most popular populist director of the 1930’s — Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, etc. — and this reminds us why. A personal favorite as we put the play on in high school—part of my political education!

Available on DVD and for streaming on Amazon Instant Video.

John Grierson and the GPO documentaries, c. 1930s, UK
As a government funded agency whose mission it was to produce documentaries on various aspects of British life, (re: working life) Grierson, Basil Wright and associates produced scores of films including Nightmail, a study in efficiency and teamwork of postal employees carrying mail nightly from London to Glasgow, with rhetorical voice-over poetry from W. H. Auden. A fascinating piece of government propaganda.

Nightmail is available on the Region B Blu-ray/DVD combo pack The Soviet Influence: From Turksib to Nightmail.

Henry Fonda the Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes of WrathJohn Ford, 1940, US
Well of course the ending of John Steinbeck’s novel is omitted—it could never have worked then, or maybe even now—but it still splits some hairs and lands pretty solidly (albeit sentimentally) on the Left. Henry Fonda as Tom Joad realizes the balance of things and sets out to right them, in fact his speech to Jane Darwell (Ma Joad) near the end even hints at a universal consciousness. Imagine that. Perhaps most memorable is John Carradine as Casey, who dropped his Bible on the way to social enlightenment. Steinbeck in his early works was quite critical of capitalism, and though he may have mellowed in latter years, he was reportedly very happy with Ford’s version.

Available on DVD and Blu-ray.

Salt of the EarthHerbert Biberman, 1954, US
Collectively produced by a blacklisted Hollywood crew, the film was harassed from the beginning by right-wingers in Congress and Hollywood – in fact, processing and editing had to be done secretly, and then only two theaters screened it. Based on a real miners’ strike, this film breaks ground as domestic issues compound and the wives carry the strike through to a new contract. With Will Geer, aka Grandpa Walton, as the Sheriff pawn of the corporation. Yes, Grandpa was a Communist. A feel good movie from the Left!

Available on DVD.

Vidas Secas (Barren Lives)Nelson Periera dos Santos, 1963, Brazil
One of the bed-rock films of Brazilian’s Cinema Novo movement, this is a no-holds barred tale of an illiterate migrant gaucho and family drifting from ranch to ranch, exploited by landowner and law. As stark and as bleak as its landscape, the film holds however the the nurturing hopes and seeds of a better life, ending with a thin note of optimism—like much of the Italian Neo-realist films which influenced the young Brazilians.

Available on DVD.

They Don’t Wear Black TieLeon Hirszman, 1981, Brazil
I’ve only seen this movie twice but the emotional rift between a striking factory-worker father and his scab son resonated. Set in a small village (location shot with a sweaty gritty texture) where the town’s existence revolves around the factory, Hirszman’s rhetoric plays naturally as he builds characters into people. At one time it was distributed by New Yorker Films.

Available as part of a five film all-region DVD box set.

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Harlan County, U.S.A.Barbara Kopple, 1977, US
One of the greatest American documentaries period, a record of not only a specific strike in Kentucky in the early ‘70s, but the history and legacy of the United Mine Workers. Like Salt of the Earth the women take the lead with questions regarding indoor plumbing and decent housing overlapping with the strikers on issues regarding safety. Academy Award Winner in 1978 for Best Documentary.

Available on DVD from the Criterion Collection.

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Norma RaeMartin Ritt, 1979, US
America’s favorite gal, Sally Field, won an Oscar for her portrayal of Norma Rae, who risks marriage, family and community opinion as she fights for workers’ rights in a North Carolina textile factory. Ron Liebman plays the union organizer with whom she has a platonic relationship – an education on labor issues and a skinny dip in the local swimming hole. Nicely handled by director Ritt, who sells the story on a personal level that makes the union’s fight believable, vital, and winnable. Based on a true story.

Available on DVD and Blu-ray.

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MatewanJohn Sayles, 1983, US
One of writer-director Sayles best films (Return of the Secaucus 7, Eight Men Out) and only his third, a dramatic version of a bloody coal-mining strike in Matewan, KY. Like most of Sayles films, there’s an eye for natural dialogue and behavior, and a penchant for stories that invite a social discourse.

Available on DVD.

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Working GirlsLizzie Borden, 1987, US
Her followup to Born in Flames, Borden’s unglamorous expose of a middle-upper class brothel in NYC garnered an X rating for Miramax, who released it. The debunking comes through humanization of the players and like Godard’s My Life to Live (’63), prostitution is still the hardest working metaphor for capitalism in cinema.

Available on DVD.

American DreamBarbara Kopple, 1990, US
A prolonged strike against a Hormel meat packing plant is the dramatic stuff of this documentary – family members pitted against one another and a national representation unable to avert disaster for the local. A little technical at times, but a real education in what happens backroom in labor negotiations. Oscar winner for Best Documentary.

Available on DVD and for streaming on Amazon Instant Video.

Roger & Me

Roger and Me/The Big OneMichael Moore, 1989/1998
A champion of topics ignored by major media, Moore manages to focus not only on an issue film-to-film, but also connects the dots in the bigger workers’ picture. Beginning with the UAW in Flint in the 1930s in Roger & Me, to his interview with the CEO and founder of Nike who declines to match Moore’s own pledge to the depressed school districts of Flint with a $20,000 donation in the latter film.

