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The Bone Collector (1999)
Material unworthy of actors in run-of-the-mill serial killer flick
The most surprising thing about The Bone Collector is not the identity of the titular serial killer (the answer to that question is as ridiculous as they come) but rather the appearance of Denzel Washington as the paralyzed hero. That an actor as good as he would take on dime-store pulp that barely registers as third-rate Silence of the Lambs leads one to believe that despite the "challenge" of playing a quadriplegic, a substantial paycheck might have had a hand in the decision-making process. It couldn't have been the material, which is littered with every illogical, implausible, impossible and unforgivable suspense-thriller cliche that has ever offended at the multiplex. Angelina Jolie, who looks like anything but a beat cop (as if anticipating our skepticism, the movie breathlessly explains that she was a "child model" before she answered the call of law enforcement), acts well enough to assuage our substantial doubts. But her verisimilitude is too little, too late as the ordinary plot chugs along its predictable path until depositing the wearied audience at the foot of a howlingly awful conclusion.
PTA's follow-up to Boogie solid but sprawling
A stylish, virtually epic, and synchronistically informed ensemble piece, Magnolia is surely one of the most challenging films of 1999. Unfortunately, the picture's extreme length and handful of unnecessary side-trips prevent it from attaining the levels of transcendence reached by other recent works (American Beauty and The Straight Story, for example) tackling similar thematic terrain -- morals and responsibilities, life disappointments, family relationships, and the need for love. Employing (it would seem) a dozen or so of the cast members from the superior Boogie Nights, Anderson adds Tom Cruise to the mix in a turn that unquestionably represents the actor's finest work to date. Regardless of its shortcomings (the entire section with kid genius Stanley, played by Jeremy Blackman, felt entirely too much like Little Man Tate), a number of the film's risks -- including a most unexpected kind of rain and the tour-de-force montage employing Aimee Mann's "Wise Up" -- pay off with dazzling results.
The Green Mile (1999)
Second King period prison flick from Darabont no Shawshank
Despite some terrific performances (particularly from supporters David Morse and Michael Jeter), Frank Darabont's adaptation of Stephen King's serialized novel The Green Mile falls far short of the director's previous effort, The Shawshank Redemption. Revolving around a series of unusual events taking place on death row of Louisiana's Cold Mountain prison in the mid 1930s, the film focuses on head guard Paul Edgecomb (Tom Hanks), easily cinema's most humane and forgiving penitentiary employee -- who also happens to have a vicious urinary tract infection. Unfortunately, the rest of the formidable cast lines up along one of two polar opposites: either big-hearted and destined for sainthood or malevolent and hateful. This approach robs the characters of much-needed complexity, and infuses the proceedings with a rote predictability just an inch from the borderline of formula. The Green Mile's significant running time (at least a half hour to an hour longer than needed) isn't justified by the subject matter, and the bizarre and unnecessary framing device undoubtedly works better on the page than on the screen.
Smith's 4th pic disappointing and scattershot
Despite the welcome presence of a handful of appealing top-liners (Damon, Affleck, Rock), Kevin Smith's religious comedy is more reminiscent of the awful Mallrats than the excellent Chasing Amy. Laborious and heavy-handed as both writer and director, Smith introduces far too many characters for the film's own good, squandering any opportunity for coherence and clarity. Linda Fiorentino, ostensibly the central protagonist of the muddy narrative, comes off as bored and uninvolved in the action -- perhaps the greatest single blow to the picture. Also a disappointment is the usually tremendous Chris Rock, who seems lost amid the inflated number of cast members vying for screen time. Surprisingly, his disgruntled apostle Rufus takes a backseat to Jason Mewes' foul-mouthed Jay in the laugh-line department. Dogma's middle section fairly screams out to be trimmed to a reasonable length, but even that would not be enough to sort out the disorder and inconsistency that mark the film as one of Smith's lesser outings.
Lubitsch's first American film a real treat
Legends abound concerning the contentious on-set relationship between superstar Mary Pickford and director Ernst Lubitsch during the filming of Rosita. Despite Pickford's later efforts to keep the film out of circulation, screenings of the picture revealed a delightful surprise: the great German filmmaker had provided Pickford with her wish -- the showcase for a juicy role miles away from her "little girl with the curls" persona. Only the tiniest indications of what would later evolve into the "Lubitsch touch" exist in the tale of a street singer who rises to prominence in the court of a philandering king (skillfully portrayed by Holbrook Blinn), but Rosita is a handsomely mounted production with charm, wit, and plenty of romance to spare.
