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The Road (I) (2009)
The pursuit of chronic depression
23 June 2010
If life's hardships, current events, your job, poor health, relationships, etc. aren't getting you down enough, and you're one of those people who are perhaps more content and optimistic than important filmmakers know you deserve to be, there's hope in sight because this movie could be just your kind of escapist fare, with the potential to take you down that critically-acclaimed road to long-lasting depression.

Yes, was there ever such a downbeat masterpiece in cinematic history? Compared to this, "Shindler's List" is about as dark as "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang."

I am impressed at the consistency and thoroughness of the direction, however. The unrelentingly tedious, dark, dreary, dragging storyline is in perfect sync with the unrelentingly tedious, dark, dreary, dragging performances, cinematography, music, etc.

Now, a lot of people who have not been happy with this movie and wonder what the purpose of it is need to use their imaginations a little. Reaching down deep for a sub-atomic particle of optimism, I think I may have found it. I can see this film being quite successfully employed by psychiatrists trying to help out those who are clinically suicidal. The way it would work is like this: the patient would be required to sit through this film without interruption, and then at the end, the psychiatrist turns to the patient and says "See, things could always be worse!"

However, one could argue that this film is about the perseverance to survive in spite of enormous odds against, the dedicated love between father and son amidst very difficult circumstances. The trouble is, that movie has already been made. It's called "The Pursuit of Happiness." And the big difference between that film and this one is that "Pursuit" actually has a practical, highly inspirational message that doesn't have you lunging for the razor blades or the jar of sleeping pills by the end.
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Rio Bravo (1959)
Heavy handed, predictable western from the Hawks mold
5 April 2010
A lot of people revere this western and that's fine. It's just another one of those that I throw into my "I don't get it" file, especially given the high rating here at IMDb. Director Hawks was a master of the obvious. His films rarely have any surprises and this is no exception. You know as soon as you see "Directed by Howard Hawks" during the credits that every good guy will survive the story. You know John Wayne's character is in about as much danger of not making it as, say, James Bond in a 007 flick.

Because of the lack of surprises, the story lacks any punch and is just another tepid bit of fluffy entertainment from the Howard Hawks mold...and he sure did like that mold. It's hard to keep this Western separate in my mind from "El Dorado" and "Rio Lobo," as they all follow the same formulaic character ensemble story. Heck, it's hard to separate this in my mind from "Hatari."

A couple of "Dont's" and "Dos": DON'T expect: anything subtle or nuanced, nice cinematography, in-depth character development or absorbing storyline. DO expect: hammy, over-the-top wooden acting, a complete lack of clever dialog, obvious plot lines, typical stage lighting and studio back lot sets.

It's occurs to me that "Rio Bravo" is to Westerns what "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad Mad World" is to comedies, and if that kind of broad and obvious treatment is your cup of sarsaparilla then you will no doubt savor this one.
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Extremely overrated, silly and historically bogus melodrama
26 March 2010
Warning: Spoilers
Someone is going to have to explain to mean why this film is rated so highly, not just here but elsewhere. I just don't get it. I'm a fan of Henry Fonda, I love earlier black and white films, I've enjoyed some of John Ford's movies, and the Western genre is one of my favorites. But this is nothing more to me than a historically inaccurate and tedious soap opera.

Historical inaccuracies abound for the sake of that melodramatic brand of Hollywood script which is what truly dates movies like this one (as opposed to timeless classics such as, say, "The Third Man"). When the movie begins with the murder of James Earp (who actually died in 1926!) and introduces silly, fictional, female characters like "Chihuahua" and "Clementine Carter," who chew up large chunks of screen time with ridiculous dialog, you know you're going to get the worst that that dated Hollywood treatment can offer.

It doesn't help that the Earps, who never raised cattle, are seen driving a herd. Worse, they are suppose to be doing so in Arizona, yet looming strangely in the background is one of the most easily recognizable of U.S. geographical landmarks, Devil's Tower in Wyoming!

The historical inaccuracies are so outrageous, I found myself laughing at several points during the story that were intended to be moments of high drama. That includes the shooting of Virgil Earp - who actually died from pneumonia over twenty years later - by "Old Man" Clanton, who actually died BEFORE the time period depicted in this film! It also includes the death of Doc Holliday at the OK Corral - which also never happened of course - but given the wooden acting of the miscast Victor Mature, any inaccuracy that had his character prematurely exiting the story can be easily forgiven.

Harder to forgive is the fact that the real history of the Earps is far more interesting than this pap, and especially given the fact that director Ford was supposed to have extensively interviewed the real Wyatt Earp years earlier. Truthfully, what is factually accurate in this film is a much shorter list than the reverse...or, if I may borrow and edit a line from "Shattered Glass": there does appear to be a state in the union named "Arizona."

Summing up, to say this is overrated is an UNDERstatement.

P.S. I've always hated that "Darling Clementine" song.

P.P.S. Henry Fonda should receive a special posthumous Oscar for "Worst Cowboy Hat in the Entire History of Western Film."
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Heaven's Gate (1980)
No wonder it was a bust
6 March 2010
I recorded the full-length "director's cut" version off of TCM the other day to see if there was validation for this being one of the biggest box-office busts in movie history. After viewing I can certainly understand why it was.

I have no problem with movies taking their time developing, so that we can get to know characters and really feel a part of what is going on in the film. But this film gave me the impression that director Michael Cimino felt moving things along at a snail's pace automatically makes those things happen. In spite of the epic length he had to work with, Cimino's character development is quite minimalistic, due to the sheer volume of dead space devoted to empty looks and a lack of dialogue or at least a lack of comprehensible dialogue, which is thanks to un-subtitled foreign languages or bad sound recording. The end result is another film in which we just don't care what happens to these characters, because we really know so little about them, nor are we given a reason to care for them, other than the fact that they exist.

The film begins with a long and tedious set-up at Harvard, leading the viewer to believe there is going to be an important significance for this later. As it turns out, there isn't. Strangely, the relationships established in these scenes end up going nowhere. By the end of the movie, several characters, especially John Hurt's and Jeff Bridges', were so pathetically wasted in their development, I wondered why they were even in the film at all.

