"Night And The City" (1950)
Another fine Jules Dassin noir, this time about a small-time street hustler in London who tries to make his mark as a fight promoter, only to find the stranglehold of organized crime tougher to overcome that he imagined. Richard Widmark's hoodlum, Harry Fabian, is a fast-talking small-fry, an ambitious, overreaching punk who undoes himself at every turn, and has a lot in common with the Tony Curtis character in Sweet Smell Of Success. This flick doesn't share the shrill, hysterical tone of that film, and it's the seeming cool of the characters -- and our awareness of what a loser Fabian actually is -- that give this movie its compelling, nauseating sense of suspense. Nice... one of Widmark's best roles!
A classic French film noir, made by blacklisted American director Jules Dassin, during his European exile. As with French comedies of the 1930s, this crime film has a grittiness and true-to-life frankness that the more sanitized American films only hint at. Plus, the direction of the action itself -- particularly the elaborate half-hour long heist scene -- is completely riveting, a real nail-biter. Both emotionally engrossing and intensely suspenseful, just what a film like this ought to be. The Criterion DVD version also includes added features which discuss Dassin's career and the difficulties he faced that lead him to abandon Hollywood and rebuild his life abroad... a real drama in and of itself!
"The Deer Hunter" (Universal, 1978)
One of the seminal films dealing with America's tragic war in Viet Nam. Michael Cimino's film came out only a few years after the United States lost the war, and nerves were still pretty raw about the issues depicted. Some elements of the story now seem deeply flawed -- the metaphoric Russian roulette game (a form of torture which apparently never actually happened in Viet Nam) is a bit much; the buildup and demolition of life back home, in an earthy workingclass neighborhood, is brilliant, and the atmospheric terror of the POW camp scenes are truly terrifying; this was the first time Americans were confronted with this reality in a popular dramatic forum, and the impact was understandably devastating. As a civilian far distanced from the realities of the war, it's easy for me to pooh-pooh aspects of this film, however, a relative of mine who saw combat in Viet Nam said that he saw The Deer Hunter in the theatres when it first came out, and was absolutely emotionally crushed by it... That may be the best testimonial you could ask for.
"Vinyl" (Lot 47/Columbia Tristar, 2000)
"Dodsworth" (Samuel Goldwyn, 1934)
A strong, surprisingly mature and modern story about a marriage on the rocks, and the desolation, denial and anger that can entail. Walter Huston stars as an older American businessman, amiable but old-fashioned and quite well-to-do, he is married to a woman who is petrified by the onset of old age, and throws herself determinedly into a series of meaningless, exhiliarating affairs. He indulges her wayward flings, but when it becomes apparent she may actually leave him -- or he leave her -- Huston draws a line and
"8 Mile" (Universal, 2002)
A disapppointing film about the underground culture of rap battles, modern versions of doin' the dozens that many aspiring MCs dream will make them stars. Speaking charitably, I don't think it was the fault of ultra-charismatic rapper Eminem that he was cast in the role of Ron Howard in this inner-city update of American Graffiti, but it's still a shame that the weak script and sluggish direction didn't provide better opportunities for him to explore his acting range. While the messed-up, derelict trashiness of the blight-striken 'hoods of Detroit is shown with crisp, gritty detail, the social nuances of the hip-hop scene are reduced to a near-cartoonish simplicity, in which Eminem (as "B. Rabbit," his character's street name) and his too-goofy crew run up against the obnoxious swaggering of the Free World, a musical group that has already made it, and lords it over the rest of the scene. Too much time is spent building up numerous plot points that show how desperate and depressing Rabbit's life is -- the movie simply bogs down, and if we could have seen about half as much of this stuff, and about three times as much actual rapping, things would have been much, much better. While 8 Mile probably succeeds in making underground hip-hop culture accessible to mainstream America, it probably would have been a better movie if it had been played a little tougher. Several aspects of this film rang false, particularly the overly-likeable Fat Albert gang that Rabbit hangs out with, and the gratuitously slutty scenes with his new girlfriend, played by Brittany Murphy, as well as the unfortunate absence of a wall-to-wall, booming soundtrack. The film does access a hidden culture, but it does so at the expense of subtlety and directorial finesse. It's surprising that Chris Hanson, who made a taut thriller like "LA Confidential," could let such a juicy story like this lapse into tedium. Plus, what a drag that Mekhi Phifer (the aptly-named Dr. Pratt, of TV's E.R.) was cast as Em's best bud... Phifer is one of the most leaden and overly-obvious actors around; couldn't they have found anyone who would be more fun to watch for two hours? Anyway, I guess that while this wasn't the dramatic breakthrough for Eminem that many reviewers said it was, that it's still an okay film. If nothing else, in his climactic rap-battle scene, he got the opportunity to present his blueprint for how white kids who are into rap can diffuse the race-baiting of their critics: look 'em in the eye and say, "Yeah, so? What's your point?" It would have been nice if the other 110 minutes of this film offered as much of a message, but I guess you can't ask for everything.
