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The X-Files: Jose Chung's 'From Outer Space' (1996)
Season 3, Episode 20
What a stunner
28 March 2015
I watched this episode when it first aired and many times since, and it never loses off its charm and combination of humor and profundity. The dialogue, intricacy of allusions, factuals and counterfactuals, and the brilliant parody of post-modern concepts of multiple, conflicting, and unreliable narrators make for some of the best television put on the screen, ever. A few earlier sci-fi series hit highs like this -- Star Trek, Twilight Zone. Our dynamic duo put in some of their finest performances.

Certainly one of the best handful of X-Files episodes, and possibly the best ever. The X-Files never again reached these heights of its third season, but keeping such a level up is pretty hard.
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A triumph: One of the best
16 March 2012
The list of innovations introduced by this timeless classic is long and was copied by almost every subsequent sci-fi movie. It's hard to imagine the entire genre since then without Forbidden Planet. Apart from The Day The Earth Stood Still, it was a unprecedented leap for science fiction, Hollywood, and pop culture.

Transporters and warp drive, or suspended animation? Check. The Star Trek paradigm -- an Earth ship encountering humans stranded on an alien world, humans needing but not wanting rescue -- check -- the familiar trio of captain, executive officer, and doctor? Check. Star Wars' charming, superhuman robots? Check. Sci-fi that takes place entirely in outer space? The sinister potential of advanced technology? Far-out electronic "space" music for a score? Check, check, and check.

The studios did not take sci-fi seriously until this movie. We're all deeply indebted to MGM for taking the amazing step it did in 1956.
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Lolita (1962)
Still a stunner after 50 years
8 April 2011
It's not the book, but both Nabokov and Kubrick knew that they couldn't film the novel as it was. So Nabokov brilliantly adapted his own book, making an essentially new story out of it, bringing Quilty to the fore and giving Peter Sellers an amazing opportunity to get ready for Dr. Strangelove. Sue Lyon's performance is remarkable for its unforced, perfect teen mix of turmoil, boredom, and teasing.

The novel is a tragedy, with Humbert as a brilliant, creepy, narcissistic monster for whom Lolita isn't a stepdaughter, but a twisted fantasy. While a largely passive victim in the novel, in the movie, Lolita is older and more able to defend herself and end up on top, so to speak. Humbert is obsessed with criminal thoughts, but not a criminal in act. Movies by their nature have to be more realistic or naturalistic, and modernist experiments like the novel tend to not fit the medium. Thus the tale was retold as an near-consummated obsession, and the villainy is shifted to Quilty, who becomes the real criminal in place of Humbert. Lolita dies at the end of the novel; not so in the film. Rather Quilty dies in her place after the transposition from book to cinema.

There are some myths floating around about the original Lolita, which can be quickly dispelled by reading any decent study or history of the film. While Sue Lyon was a remarkable 14/15-year-old actress, she's supposed to be 16 in the film when she first meets Humbert, and 19 in the final scene. (In the novel, she's 12 and 16, respectively.) There was no US film rating system at the time, and most films for general release had to fit the Hays code or something like it. (There were no R- or X-rated films in 1962, although there was an underground of low-grade porn shorts.) Nabokov's decision to adapt the novel himself stemmed from his belief that, if someone was going to butcher the story, he should do it himself. Because the film was made in the UK, Kubrick had to satisfy just one censor, the British film board, which in effect became a collaborator.

The film is full of brilliant gags that repay close attention. (Who is Vivian Darkbloom, and what does her name really mean?) Also worth close attention is Nabokov's incisive portrait of the then-new American teenager. Pray tell, in the film, are not Humbert or Charlotte the abused, and their precious baby the casual abuser?
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See it
12 April 2008
The Lives of Others is a powerful and remarkable work for a first-time director. Having been to the reunified Berlin, I can confirm that his recreation of the late, unlamented East Germany is amazing, with its gray dreariness and never-fully-rebuilt postwar look. The moral universe recreated is even more remarkable. It gives viewers a taste of the strange reality of a communist utopia turned into a giant collectivity of mutually informing, pervasively listened-upon proles. The movie's subtlety makes it all the more powerful an anti-collectivist statement to be set alongside 1984, Brave New World, We, and other classics of the last century.
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The sun shines on this movie
1 November 2006
Warning: Spoilers
The last several years have seen some remarkably fine small or ensemble family-oriented films come out of independent American filmmakers, very different from the big-production values of typical Hollywood films. The ethos of these films clearly owes something to independent films from other countries, yet the results have been quintessentially American - we being the home of the Simpsons, the road trip, and the very-underage beauty pageant.

