Category Archives: ★★½

Giant (1956, George Stevens)

Giant has a fairly good pace for running three hours and twenty minutes. Even more so considering almost the entire second act is told in summary, with stars Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and James Dean gradually getting more and more old age makeup. At his “oldest,” Hudson has a bulk harness, which is simultaneously obvious and effective. Hudson’s performance always needed a little heft. The literal visual presence of it helps.

The first half of Giant is Taylor’s. The film starts in early twentieth century Maryland. Texas cattle rancher Hudson arrives to buy Taylor’s stallion. Again, literally. It’s not clear why Hudson wants the horse because once he gets it home, there’s clearly no need for it. But Taylor decides she wants to marry Hudson right after meeting him; she’s engaged to Rod(ney) Taylor, who gets like four lines.

Taylor is Taylor so Hudson marries her, even though she’s already challenged him. Well, not him, but Texas. She pointed out they stole it from Mexico. That conversation ends up being this lengthy subplot through the entire film. And really Hudson’s only complete one. Giant starts as his movie but it’s Taylor’s after her second scene.

When they get back to big empty, pre-oil Texas, Taylor immediately runs into trouble with Mercedes McCambridge. McCambridge is Hudson’s (presumably older) sister who actually runs the ranch. Though Hudson doesn’t seem to understand it. At that point in the film, Giant becomes this glamorous yet discomforting look into the situation of intelligent women. They have to marry dim bulbs.

Besides realizing being a racist prick isn’t good, Hudson’s only arc for the three hours is worrying about who’s going to take over the family ranch. And it’s never dramatic because almost everyone in the second half–once the kids, who arrive about an hour in, grow up into teens then twentysomethings. Giant doesn’t dwell much on the years in between toddler and late teen because Pearl Harbor happens and young men need to be old enough to go off to war.

Taylor’s got a lot going on in the first half, before the aging makeup. She’s got to deal with McCambridge thinking she’s trying to take over the de facto matriarchy, Hudson being a chauvinist and a racist, her husband and his sister starving the Mexican-American workers on the ranch while intentionally depriving them of safe living conditions, problem ranch hand James Dean giving her the eye, and, soon, Hudson’s only parenting instinct to be to instill toxic masculinity.

And she’s great. The script’s always a little too scared to throw down about Hudson’s racism, almost like director Stevens knows it’s going to get too awkward afterwards so why not save it until the end. So Taylor’s got to navigate around that softness while still developing her character. It culminates in Taylor heading back for a “visit” in Maryland, taking the kids. Rodney Taylor gets another line. Real character development on the kids happens, which is cool. And the last time some of the three kids ever get any.

The second half, about when it’s the forties and oil has struck, eventually deals with youngest daughter Carroll Baker deciding to rebel by pursuing James Dean. Dean, in his old age makeup with an awesome pencil mustache, is, of course, old enough to be her father.

That the three kids, both as babies and then adults, look more like not just Taylor and Dean’s kids, but also Taylor and Taylor’s is sadly never a thing. Hudson whines at one point about a grandkid not looking like him but, come on, none of his kids ever have.

Giant’s not a soap. While Dean clearly has the hots for Taylor, her arc with him (in the first half, when she still gets arcs), is more about her coming to terms with her disappointment in Texas. Young Dean is a dreamer who wants to get far away. Old Dean is not a dreamer. The movie doesn’t really do the dreaming thing. Everyone’s too rich. It just happens.

Dean’s fantastic. He’s a villain, of sorts, but a supporting one. He’s not Hudson’s antagonist, at least not after the film’s done establishing the Texas ground situation on Taylor and Hudson’s arrival. But the thoughtfulness of the performance, which carries over (and gets even better, actually) into the aging makeup, is something to behold. There are some flashy scenes, but it’s also impressive in the quiet moments when the film’s still giving Dean an active subplot.

