"Minority Report" (Dreamworks, 2002)
I can't say that I was all that thrilled by this film... I was surprised by what a good job Steven Spielberg did directing past Tom Cruise's overstuffed ego, and I thought the dystopian sci-fi future he came up with was kind of interesting, but ultimately this didn't really hang together that well. The premise of the psychics used by the police state didn't quite make sense, and the run-and-hide phase of the film seemed interminable and choppily paced. Also: when the super-duper cyberstate turns against you, don't they kind of automatically turn off your access cards and top-security passes? Why was Cruise's cop character still able to get into restricted areas if they were able to track his every move? Visually, this had its fine points, but again, I felt like the direction was a little too loose... The gee-whiz scene at hte beginning with Cruise waving his magic VR gloves and making the hi-tech computer images dance goes on way too long; like many things in this film, it could have stood a little tightening up. I did enjoy Spielberg's small, goofy slapstick moments, though. It was great to see a big, mega-blockbuster filmmaker still able to pause and take time out for a well-timed gag or two. This was ok, but it could have been better. (Seen at the Orinda Theatre.)
"Too Hot To Handle" (MGM, 1936)
Clark Gable plays an unscrupulous (yet heroic) newsreel photographer who falls for Myrna Loy, a gullible (yet gutsy) aviatrix with a penchant for adventure. The plot on this hyperactive screwball comedy strains under the weight of too many twists -- it's a complete flop in the dramatic department, but still has some worthy points. On an egghead-y level, it's an interesting early look at the ethics of journalism in the modern, 20th Century world -- Gable fakes his footage because the voyeuristic public wants to see blood and guts -- but who's to know, unless he gets caught? But probably of greater concern are the abombinable racial politics of the film -- Asians, latinos and Afro-Brazilians all fall prey to simplistic stereotyping; Leo Carrillo gets to read some lines en espanol, in his role as Gable's man Friday. But the climax of the film, an ooga-booga, dazzle-the-voodoo-tribe-with-white-man's-magic scene that goes on for-evvvvv-er is truly appalling, one of the worst such scenes I've ever seen. The sole redeeming aspect is that the tribal dancing was, apparently, the real deal (filmed in "Dutch Guinea," not Brazil), although the authenticity of the dancing makes the manipulation of "the natives" (or jitterbugs, as Gable calls them...) that much worse. This is definitely one for the poli-sci and ethnic studies classes.
"The Man Who Fell To Earth" (Fox, 1976)
Well, yeah, Star Wars was fun and all, Close Encounters was trippy... But this sex'n'drugs-laden cult classic is probably the single best sci-fi film of the 1970s... at least it's the most intelligent of the lot. I first saw this movie when I was ten years old, had my mind blown, and was happy to recently discover how well it holds up. Davie Bowie (wow.) stars as a dissolute alien marooned on our primitive planet, desperately trying to get back home, where an environmental disaster looms that will decimate his world. Our world turns out to be pretty tough, too, though. At first his "Mr. Newton" plays cat-and-mouse with our economy -- placing radical new "inventions" into the consumer market, he makes zillions of dollars and becomes an unwilling celebrity. But he is soon thwarted by sinister forces and his own unsuspected weaknesses for pop culture, booze, and kinky sex. A fine parable for the diversion of '60s creativity into '70s hedonism, as well as a brilliantly realized science fiction/magic realist film noir. Plus, this film intersects perfectly with Bowie's earlier self-mythologization as the rock god Ziggy Stardust and not-so-subtle hints of his own extraterrestrial origins. Devoted Bowie fans simply have to see this movie -- fans of 'Seventies pop and trash culture will also want to drink it in.
"The Majestic" (2001)
And who says you can never go back? Jim Carrey stars in this welcome throwback to the Frank Capra-styled little-guy-versus-the-big-world films of yore, playing a disgraced Hollywood screenwriter who finds his place in a small town that calls itself his home, despite evidence to the contrary. This movie was a delight, a simple, entertaining film that wholeheartedly embraces the dramatic conventions of yesteryear, with convincing and effective results. If you like Capra, Sturges or Cukor, this one is worth watching too.
