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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!
Ab-sah-luta-lee Dread-full, Hunnah!
As much as I loved Eve Best as smart, sexy, sophisticated Dr. O'Hara in NURSE JACKIE, she makes an appalling Dolly Madison in this stuffy and sleepy episode of THE American EXPERIENCE.
The first thing we learn about Dolly is that she grew up in Philadelphia and that her relatives were all Quakers. But for some reason English actress Eve Best has the phoniest, creepiest southern accent I've ever heard. Not like Scarlett O'Hara -- more like Carol Burnett imitating Vivien Leigh doing Scarlett in a comedy sketch.
It would have been just as logical to have Dolly Madison talk like Rocky Balboa -- at least he was from Philly! "Yo James, you want things, I want things, maybe, ah-wun know, maybe we want the same things. Ah-wun know, wudya tink?"
But it's not just a matter of accents. This documentary goes to all kinds of lengths to creep away from the uglier side of Dolly Madison's career -- betraying the Quaker principles of her father and marrying a wealthy old slave owner for money -- and off into endless, giggling tangents about Dolly showing off her bosom for drooling crowds of diplomats and dignitaries. Who knew that was all it took to become a legend?
The one revealing moment was when they showed an actual letter Dolly Madison wrote just after she married slave owner James Madison, and she signed her name "Dolly Madison -- alas!" There's a great story there, but it's not a story that fits in comfortably with the smug hypocrisies of modern feminism and modern liberalism. Some truths are just not meant to be a part of the American Experience.
Walt Disney Presents Cinderella On The Golf Course
Barely adequate sports saga set in 1913 America, with a plucky French Canadian immigrant Kid (Shia LeBouef) up against Stephen Dillane as polished English champion Harry Vardon. (A true English gentleman who is haunted by ghosts in top hats telling him he's not well born enough to be a golf champ. Yes, it's as dumb as it sounds.)
There's a number of elements to this movie, and none of them work together all that well. The period clothes and settings don't really establish a mood, because all the actors talk and act in a breezy, modern, 21st century style. The dirt poor hero has a rich girl who falls for him at first sight, and Peyton List plays this Victorian beauty with a million dollar smile, tons of sex appeal, and all the modesty and decorum of a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model prancing across a beach in her bikini. (Not that I'm complaining!)
Veteran character actor Elias Koteas plays Ouimet senior, the bitter, hard bitten French Canadian dad who insists his son will never amount to anything. The writing here is so overdone it's like something out of WALK HARD: THE DEWEY COX STORY. ("Ze wrong kid died! Ze wrong kid died!") The irony is that the bitter father is the most believable, period authentic character in the story, and the actor playing him practically steals the movie. You keep feeling like the story is going to turn into FENCES, but of course Disney can't have an American tragedy breaking out in the middle of a feel good sports story. So the unhappy father comes around in the last reel -- and if you think that's a spoiler, you haven't seen many sports movies.
Oh, and the comic relief is a fat, annoying, bratty kid who sounds about as 1913 as Eric Cartman.
"Screw you guys, I'm going home!"
Cobain: Montage of Heck (2015)
The Last Great Hero of Rock and Roll
I almost never believe the hype about movies like this. But this Kurt Cobain documentary really is as brilliant and innovative as everyone says that it is. I've never seen anything like it!
The moment the story starts, it seems real and fresh. Hearing the Everly Brothers and seeing Cobain home movies of Aberdeen in the early Sixties captured a mood, a moment of promise. It seemed like a miracle was going to happen. And Kurt Cobain was that miracle.
I loved the way the story began with such hope, and the way the notebooks and paintings Kurt Cobain compiled came to life. The energy and excitement that is entirely missing from Gus Van San't exercise in slumming necrophilia, LAST DAYS, was really crackling all around in the middle part of this movie.
I could have done without some of the animated story sequences, though. Having a "generic" teenage Kurt bragging about hooking up with a mentally challenged girl, just seemed sort of heavy handed and obvious. This was a guy who would tell any lie just to make the world he came from seem even more disgusting than it really was. But the sequences where he's compiling lists of band names, lists of great punk rock tracks, and lists of "things the band needs to do" were not only illuminating, they were inspiring.
