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Something Wild (1961)
It's Half Worthwhile
The first hour of this moody, sometimes self-consciously arty effort by writer/director Jack Garfein is generally fine, with a touching, shell-shocked Mary Ann (Carroll Baker) caught in an emotional limbo after being raped. You might not completely understand some of her actions at first, but somehow the film and her character have their own kind of workable logic to them.
However, once the Ralph Meeker character enters the scene and become increasingly bizarre, the film goes completely off-kilter. Meeker's performance is a Method wallow and the film really doesn't create or explore any semblance of a convincing relationship between them. The final 10 minutes is simply unbelievable IMO - nothing preceding the finale provides a reasonable clue to Mary Ann's behavior. It's apparent what you're supposed to feel at the end, but the script doesn't set it up at all.
It's fun seeing Jean Stapleton and Doris Roberts in early small screen appearances, and for the most part, Baker does very well. It's one of her better roles before she trashed her career trying to be a sexpot for Joseph E. Levine.
Middle of the Night (1959)
One of Chayevsky's Best
As others have noted, Frederic March's superb performance is the centerpiece of this well-done drama of the ups and downs of a romance between a 56-year old garment manufacturer and the 24-year old receptionist at his firm. Another plus is the seamless integration of location shooting in NYC and in the studio.
This piece was originally done on Broadway with Edward G. Robinson in the March role and Gena Rowlands in the role played here by Kim Novak. Martin Balsam and Lee Phillips (as the young woman's musical ex-husband) repeated their stage roles in the film. For me, Novak's performance is sometimes good (her scene with Lee Grant, for example); other times you can see the effort and calculation she brings to the scenes and her acting comes off as artificial. Big emotional scenes always seem to tax her as an actress. I've never been a big fan of Novak's, and while this is one of her better efforts, she was never a first-class actress (and certainly not in Rowlands' league).
However, I don't think Novak really hurts the film much, and March and the rest of the cast more than make up for it. Of course, Balsam's big scene where he tells off his wife/March's daughter (played by Joan Copeland, Arthur Miller's sister) is Chayevsky at his most obvious - you can see it and the wife's hypocrisy coming a mile away. But there's not a false note in March's performance, which is certainly one of his finest ever. It's hard to believe he didn't at least get an Oscar nomination for this film - especially considering who won that year (Heston for "Ben-Hur").
Solid but not Inspired
Despite some fine scenes and special effects here and there, "The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe" doesn't quite scale the heights of film fantasy to which it aspires. There's a kind of dramatic flatness to the story, at least as adapted here.
Granted, the original isn't particularly complex emotionally even compared to Lord of the Rings. Director Andrew Adamson has only directed the animated "Shrek" films before this, so that could also be a reason for the one-dimensional quality of the drama.
Also, the acting is very uneven. Among the children, the wonderful Georgie Henley as Lucy and Skandar Keynes as Edmund are fine, but Anna Popplewell is a dull Susan, and William Moseley is a stiff Peter whose transformation into a soldier is impossible to take seriously on any level. Tilda Swinton has a imperious coldness as the White Witch - I liked her though you could say that she isn't quite terrifying enough. Another highlight is James McAvoy as Mr. Tumnus - his scenes with Lucy are among the best in the film.
The final battle scene - not explicitly described in the novel - is Lord of the Rings Lite, but it works well enough. One disappointment is the voice of Liam Neeson as the lion Aslan. Obviously it was recorded separately, but Neeson's line readings aren't very engaging and the sound has a disembodied quality that exposes the artificiality of the special effects. Some of the other voice performers (Ray Winstone and Dawn French as the beavers, and Rupert Everett as the fox) fare better. This film gets its job done well enough, but classic fantasy film it isn't.
It'll be interesting to see when/if the rest of the Narnia books get adapted. Unlike "Lord of the Rings" or the more recent "His Dark Materials" trilogy, the remaining Narnia books are extremely variable in quality (and increasingly preachy), the final volume being downright dull.
Cheesy, lame Italian Thriller
I rented this on DVD based on the glowing reviews I saw here, and I cannot understand how anyone would think this cheap, cheesy, poorly made mystery is some masterpiece. There are a few unsettling or creeping scenes (the title sequence in particular), and there is a good idea for a story here. But most of the film is sloppily written & directed, and woodenly acted, which kills any real chance of creating interest in any of the characters, much less the mystery. The house in the title actually has very little to do with the plot. Leave this one alone - it's pretty obvious why it never got much of a release outside Italy: it's a slapdash B-movie at best.
My Sister Eileen (1955)
Garrett Shines in Mediocre Musical
I had heard that this second musical version of "My Sister Eileen" (the first being the Broadway show "Wonderful Town") was very underrated. Well, it's not.
Columbia Pictures owned the movie musical rights to "Eileen" and when Leonard Bernstein wanted too much money for "Wonderful Town", Columbia passed on adapting the Broadway hit, and created its own musical film adaptation. Unfortunately, this version isn't just inferior to "Wonderful Town" - the score and script are truly mediocre in their own right. The songs are all forgettable, which is surprising given that the composer is the great Jule Styne who went on to write "Gypsy" and other shows. Either he and lyricist Leo Robin had very little time to write the score or inspiration took a vacation.
