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And the Band Played On (1993)
A vivid, well-acted tracing of the history of AIDS from the point of view of epidemiology. That sounds boring, but just the opposite. The intense pressure on the early researchers is part of the drama. And the injustice of the politics getting in the way is important. Most of all, of course, is the terrible suffering of the victims, which is a small but key part of the story.
All of this is really well done, no fat to the story, moving along and keeping the progression of events clear. I resisted watching this for a long time thinking it would dry, or that the story is well known and would offer no surprises, but I enjoyed it all.
The director, Canadian Roger Spottiswoode, has done nothing else on this impressive scale. Even working with the stellar cast (many famous actors with small roles, and a couple, like Alan Alda, more prominent) requires a kind of juggling and intelligence that's great to watch. Is the movie perfect? In a way, yes, given the choice of subject matter.
So brazenly inventive and brisk, it's hard not to appreciate what's happening here. And a lot is happeningthis is one of those interwoven plots with several lines that join now and then. It's irreverent and tasteless, touching and glib, beautiful and engrossing. What's not to like?
The most famous actor here must be Tom Cruise, who plays an outrageously incorrect man who gives cheesy, shouting seminars in how to get and girl and have sex, period. By the end you learn he's actually deeply troubled (as if you didn't guess). Other key players include Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jason Robards, Julianne Moore, and William Macy along with a huge supporting cast. Everyone matters.
The jarring contradictions here are in fact all on the same level of intensity so we have an inane game show (like Jeopardy) with a talented child contestant and a host dying of cancer. We have a prescription drug addict who is often addled and her much much older husband, also dying of cancer. There are people of real intelligence (the woman interviewing the impossibly misogynist Cruise character) and of real confusion (the nurse played by Hoffman).
The movie rolls and roils, it has hilarious peaks and then sad dips of crisis. It ends slightly awkwardly, without a clear resolution, which might be a strength in the long run but I have to think twice on that. It's also a long movie, though you might not notice since it barrels along like a true roller coaster. Start it and see if you can stop. And wait for the climaxthe frogsand tell me this isn't one of the most inventive mainstream movies ever.
You might ask what it's all about. Writer/director (and producer) Paul Thomas Anderson seems to not answer questions so much as use them as ways to keep us thinking. I like that. Anderson has a good eye for talent and for good stories, and he tends to take his art very seriously, which makes for a series are really strong movies under his control. I've seen most of them and this is the most edgy and flamboyant. See it, for as long as you.
Anchors Aweigh (1945)
In some ways this movie is so innovative and fresh, it's hard to fault. The mixed animation and Technicolor in one scene, the sheer variety of dances, the two great songs (amidst some ordinary ones), and some great dancing all make this a great movie.
In parts. There is a lot of fillera lot, and at times it almost kills the movie. But then, suddenly, it takes a formal twist (more than a twist of plot) and is suddenly terrific.
The plot? Formula, and not really the point. What matters is the song and dance (of course) and the leading actors: Gene Kelly (wonderful) and Frank Sinatra (a great singer and at this young age a mediocre actor). But it's great to see both, on any level, and to see both together. And to see the real cartoon characters Tom and Jerry act with the mere actors.
The Technicolor is great, and there are scenes of MGM back in those glory days that are almost worth it alone (brief as they are). Look for "I Fall in Love Too Easily" as a highlight. But let's be honest, the plot is a mishmash of mini- events, the leading actress Kathryn Grayson (with a harsh soprano voice) is an old-fashioned taste more famous for other movies, and the insertion of pseudo- classical music strikes us in the 21st Century as interesting and unconvincing.
I suppose this might amount to what makes the movie a great period movie. But be prepared to like it in spurts. But some of those spurts are really wonderful.
A League of Their Own (1992)
It's funny, but I remember seeing this when it came out in a tiny theater with an oversized screen in upstate New York, and I really liked it. It seems big and fun, with some great characters, and I was just getting to know Tom Hanks. This time I still loved the fun parts, and with Madonna being silly and Rosie O'Donnell being a crack-up it was worth the look. But it's not an especially good movie.
In fact, it's kind of a pastiche of ideas, even though there is a solid historical basis for the plot (the creation of a woman's professional baseball league to replace the men's league during WWII). At times it's trying to be a touching story of young women with real dreams of greatness. Other times it's making hay off the historical quirks, including the sexist madness of it all (without any actual comment on that sexism). Other aspects include a businessman's world mercenary intentions (with David Strathairn as the good guy in that mix). It's cobbled together without a lot of realismin other words, it's all for entertainment.
Which is fine. But then there is the Penny Marshall touch. This famous director/writer has a way of making things as simple and sugary as possible, as if we are all living in a Hallmark commercial. It undermines every single aspect listed above, including the touching part, which is her real goal. By the very end, with the inevitable look at the contemporary women (who are played by actresses, don't be fooled into thinking they are the real deal), it gets moving but in that pushy way that makes you kind of glad the film is finally ending.
Too bad. There is more potential here than all that.
