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8/10
Solid Sleeper From Abroad
7 June 2009
If you want a little foreign flavor added to your usual movie-going experience, consider seeing "Moscow Belgium|" in the near future. It is one of the best small films to come along so far this year.

The movie begins simply enough – a harried mother (Barbara Sarafian as Matty) backs into a truck in the supermarket parking lot. The owner of the truck (Jurgen Delnaet as Johnny) steps down. Fingerpointing and verbal abuse of course follows; only the eventual arrival of the police keeps the situation from becoming any uglier than it is.

Later that day we see Matty bathing; her daughter interrupts her to say there is a phone call from Johnny. Matty blows this off, and despite the continued advances of Johnny Matty remains stoically immune to his attentions.

We find that Matty's art-professor husband has moved out to carry on an affair with one of his students. Matty would like a normal life; her kids, her husband and her lack of funds frustrates her. And now there is this persistent guy whom she tells she doesn't need any more things in her life.

But we can see that Johnny will not be shaken off as easily as that. So the balance of the movie essentially prances about the central theme; should she accept Johnny in her life or have her husband come back into her life?

Barbara Sarafian is a wonderful actress, playing straight-faced to all – her colleague at work, her suitors and her children. She convincingly conveys Matty's worn-down attitude; and according to her (interview at buzzine.com/2009/01/christophe-van-rompaey-interview) "you suspect that there is a bomb inside of her".

And so I leave it to you to see how Matty handles all her concerns and decides which is the best course for what probably be the rest of her life. I don't think you will for a second be disappointed with the outcome.

Three stars.
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8/10
Factchecking Aside, A Pretty Good Thriller
5 June 2009
Being neither a fan of conspiracy tales or particularly of the earlier novel "The Davinci Code", I was less than optimistic that I would become a big fan of this new effort by Ron Howard and Tom Hanks. So it was a bit of a surprise to find "Angels and Demons" is not a bad film at all. But it surely stretches credibility with its quasi- and at times pseudo-historic underpinnings. This is story-telling at warp speed; sometimes you want to have the film rewound for a few frames to verify what has been said by Tom Hanks' (as Roger Langdon).

Langdon's frenetic pace to prevent killings of high priests in the Vatican is the meat of the story(s). Thrown in to crank up the action a little further is the theft of antimatter, of course of much interest to all. And there are outward and internal tensions caused by the Swiss guard, Vatican figures gathered to select a new pope also have in- and external issues. And then of course there are…the Illuminati.

With all these characters embroiled in catching a serial killer (who focuses on highly-placed priests) working for who-knows-who, we have the makings of a pretty good thriller. And if you can decipher Langdon's rapid-fire explanations as to why the pursuit should be conducted his way, you are ahead of his law enforcement colleagues.

There are two exceptions, naturally. Langdon's physics-oriented partner – involved initially with the theft of antimatter she had a hand in developing (Ayelet Zurer as Vittoria Vetra)- quickly demonstrates a remarkable knowledge of Church history. Ewan Mc Gregor, who is acting essentially as the acting Pope, also understands seems to understand what is going on.

The fun is in listening to Langdon's rapid delivery of his analysis of the crime scenes and the criminal, and how and why it is all tied together. There are a number of so-called facts spouted that may or may not be true; but that is to be expected in both the novels of Dan Brown and the subsequent films.

The opening shots of the film are right on the money, conveying a real sense of the inner workings of a lab specializing in quantum physics. Credit this work to the director; Ron Howard does know how to make a film.

Three Stars.
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Star Trek (2009)
7/10
Good Followup On The Original Premise
25 May 2009
Having never been a Trekkie, I approached the latest in the long line of films and television shows with no real love for the genre. I was hoping that at least the special effects might be good; they generally are nowadays. With a story of some interest and intriguing cinematography there's little wonder that is a box office hit.

What we have for a plot is an almost bewildering blending of the past, the present and the future, all stitched together in a satisfying manner. But unlike the concurrently running "Angels and Demons", this plot is actually believable, even though this is science fiction. The difference is the pacing and "Stat Trek" has no trace of conspiracy; the enemy is well defined right from the beginning.

What is definitely fun is that we meet the main characters of the film early on in their formative years; James Kirk, Spock, Scotty, Uhura, Sulu and even Dr. McCoy all reveal something of themselves. We now know a little more of how they came to be the crew of the Enterprise.

The effects are quite remarkable, and any fan of space adventures will be satisfied with them. There is a plot point involving time travel that is the only blemish on the narrative; this seems to be like the use of magic in movies. Contrive a difficult situation and have characters saved by supernatural imposition. The artful dodge of movie making.

This is probably the smartest of the summer blockbusters.

Three stars.
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Sin Nombre (2009)
9/10
Another Strong Central American Tale
13 May 2009
I previously said the two best movies of 2009 thus far are "Sunshine Cleaning" and "State of Play". But this newest entry, "Sin Nombre", makes me move this one into the top spot, easily. It is a meaningful contemporary statement made by a writer/director newcomer with guts.

The story(ies) begin in Honduras, a bit later on in Mexico. We first meet Sayra (Paulina Gaitan), who is to accompany her father from Honduras to America – their sights are set on New Jersey. Sayra has not seen her father in a long time, so theirs is an uneasy alliance. He shows her a crudely drawn map, and he traces their route; theirs is a long journey.

We next meet Casper (aka Willy – played by Edgar Flores), a member of a Mexican gang from whom he is hiding his girlfriend; he lies to the gang leader about his whereabouts, but this fearsome leader has his suspicions. We also meet Smiley (Kristian Ferrer) who has just been initiated into the gang. Both Casper and Smiley are put to an additional test to prove their loyalty. They are now thoroughly enmeshed in a world of violence and considerable darkness. This is an edgy world, one in which the overwhelming sensation is constant threat.

