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1/10
Room clearance
3 November 2002
There once was a tradition in Toronto record stores of playing something execrable at closing time in order to drive people out of the store, Debbie Boone, Michael Jackson, whatever. Swill.

I had the fun yesterday of seeing the same experimental principle applied cinematically to a roomful of adults who were looking forward to watching a DVD just rented from Blockbuster, Cinematic Experiment A, a.k.a. "The Royal Tenenbaums".

The fidgeting began roughly ten minutes into the film. A further five minutes in, and the first experimental subject had her arms crossed. This was followed shortly thereafter by the significant crossing of the legs.

At the half-hour mark, a subject left the room entirely because he "had work to do". I was the next to leave after an hour because I "had to check on something".

Returning for the closing credits, I was informed that I had missed one (1) funny incident.

So much for a film billed as wacky and eccentric. Oh, and funny. The other intrepid aesthetes stuck it out to the end, but the verdict was unanimous. The reaction was something akin to narcolepsy. Fortunately the condition wasn't terminal.
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Snow Job (1974)
The feeling was unanimous
12 October 2002
If I remember correctly, our class was escorted to see this film at the Ontario Place Cinesphere on the big IMAX screen when it was brand new. If the 1974 date is on the money, then that would have been our Grade 8 class.

Virtually every kid in that class caught the schoolbus every morning at 8 a.m., so a comedy about a bus full of Canadian schoolkids stuck in the snow was hitting pretty close to home.

I guess that's why we all had the same feeling about this film: We agreed it was hilarious.

A lot of snow has come and gone since then, and my memories of it now are glimpsed through a frosted windowpane, but all the recollections are fond ones.
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How not to run a village
17 April 2001
This eye-opening Canadian NFB documentary looks at daily life in a tiny village in Guinea-Bissau, the former Portuguese Guinea. It is truly mind-boggling to see how the daily activities of the village are all done in the most inefficient and labour-intensive manner possible. These people never seem to have invented either the table or the chair. Why do your food preparation on a tabletop when you can do it in the dirt instead? Why make yourself a broom with a long stick and a little piece of string when it's so easy to do your sweeping bent over double holding a teensy hand whisk? A man sits around all day lamenting that he would be working but he has no tools. But we'd seen his neighbours with tools earlier in the documentary. Don't they have the word "borrow" in the local language?

"Are these people for real?" is one's immediate and natural reaction. Watch this documentary if you've ever wondered how it was possible for a handful of Europeans to colonize all of Africa in a couple of decades.
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In Harm's Way (1965)
3/10
World War II's answer to "The Green Berets"
16 March 2001
Apparently, Pearl Harbor was some sort of victory for the USA. John Wayne was there, so how could it have been otherwise?

There have been other bogus Second World War films before, the infamous "Battle of the Bulge" (1965) for example, but this one really excels. The US Navy characters don't seem to be aware that there's a war on; it's rather like "South Pacific" without the tunes. Or an episode of "The USS Love Boat". Nothing is allowed to interfere with this soap opera's cloying plot.

Wayne gives another of his standard pigeon-toed performances. He acts as though he's appearing in some horse opera, where a ranch or maybe a few acres of sagebrush hang in the balance. Democracy vs. Totalitarianism? You'd never know it from Wayne's jolly old sea captain. Get a message out to Pearl, pilgrim.

The film was directed by Otto Preminger, which explains the wild, swingin' '60's party which provides the film's embarrassing and anachronistic opening. Preminger always prided himself on breaking cinematic taboos, which is why he must have felt compelled to produce the first and only skinny-dipping Peyton Harbor movie. All of that silly "risqué" "adult" nonsense throughout is Otto's doing.

Eventually the film does provide a brief battlewagon engagement, but you'll have enough time to break the Japanese naval code from scratch before you get there.

To paraphrase Burgess Meredith's character, you oughta get a Medal of Honor for sitting through this.
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Rub noses with me, "Eskimo" maiden
24 February 2001
In this Alaskan film, Joan Chen plays what is quite probably the last word in Sino-Eskimo snow bunnies.

Eskimo Joan represents the same sort of Hollywood confusion about racial boundary lines which saw Larry Fishburne play the Moor of Venice, and Jackie Chan cast to play the King of Pop in an upcoming TV movie. (I'm kidding about one of these.) Not to mention generations of Italian and Jewish Indians, and more white actors in blackface than there are seeds in a watermelon.

Joan is teamed here with Steven Seagal, quite probably the last word in inarticulate and extremely violent tree-hugging Buddhists. Sort of the Billy Jack of the Barents Sea. His jacket has more fringe on it than you'd see at a reunion concert by the Buffalo Springfield.

Together, they try to build a world where an interracial couple can be happy in an oomiak built for two.

