Archive for the ‘4-Star Movies’ Category

Trouble in Paradise with Zombies

December 18, 2007

Caught two movies last night. (No, really.) Both from Netflix, although I viewed one online and one on my very own DVD player.

 First up, we had The Astro-Zombies (1967). As you might ascertain from the title, this was a huge stinker – which is why I wanted to see it! I actually took the trouble of adding several bad bad movies to my NF queue, just for the heck of it.

In Astro-Zombies, John Carradine (cast with type!) plays a scientist who’s trying to transfer memories from the recently deceased into, well, other dead bodies. He accomplishes this using 1960s technology, so you can expect plenty of smoking beakers and lots of lights and buttons that apparently don’t do squat.

Meanwhile, there’s subterfuge afoot. A crime gang (led by cult actress Tura Satana) figures out that mindless zombies are behind it, although I can’t remember why, and they plot to track down Carradine in his lab so they can use his knowledge to further their diabolical plans. Carradine’s Dr. DeMarco, it should be noted, is not a mad scientist, not even an evil doctor; he’s innocent and genuinely hopes his creations will cause good! So he’s kind of bummed to find out that’s not the case.

The CIA (?) gets wind of Dr. DeMarco’s experiments, too, because of the recent killings and the fact that Dr. DeMarco was kicked out of his research lab for his experiments.

 The best part of this is the zombies. They kind of look like Tusken Raiders, only if the Raiders were “special” people you wouldn’t trust with a sharp pencil. They move as slow as zombies are expected to move, which means, of course, that no one can out run them. Or overpower them – it’s like being undead makes you strong.

Anyway, the movie’s pretty awful, also Satana is a lot of fun to look at. A lot.

Then we have Trouble in Paradise (1932). This is a classic screwball comedy by director Ernst Lubitsch, who was known for subtle wit in his direction. Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins play jewel thieves who fall for each other and team up to con a wealthy socialite, played by Kay Francis. Ah, but Marshall falls for Francis – or does he – and madcap fun ensues. Also in the cast are Charlie Ruggles as a stiff-backed major trying to win Francis’ hand and Edward Everett Horton, another rich sap who’s trying to do the same.

It’s a well-written, quick-witted film with plenty of laughs and physical comedy; Marshall, Francis, and Hopkins are wonderful together, and in real life the latter two were close friends. The premise is timeless, although the setting and execution do feel a tad dated now. But the inspiring, energetic performances by the three leads – as well as the supporting cast, particularly Horton – boost this one to classic status.

 The Astro-Zombies (1967): *

Trouble in Paradise (1932): ****


332 – Bobby

July 17, 2007

It’s tough to make a movie about 1960s America nowadays. Any documentary or encyclopedia entry on the decade will note that its final years were “turbulent” or “chaotic” and that there was this grand coming together of various revolutions – cultural, political, sexual. Things Happened in the late 1960s. Change was Effected. Gone was the bland, colorless 1950s lifestyles that Ma and Pa Kettle loved, the workaday, nothing-changes lives, a time when you could expect things to go as they always had. But once all of these changes began to occur and people from different walks of life found they had things in common with strange, exotic people, the result was a hodge podge of everything that made America unique in the world. With such a potpourri of dizzying issues, any movie about the period is sure to fall short.

This is not the case with Emilio Estevez’s brilliant Bobby. Bobby follows the lives of 22 disparate people during the weekend of June 5, 1968, at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles – the time and place of Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination shortly after a campaign speech – their interactions with each other, and how each is affected by Kennedy’s presence that weekend.

Perhaps intentionally, Estevez’s film pays homage to Robert Altman’s classic Nashville, which used the same ensemble-cast formula and was centered around a political speech and musical concert. Estevez wisely never follows one character for too long, lest we think the focus is on anything but the overarching theme of Change. He also doesn’t swoop in for close ups of his many stars, opting for a much more realistic portrayal. The camera follows an actor as he or she moves into a new room, rather than being in the room as he or she enters. That sort of thing.

But here’s where the movie is incredible genius. We know what happens. We know exactly how the movie is going to end. It’s not a mystery; everything builds up to Kennedy’s murder. And yet somehow, we’re still stunned, absolutely thunderstruck when it happens. No! Not Bobby! Why? Why? I mean, I wasn’t even around in 1968, and I was first captivated and then devastated by the senselessness of the killing. Bobby Kennedy, the film tells us, was more than a political candidate. He was a true unifier, a man who honestly felt bad about all the crap that had happened, the seemingly endless war in Vietnam and the intracountry violence that threatened to really tear the country apart. He campaigned not on the coattails of his martyred brother’s legacy but on his own strong ideals and compassion. Everyone, it seemed, loved Kennedy – whites, blacks, Hispanics, rich people, poor people, the distaff middle class, everyone. Except, of course, for his eventual killer.

The cast features a lot of big names. Anthony Hopkins. Demi Moore. Martin Sheen. Christian Slater. Sharon Stone. Lindsey Lohan. Elijah Wood. Some are better known for their offscreen exploits nowadays, some haven’t had much of a career in years. But Estevez manages to eke out some tremendous, galvanizing, gut-wrenching performances from everyone. Seriously, not one insincere note is sounded; there’s no hamminess, no vamping, no divas, no egos. It’s an acting clinic. You forget these are big Hollywood stars and can almost believe everyone’s a nonactor who happens to be really, really good.

Above all, even with his audience knowing the precise ending, Estevez never takes away that which audiences hold most dear – hope. The assasination of Bobby Kennedy was crippling to many in 1968, and by extension the viewing audience in 2006, but even his death could not destroy the hope of getting past the bad times. When Bobby is over, you feel like you’ve been socked in the stomach by your dog. But then you look at your dog, and your dog looks at you, and you realize it’s gonna be okay after all.


297 – Pan’s Labyinth

January 20, 2007

Are you the kind of moviegoer who just doesn’t cotton to subtitled films? If you’re like me, you have enough trouble following the spoken words and the images on the screen without also having to wrestle with text. For me, it’s especially tough when the movie depends strongly on dialog for its success. So for the most part, I avoid subtitled movies. I’ll watch ’em, but it darn well better be an awesome film.

Pan’s Labyrinth is an awesome film, and I mean that it’s both awe-inspiring and excellent. The movie is full of lush imagery that at times cascades gently over the viewer, lulling them into acquiescence, and other times jarring him into reality. It’s simultaneously beautiful, arresting, dreamy, and terrifying.

The story centers on young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), a bookish sort who’s been uprooted by her mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) to live with her new stepfather Capitan Vidal (Sergi Lopez) in a remote military stronghold in Spain during World War II. The Franco government has just assumed control, and Vidal’s troops are there to fight rebels stationed in the woods, all while rationing food to the needy villagers around them.

As if this situation weren’t unnerving enough, Ofelia’s mother is very late in her pregnancy (by the Capitan, of course), and the pregnancy isn’t proceeding smoothly; in an ominous sign, the caravan ferrying Ofelia and Carmen to the castle has to stop when Carmen becomes ill.

On top of dealing with these very real problems, Ofelia finds herself drawn to a huge labyrinth located in the garden of the vast estate. The housekeeper, Mercedes, warns the imaginative Ofelia not to enter the labyrinth, because its myriad turns would be very dangerous indeed for her young charge.

