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214 reviews in total 
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Trumbo (2015)
1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Crummy, Dreary, Unconvincing as Both History And Biography, 19 July 2016

I loved Bryan Cranston in BREAKING BAD, and I totally get how playing the lead in a classy picture about an "important" subject is supposed to be a big career triumph for him.

Unfortunately, this movie sucks.

Dalton Trumbo does not come to life as either a brilliant writer, or a courageous idealist. Old Hollywood is depicted in the crudest terms possible, and the talented supporting cast are reduced to playing some of Hollywood's greatest legends as little more than cartoon characters.

Assuming the real-life Dalton Trumbo's Communist leanings were sincere, you'd have to go back to his childhood and youth to explain why he sides with the oppressed. But no! We pick up the story where he's a rich script writer in Hollywood, all smirks and supercilious mannerisms. This guy is no Tom Joad! We're supposed to believe his motives are honest and indeed self-sacrificing, but nothing in the script makes this believable.

Poor Bryan Cranston! For five years he showed the whole world what he could do, stripping away layer after layer of Walter White's mild mannered persona, revealing the truth with consummate artistry. Does that happen here? Hell, no! Not because he's lost his touch, but because the limp, politically correct script absolutely demands that we take Trumbo at face value. We're not allowed to examine his motives, or seek a buried motive. Where Walter White's twitchy mannerisms were meant to reveal truth, Trumbo's smirks and wisecracks are really just a substitute for real character development. This guy was right because . . . well, because the other side was wrong!

Oh, and speaking of the other side. Helen Mirren, probably the most universally adored actress in films today, is amazingly authentic as the universally hated gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. Nothing defeats Helen as she turns a one-note role into a deliciously authentic tour de force. Even the silly hats and frilly dresses look natural and alluring on her. She plays a character utterly without compassion and imagination -- but also fearless, sincere, and determined. Beautiful Helen strikes again! Poor Michael Stuhlbarg doesn't do nearly as well with Edward G. Robinson -- he was much better as Arnold Rothstein in the HBO series BOARDWALK EMPIRE. But Elle Fanning really shines in an all too brief role as Trumbo's daughter Nikki. The scenes between them are the only time Trumbo becomes even faintly believable as a human being.

Now there was one thing I found particularly offensive about this film's politics. I'm willing to swallow the idea that the Hollywood Communists were sincere in what they did -- however blind and stupid they may have been. It's okay that Trumbo never mentions Stalin, the purges, the show trials, or any of that. But what I bitterly resent is the way that race is used in the phoniest and most hypocritical way possible. There are no strong black characters in this movie. None. Yet every time the story flags, and the (white) Communists are revealed as inept, venal, or hypocritical, there's sure to be some kind of background radio or newspaper headline saying "protest march against the Klan" or "young demonstrators oppose segregation." Like, the Communist Party deserves all the credit for the Civil Rights movement. So let's keep black people in movies where they belong, nice and invisible. Because that's what Civil Rights is all about!

Now the legendary black singer, athlete and activist Paul Robeson was just as talented as Dalton Trumbo. He was just as sincere, and he sacrificed just as much for what he conceived to be social justice. But nobody's making movies about him! I can't imagine why. I really can't! But I can certainly tell you that this movie is a whitewash of Communist history.

In more ways than one!

Unbroken (2014/I)
Angels With Dirty Faces Mutiny On The River Kwai With Cool Hand Luke, 5 July 2016

As my bomber dove into the water, I thought back to my childhood. I was a bad kid, just like Jimmy Cagney in ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES. See, here I am outrunning a cop who says I'll end up in reform school! Luckily, my big brother (who would have been Pat O'Brien in the old days) tells me I can do anything. So immediately I'm a track star in the Olympics!

Now here I am, stuck on a lifeboat for weeks on end, just like Charles Laughton MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY. Eating seagulls? Catching sharks? When Laughton did it as Captain Bligh he looked so damned cool. Why do I look like a jerk? Must be the character was more interesting. Bligh started mean, and hard, but on the raft he slowly changed. When he shared his food it was a shock. He became human. Interesting. Complex. ("But I am still giving the orders here, Mr. Maggs.") I just sat around talking about mama's spaghetti. (Just like Clemenza in THE GODFATHER. But not cool!)

