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Elles (2011)
I guess somebody just assumed that a French-speaking film with prostitutes in it would automatically strike the audience as artistic
10 June 2012
The mainstream middle-class person decides to investigate some aspect of demi-monde living, in this case prostitution, and finds herself being caught up in its irresistible fascination and reconsidering how she views her own identity. Did the filmmakers really think that there was something here that an audience hadn't seen before? With minor variations it's been done with murder, mental illness, gambling and drug addiction -- a half-dozen such films come to mind easily -- not to mention alternate lifestyles that may not be wrong in themselves but are nonetheless labeled "fringe-dwelling," so what exactly is new here?

Juliette's character says she doesn't drink, but suddenly relents and shortly afterward is drinking everyone else under the table. Someone at the production end apparently just assumed that he/she understood the teatotaler's mindset and had the character flip abruptly on a moral resolve of this magnitude. If, rather, the character is a recovering problem drinker or even alcoholic, should not this little character detail have taken priority in what's really wrong with her life?

Fantasy sequence where main character imagines herself surrounded by all the male customers described by the prostitutes she interviewed is blatant and way too concrete.

One could call the film character-driven perhaps: that these actors in these roles seem to have plausibility in being family and/or forming friendships. If the film were genuinely about something the audience needed to see then these would be the actors we'd like to hire.
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Larry Crowne (2011)
Zero conflict -- other than a serious discredit to community college instructors.
6 July 2011
Warning: Spoilers
Comedy authority Stan Freberg said once, and I agree, that humor needs to be based in reality. Unfortunately the reality that director-screenwriter-star Tom Hanks has constructed for himself here is that convenient target of community college as a collection of uninterested losers who try the instructors' patience to the extreme that he or she, much like leading-lady prof played by Julia Roberts, is angry, cynical -- yet at the same time apathetic -- and something of a tippler. Along comes Tom Hanks as Larry Crowne who, as a newly-unemployed middle-ager among the weeds of youth, somehow (osmosis?) introduces the unique perspective that age, intelligence and life experience can bring to continuing adult education.

As Larry/Hanks struggles with his early attempts in the class, that of conversational speechmaking, we see Julia Roberts' character roll her eyes upward and refine her growing contempt as the younger folk in the class give supposedly insubstantial talks such as shopping and comparing one Star Trek series to another. Well, what should they be doing instead? In the meantime the instructor herself, as far as the audience can see, contributes nothing.

Under the circumstances these kids are making a valiant, sincere effort. Okay, the one guy had crib notes written on the palm of his hand.

By the way -- has anyone else figured this out -- there is nothing unusual about older adults, intelligent or otherwise, who return to school and find the real, practical self-enrichment they seek. This falseness of the film's primary concept is an embarrassing display of how little Hanks, et al, grasp the everyday realities which, to the movie audience, are dirt-common.

I'd forgive any of the wrong turns taken in this film if it were funny. I didn't laugh once.

Subplot that Roberts' character's own marriage is deteriorating (gee I wonder why), other than making her available to LC as a love interest, has, like so many other story elements (the motor scooter "gang," the eternal garage sale next door, waste of George Takei's good character work as poor man's John Houseman in Larry's other class -- wasn't Larry supposed to be taking three classes?) little or no integration with rest of story.

Near end of picture Julia's character says to Larry/Hanks "You're a great student" and he says "You're a great teacher." No she isn't! The first and only time she shows the remotest interest in her job is five minutes before the final exam, when she has the students do a mild aerobic exercise to loosen up.

It is, rather, the very fact that community college instructors don't make much money and don't find intellectual gold at the end of all their hard work that we know that they do care. My impression, and I'm sure many will agree, is that, if a student gives the slightest indication that he or she is trying to learn, a community college instructor will bend over backwards to give that person an education.

Tom Hanks as director is out of touch with human society to a degree unprecedented since Kubrick in Eyes Wide Shut. One can only assume he agreed to this project as part of a deal to let him do something good next.

Turner and Hooch 2?

Will Hooch even return Hanks' phone calls after this?
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Tend to agree with Medved book: at best a moderately successful experiment.
11 May 2008
It was reasonable, among other possibilities, for the "50 Worst Movies" book to conclude that this was a bad film. In fact I think Chicago's Music Box, in its current release (May '08) committed a sin of omission by not mentioning all the negative reviews cited in the Medved book. Actors' standing perfectly still while others step out to speak is a non-cinematic affectation, not really adding to motion picture art or craft, and pretty much exhausted by Eugene O'Neill in the Twenties. Aristocratic setting makes the work effete and personal. Fact that it reflects Hiroshima Mon Amour or other works in Resnais "oeuvre" not relevant to whether this film is good. I'm still open to discussion about the good qualities attributed to this movie, but also afraid it will take a lot of convincing.

By the way, the "50 Worst" book is not exactly by the Medved brothers: it was co-authored by Harry Medved and Randy Dreyfus. It does list Michael Medved as a contributor somewhere in its Acknowledgments.
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Okay for kids, if they don't examine story too closely.
5 May 2007
Warning: Spoilers
Not really a bad film: children will appreciate some overarching lessons about human relationships if they're not too confused by the conflicting details.

Irony is that what's perhaps most dissatisfying about this film is where it __does__ resemble HC Andersen's original fairy tale; the meandering from one apparently unrelated scene to the next in order to fill out the prerequisite playing time of a feature-length story.

