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The Giver (2014)
It's pretty, and romantic, but it's slow and totally lacks originality and conviction, 2 September 2014

The Giver (2014)

Pain is good. That's the bottom line. Or love is good. Pain and love are good. There. That's it. Oh, there is the black and white photography which I love, and the bits of color, and then the uber-color. And the music will soar at the right moments (think the ending of "Soylent Green") and bring tears to your eyes. If you let it. But the experience is superficial, and the ideas as thin, and as fresh, as parchment. A deadening experience for me, and I almost walked out.

So other people love this movie? I mean, love love love this movie? Yes. It's actually a feel good young person's romance. It brims with optimism and storybook romance, and even though couched in a layered world of autocratic cruelty it leaves you knowing you can be free, have emotions, fall in love, and be an individual.

But wait—we can already do all that! What this situation gives is so linear, and it tips over with so many clichés, it's amazing it can last an hour and a half. But it does. And it's a simplistic bore.

Those of you who have read the book(s), go ahead, give this review a thumbs down. If think this is wisdom and creativity at its best, open up to the future, which will be your reward. I don't blame anyone for letting this stir your young soul into bright eyed wonder.

That doesn't make this a good movie. Or put better: this could have been a good, very good movie.

Here's what's wrong.

1) There are many stories and movies where the future is bleak, and the citizens are being made into submissives. And where one of the masses (usually only one) sees the wrong in this and rises up to overturn the horrors.

2) There is only one main story line, which is about this particular individual having a chance to rise up, and he does.

3) There is almost no character development. Yes, everyone is meant to be drugged into boredom and sameness, but that's no excuse for letting us into people's nuances— especially the main character (Brenton Thwaites) and the title character (Jeff Bridges).

4) The concept is filled with inconsistencies and logical gaffes.

5) It's a tiny world, like the size of a college campus, and so where are the factories, the farms, the power generators?

6) Why only one "giver" and one "receiver" and what happens if they die before they are supposed to?

7) Everyone's conversations are recorded, and yet no one gets in trouble for breaking the rules until much later, when things have gone awry.

7) Murdering babies? Blasé? Whatever.


What's right here? Well, Meryl Streep makes a good matriarch, and she gives the movie its one truly felt portrayal, especially in her last long scene. And the photography is slick and appropriate (though not groundbreaking or remarkable on its own). The buildings are cool, and the waterfall fountain brilliant.

C'est la vie.

Chef (2014)
3 out of 7 people found the following review useful:
Satisfies your hunger, but leaves you thirsty for more, 14 August 2014

Chef (2014)

A hoot. Well constructed, well acted feel-good comedy about a chef who wants to cook from the heart.

This is a formula film, for sure. You are made to fall in love with the main characters (mostly one of them, writer, director, and leading man Jon Favreau). Then things go wrong. Some are comic, some are sad, but all is told in a way you know will end just fine, more or less. And so it goes.

Because Favreau got his Hollywood creds as a producer ("Iron Man" series) he has lots of connections, and he cashed in some favors here. Small parts are given to several stellar players. Scarlett Johansson is a charming hostess at the restaurant, though she isn't given a lot to do. Dustin Hoffman plays the reasonable but hard headed owner at odds with the chef. And Robert Downey Jr. himself shows up as an ex-wife's ex-husband with his usual charm and screen presence. Briefly.

So the movie bustles along. The script is really funny—even in small moments the lines and the delivery work well. The boy, played by Emjay Anthony, is superb, holding up a key emotional part of the movie. Favreau, the actor, manages to seem like both the impassioned chef and the warm dad in believable ways.

Eventually the plot turns into a road trip, which is always fun, and we get touristy visits to Miami, New Orleans, and Austin. It's all so feel good you want actually for something more to happen. Yes, the problem with the movie is the formula thing, which it sticks to too well. And there are lots of little scenes, some of them musical inserts, that sound and look great but that drag down the momentum.

And the big ending is far too sugary for me. The movie doesn't quite lift its excesses into a fable, or into a style that justifies them. Instead it shamelessly uses pumped up music, great characters, and a triumphant plot to work you over. And make you feel good, which is pretty good.

Under 18 (1931)
2 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
A straight up drama about two girls trying to make it in New York--and a fabulous party scene, 11 August 2014

Under 18 (1931-22)

A light-hearted comedy drama with a few very serious moments. It's a sincere and touching story about two sisters trying to make it in the poor tenements of New York. They each have a man from the same neighborhood, one a loafer (and pool shark) and the other a sweet and goofy grocery delivery driver. Mom lives with one of the sisters who is the title character, a bit young to know what she wants.

