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The Mountain Lion and Me (2018 TV Movie)
5/10
Great Photography Hideous Morality
10 January 2019
Why would he plead with the hunters to spare the mother cat and then perversely watch the kitten lose weight and disappear. There's nothing about his occupation that does not intrude on nature. So why wouldn't he intrude and call a vet for the wounded cub? There are whole shows on Animal Planet about vets who fix and restore animals to wild habitats. His spoken concern for the dwindling ranks of maintain lions is thus ridiculous. An even bigger asshole photographer did a story about a baby elephant rejected by the heard and then torn to pieces by hyenas. This genre is not noble, it's just porn.
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Ironweed (1987)
8/10
Helen Archer, a croquis for greater roles to come, Kundry, perhaps
16 February 2014
Watching Streep's creation of Helen Archer is a complete joy, from her poignant silences to her gemuetlich cabaret turn, humorous, tragic, moving but never maudlin. The character puts me in mind of that other sublime derelict from opera, Kundry, for whom it would seem Meryl has done workshops throughout her career. In addition to her Helen Archer, We have her femme fatale, Jill, in Manhattan, Madeline Ashton, a woman cursed with a Kundry-like longevity, like that of Emilia Marti from The Makropoulos Case, albeit actively sought and dearly paid for. Don't get me wrong, I loved the performance of Katarina Dalayman in the Met's most recent production of Parsifal, but, during my second viewing, not in the opera house, but in an HD theater, it became clear that one really needs an actress as mindful as Streep to make this spectacular acting opportunity realized to full satisfaction. She should take off for a year to work on it. And her voice. Yes, she will be required to sing high B and low B on the same word, Lachte. That vocal firework explodes as Kundry describes the ancient sin that occasioned her self-imposed curse. It has kept her alive over a thousand years in many guises: Herodias, Gundryggia and many personalities the audience never hears about. Now in the employ of Klingsor, she is required to tempt and bring down Parsifal, yet another vulnerable protector of the Grail. Streep would have amazing growth potential in that second act. For here she needs to communicate infinite wisdom, dumbness, innocence, guilt, power and impotence simultaneously. In the third act she is without a single line or note to perform, and yet a central character transformed as much as Parsifal himself. I'm sure she could meet the challenge of performing in silence with impressive creativity. As in all great scripts, this libretto is open ended in a way that would afford a freedom of interpretation any actor would sign on for. She could pull it off vocally, too. Back in 1977, before Broadway singers were miked, she did Lillian Holiday in Happy End and was a knockout vocally. In fact, one was surprised later when she chose to do non-musical roles. It was an operatic voice. Yes, 37 years have passed. But a Parsifal movie would not require the vocal heft required to fill the 4,000 seat Met opera. Moreover, computers do amazing things these days to add and subtract age. Yes, of course, it's four and a half hours long and Wagner, so it wouldn't exactly pay for itself, but would probably end up being definitive with the involvement of such an artist.
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9/10
How to Make Elizabethan Black Comedy Land with an Audience in 2013
9 June 2013
Much Ado About Nothing is a good title for this play. True love is destroyed by a jaded third party with baseless accusations. Two jaded wits fall for each other with the help of well-meaning friends...who make baseless accusations. Love is a real thing often created or ended through unlikely circumstances. Along the way, you'll enjoy beautiful language, brilliant insights, thought-provoking situations. None of this would have worked so effectively had it not been for smart direction and acting, displayed here in abundance. Everyone in the cast understands their lines, essential to make the antique language come alive. You might be surprised how many productions fail with clueless line readings. Apart from the movies of Kenneth Branagh, it's a rare achievement that a cast does this well. The preciosity of plays of this vintage was never more skillfully avoided. That being said, there is something about Much Ado that never seems to work. When life-and-death violence arrives precipitately wrapped in coal black emotions, it somehow rings false, almost embarrassingly inapposite to the champagne that has flowed before. This schizophrenia might be eliminated by figuring out how to direct the first two thirds of the play more like the denouement.
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John Carter (2012)
10/10
Burroughs, father of Tarzan, imagines quantum entanglement on Mars 22 years before anyone else
4 June 2013
This movie about John Carter, a character from the 1912 novel, A Princess of Mars, is thoroughly satisfying in every way. The idea of entanglement, a single body occupying different spaces simultaneously (in this case, planets) goes far beyond Star Trek's warp drive or transporter to imagine a travel that was much more revolutionary. Even Schroedinger, who refined the concept of entanglement (Verschraenkung), did not articulate his theories until 1935. The novel tells the tale of Dejah Thoris, brilliant and beautiful Princess of Helium, a city on Mars (aka Barsoom). She is rescued by John Carter, a Civil War hero adventurer transported to Mars unwittingly to eventually change everyone's destiny. Lavishly produced and beautifully acted, the movie will go down in history as Disney's finest achievement and best-loved movie. It might take some time, however, to erase initial box office disappointment. It barely broke even on a huge budget. But, like the Wizard of Oz, will endure to become one of America's most popular features. The characters are well developed and interesting. Some of the performances are first rate, including those of Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton, Lynn Collins and Taylor Kitsch. The warm, three dimensional personalities they create are as resonant and endearing as anything in Twain. That's not something one can say about many science fiction movies. Certainly, Mark Strong's, Matai Shang, will not be exceeded for intelligent villainy or jaded intensity any time soon. You know a performance is great when it seems the actor was also the writer. I encourage anyone to buy the film in Blue Ray to savor the mesmerizing visuals in all their glorious detail. When it comes down to choosing one dream world over another, my vote goes to the movie that features its heroes and heroines "sailing on light" in exquisite, dragonfly-like airships.
