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8/10
Well-made war allegory
24 October 2003
Although not quite on a level with other war-related cartoons like Der Fuehrer's Face or Russian Rhapsody, etc., this is a very well-done short. It should be noted that it is not a wholly comic cartoon, but a somewhat more somber take on the same theme, with various woodland animals being beaten (offscreen) by the sinister dictator-creatures standing in for Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo. All the violent aspects are shown in shadows, etc; the onscreen interaction is of a more inspirational nature in encouraging free peoples to join in overthrowing dictatorship. The three villains are shown being driven toward a cliff, though their demise is not depicted. I note that there is also, to my mind, a certain level of unspoken tribute to Churchill and Britain.

This was released at about the same time as Disney released Bambi, and the animals created by Screen Gems for this film (especially the rabbits and chipmunks) bear some similarities to the Disney work in style and characterization, though the Fleischer style is also clearly visible in the appearance of the vulture and other of the darker aspects of the short.

A solid 8 of 10
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Blitz Wolf (1942)
9/10
Not just for the kids
24 October 2003
I was amused by the way some of the humor was aimed clearly over the heads of the younger end of the audience - and maybe some of the not-so-young-anymore realized they understood some of the humor, but knew better than to spoil their younger friends' innocence. It was fun watching the two naive piggies taunting their more serious kin, "You're diggin' a ditch - " and then freezing for a couple of seconds as they let the audience fill in the rest of the ditty in their heads.

All in all, another excellent (and enjoyably over-the-top) Tex Avery creation. Though the wolf isn't as top-notch an incarnation of the enemy as some of the other war cartoons employed, it's well in keeping with the tone and background of this entry.
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2/10
Most unsubtly homoerotic movie I've seen this year
21 August 2003
I found it remarkable that (aside from some less-than-persuasive leering comments), there's virtually no romantic male-female interaction in this (At least on the part of the two leads). On the other hand, the interaction between the two of them resembled nothing so much as the reconciliation between a couple that had gone through a previous painful breakup. From their opening fight scene (and the long languorous look between them as they sit on the ground afterward), to their decision to open an auto shop together at the end (in South Beach, perhaps?), everything in their relationship smacks of two old flames circling each other carefully, considering getting back together. The scenes in the nightclub do nothing to persuade me otherwise.

Among other scenes: Walker complains that Tyrese can eat so much and not put on weight (in the middle of a reconciliation scene set at the beach); and then there's the moment they pull up to Varone's house, where a line of older guys is leaning against their cars (at first, it looked like a certain kind of highway rest stop); also, Walker's lying in bed in his houseboat, with his back to the door (and the other side of the bed), and is startled (and seemingly disappointed) when a good-looking woman comes in. (He was expecting someone else, perhaps?) And Varone's mission for the boys is to fetch him a fat cigar; sometimes, perhaps, a cigar is not just a cigar....

And that customs agent sucking on his fountain straw when he's proposed as a"partner" for Walker doesn't do much to defeat my argument....

I know many viewers will disagree on this point. But I'm sure I'm not the only one who saw something different than what I expected here. (Actually, it made the movie more watchable for me, because it was the only evidence the creators actually put any thought into it.)
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7/10
Variety fest enjoyable, though be aware the corn grows high
14 January 2003
A pleasing enough entertainment, working primarily as a pageant of various MGM specialty acts - impressionists, contortionists, nightclub acts, tap-dancers, as well as the standard musical theatrical numbers. The film isn't a musical in the traditional sense, as all the musical numbers are in the contest of an actual performance (some done toward the camera). It's much more in the tradition of a 1960s-70s variety TV show.

There is a connecting plot, though only the slimmest possible. For me, the movie dragged whenever it stopped the music for a little story updating. George Murphy doesn't really dance much here - just briefly toward the beginning and end - and he does an OK piano medley in the middle. Ginny Simms isn't much of a screen presence, but has a great voice used to advantage. Close your eyes while she's singing and you won't miss much onscreen, other than the costumes.

The highlights are in the supporting cast; great numbers from Lena Horne, Tommy Dorsey, Hazel Scott, and Nancy Walker (though you really have to wait for hers; she's a bit underused here). Really nice work from Gloria DeHaven and Kenny Bowers in their couple of tunes, as well as Walter Long's tap-dancing. The singing-contortionist Ross Sisters are something to see, but the impressionist got on my nerves after a while. (Some of his subjects will not register with viewers unfamiliar with the era; there's a couple of topical jokes elsewhere in the film also.)

And Charles Winninger is a pleasure to watch in a diversion for him; I've rarely seen him in musical roles.

In short, worth seeing for most of the musical segments; the rest is unremarkable.

