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The Conjuring (2013)
Good not great ghost story
A decent spooker - it doesn't live up to many of the rave reviews it has received, but it's not bad at all. Most horror films these days are so by-the-numbers that the better ones like this often get graded higher on a curve. As with so many ghost stories I found Conjuring's windup better and way more frightening than the eventual climactic events - the atmosphere was so dread-filled that I (a died-in-the-wool horror veteran) was genuinely uneasy for the first half hour or so. As more was revealed it got less frightening - I still find that the less you see, the less you know, the more your imagination has to fill in the blanks - the scarier a movie tends to be. The performances were all top-notch, particularly Vera Farmiga as the medium; special mention should be made of the younger actresses, who were all very believable. Definitely the best horror film of 2013 that I've seen, but again, I'm grading it on a curve.
Wonderful, eerie storytelling
Ringu tells its story with a quiet eerie power and is a fascinating film to re-watch. There are certain implications made earlier in the tale that contribute to an overall circular motion, a ring that has no bottom and no top, an endless chain of events (for the record--yes, I know the Ring of the title refers to the ring of the telephone after the tape is viewed but there is still this aspect of completing-the-circle in the story structure); certain unsettling questions are left to the viewer to ponder afterward and this is a good thing. Listen, for example, to Yoichi's explanation as to who told him to watch the tape (the implication being that death is not necessarily the end for Sadako's victims); note also the hooded figure in the video and its reappearance near the end of the film and the name to which the heroine assigns to it (the question here is along the lines of whether certain events were preordained from the start)....all of this is interesting stuff to mull over. Told with simplicity and economy, Ringu is superior to the American remake -- in itself still a good thriller but one short on subtlety -- a textbook example of Japanese horror at its most inventive and frightening.
The Stepford Wives (2004)
A script "straight" (pardon the expression) out of Stepford
Lovely Nicole Kidman is obviously game and tries hard but has little to work with here. Bette Midler is unappealing and the actor saddled with the supposedly funny flamboyant gay role is sunk by the embalmed material. Glenn Close plays the campy it's-really-a-drag-queen part that we encounter in seemingly every Paul Rudnick-scripted film - and lately in many Glenn Close films as well; I like her a lot better when she's actually giving a real performance not working overtime on broadly comic schtick. (Memo to screenwriter Rudnick, from the mouth of that smart underground filmmaker, Bruce LaBruce: "being gay is not enough."). Bryan Forbes, Katherine Ross and Paula Prentiss, et.al did this movie much, much better back in 1975, and it should have been left at that. The Stepford Wives is, for all its efforts, another pointless, badly written (the plot holes are already legendary), and yes, mechanical Hollywood remake.
The Haunting (1963)
Maybe THE cinematic ghost story of all time
This excellent cinematic version of the great Shirley Jackson novel still retains its power to chill, thanks to the eerie, subtle approach of director Robert Wise, the evocative B&W cinematography of David Bolton (check out the unnerving "face in the wall" sequence") and the fine performances all around; Julie Harris in particular shines as the sensitive, fragile Eleanor. This film is of the less-is-more school of horror, in contrast to the ridiculous let's-throw-in-everything-but-the-kitchen-sink Jan DeBont remake from 1999. As of this writing that version is widely available in DVD and VHS everywhere and the original is still only available on video (and even then it's rather hard to find): another little Hollywood injustice still waiting to be corrected.
Ghost World (2001)
Disappointing--if you've read the graphic novel also
This movie is better than probably 90% of the other stuff out there, and I would recommend it to most smart moviegoers. BUT (major but here), I was dismayed that Ghost World's original creator, Daniel Clowes, and the film's director, Terry Zwigoff, decided to rearrange the plot line and ended up destroying the main focus of the book, which is the relationship between two teenage girls, Enid and Becky, and how it eventually, heartbreakingly, dissolves. The movie is mainly concerned with the relationship between Enid (well-played by Thora Birch) and the middle-aged sad sack played by Steve Buscemi (who is excellent, as usual). The character of Becky, Enid's best friend, is basically cast aside. I was really looking forward to a smart, funny independent feature film taking an honest look at teenage girls as they teeter on the brink of adulthood, wondering exactly who they are and what their lives should become. That sounded fresh and new, if not downright revolutionary, particularly coming from a male writer and director team. Instead I got this (relatively) conventional, boy/girl quasi-romance, dressed up in post-slacker hipness - did Clowes and Zwigoff think maybe the movie wouldn't fly without a major male character? I'm guessing yes. My hope is that all the critics and other folks out there who loved the movie might be compelled to seek out the original book now. It's light years better.
