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Rule Number Three (2011)
Spell Check, Mate
Short films are a brilliant form of story telling unto themselves and Rule Number Three tells its story with minimal words. Set in a pub, British hotties Nicholas Hout and Imogen Poots spell it out for everyone to see as they engage in a coy Scrabble session that reveals more than they bargained for. From an amorous start, the game is a communication tool of revelations that Hoult least expected as Poots shrinks around the truth. Most impressive is the effective skill of the actor's facial expressions and eyes to replace any excessive verbal dialogue. The eyes have it in the most engaging sense as the director frames the attractiveness of both actors whose exposed relationship is made uncomfortably obvious to a family friend who happened on their literal conversational spelling bee. Witty, abbreviated, and well acted, Poots and Hoult are young adults with little to say aloud, yet manage to state their predicament loudly following the Scrabble premise: No Proper Nouns.
It confounds that a contemporary society of film makers and actors should find the topic of dystopian love in all-white uniforms so fascinating yet are unable to create an original and creative manner to convey the story. Drake Doremus' Equals features Silas (Nicholas Hoult) and Nia (Kirsten Stewart) as the Romeo and Juliet of a post-Big War survivor social community of dullards whose existence is reduced to monosyllabic verbiage, right-angle utilitarian architecture, and conformist socialism. Breeding out sex as emotional savagery, any expression of normative human emotions has been turned into a social disease (SOS) that all are warned to be on alert to symptoms, take medical precautions and medications, and avoid contaminated persons as suspicious. That a society which found the cure for the common cold and cancer should be so adverse to color, racial diversity, and human sexuality becomes an inane setting for this story of repressive love in the bleach rinse.
Doremus vision is monochromatic and seems to drag on long past the obvious markers of inevitable storytelling. It was suggested that this film should have been a short, and an edit would have moved the action to its resolution with satisfaction. There is no mystery or even suspension of disbelief that can be sustained for the hour and half of this film's tale. Actors Hoult and Stewart find love on the public rest room floor of their work place, yet, the sterile nature of the sets make it seem less egregious than a romp in the sheets or shower. Hoult manages to convey the agitation of a lover whose partner conceals their shared love, and when she is discovered, conveys the anxiety of her forced incarceration for rehabilitation and ultimate fatal cure. It is more his film than Stewart, a relief as the format suits her non-emotive face. Silas is the emotional one not Nia, who is a hider of her contaminated SOS state.
Oddly, the society in which the characters inhabit is without personal communication devices forcing them to speak face to face rather than text, email, or use old fashion land-line phones. If society's goal is to render emotionless the interaction between persons, it missed the boat. Everyone speaks to one another, gathers together, and works in teams, the social interaction is pervasive. Minimally entertaining and satisfying, Equals misses with the exception of encouraging a desire to run naked through the woods leaping and shouting with joyful noise.
Kill Your Friends (2015)
Love British black humour or find something else to watch. This is black, sly, and so very not pc that it is wonderful. Nicholas Hoult is no longer that cute little boy from the movie with HG. He's grown a hunky sex body and is picking films to get away from the boy next door roles (Skins), and into the male leading man category. Kill Your Friends moves him up that ladder and then some but the film has its flaws.
As Steven Stellfox, Hoult is shallow and ambitious as A & R manager for a troubled British recording company, and he's not about to be penalized for his mistakes in music taste or judgements. Breaking the fourth wall, audiences are given his motivation and maliciousness in a gleeful narration that bares industry attitudes toward the production of milquetoast musical arrangements geared toward the mindless messes. Stylish and greedy, Stellfox's moves to advancement are not for the squeamish, but in Hoult's presentation, they are delightful to watch. Like a lot. Hysterical and entertaining for the bent in us all.
Magic Mike XXL (2015)
Sexy for all genders and persuasions, but a lite, silly entertainment
Not one of the greatest moments in film dance history or even soft porn fantasy, but a summer comedy high on male buffness and little in elegant dialogue. Bros on the road flick thanks to a roach coach transport, these "male entertainers" aka strippers decide to give it one last go before hanging up their thongs. Given that premise, there are girls to pleasure, rich WASPs to snog, and the latent young woman who is defiant and self-possessed who must be charmed by dance-man Channing Tatum. Although a better than average street dancer, Mr. Tatum is not the sole dance eye-candy. Trying to demonstrate that he is seeking a better and more normal life than that of gypsy strip king, Tatum's character runs a furniture design shop but hits the road with his buddies because of friendship.
Joe Mangienello is more vocal and takes second lead to make audiences drool with his parody of the Cindy Crawford Pepsi commercial of yore. Other men such as Matt Bommer add to the storyline but minimally as the story basically follows a Jada Pinkett-Smith/Tatum reunite, nevertheless, their chemistry lacking, the age difference remained too obvious to hold any interest. In fact, there are more ladies of a certain age (Andie MacDowell) throughout with the exception of Mrs. Johnny Depp, Amber Heard, who gets the dream role of a gymnastic lap dance from Tatum.
In the end, the guys get to strut, local ladies get a chance to toss dollar bills at some of the hunkiest actors in Hollywood, and the film ends with a happy group hug. The subtle homo-erotic interplay with the males keeps the film from becoming too estrogen-centric, and the ladies of size are also well represented in front and center stage antics. The representation of every and all makes this film PC, but at my screening, the theater was almost empty, and Anglo women 20- 50 the principal audience. It was hormonal fun, but not a lasting summer romance.
