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I, Tonya (2017)
Brilliant Actors Transform A Smug, Shallow, Insulting Script
I heard so much hype about this movie that I was a little disappointed by the end result. There's no question that Margot Robbie is a stunning success as Tonya Harding. Margot captures all sides of Tonya, making her brave, tragic, funny, seductive, innocent, deeply flawed and yet amazingly strong all at the same time. Sebastian Stan is almost as brilliant as Tonya's husband Jeff, a dim bulb who genuinely loves his wife but has to idea how to prove his loyalty except through stupid schemes and shiftless behavior. Even Paul Hauser is remarkably effective as Sean Eckhardt, the fat and brutal yet strangely childlike simpleton who unwittingly destroys both Jeff and Tonya.
Allison Janney as Tonya's mom, Lavona . . . well, here's where I deviate from the official script. Her performance to me rang hollow all the way through. There was no nuance, no texture. Just meanness and cruelty without any room for any kind of insight or humanity. It wasn't like watching Gloria Swanson play Norma Desmond in SUNSET BOULEVARD. Gloria Swanson never let you forget that this woman really was a star once, and that her love for the fans ("those wonderful people out there in the dark") the movies and for acting was sincere. None of that cancelled out here murderous hate and her manipulation . . . but it made her human, and therefore believable. That never happened with this character.
But it's not really Allison Janney's fault. The problem with this movie is that though the acting is brilliant, the writing and direction are geared more towards lazy cheap shots than real insight. How many times can you tell us that rednecks are stupid and mean? Do we really need to see a Ronald Reagan poster in the fat boy's living room? And why stuff the soundtrack with classic Seventies rock? Now and then they hit the right note, match the song to the mood in just the right way. ("Shooting Star" by Bad Company tells Tonya's story better than the movie.) But much of the time it just feels gimmicky, and fake. ("Those rednecks and their dumb music . . . why can't they listen to the Beatles and Bob Dylan like civilized people?")
A lot of the class hatred in this movie feels forced and calculated, meant to please today's elites. The idea is something like, Tonya's type are trash, they're the ones who voted for Trump. Let's laugh at how stupid they are! But that sort of reasoning rarely makes things better. "They" voted for Trump. "They" killed Christ. "They" stabbed us in the back at Versailles. That's the spirit that drives this movie, and even though the actors are sensational, they can't quite overcome the meanness of the script.
The Tudors: Simply Henry (2007)
Here's Where The Fun Begins
The classic TUDORS formula: tons of sex scenes, fabulous costumes, laughably over-the-top drama, haunting music and beautiful cinematography.
It's all here, and this second episode of the series is where the fun really begins. Henry is having an incredibly exciting affair with sweet, mild-mannered Bessie Blount, a blonde goddess with a very submissive personality. But then he breaks it off to start a war with France. Because he's like that. But then cunning Cardinal Wolsey talks him out of starting a war and signing a peace treaty with the King of France instead. So they all go over to France and there's lots of fabulous looking people walking around, and Henry and King Francis of France suddenly take off their shirts and get into a wrestling match. Because they're like that. Anyway, Henry gets his ass beat in the wrestling and ends up feeling stupid and spends five minutes throwing furniture around, looking just like singer Dewey Cox in the movie WALK HARD. Because he's like that.
Meanwhile, there's this incredibly thick-headed, goofy duke who thinks he should be king and Henry shouldn't be. And this knucklehead keeps stomping around and scowling, and he sounds like a cross between Ned Stark and Homer Simpson. So then Henry's best friend Charles sleeps with the goofy guy's daughter, just to push him over the edge so they can laugh at him.
So then while he's in France Henry meets Mary Boleyn, Anne's sister, and Mary goes down on Henry and he really likes it. So he takes Mary back to England and then dumps her for no reason. Because he's like that.
Oh, and there's lots of jousting and costumes and people talking about sex and people having sex. Because they're like that.
Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)
I Put A Spell On You
People talk like this is the worst movie ever made, like it's some Ed Wood Plan 9 fiasco. Well, it's a very bad movie all right. But it's not that bad.
Can you really hate a movie that starts with a sexy cover version of Screaming Jay Hawkins' "I Put A Spell On You" over the opening titles? I mean, Creedence Clearwater Revival covered that song. It's Fifties rock, and it's the real deal!
(Idea for a movie: John Fogerty plays a beloved sixty-something rock legend who has a secret side as a pain-inflicting Dom! They call him the Midnight Choogler . . .)
Anyway, this movie is horrible, but not because there's too much brutal violence or hardcore sex. It's just that Master Grey, the handsome boy billionaire who like to tie women up and punish them, lacks all human personality and is a totally lifeless character. Fifty Shades is not a real romance, because there is no romantic hero. There's just an empty suit.
See, when you read a real romance, like OUTLANDER by Diana Gabaldon, the hero is dark and tortured for reasons that have weight and stature. He's a guy who commands respect from everyone, not just one impressionable young girl. He's a guy who has already proved himself in ways that involve real blood, sweat, and danger. If someone's going to spank a young girl, it ought to be someone who knows something about pain. A brawler with a broadsword, a warrior from a proud people, not some faceless billionaire who pushes buttons.
Fifty Shades fails because this Grey guy is just not an interesting person. His sexual tastes may be interesting, or shocking, but other than that, so what? Think about Bela Lugosi in the original Dracula. Women find him fascinating for reasons that have nothing to do with his vampire nature. Like when they ask him about fixing up his new home, Carfax Abbey, and he says, "I shall do very little repairing. It reminds me of the broken battlements of my own castle, in Transylvania." Dracula is a man with a past, a real identity, real allure. Christian Grey is banal, empty, as lifeless as the models last year's fashion magazines.