"The Fast Runner" (Lot 47/Columbia Tristar, 2002)
This film got a lot of "buzz" when it came out, and deservedly so... It may take a while for you to settle into its rythym, but once you do, the payoff is great. This is definitely a storyline we haven't seen before -- day to day life among the nomadic Inuit of Northern Canada's frozen tundra... The characters -- named Atanarjat, Atuat, Oki and Puja -- are embroiled in rivalries and romantic intrigues worthy of the great, classic literature. Of course, it's the presentation of their harsh subsistence existence, and the Zen-like deliberation with which they meet its demands, that capture our attention. And this seeming placidness is only a veneer -- jealousy and violence lurk beneath the surface of their society, as in most others, though the way in which it is met is equally unique and fascinating. I certainly hadn't seen any movie like it, and was captivated by the end.
"Objective Burma" (Warner Brothers, 1945)
Raoul Walsh directed this gruelling, gritty, compelling war story, produced during World War Two, as the fight in the Pacific was still in full swing. Errol Flynn, in one of his least glamorous roles, stars as a hard-bitten Captain in charge of an American paratrooper unit that gets sent on a commando mission into Japanese-occupied Burma. They easily achieve their goal of destroying a strategic radar post, but are decimated while trying to return from enemy territory. The film is remorselessly well paced, tense, and manages to transcend the conventions of Hollywood's WWII combat melodramas: it is propagandistic and uses certain formulas, but it is also earthy and anxiety-provoking in a way that the grade-B war films of the era were not. The predicament of the soldiers -- stranded behind enemy lines and cut off from their support -- is made visceral in a way which few movies manage to convey, making this film a clear precursor to Platoon and Black Hawk Down. It's bleak tone and realistic portrayal of the foot soldiers, with their dark humor and fatalistic resolve, all rings true. Highly recommended.
"My Wife Is An Actress" (2002)
A thoroughly enjoyable and low-key French comedy featuring Charlotte Gainsbourg (daughter of pop musician Serge Gainsbourg) and her real-life husband, actor-director Yvan Attal, as a young couple whose marriage is going through a rough patch. She is (get this...) "Charlotte," an actress who is a national celebrity, recognized and stopped on the street by autograph seekers and well-wishers, and he is Yvan, her more pedestrian hubby, a simple sports writer who finds himself increasingly irritated by and jealous of the demands of her profession. Terrance Stamp is slightly miscast as Charlotte's British co-star an aging film idol whose sex appeal piques Yvan's suspicions (Stamp is a little too unappealing and plays his character too broadly), but on the whole, this is a very funny, very human comic drama. Worth checking out!
"The Canterville Ghost" (1944)
Robert Young = Gary Sinese?
"Mark Of The Vampire" (MGM, 1935)
Hour-long director Todd Browning
"Crack-Up" (RKO, 1946)
A badly miscast Pat O'Brien leads an undistinguished cast in this muddled, ponderous noir snoozer about a brooding art historian who finds himself framed for... um... something. It seems that someone is stealing great paintings from a major museum and O'Brien is being set up to take the fall. He shows up disoriented and disshevelled, claiming to have been in a train wreck and yet... no trains accidents have been reported in months. For some reason, the cops want to arrest him, and he inexplicably goes on the lam. This is one of those chase films where the character's actions and motivations don't really make much sense, and as a result it's hard to get involved in the plot. It's also not a very moody film, and for a noir, that's definitely a serious shortcoming. Skippable.