There is a host of striving baseball movies that fall flat due to sentiment. I like baseball, but movies like "42" and "The Natural" (and even the recent Clint Eastwood "Trouble with the Curve") seem to acknowledge that the sport is something mired in a nostalgic past. Only in something like "Moneyball" does it morph into something bigger, and much better. So maybe it's me wanting baseball to be great but also realistic and vivid and intense. Not sticky with honey and amber glows.
Yeah, an enjoyable movie on many little levels, including moments of nearly everyone's performances. But don't expect more.
Off the Black (2006)
A heartfelt, small film with two big performances. Nick Nolte certainly plays a role here as a troubled, unhealthy, good-hearted man that many might think is the real Nick Nolte, judging from the media. He's an umpire for high school baseball games, and he loves the game, and the kids, but he's such a curmudgeon and a drunk no one realizes his devotion. This drives him to seclusion and sadness.
A couple of chance events combine to get him in sync with a young pitcher, played with real charm and ease by Trevor Morgan who has been very active as a low profile child actor (including a role in "The Sixth Sense"). So this odd pairing of a flailing older man and a lonely and yearning 17 year old is about how people need each other and come to help each other even when they don't quite know why.
The story, by director James Ponsoldt, is interesting enough to keep you engaged, if not wholly convinced. It does follow some clichéd paths of conflict and resolution, including a little sentimentality, but it works. What really holds it all together, though, is Nolte. At first you think he's overplaying, then maybe (oddly) underplaying (since you might think it's just Nolte being Nolte). But there is a lot of subtlety to his movements and his face, and real feeling. It's worth seeing for him, if you are the type to enjoy that kind of specific appreciation.
It's also enjoyable in other ways, including a series of rather searing if brief appearances by Timothy Hutton. Good stuff, if not especially original or brilliant in the larger sense.
Time Lapse (2014)
A fun, and sometimes clever, idea about photographs from a neighbor's machine/camera that show the future one day in advance. It sounds great and in a way it has great potential, but the plot is quite linear (when it actually makes sensethe end is full of holes). And so the progression is good but unsatisfying.
What complicates liking the movie is the cast, which borders on amateur. Oh, they are trying hard, but between the strained dialog and their delivery, the effect is an indie film (e.g. low budget) with an elevated student profile. If even one of the actors had gravitas, or humor, or something creepy, it would be easier to hook us.
Production values are minimal (and cleverly sothey saved a lot of money by planning very very carefully and having scenes, from the future and the present, mesh perfectly by being, of course, identical. The use of real (or real looking, with boxes shown) Polaroids is a nice touch, including the 30 second waiting for the image to form.
But this is all plot and more plot, and it made it this far based on its cleverness. But not clever enough, and far too simple to give it suspense or actual drama.
What a huge bore. Much of the time.
I mean, so so beautifully filmed in a restrained, slightly nostalgic palette, yes. And the basic idea is ominous and creepy enough to start a good plot. It also starts with some great (anachronistic) Miles Davis inspired minimal jazz and a chilling army checkpoint confrontation. But from there it goes slowly.
First there is a man who thinks he can cash in on his wife's inheritance. He thinks she's dead, but finds a new woman in town who looks just like her and so he's going to pretend it's his wife. Oh, but wait, it really is his wife! But he doesn't recognize her because of severe war injuries.
This all unfolds pretty quicklyit's not a spoilerbut what happens next is, well, not much, in terms of plot! That is, there is a plodding progression as the two go through with the plan. The woman (played very well by Nina Hoss) understands all (she knows it's him) and the man is such a blind fool you can't buy it. I couldn't, my wife couldn't. I heard some people in the audience gasp at the end so I guess they went along with the ruse.
There are some other elements that start to charge the movie with politics. The woman, was in a concentration camp, which is where she was disfigured. And another woman helping her is setting up a new life for her in Palestine (this is right before the founding of Israel). Oh, but wait, the leading woman turns out to not be Jewish after all--or that is her claim, and we are not sure of the truth of it.
And so some bigger issues lurk--the various ways Germans and Jews dealt with being German, and the horrors of the war, and now what? Ignore? Leave? Demand justice? Try to accept the complacence of others? Become complacent.
This movie really does not quite go these places. It successfully pulls off only the one thing, the grand trick of two people pretending, sort of, to be a couple for the inheritance. The other stuff is what matters, and it's given superficial treatment.
You can see the movie for Hoss's performance, which takes a couple of turns. Or for the period set design, which is great. In all it's a constrained movie physically, with a small cast and interior sets in most cases. And so the psychology and the suspense are meant to be sufficient, which they are not. Another (very different) end-of-WWII movie that works with similar restraint is last year's much more compelling "Diplomatie."
Director/writer Christian Petzold has a following, and is a significant contemporary force on the German scene. But for a starting point with him, I'd skip this one. Try "Barbara." Or any of his others, which can be magical.
It Follows (2015)
Turbo review: great photography, lame premise. So it fits in with lots of lower budget horror films, scary and a little stupid at the same time. For some it will be scary enough to not matterthat's the point, right? And the cinematography is really very very nice.
