Friday, May 30, 2014

West Side Story (Best Picture 1961)

I don't know where to start with my review of West Side Story. This film and its music has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. My parents had many music albums, but only two from musicals: this motion picture sound-track, and the Broadway cast of "My Fair Lady." So I always knew the songs. I don't remember when I actually saw the movie for the first time...junior high school or high school, I guess. Now I have seen it at least half a dozen times. And as with any great movie, I see and appreciate something different every time I watch it.
The story is simple: two rival gangs vie for control of their shared neighborhood. The Jets were there first, made up of the sons of Polish immigrants. The Sharks is the the newer Puerto Rican gang, fighting tooth and nail for everything they can get. Tony from the Jets falls in love with Maria, sister of the leader of the Sharks. They try to get their people to change their ways, but as the story is based on Shakespeare's "Romeo & Juliet", you should not be surprised that this, too, ends tragically.
If you have never seen this film, please borrow it from the library and watch it. The characters are vibrant, the action is exciting, and the songs are memorable. You may not like the way the gangs dance around town; my wife actually hates it because she thinks it is too artificial. I think it is stylized and symbolic, like most ballets, and I can appreciate the sheer workmanship required for the "Prologue" dance to work. If you agree with my wife, however, skip the first five minutes and watch the film from where the story actually starts. All of the rest of the dancing and singing is more "natural," if I may use that term. Hating the way the gangs jump and snap their fingers to the music shouldn't prevent you from appreciating the rest of the film. The dance in the gymnasium, for example, is a simple high school dance, just choreographed to perfection.  "I Feel Pretty" and "The Jet Song" and "America" are just the characters bursting with energy. They are staged just like any other Broadway musical song-and-dance number. The "Prologue" may seem stylized, but these other numbers seem "natural" in the sense that they could have occurred in films like An American In Paris or Gigi. Or maybe that's just me.

This production was co-directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins. Robbins was the creative force behind the original Broadway show, and was hired to choreograph the dance sequences for the film. He is responsible for the entire "Prologue" and "Cool" sequences. He was such a perfectionist, however, that the producers fired him before the movie was complete. Robert Wise had to complete everything, including the remaining dance sequences. Luckily all of the dances had already been choreographed, so it is still mostly Robbins' vision that made it on to the screen.
A few random thoughts about the movie. When I was younger I loved the excitement of the production, and the music, and the color scheme and "look" of the film. I loved how the "Prologue" was obviously filmed on location in NYC, and I kept watching to see if any of the later scenes were, too. Unbelievably, all of the tenements and highways were set-stages in Hollywood (the playground was obviously a set). I loved how the Sharks were red and purple, and the Jets were blue and yellow.
I think the actors are all uniformly excellent. Natalie Wood as Maria is not only beautiful but totally believable as Maria. She has the most work to do during the film, starting as naive and virginal but ending as strong and forceful. I'm surprised she was not nominated for an Oscar. Richard Beymer as Tony has less screen presence, and although he is totally believable as the gosh-dern lover of Maria, it's harder to see the deep strength that he had to have had to start the Jets in the first place. Russ Tamblyn as Riff, the leader of the Jets, does have that certain presence, though. There is something about him so that whenever he is on screen your eye just naturally follows him. Rita Moreno as Anita and George Chakiris as Bernardo both won Best Supporting Oscars for their roles.   
As for the story, as a Caucasian man married to a Japanese woman, the theme of hope in the face of bigotry strikes me right in the heart. "Somewhere" can bring a tear to my eyes, even now. And as an American who has lived in a foreign country, I love the song "America," which compares the fantastic "road is paved with gold" idea with the more cynical (or realistic) idea "you have to fight for what you want." It's a great song; one of many. Stephen Sondheim went on to write many other Broadway shows, but in my opinion none are as good as this, his one-and-done partnership with Leonard Bernstein.
The opening sequence, where the city of New York is filmed from above as if from a bird's eye view, was director Robert Wise's idea. Nowadays this sequence doesn't represent anything special, but at the time it was evidently unique. And speaking of unique, watch the closing credits. They are the most interesting I have ever seen. In fact, you actually end up *wanting* to read them. How often can you say that about any credits, let alone the closing ones?

