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Uptight (1968)
8/10
Extra appreciation for meaning...this is an important film straight from 1968
31 July 2019
Set in Cleveland in the days after Martin Luther King's funeral, this gorgeous film interweaves several stories about what seems like typical Black urban America. There are people struggling to survive, there are revolutionaries (this is 1968), and there is the leading man, Tank, who is troubled by failure and drink, and by King's death. So crime in the name of racial justice collides with ordinary people who have their own kind of individual justice, or just decency, but strained and compromised. In a way, this is about life, ordinary life, except the times are not ordinary at all, and the drama of having a social cause elevates and distorts ordinary things. The director, Jules Dassin, is known for a couple or three great noirs, and maybe that suits the mood here, twenty years later. But the big credit is just him taking on a movie with this kind of topical meaning, and with sincerity. The political meeting in the center of movie is a bit clichéd no doubt, but it feels close enough to get the point across. The story has classic roots, in a weird way-it's based on a 1925 book, "The Informer," about the Irish resistance. It was made into a British (ironically) film in 1929, and then a more famous (and highly regarded) 1935 John Ford film. This tranferrance to the Black Revolution, with parallels to the Black Panthers in their insistence that guns are necessary to real revoltion, is strong and interesting, and it comes straight from the period, without the filters and aesthetic distance that a later film would have not avoided. I have to say this is a beautiful film. Almost every scene is at night, and the stark interiors and dramatic exteriors, with layers of light and rain and sweat (and a notable early scene in the shower) make it really sizzle. Cinematographer Boris Kaufman really gets it. It's vivid just on visual terms (including a 720 degree camera spin after a shootout, another at the end). He shot "On the Waterfront" and "Baby Doll" and "Long Day's Journey into Night" for just three classics. However, it isn't uniformly thoughtful, and an attempt at some humorous surreal commentary at a funhouse is both fun and awkward. This is followed by a born-again street preacher who might seem believable to some but it seems more symbolic, and pushy. But then, this is followed a scene of family and friends in a big, quiet meeting where Tank arrives drunk, and the editing and filming seems to compare to the careful head shots in Dreyer's "Passion of Joan of Arc." Seriously. This is an almost entirely black cast, and set in squalid, cramped inner city situations. Look for fabulous performances by Ruby Dee (as a mother filled with dignity), and Rosco Lee Jones (as a homosexual), in addition to Tank, played by Julian Mayfield. For those who like blaxploitation films, this is more sincere and yet still filled with the exaggerations and details of urban Black America from that same era (or actually a few years before most of them).
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Us (II) (2019)
6/10
A decent, but run of the mill scare movie with a couple of improbable twists..
17 July 2019
Us (2019)

I think if I saw this movie without knowing the director and writer was Jordan Peele, I would have just dismissed it as ordinary stuff. It has all the elements of a kind of zombie twist, with the appealing semi-novelty of featuring a black cast in a normalizing way. That's all fine. But this is a movie built on clichés, and with an awful lot of chasing, hiding, being found, fighting, chasing, hiding, etc. It clicks along fine for awhile, and has an odd twist in the middle. The larger "twist" at the end is kind of the overall rationale to things and it's so improbable and silly it doesn't work. Sure, suspend your disbelief, but don't call this a great movie. The elephant in the room is "Get Out," which of course is Peele's previous movie, a fabulous bit of moviemaking. But that movie, to be clear, has originality, great acting, true suspense (as opposed to scary surprises), and some overlying meaning about race. And I think the main actor in that one was above and beyond and made the movie rise even higher. "Us" is none of those things. I almost didn't care to see the end it was so obvious as it went, and kind of playing with the audience's helplessness. Hopes are up for Peele's next round.
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Craig's Wife (1936)
7/10
Very interesting if a bit awkward in its actual cinematic drama
18 June 2019
Craig's Wife (1936)

