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1 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Watch it Fade, 16 December 2003

It's nice to see this overrated film fade from the memory, alongside other Oscar "winners", like the silly Thelma and Louise or Sitcom-ish As Good as it Gets. Make no mistake that Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening and Chris Cooper can bring the goods, but this slice of baby-boomer angst is hardly their shining hour. I can also express no surprise, whatsoever, as Mena Suvari is now appearing in one of the endless parade of Cheerleader/Dance films. Critics had her sized-up as the next Susan Sarandon. I had my doubts when I first saw this, that maybe, just maybe I was wrong. Maybe the two gay guys bringing by the fruit-basket/housewarming present had some esoteric,deeper meaning, and wasn't really fit for a Jim Belushi sitcom. Maybe the fact that Chris Cooper paid such maniacal attention to his son (Wes Bentley) it was predatory, and then failed to observe him making thousands, damn near millions, selling the cool-sounding "Thai Stick", maybe, just maybe, that, in and of itself had some deeper meaning. I thought maybe Peter Gallagher's bad acting was also part of the spice of the movie. Maybe Annette Bening hitting the target range wasn't really a cliche, but a sly poke at inferior movies that do such stuff. Maybe Kevin Spacey's "Can we take you to the pizza-joint, huh, huh, huh, huh?????", maybe that's supposed to be high humor, too. I think of these things, and say... Naahhh. This movie just over-rated. Has my anger about the ridiculous snub of Russell Crowe for The Insider, and that film's complete shut-out surfaced yet? Just checking. All I can say is, fade away, American Beauty, fade away.

The movie that became itself, 21 December 2000

In writing this review, I'm tempted to address it to Don Hewitt and Mike Wallace. The Insider is a devastating film, but I think they are mistaken, if they see it as a blanket indictment of 60 Minutes. It's a blanket indictment of the tobacco industry. I don't think we will ever get to the bottom of what went on at 60 Minutes, with respect to the treatment of the Jeffrey Wigand interview. This movie is a dramatic piece that takes a stab at it, and I think that heaping criticism on Director/Writer Michael Mann is a huge mistake. This film shouldn't be picked at, it should be applauded. The spirit of this film is exactly the same as that of 60 Minutes. I doubt that most people watch 60 Minutes with a notepad in their hands. I think 60 Minutes gets people to think, and hopefully look into issues that are important. I believe that was Michael Mann's goal.

The first issue to tackle is the presentation of Lowell Bergman, former producer at 60 Minutes, as the white knight of the story. There were complaints that Bergman got credit for things he didn't do, and that he didn't quit when they said he did, etc. I'm reminded of the avalanche of criticism that Oliver Stone received when he chose Jim Garrison as his vehicle to probe the JFK assassination. As Michael Kinsley noted at the time, critics assailed Stone for making a hero of Garrison, whom many considered a shameless self-promoter and a man of shaky morals, at best. While this attack was taking place, across the multiplex you could go see Warren Beatty and Writer James Toback's near deification of Benjamin Siegel in Bugsy. I'm tempted to say that it's Michael Mann's dime, so he can pick whatever hero he likes. However, I think the truth is that there was a wealth of information he needed to convey, and selecting Bergman as his vehicle was the best way to go.

The second issue which had supposedly "independent" viewers up in arms was the aura of suspicion, manufactured or otherwise, that surrounded Jeffrey Wigand. This man will probably remain an eternal enigma. Was he exaggerating his claim of being harassed for some hidden agenda? Did he lie about finding a bullet in his mailbox? Did he try to cover up that he stole an electric can-opener?

This second issue is at the core of my argument in defense of this film. Question: Isn't it more important that Wigand, a scientist who worked for Brown & Williamson, provided undisputed testimony that nicotine was being manipulated to bolster it's addictive qualities, than whether or not he stole an appliance at Walmart? Shouldn't people be more disgusted by the laughable testimony to congress by the seven heads of big tobacco (The Seven Dwarves, as he refers to them)?

This movie became itself. It's a story of how many forces there are out in the world that seek to silence agitators. The simple truth is that Wigand, Wallace and Bergman had a story to tell and were crushed by some of these forces. Mann and Co-Writer Eric Roth wanted to tell this story on as big a screen as possible, and they got crushed, too. I'm surprised we didn't hear about how Michael Mann stole some lawn darts when he was in high school, or that Roth missed a Alfa-Romeo payment when he was in college. I hope this irony is not lost on Mike Wallace and Don Hewitt.