I keep wanting to say that Dakota Johnson was great as Anastasia. She was, but only because the script actually gives her something to work against. Oh, and I love the fact that her blonde roommate turns out to be nice and not killed at the end.
Asher's Dirty Dozen Go Longest Yard On A Certain Spoiled Punk!
While not as explosive the previous episode (Spartacus and the gang literally blow up the arena to free Crixus and their other friends) and not as character driven as the following episode (Gannicus fully dominates the action and reveals a heart of gold under that lazy grin) this is still an exciting episode of Spartacus: Vengeance.
The best part of this episode: watching Asher put together his special team of vicious killers. I didn't know whether I was watching The Dirty Dozen, The Longest Yard, or Blazing Saddles! (Glaber: I want mugs. Pugs. Thugs! Asher: Ditto.) When they run wild in the final moments of the episode they set up some shocking and unintended developments later on. Hands off that bracelet!
The worst part of this episode: watching Crixus and Naevia doing the endless, mopey, weepy, relationship stuff that has nothing to do with anything else that is going on in this story. I really liked Crixus better when he was a mean bully! Here he's all sensitive, and it just drags the whole story to a halt.
Darkest Hour (2017)
Exceeded My Expectations
My feelings as I went into the theater were not optimistic. Gary Oldman was absolutely brilliant in Oliver Stone's JFK, but I was afraid that casting him as Winston Churchill was a disaster in the making. Sort of like asking Peter Lorre to switch places with Sidney Greenstreet in THE MALTESE FALCON.
As it happens, though, Gary Oldman is actually pretty good in the role of the embattled but fearless Winston Churchill. His voice is no match of Churchill's, and in fact it's a lot higher pitched. But the meaning still shines through.
Every other review I've read seems to suggest that this movie stands or falls on Gary Oldman's performance alone, but that's not true at all. The thing I loved the most about this movie was not Gary Oldman's bumbling around with a cigar and drink in his hand, trying to look like Churchill. It's the way the other characters react to him -- not always with admiration. Sometimes with fear, sometimes with doubt, sometimes even with horror. But in the end all of them are changed by him to a greater or lesser degree.
I never saw THE KING'S SPEECH because I felt like celebrating the British monarchy is not what movies should be about. But Ben Mendelsohn is spectacular ad the English king. I actually felt more for him than I did for Churchill! Here is a man without much character, or much of a brain, yet he's placed in a position where he has to take a stand. It's almost against his nature to have strong convictions, yet Churchill forces him to feel something for England that's entirely personal, maybe for the first time in his life.
Ronald Pickup was amazing as the luckless Neville Chamberlain, a man who is remembered today only for his flaws, such as weakness, cowardice, and a gullible reliance on the words of Adolph Hitler. This movie made me see Chamberlain from a different perspective, as a man who knows history will despise him but is too big a man to stop trying to help his country survive. By the time he lifted up his handkerchief at the end of the movie I was in tears.
Lily James gives a captivating performance as Churchill's new secretary even though her character is sadly under-written. I do wish there had been some indication of why she was more qualified than any of the hundreds of other girls who must have been available. It made me a little uneasy to see her doing nothing but typing away like a machine for most of the movie -- it sort of reminded me of DOWNFALL. Surely young women contributed more than just their fast fingers and their adoration to England's war effort?
One other thing that struck me as both annoying and gratuitously false was the late-night phone conversation between Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt. In real life, these two men had been close personal friends for more than twenty years before World War II even began. They liked each other and trusted each other. But for some reason, (to bolster English pride?) director Joe Wright insists on making FDR sound like a liar, a lightweight, and an all-around twit. FDR did what he could, when he could, and he took plenty of political heat in the USA for forcing through things like the Lend Lease Act. More respect is wanted, gentlemen!
Other than that, Darkest Hour exceeded my expectations on many levels. It was poignant, suspenseful, and full of unexpected twists.
Kung Fu: Flight to Orion (1975)
I . . . Must Kill . . . My Nephew. He . . . is annoying . . . and stupid!
Perhaps you have heard my name before. I am . . . Caine. Kwai Chang Caine. For three years I have roamed this strange land, helping the poor and overcoming the prejudices of the enlightened. But now my journey . . . is nearing . . . the end.
I am looking for my brother, Danny Caine. But in this episode I am stuck with my nephew, Zeke. Zeke . . . is a moron. He . . . behaves . . . like a five year old. Why must I travel with Zeke to find his father? May I not kill . . . the moronic teen . . . with the bad Seventies haircut?
Also in this episode, I am troubled . . by Zeke's mother. She . . . is shrill . . and annoying. I wish . . . that my brother the rattlesnake . . . would bite her whining butt.
Go rattlesnake go!
The Verdict (1982)
Newman's Heart Is True, Mamet's Script Is A Real Stinkeroo
My mother was a tough, Jewish broad who never took crap off anyone. She was born in NYC in the Depression, worked her way through college, and later became the chairman of the foreign language department at a small women's college in upstate New York. The lady had only one weakness:
Being dragged to Paul Newman movies wasn't so bad when I was a kid, when it was stuff like BUTCH CASSSIDY & THE SUNDANCE KID or THE STING. But by the time I was in college, Newman's movies had really started to slide, and sag, and smell like dead fish wrapped up in old socks.
This movie was so melodramatic, so dishonest, so sentimental about all the ugliest, dumbest aspects of the male mystique in America. Newman plays a drunken Irish lawyer who's down and out. Note well that David Mamet really plays up the drunkenness as if it's some noble affliction, proof of a pure heart, not a disease that ruins peoples lives.
