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Stumbles out of the gate
Gary Ross's exquisite direction is done in by his ham-fisted screenplay. We only know Seabiscuit inspired Depression-era America because he tells us over and over and over, like an amateur historian wielding a mallet.
He wants to create a roaring crowd-pleaser and a reverential slice of America. He succeeds somewhat at the first, but fails miserably at the second.
Part of the problem is that Ross crams too much of the story into a clipped, cross-cut first act that gives his actors too little room to blossom as real people. Ross's ripe dialog doesn't help.
The film finally kicks into gear when the wonder horse arrives. But even during the "emotional" final act, Ross smothers us in teeth-grinding symbolism.
But there's no doubt the races are well-shot.
Pennies from Heaven (1981)
Ahead of its time
When Herb Ross opened "Pennies From Heaven" during Christmas of 1981 it met with harsh press and public indifference. Many concluded the musical was dead.
But "Pennies," like Bob Fosse's "All That Jazz" released two years before, is a key transitional work that juxtaposed the cynicism of the '70s to the exhilaration and escapist fantasy of its buoyant Depression era score.
Steve Martin ran the risk of alienating his fan base by trading in the "Wild and Crazy" guy for the brooding, unfaithful Arthur Parker. But he's a revelation. And what a dancer!
It was no surprise when audiences stayed away.
By all means watch it today, particularly on the new widescreen DVD release. You'll walk away with a greater appreciation of Christopher Walken, Bernadette Peters and especially Steve Martin.
It makes it so much harder to watch this major talent wasting himself in such tripe as "Cheaper by the Dozen" and "Bringing Down the House."
One of the forgotten Hammer vampire films, "Captain Kronos" was an attempt to revive the genre by rewriting the rules, winking at the audience and introducing a swashbuckling new vampire hunter.
While the Christopher Lee/Peter Cushing "Dracula" series had been exhausted by 1973, "Kronos," too, failed to excite audiences. Hammer needed a transfusion, but lead Horst Janson was too anemic to pull it off.
Even worse, director/writer Brian Clemens rewrites the rules so different bloodsuckers are vulnerable to different weapons. This leads to a very entertaining scene with Janson failing over and over to off a bound vampire. But Clemens's new version of the legend lacks the visceral horror of "Dracula."
Still, "Captain Kronos" has a major cult following.
The Village (2004)
Victim of past success
The problem here is M. Night Shyamalan is a victim of his own success. After the genre-transforming "Sixth Sense," with its now famous twist ending, audiences expect Shyamalan to jolt us no matter how intrusive it is to the story. And he's happily obliged by reworking the formula with "Unbreakable" (What makes Bruce Willis indestructible?) and "Signs" (Are the aliens real?).
"The Village" is ultimately one long waiting game. While it envelopes us in its impeccable recreation of an agrarian society, the plot is hellbent on shattering our preconceptions. And knowing that, we watch it waiting for the revelations, not engrossed in the tale, despite a star-making performance by Bryce Dallas Howard.
When the director finally reveals his hand, the "twists" are predictable and maddeningly unimaginative. I expect audiences, who wanted to conceal the end of "The Sixth Sense" to insure their friends' enjoyment, will be anxious to reveal all to save their friends' $10 for a ticket.
It's not that Shyamalan doesn't have a point here. He's clearly making a statement about post-9/11 America. But the moral is overshadowed by his obligation to shock us.
Family Plot (1976)
End of the line
When compared to the films made during his creative peak, Alfred Hitchcock's "Family Plot" pales. But seen as the final work of an aging, exhausted master incapable of location shooting, it's a remarkably engaging concoction loaded with delicious Hitch moments. The downhill runaway car scene works far better than it should, and the solid cast of character actors, particularly Bruce Dern and Barbara Harris, are clearly having a grand time. While not as significant a film as "Rear Window," "Psycho," even the underrated "Marnie," it remains enjoyable fluff, especially when compared to the sluggish "Topaz," Hitch's only true late-career misfire. If you can watch this on the DVD, don't miss the documentary on the making of the film.
