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They meant well
4 February 2018
The creators of "The Greatest Showman" meant well - to give us an uplifting film about inclusiveness, loyalty, true love, high principles, spreading happiness and making dreams come true. They chose to flesh out these notions by distilling the multifaceted life of P.T. Barnum into a 105-minute musical, sort of an "essence of Barnum" or, as it turns out, "Barnum Syrup." Sometimes their abridgments work splendidly as cinema, as in the early song-and-dance sequence that takes us from Barnum's childhood in rags to shipping clerk in business suit. At other times they asphyxiate us with musically inert anthems of victimhood or declarations of pride. Not one song is memorable. Some are okay while they're being sung, helped by swooping camera movement, acrobatic choreography and some excellent vocals, but you won't be humming them on the way home. Some are cringe-inducing, particularly the weirdly misconceived presentation of the famous Swedish soprano Jenny Lind, whom Barnum famously made even more famous by bringing her to America. For one thing, she is played by Rebecca Ferguson who despite being half Swedish speaks with a British accent even though the script clearly points out that she is Swedish. For another thing, the song she sings to an enraptured crowd of New York society swells is dreary, monotonous early 21st-century power-pop. If you're going to ignore historical context, even musically (as did the execrable "Moulin Rouge" in 2001), at least give the audience some indication of Lind's actual appeal (a vocal purity, as legend has it, but definitely not belting and other pyrotechnics).

Regarding historical context, it goes without saying that the scenario ignores every 19th century reality except, to some degree, sets, costumes and of course the social and racial prejudices of the time, but only to score identity politics points. Of course, with writers like Jenny Bicks (very much at home in the 1990's world of "Sex and the City") and Bill Condon (whose uneven depiction of James Whale in "Gods and Monsters" was made bearable by Ian MacKellan's inspired acting and whose "Kinsey" was a bore) you're not going to get much of a feel for past eras.

The score by the "La La Land" team of Justin Paul and Benj Pasek is almost entirely forgettable. The previous film had one catchy tune ("City of Stars"). The music here is boilerplate, the lyrics only very occasionally above banal (if you can hear them; most of the songs begin clearly and softly and intimately but quickly expand into heavily orchestrated extravaganzas which mask the paltry musical and lyrical substance).

As for casting, you can hardly miss with the charismatic and multi-talented Hugh Jackman. Michelle Williams as his wife is largely wasted and gets stuck with some of the most embarrassingly obvious dialogue. Zac Ephron, who seems to be thickening in his middle age, plays an invented character, a high-society playwright who is miserable and empty until he teams up with Barnum, exchanges the pen for the emcee's baton and falls in love with an African-American trapeze artist (Zendaya).

The film is reminiscent of some of the low-budget, episodic but energetic biopics that rolled off the Hollywood assembly line in the 1930s except here the spending is lavish and the song-and-dance sequences, which at their best advance the narrative rather than overstate the obvious, are eye-poppingly elaborate. There seems to be a deliberate attempt to recapture the sentimentalism and syrupiness that was commonplace in many old-time movies, but mixed with the 21st century mindset of the writers and director, it becomes self-parody.

The main message seems to be the old reliable one: love is the most important thing of all, even more important than material success and it's better to put love first, and that we all, no matter what we look like or where we come from, are valuable individuals worthy of respect.
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Okja (2017)
action-packed social commentary
25 January 2018
The title character of "Okja" is one of several super pigs (that look more like hippos and to one degree or another elephants and dogs) genetically engineered by a multinational corporation called Mirando (suggesting the real-world Monsanto) to help feed the planet and make huge profits. To publicize this innovative food source, the company distributes twelve of these creations around the world to be raised "naturally" for ten years after which the most impressive of the bunch will be pronounced winner. "Okja" is sent to an isolated mountainous area of Korea to be tended by an old man and his granddaughter Mija (An Seo Hyun) who grows up loving the creature and will not part with her when Mirando's minions come to retrieve her for display in New York City (a nod to "King Kong"). So Mija implausibly but entertainingly pursues the interlopers to the Big Apple, encountering en route an animal rights militia led by Paul Dano. Together they run afoul of Mirando's CEO (Tilda Swinton).

The film successfully employs action, eastern and western fighting techniques, foot and vehicle chases, explosions and impressively detailed CGI work with Okja herself (including her copious excretions) and her intimate and not-so-intimate interactions with humans and their hardware. The performances range from remarkable (Tilda Swinton, who also briefly plays her character's even cruder sister), over-obvious (Jake Gyllenhaal as a TV personality promoting the product), plain old solid (Giancarlo Esposito as a corporate type allied with Swinton and Paul Dano's complex activist-how far he has come from his "Little Miss Sunshine" days). The film could be described as a combination of action-adventure and broad, heavy-handed social satire, but it also covers a wide range of themes: respect for nature and the simple joys of life, the bonds between animals (even genetically engineered mutants) and humans, the vulgarity and corrosiveness of big business excess and the urban environment, and sympathy for the plight of factory farm animals.
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unsatisfying, unforgettable
24 January 2018
Daniel-Day Lewis is back as yet another obsessive, re-teaming with writer-director Paul Anderson to play Reynolds Woodcock, a soft-spoken, finicky, middle-aged fashion designer, strongly set in his ways, who in close collaboration with his sister runs a fashion house catering to celebrities and aristocrats in 1950s London. He has a habit of engaging young women as assistants and part-time models, then dropping them when they begin to chafe under his strict, undeviating daily routines. He finally meets his match in Alma (Vicky Krieps), a waitress who attracts him upon first sight and whom he gradually grooms as a sort of factotum. His interest in Alma is wrapped up in an oft-referenced but never fully explained obsession with his late mother and primary professional mentor, an obsession shared in a different way by his sister Cyril (superbly and frostily played by Lesley Manville).

Red herrings and unresolved mysteries abound. Anderson will point a character or a situation in a distinct direction only to change course unexpectedly, most notably in Cyril's behavior and utterances which seem to be leading one way - until they don't. The major unresolved mystery involves Alma who has no back story whatsoever, not a hint other than a German accent, all the more reason to be riveted by her every move, wondering if her motives will ever be revealed. The actress herself suggests at various times Kate Moss, Hannah Schygulla and Meryl Streep. The other two leads are equally compelling and inscrutable in their own way.

