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Pulp Fiction (1994)
Don't Be A Rectangle
Quentin Tarantino is a storyteller. With "Pulp Fiction" he demonstrates some of his favorite story features, like portrayal of a violent subculture and a cast of colorful characters. As the film tells us at its start, the pulp fiction genre is characterized by the lurid-a word that can mean merely colorful or extremely sensational. His films often border on film noir, but unlike most noir, there is a pulpy depth of character development that comes from extended dialogue.
Except for a brief detour into a seemingly unrelated sub-story, the film begins with Vincent (John Travolta) and Jules (Samuel L. Jackson), two men on the way to an unknown assignation. As they drive along, they discuss continental differences in language and culture. They philosophize openly and reveal significant aspects of their life views. When the viewer eventually realizes the nature of their outing, there is incongruence between their casual demeanor and the significance of their errand.
Tarantino serves up his characters with heaping slices of humanity that undercut the judgments one might make if he was not privy to their internal systems of logic and morality. He reminds us that the old actor's precept is true: all people/characters believe they are justified in their actions.
Vincent and Jules are not the central characters throughout the film. The story meanders in a non-linear way and indulges in detours that appear to be unrelated, but Tarantino has his eye on the entire, relevant whole. Though he may indulge in flights of fancy simply for the fun of doing so, he has a cohesive vision. Those flights of fancy are some of the most enjoyable moments in the film, like the restaurant called Jack Rabbit Slim's, where Vincent spends some time with the wife (Uma Thurman) of his boss. It's a restaurant that anyone might want to visit, filled with entertaining design elements and colorful people.
As in at least four other films before, Tarantino puts Travolta on a dance floor and capitalizes on his ability to deliver memorable, if not iconic, performances.
Tarantino gives us dialogue that is richly quotable. No wonder so many fans enjoy his films.
Tarantino is definitely an auteur. His artistic vision is as recognizable as Hitchcock's or Woody Allen's. "Pulp Fiction", for reasons I have mentioned, is like a primer on how to engage an audience and take them on a journey. This is a film classic that will, no doubt, inspire other writers and directors.
The Hucksters (1947)
Great Gable And So Much More
I love this film. Not only does it feature three beautiful stars-Clark Gable, Ava Gardner, and Deborah Kerr-but it also puts them in roles that really work for them. Gable plays Victor Norman, an advertising man who is struggling with finding balance in both his personal and business lives. He has to decide if he can maintain his self-respect and still find financial success. This is a role Gable can really pull off.
Deborah Kerr and Ava Gardner are the two women in Victor's life, representing different values and lifestyles. Each is convincing as an attractive alternative.
Victor's worklife is dominated by his boss, Mr. Kimberly (Aldophe Menjou), and the client, Mr. Evans (Sidney Greenstreet). Menjou is perfect as the compromised and compromising ad man. Greenstreet is iconic as the demanding and bullying businessowner you love to hate.
It almost feels like Gable gives his performance without working, he makes it look so easy. But he is so much fun to watch as a man whose principles are tested.
Adam's Rib (1949)
When defense attorney Amanda Bonner (Katherine Hepburn) and Assistant District Attorney Adam Bonner (Spencer Tracy) have to face each other in court over a case of a woman shooting her philandering husband, things get personal. This leads to some comical moments, but this film has pretensions to serious gender issues as well.
Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon are great writers. And George Cukor is a great director. But the social commentary part of the film goes nowhere. Fortunately the comedy works. And the conflicts within the judges' personal relationship make for interesting interplay and dramatic contrast.
The cast is superb. In addition to the two stars, Judy Holliday and Tom Ewell play the feuding litigants. Watch for the strong turn of David Wayne as Kip Lurie, a friend of the Bonners who has his eye on Amanda. He even gets to sing "Farewell, Amanda", which is a catchy tune by Cole Porter.
I Love a Mystery (1945)
The Decapitation Of Jefferson Monk
Based on a radio broadcast, this noirish film is deliciously melodramatic. And it retains elements that are reminiscent of its radio origins, like a scream that is a plot point, but unnecessary.
The story includes a flashback within a flashback, and feels like a campfire tale of rich details. There are prophesies of bad fortune, mummies, a one-legged man, Eurasian artifacts, mysterious strangers, and practitioners of the occult.