A number of years ago, I spent nearly 8 seconds at a book-signing in the presence of Michael Caine. For each of those seconds, he was extremely personable. So it's a bit of a revelation for me seeing him playing his two-faced vicious Hun of a smooth oil company CEO. Old favourite John C. McGinley also appears against type as one of Caine's nastier henchthugs.

Finally, there's Seagal's direction which takes his film on this ecological walk through the woods which makes it all seem a little like Oliver Stone after too many days trapped in a sweatlodge.

It's so ridiculous I actually found myself enjoying the whole thing quite a bit.
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The Preppie Murder (1989 TV Movie)
6/10
She's awkward! She's gauche! She's Lara Flynn Boyle!
11 February 2001
She (Boyle) is a nice, pretty girl but needs a little polish; he (Billy Baldwin) wears shirts by Ralph Lauren. You can see there's trouble a-brewing.

This movie is probably, unfortunately, of greatest interest for The World of Hibernia magazine cover girl Boyle before she developed her familiar sexy vamp persona. In fact, she seems like an older version of some of those early hair-twisting Winona Ryder characters. Her part is really only of newcomer size. That's sad to say since Boyle's Before and After are so different from one another.

As for Baldwin, he plays a plausible prep perp. Sandra Bullock has rather a small part, as the girl with the ankh earring. Not much of a characterization there.

This crime story plays much like a lesser, and fairly routine, episode of "Law & Order", with Danny Aiello standing in for Jerry Orbach and Joanna Kerns doing a blonder version of Michael Moriarty.

Aiello's experienced flatfoot is the central character. The script tries to humanize him, not entirely successfully, by showing his "pedagogic" side I'll call it. That gives him a certain degree of warmth, but it's really up to Aiello to lend the role his usual identifiability.

I think it all comes down to how much you like Danny Aiello. It happens I do, but don't consider that a recommendation.
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Total Eclipse (1995)
2/10
An American JD In Paris
7 February 2001
..... or, Down and Out in Paris and London and Brussels and Abyssinia

The Parisian social worker Paul Verlaine invites a disturbed country bumpkin with behavioural problems, Arthur Rimbaud, to the city for treatment. Verlaine's unorthodox therapy involves consuming a lot of mood-altering drink. Soon the doctor acquires all the symptoms of the patient.

There are plenty of interesting films about mental disturbance: "The Snake Pit" (1948), "I Never Promised You a Rose Garden" (1977), "Warrendale" (1967), even "Girl, Interrupted" (1999). Those are the good ones; this is the one with the somdomites. Verlaine slides down the same slippery slope that got Oscar Wilde.

Oh, yeah, if you're interested in poetry, try "Shakespeare In Love".
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3/10
Strictly routine
3 February 2001
This is the most elementary sort of traditional ghost story, not even enlivened to any great extent by the use of Irish locations. If the great M.R. James had ever come up with a tale this thin -- doesn't James in fact have a story called "A Thin Ghost"? -- he wouldn't have bothered to have it published.

Orson Welles appears in the limp endpieces as a favour to a brace of old friends, this film's producers. His presence and the one movie industry in-joke would have earned this will-o'-the-wisp its Oscar nomination. This is yet more proof, if any more were needed, that the Academy Awards have never been any guarantee of merit.
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3/10
All This and a Headache Too
28 November 2000
I saw this oddity once upon a time at one of Toronto's oddest little theatres, The Screening Room, which no longer exists. The room is still there, over the Kingsway Cinema, but it doesn't operate as a theatre anymore.

This would have been in 1979 or 1980, and they were showing a double bill of blasphemous Beatles films, this one and the Bee Gees' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" (1978). We knew the Bee Gees would be an embarrassment, but we had greater hopes for this film. (And the Bee Gees were free if you bought a ticket for the other one, as I recall.)

It was certainly a relief to learn that the Allies won World War II but otherwise... The combination of sacrosanct Beatles tunes and wartime stock footage didn't sound like such a good idea, and when you actually saw it, it turned out to be even more ridiculous than you would have guessed. The only image I still recall 20 years on is one of the "famous" ones, "Get Back" being sung over German tank footage run in reverse. As the philosopher said, "It's a fine line between clever and stupid."

But it was better than the Bee Gees!
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4/10
The Triumph of the Human Spirit
18 November 2000
That seems to be a favourite cliché applied to this fantasy film. The entire movie apparently is a child's dream about a concentration camp. Only in fairy stories would a death camp be so sparkling clean and spacious. The detainees in this (holiday) camp are free to move about as they please. They can even play with the Aryan Gretchens and Hansis if they want to.

In the Czech Republic, there's an exhibit of drawings made by cute and precocious children vacationing at the Theresienstadt concentration camp. Their amusingly childish artwork shows typical scenes of camp life, large black monsters crushing tiny people wearing little yellow stars, for example.

