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The Haunting (1999)
More is Less
I'm a big fan of both Shirley Jackson's novel and then the 1963 Robert Wise film. Whereas the Wise film subscribes to the "Less is More" school, the 1999 filming falls victim to the "More is Less" approach. Despite a promising cast, the film gives them nothing to do except wander about in absurdly grandiose CGI interiors. The CGI itself is often disappointing, caught in that lost decade when the technology was more ambitious than convincing. But worse, the terrific dialog that Jackson wrote into the book, and that Wise remained faithful to, is lost. Indeed, the story bears little resemblance to the novel, except the broad outline of the four investigators plus the Dudleys and the name of the house and its builder.
While there are a couple of creepy scenes (think of the flip book), the film overall has the sensibility of a low-rent Monster House.
A pioneering and important work
based on Max Shulman's collection of short stories, this youth-oriented series was witty and irreverent with sharp writing and a peerlessly eclectic cast (Warren Beatty and Tuesday Weld, in particular shine) in addition to the leads Hickman and Denver. Hickman is the sensitive youth who aspires to be a poet under a hard-nosed father and doting mother. The father, played by Frank Faylen is outstanding as the hard-working store owner who fails to understand his impractical son's fancies and who frequently intones "I just gotta kill that boy, I gotta." Denver is particularly fun to watch, his comic style which would occasionally suffocate Gilligan's Island is tuned to the right intensity as Hickman's beatnik sidekick.
What particularly makes Dobie successful, particularly in the early seasons, is the almost surreal and self-contained world created by the writers. Just the names of the characters Thalia Menninger, Milton Armitage, Chatsworth Osborne Jr., Maynard G Krebs and Aphrodite Millican gives an idea of the tone of the series. Dobie begins every episode before Rodin's Thinker, speaking directly to the viewer with a pithy observation, which by the framing end sequence has been demonstrated or refuted. Unlike Father Knows Best and other family shows of its era, the Gillis family is dysfunctional, and the differences between Dobie and his father are not of a dramatic Rebel Without a Cause sort, but a gentler divergence of life views of a depression-era father and a postwar teenager.
The later seasons, much less inspired, take Dobie and Maynard out of high school into college and other adventures.
I hope at least the first season comes out as a season box set. It's an important part of our pop history.
Fantastic Four (2005)
Surprisingly Good, Maybe Very Good.
I was honestly expecting very little from the film; the cheesy-looking poster doesn't help. But thorough competence all-around (and I don't mean this patronizingly) makes for quite and entertaining 90 minutes. Start with the writing. It does a very good job at capturing the dynamic of the group, the constant bickering and sparring between the members, as well the impression of four people who have long been friends and understand each other very well. I remember being struck by the importance of the interrelationships as a kid reading the books and the cartoon series--it wasn't batman and superman working together. The plot and dialog are intelligently handled. The acting is quite good as well, Chiklis is a great Thing, and I also liked Gruffudd and McMahon as Mr Fantastic and Dr Doom. McMahon is sort of a welsh Kevin Spacey. (why is it that when I see American films and there are unknown actors who strike me as good, they seems to always be from the UK, NZ, or Aus??). The younger Storm kids are good as well. The action is quick-paced, the special effects very good, and it has the right amount of humor. Lastly, the sex, language and violence are fairly restrained, so my kids were able to enjoy it.
I admire the film because it's a fairly straightforward adaptation of the comic, competently handled in every aspect, does not go for (too many) cheap laughs, and does not inject overblown ambitions into the story. It's always a pleasure to be surprised by quality entertainment.
Red Line 7000 (1965)
A Hawks Challenge
In Todd McCarthy's Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood, the impetus behind RL7000 was a) Hawk's 10-year old son Gregg was into cars, or b) Hawks wanted to prove he could make a commercial film quickly for a million dollars. Too, Hawks loved cars, studied Mechanical Engineering at Cornell, raced cars after college, and made the racing film The Crowd Roars (1932) giving him the opportunity to work with Cagney (and wrangle a Deusenberg for himself from the Deusenberg company in exchange for product placement). In a sense, both films are indulgences which never translate into a coherent picture.