Such is Little Miss Sunshine, a charmer of a film that will sneak up on you, then whack you over the head with its screamingly funny and perceptive take on the dysfunctional (but aren't we all?) family of Olive Hoover. Dayton, Faris, and Arndt work their way into certain clichéd situations and characters, but then wriggle them in unexpected ways, always keeping the audience guessing. The ultimate goal - the Little Miss Sunshine beauty contest - is almost beside the point. What happens on the way is the real meat of this film, with memorable characters and moments. And the beauty pageant at the end is just the set-up for the movie's hysterical final scenes, the ultimate comment on what little girls are made of. You'll have to thank the late Rick James and JonBenét Ramsey for this wicked piece of satire.
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Something amiss in suburbia
31 October 2006
Warning: Spoilers
I just saw this new and engaging film from Todd Field and enjoyed it immensely. It lacks the taut simplicity of his In the Bedroom, and he sometimes has difficulty juggling all the characters and subplots. But in the end he manages to land his movie safely on the runway. Field is helped along by some outstanding ensemble acting, especially from Patrick Wilson, Kate Winslet, Noah Emmerich, and Jackie Earle Haley. Jennifer Connelly also does a credible job, although we don't see enough of her. The movie is based on Tom Perrotta's 2005 novel. Perrotta's earlier novels include the deadly-funny Election, turned into the wickedly funny movie of the same name with Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick.

Some reviewers were reminded of American Beauty, but Field's film is much better written, directed, and acted, with a more humane and believable story line. The voice-overs at the beginning and the end are somewhat jarring, as if the movie is drawing too much attention to itself, instead of just being what it is. The subplot involving Ronnie (Haley) also threatens to unravel the movie at certain moments, but Field keeps his movie from skidding out in these danger zones.

The emotional center of the story is Sarah Pierce (Winslet), and its temporal center is the evening when she has to talk about Madame Bovary at a women's book club in her apparently cozy suburban neighborhood. It's all too personal for her, and it's revelatory to watch her trite student-days understanding of Flaubert's novel give way to something more profound, a transformation not complete until almost the last scene. These scenes and the whole behavior of these thirty-somethings, not just their little ones, give their weight to the movie's name, Little Children. Only at the final time Sarah tries to buckle her daughter Lucy (Sadie Goldstein) into her child-safety seat does she succeed at last. Sarah is angry as never before, but Lucy has her complete attention as never before - and Lucy knows it, which is why she cooperates as she did not before. With her narrow child's view of the world, Lucy senses something amiss that the adults around her have a hard time seeing.

Field's movie is an excellent addition to a year with a number of striking "small" or family-focused ensemble films such as Little Miss Sunshine. Winslet again shines ensemble-acting in the dysfunctional-family zone, as she did in Finding Neverland, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Hamlet.

Little Children is a reminder that life makes idiots out of all of us at some time or another. All of us, not just Ronnie, should try to be good boys and girls - or rather, good men and women.
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Ha-Ushpizin (2004)
A memorable parable of faith tested
3 October 2006
Warning: Spoilers
Some of the best cinema in the world today comes from the Middle East, and much of that best comes from Israel. Such is Ushpizin, a finely crafted movie by Shuli Rand, staring himself and his wife Michal. Both ultra-Orthodox themselves, they live in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Me'ah She'arim (Hundred Gates). The community is rather withdrawn from secular Israeli life and even from the more modern Orthodox world, but they are willing to open themselves to outsiders. The film was made in Me'ah She'arim with ultra-Orthodox playing themselves and even speaking Hebrew (not Yiddish).

Shuli has left his old life of crime behind to become a "ba'al teshuva" (a returnee to traditional, or Orthodox, Judaism). He takes up one of the strictest branches of orthodoxy, the Breslov sect of the Hasidim ("pious ones") originally from Bratslav in the Ukraine. He and his wife live hand to mouth, hoping for a child. But Shuli's past catches up to him: two of his old criminal buddies, escaped convicts, arrive to visit during the holiday of Sukkot (the fall harvest festival six months opposite the spring festival of Passover, or Pesach). He and his wife welcome them initially as honored holy guests ("ushpizin," after the three men -- angels, actually -- who visit Abraham when he is sick, Genesis 18). A combination of good intentions, small deceptions, and understandable naivete leads to mayhem, then to a moving and remarkable ending.

