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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.
Crossed Swords (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.