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After Earth (2013)
9/10
It's OK to like this movie, despite the racially motivated pan in the New York Times
1 June 2013
You don't have to be Alberich to write for the New York Times, but it would seem that it helps. That's right, forsake all love for career gold. After Earth is a wonderful movie about parental love. That's all it is. Thrown in with the price of admission is an engrossing odyssey with excellent special effects, suspense and muscular, coming-of-age adventure. There could have been no other motive for the Times to bad mouth this movie, except the obvious one of racism. What perhaps made this film so irritating to the parochial Times critic was the celebratory portrayal of an African American as a leader and devoted father. Make a note of this: to win the praise of this moribund rag as a person of color you must play a bad mother, as Halle Berry did, a dirty cop, as Denzel Washington did or a Stepin Fetchit, as Morgan Freeman did (on more than one occasion). So reader, every time you lay down your $2.50 for the New York Times, it will not be to join the well informed, but to support their malignant attempt to marginalize blacks.
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1/10
Sondheim's usual knish: overrated, leaden and tasteless
12 May 2013
No, despite Sondheim's ambition, this offering of empty calories will never make it to a gourmet menu. A humble barber loses his pretty partner and daughter. He seeks revenge on the world with a low-life malheureuse. The serial killing and cannibalism that follow seem emotionally out of place. You never feel Todd's motivation is authentic. His suffering is not really on the level of Job, Spartacus, Karl Childers or even the Count of Monte Cristo. Unfortunately, like all of Sondheim, the emotional context here is about as authentic as one of the whinier episodes of Love American Style. The music is derivative and not really good, though the creator no doubt considered it to be ground-breaking. Rejected by his mom, Sondheim went after big-time approval from critics and audiences. The Former he usually gets from the parochial Miss Daisys of the New York Times. But the theaters staging his works usually end up empty. No one considers Sondheim a legend as much as Sondheim. When Follies was revived last year on Broadway, I overheard a priceless sales pitch on the half-price tickets line. The officious hawker was trying to convince a tourist to see it with the following guarded praise: "It's really great, well anyway it's like a museum piece...well, in any case, the performances are certainly worth seeing." And I said "save your money and look for a real museum piece in a museum. You're too late for the real Follies, which at least had spectacle in their favor." Sweeney avoids the endless kvetch-fest of Follies, but not a note of it rings true. Just one example to illustrate how emotion is just wallpaper to Sondheim: how on earth does Mrs. Lovett end up singing "Not While I'm Around"? Schizophrenia? For it is the only thing of its kind in the whole show, so you can't believe it. Bizarre. That being said, the acting here is fine, even Sacha Cohen as the macassared mountebank . Too bad the actors had such mediocre material to work with. An interesting Sondheim anecdote: I was at the Met for a brilliant performance of an opera about another ne'er-do-well. I can't besmirch the composer by stating his name in the context of this debacle. Suffice it to say, the character he created, unlike Sondheim's, is richly ambiguous, not a stereotype, with interesting motivation and ingenious music. Sondheim was in the first row and at the curtain got up and scurried out without applauding in the midst of tumultuous appluse. Jealous much? My advice: write a musical about a Broadway songsmith with towering ambition and puny talent. That's a story I'd believe and I think this time he'd get it right.
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The Iron Lady (2011)
9/10
Streep's Thatcher Excellent, Yes, But Have You Seen Her Philippa of Hainault?
7 April 2013
From grocer's daughter to prime minister of Great Britain, Thatcher transcends her class and her gender, two big stumbling blocks for success in that country. Streep has captured a complex character, though one unworthy of her talent and unworthy of our admiration. In the end, you have profound sympathy with a woman of questionable values. Why do we need that? There surely has to be a more admirable historic figure to celebrate. Thatcher is so confident in her conservative beliefs, that the deaths of young soldiers defending the Falklands and the thousands of workers kicked off the dole barely register with her. The ultimate downfall of all such conservatives is a lack heart, but worse, a lack of fairness. Thatcher won a free ride at Oxford, but was not eager to extend to anyone else of humble background a similar chance to rise in British society. Nevertheless, the performance makes you care about her and view her personal life as a tragedy. It is heartbreaking to realize how unaware she was of her solitude. But there are far worthier subjects for the talent of Meryl Streep. Take Philippa of Hainault (24 June 1314 – 15 August 1369), for example. Queen of England and wife of Edward III, whose father Edward II had been horribly executed for being gay, Philippa was the mother of 14 and known for kindness and compassion. She intervened after the battle of Crecy to save the lives of the Burghers of Calais. She survived the Black Death in 1348, though three of her kids did not. She died in Windsor Castle at the age of 55, having buried nine of her children. An interesting wrinkle in the story is that, though descended from Stephen, a former king of England and untold European and Asian noble families, she might have had Moorish blood as well. Her tomb sculpture shows a woman who looks a bit like Meryl Streep, though she is described as having had brown skin. With some computer alchemy, Meryl could play her as a 16-year-old new bride right up to her death at 55. Streep has the look; and, in another century, could have modeled for the Master of Flemalle. A wonderful screenplay could be fashioned from her life by someone like the late and great Marguerite Yourcenar. It would be a marvelous existential meditation on race, nobility, natural catastrophe and survival, from the low countries to Westminster Cathedral, her final resting place. It would also fill a niche. There really has not been a great medieval biopic for decades. Even Hepburn's Eleanor of Aquitaine was embarrassingly anachronistic. The play was certainly not very good. And the cranky-Bryn-Mawr-dowager-at-cocktail-hour performance did not elevate. It would be great to have Streep give life to a lady ruler with iron strength and a heart of gold.
