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El abuelo (1998)
Charming, sensitive and often times hilarious
This charming, sensitive and often times hilarious comedy of manners is one of the best movies I've seen in years. It's long (147 minutes) and engrossing with many subplots and twists. A foreign film from Spain, it has no actors which will be readily recognizable to the American audience, and that alone builds interest and suspense, because we never really know who is going to what to whom and how it is all going to turn out.
This is a rather talky film and takes patience to read the subtitles but it's well worth it. Beautifully shot in the Spanish countryside. Not to be missed by the discerning film enthusiast. 10 out of 10. Don't miss it.
King Richard the Second (1978)
Richard II is Shakespeare's first great tragedy, for here he realizes that character is destiny, and no English King was so brought to ruin because of his flawed character than the weak and stupid Richard II, son of Edward the Black Prince and grandson of Edward III.
Jacobi's performance gets to the very root of Richard's personality: his arrogance, poor judgment, false bravado, impulsiveness - and in the end, his elegiac suffering as he collapses in tears, shorn of his crown and titles. "I cannot see," he wails when signing his abdication papers. "My eyes are too full of tears!" And was there ever a line in literature more heartbreaking than this: "I wasted time and now doth time waste me." A brilliant performance from start to gut-wrenching finish. Shakespeare has never been done better. The entire cast is marvelous.
I hear too many complaints that BBC productions have poorly designed sets and costumes. Puh-leeeze! Shakespeare is all about the WORDS. If you want impressive spectacle, go rent one of Cecil B. DeMille's adaptations of the Little Golden Book of Bible Stories. BBC gives us truly GREAT actors reciting Shakespeare, uncut, unedited, and unexpurgated.
Richard II was the first play in a cycle of eight plays that cover British history from 1377 to 1485 and chronicles the rise and fall of the high-hearted, ill-starred Plantagenets. Richard II is followed by Henry IV, Parts I and II; Henry V; Henry VI, Parts I, II, and III; and concluding the cycle, Richard III. This was part of a project by BBC to televise ALL of Shakespeare's plays for television. I don't know if they ever finished the series, but what they did complete was excellent, play after play.
If American PBS stations really want to raise money for their support, stop with the stupid pledge drives and auctions! Get all these great performances on VHS and DVD and sell them to a public ravenously hungry for good and intelligent entertainment.
Tomorrow Is Forever (1946)
How low can you go?
Contains Spoiler!! "When you speak the name Orson Welles," Marlene Dietrich proclaimed, "You should kneel and make the sign of the cross!" Nowadays, few would disagree with paying such homage to Filmdom's only true genius; but in 1945 Welles' name was anathema in Hollywood, having run RKO into the red with his production of "The Magnificent Ambersons" and offending the Hearst empire's emperor, William Randolph Hearst, by his near slanderous portrayal of him as Charles Foster Kane in "Citizen Kane."
For the rest of his career Welles would be relegated to supporting roles, voiceover narrations, and finally hitting rock-bottom by touting cheap wine on television commercials, thundering "We shall sell no wine before it's time!" - doing anything, ANYTHING!, to raise enough funds in order to bequeath us such masterpieces as "Othello," "Macbeth," and "Chimes at Midnight."
"I subsidize myself," Welles said, receiving the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award. "In other words, I'm crazy!"
1945's four-hanky weeper is a good example of just what rubbish Welles was willing to appear in to raise those funds. Welles portrays John MacDonald, who dashes off to WWI, leaving behind his wife, Elizabeth (a teary Claudette Colbert). John is declared MIA and Elizabeth announces to her employer, Lawrence Hamilton (the upstanding George Brent), that she is pregnant with John's child; however, this is 1945, so we can't say "pregnant." Naturally, Lawrence falls in love with Elizabeth, they marry, she has first John's child and then a child by Lawrence, but we don't see all that because the scene immediately shifts forward 20 years to find them all at the breakfast table.
Meanwhile, John is now living in Austria under the assumed name of Erik Kessler and for some unknown reason, speaking English with a preposterous meittel-Europa accent. He has also been horribly disfigured during the War, but in 1945, horrible disfigurement was suggested by rubbing black cork beneath Welles' eyelids. He's been wounded elsewhere (a la Jake Barnes in Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises," but again, this is 1945 and we can't touch THAT situation with a ten foot pole). He also has a child in tow, Margaret (6-year old Natalie Wood in her screen debut, hair dyed blonde), the daughter of John's doctor who was sent to a concentration camp by the Nazis.
