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1510 reviews in total 
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Lean on Me (1989)
Rousing, simplified, inspiring story, and a terrific Morgan Freeman, 1 June 2015

Lean on Me (1989)

A rousing movie about possibility and overcoming obstacles. It's an uncomplicated movie, telling in a linear way about the six month hard core reform of a very troubled inner-city high school. But it will make you feel good if you have any sentiment in you.

Morgan Freeman is the newly installed principal with an idiosyncratic zeal that is perfect for this rough and tumble school. He tactics are severe—and seemingly heartless— kicking out hundreds of kids and punishing countless others for seemingly small offenses. But he certainly takes charge, and that was foremost. The students respond. Test scores improve.

One of the messages here is still pertinent, and he puts it well to the whole group. If you are failing, it's not the fault of your parents, or the white folks. It's your fault.

And so personal accountability is step one, then and now. The teachers seem mostly on target, though they get some abuse from his as well. (The chorus teacher in particular seems brilliant, but since she is teaching Mozart instead of the school song she is on the wrong side.) And so it goes, piece by piece, person by person.

I say uncomplicated, but simplistic might be another word. This kind of reform must have been even more complex and stressful and painful than the movie shows—this isn't a documentary one bit. In fact, this is more of a fable, a kind of message driven tale of a man with a mission who overcomes the odds. That it's rooted in fact is only a small tweak to the larger point.

0 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Easy to like, easy to's so NOT brilliant it's blinding when the material is so winning, 26 May 2015

The Longest Ride (2015)

It's been awhile since I've been to a movie that I wanted to really walk out of. Not because of disgust but because it was so badly acted and written. To say it got slightly better by the end (and that I stuck it out after all) isn't saying much.

The story comes from a Sparks book, who wrote the sentimental tear-jerker "The Notebook," which I couldn't read it was so pushy and obvious. (I tried.) But the movie, the 2004 Nick Cassavetes tear-jerker which is a masterpiece of its genre, made me want to watch 'The Longest Ride."

There are similar strategies at work here. A love story. Some written memoirs (in this case, a box full of old letters) to take us into flashbacks. Death and heartache right up front. And then the love story, clinched like hope chest, sealed for the big day. It should have worked.

There are two main stories. The contemporary world is owned by bull-riding handsome Luke, played by Clint Eastwood's son, Scott, and the innocent but fiesty art-loving college girl, Sophia (Britt Robertson) who falls for him. They come across a box of letters belonging to the dying Ira Levinson (Alan Alda) and through him and the letters we see the young Ira's life with Ruth (played with verve by Oona Chaplin, who is, yes, the granddaughter of Charlie Chaplin). The two stories, both romances, have few real parallels except the basic one of opposites attracting, and the inherent problems.

If you like movies for their story above all, you might really like this. On paper, the stories seem great. If you are also drawn also to how a movie made—all the parts that make up the "moviemaking" like editing and screen writing—be forewarned. It's awkward.

Problem one: leading actress Robertson is likable but she can't act. I haven't been so harsh in a long time—and clearly lots of people got a different take from it—but she is central to so many important scenes, it gets in the way, especially in the first half.

Problem two: promising director George Tillman Jr. is out of his water. The actors, complex story lines, and the ability to control sentiment to achieve maximum crying, all of these are handled with functional plodding, as if the parts will fall together on their own. To his credit, African-American Tillman pulled off the really terrific "the Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete" in 2013 and might have seemed primed for this. But here the feel is totally different, and it never clicks.

Problem three: Craig Bolotin's screenplay doesn't compensate for any of the obvious string pulling from Sparks in his novel. Necessary.

Problem four: it's all a bit obvious. It pulls on heartstrings that we know it's about to pull on. I suppose that's okay in a brilliant movie, as you get absorbed, but there I was too aware of being jerked around.

Good things abound, yes. Alda, playing a dying man with frightening verisimilitude (I like him a lot), holds down his scenes well. In fact, he brings out the best in Robertson, which she needs. Also, the bull riding scenes are vivid and amazing—well done and frightening and they make Luke's situation physical. (His emotional state is so oversimplified it doesn't hold water, however—check out even the brilliant if flawed "Misfits" for Montgomery Clift's more human interpretation.