I happen to have seen another concentration camp film this week, Escape from Sobibor (1987). In that film, Jews also banter and jest with the Nazis, only they do it by applying axes to their heads and homemade knives to their stomachs. History would seem to have demonstrated that axes and knives are more effective tools for dealing with Nazis than making jokes at their expense.

"Uplifting" is another label assigned to Life Is Beautiful. It might better be applied to Escape from Sobibor, a true story about real people -- not "princes" and "princesses" -- overcoming real odds at huge cost to escape from an actual murder camp.

Nice Offenbach music can be found in this film though, one of my personal favourites in fact, Tales of Hoffmann. SS men in actual death camps didn't keep a lot of Jewish opera records on hand for the musical edification of the inmates.
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6/10
Hell Is For Heroes
11 August 2000
Audie Murphy is said to have suffered quite badly from combat fatigue (post-traumatic stress disorder) for most of his life due to all that "excitement" from his wartime "adventures". So it's a bit of a shame seeing his life story reduced here to a series of war movie clichés.

First, there's the recruitment poster phraseology. Then there's the "high-spirited" squad with the diverse ethnic composition, including the voluble (natch) Italian who ... wait for it ... really loves spaghetti. Then there's those Germans who can't shoot straight which explains why the war ran for such a short time.

The spotless Hollywood backlot version of Naples is good for a laugh. This would be the same Naples where the real-life population was deloused with DDT. Just imagine what the Audie character would have sounded like if he'd been portrayed by the usual Hollywood B-movie Texan -- "Let's lasso up some Jerries" -- instead of by a real one.

This movie has one big plus and that's "Murph" himself. It's not often you have a movie where the quiet, unassuming, sickly short man is the hero, but this would be that movie. So while all the movie star types are getting what passes here for "bright" dialogue, Murphy is mostly keeping his mouth shut and unassumingly saving the day.

And that's the way it really was.

Audie's sweet Napoletana, Maria, is played by Susan Kohner. She was the sexy but whiny black (!) girl who could pass for white, in Douglas Sirk's poorly directed women's picture "Imitation of Life" (1959) with Lana Turner. Kohner would be the sole reason a high-testosterone viewer of "To Hell and Back" would be found sitting through that low-testosterone tearjerker which also stars Sandra Dee, definitely a girl midget although not a certifiable Gidget (also 1959).

Walter Bedell Smith provides the introduction for "To Hell and Back". The reason that Gen. Eisenhower was able to come through World War II seeming like Mr. Nice Guy was that he had Smith, the pitbull general, as his right-hand man. They played a real-life version of good cop / bad cop. You can easily see here that Smith is not the sort of person you would want to meet some night down a dark hedgerow.
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Man About the House (1973–1976)
The original and best
26 June 2000
This programme started to be hard to see in this particular TV market once the American imitation "Three's Company" (1977) started up. "Three's Company" was everything "Man About the House" was not. The British original was funny, sexy, maybe a bit salacious. And it had two cute girls, nice English ones. The grossly inferior "Three's Company" was unfunny, prurient rather than sexy, and basically brain-dead. And no cute English birds, obviously.

"Man About the House" had a proper star, Richard O'Sullivan, who'd just finished his stint as Bingham in "Doctor in the House", a *completely* different role, mind you. Rather than someone like O'Sullivan, "Three's Company" had John Ritter. Years later, it turned out that Ritter could act but that wasn't really apparent in the '70's when he gave the leading one-note performance.

Hack US magazine writers still trot out that tired old cliché about the British being prudish about sex when compared to sophisticated Americans. I've seen a couple of references of that kind in the past month. Well, that might very well have been true in the 1940's, but that was certainly not the case by the '60's, and it's not true today either. If one compares these two series from the 1970's, it's the British one that's mature, while the American copycat seems childish and leering.

I suspect anyone who had ever seen "Man About the House" was left grinding his teeth by "Three's Company" and its long and entirely undeserved run. Surely there's an all-Britcom channel somewhere where this coy ménage à trois can find a happy home again.
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2/10
Excruciating
13 June 2000
The one thing that everyone already knows about the assassination of Trotsky is that he was killed with an ice pick. Well, in this film, he is killed with an ice axe. An ice pick, an ice axe, they're not the same. To be precise, he is killed with the pick side of a two-headed ice axe, but even then, that's still not an ice pick, which is something entirely different. So which was it really?

The only reason I'm belabouring this very trivial point is that it results in the single decent piece of acting in this film, the reaction of Richard Burton as Trotsky as he is hit in the head with the axe. As you would probably imagine, you have to wait quite a while to get to this moment in the film.

Other than Burton, the film's leads are Alain Delon and Romy Schneider. Neither one is comfortable speaking in English, the language they are required to use here. Most of their scenes are together. Why weren't their scenes done in French instead?