21 Jump Street (2012)
Offensive Pandering and Prejudice to Idiot Audiences
Probably the worst movie targeted to lowly teen fart and homophobic humor, 21 Jump Street has no element that is not offensive. Loosely based on the 80s television drama series that launched Johnny Depp on the world, it is not related to that production beyond a title. The premise of adult cops serving undercover in high schools to discover drugs and crime features the bumbling partners as brothers played by Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill, who are less than competent officers facing expulsion from the force. Sent to Jump Street as a last resort before unemployment, their supervisor is a foul language director played by Ice Cube, whose acting ability is as limited as his profanity laced vocabulary.
The film relies on racial and sexual prejudices that would because of the youthful cast seem innocuous, but are not. Other offensive actions include violence against a gay, black student who is decked by thick-headed Tatum, the first day at school, and later an unfunny and sexually inappropriate female teacher who is ready to jump his studly bones. Nebbish Hill in a slimmed down version, is the geekier and now popular brother, tenuous around the same kind of juvenile populations that he hated as a teen and finding himself living with his overly gushing parents whose kitschy southwestern theme home is a shrine to their beloved idealized son. Even a school production of Peter Pan include the reference to the "squaws" with Tiger Lily. Once in school, the men seek to make connections to the drug suppliers who are the clean cut, UC Berkeley bound rich kid (Dave Franco, James' less than talented younger brother), and the overtly pumped football coach. Why these characters would be thought humorous reveals the worst attitudes of prejudice, racism, and sexual predation that for some writers passes as appropriate for youth-oriented audiences.
Only when the undercover agents are faced with the biker gang of drug dealers and the distributor turns out to be the foot ball coach does the action become interesting with the revelation of undercover DEA agents Johnny Depp and Peter Delouise, (the original Jump Street crew in a brief cameo) but even their appearance can't elevate this film from the worst offensive violence in a Robert Rodriguez shoot 'em up scene. Until the end credits, 21 Jump Street manages to offend every notion of high school experience and once the bad guys are captured, the two officers are further thrust upward to college in hopes that a sequel will be in the works. In all fairness, that would add insult to a gross injury.
Dark Shadows (2012)
Darkly Off The Mark
When Dark Shadows was an afternoon staple on TV in the 60s, the character of Barnabas Collins exuded a sense of pathos and doom. Jump ahead to the Tim Burton film and pathos is replaced by slap stick and special effects, which in a remake of a three stooges film might not be so bad, but not here. With the exceptional Johnny Depp teaming yet again with Burton, and joined by a significant cast of Michelle Pffifer, Burton's wife Helena Bonham-Carter, and Eva Green among other very excellent character actors, the story of a vampire and a witch failed to have merit worthy of some significant earlier Burton/Depp encounters. What is wrong is this was never a funny story to begin with, and translated into the sexualized humor of today, Dark Shadows comes forth as sleazy innuendo instead of witty and droll. The kinds of monster creatures from werewolf to witch to vampire to ghostly spectra permit the makeup department and costumer full opportunity to flex, but with a 70s sound track that included Alice Cooper's sync performance, the story, music, and dressing are never one to draw the audience's attention and hold it.
People like Tim Burton's whimsy and fantastical gadgets which are delights in all his films, and Dark Shadows is not the exception, but it is not enough. Depp's Barnabas is cartoonish and aptly formal as an 18th c. gentleman, but perhaps the fangs genre is tired of yet another film in this vein, (yes, pun intended). The moral of the story - family is everything and love endures is warm and fuzzy, but this is not the film in which to preach. Not one of Burton's better film efforts, sadly, nor, is it even in the vampire Gothic class of camp.
We'll Take Manhattan (2012)
Styled but Not Delivered
Lordy, what can one say that is positive about this farcical retro-homage to the rise of the 60's first supermodel Jean Shrimpton and bad boy photographer, David Bailey. Swinging 60s London was yet to happen when the stuffy, privileged world of British Vogue was invaded by the street-wise Bailey whose black and white grainy high contrast fashion sense was yet the norm. Shrimpton as depicted by Doctor Who's Karen Gillian is a moon-face, country virgin who falls for the brash photog and is promptly toss to the curb by her screaming, conservative middle class father who sees his daughter as a fallen woman. It was after all the era of the new pill and good girls were still pure until marriage!! Given the assignment to photograph a new spread for Vogue in New York City, Bailey and Shrimp head out with the uptight, Lady Clare Rendlesham (Helen McCrory) to recreate the tired, status quo look which British Vogue had presented since WWII. With lots of head butting between Bailey and Rendlesham over tasteful lady-like poses, camera focal range, and the NYC skyline, Shrimpton sees her budding career going down in flames. Slightly idiotic dialogue is meant to convey the class differences between the blue collar Bailey and Shrimpton and Rendlesham, the "posh" women he finds unwilling to give him the opportunity as the innovative artist with the camera. But the work speaks for itself as contact sheets arrive in London and the situation comes to a head with the expected happy ending. Bailey forever alters British Vogue, Jean becomes the exquisite iconic face of the 60s, and London swings despite the conservative government.