The two saving graces in this film are Betty Garrett, who plays the more tomboyish Ruth. Unlike Rosalind Russell who played Ruth both in the non-musical film and in "Wonderful Town," Garrett can really sing and she's less self-conscious about being the center of attraction - she's much more natural in the role.
The other occasional grace is Bob Fosse's choreography. In some numbers, especially one dancing "duel" between him and the terrific Tommy Rall, the film comes alive. Unfortunately, some of the other dances - particularly the climactic "Conga" sequence, fall flat, perhaps due more to director Quine than Fosse.
Janet Leigh plays Eileen and she's very charming, though not quite the kind of looker who would have men literally at her feet all the time. She sings fairly well, and dances rather better. And since she's top billed, the script gives her character more emphasis than the original play. Jack Lemmon plays a publisher on whom Ruth has a crush; Lemmon is good, though his one song is far from a highlight - he's no singer.
It's a pity that Columbia and Bernstein didn't see eye to financial eye - it would have been great to see Garrett do "Wonderful Town," though Leigh and Lemmon would never be able to handle their parts in that score.
Great Subject matter - soapy execution
"Paradise" is a pilot for a proposed series on Showtime that didn't get picked up. Certainly the subject matter of the televangelist world has a host of excellent possibilities, particularly for a pay cable channel that can take bigger risks than a commercial TV network.
Unfortunately, "Paradise" comes off as nothing more than a "Dallas" clone with a different setting. And like most pilot episodes, this one spends a lot of time with the necessary job of introducing characters and setting up situations. But the story lines are pretty stale and unimaginative for the most part.
The story centers on Bobby Paradise (David Strathairn), a former astronaut who had a near-death experience after a spaceship landing in the ocean, resulting in a religious conversion (we suppose). When the show opens, he's a major star in the televangelist circuit, raking in millions of dollars and presiding over huge stadium-size crowds at his revival meetings.
But Bobby is also going through a psychological crisis that is hinted at in the beginning, and there's the potential for trouble when he aligns himself with a hedonistic media baron for the sake of reaching more people on TV and radio.
His immediate family participate in his business, led by his wife (Barbara Hershey). His daughter is a bit of a tramp and hooks up with a professional boxer; his older son is the one who tries hard but never pleases Dad; the daughter-in-law wants more of a role but is brushed aside. And then there's the black sheep son who just got out of jail for manslaughter in a bar fight, and is still rejected by Dad.
So you can see that the stage is set for the kind of soapy family dynamics that any viewer of "Dallas" or "Dynasty" will recognize.
And that's too bad, because the subject of televangelism is a great one, with endless possibilities for a hard look at religion, commerce, media manipulation, and political ambition - particularly given the current residents of the White House. This pilot touches on some of this, but you can bet the more interesting dramatic (and perhaps satirical) aspects of this subject would have been brushed aside for more commonplace dramatics.
Even so, there's some fine acting talent on display. Strathairn is a great choice for the role of Bobby: this kind of morally gray character gives him am opportunity to show off his talent for suggesting multiple facets of Bobby at once. The role also lets him play a dynamic, dominating character rather than the more quiet roles people usually associate with him.
Hershey is good in a role that is pretty vague, but would have probably deepened had the show continued. Elaine Stritch adds some necessary vigor and vinegar as her mother, who enjoys all the perks of Bobby's empire, but isn't exactly the pious type.
However, the actors playing the children are a mediocre bunch, including James LeGros who has been good elsewhere.
"Paradise" is truly a squandered opportunity, and based on this pilot, it's just as well that the show didn't go any further.
Countess Dracula (1971)
Silly Costume Horror Drama
Despite the title, "Countess Dracula" spends an inordinate amount of time on the romantic scenes between the title character - an old countess who finds the fountain of youth by washing herself in virgins' blood - and a young, unsuspecting soldier. Most of the scenes are quite silly and badly written. The scenes of actual horror are very few, so I can assume that the director, cast, and scriptwriter thought they had something more serious in mind with this costume drama.
The result is not good. While it's fun to watch pros like Nigel Green, Maurice Denham, and Patience Collier play at court intrigue, the rest of the cast is variable.
Ingrid Pitt has some scenes where she attempts to chew the scenery, but she's not good at it. Apparently her accent was too thick for the director's liking so her role was dubbed by another actress in post-production (see the IMDb trivia about this). I'll say this much, the dubbing job is good - if you hadn't seen Pitt in other films you'd never know it wasn't her voice. And if you had seen her elsewhere, you'd know it couldn't be her voice.
As her hapless daughter, Lesley Anne-Downe made an inauspicious debut, though it's not much of a part. Sandor Eles overplays the young soldier who winds up with more than he bargained for. The sets are rather cheap looking for the most part.
