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Alias Jesse James (1959)
Looney Tunes Hope
I first saw this move in 1959 as an 11-year-old, and thought it was the funniest thing I had ever seen. When Hope jumps into the back of the buckboard and falls through and can't climb out so he's forced to run to keep up with the horses, his legs were a blur, and I remember laughing so hard my ribs ached.
I'm well past 11 today, and I see things differently. The scene in question evoked not so much as a chuckle from me when I saw it recently, though it was fun to reconnect with such a vivid memory from my childhood. (It was the same sense of deja vu I got watching Gene Autry and the Phantom Empire).
Even by the low movie standards of Bob Hope, this is lesser Hope. He doesn't act in this movie, he monologues. It's one one-liner after another. And, really becomes quite tedious after awhile.
The premise .. not that anyone cares .. Hope plays an insurance agent who sells a policy to Jesse James (played by Wendell Corey, who was terrible). James is a somewhat high-risk customer, so Hope is sent out by his company to protect their investment by protecting James, which puts him at risk from all sorts of people and goings-on, including Jesse James himself. The idea is Hope's character gets into one hopeless situation after another, and comes through without a scratch, oblivious even to what's going on, then offers some awful one-line commentary on what just happened. Repeat for 90 minutes. Boring.
There's a ton of cameos at the end of the picture from many of your favorite western stars: Hugh O'Brien, Ward Bond, James Arness, Gary Cooper, Gail Davis, Fess Parker, Roy Rogers, and many others. All these characters appear without explanation to side Hope's character in the climactic gunfight.
My favorite was Jay Silverheels as Tonto, who plonks one of the James Gang with an arrow in the back, and in the denouement of the picture, this same guy, arrow sticking from his back, gets up and walks meekly off to jail. If you're beginning to feel this was a live action Looney-Tune, you're getting the picture of what this picture was about.
Rhonda Fleming was slumming and stuck in this disaster with Hope, but she never looked lovelier. Lord, but that was a beautiful woman! In addition to the cameos mentioned earlier, this movie featured some of my favorite minor-league players: Jim Davis as Frank James, craggy-faced Will Wright as Hope's boss, and the exotic-looking Gloria Talbot as an Indian princess.
I loved it in spite of myself. 6 out of 10.
The Parent Trap (1998)
This movie is so sweet it should have a warning label for diabetics. Natasha Richardson and Dennis Quaid play divorced parents who more than a decade later are not sure why they divorced. Instead of opting for joint custody, each of them opted for sole custody of one of their twin daughters. The girls grow up never knowing because their parents never said they had an identical twin sibling. When the twins meet in camp and discover who they are, the plot is set in motion.
Richardson and Quaid are wonderful as the likable parents, still very much in love, even after a decade apart. But, the star of this picture and the one on whom the story turns is Lohan. She is bright, perky, adorable, and completely convincing as both Hallie and Annie. If she isn't, this movie falls apart fast. But, not to worry. Lovable Lindsay makes not a single false step.
She is so good, I found myself thinking about the actress, not the character, feeling a twinge of sadness that Lindsay was not more like Hallie and Annie. This is a wonderful movie, almost too sweet at times. It had me in tears at all the right moments: when the twins meet, when they learn they are sisters, when the parents discover they've switched places, and when the parents inevitably reconcile. First rate family entertainment thanks to a star performance from a very young, very talented Lohan.
Sands of Iwo Jima (1949)
The Best War Movie Ever Made
I've not seen every war movie ever made, nor have I seen every performance of John Wayne's, but I remain convinced that this is the best war movie ever made, and Wayne's best performance. Wayne is Stryker, John M., tough-talking Marine sergeant, in charge of a squad of men, and determined to keep them alive, which proves somewhat difficult as these Marines storm the beaches at Guadalcanal, Tarawa and Iwo Jima. Stryker is a man of intense personal longing, first, for his family at home, and then for the men he is charged with leading. And, what makes Sands memorable is we see this longing etched on the face of Wayne in every scene where he appears. This is not one of his B-western walkthroughs. It helps that the lines are so good. There are the usual clichés in any war movie, but the movie also rings true in many scenes. There is an especially poignant one between Stryker and a woman trying to raise an infant son alone. But, most of all, the battle scenes are believable. The famous flag-raising was not one of those scenes, however. This was pure Hollywood, though it was re-enacted by three of the men who did it for real: John Bradley, Rene Gagnon, and Ira Hayes. Two memorable scenes:
1) Two soldiers talking:
First: This is the poorest soil I've ever seen Second: That's war. First: What's war? Second: Trading real estate for men.
Worthless real estate at that.
2) The second scene is of a Jewish soldier who is fatally wounded, whose last words are, "Shema, Yisroel. Adonai elohenu adonai echad." This is part of Deuteronomy 6:4 in Hebrew, and memorable because Hollywood is not a place known for its expression of conventional religious spirituality ..
Basic Instinct 2 (2006)
The Face of Evil
I have looked into the face of evil. She is a woman, and her name is Catherine Trammell (pronounced Tra-MELL). I'll be quoting a lot from other critics here, because I found reading their reviews, they said what I thought better than I could.
First, though, before we go any further, please know that whatever you think of Sharon Stone, or this movie, this is a first rate murder mystery. It is set in London and all the players except Sharon Stone are English .. and, as I watched, I couldn't help thinking this would have been a terrific episode of Mystery! on PBS.
The movie like the psychotic Catherine Tra-MELL, draws you in. At first, you think it's obvious what's going on; then, you're not so sure; then you're sure, and angry at all these stupid people for falling for Catherine's schemes; then, at the end, you're not sure again .. On that level, this movie works.
But, this movie is not at its most .. well, basic .. a mystery. It is a character study of Tra-MELL, and the actress who plays her, and as such, it does not succeed quite as well.