It's no surprise that this film (vastly superior to the diverting, but hardly earthshaking American Beauty) was shut out at the Oscars. Kevin Spacey is one of our finest actors, but his character is not in the league of Russell Crowe's work here. Crowe's Wigand, with his birdlike and occasionally irritating behavior, with his egotism, with his intelligence, whoa! This is a performance. Reporters once again had a little fun when it was reported that Crowe didn't invite the real Wigand to the premiere. I guess this Crowe guy must be a schnook. Don't give him the Oscar.

Truth be told, acting kudos go to all involved. Pacino, as Bergman, creates a stubborn character, who's not ashamed of his liberal nature, even when he's in a sea of conservatives. Christopher Plummer's controversial characterization is a delight as well. He gets Wallace's legendary tempestuousness, his egotism and his smarts down to perfection. The small characters are drawn with a sharp eye, as well. Alert to reporters: Mann's wife Diane Venora plays Wigand's wife. Bad news, though, she's a wonderful actress, and she's great here. Sorry.

As the settlements from big tobacco come down, Mann's working on a film about about Ali, Bergman's back working in Berkeley where he belongs, Wigand is up to God knows what, and 60 Minutes chugs on, popular as ever. Memo to Mike Wallace and Don Hewitt: This was an excellent film. Admit it!!

32 out of 36 people found the following review useful:
Worth the wait, 13 December 2000

I first heard of this movie at work in 1984 when I saw an engineer who had the movie ad pinned up in his cubicle. I'd had this movie in the back of my head and always meant to check it out, but I've never seen it for rental and didn't want to risk plunking down $20 to order it. It was worth the wait.

Miranda Richardson, probably best known for The Crying Game and Sleepy Hollow (Now there's a combo!) stars as Ruth Ellis, a deluded romantic from 1950's England who managed to ride a sexual obsession to her own execution, the last on the books in the country's history. All this comes at the expense of a man who truly loves her, and a son who is not a priority in her life, to say the least. Ellis was adored, worshipped even, by clumsy businessman Ian Holm, but she only has eyes for Ruppert Everett. Everett's a hot shot car driver working on some new car design that's he convinced is going to revolutionize the auto industry. He exudes the confidence that Holm couldn't hope to possess. All three performances are outstanding.

As the story unfolds, director Mike Newell seems to pull no punches. I don't know the how's or the who's of this case, but Newell gives this film an authenticity many strive for, but few attain. In essence, it's Holm's character that is hung out to dry. He has to stand by as Everett continually denigrates Richardson both physically (A few punches, a glass of booze in the face,etc.), and emotionally (Too many episodes to count). Holm could have been molded into a flawed hero, and perhaps he would have been in the hands of a director with eyes on receipts instead of craft. Everett's character could have slipped into melodrama, as well. He has a roguish charm, I suppose, but he's basically just a spoiled rich boy, the type to bring a low class Richardson too his parents estate, and be suprised when she is intimidated.

At the center is Richardson, bringing Ruth Ellis back to life. It's disturbing how she can see what she's doing to her young son, truly care for him, but not let it effect her. Even more reprehensible is watching her use Holm to watch her child while she crawls back to Everett after another beating, to sneak a quickie in a fog-filled back alley.

Mike Newell directed Donnie Brasco, an excellent film which took a similar, bleak look at the life of a policeman who set aside his family in the name of his job. Newell didn't flinch in painting Joseph Pistone (The real life cop), as an obsessed man who started to lose his own identity. Pistone's family pays a heavy price for his dedication (misplaced?), but Ruth Ellis' paid even more. She left a son alone, and it's not a stretch to infer that he led a desperate life, based on what we learn in the closing comments.

Don't wait 16 years to see this film, like I did. Hunt it down on cable, or check out your local video store. This is a small story that gets big treatment.

No Longer a Satire, 7 February 2000

As a nation We must face up to the facts that we'll be watching President Michael Jordan at his state of the nation in the near future. Therefore, I think it is time reclassify The Candidate, the quintessential political satire, as something more along the lines of historic fiction.

After all, what's satirical about an alleged maverick who rides a wave of good looks, charm and vacant promises into high office? Was I the only one in America who coughed up his fettucini when George W. Bush had the nerve to promise no new taxes, only new tax cuts? Am I the only one who remembers that even conservatives didn't care for his daddy? Satire is reality now. Mark Twain would be a realist now, not a humorist.