"South Riding" (1938)
Ralph Richardson shines in this archetypal interwar British drama, which focusses on life in rural South Riding, a hamlet where struggling newsman Richardson winds up, and where he winds up making trouble for the local gentry. The plot revolves around the local political boss's obstinate feud with a poor local woman whose dog, Richardson discovers, has been impounded because she refuses to buy a license, and who is scheduled to be put down as a result. When the woman comes to plead her case with the self-absorbed, pompous MP, he is in the midst of a particularly long-winded interview with the new reporter (Richardson) and meets her frantic pleas with astonishing callousness. Richardson, spurred on by his sense of fair play, slams the MP, and thus the fight is on. A delightful film, defining with crystalline precision the manners and mores of Great Britain at the time, and also packed with fine, generous characterizations and understated perfromances. Recommended! (Directed by Victor Saville.)
"Lest We Forget" (1945)
Grim stuff. This WWII documentary was commissioned by the US Army to make a record of the efforts of the ground infantry in the liberation of Europe, and was finished in 1945, just after the surrender of the German forces. However, its tone was judged too pessimistic by the military brass, and not in keeping with the positive propaganda message that was desired in postwar PR. Thus, this 1995 VHS edition was the first "official" release of the film, a full fifty years after the film was completed. You can sort of see why it was suppressed: the sneering, angry venom directed towards the Germans -- soldiers and civilians alike -- was hardly in keeping with the smiling, benificent conqueror ideals of the newly-hatching Marshall Plan, and the bitter, cynical, Mauldin-esque recounting of the miseries endured by American GIs was also kind of a downer, as were the gruesome pictures of the liberated Nazi death camps. Decades later, much of what it reveals militarily and historically has become old hat, but the film is still powerful both for its relentless momentum and as an extreme relic of nationalistic propaganda. The film's most amazing and unique images include an encounter with a troop of American GIs and the recently conquered German locals -- the soldiers stage an American-style rodeo as a form of friendly entertainment, as the weary, haggard Germans look on, with hatred in their eyes. Days, or possibly hours, before, many of these same teenage boys probably had rifles and machineguns in hand and were shooting it out with the same American troops. The decimation of the German cities and countryside is made manifestly and chillingly clear, and the grim footage of the moonscapes that were once major towns and cities, culminating in the demolotion of the Nazi arches at Nuremberg, is pretty amazing. Worth checking out if this kind of history interests you.
An imaginative Japanese horror thriller about a cursed, malevolent videotape that kills those who watch it. If you've already seen the American remake, The Ring, then you don't really need to go back and watch this original version; few plot elements are different, and in general the remake is actually more suspenseful and frightening. But if you haven't seen either version, then starting here would be cool.
"The Road To Perdition" (Dreamworks, 2002)
You have to be a little wary whenever a movie starts with a nostalgia-drenched voiceover by an adolescent boy... Uh-oh! Warning, warning!! Will the director have what it takes to rise above this pitfall? You'd think that Sam Mendes, whose direction of American Beauty showed remarkable narrative and textural depth and admirably original ironies, would be one of the guys who could redeem themselves after such a palpably weak introduction. However, this would-be arthouse crime thriller relies too heavily on its measured tempo and soft-edged presentation, but doesn't back it up in the end. This is, we are clearly and unceasingly telegraphed, a Thinking Person's Crime Film, and as such falls readily into the category of melodrama. Tom Hanks, ever likeable, plays (oooh!) a bad guy... sort of, but not quite. A seasoned gunsel for the local Irish mob, Hanks finds himself a victim of his boss's own dirty laundry and, with his life ruined and in peril, he goes on the lam with his 12-year old son, forming a one-and-a-half-man army against the Mob. This movie is well produced and engaging (and beautifully shot, by cinematographer Conrad L. Hall), but ultimately it's just another hollow glorification of gun culture, masquerading as a morality tale. I enjoyed watching this film, but felt empty and unnourished as it slid slowly to a halt, and as soon as I started to think about it, even a bit resentful. This is the sort of Boy Film where it's easier to kill a man's family than to fully construct them as realistic characters, and in which the logic of violence too easily overcomes the reality of emotion -- sort of like a movie version of that old Harry Chapin song, "Cat's In The Cradle," but with lots of guns and a "happy" ending where the son realizes what a mensch his gangster dad was. Paul Newman is grave, charismatic and not very prominent as the Midwestern crime boss, while Jude Law is squandered in his role as a sadistic hitman. However, somebody really oughtta cast the kid, Tyler Hoechlin, in some movie along with Leonard DiCaprio, either as a relative or as a younger version of Lennie... they have a very similar sleepy-eyed look. Other than that, I didn't get much out of this film.