Roger Ebert gives us the first clue to unlocking the mystery of Trammell and Stone: "The Catherine Tramell role cannot be played well, but Sharon Stone can play it badly better than any other actress alive .. " Chris Hewitt delivers another: "Stone, who never raises her voice above a bedroom purr, plays Catherine like she doesn't give a "research" if anyone thinks she's ridiculous. She knows "Basic Instinct 2" is a comedy, and she is the only one in on the joke." This is critical. You buy this, you buy the movie. If you don't, then BI 2 becomes a farce, not a comedy or a murder mystery. Trammell is in a world of her own, and Stone creates that world first in Trammell's own head, then in the shrink's who sees her for what she is and is taken in anyway, then .. in ours.
Owen Glieberman tells us how Catherine weaves her spell: "What counted wasn't the words but the subtext Stone brought to them, her persistent toying glimmer of You know you want to f--- me. Everything else was just talk." This movie is all about subtext. The sexual tension builds .. and builds, and while there is release for some of the characters, usually in death, there is none for us. "It's a treat, " Glieberman says, "to see Stone rev her evil vixen engine again .. " Indeed.
Stone is still a strikingly beautiful woman (and so is Charlotte Rampling who costars, but I digress), and if she were not, the audience wouldn't buy into her character, nor would we believe what we were seeing when the psychiatrist who is treating her, falls under her spell.
The mechanism of seduction was absolutely perfect, down to the smallest detail. Trammell meticulously schemes to seduce her therapist, every line she speaks in session a ploy to arouse his libido .. And, as soon as he shows an interest, she secures the hook in his mouth .. and disappears. "I'm canceling therapy," she says at one point, and briefly drops out of his life. He's hooked.
What is most interesting here is we are not. The psychiatrist who is her foil, her mark, her lover, her boy-toy, and at some moments her enemy .. begins to unravel before our eyes, and it is here where this movie lost me. His helplessness did not ring true.
So, we've come to the end of our Catherine Trammell character study, and it is time to summarize. Is she a serial killer or is she not? The movie does not say, so we are left to decide for ourselves.
But, Roger Ebert and Director Michael Caton-Jones provide the most important insight into her character, when Ebert says of the director: "he alternates smoldering closeups with towering dominatrix poses" Catherine Trammell stands revealed at last: a garden variety dominatrix, whose entire life consists of playing head games with everyone she meets. And, she is very good. Her psychiatrist early on says that she has an "omnipotence" fixation, and we don't understand that at first. By the end of this movie, we know exactly what it means: she is, indeed, the dominatrix, working every circumstance, every emotion, every lapse in judgment into an intricate tapestry of evil in service to her own ends.
I liked Basic Instinct 2. Not a lot, but more than the 15 or 16 other people who saw it .. Call it a guilty pleasure.
L.A. Confidential (1997)
Not What It Seems
Nothing is what it seems, says the tagline for this movie. So, lets look at that for a moment. Some call this movie a film noir for the nineties, and with good reason. It's a story without any good guys, set in a 1950's world where crime and corruption are a way of life, with plenty of night scenes and scenes in the rain, so, aside from the fact that it's in color, it *looks* like a film noir.
But, this movie doesn't have a femme fatale. Oh, it has a pretender for that title, but somewhere about two thirds of the way through this movie, Lynn Bracken, gorgeous and worldly but jaded hooker, played wonderfully by Kim Basinger, says this:
Lynn Bracken: I see Bud because I want to. I see Bud because he can't hide the good inside of him. I see Bud because he treats me like Lynn Bracken and not some Veronica Lake look-alike who *bleep* for money.
No woman who sees the good inside a man can be a femme fatale, because a femme fatale never sees any good inside a man; they're only interested in the bad. So, forget this movie as a modern day film noir. It seems like one, but it is not what it seems.
Nor is anything else in this movie what it seems. It's impossible to say more without spoiler warnings, because no matter what I say, the very act of talking about this movie gives away some of its surprises. But, let me say just a word about each of the characters.
Lynn Bracken - we first see her as a high class, uncaring whore made to look like Veronica Lake, but by movie's end, she'll morph into someone we never expect.
Bud White - we first see him as a brutal, sadistic, amoral cop, whose idea of justice is planting or faking evidence to insure the guilty are punished.
Captain Dudley Smith - who says all the right things, and does all the wrong ones. Or is it the other way around?
Ed Exley - smarmy, weaselly, facile, disingenuous cop on the make, trying to dig out from the legacy of his policeman father, killed in the line of duty. In a world of disgusting, unlikable people, I disliked him the most.
Jack Vincennes - if Bud White is this movie's Mark Fuhrman, then Jack Vincennes is its Joseph Wambaugh: celebrity cop, consultant on a police television show that looks suspiciously like Dragnet, flashy dresser, who pays for his clothes and his extravagant lifestyle with money received from bribes.
As the movie unfolds, each of the three cops is working on a particular case that is personally important. To solve that case, each of the three must help the others solve theirs in exchange for the support of the other two. In the end, and I hope I'm not spoiling too much by saying this, they learn as do we that they were all working on the same case.
This is masterful storytelling, each plot-point slowly and inexorably linked to the others to form a cohesive, sordid world of corruption, manipulation, betrayal, graft and murder. It is one of the best movies I've ever seen, and Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, James Cromwell and Kim Basinger give the performances of their careers. A solid 9 out of 10.
Holiday Inn (1942)
This is not a Christmas picture; nor are its stars Crosby and Astaire. It is a movie for any holiday, though it will always be associated with Christmas, because it marks the debut of Irving Berlin's most memorable song, out of hundreds of memorable songs. White Christmas won an Oscar, and deservedly so, but this movie also features Berlin's Easter Parade, which I love as much, and other songs associated with Valentine's Day, Thanksgiving, and Independence Day. Not as well known, but they are Berlin songs, so you know they are well done. The music is the real star of this picture.
One of the songs deserves special mention. It is titled Abraham, and is offered as a tribute to Abraham Lincoln, whose birthday is celebrated, and it is sung in blackface. The song is usually excised when this movie is shown on television, out of fear of offending modern audiences with modern sensibilities about race. It doesn't seem fair somehow to apply those modern sensibilities to this movie. The song should be judged in the context of its times by those who lived through those times.
