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They Only Kill Their Masters (1972)
Just saw this on TCM
It was better than it should have been. It seems like it was first slated as a movie-of-the-week but then an fading MGM figured to score some box office bucks with the gimmick of this being one of their last movies shot on a studio lot. Casting MGM veterans in small parts helped some but, this being a detective movie, Jim Garner has to carry it all the way. Which he does with his usual aplomb.
It's a movie of its time. It's a small-town murder mystery with a back story which might have come from a Playboy or Penthouse fiction piece; the type no major studio would have looked at just three years earlier (it was made in 1972), let alone in MGM's heyday.
Faults aside, this movie has its interesting plot twists ratcheting up what little tension there is, so I was hooked until the end. But a loose-end or two are never answered - where did the fresh water come from? And if it was from the bath tub, was any fluoridation found? What happened to Peter Lawford's girlfriend? In one scene she's waving hello with her generous bust; in the next - a crucial one involving PL's character - there's patently no trace of her nor does anyone ask. Eh?
Hal Holbrook and Katherine Ross form the remainder of the troika of leads; Holbrook as the county vet and Ross as his long-haired, long-legged assistant from New York. In other words, she's really there to become romantically involved with Garner's character (a cinematic must.)
Harry Guardino's county sheriff brings in his boys when things get tricky but to no any real effect except the last scene. Garner's character never feels the case slipping away from him or the noose tightening as with Humphrey Bogart's Sam Spade in 'The Maltese Falcon.'
June Allyson has a cameo, bringing in yet another plot twist. A better screenwriter and/or director would have put her in more of the picture. Her brief presence lights up the screen far more than the rest of the cast combined - maybe she should have played the detective.
Thunder Rock (1942)
Fine acting and direction, but ...
Michael Redgrave couldn't have given a bad performance if he wanted to. And seeing James Mason so early in his career was also a treat.
No, it was the premise of the story which disappointed me. Sold as a ghost story, this was really forerunner of the two-act psychodramas which permeated Anglo-American theater for the fifty years after WW2.
After establishing the setting of the loner in the light-house, we find that British leftist writer David Charleston took the lighthouse job on Lake Michigan only to get away from a world headed for war and which, co-incidentally, had little use for his earnest genius (the poor fellow!) For companionship he imagines six people from a log of passengers lost in a wreck from 1849. He's told only the captain that they're dead. Charleston imagines them as silly, shallow people with non-real-world consequences but the Captain persuades him to imagine them as real human beings with real lives and real struggles. I won't go into further details, only to say that Charleston's ultimate lesson is to learn to go back to his own world and live in it, to carry on the good fight, yadda, yadda, &c.
This was leftist interventionist propaganda of the sort seldom seen since it was made. It was done much better in "A Matter of Life and Death" (1946). It's well-acted, directed and photographed -- it could be worth a remake -- but I was insulted, not persuaded, by its heavily hammered point that moving to America was merely running away from life's problems -- a point which did little to endear the movie to American audiences then or since. Indeed, the worst isolationism here was not America's geography but David Charleston's egotism. That human failing can be found anywhere.
The Good Shepherd (2006)
I wanted to like this
I went to this movie wanting to like it. I left wanting to like it. I still want to like it. It has everything a movie needs to make you like it: stars, drama, tension, production value, yadda, yadda ...
But ... I don't like it. I like what it tries to be, but I don't like it. I kept waiting for the dramatic climax that would justify the whole three hours of jumping back and forth in time. Eric Roth's script tries to be The Godfather movies all rolled into one, with its elements of "family," secrets, trust, betrayal and overall paranoia through the career of an early C.I.A. agent, spiced with elements taken from actual history. Robert De Niro's direction is the classic Sergio Leone technique of leaving everything in, regardless of whether it could have been shortened, told in backstory or even left out altogether.
Since I knew the general course of history of the time covered, and many of the elements of the story, I was able to follow without wanting to "go for popcorn." But that was the only reason. When this runs on cable t.v. I'll channel surf through it.
This was a few edits from greatness, which shows that the scissor is as much a part of movie-making as the camera.