RL7000 comes off a bit more like a Roger Corman film than a Hawks film, probably due to budgetary constraints. We see lots of young unknowns, dancing, loud music, interludes of unevenly-acted drama interspersed with bouts of frenetic action. Caan is a good, brooding Bradoesque study, though he squints and smirks to distraction, Marianna Hill looks great, and seeing cars like Cobra Daytonas is pretty enjoyable for mid-60's sports car fans. Ultimately, the film has problems because Hawks doesn't get what he wants out of the actors. All of his other films have very strong acting; Hawks could always get great performances from Wayne, Grant, Bogart as well as the veteran character actors he used. He didn't have such luck with most of the primary cast of three men and three women. Their bonding as lovers and as male and female groups is integral to the credibility of the film, and it just doesn't happen.
Another possibility explaining the film's weakness is that this is the only one of Hawk's final six pictures (Rio Bravo to Rio Lobo) without writer Leigh Brackett on the team.
One also senses that Hawks tried too hard to be "hip," perhaps in reaction to the fact that some critics had complained that his previous picture "Man's Favorite Sport?" seemed old-fashioned. Thus the plot is periodically suspended for some truly bizarre song and dance numbers, even by mid-60's standards. It seems inconceivable that "Wildcat Jones" was given us by the same Hawks who gave us the immortal "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend" number.
I want to like this movie, since I do subscribe to the school that a great director can never make a truly bad film. I also happen to love "Man's Favorite Sport?" which often critically lumped in with RL7000 as the two off-the-track films between a pair of Wayne/Hawks collaborations before and after. Furthermore, there are some vocal critics who love the film, such as Robin Wood. So I guess I need to watch it a few more times and hopefully can write a better review next go around.
The Thinking man's Thriller
An apotheosis of sorts.
A cinematic sub-genre yet to be discovered and adulated by the French culminated in 1985 with Lester's Commando. Criticially misunderstood at the time of its release, it was nevertheless an enormous popular success, and propelled Schwartzenegger squarely into the Quigley's Top Ten Moneymaker's poll (#6) for the first time.
Commando eludes simple analysis; it is a masterful melding of excess and economy. Ostensibly an action thriller, Commando defies simple categorization and succeeds largely on the strength of its own brazen self-confidence.
Whatever one's opinion of this controversial film, one thing is certain: Commando will continue to entertain and beguile audiences for generations to come.
The Babysitter (1980)
Different from what I was expecting, and not bad at all
My TIVO is programmed to get William Shatner films since he's usually so much fun to watch in action. But he proved relatively restrained in his role.
Frankly, I wasn't expecting much from this film, perhaps a kitschy hour and a half of entertainment.
I've never seen Remingston Steele, so as soon as a young Zimbalist comes on the screen I could no help thinking "wow, who is that?" She is very convincing in the role of an enigmatic housekeeper who works her way into the family of Shatner and Duke-Astin.
The film begins at a slow pace, but has the saving grace of not falling into the typical and predictable TV movie of the week plot.
The acting is very good all around, as well as Zimbalist, Duke-Astin and John Houseman turn in good performances.
I was surprised to see on IMDb after watching the film that it was directed by Peter Medak. I greatly respect Medak for his work in _The Changeling_ (1980), _The Krays_ (1990) and _Romeo is Bleeding_ (1993), all non-mainstream highly-respected (nearly cult) films. It is really surprising that Medak seems to weave between these films and TV sitcoms, movies of the week, and so on. His influence in creating the proper mood is, in retrospect, dominant in the film.
As someone else mentioned, the sound quality is quite bad and it is at times difficult to make out the dialog.
Con Air (1997)
The mad mad mad mad world of violence
While not as clever or amusing as _The Rock_, which this was apparently an effort to surpass, it certainly delivers the pyrotechnics. Cage, as always, delivers the best performance he can, given the confines of the script, and his best _Raising Arizona_ drawl.
The film's beginning sets a hopeful tone, we see the honorable Cage unjustly imprisoned and preparing to return to his home and the child he has never seen. Meanwhile, the penal system is filling the transport plane which will take Cage to freedom with a cast of the worst criminal psychos behind bars. There is an odd parallel to the beginning of _Stagecoach_ as the plane is loaded with the case of miscreants and a cursory description is given of each criminal. The film has a weakness for hyperbole, each character introduction, each scene, each explosion is meant to top the one before it.
Fortunately, the film does have a real ensemble cast, the full roster of villainous character actors: Malkovich, Rhames, Buscemi, Danny Trejo amongst the cons. The law is Cusack and Colm Meaney and Rachel Ticotin (Total Recall). Even Dave Chapelle is amongst the crooks.
