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Munich (2005)
The morality of assassins killing assassins
7 November 2006
This film is Steven Spielberg's take on the moral dilemma faced by assassins killing for the sake of their country's morale. If the protagonist was played by a better actor, it might have worked, but the film lacks spark and drags on much too long.

Avner, played by Eric Bana (The Hulk), is a Mossad agent who quits to head a secret unit of assassins being sent to Europe to hunt down the people responsible for the killings of the Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972. Avner's motives for joining the unit are vague. He appears to passively accept his assignment and doesn't express much enthusiasm for revenge, so when he later begins feeling guilty about the killings, it's hard to understand where this emotion comes from. Bana has to carry the movie to make it work and he's just overwhelmed by better actors playing supporting roles.

Michael Lonsdale and Mathieu Amalric are memorable as the father/son combination heading a group of free-lance agents operating out of Paris. Geoffrey Rush is excellent as Avner's Israeli handler. Daniel Craig, the new James Bond, appears as one of the Israeli assassins. Ciarán Hinds also turns in a fine performance as another one of the assassins.

"Munich" is not one of Spielberg's best efforts. Usually, he draws the viewer into his films by way of emotional attachment to the characters, but with the lead player being a bit of a cypher, it just doesn't work. Still, it's entertaining and worth watching.
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The fire grows dim
5 November 2006
This is the fourth film in the Harry Potter series, and the franchise seems to be running out of steam. Not as fresh as the others, this one seems repetitive in its story line and almost tedious. At a running time of over two and a half hours, it drags at times.

The threesome of Harry, Hermione, and Weasley are now in their mid-teens and beginning to show interest in the opposite sex. The story line about Harry facing up to the dark forces that killed his parents is advanced some, though a final resolution is obviously being left for a future film. Some well-done computer imaging almost makes up for the lack of a good plot.

The supporting cast is pretty amazing. The best actors in British film play a variety of roles. Ralph Fiennes shows up near the end as the evil one, Lord Voldemort. Miranda Richardson plays a ditzy gossip columnist, Rita Skeeter. Brendan Gleeson is introduced as a crazy one-eyed professor. Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, Gary Oldman, and Jason Isaacs all return in roles played in previous Potter films.

I think the director tried to cram too much into the film, but overall, it's good entertainment. Future films will certainly deal with the confrontation with Voldemort and the question of any love interest between Harry and Hermione, but I hope the next director eases off on the special effects and gets a good scriptwriter instead.
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Same Old ... Stuff
3 November 2006
Mission Impossible III (Roman numbers, no less) is a standard action film with lots of stunts and non-stop .... well, action. Action is the key word because if you're looking for character development or deep meaning, you've checked out the wrong film.

Tom Cruise plays an agent in the Impossible Missions Force, which puts him in the same league as Team America. His mission, should he agree to accept it (duh), is to take down an evil arms dealer and recover "The Rabbits Foot." No, I'm not making this up.

My biggest problem with this film is that it offers nothing new. We've seen this picture under different titles about a hundred times. It's standard fare all gussied up with clever stunts and computer animation.

Tom Cruise isn't my idea of an action hero. He's too short and not rugged enough. He was terrific as the creepy hit-man in "Collateral," but he doesn't project as the larger than life character necessary for this type of film. Philip Seymour Hoffman is the evil arms dealer, which is another stretch. Ving Rhames and Laurence Fishburne play minor parts in what amounts to casting overkill.

MI3 is decent entertainment and not the worst way to spend an evening, but if you're expecting to see acting that's above the cartoon character level, you'll be disappointed.
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Syriana (2005)
Big Oil and political intrigue in the Middle East
1 November 2006
This is a very good film revolving around an oil company's plot to undermine an Arab kingdom's decision to award the drilling rights in their country to the Chinese instead of them. It's filmed in much the same manner as "Traffic" or "Crash." We're introduced to a host of characters whose stories weave together by the end of the film.

George Clooney plays a CIA operative in the Middle East. Christopher Plummer and Chris Cooper are the oil men behind the conspiracy. Matt Damon is an investment adviser to one of the Arab sheiks. There are subplots involving Pakistani laborers enticed into becoming suicide bombers, and a power struggle among two brothers to assume the throne of this oil kingdom. It's a complete mosaic of the social strata in the Middle East today.

The acting is very good, though it would be fair to point out that the director limits character development in favor of simply telling the story. We're spared the usual dramatic flare too often used in political action films. There's no romantic interest, no hero so to speak, and there isn't a happy ending. What we see is a reflection of modern day reality, and it's plenty scary.

If you liked "The Constant Gardener" you'll enjoy this film. I thought it was one of the best movies I've seen all year.
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Poseidon (2006)
Another dull remake
18 August 2006
The secret to an ensemble disaster film is that the audience has to have a rooting interest in the characters. It's a given some people will perish during the course of the movie, and the fun is in guessing who dies and who makes it.

