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good performances in movie that goes in circles
20 February 2018
A good movie for much of the way, worth watching largely for the interplay between the three leads. Harrelson, Banderas, and Davidovich have great banter during the road trip to Vegas from LA. The fight itself is enjoyable as boxing matches go, but the movie put itself in a bind in how it framed the two fighters, and the conclusion is a bit predictable. The ending of the movie is a bit anti-climactic. A good movie to watch as a TV movie when you have some time to kill. You get to see which actors were on the rise at the time and who the producers thought would be big celebrities. For example, getting Kevin Costner was a big deal in the '90s, though by 1999 his star was beginning to fade. On the whole, a middling movie.
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Mother! (2017)
8/10 reviewers
23 September 2017
I swear, 90% of the people writing negative reviews seem to have made no effort to understand that the entire film is metaphorical. Also, as metaphors work, a film like this isn't designed to have simple explanations.

The movie is about humanity's abuse of Mother Earth. But it also works at the level presented, where it's about a wife who suffers emotional cruelty at the hands of her emotionally unengaged husband. To a great extent the film is a commentary on the emotional abuse of women. And yes, it goes straight into fantasy from the start.

Viewers who only like realistic films should not see Mother! They will hate it. Having said that, Mother! is not like Rosemary's Baby. That comparison misses the point completely.

Also, Rex Reed is a doofus.
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Enjoyable space opera w/many strengths and one weakness
23 July 2017
Visually it's excellent. Good integration of virtual reality ideas into a futuristic scenario.

  • Story is pretty good. Reminiscent of Avatar, but with a good bit more meat to it.

  • The male-female dynamic between Valerian and Laureline is hopelessly reliant on clichés. Worse, the casting of Dane DeHaan as Valerian really doesn't work. Not if they want him to be a womanizer. Way too dorky. If they hadn't written him that way DeHaan would have been fine. If Luc Besson had just brought in somebody to write a even slightly less clichéd take on the relationship between the two leads, the film would have been ten times better.

  • Having said that, Cara Delevigne is fine as Laureline. She pushes back against the sexist framing, but I still don't get why Laureline is a Sergeant as opposed to Valerian who is a Major. The actors are basically the same age and refer to each other as partners.

  • Film really needs a more compelling lead, which is one the reasons it doesn't work as well as The Fifth Element. Compared to other Space Operas, I'd put it ahead of Jupiter Ascending and at roughly the same level as John Carter (which was too long but otherwise very good.)

So it's worth seeing, but not a must-see. Of course it's being savaged by critics who tend to have a herd mentality. That's too bad because it deserves better than that.
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OK joke stretched way too far
15 May 2017
Warning: Spoilers
Woody Allen movies depend a lot on whether the core of his story has a good idea to it. When he has a good story to build around, he can still do good work. But when he doesn't, his movies can become tedious and repetitive.

Hollywood Ending is the latter kind of movie. It's about a movie director (what a stretch for Allen!) whose given a shot to film a movie with his ex-wife (played by Tea Leoni, who is more than three decades his junior) as producer. We never get any idea what the movie is actually about because that's part of the joke. Here's the big joke: Allen's character develops psychosomatic blindness and has to direct a movie where he cannot see anything. But nobody notices! With the help of his agent, a Chinese translator, and eventually his ex-wife, he muddles his way through the entire process and finishes the picture, which is of course terrible.

I can see about five minutes of humor here, but the movie stretches this out for more than an hour. It quickly stops being funny and just becomes annoying. OK, we get it: Hollywood movies are so insipid and shallow that even a blind man could direct one and studio heads wouldn't notice. Maybe you could do an episode of a sitcom with this plot, but trying to extend it into an entire movie just doesn't work.

Worse, the movie tries to support itself with a plot line of Allen re-connecting with his ex-wife. And there's absolutely no chemistry whatsoever between Allen and Leoni. Aside from a cringe-worthy make- out scene, for the most part their relationship feels like a woman in the prime of her life attending to the needs of her aging father. I didn't for a second buy the notion that these two could ever be a couple.