A complicated melodrama, filled with spite, jealousy, infidelity, and murder. And with sharp acting, especially from Rosalind Russell. Director Dorothy Azner seems to be at her best here, from a career of almost excellent dramas with interesting side issues. This is clearly a battle of the strengths, of servants wanting to maintain personal integrity, of husbands figuring out what is happening with their wives, and of wives most of all, and Russell's charater, the title character, with a conniving, disdainful maneuvering that is what makes (here) a society woman's wife. There is sympathy most of all for the jilted men here, but there is an implication that the women are bored and due some kind of control over their destiny, rightfully. This isn't easy stuff, easy to digest or easy to film in an early Code movie. But it's worth trying and credit to everyone. Very much worth watching. It's a woman's movie, whatever that has come to mean in the 21st Century, and it is seen from the point of view of women, which makes it of increasing interest. There is no mention of the Depression here. These are people clearly little affected by it. I wonder what kind of audience it was aimed at. Maybe just anyone looking for a good movie, a good story. Of minor note is the cinematographer, Lucian Ballard, who is in charge of one of his first films. And it's a competant but unremarkable job. (Compare to the screwball drama of the same year, also mostly interior shots, "My Man Godfrey" filmed by Ted Tezlaff.) This in part points to one of Arzner's weaknesses, in my small view-that she was a literary director, interested in content and story over the visual drama possible in movies.(Ballard became admired for his widescreen work two decades later.) Ballard films this in what I think of as a "Dinner at Eight" mode that delivers the series of acts intelligently and intelligibly, in that mid-30s mode between the drama of early Warner Brothers and the polished richness of 1940s films of all kinds. Arzner seems to set up each short scene as a moment to create interplay between characters almost independ of the space around them. Eventually this emphasizes a choppy progression of facts, which gradually builds into a progression of emotional reactions. And that isn't really the best way to build intensity, and the plot really suggests and demands intensity. So, if you watch this, you will likely study it and absorb the information rather than get swept away. Which still makes for a really full experience. And, to go back to where I started, a complicated melodrama. And with sharp writing throughout.
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I Am Waiting (1957)
7/10
Visually raw and a well worn sort of story to carry the personal drama
21 March 2019
I Am Waiting (1957)

A Japanese kind of noir flavored crime drama that uses tropes and cliches to their max. And it works. There is the woeful beautiful woman and the troubled handsome man, and they meet in ways that make their relationship complicated. Some thugs get in the way, the past has its grim details resurface, and a couple of side characters give the main pair color and life.

It's kind of great in a B-movie way. The filming (camera and lights) by Kurataro Takamura is terrific, and helps hold it up even if the writing is sometimes a bit obvious. The acting is solid, maybe even very good, but the characters are made to play types that don't allow for as much development as you might like.

In all these ways the film is a lot like the average noir. But it doesn't hold a candle to a great American noir. The editing is sometimes awkward, the story a hair too simple (despite all the unnecessary flashbacks), the good and bad guys a bit too simple in their motivations. I think you can love this movie for exactly these things, but know it ahead of time.

Takamura is terrific, it has to be repeated. The long fight scene near the end, and the final long take before the credits, are both first rate stuff. This is director Koreyoshi Kurahara's first film, and if a novice feeling sometimes shows, the movie also reveals a bold talent and reckless love of cinema, which is really all that matters.
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7/10
Smart and remarkable in the details, with a stellar McKenzie as leading actress
19 January 2019
Leave No Trace (2018)

You might think this movie amounts to too little, tracing the father and daughter as they get caught after years living off the land in the woods. They struggle with exposure to civilization, and the movie becomes about their relationaship above all. Then, gradually, it becomes about the girl as she enters her mid teens and she knows her father is somehow mentally off the grid. And this is the main pleasure, watching the amazing acting of the leading actress, Thomasin McKenzie. It is her struggle to find herself in a very bizarre circumstance that makes you feel for her and her father, too. Remarkable. There are times when I did wonder if the movie had enough going on, or if it simplified things in a way that was not helpful, but other times I was completely on board, and empathetic. A really strong packaging of a seemingly simple idea. The director, Debra Granik, makes the most of her starting material (a book) and the screenplay (which is limited, but handled well, partly written by Granik). Ben Foster as the dad is understated to the point of being slightly drab, but I think this is smart. (I knew his acting first from Six Feet Under long ago, and he's been a steady actor since, never quite breaking through.) He's a perfect support of McKenzie. See this? Yes, if you like quiet movies. There are a couple of moments when you think the plot is going to get horrifying to a point of being unacceptable, but Granik does not abuse the viewer. That's all I can say without a spoiler alert.
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8/10
Powerful and necessary telling of a tale most of us already know
19 January 2019
Mississippi Burning (1988)

