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Dull melodrama goes nowhere, 26 January 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

If this is a faithful adaption of Hemingway, I can understand why I've never particularly enjoyed reading him. Of course, a bad Hemingway yarn can still a great film make -- as witness Howard Hawks' "To Have and Have Not." Sadly, Henry King and Co. are not up to the task.

The film's characters describe themselves as bohemian war veterans, and there's a feeling that what we're watching is supposed to pass for some form of "disillusion" or maybe even "debauchery." But the sad old person's 1950s style American version of extreme Parisian debauchery makes the beach party movies look like porn. Nobody does anything in this movie except drink too much and say idiotic things, occasionally (but not often enough) get into fights, etc.

The performances are not bad at all, especially from Mel Ferrer and Errol Flynn. Everybody is too old for their roles, but that's not really the big problem..... the film is caught up in the same old Hollywood dilemma, of how to present broken-down and tarnished humanity without making the glamorous actors and actresses playing them seem drab. As a result, probably due to King's careful direction, everyone acts as if they are hiding under a wet blanket. There's not a moment in the film where anything seems spontaneous. Ty Power was an excellent actor, but Ron Reagan could have played this role with this director just as well. King doesn't know how to use the widescreen to good effect, so he over-uses medium shots and there are a lot of exterior sequences that just feel like travelogues (Leo Tolver had no particular talent for color photography, and simply saturates the screen).

I was surprised that the story basically went nowhere, and nothing was revealed about the characters that wasn't obvious immediately. I like Ava Gardner and Tyrone Power, so I was disappointed that they didn't get to take these characters anywhere interesting. Gardner has none of the spontaneity and shine that she shows off in better films like "Barefoot Contessa", and to get a good performance from Power you need to give him some element of regret or self-loathing. I don't really know who would have made this story believable, though. Everyone says the stars should have been younger, but would this be a good film with, say, Grace Kelly and Rock Hudson? No.

Dillinger (1973)
Milius epic with Oates has a lot going for it, 6 January 2015

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

While it falls short of real greatness by an inch here and a mile there, John Milius' debut film "Dillinger" is a nasty treat, packed with a Peckinpah-ish cast headed by Warren Oates and Ben Johnson, with Harry Dean Stanton, Michelle Phillips and Richard Dreyfuss in strong support. While dialog is often rough and cartoonish -- you can almost feel Milius' strain as he attempts to write dialog that is both romantic and cynical for the love scenes between Oates and Phillips -- the action scenes are top notch in both staging and execution. The cinematography is crisp and just lightly overstated, Milius' direction is assured if never subtle, and the performances rise well above the script.

Although it's a rare pleasure to see the incomparable Warren Oates in a leading role, this film is not as rewarding in that sense as Peckinpah's "Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia" from the following year. There's a feeling that Oates and Milius are a bit too concerned with making Dillinger a macho badass, although they do a good job of showing how his farmboy roots shine through. A few too many scenes verge on hero-worship. As good as Oates is, I thought Ben Johnson was perhaps even more impressive, particularly since he's been cast here well outside of his normal comfort zone. He's very impressive, for example, in a brief scene where he connects with a young boy who idolizes Dillinger and admits he "wouldn't wanna be a G-man."

Chinatown, it is not. Milius stages mythology in an impressive manner but with no subtlety and very little flair. The film does have a special sort of quality about it, but we don't feel the exhilaration that a good bank-robbing movie should impart. There's too much focus on the Phillips/Oates relationship, which begins with a beating, rape, and kidnapping and suddenly veers into romance. It's all very confusing and feels, like much else in this film, like a attempt to "top" the earlier "Bonnie and Clyde" (dismissed in the film as "amateurs").

2 out of 5 people found the following review useful:
Unique spectacle, 20 October 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

I saw this film in 3D at the Sony Metreon in San Francisco.... 3D certainly enhances the visual aspects of the film, which already manage to evoke Star Wars/Star Trek while remaining unique and appealing. There are also a host of solid performances in the film, especially from perennial oddballs and villains like Benicio Del Toro and Michael Rooker. The story is engaging enough, though not particularly original.

There are certain aspects of the film that are disconcerting to me.... the main character's chauvinism, to some extent, but mainly the feminized villain and the sadism present in some action scenes. The film follows the trend from bad films like "300" of presenting a villain who is practically a Gothic drag queen. He's neither memorable nor scary. More disturbing still is the sadism in a couple scenes, especially a cantina scene that features a gruesome game involving large aliens devouring smaller aliens (surely the film would have been banned if it had featured a cockfight, but this is the sci-fi equivalent). There's also the scene where somebody tosses the raccoon a gun and the whole movie slows down and pauses to accentuate his "Oh yeah" before he indiscriminately opens fire on a crowd of prisoners and guards. I've never been big on the gun worship in this culture and I wished it hadn't been transferred to this sci-fi film. One of the cool aspects of "Star Wars" was the fact that the good guys fought with "elegant weapons from a more civilized age."

