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Perhaps Too Ambitious, But A Good Portrayal Of Jesus By Jeffrey Hunter, 5 April 2015

As a portrayal of the life of Jesus Christ, "King of Kings" hits the obvious high points. It has the feel of a spectacle - trying to do for the Gospels what "The Ten Commandments" did for the story of the exodus, but not succeeding as well. We see some of the birth narrative, Jesus' baptism, his temptation in the wilderness, his ethical teaching and of course his trial, death and resurrection. It's not all told in accordance with the biblical account. As often is the case, the story of his birth is a conflation of the accounts of Matthew and Luke (the magi did not visit a baby at the manger - they came to a child in a house!) Almost all of Jesus' ethical teachings are jammed together into a strangely extended Sermon on the Mount which goes on and on, although at least the ethical teachings are there, and there's an interesting portrayal of the trial of Jesus, complete with an advocate for the defence, explaining to Pilate why Jesus should not be crucified. It works - although it's a bit uneven - and it gets the point across. Jeffrey Hunter also did a credible job as Christ - a difficult role. He portrays a dignified Jesus, accepting of his mission even while sometimes tormented by it (such as in the temptation scene or in the Garden of Gethsemane.) Jesus with piercing blue eyes, mind you, seems out of place. To its credit, the movie also deals in a little greater depth with the resurrection, which many film-makers either shy away from or treat in a cursory manner. Those are all strengths for the most part.

Unfortunately, the strengths are balanced by more than a few weaknesses. Shall we start with the narration by Orson Welles. It was usually extra- biblical, offering sometimes unnecessary commentary. It was distracting and detracted from the flow of the movie, making it seem unfortunately choppy. Hunter aside, I found the performances in this underwhelming, leading to what I found to be a rather cold, emotionless feel to the story - a feel heightened by Welles' rather monotone narration. I felt especially that Robert Ryan underplayed John the Baptist - a rather wild biblical character whose essence Ryan didn't seem to capture for me. There were also some additions to the story - such as a portrayal of the rebellion led by Barabbas - that were interesting enough but probably not necessary.

The most obvious comparison to this would be "The Greatest Story Ever Told," which came out a few years later. It had a higher profile cast, and a more emotional feel to it, but Jeffrey Hunter was better as Jesus than Max von Sydow was. It's hard to choose between them. Both have strengths; both are flawed. The life of Jesus is a tough story to put on film. I think such a movie needs a more specific focus (such as "The Passion" or "The Last Temptation" or it needs to try to take a lighter, less serious approach, which can still get the point across (like "Godspell.") To try to portray Jesus' entire life in such a serious manner, but also to make it work as a Hollywood production, doesn't seem to work well for me. (5/10)

A Very Sensitive Movie With A Fine Performance From Peter Dinklage, 3 April 2015

Peter Dinklage is a very familiar face. Anyone who watches movies has seen him. Whenever Hollywood needs a "little person" to fill a role, he's the obvious choice. He's a good actor. Because of his size, though, his roles tend to be somewhat limited, and most of the movies I've seen him in have him playing a secondary character whose purpose seems to be to add a bit of a comedic note that revolves around his short stature. As an example, I think of his turn as children's author Miles Finch in "Elf" - where what I remember him for mostly is his very funny confrontation with Will Ferrell's Buddy the Elf. So, generally (and perhaps inevitably) his stature becomes something to laugh at - not in an offensive way, but because it becomes the focal point of usually very funny scenes. One reason I liked "The Station Agent" though was that it gave Dinklage a meatier role. His stature is still front and centre (how could it not be) but it isn't really what the movie is about. The movie is about friendship and trust - and instead of playing a secondary character, Dinklage is clearly the star of this movie, and demonstrates his talent, showing that he can carry a movie , doing more than just filling a niche.

His character in this is Finbar McBride. Fin's life revolves apparently around one friend and one interest. His friend is Henry, and his interest is trains. Henry owns a store devoted to train memorabilia, but dies early in the movie, leaving Fin alone and with nothing - except for a rundown old train station that Henry left him in his will. Travelling to Newfoundland, New Jersey, Fin takes up residence in the station and seems quite prepared to live as a hermit.

You feel a certain sympathy for Fin at this point. Clearly there are major trust issues. In your mind, you start to create a backstory for him. I would expect that he had dealt with a lifetime of ridicule and being made fun of, and now the only person who had ever accepted him and the only person he had ever really trusted (Henry) was gone. Why not become a recluse? Why not just say "screw the world," take up residence in the station and ignore everyone and everything- except the trains that he's so taken with? That would be tempting. If I were in Fin's shoes I might well make that choice as well.