The Others (2001)
the ghost story is back
Warning, spoilers ahead--please don't read unless you've seen the film!
Predictably, a lot of know-nothings are complaining about the twist at the end of The Others, claiming that it "rips off" The Sixth Sense. Well, guess what, the-protagonist-who-is-already-dead surprise was *hardly* introduced by The Sixth Sense; this plot device has been around since at least the old days of The Twilight Zone television series of the 50's, and as recently as in an 80's movie called Siesta, which was directed by Mary Lambert and starred Ellen Barkin (oops, looks like I just gave away the ending to that--sorry!). Besides, I have to admit that the twist here (actually the DOUBLE twist) completely threw me, and I was one of those who managed to figure out The Sixth Sense's big surprise midway through the film. Anyway, surprise endings aside, there is much else to admire in this fine ghost story. Nicole Kidman gives a very good, sensitive performance, and she has an excellent supporting cast behind her, particularly the two children, who are entirely believable. The film is rich in atmosphere and uses all the trappings of the classic ghost story (the isolated house, mysterious strangers, darkened rooms, etc.) beautifully. If you like ghost stories (and like me, are happy to see them back at the box office thanks to the success of The Sixth Sense) then hie thee to this fine film.
"Four score and twenty years ago, our forefathers did........something."
Michelle Williams and Kirsten Dunst are absolutely delightful as two ditsy 15 year old girls who stumble cluelessly upon (and into) the Watergate scandal in this clever comedy from 1999. The supporting cast, including Dan Hedaya as "Tricky Dick" Nixon, Dave Foley, Bruce McCullough, and the peerless Teri Garr, are all great. This would be a good renter to watch along with Romy and Michelle's High School Reunion, another smart, funny piece of fluffy cotton candy. Both are my ideal of what good "chick flicks" are all about. Score: 7/10
Runaway Bride (1999)
A 110 minute sitcom
A sub-par romantic (alleged) comedy with typically lukewarm, middlebrow handling by director Gary Marshall. I simply grew weary of the whole enterprise within the first half hour and couldn't wait for it to end. A far better choice, if you're in the mood for a pleasant Julia Roberts flick, is My Best Friends Wedding.
The Haunting (1999)
Come Back to the Five and Dime, Shirley Jackson, Shirley Jackson
A vulgar, inept reworking of the classic novel by Shirley Jackson, and its very fine film adaptation from Robert Wise in 1963. The only thing this one has going for it are the lovely, imaginative sets. All else--the script, performances, and especially the direction by Jan DeBont are, to put it kindly, not good. All the subtlety and ambiguity of the original are tossed out the window in favor of a lot of noisy special effects that wouldn't scare a 5 year old. The only frightening thing about this nonsense is that it received as many positive reader comments on this board as it did! Rating: 4/10 for the sets and a certain amount of campy, so-bad-it's-fun entertainment value.
Not as bad as it first seems
I hated this film when I first saw it (gave it a 4/10) but I had to admit it seemed as though the director was trying to make a genuine film and not just a quickee garbage sequel to the fine original film, The Blair Witch Project. Having just viewed it again on DVD, I would give it a slightly above-average rating (6/10). The acting, with the exception of Kim Director as the Goth girl, is not good, and the story doesn't quite make it, but this movie still has a filmmaker's integrity and it was fairly entertaining upon second viewing, with a few standout sequences (the graveyard scene--which you should watch closely for a couple of eerie touches; the morning-after rain of paper, and the goth girl's trip to the town market--again which you should watch closely). DVD viewers beware though: the director's commentary is really pretentious and repetitive--I lost track of the number of times the man used the phrase "trying to depict the dangers of confusing fiction and reality", or words to that effect, and he let his bitterness about the critical and public reaction to the film creep in once too often. Like I said, he was trying to create an artful film here and I give him credit for that, but having to listen to all his hot air about his efforts was a trial.
Sometimes it's best to let the work speak for itself.
Almost Famous (2000)
I'm not surprised that so many folks love Cameron Crowe's movies--they are to a one entertaining, well-acted, and made with tender loving care. What his movies lack for me is any sort of bite: we always know that no matter what sorts of misunderstandings and conflicts occur between them, everything will always turn out well in the end for all of his adorable characters. Just once I would like to see even a hint of ambiguity at the conclusion and not have everything wrapped up so nicely and neatly. The formula really wore thin for me with this movie, and I grew actively restless and irritated with it midway through. Crowe got the look and feel of the 70's rock milieu down quite well, but I was never wholly convinced by any of the action in his story. The cast all performed well, but I thought Fairuza Balk particularly lit up the screen in her small but juicy role as the garrulous groupie, Sapphire. The soundtrack was quite good also, and avoided the usual cliched 70's song choices--loved the inclusion of Elton John's wonderful "Tiny Dancer" in particular.
