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Unlikely Angel (1996)
A truly uproarious junk movie
This is one of the best junk movies of all time -- a complete howler. Watching the constant changes of costume -- every single one of which grossly accentuates Ms. Parton's already overly prominent most famous assets (would you hire a nanny dressed like that?) -- is alone worth the price of a rental. Add a screenplay full of clunker lines, a supporting cast earnestly trying to make something of this syrupfest, and, best of all, a wildly retro concept of heaven, and you've got the ingredients for a movie so excruciatingly awful that, by some miracle of transference, it's really rather sublime.
Les amants du Pont-Neuf (1991)
Sorry, it's just a lousy movie
Oh, please. I used to say I could watch Juliette Binoche read the phone book, but this sorely tested that theory. What a mess of a movie! -- by turns a tired liberal pseudodocumentary on the homeless (though by the end, you realize that according to this flick, homelessness is a byproduct of personal misfortune and not, evidently, any societal forces), a down-and-dirty romance (Binoche can be forgiven; what actress actor] wouldn't want to play a one-eyed homeless artist losing the vision in the other eye?), an extended music video, and God knows what else, all set in a Paris largely devoid of traffic and people. Completely lacking *internal* logic (and yes, fables do need that), it seems to have acquired quite a few devotees drawn to its alleged "poetry." All I see is pretentiousness and self-indulgence. If the other reviews here tempt you to see it anyway, that's fine; but don't say you weren't warned.
La bête humaine (1938)
I have to throw in a dissenting voice here. The train shots are fabulous -- thrilling is not too strong a word -- and the realization of the little community formed around the railroad is wonderful. But the individual characters are a profoundly unsympathetic crew, each using his or her suffering (and oh, how they suffer!) as an excuse for behaving very badly. I don't buy it. I doubt the novel was one of Zola's best, and as for Renoir (who is good in his small acting role here), this doesn't hold a candle to La Grande Illusion. Yes, it's the best movie ever made about trains, but the human element makes it fall far short of being a great movie.
Defying Gravity (1997)
Defying Expectations -- and Packing a Punch
Once in a while you run into a movie that packs a wallop not because it is flawless, but in spite of, indeed almost because of, its flaws. I found the first 20 minutes or so of `Defying Gravity' very hard to sit through, and was still uncomfortable halfway through the film. The depiction of frat life seemed all too convincing; how could we have any sympathy for a main character who would buy into such cheesy `male camaraderie' at its most off-putting? (There is a coarse common term for these frat boys and their behavior, but I'll avoid using it here.) Even when the action moved beyond the suffocating atmosphere of the frat house and the tailgate party -- the evocation of said atmosphere being the first sign, perhaps, that writer-director John Keitel knew what he was doing after all -- I had the uneasy feeling I was watching yet another well-intentioned paint-by-numbers Afterschool Special about coming out, especially when the inevitable clichéd gay-bashing (right down to the baseball bats) took place.
But that is precisely when `Defying Gravity' begins to take an unexpected turn, gathering momentum when you least expect it. Once Griff has to face the reality of the consequences of his hiding, this film starts to soar. That's not because the plot ceases to be fairly predictable; it doesn't. What lifts this above most other movies, and certainly many gay-themed flicks, is how squarely and unapologetically it addresses and depicts love in its many forms. There's the true love of friendship between the closeted Griff and the straight, trying-to-understand Todd. (Why is any gay-themed movie with sympathetic straight characters derided as fantasy? Hello! understanding straight friends and family really do happen in `real life.' Talk about self-hatred ) There's a brief, but extremely potent, display of parental love (kudos to Kevin P. Wright as Pete's father). And above all, there's the belated but knockout realization of the love between Griff and Pete, in the final hospital scene and the beautiful little coda the most powerful emotional payoff I've seen onscreen in quite a while. In terms of conviction, it all puts the more recent, vastly overrated "Big Eden," for instance, totally in the shade.
Clearly Mr. Keitel deserves credit for turning this movie around the way he does. And then there's the cast. Nicklaus Lange's finely tuned performance makes Todd a real person, not a buddy wish fulfillment. Don Handfield as Pete has a smaller role than one might anticipate but, crucial to the film's impact, he underplays this more grounded character to perfection. "Defying Gravity" ultimately rests, however, on the shoulders of Daniel Chilson as Griff, and boy does he come through: I see something very different here from those who commented on supposedly amateurish acting. Chilson can do more with his face particularly his endearing, slightly off-kilter smile than many much more highly touted performers. Watch the extraordinarily nuanced play of emotions across that face when Pete's housemate tells Griff `he really cares about you,' and in the aforementioned final two scenes between Griff and Pete. That's what film acting is all about. Bravo, Daniel! When will we see you onscreen again?
something of a gem in the rough
"The Toilers and the Wayfarers" is almost classically "indie" -- shot in grainy black-and-white (perfectly appropriate for its subject matter), set primarily in an obscure milieu (the German-American community in New Ulm, Minnesota) and populated by a cast of complete unknowns. There are moments of almost comic amateurism (would anyone *not* notice Udo's absurd "disguise" when he and Dieter are on the lam?) and gaps in the narrative that prompt you to speculate if writer/director Keith Froelich was simply running out of money. There are also fine moments that make you feel you are watching a particularly absorbing documentary.
