A great play with great performances almost ruined by over directing.
Plays by nature are very talky and it demands more attention from an audience than say, a silent film. Good actors enhances a play because they make the play more entertaining and create characters that we could care about. Anthony Shaffer's "Sleuth" is a very talky play with a lot of twists and turns, demanding audience members pay specially close attention. It's one of the most produced play because it allows actors to interpret a pair of great characters and at the same time allow them to be deceitful and playful at the same time.
This film version of the play, I'm afraid to say, is not the one to see. The play is still basically intact and it contains great performances from the two leads unfortunately Kenneth Branagh's directing just got in the way. He uses to many artsy shots that really does not enhance the movie. It just detracts from the actors. This play more than many other plays requires us to focus our attention on the actors because they are playing mind games with each other and us.
Mr. Branagh's directing shows us too much overhead shots and shots through the slats of blinds. There are even shots when we are looking at nothing but we hear the actors talking. When he choose to focus on the actors he sometimes show us close ups that's too tight. He also shows us quick cuts back and forth from one actor to another while they speak. Basically making us dizzy. The effect of all these tricky shots Mr. Branagh shows us is like an experimental film from the 1960s gone mad. We lose the focus on the actors and the story line, and we end up focusing more on the shots we're seeing on the screen.
What's really bad about Mr. Branagh's directing is that it got in the way of two very good performances. Michael Caine plays Andrew an elder very successful writer who has been cuckolded by his wife. He's very much at the top of his game making Andrew clever and charming. Jude Law as Milo, the role Mr Caine played back in the 1972 film version, very much kept up with Mr. Caine. These two actors played off wonderfully against each other. Each one playing every scene to the hilt.
Anthony Shaffer came up with one of the greatest plays of the 20th century in "Sleuth". Michael Caine and Jude Law gave two great performances but everything is almost brought down by Kenneth Branagh, Mr. Branangh's direction is intrusive and overbearing.
The Last Legion (2007)
A bad mix of History and legend
"The Last Legion" tries to tie in the last Caesar with the legend of King Arthur. The legend of King Arthur has been for a longtime been linked to the Romans. The latest linking is that Arthur was a Roman soldier who commanded Sarmatian cavalry men in Britain against barbarians. Anyway "The Last Legion" mix in historical characters with mythology. Very rarely is a movie very accurate in telling historical events, mixing in legends you know that historical facts are out the window.
The movie begins with the naming of a young boy as the new Caesar, Romulus Augustus. Soon Barbarians invade Rome, kills the boy's parents and capture him. Of course there's treachery involved, I mean what's a Roman story without a good backstabbing? However there are a few soldier who will support the new Emperor no matter what. And they set out to rescue him and take him away from the clutches of the evil barbarians, hoping they could take him to the 9th legion or 'the last legion' in Britannia.
The movie's premise no matter how ridiculous, has the making of a good action adventure fantasy, but out right the movie misses out on that. First off a good fantasy film must have a good dream like quality in the cinematography and the lighting. This movie is too bright, specially in the outdoor scenes. It has none of that dusky look that makes fantasy films look more like a dream. The action is pretty decent but the ones with the female warrior just seems too choreographed. The sets have that crumbling look as befits the waning days of the Western Roman Empire.
The acting was not all that bad Ben Kingsley did a decent job as the Ambrosinus, he plays it with enough playfulness as a role in a movie like this requires. Kevin Mckidd makes a decent villain although I wish his performance was a little more over the top because the role required. The big surprise for me is Colin Firth, long have I dismissed him just like American producers have as the bland good looking guy in the movies who rarely if ever gets the girl. Here he's very good as the commander, he shows a quiet strong and authoritative presence plus he gets the girl, Aishwarya Rai. I don't know how her part got in the movie? She's just not the least bit believable as a female warrior, she doesn't have that ferocity that Lucy Lawless as "Xena the Warrior Princess" had. And as for her being the most beautiful woman in the world, I'll take Diane Kruger anytime.
The screenplay really doesn't explain too much to us, particularly the reason the commander and his soldiers remained royal to the young emperor. Neither did it explain why the boy became the new Caesar. Historically the boy's father completed a successful coup d'etat and made him a figurehead while dear old dad became the power behind the throne. The movie doesn't even give us a line lamenting the end of the Western empire.