Eventually the two separate threads become entwined – both Casper and Smiley have headed north on a train headed north through Mexico, and Sayra and her father have climbed aboard the same train. How all these characters meet and how their itineraries merge is the heart of the narrative.

The shots of train yards and of the illegal train passengers enroute – sitting on top of cars mostly - are very engaging and have a authentic look. The cinematography in the movie is terrific. There are great shots of border crossings and always the trains. According to director Cary Fukunaga the train scenes were difficult to shoot (http://www.popmatters.com):

"We had to maximize those few days we could actually shoot on a train to make it all real," Fukunaga says. "We ended up building a prop train on flatbed trailers, pulling them on country roads around Mexico. You use extras on the set to block the horizon line. If they're in the way, you can't see how far the train goes off into the distance. Definitely something they don't teach you in film school."

All really good movies have a surprise, and there is one here that made me lean forward as if I could see a little better; it was a case of - Did I just see what I think I saw? And that reminds me that this was the first picture in a long time where people walked out fairly early on. That always makes me wonder what a movie about gangsters would have attracted them in the first place.

I am reminded of "City of God" and "Amores Perros", two films that also portray the darker sides of Central America. For anyone needing a fix of smart storytelling with social commentary woven throughout should seek this one out. This is my favorite kind of movie, one where the director leads you through a shadowy other-world full of realistic characters and situations.

Four stars.
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Ramona (1910)
6/10
Brief But Historic
10 May 2009
If you had not read the original novel or at least read up on the film "Ramona", I don't think you'd have much of a notion of what is transpiring. Though this is only a seventeen minute movie, the whole of a novel is presented to us. If it wasn't for its landmark status as representative of early silent films it wouldn't pass muster.

This is a tale of the inequitable treatment of Southern California Native Americans. Ramona is smitten by a member of the local tribe, and they eventually are wed despite the objections of her sort-of foster mother. The couple are run out of their home by land-grabbing white settlers. All this ends badly.

Consider that the novel "Ramona" was published in 1884 and that it achieved enormous popularity, so D. W. Griffith's film was destined to be a success. But besides its place in film history for the almost overwhelming interest of the story to the public it was one of the many pieces of work D. W. Griffith was churning out, making history just in the doing.

According to Darling Kindersley's "Chronicle of the Cinema", Griffith went on a "working vacation" – one in which he shot 25 films in four months as he and his ensemble toured California. One of the films made was this, "Ramona."

Paul Spehr drives home the importance of "Ramona" and other Griffith efforts around this time:

…it is camera work and editing that make the most startling advances during this period. Griffith "publicly laid claim to the introduction of 'large or close-up figures, distant views as represented first in 'Ramona', the 'switchback' (cross cutting – gc), sustained suspense, the 'fade out', and restraint in expression', raising motion picture acting to the higher plane which has won for it recognition as a genuine art.'

One quite noticeable aspect of this film is the lack of dialogue frames. Instead there are graphic text frames inserted occasionally to detail what is transpiring. But in no sense is the filmed footage tied to the actual dialogue we see. But as mentioned above without prior knowledge of the subject the movie is so abbreviated that it doesn't come close to conveying the whole story.

It has taken me far longer to write this review than to see the movie.

Three stars.
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Rio Bravo (1959)
7/10
Duke Doing What H Does Best
6 May 2009
Of all the westerns John Wayne made, some of his later work was pretty high on the entertainment scale, but not necessarily having much substance. "Rio Bravo" may be the best example of the Duke standing vigourously, surrounded by a group of likable cronies, against the odds. I say standing because that is all that was required of him by this point in his career, and that is almost exactly what we see.

As to the story, Sheriff John Chance (Wayne) has the task of seeing a murder suspect – well, not really much of a suspect, we see him do it – is held until a trial can be held. His accomplices are Dude (Dean Martin), a souse that was once a solid citizen and handy with a gun; a rookie called Colorado (Ricky Nelson) who is quick on the draw and coolly capable; an old-timer going by the name of Stumpy (Walter Brennan) and what seems an afterthought, the stage passenger that stayed in town – Feathers (Angie Dickinson).

The trials and tribulations this ensemble sallies against is formidable. The prisoner is the brother of a powerful local rancher, so there is every possibility of an abetted escape attempt. To that end hired guns begin to cause mayhem in town, so there is never a peaceful moment.

This is all western fun at its best. No one would expect high art here, but there is plenty of action (not compared to the latest chase movies, honest) but there is a story that one want to see through.

I have heard and read that this movie was Howard Hawks' answer to "High Noon". There is much documentation to the effect that Wayne hated "High Noon" as well. Well, I like this movie much better than the overrated "High Noon" - there's are an awful lot of uneventful moments with only some pretty good action at the end. At least in "Rio Bravo" situations occur with some regularity.

At this point in his career Wayne was commanding big salaries and darned if he didn't deserve it. His mere presence was box office gold, and the studios knew it. The Duke worked quite hard to preserve his image and this is another example of how he carefully nurtured "the brand" – he may even have been king of the G-rated movies.

Three Stars.
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7/10
Garbo At Her Most Seductive
4 May 2009
I don't think any silent screen female star came close to exhibiting the pure sensual sexuality Greta Garbo conveyed. I offer her role in "The Mysterious Lady" as proof of that contention.

The plot is simple enough. Tania Federova (the aforementioned G. Garbo) has set up a military officer (Conrad Nagel as Captain Karl von Rader) in Vienna to gather what information she might. They have met – conveniently – at the opera, and when she shares that she has brought no money, he offers her a ride home. He is already smitten, and she agrees to see him the next day.