One of the great antiwar films made in the post-Vietnam War era. This is a sensuous, elegaic look back at the tragedies of World War I, as seen from the vantage point of the colonially-minded Australians, who rushed to enlist in Britains defense against the rapacious Hun, only to discover that the English could treat them as poorly as they did the Irish, East Indians and other little people. The battle of Gallipoli, in Turkey's Suvla Bay, is one of the great examples of the military mind working at its worst. Thousands of young Australians were thrown at an unconquerable position as British troops were being held back in the rear, being saved for another engagement which, unbeknownst to the ramrod commanders, had already been won. Communication lines had been cut, and runners sent to relay messages from field commanders were unable to reach the higher-ups in time to prevent the disasterous final charge. Typical of director Peter Weir, most of this film is devoted to the set-up, and little to the slaughter... For some reason this gives the film more emotional oompf than your standard-issue shoot-em-up war flick. Plus, this is pretty much the only film in which I can concede the much-vaunted sex appeal of blue-eyed Aussie studmuffin, Mel Gibson. He's pretty adorable portraying a young back country ne'er-do-well, reluctantly drawn into the war by his wide-eyed patriotic pal, played perfectly by the perky, incandescent Mark Lee. (By the way, whatever happened to Lee? This seems to be about the only film of note he ever starred in... How odd.) A good film, and painfully historically accurate.
"Rollerball" (MGM, 1975)
The good news is that this classic '70s anti-establishment/paranoia flick really holds up well over the years. In fact, sadly, it's more realistic and probable now than it was back when it was made. James Caan stars as an aging athlete who is the preeminent star of the hyperviolent sport known as Rollerball. The game was created by the cartel of global corporations that run the planet in a post-nation state future world. Rollerball is a classic bread-and-circuses ploy: distract the commoners from all political thought with a visceral, meaningless spectacle. The problem with Caan is that he's too good: the powers that be have decided that he has to throw the game and retire, but the aging jock resists their decision, out of wounded pride and sheer stubbornness. It's kind of a dopey film, but more thought-provoking than, say, Logan's Run, where questioning authority was brought to its lowest common denominator. The 2002 remake (see below) was incredibly, appallingly bad, and seems to have entirely missed the actual point of the original film.
I've only walked out on or stopped watching less than a handful of movies in my entire life -- Jade, Showgirls and Poetic Justice. Although I did manage to limp through this cinematic trainwreck in the space of three separate viewings, it is on a par with that trio -- a complete and utter disaster, a piece of filmic shite that is completely undeserving of your attention. Lead actor Chris Klein is Keanu lite, pure and simple... And it's all downhill from there, baby. I seem to recall liking the 1975 James Caan version of this film, which I saw when I was a kid -- but this "extreme sport" inspired remake turns the premise on its head, trying to dazzle us with reality-show glitz, even while bluntly, crushingly attempting to recreate the anti-establishment subversiveness of the original. I should pause here to mention that even this low level of analysis lends this travesty too much creedence -- the script is pathetic, the acting nominal, the cinematography and direction are both quite shabby, and even the sound design is muddled and cluttered. To make things worse, if possible they write in the "hero" as a young, untouchable super-stud, rather than an aging jock whose skill and experience are only just barely enough to him fit for this dangerous new game. Guess now I'll have to go back to the old one to see if it sucked this hard, too.
"I Am Sam" (Warner, 2002)
An impressive modern melodrama about a mentally disabled man who is relatively high-functioning, but when his young daughter falls under the scrutiny of the social services system, he is barely able to muster himself to appear "normal" enough to retain custody. I went into this film thinking, "oh great, more vanity project Oscar-bait!" and wound up getting all teary within minutes. Sean Penn is great in the role, simply great. I've never been that into him before seeing this film, but I gotta say that this was one of the best performances I've ever seen any actor give, in any medium. This film itself is a shamelessly manipulative tear-jerker, in the grand Hollywood tradition, but more effective than most because the story is so terrifyingly plausible and agonizing to watch. It's especially hard to watch Sam make mistakes that, on the outside, seem painfully obvious, but within the logic of his world are all but inevitable. Granted, some of the plot points are a bit hackneyed, but, hey, this is a Hollywood film. What do you expect? I for one was happy to see such a strong, sympathetic, and relatively uncondescending presentation of issues which are normally hidden from the mainstream. Definitely recommended.