But being a recluse isn't easy. Inevitably, people appear. It starts with Joe (Bobby Cannavale), who operates a food truck and sets up business right outside the abandoned station every morning. Then there's Olivia (Patricia Clarkson), who almost runs him down (twice!) - a separated woman with a tragic history revolving around the death of her young son. There's Cleo (Raven Goodwin), a young girl who's a bit overweight and finds Fin intriguing, and there's Emily (Michelle Williams), the local librarian who's pregnant and in an apparently abusive relationship. Those four characters (mostly the first two) become the circle around Fin. All start off intrigued by Fin - but not only by his size. In this sense, the movie isn't stereotypical in its presentation of dwarfism. They're also intrigued by Fin the person - the station he lives in, his interest in trains. Those characters and their reaction to and interest in Fin allow Dinklage to play a very serious role. It's not without humour, but the humour isn't at his expense, or at the expense of dwarfism. It's just a natural humour that arises from the situations he finds himself in - and, humour aside, the movie isn't a comedy. It's a very serious portrayal of the struggles someone like Fin might have in bonding with people, developing trust and making friendships. It's not an exciting movie, nor is it an action movie. In some ways it's a rather slow, meandering story that doesn't lead up to any one particularly great climax - but it's interesting all the way through and satisfying in the end. Well done by all involved.

I want to give mention to director Thomas McCarthy for some extremely good camera work in this - which does, in fact, focus on Dinklage and his size - but in a definitely respectful way that added to the story. McCarthy manages to shoot some scenes in a way that make Dinklage look even smaller than he is - you get a sort of "one little man against a big world" sense from those scenes that's very appropriate to the story. Then there are other scenes which are filmed in a way that you don't even notice that Fin is small. He just fits in with the rest of the characters and you don't pay attention to his size - again appropriate to those points in the story where this is done, as Fin becomes not "one little man" but just "a man" who has to deal with life as it comes at him - and sometimes as it comes at those he has chosen to befriend.

Overall, a very well done movie. (8/10)

So Much Time And So Little To Do, 27 March 2015

This movie works. It's a fun family-oriented film that most who watch it will be able to relate to. How many children won't love a movie that transports them into a magical chocolate factory, and how many adults won't be able to relate to the spoiled rotten kids who are at the heart of the story. So, it works. It's an enjoyable watch. Surprisingly, it holds up pretty well against modern movies, and against the Tim Burton version of the story that came out a few years ago. Sure, it lacks the CGI effects that are now ubiquitous in movie-making, but that's kind of a relief. Let's be honest - who really needs CGI? And, it has Gene Wilder who catches the quirkiness of Willie Wonka well. And the character of Charlie is a likable character, unlike the other 4 obnoxious brats who win the trip to the chocolate factory. So, it works. It can't disappoint.

That isn't to say that it's perfect by any means. The story seems a bit long; the opening especially. Let's be honest. All we really care about is the trip to the chocolate factory. Sure, it was nice to learn a bit about Charlie's family. That really makes the contrast with the other 4 kids more powerful. But the search for the golden tickets was too drawn out and went on for too long. One of Willie Wonka's repeated lines is "there's so much time and so little to do." That seemed appropriate, and the extended search for the ticket started to seem like filler after a while. Even the music was lacking. "Candy Man" is a great song, but the actor playing the shopkeeper didn't seem to put much feeling into it. It was a mechanical performance to me; not one that made an impact on me. None of the other songs or singers stood out to me, although I was surprised to see Jack Albertson, who played Charlie's Grampa Joe, singing and dancing. I also wasn't really taken with the Oopaloompas. I didn't find them very interesting.

So, it's not perfect - but it's not bad either. It's fine as a family film. Enough to charm the children and enough to keep the adults interested, but it didn't have anything to really capture me and hold me riveted. It was a movie that allowed my mind to wander now and then without leaving me feeling as if I missed very much. (6/10)

THX 1138 (1971)
A Simple But Effective Movie, 26 March 2015

If you want as cinematic definition of minimalism, THX-1138 is it! In terms of set and even story, THX-1138 is about as minimalist as it gets. It's a simple move, using mostly basic white sets, often with very little in them, and actors wearing nothing but white, with the only colour setting anything off being the actors' skin tones. It provides a rather haunting atmosphere, actually, which is appropriate to the story. It's an Orwellian-type of story, set at some undetermined point in the future, in which humans are drugged and controlled, possessing not names but numbers to identify them, going about their daily tasks with little enjoyment and with few diversions, serving the state, constantly told to be happy. Not taking the required drugs is a crime, citizens are encouraged to report on each other for small infractions. It's not a pleasant look ahead. And it is in that unpleasant simplicity that the story finds its greatest power.

Robert Duvall is the star as THX-1138. He becomes dissatisfied with life, and bonds (both emotionally and sexually) with his roommate LUH (I don't remember her number - played by an unknown to me actress named Maggie McOmie.) He's caught, and he's punished by being "exiled" (in a sense) into some mysterious white (of course) environment where there doesn't seem to be anything except other exiles. But not giving up, THX sets himself to the task of escaping. Very simple, very to the point, very minimalist, very Orwellian. To that point.