Crosby is in fine voice; Astaire is graceful and energetic, though an unconvincing drunk, and I enjoyed the performances of the women who had supporting roles: Virginia Dale and Marjorie Reynolds. Neither is a household name today, but both were fine in this movie, holding their own with their better known co-stars. Reynolds is particularly good singing White Christmas with Crosby. I do not wish to be seen as knocking the movie, White Christmas. It is a holiday staple, and rightly so, but truth of the matter is, this movie is better. It is on my must-see list every Christmas from now on. Highly recommended.
Casino Royale (2006)
Yes, the name is Bond, James Bond ..
If it did nothing else, Casino Royale proved that there is still creative life in the franchise. Cold war or no, Bond still has something to say, is still relevant, and can still impress the hell out of us. The only question to answer is whether James Bond still plays in Peoria, and the opening numbers suggest he does.
I think what surprised me most about Craig's Bond is how human he was. He has feelings; he can be reached.. and hurt. He gets tired, scared, desperate, makes mistakes, and worst of all, seems fallible to those around him. To M early on, and Vesper later. How so very different from his predecessors. I like the change. I like the athletic Bond, too. This was one really bad dude, and we knew that long before we saw his pecs.
I find myself thinking that Craig's Bond fits in the Bond canon like Powell's Marlowe fits in the Marlowe canon: resourceful, courageous, smart, and dangerous, but also real and human. What makes him most human is that he is not above being debased by the dirty job he has to do. All the killing, the lies, the stolen moments, the dangers ultimately take their toll, and the Bond we see in the denouement in Venice evokes our pity.
A very good movie: one of the two or three best in the canon, and a solid 8.5 out of 10.
Double Indemnity (1944)
The difference between a film noir and a mystery is that in a mystery everyone wonders who did it; in a film noir, everyone knows. The difference between a film noir and a caper flick is that in a caper flick what commands our attention is the details of the crime; in a film noir, things don't get interesting until after the crime.
Here in Double Indemnity two rotten people conspire to commit murder. "We're both rotten," she says. "You're a little more rotten," he replies. Not that it matters, which of them is worse. It is their fundamental character that moves them to plan the crime, and energizes them to go through with it. And, it is their lack of character which proves their undoing.
The murder weighs on them as the investigation proceeds, and they live in fear of being found out. Not only are they being trailed by a canny insurance investigator, who slowly unravels the crime, but they cannot be together for fear of arousing suspicion. And, suspicion is exactly what gets aroused. Walter and Phyllis begin to suspect each other, begin to conspire to implicate each other, creating a different kind of insurance policy, one that would allow each to escape from the plot they had hatched, leaving the other to take the fall. Here .. here is where Double Indemnity earns its reputation as a masterpiece: we see the emotional consequences of a deed so terrible, neither guilty party can live with it, and we live inside their heads and hearts as their well-laid plans and dreams for happiness turn to dust at their feet. I don't remember any movie where the tormented inner psyche of two persons is more clearly seen than here.
Finally, in the piece de resistance we learn just what Walter and Phyllis are really capable of in the best scene of the movie at the Dietrichson home, where Walter goes to tell Phyllis he's leaving. We see their fear, deceit, distrust, anxiety, and pain all come to the surface and explode in what is the ultimate solution in every noir predicament: gunfire. It's difficult in some respects to talk about this movie, because it is so tightly plotted. Unlike many noir masterpieces, like Out of the Past, for example, all the complex plot points tie together into a cohesive whole. I'm tempted to want to summarize those points, to show why Phyllis and Walter became so frightened, but watching their schemes come undone a point at a time is what creates this movie's tension, and it's something that should be experienced, not analyzed.
I should close with a footnote about Barbara Stanwyck. She wears a wig throughout this picture that some think looks terrible. Billy Wilder himself said it looked terrible. Some people think she didn't have the looks to pull off a role as an alluring, manipulative femme fatale. She sold me. To take another quote from a completely different context: she had me at hello. I had no problem believing that men would kill for this woman.
If you're reading this and have never seen Double Indemnity, see it and marvel at its many superiorities to movies of today. It is a masterpiece, and a solid 9 out of 10.
Batman & Robin (1997)
The Best of the Four
Of the Burton/Schumacher movies ..
Batman, Batman Returns, Batman Forever, Batman and Robin
this is the best of the four. You heard me: the best. It's not a perfect movie, by any means, but it has some really wonderful moments that I'll get to in a minute. I think that those who disliked this movie so intensely went into it expecting something else. For what it was, it was fine enough ..
Surprises in this movie:
Arnold Schwarzenegger can act.
Elle Macpherson can act.
Alicia Silverstone can really act
Michael Gough can really, really act.
His Alfred Pennyworth steals this movie out from under the bigger-named stars and super-heroic derring-do.
Vendela Kirsebom Thomessen looks good, even pickled in brine. Two Sports Illustrated swimsuit models in one movie not about Sports Illustrated or swimsuits has to be a first ..
The movie's best moment is the introduction of Poison Ivy ..as an instrumental version of the Coasters' hit played in the background! Now, *that's entertainment*! Ivy was the only character that didn't work for me. I loved her as the femme fatale who charmed her admirers with the pheromone dust, but she was a bit too psychotic. Nice stems, though. And buds.
Schwarzenegger was fine as Freeze: too small, maybe, but he caught the sense of the character as I saw him just fine. When I looked, I saw Mr. Freeze, not Ah-nuld playing at being Mr. Freeze.
This movie reminded me of Superman I in a lot of ways. The super-heroic derring-do and the super-villainous nefarious schemes were played to the hilt as cartoon-ish as possible. Outlandish, bizarre, too warped to be believed: freezing an entire city with an overgrown ray-gun .. Come on!