He loses it just before the film starts jumping ahead. He figures into the second half a lot, but he’s not an active presence. Third act, yes. Third act is when he gets to show-off what screen acting can actually be in old age makeup. But in the second he’s all background. He’s no longer in current contention for ranch heir.

Dennis Hopper plays the disappointing son–first he became a doctor and then he married a Hispanic girl (Elsa Cárdenas in the film’s most thankless role, which is saying a lot considering Sal Mineo’s “part”). He ends up figuring into the third act a lot. He’s all right. Better than Baker, who isn’t able to make the minx believable. Old man Dean is a creeper and he doesn’t hide it. It’s never believable Baker would think it was so hot.

Other than Dean being dreamy, apparently. And it’s no wonder. Taylor and Hudson’s old age makeup puts them in their, I don’t know, late sixties? They’re supposed to be fifty (at the most). Only Dean looks close to appropriate.

Screenwriters Fred Guiol and Ivan Moffat bring up the aging in dialogue once or twice, with one full conversation, but it doesn’t play into the rest of the film. It’s never subtext. It’s either obvious or absent. Hudson’s increased drinking, however, seems like it might be a thing, especially since he and Dean both become massive functioning alcoholics simultaneously but separately.

In the finish, the film decides it wants to be about Hudson and his racism, but without ever, of course, being too judgy about it. Giant’s not telling people not to be racist at home, just out in public when some of the good ones might be around. But it does go so far as to tell them it’s still not really okay to be racist at home. Mind who’s around, of course. Good old uncle Chill Wills is all right, wink, wink.

And it almost kind of sort of gets somewhere. Even though it ignores this subplot actually had everything to do with Taylor before the film took it away. Giant comes through for Dean at the end. It comes through for Hudson. Well, his character at least. But it never comes through for Taylor.

Like, Dean is perving on Baker because she’s Taylor’s kid. It’s a thing. And Taylor never gets to deal with it. Stevens really lacks confidence in the leads’ abilities in the oldest aging makeup. So much so he doesn’t even try. He steps back. It works for Dean. It works for Hudson.

It doesn’t work for Taylor. It’s a bummer.

Most of the acting is good. Besides Baker. Earl Holliman’s a little ineffectual as well. But Paul Fix and Judith Evelyn are good as Taylor’s parents. Wills is good. Jane Withers, playing a character who clearly had a lot more to do in the novel, is fine.

Excellent photography from William C. Mellor. Stevens’s direction is good. It’s just a lot of story and a lot of movie. They get through it, but they don’t excel with it. William Hornbeck’s editing is perfunctory, which really doesn’t help by the third act, when the film proves unable to be soapy even when it wants and needs to be.

Still, taking everything into account, Giant’s worth it for Dean’s performance. It’s worth it for some of Taylor’s. It’s a damn shame there isn’t more to hers. The film really needed to be more confident treating second-billed Hudson like he’s second-billed.



Directed by George Stevens; screenplay by Fred Guiol and Ivan Moffat, based on the novel by Edna Ferber; director of photography, William C. Mellor; edited by William Hornbeck; music by Dimitri Tiomkin; production designer, Boris Leven; produced by Harry Ginsberg and Stevens; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Elizabeth Taylor (Leslie Benedict), Rock Hudson (Jordan ‘Bick’ Benedict Jr.), James Dean (Jett Rink), Mercedes McCambridge (Luz Benedict), Carroll Baker (Luz Benedict II), Dennis Hopper (Jordan Benedict III), Fran Bennett (Judy Benedict), Elsa Cárdenas (Juana Guerra Benedict), Earl Holliman (‘Bob’ Dace), Chill Wills (Uncle Bawley), Paul Fix (Dr. Horace Lynnton), Judith Evelyn (Mrs. Nancy Lynnton), Jane Withers (Vashti Snythe), Rod Taylor (Sir David Karfrey), Robert Nichols (Mort ‘Pinky’ Snythe), Carolyn Craig (Lacey Lynnton), Sal Mineo (Angel Obregón II), and Charles Watts (Judge Oliver Whiteside).