Of the 34 Best Pictures I have reviewed so far, West Side Story and Casablanca are my all-time favorites. If you haven't already done so, please see this film.

West Side Story
*Academy Award Best Picture of 1961*
Produced by Robert Wise
Directed  by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins
Screenplay by Ernest Lehman
Music by Leonard Bernstein
Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Choreographed by Jerome Robbins
Based on the Broadway show 
produced by Robert E. Griffith & Harold S. Prince
Book by Arthur Laurents
Play conceived, directed, and choreographed by 
Jerome Robbins

I couldn't find a trailer that didn't mention the 10 Academy Awards
so I picked this one. It looked newer, but it features more of the whole overall feel.

Also Nominated:
(in alphabetical order)
The Guns of Navarone
The Hustler
Judgment at Nuremburg
I have seen Judgment at Nuremburg, which is a fine court-room drama about the nature of Evil. It was nominated for four acting awards as well as director and screen-play; it won Best Actor (Maximilian Schell) and Best Screenplay. The Guns of Navarone is a fun adventure film about an international troupe out to destroy Nazi war guns. It stars Gregory Peck and David Niven, among others. The Hustler is Paul Newman's wonderful pool hall drama; he was nominated for Best Actor but lost to Schell. I had never heard of Fanny, but when I went to research it I found it to be an odd dramatic comedy (?) about an older man in love with a younger woman who is in love with a sailor. And it stars Maurice Chevalier and Leslie Caron., thanks.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

JL#34 "Cross-Cultural Crisis Exchange!" Afterwards

So what did you think? As I mentioned in the Forward, of the three *new* adventures I have shared so far, this one is my favorite. This might be because I love the Justice Society so much, but I think it's also because it's the best plotted of the three. I sat down and thought about the JLA and JSA as if they were similar to two companies. I work for a company that has offices in other parts of the world, and we often have "guest" engineers or auditors come, or we go someplace else. So I tried to think what really would happen if they had an exchange program or a business trip between "sites." And the story went from there.

Originally, I was only going to follow one group of heroes. Then I couldn't decide which group to use, as I wanted to use The Horned Owl Gang on the JSA world, but also liked the idea of visiting Atlantis with Star Girl and Aquaman. So then I decided to split this into a two-parter. THEN as I plotted it I realized that the action didn't really warrant two full issues. So I combined them again, deciding to go back-and-forth within the issue. Let me know if the juggling of plots worked or not.

If you are a long-time reader, you may notice that this issue starts in the exact same way as my first JLA-JSA team-up in Number 21, except from the JSA point-of-view instead of the JLA. I actually went back to Number 21 and wrote this opening sequence based off of the first one.


In lieu of "roll call portraits" I showcased the three new members, with some extra time devoted to each...
As I had already established that Black Canary was originally from the Justice Society world and went back to visit each time the groups met, I thought it would be nice to establish that some JSA members  would not ever go the JLA world. Chief amongst these members would be Wildcat, who would always want to see Black Canary.

In the original comics, Red Tornado leaves the JSA world and relocates to the JLA world. Only once does he try to return to his old life; after that he is never even shown teaming up with his previous team-mates. So there is never any scene such as this as the JSA learns that he is not dead. I would have liked to have seen this scene.
When I decided to include new JSA members Mr. Terrific, Star Girl, and Obsidian, I decided I would naturally have to include their origins. Going back to my initial thesis that if these were real people, the JLAers upon meeting them would just naturally ask, "What do you do? How did you happen to join the Justice Society?" etcetera. So I had to have them answer those questions! And within one of those answers is the only appearance you will ever get of the original Mr. Terrific in my universe. So enjoy him while you can.

