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Stumbles out of the gate
Gary Ross's exquisite direction is done in by his ham-fisted screenplay. We only know Seabiscuit inspired Depression-era America because he tells us over and over and over, like an amateur historian wielding a mallet.
He wants to create a roaring crowd-pleaser and a reverential slice of America. He succeeds somewhat at the first, but fails miserably at the second.
Part of the problem is that Ross crams too much of the story into a clipped, cross-cut first act that gives his actors too little room to blossom as real people. Ross's ripe dialog doesn't help.
The film finally kicks into gear when the wonder horse arrives. But even during the "emotional" final act, Ross smothers us in teeth-grinding symbolism.
But there's no doubt the races are well-shot.
Pennies from Heaven (1981)
Ahead of its time
When Herb Ross opened "Pennies From Heaven" during Christmas of 1981 it met with harsh press and public indifference. Many concluded the musical was dead.
But "Pennies," like Bob Fosse's "All That Jazz" released two years before, is a key transitional work that juxtaposed the cynicism of the '70s to the exhilaration and escapist fantasy of its buoyant Depression era score.
Steve Martin ran the risk of alienating his fan base by trading in the "Wild and Crazy" guy for the brooding, unfaithful Arthur Parker. But he's a revelation. And what a dancer!
It was no surprise when audiences stayed away.
By all means watch it today, particularly on the new widescreen DVD release. You'll walk away with a greater appreciation of Christopher Walken, Bernadette Peters and especially Steve Martin.
It makes it so much harder to watch this major talent wasting himself in such tripe as "Cheaper by the Dozen" and "Bringing Down the House."
One of the forgotten Hammer vampire films, "Captain Kronos" was an attempt to revive the genre by rewriting the rules, winking at the audience and introducing a swashbuckling new vampire hunter.
While the Christopher Lee/Peter Cushing "Dracula" series had been exhausted by 1973, "Kronos," too, failed to excite audiences. Hammer needed a transfusion, but lead Horst Janson was too anemic to pull it off.
Even worse, director/writer Brian Clemens rewrites the rules so different bloodsuckers are vulnerable to different weapons. This leads to a very entertaining scene with Janson failing over and over to off a bound vampire. But Clemens's new version of the legend lacks the visceral horror of "Dracula."
Still, "Captain Kronos" has a major cult following.
The Village (2004)
Victim of past success
The problem here is M. Night Shyamalan is a victim of his own success. After the genre-transforming "Sixth Sense," with its now famous twist ending, audiences expect Shyamalan to jolt us no matter how intrusive it is to the story. And he's happily obliged by reworking the formula with "Unbreakable" (What makes Bruce Willis indestructible?) and "Signs" (Are the aliens real?).
"The Village" is ultimately one long waiting game. While it envelopes us in its impeccable recreation of an agrarian society, the plot is hellbent on shattering our preconceptions. And knowing that, we watch it waiting for the revelations, not engrossed in the tale, despite a star-making performance by Bryce Dallas Howard.
When the director finally reveals his hand, the "twists" are predictable and maddeningly unimaginative. I expect audiences, who wanted to conceal the end of "The Sixth Sense" to insure their friends' enjoyment, will be anxious to reveal all to save their friends' $10 for a ticket.
It's not that Shyamalan doesn't have a point here. He's clearly making a statement about post-9/11 America. But the moral is overshadowed by his obligation to shock us.
Family Plot (1976)
End of the line
When compared to the films made during his creative peak, Alfred Hitchcock's "Family Plot" pales. But seen as the final work of an aging, exhausted master incapable of location shooting, it's a remarkably engaging concoction loaded with delicious Hitch moments. The downhill runaway car scene works far better than it should, and the solid cast of character actors, particularly Bruce Dern and Barbara Harris, are clearly having a grand time. While not as significant a film as "Rear Window," "Psycho," even the underrated "Marnie," it remains enjoyable fluff, especially when compared to the sluggish "Topaz," Hitch's only true late-career misfire. If you can watch this on the DVD, don't miss the documentary on the making of the film.
Underrated gem from Hitch
Like "Lifeboat" and "Foreign Correspondent," this contribution to the war effort may preach too much and wave the flag in spots, but its heart is pure Hitch. Reworking his irresistible "wrong man" theme, Hitch's use of all-American Bob Cummings is ideal. Too many viewers confuse Cummings' white bread persona as a failing of the film. In fact, Hitch uses his lead's lightness to show how even a "guy-next-door" like Cummings could be tagged as an evildoer. Hitch then uses Cummings' charm to tap our sympathy. As for Hitch's stylish set-pieces (the Statue of Liberty climax, the shoot-out at Radio City, and the wonderful stop aboard the circus train), all I can say is: superb.
