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A Place in the Sun (1951)
Like Dreiser's novel, Stevens's movie dates badly.
Several people here have seen this movie as very '40s. Actually, it is an awkward mixing of that era and Dreiser's 1900s. Dreiser was one of several writers who tried to bring the naturalism of European writers like Emile Zola to America. His story was intended to be the antithesis of the Horatio Alger story, where a poor boy with pluck and ambition could always make good.
Stevens was careful to keep Dreiser's indictment of the American dream intact but for some reason decided to update the book to his own time. Thus we have the wide gap between the arrogant, overbearing rich and the meek but honest poor facing a hopeless struggle. You would never guess the changes brought about by two World Wars, Prohibition and the Depression from this film. The only changes from Dreiser's time seem to be more cars, radio and clothing styles.
To Stevens' credit, he remained as neutral about his characters as Dreiser was, though by 1951 it was no longer the height of realism. Elizabeth Taylor had her first opportunity to show sexuality, and her performance still effective. Montgomery Clift's method acting is not so lucky while Shelley Winters does the best she can with a pathetic character.
Lust for Life (1956)
An Accurate Biopic
This film is a rarity, a biopic which is more accurate than the book it's based on. Irving Stone's book was a major best-seller which did much to make Vincent Van Gogh one of the ten most famous artists in history but it did have its inaccuracies, particularly when it depicted its protagonist in Paris with other great painters of the time. In the book, Gauguin, Lautrec, Cezanne and Rousseau come off as typical bohemians while Vincent was made much more of a leader than he was. Minelli doesn't give us a detailed look at any of the artists except Gauguin but he is more accurate about who influenced Van Gogh and he does include his best friend, the now-forgotten Emile Bernard, if only as an extra in Tanguy's shop.
When Lust for Life came out, several critics dismissed it as too lurid and melodramatic, but those adjectives are accurate in describing Van Gogh's life. Note that Kirk Douglas does not play his usual cool, fun-loving tough guy and actually uses his whole body in his acting. For once Hollywood outdid itself.
Et Dieu... créa la femme (1956)
Once Hip, Now Camp
It may be just the dubbed version I caught, but Brigitte Bardot's breakthrough film seemed unintentionally but hilariously funny to me. I don't know if the original script showed a tin ear for dialogue or if BB really was much worse delivering lines than she was at using her body to act. But it looked like Vadim and Bardot had not perfected their styles and could not help making an artificial attempt at realism. What was looked on as cool in 1956 now looks hopelessly dated, a fate that has befallen many of the early efforts to be sexy and scandalous, but not bring the censors down too harshly. Not a great work of art, but amusing and interesting as a period piece.
The Corndog Man (1999)
Unpleasant, Irritating and Sadistic
If your idea of fun is seeing a middle-aged small-town bigot get totally tormented, then this may be the film for you. While this fellow is not intended to be sympathetic, he's not very interesting either. In fact he seems a dreary friendless figure to begin with and more and more foolish and pathetic as the story goes on. His nemesis remains pretty much of an enigma, smarter but not all that appealing. Other characters remain in the background, their voices barely heard. For a student film on a shoestring budget, the movie does suggest its creators have potential. But they have more work to do to be first-rate.
A Good But Not Great War Film
<i>Sahara</i> does better than WWII movies made during the war. It shows the grittiness of the desert campaign, lets us see the suffering of both armies and has some striking imagery of shifting sand dunes and bodies in the wasteland. Plus the excellent performances alluded to in other comments. That being said, it does have several familiar propaganda elements, the speech about why this small action is important, moments of nastiness with all the German characters, sequences of bonding between the different nationalities. Bogart does well but his character remains the generic ideal American soldier. And don't expect the careful expertise of combat seen in later war movies. But if you don't look at it over-critically, this one's OK.
Spirit Lost (1997)
Tepid Ghost Story
The hero's name is John and that gives you a good idea of this film's lack of imagination. Except for being black, this couple who move into a haunted house are strictly by-the-numbers characters, as is what happens to them. Special effects are primitive, without even camp value. There are sex scenes and nudity but nothing special about them. Our horny ghost is about as interesting as a third-rate strip show. Only the current lack of other description motivates me to write this.
The Last Word (1995)
Underrated Writer's Drama
This is not quite the thriller it appears to be in plot summary. While there is some violence and more sex and romance, this is more about Timothy Hutton's ethical choices as a writer. As such, it has some very good moments and fine acting by Hutton, Burke and Pantoliano. The pace is rather slow at first and you may find the ending disappointing, especially if you're looking for shocking revelations. But it's worth seeing.
Gokiburi-tachi no tasogare (1989)
Run Naomi! The Flit!
How much you will enjoy this film depends greatly on whether you can set aside the usual reactions to verminous insects. Do that and Naomi, this movie's star, is actually kind of cute, in the way that naive 17-year-old girls often seem. With a human face and torso beneath her antennae and black carapace, she enjoys pool parties in the toilet bowl, smooches with her childhood sweetheart and is attracted to Kurt, the handsome soldier cockroach from the neighboring tribe. Her tribe's human host is a live-and-let-live sort of fellow, unlike the girl next door, sexy but merciless toward roaches. Disaster comes when the two people fall in love.
Everything is seen from the bugs' viewpoint, full of large and potentially dangerous objects. Trash, on the other hand, is full of wonders. The photography and animation are extremely well-handled. The biggest flaw is that the characters are pretty much one-dimensional, with the differences you'd expect between roach and human society too-little explored. But this is far more adult and more thought-provoking than the usual movie cartoon. And unlike other animated animals, these roaches don't sing.
What Dreams May Come (1998)
Does Heaven Look Like A Greeting Card?
First, I'll say I chose to see this movie because I thought it might be camp. I wasn't disappointed but What Dreams May Come is better than the usual overblown Hollywood romance. But there are problems, not so much with the acting (adequate) or the writing (ditto) but with the look, even though it's the most artistic.
The problem is we get a Heaven that's supposed to be a contemporary painting, and it looks like a landscape from the Hudson River School or, for those who aren't familiar with art, like one of those old-fashioned Christmas cards. Pretty, even enchanting but not really satisfying as art. What you might feel looking at someone else's erotic fantasy. What kind of marriage did Chris and Annie have, anyway, that has no sexual memories? But I digress.
More telling is that the landscapes of Hell are much more imaginative, more artistic. I especially liked the coast of Hell being littered with shipwrecks. Compare with the best detail in Heaven, that Chris's second guide wears a silver name tag. Even if this is explained, it's a welcome piece of humor. Robin Williams, how could you give us a movie where people laugh a great deal, but where humor is absent but for a couple of moments? (The other is supposed to be a real-life moment.)
Anyway, WDMC is good for some cries, along with those two laughs. But for an after-death film that stays in the mind, I have to go with Defending Your Life.
Killing Zoe (1993)
Bank robbery goes wrong. Movie goes right.
Despite the many bad reviews, this movie is better than almost any crime thriller with a high body count I've seen. Unlike most of them, this involves really inept crooks, except for the hero, Eric Stoltz. First the gang leader is a violent psychotic. The rest turn out to be drug addicts with machine guns. Only Zoe, a call girl and not one of the gang, exceeds expectations at her job. Little touches like a dead cat on the ground floor of the gang's hideout, create a building unease. Anglade is superb. Easily in the top three films I've seen this year.