But hell, the movie's fun..... right from the first moments with Chris Pratt's "Star-Lord" performing a karaoke version of Redbone's classic "Come and Get Your Love" using a rat as the microphone, you know that this film is going to be goofy and weird. Which makes sense, since it's director, James Gunn, started out in Troma Films. This film does a nice job of balancing the characterization with the sometimes corny jokes, and makes you want to feel positive about everybody. Also, it has a really excellent femme fatale in Karen Gillan. While a lot of the jokes seem pretty obvious, some are more visual and subtle (for example, the little decorative collector's items that Michael Rooker's character installs in his spaceship).

All in all, it's a big budget re-imagining of the sort of sexualized and campy vibe that permeated Roger Corman's "Battle Beyond the Stars" -- some of these films in the Trek and SW franchises really take themselves too seriously, and this film has a lot more freedom and spirit. It's not a great movie by any means, but it stands by itself as a solid achievement while stretching the boundaries of the "big comic book movie" in a way that, perhaps, George Lucas only dreamed of doing with his "Howard the Duck" film. Which, fittingly, this film refers to. While the references stretch far beyond expectations ("Footloose", really?) they rarely enter into the domain of the outré. This makes the film an offbeat, but accessible, summer blockbuster that should spawn a series of its own sequels.

Man Hunt (1941)
1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Gripping propaganda film by maestro Lang, 17 September 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

This film wastes no time getting started -- no speeches, no anthems, no introduction. We simply see a man (Walter Pidgeon) maneuvering between Nazis in some forested region. When he finally reaches the cliff, his destination, we see him expertly assemble a scope rifle and train its cross-hairs on Der Fuhrer himself. One can just about hear the 1941 audience shouting at the screen, "Pull the trigger! Pull the trigger!" Something goes wrong, of course, and our aristocratic hero spends the rest of the film on the run from nefarious Nazis led by George Sanders and John Carradine.

Pidgeon is unusually animated in this film, and there are a lot of reaction shots of him which bear a similarity to Lang's work with Spencer Tracy (they hated each other) in his American masterpiece "Fury." Carradine and Sanders are suitably nasty, a lot of fun too watch (too much fun? perhaps that's a debate for another day). Joan Bennett shows up as a prostitute who falls for Pidgeon's man on the lam, exposing herself to fatal danger in order to help him and win his heart in return. Her accent is terrible but her performance is passable.

Lang handles the suspense of the chase scenes around foggy London-town with great skill and style. The only real problem that I had with the film was in a lot of the dialog between Pidgeon and Bennett; Pidgeon always has a sort of paternal edge, but in this case it is more of a patronizing razor's edge. Hilariously, Bennett bursts into tears when Pidgeon chooses the couch over her bed, and Pidgeon holds her head and calls her a "poor, dear little child", or words greatly to that effect. There are a lot of those scenes. Certainly we're missing the vital and overtly sexual Bennett of later collaborations such as the infamous "Scarlet Street." In the Lang world, Bennett must either play a saintly whore or a predatory whore, and no room in between for argument or confusion.

The climax becomes a little bit weird, but the film deserves props for actually allowing the Bennett character to die. The fact that her death, as well as the torture scenes involving Pidgeon earlier in the film, are shown strictly off-screen, may represent a compromise between producer Zanuck and Joe Breen's office, which was extremely cautious about anti-Nazi propaganda prior to the official U.S. entry into WWII. This is a significant film in the development of U.S. propaganda -- recent refugee Lang wants to pull no punches, but in retrospect (or compared to his later "Hangmen Also Die") the film's treatment of Nazi villains is almost light-handed, Hollywood villain-ish.

Note, by the way, how Lang manages to get Sanders' monocle and the glasses of several other German spies to gleam menacingly in the scarce lighting -- Spielberg would later use this effect in his nostalgically anti-Nazi films. Considering how much attention Lang paid to his own monocle, it's hardly an accident or a casual effect.

I was interested in the scene where Bennett and Pidgeon go into a jeweler's shop to buy her a hat-pin (the fatal hat-pin, as it turns out). After entering, the distinctly Jewish-looking shopkeeper speaks to them with a heavy German accent, and Pidgeon and Bennett's characters are visibly disturbed for a moment, then continue on with the purchase. This man may have been a refugee from the Nazis, but his accent makes him momentarily suspect. I believe Lang probably included this brief bit of business as a way of expressing his own frustration with the racism that was inevitably being directed towards German émigrés during the propaganda-heavy times leading up to the conflict.

