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The Color of Money (1986)
Fast Eddie Returns . . . With Severe Memory Loss?
Every great director makes a few stinkers, and this is certainly one of Scorcesese's. The problem is he committed a movie "mortal sin" - he actually made Paul Newman look uncool playing a character he had played previously who was very cool. That is unforgivable.
As with so many bad movies it really comes down to a ridiculous script. Eddie Felson, a billiards phenom in his younger days who had been used and tossed away by an unscrupulous gambler, is older and wiser and now acts as the unscrupulous gambler by bankrolling young pool sharks . . . Huh? Did Eddie learn nothing from his earlier experience. A rather unbelievable character flaw considering where Eddie was at the end of "The Hustler"
Eddie decides to go on the road with a hotshot young pool player named Vincent (Tom Cruise) who is crazily cocky, dumb as a box of rocks, and presented in a smarmy way-over-the-top manner by Cruise. Vince has a girlfriend named Carmen (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) who early on reveals that she has no scruples herself. Uh, wait a minute. In "The Hustler" Eddie got involved with a girl, took her on a pool/gambling road trip with his evil gambler mentor and, without giving away the twists of that much better movie, lets just say it ended very badly. Wow, it seems Eddie has contracted a real bad case of memory loss which causes him to make every mistake he has made before. Who's is writing this dreck?
The implausibility's get worse. Eddie gives Vince a very valuable cue stick, sort of a gift to convince him to become his protégé. Then he tells Vince to not use it when he plays - any savvy pool player will see it and immediately identify Vince as a hustler. Okay, so why give it to the brash and volatile young Vincent? Of course Vince goes out without Eddie and takes the cue and mucks up Eddie's gambling game plan. Eddie gets mad and drives his car away, with Vince trying to chase him down like a jilted girlfriend. Then Vince gets mad and Eddie gets in his car and chases down Vince, like an older jilted girlfriend. Meanwhile Carmen is disrobing in front of Eddie every chance she gets. Then they all make up. Then the wise, sage pool hustler Eddie Felson devises a con job which involves putting his grubby old guy hands all over Carmen, knowing full well how jealous and insecure Vince is about his relationship with Carmen. This leads to a cringe-worthy scene after the con job in which Vince acts like the immature teenager he obviously is while Carmen and Eddie try to placate his anger by saying, "We were just acting!" It made me feel a little dirty, watching the great Paul Newman explaining how actors who kiss in movies don't really mean it. Who put these words in his mouth?
There's more, including one of Scorcesese's most gratuitous camera spins, doing 360's around Newman like some drunk teenager doing donuts in his souped-up Chevy in a supermarket parking lot, but why continue? This is simply a bad movie, all the more embarrassing because it almost taints the memory of its superior predecessor . . . almost.
On the plus side, Newman looks great, MEM is very sexy, and Forrest Whitaker turns up in a great cameo as a slightly crazy pool hustler. His character was more interesting during his brief screen time than anything Newman and Cruise could muster.
The rotten cherry on top of this melted pile of ice cream is the fact that THIS is the film for which Newman won his only Oscar. My advice for Newman fans (of which I am definitely one) is to avoid "The Color of Money" and remember the legendary actor for all his other great performances.
The Monuments Men (2014)
Bad story-telling and a tad vain
Here's the problem with "Monuments Men": Bad script. A group of art experts are introduced but we really don't know anything about them. Then we are expected to care about them and empathize with their cause. The script doesn't flesh out their personalities enough.
For example, there's a scene where Bill Murray's character gets a recording from his daughter in which she sings "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas". Bob Balaban's character surprises him by playing it over the camp PA system. It should be a touching moment, but it isn't because we don't know anything about his daughter or their relationship. Instead it just seems forced.
Then there's a bit of US propaganda in the film. The US soldiers have to save the artworks not only from the Nazis but also from the Russians. According to the script, only the Americans seem fit to handle the art treasures of the world. Was it just a coincidence that the token British and French soldiers died while all the Americans made it out alive? I'm American and this even bothered me.
Sure, we're all in favor of protecting art from senseless destruction, but the film has a rather superior attitude about it. "Look at how noble we are - defying death to save paintings and statues." I'm not so sure the answer to the question "Were the lives lost worth it?" is as obvious as the film would have us believe.
So yeah, the film is a bit awkward in it's plotting and character development, and a bit misguided concerning the life-or-death value of art. A definite misstep for Clooney and company.