Barnard as confrontational Bailey is heavy fisted but charming, and the venerable Helen McCrory as the staid Lady Tasteful Clare Rendlesham offers a strident performance that is almost laughable. However, it is the woeful Ms. Gillian as The Shrimp who makes the production painful to view. Jean Shrimpton had not evolved into the staggering beauty in the New York photographs that Bailey took of her, but in Ms. Gillian is absent the kind of potential Shrimpton already possessed as a leggy young model. The teased bouffant hair, pudgy eyes, and the askew legs did characterize the early Jean, but Gillian misses on every point thanks to woeful styling. To observe Karen Gillian is to see the Dr. Who companion in 60s "clobber" and the wrong eye shadow applications -- sadly, even the teddy bear photographed better. Perhaps the best thing that can be said about the show is they used David Bailey's actual photographs from the New York shoot of Jean Shrimpton in the closing credits. That was worth sitting though the program.
Midnight in Paris (2011)
Typical Woody Allen Setup
If nebbish nerdy males and female partners who are shallow, self-absorbed, and clueless strike your fancy, you obviously enjoy films by Woody Allen. This is so much in the recycled Allen genre that it does not warrant anything other than a nod to great Paris locations and period costumes. Always a fan of period jazz, this film does not disappoint either, but Cole Porter was done a few years ago with Kevin Klein, so "Let's Fall In Love" doesn't have the unexpected flashback. Even the introduction of La Belle Epoque, Maxim's and the Moulin Rouge with Lautrec, Gaugin and Degas, to Piccaso, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dali, Man Ray, and Gertrude Stein is nostalgia light. Allen's retro-vision of the past is still too convenient, too clean, too "golden" to hold attention, or even want to invest a second viewing.
Performances of Kathy Bates as third-eye Gertrude Stein and Marion Cotillard are marvelous, but this is more a walking man's tour of the Paris cityscape than a story which hold the interest to the end, and is ultimately formulaic and predictable. Equitable in irritation are the performances of Owen Wilson and Rachel McAdams as the mismatched couple whose relationship is brought asunder by the city of romance and lights. Sorry Woody lovers but other films are more intriguing at this time.
A Room with a View (1985)
I will gush over this film because it is worthy of praise and a standing ovation. A Room With A View is likely one of the most perfect films to grace screens in decades. The E.M. Forrester story produced and directed by the team of Ivory and Merchant brings the tale of Miss Lucy Honeychurch (Helena Bonham-Carter) to life in perfect Edwardian splendor.
Wonderful locations of the Florence cathedral, Palazzo Vecchio, sculpture by Donatello, and an assortment of rolling landscapes are stunning visual fodder for this comic tale of Apolonian vs. Dionesian parlor manners. Exquisite young Bonham-Carter's casting as the virginal heiress is thwarted by her traveling companion, the venerable Dame Maggie Smith as her meddling biddy chaperon, Aunt Charlotte, with Dame Judy Dench as a proto-Jackie Collins author, Elenore Lavish, Daniel Day-Lewis as the prissy snobbish Cecil Vyse, and, a gorgeous, naked Julian Sands as socialist George Emerson comprises a most outstanding casting achievement.
The excellent soundtrack offering of Dame Kiri Te Kaniwa's rendition of "O Mio Caro" takes your breath away as are the bits of wonderful piano solos that Lucy produces throughout the film. The cinematography is most wonderful with scenic panoramas of the far off Florence or Lucy sauntering through a field of poppies and wildflowers to receive the kiss to curl your toes from George Emerson, well, can romantic love get any better? This video is required for collectors of films of Julian Sands and Daniel Day-Lewis, however, its real value is as one of the finest of the Merchant Ivory magic touch in film making.
Perfect Sense (2011)
Smell No Evil, Taste No Evil, Hear No Evil, and then...
Admittedly, I love Ewan McGregor films and this is one that I rate higher because of the actor, but also because of the solid and mature performance he presents. Perfect Sense is a desolate tale in the vein of catastrophic world epidemics, social collapse, and "death and misery" as one character describes. Nevertheless, there are elements of humankind rising to face demise from all that is suspected - bio-terrorism, environmental collapse, capitalism, fundamentalism, religion. Although the symptoms of the epidemic robs the human body of the senses in a domino sequence, it is a raging yet fleeting loss that seems to be compensated by the positive attempts to return to normality. What is more complicated however, is the capacity of human relationships to be sustained as one by one smell, taste, hearing, sight, and ultimately, touch will vanish. The question remains what will define us as humans to one another, or will we even know or care about such matters when the moment is upon us.
Although the film is only ninety two minutes, it seems longer as the world loss engulfs the main characters of Michael (Ewan McGregor) and Susan (Eva Green), two self-described flawed personalities. Their struggle to remain connected as all around them crumbles is heroic as loss seems to overwhelm in virulent ruthlessness. Like the human stump in Dalton Trumbo's "Johnny Got His Gun," the ability for communication and desire to survive can only be interpreted through the awareness and senses of another. However, in Perfect Sense, the declining numbers of humans who can be witness and receptive for others diminishes daily, so that in the end, the last sense to be lost is so obvious the realization becomes overpowering and devastating. End film just in time.
McGregor and Green are beautiful together as their ying and yang is a struggle to overcome everything thrown at them. McGregor's real life uncle Denis Lawson plays a small role as the supportive owner of the restaurant across from Susan's apartment, and Trainspotting buddy, Ewan Bremner appears as well to support his friend in the kitchen. Other superior performances include Susan's sister (Saffron Burrows) and colleague, Samuel (Stephen Dillane) round out the cast in small supporting roles that combine in a welcome adult theme film. A beautiful and poetic film which is filled with a sense of overall doom, Perfect Sense is another of the British somber themes that have been put forth in the last few years. It looks and sounds wonderful, at the same time, leaves the audience with something to ponder.
