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Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)
This is one of those films where it doesn't really matter what the story is, or even if there is one, because you are immediately and continuously enthralled by the outright skill of the cast. Here, though, David Mamet has adapted his own play for the screen, the result being a blend of Arthur Miller tragedy, Eugene O'Neill pathos, and a little Tennessee Williams thrown in for flavour. I felt as though I were being granted a coveted privilege of watching the iconic Jack Lemmon as the past-his-prime salesman, and the dynamo Al Pacino as the young hard-driving "comer," interact at their unbridled best. Either of them would have totally overshadowed a weaker counterpart. Kevin Spacey plays the cold, self-interested office manager to the hilt. I'm sure James Foley was criticized for "filming a stage production," but I say he did exactly the right thing to leave this Hall of Fame cast to bounce off each other and Mamet's story with minimal interference and no gimmicks. This movie is 100 minutes well spent: you won't soon forget it.
The Pacifier (2005)
Give it a miss.
There is only one convincing scene in this attempt at a thriller-family sitcom hybrid. That's the opening one where Vin Diesel gets to be a Navy SEAL on a rescue mission and blow up lots of bad guys. Once he gets saddled with this family of kids to guard (I've honestly already forgotten just how many there were), he appears to wish he were in ANY movie except this one -- and so do they! The plot, such as it is, involves a hodge-podge of suburban ninjas (yes, really), hidden vaults and honest-looking betrayers. Don't bother trying to figure it out. The only exception to this cinematic disaster is Max Thieriot, who is quite good as the sulky teenager. I hate judging by appearances, but he has these deep-set dark eyes that make you just expect his character to express profound thoughts, or at least dark ones. Unfortunately for him, this film is not worth watching.
The Prince and the Pauper (1977)
Great support, but the center does not hold...
This is an oddly mangled version of the famous Mark Twain novel. Historically, Edward VI became king at age 10, and had been dead for three years when he would have been Mark Lester's age (18) at the making of this film. Why director Richard Fleischer chose to transmute the title characters from children to late adolescents is a mystery to me. It makes their bumbling in their respective reversed roles more pathetic than sympathetic. Mark Lester's performance, in both roles of prince and pauper, I thought was distinctly undistinguished in view of his earlier achievements. Perhaps he was already thinking of his medical career ahead. Now having said all that, the strength of this movie, such as it is, lies in its powerhouse supporting cast: Oliver Reed, Raquel Welch, Ernest Borgnine as the abusive father, George C. Scott as a brigand, Rex Harrison, David Hemmings, and even Charlton Heston as Henry VIII -- WOW! As I watched, I wished they had just left the protagonists out altogether and let these master actors tell the story of Sixteenth Century Tudor intrigues. To view or not to view? It's a toss-up: you decide.
Baby Geniuses (1999)
A fun romp
I didn't think this movie was as bad as apparently most IMDb viewers did. It's based loosely on a folk belief that babies really know everything, but forget it as they learn how to talk and therefore can never communicate the "secrets of life" to others. The film obviously is intended for an audience of very small children, and the characters and plot are all one-dimensional and exaggerated, but allowing for all that the story made a sort of sense, with definable good guys and bad guys. The computer graphics were just amazing: making the babies' mouths talk, having them walk and dance and show appropriate expressions and emotions. After a while, you simply forget that BABIES CAN'T DO THAT! I found myself laughing out loud and had a thoroughly good time.
Message in a Cell Phone (2000)
Hooray for these kids!
Once you get past the implausibility of the falsely-imprisoned father/cop encouraging his 11-y/o son to unravel and confront the murderous conspiracy that put him in jail, this movie is actually quite good. Well, there is the coincidence of the cell phone with the message in it just happening to fall into the hands of the protagonist (Nick Whitaker) and his buddies, but that one's pretty standard and necessary to make the story happen. Anyway, once things get going, the three boys really show their stuff: they're ingenious and creative without unrealistic precocity; they're loyal to and willing to take risks for each other, but not without reservations and bitching; and they act independent of and ofttimes in opposition to the skein of adult strictures. The last is always my primary test of a kid movie, i.e. whether or not the characters initiate and carry through reasonable actions and solve problems on their own -- especially in ways that draw on the special skills and abilities that children possess and adults do not. This film gets high marks in that department. I also liked that the threesome of pals represented three very different types of boys -- maybe a bit exaggerated -- and formed an engaging "three musketeers" with at least one of whom any young person watching could identify.