Which brings us back to The Candidate. Awesome. You have Redford (sideburns and all), the idealistic lawyer helping the migrant farmworkers down in San Diego. You have Peter Boyle as the old college chum who offers Redford a free platform in an election he can't win. Throw in Allan Garfield as a king-making campaign expert, and Melvyn Douglas as Redford's estranged father, a former Governor, and you got it all. The acting by these folks is excellent. The presence of many real reporters and journalists only adds to the realism.

You aren't five minutes into the campaign, and the sideburns are gone, the sell out begins. From the trenches down in San Diego, to the rich lady lunch-ins in Bel Air, sucking around for money and votes. So much for idealism. Natalie Wood shows up, as herself, and as you watch Redford chat with her, you'd swear it was Bubba Clinton. It's no surprise that writer Jeremy Larner and director Michael Ritchie are both veterans of the campaign trail. They understand it from the inside out.

A big reason this movie towers over most recent political films, is because it never feels canned. I really believe (Idealism alert!) that this film was made to teach, not simply to make a buck. Lately, when I watch most new political satire, or any new satire for that matter, I often feel cheated. I get the impression that I'm being pandered to, rather than enlightened. I'm too often reminded that I'm watching a Hollywood product, with the everpresent marketing logos sprinkled throughout, and the forced pop references. Satire is supposed to ridicule through irony. Films like The Candidate and Network don't wink at the audience. They play it straight down the line, heightening the absurdity of their subject, by keeping a straight face.

Treasure this movie. It's fast becoming a dinosaur. I can't imagine trying to write a satire on politics these days. Maybe that's why the more recent films don't quite measure up. Maybe it's not Hollywood, but the decrepit political system that ties the hands of the new breed of filmmakers. Maybe it isn't the money that kills filmmakers integrity, but simply the lack of good material to make a good satire. Maybe the last two lines I wrote were laced with satire!

Stray Dog (1949)
1 out of 4 people found the following review useful:
A Stray Dog becomes a Mad Dog, 28 January 2000

It was a pleasure to finally track down this masterpiece of Film-Noir by the redoubtable Akira Kurosawa. One of his earlier efforts, Stray Dog is nevertheless a masterful weaving of what we would come to expect from a film by the Japanese Maestro.

The legendary Toshiro Mifune stars as a police detective who gets his gun stolen on a crowded city bus. His cavalier attitude, seen earlier, is at once replaced by a clarity of purpose: Get the gun back, before something horrible happens.

Mifune's quest leads him to another, more seasoned detective (Takashi Shimura, another Japanese legend) who guides him through the heat and intensity of post-war Japan. On this journey the two men encounter one unique character after another, as scenes alternate between the sweat-inducing interrogation of an ex-girlfriend of the thief, to an amusing interlude with a young gigolo.

While one might assume that a Japanese film made so close to the end of the war would more than likely be mordant and lacking in wit, Stray Dog proves otherwise. It is very reminiscent of the best of Bogart, with it's seriousness laced with sarcasm and humor, incredible tension counteracted by moments of humor.

Atmosphere and mood are used to great advantage in this film. You can feel the frustration and exhaustion of Mifune as he moves frustratingly from one clue to another. The suffocating heat only raises the level of intensity. It's clear that he will come face-to-face with his quarry.

For those of you who love films like The Maltese Falcon, Out of the Past or even the King of Noir The Big Sleep, I suggest Stray Dog as a nice companion piece from the Far East.

6 out of 13 people found the following review useful:
Paranoid and Proud of it, 19 November 1999

As the nineties come to a close, I have to admit that this decade hasn't featured a vast amount of gutsy film-making. Films that try to say something uncomfortable, have generally been buried. The only two film-makers who seem to follow their vision are John Sayles and Oliver Stone. Sayles, with his singular, unflinching takes on race, corruption, and moral decay, in films like "Lone Star", "Matewan" and "City of Hope", and Stone, with his muck-raking, and okay, somewhat paranoid films, like "JFK", "Salvador" and "Nixon". Spike Lee occasionally strays in here as well, but spends far too much time on piffle like "Girl 6" and "He Got Game". Two, and occasionally three film-makers willing to risk ridicule by being honest. That's pretty lame.

However, back in the seventies, and early eighties, you had a whole generation of brave film-makers. Directors like Hal Ashby, Robert Altman, Paul Schrader, and Francis Ford Coppola drove studio heads crazy, because they wouldn't compromise their vision. Ironically, most of the studios gripes were probably right on the money. Excellent films like "The Conversation" or "Nashville" probably would have benefited, in a box office sense, had Coppola or Altman caved in to the studios. But back then you had a solid group that wouldn't budge.