Much screen time is devoted to small visual and aural details--ordering meals, buttering toast, chewing food, pouring tea, poking sewing needles through fabric, arranging objects, dressing and undressing. Some prickly verbal sparring around the breakfast table or during workaday routines beautifully and humorously captures the way familiars get on each other's nerves and start arguments over trifles, each feeding the flames. Jonny Greenwood's delicate, sometimes melancholy musical score perfectly complements the proceedings.

In short, this is a unique film, unclassifiable, unsatisfying, uncomfortable, unforgettable. You can't pin it down, and you can't look away.
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Scarlet Dawn (1932)
unsatisfying sketch
3 December 2017
"Scarlet Dawn" has an incomplete, unfinished feel. Perhaps it was filmed in haste and some scenes were botched and not redone. Who can tell? In any event, there is a touching performance by Nancy Carroll as a servant girl to a lusty young baron (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) who carouses and womanizes (among his girlfriends is the elegant Lilyan Tashman, splendidly portraying a fellow corrupt aristocrat). Comes the 1917 revolution, the aristos must flee, and Carroll loyally accompanies Fairbanks rather than turn him in to the revolutionaries. After a cross-country escape (a sort of abbreviated version of Marlene Dietrich and Robert Donat's trek several years later in "Knight Without Armour") they end up in Constantinople where he sinks from high cavalry officer to low dishwasher. The rest of the story will not be revealed here except to say that it seems strangely truncated.

The backstory unfolds with the liberal use of ultra-simplified newspaper headlines (""Czar Nicholas Denies Rumor of Revolution"; "Communists Stage Demonstration Despite Czar's Denial of Revolutionary Rumors. Thousands Gather to Parade Under Communist Banner"; "Communists Riot in Moscow"); the dramatized corollary to these headlines is a scene in which Fairbanks returns to his troop train after a 2-week leave; an anti-government soldier is hissing "no!" at fellow soldiers as their commander orders them to entrain for a return to the front. They refuse and fire on the officers.

Lastly, as in "Knight," the heroine's eye makeup and lipstick remain intact through the ordeal).
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unexciting but for Bennett
1 July 2017
"Lady with a Past" is Constance Bennett as an unlikely bookish wallflower who sails from New York City to Paris where she engineers a fake sex scandal hoping it will make her the talk of the town by the time she returns and thereby attract the attention of young men who find her literary chatter a big bore. She also talks to herself and pretends to be singing out loud when caught in the act.

Her co-conspirator in Paris is the golden voiced Ben Lyons whom she picks up at a sidewalk café after he tricks her into paying his food and drink tab. But her heart really belongs to David Manners, a handsome member of her social set who is looking for someone more exciting.

If this all seems terribly unexciting, it is. Then why watch? Miss Bennett, of course. They don't make 'em like that any more. In the pre-production publicity it was said that Miss Bennett was being fitted for 17 gowns to wear in the film. I didn't count, but she probably did.
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The Young Pope (2016– )
uninvolving oddity
11 March 2017
When he isn't dispensing cynical and often profane comments or cruelly taunting and teasing underlings, he alternates cigarette smoking with workouts on high-tech gym equipment. He is cold, remote, manipulative and downright repellent. In fact he has no redeeming qualities. Even his sketchy back story as an unwanted boy left in a Catholic orphanage by hippie parents fails to elicit enough sympathy to sustain interest in his trajectory through ten episodes. Such is the title character, played by Jude Law, of this undramatic and unsatisfying series, straining for irony at every turn, about the inexplicable election to Pope of a 40-ish American upstart with a murky past.

The stilted dialogue comes off as carefully memorized line recitations. This is particularly evident with Silvio Orlando, the Italian actor who plays Cardinal Voiello, Law's chief rival in the Vatican viper's nest, who also sports a hideous black wart on his left cheek as if to symbolize something morbid and ugly in his nature. If the Vatican hierarchy is as rotten, cynical and hypocritical as depicted here, then upheaval is surely called for. Many supporting characters whose place in the tapestry is unclear enough as it is, also speak with thick accents, requiring yet more effort from the already fatigued listener. In fact there are four languages dominating: English, Italian, Spanish and Latin – the latter used in extended ceremonial sequences. Law's dry, generic American accent is technically correct but lacks individualistic character. Diane Keaton seems bewilderingly miscast as the nun who has been in charge of Law since his abandonment, but her character as written is virtually unplayable.

The ultra-formal staging of scenes and artsy camera angles further distance the proceedings. Fellini-esque touches involving a kangaroo imported by the Pope that pops up now and then around the Vatican garden and interludes with a disabled youth apparently under the care of Cardinal Voiello draw attention to themselves but serve no worthwhile purpose.

Jude Law has a few memorable, original and beautiful moments in this uninvolving oddity but they are so extrinsic to the whole that their power is diminished.
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good balance of emotionalism and humor
29 January 2017
"A Dog's Purpose" combines reincarnation, coming-of-age drama and a lot of skilfully staged bits involving humans with canines as well as canines with felines and other critters.

The film bonds us to Dog #1 as the animal's thoughts are transmitted to the audience by voice-over (Josh Gad). He narrates his life from birth through puppyhood to maturity and death and then rebirth a new dog over the course of roughly half a century. This happens four times in the course of the film, with four breeds, reborn into locations apparently around the Great Lakes. It's as if a Dog Spirit who doesn't understand the why of life randomly selects certain newborn dogs to inhabit in certain places so that after several reincarnations its purpose is ascertained. We are not told if this means this ultimate wisdom applies to all dogs or only some dogs. In any event, for dog lovers at least, the drama is gripping and deeply moving with much humor folded in.

The most persuasive part of the narrative involves a boy named Ethan whose father reluctantly allows him to adopt Bailey, an irresistible golden retriever pup, after the boy and his mother rescue him from suffocation in the back seat of a locked truck on a hot day. Episodes involving two subsequent incarnations are more or less routine. The film concludes on an emotionally satisfying note.

