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The Founder (2016)
No Dramatic Payoff
6 May 2017
While the story of The Founder is beautifully executed and uniformly well-acted (especially by Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch), I found it to be uniquely dramatically unsatisfying. It tells the Machiavellian story of Ray Kroc, the man who wormed his way into the McDonald brothers' inventive means of improving the way fast food is prepared and served, and gradually forced them out because he grew frustrated at following the terms he agreed to in order to become part of their vision.

It begins as an interesting story to see unfold because of the massive importance to society that McDonalds finally became, but ultimately the interest wears thin because there is no character growth or dramatic themes that are explored through the telling of it. Kroc is simply an ambitious nobody with no real ideas of his own who leeches onto the McDonald brothers and then forces them out because he wants to be the guy in charge (even the scheme that allows him to take over the business comes from someone else). True, McDonalds wouldn't be the massive corporation it is today without Kroc's brutal ambitions behind it, but other than that there is no dramatic payoff to his scheming. He is not a charismatic monster like Shakespeare's Richard III nor is he left emotionally empty at the terrible things he's done like Michael Corleone in The Godather. He's just a jerk who wants to get rich no matter who he has to bulldoze over to do it, and does. The filmmakers might have done better to tell the story from the point of view of the McDonald brothers, who are far more sympathetic and interesting characters. Instead, they chose to make their hero a vile, ruthless man who is thoroughly unlikable.

If you want to check out The Founder because you're interested in the historic rise of an important American corporation, by all means do. But if you're looking for a piece of drama that will make you think about themes that you can take with you through life, I'd say give it a pass.
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Machismo Escapism
20 April 2017
I am no fan of Ernest Hemingway, finding most of his work to be overwritten macho wish fulfillment, so take this with a grain of salt if you're a Poppa addict. But I found the film to be an overlong bore centering around a leaden Gary Cooper (playing the clichéd embodiment of Hollywood's idea of a romantic soldier of fortune) and a ludicrously miscast blonde Swede Ingrid Bergman as a Spanish freedom fighter. Like most of the movie, Bergman is distractingly gorgeous and the filmmakers' choice to shoot it in opulent Technicolor often undercuts the dramatic weight of the story.

Far more convincing than the two leads are Katina Paxnou (who richly deserved the Oscar she won) and Akim Tamiroff as characters grounded with human flaws and inconsistencies that make them compelling, as opposed to the stupefyingly boring Cooper and Bergman, whose only interest comes from the undeniable sexual chemistry that they project. It might have been a perfectly unobjectionable little 1940s adventure film were it not for a script that takes two hours and forty-five minutes to tell a story that frankly isn't very interesting to begin with.

Things finally do start to rev up in the second half when the handsome and heroic Cooper finally starts to play out the manly mission that threw him in the midst of the freedom fighters to begin with, but up to then I found my patience weighed down by Cooper and Bergman making goo-goo eyes at each other while Paxnou/Tamiroff & Company bicker amongst one another, often using Hemingway's flowery prose for dialogue that is completely out of step with their characters.

If you're an advocate of Hemingway's brand of ultra-masculine romanticism you should probably disregard this review. But if you're a more objective viewer, while the film certainly has its positive aspects (usually when Paxnou or Tamiroff is on the screen), be prepared to mouth the word "overrated" after sitting through its lengthy run-time.
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Paterson (2016)
Sweet and quirky but ultimately pointless
5 January 2017
Paterson is a puzzling mix of a drab motif without a story and an ingratiating look at a rather sweet man. At the end, I didn't feel like it added up to much but I have to admit that I was never bored and was always interested to see what would happen, even if nothing ever really did.

The film centers around a bus driver in Paterson, NJ who is coincidentally named Paterson. There is nothing remarkable whatsoever about Paterson except that in his spare time he writes some reasonably okay poetry in a notebook. He is also a kind man who protectively sits with little girls who are alone waiting for their mothers, gives money to homeless guys in the street and patiently puts up with the antics of his scatter-brained wife (who, to her credit, loves him to the depths of her soul and is smokin' hot to boot). He also has a really cool dog.

There's really nothing more to say about the film than that. Nothing even approaching a structured story ever occurs and since the bus driver lacks any ambitions for his poetry (or even wants to share it with anyone besides his wife), I was at a loss to understand why I should care about it anymore than he did (the poetry isn't bad but it would be an uphill struggle to get it published anywhere). A great deal is made about Paterson's unwillingness to make copies of his hand-written poems or even to show them to anyone and I felt that if he was so dismissive of his efforts, I didn't know why I should feel any differently.

The saving grace of the film is the ingratiating performance of Adam Driver, who provided a highly watchable center to an otherwise pointless endeavor. The film might have been a pretentious mess if the character had taken his poetry too seriously but since he only seems to be writing it for the sheer enjoyment of it, I found myself able to forgive him his essential mediocrity. The Los Angeles Film Critics Association gave Driver their Best Actor award for 2016 which I think is going way too far, but I can see why someone would think his work was the most memorable aspect of the film.