Superman (1978, Richard Donner), the extended cut

The extended version of Superman runs three hours and eight minutes, approximately forty-five minutes longer than the theatrical version (Richard Donner’s director’s cut only runs eight minutes longer than the theatrical). The extended version opens with a disclaimer: the producers prepared this version of the film for television broadcasts (three hours plus means two nights). The director was not involved.

Neither, one must assume, was original editor Stuart Baird because I’m not sure anyone could stand to see their work so butchered. Superman’s already had one somewhat inglorious revision–the director’s cut–and this extended version takes it one step further. Scenes will now drag on and on as actors try one more line. The subtly of the cuts, which enhance the performances, is either gone or severely hampered. The John Williams music is rearranged to fit the lengthened scenes and sequences, with no attention paid to how the music fits the scenes.

Worse, padding the film out changes the emphases. Margot Kidder is far less relevant (Christopher Reeve’s Superman as well) because most of the added footage is Gene Hackman and company. In addition to introducing Lex Luthor (Hackman) as a piano-playing crooner, the extended edition has all sorts of physical humor and lame jokes for Hackman’s sidekicks, Ned Beatty and Valerie Perrine. Perrine gets a little more character–in fact, she’s the only actor who benefits from the extended material–while Beatty gets a lot less. The constant jokes make his presence drag, especially since he and Hackman aren’t funny with the physical humor.

The extended edition does explain a few things, like why Larry Hagman isn’t with the missile on Hackman and company’s second attempt at it. And Chief Tug Smith gets a whole subplot. In the other versions of Superman, he gets maybe a line or two in an interview with Kidder.

And there’s more at the beginning on Krypton. With everyone except Brando and Susannah York–though, wow, you forget how amazing they are together in their one scene. So good.

Actually, the extended version starts just fine. Terence Stamp’s microexpressions are preserved as well as Baird’s exquisite cuts between them. Then there’s a little more dialogue, here and there, with Brando and the other council members. The scene starts to drag and instead of the drag being corrected, it just gets worse. All the added lines are superfluous (as the two successful versions of the film attest).

Then the flying guard out to bust Brando for using too much power shows up. It’s a pointless addition–I assume it got cut because they couldn’t get the special effects to work or just decided it was a waste of time. But the producers want to waste some time with this cut. Well, executive producers. Original producer Pierre Spengler apparently didn’t have anything to do with bloating the film out. Ilya and Alexander Salkind, however, wanted to get it to those two nights for television.

Most of the added material–after the three major additions (Krypton, Hackman and company, Smith and the Native Americans)–is surplus dialogue. Lines no one would’ve kept. Including the actors. Besides Hackman seeming lost in the slapstick, Glenn Ford’s got a real awkward added line and can’t get any traction out of it. Though the extended scenes of the Daily Planet are interesting. They’re still too long.

After the surplus dialogue, the Salkinds threw in a lot of establishing shots. Lots of second unit. Lots of unfinished special effects–like during the way too long destruction of Krypton. Or special effects director Donner wisely cut just because they didn’t look any good even when finished. There’s some great helicopter footage of New York City though. Sorry, Metropolis. And, actually, Smallville too. It just doesn’t do anything.

Except add time. As scenes play long, even unpadded scenes start to drag–the mono soundtrack with the rearranged score doesn’t help–and subplots stop developing. Kidder disappears for way too long. Reeve gets some added material, which starts the character in a mildly new direction, but then there’s nothing else. The extended material is dead weight. Even when it’s good for character development, like with Perrine. And, to a lesser extent, Marc McClure.