7 of 10
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Going My Way (1944)
9/10
A movie that really sneaks up on you
27 August 2002
It's an easily underrated movie, particularly because it flatly refuses to do most of the things that people expect movies to do today; there's a defiant unwillingness to slip into easy melodrama (though I often like melodrama), or to spend too much time on comedy, etc. The movie won't pigeonhole itself, and I think this leads to its secret - at heart, it really intends to be about what it's like to be a priest. You CAN'T pigeonhole yourself in that role, because you can't possibly know what's coming up, or really keep perfect track of all the different threads of a community at the same time. You have to take things as they come, and this movie really does that all the way through.

And there's also a sense of the wistfulness that comes from giving up that "plot-driven" style of living - in the scenes where Crosby visits his old girlfriend, there's a tangible awareness on both sides that they don't really know what happened to the "plot" of their relationship - they just took things as they came, and it really turned out OK for both of them. Most of the movie's separate narrative threads are left off, and returned to, almost at random - and the main focus on the relationships between the characters is what ends up shining through as intended.

A lot of the film is spent on scenes that seem kind of inconsequential at the time (like most of everyday life), but they invariably lead to a payoff later in the film. There's a shot of Gene Lockhart watching his son leave - a silent shot that just holds on a medium shot of the father, watching his expression for about 10 seconds - that I found absolutely sublime in its effectiveness. To me, that single shot justifies the half dozen scenes that led to it. Ultimately, the movie is almost happy to laugh at the audience for being so eager to expect more of a story. As one character aptly says,"Schmaltz is in this year"; the people behind this movie KNOW that a lot of people will want to dismiss it, but won't let them off the hook so easily. It's looks deceptively simple to make a film this easygoing and yet moving. (Capra tried it later in his career, sometimes with Crosby, and yet he couldn't pull it off.)

The Oscar win is OK, though I think Double Indemnity should have won, and I also like The Miracle of Morgan's Creek a lot more as well (THE SPOTS!!!); but Going My Way belonged in the top 5 that year, along with Laura and I'm-not-sure-what-else. (Gaslight, maybe?) And I'll note that I do like the "sequel," The Bells of St. Mary's (actually written first), a little better, too.

But as I wrote in the summary, this one really sneaks up on you; the last scenes prove much more moving than you expect, and the ending of the film - while initially seeming abrupt - leaves you suddenly saying, "Of course - it's perfect." Just moving on.......

9 of 10

P.S. Is it really set in New York? That's never said, and there's so much talk of St. Louis that I think that more accurate a guess. The "Metropolitan Opera House" is mentioned, but that's a generic-sounding name. Honestly, I think they went to great effort to make it as unrooted in a single locale as possible.
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Hell House (2001)
8/10
Fascinating look at this church's unusual endeavor
23 August 2002
Some people, no doubt, will think that the idea of a "show" like this is too offensive, wondering why they can't just go with the traditional ghosts-witches-and-goblins theme of most houses of horror. I think they miss the point somewhat; when "traditional" spook houses started several decades ago, the ghost/witch scenarios we now think so tame and fun came across as just about as frightening as what is presented here. Now that we've got more modern notions of horror, and are more regularly exposed to innumerable forms of violence and inhumanity, some updating of Halloween conventions was not only probable but perhaps necessary. After all, the basic purpose of events like this (and Halloween itself, for that matter) has always been to truly shock and horrify the audience, NOT to make them laugh and have a goofy time.

The film is generally even-handed, as many have said, though I think the somewhat garish use of white backgrounds for a few of the interviews betrays the filmmakers' actual opinions. It's true that the practice of speaking in tongues (which I'd never actually seen before) is unusual, but the way some reviews have referred to it (Freaky! Shocking! Bizarre! Loony!) is actually more disturbing to me; I doubt that viewers would feel comfortable using words like that to describe Jewish or Islamic religious practices, or would treat such faiths with such derision. There's a lot more people in the world that speak in tongues than celebrate Bar Mitzvahs, but few filmgoers - I'm glad to say - would react to a Bar Mitzvah or synagogue scene with the ridicule I saw in the theater.

I'll admit I was slightly bothered that the audience I was with found many of the cast members (not just their acting skills) so laughable; while their acting IS certainly laughably bad at times, I'm sure this is true of virtually any amateur theater production where there's a large open casting call. Yes, some kids do exult at finding out they'll get to be "abortion girl" or a suicidal teen (these ARE flashy and prominent roles in the production), but I don't believe - as many seem to - that this indicates some extraordinary acting out of fantasies. (Or do Shakespearean actors, who I'm sure exult just as much to find out they've won a prominent role, secretly wish to be living the life of their character? I think not.) Most of what is seen regarding the auditions, rehearsals, production, etc. is really an enjoyable look at a large-scale amateur production, and anyone who's been involved with such work will no doubt find a lot here with which they can identify.

Much has been made of the AIDS scenario in the Hell House production, though I couldn't help thinking that there seemed to be some difficulty with it even on the part of those producing the event. The scenario is certainly more sparsely written than most of the others (from what I could see in the film, anyway), and I suspect that the event staff kept it rather slight intentionally, as it's presented alongside another scenario which is far more visceral. Perhaps there was some difference or debate among the writers as to where the scene should go, or how they felt about the characters or issues involved; at any rate, there's little doubt that the AIDS scene could have been written far more disturbingly, and it's something of a relief that it wasn't. (I know many will disagree here, feeling the mere idea of the scene is offensive. I don't agree with the point of view presented either, but I'm not sure it's quite as bad as many will perceive.)