The last half hour was pretty depressing. Whereas in the early scenes the Cobain family are frank, modest, and courageous, the people from Kurt's famous period are obviously covering their own behinds and revealing just what they want to reveal. The home movies of Kurt, Courtney, and the baby were touching, in a way, but on some level I think they were staged. (That'll cost me some helpful votes, but I just can't help saying what I feel! And this movie made me feel a lot of things.)
This is certainly the best documentary I've ever seen about a rock star. There probably won't be many more, either.
Last Days (2005)
Dreamy Scenes of Damnation For A Man Who's All Victim, All the Time
This movie is pretty bad, but not as bad as I thought it would be. Gus Van Sant is a guy I really hate because his movie EVEN COWGIRLS GET THE BLUES ruined one of the best books I ever read. (Read the book by Tom Robbins, it's amazing.)
So I assumed going in that Van Sant meeting Kurt Cobain was going to be a typical Van Sant massacre, a Bambi Meets Godzilla orgy of artistic self-indulgence with Gus doing Kurt "his way." And I was right.
But strangely, if you give this movie a chance it's not all that bad. The condescending, one-note story line, (helpless, fragile, beautiful boy dies slowly while drainers, users, liars, and cheats circle like vultures), is rendered poetic and even poignant by the sheer artistry of the camera work and the striking visual images. It's a great achievement, in a way. Gus Van Sant can convey despair better with a single shot of tall grass than another director could with ten pages of dialogue. You have to give him credit, in a way.
Lost in all the dreamy doom and damnation, however, is the disturbing sense that Gus really doesn't know much about Kurt Cobain . . . other than that he was a beautiful boy who died. (And therefore the perfect object of desire?) Even though Michael Pitt (later to become a legend as Jimmy Darmody in HBO's BOARDWALK EMPIRE) gives an incredibly charismatic and nuanced performance, there's nothing here to suggest the dynamic energy of a charismatic and rebellious dynamo who changed the music world forever. Whatever music you hear is only to underline the despair, not the talent.
Meanwhile, the outside world, (the squares, the straights, and always and above all the women) are dismissed as irrelevant and grotesque, monsters who just don't love our beautiful boy enough. This is sheer laziness. The cheap shots at Mormons and traveling salesmen would have been stale on a vaudeville stage one hundred years ago. But Van Sant can get away with it, because by God he's a real artist with a dreamy touch.
All that art in the service of so much self-indulgence.
Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 (2008)
Spectacular Football And A Real Look at College In America
The astonishing thing about this documentary isn't the excitement and the drama. The football game is presented brilliantly, the key plays are shown in riveting detail and you really feel like you're down on the field with the players right until the final gun. But the astonishing thing is how much you really learn about Harvard and Yale and why they have the reputation of being the very best of the best colleges in America.
All the interviews in this movie are interesting, but the one that shocked me was when this big, tough, Harvard linebacker broke down and started crying, forty years after the game! And not because he muffed a block or a tackle, either. "I can't believe Harvard would take a chance on a kid like me," he said.
That line really stuck with me long after I left the theater.
You see, I went to Columbia, which is also part of the Ivy League. But the whole time I was there in the mid-eighties, I had a sense that there was something missing. It wasn't till I saw this movie that I understood what it was. The thing about Harvard and Yale isn't that they only admit the richest kids, or the smartest kids. The thing is that once you're admitted you're really someone. You're a part of something. And I suspect it's not just the stars on the football teams who feel that way.
When I was at Columbia it was just the opposite. It was a campus full of strangers located in the most impersonal urban landscape imaginable. I don't remember anyone crying over how lucky they were to be there. When my roommate dropped out halfway through the freshman year, no one on the faculty or in the administration begged him to stay. No one asked me why I didn't do more to help him, either. It wasn't until years later I began to ask myself that question. And I've begun to suspect that the answer lies largely in the way Columbia treated all its undergraduates like cattle. They didn't expect champions, and they didn't get them either. To be sure, there were some star athletes on campus, and they got plenty of fawning remarks and plenty of special attention from the faculty. But it was because they were part of a special elite, not because they really mattered as individuals. None of us really mattered as individuals. That's why Columbia is strictly third rate compared to Harvard and Yale. I always thought it was because Yale and Harvard had richer kids, smarter kids, tougher kids. Really it's just because Harvard and Yale treat their students like human beings, and not like cattle.