This is a murder mystery. It features the superior sleuthing of Jack Packard (Jim Bannon) and his sidekick Doc Long (Barton Yarborough).
So take a trip back to yesteryear, and enjoy this retelling of a radio whodunit.
Marry Go Round (2022)
A Good Hallmark Romance
This Hallmark romance is a riff on the usual plots about old loves and returns to hometown, USA. But it has a clever twist that actually makes a story of redemption plausible and understandable.
Credit writer Robert Tate Miller for the plot twist. And credit the beautiful and always effective actress Amanda Schull for translating Miller's main character, Abby Foster, onscreen and strongly occupying the center of this film. She is matched with Brennan Elliott (as Luke Walker), who is good at keeping things light.
There are moments of drama, but this is mostly a film of comedy. And it is very enjoyable but not too saccharine.
Two Guys from Milwaukee (1946)
Fun In NYC
A Balkan prince making an official tour of the United States jumps off the train to mingle with the common people and experience the "real" America. Prince Henry (Dennis Morgan) befriends a cabbie from Brooklyn named Buzz Williams (Jack Carson) and gets a street-level view of New York City with the help of Buzz's family and friends.
The prince particularly enjoys seeing the sights with Buzz's girlfriend, Connie (Joan Leslie), who is a manicurist. In a short time, they grow very close, setting up a romantic triangle that is the crux of the film. All three characters are very likable and the romantic complications are kept light. In fact, Buzz and Connie have an unusual relationship. When Connie has to make a choice between the two gents, it is handled very well.
Within the story are plugs for democracy (in the immediate aftermath of the world war). This coincides with the beginning of the American effort to export its political system.
Warner Brothers also used the film to promote its upcoming film, "The Big Sleep", which would be released later. This is done cleverly and humorously.
The entire cast is fun to watch. Carson and Morgan might not be the studio's answer to Crosby and Hope, but they have a chemistry that works well. They will later appear in "Two Guys from Texas".
Best in Show (2000)
Very Original And Very Funny
This ensemble troupe is back with another mockumentary, and it is expectedly funny. Using a style that Robert Altman might enjoy, director Christopher Guest gives us a look into the world of pure-bred dogs and their owners.
We get a glimpse into the lives of the cynophiles even as they prepare to travel to Philadelphia for the big annual dog show competition. They are an odd collection of personalities and they are very entertaining. Though it is difficult to single out any one performance, Catherine O'Hara gets a meaty role as a woman whose adventurous past keeps coming back to haunt her husband, played by Eugene Levy.
What makes the film so fun to watch is how absorbed the characters are in their avocation. Also, they treat their dogs like humans.
The African Queen (1951)
Very Enjoyable Adventure Classic
If ever there were two lead characters who were not looking for or disposed to finding love, it is Charlie Allnutt (Humphrey Bogart) and Rose Sayer (Katherine Hepburn). Tragic circumstances in tropical east Africa force the two to flee the small settlement where Rose assisted the local missionary. During their flight on the river, they are transformed by hardship and fear, though Rose offers a daring and unexpected plan for offensive action.
Bogart and Hepburn turn in iconic performances. Charlie and Rose feel like two characters particular to and dependent upon the film's script.
In the end, this is an adventure story that inspires. And a romance that warms the heart. Please, let no one try to remake this classic.
Café Society (2016)
This is not one of Woody Allen's best films. When I saw who was in it, I decided to watch as a test, of sorts, because I am not a fan of Kristen Stewart or Jesse Eisenberg, and I thought that if Allen could direct them to a convincing chemistry it would be a true testament to his talent as a director. But the two leads deliver average performances that contain little heat.
Eisenberg plays the part of Bobby, a young man who decides to travel to Hollywood and hit up his uncle Phil (Steve Carrell), a bigshot agent, for a job. Stewart plays the part of Vonnie, Phil's secretary. Bobby falls for Vonnie immediately, but she is involved with a married man. This is a coming-of-age story for Bobby. Eisenberg does a good job of "aging" his character over the course of the story through body mechanics.
Bobby is, of course, the Woody Allen character. Watching another actor voice the familiar patois of Allen is distracting if not annoying. It is interesting to note that Eisenberg looks reminiscent of a young Tony Roberts, which may just be a coincidence.