Superman: The Movie: The Extended Cut is a swell curiosity, but nothing more. Maybe it really should be seen in two parts. Except, of course, it’s not like the Salkinds tried to do anything to make it feel like a two-part story either. Because their additive editing is disastrous and an ignoble diss to the film, its cast, and its crew. Not to mention the screenwriters, who clearly wrote some rather wordy, rather unnecessary lines.

However, if you’re a Fawlty Towers fan… Bruce Boa (from “Waldorf Salad”) does show up for a second and gets very angry. There’s also more John Ratzenberger, if you’re an avid Cliff fan.

Anyway. Editing is important. So is not purposely bloating out a film. The extra forty-five minutes are kryptonite to Superman.



Directed by Richard Donner; screenplay by Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman and Robert Benton, story by Puzo, from characters created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster; creative consultant, Tom Mankiewicz; director of photography, Geoffrey Unsworth; edited by Stuart Baird and Michael Ellis; music by John Williams; production designer, John Barry; produced by Alexander Salkind and Pierre Spengler; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Marlon Brando (Jor-El), Gene Hackman (Lex Luthor), Christopher Reeve (Superman/Clark Kent), Ned Beatty (Otis), Jackie Cooper (Perry White), Glenn Ford (Pa Kent), Trevor Howard (First Elder), Margot Kidder (Lois Lane), Jack O’Halloran (Non), Valerie Perrine (Eve Teschmacher), Maria Schell (Vond-ah), Terence Stamp (General Zod), Phyllis Thaxter (Ma Kent), Susannah York (Lara), Jeff East (Young Clark Kent), Marc McClure (Jimmy Olsen), Sarah Douglas (Ursa) and Harry Andrews (Second Elder).


Suspiria (1977, Dario Argento)

For most of its runtime, Suspiria builds. It increases suspense, it increases terror, it increases discomfort. Director Argento and cinematographer Luciano Tovoli shoot these long shots with slightly fish-eyed backgrounds. Combined with Giuseppe Bassan’s jawdroppingly awesome production design, the film gives the impression of having no depth. No perspective. The actors move in front of these flat backgrounds, which they may or may not interact with. It’s beyond creepy; it controls the narrative distance but also the narrative possibility. How can lead Jessica Harper interact in three dimension space if the shot is her in the foreground, but the background is flat.

Then she does and the discomfort increases. Not in the narrative, not through the off-putting Goblin (and Argento) score, but because she’s moving into a space where she shouldn’t be able to move. It takes time, each time, to readjust. Just a couple seconds, which is more than enough time for Argento to move on to the next discomfort acceleration.

He also plays with depth a little in the first half of the film. Foreground is sometimes less important than background, even though foreground takes up most of the frame. Then there are all the colors. Harper moves through a world of color, most often red (though blue eventually becomes big); red is, of course, the color of blood. It’s also the color of danger in Suspiria, something Harper doesn’t recognize, but the viewer does. It’s all about unsettling the viewer and Argento succeeds at it, scene by scene, frame by frame, for more than half of the film.

Then he gets impatient. He also relies way too much on Stefania Casini, who plays Harper’s friend. Casini is an inexplicable busybody, something Harper can’t quite acknowledge because it turns out she’s being doped into tranquility. They’re both students at an elite German dance school. Harper has just arrived. The film opens with her getting to school and seeing another student run away, out into a torrential thunderstorm.

That student (Eva Axén) ends up brutally murdered, something the viewer sees (along with a lot of Argento and Tovoli’s perspective flattening and a lot of blood), but Harper doesn’t. She’s just slightly bewildered by Axén’s behavior. Slightly. She’s got the intense dance school to deal with. There’s strict instructor Alida Valli (in an awesome performance) and abrupt headmistress Joan Bennett (in a decent, but certainly not awesome, smaller part), not to mention possible love interest Miguel Bosé. The non-teaching staff of the school is all peculiar Eastern Europeans (Harper’s a New Yorker) and Harper’s classmates range from snippy to downright vicious mean girls. Casini is the only nice one. But she too has her secrets.