Don't waste your time with this one. If you like Pitt, you're better off with the more entertaining "Vampire Lovers."
Roxie Hart (1942)
While this film has a fine reputation, I was very disappointed after watching it recently on DVD. The director, William Wellman, made one of the best of the 30's screwball comedies - "Nothing Sacred." But the scriptwriter/producer Nunnally Johnson had no background in comedy based on his credits. Perhaps that was part of the problem, since "Roxie Hart" is never as funny as it wants to be.
Being a big fan of fast-paced Hollywood comedies of the 30's and 40's, I was looking forward to seeing this. But so many elements seemed off. For one thing, there are scenes that just go flat despite the fast pace of the line delivery, particularly in the beginning.
Ginger Rogers' overacting as Roxie is a constant irritant. Having just won her Oscar for "Kitty Foyle," she's very self-conscious here. Iris Adrian, who plays a murderess who briefly steals Roxie's limelight with the press, is completely inside her character and far more effective in just a few brief scenes than Rogers is in the whole film.
Rogers' contract must have stipulated that she dance in the film, so we're treated to two dance sequences, the first of which starts well but becomes ridiculous when the whole press corps jumps in, and the second of which is just irrelevant.
Adolphe Menjou plays the blustery lawyer Billy Flynn, but he did this performance with better effect as Walter Burns in the original film of "The Front Page." George Montgomery is decent. The funniest performance is from character actor Lynne Overman doing his best Lee Tracy impersonation as the most cynical of the newspapermen.
I'm not familiar with the original play "Chicago," so don't know how faithful this film is to it compared to the Broadway musical (which I liked a lot) or its screen version (which I liked only in parts). But while "Roxie Hart" gets somewhat better once it reaches the trial portion of the plot, it never reaches the dizzying comic heights to which it aspires.
Demons of the Mind (1972)
Good Ideas Undone by Hysterical Treatment
I watched "Demons of the Mind" after not having seen it since it originally appeared. My memory of the film was very positive, and there are some interesting ideas in the script. However, there are an overabundance of plot elements that are presented in a haphazard and overly hysterical form by director Peter Sykes. One other reviewer here calls this a free-form narrative, but for me it was a confused jumble.
Robert Hardy plays (or overplays, as others here have noted) Count Zorn who is convinced that there is madness and other evil in his family's bloodline.
His wife had committed suicide, so he decided that he needed to lock up his children in case they started manifesting any insanity. Years later he has a controversial doctor (played by Patrick Magee in his usual mannered way) treating both grown kids (Shane Briant, Gillian Hills).
At the same time there are young women being brutally murdered in the woods and local superstitions are being whipped up, while a wandering evangelical (Michael Hordern) mutters religious dogma and joins with the locals.
A good director could have woven all these piece together nicely and provided a solid, disturbing thriller. But Sykes is more interested in whipping up a lot of intensity in each scene, which is why there's more overacting than needed and why the film winds up becoming exhausting to watch after a while. Too bad. It had the makings of a fine film. Perhaps the usual rushed schedule that Hammer Films had didn't allow for sufficient care, though screenwriter Christopher Wicking had history of penning horror films that were more interesting in concept than in execution.
Gone, But Not Forgotten (2003)
Good Idea - Bad Execution
There's an interesting plot idea for this film (love/mystery story involving an amnesia victim), but it's so clumsily written and sluggishly paced - even for a low-budget, digital video effort - that it grows tiresome quickly.
What also hurts the film a lot is that the character of Drew, the forest ranger (played by Aron Orr), comes off as incredibly childish, selfish, and downright creepy at times in his efforts to romance Mark, a yuppie he rescued after an "accidental fall" (or was it?) in the woods. Near the end you're supposed to see that Drew is desperately lonely, but it's too late by then: the writer/director should have established that better up front.
Also Orr's performance is mostly petulant when he's angry, so there's an automatic sympathy barrier between him and the audience. The rest of the cast is either amateurish or try a little too hard, though the guy playing Drew's brother has some good moments.
Twisty Tale of Deceit and the Holocaust
I saw a Taiwanese DVD import of "Meschugge" (which is Yiddish for crazy) under the alternate title "The Giraffe" (a title which makes no sense at all). The only potential handicap to it was the German-language sections had only Taiwanese subtitles, but I think I got the gist of those scenes, which are few.
This thriller is a tale of deception involving David Fish (played by writer/director Dani Levy), a busy young Jewish man whose mother escaped Germany but who always thought the rest of her family didn't survive the Holocaust. When she goes to meet someone from Germany who may know about her father, she winds up dead in a hospital having been found unconscious with a head wound in a hotel hallway by Lena Katz (played by co-writer Maria Schrader), a young German woman visiting New York to cover a fashion shoot.
David and Lena start getting involved and David soon learns that Lena's family and his have secret connections neither knew about before. Also pushing things forward are the investigative efforts of the activist lawyer Charles Kaminski (played by David Strathairn, who is the best thing in the movie), who knows more than he lets on and pushes David to find out the true identity of Lena's grandfather and mother.
