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Bermuda Affair (1956)
Dark But Redeeming
This is a typical A. Edward Sutherland film -- as usual he is committed to darkness without any let up, the film is "difficult" and this is all framed with a quietly grandiose, spiritual cinematography. The beach, the ocean, the wind in the palms suddenly seem like the setting for a transcendent, ancient myth of human perseverance. The movie seems like it centers on the denial of pleasure but Sutherland shows so much discipline, integrity and seriousness, that "Burmuda" actually comes across as celebration. The story is too beautiful to be thought of as just an ordeal, but it is intense enough and never quits on its main theme so that when it's over, you feel something like awe but also relief. That probably sounds like a reason to avoid the movie, but really it's the opposite. It's more like there's only so much truth about the human condition that humans can take. Especially noteworthy is the quiet, watchful portrayal by Zena Marshall of a woman who is central to the drama unfolding around her and yet is also somehow outside and removed from it in the larger scheme of her life.
Still waiting for any reason not to eject the DVD
I am now 45 minutes into a tangled, pointless mess of sheer tedium called "Disturbia." The first scene establishes a Great Relationship between a son and his Great Dad. Then an accident occurs, dad's killed. The son's school work and attitude goes downhill, he punches a teacher, and ends up sentenced to house arrest wearing an ankle bracelet. Most of this was needless set-up to get us to the point where the kid is stuck in his house with nothing to do but spy on the neighbors, and the whole premise could have been accomplished in five minutes.
Okay, then we get way too much time spent establishing that he's bored around the house. We meet the requisite comic-relief buddy, a token Asian-American slacker. Then there's the vixenish, seductive, beer-commerical-model of a teenage girl who moves in next door. But...the precociously sexual thing only lasts a little bit until she and the boy meet, and now she's more like a regular high school girl.
The supposedly funny parts aren't funny, the scary parts aren't scary, the tension isn't tense, the girl's character is all over the map, the male lead is channeling John Cusack bigtime. Now we're at 59 minutes, and I'm out of here. I recommend the Simpsons episode where Bart breaks his leg and thinks he sees Flanders murder Maude. Much better show than this dreck.
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Good Grief, This Movie Actually Requires a Review?
Of course it's a ten, probably the only ten I'll ever give. It's the Wiszard of Oz, for God's sake. I like the reviews that contain spoiler alerts, you know, in case you've never seen the movie and don't want anybody telling you the ending. To the Wizard of Oz.
But, it's a big world. I did the filter thing for "Hated It" and sure enough, plenty of entries. I checked out some of the other reviews from folks listed under "Hated It" and I notice the same reviewers also hated motherhood and curing cancer.
I guess I should give a hint of the plot, for the thousands of folks reading these reviews trying to decide if they should rent the Wizard of Oz because, uh, they've never seen it and don't know anything about this obscure, little-known film. Once in a blue moon it does show up on television, maybe every twenty years or so, late at night on backwater UHF channels with numbers in the 50s or 60s. Someday--we can only dream--it might come out on DVD.
I accidentally set up an interesting juxtaposition with this film: the day after watching "Heat" I watched "Notes on a Scandal" (Cate Blanchett, Judith Densch). "Scandal" was twice as riveting and tense as "Heat", and this while being centered on two women schoolteachers and no guns. (I'm perfectly into cop movies, but it seems worth noting).
Al Pacino mostly acted like an impressionist doing Al Pacino. Robert De Niro was much more subtle; he gets the higher grade here. Supposedly this film is a little deeper than others like it because we get to know the domestic lives of the characters. Well, not really. By the end of the film we have no idea what the attraction is between Val Kilmer's and Ashley Judd's characters or what her loyalty is to him. Given some hints of Al Pacino's character's backstory, I can't imagine why his current wife, to the extent we know her, married him. At any rate, it's the usual cliché of the detective too obsessed with his work to be present for his family. Old.