The Aryan Couple (2004)
A slick student movie
I saw this movie at a festival screening in D.C. So much potential is wasted by student-level writing and direction, which is all the more incredible given that second-time director 'John Daly (qv)' has produced some of the best movies of recent decades. 'Martin Landau (qv)' giving his usual all as Jewish-Hungarian industrialist Joseph Krauzenberg can't make up for the patchy character development elsewhere - what there is of it. 'Judy Parfitt (qv)' as his wife Rachel throws out token lines of accusation and irony one would expect from an adolescent when a stony silence from such a part would send cheap gangster Heinrich Himmler ('Danny Webb (qv)') to the corner, hanging his head in shame.
And these heavyweight characters are just the background for the title characters, who work as the Krauzenberg's butler and maid. After the others are all done, we still have another 40 minutes of the picture to follow the title characters' fates. I won't go into further story detail here, but I'll just say that 'Caroline Carver (qv)' shines much, much brighter than her sketchy part calls for; look for her in better work. 'Kenny Doughty (qv)' doesn't overcome his title character's limits; virtually anyone else in the cast could have played the part.
For that matter, Daly's casting veteran British and Irish stage actors to play Nazi Germans and Jewish Holocaust victims is old hat, and a classic mark of a limited budget. In this day and age, budget or no, they're no substitute for locals playing local parts - audiences today see through it. Movies are about the audience not seeing through it.
All in all, it's sadly obvious Daly's real project wasn't this story; it was his curiosity at trying his hand at directing. He had the resources to make it big-project slick, but not the vision to make it memorable after I left the movie-house.
The Aviator (2004)
A bitter disappointment
I loved it for the acting, especially Cate Blanchett (qv) as Katherine Hepburn (qv), but otherwise I was left wondering if it was ever going to develop a story line on his personal life. There's absolutely no mention that Hughes gave Hepburn the money to buy the movie rights to the Broadway hit "The Philadelphia Story," which turned her career around for good. Blanchett may well be the first actor or actress to win an Oscar for playing another Oscar winner, and would well deserve it.
Kate Beckinsale (qv) as Ava Gardner (qv) is as radiant as the real thing but if this part of Hughes' life wasn't in the movie as written I would never have missed it.
Leonardo DiCaprio (qv) fills the screen like he always does, but not even his star quality and his talent don't make up for the movies meanderings from the plot. His gives and takes with Alan Alda (qv) as Senator Harry Reid are well enough, but it's like watching a rehearsal instead of a finished product. Alec Baldwin (qv) as Juan Trippe, the boss at Pan AM, seems to be grateful to phone in his character from GlenGarry Glen Ross (1992) _(qv)_.
The airplane scenes, whether flying, building or even just talking technicals, held me in place. In fact, these were the only scenes which did. A movie shouldn't let me wander. This one did, and I hold Martin Scorsese (qv) responsible. He should listen to his film editors much more as well as his writers.
My Brother Talks to Horses (1947)
WARNING: SPOILERS BELOW.
A cute premise for a story -- Butch Jenkins as a boy who converses with racehorses (think Horse Whisperer, The (1998) meets Angels in the Outfield (1951) -- is never let run anywhere except to the glue factory.
The first sign of trouble is Peter Lawford as his older brother -- think Shirley Jones re Ronnie Howard in Music Man, The (1962). Brother-in-Lawford doesn't even bother trying to hide his posh English accent in a 1909 middle-class Baltimore setting. His character's own gimmick is his attempts at inventing radio while holding down a day job in a bank. Whether or not he succeeds we're never really told.
Don't ask about plot development. At the end of the first act the boy's favorite horse is shot after an accident on the track. It's all nowhere from there. Not even Spring Byington de-mothballing her flighty-mother character from You Can't Take It with You (1938) can lighten the load the picture makes for itself. The out-of-the-blue climax comes on a nicely packaged happy note when everyone, unbeknownst to each other, bets on a 20-1 Preakness longshot who does his part.
If there's a remake in the works -- it's curious that there hasn't been one, already -- I can only hope the producers learn what NOT to do from this.
C.C. & Company (1970)
Mute the sound when the dialogue comes on
The bikes are the stars here. Forget the plot - something about a biker who falls in with a rich "swinging chick," or some such bad cliche. The gang kidnaps her and he wins her back in a chopper race around the local school track. (at least, I remember that's what happens.) That Speedvision hasn't run this late some Saturday night will give you an idea what a snorer this is. If ever they do, keep the remote handy so you can surf back to the highway shots.
The Girl on a Motorcycle (1968)
Cute chick (and Marianne Faithfull really was back then) in tight black leather, riding on a motorcycle -- it just has to have some redeeming quality about it, right?