A powerful movie with a handful of first rate actors and a story of injustice that gets worse and worse. Gene Hackman leads the stellar performances-he's phenomenal-with Willem Dafoe and a young Frances McDormand supporting him beautifully. I don't think the plot is exactly what moves this story along, but rather the overall theme. In fact, the brutal, ignorant racism that underlies the motives of the Mississippi men in the movie is a kind of given for the 1960s (and unfortunately, in some quarters, to this day). The FBI swooping down on this town is not quite the admirable sight it should be, and that's to the credit of the moviemakers. Large institutional law enforcement was necessary to break the local politics (and morality) there, but it comes off as heavy handed and insensitive. And that's where Hackman thrives, being the loner amidst the crowd, doing the dirty work necessary and that ends up being heroic in the end. The filming (and all the fires suggested by the title) make for a vigorous movie to watch. It's a good, classic telling of a well known tale. And I hint at what makes the movie a little limited-it is telling a story we all kind of know, that there were a lot of truly hateful white people inflicting harm and violence onf black people in the deep South. I wish it had found a way to make it more distinctive. Maybe for those who don't really know all this happened, it's a big bang way to find out, but if you already have the gist of it in your head, this will travel some familiar ground. It tells its story so well, however, it's still a great watch. So watch.
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Mrs. Hyde (2017)
5/10
Tries to be offbeat, quiet, and lightly serious, but misfires too often to survive
9 January 2019
Mrs Hyde (2018)

This is a quirky little film, held together by the sincerely studied acting of Isabelle Huppert. Romain Duris as the school principal is a bit miscast, but José Garcia as Huppert's sweet and loving husband might be the second highlight overall. It begins a bit tired, in my view, with yet another version of a classroom filled with unruly students and a teacher who can't cope. It's not unconvincing, but it has no freshness at all (except maybe Huppert's slightly unlikely incompetence). But this is the point of the movie underlying the more sensational paranormal stuff. The big twist is well advertised but I won't say what it is, except to point to the title and its reference to the Hyde of Dr. Jekyll. Huppert's character is meant to show two halves in opposition. Don't forget this is a kind of wry comedy, though it isn't outrageous and perky enough to ever quite take off. If there is an element of the mystical, or of something serious, then that, too, is watered down and not enough. The basic premise here might have had promise, but the adaptation and actual script are weak. There's no special reason to watch this film unless some odd aspect to all this strikes your fancy.
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Bird Box (2018)
6/10
Entertaining end of the world stuff if you don't think too hard about it!
9 January 2019
Bird Box

Do not even try to make this make sense. Relax and go with the bigger set up, the feeling of helplessness, the dependency on friends and strangers. The high drama in a near-future dystopia (the favorite new realm for movies since 9/11). Fairly quickly into the movie, something goes terribly wrong in the world, and for the few people who are not immediately affected and killed, the one hope is to hide. And hiding in various ways becomes the rest of the trip. Oddly, that creates enough suspense to make it work. Sandra Bullock is key, a strong female lead. The surrounding cast (including a really good John Malkevich for awhile) helps keep it together. And the filming and pacing is really good. But of course the premise of the movie is really its biggest point, and its famous weakness because there are just so many unexplained and unlikely aspects to the perils, and to the solutions, to make your brain happy. So shut off the brain and enjoy the ride.
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7/10
Absurdist great fun
7 January 2019
The Death of Stalin

This is not a bit politically incorrect-in fact, the thing that drives this movie is the understanding (and belief) that Stalin was terrible, that his cronies were terrible, and that it's all no joking matter. So what better subject for satire? And for the first half hour, this rolicks! It doesn't sustain belly laughs all through (the second half gets more chaotic and starts to wear thin) but it is hilarious in some many parts you can't help appreciating it. The writing and acting combine to make a sharp, smart, enjoyable romp. What about the millions of younger viewers who don't know a twig about Stalin? I think the absurdist humor will still work, if there is at least the basic sense of a bad man surrounded by power hungry graspers. A lot has been said about Steve Buscemi's great performance-and it's great, surely-but there are several actors who really come forward. And who combine to make a band of horrible misfits. Simon Russell Beale is great as the smart insider, Beria, and Jeffrey Tambor is also great in his caricatured excess (this movie is before his fall from grace). Smaller parts grow in importance, like Olga Kurylenko's blazing strength as Maria, and Rubert Friend and Andrea Riseborough as Stalin's unpredictable son and wild daughter. The director, Armando Iannucci, is one of my favorites for this kind of smart, fast humor (he directed "In the Loop" which I love). The writing isn't afraid to step on toes or be inappropriate, which is part of what makes it funny. You can ask, I suppose, whether the movie makes any sense in aligning the history or making us see Stalin (and 1953) any differently. But who cares? The result is a funny movie that uses an historical moment as a silly launching point. That's all.
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Roma (2018)
10/10
A rare combination of visual beauty and everyday meaning
5 January 2019
There is no shortage of good reviews for this film, and I'm going to add to them quickly. But I'll start by noting there are a number of reviewers who did not like the movie, and I think it was often for the same reasons I liked it.