Nearly every scene involving De Niro and his gang is worth watching. Nearly every scene with Pacino in that over-the-top mode of his is irritating and standard-issue for a 1970s gritty urban cop movie (except that this happens to be filmed in 1995). That includes the usual suspects, no pun intended, who people the gritty urban detective squad. So, figure 90 minutes not bad, 90 minutes irksome.
A somewhat forgotten part of the Sixties
I don't know what to rate this show--it was on when I was age 9-12, but I watched it regularly. This was Beatlemania time, of course, and I and all my friends were constantly glued to the radio, often a little Japanese transistor job. I remember that they had pretty good acts on Shindig, good Top 40 stuff (it was *all* Top 40 in those days), bands and singers that were hot. And, for no reason that I can remember, I always thought Shindig was better than Hullabaloo, its main competition (aside from the Sullivan show, of course). I have a vague memory that Hullabaloo wasn't quite as "hip" as Shindig, or at the least didn't have as good a line-up week for week.
This movie's about as deep as a pie tin
One of the dullest supposed "comedies" ever produced. Apparently it is supposed to be a witty satire and fails miserably on this point. Openly takes itself way too seriously as a deep, thought-provoking film, but the supposedly profound ideas are so sophomoric they remind me of what we thought passed for "wow, man, that's heavy" back in the tenth grade. "New" questions that actually go back to at least the 1960s include whether Jesus was black and gender issues in the Bible in general.
Threadbare, worn-out, easy targets of this movie include the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church (wow, that's a new one) and the tax-exempt status of churches as a whole. Foul language (which is fine in the right context) and juvenile snide commentary masquerade as wit. An excellent movie for people who don't read.
A Mighty Wind (2003)
Guest's funniest yet, and surprisingly moving in places
An 8 is very good, I'm stingy with 9 and 10, which I've awarded maybe twice.
Christopher Guest has established a signature device in the three films Best in Show, Waiting for Guffman, and A Mighty Wind. He has his characters espousing ridiculous beliefs, philosophies, and observations with deadpan innocent earnestness; or sharing anecdotes from their lives that would make us cringe if we were actually face to face with them, but which they imagine to be moving or illuminating. The whole point is that we are most definitely laughing at them, not with them.
I think Guest has done his best yet with this favorite motif in A Mighty Wind. I'm very hard to please with comedy, and I think the vast majority of them fail. I laughed out loud any number of times here.
A surprising added element is a mildly serious and rather moving backstory involving the legendary (fictional) folk duo, Mitch and Mickey. This dramatic thread only enriches the film and in no way detracts from the comedy. It's very well handled; Guest brings this element into the movie in just the right measure. It is not contrived, false, and jarring as is true for so many comedies nowadays that also try to move us at some point.
This brings me to the most pleasing surprise of this film, and surprised I was, almost dumbfounded, and that would be the performance of Eugene Levy as Mitch. Please know I am not a gusher, I'm not somebody who is constantly writing in these reviews how "amazing!" everybody and their brother was in some movie. But honest-to-God, I found myself wondering, did Levy's part here get any notice from the Academy? Seriously, I can hardly believe I'm writing this, but I've seen actors get nominated for supporting roles in drama whose acting turns were not as impressive as Eugene Levy playing Mitch Cohen in A Mighty Wind. I kept waiting for him to screw up, to turn into a comedian playing a silly part, to ham it up I suppose you could say, and it never happened. His character was unique, original, subtle, and surprisingly complex for what little information we were given, and he never diverted from it, he never broke the spell. Kudos to Eugene Levy of all people for a really fine acting turn.
On the lighter side...and last comment...Fred Willard, outstanding. This is almost certainly politically incorrect, but I can think of no other comedian who is as advanced in age as he is who is precisely as funny in a movie, and elsewhere, as any younger actor around. His turn here as the schlocky, cheesy talent agent is one of the best things I've ever seen him do. I defy any younger comedian to best Willard at what he's turned in for A Mighty Wind.
