9 Reviews
Sort by:
Filter by Rating:
Witty and inventive indy film that goes outside genres
18 September 2011
Warning: Spoilers
"Lady Magdalene's" combines an inventive story with a cast and crew (and a writer - director - producer - supporting actor - composer - lyricist) who are clearly having the time and delight of their lives. Their enthusiasm shows up on screen.

It also ends up having "six genres in a head-on collision," as author Brad Linaweaver described it. That won't be to everyone's taste, especially for those wanting a straight-ahead plot. Yet it has considerable rewards if one is patient with it, as I admit that I had to be.

This "suspense/comedy" has an IRS investigator, on inter-agency exchange duty as a federal air marshal, being called out for making a misstep in apprehending a suspected terrorist. He's actually right in his suspicions, though he doesn't know that.

Yet his supposed screw-up gets him sent to one of the oddest corners of IRS purgatory: He's made the latest receiver and manager of a legal brothel, long troubled and owing taxes, outside Pahrump, Nevada. (This was inspired by an actual case.)

The lovely, erhm, working women all around him may be hiding a few surprises, including links to the case that put him in career limbo. And is the pleasure-fulfillment engineer he's falling for exactly who she seems? He's determined to track these mysteries, and his chase goes from a shooting range to Hoover Dam to a mysterious medical research facility. Oh, and to a Pahrump casino with two-for-one dinner buffets!

Nichelle Nichols is the determined, beset, but always sexy madam of this establishment, trying to clean up after her late lover (its former owner) and his losses at the craps table. She has the girls join her in a stab at gaining local respectability that's too pleasing and unexpected to be spoiled here.

The tracing-the-terrorists action, ultimately weaving through the silken curtains of Lady Magdalene's pleasure dome, does gets too intricate in the last half-hour, though the story leaves no loose ends. It also is more clearly told in the DVD / demand-video version than in the earlier theatrical screenings, with background details being placed in flashbacks.

Presenting all the detail without confusion finally gets beyond the acting confidence of most of the undeniably lovely working girls — though not at all for Nichols, nor for fellow leads Ethan Keogh and Susan Smythe. Yet they're all game for the effort, and their enthusiasm ends up winning out, right up to and through the closing credits.

I saw this film being developed over several years of updates from protean creator Neil Schulman himself at libertarian venues. (Although I have known him for a decade, I had no role in this production, nor did I write this review at his instigation.)

It doesn't have high polish, yet it makes more out of a half-million dollars than most big-studio "high concepts" do with fifty times the budget and a tenth the intelligence.

It did save money to have Neil's mother, daughter, ex-wife, and late father (!) manage to take part in the proceedings, as well as other friends who add anti-authoritarian asides that never lose the comic beat. (The plot does have digressions, but they end up being meaningful in retrospect.)

This is an independent creation that makes the most of current tools, but does suffer at times from the limitations of its budget. The sound levels and editing are inconsistent, though such faults are less evident on the small screen than on the large. Some of the visual contrasts and transitions don't work smoothly, though the DVD edit improves on earlier screenings.

Yet if you're in the mood for an audacious esthetic goulash — not at all evenly cooked to one consistency of tone — that combines thriller, comedy, musical, camp, satirical, and political sensibilities, you will very likely be well-entertained.
3 out of 38 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.
Defending the many parts of a classic Gershwin-fest
12 December 2010
Warning: Spoilers
This is a film, I've found, about which nobody can ever be persuaded. It's too much an example of its various genres (musical, dance-fest, inevitable romance, exotic setting) to ever transcend them. That locks one's reaction to this undeniable classic of the studio system — "Made in Hollywood, U.S.A.," indeed — into whether one likes those genres.

If you love any or all of George (and Ira) Gershwin's work, intricate choreography, ballet taken to literally Impressionistic heights, Paris long-shots (yes, the second unit did go there, it wasn't all done in Culver City), and happy endings, you'll dote on this film.

If you can't stand plots that mainly tie musical performances together, actors who are chosen for dance or singing talent more than thespian skills, or back-lot artifice (yes, the brilliant 17-minute ballet at the end is the ultimate example), you won't see it twice.

