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2007 reviews in total 
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Propaganda Piece for the FBI, 25 May 2015

I watched "Down Three Dark Streets" because I wanted to add another notch to my film noir belt. But though it has some noirish qualities, it's really not much of a noir at all. Instead, it's one of those docudramas that were little more than propaganda pieces for one government agency or another, this one the FBI.

Broderick Crawford lends the film some gravitas as an FBI agent who takes over three cases from his friend and colleague who's murdered in the process of investigating one of them. They may all be related or they may not be. The question of whether or not they are doesn't generate much suspense for the viewer, if it was ever meant to. Ruth Roman is the protagonist at the center of the case that gets the most screen time. Martha Hyer does some screen chewing as a gangster's floozy, while Marisa Pavan, one year away from being nominated for an Oscar (for "The Rose Tattoo") plays a blind, sympathetic wife. There's some suspenseful atmosphere and forays into the seedy underbelly of L.A., and it's these qualities that bring it closest to belonging to the noir canon. But in most respects it settles for merely competent, and as a result, it's not especially memorable.

Grade: B-

Program Filler, 25 May 2015

John Bromfield, unknown to me, plays Joe, a drunken veteran who becomes the chief suspect in a series of murders plaguing his home town. The nominal back story implies that he was a once-promising golden boy gone a little bad; still, it seems implausible that everyone would so quickly be willing to turn against one of their own and assume him to be the guilty party on the flimsy evidence the police collect from the crime scene. That evidence consists almost entirely of a school ring, so everyone immediately assumes that the killer must be someone from Joe's graduating class -- apparently the idea of planting evidence never occurred to anyone. Indeed, this plot point becomes an unintentional joke, as suspect after suspect is asked "Where's your ring?" and if they're able to produce it, or merely say they still have it, everyone assumes they can't possibly be the murderer. That's some cracker jack detective work.

"Crime Against Joe" has no discernible directing style and no apparent reason for existing other than as a program filler. The screenplay is just too weak, and there's not enough style in the filmmaking to compensate for the story's failings. Julie London is the film's best asset, though mostly because she's so pretty, not because her character, that of Joe's reluctant love interest, generates much interest.

There's also a bizarre and somewhat inexplicable story line about a sleepwalking girl and her father's efforts to cover up his daughter's affliction, and how this cover up affects the case against Joe. Was sleepwalking something to be that ashamed of back in 1956?

Grade: C

Keeping Up with the Joneses, 22 May 2015

Though listed here at IMDb as "Too Late for Tears," the version I saw went by the much better title, "Killer Bait."

Whatever you want to call it, this is low-budget film noir at its best. Lizabeth Scott plays one of the most fatale femmes in noir history, a housewife whose desire to keep up with the Joneses turns her into a mercenary murderer. Through the kind of chance accident that so often kicks off the plots of films noir, she and her husband (Arthur Kennedy) become custodians of $60K that was going to be used to pay off a blackmailer. Not surprisingly, the blackmailer comes calling to collect, and he's not surprisingly played by Dan Duryea, who played sardonic unctuousness better than anyone. He thinks he can bully these inexperienced nobodies into giving him the money back, but he has no idea what he's in for with this no longer very demure housewife. Indeed, the film almost makes a joke out of how scared Duryea becomes of her, feeling the need to have a gun on him any time he's going to meet up with her.

"Killer Bait" is an example of why I love noir. These films were cheap and obscure. They weren't made to be big money makers and there wasn't as much need to make them crowd pleasing. For that reason, they're more honest than the big studio products of the time, cynical about American life in a way that other movies at the time weren't allowed to be. In this film, that pressure to conform to "normal" middle class existence in the post-war years, and the need to define one's success relative to others in materialistic terms, is enough to make one kill. Lizabeth Scott's character is American capitalist society taken to nightmarish extremes.

Directed by special effects wizard Byron Haskin, who proves that he's as at home in the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles as he is on the surface of Mars.

Grade: A

Mr. Turner (2014)
A Somewhat Obtuse Character Study, 21 May 2015

Mike Leigh is one of my favorite filmmakers, and one of the reasons I like him is that he always wants to show, not tell, with his movies. He puts characters on screen, haves them behave in the way that they will, and then lets his audience come to its own conclusions about them. You don't know how rare a quality that is in films until you see one that has it.