Speaking of guest-appearances in origin stories, I also decided to include The Spectre, who, even more so that Superman or Thor, should never have been a member of any group. If The Spectre can't solve whatever the problem is by himself, characters like Mr. Terrific or Black Canary aren't going to be able to help him! I did always like that The Spectre was instrumental in the creation of the new Mr. Terrific, though.

One of my favorite "new" characters over the past 20 or so years has been the new Star Spangled Kid. She was created by writer Geoff Johns as the step-daughter of Stripesy (from The Seven Soldiers of Victory) after the original kid was murdered by Solomon Grundy. I always thought she was a great character and couldn't wait to use her. And as an extra-added bonus I got to include The Seven Soldiers of Victory!
Courtney originally disliked and resented her step-father, but after being a super-heroine for some time and maturing some (and meeting her biological father) she now loves him as if he were her father. I wanted to include that character bit in my story.
More recently, Courtney changed her name from Star-Spangled Kid to Stargirl. I am not really a fan of that name, but I did like the reasoning behind it: as a continuation of the Star MAN legacy.  When or if I do another JSA story, I promise to re-visit this idea.

As I mentioned earlier, I originally was going to have the JLA-JSA team-up to fight a new and improved Horned Owl Gang. I even did research on owls and came up with new character names and looks for characters like Great Horned Owl, Snowy Owl, and Barn Owl. However, that seemed like a lot of work for characters that will never be seen I decided to "dumb" them back down to more closely match their "true" appearance, from JUSTICE LEAGUE 113 (Oct 1974). Check out my version, and my inspiration (by Dick Dillin and Dick Giordano): 

Northwind is probably one of my least-favorite "new" generational characters. In original DC Comics continuity he is the god-son of the Earth-2 (JSA) Hawkman and Hawkwoman. As a non-white character, I *want* to like him. In actuality, however, he's dull and he's complicated. And he has a stupid costume (I gave him pants in my version). You will probably not see him again....
No real reason to include this panel other than that I liked how it turned out, both in terms of color and in terms of personality. Visiting Atlantis for the first time ever *should* be exciting!

Actually drawing Atlantis, however, is NOT exciting. I based my illustrations off of the drawings by Marshall Rogers in the original WHO'S WHO IN THE DC UNIVERSE book.
And while I was visiting Atlantis (the first time I had ever been there in *my* universe), I wanted to establish that there were two cities in the continent, and that Lori Lemaris was from one and Aquaman was from the other. I doubt we'll ever see Lori again, but it's nice to to know she's there if we ever need her.
I had already introduced Mera and Aqualad and the Teen Titans into my universe, but this is the first time they appear in the revival. Say HI to the folks, Garth. I wasn't sure how Aquaman would introduce Aqualad to the Justice Society..."son" seemed wrong, "friend" seemed insufficient...let me know if you disagree with my word choice.

This panel tells you about Obsidian and how he and Star Girl relate more easily and naturally than anything I would have had to force into the dialogue. I liked how I handled this.
I don't know if Black Canary would visit her parents' graves EVERY time she went back to her home dimension, but I figured she would at least TRY to... And I liked how Power Girl, the Huntress, the Sandman, and Hourman all credit her with being the "first of the second generation heroes." All of those "new" versions appeared several years after Black Canary (II) did, so it seems natural that they would look at her as something akin to an elder sister. Or is that just me?

I included this flash-back to remind the readers that my JLA-JSA history is basically the same as that  established in the comics. Trivia freaks, can YOU spot the two continuity errors in these two panels?
1. The Flash did not appear in the "seance" sequence; both Jay and Barry had been kidnapped by the Crime Champions before that; 2. Alan Scott has his ring on his right hand. It had been established that Alan's ring is on his LEFT hand (as I draw it throughout this story). However, this panel is based off the actual panel by Mike Sekowsky in JLA #22 in 1963. I didn't realize that it was wrong until it was too late.

