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238 reviews in total 
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Surprisingly Raw Slice Of Early Marx Brothers Madness, 17 June 2017

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.

Growing Up, You Don't See The Writing On the Wall, 7 June 2017

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!"

Chi-Raq (2015)
Jennifer Hudson Stands Out In A Deeply Dishonest Chicago Story, 19 May 2017

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!, 1 May 2017

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, 15 April 2017

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?

Othello (1981) (TV)
Bob Hoskins Is The Best Iago Ever!!!, 6 April 2017

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!, 1 April 2017

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, 29 March 2017

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!"

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The Last Great Hero of Rock and Roll, 21 March 2017

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, 11 March 2017

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.

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