"Royal Tennenbaums" (2002)
Ye gods. What a wretchedly bad, bad, bad, bad, tedious, tedious, tedious movie. Why did people like it? Are American's really so stupid that this facile mess is what passes for "brilliant" satire? This flick is such a shamblesome, interminable, wanky waste of time and talent... Whoever ordained director Wes Anderson as an auteur probably regrets it now: the most remarkable thing about him is his immense hubris in baldly recycling all the strained humor of the "wacky" counterculture comedies of the last four decades, and condensing it into one, horribly dull, overlong film. I mean, look, I really do get that the whole point of this style of humor lies in excess; but Anderson lacks subtlety or real directorial skill. His entire philosophy seems to be make everything funny -- no, wait: funnier!! -- by constantly upping the ante... Every single detail of the film has to be odd, quirky, off-center, out there and bizarre. The technique is so mannered and predictable that it's incredibly boring. Couldn't he have worked on the plot, or the premise or the acting, instead of his own insatiable uber-cleverness? Besides, wasn't this film a disaster before, when they made it as Hotel New Hampshire? Maybe I wouldn't have been so turned off had it not been for all the masturbatory packaging on the DVD copy I rented -- I mean, really: a 2-CD set deluxe set complete with an entire extra disc of "bonus" material? And those oh-so-self-congratulatory liner notes? Puh-leeeze! As if anyone really could think this lightweight, idiotic film is that important!
"The Shipping News" (2002)
A good adaptation of Annie Proulx's novel about a lifeless nebbish whose shipwreck of a life is rescued from sinking altogether by a well-timed return to emotional health and connection with other people. Some of the plot elements trod on well-worn paths: the rejuvenating influence of unpretentious small-town life, a wacky cast of local yokels, etc. (Northern Exposure much?) Still, it's always a pleasure to watch Kevin Spacey at work; this isn't as remarkable a performance as his characters in The Usual Suspects or American Beauty,, but the subtle shifts and learning curve of his Quoyle are still right on the mark. Worth checking out.
"The Devil's Backbone" (2001)
A genuinely spooky ghost story, directed by Guillermo Del Toro. The plot revolves around a haunted monastary in war-torn 1930s Spain; the hacienda doubles as a boy's school filled, in part, with refugees and orphans left behind by the anti-Franco partisans. The special effects are creepy and clever; the supernatural intertwines with the temporal, and it's difficult to tell which is more horrifying. I thought this was a great film, definitely worth checking out. (Cast note: the kid who plays the hero looks exactly like Matthew Broderick!)
"Run Silent, Run Deep" (MGM, 1958)
A superior war film, and one of the prototypical submarine movies. Burt Lancaster and Clark Gable lock horns as the ranking officers on a WWII submarine slated for duty in the Pacific theater. Lancaster has been the ship's captain for years and has the respect of the crew, but he is abruptly displaced by Gable's Captain Richardson, a near-washout who is obsessed with breaking a Japanese blockade of a vital sea lane, after having lost his own ship there the year before. The personal tensions and resentments between the two officers are complicated by the grumblings of the crew, and by differences in naval tactics: Gable runs the crew ragged practicing for a dangerous new tactic that he's convinced will defeat the Japanese, and the sailors appeal to Lancaster for relief. A fascinating look at the frayed edges of military discipline, with a taut, well-directed script and good B&W cinematography. The shots of the exterior of the submarine are particularly nice: here's a film that lets us see how boatlike submarines actually are: you feel like you're actually up on deck, looking at every rivet and welding seam. If you go for this kind of movie, this one's hard to beat.
"Sgt. Rutledge" (Warner Brothers, 1960)
Director John Ford's strident civil rights drama, set among a troop of African-American "Buffalo Soldiers" in the post-Civil War frontier, is more than a little heavy-handed, but has its heart in the right place. Woody Strode plays a veteran cavalryman falsely accused of molesting a white woman, and facing a legal lynching at the hands of a kangaroo court presumably typical of the times. The script is relentessly one-sided, but is aided by an innovative narrative structure, with Ran-like flashbacks leading backwards to the whole big picture that absolves Strode (yet still may not be enough to save his live). Strode, typically stolid and reserved, coolly unfolds his character's emotions, coming to a rousing crescendo at the film's end. Interesting Hollywood "issue" film made as the Civil Rights Movement was still doing a slow simmer in the American South.