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Side Effects (I) (2013)
1/10
Sapphic sisters unite—boycott this lesbian-bashing movies
17 February 2013
Unfortunately, Hollywood producers do not have much interest in the creation of culture. But rather in the marketing of clichés, comprising the desires and fears that inhabit the emotional landscape of the masses. They are consequently not very nice people, as their engines are fueled on cynicism and blind greed. And if there isn't a Russian communist, Muslim or impertinent bacillus to pillory—easy targets of hatred—they feel impelled to turn to other pop icons of loathing. In this case, lesbians. As presumed by this writer, the only women evil enough to reject acceptable norms of decency and basic human compassion are women who have no need of men. Especially ones who are this extraordinarily beautiful. These particular producers also perhaps hoped to cash in on the titillation that girl-on-girl action might arouse in the segment of straight men who buy into that erotic trope. That being said, these are all marvelous actors whom I admire profoundly. Their work here is excellent. Would that they had had the altruism to sniff out the rot at the core of this apple. In addition to the trite homophobia, this movie fails for two additional lapses in reason. Rooney Mara's character performs a grotesquely brutal act that would make a navy seal squeamish, let alone a Greenwich princess. But of course, someone who could perform lesbian sex is, by definition, a subhuman, a monster. The other big fantasy is that Catherine Zeta-Jones' character, a psychiatrist, has enough money and Wall Street savvy to buy enough devalued stock to make her filthy rich. Rich enough to require two foreign bank accounts. If it were that easy, wouldn't Pfizer have cashed in on that game decades ago? Let's all hate the disease of depression and not women who love women.
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6/10
Miserere nobis! Save this artifact with selective dubbing.
13 January 2013
Apart from the portrayal of Javert, there's nothing essentially wrong with the acting here. Of course, it's easy to fault Crowe's conception, when one has the genius performance of Charles Laughton as Javert to compare it with. In that much earlier film one ends up caring more about Javert's tragedy than about Valjean's thwarted love story. That being said, you can save this very expensive new edition by dubbing the roles of Fantine, Javert and Valjean with real singers. Consider it very post, post production. For Fantine, get someone like Christine Andreas. Tap Norm Lewis for Javert, and Jonas Kaufmann for Valjean. The third stand-in is an A-list opera tenor, which one apparently needs to get the role's long recitatives executed with conviction and musicality. In fact, some of his music was borrowed from a real opera. The show is through composed, so every line is set to music. If one is not musical, that can be disastrous. The three actors cast here could not handle this style of sung dialog and most of their work is painful to the ear. That seems odd. It's not as if this were Janacek's From the House of the Dead or something vocally challenging, but apparently beyond the efforts of these leads. As for the music itself, it is not that extraordinary, except for Valjean's big number, Bring Him Home, which everyone knows was stolen from the Humming Chorus of Puccini's Madama Butterfly. However, this film is worth saving, as the art direction and cinematography are fine and all the other characters sing beautifully, even Amanda Seyfried. Barks' Eponine gives a vocal performance that will give you chills.
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Doubt (I) (2008)
9/10
Our Divine Dissembler
7 January 2013
In case you have any doubt who our finest actress is, a viewing of Doubt will set you straight. How could Meryl Streep, a Presbyterian Yalie, portray so flawlessly a Bronx nun with a rich accent tempered by propriety? There are not many actresses with the skill to do something that specific, let alone do it so well. One can only imagine the hard work went into her preparation for this performance. I happened to be educated early on by nuns who had the same provenance, accent and deliriously self-righteous personality quirks as those brought to life in Streep's virtuosic performance; and I am happy to report her portrayal is accurate. That is probably the case in all her work. When she commits to a role, the character is examined objectively and forensically without condescension or contempt. It's a total delight. That being said, I must add that I think she has only begun to fulfill her potential as an actress. Of course, at this time, no director, producer or agent is likely to be inclined to meddle with her process on the set. I should think they'd be intimidated. However, as a member of the hoi polloi, I have a purely subjective suggestion for her. In order to join the pantheon of film legends, she might begin to focus on the effect a role will have on her audience and make that effect part of her goal. What does she want us to feel, as well as see. Her limning skills are unparalleled, but for the audience to have an emotional response, specific goals should be established, along with her technique to achieve them. I think she might then rise to the level of a John Barrymore or Marie Dressler who—whatever the character—were not only able to dissemble, but to devastate.
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Lincoln (2012)
5/10
Well, not so much Lincoln as Elliot Spitzer
9 November 2012
I thought I was watching a Mad TV sketch, replete with pompous dialog, howlingly bad wigs and imprecise accents, condescending racial stereotypes. But no, it was actually something that its producers hoped to be a contender for big awards. But what else would one expect from this pretentious director, the over-hyped doyenne of all-American Spam? Despite his many titles, one can identify only a few minutes of emotional authenticity in his oeuvre. They come in the early scenes of Jaws, Saving Private Ryan and Super 8. The rest is banal, trite and frankly phony. Sally Field usually elevates whatever role she takes on with her extraordinary talent. She is at sea here with this flatfooted material. The limited acting skills of D D. Lewis results in an unsure impersonation of Walter Brennan's voice as Grandpa McCoy, but a spot-on reflection of Elliot Spitzer's demonic aspect. Now there was an American politician whose fiendish visage did not hide a heart of gold. Lewis gives the impression of a man who does good deeds while hiding a preference to do ill. It was the opposite with the historic Lincoln, whose spooky Marfan syndrome could not dim a beautiful soul. If you want to connect with this wonderful President's spirit as communicated by a real actor, spend a few moments with Benjamin Walker's genius turn in Abraham Lincoln Vampire Slayer. Played railroad straight, despite the ridiculous graphic novel source material, you get a better idea of what Lincoln was all about than you will from this pedestrian Flag Day float.