John and Margaret seek passage to America and he finds work as a research scientist - guess where??? - in Lawrence Hamilton's company. Of course John and Elizabeth meet - the script says they have to - and it remains unclear who recognizes whom and when.
Meanwhile, back at the manse, with war clouds gathering, Elizabeth's son Drew (Richard Long, looking amazingly like the young Orson Welles and doing a pretty good impersonation of Welles' mellifluous baritone) wants to join up and do his bit. Elizabeth gets all teary and so do we. Indeed, Colbert spends so much screen time in tears that we wonder, was she a good enough actress to pull this off? Or did they spray her eyes with irritant before each scene?
Time to wrap it up. John dies suddenly, taking his secret that Drew is his son to the grave, and tossing into the lit fireplace a letter that would have explained it all to Drew. Unfortunately, Welles didn't have time to toss the script into the fireplace with it.
I give this stinker a BOMB rating - and indeed, if you see it, kneel and make the sign of the cross - and whisper a prayer for a film, and a brilliant career, in Purgatory.
A humdinger of a creature feature
Fact: The largest anaconda on record measured 26 (some say 28) feet (NOT meters), but if you want the real lowdown on Eunectes murinus, check out the Discovery Channel. If you're in the market for a humdinger of a creature feature that will scare you out of your pants, this is your film.
Like so many urban legends, alligators in the NY City sewer system for instance, the legend of giant anacondas in Amazonia have persisted for years. The biggest whopper I heard was of a snake 150 feet long, with eyes the size of pie plates, discovered by a crew that crash-landed a B-29 during WWII. Apparently, the snake devoured the B-29, because its remains have yet to be found.
This film plays to those legends and our instinctive fear and fascination with snakes. Psychologists of the Jungian persuasion will have a field day with this.
The plot is simple: a group of scientists, led by Dr. Steven Cale (Eric Stolz) travel deep into the Amazon in search of that Long Lost Tribe of natives who seem only to inhabit the back lots of Hollywood. It's no spoiler to tell you that every actor you don't recognize is there for the express purpose of being eaten by a snake. Along the way they pick up Paul Sarone (John Voigt), a blonde, blue-eyed Aryan ubermensch with a Spanish name and accent (where, oh where, did he get that blonde hair and blue eyes? Hee hee hee - think it over!) who comes aboard with a 50 foot snakeskin that he quickly unrolls to demonstrate where his heart lies. Voigt, a truly wonderful actor, is superb in this roll, playing it over the top with a smile on his face and a gleam in his eye, chewing the scenery, the raft, and finally his fellow actors.
Sarone contrives to send Dr. Cale into a coma, takes over the raft, and soon we are hot on the trail, or tail, of snakes, one longer and with wider girth than the next. If you're familiar with this genre and plot structure, you just KNOW what's going to happen and how it's all going to turn out.
But you're not here for the plot structure to surprise you. You're here to be terrified by the thought of being devoured by a snake the length of a railroad car and the film never lets us down. The effects, especially the animatronical snakes, are excellent throughout and that's what makes this film such a terrifying screamer. They look real, and perform actual snake behavior as the bite deep into the flesh, wind their coils around the body of the hapless victim and then squeeeeeeeeeze. Be prepared to have the fingernails of the person sitting next to you buried deep into your wrist.
And remember, if you can't breathe, you can't scream!
L.A. Confidential (1997)
A two fisted film noire as good as "Chinatown" !
This highly stylized film noire, set in 1953 Los Angeles, has the Byzantine plot, hard-boiled characters, and snappy dialogue de rigeur of the genre. It's a boiling caldron of the greed and ambition of mobsters and crooked cops and hookers and scumbag politicians, where the good guys are worse than the bad guys and not until the very end do you find out who's who and what's what - BUT, Shhhhhhhh, as Danny DeVito's Sid Hudgeons, heartless reporter for a Tinseltown exposé magazine whispers in his voice-over narration, it's all "strictly confidential, on the QT, and very VERY hush-hush."
