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48 reviews in total 
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3 out of 4 people found the following review useful:
Bread and Wine, 1 September 2010

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

The first time through, you think you've seen Places In The Heart before, this meager drama of pathos set in a simpler time. Sure, it's acted by a prestigious ensemble. And yes, the story it tells is nothing if not respectable. But even the title is generic and sentimental, like any number of Hallmark TV movies. Sally Field's acceptance speech for her (deserved) Oscar win is better remembered today than the movie itself.

At its most powerful, film juxtaposes images to create ideas in the mind of the audience. By this measure, the last shot of Places In The Heart is among the most transformative in all of movies. Taken out of context, it has no significance, and yet is so startling and unexpected —while at the same time so gentle and so much in keeping with all that's come before it— that it might first be confusing. It's one of the greatest shots in movies, because it re-contextualizes all that comes before it.

What writer-director Robert Benton aims at and finally accomplishes in Places In The Heart is so beautiful that the movie transcends its origins as a period piece to become a picture of nothing less than the kingdom of heaven.

1 out of 6 people found the following review useful:
They Don't Make Them Like They Used To, 19 July 2010

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Joan Crawford was made for movies. There's something so extreme, so garish about her face that it almost seems right when punishment is inflicted on her.

And what manners of misfortune visit her as Mildred Pierce! There's more misery packed into its 109 minutes than you'll find in a week's worth of Lifetime weepers.

Yes, this is the kind of movie where a character coughs three times and then two scenes later dies of pneumonia. Lots happens in Mildred Pierce, but it remains dramatically inert; most scenes consist of two characters talking about another.

Talk, talk, talk. The people in Mildred Pierce tell each other what they're going to do (or what they've just done) and make pronouncements about themselves at every opportunity. It's a wonder any of them can stand each other for five minutes, much less the years the story covers.

I understand that James M. Cain, who also gave us Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, considered his novel a departure from his usual fare. But this exposition-filled adaptation gussies up what's fundamentally a straightforward women's drama with seedy, sordid intrigue and a whodunit.

You can call Mildred Pierce a film noir, but that doesn't make it one. It's *shot* like noir, but in every other respect is a standard melodrama. Michael Curtiz, who just three years before had delivered all-time classics Casablanca and Yankee Doodle Dandy, no doubt made the movie he wanted to. It just doesn't stand the test of time. What heralded contemporary movies will play, 60 years from now, like this Mildred Pierce does?

Two other demerits for Mildred Pierce:

Its racist, comic-relief treatment of Butterfly McQueen- at one point, we're even supposed to believe that she doesn't know how to answer a telephone! The actress, well-known by 1945 for her performance in Gone With The Wind, goes uncredited; a slight at the time, Mildred Pierce is so now unintentionally funny that this omission seems almost merciful.

And the second black mark is Crawford's rep as Mommie Dearest. Since the movie hinges on the inherent awfulness of Mildred's daughter and yet can assign neither blame nor credit to Mildred's parenting, it's almost impossible for the knowing viewer not to invoke Ms. Crawford's alter ego. (No wire hangers here, though.)

The Class (2008)
3 out of 7 people found the following review useful:
Incomplete, 10 September 2009

(Full disclosure: I have an M.A. in Education and spent the better part of five school years substitute-teaching. Not that I feel superior to Mr. Bégaudeau- I'm not in the classroom anymore, either.)

The Class is an admirable and bracing film, a welcome antidote to the typical, facile-inspirational classroom/educational Hollywood flick. The actors- nearly all nonprofessionals -are engaging and refreshing, the screenplay (what there is) does not build toward dramatic reversals and heart-rendering emotion. It is the most realistic film about school that I have seen.

In the end, though, it remains just a movie. And that's unfortunate, because the reactions it provokes are valuable and overdue.

I can't call the French educational system into question. But I would caution against drawing too many parallels between this film and U.S. public education. Among the numerous problems with this classroom, and the school, as depicted in the movie:

1. Classroom management. There appears to be almost none; the teacher frequently loses control of the class. This would be understandable, and even forgivable, from a first-year teacher. But a fourth-year, as this one is supposed to be? Inexcusable, and not credible.

2. Services. What is a reasonable reaction for the viewer to have regarding the mother who cannot speak French? That it's just 'too bad'? Viewers might be surprised to learn that schools go out of their way to accommodate parents, in cases like this one to procure interpreters. In many if not all places, they are in fact required to, by law.

3. Leadership and structure. I'll limit it to this one aspect: How very democratic of a school to include students in the evaluation process. And how very stupid. No professional, no administration could expect this to be fruitful.