The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)
Price at his peak
It's easy to pick apart the plot contrivances. Yes, as any Sunday School student knows, the plagues are out of order . . . . But this is a rare horror gem laced with the black humor of the old E.C. Comics, then coated in an Art Decco veneer. And Vincent Price, as the master musician turned serial murderer, pulls it off with a pantomime that bucks his reputation as a ham. The murders, while farfetched, are deliciously grisly. When in the last 30 years have we had a horror films with as much style, ingenuity and class? It's the perfect bookend to Price's other '70s gem "Theater of Blood."
House of Usher (1960)
Credit to Matheson, Price
The critics of B-movie schlock-meister Roger Corman were so taken with the gothic ambiance of "House of Usher," Corman's most beloved Edgar Allen Poe entry, they overpraised the director for finally delivering something of value, but underplayed the contribution of screenwriter Richard Matheson who twisted the most disturbing imagines from Poe's tale into a script with moments of eloquence. This film sealed Vincent Price's fate as a cinema boogeyman, and rightfully so. Roderick Usher is the monster eating at the mansion's crumbling foundation. More than any actor, Price epitomized the traditional Poe protagonist, both villain and victim, whose spiraling madness leads to grisly acts. He's the main reason the film is so beloved.
Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
Less showy, more sinister
The split opinion on "Shadow of a Doubt" is not surprising. Many video and DVD viewers watch this after being enveloped by the Hitchcock canon "Psycho," "Rear Window," and "Vertigo." Toss in "The Birds" even the underrated remake of "The Man Who Knew too Much," and you have five films with spectacular sequences (the shower murder, the assassination attempt in Royal Albert Hall, Jimmy Stewart's flashbulb defense) that pushed cinema in breathtaking directions. Of his best-loved films, "Shadow of Doubt" is his least showy: a character study of an all-American family facing (and denying) the presence of evil in their home. As so many have already noted, the performances are uniformly superb, allowing the central relationship between young Charlie and her mysterious Uncle Charlie to take on disconcerting edge rarely found in the cinema of 1943. Hitch asks the question: What would you do if you suspected a relative of serial murder? Like real life, his answers are frustrating and gray. To the many who find the film slack, I suggest they watch it again now that their expectations are lower. Like Hitch's best films, it improves with each viewing.
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
The evangelical adoration this film has earned is lost on me. Like so many popular films of recent years, "Shawshank" is an obvious, cliche-riddled epic that's won fans because it plays it safe. Characters are either saintly or satanic. There's no room for shades of gray. Sure its sumptuously filmed. A $50 million budget can do that. Add the always solid Morgan Freeman, a paper-thin moral about hope, and you've got a film longing to be loved. Obviously, plenty of people do.
But compared to Freeman, Tim Robbins' vanilla performance as the long-suffering innocent (dare I say Christ-like) man trapped in purgatory comes off bland. Clancy Brown as the sadistic prison guard is the worst cliche of the all. When you toss in the obligatory prison rapes, the corrupt warden, and James Whitmore (who is very good) as the veteran inmate unprepared for life outside the institution, you've got a predictable film that only snaps to life near its plot-holed conclusion.
Worse of all, Frank Darabont directs the works at half-speed. This is a painfully overlong concoction.
In time, "The Shawshank Redemption" will be regarded as a well-crafted but shallow prison film.
The Butcher Boy (1997)
The genius of Neil Jordan's brazenly original work is that he details the exhilaration of psychosis. Jordan's adolescent lead captures the joy of childhood through the prism of a fractured lens. In Jordan's boldest move, he forces us to root for the abused boy even as the kid grows increasingly unhinged. While the cast is good, young Eamonn Owens is electrifying.
Who likes this kind of torture?
Paul Schrader (who penned "Taxi Driver" and directed "Light Sleeper") again takes us into the head of a mentally crumbling loner and finds-- surprise!-- dark shadows and depression. Who likes this kind of torture? As low-rent cop Wade Whitehouse, Nick Nolte gives an impressive, but oppressive, performance, as does Oscar winner James Coburn, who plays Wade's abusive dad. There's a "murder mystery" buried in this nightmare, but Schrader keeps casting it aside for repetitious moments of angst. The revelation: that the sins of the father haunt the sons. And for that we waste Sissy Spacek, and two hours of our time. Painful.
Uncle Buck (1989)
For anyone who wonders what made John Candy such a lovable lug, this, along with "Stripes" and his best work "Planes, Trains, and Automobiles," will clue you in. Arguably the weakness movie of the three, Candy's timing and soft self-deprecating humor as a bachelor turned babysitter give "Uncle Buck" a charming center that helps you endure Jean Louisa Kelly's grating performance, as his snotty angst-ridden niece, and John Hughes' sappy direction.
Starship Troopers (1997)
Faithful to Heinlein
I know there's a debate over whether Paul Verhoeven is satirizing war films or endorsing the film's depiction of a fascist world order. In fact, the director has crafted a faithful, even rousing, adaptation of Robert Heinlein's novel and viewpoints. The only way mankind can survive such a ghastly demise, Heinlein argued, is with a citizenry that earns its rights by placing its life on the line. After all, the "bugs" know nothing about democracy. The film's failing is using a cast of fresh-faced neophytes who lack the weight needed to pull this off. Denise Richards is especially weak as the heroic fly-girl. Nonetheless, the battles scenes and special-effect arachnids are spectacular.
