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8/10
Why did she have to have three children?
17 August 2015
There is no doubt that this is a very well done and moving documentary about a single mother on the brink of poverty who is doing her best to care for her 3 children on an income of $9.49 an hour. She is without a doubt a nice, compassionate person, as evidenced by the reverence with which the nursing home residents that she serves regard her, and there is no doubt that she loves and wants the best for her children.

And yet, the question nags, at least for this viewer: WHY DID SHE HAVE TO HAVE THREE CHILDREN? Don't people THINK before they allow themselves to conceive? Don't they ask themselves, "can I afford to support a child before I let myself get pregnant?" Apparently not. Rather than talk about defunding Planned Parenthood, as is now the case, we should consider doubling or tripling its funding so that people like Katrina Gilbert can learn something about contraception.
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Eden (I) (2012)
8/10
A powerful film that deserves a wider audience
1 March 2015
Warning: Spoilers
This is a searing expose of sexual slavery that had an impact on me like a punch in the stomach, and I mean that to be a positive comment. It rang true from beginning to end, with flawless performances from nearly all the cast. Why it hasn't reached a wider audience and received the acclaim it deserves can probably be explained by its grim subject matter, which I imagine most people would prefer to avoid even thinking about. And I really don't care if the story of the real life person that the main character of this film is based on has holes in it; the film itself rings true.

That having been said, I must add that the film is puzzling in many ways. The place where the sex slaves are kept appears to be in the Nevada desert, not too far from Las Vegas. In fact, they sometimes go into Las Vegas. But prostitution is legal in Nevada, and there is an abundance of legal brothels throughout the state. So why would the sex traffickers need to run an illegal operation and face kidnapping and murder charges? The film would have made more sense if it had been set in another state. Moreover, I wish the film had gone into more detail about the financing and control of the operation, because it is apparently part of an international operation--near the end of the film, just before the protagonist escapes, it is revealed that they are planning to move the entire operation to Dubai.

In spite of these reservations, it remains a powerful and gripping film. Highly recommended.
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6/10
A compelling film, but confusing at times
10 February 2015
Warning: Spoilers
This is a compelling and at times riveting film. As other reviewers have pointed out, it is very much like an earlier film, "Sin Nombre," in depicting the violence and ruthlessness of the Mexican gangs. It also contains a brilliant performance by Greisy Mena as the title character. The film presents a very sympathetic portrait of a very young woman trying to survive in a brutal society, resorting to prostitution while desperately wanting to get out of that life at the same time.

Having said that, the film is marred by a screenplay that is confusing and at times incoherent. For example, it becomes very obvious early on that she lives in one Latin American country and wants to get to another, permanently. We soon learn that the country she wants to get to is Mexico, but it takes a while to learn that the country she is coming from is Guatemala. Why? Because to get from her country to Mexico requires a boat ride across a river, and the only Spanish-speaking country that borders Mexico is Guatemala. This is later confirmed when we see "Guatemala" on a soldier's uniform. However, one of the immigration officials says she is from Honduras, and she herself says she is from Panama, although this is clearly a lie. Also, it is never exactly clear which country she is in at different times.

Further complicating the plot is a subplot involving the Mexican police, working under a corrupt general, who are involved in what appears to be an operation smuggling drugs into Mexico. It is unclear whether the police are in cahoots with the gang with respect to the smuggling. At first it appears that they are, but then the gang members turn on the police and kill one of the policemen. It also appears that there are a couple of Americans, one of whom rapes Sabina, working with the corrupt Mexican police. But why? Why do the Mexicans need them? This never becomes clear.

Finally, even the title of the film becomes confusing. Why "la vida precoz y breve?" Sabina is still alive at the end of the film, so how do we know that her life will be short? Maybe she'll live to be 90. And I didn't see anything especially precocious about her life either.

In short, the film is worth seeing, noting the above reservations.
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6/10
The problem is the script
19 August 2012
Warning: Spoilers
This film contains great acting, beautiful photography, and a finale that, as a set piece, may stand as one of the greatest in the history of film. Yet the film is marred by a silly and incoherent script that makes the plot alternately laughable and unintelligible. Consider the following plot flaws:

1) Grisby approaches Michael O'Hara and offers him $5000 to sign a written confession to having killed Grisby, whereupon Grisby will disappear. Grisby explains that his motive is to collect on the partnership insurance that he and Bannister have on each other. Grisby explains to O'Hara that he needn't worry about being convicted of murder because no one can be convicted without a body being found.

There are several flaws in this. First of all, if Grisby were to be considered dead, the beneficiary of the partnership insurance would be Bannister, not Grisby. How could Grisby collect on his own death? What insurance company would write a check to a dead man? Moreover, why would O'Hara sign a confession to a murder when Grisby is definitely wrong when he says that someone can't be convicted of murder without a body? In fact there have been many murder convictions where a body was never found. Moreover, a written confession is tantamount to a guilty plea and could easily result in a conviction.