That makes one smoothly written appraisal difficult. It's full of elements popping up from each genre. It's the studio system at its most and least successful. (Not "worst." Nothing with the Gershwins' work can EVER be a "worst.")

So I'll jump in to defend several elements against some strong criticisms. Some of this depends on remembering the elephant on those "Parisian" streets: There'd been a war on.

~ Gene Kelly (Jerry Mulligan): He's frequently derided as too old, either in absolute terms or relative to the rest of the cast. Not at all! Exuberant skill undercuts his physical age by at least 15 years here. It also makes Jerry's pursuit of Lise far more plausible. I'm sorry, but it's just not "stalking," then or now. It's elegantly converted from machismo, the kind that many women have complained about when seeing it ... and even more when they don't see it.

Nor is Kelly so overambitious as to fit uncomfortably in a penniless-painter role, as some have said. It's too easy to forget that Jerry's been in Paris since the Second World War ended. That tore spirits or bodies apart for nearly all the Americans who fought in it, sooner or later, partly from most being forced into a crusader role they didn't want. This G.I. could need a few years to reawaken his capacity for talented work and fervent love.

~ Leslie Caron (Lise): She didn't show earnest or assertive acting until "Gigi," true enough. She was a brilliant dancing partner for Kelly, and not much more. (Those eyes and that smile, though, were to die for even at that age.) Yet consider Lise's back story, such as it is — losing her parents, Resistance fighters, before adolescence, and growing up with mentors instead. Wouldn't that have made her less confident about what the world would bring to her? She, as well as Mulligan, blossoms slowly after a dry spell.

~ Georges Guétary (Henri): He's the grounded contrast to Jerry's shallower-rooted American. His confidence and resilience aren't at all overblown. He's had a performing career and he's sticking to making the most of it, which will include Lise if it can, but will ultimately go on without her if it must. This boulevardier has a quiet persistence that isn't immediately evident.

~ Oscar Levant (Adam): No, he is not at all superfluous to the story, nor to the romantic entanglements. Just look at the scene in the café where he's sitting between Henri and Jerry, and only he knows that the others love the same girl. His frantic reactions, when the men unknowingly talk about the same object of affection, show priceless comic timing and subtly discharge any over-emotion.

Levant was a brilliant pianist, and this friend of the composer had to have a Gershwin showcase. (The last movement of the "Concerto in F," where he's imagining himself also as orchestra, conductor, and audience.) Yet he's not a survivor, as Jerry and Lise are, and he's not above it all, as Henri is. He has unfulfilled ambition and imagination, yet stays involved enough in life to appreciate enthusiasm and stay connected to friends. His deflation of Jerry's sponsor at the end is not just a bon mot, but an act of loyalty.

~ Nina Foch (Milo): Okay, she's a bit too young and beautiful to be entirely convincing as Jerry's older patron. Yet she has the most acting skills of any of the main characters, and she takes a thankless position in the story and makes it both dignified and funny. Her possessiveness about Jerry is understandable and is offset by considerable good humor and charm. She has ambitions, romantic and otherwise, but she's not insincere about them, as out-sized as they may be. Milo's rising interest and final withdrawal are both quietly skilled and acted out in a minimum of screen time.

~ The plot: Yes, it mainly ties the music together and compresses events to make room. Yes, at times it makes Jerry too persistent, Adam too acerbic, Milo too grasping, Lise too unquestioning, Henri too accepting. Yet it remains remarkable for making so many genres work together at all! Alan Jay Lerner knew it was just functional (Oscar notwithstanding). It was meant to turn an artistic salad, with Gershwin lettuce, into a tasty meal for the viewer, and it more than succeeded in doing so.

... So is this, even for a lover of the Gershwins' music, anywhere near perfect? It comes very close. The plot more than exceeds the burdens put upon it, but it still has little resonance, so I take away one star. Yet the actors rise to their situations and show their strengths beautifully.

It really comes down to one truth, as a lyric says: "Our love is here to stay." Not necessarily for the studio confectionery, or the mannered acting, or the utility plot. But for the incomparable Gershwins, and for what could be so ably strung upon their brilliance.
3 out of 4 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.
The Flock (2007)
Nothing to "Flock" to see
2 July 2010
I finally caught "The Flock" on HBO. A taping at 4:20 am while I was asleep, true, but it's better watched at that hour, methinks. It was apparently only released to theaters in Japan and Turkey, from all reports, but North Americans really didn't miss much.