And that's what I learned from watching Harvard "beat" Yale.
To The Lost
BOARDWALK EMPIRE was a great show for five full seasons, but personally I feel the show lost something it never recovered when Jimmy Darmody met his downfall at the end of season two.
This episode is really an "origins" story that explains in a series of gripping flashbacks the secret guilt that causes Jimmy to disintegrate in the present day story line. We fade in on Jimmy's wife Angela, and that's a shocker because the previous episode (the outstanding "Georgia Peaches") showed the sexy, dark-eyed Italian beauty meet with an unexpected accident while showering with a female friend.
But little by little, we realize that this Angela is not the neglected wife and mother of 1921 but the fresh-faced waitress of 1917, dating a dashing young Princeton man named . . . Jimmy Darmody. And with a flourish of glamour and excitement that comes right out of F. Scott Fitzgerald, we're off to an evening of college romance, college intrigue, and some very dark Oedipal drama.
Jimmy Darmody is such a great character, a dreamer and a killer, a lost child and a vengeful hero, a tragic loner and a loyal son. Michael Pitt gave energized, rock and roll power to every scene, (not surprising since he began his career playing rock legend Kurt Cobain in Gus Van Sant's cult classic LAST DAYS) thereby making BOARDWALK EMPIRE into a glittering supernova of excitement. But ultimately his light was dimmed. And after this episode, you will understand why his downfall was inevitable long before he became a hero in no man's land.
To the lost!
Worth It For The Sound Track Alone!
Somehow my brother and I got hold of the soundtrack album before we actually saw the TV special. The funny thing is that while the comedy bits are really funny (most of them) the songs are actually much better and stick in my mind to this day.
The songs from the early period, like "Ouch!" and "Hold My Hand" are okay, but they really can't capture the excitement and energy of the Beatlemania period. But as the story continues, the darker, sadder, more pessimistic songs are actually better than what the Beatles were doing at that stage in their careers.
Case in point: "Living In Hope," a late-period Ringo song, of the type you might hear on the White Album. "I grew up in the country/beside a chicken shack/then I left for the city/and I didn't look back." Really gets Ringo trying to write a country song and sounding silly, yet somehow knowing he's silly and having the time of his life! "Got no woman/or a steady job/feeling like a cowboy/and looking like a slob!/But I'm living in hope . . ." This was such a great song I had it on tape for years.
Then again there was "Love Life," which totally captures the silly side of the "All You Need Is Love" type of statement. The fade of the song is just "Love is the meaning of life/Life is the meaning of love/Love is the meaning of life/Life is the meaning of love." Fall over laughing as they repeat about 100 times!
Even the sad songs, like "Cheese and Onions" really capture the fall of the Beatles, as you hear the weariness and disgust creeping in. "I have always thought in the back of my mind/cheese and onions/I have always thought that the world was unkind/cheese and onions." Totally captures John Lennon at his most bitter and cynical, but still with the odd touch of humor. "Man and machine/Keep yourself clean/Or be a has-been/Like the dinosaurs."
The music was so great it didn't even seem like a parody, but more a meditation on the genius of the Beatles.
Jersey Boys (2014)
In Spite of All the Odds, A Solid Film
When I think of New Jersey -- I think Clint Eastwood.
When I think of Italians -- I think Clint Eastwood.
And when I think of rock and roll -- I think Clint Eastwood.
Even with all the obvious handicaps, I was amazed at what an effective movie this was. I was expecting the actors to lip-synch to the actual Four Seasons classics, but instead they do all their own singing (and dancing.) The results aren't always spectacular, but they're always entertaining.
I loved the way the movie didn't shy away from the darker side of the Four Seasons' story. ("I just buried a child, Jimmy. I don't want to sing another love song.") I was also pleasantly surprised that one of the key men behind the Four Seasons' musical success was openly gay and was treated with respect by both the screenplay and the other characters. Maybe the biggest surprise for me was how effectively Vincent Piazza adds humor and warmth to the tough as nails Italian gangster type he played so brilliantly for five years on HBO's BOARDWALK EMPIRE.
My hand to God, this movie was the best rock and roll musical ever produced by Clint Eastwood -- especially the big song and dance number over the closing credits!