In this weak remake of the 1972 Irwin Allen classic, the characters are hopelessly dull and forgettable. I couldn't make an emotional attachment to a single person in the film, not like with Shelley Winters or Red Buttons in the original. What you have are faceless people coping with tremendous adversity, and what happens to them in the end is meaningless.

Normally, Wolfgang Peterson is a top-notch director of thrillers, but in this film the pacing is all wrong. Almost from the start, the action comes in frenetic clips that drown out any chance of character development. There is entirely too much reliance on computer graphics to generate excitement, and way too many explosions and fires that detract from the story line.

Speaking of which, the plot is flimsy at best. Like in the original, a wave overturns a massive cruise liner, and a small group of people struggle to climb upward towards the bottom of the ship in order to escape. If you completely suspend reality for a few hours and accept some of the crazy premises in the film, it's mildly entertaining, but considering the huge sum of money it took to make this film, that's not nearly enough.

No wonder Hollywood has begun to cut back on movie budgets.
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Pumpkin (2002)
Even Christina Ricci can't save this stinker.
24 July 2006
I rarely bother commenting on a movie I've rated as low as this one, but for the benefit of those who were as intrigued by the trailer as I was, here are my thoughts.

This film has nothing going for it beyond its star, Christina Ricci. The acting is terrible, the writing weak, and it says all it has to say in about half an hour. The last half of the movie is like watching somebody dying of cancer.

Christina Ricci plays a conceited sorority girl who reluctantly participates as a mentor for the developmentally disabled. Her charge is Pumpkin, a "retarded" young man who is partially confined to a wheelchair and dominated by an overbearing mother. Ricci is touched by Pumpkin's sensitivity, and he's in love with her.

There are a few funny scenes in the beginning of the film, and there are tender moments as the little rich girl breaks out of her social bonds, but the film never decides what it wants to be - comedy or social commentary. It tries to have it both ways, and fails miserably.

Don't waste your time.
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Ginger Snaps (2000)
Wickedly funny horror film
23 July 2006
"Ginger Snaps" is a very clever film that combines humor with horror. There is a story line involving two sisters who encounter a werewolf near their suburban home one night, and how they deal with the changes one of them undergoes after being bit, but in the midst of some very tense scenes, someone says something that makes you burst out laughing.

Ginger and her younger sister, Bridgett, played by Katharine Isabelle and Emily Perkins, are disenchanted with suburban life and fantasize endlessly about running away or killing themselves. Their mother, played by Mimi Rogers, is a ditz who still imagines herself as just one of the girls. The father is silent and hardly there at all.

The film is about teen alienation, told through a conventional horror story line - girl gets bit by werewolf, begins turning into one, sister tries to help her out. The really good part is the humor. There is a sly social commentary running throughout the film, much in the way "The Lost Boys" was constructed. Teen angst, social alienation in the suburbs, high school madness - they are all themes that are dealt with in this film.

Emily Perkins is especially good as Bridgett - her portrayal of a goth teenager is classic. The rest of the cast is good also, but the real star of this film is the writer, Karen Walton. Her biography lists her previous experience as singing telegrams and handing out cold cuts in the supermarket, so I can see where the satire comes from.

An all-Canadian production, from director to writer to actors, "Ginger Snaps" is a terrific film and a must see.
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Tense thriller about men living on the edge.
16 July 2006
"Wages of Fear" is a tense thriller from the French director, Clouzot, about desperate men willing to risk everything for a chance to escape their lousy existence.

The story involves a group of men stranded in a South American oil company town. None of them have steady work and none can afford to take a plane out of town, so they sit around and drink and argue with one another.

Then one day, an oil well explodes up in the mountains, and the company needs volunteers to drive two trucks full of nitroglycerine up to the drill site so they can blow the fire out. The company's union drivers are too valuable to risk, so the foreman offers the job to the men stranded in town, knowing full well they're desperate enough to do anything.

The four men selected to drive are Mario (Yves Montand), Jo (Charles Vanel), Luigi, and Bimba. Each has different fears and motivations for making the journey, and the director develops each one's personality from the start of the film through the drive itself.

"Wages of Fear" is a very tense film in the second half as the two trucks make their way over treacherous roads, encountering obstacles along the way that require the men's creativity in overcoming. Some rise to the occasion, others crumble under the pressure. A quick death awaits anyone who makes the slightest mistake. By the end of the film, the viewer is emotionally wrung dry.

From the European period of stark cinematic drama, this thriller is one of the best.
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70's police drama with some interest
16 July 2006
This is a somewhat interesting film about two policemen, Walter Mathau and Bruce Dern, trying to solve a mass murder where one of the victims was Mathau's partner.