In the final analysis, I liked Paterson's quirky aspects and its sweet and chewy center but I never really saw what the point to it was. I didn't consider it a waste of two hours but I could certainly think of better ways to spend it.
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Homage to a Cult
20 November 2016
Warning: Spoilers
I saw this movie three days ago. I hated it when I was watching it and it has continued plaguing me in the days since.

The story revolves around a father who shuns modern society by bringing his family deep into the woods to establish a cult with himself as the leader and his six children as his blind followers. There, the story would have us believe, he raises a team of physical and intellectual supermen who can effortlessly analyze the bill of rights as 8-year olds and are able to speak at least six languages and are enthusiastically accepted by every major university in the country when they are on the cusp of adulthood. They are also fearless survivalists who run marathons on a daily basis and must submit to their coming of age by killing a deer armed with nothing but a knife.

The story begins when the father learns that his wife has killed herself and must rescue her body from the clutches of her evil father, who has arranged for her hospitalization for severe depression because the cult's perfect world can't support things like basic medical care since they live in dire poverty. Thus begins a meandering saga whose few interesting moments - such as when the oldest boy shows himself completely unequipped to communicate with girls of his own age or when the younger son displays resentment at the cult's insular lifestyle - are either entirely unresolved or are unrealistically glossed over. A scene (which I imagine was designed to show how cool and self-reliant they are) has the father feigning a heart attack while the children steal food from a grocery store because they are unable to pay for it would be regarded as child abuse in real life. But because we are in the fantasy of the movie, they get away with the scam and when the grandfather (very reasonably) offers it up later in the film as an example of the cult leader's manifest irresponsibility as a parent, I felt like I was supposed to be on the cult's side despite the fact that the objections were absolutely spot-on and justifiable.

Unfortunately, just as the movie starts to become engaging and based in reality - when the cult leader is forced to admit how ill-considered his lifestyle is and is on the verge of leaving the children with responsible caregivers - it lapses into maudlin sentimentality when it is revealed that the children (including those who have expressed outright hostility towards the cult) have actually hidden themselves in the father's bus when he leaves to strike out on his own and they make a beeline to the cemetery where the mother's body has been buried to unearth it and hold a hippie ceremony on the beach where they sing folk songs and perform a do-it-yourself cremation. But as the credits role, none of the primary conflicts have been resolved or even addressed in an adult fashion.

I am perplexed at the many great reviews this irritating piece of silliness has received because from my perspective, it was a waste of time from start to finish. It was well made with uniformly solid acting, but the underlying story was so lacking in sense or reality and the primary character so self-righteous and unsympathetic that I found nothing good to say about it.
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Cymbeline (2014)
15 March 2015
Michael Almereyda once again stuffs a Shakespearean play into modern day society and comes up with an incomprehensible mess. His film of "Hamlet" at least used as its framework an enduring masterpiece with themes as relevant to today's world as when it was written. But "Cymbeline" is an obscure, rarely produced oddity from Shakespeare's canon which employs unlikely plotting centered on obsolete sexual morality which has no relevance to today's world. Why Almereyda thought this archaic chestnut needed to be set in the present day is baffling.

It is up to the actors to inject some life into this dull mess and for the most part, they are not up to the task. Dakota Johnson is stunning to look at as the ill-used Imogen, but gives a one-note performance that is insufferable to watch. Ethan Hawke brings to the evil Iachimo the same dull monotone that he employed as Almereyda's Hamlet. And Penn Badgley makes the gullible Posthumus seem like a refugee from a boy band. Only Delroy Lindo and Ed Harris project the charisma necessary to make their characters interesting, although demoting Harris' Cymbeline from the King of Britain in the original text to the head of a motorcycle gang is unimaginably reductive.

Almereyda seems to have a fetish for updating Shakespearean drama into the modern world and has no issue with pummeling it into a different shape to fit his concept no matter what the Bard's original intention was while writing it. The approach worked intermittently with "Hamlet" but fails completely with "Cymbeline." Almereyda would be well advised to seek out contemporary stories to make films of and leave Shakespeare alone.
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Citizenfour (2014)
No fresh perspective
21 December 2014
While it's undeniably engaging to be a fly on the wall in Edward Snowden's hotel room during his historic whistle-blowing of the NSA, the film offers little more than a linear chronology of his actions, providing no fresh perspective. Its one provocative point - that the US government was spying on its own citizens without sufficient cause - is made over and over again without adding any dramatic weight or insight.

Anyone familiar with the story will likely find it interesting to watch Snowden take his journey into very dangerous terrain to follow his principles. But then again, anyone already familiar with the story isn't going to learn anything new from seeing the film.
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The Butler (I) (2013)
18 August 2013
Forest Whitaker's committed performance in the title role is the only compelling reason to see this well-meaning but ultimately tiresome and overlong rehash of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, told this time through the eyes of a butler during his long career in the White House. The device was better served in the 1979 miniseries "Backstairs at the White House," especially since in this film the revolving door of presidents is portrayed by an uneven collection of star cameos (with a low of Robin Williams as Dwight Eisenhower, whose jarring sudden appearance takes one totally out of the film, to a high of Alan Rickman, who makes a surprising effective Ronald Reagan). There are some satisfying moments (Jackie Kennedy's mourning of JFK is the highlight of the film) but not nearly enough to justify its long-winded running time.