Worst, silliest, most bizarre and utterly maddening scene: the targeted immigrants decide to fight back against the band of regulators. They end up on horseback, stupidly circling around the enemy encampment like a bunch of caricatured Indians circling the wagons in an old Western serial. The only thing missing from the scene as the immigrants get picked off like ducks in a shooting gallery are those stereotypical, hysterical Indian war whoops.

But that is just one example of people behaving extremely stupidly and unrealistically in this film.

As someone who enjoys subtlety in a film and doesn't even mind one that is slower paced, I nonetheless found myself fast-forwarding through several non-eventful minutes of this film. Thank goodness for that technology, but it made me wonder how anybody would have had patience for even a trimmed-down version of this film when it first showed in theaters.
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Emma (2009– )
25 January 2010
Very disappointing. Much of the fault lies with the portrayal of the title character by Romola Garai, a portrayal whose success is obviously critical to the story. I am not sure how much of the blame lies directly with the actress (who I have enjoyed in other adaptations, such as Nicholas Nickleby and Daniel Deronda) or with her director. But Garai's goofy, over-the-top mannerisms and grotesquely contorted facial expressions - such as that boxlike grimace of a grin - transform Emma from a character that is supposed to be capricious yet likable into an obnoxious, appalling clown whose face begs to be punched out. The sophisticated charm and refinement combined with a mischievous nature which is essential for the role is missing much too often.

At four hours, this version is also far too long for the material, and too many scenes feel as if they are just there to fill up the time, causing the entire story to drag and lose the momentum it desperately needs. Too many awkward moments caused by a lack of chemistry between characters doesn't help either.

I am also amazed that for a movie made in 2009, the production values at times are like a made-for-TV production from 20 years ago. This is especially noticeable during some of the ballroom scenes where the dancing is taking place in impossibly bright interiors, with studio lights from above casting harsh shadows across faces, when one would expect the room to be softly illuminated with the warm glow of candelight. The harsh lighting may be a reason why Romola Garai does not appear as attractive here as in her other films.

At any rate, this version falls far short of Doug McGrath's 1996 version. McGrath's version is far more entertaining, charming and even touching while remaining faithful to the spirit of the Jane Austen novel in a much shorter amount of time.
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Julie & Julia (2009)
Excellent recipe for a waste of time
10 January 2010
Warning: Spoilers
OK, folks...if you like a couple of hours listening to sucking and gurgling sounds (and that's just the scenes of Julia Childs and Julie Powell sucking face with their husbands), then you'll love this movie. I mean, please...must we? Did the sound people put tiny microphones INSIDE the mouths of the actors? If that's not bad enough, director Ephron felt she had to include as many scenes as possible with people talking with their mouths full of food, licking fingers, etc. and with every sound effect that comes with such charming actions fully amplified, so we could appreciate every nuance of greasy, lip-smacking mastication. It sounds as if foley artists covered microphones with mashed potatoes and chicken fat and then had somebody chew on them while they recorded. Anyway, just make sure you're not eating something yourself while watching this or you may want to hurl. Funny how a movie that is intended to communicate the joy of cooking can cause such a total loss of appetite.

Point two. My guess is that Ephron felt her favorite cutesy actress, Meg Ryan, was too old for the part of Julie, so Amy Adams was cast instead. I can imagine what went on during filming...

Ephron: "OK, Cut! Amy, let's do that scene again. Only remember, you're suppose to do it exactly like Meg Ryan would have if she were playing the part!"

Amy Adams: "I thought I was playing this Julie Powell chick."

Ephron: "No, you're playing Meg Ryan being in a Nora Ephron film. Look, do you want a paycheck or not?"

Oh, and sorry Meryl. The entire time I was sitting through this my mind kept telling me, "That's Meryl Streep trying very hard to come off as Julia Childs."

So, take away the gross-you-out sound effects, the "I don't really give a damn what happens to these characters" story lines, Meg Ryan impersonation, and what do you have left? Well, for those who like bashing anything that is not liberal enough for Hollywood's taste, there's a line where Julie Powell's boss says "If I was a Republican you'd be fired." Wow, I'll bet it took Ephron days before she could came up with that perfectly hilarious and witty line to satisfy her political bitterness!

This movie is completely lacking in any compelling, interesting or charming ingredients. Yes, an excellent recipe for a waste of time.
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Misdirected comedy
16 December 2009
Warning: Spoilers
Unfortunately, a lot of people will watch this movie expecting to see a dramatic, action-spy flick. Instead, what they will get is a comedy about a director trying to make a name for himself who thinks his in-your-face film style is the most important aspect of any film he directs. So he puts his epileptic cameramen on bungee cords while the camera rolls, and what he ends up with is a herky-jerky mess whose style is so distracting and dominating that no one pays any attention to the plot, acting, script, etc. Then one day movie audiences wake up and find out his style is no more cutting edge than a 90s TV melodrama. And that's how the story ends for the wannabe director.

Hope that helps.
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The Warriors (1979)
Bumble in the Bronx
4 November 2009
On IMDb, it is commonplace to run across negative reviews that include a statement such as "one of the worst movies I've ever seen" or "worst movie ever made," etc. Those statements sometimes come off as knee jerk reactions to a sub par movie that doesn't deserve such lofty discrediting. In the case of "The Warriors" however, one can trust that such comments are well warranted.

Ironically, the premise for the movie - a gang trying to return to its home turf with every other gang in NY hot on its heels for revenge - is not bad, and I hope the remake of this is far more successful at realizing that premise.

It won't be hard to do so, since this movie is a disaster in every aspect. The script is grade-school level and performed amateurishly by a "never heard of 'em" cast. The styling of the gangs is remarkably silly. And this all takes place with a cheap-sounding electronic soundtrack that sounds like it could have been an experiment by John Carpenter, when as a kid he got his first Casio for Christmas.

