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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 campty, 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 every 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, if you haven't seen them). 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 in films 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. So 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. And half of what Lee has pulled off in the past.
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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 the, 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 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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El autor (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 ot 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 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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6/10
A profoundly moving situation, but a routine movie
5 August 2018
The Edge of Darkness (1943)

A solid WWII movie about the resistance in Norway. There is the immediate plot, about an ally who was occupied by the Nazi Germans, and there is the wider allegory about ordinary people (the Americans watching the movie) rising up against true tyranny. Errol Flynn is of course famous for his swordsmanship in his earlier films, but he plays a thoroughly good man well, tortured by the facts but always out to do what is best. There are other actors that matter-Walter Huston as a prominent doctor in town, and Ann Sheridan as the principled, stoic woman. It's mostly a routine production, with obvious anti-Nazi sentiments that override much of the plot. And it starts a bit slowly, with a set up that mattered more when the movie was made and see in the theaters and the Germans were crushing Europe. Including Norway, which famously did not go neutral like Sweden did, and paid a high price. The people portrayed here are the ordinary folk who seem powerless next to a well armed occupying army, but who found a way to fight back, at least in their own microcosym. You can't get away from the predictable stances of everyone here-including the necessary traitor or two. There is little suspense, but there is a lot of tension, which is different-these are in the many scenes toward the end of military confrontations. It's here that director Milestone seems to still be making his famous "All Quiet on the Western Front" which is a great movie with a great script. This is not great, but it's not just because the script and novel are ordinary. There is a style of acting and filming here that is a bit false. Watch people get shot and throw their arms in the air in a way that is reall more like a creaky silent film. It's mostly solid, to be sure, and a supportive part of the war effort. Keep that context to get the most out of it. And feel for the real people who had to fight and live through the Nazi brutality.
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8/10
A great ensemble piece with meaning
1 August 2018
Last Flag Flying (2017)

A great, low-key mixture of comedy and sadness. The more it went on the more I appreciated the situation, which unfolds like a play, and the ensemble acting, which is sharp. Bryan Cranston steals the show as the outgoing practical bartender veteran, but Laurence Fishburne and Steve Carell are really spot on, too, in deliberately restrained ways. The film is trying to get to something here. At first it seems to be about some guys coming to terms with their time in Viet Nam, and how it compromised them then, with repurcussions ever onward. Then a slow critique of war and of the US approach to war, pretending everyone in uniform is always a hero, and fighting for questionable (or worse) causes. But an important third element grows-the actual meaning these men have for each other. They hadn't seen each other in decades, but their comraderie was almost unbroken because of some deep bond formed in wartime. And when it really comes down to it, even as they reject and hate the government for what they were forced to do, they still understood honor and respect. Including a love of country, somehow. That it's there, despite the flaws. Or something like that. (There are complications, and it would be easy and shameful to oversimplify.) The big point is: see this and give it time to settle in and warm up. The three men are deliberately an odd mix, and there are a couple of scenes that are rather too neatly contrived to make a fast point in the narrative, but overall it makes sense and is moving.
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7/10
Startling story but a sometimes slow and routine telling of it
25 July 2018
All the Money in the World (2017)

What an extreme pathology, yet with a twist. J. Paul Getty was known to me mostly as the man who left a fortune when he died that became the Getty Art Museum. Which was famous (and still is) for having deep pockets. Very deep. So Getty, from 20th Century oil enterprises, was really rich.

Hence the name of the movie. But they should have clued us in, I suppose (for better sales) that it's about Getty's grandson, who early in the movie (no spoiler) gets kidnapped. What follows is a two part story--the kidnappers and their prey, and the grandfather and other family members.

And it's the grandfather who matters most, played with conviction by a rather too-old Christopher Plummer (as a famous last minute substitute for someone who we won't mention). Plummer is ruthless and seemingly heartless. His daughter-in-law is the one sympathetic character here (besides the grandson, I suppose, but he isn't developed very far), and she suffers and struggles. It's her son out there in the hands of some thugs.

The movie is good, very good in some ways, but routinely made. The story is great, so that holds it up, yet the pacing is slow, which brings it back to earth. The kidnappers are made to seem interesting and one of them (played by the great French actor Romain Duris) is given some depth, but really this is the other half of a fascinating situation, and some nuance would have been great. Surprisingly, this is not only produced by also directed by Ridley Scott. And this lacks the originality and spark we'd expect from him. But Plummer is terrific and so is Michelle Williams as the daughter/mother. Mark Wahlberg is a drip and a mistake (he plays a kind of do-it-all man for Getty, and he's very average).