The movie literally has the worst features of Allen movies: narcissism, unrealistic ideas about the appeal of older men to younger women, and a cast filled with characters who all speak like Woody himself. Many of his more recent movies are better because he's tempered these destructive tendencies: he no longer makes himself the romantic lead, and he's allowed great actors to take over their roles and sound less like an Allen mouthpiece. Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine is the best example of this.

I wish the movie hadn't pursued the one-joke path that it took. Before the blindness the movie seemed like it had a lot of possibilities: Allen can certainly take jabs at Hollywood culture and the characters are pretty well drawn. He could have had an intelligent satire of Hollywood with well-developed plot lines exploring the realities of trying to interact with an ex-. But instead the movie devolved into a one-joke production, and the joke doesn't work.
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Sandy Wexler (2017)
Tough for a comedian to make a comeback
16 April 2017
Adam Sandler's star has fallen. From my perspective I never understood why his movies made so much money to start with, and I don't understand why they've fallen out of favor. The humor hasn't changed all that much. I guess it's easier to get laughs when you're young.

The movie is erratic. The Wexler character is not very sympathetic, which makes it hard to get into the movie. He's annoying and with few redeeming qualities. Apparently he's a parody of Sandler's own agent, but for those of us not in on the joke, he comes across as annoying.

I pushed myself to get through the movie, and I did find some redeeming features. The most obvious is Jennifer Hudson's singing. She's terrific. After that, I started paying more attention to the supporting characters, esp. Kevin James's bad ventriloquist, Colin Quinn's terrible stand-up comedian, and Nick Swardson's dreadful performance stuntman. Swardson was legitimately funny.

Aside from that, there's an exercise in seeing just how big the cast is. Henry Winkler! George Wendt! Penn Jillette! Jay Leno! Jimmy Kimmel! And more! I guess Sandler threw a party, invited everybody he got along with in Hollywood, and they all got to make "testimonials" to Wexler. Which brings me back to Wexler himself.

The movie's success rides on Sandler's performance, and though a lot of the writing is good, it's hard to get past the fact that Wexler is really, really, annoying. So the movie doesn't really work. But it's not as dreadful as a lot of the critics here are claiming it is. It isn't a 1-star film. It's just mediocre.
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Some very good, some meh
9 April 2017
Tales from the Darkside mixes together three individual stories, all "narrated" by a kid in a "wraparound" story he's telling to a woman (Deborah Harry) preparing to cook him. As with Arabian Nights, Timmy is trying to stay alive by telling stories. The first story is the best of the three: "Lot 249" features Christian Slater as well as pre-fame Steve Buscemi and Julianne Moore in a mummy story. The pacing is good, the story works, and the acting is well above what one expects in a cheap horror story. The second story, "Cat From Hell" is an adaptation of a Stephen King short story about a cat that has killed its way through most of a family. An old man (William Hickey) hires a hit man (David Johansen) to kill his cat and the story goes from there. This is yet another example of a Stephen King story that works very well on paper but has gotten mangled horribly in translation to screen. Part of the problem is the special effects involving the cat look dreadful now - but I don't think they were even state of the art in 1990. Regardless, I don't quite know how you could film a fight between a man and a cat and not have the result end up looking ridiculous. "Cat From Hell" didn't really try very hard. The third story, "Lover's Vow", concerns a man who witnesses a friend murdered by some kind of gargoyle-type creature. The gargoyle promises to spare him his life in return for the man's pledge to never tell anybody about the encounter. It's an interesting premise that is tested when the man later hooks up with a young woman played by Rae Dawn Chong. Ultimately the story doesn't make all that much sense, and again the story is hurt by relatively weak special effects. The wraparound story works very well, as does "Lot 249", but ultimately that doesn't feel like enough to redeem the weakness of the other two segments. "Cat From Hell" in particular is a failure. But I would recommend watching the movie if only to see early-career work from Buscemi and Moore in "Lot 249".
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Amanda Knox (2016)
So many people already made up their minds
4 November 2016
The movie and the reviews here show how people can be so adamant about the need to punish somebody for a crime that they buy into the most ludicrous theories. Amanda Knox was persecuted by the police in Perugia for committing the transgression of being a "loose woman". What do we know about this case? - Rudy Guede's DNA was at the scene, a fact that makes no sense unless he was involved in the murder - In a Skype chat with a friend, Guede said Amanda wasn't there. - Guede had a history of violence and breaking in to homes. - High pressure tactics were used by the police to get Raffaele to change his alibi for Amanda, and to trick Amanda into a vague confession - The vague confession by Amanda implicated her boss, but this theory was discarded by the police. Instead, Guede was inserted into the case while the confession by Amanda was treated as evidence of her guilt. - the treatment of the DNA evidence by the Italian police was atrociously sloppy