2) Eventually Grisby is actually murdered and O'Hara is charged with the crime. It becomes apparent that he is being framed. We are obviously meant to suspect Bannister of the murder, his motive being to collect on the partnership insurance. But it turns out that his wife, who had had an infatuation with O'Hara, was the actual killer. But why? Surely not to enable her husband to collect on the partner insurance. If she wanted to get rich from a murder, wouldn't it have been far more profitable for her to kill her husband so that she could inherit his entire estate?

3) It is unclear whether Mr. and Mrs. Bannister had been plotting to kill Grisby and to frame O'Hara for the murder right from the beginning. Was this why they were so eager to bring O'Hara into their employ so early in the film? If so, this would imply that Bannister was actually complicit in Grisby's killing and that it wasn't just the act of his wife.

This plot has more holes that a hunk of Swiss cheese. I could cite many more, but I'll stop here. There are many positive aspects to this film, but overall it's a mess.
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Bitter Rice (1949)
9/10
Just misses being a masterpiece
16 October 2011
The principal flaw of this film is the performance of Doris Dowling, mistakenly cast in the role of Francesca. Dowling seems capable of only one facial expression, something between a scowl and a sneer. Why such a wooden American actress was cast in this role when there were so many budding actresses in Italy at the time must remain a mystery.

This film ranks just below such classics of the Italian neo-realist movement as The Bicycle Thief, Shoeshine, Open City, and La Strada. Turner Classic Movies is to be applauded for making this rarely seen gem available on their channel. There is a nearly show-stopping performance by Silvana Mangano, a performance that must have been electrifying at the time. Earthy, sensual, voluptuous, Mangano performs with unshaven armpits which she puts on full display when she puts her hands behind her head. This was a gutsy move for an unknown actress who was a former beauty queen presumably aiming for stardom, but this little touch adds immeasurably to the brooding sense of poverty and desperation that pervade the film. It has been said that if Mangano had had more drive and been less controlled by her husband, Dino de Laurentiis, she might have achieved the stature of Loren and Lollobrigida. But alas, it was not to be. The only other notable performance of her career was in Visconti's Death in Venice.

If this film seems excessively proletarian, even Marxist, in its outlook, it is important to remember that Italy was impoverished after WWII and that the Communist Party very nearly came to power in 1948 and probably would have done so had it not been for CIA intervention. The crane shots and other camera work, as well as the superb acting of the women in the smaller roles, are masterful in depicting the drudgery of the toil of the women working in the rice fields. Other aspects of the camera work are masterful. Probably the most famous, or notorious, scene in the film is the one where Mangano takes a reed and playfully pokes Vittorio Gassman with it. Gassman's character is not amused; he takes the reed from her and proceeds to whip her with it repeatedly. Notice the way the camera moves with Gassman as he approaches her, then moves with Mangano as she tries to move away from him in terror. This is masterful camera work. The finale of the film, which I won't reveal here, is shattering as well. The acting of Gassman and Raf Vallone is superb as well.

Until recently this film was unavailable on DVD with English subtitles, but it has recently become available and can be ordered on Amazon. It would be a great addition to anyone's film library. And one final note: another reviewer cautioned parents that there is nudity in this film. This is incorrect. I think he is probably referring to the crane shot that shows the women bathing in the river. They do indeed appear nude, but if you look more closely you will see that they are wearing body stockings and are fully clothed.
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6/10
Great performance, so-so movie
29 September 2009
There is no question that Marion Cotillard deserved the best actress Oscar for her performance in this film. That having been said, it must also be said that there is no other reason to watch this film. It seesaws between repeated biopic clichés and incoherence. Crucial elements of Piaf's life are left out or, when they are included, they are underexplained and left dangling.

For example, we learn that the boxer Marcel Cerdan was probably the love of her life, but he was married with three kids and refused to leave his wife, before he was killed in a plane crash. According to this film, Piaf had at least two husbands, but we learn absolutely nothing about them, the circumstances of their marriages, and how at least one marriage ended. How many times was Piaf married, anyway? Better look elsewhere, because this film won't tell you. Another example: when the Gerard Depardieu character is murdered, we never learn why he was murdered (there is a hint that mob activity was involved) or why Piaf was a suspect. And was Piaf ever a prostitute? There are indications that she was under the thumb of a pimp who had her sing on the street for his profit and who threatens to make her "spread her legs," but whether she ever does is unclear.