The Wizard attacking with flying monkeys is a direct plot assist from my friend Terry Castle. When I told him I needed the Wizard to do something to keep our heroes occupied, he came up with the idea of turning people into flying monkeys. Thanks, Terry! 
I love that The Huntress is such a bad-ass here that she'd shoot the flying monkeys in their wings. Ouch!

And lastly, I wanted to include some Aquaman foe at the end to disrupt the visit to Atlantis. With the newer versions of Ocean Master he is a would-be sorcerer, so him wanting Dr. Fate's helmet or Green Lantern's ring made sense to me. Of course, even with all of his super friends around, Aquaman had to be the guy to take Ocean Master down.

That's all for now. Next time: the story I actually re-started this series to tell! Be there, aloha!

Friday, May 23, 2014

The Apartment (Best Picture 1960)

After four years worth of epic adventure films shot in glorious color, this year's Best Picture The Apartment offers a return to the type of intimate character study similar to Marty or On The Waterfront. In many ways, this is one of the first "adult" Best Pictures, too, as it deals with infidelity, adultery, lying, cheating, and attempted suicide, even though it's supposedly a comedy!@

The story centers around C.C. Baxter, a low-level number cruncher at giant Consolidated Life Insurance. Baxter has a bachelor pad that is being used by several executives of the company to have illicit love affairs. Baxter feels put-upon but powerless to change the situation, as he is being taken advantage of under threat of termination.  Eventually Baxter is rewarded with a promotion for his efforts. However, this move-up alerts the head of HR that something is going on. Sheldrake weasels the details of the arrangement out of Baxter and orders him to shut the operation down...except for his personal use. So Sheldrake establishes himself as not only a bully, but as a hypocrite.
Meanwhile, Baxter is working up the courage to ask out his office crush, Miss Kubelik the elevator girl. As they make tentative steps to get to know each other, Baxter accidentally learns that she is the woman Sheldrake is taking to his apartment. He begins to resent the arrangement. On Christmas Eve, Sheldrake gives Miss Kubelik $100 cash as a present. This makes her feel like she is nothing but a prostitute. When he leaves, she takes an overdose of sleeping pills, still not knowing whose apartment it is.

Luckily, Baxter comes home in time to find her, and working with his neighbor Dr. Dreyfuss they save her life. She is bed-ridden for the next few days, and in that time they begin to really care for each other.
If you know Billy Wilder and his films, such as Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot, and Witness For The Prosecution, you know whether you will like this movie or not. Billy Wilder produced, directed, as well as wrote this (with his friend, I.A.L. Diamond), winning Academy Awards for each of those categories. If you haven't seen any of these other movies, you should go to the library and borrow any or all of them. Wilder is wonderful at mixing the pathos in with the comedy, or is it the comedy in with the drama? Is it funny when Baxter gets stuck out in the rain while some executive tries to get fresh with his clueless mistress? It's certainly funny when Baxter squirts his nose drops across the office as Sheldrake is imposing his will on the hapless man. And it's funny that Dr. Dreyfuss and all of Baxter's neighbors, thinks all of the sex going on in his apartment involves him. Yet, it's starkly un-funny when he and Baxter work diligently to save Miss Kubelik's life. The Apartment is this kind of film.

Jack Lemmon is perfectly cast as C. C. Baxter. He bounces between the comedy and the drama effortlessly. There are countless examples, but I will give you one: Baxter is on a high after he is promoted. He buys himself a new bowler hat, and when he runs into Miss Kubelik he shines as they chat. Watch his face when she hands him her compact mirror, however. He had found it in his apartment and given it back to Sheldrake, who obviously gave it back to Miss Kubelik. As he realizes that his crush is the woman who is sleeping with Sheldrake, his appearance changes before he catches himself and reverts back to "normal." It's a terrifically painful scene to watch, all because Lemmon is a pro.

