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Mission to Moscow (1943)
Wreckers and saboteurs
The flaws in this film are gigantic and obvious. The scenes of the show trials, to take one example, not only falsify history, but come off as so flat and awkward as to make it impossible to believe any of the confessions. Which makes me wonder: was this just bad writing by an otherwise gifted screenwriter or deliberate sabotage?
We know this much: that Davies had final script approval. It shows: he is in every scene and given the last word on every subject. You can imagine him standing over Howard Koch's shoulder, insisting on rewriting this scene and adding extra touches to another. All this must have been maddening to a professional writer at the pinnacle of his career.
Which leads to my pet theory: that Koch exacted his revenge by making Davies look like a fool. While the film may appear to be painting Davies in a positive light it would be hard for him not to be at least likable with Walter Huston playing him a closer viewing depicts him not only as naïve and gullible, but also self-centered and vain.
What else do we make of those scenes and they keep recurring in which various Soviet figures tell Davies how insightful, open and honest he was? Davies, of course, never disagrees, but instead launches into another speech in which he assures his friends that he will tell America or the world what's really going on in the Soviet Union. Whether Davies realized it or not, the film shows him as someone who only needs to be tickled under the chin in order to be seduced.
Which brings us back to the show trial scenes. Bukharin did as much as he could to defeat Vyshinsky by admitting as much as he had to in order to save his family but denying whatever else he could, while dropping broad hints that none of what he was saying was true. Koch's script does something similar: the confessions of Radek, Bukharin, Yagoda and the rest sound canned and unconvincing and the defendants themselves look more like defeated party functionaries than conspirators. Which is, of course, the truthit's just not advertised as such.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
Miscast and misdirected
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I've read the book and seen the series, which might be a drawback in appreciating this version. But there were so many things wrong with it that made it a huge disappointment:
1. As others have noted, Benedict Cumberbatch was at least a decade too young to play Guillam and lacked a certain thuggishness that made his attempts to play that role look forced. To my American eyes he looked more like a clerk behind the counter at a Starbucks.
2. Toby Jones likewise was all wrong as Percy Alleline: too timid, too awkward and (pardon me) too short to be a bureaucratic intriguer. And, while I did not travel in those circles in the early 70s (or at any other time), I would have assumed that a functionary would have suppressed his Scottish accent in favor of something more Oxbridgean. Jones looked like he was trying out for the role of Yezhov in some other movie.
3. Colin Firth cannot compete with Ian Richardson, who evoked Kim Philby just by his looks and manner; Firth would have done better as Guy Burgess. Richardson gave us a layered performance; Firth's was completely forgettable.
4. Ciarán Hinds did not look remotely like a leftish academic. And, yes, I know that we don't have to stereotype every character by physical appearance, but can we at least make some sort of bow toward the characters in the book? At any rate, as far as the movie was concerned he might as well have been a piece of furniture.
5. The violence (or, more accurately, the graphic display of torn human flesh and blood that represented violence that had taken place off screen) was not merely gratuitous, but tacky. It only underscored the fact that the director had no handle on the narrative and used these showpieces to substitute for what the series emphasized--what the characters did not know or knew but did not tell.
6. Those tears in that scene nearly at the end of the movie.
The series was engrossing, the movie was boring,
Rejoice and Shout (2010)
Too long, but too short too
I have a few points to add to tlsnyder42-1's thoughtful commentary: First, the film tried to cover too much in too short a time. I think the coverage was fairly well balanced between jubilee/hard gospel/choir, chose the right persons to focus on and has some wonderful clips, but I also felt as if it could have said and shown so much more. A shame to leave out Dorothy Love Coates, Alex Bradford, the Davis Sisters, Roberta Martin, etc. It would be wonderful if someone were willing to turn this into a four part series, similar to Ken Burns' Jazz or that collection of films on the blues.
On the other hand, it could have been edited a little more smartly. While I liked the commentaries, I think the film could have done without Smokey Robinson altogether and would have benefited from some editing of others' comments (it's the Ohio, not the Mississippi, that was the boundary between slavery and freedom--just look where Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri and Texas are). While I can't tell you what to cut, I can say it dragged a bit. But those clips of the Hummingbirds and the Silvertones, plus the footage of believers slain in the spirit are revelatory. Worth being included with the other documentaries on the same theme.
Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004)
Images, words and ideas
[Possible spoilers ahead]
I am one of those who neither hated nor loved this movie. The best thing about it is the Big Idea that Moore wants us to understand that it is a crime to send working class kids to fight a war on the basis of the lies about WMDs and terrorism that the Bush Administration peddled for a year and a half after September 11th. Moore is actually fairly low-key in pushing this point, even though he says it as straightforwardly as possible at the end of the movie, because he doesn't (for the most part) hit us over the head with the cute ironies, embarrassing images and heavy sarcasm he is so prone to use otherwise. Even the Marine recruiters, like the sheriff in Roger and Me who made a living out of evicting the unemployed, come off as people doing their job in an unjust system.
Moore sets up his argument with the unsensitized pictures of what bombing and occupation mean on the ground in Iraq something we almost never see in the U.S. media. While we still do not get close to the Iraqis in these scenes, given the distances created by language and culture, or even to the American soldiers, thanks to Moore's scrapbook approach to telling his story, we do get a few minutes to see what this sort of hell is like. And that makes his point that much more powerful when he brings the story home to Flint, to the VA hospital and to Lila Lipscomb's kitchen. (As for the commenter who told her to shut up, what is it about her grief that you can't bear to watch?)