To sum up: see this film only for Cotillard's performance. Otherwise, it is a mess.
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Kadosh (1999)
10/10
A howl of rage
23 November 2007
This is the best film I have seen in recent memory, perhaps the best ever, to lay bare the stupidity and cruelty of fundamentalist religions, especially in their attitudes toward and treatment of women. That the milieu in which the story unfolds is that of Hasidic Judaism is secondary; this story could have easily been told using a community of talibanic Muslims or ultra-fundamentalist Christians as its milieu. The essential point the film is illustrating is the inhumanity of rigid adherence to dogma and religious texts no matter how severe the human cost or the toll it takes on its members.

The film centers around a couple who love each other but who have been unable to conceive a child after ten years of marriage. Most well-informed people know that when a couple has difficulty conceiving it is usually the male who has the problem, usually a low sperm count. But this ignorant community blames the woman, labeling her "barren, and insisting that the husband must find a new wife. The wife, unknown to her husband, consults a female gynecologist outside her community who assures her that there is nothing wrong with her reproductive system and that she is fully able to conceive. The gynecologist suggests that they submit a sample of her husband's sperm for analysis. The wife says her husband would never do this because he is not allowed to "spill his seed." For similar religious reasons, artificial insemination is out of the question. (I am reminded of fundamentalist Christians who, in spite of overwhelming evidence for evolution, still insist that the biblical account of creation is correct.) The wife and husband are forced to separate, with tragic consequences. There is also a secondary story regarding the wife's sister and her forced arranged marriage. This is a very powerful film that is a howl of rage at fundamentalist stupidity.
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7/10
I prefer the 1938 version
9 November 2007
The praise lavished on this film by some critics mystifies me. There is no reason (other than enriching a studio's coffers) to do a new version of a well-known historic episode unless the new version adds something new and previously unknown. This film decidedly does not. It obviously attempts to attract a younger audience with its annoying use of rock music on the soundtrack and its inclusion of a pair of modern sneakers amid a pile of period shoes. Things like this worked for Baz Luhrmann in "Moulin Rouge," but they don't work here. The 1938 film of the same name is much better, if only because the great Robert Morley is perfectly cast as Louis XVI, capturing perfectly his dunciness and overall arrested development. Here that part is woodenly played by a clueless Jason Schwartzman, looking like a young Stanley Tucci. Altogether, this film is a bore and a wasted effort. Oh well, at least I enjoyed looking at brief glimpses of Kirsten's bare butt (if it was really hers and not that of a body double).
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Infamous (2006)
8/10
Flawed, but entertaining
27 August 2007
This film will inevitably invite comparison with "Capote." Unfortunately, that comparison is unfavorable, although I probably would regard this film more highly if "Capote" had never been made. Whereas "Capote" raised serious ethical issues about a writer who needed his subjects to die in order to complete his book, this film never rises above the level of entertainment. That having been said, the film is still quite entertaining.

Toby Jones' portrayal of Capote will also invite comparison with Philp Seymour Hoffman's. Jones looks more like Capote than Hoffman and appears to be about Capote's size, but Hoffman's acting is better. With both portrayals, I found myself at times thinking that I was looking at the real Capote. Hoffman's portrayal is more three dimensional and brings out Capote's dark, ruthless, and manipulative side. Jones' portrayal is more of a caricature, overdoing the gay stereotypes to the point of swishiness. His Capote seems more desperate in getting Perry Smith to continue talking to him. In "Capote," Capote was clearly in control of Smith. In "Infamous," Smith is in control of Capote.

Probably the film's most egregious blunder is casting the tall and muscular Daniel Craig as Perry Smith. Smith appears to be about a foot taller than Capote, when in reality Smith was about 5'2" tall, about the same height as Capote. This was what in fact led to their bonding with each other, two little guys against the world.

You won't go wrong watching this film, and you won't be bored. But you won't be much beyond entertained. By the way, exactly what does the title refer to? Who is infamous, Capote, the killers, or the murder itself?
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The New World (2005)
6/10
Visually beautiful--if you can stay awake
26 June 2007
This film tells the familiar story of Pocahontas, Powhatan, John Smith, and John Rolfe in a manner appears to be intended to be more historically accurate than most of the fantasized versions of the story that have been depicted over the years. For the most part, it succeeds, with some glaring exceptions. Malick's most daring venture was to cast a 14 year old actress in the role of Pocahantas, which puts her not far from the age--traditionally 12--that the real Pocahontas was at the time she intervened to save Smith's life. The young actress is half Indian and half Caucasian; I guess they couldn't find a full-blooded Indian for the part. The first disconcerting note, at least for this viewer, occurs fairly early in the film when Pocahontas raises her arms and we see that her armpits are shaved. An Indian girl, in 1607? Not likely! This inattention to detail threw me out of the film's frame of reference, reminding me that I was watching a film and that this is an actress who, even at this tender age, can't allow her image to be besmirched by being filmed with hairy underarms.

