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Welcome to Collinwood (2002)
Painfully unfunny (to me at least)
This has got to be one of the worst films I've ever seen that was made with legitimately talented people. I can't believe that there were actually people who liked it. But, as I've always insisted, our sense of humor is the most individualistic sense we've got. No matter how closely any two people might agree in taste, there will inevitably be something that one finds funny and the other doesn't. So just because I found it tasteless and heavy-handed, that doesn't mean that there won't be viewers who will find it hilarious.
Tuck Everlasting (2002)
A Disney movie that Walt would have been proud of
This is the best adaptation of a classic children's book I've seen in a very long time. Nearly everything in this film is just right. Of all the live-action films that Walt Disney produced in his lifetime, one he was very proud of was the 1960 POLLYANNA, and TUCK EVERLASTING reminded me of POLLYANNA in several key aspects. Like POLLYANNA, TUCK has a meticulous attention to period details (it takes place in 1914). Also like POLLYANNA, it has some high-powered acting talent in peripheral roles, with the main focus of the story on younger, less well-known actors. The cinematography is beautiful, with a rich interplay of light and shadow, and to best appreciate this aspect, you should try to see it in a theater with the brightest picture available. Like another classic children's book (CHARLOTTE'S WEB) TUCK EVERLASTING explores philosophical concepts of life and death and eternity that most adult films, much less children's films, ever touch on. I hope that TUCK doesn't end up comparable to POLLYANNA in one key area: lack of box-office success. Walt was extremely disappointed when, despite the loving attention he garnished on the film, audiences for the most part stayed away. TUCK EVERLASTING deserves to be a huge success. Hollywood has come under frequent criticism for not making enough family-friendly films, but it seems that when a rich, intelligent film does come out, it's ignored. I hope and pray that this one won't be.
The Adventures of Pluto Nash (2002)
Not a great film, but not bad, either
I don't know why this film has been getting such bad buzz. It's the standard "wise-cracking protagonist on the run from the mob, trying to get to the bottom of things" plot, no more hackneyed than any number of other films which audiences have responded favorably to. It's got an amiable performance from Eddie Murphy, plus amusing support from Randy Quaid, Luis Guzman, and John Cleese. And, even though they're given little to do, it's good to see Peter Boyle, Burt Young and Pam Grier working. I though the cluttered design of the film, which reminded me a bit of Matt Groening's "Futurama", was well done, and I was pleasantly surprised that the design team and special effects team got most, but not all, of the sci-fi-geek details right (they still included an audible explosion in a vacuum). All in all, it's not a great movie, maybe not even a good one, but it's certainly not a bad one.
Dr. T & the Women (2000)
Mildly entertaining Altman flick
As a long-time fan of Robert Altman's work, I was looking forward to this one with some ambivalence. I had read that it was in his characteristic style of a lot of people interacting with very little actual plot (which I have usually enjoyed), but I was also a bit apprehensive because usually when a major star has been featured in an Altman film (remember Paul Newman in "Quintet" and "Buffalo Bill") the results have been disappointing. Well, the good news is that this is better than the two Newman films, but it's still got problems. Throughout the film we see Dr. T becoming more and more confused in his attempts to satisfy all the women in his life, until (literally, it seems) all hell breaks loose at his daughter's wedding. Up till this point the film has been fairly naturalistic in style, and it seems to be leading up to a conclusion where he would realize that his life is a mess and try to simplify. That happens, but it's only through a Deus ex machina that's so much at odds with the style of everything that has come before that I was expecting it to turn out to be a dream. The simplified life which Dr. T seems to be embracing at the very end is dramatically appropriate, but I object to the method used to get him to that point.
Anyway, the first 80% or so of the film is amiable enough that I'd recommend it to fans of Altman's style, but if you're not already a fan, skip this one and rent "Short Cuts" instead.