Interviewed by James Lipton on Bravo's "Actors Studio" series, lead Kevin Spacey told how, when being cast for the role of Detective Jack Vincennes, he asked Director Curtis Hanson, "if this really were 1953, who would you cast in the role?" Hanson replied, "Dean Martin," and Spacey plays him as Dino played Broadway wise guy Michael Whitacre in "The Young Lions," with that seeming indifference, sly smile, and effortless cool that was Dino's trademark.
Kim Bassinger, won the Best Support Actress Oscar for her portrayal of the absolutely luscious high-class hooker Lynn Bracken, made up to look like a Veronica Lake lookalike, and you believe in her and care about her from her first appearance on screen.
Russell Crowe, not yet a star, is a veritable gladiator as tough cop Bud White, with a soft spot for damsels in distress who becomes Bassinger's love interest.
James Cromwell (was he REALLY the kindly farmer in "Babe" ? the weary and understanding judge in "Snow Falling on Cedars" ?) is reptilian as conniving police captain Dudley Smith.
Guy Pearce is superb as Detective Lt. Ed Exley, an honest cop who won't take a ten dollar gratuity, but at the same time is on the fast track to success and never misses an opportunity to advance his career, no matter whose toes or face he has to step on.
David Strathairn plays a type somehow peculiar to Los Angeles: the sleazy, mob-connected businessman with quiet good taste who has insinuated his way into the not-so-polite Hollywood Hills society of parvenues that doesn't really care how a man makes his money, so long as he succeeds and can afford the elegant mansion and bodyguards who double as chauffeurs and mechanics and tend to the classic cars in the garage.
The camera captures the expansiveness and grunge of the Southern California landscape, the white stucco that burns in the desert sun, the low-rise apartments, the taudry back alleyways, the utter cheapness of the metropolis, high rent districts and low.
This one's as good as "Chinatown" !
My Son John (1952)
An unintentionally hilarious howler
Made in 1952 at the height of the McCarthy era Red Scare when studio chiefs were scurrying to prove their patriotism and disavow rumors of Communist infiltrators in their midst while members of the Senate's House Un-American Affairs Committee (HUAC) were clamoring for their heads, this unintentionally hilarious howler rivals "Reefer Madness" and "The Green Berets" in its sanctimonious dissemination of moralistic disinformation.
Robert Walker plays "My Son John" Jefferson, whom you recognize immediately as an insidious Commie agent because he creeps like a rat through the shadows wearing a long overcoat with the collar turned up and a broad-brimmed hat pulled down over his eyes, passing secret papers to similarly dressed fifth columnists at night behind Washington monuments.
But John is more than stealthful and insidious: he is sarcastic to his priest (Frank McHugh) and disrespectful to his long-suffering mother (Helen Hayes), which motivates his father (Dean Jagger) to beat him over the head with the family Bible as John kneels at his feet. (Dr. Freud, please put down your note pad). When the family physician (Minor Watson) explains that research scientists are guided by Divine Inspiration while searching for cures to diseases and John sneers, "I see - He hides things and then He helps us find them!" one wonders exactly to whom (or against whom) this propaganda is directed.
"If you don't like your Uncle Sammy," thunders Dean Jagger, former Doughboy, thumping his chest and marching around the living room, "Go back to your home o'er the sea!" - an obvious warning to any fellow traveling pinkos sitting in the audience (or hiding behind studio typewriters), wearing long overcoats with their collars turned up and broad-brimmed hats pulled down low over their eyes.
We don't watch movies to seek out their faults and laugh at their foibles: we want to enjoy them. Suspension of disbelief and a generous tolerance allows us to accept most films of the 30's, 40's and 50's at face value; as we would overlook the primitive special effects of those decades compared to those of our own; as we ignore the fact that clouds don't move on sound stages and the spokes of wagon wheels always seem to be revolving backwards. But it's difficult, if not impossible, to take this silly, pedantic film seriously. Obviously the director and the actors responsible for its production did not, or they would have used their talents (which are formidable) to make a better picture.
When you tire of scoffing, you will lament the waste of talent: Helen Hayes was the First Lady of the American Theater; Robert Walker was one of the finest up and coming young actors of his generation, equally gifted in both drama and comedy; Dean Jagger, Frank McHugh, and Minor Watson were top notch supporting players for over 40 years, from the early talkies well into their old age; and the legendary Leo McCarey, whose long list of screen credits includes "Duck Soup" with the Marx Brothers, and "Going My Way" with Bing Crosby, for which he won the Best Director Oscar in 1945, was also the genius who introduced Mr. Laurel to Mr. Hardy.