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Prometheus (I) (2012)
10/10
Greatest Science Fiction Film of All Time, and Even Before
5 August 2012
Warning: Spoilers
What most creative teams in the business forget is that engaging science fiction requires wonder, not preaching or tidy answers. This film provides a rich tapestry of ideas, ambiguity and visceral thrills that probably should be left as a stand-alone, as it does not seem likely that anyone in Hollywood would have the creative chops to produce a satisfying sequel. This movie is less a prequel to Alien, than a brilliant sequel to Angels and Insects. Appropriating the ideas of Darwin, spiked with a Wagnerian grandeur and the narrative genius of the Odyssey, Prometheus makes all the Alien movies, from best to worst, seem to be trivial sidebars. It does this in a most ingenious way. The particulars of the Alien movies, which were at best tales of infestation, are given magnificent cosmological scope here, where everyone and everything might turn out to be be the result of a monstrous lab experiment. Like our own race which strives for eternal youth and perfection (whether for ourselves or our android charges), the other-worldly Engineers have been at genetic improvements for so long that, by the time they head for Earth, 2,000 years ago, with an unknown sinister purpose, they themselves bear a striking resemblance to the idealized sculptures of Herakles found in Flavian bathhouses. Is that really a look that happens in nature? Two mysterious iconostases are found in the chapel aboard the spaceship of the Engineers, one an idealized godlike human head, the other a precious high relief of the Xenomorph, whose first cousin went on to wreak havoc in the Alien series. Which of these is the deity is not clear. So lots of fun unanswered questions remain. Did the Engineers develop this silicon and hydro-sulfuric acid survival machine as their ideal of nature? Or was it a misstep during millenia of unchecked eugenics? The writers are careful to include the story of humble earthworms that get jacked up on the black DNA goo to become indomitable phallic cobras. No, the canisters do not contain just one result. A vodka cocktail with dingy DNA makes an archaeologist transmogrify after begetting his own octopus that has a nasty resourcefulness similar to the creature in Alien. Some of the casting is bad, as are many of the performances. Most of the scientific staff could have used a few lines in the patois of their fach to be taken seriously. The oil-rig worker mentality and bavardage of Alien is wrong for this crew of elites. The male archaeologist, Charlie Holloway, is someone you wouldn't expect to pass a driving test, let alone earn a Ph.D. And Charlize Theron's wonderful talents are wasted on a character who is unnecessary here. Maybe she is more pivotal if she is scheduled to be resurrected in later installments. The movie is amazing because all these shortcomings don't matter. The big ideas are wonderfully actor and writer proof. The action is spectacular, including one of the most dramatic collisions in cinema history, registering as powerfully as Donner's hammer in Das Rheingold. I hope there are three more Prometheus movies planned, as there are three more operas in the Ring. But if they are not as good as this one, we are better off without them.

The production values are high: art direction, cinematography, special effects. The photography is heroic and breathtaking. The part of the soundtrack that has a memorable hook was composed by Harry Gregson-Williams. That for the creature is a reprise of what Jerry Goldsmith wrote for Alien.

The tantalizing questions posed by the film might lead to greatness. David, the android with coconut milk blood and a fetish for blond movie stars, is an analog for the Xenomorph. Does he feel hurt at the indifference of his human creators. Is his status as a sub-human and the pain that causes him meant to echo our relationship to the Engineers, who appear to have been responsible for our genesis?

The fountain of youth enriches this story of eugenics. Are the canisters of DNA key to Weyland's regeneration? If he is about 100, how is it that his daughter, Theron's character, looks only 30? Again, the curious moral implications of this angle make the story so much more interesting than a mere alien invasion.

What was the motive of the Maverick Engineer at the beginning of the film. Did he populate the earth with his DNA to evolve a species capable of saving his own race from the seemingly indestructible Xenomorphs?

Did the Engineers evolve the creature as a biological planet cleanser, a deity or a flawless survival machine?

If the answers to these questions can be handled intelligently, we look forward to more in the saga.
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Rear Window (1954)
8/10
Had Richard Egan replaced Jimmy Stewart
23 January 2012
This film has a great story, setting and Edith Head costumes, but the romantic underpinnings are impossible to believe. Is it too much to ask for a convincing romantic coupling in an A-list murder mystery? Richard Egan was appreciably more masculine and charismatic than Jimmy Stewart; and his career was sufficiently established for his casting not to represent a major risk. He also had a superb physique (see Demetrios and the Gladiators), which would have been the believable result of his adventurous occupation. His physical condition would have made it OK for him to appear shirtless or in underwear, attire apposite both to his broken leg and dangerous lifestyle. He never would have had to sport the ridiculous, grandmotherly pajamas Stewart does to hide his premature senescence. In fact, during the massage scene, one is actually more attracted to Thelma Ritter's personality and energy. Though Stewart's character condescends to Ritter as a much older woman, she is actually only 6 years his senior. Egan was a rugged, deep-voiced Californian who exuded a paradoxically gentlemanly refinement. He was an alpha male with the luster of a graduate Stanford education. At the time Rear Window was made, he actually had a lot of work and was probably not available. That is a pity, because his presence would have made it an artifact one would have liked to return to again and again. In 1954 he was busy holding his own against Tyrone Power, the pretty boy in Untamed who wins Susan Hayward's love. In that bodice ripper, Egan is made to seem too brutal and crude a match for the social climbing Katie (her GWTW consolation role). But that's what would have made him so right for Rear Window. At a glance, you believe he would seek the thrill of photographing mountain climbers in Nepal, race car drivers, Texan rodeos or tangle with Raymond Burr, but also have the physical magnetism and refinement to attract someone like Lisa Fremont. Yes, it seems many young women at the time were OK with men 21 years their senior (though most frequently in the minds of Hollywood producers). But even Grace Kelly, so frequently cast with granddaddies, found a real prince only 6 years older—a coup de grace. The casting of Stewart enervates the sexual excitement of Lisa's sleepover, rendering her lightly-packed Mark Cross bag powerless to titillate. If she were going to throw away her privileged existence in a very nice building at Park and 63rd by slumming with a photographer in the Village, it would hardly be with the glum actuary played by Stewart. With him one feels certain her honor is completely safe, in or out of the Edith Head negligee. That would not have been the case with Egan playing Jeff; and the movie would have survived with a more appealing adult sensibility.