"Berlin: A Symphony Of A Great City" (1927)
Pioneering German director Walther Ruttman weaves a beautiful , rapturous look at Berlin during the height of the Weimar Republic. Everyday life is captured and extolled, from the heights of wealth to the nobility of labor, along with the splendor of modernity, from vast, efficient factories (which still look impressive) to the leggy glamour girls of the capital city's globally notorious nightlife. Most of all, though, there's the immense artistic vision of the director, piling on one perfectly composed, poetically thoughtful shot after another, rhythmically editing them together in a groundbreaking montage style. Berlin was indeed a seminal film; several other "city symphonies" proliferated in its wake, and the music-montage style is clearly echoed in Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi, and its sucessors, Powaqqatsi and Baraka. This is where it all started -- a masterful and fascinating film, and a nice glimpse at life in one of Europe's greatest cities. Pity, then, that Ruttman went on to become a Nazi propagandist, and died making films for the Reich during WWII, although really, I suppose it was inevitable.
"Our Modern Maidens" (Warner Brothers, 1929)
Joan Crawford in her final silent film, before she became the Joan Crawford, elegant and mannered, that we know and love today. Her she plays a free-thinking Jazz Age hottie, a flirty flapper of a college gal whose refusal to take life seriously, or to settle down with the right man, has serious repercussions. One one hand, the ultimate slant of the movie is conventional and moralistic, on the other, keep in mind that the moral conventions of the time were very well established, and by just presenting her wild and crazy lifestyle, the filmmakers were making a strong artistic statement. A cool chance to see the swinging '20s lifestyle pretty much as it was happening... And some of Hollywood's most luminous young stars as American film was really coming into its own.
"Cast A Giant Shadow" (MGM, 1966)
A good war film, about the creation of the modern Israeli army and the creation of the state of Israel. Kirk Douglas plays a recently demobilized American military expert who returns home from WWII only to find he still has fighting and wanderlust in his blood. A cloak-and-dagger offer to help train the beleagured Jewish militias is all he needs to tell his wife, "honey, I'll write you soon!" and zip off to the promised land. The film is very one-sided and romanticized, yet compelling... In retrospect, historians have argued that the Israelis weren't as badly outgunned in 1948 as the official version implies, but I'm sure it was still bad enough. Guest appearances by John Wayne, Frank Sinatra (who phoned in role as a happy-go-lucky fighter pilot) and Yul Brynner make this a bone fide Epic Film, but you might find your attention wandering more towards the Sophia Loren-alike Senta Berger, who plays Kirk's Israeli love interest. History and war buffs will find this an entertaining and engaging film; jihadists and moral relativists might want to skip it.
"Cal" (Warner, 1984)
A sad but engaging story about a sensitive young Irish lad, who reluctantly works for the local IRA, and helps kill a policeman, only to later find himself befriended by the man's unsuspecting family. The saddest thing about this movie is how little has changed since it was made. Nice chance to see Helen Mirren early in her career.
A somewhat over-obvious drama about a struggling Irish Catholic family living in Liverpool during the Great Depression. Ian Hart plays the agonized father, who just wants a good job, politics be damned; the title character is his son, the innocent through whose eyes we watch the family dissolve and reunite. Liam is caught between his pragmatic, hardbitten Da and his upright, religious Ma, who maintains her faith in the Church, even as it fails to live up to its promise. This film is okay, but somewhat leaden, overly stylized and the plot is too on the nose.
Some film critic on Fresh Air raved about this film, but I thought it was disappointing. An angry (but super-cool and mysteriously worldly) young man finds work at a casino, bends the rules and toys with breaking them. His girlfriend struggles to keep him on the straight and narrow. It was okay, but not a mind-blowing film, merely another oh-so-worldly hipster flick, a genre that is getting a bit tired, in my opinion.
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