Just a fun movie.
This movie reminded me of "Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle." It's not INTENDED to be taken seriously, and therefore picking at it is just silly. Just like in H&K, here too some really superior acting not only saves the totally implausible story from overpowering the action and humor, but actually renders it an asset. It's obvious that everybody involved, both the actors and their fictional counterparts, is having a great time. Angelina Jolie is especially notable for her rendition of semi-goth girl hacker "Acid Burn." Both she and Jonny Lee Miller are still deservedly in the rising arc of their careers. Oh yes, in case you couldn't guess: they hack into some really important stuff involving the government and big business (duhhh). If you want to have some fun with superannuated teens in a story that keeps moving from beginning to end, "Hackers" will fill your bill.
House Arrest (1996)
Funny with a useful lesson
This comedy, about a teenager and his younger sister who lock their parents in the basement until they work out their marital problems, is not as bad as it sounds. We wind up with a bunch of kids upstairs who know how to relate to one another but gradually have to work out how to keep practical things running, and a bunch of adults downstairs who are just the opposite. In truth, neither side does very well, but at least this is not the tired condescension of the kids screwing up and needing to be rescued by the adults: both groups are portrayed with a mix of severity and sympathy. Throw in a meddling retired chief of police across the street, and make him Ray Walston whom I think everybody loved most in "Picket Fences," and you have a film that is very entertaining, and also carries across some deeper meaning about what contributions young people and older ones can make to each other's ongoing development. Kyle Howard was 18 trying to play 14, which took a good deal of suspension of disbelief, but that miscasting seems to be an obsession Hollywood just can't seem to grow out of.
Children Underground (2001)
A stand-out in a crowded genre.
This is a very powerful documentary of the lives of children in Romania in the late 1990's living in a subway station. By careful filming and concentrating on five children ranging in age from 8 to 15, and by using mostly their own words and interactions, the stark realities of their survival are allowed to show themselves rather than being extracted by force. The follow-up material at the end of the film as well as in the supplements on the DVD are as significant for the effect on the viewer as the body of the documentary. Although the home conditions from which these young people fled are repugnant to our sensibilities, it's clear there is more to their endurance of street life than that. When one boy is asked what he likes best about living in the streets, he thinks a moment and then shouts, "I get to live FREE!" and does a little dance to illustrate. How sad that children should have to sacrifice such basic amenities as health care and education to get a little control over their own lives. In an interview, the film-maker confesses that the most difficult task of all was not intervening as these small people were beaten and insulted, and as they remained perpetually intoxicated on volatile solvents. I agree with the choice. Intervention in the immediate term would not have altered the course of any of their lives, and the impact of the film would have been destroyed. I hope that BOTH lessons here are not lost on the audience -- not only what privations follow a society's collapse, but also what children and ALL humans are willing to suffer in order to gain some personal autonomy.
Lord of the Flies (1963)
Is evil inherent?
This is the classic B&W British version of William Golding's book set during WWII about a group of schoolboys marooned on a small tropical island in the Pacific. There is much to be praised and much to be criticized: among the latter the distracting background music and the translation of Christian symbolism from implicit to explicit. However, the strongest impression remains the genuine expression of deep, often overwhelming emotions, portrayed so beautifully by the non-professional cast. It is noteworthy that, in interviews published in the New Yorker magazine thirty years later, the now-grown boys recalled the experience of making "Lord of the Flies" as a signal step in their maturation and development. Although I believe only one went on to further work in the performing arts, they all returned from Puerto Rico (the filming location) older in more than months. Many argue against Golding's essential tenet that "human nature" is inherently evil and that "civilisation" provides only a veneer of protection, but whatever one's opinion this film highlights the issue with inescapable intensity.
