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The Mosquito Coast (1986)
It's not Fitzcarraldo
You can see it in people's reviews: the strong positive ratings are for the messages the movie was trying to put across, while the negative reviews are for the incoherent result. I hear both sides of it, and there is no faulting the beautiful visuals and the excellent acting. This movie does try for some deep and meaningful messages, but it's not always clear what they are.
Well then, one might think: perhaps they're trying to be even-handed about it. But that isn't it either. So instead what we get are interesting ideas, often presented in the least sympathetic way possible -- as if the movie wants to discredit Ford's character, but only after admiring him uncritically.
The result is a movie featuring a character who is tediously critical -- of everyone and everything -- and yet almost magically capable ... until he isn't, and then he's just unhinged: monomaniacal and incapable of admitting error, even when faced with no actual solutions. Which just feels intellectually lazy -- as if the writer couldn't carry the character any further, and was forced to switch directions just to have plot ideas.
Worth watching are the performances: Ford is wonderful, although his character is erratic. River Phoenix and Martha Plimpton are surprisingly good beyond their years. Mirren is under-utilized but always worthwhile.
Sisters of Death (1976)
Not fun, not suspenseful, not even slightly believable.
Notice how many other reviewers mention the lack of nudity, and how this film could use some? There's your flash review: softcore-quality acting minus the sex. None of the plot makes any sense, none of the characters seem like real people (nor interact like them), and there is no real sense of suspense. All that you could probably put up with if it had some kind of quality -- like humor -- but it doesn't. A good example of how to make an uninteresting movie with five pretty girls.
Note: I saw this riffed by RiffTrax, and that still didn't save it
Flawed but surprisingly sincere
Reading the already-written reviews here, it's hard to get a real sense of what this film is like -- is it soft-core? (answer: no). Is it good sword/sorcery? (answer: hm, not really). Is it too terrible to watch? (not exactly, but ...)
"Thelma and Louise" it ain't, but Dyala's role is clearly a Heroic Quest through-and-through, and if being an Amazon means she has to do it in a leather bikini and an Olivia Newton-John headband, then that's what she'll have to do.
First, the good: the main character is actually, really, in real-life, honestly trained in weapons fighting, and it shows. This is important because -- if you hadn't guessed -- a lot of this movie involves fighting.
The not-so-good: a lot of the fighting is 1960s TV-level, and a lot of the acting is worse. Some of it isn't, but enough is. This wouldn't matter so much if it wasn't a bit sluggish for the first half. Being very low-budget, it compensates for all of its faults with showing more skin than might otherwise seem necessary.
Now, here's where "Amazons" reveals a surprising quality: it overwhelmingly meets the Bechdel-Wallace test for the portrayal of women in fiction. Almost all significant characters are women (the notable exception being the villain), and they almost never talk about men. There are indeed Amazon men, but the actresses perform all the heroic functions, and the story is entirely what dominates their conversations. So this film accomplishes the interesting feat of being an overtly exploitative film (in that almost every one of them are young, athletic females who are minimally clothed) that's also a semi-capable celebration of female self-empowerment. And they don't do it campy or cartoonish; the actresses are quite serious about their roles and relationships, and the camera/direction shoots them as heroic. Some of it may come across silly, contrived, or poorly done, but never insincere.
Would I recommend this? For those wanting Conan-type sword/sorcery that doesn't take itself too seriously, this sorta works, though clearly a lesser execution. For those seeking mere exploitation, it's a bit slow, and not the constant nudity-fest some reviewers would have you believe. And those seeking feminist Xena-type empowerment will find that here, though they might have trouble seeing it sometimes (e.g., when the heroine skinny-dips in a river and then finds herself fighting off would-be rapists with her top untied).
But that's where "Amazons" steps up: in most movies, female body exposure + male attack = victim, but not here. The messages throughout this film clearly portray the women in charge of their lives and their bodies, regardless of very real challenges and threats. Even the one sex scene shows us the degree of complicity between The Villain and his confederate -- not just socially but personally.
As a result, there's a qualitative difference between this and the Deathstalker movies, which take themselves less seriously, and feel more cartoonish. No, "Amazons" is not a great movie, or even a very good one; it's more an OK movie really. But I think the women who acted in it felt it was a film they could be proud of: one that showed them capable of being decisive, strong and heroic, rather than just assisting (or often, waiting for) a man who does it for them. And if doing that half-naked means the funding comes through, so be it.