The Bishop's Wife (1947)
No Xmas Without The Wife
I want Cary Grant for my angel, dear lord! And, could you also send with him several million dollars so I can build my big project, or so it seems this is the prayer of Bishop David Niven. The Bishop's Wife is a late 40s feel good film which reinforces the American notion of protestant Xmas with all the values of middle class Anglo society post WWII. It is a wonderful life for those living in large, craftsman bungalow houses with two house staff and secretaries and assistants. Yes, it's wonderful except Henry can't sway the money people in his community to cough up the millions, his marriage to his beautiful wife, Julia (Loretta Young) is falling apart since his promotion to the big time, and his daughter, Debbie is asleep by the time he gets home from fund raising meetings. Then an angel comes to answer his prayer -- and what an angel is Dudley (Cary Grant).
Dignified even on ice skates, polite, and the ultimate do-gooder, Dudley can do everything the Bishop wants if only to be near his wife, the beautiful and unhappy Julia. Dudley will help Henry, but are his motivations more driven by earthly desire that seem anything but heavenly? Dudley is the answer to the Bishop's prayers, but maybe his prayers need clarification for his own good. The dilemma of Dudley and Julia and Henry is a comedic trio never so crass as a menage, but it comes as close as one could in the 40s and it is delightful.
The Bishop's Wife is seasonal and filled with cheer, good will to all men, and decked halls. It is never so preachy as to be irritating, and the character actors who support the big name stars give wonderful performances, including the Saint Bernard dog. One of the charming films of the period, it is family friendly and for those who can't resist Cary Grant at his most beautiful, his performance has a subtle witty delivery that is right out of his earlier work with Irene Dunn. This is a film which holds its own to others of the genre but frankly, I'll take Grant for my angel baby any day.
Never Let Me Go (2010)
Disquieting and Unresolved
A film that is at its heart so sad and bleak, Never Let Me Go provides a haunting reality that remains with one after the credits roll. Tommy (Andrew Garfield), Kathy, and Ruth grew up together in a school which raised humans for transplantation of vital organs when they entered young adulthood. Set in the ahistorical now, the trio grows up and apart, all the while engaged within a non-eventful world of existing to donate and "complete." Kathy (Carrie Mulligan) joins the ranks of the "carers," the responsible adult who awaits the return of the donor from surgical extraction of some body part, and tries to ease their transition to their inevitable end. After ten years, she again is reunited with Ruth (Kiera Knightly), who has not demonstrated the kind of heartiness the system would like in donors, and is likely to succumb with her next extraction. Together, Ruth and Kathy find Tommy who still remains the love interest of Kathy, and who Ruth had intentionally tried to separate as a precocious teen. Now, in her waning time, she apologizes to the couple for stepping into their true love relations many years past. Reconncilled and resolute to her finality, Ruth's death on the operating table is both gruesome and devoid of any heroic measures. She flatlines and is disposed.
Never Let Me Go is unsettling in its quiet storyline that is both horrific and accepting of science and a society that regulated organ transplantation. Growing beings as future resources for medical reasons is an ethical dilemma which modern society addresses with moralizing religious rhetoric, but in this film, that emotionalism is thankfully absented. The only question that is asked is whether the Hallsham students possessed a "soul" that could be detected in the children's art. Yet this point is never fully explained until well into the film which adds to the richness of the storyline. To eliminate disease in society through the use of body parts becomes more than an ethical issue today, it is a moral quandary which Never Let Me Go puts forth with disquieting non-resolution. One quandary not discussed remains that of organ transplants for children. Were the youngest members of civilized society as depicted also served by farm-raised youngsters, or were only adults the recipients? Who were the carers for baby donors until their completion?
A film that draws mature performances from the youthful cast, Mulligan and Knightly are excellent casting choices and put aside the physical beauty they are noted for to bringing a credibility and pathos to their performances. Andrew Garfield as Tommy is the sole male between the two women who he has loved since childhood. His is a role that is both restrained all the while sublimating the rage of his existence. This is a film that stands alone without necessitating a read of the novel, a format that is not necessary for appreciation of the work by a subtle director and aided by another beautiful musical score by Rachael Portman. Adult, small, and evocative, Never Let Me Go wraps itself around your conscience and draws its themes before the public with successful irritation.
London Boulevard (2010)
Brit Crime, Brit Love, Eh, Mate?
Colin Farrell has developed into a seriously credible actor after his stint in rehab and Hollywood pretty boy roles. In London Boulevard, his subtlety as Mitchel, an ex-con trying to not be sucked back in the his old life, is a role that brings Farrell one of the best performances of his career. As in Triage, Farrell is a reluctant hero and victim of circumstances created by others. Mitch is summoned by the head gangster, Ghant (Ray Winstone) to carry out money collection and various acts of vicious payback crimes. Refusing, he opts of be driver/aide of Charlotte (Kiera Knightly), a fragile, married, and paparazzi hunted actress whose film career is notable for sexual acts and which she has no interest to pursue. Assulted while in Italy, she is desperate for privacy, but stalking cameras and rude press make her housebound, depressed, and fearful. Her friend, Jordan (David Thewlis), a loyal, druggie failed actor and guardian recognizes Charlotte's security rests with Mitch, but he recognizes Mitch's other dilemmas: Briony, a dizzy alcoholic sister (Anna Friel) who won't stay sober, and the dead body of his former mate, Billy, who was left on doorstep.