I know it is a movie and that there are time constraints within which the writers must work, but theirs is a whirlwind affair. They are in love within hours. As Von Rader is preparing to leave for Berlin, he is told she is a spy. Their meeting on the train doesn't go well, and she steals the documents he is carrying to boot.

What follows is that the Captain must clear his name due to his misfortune and we must see what will become of these two, and I'm not telling what happens. But what I would like to share is how well Garbo comes across.

She was only 23 years old at the time of the film's release. But she had already the look of one much older and certainly the style of an experienced woman of the world. And the cinematography perfectly heightens her allure.

There is a brief shot early in the movie when she turns out the light as she prepares to retire for the evening. She is leaning against a wall and switches off the light; the light that remains perfectly casts her in a striking pose. There are a number of nearly equal elegant shots throughout, and in my view she wore a clingy gown as well as any Hollywood actress ever did.

Three Stars
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9/10
Haunting Story Of The First Magnitude
3 May 2009
I have read somewhere, sometime that Robert Mitchum never considered himself an actor. If you check Roger Ebert (rogerebert.com) he interviewed him many times. In one Mitchum tells Ebert about acting; "One of the greatest movie stars was Rin Tin Tin. What the hell. It can't be too much of a trick." In these and other snippets about him you might find there is always the self-deprecating delivery, along with smart Alec answers to many questions. But I think many of us would argue Mitchum was one of the best actors of his generation. One measure of acting abilities is the willingness to stretch out into roles others would shun. I say this by way of introduction to my thoughts on a very good movie, "The Night Of The Hunter".

The film is shot in black and white, which lends much to its tone. The score is pitch perfect, and this is one of the few movies in which Mitchum sings. I have never known exactly where Laughton shot it, but I would love to see how they did the river scenes when the children have escaped. Much is made of the fact that this was Charles Laughton's only foray into directing. Whatever the reason for his failure to repeat the experiment, this is a wonderful movie to have as a signature. It is unique; try and find another like it.

The movie begins with a father (Peter Graves as Ben Harper), on the lam from the police, entrusting the cash he has stolen to the care of his children. He makes them promise to not reveal where the money is hidden. He is arrested and, we see quickly convicted and sentenced to hang. But during his incarceration he reveals unintentionally to Robert Mitchum (Harry Powell) a hint that his children might know the whereabouts of the money.

We skip ahead; Harry is now out of prison and makes a beeline to the town where his ex-cell mate hailed from – a town along the river in West Virginia. Incredibly, through his smarmy talk and sermonizing, he weds the widow of Ben Harper. He is seriously intent on gathering information about the money.

After relentless pressure from Powell, the children at one point escape from him, commandeer a small boat and float away down the river. But Powell is never far behind and trails them for weeks. He…wants…that…money.

One of the strangers that befriends the children on their adventure is Lillian Gish (as Rachel Cooper). Her role turns out to be quite important, and it has always been difficult to envision a better choice for her part.

How this all turns out I leave you to enjoy. Suffice it to say you will be left thinking about what you saw. Which is a sure sign of a good movie.

In the same interview noted above, Mitchum shares that working with Charles Laughton was, essentially, a joy. "Honest to God, you know, you did your really best to try to enchant him and of course it was effective." Effective it was – I will never forget, have not forgotten since I first heard and saw it many years ago, the haunting, chilling scene of him singing and trailing the children along the river.
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Dr. No (1962)
8/10
As Important To The Spy Genre As Metropolis Is To Science Fiction
3 May 2009
"Dr. No" is without question the finest Ian Fleming novel put on film. No only was the James Bond brand established but the machinations of nearly every spy movie since has drawn on "Dr. No" for what has come to be a standard plot outline; besides all this Sean Connery became established as a star.

If you read early Fleming you will find he originally cast Bond in thoroughly believable stories. His attention to detail, the play of other characters against him and exotic and varied locations made him a hit before the movie was even considered. Fleming himself is an interesting character; his early life in the military and particularly intelligence gave him ample opportunity to invent James Bond.

The movie begins with the assassination of an intelligence officer and his secretary; a file is taken from his office, labeled Dr. No. James Bond (Sean Connery) is dispatched to Jamaica to find out what led to the deaths. From the moment he arrives he is plunged into intrigue; his car is tailed, and almost as quickly bedded by a beautiful but questionably-motived woman. Clad nearly always in tailored suits, sipping his martinis and giving off the air of a man intensely confident in his ability, a new screen persona (type) is invented right before our eyes.

As Bond's probing unearths more questions than answers, the common thread leads him to put together a clandestine late-night visit to Dr. No's mysterious Crab Key with the colorful Quarrel as guide. After a few hours sleep, a stunning figure emerges from the surf; Honey Ryder's entrance has never been equaled by any woman in any subsequent Bond flick.

Bond, Ryder and Quarrel evade the private patrols for a while, but eventually their luck turns bad and they are captured by Dr. No's henchmen. From the time they in the hands of the island police the adventure takes a decidedly high-tech turn. The effects are a little dated in this, our new digital age, but don't seriously detract from the film.

The rest of the story is pure Fleming. As he wrote more over the years his plots got less believable and Bond himself became something of a stuntman whose missions were set in a technologically advanced society. I cannot stress enough how this The use of Jamaica as a setting is a master stroke; there are dazzling shots that convey the beauty of the island. There are a couple of spots that you would love to find on your own.

Three and a half stars.
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State of Play (2009)
8/10
Topicql Thriller
2 May 2009
There aren't many conspiracy films or books that I have ever really liked. I find such conjecture exhausting. Regarding movies, the best of the bunch in recent years is "L.A. Confidential", and I measure anything being released against it. "State of Play" stacks up reasonably well. It happens to have a hint of plausibility, has some good actors delivering good performances and (unlike the former) it is about a contemporary predicament.