That said, I wouldn't have minded if Leigh had done a little bit more "telling" in Mr. Turner, a beautiful looking but somewhat obtuse film about the late life of painter J.M.W. Turner. Timothy Spall plays Turner brilliantly, as should come to no surprise to anyone who's seen Spall in any number of other films, Leigh's included. And I appreciated that this wasn't a conventional biopic, because who needs another one of those? But I felt like what did happen in this film wasn't quite worth the time it took to make it happen. I don't care that I didn't learn much about Turner the painter, but I would have liked to learn more about Turner the character. As it is, watching the film is like following around a taciturn, mumbly introvert as he goes about his daily business, and it recreates the reality of what that would be like perfectly without giving us much reason to care about why we're doing it.

We watch Mike Leigh movies for the characters, because they're always so wonderfully complicated and three dimensional and like real people instead of like fictional creations. But because his movies are all about the characters, those characters need to be interesting, and Mr. Turner just wasn't, at least not much.

A gorgeous film to look at though; it made me want to read a Victorian novel.

Academy Award nominated for its production design, cinematography, costume design and original score, but unfortunately shut out in all four categories.

Grade: B+

Wild (2014)
2 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
Into the Wild with Reese Witherspoon, 20 May 2015

A wonderful performance from Reese Witherspoon anchors this very good film about a troubled young woman who embarks on a miles-long hike as a sort of personal therapy to deal with the downward spiral of her life in the wake of her mother's (Laura Dern) death. Witherspoon reminds everyone what a good actress she is; I haven't been this impressed by her as an actress since "Election" way back in 1999 (and that includes her overrated Oscar-winning performance in "Walk the Line"). And it's nice to see Laura Dern again, who's popped up here and there over the past many years but has mostly been absent from the movie scene. The movie's editor deftly integrates flashbacks of Dern and Witherspoon together with the character's hike through the wild, and avoids the monotony that usually plagues films when structured this way.

One of the minor miracles of "Wild" is how subtly it explores not just the trials and dangers one would encounter in such a hike, but specifically how those trials and dangers are heightened, or at least are of a different nature, for a woman. Only once in the film is it overtly addressed, but before that scene late in the film, the director and Witherspoon have already conveyed without words how perilous such an adventure could be for a young woman, for whom every encounter with a strange man carries with it the possibility of sexual predation, even if it doesn't materialize (which, the film acknowledges, in most cases it doesn't). At the same time, the film restores one's faith a little bit in humanity, suggesting that most people are decent and kind and willing to help, no strings attached.

Witherspoon and Dern were both justly Oscar nominated for their performances, and the gorgeous Pacific West scenery deserved an award of its own.

Grade: A

St. Patrick. St. Valentine. St. Murray?, 20 May 2015

An amiable if predictable sitcom-ish film about a grumpy misanthrope (Bill Murray, who else?) who befriends the next door neighbor boy and proves that off-putting exteriors can mask the truly good people behind them.

How much you like the film will almost certainly depend on how much you like Bill Murray and his crusty but lovable routine. The film has not a single surprise; it plays out exactly as you would expect such a story to play out. But it has some charming performances by Melissa McCarthy, as an overwhelmed mom, and most especially Naomi Watts, who lights the film on fire every time she appears on screen as a pregnant Russian prostitute.

"St. Vincent" is one of those films that's entertaining, but you can understand why it didn't catch on much with just about anybody in its theatrical release.

Grade: B

This Story Made a Much Better Film in 1937, 20 May 2015

A modern day version of the 1937 Leo McCarey film "Make Way for Tomorrow," with a gay married couple in place of the elderly husband and wife who served as the focus of the earlier film. "Love Is Strange" has two wonderful actors at its center -- John Lithgow and Alfred Molina -- but they're not convincing as a gay couple, coming across instead like old college buddies crashing with one another. The film is too morose and dreary by far -- the saving grace of McCarey's film is the final third, when the elderly parents embark on one final day of being together before being separated indefinitely (perhaps forever), and they open a window for the viewer on to the rich history they share and which their selfish children have no knowledge of. The film is still tragic, but the tragedy is tempered a bit by the fact that these two people have enjoyed a life together and built a world of memories with each other that no one can take from them. No such message is conveyed in "Love Is Strange"; the result is more depressing than it is bittersweet.