The film is visually beautiful, as Malick's films usually are. The camera glides over some of the pastoral scenes, and we get a sense--as we are clearly meant to--of how pristine and unspoiled the North America was before the white man came. The actors in the three principal parts all perform competently and are successful at conveying their thoughts and feelings nonverbally. They don't have much choice, because there is very little dialogue. And, thankfully, the Indians are not portrayed as saintly or noble, but quite accurately as people going about their business who are alternately fascinated by and fearful of these intruders. They rightfully foresee that the settlers might not want much now, but they might want much more later.

So, the film has much to recommend it. But it has a fatal flaw: it is excruciatingly slooooooooooooooooooow and boooooooooooooooooooring. It could easily have been pared by a third and edited to an hour and a half length. Instead it plods on for two and a quarter hours, long long after I had come to appreciate the visual poetry and had gotten its obvious points (in case you don't know what they are, this film will be a delight for tree huggers and cultural relativists).

In the final analysis, I suppose the film is worth seeing, but have a few strong cups of coffee before you do.
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7/10
Interesting film, but not true to Graham Greene
5 May 2007
Warning: Spoilers
I just saw this film on Turner Classic Movies. When it was over I was reminded of Hemingway's comment when he was asked his opinion of the film version of "The Snows of Kilimanjaro": "it was okay except for one difference; in my story the protagonist dies, and in the film he lives." This film is as much a distortion of Greene as the other film was of Hemingway; in Greene's novel the title character was intended to be a villain, but in this film he is a hero.

It is not a spoiler to tell you that the title character dies, because the film begins with his death and tells what leads up to it in flashback. In Greene's novel, the seemingly naive, idealistic American who is in (then) French Indochina for vaguely idealistic operative is in fact a sinister undercover CIA operative in cahoots with an unscrupulous general. Together with the general, he plans and executes bombings in public places that result in the deaths of dozens of innocent people, then leaves evidence making it appear that the Communists carried out the bombing. His purpose is to turn the Vietnamese people against both the French and the Communists, leaving them open to intervention by the US, who will of course put the renegade general in charge. The American is seen as so evil by Fowler, the pathetic English journalist who is his rival in love, that Fowler goes along with a plot to have him killed. The novel is intensely anti-American, as was Greene.

By contrast, this film, released in 1958 at the height of the cold war and just after the McCarthy era, could not afford to appear anti-American. The title character is therefore made to appear like a good guy who was indeed hoping for a US-backed "third force" to intervene in Vietnam. He is never identified as a CIA operative, and his complicity in the bombings is revealed as a Communist fabrication intended to dupe the naive Fowler and others. Fowler collaborates in the American's murder because he is a rival in love and not because he is evil. Greene was reportedly outraged at this change and denounced the film. There was some poetic justice: the film was both a commercial and critical failure.

There are some merits to the film. It was filmed on location in Saigon, very unusual for the time when most films like this were filmed in the studio. Consequently, we get to see what Saigon was like in a more innocent time, before large scale US intervention. There are several Asian actors and actresses in minor roles, but not in the key role of Phuong, the Vietnamese prostitute with whom both Fowler and the American fall in love. Phuong is played by a Caucasian actress with poor makeup, a continuation of a lamentable Hollywood practice that lasted until the 1960s. There is a superb performance by Michael Redgrave as Fowler. Audie Murphy sleepwalks through his portrayal of the American.

This film is an interesting period curiosity that is worth watching, but the 2002 film with Michael Caine and Brendan Frasier is much better and much truer to Greene's novel. That version is highly recommended.
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Shopgirl (2005)
7/10
Interesting story, if you can stay awake
11 December 2006
I haven't read the Steve Martin novella upon which this film is based, but I think that the book's genre--novella--gives us a clue as to the basic problem of the film. A novella is either a very long short story or a very short novel. In either case, there is the risk that the story may not have enough substance to fill a full length movie, and I think that is exactly what happened here. The thin story is stretched out so that it fills enough time to justify calling itself a full length film. This leads to long stretches of boredom. In fact, throughout some parts of the film I had trouble staying awake. And as if to prove my point, several scenes are repeated throughout the film just to stretch it out. I lost count of how many times I had to see Claire Danes in the tub shaving her legs, or Steve Martin alone in his Hollywood Hills home looking pensive.

That having been said, there is a lot that is good about this film. The story is plausible and the performances are good. It avoids most of the treacliness of romantic comedies. It accurately reflects life, in that everyone in the film falls short of getting what he/she wants, yet we know they will survive.