The whole effect of the movie is knocked rather pleasantly askew by the casting of Matt Klemp in the starring role of Dieter. He is so movie-star beautiful that it can be a tad distracting (especially in view of how much of his body is frequently on display) and his performance gets off to a rather tentative start. More convincing, initially, are Andrew Woodhouse as the more self-aware Phillip and Ralf Schrig as the conniving Udo. But Klemp slowly comes into his own over the course of the film, charting a fall from innocence that is heartbreaking to watch (note, and possible spoiler: the trailers make this movie seem much more upbeat than it is). By the end Dieter quite literally looks older, sadder and wiser -- credit to Klemp, and to Froelich. Worth seeing, and I hope those involved with this project get more work in movies.
Presque rien (2000)
Am I missing something, or ...
WARNING -- MULTIPLE SPOILER ALERT! ...am I the only one who thinks this movie's fatal flaw is its focus on the character of Mathieu? Cedric offers this self-absorbed, gloomy young man not only a rich sexual experience (depicted with astonishing frankness) but enduring love as well, and what does Mathieu do? He gets all depressed and throws Cedric over for ... what? Honestly, are we supposed to be uplifted by that final sequence? By then I couldn't have cared less what happened to this spoiled brat and his stupid little kitten (and I agree that the cat-and-spaghetti scene is sentimental claptrap, and yucky to boot).
Lifshitz's direction is inexcusable, mangling the narrative so badly that it results in the kind of film that gives "foreign movies" a bad name. Poor Stephane Rideau -- he is so good here that he seems to be in a completely different movie from all the other mopey, dopey characters. What a waste of a fine performance.
All Over the Guy (2001)
Hey, it worked for me!
Well, I wonder: if it had been about two male/female couples (as the play it was based on was), would "All Over the Guy" have gotten such a critical reception? More likely it would've been seen as an honorable, at times sparkling, addition to the screen tradition of romantic comedies -- which is what I think it is. Sure, the characters are wildly neurotic and frequently annoying; so are people in real life, especially when they're in love. Is it distracting that Richard Ruccolo (who does indeed give an exquisitely tuned performance) is so good-looking? Actually, I thought it was necessary; Tom is so screwed up that we need the physical beauty to help relate to him. Do the women steal the movie? Well, with the likes of Andrea Martin, Lisa Kudrow, Christina Ricci and Doris Roberts in support, what do you think -- and how can you lose, especially since Dan Bucatinsky's script is so frequently sharp?
Forget the nay-sayers and see this one. It's a very good romantic comedy, at times maybe even a great one.
Green Plaid Shirt (1996)
Often a nice fit, but a little too frayed
After a slow start, "Green Plaid Shirt" picks up steam and ultimately becomes one of the better fictional films I've seen about the AIDS epidemic and its impact on the gay community. I found it much more convincing and satisfying than, for instance, the more widely publicized and viewed "Longtime Companion," thanks to greater character development, most particularly the character of Philip; Gregory Phelan really carries the movie, in a fine performance.
That said, I wish the copy I saw had had better sound production values -- too often the dialogue was hard to understand, an unnecessary distraction. And there is a certain New-Age-y, California sloppiness (sorry!) to the narrative that creates needless confusion. The chronology seems screwy, and seldom to good effect. Guy's collapse in the kitchen looks more like an epileptic seizure than anything AIDS-related, and it seems to come well before the breakup and reunion. Guy's father comes to visit when he is sick and in an apartment with Philip; so I guess Guy goes into remission before he and Philip buy the house, break up and get back together, but really, who can tell? All this is unfortunate in view of the film's strengths, especially the acting.
As for the garment of the title, its employment frequently seems a contrivance (more "Yellow Rolls-Royce" than "Red Violin" ... hmm, why is there always a color involved?). But it looks good on everyone who wears it, notably Phelan.
