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The Secret of NIMH (1982)
The Bluth Man Group
I never saw it when I was actually a child. But recently, I thought I'd give it a viewing considering it had music by Jerry Goldsmith and the National Philharmonic Orchestra (together, responsible for such brilliant scores as "The Omen" trilogy, "Legend," and several others). I was instantly blown away. The prologue, in which wise but weary Nicodemus (voiced by Derek Jacobi) ponders some heartbreaking news, is exceptionally powerful. The animation style is simply gorgeous, on par with the best of Disney. The voice casting is universally exceptional (Dom DeLuise, I think, takes home the gold as an eager-to-please, outgoing, clumsy crow who really wants a girlfriend). And although it is geared towards little kids, many scenes are actually quite dark and compelling. The crown jewel in this beautiful treasure trove is Goldsmith's breathtaking score, so elaborately lush, heartwarming, and at times haunting that it's impossible not to be humming the theme music ("Flying Dreams") before the halfway point. You will, unfortunately, notice the early use of Don Bluth's disastrous hallmark as a solo animator: characters who preposterously flail to express every little emotion. But unlike, say, "Anastasia," it evens out because the characters aren't human anyway and the story is so fantastical and so majestically realized. I consider this among the best fantasy films of all time, the best animated films, the best family films, and the best of Goldsmith, and certainly Bluth's best work. You know how "fun for the whole family" is so overused it makes your head spin? Well, "The Secret of NIMH" is, quite simply, wonder for the whole family. Enjoy it.
First Blood (1982)
Why, Yes, It Is a Long Road
What makes "First Blood" so bizarrely effective is how it works on more than just a literal level. Fans of simple shoot-'em-up action can revel in the film's near-implausible carnage, but underneath it all is a metaphor that feels more genuine than anything seen in a long time. Rambo struggles to survive via violent, chaotic clashes with the bullying police and the comically inept National Guard that represent something deeper and more common: the struggle of Vietnam survivors to readjust to life in the United States. As he wails and screams in his climactic monologue about the war, he finds himself having his freedoms and rights taken away by the very people whose freedoms and rights he went to Vietnam to protect. It's a brilliantly complex analysis of the war and its tumultuous, far-reaching effects, one that defies politics and platitudes. I've never seen such a seemingly over-the-top action extravaganza done with such a convincing and shatteringly powerful "ulterior motive." Shot in British Columbia, the movie has a dingy, foggy, where's-that-bright-yellow-thing-from-the-sky look to it. There are certain visual parallels to "The Deer Hunter," but "The Deer Hunter" this ain't. Stallone gives what is arguably his one great performance, a sobering blend of anarchic physicality and perfect on-cue histrionics-- combined with a level of articulateness that mercifully takes this character in the full opposite direction from Rocky Balboa, which I was not expecting. And while the music score isn't one of Jerry Goldsmith's best, the main theme is one of his best individual compositions, and the music is well above average for both building suspense and evoking sincere emotion. Though it doesn't have the character name in the title, this may be the only "Rambo" movie that was actually about Rambo-- the real Rambo, not the human action figure-- and as such it is vastly under-appreciated.
The Hawaiians (1970)
From the Starving Village: Hawaii, Part II!
Given the epic nature of James Michener's thousand-page novel "Hawaii," if the first film did any kind of positive business whatsoever, a sequel was bound to happen. The result is actually quite good, though nowhere near as good as George Roy Hill's original. Practically none of the original cast or crew has returned. Hill was succeeded as director by Tom Gries; Trumbo and Taradash are replaced on script duty by James R. Webb ("How the West Was Won," "Cheyenne Autumn"), who certainly had a bizarre gift for crafting intelligible and reasonably entertaining stories out of momentous historical hoopla. And since it takes place a couple generations after the end of the first film, obviously the cast is all gone. Charlton Heston adds more than prestige (he also adds presence and strength) to the central character of Whip Hoxworth, with Geraldine Chaplin decent but underused as his odd wife Purity. Mako is terrific as a Chinese peasant farmer who comes to Hawaii after cheating himself a new wife-- Char Nyuk Tsin, played by Tina Chen in a performance that starts off rather uninteresting but blossoms into a real stunner. The story goes on through racial strife, economic and ecological developments on the islands, political turmoil, and personal tragedy, very much in the spirit of the first "Hawaii" but without all the buildup (remember how much time had passed before we saw the islands in the first one?) and with a quicker pace. The film is lush, intriguing, and adequately enacted, but there are a few obstacles to overcome before you can really get into it. The worst of these is Henry Mancini's tacky, obvious, ethnic cliché-infused score, which comes nowhere near the scope, emotion or wonderment of Elmer Bernstein's original. If Bernstein couldn't have been secured, surely there was a better option (Jerry Goldsmith springs to mind) than Henry "The Pink Panther" Mancini. But the score does have a few moments of... well, adequacy. Given that the film obviously failed and-- having never been released on either VHS or mass-market DVD-- both suffers in obscurity while toiling in notoriety, and given that the first film was (at least to this reviewer) almost thoroughly a masterpiece, "The Hawaiians" is much better than can be expected. And compared to the lame sequels that stuff the cineplexes these days, it plays off like a "Citizen Kane" or a "Godfather."