The story starts out pretty good. A cop tails a man onto a bus in San Francisco one night. Along the route, another man boards the bus and moves all the way to the back. A few minutes later, he stands up and starts spraying the bus with a machine gun. He kills everyone and then walks away after the bus crashes into some bushes. Mathau arrives at the scene and discovers his partner was the cop who was tailing somebody.

The evidence takes the police on a scenic journey through San Francisco's underbelly - drugs, prostitution, drag queens, sex parlors, the whole works. It was probably risqué at the time, but it's a bit tame by contemporary standards.

There's a problem with the editing of this film. Some scenes are included for shock value, while scenes that could have moved the story along are omitted. At times it's hard to follow what's going on with the film jumping around a lot.

The dialog is pretty dated too - Lou Gossett's especially. But Walter Mathau's performance as a rumpled detective working the case while his home life falls apart makes this film worthwhile. Bruce Dern's character is so irritable that it's hard to like him, but I suppose that's what the director wanted. Anthony Zerbe is the best of a mediocre supporting cast.

The film is good entertainment and worth watching for Mathau and the San Francisco scenery alone. And you'll get a few laughs at all the long hair and period attire.
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Sentimental comedy from one of the masters, Ernst Lubitsch
10 July 2006
This is the last of a series of hit comedies Ernst Lubitsch made in the years just before and during World War II. Ninotchka (1939), The Shop Around the Corner (1940), That Uncertain Feeling (1941), To Be or Not To Be (1942), and this one, Heaven Can Wait (1943), make up the core of a very successful body of work for one of Hollywood's finest directors.

If there is one phrase to characterize the "Lubitsch touch," then I would say "light romantic comedies," the kind made popular by Hollywood in the late years of the Depression. His films didn't have the subtle commentary on American life that Capra's did, but were more along the lines of old fashioned entertainment.

Heaven Can Wait is based on a play written by a Hungarian (all of Lubitsch's films during this period were written by European emigrés like himself, and as such have a more cosmopolitan flair than most American films). It follows the life of a Victorian playboy, Henry Van Cleve, of Fifth Avenue, New York, and is told in retrospective by the hero as he explains his life to His Excellency, the Devil.

Don Ameche is the main character and delivers a fine performance as the boyish rogue who falls in love with a beautiful girl from Kansas City, played by Gene Tierney. The film covers Van Cleve's life from childhood through a reckless adolescence up through his happy marriage and the years after his wife dies. It's a sentimental journey told with much levity.

The film has a number of terrific character actors in it, the most notable performance coming from Charles Coburn, who plays the grandfather everyone wishes they had - quick witted, caring, and always supportive of his grandson. Marjorie Main, Eugene Palette (the froggy-voice friar in Mark of Zorro), Spring Byington, and Louis Calhern make up the rest of the supporting cast.

While I enjoyed this film, it's not as well-crafted as some of his earlier work. Perhaps the "Lubitsch touch" had worn itself out, and perhaps the changing times had caught up to him. Considering that the war was going on at the time, the film does seem a bit out of place. Perhaps that accounts for the lack of depth in some of the performances.

I rarely bother to look up who the art director was in a film, but the visuals in this one were so striking, I had to know who was responsible. James Basevi was the art director (basically, the interior scenery) and was much used by Hollywood's leading directors of the time - Hitchcock and John Ford among them. The lobby of the waiting room for Hell was especially appealing in a 40's art deco way.

This was the final hit film Ernst Lubitsch ever produced. He made a few more films in the following years, inconsequential stuff compared to his earlier work, then passed away in 1947, during a period when Hollywood was turning to the stark reality of film noir.

By contemporary standards, this film is a bit light, but it's funny and touching in its sentimentality, and it's an enjoyable bit of entertainment from a bygone era.
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Trivia time - these two really didn't like each other
16 April 2006
Atmospheric drama about a good cop (Andy Garcia) going after a bad cop (Richard Gere). What sets it apart is the interplay between the two leads.

My girlfriend's ex-husband worked on the set during production and she told me that the fight scenes in the film were real. Andy Garcia and Richard Gere really went at it in the elevator. The wounds they had were real, not fake. After filming had been completed, Garcia refused to attend the post-production party.

Knowing this, watch the film again. The tension between the two is palpable in just about every scene they're in together. Which makes for a pretty decent movie.
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Oh what a tangled web we weave .....
31 March 2004
This is a very good film about a true incident, how a young journalist, Stephen Glass, fooled his editors at the New Republic by submitting madeup stories as fact. As anyone who has read the news in the past few years, this wasn't an isolated case.

The acting and direction are all top notch for such a small film. Hayden Christensen plays the lead character with sly understatement, virtually assuming the persona that must have made it so easy for Stephen Glass's editors to believe him. He's likable, he's non-assuming and deferential, and he's an utter liar. He's even got himself convinced that he was only guilty of twisting the truth, when the reality is he made up over half the articles that the magazine published under his name.