The movie seems to go out of character a little bit as THX seeks to escape. Car chases through basically empty streets seemed out of place in this environment, although it gave us a glimpse of what the "outside" (except that it wasn't really the "outside") was like. Culminating in THX's eventual escape, we discover something about he environment in which he lived, although I for one had a lot of questions about the environment into which he was going, and felt just a little bit let down. I almost wished the movie (having chosen to get us to that point) had gone on just a little bit longer to show us a bit about the environment into which THX had escaped.

But, for the most part, simple and effective and interesting to watch. (7/10)

More 50's Radiation Fun, 20 March 2015

Yeah. I get it. It was the era. There was atomic testing going on all over the place and people were truly afraid of World War III breaking out. But for all the fears of the general public, it was a huge opportunity for Hollywood, and especially for independent movie makers with low budgets to cash in. So there were all kinds of movies in the era that dealt with the fears about the effects of radiation. "The Cyclops" was one of those. It's passable. What more can I say. Certainly not great, and actually not even good, but passable if you're looking to kill a little bit of time.

Susan (Gloria Talbott) is searching for her long fiancé. His plane crashed in a remote part of Mexico and his fate is unknown, but the Mexican government doesn't want her to search for him. It's a restricted area. But she gets a team together. James Craig plays a long time friend and bacteriologist, Tom Drake is the pilot she hired and Lon Chaney, Jr. (reduced to such movies because he can't escape from the Wolfman) is the multi-millionaire who finances them. He's interested not in Susan's fiancé, but in uranium. This remote part of Mexico is full of uranium. But uranium, of course, is radioactive - and that has consequences.

Everything in this region (well, the animals anyway) grows to a huge size - including a disfigured human with only one eye whom the team stumbles upon. OK. They, for some reason, don't get it for a while but it's pretty obvious who the cyclops is. So for a while we watch the group do battle with the various gigantic creatures (well, actually, they spend more time watching the various gigantic creatures) until they figure out the mystery and escape. No. There's not really much more to this than that.

As you'd expect in a low budget B movie from the 50's the effects and makeup are pretty weak. Everybody seemed to try, but still the performances were OK at best, but no more. It's passable. It'll kill some time. It's no better than that. (3/10)

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The Pro-Vietnam Perspective, 19 March 2015

I suppose you have to give John Wayne credit. By 1968 the Vietnam War was already becoming unpopular, protests against it were erupting, America's allies were publicly opposing it. Making a movie that would be essentially a defence of U.S. involvement in Vietnam took some guts. Of course, Wyne's fan base was likely made up of the more conservative types in American society, but still. Making a pro-Vietnam movie in 1968 would have been cutting increasingly against the grain. And, no doubt owing to Wayne's stature, even anti-Vietnam actors wanted roles in this - notably David Janssen as anti-war reporter George Beckworth, who follows the unit as a war correspondent, and Star Trek's George Takei, who took on the role of Captain Nim, a ruthless South Vietnamese officer.

Now, I'm no expert on the Vietnam War or anything military to be honest. But to my amateur eye, this seemed rather well done and the military scenes seemed authentic. Of course, it's the reverse of what we usually associate with movies about Vietnam. In this, the U.S. is noble, and fighting for a just cause against the atrocities of the communist, North Vietnamese enemy. In fact, all that is made so clear that in the end Beckworth becomes a supporter of the U.S. involvement. And, unlike most Vietnam movies, this movie doesn't focus on young draftees but on the special forces, who likely were much more professional and who probably had higher morale.

Perhaps in a reflection of one of the basic reasons for the unpopularity of the Vietnam War, the prime weakness of the movie for me was a lack of clear focus or purpose. The movie has a tragic figure - the young Vietnamese boy who has only a dog as a companion and who bonds with one of the U.S. soldier. In the end, it finally settles into a purpose - to capture a senior North Vietnamese general. But for the most part, this just depicts war.

It does provide an interesting and alternative perspective that's worth watching - and it shouldn't be dismissed for its bias, it should be evaluated on its merits. On that basis, it isn't great, but it's a worthwhile watch. (6/10)

Outlandish Horror Fun, 19 March 2015

I liked it! I really liked it! Much to my own surprise!

I know this movie has quite a following, but for all these years I have never watched it. Never. It just all seemed too outlandish to be bothered with. The spirit of a vicious killer somehow transferred into a child's doll. Uh ... Yeah ... Right. Frankly, it sounded dumb. So I ignored its existence. But, every now and then you just have nothing to do, and a movie you really aren't interested in pops up. And there was "Child's Play." So, I watched it. And I liked it! I really liked it!