The movie just fail on so many level and I put the blame squarely on the the director, producers and the writer. What they made is an action adventure pretty much like the ones from the 60s starring Steve Reeves
Running Scared (1986)
Funny, entertaining, unpretentious, if not totally believable action comedy
This movie brings back a lot of memories for me. I was living in Chicago at the time this movie was being shot and it was on the news once or twice. I only saw it recently as I really did not want to see a movie with Billy Crystal and Gregory Hines as a couple of tough cops. Neither one looked like they can take down a girl scout let alone Chicago's toughest criminals. Neither one even know how to hold a gun properly. Plus at the time male cop buddy movies were a dime a dozen.
The movie is about a couple (Crystal and Hines) of Chicago cops who suddenly find themselves on the trail of a big time drug dealer(Jimmy Smits). When the guy gets out on bail the boys are so mad that their captain tells them to cool off and they go to Florida. I'm not sure what their respite in the Sunshine state had to do with the movie but it was enjoyable to see Florida during the Miami Vice era again, complete with women in tiny bikinis. Anyways the boys get the idea of retiring and running a bar, but first they have to finish the case.
Getting back to Chicago means it's time to get back to the case, which means there are going to be shootouts and car chases, typical of the buddy films of that era. The action sequences in the film are very good. They were fast paced and very well done. Not amateurish at all. There are several gunfight scenes, one in particular that really sticks out was shot in the then newly opened State of Illinois building. The car chase taking place on the 'L' or elevated train alone is worth putting this film on your Netflix list. It's easily one of the best car chases from that era.
Casting Mr. Hines and Mr. Crystal as cops was a curious choice. As I said neither of them looked like they could take down a Girl Scout, but they sure do know how to deliver funny lines. Billy Crystal in particular certainly knows how to make things funny. When he was in shadows pretending to be an old lady and when he was pretending to be his boss on the phone. His comedic range is pretty good. Others in the cast played their role basically straight and really without much originality. They're all just straight men to the two leads.
"Running Scared" is a good action comedy that has no pretension of being anything else. It's a funny and entertaining. I have to say I'm a little biased because I lived in Chicago a long time and seeing the city again brings back so much memory. I mean I remember having been in some of the locales. Also I have to say seeing this movie is a reminder how lovely Darlanne Fluegel was. She played Billy Crystal's ex-wife. She's as lovely as Sharon Stone was during this era and a much better actress.
Jerry Maguire (1996)
Good script, good acting equals good film.
"Jerry Maguire" has to rate as one of the most quotable movies of the last decade and a half. It's given us the lines "Show me the money", "Help me, Help you", "You had me at hello" and "You complete me". And it's that last line, that really describe this movie. It's really about the growth of an individual. We see Jerry Maguire the character, grow from just an agent to becoming much more, it's not an easy trip but for the most part it's an entertaining one.
Jerry Maguire is a top sport agent. He has a decent amount of big names as client and he's engage to a beautiful woman. Then one day while visiting one of his client in the hospital, the client's young son confronted him after he gives the client a shallow encouragement. The confrontation stick in his mind and would even get him to write a "mission statement" for the company. The "mission statement" basically lays out a plan that the agents give their clients more personal attention. Unfortunately his boss doesn't like it.
The movie gives us a look at the world of the sports agents. Who are they that gets a cut of an athlete's earning and do they really deserve it? In the beginning they're just there to negotiate the numbers and get the athletes as much exposure. In the end, Jerry has become more than a guy who makes deal for an athlete. It also gives us a look at some clients they're more demanding than the agents are prepared to handle. But if handled right they will prove to be worth the trouble.
Jerry Maguire is played by Tom Cruise, and he gives one of his best performance. I think it's every bit the equal of Cuba Gooding Jr's. Oscar winning performance. Both men were on top of their game playing off each other. It's sad that his erratic behavior of late has caused harmed to his career because Tom Cruise is a very good actor. So too is Mr. Gooding and Renee Zellwegger, who plays an office worker in Tom Cruise's office and who joined him as he tries to put forth his "mission statement" into practice.
All in all, I think it's a good movie with a very observant script, complimented by great acting.
Air Force (1943)
One of the best propaganda film of the era and still a good film today
Back when I was a kid one of the local station in my town would show this movie frequently. My brothers and I would watch it every time we can and it became a personal favorite. As the station grew more prosperous and moved on to other things, this movie disappeared along with dozens of old movies. The innocence of childhood made war movies enjoyable. Of course we all know now the old cliché "War is Hell". Anyway, of all the war movies that I enjoyed in my childhood this one was special. It inspired me to try and get into the air force, (4F).