A couple of points regarding religious belief in this film probably need to be explained, as the audience when I saw the film seemed not to understand what was meant (and I suppose others might be perplexed too): When the girl near the end talks of Christ returning to earth for His bride, she is NOT talking about Him selecting a particular woman; rather, this refers to the belief (by ALL Christian churches, not just Pentecostals) that the universal Church of all believers - that is, the totality of all the faithful, not a specific denomination established by mankind - is figuratively the bride of Christ. The practice of "speaking in tongues" (depicted here), as well as beliefs regarding the Rapture, are generally specific to 20th-century evangelical denominations (Pentecostals, Seventh-Day Adventists, etc); while speaking in tongues does have some Scriptural basis, most liberal and moderate denominations treat the practice with a great deal of caution, and generally refrain from encouraging it. (There is also, I should point out, some difference in application of the term "evangelical"; pre-20th century application of that word, which pertains to many moderate faiths such as Lutheranism, Methodism, and Presbyterianism, simply means being open and vocal about one's faith and actively witnessing and ministering to non-believers. In the 20th century sense of the word, the term "evangelical" has tended to be heavily influenced by the revivalist movement started by Aimee Semple McPherson - which included various practices that led to the description "holy roller", and relates to Pentecostal churches such as the Assemblies of God, Church of God in Christ, Church of the Foursquare Gospel, as well as various non-Pentecostal denominations such as the Church of the Nazarene, and Seventh-Day Adventists. Many people don't really understand this difference in the way many self-described evangelicals differ in what they mean by the phrase.)

Do my beliefs coincide with those of the "Hell House" operators? No, not exactly - I do have problems with the way some of the scenarios are presented; I'd certainly take a different approach to some of the scenes. But I DO agree with their general idea in presenting the event. None of this, of course, relates to the quality of the film, but it's worth bringing up. As for the quality of the film itself, I think it does an excellent job in presenting the purposes of the organizers, in showing us some of their background, and in documenting the problems inherent in mounting a production of this nature and size. 8 of 10.
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Scooby-Doo (2002)
2/10
The sum of all (cartoon) fears
17 June 2002
In a movie that makes Casper look like Chinatown by comparison, there is very little I can think to say other than this might be the most horrifying (in a bad way) kids' movie ever made. The movie combines all the worst qualities of not only Casper, but also Inspector Gadget (the stunningly base commercialism) and, yes, Howard the Duck. Am I the only one who can't help seeing the similarities here? A human-like, talking animal hero helps his friends save the world from invading monsters.... I thought of old Howard instantly the first time I set eyes on these CGI beasties. There's even a stunningly misplaced rock concert scene - with Sugar Ray's Mark McGrath lip-synching horribly. (Though I suppose we should be grateful for small favors in that McGrath isn't singing with Scooby.)

This movie, stopping in theaters on its way from the cartoon screen to a Six Flags near you, is astonishingly crass in how every scene seems designed solely for the purpose of creating a theme-park attraction: the obligatory stunt show (with personal 4-wheel mini dune buggys), the theme restaurant, the beach resort area, the horror-themed amusement park rides (I stopped counting how many different rides were momentarily shown), the nightclub with demon-head disco ball, etc. In truth, the "sets" looked precisely like they were designed to be easily and perfectly (not to mention cheaply) replicated for live attractions. And I couldn't help thinking that the main reason the effects weren't better (they really are not very good) is that good effects would be harder to convert to live shows.

As for the "plot," anyone who can't identify the real villain (and I don't mean the filmmakers, thought that's true too) by the end of his first scene isn't trying very hard. And for a supposed kids' movie, it's hard to find a scene that doesn't seem to strain itself trying to add something that's decidedly NOT for kids under 10. I tried to think of the last movie rated under PG-13 that was this bad; it's EASILY sub-Grinch (that movie, for all its faults, had at least a much more substantial level of craftsmanship going for it); Inspector Gadget is probably the last PG movie I could think of that sunk to this level. Rowan Atkinson is in this movie for no particular reason; his abilities aren't remotely hinted at, and ten thousand actors could have each given an identical performance.

The theater where I saw this was populated mostly with kids under 8 and their parents; if the adults hadn't been restraining the kids from running around, I doubt that the movie could have held their attention very long. (And the occasional crying from smaller kids was hard to miss.)

I felt like I'd been trapped in a Chuck E. Cheese run by Stalin. For what it's worth, only the efforts of Lillard and, to a lesser extent, Cardellini keep this movie from being a rock-bottom 1 - which I reserve for only the worst movie or two of the year.