Wrong! This was the sort of snoozer that gave '60s avant-garde European directors a bad name. No story, no plot, no interest, no nothing!
Good. Not great.
I just saw the stage version with Bernadette Peters because I'd never seen any screen version - unexcellable; a worthy heiress of Ethel Merman. I wish I could say the same for Rosalind Russell.
As I said, I liked the Broadway musical but this production doesn't translate it well to the screen. Merman played (and Peters plays) Rose Hovick at comically over-the-top full-volume, which is the only way to make such an aggravating character likeable. Russell, however, strangely underplays her on the big screen. Perhaps it's her limited singing talent but I blame director Mervyn LeRoy. A director is responsible for what goes on the screen, and so much of what's on the screen doesn't work here.
Natalie Wood shines best as Louise, the plain-Jane "untalented" daughter before her metamorphosis into Gypsy Rose Lee -- where, like Russell, she doesn't shine as much as one would think. Karl Malden is a trouper as Herbie Sommers, the schmo who sticks by Rose longer than anyone who'd call himself a man would. The Sommers role is supposed to be a weakling but I just don't buy Malden in the role. On the other hand, it must have been good rehearsal for playing General Omar Bradley, who was portayed as yet another second banana to yet another raging prima donna in 'Patton (1970)'.
The sets also don't really work. They look exactly what they are - Hollywood stage sets, which here give neither impression of Broadway nor full-fledged Hollywood musical. Contrast this with the sets of 'Guys and Dolls (1955)' where the sets looked like Broadway sets and thus really made the picture.
LeRoy is sensible enough to have the actors do their own singing but neither actor is a singer, a fact which overshadows a musical full of otherwise showstopping tunes. However, too many elements just don't come together - the casting, the sets, the art direction. In short, I blame the director. And the producers.
The Kids Are Alright (1979)
Still Alright After All These Years
Jeff Stein's 'TKaA' introduced me to the dysfunctionally co-dependent family that was The Who in their more-than-full-volume, willfully insane glory days of Keith Moon. Their balls-to-the-walls, ear-shattering, finger-slashing, skull-splitting, hammers-of-hell, power-plus-volume blues-based rock & roll put their contemporaries deservedly to shame (Townsend didn't pull punches in his criticism) and set a high bar above all that wreckage which their successors have yet to reach.
It doesn't cover all of The Who's KM-era music (Quadrophenia, Who by Numbers) nor does it dig up the worst/best of the dirt (Daltrey repeatedly KO'ing a whiney Townsend over the years) but it captures as only a fan's we're-not-worthy devotion can the band's intense, sometimes-paranoid craziness as well as their self-knowing, self-mocking intelligence about their craziness -- and their true worth in the annals of rock & roll. Stein deserves a spot in Cleveland right next to them.
Mystic River (2003)
Note to Clint: novels aren't screenplays
Sean Penn does the best Robert De Niro impersonation and even tops him by crying three times, ostensibly for his on-screen daughter's death but for what dramatically is difficult to say.
I kept waiting for plot and character developments to develop into a story; what few actually did seemed taken from any formula cop show. Eastwood seems to have stuck with the original book in the hopes of "original intent" at the expense of letting develop on screen.
All in all, it's an actor's movie, not a director's movie. In fact, it's about three re-writes short of a movie. A pitiful waste of location, celluloid and pulled strings.
Dreck! Feh! Phooey! Bleah!
Warning: spoilers below.
This movie could have been the foundation of the next Player, The (1992) but, after the first 40 minutes, becomes a classic of how moviemaking goes badly wrong. Nick Cage as twin brothers Charlie and Donald doubles neither his screen time nor his presence, which will give you an idea how undeveloped this movie is. Meryl Streep plays a journalist who changes the movie's plot for the worse - not that it was getting any better. Only Chris Cooper as a red-neck orchid-rustler comes across as a fully believable character but he, too, is sinfully wasted in this. Even screenwriting guru Robert McKee's appearance as himself in this embarrassment to his profession may nosedive his book sales.
Blue Crush (2002)
Gidget goes out there.
This is light-years better than it should have been. Director John Stockwell has reinvented the surf flick for the '00s generation. He wisely lets the Hawaiian waves do most of the acting. I can only hope the Academy offers Oscars for Oceanography.
