THE MASK OF ZORRO (1998) – A swashbuckler that shows they *can* make them like they used to

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This post is dedicated to Fritzi at the blog Movies Silently, who recently announced her Swashathon!, a blogathon taking place on Nov. 7-9, 2015 that is devoted to swashbuckling movies past and present. Click on the above banner to find out more about the ‘thon and how to enter it!

As Fritzi’s blogathon is devoted to movies released up to only 1970, I thought I’d share my review of a delightful swashbuckler from the 1990’s.

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These days, when filmmakers do ironic takes on old movies, you get the feeling they’re serving up spoofs because they don’t have the energy or nerve to do the real thing. But The Mask of Zorro is sincere about updating the old Saturday-matinee hero and, happily, does a darned good job of it.

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At first, the storyline makes you fear the worst. The original Zorro (Anthony Hopkins), having been stripped of his wife and daughter by his evil adversary (Stuart Wilson, looking and acting like Mel Brooks on a tear), pulls a “Lethal Weapon” and decides he’s too old for this stuff. Twenty years later, Zorro Sr. recruits a down-on-his-luck bandito (Antonio Banderas) to revive the black-mask-superhero franchise.

But as this is a Steven Spielberg production, what The Mask of Zorro is really about is the art of filmmaking, and it shows what some imaginative people (director Martin Campbell among them) can do with a movie camera. There are some old-fashioned stunts and physical comedy that are carried off just about perfectly herre. And usually, these shoot-the-works movies peter out just before the end credits, but this one has the most satisfying adventure-movie wrap-up I’ve seen in a long time.

I wouldn’t have guessed that Hopkins (as Zorro?!) or Banderas had this in them, but they play the most outrageous situations with perfectly straight faces, and it seems to invigorate them. (My only complaint with this gloriously fun movie is the unconvincing youthful look given to Hopkins at the movie’s start. I guess the filmmakers’ love of old-movie conventions extends to bad hair-dye jobs.)

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And Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, as the love interest, might just have you swooning with delight (especially with a beaut of a sight gag in which Zeta-Jones is undressed by Banderas in a most unique way).

It’s hard to say how modern-day movie viewers jaded by toy soldiers and destructo-epics will respond to swashbucklers who are presented without a trace of irony. But The Mask of Zorro proves that heroes can still be served up straight, if it’s done with some wit and panache.

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Only one month left until the “SEE YOU IN THE FALL” BLOGATHON!

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Autumn is only a month away, and with that comes our SEE YOU IN THE ‘FALL’ BLOGATHON! Have you decided which physical-comedy scene or movie you’re going to immortalize in blog history? Pick your favorite now, and let us know your choice! Click here for more information, and hurry up…time’s a-wastin’!

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Join us at Twitter.com on Sunday night for a film-noir double-feature!

Join us on Twitter.com on Sun., Aug. 23, and tweet along with us as we watch — for free, online — two splendid film-noir movies: The Shanghai Gesture (1941), starring Gene Tierney and Victor Mature, and Behind Green Lights (1946), starring Carole Landis and William Gargan. Hosted by your good blogs Movie Movie Blog Blog and BNoirDetour. Click here for more information. B Noir or be square!

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For the “Against the Crowd Blogathon”: BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD (2007) and TOWN & COUNTRY (2001)

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The following is my entry in the Against the Crowd Blogathon, hosted by the blog Dell on Movies, with entries being accepted through Aug. 21, 2015. You can click on the above banner to read more about it, but here are the blogathon rules:

1. Pick one movie that “everyone” loves (the more iconic, the better). That movie must have a score of at least 75% on rottentomatoes.com. Tell us why you hate it.

2. Pick one movie that “everyone” hates (the more notorious, the better). That movie must have a score of less than 35% on rottentomatoes.com. Tell us why you love it.

3. Include the Tomatometer scores of both movies.

Here are my entries.

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Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007)

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If Sidney Lumet — the veteran director responsible for Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead — thought his movie was unique and spellbinding, he must not have seen Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs.