Barry Lyndon (1975)
Opulent costume drama from the great filmmaker
Kubrick's adaptation of Thackeray's Barry Lyndon sharply divides fans of the great director's work, as the languid pace and seemingly interminable running time -- not to mention Ryan O'Neal's questionable performance in the title role -- are cherished by some and deplored by others. Little argument will be made against John Alcott's Academy Award-winning cinematography or Ken Adam's production design, however, and Kubrickian motifs are manifest in the gallery of characters' wide-ranging displays of cowardice, guile, duplicity, avarice, jealousy, greed, and cruelty. Marisa Berenson is terribly short-changed in her role as the Lady Lyndon, but a number of other performers are given the opportunity to create a handful of memorable moments -- especially Arthur O'Sullivan (albeit briefly) as the charming, intelligent highwayman and Patrick Magee as the Chevalier. Love it or hate it, Barry Lyndon will remain essential viewing for aficionados of the director, who enjoys taking his usual shots at the more discouraging aspects of human behavior.
Beautifully realized, involving film is pure Sayles
With its leisurely pace, unusual structure, and highly ambiguous ending (not to mention a nonexistent marketing campaign), Limbo will quite likely divide the small audience that sees it. This is a terrible shame, as John Sayles is at the top of his game. Set in Alaska, Limbo comments incisively on a variety of complex issues concerning the vast state -- the relentless tourism, the scarcity of meaningful employment for the working class, and the careless abuses of irreplaceable natural resources by the wealthy, to name a few. All of these interesting themes, however, are discarded half-way through in favor of a thought-provoking story of human survival that will undoubtedly light a fire for some while irritating and alienating others. Sayles has not always connected with me, but I was deeply moved by Limbo (especially the rich characterizations provided by Martinez, Mastrantonio, and Sayles regular Strathairn) -- and I absolutely loved the gutsy ending, which continues to occupy my thoughts.
The Incredible Torture Show (1976)
Worthless pretender to Herschell Gordon Lewis throne
Blood Sucking Freaks is the most base of films: a no-budget shocker stuffed with wall-to-wall scenes of extreme sadism and torture. Copping a Herschell Gordon Lewis-style exploitation set-up, Blood Sucking Freaks chronicles all of the behind-the-scenes horrors at a New York City "Theatre of the Macabre" run by evil Sardu and his loathsome assistant, dwarf Ralphus. The glacially paced groaner spends the majority of its running time showing a variety of grisly dismemberment and all manner of accompanying perversion (the nadir of which might just be the human dartboard, but it would be a really tough call given the other cruelties on display). Despite its claim to legendary cult movie status ("second only to Rocky Horror!" trumpets the hyperbolic jacket note) the dull, nearly unwatchable stinker lacks all the flair, charm, and elan of a true midnight gem, Blood Feast.
Superbly crafted drama delves into darkest corners of the psyche
David Fincher's bleak, relentless, and ultimately terrifying crime thriller Seven transcends other films of the genre with incredible plotting (the sort Hitchcock might employ were he alive and making films in the 1990s) and scalding intelligence. With only a small handful of minor flaws -- the overly familiar retiring cop/young cop pairing; the awful "I'm taking you off the case!" cliche seemingly required by the genre; one giant lapse in logic in the downward spiral toward the conclusion that cannot be revealed without ruining the script's gruesome surprise -- Seven typically keeps its viewers imprisoned in their seats with a combination of morbid fascination and abject fear. Despite attempts by studio executives to alter Andrew Kevin Walker's ending, the filmmaking team prevailed and audiences experienced that rare treat of mainstream cinema: an uncompromising vision.