Roger & Me is available on DVD.

The Big One is available on DVD and for streaming on Amazon Instant Video.
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Michael Jones has worked a lot of low-paying jobs—packing apples, digging graves, painting houses–including ushering at the revered, defunct Biograph Theatre, of Richmond, VA where he made $2.25/hr. in 1976. He currently teaches film at Virginia Commonwealth University and Randolph-Macon College, and is a founding member of the James River Film Festival and the James River Film Society.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

THE SWIMMER: Burt Lancaster Journeys Upriver Into The Dark Heart of Suburbia

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On a warm and beautiful autumn afternoon Ned Merrill (Burt Lancaster) emerges from the peaceful woods of an upper class Connecticut suburb wearing nothing but a pair of dark swim trunks and dives into the swimming pool of old friends. We have no idea where he came from, but Ned knows where he is going and how he intends to get there. In conversation with his friends over martinis (there are a lot of drinks served in this film) he learns that one of his neighbors just installed an in-ground pool in their backyard. This means that there is now a path of homes with pools leading all the way to Ned’s palatial house on top of a hill. He gets the idea to swim back to his house via this unofficially connected river of chemically-treated water. Everyone thinks Ned is a little off for even considering this bizarre notion, but this ordinary man sees it as a great adventure.

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That’s where the 1968 cult classic drama The Swimmer begins, and it would usually be enough for any lesser film to use as a plot. But as Ned goes from house to house, pool to pool, in a last ditch attempt to seize the day as his fair weather friends drink and tan themselves into a mass coma the story mutates into something uncomfortable and tragic. From the rapturous optimism of the journey’s idealistic beginning to a pitch-black comedic indictment of malcontented bourgeois ennui, Ned’s grand quest through the sun-dappled forests and manicured estates of his dreamlike purgatory becomes a haunting portrayal of a once-beloved, successful man about town who had it all and gambled everything away simply because he could.

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With the exception of an awkward encounter with the mother of a friend he seemingly forgot about even as the man was slowly dying in a hospital, Ned is mostly greeted with warm welcomes by the owners of the pools he swims in on his way home. Handshakes are exchanged, hugs and kisses shared, and promises of future lunches and golf games are made. The people treat Ned with respect but often regard him as a distant stranger, as if he had been gone for a long time. As he emerges from each pool the murkier aspects of his apparently happy life become clear and all is not well in Merrill’s paradise of a waiting, dutiful wife and two lovely daughters whose ages he tends to confuse but are definitely at home playing tennis.

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At one pool he meets the comely young woman who used to work as the Merrills’ babysitter (Janet Landgard). Her name is Julie and she willingly joins Ned for the first leg of his journey. In one scene they romp through the horse riding ring of one neighbor and leap hurdles with the immense joy of lovers looking forward to a bright future. Julie admits to having once harbored a crush on Ned as a pre-teen, even confessing to the theft of one of his shirts, but now that she’s a woman and in love with another man she met through a computer dating service the shirt is just that. At that moment you can see the life slowly starting to drain from Ned’s eyes, and the attempt he then makes to woo Julie into a romance straight out of an old Hollywood film are treated as the creepy advances of a tired old man. Julie runs away and we never see her again. Her departure signals The Swimmer‘s descent into the waking nightmare of a man out of time and out of luck. Every pool Ned visits from here on in will rudely awaken mistaken passions, simmering content, and some harsh truths.

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With films such as David and Lisa and Ladybug Ladybug to their credit, director Frank Perry and his screenwriter wife Eleanor Perry set about to adapt John Cheever‘s 16-page short story first published in the July 18, 1964 issue of The New Yorker. Initially envisioning a film made of “The Swimmer” to be a low-budget affair with unknown or little-known actors in the cast, the Perrys saw their fortunes improve both for better and worse when they brought the project to powerhouse Hollywood producer Sam Spiegel, a legend in the industry for mounting such classic productions as The African Queen, On the Waterfront, The Bridge on the River Kwai, and Lawrence of Arabia. Their screenplay found its way into the hands of Lancaster, at the time one of the most in-demand stars in cinema and someone who could balance conventional Hollywood films with a eclectic selection of bolder works that usually attained great critical and commercial success. His salary for The Swimmer would be $750,000 – one and a half times larger than the film’s original budget.

Lancaster had been an accomplished athlete and trapeze artist in his youth but he had no idea how to swim, so he took lessons from a swimming coach at UCLA to get in shape for the role of Merrill. He brought his A-game to the part and many consider his performance in The Swimmer to be the finest of his career. After watching the film for myself recently courtesy of its long-awaited Blu-ray/DVD combo pack release from Grindhouse Releasing it would be difficult for me to protest. Lancaster also brought with him to the set a heavy dose of star power and he didn’t get along well with the 36-year-old Frank Perry. During production an edict had been issued that not a single word of Eleanor’s screenplay was to be altered, a privilege rarely afforded to a screenwriter especially during the waning days of the old Hollywood studio system.