(Mild spoilers from here on, but I'm trying not to reveal much. Film is grudgingly recommended for children, but adults should be aware of content, and prepared to discuss with children anything that disturbs them morally or physically.)

Main character Ratso appears to be buddies with a worm character, who then turns out not to have all that much to do with rest of story. Backstory of worm and rat is as developed as present tale of rat with baby "duckling" who assumes Ratso is his parent, yet the worm is unworthy of being recognized as extended family member, presumably because he is a worm. Rat's exploitive, selfish personality is allegedly redeemed by love, although for most of story he has shown no emotional capacity or learned skill for caring. He could have been friends with the worm, or at least in denial about needing friendship with the worm.

"Adult" aspects of storytelling seem to be tempered for younger audiences, resulting in implausibly denied reality: a predator is evil and deadly, then suddenly friendly. Another predator appears to have killed (a bit graphic here), and then victim turns up alive. Similarly another villain turns out not to have wanted to kill them at all.

Sudden growth spurts turn the title "duckling" into different personalities overnight, again hearkening back to Andersen's original story wherein the character becomes a swan (we'll allow that spoiler, I think) whether or not preceding learning experiences have contributed to his becoming a better, or at least more attractive, person. Lesson here is for parents to identify with their own dealings with growing kids, but logistical problem of starting out with one character and then abandoning it (remember the worm?) is a jarring technical point the audience is going to resent.

Plenty of inter-special relationships, including romantic/sexual affinities (burdening audience with yet another layer of suspended disbelief, a la the grasshopper-bee relationship in Fleischer brothers' Mr. Bug Goes to Town).

Admittedly UD + Me is attractively filmed and animated, a plus for its acceptance by younger audiences, however intelligent these kids are. The adult swans, however, who are admired for their physical beauty, aren't all that graceful or attractive. There's an intended irony in question of whether physical beauty is enough for the "duckling" to want to become swan-identified at the end, but the superficial beauty in these distant objects of desire isn't quite there anyway.

Voice actors are talented and well cast.

Little tweaks in the writing of the dialog might have smoothed over inconsistencies. Shakespeare could have created satisfying plot development within this random grouping of "people" who become a family, even though they're not technically family. Perhaps the writers, including Andersen, should have studied Shakespeare.

Tries to please everybody with adult-yet-not-adult content: ultimately, is this film for anybody?
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Timeline (2003)
Predictable time-travel plot; cheapness is in lack of imagination
27 August 2005
Suckered myself into watching Michael Crichton's Timeline, based on author's reputation. Name of producer Donner should have been clue as to film's actual cheapness, but low-budget sci-fi can be okay, like Tycus (a sort of When Worlds Collide remake) or Asimov's Nightfall (apparently inspired by HG Wells' story Kingdom of the Blind). Timeline turns out to be formula retelling of Final Countdown, with now-predictable "surprise" ending, except here time travelers have gone back to medieval battle instead of Pearl Harbor. Some identifiable Crichton touches, but already handled in other stories.

When I identify the film as "cheap" I must amend that the visual effects of battle scenes, electronic zapping and medieval fortresses (we'll assume computer-generated) are quite plausible. The prosaic photography and the aforementioned lack of creativity in the story line are more what I mean.

No-name cast (all very good actors) tells us that cost was cut in that area, but this type of venture is exactly the type of place where new hopefuls can earn their veteran credentials without being too embarrassed by a shameful past. Who ever heard of Paul Newman before (ugh) Silver Chalice?
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Bush's Brain (2004)
Needs work.
18 September 2004
Bush's Brain was revealing, but loses focus near end. Shows that Rove has been sleazy -- very sleazy -- throughout his political career in Texas but not exactly how he manipulates George Bush today.

The 2000 Presidential campaign, the part of the movie that would have answered the film's opening question "How could this have happened?" is not really covered at all; rather the film goes abruptly ahead to the 9/11 episode. Film goes for pathos near end by showing a particular soldier who died early in Iraq thing, similar to Moore's film Fahrenheit 9/11, but does not tie war dead specifically to theme of Rove's being Bush's Svengali and how "this" (Bush's presidency) could have happened.

As other viewers have commented, the film's own agenda, to show Karl Rove as a sinister villain, is in conflict with the visuals of Rove as a pleasantly pudgy, self-effacing nerd. There is a distinct danger that the audience may decide finally that that visual image wins, rather than the text of the movie. Remember the scene, apparently based on a true story I read, in Broadcast News where Holly Hunter's character shows a video of a worldwide domino competition in order to portray "soft news" in a negative light; instead the comical, diverting image of tumbling domino tiles is the only part of her recitation to which anyone pays attention. The Bush's Brain people should have learned from such examples and done more to show that Rove's commercial image is what's being contested.

Do see this movie, for the sake of the facts of Karl Rove's seamy career that it does succeed in showing. It's also a good example of combining "talking heads" with other footage in a documentary to keep the audience's level of alertness piqued now and then, compared to the occasionally dulling effect of recent anti-Bush documentaries Outfoxed and Uncovered. Ironically those two are far superior films.