Several story lines weave around the situation of Mitch which can confuse some, but the central theme of a perceived bad man trying to go straight persists clearly. The billboard face of Charlotte appears as a thematic goal for Mitch in Piccadilly, on buses, and Hollywood, in stunning b/w portraits by London bad-boy photographer, David Bailey, another icon-maker of the swinging London's 60s era of the Kray's. Like the ruthless Kray's, Winstone's character's homosexuality is known but never flaunted among the gang, although it becomes another thread in the doomed story of Mitchell.
A film that is small yet filled with exceptional performances by many of the outstanding character actors of Britain, London Boulevard is not for every taste. It's vile, dark, and bloody. The characters are cruel, the setting contemporary. Makes one think about what's going on in the city besides Wills, Kate, and Harry. Excellent action for the no car chase set, it is a throwback to Greek tragedy with 60s soundtrack.
I Am Number Four (2011)
So Bad in So Many, Many Ways
If teens gone sci-fi is yer cup of tea, this is the film fer ye. It is one of the worst this reviewer has seen in years. Not Dr. Who, nor Star Wars, this teens gone alien is meant to follow the fangs of the silly Twilight series with an action-alien shoot 'em up for boys genre.
With the exception of Timothy Olyphant as Henri, the acting is monosyllabic, bully quarterback, high school dork, scenario. Henri is meant to guard #4, and manages to keep him alive through the hormone high school years, but, alas, #4 thinks he's too informed about his alien situation to listen. Dumb teen agers live up to their stereotype of dumb in every sense of the word. Even the beagle is smarter than Four.
Too predictable, too obvious, too unimaginative to really rate any attention. And, the ambiguous ending tries to drum up interest in a sequel. No, shoot it and put it out of its misery. One just plain bad film for the summer. Avoid.
Laurel Canyon (2002)
Canyon Capers and Château Marmont
If you were privy to the Laurel Canyon lifestyle in the 60s and 70s, this film is like a retro shock with all the old familiar haunts still there, and the inevitable lost generation of 20 somethings wandering the deer trail lanes of traffic to hang with the musicians. At least, this is how the premise of the 2002 version of the canyon lifestyle is reflected. Between the generation of hippie organic mama (Frances McDormand) and her predictably uptight conservative doctor son (Christian Bale) and his uber egghead grad student girlfriend (Kate Beckinsale) are the silences of a parent who did her thing and a son who didn't.
Literally caught between them is the luscious Beckinsale, who comes to enjoy the hedonism the mother's world of music and a young lover (Allessando Nivola) present. She likes the pot, pool parties, and 3-somes while her fiancé dallies with the sublimated lust for a professional colleague (Natasha McElhone) who is more his cup of straight-laced tea. His resentment of mom's ability to be cool and productive clash with his inability to make decisions about his own lifestyle choices, a serious wife-in-training, his medical practice, and the possibility of affairs with other women. He is as much drawn to sin and swinging as Kate. The tension of the six characters makes the story of kids and their parents failure to communicate as old as the perennial hills.
Great soundtrack with vocals by Nivola and recording sessions are added plus. McDormand is one of the finest character actors around, and she rises to the challenge of taking back seat to Beckinsale's beauty. Nevertheless, McDormand steals the show every time she is on screen. We don't care about the young couple, we care about the three-way between mother, her lover, and her son's lover...that's Hollywood!
Salt but no pepper
This is a silly film. Unbelievable and fantasy yet set in contemporary DC in the post-cold war present. However, for the sake of a shallow storyline, audiences are introduced to Evelyn Salt, a CIA agent who leads several agents through the streets of the metropolitan capital in search of her husband, a dedicated spider-specialist at the Smithsonian. After she is accused by a Russian defector of being a sleeper spy, Salt runs, leaps, and bounds over cars, people, trucks, and subway turnstiles to avoid capture by CIA spy guys who quickly turn on her in the the name national security. Why all these men are so easily turned against the beautiful agent who was so valuable the CIA traded for her release from North Korean capture is never rationalized. Nor, why no one ever bothers to check references by those who quickly rush to judgment over the accusations of the evil "defector". Nothing in this film bothers to have much credibility, it is simply a vehicle to showcase Ms. Jolie's ability to run and jump without fear of gravity and down shots of vodka with her Russian spy brothers.
Believable is Liev Schriber as Salt's colleague/supervisor who keeps the hounds of investigation at bay, yet seems to have cornered the market on playing duplicitous government plants and credible agents. Ms. Jolie, beautiful yet too skinny to be a roustabout, is miscast in a film that tries to lead toward a future sequel yet is sorely lacking the basic structure of a taut compelling storyline such as the Jason Bourne films. Simply a chase and run film for the sake of car crashes and closeups of Jolie's stunning looks, this endeavor wastes time and money.
Words + Actions = Shades of Gray
A film of subtle interpretations and definitions, the dialogues of confrontation and innuendo are alive in Doubt. Set in 1964, St. Nicolas School, a working class Bronx neighborhood Catholic school, is rife with change as new progressive priest, Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) butts heads with the school's conservative Principal, Sr. Aloycious Beauvier (Meryl Streep). Clashing over most issues including Christmas carols vs. secular tunes (Frosty the Snowman), ball point pens vs. ink well penmanship, and rigid ideas of interaction between laity and religious personnel are simply the most overt issues identified. The young Sister James (Amy Adams) is situated between the two polar characters, a naive young woman who would like to see the world as simple and kind, but is made doubtful by the actions of Streep and Hoffman's characters in the situation of the school's only Black student, Donald Miller.