Instead of returning to a calm after Axén’s murder, weird occurrences keep getting weirder and more deadly around the school. It’s one of the problems with Argento and Daria Nicolodi’s script. It makes no sense how the place could function without incident. Especially if Bennett is going to keep letting in busybodies like Casini and Axén.

More problematic is how Argento’s style changes as the film moves along. His composition is always strong, Tovoli’s photography is always good, Franco Fraticelli’s editing is always good, but once the film starts into exposition, Argento stops relying on the visuals. Harper’s story–getting to this weird school, being a fish out of water, getting sick–doesn’t have anything particularly ominous about it. Argento’s direction–and the narrative distance, which reveals quite a bit to the viewer (though not everything–like why does the creepy little German kid force an altercation with blind staff pianist Flavio Bucci’s guide dog)–they make Suspiria creepy. The music makes Suspiria unsettling. Not Harper’s story. She’s just naive.

When the film does shift its focus, just for a while, to Casini, things start going off track. Repeated, inexplicable stupidity mars an otherwise solid chase sequence. The pace changes. The script’s calls for suspension of disbelief get bigger; Argento has no time for gradual. Contrived becomes good enough.

He still lets Harper have a good performance, he and Nicolodi just don’t care about giving her a good character arc. The third act is a breathless race to the finish line, with Suspiria stopping instead of ending. It goes out on a shrug, Goblin and Argento’s score no longer one of the film’s greatest assets but its primary encumbrance. The film never recovers from making Casini the lead, even for five or ten minutes. Suspiria’s all dubbed–Harper, Bennett, Valli doing their lines for the English version–and it’s unclear if Casini’s performance is the fault of her or her voice actor. Even if she were better, her material’s all crap. After forty minutes of precise filmmaking and writing, Argento lets it go to pot.

The film does recover somewhat and, with a stronger finale, it would’ve been fine. But the finale’s not strong–and gets weaker as it progresses–leaving Suspiria a phenomenal exercise in filmmaking. And a disappointing contrivance as a film.



Directed by Dario Argento; screenplay by Dario Argento and Daria Nicolodi, based on a book by Thomas De Quincey; director of photography, Luciano Tovoli; edited by Franco Fraticelli; music by Goblin and Dario Argento; production designer, Giuseppe Bassan; produced by Claudio Argento; released by Produzioni Atlas Consorziate.

Starring Jessica Harper (Suzy Bannion), Stefania Casini (Sara), Alida Valli (Miss Tanner), Miguel Bosé (Mark), Flavio Bucci (Daniel), Udo Kier (Dr. Frank Mandel), Eva Axén (Pat Hingle), Jacopo Mariani (Albert), and Joan Bennett (Madame Blanc).



Sleeping Beauty (1959, Clyde Geronimi)

Seven credited writers on Sleeping Beauty and none of them could figure out any dialogue to give the prince. Though, notwithstanding some cute banter between the three fairies, there’s not much good dialogue in Sleeping Beauty anyway. Villain Maleficent doesn’t even get any. Eleanor Audley’s great in the part, but it’s not because of the dialogue, it’s because of the visuals. Sleeping Beauty is all about the visuals, which is why it can usually get away with not having great–or any–dialogue.

The film opens in prologue. There’s a new royal baby and she’s about to be blessed by three fairies–Verna Felton, Barbara Jo Allen, and Barbara Luddy contribute the voices–only then Audley shows up, a magnificent, malevolent “mistress of all evil.” She curses the baby then disappears. It’s up to Luddy to cast a spell to save the baby best as possible (Audley’s too powerful a mistress of all evil to just invalidate the curse).

The story jumps forward sixteen years, to when the curse is supposed to take effect. Mary Costa is voices the grown baby–though, frankly, Costa’s semi-sultry voice is a bit off for a teenage girl. Well, maybe not for Sleeping Beauty since the other part of turning sixteen is her parents to get marry her off to a prince, thereby bringing peace or something.