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Vertigo (1958)
8/10
Rock Hudson Original Scottie
4 December 2011
Yes, it truly would have been an original choice to cast Rock Hudson as Scottie Ferguson. He would have been right for the role in every way: looks, temperament, acting ability. He had already shown a successful romantic side in his Sirk soaps. And he had the brawn and all-American good looks to be believable as a retired San Francisco detective. At 32, he would have been more than believable as the love interest of Kim Novak, then 24. At any age he was a more sensitive actor with a greater range and sensibility than Stewart. Finally, among Hollywood producers, he would have been a plausible choice for the more than decent box office performance of his films. As it is, James Stewart, a non-actor, ruined the film because of his advanced age and for the dreary character he chose to create. He does not succeed in portraying a man poetically obsessed by a feminine ideal. When I first saw this movie I thought it was Kim Novak who stood in the way of Vertigo's becoming a masterpiece. But she actually does an acceptable job of embodying both the classy Madeleine and the baser Judy. Later I found out that even Hitchcock did not object to Novak's replacing Vera Miles, his original Madeleine; and when he had the chance to re-sign Miles after her pregnancy, he stayed with Novak. The only big mistake as far as Novak is concerned is the inclusion of the letter writing scene in which Judy Barton confesses her crime to Scottie and the audience. Hitchcock tried to have the scene deleted as he knew its absence would have made the movie more ambiguous and intriguing until the final half hour. It would have been more exciting to discover Judy's crime along with Scottie as he recognized the necklace from Carlotta's portrait. What's so wrong about Stewart? He was just under 50 in 1957, but he seems more like 70. He's doing his usual hapless bull in a China shop, where someone of greater finesse is called for. The naive persona which was charming in a movie like The Shop Around the Corner had been exaggerated by the time of It's a Wonderful Life and later films into a doddering caricature of Elmer Fudd. It's a bore and never appropriate for a romantic lead. The final scene would have played a thousand times better with Scottie seducing her to the top of the tower, instead of manhandling her as the screenplay called for. The sudden violence is out of character for Scottie, nor does it square with his romantic obsession to turn a woman—even as vulgar as Judy—into his ideal. The way the movie plays now, it's as if Stewart drags her to the belfry to throw her off. Had she gone willingly, then fallen out of her own guilt and fear, it would have seemed to be poetic justice instead of vendetta. Obviously the screenplay was partly to blame. But a lot of that incorrect emotion created by the ending has to do with Stewart's poor acting.
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Great Movie, Bad Karma
4 October 2011
It is shocking that this movie was able to be green-lighted in the Hollywood of 1950. But is the point of view presented here really sympathetic to the "Indians" or deterministic, as was the 1957 movie Something of Value, which told a similar tale about the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya. Should one be impressed by the subject matter or appalled that the fate of Native Americans was actually less important to these producers than their prurient fascination with an implied hook-up between Taylor (a red man rocking a page boy wig, his screen test for Ivanhoe) and Paula Raymond (the whitest woman in his world)? Whatever the impetus for the film, the acting is quite affecting all around. But the story is so relentlessly bleak and heartbreaking for a 1950 film, that one might almost imagine it as the retro nightmare of the misanthropic, Lars von Trier. The monstrous unfairness of the stolen land, the inhumane displacement of a very sympathetic group of Native Americans and their eventual annihilation is presented with no sugar coating in a way that has yet to be done for other famous sagas of injustice, such as American Slavery, the Irish potato famine or today's beleaguered Palestinians. There could not be a happy ending to any of these stories and this creative team deserves credit for realizing that about Devil's Doorway.
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Black Swan (2010)
Does This Tutu Make My Ass Look Fat?