The Devil Wears Prada (2006)
Very disappointing, easy populist ending
The positives...Well, of course Meryl Streep was excellent as always. Even when you can fit her character loosely into a stock type, in this case the Boss from Hell, she manages to add something that's all her own. But Meryl's a given, so we'll move on.
One good thing a movie can always latch onto is when it gives you a behind-the-scenes look at a world that most people don't really know much about but for which a lot of us have stereotypes or preconceived notions. In this case, the world of high power fashion. This kind of thing especially works if it's a world that most of us probably view negatively and I'm guessing most people reading this probably think New York-Paris-Rome high fashion is silly, wasteful, pointless, and even insidious. (and not without reason).
But the ending here...utterly predictable and very disappointing. I guess we're supposed to cheer that our heroine came to her senses and refound her soul and set back on her course to do Good Honest Work among Good Honest Regular Folks. Very safe, very bankable ending. I had been extremely impressed up until the last reel that this was becoming a film about making hard choices and *especially* about letting life unfold for you, despite your best planning, what might be your true authentic calling (or true self) even though it was politically incorrect according to your old peer group, and even though you resisted it and it put you out of your comfort zone at first.
I enjoyed seeing Andy go through her changes at Runway, and to me her old friends looked more and more childish as Andy continued to grow. (Naturally one of those friends was a Sincere Artist.) Of course, clearly we were supposed to be sympathetic with them -- they were the "old gang" that Andy, in her "blindness," was gradually losing touch with.
Instead of a fresh take on real character growth, a fresh take on a life's-journey sort of picture, we got the lowbrow, comforting failure ending: Oh it's okay, Andy, you can always come back to us, your real family. We's just simple folks, but we's sincere. This is the sort of ending that caters to people with sour grapes resentment toward, well, successful people.
Question: Why did the director et al. go to such great lengths to surprise us with the recognizably human feelings and frailties of the Runway gang only to then make it supposedly a good thing when Andy "escapes" them?
Absolute worst line I've heard in a movie for some time: The idiot boyfriend (I think his name was Dharma Bum, can't remember) at the end, in the restaurant. Andy says something like, gee, I left behind my original dream for...and the boyfriend finishes her sentence by saying "Shirts. Pants. Purses. Belts." Or something to that effect. In other words, Andy sold here soul for Mere Material Possessions. Thus sayeth Guru Baba Rum Raisin. (And this dude, by the way, had just announced that he has a job as a major chef in a high-powered Boston restaurant -- gee, no career ambition there, eh?).
Actually a fine film except for the final ten minutes.
C'era una volta il West (1968)
I can take it or leave it
Finally got around after all these years to checking out the fabled "Once Upon a Time in the West." Mostly I found it mannered and dated. It was clear that Sergio Leone now thought of himself as a sort of Fellini of westerns.
I think he must have created this whole project with the sole purpose of providing material for film history courses in universities. Every sight, sound and character has a flashing neon sign reading "Symbolism" complete with pointing arrow in case you're missing it. It is mostly baffling, and I don't have the patience or respect for movies that you supposedly have to work hard at to unravel like I used to have when I was eager to prove to everybody how intellectual I was. In the end, once you get to the bottom line statement of such films, I can usually think of about half a dozen slightly more mainstream "Hollywood" films that say the same thing more effectively, engagingly, and forcefully. There's nothing new under the sun--there isn't anything new to be said about man's virtues, vices, struggles and triumphs. It's all there in Shakespeare, so to speak.
In sum, this movie is completely self-conscious about how profound and deep it supposedly is, and that's why I say its mannered. It's a real dinosaur from the late 60s, and truly stuck there.
That said, there are some standout scenes in between all the showing off. The famous opening train depot sequence does indeed deserve its reputation. The final revelations between Henry Fonda's character and Clint East...er, I mean Charles Bronson's character were supremely handled, I must say. That was a great scene, beginning to end.