Many of the articles that came out before the film was released gave Oprah Winfrey a virtual lock for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, but while she provides a perfectly acceptable and professional performance as Whitaker's long-suffering but ultimately supportive wife, the role itself offers little scope and aside from her star presence, she makes little impact in the film. More effective is David Oyelowo as the butler's son, who throws himself whole-heartedly into the civil rights movement until he finds himself personally present at almost every significant chapter of the era.

But that is the primary problem with the overreaching film, which attempts to illustrate its title character's evolution in the context of a cause that he finds himself in the middle of in the 1920s and where he remains firmly entrenched in the present day. The presidential administrations which make up the backbone of the movie are presented in ineffective cameos (Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter are only depicted in sound bytes and George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George Bush II don't show up at all) so the movie tries to cover so much ground that there's rarely any emotional impact to be had gleaned from material that's been mined to the cinematic bone already.
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Blue Jasmine (2013)
Good...but not THAT good
29 July 2013
One of the better movies Woody Allen has put out in recent years, featuring superior performances by Cate Blanchett as an emotionally unstable woman forced to come down from her privileged past and Sally Hawkins as her enabling lower-income sister. Allen's screenplay is often amusing although it meanders at times (I looked at my watch more than once during the screening I attended) and its story seems uncomfortably reminiscent of "A Streetcar Named Desire" with Blanchett in the Blanche DuBois role, Sally Hawkins as Stella, Peter Sarsgaard as Mitch and Bobby Cannavale as Stanley Kowalski. It lacks the dramatic power and sexual tension of Tennessee Williams' masterpiece and in the end, Allen's urbane sophistication doesn't make up for it.

There is a tendency in recent years to either over-praise Allen or rip him to shreds. I don't think this film deserves either fate, being an enjoyably diverting if occasionally pretentious and derivative comedy/drama. It may not belong in the pantheon of great Woody Allen movies like "Annie Hall" or "Manhattan" but it's no "Curse of the Jade Scorpion" or "Celebrity" either. If it didn't have the Woody Allen brand on it, I suspect that it would quickly come and go without notice as a fairly well-made independent drama with some nice acting that has some gripping sequences while ultimately being a little on the dull side. Because of Allen's enduring reputation, it will probably pick up an Oscar nomination or two (for Blanchett's performance and for Allen's questionably "original" screenplay) because Allen's name still carries cache with the taste arbiters. It had too many dull stretches and redundant exchanges for that kind of attention for my money, but its high points made me feel like there were worse ways to spend an hour and a half.
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Tokyo Story (1953)
Stunningly over-rated
4 August 2012
I finally saw this film after Site & Sound Magazine rated it as the third greatest film ever made in their once-a-decade list. Far from being in the pantheon of greatest films, I found it to be a ploddingly dull movie that made some fairly obvious points about the weakening of the parent/child relationship as the parents settle into old age.

The movie is definitely not without its fine points. The acting is generally excellent and the last half hour becomes increasingly interesting after the first brutally slow-paced opening hour and forty-five minutes. It's entirely possible that if Site & Sound hadn't placed this film on such a high pedestal, I might have enjoyed it more than I did. But then again, if they hadn't have rated it so highly, I might have never seen it at all.

In the final analysis, "Tokyo Story" is worth a look but if you're expecting to see one of the greatest films ever made, be ready to be disappointed.
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The Bloom is Off the Rose
23 June 2012
"To Rome with Love" comes off as a series of short stories written by a middle school student, lacking any logic and possessing the sexual maturity of a thirteen year old boy. Employing the "bigger is better" approach, Woody Allen takes the device he used in the far more successful "Midnight in Paris" of a nebbish character swept up in an unexplained fantasy and cranks out a series of nonsensical vignettes depicting nebbish characters in unexplained fantasies, replacing the impressive vistas of Paris for the impressive vistas of Rome. There are a few laughs along the way, but Allen spreads himself so thin that he is unable to provide his universe with any depth or reality and tries to get by on the audience's familiarity with his work and the faded idea that whatever he puts on screen represents quality.

The most successful episode features Alec Baldwin as a world-weary architect who makes a sentimental journey to the street he lived on as a student and encounters young Jesse Eisenberg now in residence and living out a romantic entanglement that Baldwin pops in and out of to provide jaded insight. This sequence at least offers some actual emotion for the audience to connect with (largely due to the fine acting of Baldwin, Eisenberg and Ellen Page as a sexy but neurotic actress steeped in Allen's signature pseudo intellectuality) but is so confused about Baldwin's presence that the audience is unclear if he is simply the person he is presented as, if Eisenberg is his younger self who he has come back to mentor, or if it is some bizarre "Twilight Zone" scenario that is never fully resolved. Even when he is in the room with the characters Eisenberg is interacting with, no one makes any reference to Baldwin and no one except Eisenberg can seem to hear what Baldwin is saying (the few times when the other characters do respond to Baldwin only make it more confusing when they don't). Yet this peculiar relationship is never explained and seems a product of Allen's sloppy writing rather than mysterious forces at work.