During this era, Alan J. Pakula and Warren Beatty hooked up to make this gripping, paranoid thriller. Echoes of Oswald, the grassy knoll and the Warren Commission whitewash resonate throughout this film. (Pakula followed this with the equally excellent "All the President's Men." I suppose some would call that film paranoid, as well.)

Beatty witnesses an assassination atop the Space Needle in Seattle, and gets the conspiracy bug bad, as he watches one mysterious witness death, after another. Rather than wait for an assassin, he investigates anything and everyone he comes across, and finds a plot that goes anywhere and everywhere. Pakula and Beatty lay it on thick. Organized assassin training. Police forces on the payroll. Sinister sandwich deliverers. Even an extra assassination of a politician in a golf cart. This film has it all.

This is not to say that "The Parallax View" isn't believable. Quite the contrary. It takes evidence akin to that of the Kennedy assassinations, the MLK assassination, and Watergate, and weaves it into a story that makes all too much sense.

Cast is solid. Hume Cronyn, William Daniels, Anthony Zerbe, and Kenneth Mars all acquit themselves nicely. Sorry Rush, Ed Asner and Jane Fonda don't make appearances, but you can't have everything. Michael Small contributes another fine score. Setting is great, too. Love that golf cart sequence and that post-assassination struggle on top of the Needle.

Needless to say this film isn't for everyone. If you're the type that wouldn't have bought a word of the Nixon backstory, had a conscientious security guard not seen a hunk of tape on a door at the Watergate Hotel, than you should probably stay away. However, if your open-minded enough to see that the JFK investigation by Earl Warren and the boys was a joke, than enjoy.

3 out of 6 people found the following review useful:
Agatha would be proud!, 17 November 1999

If you were a normal guy and you knew who murdered your wife, you'd either kill the perpetrator or thank him! Okay, just kidding. However, if you were a filthy rich Hollywood mogul , and you didn't really care about your deceased wife, you might just have a little fun with the guilty party.

That's the hook of "Sheila", and it's a terrific one.

James Coburn stars as a conniving weasel named Clinton. (No jokes please) Clinton is a puzzle freak, and for the one year anniversary of his wife's death, he plans a doozy. He invites a group of his pseudo-friends, including the person he knows murdered his wife, to his yacht for a vacation. Once they arrive, the games begin. (From this point on in this film, consider everything a clue.)

The game Clinton plays is a very clever, very cruel one. Clinton is not content to simply unmask a killer. Instead he spices things up by using the game to reveal some very embarrassing, but true things about all the other party-goers. Some clues are obvious, but pay close attention, and you just may figure out the game before any of the players do.

Coburn is a delight, but he's also backed up by some solid performances by the supporting cast. Dyan Cannon's a scream as a Hollywood hanger on who thinks a movie career is in the offing. Richard Benjamin is fun as a screenwriter that Clinton has embarrassed on several occasions. Also, James Mason is great as a prissy television commercial director, with a secret that the murderer wouldn't swap for. Also, big kudos for the script by Tony Perkins and Stephen Sondheim (There's a pair!). They keep things zipping along at a good clip.

All in all, "Sheila" is a whodunnit that Agatha Christie would be proud of. Clinton's elaborate schemes work because he knows how to manipulate people so well. (Again, no comment necessary)

54 out of 80 people found the following review useful:
Drop the "Hanoi Jane" ban, and see this film, 9 November 1999

Obviously any film about Viet Nam that stars Jane Fonda and Jon Voight is going to cause more than a few knees to jerk. Fondas embracing the enemy and Voights devout pacifism have both been well-documented, so there's no need to elaborate. Don't let this cause you to avoid this film. Many veterans were on hand for the filming, and they saw that they were taking part in something special. If they can draw a truce with Fonda, than you can as well. The opening scene sets a tone for the film that it never veers from. A group of disabled vets play pool, and directly confront each other over why they were there, and what it all means. Director Hal Ashby (RIP) pulls no punches here. These vets aren't scholars debating on MacNeil-Lehrer. They struggle with these questions. They don't have the fancy initials after their names that impress people so much. There just the real people that fought the war.

The rest of the film follows on this point. Special care goes into each character.

Voights Luke Martin went to war to impress girls and feed his titanic ego. Because Ashby and his writers (Waldo Salt, Robert C. Jones and Nancy Dowd) didn't back off on showing Luke's bad side, it makes his transformation. He becomes a better person, because he develops the strength to look inside himself.

