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Good Night, and Good Luck. (2005)
George Clooney hit it just right -- wonderful!
This movie is absolutely magnificent. The choice of black-and-white was smart, as it ensures the action melds perfectly with the frequently-shown footage of the hearings and interviews from the period. In fact, one scene, showing Roy Cohn tarring a witness after McCarthy has left the room, is so magnificent, with panning between witness and Cohn (and the senator who attacks Cohn). It increased the drama of the scene, while heightening the drama of the film as a whole.
The directing is also spare, with no soundtrack -- aside from brief, and lovely musical interludes -- and the reliance on studio sets rather than location shots was also a good choice. Clooney also struck the perfect balance between showing closeups of actor's reactions, without dwelling on them. And indeed those reactions are often not explained -- you just know there's ugliness going on.
The acting was also first-rate. Very understated, with lots of low talking, and characters with doubts -- as any human being would be in their place -- without any of the usual Hollywood cardboard cutouts. Clooney was strong, and nicely understated; in fact there wasn't a lot of scene-stealing, though Patricia Clarkson is, as always, luminous.
No review would be complete without fulsome praise of David Strathairn. He captured Edward R. Murrow magnificently. The magnificent delivery of beautifully-written words, with the quiet, observing -- almost watchful -- behavior off-camera (the guy wasn't the life of the party, it seems) came together fantastically.
If there was a shortcoming, it was the lack of a what-happened-afterward finish. However that's a very minor quibble, and it's hard to complain about it, because the choice to not include that makes the movie very much of a self-contained unit -- like a great TV documentary (and hey, maybe people will want to go do some research).
All in all, a great movie. Well done, Mr. Clooney!
Chernobyl Heart (2003)
Short but incredibly powerful documentary
When you think of the Chernobyl disaster, you probably think of blurry 80s footage of the ruined reactor, of guys in gas masks evacuating local residents, or the abandoned "zone of exclusion" around the site.
But this film offers another perspective: the horrendous legacy of the radiation cloud -- many times worse than Hiroshima -- that continues to affect the lives of millions of people in the region, especially the semi-hermit kingdom of Belarus.
*** SPOILER ALERT ***
And of those affected by the radioactive particles, none are suffering more than the children. Soaring levels of birth defects, thyroid cancer and heart defects (the film was named after the nickname given to the heart defects).
The filmmakers follow the medical and aid workers as they work with these children. It often seems like trying to build sandcastles against a gargantuan tide, and no one seems to go unaffected. Mental retardation, doomed youngsters, tragic parents, traumatized medical staffers ... at times it seems too much.
You'll never see a documentary more emotionally wrenching than this. But it's completely worth it. Well made, without polish or a soundtrack. And the short length was a wise choice ... much more would just make it impossible to watch.
Watch this documentary if you get the chance. You won't regret it. And it might just change your life.
Powerful film, still relevant today
When this movie was released in 1964, it scared the crap out of millions of people. The threat it explores -- an accidental launching of a nuclear attack due to a technical error -- seemed all to real.
By placing characters in key positions on the chain of command, from the White House to the Pentagon, Strategic Air Command and, by voice, the Soviet leadership, the filmmakers do an excellent job of following events, and the effect those events have on completely believable characters.
Everything in this movie is fallible: the technology, the systems, and the human beings. And that, perhaps, is the most frightening thing of all -- the reminder that the terrifying power of nuclear weapons (of which thousands remain in existence) will always be at the mercy of imperfect beings.
The casting is perfect, the acting fantastic, particularly the late Dan O'Herlihy as General Black. Walter Matthau, in an uncharacteristically serious role, is chilling as a hawkish, Kissingeresque adviser.
I won't include a spoiler, but the ending was unexpected and entirely terrifying.
All in all, an excellent film -- the choice of making it without any music at all was very smart. If there is a shortcoming, it's the fault of the Pentagon, which refused to cooperate in the making of the movie. The director therefore had to use stock footage of military planes that rarely matched what the characters were saying. Only a minor shortcoming, though, and easy to overlook.
As a side note, a lot of people wonder about the similarities (and identical time-frame) between this movie and Dr. Strangelove. The answer is the simple fact that by the early sixties, many "nuclear thrillers" had been published, so it's no surprise that three of them got made into films at around the same time (the third is Seven Days in May).
Thousands of nuclear weapons remain in the world today -- and more are being built. And all of these weapons are overseen by fallible technologies and fallible human beings. Fail- Safe is therefore still relevant today.
The Manson Family (2003)
What the heck was all the buzz about?
The only thing of interest about this movie is its subject matter. Taking a look at the Manson "family" from the point of view of the family members themselves is a great idea. However, trying to make sense of the uncomprehensible is something that can really only be accomplished in a masterwork -- and this ain't it.
Presumably because there was so much information to squeeze into a screenplay, this film was done in a faux documentary style, with reenactments thrown in. Trouble is, the writing and directing make it impossible to establish those things that make a movie watchable, like character, story, theme and so on.
Worse, there's an incredibly weak sub-plot thrown in that follows a little band of latter-day Mansonites as they go after a reporter who's working on a story on the anniversary of the killings. It's dumb and pointless, and a complete waste of time.
All in all, this movie is one big wasted opportunity. The one ray of sunshine is the acting of Marc Pitman, who plays Tex, who in real life did most of the actual killing. Whereas the female characters come off as giggly airheads in the 60s flashbacks, Pitman manages to convey real feeling.
In short, don't bother with this movie.
Gone in 60 Seconds (1974)
The standard against all subsequent are measured!
It's amazing what could be done with a tiny budget and no digital effects. I watched this after having seen the trashy remake, and expected a similar degree of dumb wisecracks and hackneyed sub-plots.