The movie opens in full action sequence mode; a man on the run is cornered and essentially murdered, as is a witness. Within a few minutes the seemingly unrelated but equally brutal death at a train station of a woman also occurs. Soon thereafter reporter Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) begins to put together these and a few other threads that lead him to believe there is more to these stories than anyone suspects.

Representative Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), a friend of McAffrey's, has been investigating a security corporation deeply profiting from government contracts. It turns out that the woman killed at the train station is not only an assistant to Collins but was his love as well. McAffrey, now reluctantly teamed with fellow reporter Dell Frye (Rachel McAdams) is now in full investigative mode.

The twists and turns of the plot are, refreshingly, able to be followed. The director (Kevin MacDonald, noted for "The Last King of Scotland") leads us handily through the web of deceit, money, sex and even emotional highs and lows of the characters involved. There is a relentless pace to the film; the only real cliché being the deadline the reporters are pitched against.

Ben Affleck seems to be paralleling George Clooney's career path to a degree; both have been successful actors and both have stints behind the camera with good results. He is well cast as the congressman with an agenda. Affleck is doing smart films (witness "Gone Baby Gone") and we the audience can appreciate both his substance and style.

Russell Crowe's performance is pretty engrossing as he portrays a veteran reporter not particularly in the favor of Editor Cameron Lynne (Helen Mirren). Perhaps some will find his squalid life and unkempt appearance a bit of an anachronism in what is now a corporate world (Lynne repeatedly brings this to his attention) but it doesn't detract from the overall story.

At least a solid attempt is made in this film to present a story that can be followed. And way to its credit very little is made of the more and more prevalent method of filming is such darkness that the actual goings-on are virtually impossible to follow.

Three Stars.
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10/10
Trifecta For Woodward
26 April 2009
"The Three Faces of Eve" is just the film for students of psychiatry. This was a landmark film in its own time, and still holds up after so many years. There is much to like, and I can't think of one thing I didn't like about it.

Filmed in black and white, as usual the look always seems to impart a certain gravity to the story. It does so here; this is not really a happy tale, as things develop.

Eve White (Joanne Woodward) has agreed to see a psychiatrist along with her husband Ralph (David Wayne – probably his most significant film role). She has been having problems with headaches and some strange events have occurred, at least one of which is quite alarming. The psychiatrist is of course befuddled with her testimony. As the story continues, she certainly is treated for her condition – evincing at first two and then three distinct personas – but she really is taxing contemporary knowledge of her kind of affliction.

Joanne Woodward won the Best Actress award from the Academy in 1957. She was a fresh face at that time, yet there is no doubt she should have at least been nominated. She really convinces us that she is each one of the three people she could become. It is incredible how she can change on a dime from one "face" to another, and in fact she can even be induced to do so.

Lee J. Cobb (as Dr. Luther) really supports this film and the character(s) of Eve, and it is seems to me a big oversight by the Academy that he wasn't nominated for an award; two of the nominees for Best Supporting Actor (Russ Tamblyn and Arthur Kennedy) had appeared in "Peyton Place". The sheer amount of dialogue Cobb delivers and the manner in which he essentially manipulates Eve to open up is really on the mark. It should also be mentioned this was probably Nunally Johnson's best directorial effort. In an interview Johnson relates that he really wanted Orson Welles to play the doctor's role (http://www.archive.org).

There is more to the story of the real person's life upon who this was based (Chris Sizemore) then we are able to cover in this movie. The above mentioned interview sheds some light on that. But this story stands on its own, in a big way.

Four stars.
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8/10
Astaire and Charisse A Great Duo
26 April 2009
I am not a fan of musicals, for the usual reason cited by many- they are not very realistic. People breaking out into song and dance while doing mundane things just doesn't happen. But paradoxically I really like show tunes, particularly those from movies and shows of the Fifties. So with a little trepidation I set out to watch "The Band Wagon".

Fred Astaire, as Tony Hunter, is getting a little long in the tooth and he knows it. Nonetheless he agrees to perform in an upcoming stage production. The director, pretty full of himself, quickly decides to completely change the plot of the play. Tony is reluctant, but stays with the project.

The addition of Cyd Charisse (as Gabrielle) to the cast doesn't go well at first. But over time, after many stumbling blocks are overcome, things start to click.

I would have been happy to not have seen and heard most of the tunes in this film, but "That's Entertainment" and "Dancing in the Dark" are two of the memorable show tunes of the era, and they make the movie worth watching. That and a number called "Girl Hunt", in which the major player is Tony Hunter. Astaire is still spry in this production; he was fifty three at the time. His movements in this latter number are first rate, and I only recall "I Left My Hat in Haiti" having more complexities.

The supporting cast is excellent. Nanette Fabray (as Lily, a friend of Tony's) showed me more talent than I ever knew she possessed, having mostly seen her on television over the years. Wise-cracking Oscar Levant (as Lily's husband Lester) performs as a wonderful foil. Jack Buchanan (as Jeffrey Cordova) convincingly plays the egomaniacal director.

The production values of any MGM musical is first rate, and that is no less true here. Surprisingly entertaining, there really isn't a sour note in the whole movie.

Three stars.
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Carny (2009 TV Movie)
3/10
Carnage
25 April 2009
An amusing diversion, the folks responsible for "Carny" trot out that staple of the Sci-Fi network, the monster that seems to not really be a science fiction imagining. One that causes mayhem, for certain, but not nearly as much as a few of the humans involved.