Like DogsDevil concerns a seemingly simple robbery that goes terribly wrong, resulting in copious amounts of bloodshed. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke play Andy and Hank, two brothers who come off like a low-rent Laurel & Hardy.

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Andy is the siblings’ Ollie, full of himself but not knowing nearly as much as he thinks. Andy convinces himself that the solution to their money woes is to plan a heist against their own parents’ jewelry store. Andy reasons that no gunplay is necessary, and their parents’ insurance will cover any losses. Of course, the plan isn’t so simple that Andy intends to carry it out himself. Instead, he sweet-talks his brother Hank — the pair’s simpleton Stanley — into doing the heavy lifting. With this pair at the helm, do you think the robbery will go off as smoothly as it seems?

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The plot has potential; what kills it is the ham-handed way it’s presented. The movie’s very first image is that of a naked, pudgy Andy graphically having his way with his curvy wife (Marisa Tomei). I try hard not to judge such things, but any movie that presents a Marisa Tomei finding immense satisfaction from a P.S. Hoffman is already behind on the realism.

This sets the movie’s tone, in which we’re told about characterization rather than actually seeing it. Andy has a really bad drug habit. We’re shown this in a long tracking shot in which Andy wanders around his dealer’s tony apartment before getting elaborately shot up with heroin. How did this low-life get such an upper-bracket junkie habit?

images (2)We’re also told that Andy fiercely resents the lifelong bullying he’s gotten from his father Charles (Albert Finney). Yet as Finney portrays him, Charles seems merely a stubborn old coot — not terribly nasty, given the movie’s graphic circumstances. So it’s just one more character trait sloppily hung upon Andy.

As events rapidly go from bad to worse, screenwriter Kelly Masterson seems to throw up her hands and come up with nothing better than having everyone shoot each other along the way. Either Masterson (whose first script this is) decided to ape The Departed, or he got a vicarious thrill out of watching his characters blow each other away.

This dishonor-among-thieves stuff really did work better in Reservoir Dogs, where it was drenched in irony. Lumet’s biggest mistake is taking this guff so ultra-seriously, particularly when the movie’s climax hinges on one on those movie hospitals where no orderly is ever around when he’s supposed to be. Cue another killing!

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Town & Country (2001)

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I know all of the nasty history behind this movie. It spent years in reshoots, chalked up a final budget of $90 million, made less than a tenth of that amount back, and was disowned by its stars before it was even released. In spite of all that, I still think it’s the best comedy that Woody Allen never made.

That’s a backhanded compliment, but a compliment nevertheless. From the movie’s opening narration from a stammering Warren Beatty, to its use of New York skylines and soundtrack jazz, through its airy plotlessness, it’s obvious which acclaimed filmmaker inspired the movie’s style.

But eventually the movie manages a screwball style of its own. Sometimes the jokes are a little forced and the drama a little mawkish. But the movie finally makes its own very interesting observations about middle age and adultery, and while the movie isn’t as deep as it thinks it is, it still garners a fair share of laugh-out-loud moments.

Town and CountryBeatty plays Porter Stoddard, a New York architect who comes to terms with his own adulterous ways as well as those of his best friend Griffin (Garry Shandling). The movie mostly examines how this philandering affects their wives (Diane Keaton and Goldie Hawn). Ironically, though Beatty didn’t write or direct the movie, his character is riddled with autobiography. When Porter comes to terms with the consequences of his actions, and especially when he gives a big undying-love speech to his wife near movie’s end, Beatty seems to be wholeheartedly expressing some of his own insights.

The movie’s plotless meandering also provides an excuse for some extended comedy that plays far better than it deserves, most surprisingly in Beatty’s traipsing around in a bear costume with a waddling rear end. About the only subplot that should have been completely excised involves Charlton Heston as the vengeful father of one of Porter’s conquests. Like Leslie Nielsen, Heston has recently made a second career out of parodying his first career, but here he gets a bit carried away.

