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All Is by My Side (2013)
Crippled without assistance from the Hendrix estate, the film is in constant disarray...
Failed musical-bio on the career of American rock and blues musician Jimi Hendrix (1942-1970), whose life spiraled out of control at the age of 27, leading to his accidental death from an overdose of barbiturates. André Benjamin was a very fine choice for the leading role: he has the charisma and stage presence needed to play Hendrix, plus his dramatic acting is also good (he broods prettily). Unfortunately, writer-co-producer-director John Riley was unable to get the necessary musical assistance from the artist's estate; without Hendrix's original music in the film, a hole is left in the finished product that no outside material can possibly hope to fill (particularly for purists). Ridley perhaps panicked, using a messy editing technique to substitute for a narrative. The many chapter stops and starts strand the movie in a kind of 'artistic' past-or-present netherworld (we're never sure where we are in Hendrix's story). The whole thing would feel like a horrible sham were it not for Benjamin's performance. He rated a better movie--as did Hendrix's millions of admirers. *1/2 from ****
Scrapbook of episodes is a touchstone for some audiences, alienating to others
Two siblings in Texas town are uprooted by their single mother, who hopes a move to Houston will lead to better work and more opportunities. They become a blended family when their mother marries a single father of two, with visits from the kids' nearby ne'er-do-well father, who is typically unemployed. Writer-producer-director Richard Linklater spent over 10 years on this project, which has loosely-structured scenes of 'natural' interaction between bored, video-game playing teenagers and their busy, frequently exasperated elders. Little details about behavior and extracurricular activities certainly ring true, but Linklater has trouble extracting real emotions from these episodes (this due primarily to the variable acting talent assembled, and also Linklater's lackadaisical approach, which some may find raw and real). The film purports to be honest--and there doesn't seem to be an agenda beyond holding up a mirror to the audience--but some viewers may end up feeling resentful. There's no dramatic pull through this story, and it's a lengthy film (165 minutes). Patricia Arquette won a Supporting Actress Oscar for her dryly-resolved work (she's the best thing in the movie), but Ethan Hawke is still trying too hard to be wily and charming. ** from ****
"I just have to sit down and have myself a happy cry!"
In the early 1960s, small town wife and mother of 10, facing hard times, wins a slogan contest and buys her family a new home, but that doesn't ease the volatile nature of her deeply troubled, resentful husband. Uneasily cast slice of nostalgia has Julianne Moore trying her hardest as real-life perennial contest winner Evelyn Ryan, but this adaptation of Terry Ryan's book is episodic and thinly-conceived (with 'cute' bits such as Moore paying the milkman with just-arrived contest booty that don't quite play). Evelyn is portrayed as a tower of strength: grounded, determined, placating, but that's not enough to build a film on. Moore's sunshiny narration--often played directly to the camera--fails to provide a delicate framework for the picture (it sticks out as an uncomfortable artifice) and Woody Harrelson's dark presence as unhappy Mr. Ryan is the equivalent of a flat tire. The accurate art direction and design are the main things to see here, and Moore's true grit is admirable, but the story isn't gripping on a dramatic level. ** from ****
"Life only got one meaning for me now...freedom!"
Ossie Davis is a tower of strength as Kentucky slave in 1850 promised his freedom by his well-meaning white master, but instead sold to an auctioneer and bought by an extremely moody Mississippi cotton plantation owner from the North, who keeps a black "wench" in his bed. Director and co-screenwriter Herbert J. Biberman apparently had sincere intentions here, but his film--cheaply produced and cheaply presented--comes off as sensationalistic (the title "Slaves" may as well be followed with an exclamation point). Pop singer Dionne Warwick (in her acting debut) has dramatic eyes and a curious smudge of a mouth, but her role as Stephen Boyd's mistress doesn't make much sense, and her introductory scenes--drunk and painting up her face--are confusing and off-putting. One sequence, a grueling day for the slaves picking cotton in the sun, and later weighing their results in the rain, is atmospheric and hard-hitting; but only when Davis is on-screen does Biberman get anything heartfelt going. The rest of "Slaves" is crude, and processed for shock value. *1/2 from ****
Fueled by unethical ambition, Gyllenhaal's Louis Bloom is a wholly original creation
Jake Gyllenhaal does some of his finest work in years playing Louis Bloom, an L.A.-area computer geek, unemployed and living in a cheap apartment, who weasels his way into a new career as a video-photographer selling crime and accident footage to a television news-station. Bloom's burning, all-consuming passion to excel to the next level of his 'business' knows no ethical boundaries; he stoops to manipulating footage--as well as the people around him--just to achieve success. Rene Russo (also doing top-notch work) is the disbelieving TV news director who can't question Bloom's morals...because she hasn't many herself. Writer-director Dan Gilroy has fashioned this intense character study with a nimble hand; even when the scenario becomes more of a suspense-driven piece, Gilroy does not allow the violent melodrama which ensues to interfere with his focus on Louis Bloom, an original and unpredictable character, a human question-mark. Supporting cast, technical effects all excellent. *** from ****
Cold Creek Manor (2003)
The screenplay is as dilapidated as the manor...
