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Scrooge (1970)
8 out of 12 people found the following review useful:
How NOT to adapt "A Christmas Carol", 26 December 2011

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

This off-putting version of "A Christmas Carol" is an object lesson in how not to adapt Dickens's tale. Albert Finney is good as Scrooge: in the opening scenes, he is a fun, hissable miser, chasing down his debtors with cruel gusto. He also does great work in the ghost sequences, mumbling out sad laments over his lost love, and looking pitiable and meek. However, the movie makes the odd mistake of putting everyone Scrooge knows in an unflattering spotlight. Why should we care if Scrooge is redeemed if the people he's helping are all creepy and vindictive?

Compare this version to the wonderful 1951 Alastair Sim adaptation. In that tale, we have one scene (straight from the novella) of some shady characters selling off Scrooge's belongings after his death, shielding themselves from guilt by claiming that Scrooge's behavior brought this judgment upon him. A far cry from the 1970 musical, wherein droves of Scrooge's debtors literally dance in the street to celebrate his death. These are the people we're supposed to root for? You could argue that Scrooge's eventual redemption has the wider effect of making them into better people too (as Tom Jenkins seems to soften once Scrooge forgives his debt), but so what? The 1951 version shows Scrooge's circle as kind, goodhearted people who fear or endure Scrooge, but who don't actively hate him and wish him dead. The 1970 version made me think, Well, you parading freeloaders _did_ all owe him money, didn't you?

Even Bob Cratchit comes off as unlikeable in "Scrooge," with his simultaneously self-effacing and self-aggrandizing wisecracks. In the 1951 version, when Cratchit asks, "Who else in our acquaintance can boast two rounds of the finest rum punch?" he's being sincere, reminding his children to be grateful for what he perceives as their bounty. In the 1970 version, Cratchit knows he's underpaid, he knows he deserves more, and he's petulant and whiny about it. You don't root for this guy.

Aside from that, we have the forgettable score; a bizarre Christmas Yet- to-Come sequence, with punishments that seem far incommensurate with Scrooge's crimes; the entire ending sequence, wherein Scrooge evidently spends every penny he's ever earned to hand out toys and bottles of wine to random strangers; and Alec Guinness, who doesn't know whether to be funny or scary or just shambling and weird. That's this movie for you: shambling and weird.

1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Holds up surprisingly well, 22 November 2011

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

I have vague memories of watching this 45-minute special on the Philadelphia ABC affiliate when I was a child, back in 1983 or 84. To be honest, all I remembered were scenes of the Juggler walking through fields with his goofy friend in tow, and the climactic scene with the Mary statue. When the DVD appeared on Netflix, I jumped at the chance to watch this again and to kindle some nostalgia.

What a pleasant surprise to discover that this brief, kindhearted special holds up very well and is still effective all these years later. The cinematography, sound, and soundtrack all date it as being made in the early '80s, but that doesn't stop the story from being compelling or the characters from being appealing.

60 out of 87 people found the following review useful:
This movie includes Gertrude Stein; therefore, it MUST be good!, 8 October 2011

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

While I'm sure some moviegoers did find this film enchanting, I think the greater majority of critics and viewers who claim it's a masterpiece are just afraid to admit that a film that name-drops so many intellectuals is just not very good. For a film whose list of characters includes some of the greatest minds of the early twentieth century, "Midnight in Paris" has little to say about the creative process or inspiration.

Maybe I've just gotten sick of Woody Allen's gimmick. Every film he makes includes the same list of players: the shrill wife / girlfriend, the overbearing other man / father, the nebbishy Allen stand-in (played this time by Owen Wilson, who makes a valiant, stuttering effort but is far too likable and easygoing a screen presence to really come off as neurotic and quirky), the ravishing young girl who finds the nebbish irresistible. And every film he makes includes terrific actors reciting their lines as if they're at the script's first table read.

Possible spoiler territory: Allen starts the film with a five-minute travelogue of nice places to visit in Paris, then introduces us to characters we'd never be able to stomach in real life. They have affairs and spend $18,000 on chairs and attend wine-drinking parties. We meet Gil and his fiancée, whose engagement is a complete mystery, and the fiancée's father, who must be evil because he's Republican. After watching these people amble around Paris for a while, we join Gil as he journeys back in time somehow to meet the artists he claims as personal heroes.

Many episodes of "Doctor Who" deal with time travel better than this film does. I'm not saying this to score a cheap point: The Vincent van Gogh episode from season 5, for example, introduces us to a world-famous artist as a brilliant but troubled thinker who has passion and ideas he struggles to express, and whose work in turn is shown inspiring those in the future.

Not so here. Gil seems to take no inspiration whatsoever from this amazing blessing, responding to his ability to travel through time with what can only be described as nonchalance. He encounters Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Stein, and other writers we all read in college. Here's where I began to find the name-dropping irritating. These are CliffNotes versions of these great thinkers. Hemingway is brash. Zelda Fitzgerald is loony. Gertrude Stein is heavyset. We get it. What does this movie have to say about their work, their influence, their passion? What draws them together and makes their work vital?