The plot is very complex, but not difficult to follow. What makes this film merely competent as a whole are much hackneyed dialogue between David and Lena, and below-par acting on the part of the two leads. Levy is particularly wooden and unsympathetic as David, failing to make us feel David's mixed emotions as he manipulates Lena to find out more about her family.
Fortunately, Strathairn is in the film enough to compensate, and his fiery, electric performance is refreshingly different from the more frequent low-key characters he tends to play on film.
The pacing in "Meschugge" is fast and the film is never dull, though there is the occasional cinematic cliche (the 360 degree whirling camera around a character trick should be permanently retired, IMO). The remaining cast is good, though the talented Jeffrey Wright (of "Angels in America") is wasted in an irrelevant role as a photographer/love interest of Lena's who is tossed away quickly. Based on this film, Levy has more talent as a director than as a writer or actor.
Eye of the Devil (1966)
Oddball Thriller - More Glum than Scary
"Eye of the Devil" had a very troubled history. Kim Novak was originally cast as the female lead, but production had to be shut down as she proved inadequate to the role's demands (surprise!) and was let go.
The film is about a French nobleman (played by David Niven) who's family fortune is tied to a small village that makes wine. He's called back to the family chateau as the vineyards have been failing for a few years, an announcement ripe with sinister and mysterious overtones. He tells his wife (Deborah Kerr) not to follow him or bring their two children, but soon she does just that, fearing for his safety.
What follows involves ancient pagan rituals, witchcraft, and deadly family secrets that go back centuries and can be handed down to the next generation.
There's a nice thriller in here somewhere, and director J. Lee Thompson manages some creepy scenes here and there. Best are the scenes with a manipulative and hostile Sharon Tate and/or David Hemmings, and one where Kerr is menaced by a group of hooded figures in the woods. Also the ending is properly disturbing.
But for the most part, the film's atmosphere is gloomy and dank, which kills the suspense. It doesn't help that both Deborah Kerr and David Niven are both too mature at this point to be playing parents of small children. Niven looks mostly distracted and Kerr, while capable in her damsel-in-distress role, does a less interesting variation on her brilliant performance in "The Innocents," though in that case the role was far more complex. As for the late Ms. Tate, I'm convinced her voice was dubbed by another actress, but she does cut a very provocative figure.
The film contains too many characters, and not all the plot makes much sense. This is strictly something for British horror fans to watch out of curiosity, or for devotees of Deborah Kerr.
Angels in America (2003)
Shows the Strengths & Weaknesses of the Plays
Some interesting comments here from people who clearly are offended by gays (or think we're mentally ill) - makes you wonder why they bothered to watch, much less sit through a good part of it. And there have been no reports of mass cancellations of HBO subscriptions based on this show.
This 2-part adaptation of Kushner's two plays has some marvelous stuff in it, as well as some things that show up some weaknesses in the original material.
Perhaps some of the "magical realism" of the piece doesn't translate from the stage (where you can get away with it more easily) to film with it's realistic settings and close-ups. Frankly, I found much of the fantasy material to be less effective and downright hokey at times. Case in point - the angel's second appearance near the end screeching like an imitation Catwoman. Also, the fantasy scene with Prior and Harper was flat and awkward.
It's possible that the density of the two plays gave us the opportunity to gloss over some of the less well-developed ideas simply based on the strength of the overall stage production. I think Kushner crammed so much material into AIA that he didn't always do so in the most digestible manner.
But as long as AIA the film stays in the "real world" it's much more effective. The performances are variable. Pacino does well as Roy Cohn and keeps his general hamminess under control. Streep is terrific in three roles, but I loved her Ethel Rosenberg most. Emma Thompson was uneven, better as the doctor than the angel.
Justin Kirk was intense but not particularly engaging as Prior, which erected a sympathy barrier with the character that the film doesn't need. Ben Shenkman managed to make Louis more annoying than necessary, though he improved in the second half. Patrick Wilson starts off well as Joe Pitt, but his performance doesn't delve very deep as the film progresses.
Mary Louise Parker is stuck with the poorly written role of Harper, which has defeated other talented women like Marcia Gay Harden. Parker winds up defaulting to her typical spacey mannerisms and brings very little to the character.
Mike Nichols has remained very faithful to the letter of Tony Kushner's play, which is a strength and weakness. Too much of the film is a literal film translation of the plays rather than a needed re-imagining of it.
As for those offended by it, perhaps your recollection of history is faulty as well as your interpretation of the film. I didn't see that it blames Reagan for AIDS itself, but for the government turning a blind eye to it during the first several years of the epidemic, which is a well-documented fact.
And so what that the film doesn't reflect advances in AIDS since 1985? That hardly means the piece has nothing to say about human relationships and politics based on the time period it covers, even for those who just need to admit that they don't want to see gay characters on TV. I think some here got angry from watching the film - probably just what Kushner had in mind.