The rest of the vignettes are just lazy, implausible nonsense whose outrageousness is forced and seems planted there to make up for any genuine wit. The most tiresome sequence is Roberto Begnini as a mundane worker bee who inexplicably wakes up to find himself the most famous man in the world. It's a one-joke premise that goes on for far too long, and since Begnini's boring drone doesn't get any more interesting as a result of what he's experienced, neither does the story. A young couple on their honeymoon are parted just as they are about to meet some people who are important to their future, and the husband implausibly substitutes prostitute Penélope Cruz for his absent wife. The newlyweds end up throwing aside the marriage vows that they just took in an alarming display of Allen's sexual immaturity. And Allen himself makes an appearance as a frustrated opera director who discovers a major talent who can only show off his gifts in the shower, in yet another one-joke misfire.

It is sad that after a long stretch of sub-par work and redeeming himself with some quality films like "Midnight in Paris" and "Match Point" that Allen is content to present a lazy effort like "To Rome with Love" which is so derivative of his "early, funny films" without any of the freshness or inventiveness. If you're looking for something to do this weekend, I recommend popping "Annie Hall" into the DVD player and giving this one a pass.
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A Dreadful Performance by Kristen Stewart
9 June 2012
Warning: Spoilers
Spectacular special effects don't overcome an underwritten relationship between the title characters and a hopelessly miscast Kristen Stewart as Snow White. A scenery-chewing Charlize Theron and a late-in-the-game appearance by the seven dwarfs add some life to the tedium until Stewart - lacking the charm, innocence, and spirituality that the part cries out for - sucks it out again.

The film recalls "The Matrix" in which an interesting premise is dealt a severe blow by a woefully uncharismatic actor portraying a character who the universe of the film needs to rally around in order to survive. But whereas "The Matrix" had enough going for it to overcome the vacuum that is Keanu Reeves, "Snow White and the Huntsman" grinds to a plodding halt when Stewart weakly attempts a "Henry V"-like oration to stir up the troops. And when the seven dwarfs (which offer some delightful cameos by actors like Bob Hoskins and Ian McShane) sagely proclaim that Snow White is The One who can save the kingdom, one looks at Stewart's blank gaze and wonders how they reached that conclusion.

Chris Hemsworth provides a perfectly unobjectionable generic beefcake presence as the huntsman of the title, but the script fails to evolve the relationship between the two in any way and the end of the film depicts Hemsworth standing anonymously in the crowd as the crown is inevitably placed on Snow White's head. Then, we are treated to the sight of the new queen standing uncomfortably in front of her subjects in awkward silence, as though no one gave any thought to what might happen next. But the same thing could be said of the screenwriters after typing the words "Act One, Scene One."
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A Brutal Snuff Film
5 May 2012
I finally saw this film after years of assuming that it would be just a brutal snuff film without any spirituality or affirmation of Jesus' teaching and philosophy. It starts out promisingly, with a vivid depiction of Jesus' capture and the apostles' various reactions to it, but it ultimately descends into tiresome scene after scene of a man – and it could have been any man - being beaten into a bloody pulp.

The great shortcoming of the film isn't its graphic depiction of Christ's suffering. It is the fact that not a single character grows or is even strongly affected by seeing it. Many of the onlookers express shock at what they are watching, but it is the kind of reaction any human being with a conscience would give at witnessing someone being sadistically beaten to a pulp. The fact that it is Jesus who is undergoing the torment makes little difference. Keeping in mind that literally thousands of people suffered similarly gruesome punishments during this era, the film completely fails at showing its audience why this man's torment was unique.

The experience isn't helped by the bland presence of Jim Caviezel as Jesus, who lacks the charisma and spirituality that actors like Robert Powell and Max von Sydow brought to the role. Flashback scenes showing Jesus in Biblical reenactments have curiously little impact. The only interesting performance in the film is Hristo Shopov's conflicted Pontius Pilate, whose place at the center of deciding Jesus' fate provides the only moments of drama in the entire two hour running time. But an unfortunate result of casting such an interesting actor in the part makes the snarling Jews who demand that he carry out Christ's crucifixion come off as one-note monsters, giving validity to complaints of the film's anti-Semitism.

