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It's hard not to admire this film's ambitions; and one can't object to the sterling production values. But there is something essential missing, especially in a movie whose mission is to portray the human cost of war. The movie lays the groundwork for emotional connections that never really click, even as we witness the payoffs to to setups that we've seen coming since the beginning of the film. The reason for this, I think, is that the relationships are (at least to American audiences) well-worn cliches we've been familiar with for decades.
This has been done so much better so many times before from "What Price Glory" to "Platoon" to "Full Metal Jacket" never forgetting "All Quiet on the Western Front" and, especially "Das Boot."
The performances are all at least adequate. But the characters aren't really characters -- they're merely types designed to lead us to and through antique tropes that were already getting stale while the battle of Stalingrad was being fought.
It's a well-made film of a not-so-well-made script; and it's a long slog to to foreordained ending. If only this movie had as much heart as it tried to portray, I might have felt its tragedy. Alas, it doesn't.
Twin Falls Idaho (1999)
Original, improbable, sad, funny and moving. And that's just the first hour!
"Twin Falls Idaho" is amazing not just for how much really good material it packs into its first hour, but for how it parlays all that good material into even better material for the film's second half. Although Francis Falls tips the movie's hand when he gives us his thoughts about sad endings that become happy endings, the unexpectedly original way in which these thoughts are illuminated is a genuine treat.
And what can be said about the acting? Neither Michael nor Mark Polish strikes a false note in what could have been embarrassingly showy turns. The quiet intensity of their attachment to one another and their relationship to the world around them. Michelle Hicks also finds a way to turn a character who could have been an instant cliche into a person whose feelings we care about.
This film is a rare gem you will want to see more than once.
The Burden of Proof (1992)
This is a fairly faithful rendering of the novel with underwhelming casting
Unfortunately, the crises that set off the drama in "The Burden of Proof" aren't as compelling as the one in "Presumed Innocent." Still, late middle age should have its own moments of deadly suspense. With better casting, this movie might have had more such moments.
The problem is that Hector Elizondo, a wonderful actor in his own right, has to compete with the memory of Raul Julia who created the role. Guess who wins. And casting Brian Dennehy in the role of Dixon Hartnell was just plain silly. Did the producers think we'd forget his crucial role in "Presumed Innocent."
But taken for what it is, a Scott Turow legal drama masquerading as a prime time soap, you cod do a lot worse than this picture.
The networks certainly have. Many times.
"Maybe people accept you as a ghost of the future, and love you that you might not kill them when you can" (spoilers)
"Maybe they think you're a ghost of the future," says Lula to Clay, "and love you that you might not kill them when you can." And if Clay really is, as she calls him, an "escaped nigger," maybe that will be his decision to make. But in this movie, there is no such thing as an "Escaped nigger."
Perhaps no spoiler warning is necessary, as anyone interested in seeing "Dutchman" already knows how it ends. From the first moment we behold Shirley Knight's Lula, Al Freeman Jr.'s Clay might as well have a bullseye tattooed on his forehead. Knight's over-mannered performance telegraphs every shift of her character three beats before it happens.
But it's not really important that we know where this fateful subway is headed. What's important is that it gets there (and how!).
What''s most interesting about "Dutchman" nearly thirty-five years down the line is not how dated it is, and it is -- but how dated it's not, and it's not.
Yes, at times -- especially in the picture's tentative (to near tedium) first third, one might be tempted to shriek in frustration: "Your symbolism is drowning out the dialogue!" Lula tempts Clay with apples for cryin' out loud.
But then things catch fire. What we have here is white society as a deadly bitch-goddess-temptress who can only be placated by a black human sacrifice. When Lula switches to oranges (literally), Clay's death warrant is signed.
Yet playwright Baraka isn't content to settle for something that simple. For to achieve her goal, Lula has to awaken the sleeping black rage harbored deep within the seemingly square Clay's heart. When his anger erupts, it does so with a fury that, if only for a moment, makes Lula's jabs and picks seem benign. And he rejects her.
Naturally she has to put him in his place. Of course she has to kill him.
It's all a bit heavyhanded, but how little things have changed in the decades since this film was made. The movie (and the play it was based on based on) were ghosts of the future. And it's too late to be lulled into loving it because it CAN kill us.
Maybe it should.
A Little Night Music (1977)
Fat, thin, fat, fat, thin, fat, thin! A new way to play shooters.
As production was suspended and resumed several times on this incredibly deadly version of what may be Sondheim's finest musical, the only pleasure in viewing it comes from watching Elizabeth Taylor's figure wax and wane. She is bloated in some scenes, slimmer in others, puffy, porky, then nearly svelte, then inflated, then...you get the idea.