Since the presumable market for a film about that old villain Trotsky would have to be the European Left, why was this film made in English in the first place? Why not French, the language of the leads, or Italian, the language of the crew? Burton's bits in English as the self-important Trotsky could have been interpolated later while everyone else could have acted in a language in which he could show a little expression. As it is, no one would ever guess that Delon and Schneider are major stars under different circumstances. Schneider seems to be here mostly so she can stand and/or lounge in lingerie, but even that appetizing opportunity goes underexploited since, as a self-respecting Trotskyite gal, she doesn't wear any make-up.

There are several "characters" in this movie who in any normal film would have speaking parts, but since they never did settle the matter of what language they were shooting in, these people just stand there looking stupid and not saying anything. Unbelievably, we are expected to care when one of these ciphers gets killed (cue the cheap-looking mannequin) by Stalinists, or Fascists, or Anarcho-Syndicalists, or anti-Castro Cubans, or the CIA, or whatever. Nothing that goes on in this movie is ever very clear. And anyone expecting to learn a little something about the historical Trotsky will come away with the knowledge that he kept bunny rabbits at home.

Delon plays Trotsky's assassin, Jackson, "spelled without a k". He's Belgian. When asked why a Belgian has a name like Jac(k)son, he explains that he's really French-Canadian. Oh, well, that's clear. Most of the movie operates on a "duh" level much like that.

It is safe to conclude from the preceding that some mystery surrounded the precise identity of the assassin. If that is the case, the hapless direction of the utterly inept Joseph Losey was entirely confounded by a notion like "mystery". Or "tension". He manages to convey neither. The film has very little cutting, and hardly any reaction shots. There is no indication of what one is supposed to feel at any given moment. Everything looks like it was one take and wrap.

Losey is fond of this absurd set-up where two people supposedly have a conversation with one in the extreme foreground and the other in the remote background. Natural sound wouldn't work so there's some badly dubbed dialogue on top. It's an attempt at an "arty" shot that Welles might have done something with, but which is completely botched in the hands of a hack like Losey.

I can't conceive of anyone deriving any entertainment or elucidation from this fiasco. Five minutes spent with any reputable biography are more illuminating than 100 in the company of this film.
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8/10
This Was Korea
7 June 2000
The Korean War always suffers badly in comparison to others such as World War II. It was never terribly popular in the United States, even less so here in Canada, I understand. Korea didn't have a Pearl Harbor to get American backs up and creative juices flowing. Western countries had been busy demilitarizing when North Korea made the decision to invade. Korea represented a 180° turn.

The commercial Hollywood film output covering that period reflected society's overall ambivalence, with tired themes, generally retreads from World War II. Screenwriting required more than just a change of locale to give it inspiration.

The best of the lot is probably "The Bridges at Toko-Ri" (1954), where bravery combined with hopelessness and doom creates an effect which seems to anticipate Vietnam.

Last night at Toronto's Short Film Festival we had a rare opportunity to see John Ford's "This Is Korea!". We were especially lucky since author Dan Ford was there to introduce his grandfather's work and to answer questions.

While John Ford's documentary is not quite the film Korea has been missing, it is close to it, or as close as we are likely to come.

It compares well to Frank Capra's "Why We Fight" films, his propaganda series from World War II. There is the same happy balance between combat and comfortable civilian footage. There are villagers going about their business, children playing with sleds, kids getting vaccinations. Soldiers receive mail or hit the chow line to celebrate Christmas with steak dinner. Capra and his production unit successfully contrasted the War's goal -- represented by civilian footage -- with the means to that end -- combat footage -- and Ford uses the same technique. Urgency is added by shots of refugees and orphans.

Capra's films always have a strong educational purpose; that is largely absent from Ford's. Capra's films use stock footage and animation to illustrate an historical chain of incidents leading to the present. Korea does not lend itself well to that approach, but Ford has a better reason for not adopting it:

No stock footage!

Ford's film uses new material almost exclusively, brand new and in colour. The colour brings an immediacy which footage about the infantry would generally not have until Vietnam. (I do recognize that there are exceptional black & white World War II films like "The Battle of San Pietro", for example.)

There is an unaccustomed realism here. The Koreans wear national costume on occasion, something they never did on "M*A*S*H". The Koreans even look Korean; the "Koreans" at the 4077 were Chinese half the time.

But the combat footage here really stands out: artillery, mortars, rockets, night-time naval gunfire. When a bomb lands nearby, the camera shakes. Bombs often land nearby. Houses burst into coloured flame. Advances take place over authentic wintry Korean mountains. You shiver right along with the racially integrated GIs and the North Korean POWs standing in that frigid wind. "Remember Valley Forge?" is the narrator's rhetorical question. Walter Huston would have had that line in a Capra film.