Still, lots of interesting twists, and a worthy story for a film.
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5/10
A curious war film in some ways, but predictable and with a weak "story" line
17 July 2018
Captains of the Clouds (1942)

It's always a bit weird to see semi-propaganda films made with mainstream talent, as if it's just another movie. It kind of eats into the credibility of movies in that period in general, as distinctive art forms as opposed to commercial vehicles. So this has (for example) songs by Harold Arlen (Over the Rainbow fame) and Johnny Mercer, and some photography by the great Sol Polito (though there were four shooters involved, due to the range of situations required). And the director is the indisputably excellent Michael Curtiz, who was making "Casablanca" at roughly the same time. This is a movie about the Canadian air effort in the war. The lead by James Cagney is slightly odd in this regard, but it gives the movie creds. The leading woman (reddish hair and very red lipstick for the Technicolor production) is a more suitable Brenda Marshall. The scene is in an isolated lake country, dependent on small planes for getting everything they need in and out (including teams of huskies, at the beginning). It's all quite beautiful, and if the characters are back woods caricatures, that's part of the whole shtick with this kind of film. So this is a manly world with people dickering over money, but showing a kind of integrity that makes them dependable and ready to support the war effort once it gets going. The speech by Winston Churchill heard by radio (halfway through the film) is the key turning point, and the men rise above their petty small town rivalries. The "girl" is what really matters behind all their arguments. But war, of course, changes even love. Devotees of war films will appreciate the accuracies in the training and the aircraft used. Of course, this was shot not long after it actually was happening (a year or two) and legitimacy is almost unavoidable on some level. But finally I have to get to the actual plot, the human interactions that make up the story, because this is a weakness overall. The attempts to give personal relatability to the events are natural, but not all that convincing. So seeing it sixty years later it can't be watched quite for the story itself, but for the many parts that make up the overall arc. Curtiz is great and he makes the most of it all. Max Steiner's music helps though it is a little overblown for a lot of what a mount to documentary sections. The fact it's in color is interesting (for the expense) and it's actually part of what makes it interesting-and it's quite believable, clean, not oversaturated color, brilliantly controlled.
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7/10
A very mixed experience--the 2nd half is really good, so get there
23 June 2018
The North Star (1943)

Made at the request of President Roosevelt, this fictional Sam Goldwyn independent production recreates the Soviet side of WWII by taking us into the lives of a small town family, apparently Ukrainian. The cast is stellar, with writing by Lillian Hellman, music by Aaron Copland, lyrics by Ira Gershwin (it's very musical)...you get the idea? This propaganda film pulled no punches. But it's troubled in a lot of ways, not the least of which is its goody-goody view of Russian life that makes Russian propaganda look accurate. Dana Andrews is a breath of fresh air, but really, do they have to have him singing and playing the balalaika while walking a country road? Smiling? But in uniform, which is key. Luckily, Andrews is thoroughly great in the rest of the film. But I decided to watch this film for another reason: James Wong Howe. Yes, his cinematography is quite stunning, and virtuosic through a range of styles. Much of the first part of the film is in a kind of brightly lit quasi-documentary style, with lots of hearty happy faces, all tightly framed and with some key moving camera to keep it real. Some of the family scenes inside are filmed with beautiful rich contrast. But what a quirky film in so many ways. It's heroic, for sure. When it gets to the war parts it's gripping and much more realistic. But there is consistent music, which was a surprise. Even Walter Brennan sings. But the bulk of the film is the war scenes, and they are impressive. Most of the film was shot at the Samuel Goldwyn studios, and it feels convincing. Walter Huston is commanding, and good old Erich von Stroheim takes on an ugly role with gusto. Lewis Milestone directs much of this mishmash with a feeling of a 1936 film, the characters simple and overly idealized as if fighting the Depression with dignity. The early war scenes (many shot with decent back projection) save the film, but in a way they are meant to be context for the human dramas of the town folk. It is when the war enters the village that the elements all meet and the movie rises up. By the end, it is the obvious writing that pulls the movie down and the stunning photograrphy that saves it.
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7/10
A decent formula movie by a young Fred Zinneman
20 June 2018
Kid Gloves Killer (1942)