A Man with Three Wives (1909)
Movie Lives up to Title
I haven't seen this film since it was in the theater, so my recollections may not be precise, but I remember the gist. The main character is a man, and the plot revolves around the fact that he has three wives. Blanche Sweet is compelling as one of the wives. This is a shorter film than usual. The director's decision to film in black and white and without sound enhances the tension created by the story's central focus, namely that a man has three wives. At first things seem to go well for the man--who has three wives--until the other wives discover each other. The director does an admirable job in resolving this conflict in a way that explores the critical social themes inherent in the fact that a man has three wives.
Starting Over (1979)
Burt Could Have Been a Top Comic Actor
Between this movie and The End, this is what Burt Reynolds should have been doing all along. In the few vehicles that he's given himself to work in some sort of halfway sophisticated comedy, he shows himself to be a master at timing and understatement. He could have built a career for himself as the level, likable handsome lead who is continually put upon by wacky supporting characters and sticky situations.
I think it's a shame that Burt Reynolds opted for so much lowbrow drive-in movie slapstick or for playing caricatured hardboiled detective sex symbol types and supposed Dixie anti-heroes. He's got so much more talent than that.
Le genou de Claire (1970)
The Usual French Yawner on the "Game of Love"
First let me say, I have seen some very excellent French films, both relatively recent ones and some of the classics from decades past. It would be preposterous either to condemn or praise a country's cinema across the board. But there is a genre of French film where I can barely make it past the first reel, and often don't, and that is the meditation-on-the-nature-of-sexual-love genre.
In that arena, these folks have a positive genius for taking two interminable talky hours to tell us nothing of consequence whatsoever, and certainly nothing we didn't already know. Love is complex, both painful and pleasurable. Yeah, all right already, we get it. Please, move on to some issues that are located above the waist for a change.
I could tell you something about this film specifically, but there are plenty of other descriptions of French films like this that you can simply plug in here, so I'll save us both the time.
I'll Fly Away (1991)
Second Best Show Ever
My comment is simple. My favorite TV show ever (and I go back to about 1962 or 63 for television) is "Homicide: Life on the Street." Number two is "I'll Fly Away." It's just a masterpiece. I believe this is the first "10" I've ever given anything.
It's been awhile, so I'll forget some characters' names, and I'm too lazy to hit the back button and open a new window here. The youngest son was one those exceedingly rare little-kid characters in television or movies who acts precisely his age, as opposed to an obnoxious seven-going-on-seventeen. Francie was adorable and winning as his older sister and, again, absolutely believable as being her correct age, and in going through the crises of her particular age.
The actress who played Lily (I've got to hit that back button), their "colored" maid and the center of the cast, was the gem of the show. As so often happens, though, she never seemed to get anywhere after "I'll Fly Away." I thought for sure we had a real up-and-comer there. (And as I recall, so did many critics).
And oh yes, Sam Waterston had a life before "Law & Order" for you kiddies out there. To a degree I still think of Jack McCoy as the guy from "I'll Fly Away." Nowadays on television, his character's relationship with Lily, the maid, would be riddled with politically correct sensibilities, which is to say it would be pandering, one-dimensional and cloying. But no, Waterston is not some cartoonishly "evolved" white good guy; he's a convincingly complex southern liberal in the 1950s. At any rate, the relationship between Lily and Waterston's character is rich to watch unfold.
Is it out there somewhere on DVD or video? If so, rent it and get caught up in it like you would an HBO series. The story lines are continuous for the most part. The ratings for "I'll Fly Away" were just about zero for the first of its two season, on ABC, but it was one of those occasional noble instances by a network where they renew a losing show purely on the basis of its unanimous critical acclaim.
Imitation of Life (1959)
Surprisingly frank and compelling
Finally after all these years I got around to renting "Imitation of Life." Somehow I had picked up that its appeal nowadays was as kitsch, or something along that line. I was very pleasantly surprised.
It is a tad on the melodramatic side at times, to be sure. But just as often it surprised the heck out of me with some very frank racial content, given the date of 1959, and a regular dose of other profound moments aside from that particular theme. All in all, "Imitation of Life" is a lot more sophisticated than the image I'd been carrying around. The various facets to the relationships between the four members of the family (so to speak), and the social issues implied by them, were built up gradually and with admirable subtlety, I thought. Do remember this is a big Hollywood studio-system film, not Bergman or Altman or who have you. At any rate, I got completely caught up in this thing.