But, where this movie redeems itself is in its moments at Wayne manor. Those were touching, warm, funny and very moving. I bought into the relationships of Bruce to Alfred, Bruce to Dick, and Barbara to Alfred. They seemed like real people.. a strange thing to say about a Batman movie to be sure .. that I cared about. Bruce calling Julie "Ivy" at one point was a nice touch.
Director Schumacher has been caught up in the fan angst over this movie, because I've heard elsewhere that he has badmouthed his own movie. I don't share his feeling, or that of the rest of the IMDb. I've been reading comic books for five decades, and seen all the iterations of Batman. This one wasn't bad. I have the DVD, and I'll watch it again.
This is the story of American volunteers who fought for the French during World War I before America entered the war. It is based on a true story, and largely faithful to that story. The first world war was the first "ugly" war. It is the first war where, as one of the characters observes, "Neither side will win. It will just end." And, this movie does not shrink away from showing the horror, the ugliness, and the overwhelming grimness of war.
Because the special effects made it possible, more than any movie in recent memory, it graphically shows the excitement and the adrenaline rush of combat flying. The combat sequences are nothing short of dazzling; they were so good I could experience vicariously the rush of bullets tearing through cloth fuselages, the spins and turns, and dips and climbs, and barrel rolls, and dives, and with all that, I could look inside myself and know I did not have the courage to do what they did. In the end, that's what this story is about, and the love story, the individual pilot lives fade into the background.
Still, it's worth noting, one of the movie's best moments is the denouement where we learn what happened to the Americans of the Lafayette Escadrille, those who survived. I won't spoil it for you, just know that truth is stranger than fiction, and often a good deal sadder. I enjoyed Flyboys for what it was: the chance to vicariously experience the adrenaline rush of aerial combat. Performances were good, and Jean Reno was great as the captain of the Lafayette Escadrille. Nice popcorn flick.
When Dreams Die
This movie is part mystery and part documentary, and something of a movie within a movie. Adrien Brody plays a fictional private investigator looking into the death of real-life actor George Reeves. Reeves, according to the official police account, committed suicide on June 16, 1959. There was some conjecture both then and now that it wasn't suicide but murder, and the exploration of these alternate theories is the dramatic hook that lures us into the sordid and sad life of George Reeves, he of faster-than-a-speeding-bullet-fame.
With one exception, I did not care about the detective story. I only went to the movie because I had assurances from others that had seen it that it did not sensationalize or trivialize the account of Reeves' death, meaning "it did not go all National Enquirer on us." That exception centers on the son of the investigator, who learns of the death of Reeves, and becomes terribly sad without understanding why. There were a lot of kids like that, that sad day in June 1959. I know because I was one of them, and I discovered after seeing this movie that I'm still working through my feelings over the death of this man. It wasn't for Reeves that we cried; we didn't know the man. So, what was it then? This is a question I wish the movie had explored at more length.
As the movie went on, we see more and more into the life of the actor behind the hero, and it's not a very pretty sight. Reeves' aspirations as an actor ("I'd settle for the career of Clark Gable," he says) and his failure to realize those dreams were what drove him to suicide.
Toward the end of the picture, his agent asks rhetorically, "The place where he ended up, was it so bad?" And, this - not the murder investigation - is the lynchpin on which this picture hangs, and gives it its pathos. The great failure and the great tragedy of his life is that George Reeves failed to appreciate what he had. In that regard, he was very much different from Clayton Moore, whose acting career followed a similar track. Moore loved playing the Lone Ranger, embraced being typecast (enough to make dozens, maybe hundreds of appearances in character). Reeves came to hate Superman, burns his costume when he learns the show is canceled, becomes despondent over being typecast which halts his acting career, and is dead at 45 by his own hand.
The little boy almost half a century ago was resentful over the intrusion of a painful and ugly reality into his idealized fantasy world. The middle aged man who watched this movie left the theater sad over one man's failure to deal with a pivotal moment in his life, the moment when dreams die.
My Super Ex-Girlfriend (2006)
Look, It's G-Girl!
This movie answers the question, how does a relationship survive when your girlfriend is codependent, clinging, needy, jealous .. and has powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal women?
Without spoiling the movie, I can safely assure you it does not, but there's great fun to be had along the way. Uma Thurman is perfect as the mercurial super-heroine, an uber-babe, mysteriously named G-Girl, who unlike most in her sisterhood, is not *always* dedicated to truth, justice, and the American Way.
Thurman is also believable as the thoroughly daft, yet somehow still fetching, curator Jenny. When she is dumped for a less endowed but more emotionally secure and well adjusted rival, G-Girl goes ballistic, and what follows is not pretty. It's funny, but it's not pretty ..
It's a delightful premise, hell hath no fury like a super-heroine scorned, and those involved don't altogether carry it off, but it has its moments, and I think I'll get the DVD.
I liked this movie ..
The Set-Up (1949)
Not Very Sweet Science
This movie is Raging Bull before there was Raging Bull. Robert Ryan is brilliant as the on-his-way-down fighter, Stoker Thompson. I refuse to call him washed-up or has-been, because he isn't.
Stoker is the only person in this grim film-noir universe who is living in a dream. He believes he is 'just one punch' away from a title fight, and nothing - not his age, not his uncaring manager, his weaselly corner-man (played by Percy Helton, one of my favorite character actors) will dissuade him.
Stoker takes a beating in the ring, but never surrenders his dream. And, that is what gives this movie its pathos - that Stoker cannot see what everyone around him sees - that it's time to let the dream die.
Audrey Totter is wonderful as Stoker's loving and long-suffering wife. She never sees her husband's final fight, and Stoker feels betrayed or abandoned, but she is there for him in the end. And, because this movie ends happily, I have some difficulty accepting it as a noir.
On the other hand, there is Little Boy, the hood, played with greasy smarminess by Alan Baxter, who has fixed the fight. And, it seems that everyone except Stoker is either in on the fix, or indifferent to it. For a lot of years, boxing was beset by scandal, to the point where the spectator could no longer tell when the outcome was staged. Set-up, indeed. It is one of the cornerstones of noir that society is corrupt, so maybe this movie qualifies after all.