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In an interview conducted some time after the film’s theatrical release director Perry admitted that the version of The Swimmer that played to enthusiastic reviews and non-existent box office represented only 50 percent of his intended cut. After filming first wrapped an early cut prepared by Perry was greeted with consternation by executives at Columbia Pictures and Lancaster brought on his dear friend Sydney Pollack (director of The Way We Were, Tootsie, and Out of Africa) to reshoot certain scenes that were lacking in dramatic impact. While my sympathies tend to rest with the filmmaker and their vision, The Swimmer bears no marks of a damaged film. It may have been pure hell for the cast and crew to make, but their labors brought to life a motion picture experience like no other. In fact that’s exactly how Columbia tried to sell it to the masses in 1968: “When you talk about ‘The Swimmer’, will you talk about yourself?” Or so the tagline the marketing campaign centered around went. In this case, too many cooks in the kitchen didn’t spoil the meal.

Like getting caught in the current of a raging river, it’s easy to be swept away by the film’s carefully-woven spell. The viewer becomes Ned’s fellow traveler on the adventure across his unforgiving Connecticut county, sharing in the thrill of living life to its fullest for a fleeting day and ultimately being forced to endure the uncertainty and heartbreak as he nears his final destination. I wish not to spoil the emotionally devastating pleasures of the unfolding plot, but once you arrive at the ending you might be compelled to watch The Swimmer again immediately just to see if it had been hinted during the course of the film. Looking back on particular scenes now that I know how it ends allowed the dialogue and performances to gain unforseen levels of complexity.

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The performances are all magnificent: Lancaster cleverly subverted his image as a virile, handsome leading man of the silver screen with memorable results. Among the lovely ladies he encounters on his journey the stand-outs are Landgard as his sweet natured, temporary companion and Janice Rule as a bored socialite who still carries the emotional scars of her brief affair with Ned which he tries futilely to rekindle in one of the film’s best scenes. Comedian Joan Rivers has a cameo as a woman Ned meets at a pool party who appears perplexed by his pointless ambition, and Rivers has been extraordinarily forthright with her disappointment at how she was treated on the production and how her character changed against her wishes from sympathetic to shrill prior to filming the scene. The pivotal sequence towards the end finds Ned trying to barter his way into a crowded community pool that stands between him and a homestead that may only exist as happy and loving in his memories is masterfully staged with bouts of bleak humor and soul-shattering revelations. The film is backed up by an adventurous score from Marvin Hamlisch with its moments of soaring exuberance and quiet melancholy.

More than 45 years since it was first released to audience indifference, The Swimmer has not lost its ability to amaze and sadden. My initial viewing will be one of the greatest film experiences of 2014 as far as I’m concerned. It is a haunting and underrated masterpiece that demands your attention and yields bountiful rewards.

You can order Grindhouse Releasing’s Blu-ray of The Swimmer HERE. This disc features a gorgeous 4K high-definition transfer of the film and several outstanding extra features including a feature-length retrospective documentary, a reading of the original story by author Cheever, extensive still galleries, trailers, TV spots, and other surprises. This is one of the best home video releases of the year.

- Robert Morgan

Posted in Essays, Film, Reviews | Leave a comment

Esther Williams: A Woman Pursued

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By Tarquin Mandrake

Esther Williams was a star who exploded out of Louis B Mayer’s Warner Brothers studio system in the 1940s. A swimmer who was on course to compete in the Olympics until the Second World War intervened. She found work at a department store and intended to pursue a career in sales before being tempted away to work at a theme water park where she was forced to avoid the lusty attentions of ex-Tarzan Johnny Weissmuller.

She was courted by Warner Brother’s talent scouts for a year before she acquiesced to sign. Watching the first part of TCM’s Esther Williams DVD collection, TCM Spotlight: Esther Williams Volume 1 (order it from Amazon HERE), the contemporary viewer may be struck by a few things; the marked contrast in sexual politics between the 1940s and our time, the sense that these films are a product of the Americas entire rather than the United States alone and the flaws and merits of the Warner Brothers Studio system.

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Bathing Beauty

Red Skelton, a song writer responsible for such gems as “Beat Me Daddy With a Boogie Brush” and “Dig Me Sister With a Solid Spade”, is on sojourn at a holiday resort in California. Basil Rathbone, his friend and employer, paid for the holiday on the understanding that Red would seek inspiration to write the songs for a new water pageant.

However Red has fallen in love with Esther Williams, a vacationing swimming instructor, and the pair now plan to throw off their mutual obligations and elope. Overhearing Red’s intention to defraud him and abandon the boogie-woogie water pageant racket Basil enlists a female con artist and successfully breaks up Red’s wedding to Esther.
Red Skelton then pursues Esther to her place of work; the Victoria woman’s college, refuses to leave, locks her in his room on one occasion and then breaks into her house to whisper hypnotic suggestions that she disturbingly incorporates into her mental reverie on another. Eventually his persistence is rewarded, not with a restraining order but, instead, with the return of Esther’s love.

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Easy to Wed

Capitalists have taken over the Morning Star newspaper and now it has grievously libelled Esther Williams, who is “spoiled, arrogant, engaged to a different guy every month. The crown princess of café society.” Faced with an unwinnable $2 million law suit the newspaper dispatches ace-gigolo Bill Chandler “the guy who specialises in dames”.

Bill (Van Johnson) ingratiates himself with Esther’s father by posing as a duck hunter and pretending to rough up a photographer. Although Esther is a practical young lady continually besieged by fortune hunters she cannot resist Bills allure after he insults her and shoots a duck in the neck. Finding out that he is already married to Lucille Ball she decides to propose to him, telling her that his seduction was a ruse to settle the lawsuit only brings her closer to him.