Seems as if a more nearly complete documentary had been planned, but that this one was rushed into release in order to be timely and to influence voters before coming election. May, rather, hurt progressive agendas that this movie is not as well done as it should have been.
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Topsy-Turvy (1999)
Colorful, musical and historical but not much of a drama
31 July 2004
Okay but overrated: not really a dramatic work, just a slice of life look into G & S at a particularly productive period.

It debunks the idea that this duo were such flamboyant individuals that they were bouncing off each other and/or avoiding each other constantly (at least they're not in this time period, after the relative failure of Princess Ida and the success of Mikado), but what statement this bio film does have to say eludes me.

Some nice performances from the G & S repertory, but I'm sure we all have our favorite performances on records and videotape. Might make a useful primer for neophytes. And I assume, as in the film version of Shaffer's Amadeus, we're getting a sort of time-machine peek at how these productions originally looked onstage.

The story culminates in the premiere of Mikado, which of course is a great work of music and comedy, but the old G & S biography movie with Robert Morley and Maurice Evans climaxed with a revival of Yeoman of the Guard, which I think is Gilbert's and Sullivan's crowning achievement; more importantly, Yeoman became integrated with the particular dramatic values and historical ideas that that older movie was trying to put across. Topsy-Turvy just ends.

It straddles the fence (ouch) with regard to the "old" revisionist claim that Sullivan was a notorious womanizer, as opposed to the still newer revisionist claim that he was gay, and just maintained the hetero image to keep the press off the scent, say the way modern celebrities going through troubled marriages deliberately feed news bites to the tabloids so that those reporters don't do any unwelcome digging on their own. How Topsy-Turvy does this is to show Fanny, the particularly visible woman with whom he supposedly dallied, as either a naughty but "platonic" friend, a la Nancy on It's Garry Shandling's Show and Elaine on Seinfeld, or a "fag hag" a la Grace on Will and Grace. Let the audience decide how it wants to interpret the relationship.

Basically the stage performances from their operas perk the movie up at intervals, but the dialogue in between is trivial and, as such, too long.

I thought that I should vote it a 7 on the IMDb's rating poll, but I saw that the current overall rating was 7.4, so I voted lower in order to help drag the figure down to where I thought it should be (perhaps my vote was a tad unethical, but hey, this is Chicago). It is at least a "7" movie, both for what I think is wrong about it, and for what is wonderfully right.
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A bit too much cynicism passing for humor
26 June 2004
Saw Bridget Jones's Diary last night. Audience liked it, I must admit, but for me it was nasty and obnoxious. The fact that she's cynical is automatically inferred to mean she's funny. In the first five minutes she's put down her mother for serving pickles on toothpicks as hors d'oeuvre, a potential boyfriend for wearing a funny reindeer sweater at a Christmas party, and a gay man simply because women have some unquestionable God-given right to do so. The unintentional irony is that, for all Bridget's self-alleged independence, the picture's central, driving purpose is to attach her to a wealthy, influential man, at which point her story will end -- in marriage. Ultimately nothing better than a throwback to most of the Julie Andrews musicals (My Fair Lady, Cinderella, Sound of Music, Thoroughly Modern Millie) of ancient times -- minus the songs. The other irony is, even Julie's material has grown beyond such a shallow self-image for modern women.

Snowflakes at the end looked fake in close-ups.
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Cole Porter's Aladdin: disappointingly mundane children's play with "adult" songs squeezed in
30 May 2004
After more than forty years of owning and enjoying the record album of Cole Porter's final musical Aladdin, I was finally given the opportunity to see the show itself via the (apparently) live broadcast of February 1958. I must say, even after due warnings of how the show was "summarily dismissed" by critics at the time, that it is a tremendous entertainment letdown.

Cyril Ritchard, probably most famous for his portrayal of Mr. Darling/Capt. Hook in the Broadway and television productions of Peter Pan, is placed in the unenviably silly role of narrator and villain Sui Generis (a pun on "chop suey," I assume), who goes through the opening patter song Come to the Supermarket (the show is a bit topheavy with comic novelty songs) in a stereotypically Chinese attitude with hands hidden in sleeves and hopping up and down to music's rythm. Other numerous celebrities in respective roles (Dennis King, Basil Rathbone, Una Merkel and Howard Morris, plus Sal Mineo in the title role, Anna Maria Alberghetti as his Princess and Geoffrey Holder as the Genie) don't fare much better with the childlike level of dialog provided by S J Perelman.

If it were a children's play, then fine, but the relative sophistication of the Cole Porter songs make an uncomfortable transition to music. The well-known story of Aladdin and his magic lamp remains intact, if somewhat truncated, but with nowhere near the musical and dramatic dimensions of Disney's (okay, Eisner's) animated film of later years, nor even the contemporaneous Aladdin film "starring" Mr. Magoo. Porter's own deteriorating involvement in the show due to his increasingly painful leg problems and upcoming operation may help to explain the so-so level of integration between songs and plot.

I still strongly recommend the cast album from CBS, more recently rereleased as a compact disc -- and in stereo -- but it seems that its performances and arrangements are not at all representative of the show itself. I conclude that Mr. Porter had arranged for this "concept album" to be produced with the dramatic and musical continuity of a legit stage musical, on the speculation that a remounting on Broadway might result from the positive exposure. In fact there was a London stage production a few years later, for which a record album was also released.