Well, Newman does his best to make this loser into a tragic hero. Even with a bad script, Paul Newman finds some pain that's real and connects to it on screen. So then, the drunk with the heart of gold gets the chance to make a comeback in the courtroom. He's got a can't lose case, about some mother who's brain-dead, or brain- damaged, because of corrupt and uncaring Catholic doctors at a hospital run by priests and bishops. Only the nurses are pure and true! There are so many warped assumptions in this film, about motherhood, and womanhood, and the tendency to both put women on pedestals and treat them like three year old toddlers. The whole thing is very Catholic, very male, very sick, very David Mamet. Oh, and the drunken hero Frank has a lady assistant (Charlotte Rampling, much too classy and sexy for this drunken boor) and of course she's no good and needs to get punched in the face. Women are okay when they're making babies, you see, but when a woman tries to compete in a man's world she needs to get smacked in the face and sent right back to the kitchen!
David Mamet wrote this stinker, and he's a real horse's ass from Chicago. Just like Studs Lonigan, but without the class.
A Fine Finale With A Very Francis Coppola Feel
More than anything else, the finale for Season Six felt to me like a tribute to the Godfather movies, directed by Francis Coppola.
Consider how the final episode opens with a subdued, sepia-colored series of images, of people dressing very formally and preparing for a public ceremony. There's almost no dialogue, just music and ritual. There is a palpable sense that on this day Cersei Lannister will "take care of all family business," just like Michael Corleone at the end of the first GODFATHER movie. She consolidates power in a very similar fashion, with a brilliantly coordinated series of assassinations that leave her the sole head of all political (and spiritual) power in King's Landing.
Just as in THE GODFATHER, though, there is a price to be paid. The death of Cersei's last remaining child is handled so beautifully. Young Tommen's leap is shot in an almost casual fashion. It's only when Queen Cersei sees the mangled body of her son that you realize her grab for power has severed her last link with her own children. It's a theme that could have come from THE GODFATHER. The way Cersei looks down at the dead boy, in the dark room, is right from Coppola. "Look what they've done to my boy!" I was almost expecting her to say to her Maester, "I want you to use all your powers . . ."
Meanwhile, Arya Stark is finally ready to emerge from years of seclusion and exile to take revenge on the Stark enemies. Her attack on Walder Fray is so obviously a tribute to young Vito's triumph GODFATHER II, right down to the knife across the old man's throat. You half expect her to say, "his name was Rob Stark . . . and this is for you!" Guess now Arya is all ready to go into the olive oil business!
All this is fun, but with the writing this season it's hard to see Cersei as being fully tragic or even fully human. When she reveals the smashed and ruined body of her son, you really expect some emotion. Marlon Brando shocked the audience in this scene, when he showed Sonny's body to the undertaker and started to cry. It's what made the Godfather seem human for the first time! Cersei, in exactly the same situation, is . . . well, let's say her grief is pretty perfunctory. And remember her whole motivation is supposed to be love for her children!
So all in all, a satisfying and atmospheric finale, but lacking in both heart and tragic gravitas. At least Jon Snow got to be King of the North!
Game of Thrones: No One (2016)
A Man Has A Bad Day
Not a bad episode, but I have to wonder why the Arya vs. The Waif conflict had to culminate in a silly and over the top chase scene, in broad daylight, in a crowded market place, with dozens and dozens of witnesses. Not to do spoilers, but how would the waif have explained all this to her boss?
"A man wants to know what has happened." Walking slowly down the stairs within his shadowy temple, the gorgeous robed priest confronted the prim blonde with the haughty, sadistic-teen allure.
"I got her," mumbled the waif. "I got the spoiled little girl just the way you told me to. I stabbed her right in the street!"
"A man tells a girl to kill another girl. A man assumes that a girl is not an idiot. A man assumes that after years of training in sneaking up on people and wearing other people's faces, that a girl will do her business quickly and quietly, where no-one can see. A man does not expect a girl to run through the marketplace in broad daylight, waving her arms and knocking things over and acting like a crazy person."
"But I had to catch her," the waif whined. "She ran away instead of just falling over and dying after being stabbed twenty times."
"What does a girl expect? A girl is supposedly a trained assassin, yet she runs all around town like a track star, jumping over wagons and leaping across fruit baskets, scattering produce and generating potential lawsuits for our shadowy temple. A melon merchant wants payment. And a man is fed up with a girl's stupid mistakes."
"What does a man wish to do with a girl?" asked the waif.
"A girl has failed. Now a man wants to put on his favorite mask."
The waif was suddenly breathless. "You mean you're going to be the lustful Mad King? Or cruel teen degenerate King Geoffrey?"
"No. A man will be Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore."
Don't Make Fun Of Robots -- Because You Might Really Be One!
I loved this episode as a little kid, but it was more for the atmosphere than the story. The luxurious mansion, the overstuffed chairs, the lazy moans of the contented wife -- who wouldn't want a life like this?
But then there's the daughter, and she's just the type of spoiled, self-centered, neurotic young lady Mick Jagger warned us about. Center of a crowd, talking much too loud, running up and down the stairs. Why can't she leave well enough alone? Evening time, and the living is easy. Fish are jumping, and cotton is high. Her mama is rich, and her daddy's good looking. There are servants who see to every need, and nothing to do but relax and enjoy the attentions of this most devoted group of domestic helpers. (There's mama, moaning with pleasure as Nelda makes her feel marvelous once again!) But no, the daughter has to wear out her welcome, and just moan and groan herself into a total breakdown.
And then Rod Serling comes out, and gives what has to be the dumbest moral in the history of the Twilight Zone. "You know, if you've got it good, and you're young and good looking, and there are robots all around making your life easy, don't make fun of them. You see, you might really be a robot yourself and not even know it!"
Oh, yeah. That's something to worry about!