When the narrator says, "This is Korea, chums. This is Korea", the viewer doesn't doubt it for a moment. When he wonders aloud, "What's it all about?", he doesn't really try to answer. He doesn't have a flag-waving response for that one.

I was not expecting a film this interesting to come out of the Korean conflict, so perhaps my initial enthusiasm is misjudged. But I hope and expect not.

Hollywood made a routine Korean War film in 1952, "Retreat, Hell!" with Frank Lovejoy. That film dramatizes the fighting retreat by US Marines from the Chosin Reservoir and includes some actual napalm strikes on snowy hillsides. Those napalm strikes come from the real retreat, as shown right here in "This Is Korea!", only here they're not in black & white, and you will find some details Hollywood omitted, like the Marine corpses being dragged through the snow.

"Retreat, Hell!" takes its title from the famous quotation by Marine Gen. O.P. Smith (as embellished by some helpful journalists, they say). Gen. Smith appears in this film. It really is the real McCoy.

Ford has a great deal of first-class footage and he usually allows it to speak for itself. The narration is mercifully sparse when it isn't necessary.

Anyone interested in the director's trademarks will note "O Little Town of Bethlehem" being sung at the beginning, much as it would be in other films from this period like "Rio Grande" (1950) or "Wagonmaster" (same year). Ford shows commendable restraint here with only one song to set the mood.

Given this films rarity and its quality, it really does warrant a second look.
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Completely superseded
27 May 2000
Like many other people I'm sure, I first became aware of this Oscar nominee when I read the closing credits of its Al Pacino remake. That was in 1992 and I have been trying to locate a copy of the Italian original ever since. According to the critical opinion I've encountered in the interim, the Gassman original was said to be superior, with the Pacino version incorporating its extraneous subplot about Chris O'Donnell's troubles at his private school.

Well... I have finally managed to see the illustrious original. It certainly seems far inferior to me. Its potential is all latent and unrealized; the American version takes the unusual blind officer character and does colourful and then dramatic things with him. The Italian original just walks the character through some conventional sex farce situations.

The result seems so trivial, and the film is as cheap and ugly to look at as any Italian film of the 1970s. Some credit naturally goes to Vittorio Gassman for originating the character for the screen, but that's about it.
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Rio Grande (1950)
4/10
Hoary hokum
16 May 2000
This one belongs in the same category as Ford's "Wagonmaster" (1950), sentimentalized corn pone about the Old West. Wish they'd distilled a little of that corn into likker, this film could use it. It quite clearly betrays its Saturday Evening Post origins.

At this point, we are well on the way towards the 1950s re-evaluation of the role of the Indian in the American cinema, so this film has no villain and, hence, no drama.

According to the enhanced video release of "The Quiet Man", Ford agreed to make "Rio Grande" as a quickie for Republic so the director and cast could do what they really wanted to do instead -- go to Ireland and make that superb Oirish emerald from 1952.
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5/10
When bad films happen to good people
15 May 2000
Andrzej Wajda has been a great director at least as far back as "Kanal" in 1957. Tough films, provocative themes.

But why the costume drama? I really wish he'd left this one alone.

It's not unlike 1999's other bloated Polish historical epic, "Ogniem i mieczem" ("With Fire and Sword"). Here again Poles put aside their differences to prove they're the greatest people, or at least the greatest Slavs, on Bóg's green earth. Rah, rah. A crowd of Polish lesser gentry (rabble) armed with swords can defeat trained Russian musketry any day.

And, yes, I am of Polish descent myself, although I'm embarrassed to admit it in this jingoistic context. That's why I was at the special screening in the first place, sponsored by Toronto's Polish newspaper.

"Pan Tadeusz" shares another characteristic with its elephantine contemporary: its ability to confuse non-Polish-speaking members of the audience with its vast number of characters and their poorly defined interrelationships.

Both films too have a sudsy quality. So did "Gone With The Wind", but then character definition makes that historical epic a success. Tadeusz and Zosia are indistinct phantoms as personalities. Certainly no Rhett or Scarlett.

"With Fire and Sword" is more melodramatic than "Pan Tadeusz", but it's also more exciting. This film has a laudable grandeur which Wajda brings to the proceedings, but still I wish he'd picked a subject with a bit more substance.

Wojciech Kilar can be congratulated on his score. And Daniel Olbrychski is always good to see, even with scars all over his head.

It should be noted that Polish-speaking spectators at the theatre appeared to find this film quite enjoyable. They would be chuckling at clever turns of phrase in the dialogue, while the English titles would be saying something indescribably prosaic. Evidently the film loses nearly everything in translation.
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The Front (1976)
5/10
Between a rock and a hard place
14 May 2000
That's the way people under suspicion in the 1940s and 1950s felt. Job loss had to be weighed against self-incrimination and personal humiliation, or worse, the betrayal of close friendships.