One would think that a gang film like this would be high in impact and tension, but the presentation of the gangs and their individual members are more humorous than anything else. I don't know who should get the booby prize for vote would go to either the "Baseball Furies" who look like members of Kiss that had just raided a Little League locker room, or the gang that looked like hillbillies on skates who took a wrong turn on their way to the Roller Derby. But they all look like rejects from Saturday Night Fever, reinforcing the notion that the seventies could very well have been the worst decade of style in human history.

The lack of graphic violence, which although gratuitous in "Kill Bill"-type films, but essential to films like "Saving Private Ryan", detracts from a film like this which is already lacking so much in gritty realism.

The script seems to have been written in an ad hoc style, and if you read some of the trivia about this movie, that seems to have been the case at times, as dialogue and situations had to be invented on the spot to account for behind the camera incidents.

However, the fact that there are no characters to root for, since every character in this film is an annoying jerk, may be the biggest detraction to a film that is without a single edge-of-your-seat moment. Once again, who cares if some Warrior gang member gets the snot beat out of him and doesn't make it back to Coney Island if he is just as obnoxious and unlikeable as any other rival gang member?

If there is any entertainment value in this film, it's that it can provide plenty of fodder for sarcastic and amusing comments from the living room peanut gallery. Other than that, the cult status and ridiculously high IMDb rating for this film is absolutely inexplicable.
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A loser
28 August 2009
Sure proof of the coming idiocracy was this pointless, pathetic remake and the fact that it has a rating higher than 2 stars.

The title should be changed from "The Planet of the Apes" to "The Planet of Tim Burton Collecting a Paycheck."

I am stunned that so many reviewers focus on the mindless ending to this movie, when the entire movie is mindless.

One gets the impression that the scriptwriters were writing under deadline duress, panicked, and decided to do drugs instead. Meanwhile, if you watch the behind the scenes making of this film, you also get the distinct impression that Tim Burton knew the script was crap and so he gave up on it and treated it like a joke that he was getting big bucks for delivering. Which it is.

But having said all that, I have a suggestion for a sequel. In the sequel, Wahlberg, Roth, Helena Bonham Carter, Burton play themselves. They all get into a spaceship and try to go back in time to change the future where no remake of the Planet of the Apes will appear on their resume. After 2 1/2 hours of mindless hijinks and special effects, they emerge in modern day to find they didn't change a thing, because as Alec Baldwin's character states so glibly in Glengarry Glen Ross: "a loser is a loser!"

And anyone who read the script for this film and didn't walk away was -at least in this instance - a loser.
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Ivanhoe (1997– )
Faithless and ineffective adaptation
30 May 2009
Warning: Spoilers
I am not someone who believes a movie has to follow a book exactly in order to be a good movie. But the screenwriter's instinct for what to change from Scott's classic is all wrong.

The result is a faithless adaptation of Sir Walter Scott's novel in spite of the paradox that most of the major plot elements are kept intact....this conundrum is effected by the terrible screenplay. It simply takes most of the character out of the characters that Scott created. The script doesn't come close to matching the clever and intriguing dialog written by Scott. Consequently, the qualities that make the various personalities appealing or interesting have been changed for the worse.

For example: Wamba the jester, with all his incisive, clever and witty comments removed just becomes a superfluous annoyance. King Richard, instead of being a charming, humorous rogue becomes a boring heavy. Ivanhoe, portrayed as a brash, emotional upstart loses any of that noble subtlety which gave him a heroic mystique in the book. The lady Rowena, portrayed in typical anachronistic fashion, is missing the quiet dignity that gave her her charm and comes off as a brat that you just want to shut up and send to her room. Rebecca is far too forward with her enamor of Ivanhoe, ironically making her hopeless romance far less sympathetic than it was in the novel. The villains, especially De Bois Gilbert and Lucas de Beaumanoir, are so over-the-top that the performances make you cringe. It's a shame, because with the proper script, Ciaran Hinds and Christopher Lee could have been perfectly cast.

And while we're speaking of the script, it's amazing how dull and tedious it is. Actually, there is a lot of dialog in Scott's Ivanhoe, but his genius for turning a phrase is what made the reading of long passages worthwhile. In this mini series, it has all been transformed into the typical dumbed-down approach for the masses. To make things even worse, the pace is all off. One almost gets the impression that the script and filming was done ad hoc, and the director discovered that they were near the end of the story but still had to fill a couple of hours of time. The ending just drags on and on with several added and unnecessary scenes that just come off as dull filler.

The unambitious production values likewise are a problem here, as Scott's epic calls for a cast of hundreds, not a cast of a couple dozen. This is nowhere more apparent than in three hugely important scenes: the tournament at Ashby, the storming of Torquilstone castle, and the climactic ending at the Templars' headquarters.

In the tournament at Ashby, for example, especially since it is presided by the interim ruler John of Anjou, one expects to see from Scott's description an event populated by lords, ladies, yeomen and country folk from all over the kingdom. In this version, everybody must have missed the advertisements in the color supplement, because instead of having a majestic tournament, Ashby looks like a poorly attended, mismanaged Renaissance Festival.

The staging of the jousts is equally unambitious, and hence, something that is a pivotal point in the story - because it establishes a victory for the Saxons and the heroism of Ivanhoe, as well as a reason for De Bois Gilbert's passionate hatred for Ivanhoe - is utterly lifeless and lacks any impact at all.

Curiously, with all the superfluous scenes added in this mini series, they did not include the entertaining confrontation between Locksley and Prince John at Ashby. It's fascinating that the screenwriter deemed this unnecessary, when Scott's depiction of Locksley has influenced portrayals of Robin Hood in literature and screen ever since he wrote Ivanhoe 200 years ago.

One also gets the impression that the makers of this version must have realized the second half was plodding along, so a few deaths were added...I guess just to spice things up.

It's also very unfortunate that Scott's climactic confrontation between De Bois Gilbert and Ivanhoe was also monkeyed with, because Scott's was far more dramatic.