First of all, the black and white cinematography is startling. It gives and gives. Not only is it fluid and almost tender, panning in consistent ways slowly across this Mexican world, but it has so much detail (70mm film detail) that you can look and look and keep finding. Almost as if you were there. And yet there are those who just don't like the restraint of black and white. Would this have worked in color? Of course, in a different way. But the difference would be critical--it would try to make it more "real" rather than a portrait of a young woman's world seen from a distance.

A distance of time, and of shifting memories. As much as this film is quasi-documentary, you never once think it's truly a documentary. It has too much cinematic beauty. So you enter that world of cinema that is so wonderful, a created world (not a re-created one). And you are then in the hands of the moviemakers.

Director (and cinematographer, and writer, and producer, and co-editor) Alfonso Cuarón is clearly making what is "his" film here, though the acting is also a key to the success overall. But in planning what to show and what to emphasize in this young maid's life, he finds something that isn't autobiographical, but rather simply perceptive and honest and empathetic. We feel for all young women in their roles as servants to the rich, with the good and bad that goes with it.

A great achievement, and one for film buffs and lovers of older films above all. I know Cuarón is one of those, and I hope you are, too, because this will make your day.
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10/10
A startling, probing, layered masterpiece
5 January 2019
Lazzaro Felice, or Happy Lazzaro (2017)

A charming and disarming Italian film with layers of beauty and meaning. It's quiet but never dull, and keeps evolving and surprising with every new turn. Director and writer Alice Rohrwacher already had reputation for superb moviemaking, and this will lift her light still higher. It begins quite simply, with a gorgeous portrayal of a kind of early 20th Century poverty that is almost envious because people living close to the land have what they really need: family, food, fresh air. I know that's a naive point of view, but the vision of something rarefied is painted here with tenderness and yet without sentimentality. It feels very real. But then the reasons for this poverty become clear, and the complications grow. And then the world turns. And then some seemingly impossible happens. And I can say no more, except that the main character is a kind of messianic figure in the mode of Dostoevsky's "The Idiot." And then there is the meaning of the wolf, and the implication of the main character's name, which relates somehow to "Lazarus." It's hard to go further here because part of what is magical about the movie is how it unfolds and changes. It certainly works on the immediate level of events happening one after another. It has great acting, wonderful attention to detail, and a feeling of pacing (and editing) that is very natural. And it's loaded with subtle symbolism. Even the role of tobacco here has larger meaning. And the idea that good people sometimes have to do things they don't want to do just to survive. Whatever survival means, and whatever the real goal of life actually is. Which brings us back to the opening scenes and the profound implications there. See it.
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6/10
Some great moments in a not always great movie
14 December 2018
Christmas Chronicles (2018)

First, go ahead and watch this with normal joyous holiday cheer. It's fun and Kurt Russell as Santa is just peachy and funny. But as a more critical or demanding viewer: what a roller coaster! There are parts that are inspired and funny and show the potential for a true classic. And there are parts that are just dumb and dumber, not filler but worse, trying too hard to be funny, lacking the right pace. I found myself perked up by the great moments and groaning in the not so great ones. Too bad! One problem has to be the two kids, who are cute but lack that extra spark that makes them inhabit the movie. The story, for all its potential, is kind of mash-up of ideas both homey and mystical. It tries to be everything and do everything. What it does pull off is the basic concept (no spoiler here) of a couple of kids getting in on Santa's delivery system Christmas Eve. Lots and lots of potential there.
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5/10
A bland but necessary movie, the first Superman feature, and lots of 50s tropes
7 December 2018
Warning: Spoilers
Superman and the Mole-Men (1951)

You don't have to be a Superman fan to like the campy, cheesy quality of this B-movie. But don't go into it thinking it's a great movie, of course. It is, for certain, the first feature film using the DC comics hero, Superman, and it's played by George Reeves (no relation to Christopher, such is coincidence). The mole men of the title are played by either children or midgets (they are truly small, and wear funny masks that make their heads a little larger and expressionless). For some reason, when this was cut for t.v. release, all mention of "mole-men" was cut from the script. I don't know what politically correct boundary is approached here, but mole-men works in the comic book sense--they live deep underground. Okay, it's a creaky enterprise. The townspeople go into a predictable panic, Lois Lane is more a 50s housewife than vigorous reporter/photographer, and Clark Kent himself, though big and impressive, is not quite what we think of as a Superman. There are some things to notice and appreciate from seven decades later, about being American (the clichés) and about the 1950s. First of all, in a post-WWII nuclear age, there is a wonderful compassion shown to the "aliens" from down below. It's kind of like: we have differences, but if we keep apart, we can just live separately. (Lois Lane spells this out with great drama at the end.) And second, there is a feeling that our technology is pushing us into areas we don't understand, and we need to be cautious at the very least. (The whole crisis was started by an experimental oil well that had drilled down farther than ever before, some six miles.) There are better movies of this sort from this period ("The Blob" and "The Day the Earth Stood Still" and "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" are all far better). But this was more "fun" than I expected. And less than an hour "wasted."
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Wind River (2017)
7/10
The last third makes the first third completely worth it.
19 November 2018
Wind River (2017)