The movie of course is a wartime propaganda made to boost morale of our nation. There are dozens like these made during that time but I think this is one of the best. The movie begins with the flight crew of the B-17 bomber the "Mary Ann' on a routine flight from San Francisco to Honolulu on the evening of December 6, 1941. During the flight we get to meet the crew and they are just the standard WWII crew in any movie. The New York cabbie ("It ain't New York once you cross the Brooklyn bridge."), the farm boy, the old vet who would fight anybody who demeans the air corp and the outcast.
The dialog for the most part isn't very original, but what Howard Hawks knew then was that dialogs in on itself can be entertaining specially if they are delivered in his usual Rat-tat-tat style. Mr Hawks know how to make any movie entertaining, even when the crew were just listening to the radio it was very entertaining. But the movie was a war propaganda and we soon plunge into the attack on "Pearl Harbor", the combat scenes in this movie are some of the best I've seen in movies from that era. They're very exciting and fast paced as a matter of fact I think some of the scenes when they were airborne and fighting off the enemies might have inspired the scenes in "Star Wars" when the 'Millenium Falcon' was under attack.
The special effects on this film garnered it an Oscar nomination (one of four the film got it won best editing) and it's pretty decent for the 1940s. The miniatures are obvious now, specially if compared to some of the latest CGIs, nevertheless it's very well done. Although I still don't know if the shot over the Golden Gate bride was real or not.
Yes the movie had a racist tone and yes it has a rah-rah feel to it. But one must remember the times, the United States was attacked because our transgression against the Japanese was we cut off supply to them after they invaded China and Manchuria (Korea) and slaughtered hundreds of thousand innocent civilian. The movie also has a problem with it's time line, from the bombing of Pearl Harbor, to the last stand at Wake island to the evacuation from Manila to the Battle of Coral Sea? Coral sea took place five months after Pearl Harbor. Nevertheless it's a very good film and will remain a favorite of mine for a long time.
Galaxy Quest (1999)
Funny and entertaining movie
"Galaxy Quest" is one of those rare movies. It parodies a TV show, its actors and the fans of the show yet at the same time the movie is a tribute to them. The TV show in question of course is "Star Trek", which is a very easy target. After all the show, to a certain extent, took itself more seriously than it should and and has spawned a couple of generations of followers. The movie itself stands out on its own, it's actually a pretty good action film that at the same time allows the characters to grow on us. Much like the show itself.
Tim Allen stars as Jason Nesmith, the egotistic actor who stars as the Captain of an intergalactic spaceship. Since the show has been canceled he and his cast mates has been reduced to making personal appearances to earn a living. I'm not a big fan of Tim Allen's acting but he does a decent job here. He also gets support from two very good actors Sigourney Weaver, who's not playing Ellen Ripley, and Alan Rickman who's playing an ex- Shakesperean actor who has grown to resent the character that has made him famous. Rounding out the cast are Daryl Mithcell and Tony Shalhoub. The Rickman character is very interesting because it shows how being identified with a very popular character can be detrimental to an actor's career no matter how good they are.
The story, of course, is that Nesmith is recruited by aliens to lead them in a fight against their enemy and he brings his crew along with them for the fight. The movie have fun with this premise as it takes the actors to a strange and yet familiar situation. They have to operate the gizmos they have been playing with on their TV shows but now it's for real. One particular funny moment is when Mitchell is trying to get the spaceship out of the docking bay and there are many more.
The fans of Star Trek and other SCi FI TV shows or Movies are easy targets that gets picked on by stand up comedians, TV and Movie columnists as well as other TV shows. In most situations the fans are basically being sent a message to move on and get a life. Here they get their due as it were the fans with their encyclopedic knowledge of the show that would be instrumental in the defeat of the enemy. I wouldn't say it encourages one to be a craze fanboy but more to have to have fun with it and not take it too seriously, as this movie did
"Galaxy Quest" is a good entertaining movie that works as a comedy, action movie, and as a tribute not just to "Star Trek" but other TV shows that have a strong cult like following.
"Semi-Pro" is the story of a team in the old ABA. The ABA was a basketball league formed in the 60s to be a competition for the NBA. The league existed from 1967 to 1976 until they could no longer exist and they had to merge with the NBA. Now we have a movie not about the league or its history but about a movie about a team in the waning days of the league. But basically it's just a sport movie and not even a very good one.