"Love Is Strange" is yet one more cautionary tale for those who want to remake classics. Don't bother if you're going to make a film that is inferior in every way to the original.

Grade: B-

The Youth of Today, 20 May 2015

So-so movie from writer/director Noah Baumbach about two forty-somethings (Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts) who befriend a much younger couple (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried) and attempt to recapture some of their lost youth to predictably disastrous results.

I appreciated the takeaway from Baumbach's film, namely that the lost youth we all spend our time lamenting wasn't really all that great in the first place, and we only think it was because we're looking at it through the distorted lens of nostalgia. Driver's character, who Stiller puts up on a pedestal for his artistic integrity, ends up being a douche, proving that older people do not corner the market on cynicism and opportunism. What makes Stiller and Watts ultimately happy is settling down into the joys of being in their mid-40s, which of course are different than the joys of 25, but certainly aren't lesser, and in many ways are even better. As someone who just turned 40 myself, a welcome message.

But message aside, it's the execution of "While We're Young" that limits its potential. It just doesn't have the spark that might have made this a sharp and smart commentary on the age divide. Like so many of Baumbach's movies, it strands you with annoying characters without giving you ample reward for sticking around to see how their stories will resolve themselves.

Stiller gets most of the screen time and limelight, but the film is worth watching for Watts (every movie she's in is worth watching for her), while Charles Grodin adds some satisfying gruffness as Watts's dad. Amanda Seyfried fades into the background, and Adam Driver made me want to punch him in the face.

Grade: B

3 out of 6 people found the following review useful:
A Movie About the Greatest Horror of All, 19 April 2015

If you can get over your initial disappointment that "The Babadook" is not the scarefest it was built up to be, you might just find yourself enjoying a well-made and even groundbreaking -- in its own modest way -- psychological thriller.

And don't get me wrong: "The Babadook" is scary, it's just not scary in the visceral horror movie kind of way. It's scary because it's about mental illness, and anyone who's dealt with illnesses of the mind in real life knows that they are far more horrifying than any monsters or serial killers horror movies can conjure. It's impossible to watch "The Babadook" and not experience it as a kind of gender-reversed version of "The Shining." But it has enough originality to stand on its own apart from Kubrick's classic. And it's that gender reversal that makes "The Babadook" so horrifying and so unlike any other horror movie I can think of. How often are mothers the monsters, and how much scarier does it get from a child's point of view than to find your chief enemy being the one person who you take for granted will protect you at all costs.

Indeed, "The Babadook" is almost too effective at times. I'm particularly bothered by films about children in peril, and especially films that dwell on the fear of a child. "The Babadook" is tough to watch at times for this reason, and it came close to crossing the border that separates for me a film that's disturbing in an enjoyable way and one that's not.

I loved the ending of this film, and the suggestion that an emotion like grief is not something to be eradicated but rather something that needs to be attended to and nurtured for the rest of a person's life. You can keep it at bay and not let it dominate you, but the only way to do that is to acknowledge that it's there every once in a while.

Grade: A-

Top Five (2014)
0 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
"Top Five" Is, Unfortunately, Terrible, 18 April 2015

I like Chris Rock a lot, couldn't wait to see this film based on the terrific reviews it received, and sat in stunned disbelief as the full measure of its awfulness gradually made itself clear to me.

Rock was inspired by his own admission by Woody Allen, and most notably "Annie Hall," when making this film. The inspiration is very clear, but Allen had much more going for him in his movie than Rock does in his. Things like a funny script, complex characters, chemistry with his leading lady. "Top Five" has none of these qualities. What does it offer instead? Gutter humor and cameos by bored-looking comedians.

The predominant theme of "Top Five" is the struggle of someone who's only known for comedy being taken seriously as an artist and filmmaker. This perhaps more than anything else accounts for Rock's homage to Woody Allen, as that's exactly where Allen was in his own career when he made "Annie Hall." But a huge difference is that Allen had been making movies, hilarious ones, for a decade before he had that artistic identity crisis. Chris Rock is someone known primarily as a stand-up comic who's expressing that angst on his very first film. It's hard to care about his problem and even harder to sit through a bad movie about it.

Grade: D

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