At last! Rescued by the Japanese, I'm thrown in prison camp. I've got nothing, just like Paul Newman in COOL HAND Luke. But sometimes nothing can be a mighty cool hand! So now I'm defiant, I've got attitude. But somehow I'm still a lifeless chump. And yet all anyone does is tell me how wonderful I am all the time! That evil Bird guy keeps beating me up, and stealing scenes one after another. It's not fair! He's actually ACTING and not sitting around looking blank. He reminds me of Brian Donlevy playing the evil Sergeant Markov in the original BEAU GESTE. Discipline in this camp is severe, I promise you! But I'm not fighting to protect my family, or my honor, or even the fabulous Blue Jewel. I'm no Gary Cooper . . . I promise you!

Hey, what gives! The war is over, and now I can go home. I ran really fast, I flew airplanes, I got beat up, I got tortured, I floated around in a boat, and I never gave up hope. Hope for what, I don't know. But my story proves that if you never quit you can accomplish anything.

If you never quit ripping off classic movies, that is.

That Championship Season!, 23 June 2016

This is going to be a different sort of review because I want to talk about all of Season One of TRUE BLOOD. Even though I consider myself a genuine fan of the show overall, I have to say that for my money the first season really was the summit, the peak, the absolutely flawless championship season that the writers, cast and crew never quite recaptured.

First of all, most of all, TRUE BLOOD is a love story. Notice that Sookie Stackhouse and Bill Compton are always believable as a couple on every level, not just in bed. They complement each other perfectly. Anna Paquin is from New Zealand and Stephen Moyer is from England, yet they not only capture the southern accent perfectly, they capture everything southerners have always most valued about themselves. Courtesy, grace under pressure, concern for others, modesty about themselves, are all qualities that define both Bill and Sookie. No wonder it's love at first bite!

Season One is the best season of TRUE BLOOD because, more than any other season to follow, it perfectly balances every character and story line to maintain the tension between the very real problems of a small southern town and the bigger than life problems of vampires, werewolves, shape-shifting humans etc. The sensational performances of Nelsan Ellis (as Lafayette) and Rutina Wesley (as Tara) are not only powerful and dramatic and emotional, they are real.

Lafayette gives you the real gut feeling of what it's like to be black AND gay in a small, rural, southern community. The character almost jumps off the screen. The drama seems to punch you right in the stomach. And you know what? I'm not talking about moments when Lafayette is facing down vampires or dealing with the horrific dangers of V-juice addiction. I'm talking about when he faces down the mean, redneck diners at Merlotte's who don't want to eat food cooked by a black f****t. Nothing in the season thrilled me more than when he told those good old boys they could just ask him to "hold the AIDS."

Nothing could have thrilled me more, except when Lafayette turns to go back to the kitchen, (after punching out his oppressors) and Jason Stackhouse (the sensational Ryan Kwanten) actually gives him a high-five! Such a shocking moment in terms of race and sexual politics, the white small town southern jock treating the gay black man as an equal, a fellow warrior. But it also speaks to the fact that Ryan Kwanten's performance was as groundbreaking and free of cliché as Nelsan Ellis' work as Lafayette. These characters were so new and electrifying in Season One, even if later seasons saw them evolving (or devolving) into more familiar patterns.

The fact is, every single performance in Season One is spectacular. Even very, very minor characters ring true and make you think. That's true on all sides, by the way. Vampire Sheriff Eric Northman's stunning girl Friday Pam is haunting and compelling in every scene, even though she does nothing but crack wise and look sexy. Jason Stackhouse's forlorn follower Hoyt Fortenberry, a repressed, unhappy mama's boy right out of the pages of Larry McMurtry, is just as fascinating. Every character -- good and evil - - seems like someone you might really meet in a restaurant or a bar somewhere in Louisiana on a dark, dark night.