Outright the movie tries to elicit laughter by having the team we're supposed to follow be called the 'Tropics' from cold northern Flint, Michigan. The team is owned and coach by one of the players Jackie Moon (Wil Ferrell). The 'Tropics' are a miserable team and Jackie is a miserable coach. He would stop play in the middle of the game to chastise a fan for bringing his own food into the stadium. What he is is a great promoter or better yet a great self- promoter. He opens the game singing his one hit song. He's also a deluded guy who thinks that he can take his team to the NBA when the two leagues merge.
The movie really doesn't even try to be a real sport movie instead it tend to be a showcase for Jackie Moon's idiocy. In other words it show case Wil Ferrell doing idiotic stuff and call it comedy. When the teams are told that they are going to need to increase their attendance in order to be considered for the merger. Jackie comes up with all kind of crazy things including wrestling a bear for halftime entertainment. It's like in some other Wil Ferrell films, the film stop the regular narrative and watch him do things that are supposed to be funny. I'm going to say it, HE ISN'T. He's just like all the other Saturday Night Live actors, they're not very good actors and I find most of their presence in movies a bit of a mockery.
The one good thing about this movie is the Woody Harrelson character. He's an old pro who has been to the NBA and actually have a championship ring. Not only does he teach the team how to play the game properly and actually start winning, he has a decent romance with his ex-wife (Maura Tierney). but then this part of the movie has that done that been there feeling. But it's still better than the rest of the movie.
Personally I think the ABA deserves a better treatment than what it got from this film. In some ways it revolutionized Pro Basketball. They came up with the 3 point shot, they allowed the freewheeling streetball style offense, (back in the day an NBA player showboating is going to get chastised by the coach, the ABA just let it go). If women's baseball can get "A League of Their Own" why does the ABA have to be stuck with this?
Dan in Real Life (2007)
Sweet romantic dramedy but nothing special
I heard a lot of good things about "Dan In Real Life", good things not great things. There's a good reason why they are good things not great things and that's because it is a sweet romantic movie but nothing special. Anybody who has seen the TV ads pretty much know what happens, Dan Burns (Steve Carell) meet a pretty lady named Marie (Juliette Binoche) in a bookstore and later on meets her again at a family gathering as his brother's girlfriend. They didn't just meet they share a large muffin together and talk. This is where American romantic movies fail, for the most part the conversation just flash through, a couple of complete anecdotes lasting a couple of minutes would make the conversation better. Unfortunately the art of conversation has pretty much died in the movies.
At the gathering we meet Dan's family, well sort of we really don't get to meet them individually and they could be interchangeable for all I care. None of them had a distinctive personality except for Mitch, Marie's boyfriend. The scenes with Dan and Marie sneaking trying to talk to each other are sweet but not really amusing, even the bathroom scene. The only time it became mildly amusing was when Dan has a blind date and Marie gets jealous.
Juliette Binoche is very lovely and played her scenes well, she's seems to be very adept at these kind of movies. Steve Carell on the other hand seems too much of a sad sack which really brings the movie down. There's a scene when he took some of the kids out and what could have been a good source of laughter just didn't work. Mostly Mr. Carell tended to be too low keyed on those scenes. Mr. Carell's low keyed stone faced sad sack performance in "Get Smart" is my main complaint about that movie. He needs to bring out that jerk from "The Office" once in a while.
The main problem I had with this movie was that it was a little too low keyed. There's nothing wrong with the pacing, the pacing was right but the movie was too subdued specially the acting. For a comedy this movie really just doesn't have as much energy as it should. There were some pretty good laughs but they tend to be sandwich in scenes that feel so morose. Even the look and the soundtrack of the movie feels morose. I think this movie could have been better had they lighten the mood up or made it as a straight drama, because as it is it just didn't work as well as it should.
Overall this movie could have been much better had the director, Peter Hedges lighten the mood up and Steve Carell didn't play the sad sack again.
Rails & Ties (2007)
A decent melodrama
I know very little of this movie until I saw it. All I know is that it's about a railroad engineer and his wife who's suffering from cancer. There's another element in the movie that I didn't know about until I saw the movie and it's about a young boy who has a troubled mother. Somehow the lives of the couple and the young boy would intersect literally and tragically. All this sounds like a melodrama from the 1930s. And in many ways it is, but it also has a brutal frankness in it that the 1930s movies didn't have.
The movie stars Kevin Bacon as the train engineer and his wife played by Marcia Gay Harden, we could see that there's a riff in their marriage. He would much rather work than spend time with his wife even though his boss is telling him he could have some time off. She doesn't understand why he's being so distant. It's obvious he's burying himself in work as she faces a dire future. This part of the movie is very frank as we see the despondency both have.