In a similar recent case, a reporter sought to mitigate a serious slander made by the evil Daily Mail newspaper against Ed Milliband. He gate-crashed a memorial service for one of Ed Milliband’s relatives posing as a mourner and asking leading questions in the hope of getting some good ammunition before he was exposed and expelled. Would you believe that no marriage proposal was subsequently forthcoming from the leader of the Labour Party?

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On An Island With You

In the South Pacific an important film is being made; the tale of two native women who squabble over the affections of American sailor Ricardo Montalban. Eventually one will appear in a water pageant at a upscale hotel, the other will become a bar skank, twerking against random sailors.

Shooting the film on location, assistant director Jimmy Durante has erred deeply with his choice of technical advisor; Lieutenant Kingslee, an arrogant shell-shocked flake. Lieutenant Kingslee absconds to the barber on his first day, ignores the director on set and then interrupts the shoot because he is incapable of distinguishing between reality and a scripted scene involving two actors he has been formally introduced to.

Asked how he would change a scene he grabs Esther Williams and kisses her. Later Lieutenant Kingslee moons after Esther at a restaurant. He asks Esther to dance and after being refused four times seems about to resort to force before the director intervenes.

The next day he is (incredibly) entrusted to fly a plane with Esther as a supposed stowaway for a scene in the film. Instead of returning to the film crew he keeps flying, abducting Esther Williams and taking her to a remote cannibal infested island. He insists that she dances with him then becomes distraught as it emerges that they have met before, and what he thought was an earnest declaration of love on Esther’s part three years ago was in face a scripted routine that she performed hundreds of times on entertainment tours as part of the war effort.

Still, Lieutenant Kingslee’s sexy kidnapping ways ultimately render him irresistible to Esther. She is also charmed that he has spent years on the island burying spam and hallucinating about her.

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Neptune’s Daughter

Esther carries no trident, nor has she dominion over fish, she is merely a talented amateur swimmer that Keenan Wynn convinces to join him in a business venture selling ladies swimsuits. Ricardo Montalban, the captain of the South American polo team blackmails Esther into going on a date with him threatening that if she doesn’t he will take out her nympho sister Betty instead and ruin her families reputation. After the date Ricardo steals Esther’s car keys to in an attempt to prevent her from leaving.

After a couple of dates Esther decides to marry Ricardo, taking his word that he has ended the relationship with her sister Betty with what is later revealed as uncommon haste. Although Betty’s rapacious appetite for groups of men worries Esther, it doesn’t worry Betty who is mostly portrayed in a sympathetic light.

Esther “you’ve got to stop throwing yourself at men, you’ll only get hurt.”

Betty “not if my aim is good.”

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Dangerous When Wet

Brash travelling Liquapep salesman Windy Weebe meets Esther and her health-obsessed family. He convinces them to travel to Europe and compete in the cross-channel swimming contest organised by the evil Daily Mail newspaper. In England Esther is pursued by André Lanet, a sophisticated French champagne vendor.

André (Fernando Lamas) takes Esther to dinner under false pretences, offering specialised knowledge of charts, wind, riptides and currents, then inveigles her aboard his yacht on the same promise, in each encounter he easily tricks Windy (Jack Carson) into leaving him alone with Esther. André knows the ways of women, he knows Esther will not be able to resist trying on his gift of a skimpy bikini and that by allowing her to end the relationship without complaint he only becomes more fascinating to her.

The evil Daily Mail stop the rest of Esther’s family from entering, start the contest with only a few hours notice, and demeans the female contestants by calling them ‘girls’. In French André and American Windy we see the clash of two masculine archetypes of the old and new world.


CONCLUSIONS

What is it about this Esther Williams that men must pursue her? Well, she’s gorgeous, blessed with a petulant scowl that trembles on the precipice of moonstruck adoration or decadent rapture, every frame she graces could be a pulp magazine cover, but Esther’s no sap.

In Bathing Beauty she’s the head mistresses’ right hand woman, in Neptune’s Daughter she’s a capable business woman (as in life) and in Dangerous When Wet Esther is effectively (and for want of a better term) the man of the family, obsessed with the appliance of science to the family’s dairy farm’s milk-yield while her addled father is lost in the vision of forging an American master race.

The men that pursue her frequently use devious means, but Esther expects that, and looks beyond such opening gambits for a partner who is as strong and intelligent as her.

The cultural differences between 1940s and today abound, for a start here is America entire, South America and Mexico specifically play an important role in these films cast, soundtrack and locations, whereas in the bulk of America’s modern cultural output you’d be forgiven for thinking that the continent comprised of two states; New York and the suburbs of L.A, both of which look suspiciously like Canada.

In the minus column it’s unlikely that in 2014 you’ll see a film so nakedly dedicated to the military’s recruitment drive as On An Island With You, (basically a randy G.I’s wet dream) or a lead character like Esther in Neptune’s Daughter with a black maid called Matilda and a Chinese handmaiden called Lotus.

The advantages of the studio system are a capable repertory company of stars like Ricardo Montalban, Red Skelton, Carlos Ramirez, Xavier Cugat, and Ethel Smith to draw on, all of whom appear in at least two of these films. Mel Blanc, the vocal genius of Warner Brothers cartoons appears in Neptune’s Daughter.