The plot is bare but bearable: a competitor must overcome her demons to grow up. Exactly what a surfer's demons are you'll just have to go see for yourself. No great talents are taxed by this story but the scenery and the setting make everything look great. Kate Bosworth may well have a future on the screen, especially if she keeps working in sunny climates.
Road to Perdition (2002)
Road to ???
There were so many opportunities to make this pic deserve the buzz it's been getting but it's too depressing to name any more. Hanks makes a good turn as the hit-man but the real light in this fest of darkness is Paul Newman as the local godfather - look for a nod for Best Supporting Actor. Anyone else in that part would have left RtP completely in the dark.
But stellar casting and superb graphic-novel cinematography doesn't make up for:
* the dragging pace of the story, nor
* the barely holding-up structure, nor
* the unleavened dialogue.
It's sad to watch a movie that should have been better than it is. RtP has all the elements of a four-star pic but, in director Sam Mendes' hands, pans out to only three at best.
Il mio viaggio in Italia (1999)
An epic about an epic about epics.
In A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, (1995) (TV), the eponymous legendary director took us on a proverbial tour of his old neighborhood: the Hollywood movies of the 30s, 40s and 50s which were his school on screen.
He now takes us on a second tour of his early influences, this time of early post-war Italian cinema which he recalls growing up watching on an Italian t.v. station in New York, albeit dubbed into English.
Want to know those influences? Buy it and watch it.
Like with the earlier documentary, this one is an immediate collection standard for everyone from the movie buff to Scorsese's heirs-in-the-making. You may be tempted to watch it through as I tried to one Friday night on a cable broadcast. You'd be better off watching it in segments al la the film school classroom. I know I will.
My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002)
I didn't know Tevye had Greek relatives!
Charming, funny, wry, guaranteed to make you smile and all the other cliches. And smart.
Nia Vardalos' story of a wallflower blooming both externally and internally, mixed with the self-tweaking romantic humor reminiscent of a younger Woody Allen or Nora Ephron writing "When Harry Met Sally ...", works. That we've seen the big, crazy, aggravating, ethnic family in America in so many other pictures is nothing new; that this time they're Greek, maybe; that its done with more love and less angst (somewhat;-) than has been beaten into our heads before, refreshing.
I found myself wanting to marry the lead character. I pray that her creator grows as a storyteller without losing her charming, self-deprecating wit (Nia, learn from Woody's mistake!)
Bertie and Elizabeth (2002)
I call myself an amateur historian and a frustrated writer but this slapdash nonsense makes me look like Shelby Foote, Robert Towne and Mario Puzo rolled into one. This attempt at rewriting history is merely revisionist pantomime.
The hack dialogue sounds like it was lifted from lines found by Google.com and was compiled in a free-for-all chatsite by college freshmen. The producers may as well have cast the wardrobe coathangers to wear the costumes for all the good the lead actors could do with it. With luck none of them will be remembered for this unless, after clocking a BAFTA or an Oscar, some television hack/archaeologist pulls this from the forgotten dust-coated shelf it so richly deserves.
The only interesting casting was with big-name veteran actors in supporting roles. Alan Bates radiates as King George V; he almost outshines Eileen Atkins as Queen Mary. Together they're about the only believable parts in the whole production. Robert Hardy takes a switch by playing FDR for a change instead of his usual turn as Churchill; it would have been interesting to see him play the part in a full-fledge leading role. David Ryall turns in a fine portrayal as Churchill for the half-dozen lines he's allowed; ditto for him.
It makes you respect the actor's life with its hoops, its humiliations and its fickle fortunes.
Tells It Like It Is.
A superb behind-closed-doors documentary of the Hollywood producer. We get the stories straight from the horses' mouths.
(Insert wisecrack here.)
This should be mandatory viewing for all movie-making classes. I can hardly wait until this is released on video.
"Star Wars" pales in comparison!
All too rarely does a movie match the inspiring book in both spirit and text. The Fellowship of the Ring does so far better than I'd dared hoped. Thank humanity for modern technology! Thank Peter Jackson for his sweat, his time and his heart! Thank J.R.R. Tolkien for setting the bar so high!
The Man Who Wasn't There (2001)
Far less than the sum of its parts.
The Coen Brothers are in dire need of intervening help; so dire that they don't think they need any. They let their love for the Screen block any critical self-editing. TMWWT is a series of first acts to oldie-but-goodie film-noir ideas strung together in the apparent hopes of making another Euro-style statement on One Modern Man's Predicament. It merely comes across as what they are: ideas that the Coens don't dare let go for fear they will get away from them. A good many pulp-serials prove to be the same way when they're published in one-volume. The Coens have the right ingredients but they cook them wrong. TMWWT is great moviemaking but it's no movie.