Rating: 5.5/10, rounded up to 6
the cold hard truth
It's funny how many want to review the filmmaker instead of the film. Here we see a family of people who rarely know how to be happy, and the filmmaker himself does make some unwise decisions. But that's not the point; we can't expect Mr James to see around his own blind spots -- and yet sometimes he does, and so does Stevie himself.
I see this as something of a redemption film (even if that redemption is seriously flawed): every major participant comes to a better understanding through the events explored, sometimes with surprising clarity. No, their lives aren't going to be great; that's just not in the cards. But a lot of hard truth gets laid out, often from surprising sources (Patricia for the fiancee, Greg for the Steves). There are no easy or simple answers, except possibly to show the universality of human needs -- and faults. Recommended. 8/10
Road to Rio (1947)
2nd-level "Road" is still pretty good
It's said the difference between drama and comedy is timing, and Rio tends to run about halfway in-between. In a theater full of people, it probably still works out just fine, but next to the other "Road" films, Rio doesn't have quite the same comedic snap. It isn't bad, just not done quite as zippy.
Paradoxically, Rio seems to have better acting: Gale Sondergaard is a great villain, Tor Johnson has a brief role, and Dorothy Lamour still fully charms us with her role (no mean feat, since she's supposed to be in a hypnotized daze much of the time). Sondergaard is pulled down by a couple of support actors who don't engage our sympathies or memories much. And if the story seems a little thin sometimes, well, it is.
But! Rio is still as good as any other Road film in terms of song-and-dance numbers. Of course the main attraction is Hope and Crosby, even when their relationship seems like it might be wearing thin (it wasn't, as "Road to Bali" proved the following year). Both have some outstanding moments -- Crosby's song with The Andrews Sisters would have to be on his personal highlights reel, and Hope is quite memorable in a Carmen Miranda getup.
Overall a just-decent picture with strong stars doing good performances. Worth checking out.
Shop Angel (1932)
Half-and-Half Poverty Row Drama
Billed by Alpha Video as a "Lost Pre-Code Classic", which is about half correct; it obviously isn't lost, but being from 1932 does make it technically "Pre-Code". Which it is: after the obligatory clothes-changing scene, our plot launches toward the usual older-male-boss/younger-female-employee dilemma. But where most Pre-Coders let financial necessity propel the pretty young thing toward the penthouse, this heroine isn't in dire straits -- she's only motivated toward career betterment, believing her work should win over the boss. Of course, his more personal interest is the larger obstacle, which she must manage at her own peril.
Complicating things is the boss' rather controlling (and suspicious) daughter, and our heroine's helpful-but-too-personally-interested co-worker. But the daughter has a fiance, who also takes an interest, and then there's the reporter, who also -- well, let's just say there are a lot of irons in this fire, and our heroine can't really juggle them all without getting burned.
Which makes this a remarkably modern movie, showcasing as it does the male hazards of female career management. Tower Productions must have spent good money on the sets because this looks very much like one of the majors -- just lacking in big-names stars. Marion Shilling carries the film rather well if a bit mannered, though no more than was usual for the time -- a B-movie Mary Astor. And Holmes Herbert is as credible as C. Aubrey Smith would be in the same role, perhaps more so. Creighton Hale gets a bit to do as the reporter, a more-tolerable Lee Tracy type -- very different from his silent-era leading-man roles, and meatier than the lesser roles he would soon be doing for the remainder of his career (one can almost outline Hollywood's history through his film appearances).
Public-domain status means this is available in shoddy form -- cheap, chopped up, blurry DVDs of dodgy sound. With no big stars attached to it, there's little reason for anyone to find a good print and clean it up, which is a shame. While occasionally suffering from early-talkie blues (loud clear speaking to overcome nearby sounds, hissy soundtrack), SHOP ANGEL clearly aspired to a higher calling than simply warming seats for 65 minutes. The sets, costumes, and social commentary make this a classy achievement from a lesser studio, so I hope a better copy comes along. Until then, still a minor classic worth seeing.
GUMRAH's most interesting moment is the opening scene, where a portion of the Ramayana is enacted with voice-over; it illustrates the moral aspect that will be transgressed in the story to follow. While not exactly THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, they have a lot in common -- except this is Hindi cinema, so it's twice as long & includes songs. Competently acted & filmed, but devoid of fun or even really any thought. I'm tempted to think the target audience would be those who wish to justify why they don't stray, though they'd like to.
