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Witness to Murder (1954)
I saw what you did / you're imagining things. Ad infinitum
Like a horror movie that requires the potential victims to be hollow-headedly dumb and virtually serve themselves up to the serial killer, the entire plot of this movie is hinged on frustratingly inept police work. Even for the LAPD these guys are a pretty lazy bunch; expecting a person to supply all the evidence and proof of a case before reporting it.
Barbara Stanwyck sees Nazi-neighbor George Sanders commit a murder in his apartment and tells the police a totally plausible, non-sensational story (in that level-headed, Stanwyck manner). Pretty much based on a landlord's claim that Sanders is a model tenant, two alarmingly disinterested cops just assume that because there is not a dead body for them to trip over and Sanders doesn't just blurt out "Yes! I did it, I did it!", that a murder couldn't have possibly taken place.
What follows is a very drawn out drama of Stanwyck going to the police with her assertions only to be patted on the hand and told to "calm down." Though Sanders makes for an impressive villain and Stanwyck is always wonderful, the plot has nowhere to go because the cops (Gary Merrill and Jesse White) regard evidence not as something you investigate, but something that jumps out at you and lands in your lap.
It ultimately gets too repetitive and tiresome with the deck so stacked against Stanwyck that you just know everything will work out in the end. The writer just doesn't try hard enough to make plausible everyone's lack of belief in Stanwyck's story.
A pleasant enough film if you imagine it to be an episode of one of those anthology TV shows like "Thriller," but very disappointing given the cast.
The Big Bus (1976)
The bus gave a moving performance (a joke as bad as any in this film).
The saying goes, dying is easy, comedy is hard. You ain't kiddin'. About 30 minutes into "The Big Bus" I was wishing for death. A spoof of disaster films that was made when disaster films were still popular, "The Big Bus" is one of those films that keep your interest because you keep searching the actor's faces to see if they betray any trace of the desperation that must come from trying to make the most of terrible material. When a film is as boring as this, you have a lot of time for random thoughts: I watched a puffy-looking Stockard Channing (resembling 70's era Elizabeth Taylor) and wondered how she managed the magic act of salvaging her career after this; Sally Kellerman performs as if she's in a funnier film than the one I'm watching; I wonder why all of Lynn Redgrave's scenes fall so flat; I speculate over what sort of nepotism or deal with the devil resulted in the casting of the hammy and thuddingly unfunny Stuart Margolin; I think about the studio contract system and the feckless charm of John Beck; I try to count how many films in which Ruth Gordon did the same "foul-mouthed granny" bit ... anything to keep me from paying attention to how ugly this film looks (It was so flatly lit, I thought it was a Universal film) and how badly I wanted it to end. Comedy is so subjective and personal, I totally understand that some people may find it hilarious. I'm just in the camp that didn't laugh even once. View at your own risk - it may become your favorite film, or, like me, you may want to scratch your eyes out at the 30 minute point.
The Informant! (2009)
Boring, yes. Pointless, yes. But more annoying than anything else.
Like the ad campaign that suggests the wide-eyed nerd of "The 40 year-old Virgin" and the oh, so ironic soundtrack and title fonts, everything about "The Informant" tips its hat too heavily and feels belabored and clueless. I get it that we are seeing things somewhat from the skewed perspective of the pathologically lying protagonist Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon) who fancies his megalomaniacal personal greed as rooted in a desire to do the right thing and bring down the price-fixing corporation for which he is the vice president. Whitacre sees the unfolding of events as if he were in some kind of delusional corporate spy flick, ignorant of his own string-pulling and illegal activities.
What escapes me about this venture is how Steven Soderberg thought it was a good idea to play the whole lying escapade as a comedy. Casting in the supporting roles a large roster of individuals known for comic acting rather than dramatic (Patton Oswalt, Dick Smothers, Joel McHale) makes the film feel more smart-ass than hip, as each escalating lie that gets unearthed about Whitacre is greeted with the kind of looks normally reserved for "Dennis the Menace" when caught in a fib.