Peter Saarsgard is excellent as Glass's editor, Chuck Lane, the man who eventually has to deal with the mess that's been dumped in his lap. A rival magazine checks one of Glass's stories after feeling they've been scooped and finds loads of inconsistencies. He's calm and focused during the crisis and manages to save the magazine from ruin.

The rest of the cast does an very good job also. And the writer/director, Billy Ray, does an excellent job of telling the story in an interesting way, showing both a detached narration of the events while allowing us into the head of a needy person who lies and manipulates those around him.

This isn't drama on the scale of Robert Redford or Dustin Hoffman playing Woodward and Bernstein. There are no histrionics or chilling scenes in parking garages with mysterious figures. The movie is a story about a man who lies, both to himself and others, because he wants to be popular and regarded as a success. And it tells the story of how a magazine deals with such problems, and in a way, how we need to look more closely at what we read in this modern internet age.

Top notch, highly recommend it.
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Dummy (2002)
A very adept comedy from an up and coming writer/director.
30 March 2004
This is a surprisingly funny movie about a thirty-year-old man who lives at home with his parents. Adrien Brody plays Steven, a socially awkward young man who gets fired from his office clerical job one day and decides to become a ventriloquist. Brody is quite good in the role and displays comedic talent I didn't know he had.

Steven's family are a bunch of losers too. His father's retired and sits around all day putting model ships together. His typically Jewish mother smothers him with attention while destroying his sense of worth. His sister, played by Illeana Douglas, is a wedding planner who's own engagement goes sour when her fiance turns psycho. Steven's only friend (Milla Jovovich) is an outcast like himself, a puck rock singer who also lives at home.

I don't want to give away the plot or anything, but there are some really funny scenes in the film. The wedding at the end, where Jovovich turns into a Yiddish punk rock singer was one of them. The film's not only a good comedy but there's a touching romantic thread running through it between Brody's character and his unemployment counselor, played by Vera Farmiga (she plays the Jocelyn Jordan character in the remake of "The Manchurian Candidate).

All in all an excellent little film and one I highly recommend. From reading the review of writer/director Greg Pritikin's next film coming out soon, I think we have a new talent to follow.
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Head of State (2003)
Pretty lame.
25 March 2004
This film falls flat for many reasons. The general premise isn't bad - black man is chosen to run for president by a white establishment that assumes he'll lose - but the execution is poor.

For one thing, Chris Rock isn't a strong enough actor to carry a 90 minute film. His humor is OK in small bits, like when he was playing off Joe Pesci and Mel Gibson in that "Lethal Weapon" film, but out front leading the way, no, he just doesn't cut it. Bernie Mac shows up midway through the film as his brother, and he's funny, but there isn't enough of him to save the movie.

Another thing is the jokes repeat themselves over and over. Robin Givins' bit part was funny the first time, but why repeat it again and again? And white people dancing to hip hop? Oh yeah, that's original.

The pacing is all wrong because of poor direction and editing. The film jolts from one scene to another without any flow.

Better skip this one. If you want a good laugh, catch Bernie Mac in concert.
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22 March 2004
This is a very slow and very boring film written and directed by Sean Penn. It's about a man, Jack Nicholson, who is obsessed with killing the ex-con who ran over his little girl several years ago.

The pacing is excruciatingly slow and the story line self-absorbed. Drama comes in the form of people lighting cigarettes and looking intense. Nicholson looks like crap. Nicholson's ex-girl friend, Angelica Huston, is dragged into this mess as is Penn's wife, Robin Wright.

There are zero redeeming qualities to this film. It isn't very good entertainment because of the sloppy direction, and the acting performances are weak. It might have made a decent twenty minute student film project, but at nearly two hours long, it's a dud.

I recommend viewers pass on this one.
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Open Range (2003)
Modern western doesn't quite make it.
17 March 2004
This was an interesting film, part "Shane", part "The Unforgiven." You have a basic setup - a group of good guys are set upon by the evil rancher who thinks he owns the range just because he's big and powerful. With a little better pacing and some better dialogue, it could have been a very good film.

My main fault with the film was that it moved at a glacial pace for about an hour and a half. You have the conflict established in the first twenty minutes, then it just crawls along at an excruciatingly slow pace. The director was trying to establish a mood, that of slower times in the late 19th century, but he overdoes it.

My other complaint was the insertion of a romantic interest in the person of Annette Bening. The theme was about "free rangers", cowboys who roamed the great plains and made a living for themselves off the land, conflicting with big business in the form of the rancher who claimed the land for himself. A little romance might have been OK as a thematic sideline, but Annette Bening is the best actor in the film so her part swallows up what it took an hour to establish.

Other than that, this is a pretty satisfying film. Kevin Costner is very good as Charley Waite, an ex-gunman riding along with Boss Spearman, played ably by Robert Duvall. They play off each other fairly well throughout the film, though the dialogue is so stilted at times that the flow is destroyed.

