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Lady in the Water (2006)
A rare misfire from M. Night Shyamalan
Beautifully-produced, but enervating and inconsistently-performed modern day fantasy from writer-director-co-producer M. Night Shyamalan, whose thriller-aspirations completely bottom out within this fairy tale milieu. A water nymph is discovered in the swimming pool of a Philadelphia apartment complex by the resident maintenance man, who soon engages his friends and neighbors to help the stranded beauty return to her world (in ridiculously complicated terms). In the central role, Paul Giamatti works very hard to shoulder the leaden-paced plot developments, but he ultimately fails here as he does not have a star personality or the resources of a charismatic leading man to use to his own advantage (Mel Gibson, for instance, might have excelled in this role). A character actor by nature, Giamatti tries playing this maintenance worker as a soft-hearted nice guy, a buddy to everyone, but this doesn't lend much urgency to the scenario (which is a race against time), nor does it leave viewers with anything to contemplate afterward. The supporting cast (a collection of hams and show-offs) is no help, while Bryce Dallas Howard (as the title creature) is used for her sculpted face and lanky body and not much else. *1/2 from ****
An ordinary Texas family man in 1986, married with a young son and employed at a local supermarket, becomes the one and only suspect in his wife's death after she is found bludgeoned to death in their home (the prosecutors case rested almost solely on a half-joking note the accused wrote to his spouse the night before she was murdered, complaining of a lack of sex in their marriage). Convicted by a jury either misinformed or lacking general knowledge of "beyond a reasonable doubt", Michael Morton faced an emotionally-wrenching journey for the truth which stretched over a 25-year period, with saints and sinners lining his path. Thoroughly absorbing, fascinating and, ultimately, life-affirming documentary about faith in the system, even when that system appears to have let you down. Morton has not let his grueling years spent in prison break his spirit; just the opposite, he's a fighter who found his spirit, his reason for being, while waiting for vindication behind bars. A handsome man, one who amusingly bears a slight resemblance to George W. Bush, Morton has a story that is scarily universal: anyone among us could be Michael Morton. It's our fight for the truth that gives us our integrity, which leads to wisdom and understanding--and bliss!--upon exoneration. ***1/2 from ****
Night of the Dark Full Moon (1972)
All the ingredients are here for a spooky horror outing...but the production and acting are third-rate
East coast manor, once used by its owner as an asylum before his mysterious death by fire, is about to be sold during the Christmas holiday by the grandson of the deceased; someone on the grounds, armed with an ax, doesn't like that idea. Demented horror outing with some interesting visual ideas, a chilly, shuddery ambiance, scary music and creaking doors--but no talent behind the camera for narrative or character motivation. Director Theodore Gershuny, working from a screenplay by Ira Teller and Jeffrey Konvitz (who later wrote "The Sentinel"), uses subjective camera-tracking (innovative for the genre at the time) and sepia-toned flashbacks to create a skin-crawling mood. This works for a while, until the poorly-formed 'plot' begins coming together, and the viewer soon realizes the hat-tricks by Gershuny were just window-dressing and the finale isn't going to live up to expectations. *1/2 from ****
Aside from the obvious prurient interest in the scenario, completely pointless...
"Inspired by" the lurid true story of Linda Lovelace (Marchiano-Traynor-Boreman), this is a rather sanitized portrait of the "Deep Throat" actress, whose appearance in the 1972 pornographic blockbuster made her a household name and movie-industry punchline. Lovelace's own book "Ordeal" presented a far more horrific picture, including a marriage to sadistic Chuck Traynor, also her manager, who abused her, pimped her out and, finally, cheated her out of her porno-biz earnings. Granted, much of that material makes it into "Lovelace", however the character of Linda (played by a well-cast Amanda Seyfried) has been made one-dimensional. She isn't coerced into her X-rated career, kicking and screaming; this Lovelace is--at least, initially--proud to be a desirable woman, eager to please, eager to be sexy and excited about being in the spotlight. At the film's halfway point, screenwriter Andy Bellin backtracks through the narrative and gives us repeat scenes with a less-glamorous undermining, showing us the fear and dread in Linda's life, who kept going back to coke-snorting Traynor because she had no money and nowhere else to turn. Unfortunately, neither side of the story is very convincing, at least not as presented here; the filmmakers are too warmly nostalgic for the era, and seem to have been smitten by other movies such as "Boogie Nights" that exhalt in their themes, no matter how sleazy (there's also a dash of "Star 80" thrown in). The good cast includes a genuinely menacing Peter Sarsgaard as Traynor and Sharon Stone in a remarkable character-turn as Linda's rigid mother, but we never get a sense of Linda Lovelace as a coldly used, ravaged individual. The production is too bright, too clean, and the people in Linda's world too nice, to pack the sort of punch Linda Lovelace the Author would have demanded. ** from ****
Elsa & Fred (2014)
Slick and soulless...