2 of 10
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Wild Seed (1965)
7/10
Surprising and moving film
3 June 2002
This was a better movie than I was expecting; Michael Parks is extremely good as the young drifter (I was astonished that this was his first film) - it makes it that much more disappointing that his career didn't take off at all. He's very effective in showing both the protectiveness and vulnerability of the character, and really shines when the camera holds on him for a long time. On the other hand, Celia Kaye's performance didn't really strike me as anything special. There were moments when it struck me as fairly amateurish (in an unintentional way). The film is well directed and the supporting performances were quite good, although this is essentially a 2-person film. It's also VERY beautifully photographed by Conrad Hall; it's no surprise that his career took off after this debut feature, leading to movies like The Professionals and Cool Hand Luke right afterward. He had an excellent eye for the sweeping outdoor locations, and a lovely, delicate touch in the more intimate scenes. The script and dialogue are very moving as well, and completely believable in all situations; the exchanges between the older and younger characters are very well-written. Although not particularly surprising or unusual in setup or plot, it's altogether a very moving and touching story - a strong 7 of 10, close to an 8.
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Black Sabbath (1963)
7/10
Atmospheric trio of tales
2 June 2002
First, I'll note that what I saw was a new print of the Italian version (this is a subject of debate here, it seems). These three stories are gorgeously atmospheric, with tremendous use of color and set design. The first story, "The Telephone," is not particularly strong. The minor twists in the story are no great surprise, and (given how horror films have proceeded since) the basic premise is not too earth-shattering. Oddly, even though the outcomes of the other two segments are easier to predict, this is the one least captivating. Still, it's well told and presented in as strong a manner as possible - this segment probably rates a 6.

The last two stories are MUCH better, however. Story two, "The Wurdulak," is beautifully photographed and very well performed. Karloff is excellent as the vampire-hunting father who returns home just minutes after his self-imposed deadline for being allowed to live; and yet his family loves him too well to kill him. The story is built very well as it proceeds, and there is an ever-increasing sense of inevitable doom. Story three, "The Drop of Water," is marvelously creepy in spite of some rather obvious flaws in the effects work. The color is so brilliant that it completely overcomes the limited setting (a single night in two small, fairly run-down apartments). Both these last two stories probably earn 8's. And Karloff has some joyously ghoulish fun in the gleeful epilogue. I'd give the film as a whole a solid 7 of 10.
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7/10
Terrific script and performances, though a little overdone at times
31 May 2002
This was really a pleasure to see; the dialogue was - for the most part - absolutely outstanding (I thought the women's roles were a little better written, which is a nice surprise). The performances were uniformly very good, too. Frank Gorshin overdoes it a little when he goes into his various cons, but this might be his overcompensating for what I see as weaknesses in how the character is written; he's VERY good otherwise. Harry Groener does similarly well with a slightly underwritten character (Tony), overdoing some of the character's angrier scenes slightly. Ursula Burton is excellent as Sister Theresa, really carrying the film through some of its weaknesses. Seymour Cassel and Louise Fletcher are a little underused here, though I liked their work as always. Shirley Jones, Wendie Malick, Jill Eikenberry and Faye Grant are very good also (I couldn't help thinking Grant reminded me a little of Catherine O'Hara here); Cloris Leachman rather tears into her role, with reasonably good results.

I wish there had been more of a sure hand behind the camera, though. Sometimes the framing or staging seemed a bit off, or awkward. The closeups seemed overused (or erratically used) to me. And we don't always go from scene to scene as smoothly as we'd like. Some of the "tough guy" approach to the federal agent (music, costuming) was too over the top for me as well. And the few fantasy sequences didn't really work. But there are things that were VERY well done; the opening sequence set in Buffalo around 1970, for example. And, frankly, all of the scenes regarding Theresa's church work (I suspect the writer and actress liked the character a lot, which helps). The scenes between Malick and Eikenberry are VERY good.

The plot is probably a bit overcontrived - there seem to be a few too many schemes going on at once to keep them all straight at times, and the coincidences got to be a little too much. And I was a little bothered by the ending (should we REALLY be rooting for their biggest con yet to succeed?), but the ride along the way is very enjoyable. It would be nice to see more independent movies like this one made.