The other element in the movie is the boy played by Miles Heizer. He has a troubled mother, it's obvious he has become the adult in the relationship. He enters the engineer's world angrily and he blamed the engineer for the death of his mother. The engineer's wife would take pity on him and soon he finds himself staying with them. Somehow the tragedy that took the boy's mother would bring something that the boy has never had and the couple thought they lost.
It's really a simple melodrama but it has a frankness in it that they would never consider in the 1930s. One unforgettable scene is when she looked at herself in the mirror and see the scar cancer has left and breaks down, while he was on the other side of the door not knowing what to do. During one argument he blurts out angrily "Because You had cancer", it sounds as if he were angry at her. Obviously he's angry at the disease for what it has taken away from him, the possibility of children and now his wife. Also when the boy was crying out blaming himself for the death of those he love. It's very honest and frank how children sometime blame themselves for things they do not understand.
Credit and blame goes to both the writer Mickey Levy and director Allison Eastwood created a group of characters who are very complex and are facing difficult situations but then it spirals into sentimentality. The story of the engineer and his wife by itself is powerful then add the story of the boy trying to go on with his life and understand what's going on would make the movie even more powerful but when the two story is combined it became too sentimental.
Miss Eastwood's directing style is very similar to that of her father, tell the story in a straightforward way and get out of the way of the actors, The acting is superb, it's obvious that both Mr. Bacon and Miss Harden are very good actors but young Mr. Heizer proves too that he has talent. He's definitely a young talent to keep an eye on.
All in all I think it's a good modern melodrama but with the frankness of modern times but then it spiraled into an almost shameless, unabashed treacle.
Number One (1969)
Almost a number 2
Most great athletes have a hard time giving up the game that they love. Just think Brett Favre or better yet think Michael Jordan. He had the perfect ending, he stole the ball and then he made the shot that sealed his 6th NBA championship. Then he comes back with the Washington Wizards. This movie tries to tell the story of one such athlete Ron 'Big Cat' Catlin. It's obvious his career is over but he refuses to accept it. He's well past his prime, He has too much pain to continue but he just can't give it up.
The movie takes place in a one week time frame. It opened on the last preseason game and end on the season opener. During that week we see Catlin, played by Charlton Heston, weigh his options of retiring or keep playing. We see stories on the newspapers saying he's retiring. We see the opportunities being offered him. We also see his marriage crumbling as his wife seems to be having more success now than him. Throughout this time what's foremost is that a man is aging and have a trouble time adjusting to it. There's a scene where Catlin act nasty to a waitress mostly because she's young. I suppose one can see this movie as "the greatest generation" adjusting to a new generation coming along.
One of the main problem with the movie is the screenplay. Most of the dialog are too lame to even be memorable. The most important scene in the movie was when one of Catlin's former teammate ask him for a loan and Catlin ask him why he continued playing football even though he knew he wasn't great. The screenplay and the actor speaking the lines just couldn't get that part right.
Also, the screenplay created characters that were not very interesting. For the most part the minor characters seem to just exist only when they're around Catlin. The two that seemed alive are Catlin's friend and favorite receiver played by Bruce Dern and a gay assistant of Catlin's wife. Need I say that the wife works in fashion.
The casting is another problem with this movie. I like Charlton Heston as an actor, and he gives this role a good shot but let's face it he looked far too old for the character. The character is supposed to be 40 but he looks about ten years older. For the record he was 46 when the movie was made. He always has a commanding presence so he looks right during the huddle but very unconvincing when he has to throw the ball.
Jessica Walters who played Catlin's wife and Diana Muldaur the woman he cheated with should have traded roles. Although they're equally beautiful, Miss Muldaur is not only older than Miss Walters but always acted more mature. Both women were just wrong for their part. The best performance belong to Bruce Dern although the character is your typical '60s swinger.
I have to say that I like watching movies from 1960s that were contemporary, mostly because they have a look to them that I like, especially the outdoor scenes. Seeing New Orleans as it were in the 60s is quite a treat either in day or night. The indoor scenes on the other hand looks like they were obviously shot on a sound stage. For one thing they were too brightly lit. This movie was obviously made when too much lighting is still acceptable for movies.
The ending is one of the movies biggest mistake. It should have allowed Catlin to at least end it with dignity but instead it went for one of the more obvious endings.