A Delicate Balance (1973)
Best For Albee's Text and Some Performances
Fans of Edward Albee and Katharine Hepburn will find things to savor in this haphazard filming of the marvelous prize-winning play. But it's not always easy. Based on the slapdash direction, the piece looks as is the actors spent the requisite time rehearsing the play itself, and then the filming was done quickly and cheaply.
There are a series of generally long takes, but the staging looks more suitable for a proscenium stage than a film. And this is what separates a mediocre talent like Richardson from, say, Mike Nichols who did a far better job dealing with a (largely) confined space in the film of "Virginia Woolf." The result is that "Balance" comes off as stagy - a more inventive director could have avoided that without changing one line of the text.
"Balance" consists of a lot of mid-shots and close-ups, which doesn't serve all the actors well. This is particularly true of Kate Reid who plays the alcoholic sister Clare - Reid's performance might work well on stage, but with all her tight closeups during long speeches, she tends to overplay and make the character more gratingly tiresome than she should be.
The other casualty in the cast is Lee Remick, as the volatile, childish, much-married daughter of Hepburn and Scofield. But in her case it's Albee's writing that's the problem. This character is poorly conceived and developed - and no actress I know of has managed to make it palatable.
But Hepburn is in excellent form as the proud matriarch Agnes - perhaps a little more coarse at times than Albee intended, but very effective. Scofield as her passive-aggressive husband Tobias is marvelous until he mars his important penultimate scene with too many actorish vocal tricks.
Joseph Cotton and Betsy Blair as the old friends who come to Agnes and Tobias to escape the terror of collective loneliness are both good individually, but never seem to be a long-married couple.
Those not familiar with this play may be slightly turned off by the presentation and think the piece itself is second-rate. Not so. This film may be best for those who have seen it before or are familiar enough with Albee to take the film with a grain of salt and appreciate what's good about it.
Mystic River (2003)
Disappointing Adaptation of a Strong Crime Novel
Having read Dennis Lehane's strong crime book a few years ago, I knew that a very powerful and even upsetting film could be made from it. But Eastwood's coarse direction flattens out the story's effect and allows for some wildly uneven acting. You should come out of this film disturbed, but that certainly didn't happen for me.
There's enough punch in the material for the film to be effective as a detective thriller, and it's best in those scenes and the first scenes with Sean Penn's character Jimmy dealing with his daughter's murder.
But the book is also very good at evoking a sense of the insular lower middle class South Boston Irish Catholic community and the various personalities in it.
The film manages to do this to some degree, but some of the most interesting characters are given short shrift, particularly Annabeth (Laura Linney) who is Jimmy's wife.
In the book, she winds up being far more frightening a character than her husband, but Linney is barely in the film until the end where she has one Lady Macbeth-ish scene that comes out of nowhere. Linney also lacks a certain street-wise coarseness (as opposed to vulgarity) that the character needs.
Also, the film is not successful in making a clear connection between the abduction of Tim Robbins' character as a boy by two pedophiles and the present day occurrences. If you know the book, that's a tough job, but not impossible. There's some commentary about it by Penn and Bacon, but it's not enough.
The acting a very mixed bag - Eastwood has always tended to leave actors to their own devices, for better or worse.
Penn has some excellent scenes (his post-funeral scene on the porch with Tim Robbins is a beauty), but also some where he starts teetering into Al Pacino land (and not early good Pacino). Bacon is good, but his jaw is permanently clenched in one position. The scenes with him and his estranged wife on the phone could be cut - they add nothing and come off as clumsy.
Tim Robbins has two good scenes, but the rest of the time his acting is largely two-note and so mopey that his character comes off like a half-wit (which is not what he's supposed to be at all, based on the novel). He looks so miserable that there's nothing at stake for this character when the walls close in around him. He's marked as DOOMED and his unjust fate just seems inevitable rather than the moral outrage it should be.
Just as bad is Marcia Gay Harden who gives an annoying one-note lip-quivering, face-squinched performance throughout.
I did like Laurence Fishburne in a rather thankless role - he was the most relaxed onscreen of any of the stars (he has one good scene where he stand up to Penn). Some of the minor players (the murdered daughter's BF and his slatternly mother in particular) do fine work.
If you haven't read the book, the film is a reasonable if uneven entertainment, but it's not quite the tragedy it should be. The reviews so far have been excellent, which is surprising.
I think the critics are going all out for Eastwood as they think this will be his last real hurrah. And it's certainly better than his last 3-4 films, but that's largely due to the quality of the original material.
Looking at "Mystic" screenwriter Brian Helgeland's work post "L.A. Confidential" ("The Postman," "Conspiracy Theory," "Blood Work," "A Knight's Tale," "The Order"), I'm convinced that the excellent quality of "Confidential" is chiefly the result of the efforts of director and co-writer Curtis Hanson.
In fact, Hanson would have been a far better choice to direct "Mystic" than Eastwood (the mediocre "8 Mile" notwithstanding).
