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The Transporter Refueled

The Transporter Refueled is an unnecessary bore from start to finish, one that even the most devoted Luc Besson fanatics will find difficult to defend.

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Dirty Weekend

Matthew Broderick and Alice Eve play business colleagues who get stranded in Albuquerque during a business trip, leading to rather mild complications; except for the…

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Ballad of Narayama

"The Ballad of Narayama" is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens…

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Monsieur Hire

Patrice Leconte's "Monsieur Hire" is a tragedy about loneliness and erotomania, told about two solitary people who have nothing else in common. It involves a…

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We have heard the chimes at midnight. "Falstaff," by Orson Welles, free online

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Great Movie / Roger Ebert / June 4, 2006

There live not three good men unhanged in England. And one of them is fat and grows old.

How can it be that there is an Orson Welles masterpiece that remains all but unseen? I refer not to incomplete or abandoned projects that have gathered legends, but to "Chimes at Midnight" (1965), his film about Falstaff, which has survived in acceptable prints and is ripe for restoration. I saw the film in early 1968, put it on my list of that year's best films, saw it again on 16mm in a Welles class I taught, and then could not see it for 35 years.

It dropped so completely out of sight that there is no video version in America, Britain or France. Preparing to attend the epic production of both parts of Shakespeare's "Henry IV" at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, I wanted to see it again and found it available on DVD from Spain and Brazil. Both versions carry the original English-language soundtrack; the Brazilian disc is clear enough and a thing of beauty. What luck that Welles shot in black-and-white, so there was no color to fade.

This is a magnificent film, clearly among Welles' greatest work, joining "Citizen Kane," "The Magnificent Ambersons," "Touch of Evil" and (I would argue) "The Trial." It is also magnificent Shakespeare, focusing on Falstaff through the two "Henry IV" plays to his offstage death in "Henry V." Although the plays are much abridged, it is said there is not a word in the film not written by Shakespeare.

Falstaff, "this huge hill of flesh," is one of Shakespeare's greatest characters -- the equal, argues Harold Bloom, of Hamlet. He so dominates the Henry IV plays that although Shakespeare promised he would return in Henry V, he reconsidered; the fat knight would have sounded the wrong note in that heroic tale, and so we learn from Mistress Quickly of his death, as he "babbl'd of green fields."

Welles was born to play Falstaff, not only because of the physical similarity but because of the rich voice, sonorous and amused, and the shared life experience. Both men lived long and too well, were at odds with the powers at court and were constantly in debt. Both knew disappointment, and one of the most sublime moments in Welles' career is simply the expression on his face at the coronation of Henry V, when he cries out "God save thee, my sweet boy," and the new king replies, "I know thee not, old man."

Prince Hal, later Henry V, is played in the film by Keith Baxter, who looks dissolute enough in the roistering at the Boars Head Tavern, but as early as Act 1, Scene 2 is an unpleasant hypocrite in the monologue where he admits his present misdeeds but promises to reform at the right time. In Shakespeare, this is a soliloquy; in Welles, Falstaff listens in the back of the shot and is forewarned. Later, in an echo of that composition, the prince looks impatiently toward the field of battle as Falstaff, behind him, questions the concept of honor. That each man hears the other's intended soliloquy adds a dimension to both.

Welles as director uses some of his familiar visual strategies; the vast interiors of Henry IV's castles contrast with the low ceilings and cluttered rooms of bawdy houses, just as the vast space of Kane's great hall contrasts with the low ceilings and dancing girls of the New York Inquirer. Royalty in "Chimes at Midnight" is framed by vast cathedral vaults, with high windows casting diagonals of light. Welles uses dramatic camera angles, craning to look up at the trumpeters atop the battlements as Henry IV rides off to battle.

At Mistress Quickly's, on the other hand, Falstaff and his roisterers have great freedom of movement involving doorways and posts, barrels and vertiginous staircases, barking dogs and laughing wenches. He and other actors circle verticals and one another as they speak, just as Welles and Joseph Cotten circled in "Citizen Kane" and "The Third Man." And watch the use of deep focus when he begins a shot with Hal seated in the background and, as news of his father's death is conveyed, Hal stands and moves forward, finally looming over the camera in foreground. All one shot.

The scene of the battle of Shrewsbury is justly famous. It lasts fully 10 minutes, chaotic action at a brutal pitch, horses and men confused in smoke and fog, steel crashing against steel, cries of pain, desperate struggles, confused limbs caked in mud and blood, men falling exhausted or dead. Barbara Leaming, one of Welles' biographers, says the scene was created by careful framing; Welles at no time had more than about 100 extras, yet seems to have a multitude, and the violence of the struggle was studied by Mel Gibson before he directed "Braveheart."