I saw "A Little Night Music" three times during its first year on Broadway -- all with the original cast. I saw it on tour with Jean Simmons. I was so addicted to the cast album that I wore out several copies before switching to tape. On learning that it was to be filmed, I was filled with excitement.
But release was delayed, and delayed, and...FINALLY it came out. And so did the reviews. No, I said. It can't possibly be that bad!
Was I ever wrong!
First, the filmmakers made some really bad choices, beginning by relocating the action from Sweden to Vienna -- one suspects to capitalize on the "La Ronde" homage implied in Bergman's original. In doing so, they completely scrap the concept of the "perpetual sunset" (which, by the way is the title of one of the many songs cut from the stage version) of the thrice-smiling Scandinavian summer night.
That disastrous change is then compounded by the decision to "naturalize" the film, thus eliminating songs by the choral quintet of the stage versions, songs that commented so pithily on the action. This completely disrupts the ebb and flow of comedic complications, not to mention the wry rhythms of the score and lyrics which in the stage version were inseparable from the script. But there is an upside -- to serve the new concept, Sondheim has rewritten and rescored some songs so flaccidly, it becomes clear that the missing songs were actually shown mercy by being spared.
There is nothing, absolutely nothing to be salvaged from this film -- no wait, there is. Here's what you do: Get a bunch of friends together, pour each a shot, then pop the movie into the VCR. Every time Miss Taylor appears, hit the pause button, and have each friend predict fat or thin for the next angle. Then let the movie continue. If she's fat in the next shot, whoever called thin has to do a shot. If she's thin in the next shot...
This movie is so sloppy that by the end of the evening the only thing sloppier will be you and your friends. But in the morning you'll all be sober. And in the morning the movie will still stink.
The inspiring story of how the fountain of youth was discovered (paging makeup!)
Okay, I'm kidding. "Longitude" details the nearly lifelong quest of John Harrison to build a timepiece that will allow sailors to calculate longitude at sea. From the dialogue we can determine that over fifty years have passed from the beginning of the film to its end.
But, mirable dictu, Michael Gambon's John Harrison doesn't age a day. Oh, to be sure, he gets halt and infirm -- but we don't get to see even the most wayward liver spot. The same is true of other characters. The Reverend Maskelyne stars the film as a callow youth and ends it as the most boyish sixtyish old goat the movies have seen since Dorian Gray. Characters do die -- but if the cause is ever old age we never see the sign of it.
Only one character ever shows any chronological progress. William Harrison is ten when we meet him. During a commercial he zips through puberty, adolescence and just about everything else. But once that occurs, he too seems to have a magic portrait stashed in the attic. Then, at one point in the movie, he informs us that he is forty. Gee. He doesn't look a day over immortal. And Jeremy Irons? Well, we all know that famous face is chiseled in stone. But, gloriosky, even stone weathers.
This movie is exceedingly handsome. Production values are quite high. The eighteenth century costuming is particularly well done. These things were clearly achieved with all the money saved on makeup.
"Longitude" is a compelling tale neverthless. It is passionate and has a great deal to say about how self-serving bureaucrats can impede progress and grind men down. The creative ways the longitude board come up with to thwart Harrison at nearly every turn are both thrilling and dismaying. Unfortunately, the impediments also turn the movie into a series of escalating anti-climaxes.
To compensate, the film-makers employ some over-dramatic cross cutting between the modern story and the historical story. This causes the movie to become virtually incoherent in its final forty minutes, and leaves the final anti-climax to a narrator who fails to engage our interest. What a shame. But never mind. Despite these narrative flaws, and the severe lack of makeup, and largely due to the stellar performances of Michael Gambon, Ian Hart and Jeremy Irons, "Longitude" is a must-see.
Especially if you're feeling a little old for your age.
The charges of ethnic stereotyping turn out to be all too true
I have finally seen "The Phantom Menace." (Well, I've seen MOST of it -- the video was most heinously panned and scanned.) Let me say that the charges of ethnic stereotyping raised at the time of release are all too true. Could Watto be just a little MORE Jewish? Could the viceroy (with his sneak attack) be just a TAD more Japanese?
What was Lucas thinking?
These unfortunate ethnic smears could have been corrected for the video release. That they weren't is somewhat worrisome, especially in a movie that labors so hard to be a kiddie-flick.
George Lucas has a lot to answer for, and the fact that the movie is otherwise so enjoyable is not enough to earn him a pass.
The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)
A missed opportunity, a profound disappointment. Why not trust the material?
In "The Talented Mr. Ripley," screenwriter/director Anthony Minghella tries to solve the narrative challenges posed by Patricia Highsmith's brilliant novel of the same title. Chief among these challenges is the fact that the book tells the story from Ripley's point of view. Thus, all of the information we either receive or don't receive about Tom Ripley's motivations, rationalizations (or, chillingly, the lack of them) and strategies come to us from the mind of Tom Ripley. Clearly, without a voiceover narration (which Minghella briefly employs and then abandons) this won't do for a movie.