18 September 2011
As an idea, Black Swan is quite interesting. As a film it is a huge disappointment, even failing to make it as a camp classic. Here is what should have happened: brilliant director meets creative writer, choreographer and actress to illustrate how dance can evolve into something thrilling, as characters paradoxically find and lose themselves simultaneously. Unfortunately those talents were not available, but, rather four sows' ears, who, falling well short of silk, delivered an embarrassing, lumpen mess. We will not even go into the movies that get it right, as this after-school effort is not worthy of that association. The sensibility of the director is the antithesis of what was required. Why he would have taken on a project so far beyond his capabilities is a puzzlement. The hubris is as risible as that of Jack Buchanan's character, the great Cordova, in the movie the Band Wagon. (Cordova hilariously tries to turn a simple-minded vehicle for fun-loving Broadway hoofers into Faust.) Unlike the creators of the Band Wagon, the director of Black Swan was dead serious, though unfortunately out of his depth. In like manner, his lead actress could not pull it off, armed with only two expressions in her thespian arsenal: the placid vacuity of someone selling beauty products at Saks and something more complex, part smile, part horrified sneer (with a touch of flared nostril) as if she just caught a glimpse of her own, pre-rhinoplasty face. These have gotten her through many a film, including Thor. The surgery certainly gave her voice an annoyingly nasal timbre, if not the honk of a swan, nor the ability to take flight in the role. Moreover, six months of working out were apparently not enough to give her the grace and energy required to embody her character. Prominent neck tendons aside, she is simply too dumpy to be a convincing Nina. If you disagree, have a look at pictures of this season's ABT lineup. The writer had no previous credits of distinction and it shows. The choreographer was a French provincial import with no ambition to outdo Reisinger or Petipa, from what we know of their work. And that is truly the biggest disappointment of all—the movie does not portray the genius and excitement of dance. In fact, the only enjoyable moments of Black Swan are scenes featuring the wonderful Winona Ryder and Barbara Hershey, prompting one to think that there might be a much more interesting story to tell about a stage mother and her alcoholic, has-been daughter.
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Amazing Actors In Need of a Script
18 September 2011
Yet another movie that has all the smug L.A. "smarts" of a Friends episode (which are just as unbelievable in a feature film), but excellent actors who transcend the mediocre material to make the end result worth seeing. We must remain grateful to the producers for assembling this wonderful ensemble. Paul Rudd and the glorious Zooey Deschanel actually play themselves with amazing charisma. There's nothing wrong with that. However, both deserved better material than that thrown together by these writers, who haven't a single creative trick up their sleeves. The real idiot, it turns out, is not Paul Rudd's character, but the casting director, who gave Steve Coogan and Emily Mortimer a son so improbable that one finds oneself musing during their scenes together "producer's nephew, investor's son?" Of course, such a distraction is hardly necessary. Or is it? Perhaps only in Hollywood.
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The Big Sky (1952)
9/10
None-too-subtle Mid-western Gay Romance
11 July 2010
This is a shockingly enjoyable love story, remarkable for having appeared in 1950s republican America...a place better known for extreme homophobia. Here's the scene that did it for me. Imagine two spectacularly handsome men camping out in the middle of nowhere, completely chill, philosophizing about their lives and nearly cuddled up in the most intimate man-on- man-sleeping-together scene before Brokeback Mountain. Their intimacy might be explained as having been compelled cinematically for the success of the single-camera take. However, it works romantically, if only platonically. The men are completely relaxed and natural, and they radiate their euphoria over being in each other's company. To keep this relationship in check, the producers added a Black Foot princess to generate the more expected heterosexual rivalry, albeit a decidedly perfunctory one. In the end, this movie is about two men who love being with each other more than anything in the world and that's pretty amazing for 1952. The Big Sky succeeds by dint of its successful casting. Kirk Douglas and Dewey Martin, two glamorous, rugged men, seem thrilled and unembarrassed with the subject matter: a boat full of men headed upriver to trade with Native Americans amidst glorious scenery. Neither ever had a role that betrayed their personalities more charismatically.
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Agora (2009)
8/10
Serapis Save Us!
7 June 2010
It's a wonderful B movie. But it could easily have been an A movie. There's nothing out there like it devoted to such an interesting age. Christians & Jews set against the pagans in Alexandria, the home of a wonder of the world lighthouse and the greatest library of the ancient world. Of course, no ancient follower of Serapis would have called himself a pagan. The term pagan did actually come into use among Latin speaking people in the 4th century when the movie takes place, but mainly to describe provincials (and later came to mean those so out of it that they still worshipped the ancient pantheon). So the subject matter is scintillating and unique. But there's no Marguerite Yourcenar adding complexity to the screenplay here or even Mary Renault. What at first seems to be a huge leap away from the sword and sandal tradition, actually becomes very formulaic within a few minutes. The heroine is treated as a precocious feminist and that's pretty tired territory. You know early on that the Christians and the Jews, narrow-minded zealots, are pure evil and that the pagans, who hang out at the library like so many overprivileged underachievers are the open minded ones, especially Hypatia nicely embodied by Rachel Weisz. Hypatia is a backseat cosmologist/astronomer and very self satisfied, but desperate for knowledge enough to bounce ideas off her various students and slaves. She's a rationalist determined to understand how the universe works, but, in the end, she's left thrashing in the dark as much as her religious counterparts. Had the writers portrayed the Christians, Jews and pagans with greater balance, it might have been an excellent film. What attracted them to their very different lifestyles and beliefs is never demonstrated. As it is, they are shown as hateful stereotypes, with the pagans paradoxically given the least focus. If the production team went to so much trouble to reproduce this world of 391 AD, they easily could have rendered all 3 ethnicities with greater dimension, thereby making the drama richer and the outcome less predictable. But that's not what happens. You know immediately who the bad guys are and who the saint is. You are asked to love the humanist philosopher. But, unfortunately, Hypatia has too many un-PC moments with the help to endear herself to us and too many opportunities to channel Kate Blanchett as Elizabeth I for us to care too deeply about her fate. The most amazing thing about the film, apart from a few dazzling camera angles, is the casting. Almost everyone has the look of having come to life from an encaustic Fayum mummy portrait. Not an easy challenge to take on in 2010.