One could say that much of the film is underexplained, especially regarding the motivation of the Steve Martin character. Why does he decide at the outset that he doesn't want a relationship, other than occasional sex, with the Claire Danes character? Could it be that even he doesn't know? It appears that he ultimately regrets the decisions he has made. Could it be that he isn't aware of his real feelings until it is too late?
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6/10
A very bad film redeemed by the music
6 December 2006
I have seen examples of egregious miscasting before, but nothing so ludicrous as casting George Hamilton as Hank Williams. What were they thinking? This bronzed playboy from "Where the Boys Are," this at-the-time beau of Lynda Byrd Johnson, as the dirt poor, up from poverty Hank Williams? Supposedly Williams' widow vetoed Elvis Presley, but at least Elvis would have lent some authenticity to the role, and could have sung as well. Hamilton's lip-synching the Williams songs is especially ludicrous. The acting by the other leads--Susan Oliver, Red Buttons, Arthur O'Connell--is passable, but that of some of the actors in smaller parts is wretched beyond belief. This film must have seemed old fashioned even in 1964. It is more reminiscent of some of the B studio biopics of the 40s and 50s.

This having been said, the film does remind us that Williams was a great songwriter. We get to hear nearly all of his great songs in this film, and, according to the film's credits, they were sung by Hank Williams Jr., who would have been 15 at the time! Hank Jr. does a good job of imitating his father's style, and at times sounds just like him. There is no hint that he would later develop a style of his own, quite different from his father's.

The songs are the only reason to watch this film. But, that is a pretty good reason.
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7/10
Not up to usual noir standards
3 November 2006
Warning: Spoilers
One of the flaws of this film is that the screenplay is a muddled mess. It not only contains repeated flashbacks, but flashbacks within flashbacks. However, complicated plots are not unusual for 1940s noir films. Compared to "The Big Sleep," this screenplay is a model of clarity, and if you play close attention, you can follow it reasonably well, although it does leave a few threads hanging.

The fundamental flaw of this film, however, is the egregious miscasting of Barbara Stanwyck in the lead. Stanwyck is one leading lady whose appeal I have never understood, but that's just my personal prejudice. But if you are casting a film in which you are portraying a female lead whose plight is expected to engender some sympathy, I would think Stanwyck would be the last actress you would cast. Rather than hoping she would somehow be rescued from her ultimate fate, I found myself eagerly anticipating the moment that this shrieking, hysterical hypochondriacal, domineering, whining nasty shrew would be croaked. And my only disappointment was that her demise happened offscreen.

Not that any of the other characters are that sympathetic. Burt Lancaster plays against type as Stanwyck's wimpy husband, and Ed Begley plays her ruthless, manipulative father. The conclusion of the film, however, is ultimately satisfying: Stanwyck's character gets croaked, and the Lancaster character is in custody and will probably be charged with her murder, so we're well rid of both of them. And the ultimate villain, the Begley character, is unscathed by everything that transpires. Very true to life.

This film had a lot of potential, so it's too bad it's such a mess. If Lauren Bacall had been cast in the lead, at least we'd be pulling for her. Oh well, that's life.
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8/10
Superb film-making...until the ending
1 May 2006
This is a riveting French film by the director and screenwriter of the vastly inferior "Une Affaire Pornographique." It is minimalist in the best sense of the word. There is very little dialogue. The film must depend on the camera, lighting, and especially, the facial expressions of the two lead actors to carry the film. It works remarkably well. The actress and actor who play the husband and wife show how a couple who know each other intimately can communicate meaningfully without words. Unfortunately, it appears that another reason Gilles, the husband, doesn't use many words is because he doesn't know very many, nor does he have very many thoughts to articulate even if he could. Simply put, the man is an oaf who is extremely lucky to have the devoted wife that he does, and he doesn't deserve her.

Emmanuele Devos, who plays the wife, carries the film. She has a fascinating and expressive face that conveys her emotions without words. She also has an enigmatic smile that is hard to read. Why is she smiling, we wonder at times. Is she planning ahead, anticipating her victory over the 'other woman,' who also happens to be her sister? We are able to anticipate that she will be successful, primarily because we are able to see from the outset that her husband is no match for her intellectually, and that her sister, being a somewhat shallow floozy, will soon tire of Gilles and move on. All Elisa has to do is wait her out.