But not too young for the rich ladykilling man who sees the girl modeling an expensive fur. Which leads, roundabout, to the highlight of the movie, and twenty minute frenzy on the roof of a tall building in Manhattan. This pool party is a real height of the Roaring Twenties as they were winding into the early Depression. It's pure wild decadence, and director Archie Mayo really knew how to ramp it up without getting totally obscene. Great stuff.

And a great contrast with the humble lives of the impoverished stars. None of the leading ladies or their men are names most of us recognize (the main star, Marian Marsh, has several great films to her name, namely "Svengali" and "Crime and Punishment"). It's Warren William, the rich fellow, who is the most famous of the bunch, and he's always a hoot to watch, slyly winning over women despite (or because of) his age.

But there is another serious side to all of this, and that is the trap women faced then (far less than now) in having to find a man to help survive economically. The Depression has clearly made jobs scarce, even in New York (which was still humming in some ways). When Marsh's sister realizes her new husband would rather play pool than work, things go bad—and get worse when she has a child. So Marsh sees the folly of marriage even though her own boyfriend is a decent chap with a job. This fairly realistic portrayal of life at the time is the largest part of the movie.

The party, however, is the most fun, and I would say you could, if impatient, skim ahead to that section, a little after halfway, and just see the craziness of the times. It reminded me of "Madame Satan" which uses the same kind of party—in a blimp—that is so wild and compelling it makes you wonder why these kinds of scenes disappeared by the time of the Hays Code.

There is a slightly awkward feel to the script throughout the film, unfortunately, and the acting of some of the lesser characters is fair but not great, bringing the whole thing down to earth. Still, the best of it…well, give it a shot. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

2 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Sometimes almost campy and dramatic, but an awkward construction that strains, 8 August 2014

Slightly Scarlet (1956)

A drippy Technicolor melodrama from the early widescreen era, with crossed purposes and crossed stars? Sounds like Douglas Sirk, yes, but this lacks the depth and dreamy romance (and loneliness) of his films, and the seeming irony. This is really a kind of late film noir, though the themes of that era are diffused so it ends up mostly a crime drama with emphasis on the emotional troubles of the leading women. It's interesting more than compelling, but it is interesting.

It's hard to say if this is a John Alton movie, or a James M. Cain movie. The leading women with their almost scarlet hair (in Technicolor, which was unusual for RKO), are certainly not what makes this movie float, though they try very hard. And it's not John Payne, the leading man who is his usual understated self.

I'll go with Alton, the cinematographer, who transfers with some success the film noir feeling to color. Maybe too literally. Sometimes the shadows on the walls are caricatures of the old days, references to noir but not purely ominous. (In this way the movie really is like a Sirk film, which seems to confess an end-of-Hollywood decadence.) But in all the film looks very good—the shots, the editing, the color coordination (thanks to Technicolor's advisors), and the sets, which are quite deliberately distracting. (In this sense, it's again not a noir where the shadows hide the details—details abound.)

The plot, which I seem to be avoiding, is a bit strained, and even a bit confusing, and this is Cain's doing, and the screenwriter's. It's not that you can't follow, but that you wonder what people's motivations are. Payne plays a lowly henchman of a crime boss running to be re-elected mayor, and he mostly digs up dirt on enemies (by spying with camera and tape recorder). Events turn quickly and he's, what? running the whole underground racket? Yes, but only after cleaning it up a bit. And so allegiances flip flop and his girlfriend (one of the sisters) doesn't seem to notice.

The sisters are the centerpiece in a way—one has just gotten out of jail and the other is trying to help her. But naturally the "bad" one can't stay out of trouble, small stuff. One thing leads to another, sort of, but it doesn't much matter. What does matter is their interaction, and the overacted and rather fun performance by the "bad" sister, played by Arlene Dahl. Revenge and a few gunshots and gasping last thoughts and you have it.

So watch this from above, as a kind of low-grade spectacle. It's so vivid and well- meant somehow you can't help be curious. And you won't stop watching, I think. But you'll end up wondering why exactly it got made. This is one RKO's last films, and it feels like a last gasp.

2 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Different kinds of love face off and try to find an alternative--good stuff!, 4 August 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Consolation Marriage (1931)

A really good movie, and a very serious drama. The sincerity of the acting and the attempt for clarity about true love and romantic first love are both impressive. Yes, it is somewhat of a familiar kind of film and filming, not quite breaking rules or surprising you as it goes, but in a way this just adds to its solidity.

The two female stars are what drew me first to the title, and it's the underrated and subtle Irene Dunne who gives the whole drama its depth. Myrna Loy is a second woman with a small role, but it's fun to see her so early in her career. The men were known at the time, especially Pat O'Brien, but they do less to make it convincing that simply fill in Dunne's deeper performance.