I liked this movie. It is one of the best movies about boxing ever made, both because of its storyline, and because of the exquisitely choreographed fight sequences. Ryan and his opponent had actual boxing experience, and it certainly showed here: this is brutal.
There have been so many great movies about boxing that it's hard to pick a best one. I suppose the smart money is on Raging Bull, but I wouldn't bet against this movie, and its hero, Stoker Thompson. Remember, Stoker won tonight. His wife, Julie, reminds him, "We both won tonight." I won tonight watching this movie, too.
A Prairie Home Companion (2006)
The Spirit of Lake Woebegon
This is a movie that tries to live up to the motto of Lake Woebegon, a place where the women are strong, the men are handsome, and the children are all above average. It largely succeeds.
This simple, charming movie is just like any broadcast of a Prairie Home Companion. If you've ever heard the radio show, you know exactly what this movie is about, so there is no way to spoil it. Think of it as just another radio broadcast .. with pictures! What is amazing about this movie is that Keillor - a gifted actor as well as writer - has been doing his weird shtick for more than 30 years. I am simply amazed that all this zaniness came from the mind of one man ..
The only place this movie fails is where it tries to introduce extraneous elements. I never saw any compelling dramatic reason why this had to be the last broadcast .. The whole business about the Axeman and the Angel of Death hearkened back to an old Twilight Zone episode, and wasn't nearly as well done.
Altman's contribution is his characteristic penchant for characters all talking at once and nobody (even us) listening, and his seamless visual style of following first this character then that one around the stage where the show is broadcast. You get a feel for the zaniness backstage at any theatrical production, especially this one, and you really feel that it is your eyes following the action.
I liked the jaded Keillor's attitude toward cues .. his gift for holding a thought or a conversation to the very last second, then segueing effortlessly into a commercial for Powdermilk Biscuits, or some other piece of business. The timing is literally split-second, and great fun, almost like you're being let in on a joke ..
The canned commercials for non-existent products, the new twists on old songs ("Hey, isn't that..?" "That's the music, but the words are all wrong!"), and the wonderful goofiness of Keillor's mind as he brings it all to life are all quite charming.
But, I genuinely believe you need a context to enjoy Prairie Home Companion. If you've not seen the show, this comes across as sketch comedy about sketch comedy. But, if you've heard the radio broadcast, well, lets just say it's nice to have the pictures to finally go with the words and music ..
King Kong (2005)
Beauty and the Beast
This is a wonderful homage to a wonderful old movie. It doesn't have a lot of its own to commend it, but it really doesn't need anything. It's obvious to anyone who has seen the original that Peter Jackson loves the movie. And, that love helps to carry this remake in its slow and tedious moments. So, King Kong (2005) works for me, and I think it will work for most who see it, especially those who've seen the original.
Some cast comments: Adrien Brody was wonderful as Driscoll. There is a poignant scene in a theater where the triumphant Denham is recounting their jungle adventure. The scene is mostly a closeup of Brody, whose face speaks volumes in response to Denham's delusional account of what happened on Skull Island.
I agree with most who feel that Jack Black was miscast as Denham. He captured the sleazy con man fine, but not the pompous and pretentious auteur. Oh, he tries. He's just not believable as a filmmaker. If he was trying to recollect or channel Orson Welles, it was a pretty feeble attempt. Might have helped, I would think, if we had seen some ersatz footage of Denham from another project.
The real star of this movie is Naomi Watts as Ann Darrow. I read elsewhere that Watts and Jackson went to visit Fay Wray before she died, and Wray's opinion was that, "Ann Darrow is in good hands." I've also heard it said that the 1933 movie was Denham's story, the 1976 remake was the ape's, and Peter Jackson's homage is Ann Darrow's. I agree with these assessments completely.
Watts is radiant, luminous, too beautiful to bear as Ann. I think her best scene occurs near the end of the movie when she realizes that Kong has escaped, and that she has to meet him. Her walk down the street and out of the light to where the ape was wreaking havoc, so deliberate, so determined, so courageous, and self-assured is one of the really great scenes of 2005.
I don't agree with Roger Ebert that KK is one of the best movies of the year. And, I take exception with the significance he attaches to the bonding scene at Kong's lair. But, I like this movie, and it's clear to me that Peter Jackson loves the original. Nicely done.
A Good Holmes, A Mediocre Story
Stage, screen, and television adaptations or features using Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's characters turn on one simple, inescapable point: do we believe the actor as Holmes? If the answer is yes, then a bad story is still pretty good. If the answer is no, then whatever other attractions the story holds are worthless.
The answer here is clearly yes: Rupert Everett is very good as Sherlock Holmes. The transfer from print to screen is almost flawless. If anything, too much is made of Holmes' obvious flaws as a human being: his recreational drug use, patronizing arrogance, indifference to the feelings of others, preoccupation with the workings of his own mind. This Holmes reminds me of Dorian Gray. It is only his love of solving crimes that keeps him from committing them.
The story is pretty pedestrian. This isn't quite as bad as "the butler did it," but it's close. I won't spoil the movie as others here have by saying more. I liked the scenes where Holmes is reasoning out who the killer is. This was clever, unforeseen, and quite believable. But, from the time the chief suspect is identified, until he was finally caught .. the entire climax of the movie, in other words .. was ..well, trite, clichéd, and elementary, my dear Watson ..
Kudos to Helen McCrory and Perdita Weeks in supporting performances.
Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005)
Killing Me Not So Softly
This is a movie about two contract killers who are married to each other, and implausible as it may seem, it is not a caper flick, or a crime story, but a domestic comedy. Roger Ebert in his review is spot-on: the only reason this movie exists is to see Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie together. So strong is their chemistry that it relegates the flying bullets, impossible plot, and preposterous posturing to the background.