In the final analysis, I found "The Passion of the Christ" to be a pointless enterprise, completely devoid of any point of view about Jesus' suffering that it went to such great pains to depict. As the final credits rolled, I felt that I had just seen a brutal snuff film without any spirituality or affirmation of Jesus' teaching and philosophy.
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A disgusting travesty
30 August 2009
This is a disgusting travesty of a film that does its best to re-imagine the Holocaust as a comic book that was conceived by a 12-year old boy. There are a myriad of films that portray World War II in a fanciful light, but "Inglorious Basterds" is one of the few that I can recall that uses the extermination of the Jews as a launching pad for an outlandish Sam Peckenpaugh -inspired cartoon which depicts historical figures like Adolph Hitler and Joseph Goebbels - monsters who were responsible for the murder of millions of people - on the same level as Lex Luthor or The Joker.

Brad Pitt and his crew of seemingly invincible marauders cut through the German lines with such ease that it's a wonder that the war lasted as long as it did, and with such a sadistic bloodthirstiness that they seemed likely subjects for a war crimes trial at the conflict's end. Tarantino crudely and artlessly tries to take the narrative between their bloody and far-fetched "heroics" and more genuine atrocities suffered by victims of the Nazis, so the line between Tarantino's outlandish fairy tale and the real-life horrors of the Holocaust are blurred to a degree that made me feel like the director was exploiting the brutal death of six million people in order to splash a lot of cool, fake blood on a movie set. That's perfectly fine if you're making a flight of fantasy like "Kill Bill", but the blood that was spilled in the Holocaust wasn't supplied by Hollywood special effects wizards and deserves more respect than it's given here.
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Cold Souls (2009)
A tiresome train wreck
15 August 2009
Warning: Spoilers
I would rank this stupefyingly boring film as one of the worst movies that I have ever seen. It begins with a intriguingly fanciful premise – an actor having difficulty playing the role of Uncle Vanya resorts to having his "soul" removed by a mysterious company – yet spins it out in such a jarring and unmotivated fashion that the audience is never able to generate any real emotional connection to what he is doing or why. And while the film advertises itself as a comedy, it is as lively as a funeral march and never manages to contrive a single sequence that is able to raise even the weakest of whimsical smiles.

The actors flounder about unconvincingly, with Paul Giamatti playing himself as a spiritually dead wet blanket who fails to ignite any interest even after getting mixed up with the Russian Mafia when the situation begins to unravel, and David Strathairn draining what little energy is generated by the lifeless script in a performance of monumental insipidity. This tiresome mess begs comparison to the vastly superior "Being John Malkovich", but lacks any of the charm, invention, or dangerous hair-pin turns that made that film such a quirky delight. While "Cold Souls"' depicts as potentially an intriguing a premise, it is executed with such blandness that the meager audience in the theatre I saw the film at began filing out long before it drew to its airless conclusion.
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Great Performances: Cyrano de Bergerac (2008)
Season 37, Episode 8
Emotionally Empty
29 March 2009
Warning: Spoilers
This is an emotionally empty star-driven production where a remarkably handsome actor slaps on a fake nose and expects us to be moved at his lamentations over how ugly he is, despite being one of the best-looking people on the stage while he is doing it. Kline - who too often plays for laughs when delicate pathos is called for - is completely lacking in the panache, poetic depths of feeling, or soldierly muscle that made Gérard Depardieu and José Ferrer so memorable in the role. Instead, the impression Kline makes is of a vain, self-satisfied ham who fails to move the audience in any way. Particularly disappointing is the famous balcony scene where Cyrano is finally able to express his love for Roxanne, which the actors play as a broad farce so that there is no emotional foundation for the dark scenes that follow.

But even Kline's unsatisfying performance is vastly superior to the vulgar, amateurish display put on by Jennifer Garner as Roxanne, whose behavior is so crude and lacking in subtlety that she seems a far better match for the oafish Christian than the eloquent Cyrano. The rest of the cast ranges from bland to self-indulgently hammy, with the forgettable Daniel Sunjata in the unfortunate position of being a Christian who is less physically attractive than Cyrano.

The production is richly designed and pretty to look at, but the result seems the antithesis of the theme of the play, where physical beauty is transcended by emotional depth. In this case, the depth is alarmingly lacking.
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Bad Shakespeare and Bad Musical Comedy
17 November 2007
Kenneth Branagh attempts to turn William Shakspeare's obscure, rarely-produced comedy into a 1930s-era musical, with the result being both bad Shakespeare and bad musical comedy as the actors are rarely adept at one or the other of the two styles and in some cases flounder badly in both. Particularly painful is Nathan Lane, who seems to be under the impression that he is absolutely hysterical as Costard but is badly mistaken, and Alicia Silverstone who handles the Shakespearean language with all the authority of a teenaged Valley Girl who is reading the script aloud in her middle school English class.

The musical numbers are staged with the expertise of a high school production of "Dames at Sea," leaving the cast looking awkward and amateurish while singing and dancing, with the lone exception being Adrian Lester who proves himself a splendid song and dance man. The only other saving grace of the film are Natascha McElhone and Emily Mortimer's contribution as eye candy, but they have given far better performances than in this film and you'd be wise to check out some of the other titles in their filmographies and gives this witless mess a pass.
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Generic Cops and Robbers
4 November 2007
This is a generic, throwaway cops-and-robbers movie whose only memorable feature is the charismatic presence of Denzel Wasington as a Harlem drug lord. It takes the overly familiar formula of juxtaposing the life of a super criminal against the elaborate investigation of a dedicated and untouchable law enforcement officer (in this case, a forgettable Russell Crowe), essentially giving you two movies in one until the investigation and the crook go head to head.