All this is especially true of the two major villains of Season One, Amy and Rene. Notice that the most evil characters are both humans, with no supernatural powers, motivated solely by human prejudice. It's insightful, but it's not preaching, just effective drama. There's no way to put into words what Lizzy Kaplan is able to do with Amy Burley. She takes a character who is outwardly everything our society is supposed to admire -- a college-educated feminist vegan with liberated views on just about everything -- and peels back layer after layer to reveal a monster more terrifying (and more darkly funny) than any Bela Lugosi style bloodsucker. What James Michael Wilson does with Rene is just as impressive. Mean redneck killers, alas, are not an original concept for TV. But Rene is different. All season long we get to know him as a genuinely decent, genuinely responsible man who has the potential to be a model husband, father, and community member. And it's not merely the cover of a cunning serial killer. This is the man Rene really could be if his racial and sexual prejudices (towards the vampire species and the women who sleep with them) didn't destroy him. Having Amy die at Rene's hands is the blackest of ironies, since she is a "fang banger" who isn't one at all. Her murder of the vampire Eddie reveals her to be just as twisted and cruel as Rene himself.

TRUE BLOOD never got any better than this. It never got any more real than this. Season One was truly that championship season!

Nixon (1995)
Fascinating Train Wreck With Amazing Performances, 14 June 2016

I loved this movie when I saw it in theaters in 1995, and I was thrilled to order the Blu-Ray "Election Year" version (with tons of commentaries and documentaries) for just ten dollars from Amazon.

Having re-watched the three hour director's cut over three nights, I was more impressed than ever. Yes, NIXON takes the man many hated as a one dimensional villain and turns him into a poignant, tragic hero. But the greatness of the film goes beyond Anthony Hopkins' performance.

What I loved best about NIXON was the supporting cast, many of whom seemed much more comfortable in their historical roles than Welsh Hopkins as the All-American Nixon. I loved Joan Allen's fragile sexuality, her poignant loneliness, the subtle class and sophistication she brought to First Lady Pat Nixon. James Woods was born to play H.R. Haldeman. A superb character actor, Woods exudes not only sleazy corruption but brutal menace and a genuinely shrewd understanding of politics as jungle combat. Ed Harris as E. Howard Hunt portrays a very different sort of lowlife -- a Joseph Conrad style mercenary and man of action who has broken the rules for Nixon time and again and feels a genuine rage at being betrayed by his boss. Even Paul Sorvino, best known for playing Italian mob types in Mafia classics like GOODFELLAS, is surprisingly effective as the cultured, genial, yet unmistakably brutal and unscrupulous Henry Kissinger.

The thing that makes this movie such a fascinating failure is the immense scope of what Oliver Stone wants to accomplish. It's not just a story of the Watergate break-in and the infamous cover-up. It's not just a study of American power during the Cold War. And it's not just a character study about a ruthless, powerful, but deeply insecure man who rose to power and was destroyed by his own character flaws. NIXON tries to be all those stories, all at the same time. Some elements work better than others. Brutally effective political drama, and spine-tingling suspense and intrigue, are frequently interrupted by unintentionally funny "character" moments.

Oliver Stone never did have much of a sense of humor, and while that doesn't hurt the political scenes it's deadly in the personal moments. The horrible dying brother scenes go on too long, (the boy Nixon watches his big brother spit up blood with a Darth Vader like lack of compassion) and college boy Nixon remembers being knocked on his ass on the football field a few times too many. There are also some disastrous casting choices, i.e. sweet Mary Steenburgen as Nixon's ice-cold witch of a mother, Hannah Nixon. The movie never seems to decide whether Nixon's mother was every bit the saint he pretends, or whether she was just one more person who let him down. Oliver Stone seems to think that the mere presence of the mother is some sort of startling insight. Like watching the young Nixon getting knocked down on the football field. The flashback scenes are by far the weakest thing about Nixon.

NIXON is not a perfect masterpiece like THE MALTESE FALCON or even JFK. Whole scenes are disastrous, and whole performances fall flat. You never will figure out just what happened during the Bay of Pigs, what Nixon really knew about that day in Dallas, or even what was on those tapes! But if you have the patience to sit through it you will be richly rewarded by an amazing panorama of talent.