Annette Bening is excellent in her part, despite some funky dialogue she must have had trouble saying with a straight face. Her romance with Costner's character takes over the film midway through, which renders Duvall's character to a secondary status.

The climax at the end between Duvall, Costner and the rancher and his gang is exciting and makes the film worthwhile. The bad guy, played by Michael Gambon, is a bit cartoonish, but he's sufficiently evil that the viewer savors his demise.

Not a bad effort, but certainly not in a class with either of the two films I mentioned earlier. Westerns depend on moral certitude, and with the relativism we live with nowadays, they're really hard to pull off. This one succeeds partly.
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Beautiful but flawed.
14 March 2004
I have a dichotomy of opinion on this film. From an artistic standpoint, it's terrific. The acting and direction are very good, and the story line is clever and interesting. But the message underlying the film bothers me quite a bit.

First the praise.

Kevin Spacey is simply excellent as Lester Burnham, a middle-aged man drifting through life with no direction until he develops this crush on his daughter's luscious girlfriend. All of a sudden, Lester develops character and some backbone. He gets the inspiration to tell off his prudish wife (Annette Bening), a career-minded real estate broker who's sexually withdrawn from him. He tells off the new personnel man at work and gets himself fired with a sweet severance package. Lester begins working out, to develop muscles for his new crush, and starts smoking $2000 an ounce pot with the kid next door.

Kevin Spacey is tremendously funny in his understated way. He isn't overtly hostile to others, but he defends his newfound freedom in the most subtle ways, like when he catches his wife cheating on him.

Chris Cooper is also excellent as the ex-marine who moves in next door and immediately starts suspecting that there's something wrong with his goofy neighbor. He's both a scary character as when he acts out against his son and a pathetic creature when he comes to Spacey for comfort.

Annette Bening's performance is a little too on the surface - you don't get much insight into her character. I didn't realize at first it really was her - I thought is was someone trying to act like Annette Bening. Wes Bentley is very good as Ricky Fitts, the kid next door who develops a crush on Spacey's daughter (a high school goth who hates her parents). His weirdness and emotional detachment underscore the central theme of this movie.

Which takes me to the part I didn't like, the underlying message of this film. If some future archaeologists ever uncover a DVD of this film, they'll have some real insight into why American civilization collapsed in the 21st century. I mean, the negativity about family life and personal relationships is deadly. What does this film say about how we picture ourselves? That we're chronic screwups who can't relate to one another and that there's no hope for a familial relationship in our society?

I was captivated by this film as I watched it, but it did leave me with an uncomfortable feeling when it ended. It was as if some great force had sucked all the emotional life right out of the universe and all we were left with was moral equivocation, aimless thought. Some people - well, a lot of people obviously disagree with my reservations (it is rated in the Imdb top 30), but I can't help but feel this film reflects poorly on our culture.
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Love Liza (2002)
Worst video release of the year.
6 March 2004
If your idea of a fun evening is watching some burnout spiral downward into the depths of depression then have I got a movie for you.

Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a computer programmer who goes off the deep end after his wife kills herself. No reason is ever given for the suicide, but she does leave her husband a letter which he carries around for almost the entire movie without opening it. That's what the title stands for, her signoff.

There's nothing wrong with Hoffman's acting - he's playing his usual character, the rumpled guy. But there's no drama to the story. We're presented with a man who's understandable upset about his wife's death, but that's it, that's the entire movie. The only change in the main character's state is that he gets progressively weirder as time goes by. He's withdrawn, anti-social, compulsive, demanding. By the end of the movie, he's reached the state of a two-year-old. The final scene is of him running through traffic with nothing on except a pair of underwear, like a big baby in diapers.

And what's with the guy sniffing gasoline? I thought there was some connection between the gas and his wife's death, but unless I missed something, it's just a quirk of his. I've heard of poor kids in third world countries sniffing gas, but that's because they can't afford drugs. You'd think someone with Hoffman's socio-economic standing could abuse something besides sniffing gasoline fumes.

Kathy Bates shows up as his mother-in-law, and she's just as strange as he is. In fact, just about everyone in the movie is a bit odd. Social interactions are strained all around, which just accentuates the main character's withdrawal. All in all, it's a very hard film to watch.
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Wonderland (2003)
Muddled performances spoil the story.
3 March 2004
This could have been an interesting film. The basic story of the Wonderland killings was symbolic of the coke-laden late seventies/early eighties in Los Angeles. John Belushi overdosed in March of '82, also in the Hollywood Hills. Robert Evans' career came crashing down because of drug abuse. The bodies were piling up everywhere back then as the good times of the sixties and seventies came crashing to an end.

But the central characters telling this story in flashback are seriously flawed. Val Kilmer's performance is all on the surface, the mumbling drug addict, the charming bad boy whose claim to fame was a large penis. You don't get so much as a hint of what's going on inside him at any point in the film. His character is completely out of control and there's nothing appealing about him for the viewer to associate with.