Certainly we don't find out by watching Gil. At first, he's kinda happy to show Stein his novel, but then once he meets Marion Cotillard as a Lost Generation groupie, he shifts his ambition to sleeping with Marion Cotillard. I can't blame him, but I have no idea what the movie's statement becomes at this point. Something involving nostalgia, but even Gil admits that it's not a very compelling epiphany. Big spoiler: This amazing time-traveling adventure of self-discovery ends up not with Gil reinvigorated and pursuing his dream, but deciding to hang around in Paris because it's pretty in the rain, and meeting a nice hot young girl who likes Paris because it's pretty in the rain. What I'm trying to say is: Shallow movie.

To its credit, this movie did make me question, at about the 75th verse of "Let's Fall in Love," why Hemingway didn't punch Cole Porter in the jaw.

2 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
An unfocused but still beautiful film, 22 August 2010

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Knowing well that sequels have the potential to mar their predecessors, either through overkill or omission, I stayed away from "Faraway, So Close!" for a long time, letting the DVD linger on the far side of my Netflix queue.

"Wings of Desire" is a unique creation; every moment of that movie seems abuzz with life, activity, invention, compassion, intense joy and sorrow. It seemed like everyone involved felt the urgent need to tell that story at that particular historical moment.

The sequel starts with that same feeling, and for the first 45 minutes or so, I was happy to immerse myself back in that world. However, once the various subplots intervened, and the angelic protagonist began dealing with a standard-issue mafioso in a situation that seems lifted from a wacky 1980s comedy, "Faraway, So Close!" loses its way.

Still, I don't regret seeing the sequel. Some moments are wonderful, especially Cassiel's elegiac bedtime-story biography, spoken to an old man who is losing his memory and who knows that Cassiel has been along for the ride. The acting is also terrific, except, oddly, for Willem Dafoe's bizarre, inexplicable character -- the movie grinds to a halt (literally, at one point) whenever he appears.

I have to admit that the last twenty minutes made no sense to me. (Spoilers follow.) Wasn't Cassiel's entire mission to stop the mobster from seeing his sister and niece (and if so, why? Bad influence)? And how, exactly, did that acrobatic stunt save the day? The badguys just gave up after that, apparently, for undisclosed reasons -- maybe they felt bad. Also: after a presumed eternity of watching humanity and reading our minds, Cassiel's plot is to use a poorly-concocted stunt? He should've spent some more time watching heist movies.

Anyway, all that aside, this movie is still worth seeing; it's just not in the same class as "Wings of Desire." That's not much of a complaint -- very, very few movies are that good.

0 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
Repetitive, pointless filler, 7 September 2008

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

I couldn't let the summer go by without seeing one sacrifice to Jabootu. "Clone Wars" starts out goofy, with a top-40 DJ breathlessly providing the sort of exposition the opening crawls provided in the other six movies. The next twenty minutes or so are OK, with standard-issue Anakin and Obi-Wan heroics, but then it gets into its main plot, which is so thin it would barely support a video game. In fact, with its only-kinda-OK animation (hard to believe this came out the same summer as the visual masterpiece "Wall-E"), the whole movie reminded me of watching someone else play a video game.

I never thought I'd find my mind wandering during a Star Wars movie, but honestly, how many times can we watch identical battle droids get blasted or cut in half? Bad-movie highlights include: 1. After the Sith apprentice Asajj Ventress watches Anakin easily cutting down an entire army of battle droids, she tells the two that accompany her, "Get him!" There's no indication that these two droids have special capabilities that set them apart from the others, and indeed, Anakin cuts them in half right away. 2. Jabba the Hutt's uncle, Ziro the Hutt, who shows up way too late in the movie for anyone to care, and who talks like a cross between Droopy Dog and Truman Capote. 3. The phrase "our only hope" is uttered so often that it could provide the basis for a drinking game. And it's not even uttered in especially dire circumstances. 4. Most of the characters only kinda resemble their real-life counterparts (though the animators did a good job on Mace Windu and on Anakin's sneer), but they went out of their way to give Amidala a perfect butt.

The night we saw it, my wife and I were the only people in the theater aside from a guy and his two real little kids, and they seemed to like it; they walked out talking like Jabba. Better Jabba than his uncle, I suppose.

Once (2007)
3 out of 5 people found the following review useful:
The rarest sort of film, 22 February 2008

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

The storyline of "Once" is simple and the direction is spare, but the characters are complex and compelling. And most important, they remain true to their dreams and to themselves.

The movie is full of touching moments, but it never becomes shallow or cloying, because the leads are so genuine in their emotion and in their friendship.

I respect the film's ending. It wasn't the outcome I expected, but it was the outcome that made sense.

"Once" is the rarest sort of film: a movie about thoughtful, creative adults who inspire and respect one another, and who value art and music.