Many 1-star reviews are being given by people who are convinced of Amanda's guilt. They say that the film is "biased", apparently because the filmmakers didn't give equal weight to a pro-guilt side. Well...that's not what "biased" means.

Yes, the filmmakers clearly feel that Amanda Knox is innocent. You know who else does? The Italian courts. To make claims of bias, you have to go further than to say that a person has an opinion you disagree with. You have to show that they view evidence in a partial fashion: discarding evidence that disagrees with predetermined conclusions while overstating the importance of evidence that agrees with them. There is bias in this case, as the documentary clearly shows. The prosecutor pursued a case against Amanda Knox for clearly irrational reasons, and the theories he uses are inconsistent and often ludicrous. His interviews are the most painful parts of the movie. He says things like "A female murdered covers the body of a female victim; a man does not. That's why I suspected a woman from the start." This is ludicrous.

Amanda Knox and Raffaele Solecitto lost years of their lives to this nonsense - emotionally driven aversion to evidence-based pursuit of the truth. Bravo to the filmmakers for giving this story the care and attention it deserves.

One final note: shame on all the tabloid journalists who fed the frenzy of insanity. The interview of the journalist who published Amanda's diary shows that he feels no shame at what he did - that he feels comfortable with the violation of her privacy. I wonder if he'll ever figure out what he did wrong here.
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Equals (2015)
Nice world-building, now tell us an interesting story
29 October 2016
Equals is set in a futuristic world where, inexplicably, people have decided to "do away with emotions." Of course this phrase never has any real meaning, since any kind of inclination to do anything can be counted as an emotion. So really it's a sci-fi setting to explore the practice of the suppression of emotions. A problem which has never existed.

OK, before I trash the movie too much: the acting is fine, the set design and look are very good, and the world-building is excellent. But what is the story here? Two people who aren't supposed to fall in love do so anyway. Call me a cynic but I need more than that.

Compare and contrast Equals with The Lobster, another sci- fi/dystopian movie about suppressing emotions. Rather, The Lobster compares the societal demand that people form couples, regardless of how dysfunctional they are, against an underground movement of people who insist that being single should not be cause for rejection by society (though the rebels go too far the other way, adopting the "no emotional connections" attitude that fits with Equals). Somehow The Lobster manages to fit an interesting and funny story into the world. Equals? It gives us practically nothing.

Perhaps this is just a distillation of the concept of Forbidden Love. I really expected more.
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Columbo: Murder, Smoke and Shadows (1989)
Season 8, Episode 2
An enjoyable Columbo with a flawed ending
2 July 2016
Warning: Spoilers
I remember this was one of the first Columbos I watched in the late 80s or early 90s. I found the character of Columbo compelling and later watched all of the classic episodes from the '70s. This episode has the same basic framework: first we see the murderer, Alex Bradley, a top young Spielberg-type Hollywood director played by Fisher Stevens, as he meets and kills his victim. (To confuse the issue, the last name of his victim is 'Fisher', the first name of the actor playing the killer.) Then we spend the main part of the movie watching Bradley run away from the crime while Columbo slowly gathers clues, all the while ingratiating himself with the prime suspect. Finally there is the denouement as Columbo reveals some clever way to view simple evidence that leaves no doubt as to the killer's guilt.

But while there is plenty of circumstantial evidence indicating that Bradley may not have been fully candid about his relationship with Fisher (the victim, not the actor), by the end of the episode, about all we've really gotten is that he's lied about meeting the guy. Yes, Columbo has tracked down Fisher's driver, and yes, he's found the ticket to the studio tour in the guy's book, and there's even evidence from his secretary that he received the guy's phone call. But there's nothing to put him at the crime scene, and, really, there's no real crime scene to speak of. So I guess Columbo does show that Stevens had motive and had lied about meeting the guy, but a defense lawyer would found loads of reasonable doubt here.