Flawless Mystery, Timeless Romance
Back in 1991 when TWIN PEAKS was the hottest thing on television, I read an article in PEOPLE magazine that suggested Laura Palmer might not *really* be dead. The writer slyly pointed out that her name was "Laura," and that "Laura" was also the name of a classic movie about a beautiful girl who's presumed dead and how a tough police detective falls madly in love with her when she reappears. Intrigued, I went and bought the movie, and was delighted to find that it was a brilliant work in its own right, but very different from TWIN PEAKS.
Laura Palmer in TWIN PEAKS is a small-town prom queen, but Laura in LAURA is a sophisticated young career woman. The extraordinary thing about this movie is that it perfectly capture the sophistication and allure of New York society in the Thirties and Forties, while presenting a love story that has the timeless feel of a fairy tale, while still crafting a suspenseful story of mystery and murder.
It's a rare film that can feel cutting edge and contemporary after nearly seventy years! But every time I watch this film I'm stunned by how everyone just assumes Laura can be as ambitious and intelligent as any man -- and compete in the workplace -- and still be stunningly desirable and admired by everyone.
MAD MEN was never like this!
At the same time, for a cutting edge film LAURA is amazingly timeless. There's something both sensual and dreamlike about the way Laura herself drifts in and out of the story -- just like that haunting melody. At one point the rugged detective tells her "For a charming, intelligent girl you certainly have managed to surround yourself with a remarkable collection of dopes." And it's true. But somehow it makes sense. She's Snow White, Mark MacPherson is her prince, and the rest of the characters are dwarfs!
Oh, but that doesn't mean the other characters aren't stunning, or sensual, or captivating. They're only ugly on the inside! Just take a look at young Vincent Price, years away from being a horror king pin, (or a horror clown.) In this movie he's the most mouth watering gigolo you can possibly imagine! I have to say, Shelby Carpenter is one character I loved to hate, even if Price's portrayal is marred by the phoniest southern accent ever. (Vivien Leigh was from England, Vincent Price was from St. Louis. Guess who did the Dixie accent better?)
Now take a look at Anne Treadwell, brilliantly portrayed by Dame Judith Anderson. How many times do you see an older woman madly in lust with a comically worthless younger man portrayed with such style, dignity, and quiet sympathy? Anne is one character I absolutely adored, even when (maybe especially when) she's revealing her own private ugliness. "No, dear," she says, calmly discussing the idea of murdering her niece Laura. "I didn't. But I thought about it."
I just loved that moment. In fact, I loved every moment of Laura. Everything about this timeless story is classy and convincing . . . except for Clifton Webb's campy caricature of stuck up Waldo Lydecker. The stereotype of the gay man as a silly, supercilious, self-hating phony is probably the only aspect of this film that's dated. And even then, Waldo's acid humor provides much of the film's comic relief.
The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)
Sentimental and Strangely Insincere
I get that this movie is supposed to be about how movies make life bearable for people with unhappy lives. It's a worthy idea, and Mia Farrow is lovely as the sad, put-upon waitress. But somehow Woody Allen just makes those old-time movies look dumb. And the "real life" characters look even dumber.
Contrary to what this movie suggests, not all Thirties movies were frivolous romps with well-dressed people going to fancy restaurants and night clubs. A lot of the best movies were about poverty, crime, and injustice, from PUBLIC ENEMY to THE GRAPES OF WRATH. Moreover, when people went to the movies for "escape" they often wanted tales of blood and guts adventure, like CAPTAIN BLOOD. And sometimes they even wanted to be scared, like in Dracula, THE MUMMY, and FRANKENSTEIN.
So to me it was very disappointing that the movie that means "everything" to our downtrodden waif is such a thin, uninspiring pastiche of movie musical clichés. The movies in the Depression were better than that. And dirtier than that. And scarier than that. And braver than that. And the people were too.
If you want to see a movie that shows what the depression was really like, watch Charles Bronson in HARD TIMES.
Some Thoughts From A Steinbeck Fan
Everyone remembers this as a Hitchcock film, and all of the reviews focus on how the great director shaped the material and gave every scene and frame his distinctive style. I saw this movie at the age of 12 and I loved it, but more than forty years later I'm really struck by the literary themes and the presence of great novelist John Steinbeck.
There's a reason why they call this "John Steinbeck's Lifeboat."
First I want to point out that this is a study of a group. Just the way THE GRAPES OF WRATH is about the Joads, and the Okies in flight, much more than about individuals like Tom or Casy, so in this story the lifeboat survivors are only meant to matter to the extent that they work together for common goals and uphold common values. In fact the one way the villain sticks out is that he's self- sufficient, able to keep his own counsel and do everything on his own. Steinbeck is always suspicious of individualism and even of individual strengths. The collective is everything to him, the survival of the group and not the triumph of the individual.
At the same time, when you look at the terrible murder in the middle of the movie, it bears an uncanny resemblance to the end of OF MICE AND MEN. Willi the U-Boat Captain and Gus the doomed cripple have a very personal scene in which they sound a lot like George and Lennie! Of course the viewer can decide if Willi really felt any compassion at all for Lennie or if he's an evil Nazi through and through. But the arguments he makes for getting rid of Gus are those George makes about Lennie in similar circumstances.
This movie reflects the great strengths of John Steinbeck's humanity and concern for the survival of the human community. It also reflects some of his weaknesses, particularly where the female characters are concerned. Tallulah Bankhead does wonders as Connie, the tough, hard-edged journalist, but it's fair to say that Steinbeck had a tendency to see women as either hard, vicious, and predatory, or weak, soft, and helpless. The young mother with the dead baby is presented as a pitiable victim but at the same time there's a sense of Steinbeck's vague distaste for the maternal instinct, since it reduces women to an animal-like state or to a state of total hysteria. It's no accident that the mother gets killed off early and that the hard, aggressive woman is not allowed much in the way of affection or friendship. Of course there is a romance between the British sailor and the nurse, but they are probably more Hitchcock's invention than Steinbeck's. Both are good comrades who keep a stiff upper lip, more English than American.
