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On the 2nd Day of Christmas (1997)
Gives Christmas movies a bad name
"On the 2nd Day of Christmas" is absolute torture. It is the cinematic equivalent of coal in your stocking. Here is a movie so unpleasant and manipulative that you will have to take a cold shower just to remove the swarminess.
I have never disliked a Christmas movie so much. It tries to shamelessly manipulate our feelings. This is the kind of movie that Roger Ebert would describe as "taking tears by liposuction". That's how desperate these filmmakers are to move us. Well, it moved me. Off the couch at the halfway point. I usually sit through an entire movie, no matter how bad. But an hour and 10 minutes of this tripe was more than I could bear.
With a more organized and thoughtful screenplay, this could have been a good movie. But this script has several fatal flaws. First, there are no sympathetic or likable characters. When by the twenty minute mark, you want to throw your female lead out the window, you know you're in trouble. Second, the film is overly predictable. We know what's going to happen and sure enough, I successfully predicted everything that happened after the opening ten minutes. Third, the performances feel by the numbers. There's no life or flavor, just routine unpleasantness.
Do yourself a favor. Instead of wasting two hours of your life, read a book, do a jigsaw puzzle, go out for a walk. Just don't watch this movie.
zero stars (out of four)
PRETTY GOOD IMPROVEMENT
If you know me at all, you'll know that I was not a fan of Ralph Bakshi's FRITZ THE CAT. So imagine my horror when I found out there was a sequel! Well, I had to be dragged kicking and screaming to see THE NINE LIVES OF FRITZ THE CAT. By some stroke of good luck or divine intervention, it happens to be better than the original.
The film, made without Bakshi's involvement, (who was knee deep in the controversy stemming from COONSKIN) begins by finding our hero in a slum, living on welfare with a wife and child. The wife is pretty abusive (although she does have a point-you'll understand when you see the film. Fritz smokes pot to escape and imagines himself in nine other lives (hence the title)
It's actually a pretty good film. The film is less raunchy and vulgar than the first, but I know some people out there will still be offended. The film is a scathing look at society in the 70's and doesn't have the dated feel the first did. Drugs and street language are present, but it's used much more successfully here
There is one sequence that is some kind of masterpiece. A white military leader and a black militant are perched on two opposing mountains and they take turns attacking one another. Live action footage and stills run in the background. In just five minutes, they've managed to convey exactly what the racial unrest of the 70s was.
There are some flaws. The film doesn't have a very satisfying ending and the score is a little too upbeat for a film laden with such stinging social commentary. But I applaud THE NINE LIVES OF FRITZ THE CAT for taking chances; it could have been more of the same, but instead strives to be better. It's not a perfect film, but it's a good one.
*** out of four stars
EXCITING AND INTELLIGENT
Good God, he hasn't lost it after all.
After a recent string of awful movies such as BATTLEFIELD EARTH, LUCKY NUMBERS and DOMESTIC DISTURBANCE, it's great to see John Travolta in a film worthy of his talent.
SWORDFISH is an ambitious film that combines exciting action with an intelligent story. Yes, the plot IS preposterous, but it is so skillfully made and well acted that I forgive its' excesses.
Travolta stars as Gabriel Shear, one of the most multi-textured, intriguing characters ever to grace an action picture. The film starts out by showing him holding up a bank, but as it progresses, there are hints he is something other than he seems. Hugh Jackman is an ex-con/hacker who gets caught up in Shear's latest plans. Halle Berry is a bad girl who is good or a good girl who is bad. I will leave you to discover which one she really is. Don Cheadle plays an FBI agent desperate to nail Shear at any cost.
SWORDFISH has a labyrinthine plot; it is hard to sort out at first, but everything does become clear as it progresses. The script is by Skip Woods, who previously made the excerable THURSDAY. He seems to have learned a lot about screenwriting since then. I said in the beginning that this was an ambitious film. It is. Woods has placed solid characterizations inside what could have been a standard genre picture. They co-exist peacefully beside one another. It is an accomplishment.