Anyway, after viewing versions like this, the 1950's version starring Robert Taylor and Elizabeth Taylor, with its heavy-handed Hollywood treatment, is looking better and better all the time. At least that version was somewhat entertaining.
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Before Sunset (2004)
A modern romance story
10 March 2009
Warning: Spoilers
Yes, a modern romance, and I don't mean that in the best sense. If you like a movie that elevates romance to a higher level, you may want to skip this.

Enough has been said by other reviewers about the non-stop dialog, but it was other things that troubled me far more.

For a romance story to work, it is essential that you have likable characters that you want to end up together. Depending on where you are coming from philosophically, you may love the Jesse and Celine characters or they may drive you crazy. In my case, it was the latter, as Jesse is like a rudderless smart ass who smugly thinks he is so profound, but Celine is far worse as an annoying, stereotypical liberal flake.

The main problem is that the script takes romance and reduces it to a cheap, matter-of-fact mundaneness, especially with the amount of casual droppings of f-bombs to describe the act of love. Maybe it's just me, but I find nothing cute nor attractive about couples in a genre like this talking with a blase vulgarity to one another. Talk about destroying the mystique of romance and reducing it down to things that cats do to each other in the alley.

In the prequel, "Before Sunrise," there was far less of this, and the characters had a little bit more charm and innocence. But now it's 9 years later: Jesse foolishly married someone he can't stand, and Celine comes off as extremely hard and cynical. If that vulgarity isn't enough to turn you off, there's plenty of politics and anti-Americanism to help you along.

It not only undermines the "magic" that supposedly occurred between them in the first film but will serve to cause a lot of viewers to not give a rip whether they end up together or not...which, of course, is the big question that the whole movie drags its way to answering.

Lacking charm, sweetness, innocence, and boiled down to gritty "naturalism" this film probably appeals to some for those very reasons, but if Jane Austen is your brand of romance, beware..."Pride and Prejudice" this surely ain't!
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Ladyhawke (1985)
Poorly directed (and scored) fantasy
23 February 2009
Warning: Spoilers
We recently rented this film after not having seen it for about twenty years. It has not held up well.

I won't spend a lot of time commenting on the horrific soundtrack as so many other reviewers have already done yeoman-like work in that regard. Suffice to say that "Ladyhawke" perfectly demonstrates how a score can really cripple a movie. Although, I do have to say that thankfully it is not a relentlessly constant presence, as some terrible scores have been in other films.

However, there are other significant flaws with this movie that in my mind are actually worse than the soundtrack. For one, Rutger Hauer is miscast as the hero Navarre and is not nearly appealing enough. The main villain, by contrast, is not UNappealing enough, and as a result you don't have a good guy you root hard enough for nor a bad guy you root hard enough against.

The action sequences are likewise tepid. In fact, I would have to say the most intense scene is not what is suppose to be the climactic fight scene at the end, but an earlier scene where Matthew Broderick's character is trying to save the wolf which has broken through the ice. That is actually the most intense and convincing scene in the entire movie.

For me, the most poorly realized aspect of the film is the finale. There is a rather dull sword fight in a church between Navarre and the Bishop's captain of the guard. They appear to be doing nothing but trying to make a lot of noise with their swords. Meanwhile, all the extras in the church, as well as the evil bishop, Matthew Broderick's character, and his friend the monk, just stand around like a bunch of stiffs who weren't given any direction and don't know what to do with themselves. That unnatural behavior becomes even more discomfiting as Navarre has his confrontation with the bishop. Nobody comes forward and tries to restrain him, nobody makes cries of distress or outrage or anything. It's cringeingly awful!

Then, when Rutger Hauer and Michele Pfeiffer's characters are finally reunited, it almost feels like director Donner just told them,"Tell you what, just ad lib some emotion for about ten minutes, I'm going to go out and get a coffee!" The crowd of bystanders awkwardly gathers around like a pack of zombies while the pair give a very unconvincing and self-conscious performance. The scene has no dramatic pay-off and instead seems to drag on forever.

Best aspect of the film is the cinematography featuring beautiful location shooting with real castles, ruins and mountainous settings.
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Ronin (1998)
Stylish action film is a rare case (no pun intended)
27 January 2009
"Ronin" is an aberration among more modern films of its genre: an action film that is actually intelligent and subtle in spite of its gripping action sequences.

It is also that rare case where perceived holes in a film's story line may actually be an asset. We are not given all the information we may want, but in the end that is not only irrelevant, but an aspect that actually adds to "Ronin's" appeal. The minimalist treatment of the details ramps up the intrigue and the feeling that we are witnessing the interaction of dangerous people and events from a world which is hard for the rest of us to understand. What's exactly in the brief case, exactly who the characters are and where they came from is not as vital as just enjoying the ride. That not only includes an extremely talented international acting ensemble, an intelligent script and mesmerizing location settings, but perhaps the greatest car chases in screen history (at least in my opinion).

This was one of John Frankenheimer's last films and you can really see the intelligent decision making that went into each shot. A real bonus if you have the DVD is listening to the late director's commentary which gives you an even greater appreciation of that.

Featuring a perfect supporting music score by Elia Cmiral, I even enjoy the ending that folks who even supported the film criticize. There's something stirring about the music combined with Jean Reno's voice-over...although I do acknowledge one shouldn't think about it too much!
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Elf (2003)
Funny, enjoyable and...if only!
10 January 2009
Warning: Spoilers
One of the best of the more recently-made Christmas movies, "Elf," for the most part, impressed me as a throwback to wholesome, quality holiday movies of the past. I say "most part" because the last fifth of the film suddenly switches gears and turns from being about Elf and his relationship with his dad into the sappy and clichéd "do you believe in Santa Claus" routine reminiscent of "the Polar Express."

Up until that point, though, the film is consistently funny and enjoyable with Will Ferrel playing the title character to innocent and charming perfection. There are lots of funny scenes and bits, following each other one after another. Most of the cast is excellent, especially with James Caan's straightforward, deadpan portrayal as Elf's dad. (The lone exception is Santa played by Ed Asner, who comes off as a grumpy, unappealing curmudgeon.)