The battle is intercut with shots of a fat man in armor, hurrying and scurrying out of the way and finally playing dead. When Hal finds Falstaff flat on his back, he cries out, "What, old acquaintance! Could not all this flesh keep in a little life?" We know Falstaff is not dead, and Welles finds a way to let Hal know, too: the frost on the old man's breath puffs out from beneath his visor. Yes, it was cold. Welles shot on location in Spain, in winter; his first shot shows Falstaff as a tiny figure in a vast field of snow, his last shows Falstaff's coffin being pushed across snow toward his grave, and in several of John Gielgud's speeches as Henry IV, we can see the frost on his breath.

That Gielgud played the king and others such as Margaret Rutherford (Mistress Quickly) Jeanne Moreau (Doll Tearsheet) and Fernando Rey (Worcester) also appeared in the film is a tribute to Welles' reputation, for on a budget of less than $1 million he was, like Falstaff, not prompt to pay. Gielgud plays Henry IV as a dying man almost from his earliest scenes, plagued with guilt because of how he won his throne. His son is no consolation; the king envies Northumberland his son Henry Percy, known as Hotspur (Norman Rodway), and wishes "would I have his Harry, and he mine." He excoriates the thief and whoremonger Hal and his low companions, none lower in deportment or loftier in essential humanity than Falstaff.

How good is Falstaff? Consider the way warm affection illuminates the face of Jeanne Moreau as Doll Tearsheet caresses and tickles her beloved old rogue. Note the boundless affection Falstaff has for all around him, so real that even Quickly forgives his debts and allows him to contract new ones.

Such scenes illuminate the life Welles poured into "Chimes at Midnight." He came early to Shakespeare; he edited and published editions of some of the plays while still at prep school. On stage and screen, he was also Othello and Macbeth, his voice fell naturally into iambic rumbles, he was large enough for heroes and so small he could disappear before Henry V's scorn. He once asked an audience, reduced by a snowstorm: "Why are there so many of me and so few of you?"

There was not something Falstaffian about Welles, there was everything. As a young man he conquered all that came before him (at Shrewsbury a knight meekly surrenders to the old man, awed by his leftover reputation). Welles grew fat and in debt, took jobs unworthy of him, was trailed by sycophants and leeches, yet was loved by good women and honored by those who could see him clearly. And he battled on, Quixotic as well as Falstaffian, commencing grand schemes and sometimes actually finishing them (indeed, his "Don Quixote" can now be seen in intriguing but incomplete form).

The crucial point about "Chimes at Midnight" is that although it was rejected by audiences and many critics on its release, although some of the dialogue is out of sync and needs to be adjusted, although many of the actors become doubles whenever they turn their backs, although he dubbed many of the voices himself, although the film was assembled painstakingly from scenes shot when he found the cash -- although all of these things are true, it is a finished film, it realizes his vision, it is the Falstaff he was born to direct and play, and it is a masterpiece. Now to restore it and give it back to the world.

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"God's Angry Man," by Werner Herzog

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God's Angry Man, Part One

God's Angry Man, Part Two

God's Angry Man, Part Three

God's Angry Man, Part Four

God's Angry Man, Part Five

God's Angry Man, Part Six

The Ballad of Mean Gene Scott

Here is Dr. Gene Scott's Wikipedia entry. A quotation:

"In 1975, Scott began nightly live broadcasts, and eventually satellite broadcasts extended his services and talk shows to many countries.

"Scott became known as much for his stage persona as he was for his preaching skills. He would fill chalkboards with scriptural passages in the original Greek, Hebrew or Aramaic during his exegeses as to their meaning.

"During his live fundraising broadcasts, Scott would typically stare into the camera and tell his viewers to get on the telephone and give if you feel as though the spirit calls for it, often wearing a variety of hats including an English pith helmet or a sombrero.

"Scott showed disdain for other religious broadcasters like Jerry Falwell and Jimmy Swaggart and bristled when people referred to him as a "televangelist," preferring to be regarded as a teacher and pastor.

The word of Dr. Gene Scott continues through the work of his daughter, Pastor Elizabeth Scott. This officiail site includes a biography.