But the movie’s contrivances are made tolerable by its insights into human nature. The movie’s best moments are its subtlest, in scenes where guilty males misinterpret innocent conversations with their spouses. For a comedy to waver between farce and drama is no small act of courage these days; that Town & Country pulls off most of its balancing act makes it very worthwhile viewing.

Guest-hosting a Live Tweet double feature with #BNoirDetour on Sun., Aug. 23

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The film-noir blog BNoirDetour hosts a Live Tweet of a noir movie at Twitter.com every Sunday night starting at 9:00 p.m. EST. This Sunday, she has graciously allowed me to join her in Tweeting a movie of my choice after she Tweets hers.

BNoirDetour starts the party at 9 p.m. with The Shanghai Gesture (1941). It takes place in a Shanghai casino where the lives of the casino’s dragon-lady boss, a privileged young woman (Gene Tierney of Laura), a gigolo (Victor Mature), and a wealthy Englishman (Walter Huston) converge. As the movie is directed by Josef von Sternberg, who did his best to turn cinema into the Shrine of Marlene Dietrich, you have no reason to believe that this movie will be low-key in any way.

This movie will be followed by my choice and one of my favorite recent film-noir viewings, Behind Green Lights (1946). It stars the very likable William Gargan as a police lieutenant who does his level best to keep control of the many goings-on during the night shift at his police station. This includes a woman suspected of murder (Carole Landis), whom the lieutenant would like to avoid arresting because it would make the corrupt editor of the city newspaper all too happy. (Look closely at the actor playing the editor. He’s Roy Roberts, 20 years prior to gaining sitcom fame as Mr. Cheever, Mr. Mooney’s dyspeptic boss on “The Lucy Show”!)

To join our noir nosh, just log onto Twitter and type @BNoirDetour to get to the main host’s Twitter page for either the 9:00 or the 10:45 show, or type @MovieMovieBlogB to get to my Twitter page for just the 10:45 show. Either way, you’ll get a free link to each movie via YouTube. When you are instructed at the given time, just click on the start of the movie and follow along. No matter which movie you view, if you want to post comments about each movie while it’s running, use the hashtag #BNoirDetour, and you’ll be part of our Live Tweet.

My thanks to BNoirDetour for graciously letting me piggy-bank (for lack of a better word) on her Twitter following. We look forward to tweeting with you this Sunday night!

BEHIND GREEN LIGHTS (1946) – One night in a very lively police station

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Behind Green Lights begins with a windy prologue that proclaims, “This is the story of one night in a big city police station — your city or mine[…]” — although your police station’s typical night shift probably doesn’t consist of a corpse getting dropped off at the front door, a medical examiner who’s regularly paid off for evil deeds, and a police lieutenant who falls in love with a murder suspect.

Lt. Sam Carson (William Gargan) tries his best to juggle the variety of work-related balls thrown at him in the course of an evening, all the while avoiding the temptation of bribery by Max Calvert (Roy Roberts), editor of the city’s biggest newspaper. When the corpse’s primary murder suspect becomes Janet Bradley (Carole Landis), Carson does everything he can to avoid booking her — mainly because Bradley is the daughter of a mayoral candidate whose opposing candidate is being assertively backed by Calvert.

Between the comings and goings at the police station and the variety of people who flit in and out of the corpse’s apartment when he’s still alive (via flashback), this movie has enough characters and slamming doors for a bedroom farce. It’s held together mostly by the very likable leads. Gargan is extremely charming as an Everyman police officer who almost seems to be in over his head, and he’s matched by Landis as a pseudo-glamorous suspect who, thankfully, isn’t all that she seems.

Clocking in at just over an hour, Behind Green Lights is a brisk and extremely enjoyable “programmer” of the kind for which 20th Century-Fox was famous in the 1930’s and ’40s. Other than some strained comic relief involving an elderly flower lady (who figures prominently in the plot), nothing seems forced, and it’s a rare film-noir that leaves you grinning from ear to ear.