The most memorable and magnetic performances by humans are by K.J. Apa as the teenaged Ethan and Dennis Quaid as the same character decades later. Even Peggy Lipton shows up looking quite good for seventy.

Director Hallstrom has a feel for dogs and even manages to stage some convincing indoor scenes with an elusive Maine Coonish-looking house cat, though cat aficionados will notice the audio dubbing of hisses and meows during confrontational moments.

Although the script makes amusing references to human sexuality as sensed by dogs, the issue of the dogs' sexuality is left alone except for a few romantic but strictly verbal interactions between Dog #3 and a larger female he encounters in a playground.

One of the supporting actors in the Dog #3 episode is Pooch Hall (of the "Ray Donovan" series). Well, why not?
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the price of war
29 January 2017
The print of "Germania Anno Zero" discussed below was hard to watch because although it takes place in the post-WW2 ruins of Berlin, the German cast is overdubbed in Italian and the subtitles are in English. As if this weren't enough, the abundant dialogue is delivered very rapidly, in the Italian style, so the eye and attention are constantly darting from the actors to the subtitles and missing the emotional and visual element. And if you don't follow the subtitles you miss telling details of what's going on. Reviews from the period of its initial release indicate that it was once screened in German with English subtitles. Perhaps that print has been lost; if so, a shame. The Italian language, being so very different from German in its feel and cadence, not only disorients us but dilutes the essence of the experience.

Another problem is the acting, which is mostly on the wooden side so you never get under the characters' skin. At the heart of the film is a little boy, and simply because he is a little boy he touches our hearts – but only to an extent; his acting is so robotic that it's hard to tell what he is feeling so that the film's resolution comes as quite an arbitrary shock. The whole film, in fact, has a perfunctory and contrived structure like a diagram hastily drawn on a blackboard brought to life.

That said, this film is worth seeing simply because of where and when it was filmed. It's a quasi documentary showing the price of war on human beings. But it's not the only one of its kind. "The Big Lift" and "A Foreign Affair" were also filmed in post-WW2 Berlin and dealt with the effect of war on the populace. I think what added to the impact made by neo-realist films of the late 40s was their immediacy, use of actual - and usually harsh - locations and non-professional actors. Those elements seemed refreshing and bracing to audiences who had been accustomed to the artificiality of the Hollywood template.
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Hacksaw Ridge (2016)
good, grueling Gibson
6 November 2016
Mel Gibson makes the same film over and over. Nothing wrong with that as long as each successive mix of his favorite ingredients (brutish violence, morality, vengeance for wrongdoing, exhausting feats of endurance – all seasoned with humor) –adds depth to what we have already experienced. With "Hacksaw Ridge" Gibson sheds the more cartoonish excesses of his previous blockbuster, "Apocalypto," and manages to hold our hearts and minds for more than two grueling hours. Perhaps the last ten years of his public excoriation have taught him something pertinent to his art.

This true story of a conscientious objector (7th Day Adventist variety) who as an unarmed medic saved a staggering number of lives while under fire on the island of Okinawa in the closing days of World War Two is just as brutal as other Gibson epics and also contains a compensatory number of tender and quiet moments between parents, siblings and lovers on the home front. The pattern of "Hacksaw" is set early in the main character's childhood during one of those typical Gibsonian horseplay sequences when the hero-to-be nearly kills his brother by slamming a rock against his skull during a roughhousing episode. The shock of what he has almost done shakes him to his core and contributes to his understanding of the fragility of human life and his conviction that killing is a primary evil. His ordeal begins in basic training when his fellow soldiers ridicule, taunt and even assault the rather scrawny fellow who carries a Bible and refuses to even touch a gun. One by one they realize what an extraordinary human being is in their midst as his strength of character and valor are revealed by degrees through basic training, near-court martial and eventually to the shattering test of battle.

His relationship with his father (Hugo Weaving), an emotionally damaged, alcoholic World War One veteran, expands the story's perspective, setting the son's experience in a larger context of how each generation has to come to terms with war - that ugly primal fact of civilization.

Some negatives: Although the movie's opening seems off-puttingly reminiscent of the sentimental 70's TV series "The Waltons," it goes its own way soon enough. One line you could anticipate: Son, commenting on the father's nastiness: "Why does he hate me?" Mother: "He doesn't hate you, he hates himself – sometimes." Or this unlikely line: Sergeant, after soldiers have arrived on the smoldering shores of Okinawa: "We're not in Kansas any more, Dorothy." (Was that line really common jargon so soon after "The Wizard of Oz"s initial theatrical release? Didn't it really catch on later after the Baby Boom generation embraced the film on TV?) The netting of thick rope that enables Doss's company of soldiers to climb up and down the titular ridge somehow remains intact from day to day despite fierce and stubborn Japanese resistance. What prevented the Japanese from destroying this means of access during lulls in fighting?

A note on gore, which "Hacksaw" displays dozens of times: Global popular culture has become so saturated with images of dismemberment, death and decay that the only way an audience nowadays can be jolted by the sight of rats gnawing on blackened corpses or a pile of guts lying where there was previously a torso is when the editing introduces them by surprise, perhaps with a synthesizer blast as accompaniment. As with most extended battle sequences in movies, the explosions and blood spouts become a tedious blur and come to life only when the focus narrows to an individual or two making their way through the pandemonium. One of the more effective of such points in "Hacksaw" is when Doss conceals a wounded soldier by covering his head with dirt and all we see is a naked blue eye staring out in terror and wonderment at the passing thud of Japanese boots.

There are so many excellent performances by charismatic actors that it's hard to single one out over others. Teresa Palmer shines as Doss's wife; Vince Vaughn is very entertaining as the borderline sadistic wisecracking sergeant, who like a whole succession of characters slowly succumbs to the radiating power of Doss's singular faith. Several blond actors who play Doss's fellow soldiers give effective performances but after the movie ends it's hard to recall one from another.

Andrew Garfield as Doss just happens to be on screen most often and is definitely the center of the experience. He looks a bit like the young Richard Benjamin and as many have said, also resembles young Anthony Perkins, particularly Perkins as the Quaker Civil War soldier in "Friendly Persuasion," another movie about a pacifist caught in war.