Bruce Dern gives an excellent performance, as well, in what is probably the trickiest part. Derns Bob Hyde is GI all the way, but returns from his first combat detail in a state of turmoil. He sees the insanity first hand and, quite frankly, can't handle it. The nice thing here is that he's not simply disillusioned by the politics of the war, but more by war, itself. It's to this films credit, that they didn't have Dern return home and do an about face and start protesting. That story has been told. Instead, once again, we see a human being struggling to understand things that may be unknowable. What makes a man cut another man's ears off, and throw them in his knapsack? How are you supposed to feel, when your fellow soldiers are boiling the flesh off a human skull, so they can mount it on a stake?

Oddly enough, Fondas character, Sally Hyde, may be the least "political" character in the film. Sure, she sees injustices at the VA hospital and gets involved volunteering, but this is merely as a novice. She asks very rudimentary questions about why the vets are being ignored, but she asks as a sympathetic human being, not an activist. As she eventually expands her horizons, she changes from an officer's wife into a more mature woman. As this happens, she falls in love with Voight. Neither person really wants it to happen. Voight doesn't want to betray a fellow soldier. Fonda doesn't want to betray her loyal husband. No easy answer.

It's a shame that "Coming Home" occupies such a small niche in film history. It's a quiet, thoughtful film that patiently tells its story. It doesn't have a single battle scene, but it remains incredibly powerful. Robert Carradines breakdown while he plays his guitar and sings, is a scene that should be taught in film school. Just one moment in an incredible film.

Don't let this gem fade away.

3 out of 7 people found the following review useful:
A Better Corporate Ladder, 13 October 1999

Here was the first, and maybe the best hero of the 90's. Graham has been passed over for a promotion that everybody in his office knew he was going to get. And who gets it, but a weasly cigar smoking, boat owning, money loving yupster named Robert Benham.

Now, this probably happened a million times over in the junk bond, crush the little guy 80's. But it's doubtful that many of those caught in the squeeze were as resourceful as our hero Graham is. All it takes is an overzealous panhandler and a subway platform to teach Graham what it takes to survive in the business world. Once he learns, the only way to go is straight up.

Michael Caine's wry performance as Graham is a treat. From his valiant attempts to placate his shrewish wife, to his tirades at his new boss, to his convenient bewitching of a female officemate, Caine constantly pulls us into his corner.

Peter Riegert as the weasel, Swoosie Kurtz as the shrew, and Elizabeth McGovern as the smitten colleague add to the fun, hitting each note perfectly. All three develop their characters quite nicely, without slowing the story a bit.

If you're looking for shrill black humor, you won't be satisfied with Shock to the System. It is a mean film, but it's far too subtle, and not kinetic enough for the Tarantino crowd. This movie is all about stealth. Graham quietly brings the Madison avenue crowd to there knees. Sure, a few bodies pile up, but even Jerry Rubin grew to admire the corporate sharks that were spawned during the greed grab 80's. Anybody who could change from a draftcard burning hippie to a silk suit wearing yuppie would certainly identify with Graham's transformation.

I only hope Graham was more lucky than Jerry. Mr. Rubin and his briefcase left this world several years back, courtesy of an inattentive driver. If you understand this type of irony, you'll enjoy Shock to the System.

1 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Billy Bob. 'Nuff said., 6 October 1999

Several years before he struck gold with "Sling Blade", Billy Bob co-wrote and starred in this neat little thriller.

A drug heist that results in a mass execution puts Thornton, iceman Michael Beach, and Thornton's girlfriend Cynda Williams on the run. Their plan is simple enough: drive from LA to Star City, Arkansas, and lay low. Problem one: Thornton's character of Ray is the leader, and he has about the same IQ as Karl Childers, his simpleton in "Sling Blade". Second, they have to make it through Texas in a stolen car: white trash in a ponytail, his black girlfriend, and their well-dressed psychopathic black friend. Again, no recipe for success here. Acting kudos to Beach, whose Pluto is one of the most frightening villains in recent memory. No big speeches before he kills you. He just gets it done. Only business. Billy Bob plays a character unlike anything he's played since. The Man's talent appears to be limitless. Bill Paxton is fine as well, as the local Sheriff who has a few secrets of his own.

It's very rare to find a film like "One False Move". No fast-pace. No logo-infected skyline. No partner's chattering about cheeseburgers or Josey & the Pussycats. To wit: no constant reminder that you're watching a Hollywood product. As mean and violent as it is, you gotta love it.

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