"Hey guys, let's make a movie!" - "OK why not?"
Oh, there's no ignoring facts -- this is amateur-acted and poorly-financed, a student production made with a handful of friends. But the editor moves things along, and the soundtrack is a hundred times better than we have any right to expect. It's terrible and yet also sincere, and therein lies the charm: a no-budget direct-to-bin films that veers so close to exploitation and yet comes out fun, but Teenage Cavewomen does so. Yes, it's just like watching school pals make their own version of a Z-grade sci-fi movie, but in a good way. At 37 minutes, we can't even say it really wastes our time. Recommended for people who like this sort of thing (i.e., fans of MST3K)
Bikini Planet (2002)
"Let's make a porno that focuses on a paper-thin plot, and no nudity!"
The jokes are thin, the ladies are lovely, and what the Latin guy is really saying is way funnier than anything in the script (but you'll have to know a little Spanish to get it).
I can only suppose that this started out as a porno that struggled to find actual porno actresses (there is one, but only one, in a very small role). So they shrugged and decided to skip the actual sex but kept everything else: the improbable premises, the leading-to-sex conversations, the lingering body shots, the jokes about size and sexual performance.
Stephanie Beaton is the only person in the whole film who comes across with any conviction, making her the most fun to watch. Everything else about the film makes for tedious going even once, and lacking in almost every aspect of film: editing, lighting, writing, acting, special effects ... actually the sound was pretty well-recorded, so there's that. Otherwise a film that makes Tinto Brass look like a pretty good filmmaker.
On the Night Stage (1915)
Good leads, good movie
Actually a three-lead film: Hart, Edeson and Mitchell all feature about equally. Surprisingly modern for 1915 in its use of intercutting, pacing and framing -- I guess someone had taken notes on Griffith's work. While Edeson is viewable in a few other films (e.g., THE TEN COMMANDMENTS), I don't see any of Rhea Mitchell's other features available, which must be a loss -- she's got the face and the chops of an Anna Q. Nilsson, we just don't have the films.
ON THE NIGHT STAGE does betray its age a bit when Hart goes riding at sunny midnight, and there is certainly a little footage missing [e.g., when the villain shoots at him, we don't see him fire back, but it is immediately clear that this happens]. Plus the very stagey introduction of the principals. But not of these interfere with our viewing pleasure.
On the whole, I'd rank this among his better films, despite the picture quality being just fair/good (most) to poor (beginning of reel 4). It's very difficult to imagine what this film looked like new and unspoiled, but the acting and photography still shines through the grime.
Recommended 3.5 / 5
It's Back -- And Maybe Even Better
Comedy Is So Subjective, vol. 201: This was my first of the new MST3K, which proved entertaining and/or funny throughout (which couldn't be said about every episode of the original series). Concerns that it might be a pale imitation proved groundless, as did concerns that targeting a younger audience might leave us classic MSTies behind. There also seemed to be a higher rate of riffs per minute with no lulls. Hiring twice the number of writers must be paying off!
A big help comes the movie itself: lively, colorful, and energetic -- throwing cast members through sets and situations with all the abandon of an adolescent sci-fi fan on a sugar high. But the MST cast prove just as entertaining -- to their credit, it seemed like they could be given a lot more time (which may be what the other reviewer found lacking).
In short, typical MST3K fare: the kind of film that used to fill Saturday afternoon programming on the independent channels, riffed by pros. I don't know if this is the "best" of the new crop, but it's certainly good enough, and got me interested to see more.
7/10 = not just solid but interesting / fun
The version I saw of ANARKALI had obviously suffered a lot before it got to my eyes -- whole scenes cut, poor sound, compromised picture quality. And yet I had no trouble watching it, thanks mainly to the charisma of the actors and the agreeably catchy songs. The true-love-versus-social-obstacles plot hardly matters, being just a vehicle; the songs and characters carry us, even when the background vistas are clearly just painted backdrops.
Anyone who can make it through black-and-white Hollywood musicals like THE LOVE PARADE should have no trouble with ANARKALI.
Return of the Son of the Sheik (a musical)
Nicely filmed if rather standard desert melodrama of abduction and romance.
Without giving details about the plot, I'll just point out that practically everything about "Yasmin" -- plot, sets, style, costumes, character appearances etc -- is lifted directly from the 1926 Rudolf Valentino film "Son of the Sheik". Even the main actor looks like he was chosen based on resemblance to Valentino. To his credit, Suresh is every bit as handsome), but the strong point of "Son of the Sheik" was that Valentino played two roles -- father and son -- and did both excellently.