To sum up, this movie is a Hitchcock classic, but it's also a fascinating look at the world view of a Nobel prize winning author who was then at the height of his powers.
Papa Hemingway in Cuba (2015)
The Lion In Winter Meets Mary Sue
After the execrable HBO fiasco HEMINGWAY AND GELHORN, I was very wary of Hemingway movies. But this modestly charming film about a young reporter who looks up to the aging Hemingway as a father figure in his final days is surprisingly touching and authentic.
Adrian Sparks is amazing as the aging lion Hemingway. What he puts across is not so much the publicity-hungry tough guy the world remembers, but the shy, reclusive author tortured by sadness and regret and the sense of loss. This is a Hemingway who has accomplished so much but feels deep down that on almost every human level he blew it. The sadness makes it easier to understand the binge drinking and the rage.
Joely Richardson is terrific as Mary Hemingway, Ernest's fourth and final wife. Not only is she tough, beautiful and classy enough to imitate Marlene Dietrich and match Papa drink for drink, but you can see her enormous sadness even when she's laughing her head off. This woman has seen Hemingway at his greatest and now she's stuck with what's left of him . . . but she never gives in to despair.
Now I have to say that the young reporter's story is not nearly as compelling as the lion in winter stuff. Ed Myers is what they call a "Mary Sue" in fan fiction. He's just a stand-in for the viewer, like, "it would be so cool if I got to hang out with Hemingway in Cuba! I bet he'd teach me stuff and we'd go fishing and just hanging around with him would make that pretty girl at the office fall crazy in love with me!" There's nothing about this guy that explains why Hemingway (or anyone else) would adopt him as a son. Or why the prettiest girl in the office would fall madly in love with him.
One final thought: if you wonder how Hemingway himself would have viewed this story of his last days there's a very interesting early story he wrote called "The Battler." It's about how a teenage Nick Adams (really Hemingway himself) comes across a washed up champion prize fighter who's gone punch drunk and become a hobo. The man drifts from town to town in a permanent daze cared for by a single black servant who is really more of a keeper. The champ's ex wife is denounced as a tramp but ultimately it's revealed that she sends the champ money every month so he can drift around and not starve. When I was a kid I wondered what the point of the story was. I think it's Hemingway acknowledging the limits of his own values. You can be the big, tough, famous white guy, you can be the champ at what you do, but in the end the people who are supposed to "serve" you (women and blacks) will end up owning you. Winner take nothing!
This movie tells that story, in a way. But it also suggests a more human possibility of redemption, when Hemingway tells the kid, in effect, "don't be like me. Learn from my mistakes." The resolution is pretty cheesy (the pretty girl at the office? Really?) But at least they were trying to imagine the possibility of hope. Hemingway could have used a little of that himself!
Smoke On The Water And Fire In The Sky
This afternoon I went to see DUNKIRK since a dear friend from the UK (and she knows who she is) recommended it the other day. I thought the film really captured the panic, terror, and confusion of battle, but I didn't particularly like any of the characters and I thought the dialogue was very poorly written (and hard to hear.) Some things I thought were just silly, like the way the pilot in the ocean can't open his escape hatch just so the nice man in the boat can rescue him more excitingly! And the way those soldiers all climb into a boat that's just lying on the sand and then just wait until they get shot at and start yelling at each other. Worst of all was the Spitfire that just ran out of gas in mid air, and just went right on gliding along for another half hour!
Beneath the silliness, there was a lot of spineless political correctness. I listened closely, (had to, with such dreadful sound editing and a dreadful soundtrack) but I never once heard the word "Nazi," or the word "Hitler." Or Gestapo, or Brownshirt, or Jew. You'd never know the "enemy" had done anything to fill the mild-mannered British people with such desperate resolve! Who on earth were the film makers covering up for? And what exactly did they imagine they were celebrating? Shell shock and shaky nerves? Men hitting each other in blind panic? Random explosions and tons of flame? Smoke on the water, and fire in the sky? (Now THAT would have livened up the soundtrack.)
If you watch this movie, you won't learn anything about how the British pulled off a miracle at Dunkirk. Or why Hitler was a menace and his army were criminals. But you will see lots of close ups of Kenneth Branagh and you will have lots of time to contemplate the sublime beauty of his flabby old face looking pained and noble. Thanks chaps!
If you ever want to see a really good movie about this exact moment in British history, you should watch MRS. MINIVER with Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon. It was made in Hollywood but it's such a loving tribute to the British people, their kindness and gentleness and sense of humor as well as their strength and patriotism. It's a million times better than Dunkirk!
One Hour Photo (2002)
Say Cheese and Die, You Sexy Sinners!
I remember enjoying this movie when it first came out fifteen years ago, mainly because Connie Nielsen was so sensationally sexy and because it was fun to see smarmy Robin Williams take a turn as a crazed stalker. But when I bought the DVD from Amazon the other day for about two dollars, I was disappointed by a lot of flaws I didn't notice in the theater.
The visuals in this movie are really irritating. Every single store, home, and interior looks like it's a vacuum, a space station laboratory under bright lights where not even a microbe could survive. Is this supposed to mean something? To me it meant the whole story was fake.
It really irritated me that, as other reviewers have pointed out, all the photos are perfectly staged and arranged even though the tiny family clearly wouldn't have time to take them and then happily jump into the picture. It was even more aggravating when the young husband was cheating on the sly. Why on earth would anyone cheat on Connie Nielsen? And why would this boring, nothing guy and his secret girl (a scrumptious Erin Daniels, completely wasted in a thankless part) have dozens and dozens of photos documenting every kiss? Robin Williams plays a guy who is timid, shy, and not at all hip to the street. But all of a sudden he's like J.J. Gittes in CHINATOWN, a sleuth who can trail the bad guys all over town and surprise them wherever they try to hide! Also, how did a pitiful clown in a box store earn enough money for that huge apartment with expensive lighting?