Most of all "Hacksaw Ridge" is about the triumph of an underdog, courage, love, faith, human potential (from frailty and baseness to redemption and forgiveness) and how they are intertwined. And all of these themes are touchingly tied up at the end in a way I will not discuss here.
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Streep and Grant - good team
3 September 2016
Meryl Streep adds another rich characterization to her matchless resume with Florence Foster Jenkins, the deluded patroness of the arts whose singing voice could have found a happy home in a Three Stooges featurette but whose entourage didn't dare let her know how bad she was for reasons varying from true love to pure greed. Streep, whose own singing voice is sound and trained, has a grand time imitating someone who could barely hit the easiest notes. Jenkins sincerely believes she is technically proficient. Her supportive husband (an excellent Hugh Grant) is also a wannabe artiste, in his case a failed actor, formerly an impoverished illegitimate son of an English earl, who enables his older wife to live out her fantasies by encouraging and promoting her concerts and recordings.

There are times in this rather overlong trip back to 1944 New York City when "Jenkins" feels like a standard Woody Allen comedy – same era, background music, social set, cultivated banter – but the actors liven it up. In a scene set at Carnegie Hall, director Stephen Frears and his team create a good sense of the bacchanalian and heady atmosphere of the Big Apple at the beginning of its heyday as the greatest city on earth, the virtual capital city of the big victor in World War Two, a cultural energy center enlivened further by swarms of soldiers on leave. Viewers with some musical background, of course, will be the ideal audience for this film because they will be better able to appreciate the nuances of Jenkins's vocal efforts.
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Downstairs (1932)
nasty fun
3 September 2016
Based on a story by none other than its lead actor, John Gilbert himself, and coupled with his distinctive performance, "Downstairs" shows what a fertile creative mind Gilbert had and what a loss it was that he self-destructed before he got a chance to get a second wind going after a career slump. Coulda happened to anyone. In any event, this wickedly decadent tale set in an Austrian country estate examines the interactions between upstairs (Reginald Owen as a baron and Olga Baclanova as his philandering wife), and downstairs, kicking off with the wedding of the head butler (Paul Lukas) to innocent young maid (Virginia Bruce) with Gilbert as the newly hired chauffeur who shows up at the reception. Right off the bat he is revealed as a slick weasel. When a countess at the reception (Hedda Hopper) recognizes him she loses her cool in such a way that we know there was some hanky-panky in their history; when guests line up to kiss the bride Gilbert delivers a seriously inappropriate lip lock and later arrives uninvited to the newlyweds' bedroom to continue the dalliance while the husband is momentarily absent. And that's just for starters. In fact, the unmitigated rottenness of Gilbert's character borders on camp but is somewhat justified artistically the way the whole thing wraps up (something I won't reveal here).

For Gilbert to have written this character and then played him must have taken guts. Long after his loathsomeness has been established, we are treated to an extended scene in which he clips his nose hairs and picks at his ears and fingernails. He has the chiseled sexy good looks, cultivated speech and dapper sartorial sense of a worldly gentleman but the physical manners of a vulgar lout: he has a habit of lolling on table tops and indiscriminately gulping liquids and wolfing down food wherever he finds them. These two sides of his nature fuel the volatility of his relationship with Bruce who resents his aggression but succumbs to his skillful lovemaking. She has a very effective angry monologue about this matter during a climactic confrontation with Lukas whose devoted, martinet-ish butler is the straight-arrow opposite of Gilbert. Lukas is at his best when he too is consumed with rage.

The downstairs Gilbert turns the tables on the upstairs crowd, playing by their own rules in his own way.
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Hail, Caesar! (2016)
that old-time Hollywood religion
8 February 2016
The Coen brothers return to the olden days of Hollywood with a witty and eye-pleasing comedy that recycles several legends familiar to antique movie buffs but mixes them up just enough to hold the interest.

"Hail, Caesar!" is set in 1951 at the height of the Red scare and Cold War, and follows a tough but sympathetic hands-on studio producer (Josh Brolin) whose responsibilities include, in addition to budget, casting and moral code enforcement, defusing potential scandals that could damage Capitol's reputation and box office. He also happens to be a by-the-book Catholic who regularly goes to a priest to confess minor sins like cigarette smoking.

There is not a single boring or bad performance by any of the huge cluster of actors. Clooney as the doofus leading man whose kidnapping drives much of the plot, gives an inspired performance. Alden Ehrenreich is impressive on all levels as the wholesome and good- natured singing cowboy. Allison Pill is the embodiment of classic pre-feminist womanhood as the pretty, positive, loyal, uncomplaining, blonde cupcake of a wife who maintains the home front for the rugged breadwinner Brolin.

Many characters loosely suggest real figures of the studio era: George Clooney = Clark Gable; Tilda Swinton as twin-sister gossip columnists = not only Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons (who were definitely not sisters) but also carrying a whiff of rival siblings Olivia deHavilland and Joan Fontaine, born of British parents in the Far East, who famously hated each other throughout their parallel star careers; Scarlett Johansson = Loretta Young who covered up her out-of-wedlock birth by disappearing for a few months and resurfacing with an "adopted" daughter; Ralph Fiennes = a British variation on director George Cukor who was rumored to have had sex with pre-stardom Clark Gable; Alden Ehrenreich = Roy Rogers (whom he actually resembles); Channing Tatum = a dash of Gene Kelly and a dab of Dick Powell. And others.

This is not the first Coen film to incorporate musical performance and begs the question, why doesn't this team make an all-out film musical? The Channing Tatum song-and-dance number, vaguely reminiscent of Busby Berkeley's "Shanghai Li'l" from "Footlight Parade" and Ehrenreich's pitch perfect warbling in a Western musical scene are high points.

