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Pop-Culture Friendly, 19 December 2014

Leave it to Spielberg to trivialize such a profound topic. The big draw is the dinosaurs. Yet they appear in only about 15 minutes of the film's 120-minute plot. Mostly what we have here are banal humans, and even an obnoxious character named Dennis (Wayne Knight), engaged in trite conversations, and exposition contrived to bring viewers up to speed. At the film's worst, viewers and the two lead "scientists" are treated to what is literally a cartoon on the relationship between mosquitoes and dinosaur DNA. The film talks down to its audience.

And there is no intrinsic need for those two kids. They are added to draw in viewers from across all age ranges. "Jurassic Park" is a popcorn flick that's pop-culture friendly. At least it's not as bad as Spielberg's "Jaws", a kiddie movie lacking in thematic depth.

The only character in "Jurassic Park" that acts like an adult is Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum). He conveys a skeptical view of the intent of the Park's creator, John Hammond (Richard Attenborough), when Malcolm says ... "Gee, the lack of humility before nature that's being displayed here, staggers me". He further critiques Hammond: "You packaged (your discovery), slapped it on a plastic lunch-box and now you're selling it ... What you call discovery, I call the rape of the natural world". So there is a bit of depth to the film, if only in passing.

By far the best element is the visual effects, truly spectacular. The dinosaurs look realistic and believable. These visuals are enhanced by sound effects accompanied by a subtle echo. Which, when combined with the rain forest background, create a faraway feel, consistent with the historical remoteness of the Mesozoic era in which the dinosaurs lived.

Casting is acceptable. Acting trends a bit overblown. Production and art design are almost as good as the special effects. But I did not like the overbearing and manipulative background music.

With a huge budget and a famous director, this Hollywood blockbuster aims at a mass audience. Though the visual effects are spectacular, the script gives us a childish story, with childish characters, that I find mildly insulting to the study of such a fascinatingly alien era in Earth's history.

Invitation To A Curse, 19 December 2014

An obnoxious archaeologist insults the locals in Asia and has to flee, but not before grabbing a hoard of Asian treasures as he scurries back to the U.S. His investors back home want part of the fortune that he brings back with him. So he invites them all to his two-story mansion, but informs them that an Asian "curse" befalls those in possession of the fortune. His proposition is that the investors stay in his house for awhile and see for themselves what happens.

It's a silly story concept. But it does offer a neat little puzzle for whodunit fans to solve. The plot involves a séance, some incense, and tom-tom drums. There are multiple plot holes, at least one of which is revealed by means of dialogue. The solution to the puzzle includes a psychological concept called "conditioned response". But the application of it to this story is not very credible.

Characters are poorly developed, which is not surprising, given the short runtime. There are eight or so suspects, none very interesting, apart from a grouchy old woman lording over her henpecked husband. The insurance salesman is a bit annoying. The cops are rather nondescript and bumbling. I could have wished for a Charlie Chan.

In the version I watched, sound quality was not very good, and neither was the B&W cinematography. The visuals tended to be unnecessarily dark and somewhat blurry, probably a result of inferior technology in the 1930s. Casting is okay. But acting is exaggerated, also likely resulting from an era just emerging from silent films.

Aside from poor visuals and sound, which we might expect for that era, the main problem is a not very credible story premise, compounded by poor characterization. Even so, the film might still appeal to viewers who like animated puzzles, which is what a whodunit film really is.

Small Town Southern Injustice, 1 December 2014

Certainly an interesting documentary about the high-profile case of the West Memphis Three (Baldwin, Echols, Misskelley), convicted of killing three young boys in eastern Arkansas in 1993. The documentary takes the side of the defense, in saying the three teenagers (WM3) were railroaded through based on flimsy evidence. The verdict in 1994 was probably unjust, given the general absence of forensic evidence at the time. More recently, DNA evidence shows no DNA connection between the three teenagers and the three young victims. On the other hand, the program excludes some of the prosecution's case, which shows blatant bias on the part of the program's producers.

In contrast, bias appears much more pronounced in the legal system in 1993, and included police coercion, sloppy police work, and obvious jury misconduct, among other problems. The small town of West Memphis was overwhelmed with emotional hysteria of family and neighbors, all wanting revenge for the killings. The police were out to convict the easiest target, and the prosecutor wanted a quick win, and was facilitated by a judge who was anything but unbiased. No DNA testing was available back then.