Lawless Heart (2001)
Best for the Performances
There's not a weak link in the cast of "Lawless Heart," a multi-character film with intertwining stories following the accidental drowning death and funeral of Stuart, a local gay restaurateur in a village on the Isle of Man. In fact, the performances are the highlight.
Stuart's brother-in-law Dan (Bill Nighy) and sister Judy (Ellie Haddington) deal with what to do with Stuart's inheritance, as no will was prepared: keep it or give it to Stuart's partner Nick (Tom Hollander). Dan, who is rather homophobic, also begins to question the limitations of the life he's chosen. Judy is torn between loyalty to Stuart's probable wishes and her family's own tight financial situation.
Stuart's cousin Tim (Douglas Henshall) is an immature, ethically dubious black sheep who returns after leaving town years ago. He winds up falling for Leah (Josephine Butler) a local shopkeeper, only to get treated the same way he tends to treat people.
Nick, numb with grief, first lets Tim stay with him but soon regrets it. During a wild party Tim throws, Nick meets Charlie (Sukie Smith) a lively, feckless, not-too-bright local girl and is drawn to her energy and high spirits. (SPOILER ALERT). However, this story is where the script goes off-base. The development of Nick and Charlie's relationship struck me as forced in order for the two to have a single rushed, emotionally intense sexual encounter late in the film.
While it's apparent that Nick's behavior is more an outlet for his grief than anything else, the whole sequence felt false. It's not as if Nick couldn't express himself in such a way with another man (which would make more sense). With this film, "Bedrooms & Hallways" and the TV mini-series "Bob and Rose," I'm sensing an odd British fascination with gay men who suddenly have sex with women. Go figure.
I wonder if the filmmakers would have a grieving widower find himself having sex with another man. Don't bet on it.
Doesn't Make Sense
"Days" ("Giorni") takes on interesting subject matter, but misses the mark. This tale of an HIV+ gay man named Claudio who rebels against the regiment that he's surrounded with (bank job, long-time lover, family, HIV medications, safe sex) would be more impactful if the lead character were less closed up. But the biggest problem is the character of the young man - Andrea - our anti-hero has a passionate affair with.
Andrea exists less as a three-dimensional person than as some kind of romantic fantasy figure who passionately falls in love with Claudio in a remarkably short amount of time (i.e. one trick and a quick meeting at a restaurant). Andrea also has no qualms about having unprotected sex with Claudio. We never find out why he's so in love with Claudio (who never seems particularly charismatic) and why he would risk his health and life to have unprotected sex.
While Claudio gets lectured by a few other characters for his reckless behavior, the film has an opportunity to get underneath the frustration of people with HIV and what they have to deal with daily, even though Claudio never seems to be suffering from his multiple medications too much.
Unfortunately, the film is more interested in presenting bareback sex and HIV as the ingredients in some romantic tragedy. Claudio's and Andrea's fate is such that you have to wonder if the filmmaker - a woman - isn't trying to put as depressing a face on gay male life as she can - that HIV infection is inevitable, so you might as well just get it over with. On some level, I find this film quite stupid and irresponsible, though I'm sure the director and the film's defenders would call it "challenging." Nonsense.
Many talk about how much more sophisticated Europeans are about homosexuality, but I sure haven't seen that in the films about gay life that come from that part of the world. In some ways, they're more backward than what we see here.
Les félins (1964)
There's a good thriller hidden somewhere in all the messiness of "Joy House," but the film is ruined by the truly terrible performance of Alain Delon (his first in English, perhaps - which would partly explain it) and the mediocre script, which might have worked better in French since some of the English dialogue is very awkward. Delon's character is so obnoxious and makes so little sense that impossible to care about him one way or the other. Jane Fonda is fun as a young vixen who's more unbalanced that you might think, and Lola Albright does well under the circumstances as a mysterious, manipulative widow. Rene Clement's direction is frantic and sometimes incoherent, as is the plot. We never really do find out who Fonda's character really is, and her relationship to the widow.
I'm not a huge fan of "Plein Soleil" ("Purple Noon"), but that is a masterwork next to this. Clement's talent as a director had clearly dissipated by the early 60's. His subsequent films to "Joy House" are even less interesting.
Affectionate, but what an awful script!
On the plus side, "Camp" has a lot of energy and loads of affection for it's young characters. Some of the musical numbers are fun ("Turkey Lurkey Time" from "Promises, Promises"; the funny All About Eve-ish scene with Sondheim's "I'm Still Here;" the Todd Rundgren song at the end). So you can't really dislike the film.
However, the bad far outweighs the good. Director/writer Todd Graf has done good work as an actor, but his dual turn here is far from promising. The dreadful script leaves no tired cliche or cliched character unturned & the dialogue is stilted and amateurish.
Some of the scenes are just plain unbelievable (e.g. the straight hunk suddenly trying to come on to the gay kid). Some are groan-inducing: for example, when the group starts doing a new piece by the cynical, self-pitying, alcoholic composer, it brings him around and he joins the band.