American remake of the 2005 Spanish-Argentine co-production "Elsa y Fred" casts Shirley MacLaine and Christopher Plummer as single oldsters living next door to each other in the same New Orleans townhouse, each with over-protective grown children, concerns about money and health, and a textbook of cranky-cute idiosyncrasies. Written and directed at a sitcom level, with dishonest characters and offensive sentiment. A good cast flounders; MacLaine tries creating a goosey, unflappable woman prone to giggling and full of neighborly good cheer, but she's covered much of this territory before (there are also uncomfortable parallels to "Used People"). Mildewy romantic comedy opens with a self-defeating first reel involving a not-funny fender-bender (following shots of Fellini's "La Dolce Vita") before settling into an unconvincing give-and-take between the leads. Not a single sequence rings true, the relatives are boors, while the laugh lines fall like wet sponges around the actors. *1/2 from ****
The Kid Stays in the Picture (2002)
"Memories shared serve each differently"
Womens fashions executive-turned-failed actor-turned movie studio chief Robert Evans remembers his life, perhaps narrating from his source autobiography in a tough-guy style filled with ego-inflated rhetoric and purple prose. Although Evans knows the movie business inside-out, and worked with or crossed paths with some of the biggest names of the 1960s and '70s, this film is about him...and he's not nearly as interesting as the celebrities who starred in his productions. Although mentioned as his friends, the personal troubles of Roman Polanski, Jack Nicholson or Francis Ford Coppola are never mentioned--not even in passing, nor as a reflection on how their scandals may have had an effect on Evans' life. Redundant documentary is both sketchy and flabby; it has some interesting film clips and soundtrack choices, but it doesn't present a well-crafted overview of Tinsel Town. This is the Cliff's Notes version of Hollywood via Robert Evans, Big Shot. ** from ****
Go Ask Alice (1973)
"Feed your head"
Ordinary 15-year-old teenage girl, feeling like an outcast at a new high school, falls in with the stoner crowd after being offered hallucinogens at a party. Eventually, she's a runaway living on the streets and, after returning home to her well-meaning but naïve parents, is stuck with a bad reputation among her peers--and labeled a 'fink' when she turns in a fellow teen druggie. TV-made "message movie", adapted from the fictional cult book by Anonymous (Beatrice Sparks), purports to pack a punch, but instead seems tentative and a bit awkward (this mostly due to the inexperienced younger actors in the cast). William Shatner (as Alice's natty father) and Andy Griffith (as a priest who works with dopers and drunks) seem to be cast for their name value, although both do solid work in small roles. Jamie Smith Jackson handles the lead with sensitivity and sincerity, and the picture gets a solid B for effort.
We Were Here (2011)
A moving testament to the resilience of the human spirit
Beautiful documentary gamely attempts to tread through the chaotic AIDS crisis of the 1980s using only a handful of survivors as commentators. Co-directors David Weissman and Bill Weber pull it off, however, and "We Were Here" is surprisingly absorbing and moving as a result. The celebration of sexual freedom for homosexual men in the 1970s ground to a halt at the end of the decade by what was initially being called 'The Gay Cancer' on the street. These wonderful men who survived to tell their individual, intimate stories are marvelous to listen to, painting a portrait of an era that was, by turns, frightening and challenging, yet one that brought out a number of true heroes. ***1/2 from ****
Yesterday's Hero (1979)
"Old...slow...drunk" (a fitting description of both the leading character and the film)
British-Australian co-production has former football (soccer) star Ian McShane, grizzled, out-of-shape and boozing, offered a comeback opportunity; he gets support from football club chairman Paul Nicholas and his girlfriend, pop singer Suzanne Somers, who once had a fling with McShane during his glory years. Would-be feel-good drama (written by Jackie Collins, of all people!) with schizophrenic ingredients, such as the overlong disco numbers which come butting into the narrative like television commercials. A decent actor, McShane gives the picture whatever interest it has; there is no energy, and the plot comes to a foregone conclusion. Somers, wearing clothes "from her closet", seems to have been beamed in from an entirely different program (as if two TV stations got jammed together). A dogged underachiever, one that went unreleased in the States despite Suzanne's popularity at the time from "Three's Company". *1/2 from ****
Lisa e il diavolo (1973)
Intriguing prologue--with tourist Elke Sommer lost on the deserted streets of Spain after locking eyes with a dead ringer for the Devil--is quickly canceled out by reincarnation/house of horrors plot that goes around in circles (many defenders of the movie say that is precisely the point). Director and co-screenwriter Mario Bava, who may have been inspired by the 1962 American film "Carnival of Souls", can't come up with any coherent shocks, so he instead makes the atmosphere surreal and the narrative dream-like (the picture is madness personified--only it's the viewer who is driven batty). Telly Savalas is the lollipop-sucking, chain-smoking butler of the manor where Sommer and three others take refuge for the night; inside the brightly-lit rooms, Sommer is hounded by the murdered lover from her previous life. Coy nudity, cartoon-red blood and a ridiculous "romantic" flashback pad out the excruciating 95-minute running time, while someone in the estate is sneaking around with a mallet, conking people on the head. Bava should have been their next target. U.S. audiences were initially shown a different version in 1975, "The House of Exorcism", with newly-shot scenes. *1/2 from ****