"The Wings Of Eagles" (MGM, 1957)
John Wayne stars in this sluggish war-related Technicolor bioflick profiling Navy aviator-cum-Hollywood screenwriter Frank Wead, who (apparently) was influential in developing naval strategy before and during WWII... It's not gripping or as grim as Ford's similarly reverential "They Were Expendable," but it works in its own way. Dan Dailey steals scene after scene as Wayne's salty Navy sidekick, as does Ward Bond who has a delicious role as John "Dodge", lampooning the director himself, who apparently brought Wead to Hollywood. Maureen O'Hara does her Hepburn-y best as Wead's long-suffering wife. Of particular interest, plotwise, is the depictation of her as a boozy, chainsmoking modern gal, as well as the lengthy exploration of Wead's struggle to overcome a severe physical disability, which kind of undercuts the smothering machismo of the pre-feminist military world. Nice use of stock footage, too. Not Ford's best, but he definitely makes it better than it would have been otherwise.
"Waking Life" (2001)
Richard Linklatter's ingeniously animated investigation of the nature of dreams and reality may turn out to be a bit of a nightmare to anyone who's already been through college & had all those super-profound life-altering philosophical conversations that last all night and make your head spin. Seriously, though, this is an intriguing, experimental film, where Linklatter alters digitally-shot live video, then transforms it into a variety of surrealistic animated scenes. What a director chooses to animate turns out to be as interesting as what he chooses to shoot, though the alteration of performances by live actors into animated alter-egos is a disorienting exercise in anti-egoism. Of course, this all fits in quite nicely with what the film's about-- if you don't know what I'm talking about, then go see the darn thing. It's pretty cool, if a bit pretentious.
"Blue Dahlia" (MGM, 1947)
Note to self: I have already seen this movie (at least twice) and don't need to rent it again! PS - it's still really good. This noir thriller is one of the best home-from-the-war flicks made in the late '40s, pairing up Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake (hubba-hubba!!), with William Bendix cheerfully chewing some scenery as his shell-shocked war buddy. For some reason, I always think that Fred MacMurray is really the bad guy, though why I don't know. Ladd's a little too cocky and the movie's not as taut, claustrophobic or as moody as the best noir films, but it's still pretty stylish and groovy. Great sound design, particularly whenever Bendix has one of his little fits.
"Devil Doll" (MGM, 1936)
Lionel Barrymore mightily chews up the scenery in this silly horror movie about a unjustly jailed man who, upon getting paroled, seeks revenge on the crooked businessmen who brought his downfall. There are a few gimmicks here: one is his method of revenge... Using a stolen formula that allows him to shrink humans down to puppet size and control them with his mind (FDA approval pending), Barrymore sends his shrunken zombies out to murder and torment his enemies. The second gimmick is that he uses a false identity as a cover so that he can carry out these nefarious deeds, and his new identity is as an elderly woman who runs a dollmaking shop... a big chance for Barrymore to ham it up in drag. Maureen O'Sullivan plays the daughter who doesn't suspect a thing... The movie is fun in an after-school creature feature kind of way... The revenge plot is ridiculously over-complicated, but hey, I'm sure no one intended this film to be taken as high art. Nice light entertainment, with great special effects for the 1930s.
"Le Million" (1931)
A lighthearted, goofy French musical directed by Rene Clair, in which Rene Levfevre (or is it Paul Oliver??) stars as a young bounder who unexpectedly wins the Lottery -- solving his financial woes... if only he can find the missing ticket! French opera is both lampooned and immortalized in a prolonged backstage romp, as police, thieves, dishy ballerinas and apoloplectic bouncers race back and forth fihgting over the jacket which has the winning digits. Other than the bits of "La Boheme," the musical numbers are episodic and fragmentary. Still, for fans of classic musicals, this one has to stand out as a very early example. Cute flick.