Dangerous When Wet is my favourite, possibly for nostalgic reasons and because it’s the one with the Tom and Jerry cartoon, but it does also have the best story line involving swimming, everything hinges on Esther’s swimming ability, whereas it’s hard to take the various water pageants that punctuate the other films too seriously. Easy To Wed has the best script, a remake of Libeled Lady, it’s a great screwball comedy with rapier wit snobs and despicable low-life journos pushed onto ever more nefarious excesses. Lucille Ball is particularly fantastic as a dim-witted showgirl with a questionable past.

Neptune’s Daughter has the best songs, the classic “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” and Xavier Cugat outdoes himself with a tantalising horror opera (featuring the same impressive wooden pagan idol used in On An Island With You) punctuated by the screams of Latin women in white diaphanous pantaloons.

Bathing Beauty is the least of the five films and the starkest demonstration of the demerits of the studio system as it is so clearly cobbled together to showcase a non-acting, non-singing and non-dancing lead actress. (a neat rejoinder, in fact, for those who condemn todays supposedly formulaic cinema, twas ever thus) Esther Williams herself would later disparage and despair of her acting ability in this, her first, film.

The script appears to have been written in a great rush. “Let’s go over the border for some South American jive” students at an elite institution say improbably. Oxford educated Basil Rathbone remarks “Schubert’s the only guy who got away with an unfinished symphony.” Still, for all its faults, it’s a frothy, silly, enjoyable concoction of a film; as the Beastie Boys would have it “a good mixtape to put you in the right mood.”

Finally I’d like to recommend this compilation, five fun colourful films from a more innocent and apparently happier time packaged lovingly with documentaries and deleted scenes as well as cartoons and short features from the period.

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Five Film Favorites: Underrated Films by Woody Allen

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By Ted Salins

This article was first published on August 29, 2013 at Bijou Backlight. It has been reprinted here with the express permission of the author and editor.

Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine has opened bigger than any of his films with a whopping two week total of $8 million at only 121 theaters (Box Office Mojo calls this “historic”). It will likely be his third film in this century to top the $100 million mark, but in a long prolific career not all of his films were adored — there have always been hits or misses. In the late 1990s and early 2000s his movies were grossing less than their cost. Critics lost their gush, home TV audiences had given up and his producers were scrambling until they accepted the tax exempt offers from Europe which revitalized his oeuvre; but a mediocre Woody Allen movie is still usually full of sharp observations and great scenes. I’ll take a bad one over most movies any day.

Below are five films that are generally cited as critical and box office failures. They all need to be re-evaluated:

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Shadows and Fog (1991)

A Kafkaesque black and white horror movie about a deranged strangler loose on the streets of 1930s Eastern Europe? From Woody Allen? You betcha. Filmed at night on the cold, foggy streets of Newark and Manhattan by Carlo Di Palma, it is as atmospheric as a Universal horror classic. If you don’t think Allen can’t handle the horror genre, watch the scene where the strangler confronts aging scientist Donald Pleasance in his lab — it will send chills up your spine. You’ll momentarily forget this is a comedic parable about creeping fascism. In addition to Pleasance and Allen, it has a modest cast (I’m joking): Mia Farrow, John Cusack, John Malkovich, Madonna, Fred Gwynne, Kurtwood Smith, William H. Macy, John C. Reilly and a delightful trio of bawdy prostitutes played by Jody Foster, Lily Tomlin and Kathy Bates. One of his best movies ever.

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The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001)

Unlike his insecure schlemiels in other films, Allen for once plays a confident womanizer, C.W. Biggs, an insurance fraud investigator, who is a successful, self-assured professional at the top of his powers. It’s fun to watch him play this type, especially as he seduces a fetching Charlize Theron. He’s more William Powell than Alvy Singer, but he meets his match in an efficiency expert played by Helen Hunt brought in to modernize old school techniques as practiced by veteran C.W. They HATE each other. Hunt, performing under Allen’s direction and speaking his dialogue is a match made in acting heaven. She is smart mouthed, sassy, concise but ultimately warm hearted — Allen obviously had the snappy dialogue of “His Girl Friday” in mind when he wrote this. Beautifully filmed, great period atmosphere of the 1940s; Dan Ackroyd co-stars.

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Cassandra’s Dream (2007)

Nothing like the stylized, heavily art directed period pieces above, “Cassandra’s Dream” takes place in the belly of modern day London and is the most terrifying, edge of your seat exploration of guilt, murder and mayhem. Allen, an admitted paranoiac, clearly wants you share in his personal anxiety and in that sense this film is a triumph. Ewan MacGregor is Ian, Colin Farrell, his brother Terry, two working class stiffs who see a way upward with the help of their gangster uncle played with sinister aplomb by Tom Wilkinson. Without giving anything away, Terry is tormented by his criminal actions and descends into a booze and pill swilling anxiety — I don’t think the actor has ever been better. This film is raw and when Hayley Atwell’s character, Angela, goes on a first date with Ian, her banter is so sexual and full of lust you’ll wonder if some movie screens caught on fire. As always, Allen is not afraid to put women in the driver’s seat; the nearly eighty year old continues to school much younger people on sex and seduction. The great Sally Hawkins co-stars.