A carnival visiting a town has as its star sideshow attraction a beast which remains hidden from us until it escapes from its cage. The carnival master has assured Lou Diamond Phillips (the local sheriff) that there will be no problem with the sedated and incarcerated...thing.

We know different. There is another problem - a local preacher that hates all things carnival, and he particularly is interested in seeing that the escapee is captured.

I will leave it to you to find out how this whole thing ends. As tepid as this movie is, it will be far more interesting to the next generation of MST3000 fans.

One and a half stars.
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10/10
Properly One Of AFI's All-TimeTop Films
25 April 2009
I don't know where exactly "The Maltese Falcon" falls on the AFI Top 100 films list – wait, let me look – ah, number 23, down a few notches since the original list was published in 1997 – but it is truly one of the great films. There are few films that whip out dialogue like this one.

Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) and his partner Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan, in his most famous role) are approached by one Miss Wanderly (Mary Astor) to place a tail on a fellow named Floyd Thursby. It is only later that night that Spade is informed of Archer's murder while following Thursby (we find out that Thursby himself had also been killed).

Within a short period Spade meets Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre), a very cool customer - a shady one at that - has several meetings with Miss Wanderly and deals with Archer's widow (with whom Spade has obviously had an affair). It also follows that the police are leaning on Spade for the crimes committed.

Eventually we learn that Cairo has some relationship with a character named Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet in the role of a lifetime) and that all the parties Spade is dealing with are in some manner interested in the whereabouts of a figurine called The Maltese Falcon. This would be a great example of Hitchcock's MacGuffin device.

In true film noir fashion, we are never sure of the motivations of any of the characters. No one appears to be what they say they are, including Miss Wanderly.

I know of no murder, or any other crime, for that matter, that was solved by a detective in my lifetime. But here "The Maltese Falcon" delivers a theme that has been the fodder for literally countless murder mysteries – books, films, radio and TV.

You will hard pressed to find a single movie script that more closely follows the original novel. The dialogue is almost verbatim. At one point in the book Spade goes to John's Grill and has chops. It isn't on the menu anymore, but the restaurant still is a going concern in downtown San Francisco, the setting of this story. That isn't in the movie.

For sheer gritty dialogue, terrific casting and a real mystery to boot you would be well served to make this an addition to your movie studies. It is a true classic. "Citizen Kane" is always touted as film with no flaws; "The Maltese Falcon" has some tiny errors unearthed by students of film (validating this film's importance, of course), but none of them materially affect the movie. Just sit back and watch it unfold.

Four stars.
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Earth (2007)
8/10
Photogenic charismatic fauna
25 April 2009
In celebration of Earth Day Disney has released the film "Earth". Stopping far short of any strident message of gloom and doom, we are treated to some excellent footage of animals in their habitats without feeling too bad about ourselves.

The stars of the show are a herd of elephants, a family of polar bears and a whale and its calf. The narrative begins at the North Pole and proceeds south until we reach the tropics, all the while being introduced to denizens of the various climatic zones traversed.

Global warming is mentioned in while we view the wanderings of polar bear; note is made of the shrinking sea ice islands in more recent years. We never see the bears catch any seals, but the father's desperate search for food leads him to a dangerous solution.

The aerial shots of caribou migrating across the tundra is one of the most spectacular wildlife shots I ever saw; it and another of migrating wildfowl are enough to reward the price of admission to see them on the big screen.

One of the disappointments I felt was that otherwise terrific shots of great white sharks taking seals were filmed in slow motion. Never do you get the sense of one characteristic of wild animals; their incredible speed. The idea of slowing down the film to convey great quickness I think began with (or at least it's the first I recall seeing) the television show "Kung Fu" during the early Seventies.

An interesting sidelight is that as the credits roll during the end some demonstrations of the cinematographic techniques employed are revealed. There are enough dramatic, humorous and instructive moments in this movie to make it a solid choice for nature buffs. Perhaps because of some selective editing (sparing us, as it were, from the grisly end of a prey-predator moment) and the fact that this footage had been released in 2007 and is available on DVD it is a solid film in its own right. And you can take your kids!

Three stars.
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City Lights (1931)
8/10
Strong Chaplin Piece
24 April 2009
I am a child of the Sixties, and many of the attitudes I formed were based on essentially special moments, it seems to me. One of my parent's friends opined one evening, stridently, vigourously, something to the effect that because Charlie Chaplin was a Communist everything he ever did was therefore artistically inadmissible. There are times in life where something you hear you instantly know is either completely wrong or right. I knew then that this had to be wrong, even though I had never seen anything more than a snippet of Chaplin's work.

Many of what are considered great films were not shown anywhere, not on TV, certainly not on the big screen, for most of my early life. So it is that in my recent viewing of "City Lights" I saw my first full length Chaplin film. And I was not disappointed.

In this movie there are only a handful of main characters. Chaplin's little tramp is of course prominent, but the key supporting players certainly get a lot of screen time. Among them is the blind flower girl who becomes the center of the tramp's attention, her grandmother, and a very rich and also very boozy benefactor of sorts. The rich man's butler has a significant part. There are many, many players with brief parts.

As far as a plot goes, the tramp meets the blind flower girl and of course he is able over time to appear to her as a wealthy kind-of boyfriend; he helps her when he can. He is smitten with her. In the meantime the tramp has run into the rich man, their initial meeting being the tramp's intervention in the others suicide attempt.

But the benefactor has mercurial fits of memory loss and gain, so his generous gestures are at best unreliable. In the midst of the tramp's efforts to do what we would term the right thing, other confounding moments occur. Which leads us to the comedy part.

In effect the tramp runs into troubles at every turn. His helpful and often unsolicited attempts make things right do not necessarily provide a real advantage for him or those about him. He does get the money to help the flower girl and grandmother, but at a price.