A cinematic visit to Hollywood in the 30s is interesting, but the story reveals little and lacks much consequence. "Midnight in Paris", for example, is much superior.
The Animal Kingdom (1932)
Do I Dare To Eat A Peach...?
Thomas Collier (Leslie Howard) has always eschewed conventions and the advice of his father for a more Bohemian lifestyle, so when he tells his best friend, Daisy (Ann Harding), he is to marry, she is confused and hurt. But he does settle into the country life of Connecticut with his new wife, Cecelia (Myrna Loy), and steers his publishing business toward more commercial-and less artistic-endeavors.
This is a very mannered story. Much of the text remains subtext, relying on the cast to convey their hidden emotions nonverbally, which they do very well. There is a battle going on, but it is not between the two women; it is an struggle within Tom, who may have sacrificed what he really wants for comfort, or predictability, or family considerations.
The "animal kingdom" apparently refers to the natural order of things. Tom and Daisy have always tried to live on a "higher" plane of their own invention, but human nature, being part of nature, is a primal force. And when Tom comes to a psychic crisis, he must decide which part of his emotional makeup to nourish.
It is enjoyable to watch these actors master the lines that originated with Philip Barry's play. A performance particularly fun to watch is that of the butler, Regan (William Gargan), who is rather undisciplined.
Knives Out (2019)
When Is A Game A Foot?
This film is not a whodunit. The viewer knows how the crime was committed, but the entire film is a series of revelations, providing twists and details.
A private detective Blanc (played with a southern accent by Daniel Craig!) shows up and attaches himself to the official police investigation. There is a reading of the will, where emotions are inflamed. Blanc reconstructs the night of the crime, piece by piece, and we learn much about the family that lived in the shadow of a powerful patriarch.
The accomplished cast is one of the best elements of this film. And they are supported by an intelligent script that challenges the viewer and remains cohesive. What more can you ask of a mystery?
Big Night (1996)
A Filmic Feast
Tony Shalhoub and Stanley Tucci play brothers Primo and Secondo, who operate a struggling Italian restaurant. When a celebrity plans to visit their eatery, they make big plans and the guest list grows.
Shalhoub andTucci are perfect as the two brothers who love food almost as much as they love each other, but sometimes battle over differences in style or method. Iam Holm plays a competing restaurateur who operates just down the block and similarly has a love/hate relationship with the boys. The entire cast is really superb; the script pays attention to character development and they devour it like a 9-course feast.
The film has an even pace and dwells on details. This Is art and you want to sit before it and take it all in. It is like a fine wine, and you want to savor every soupcon.
If they made a sequel titled "Primo & Secondo Take a Vacation" for example, I would watch it. Please, Stanley, give us more.
An Enjoyable Crime Romance
A trio of thieves plans to steal a set of pearls. They follow them across the Atlantic and abscond with them in New York City. But their actions are being monitored by the Department of Justice and a rival gang.
Vivian Palmer (Myrna Loy), who is one of the jewel thieves, teams up with Ross McBride (Spencer Tracy) to elude the police and their other ruthless pursuers. But neither trusts the other. Circumstances force them to pool their resources and efforts, and they learn more about each other. The term "whipsaw" relates to McBride's feeling of being torn between two opposing allegiances.
Myrna Loy really holds this film together. She displays layers of emotions and confusion as her character attempts to play both sides against the other. This is a good romance; the chemistry between Loy and Tracy is strong.
Andy Hardy Gets Spring Fever (1939)
Andy Finds Inspiration
This installment in the Hardy Family series finds Andy perturbed about the strapping naval officer who is lavishing attention on Polly Benedict. But his feelings are assuaged when a beautiful new teacher takes over the drama class. She inspires his artistic tendencies and arouses romantic stirrings in Andy. Meanwhile, Judge Hardy participates in a get-rich scheme that involves a plot of land he owns.
Teacher Rose Meredith is played wonderfully by Helen Gilbert. It is easy to understand Andy's feelings for his muse/crush.
The banter between Andy and sister Marian (Cecilia Parker) is at its best in this film. They could have played up their humorous relationship more in other films.
The script does a good job with the sensitive subject of Andy's love for a teacher. That serious story is balanced well by the humorous parts of the film.