But-drat! If not for that ending, this is the kind of movie I otherwise would love to have as part of my Christmas DVD collection.
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A relaxing, charming comedy
6 January 2009
Sadly, a lot of modern film watchers can't appreciate a comedy like this that isn't over-the-top, ribald, or in your face. "The Late George Apley" is a refreshing throwback from a long-gone era when subtlety in a comedy and understated performances like Ronald Colman's were more valued and appreciated. Thank heavens there are networks like TCM where you can catch some of these forgotten gems from time to time.

Don't pay attention to reviewers who claim "nothing happens" in this movie, although I imagine those with attention deficit disorder may have trouble with a film like this. For everyone else, there is plenty going on beside the humor, including a lot of charm as well as some surprising depth and unpredictability in the various characters.
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Enjoyable but definitely NOT "definitive!"
2 January 2009
While worth watching (and owning), this version of Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" is all too often inappropriately described as "definitive."

For a film based upon a book to be described as "definitive," one would expect the film to be extremely faithful to the book, or at least to the author's intent. Unfortunately, "Scrooge" too often departs from both, even with regard to its title. One has to ask with extreme irony: how can this film be considered "definitive" when it can't even get the story's title straight?

Alistair Sim generally does an excellent job in portraying the title character without resorting to caricature. And the black and white cinematography is wonderful, adding to the mood and period feel of 19th century London. I love the scenes where Ebeneezer first appears at his home, and is going through his rooms after being spooked by the apparition in his door knocker. Those scenes would be far less effective in the Technicolor style that was popular in the fifties when this was made.

Further, I don't even mind that some liberties have been taken with Dickens' novel, especially in scenes involving Scrooge's time with the Ghost of Christmas Past, or his reveling at the expense of his house maid near the end. I am fine with filmmakers reading between the lines, and fleshing out more of the story, as long as it is done in a competent fashion. Unfortunately, I think Dickens would hardly have approved of the scenes that were added that actually changed his storyline.

For example, in this version, there is an invented scene in which Scrooge and Marley actually cause the financial ruin of old Fezziwig. The problem with this, of course, is that Ebeneezer is supposed to have been someone who always revered Fezziwig, but had just forgotten with the passage of time and his growing obsession with self and money what an ideal employer the jolly old fellow was. That fact allows the Ghost of Christmas Past to use Ebeneezer's history as well as his emotional ties to Fezziwig to drive an effective point home to Scrooge about his poor treatment of his own lone employee, Bob Cratchit. If Scrooge never cared for Fezziwig, then he makes an ineffective role model and the comparison is useless.

In addition, the scene in which Scrooge is taken by the Ghost of Christmas Present to observe the goings-on at his nephew Fred's place is far too short. It doesn't communicate at all the merrymaking and companionship that Ebeneezer has been missing out on for years. It is woefully out of balance with the time spent on other scenes.

The Ghost of Christmas Present then takes Ebeneezer to a place where his former fiancé Belle (re-named "Alice" for some inexplicable reason) is helping out at a homeless shelter. This replaces the scene from the book where Scrooge witnesses her married, showing him what a large, happy family he could have had, if he had been a better man in his youth. Again, the lesson of wasted opportunity is missing, and this change in the script defeats the purpose Dickens intended.

Alastair Sim is likewise often described as the "definitive" Scrooge. Although I thoroughly enjoy his portrayal of the character, I think Sim lacks the physical appearance to be "definitive." His face is a bit too round and comical to have the look that is reminiscent of the drawings approved by Dickens that were done by illustrator John Leech. That Scrooge is far more gaunt and flinty. Actually, of all the Scrooges that have been portrayed on screen, I think Seymour Hicks from the otherwise lacking 1935 version may have been the closest physically to those illustrations.

I won't nitpick the supporting cast, with the exception of pointing out a couple of things. One, is that I have to disagree with reviewers who loved Michael Horndern as Marley's ghost. I thought his hammy, over-the-top acting style was of the kind that is usually associated with melodrama in the silent era.

Far more importantly, Tiny Tim is not nearly tiny nor sickly-looking enough. That huge casting blunder alone is enough to prevent this version from assuming the title of "definitive!"

One last criticism, that has nothing to do with the debate over "definitive" is with the music soundtrack. It is far too loud and blaring in spots, especially when the tune (ironically) "Silent Night" is drowning out some dialog.

At any rate, while I disagree with the verdict of "definitive," I have to say this is nonetheless a very enjoyable adaptation, and certainly close enough to the spirit of Dickens' novel to be recommended. While it lacks the natural subtlety and congruity of the George C. Scott version, it is head and shoulders above the version starring Patrick Stewart, which, while very literal in its treatment of the novel, falls extremely flat.
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Dated, overrated and full of dead space
30 September 2008
Warning: Spoilers
The overblown title of this film gives a clue as to what appears to be the creative and pretentious intention of its makers, and that was no doubt to make the most ambitious, epic "comedy" with the biggest comedic cast ever.

Unfortunately, somewhere in all that effort, they forgot to include a script that would actually elicit laughter.

"Mad etc. World" attempted to utilize a "bigger is better" approach with the misguided notion that that approach alone would guarantee hilarity. Unfortunately it does not. Much is made over the cast, which was well padded with cameo roles. Apparently, just the appearance of a Don Knotts, or the Three Stooges, or a Jerry Lewis, et al was supposed to be cause for laughter, so no attempt at actually giving the cameo comedians funny lines or utilizing them in a clever way was a consideration.

Not only are the attempts at humor lame and unfunny, but a heck of a lot of time in this 3 hour movie is nothing but dead space, with a lot of film footage spent on the cast getting into and out of automobiles, transitioning from point A to point B, and chases that are neither cleverly choreographed nor funny. It makes me shudder to think that the director had to reluctantly cut this mess down from an original running time of FIVE hours!