The General (1998)
Superbly drawn character study of infamous Irish criminal
Brendan Gleeson's performance as notorious Irish master criminal Martin "The General" Cahill is a small miracle. Alternating between a brash swagger and a sullen fatalism, Gleeson utterly transforms himself (I love how he hides his face simply by cocking his head down and shielding it with his hand, peeking out between splayed fingers) into the charismatic thief. Director and screenwriter John Boorman, who delighted in revealing that he had once been robbed of a gold record by the real-life Cahill (he references it anecdotally in the film) has done some of his best work here, creating a totally engrossing character study that includes tense robberies, playful confrontations with the police, and eyebrow-raising relationships, but he never forgets to maintain the delicate balance between the light-hearted (and light-fingered) humor and the danger and desperation inherent in a high-profile life of crime.
Chun gwong cha sit (1997)
Imagine me and you...
Despite winning Best Director at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival for Happy Together, director Wong Kar-wai has decidedly not made a follow-up worthy to the cinematic invention and wonder of the brilliant Chungking Express. Although the director employs the same French New Wave-style techniques showcased in his earlier work, and infuses the picture with a garish, saturated glow, the dreary story of two lovers who have traveled halfway around the world to Argentina only to break up and then make up and then break up again (and so on) very quickly wears out its welcome. Despite the directorial fireworks brought by its innovative director and a pair of solid performances from Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Happy Together is really no different from a slate of like-minded, late 20th century relationship movies.
Roll on Texas Moon (1946)
Hearty cowboy fun and fantasy
Roll on Texas Moon employs many of the standard plot devices of the popular B Western to wring out plenty of action and humor in the course of its brief running time. Paragon of truth, honor and virtue Roy Rogers finds himself smack dab in the middle of a turf war between the regional cattle ranchers and sheep herders (the social implications of which are occasionally fascinating to ponder) which has been manufactured by a secret evil-doer trying to gain control of a major ranch. Roy's invaluable sidekick, the legendary Gabby Hayes, proves indispensable to the film: not only is he accused of murder, he also provides the comic relief, as an adorable lost lamb develops a fixation and dependence on Gabby that the grizzled cattleman desperately tries to hide from his pals. Dale Evans, playing Jill Delaney, is a well-meaning and good-hearted sheep rancher who, like Roy, does not want the bitter dispute to tear apart the community. Before all the secrets can come to light and reveal the true villain, the audience is treated to a rousing set piece in which Jill's out of control, sabotaged auto goes careening off a steep embankment. If you think Roy is able to save her from certain doom, well... you better see Roll on Texas Moon and find out.
Logan's Run (1976)
Fish, plankton, sea-greens, and protein from the sea.
Logan's Run is an ambitious science fiction yarn about a society in which young, healthy, good looking (and inexplicably Caucasian) citizens of a bubble-domed utopia all face mandated euthanasia upon reaching the age of thirty. Unfortunately, the picture strains to be the successful vessel of thought-provoking ideas to which it desperately aspires, and plays more like a drug-fueled evening at a glossy, giddy roller-disco complete with feathered hair and spandex -- much more 1976 than 2274. The very earnest Michael York, the Logan of the title, takes things way too seriously, and by the time a T.S. Eliot-quoting Peter Ustinov shows up, the movie has worn out its welcome. Logan's Run predates Star Wars by only one year, but the latter's advancement in the art of special effects makes the former look like it was clumsily manufactured decades before the George Lucas space saga.
Back in the Saddle (1941)
Standard issue B Western typifies singing cowboy film
Gene Autry provides a wealth of old-fashioned entertainment in Back in the Saddle, one of the factory-issue B Westerns that played to packed Saturday afternoon movie palaces full of kids who dreamed of life on the open range. Besides crooning the legendary title tune, Autry foils a dastardly mine owner who has been poisoning cattle to drive the local ranchers off their land. An interesting opening section depicts Gene and faithful, hopeless sidekick Smiley Burnette (here in his "Frog" incarnation) retrieving the son of a friend from the decadent big city -- a perfectly set-up showdown between wholesome country and degenerate city played for maximum effect. Back in the Saddle's most prominent set-piece, however, is an exciting shoot-out set in and around a jail with plenty of whizzing bullets and flaming hay-carts to set the heart pounding.