To cover up for the lack of truly damning evidence, the episode concludes with various policemen coming into the spotlight at the sound stage, to take their curtain calls for their roles in spying on the main suspect. So the episode uses showmanship to substitute for better writing.

There is good to this episode: Fisher (the actor, not the victim) is very strong as a hot, young director. The supporting cast, including Nan Martin, Steven Hill, and Molly Hagan, is good. And of course Falk himself is a legend.

But the "ta-da!" finish is a bit amateurish. In later years, ABC figured out the direction they wanted these Columbo movies to take. And some were better, while others were worse. Few were at the standard of the '70s classics.
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Columbo: Death Hits the Jackpot (1991)
Season 11, Episode 1
Not really buying it
14 June 2016
The best Columbos depend on the interaction between the detective and the murderer. They also depend on the intricacy of the plot - usually the murderer puts together a elaborate charade and we get to watch Columbo gradually pull it apart by tugging a thread here and a thread there.

The supporting cast in this Columbo is not very strong - a bunch of no-name actors and Rip Torn. We really need Torn to carry the episode. But he doesn't pull it off. It's not entirely his fault. But partly it is.

His accent is grating. Is this his natural accent? But worse is the general blandness of the plot. And then, inexplicably, he's having an affair with his nephew's wife. The writing completely fails to motivate this affair. Why is this woman having an affair with a man nearly twice her age? And of all the much older men to hook up with, her husband's uncle? It's not like Rip Torn is exuding charm towards her. It's just unconvincing.

The whole story doesn't make sense. The nephew doesn't have the cash to pay his rent, but he spends $500 on a case of champagne?

The biggest problem is the lack of chemistry between Falk and Torn. There are two ways the Columbo mysteries work. The most common way is for the culprit to think that Columbo is just an idiot, and then the episode enjoys Falk playing the fool. Occasionally the culprit realizes Columbo is a genius, and the two have a good game of cat- and-mouse.

Torn does neither. He treats Columbo as an annoyance that he wants to avoid. While this is a realistic strategy, it doesn't make for a very entertaining mystery.

And then the story ends out of the blue, with very little in the lead-up that suggests that Columbo has anything close to evidence. Boom, it's over. Oh well. Torn's talent was wasted and nobody else looked capable of contributing much.
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Serena (I) (2014)
Not as bad as some people think!
12 September 2015
I feel like the ratings of this film are being dragged down by people comparing it to either (a) the book, or (b) the other films involving Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper: Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle. Mind you, I haven't read the book. And it's clearly a weak film compared to their prior work. But it's not awful.

One reviewer compared it poorly to Manos-Hands of Fate. Now that's just ridiculous!

The movie has several good aspects to it. The acting is good and the cinematography is strong. And it has weaker aspects: the writing is weak, and the story design is a huge train wreck. It feels like there was an original design to the story which was subtle and elaborate, and which the director failed to convey.

It's worth watching to enjoy the actors, who are far, far better than this script deserves. And if you watch the DVD, you can hear some comments from the director, which illuminate or hint at where the problems may lie.
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Jennifer Lawrence makes this work
20 November 2014
When the producers decided to break Mockingjay into two films, we were pretty much fixed on a course where Part One was going to be anti-climactic compared to the rest of the series. So, no, it's not quite as good as Catching Fire (and thus, nowhere near the level of The Hunger Games). But still, this edition does a good job expanding the Penam universe, and developing the story of our heroine Katniss.

Katniss works so well because she's authentic, free of the practiced cynicism that permeates President Snow and even the leaders of the rebellion. A key moment is when Haymitch Abernathy explains this fact to them. And it's really hard to imagine any young actress pulling this off as well as Jennifer Lawrence, who exudes authenticity herself.