It's professionally produced, pairs Claire Danes memorably with Richard Gere, and makes their interplay (standard retiring-burnout-and-protégé) entirely believable in most ways.

The gore and corpses aren't beyond those in many modern horror movies, though the camera often lingers more than it should. The fetishes (and worse) of Gere's monitored ex-cons shouldn't shock anyone who's ever been in a triple-X shop.

Danes's acting is superb, especially in pursuing an abductor's trail (standard police-procedural, though by non-cops) with Gere's brooding and effective Errol. What blew a hole in this, though, is that she was miscast in the first place.

Even though one of Gere's well-worn "flock" is female, nearly all are intimidating men, and the role her character Allison is training to take up calls for more heft. Both physically and professionally.

I didn't believe for one minute that Allison chose such a grueling job out of anything more than economic need, certainly not from any more personal calling. No hints are made as to her motivation, nor is anything mentioned of her personal life, beyond nosy behavior and a clumsy allusion by compulsive background-checker Errol.

It's a miscasting on a par with what was done with Danes in "The Mod Squad," but unlike that idiocy of a plot-mangled remake, this gives Danes a quite strong setup — and much gore and many sad fetishes — to play against. If you accept that someone of her perception and refinement would ever take that job in the first place, that is.

Turn to it on cable, but I wouldn't take the effort to even go to the video store or put it in a Netflix queue. It's worth one viewing.

(Most of this review originally appeared on the IMDb board for Claire Danes, followed by considerable discussion.)
6 out of 8 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.
Delightful and subtle, O. Henry twists, vastly underrated
7 August 2008
Stories intertwine through our lives, around life events, past our passions, and a few stories themselves remind us of this. "'Til There Was You" makes this self-conscious storytelling into a delightful journey.

Two journeys, in fact, because it takes the title literally. Two fascinating people (writer Jeanne Tripplehorn, architect Dylan McDermott) are shown growing up and constantly seeking passion and connection in their lives, but finding no way to hold on to either.

When a bit of serendipity comes along, they both are transformed: An historic and almost otherworldly Los Angeles apartment house shows magic and belonging to her, substance and commitment to him. The ironies lie in her defending it in anonymous letters, his falling in love with the letters while designing the building's replacement, the building being owned by his lover, whose book is being ghostwritten by ... but you may get the idea. The writer and the architect are woven together by ties and resonances they cannot imagine, and yet they've never even (formally) met.

It's a rich, intricate, hilarious, and wry screenplay, written by a principal writer of "thirtysomething" and writer/creator of "My So-Called Life." The acting is touching and passionate, especially when one realizes that it's two connecting love stories - about learning to love and respect yourself, before you can find the serendipities of life. This isn't a conventional romantic comedy or drama. The couple isn't what is important here. The individuals are.

In "The Fountainhead," Ayn Rand wrote: "To say 'I love you,' one must know first how to say the 'I.'" These characters don't know, at first, but they're open to life, and they find out, playing with and against friends, neighbors, and lovers. Their journey is what will enthrall you. The ending almost doesn't matter.

See this, on cable or disc, and give it your full attention. You will be rewarded!
5 out of 8 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.
Stage Beauty (2004)
Art wins over artifice, Crudup and Danes triumph
16 October 2004
"Stage Beauty" succeeds beautifully in what any good period piece does, whether set 300 years ago or 300 years from now. It takes us into that setting, finds evocative characters, and has them bring up plot matters that resonate. With us, that is ... not necessarily with those actually living in the time depicted.

I say this because the central element of the story has been described as unbelievable or unconvincing by some critics. Ned Kynaston (Billy Crudup), at the end of his run in playing female parts, is pulled from personal and professional despair through the insight and love of Maria (Claire Danes), his dresser and successor -- and they create a triumph out of this by bringing some real emotion to the Restoration stage.

This has been decried as bringing Method acting to the 17th Century. It's nothing of the kind. Innovation is made during a fertile, provocative period of history. It did take 250 years to get away from excess artifice and gesture on stage. Yet "Stage Beauty" makes you believe that these characters could have accomplished it in the 1660s.