I find guys like Whitacre scary and dangerous. The film treats him like he's nothing more than a self-defeating scamp. That tone is way out of touch with the average person's experience unless that person is a sociopath. Hollywood is always being accused of being out of touch,but in this case the accusations are right. Who thought it would be a good idea to make a film that invites audiences to laugh at a film about the kind of corporate greed that brought this country to its knees. Sure, you can say "The Informant" is the blackest of black comedies, but it doesn't come off as satiric. It comes off as blandly clueless. I don't care how charming Matt Damon is, no one in his right mind is going to want to spend more than 20 minutes in the all-white corporate environs of this film and find his character anything less than a despicable weasel. The "Ain't this guy something?" head-shaking tone of the film needs the distance of time. In this recession, I'd rather watch a totally escapist film or comedy with a conscience. "The Informant" is the kind of comedy made by snide, super-rich people in Hollywood for whom this whole recession is nothing more than a bunch of anecdotes to mine for stories. UGH!
Piranha 3D (2010)
I actually sought this piece of garbage out...so I guess I deserve what I got.
I am a big fan of 70s exploitation pics, but it burns me when contemporary filmmakers assume they are so above the genre that they think they can assemble the basic components and come out with a superior product. As lousy as the original "Piranha" was, the remake (which wastes millions in the process) is 10 times worse. The only entertainment I got from this embarrassingly inept film was in reading the raves for it on IMDb. Seriously, anyone giving this film 10 stars has to be a kid or a cretin (or both). Bandying around words like "fun", "escapist", "spoof", "homage", etc. doesn't absolve a film from making basic narrative sense. "Piranha" is a gimmick that forced itself to be a film. And a bad one at that. Not funny, not scary, not suspenseful, not competently made (the CGI looks like the cartoon in "Xanadu") not interesting, not even remotely ambitious enough to even be the kind of Z-grade entertainment it professes to be. It's merely the visual representation of the lack of respect Hollywood has for the intelligence of modern audiences. A moronic film for what it perceives as the moronic masses. The film made millions...nice job of sizing up the public's appetite for crap, Hollywood. If this is all the public needs to make them happy, I guess I see your point. Why bother even trying to make good product? Not when there are many who actually rate this dreck as "the best film I ever saw!" God help us. The inmates have taken over the asylum.
Flat as a bottle of Tab left out in the sun
I never give a film a single star rating, but the folks behind "Viva" have so obviously stacked IMDb with unaccountable 10-star raves that it's my way of balancing things out. It's no surprise to me that the favorable reviews here are not only similar in tone and vocabulary, because no one who wasn't directly involved with the film, a relative, or a recipient of payola would give this film 10 stars in their right mind. I am in my early 50's, a cinema fan who grew up on the underground/camp classics of John Waters, Paul Morrisey, Warhol, Russ Meyer, and any number of Drive-In exploitation entries. "Viva," though well-intentioned and ambitious, is a victim of something you could never accuse any of those real 70s exploitation films of: being terminally boring! "Viva" is dull beyond belief, and no amount of candy-colored art direction can obliterate the fact that the director, writer, actress has a lead foot when it comes to pacing, cataracts when it comes to editing, and a tin ear for dialog and comedy. "Viva" is the worst kind of vanity production. It seems to be so caught up with its own alleged cleverness that it never once ceases to be the looongest, most insipid, flat-footed home movie ever made. You can't make intentional camp (even John Waters has lost his touch), and if you try, you need to be armed with something like an artist's off-beat view of life. "Viva" makes Russ Meyer look like Orson Welles. Hell, it makes Ed Wood look like Orson Welles.
I have a huge tolerance for bad cinema, but "Viva" is almost painful. They just don't seem to "get it". None of the actors hit the right note with their stilted line readings (because we sense they couldn't do much better), every scene and shot feels like an eternity spent in the company of your town's most annoying small theater group. Some of it is so heavy-handed you actually feel embarrassment. I rented "Viva" hoping for a campy romp along the lines of "Dinah East", but it took me TWO whole nights to make it through this plodding film. I kept thinking it was going to get better. It didn't. Camp movie classics are often the result of a filmmaker's ambitions exceeding their talent. There is often an energy and vibrancy that makes up for the lack of skill. "Viva" is just bad filmmaking no matter how you cut it. too pedestrian to be camp, too ordinary to be avant-garde, and to dull to waste another second writing about. Steer clear!
No method to this madness
Three stars for the gorgeous Elizabeth Hurley in her fetching white outfits, but that's about it. After seeing "Method" I can understand why I never heard of the film before. This hodge-podge thriller is off the mark on so many levels it makes the head spin.