This film is not available on either VHS or DVD and to my knowledge is never, shown on TV. It's been years, indeed, decades, since I last saw it. One question, that the film makes no attempt to answer, continues to linger: what was there about John's God-fearing, patriotic upbringing by his overbearing but obviously loving parents that made him join that Communist Party which was so committed to the violent overthrow of American middle-class society and values?
The Son of the Cincinnati Kid Rides Again!
I love this movie: the plot line is pat and predictable as it effortlessly unfolds; the characters are clearly defined and you know who to root for and who to despise; and there are no dull scenes or dead end sub-plots. Matt Damon is Mike, an affable law student with little interest in the law and a passion for high stakes poker. When he loses his shirt and promises his girl friend (cute and perky Gretchen Mol) that he will never play poker again, you know this pie-crust promise will quickly be broken. And broken it is when Matt picks up his former schoolmate buddy, "Worm" (Edward Norton) who is getting out of prison and leads him back to the poker table and deep, deep into debt and hot water.
As usual, Matt Damon is adorable as the talented gambler, flashing those dimples and that Gary Cooper down-turned grin; John Malkovich is over the top as cookie-munching Teddy KGB, and, yes, if you're familiar with Russians just off the boat, you know they really DO speak like that and have a natural flare for the dramatic; Martin Landau delivers another impeccable performance as the aging, melancholic law professor whose family expected him to become a rabbi; Famke Janssen is nicely understated as the errand girl who has the obvious hots for Matt; and John Turtorro puts is solid as Knish, the grinder. Indeed, Mr. Turorro is becoming one of the most reliable and dependable supporting players to grace any film in which he appears. When the time and the role are right, his time will come.
But the real star of this film is Edward Norton as the low-life sociopath who bears the appropriate sobriquet "Worm." Twenty years ago when I first saw "The Onion Field," I thought James Wood had created the sleaziest character ever to appear on film. Jim, move over. Norton is cheap, slimy, and skinny, devoid of scruples and empathy, a little wise guy with a big mouth and nothing to back it up. You just KNOW this scumbag neither bathes nor brushes his teeth, and when the little rat gets the stuffings beaten out of him by a group of off-duty cops whom he has cheated, you want to join in and get in a punch. Women will want to slap him. In his first scene he lets you know he's a hard-hearted louse: told that he is being released from prison in the middle of a penny-ante card game with his cell mates who beg him to leave his cigarettes behind, he gathers them up and then contemptuously drops them in the dumper on the way out. This is a cockroach with no redeeming social value who lives to use and con and degrade people.
It's no trick for an actor to make you love him; to make you despise him so much you'd like to throttle him takes real talent. I've seen Ed Norton in "Fight Club," "Primal Fear," and "The People vs. Larry Flynt" and this is one young actor to watch. He's one of those natural actors who can be whatever he wants to be and it will be sheer joy watching him grow and mature.
"Rounders" may be short on originality, but it's long on suspense, action, and entertainment and while not the best flick to come down the pike, it's a wonderfully satisfying two hours. I don't know much about the game of poker, but I sure do know a good movie when I see one. I give it an 8 out 10 rating for human interest.