It is fun to watch the little tramp and his antics. Chaplin could certainly do physical comedy, and his attempts at this are very honest, involving tremendous eye to detail touches in all scenes. At one point he briefly eludes two policemen; his quickness and well-rehearsed reaction is actually difficult to follow.

I have read about the ending previously from a few sources, but no spoilers were among them. I appreciate this because the last few moments of "City Lights" deliver a terrific payoff. And its nice to know a boyhood suspicion was well-founded.

Three Stars
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5/10
Into The Not So Wild Blue Yonder
19 April 2009
As military films go, "Strategic Air Command" is pretty run-of-the-mill. It is most likely that the lack of constant action (we are talking the post-Korean war Cold War era) is what keeps it from being very absorbing.

Jimmy Stewart, as Lt. Col. Robert 'Dutch' Holland, is a former baseball player recruited into SAC despite his initial lack of enthusiasm. And his wife June Allyson (as Sally Holland) is even less thrilled as her husband is thrust into the maelstrom of lengthy patrols, uneven schedules and seemingly endless on-call status situations. And of course there is the inherent danger and uncertainty that adds considerable stress in a military family.

June Allyson is on the short list of my least favorite Hollywood women stars. Apparently many liked her almost constant portrayals of "the gal I left behind". I instead picture her as one of the least hot women I've seen in leading roles – sort of another Doris Day. She is right on cue here, demonstrating her Susie Homemaker type, and eventually seems to be a regular spoilsport.

Jimmy Stewart, also an actor I am not too thrilled about – discounting primarily his work with Alfred Hitchcock – plays his usual mostly affable sort, but he does show us a tough streak in parts of the movie. And he does convey pretty well the effects that the strain of long flights and topsy-turvy schedules has on a person in those scenes. To his advantage in this film, Stewart was the real deal, having been a decorated Air Force pilot.

The film relies on tried-and-true Hollywood plot lines; all the usual concerns of family life are trotted out. So we are leaning pretty heavily to the sentimental side of things.

Nonetheless, the photography is remarkable. The live footage of contemporary state-of-the-art aircraft, in flight, on the ground, and even during ground operations is very good. There is a scene of in-flight refueling, which in my view is the edgiest moment of the movie, that makes us think "I still don't really see how that works", even though it is skillfully captured.

The film had an Academy Award nomination for Best Writing, Motion Picture Story. That stumps me; the award it did receive was a Special Citation for the Aerial Photography from National Board of Review, and that was well deserved.

Two and a half stars.
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9/10
Well Crafted Submariner Tale
19 April 2009
Of the several movies made about submariners in World War 2, for my money "Run Silent, Run Deep" is the best of the lot. Not to say there aren't a few flaws, but on the whole it is a well made venture into this realm.

The film opens with Captain Rich Richardson (Clark Gable) losing his sub command, sunk, we find, in the Bungo Straits. This is a real place, the Bung Channel separating the Japanese islands of Kyushu and Shikoku. We next meet him cooling his heels at a desk job in Pearl Harbor, itching to get back in action.

He successfully lands a sub (the U.S.S. Nerka) command but has a run-in with the boat's current Chief Officer (Burt Lancaster as Lieutenant Jim Bledsoe, who feels he has earned a captaincy (as does the crew).

An uneasy patrol begins, with Captain Richardson endlessly drilling his team. Resentment and distrust grows as the Captain passes on an enemy target, choosing instead to keep moving. Lieutenant Bledsoe maintains his calm and backs the skipper throughout.

One thing particularly noteworthy as the sub begins to parry with the enemy are the special effects. Of the plethora of marine combat films extant, this one has much more believable footage. This is probably the best use of scale models you'll ever see. In addition a great deal of the camera work focuses on the sub while it is in the open sea.

The myriad of problems especial to submarine warfare is well covered in the movie, and the overall feel one gets is the incredible tension that exists during a patrol. Close quarters, rumors, disagreements between crew members, enemy attack, all are mixed in a stew that gives us pause to consider the situation on board the Nerka.

One of the aspects of the submarine campaign during World War 2 that speaks to the incredible danger inherent in any patrol was the rate of casualties of U.S. seamen tallied. According to Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pacific_War#Submarine_warfare) "of the 16,000 Americans who went out on patrol, 3,500 (22%) never returned, the highest casualty rate of any American force in World War II".

There are some small details that don't pass muster, but are not so frequent as to change the overall effect of "Run Silent, Run Deep". As usual, it seems our torpedoes never miss (and the usefulness of torpedoes in the early going of the War was suspect - http://www.valoratsea.com). They seem to be always fighting in some kind of murk, so that you aren't sure if it supposed to be night or day.

Overall this is a first rate film, with fine acting from all concerned and details of submarine combat life well presented. View it and you won't have to see another WW2 sub movie.

Three and a half stars.
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9/10
Sunny Disposition
18 April 2009
"Sunshine Cleaning" is the first satisfyingly on-the-whole good movie of 2009. Mainstream film, that is. The R-rating handed it is a little lame in that there are only some language moments and a few rather unrevealing sex scenes, and one of those is funny!

Amy Adams plays Rose, a woman relegated to offering housecleaning services. She has an unreliable father, a completely failed waitress for a sister and a son harboring what might be construed as anti-social behaviour. But Rose is introduced to the notion of cleaning up crime scenes. The pay sounds great. Her boyfriend Mac (Rose's married cop squeeze Steve Zahn finally delivers a darned good performance) encourages her to go for it; he even can supply tips on jobs.

