The Great Dictator, The Great Escape, and a few more movies

The Grass Harp (1995)
Streaming free at Hoopla, with your library card

A boy narrates his story of the olden days, as a flute plays on the soundtrack. Everyone in town talks quaint and adorable, interrupted frequently for folksy narration from the boy, all grown up. There's a sassy black woman, and very old Walter Matthau, and the film is directed by someone named Charles Matthau. Small world, ain't it? 

Based on something by Truman Capote, The Grass Harp is trying so hard to be heartwarming, it made my heart freeze over. I lasted about 25 minutes, during which nothing of interest happened, and then a white guy started playing the piano and singing, and I bid adieu to The Grass Harp

Verdict: BIG NO. 

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Gravity (2013)
Streaming free at Internet Archive

This begins with on-screen text explaining that space is very cold, very quiet, and has no oxygen or air pressure (since there's no air). Take this as a warning, that you're about to watch a movie aimed at people who don't know what space is.

It opens with a whizzbang scene of two astronauts on a spacewalk, the veteran Kowalski (George Clooney) and the rookie Stone (Sandra Bullock). Suddenly everything goes wrong. Seems an explosion has exploded somewhere off-screen, shrapnel is on its way, and when it hits it irreparably damages the ship, killing a colleague, and leaving our stars adrift in space.

#303  [archive]
JUNE 26, 2024

Things continue going all wrong, all through the movie. Kowalski and Stone are low on oxygen, lower on good luck, floating high above the earth as obstacles pile on top of disasters on top of catastrophes. It's basically The Perils of Pauline in space, with Ms Bullock as the damsel always in distress and Mr Clooney as the dashing hero.

Other than that, there's nothing particularly awful about this movie, and I'm sure critics raved and audiences enjoyed it, but I mostly scratched my head.

From beginning to end, Gravity is made with huge money and high-tech, always trying to knock you over the head with 'whizzbang', and it will if you let it. But any random cheap sci-fi from Roger Corman has more heart.

Verdict: MAYBE.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Grease (1978)

Is there anyone who hasn't seen Grease, and needs a review? 

It's John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John in a high school love story, plus songs. Travolta sings surprisingly on-key, and Newton-John looks a bit old to be in high school, but she's on-key, too.

I love musicals, and this rock'n'roll musical sounds pretty good. There are some great songs — "Greased Lightnin'," "Hopelessly Devoted to You," "Look at Me, I'm Sandra Dee," "Summer Nights," "You're the One That I Want," etc. 

As for the non-singing ingredients of Grease, well, you can't have everything. Stockard Channing plays a "bad girl," and she's the second best thing here, after the music. The story and the movie's comedic moments are from the remedial class, and it's lots less interesting when nobody's singing, but sure, It's greasy good. 

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

The Great Dictator (1940)
Streaming free at Internet Archive

In 1940, Adolf Hitler was Chancellor of Germany, well known to be fiercely anti-Semitic, but most of the world either didn't know the ovens were running, or pretended not to know. Hollywood was a great pretender, having made exactly one B-level anti-Nazi film, Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939).

Charles Chaplin, meanwhile, had stuck with silent films even after sound took over the industry ten years earlier. Other than a few words spoken by minor characters in Modern Times (1936), this was Chaplin's first talkie, and the first time he'd spoken on film. Writing, directing, and starring, he made the first major Hollywood film to go after Hitler.

Chaplin plays a Jewish barber, fighting in World War I at first, then injured and hospitalized for years, then recovered and sent home to a Jewish ghetto. Chaplin also plays Adenoid Hynkel, a send-up of Hitler as a nincompoop and buffoon.

Hynkel and the barber both being Chaplin, eventually the barber impersonates the dictator, which leads not to laughs but to Chaplin's famous speech that ends the film.

That's the basics briefly, and definitely and absolutely, you ought to see this film if you haven't.