On the other hand, "Son of the Sheik" didn't have songs, and "Yasmin" has about ten -- all very good too. Vijayanthimala is an expert dancer, and if this isn't her most impressive footwork, she's still a great classic beauty (something the 50s - 60s really excelled at).
The real star of "Yasmin" is the beautiful black-and white look -- despite the occasionally stagebound scenes, the viewer can lose themselves in the romanticized high desert feel this film is striving for. I expect it played much better on the big screen. On DVD, just worth seeing
Veruthe Oru Bharya (2008)
Women, husbands and home life
Many, many strong points here: first, the acting is pretty strong throughout the cast, and the director makes a lot of interesting choices regarding shots. Excellent setup at the beginning gets us ready for the story, and good scripting really gives a us a feeling for the characters and their issues.
Of course, it's not really a comedy -- it's about husband-dominated households, the allure of cell-phone culture, and changing roles for women. But it does have comic moments, and the script shows surprisingly clear-headed thinking about these issues and how they affect family life -- until the last 15 minutes, when the film gives up all logic for super-melodrama. Which is a disappointment, but it would be a shame to miss the first two hours.
You go to see a movie, probably with some friends. Maybe you are watching it at home, via the internet or DVD. You laugh, you point, you share food. You're young; you're not looking for an examination of life's poignancy, so there's no need for subtlety in plot -- in fact, it's better if there isn't. Songs should announce themselves with drastic volume increases, cars should swoop by and screech when halting. People shout, pose, preen, plead, scold, threaten. Jump cuts keep it moving. "Energy" is the key. A movie for those who don't pay much attention. I myself have no use for it, but obviously someone does.
The Wax Museum
This being the second season premier, you'd expect a better-than-average episode. And it does indeed feature a fairly hard-hitting subject -- abortion -- which is of course never explicitly named. Offsetting this realism is the fact that all the plot movement comes via psychic revelation, as if Spelling couldn't dare to be taken too seriously.
But what really stands out about this episode is how the three principal actors show not one emotion or expression in the entire episode -- as if the sole direction in each scene was "do not act". This is clearly not a limit in the actors' abilities; the next episode has all of them showing more feeling and range in any given scene than this entire episode. Maybe it's because the subject was so serious? Or maybe the actors were in the midst of a contract re-negotiation? Whatever the reason, I haven't seen acting so woodenly non-emotive this side of Mystery Science Theater 3000 (who, sadly, never got to have this on their show).
Anyway: serious subject, no acting.
As the other reviewer notes, this is no great moment in TV broadcasting: fairly predictable, while serviceable if unremarkable acting mean you'd probably only watch this once.
The plot of the man who wants to be irresistible to women is already tired on its face, but you can at least expect to see women who are young, pretty and as revealingly dressed as late-70s broadcast TV would allow. More interesting is seeing the same attraction expressed by the full-bodied middle-aged black woman who maintains the house, although the episode doesn't pursue this very far.
The other story manages to bolster itself with a side detail that was really more interesting than its main issue -- namely, the addictive element of gambling.
Both stories thus pursue loss of perspective and the insecurity behind such loss, though not necessarily helpfully. And those late 70s leisure outfits are truly awful; those who lived through the late 70s may not really want to see it again, but that's how things were (at least, on TV).
MST3K alert: ten years before Space Mutiny, Reb Brown (a.k.a. Splint Chesthair, Slam Meatchunk, Big McLargeHuge, etc) is quite recognizable as one of three jealous boyfriends; he's in the blue shirt at the disco, and later appears poolside.
Beautifully done, with depth
From the description, we feared this might be just another gay/lesbian melodrama: two people discover a love in themselves & each other, which the people around them then try to destroy, with varying degrees of success. This is indeed the case, and yet we were not bored.
The best review of any film is that it works, and this one does. The romance is convincing & engaging, as are the characters. The visuals are beautiful, the dialog realistic without being trite.
It's all the subtleties that really pay off: the attention to village life, the hints of other background stories, and the fact that our two principals are not outshone by the talents of their more veteran support.
It probably also helps that the running time is under two hours, and hews much closer to Western dramatic unity than the masala ethic. No comedy, no sudden music stabs, and no one explaining the plot for us. The concerns are real, and the drama is presented, not pushed. Definitely recommended.