Branagh puts the Ham back in Hamlet
All too often these days (and not just in Shakespeare's plays) the actors seem so intent on feeling their characters' internal conflicts that they fail to communicate anything to the audience. Branagh takes us back to an earlier style of acting, where performances (especially Shakespearean performances) were larger than life. In doing so he runs the risk of being labeled a scenery chewing ham, which for some reason is considered a negative thing. To my ears, however, there's nothing more exciting than listening to a good actor rip through a speech full of fire and fury, reminding us of the sheer beauty of the English language, and that's one of Branagh's great strengths. Remember his "Once more into the breach" from "Henry V", for example, or the St Crispin's day speech which had me ready to go out and kill some Frenchmen for him. "Hamlet" is full of such electrifying moments from the whole cast (except for Jack Lemmon, who sounded almost as though he had learned his lines phonetically) The sumptuous production, Patrick Doyle's rousing score and a great cast add up to four hours of cinematic magic. So, if you're a fan of conspicuous acting rather than Method mumbling, "Hamlet" is four hours of bliss.
Ken Russell at his most restrained
Though more reserved than Ken Russell's usual work, this film still has much to recommend it. The music, of course, is superb, and the acting is restrained. Fans of Russell's outrageousness will find a few choice sequences (especially the one where Mahler converts to Catholicism to placate Cosima Wagner), but if you've got a friend whom you want to introduce to Ken Russell's usual style of lunacy, this would by the one to start with before graduating to "The Music Lovers" or "Gothic".
Thieves Like Us (1974)
One of Altman's best
This often overlooked gem is one of Altman's best films. Keith Carradine and Shelly Duvall have seldom been better. The film has a rich verisimilitude that few films can equal. The whole film looks and feels as though Altman had transported his cast to 1935 to shoot on location.
The Blue Bird (1976)
Unbelievably entertaining bad movie
On a level of polished film making, this is possibly one of the shoddiest big-budget films ever made, but for viewers with the right (admittedly warped) perspective, it's terrifically entertaining. Most bad movies are merely ineptly made and therefore boring. But this film reaches such a surreal level of ineptitude that the viewer can only wonder, "What did I just watch? Was that a movie or was I hallucinating?" The script here is so disjointed and bizarre, it gave me the impression of what Ed Wood might have done if he had tried to make a children's film and had access to real stars. The plot is indescribable, so I won't try. Some golden moments are Will Geer and Mona Washbourne as the children's grandparents singing a song about how boring it is to be dead; Robert Morley decked out as Father Time in a slightly morbid Land of Unborn children; and my favorite, Ava Gardener in the Palace of Luxury, pointing out to the young boy all the luxuries (all grotesquely personified): the luxury of eating when not hungry, the luxury of loving one's own looks, etc. When the kid asks Ava, "Which luxury are you?" she leers at him and says, "You'll find out about me when you get a bit older."
I saw this film when it was first released. The ad campaign had made it sound like a charming children's fantasy, and the fact that it was filmed in the USSR brought out all the liberal parents and their kids. By the end of the screening, the theatre was empty except for my friends and me, rolling in the aisles with laughter. So, if you like inexplicable bad movies, the ones that make you wonder just what in the world the filmmakers thought they were doing, don't miss "The Blue Bird".
Fascinatingly flawed musical extravaganza
After working with Julie Andrews in "The Sound of Music", Robert Wise and Saul Chaplin were eager to find a vehicle to showcase her prodigious talents. In choosing the story of Gertrude Lawrence, it seemed they had found an ideal subject. But some serious mistakes were made along the way, which I think are the main reasons audiences rejected this extravagant production. Most important was the casting. There is very little chemistry between Andrews and her leading men, which makes it hard to empathize with the character's romantic entanglements and problems. Another problem was in one of the plot threads: Lawrence was depicted as being somewhat irresponsible with her personal life, especially her finances. If there's one quality Julie Andrews has always projected on screen, it is a down-to-earth, feet-on-the-ground sensibleness which is at odds with this aspect of the character as written. The musical numbers are the biggest reason for seeing this film, but they are staged to give little sense of the context in which they originally were presented (a common problem with show-biz biographies), so they come off looking more like production numbers from a late 60s TV special. Another quibble is that despite the fact that there were songs from shows by Cole Porter, George Gershwin and Kurt Weill, the script implies that all the music was by Noel Coward, even to the extent of having Coward at the piano at the opening night party for Gershwin's "Oh, Kay". Despite these problems, I find the film fascinating because of the lavishness of the production, which (unlike many show-biz bios) depicts a very believable historical setting, and because Wise and company were obviously trying to recreate an all but extinct musical genre: the star vehicle specifically tailored to the talents af a particular performer. For maximum appreciation of "Star!", I recommend the laser disc edition with commentary by Robert Wise, Saul Chaplin, and many members of the cast.