Shirley MacLaine is also great at Miss Kubelik, which, by the way, is what she is called throughout the film. Only Sheldrake uses her first name, and when he does it sounds more fake than when Baxter calls her by her last name.  When the doctor asks Baxter what her name is, he has to take a moment to try to remember; when he does say it, it sounds positively intimate. MacLaine as Kubelik projects just the right amount of spunkiness and weakness. We believe that she is smart enough to know Sheldrake is only using her, but not strong enough to break way or smart enough to realize that Baxter is in love with her. 
The surprising star of the film as far as I am concerned, however, is Fred MacMurray as Sheldrake. He is the epitome of evil in this film: smooth, salesman-ish, and absolutely slimy. If you only know MacMurray from "My Three Sons" or from his Disney films, you're in for a big surprise. (By the way, he also played well in an earlier Wilder film, Double Indemnity. I heartily recommend it!) He is absolutely floored when both Baxter and Kubelik reject him, and you get the impression he will never understand why they did it. 
"I love you, Miss Kubelik."  "Shut up and deal."
The Apartment is not as flashy as Ben-Hur or as colorful as Gigi, but in its own down-to-earth way, it's a better film than both of them. If you like genuine and emotional films, this is the film for you. 
The Apartment
*Academy Award Best Picture of 1960*
Produced and Directed by Billy Wilder
Screenplay by I.A.L. Diamond & Billy Wilder
Love the line about this being a Fred MacMurray you've never seen before!

Also Nominated:
(in alphabetical order)
The Alamo
Elmer Gantry
Sons and Lovers
The Sundowners
I'm sorry to say that this is one of the years where I haven't seen most of the other nominees. I have seen Elmer Gantry, which features Burt Lancaster in his Oscar-winning role, beating out Jack Lemmon. Shirley Jones, from Oklahoma! and later "Partridge Family" fame, won Best Supporting Actress. Sons and Lovers is the film of the melodramatic D.H. Lawrence novel; I couldn't finish it, so I don't want to see the film version, either. Let me spoil John Wayne's  The Alamo for you by telling you that they all die. And The Sundowners is another of those "epic" films like How The West Was Won, this time about sheep-herders in Australia. Sorry, but even the presence of Deborah Kerr can't get me to watch that. Elizabeth Taylor in Butterfield 8 beat MacLaine (and Deborah Kerr) for Best Actress; Peter Ustinov in Spartacus beat Jack Kruschen as Dr. Dreyfuss for Best Supporting Actor. 

Wednesday, May 21, 2014


I saw CAPTAIN AMERICA 2: WINTER SOLDIER last week. There were a few reasons why I wanted to see it: Captain America is one of my favorite super-heroes, I like Chris Evans as an actor, I liked the idea of seeing his story of being "a man out of his time" explored more on screen, and I had heard that the movie was good.

Here's the skinny: I still like Cap, I still like Chris Evans, and I hated this movie. I hated this film for what it was compared to what it wasn't or what it could have been. In fact, I hate it so deeply on that level that I don't believe I will be watching any more Marvel films for the foreseeable future.

There may be spoilers in this review, but not in the traditional sense. "Spoilers" should be something revelatory, like "Rosebud is a sled!" or "The narrator is actually the murderer!" In my opinion, telling you that Cap is not a traitor should not be considered a spoiler. If you watch this film and at any time begin to actually entertain the idea that Cap might be a traitor, you're watching the wrong movie. Also, you're a super-hero idiot.

So that's my first, and most important, complaint: that the story is built around a huge fault line. The story involves the evil organization HYDRA trying to take over SHIELD. This is a fine idea for a story. However, the minute that the film tries to suggest that the heroes are part of the conspiracy, and actually want (expect?) you to consider it....? Now they're *making* the wrong film. It boils down to this, people: between Captain America, Black Widow, and Nick Fury on one side and a big-name politician and bureaucrat on the other, is it *really* a mystery as to who the traitors are? Riiiiiiiight.