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Celebrity (1998)

Woody’s blatant, vicious, wince inducing look at the world of New York celebrity, fashion, show business and ego. Critics and audiences walked out of screenings, hardly anyone saw this box office bomb; yet if you find chunks of society to be pompous, arrogant, vapid, self-centered and shallow — this may be your cup of tea. I love it. Time will be good to this audacious classic. Shot in glorious black and white by the legendary Sven Nykvist, it is relentless and funny. Kenneth Branagh plays the Woody Allen schlemiel as if it is a dramatic Shakespearean convention; Judy Davis, the female lead, is his neurotic ex-wife. For the price of one film you get a cast at their trashy best: Leo DeCaprio, Charlize Theron, Melanie Griffith, Jeffery Wright, Wynona Ryder, J.K. Simmons, Dylan Baker, Debra Messing, Famke Janssen, Michael Lerner, Adrian Grenier, Sam Rockwell, Aida Turturro, Hank Azaria, Joe Mantegna and Gretchen Mol among others.

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Scoop(2006)

After the critical success of “Match Point” audiences seemed disappointed in this light comedy, but it’s one of those great “bad” Allen films. The film opens on The Grim Reaper’s boat; Ian McShane is Joe Strombol, a celebrated crime reporter who has been killed in a car accident; he strikes up a conversation with a young secretary newly murdered by her dashing financier boss Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman) after she learns he is the serial killer terrorizing London’s young women; What a scoop! Strombol’s appeals to The Reaper fall on deaf ears — he’s got to get back — so he jumps ship into the dark, foggy waters. Woody is hilarious as Sid Waterman, a second rate illusionist from New York doing a series of shows in London. He pulls a volunteer from the audience, a young American journalist wannabe Sondra Pransky (Scarlett Johansson) to make her disappear inside a “de-materializer” box. Once inside, Strombol’s ghost appears and gives her the scoop. This is her big chance! She needs to get to know and investigate Lyman. She employs Sid to be her father as a cover and the comic duo encounters near misses and mishaps. Of course Sondra is unsure if the financier is in fact guilty and she falls in love! Charles Dance and Romola Garai co-star.

Ralph Kiner, the baseball Hall Of Famer and long time N.Y. Mets radio broadcaster was interviewing the legendary, rotund Dodgers’ manager Tommy LaSorda before a game.

“They say you love Italian food Tommy,” Kiner asked, “what’s the worst you ever had?”

LaSorda responded, “It was magnificent.”

Each one of these so called “bad” Woody Allen films is magnificent.

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From The Creator of THE TAINT, Drew Bolduc Assembles SCIENCE TEAM!

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January 4, 2014 – On the frigid (yet I still believe in global warming) first Saturday of the year I journeyed with my friend Jeff Roll to Richmond’s historic movie house the Byrd Theater to take in a super secret screening of the latest feature from maverick local filmmaker Drew Bolduc, Science Team.  So secret was this screening that it had its own Facebook event page and was even announced on the film’s official website – http://scienceteammovie.com/. When we arrived people were already lining up, though some of them may have been there to catch the afternoon showing of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2. Regardless, many had come to see Science Team despite knowing little-to-nothing about it outside of a cryptic teaser trailer released early last year. An opening card with white letters against a black screen warned us that what we were about to see was an unfinished screener cut of the movie intended for film festival viewing and the credits were not complete. I got a little charge out of that as those of us who ventured out of our toasty warm domiciles on this sunny but ice cold afternoon were seeing an early cut that might not reflect what the final version will resemble. Since Richmond has never to my knowledge hosted any Hollywood test screenings this was quite a privilege, though there were likely a few there who didn’t realize it then.

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The first film Bolduc (pronounced BOWL-DUKE) made was the 2010 apocalyptic splatter horror satire The Taint; check out my review at EuroCultAV.com HERE. It was both one of the funniest and nastiest works of independent cinema to come along since the days when it was possible for a movie to get theatrical distribution across the country even without the benefit of an MPAA rating, such as the twisted and gruesome classics Basket Case and Street Trash. Though Science Team has its much-welcome share of unrepentant violence and gore Bolduc (who also wrote, edited, and helped create the music score and special effects) is working in a completely different genre this time. The Science Team of the title is in fact a secretive government organization with elements of an oddball religious cult – think S.H.I.E.L.D. meets the Church of Scientology. They even have a leader who is part Nick Fury and part L. Ron Hubbard, the wheelchair-bound lunatic Professor Dick Willington (Matt Chodoronek). The team’s lower-level personnel have a habit of wearing matching outfits and are usually seen doing calisthenics. When the world is threatened by threats from beyond the stars Science Team is first and only on the case, and they handle every potentially destructive situation with all the passion and ingenuity of emotionally distant bureaucrats who wouldn’t be out of place ignoring your concerns at the Department of Motor Vehicles. This is all spelled out in the film’s first three minutes, which resembles the mutant offspring of a one-night stand between a 3 a.m. informercial for that revolutionary new carrot peeler that will be available in a few months for a cheaper price at Wal-Mart and an employee training video made for Staples in the late-1990’s.