Fr. Flynn encourages a less formal hand with the children, esp. the boys whom he instructs in altar boy routines, basketball, and length of finger nails. But, he also is observed by Sr. Aloyscious from her window, and Sr. James who sees Fr. Flynn place Donald Miller's undershirt in his school locker, and later, Miller's trepidation after a one-on-one meeting with the priest during school time. Little kindnesses between priest and Miller can be seen through multiple interpretations, a small toy offered can be a bribe or simply a gift, is a hug to comfort the child or an inappropriate show of affection, these gestures are observed and noted by not only the adults, but the children, who are classmates of Miller, and respond as well to what they know. Their responses to the priest clue the observer that adults in authority might be suspect.
Perhaps most disconcerting is the dialogue between Sr. Aloyscious and Mrs. Miller, Donald's mother, whose school meeting is overseen by Fr. Flynn, and reveals significant information that color the observations of the senior Sister, and suspect actions of the priest toward the boy. Secondary to the issue of abuse by the priest are issues of race in the Civil Rights Movement era, patrilineal institutions like the Catholic Church, the nascent Women's Equal Rights Movement, and homosexuality as choice versus nature. All become revealed in conversations between the women. Trying to do right by all is not a simple issue of black and white but as revealed, the multiple shades of gray.
The Church, the diocese, the pastors of former parishes, and the male-centric brotherhood of the priests versus the women, the convent world of the Sisters, and perhaps, a woman's intuition are contrasted harshly. In their face-to-face confrontation, Fr. Flynn and Sr. Aloyscious rend the issue of truth to the bone. However, in the final scene, the returned Sr. James is the comfort of the elder sister, whose confession of "doubt" can be neither the resolution nor the solution. A soul tormented, a problem covered over and ignored, and the Church inviolate, the film's ending certainly offers nothing but second thoughts to ponder and reconcile by the audience. The film is a marvelous study of words, actions, and institutions our society continues to revere and question.
The Mephisto Waltz (1971)
Everything old is new again!
Mephisto Waltz is a marvelous piano work by Franz Listz, and as described by Ducan Ely (Curt Jurgen), the dance of the devil with his paramours. In the early 70s, the fad of devil worship by the Hollywood Hills flower power generation was rampant chic, and into this setting stumbles naive Miles Clarkson (Alan Alda), a music journalist, and his wary wife, Paula (Jacqueline Bisset). An opportune interview with the great romantic concert pianist, Ely opens the door for Miles to return to the musical stage he left after his failed graduation concert at Julliard. But it is Clarkson's hands which draw Ely's attention -- his spread over the keys is necessary for a great pianist, a point he emphasizes to his stunning and incestuous daughter, Roxanne DeLancy (Barbara Parkins). Although arrogant, Ely draws Miles into his closest circle of swingers with champagne, dinners, and raucous holiday parties that Miles quickly adopts. Disclosing that he is dying of leukemia, Roxanne's incantations with blue oil transfer the dying older man into the younger man's body, with sexually stimulating results for Paula, and overt interference by Roxanne into their marriage bed.
Subtle performances by Parkins and Bisset set the stage for the ultimate cat fight for the new Miles' body, which for devil worshipers is the ultimate lover. Alda's transformation from mild mannered Miles to alpha male Duncan is convincing as is the excellent performance of Curt Jurgen. But it is the discussion of god is dead, the devil is hip, and dogs with human head masks make this film a gem and wonderful slice of horror storytelling before slasher nonsense overtook the film industry. Body snatching, incest, and Satanic cults among the Hollywood beautiful people seem tame compared with the reality of the Manson family horror murders in the hills that took place only two years earlier. Nevertheless, the Mephisto Waltz makes for fun watching if only to see two of the most beautiful women of the era on screen with Hawkeye Pierce.
Rachel Getting Married (2008)
Stereotypes Abound in Treakle Setup
Bill Irwin speaking. Deborah Winger frumpy gray hair askew. Ann Hathaway as Ms. Rehab Prada. What a ridiculous film by Jonathan Demme. It's a complete disaster with the privileged, multi-racial, multi- ethnic, multi-extended family storyline from hell that simply bores to tears. Rachael Getting Married with its hand-held camera in the face is an abomination. The characters are whining, bitching, siblings, Kim, just out of rehab -- again, who we later discover killed little brother driving on downers, and Rachel, the other sister who harbors years of resentment for attention she and her parents have heaped on the "beautiful" sister, Kim. Dad Bill tries to sooth the ruffled feathers as sisters snipe and squabble, and 2nd wife, Anna Devere Smith is a non- existent character. Add droning musical score, a miserable stint in the 12-step program meetings, and this film can easily be forgotten, buried, and overlooked for several generations. If this was to be Ann Hathaway's serious acting role for Oscar consideration -- forget it. She's light comedy and not the least funny, sympathetic, or interesting. Blame a bad script, bad direction, and just plain, lousy film.
Catch and Release (2006)
Please, Just Make It Go Away
Had someone not already stated this is a film to watch when nothing else is on at 1:00 a.m. I would add to the warning that they are correct. Avoid "Catch and Release," a film that fails to be light, breezy, comedic, or heartfelt. Trite, contrived, and dreadful is a better description.