On the wrong side of the tracks from "Our Town" lies "Dogville"
Lars von Trier takes the luscious fruit of "the American Dream", peels off the pretty facade, and reveals the ugliness, vanity, and judgment underneath. Yes, Dogville could be any town in the world, but it fits 21st century USA too well to ignore the connection.
The early theme of the film is, "You people need to be more accepting," which flies in the face of American self-sufficiency. We can make it alone through hard work and faith in God. We don't need anything from "outsiders".
When Tom introduces Grace and tells the denizens of Dogville that she will provide them with a chance to display their generosity and compassion, they are extremely skeptical. One of the delights of this film is watching that seed of skepticism evolve, first into a small plant of teamwork and trust, then later into a huge, monstrous tree of hate and intolerance.
There are many ways to analyze this film, but what first came to me was that it was an allegory of America's disdain for welfare. Grace must offer herself to the community and do little jobs for them in return for shelter. At first they must create work for her (she can do "things you don't want done"), but slowly the citizens expectations and demands increase, and they lord their power over her with threats and insults, much the same way many Americans act towards poor people who are on welfare ("They're lazy, they should get a job, they're not one of us."). Eventually Grace becomes literally "chained" to the community, a slave and criminal. Finally the citizens just want Tom to get rid of her, so similar to how much of America would like to have their poor and homeless problem just go away.
Another theme constantly repeated throughout the film is the theme of "arrogance". Grace mentions more than once the sin of arrogance, and it is most certainly that which brings about the violent conclusion of Dogville. America and arrogance? I'll let the readers decide the legitimacy of that connection.
"Dogville" is also about the presence of evil in all human beings. People appear decent on the surface, but given the right mixture of circumstances and motivations we are all capable of terrible acts. Following said acts we are also capable of rationalizing our behavior and deluding ourselves into believing we acted morally, perhaps even heroically. Patriots commit atrocities for their flag. True believers do likewise for their God.
Bravo to the brilliant Mr. von Trier for exposing the dark underbelly of the American Dream in such a pointed and creative way.
Nymphomaniac: Vol. I (2013)
So much more than just shocking sex
First off, this is a review of both volumes 1 & 2, considered as one film.
Secondly, the framework of this film is the life of a woman obsessed with sex, so obviously there are many graphic scenes of sexual acts. Sex is central to the plot. Those criticizing it for gratuitous sexual content and calling it pornography are ridiculous, and most likely part of the hypocritical sexual fascism the director is attacking, so their objectivity is highly questionable.
Lars von Trier has set up this elaborate plot and spiced it with all sorts of sexual content: some of it shocking (the S & M sequence is difficult to watch), some humorous (the "parade of penises") and some heartbreaking (Uma Thurman as "Mrs. H"). He gives us a character (Seligman) through whom we can safely observe and digest these scenes, and experience his unique comparisons to the sexual activities. But much more important than the sex and Seligman's often humorous tangents is the true theme of the film: the guilt Western society has placed on female sexuality. This film is downright profound in it's view of sexual oppression.
For those who doubt the film's depth, consider the topics covered in the conversations between Joe and Seligman: an examination of the true nature of love (which Joe cynically refers to as "lust plus jealousy"), the view of women in a traditional love relationship as a possession of the man (Joe slowly developed the "desire to be one of Jerome's 'things'."), political correctness and language and its relationship to democracy (Joe believes most people are too stupid for democracy), the comparison between the three elements of a Bach orchestration and three of Joe's regular lovers (who also represent three distinct types of sexual need - reliability, animal passion, and love), etc., etc. From fly fishing to spoons to the correct way to parallel park, from soul trees to the mothering instinct to man's place in the universe, there is SOOO much more going on here than just sex.
One of Lars von Trier's most extraordinary and bold films. I'll give it a nine for now, but I suspect it will age very well.
A street level account of a horrific event
I'm pretty sure most everybody knows the story, but okay,
It seems some reviewers are criticizing "Parkland" for not being the movie they wanted it to be - in other words, it doesn't argue their conspiracy theory angle. No, it's not a movie that wallows in conspiracy theories. What it does do is present the impact of the JFK assassination on a group of people we normally don't hear about: the doctors and nurses at the hospital, the secret service agents, Oswald's brother and mother, the people at the Dallas FBI office, and Abraham Zapruder and his family. In my opinion it presents these stories extremely well.