The Straight Story (1999)
Slow, but steady
It takes patience to get through David Lynch's eccentric, but-- for a change-- life-affirming chronicle of Alvin Straight's journey, but stick with it. Though it moves as slow as Straight's John Deere, when he meets the kind strangers along his pilgrimage we learn much about the isolation of aging, the painful regrets and secrets, and ultimately the power of family and reconciliation. Richard Farnsworth caps his career with the year's most genuine performance, sad and poetic, flinty and caring. And Sissy Spacek matches him as his "slow" daughter Rose who pines over her own private loss while caring for dad. Rarely has a modern film preached so positively about family.
Jamie's good. . . the plot, ugh!
I know Jamie Lee Curtis wanted to do this 20 year homage to the film that started her career and a decade-long series of cheeseball imitators, but other than her gung-ho performance, there's little to recommend it. Constantly winking at us, a la "Scream," the filmmakers never bother to explain key plot points. They simply dump Jamie's masked assassin in her school (she's a teacher now) and let the battle begin. Yawn.
The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Being original is not enough
I concede it's an original, but can't overlook the irritating flaws. By forcing the to actors to "be real," they ad lib. That encourages Heather's shrill line deliveries, and a middle that lags as the crew breaks down into days (and nights) of bickering. As for who's doing what to whom: Face it, it's a deliberate muddle. That's why it's scaring so many people. They're letting their minds convince them something awful is going on when no one can be sure of anything. Yet, ironically, this cinematic chicanery is the film's strength. Hitchcock would have been proud. But he would have made Heather more sympathetic.
The King of Comedy (1982)
Scorsese's forgotten masterpiece
From Jerry Lewis's subtle, deeply personal performance, to Robert DeNiro's amazing interpretation of a neurotic nerbish whose fantasy world collides with reality on late night talk TV, "The King of Comedy" is a true original that guts the glamour from showbiz and finds it cold and empty inside. Then there's the media, always ready to create another celebrity, even if he's an autograph hound and hack comic turned kidnapper who believes he's earned a shot in the spotlight. Cynical and melancholy, at times hilarious, it bombed when first released, but has been surprising video treasure hunters ever since.
The Space Children (1958)
Keeping watching the kids!
One of Jack Arnold's lesser efforts, it reverses the "Invaders From Mars" theme. Instead of alien's controlling parents, we have kids becoming the mind-controlled tools of forces from beyond who want to stop Earth's "self-destructive" ways. Worth a peek for Jackie Coogan and his snug bathing suit.
Alone in the Dark (1982)
Underrated black comedy
With Jack Palance and Martin Landau hamming it up as two of four escaped mental patients, and Donald Pleasence as their batty psychiatrist, "Alone in the Dark" remains one of few low budget horror films with a genuine sense of humor. During the blackout, watch the way they argue like a real family, and listen to Pleasence's nutty philosophizing. This is no ordinary horror flick.
My Bloody Valentine (1981)
Your average slice and dice
Born in the post-"Friday the 13th" boom, this low-budget Canadian shocker at least tries to rise above the typical slash-and-mash by keeping you guessing as to the killer's identity. The madman is among a gang of teenagers who visit a mine where years earlier an accident left another psycho out for revenge. Is he back for more? Pretty standard stuff, from the heart wrapped as a Valentine package to that charred lady in Dyer.
The Gore Gore Girls (1972)
Blood, sex, and Henny Youngman
Give H.G. Lewis points: He managed to incorporate beefy exotic dancers, gallons of his notorious fake blood, and Henny Youngman all in one movie. "The Gore Gore Girls" was Lewis's horror film swan song, and ends with a head being squashed by an automobile. Oh... Henny plays a surly night club owner whose girls are falling prey to Lewis's standard butchery.
The Wizard of Gore (1970)
Gore is right
H.G. Lewis tried to top "Blood Feast" with this somewhat creative clunker about a magician who saws people in half-- literally. The goopy blood flows freely helping cover the dreadful performances and Lewis's usual incompetent direction. Only interesting as a curio from the era before "Friday the 13th."
The doughboy versus the caveman
I'm not sure which is more frightening: Richard Kiel's fake beard, doughy Arch Hall Jr's real singing, or Arch Hall Sr. in short pants. Don't miss pasty Arch Jr's slug-fest with Kiel's lovesick caveman. And remember: Watch for snakes!
The Beast of Yucca Flats (1961)
The ultimate Tor-de-force
Forget "Plan Nine from Outer Space" and "Bride of the Monster" this Coleman Francis calamity gives Tor Johnson the role of a lifetime. As a scientist turned atomic desert mutant, Tor gets to stumble over rocks, pet a bunny, and scare two ugly kids with a stick, all without a soundtrack! Arguably the worst film ever made.