However, we all know that a movie with a stupid plot can still "pass" on the "large" scale if it succeeds at all its "little" scenes. So let's move past the inanity of the basic plot to look at my second complaint: the inanities of the overall script. A few examples:

As mentioned above, HYDRA has infiltrated SHIELD, setting up what you might expect as a nifty spy vs. spy scenario, right? Nope. Once it is hinted that SHIELD has been compromised, we get scenes of police officers destroying civilians' cars, SHIELD agents shooting up downtown Washington, and SHIELD agents trying to arrest/kill Black Widow and Captain America. In only *one* scene do we get even an inkling that the whole place is not a cauldron of HYDRA spies. So if you're working for an international spy agency and you don't notice that it is infested with traitors committing wanton acts of destruction, you probably need to be in another line of work. Or threaten the writers to write you a better script. SHIELD is absolutely incompetent in this film, which doesn't make me want to watch the TV series or any more Marvel films...

The Falcon (Anthony Mackie) is introduced as a trained military flier, with his own nifty jet-pack and wings. Personable and visually appealing, he's a great addition to the story. However, in his big action scene he is told to fly to one of the rogue hovercraft carriers and switch out some software to re-program the laser guidance system. You would expect him to fly in covertly, as stealthily as he could, and get the job done, maybe meeting up with some HYDRA agents and having an aerial fight of some kind as he attempted to get away. You would be wrong. He flies into the sky to draw as much attention and gun-fire as he possibly can, *then* tries to find the software portal. I guess this was supposed to be "cool," but all I could think was "one stray bullet and bye-bye Falcon!" Besides, most of this "action" featured computer graphics, so what was the point? This isn't drama, this is a computer game.

Another example is the Winter Soldier himself. He stays in the shadows during the first third of the film. As soon as Captain America sees his unmasked face, however, he discards the mask and starts standing around in the daytime, posing. This is a character who has been a "ghost" for 60+ years, but now all of a sudden he isn't shy? This doesn't make any sense. Of course, this change is because Marvel paid Sebastian Stan plenty of money to be the Winter Soldier, so we want to see his face. This is the same reason that Chris Evans tends to keep his mask off, too, and why Scarlett Johansson and Anthony Mackie are never given masks: lots of fans paid to see Chris Evan and Scarlett Johansson etc, and not just part of it behind some silly comic-book mask. That's fine for Hollywood, but it's not good Marvel story-telling. And not to beat a dead-horse, but WTH is wrong with the traditional Captain America costume? Why does Hollywood have to change it? I don't understand it.

Speaking of Winter Soldier and Captain America, their last fight is because Cap wants to change the software on the third aircraft carrier, but Soldier has been ordered to stop him. So they fight. And they fight. And they fight. Mostly in extreme close-up and at super-fast exposure. Finally (!), Cap is shot and left for dead but STILL manages to change the guidance system AT THE LAST POSSIBLE SECOND. Yes, there is countdown, and on "zero," Cap makes the switch. This isn't drama, this is comedy, and the joke is on us.

Now, I do want to take a few minutes to talk about some of the things about the film that I *did* like. It definitely did have its share of "moments." I just wish there had been more of them. In fact, I was hoping that the film would be more intimate and personal, perhaps showing us how Steve Rogers is coping with being a man from the wrong era. Every scene where Chris Evans is with Anthony Mackie as the Falcon, trying to build a friendship away from "work," was excellent. Scenes with him and Scarlett Johansson as they work at actually becoming friends are likewise terrific. The scenes between him and Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, arguing politics or grappling with their mutual trust issues, were also great. In one scene the Falcon talks to him about who Marvin Gaye is, and at the end of the conversation Cap pulls out a notebook and says, "I'll add him to the list." THIS is more of what I wanted to see. Instead we get a lot of big explosions. Boom.

Lastly, too much time is spent on the Winter Soldier and his back story without ever really resolving anything. He is the center of the entire conspiracy and history of HYDRA, but at the end...what? He doesn't get a huge dramatic "I'm broken!" scene, nor does he get a "It's too late to save me!" scene. We know or can guess what happened to him to turn him into this cyborg (?), but at the end he knocks Cap out and simply walks off, leaving us with the plot of Captain America 3. No, thanks.