The director is Dominic Sena, who made a startling debut with KALIFORNIA (1993) and slummed with GONE IN 60 SECONDS (1999). Here, Sena is back in top form, showing genuine skill in maintaining a balancing act between character and action. Again, Sena makes excellent use of widescreen; he's one of the few directors today who uses it exceptionally well.
Travolta is very good as Shear. After such duds as BATTLEFIELD EARTH, this is a reminder that Travolta is a fine actor; his work here is in the same league with BLOW OUT, his finest performance to date. Hugh Jackman is also very good as Stanley, the ex-con who desperately wants to go straight but finds himself drawn back in again. Halle Berry is good in the film's only underwritten role; I wish more had been done with it. Don Cheadle also does the best with what he's given. I wish Cheadle would be given better roles because he is one of the finest actors at work today. See BOOGIE NIGHTS, THE RAT PACK, DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS, ROSEWOOD, OUT OF SIGHT, TRAFFIC, A LESSON BEFORE DYING and THINGS BEYOND THE SUN and you'll understand what I'm talking about.
The action sequences are first rate. They're exciting without being tedious, heart-pounding without getting dull and enhances the story without taking away from it. That is very hard to do and it makes me very excited to see a film that accomplishes that.
Overall, SWORDFISH is a fine entertainment and a superb thriller. I wish Berry and Cheadle's characters were better drawn and for that, I deduct half a star. But still, this film is a must-see.
***1/2 out of **** stars
Fritz the Cat (1972)
Ralph Bakshi's FRITZ THE CAT was one of the most controversial films of that last golden age of filmmaking, the 1970's. Based on Robert Crumb's groundbreaking underground comic, the film was the first of its' kind to receive an X rating from the MPAA. In those days, an X rating was NOT a kiss of death at the box office and audiences flocked, making this a smash hit. Watching this 30 years later, I can't imagine what the fuss was about.
Perhaps it is my handicap that I have read the comics. I cannot see this film in any other light. Bakshi has taken Fritz-an oversexed, cool and hip character-and transplanted him into a story so sour, dark, pointless and hopelessly dated that watching this film becomes a chore. There are some moments that suggest the spirit of Crumb, but they are over much too soon.
Bakshi tries to paint a portrait of 60's America and what was wrong with it. Some of it does hit home- particularly the unrest between African-Americans and the police. But Bakshi never settles on the right tone for his film. Is it a raunchy sex comedy or a biting political drama? It doesn't succeed on either level.
Certainly not as a raunchy sex comedy. For an X rated movie, this is very mild. If you are looking for any kind of raunchy, erotic experience, you might as well go on. Whatever sex scenes this movie has doesn't last long and is mostly disturbing and joyless. There is a plethora of street language and drug use in FRITZ THE CAT. I have nothing against strong language or drug use in a film. Films like REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, PULP FICTION, PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK and PERMANENT MIDNIGHT use it to give us insights into their characters. But in FRITZ, it is used to merely shock. That's not good enough.
A friend of mine on the DVD Verdict site said in his review that "I don't advise the use of narcotics, but I think I can safely say that FRITZ THE CAT probably works better if you're high on some kind of illegal drug" I certainly agree with that. I don't condone drug use either, but most certainly the only way any satisfaction can be gleaned from FRITZ THE CAT is from being stoned out of your mind.
*1/2 out of **** stars
Phantom of the Paradise (1974)
GREAT FUN, IF IN THE RIGHT MOOD
Brian DePalma's "Phantom of the Paradise" is great fun, if you're in the right mood. It is bizarre, it is silly, it is campy. Yet somehow, this film works when it really shouldn't.
Bill Finley, who co-starred in DePalma's previous film "Sisters", this time stars as Winslow Leach (a play-on-words of DePalma's film teacher Wilford Leach), a budding songwriter whose songs catch the attention of Swan (Paul Williams, who's great). Swan proceeds to steal Leach's songs and send him to jail on a false dope charge. Leach escapes and is permanently scarred when he tries to destroy Swan's Death Records pressing plant. He then comes back as The Phantom of the Paradise, hell bent on destroying Swan. That is until Swan makes a deal with him..a costly deal.