So Minghella invents two extraneous relationships for Tom. This choice is disastrous on two accounts. First, Ripley's psychopathic isolation, part of what makes him so frightening in the book, is diluted. Second, the book forces readers to view the action as helpless and horrified passive participants, experiencing the "shared guilt" Hitchcock so beautifully foisted upon the audience in his adaptation of Highsmith's "Strangers on a Train." The movie turns us into objective eyewitnesses. Since we can't share the crimes, the crimes are just boring.
In the book, we are thrilled by Ripley's calculations, his fears, his amoral energies. In the movie, it is Jude Law's Dickie Greenleaf who helps himself to life with both hands and energizes us. When his character goes, the movie goes under.
Another of Minghella's choices is far more suspect -- his choice to make Ripley identifiably gay is clearly an effort to "devialize" Ripley's criminal nature. In the book, Ripley's asexual inscrutability makes him all the more chilling. Making him gay in the movie allows mainstream audiences to extrapolate his criminality from his sexuality. "Oh, of COURSE," we are allowed to say. "That makes sense." This turns the movie into a feature-length gaybash. In the book, Marge accuses both Tom and Dickie of being gay, an accusation that Tom later employs to his advantage. But Minghella's gay Ripley is a terrible betrayal of the source material, especially since Highsmith herself was gay. She understood the sexual undercurrents of the story well enough to leave them chillingly unspoken. One of the greatest successes of Hitchcock's "Strangers on a Train" is how he teases these elements into the narrative while letting them stay unspoken. Would Robert Walker's effete sang-froid have been as fascinating if we had been told outright that he was gay? I think not.
If Minghella had trusted the material, he would have had a deeply troubling chiller (which is what "Strangers on a Train" and Highsmith's original "Ripley" were). Instead, all he has is a "look at the queer bogey-man" freak show. Worse, by making his gay Ripley capable of real emotional attachment and of suffering pain from such attachment, he reduces a truly terrifying psychopath to a plain old murderer.
The only frightening thing about this handsomely made, very well-acted movie is how pedestrian it is. What a missed opportunity.
The Pajama Game (1957)
One word sums it up: "Ole!"
Even with three numbers from the Broadway production missing, and even with some lyrics sanitized for middle-America, "The Pajama Game" remains one of the most successful stage-to-screen transitions. Except for Doris Day stepping in for Janis Paige, all the principals of the Broadway production are also aboard. You can compare for yourself Day's performance to Paige's (if you can get your hands on the original cast recording) but it's not hard to understand the producers' choice to go with at least one movie box office name. In old man Hasler's words, it's a "COMPROMISE!"
"The Pajama Game" is (with one unfortunate exception) unapologetically stagy. And why apologize? By keeping the feel of a stage production the movie preserves the flavor of the performances. Reta Shaw and Eddie Foy Jr. team up for a winning soft shoe routine in "I'll Never Be Jealous Again." "Racing With the Clock" benefits from dolly shots that open up the number without closing out the visual ironies.
The unfortunate exception is "Once a Year Day," which takes to the not-so-great outdoors to destroy a once-great production number. The legendary Bob Fosse choreography is badly served by a multiplicity of camera angles that actually dilute the dancing. Oh, well.
Luckily, there is "Steam Heat," completely undiluted, offering Fosse as one of the dancers.
I am now about to make myself feel very old by saying (oh, dear): They don't make 'em like this anymore. But, you see, they can't because Broadway doesn't make 'em like this anymore except in revival. Wait, let me sing it:
"The nostalgia game/ is the game I'm in/ And I'm proud to be/ in the nostalgia game/ I love it..."
And I love this movie. Don't miss it if you can.
Victor Frankenstein (1977)
Mr. Floyd -- you have meddled with things Universal didn't intend.
All right. To be fair, "Victor Frankenstein" is well-intentioned. But then, so was Victor Frankenstein. And in both cases the result was something humanity could have done better without.
This movie takes a fairly reverent approach to the novel but -- and this is an important "but" -- only when it suits the writers' and the director's purpose. So yes, have the Creature murder little William, but don't bother with the resultant second crime, the unjust hanging of Justine for the murder. Yes, haul everybody's butts to the arctic, but then... well that would be telling.
And the sad truth is, reduced to a somewhat respectful treatment of a classic, the only horror here is how the movie drags. And there is much unintentional humor. In fact, if laughter is the best medicine, then Per Oscarsson's reading of the line "I will be with you on your wedding night" would raise the dead far more efficiently than the hapless Victor.
No, no, no. Universal never meant us to meddle with things best left to James Whale. Only Kenneth Branagh did it worse.