I was impressed, however, to discover real talent behind the camera. The plot is simple: a car thief has to steal 40 fancy cars in a very short time. Using a combination of skill, insider knowledge of the insurance business and just sheer brass, the protagonist and his pals start their automotive harvest. Everything seems done and taken care of, when everything goes to hell at the last moment, leading to what surely be the longest car chase put to film.
The best thing about this movie is its low-budget feel. Many of the early scenes are almost mimed, with voices overdubbed later; you don't see actual dialogue, just hear it on top of the action. But as things progress, it begins to show more polish, and by the time we get to the big chase, you get what appears to be the entire 7th Cavalry Division in squad cars chasing one li'l yellow Mustang.
A very smart touch during the big chase was to frequently cut to the aftermath of car crashes, with wounded cops and civilians being dragged from burning cars and hustled away in ambulances -- it added an edge to the film, to show there are actually consequences to these actions (and how often is that shown on the big screen?).
Aside from the marvelously-choreographed action sequences, there are many moments of great wit, which I won't describe so's not to spoil them.
All in all, a brilliant piece of film-making, made not with glitz, glamor, star-power or special effects -- just sheer talent (and pretty cars, o'course!).
The Day After Tomorrow (2004)
Fun disaster flick
This is a movie in the grand ole tradition of "Earthquake," "The Towering Inferno," and so on. It's a big-budget disaster flick built up around a somewhat flimsy premise.
It's a fun way to spend a couple of hours. Don't make the mistake of the impossibly partisan and read too much into it. Lord knows, judging a movie by how realistic it is would rule out 99% of everything that's made.
As far as "Day After Tomorrow" is concerned, it's comforting to know that a long-lost "disaster flick" genre is still alive and well!
Classic tale of teen rebellion
This is a fabulous movie that goes far beyond the usual one-dimensional teenager- struggles-with-society's-conformity tale. In it, the main character, Jimmy, has got a good job but which seems pointless to him. He's a member of a posse of "Mods," a mid-sixties image- group that included quasi-Beatles-style clothes and haircuts, the use of Vespa scooters, and of course sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll.
Jimmy hates the conformity as symbolized by his TV-watching, emotionally-detached parents and dreads the prospect of becoming an ice-cold working stiff. Bus as time passes he begins to squirm in the conformity imposed by being a Mod, a conformity so ruthless it costs him a friendship.
Everything that seems to be a key to happiness, whether it's romance with Steph, a beautiful member of his posse, or taking part in a kind of "Mod Woodstock," or adoring the "King of the Mods" (played perfectly by Sting), or even just trying to escape it all aboard his trusty Vespa, becomes a dead end of conformity.
Throughout the movie, his frustration is building, and he can't figure out why. In the end, he finally realizes the source of his anguish, and, without giving anything away, addresses the heart of the matter.
Excellent performances in this movie (though the accents will be downright impenetrable for some viewers), great directing, strong writing, and of course it marvelously portrays the Mod lifestyle. All the groups shown in the movie can be taken as symbols for just about any community you could think of.
Best of all, the soundtrack is superb. Unfortunately, you can't really get the sense of it just watching the movie, so pick up the CD if you like The Who; it's one of their very best.
Overall, a must-see.
Brilliant, often overlooked documentary
"Manson" was filmed in the early 1970s, when Charles Manson and several of his followers were in jail (still on death row at the time of filming, though their terms were later commuted to life imprisonment). At that time many members of the "family" were free and still sticking together, and were, amazingly, willing to appear in this documentary.
This documentary offers a fascinating window into their world; at times frolicking, childlike in the wilderness, dancing, singing, laughing, swimming, riding horses ... but at other times looking at the camera, brandishing large rifles, shotguns and hunting knives, talking about love and killing and, of course, Manson.
Perhaps the most mesmerizing of them is Squeaky Fromme, who a few years later would be sent to prison for trying to assassinate President Gerald Ford, though all of them are fascinating. The producers are careful to point out the solid, often highly educated backgrounds of these women.
Also interviewed are a couple of men who fled the family around the time of the Tate-La Bianca murders, who talk about life inside the family. There are also interviews with past cellmates of the women, who tell often harrowing stories of things the murderous women told them.
Underlying the movie is the stark generational divide of those times. While the past and present members of the family are young, expressive and with a loose, casual look, the appearance of the prosecutor who tried the case -- and whose own account of the trial, "Helter Skelter," (also a movie) is the main source of information on the case -- appears in a three-piece suit, an earnest tone of voice, and melodramatic mannerisms.
If you're wondering why the Manson phenomenon happened, don't watch this hoping for an answer. And if you're looking for more information, don't bother. But if you want to see the people involved, hear them speak and find out how they thought, by all means give it a watch.
An excellent documentary, largely forgotten nowadays (alas).
Piao liang ma ma (2000)
A powerful yet understated portrait of life in modern China.
Chinese screen goddess Gong Li plays a single mother in contemporary Beijing who struggles to educate and raise her deaf son. This film, which was very popular at the Berlin Film Festival, is a very moving portrayal of the struggle to get by in modern China. Gong Li, who reportedly didn't wear any makeup in this movie, is utterly convincing in her role, as is the charming lad who plays her son. Director Zhou Sun gives the film the stark feel of a documentary. There is little music, plenty of background noise, and everywhere are reminders -- mostly in ruins -- of China's ancient past. All in all, "Breaking the Silence" does an excellent job in exploring the fight -- often a hopeless, stubborn, bull-headed battle -- to ensure a better future for our children. It also reminds us that, in a China with almost no social services at all, most people are too busy trying to survive to worry about politics.