7 of 10
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Insomnia (2002)
8/10
Best of this year's murder/crime thrillers (so far)
28 May 2002
I won't comment too much here; I'll just say that I had a bit of a problem with Swank's character's behavior in the last scene - it struck me as unbelievably reckless and careless. I also thought the geography of that scene (fairly crucial) should have been better shown. The movie just ended fairly awkwardly for me, really. It's largely a formula thriller (with a good formula, though), but better than all the others I've seen this year (Murder by Numbers, Panic Room, etc). Still, strongly atmospheric, and a great performance from Pacino. Very well directed. 8 of 10
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About a Boy (2002)
7/10
Almost a great movie, but still a really good one
28 May 2002
I'd really like to give this an 8, but I can't get over how disjointed the directing, camerawork and/or editing were in so many scenes; I think I've got to give it a really high 7. The writing is TERRIFIC (although we really aren't surprised by anything in the plot), and the actors are first-rate - virtually without exception. This is perhaps Hugh Grant's best performance, and the other actors - particularly the numerous younger actors - really couldn't be better. But I couldn't help feeling that they couldn't quite decide how to shoot a lot of the scenes, because in a few pivotal scenes (Toni Collette's confrontation with Grant late in the film, for example), they kept cutting back and forth between about 4 or 5 camera angles. I know it seems like nitpicking but it really annoyed me while watching, almost to the point of having a disorienting effect. In another scene, the camera kept gliding back and forth between two actors across a table from one another, and I felt I was going to start getting seasick if it went on very long. Maybe they shot scenes from a lot of angles, and then tried to keep the best moments from all the different shots and it ended up getting really choppy; I really don't know. But I do know that I found most of the camerawork really uninspired, certainly much less so than in Notting Hill.

The film was cut by the same editor (Nick Moore) who did Notting Hill and The Full Monty (both of which had a much smoother rhythm than this one), though I suspect he probably did the best with what he had.. The cinematographer (Remi Adefarasin) previously worked on a number of top projects, including Elizabeth (which also struck me as having too much overly busy camera movement), and Band of Brothers (on which he probably shot a ton of footage from countless angles). My best guess is that a couple of young directors (the Weitzes, coming off a really dreadful movie) got a little overwhelmed by a cinematographer who had all kinds of ideas about camera tricks and angles. They would have been better served if they had calmed it down a little. Again, a top-notch 7 of 10 - ALMOST an 8.
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Unfaithful (2002)
9/10
Among the best of the year
28 May 2002
I think a lot of people expected this to be "sexy" or "erotic" in a way it's definitely not interested in being at all. We know going in (it's hard to miss, given the title) what's going to happen (wife has an affair); in fact the movie is very clear, all along, in flatly stating that this can't POSSIBLY go well. So why would anyone expect the sex scenes to be more titillating or stimulating than they are? The whole point is in watching the proverbial train slowly and inevitably going off the tracks, once she makes her fateful decision. She continually THINKS this isn't really that serious, that it can't really do much harm, but the movie knows better. Sure, the guy she gets involved with is the stereotypical French seductionist. OF COURSE. We have to realize, from the start, how obvious this all is - and how completely un-obvious it is to Constance. The movie - and audience - HAVE to be way ahead of her from the beginning; that's the way foolish decisions (especially regarding love and sex) always work. The last person to realize what a stupid thing it was to do, is the person who did it.

I was particularly struck by the way there isn't a wasted line of dialogue in the entire movie. EVERY line means something here (even a seeming off-handed remark about the definition of "accountable.") In fact, there really isn't anything here that isn't specifically designed to serve a purpose. (I also enjoyed some of the humor regarding the use of an elevator, which I suspect was a nod toward Fatal Attraction. And it's wonderfully ironic to see Gere playing the husband, when 20 years ago he would have seemed tailor-made for the Martinez role.) Rated R for good reason (primarily some rather frank depictions of rough sex). 9 of 10
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6/10
Visually impressive, but not particularly compelling
28 May 2002
I was very pleased to see this done in wide-screen (as I've always wished had been done with The Lion King), and I think the animation work is outstanding. The deep backgrounds are stunning and richly detailed, and much of the foregrounds as well - though I kept wondering why there are so many shots where the grass just appears flat and unmoving. The character animation is terrific, to the point that sometimes the cavalry officers could have been mistaken for real people (not in closeups, of course). The horses are all tremendously well-rendered, outstanding in line and movement; my only complaint is that I wish the coloration of their coats had had more texture, which would certainly be true of real horses. And there's one truly stunning sequence in a raging river where the animation is state-of-the-art.

Given all this, it's deeply disappointing that the story this all rests on is so mundane and simple-minded. The narration, though there isn't much of it, is largely unnecessary, and the songs seemed to me to be awkwardly shoehorned into the film. The story, such as it is, is a simple series of episodes where the main character escapes the threat of captivity, and longs to be with an attractive mare. It's all quite predictable and straightforward.

The white people (cavalry, railroad workers) are uniformly depicted as vicious, nasty, coldhearted. The looks on the cavalry horses' faces are seemingly intended to suggest that the horses feel mistreated, though I strongly suspect that any cavalryman who mistreated or abused a horse would swiftly have found himself in the infantry. The handful of natives are uniformly depicted as peaceful, community-based, serene - and oddly not interested much in riding horses. Doubtless "Spirit" never saw a native American eat one of his brethren, either. (The natives are Lakota, it seems - Dances With Wolves has really had the effect of making them the convenient "good guy" Indians in perpetuity. This movie would have been a lot harder to buy if they had been Apaches, for instance. And I wonder why the Lakota are so close to what appears often to be Arizona.....) None of this would have bothered me so much, if the movie hadn't started by stating it was a "history of the West."