That's all I want to say because I really don't want to spoil some of DePalma's nice surprises. What I will say is that on one level "Phantom of the Paradise" is a bad movie. But it's so skillfully made, funny and good-natured that you end up loving it in a very strange way.
The performances go a long way to making this work. Bill Finley has a gift for playing strange characters (among his DePalma credits include "Sisters", "The Fury", and the voice of Bobbi in "Dressed to Kill") and DePalma makes good use of it here; you feel sympathy for Leach/The Phantom and root for him all the way to the end. Paul Williams is surprisingly good as Swan, the villain of the film. He seems both benign and menacing; Williams is able to pull it off despite limited acting experience. He also wrote the songs for the film. You will want to own the soundtrack after seeing this. The film's funniest performance is by Gerrit Graham (another DePalma regular; "Greetings", "Home Movies" are among his credits) as Swan's discovery; a very strange singer named Beef.
"Phantom of the Paradise" is not one of the great DePalma films, but it is an entertaining diversion that you'll never forget long after the final frame has played out.
***1/2 out of 4 stars
The Owl and the Pussycat (1970)
BEST OF 1970 #10- a romantic comedy done right
TEN BEST OF 1970
#10- The Owl and the Pussycat
Herbert Ross' "The Owl and the Pussycat" is a prime of example of how to do a "Battle of the Sexes" romantic comedy right. Most modern romantic comedies are either drowning in their syrupy sentimentality ("Serendipity")or in crude hatred of one and/or both sexes ("Tomcats", "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood").
The film stars Barbra Streisand as Doris, a part-time hooker/actress who doesn't go anywhere without her TV. George Segal plays Felix Sherman, a would-be writer whose life consists of writer's block and rejection slips. One fateful evening, Felix complains to the landlord about the constant noise coming from Doris' apartment. He goes to bed and is awakened by a loud knock. It's Doris, who was evicted from her apartment and has several bones to pick with Felix. It's the beginning of a battle that lasts for most of the film's 97 minute running time.
What makes The Owl and the Pussycat such a standout film is the care that went into the production. Buck Henry has successfully transplanted Bill Manhoff's play from L.A. to New York and the film is better for it. New York is a much livelier town than L.A. and the city itself becomes a character that the others bounce off from. Herbert Ross proves he can handle comedy as well as he can handle musicals and choreography. His direction doesn't overwhelm the script and acting but compliments it in a way most people write off.
On paper, I suppose the Barbra Streisand-George Segal pairing doesn't look promising. But when you see the film, you will not think of more perfect casting. Streisand and Segal have good chemistry together and it makes some of the later events of the film more believable. Streisand has a gift for delivering brisk, snappy dialogue. Segal has a gift for being able to make his characters instantly likable.
The score is by Blood, Sweat and Tears. Made in between their second and third albums, the score doesn't feel like a time-filler throwaway. Dick Halligan's music fits the film like a well worn glove. I cannot imagine the movie without the music. It does like all good scores do, enhance the movie without giving it away. There is a mix-up in regards to the lyrics (credited to BS&T, but David Clayton-Thomas has said they were given to BS&T before the music was composed), but still, as sung by DC-T, the songs have a wonderful quality to them.
All people who even want to attempt a romantic comedy should watch "The Owl and the Pussycat". It shows how to make a movie like this without resorting to misogyny, chauvinism or drippy sentiment.
**** out of 4 stars
Another Woman (1988)
A FILM OF GREAT POWER AND FEELING
Woody Allen's "Another Woman" is, upon rediscovery, a film of great power and feeling. Sadly, not many people will be open to rediscovery after the initial viewing.
Gena Rowlands stars as Marion Post, a 50ish philosophy professor whose life is in order. She rents an apartment to work on her latest book. By accident, she discovers that through the heating duct, she can hear all conversations from the psychiatrist located in said building. At first, she covers the duct with cushions to block the sound, but she decides to listen in after hearing, by accident, the testimony of a young pregnant woman. This sets in motion a chain of events that changes Marion forever.