Boys' Night Out (1962)
Better than it should have been.
This movie seems to have been inspired by a French sex-farce that couldn't get distribution in the still-puritan America of the 1960s.
The emerging Playboy philosophy shows its pipe-smoking spirit in its first act, followed by a second act that wished it could have pushed the boundaries but clearly didn't have the muscle or the nerve, and topped off by a third act where everyone comes together for a last gasp at laughs-by-vaudeville before a happy ending for all.
Still, it gets by, if only on the charm of its cast with Tony Randall deceiving us all with his nerd image (whoddathunk he'd be a Pop at 75?), Jim Garner Jim Garnering his way through and Kim Novak stealing every scene with her feline eyes and her strangely-prescient-Princess-Di do.
Good; could have been great
WARNING: SPOILER BELOW.
Great style in movie-making but the story drags forever. The director didn't know how to reveal Nikita's background in telling bits and pieces; instead, we get her whole biography from the time she's picked up off the streets. In effect, the first half of the movie is all prologue and little of it interesting, at that.
Fight Club (1999)
Style and attitude do not a story make
Sorry, gang; I'm giving this a thumbs down. This pic has great cinamatography and art direction but that only makes it a video, not a movie.
The director and writer had a few ideas for half a movie but couldn't think of anything else while the bills piled up. The first act was good enough but would have been better if it had made up it's mind where it was going. Too many scenes which promised something proved to be red herrings while others just plain dragged. The last act summed up nothing which went on before; it also introduced character relationships and elements which hadn't been seen earlier. Thus the story arc was a complete wreck. On top of all that, the whole movie runs some 30 to 40 minutes too long. All of which are the classic signs of poor direction and writing. It brings to mind the fiasco that was Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991).
It started out as an off-beat buddy movie and ended as cheesy, pyschodramatic wish-fulfillment shlock on a par with The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) except with a bigger budget and no catchy songs. It calls out, `look at me!' but then says nothing else, hoping a fashionably alienated, post-ironic attitude will make up the difference. It never did and never will.
Planet of the Apes (2001)
WARNING: SPOILERS BELOW
If anyone else in the world wasted its resources the way this movie does the global media would howl.
Tim Burton has been quoted as saying he never went to film school, or that he never finished it. Sad to say, his movies show it. He's consistently come up with interesting outsider characters but at least the story revolved around them. Here, there are several out-of-place characters around whom no story is told.
On top of that, like in Burton's other movies he substitutes here a weak ending for a hard-hitting one that could have paid off all that gone into the movie. We get a miasma of red herrings and actions that drag on for no reason because neither Burton nor the writers had the neither the maturity nor the nerve to end their movie with any one thing. Murdered characters whose discovery leads to no further development. The fight with Thade ends not with a dramatic kill-or-be-killed but with him holing up undercover - but then we never see the consequences of his cowardice. One gorilla changes his alliegiance after the battle but we're never given a foreshadowing of this. The apes survive a rocket engine blast but we're never given an earlier clue that they can. What we're shown as a space station turns out to be a space ship as well but we don't see that until we see the wreckage on the Planet of the Apes, nor are we given a clue as to how it got there - did it come through the same vortex as our hero?
Then they had to end their movie with an post-ironic, self-referential, wise-acre college-student twist that said absolutely nothing about all that had gone before. Rod Serling these guys are not.
If this wins any awards it should be the 2001 Golden Rasberry. It certainly won't wins Oscars for writing or direction. I can only hope the Sci-Fi Conventions refuse to award it any prizes
From the Earth to the Moon (1998)
An epic telling worthy of Homer and all the other Bards!!!!
No superlative can match this show for its fulfillment of the promises that Edward R. Murrow first saw in television before most of the actors on this show were born. The eye for detail in the dramatic and vice versa, the mundanities long ago forgotten are once more on our screens remembered. There is not a role miscast or misplayed, not a shot wasted nor poorly made, nor a line thrown away or overspoken.
Tom Hanks' loving dedication has restored to our memory a time of human greatness that capped the past ages exploration and marked for all time the future ages of exploration to come. He joins his friend Ron Howard as well as Ken Burns in setting the modern standard for excellence in combined history, entertainment and production.