If you can live with that, showing a success on stage that we can believe, even if it couldn't "actually have happened" ... then you'll enjoy this story. I was riveted by the way Ned and Maria turn their mutual fortunes around. So was Rupert Everett's wryly spoken Charles II, and so, perhaps, will you.

The story centers on Ned's withering and growth in the face of adversity, and Crudup shows a huge range of emotions in carrying out this character's experiences. Complacency, haughtiness, sardonic amusement, appalled shock, tenderness -- but most of all, a crushing verdict on his own abilities, delivered before Charles and his mistress in a setting that only adds to his humiliation. I was taken entirely out of that moment in how I felt for him, almost an out-of-body experience.

Maria is the mainspring to Ned's watch face, and Danes shows her own range and depth of feeling. She takes the winds of celebrity, itself something new for that time, and runs with them. Though she's not past being bewildered by them, especially when her portrait is being painted.

Her suffering in the wings of several theaters -- down to Ned being abased before drunks -- shows many depths of love, for acting as such, for brilliance of technique, for Ned himself.

She almost never talks directly of love. (Hugh Bonneville's perceptive Samuel Pepys helps bring it out at one crucial turning point.) She shows her love to Ned, to all levels of him, without once actually saying so.

The two are left seemingly adrift at the end, with her final question and his response. Yet their regard for each other transcends everything that is thrown at them -- from his raging self-doubt, to the royal court's machinations and violence, to her being obsessed with acting technique at the expense of creating passion and fire.

This is a story of words transcending gestures and artifice. The words win out, whether in backstage maneuvering, unexpected honesty (even from the King's mistress!), or gauging what can be done with a character. It's a brave new world of being direct, getting past evasions and imitations of emotions.

Danes and Crudup inhabit their characters. They're simply English, no question -- the accents are perfect. The Restoration physical settings are superb -- dark enough for post-exile, pre-Fire London, entirely believable for courts, stages, and back-stages. The score is evocative, with twangs of Scots influence.

Every element immerses us in this world, even with the acting paradigm shift noted above. One can believe in these characters and their difficulties, and it ultimately comes to matter little that this is the 1660s. It's a human triumph which is timeless.

Not every question of life is answered, for Ned and Maria, but you know that they're embarking toward a New World of finding out about themselves -- more metaphorical than the journey undertaken at the end of "Shakespeare in Love," but far more believable.

Danes and Crudup deserve Oscar nominations, and I doubt they'll be denied. See for yourself, and be sure you do so in widescreen.
6 out of 7 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.
Notting Hill (1999)
Sparkling romance at a deliberate British pace
9 February 2000
It may be a paradox to say that a film can sparkle slowly, yet that's the only way I can describe this charming romantic comedy. The star(dom)-crossed lovers don't know that they are Meant For Each Other ... yes, this is the standard RomCom setup. But the -way- they don't know? That is put across in a most British and deliberate pace and setting. And it makes the ending that we all know is coming gather color and charm.

"Notting Hill" takes over a third of its running time to show William (Hugh Grant) as he is immersed in his daily life, wanting to be supportive of his friends, yet searching for his own inner life. The five closest friends all show something he lacks: "happy" conformity, a loving marriage transcending obstacles, a sister who takes bold risks for finding love, and a roommate that sees through pretense and says so (and, yes, is delightfully vulgar).

That very British character-in-a-wry-setting pattern borrows from "Four Weddings and a Funeral," but the only friends there that I could consistently believe -mattered- to Grant's character were the gay couple, one comic, the other showing profound emotion. Here, all of the lead character's circle deeply cares about him, as he does about them. This makes all the difference.

Where it matters most is in giving him support when the American film beauty (Julia Roberts) comes into his life, then out, then in, then ... and all in ways that are believable for such dissimilar lovers. The romantic turns are more plausible because Grant's character has such support and a place for sharing his emotional roller-coaster ride. He isn't crushed by the down moments, but picks up his individuality and moves on. And his friends tell him, sometimes with only searching looks, just when he's picked up -too much- of being on his own. (Okay, the moment towards the end when Spike puts his exasperation into three pointed, even vulgar, words is a refreshing change. Sometimes, when a friend lets loose with the pithy truth, it hits the needed spot.)