Sure it's a dumb premise, but it actually works. I liked the performances. Young Alex Vincent did well as Andy, the boy who unfortunately comes into possession of Chucky the doll. Catherine Hicks was fine as his mother Karen, and Chris Sarandon worked well as the disbelieving police detective who happens to be Chucky's real target.

Really, the worst thing you can say about this is that it's outlandish - but surely that's the point. In the end, by the time it's over, you realize that you haven't watched a masterpiece, but you have watched a movie that's outlandish fun and that every now and then even manages to be scary. Really - you can't ask for much more. (8/10)

Dated, But Still With A Relevance, 13 March 2015

I suppose that it goes without saying that any movie about teenagers in the 1950's is going to be dated by now. The world has changed, society has changed, culture has changed. So, without any doubt, there are going to be aspects of "Rebel Without A Cause" that seem to have little relevance to modern society, and I suppose a few things that might even seem quaint, if I could use that word. But, on the other hand, you could also say that teenagers are teenagers - in any generation. They have trouble fitting into the ways of their parents, they establish their own social norms and their own cliques, and pity the teenager who doesn't quite fit into the "in" group. We hear a lot about that today. Kids who are ignored, pushed aside, bullied, tormented - often with tragic results for them and for others. And it's always been that way. There are always kids who just have trouble being part of the group. This movie points out that it was happening in the 1950's just as much as it happens today.

"Rebel Without A Cause" is probably best known today as the only film in which James Dean - who died in a car accident about a month before it was released - received top billing. Dean's performance was excellent. As Jim Stark, he plays a teen with a troubled home life, and who's contemptuous of his father (Jim Backus) - a classic example of what would at one time have been called a hen-pecked husband, under the control of both his wife and his mother, who don't get along with each other. From his first appearance in the opening scenes (being picked up for drunkenness) we know that trouble is going to follow him. An outcast at the new high school he attends, he bonds with fellow outcast Plato (Sal Mineo). What follows is a series of tragic events as Jim and Plato struggle (but largely fail) to gain the acceptance of their peers.

In addition to Dean and Mineo, Natalie Wood starred in this as Judy, a sort-of romantic interest to Jim who's troubled in her own way by a less than satisfactory home life, and a very distant relationship with her father.

Yes, it's dated. And most of what happens (the two primary tragic events notwithstanding) seems pretty tame by the standards of what we hear about today. But the last part of the movie, in which Plato gets a gun and essentially goes insane, has a certain resonance even 50 years later. (7/10)

Lemmon And Garner Work Well Together, 3 March 2015

Jack Lemmon and James Garner are two veteran actors who rarely disappoint with their performances. Their roles in "My Fellow Americans" are no different. They're both solid and professional, they're appropriately and not outrageously funny and they work well together playing former U.S. Presidents Kramer and Douglas respectively. Political rivals, one a Republican and one a Democrat, they loathe each other. Then, unexpectedly, they find themselves thrust into the middle of a scandal revolving around the current President, played by Dan Aykroyd, who sets out to use all the weapons at his disposal to kill them. Forced to team up, Kramer and Douglas are on the run together, searching for the evidence that will exonerate them.

Yes, Lemmon and Garner were good. But the overall story? Well ... It had potential, but I honestly thought it was a bit weak. Somehow, it just didn't reach out and grab me. I found the pace a little off, and the story not entirely clear. It was worth watching, thanks to Lemmon and Garner, but those performances aside, I found this lacking. (5/10)

Decent Cat And Mouse Game With Some Flaws, 28 February 2015

Leads Clint Eastwood and John Malkovich were both very good in this. As Secret Service agent Frank Horrigan and potential presidential assassin Mitch Leary they play an interesting enough cat and mouse game. The back story has Horrigan as the last surviving member of the detail on duty when President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. Already tormented by the memory, he's tormented further by Leary, who toys with him as he openly shares his plan. That interplay is well done, but it does seem to drag on for too long, perhaps because Leary's motive in tormenting Horrigan wasn't especially clear. Why so much obsession with Horrigan? I never really understood that. Why not just seek out the chance to assassinate the president? Another point I wasn't clear on is why Horrigan - clearly aging and out of shape - would be put back on the presidential protection team, against the wishes of the head of the detail? It moves the story forward but honestly makes no sense.

The weakest part of the movie revolved around agent Lilly Raines, played by Rene Russo. Russo's performance was fine, but the character didn't hit home with me - especially when a "quasi" romance between Raines and Horrigan was introduced. Why do that? The age difference made it unlikely to say the least. It doesn't really move the story forward at all, but it does seem to detract a bit from the character's credibility. I mean, I can understand Horrigan's interest. Russo is lovely. But I couldn't wrap my head around why Raines would be the least bit interested.

After playing the cat and mouse for a couple of hours, it all leads up to an exciting enough climax. All the performances here are fine, but the story seemed to me to be a bit lacking in some ways. (6/10)

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