In the middle of her first night in the castle, Ofelia awakes and finds herself drawn to a pit near the labyrinth. Descending its narrow stone stairs, she finds Pan (Faun in Spanish), a servant of the Lord of the Underworld. Pan tells Ofelia that she is actually the Princess of the Underworld, and that she must perform three tasks so that she can leave her human body and return to be by the side of her father.

To describe these three tasks would be to give away a bit too much, but suffice to say that they aren’t as simple as saying one’s prayers or sneaking a loaf of bread away from the kitchen. But Ofelia does choose to complete them; she decides that given the evil of her malignant, torturing stepfather (a despot in training during the Fascist regime), she would rather follow her limitless imagination.

Meanwhile, a parallel storyline involves the rebels, who have a source inside the castle: Mercedes. Vidal is determined to root all of the rebels out of the woods and exterminate them all, and they are equally determined to overthrow him and return freedom to the masses. As well, Carmen’s pregnancy becomes even more difficult, and it is only a matter of time before the three threads come to a head.

Perhaps the most striking of the many visual desserts in the movie is that of the Pale Man, one of the demons that Ofelia must encounter during her travails. The scene is a banquet table with a lush array of foods and drinks. At one end sits a creature. The creature is tall, but humanoid in shape. It has long arms and arrow-sharp fingers with nails resembling talons. It is hairless and virtually skinless as well, and it has no eyes. Its mouth is a gaping maw, bereft of lips; a cold, stark, ugly beast that immediately fills one with horror and dread. On the table before the creature are two eyeballs; when the Pale Man is aroused, it grasps the eyeballs with its gnarled hands and slaps them into the palms, then holds the arms at head’s height in order to see its prey.

Guillermo del Toro’s film is highly imaginative, almost decadent in its lushness, evocative in both beauty and ugliness, in Ofelia’s innocence, Carmen’s and Mercedes’ love, and Vidal’s demonic cruelty. Vidal is a terrible sight, a by-the-book murderous fiend who will stop at nothing to completely eradicate everyone who opposes him, including the weak and the infirm. Lopez’s performance is gut-wrenching, despicable, and sincere. The precocious Baquero, as Ofelia, is a perfect foil to the haunting Vidal, combining her natural, wide-eyed naivete and curiosity with resolve, intelligence, and self-sufficiency.

This original film is Mexico’s 2007 entry as Best Film in a Foreign Language for the Academy Awards, and it really should win. Had it been in English, I have no doubt it would have been considered for Best Picture. It really is that good; don’t let your aversion to subtitles prevent you from seeing one of the most magnificent films of the decade.


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293 – Cars

December 10, 2006

On his way to a big event in California, a conceited race car finds himself stuck in Radiator Springs, a tiny town in the middle of the desert. It’s a typical podunk burg, the very epicenter of Hicksville, and the clean n’ shiny supercharger doesn’t know how to cope. But cope he must, as during his grand entrance he wrecked a good portion of the town’s road.

Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is a pretty sheltered car – he doesn’t even have headlights, since race cars don’t need them (the whole track’s lit, y’see). But he’s not happy with his life as it currently stands; he dreams of winning the famed Piston Cup – even better, of becoming the first rookie car to do so. But the final race of the season winds up a three-way tie, thanks in equal parts to Lightning’s refusal to stop for new tires midrace and his apparently long tongue. At any rate, a special race is scheduled in one week’s time. Naturally, along the way, Lightning is somehow separated from the truck transporting him, and he finds himself in the active, hoppin’ Radiator Springs.

At first the judge in town, Doc Hudson (Paul Newman), just wants Lightning to leave as soon as possible, but he’s quickly convinced otherwise by Sally Carrera (Bonnie Hunt), who thinks Lightning oughta fix the road he’s done tore up. Which is only fair, seeing also as he’s the only vehicle in town with enough horsepower to pull the big ol’ tarring contraption.

While he’s there, Lightning naturally makes the acquaintance of the other (few) citizens. Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), the town tow truck, immediately befriends Lightning; others include Ramone (Cheech Marin), Flo (Jenifer Lewis), Fillmore (George Carlin), Luigi (Tony Shalhoub), and Sarge (Paul Dooley).

By now, we’re all used to Pixar’s animation prowess, but they constantly top themselves. There are no humans in his film. It’s not that there aren’t any in the story, there aren’t any in the cars universe. For instance, the stands at the races are filled with vehicles of all kinds (the inner circle is filled with RV trailers). The motel in Radiator Springs is a series of – get this – traffic cones. The pit crews are made up of small, handy vehicles. There’s even a field populated not by cows but by tractors (Lightning and Mater go tractor tipping), watched over by a gigantic plow.

But even with all of the cars, trucks, and whatnot floating around, even more impressive is the absolute crystal-clear detail in the backgrounds, particularly the canyon and desert sequences. Even if you pause your DVD player and squint reaaaaally hard, you can’t really tell that these aren’t photographs. And, of course, when they’re moving a regular speed your subconscious can’t tell, either. Check out the splash when Sally and Lightning drive through a puddle, and tell me that’s not as realistic as a photo. Go on, do it.

As with the best Disney films, one has to care about the characters, I mean really care about what happens to them. It’s not enough to have someone with dreams of success if that character isn’t all that fascinating to begin with. But Lightning McQueen, bless his self-absorbed self, is appealing, even charming in a preening, egocentric kind of way. See, he’s never really experienced life outside of his racing existence, and he’s always seen his winning the Piston Cup as a way to better himself. Little does he know, of course, that his life will wind up being bettered by the denizens of Radiator Springs – and one certain Porsche in particular – whether he likes it or not!

The movie’s similar in theme to Michael J. Fox’s Doc Hollywood (1991), in which a hotshot doctor gets stuck in a tiny town and has to offer medical services to get his car fixed.The entire cast is a hoot, especially Carlin’s hippie, alternative-fuel Volkswagen minibus – a clear descendent of the comic’s late sixties’ Hippy Dippy Weather Man. Good times, good times.

The main themes are enjoying what one has and embracing different and new people (er, vehicles), but there’s also a side theme of innocent lost. Radiator Springs takes place on the famed Route 66, just a hair’s width away from Interstate 40. It seems that back in the day, Radiator Springs was THE place to stop if one were traveling along 66. But then the interstate was built just to the north, bypassing the town by just a few minutes’ drive. And now no one ever stops. It’s a wry commentary on the real-life Route 66, what parts of it still exist, a true monument to the American spirit.

A fantastic ride from start to checkered flag, Cars is the perfect animated feature – gaggles of giggles for the little tykes and a bevy of knowing jokes for the grownup kids.


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Father of the Bride (1950)

July 29, 2006

Yes, this may come as a surprise to some of you out there, but the 1991 Steve Martin film of the same name was a remake of this 1950 gem starring Spencer Tracy as the harried papa and a young Elizabeth Taylor as the bride to be. Good news, too; not only is the original a wonderful film, viewing it won’t make you completely eschew the remake, because although Martin’s version was fun and sincere, it was much more of a slapstick movie than Tracy’s.

Tracy is curmudgeonly Stanley, Joan Bennett plays his loving/knowing wife Ellie, Taylor is the sprightly Kay, and Russ Tamblyn plays the son, although he doesn’t get nearly the number of witty side remarks that Kieran Culkin would get in 1991. Poor Stanley! Like Martin’s George, Stanley’s beset by an optimistic daughter whom he still regards as an adorable little girl AND by a wife who doesn’t seem to appreciate that their daughter will soon be gone forever. Well, at least until she needs money. We get the requisite “let’s invite only a few people” bit, and the run-in with the caterer (Leo G. Carroll), who advises to Bankses to take out doors and remove furniture so that everyone can fit in the house for the reception.