So, what a troubling review to write. I gave this my best, even saw it in a theater. But it isn't half of what it could have been on every level, and this adds up to an overall dud. Even though I loved the sentiment deep down.

If you love baseball sentiment, pure storybook nostalgia, you'll love it. Otherwise..., 21 May 2015

The Natural (1984)

What an outsized reputation this sentimental, sloppy movie has! Even the famous scene with Glenn Close standing up in the stands in the sun is smaller than you'd expect. In fact, if you take this movie as a straight ahead story of a glorious (if fictional) baseball past, it's simplistic and overly sentimental to the point of unwatchable.

But it's not straight ahead. It's a fable. It does silly things knowing that they would work in an illustrated children's book, so why not make it a sepia-toned over-the-top feel-good Hollywood bash? Indeed.

So when Robert Redford (who does not, by the way, have the biceps for power hitting) smashes a pitch so hard he rips the skin off the ball, it's not for real. Or it's better than real. And so forth with lightning arriving in time for his last big hit, or having his rival crash through a wall and die (yes die!) just when he needs a chance to take position in right field.

Treating this as a fable about a man with talent and a dream, and with some kind of sloppy honor to his past (you'll see), makes it very watchable. It's doesn't quite make it "good" however, so be prepared to like the film only on its own simple terms. It's fun if you don't think too hard.

This movie has great credentials, including Barry Levinson directing and Robert Duvall in a secondary role. Honestly, it's just not my kind of film—check out "The Pride of the Yankees" for a really good baseball film—but I can see how it would settle nicely on a lot of folks, including young people with dreams of being the best.

Brutal, straight up realsim about getting the monkey off your back, 19 May 2015

Oslo, October 31st (2011)

A highly realistic, intimate view of a young man who has completed a drug abuse program and is trying to rejoin his life. It's a rough ride, sometimes boring, sometimes raw, but it's the real thing, and if you have an interest in this kind of common problem without watching a documentary, this is the movie.

Though set in Oslo, there is a universal quality to all of this. Yes, the leading man, Anders, has the usual problem getting jobs. But that's just the beginning. It's about friends who want to help and friends who expect him to help them be wild. It's about old girlfriends, new girlfriends, parties where you can't drink, family that wasn't adequate, and on and on.

And the temptation of real drugs, beyond drink.

It's odd to realize, but I think the bottom line is that most young people live in a culture that's on the edge, on purpose and for good reason. And there is a percentage of people who can't handle that, who need to go over the edge, and will always go over the edge. Some of those people understand it early and save themselves, others never can. And life is a series of crises.

This isn't a feel good movie about a man who succeeds (I'm not saying here if he succeeds or not—just that it's not some sunny happiness after a round with the devil). This is about what it might be like to be in the shoes of Anders, or anyone like him, and how almost impossible it is to rise up. And his friends and family are partly to blame, sad to admit.

The final few minutes of the film are poetic—elegiac might be a better word—and the opening to the film is similarly daring and edgy. It's odd and perhaps too bad the the middle—the bulk of it—is more prosaic. It's good, it's really good, but without the poetry we are sure to sink into empathy and sadness, watching what is surely so believable it is, somewhere, all too real.

1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Brilliant stuff. Quiet but riveting and hilarious, 13 May 2015

Viva la Liberta (2013)

Maybe I'm programmed to like this kind of scenario: a boring politician is replaced with someone who is idealistic and fun, and who tells it like it is. The American version of this is "Dave" which is a hoot. Now we have an Italian version, which is more subtle and poetic. Definitely worth seeing.

The genius here on screen is the actor Toni Servillo who plays both men, the senator and the slightly wacky twin brother who takes his place. It alls happens so naturally, with one small twist after another. There are past loves and political foes that factor into both lives equally, to the point that you might not be sure who is who, and if there are in fact two people after all.

But then, that's the magic of how this comedy is made. It is full of laughs, but it's oddly brilliant and philosophical, too. It can be appreciated on a million levels, so just let it seep into your pores.