There might be little to recommend this movie beyond a look at Van Heflin in a constrained early role. Oh, and that the director is the noted Fred Zinneman himself. This is a crime caper formula movie, and it's enjoyable all through. For me, a highlight was the unexpected ease of the leading actress, Marsha Hunt (who is still alive at 100 years old as I write this). She is a kind of "regular girl" who everyone is meant to like, but she has a natural presence on screen that seems like should have meant something bigger. Maybe that kind of "normalness" isn't quite star material, not bigger than life. But see it for her, at least. Heflin is an acquired taste these days, but an interesting leading man a little different than the rest (he's great in "Martha Ivers" and "Act of Violence"). His role here is meant to be a really determined and uncorruptable science guy in a crime lab. There is a little of that show and tell that happens in some detective movies of the time, but not too much to make it lag. The plot owes something to gangster films, where the big crime guy has the D.A. in his pocket. But this same man is also in love (or pretends to be) with the Hunt character. It's all in good entertainment fun, however, nothing too thrilling, and nothing too corny or cheap either. Back to Zinneman-this is his first feature film direction. The snappy, smart construction might be a sign of things to come, once he gets meatier material.
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7/10
See it at least for the glittering first half hour--the rest is fine, but it starts great
19 June 2018
The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (1937)

Underrated! The dialog here is truly witty and hilarious. The play of types is of course old fashioned, and the drooling men chasing Joan Crawford (title character) around. But if you lighten up about any of that, you'll find it truly funny. So for the first half hour you have a model comedy, seemingly made up of British characters but all (but one) played by Americans. Such is Hollywood. What throws the movie into a bit of a tailspin is the big surprise twist that you can sort of smell coming after a stretch. It's a fun and funny idea, but the banter loses some sparkle and the pressure of the plot completely changes gears. Mrs. Cheyney is not longer the pursued (at least not in the same way). William Powell is terrific (he appears as a butler, of all things, one year after "My Man Godfrey") and Frank Morgan and Nigel Bruce are both fun. I was less familiar with the other female players, but they made a large ensemble work well. If you can click with the beginning, you might (like me) be really in stitches. It's that clever. Then if your interest fades a bit, that's okay. It's still an entertaining, farcical movie.
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An Inspector Calls (2015 TV Movie)
7/10
Smart, simple but captivating, well done!
18 June 2018
An Inspector Calls (2015)

This BBC production is a clever, subtle, well acted movie that is very much in the form of the play it is based on by J.B. Priestly. Some will find it too controlled and knowing, frankly-it suffers from that gift playwrights have of outsmarting a viewer while captive, but not sustaining that smartness once you head home. Another movie of this kind is "Sleuth" which is even more clever and twisty. There is a murder of sorts at hand, but not quite. There is certainly a victim, or so we think. And the perpetrators seem guilty of nothing but being self-absorbed and rich, which of course means they are guilty of all kinds of sins, directly and indirectly. Here, the effects of callousness or selfishness are front and center. Expect to be spellbound once you give it your time. Written in 1945 but set just before World War I, there are lots of embedded points about war and class difference. Priestly was a leftist, and the substance of the play is utlimately about responsibility and the idea that we are all part of a family-a global one, you might say, but certainly a national one, with rich Brits looking out for their less fortunate compatriots. Not at all pro-business, of course. Eventually you realize you are being taken for an interesting ride, and you are in the hands of the mysterious title character (named Goole). This man leads us through the discoveries that he has already made, and we are almost as astonished as the members of this unprepared family. Then there is a playwright's twist-saying there is a twist is almost unfair, because you might well cruise through most of it thinking it was about the interrogation itself. But more comes along. Fun, almost funny, and tragic as well. I thought it was great entertainment. With little plugs for human decency burrowed in.
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9/10
Brilliant, warm, convincing, straight up drama with great acting
18 June 2018
Running on Empty