Henry & June (1990)
Strictly for the cultured, educated, and well-read
"I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive." - Thus begins Henry Miller's "Tropic of Cancer," and thus begins "Henry & June," the story of his writing "Tropic of Cancer" in Paris in 1930, and the two women who supported him both spiritually and financially: his second wife, taxi-dancer/prostitute/con artist June Miller; and Anaïs Nin, friend, confidante and patroness. To love and understand this wonderful film ("Wonderful, wonderful!" Henry Miller would say, "there's no other word but wonderful!"), you must first understand Henry Miller and love his writings. Born into "a family of idiots" (his own words), Miller successfully avoided work and the 20th Century throughout most of his life. In later years, before "Cancer" was finally admitted into the U.S. and he achieved a comfortable and financially secure old age, the precocious and outrageous Miller would regularly send out mass mailings to everyone he knew, not begging but DEMANDING funds to keep him going. He married in 1917 to stay out of the draft, leaving his wife and daughter in 1923, when he met June Smith in a dance hall. They married the following year and June encouraged him to quit his job as a Western Union Telegraph office manager and write. She would support him and her lesbian lover by nefarious means and schemes, sending him off to Paris alone in 1930 and later joining him. In Paris he met Anaïs Nin, wife of a wealthy banker, a cultured, intelligent but pretentious woman whose greatest talent, like Gertrude Stein's, was recognizing talent in others. In Miller she found the artist whom she was seeking to nurture; indeed, they would remain friends all their lives. With her wealthy, aristocratic husband Hugo she enjoyed an open marriage and her list of lovers is a veritable Who's Who of the Parisian intellectual and cultural scene. This is the backdrop of the film and the erotic triangle of Henry, June, and Anais is told lovingly and with zest. The settings and soundtrack are authentic; the acting by the three leads and the supporting players superb. If you've ever seen any of the numerous interviews done with Miller, you'll realize what a first-rate impersonation Fred Ward does of him. The script, based on those portions of Nin's diaries which her estate allowed to be published only after the principal characters were deceased, and Miller's Paris novels, "Tropic of Cancer," "Black Spring," and "Tropic of Capricorn," and his 1400 page "Rosy Crucifixion" trilogy, "Sexus," "Plexus," and "Nexus," is adult and intelligent, erotic without being obscene. Caveat: if you are expecting a bedroom romp a notch above a sleazy skin flick, you will be sorely disappointed; if you enjoy films that examine the hearts and minds of artists and delve deeply into the inner workings of their creative process, vis á vis "Lust for Life," "Pollock," Woody Allen's "Sweet and Lowdown," Clint Eastwood's "Bird," then this film is for you. I give it ten out of ten.
Never So Few (1959)
Frank! How could you?
World War II along the Burma Road becomes a Rat Pack romp (well, two of them anyway: Frank and Peter Lawford) with Steve McQueen filling in for Sammy Davis, Jr. (after "Smokey" was written out of the picture for incurring the Chairman's wrath). Gina Lollobrigida makes full use of her talent, inhaling and exhaling deliciously. Brian Donlevy as General Sloan is puffy and florid from too many years of real-life drinking and carousing. Frank's goatee (which thankfully he shaves off later) is the worst beard since Clark Gable's Parnell, and rotten camera work shows off that ugly forceps scar behind Frank's ear which better cameramen went out of their way to avoid. The novel by Tom Chamales touched off quite a stink in 1957, accusing General Chiang Kai-Chek's mercenary bandits (oops, I mean Chinese Nationalist soldiers) of murdering and robbing American GI's. The film touched off an even bigger stink. A good cast wasted on a thoroughly stupid script with lots of ring-a-ding boozing between noisy battle scenes. BOMB rating, but if Jay, Dave and Ted Koppel are all showing reruns and you just can't sleep . . .
A little gem of a film
Running a mere 80 minutes, this little treasure packs in more action and character development than you're likely to find in some of Sly's and Arnold's big-budget blockbusters. A personal favorite of Fonda's, it's the story of a farmer's young son (he even plows the family's 40 acres behind a mule!) who leaves the farm to join a gang of linemen doing the grand task of electrifying rural America during the Great Depression. It's hard to believe, but historical fact, that prior to WWII, 75% of all Americans lived on the farm without electric power. Taken under the wing of mentor Red Blayde (Pat O'Brien), the boy Slim (Fonda) learns about life and love, honor and betrayal, and most of all, the nobility of a man's work, in the days when work itself was regarded as a higher value than just the pay check it brought in. Little moments stand out: Slim lighting up his first nickel cheroot; writing his Mom a letter home and including a $5 bill; leaning back in the passenger seat of Red's convertible as they ride down Chicago's Michigan Avenue, looking up in awe and sheer joy at his first glimpse of a big city. "Take a good look," says Red, "there's only two other cities like it in the country!" Rounding out the cast are Stu Erwin as Stumpy, the lazy and comical ground worker; Joe Sawyer, the "lyin' goldbrikkuh;" a glamorous Jane Wyman as Red's girl; always cheerful Margaret Lyndsey as the nurse who takes a shine to Slim; and stalwart John Littel as the company boss. From a top-notch novel (1934) by William Wister Haines, author of "High Tension," "Command Decision," "The Hon. Rocky Slade," and many others. Ten out of ten.