What drives the thing is the plot, which is really sincere. Two couples in two different scenes are shown as romantically idealized—the starry eyed kinds of couples, true love and be-happy-forever types. Very impractical but compelling. And they both break up. (This happens right away, not a spoiler.) So the woman from one and the man from the other (Dunne and O'Brien) meet at a restaurant. And they get along so well, and have in common that their perfect relationships were now suddenly ruined, they decide to date. And so on.

So this "consolation marriage" is a kind of means to survive, and happily. And they make a deal that they will always remember that they each had "true loves" earlier and elsewhere. And that they would have an "open" marriage.

Then the ex-lovers re-appear. Inevitably. And the moral conflict is in their faces. Good idea, well done. It doesn't take it to emotional depths or to the complexity all these crossed affections suggest, but it does try. And that's where the move works so well. Underrated, in my view. It's not a thrilling pre-code classic, but it's worth seeing.

Noah (2014)
4 out of 8 people found the following review useful:
Bloated epic not redeemed by Crowe or the dazzling special effects, 3 August 2014

Noah (2014)

Ugh. The poor actors, pouring their hearts into this bloated, irrelevant movie. Yeah, the story is really good, at least the parts that we all know so well—the flood, the feeling of starting over, the human angst, or even the idea that there was another (evil) civilization before the flood which is now lost.

Director Darren Aronofsky is of course a creative force with a lot of admirers, and his films are always at least interesting. He took a lot of money here and used some innovative special effects, and he tried to take a slim story (Noah and the Ark) and make it an over-long epic movie, which is daring enough.

But it's not enough to spend a lot on special effects. Not enough to say profound nothings in serious intonations. Not enough to base the story on a great fable (or a bit of history if you're really going to think the flood happened the way it's portrayed) as if you can coattail your way into profit. Or respectability.

Cameron Crowe does a good job being a rugged survivalist in the wastelands that are supposedly the Mideast. (If it looks like Iceland, it's because it is.) His wife is Jennifer Connelly, who is given lines of script to read that make her superfluous (like she'll offer a good suggestion and Crowe, as Noah, says no, let's do it this way instead). Misogyny in action. The kids are archetypally pretty and do a fine job being that, and being there.

I sound almost bitter. It's just (largely) a boring waste. Of course there are, often, redeeming moments—dream sequences that are well done, or scenery that is visually beautiful. I like the idea of Noah struggling with his own values and issues. But this isn't enough to make the long movie work beyond its grandiose effects. Maybe the most interesting thing to happen is that an actual flood, from Hurricane Sandy, interrupted some of the filming in New York where the ark model had been built.

You know whether you like this kind of movie—the Avatar, Prometheus, Braveheart epics —and whether you'll like this one. Those are my least favorite kinds of movies, and this one went frankly the farthest into that overwrought territory. Good luck!

2 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Flawless--deep, exciting, sad, funny, and elegantly photographed, 29 July 2014

Dirty Pretty Things (2002)

I saw this years ago, maybe when it first came out, and know I liked it. And I think I liked it even more this time. Always a good sign when a movie lasts.

What works most is the beautiful filming and pace, and the steady, thoughtful, rather masterful performance by the lead man, Chiwetel Ejiofor. The plot grows in strangeness, but never leaving the edgy reality of immigrant rich London, all modern and contradictory in the best cinematic ways.

Director Stephen Frears has a "checkered" career…some real duds, and some stellar movies. This is one of the stellar ones. The way he lets a series of plots and a variety of locations interweave through the central point of both—the Baltic Hotel— makes for a rich and integrated experience. It's smart but also artful. This is, despite all the police harassment, struggle to make ends meet, and macabre organ marketeering, a really beautiful movie. So in every way it engages.

For contractual reasons, Audrey Tautou is the leading name on the credits, and her role is not only slightly smaller but somewhat less compelling. She plays an immigrant woman, a Muslim, who is also trying to work out an existence as an illegal in a rough and tumble England. She's rather good, but in a way she is a footnote to Eijofor's great presence. I also can't help thinking that this movie, and the one right before it ("He Loves Me…") were attempts to eradicate the typecasting of the movie right before that, "Amelie," where she is impeccable. Here she is quirky and almost strange, but in a likable way, and by the end she is partly why you feel so strongly for Eijofor.

The social point of this movie is a good underlying one—to show what life is really like for a large number of decent, hardworking people, many hiding from bureaucracy and immigration rules. The more sensational plot drives it forward, for sure, but in the big picture it's about surviving with dignity intact—and how that is sometimes impossible. See this, for sure.

2 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Routine underdog lawyer story, expensive and decent but nothing remarkable, 28 July 2014

The Rainmaker (1997)

Stolid and solid, steady to the point of functional, and extremely mainstream.

That is, here we have a somewhat sensational do-gooder kind of plot, taken from the Grisham novel, and a series of complications and good guys and bad guys fill it out. It's painfully predictable, and yet you are cheering for the underdog lawyers fighting the mean insurance industry and want to see how it ends. Even though it ends the way it has to.