To be fair, I must say that Aladdin's songs are not equally admired by all listeners, although a few consistently stand out, such as the aforementioned Come to the Supermarket (covered by Streisand in her '63 solo album), and two other comic numbers for Ritchard. Dennis King gets two reprises of a pretty-nice Trust Your Destiny to Your Star, and Mineo's love song I Adore You has a catchy simplicity I like to compare to Rodgers' and Hammerstein's last song together, Edelweiss (others may find the Porter song a bit __too__ simple). By the way, Porter's own last song ever written, Wouldn't it Be Fun, is only on the album and not in the show itself.

I was aware, from the rather pessimistic account given in the liner notes of the CD release, that Aladdin was either genuinely bad or simply considered unworthy by critics because of the wholesale quality and production values attributed to television; nevertheless I'd had hopes that Cole Porter's Aladdin would show potential as a musical on a level with other shows of that period. I will always like it to a fair extent, and I think others will too, but will never again attach to it the youthful wonder that I'd once had for the show as I thought I'd known it.
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Secret Window (2004)
Predictable, uninspired -- unless you count all the other pictures from which it steals as "inspiration"
14 March 2004
Warning: Spoilers
Psycho, Magic, Fortune Cookie, Cape Fear, Baby Jane, Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte, take your pick.

The minute I saw one type of character appear onscreen, I knew a certain type of thing was going to happen to him/her. I hoped that there was going to be an unexpected surprise in some of these situations, but instead each part of the story led to the same predictably grisly conclusion.

Picture is a virtual catalog of story points ripped off from other movies (I should include here Philip Glass' score, a transparent ripoff of Bernard Herrmann's from Psycho -- also suspiciously similar to Glass' own Thin Blue Line material). I suspect that parody was the original intention, but this film takes itself with absolute seriousness -- not that there isn't comedy in it, but seriousness about its conviction that the plot's twists are going to surprise the audience. Surprisingly none of the story line ever does conclude with any action that was promised earlier.

The "steaming corn" analogy (ironically appropriate) used throughout the screenplay stays til the picture's final shot of a cornfield: if this allusion is to Children of the Corn, then at least Stephen King is ripping off himself for a change.

I'd thought of doing a "spoiler" review in which I could discuss the film's points in more detail. Interested persons will have to email me privately.
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Spider (2002)
If you've seen the Coming Attractions trailer, you've pretty much seen the movie.
16 March 2003
A character-driven study of a psychotic man arriving in a halfway house after an extended stay in an insane asylum, Spider fills its running time with Ralph Fiennes' efforts to parlay the role into a tour-de-force Oscar bid: not as obnoxious as Meg Tilly's "childbirth" pantomime in Agnes of God, but overdone, rather, in terms of the amount of time devoted to it.

Given the main character's madness, aided by flashbacks of a childhood traumatized by an apparent crime coverup, the story is not much more than a longer version of the synopsis we saw in the Coming Attractions trailer the week before at the same theatre. He revisits places where the childhood scenario played out (or so he believes: it's admittedly suspicious that, in his madness, he "remembers" scenes, including the brutal murder at the center of Cleg's obsession, occurring between the adult characters when he's not there to witness). The child Cleg confronts his father about the latter's alleged criminality, as we saw in the trailer, and begins to incorporate his spider's web fixation into a revenge plot against the apparent culprits.

The flashbacks, hopefully taking us somewhere out of the main character's immediate environment, occur after what seems like a half hour of Cleg's twitching, scribbling, groveling in dirt, wearing four shirts, and all the other dutiful affectations of an art-theatre method actor "doing" madness. So much character and atmosphere for such an extended viewing period led me to ask myself, where is the story of this picture? Will something from the past, or from outside, finally come along and excite this picture out of the dull ritual we're seeing?

The "Spider" theme is recalled by the design of the film's repetition of patterns in wallpaper, clothing, broken glass, and, most blatantly, the steel framework surrounding a water tank outside Cleg's (Fiennes) window, all more or less reminding viewers of a spider's web. The gimmick is clever when it's subtle, reminiscent of the "X" motif in Scarface from seventy years ago. Another self-consciously affected style attempt is in the unrelenting darkness of the picture in every scene -- absolutely every scene. It's downright irritating after a while. As Roger Ebert once pointed out regarding a similarly challenged film, the art of motion picture has reached a low point when the audience cannot perform the primary act of looking at the screen.

The film finally does incorporate most of past and present into a sort of denouement, but it's not enough to make a complete story, let's say convince us that we're in a different place than we started; nor can we trust it entirely to be the truth, as it supposedly takes the mask off what we thought we were watching. Take the existing material, and reveal a twist we didn't realize was in front of us all along. I think rather this film draws us into one story and then slaps us back by telling us that that "reality" was a lie.

Ironically, out of such a dissatisfying film, the acting performances given by Miranda Richardson are all the more remarkable when one realizes what has been happening onscreen. I think the filmmakers did a disservice by releasing to the IMDb here the fact that she played more than one character in the film. Hopefully most readers will turn to this site to check on details and viewer comments __after__ seeing the closing credits.
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At best a curiosity for fans of older stage musicals.
20 February 2003
A story I heard, that filmmakers once considered doing an animated version of the musical Cats, has just reminded me of that disappointing 1971 cartoon of Shinbone Alley, based on the Joe Darion/George Kleinsinger stage musical. Eddie Bracken and Carol Channing recreate their roles from the still-earlier "concept album" archy and mehitabel. Where these two had been cute and intimate, and, above all, musical, cockroach and cat were now rasping, whining and screeching -- characteristics that could have worked fine for those particular actors, but in sufficiently small quantities.