But the real flaw in this movie is the hidden subtext, the prudery and the sexual repression. Ultimately, Sy the Photo Guy is a surrogate for the Catholic Church, legislating sexual desire while boiling over with uncontrollable appetites himself. The way he takes vengeance at the end reflects not so much a horror at immorality as a disgust with the human body itself. The writer/director is from Chicago, and evidently he's some kind of blue-collar ethnic Catholic with a primitive horror of adult sexuality. This movie really has more in common with STUDS LONIGAN than CHINATOWN.
And I don't mean that as a compliment!
The Birth of a Nation (2016)
Well Meaning But Slow And Dull
Now that the controversy has died down and Nate Parker the film maker has been denounced and banished by the political elite, it's time to take a closer look at THE BIRTH OF A NATION as film entertainment.
The story of slave hero Nat Turner should be feverish, explosive, and suspenseful. Instead it's dull, slow, and predictable. White people make promises, and don't keep them. Young Nat Turner learns to read, and soon discovers he is different from other slaves. The Bible seems to comfort him at first, but then it makes him mad. The slaves join him and fight bravely, but everyone dies at the end. Nothing is a surprise from start to finish, except how much screen time is taken up by panoramic picture postcard views of cotton fields and trees festooned with Spanish Moss.
Nate Parker has made a very boring movie about a very complicated and charismatic man. It's sad that the only powerful action sequence in the entire film comes when Nat Turner's father beats down a slave patrol and escapes into the night, never to be seen again. That scene takes about two minutes of screen time, and then it's gone. Nothing Nat Turner himself ever does is half as compelling or convincing.
Four stars for the film maker's courage in attempting to tell the story. It was a risky move -- and he sure paid the price.
The Beguiled (2017)
Sensational Southern Gothic -- Steamy, Sexy, Sinister, and Suspenseful!
A wounded Yankee soldier, abandoned by his comrades in arms, finds shelter in the far more welcoming arms of a cluster of lovely, (and lonely) southern maidens, deep in the Virginia woods in the American Civil War. It all seems just like a dream -- until it turns into a nightmare.
What a sensational, steamy drama Sophia Coppola's BEGUILED really is. This gifted director excels at creating atmosphere and sensuality out of shadows and whispers. She delights in working with actors, and she gets sensational performances out of both her seasoned veterans (Nicole Kidman and Kirsten Dunst as the starchy, grown up school teachers) and out of rising stars like Elle Fanning (the most tempting teenage temptress imaginable) and even out of the bright young child actors who play the younger girls. (Oona Laurence as Amy, the one innocent in a house full of vengeful, venomous, vicious women who mask their poisonous desires with the sweetest of smiles.)
This story and setting were so much up Sophia Coppola's alley that I knew the movie would be a smash hit. What really astonished me though was the discipline with which she tells the tale. So many vital scenes are set in shadows, half-light, and that can be frustrating. But then after half an hour I realized the point. You can't see these people because they can't really see each other. It's impossible to tell who is who and what is what until it's far too late. And that's the point!
Now I think it's a mistake to say this movie "ignores" slavery or sentimentalizes the South just because there are no black characters on the screen. This movie is not Gone With The Wind. When the Yankee soldier invades the girls' home, they fight back just like Scarlett and Melanie do in Gone With The Wind.
But look at how they fight back. Look at the levels of cruelty, hypocrisy, and deceit the older women use to destroy the man they all lust after in secret. Look at how they lie to him and exploit him sexually. Then look at how they build him into a sexual threat, (to cover up their own sexual desires,) mutilate him, and dispose of his carcass like so much garbage. This movie says plenty about slavery. These girls are hardened by the war, but in a sense they were hardened long before that. What they do to the corporal is exactly what they'd do to a black slave who got out of line. Their motives and methods are the same.
Even Sophia Coppola's "mistakes" reinforce the point. Though the movie is set in Virginia, she repeatedly cuts away to dark, menacing trees filled with Spanish moss, to show that this story could be set anywhere in the slave states, from Richmond to New Orleans. And look at how she cheats on the food situation. It would have been so easy to make the girls "victims" (like Margaret Mitchell, William Styron, and countless others) by dwelling on the food shortages and physical misery of the doomed and guilty south. Instead Sophia shows the girls serving smoked ham and apple pie with cream -- not because anyone was really eating that well in Virginia in 1864, but because that is the "good life" that slavery made possible. And the girls (like the heroes of the Confederate army) are willing to mutilate and murder in order to keep it!
This movie says plenty about slavery, the south, and human nature -- but it never preaches and never takes sides. Sophia Coppola is a national treasure, I hope she makes many more movies with her sensational company of actors!
My Cousin Rachel (2017)
Sleepy Little Gothic With Nothing Going On
Rachel Weisz is sensational as the dark, seductive stranger in this Gothic tale based on the novel by Daphne DuMaurier.
While Rachel is sensationally seductive and sinister, with a husky voice and a host of enticing mannerisms, the rest of the cast is only fair to middling. Sam Claflin is the male lead, but instead of projecting youth and vigor he projects baby-like gullibility and not much more. The rest of the cast are just bland.
One final thought: if you read the original novel, it begins with the narrator (as a very small boy) coming up on the rotting corpse of a man who was hanged for murdering his wife. The point DuMaurier is making is not that one sexy lady is dangerous, but that it's a dangerous world.
This movie totally misses that point, giving us yet another picture postcard English village where everyone is lovable and gullible except the Mysterious Stranger.