I love director Francis Ford Coppola's best movies. A lot. And I also wonder what goes on in his worst ones, where a personal indulgence gets in the way. Here I feel another thing kick in—mediocrity. Or fulfilling a contract. The filming is good of course, the mechanics of editing and acting are top notch. The music is a bit forced, however, and the pace is slower than necessary for the limited range of events that are shown.

Matt Damon, years before his Jason Bourne stereotyping, is a recent law school grad who is instilled (according to a plain voice-over) with left-wing idealism. He falls into a shoe-string law firm with an oversized case. Classic David and Goliath. And of course he has setbacks and shows his naiveté, but perseveres, more or less, to the end (though the end itself you need to see for itself). Damon is very good. Jon Voight as the evil opposing attorney is even better, though with a more 2-dimensional role.

What really pulls this movie into the mainstream in a kind of disappointing way is the way it is all told. It is what it is—well done but nothing more. It seems that the goal is to be convincing and entertaining. And so it is. Routinely. A simple comparison is "Anatomy of a Murder" which I guarantee Coppola saw before shooting this. The scenario is roughly similar—underdog lawyer against overpaid big shots, with a sidekick who does all the last minute investigative work. But Preminger (in this earlier film) had a whole bunch of things going for him that Coppola somehow skipped. First is an amazing rather than a decent leading actor (Jimmy Stewart). Second is a great score. Third is a plot that threw some real twists at you, including a defendant you didn't know whether to trust or not. Fourth you set it someplace really interesting, filled with quirks. And so on.

So this movie, as solid (and stolid) as it is, just comes up short again and again. Enjoyable? Yes. As such!

2 out of 4 people found the following review useful:
Slow but not tedious, with some gorgeous aspects amidst the patience required, 27 July 2014

Under the Skin (2013)

In some ways a beautifully patient, simple exploration of what it means to be human. In Scotland.

In other ways it is pretentious and all too simple. And slow. In Scotland.

If you love Scarlett, see this (and not for all the full nudity, which is a necessary part of the film). She has the odd job of acting a role without emotional depth—she's an alien, after all. If you liked "Her" you might not like this one because the concepts here are thin, but it is a weirdly perfect companion piece to "Under the Skin."

Bottom line: I enjoyed this. It wasn't a great movie on any level, but it wasn't terrible IF you can enjoy a lot of slow, intentionally lyrical sections. There are powerful moments, including a terrifying scene of people and their dog fighting heavy surf, and there are mundane moments, including lots of encounters with Scottish men speaking with a great, thick local accent.

There is also a very heavy theme to it all, and some surreal sections that don't make a bit of sense if you care to think about it. There is a logic to the larger plot, however, and it's revealed in the opening scenes—aliens are using human skins to look human, and to study us (yeah, us—I'm not an alien) and to find more victims for their skins. The fact they go to such great lengths to find lonely victims doesn't really make sense, either, and this is kind of the backbone of the movie (the reason Scarlet does what she does).

But let it all slide and enjoy the growing awareness of the main character as she sees how people see her. It's not eye-opening exactly, but it's well done enough to settle nicely by the end. See it? If you don't mind some art house stuff, yes. With expectations in line.

Enemy (2013)
6 out of 10 people found the following review useful:
Only mind boggling if you haven't seen very many movies...a dull affair!!, 21 July 2014

Enemy (2013)

A simple clever idea—that a man discovers another man exactly like him out there —that gets pulled to the breaking point. And then becomes indulgent and disappointing. Finally, the plot turns into a huge sham—on purpose—and if you suspected this even slightly earlier on you'll be angry at all the wasted time. On top of everything, the plot is slow, and the acting beyond the solid performance(s) by Jake Gyllenhaal is wobbly at best.

So does anything recommend this movie? Maybe not! Not with much better mind game movies out there, from "Memento" and "Fight Club" on down. Yes, this is in that category, but don't be fooled into thinking it has the energy or inventiveness of either. If "Memento" is quiet and searching as it gets willfully confusing (and wonderfully so), "Enemy" is just plain slow. This is meant to draw you into the tension of the main character(s) as he(they) figure out what's going on. But it just gets needlessly heavy.

The filming might have rescued this somewhat, but the director chose to go low- key and dull, as if emphasizing the dullness of the character(s). Director Denis Villeneuve has for me been a mixed bag. His direct and slightly sensational "Prisoners" is solid, if overrated, and his "Incendies" is (to me) underrated, but both of these (and this current film) are striving to go places, and that's worth a lot in my book.

In the end, the idea in "Enemy" isn't such a big deal after all. Even the attempt at depth in the title (if you care to figure it out once done) is thin. Overall the movie craps out and cheeps out, and slowly.

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