The problem is, neither movie is all that interesting, taking formulaic routes that we've seen a million times before. The only real result of giving equal prominence to the cop and the robber is that you wind up with an interminable running time.

Both Washington and Crowe give performances that are reminiscent of roles that you've seen them in before (Washington in "Training Day" and Crowe in "LA Confidential") and if you have a hankering to see those actors, either of those earlier films would be a better use of your time (although the far-fetched "Training Day" is only superior by a nose to "American Gangster," and then only because of Washington's riveting performance). If there is a competition between the two stars in this film, Washington wins hands-down even though this is just a retread of material that isn't really worthy of either one of them.
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Touching and Original
13 October 2007
This is one of the most remarkably original films that I have ever seen, providing a refreshing comment that we can learn and expand our horizons from each other if we approach everyone's foibles with a degree of kindness. It is laugh-out-loud funny, but it is also thought-provoking and moving.

Ryan Gosling provides a spectacular tour-de-force as a dysfunctional young man in a small town who only begins to blossom when he starts a "relationship" with an expensive love doll. When he takes the risk of introducing "Bianca" to the tightly-knit community in which he lives, the "relationship" is met with an unexpectedly heartwarming response.

Strong support is provided by the always-refreshing Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson, and by Kelli Garner as the sweet thing who becomes "Bianca's" rival. But Gosling provides the heart and soul of this remarkable film that never strikes a false note.

The movie has an incredibly powerful and positive message about the ability of a community to heal and nurture a troubled soul by treating it with acceptance and compassion. It should be required viewing by anyone who feels alone in the world.
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Blood Diamond (2006)
African Diamonds - Hollywood Style
19 December 2006
Warning: Spoilers
This is a laughable little piece of nonsense where the very real dilemma of of the inhuman treatment of diamond workers in Africa is given the ultra-slick Hollywood treatment. Leonardo DiCaprio is the living embodiment of a clichéd soldier of fortune that has populated Hollywood films since the days of Clark Gable: a mean stone-cold killer who can blow away whole armies of militia single-handedly while still displaying enough sensitivity to melt the heart of Jennifer Connelly, surely the most gorgeous investigative reporter to ever set foot on the continent.

Djimon Hounsou is the film's only contact with reality, giving an earnest performance as a diamond mine worker who finds and hides a priceless 100 karat pink diamond and tries to use the windfall to find his family, who have been separated by the brutal militia that have forced him into slave work in the mines. But DiCaprio and Connelly's characters are silly, slick products of the Hollywood oil factory, and nothing that they do or say has any plausibility or packs any emotional resonance. The sacrifices Leo makes at the film's comic book finish are the acts of a movie star who requires a heroic ending in his contract, not the behavior of a genuine human being.
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Powerful But Gruesome
16 December 2006
This telling of the rise of Idi Amin as told through the eyes of the young Scottish physician who found himself in the dictator's inner circle long before he realized that was a dangerous place to be is a compelling, powerful film despite some incredibly graphic depictions of violence that are so horrific that they take the viewer out of the film rather than drawing him into it.

I was somewhat surprised that Forrest Whittaker has won so many acting awards for his performance. He does a fine job as Amin and provides a chilling and complex presence, but it is to me really a supporting role (despite Whittaker's top billing) and the outstanding performance of the film is James McAvoy in the more challenging role of the young Scotsman who is at first charmed by the dictator and is soon horrified by him. The film is really McAvoy's character's story, and while I don't suggest that he should have been the rightful recipient of the awards that went to Whittaker (I would give my vote to Peter O'Toole in "Venus"), I think he has been seriously undervalued in the praise of his fine performance (as is the superb Kerry Washington in the pivotal roles as one of Amin's wives).

"The Last King of Scotland" is a fine movie, but there were some sequences that were so gruesome that I had to look away from the screen. In those moments, I was very aware that I was in a audience watching a film rather than feeling a part of it. I think the excellent performances of Whittaker, Washington and especially McAvoy would have been far better served by a more suggestive approach.
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Casino Royale (2006)
A Failure on Every Level
23 November 2006
It is mystifying to me that this film has received so many good reviews, as I thought it failed on almost every level. The plot is nominally centered around how James Bond "becomes" James Bond (clearly hoping to achieve the same kind of success that "Batman Begins" won), but it misses the mark by taking an established character firmly rooted in the 1960s Cold War mentality and implying that he starts out in the world of the mid-2000s with middle eastern terrorists, cell phones, and digital technology.