So Mockingjay has the emotional pull, it has a solid story line, it has a well-constructed dystopian world, and it has a solid cast with an exceptionally talented lead. It lacks only a satisfying conclusion, but as Part One, that can hardly be a surprise.
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The Bag Man (I) (2014)
Disappointing waste of talented actors
26 April 2014
There's a red flag with movies that go straight to video, esp. one that features big stars like Robert DeNiro and John Cusack. The supporting case, including Rebecca Da Costa and Crispin Clover, is also strong.

But something is just very wrong with this film. It tries way too hard. It tries to be "gritty" but succeeds only in being clichéd. The script has many twists, but most of them are fairly predictable. The problem is that characters do many things without any visible motivation to do so. This leaves us wondering whether the writers are bad or just doing a bad job trying to sneaky. As the motivations become apparently, it becomes increasingly obvious that it's just bad writing.

John Cusack is playing a role reminiscent of his character in "Identity", which unfortunately was another bad movie. DeNiro plays a crime boss, a role he can do in his sleep. Neither is bad, it's just that they have so little to work with.
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World War Z (2013)
Decent addition to the genre - go in without expectations
13 July 2013
World War Z is an exciting zombie film that, while it doesn't break new ground in the genre like 28 Days Later, still fares well in terms of entertaining the audience with action sequences and smooth zombie movement.

The acting, however, is what makes the film. Brad Pitt gives an understated performance and the supporting cast is excellent, especially Mireille Enos as his wife and Daniella Kertesz as an Israeli soldier.

I've read a good number of reviews from people who read the book and found the film disappointing. I have not read the book and did not have expectations as high as that - perhaps that is why I wasn't disappointed. Yes, there were a few weak points in the plot, but on the other hand I found action sequences very well put together, and given the logic of what the Pitt character was thinking, I found the scenes in Wales well designed and quite exciting.

So, no, it wasn't up to the level of 28 Days Later, but I thought it was at least as good as 28 Weeks Later, a film that lost its way halfway through.
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The Stunt Man (1980)
a different kind of anti-war film, an oft-overlooked gem
15 February 2013
Up front, I'll say that this film came out when I was 12. Didn't see it in the cinema (did anyone?) but I watched it several times when it hit HBO. It quickly became my favorite movie.

Peter O'Toole turns in one of his best performances as Eli Cross, the overbearing, manipulative director of a WWI film. Steve Railsback (known mostly for his portrayal of Charles Manson in Helter Skelter) is a fugitive named Cameron who wanders onto Cross's film set while fleeing the police. He gets involved a stunt where a car drives off a bridge and the stuntman disappears. Having seen Cameron's skill and inventiveness in his flight from the police, Cross decides to bring him onto the film set by pretending that he is Burt, the missing stuntman. Barbara Hershey plays Nina Franklin, the leading lady of the film- within-the-film, and quickly she becomes Cameron's love interest.

The main part of the film involves the mind games Cross plays with the young couple, and a good deal of stunt work by Cameron running across the various roofs of the Coronado hotel in San Diego. As the film heads towards its climax, Cameron starts to wonder why Cross keeps making him do increasingly dangerous stunts, and wonders if he'll get off the set alive. The film concerns itself with themes of paranoia and trust. Along the way, O'Toole owns every scene he's in. Barbara Hershey does a fine job as Nina. As for Railsback...well, he's not quite up to the O'Toole standard. He exudes manic energy in every scene he's in, but it ends up lacking in subtlety.

The cinematography and screenplay have a lot of what now seem like 70s- era filmmaking tricks. One key scene features Railsback speaking while we see Hershey's reflection in a car window. At one point this may have seemed inventive, but from the current perspective it's comically outdated. Still, in spite of its flaws I love this film for its ambition and, above all, for O'Toole. He deserved his nomination for an Oscar.
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The Killers (1946)
An uneven expansion of a Hemingway story
30 March 2012
This film seems to get a lot of love, and to extent, it deserves the acclaim. The first 20 minutes of the film is an adaptation of a famous short story of Hemingway. The film starts with two killers taking over a diner, waiting for a local known as "Swede" (played by Burt Lancaster in a breakthrough role) that they've come to kill. When Swede doesn't show, they leave, and Hemingway's ubiquitous protagonist, Nick Adams, races to the Swede's apartment to warn him.