Titus Pullo Takes On The Mob! (It's The Gangster Equivalent of Terror At Red Wolf Inn), 7 June 2016

I absolutely loved Ray Stevenson in the HBO Series ROME, where he played a Roman soldier named Titus Pullo. Pullo was the original tough guy with a heart of gold, a guy who could be breaking skulls one minute and playing with children the next, and never be anything less than real and sympathetic.

So when I watched KILL THE IRISHMAN, I was expecting Ray Stevenson to really shine. Yet I was disappointed, because Danny Greene is really not a lovable tough guy. He's more like a driven psycho who kills over and over, not because he's cornered, or even because he wants a bigger piece of the pie, but just because he has some messianic delusion that only he can "save" the city of Cleveland from the Italian mob. This is all very interesting, (the Irish tendency not so much towards violence itself, but suicidal religious fanaticism) yet the character is so cold and almost fanatical that Ray Stevenson can't really get a grip. And yes, this is the only movie I've ever seen where the leading man's hair is so stringy, lifeless and weird looking that it's fall down laughing funny.

Meanwhile, the movie hits you over the head with comic stupidity at every turn, so what should be a tense mob thriller becomes almost like a dark comedy. The characters all live in the Seventies, drive Fifties cars and have Sixties haircuts. The soundtrack see-saws back and forth in a zany sort of way between comically upbeat Irish jigs (when someone's getting beaten to death or blown up) and generic Philadelphia-style Soul Music (whenever someone's driving in his car.)

There are so many things that make no sense. Danny Greene is supposed to be tough, okay. Smart, okay. But everyone else is just plain dumb. Early in the picture, a big goon wearing glasses pulls a gun on him, and Danny just says, "hey now. Put it down." So the guy does. Then Danny beats him up and kills him! Good thing he thought of telling the bad guy to put the gun down, huh? Is that all it takes in Cleveland?

A guy with a genuinely crazy persona, like Mel Gibson, might have made you believe this guy is nuts and even tough guys are afraid of him. It's funny, everyone says this movie is a bad version GOODFELLAS, but it reminded me much more of PAYBACK starring Mel Gibson. And TERROR AT RED WOLF INN, because it's so bad it's funny.

1 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Paul Dano Soars, Elizabeth Banks Shines, John Cusack Stinks UP The Joint!, 13 May 2016

I've been listening to the Beach Boys for forty years, and I've read most of the books written about the band. LOVE & MERCY is a movie I'd dreamed of seeing for years, but it just didn't live up to my expectations.

Paul Dano is superb as the young Brian Wilson, a pure soul in a dirty, greedy world who just wants to make music. The half of the film where he makes the album Pet Sounds, and the song "Good Vibrations," is certainly worth watching. But there's nothing said that isn't self evident. Brian is a genius. Mike is a selfish jerk. Dennis and Carl are dweebs. Father Murray is a monster. All these characters are about an inch deep. The movie doesn't have the conflicts needed for drama, because it's already clear who the hero (or victim) is, and what's going to happen. The only thing that saves the Sixties scenes is the purity and simplicity of Paul Dano's performance. He owns Brian Wilson and makes every scene soar, in and out of the recording studio.

Unfortunately, in the Eighties section the older Brian Wilson is played by John Cusack. Cusack is wretchedly miscast and utterly at a loss with playing a character who was shy and fragile as a young man, and who is now practically paralyzed by drugs and mental disability. Cusack is often an effective actor, when he plays aggressive, strong-willed, Irish-American Midwestern bully-boy types, but he doesn't convey vulnerable, timid, or fragile emotions very well. His high speed chatter and ever-so-humble mumbling comes across as more of a creepy put on than a heartbreaking tragedy.

The problem is aggravated by the fact that Elizabeth Banks effortlessly outshines him in every scene, combining spunk, glamour, sex appeal, and enormous heart in a completely believable character. There is zero sexual chemistry between these two characters. She's completely authentic while he's mannered, artificial, and grating.