All this backstory, character richness, and pointed use of the "right" words are British qualities that we don't get with the standard American RomCom setup.

Gina McKee's turn here as Grant's wheelchair-bound female friend is of someone with deeply felt individuality and unique perceptiveness, including her own tender perspective on loves past and present - especially her husband. It's a glimpse into a woman with distinctive qualities that -she- has chosen. This makes her both appealing to all her friends, and forceful by quiet understatement. She also ends up being much funnier, when you've rewound the tape and end up thinking about the story. (Listen for her spoken turn on "standing up." No, it's not a cheap play on her limitations. Not in context. And that's subtle comic acting.)

Richard Curtis's inventive screenplay is one of the best in years, and would reward a look in book form as well. He takes this backdrop of supportive friends, puts in the sparkle of Roberts invading and shaking up their world, and creates a skein of personal truths and imposed celebrity nonsense.

Grant and Roberts are both passionate and bemused observers of the absurdities of fame that end up surrounding them, but they act this out in comic byplay and inventive responses. This isn't an American breakneck-pace (or "screwball") comedy, and their subtle discovery of each other's -minds- and substance wouldn't work in such a setting.

Roberts has both the easy familiarity with and the hair-trigger of frustration from fame, both coming out to undermine her when she least expects it. But she shows that she can grow and learn from her mistakes. (Unlike her well-acted but overexplained realization at the end of "Runaway Bride.") She even has one scene -sans- makeup that is a genuine romantic turning point. I don't see many other actresses being willing to try that.

Grant shows an astonishing inner strength and self-awareness, not being willing to hide how -he- sees reality. (He did the same realistic turn in "Four Weddings," but didn't try nearly as effectively to figure himself out.)

The photography and settings show off London beautifully, and the story's interior scenes make highly imaginative use of a narrow, stacked-up Notting Hill mini-townhouse.

I do feel the director fails to take up some opportunities to build on the comic or dramatic moments in the screenplay. He coasts on the words. They're excellent words, but they need a twist at times.

My only take-off-a-point[*] quibble is with the music. It's mostly popular tunes that underscore the action. One of these is luminous, and frames the story perfectly - Elvis Costello's cover of "She." Others, though, use their lyrics to overstress plot points. Some are performed too high in volume, sometimes lapping against dialogue.

(The two original themes by Trevor Jones are beautiful, lushly written, and quite fitting to the main characters. We should have had more of his work, but they're less than a fourth of the film's music.)

The British often put more creativity below the narrative surface and into the setting than Americans do, and often get beyond formula. To discover this in a film is joyous. You'll feel this when you find yourself compelled to see this deeply felt, yet very funny, film twice, thrice, or more. For me, it's still delightful after nine months and nine viewings.

[* Edited on 21 April 2011: After another decade and another ten viewings, this love story has only become more resonant and beautiful. The pop-song choices feel notably less obtrusive. The acting of both Roberts and Grant has evinced more depth. And I see no reason to not give it a full 10 rating.]
113 out of 136 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.
Absurd when it's not cliched
1 October 1999
Warning: Spoilers
(Possible-spoiler warning ... it depends on how closely you read what's below.)

What is it with Tim Robbins? Does he think he's fooling anyone? In "Bob Roberts," his self-produced campaign-trail parody, he made it look as if, yes, he the sensitive statist-liberal knew all about supposed home-grown fascists. Now, with "Arlington Road," he pretends to know about where the blame lies for home-grown terrorism -- and the government has -none- of it, nosireebob.

The first three-fourths of this mess relies on the Neighbors You Don't Know Enough About That Drive You Crazy stock plot. The final fourth is an Idiot Plot, pure and simple. I won't go into the first type of plot -- it's been trampled on to hilarious effect by Aykroyd and Belushi in "Neighbors," something far more enjoyable. But let's see if I can dissect the second type without providing outright spoilers.

What kind of competent conspiracy relies on assuming that cars careening heedlessly through traffic -- especially the wrong way on a divided street -- will -never- be stopped by police? (In Washington, D.C., no less?) On having one of its principals beaten up, to provide an illusory personal victory and to fuel rage? On making sure that collateral murders make the six o'clock news, rather than hiding them in cement overshoes at the bottom of Chesapeake Bay? On having the conspiracy blurted out in many of its brutal details while partygoers are readily within earshot?