We see that Rose's life and that of the people in her life is pretty complicated. Her son is a bit of a handful at school, her father is pretty reliable but seems to want to beat the system for his livelihood, her sister is completely unhooked from the mainstream and her own love life is going nowhere. Plus she is trying to be strong despite the unfortunate events occurring around her.

I prefer this type of film because it portrays flawed characters moving about in a world they are only superficially tapped into; no 8-5 stolid suburbanites figure very prominently in the plot. Those we meet are portrayed in a contemptuous manner.

The only obvious artistic filming touch in the entire movie occurs when Rose attends a baby shower. Surrounded by yuppies, she is so out of her element that she can't even fabricate a good pretext for leaving early. The entire episode is filmed in a sort-of sepia tint, highlighting the affair as if one were reviewing a scrapbook. The filmmaker does allow us a few sentimental moments throughout the movie, but never again employs this device.

The only two romantic threads in the movie are in one case resolved, in the other left open for our imagination. And this is acceptable to us because that tends to be the way life works. The film's ending is pretty much as it should be. I personally don't know how it could be improved upon.

This is one definitely worth seeing; I noticed the other attendees to the theater were few and mostly boomers. As you know, box office success is inversely proportional to the quality of the film. So you know it has to be good.

Three Stars
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8/10
Buck Turgidson Returns
17 April 2009
"Monsters vs. Aliens" is a bit of let down; we have become spoiled by the animators now putting together what has been a string of fine offerings in the past decade. This movie, like many, seems to have two parts; a vigorous first part and a more lethargic ending portion.

It starts off by showing us a bride-to-be having her wedding ceremony interrupted by the fall of a meteor whilst she is outside the church. The result of the exposure – she becomes a giant, and you can't help recalling "Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman". She is forthwith whisked off to a secret government prison for other monsters. Some of the incarcerated monsters – and none of them have similar problems – have been there for many years.

An alien probe lands on Earth, and no solution can be found to deter them from destroying our planet. Finally an (overacting) general offers that the monsters in the prison should be used to thwart the invasion. This general character is too much remindful of George C. Scott in his role as Buck Turgidson in "Dr. Strangelove".

After initial attempts to repel the aliens fail, we follow the efforts of the monsters to put an end to the invasion. This is the second portion of the film and is not nearly as engaging as the first part.

Despite the rather saccharine lessons we are made to endure – why are we constantly lecturing to kids? – the overall animation makes this one worth watching.

Three Stars.
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Milk (I) (2008)
8/10
Good Study Of A Maverick Character
25 March 2009
Sean Penn's interpretation of real-life politician Harvey Milk is spot on. His completely convincing role as a gay man, a politically active one at that, again shows the remarkable actor capable of seemingly anything. But there is a bit of a letdown, to me, about this new film.

I say new because a documentary has already been about Milk (The Times of Harvey Milk, 1984), and that detracts a bit from the novelty of this work. And if you read a little about the earlier movie you will find that it was very good - 3 and a half stars from Roger Ebert alone (so you know it had to be at least pretty good!). If I would have known this story had already been covered, I would not have seen it. Remakes are almost always a bad idea. There are new ideas promulgated in Hollywood every week.

This movie follows most closely Harvey Milk's years in San Francisco. He didn't arrive there until fairly late in life - he was 42. Within a short period of time he became totally immersed in city politics. His story is certainly unique in that he flaunted his gayness in a time when that was unheard of, and he tilted at seemingly every political windmill he saw.

I leave it to you to follow his story, from local businessman - he bought a camera shop on Castro - to elected official, serving in City Hall. And we do see a bit of the personal side of Milk; he had a series of relationships over the years, and his last one was marked by tragedy.

The movie does convey some of the energy of the times, and of Milk himself; late night sessions with his colleagues, making speeches on soapboxes, pressing City Hall on an unending stream of concerns. It is intriguing how the gay community grew in power in San Francisco, and Harvey Milk was part of that renaissance.

It was at City Hall where he met his fate at the hands of fellow Supervisor Dan White - played well by Josh Brolin. Although I cannot see the reason for the Best Supporting Actor nomination Brolin received; his part is not particularly lengthy nor could it not have been done as well by another.

This is a three star movie.
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9/10
Some Angry Men
24 March 2009
"The Caine Mutiny" is one of those movies that is really noteworthy because - well, how many mutiny movies can you name? If you put mutiny as a plot keyword into IMDb, you get 110 hits. A great many of those are TV show episodes, and only a few of the movies are memorable.

"Amistad", "Mutiny on the Bounty", "The Caine Mutiny", these are a few that come to the fore. And "The Caine Mutiny" is in my view probably tied in quality with "Mutiny on the Bounty" - the latter being the 1935 version with Clark Gable and Charles Laughton. I have not seen the critically acclaimed "Amistad".

The cast of "The Caine Mutiny" is really quite special. There is not a sour note in any of the performances we see. In particular Fred McMurray plays a turn as a bit of a rabble-rouser aboard the Caine. I think it is the best role he ever had. Van Johnson, as second in command, is equally well suited for his part, and it too may be his best work. Some think Bogart's interpretation of Queeg is extraordinary, but I think his role in "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" may be at least its equal.

Seeds of doubt regarding the Captain (Humphrey Bogart) are sown early on. The crew of the Caine watches him perform some questionable actions, but I will leave it to you to determine if Captain Queeg is at any point unfit for duty. What some would call the crucial scene is directed superbly, with some character's lack of action as important as those in action.

Nearly all of the elements of a great movie are here. The soundtrack is not very interesting but I don't think anyone cares in this case. And the look of the movie is right, in every regard - shipboard, the courtroom, the bit of San Francisco we see while the Caine is in port there. There is even a romance as a plot thread.