Gojira ni-sen mireniamu (1999)
Tokyo really gets it in this one!
I was pleasantly surprised by this new and improved version of Godzilla. I loved the Big Guy's movies when I was a kid and I (somewhat sheepishly) went to this one on opening night with my brother-in-law, also a childhood monster movie fan. We were both impressed with the story, the more-than-decent FX (for these kinds of movies, that is), and the human characters. I couldn't help but notice a few little visual details that were obviously inspired by the horrendous American version of 1998, which rather surprised me. Maybe the Japanese were grateful to the American filmmakers for reawakening interest in Godzilla, despite the American's utter ineptitude in reinventing the story. The Godzilla in this flick is back-to-basics MEAN, and goes on an extremely destructive rampage through Tokyo, which is totally what I want to see when I go to this kind of thing (the American Godzilla was the wimpiest giant lizard the cinema has ever seen). Best of all though, Godzilla STILL manages to fight and defeat a deadly-to-humankind alien monster in the film's second half, affording his adoring fans a glimpse of his other,*softer* side. This is a good Monster Mash. 7/10
End of Days (1999)
It's the end of something all right...
The plot of this boils down to Ah-nuld versus Satan, and what I remember most about the movie is a lot of explosions, gunfire, blood, noise, and let's not forget that flammable satanic urine. The story is nonsensical, utterly predictable, and so full of holes I couldn't take a bit of it seriously. Stick to "Rosemary's Baby" or "The Exorcist" if you want to see a really good devil movie and....um, well, I can't think of any good "Action" movies at the moment (probably because they're so far-and-few-between), so you're on your own in that category. This flick does get a 3 out of 10 rating from me for its camp value, and for a pretty-good performance by Gabriel Byrne as that old debbil Satan!
Scary Movie (2000)
An occasional laugh not worth the seven bucks
This movie was pretty bad. Every now and again there was a trace of real wit, as in a few of the direct parodies of scenes from the "Scream" or the "I Know What You Did Last Summer" movies (I particularly liked the pretty heroine yelling, "C'mon! Do it!", ala Jennifer Love Hewitt from the "I Know" flicks--very funny!). The "Blair Witch Project" bit was clever, and well-done. But overall, the Wayans brothers humor isn't stupid-funny (as in the sublime "Airplane" or "Top Secret" flicks) it's just groaningly, unfunny-stupid. A shame, had it been made with a little more finesse, it could have really been something.
Light Fantastic (1964)
a forerunner of sorts
I have never met anyone who has ever seen or heard of this extremely obscure early-60's drama--it's not even listed in Leonard Maltin's book. I myself saw it years ago in the early 80's on a now-defunct local television station. I remember it so clearly because it felt very "indie" for a film from that time period: on-location filming with as-of-yet still unknown actors, and a "small" story (lonely young woman takes dancing lessons and begins to fall for her handsome but devious instructor). I'd love to view it again to see if it was really as effective as I remember it being; at any rate this lonely little flick will always have a place in my heart.
* As a postscript to this review, some 5+ years later, I have heard from a number of people associated either directly or indirectly with the making of Light Fantastic, and it's been great to find I am not the only person in the world who remembers the movie. The film even has something like 6 other ratings posted now, along with mine. I invite any and all of these people to post their own reviews and/or thoughts here as well. My little memory of it still posts all alone. But as it stands now, on 8/18/05, it looks like what we have here is possibly the smallest cult audience for a film yet!
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Don't get me wrong - I liked this movie just fine, I just don't understand how it deserves the *heaps* of rapturous praise it regularly receives from IMDb members, and the fact that is has been ranked at #2 in the hallowed IMDb Top 250 for the past 8 years or so just baffles me. It was certainly entertaining enough, and very well-acted, but also way over-long, and filled with the usual stock characters that seem to inhabit every prison drama (if Hollywood movies are to be believed, prison wardens are mainly just nasty SOB's and the inmates are just the best bunch of guys you'd ever want to meet). I'd recommend the movie as a good renter, but I guess I can't see it as any more than that. I realize I am way in the minority on this, however.