That's also the way viewers of this film feel. The desire to praise a worthy effort has to be weighed against the necessity to discuss it honestly.

I recall the reviews this one received 25 years ago, but I'd never seen the film until tonight. What they said then still applies today. Everyone in the film is playing in a drama about the blacklist. Except Woody Allen. He's acting in a comedy. Punchline wins out over pathos. Together they're pulling on your heartstrings, alone he's tugging at your funnybone. There's no consistency of mood or tone.

The whole scenario is completely implausible. As written, the character of Woody the Cashier would make a successful front up to the moment he first opens his mouth.

I was anxious to get a closer look at those photos in F.X. Hennessey's office, the Republican Wall of Fame, starring Thomas Dewey and so on. But that was the full extent to which I got caught up in this story. It's a shame it wasn't told more honestly, i.e., without the laughs. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg appear at the beginning of the movie in the newsreel segment. I've met one of their sons. The 1950s don't hold a lot of laughter for him.
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The petty humiliations of a working man
16 March 2000
While this film is superficially about East Indian immigrants in Yorkshire, its themes are universal. Anyone who is or is related to an immigrant should feel at home here.

As far as religion goes, these characters could be Jewish or Christian as easily as Moslem. The mediaevalist/modernist conflict is the same. There's no reason why the audience for this film should be just a parochial one.

Om Puri gives a brilliant and nuanced performance as the central character, the resilient Punjabi cab driver. Rachel Griffiths is very fine as always as his kindred spirit, a hooker, although her character here is a little more limited in scope than those she portrayed in "Muriel's Wedding" and especially "Hilary and Jackie". Stellan Skarsgård also steps into a pair of shoes a few sizes smaller than those he has worn in the past.

Unheralded though it may have been, this is another thoughtful comedy-drama from Hanif Kureishi, author of "My Beautiful Laundrette" amongst others.
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Amici miei (1975)
1/10
Obnoxious
19 February 2000
Perhaps if Pietro Germi had had the opportunity to direct his own script, this one might have turned out differently. Unfortunately, he died before that could happen, after quite a distinguished, if generally unheralded, career.

Without him at the helm, we are left with something that is just plain offensive. From the get-go.

There are a tiny handful of films I've ever walked out of. "Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS" comes to mind. I'd had one gratuitous torture scene too many in that instance.

I walked out of this ostensible comedy after 80 minutes, during the "fun-filled" suicide scene. I remember that there was a laugh during the film's first half hour although it seems hard to believe that there were any at all in retrospect.

Philippe Noiret is in the cast. He's a personal favourite and usually a reliable judge of material. His faith in this script was misplaced.

Noiret is involved in what should have been one of the film's "subtle" moments. The four old buddies, the central characters, sing the quartet from Verdi's Rigoletto. (The song is not identified as such. It's an Italian movie so there's no need to.) Then later Noiret sports a fake hump on his back just like the tragic court jester. Obviously someone (Germi?) had a gag in mind at this point, but no connection is made between the two incidents. It's just dead, like the rest of the film.

The four buddies are the central characters and the central problem. As we get to know them, they turn out to be malicious jerks -- sort of the middle-aged Jerky Boys of Italy -- and they are soon enough joined by a fifth halfwit.

I regret to say that these loutish characters like some of the same things I do, like Cynar and finocchio. That's about the only thing they have to their credit.

Director Mario Monicelli recycles one of Germi's old sight gags. During a caper, one of the four, the crudest of the "funnymen", Ugo Tognazzi, is seen reading a copy of "Famiglia Cristiana" magazine. Ha, ha. That particular incongruity was tastefully funny back when Germi was directing, in "Seduced and Abandoned" (1964), I think it was. Not here.

The screening did receive steady laughs throughout, most noticeably from the two fellows of questionable taste behind me. But I noticed the room had a lot of other laugh-free zones, not just mine.

This one is sour, and negative, and extremely misogynistic. You really have to have a grudge against the fair sex to derive any pleasure from this film.
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6/10
The loves of an Italian nebbish
18 February 2000
Dustin Hoffman plays that nebbiscio italiano. He's the sort of person who spends his evenings at home with his father watching slideshows. Of his best friend having a good time.

Dustin tends to mug a bit, but he's fine in general. You tend to forget that you're not hearing him speak Italian. That trick is pulled off easily enough; most of the "dialogue" is done in voice-over by Dustin's character. He doesn't actually have to say much more than the occasional "Pronto!" on the telephone.