Memorable and brilliantly written scenes include a theological roundtable of religious leaders assembled by Brolin to vet the production of the titular film-within-the-film, a "Ben-Hur"-ish epic about a Roman centurion's encounter with Jesus Christ (the scenes from which are stylistically dead-on perfect take-offs on the post-WW2 widescreen ancient epics); and a parallel gathering of Hollywood Communist Party screenwriters strategizing philosophically about ways to use dialectical materialism as a guide to insert Party propaganda into film scripts and hasten a new world (goof: a Communist refers to making a cash "contribution to the Comintern" which had been long dismantled by the time this film takes place); a fey director's frustrated attempts to coach the miscast cowboy actor's delivery of high-toned cocktail party dialogue.

Finally we are reminded that movie-going in studio-era Hollywood was a kind of organized religious experience; no matter what traditional religious practices moviegoers or producers may have observed, the paganism of the screen experience was an equal influence on their lives.
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The Revenant (2015)
Inarritu in Winter
3 January 2016
Alejandro Inarritu has made gripping movies set in such places as Mexico, Tokyo, Morocco, Barcelona and Manhattan and now he conquers the Canadian Rockies and Tierra del Fuego (standing in for the U.S. Rockies) in winter with this tale of brute survival, loyalty to loved ones and humane principles and the limitations of revenge.

Leonardo DiCaprio gives another of his super-charged performances as a white fur trapper who, in the company of his half-breed son and other trappers hunts for a fur trading company in the years immediately following the Lewis and Clark Expeditions that jump started U.S. expansion west of the Mississippi. En route he runs afoul of an emotionally damaged and brutal fellow trapper (Tom Hardy) and encounters a sympathetic Indian who is looking for the killers of his family.

There are similarities in look, theme and situation to earlier Westerns ("The Treasure of the Sierra Madre," "The Searchers," "McCabe and Mrs. Miller," "Jeremiah Johnson," "Dead Man") and even an Eastern ("Dersu Uzala") and a Mid-Eastern ("The Passion of the Christ"). The mostly male cast is appropriately grizzled, bearded, unkempt and squalid, with Hardy notably vanishing into grungy dishevelment with a dead-on Texas accent to boot.

Gore is everywhere from the earliest scenes, as is fantasy. It is impossible to believe that DiCaprio or any human being, no matter how fit, could survive the bear attack that sets the tone for the grueling survival narrative that follows. Further tests and trials are no more convincing, but DiCaprio gives it all his actorly oomph to make it seem believable. His struggle takes on a mythological quality after a while; you don't believe the literalness of it but you are carried by the spirit of it. Over the course of more than two hours he is repeatedly mangled, frozen, crushed, starved, drenched, sliced and punctured. He probably even dies for a while before emerging reborn from the bloody slit of a horse carcass he has gutted and into which he has crawled naked to keep from freezing after the animal and he fall off a cliff into a snow bank.

The sparsely swelling chords of Ryuichi Sakamoto's musical score complement the intensity and obsession of the journey.
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a man for a moment
29 September 2015
Warning: Spoilers
Francis and Margaret Macomber, a wealthy, sophisticated American couple whose marriage is on the rocks, go on an African safari under the supervision of Robert Wilson, a professional game hunter. All Macomber wants to do is to be a "real man" and prove it to his wife by facing and killing dangerous wild animals in her presence. But then boom, she "accidentally" shoots him in the back while trying to protect him from the charge of a wounded buffalo. This moment is the culmination of two days of anguish during which we have learned about Mr. Macomber's fears and obsessions, from his panicked reaction to a charging lion, his subsequent turmoil and feelings of personal redemption after a successful buffalo hunt. Finally he is happy, for the few minutes before his death. Hence Hemingway's brilliant original title, "The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber."

This adaptation is virtually spoiler-proof because it gives away the ending at the beginning. On paper it was a tersely told tale with deep subtext to which the screen version adds dollops of Freudian-tinged expository and explanatory dialogue. For a Hemingway-based film, it's quite talky. Substantial framing material has been added at the beginning and end to explain the Macombers' unstable relationship and a scene midway is awkwardly extended into physical violence to emphasize Macomber's insecurities about his manliness.

Wilson has been Americanized and prettified by the casting of beautiful young Gregory Peck, who actually better fits Hemingway's description of Macomber (played ably but unexcitingly by Robert Preston). Trevor Howard would have been a closer match; the character's colonial- era Brit-flavored dialogue, retained intact in the screenplay, often falls flat delivered in Peck's American accent and he is just too clean-cut cute to convince as a veteran hunter in the hot and dusty wilds. (It is said that Hemingway based this character on Denys Finch Hatton, the real-life big-game-hunting English lover of "Out of Africa" author Isak Dinesen; coincidentally, in the glossy 1985 screen adaptation of Dinesen's story Hatton was effectively Americanized and glamourized by the miscasting of Robert Redford.) Also retained from the original story are numerous remarks about the fair-skinned Wilson's "red face" which make no sense because (a) the film is in black-and-white; (b) Peck's complexion does not lend itself to redness, even theoretically; he is basically as cool as a cucumber throughout. Margaret Macomber's screen embodiment is straightforward and loyal to the source: a glamour puss with attitude, just beyond the flush of youth, played appropriately by Joan Bennett during that interesting phase of her career when she was working with Lang, Renoir and Ophuls.

The outdoor hunting scenes look authentic. Miklos Rozsa intensifies the proceedings with strong musical strokes, but they sound like borrowings from his "Double Indemnity" score from a few years earlier.
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Why Be Good? (1929)
Underneath the paint, you will find a saint.
29 September 2015
"Why Be Good?" is a cultural treasure, not only because it's one of the few extant Colleen Moore features of the silent era, but because it has been crisply restored and boasts one of most voluptuous synchronized soundtracks of any late silent feature. As Leonard Maltin explained in his post-broadcast discussion on Turner Classic Movies which aired Sept. 28, 2015, the soundtrack musicians included such jazz greats as Joe Venuti and Tommy Dorsey. Vintage numbers including "I'm Thirsty for Kisses and Hungry for Love," "If You Want the Rainbow, You Must Have the Rain," "Tall, Dark and Handsome," "Flapperette," "Changes," "Le Chant des Boulevards" and "That's Her Now" as well as era-evocative nuggets by William Axt, Hugo Riesenfeld and others, accompany the jaunty proceedings. If Moore was was ever better I'd like to see evidence. She had the face, the hair and the attitude that have come to epitomize "flapper." In early talkies WBG's leading man, Neil Hamilton had a stodgy presence, but is more palatable in silence; if Moore was the ultimate flapper of her time, Hamilton was her equal in the young WASP romantic lead department. Louis Natheaux as a vainglorious would-be dance hall Casanova is the most entertaining supporting player in the early scenes, while Bodil Rosing and John Sainpolis serve the scenario effectively as Moore's parents.