The film is a moment-by-moment observation of what happened to these people on the day of the assassination and the days that followed. It reveals some fascinating details that may surprise even those who are well read on the topic. For example, we see Zapruder begin filming and get a look through his camera as the motorcade approaches, but then the director focuses on Zapruder as the shots are fired. Even those barely familiar with the assassination probably know the actual shooting only took a few seconds, but in the scene we live those seconds with Zapruder, and it's startling how lightning fast those seconds speed by. The audience is left dazed and numb at what has just happened, just like Zupruder and the others on the grassy knoll.
The Parkland hospital emergency room is literally stormed by the Secret Service, and the staff, who were chatting and relaxing a moment earlier, suddenly have the President's bloody body thrust before them. The director does a great job creating a palpable "you are there" feeling, allowing us to eavesdrop on the operating room and notice little details like Jackie's pill box hat riding atop JFK's body as he is wheeled in, or sharing the surprise when the doctor notices the President is wearing a lumbar support. Reading about the confrontation between the Dallas medical examiner and the Secret Service is one thing, but the scene as presented by the director is full of tension, anger and testosterone. Every scene at the hospital is absolutely compelling and perfectly paced.
The subplots involving Robert Oswald and the local FBI agents were also really well done, and the script cleverly weaves these two stories together near the end of the film.
I've done more than my fair share of reading on the topic, and it's obvious there was a conspiracy, but that's not the point of the film. No movie can do everything, and film makers who try to jam too much into a 90 minute film are foolish. I didn't see any lies or blatant distortions. What I did see was a riveting and compassionate look at a horrible event in US history. "Parkland" is brilliantly successful at what it sets out to do, and that's the only criteria upon which it should be judged.
Gone with the Wind (1939)
A classic, but . . .
Here's the scoop about GWTW: Two hours of brilliance, 30 minutes of soapy melodrama, and two great final lines to wrap it up.
*****S P O I L E R S*****
The movie is great until Scarlet and Rhett get married. After that it devolves into the tale of two petulant, hard-headed people who never seem to be in love at the same time.
Rhett is deeply in love and happy after Bonnie Blue is born, but Scarlett seems jealous of his affection for their daughter and promptly destroys their happiness by kicking Rhett out of her bed.
She survives public embarrassment at Ashley's birthday party, thanks to Melanie's saintly temperament. Rhett basically rapes her in a drunken rage (after dramatically carrying her up the stairs), but Scarlet awakes the next morning blissfully happy. Must have been good sex. Well, apparently not for Rhett, who apologizes and asks for a divorce. Huh? He whisks Bonnie off to London, then returns to discover Scarlet is pregnant, so he promptly berates her and indirectly causes her to fall down the stairs, losing the baby. She calls for him on her sick bed. He declares his love for her. Problem is neither knows of the other's feelings. Rhett wants to try again, but it's Scarlet's turn to act selfish. Then Bonnie dies, which makes them both go crazy. Then Melanie dies. Scarlet finally figures out that Ashley doesn't love her, but it's too late to save her marriage.
Then they each get their famous final lines: "Frankly my dear, I don't give a dam." "Tomorrow is another day." The music swells. The end.
A great ending, but during the previous 30 minutes we are forced to deal with two rather unlikable people. What happened to the charmingly roguish cavalier and the prissy southern belle-turned-strong-businesswoman we saw in the first 2/3 of the film? Neither character is perfect, but the ugly, childish turns they take after they marry make that stretch of film almost unwatchable.
With a little more editing and re-writing, GWTW could have been perfect. As it is, it's still very good.
The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Similar to a bad James Bond film
You know the hackneyed device used in many of the Bond films - the overly talkative villain? He has to stop and explain everything or just wants to gloat, which gives Bond a chance to escape whatever dire situation he is in. That's this movie. I swear it seemed like all the dialog in "The Dark Knight Rises" was exposition. All the characters were saddled with clumsy speeches explaining what was happening. That's just one of the many problems with this long, over-wrought, lumbering excuse for an action movie.
I was not a fan of the first 2 entries in the series, except for Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker in the second film. This one has some nice special effects, and Ann Hathaway is okay as Catwoman, but that's about it.
There are some very good actors in DKR who are totally wasted. Tom Hardy is hidden behind a mask the whole movie as the villain Bane, and his dialog is mostly incomprehensible. Gary Oldman and Michael Caine are obviously just picking up a paycheck. Morgan Freeman gets to give Batman his high-tech toys and then fades into the background. It's kind of sad watching them sleep walk through this mess.
Then there's Christian Bale with his cheesy grumbling Batman voice. Is that really supposed to help hide his Bruce Wayne identity? There are moments where it is laugh-out-loud funny.