The setting here will suck you in immediately-remote Wyoming, high mountains and rough uncouth men and a handful of principled good people to keep it steady. The leading man, Jeremy Renner, is superb. He plays Cory, who is strong, thoughtful, but not over the top into cliche, a fish and wildlife mountain man, of sorts. His job is to kill predators like wolves and mountain lions that are intruding on civilization. (This alone sets a one that is filled with contradictions.) But then a murder happens (of a human being) and things get intertwined with Indians on the Rez and with an FBI agent sent to deal with the conflicint authorities (fed land, local cops, Indian land, etc.). This will seem like a huge weak point because the FBI agent comes off as a terrible stereotype we should all scream against-the incompetent blonde woman over her head. Elizabeth Olsen, unfortunately, is not even quite good at projecting that stereotype. It somehow survives this stumble, however, and if you get past that half hour of the agent and the hero coming to work together (without any sense of impending romance, by the way), the movie grows and gets more subtle. And as Renner gets more convincing and intense, so does Olsen, as she gets roughed up emotionally and isn't as green or arrogant as she first appears when rolling up her window in the car (you'll see). Then, to my surprise, the movie turns into a great movie. The last half hour adds lots of nuance even as it gets violent and ugly. It becomes a moving tale of resolution, dreams, mourning, the passing of tradition, the debauchery of lonely men, and the strength within some of us. Yes, maybe I overstate, but it's all there, in pieces. A warning, perhaps. There are two violent scenes near the end. One is with guns and is quite exciting, for that kind of good guy/bad guy stuff. The other is an assault (which is implied at the very beginning) that is painful and for me not quite necessary. I see why they included it, but it could have been implied instead, or deflected a little. But for people who might find this disturbing-it is. Expect a well made movie that builds and justifies itself by the end.
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Mr. Lucky (1943)
7/10
Fun, cheerful, lightweight stuff, with a decent Mr. Grant
28 October 2018
Mr. Lucky (1943)

A less celebrated Cary Grant film featuring a strong and smart leading woman, Laraine Day. It is more or less made along formula lines, with the raft of supporting characters that work for and against the leads. It's a romance with comedic elements all along, which is Grant's natural niche.

There is some added interest in that this is a war film, though the support efforts (fundraising and such on the home front) are only a superficial backdrop at first. Eventually the personal tragedy strikes closer to home due to Grant taking on someone else's identity, and this helps complete his transformation to being an actually good guy, which we suspected all along.

The writing here is routine stuff, and the rise and fall of the drama also something a bit pat. But Grant is good as usual, and Day a good balance to him when she is present (this is Grant's film up and down).

Note that this is a typical war film in that the main characters have to come around and join the effort one way or the other. And they do. (This isn't because the BMP insisted, as an arm of the gov't, but more because this was the prevailing mood of the public, the people buying the tickets.) But either way, you see it coming and you're glad, mostly, that things work out well. Watch and see. Lightweight entertainment well done.
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7/10
Restrained, professional, and packed with stars
28 October 2018
Not as a Stranger (1955)

What a crazy great cast for newbie director Stanley Kramer (who also produced, which was how he got his start in Hollywood, independently producing a string of interesting films). So Robert Mitchum and Olivia deHavilland and Frank Sinatra lead. Then Gloria Grahame and Lon Chaney Jr. both have important parts. Throw in side roles for Lee Marvin and Matthew Broderick and a couple other known character actors, and you wonder how it will all work out. Pretty well. The story is a slight strain because the big cause of problems is simply that a med student (Mitchum) is running out of money. When he pretends to fall in love with a rich girl (deHavilland, with weak echos of "The Heiress," unfortunately), it gets more interesting. Sinatra plays Mitchum's conscience, in a way, and is a bit likable and bland at the same time. In fact, everyone is a bit less than they could be, including Mitchum, though deHavilland acts her heart out. It's known that this is not a well known film, and part of the reason is just that it feels restrained all along. No one is on fire, all this talent is just doing its job professionally well. That might sound like enough, but not really. Add the fact the story is a quiet one, and you have a very good and rather forgettable film. But very good, and worth a watch.
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Safe in Hell (1931)
8/10
I liked it--the filming, the acting, even the contrived plot
4 October 2018
Safe in Hell (1931)

You might think this would be routine Hollywood, directed by the mainstream director William Wellman. But it starts with a lurid title card in flames, shifts to a scene on the docks of New Orleans, then to a shot of a woman's legs as she answers the phone (the legs more important than the phone). It's sassy and pert up and down.