Shuli and Michal's world is one of material poverty and spiritual riches - it will remind American viewers of the stories of O. Henry. But there's no sense of squalor: the cinematography has an airy glow that captures perfectly the peculiar quality of Jerusalem's golden light.

Not to be missed -- for anyone religious, skeptical, or secular, and watchable (with some effort) even by non-Jews knowing nothing about this world. A keeper of a movie!
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Groundhog Day (1993)
A funny and profound classic
25 April 2006
So much has already been written about Groundhog Day here, what more can I add?

So much has already been written about Groundhog Day here, what more can I add ... :)

This is one of the great romantic/existential comedies of the last century. If you haven't seen, run out and get it! This movie was an early breakout role for Bill Murray, who was under-appreciated at the time as a great actor.

There's no gimmick or trick to the movie. You just have to pay close attention and consider how one movie under two hours manages to capture everything from Buddhist enlightenment to dating to the nature of self-hatred, self-love, snobbery, and kindness. You'll never learn how Phil Connors gets trapped in time and comes to fear his own shadow. But you don't need to know that.

You'll see something new each time you watch it. Buy it so you can savor the miracle of Groundhog Day over and over.
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Almost Famous (2000)
Cameron Crowe's best
24 April 2006
They tell you in writing class to write what you know, and that's what Cameron Crowe has done here with a semi-autobiographical account of the 60s hangover, a vaguely Zeppelinesque band called Stillwater, and rock-n-roll on the precipice of becoming a big business cash machine. The result is his best movie to date, with superb storytelling and memorable characters.

As with Jerry McGuire, Crowe wisely chose a cast of mostly then-unknowns, who did a fine job of inhabiting their roles while keeping the focus on the plot. He deftly serves up sharp perceptions of both his generation and their parents without puncturing the sweetly nostalgic feel. Don't miss Billy Crudup and Patrick Fugit as the protagonists, Frances McDormand as the panicky professor-mother who suspects her rock journalist-son might be on drugs, or the terminally adorable Kate Hudson as the plot's little girl lost, Penny Lane.
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Overrated and pretentious
23 April 2006
Imagine spending two hours with the most insufferable literary or art school poseurs you can think of - that's what watching American Beauty is like. Strangely, this klunker of a movie won an Academy Award, and lots of aging (and almost entirely male) Baby Boomer critics went ga-ga over it. It's funny viewed as weird family comedy, but still juvenile and pretentious. Like Mendes' other films, it's essentially lifeless, with wooden characters, clunky allegories, and obvious plot devices.

Many viewers and critics were taken in by the absurd hype surrounding this movie's supposedly "radical" or "deep" artistic meaning. Unfortunately for them, this meaning was already given to us long ago by far greater films like Easy Rider, The Graduate, Lolita, and others.

American Beauty is important historically for one reason: it was about the last time obsequious film critics and the Hollywood hype machine could bamboozle such a large number of film-goers with junk. Hollywood is now in a terminal tailspin as audiences are turning off its bad art and puffed-up "activists" as fast as they can.
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Teen cult film classic: Learn it, know it, watch it
20 April 2006
This film has been called one of the better of a disreputable genre, which is exactly right. No one (at least no healthy male :) should miss Phoebe Cates and Jennifer Jason Leigh's famous nude scenes, or Sean Penn's unforgettable performance as stoner Spicoli, with his classic one-line summary of Thomas Jefferson. Cameron Crowe made up the characters based on real teens from his year as an undercover high school senior. His script shows a rare ear for teen dialog and absurd situations. The film launched Sean Penn's long (some would say too long) and Phoebe Cates' short (some would say too short) careers.

Fast Times is an early classic of the film genre best represented by the John Hughes flicks of the late 80s (Molly Ringwald, Ferris Bueller). Unlike the gross-out Porky's or later slick ripoffs like Scream and American Pie, this movie is both funny and bittersweet. The whole teen-twenties category captured the late Boomers/Gen-X-er's struggling into adulthood without adult guidance, which is the subtext of Crowe's "fast times" - kids growing up too fast. Neither Crowe nor director Amy Heckerling offer explicit morals here, but the standard question of postwar American life - where *are* your parents? - floats in the background. As in Almost Famous, Crowe delivers devastating judgments without being the least preachy. Fast Times was released in 1982, at just the moment when American culture was leaving behind the decadent 70s and the Boomers were starting to have their own kids. Definitely a funny-sad snapshot of a bygone time.
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