For the first 20 minutes, the writing is excellent, the dialogue terse, and the viewer is left with a grim view of the coldness of life, which provides moments of sudden danger and incomprehensible actions.

And then Hollywood makes its contribution. Around the gem of a short story, the film makers added a backstory explaining the Swede's actions (or lack thereof) including crime, a femme fatale (played by the gorgeous Ava Gardner), a robbery, and a conflict about stolen money. The larger film is far less interesting. Unfortunately, the film spends most of its time following the actions of an insurance investigator played by Edmond O'Brien, who just cannot command the screen as well as Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner can. Perhaps if Lancaster and Garnder had been given more prominent rules and O'Brien had been marginalized, the relative triteness of the larger screenplay could have been overlooked.

I give this film a 6. The first 20 minutes are epic, but the rest isn't.
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The Artist (I) (2011)
Well, the dog was pretty good
28 January 2012
There are a lot of good things about this film. The acting is good, and the cinematography is good. And the dog is terrific.

But something is missing: an interesting story. I saw this film in a theater with less than 30 people watching. It's not making a lot of money. People are not very interested because there's very little to relate to here.

The story is about a silent film star who refuses to make "talkies" and whose career hits the skids as a result. Um, duh? Get a job? Make an adjustment? Apparently the worst possible fate in the world is to not be able to work as a movie star.

It's a shame because the main characters are likable. But there's almost no story here. The story that they do have is ridden with mawkish over- simplicity.
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The Uninvited (2008)
starts off well, but loses its way (mild spoiler)
29 October 2011
Warning: Spoilers
For some reason I recorded this and it sat on my DVR queue for six months, but I finally got around to watching it two days before Halloween, in the hopes that it met my need for a good scary movie. A lot of today's horror films are little more than murder porn. The Saw series is the best example of this trend, and the Hostel movies are similar. The film starts with a discussion of Lee's pathological fear of space. This is a great device to be the center of the film. We're given some background as to how and when it started - it seems to have started when a boy next door died as a child. One suspects suppressed memories. So, she's alone in the house, and some kind of ghostly things start happening. She hears noises, has nightmares, coins start spinning themselves, the TV goes off an on for no reason, etc. We wonder if this is a ghost story or a psychological study a la Vertigo.

Sadly, the filmmakers have decided to cross Vertigo with some kind of Rosemary's Baby story that seems to entail the sacrifice of a baby. Also, the story is confused because some of Lee's visions are her own personal demons while others are the spirits of the house. And then there are some demonic forces involved. On the whole, there's a lot of promise in this film but it sadly gets wasted by an incoherent plot. I wish the first half of the movie had led to a better second half. That could have been a pretty good film. It certainly would have simplified matters if the filmmakers had stuck to a story that dealt solely with Lee's phobia. Whatever they were trying to do didn't work.
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Anonymous (I) (2011)
an ambitious tale of drama and intrigue (mild spoilers)
14 October 2011
Warning: Spoilers
Roland Emmerich's Anonymous addresses the question of Shakespeare's identity in this tale of Edward de Vere and his actions in the court of Queen Elizabeth. The film starts a prologue by the eminent Shakespearean actor Derek Jacobi, and then leads us into a scene with Ben Johnson running about London, fleeing from the knights of Robert Cecil while carrying the Complete Works. From there we flash back five years to the first time Johnson was arrested for authoring a "seditious" play, while de Vere, Christopher Marlowe and other luminaries of the London dramatic scene watched. From there, a second flashback of another 40 years sends us to watch de Vere's youth and his first encounters with the Cecils and with Queen Elizabeth.

Throughout the film we follow three periods of time: de Vere's youth and his growing love for the Queen; the peak of the Shakespearean arc in London, when de Vere was feeding plays to Shakespeare and involving himself in intrigues of London surrounding the question of Elizabeth's heir; and to a much lesser extent, the actions of Johnson and Cecil in the aftermath of the deaths of Elizabeth and de Vere, and the coronation of King James I. Some have complained that the various swings from one time line to another are confusing, but I found it easy to differentiate between young Edward and young Elizabeth and their much older counterparts.