Dylan McDermott is unconvincing as the biker who managed to be out of town when his friends were all killed. He should have grown his own beard instead of relying on wardrobe to provide him with one because it looks really fake. Eric Begosian is ridiculous as Eddie Nash, the drug dealer who allegedly had the Wonderland people killed. His performance was like out of a bad episode of "Miami Vice." Kate Bosworth and Lisa Kudrow are wasted in completely unsympathetic roles.

The soundtrack of music from the era is very good and helps save the film somewhat. That and the basic story are all that hold this movie together so that it's at least decent entertainment. But someone should tell Val Kilmer he needs to learn some focus in his parts - he's become progressively sloppier as the years go by.
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Exciting Courtroom Drama
28 February 2004
This is a very good film centering around a murder investigation and trial involving a chief deputy DA and a beautiful, young attorney in his office who is found murdered one morning. The direction, screenplay, and acting are all top notch and you never really know how it's going to turn out til the very end.

Harrison Ford is the deputy DA accused of murdering one of the female attorneys in his office. Ford's character is that of a strident upholder of the law who strays into marital infidelity. Caroline Polhemus, played by Greta Scacchi, is beautiful and manipulative, using her sexuality to get what she wants, career advancement and power.

Ford is assigned to head the murder investigation team, however, his boss, played by Brian Dennehy, loses his re-election bid a few weeks later and the new district attorney charges Ford with Caroline's murder. He knows Ford had had an affair with the victim and has physical evidence that he was at the murder scene and had been placing phone calls to her apartment in the days prior to her death.

The continuing investigation by Harrison Ford's team of lawyers and his friends in the DA's office and the trial highlight the remainder of this film. Events take strange twists and turns and the viewer is taken along for the ride without really knowing where it will take him. The ending is a bit of a surprise and neatly ties everything together.

The direction by Alan J. Pakula is tight and suspenseful. I thought it was his best film since the early days when he directed "Klute" and "The Parallax View" - certainly better than the muddled "Pelican Brief." The overriding theme of the movie is darkness, people hiding secrets from one another, and the direction emphasizes that. There are very few outdoor daytime scenes and most of the interior shots are of dark rooms and corridors.

Harrison Ford is good in the role of the besieged deputy DA, but I thought the secondary actors were the ones who made this picture as good as it was. Raul Julia plays Ford's attorney defending him in court and he's excellent (I thought it was his best role in any film). He's urbane and confident, and he steers the defense through a very difficult set of circumstances.

Bonnie Bedelia plays Ford's wife and her character is much more complex than that of the supportive wife standing by her man. She also has dark secrets of her own and she plays the part with sly understatement. John Spencer ("L.A. Law") plays an investigator in the DA's office helping Ford, Brian Dennehy plays Ford's boss who turns on him, and Paul Winfield plays the judge handling the trial, and all are excellent.

My only criticisms would come from Harrison Ford's character, who is so emotionally detached that it makes the circumstances of the affair with Greta Scacchi unbelievable. He's not an easy person to identify with or feel sympathy for, but the film is so well done that you can easily skip over that void and just sit back and enjoy the performances.
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The Bear (1988)
The greatest thrill is not to kill but to let live.
20 February 2004
This beautiful film is one of my favorites. The story follows an orphaned bear cub in the wilderness of British Columbia, how he pairs up with an older bear and how they both elude the hunters who are after them. The cinematography is great and the director inserts some very unique elements, like a dream sequence, to bring us into the bear's point of view. And the little bear cub, Youk, is impossibly cute.

I realize the action is staged and bears don't interact this way in nature, but the film has a purpose, to let the viewer into the world of an endangered animal and to give us a little respect for life other than our own. I was as involved in Youk's struggles just as much as any human's, and maybe I'm a sentimental fool, but there were tears in my eyes when Youk and the adult bear snuggled up to each other in the end.

During the final shot of snow-covered peaks as the camera drew back from the bears' winter den, it struck me that this is the kind of film Disney might have done at one time. It would have been a perfect way to spend a Sunday evening with the family. Too bad Disney has gotten away from its origins. There are too few films like this that everyone can enjoy.
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Godzilla's death scene mishandled.
2 February 2004
This should have been a much better movie than it was. The drama of Godzilla meeting his end after years of mayhem and endless battles with other monsters should have been handled much better. What hurt the story the most was the murky plot and the battle scene at the end that went on far too long.

Godzilla is ready for a nuclear meltdown after all these years. Somehow, we're supposed to believe that Godzilla operates like a nuclear power plant. Forget the atomic mutation theory, Godzilla is a walking Chernobyl in this film. He glows an orangish red and steam comes off of him.

Mixed into the plot is the destruction of the island where little Godzilla lived in peace all these years. It's melted into the sea as a result of some energy displacement and little Godzilla is no longer little or cute. He's a young adult now, and he's headed for Japan.