I really don't think kids over age 10 will be much into this movie, given how simple the story is; and the romance between the horses is certainly limited. On the other hand, there's a LOT of violence in the movie, which may turn off the smallest kids. The horses get shot at several times, as well as roughly restrained; there's a rough fight with a mountain lion where Spirit emerges implausibly without a scratch; there's a large explosion and fire (where I suspect some humans get killed - offscreen, natch), a train wreck which I thought not too probably depicted (I doubt a locomotive would roll - and BOUNCE - with such ease), several long falls off cliffs and the like, a potentially fatal drowning of a horse in a roaring river, etc.

I'm not sure what the target audience is here; fairly unquestioning 8-year-olds, I suppose. But it's extremely lovely to look at.

6 of 10
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8/10
Not among's Disney's very best, but still enjoyable
25 May 2002
The first Disney animated film without the strong involvement of Disney himself, this film suffers from the fact that the story is not particularly original or interesting (this is, I believe, the only animated Disney film since the 1940's which is NOT based on an earlier book or other work, but is rather an original story). As others have noted, the plot is essentially a cross between the romance in Lady and the Tramp and the kidnapping/journey home story in 101 Dalmatians.

But to overcome this flaw, the filmmakers have successfully used many of the better features of most of the Disney animated films of the previous 10-15 years: Phil Harris (from The Jungle Book) voicing one of the main characters, follows his duet with Louis Prima in the previous film with another here with Scatman Crothers. The quality visual look of this film is virtually carried over from "Dalmatians" (with some nice nods to French Impressionism, it appears), and the villain here (the butler) is strongly reminiscent of the henchmen in that film as well. (This is probably one of Disney's least memorable villains.) The main story goes back and forth between the cats, and the butler's ongoing difficulties with two rural hound dogs (with great voice work by Pat Buttram and George "Goober" Lindsey"). The various animal characters are similarly familiar to those who have seen "Tramp" and "Dalmatians." The cats' owner, while bearing a striking visual resemblance to the wicked stepmother in Sleeping Beauty, bears none of that character's nasty traits and comes across as very warm and generous.

The real strength of the film is the voice work; after first going toward the use of mostly familiar actors in The Jungle Book, the tactic is continued strongly here with Disney veterans Harris and Sterling Holloway from The Jungle Book, and Eva Gabor (who would do a very similar character in the later film The Rescuers), as well as Crothers and Nancy Kulp. All are excellent here, particularly Harris and Gabor in the leads. The character animation is as excellent as one would expect, showing a variety of emotions well.

Smaller children may be upset by a few brief episodes (an escape from the path of a speeding train, a near-drowning by one of the children), but these are not presented in a particularly frightening or dark manner and are over very quickly. Overall, there's very little of the type of more frightening scenes found in many other Disney classics.

One minor oddity is the way some visual aspects of 60's culture are depicted among the jazz-performing cats in supposedly 1910 Paris; one can't help but wonder why the story wasn't set solidly in the present, other than the great deal Paris had changed much of its appearance in the intervening time. It really would have made more sense that way.

The songs, while being pleasant and sometimes very enjoyably performed, are not particularly memorable. Nonetheless, the general energy applied here, the excellent voice work and fine animation all contribute to overcome the relatively few and minor weaknesses. Far from the greatness of classic "10"s such as Pinocchio or Aladdin, and not quite up to the "9"s one might give to Sleeping Beauty or 101 Dalmatians, this is probably a rather marginal 8 of 10; perhaps a 7.
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The Tall T (1957)
8/10
Terrific western
25 May 2002
A real pleasure to watch; the trio of bandits (Richard Boone, Henry Silva and Skip Homeier) is outstanding! This is probably among the best work of all three; Boone particularly relishes the dialogue he's given (which is excellent). Scott is more outgoing here than in Seven Men From Now, but the situation here is more grim. Very good characterizations all around, and fine performances from all; Maureen O'Sullivan is very good as the homely, timid bride who comes to terms with why she married and what type of woman she wants to be. This is another -perhaps the best - in the series of quality, compact westerns Scott did with director Budd Boetticher.

8 of 10
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7/10
Effective, evocative western
25 May 2002
Scott's stoicism serves well here as he plays a man haunted by the ghosts of his past, and by what he perceives as his personal shame. The film benefits greatly from Lee Marvin's outstanding turn as an old nemesis who may want one more shot at the former sheriff who imprisoned him, and who rather enjoys twisting the knife after someone makes an innocently hurtful remark. Particularly effective scenes include Scott's nighttime conversation with Gail Russell (the wife in the couple he assists on their road West), as he lies under their prairie schooner and she lies above him with the wagon's floor separating them.

The story proceeds effectively, steadily revealing more of the dangers facing Scott in his quest; the dialogue is particularly sharp and enjoyable. The men he pursues are not particularly memorable - certainly not nearly so interesting as Marvin - but the real focus here is on Scott's character as he finds himself affected by his journey.