But where the later version would concentrate on Martin’s ability to scrape laughs out of ordinary situations, the 1950 classic tugs a bit more strongly on one’s heartstrings; particular attention is paid to Stanley’s efforts to say goodbye to his “Kitten” one last timeei as the reception is ending – only to see, as would George in 1991, those efforts be in vain.

Tracy is really fantastic here, showing a good sense of balance between sentimentality and wry humor – without drowning in maudlin oh-woe-is-me victimization. And Taylor! Her magnificent, dancing eyes! Sure, to look at her now in 2006, you’d not make the connection of Liz Taylor = beautiful, but trust me – in the fifties she was stunning. I almost wish this movie were in color so I could see how violet her eyes truly were. Anyway, she’s great, Tracy’s great, and the entire supporting cast is a lot of fun. The movie feels honest and sincere and is a true American classic.


Bride of Blurbians

July 17, 2006

Misery (1990) ***1/2 Electrifying, shocking (at the time) drama about a once-popular novelist who’s just killed off his main character – and who is now trapped in a snowbound cabin with his number-one fan, who’s none too pleased. Grisly at times, but taut direction and strong performances by James Caan and Kathy Bates are huge assets. One of the few adaptations of Stephen King stories to succeed on the big screen.

M*A*S*H (1970) ***1/2 Acerbic, knowing satire of war in general, this one centering on the conflict in Korea. Decidedly non-PC – can you imagine a character named Spearchucker in a movie from today? – Robert Altman succeeds in skewering the hypocrisy of armed conflict. Stellar ensemble cast, including Donald Sutherland, Robert Duvall, Elliot Gould, and Tom Skerrit.

Beverly Hills Cop (1984) ***1/2 Eddie Murphy’s iconic Axel Foley travels from the mean streets of Detroit to solve a buddy’s murder out in the titular town, running into bad guys and dumb, clean cops galore. Film notable for Murphy’s commanding performance, including his rousting of a redneck bar. Excellent soundtrack.

Pump Up The Volume (1990) *** Rebellious teen runs a pirate radio station from the back of his car, raises rabble (students) against The Man (teachers, admins). Christian Slater brings a cocky nihilism to the proceedings in an underrated performance. Great soundtrack.

Major League (1989) *** The Cleveland Indians stink and play to empty stadiums at home, so their new owner wants them to stink even more so she can justify moving them to Florida. Guess what happens. Great baseball scenes, and the cast – including Tom Berenger, Corbin Bernsen, and Charlie Sheen has a good time. Yes, it’s true; Wild Thing makes our heart sing.

A Hard Day’s Night (1964) **** A day in the life of the Fab Four as imagined by director Richard Lester. Plenty of hit Beatles tunes; free-form plot serves the free spirits of the group very well.

It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World

July 6, 2006

If you’re looking for something to occupy your time, a movie about which you don’t have to think very much, you might want to give this 1963 comedy a whirl. Don’t let the date fool you; the madcap hilarity is just as relevant today. Remember the movie Rat Race from a few years back? It was somewhat based on this movie, so if you enjoyed the newer one, there’s no question you’d love the original.

It starts out quite auspiciously. Jimmy Durante drives his car off a cliff in California, and as he’s dying among the rocks he imparts some words to passersby. He tells the gathered gang – which includes such comic greats as Milton Berele, Sid Caeser, Jonathan Winters, Buddy Hackett, and Mickey Rooney – that there’s $350,000 buried under a “big W” in (fictional) Santa Rosita. All they gotta do, see, is go there – several hundred miles away – and dig it up.

If only it’s that simple! Every comic actor, going back to the twenties, seems to show up in this movie. Some are in cahoots with the original passersby. Some are impedences. Some are cops, some are cabbies. Can you name another movie in which Mr. Furley (Don Knotts, as a nervous motorist) and Mr. Roper (Norman Fell, as a cop at the accident scene) both appear? I think not!

Fantastic comic scenes abound. Jim Backus passes out drunk while flying Hackett and Rooney, so Buddy has to take over. Caesar and his wife Edie Adams (Ernie Kovacs’ wife; he died a few months before filming began) find themselves locked in hardware store’s basement. Winters singlehandedly destroys a service station (Arnold Stang is one of the attendants).

It is, as the cool kids now say, comedy gold. It’s long – about 3 hours – but don’t worry, there’s an intermission on the DVD! No, seriously, there is. Pretty wacky. They don’t put intermissions in films anymore, even for long ones.

You might have fun trying to pick out who’s who – even the Three Stooges show up, as firemen. Andy Devine, Charles Lane, Charles McGraw, William Demarest, Ethel Merman, Terry-Thomas, Dick Shawn, and the voice of Selma Diamond (Night Court, anyone?) all appear. And they ain’t the half of it.

Anyway, it’s a huge amount of fun, and it’s clean enough for even your favorite nun to enjoy. Fantastic entertainment. Among the many highlights is the now-famous extended opening credits sequence. Oh, and a spot of trivia for you: At one point during those credits, the animated world explodes, unleashing for a moment the names of the animators. One of the names is that of Bill Melendez, who two years later would direct A Charlie Brown Christmas – and later scores of other Charlie Brown specials.

It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World: ****

247 – Good Night, and Good Luck.

February 7, 2006

Good Night, and Good Luck is a singularly gripping, powerful movie about the epic battle between a blustery, Red-obsessed senator and a resolved veteran newsman. Photographed in stark black and white and infused with a real 1950s feel, George Clooney’s sharp homage to one of the greatest journalists America’s ever known is utterly captivating and discomfiting.

Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn) was one of the biggest stars in CBS News as the host of “Person to Person” and “See It NoW.” When he gets wind of a soldier who’s been fired from the Air Force for a tenuous Communist connection, Murrow springs into action, choosing to use Senator Joseph P. McCarthy’s own words and actions against him, rather than attacking the man.

What Murrow did was nothing short of astonishing. This was the mid-1950s. The press genuflected to royalty (i.e., politicos) much more than exercised genuine critical analysis of it. What’s more, McCarthy’s fellow senators did little to prevent the man from running roughshod over the rights of those suspecting of being “card-carrying Communists.” With no press to question him and no colleagues to rein him in, McCarthy had carte blanche to root out the evil-doin’ Reds from all facets of American life.

The stand that Murrow took – putting the reputations of himself, producer Fred Friendly (Clooney), and the CBS network on the line – took an incalculable amount of courage. One misstep by Murrow and his team, and his career would be over. (As it turned out, his undoing of McCarthy was also his own undoing, but that was less his fault than the fault of CBS chief William Paley.)

More than fifty years have passed since Murrow won by decision over McCarthy (the senator was censured by his colleagues, which allowed him to remain in the Senate but severely diminished his influence), but the events that take place in this film resonate deeply today. Indeed, it is not unimaginable to see a politican like MCCarthy run amok in a avaricious grab for power and prestige. The passage of time, however, allows us to reflect perhaps a bit more objectively, to examine the fight for the civil rights of every man, woman, and child in the United States. How far have we come in the ensuing half-century? Who are the Murrows of today?