This isn't a lost masterpiece, not a work of genius. But it's really fun to watch, and has enough modern elements in filming and writing to keep it alive. Like this early line: "Hey, that costs ten a quart." That's like a hundred bucks for a fifth (of whiskey) in our money. Then the flames really come to mean something, and the movie takes off.

The leading woman here is alive and attractive in an honest way, and she holds up her end of the movie beautifully. Her name: Dorothy Mackaill. No, I never heard of her either. This is a strangely intriguing movie filled with disconnected moments. It moves from the city to a boat to an island where MacKaill, playing Gilda, has to sweat it out. It's not clear what island this is (except that it's south of New Orleans, and called Tortuga, but there are no significant islands south of New Orleans, appropriately enough for hell). The characters become increasingly caricatured, with a variety of expatriates and natives, played by bit actors and Caribbean types.

When Gilda says, "Give me a big kiss Carl. It's got to last a long long time," the boat whistle blows at night and she's left alone on the dock. You know she will be fighting for her dignity. There is one church on the island...important for getting married...and after a quick but arduous journey, they find the only minister has died. Things go downhill from there. (Read the movie's title again.)

The cinematography (by Sid Hickox) is remarkably fresh, the opposite of deep focus, with characters isolated by shallow depth of field in a world with shadows and light that play in front of and behind Gilda and the surrounding characters. The whole film is shot on the studio set except the establishing shot on the New Orleans dock (probably done by a secondary crew). But the careful framing, and the even more careful focus pulling (following the moving subject with the focal point) is really remarkable. Almost worth studying just for that. (Follow from 42 to 44 minute for simple examples.)

Maybe equally important as an actress is Nina Mae McKinney, a Southern actress with a big blues singing voice and a confident presence as the hotel manager. And she sings with real feeling, if also a bit out of place (breaking into brief song to call the porter, for example). But it shows her talent, and the missed opportunity to use it better.

The movie is fast and if the characters are bit caricatured, it does have a "pre-code" feel and a worthwhile zip. Recommended!
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Manslaughter (1922)
6/10
A great idea but stilted and slow at times, sadly
3 October 2018
Manslaughter (1922)

As one intertitle says early on: "Modern girls don't sit by the fire and KNIT." And so the leading character, played with great verve by Leatrice Joy (unknown to me), races, literally, to a huge dilemma. A man is killed, and a district attorney falls in love with the wrong woman. There are parties, and some hugely extravagant (for the time) scenes that director DeMille loved to stage. It's all kind of fun and the drama relatively dramatic. But none of it rises above. The conflicts are a bit drained of actual tension (partly the acting, partly the script) and the overall flow is surprisingly slow. The fun parts sometimes seem like interludes that may have once held their own, but no longer (and maybe not then, either).

I expected more, which is always a problem, but if you want to get into early DeMille, before he turned into a blockbuster hack, there are at least 10 other films I've seen (actually) that are much better. (Look for almost any drama between 1918 and 1921, a really fertile period for him and his loyal cinematographer, Alvin Wycoff.) As for the title, there might have been a great double entendré there, with both the man killed and the man in love, but it never quite gels.
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Unthinkable (2010)
4/10
Painfully bad (writing and direction), but Jackson is rather good as usual.
8 September 2018
Unthinkable

At first you think this is a story about a home grown terrorist who is in custody and must be made to talk. But then it becomes clear this is about a conflict between law enforcement people about what are the limits of torture in interrogation.

And boy do they beat you over the head with it, from 20 minutes in to the very end. There is such a repetition of hype you want to beg for mercy. Maybe that's the brilliance of it--this movie is torture of a very special, unending kind.

You might and should ask why in the world did I watch it to the end? Simple: Samuel Jackson. I think he's great, and he does the best he can to hold this piece of garbage together. The writing is full of familiar tripe and repeats the same motive over and over. The acting is fine, I suppose, but it's hard to tell. The direction? Well, who's Gregor Jordan? Exactly. He's luckily sidelined, because we don't need more movies like this.

The shame here is that the idea is not a bit bad. What if this happened, a threat from a guy who made demands and you needed him to talk? What are the limits of torture, and does torture work at all? With the clock ticking.