The World of Henry Orient (1964)
The Romantic World Of Teen Girls
This is an extremely charming coming-of- age story about two fourteen-year-old girls who indulge their fantasies. "Val" (Tippy Walker) and "Gil" (Merie Spaeth) are curious, imaginative, and romantic girls who decide to dedicate their time to following and studying a classical pianist, Henry Orient (Peter Sellers), who is the object of a girlish crush. Appropriately, the score includes an excerpt from the great romanticist himself, Rachmaninoff.
The girls come from very different home lives. When their romantic world collides with the realities of parental expectations, it sets up a satisfying conclusion to the story.
The two girls are wonderful in their central parts. Also worth noting are Angela Lansbury and Tom Bosley as the parents of Val.
The Greatest Showman (2017)
A Strong Score
Loosely based on the life story of P. T. Barnum, the best feature of this musical is the music. There is also a strong cast, well selected to play their roles.
But the story strays too far from the truth for my taste. Barnum of the film is a hero. If people want to view him that way, fine, but being a businessman and self-promoter is not heroic in itself. It feels like the film's story was unduly influenced by politically correct revisionism.
The film has plenty of energy, which reminds me of Baz Luhrmann's "Moulin Rouge", but in comparison it falls short.
I recommend this film for anyone who enjoys musicals, but it could have been better If it had tracked closer to historic truth, making Barnum more human, less heroic.
Zatôichi to yôjinbô (1970)
This meeting of two cinematic superstars is a disappointment. The story is lackluster, providing neither hero with a story arc that excites.
I watched primarily to see Zatoichi, but the familiar mannerisms and quirks of Zatoichi are buried in murky exposition.
Those who are not familiar with the two primary characters will extract even less enjoyment from this film, because there is no background or character development.
It's sad, given what this meeting could have been if there were a coherent story that created real tension between the characters, and an emotional arc that set opposing philosophies against each other.
State Fair (1945)
This State Fair Is A Fair State Fair
On screen, "State Fair" is a moderately successful musical. It revolves around the agrarian charms of the Iowa State Fair. And it does a decent job of capturing the sights and sounds of the midway and the sideshows.
When the Frake family makes its annual trek to the fair, Mother is focused on winning blue ribbons for her cooking and canning skills, Father is showing his massive pig named Blue Boy, and the kids, Margy and Wayne, are enthralled by the air of possibility that surrounds a state or county fair: new experiences, and even the potential for romance.
The film's color contributes to the pageantry, and there are a few nice songs, but not enough to make this a top musical. Also, the song "All I Owe Ioway" just doesn't do for Iowa what Rodgers and Hammerstein had previously done for Oklahoma via song in 1943.
The love stories of the two Frake siblings---played by Dick Haymes and Jeanne Crain---are also rather anemic.
G.I. Blues (1960)
Juliet Prowse In A Routine Elvis Film
This film does not depart much from the canon of Elvis Presley films. There is a fistfight early in the film, to let viewers know there will be no revolutionary revision of the prototypical Elvis role.
The plot revolves around a common storyline, about a bet as to whether a man can obtain carnal knowledge of a female, though they don't say it that way in a film from 1960. Elvis is the man, a G. I. stationed in Germany who is part of a three man combo during his personal time. The woman is Juliet Prowse, the premier dancer of her time.
This film is early enough in Elvis' career that his acting is somewhat fresh; later it will devolve into a caricature of him playing himself.
The song selection is ordinary and the production of the performances is average.
Our Betters (1933)
Beauty And The Guests
The action takes place in the home of Lady Pearl Grayston (Constance Bennett), but most of the action is just talk. Besides talking, the guests of Lady Grayston twist themselves into various behaviors for the things they value---money, social status, attention, love, or flattery.
They wheedle, they cajole, they beg. And when no other choice is left to them, they tell the truth, only to abandon truth as soon as it is convenient again.
Adapted from the play by Maugham, the story mercilessly slices into the spongy façade of British manners, revealing the subterfuge and artifice inside. Somehow, though, the revelation is made lovingly, almost tenderly, as if the characters are victims of the society that made them, and victims of their own deceptions.