A Far Off Place (1993)
The cleanest desert
There's only so much disneyfication one can stomach -- even with the best of intentions. This story of two teenagers and a bushman trekking 2000 km across the Kalahari when the young people survive a massacre that kills their families way exceeded my tolerance. The young man, a city slicker who appears to have never walked further than from his TV to his skateboard, endures the ordeal in hiking boots without so much as a swollen foot. The bushman happily takes a month or two off from feeding his own family to escort the duo across the desert. Of course it goes without saying that everyone remains completely chaste, nobody smells bad, and coiffures get only minimally (and artfully) messed up. Ethan Embry and Reese Witherspoon, both of whom have have continued and advanced steadily as actors up to the present, do the best they can with an impossible script. With just a wee bit of realism, this could have been a worthwhile adventure.
Captains Courageous (1937)
Among the greatest of the great.
What do you get when you take one of the greatest directors of his time (Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind), and perhaps of all time, give him a cast that reads like a Who's Who in Hollywood of the 1930's and 40's (Spencer Tracy, Lionel Barrymore, John Carradine), and have them all perform a swashbuckling tear-jerker by Rudyard Kipling? The story, by the way, is of a spoiled-rotten young lad who falls off an ocean liner and is picked up by fishermen on their way out for a three-month tour of hard work and rough living. Well, put all of this together and you get a pretty good candidate for a top movie in the history of film-making -- and that's before you add in the protagonist! I'll avoid any debate about Shirley Temple by just stating that, in my not-so-humble opinion, Freddie Bartholomew was by far the greatest BOY actor ever. Just to watch him in this film and in Little Lord Fauntleroy clinches it. Harvey Cheyne and Cedric Erroll (Fauntleroy) are about as opposite characters as two boys could be, and Bartholomew portrays each of them with such depth and texture you would pledge each was his "real" personality. What a pity that because of age-discrimination he was never able to enjoy the fruits of his labor: adults fought over it and stole all of it from him. Please view this movie, preferably in good company and when you won't be distracted; you'll not want to miss a second of it.
Most people are shallow. We knew that.
This must be an "art film." It may be acceptable on the festival circuit to watch two guys wander around lost, and largely silent, in a beautiful desert for nearly two hours, but not in my living room thank you. When the camera begins a 360-degree pan and doesn't even pause as it passes the protagonists, I presume we are supposed to think about the insignificance of human life against the backdrop of mountains and sand. I admit I did think about that -- the first time. By the third time, my thought was, "Have they lost their minds?" If the thematic message here is that two intelligent members of the current twenty-something generation cannot engage in genuine, self-revelatory communication even when confronted with nearly certain death, then I guess I got the point, though one could hardly call it a surprise. I was reminded of that cinema chestnut, "This movie had a surprise ending: just when you thought it would NEVER end, it did."
Summer School (1987)
Pretty worthless except for a few chuckles
This is a really silly teen movie, where all the teens are well into their twenties, as usual for Hollywood. I guess it was trying to hitch a ride on the success of "The Breakfast Club" two years earlier, but it lacks that cult classic's poignancy and dark humor. This one, about a gym teacher shanghaied into teaching remedial English instead of going to Hawaii, has its amusing moments, but basically is entirely predictable, and the characters are so shallow it's hard to care what happens to them, even for an hour and a half. I doubt that Phys Ed teachers, who have to graduate from college just like every other teacher, and who've always seemed to me like a decent bunch of people, would much appreciate the implication that they are all dummies. Oh well... For all you J.A.G. fans, you get to see Patrick Labyorteaux a decade before he became Bud Roberts.
The Power of One (1992)
A sad piece of history
There's always a problem with casting for a film that spans childhood, unless one has a spare Culkin handy to play the younger protagonist. In this case the transitions seemed especially jarring -- not so much the looks, but mannerisms and general temperament -- as though one character had left and been replaced by another. This was not present in the novel, where in fact emphasis was placed on the continuity of person, and the roots of "P.K's" extraordinary achievements in his painful childhood experiences and losses. This is a story about the initiation of official government apartheid in South Africa in 1948, about its brutality, and about the beginnings of the insouciant individuals who would eventually overthrow it at the end of the century. That's an unusual angle from which to view this particular stain on human history. While the personal details and character development so important in the book are largely absent from the movie, its historical and geopolitical purpose is served, and I believe that makes this film worth watching.