The film showcases in a well-appointed and neatly packaged way the controversies about the role of women at the time. Objecting to her father's strictures about dress code and leisure activities, Moore argues that if she works to contribute to household upkeep, then she has a right to look like she wants (bobbed hair, lipstick, revealing dresses) and do what she wants (stay out half the night dancing, drink illegal alcohol, smoke cigarettes and ride around with men she's just met – in moderation, of course). These conflicts had been hashed out in countless films , including Moore's own "Flaming Youth" (1923) before this one was released. WBG then could well be characterized as the Last Word on flappers.

Though not a part of the soundtrack, the popular song of the time "She's a New Kind of Old Fashioned Girl" perfectly suits the Moore character ("Underneath the paint / You will find a saint…")
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contrived but entertaining
29 July 2015
This crime-doesn't-pay melodrama features a pyrotechnical performance by Charles Laughton as an impoverished bank clerk who poisons and robs his wealthy nephew, using the spoils to speculate with great success on the currency exchange, sending him into a high income bracket virtually overnight.

The exposition is glaringly obvious and contrived, especially the key sequence of the murder itself which is right out of a 1909 two-reeler. Yet it's all gripping because you can't help wondering how it will all work out.

Surrounding the main course of Laughton's steaming spiced ham are plausible performances from Dorothy Peterson as his timid, long-suffering wife, Maureen O'Sullivan as his innocent, earnest daughter, Ray Milland as the ill-fated nephew who shows up out of nowhere just when the plot needs him, and last but not least Miss Veree Teasdale in her element as a cold, greedy, calculating shop owner who develops a sudden interest in Laughton when she learns of his newly acquired wealth.

One can only surmise that the source play developed the situations more convincingly because the essential arc makes sense: a desperate man commits a crime and gets away with it for a while, only to pay for it later in an unexpected way. Between these two high marks we see the corrosive effect of sudden monetary gain on the mores of a lower class family unit.

Finally, Laughton gets to indulge in a spell of insane cackling as he did in another 1932 release, "Devil and the Deep."
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The Struggle (1931)
26 July 2015
It's no wonder that "The Struggle" flopped when released in late 1931. Even for that time it was considered stagey and out of date. When you consider that it was the work of veteran innovator D.W. Griffith it's all the more surprising that it is so humdrum in cinematic technique. It's about a factory worker (Hal Skelly) who struggles with alcohol addiction, gradually alienating his wife (Zita Johann) and daughter and sliding into impoverishment and dementia. Skelly is excellent as the drunk, as great a physical actor as he was in "The Dance of Life" a couple of years earlier. Johann seems uncomfortable. In general the direction of the actors, particularly the timing of their dialogue, is stiff. The scenes where Skelly hits rock bottom in a dark hovel are hideously effective but even the lighter scenes are dreary, taking place in drab apartments, barrooms and work places. The daily life of the characters as depicted in these scenes would drive anyone to drink.
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bedroom farce, strained to shreds
28 May 2015
In this painfully drawn out bedroom farce, set in Paris, Frank Fay is miscast as the titular love object, a descendant of Don Juan, who is smitten with a young American in Paris (Laura LaPlante) but in order to win her must extricate himself from the tangled web of his long- term intrigues with a virtual harem of lovers (played by Joan Blondell, Margaret Livingston, a sadly underused Louise Brooks and others).

The set up is amusing and deftly staged by Michael Curtiz, but once the direction of the plot becomes clear it bogs down in long, boring and insultingly stupid gag sequences, one upon another, involving Fay's diagnosis with a potentially fatal illness; eventually the viewer can only long for this character's demise.

The fine lineup of female supporting players is wasted as are Charles Winninger as LaPlante's suspicious and protective father and Alan Mowbray as (what else?) the butler. Tyrrell Davis gets to wrap the whole thing up with a decadent chuckle, foreshadowing his even more unusual closing moment in "Our Betters" two years later.

Frank Fay's trademark casual banter works against him here because it only adds to the already sluggish pace.
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Bessie (2015 TV Movie)
It's Tough Out There for a Biopic Maker
17 May 2015
A movie about some aspect of Bessie Smith's life is decades overdue, considering the broad cultural shadow she casts. A few episodes of her tumultuous life explored in depth would resonate, but like too many biopics, this one suffers from the creators' attempt to tell the whole story, or most it, and the results are mechanical, predictable and force-fitted into various agendas. Most biopic makers stumble upon these rocks. Their task is difficult.

From the start of "Bessie" we are told five things over and over: Bessie was haunted throughout her life by memories of the mother she lost as a child. Bessie had lesbian dalliances. Bessie loved to drink straight gin, preferably right out of the bootlegger's glass jar. Bessie had a violent temper. Bessie was a fiercely independent, take-charge kind of gal. But the main thing about Bessie that is presented only sporadically and by rote is her distinctive singing and how it came to be that way. Queen Latifah, who would seem to be a fine choice for this role, does suggest Smith in girth and even in facial features, but despite a strong voice which she tries to adapt to the Smith groove, she never makes us feel the rafters rising as the Smith legend tells us. The only time she approaches the true Smith sound is near the end when hard living had begun to ravage her vocal chords. And in the early scenes Latifah, given her age and physicality, cannot possibly persuade us that she is a young, unformed artist-to-be.

The attempt to demonstrate how she gradually upstaged her mentor, Ma Rainey (played to the hilt by Mo'Nique), is episodic and sketchy, not organic or dramatic; the same goes for the re-enactments of Smith's altercations with members of the high-toned Manhattan art scene in the 1920s and early 1930s. Some good substance is made of her volatile love affairs with men (Michael Kenneth Williams and Mike Epps). But her mid-career slump is presented as with no explanation or cause, other than perhaps the Great Depression. SPOILER ALERT: Her tragic death (a potential movie in itself) is entirely absent, as "Bessie" ends in mid-air, or mid- road, as we are left with her musings about where she will go next after a picnic with her former bootlegger.