This having been said, I must state my opinion that the film is marred by an ending--which I will not reveal here--that we could probably see coming but hoped would not. The film is based on a novel I haven't read, so the same ending may occur in the source. But if so, endings have been changed before. The film would have been better, and more realistic, if it had ended a few frames before it did. The ending as it occurs just appears sensationalistic, shock for shock's sake, and the smartass camera angles employed by the director don't help. Other than that, this is a superb film. 8/10
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Mary Reilly (1996)
6/10
A bad and dreary film
10 December 2005
There is always something creepy about John Malkovich, and he exploits his creepiness to the hilt in this film. Too bad somebody didn't tell him that he's supposed to be an Engish creep, because he maintains his American accent throughout. Now and then he seems to remember that the film is set in London and makes a pathetic attempt at an accent that sounds more US upper class than British. Ditto for Julia Roberts: American accent throughout, although she occasionally remembers that she's supposed to be Irish and takes a stab at an Irish lilt. Maybe the production was too broke to hire diction coaches? Who knows? The misplaced accents might be overlooked if it were an interesting film. However, it creeps along at a snails pace and is relentlessly dreary to boot. Come to think of it, maybe this was atmospherics, the result of an attempt to create a somber mood consistent with the subject matter. If so, it was a success in spades, although it stretched credibility as far as it could go. Doesn't the sun ever shine in London? Are people always shivering when they step outside? The Jekyll-Hyde story has been filmed many times. It is always a challenge to decide how to make up the lead actor for the Mr. Hyde scenes. In this film, they keep it simple: John Malkovich plays Jekyll with salt and pepper hair and a Van Dyke; when he plays Hyde, his hair has a henna tint and he is clean shaven. This got me to thinking: what are we to assume that the character does when he goes from Hyde to Jekyll? Put on false whiskers, maybe? Stop to take the henna out of his hair? Again, who knows? If you feel you must watch this film, I recommend doing so around 11 at night. It would make an excellent cure for insomnia. 6/10
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8/10
A very good film noir
13 November 2005
This is a taut, suspenseful film noir made just as that genre was entering its twilight years. It contains a daring plot twist that you may or may not see coming, but you will probably at least suspect that all the characters are not what they seem. The film stars the great Marie Windsor, one of the screen's most underrated actresses, who was born to play noir. The supporting players are well cast, and their roles are well acted. The one exception is the one-dimensional Charles McGraw, whose gruffness after a while becomes an irritant. I wanted to say to him, "all right, we get it, you're a hard-boiled homicide detective. Now how about showing a little more expressiveness or just plain humanity." I guess Mitchum wasn't available, because this would have been a perfect part for him. But an excellent film nevertheless. 8/10
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8/10
Surprising contemporary relevance
13 November 2005
This film drives home the point that in times of national hysteria, several of which the US has had in it's history, civil liberties are in peril and at times are just shoved aside. Dr. Samuel Mudd was a MAryland physician who treated the injured John Wilkes Booth and set his broken leg while he was in flight after having mortally wounded President Lincoln. Mudd did this in all innocence. He didn't even know who Booth was, nor did he even know that Lincoln had been shot. Nevertheless, he was arrested, tried before a military tribunal (sound familiar), convicted, and sentenced to life in prison. Mudd later had his sentence commuted because of his heroism in combating a yellow fever epidemic in the prison and, although this isn't shown in the film, he later received a full pardon.

The lesson of this film is especially relevant today when the US government wants to subject the enemy combatants held in the Iraq war to military tribunals. Let's hope that more attention is paid to due process in those trials, should they occur, than in the tribunals after the civil war. 8/10
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5/10
Reverse racism bolstered by dubious history
30 May 2005
Warning: Spoilers
This documentary consists almost entirely of the octogenarian, and totally blind from glaucoma, John Henrik Clarke talking to the camera, backed up by old film clips and still photos. We hear at length Mr. Clarke's ideas regarding black nationalism, pan-Africanism and the like while learning almost nothing about Clarke as a person. He tells us that he earned a Ph.D., but we don't learn from where, and that he taught, but we don't learn where. We don't even learn if Clarke was married, has children, where he has lived since age 18, or any of the usual stuff of documentaries. We learn of his admiration for Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, and Kwame Nkrumah and of his reservations about Martin Luther King (he thinks King was wrong to adopt non-violence as a philosophy). Clarke tells us that history has been dominated by a Eurocentric perspective (undoubtedly true), that black history has been egregiously neglected (undoubtedly true as well), that Africa was ravaged by the slave trade and colonialism (also undoubtedly true), and advocates a pan-African, black nationalist perspective. Fine--that is a respectable point of view, and he is certainly entitled to his opinion. What he is not entitled to do, however, is to distort history, which he does throughout this documentary. Here are some of his assertions, which are at best dubious and at worse demonstrable falsehoods:

1) He states that the civilization of ancient Egypt was a black civilization, but offers not one whit of evidence to support this. 2) He states that the ancient Carthaginian civilization, and Hannibal, were black, but again offers no evidence to support this. 3) He states that Egyptian civilization was the crowning glory of the ancient world, an assertion that is absurd by any reasonable standard. In fact, most people would have to strain to recall any lasting intellectual contributions made by the Egyptians, whose civilization was dwarfed intellectually by those of Greece and Rome. 4) He states that Carthage was conquered by "a group of thugs who weren't very well educated--the Romans." Absurd: he is talking about the civilization of Vergil, Cicero, Marcus Aurelius, for any of whom there is no equivalent in the Carthaginian legacy. 5) In perhaps the most absurd, and demonstrably erroneous, assertion of all, he states that the fall of Rome was brought about in large part by the rise of Islam, and that Rome was defeated by the Arab Moslems when they invaded North Africa. Fact: Rome fell in 476 as a result of invasions from Gothic tribes from what is now Germany. Islam didn't originate until 632, and the Islamic conquest of North Africa didn't occur until the century after that, so Clarke is off by over 150 years. 6) Clarke states that W.E.B. DuBois was the greatest mind that America has ever produced. Well, he's entitled to his opinion, but he offers no evidence to support this point of view.

I could go on, but I'll stop here. The film has some merit in that it presents an alternative to Eurocentrism, but this merit is far outweighed by its outright distortions of fact. In all, a mediocre film at best. 5/10
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Young Adam (2003)
7/10
Who knew raw sex could be so boring?
22 May 2005
I think I counted 4 actors, 3 female, one male, who display full frontal nudity in this film, all of whom have attractive bodies, and two more who display partial nudity, and all 6 are shown engaging in explicit sexual acts, some quite graphic. Yet it is all quite unerotic. How can a film that has explicit sex, excellent acting, a well written script, good editing, and beautiful yet bleak photography be so excruciatingly boring? The film's running time is about 1 hour and 40 minutes, yet it seemed longer than Ben Hur. It truly proceeds at a snail's pace and is best saved for viewing on one of those nights when you can't sleep, because it is an ideal cure for insomnia.

One problem is that, with the exception of the Emily Mortimer character, none of the characters is really likable. Tilda Swinton plays a shrewish yet sexually frustrated barge wife who is totally obtuse as to the true nature of the man she took as a lover; does she really think this rootless sociopath is going to settle down in a house in the suburbs? Her cuckolded husband, although basically a decent man who engages sympathy at times, is basically a dolt who finds little else to interest him other than drinking beer and playing darts at the local pub. Swinton's sister is a treacherous and alcoholic nymphomaniac, and Macgregor's new landlady, who appears late in the film, is a treacherous non-alcoholic (as far as we can tell) nymphomaniac.

All of which leads us to the lead character, played by Ewan Macgregor. In fact, this character tipped me off as to what the main problem with this film is: it is an anachronism. This film, minus the explicit sex, could, and perhaps should, have been made between 1955 and 1965. The Macgregor character is totally in tune with the "angry young men" of that era who used to be played by Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay, Alan Bates, Lawrence Harvey, and the like. In that era, ruthless male machismo bordering on sociopathy, which included treating women like objects and degrading them sexually, might have been in vogue or at least tolerated, but this character seems woefully out of synch with modern sensibilities. In other words, the character is a total s**t. But who knows? Maybe some people enjoy watching films about people like that, but this viewer doesn't.

So, the only reason to see this film is for the nudity. Otherwise, skip it.
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9/10
You'd never mistake this for an action film
27 January 2005
In over a half century of movie-going, I don't recall ever seeing a film like this. Whether you love it or hate it--I loved it--depends entirely on individual tastes. So I could fully understand someone rating it as either a 10 or a 1, or anywhere in between.

The films happenings, or lack thereof, have been adequately described by other reviewers, so I won't go into that here. This is a film in which very little happens, but at the same time everything happens. It is elegiac, and a spirit of sadness and melancholy pervade the film. Many reviewers have criticized the length of some of the takes. A handicapped young woman who appears to have a brace on her leg--we can't see it, but we can hear it--climbs a long flight of stairs with excruciating slowness. The camera watches her from a distance as she climbs every step, with a 'clunk' every time her foot lands on a step. It sounds boring but it's ingenious. How better to empathize with this woman, to realize with a shock what an excruciating grind her daily life must be, and how lonely she must be. Indeed, everyone in the film appears to be lonely, and each has mechanisms for staving it off. Going to the movies is one of them.

One much-discussed scene has the camera, apparently from the vantage point of the screen, look out at the completely empty theater for what is probably three or four minutes. Absolutely nothing happens. But this scene is the essence of the film. It seems to be saying, "look at the history here. Look at how many thousands of people have come here to watch the movies, how many were made happy, if only for a couple of hours. And now it will be gone." We know in our gut that the theater will probably be torn down and replaced with a soulless mall, or a parking lot.