The movie opens in a marriage counselor's office, which sets the tone for everything that follows, namely, what their occupations and deceitfulness do to their marriage. The incongruity of all the murder for hire machinations is simply to be dismissed as irrelevant to the real business at hand. And, from the quotes section for this movie is a sampling of what this movie is about:
John Smith: Your aim's as bad as your cooking sweetheart... and that's saying something!
Jane Smith: Happy endings are just stories that haven't finished.
(about the new curtains Jane bought) Jane Smith: If you don't like them just say so and we can take them back. John Smith: All right, I don't like them. Jane Smith: Learn to live with them.
Counselor: How often do you have sex? Jane Smith: I don't understand the question.
Jane Smith: There's this huge space between us, and it just keeps filling up with whatever we don't say to each other. What's that called? Counselor: Marriage.
Eddie: This broad is not your wife; she's the enemy. John Smith: She tried to kill me. Eddie: They all try to kill you. Slowly, painfully, cripplingly. How you going to handle it? John Smith: (grabs assault rifle) I'm going to borrow this. Eddie: I like where your head's at, man.
Therapist: How long have you been married? John Smith: Five years Jane Smith: Six years. John Smith: (chastened) Five or six years.
Jane Smith: Any last words? John Smith: The new curtains are hideous.
It is offensive to my personal sense of morality that the occupation of the two likable protagonists is never examined. To the credit of the screenplay, they only kill "bad" people thugs and gangsters and such, so we never catch any hint of dystopian fatalism. Think Adam's Rib or When Harry Met Sally with gunplay, and you have pretty much the essence of this movie. I liked it in spite of myself. Miss Jolie is now officially on my list of hot actresses .. Recommended
Not "the best B-movie ever made"
Not "the greatest B movie ever made" - as one critic claims, but it has its moments. It is arguably unique for its time, but as film noirs go, it is pretty ordinary, following many noir conventions. Some of the rules of film noir:
1) People are rotten, and women are the rottenest people. 2) Society lives by rule #1, so people always believe the worst about each other 3) At the bottom of every man's trouble is a very bad woman 4) People are weak and stupid, and men are the weakest and stupidest 5) Evil schemes never succeed. 6) Things are the worst when they look the best.
Life has always been tough for Al Roberts, but he never realizes just how tough life can be until it's too late. His troubles begin when his girlfriend dumps him and heads for Hollywood to become a star. His first mistake is deciding to follow her. In his circumstances, the only way he can get to Hollywood is by hitch-hiking.
He is picked up by a gambler who offers to take him all the way to California, and in appreciation he agrees to share the driving. Things are looking good (see rule #6), so we know this is where it starts to get interesting. And stupid.
The gambler dies of natural causes (fortunately, he wasn't driving) and instead of calling the police, Al decides to rob him, bury him, and take his car, on the grounds that the police would never believe him if he told the truth. See rule #2 above.
Although frightened that someone will find out his secret, and turn him into the police, Al nevertheless decides to pass the kindness of the driver who stopped for him onto someone else. So, he stops and picks up a hitch-hiker, a woman no less. See rule #1 and rule #4.
This movie has one great moment that redeems all the craziness of its dysfunctional universe, and that is when Al - and the audience - realize that his passenger *knows* .. knows what happened to the gambler who gave him a ride. I won't spoil it for those who haven't seen it. I'll just say it's one of the best plot twists ever ..
From this point forward, Al is under this woman's control. He dances to her tune, and she has all sorts of plans for him, most of which would not pass close legal scrutiny. See rules #3 and #4.
There is another priceless moment in this movie that'll you'll miss if you blink. Al and Vera, the woman hitch-hiker, are in LA, and have rented an apartment. They make a liquor run for their supper, and after finishing the bottle, Vera announces "I'm going to bed" and puts her hand on Al's shoulder in an unmistakable "care-to-join-me?" gesture. Al's a wuss, but even he has enough spine to pass this invitation. See rules #1 and #3, though Al's response here belies rule #4.
So, is Detour a good movie, or not? Yes, it's a good movie, but it is not a great one. What makes the movie special are the elements that cannot be described, only appreciated while watching the movie. For a non-existent budget and a six-day shooting schedule, Detour is a masterpiece. I can't imagine a better movie being made under similar trying circumstances.
From All Movie Guide: "Directer Ulmer .. succeeds in creating a memorable, dark, nightmare world, uncaring, cynical and brutal. "
I thought every part of the theatrical elements of this story were masterfully done. I love the amoral, fatalistic, decadent ambiance of film noir, and this movie certainly has that.
But, the whole movie turns on a plot point that will not hold: Al thinks that no one would believe him if he told the truth about the man who gave him a ride. In a film noir universe, that may be true; in the real world, it is not, so I cannot buy into the movie experience at the most pivotal point of the story. For that reason, I can only rate Detour a 6 out of 10. Still, it is a remarkable movie given the circumstances under which it was produced.
The Incredibles (2004)
The First Bob Super Hero
This movie is a classic homage to super hero shtick. As a lifelong reader of comic books, I spent a fair amount of mental energy ticking off producer Bird's various hero tributes. I won't spoil the movie by listing those here, just point out for those thinking this is a kid's movie, that it certainly is not.
Holly Hunter was wonderful as Helen. The animation and voice overs were so good in spots, I stopped seeing this movie as a cartoon. Bob and Helen really love each other, and their kids, and Helen's solicitude for her family is the most touching element of this picture.
Samuel L. Jackson gets far too little to do as Frozone. "Honey, where's my super suit?" A line that 60 years from now will be as endearing as "Here's looking at you, kid .. "
Violet (the Invisible Girl clone) and her coming of age was touching and poignant to watch. Her gawkiness, and timidity, painfully shy, her contentious relationship with her brother, her first failure which gave rise to her ultimate victory not just over villainy but over the vicissitudes of life was charming. *So* poignant, it tugged at your heart.
You'll notice I haven't said a lot about the special effects, or the battle sequences. These are the hook that draws many to see the movie, but they are not what is most memorable about it. What makes The Incredibles ..well, incredible .. is how fully realized they are as people, with real feelings, real aspirations, real successes and failures, and real frustrations and disappointments.