Hot Fuzz (2007)
1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Another Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead) hilarity, 13 May 2015

Hot Fuzz (2007)

Coming out of a growing group of British comedies centered on Simon Pegg and a familiar cast, this one takes on small town English sensibilities with typical zaniness. It's a blast.

Nerdy London supercop Nicholas Angel is banished to a quaint little village because he's making the London cops look bad. But here he seems unwelcome because he's stirring up trouble—arresting underage drinkers, for example. As mysterious murders begin to accumulate, he sniffs a dastardly conspiracy. With sidekick Nick Frost, something will indeed be done about it.

The whole movie is fast and faster, edited with a fury, and in the first ten minutes we get the overachieving nature of our hero and also meet a handful of great British comic forces, including Bill Nighy. But don't get your hopes up—they don't reappear. Still, Pegg and Frost and a host of strong, quirky, smart performers make up the wonderful townspeople, some of them with little comic flourishes that make you laugh out loud. Often.

So, yeah, this is comic, for sure, and fast, which means you have to stay on your toes to catch some of the jokes (some plays on words in particular). About two thirds the way through it all, Angel shifts to Clint Eastwood mode (Dirty Harry, that is) and the vigilante cop in all of us (apparently) takes over. At first this is funny, but even a die hard action adventure fan will tire of the endless chasing and shooting and shooting and chasing—it seems to be half an hour. It's not without humor or variety, but in the overall plot, things have come to a halt. Oddly enough.

And it ends with a bang. Of course.

Enjoyable, yes, and really funny at its best. For any "Shaun of the Dead" fans (which is the lynchpin of this kind of British humor), this movie is a must.

The Way (2010/I)
2 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
A sweet and sweetly made film about walking to change your life, 4 May 2015

The Way (2010)

A charming movie that skirts around religious intentions and mixes in some good human tenderness and friendship. It's a feel-good movie for sure, following four hikers who meet by accident on the road to Santiago de Compostela, or the St. James Way. This is a pilgrimage road that many people have been rediscovering over the last thirty years (it's frankly threatened to become overrun with walkers). The distance varies depending on where you start, but can easily be 500 miles.

So people who undertake this for whatever reason do so seriously. It's not a lighthearted enterprise (and if you look online there are 10 reasons not to do it, reminding walkers that much of the trip is near roadways and a very modern Spain). But this movie romanticizes the heck out of it, and it makes it all a feel-good experience. There may be no particular revelations, human or spiritual, here, but it's fun to get to know the people as they open up to one another.

The main figure is Martin Sheen, who carries with him (on an impulse, as you'll see) the ashes of his son. Bereavement is written all over him, and he tries to find meaning in life beyond the golfing and ophthalmology left behind for this trip. This plot idea takes a twist because the director is Sheen's son, Emilio Estevez (who also appears briefly).

There is a little travelogue aspect here, and a little filler (like the whole section with the gypsies), but it's all pretty and easy to watch. And the best of it is sweet without being saccharine.

Cinderella (2015)
3 out of 24 people found the following review useful:
A classic if restrained version, well done and fancifully told, 4 May 2015

Cinderella (2015)

With some gorgeous computer aided sets and characters, a lovely sprig of innocence as Cinderella, and an imposing (and too little used) Cate Blanchett as the stepmother, this is a "Cinderella" for everyone. It works for kids, and it has levels for adults, too.

The one drawback, of course, is you know what's going to happen. This is a very straight up telling (re-telling) of the great Italian fable, centuries old, about being mistreated and having life (somehow) come to the rescue. Director Ken Brannagh makes this a very British affair, which is fine, though it seems almost to co-opt the idea as their own. There are shades of "Alice" here, including both a dignified and pretty blonde in the lead and Helena Bonham Carter along for the ride. But this falls short of that in terms of excess, but that becomes a strength after all.

So here we have what might become "the" classic movie of the story, besides naturally Disney's animated one from 1950. You might see it for that alone, and to be reminded what a wonderful story it is. Brannagh pulls lots of punches—the step-sisters are frivolous more than mean, and even the stepmother is more talk than action.