5 out of 6 people found the following review useful:
Irreverent, hilarious parody of the Nutcracker ballet, 26 December 2002

Watching "The Hard Nut" is like reading "Dave Barry Slept Here" or seeing the Reduced Shakespeare Company: the more familiar you are with the source material, the funnier the parody is. Having seen innumerable productions of "The Nutcracker" over the years, I find Mark Morris's take on the tale hysterical; it gets better with every viewing. Morris places the Hoffman tale somewhere in the late '70s. His party guests are swingers and hipsters; his Drosselmeier is a suave man-about-town; his Marie is a whiny, spoiled girl who blossoms (uncomfortably) into womanhood; and his Nutcracker Prince resembles a Bob's Big Boy statue. The striking set design, based on the comic books of Charles Burns, plays with the conventions of staging the much-loved ballet; the traditional Victorian Christmas tree is replaced with a gaudy, white, plastic monstrosity; the party guests dance to the light of the televised WPIX Yule Log; the backdrop for the oddly loping `Waltz of the Flowers' is a bizarre, vaginal blossom.

Ironically, Morris's take on the ballet is, in storyline at least, more faithful to E. T. A. Hoffman's tale of the Nutcracker than any other version I've seen. The second act tells the entire second half of the story -- the tale of the ugly princess and the Mouse Queen -- while ingeniously working in the usual `international' dances. Most productions of the ballet dispense with the `narrative' after Marie and her Prince have traveled to the land of the Sugarplum Fairy, but Morris's version tells an entire story. Not even the much-lauded Maurice Sendak/Pacific Northwest Ballet version adheres to Hoffman's tale with such fidelity.

You may be able to locate a video of this production by contacting the Brooklyn Academy of Music,; Mark Morris's dance group performs there regularly. It is worth seeking out. The dancing is remarkable and the production pokes fun at a holiday tradition with reverence and wit.

The Nutcracker (1977/I) (TV)
14 out of 16 people found the following review useful:
The best-danced production widely available, 26 December 2002

While other film and video productions of the Tchiakovsky classic emphasize pageantry, amazing sets, and holiday warmth, the American Ballet Theater's `Nutcracker' concentrates on strong dancing and intricate choreography. There is consequently much to adore in this production. Gelsey Kirkland, at the prime of her career, and before her drug addiction and battle with anorexia tragically destroyed her dancing talent, plays Clara as a young girl who matures over the course of the ballet. As such, Baryshnikov's version is less a story of a young girl's Christmas dream, and more a coming-of-age tale.

The party scene of `The Nutcracker' is usually a showcase for the children's classes of a ballet company. The Balanchine version, for example, does not really employ any serious dancing until the Waltz of the Snowflakes; most of the first act features children mulling about with their presents. Baryshnikov chose instead to concentrate on adult dancers, turning the Drosselmayer gift sequences in particular into amazingly intricate, well-danced pieces. The Moorish dance stands out as one of the finest, most exciting dances ever to be caught on film.

Unfortunately, this production does have a few weaknesses. The dancers reportedly complained that the television set where it was filmed was too cramped, and that the soundtrack was too slow. Indeed, the sound throughout is awful; there are many more vibrant recordings of the music that could have been used. These dancers are professionals used to working with a live orchestra, and they seem confined by the canned music. The sets are unspectacular and washed-out, making this version perhaps the least exciting for young children; both the NYC Ballet and the Sendak version are more visually stimulating.

Still, for fans of serious dance, this version must be seen. It is still a thrill to watch Baryshnikov and Kirkland perform.

17 out of 25 people found the following review useful:
Fun and different approach to the Christmas classic, 20 December 2002

The 1938 `Christmas Carol' is by no means the best film version of Dickens's much-beloved tale. Still, it does offer a few novel and enjoyable twists. It is the only version I know of in which Bob Cratchit is `canned' (as he repeatedly says) before Christmas day, after knocking Scrooge's hat off with a snowball. It is also the first version to use the much-imitated ending of Scrooge showing up unexpectedly at Cratchit's house, rather than revealing his epiphany to Bob on St. Stephen's Day. It may be unique for having the healthiest-looking Tiny Tim and the most insanely jovial nephew Fred. But as I say, these are enjoyable twists; it is fun to see a different take on this oft-told tale.

3 out of 4 people found the following review useful:
Hysterically bizarre but also surprisingly sweet, 4 December 2002

A dulcet-toned grandmother tells three children some unorthodox Yuletide tales in this beautifully bizarre cartoon by Bill Plympton. While none of these tales is offensively strange, they do deviate from the standard feelgood fare of the season. Highlights include a happy little ditty about a lovelorn snowman, the hilarious horror-story retelling of `The Twelve Days of Christmas,' and the grandmother's unflappability as she rattles off tale after tale after tale. Despite the strangeness, the cartoon maintains a sense of warmth, jollity, and innocence. I highly recommend it as an off-the-wall Christmas cartoon.

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