You won't find any depth here. Even the normal dramatic tension of an action movie is diluted by simplicity and sameness. Patience required.
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Cluny Brown (1946)
7/10
Fun, fast, clever, and with a wonderful Jennifer Jones
7 September 2018
Cluny Brown (1946)

"It's never too late for a cat." And this is the essence of the movie, a supposed satire on British manners pre-WWII, but more likely just a bit of delightful nonsense. The star for me is the delectable Jennifer Jones who is more than just a pretty decoration-she gives her role as a uninhibitted working class woman a kind of Audrey Hepburn freshness. Before Audrey Hepburn.

Charles Boyer is no doubt the most esteemed star here, but he's his usual self with a bit of forced charm. Director Lubitsch makes the whole scene quite delicious, so it's the big view that makes the small pieces click. (And this is what he is famous for, setting the European scene with a subtle, sharp eye.) There is humor here (it's a comedy, yes) but there is a kind of elegand disdain that is something more than that.

And it's beautifully filmed, by young (great) cinematographer Joe LaShelle.

What holds it all back for me is the writing, which is a kind of forced comedy, creating situations that are "made" for comedy. An awkward confrontation, an improbable entry of one character into another character's world. There is whispering and disbelief and nonchalance all mixed together in a way that is, in fact, lighthearted, but isn't as funny or bright as you would want.

And so the movie zips on, quite fun and lighthearted but always (for me) missing some basic gut humor or even a more trenchant critique of its subject, the British upper class. I did, I have to admit, love the ending, which was perhaps inevitable, but which pulled of a clever telling of the future of the leading characters. Fun, well done! And Jones is sublime even when she's goofy.
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7/10
An entertaining ride through some harrowing material
6 September 2018
BlacKkKlansman (2018)

The problem with this movie is exactly why Spike Lee made it: it is political activism. It's well made and a decent bit of storytelling with good acting and a strong underlying story. But it overtly pushes its message, and makes no effort to hide that. But this isn't a Michael Moore documentary. This is a film based on a true story, with actors and some embellishments. And it pushes the obvious, clichés and all. It does this not only in the end and beginning, which are bookends that announce their message, but also in the story itself, by keeping it simple to the point of simplistic. Maybe that's unfair and extreme--on second viewing I realized the movie is first rate filmmaking, whatever its limitations. If you get the story, and even if you empathize completely with the message, the effect as a movie, as a feature film out to create drama and move and shape you, this effect is flimsy and false. Yes, false even, because you know a grittier, more complicated truth must be there. You do end up thinking of director Spike Lee's other films here, like the brilliant "Malcolm X" and its own historical reconstruction, or "Do the Right Thing" with its more fictional immersion and conviction. And this one, "BlacKkKlansman," is less lyrical even though it is quite well filmed, and less moving even though built on compelling facts. The conventional core of the movie is good (and sometimes fun and funny), with the infiltration of some KKK types (made generally caricatures to the point of being almost comic, which is a shame). However, the last scenes with all the high fives might drive you crazy, and the documentary footage will make you realize there are more penetrating things out there than the movie you just watched. It's good, I'm glad I saw it, but it's half of what it could have been. But in truth (seeing it a second time), it's very well made and compelling. But for Spike Lee (at his best) it ends up half of what he has pulled off in the past. Which isn't so bad at all. Watch it!
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7/10
Well made and clearly old-fashioned film that is pure entertainment
2 September 2018
The Prisoner of Zenda (1937)

Directed by a pair of stalwart Hollywood directors, featuring a cast with big names like Ronald Colman and Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and shot by the great James Wong Howe, this should be a first rate movie top to bottom. And technically it is-it looks great, feels solid, has great lighting and pace, and the acting is charming and entertaining. Yes, it's good! But it's all based on a storybook feel that is something like a youth novel brought to screen. I suppose the really big element in the story, the romance between the two men played by Colman and the leading lady Madeleine Carroll, is adult material in its appeal to honor and love, but in all, to like that, you have to like the breezy entertainment it is. I've tried to read into the plot some hint of what was brewing in Europe (usurping of genuine rule by force) or a twist on Shakespeare (court intrigue) but it really is simpler than that. And Colman, who is terrific, and Fairbanks, who is even more charming than Colman, both make it all fun, and in fun. This makes you like them, but it does drain some drama away. This is the first and more liked of the Zenda films, the second mostly interesting in relation to this one. However the second one (from the 1950s) made a ton of money, while this one just squeaked a profit. Highlights? Some of the acting and typecasting is really enjoyable, the swordfights are well done and well lit, and the general clever plot is a hoot. Feasibility is not an issue here--just go for the ride.
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The Motive (2017)
6/10
An entertaining idea that is slow but steady, with twists to come
27 August 2018
The Motive (2017)