To summarize, a snarky almost-bride, the perfect Gray (Jennifer Garner), discovers her almost husband and now corpse, Grady, has been diddling a masseuse, Maureen from Encino, and had a kid he'd been supporting from a hidden million dollar plus bank account. Grady's loyal friends, Fritz (hunky Timothy Olephant of Justified and Deadwood) up from L.A., his business partner Dennis, and lovable Kevin Smith share a bungalow cottage in Boulder, Colorado with the recently widowed almost bride, whom they protect from the reality that their good friend/business partner had been hiding more than money, e.g., a kid, and an on-the-side relationship from them. Not that it is anyone's business, but no one seemed to know the guy, least of all the bride-to-be or his mother.
As the bride comes to realize she didn't know squat about her man, his grieving mother tries to get back the engagement ring with a diamond that was in the family for six generations, the ditsy masseuse travels to Boulder to make sure her kid is supported, and Gray quickly jumps the bones of hunky Fritz days after the funeral although she loathes him. Lovable Kevin Smith tries to off himself with Gray's sleeping pills, Dennis confesses he's in love with Gray, and Maureen's bratty kid doesn't "cough up good DNA."
In the meanwhile, smitten Fritz has his ego bruised by Gray who denies their budding relationship to the room mates. Confused, she dons her never used wedding dress ("its a girl thing") and sits in the storage unit where Fritz finds her to say "later" after his ego takes the hit.
This is the film's plot. If it sounds ridiculous, that is because the film just fails miserably to be entertaining although the setting of Boulder, Colorado tries. Recommendation: Take a pill or a glass of hot milk and avoid the 1:00 a.m. re-runs channel instead of watching this nightmare.
The Rapture (1991)
Opiate for the Messes
Some may find the cursory examination of Christian belief an over-riding message in this 1991 film by Michael Tolkin, but if one can put aside the discussions over whether god exists or not, it is an hysterical comedy, in that indie self-important message movie way. Starring Mimi Rogers as Sharon, in a film her ex-TC would have no doubt prevented her from doing back in their day, Rogers' character is the stereotypical information operator by day/swinger sin-sister by night. The extreme binary of her character makes for hysterical lines when she decides to convert to a cultish Christianity based on the notion of prophesy. With David Duchovny in an early semi-naked role as the firm, young, stud whom Rogers cavorts and later marries, and Will Patton as a sheriff who encounters the demented Sharon who has followed her faith into the wilderness, the male balance to this film is one of flesh and reason made secondary to literal interpretation of scripture in vacuous gestures of uncritical blind faith without rationale.
Frankly, other films have addressed questions of faith and belief in more sophisticated ways than the heavy-handed approach of The Rapture, and it is far more satisfying to compare those with this attempt. While Rogers is lauded for this performance, it is a complex character but the actress interpretation is shallow and so pulled back that it makes for an uneven and superficial read, however, I think this is more the fault of the director than the actress. On first viewing, I thought this film was intriguing, but after several viewings in the interim years, it becomes more laughable and comedic than worthy of intense reflection or serious attention.
Everyone Says I Love You (1996)
Move Over Baz Luhrman - Woody Allen Coming Through
I must preface my remarks by admitting I never liked Woody Allen films, his humor and neurotic little guy characterization are simply unfunny -- but, after viewing Everyone Says I Love You, I've changed my mind.
A film that hearkens to the wacky musical genre of the past, the outstanding performances by a stellar cast including Allen Alda, Goldie Hawn, Ed Norton, Tim Roth, Julia Roberts, Natalie Portman, Billy Crudup, and Drew Barrymore, is nostalgic and entertaining for today's audiences. Singing and dancing, whining and wineing, the film utilizes New York's spectacular seasonal changes, the romantic canals of Venice, and the beauty of nighttime Paris to stage this somewhat simple storyline of boy loves girl, girl is more neurotic than boy, and the liberal Democrats are more neurotic and simple than all the film's boys and girls.
Enjoyable perhaps because Allen does not center the story on himself in every scene, I found myself liking the implausible situations as actors broke into songs of love, which no matter what the setting, seemed thoroughly appropriate for the dramatic situation. I loved watching Goldie Hawn dancing with her nebbish partner Allen along the banks of the Seine. Her gravity defying graceful steps were matched by the equally graceful Allen. Alan Alda's serenade to his wife at their anniversary party was both touching and a good rendition. And, Allen's hysterical New Year's Groucho Marx theme party and musical review had me in tears laughing. The wit and droll humor of translating familiar songs into foreign languages is a brilliant juxtaposition of expectation and surrealism.
This is a wonderful film to spend the afternoon or evening, and while sentimental films are not usually my cup of tea, I found myself enjoying the romantic Allen film moreso than the visual, energetic angst and splendid efforts of the frenetic Baz Luhrmann musical, "Moulin Rouge" released around the same time. While both directors approach to the musical genre is respectful of the great choreographers and songwriters of the past, it is the differing styles each director brings to the subject that is worth the audience's serious consideration.
Everyone Says I Love You is perhaps a bit less energetic and overt, but is equally satisfying as Moulin Rouge. In finding myself enjoying Allen's approach to the musical, I will now look to his other work with a new interest and respect.