55 Days at Peking (1963)
Days of Glory
I just finished watching this for the first time and I just have to comment on it. I've been quite pleased with Samuel Bronston's mega-productions before. "El Cid" was cheesy but wonderful; "King of Kings" was an excellent dramatization of an overdone story. "55 Days at Peking" has so many highlights. Charlton Heston gives the performance of a lifetime-- it's seriously almost as good as his "Ben-Hur" and "Planet of the Apes" work. David Niven is also very good, and Ava Gardner is wonderful simply because she plays a Russian character without choking on a thick Russian accent. Dimitri Tiomkin also does some career-topping composing and conducting here. Bronston, as usual, threw a lot of money into the mix, but you can see every single penny and it pays off tremendously. The explosive battle sequences are much more effective than anything Michael Bay could crank out, and it's always so satisfying to know that every single person in every single frame is a living, breathing human. And actors like Flora Robson and Leo Genn play their Chinese characters with the awkward touch of "The Good Earth," but they do manage to eschew caricature and (mostly) stereotype. Someone ought to release this in America as a valid DVD.
My Beautiful Laundrette (1985)
One of the Bravest Films Ever Made
With its less than thirty seconds of vague, dimly-lit, barely-intelligible same-sex sex (in 1985, no less), "My Beautiful Laundrette" sets itself above all the bad gay movies that have ever been made: not only the insultingly evasive but also the cheap and tawdry. It addresses so many vastly different cultural issues-- including, obviously, homophobia and racism-- with such a smooth and deft hand that I think just about every other movie ever made on the theme of intolerance (dating right back to DW Griffith's aptly named "Intolerance") has been rendered obsolete. The focus is on a diverse gay couple (not only racially diverse, either): tough-guy Johnny (Daniel Day Lewis in a career-best performance) and initially naive, star-reaching Omar (Gordon Warnecke, likewise). Through their unity, Omar's vision, and Johnny's hard work, they raise up a South London laundromat from roach trap to ritzy. What really sets the film apart is the generally light, this-too-shall-pass tone it boldly maintains in spite of its rather hefty subject matter. There are many dramatic moments, but it never becomes too heavy-handed or too depressing to continue. The cinematography is so innovative and the actors are so engaging that it's hardly possible to overpraise them. You may not feel comfortable watching "message" movies, but the message of "My Beautiful Laundrette" is so universal that it never feels like there is a message. That's how you know they did it correctly.
How the West Was Won (1962)
It Wasn't Terrible
I saw this movie for the Alfred Newman soundtrack (outstanding, but a little too punctuated by the folk music) and a handful of the overwhelmingly star-studded cast (Carroll Baker, Gregory Peck, Brigid Bazlen, Debbie Reynolds, and, of course, Carolyn Jones). I have never been a fan of Westerns, but this one actually made me officially lift my "Western embargo." It's less than a masterpiece-- the 2.89:1 Cinerama aspect ratio is uncomfortable, though I imagine it looked quite special on that enormous screen-- but considering the sheer scale of the production and the number of well-known headliners thrown in (almost enough to rival George Stevens' tacky "Greatest Story Ever Told") it's pretty good. Reynolds and Baker are marvelous all through the movie; other big-name actors pop up when you least expect them but it's not as distracting as in other "extravaganzas." The story of the family trying to go out west is touching in its simplicity. And most films with multiple directors betray a certain lack of unity, but I was taken aback to discover that this one is made in a flowing, uniform style. Extravagant? Yes. Kitschy? You bet. But it's a Western I'm not embarrassed to be caught watching. And every time I hear Alfred Newman's driving, adventurous theme music, I can't help but feel just a little bit better about the corny mythology that comes standard in every American history textbook. Movies like this really class that up a bit.
The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)
This Didn't Have To Happen
I've never seen the point of making another biopic of Jesus Christ four years after the definitive (if highly fictionalized) cinematic version, "King of Kings." That version at least had developed characters, remarkable imagery, and a strong storyline that was greatly enhanced and deepened by clarified character relationships and a rich historical context. George Stevens did "The Greatest Story Ever Told," however, just to be seen doing it. As opposed to the more extrovert Biblical spectacles (think "The Robe," "The Ten Commandments," and "King of Kings," all great or near-great movies) this one focuses less on the pageantry and more on the human drama-- or, at least, that was the plan. But it failed for a number of reasons.
1) Movies set in the historical past (and, by the way, the future) are inherently showy because they require showy sets and costumes. In spite of Stevens' intent, it's still a bunch of ancient designs on a super-wide (too wide) screen. 2) The movie is cluttered (as you well know) with tacky cameo appearances ranging from the understandable (Roddy McDowell as an apostle, Sal Mineo as a cripple) to the absurd (Shelley Winters) and the downright obscene (show me John Wayne!) Even this would be understandable, however, if the characters had any sort of depth. The only character who is truly explored to the fullest potential is Jesus. More on this in a minute. 3) Stevens seems to lean far too strongly on his artistic homages. Using DaVinci's staging of the last supper (all on one side of the table!) is forgivable, but the slightly altered version of the Sistine chapel featured at the beginning is a bit much, and he lost me completely when two of the giant miracles (one at the beginning, one at the end) were underscored by the "Hallelujah" chorus from Handel's "Messiah," which clashes drastically with Alfred Newman's gloriously powerful (though not very ambitious) score. Newman valiantly wrote his own "Hallelujahs" to make for a less awkward transition into the Handel music, but it's still jarringly familiar.