4. Curriculum and method. If this is what and how they are teaching, the French language deserves to die. (While I do know English teachers here in the U.S. who insist on the part-and-participle teaching of grammar, I do not know any who are successful because of it.) Furthermore, any teacher who is combative and confrontational as this one is should be removed from the classroom.

The movie does not seem to understand, or to be pointed enough to indicate, the fundamental ways in which this school fails its students. (And no, it is not students who are the problem.)

Instead of daring to admit this, the movie makes a virtue of its impartiality. This may make it formally exceptional and artistically 'brave', but as a supposedly realistic depiction of a crucial social institution it offers us little of use.

What The Class does, finally, is feed into the perception that public schools are lost causes, hopeless quagmires that do not reward care or effort. The truth is that sound methods, strong leadership and careful planning can result- regardless of socioeconomic or geographic characteristics -in improved and excellent education in public schools.

As difficult to truthfully depict as that may be, and as unbelievable as viewers might find it, that is a movie that would truly be revolutionary.

Petulia (1968)
4 out of 5 people found the following review useful:
what is it about Petulia?, 3 September 2008

What, exactly, makes Petulia such a great movie?

Is it the ravishing Julie Christie, who never seemed more appropriately out-of-place? The kismet-touched production, which was somehow at Haight-Ashbury at the right time? Maybe it's the editing, the fractured juxtaposition of images that both disorients and clarifies, making it more than the sum of its parts? The images by Nicholas Roeg, the fluent guidance of Richard Lester?

What about the pitch-perfect supporting cast— Shirley Knight, Joseph Cotten, Richard Chamberlain (!), even Austin Pendleton, Howard Hesseman, and Rene Aberjonois (the last mysteriously uncredited on the IMDb)? Certainly, the haunting John Barry theme doesn't hurt. And the great George C. Scott, so far removed from the pyrotechnics of a General Turgidson or Patton, anchors it all with the kind of unshowy performance that most so-called great actors never get around to giving.

It's all these, and more. Most of all, for me it's the profound and true sadness it evokes, its humor which does anything but lighten or elevate— the spiritual emptiness to which Petulia testifies. 40 years later, few movies have captured the spirit of contemporary life so well. It's terribly pertinent. And yet, Petulia is (like the character herself!) a paradox— so very much of its time, as well, that it seems caught between two worlds. Time is rarely this kind to a movie, but this one is anything but a relic, much less an exercise in nostalgia.

Life is full of regret, both for things we've done, and things we've not done. The older I get, the more I love Petulia.

Wanted (2008)
3 out of 8 people found the following review useful:
who's pathetic and ordinary?, 26 July 2008

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Not only do the elemental, natural laws benefit us physically, they also benefit us dramatically: when a character jumps from a skyscraper, for instance, we know that he must fall. If the rules suddenly don't apply, we can't be surprised and delighted by the bending of them, because there are no rules to be bent. In ways both literal and figurative, the laws of nature keep our feet on the ground.

Sometimes, as in The Matrix, the rules are cleverly rewritten. In contemporary action films, they're more often just ignored. I'm as willing to suspend my disbelief as the next moviegoer, but a few too many jumps from one skyscraper to another and I can bring myself to do little more than shrug. If these assassins can perform such feats of magic, why are they limited to knives and bullets?

I can hear its defenders: "It's only eye-candy." If only. When the main character looks at the camera and tells me I'm a worthless human being, I take exception, and so should you. This is no Tyler Durden inside an everyman, it's a vapid action movie lecturing me about the purpose of my life. Rarely has a movie so explicitly held its audience in contempt.

I'd be angrier if I thought Wanted had a clear, cogent thought in its head. Since it is dedicated only to the aesthetic of Cool, it doesn't; the final measure leaves the viewer unable to account for what he has seen, except to remark that it was sporting of the filmmakers to attempt to show him things he hasn't seen before. Like exploding rodents and the use of a human head as a gun silencer.

But it isn't quite accurate to say that Wanted has a, um, wanton disregard for life— because it disregards lots of things, including simple logic and the laws of physics. Wanted dispenses with anything that stands in the way of turbo-charged cinematic action. I suppose that's entertainment to some; to me, it's identical to every other testosterone-driven mediocrity that coats the screens. *This* is what is truly pathetic and ordinary.

"Mad Men" (2007)
222 out of 423 people found the following review useful:
a losing campaign, 24 July 2008

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Three episodes was enough. I got it: the 60s were racist, sexist, unhealthy, and unsafe. (Also, very stylish.) And aren't we viewers today so smart for knowing better?