First off, if you're going to take the chance of showing us a film within a film and attempt to illustrate the subtle differences and similarities (a la "The French Lieutenant's Woman"), then you need actors skillful enough to show us the difference between their "acting" and their real selves. Pretty as she is, Hurley is a terribly inexpressive actress (the film gets points for having someone actually say on screen that she can't act) and is so bad in the period film sequences you'd like to believe it's intentional, but I think not. Jeremy Sisto's acting style consists exclusively of lowering his chin and looking up at everybody, hoping, one would assume, that this conveys some kind of brooding intensity. Unfortunately it only makes him look like Tony Perkins in "Psycho." Sisto should also take it easy on the eyebrow tweezing...they look exactly like Hurley's.
The plot (a troubled actress becomes too immersed in playing the role of a serial killer) is too convoluted by half - leisurely when it should be tense, abrupt when we could be helped out by some exposition. Really didn't like the film at all but can't say I minded looking at Elizabeth Hurley and that ever-adorable hunk John Barrowman
Deep End (1970)
Travis Bickle: The Teen Years
I'm all for films with unique, personal perspectives of the seamier side of life, but I'm baffled at reviews that describe "Deep End" as a coming-of-age story. Only if the boy coming of age is Norman Bates. This look at the disturbingly creepy fascination a 15 year-old bathhouse worker (John Moulder-Brown) develops for his hardened but lovely co-worker (Jane Asher), "Deep End" struck me more like "Taxi Driver: The Teen Years."
I haven't read much that details the film as a psycho-sexual drama that depicts the gradual unraveling of an already damaged teen's psyche. Sort of a non-sensationalistic / art house "Who Killed Teddy Bear." What I have read are baffling accounts as to how the film so accurately captures male teen sexual awakening. Yikes! I don't care how many hormones are raging, the young man at the center of the film is not just your average adolescent with an obsessive crush on an older co-worker. He's nothing short of batty from the first frame. He's exceedingly socially retarded and hasn't the coping skills of a four year old. What I think is supposed to be the awkward first steps of sexual attraction are so downright odd that he comes off every bit like a sexual predator in training.
I simply found it impossible to relate to the played-for-laughs creepy antics of the lead. He's not love struck, he's dangerous.
Adding further to the intentionally distasteful vibe of the film is the perhaps unintentionally pervasive air of misogyny that hangs over the entire film. I know we're supposed to be seeing the world through this boy's eyes, but the women in the film are portrayed unvaryingly as: whores, teases, users, terrifying, or grotesques.
I think the skill of the director and the natural performances he has extracted from his cast has created an "Emperor's New Clothes" situation here. "Deep End" is decidedly accomplished in creating a seamy view of London akin to what Scorsese would do later in "Taxi Driver", but however well- observed, no one should take this look at a budding sexual psychotic as an image of puberty run wild. Not a love story and not a story about sex. It's a horror film.
Funny Lady (1975)
Watching "Funny Lady" always makes me laugh. Not because it's particularly humorous (the only scene I think that works for humor is Streisand's hotel room shout-fest that follows Billy's disastrous opening night), but because each time I see it I am reminded of the one-sentence review a friend gave it back when it opened in 1975: "Why did they call it 'Funny Lady'? They should have called it 'Mean Barbra'!" Indeed, Streisand seems to be in a constant state of pique throughout most of the film's 2+ hours. (It's well known that she didn't want to do it and had to be sued to take on the job.) Fanny Brice has indeed grown up, and in place of the ambitious but lovable "Funny Girl" from the original, we have a scowling, foul-mouthed, perpetually angry and upset harridan in anachronistically overdone gowns.
"Funny Lady" exists because "Funny Girl" was a success. There is really nothing going on in Fanny's adult life that warrants the mammoth film built around it. She has no emotional mountains to climb (unless you count the need of a Nicky Arnstein detox) and Billy Rose is not the love of her life, so what do we have? We have the Barbra Streisand show. A musical and costume fix for Streisand junkies, but not much of a movie.
I like Streisand a lot, but here her face looks hard and mad all the time and she seems to be striking one pose after another in her extravagant costumes that bear that unmistakable Bob Mackie stamp that recalls the look of every 70s Vegas revue. It's kind of entertaining to see such an abrasive Fanny Brice, but scene after scene of her being bossy and telling musicians and producers how to do their job, you kind of lose the feeling this is Brice you're watching. It's Barbra.
All that being said, the movie is somehow so light and inconsequential that it is rather watchable. It requires absolutely no brain work on your part and just asks you to sit back and admire Barbra for a couple of hours. Which, even in her caustic mode, is pretty easy to do.