Max von Sydow delivers one of his truly great performances as Christ-- quiet when necessary but always full of grandeur and solemnity. He outdoes Jeffrey Hunter ("King of Kings") every step of the way. And Charlton Heston makes a compelling John the Baptist-- but our connection to the character of John is that of watching and hearing a great orator deliver speeches we've all heard millions of times before. It's like, for instance, Barack Obama delivering the "I Have a Dream" speech. I'm sure it's a wonderful performance, but it doesn't offer any psychological insight into the man who originated it. It is, in fact, just one man temporarily inhabiting the persona of, never actually evoking, a rare mind. The worst of all in the film's voluminous list of disappointingly flat characterizations is David McCallum's Judas (for which I don't blame McCallum, but Stevens and his co-screenwriter James Lee Barrett). As is often the trap, Judas is given absolutely no discernible motivation for that certain deed of his. When he enacts it, we knew it was coming but we still feel completely and totally blindsided. And shallowly so. How can you feel pity for people who exist only to adhere to a millennia-old story as familiar as your own hometown?
The film as it exists today is presented in a 199-minute version with 45 seconds of overture and nearly six minutes of intermission and exit music. It was originally 225 minutes (!). "King of Kings" runs 171 minutes with 3 minutes of overture and about six minutes of intermission and exit music. They both tell the same "story" but only "King of Kings" resembles any sort of dramatically valid presentation. "Greatest Story Ever Told" fails to achieve in 199 what "King of Kings" excelled at in 171. Of course, "Greatest" is still closer to the subject matter-- but only because of its slavish script, stilted dialogue (which uncomfortably fuses Jacobean grandiloquence with contemporary Sunday school jargon) and artistic self-indulgence.
Antony and Cleopatra (1972)
Pleasant, If Nothing Else
Unlike some particularly grating Shakespeare adaptations of recent years, Charlton Heston's overlooked "Antony & Cleopatra" manages to work as cinema and as an adaptation of a work by the world's most famous playwright. The production values-- giant panoramas, expensive battle sequences, glorious period costumes-- are staggering, and Heston comports himself quite well in the triple role of screenwriter/director/actor. Not that I intend to use all my Shakespeare film reviews to bash Kenneth Branagh, but compared to Heston, he's awful, unpalatable in all three capacities. He is that anyway, but even Heston's just-decent acting is well balanced by his expert direction of others. The exception to that is Hildegard Neil, an awful Cleopatra. She has zero dignity in the role, and manages to bear a creepy resemblance to "Rock 'n' Roll High School"'s Principal Togar every now and then. John Castle's performance as Caesar is obviously the best in the film, but still doesn't touch Roddy McDowall's bold, furious, intense Octavian in the Liz Taylor mega-film. Comparisons with that other movie are inevitable, and the winner is hands-down the earlier epic. This version is not very well paced, and, let's face it, it wasn't exactly Will's best dialogue. And Hildegard Neil really drags the movie down a bit, although she's not as bad as everyone says. Visually it's majestic, and that John Scott/Augusto Algero score is certainly pleasing to the ears (though it can't rival Alex North's "Cleopatra"). It's okay, but I can't say I recommend it unless you're on a really serious Shakespeare kick and the only other movies available are Branagh's.
Something Rotten Indeed
This is without a doubt the worst Shakespeare adaptation I've ever seen. That includes Baz Luhrmann's nauseating "Romeo + Juliet." I wasn't really sure what to expect going in-- no expectations whatsoever. Except that it would be a full-text adaptation of the play, something so unusual it was surrounded by a good deal of pomp and praise upon the film's initial release. Surely it was a brave thing to do, but was it in the best interests of the story? Absolutely not. In reality, "Hamlet" was probably never performed in its entirety even in Shakespeare's day.
I was never a big fan of Branagh, but he did a reasonably good job with "Much Ado About Nothing," both directing and starring. Sadly it's the only halfway decent thing he's ever done. His "Hamlet" is most foul. It takes a great actor and a great director to be able to police oneself well enough to take on both roles in one of the most famous stories of all time. Branagh fails miserably. The film is largely constructed on two gimmicks-- the first being the percentage of text used (100%, obviously) and the second being its jarring update from medieval to 19th-century Denmark. The first gimmick mortally wounds the film right off the bat. Characters either pompously expound for minutes on end or shout with breakneck speed just to fit it all in. As for the second gimmick, it doesn't serve the story at all. It merely serves to distract us. After all, the primary reason to update the setting of a Shakespearean play is to make some kind of statement. It worked in "Titus," and, in theory, even worked in "Romeo + Juliet." But all it says here is, "I'm Kenneth Branagh and I can do whatever I want." The performances are so-so at best (Julie Christie, Derek Jacobi and Kate Winslet) and gut-wrenchingly awful on average (Branagh, Branagh, and more Branagh). It was nice to see Charlton Heston doing serious work again as the Player King, but crucial casting missteps were made virtually across the board, the worst being Robin Williams as Osric and Jack Lemmon as Marcellus. Indeed the film had almost as many irritatingly pointless "cameos" as "The Greatest Story Ever Told." Say what you will about Mel Gibson. But his performance as Hamlet, mediocre though it was, is leaps and bounds over Branagh's because Gibson had an amazing director, Franco Zeffirelli. Branagh merely thought his own director was great. His ridiculous arrogance bleeds through every frame. No movie in history has ever been so difficult to sit through, so gimmicky, so over-produced *and* so self-indulgent. Siskel and Ebert was right-- it does show Branagh's virtuosity. His virtuosity at making horrible decisions because he wanted to. The Bard would be disappointed to say the least.
Henry V (1989)
Where's a muse of fire when you need one?