Horse Feathers (1932)
Surprisingly Raw Slice Of Early Marx Brothers Madness
Growing up, whenever my father mentioned the Marx Brothers he always insisted that their greatest films were A NIGHT AT THE OPERA and A DAY AT THE RACES. Evidently this was the consensus of film critics like Pauline Kael as well.
So when I picked up HORSE FEATHERS on VHS in a library sale for $1.00 I wasn't expecting much. But I was really surprised! The humor in this movie is much tougher, more rooted in the realities of daily life in the Depression. There's some raw sexual innuendo about the shapely "College Widow" and her hypnotic hold over the male football stars. The fake football game at the end is a classic achievement in slapstick. And a lot of the college humor is still much more relevant than one might think. The idea that faculty and alumni couldn't give a hoot in hell what happens to the quality of education at the school as long as the football team keeps winning is only too believable.
The one thing that really annoyed me about this movie is that the musical numbers (like "Whatever It Is, I'm Against It") were really not that funny and went on far too long. And that's a problem the Marx Brothers never really solved. Not even in A NIGHT AT THE OPERA.
Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter (2013)
Growing Up, You Don't See The Writing On the Wall
I would be lying if I said I didn't enjoy this German miniseries about five young friends caught up in World War II. I actually enjoyed every moment. A lot! It has tender love scenes, explosive battle scenes, heart stopping suspense, agonizing cliff hangers, and a poignant mood of youthful loss and nostalgia that feels very appealing and (to an American viewer) feels like it came right out of St. Elmo's Fire.
You can't help but love the five friends in this movie. Miriam Stein as Charlotte ("Charly" to her friends) is so sensationally alive on screen. She has the glowing, girl-next-door wholesome sex appeal that American movie actresses lost decades ago. Yet at the same time, she fully plays the dark side of her character, showing how Charlotte is hardened by the war and how she does terrible things as a combat nurse on the Eastern front.
Tom Schiller is just as brilliant as Friedhelm, the young dreamer who goes from being a poetically cynical critic of the war to a brutally effective combat soldier. At first I hated the way the script presented him as a victim, but as the story progresses the character surprises you, becoming exactly what he hates and yet still retaining his understanding of why the war is wrong. And Tom Schiller never fails to be convincing at every point along the way.
Now I agree with many of the criticisms of this movie. The idea that "the war" brutalized these wholesome kids totally ignores the fact that Nazi Germany was a brutal place before the war ever began. The daily violence on the streets is never shown, nor do we see the Hitler Youth or the Brown Shirts in action. We never see the failures of the older generation who voted Hitler into power in the first place. The anti-Semitism of the Poles is played up, while the anti-Semitism of the Germans is discreetly muted. Interestingly, the roots of European anti-Semtism in the teachings of the Catholic Church (i.e. the Jews betrayed Christ) are deliberately ignored as well. Anti-Semitism is just presented as a side effect of the war and not the cause of everything the Nazis sought to accomplish.
In the end, the producers of this movie weren't really trying to create a movie like DOWNFALL or SCHINDLER'S LIST. What they really were after was to create a lost-youth nostalgia epic like ST. ELMO'S FIRE. And the disturbing thing is, they succeeded. In fact someone should do a "trailer" for GENERATION WAR featuring the song "Man In Motion (Theme From St. Elmo's Fire)" by John Parr.
Everything fits perfectly, right down to the lyrics!
"I can make it/I know I can/You broke the boy in me/But you won't break the man!"
Jennifer Hudson Stands Out In A Deeply Dishonest Chicago Story
I wasn't expecting much from this movie, because Spike Lee films are almost always crudely written, badly directed, and riddled with specious reasoning, shrill self-pity, easy outrage, and many different forms of hypocrisy. All those familiar elements are present in CHI- RAQ in great abundance.
But I still give the movie three stars, because the performance of Jennifer Hudson as a young mother who loses her child to gang violence on the streets of Chicago's South Side is genuinely moving. I've never seen a more authentic performance in a Spike Lee film. Jennifer Hudson's pain is so real she almost makes you forget the stilted dialogue, the awkward acting, the clumsy dance routines, and the sexual "humor" that's like a backed-up toilet that explodes in your face for an hour and a half.
Jennifer Hudson is amazing, but it's a shame the way fine actors like Samuel Jackson and Wesley Snipes are forced to clown and abase themselves in one lame minstrel show routine after another. All the other females in the movie are demeaned in every scene. Spike parades them half-naked like slaves on the auction block while letting them chant shrill verse about how liberated they are. It's obvious who really dreams about enslaving black women! The violence itself is talked about endlessly, but the anger behind it is never even acknowledged. Instead of dealing with real emotions Spike Lee falls back (not for the first time) on one of the most hateful stereotypes about black people, i.e. that they have over-sized sex drives and under-sized brains. At the end of the film, the main gangster is dragged off to jail in handcuffs, after confessing his crimes. No more violence for him! No more sex, either, but you get the impression that to Spike Lee sex is at least as disgusting as violence. No wonder the only good white person in the movie is a Catholic priest!
Oh, and speaking of Catholic priests. John Cusack is unconvincing from start to finish as the "ghetto priest." But there's more to this than bad acting. Spike Lee loves to take cheap shots at America and the flag, but evidently he knows better than to mess with the Catholic Church. He certainly doesn't mention the fact that the Church profited for centuries from the African slave trade. More to the point, he ignores the fact that racism in Chicago has always been worst in Catholic neighborhoods. (These are the people who threw rocks at Martin Luther King in 1968. The priest in the movie doesn't bring that up!)
