Monday, March 1, 2010

An Historic Weekend

Saturday was a relatively slow day. I've had a couple of documentaries sitting around for a little while and decided to check them out. The Johnstown Flood was released by the Inecom company in 2003 and is about the famous 1889 disaster. My son and I enjoyed it, but a quick view of coments on indicates that there are better treatments of the subject out there. Despite bad acting, it held our interest pretty thoroughly, so it can't be faulted for that. Though I suppose that you'd have to work pretty hard to make a disaster of that scale NOT compelling. Still, I think what we saw adequately got the information across and was entertaining. There is an Academy-award winning short film on the same subject which apparently is shown at the museum in Johnstown. I'd be curious to check it out for comparison purposes.

I dropped my son off at a sleepover birthday party and when I got home my wife joined me for The New World: Nightmare in Jamestown, about the first treacherous year or so of the Jamestown settlement. As is the case for almost all N.G. documentaries, the narration was excellently written and performed. I got frustrated, however, with how often the same "dramatic reenactment" shots were used and reused (there was one of an Indian's head turning towards the camera that was used at least four times) in the visual telling of the story. I don't know if it's budget concerns or laziness, but it diminished the experience for me. Because of the narration, we both still thoroughly enjoyed the documentary, and there were a couple of bonus features (one being an interactive timeline) expanding on John Smith's expeditions into the Chesapeake Bay that were fascinating.

Sunday my wife went to a baby shower, so my son and I watched a couple of films after shoveling the driveway and doing a little vacuuming. The first one was Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, starring Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas. I'll admit it was a little slow for practically the whole first half, but the second half really picks up speed and the buildup to the gunfight- including all the ethical angst- is wonderful and exciting. I've seen Lancaster in four films now and I'm really starting to appreciate his talent. We both got a big kick out of the exposition through song ("Boot Hill, Boot Hill...")- it reminded us of "I won't be leavin'... until I shoot Frank Miller dead" from High Noon. I would hate it if a modern film tried to do something so ridiculous, but for some reason I'm more forgiving in my ignorance of the filmmaking customs of the fifties.

The second film in our double feature was Aldrich's masterpiece The Dirty Dozen. It's a humdinger of a movie, clocking in at two and a half hours. But it's divided into three major acts- the training, the exercise, and the mission- which break up the film's overall length nicely. You definitely don't get bored. It's a serious movie, but there are some wonderful humorous moments that mix in nicely with the drama, breaking it up into even more manageable bites. The ride is so smooth for the first hour and 45 minutes that you almost forget that they still have to engage the enemy. But once they do- oh my- what a tense, nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat 45 minutes it is! You've had enough time to get attached to the band of misfits, and while you know not all of them are going to make it out alive- it's a law of Hollywood- you like them all (except Maggott) and don't want to see any of them go. [Note: I learned in the making-of documentary that Trini Lopez quit the film early on advice from Frank Sinatra that the amount of time he'd be away from his singing career due to the movie would be harmful. That's why his character, Pedro Jiminez, dies before they actually crash the Nazi party. It was also interesting to hear that they were able to work around his early departure so relatively easily because Dirty Dozen was filmed more or less in order.] Another interesting bit of information we learned was that Adrich would have won an Oscar had he taken out the controversial end scene where Jim Brown's Jefferson blows up the Nazi officers along with their dates, who are all trapped in a bomb shelter. He refused, because that scene was a linchpin of sorts holding together a number of his themes- he wanted to show that "war is hell."

There are some nice special features in the 2-disc DVD set that I got from the library, including a fun, behind-the-scenes mini-doc that largely focuses on the cast hanging around late-sixties London (insert Austin Powers reference here). There is a Marines recruitment video from the eighties hosted by Lee Marvin, and a making-of documentary. Extra points get awarded to Warner for also including the so-bad-why-did-you-do-it-Lee-Marvin TV sequel The Dirty Dozen: Next Mission. I'm only part way through it, and I'm only watching it out of morbid curiosity. I'm hoping my impression of the original won't be tarnished because of it.

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