Not helping the enterprise is the casting of Daniel Craig, certainly the most humorless actor to ever play Bond and who the script implies has the moldability and insecurities of a young man starting out in his career. But Craig is close to 40 years old with the complexion of a saddle bag, and it is impossible to buy that a man of that age is going to smooth his rough edges into the character in a white dinner jacket matching wits with super villains like Ernst Blofeld and Auric Goldfinger. Instead, Craig's Bond is a surly thug who would be shown the door by security at the first five-star resort that he tried to check in at.

Craig isn't given any assistance by a lackluster script, which does its best to rob Bond of the glamour associated with the character. The plot centers around a silly plan for terrorists to raise money for their operations by taking part in an interminable game of Texas Hold 'Em, a game that one usually associates with playing with old college buddies while drinking beer on a Saturday night and not in the exotic universe of James Bond (in the novel, the characters play Baccarat), that Bond ducks out of occasionally to take part in unspeakable acts of violence (fortunately, Giancarlo Giannini is around as a character who sits table-side to spout ridiculous lines of dialogue that exist only to provide explanation of what's going on with the plot to audience members who have nodded off during the poker game). You'd think that characters playing for a hundred and fifty million dollar pot would be more insistent on Bond's attendance at the table.

The script keeps the current post-AIDS trend of limiting Bond's sexual conquests to the single-digits, but his primary love interest is the listless Eva Green, a pretty girl with no apparent personality who we are supposed to buy as a government accountant, an occupation that has the same credibility as a Swedish Playboy playmate playing a nuclear physicist in an old I Spy episode. Green's character has no chemistry with the dour Craig (at one point she tells him that he would be more of a man than anyone she ever met if he were whittled down to just a smile and his little finger – a peculiar inventory since Craig never seems to smile during the course of the entire movie) and it is difficult to accept many of the plot turns that result from the romance. The film also provides one of the least charismatic villains in Bond history in the person of Mads Mikkelsen, a quiet man whose only quirks seem to be bleeding from his eyes and a propensity for graphic displays of cock-and-ball torture (where is Goldfinger's laser beam when we need it?).
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No Man's Land (1978 TV Movie)
The Sir John and Sir Ralph Show
22 October 2006
This is a filmed record of the final teaming of Sir John Gielgud and Sir Ralph Richardson, who first appeared together at the Old Vic Theatre in "Henry IV, Part I" in 1930 and teamed on stage many times since, most memorably in "The Tempest," "A Day By The Sea," "The School for Scandal," and "Home". This television broadcast made for BBCs Granada Television immortalizes their West End and Broadway success of Harold Pinter's fascinating though impenetrable play about the late night meeting between Hirst, a wealthy man of letters and Spooner, a down-at-heels Bohemian poet, which may represent the finest non-Shakespearean performances of either actors' careers. Particularly memorable is Gielgud, who presents Spooner as a clinging, fawning W. H. Auden-like poser which may be his most effective attempt at portraying a characterization on film outside of the typical stiff and very British Gielgud personae that we've grown accustomed to seeing in films like "Arthur" and "The Elephant Man".

Richardson is also marvelous as the more mysterious Spooner, who sometimes recalls Harry Meyers in "City Lights" as a millionaire who invites a tramp into his privileged world when he's plastered only to forget him when he sobers up, as well as Michael Kitchen and Terence Rigby offering excellent support as Hirst's flunkies. But it is Gielgud's masterful work as a sleazy pretender that creates the greatest impression.

Pinter's fascinating though somewhat baffling play has received some major revivals since its original production, most memorably with Christopher Plummer as Spooner and Jason Robards as Hirst (making his final stage performance) in a 1994 Broadway production and a 1992 London staging starring Pinter himself in the role of Hirst, but the play will forever be identified with Richardson and Gielgud in their final appearance together.

I managed to see this televised version at the Museum of Broadcasting in Los Angeles, and can only hope that it will someday be made available on DVD to a wider audience who will be grateful at catching a glimpse of two immortal actors at the height of their power.
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Kinky Boots (2005)
The Path of Least Resistance
15 April 2006
This sluggish and maudlin snooze-fest betrays the enticing premise of a young man trying to save his family shoe factory by turning away from the traditional footwear they were once famous for by making fetish wear for transvestites and goes instead for bland predictability.

Instead of the potential danger of two sexually opposite worlds colliding with unexpected results, the interminable bore takes its predictable journey as a formulaic comedy/drama where you can safely forecast how each scene will play out before it starts and where its one-dimensional characters learn nothing about life or change as the result of being exposed to each other.

The film is not helped by the painfully bland performance of Chiwetel Ejiofor as the drag queen who comes to the rescue of the shoe factory as the designer of the "kinky boots," a part that cries out for a charismatic diva such as John Cameron Mitchell in "Hedwig and the Angry Inch." Ejiofor lacks the presence or sexuality that the part demands so that instead of being the white-hot angel of sex that his character claims to be, he comes off as merely a lumbering man in a dress.