Strathairn is nothing short of remarkable. He’s not an especially large man, but he has such gravitas in this film that he seems to fill the screen even when he’s merely sitting in the background. He is a man of many faces and expressions, and every one of them seems to ring perfectly true. Strathairn has knocked around Hollywood for more than a quarter century, earning scores of accolades from his peers and the media, but he’s never been a leading man in a such a widely praised film. Indeed, he’s the kind of actor who disappears into roles, who is a superb character actor, adding color and depth to every role he touches. He’s been nominated for an Academy award at this writing, and he stands a good chance at bringing home the statuette. It’s long overdue.

Strathairn is ably supported by a well-picked cast, including Robert Downey Jr. in his fortieth comeback, Frank Langella as Paley, and Clooney as producer Friendly. Even more beneficial, though, is the look and feel of the movie, and the near-flawless direction by Clooney. Clooney wisely stuck to the main tet-a-tet between Murrow and McCarthy, rather than building up Murrow as a character first; indeed, there’s little else in the movie besides the row with McCarthy. For one thing, we learn virtually nothing about the personal lives of Friendly and Murrow. And that omission works very well within the structure of this film.

Good Night, and Good Luck is a mesmerizing glimpse at how the power of the press can be used to uphold the rights of man, and a chilling snapshot at what can happen if ego and authority go unchecked.

Good Night, and Good Luck: ****

242 – King Kong (2005)

January 30, 2006

King Kong is a colossal spectacle. Marquees of the day would label epics as stupendous, amazing, fantastic, incredible, and so on, and this remake of the 1933 original fits the bill perfectly. Unlike its ’33 counterpart, though, it’s quite long, clocking in at a mere 187 minutes, but it almost never feels like it, thanks to a relentless barrage of heart-pounding action and heart-stopping suspense. Oh, and romance.

The story is your typical girl-meets-giant-ape, giant-ape-tries-to-eat-girl, girl-performs-a-soft-shoe, ape-falls-in-love-with-ape tale, except there’s also dinosaurs and giant insects and primitive native tribes that would put the headhunters from Gilligan’s Island to shame. Carl Denham (Jack Black, looking quite a bit like Orson Welles), a down-on-his-luck movie director, charts a ship to take him to a distant island: Skull Island. On this mysterious island, Denham plans to shoot his new picture with his leading lady Ann Darrow (the exquisite Naomi Watts) and he-man action star Bruce Baxter (Kyle Chandler); also along for the ride is playwright Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody), who’s busily writing the script to Denham’s movie – on the way to the location, naturally.

The movie can be divided into three unequal parts: the voyage to the island (and the prefatory material contained therein), the travails on the island, and the Broadway showing of Kong, back in New York. Much of the movie focuses on the first two parts, especially the time on the island, and this is time well spent. SEE! the natives kidnap Ann and attempt to sacrifice her to Kong! SEE! our heroes attempt to rescue Ann and defeat Kong! SEE! Kong fight not one, not two, but THREE, yes, THREE big ol’ dinosaurs!

Remember how dinosaurs were depicted in old TV shows like Land of the Lost, or in old movies like The Lost Continent? Now, we can look back at those and marvel at how far we’ve come – just look at the dinos in Jurassic Park for comparison. But the creatures in King Kong put those in JP to shame, because of the excellent attention to detail and full articulation. No mere man in a monkey suit is Kong, no sir.

Despite having to work against a blue screen – or air – the blood-and-guts actors of King Kong pull more than their share of the load. Watts is wonderful, her expressive eyes revealing much and little simultaneously. Brody is her equal as the determined scribe, a devil who falls for the lovely Miss Darrow instantly (despite her mistaking someone else for him, poor girl). Both actors have earned their accolades. Black is perfectly hammy as the loquacious, megalomaniacal Denham, who, for all his faults, is of indomitable spirit and verve.

There are indeed plenty of scary scenes in King Kong, so the little ones probably should stay at home – or watch it with you when the movie is available on home video, so you can skip some of the more intense parts. Still, it’s only violence, and we all love our cartoony violence, don’t we?

King Kong: ****

203 – Finding Neverland

May 13, 2005

Finding Neverland is the story of how struggling playwright J. M. Barrie (Johnny Depp) created Peter Pan, inspired by an equally struggling widow (Kate Winslet) and her four rambunctious boys. Exquisitely detailed, with sumptuous and elaborate set pieces, Marc Forster’s filming of the Allan Knee play is artful without being arty.

Johnny Depp is perfectly cast as Barrie, although there’s the usual caveat that Johnny Depp is perfectly cast in almost anything. He might well be the best actor working today, especially since he refuses to let himself become typecast. Hard to believe now that he used to be on that old Fox TV show, isn’t it? Depp is dead-on earnest as the wise, soulful Barrie, who becomes a sort-of surrogate father to the four Davies boys, whose father has since passed away (although in real life he hadn’t yet died when Barrie met the family).

Although the movie is about the creation of Peter Pan, at its heart are smaller dovetailing storythreads about relationships, particularly those between Barrie and his wife, Mary (Radha Mitchell), Barrie and Sylvia Davies (Winslet), and Barrie and the youngest Davies boy, Peter (Freddie Highmore). Depp’s mastery of expression and pathos are on display here, as he turns in an utterly commanding, pitch-perfect performance; his Oscar nomination for this role was well deserved indeed.

Depp is supported by an excellent cast that looks like it’s been performing the roles for years. In particular, Winslet and Mitchell were magnificent, as was the venerable Julie Christie, who plays Sylvia’s mother Mrs. Emma du Maurier. Dustin Hoffman turns in decent work as Charles Frohman, the proprietor of the playhouse in which Barrie’s plays were performed (in other words, his patron). As Depp is now, Hoffman was long known for being able to disappear into a role – his roles in the 1970s alone are mighty eclectic indeed.

This is a sheer beauty to behold, a movie that should certainly stand the test of time to be regarded in a few decades as a true classic. Your jaw will drop at some of the set pieces on display – check out the pirate ship! – and you’ll marvel at the jaunty forays into the imagination of the playwright who never grew up. Finding Neverland will have even the most jaded and heartless melting and shimmering with pure, unadulterated joy.

Finding Neverland: ****

The Train, Trancers, Twelve o’Clock High

February 12, 2005

The Train (1964) ***1/2 Burt Lancaster plays a member-in-good-standing of the French Resistance during German occupation of France. The Germans have raided France of its greatest art treasures – Matisse, Cezanne, Picasso, Monet – and put them on a train bound for Germany. The colonel in charge (Paul Scofield) is obsessed with getting the art to Germany, where it would be treated as war booty. Since the art collection is portrayed as representing the heart of France, Lancaster – a railroad man by trade – does all he can to stop the train from reaching its destination.

There’s not a lot glossed over here, as many people are killed onscreen. The brutality of war is not ignored, but is rather put into a context that non-soldiers can appreciate – saving something that is part of normal, everyday life, not a war treasure like planes or guns.

John Frankenheimer scored big with this movie, and it was due to his own insistence on reality that the effects were as good as they were. We get to see trains collide in a massive wreck, and Frankenheimer used REAL trains! Add the effects to a plausible story line and a clever, pungent script, and you have a classic.