Mental Illness Lite
Neverwas is a muddled film that reduces the heartbreak of the disease of schizophrenia to a fanciful lark of literary imagination and children's fanciful dreams. Gabriel (Ian McKellan) is a hospitalized mental patient whose terrors of childhood abuse has driven him away from society and into the forest where he has constructed a kingdom of Neverwas. Zack (Aaron Eckhardt) is a psychiatrist who leaves an academic career to take a position in a small mental hospital where his celebrated writer/father Tom was committed and where he encounters Gabriel, who recognizes Zack as the child of the Neverwas myth. Haunted by the mythic story of Zack Small, the boy hero of his father's best seller children's book, also titled "Neverwas," Zack attempts to bring peace to the troubled minds of the mental patients and understand the clues which Gabriel delights in leaving for him. Attempting to piece together in a non-linear route of discovery, despite night terrors, and maniacal enchantment Zack's task is to outwit the system of stifling bureaucratic medicine, legal blockades, and commercial exploitation of Neverwas through Gabriel's clues.
If this begins to sound like a pitch for a feel-good, warm and fuzzy commercial spot it abounds in the film. With a superb cast of Jessica Lange as Zack's bruised alcoholic mother who can't forget her dead husband, Brittany Murphy as a reporter, Alan Cummings, and William Hurt as the hospital's administrator, Neverwas rambles toward a showdown in which Gabriel escapes to lead Zack on a merry chase back to the primeval landscape to revive his spirit of freedom from responsibility in a never ending playtime. While the premise of father-son reconciliation, redemption, forgiveness, and fulfillment weaves through the film, it is never achieved as the reality of the disease of schizophrenia can never be overlooked, and is anything but a playful romp in the forest green. The brilliant McKellen simply re-enacts his Gandalf personality with too much reliance on the seven dwarfs to come to the rescue. As the police surround the trash-heap towers Gabriel has erected on privately owned forest lands, the notion of squatters rights, eco-terrorism, and forest service clear cutting looms over the delusional situation that threaten to stop Gabriel's fantasy life.
Nevertheless, this is Hollywood which requires an upbeat ending. The improbability of salvation for the kingdom, the king, and the crown prince from the scourge of mental illness is forgotten and they all live happily ever after is the ultimate absurdity.
Dragon Flights of Fantasy
Eragon (Ed Speleers) is a young farmer who discovers an egg one day. When the egg hatches, out pops a baby dragon who the human learns is his dragon, and that he is a Dragon Rider. Through the inevitable growing pains of child to youth, youth to adult, young Eragon is mentored by a former dragon rider, Jeremy Irons, and learns that dragons and their human rider are bound together by a shared destiny until death. How they choose to live this partnership is the gist of the story as Eragon seeks to save his country from an evil ruler and magician with the help of a band of rebel outcasts, a magic sword, and the brave dragon. Of course, a young beautiful girl, Sienna Guillory is the first love of Eragon, and the partnership of Safira, the dragon and her rider becomes a life's test of courage, cunning, and growing wisdom.
This is a light fantasy film that is most of all feel-good with a smattering of "ancient" wisdom and swordplay which will entertain younger audiences. The special effects and overall look of the film is passable, not a multi-million dollar SFX laden film, but believable in its visuals. As for the story, I don't read fictional fantasy so I had no basis for comparison with "the book." But, I'm not a fan of comparing text to visuals as criterion for quality or authenticity for each medium is its own separate art form. This is a family film that will entertain and enthrall youngsters as well as possibly impart some sense of honor, wisdom through purpose, and a sense of duty above self -- all characteristics that are missing in the mindless, fart-heavy humor of most "tweeny" movies put out for commercial distribution today.
If only to watch the stellar performance of the excellent British actor, Jeremy Irons as he mentors the wet-behind-the-ears Dragon Rider, the film is worth watching as the really ugly bad guys try to bring down the last of the dragons and her headstrong partner.
Il portiere di notte (1974)
War Crimes and Sexual Obsession
Max (Dirk Bogarde) is the definitive night porter in a Vienna hotel. In his prior life, however, he was a Nazi SS camp officer who kept a 14 year old girl (Charlotte Rampling) for his special attention. Thirteen years after the war, Lucia, now grown up and the wife of a symphony conductor checks into the hotel and encounters her former captor and lover behind the night desk. Both survivors of the war experience, Max longs for a quiet existence and will kill to ensure it, while Lucia, a stunning woman, decides to stay in Vienna and rekindle her previous relationship instead of following her husband to Berlin. Flashbacks to the camp reveal that Lucia's survival instincts were honed by her sexual services to Max, as well as her entertainment skills for other SS officers. Max's "little girl" grown up however, means that she can identify him and the small group of former Nazis who want Lucia out of Max's life set about to ensure the couple's demise. As Max and Lucia fall back into their former master and slave roles, the Stockholm syndrome or the perversity of love under duress is examined.
Dirk Borgarde gives a brilliant as well as subtle and sympathetic performance in the role of an evil,guilt-riddled, obsessed man who is incapable of letting go of the past, nor wants to allow Lucia to be rid of him. Stunning Charlotte Rampling, once touted as "the most beautiful woman in the world" in the 70s, is his willing victim of their sick, deteriorating situation. Unable to break away and incapable of denying the reality of her past lover, the doomed Lucia repeats her shame with Max in Rampling's exquisite performance that is pathetic and magnetic on screen.
Written and directed by women, this unusual film examines topics of victimization, obsession, and guilt as a sick, extreme form of love, a subject a head of its time in 1974. With the sub-text of Nazis seeking to avoid discovery, continuation of the decadence, and the seedy, twilight existence of jaded outsiders to society in Vienna, The Night Porter remains an outstanding adult, complex film that leaves viewers in an uneasy limbo to ponder in the end.