At one point in the program, Misskelley says he was at a Dyess, Arkansas wrestling match at the time of the murders. So how is it that the prosecutor was able to convince a jury that Misskelley was guilty? Instead of answering the alibi question, the program proceeds down a different investigative avenue.

That is one glaring problem in a program that overall does not flow well. It jerks back and forth between people and time periods. There are so many people involved in this case, it's hard to keep track of names and faces. I also didn't like the inclusion of Hollywood celebrities who, despite their lack of involvement in the original trials, think they can determine the three guys' innocence via superficial arguments and secondary sources, which reeks of celebrity arrogance.

Despite the documentary's biased point of view in favor of the WM3, and despite how the program is put together, it is worth watching. By inference, it shows how the jury system is rigged against a defendant in a murder trial. In the future, one would hope that juries will be outlawed, and replaced by forensic evidence only, correctly obtained and tested, that proves innocence or guilt. Having hysterical people render life and death decisions based on the games lawyers play is truly frightening.

Silkwood (1983)
Depressing Realism, 28 November 2014

The plot of "Silkwood" is fairly close to my memory of major events as they played out in Oklahoma, and reported by local news over multiple weeks. A lone individual up against a big corporation is always a compelling story. In this case, the individual, Karen Silkwood (Meryl Streep), proved morally superior to Kerr-McGee, even though the story ends tragically. This film is unusual in that the plot and characters are not exaggerated at all.

Quite aside from the film's deep political and social themes, "Silkwood" excels at a personal level. All the characters are real people, and the script and actors convey deep and meaningful characterizations. This is true even of secondary characters like Thelma (Sudie Bond) and Mr. Hurley (Bruce McGill), for example. These peoples' lives are all rather common and dreary, but what a welcome change from the contrived and two-dimensional characters in most films.

Detailed production design matches the dreariness and bleakness of these blue-collar workers in rural America. The naked light bulb that hangs from the ceiling in Silkwood's house; the drab green paint peeling off kitchen cabinets; that old beat-up white car Karen drives. On and on, the settings are realistic and appropriately depressing. The low-key, country/banjo score amplifies the realism of time and place, as does the old gospel hymn "Amazing Grace".

Casting is ideal. I don't know how the acting could have been improved. Meryl Streep just disappears into the role of Karen Silkwood. Both Kurt Russell and Cher deserved awards. Even minor roles are well cast, and the performances are terrific.

Color cinematography is quite good. Night scenes, both interior and exterior, are impressive. There's one scene in the second half where Karen and Dolly (Cher) sit out on the front porch in a swing; it's night; Dolly is crying and Karen reassures her with a soft version of the song "Hush-a-bye, don't you cry, go to sleep little baby, when you wake…". As the camera backs away, we see that drab, lonely house with a melancholy Karen and Dolly, an image that is powerfully haunting.

"Silkwood" conveys a highly realistic, true-life story about a very ordinary young woman who, despite personal issues and imperfections, takes big risks to do what is morally right. The film is sad, depressing, and very well made. It easily ranks among my twenty best films of all time.

Cheap Drive-in Flick, 28 November 2014

A youthful race car driver named Rod Tillman (Steve Alaimo) unconvincingly gives up racing and, after a chance encounter with a biker group, joins the group, composed of three idiot dudes and their shared girlfriend. Trouble is, the bikers like to rob businesses for "kicks", which invites inept cops. The result is a not very believable story with contrived action and some hokey performances.

Steve Alaimo isn't too bad as an actor. But the actors who play the bikers are simply awful. The characters they play have been described as the three stooges, and I tend to agree; they act retarded. Which renders the Tillman character's decision to join them not credible. Further, the film contains multiple plot holes, mostly involving the cops. The entire story seems fake. It's as if the writers spent all of ten minutes putting the script together, and without bothering to edit it.

Dialogue is hopelessly dated and consists of beatnik blather. "Do you dig this?" "What now daddy?" And "bread" translates to "money". Some of the action is laughable, like when one of the bikers, to escape the cops, runs out of a lighthouse toward the cops, hops on a police motorcycle and rides away. The cops don't fire on him as he approaches them; they let him ride away and then they shoot.

Color cinematography is adequate if unremarkable. Day-for-night camera filters are really obvious. Outdoor scenes appear to have been shot in real locations, which adds a sense of realism. Steve Alaimo sings a couple of songs, which has the effect of interrupting the plot flow and suggesting that the script was written with no purpose other than to promote his singing career.