The monster in this film is one that's been produced by the oxygen destroyer used way back in the very first Godzilla film. The soil has been contaminated with it, and there arises a creature that has crablike legs and a mouth like the monster in "Alien" had.

Godzilla trashes Hong Kong in the opening scenes, then heads north to Japan, apparently on the trail of his son. Little Godzilla is heading to his ancestral home in the Bering Strait (underwater?), but when Destroyer starts rampaging through Tokyo, the authorities use the telepathic skills of Miki to entice little Godzilla to detour to Tokyo so that his papa might follow and fight the monster. Which is what happens.

The Destroyer creatures mutate into one big one and the fight is on. Little Godzilla puts up quite a fight but he's no match for the much bigger Destroyer. Godzilla enters Tokyo Bay and is ready to protect his son, but it's too late.

The scenes were little Godzilla plaintively wails towards his father are really quite touching. And when he dies, I found myself emotionally upset. Godzilla is beside himself with anguish and you really see him for the natural being that he is.

This should have been the central scene of the entire film but the long overdrawn battle between Godzilla and Destroyer overshadows it. Into the mix throw the idiotic Super X something or other, a lumbering plane with freezing ray guns and such, that darts in and out of the action. I would have much rather seen more of the Godzilla family drama than half an hour of monsters tangling amidst the wreckage of Tokyo.

Still, this isn't a bad addition to the series, and as all good Godzilla fans know, he really isn't dead because they've made a few more films with him since. Good characters die hard.
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The real dead end kids.
27 January 2004
Warning: Spoilers
This is a gritty film about a group of street urchins in the slums of Mexico City. The main characters are Pedro, a young boy who wants to be good, and Jaibo, a real louse who's just broken out of reform school and come back to lead the gang.

These aren't the lovable adventures of Billy Halop and Huntz Hall. Pat O'Brien isn't around to shepherd the boys back into the good graces of society. This is Luis Buñuel's stark look at the lives of throwaway children and it isn't pretty.

Jaibo is out for revenge when he shows up. Thinking Julian was responsible for sending him to jail, Jaibo sets up an ambush and kills him. Pedro is there when it happens and Jaibo tells him to keep his mouth shut or the same will happen to him.

Pedro lives with his mother, but she resents him for his father having gotten her pregnant when she was just 14, so she is cold towards Pedro and pushes him away. Pedro wanders the streets sleeping and eating as catch can. He runs into a young country boy, Ojitos, whose father has abandoned him in the marketplace - one less mouth to feed as the blind man says. They find a place to sleep that night, the barn of a friend's family.

When Pedro gets a job to help out with expenses, Jaibo shows up and steals a knife from the shop. Pedro takes the blame and his mother turns him in to the police. He's sent away to a state run farm.

Jaibo thinks Pedro's gonna rat on him for Julian's murder so he shows up and steals some money the farm director has given him to test his honesty. Jaibo flees back to the city and Pedro follows him. A fight ensues and Pedro blurts out in front of a crowd that it was Jaibo who killed the other boy.

When Pedro returns to the barn to sleep that night, he runs into Jaibo and is killed by him. Meche, the young girl, rushes in and finds Pedro's body. Her grandfather tells her they don't want any trouble so they load the body onto a donkey and take it to a garbage dump outside town. Jaibo is gunned down by the police moments later when he returns to his own hiding place.

I told you this wasn't angels with dirty faces.

The realism in this film is right there, completely without sentiment. When Pedro's mother signs the papers to send him away, she tells the police officer she doesn't care to see her son before he goes off. When Pedro is wandering the streets, an older man comes up to him and offers him money for sex. Julian's father is a drunk who staggers through the streets with a knife looking for his son's killer. The blind man abuses Ojitos and throws him out. When Jaibo is shot, the blind man screams they should all end that way, be killed before they're even born.

The direction of this film is as sparse as the story it tells. It's shot in black and white and there are no fancy backdrops, just the streets of a poor Mexico City neighborhood. Yet it is one of the richest films I know of - the characters are haunting and will stay with you long after the movie is over. The end scene when Meche and her grandfather toss Pedro's body down the hillside through a pile of garbage is one of the most memorable images from any film I've ever watched.
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Belle de Jour (1967)
The indiscreet life of a bored housewife.
26 January 2004
Warning: Spoilers
Catherine Deneuve plays an emotionally detached woman in this 1967 film by Luis Buñuel. She has no physical relationship with her husband, a wealthy young doctor in Paris, so eventually finds pleasure in working as a prostitute in the afternoons at a chic house downtown.

There are several interpretations to Buñuel's film. I saw it as a commentary on modern bourgeois life. Here we have an elegantly attractive woman who needs to be loved yet cannot show love herself. She cannot break the bonds that define her life and surrender herself to emotion, so she seeks pleasure through anonymous sex. Perhaps it's Buñuel commentating on the estrangement of modern life, particularly our sexual mores.