The court martial, held of course towards the latter part of "The Caine Mutiny" (1954), is in its own right worth seeing. Jose Ferrer and E.G. Marshall as lawyers are worthy adversaries. It rivals in its effect the somewhat contemporary Henry Fonda classic, "Twelve Angry Men" (1957). The outcome of the trial presents we the viewers with some lingering questions, and rightly so. Mutiny is no small matter in the military, and discipline is certainly one of the cornerstones of an effective fighting force.

This is a four star picture.
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The Tall T (1957)
8/10
Alabama Hills
18 March 2009
Randolph Scott is arguably at his peak in The Tall T. Close to sixty when the film was released, he is one of only a handful of leading men in Hollywood that could still parlay his looks up to that (by Hollywood standards) advanced age. Scott was blessed with good scripts in the Fifties. His films with director Budd Boetticher (such as Seven Men From Now and Buchanan Rides Alone) were heads above most of the oaters of that time.

You will notice Scott as Pat Brennan begins the film as a very happy-go-lucky fellow, not a role Scott often did; in fact I can think of no other movie where he is such a likable sort. He loses a spur-of-the-moment bet early on, yet he remains cheerful despite that loss. But after the capture of the stagecoach on which he is a passenger by a serious gang of cutthroats, things take a decided turn for the worse. His fellow passengers (and hostages) are a pair of newlyweds. Even the dynamic between these two becomes interesting.

In spite of the serious disadvantage Pat has, he presses his captors at all times, looking for opportunities to correct the situation. How he manages to work through his (their) plight is for you to observe. There is a scene of terrific violence in the closing moments, and Scott's remonstration to bystander Doretta (the newlywed, played well by Maureen O'Sullivan) is sage advice.

The Tall T was filmed, like many Westerns, in the beautiful Alabama Hills just east of Mount Whitney. There is no other location like it, and I can usually, sometimes instantly, recognize that area from just a few frames of a film.

Any Randolph Scott Western is worth viewing, this more so than most.

Rating: Three stars
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Gomorrah (2008)
9/10
Necessarily Gritty
18 March 2009
Starting off with a mass killing in a tanning salon, Gomorra never quits its relentless pace - constant tension and anticipation of more of the same is the level at which this film works. There is not one moment of behaviour, line of plot development, capturing of characters doing what they do or detail of narrative that is not tense. Early on one knows that nothing good is going to happen to anyone whose life is traced. One is thrust into a world where violence and crime is accepted as a way of life.

This is no Scarface, and there will be no cult adoration of any of the people met observed. They aren't even handsome to look at, which is probably why the film has a documentary feel. That and the camera work, which is given to close ups and one our favourite devices - What exactly is one looking at here? Then the slow revelation as it dawns on us. Thrust into a world where violence and crime is accepted as a way of life, the camera shows the unexpected, as it should, and it is almost always violent.

Five major plot threads are followed, and the director presents them well enough for one to care to see this through. We meet a sort of bag-man for Camorra (read Mafia) and two cocky teens skirting about the edge of the crime cartel. So also does a grocery delivery boy, perhaps too smart for his own good. A somewhat idealistic young professional inadvertently is becoming entwined in unethical and certainly unhealthy business pursuits. And what will become of the tailor, teaching Chinese workers the art of the profession?

All good fiction is of course based on some truths. As the events of violence and other criminal pursuits are laid out one never has a doubt that any and all the situations portrayed have happened. Director Matteo Garrone notes in an interview that there are "hundreds of stories" in the book, but only these five were developed for the movie (http://www.cinemablend.com).

There are only a few scenes that stretch credulity. When the two youths are seen shooting by the shores of an estuary there is a major flaw - no splashes are ever seen, and be advised rapid-fire AK47s would make considerable ripples. In another moment an older woman makes a comment about her orchard that is unnecessary. But on the whole there isn't much to complain about regarding Gomorra. For grimness, though, it can't be beat, or at least it won't be soon.

Three and a half stars.
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Nosferatu (1922)
10/10
Noseferatu Started It All!
18 March 2009
"Noseferatu" is one chilling film, and a must-see for any lover of the horror genre. It really sets the stage for Hollywood's steady production of vampire-related tales for more than three generations. About the only negative thing about it is that director F. W. Murnau didn't ask for permission to adapt Bram Stoker's original 1897 novel to the screen, and a long legal battle developed with Stokers' widow. Murnau lost the case in 1925 ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bram_Stoker) but prints luckily survived.

Beginning with real estate agent Hutter going to Transyvania to secure the sale of a house in Germany to Count Orlock, Hutter soon finds that all is not normal in the life of the Count. Even the carriage ride to Orlock's castle is odd; Murnau chooses to speed up the film anytime said conveyance moves. The behaviour of local townspeople and, shortly after the carriage ride, Hutter's introduction to the Count, plunges us into a seriously dark world. And there is no less a discovery by Hutter of a book about vampires. There are a number of film-history moments in the early going, but one that I don't recall seeing in any other vampire film is Orlock's rise up from a seeming prostrate position. This not only startles Hutter but we as well.

Any student of vampire lore (at least the popular image of it) will recognize the close parallel between Murnau's movie and subsequent films about Dracula. I grew up with the far more widely known Bela Lugosi rendition which in its own right is a fine film, another whose themes are widely copied. The actual quality of the film is a little suspect. I think we are fortunate the film is even available, and the slightly disjointed print is not so terrible as to make it less visually disturbing.

There has been speculation about the star of Noseferatu (Max Schreck as Count Orlock) and its director F.W. Murnau for what seems like forever. I recall reading a story in a magazine during my teens that perpetuated the notion that Schreck was himself a vampire. This is a far remove from what really seems to be the case, that he merely a loner in his private life.

Noseferatu is a four star movie.
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