Tmavomodrý svet (2001)
They *do* make movies like they used to
Why, oh why, does a film like this not get a broader audience? In case you thought they don't make good old-fashioned war/romance movies anymore, check (Czech? -- sorry) this one out. I won't go over plot points, because others here already have. Suffice it to say that the father-and-son team of Zdenek and Jan Sverak (screenwriter and director, respectively), who gave us "Kolya," one of the best movies of the last few years, have done it again, this time by recycling what could have been (you should pardon the expression) an old warhorse. As in the far less successful and far more expensive "Pearl Harbor," the basic plot here is a steal from the 1927 Oscar winner "Wings"; and as in that quite wonderful movie, aerial action sequences alternate with a love triangle in which two pilots fall for the same woman, though ultimately they love each other more. Ondrej Vetchy was good in "Kolya" and is even better in the lead role here, and Tara Fitzgerald is just fine as the putative love interest; but the film belongs to Krystof Hadek, who is not only breathtakingly beautiful, but also manages to breathe life into what could easily have been a stock character, in the process becoming the heart and soul of the movie. The supporting cast is great, too; I especially liked the contrast of the English vs. the Czech characters. Charles Dance does his usual thing, and well, but my favorite cameo may have been Anna Massey's doughty English teacher, though I give points, too, to Thure Riefenstein for giving a more complex portrayal of a Nazi lieutenant that we are used to. (That said, the film offers a clear indictment of totalitarian regimes, be they Nazi or Communist.)
Added bonus: American audiences especially may learn a thing or two about a piece of history we were never taught. But see this flick for the best of reasons: It's a good old movie-movie.
You Can Count on Me (2000)
A Rorschach Test of a Movie
A quick glimpse at others' comments here confirms what I suspected when I finally caught this flick on video myself -- it is something of a Rorschach test for viewers. I notice that there are people who absolutely identify with Laura Linney's character, Sammy, and others who completely see the film from the point of view of Mark Ruffalo's character, Terry. I think this is a sign of a good film. I myself was prepared to dislike Terry because he seemed such an obvious mess, but the film allows him his own point of view that you come to respect. And I am not a religious person at all -- in fact, I have major issues with organized religion -- but I was impressed with the even-handed, sympathetic treatment of religion here, and also of small-town life -- both very rare in American movies. The cast is uniformly good -- in addition to everybody mentioned in others' comments here, I'd single out Jon Tenney as Sammy's well-meaning, on-again off-again boyfriend -- but Linney was simply phenomenal. See this, if only to see how *you* react to it.
an important piece of history gets its due
There are lots of comparisons in the comments on this site to "JFK," but for me -- an American who is old enough to remember these historical events -- the film that came to mind is "Gandhi." Not because Patrice Lumumba was any Mahatma Gandhi, but because of the rather extraordinary casting of individuals who are practically ringers for the originals (not only Lumumba himself, but also Tshombe, Kasavubu, Baudoin and, creepiest of all, Mobutu) *and* also excellent actors. I was a little suspicious there would be a tendency to make a saint of the protagonist, but I found the film pretty fair on that score -- Lumumba's own arrogance and impulsive mistakes are portrayed as well. These pale, of course, in the face of the duplicity of his enemies, be they European (though the Russians get off the hook a little easy here -- they, too, were playing games in Africa for their own gain), American (the more effectively sinister for being onscreen only briefly) or African. POSSIBLE SPOILER ALERT The ending felt like phony uplift to me, given the current state of Africa generally and Congo especially. But overall this is well worth a look, whether you lived through it or it's all new to you.
Pearl Harbor (2001)
a decidedly mixed bag
MULTIPLE SPOILERS ALERT
OK, I know it's been out nearly 2 months, but I just saw this at the $2.50 movies LOL. It is alternately very good and very bad, blatantly ripping off the "Titanic" formula, from certain shots (overturning ships, floating bodies) to a tragic love story to a power ballad that was obviously supposed to be the next "My Heart Goes On," but isn't. The attack footage is gripping and disturbingly beautiful, almost balletic -- war should never, *ever* be allowed to look this pretty onscreen -- cf. Saving Private Ryan or, even better, the HBO flick When Trumpets Fade starring the highly underrated Ron Eldard. And no movie should ever consist of about 1/3 slo-mo shots. Mr. Bay seems never to have found an effect he didn't like enough to repeat till it ceases to be effective.
As for the love triangle, the very capable Mr. Hartnett plays the whole movie like he's totally in love with Mr. Affleck -- a shrewd and interesting choice. Alas, Mr. Affleck is a total stick (the only worse performance in the movie is the absurdly over-the-top turn by Alec Baldwin). Ms. Beckinsale is excellent -- indeed the whole subplot with the nurses is surprisingly substantive and moving -- but in the climactic scene, she is literally left waiting by the phone.
Worth seeing, but it could have been great -- especially if the filmmakers had trusted the truth of history: America lost this round, and paid dearly for it. Turning it into a "Top Gun" victory ride undercuts everything about the film that works.