Can't wait for Incredibles 2: Attack of the Underminer!
Hollow Triumph (1948)
Victor Laszlo is a crook
Paul Henreid is in every single scene of this movie, and it's hard not to think of him in his most famous role, and to impose that image onto this picture. Henreid's thick accent is a distraction that really robs this movie of some of its charm.
But, the plot twists make up for everything. One takes place in a photo shop, and its significance is immediately apparent. The other is the ending which caught me totally by surprise. I can't say anymore for fear of spoiling it for those who haven't seen it, but I will pause to note how no other commentator here has bothered to note the *irony* of how Laszlo .. er Muller .. er Bartok met his end.
Joan Bennett is terrific here, as a cynical, vulnerable, rather sarcastic secretary who shows herself to be an astute judge of character, though not as hard-hearted as she'd have us believe. Leslie Brooks .. the exquisitely eye-lined Leslie Brooks .. is wasted here.
This is a tedious, hum-drum movie except in the moments when Henreid and Bennett are together on screen, but that wonderful ending is one of the best you'll ever see. 7 out of 10.
It's a Saturday in 1939 and ..
Gwyneth Paltrow is stunning, sexy, larger than life, and thoroughly convincing as enterprising reporter Polly Perkins. Jude Law is a bit less convincing, but he is generally fine as action hero Joe Sullivan. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is simply one of the best movies you'll see this year.
The movie's weak link is Angelina Jolie as the Brit super soldier. Her accent is juvenile, and wouldn't convince a group of ten-year olds. Ms. Jolie, when she is on, is simply one of the best actresses in the world. When she is off, she is way off. She's off here. Gwinny acts rings around her, and wins any comparison between the two.
The movie is almost all CGI, but it was very good CGI. My only complaint is the hurried pace, like it was made for adolescents persuaded that any shot that lasts more than two seconds is terminally boring. Coming from a movie history where the dramatic pace is less frantic, all this blink-and-it's-gone scene switching is impossible to endure.
But, the scope of this movie almost defies description. The villain is one Dr. Totenkopf, a typically mad scientist, who is out to remake the world in his image since his present world has shown itself irredeemably evil. The man's financial resources are beyond counting. There isn't a government on earth that could finance this army of robots and aerial assault craft, and we are asked to believe he put it all together between the end of World War I and the start of World War II.
The movie refers to the Great War twice as World War I, which is incongruous and a bit hard to accept. While I was not around in the late 30's, I always thought the reference to the two great global wars of the past century with Roman numerals did not begin till after the second of them had ended. One mention I could dismiss as a mistake; twice is deliberate. This is rather patronizing toward the audience, but is also a minor flaw. There are other anachronisms and problems with this picture: any serious reader of comic books knows the ones shown weren't from the 30's, but these are minor as well.
Paltrow emerges from this movie as a true *star*, a throwback to the kinds of movie stars produced by the old studio system. I fell completely under her spell, and you will, too. Sky Captain, its minor quibbles aside, is a solid 9 out of 10.
Out of the Past (1947)
Some say this plot is complicated and almost impossible to follow. It's hardly that. It's so simple a child can understand it. Everybody dies, and the story elegantly shows each character moving inexorably, often knowing and unable to halt the march to his her] ultimate destiny.
Jane Greer is awesome as the femme fatale. We see her first as young and beautiful, "walking out of the sunlight", and we, like Robert Mitchum's character, fall under her spell. But, as the story unfolds, Greer's Kathie Moffett reveals more of her dark side, and she is no one to cross, because her ultimate solution to any problem is gunfire.
But, do not suppose that Moffett is a stereotype, for this femme fatale is a complex character, a strong woman, trying to make her way in a man's world, controlling, conniving, manipulative and devious, but often forced into these schemes, and also a woman deeply in love. And, at its heart, this movie is a story of love gone wrong. In the end, Jeff and Kathie's love for one another is poisoned by deceit, distrust, and suspicion.
Toward the end, it looks like they may get away from the gangster, played wonderfully by Kirk Douglas, who brought them together, and make a life for themselves. But, this is a film noir universe, where no one lives happily ever after. One more betrayal, and the tragic lovers meet their inevitable end.
Out of the Past is stylish, witty, beautiful in a decadent sort of noir way, and the characters are complex, interesting, and with great depth. It is one of the best film noirs ever done, a must have and must see for anyone who loves the genre. A solid 9 out of 10.
The SETI Phone Rings, and ..
This movie is told in three parts. The first, and weakest of the three, is an affected, clumsy study in mob behavior. The spaceship lands, Klaatu appears, and every reaction to his appearance is either an attempt to get closer out of some lurid curiosity, or suspicious fear bordering on paranoia. The alien Klaatu is shot within moments of disembarking his ship.
There is some real truth here about why we might not want to answer the SETI telephone when and if it rings, but it is shallow, unsophisticated and undeveloped.
The middle is a standard caper flick with the alien and the boy who befriends him on the run, as it were, seeing the sights of Washington DC. They walk everywhere. While it's possible to do that, I know because I have, it's not particularly plausible. When my attention is drawn to insignificant little details like that, the details are not insignificant.
The final third, everything from the blackout to closing credits, is the sci-fi thriller we all love. Bernard Herrmann's score is eerie, atonal, and annoying early-on, trying to build mystery, mood and suspense, I suppose. It undermined rather than developed the suspense, but in the last part of the film, the music changed, and was much more effective.
Part Three has many of the parts we love: the worldwide blackout; Gort on the prowl, vaporizing two guards (a moment when we suddenly realize Klaatu's quest is deadly serious business); Klaatu's death and resurrection, and that wonderful line about the "Almighty Spirit" associated with it; and, of course, the magnificent closing soliloquy: "Join us .. or be obliterated.!"
Michael Rennie is terrific here. Yes, he is wooden, unable to move, it would appear, from the waist up, but that stiffness is a very believable quality in this role as an alien trying to pass as human. I thought Sam Jaffe as the Professor, and Frank Conroy (uncredited) as the President's Secretary were also very good in supporting roles.