The script is convoluted and the pace of the film is awkward. Was this really made by Christopher Nolan, the same guy behind the brilliant "Inception"? Hard to believe.
It looks like they are setting the stage for yet another sequel, which will rake in the dough and and make all the fan boys happy. I will not be rushing out to see it.
Brief Encounter (1945)
When I want to have a good cry, this it the one.
I think I first discovered "Brief Encounter" in the early 80's. Ever since then it is the movie I pull out when I need a good old fashioned sob fest.
So many perfect elements:
-The bittersweet music of Rachmaninoff
-The breathtaking B&W cinematography
-Trains as a metaphor for limited time, carrying people in and out of our lives (and of course there's the sexual subtext).
-The writing. All you have to say is "Noel Coward". One of the best examples of opening up a play for the big screen.
-A little comic relief provided by Stanley Holloway and Joyce Carey.
-Trevor Howard, so charming and polite yet quietly passionate.
-Celia Johnson, whose luminous eyes perfectly project a refined manner one minute, then disabling shame the next.
-David Lean's direction. He obviously knew exactly what to do with all this repressed emotion and guilt.
-A perfectly ironic and tragic climax.
I won't bother with a plot rehash, but I will point out a few of my favorite moments.
-The "date" where they take the boat out. Begins on such a carefree note, then ends in the boathouse with the tortured declaration of doomed love.
-Laura on the train, day-dreaming about going to romantic places with Alec. Haven't we all done exactly that, only to have the dreams fade into reality.
-The scenes following the one in the friend's apartment. Our modern sensibilities are bewildered by Laura's shame, but it's a testament to Celia Johnson's performance that we still have such empathy for her.
-The walk to the platform when Alec reveals his "solution" to their situation. The look on her face and the way she says "Oh Alec" strikes a very specific nerve for me. Then the dialog when she's leaning out of the train window, and the train pulls away ever-so-slowly . . . probably the best heartbreakingly romantic scene ever. That is, UNTIL . . .
-The Dolly Messiter scene, and the brilliant way it is telegraphed earlier in the film. Of course by that time I'm on my second box of tissue.
I don't give many 10's, but this one was easy.
The Grey Fox (1982)
A Leisurely Romantic Western?
A very different kind of Western, "The Grey Fox" is set mostly in Canada, moves at an unhurried pace, and stars a senior citizen. Richard Farnsworth didn't make the jump from stunt man to actor until he was well past leading man age, but he was wonderful in films like "The Natural", "Misery", and "The Straight Story". This, however, has to be his best performance. He exudes subtle grace as gentleman train robber Bill Miner, who gets out of prison and is forced to adapt to a world that has passed him by. There's also a very sweet romance between Miner and a feminist photographer. My favorite part of the film is a montage of their courtship set to Miner singing "Betsy From Pike". I also loved the Irish music by the Chieftains, which seemed to fit perfectly with the lovely Canadian scenery. It will be too slow for most audiences, but if you love small independent films that don't pander to teenage moviegoers, this gem will be right up your alley.
Too long, terribly self-conscious
There's a line Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) says, something to the effect of "Life isn't short, it's long." That was at about the 2 hour mark, and I thought, "Yeah, so is this movie." "Magnolia" was an interesting idea, and there's some good stuff in it. Some of the acting is first rate (Julianne Moore, Philip Seymore Hoffman, Philip Baker Hall, and Melinda Dillon). Much has been made of Tom Cruise's performance, but I think he over-acts, especially in his big scene with Jason Robards.
One of the main problems is that the script tries to do too much. Some editing would have helped, like maybe limiting it to 2 or 3 of these stories. I would have cut the plot involving William Macy's character. Focusing on one whiz kid should have been enough. I also thought the subplot with Claudia and Jim the cop was pretty unbelievable. It was difficult for me to care much about their potential relationship since it seemed obviously doomed. There were just too many balls being juggled at once in this story.
I also had a problem with PT Anderson's direction. Very showy and self-indulgent, constantly calling attention to himself with his quick cuts from plot to plot and flashy camera angles. He really dragged out the big decisions made by the various characters: Cruise hanging on the phone with his assistant, the whiz kid's big speech, Moore unloading her guilt on everyone. The whole pacing of the film seemed off in the last hour.
Then there's the big pay-off, which I found ridiculous. While others attribute lots of hidden meaning to it, I found it pretty pointless. Really the film's message can be simply summed up with "coincidences happen, and you can't escape your past".
Basically I think "Magnolia is an over-rated film, worth watching once, but not worth all the reverence.