Not a truly great western in the mold of Shane or High Noon, or the classics of John Ford, this is still a fine addition to the genre and very enjoyable and moving. 7 of 10
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8/10
A tale of timeless horror
24 May 2002
Not specifically a film about either fascism, World War II Italy, or sexual gratification, this is more accurately a film about how the unlimited exercise of brutal power can never truly achieve the satisfaction its perpetrators hope for. In the film, 17 teenagers - specifically selected for their physical beauty and perfection - are captured and taken to an isolated estate (an 18th is killed en route), to be used for the complete personal and brutal gratification of four local officials. The youths are required to abandon any sense of personal identity (beyond their names), and forbidden to demonstrate any religious practices or engage in any unauthorized sexual activity. Based on the writings of the Marquis deSade, and featuring references to various other works of the past few centuries, the film is set in late WWII Italy most likely because it presented the most dramatic and accessible recent scenario for the depiction of unrestrained totalitarian power (at least for an Italian director who lived in that environment); the film could just as easily have been set in Eastern Europe during the Cold War, or in any number of recent locales where anarchistic brutality has ruled.

The four officials set about creating what they believe to be the perfect environment in which to satisfy their most savage fantasies, using several middle-aged women as "narrators" of explicit tales meant to inspire sessions of unbridled dabauchery. What transpires, however, is not an orgy of wild abandon but rather a series of episodes where the officials' lusts are satisfied fleetingly, incompletely, or not at all. In fact, they seem to take greater pleasure from the devising of new ideas, rules, and situations, than in actually carrying them out. Increasingly, any deviation from the most precise demands possible serves only to frustrate their passion and dissipate their desire. They turn progressively to more degrading means of torture, hoping to gain at least some measure of satisfaction.

The film certainly is executed with a great deal of skill; the technical aspects are outstanding, with the exception of the poor sound quality (typical of Pasolini). The filmmakers have thoroughly succeeded in creating an atmosphere of tightly controlled grotesquery and chillingly banal brutalism. One gets the sense that they achieved exactly the film they were trying to make. And the acting style, while essentially amateurish, does in a sense make the film seem less artificial for it.

Those expecting titillation or graphic depictions of sex acts will no doubt be disappointed (or relieved, depending on your interest here), as virtually all of the most graphic segments are either conducted (slightly) offscreen, partially obscured, viewed from a distance too far to permit close examination, or achieved through fairly seamless and accomplished editing. (The few closeups are seemingly applied to get the audience to think they're seeing something more "real" than is perhaps the case.) There is, no doubt, much more graphic sexual content in the first few minutes of a standard pornographic video than is to be found in the entirety here. And given the cold, detached, consistently morbid atmosphere maintained throughout the film, it's difficult to imagine anyone being aroused by the proceedings. (I, for one, would not like to meet anyone who could.) Apparently the furor surrounding this film was inspired not by actual depictions of atrocities, but by the idea that merely dealing with such subjects at all is unacceptable.

To be clear, this is NOT a film for anyone under 18; for that matter, it's hard to imagine any age at which someone might "typically" be considered ready to deal with such a film as this, but I personally can't imagine any sense of why someone would think someone under 18 OUGHT to see this film. The teenagers depicted, though some reviewers have described them as children, all appear to be at least 16 (the age of consent in most of Europe, I believe). Admittedly, my one of my main difficulties in watching was not simply the depiction of atrocities (which I reasonably believe to be simulated, without exception), but in my discomfort at knowing what the actors were required to endure here; it's unsurprising that few (if any) of the actors here had any previous or later acting experience, though this is probably par for the course in a Pasolini film. And while the 17 teenage performers (and a handful of adult guards) might be described objectively as beautiful, complete nudity is presented in such fleeting instances that anyone seeking the film for pleasure for that purpose is doubtless better off looking elsewhere.

Admittedly, this is a difficult film to rate; it's certainly not "enjoyable" in any conventional sense. But what is accomplished is an steadily increasing sense of horror (not fear or disgust) throughout, recognizing the monstrosities of which people are capable when stripped of any restraint on their power, or allowed to abandon their humanity. The last 20 minutes, in particular, are an unrelentingly horrifying showcase of physical torments - no less so for realizing it's not "real." There ARE real monsters in the world, and it's perhaps better to recognize them, and what they - or we - can become, if we trade our humanity for power and desire.

8 of 10
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Freud (1962)
8/10
excellent bio by Huston
23 May 2002
Huston does very good work here, using a fine script in presenting the story of Freud not as a standard biography, but concentrating only on his initial work in examining the effect of the subconscious mind on conscious (though perhaps involuntary) actions - an idea believed preposterous at the time. The narrative is presented essentially as a psychological detective story, as Freud tries to discover the root causes of one patient's multiple afflictions and aberrant behavior, none of which has any physical cause. The film uses depictions of memories, dreams, thoughts as visual clues - all progressively revealing more - to lead us (and Freud) steadily closer to the underlying truth in the case, as well as in other areas disturbing him.