Trancers (1984) *** This low, low budget sci-fier is somewhat derivative, but it’s kind of a take-off on Bladerunner-type movies, rather than a ripoff of them. Jack Deth (Tim Thomerson) is a detective in the future who’s sent back to 1985 to stop a madman who’s decided to kill the ancestors of the city council of Deth’s time. With the help of Lena (a young Helen Hunt), Deth fights Trancers (who have fallen under the control of the madman) and his own culture shock.

It’s a short movie (76 minutes), and things move pretty quickly; plot isn’t so much of a focus as a annoying gnat that appears from time to time. But for being so short, the characters are pretty well developed – and one huge bonus is that Deth isn’t an no necked, shoot-first idiot, as renegade cops are often portrayed.

Trancers is original, often-funny sci-fi cheese. It’s great to see Thomerson and Hunt – especially Hunt, who looks great.

Twelve o’Clock High (1949) **** There have been many films produced about World War II; some about the ground assault, some about the air raids, some from Allied viewpoints, some from German viewpoints. Many have had ensemble casts in them that took a back seat to the wartime action. This classic focuses on bombers being pushed to their absolute physical and emotional limits. Their commander, Gary Merrill, begins to show signs of the strain and is replaced by his superiors, who feel he’s becoming too attached to the soldiers (as opposed to focusing on the war objectives). The man who ordered the replacement, Gregory Peck, is ordered to take over for Merrill. But how long before Peck falls become what he loathes – a commander who runs on emotion and defies logic and orders?

Like many wartime movies, this one is chock full of action scenes. Peck pushes his soldiers to accomplish their bombing goals, doing all he can to improve morale and give his men something to fight for. Unlike many war movies, which had the soldiers fighting blindly, going grimly into battle without knowing why, this one makes the point that the men perform better knowing what their objectives are. In other words, the whole issue of war as reducing man to his basest state is touched on very neatly. These are not automatons programmed to do battle, these are real, thinking, breathing humans.

The acting is fantastic, with Peck getting a chance to play a little out of character as the tough commander. He’s supported ably by Merrill, Dean Jagger (who won an Oscar), and Hugh Marlowe. Recommended for action and war-movie fans.

176 – Fahrenheit 9/11

November 5, 2004

It is perhaps a little late to watch this movie, as its stated purpose was to educate Americans in time for the presidential election. But even without the backdrop of the election, this is a supremely relevant, powerful movie.

Director Michael Moore, noted for his documentary Roger and Me and later his short-lived television series TV Nation, begins with a simple premise: that President George W. Bush’s first term, particularly since the terror attacks on September 11, 2001, has been deeply flawed. Moore examines the handling of terrorism in the months prior to September 11, the president’s reaction to the attacks, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq overall. Moore leaves very few stones unturned in his thorough dissertation of U.S. foreign policy of the past few years.

It really doesn’t matter if you the viewer agree with Moore; his aim is to make you feel something, whether it’s disgust toward the administration or disdain toward the film and its creator. If you’re a staunch Republican who supports the president no matter what, you almost certainly won’t be swayed by this movie; you’re far more likely to view it as leftist propaganda. If you’re an opponent of the president and his policies, this movie will only reinforce your viewpoint. So, in that sense, it is definitely propaganda – clearly so.

Moore’s MO is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. And boy, are there plenty of both in this movie. He interviews soldiers in Iraq; some are elated to be there and treat gunning down Iraqis like a video game, and others are openly dissatisfied for not being allowed to return stateside, even though their tours of duty have expired. Moore interviews the mother of a soldier stationed in Iraq; in the beginning of the movie, she’s gung-ho for the war, proud that her children are overseas (she even says she thinks she’s the proudest around, as if it were a contest). By the end of the movie, she’s a grieving mother of a soldier killed in battle. Her scenes are searing in their emotion. She reads a letter from him, the last one he wrote; she’d received it a week or so before he died.

Among Moore’s other tactics is badgering various members of Congress, asking them if they would mind enlisting their children. (Turns out only one member of Congress has a child serving in Iraq.) None will do so, which isn’t surprising. Moore also examines the connection between the Bush family and the bin Laden family, especially pre-9/11, the strength of the relationship between the Saudi Arabian government (well, ruling family) and the Bush family, and the relationship between the Saudis and the United States economy.

It’s important to recognize this movie for what it is; it’s dangerous to assume that it’s a straightforward documentary. It’s an unabashed look at what historians may someday call one of the worst presidencies in American history. For now, though, it’s just the first half.

Fahrenheit 9/11: ****

161 – Lost in Translation

April 25, 2004

Lost in Translation is a bittersweet story of two disparate Americans temporarily in Tokyo. Bob Harris (Bill Murray) is a has-been actor who’s relegated to pitching alcohol in a TV ad; Charlotte (Scarlett Johanson) is the somewhat-neglected wife of a photographer (Giovanni Ribisi) who’s in town to do a shoot.

Charlotte and Bob are staying at the same hotel, and both are living through the same experience of getting through the day as fish out of water. Living the life of a tourist-American isn’t always fun and games, you know. Bob just wants to finish his commercial shoot and then get home, even though the marriage with his stateside wife is devoid of passion, and Scarlett isn’t quite sure what she wants.

It’s not improbable that these two should wind up spending some time together, especially since in Tokyo they stick out like the cliched sore thumbs (especially Murray, who’s much taller than any of the Japanese around him at all times). They decide to hang out together, to make the most of the time they have to spend in a foreign land.

One of the biggest complaints I’ve heard about this movie is that it’s too slow, but I consider that to be its most engaging characteristic. This is not an action movie. This isn’t a smart-alecky comedy with rapid-fire hilarity. In essence, it’s a two-character study.

A good film for comparison is Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise (1995). In that movie, Jesse (an American) and Celine (a Frenchwoman) meet on a train traveling from Budapest to Vienna, and we witness their relationship gradually ascend from that of slight acquaintences to full-blown amour. Bob and Charlotte’s relationship progresses much the same way, but it’s even more subtle (believe it or not). Charlotte, the lonely photographer’s wife, and Bob, the unwilling participant in a disaffected marriage, find in each other a true kindred spirit.

This isn’t something easily expressed on screen, and even on the printed page it’s difficult to pull off. But the masterful Oscar-winning script by Sofia Coppola (who also directed) is so superb in its attention to detail, along with the perfectly nuanced performances of Johansson and Murray (nominated for an Oscar) are the ideal combination. The audience is utterly convinced that these two characters are meant for each other, at least on some level.

Not one note of this movie rang falsely for me, but it is not for everyone. Don’t let the mulitple Oscar nominations sway you – if you do not like quiet, subtle movies, you probably won’t like Lost in Translation. For the rest of you, it’s a true gem.

Lost in Translation: ****

152 – Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

December 20, 2003

To say that this is an epic movie might be an undestatement, especially in a time when movies such as Armageddon, Independence Day, and The Hulk are considered to be “epic” movies. True epic movies, you see, have not only bombast and pomp but also portend Great Importance. An epic movie is one that establishes a tone of deep meaning, not harmless fluff.

And so it is with all three of the Lord of the Rings movies. In The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), we learn of a bad of nine travelers with the task of returning the One Ring to the fires of Mount Doom, from which the adornment was made. In The Two Towers (2002), we follow their travails as some of the members split up, with returning the ring still the ultimate goal. Now, with The Return of the King, we see their tales told in full. Will Frodo and Sam make it to Mount Doom, past the gigantic army of orcs, without the Lidless Eye spotting them? Will Aragorn (the King of the title) be able to rally enough troops to forestall the orc attacks? Will any of the original Fellowship fall along the way, to be forgotten except in hobbit songs evermore?