Derek Jacobi's wonderfully proud, winking Chorus and Patrick Doyle's interesting (but barely) score are the sole redeeming features of this early Kenneth Branagh misfire. A gritty (in a BBC sense of the word) take on Shakespeare's mostly tedious historical play, "Henry V" gives far too much power to one man in the worst way that Branagh repeated so often to such bewildering acclaim. He not only directs and, rather pretentiously, "adapts for the screen" the words of the Bard, but also plays the title character. And sadly, he is by far no Olivier. The man has talent, to be sure, but it either wasn't here yet or it had fled temporarily when he took up this triple task. The only "flat, unraised spirit" here is Branagh himself, who essays a monotonous monarch with all the emotional depth of Keanu Reeves after an all-nighter. He even fumbles his one good instinct as a filmmaker: flashing back to "Henry IV" is an excellent way to provide backstory for people who aren't too familiar with the soap opera nature of some of Shakespeare's histories (which is primarily important here for the character of Falstaff), but the technique doesn't mesh with the rest of the picture. And why keep the Chorus? He's a purely theatrical device. He's there to tell us we have to imagine that we're in France or Southampton-- a necessity of the theater, in which all you can see is a stage and what's on it, but somewhat disconcerting in a film because the entire point of a film is to show us someplace we normally wouldn't see. Did he keep the Chorus to make his job, as a director, of sustaining our illusion that much easier? Whatever the motives (and no disrespect to the vibrant Jacobi), it was not the right decision. It's a boring, slow-to-evolve adaptation of a terrible, impossible-to-read play. (I am a fan of ol' Will, but his history plays are some of the most tedious dramas ever to plague the page.) If you're a fan of the kind of epic battle scenes of films as diverse as "Platoon" and "Gladiator," you'll definitely enjoy that aspect of the movie. Action-wise, it has its moments. But after a while, you just want Branagh to stick to doing one thing. Unfortunately, he's too self-indulgent to get that idea into his head.
The Way It Is, The Way It Was
Like it or not, you can't really argue with Robert Wise. As a director, even the films he made I didn't personally like (such as "The Sound of Music") weren't bad. "Star!," which had the unfortunate bad luck of being released in the same year as "Funny Girl," showed us a new Julie Andrews: the independent, brash, confrontational lady promised by scenes of her in "Hawaii" now long since lost. "Star!" showcases her to the utmost of that extreme, which most audience members find grating. But in the interest of avoiding typecasting, let's just say it's a pleasant change of pace from such characters of hers as Mary Poppins and Maria von Trapp. This is not really a comedy, unlike "Funny Girl"; unlike "Funny Girl," the musical aspect is entirely backstage (there are no spontaneous songs in emotional moments by supporting characters). But unlike "Funny Girl," "Star" finds one mode-- biographical drama-- and sticks with it throughout. "Funny Girl" veered uncomfortably from roadshow musical comedy to seething biographical soap opera. The musical numbers-- glitzy and overproduced though they are-- are simply fascinating to watch, particularly that "Jenny" confection towards the end. Ultimately, you will have submitted three hours of your life to this bold, dissonant spectacle, and the truth is, if that idea dissuades you, or if you simply prefer the more wholesome Julie Andrews of "Poppins," "Sound of Music," and the truncated "Hawaii," this is not the movie for you. But I don't think anyone can find fault with the opulent set and costume design, Daniel Massey's charming performance as Noel Coward, or Lenny Hayton's lush musical adaptations.
Grand Prix (1966)
More Zoom Zoom, Less Snore Snore
I've never shied away from a 3-hour movie because of its length before. But is there any reason on this green earth of ours why John Frankenheimer's hyped-up, revved-down motor sports drama had to be 3 hours long? The main attraction of "Grand Prix" is obviously the hyper-kinetic racing action we were promised. I'm not really big on action sequences per se, but I did get that impression. Unfortunately, it feels like an eternity sandwiched between just the first two races because the focus of this film is the personal drama-- the silly, soapy, boring personal drama that's simply not interesting. I found the character of Pat particularly unsympathetic (which is a shame because I love the actress who played her, Jessica Walter). I found Pete (James Garner) a general nuisance and an ineffective precursor to Tom Cruise's Maverick in "Top Gun." (Ironic, considering Garner was another Maverick once...) As for Jean-Pierre Sarti (Yves Montand), he was just dull and a little pretentious. No better was Eva Marie Saint's Louise, his love interest, and their love story may have the least heat of any in cinema history.
The only really interesting character was Nino (Antonio Sabato), but like they'd give him any screen time up against costars like that! The film does have its strong points. They may take forever to get to the next race, but when they do it's entirely worth the wait. That is, worth the wait alone, not what Frankenheimer and Aurthur forced into the waiting time. The races are thrillingly filmed, dizzyingly edited, and make brilliant use of stereo sound and widescreen. Maurice Jarre's music is also a lot better than most people seem to think. It is a bit too reliant on an unchanging menu of themes, but "Doctor Zhivago" had the same shortcoming and its score is hailed as a masterpiece.
For a while, there must have been something interesting going on in the creative team's heads. Unfortunately, in their desire to make a film people would take seriously as more than just a racing picture, they created one nobody could take seriously because the drama is just so insipid. The mistake here was trying to elevate a simple gimmicky widescreen sports vehicle (no pun intended) into a masterpiece of human emotion. It's nowhere near "Ben-Hur..." but it does beat "Chariots of Fire." A real disappointment.