But beyond the poor performance of Cusack, LOVE & MERCY is sunk by its own refusal to make Brian Wilson into a living man. They settle instead for making him an icon, in the most literal sense, an inanimate object or symbol for purity and victimization. It's also painfully clear that all the Dr. Landy scenes are told strictly from second wife Melinda's point of view. The "rescue" scenes come across as unintentionally funny (or unintentionally creepy) precisely because the storytelling is so one-sided. Melinda's desire to get control of Brian is so obvious that she ends up looking just as callous and hypocritical as Dr. Landy. Elizabeth Banks is just brilliant enough to make you put up with it, but after the movie is over you feel like you've been had.

This is a very pretentious film, with a lot of "artistic" white noise meant to suggest the madness in Brian Wilson's head. There are also some bedroom shots where he sees his past and future self which are clearly a tribute to Stanley Kubrick's 2001. Yet oddly, as I watched the movie I kept thinking of another Kubrick film, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. Because the way Brian Wilson keeps getting batted back and forth between Melinda and Dr. Landy really reminded me of Alex being "captured" by the state and then "rescued" by the radical conspirators. Except that when Kubrick told the story, he explored the ambiguities, and made the irony dark and chilling. LOVE & MERCY just sort of hopes you won't notice!

It Was The Best of Films, It Was The Worst of Films, 27 April 2016

If you're hopelessly in love with Vivien Leigh and want to see her at her very best, looking absolutely stunning in every scene and tearing your heart out with her brilliant portrayal of a street girl with a sexy past who wins the heart of a great man only to lose it all . . . well, this is the most lovely film ever made.

On the other hand, if you are interested in European history, the conquests of Napoleon, the triumphs of the British Royal Navy, or the actual career of Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson . . . this is a movie that will have you pounding your head against the wall in sheer frustration. You may even go into shock, deprived of all historical reality. And then you'll need to watch MASTER AND COMMANDER two or three times to decompress!

There are so many interesting questions the film doesn't raise, and so many lively conversations Emma and Lord Nelson don't ever have, about politics and current events. Emma is a girl who literally grew up in the gutter, yet she swallows whole the idea that the French Revolution is "evil" and that Napoleon Bonaparte is a "monster." Couldn't we hear a little more about this? Also, Nelson is a career officer in a Royal Navy that uses savage discipline (flogging to the point of death) and yet relies on sailors from the lowest levels of society. The threat of mutiny was very real. Nelson never discusses that kind of concern, even though from the books I've read he genuinely enjoyed Emma Hamilton's intellect and told her about his naval victories in great (and very technical) detail.

It was the best of films, it was the worst of films.

Hitchcock (2012)
0 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Warm, Funny, Surprisingly Poignant Story Behind Hitchcock's Ghastly Masterpiece!, 2 April 2016

I had really low expectations for this movie going in. I hate it when big name actors in the autumn of their years go in for playing dress up, putting on lots of makeup and pretending to be legendary icons. I was really dreading Anthony Hopkins in a fat suit for two hours, walking around saying "Good Evening," in a phony Hitchcock voice.

Funnily enough, I was right that Hopkins as Hitchcock was mostly mannerism and very little real emotion. But surrounding him is the most amazing cast, and they bring together a miracle -- a story of warmth and humor about the making of a truly ghastly film, Hitchcock's PSYCHO.

Although Helen Mirren receives most of the attention as Hitchock's patient, long suffering wife Alma, (looking pained and thoughtful in every scene, even when she's trying on a new bathing suit) it's really the younger ladies who steal the show. Scarlett Johannson is an enchanting Janet Leigh -- sexy, playful, eager to please, obviously very ambitious but fun-loving and friendly as well. Jessica Biel is even more amazing as Vera Miles, the "bad girl" who said no to Hitchcock and refuses to back down before him on the set of his latest film. With only a small part, Jessica Biel still conjures up an air of mystery and allure, defiance and enigmatic power. Hitchcock hates that he can't own her, like the make believe women in his movies. Yet the viewer ends up loving her for that very reason!