A great concept drives this relatively low key Spanish movie with a small time crime underpinning it. Original called the Author (El Autor), it's about a wannabe writer, Álvaro, who is increasingly desperate to write a really good novel. It doesn't help that his wife has meanwhile just written one, leaving him behind for another man. So Álvaro realizes he lives in a boring world with no inspiration and he has to contrive excitement. By messing with the personal lives of his neighbors in an apartment building. This gets fun and messy fast. All of this sounds great and it needs a better film to pull it off. Better direction, snappier dialog, and faster editing. There is also some obviousness to the way it is filmed that makes it kind of drab, in some cases, or contrived. (One example-when eavesdropping on his neighbors, we can see their shadows perfectly cast on a wall he is watching, something that is so fake and unlikely it undermines the general mundane feel of the rest of the film.) Still, I watched it all with a certain patient interest. Álvaro is played by Javier Gutierrez, a Spanish actor who is not quite a "leading man" type in the Hollywood sense, and he gives his character drive without making a caricature out of him.
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7/10
A good, fun, action packed ride lacking true distinction
27 August 2018
Magnificent Seven (2016)

A movie purposely filled with archetypes (or some would say, clichés). That's part of the fun of it, and it's also part of the limitation because you know, roughly, what's going to happen long before it does. What you savor is how it happens. And so in classic fashion (like the true movie original to all this, "The Seven Samurai"--note that Kurosawa is even one of the writers credited here), a group of seven super talented but varied fighters are assembled to wreak revenge on a large and ruthless gang. The "good" guys are not all good (they have checkered pasts), but the bad guys are purely pad. So you know who to root for. The famous twist here is the leader of the Seven is a black man played by Denzel Washington. The novelty of that is not really so novel ("Unforgiven" brought Morgan Freeman to the Western in 1992), but having such a great actor hold it all together is good news. The gathering of different types of fighters (an Asian knife thrower, a Native American with bow and arrow, etc.) goes step by step and is fun, and the training of the townspeople to help has some humor and tension. Ethan Hawke and Peter Sarsgaard are standouts among the large cast of main characters, and they help keep the movie quirky and intense. Haley Bennett (as the only female with a large role) is also important. But mostly this is an action film, with a lot of shooting and dynamic camera and things blowing up. It's fun stuff, well done of course. But as I said, the outcome is kind of known, and so any real tension is missing. Enjoy the characters, enjoy the sense of good vs. evil., and enjoy the scenery, one of those things all Westerns depend on.
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7/10
Subtle, moving, dramatic, important film about race and bias
12 August 2018
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1968)

A Carson McCullers drama (she wrote the original book) with the usual array of gritty Southern types who are cast quite well. The director is the utterly unknown Robert Ellis Miller, and there are many times that I feel that the potential here, which is pretty deep, goes unexplored. The photography by James Wong Howe toward the end of his career is professional through and through, if somewhat routine for New Hollywood. Look for standout performances by Alan Arkin (as a lonely deaf-mute with a big heart) and Sondra Locke, later famous for many roles in Clint Eastwood films (with whom she was involved). An honesty of acting, and underacting, by these two (even by Locke, whose role is extroverted) hold the whole thing together, as undercurrents become the real meaning. This is more of a drama than a soap opera. I say this because there is a McCullers kind of interest in "characters" and "losers," people who are troubled and eccentric. But there is also an interpersonal drive to the subplots (as with Locke's character's family, a kind of caricatured struggling poor southern family with a father in a wheelchair) that has the potential to become interesting as soap. These two aspects are a bit at odds (they never jive), but a third aspect enters the plot and grows and grows, and it is the real reason to watch the movie and admire it: the intersection of black and white southern life. In a way that had become possible finally by the late 60s, Hollywood could deal with African-American life in an honest, believable way. The black doctor and his dilemma of appearing "uppity" if he treats a white man (a drunk) is only the beginning. Arkin's deaf-mute character is compelling. He's troubled, too, but has perception and persistence. He sees love more than feels it, it seems, but he has deep caring (which is a different kind of love). And that wins the movie. Look for great side performances by the doctor's daughter played by Cicely Tyson (who had many great roles after this, such as in "Sounder" and who was married to Miles Davis) and by the doctor, played by Percy Rodriguez. A moving drama that is a small, but important, cog in the breakdown of prejudice in the 1960s.
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