The ending has puzzled many, including myself. There's a scene at the beginning of the film where Deneuve fantasizes about going on a carriage ride with her husband and being whipped and raped by his servants. Perhaps the final scene of the carriage returning empty is Buñuel's way of saying her fantasies have ended.

But was the experience at the brothel a dream too or is she satisfied now that her husband is paralyzed, the result of a jealous customer's rage? Is she cured of her detachment or have circumstances simply resolved her emotional dilemma?

Catherine Deneuve is one of the world's great beauties, and she is deliciously so in this film, but she also gives a terrific performance here. She hides her emotions and leaves several interpretations to her character which is what Buñuel obviously wanted from her.

An excellent film from one of the greatest directors of cinema ever.
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Nixon (1995)
Fascinating character study of a very complex man.
24 January 2004
This film follows Oliver Stone's re-enactment of Jim Garrison's investigation into the Kennedy assassination. The same sort of meticulous storytelling and blending of archive news footage is used to dramatize the rise and fall of our 37th president.

It's obvious that Oliver Stone is particularly fascinated with this point of time in American history (who wouldn't be, it was a decade rich in drama). My interest in this film is partly one of a personal nature.

Three times in my life, my path crossed that of Richard Nixon's. After his defeat in 1960, he settled in my town, San Marino, CA, and I used to ride my bike past his house every day on the way to school. I always wondered what was going on behind the walls and drawn shades of that modest home - a mystery seemed to hang over the place.

After Cambodia and the student killings at Jackson State and Kent State in May of 1970, me and some friends drove non-stop for nearly 24 hours from New Orleans to attend the protest rally in Washington, DC. We arrived at the Washington Monument about 5:00 in the morning and were greeted by several people who told us we'd just missed Nixon. He'd come out in the pre-dawn hours to talk to the protestors, and everyone was in a bit of shock at what they'd seen of him. Later that day we were teargassed trying to break through the cordon they'd set up outside the White House.

Finally, after Nixon retired and I believe after Pat had died, he bought my great uncle's home in Saddle River, NJ, just a few miles from where my parents lived. I wanted to go over there and finally meet him face to face, but considering my shoulder length hair at the time, I didn't think I'd be very well received.

Nixon is an interesting character in American history, someone whose life spanned the Great Depression through the peace and prosperity of the post-Cold War years. He rose to prominence during the red scare period after WWII and was there during the nurturing of the military industrial complex (Eisenhower's words). Defeated by Kennedy and the vision of Camelot in 1960, Nixon rose from the ashes after Johnson bungled the war in Vietnam. But after having victory in his grasp, the darkness overwhelmed him and he faded into political oblivion over a petty burglary of Democratic headquarters at the Watergate.

Oliver Stone does an excellent job for the most part of capturing the inner person of Richard Nixon. His childhood traumas are re-enacted and inserted into the dramatization of his adult life to emphasize the turmoil within him. The feelings of inadequacy and guilt that led to his self-destructive behavior are one of the major themes in this film.

Another one which the director also touched on in "JFK" was his involvement in the circle of people surrounding the Bay of Pigs, Castro assassination plots, and of course Kennedy's own murder. Oliver Stone hints in a rather broad manner that Nixon, the CIA, rightwing Texas oilmen, Cuban expatriates, Johnny Roselli, the mob, J. Edgar Hoover, and Howard Hunt were all in some sort of plot together that tied into Kennedy's assassination. No details are given and nothing's ever definitive, but the suggestion hangs over the story like an evil spirit.

The acting and direction are superb. Anthony Hopkins does a fine portrayal of Nixon. The shiftiness of the eyes, the haunted look on his face, the mannerisms of speech and how he carries himself, they're all there. The cast is too vast to mention in its entirety, but of special note for their acting are Joan Allen as Pat Nixon, James Woods as H. R. Haldeman, J. T. Walsh as John Ehrlichman, and Mary Steenburgen as Nixon's mother, Hannah. Paul Sorvino does a terrific impersonation of Henry Kissinger, and Edward Hermann is uncanny as Nelson Rockefeller.

I do have some criticisms, however. There are several gratuitous slaps at Nixon's character in the countless scenes of him drinking and taking pills. I don't know if he was a boozer and a pill popper in private, but it never crossed over into his public life and I think Oliver Stone should have left them out of the film.

Also, the scene where Nixon meets Mao during his visit to open relations with China is just plain silly. The director has Mao philosophizing about how they're both evil men and that he's too old to care what anyone thinks of him. This is obviously a complete fabrication of events and is just another sign of gratuitous editing by Oliver Stone.

But all in all this is a fine film and a fascinating one to watch, both for its take on history and because of the great filmwork. I just wish Olive Stone would quit holding back what he really thinks of the VRW conspiracy.
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