The story thread picks up right where The Two Towers left off. Frodo (bearing the ring) and Sam are now separated from the rest of their crew and are on a singular mission to return the ring to its foundry. With them is Gollum, a former hobbit whose long possession of the One Ring has driven him completely mad and has transformed his appearance into that of some underground netherworld creature, rather than a jolly hobbit.

Meanwhile, Gandalf, Aragorn, Gimli, and Leglolas arrive at Orthanc, the tower formerly held by Saruman (the evil wizard). Saruman’s been deposed by the Ents, a race of sentient trees headed by Treebeard. With Treebeard are two more of the original Fellowship: the hobbits Merry and Pippin.

Doom is approaching. Sauron’s minions are assembling massive orc armies to overrun the entire area, hoping to bring about the end of the Age of Man. It’s up to Aragorn and the gang to save the day.

Each of the three movies has been an absolute joy to watch. Even if one has never read one word of J.R.R. Tolkien, one is very quickly drawn into the story, into the world of Middle-Earth. Even if one cannot tell an orc from a Balrog, one can follow the sometimes complicated storylines. This is because director Peter Jackson does an incredible job of explaining things without getting bogged down in the myriad details that Tolkien’s epic book (or books) provided.

As with most epic movies, this one grabs you in two distinct places: the heart and the mind. The audience is properly mesmerized as the soldiers of Gondar race to the aid of those of Rohan, as the orc legions attack the castle at Minas Trith. All of the scenes, from the quiet, underplayed exchanges between Sam and Frodo to the wild, chaotic war, were suitably jam-packed with emotion. You’d have to be quite the zombie not to fall completely under the spell of these movies, especially these characters.

While Jackson took a few liberties with the plot (as he did in The Two Towers), none of the changes detracted from the movie itself. Because Tolkien’s fantasy epic was so chock full of nuance, it was inherently necessary to chop some of them from the movie. Film as a medium is more conducive to images than to facts and other details.

This was not a movie that one could simply watch and cheer the good guys on lustily. This movie drew one in so deeply that you lived and breathed as the characters lived and breathed. When Frodo is attacked by the spider Shelob, you jump with him. You feel it when he’s injected with her poison. When the orcs are attacking the castle with their war machines and their oliphaunts (think mastadons), you cringe with the denizens of the city of kings. As an audience, you never feel detached from the action.

But in addition to all the mesmerizing, eye-popping action, there were a great many tearful scenes. I mean scenes so powerful that only the most robotic among us could look away without shedding a tear. There were plenty of sniffles and tears in our theater the other day. Fantastic evocatic performances by everyone in the cast, especially Sean Astin as Sam, Billy Boyd as Pippin, David Wenham as Faramir, Hugo Weaving as Elrond, and Miranda Otto as Eowyn. Oh, and definitely the great Ian McKellen as Gandalf.

Not a dry eye in the place. The sweet, gentle ending was as poignant an ending as I’ve ever seen in a movie. The ending, by the way, ties everything up nicely – but not too nicely. And, it’s important to note, it ends just as the book does.

The movie is as close to perfection as possible, with the two tales of Frodo and Sam and the orc attacks neatly dovetailing, then culminating at the same time. And the editing is never jarring, even though quite a bit had to be cut in order for the film to be released – and it’s still nearly 3.5 hours long!

The Return of the King is a beautiful masterpiece, a pinnacle of moviemaking. It will certainly be up for a few Oscars come March, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it were listed in the National Film Registry some year as one of the greatest American films of all time.

Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King: ****

102 – Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

January 3, 2002

Watching Lord of the Rings is at once a mesmerizing and fascinating experience. Even if you’ve never read any of the books, the story is woven in such a delicious, viewer-friendly manner that even the most curmudgeonly of us will appreciate the tale.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy (actually four books, if you include the prequel The Hobbit) tells the tale of the quest to return an all-powerful (and all-evil) ring to the fire from whence it was forged in an effort to destroy it forever.

J. R. R. Tolkien’s books are very rich with detail, particularly with historical detail. The world of Middle earth is populated by all sorts of creatures, and man is not yet the dominating species. In Tolkien’s world, sorcery, might, and pastoral settings all exist together, albeit not always in perfect harmony.

The first several minutes of the 178-minute movie (subtitled The Fellowship of the Ring, the title of the first book in the series) describes the terrible history of the One Ring. If someone had not read the books, it might be difficult for them to comprehend the story; thankfully, the startling special effects and brisk storytelling make it all worthwhile and informative.

In short, here’s how the tale unfolds. Back in the old days, the ultimate evil being Sauron forged a series of powerful rings. Some he gave to the Elvish race (known for their wisdom). Some he gave to Men. Some he gave to Dwarves (known for their strength and courage). But there was one Ring that was designed to bind all of the others together, to be as strong as all the others combined. With this ring, one could rule all of Middle Earth. But the evil Sauron was defeated by Men, and his hand (well, the hand of his physical being) was chopped off; a Man recovered the Ring, but fell prey to its power. The Ring eventually sunk to the bottom of a river, where it was recovered by an eerie creature named Gollum, who also fell prey to its allure. And from this creature, the tiny Hobbit Bilbo Baggins acquired the Ring, not knowing its power and keeping it to himself for 60 years. Bilbo gives the Ring to his nephew, Frodo Baggins.

When the Ring’s existence is confirmed, a meeting involving all of the creatures of Middle Earth is convened in the Elvish home of Elron, the lord of the Elves. It is decided that the Ring must be returned to the peak of Mount Doom, where it must then be cast into the fires that made it (and where it can be unmade). Frodo volunteers for the horrible task, and representatives from each of the major species in Middle Earth are assembled to aid him in his quest: Aragorn and Boromir from the land of Men; Leglolas the Elf; Gimli the Dwarf; Gandalf the wizard; and the Hobbits, Frodo, Samwise, Peregrin, and Merry. These nine are chosen to travel the great distance to the land of evil, and cast the ring back.

Quite a daunting task, isn’t it? And while all of this is going on, the evil of Sauron is aware that the Ring exists, and he is preparing his armies for his own quest – recover the Ring at all costs.

Luckily, the good guys have some all-stars on their side. Gandalf (played very memorably by Ian McKellen) is more than just a circus magician – he’s one of the most powerful wizards in history (that’s not common knowledge at the outset, at least not to the naive Hobbits, but it’s apparent rather quickly). Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) is more than a mere Ranger, he’s also of noble blood, and has the courage of a thousand lions. These two leaders are the soul and minds of the Fellowship. But the story’s focus is on the tiny Ringbearer, Frodo. You see, carrying this ring isn’t quite the same as, for example, carrying a wedding ring up the aisle to the about-to-be-wed. Frodo is drawn to the ring but still has such amazing inner strength that he can stick to his mission. He knows its power, and as he gets closer and closer to Mount Doom the pressure of carrying the jewelry is absolutely overwhelming. It’s as if you or I walked around the office carrying a Volkswagen.