One of the most disappointing characters was Bill, the big blackhearted tomcat originally sung by Percival Dove (best known for the singing voice of Brock Peters as Crown in Porgy and Bess). The prospect of an apparently offensive ethnic stereotype inspired filmmakers, as far as I can observe, to eliminate black performers from the piece altogether -- the part is done by Alan Reed, aka Fred Flintstone!

Yes I know: Carol is "black" now.

Aside from singing cats, it parallelled the Lloyd-Webber musical Cats in the deployment of a flying manhole cover, during the song Flotsam and Jetsam: "Only Mehitabel could get that high on a 'lid'" is the tag (penned by Mel Brooks, incidentally).

Compared to George Pal's classic 1946 treatment of an earlier Kleinsinger work, Tubby the Tuba, the limited animation here was flat and ugly.

Adult content of story is not of interest to children I suppose (although probably not harmful either), so the problems of marketing this picture probably helped bury it.

I'll say this though: it just may be better than Fritz the Cat!
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Carousel (1967 TV Movie)
Goulet surprisingly disciplined; good television production, given time restrictions.
17 February 2003
It was really above average TV for those days. Cut for running time, but the only major story aspect that's lost is that Billy doesn't go to Purgatory, he just arrives at Heaven's back door and "Starkeeper" Charlie Ruggles tells him it's suddenly sixteen years later (reminiscent of that 80s movie version of the Liliom story, The Heavenly Kid). That cut hurt it a bit -- he just attempted a robbery and committed suicide, deeds that in Western culture usually call for some degree of ethical inquest. The duet When the Children are Asleep between Carrie and Snow is left largely intact compared to the '56 movie, so involvement of these characters adds depth, and a clue to the original stage production's more involved musical continuity.

Goulet is, as in most of his musical theatre performances, a far more disciplined singer than we perceive from his pop solo albums. The fact that he fits the part physically goes without saying. Also I think he did a good job of making Billy vulnerable, ironically at the mercy of his own attractiveness to women.

In Cousin Nettie's songs, Patricia "Pat" Neway momentarily stole the show with her trained contralto voice, without overpowering the show's content of course, since her song are intended as specialty solos.

The years may have altered my remembrances of the production, but of the three I saw in that Armstrong (no relation) Circle Theatre series (including Kiss Me Kate and Brigadoon -- sorry, missed Kismet) this was probably the best.
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Good, but might better be called "Skating Around Columbine"
20 January 2003
Michael Moore didn't come up with much fresh material this time around. Most compelling scenes were now-old news footage rehashing Columbine pathos. The opening scenes of bank giving away guns looked as if the bank was using Moore to tell their joke, instead of the other way around.

Attempts to make Kmart, Charlton Heston and Dick Clark look villainous simply make Moore look antagonistic. In fact, Heston and Kmart looked good holding their own during these confrontations. Agreeing with Heston or not, a fair part of the audience must have felt admiration for his speaking calmly and intelligently, and for walking back into his house at the moment he did. These are not easy concessions for any liberal-thinking person to make; nevertheless Moore somehow assumed that including this standard "Moore" shot (oops, no pun intended) of a celebrity walking away from him would lead an audience to conclude that Moore had gained the advantage.

I think that a reason for my liking this film less than did other viewers is that I disagree with the particular angle Moore takes on the shootings at Columbine. In one particularly misinformed moment he even comments that "no one will ever know" why the shooters turned on their alleged tormenters. No one here deserved to die, God knows, but nerd/misfit-bashing on the part of some of the shooters' targets was a serious, often violent causative factor, although no doubt the shooters' access to guns empowered an ending even the school bullies could not control. Drug abuse -- and, okay Michael, perhaps even bowling -- contributed to the final disaster.