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Jeni le Gon: The first black woman signed by Hollywood was livin' and dancin' in great big way

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My good Sun-Times pal from the 1970s at the Chicago Sun-Times, Cynthia Dagnal, wrote me today:

"A friend in London sent me this, obituary from the London indpendent and I was stunned to see that Jeni Le Gon attended the same Southside dancing school in Chicago that I did. It was probably the most reputable one on that side of the "color line," and not very far from my house. So I studied with the younger "protégés" of Mary Bruce, and all those cute pics of me in little but EXPENSIVE tutus and whatnot that I sometimes use on my blogs are reminders of those days! I took tap, jazz and ballet as a wee one, and loved to walk around en pointe all day long in those danged--and also expensive--toe shoes!"

Le Gon (born in Georgia Aug. 24,1916; died December 7, 2012) was the first African-American women to sign with a major studio, but there was more to it that that. From the loving obit by Stephen Bourne in the Independent:

"Following her screen debut, the vivacious Le Gon was signed by MGM and paid the huge sum of $1,250 a week. They gave her a role in Broadway Melody of 1936 but, she said, "MGM hosted a party for the mayors of various cities and the cast of Broadway Melody of 1936 entertained them. Eleanor Powell, the famous tap dancer from Broadway, had also been signed for the movie and after I stopped the show on performance night at the mayors' party, MGM decided they couldn't have two tap dancers in the picture and I was dropped from the studio. If I had been white, they would have kept me because I could have developed into something, but they let me go. While I was at MGM I was told I wasn't allowed to eat in the main dining room. Here, they were paying me $1,250 a week and telling me I wasn't good enough to eat in their dining room. But Hollywood was no different to the rest of the country in that respect."

Also from the obit:

" She played maids to Maria Montez in Arabian Nights (1942), Ann Miller in Easter Parade (1948) and Betty Hutton in Somebody Loves Me (1952). Tiring of maid roles, Le Gon faced humiliation in 1950 when she joined a group of black actors to call on Ronald Reagan, then president of the Screen Actors Guild. They raised their concerns about the stereotyping of black actors, but Reagan showed no interest: "We tried to get him to intervene for us, but he wasn't the least bit sympathetic. He didn't even lie about it."

After moving with her family to Chicago, Le Gon attended Mary Bruce's School of Dancing. At the age of 16, she embarked on a professional career after successfully auditioning for the chorus of the Count Basie Orchestra. After arriving in California in the mid-1930s, Le Gon's energetic and expert dancing skills were noticed by Earl Dancer, a black producer and talent scout. Dancer took Le Gon under his wing and he was instrumental in bringing her to the attention of various Hollywood studios.

She made her film debut in RKO Radio's Hooray for Love (1935), in a lively musical sequence in which she was teamed with Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and Fats Waller. The trio's rendition of "I'm Livin' in a Great Big Way" was sensational and, after Hooray for Love, Fats Waller employed Le Gon as a vocalist and dancer with his band. Le Gon explained to his biographer, Alyn Shipton, how Waller helped to shape her stage act: "I danced like a boy - I did flips and knee drops and toe stands and all that sort of business so, when I had to sing after I'd danced, he gave me these cute little numbers so that I could talk-sing." In 1984, referring to her toe stands, and to Michael Jackson, Le Gon commented: "That Michael fella, they say he invented it. All the girls from my era did that."

Le Gon was warmly received in Britain when she opened at London's Adelphi Theatre on 4 February 1936 in CB Cochran's revue Follow the Sun. Later that year, she was featured as a cabaret dancer in the British film Dishonour Bright. She said: "I experienced being a real person for the first time. On board the ship and in Europe I was referred to as Miss Le Gon and that had never happened to me before."

"On a tour of Canada in 1969 she found herself in Vancouver and agreed to hold a few workshops during the two days she was there, "but the students began lining up before we had even rented space. In Vancouver, I found out I was a person. Period. I didn't have to worry about going somewhere and hearing somebody say, 'No, you can't come in.' That's one of the reasons I stayed in Canada."

Jeni Le Gon with Biill (Bojangles) Robinson and Fats Waller in "I'm Living in a Great Big Way" (1935).

"Swing is Here to Stay" (1937), co starring the zoftig Dixon Sisters. When she leans at the end, they nailed her shoes to the floor.

In "Getting It Right With You" (1939)

Full-length film: "Double Deal" (1939), with Monte Hawley and Edward Thompson

With Cab Calloway in "HI De Ho" (1947)

Jeni performs in "I'm Living in a Great Big Way" in 2007 in the Century Ball Room in Seattle.

Jeni performs her last dance, it says, at the 2008 Masters of Lindy and Tap. Somehow I don't believe this was her last dance.

Jeni at 90

A December 2012 tribute to Dr. Jeni Legon

Photo at top from the London Independent, autographed to Stephen Bourne, the author of the obituary.