I'd comment more on how children are manipulated and brutalized in the story line, to create no greater plot benefit than psychological terror, but it'd make for some outright spoilers. Besides, the very same excuses that Robbins's favorite politicos use for increasing the -real- threat of the State to our liberties all rely on "protecting the children," and this just doubles the obscenity involved.

(Incidentally, and this is no spoiler, any conspiracy movie that relies on the Bad Guys using the "Liberty Delivery Service" ought to have its artistic license revoked for Overweight Metaphors.)

Not the least of the cliches is the overwrought music, never allowing a quiet moment to show its dramatic impact, not when screeching counterpoint can be added.

I was bored for 90 minutes, stunned by idiocy for 30. And this time, I knew I had to stay for the pro-government piety that would be found in the credits. I wasn't disappointed. The "Teaching Tolerance Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center" was thanked by the filmmakers. The SPLC considers almost any prominent figure who disagrees with the everywhere-State, as praised by "opponents of terrorism" in real life, to be the near equivalent of a domestic terrorist, or aiding and abetting them. So much for the independent perspective of art.

As for Robbins, he should go back to being a sex object, as in "Bull Durham." That, at least, was endurable by those who possess artistic taste.
3 out of 4 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.
The Game (1997)
A cinematic abomination, shamelessly manipulative
26 March 1999
The worst aspect of this film is how the creators don't care to follow through on their convictions. They are clearly nihilistic. Instead of showing this, they play on the desire of the audience members for something coherent. I left the theater (and my viewing of snippets when I run across it in channel surfing) with a feeling of physical violation, of having had depraved intellects smeared across my brain.

Too harsh? I don't think so. One is expected to empathize with Michael Douglas's character, in trying to understand that all of his arbitrary injuries are in fact aspects of an incredibly complex practical joke. (No, I'm not going to dignify it with the noun "game.") Yet one is expected, simultaneously, to believe that some malign organization is genuinely trying to destroy him.

The problem with this tension is that if Douglas's free will is ever asserted, the plot (such as it is) instantly collapses. He can't be too smart. He can't think outside a limited set of boxes. He can't match up facts in any way that shows insight -- or else the joke-makers will not be successful in anticipating what he is doing. In short, the story depends on Douglas's character being precisely as vapid as everybody expects of him at his worst, and that he won't give up until they think it best for him to give up.

If Douglas, here, believes the premise of a malign power, he would be more likely to slip up -- with a deadly result for himself or someone else -- out of sheer overconcentration on his situation. Too much stress, y'know? You aren't at your most perceptive. Especially with a gun in your pocket. The plot counts upon his virtues, as dullard as they are, while at the same time undercutting all of them.

The final twist involves the apparent death of someone truly close to him, at his own hand. Yet did it happen? And is such a shock something to be used to deprive -any- human being of personal dignity? So much so that, shortly afterwards, he's expected to recover and be mindlessly festive? I found this to be an instance of psychological torture. If I wanted this, I'd watch the war in Yugoslavia, and CNN has nearly zero marginal cost.

That brilliant cinematography, adept character acting (on occasion), and Douglas's dogged persistence are used all create no excuse for such incoherent manipulation. All we have is a canker on the human spirit.

This is a nihilistic cesspool. Don't waste your money, not even on a 99-cent bargain rental night. If you possess any human sensibilities, you'll berate yourself later... when it isn't giving you nightmares.
15 out of 31 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.
Superlative Preston Sturges farce
2 November 1998
Few films end up satirizing politics, human gullibility, and (less strongly) the military as much as this one does. To find all three being skewered is a rare treat.

Sturges uses many players from his "stock company" to tell about a young man who's reluctant to come home -- he'd been a Marine, but was medically unfit -- until several Marines he encounters try to make something better of his situation. His hometown takes the "hero" to heart, and complications arise.

You can find a better summary in the external reviews, but what they don't say is that Sturges does what he did best: warps the universe by showing every variety of human folly. Prepare to be surprised and delighted.
8 out of 13 found this helpful. Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.

Recently Viewed