The truth is, as a story about Hitchcock himself this movie isn't much. It's his amazing team that comes to life. James D'Arcy barely gets five minutes as Anthony Perkins, the twitchy and closeted boy actor who made Norman Bates into a legend. Yet D'Arcy plays Perkins with such absolute and utter assurance that you wish the whole movie was about him. The same with Michael Stuhlbarg, (Arnold Rothstein in the HBO series BOARDWALK EMPIRE) who plays Hitchcock's long time agent and business manager. These guys walk off with every scene and are just as powerful as the ladies!

Oddly enough, this movie reminded me less of PSYCHO and more of KING LEAR. You have an aging titan, a king who wants to control everyone around him. And all of the lesser characters have to find their own path to independence, obeying and setting limits, defying but showing loyalty. It's easy to see how Janet Leigh becomes the "good" daughter in Hitchcock's imagination, like Cordelia, while Vera Miles becomes the "bad" daughter, like Regan and Goneril. But unlike in Lear both daughters learn how to assert themselves while helping the king to regain his throne. It's an oddly warm and touching story set against the making of a nightmare film.

Favorite scene: Hitchcock, telling Tony Perkins that he's "peeping" at the naked woman in the shower. James D'Arcy looks so sweet and helpless (and gay) saying, "Mr. Hitchcock, why would Norman want to look at that woman in the shower?" And Janet Leigh is so naughty and sexy, saying, "I feel very insulted by that question!" But the minute she sees how clueless Tony Perkins is, she shifts gear and comes right to his rescue. ("Maybe this is a ritual for him. Maybe this reminds him of his mother!") It's so funny, so sweet, so sad, and it actually helps you understand how PSYCHO was made.

Now why did I give this movie seven stars instead of nine or ten? Well, I was right about how bad Tony Hopkins looks in a fat suit. He's really just phoning it in. And Helen Mirren is just irritating as the endlessly put-upon wife. Who, for some strange reason, has the most amazing collection of eyeglasses this side of Elton John! Did anyone else notice she wears a different pair in every scene? And they all look very, very Nineties, not at all the early Sixties! Oh, and her reddish brown wig is on crooked in a lot of scenes too. Little things like that are all that keep HITCHCOCK from being a true gem!

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A Musical Episode Ruined By Bad Songs And A Weak, Shrill, Preachy Script!, 27 March 2016

I love THE SIMPSONS, and I was thrilled when I got the complete Season 15 at TARGET for just $7.99.

But this episode has to be the absolute WORST Lisa episode ever! There is no humor, other than "the teachers are jerks." The feminist message, if it is that, is deeply boring. (Lisa getting a makeover is supposed to be some great triumph?) The songs are terrible, and the plot about cutting school programs drags and drags and drags for what seems like hours!

So why did I even give this episode two stars? Because when Nelson is running for president, there's a moment when the kids all rush out in a starstruck mob to follow Lisa, and Nelson just shrugs his shoulders and belts out "Iron Man" by Black Sabbath to the empty auditorium.

That one moment is funnier, more poignant, and more genuinely subversive than the rest of the episode combined!

0 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Unique and Gripping: A Tough Guy Crime Drama Set In A Concentration Camp, 10 March 2016

Imagine THE DIARY OF ANN FRANK if it had been filmed as a classic crime film starring Jimmy Cagney. This is a movie that turns all the well-meaning Holocaust clichés on their head.

The story is simple. Late in the war, bankrupt Nazis desperately attempt to counterfeit Allied money on a massive scale, using a mismatched team of imprisoned Jews and hardened career criminals as skilled craftsmen. Most of the prisoners object, but their leader is almost chillingly willing to adapt. But there's more to his betrayal than meets the eye!

The cynical, amoral anti-hero Solly is so completely selfish and so completely focused on his own survival that his own private journey through hell comes across as classic tough-guy drama rather than moral uplift. Yet at the end the brilliant forger discovers his conscience and finds a way to outwit the Nazis after all. A Holocaust movie for everyone who hated SCHINDLER'S LIST but loved THE MALTESE FALCON and THE PUBLIC ENEMY.

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