...and above is my friend Cynthia Dagnal herself, when she was attending the same dance studio, about 10 and dolled up to look 30.

She writes: "Distinctive "Chicago style" just makes my eyes tear up. Whenever I hear Gene Kelly say, "Le time step," in An American in Paris, I think of that step--everyone does it, but we did it with Chicago swag. Here's a shot of me all dolled up and looking about 30-years-old. "Here's a little blurb piece on both Sadie and Mary Bruce's dance schools from the Chicago Public Library. Both schools were amazing--in fact, when I read this, I thought, "Okay...which one WAS it?" I think I had to go to Sadie's for a while because there wasn't room at Mary's for a wee one, but it was sooooooo long ago, I don't even remember all that very well. http://bit.ly/WUiaOJ "Doesn't matter, they were both amazing women and both schools were a VERY big deal on the Southside. Every parent wanted to get their kids into a class at either one, and I felt so lucky to be able to dance there. We had huge recitals all the time, and I loved every minute of those very serious shows.

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Siskel & Ebert & John Simon go to war over "Star Wars:

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And yet, all the same, there is much to be said for Simon's words. I understand where he's coming from. I'm not in sympathy with where he's going.

The goal, I suspect, is to encompass the whole range of good movies, and despise the unworthy ones. The complete film critic must be large; he must contain multitudes.

I had completely forgotten this experience. I marked Gene Siskel's birthday on Saturday by tweeting links all day, and that shook some new discoveries out of the branches.

Thanks for the link to Jerry Taylor.

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The top 2013 winners at Sundance and their trailer

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"Fruitvale" is the hands-down champ at Sundance 2013, and its 26-year-old director, Ryan Coogler, is the toast of the town. It's based on the story of Oscar Grant, a young black man shot in the back by Oakland transportation police on New Year's Day 2009. Starting with actual cell phone footage of the death, it unreels into fiction to retrace the last hours of his life. Go here for a story by Entertainment Weekly.

There are many categories at Sundance. Here are the trailers for the top ones. Click here for the complete list of 2012 winners.

"Fruitvale," winner of the Grand Jury Prize for Dramatic, and the category's Audience Award.

"Blood Brother," winner of the Grand Jury Prize for Documentary, and the cateory's Audience Award:

"A River Changes Course" from Cambodia, winner of the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize for Documentary:

"Jiseul" from South Korea, winner of the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize for Dramatic:

The Audience Award, winner of the World Cinema Dramatic: "The Square (Al Midan)," from Egypt, winner of the Audience Award for World Cinema Documentary: , U.S.A.

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Three unauthorized out-takes from "Siskel & Ebert" in the 1980s. Bootlegged.

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I've seen these scattered here and there. Now someone has strung them all together. This was the weekly routine during tapings: Arguments alternating with hilarity, with the offstage voices of Buzz the floor director and Don the director unsuccessfully trying to steer us back on track.

I wrote a blog entry about the energy Siskel and I put into attacking each other. Here it is: Siskel & Ebert at the Jugular.

Thanks for the link to Damon Berger.

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Predicting the 1941 Oscars

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The film critic David Bordwell is sitting in an airport in Denmark and he emailed me these caps from Weekly Variety. Now *that* was a trade paper. In typography it looked more or less as it did when I started reading it in 1967. Blow these up and you can read them. Here is a link to the actual winners that year. Damn, they made some good movies.

Bordwell: Note that Variety believed the numerous members of the Screen Extras Guild held the deciding hand.

'

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Top winners at Sundance 2013 and their trailers

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"Fruitvale" is the hands-down champ at Sundance 2013, and its 26-year-old director, Ryan Coogler, is the toast of the town. It's based on the story of Oscar Grant, a young black man shot in the back by Oakland transportation police on New Year's Day 2009. Starting with actual cell phone footage of the death, it unreels into fiction to retrace the last hours of his life. Go here for a story by Entertainment Weekly.

There are many categories at Sundance. Here are the trailers for the top ones. Click here for the complete list of 2012 winners.

"Fruitvale," winner of the Grand Jury Prize for Dramatic, and the category's Audience Award.

"Blood Brother," winner of the Grand Jury Prize for Documentary, and the cateory's Audience Award:

"A River Changes Course" from Cambodia, winner of the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize for Documentary:

"Jiseul" from South Korea, winner of the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize for Dramatic:

The Audience Award, winner of the World Cinema Dramatic: "The Square (Al Midan)," from Egypt, winner of the Audience Award for World Cinema Documentary: , U.S.A.

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