King of Kings (1961)
Rich and Regal
Certainly the most enjoyable "traditional" take on the life of Christ, Samuel Bronston and Nicholas Ray's magnificent "King of Kings" is simply incredible. While most films about Christ tend to get bogged down in directorial self-indulgence ("The Greatest Story Ever Told," "The Passion of the Christ") or simply aren't entertaining, this is a welcome change of pace: it is completely respectful to its central character while maintaining the ability to enthrall an audience of non-churchgoers like myself. While deeply true to its Biblical source (which many of us non-churchgoers are, surprise surprise, well acquainted with), it can be admired as cinema, too. The Spanish locations prove a great substitute for the Middle East (though I will always love "Jesus Christ Superstar" for its beautiful geographic authenticity). Jeffrey Hunter does not try to be particularly impressive as Christ, which has always been the key trap for any actor taking on the role. He lets the words guide him, and the effect is one of awe rather than timidity. Many of the actors' voices are dubbed by different actors, and Hunter re-dubbed his own lines, which can feel a bit jarring, but does not detract from the illusion. The real stars of the film are: foremost, Miklos Rozsa's wondrous score, fairly underrated, completely ignored by the Academy, but now rightly acknowledged for the masterpiece it is; and the cinematography, supervised by the combined talents of Milton Krasner, Franz F. Planer, and Manuel Berenguer. Deep focus is used exceptionally well in many scenes, the lighting is incredible, and there are a handful of shots that are really quite innovative. There isn't an ugly frame anywhere in the 171 minutes of film, making it without a doubt one of the most beautifully photographed films of all time. Also, writer Philip Yordan is to be commended for fleshing out the story to include the historical and political situation in Judea at the time, fleshing out the characters of Judas and Barabbas (making them more than mere plot points, another danger of films about Christ), and depicting the family life of Herod, Herodias, and evil little Salome. One of the best Roman epics ever filmed, and, again, the best Christian film of all time. The real "Greatest story ever told."
A "Wow" Moment
It took me three tries, but I finally got into John Boorman's 1981 fantasy epic, "Excalibur." Now that I'm in, I'm all in. In spite of a rocky start (the result of abrupt pacing, overly dramatic vocal characterization, and general weirdness), "Excalibur" emerges one of the most incredible, certainly the most visually impressive cinematic rendering of the Arthurian legend.
Somewhat episodic in structure, the film features everything you could want from a regal fantasy film: swords clashing with armor on the battlefield, shimmering magic, good and evil in head-on conflict, and breathtaking sets and costumes. Alex Thomson's rich cinematography is another plus for the film, as are Nicol Williamson as an appropriately mysterious and clever Merlin and also Helen Mirren, used to the exquisite extent of her blossoming abilities as wicked Morgana.
Not in the best interests of the film: blending some of Trevor Jones' original score compositions with existing opera selections, which feel too well-known and are not mythological or timeless enough to score a picture like this. Jones should have been allowed to carry the entire soundtrack-- he could have handled it quite easily; this is the "Dark Crystal" composer, after all. The most painful of these is a culturally ubiquitous passage from "Carmina Burana," extremely overrated and a bit on the cliché side.
The abrupt pacing is also not kind to the movie, with major new plot points being raised in a matter of seconds and, at times, dropped just as quickly. Nigel Terry seems initially overwhelmed as King Arthur, but, like the character, rises to the occasion. Although Cherie Lunghi is an enchanting Guenevere, in fact one of the best in any version of the story.
Look also for Patrick Stewart and Liam Neeson as knights. This is before they were quite so famous.
Of the John Boorman films I've seen (which includes "Deliverance") this is by far the best, in spite of its shortcomings. If only he'd been allowed to direct "Exorcist II" with as much narrative cohesion as "Excalibur", it would have been a masterpiece comparable to the original.
The Treasure in the Trash Pile
Matt Groening's "The Simpsons" was pioneering in virtually everything it did, and as a result has become the most revered and successful animated sitcom ever (and really the first, in their modern form). But it wasn't long before the industry attempted to duplicate that success, and the results were a mixed bag: the sheer horror of "Beavis and Butt-head," followed by the unpretentious hilarity of "King of the Hill"; the rise of the ingenious "Futurama" virtually twin to the advent of the insidious "Family Guy." "Dilbert," based on the beloved comic strip by Scott Adams, is one of the better shows (even if it didn't last long). The dialog is snappy and smart, the animation what you'd expect, the characters voiced with real talent, and the stories as funny as they are far-fetched. Dilbert speaks for all disillusioned cubicle dwellers, but the concept works equally well as metaphor. You don't have to have a tedious white-collar job to admire the wit and sarcasm of Adams and his TV cohorts. High points of the series include the trips to Elbonia, Dogbert's evil scheming, and any episode heavily involving Alice. The low point: the guest appearance by Jerry Seinfeld. I will *never* get that voice out of my head. Never.
I Personally Waited for Seven Years
Having loved the books since I was in middle school, I was very eager to see the movie. I first heard they would make the movie in 2003. Six years later, the movie was *finally* out in theaters (I didn't actually see it until last week). Much to my dismay, the film was dismissed with derision by the reviewers and ignored by audiences, which truly saddened me in this world of "Twilight" and Anne Rice. I wanted to see it for myself to find out how bad it was. Not as bad as all that, it turned out. The film had many bad or weak points-- a few examples: Michael Cerveris' dreadfully over-the-top turn as Mr. Tiny (although he did seem to be enjoying himself); the generic schoolyard performances by Chris Massoglia and Josh Hutcherson; and that dialogue. Some of it is clever, some cringe-inducing. But much also stood out: Patrick Fugit, who was incredible in "Almost Famous," is surprisingly good as Evra, the snake boy; the story is capably rendered; the lighting is fantastic. Also, I applaud the filmmakers for forcing the audience to sit through an actual opening credits sequence in this day and age-- gone are the delightful and innovative days of "Superman," with its visually stunning laser text, and other movies like "Gigi" and "Flower Drum Song," the credits of which unfold against stunning artwork. My bias in Hollywood is more toward older films, but-- especially considering the level of harpooning this movie has taken-- this is a perfectly tolerable entertainment for the 21st century, and maybe a bit more.