7 out of 10, but I wanted to like it so much more.
We Don't Dare to Go to Sleep
Don't sleep. Never go to sleep, because when you close your eyes, they come. They come and snatch your mind away. And, you never wake up. Your memories come to life in another body that looks like you, and acts like you, but it's not you. It's a pod-person from outer space who has reproduced himself as you. This is the terror of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, one of the most dystopian, and original, science fiction stories ever written.
The DVD includes a 1985 interview with Kevin McCarthy, who says he never thought the film had any symbolism or allegorical message. "That came later," he says. He quotes author Jack Finney as saying he [Finney] never wrote it that way. I saw this movie in 1956, it is likely the first movie I ever saw in a theater, and never felt then or now that it has any symbolic meaning. It's a scary story that flat out rocks, and I recommend you approach it as such.
But, this does beg the question of all those comments about the aliens who don't need love or any emotion, who believe humanity is better off without them. Why are they in the script, and what do they mean? I want to suggest they are what makes the pod-people scary. The notion of assimilation is inherently scary, of course, and one could argue that no embellishment is necessary, but I think the story as a story is weakened without it.
There is a continuity error in this story that has bothered me for more than forty years. Spoiler alert, just in case. In the final sequence, Becky falls asleep, just for a moment, and wakes up a pod person, but that's not how the assimilation takes place. They come at night during sleep and snatch human memories that are migrated into a copy of the original body. Miles speculates that the original body simply disintegrates, and the soul perishes. Becky should have died, and another Becky with her memories should have appeared, but that body should never have regained consciousness as a pod person or human. A minor nit, really, that bothers me less now that I understand it is a nit.
The original movie does not contain the opening scene at the hospital, or the epilogue, also at the hospital. They were added because the studio felt the original ending was too depressing. Some feel these additions do not work, but I am not one of them. They add considerably, in fact, to the power of this story. Miles' face in the closing scene is a vivid memory I've carried for almost half a century. His reaction is a catharsis for him personally and his audience. It's a powerful vicarious emotional experience, and the movie would be not nearly as good without it.
Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter are outstanding here. Wynter is one of the most beautiful women ever to appear onscreen and her first entrance is stunning. Jean Willes and King Donovan are good in supporting roles. This is one of the best pictures of its year, of its decade, and dare I say it, of all time. 9 out of 10.
The Passion of the Christ (2004)
A flawed effort with a few memorable moments ..
It seems foolish somehow to put a spoilers warning in this review, since most know how this story unfolds, but nevertheless be aware that there may be a few spoilers for those who haven't seen this movie.
PASSION is not a bad film, but it is not a great one, either. My first and broadest impression is that what Quentin Tarantino did for gangster movies, and Sam Peckinpah did for westerns, Mel Gibson does for passion plays. This movie is a celebration of violence. The counter might be made that the story is violent, and so it is. But, this movie is excess by any standard I understand.
But, there is one important difference between Gibson's PASSION and other similarly violent pictures. The victim of violence in the PASSION is resurrected from the dead. In one of the movie's final moments, we see a triumphant Jesus awaken as if from sleep, serene and completely healed. We know that this is how it happened, but it seemed important somehow in light of the relentless violence of this movie to see that within the movie. It ameliorates what we saw in the preceding two hours.
To Gibson's credit, he is largely faithful to the Gospel accounts. The last half hour .. all of the scenes from the second appearance before Pilate to the crucifixion on Golgotha are just wonderful. I was haunted by the sights, but more so by the words. It was literally hearing the Bible brought to life, and that alone redeems this picture.
But, Gibson makes a number of divergences from the Gospel account, drawing from non-canonical sources, in particular one Anne Catherine Emmerich, a nineteenth century writer. The following scenes come from these writings: 1) Satan's temptations of Jesus at Gethsemane; 2) Jesus confronting Judas after the arrest; 3) Pilate's wife, Claudia Procles, bringing some cloths to Mary; 4) a crow poking out the eyes of the unrepentant thief on the cross and 5) the waterfall of blood pouring from Jesus' side.
Few of these divergences added anything to the story. What's important to note here is that in almost every case where Gibson chose to stray from the Gospel account, the change was toward the violent, the melancholy, or the desperate. He set an unequivocally, ineluctably despairing tone to this entire account. The Garden of Gethsemane looked like Transylvania at night with the undead on the prowl. Satan's attempts to discourage Christ from obeying the Father ring false to my understanding of Satan's attitude at the time. Still, the scene allowed Gibson to reference Genesis 3:15, an allusion I doubt that few in the audience understood.
It is here, where the movie departs from the inspired account where it fails most. But, there were some changes that worked for me.
1) Gibson's movie has May Magdalene as the woman taken in adultery as recorded in John 8:1-11. I'm not sure I buy this, but neither will I summarily dismiss it.
2) Simon, the Cyrenian, who bears Christ's cross to Golgotha, has an expanded part. Not only does he carry the cross, but he offers comfort to the Savior as he does ("Almost done," he says). What an achingly poignant moment. And, it is clear that when Simon finishes, that he is a believer in the Savior.
3) The Sanhedrin had Christ crucified to preserve the way of life handed down by Moses. At the moment of Christ's death the temple veil is rent in two, which is God's pronouncement that that way of life is done. In PASSION, Caiaphas sees the rent veil and screams. The Almighty had undone in a moment what Caiaphas had committed murder to preserve.
There were other moments like these, but in the end, too few of them. I should like to close with a brief mention of one of the major controversies surrounding this movie: that it is anti-Semitic, or will promote anti-Semitism. I did not find it so. I thought the Romans came off far worse than the Jews. There is none of the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome here. Gibson's Romans were savage, sadistic, and without honor, nothing like the Rome I studied in school.
Do I think you should see this movie? Yes, but only the parts after the Roman scourging are worth seeing. Still, those moments are enough to warrant a rating of 7 out of 10.