It's also a male-gaze movie. Meaning that it has lots of young women with few clothes and the camera staring at them. Not sure if director/writer David Robert Mitchell is still working through puberty (his pictures show him very young, so it's not a stretch), but I found it a bit insulting and unnecessary. It cheapens the whole thing, even though it's a questionable quality of lots of horror films to demean the women in the story.
What works least is the main idea: some kind of force, not purely psychological, makes the victim see some kind of changeable person follow them. Everywhere. But always on foot, like a zombie. But with strangely fast and dangerous powers, too, whenever the scene requires. There is no rationale for this, no history, no nothingit just happens to be the premise of the movie, and so there you have it. Let down your guard and like it, or question it (as I did) and get annoyed.
The acting is not bad, but that's putting it on some kind of low budget horror film scale. It's meant to be "normal" and it is, with some uneven performances. What does rise above is the visual panache, which is wonderful. It might actually be low budget, too, but it doesn't mattercinematographer Mike Gioulakis makes the most of his digital camera rigs and over-the-top (not quite naturalistic) lighting. It's almost a requirement for students to watch for how to make the most out of simple equipment. Nice!
You'll have to decide whether this saves the movie. For me, there were just too many holes.
Inside Out (2015)
Totally fun, with some semi-serious analysis of how our brains work for a kid to absorb. And heck, maybe some adults, too. The story of a girl adjusting to moving to a new city and a new life is layered with a fanciful view of psychology. It's good stuff.
I didn't find it as mind-blowing (so to speak) or inventive as many seem to, having read a few reviews out there. The clichés here are expected and almost necessary (the types of people playing aspects of personality, for example). So that's fine. But the larger story of adjustment is painted in very ordinary ways, hitting the usual trigger points without much creativity. I'm not talking the in-the-brain stuff, which is totally great in a Bugs Bunny kinds of great crazy way, but the outside story.
I also don't really like this kind of animationit's not as cartoony as, say, two of my favorites, "Monsters Inc." and "The Incredibles," both by Pixar. And it's not over-realistic as some animated/CGI inventions are (from "Avatar" to "Polar Express"). So the characters (the daughter and her parents, mainly, but everyone, top to bottom) are kind of plasticky fake/real. The personalities also have that Disney kind of white-washed blandness that seems quaint on the surface but is empty and predictable and a bit off-putting at the same time.
I enjoyed this movie and it would be hard not to. And maybe this kind of children's film, or young adult film, should be aove serious criticism. But if it does warrant critique, and comparison to other animated features, it falls short. That's fair enough.
Finally, it does have some totally brilliant moments, especially when it shows the insides of other people's (and animal's) brains. Notice how the audience really (and finally) comes awake and laughs with a roar at this! Now that's great filmmaking. Too bad it's just a few minutes of the total.
Millions Like Us (1943)
This fast paced, light hearted and heartbreaking film about England during WWII starts great and gets better as it goes. The amazing thing, really, is that it was shot during the war and maintains a grim honesty as well as a necessary optimism. Hitler has to be defeatedbut the movie makers, and all the actresses in their homespun honesty, did not know he would be.
There are some who label this purely a propaganda war film, and that the gritty lack of romanticizing is part of preparing the populace for the overwhelming nature of the problem. And somehow in an hour and a half you really sense how a country could be turned inside out. The cheerful holiday at the shore that starts the movie turns to families being broken up, women having to work in factories, and eventually news of family members never to return, killed in action.
The American documentary that comes to mind here is "Rosie the Riveter," about the enormous contributions of women in hard core industry (the poster to that shows a woman with a jackhammer). This is a fictional telling of the same idea, and it's far more enjoyable and in fact moving. (The poster for this film just shows a woman's face, with family members in the backgroundthis is about the hearts and souls of the situation.)
I don't think of this as a true "propaganda" film for some simple reasons (all of which make me like the movie more). Foremost, it's not a government sponsored or requested movieit's not technically in service to some greater force (as propaganda really has to be). It does of course support the home cause, the war against Hitler, and it does so in a way that the audience will pay to see. That's the bottom line herethis is a really compelling romance about real people in a real contemporary world that the audience knows very well. There are countless people to relate to, and details to recognize. The love story aspects are not developed very well, but they are overflowing with sincerity.
Wikipedia mentions that the movie was a "hit" in the USSR, which was also fighting Hitler. And the reason (to me) is simple: it's about regular people, the plight of the working class. There are few pretensions here (if any). And the filming is unusually tightly framed, by which I mean the compositions fill the frame, almost cramping the space on the screen, and it makes for a pleasure to watch, and makes for a lot to look at in every frame. And then the acting itself, without star power, is so straight forward and believable, even the slower moments make you pay attention.
A great film in a vein very very different than, say, "Casablanca" in 1942 (which some people also label as propaganda!). And it came out the same year, and in a way had the same larger context, though beyond that there is nothing in common at all. The point being that this is a terrific film on many levels once you let go of the more polished, and more immediately impressive American films of the same time.
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