The problem is that Moore weighs down this message with a lot of tendentious arguments about Unocal's plans for a pipeline, the departure of Saudi nationals on September 13th, and other debatable points. It isn't enough for Moore to point out the criminality (in moral terms at least) of Halliburton and others getting rich off the war; Moore needs to find a scandal, one that will make the war a federal crime as well. That causes him to fixate on Bush and the Bush family's relations with the House of Saud. I had a hard time seeing what the point was: we know we are in close alliance with the Saudis, but how does that explain why we went into Afghanistan, or why we waited four weeks to bomb Afghanistan, or why we invaded Iraq? Moore doesn't offer any explanation and I don't think he's got one.
Bush is a great target. Moore desperately wants to defeat him this November. And he probably could not have sold as many tickets if he had not skewered him so frequently and so well. But this would have been a better film if Moore had stuck to the point he really wanted to make.
They Were Expendable (1945)
A great film inside another one
There are two films here, one wrapped around the other. The one that begins and ends the film is breezy, action-oriented, mostly shot outdoors. Better than Sands of Iwo Jima, but other than that fairly average WWII fare, even taking into account the fact that it is a largely accurate retelling of a tremendous defeat.
The other film is mostly shot inside, either in the hospital or at social events, and is far darker and more moving. While Ford gives us some of his standard hokum, such as the trio hiding underneath the cottage, this section looks much harder at death, defeat and helplessness.
The indoor setting is key, Ford had shot in shadows before, as in Grapes of Wrath, and he did again in My Darling Clementine. But the scenes in the hospital are even more evocative: they remind us that the war has only begun and that the worst lies ahead. And while some commentators have complained that this movie is too slow, in this section the slow pace makes the feeling of imminent loss that much more poignant. I'm thinking in particular of the scene when Donna Reed does her hair in the mirror before coming to the table. Here we not only get to feast our eyes, along with the officers waiting at the table a few feet away, at the impossibly beautiful Donna Reed, but we get a sense of what a struggle it must have been to try to maintain any sort of normal life in wartime.
I don't suppose it would be possible to have sustained this note throughout the movie--no string quartet can be all adagio--but I wish the bookend sections had measured up to the middle section.
Mars Attacks! (1996)
Mars Attacks! is a great film. With the exception of Nicholson and Short, every star turned in wonderful performances, particularly Pierce Brosnan, who gave us a droll pipe-smoking performance, and O'Lan Jones, who showed us why we need to keep a gun in the house. And after watching it for the tenth time I finally discovered Jack Black, underplaying his part for the first and last time.
Other things you learned from this movie and nowhere else: what the universal sign of the doughnut is, what Martians mean when they say we come in peace, etc. Finally, no other movie could ever send up Colin Powell as neatly as this one did; his career as Secretary of State only confirms everything that the Warfield character said and did.
Under the Tuscan Sun (2003)
A postcard, rather than a movie
There is one detail in this movie that actually rings true: when one of our hero's traveling companions rejects the gushy, purple prose in the postcard she wrote for him. If only the screenwriter/director/producer had gotten the point. Enthusing about picturesque Italians and Italian landscapes is no substitute for a story with characters who actually struggle with decisions and actually change in the process. That isn't to say that the movie doesn't try to show its hero changing, but those changes turn out to be pretty shallow and utterly predictable.
Would anyone have made this movie (or paid good money to see it) if our hero had been named Francis and his life-changing discovery is that he should forget his ex, move to Italy, and live in a big house in a small community with his old and new friends around him? I don't begrudge our hero any of those pleasures--I wouldn't mind living in Cortona either--but I don't see why we would make a movie about it.
Other reviewers have said enough about this wonderful witty heist movie that surprised me every step of the way with how good it was. Two things bother me about this movie, however.
First, why did they only ask for $1,000,000? I know that things were cheaper then--I was a productive member of society, sort of, at the time--but even so, $250,000 a pop seems like too little reward for all the time and risk they invested in their plan. Even one of the passengers held hostage thought it wasn't enough--why didn't that occur to the merc or the wise guy?
Second, how did the makers of this movie know that Ed Koch was going to be mayor of New York? It was 1974 and Abe Beame--who would not have made an interesting character if you had put him in platform shoes and hot pants--was Mayor of New York, yet somehow the makers of this film got someone who looks and acts more like Koch than the Mayor in Ghostbusters. Eerier than crop circles
Der Dibuk (1937)
The Lost World
This movie is, in a loose sense, a ghost story with a familiar theme: malevolent fate works through human passions, destroying our protagonists, who do not realize until too late what lies ahead. A fine melodrama, no matter how creaky the production might be. What makes it even more poignant, however, is the historical context. This world, which was fading already when the story was first written, was wiped out entirely by Hitler's Endlösung shortly after the movie was made. The film functions as a ghost story in more ways than one.
Catch Me If You Can (2002)
Spielberg's tribute to 400 Blows
Okay, I'll accept that this is a stretch: if it hadn't been for the scene in which our hero discovers his mother's infidelity, then it would never have occurred to me.
But the similarities go beyond that: this is another film about a young man, abandoned in a sense by his parents, fascinated by the adult world but
unprepared for adult life, who slides into a life of deception.
What's different? First and foremost, the happy ending. It's the truth, I suppose, and it's what we want, in that Abagnale is a likeable, very competent young
man, who succeeds where Doinel failed.
Unfortunately that happy ending also negates what we see about this boy who
wants to be anybody but himself. While he didn't need to remake The Grifters, a little less sunniness at the end might have made a much better movie.