As cinema, Salo is just plain old fecal matter
When he embarked on what was to be the final film of his career, Pasolini might very well have been attempting to send a message to his native Italians about their complicity with the Nazis during the course of World War II, but his adaptation of the Marquis de Sade's incendiary work of transgression suffers from the cinema's one unforgivable sin: it is deadly dull. Certainly many viewers will be turned off by the repeated depictions of rape, sodomy, coprophagia, sexual humiliation and torture, but these horrors are treated so casually by the director that the alienated audience is given zero incentive to care a whit about anything transpiring on the screen. With the exception of a very miniscule treatment of two young girls who support one another when one of the pair cries that she cannot go on, Pasolini exerts no effort to create sympathy for the enslaved children. What is undoubtedly meant as a commentary on the "banality of evil" comes out in the wash as just a banal film.
Tôkyô nagaremono (1966)
Aimless, meandering crime flick boasts colorful design
Tokyo Drifter, one of the better-known films to spring from the fertile imagination of director Seijun Suzuki, is not nearly as outrageous as some of his other pictures -- especially the must-see Branded to Kill, which was made around the same time. The film's convoluted narrative gives off the strange air of being made up as it goes along, (another trademark of the filmmaker's avant-garde style) which will impress some viewers while turning others away. Revolving around issues of loyalty in the dangerous world of the yakuza, Tokyo Drifter follows a very-committed right-hand man whose world changes when his boss decides to leave behind a life of crime. Cinematically speaking, the vivid sets (many of them designed in splashy, overwhelmingly chromatic color schemes -- a purple room, a white room, a yellow room, and so on) are arguably the movie's finest achievement.
Le violon rouge (1998)
Measured, thoughtful account of near-mystical instrument
Literally spanning centuries to unfold its mesmerizing tale, The Red Violin traces the unbelievable history of an acoustically flawless masterpiece crafted in the late 1600s by an Italian master. Co-screenwriters Francois Girard (who directed) and Don McKellar (who acts in the film) structure the movie around a wealth of richly detailed locales, including Vienna, China, and Oxford, and provide a unique modern-day Montreal framework which intertwines with the often tragic history of the instrument to provide the narrative with a rather unique element of mystery. The late-19th century English section shows the film at its most baroque, but each of the finely tuned tales reaches for some truth about music, life, love, and passion -- and that is commendable. Music lovers take note: the sounds that come out of the crimson treasure throughout the course of its journey are utterly thrilling and inspiring.
Loving You (1957)
Autobiographical take on Elvis Presley's pop ascendancy
Elvis Presley's second feature capitalized on the King's meteoric rise to superstardom by autobiographically depicting his real-life experiences with some embellishment. Loving You, therefore, provides fans with a sort of auxiliary examination of a working class kid's practically supernatural odyssey from gas station to recording studio -- shedding light on a few of the darker aspects of being famous (such as rabid fans that rob E of his privacy and, even more telling, the tenuous relationship with a manipulative manager who guides his career with iron will). Loving You boasts beautiful color photography, excellent costuming, and a few of the King's outstanding performances -- particularly "(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear."
Love Me Tender (1956)
Presley's screen debut solid in undistinguished film
Despite switching the film's title from The Reno Brothers to Love Me Tender in order to capitalize on the young singer's popularity, Elvis still took second billing in his big screen debut, a typical Western that takes place just after the completion of the Civil War. The setting makes for some unintentionally humorous anachronisms, as the spirit of E's musical numbers is far more at home in the 1950s than the 1860s. Love Me Tender's plot sets up a love triangle involving two brothers: Elvis' character Clint Reno (love that name) marries his big brother's sweetheart when the elder sibling fails to return from the war, but brother Vance unexpectedly shows up and naturally is not happy about the state of affairs on the family farm. The rivalry brings about tragic consequences, however, which incited fans enough to bring about a compromise ending cooked up by Twentieth Century-Fox to placate obsessive Elvis devotees.
Viva Las Vegas (1964)
The lady loves me... but she doesn't know it yet.
Arguably the best of the standard Elvis Presley travelogue confections that comprised the majority of the films in his screen career, Viva Las Vegas succeeds largely due to the chemistry shared between E and sexy inferno Ann-Margret. Sporting the impossibly comic-book perfect names Lucky Jackson and Rusty Martin, the two stars forge a romance against the backdrop of the Vegas Grand Prix, which Elvis, naturally intends on winning. Typical Elvis movie values like achievement through hard work (E must slave away as a lowly hotel employee in order to raise enough cash to fix his racer) and plucky perseverance don't detract from the colorful widescreen photography and a number of fun songs, like "The Lady Loves Me," "C'mon Everybody," "I Need Somebody to Lean On," and the memorable title tune.