So, a point has been scored for Bessie Smith. It opens a conversation. But more is needed.
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raw and revolutionary? no - dramatically effective? - yes
2 May 2015
As an admirer of Thomas Vinterberg's powerful "The Hunt," I took him seriously when he stated before filming the new David Nicholls adaptation of Thomas Hardy's "Far from the Madding Crowd," that his new film would be "raw and revolutionary." The result, when compared either to the two previous movie adaptations of this novel or to any other movie being made today, brings neither of those adjectives to mind, but it does manage to translate Hardy's tome to the screen with dramatic strength.

In the 1967 release (directed by John Schlesinger from a script by Frederic Raphael), panoramic shots of the Dorset landscape and vivid tableaux of mid-19th-century English rustic life were given equal, if not more, weight than the humans, often overshadowing them. (In fact, if you want "raw," the 1967 version is the one to see for the casting of the farmhands alone.) Vinterberg, in his precise way, focuses instead on the handful of humans at the core of the tale, but without ignoring the surrounding nature (there is plenty of horseback riding, baa-ing sheep, impressive scenery, a blazing barn fire, a violent rain storm, crashing ocean waves, etc). Most of the action, however, involves intimate moments between Bathsheba Everdene, the heroine (Carey Mulligan), and the three very different men who pursue her. The shots tend to be carefully lit and framed so that the visuals summarize or comment upon the meaning or feeling of the moment, particularly at pivotal points, such as Sgt. Troy's seduction-by-swordplay, presented by Schlesinger with thunderous, sweeping, swellingly orchestrated grandiosity in high-lit open hill country, but pared down by Vinterberg (following Hardy more closely) to a quiet but unsettling series of swipes amidst the ferns of a dark primeval forest, with Bathsheba's hesitations symbolized by her half-lit face as she confronts her deep, conflicting passions.

Matthias Schoenaerts, as the stolid shepherd Gabriel Oak, is effective by mere screen presence; he barely cracks a grin throughout, but doesn't need to, so completely does his physiognomy embody his simple character. Boldwood, the middle-aged gentleman farmer next door, is played by Michael Sheen, usually the thief of any scene he's in, in such a toned down mode as to approach invisibility, like a man who has been trying to erase himself until he is stirred by his comely neighbor. Tom Sturridge captures both the immature arrogance and the downright piteousness of Sgt. Troy, the red-uniformed soldier who steals Bathsheba's heart. The Nicholls script gives this character more to chew on than was given to Terence Stamp in Frederic Raphael's 60's adaptation. Mulligan's Bathsheba is more self- assured and cerebral than the more impetuous Julie Christie was all those decades ago.

One unconvincing bit: When Oak intervenes to put out a rapidly spreading fire, it seems that all he has to do is chip away at a single spot on the barn roof and a fire which had been raging out of control in multiple locations is suddenly over. Beggars belief!

The film begins to drag at the three-quarter point after Bathsheba's disillusionment with suitor number three (Troy). There is little left to explore among the lead characters and we can only fidget until the inevitable ending (the specifics of which I won't reveal) which is executed with touching and admirable simplicity.
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Lockhart locks it
17 March 2015
The nominal star attraction of "Times Square Playboy" is Warren William, but it's clear even before the halfway point that the real leading actor in this comedy of misunderstandings is Gene Lockhart, who gives a tour de force performance as a small town Joe Average who jumps to ill-informed conclusions when he and his wife come to New York City to attend the wedding of his oldest friend, business tycoon William.

Two other surprises in this 60-minute programmer are some moments of unfaked rough- housing by William and Barton MacLane (as his butler) and an extended one-take jogging scene in an actual park instead of a treadmill with back projection, which would have been more typical for a Warner Bros. cheapie of the period.

The plot, from a well-structured play by George M. Cohan, involves Lockhart's belief that the young cabaret singer William is engaged to marry (Jean Travis) is a golddigger whose family are cheats along for the ride to millions by marriage. Much farcical mayhem ensues. William gets to play a drunk scene, as he often does, and he does it as well as usual. But for sheer acting range it's Lockhart's picture.
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tasty ham, attractively served; side dishes not bad
1 February 2015
In "The Mad Genius" John Barrymore delivers one of his most enjoyable screen performances, playing a club-footed, alcoholic, womanizing Russian puppeteer who takes an abused youth under his wing and molds him into a great star with the Ballet Russe, an accomplishment he could never attain himself due to his deformity. Some may consider his performance hammy, but at least it's Grade A.

The film opens expressionistically somewhere in "Central Europe" on a rain-drenched night with Barrymore and his dim-witted sidekick (the deadpan Charles Butterworth) rehearsing a traveling puppet show when a barefoot youth (Frankie Darro), fleeing a beating from his insanely sadistic father (Boris Karloff), stumbles into their tent. Barrymore and Butterworth hide him and leave town in a horse-drawn wagon shot at a tilted angle as it creaks along a muddy road.

Zip to Berlin several years later. The youth is now a young man (Donald Cook) who is in love with a fellow dancer (Marian Marsh). Barrymore, still the puppeteer but of humans now, wants no one interfering with his controlling relationship and maneuvers Marsh out of the company while elevating a lesser dancer to her position. Meanwhile, Barrymore's dance director (Luis Alberni) is slowly going mad from a cocaine addiction enabled by his employer. The two are locked together, feeding on each other's weaknesses, paralleling the central relationship between teacher-mentor and star-protégé. Barrymore needs Alberni's skills as a dance master; Alberni can't function without the drugs Barrymore provides.

The camera often shoots from low angles, with ceilings visible. Lots of chiaroscuro. Pre-Code subject matter includes extramarital cohabitation, prostitution, drug addiction, and (for the time) grisly violence. Suggestive dialogue abounds.