I'm sure this film brought back memories for people of a certain age. I remember as a child in the 1950s going to theaters very much like this one, paying 9 cents for admission, buying some popcorn and soda, and watching westerns or films noirs. And now those theaters, like the one in this film, are long since gone. Does anyone remember Jean Luc Godard in the 1960s talking about "cinema language?" A film like this one exemplifies perfectly what he must have meant. 9/10
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8/10
Entertaining but overrated noir predecessor
23 January 2005
I know, I know, this isn't film noir, it's 'poetic realism.' Fine with me, but it's still an early example of noir to me. And while this film has many strong points, it's very easy to overrate it. For one thing, it's totally predictable. If you haven't figured out by the halfway point what's going to happen to the Gabin character, you just haven't been to very many movies. For another, the first half of the film is disjointed and just plain dull. However, after the halfway point it begins to pull itself together and ends up working rather well.

On to the strong points. Gabin is, well, Gabin. He is one of those rare screen presences who is watchable and enjoyable in anything. And Michele Morgan, who I don't recall seeing before, is beautiful, magnetic, and riveting. It's hard to believe that she was only 18 when she played in this film. And the tone of the film--downbeat, mildly depressing--is a healthy antidote to the relentlessly upbeat Hollywood productions of the time. And the downbeat tone is probably much more appropriate to 1938 as well.

Some reviewers have criticized the sets. Personally, I think they worked. This film worked very hard to create an atmosphere, and for this the sets were perfect.

The film was also daring for its time, although perhaps not for the French. The Morgan character is strongly hinted to be a woman of easy virtue and, at a time when Hollywood was plagued by the Hayes code that prohibited even a hint of sexuality, there is a very obvious 'morning after' scene in which it is obvious that the Gabin and Morgan characters checked into a hotel room and spent the night together. There is even a scene after the morning after scene in which it is obvious that they are about to go at it again; Gabin grabs Morgan, they embrace and start to fall on the bed, and the scene fades out. Moreover, in an era when such things weren't even hinted at, there is a subtle suggestion that Morgan's godfather/caretaker may have molested her, and there is a less than subtle suggestion that he lusts for her. In these senses the film was way ahead of its time.

Definitely worth seeing. 8/10
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8/10
Quintessential film noir
8 January 2005
This film takes the noir genre just about to its limits. For its time, it was about as brutal and violent as a film could be and not violate the code. Richard Widmark, who had already made his mark playing giggling psychopaths, at first appears to be continuing with that type. However, the character he plays appears to have a code after all, but don't all the noir antiheroes? The Jean Peters character has a code as well; she can tolerate thieves and scumbags, but not traitors (read Communists). The Widmark character doesn't even care about that, but he draws the line when an essentially good hearted person is brutally murdered.

In addition to being a film noir, this is also a relic of the cold war, although that is essentially a subplot. The assumption, of course, is that all Communists are spies as well, which is probably what a majority of Americans believed at the time. Well worth seeing. 8/10
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The Dead Pool (1988)
5/10
Worst of the Dirty Harry movies
8 January 2005
I enjoyed most of the Dirty Harry movies, but this one is a clunker. Unless this is your first movie, you will be able to predict what will happen in just about every scene before it happens. Example: early in the movie, Harry is being chased in a car by some guys who want to kill him. Harry's car crashes and turns over on its side, and Harry appears to be dead. The assassins walk over to the overturned car to finish him off. As they start to lean over and look through the window, what do you think happens? Exactly what everyone knows is going to happen. Example: Harry and the Patricia Clarkson character go out to dinner, and they ascend to the restaurant in a transparent glass walled elevator on the outside of the building. What do you think happens? Exactly what everyone knows is going to happen--just a little later than we think. Example: one of the characters we know is on the list of people to be eliminated leaves his house in the morning and walks to his car. What do you think is going to happen? Etc., etc.

The movie is made even worse by some of the worst dialogue I have ever heard in a film. Do these people have no imagination. The only change I have seen from the usual Dirty Harry formula is that he gets dressed down by the police brass not for violating the civil liberties of suspects, which is the usual case, but for costing the city money. But as usual, he gets taken off street duty and assigned to a desk, and of course solves the case while he was on desk duty. With this tired piece of hack work, maybe it was time for the series to end. 5/10
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7/10
Elvis's best film
8 January 2005
I saw this film when it came out. I was a sophomore in high school, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I just saw it again on TCM, and guess what? I still enjoy it! This is by no means a work of art; it's plain old fashioned entertainment. Some of the actors in the supporting parts are stilted, and Elvis himself will never be confused with Brando or Dean. But Elvis was a singer, to this day the greatest in rock and roll history, and the musical numbers are first rate. Mickey Shaughnessy, who I can't recall seeing anywhere else, is perfect for the part of Elvis's hillbilly cell mate, and the tragic Judy Tyler shines as the leading lady. (For trivia buffs, she was Princess Summerfallwinterspring on the Howdy Doody Show.) And for those too young to remember the 50s, which probably includes the majority of this website's users, this will provide a good sample of popular entertainment in that era. 7/10
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