Also, the film stretches credibility with some of the choices of shows the kids do - would anyone really try to put on a production of "Follies" or "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" with teenagers? These scenes exist for nothing more than easy laughs.
The cast of unknowns are a mixed lot - some are more personable than others, some are a little awkward, but the dialogue doesn't help any of them.
Graf based this film on his own experiences at a summer theater camp for teens, but you'd never know it. There's not one fresh or uncontrived moment in the film - it could have been made by anyone who's seen "Fame."
Antwone Fisher (2002)
Interesting Tale Loses Dramatic Steam
Denzel Washington's debut as a director starts off as a lively, if very familiar pairing of troubled seaman Fisher (Derek Luke in a fine performance) and a Navy psychiatrist (well-played by Washington) assigned to find out why his patient has a hair-trigger temper which leads him to violence.
As Fisher goes through the usual scenes of initial distrust until that first breakthrough, we begin to see the harsh reality of the man's childhood, one marked by abandonment and traumatic physical & sexual abuse at the hands of a foster family.
In the meantime, we're also provided with Fisher's first romance with a fellow female in the Navy, as well as a glimpse of Washington's troubled marriage.
Once it's clear that Fisher is on the way to recovery, the film loses it's narrative energy and starts to drag. The story is certainly engrossing in itself, but the presentation (i.e. the direction) is pretty by-the-book, which ultimately grows wearisome.
While Fisher's story is largely fact-based, the dramatic arc is no different than many other stories of the same nature, so it would have served Washington well if he had shaped the material differently so that it wouldn't seem so familiar - no matter how inspiring. Also, the romance between Fisher and the woman is charming, but pretty mild in its dramatic impact.
There is one powerful scene near the end where Fisher finally meets the birth mother who abandoned him. Viola Davis, an excellent actress who got a well-deserved Tony Award for her work in August Wilson's "King Hedley II," has few lines in this scene, but she doesn't need them. Her face and body language do more than words could.
Unfortunately, the effect of this scene is undercut by the next scene, an unbelievable ending in which Fisher is greeted by the entire extended family of his late birth father - somehow, his aunt managed to get the entire clan together in a matter of an hour or so and put together a breakfast feast. "Uplifting"? Yes, but far-fetched. Films don't need to work this hard to drive home the importance of family.
Forgive and Forget (2000)
Not Very Convincing, Despite Good Acting
"Forgive and Forget" will certainly generate mixed feelings. The central character of David, a closeted working class guy who's desperately in love with his best pal Theo, is interesting in that David becomes the equivalent of a jealous lover when Theo gets increasingly serious about his new GF Hanna (who's not so different from David in some respects).
A jealous lover who has to conceal his feelings, which leads David to some actions that are less than sympathetic. While the film tries to show how David is suffering, the script and the lead actor rarely succeed is making David both wrong-headed but sympathetic. He glowers so much and is so clammed up emotionally that he almost becomes a villain. Theo really is the most sympathetic character in the film, a man victimized by his unreasonable GF and betrayed by his best friend.
(Spoiler alert): The penultimate scene on a TV show called "Forgive and Forget" is unbelievable to me. Even given David's need to tell Theo how he feels, it's hard to believe that someone as closeted as David would come out in such a public, spectacular way. The writer and director don't build David's character in a way where such a gesture seems inevitable. And the film never thinks to explore why the TV show would cooperate with such a surprise admission.
The ending has upset viewers - frankly, I didn't believe Theo to be the type to engage in such brutal behavior. And the Hanna's sudden appearance to stop Theo from inflicting further damage to David made no sense at all, given that she and Theo had already broken up.
Given David's actions it's easy to interpret the beating as David getting what he deserved for betraying his pal...and for daring to fall in love with a straight man and humiliate him by declaring that to him on TV. I can certainly imagine many hetero men readily taking that away from the film, especially as we see Theo and Hanna walking away hand-in-hand leaving David laying on the floor to fend for himself - not even asking if he's OK. As for the last shot of David, who can say what it means? He's learning how to move on? He's still in a dream world?
Anyone familiar with the gay-related murder that resulted from a similar occurrence on the Jenny Jones Show will wonder just what the filmmakers intended here. I understand that the writer of this film makes special mention that he's straight, so you never know.
Get Your Stuff (2000)
This direct-to-video clunker about a wealthy, buff, Beverly Hills gay couple suddenly saddled with two abandoned kids to test their mettle as foster parents is so badly acted and written that it's painful to watch. The only actor who doesn't come off as amateurish or awkward/under-rehearsed is Kimberly Scott as the Child Services rep, but the way she just drops these kids into the couple's life is absurd and unbelievable. In fact, I didn't make it all the way through. I'm all for films that show different aspects of how gay men live, though this film still trots out the usual drag queens, etc., and the couple does live a rarified existence. Someday we'll get a good film about gay adoption, but this one isn't it.