Must every character be such a louse? So tiresome. Not that they need be likable; The Sopranos was riveting, yet almost entirely devoid of anybody I'd ever want to be actual friends with. The difference, in the 3 episodes of this I saw, is that where The Sopranos insisted that the viewer be held responsible, Mad Men seems content to be superior. It wants to both revel in the tawdry details and be righteously outraged at the outdated mores it puts on display. I don't much care for either, and a television show that asks me to do both pushes the limits of my credulity. I could feel my strings being pulled.

No, Don's 'big secret' wasn't enough for me to keep watching- and when I was told what it is, I wasn't sorry in the least. Snoresville.

Undoubtedly there are many, many shows on television that are much, much worse. I don't watch them, either.

7 out of 8 people found the following review useful:
tempests & teapots, 24 July 2008

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

The mist, the neon, the reflections- Roger Deakins could make snot shine. What a great looking movie.

And that's it. There's almost nothing else to distinguish Stormy Monday, which marches to its inexorable conclusion with measured indifference. Coincidences rule the day, while little things like character and consistency are passed over in favor of atmosphere and (perfunctory) symbolism.

Figgis can maintain a tone, but style alone just leaves me detached. The script is so tight, the story seems artificial; it succeeds mainly in assuring that none of the characters are worth giving a damn about. It's all breath, no blood.

In art, such aloofness has probably always been fashionable. It's also terribly juvenile, like a teenager who thinks that cigarette smoking makes him look grown-up. Stormy Monday is a poster child for going through the motions.

"The Unit" (2006)
75 out of 91 people found the following review useful:
just another day at the office, 12 April 2007

As of this writing, the best show on television that no one talks about. Is it easier to overlook military-themed shows, being as their viewership is made up of middle America? But The Unit is neither a gussied-up procedural (NCIS) nor a rousing commercial (Jag), and it betrays almost no political agenda. It keeps to these guys, their job, and their families, all facing challenges that are alternately far beyond and extremely similar to those of our own. Like most Mamet, it is characterized not so much by distinctive characters as it filled with plain ol' drama. The show is as clipped, professional, and dutiful as its characters— no 'special-episodes', no sweeps- month stunts.

In a refreshing change of pace from other current (and more-heralded) shows, it's not serialized; every episode does stand alone, though the show also rewards faithful viewership. I love me some 'Lost', but there's plenty to slog through while waiting for the good stuff. The Unit gives no such quarter; it may not enrapture or surprise, but you can count on it to do its job.

0 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Turning Japanese?, 8 May 2006

Did you know that Tom Cruise can run? He can. Did you know that he can smile? He does. Have you ever seen him get angry? Look no further!

Has there ever been a less versatile actor with more success? No matter. He knows his strengths and plays to them, and he's never been caught brooding or Oscar-baiting.

Mission: Impossible is even less a stab at immortality than most blockbusters. The formula is even baked into the title. Odd that it took three movies for them to follow it! The third time may not quite charm, but it gives us what we want from this sort of movie: flirtation with danger, exhibition of stealth, playful sophistication. You know, stunts and gadgets and dress-up.

While never transcending genre, M:I3 is almost entirely content to be what it is— so long as it can be Alias! But J.J. & co. steal from themselves admirably. The only real misstep is a political monologue by the villain; such topical boilerplate pulls us out of what is fundamentally a fantasy, and demonstrates the filmmakers' disregard for their own material. Save the preaching, guys; audiences'll draw their own conclusions anyway.

I do wish they'd kept the theft to the script, though. The biggest problem with the movie is that it's shot like TV. Tight close-ups, few masters. There's a couple of great set pieces, but they don't get the scale they deserve, and so aren't as impressive or as intense as they should be, because of the way they're shot. Well, it won't lose much on video.

Welcome to the big-screen, Mr. Abrams. May you make movies as great as the first 1 1/2 seasons of Alias and the pilot of Lost.

9 out of 12 people found the following review useful:
lust in America, 8 May 2006

I do like Albert Brooks. As an actor. As a writer and director, his movies fall short of funny, happy to be amusing. Modern Romance is par for the course.

Only in the exchange with Medowlark Lemon does the movie come close to explaining Brooks' neurotic obsession with his girlfriend: she's out of his league. We don't know enough to understand why she's with him; the movie is more interested in his antics. Not only is Brooks' character narcissistic, his movie is too.

The foley scene, the shopping excursion, the Hollywood party are all deftly handled and expertly underplayed. I truly believe that Brooks can find the humor in anything. But he's satisfied with too little in his movies, and his disregard for structure (in his early films) is both curious and frustrating. It's as if he thinks he can get away with less if he doesn't seem to be trying as hard.

Essentially, Modern Romance is a 60-minute monologue with some situational humor mixed in. Is he in love with her, or with himself? That may be the point, but that makes me neither marvel nor laugh.

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