The last thing I want to tell you is my favorite scene in the movie. Robert Redford as the  head of some UN Security Council organization is interviewing someone in his home. When he opens his refrigerator, we can very clearly see that he has a jar of Paul Newman pasta sauce sitting there. Great in-joke and tribute to the great actor.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Ben-Hur (Best Picture 1959)

The first thing you need to know about Ben-Hur is that it is close to four hours long. The second thing you need to know is that there is a six minute overture and a 13 minute prelude that tells the story of the birth of Jesus. So, yeah, there are pacing concerns...!

Charlton Heston plays Judah Ben-Hur, son of one of the richest Jewish families in Palestine. Stephen Boyd is Messala, the new military ruler of Judea. They were boyhood friends, but their politics and class conspire to make them enemies. Messala wants to repress the uprisings and rebellion of the Jews; Ben-Hur agrees to speak out against violence, but not against fighting against the Roman control. When Messala has the chance to arrest his old friend and make an example of him, he does so. Ben-Hur is sold into slavery and is assigned as a rower on a Roman barge. Not only that, but his mother and sister are thrown into prison and his house and riches are confiscated. His accounts manager and his daughter, Esther, are also detained.

On the barge, Ben-Hur catches the eye of Quintus Arrius, commander of the armada. Arrius (Jack Hawkins) offers Ben-Hur a chance to be a warrior and charioteer in Rome, but he declines, hoping to go back to Judea to rescue his mother and sister. The Roman Navy is on a mission to stop pirates, and in a spectacular battle scene, Ben-Hur rescues Arrius from certain death. When they are rescued, Arrius makes Ben-Hur his personal slave and brings him back to Rome. He ends up being a charioteer after all. After five months, Arrius formally adopts Ben-Hur, bestowing on him a ring from the House of Arrius. Granted his freedom, however, Ben-Hur returns to Palestine.

On the way back to his native land he meets up with Sheik Ilderim, played by Hugh Griffith. They talk of chariot racing, and the Sheik's overwhelming wish to beat Messala's horses. Ben-Hur has no wish to help him at this time, desperate to get back to his mother and sister. When he returns to Judea he confronts Messala as Arrius The Younger, threatening him politically if his mother and sister are not released. Messala sends his personal aide to see to them, and finds that they have caught leprosy while in prison. They are released, but too embarrassed to meet up with Ben-Hur. They meet Esther, who promises to keep their secret. Instead she tells Ben-Hur that they are dead, and he decides to race Messala after all.

This is where the first half (?) of the movie ends. Yes, we still have another 90 plus minutes to go.

Ben-Hur decides to go back to Sheik Ilderim and help train his horses. The Sheik confronts Messala with a bet to gamble on the race result and tells him that Ben-Hur will be racing for him. Messala is angry again at this "traitorous" act by his old friend, and gladly commits to racing him. And so we get the famous Chariot Race scene, with the thousands of extras. By this point in the film, however, we have already seen the Navy battle, the crowd scenes, the parade in Rome for Caesar, and countless other epic scenes. In that sense, this is just another in a parade of epic scenes. It did look painful for the stunt-men to get run over by the horses, though!

If telling you that Ben-Hur wins the chariot race spoils that for you, I apologize. He does win, and as a reward gets two pieces of information: Messala tells Ben-Hur that his mother and sister were lepers, and Pontius Pilate, who he had met in Rome, tells him to either stay on the side of Rome, or risk getting put out of the way. Ben-Hur denounces his Roman citizenship, returning the ring from the House of Arrius.

Ben-Hur (getting kinda tired of typing that out!) finds his family in a leper colony, and also finds Esther, who he confronts. She explains that it was their wish to remain "dead" to him, so he reluctantly agrees to their wishes for now. Meanwhile, Esther has heard the teachings of the prophet Jesus Christ, and she begs Ben-Hur to accompany her to his next get-together. They decide to bring his mother and sister to see Jesus, hoping that he can cure them. In a tearful reunion, he begs them to accompany them.