James Caan is pretty good but miscast as the teeny-tiny Billie Rose, and poor Omar Sharif is hung out to dry as Fanny's punctured romance, Nick Arnstein. They really don't give him much to do.
So, if you like your Streisand hard edged, singing up a storm, decked out like a Christmas tree, lovingly photographed and serving up ample glimpses of bosom and behind, perhaps "Funny Lady" is for you. If you're looking for a really good movie, better rent "Funny Girl."
For Colored Girls (2010)
Perry's best and most accomplished film to date...but lacking
I'm a little torn in this review of "For Colored Girls:" one part of me wants to criticize the film for what it isn't and the other is determined to sing its praises for what it tries to do. It's no secret that Tyler Perry needs to grow as a director. His prodigious and profitable output has been very uneven. But while directors like Eli Roth (the dregs), Quentin Tarantino (self-referential) and Edward Burns (about as weak as Perry) are equally weak, in my eyes, mainstream critics always seem to cut these guys some slack...taking note of their growth, acknowledging their efforts, failed or otherwise, and encouraging us to stick with these guys, noting that their work is sure to improve.
In a world where even the director of the knucklehead "Jackass 3D" is treated kindly by critics because he aimed for and appealed to the lowest common audience denominator, I find it hard to rake Tyler Perry over the coals for: 1) adapting a project no on else in Hollywood seemed interested in doing; 2) proving meaty roles for a phalanx of underutilized actresses of color (many of them over the age of 50); consistently making movies about humanity and values when so many of his peers (Roth, Tarantino and the cretins behind the "Saw" franchise) would make their millions wallowing in torture porn and brutality.
Ntozake Shange's play required a director with more cinematic virtuosity than Tyler Perry. The flat visuals don't do justice to the poetry of the words. Indeed, artistry along the lines of the film's internet ad campaign is in order on screen. The film ultimately falls upon the shoulders of the actresses, and they are all rather wonderful in varying degrees. There are some powerful, moving scenes, others come up rhythmically short or fall victim to Perry's rather endearing tendency to make sure that the evil are punished or have their comeuppance before the final credits.
"For Colored Girls" is flawed but is far from a failure and is Perry's most accomplished film to date. The film encourages me about what Perry is capable of should he ever relinquish a little of his control (no one as artistically limited as he is should write, direct AND produce...he needs collaborative input) and grow into the artist I think he can be.
Clint Eastwood had to make several weak films before he was capable of directing a classic like "Unforgiven." I would love to report that "For Colored Girls" is a classic, but it is mostly a modest triumph. But watching it, you do get a sense of what Perry can grow to become. I'll be looking forward to seeing his progress.
Alex in Wonderland (1970)
Does anyone really care about the problems of film directors? Ask Fellini.
Contemporary audiences who wonder how loony, "What were they thinking?" early 70s Hollywood studio disasters like "Myra Breckinridge" were ever made would do well to take a look at "Alex in Wonderland": a near anthropologic look at the confused atmosphere that was Hollywood in the 70s.
Donald Sutherland (looking alarmingly like "Myra Breckinridge"s latter-day hippie director, Michael Sarne) plays a young, hot, filmmaker of the sort Hollywood was blindly courting in the years following "Easy Rider." With the entire industry opening up their doors to him to do whatever he wants, Sutherland is hamstrung by his inability to latch onto what his next film project should be. Torn between a desire to do something meaningful and yet still operate within the "system" of Hollywood success, Sutherland, through a series of fantasies and vignette encounters, grapples with the very real possibility that he really hasn't any more depth in him than the Hollywood hacks he derides, and that his half-hearted hippie-era beliefs bring him no closer to happiness or self awareness than anyone else.
There is much to dislike about the structure of "Alex in Wonderland" (riffing on Fellini's "8 1/2", the film is mired in too many 70s era movie clichés), but I enjoyed how it shined a refreshingly candid light on that point in time when Hollywood was so unsure of itself that it was handing over millions to any and everyone calling themselves a "director" so long as they were young and espoused a "now" and "with it" philosophy. It implodes the romanticism that shrouds Hollywood's most recent "Golden Age" and provides a well-observed character study to boot.
If there is a problem with Hollywood films about Hollywood, it's that those involved (understandably) take the business of making movies so very seriously, but most of us average folks find it hard to identify meaningfully with individuals who agonize and fret in palatial homes and near-perfect weather, while producing for the most part, escapist (sometimes willfully mindless) entertainment motivated principally by the desire to make enough money to buy even bigger palatial homes.