Anyway, no sense in beating this dead horse, it's not even worth the commentary. Suffice to say, the final scene perfectly captures the essence of this film. Ethel Merman slips on a banana peel, and the rest of the cast immediately launches into forced and extremely fake laughter, as if trying to ram down the viewer's throat what he or she is supposed to find hilarious. If that brand of humor, completely devoid of anything subtle, clever or creative is what makes you laugh, then by all means don't miss this one.
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Overrated "comedy" blazing dud
11 September 2008
By the time "Blazing Saddles" came out in the mid seventies, racial relations had already been given a great deal of comedic treatment for years on prime time television with the likes of the pioneering "All in the Family" and later, "Sanford and Son." But even those shows, which seemed so groundbreaking at the time, have not dated well.

So it can hardly be argued that "Blazing Saddles" deserves praise for being so cutting edge at the time. Instead, what is suppose to pass for an audacious comedic plot comes off now in the same exact way it came off to me back then - as nothing but mere pandering: why, the very idea of a hip black sheriff in a bigoted white town! What a hilarious premise! This pandering is reinforced by the fact that Cleavon Little's character is so hip and cool - as if Brooks was afraid to make him the butt of any jokes - that Little, as the sheriff, is consistently and remarkably unfunny.

Other aspects of the film, involving Brooks' typical overly broad and obvious style of humor, are also remarkably unfunny. For example, what elementary school grade were you in when you last doubled over in laughter at some kid crossing his eyes? This stupid, sub-adolescent shtick, employed by Brooks himself acting in the role of the governor, is pretty revealing of the extent of Brooks' comedic talent. I mean, if given the chance to be a player in his own movie, if he really and truly is the comedic genius that some claim he is, wouldn't he make more use of the opportunity and show us what he can really do? Or was that the best he could do - the cross-eyed lecher with "THE GOV" in bold letters on the back of his coat?

Brings tears of laughter to your eyes just thinking about it, doesn't it?

Add that kind of pathetic effort to the pandering, toss in an overly-indulgent use of sexual vulgarity as well as redundant bits that aren't funny to begin with, and you've got a film that is far more painful than funny to watch.

What also doesn't help is watching talents like Harvey Korman, Gene Wilder and Madeline Kahn trying their best to give it the old college try with such overbearing, poor material.

On the other hand, if Korman getting off on a statue is your idea of funny, then you will probably love this movie.
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John Adams (2008)
A shame
25 August 2008
Warning: Spoilers
I have to be honest and admit that once I realized this series was going to be filmed in its entirety with the use of shaky cameras, contrived picture framing, and crooked horizon lines, any ability for me to be objective about rating this series on other merits became a somewhat futile exercise.

It's bad enough that one has to put up with that obnoxious methodology in movies like the Bourne Supremacy which are set in current times, but that "trendy" style of filming is a jarring hindrance to a viewer's desire to become lost in history from two centuries past. In other words, it's quite a challenge to feel you are in the 1790s when the film style is more like a cheesy 21st century episode of Boston Legal. The self conscious camera gimmicks prevented me from giving the story, the acting, the period details, etc. anything that may have been due.

In fact, it got to the point where instead of taking the film seriously, my family would laugh at every scene filmed at a 45 degree camera angle.

Beyond these camera antics, there is a real problem with the storytelling in this miniseries. It lacks instinct and is simply not compelling. After a somewhat promising starting episode, in which Adams finds himself defending British Soldiers for the Boston Massacre, the series quickly devolves into a progression of scenes that view like events listed on a timeline. And even then, some major events are told in such a deliberately understated way, these events often have no impact. The unimpressed viewer is left to conclude the following for example: "Oh- the Revolution must be over." Or, "I guess George Washington must have died." Ditto for Adams' son and daughter. And: "Did I miss something? Is Adams' presidential term over?" Or: When did his son become elected President?" Etc.

But then, on the other hand, the well-known fact that Adams and Jefferson died on the same day of July 4th is given such a prolonged and heavy handed treatment, it actually detracts from the magic of that strange historical coincidence.

The fact that Adams is depicted as being so surly, bitter and egotistical doesn't help either. One gets the impression after watching this miniseries that Adams' biggest frustration was that history would not give him as much love as Washington, Jefferson and Franklin. It is difficult to relish a prolonged miniseries with such an unlikable, uncharismatic leading character.

I found other roles of founding fathers disappointing as well, from the smarmy, decadent Ben Franklin to the Washington who was as stiff and wooden as the real president's false teeth. I can understand a filmmaker's desire to inject a realistic humanity into these historic characters, but one would think this treatment of the founding fathers almost seemed driven by a disrespectful contempt for all of them.

One element I can say I was pleased with was the opening title music composed by Rob Lane. It perfectly set the tone and mood for an epic, Revolutionary War period film. Too bad the miniseries didn't measure up at all to that inspiring music.

At any rate, we almost gave up on the series at the point where Adams becomes president, which you would think would be a gripping, climatic aspect of the miniseries. By that point the series had become so cumulatively dull and irritating it was becoming unwatchable even for the more tolerant members of the family.

It's a real shame, because such potentially educational and historical subject matter ordinarily would have been a very refreshing change of pace from the proliferation of Law & Order & CSI reruns that are shown around the clock on every other cable station these days.
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Beautiful, lovingly crafted film is a visual and audio treat
19 May 2008
"Master and Commander" was well worthy of its 10 Academy Award nominations. It is rare these days to come across a film that is this intelligently scripted and directed. It is wonderfully subtle, sensitive and powerfully moving at times, occasionally humorous, and yet tense and gripping at other times. The attention to visual and audio detail is incredibly rich and makes owning on DVD well worthwhile. Every time I have watched this I have discovered new details previously unnoticed.

I saw this film before I had read any of the Patrick O'Brian books upon which it is based, and I have to give Peter Weir and his crew even more credit after having become familiar with the novels. While the film borrows snippets from several of the books, and is only loosely based on "The Far Side of the World", I am extremely impressed with and appreciative of the attention that was paid to the characters' personas and relationships to each other. This film was obviously put together by people who greatly admired and respected O'Brian's creations.

Some naysayers here have accused this film of lacking plot, and I have to wonder if they understand what the word means. In addition to the main plot involving the tense and fascinating cat-and-mouse chase between the Surprise and the French privateer, there are various sub-plots involving the relationships between Captain Aubrey and Doctor Maturin as well as the other officers, midshipmen, and rest of the crew. There is something gripping going on in almost every scene, providing plenty of pace to the film.