The only visible clash between Costa’s father (Taylor Holmes) and the prince’s father (Bill Thompson) is Thompson wants Holmes to get drunker than Holmes wants to get. Sleeping Beauty isn’t great on logic. When a movie looks like Sleeping Beauty, it doesn’t need to be great on much else.

The film starts in live action, a dolly into a storybook (Sleeping Beauty), which opens and the illustrations become the animation, the book’s text becomes the narration, and so on. But from the start, the animation is lush and wide. Sleeping Beauty is “Technirama,” a widescreen frame, and Technicolor. Supervising director Geronimi plays a lot with depth, as the fairies are raising Costa in hiding. The great palace is only visible in the background, something Costa has no interest in. Instead, she sings with the adorable forest wildlife and meets a dashing young man.

Sadly, she’s promised to a prince. There’s some drama, but not a lot. A lot of drama would mean less songs and more dialogue. I’m not sure Costa has any dialogue after she gets to the palace to celebrate not having fallen victim to Audley’s curse. Except Audley’s smarter than everyone else, maybe because the fairies are more adorable than they are smart, and the royals are all idiots.

Sorry, back to the visuals. The depth is amazing. The forest goes on and on, filling the frame, with jagged plateaus and endless trees. Geography doesn’t really matter in Sleeping Beauty. There’s apparently only one house in the whole forest, because when Costa’s young man comes calling, he finds the place right away. Too bad she’s off at the castle to meet her prince and Audley’s waiting to capture… someone. It’s never clear. Logic, like I said, isn’t Beauty’s strong point.

The evil stuff is evil, even when it’s amusing–Audley’s got some Gamorrean guards she zaps with force lightning when they’re dumb, which is all of the time. In her first scene to herself, it turns out the only reason Audley’s in such a pickle trying to get her curse to work is because her lackies are all complete idiots. No one’s very smart in Sleeping Beauty, except Audley some of the time and Costa’s young man’s horse more of the time.

But it doesn’t matter. It’s beautiful. The character designs are exquisite. When Costa and the prince stop talking, their expressions are still phemonenal. The animation’s not incredibly detailed on the faces–the fairies get expressions, Audley sort of gets them, no one else–but there’s so much visible emotion. The music, which has its ups and downs (just like the songs), gives the film its progression. It all takes place in a day and a half so there needs to be something to soothe the halty plotting. The music, often adapted from Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty Ballet, does the trick. George Bruns handles that adaptation.

There are some okay songs. The one with Costa in the forest with her animal friends and then the young man is great. But because of the way the young couple dance their way through the frame–Sleeping Beauty loves to play with reflections and there’re lakes in the forest. The fairies don’t get songs, they get banter. Luddy gives the best performance, mostly because she’s the only one to get any characterization.

The third act, which is a narrative mess, is also a breathtaking action sequence. Geronimi and editors Roy M. Brewer Jr. and Donald Halliday create this phenomenal sequence. It’s not entirely successful–it’s a little rushed and there’s not really any nailbiting–but it’s breathtaking. Even when Sleeping Beauty is uneven, it’s gorgeous to behold.

It’s a beautiful film. Also one with a lot of problems.



Directed by Clyde Geronimi; screenplay by Erdman Penner, Joe Rinaldi, Winston Hibler, Bill Peet, Ted Sears, Ralph Wright, and Milt Banta and based on a story by Charles Perrault; edited by Roy M. Brewer Jr. and Donald Halliday; production designers, Ken Anderson and Don DaGradi; released by Buena Vista Film Distribution Co.

Starring Verna Felton (Flora), Barbara Jo Allen (Fauna), Barbara Luddy (Merryweather), Eleanor Audley (Maleficent), Mary Costa (Princess Aurora), Taylor Holmes (King Stefan), Bill Shirley (Prince Phillip), and Bill Thompson (King Hubert).