Convoy (1978)
Tepid late Peckinpah, 16 September 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

A film of extreme silliness, degraded rather than elevated by its pretensions, this film finds the great director Sam Peckinpah at the end of his career and the nadir of his talent. Star Kris Kristofferson tries rather too hard to lend a mythic or larger-than-life air to the proceedings, while Ali MacGraw looks and acts weirdly out of place in this trucker fantasy. Most of the good scenes involve Kristofferson's rivalry with bad-guy cop Ernest Borgnine. There is a rousing bar fight about halfway through the film, the consequences of which lead to the formation of the titular "convoy" of semi-trucks.

Rarely has the aimlessness and lack of inspiration of the "counter-culture" been on more effective display than in this film. While reaching for some kind of epic outsider/modern outlaw style, the film instead reveals the emptiness of its ideals. Unlike "Easy Rider", which is a flawed film but at least has some real heart, this film does not dwell on the void it has revealed, nor does it advance our poetic understanding of anti-heroes and outlaws. There's very little poetry in a semi-truck, and the film is too self-serious to indulge in the kind of outright farce that made the films of the late 70s with Burt Reynolds at least watchable.

If you want to retain your positive feelings about Sam Peckinpah, best to skip this one. It's entertaining enough, if you watch it with a six pack and don't try to pay too much attention.

Maleficent (2014)
1 out of 5 people found the following review useful:
Above average, 15 September 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Angelina Jolie gets to play, in the film's words, "hero and villain at the same time", and makes a good show of it. Unfortunately, the film's supporting characters, particularly Elle Fanning's Aurora and Sharlto Copley's Stefan, could have used more work and more development. The visual imagery is excellent, even in 3D -- it avoids the over-the-top tricks that one would usually associate with Disney 3D presentations or 3D in general, and creates a visually appealing fantasy world.

I guess I particularly have a problem with the way this film depicts male characters in an uneven manner -- we never get much of a sense whether Stefan or the negligible Prince Charming character who shows up later (mostly for a joke and some really half-hearted drama) are supposed to be the best that the male gender can promise, or not. "True love" is talked about a lot but never shown. Jolie's character's cynicism is supposed to be upended by the conclusion, but I still found myself feeling cynical and dubious about the characters, particularly, again, of the male gender. Also, if Stefan had been a more rounded character, or if he had been developed enough so that redemption would be possible for him, it would have given the film much more dimension.

As it is, it's a fine pseudo-feminist take on classic faerie tale tropes, or at least Disney movie "fairy" tropes. There's fun bits with Imelda Staunton, always a bonus with fantasy movies lately. Robert Stromberg feels free to let his story speak for itself, trusts his actors (even those that he really shouldn't.... but even bad acting such as shows up from time to time in this film has its charm), and doesn't feel the need to add a lot of flair (like Sam Raimi did a few years ago with his Oz movie for Disney, or Tim Burton's embarrassing Alice in Wonderland film).

Milius (2013)
Interesting documentary for certain film fans, 15 September 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

I don't usually (or often) review documentaries on here, so not sure exactly what I want to say or how to say it, but here goes.... going into the film, I knew somewhat about John Milius as a person, having read a few books about Coppola and Lucas, and I knew a few of his films (especially "Conan the Barbarian", since I'm a Robert Howard fan), but I didn't realize how extensive his screen writing was in the 1970s. It was good to discover more about that, and it helps me to see more how his personality and his philosophy about film-making was distinct and new. I was expecting that you would have Lucas and a few other folks basically trying to make a big deal out of Milius because they're his friends, but the depth of comments and good stories from a variety of Hollywood folks actually impressed me.

If the film accomplishes anything beyond some kind of re-appraisal of Milius (and some reflection on his political relevance or irrelevance), it could be nice to see "Big Wednesday" given some kind of real release. I've never been able to see it, always been curious, so the bits that they showed in this documentary are the only part I've actually been able to see.

0 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Confusing mess with some great scenes, 15 September 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

A movie directed by Stephen Chow always promises surreal effects, ludicrous and often bizarre humor, vague spirituality and sincere sentiment. This film delivers all of those, but the storytelling seriously slackens in the second half of the film. The effects are not up to par for ten years ago, although occasionally the lighting effects and scenery almost make up for the cheezy looking demons (the first demon, a giant fish, is the most impressive, and it goes downhill from there, like the rest of the film generally). There are moments of really great humor, but those fall fewer and further between as the film proceeds. The final conclusion features a silly but somehow fascinating version of the famous Monkey-King in an anti-climactic fight with a series of demon hunters, ended rather abruptly with a deus-ex-machina. Simply put, Chow's storytelling is dull here; maybe he was trying to stick too close to source material, maybe he was lazy, maybe he is confused, but something is really wrong with the ending.