Barrymore feasts on the role. Luis Alberni plays the frenzied addict to the hilt. Marian Marsh and Donald Cook are sometimes mechanical and artificial but not to the extent that they undermine their roles and both have strong moments. Carmel Myers is excellent in a brief drunken scene with Barrymore.

Donald Cook looks so much like the Warners contract actress Kay Francis that they should have been cast in a movie together as siblings. Just sayin'.
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Bright Lights (1930)
Mulligan Stew
31 January 2015
"Bright Lights" (re-named "Adventures in Africa" for TV broadcasting many years after its release) is a cinematic Mulligan stew consisting of a murder mystery, multiple love stories, several musical numbers, and tedious stretches of low comedy barely held together by a witless and improbable script about a show girl (Dorothy Mackaill) who, with her partner- manager (Frank Fay) shimmies her way from small-time tropical dives and traveling carnivals to the Broadway big-time only to announce that she's giving up the stage to marry into wealth (in the person of Philip Strange as Mr. Emerson Fairchild of Long Island whose accent is British but whose mother's is Midlantic).

The Fay character loves and protects Mackaill in a fatherly or businesslike manner but refrains from marrying her; every time he is about to give in to that urge he pulls back because some part of him senses that he is not worthy to be her husband. Mackaill finds his hot/cold behavior frustrating and infuriating. The development of this complex relationship takes a back seat to sometimes heavy-handed subplots enacted by the likes of Eddie Nugent in an ill-defined role (star's press agent?) eagerly trying to manage a gaggle of reporters which includes a barely visible young John Carradine and an all-too-visible Frank McHugh as an obnoxious drunk, who have assembled to cover Mackaill's final performance; James Murray and Inez Courtney as young lovers; Tom Dugan and Daphne Pollard as a violently discordant married dance team; Noah Beery as a lecherous figure from Mackaill's and Fay's sordid African past. Other, later, pre-Code films with similar elements include "I'm No Angel," "Forty-Second Street," "Murder at the Vanities" and Mackaill's outstanding 1932 feature "Safe in Hell."

As far as the songs go, "Wall Street" near the beginning, despite a stage-filling chorus and carloads of set pieces and costumes, falls flat, even with expert song-and-dance man Fay at the center. He comes off better in the Harry Akst-Grant Clarke standard "Nobody Cares If I'm Blue." In dramatic scenes, however, his haggard appearance distracts from his emotionally nuanced performance. The makeup applied to his rugged features suggests Count Dracula and clashes with his gently rapid speaking voice and smooth singing style and stage manner. Among the other musical numbers, "Song of the Congo," "I'm Crazy for Cannibal Love" and "I'm Just a Man About Town" are the catchiest, both visually and melodically, though one can't help wondering what Busby Berkeley might have done with the staging. Mackaill is the centerpiece of all three; she performs a hula-type dance in the first two and wears a man's tux and top hat in the first half of the latter before emerging via camera trickery from the huddle of a male chorus wearing a dress. She also has some effective dramatic moments but, due perhaps to sloppy editing, misfires during a poorly staged dressing room temper tantrum. Her vocal range is limited, but she carries her songs confidently, dances gamely and looks magnificent in skimpy, spangled costumes as well as in screen-filling closeups.
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spectacular is the word for Lil
31 January 2015
Too bad Lil Dagover made only one Hollywood movie, but at least it's not lost, and English- speaking audiences get a chance to savor her without the distraction of subtitles.

There is a lot of plot ellipsis in this story about a lady with a past trying to settle into respectability as the wife of a French naval officer (Walter Huston). Unfortunately, the husband is at sea most of the time and when his ship finally comes into port and she arrives on board for a welcoming party World War One suddenly begins, the party is called off and the ship is torpedoed. Romantic rivalry (involving Warren William as an officer subordinate to Huston) and a threatening figure from her past (John Wray) are also mixed up in the mayhem.

However, the film is mostly about Lil. Her charm, her poise, her jewels, her costumes, her legs, her profile, her ivory skin, her raven hair, her captivating smile—all on display in generous close-ups. If this all seems reminiscent of Dietrich in the von Sternberg films, this exposure of Dagover was probably intended by the executives at First National who imported her, probably as their version of Dietrich or possibly Garbo, whose manner resembles hers. Her rather thick German accent is difficult to understand at times, and creates problems in some scenes, but she hits all of the required emotional notes, especially when playing the frustration of an abandoned wife.

The final fadeout is particularly striking.
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Big Eyes (I) (2014)
touching drama
1 January 2015
Tim Burton's touching dramatization of the relationship of Margaret and Walter Keane almost works but somehow the dramatic arc seems arbitrary and we must accept the developments in their story as much from what the characters announce about themselves as from what we see enacted emotionally. Essentially, the husband is what we might call a pathological liar and the wife is one of the most gullible and trusting people who ever lived.

The shy, self-effacing art school graduate Margaret Ulbrich specialized in painting portraits of children with big, sad eyes which she would sell at street fairs for pocket change. When she walked out on her husband in 1958 to make a new life for herself and her daughter in San Francisco, she met and married the aggressive Walter Keane, a real estate broker who pretended to be a Sunday painter but was actually a plagiarist with marketing skills who took over the marketing of Margaret's works and sold them under his own name, first on canvas and then as mass produced posters, becoming a well-known purveyor of mid-20th-century kitsch who, as his character claims in the film, inspired Andy Warhol.

Amy Adams is appropriately choked up and tremulous as Margaret but Christoph Waltz is an odd choice for Walter. For starters, the character is as American as the Great Plains but Waltz cannot entirely obliterate his Austrian accent; it colors his every utterance. Then, his theatrical mannerisms make him seem more like someone with Multiple Personality Disorder than a mere Jekyll-and-Hyde, as his wife describes him at one point. Waltz entertains us, and we are conscious that we are seeing a bravura performance, but we are not getting the human being named Walter Keane.

Burton makes very good use of the singularly appealing Terence Stamp as John Canaday, a highbrow New York Times art critic who lambasts the Keane oeuvre in print, leading to a confrontation at a cocktail party – a fire and ice moment and a high point of the film.

The film leaves a touching, but light impression, much like the big-eyed paintings at its center.
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