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But a story like this needs an audience surrogate, and we get just that in the person of Chip (Vito Trigo), a struggling writer of….something….who spends his first moments on screen screaming accusations of adultery at his girlfriend (Suzanna Mancini) and smashing nearly everything in their apartment in a fit of rage. This sequence goes on for several minutes and perfectly encapsulates Bolduc’s offbeat sense of humor, draining certain moments completely of intensity until all that remains is bleak, awkward comedy. Chip, still encased in his bathrobe (as great men of popular fiction such as Arthur Dent and Jeff Lebowski were wont to do), piles his meager intact possessions into a box and stomps off to his mother’s house in the countryside to clear his head and continue writing. When he arrives it takes some time for him to realize that not only is his mum pushing up daisies – and I won’t say how for fear of ruining one of the movie’s funniest visual gags – but the alien creature responsible has taken up residence in another room. The extraterrestrial menace spends the entire film immobile, though that doesn’t prevent it from using its powers of telepathy to transmit hallucinogenic visions into the heads of Chip and anyone else who comes within a few hundred feet of its personal space. Chip calls the police for help (after dealing with a particularly sensitive 911 operator) but all they do is accuse him of killing his own mother and freak the hell out. One of them submits Chip to an inspired, possibly improvised rant about how he is going to rape him in the most comedic ways, or at least comedic-sounding. I would be hugely disappointed if this scene didn’t make it into the final cut because it had the preview audience running out of breath at times just from excessive laughter.

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Just like that, our confused lead character is caught in a nightmare of government conspiracies and attempted alien diplomacy once Science Team is called in to deal with the problem. Leading the field research team is Joey Tweed (Richard Spencer); imagine every preening jock douchebag from 1980’s teen cinema rolled into one handsome but morally appalling package and given top-level clearance and you’ve basically got Joey. Ever the competent professional, Tweed walks into this comical horror from beyond the stars with great preconceptions of what to expect. As the story gets crazier those expectations are methodically shattered until things make about as much sense to Joey as they do to Chip, which explains why their climatic encounter is a bruising close quarters fight scene that I believe runs almost as long as the back alley brawl between Roddy Piper and Keith David in the 1988 John Carpenter classic They Live. There are multiple chases on foot that are more comical than suspenseful, some deliciously gruesome practical gore (overseen by Bolduc), unnecessarily loud arguments, and more. But none of those scenes can compare to the one where Chip, in his latest to flee from Tweed and his inconvenienced Science Team flunkies, finds temporary sanctuary with a friendly female neighbor. Things take an unexpectedly weird turn, and that is all I will say about that. Oh, did I mention the literally explosive finale and a wordless cameo appearance from Troma Films honcho Lloyd Kaufman?

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The cinematography by William Robinette is very bright and takes great advantage of the claustrophobic interiors and the comforting countryside locations. Visually, Science Team is a great step forward for Bolduc, who also edited the film. The pacing of the earlier scenes might throw off potential viewers at first as it takes a while for the plot to come into play, but if you accept its absurd premise with unconditional trust from the start you will find yourself going gracefully with the flow. There isn’t a weak link in the cast, though special mention must go to Trigo for his fully committed performance as the gradually unhinging Chip. Despite his tendency to act more aggressive and violent than the situation demands you might feel a slight twinge of empathy towards this lowly man ensnared in a situation beyond his comprehension. Trigo will next be seen in Troma Films’ Return to Nuke ‘Em High Volume 1, which also features Bolduc on visual effects duty and will be released on Blu-ray by Anchor Bay Entertainment later this year. Spencer makes a terrific, loathsome adversary with the perfect amount of smarm and charm. I would eat up more space just praising every member of the supporting cast. They are that good.

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January is usually a pretty drab time to go to the movies unless you’re just now catching the previous year’s big Oscar contenders and critical darlings. The newer releases are mostly films the studios have already taken a loss on. After seeing Science Team at least it can be said that for me, along with everyone else in the audience who enjoyed it, 2014 is off to a groovy start. In the post-screening Q & A Bolduc said that the movie could hit home video by the end of the year once it has made the film festival rounds. This one is definitely going in my collection when that day comes because chances are I will be watching Science Team infinitely more in the years to come than any major Hollywood blockbuster coming our way soon. If you are lucky enough to have this spirited treasure screen in your town this year I triple dog dare you to miss out on seeing a film that will definitely be making my end of the year best list.

- Robert Morgan

Here are the first three minutes of Science Team, released as a teaser trailer early last year.

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The Red Violin: A Feast for the Senses

The Red Violin poster

A Review by Jessica Lynn Norman

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Musical instruments come to us from many different origins. They pass through many different hands, they experience many different moments, and they leave behind a lasting impression on anyone who once possessed these tools of magic. The film, The Red Violin, also known as Le Violon Rouge, is a film that was inspired by one such instrument. Antonio Stradivari, a historical violin maker, made the Red Mendelssohn in 1721. The Red Mendelssohn uniquely features a red stripe on the top right side of the instrument. Francois Girard, director of The Red Violin, made this particular instrument the focus of the film. In making the instrument the focal point, Girard’s film tells of the long, colorful history surrounding the red violin, and beautifully illustrates the effect it has on particular owners dating all the way back to Cremona, Italy in 1681, when the film’s red violin was created, to the year 1997, when the red violin was “reborn”.