Joel Edgerton is equally inept in his role as the young man who risks everything by taking the gamble of turning out the erotic footwear. His character habitually claims to be out of his element in his inherited role as boss of his father's shoe factory (presumably to make him appear as much of an outsider in the staid and conservative world that kismet has forced him to stay in as Ejiofor's sexually dangerous newcomer), but his performance is so timid and annoying that he comes off as a dreary stuffed shirt who is exactly where he belongs.

If the filmmakers had any real interest in drag queens or insight into the threat of a conservative society by the introduction of a sexually unconventional outsider, this might have been a smart and even compelling film. But without any point of view about its characters or the conflicting worlds that it is pretending to portray, it ends up as a lamentable and shallow irritant that is best avoided in favor of more gratifying diversions.
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Dirty Love (2005)
Jenny's Ego Run Amuck
11 March 2006
This unbelievably awful film was awarded the Razzie Award for the worst movie of 2005, and it's awfully hard to disagree with the decision. It is a shameless monument to McCarthy's ego, as her badly written screenplay is designed exclusively to provide a showcase for her tiresome brand of toilet humor and self indulgent mugging that makes Jerry Lewis look restrained by comparison.

But as bad as McCarthy's script and performance are, she isn't helped by then-husband John Mallory Asher's heavy-handed direction or Eric Wycoff's brutal cinematography, with unforgivingly harsh lighting that shows off every imperfection in the actors' faces and robs McCarthy and Carmen Electra their usual saving grace as eye candy.

The most remarkable scene was McCarthy at a grocery store buying tampons when her period kicks in. She starts running through the store leaving a dripping trail of menstrual fluid, which ultimately becomes a massive pond of the stuff that she slips in and is finally covered by. It wasn't the least bit funny and quite sickeningly tasteless.

The cast is uniformly awful, with the lone exception of Eddie Kaye Thomas as the plain fellow who is devoted to McCarthy. He steals the film with the sole characterization that doesn't descend into cartoonish self indulgence. Of course with a movie like "Dirty Love," that can be considered petty theft.

But the price of admission was worth the DVD audio commentary by McCarthy and Asher (who comes off as a clueless fool who was a periphery character on the set), one of the most outlandish displays of narcissism and self-delusion I was ever witnessed. They were constantly congratulating themselves on their own brilliance, and oblivious to the fact that the movie was a god-awful mess. The funniest part was three minutes before the film ended, McCarthy announced that she had another appointment and actually walked out of the taping to let her husband finish up! He had nothing to say except to reiterate how brilliant Jenny was, a conclusion that the vast majority of viewers of "Dirty Love" will disagree with.
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King Kong (2005)
Two-Thirds of a Masterpiece
18 December 2005
An actor is introduced in the second hour of Peter Jackson's remake of "King Kong" who offers a performance of such stunning variety - dignity, heroism, humor, and swashbuckling romance - that he would be certain to win the Best Actor Oscar, but for an annoying loophole in the award's bylaws that allows him only to be eligible in the Best Special Effects category.

The actor is, of course, the remarkable CGI-generated title character, who projects a staggering amount of depth to the point where the film becomes something that I never would have imagined: a heartbreaking tragic romance. Jackson brilliantly rethinks the 1933 classic as an ill-starred love story between the title character and his lady. By the time the pair make their final stand atop the Empire State Building, you actually want nothing more than to see these two kids gets past the artificial obstacles that society has thrown at them at somehow get away to live happily ever after. But it is a tragic story that Jackson has mapped out, and his remarkable Special Effects team has somehow magically cobbled together a thirty-foot ape with the histrionic powers of a young Marlon Brando.

Where Jackson falters is in taking too long to get to his leading man. The first hour of the film is silly, leaden exposition featuring the human trio of sleazy showman Carl Denham, playwright-turned-screenwriter Jack Driscoll, and the tragic Ann Darrow, who discovers that her true taste in lovers runs along the very strong, silent type. These early scenes are painfully contrived, and not helped by the painful miscasting of the boyish, roly-poly Jack Black in a role based on the ueber-macho filmmaker and explorer Merian C. Cooper (who co-produced and co-directed the 1933 original). The normally likable Black simply lacks the acting ability to succeed in a part that cries out for he-man beefcake like Liam Neeson or Sean Connery, and placing the (spiritually) lightweight Black in the role has the result of a little boy playing dress-up.

Of the actors playing the other two main roles, Adrian Brody performs an almost impossible task: displaying less personality or charisma than the wooden Bruce Cabot in the original film. Only the radiant Naomi Watts triumphs as the unfortunate Ann Darrow, not only achieving a heart-breaking chemistry with her CGI-rendered leading man but proving herself to have a screaming ability that challenges the memory of the immortal Fay Wray.

By the time Watts and the dynamic title character get together the film really takes off and the viewer forgets about the first interminable hour with the bland Brody and the hopelessly inept Black. But as the final credits roll, one can't help thinking that if the brilliantly talented Jackson had hired a more disciplined film editor to lop off about half of the first hour of the film and a better casting director to find a more qualified actor to play Carl Denham, he might have ended up with a masterpiece to rival the 1933 original.
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