The main body of the film centers around the contest between de Vere's actions to place the Earl of Essex in the line of succession, and the competing interests of the Cecils (first William, then Robert) to steer the throne to King James of Scotland. Thankfully for the viewer, it is easy to differentiate between the two camps, as Essex and his entourage are all fair-haired, while James and the Cecils are dark-haired.

There will be controversy about this film due to the great liberties it takes with historical facts. John Orloff's screenplay ranges from facts well established in the historical record to some points that are debated by experts with varying points of view and interpretations, to some fictions that are introduced and can only be viewed as flatly false. Who wrote the plays and poems we attribute to Shakespeare? This is at least a topic for debate. Who killed Christopher Marlowe? This film provides an extremely unlikely answer to this question. Was Elizabeth truly a "Virgin Queen"? A modern viewer might think this to be unlikely (especially considering who her father was) but the number and variety of her children suggested by the film seems extremely unlikely. And then there are facts not in dispute at all that are contradicted by the film (such as the fact that Edward de Vere survived his first wife Anne Cecil de Vere and indeed remarried).

It is important, then, to understand that this film is a work of fiction and is not presenting what it believes to be the literal truth regarding the authorship of Shakespeare's plays. With that in mind, it comes out well in comparison to the feather-light Shakespeare in Love. The production values of the film are tremendous. The producers have gone to great efforts to replicate Elizabethan London, with its architecture and much and the wooden planks used in place of modern sidewalks. The acting is tremendous, especially Rhys Ifans as de Vere and Vanessa Redgrave as Elizabeth.

I recommend this film highly, not as a serious treatment of the authorship question, but as an entertaining piece of historical fiction. It might have been interesting to see a film that was a more serious treatment of the Oxfordian point-of-view, but such a film might well have been fairly boring in comparison.
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The Spirit (2008)
why casting is important
26 October 2010
Another Frank Miller graphic novel is made into a film, but this film isn't quite at the level of Sin City, or even of 300. The film gives us good guys and bad guys, a city that they fight over, and even a back story that is somewhat interesting. The problem here is Gabriel Macht. Or rather, the problem is that the bad guys (Samuel L. Jackson and Scarlett Johansson) completely dominate the screen at the expense of the good guys (Macht and his various girlfriends). Even the comic relief clone bad guys are entertaining in comparison to the bland hero of the film. As a character, the Spirit is not all that different from the trio of male leads from Sin City, played by Bruce Willis, Mickey Rourke, and Clive Owen. But acting ability matters, and Macht sadly lacks the charisma of any of the other three. So if you're a big fan of Frank Miller, or of Samuel L. Jackson or Scarlett Johansson, sure, see this movie, but with tepid expectations. But my feeling when the film was over was "I wish I'd just watched Sin City again instead."
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Quarantine (2008)
it didn't have to be this bad - (spoilers)
17 September 2009
Warning: Spoilers
What do we want out of horror movies? I don't know, but I want something a little more than this.

The set-up for this film is pretty cool. A news crew traveling with a fire engine squad arrives at a building to investigate the piercing scream of an elderly woman. And then the woman appears to have some kind of sickness - she attacks a firefighter while foaming at the mouth.

The nice twist is that everybody in the film is quarantined - sealed in the building. We spend the middle third of the movie getting to know all the neighbors. One of them is a vet, who explains that the symptoms look suspiciously like rabies.

But the last third of the film is hampered seriously by just how abjectly stupid everybody acts. Even after we learn that some kind of virus has led to an infection that leads to maniacal aggression by those affected, the medical crews are remarkably casual when dealing with the infected. And even after this point of the film, when a little girl starts foaming at the mouth, a policeman unbelievably tries to comfort her and tell her she'll be all right - in spite of having seen four or five similarly infected people launch attacks.

At this point, the viewer just stops caring. The shaky cam, first-person approach doesn't help any.

Horror directors should learn that what makes a film scary is not the number of characters killed off, but how they are done in. Quarantine does so in a shaky-cam, absurd manner that leaves the viewer more dizzy than scared.

And the very worst thing about the film is that its final scene was revealed in the trailer.