"Wild Rebels" is not as bad as its reputation. But it really doesn't seem to have any point, and the story and acting are generally hokey. It's one of those cheap, meaningless drive-in films wherein the main draw is an excuse to eat buttery popcorn.

0 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Misrepresentation Of History, 24 November 2014

This hyped classic has a number of problems seldom acknowledged by reviewers and serious film historians. Only the first 45 minutes or so take place in Oklahoma. Well over half the plot is set either on the road or in California. This is a curious plot structure for a film about "okies".

Very few of the Oklahoma scenes were actually filmed in Oklahoma. Indeed, the Joad farmstead and surrounding landscape look nothing at all like Oklahoma; these scenes were all filmed in California. In point of fact, John Steinbeck was born and raised in California. His novel is based on second-hand information, distorted even more by a Hollywood cinema machine interested only in money.

Viewers have come to assume, implicitly, that Steinbeck's book is factual. It is not. The story is fiction. The Joad clan is fictional. Their journey to California is fictional. The specific worker camps are fictional. The only elements of the film that are based on truth are the era setting and the struggles that most people from the Great Plains endured during the 1930s. That part is real.

There was genuine hardship and suffering. But it's a mistake to assume that everyone who migrated to California during that period were as destitute as the Joads. I personally have ancestors who lived in Oklahoma in that era; some moved; some stayed in Oklahoma, but none were indigent. The Joad's decrepit car is a symbol of the film's visual misrepresentation, in addition to the fake Oklahoma landscape.

The exaggerated impoverishment of script characters results from a Hollywood establishment eager to send a political message about social class inequity, a way to manipulate viewer perceptions. But the downside to that manipulation is that it has had a profoundly negative effect on Oklahoma and other Great Plains states in the subsequent sixty years. The resulting cultural bias against these dust bowl states has caused damage that far surpasses the damage done by nature and the economy. Such is the power of Hollywood and the gullibility of viewers to trust filmmakers.

That said, the film's B&W cinematography is quite good. The story is rendered mournfully bleak, largely as a result of Gregg Toland's use of wide-angle lenses and dim lighting. The song "Red River Valley" is ideal for the locale and era. I also like the absence of actors' makeup, which adds a subtle touch of realism. Casting is acceptable and so is acting, except for the two most elderly of the Joads (Grandpa and Grandma), who overact dreadfully. Their portrayal of old people is insulting.

I consider "The Grapes Of Wrath" a Hollywood sacred cow, critically untouchable. But Steinbeck and Hollywood combined to do far more damage to the dust bowl states than the hardships that actually occurred. The cultural residue this film has left has been most unfortunate.

Killer In The House, 20 November 2014

Sorority sisters are terrorized by obscene phone calls in their sorority house at Christmas. Eventually, there is a murder. "Black Christmas" is a whodunit but with a twist ending that I find mildly dissatisfying.

Much of the plot consists of routine chitchat and the comings and goings of the girls. So viewers will need to find one or more characters entertaining in some way to maintain interest in the plot. The elderly house mom who likes to sneak a drink from a cleverly hidden bottle provides comic relief. What these people don't know, but we viewers do, is that the killer is somewhere inside the large multistory house, watching and stalking them.

Many scenes take place at night, and most are dimly lit, with spooky side lighting. The usual Christmas carols, peaceful and reassuring, are punctuated by the discordant sounds of piano strings that signal that the killer is nearby and/or active in some way. Adding to the tension and terror are sound effects, including the whistling of wind through the trees, footsteps of the killer, and his hesitant breathing. Several scenes are photographed from the killer's POV. Casting and acting are generally acceptable.

The subplot about the outdoor search party seemed distracting and irrelevant to me; it could have been left out. Scenes at the police station also detract from the appropriately claustrophobic atmosphere of the sorority house.

Despite an unsatisfying ending, the excellent color photography, music, and sound effects throughout the plot magnify suspense and mystery. Which renders "Black Christmas" a must-see for Horror genre viewers. And the film inaugurates a script formula that was so successful that it has been copied many times by other movies since this film first appeared some forty years ago, to render it a must-see for film historians.

Amelia (2009)
The Richard Gere Show, 20 November 2014

This could have been a spirited, lofty film about the famous Amelia Earhart, who set many flying records in the first half of the last century. Unfortunately, what we get is a dry, rather matter-of-fact account of her adventures, textbook style. But that's not the only problem.