Carmen Jones (1954)
Sorry, Folks, No More Made-Up Words to the Toreador March...
Watching "Carmen Jones," produced and directed by Otto Preminger from Oscar Hammerstein's update of the Bizet opera, is a very otherworldly experience, not at all comfortable but somehow challenging. On the one hand it's an interesting look at the racial differences embedded into the society at the time; on the other hand, it's a wild and vivacious bit of showmanship.
Dorothy Dandridge is magnificent as the title character, that free-spirited, free-loving parachute factory worker whose romantic entanglement with conflicted Joe (Harry Belafonte in another good performance) kicks off one of the most unique movie musicals in history.
The music direction is definitely the highlight of the film, sounding absolutely incredible. I can't believe it didn't win the Oscar. Familiar faces in supporting roles include Diahann Carroll and Brock Peters, and it's always fun to see them. But "Carmen Jones" is not "fun," per se.... Not for long.
The first few scenes establish a riveting pace and high level of energy that the film is not quite able to maintain. Carmen's antics are not amusing for long, and the songs descend in quality from the magnificently catchy "Dat's Love" to the frantic, busy "Card Song" and the chillingly titled "String Me High On a Tree." Maybe it's the cultural climate in 2010 attempting to do battle with that of 1954, but it's uncomfortable. Very much so.
Of course, they don't make movies like this anymore.
It's Not a Near-Miss... It's a Complete Misfire
I had no inkling of how popular this movie was until I picked up the DVD and saw how many awards it won (only one of which-- Joel Grey's Best Supporting Actor bologna-- was actually well-deserved). I had always assumed it was another musical lost in its time-- you know, one of the Jesus Christ Superstars of the day. But there's a difference: "Jesus Christ Superstar" is sensational, electrifying, and at times riveting. "Cabaret" is crap-aret.
Liza Minnelli is terrible at just about everything, most especially acting. She's a fair singer, but on screen she means nothing. She brings absolutely no emotional weight to the role. After seeing how well the original Sally Bowles, Jill Haworth, could act (please see "Exodus"), it's a freak of nature that Minnelli beat her for the role. The entire film is like a punchline and it's all because of the leading lady, who has no rightful place in popular culture except the subject of catty jokes in shows like "Queer as Folk," "Queer Duck," and "Will & Grace." Michael York is, was, and always will be great, but Minnelli actually succeeds in dragging him down to her level. He gave a better performance in the super-camp "Logan's Run," for crying out loud! The only good performance in this movie comes from Grey, who actually does astonishingly well ("astonishingly" considering the quality of his costars). But even his best efforts aren't enough to salvage the whole thing.
As opposed to the fearlessly stylized visuals of his directorial debut, "Sweet Charity," Bob Fosse under-utilizes master cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth. The film has no visual scope and even the exterior scenes are so dank and so poorly constructed cinematographically that they, too, look like they were shot in someone's basement.
The only good song? "Mein Herr," a rare moment in Hollywood History when Minnelli's camera-centric sleazing actually works.
Whatever you've heard about "Cabaret" from its proponents, don't listen. It'll drive you crazy. The film is terrible, visually glum and uninspired, poorly scripted, dismally acted, and shoddily slapped together, haphazard. For all the bad things people say about 1972's "Man of La Mancha," it doesn't pretend to be anything it's not. The worst crime of all? The awards "Cabaret" stole from "The Godfather," a true classic of American cinema.
A note about my personal tastes: I *love* musicals. Seriously. Normally, the fact that a movie is a musical is enough to salvage it from a 1-out-of-ten rating in my book. But nothing can save this travesty.
Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977)
It Was Utterly Horrible... and Fascinating
I think that the original "Exorcist" is, by far, one of the greatest movies ever made. It's the only movie that actually scares me and it's a magnificent piece of work, really. Except for the music (with the exception of "Tubular Bells"), I wouldn't change anything about it.
Now comes this other movie, this *sequel* (hiss!) directed by the man who gave us "Deliverance". Linda Blair returns as Regan, and Kitty Winn as Sharon, along with Max von Sydow for some fill-in-the-blanks work, but they're the only prominent talents behind or in front of the cameras to return.
How dare this movie pretend to be in the same league as "The Exorcist," right? Wrong.
Going in with absolutely no expectations whatsoever (I recommend that state of mind), I found a good story told in a not-particularly-good fashion. The acting is mostly awful, except some capable moments by Linda Blair and James Earl Jones. However, the actors deliver lines that weren't really meant for Hollywood-- metaphorical, psychospiritual stuff about locusts and the demon Pazuzu, who, four years prior, got all up in little Regan's grill and may be doing so again. This is, at its core, a fantasy, not a nightmare.
Some scenes of the movie-- a ritual at a clifftop church in Africa and Father Lamont's meeting with Kokumo, just a couple examples-- are actually fascinating. John Boorman is a good director, mostly, and makes choices that are bewildering, but not as terrible as you've heard. The movie also distances itself from the original-- the patchwork, obnoxious soundtrack of the first is replaced by a single score by the legendary Ennio Morricone, and the visuals appeal less to claustrophobia. Some tracking shots in Africa are absolutely breathtaking, but then William Fraker, the cinematographer, has a long history of doing great, underrated work-- see also "1941" (1979) and "Paint Your Wagon" (1969).