Woody has said that he originally conceived the idea as a comedy and indeed, it could be played that way (on a smaller scale in "Everyone Says I Love You"). But here, Allen resists the temptation to play it for laughs. In fact, there is not one single moment of comedy relief in his film. I think that is a wise decision. I was so absorbed by Marion's journey that comedy would have broken the mood of the film. This film is another venture into Bergmanesque cinema and "Another Woman" can compare with the very best Bergman.
Gena Rowlands hasn't had a role this good since the films of her late husband John Cassavetes. This in fact, shows another side of Rowlands; a more restrained, mannered character than the fiery, passionate characters in the Cassavetes films. It just shows the different types of roles Rowlands can play so well. She deserved an Oscar nomination for this.
In fact, the whole film is well cast by Allen. Gene Hackman is great in a mellow part as Marion's ex-lover. Blythe Danner makes a return to form as Marion's best friend. It is great to see Danner do what she does best, especially following the horrible "Brighton Beach Memoirs" in which she was underused. Ian Holm is superb as Marion's husband, who as Roger Ebert puts it "must have a wife so he can cheat on her". In his final film, John Houseman allows himself to appear weak and frail; quite a change from the pillar of strength in "The Paper Chase" and a good cap to a great career.
I mentioned at the beginning that not many people will be open to rediscovering "Another Woman". I think that is correct. Here are my reasons why. First, the film is deliberately paced, even with a short running time of 81 minutes. Most viewers' attention spans won't be able to tolerate the long takes Allen is famous for. Second, the film doesn't offer any instant gratification or closure. Allen's story is one of those stories that just can't have a typical happy Hollywood ending. Third, there is T&A, even though adultery plays a large part in the story. So if you're looking for a fast paced film with T$A and guns and action and a happy ending, you might as well move on.
"Another Woman" is one of those films in which rediscovery is necessary. Allen packs so much into 81 minutes that multiple viewings are necessary to absorb it all. If you make the effort to see it again, you might find that "Another Woman" is a film of great power and feeling that works better every time you see it.
**** out of 4 stars
Lost and Delirious (2001)
STARTS OUT WELL, BUT....
"Lost and Delirious" starts out well, but it eventually grinds to a halt and the movie never recovers.
This movie doesn't know what it wants to be. A forbidden love story? A satire about insanity along the lines of "The Ruling Class"? A film about personal discovery? It is all of these things, but it lacks two things: 1) a director who could pull off a multi-level film, like Robert Altman or Paul Thomas Anderson and 2)a well written script.
I'm not saying "Lost and Delirious" is a bad movie. In fact, despite my reservations, you should see it for one reason and one reason only: Piper Perabo.
Perabo is an actress who I think has great potential. She had a promising start in the indie flick "Whiteboyz". But Hollywood has squandered her talent in a bunch of dumb, undemanding roles such as "Coyote Ugly".
In "Lost and Delirious", Perabo has the role of her career as Paulie, a young woman on the verge of insanity after a romance with another girl fizzles. Perabo invests the character with warmth and sensitivity and you can't help but like her.
The film had some controversy for its' lesbian scenes, which are explicit without being sleazy. However, just because I said they are explicit doesn't mean it's a T&A fest; if that's what you want, rent Showgirls or Red Shoe Diaries.
Aside from Perabo's performance, there really isn't all that much that stands out. Graham Greene is wasted in what could have been a wonderful role as the genial caretaker. Aside from her rack getting substantial airtime, Jessica Pare isn't given much to do, which is a shame because she also has great potential (see "Stardom")as an actress. The story tries to be "The Ruling Class meets Nashville", but it doesn't have the satire of the former and the power of the latter to fully succeed. With a rewrite and a skilled director, this could have soared.
**1/2 out of 4 stars
Boy, what a piece of overrated tripe.