At least the material linked to Moore because one of these recent school killings was in his hometown of Flint, Michigan, so that this film is a sort of sequel to his earlier documentaries. The statistical part of the film, closer to the end, where Moore compares the US to other countries that have much less murder per capita, is genuinely thought-provoking. The appearance of Charlton Heston, however, must have inspired the filmmakers into some unrealistic sense of grandeur as far as running time is concerned. Like some of Heston's other film accomplishments, this one is just too darn long for the amount of material it has to cover.
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Shaft (2000)
Too bland for what it's pretending to be; barely worthwhile
23 July 2002
Saw Shaft last night: not so much a revival of 70s blaxploitation flicks as perhaps an attempt to revive the film noir detective format of the Forties. Not much of anything anyway: too politically correct for words. Removes the Seventies stereotypes, but doesn't seem to put anything in their place. Even the title song sounded tired, as if they just dubbed in the recording from the old movie. Samuel L. Jackson just seems to grab any movie role that comes along. Christian Bale does an interesting variation on his villain character from American Psycho, but he apparently has the luck of the English in accepting scripts. He's this close to becoming the next Dudley Moore.
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Chicken Run (2000)
Very good but not for children under 17
17 March 2002
Saw Chicken Run. It is funny, I can't deny that, but very morbid in an existential, pit-of-your-stomach way. Parodies POW films, particularly Great Escape, but is more like a Nazi death camp situation a la Arthur Miller's Playing For Time. Death is everywhere, and seemingly inevitable. I came in late, after one of the chicken characters has already been slaughtered; I didn't stay afterward to catch what I'd missed! There is a scene early in the film, however, where the victim's picked-over skeleton is displayed at the center of the human characters' table. I did, admittedly, order Szechuan chicken afterward without thinking about it. Some kids at the late showing, and they were heard laughing, but I wouldn't be surprised if they have nightmares tonight. It is a good movie, but for what audience?
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Gosford Park (2001)
Decent as literature, but needs a lot more work as drama
18 February 2002
Gosford Park was a bit lifeless for me. Attempt was to combine Shooting Party with an Upstairs, Downstairs situation, plus a few others (Cold Comfort Farm, Agatha Christie's you-name-it) thrown in for self-parody's sake. The intent I assume was contrast, but the result is a grayish blur -- visually as well as figuratively. Same problem I had with Black Hawk Down (or Watership Down, with its cast of lookalike British bunnies for that matter): so many characters I couldn't keep track. G Park is a more quality piece of writing than I make it sound, but the intent was apparently to have conflict develop gradually until it busts loose near end, and by then I don't care much -- shortening the running time 15 or 20 minutes would have kept me a little more interested, and not at the expense of anything important. Characters are consistently disagreeable anyway. Sameness is not a preferred goal when the project is potentially hackneyed from its very conception, no matter how loudly the credit for this idea is touted by Messrs Altman and Balaban. That sameness is not just between this film and the ones it's imitating, but within the film's own structure from beginning to end.

I did not absolutely hate Gosford Park. It may in fact grow on people after a second viewing, when it hits Bravo on basic cable or when the video can be rented for a few bucks, and one's investment in the expectation involved in "going to the movies" is no longer a factor.
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Fun tribute to classic Max Fleischer cartoons.
26 August 2001
Spike and Mike's Sick and Twisted animation festival was a milder mix this year (2001) than in its previous incarnations; the irony is, the less over-the-edge cartoons chosen for this anthology were also some of the funniest.

My favorite was The Ghost of Stephen Foster, a derivative yet thoughtfully made sendup of the dark, surreal Max Fleischer cartoon shorts of the early Thirties. The models used for "Stephen Foster" are undoubtedly Minnie the Moocher and Snow White (both starring Betty Boop), and probably Bimbo's Initiation (introducing Ms. Boop in a brief yet pivotal walk-on). In pre-Code Hollywood the suggestions of sex and perhaps even drug-induced sensibilities in such protean fantasies were allowed to find their audience -- including adult, although most of what an audience of that time would have found objectionable likely traveled right over the heads of children. Left alone, and minus the intervention of the Depression era's new-found conservatism, such classic shorts would, at worst, have been appreciated as innocent fun.

The formula in Minnie and Snow White centered on heroine Betty traveling through a cave (how Freudian is that?), accompanied by a musical performance by Cab Calloway, which song, in turn, is acted out or lip-synched by a host of ghostly visions. The Ghost of Stephen Foster parallels Fleischer's storyline with one of a young honeymoon couple walking through a haunted hotel. A skeletal "host" conducts the innocents as the retro-novelty title song, from a recording by contemporary group Squirrel Nut Zippers, is featured. It's a shorter cartoon than one would expect, but it hits and then leaves us amused without our sitting still long enough to analyze. The black-and-white artwork is especially authentic in achieving both moodiness and humor, and the principal acting characters are drawn with professional cuteness that recalls the work of the earlier animation studios. The song Ghost of Stephen Foster is so catchy/insane that we've been playing it at my house several times a day for nearly a week.

The original Fleischer shorts are perhaps seen, and exploited, as "head shows" in more recent times, no doubt similar to the intent of this modern cartoon, but the real achievement in both cases is the way in which they allow us to go deeper into our own unhindered minds, bring out the demons and laugh at ourselves a little. It's fun.
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Sticky sweet: halfway through the picture my teeth were hurting.
27 December 2000
I may not be what one would call a dyed-in-the-wool sports buff, but football, combined with mandatory school integration in the South of thirty years ago, sounds like it would make for a pretty confrontational picture. Instead, Remember the Titans gives us a paint-by-numbers cast of goody goods, villainous townspeople and teary-eyed, reformed-overnight racists who suddenly "see the light" in time with appropriately swelling musical accompaniment. And of course there's one guy in the hospital watching the final Big Game on television as the others play their hearts out for him: I'm not kidding, it's that cliche. It was unintentionally funny when, near the end, one of the characters said "Is this really about football anyway?"

I believe I was looking to Denzel, as the football coach with everything to prove in this one season, to anchor the film a little more forcefully -- the kind of charismatic individual who could bring the warring factors of a newly integrated high school football team together with dramatic, yet plausible energy. Alas, he's a cypher, lost somewhere in the middle of a plot that's on Automatic Pilot anyway -- suddenly Christopher Plummer's character in The Sound of Music looks decisive.