Disturbing Short Film
I saw this as part of a compilation of gay-themed shorts entitled "Boys Briefs 2," (advertised as stories about "gay first lust") and wasn't prepared for the dark, disturbing tale that unfolds here. "Touch" gives us a fractured narrative about a young teen who was imprisoned and sexually & physically abused by his captor for quite some time. How much isn't really clear, though the occasional flashbacks suggest that the abuser was a man who had been living with the boy and his mother.
What makes this short film so unsettling is that it is completely from the POV of the victim - now freed and living with foster parents. This young man now so identifies with his former captor that he cannot differentiate between real love & affection and being beaten - the two have been so thoroughly entwined in his traumatized head that he is set on a course of constant self-abasement to find his former "lover" again - or some equivalent from strangers.
The point the film makes is psychologically acute, and no less unnerving for being so.
The Cherry Orchard (1999)
Chekhov on film with mixed results
Chekhov's plays have generally resisted film and TV adaptations: Sidney Lumet's "Sea Gull" was lumpy and not well cast, and even the Russian film adaptations have been turgid affairs.
Michael Cacoyannis' version of "The Cherry Orchard" (originally titled "Varya" after one of the main characters), is better than Lumet's film largely because it's better acted in general. But the direction is sometimes fussy, sometimes leaden - the pacing becomes more and more turgid as the film progresses. The final 40 minutes or so become very tedious. Plus there's an unnecessary prologue in Paris - an obvious attempt to open up the play, but it goes on much too long.
Charlotte Rampling does very well as Madame Ranyevskaya, a near-penniless aristocrat who returns to her family estate as it is about to be auctioned after a default on the mortgage. Rampling clearly shows us a aging woman who is spoiled, charming, childish, delusional, sometimes haughty and condescending, and feckless - a person who never learned how to manage money because she never felt she had to. Her performance makes this woman less conventionally sympathetic than others in the role - which is fine. There are times when her performance is undercut by some jarring editing where her mood swings from one extreme to another.
The rest of the cast is quite fine: Alan Bates as Ranyevskaya's equally feckless and lazy brother Gayev shows us the man who knows full well his coming fate, yet goes through fits of denial to coddle his sister and the others; Michael Gough as the increasingly senile family servant Fiers; Tushka Bergen as Ranyevskaya's daughter Anya.
The best acting comes from Katrin Cartlidge as the hapless, lovesick, foster daughter Varya, a soul sister to Sonia of Uncle Vanya; and Owen Teale (who was superb with Janet McTeer onstage in "A Doll's House") as Lopahin, a former peasant whose family worked on Ranyevskaya's farm but who has now become a successful businessman. His efforts to convince the fading aristocrats to save themselves by selling the estate fall on deaf ears, so he decides on a different plan of action.
I would recommend seeing this only to people who are familiar with the play. First-timers would be better off seeking out a good stage production (lots of luck there) as Chekhov has always worked better there.
The Trip (2002)
Nice Leads, Silly Film
Having read some good notices for "The Trip" (though not from reviewers here in NYC), I was still surprised at how good intentions can go awry from poor writing.
"The Trip" is basically a 3-act drama charting the relationship between two gay men from the early 70's to the mid-80's. Alan starts out as a closeted Republican who discovers his true nature pretty quickly, while Tommy is a liberal gay activist. The dichotomy of these two is a little too convenient, but we'll let that go.
The two appealing and talented leading actors are Larry Sullivan and Steve Braun . Braun has a major Brad Pitt thing going in the first part of the film, while Sullivan has the more demanding role (in scenes where Alan is upset, Sullivan's vocal inflections bear a very close and unfortunate resemblance to Hal Sparks' on "Queer as Folk"). There's also an amusing turn by Jill St. John as Alan's mother.
Major spoilers below:
But this film sinks under some unbelievable situations and vague character motivation. Before falling for Tommy, Alan was in the process of writing an anti-gay tome as a way of expressing his self-hatred - yet he doesn't really act like someone who has this problem. Despite his almost immediate attraction to Tommy, Alan signs a contract with a publisher for the book, but soon wishes he hadn't.
A few years later, the book gets published anonymously (due to Alan's protest) but Alan's identity as the author is revealed and when Tommy learns of it, you expect a strong confrontation. Instead their relationship ends on an inexplicable whimper that leaves plenty of questions unanswered. The reason for a break-up isn't really clear (Alan's explanation would certain pass muster with many people, initial embarrassment aside).
Immediately after the breakup, Alan winds up shaking up as a kept boy with a slimy closeted lawyer named Peter Baxter, but later Alan becomes a gay activist himself. For some reason, we're supposed to believe that with his new-found activism, Alan is still with the lawyer, and that Baxter would want to risk his "secret" by keeping company with a very public gay activist.
The rest of the acting is either wooden (Ray Baker as Baxter - his acting during a dinner party going bad wouldn't even qualify as phoned in) or just plain bad (Serena Irwin as a female friend; Art Hindle as Alan's father, and Alexis Arquette who is simply embarrassing as the queeny friend Michael).
Writer-director Miles Swain inserts documentary footage or gay-related events to mark the passing of time, but the relationship between these events and the lives of the two protagonists is nebulous.