"Doctor X" (MGM, 1931)
A delightfully campy MGM horror film, featuring Lee Tracy as a fast-talking news reporter who trails a moonlight serial killer to a special research academy headed by the lofty Dr. Xavier (Lionel Atwill). An interesting, if uneven, mix of horror and comedy, balancing over-the-top scenery chewing by a truly bizarre collection of mad scientists with Tracy's slapstick interludes. (By the way, is it just me, or does he remind anyone else of Edward Norton?) Fay Wray is completely dishy as Dr. Xavier's sassy, wise-cracking daughter. Best of all, though, is the pioneering early version of Technicolor, which perfectly accentuates the beautiful German-influenced impressionistic cinematography. A fun film, and a total hoot.
"Somewhere I'll Find You" (MGM, 1942)
Two brothers compete for the same woman (Lana Turner, who's pretty easy on the eyes), as World War Two looms and pulls them both away from the home front. It being the 'Forties, she is naturally drawn to the more rugged of the two, Clark Gable, who plays one of those cocksure "he-men" who bosses the gals around, and they like it. Apparently this was adapted from a story in Cosmopolitan magazine, which makes sense given the improbable emotions and irritating decisions made by all the characters in the film. Robert Sterling plays the younger brother who loses the girl (because he's not as big a creep as his big brother) Gable's character in particular just doesn't hold up; he's simply too much of a jerk for this woman to love him so much. A flimsy bit of wartime propaganda that seems a bit forced. Big melodramatic ending shows our boys at war in the Pacific.
"Paranoiac" (Hammer, 1962)
A delicious horror psychodrama, about a splintered aristocratic family with more than a few hidden secrets. A young Oliver Reed is wonderfully over the top as a possessive, demented, violent older brother who struggles to control the rest of the family. Nicely directed, and well shot (with a heavy debt to Hitchcock)... Good fun, although the ending is lamentably rushed.
"A Beautiful Mind" (2001)
Russell Crowe chews the scenery in director Ron Howard's retelling of the life of Nobel Prize-winning physicist/economist John Nash, whose career was plagued by prolonged bouts of delusional schitzophrenia. The film has some interesting aspects, but for the most part it's pretty facile and tarted up to fit the Hollywood template. I kind of got into it by the end, but later, when I saw a PBS documentary that told the real story of Nash's life, I realized how much (and how unfairly) the true story had been altered. This is okay, but needlessly inaccurate.
"Strange Cargo" (MGM, 1940)
Joan Crawford plays a woman stranded in Central America, near the infamous Devil's Island penal colony... She finds herself at first repelled and then drawn to Clark Gable, who plays a rugged yet ethically principled convict. He is determined to escape, but needs to take along several of his more unsavory cohorts along to make the plan work. Included among them are Peter Lorre, as an oily, untrustworthy smuggler who has the hots for the unwilling Crawford, Paul Lukas as Hessler, Gable's cutthroat rival for power in the escapee band, and Ian Hunter as a fellow known as "Cambreau," a beatific, learned Christ figure whose presence in jail isn't well explained, but who hovers near Gable and acts as his spiritual conscience as ruthlessness and banditry beckon. Somehow Crawford winds up among the escapees as they slog through the swamps and then cross the ocean towards freedom... The scenes in which Lukas and Gable first debate -- then duel -- over her fate are remarkably raw and foreboding. The Cambreau subplot -- can men live like Jesus? Could Christ sway the darkened hearts of modern man? -- is a bit cloying, but the final struggle for Gable's soul at the end is emotionally resonant, and despite the hysterical tenor, one of his most powerful onscreen performances. A great cast and an unusual script, and oneof Crawford's least irritating performances; she's actually quite appealing in this role. Worth checking out!
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