Director Pietro Germi has an uncanny ability to populate his films with beautiful young women. The lovely Cosetta Greco comes to mind. Gina Lollobrigida and Claudia Cardinale are just average by Germi standards -- nothing special. Here Dustin's co-star is Stefania Sandrelli, the stunning Stefania Sandrelli. Stunning by Germi standards. She's more ravishing here than she is in his earlier "Seduced and Abandoned", another farce from 1964. She makes me think a little of a Catholic Elsa Zylberstein with a cleft chin. "Stefania! Stefania!" the film could have been called.

Writer/director Germi then plays matchmaker, putting the stammering junior bank employee, Dustin, together with Stefania, the kohl-eyed Venus of hot-blooded pharmacists, creating a classic Italian sex farce.

This film does not have a good reputation, but it produced plenty of big laughs this evening at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Admittedly, it was a Pietro Germi Festival audience, many of them Italian speakers. Hardly a tough crowd. And it was the full-length original cut. The humour is very broad and could easily fail miserably on television.

The film shifts gears midway through, grinds gears really. Stefania, the angel-madonna-whore, turns out to be a "strega" as they like to say in Italian, and the film turns into a semi-serious pro-divorce romance cum drama cum political manifesto on the necessity for Italian legislative reform. And all a little unexpectedly. Do we detect some directorial autobiography intruding into the story at this point?

Tonight I was expecting something extremely bad, something along the lines of Dustin's other adventure in Italian filmmaking, "Madigan's Million" (1968), but I got something considerably better than that. The treasure hunt sequence is rather cute.

But let the viewer beware.
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7/10
Fond memories of this tuneful film
13 February 2000
I've seen it twice, during its reissues of the 1960s and '70s. I once had a storybook based on it which I particularly enjoyed as a boy in the 1960s. The Tar-Baby has as strong a grip on my childhood recollections as he had on poor old Br'er Rabbit.

It seems funny now that a rare Disney feature used to mean "The Three Caballeros", to name one, a film I was thrilled to have a chance to see in Spain in 1983 even if it was dubbed in Spanish. Rare never meant "Song of the South". Now "Three Caballeros" is available in every corner rental shop, but where alas are Br'er Fox and Br'er Bear?
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3/10
Yin and Yang
8 January 2000
The central drama in this film pits Elias Koteas (Capt. Staros) as the feminine principle, who prefers to play nursemaid to his men rather than lead them, against Nick Nolte (Col. Tall), the stern father figure who will sacrifice a few to save the rest. Fortunately, Nolte takes charge before Koteas can get everyone killed.

Other than that pairing off, there is no drama in this story and no character definition of any depth. Of course no one is interested when faceless fodder goes before the cannon. James Jones gave all his characters monosyllabic names to make them indistinguishable from one another, and they certainly are. The fact that soldiers die amid grass that is an unusually vivid shade of green hardly matters, does it? When you have never even made their acquaintance?

The film is ostensibly about the Battle of Guadalcanal. Viewers will be forgiven if they come away with the notion that the battle consisted of a couple of minor skirmishes totalling about 50 guys. Guadalcanal, the Historical Footnote. Pearl Harbor: The Tiny Puff of Smoke.

History is clearly not Malick's strong suit. Do the Japanese in this film bear *any* resemblance to the Japanese the US actually fought in the South Pacific? The Japanese surrender in droves! And then they're not tied up, or guarded by anyone. The cowed soldier of Imperial Japan, noted for his docility? Or was Guadalcanal secretly occupied by Japanese-American civilians ready for internment? Was that it? Is that An Untold Story of World War II?

I suppose I've seen Terrence Malick's "Days of Heaven" (1978) several times in the past couple of decades. I'm not terribly fond of it; it's long, and slow, and pretty, much like this one. Malick seems to think he's the reincarnation of Aleksandr Dovzhenko, or something.

But "Days of Heaven" did have characterization that was a little fuller, and some social observation as well. On both counts, "The Thin Red Line" falls short. When an artillery round happens to fall short, it tends to land on its own lines. That should be the epitaph for the volunteers who enlisted in Terrence Malick's pet project: "Killed by friendly fire".
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8/10
Gripping in its intensity
31 December 1999
In 1942, the Czech underground assassinates Reinhard Heydrich, the governor of Bohemia-Moravia. Heydrich's assassin tries to escape capture.

This is based on a true story of course -- it's a well-known episode of World War II. Czech commandos were brought in from Britain on a mission with a slim chance of survival for the selfless agents. They unfortunately met a sad end after being betrayed by a fellow Czech. The history is described very well in books such as Callum MacDonald's "The Killing of SS Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich".

In 1943, when this film was made, were the full details of the actual events widely available in the USA? I'm not sure, but it seems unlikely.

The story as presented here is the tale of what happens one day when a girl goes out to buy vegetables for supper, and when a taxi driver lets his finicky engine idle. Perhaps this plot was fabricated for want of any other alternative, but its sheer ordinariness adds to its immediacy.