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One of the most intriguing elements the film features is its framework. The film’s sequence is made up of scene transitions between a French-Canadian auction night in 1997 and its different owner’s situations throughout certain periods in history. This story is weaved together by a tarot card reading done by the household servant for Anna, the wife of the violin maker, Nicolo Bussotti. Anna asks the servant, Cesca, to predict the future for her unborn child. Anna is worried that her age may complicate the birth. Cesca informs Anna that unfortunately she cannot predict the future for someone who is not yet born, but she offers to read Anna’s future by way of tarot cards. The cards that Anna draws, unknowing to Anna, do not depict her future specifically, but the future of the violin her husband is almost finished making. Anna and the child meet an untimely end shortly after the reading and a grieving Bussotti finally varnishes his last violin. The varnish he uses is mixed with Anna’s own blood. From that moment on, the instrument is supernaturally intertwined with the predictions Cesca had made based on the cards that Anna’s own hand drew. Thus, the story of The Red Violin begins.

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The first card Anna draws is The Moon. Cesca confirms that this means a long life. For the violin, this rings true as it is donated after Anna’s death to a boy’s orphanage run by Monks in Austria. There, for over 100 years, it is played by the orphanages choirboys. Anna’s second card is The Hanged Man. Cesca says this is to mean sickness and that those around Anna will suffer. Kaspar Weiss, a young violin prodigy at the orphanage with a heart defect, is adopted by a violin instructor who is called to visit the orphanage and witness the boy’s talents. He takes the boy back to Vienna with him in 1793. However, due to intense practice regimens, his heart gives out during an important audition. The instructor was fond of the boy and has him buried at the orphanage. The violin, however, was buried with Kaspar.

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The third card of Anna’s is The Devil, which Cesca describes as meaning that Anna will meet the devil and that he will entrap her with his talent and powers of seduction. “The Devil” comes in the form of Frederick Pope, an acclaimed violin player, who hears a band of gypsy’s on his land playing the violin; the same violin which has been taken from Kaspar’s grave and passed down through generations of gypsy’s for over a century. Frederick offers his hospitality in exchange for the violin. His compositions, inspired by his muse Victoria, help him gain fame. But when Victoria leaves to travel, Frederick becomes lost and writes to Victoria that he has stopped playing. Victoria rushes back to England only to find Frederick has found another lover as his muse, and in a fit of rage, Victoria shoots the violin, causing damage to the neck and detaching its strings. Frederick writes that he will take his life and leave everything to Victoria. Frederick’s servant, who is Chinese, takes the violin to Shanghai. He sells it to an antiques dealer, who repairs the damage and encases the violin on a shelf. The violin sits on the shelf for three decades.

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Here the fourth card, Justice, comes into play. Cesca interprets this card to mean a trial and judgment will be carried out. In Shanghai, during the late 1960’s, Chinas Cultural Revolution is in full swing. A music teacher, Chou, is accused of teaching “bourgeois” music and is ordered to burn his instruments. The red violin is now in the hands of the daughter of a famed violinist who bought the violin from the antiques dealer to give to her daughter, Xiang, before the revolution. Xiang retrieves the violin from its hiding place and pleads with Chou to take it and keep it safe. He does until the day he dies. Many years later, some days after Chou’s death, Chinese police discover the man’s body as well as all of the western instruments he has hidden over the years. The Chinese government is in its present-day state at this time and they ship all of the instruments, including the violin, to Montreal for appraisal and sale.

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The fifth and final card of the red violin’s destiny is Death, but Cesca notes that the card is upside down, meaning not death but “rebirth”. In Montreal during the year 1997, Morritz, and appraiser, is sent in by the Chinese government to appraise the items for auction. He immediately notices the red violin, being familiar with its history. He quickly executes a plan to purchase a copy of the red violin after concluding from lab tests that the varnish does indeed contain the blood of the maker’s late wife. The copy that is obtained is almost exact in every way. During the auction, all of the major players in the red violin’s history, from the monks in the orphanage, a man from the Frederick Pope foundation, an elderly man named Ming, who is Xiang’s nephew, and Morritz are present at the auction with a new addition; Concert violinist Ruselsky. Ruselsky also wants the original red violin for himself. He even plays it at one point, but agrees with Morritz, who insists that it is not the original. Morritz is unable to hide the fact that he had a lab confirm what was found in the varnish and Ruselsky feels that he was tricked and has rightful ownership of the violin. During the auction, Morritz switches the violins and puts the copy on the display, which Ruselsky wins with a bid of $2.4 million dollars. Morritz takes the original home to New York with him, where he intends to give it to his daughter as a present.

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One of my favorite things about this film is that the item on display before the debut of the red violin is Stradivari violin; a violin from the same violin maker who created the instrument that inspired the whole film. However, the most beautiful concept about this film is that it is an international co-production film, uniting production companies in Italy, the United Kingdom, as well as Canada to achieve the films message. This kind of unity is rare to find incorporated in one film, and the idea of an instrument being the knot that ties it all together is not only possible, but surely exists behind any musical instrument in history. Music’s influence across the globe is real and powerful, as is a films influence. The Red Violin does a brilliant job detailing the effects of the influence of music on a global scale. Bussotti adding his wife’s blood to the varnish was a detail thought up by the director, which ties in perfectly to the film being weaved together by a tarot card reading done for his wife.

The Red Violin has achieved many accolades, among them the Academy Award for Best Original Score; credited to John Corigliano’s masterful compositions that add so much pure, human emotion to the film. The Red Violin is truly one of the most captivating and magical films of our time. It is sure to become an instant favorite for any music and/or film lover.

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