The Duchess (Violet Kemble Cooper), for example, is the victim of her own love for Pepi (Gilbert Roland), the wastrel who trades his attentions for her money. She bemoans the vulnerability of her situation and even criticizes those who similarly allow their weaknesses to lead them into bad choices, but she lacks the will to follow her mind, not her heart.
It is a joy to watch the beautiful Lady Graystone negotiate the minefield of manners and personalities. She even explains how she does it---by giving everyone what they want, and giving it for free.
White Nights (1985)
A Singular Pleasure
An in-flight emergency forces a commercial plane to land in Russia. This is a major problem for one passenger, Nikolai Rodchenko (Mikhail Baryshnikov), who used to be a Russian citizen.
This film features near-perfect casting. Who else could play the roles of Baryshnikov and Gregory Hines, consummate dancers? And watch for Helen Mirren as Galina Ivanova, a woman caught between love, duty, and survival.
The narrative delivers a double punch: a film about dancing that is a treatise on political freedom. And there are romantic subplots. Anyone who is confused about the differences between the socialist and democratic models should watch this film; it is relevant long after the demise of the USSR.
Bullet Train (2022)
Strangers And A Snake On A Train
This film is for adult audiences and will be appreciated most by those who like its blend of violence, comedy, and philosophy.
Brad Pitt is a man on a mission-to locate a suitcase on a bullet train and exit the train. This sounds simple enough, too simple in fact, but "Ladybug" (which is his code name) agrees to take on the task. He has recently found enlightenment, and he rhapsodizes about forgiveness and acceptance in a Zen manner as he goes about his mission. Of course it will not be that simple.
Directed by David Leitch, who directed "John Wick", the film includes plenty of special effects, quirky characters, and gore. Because it is set in Japan, it includes many elements of Japanese culture. Its tone and a plethora of colorful characters might make some viewers think of "Pulp Fiction".
The plot is intricate and whimsical. And it is very confident in the way it weaves seemingly-disparate story elements into a cohesive, fanciful whole.
The Man Who Would Be King (1975)
Only Moderately Interesting
Though I like Caine and Connery, this film is not very enjoyable. Having never read the original Kipling story, I wonder if it were not written as a tall tale, i.e. As a story not to be believed.
The characters are not very likable and not so intelligent. Their big scheme is to take advantage of a less-advanced civilization and steal from them. But it is an ill-advised plan, given their ignorance of the region and its cultures. It always helps to know what you don't know.
You cannot reason with people who live by superstitions alone. So their plans are doomed to fail.
Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
Paul Biegler (James Stewart) is an affable former-prosecutor who rolls with the punches. His passions are fishing, jazz, and Constitutional law. When a newsworthy case is offered to him, his buddy Parnell McCarthy (Arthur O'Connell) urges him to take it, knowing he needs the income.
Lt. Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara) is accused to killing the man who raped his wife. The lieutenant is a challenge for Paul to decipher---guarded, argumentative, sarcastic. Conversely, his wife Laura (Lee Remick) is unguarded, cooperative, and to the point. She is also beautiful, in an obvious, common way.
When the two sides face off in the courtroom, Paul finds that the prosecution has added the talents of Claude Dancer (George C. Scott), a clever opponent from the big city of Lansing. What follows is one of the best courtroom dramas of all time. And that is just part of the appeal of this excellent film directed by Otto Preminger.
Every actor gives a wonderful performance. The score is by Duke Ellington, which gives the film a cool, intelligent tone. The script is filled with moments of brilliance---from subtle comedy to intense confrontation. The presiding judge actually is a judge who possesses a magnetic screen presence.
Special mention should go to Lee Remick and George C. Scott who command the screen no matter who they share it with. Arthur O'Connell is a favorite of mine, and he shows why in this film.
"Anatomy of a Murder" was nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Picture.
Father of the Bride (1950)
Elizabeth Taylor plays the part of 20-year-old Kay Banks, daughter of Stanley and Ellie (Spencer Tracy and Joan Bennett). And this is the story of her wedding, as told by father Stanley. Though I usually find voice-overs annoying, Spencer Tracy's comments throughout feel natural to the story.
The film is primarily a comedy, getting its humor from the chaos and confusion that attends the planning and execution of most weddings and their peripheral activities.
Miss Taylor is tremendous in the part of the bride. And her celebrated beauty is a bonus.