A period piece
This is a story about a trio of very early adolescent boys: the dreamer, the geek and the "tough." Pretty typical, right? Except the dreamer is Ethan Hawke and the geek is River Pheonix, both in their movie debuts, though Phoenix had already appeared a number of times on TV. The story itself is rather dated: cobbling together a sophisticated computer and then later a spaceship from junk probably isn't going to go over too well with today's savvy youth. Also, it descends into rather awful silliness in its second half. Nevertheless, many fans rank this film in the upper echelons of "boy movies" because of the exceptional characterizations performed by the young actors. Ethan Hawke's serious talent is apparent, and as always River Phoenix instills a dark undercurrent into his character which derived obviously, at least in retrospect, from the darkness within himself. The third boy, Jason Presson, was also exceedingly skilled, but he appears to have dropped out of the cinema business in his twenties. To sum up, very young kids may find this movie hysterically funny, while aficionados of the genre will appreciate what extremely talented child actors can do with a terrible script.
Dare mo shiranai (2004)
Get the right message!
This is a very powerful film about the plight of four siblings abandoned by their mother in modern urban Japan. It could as easily be set in any "industrialized" nation. The acting by the four child protagonists is superb, utterly convincing, with nothing overdone and the viewer left to feel and express all the wrenching emotions for which the characters themselves have little time or energy. Also shown plainly, though I'm sure it will be ignored by almost all viewers, is that the worst of the difficulties in survival experienced by these young people and their devastating consequences, are the results not of their lack knowledge, ingenuity or rationality, but of the cruel and arbitrary restrictions placed upon them because of their age. How different would have been the course of events if only these four had had access to the educational, economic, social and even medical services otherwise available to everyone, and not been reduced to the status of fugitives for the "crime" of living on their own!
Prepare yourself before viewing.
This is the story of a young adolescent in an Italian mining community, ostensibly (or hopefully) at some time in the past. He is indentured in a traditional apprenticeship system that makes him a virtual slave to his bosses. The inferno-like conditions of sulphur mining, the sexual exploitation resulting from week-long separation of husbands from wives, and the ever-present danger of the mines combine construct a real-life allegory for the dual "open" and "subterranean" levels of human nature. Acla's boyish exuberance, sensitivity and idealism set him fundamentally at odds with his environment. Aurelio Grimaldi's excellent direction ensures you won't know the outcome until the closing credits roll. This is not an easy film to watch: I felt emotionally drained for a long time afterward. Be warned.
Little Lord Fauntleroy (1936)
They just don't make 'em like this anymore. You can take all your Culkins and Woods and Osments and roll them into one, and they still couldn't shine the shoes of Freddie Bartholemew (as Mickey Rooney does in this film). The difference, I believe, is that these contemporary performers think of themselves as CHILD actors, where Bartholemew and his contemporary Shirley Temple thought of themselves as ACTORS -- just as Rooney's character thought of himself as a BUSINESSMAN. The effect is palpable: you just can't fake being a real person. This of course is the familiar story of an American boy in the 1880's who learns he is the heir to an English earl and must go live with the old bloke, who parenthetically hates his mother, in an old castle. Needless to say, it is the earl who is transformed by the strength and purity of the boy's character, and not the intended reverse. Every scene and every line in this film is perfect, and if it is a "period piece," then I say we'd be so much better off if we could return to that "period."
Hotaru no haka (1988)
Please watch this movie.
I am no fan of animated features, but this film is extraordinary by any standard. The Japanese "anime" method doesn't focus on the animation per se, which would be considered "primitive" by contemporary American standards, but the scenery and backgrounds themselves are dream-like watercolours, even if many of those dreams in this case would be nightmares. The story is set in Kobe during the Allied firebombing, but the message is transmitted obliquely through the plight of a young student and his little sister who are rendered homeless in the devastated city. In an interview, the creator remarked that it would never enter his mind to use adults for the children's voices, despite the arduous task of guiding a five-year-old girl through the multiple takes required in a full-length film. Always by indirection, this sincerity makes a great impact. Perhaps I'm just a softy old coot, but I'm choked up even writing this review. This is NOT just another movie about WWII.
Million Dollar Baby (2004)
Johnny we hardly knew ya.