First of all, what a great performance by River Phoenix. In fact, there are smart, convincing, warm performances by all the main cast. At first you might feel this is a movie about a couple on the lam for a long ago crime, and that they happened to have two kids. But really the opening of the movie, an inside view from Phoenix's character's situation, makes clear that he is the start, and the fulcrum around which the rest of the characters swing. So the movie ends up being an interpersonal drama, and you sympathize with everyone, even if they have done a "bad" thing. This is open to your judgement, for sure...a 1960s radical sentiment on the part of the left leaning director, Syndey Lumet, who had the early uber-classic "12 Angry Men" as well as "Serpico" and many others. It was Lumet who drew me to the film, but it was Phoenix who stole the show (and who breaks your heart knowing how young he commited suicide). Look for the kind of classic filming and editing you'd expect from this well-schooled director. It's a warm film, and it avoids pretensiousness and artifice, turning instead to the innate abilities of the actors, including a young Marth Plimpton. Plimpton is wonderful, and she is given some classic lines, funny and perceptive just as you'd expect this kind of girl to be. (Plimpton was in another movie with Phoenix, "The Mosquito Coast," two years earlier.) So watch this, for sure. It was nominated for a ton of awards, and overcomes what seems to be a contrived, tightly focussed impossibility of a plot and makes it work. Very well!
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The Bribe (1949)
7/10
A full-blooded noir with all the hallmarks, and worth every minute
14 June 2018
The Bribe (1949)

A loaded cast and crew make this an interesting draw (only the director Robert Leonard is little known to me, though he has two Best Director nominations). But really: Ava Gardner in a dramatic noir, with Robert Taylor the male lead (including a very noir voiceover to start). Throw in Charles Laughton and Vincent Price in smaller roles, and Joseph Ruttenberg doing cinematography and Miklos Rozsa the music. And it starts great, in a lonely room in Central America, rain pouring down the windows at night. And then the flashbacks begin. Maybe all this makes me a sucker. I expected a lot even with the clichés pouring on. But we have a formula noir here with all the elements exaggerated and none of them missed-the woman is even a nightclub singer, and wait for the drug in the drink later on. If you are willing to enjoy the form rather than the specifics of the movie, you have your film. It's almost great, and might someday be considered a classic simply because it makes so clear the elements of that form (the noir-alienated male, femme fatale, flashbacks, dramatic lighting, crime and treachery, short clipped phrases). It's so good at all this, it became the model for the comic send-up, "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid." But in a way this isn't fair, because the movie does work on its own, despite its lack of originality. It grows and gets better as you go, and the consistency of the production and the solidity of the plot make it worth seeing. Gardner is not great in the way some leading noir females are, but she has her sculptural poise and is still young as an actress. Taylor has sort of the same problem of not quite rising to the needs of the role, but he is fine. The fact that the two of them are not "amazing" is one of the holdbacks of the film-lots of noirs have formula plots but have such great acting it doesn't matter a bit. So Laughton, then, rising to the occasion, is really amazing. I've heard his performance called campy, but I don't think so, not for the genre. It's subtle, and if he's a character, he's not a caricature. Price, also good, has a someone limited role. Until the end. The final ten minutes is a film wonder. If you can't watch the whole thing for some reason, you can still be thrilled by the ending. The drama, the lighting, the photography, the pace and editing, it's all unparalleled.
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Now, Voyager (1942)
8/10
A wonderful mix of talents and drama at Hollywood's classic peak
4 June 2018
Now, Voyager

There is no doubt this is a wonderful movie, if only for Bette Davis and her transformations as Charlotte so vivid in that classic Hollywood way. For me the movie has always been hobbled by Paul Henreid, who I suppose was once the admirable handsome guy his character is painted to be here. He is the chink in "Casablanca's" greatness and he's a bigger flaw here, since so much of the movie depends on him, both as love interest and father. The story is melodrama, and it's crazy improbable and simplified, so you have to see it as a kind of fairy tale with caricatures and motives very archetypal. The evil seeming mom, the sudden (and total) change in Charlotte, the absent other woman (who in this case is the wife) and the too perfectly hurting child, who brings tears to the jerker ending. It's all great, and it's all a bit much to swallow if you really want to take these things to heart. Irving Rapper is one of those mysterious Hollywood directors who made a number of classic films but never rose out of the system to be seen as having a vision of his own. The photography by the great Sol Polito is professional and unremarkable (proof, maybe, that it takes a director-cinematographer pair to make a movie rise up visually). Music by Max Steiner is unusually key and wonderful, as usual. So why is this movie so highly regarded? In part because it lacks obvious flaws (leaving my opinion of Henreid out of it). Claude Rains is a huge asset but has an intermittent role. Davis is stellar, and that holds up a lot. But overall, this is a great example of a Hollywood collaborative effort, with the well-oiled machinery of the system putting out movies that can still hold together as minor masterpieces-editing, music, visuals, and acting all pushing a hyper-dramatic story along quickly and with an involving sense of place. Yes, see it. It does in fact feel good.
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