I didn't think it was possible for a movie from the late 1950s to have any kind of shock value for a first-time viewer in 2006, but Tab Hunter's brief scene actually left me shaken for a few minutes.
Rather than try to analyze all the actors' performances, I'll just say that I can imagine some viewers might find Sandra Dee a little too "Gidget" in this movie. I think she was exactly right, though. Just an opinion.
A History of Violence (2005)
Hurt and Harris are short-lived gems in a big mess
I had high expectations for this film and was disappointed. I finally quit it toward the end (watching on DVD) as the predictable, cliché, cloying "moment" from the little daughter at the dinner table was unfolding. I knew it was coming as soon as the camera went to her.
I should say at the outset I'm unfamiliar with the graphic novel on which this film was based. But I did go to IMDb to verify my suspicions that the the script was written by a man, because the wife's part, "Edie", was written atrociously. Is she strong and tough, is she weepy and fragile, is she okay with what she learns or not? I have no idea, and this is not a case of a character having subtle complexity. Edie's just a chaotic hodge-podge of fleeting personality traits. Too many of her reactions to various situations made little sense to me. Forgive the clichéd term, but I could not get any sensible handle on her "motivation" from scene to scene, except for those where she was fierce and protective (they should have stuck with that). I was amazed to find out the schizoid Edie was a lawyer, based on how we were getting to know her.
Ah, but what a perfect dream plaything she is for Tom! In one woman Tom gets to boink the head cheerleader, indulge in a violence and rape fantasy, and then have a woman who Stands By Her Man when the cops come around asking questions.
Last random negative observation: Was this guy secretly Batman? What was with the fight scenes? It's almost as though this movie was made from a comic book. Excuse me, I mean ... "graphic novel."
The two biggest positives for me were William Hurt and Ed Harris, both of whom were--and no surprise here--excellent. Ed Harris's character, generically speaking, is an old tried and true standby in movies. But he somehow manages to bring yet a new inflection to this type; and especially he comes up with an original, convincing brand of sheer menace.
If you were to write the dialogue out on paper that is spoken by William Hurt's character of the brother, I think it would look pretty flat and uninspired. But Hurt, in too short a role, makes every line work; he really mines a lot more out of his part than would seem to meet the eye from the script. He creates an intriguing blend of half-psychotic threat and bitter mid-level executive (so to speak) stuck at one spot on the corporate ladder.
Low marks for direction. My experience was that first it was going to be this kind of movie, and then whoops, it's going to be more like that kind of movie. No, wait, we're back to the first kind of movie again. This was not a case of breaking genre boundaries in an innovative way -- Cronenberg just couldn't make up his mind what he was directing.
The Sweet Hereafter (1997)
Mesmerizing, unrelenting, not pleasant
A very dark film, hypnotic and disturbing. It has the feel of an uncomfortable yet compelling dream, with an ever-present sense of dread whose source can never quite be isolated and articulated. The experience of the viewer finds its analogy in the movie's central motif, the fated journey of the school bus, given to us in segments throughout as we learn more about the lawyer and his would-be clients, making its routine morning rounds along the curving, hilly, winter road that runs beside the river. We sense the awful destiny, but must continue to each next stop.
On one level the film is about the search for answers in the face of tragedy where there may well be none, and about making peace with this fact by any means necessary. It is yet more about the ways we numb ourselves once one's own flawed existence is realized. All the main characters are addicted in one fashion or another: duty (the bus driver), blame, sex, drugs -- all situations where they can keep themselves safe from looking unblinkingly inward to the real problem. In the final frames the girl, who has been the one figure refusing to live in illusion, is backlit in a window by car headlights, arms raised and spread--as close to an angel of redemption as one can hope for in the fallen world of this film.
Plan on half a day to recover from this movie, and don't miss it.