It didn't have to be done this way. It could have been a lot better.
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Extract (2009)
Light, funny film
6 September 2009
OK, so it's not Office Space.

Extract reminds me of "Fierce Creatures", another film that had the terrible burden of trying to live up to a previous film made by the same people that achieved genius-level. Well, it seems that making a great comedy can be like waiting for a lightning strike.

Extract is not at the level of Office Space, but it's still very funny. Jason Bateman plays Joel, the owner of an extract factory ('extract' is in flavoring, like vanilla extract). His sex life has become non-existent, and some problems are arising at the workplace. He's tempted by the arrival of a gorgeous temp (Mila Kunis) who also happens to be a thief and con woman. He finds himself hanging out at the office with his buddy Dean (Ben Affleck) who advises him to hire a gigolo for his wife. This sounds like a terrible idea until Dean gives Joel a horse tranquilizer, which seriously impedes his judgment.

And much hilarity ensues.

The cast is terrific, including those named above and Kristen Wiig as Joel's wife; JK Simmons as Joel's partner; Dustin Milligan as Brad, the gigolo; and David Koechner as the neighborhood bore, Nathan. Gene Simmons has an excellent small role as Joe Adler, a local ambulance chaser who advertises on bus stop benches.

The film takes some unusual twists and turns and on the whole offers a lot of laughs. It does not hit the heights of Office Space, but after the dreadfully dull Idiocracy, it makes for a nice film.
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excellent baseball documentary
10 August 2009
I was born in the Boston area in 1968. When I was a young kid, Luis Tiant was the single most popular player on the Red Sox. It wasn't Yaz or Fisk, or Lynn or Rice. It was El Tiante.

This documentary does an incredible job of relating Tiant's life history, and the history of his father, Luis (Lefty) Tiant, Sr., who pitched in the Negro League. There are so many aspects of this story that I didn't know, and they make for a compelling story. The film deals with the Cuban embargo, his parents he'd left behind, and his amazing MLB career, which peaked with his two victories over the Big Red Machine in the 1975 World Series. I still remember the Boston Globe Sports page featuring a cartoon of Luis unplugging the machine! Every baseball fan should see this film. It will be particularly meaningful to Red Sox fans of my age, but all baseball fans (which includes of course all Cubans) should give this a watch. I hope ESPN rebroadcasts it. It's really quite special.
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Sneakers (1992)
entertaining, a bit silly, great acting
6 June 2009
I have seen this film several times, and it always entertains. It's got a well-placed plot, and the acting is tremendous. I look back at the supporting cast, and it really is top-notch. There isn't a weak link in the bunch: Redford, Poitier, River Phoenix, David Strathairn, Mary McConnell - even Akroyd is good here. (And that list doesn't even include the magnificent Ben Kingsley!) I saw the film when it first came out as a grad student in math, and yes, the math in the film is absurd. The idea of a key that could break any possible code is utterly absurd. But hey, it's fiction, so it's not worth complaining too much about it. I think it's reasonable for fiction to be occasionally unrealistic - esp. any thing that wants to make for interesting science fiction.

From a mathematician's perspective, Sneakers is a breath of fresh in this respect: it doesn't depict mathematicians as crazy.
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Iron Man (2008)
excellent adaptation of a comic
1 May 2008
Really, the best adaptation of a comic I've seen in years - much, much better than Ang Lee's Hulk, Batman Begins, or Superman Returns. I'd even say it's a bit better than the Spiderman series.

The plot contains most of the necessary elements for the first story of any superhero. There is an origin story, how Iron Man is created, as well as the motivation for the main character, and the eventual discovery of worthy villains.

What separates Iron Man are a few things. The script is excellent, the effects are excellent, the technology is at least mildly plausible (to the point the suspension of disbelief isn't absurd, as with Superman), the plot involves contemporary elements (terrorism, arms merchants), and most importantly, the acting is superb.

Robert Downey Jr. is superbly cast as Tony Stark. I cannot imagine anybody else playing this role. But the supporting cast is good, esp. Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeff Bridges, the latter of whom is hardly recognizable as Stark's longtime partner.

Some advice for anybody seeing this film: stay through the entirety of the credits.
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