All in all, it's not a great movie. I can't say I'd recommend it to anyone looking for a carbon copy of Exorcist 1, but that's great. Honestly, I can guarantee it began as a moneymaking scheme by the studio to recapture the original's instant, intoxicating success. But another sequel to a religious-horror classic was like that, and it will never be acquitted-- "Damien: Omen II," a disastrous joke of a movie. "Exorcist II" is acquitted.
The Shining (1980)
Another Miss for Kubrick
I have always deeply enjoyed "Dr. Strangelove" and "2001"-- in fact, both movies are on my Top 25 list. I gave up on "Spartacus" twice, but the third time, I watched it all the way through (the 196-minute version) and I found it another masterpiece. So I know Kubrick has real merits as a filmmaker, not just a director.
That being said, "A Clockwork Orange" is an horrific assault on the senses and "The Shining" is dull, derivative, and in general, almost unwatchable.
I have never read Stephen King's novel, but I know that a lot of people claim the movie is much worse. I'll leave that point alone. And in terms of technical innovations (the whole Steadicam thing comes to mind), they worked. But when you actually have to watch it as a movie (and I don't know how else to watch a film), it doesn't add up to anything enjoyable.
Shelley Duvall-- as always-- gives a terrible performance. She's the most blatantly awful aspect of the movie. Then, of course, you have the sheer feel of the film. It's very ethereal, too ethereal, in fact. The much-lauded tracking shots (which the DVD summary praises as "dreamlike") are nothing more than visual lullabies, the music is more obnoxious than "Clockwork Orange," and parts of the film even feel like rip-offs of "The Exorcist"-- i.e., the questioning of the little kid about his imaginary friend is suspiciously similar to the Captain Howdy plot point in "Exorcist."
Most of the time, the cast fails. Jack Nicholson is tolerable, but he isn't enough to salvage the film. And Kubrick's normally-perfectly-capable direction is laughable and over-the-top.
Stay away from "The Shining." It's redrum for your brain.
My Fair Lady (1964)
A full appreciation of the greatness of this movie cannot be made succinctly. Too much went into making this film one of the five best musicals of all time, on both sides of the camera.
Basically, "My Fair Lady" is the story of an unwashed, unrefined flower girl who becomes the object of a bet when boisterous, arrogant, sexist Professor Higgins bets he can turn her into a proper lady in time for a big high-society party. But it becomes much more than that: the girl, Eliza, knows that she's just an item for them to bet over, and her pleas for respect go completely ignored... until she finally puts her money where her newly refined mouth is and points herself out the door.
Does Higgins really have feelings for her as a human being? Will the transformation be complete? Will there be songs all over the bloomin' place?
On that last one, anyway, yes. In fact, the soundtrack to "My Fair Lady" is deservedly one of the most famous in musical history, and it's rendered impressively. The only problem is in the casting of Marni Nixon to sing for Audrey Hepburn as Eliza-- Nixon is a great vocalist, but it doesn't quite match. And Hepburn's vocals (available on either of the American DVD releases), while not stunning, per se, certainly would have worked for her big cockney solo songs.
Six years after film critics made the comment that a real movie version of "My Fair Lady" was unnecessary due to "Gigi," director George Cukor, and the entire crew, and the cast proved them wrong. If more movies were given this much thought, style, charisma, and elegance today, I'd probably go to the theater a lot more.
Special praise must go to Hepburn, Rex Harrison, Gladys Cooper (who hilariously plays Higgins' mother), and Wilfrid Hyde-White, as well as Cecil Beaton (design), Andre Previn (musical direction), and Harry Stradling (cinematography).
A Gray Area the Size of the UK
Along with David Lynch's "Dune", Ken Russell's "Tommy" stands as a perfectly admirable film that entirely misses the point of the basic source material.
While I agree that The Who's groundbreaking 1969 rock opera (on which the film is based) is open to much interpretation, the band themselves even admitted that the film is a bit off. To me, "Tommy" was always more about religion and acceptance than crass commercialism and familial dysfunction.
But hey, what do I know? In spite of what, to me, is a blinding message error, "Tommy" is superbly, sharply entertaining, and the message it gives is still one that needs to be heard. That ancient cliché that "money is the root of all evil" comes to a boiling, tense, child-abusing head in this whacked-out opera, beautifully designed and staged and intriguingly acted.
The songs are done just brilliantly (for the most part)-- very few problems there. But the song "Champagne" (written for the film, not featured in the original album) morphs into a disgusting mud-wrestling fantasy involving soap suds, chocolate, and baked beans. Gross, right? Those three or four minutes could be dropped out, no problem.
The musical cameos are great. I've never before been able to stand performances by Tina Turner or even Eric Clapton, and Elton John-- well, it's pretty much this and "The Lion King," ya know? Also, most shockingly of all, Jack Nicholson shows off his vocal chops-- and actually does a pretty good job! There is, however, a rather awkward moment in "Sensation" where Roger Daltrey attempts to throatily sustain a note that is much too high for him-- wasn't there another take they could use? Most of the characters in the film do some really evil things, and the challenge for the audience is reserving judgment to look at the bigger picture, which we see quite clearly in the climactic "We're Not Gonna Take It." Along the way you'll find some typical 70s dementia, some typical Ken Russell oddness, and some typical Robert Stigwood musical exaltation. On the last note there, it's better than Stigwood's "Grease" and infinitely better than his "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." If you're a fan of the original album, this film may drive you crazy. At least for a while. But for anyone, it takes some getting used to. But once you're used to it, it's a masterpiece-- with a couple minor faults.
The Other (1972)
A Pandora's Box... or a Tobacco Tin... Dare You Open It?