It's also painful that the glass slipper is a high heeled clunker of a shoe, not what the elegant Cinderella would wear (even to the Prince's ball). That is, not the classic slipper. But young actress Lily James (who gets second billing, amazingly—shame on you Cate) is spot on for this kind of nice and nicely made telling of the story. Do see it. Bring some ten year old girls if you can.

Houseboat (1958)
1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Warm, with a witty Cary Grant and stiff Sofia Loren...and a forced plot, 2 May 2015

Houseboat (1958)

It's crazy to write a review of a movie this old, with two legends, as if I have anything new to say. But that's exactly why it's worth my while. I watched it as a "Cary Grant movie" which is a category like a "Greta Garbo movie." And he's good, though there are no real sparks on screen between him and Sofia Loren, a substitute for Grant's wife of the moment, who wrote the original script. I think it ends up just a match of two screen beauties. The 1958 public liked it, at least.

It's weird how old Loren looks here—she's playing a 22 year old (she's 24 during the shoot), but her whole demeanor and hairstyle scream 30 or 40. Weird, because she's supposed to be a wild kid that her dad can't control. This matters because Grant plays an older man—an older father of three whose wife has died and who really needs a nanny. Loren's character becomes the nanny even though she's from a privileged family, mostly as an escape. Famously, Grant had been trying to woo Loren for months during their previous film, and he may or may not have gotten anywhere, but by this filming she made clear she wasn't interested, and even got married (to Carlo Ponti) while this one was being shot.

The plot is fun but the film is a bit plasticky. It's not as funny or clever as the old screwball days. Or as fast. The three kids are fine but barely—no great acting here, and no great direction either. Oh yeah, the director—Melville Shavelson—is not making the most of his material. He's more of a screenwriter (he co-wrote this) and there are some great lines. The direction is routine, however, which is a shame, because some scenes are clunky and others play out as if the script would do all the work.

Even the cinematography is merely adequate, though the sets and setting are great so you might not notice. The idea of using a houseboat (a real one in Maryland) is a great money saving device, no doubt, and it gives everything an offbeat air.

So it's all enjoyable if nothing remarkable, more or less typical of this low point in Hollywood movie-making. The best here is Grant, who still throws his classic one-liners off as if they were his. Too bad they echo out of sync with the rest of the cast.

1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Moving, straight up drama about true friends and dying of ALS, 27 April 2015

You're Not You (2014)

This is a straight forward drama, and an intense one. There are two main characters who are meant to be opposites in most ways. Kate (Hilary Swank) is wealthy, a successful classical musician, well mannered, and surrounded by friends. Bec (Emily Rossum) is struggling in every way: her half-finished folk-rock songs, her iffy friends, her bills, and her who-cares attitude. It's given from the get-go they will meet, and with the doubts of Kate's kindly handsome husband, Bec begins homecare for Kate, who is diagnosed early in the movie with ALS.

So this is really a story of a privileged woman learning about true friendship and caring, shorn of niceties. And of a troubled woman learning she has real worth and can actually contribute in a way that makes her grow. The two are never quite friends—there are things they just don't know about each other, and communication becomes harder through time— but they are absolutely devoted and bound to each other. This is beautiful and truly moving by the end. Tearjerker alert.

This is also a story about ALS, and how to cope, and how maybe to understand what people might need who are dying slowly of this disease—or any other progressively degrading illness. This too is difficult to watch.

Swank is terrific, and scary in her ability to be that victim just when life is all roses. Rossum comes off at first as not believable. Her antics and extreme disregard for things (the blender scene, for those who have seen it) are planted in the movie to make a point, and it almost made me move on. But hang in there! After half an hour the real movie begins, if you will, and the acting and writing all rise a level up.

It must be said that the husband plays an ongoing role here, and also a believable one. He is truly caring and tender, but also flawed. And so you see everyone has flaws, including Kate, who recognizes them in herself as much as others. Which gives it all the nuancing this movie needed to work.

It works. It isn't a surprising, twisting, drama by any stretch. Rather, it settles into telling us about a part of our real world with sensitive, beautiful detail.

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