As a comedy, it's funny. As satire, it's fairly sharp. As a dramatic look at the (early) horrors of Nazism, it's effective, and becomes maybe more terrifying now, since we know where the real Hitler was headed, than it was in 1940.

Chaplin's closing speech is not what I'd expected, something fiercely sarcastic to the Führer. It's the opposite; simply sincere and good, and it's rare to hear sincerity and goodness in a Hollywood movie.

What's maybe most remarkable is that taking a stand against Hitler is what began the calls against Chaplin, with whispers that he must be a communist. Other things were going on — later came a false paternity suit, reports of affairs with young women, and a chorus of smears in right-wing-connected gossip columns — but what startles me (though it shouldn't) is that Chaplin's troubles began because he made fun of Hitler.

Eventually, when Chaplin sailed to England to promote Limelight (1952), US Attorney General James McGranery revoked Chaplin's re-entry permit.

Sweet jeebers, man. I knew Chaplin had been barred from the USA for many years, and that it had been much overblown ado over nothing much, so why am I surprised to finally understand that Chaplin was taken down by the grandfathers of the people standing proud and loud against human decency to this day?

Anyway, as for the movie, it's not the perfect satirical comedy that the hype had led me to expect, but hype for anything is usually BS. What it is, is a very good movie, and Chaplain's boldest and biggest gamble.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

The Great Escape (1963)
Streaming free at Internet Archive

Everybody loves The Great Escape, including me. It was one of my wife's favorite movies, and we watched it together six or eight times, even had a few conversations similar to what I'll write about the movie now.

It's a fine popcorn fest of tension and action and heroics, built around the "true story" of Allied prisoners plotting and pulling off a big breakout from a WWII Nazi prison camp. 

Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, James Garner, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasence, James Donald, David McCallum, and James Coburn star, each playing an Allied officer who's heroic in his own way. There are no cowards among them, none of them wants to simply lie low and wait out the end of the war, and apparently, every last prisoner was an officer. Did the Nazis capture no grunts, no soldiers? 

Despite having done zero research on the film's historical accuracy, I'll boldly state that the claim that it's true carries a whiff of whatever Mr Ed left behind. 

We're told that this prison was specifically designed to be impregnable, that this is the place they send prisoners who've escaped from other prisons and been re-captured. It has the best guards, the best security, and yet, these prisoners are digging three separate tunnels all at once, and none of the German guards and officials catch on.

Where, by the way, are the diggers getting the lumber to shore up three clandestine tunnels? We're shown, comically, that they scavenged lumber from their bedboard slats, but these are three very long tunnels with wooden supports all along the way. They'd need to be held up by a lot more than bedboards.

Midway through the movie, when German guards finally discover one of the tunnels, why are none of the prisoners punished? And why aren't the Germans curious enough to suspect there are other tunnels?

At one point, at least half a dozen prisoners are working together, all horizontal inside a tunnel under construction. What if the Germans did a surprise inspection of the barracks at that moment?

For that matter, what if the Germans did a surprise inspection of the barracks ever? There'd be no escape, and no movie.

On and on, but if producer-director John Sturges hadn't lied that It's true, I wouldn't give any of the above any thought.

Who watches an action movie for facts, anyway? You want thrills and heroics and a tall tale well told, that's all, and The Great Escape delivers a great escape.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦

The war on Charlie Chaplin 

The first American anti-Nazi film, rediscovered 

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990) was almost certainly a money-laundering project 


• • • Coming attractions • • •     

Great Expectations (1946)
The Great Flamarion (1945)
The Great Garrick (1937)
The Great Los Angeles Earthquake (1990)
The Great O'Malley (1936)

... plus schlock, shorts, and surprises

— — —
Now accepting movie recommendations,
starting with the letter 'H'.
Just add a comment, below.
— — —

Illustration by Jeff Meyer. Click any image to enlarge. Arguments & recommendations are welcome, but no talking once the lights dim, and only real butter on the popcorn, not that fake yellow stuff. 
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