The opening and closing narration (by Huston) is effective, though the occasional narration he does as the story progresses bothered me a little; it was as if they felt there was something missing from the film which had to be explained in voiceover, and it also pulled me out of the story momentarily. Probably it would have been more effective if Clift (rather than Huston) had done the narration, from Freud's point of view, in the body of the film.

The film, which maintains a serious, fiercely somber atmosphere throughout (similar to The Elephant Man though perhaps more so here), does not proceed with any real speed - you'll need to stay with it; and the dark, harsh style of photography and music (while effective) might be difficult for some viewers. You need not agree with Freud's concluding theories (many of which are not held in particularly high regard today) in order to recognize the importance and validity of his primary methods and pioneering work in what was then a highly ridiculed field. 8 of 10
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8/10
psychological battle of wills
23 May 2002
Williams' story about the battle of wills between two women (Hepburn and Taylor), both of whom are forced to face the truth regarding the life and death of their relative (son/cousin) and traveling companion Sebastian. Taylor, having witnessed the death, is too traumatized to remember it and faces the threat of insanity (and lobotomy) if she can't come to terms with it quickly. Hepburn, having been unable to protect the son whose life and poetry she carefully protected and supported, must recognize why her son allowed her to continue such a close involvement in his work (and why he replaced her, in that fateful summer, with Taylor). Clift, as the doctor who wants something from both women (Hepburn's money and Taylor's sanity) must referee this battle, deciding for himself whose side he will defend more vigorously, and where his priorities will be.

As can be expected in a work by Williams, with such a cast, the dialogue and exposition are top rate. My main problem is that director Joseph Mankiewicz (in his only filmed attempt at Williams) takes a very slow approach in getting us into the real story initially; neither Hepburn nor Taylor - the real opponents here - appears for several minutes into the film. And the more baroque aspects of Williams' work seem better suited to directors like Kazan, who certainly was more effective with it. Also, Taylor (who has a tendency to go over the top a bit, which I admit some like) is always a dangerous factor in a Williams story, which certainly lends itself to overacting. For me, she's more effective in her earlier scenes with lift - and the flashbacks - than in the later scenes where she has to relate the lurid details of her experience. And her final reaction to the ordeal was presented a little too smoothly for my belief.

The look of the film is outstanding, from the backyard jungle where the film really gets going, to the multiple exposures (and remarkably effective editing) used in the flashback sequences later on. 8 of 10
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8/10
Enjoyably spectacular nonsense
22 May 2002
All in all, an excellent movie from that time and source (coming from Warner Brothers as it was peaking in craftsmanship and style just before WWII), provided you don't take it at all seriously. The movie really makes no claim to being historically accurate, and is certainly no more or less accurate or believable than say, JFK. (This one may actually be more honest about it, though, as it essentially admits along the way that it's not to be taken as particularly fact-based, but more of a stylishly semi-heroic portrayal.) It's worth noting that audiences of the time were no more naive about the story than we are today; the NY Times review conceded that audiences would "dismiss factual inaccuracies sprinkled throughout the film," described the biographical account of Custer's life as "fanciful," and pointed out that the presentation of Custer's motivations regarding the final events were at odds with various historical accounts. They could have really gone overboard in building up Custer, one supposes, but they succeed admirably in depicting him as not necessarily the sharpest or most diligent guy around, but appropriately determined, principled and inspirational.

Flynn and DeHavilland, doing their 8th movie together in 7 years (and their last), are so comfortable together, and play off each other so easily at this point, that it's not too difficult to overlook how thinly their courtship is written here. With a first-time pairing, it would be hard to imagine what could really draw Elizabeth to Custer, but these two make it work. The movie is also missing their director from their previous seven films together (the greatly underrated Michael Curtiz), but given that he had worked with them on the previous year's similar-themed Santa Fe Trail, it's understandable if he chose to opt out of this one. (They all started together with Captain Blood and The Charge of the Light Brigade - both terrific - so we can't really blame them if they started having a tough time keeping it all fresh.)

Raoul Walsh, the director here, is certainly more comfortable with the action sequences - which are outstanding - and everything else outdoors. The interior scenes are a little more uneven, but the studio craftsmen succeed in compensating for that very well, as does Warner Bros' outstanding cast of "usual suspects" and new faces (Greenstreet, Gene Lockhart, Anthony Quinn, Arthur Kennedy, etc). I would have liked it better if Kennedy's character had been a bit less standard (I generally like his work), but here he seems to be hitting roughly the same notes in every scene; the part could have been better written - and I suppose they might have been unsure of what he could handle, as he'd only been in films for one year (Walsh probably took him for this after doing High Sierra together).

Various highlights include the depiction (probably imagined) of the genesis of "Garryowen" as the cavalry theme. The last half hour is particularly outstanding, especially with the parting of the leads echoing the end of their screen partnership, followed by the final battle scenes. A thoroughly rousing adventure.

8 of 10
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