Ultimately, the film maintains too straight a face during the ruckus. If you are going to ask the audience to accept one outrageous improbability after another, you need to keep it amusing. Chappelle keeps it funny while he's on screen but it's not long enough.
Unfortunately, the throttle has only one speed: pedal to the metal. Unlike Woo or McTiernan, who--predictable as they may arguably be--are able to build crescendos and know when to let off the gas, this one keeps on pushing harder and harder until we're feeling a bit catatonic. There is just a terrific amount of pyrotechnics and they use up twice as much powder each time. It never seems to end, which is usually a bad thing for an action movie.
But I shouldn't grouse too much. It is definitely an entertaining diversion, and Cage and Cusack are good in their roles, Colm Meaney is as always amusing. Malkovich and Buscemi are creepy enough but not the flamboyant psychos they could have been. Ironically, Cage has exactly that type of charisma (remember _Kiss of Death_, _Snake Eyes_, _Face Off_) but is forced to be restrain himself as the stolid ex-Army ranger.
Finally: what the HECK does bruckheimer have against Corvettes???
Pleasant fare--bad rap
I read someone once say that "films like _Move_ destroyed Gould's career in 1 and a half years." Maybe, maybe not, but _Move_ is really not a bad film at all: a bit counter-culture, but not obnoxiously so.
Gould is an intellectual New Yorker whose fortunes have led him to walk dogs in central park, and to author pornographic literature to make a living--a self-described "scatological existence." Prentiss (in a straight role) is his long-suffering wife, who watches as he suffers a mental breakdown. This film is of interest to Prentiss fans as it was her first big role in 5 years of eschewing Hollywood. Genevive Waite is the ditzy model Gould meets in the park.
Perhaps the film's greatest drawback (to us men, at least), is Gould's penchant for dropping his trousers to reveal an inordinately hirsute physique.
When all is said, its a film with its own charms, and the ending sweetly closes the story.
Matchstick Men (2003)
Cage is wonderful is a con-artist who, through a series of mishaps, decides to change his life. No one but Cage could pull off the very complex part. But the viewer is entirely at the mercy of the film as it develops in its own way. Its exploration of the art of the scam is similar to Mamet's _House of Games_, but much more aimed at the complex Cage character and the unexpected turns he encounters.
Don't you love it when you really like a film and then afterward discover it was directed by one of your favorite directors? I had no idea it was a Scott film. It's remarkable Scott is so successful in this modest film after his "big" films _Gladiator_ and _Black Hawk Down_.
Black Hawk Down (2001)
Oddly enough, I was underwhelmed by this film on first viewing--it was not the non-stop action-packed Bruckheimer-style thrill-fest I was initially expecting. But Black Hawk is in fact a remarkable film. Its slow and meticulous buildup is masterfully executed. The viewer is rapidly introduced to about a dozen characters during the long setup, and throughout the film, we see the action through their eyes. Scott segues from the frenetic to the lyrical effortlessly, from the cold-blue hardness of military action to the warn tones of the sun-drenched country.
Despite my opening comment, the film does have plenty of action, some of it the best ever filmed. The DVD shows some of the remarkable special effects (most of which were completely transparent to me, the before-and-after CGI comparisons are remarkable).
Acting is first-rate, especially considering most of the non-American cast had to adopt some remarkably powerful southern drawls--take Eric Bana for example.
I've always thought Scott was talented, from Alien and Blade Runner, but considered him somewhat superficial and technical. When Gladiator came out, I just remember sitting in the theater saying to myself "when did he become such a Great filmmaker?" Black Hawk confirms his greatness.
A number of sequences are beautifully executed, such as the capture of Atto, the men on one Blackhawk going out to get Bana, the other Blackhawk coming in to bring in Bloom crossing each other over the beach . Another wonderful sequence is the Mogadishu's early warning system as the raid flies in. Sequences flow into each other seamlessly and effortlessly. The scene where the soldiers drop down to secure Blackhawk #2 is one of the most harrowing in memory.
I think Scott makes absolutely no miscues in this one, every scene is deliberate and counts, and there is nothing throw-away or gratuitous.
I read Mark Bowden's book, and the film does inevitably compress some events and combine a few characters, but some of the more memorable characters, such as McGregor's Grimes and Sergeant Pilla were all real.
A final plus: lots of Elvis music.