Tickle Me (1965)
Thin Elvis programmer has inexplicable appeal
In Tickle Me (easily one of the great titles of Elvis' illustrious screen career), the King plays -- brace yourself -- a singing rodeo cowboy with a lucrative second job as a handyman at a beauty spa. Naturally, all of the women at the ranch compete for E's attentions, but he's only got eyes for the stunning Jocelyn Lane. The second half of the film gets supremely silly, as the lovers search for a hidden treasure of gold in a haunted house. The horrifyingly awful gags that accompany the climactic sequence belong in a Scooby Doo episode, but are more accurately akin to the Three Stooges -- since writers Elwood Ullman and Edward Bernds had put in time for the eye-gouging, hair-pulling, face-slapping nitwits. Tickle Me has a weird appeal to me, however, as it allows Elvis the opportunity to show off his talent for comedy (an under-appreciated aspect of his acting for which he shows remarkable aptitude).
Koroshi no rakuin (1967)
Gonzo crime-thriller astonishingly directed by Seijun Suzuki
A bizarre yakuza flick with a taste for over-the-top visuals and modern stylistics, Branded to Kill follows the strange day-to-day existence of an expert hit-man who carries out his orders with steely determination and impassive cool. All hell breaks loose, however, when a butterfly alighting on his rifle scope results in a botched job -- and a death sentence for the screw-up. Joe Shishido, with his collagen-enhanced cheekbones, makes a terrific anti-hero whose unusual quirks (Suzuki reasoned that a man obsessed with the scent of warm rice would signal to audiences that this guy was quintessentially Japanese) instantly endear him to newly-made fans. Branded to Kill is wild fun, and has been favorably and frequently compared to the work of artists as different as John Woo and David Lynch -- which makes it all the more exhilarating when you realize it was made in 1967.
Deep Blue Sea (1999)
Sharks presumably smarter than screenwriters in watery mess
Deep Blue Sea is a shark-infested action pic that despite opening and closing scenes bearing remarkable similarities to Spielberg's legendary Jaws does everything in its power to avoid the inevitable comparisons. One can almost hear the writers saying, "These are makos not great whites. See? It's different." Heavy on the lame-brained scientific exposition establishing premise of Alzheimer's research using sharks at a former U.S. Navy sub base, Deep Blue Sea includes plenty of disposable cast members ready-made for chomping as the film unspools. The premise that the sharks have become super-intelligent and can swim backwards (!?) is as idiotic as many of the phony computer-generated effects, but people willing to check their brains at the ticket window may find themselves cheering for the sharks and having a good time anyway.
The Iron Giant (1999)
An ambitious take on Ted Hughes' 1968 children's book The Iron Man, director Brad Bird's The Iron Giant works well as both archetype-infused allegory and heartstring-tugging tale of friendship. Set in small town Maine in the 1950s at the height of Cold War paranoia, the film explores the relationship between a lonely, fatherless boy (a photo on a nightstand hints that the father was a combat pilot killed in WWII) and a monstrously huge, hulking metal behemoth (the origins of which are brilliantly left to the imagination). The animation marks a welcome contrast from the virtually ubiquitous Disney template, with the human characters bearing a stylized, comic book exaggeration that fits perfectly with the story material. The Iron Giant has more than enough imagination and sparkle to interest kids and adults, and nicely balances its action-adventure aspirations with a solidly-crafted sense of moral purpose.
The Great Train Robbery (1903)
Pioneer work possible birthplace of Western
Arguably the first motion picture to employ the milieu of what would quickly become known as the Western genre, Edwin S. Porter's The Great Train Robbery was a smashing success with audiences (dozens of film history texts report with glee how viewers shrieked with fear and delight when a tightly-framed gunslinger pointed and fired directly at the camera) and made remarkable strides toward the establishment of longer, more narratively developed films. Porter's cutting was also among the most sophisticated to date, as multiple locations and events were suffused with a previously unseen urgency. Based on actual events, The Great Train Robbery ignited the imaginations of the scores who saw it -- making the movie one of the earliest examples of sensationalized, fictionalized screen adaptations taken from historical precedent.