To put the film in perspective: the South Side of Chicago is all black today, but up until 1919 or so it was solidly Irish Catholic. When the blacks tried to move in, the Irish rioted. Dozens of black men, women, and children were killed. Eventually the whites moved out and the South Side became the "black belt" that it is today. What's interesting in the context of the film is that Cusack's character never acknowledges the city's past or the Catholic Church's long-standing indifference to the simmering racial hatred in blue-collar neighborhoods. During the Depression there was a brilliant Irish author from Chicago named James T. Farrell, and he dramatized the self-destructive mixture of racism and Catholicism brilliantly in a novel called STUDS LONIGAN. And guess what? The Catholic Church immediately banned the book. But the wonderful priest in the movie doesn't mention that either!
Given the way Spike sneers at black people in this movie (and elsewhere) for not reading books, it's astonishing how ignorant he is of Chicago history and how little effort he makes to research his films. The violence in Chi-Raq is unreal because it's not rooted in history, and because Spike knows better than to challenge the wrong white people.
Sizzling Death From Below The Earth -- Teamwork Saves The Day!
Even though I love all the original KOLCHAK episodes, this one has a special place in my heart. It's not that it's scarier than pure horror episodes like THE RIPPER or THE ZOMBIE. And it's not that the concept of the Energy Eater is more intriguing than the science fiction terrors of MR. R.I.N.G. or THEY HAVE BEEN, THEY ARE, THEY WILL BE.
What makes this episode a special favorite of mine is that for the first and last time Kolchak has a real team behind him. He has not one but two sidekicks in this episode, and both of them practically steal the episode from Carl Kolchak himself!
Jim Elkhorn was a guy who really fascinated me as a kid. Legendary stuntman Bill Smith plays him with so much muscle power and vital energy that he practically jumps off the screen. This is a guy who gets all the girls he wants, who has the world by the tail. Yet the more you watch the more you see that underneath the cocky, macho exterior this is a thoughtful Native American who still feels a lot of bitterness about the way the old ways have vanished. "Aw, listen, it didn't work for my grandfather and it's not gonna work for me!" I really wanted him to come back and help Kolchak again, or at least get the girl! And that brings me to . . .
Nurse Janis Iselin, played by Elaine Giftos. There were always pretty women around in Kolchak's world, but they were either victims or doormats. And when Kolchak interacted with them it was usually just to put them in their place. For once it's not that way at all. Nurse Iselin is drop dead gorgeous, but you see right away that she's just as brave as Kolchak and just as smart. She plays a vital role in uncovering the nature of . . . the Energy Eater.
I just wish Janis and Jim could have got together for more than some Chinese food at the end of this spectacular episode!
Swing Kids (1993)
Strong Performances And Great Music Spoiled By Lazy Direction and Wandering Script
I remember seeing the trailer for this movie in 1993 and sitting in the theater slack-jawed. As another reviewer said, it looked like "GREASE With Swastikas." Or more accurately, it's HOGAN'S HEROES meets THE BREAKFAST CLUB, with Kenneth Branagh as Colonel Klink. In any case, watching the trailer, I was shocked by the sheer tastelessness of the whole concept, and I avoided the film like the plague.
Many years later, I rented the film from the library, and was surprised to find that it's . . . really not that bad. The music is amazing, the dancing is great, and a lot of the teen friendships and heartbreak are surprisingly touching.
What sinks the movie is that the director Thomas Carter can't edit and never settles on a single story line to follow. There's too much going on, and moments of danger and terror are buried under endless scenes of squabbling and teenage silliness.
Some performances are brilliant. Christian Bales steals every scene he's in, going from being a great guy and the ideal best friend to being a terrifying Nazi informer. He's playing the same part Marcus Boyd played in BEN HUR, only he's much, much, better at it. The only problem is, Robert Sean Leonard is no Charlton Heston! He just looks weak through most of the movie, and when he hits the dance floor alone in the epic finale he just looks like a boy on the verge of an epileptic fit. You can't jitterbug your way out of Germany, son!
On the far side of brilliant, Kenneth Branagh is unquestionably the world's least menacing Nazi. What's next, Hugh Grant as Heinrich Himmler? Branagh's flabby face and tired physique give the impression of a guy nursing a pint in some pub, not a brutal killer and master manipulator. It's really pathetic that Christian Bales is half his age and ten times more deadly!
One final note: Tushka Bergen was perfectly cast and stunning as Evie. The trailer makes it look like she's a major love interest in the film, but you only see about five minutes of her in the movie.
Did I mention that Thomas Carter doesn't know how to edit?
Bob Hoskins Is The Best Iago Ever!!!
While I agree with a lot of the other reviewers that Anthony Hopkins is a fairly disappointing Othello, Bob Hoskins as Iago is nothing short of spectacular. In every scene he's funny, charismatic, and terrifyingly evil, all at the same time. Iago is a man you can't help but admire, always in control and supremely confident in his abilities even when those around him just see a lovable underling. In the final scenes when the mask is off he becomes even more effective, his glaring hatred seeming to shoot out of his eyes like a deadly laser beam. This is Shakespeare's most evil villain, and the most unconquerable and undefeated. ("I bleed, sir. But not killed!")
Meanwhile poor Hopkins is struggling to seem menacing, but his chubby body and pale complexion make him look more ridiculous than anything else. He has a cultured voice and reads the lines beautifully, but whenever he has to show passion or emotion he just starts shouting and waving his arms wildly, looking more like the Wolf Man than the Moor of Venice. It doesn't help matters that the lady playing Desdemona is more of a stately spinster than nubile ingenue. Personally, I always pictured Audrey Hepburn as the ultimate Desdemona!
One final note: I've never heard of Anthony Pedley, but I really loved how he played poor Rodrigo, a guy who just never has a chance. This is the one character closest to real life, and he's never just a clown even in his most helpless moments. I love how he dies, denouncing Iago and seeing the truth at last.
Poor Othello, but still a great cast and a great play!