Ridiculous scare flick wastes a decent cast. Dennis Quaid and wife Sharon Stone move their family from New York City to the country, where they hope to refurbish an old farmhouse into a showplace within the next two years; soon, the former resident--just out of prison--shows up and asks to be their caretaker. Sure, why not! Written by Richard Jefferies, "Cold Creek Manor" is never as smart as the audience, which is death for a suspense-drama. Technically over-worked, highly illogical and unpleasant. Mike Figgis directed, perhaps for the thrill of the rural atmosphere and the sound of the cicadas. I don't know what excuse Quaid or Stone had. *1/2 from ****
The Crystal Ball (1943)
Cast in high spirits, though the absence of funny lines makes itself felt...
Shapely Paulette Goddard (dressed to the nines, but with only thirty-eight cents to her name) takes a job as decoy in a shooting gallery, but when the phony fortune teller she's bunking with throws her back out, Goddard subs for her at a fancy affair. Flimsy romantic fluff from Paramount studios (but acquired and released by United Artists). Though set mainly in 'ritzy' surroundings--with gowns by both Edith Head AND Adrian!--the picture appears to be a second-biller, though one given a pinch of star-power from Goddard and Ray Milland (even if the colorful supporting players tend to upstage them both). Elliott Nugent's direction has little feeling for slapstick pratfalls and comedic misunderstandings; coupled with the silly script, it isn't any wonder why the film builds no momentum. Two quirky highlights: the eccentric singing ladies on the tandem bicycle; also, Milland's sports car (a Crosley) that rocks back and forth like a toy auto. ** from ****
TWA Flight 800 (2013)
Now that we've established the "how", it's time the determine the "why"...
Writer-director Kristina Borjesson has assembled a fascinating, frustrating, anger-causing documentary on TWA Flight 800, the ill-fated Boeing 747-100 which, in 1996, exploded over the shores of Long Island just minutes after takeoff from JFK Airport en route to Paris, France. Borjesson is very careful not to immediately point fingers and declare a massive government cover-up (in the interest of a juicy exposé; after all, we're all fascinated by conspiracies). Instead, she establishes a cover-up with her evidence. TWA Flight 800 was very clearly shot down by three separate missiles, all deliberately launched in order to take that plane down. The FBI, the CIA and the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) each concluded there was no external foul play involved in the crash, that the internal problem was located in the plane's center fuel tank (it even says so on the memorial!). After viewing the witness testimonials and evidence, one can see this is utter nonsense. The underlying horror of this film is the fact the nightly news (via the powers-that-be) is giving falsified reports to the public--and the public is asked to believe every word of it because, after all, these guys are the experts. *** from ****
The Dead Zone (1983)
Grim and ugly, but well-acted by Walken...
Ordinary schoolteacher (played with restraint by Christopher Walken) takes a roller-coaster ride one afternoon with his girlfriend and has a very strange reaction...later that evening, he's involved in a car accident that leaves him comatose in the hospital for five years. Everyone tells him upon his awakening he's lucky to be alive, but the experience has left him with psychic powers that may be a curse. Thriller from the Stephen King bestseller, adapted by Jeffrey Boam and directed by David Cronenberg, and full of first-rate actors, is pitched over-the-top; while it doesn't attempt anything too strenuous, such as morphing into a political allegory, the film achieves most of its 'scary' effects through noise and a kind of grim, bug-eyed intensity that becomes tiresome. ** from ****
Gone Girl (2014)
Cyphers and story holes...
"Gone Girl" is so smoothly, austerely-filmed and staged and acted, a less-seasoned moviegoer is apt to come away from it with nothing but admiration and praise (hence the many fine reviews the film has received from not only the public but also by professional movie critics). An upscale married couple in New York City hits a financial bump and ends up living with the husband's family in Missouri (in an equally beautiful home, by the way). After a few years, with the relatives dead, the couple's marriage hits a bump as well, and before long the wife is missing, their glass table is shattered and police find a mopped-up bloodbath in the kitchen. Adapting her own novel, screenwriter Gillian Flynn sets up an intriguing first-half, with the benumbed (and unfaithful) husband at first courted and then reviled by the ever-present media. But the second and third acts of the picture are where it runs into trouble, setting up plot-points and then either ignoring or stumbling over those plot-points. The final scenes (which are dragged out interminably by director David Fincher) are so static and unconvincing as to be ridiculous, mitigating his fine work in presenting this lurid tale (the picture ends up being all about presentation and little else). The central couple (Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike) are thoroughly unlikable, detestable people--and the supporting characters, with the exception of a dry female police detective (Kim Dickens) and Affleck's twin sister (Carrie Coon), are equally appalling. There is really nothing in "Gone Girl" to engage our interest except for Fincher's jagged, nasty way in telling a juicy story, but here the juice leaks out early. ** from ****