Besides the story, there are two other intangible stars at work here: the special effects and the makeup/costumery. There’s one particular scene in which Gandalf rides a giant bird (an eagle, perhaps) to safety. My mind immediately assumed this could happen; but upon reflection I believe that this was wizardry of another time, another example of the magnificence of special effects. Some of the scenes are absolutely jaw-dropping. The Fellowship must travel through the Mines of Moria; they tackle the precipice of a giant snow-covered mountain; they hike over marshes and through forests. And at no point does one think that all of this is make-believe.

Another asset is the cinematography. Gandalf is a human, although a tall one in the books. The Hobbits are halflings, or little people – they’re much smaller than humans. Their homes are smaller, and Gandalf has to duck to enter. But side by side, Gandalf and Bilbo look exactly as they should – Gandalf perhaps six feet tall, and Bilbo perhaps four. Not bad when you consider both roles are played by grown men (Bilbo is played by Ian Bannen)!

And the acting! Mortensen as Aragon! John Rhys-Davies as Gimli the Dwarf! The great Christopher Lee as Saruman the White, a fellow wizard of Gandalf! Sean Bean as Boromir!

And the actresses are even better. Liv Tyler as Arwen the elf and Cate Blanchett as the Lady Galadriel are absolutely stunning. These are not just beautiful women playing ethereal roles; their screen presence is off the charts.

The only downside to the acting is Elijah Wood as Frodo. Throughout the movie, he looked like a deer caught in headlights, constantly stunned and shocked. Wood’s never been a particularly good actor, and his limitations are unfortunately readily amplified by this major role. But he’s not horribly miscast, either. Most of the time, the action in the movie is so intense you forget what a dull performance he’s turning in.

I’ve read all of the books, so of course I knew what to expect here. The friend I went to the movie with had not read the books, so I asked her if she found it boring, uninteresting, or confusing. She answered in the negative, surprising considering the length of the film. But here’s something you can expect, if you’ve not read these wonderful books. There are three books, of course, and the other two movies have been filmed already. The ending of this film does not tie everything up neatly (as the first book did not). The filmmakers faced a very difficult task in ending the movie, and they chose to stick with the book’s ending (which I certainly will not reveal here). But please, if you watch this film, realize there are two more to come, and that the ending of this is also the beginning to the next one.

There are plenty of intense scenes in the movie, probably too intense for very young kids. This is NOT a children’s story (the books certainly weren’t, either), although it’s one that can be enjoyed by all. If I had kids, I would be reading these books to them as often as possible. This is epic storytelling at its absolute best. There is never a slow moment in the movie (or the books). The movie is a masterpiece, one of the finest examples of moviemaking we’ve seen in a long, long time.

Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring: 9.5

Spartacus, Stir of Echoes, Stigmata

March 19, 2000

Spartacus (1964) **** Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece – which is saying something, considering Kubrick’s work, which includes “2001,” “A Clockwork Orange,” and “Barry Lyndon” – covers quite a bit of historical ground, but no director before or since has told the tale of the strong slave Spartacus inciting his fellow chained men and women to rebel against the arms of Italy. It’s movies like these, along with De Mille’s “The Ten Commandments,” that really defined the term “sweeping epic.” Kirk Douglas stars as the resilient leader Spartacus, and gives an unusually commanding and convincing performance. He’s supported by an all-star cast, of course, including a magnificent Peter Ustinov, who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his work. The toughest part for Kubrick probably wasn’t filming the movie, it was keeping all of his stars’ egos in check – he had Charles Laughton, Ustinov, and Lawrence Olivier, to name three. Such heavyweights in a movie today would provide some amiable gossip column fodder, but it’s a testament to Kubrick that there weren’t more problems on the set. As for the movie itself, you won’t find many movies with the same level of cinematography, which also garnered an Oscar. A must-see.

Stigmata (1999) *** Frankie (Patricia Arquette) works in a low-rent beauty salon. Somehow, she comes into possession of the rosary beads of a now-deceased priest who witnessed a statue suffering from stigmata – a condition in which the afflicted bleeds in the same locations as Christ did when he was crucified. It’s not long before Frankie’s suffering the same types of wounds, but unlike the statue, her wounds are real. What could be behind such strange activities? Is there skullduggery afoot?

Gabriel Byrne plays a priest assigned by the Vatican to investigate claims of stigmata. Naturally, he’s intrigued by Frankie’s wounds and suspects they’re real. Also naturally, he falls a little for Frankie. Hey, this is Hollywood, and this stuff happens! Don’t ask me to explain why…

This movie is big on special effects, big on loud music, big on pomp but small on circumstance. It’s mostly style, with little substance. Makes you wonder what would have happened if the script had been adapted into an Indiana Jones movie – now THAT would have been intriguing! Byrne is his usual solid, stone-faced self, and Arquette is her usual one-note self as well. Don’t look for deep meaning in this trifling.

Stir of Echoes (1999) *** Tom (Kevin Bacon) has hypnotized by his sister-in-law, played by Illeana Douglas, and from then on his life’s a little….well, weird. He sees a ghost of a disappeared girl, and he’s not the only one – his young son’s been seeing the spectre for weeks. What unfolds after that is that Tom slips further and further into imminent madness. His wife Maggie (Kathryn Erbe) can’t fathom his insanity, and it’s driving her up the wall, as both of the men in her life are increasingly distant and non-communicative. So what happened to Tom when he was under hypnosis? His sister-in-law claims there’s a door in everyone’s mind that’s never been opened, and it sure looks like Tom’s door is wide open, with a big neon sign over it, inviting him to run through with abandon. What’s behind all of this freakiness? There’s a mystery afoot, but it turns out to be a little more standard and predictable than one would hope with the solid premise. Can’t fault the actors, though – this is an unusual role for Bacon, who here comes off as a tough, strong, blue-collar kind of guy – he and his family are close to what one might call white trash, but they’re never portrayed as being mean-spirited or hateful. This is just one of those cases where weird stuff happens to nice folk, kind of like the clan in “Poltergeist.”

So this is a stylish psychological/supernatural thriller with game performances by a capable cast. It’s watchable and full of chills, but the ending’s a little pat.

And Then There Were None

March 5, 2000

This is the granddaddy (or grandmommy, since it’s from Agatha Christie’s novel) of all the put-a-bunch-of-people-in-one-isolated-location-and-kill-them-off-one-by-one movies. The isolated location in this case is a small island, and 10 people have been invited to stay the weekend by an unseen guest. The people are always disparate, too, from all walks of life. This time, for example, we have a doctor, a retired general, a judge, a reporter, etc. All of the guests have, in the eyes of the invisible host, caused the deaths of others, whether directly or indirectly. Since they have been judged as murderers by the host, they are all slated to die, one by one, in creative ways.

Now, admittedly that in itself doesn’t sound all that mysterious. After all, you know who the bad guy is – the host, right? Maybe! Maybe not. Maybe one of the guests is the host. Maybe they’re not really dead. As more and more die off, you’ll find yourself second-guessing yourself, as in “Damn, I thought it was the doctor!” or something along those lines. (I’m not saying it’s NOT the doctor, though!) There are myriad twists to this tale, you see, and you can either spend your time trying to guess the movie before it unfolds or simply let it be.

The formula’s been copied a million times, and the original story itself was remade three times as “Ten Little Indians.” That title refers to a table setting containing ten little Indian figurines. As each person is killed, a figurine mysteriously topples over. Spooky!

If you’re a fan of mysteries or of tortuous (but not tortured) plot lines, this is your movie! Old, but hardly dated.