A few things worth noting.... Chow not seem to be aiming for a Western audience at all. Which is not necessarily good or bad, but worth noting. The conclusion offers nothing by way of diluting its heavy Buddhist-propaganda angle, the film features many situations and jokes that will not make sense to European or American audiences (what exactly was supposed to be funny about the "Important Prince" being told "you should have asked us sooner" over and over again?), and the perspective and style in general are tres tres Chinese. There are hints of homophobic humor that are not, as usual, alleviated by Chow's innate androgyny.

This film reminded me of "Forbidden City Cop", and not in a good way. Immediately when he goes into the forest and gets trapped by the Demon Hunters, it was like a bad imitation of a much better film that Chow already made. The Demon Hunters' wagon is not a very amusing prop, their specialties are dull. However, the relationship between Miss Duan and Xuan Zang is very interesting. It manages to hold the film together to a great extent, although in the end it does not go anywhere particularly new.

I wouldn't recommend this to anybody except hardcore Chow fans, and even these will be disappointed by the lack of cohesion, the lack of Kung Fu, and frankly by the lack of Stephen Chow himself. Chow is a wonderful actor who brings real humor and sentiment to his films; the director's own best asset is himself, and he's deprived himself (and us) here with this mediocre entry into the canon of Chinese mythlore depicted on screen. The first 20 or 30 minutes are very promising, but the film falls apart surprisingly quickly. Let's hope Chow can rebound with something that has a bit more appeal.

Funny and often savage comedy, 29 June 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

While those looking for a rather typical 50s British comedy will not be disappointed, this film also offers some more biting social commentary than usual. An ensemble cast plays out a zany caper story about a creepy amoral grifter (Dennis Price) and a group of assorted loonies who try in various ways to undermine his attempts to blackmail them. It's not dis-similar from other excellent comedies of the era such as "Lavender Hill Mob" and "Kind Hearts and Coronets", but this film from the "Rank Organization" lacks the dry quality of the Ealing Films. Also there is no presence as compelling as Guinness' in the best Ealings. Peter Sellers, second-billed below Terry Thomas (who, as usual, has perhaps one too many scene with certainly one too many eye roll), of course tries his best to steal the film and every scene in it, and Peggy Mount is very funny as a mystery writer intent on acting out her own story. But none of the characters are given the chance to really center the film, and as a result it comes off with less heart than the very best films of this type.

Sellers plays a kind of corrupt game show host, in danger of being exposed as a slumlord to the very elderly audience who adore him. I thought that was a nice, if obvious, bit of social statement. Neither Sellers nor any of the other people being blackmailed is a lily-white innocent, so you wonder as you watch it whether Price's character will get his comeuppance or not. That gives it more suspense than some comedy, but not really enough to make it compelling. Still, it's a quality film with good contributions from everybody.

1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Excellent bio-pic, with a few reservations, 18 June 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

There is a lot to recommend here -- audiences unfamiliar with the history of African American entertainers in Hollywood will get a good introduction to Dorothy Dandridge, and a decent introduction to other figures of the era such as the Nicholas Brothers. Halle Berry was born to play Dandridge -- the physical resemblance is remarkable, and her acting skills are top notch. The production values are good enough that it probably could have, and should have, been released to theaters instead of cable. Many scenes manage to distill the indignity of life as a black entertainer in that era -- and some (think: Dixie Cup Bathroom) even manage to do so with a good dose of dark humor.

Although Brent Spiner is a very good actor, and his character is engaging, I think that the presence of an approving and sympathetic white character in almost every scene is a weakness for the film. I was not surprised to see that the film was based on Spiner's character's memoirs, because his character appears as a sort of white saint -- an apology, if you will, and a sop for white audiences who might otherwise feel alienated by the negative portrayals of white characters (particularly Klaus Maria Brandauer's excellent performance as sadistic director Otto Preminger).

Another minor problem is the pace of the film; by attempting to show the entire life of Dandridge, the later parts where she is burdened by depression and drug addiction come too swiftly. It makes the whole aspect of her story seem a bit cliché, although Berry really plays "strung out" pretty convincingly.

So, it's not a masterpiece, but it's a lot better than a made-for-cable movie has a right to be. It will be of great interest to those who enjoy Hollywood history but have not discovered the joys of "Carmen Jones" and such. And it's a triumph for Berry, who would go on of course to win the famous Academy Award that Ms. Dandridge was the first black woman nominated for.

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