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Nine (2009)
6/10
Bomb-shell
10 January 2010
I can understand why the producers chose this Tony-winning Broadway show as a film subject. There's a lot of material to showcase glamorous actresses and a charismatic male lead. But I don't understand why, having chosen this show, they cut 3/4 of the music, making it a mere shell of what it could have been. It's an old story. Some of the best music in Broadway shows is dumped for the cinematic iteration. With the movie On The Town, for example, a few fabulous songs were cut and great ones added (including the title song). But one senses the producers of Nine were embarrassed by most of the material. And, though Maury Yeston is hardly as bright a Broadway star as Reginald de Koven, his music for the show is beautiful and diverting and shouldn't have been excised. So did we get gripping drama in exchange for the songs? None that would keep you awake. Tolkin and Minghella have not achieved much in a screenplay that makes two hours seem like four. The themes of the story were enhanced by the song lyrics, although I would have been equally concerned about the mass appeal of this dated material. It seemed like a short story from a 1962 issue of Playboy even in 1982.

So why do Nine at all? Perhaps because there are wonderful musical numbers with standout performances from Nicole Kidman (a dead ringer for Zsa Zsa), Judi Dench, Marion Cotillard, Kate Hudson & Stacy Ferguson. Marshall is best at presenting their talents for musical theater, with Hudson's star turn being the biggest surprise (she is better at doing the Modonna thing than Madonna). Cotillard's footage is so good it seems to be from some other film altogether. In the final count, Nine is not a total loss if you view it as a look book for what the modern musical can be on film. And all these actresses should be proud to have it on their reels. They should just leave out the boring parts, which are many.

It would have been so much better with all the music included and a warm-blooded male lead. Banderas gave such a spectacularly involved performance on Broadway that it apparently made him sick for a large percentage of the run. Why wasn't he good enough for the movie...box office? Warm and outgoing, his character would have seduced the viewer along with his many screen divas. Gerard Butler also might have saved the day, as he is the best of all who have played The Phantom of the Opera, infinitely charming, even when the role is not up to his talent. The Daniel Day Lewis casting was catastrophic. An actor of extremely limited range, his trademark introversion doesn't work here, and he seems to suck all the energy from every scene he's in. Hepburn's emotions might have run the gamut from A to B per Dorothy Parker, but Parker would have dubbed this over-rated actor the king of Zs. Those black little dead eyes! In fairness, I really did believe he would bash someone's head in to save a nickel, as he did in There Will Be Blood. But that's probably more because he was genetically programmed for that role, than because he gave an Oscar-worthy performance. The Italian film director envisioned by this script needs to interact with the other characters with palpable chemistry and have much more personal charm (or at least a pulse) to be believable as a bombshell magnet.
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A Single Man (2009)
One Small Step for A Single Man
31 December 2009
It's always fun to see a film produced by a former creative director or artist. Mitchell Leisen, a great director, had been a costume designer. Julian Schnabel, the hack '80s art celebrity now dabbles as a director, and makes a real contribution as an art director in film. In the case of Tom Ford, one instantly appreciates this former fashionisto's primary talent to be assembling androgynous men and pretty women in a mise-en-scene with great style. But as with his fashion designs for Pinault-Printemps-Redoute, Ford is still reluctant to do anything creative, even when he holds all the cards. In 1999 he was famous for aping Nicolas Ghesquiere and other truly talented designers; and now he echoes Merchant Ivory and other prissy Masterpiece Theater types. It must be very frustrating to desire creativity and never achieve it. On the whole, the viewer will be visually stimulated by A Single Man, but left cold by the wooden, uninteresting acting. That's the director's fault. Julianne Moore is excellent as the blowsy fag hag, but it's her, not Ford's contribution. Colin Firth basically plays an uncloseted version of the character he created in Another Country, for once in his career playing to type. The Tom Ford movie brand faces the same difficulty as his struggling clothing label--there is so much less there than meets the eye.
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My Fair Lady (1964)
6/10
With a Little Bit of...Vocal Training?
6 August 2009
The most musically accomplished Broadway show was ruined before it ever went Hollywood. Rex Harrison, who had done very good work playing Sir Alfred de Carter opposite Linda Darnell as a Svengali-like orchestra conductor in the movie Unfaithfully Yours, never should have been cast as Higgins. Even he thought so, despite being recommended by Noel Coward (who could sing). A non-singer and obnoxiously proud of it, Harrison cramped the style of composer Frederick Loewe from the start. Opening night in New Haven was nearly cancelled due to Harrison's cold feet. One is tempted to imagine what Loewe might have written for a vocal powerhouse, given the other treats in the score. Nevertheless, he gave Higgins wonderful songs. Listen for the melodies carried by the orchestra as Harrison croaks along or ignores the music altogether in his manly affectation. Aesthetically, one would think, the role calls for a baritone as musically splendid as he was linguistically sophisticated. Of course, the defense of Harrison is that his superb acting made up for the vocal debacle, which is not true. In the movie of the play, Leslie Howard's performance of Higgins is infinitely better. Future producers should simply look to performers such as Tony Yazbeck to cast the role, men who have the vocal charisma to characterize Henry Higgins in a musical. Higgins should have over-the-top music like that of a Rossini tenor at the start and sober up into plainsong as the spell of Eliza brings him low. Her music should have the opposite arc, with a Matilde di Shabran fireworks finish. As it is, the movie is more watchable for the Cecil Beaton art direction, the Cukor direction and the the Shaw wit. Audrey Hepburn had her moments as a film star, but she plays Eliza as a variation of her Princess Ann in Roman Holiday--this time a royal pretending to be a Cockney, who goes back to being a royal. But that doesn't really work dramatically, because the play Pygmalion shows that the newly minted princess is much more interesting than a real princess would ever be when she dumps Higgins like so many wilted violets. Hepburn's performance here is as disembodied and unsympathetic as Kiri Te Kanewa's recorded Eliza. One gets the distinct feeling that these two women believe it's more respectable to be a princess, and that we as an audience must not forget that in real life they are refined and important performers...and that's a bit of a bore. In the end, Hepburn could not do justice to all that glorious music written for her, even in a pantomime, unlike Marion Cotillard's sensational turn as Piaf. But in this production nobody can sing. Even the voice of Freddy Hill--who has the greatest love ballad of all time, On The Street Where You Live--was dubbed.