The acting is excellent and the always charismatic Russell Crowe makes a perfect Aubrey in my opinion. The Maturin of the novels is a bit darker character than what is presented in the film, but Paul Bettany does such a wonderful job with the role that that is not even worth a criticism.

An excellent soundtrack employing lush, classical music adds to the enjoyment of the film.

My only regret is that they don't make nearly enough films of this kind any of my top favorites in our DVD library.
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Maligning of documentary proves its point as it exposes many ironies
25 April 2008
One supreme irony of the reaction to "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed" is that it actually helps the documentary make its case.

The overwhelming sense that I got from Ben Stein's film is that all you have to do is whisper the words "intelligent design" to the so-called watchdogs of the scientific status-quo and its advocates, and then you had better give wide berth to the foaming-at-the-mouth, hysterical spewing against religion and "creationism."

I went to see this film with certain expectations based on all the angst reflected in both professional and amateur movie reviews. I expected to see a film that was filled with religious overtones and references to the creation account in Genesis. Instead, what I saw was a film that was far less ambitious. "Expelled" merely attempts to point out what happens when members of the scientific community, many of whom are not Christian, and who work within the best interests of scientific tradition, attempt to entertain answers for the origins of life outside of the Darwinist model, a model that even the scientific elite admit behind closed doors is inadequate and outdated.

I find it extremely amusing, in the midst of all the anti-"Expelled" hysteria, that professional film critics focus more on Ben Stein's "tactics" and the Evolution-Creation debate than what the film is indeed all about, and that is, the pursuit of intellectual and academic freedom to explore other possibilities for unanswered questions regarding the origin of life.

And much of this hysteria comes from the same crowd that considers Michael Moore and his approach to film-making the stuff of genius. For example, consider this: reviewers have accused Ben Stein of "blind-siding" renown atheist Richard Dawkins. And yet, these are the same folks who think it is appropriate for a Michael Moore, posing as an ardent NRA-supporter, to infiltrate Charlton Heston's home in an attempt to lay blame at his feet for a little girl's murder by the child of an irresponsible single mother, thousands of miles away in Flint Michigan. In fact, those tactics are not only applauded, they are considered worthy of winning filmdom's highest honor, the Academy Award!

Equally ironic is the fact that many decry the unfairness of linking Darwinism to such inhuman philosophies as Hitler's Nazi Socialism, and yet who can deny that much of the motivation behind the Holocaust was the notion that Aryans were more fit to survive than what Hitler and his cronies deemed were inferior members of the human race? As the film itself mentions by quoting Darwin himself, this was all part of Charles' thinking. Mankind's advances in medicine and social services have been able to overcome the tendencies of nature and so, according to Darwin, nature needs a little boost in weeding out the inferior, sickly members of society. There is no reason to believe, based on Darwin's very own words, that he would not have approved of Hitler's actions.

For those who find problems with "Expelled" because they misinterpret its obvious aim of promoting academic freedom, it is interesting that they should so quickly dismiss obvious facts of history while ranting about faith, "fairy tales" and religion. And yet, the amount of faith that is put in unprovable models about the origins of life, as well as the "scientists" who promote them, is a religion unto itself.

And perhaps the most laughable irony of all that is pointed out by the film, is that when it comes down to the final question of "how did we get here?", ultimately even atheists such as Dawkins are grasping at their own faith-based straws, and suggesting alien intelligences and the like.

An excellent film that has to be seen to be appreciated. It moves very quickly, and is entertaining as well as informative. It should not be judged based upon the opinions of the anti-God crowd, many of whom have obviously not even seen it.
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Beowulf (2007)
Woeful Beowulf creepy for wrong reasons
27 March 2008
While one can be impressed with all the gee-whiz technology that went into the making of "Beowulf," in the end it gave me the creeps for the wrong reasons.

The video game, talking avatar feel of the CG was disturbing in the sense that it made me think of cheesy wax museum figures or department store mannequins coming to life after hours.

Another unintended creepiness of the film stemmed from the fact that evidently Zemeckis and company felt that people would be titillated by the gratuitous use of video game-flavored sexual references. Maybe hormone-raging adolescents who enjoy AO-rated Playstation games get a kick out of that sort of thing, but an adult would have to really be in a bad way if digitized breasts and buns turn him or her on.

The fact that animated CG is such a planned, thought out, painstaking, technical process further gives the nudity and sexual overtones a rather deliberate, pornographic air that is repulsive.

A bad decision from the start, one has to ask, why go the CG route? If the goal is realism, then why not a film with real actors and settings? Instead, one is left with the impression that this was intended to be an exercise in showing off and boasting, "Hey! Look what we can do now!" Or, in other words, they make a film likes this simply because nowadays they can. And yet, in spite of all the technical sweat and tears, the human characters still end up looking unnatural and unconvincing.

In addition, the Grendel character, who looks like a cross between Gollum and the mummy from the Brendan Fraser movies, tears bodies in half and bites off heads, but the video game gore splattered everywhere is also unnatural and not convincing enough to elicit any kind of shock or horror.

I also had the impression that the CG technology process overruled the subtle and sensitive nuances that make great films, and watching the special features portion of the DVD confirmed that impression. The actors, out of costume on their virtual, sterile stages, and therefore out of their natural element, appeared to be going through the motions while the director seemed satisfied that one take was good enough, since anything that might be lacking could be added in later by computer artists and technicians.

With regard to the script, I am not troubled by the fact that it took liberties with the original myth. What does trouble me is that once again we have an example of a story in which we are suppose to identify with characters simply because they exist, without any substantial character development being breathed into them.

Hence, we are to root for Beowulf not for any number of admirable character qualities, but only because the script says he IS the hero of the tale. Or perhaps because he is relatively less repulsive than other characters in the story.