Aamne - Saamne (1967)
Comedy - Thriller
A slow first ten minutes, where we establish some plot, all of which gets totally forgotten the minute Sharmila Tagore enters the film. Then it's a rom-com melodrama, and I found myself forgetting that it was supposed to be terrible because it was often so engaging. This would rate 6 or 7 stars, and features some really lovely Kashmiri vistas that we can almost see, because it looks like it was transferred from somebody's old VHS.
Then begins the second hour, when somebody remembered what the plot was supposed to be, and character development comes to a tediously dead stop. This is a great example of how even the best of actors can't overcome bad writing or unimaginative direction; at this point one might as well skip to the confession which supposedly happens in the last two minutes, leaving a net worth of about 50 minutes of enjoyable film.
Still, you can't beat the wonderful presence brought to this film by both Shashi Kapoor and the incomparable Sharmila Tagore, who gives us a gratuitous bath scene in which she's STILL wearing that laughably huge wig. It's hard to imagine a better-looking couple, so don't imagine, go ahead and watch Aamne Saamne -- or at least half of it. Just don't expect to watch the whole thing, or care about the plot.
Five Broken Cameras (2011)
Useful, But Not Honest
Hey, I understand; we can't expect someone inside of a conflict to present the whole conflict. And Five Broken Cameras certainly shows us how things look when you're in the midst of it.
However, our narrator is not just biased; he is also intentionally less than honest, omitting details that might muddy his narrative of a small peaceful village being put upon by invasive developers. Plenty happens, but rarely in cause-and-effect terms that make clear why. Even one-sided presentations need to make sense.
There is a truth here that supersedes what the filmmaker intends. While presented as an Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is also an urban-rural conflict: the city expands, takes up land; the locals object to incursion into "their" land; the urban police enforce the expansion. This film captures how that is experienced by the rural villagers -- with no understanding of the urban view, or understanding of how to deal with it, except to see it as a violation that requires resistance.
Rather besides the filmmaker's story is what it portends for later: he brings his three-year-old to the barrier demonstrations, which we have already seen to become dangerous; he frames perception of the police as life-threatening outsiders; he frames the whole narrative of his sons' lives in terms of what indignities Israel was perpetrating. Finally, he continuously acts to make his own martyrdom as likely as possible. This is textbook "How To Raise Your Son To Be A Terrorist", and we get to see exactly how & why, by people who only want to do their best for their kids.
Cairo Time (2009)
Passion Triumphs Over Result
An example of concept triumphing over delivery. Ruba Nadda has a lot she wants to say, but only raises signposts towards those ideas without really exploring any of them. Best moment: Alec Siddig acknowledging Patricia's superiority in a game of chess ... which, like everything else in this film, goes unresolved.
Otherwise: Banal dialog, many loose threads, and an annoyingly empty protagonist make this a 90-minute wait where not much really happens. Banal dialog? 50% of Patricia's dialog consists of "I'm fine", "Yes, "No", OK" etc. "I'm fine" alone is said some dozen times or more. Loose threads? One example, of many: she spends a day with a girlfriend who characterizes all Arabic men as possessive in relationships ... a theme never developed or returned to. Neither is the friend; she simply disappears, as do all characters besides Siddig's.
Here's a tip for Americans traveling abroad: when armed soldiers stop your bus, and the person sitting next to you -- who you only just met -- frantically pushes an envelope into your possession, it's probably very dangerous to accept it. Does she? Is it? What will happen? Is this an Alfred Hitchcock film? Well, here's my "spoiler": Absolutely nothing in this film leads to anything. There are no causes, no consequences, no changes nor efforts to do so. No story. Beautifully filmed though. And you do get to see the Pyramids (and even climb them, which is not actually permitted in real life).
6/10 for Alec Siddig, locations, photography.
Anti-Semitism in Middle Europe at the turn of the last century
Difficult to find these days, but an award-winner in its time. I first saw MEMORIES OF A RIVER from mid-film on TV & found its court drama absorbing enough to want to see the whole film from the beginning. When I did, I found the first half rather in need of more editing, but it didn't diminish my enjoyment of the second half.
It's not surprising that the one reviewer here from Hungary itself would find the film wanting for balance; I have yet to see a Jewish-life-in-middle-Europe film that pleased the non-Jewish peoples of those areas -- just ask Poles about WW2 & Auschwitz. If the details are biased (or even wrong) the film still convincingly creates a feeling of being tried as an outsider in a small village.