This is a moving yet frustrating film about the short career of a female boxer trained by an old embittered manager/trainer who still feels responsible for his former-protégé-now-business-partner's loss of an eye many years before. The three main characters are played, respectively, by Hillary Swank, Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman -- all powerhouse actors. The problem is that none of them has much to work with: the plot feels more like an outline than a finished story. Perhaps Eastwood, who also directed, was trying to convey the idea that in the ethically dubious world of professional boxing people just don't know each other very well, or want to. However, that shallowness of character makes it awfully hard for us, as viewers, to identify with the potentially very dramatic events that occur. Hillary Swank again puts in a stellar performance as the androgynous woman who remains persistently feminine despite outward appearances, just as she did in "Boys Don't Cry." And one wonders throughout, as so often ("Levity" in particular comes to mind) why Morgan Freeman doesn't get top billing when he is the top character and top performer in every respect.
This is a kind of "morality play," featuring a young albino man who has superhuman intellect and psychic powers ostensibly due to his mother having been killed by lightning while he was still in utero. With his ability to read the thoughts and feelings of others, he guages adult social relationships and situations with piercing accuracy, and he's certainly not autistic as he expresses emotions strongly and appropriately. Nevertheless, when confronted by other supposed adolescent boys (they all appeared about 25), he can't even figure out when it's in his best interest to keep his mouth shut. None of the characters, including his, is developed very much. Also, the soundtrack was too loud and too cloying, like something from a 1940's radio soap opera. I found nothing in particular to recommend this one.
A real hoot!
I didn't know whether to rate this movie "1" or "10," so I had to compromise. It is so incredibly bad that one can only love it. Even by 1966 standards, one can only surmise that the sets, special effects and even the acting are all tongue-in-cheek and intentional "camp." I was reminded of television's first attempt at science fiction, "Captain Video and His Video Rangers" (1949-1955), where even as a small child I couldn't help noticing the string pulling the toy spaceship across a star background! The evil Daleks resemble fancy metallic shuttlecocks, and I was hoping that at the end a giant badminton racquet would appear and bat them away. If you like sci-fi, are a little bit weird, and enjoy giggling through your nose for a couple of hours, this disc is for you!
Five Children and It (2004)
For Freddie Highmore fans ONLY...
This is one of those "family" movies that I can't imagine having much appeal to anyone over about 9. A group of siblings discovers a "sand fairy" (yes, really) conveniently located at the end of a not-so-secret passage at the country home of their eccentric uncle, to which they've been evacuated from the London blitz. ...And there you have it, all in one sentence. The story is about the role of magic in childhood and the danger of getting wishes fulfilled, but neither of these issues is examined in a way that would be interesting to adults or instructive to children (or vice versa!). The only reason I can think of for watching this is to see how starkly Freddie Highmore's outstanding talent stands out from the rest of the mediocre performances.
Very very well done.
This is not your typical Christmas movie. Rather, it confronts the Big Question of what it means to be a good person, and how exactly one might go about that in today's world. Protagonist Damian and his older brother Anthony come into a large fortune in a rather unusual manner. Their resulting dilemma is rescued from cliché by being set just as UK is poised to switch to the euro. Damian, played by 10-y/o Alexander Nathan Etel, is one of those "spiritual" children we've all known who at once seem both much older and much younger than their years. His movement between the worlds of reality and fantasy is presented in a manner that acknowledges his special child-consciousness without demeaning it. The materialist older brother, played by 13-y/o Lewis Owen McGibbon (do all child actors have to have three names to make up for their small stature?) provides a convincing antiphony and relief from Damian's unrelenting goodness. In all, this is a thoughtful film, with some quite interesting cinematography too, that REALLY will hold the attention of all family members.
Keep shaking your hair, Mark.
I suppose if you were 12 years old and lived in a lighthouse on a small island, you might be as naive as Mark Lester's character, "Ziggy," in this film. I suspect, though, that "not very smart" would need to be added, and I wonder if the correspondence to the comic strip character of the same name is more than coincidental. Everybody in this movie is a stereotype, but most irritating was Mark Lester himself who, after doing such a fine job in "Oliver!," here only gets to run around looking perpetually frightened out of his wits. I don't know for whom exactly this one was intended, but if you're not totally impressed by loud motorcycles with bad mufflers, I'd give it a miss.