I must admit. Entering "Gladiator", I had high hopes. Russell Crowe is one of the best actors working today. Ridley Scott, who directed, is one of the best action specialists in cinema. It was an entry in that old, venerable genre: the Roman swords and sandals epic. I must report that all my good will went down the proverbial toilet.
Ever heard of the experiment that if you take a worm that has solved a maze, grind it up and feed it to other worms, those other worms will be able to solve the maze? Well, screenwriters William Nicholson, David Franzoni and John Logan must have taken the scripts to "Ben-Hur" (1959), "Spartacus", "The Fall of the Roman Empire", "Quo Vadis" and countless other Roman epics, ground them up in their Osterizer and handed over the gloppy result to DreamWorks.
The film had Oscar-winning special effects. Brother, don't let the Oscar fool you. These are some of the worst effects I've ever seen. The nauseating sight of the shoddy masses make the black fingernails of "The Children" look great by comparison.
The acting is so...dull. Tip to all budding filmmakers out there: when you put such powerhouses as Crowe, Richard Harris and Oliver Reed in your movie, let them do what they do best. A real shame that this will be Reed's last credit; he was capable of so much better. Crowe loses for "The Insider" and "A Beautiful Mind", yet he wins for THIS?
Ridley Scott's direction is devoid of the energy and skill he usually puts into his work. Scott's credits are a rollcall of greatness: "Alien", "Blade Runner", "Legend", "Thelma and Louise", "1492", "Someone to Watch Over Me". This is the first mediocre film he has made. It makes me wonder if studio interference hampered his work on "Gladiator". It's just so out of place with his other films.
The Academy awarded "Gladiator" with the Best Picture Oscar. They always say "History repeats itself". We are now back in the era of mediocre Best Picture winners.
I think those people who champion "Gladiator" are unfamiliar with the great Roman epics. I suggest a little experiment: watch "Ben-Hur", "Spartacus", "Fall of the Roman Empire", "Quo Vadis", "The Robe" and "Demetrius and the Gladiators", then watch "Gladiator". Then see if "Gladiator" is so great then.
** out of 4 stars
Brighton Beach Memoirs (1986)
"Brighton Beach Memoirs" is a very disappointing movie. How disappointing? Instead of leaving the theater with a smile on your face and a tear in your eye, you leave moody and depressed. This is not how one is supposed to feel after seeing a comedy.
This is the film version of one of Neil Simon's very best plays. On stage, it is full of energy, wit and spunk. On film, or at least this film, it's all very flat, like day old cola.
One major problem is the casting. Jonathan Silverman is all wrong as Eugene Jerome. He's too willing to play Eugene in Jerry Lewis style. There's nothing wrong with Jerry Lewis style; I happen to love that style of comedy. But that approach just doesn't work for this play. A better choice would have been Matthew Broderick (who played Eugene on stage and ironically was cast in Biloxi Blues)
As Eugene's mother, Blythe Danner is one-dimensional. WHAT????? Blythe Danner one-dimensional in a movie? God, I wish I was joking. There is nothing sadder than to see an actress who is capable of bringing so much passion to a maternal role (The Great Santini, Man Woman and Child, The Invisible Circus)struggling to find this character.
The only one who more or less gets the job done is Judith Ivey as Blanche. She plays it exactly the way it should be: subtle yet passionate. She goes all out in her performance. It's all for naught.
Do I blame Neil Simon? Not at all. The material was there to begin with and it's one of the best plays I've ever read and performed (in my acting class). Do I blame Gene Saks? Not completely. Saks is a very capable director with some good films behind his belt (Mame, The Odd Couple, Barefoot in the Park; the latter two being two of the best Neil Simon adaptations made so far). But here, his direction is lackluster; I don't know what happened, but he fails to make this material work as well as it did on Couple and Barefoot. Maybe studio interference? Just asking.
The photography is murky and dark. I know they were trying to recreate a long gone era, but sheesh, this isn't film noir. A little brightness can go a long way.
Forget about "Brighton Beach Memoirs". You'd be much better off watching a high school or community revival than seeing this cinematic travesty.
* (out of 4 stars)