The grandmother of the Women Behind Bars genre
There is undeniably some hokum in this 1950's crime drama, but this is still easily one of the best prison films ever, featuring top-notch performances by Eleanor Parker as the young innocent eventually hardened by the grim realities of prison life, and by Hope Emerson as the scary prison matron (both deservedly recieved Academy Award nominations for their work). This is a gripping, well-made story, highlighted further by moments of genuine power. One of my favorite 50's flicks.
A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)
Have to see it every year
There are so many classic scenes in this best-ever holiday special: Sally's letter to Santa and Linus' onstage recitation of the true meaning of Christmas are the obvious ones, but I have to laugh every time Snoopy mimics Lucy behind her back, and the scenes with Schroeder playing host to Lucy at his piano are deftly comic. Vince Guaraldi's score has a beautiful early winter's evening melancholy that gets me every time. Everything else from the voice work (obviously done by real children), to the distinctive artwork of the backgrounds (which perfectly capture a certain middle 60's graphics aesthetic) works beautifully. The essence of Charles Schulz' Peanuts has never been better evoked on film.
Hell Night (1981)
Good 80's Horror
A fine, actually scary little B flick with a fab B cast: Linda Blair, Peter Barton and Vince Van Patten, all battling a creepy, grotesque mutant out for blood in the film's obligatory old dark house setting. Watch out for the "rising rug" scene: maybe I'm a wimp, but it elicited an "Omigod!" out of me, at least! 7/10
Ordinary People (1980)
Sudden bursts of emotion
I love the way the fragile veneer of civilized politeness gets stripped away over and over again throughout this movie, as the upper middle-class, ultra-WASP characters find themselves unable to hold their emotions in check any longer. The excruciating embarrassement and shock felt by everyone in the aftermath of these outbursts is palpable. I think Timothy Hutton gives the performance of a lifetime; I don't know anyone who didn't relate to his portrayal of Conrad Jarrett in this film. The other leads, Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore, are superlative as well. One of my all-time favorites.
Don't forget Teri Garr
I love this movie--one of the best modern comedies ever. As wonderful as everyone in the cast is -- Dustin Hoffman, Bill Murray, Sydney Pollack, et al -- special mention should be made of Teri Garr, who manages to steal every scene she's in here. I still think she should have gotten the Best Supporting Actress Oscar over Jessica Lange (who was, in fact, the Leading Lady), but that's just me. I can watch this one over and over and I never get tired of it. Major-but-hardly-fatal debits: the totally bland, muzak-cum-lite-jazz score by Dave Grusin, augmented with a pair of cheesy Stephen Sills ballads (the "Roll Tootsie Roll" song in particular is pretty dire). Overlooking those unfortunate musical choices, this movie is about as perfect a comedy as you are likely to find.
An emotional powerhouse
I love this movie, it's the one film in the world that makes me cry. I don't mean misting up crying (lots of movies do that to me), I mean it reduces me to a mass of quivering jelly. The final ten minutes or so are riveting, terrifying, and as deeply emotional as any I've seen on film. Kudos to Jeff Bridges, criminally ignored at Oscar time (so what else is new), Rosie Perez, Isabella Rosellini and Tom Hulce for their work here. The director, Peter Weir, has never been better(hopefully his rather banal The Truman Show was a momentary slip-up). Somehow this film seems to have missed inclusion in the modern canon but perhaps someday this oversight will be re-addressed.
An unsparing portrait of a lonely spinster with nothing to go on but her own ever-weakening faith. All the performances are wonderful, but Maggie Smith in the title role is revelatory. One of the best performances by an actress that I've ever seen.
I couldn't stand this movie. I don't necessarily have to *like* the characters in a movie for it to work for me, but it helps if I don't actively HATE most of them, the way I did with Hurlyburly. Sean Penn is a brilliant actor, and he and Robin Wright Penn have one good scene together, but that's about it. An absolutely painful experience.
Something Wild (1986)
Jeff Daniels has never been better, Ray Liotta is wonderfully sexy and menacing, and even Melanie Griffith (whom I normally dislike) works well here. One of my favorite Demme movies, this one features all kinds of interesting little character bits (a Demme trademark), and a cool little detail that I only noticed upon my 3rd or 4th viewing: at the high school reunion, after Charlie and Audrey finish their sweet little dance, the lights flicker and black out for a moment, signaling the end of the first, lighter half of the film. Ray Liotta appears on screen seconds later, bringing with him the all the violence and danger of the second half.
A very simple but elegant touch. Check this one out, it's a really good movie. Great soundtrack too! 8/10.