The reptilian Heydrich was one of the architects of Hitler's Final Solution. It's no coincidence that the plan to assassinate him was code-named "Anthropoid".

Hans Heinrich von Twardowski plays him briefly at the beginning of the drama. He's cold-blooded, vicious, rabid ... and a little effeminate. That aspect seems questionable. In 1943, there were at least as many reasons for knowing what his character represented as there were occupied countries in Europe. This particular embellishment seems to add little or nothing to the suspense.

(Twardowski himself was a German exile in Hollywood. If you can read German and have a look at the titles of the films he made in 1928 and 1929, you can probably hazard a guess as to why he was forced to leave Hitler's Germany.)

Brian Donlevy plays the assassin. It's not by chance that this character is named Dr. Svoboda. Svoboda is a common name, but it also happens to be the Czech word for "freedom".

I always find Donlevy effective, particularly so in "The Great McGinty" (1940) for Preston Sturges, but he does have a certain B actor limitation on access to his character's inner thoughts. He doesn't quite have the hunted quality of someone facing certain capture and torture. A perspiring lip might have helped.

Better is Alexander Granach as the Gestapo man Gruber, a Bob Hoskins sort of person, only sinister. He's ruthless, cunning, perfect in the part.

Walter Brennan appears as a Czech professor arrested and held as a hostage. Prof. Walter Brennan, that's right! He's very good. Considering the typecasting he must have been fighting against, he's excellent in fact.

My moderate criticism of some of the performances notwithstanding, the suspense in the story was of the nail-biting kind, I felt. I wouldn't have wanted to watch this in 1943 -- it's just too bleak, too disturbing. When hostages are being held by the Gestapo, it's a lose-lose situation all around. All possible outcomes are disastrous.

I guess the filmmakers felt -- knew -- that this would be more than a contemporary audience could really handle in the middle of wartime. Hence the film has an uplifting, artificial, fantasy ending which arrives like a deus ex machina.

That's certainly a drawback for viewers now, but I can't fault anyone. The context of the times couldn't have allowed any other solution.

Fritz Lang directed this return to Mitteleuropa, the scene of his youth and early classic films. He runs the show like a police procedural, making it all too real. He allows himself a couple of his great shots which I will allow you to discover for yourself.

In real life, the actual Czech assassins -- Josef Gabcik and Jan Kubis, plus their look-out man, Josef Valcik -- were all killed in battle at their hiding place in the Karel Boromejsky Church in Prague on June 18, 1942.

Heydrich's state funeral had been held earlier in Berlin on June 9. The Nazis had Siegfried's Funeral March from Wagner's "Götterdämmerung" played for the occasion, probably with extra added bombast.

That's the sort of heroic farewell that the martyred Czechs should have received.
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A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965 TV Movie)
10/10
As spiritual as you will see come the next millennium
25 December 1999
This morning I turned on the television to find something with just the right atmosphere for opening Christmas presents. But in the 500-channel universe, could I find the Queen, or the Pope, or anything? I could find practically anything but Christmas.

The most inappropriate programme on wasn't the infomercial for the miracle juicer, no, it was the annual Parade of Expensive Children's Merchandise direct from Disneyland, in case there were some kids left who hadn't coerced a Mickey, or Terk, or Pumbaa from their beleaguered parents. One of the French channels did have a service from Notre Dame in Paris which was the right sort of thing, with an actual church and choir, but it was entirely in French. But then I found "A Charlie Brown Christmas" on one of the stations.

Once upon a time, "Charlie Brown" was just a prelude for its television viewers, most of whom would be attending church closer to Christmas Day. Nowadays, it's probably more than just the prelude; it's likely to be the whole concert.

Thank goodness Charles Schulz and company did such a fine job of crafting this programme back in 1965. Thirty-five years later, Charlie Brown is still as earnest and sympathetic as ever. He was even decrying the commercialization of Christmas back then, decrying in the wilderness, it seems.

Vince Guaraldi normally gets a lot of credit for his music, but there is far more to the show than just that. It is extremely well-written with a lot of charming and funny lines. I particularly like Linus as "an innocent shepherd", but even Snoopy as a penguin is sure to get a big laugh.

But at the midway point in the programme, the tone changes from quality seasonal fun to something very sincere and deeply held. Linus delivers his heartfelt sermon from the pulpit (the school stage). The Peanuts gang renews its faith (in Charlie Brown, at the very least). The congregation assembled there together raises its collective voice in the recessional hymn "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" as we bid them farewell and take our leave. It is these parallels from the church service, I feel, that contribute to the strong emotion many of us experience whenever we view this small triumph of television programming.

Would I say that everything in the story conforms to a higher design conceived by Charles Schulz? I won't hazard a guess, but I do like to feel that he felt a little touch of divine inspiration with this one.
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