Cat Ballou, The Court Jester

March 1, 2000

Cat Ballou (1965) *** : Jane Fonda plays Cat Ballou, back in the days when she was not only acting but also accepting sexy kittenish roles, a rancher’s daughter out to avenge the murder of said rancher by the bad guys who run the town. Yep, it’s a sex Western, one that gives us the one-of-a-kind performances of Fonda and of Lee Marvin, who has two roles – an alcoholic gunslinger who’s supposed to be Cat’s savior and a mean, dastardly hit man with a prosthetic nose – and who won himself an Oscar for his delightful work. But it’s not just the lighthearted performances of the actors that floats this film, it’s also the riveting, uproarious script. The pace is never dull – there are some Westerns that’ll slow things down to kind of add mood to a story, but not this one. This would make a nice double-bill with another of Fonda’s sexy early roles, “Barbarella.”

The Court Jester (1956) **** : Not much goes wrong with this movie, a delightful spoof of action-costumer movies. Danny Kaye is an absolute delight as the young rebel impersonating a jester in the court of an evil king (although in this film, his evil is blunted) but mistaken for a hit man. There have been few performers who could light up an entire scene by their mere presence, and Kaye is one of them. Who in this day could do what he did? He could sing, he could dance, and he could make you laugh so hard you could only take liquids the next day. And in this movie he gets a chance to do all three, plus do some swashbuckling! Also along for the ride are the elegant Glynis Johns, who plays his superior in the slight rebel force trying to return the throne to its rightful owner, and Basil Rathbone, who could play the clever, suave cad as good as anyone in movies. Film buffs may remember Rathbone’s turn as the Sheriff of Nottingham in 1939’s “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” which starred the eminent Errol Flynn. In that movie, Rathbone has a memorable sword-fighting scene with Flynn; here, that scene is copied, with Kaye a hilarious stand-in for Errol. This movie is a true delight, a must-see for all ages.

Great Escape, Green Mile

February 19, 2000

The Great Escape (1963) **** In one of the first of the multi-superstar war films (following on the heels of the biggest one, The Longest Day), The Great Escape follows the planning and execution of a massive escape attempt from a Nazi POW camp during World War II by Allied prisoners. The determination of these men and the absolute thoroughness of their plan is what’s on center stage here. Led by Richard Attenborough (back when he was just an actor, not an Academy award-winning director), the men decide to tunnel out of the camp in three places – this way, if one tunnel is discovered by the Germans, the other two tunnels will still be viable options.

Attenborough’s not the big star here, though; that honor goes to the young Steve McQueen, with that rebellious smile and blonde locks going a long way toward cementing his own movie superstardom. Oh, and James Garner, and Charles Bronson as a Russian (!), James Coburn, and even Donald Pleasance as a myopic forger. Who will survive the escape? And what will happen to those who do once they’ve left the walls of the prison?

If you’re a fan of action, this is a prime movie for you. If you’re a fan of suspense, this is also a prime movie for you. Above all, if you’re a fan of excellent writing, acting, and direction (by John Sturges), then you’ll enjoy this 3-hour opus.

The Green Mile (1999) *** So what we have here is a movie set in a prison in the 1930s involving a group of death-row guards, a childlike supposed child-killer who wants the light left on at night, and a tiny mouse. No, it’s not “Stuart Little” for the taxpaying set, it’s the latest movie adapted from a Stephen King story. Specifically, “The Green Mile” comes from the only King story so far to be presented to the public in serial form; that is, one chapter at a time was published in separate short books.

Tom Hanks is Paul Edgecomb, the leader of the guards, already a hardened veteran of the block. His kingdom is The Green Mile, the death-row area of the prison, so named because of the color of the tile that the prisoners must walk on their way to the electric chair. One of Paul’s newest prisoners is a massive black man named John Coffey, who seems completely out of place except for his size; Paul immediately senses no violence in the man.

The mouse is the pet of the Mile and spends most of his time in the company of one of the block’s senior prisoners, Eduard Delacroix (Michael Jeter). The mouse himself isn’t completely relevant to the plot, but his presence does serve to humanize the prisoners and to act as a bookend for the entire story, told in flashback by Paul many years later. There are many subplots, all of them surrounding Paul and his crew as they deal with John Coffey and the other prisoners, but none of them seems incongruous, and that’s a major asset to a film like this. Running three hours, it’s easy to mix in multiple plot lines, of course, but you don’t want your audience falling asleep on you. Frank Darabont, who helmed that other Stephen King prison story (“The Shawshank Redemption”), does an extraordinary job selecting just the right camera angles and keeping the pace of the film consistent. This, along with “Shawshank,” is a rare bird: a film adapted from a Stephen King story that actually works well on the screen. Most of the King adaptations out there – and there have been a LOT! – have been lackluster and lacking. King’s greatest quality as a writer is his exposition and character development, and most films don’t have the time or patience to carry that quality over. Both of Darabont’s do.

As for the cast, there are no slackers. Hanks is gritty and convincing in the lead, and his fine support includes David Morse as a fellow guard and James Cromwell as the prison’s warden. All acquit themselves wonderfully, allowing the viewer to be drawn into the story effortlessly.

Repulsion and The Ruling Class

December 19, 1999

Repulsion (1965) **** Director Roman Polanski, in a delicious homage to Alfred Hitchcock, concocted a genuinely creepy thriller about a beautiful, repressed young woman (played to perfection by the elegant Catherine Deneuve, in one of her first films)who has been left alone in her apartment for a weekend while her sister is away. For the normal person, having the savvy to survive a weekend alone is a simple task; for the childlike Carol, however, it’s the gateway to a descent into utter madness. Footsteps in a hallway induce paranoia in poor Carol, and despite the attempts of a possible suitor, she becomes more and more afraid and, ultimately, violent.

What makes this movie scary is Polanski’s magnificent, minimalistic use of lighting and effects. As a result, the viewer feels as if he or she is in the room with Carol, and that he or she is feeling what she is feeling. This is no simple feat; almost all of the current horror directors out there will compensate for not being able to get into the minds of their protagonists by overemphasizing special effects. To me, the scariest, creepiest movies are the ones that are the most real – the ones that make you feel as if this situation could conceivably happen to you. And this is where Polanski succeeded. I would very highly recommend this movie to anyone who appreciates scary movies for being scary, rather than for being hidden under a thick mask of gore and screams.

The Ruling Class (1972) ***1/2 The Earl has just been found having hanged himself and wearing a white tutu. The closest heir is Jack (Peter O’Toole), who enters the castle and announces he’s actually Jesus Christ. The family plays along at first so that they may live off his money forever, but soon his ”act” wears thin – and they plot against him! Taut upper-class comedy gives us some very rich, well-defined characters. This isn’t the most functional family in the world – these people are downright nasty! With adultery, murder, and snobbery available in copious amounts, there’s hardly a limit to the comedic possibilities.

But this is clearly O’Toole’s show. His delivery of some very difficult – and very intelligent – lines made him worthy of an Oscar nomination. Remember him in The Lion in Winter as Henry II? Same regal arrogance, the kind of quality that will cause males to rise up in anger and females to swoon at his feet. Contrast O’Toole’s performance here with the one he presents in The Stunt Man. Different setting, different character, but both seem to think of themselves as The Almighty – or a reasonable facsimile. This is O’Toole at his finest.