Unfortunately, by the time they get back to the city, Jesus has been condemned. They witness his carrying of the cross for his own crucifixion. When Ben-Hur stops and offers Jesus water, he realizes that he had met Jesus before, years ago when he, Ben-Hur, was being dragged off to slavery. Something touches Ben-Hur and he joins the crowd who watches over the Crucifixion. The night of Jesus' death, a terrible storm rises, and all four of them convert to Christianity. The next thing they know, the women have been cured, and Ben-Hur denounces violence.

Believe it or not, this is just a summary of all that happens in this film! This is a complex, well-plotted, but LONG film. I guess I should have known that this was another one of those Bible Epics that were so popular at this time (such as The Ten Commandments, Spartacus, and The Robe). I was always put-off by the length of this film and by the presence of Charlton Heston; he was never one of my favorite actors, and he is in nearly every scene. However, after watching the film I can't really argue with Heston winning Best Actor for his work. Along with Best Actor and Best Picture Ben-Hur won   nine other Academy Awards, making it the most-honored film up to that time (beating last year's Gigi by two awards). Titanic (1997) and The Lord of The Rings: The Return of the King (2003) share the record, with eleven awards each. The only award I would really question is Hugh Griffith as Sheik Ilderim. He beat out Arthur O'Connell and George C. Scott, both in Anatomy of a Murder, Ed Wynn in The Diary of Anne Frank, and a young Robert Vaughn in The Young Philadelphians. I wasn't able to find a copy of Robert Vaughn's film, so I can't speak to his role, but the others were all more dramatic and memorable than Hugh Griffith. Sorry, but I think he just rode the coat-tails of the chariots on this one. 

One last note: I was surprised that Jesus was a supporting character, even though he is never actually shown. (In one scene immediately prior to the Crucifixion, there is a scene with Pontius Pilate and Jesus where Jesus' face is actually obscured as if by a primitive mosaic. I know that certain countries and groups frown on actual portrayals of Prophets; I wonder if that had something to do with this.)

So if you like epic films with a capital "epic," you'll like Ben-Hur. If you don't.....then watch the trailer and call it a day. The trailer hits all the epic highlights, and only takes 3 minutes. Amen!

*Academy Award Best Picture of 1959*
Produced by Sam Zimbalist
Directed  by William Wyler
Screenplay by Karl Tunberg

My only question when I watched this trailer was: did all that many people *really* read the novel Ben-Hur? The film is much more famous than the book, atleast to later generations.

Also Nominated:
(in alphabetical order)
Anatomy of a Murder
The Diary of Anne Frank
The Nun's Story
Room At The Top
I took the time to watch Room At The Top, starring Simone Signoret, because she won Best Actress for this film. This was the first foreign actress to win the Award, and the only French woman so far. She portrays an older, more experienced and unhappy woman having an affair with Laurence Harvey (nominated). Anatomy of a Murder is the Otto Preminger directed court-room drama starring James Stewart, George C. Scott, Ben Gazara, and a smoldering Lee Remick. It's a very entertaining film. The Diary of Anne Frank is the film version of the Tony-winning play, directed by George Stevens. During WWII Stevens was in one of the US Army units filming the fighting; they were one of the first groups to visit Dachau after it was liberated, and he felt very strongly about the making of this film. Shelley Winters won Best Supporting Actress, and donated her Oscar statuette to the Anne Frank House in the Netherlands. It's a terrific film about a terrible incident in world history. I didn't watch The Nun's Story; I went so far as to check it out from the library, but even with Audrey Hepburn as the lead it didn't interest me. Sorry!

Monday, May 12, 2014

JL #34 "Cross Cultural Crisis Exchange!" JSA Roll Call

 Here are the Justice Society member profiles from 1999, in their debut from JUSTICE LEAGUE 21. I *almost* drew additional portraits of new members Mr. Terrific, Star Girl, and Obsidian, but eventually decided against it. Maybe next time....? ;-) 

continued after the jump---!