A sad waste of expertise, money, technology...this kind of CG may work for "Shrek" or something like "The Polar Express" that are intended to be pure, unrealistic fantasy, but it is still not yet ready for subject matter that is intended to be taken seriously. And "Beowulf" makes me wonder if it ever will be.
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Inexcusable follow-up missing charm of previous movies
29 February 2008
Warning: Spoilers
I am not one to get completely down on a movie because it isn't 100% faithful to a book upon which it draws inspiration. But if one is doing a follow-up to an already established film series, it seems to me it is just plain common sense that the follow-up should have some continuity in character personality and theme.

The previous Anne of Green Gables installments relied heavily on the charm of both its characters and Canadian setting for its success. In this movie neither the characters nor the setting are even given the chance.

The actors aged 13 years since the last sequel but for some reason look even older than their real-life early 30s. This is a detriment when we are supposed to believe they are still in their early twenties. Of course, what doesn't help at all is the fact that both Anne and Gil behave like folks who are worn down by life...even before they have had their WWI battlefield experiences. If Megan Follows had exhibited more of the fresh spunk and liveliness that made the Anne character endearing in previous episodes, it would have been easier to overlook the drawn face with the age lines around her mouth. Jonathan Crombie's Gil Blythe does no better, acting as drawn and haggard as he looks.

Simple plots based on small-town personalities, relationships, ambitions, etc. have been likewise removed in favor of a more "grandiose" plot involving Anne traipsing around WWI Europe in search of her husband with somebody else's baby in tow. The story not only comes off dull but conveniently contrived to boot. Is it just me, or did anyone else find it odd that, with the millions of combatants and support personnel engaged in WW1 Europe, Anne kept running into people she knew? Further, scenes with the diminutive Megan Follows lugging a large baby around that is nearly as big as her also came off as visually ridiculous.

Unfortunately, since the characters in this sequel bear little resemblance to previous incarnations, and since even the charm of Prince Edward Island has been supplanted with war-torn Europe, we are only left with asking the following question: Why bother?

It is as if the writer/director et al thought, "Well, the names are the same, and the actors are the same. That will appease the Anne of Green Gables faithful. For everybody else, we have a nice, sappy WWI melodrama!"

Relentlessly tedious, bleak and humorless, this "Continuing Story" continues scarcely little of the original flavor of the first two movies nor the "Road to Avonlea" TV series. Speaking as someone who is not even a devoted fan of Anne of Green Gables to begin with, this film makes me sorry for those who are.
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Stalag 17 (1953)
Excellent drama that tries too hard to be a comedy
21 February 2008
Warning: Spoilers
This is a difficult film to rate because there are equal parts that deserve a ten and those that deserve a one. That's why I rate this a five.

The plot elements that focus on the drama and intrigue of an informer in the midst of allied prisoners in a German WWII prison camp are excellent. If the film had focused only on that, along with the addition of the acting and screen presence of William Holden, this would have been a wonderful film. Unfortunately, it is hindered by an overabundance of stupid shenanigans by a few characters who are supposed to be the standard comic relief. I think the intention was to depict these figures as lovable goofballs who are doing what they can to cope with prison life. That intention fails completely, since they never give any indication that life in the POW camp is anything but a time for frivolity and pranks, as if they are just grade school brats away at summer camp.

Evidently, the idea was to have a film that was half-comedy and half-drama, but the comedic portions come off as annoying, time-consuming filler until the film can resume the interesting drama - and real story - involving Holden as the self-centered and unpopular fellow prisoner who is singled out as the traitor in the barracks.

Actually, the dry, cynical humor from Holden and some others would have provided just the right balance of comic relief. Unfortunately, the scenes in which the Shapiro and "Animal" characters all-too often dominate are virtually unbearable. Their inane antics are pathetically unfunny. The presence of the "Animal" in particular is made even more repulsive by the over-the-top attempt to appear grungy-charming while only coming off as a constant, grotesque and distracting irritant to what you really want to see.

It really is a shame. You can also take away the guy with the nasally voice who reads announcements. Toss him out with Shapiro, and the "Animal" and actually you might have a very enjoyable film.
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Enjoyable adaptation
12 February 2008
I feel compelled to write a few words about this adaptation after reading several negative - and, in my opinion - unfair reviews. Those who say this film does not resemble the book at all, or has "nothing to do" with the book, or that Fanny Price is "the complete opposite" of the character in the book have in truth either never really read the story, or are engaging in extremely careless exaggerations.

It is true that some mild liberties have been taken with this adaptation. The character of Fanny Price is not quite as meek and timid as she was in the book. But in this movie, neither is she portrayed as some kind of aggressive, assertive, anachronistic feminist. The few times where she is compelled to speak her mind are more than balanced by scenes in which she displays restrained sensitivity, or feels awkward, or defers to those who she deems superior to her in situation...just as the Fanny Price of the novel.

Further, the few references to Sir Thomas' involvement in a slave trade are merely an interesting interpretation, and of such a minor nature, that they do not detract from the spirit of Jane Austen's storytelling. The reality is that that spirit has been kept intact. ALL the major characters and plot elements are still there, a challenge made difficult by the time restraints of a two hour film, and yet quite competently and impressively met. If one wishes to criticize a version that completely misses the mark on those two scores and very much deserves harsh criticism, it can be justifiably directed to the more recent and poorly-made BBC version starring Billie Piper.

Some objections have been made to a more explicit depiction of the affair between Henry Crawford and Mariah. This was something Jane Austen decorously hinted at in her book but the full meaning of her intent was clear. The scene is extremely brief and not at all gratuitous nor explicit. If anything, it merely helps to emphasize the selfish betrayal of Henry and Mariah as they expose their families to scandal.

The film is beautifully lit and shot, and the direction is quite often wonderfully subtle. The acting is excellent all around, but Frances O'Connor's subtle expressiveness in particular is a pleasure to watch. The music - described by one reviewer as loud and obnoxious (are you kidding me???) - is very charming chamber string music, more than appropriate to the tone and setting of the film.

It may very well be impossible to satisfy some Jane Austen purists, but director Patricia Rozema and her crew deserve commendation for this enjoyable and intelligently made adaptation.
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