Underrated gem from Hitch
Like "Lifeboat" and "Foreign Correspondent," this contribution to the war effort may preach too much and wave the flag in spots, but its heart is pure Hitch. Reworking his irresistible "wrong man" theme, Hitch's use of all-American Bob Cummings is ideal. Too many viewers confuse Cummings' white bread persona as a failing of the film. In fact, Hitch uses his lead's lightness to show how even a "guy-next-door" like Cummings could be tagged as an evildoer. Hitch then uses Cummings' charm to tap our sympathy. As for Hitch's stylish set-pieces (the Statue of Liberty climax, the shoot-out at Radio City, and the wonderful stop aboard the circus train), all I can say is: superb.
House of Usher (1960)
Credit to Matheson, Price
The critics of B-movie schlock-meister Roger Corman were so taken with the gothic ambiance of "House of Usher," Corman's most beloved Edgar Allen Poe entry, they overpraised the director for finally delivering something of value, but underplayed the contribution of screenwriter Richard Matheson who twisted the most disturbing imagines from Poe's tale into a script with moments of eloquence. This film sealed Vincent Price's fate as a cinema boogeyman, and rightfully so. Roderick Usher is the monster eating at the mansion's crumbling foundation. More than any actor, Price epitomized the traditional Poe protagonist, both villain and victim, whose spiraling madness leads to grisly acts. He's the main reason the film is so beloved.
The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)
Price at his peak
It's easy to pick apart the plot contrivances. Yes, as any Sunday School student knows, the plagues are out of order . . . . But this is a rare horror gem laced with the black humor of the old E.C. Comics, then coated in an Art Decco veneer. And Vincent Price, as the master musician turned serial murderer, pulls it off with a pantomime that bucks his reputation as a ham. The murders, while farfetched, are deliciously grisly. When in the last 30 years have we had a horror films with as much style, ingenuity and class? It's the perfect bookend to Price's other '70s gem "Theater of Blood."
Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
Less showy, more sinister
The split opinion on "Shadow of a Doubt" is not surprising. Many video and DVD viewers watch this after being enveloped by the Hitchcock canon "Psycho," "Rear Window," and "Vertigo." Toss in "The Birds" even the underrated remake of "The Man Who Knew too Much," and you have five films with spectacular sequences (the shower murder, the assassination attempt in Royal Albert Hall, Jimmy Stewart's flashbulb defense) that pushed cinema in breathtaking directions. Of his best-loved films, "Shadow of Doubt" is his least showy: a character study of an all-American family facing (and denying) the presence of evil in their home. As so many have already noted, the performances are uniformly superb, allowing the central relationship between young Charlie and her mysterious Uncle Charlie to take on disconcerting edge rarely found in the cinema of 1943. Hitch asks the question: What would you do if you suspected a relative of serial murder? Like real life, his answers are frustrating and gray. To the many who find the film slack, I suggest they watch it again now that their expectations are lower. Like Hitch's best films, it improves with each viewing.
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
The evangelical adoration this film has earned is lost on me. Like so many popular films of recent years, "Shawshank" is an obvious, cliche-riddled epic that's won fans because it plays it safe. Characters are either saintly or satanic. There's no room for shades of gray. Sure its sumptuously filmed. A $50 million budget can do that. Add the always solid Morgan Freeman, a paper-thin moral about hope, and you've got a film longing to be loved. Obviously, plenty of people do.
But compared to Freeman, Tim Robbins' vanilla performance as the long-suffering innocent (dare I say Christ-like) man trapped in purgatory comes off bland. Clancy Brown as the sadistic prison guard is the worst cliche of the all. When you toss in the obligatory prison rapes, the corrupt warden, and James Whitmore (who is very good) as the veteran inmate unprepared for life outside the institution, you've got a predictable film that only snaps to life near its plot-holed conclusion.
Worse of all, Frank Darabont directs the works at half-speed. This is a painfully overlong concoction.
In time, "The Shawshank Redemption" will be regarded as a well-crafted but shallow prison film.