I'll admit it took me a while to get into this movie. Years, in fact. But I think it was Halloween of '07 when I finally realized just what a tremendous achievement it really is, not only in the horror genre, but in the world of cinema in general. The story of twin boys experiencing all sorts of bizarre happenings thanks to "the Great Game" their grandmother has taught them, "The Other" is subtle, quiet, creepy, (almost completely) well-acted, beautifully photographed, and elegantly scored. It's not outrageously frightening, like "The Exorcist," or darkly envisioned like "Halloween," but it works on the same level as "The Omen" in its simple plausibility, and 95% of the terror is purely psychological... the best kind. Uta Hagen and Diana Muldaur give great performances, and Robert Mulligan has atoned for any mistakes he has made (come on, admit it, you hated "To Kill a Mockingbird," too). It's just such a shame that it's so hard to find.
Fiddler on the Roof (1971)
The *Real* Best Picture of 1971
The Oscars are run in a most peculiar way. Occasionally, the right film ("Ben-Hur," "Amadeus," "Return of the King," and more) is given the top prize. More often than not, total incompetence is rewarded ("Around the World in 80 Days," "Titanic," and "Crash"). And then you have those times when a great movie is snubbed because of a film that's not horrible, but still not in the same league. Classic examples: "Slumdog Millionaire" swiping "Milk," and "The French Connection" coming out on top of Norman Jewison's incredible "Fiddler on the Roof." Well, "Fiddler" will always be the 1971 Best Picture in my mind. By far the best-acted movie musical of all time, it is also one of the most genuinely affecting and universally accessible. The story follows Tevye (played superbly by Topol), a wealth-challenged Russian Jewish milkman with a lot of faith, as he tries to survive a world in which so many people hate him for that faith. He also faces the courtship of his three oldest daughters-- the lovestruck Tzeitel, the feisty Hodel, and the shy Chava.
Also incredible to think of is the fact that movie musicals were effectively dead when this was released. Gone were the glory days of "Oklahoma," "West Side Story," and so many others, replaced by audience indifference to perfectly capable offerings like "Camelot" and "Doctor Dolittle." This film could have been one of the most horrendous flops (until it would have been dethroned by the magnificently underrated "Howard the Duck"), but it became something much bigger and better: a completely deserving success.
The art direction, cinematography, costume design, acting, and screen writing are all plenty admirable here. But what really deserves most of the credit (besides Jewison's direction) is the score adaptation by none other than John Williams, the man whose iconic themes for "Star Wars," "Superman," and "Indiana Jones" will never leave people's heads.
Still, the movie does have its faults. The film's ending is a slightly confusing mixture of "downer" and "there's hope for a better tomorrow," kind of like "Battle for the Planet of the Apes." And in the titular Fiddler's few in-focus moments, he's not really given a good performance by Tutte Lemkow. But all things considered, "Fiddler" is rich, bewitching entertainment.
The Exorcist (1973)
A Savage Masterpiece
I want to make this clear from the beginning: I have only seen the extended version of "The Exorcist," but it is one of my favorite supernatural movies, and definitely in the top 30 movies I've ever seen, sadly behind Richard Donner's nearly-incomparable "The Omen." "The Exorcist" lacks the thrilling subtlety and possible coincidence of "Omen," which is both a key strength and a notable shortcoming. It is a strength because it allows for a more visceral reaction to the violent images as they unfold, but it can also detract from the plausibility of the film if, as I do, the viewer subscribes to a non-Judeo-Christian faith. We know very clearly what really goes on in the film-- this is no psychological torment, it is all real, and too brutal to be convincingly faked.
Except, that is, by a team of Hollywood experts like the one assembled to make the film. It may be a supreme irony that the film was released in a year that also saw the G-rated Biblical musicals "Godspell" and "Jesus Christ Superstar," allowing some members of the audience to experience in the same year both the benevolence of Christ and the uninhibited evil of Satan. But one thing is for sure: as "Godspell" and "Superstar" were classics of re-imagined spirituality, so is "Exorcist," but in a totally different way.
The main conflict of the film is the demonic possession of a 12-year-old (I'm guessing) girl. Her mother (the excellent Ellen Burstyn) and everyone around loves her, and sees a wonderful purity and goodness in her soul. But when she starts cursing out everything that moves, engaging in violent spasms on her bed, and saying weird, chilling things, something goes terribly wrong.
Paying lip service to Occam's razor, mama Burstyn goes looking for the simplest explanation first-- physicians, psychiatrists, psychologists, etc.-- but when one suggests exorcism (not out of belief in possession, but as a "force of suggestion" cure), motherly love convinces her to try the bizarre ritual. Despite the title, there are two "exorcists"-- the jaded young Father Karras (played perfectly by Jason Miller) and Father Merrin (Max von Sydow-- remember when he played Jesus?), a seasoned veteran in the war against demonic spirits.
The actual ritual doesn't occur until at least the last half hour of the movie, but it is one of the most compelling 30-minute sections of film ever captured. With equal twists of the psychological and the supernatural, director William Friedkin turns loose one of the most chilling spectacles of terror ever captured. Even with my beliefs, I still find it hard to go to sleep when scenes from the film creep into my late-night thoughts. That, I think, is a testament to its power as a movie.
For those who insist that the film "glorifies Satanism," I suggest you watch it and actually pay attention. Does anybody who sees this movie actually *want* to become possessed, or serve the devil? Hard to believe.
It does have a few weaknesses (pacing, dialogue, and even that Oscar-winning audio), but you'd be hard-pressed to find a stronger horror movie (except "The Omen," which is more of a thriller anyway) with as potent an emotional impact.