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Gang Bang
15 July 2009
The Jets were a real gang in 1950s New York City, and its members were, no doubt, more exciting than these actors let on. In fact, one Jet is alive today and a grown-up mob kingpin. He was never like the bland kids shown here. For one thing, he probably never sprang into a Jerome Robbins ballet to express his lethal Weltanschauung. As an update of Edward de Vere's Renaissance play, Romeo and Juliet, the movie plot line is effective enough. But the courtly aristocrats of de Vere's play are a world apart from these kids and are fueled by brilliant, overwrought poetry. It's a story that can't ring true in the gritty milieu of Hell's Kitchen. Leonard Bernstein's spectacular score is the finest thing in the movie. The Arthur Laurents book is wrongheaded. Puerto Rican Maria can't be Juliet, nor can Polish Tony be Romeo. To try to make them so kills their charisma. Maria should have been written sexier. And it would have been easy to fix Tony, too. First of all, he should be alpha male, not Riff. Minor changes to the screenplay would have made this work. The fabulous introductory music should be a pantomime, in which Tony slays a gang member of the Sharks, establishing his virility, intensity, indomitability and unpredictability. Then one would be thrilled and surprised by his falling in love with Maria. Nor would one doubt his capacity for killing Bernardo. As it is, one doesn't believe the contrivance of the tragedy. Laurents was perhaps afraid audiences would not accept an earthy Maria or a feral Tony. The dancing doesn't help either. The right style did not exist in the fifties to capture the raw, dangerous masculinity of the disenfranchised gang members. It exists today in the work of many contemporary choreographers and a host of modern street styles. Ballet is way off the mark. As a result, the characters of Tony and Maria are limp, gooey sweet and forgettable. You don't really care about them as they are a boringly ideal construct. If anything, Schadenfreude is one's only emotional reaction. Anita is the only one who feels real. But Tony and Maria are supposed to be the core of this film, though they seem to be missing in action. Future remakes ought to make more of the explosive energy of the music and employ leads more believable in their passion to live and die hard.
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4/10
Tommy Guns? They're Just Big Flamers!
4 July 2009
It's a pity these three great actors were squandered on such an inferior script and so undervalued by this B- director. Apart from the fabulous sound design and the blazing tommy guns—which shoot flames in 2 directions—the film is an overproduced and under-directed snooze. Remember the prissy and purple script for Untouchables? This one is not that precious, but the performances are. It is not the fault of the actors, who have only trite or dim dialog to work with. I think they knew it was bad as they filmed it. You almost sense them looking at their reflections in the camera and making corrections to exquisite effect. Why not? Might as well be part of an artifact that looks great if it's not going to break new ground. The make-up enhances the preciosity. Everyone looks ridiculously pancaked. Producers take note: never let the make- up distract from the drama, especially one that's already so unconvincing. I had expected a thrilling script that might lay bare the world of these dazzling '30s sociopaths, born with extra Y chromosomes. Instead, I got a parade of implausibly clad Ralph Lauren mamma's boys.
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7/10
A foul wind...please recast Ashley!
9 April 2009
The production values are spectacular and many of the performances are excellent, but the central theme of a romantic triangle ultimately fails to convince. It isn't that Leslie Howard was a bad actor. He was a great Henry Higgins. He was simply not the right casting choice for Ashley Wilkes. Yes, he played Ashley as a moralizing weakling, which is how Mitchell wrote the character. But he could not create the charisma one needed to sympathize with Scarlet's feelings of loss. Had Howard been cast opposite someone like Miriam Hopkins as Scarlet O'Hara, he would have held his own well enough. But throughout the 3 plus hours of the movie as produced with Vivien Leigh in the title role, one is too mystified as to why someone so glamorous and sexual as Scarlet cares about this flat-liner. One can't even buy it with the explanation that she only wants what she can't have or she only wants someone who rejects her. It's not just because Howard comes across as a colossal closet case, who married Melanie only because no one would expect sexual ardor of him with such a woman. It's just that Vivian Leigh's Scarlet is so aware of her worth and radiance, one can't imagine her being enthralled by anyone so inferior as Ashley, someone who doesn't even stand up well in comparison to her other long-shot suitors, let alone to Rhett. This fatal casting flaw makes the movie a magnificent misfire. In a few years, with the advance of computer imaging technology and convincing vocal duplication, Gone With The Wind can at last be redone with the existing footage enhanced by a better casting choice for Ashley spliced in. There are two ideal actors from the period. Both are blonds and exceptionally virile, offering a much more convincing counterbalance to the machismo of Clark Gable. The first is Errol Flynn, who, had he been cast, would have played wimpy against type and beat Gable and Robert Donat that year for the Oscar. The Academy loves the fabulous playing unfabulous. The second choice would be Brian Aherne, like Flynn also breathtakingly handsome and able to play the character as written by Mitchell. Both casting choices would have made the viewer understand Scarlet's misguided attraction. You would totally comprehend how it is possible to look at such a man and imagine something that is not there in a way that simply is not possible with Leslie Howard in the role.
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