The plot can't proceed five minutes, at most, without the appearance of George Putnam (Richard Gere), Earhart's love interest. Do the writers really think we are interested in Putnam? And the casting of Gere, an over-the-hill actor twenty years ago, distracts immensely from Amelia and her adventures.

The plot plays out chronologically from the mid-1920s until Earhart's disappearance in 1937. During this phase of her life we see her earlier, shorter flights across the Atlantic to Great Britain, to Africa, and to Pakistan. About three-fourths of the way into the film, Earhart and her co-pilot, Fred Noonan (Christopher Eccleston), begin their fateful final flight around the globe.

To the script's credit I learned a couple of things that I did not previously know. Earhart promoted products to finance her flying. And Fred Noonan had a drinking problem.

The film contains beautiful outdoor photography. And I like the way some scenes transition from B&W to color, a subtle reminder of how long ago the Earhart story was. Except for the annoyingly intrusive Richard Gere, casting and acting are fine. Hilary Swank gives a really fine performance in the title role.

I wish the script had been re-written to drastically downplay George Putnam. Either that or recast to an unknown actor, someone who would not overshadow Hilary Swank. Gere's presence almost, but not quite, ruins the entire film. Maybe someday we'll get a film about Amelia Earhart that is as inspiring as she was.

Survivalist Lifestyle, 17 November 2014

It's mostly the desire to be free ... free from big powerful institutions ... especially government. That's why many of the some four hundred residents live in this isolated spot in New Mexico. But life is hard ... because it's physical. You have to haul in your water, haul out your trash, chop your own firewood. There is no electricity or running water.

The population consists of a hodgepodge of disillusioned military vets, older people looking for peace, teenage runaways, and middle-aged hippies. Children are home schooled. Some food is grown or raised, and some is brought in from free food banks. When you want to take a bath you go to the river five miles away; instead of soap, people wash themselves with mud.

Community problems get resolved by a meeting of elders. The only real law is "be a good neighbor; otherwise, you're not allowed to be here", says one man. Guns are the choice of defense, and residents proudly show them off.

In this one-hour documentary, with fine visuals and reasonably fine sound, the viewer gets treated to an alternate lifestyle, one that most Americans would be physically unfit for, or too emotionally fearful to try. It's to the credit of these modern pioneers that they can survive and presumably be happy.

On the other hand, one could argue that although some may indeed choose to live this way, some may do so out of necessity because they do not have money. Ironically, these rural survivalists are not unlike heavily in-debt urban consumers in that both groups are living for today, giving little or no thought to their lives twenty or thirty years from now.

Still, for those who actually choose to live a rural survivalist life, it's clear that they have literally given up on modern American institutions and pop culture. That they live their dream is commendable. I'm not sure that I could do what they do. But their stories are fascinating and inspiring.

Worth Watching But Inferior To The Original, 17 November 2014

Adapted from the Patricia Highsmith novel, this film details the adventures of twenty-something Tom Ripley, a New York City nobody who gets a chance to travel to Italy to persuade a playboy to return to his American roots. And when opportunity knocks, Ripley opens the door. This film is an expensive, splashy Hollywood production with big name stars, and shot in multiple locations in Italy. Naturally, the scenery is enthralling.

The story is very good, but the plot here is mediocre. The rationale for multiple plot points is lost on me. Why did Ripley feel the need to learn jazz before leaving New York? What was the point of the lady who drowned in the water? Why was the Meredith character included, apart from giving Ripley more headaches with his identity crisis? The film was about thirty minutes too long. And some of these vague plot points could have been zapped.

Casting and acting are okay, except for Matt Damon who plays the lead character. I never did see Tom Ripley; all I saw was Matt Damon. See Matt smile; see Matt move his lips; see Matt smile and move his lips again. Was Damon not interested in his role? Probably the best performances were Philip Seymour Hoffman and Cate Blanchett, both in support roles.

I had already seen "Purple Noon" (1960), the first version of the Ripley story. Maybe because I have such a fond memory of "Purple Noon", I'm a bit biased against this 1999 version. But "Purple Noon" had better casting and plot. The visuals in both films are equally good.

Despite the casting of Matt Damon and the mediocre plot, "The Talented Mr. Ripley" is still worth watching, owing mostly to the original concept and story from the source material.

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