Funny coincidence is, while I was waiting for Titans to start, I went over to the next auditorium where Men of Honor was playing and watched that for a few minutes. Men of Honor is a film about mandatory integration of the military; I won't know til I see the whole thing whether it's a good movie or not, but I can say safely that there's a lot more material to be explored within that topic than in the relatively "safe controversy" and easy targets at which Remember the Titans is aiming.
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Bounce (2000)
The real crime is that this movie was apparently dumped into a
5 December 2000
Do not see Bounce with Ben Awful-eck and Whine-eth Paltrow. Skims over about a half-dozen possibilities, about substance abuse, gender issues, survivor guilt, and single parenthood for example, and hews to this trite story about Ben coming into Gwyneth's life to throw monetary opportunities at her in order to make amends for her husband's death (Ben gave hubby his airplane ticket, and the predictable thing happened). She finds out, she feels betrayed, they make up and that's the movie. Probably not even a good chick flick.

In addition to exploiting the art-house audience who came to see this movie under the pretense that it was a higher form of entertainment than it is, the production also inserts a "gay neighbor" (actually Ben's office assistant, played by Johnny Galecki) as a decoy to bring alternate-lifestyles viewers into the unsuspecting crowd, when in fact his announcement that he's gay has nothing to do with the development of the story.

Interesting coincidence: I was in a screenwriting class a few years ago and the instructor gave out copies of the "coverage report" by the reader who recommended this script for production! I'd like to find it so I can get a second glimpse of what that guy was thinking. I seem to recall he was not entirely thrilled by it, but this movie is comatose.

Film should prove to be a great booster for airline ticket sales, however -- an inflight movie is one place you'd be guaranteed not to see Bounce.
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Gladiator (2000)
Riotously campy success in the "guilty pleasure" genre, but much too long due to pretense of being some kind of intellectual high tragedy.
27 August 2000
Finally saw Gladiator. Now that's guilty pleasure. Definitely a guy movie, as men outnumbered women three to one in audience. Star Wars, popular as it was, made the mistake of actually being about something; I'm happy to say that Gladiator has no redeeming value whatever. Just blood, mud and crud. Some of the killing made me laugh out loud, like when Crowe stabbed a guy with two swords and then chopped off his head while he was still standing. When Oliver Reed went into that monologue, accompanied by full orchestra, about the thrill of the cheering crowd I almost thought he was going to sing There's No Business Like Show Business. You know something is a bit over the top when one of the most restrained performances comes from Richard Harris! Another big laugh was when Crowe and Djimon win the crowd over by becoming the first "tag team" gladiators in pre-television history. Film pictures all the gladiators as united against some unnamed enemy over on the other side of the arena, thus daintily skirting the more Spartacus-like reality that the gladiators fought and killed each other -- and therefore, presumably, were hard put to have indulged themselves in the kind of emotional ties we see here. When the leading lady (Connie Nielsen, in fact just about the only woman) arranges to meet Crowe privately, she explains for the audience's sake that patrician women purchased sexual favors this way all the time. Seems to me everybody onscreen would know that already! It's like in The Mikado where Yum Yum turns halfway toward the audience and says to Nanky Poo "But darling, you forget: in Japan..." except that in the latter case WS Gilbert meant it as a joke.

The one thing that dampened the pace was long dialogue scenes between the battles, as if the movie were hunting desperately for some intellectual point that would justify its existence, not unlike the '63 Cleopatra in that way. Unnecessary in either case, serving only to protract the running time. Gladiator should be at least a half hour shorter than it is. Audience ate it up, though.

A friend commented "Gladiator will live on TNT and USA forever!" but I think she underestimates basic cable: there will probably also be a series starring Lorenzo Lamas.
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At best it's a third or fourth trip to the same well Woody Allen has already pumped dry; unworthy of the man who gave us Crimes and Misdemeanors, Another Woman, and Hannah and her Sisters.
15 May 2000
I goofed up a bit last night: went to see Sweet and Lowdown, but walked into wrong auditorium and watched The Insider by mistake. Ironically, Insider was good, but I'd paid $6 to see S & L so I stayed over and watched that too. Fortunately they're not long movies. S & L was a flat, weary retreading of that period kind of thing Woody Allen does, part Purple Rose of Cairo, part Radio Days, and some of the pseudo documentary format of Zelig. Otherwise it's just Sean Penn's character driving himself from one situation to another like panels in a comic strip, then ending rather abruptly, on the assumption that we've been transported to a different place than where we started, and that Penn's character has realized something about the error of the mean, selfish life he's led. His character consists basically of an overdone accent of some kind, and since, aside from some pleasant jazz guitar performances here and there, he's the show, it's not much of one.
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It's almost too easy to hate this film; ironically its survival into modern times serves by preserving scenes of Jewish culture its filmmakers were seeking to destroy.
26 March 2000
The Eternal Jew (Der Ewige Jude) does not have what we today would call the markings of a scholarly document: rather than naming experts or sources to support what it says, it simply says, without opposition, what it wants us to believe (one will concede that American newsreels of that period were also much less regulated than would seem ethical to a modern audience, often inserting dramatized scenes and passing them off as actual news footage). Add to this directed propaganda the fact that filmmaker Hippler was "preaching to the converted," not so much asking gentile Europeans to hate the Jews as validating the feelings so many of them must have held already, in order to have allowed the holocaust that followed. The weakest link in the film's logic shows in its "rat" analogy, wherein it goes on to explain the behavior of rats, and then adds something to the effect of "Well, Jewish people are like that too." Similarly it characterizes Jewish people as ugly by showing ugly Jewish people in comparison to attractive gentiles; the accompanying leap of faith is that ugly is bad. The film appears to contradict itself a few times, for example by attacking Western painters who portrayed Old Testament characters as light-skinned Europeans; thereby the text admits that so-called "Hebrew" ethnicity is in fact an ingrained aspect of Christian culture. It also shows ghetto Jews willingly living in roach-infested filth, despite the supposed treasure they've hoarded, and then flip-flops by saying that these same undesirables live in wealth and luxury as soon as they leave the ghetto. Incidentally, who wouldn't? The use of scenes from a well-known American film, House of Rothschild, shows an equally blurry deployment of logic. First the film is denounced as having been made by Jews; then it is apparently used by Hippler to verify the deceptiveness of Jews (the aforementioned pretense of poverty by ghetto Jews, shown as a means of avoiding taxation, although the Rothschild character's "spin" is that Jews are taxed excessively); finally the Rothschild film is once again execrated for implying that the famed banking family invented the checking account. This apparent indecisiveness in whether the American footage is shown positively or negatively might become clearer with repeated viewings, but at first sight it makes for some murky moviewatching. For all of Eternal Jew's imperfections, I was at first surprised that the IMDb viewer rating for this film is as high as it is, just shy of a "5" to date. I'd say the reason is that EJ's documentary value has exceeded its original purpose, offering us, unintentionally, a look into the lives of European Jews as they would not be seen a few years hence. Needless to say the film's very badness also provides an historical insight into bad, or simply evil, filmmaking as a propagandist's tool. About this time I should expect director Hippler to flip-flop once again, springing forward to say "That's what I meant to do all along!" The scenes depicting animal slaughter are particularly gruesome, and show same as decidedly inhumane, contrary to the intent of Kosher law to prevent animal suffering. I would like for someone who has seen the film, and has some knowledge of these procedures, to comment on whether the portrayal is accurate.
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The War Zone (1999)
Compelling view of a family in almost irreparable disorder.
17 January 2000
It's hard to explain exactly why this slice-of-life look inside a deeply disturbed family is so easy to watch. Part of the reason must be the film's elegant photographic composition: displayed before us are moody, deeply-hued shorelines whose rocks, crags and pounding waves are an appropriate metaphor for the inner turmoil of a family embroiled in a cycle of abuse and self-destruction.

The secret shame of these characters is a network of incestuous relationships, some merely suppressed feelings, some actually carried out on family members. Of the latter type, the principal victims, an adolescent boy and his older sister, see themselves becoming willing participants in the very crime that haunts them: their own fascination with the taboo, caused by years of negative conditioning, has convinced them that they are doomed to continue the cycle, forswearing any hope of a conventional love life.

The sordid nature of the above outline hardly seems as if it could lend itself to a film that is such a comfortable experience to watch. The paradox of family members being drawn emotionally into relationships that, at the same time, repel them, creates a solidarity among child, sibling, and parent which looks deceptively cozy to the objective onlooker. I'm reminded of the bond between the two brothers in Pinter's The Caretaker: an invisible, yet always present membrane, defying the efforts of any third character to position himself between them. In The War Zone, motivation does arrive, in the form of a still-innocent baby sister named Alice, for the youngsters to want to break with the father, who is ostensibly the principal villain, having been caught already in a graphic episode with the older daughter. The choices they make are evocative of those in certain Greek tragedies, and the consequences we may presume just as arguable for generations yet unborn.

The cameraman's visual artistry, and the strong sense of ensemble at the core of the four principals' acting performances, are further assisted by the film's moody, strategically placed musical scoring and sound effects. The smoothness with which these elements are integrated almost belies the "art house" status assigned to this picture, but viewers will no doubt agree that its attractiveness is more an asset than a liability.

The unprecedented lengths, or should one say depths, to which this film goes in exploring a distasteful subject makes it unlikely to be deemed suitable for all mindsets; nevertheless the underlying truths revealed in the portrayal of these unhappy characters will have a cleansing, cathartic effect on those who dare embrace it.
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Good comedy/melodrama with a unique twist; the self-parody of the movie industry is often ingenious.
15 January 2000
Drew pretty much steals the show as the deadpan "reasoner"

character: a child coping in the midst of two selfish,

immature adults. I'd compare her to Tatum O'Neal in Paper

Moon or Mary Badham in To Kill a Mockingbird for the way

she anchors the audience's perspective as the madness (competently related here by Ryan and Shelley) spins around her.

The real comedy lies in the "screwball" plot twist to which the film's title refers (we learn, early in the plot, that it is little Drew's character, not the parents, who is suing for divorce), and especially the story's underlying satire of the entertainment industry. Highlights include how Albert/Ryan's plummeting career as a director parodies those of Cimino (dust, smoke and flies a la Heaven's Gate) and Bogdanovich (starring untalented girlfriend in multi-million-dollar flops). An Andy Warhol style painting of Shelly Long as Marilyn in the background of one scene is just too funny, an example of how understated the true humor can be in this otherwise broadly-played farce.

Some points are disturbing, though: it's made a joke that Ryan is having an anxiety attack instead of a heart attack (try having one), or that his visitation rights are threatened if he doesn't make child support payments (an interesting social comment). Considering the real-life ups and downs of Ryan O'Neal's and Shelly Long's careers, however, I'd say the film's a roaring success.
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