"The Four Feathers" (United Artists, 1939)
Ralph Richardson is wonderful, as is the rest of the cast, in this epic British war story, which recounts the "fall" and recapture of Khartoum, during the early unravelling of the British empire. The plot involves the misplaced honor of a young man born into military aristocracy, whose bullying father convinces him that he is a coward, when in fact, he is the bravest of all his peers. The plot is convoluted and melodramatic, but the film sizzles along in a good, old-fashioned action flick kinda way. Alexander Korda's direction is skillful, swift and sure -- the battles scenes are sweeping and suspenseful, and the color cinematography is magnificently shot and beautifully composed. Plus, a heroic score by Miklos Rozsa... what more could you want? Yeah, sure, the Arabs and their so-called "fuzzy wuzzy" African allies are thinly realized caricatures, but they also mangage to rout the Brits for a decade or two, so the anti-colonial minded among us can read between the lines, if they wish. A well-made, exciting action classic.
"Roberto Carlos Em Ritmo De Aventura" (1967)
This frivolous, goofy teenybopper film is a little bit dull, but fun to watch anyway, if nothing else, for the fab '60s clothing, the Pop Art design, swinging bachelor pad decor, and also, of course, for a glimpse at Brazilian pop idol Roberto Carlos during the height of his Jovem Guarda fame. The plot is pretty thin, a palpable pastiche of Hard Day's Night, Help! and the Monkees' similarly absurd TV show, with a bit of surrealist absurdism ala Luigi Pirandello thrown in for good measure. Roberto is repeatedly kidnapped, shot at and chased across Brazil's urban landscape; he even gets flown to New York, and returns via a NASA space launch... But the winsome pop idol takes it all in his stride, smiling and walking through each scenario with a good-natured grin. The music is great, if a bit repetitive... The opening track, "Eu Sou Terrivel," has a fun R&B beat, propelled by a punchy horn section and strong, catchy rhythm. Compared to other jovem guarda discs, this one has a really high hit ratio, including another funky, upbeat number, "E Tempo De Amar," written by Renato Barros of Renato e Seus Blue Caps. The credits list a guitar player named Raul, and I tried as best I could to figure out if it was Raul Seixas they were talking about (still not sure... I'll get back to you on that when I find out for sure...) Best of all, though, are the shots of mid-1960s Rio and Sao Paulo, and of the screaming teenage audiences, as well as Roberto's inner cadre of go-go dancer-ish fans, a priceless glimpse at the pre-tropicalia rock scene. I'm sure there must also be video reels of old Jovem Guarda shows, but this fluffy escapist flick has got to be pretty similar in tone and style. The only weird note is how Establishment the film is, with the gratuitous inclusion of various arms of the Brazilian military (notably, the Army and Air Force...) in numerous "action" sequences. I'm sure that the sight of Roberto Carlos exclaiming, "that's groovy!" as he watches paratroopers floating to earth did little to endear him to the left-leaning militants of the anti-rock'n'roll bossa nova scene, who were at that time grappling with the fierce censorship of the newly-installed military regime. Still... that was then, this is now, and really, this is just a gloriously dumb pop culture toss-off... Hardly something to be taken too seriously, one way or the other. Roberto sure was cute, though!
"Jason X" (All American, 2001)
Jason, the unstoppable mutant vengance demon, or whatever the heck he is, gets cryogenically frozen and thawed out in the 25th-Century, Alien-y future, where he, like, totally gets to up the body count by, like, millions and bazillions of witless future-people. If you're willing to go with it, this by-rote, comedic sci-fi splatterfest is okay... The biggest drag, though, is when JJ gets a high-tech remake and now he looks like a T2-ish version of the Hulk. Now that's bo-o-o-o-o-o-r-r-ring.
"Twelve Monkeys" (Universal, 1996)
Dude. You totally know that when Hollywood makes a blockbuster action film about an "extreme sports" super-stud, that the trend has been thoroughly coopted and is pretty much dead as far as a rebellious youth thing. (Not that is was ever that far removed from commericalism anyway, but I guess that's another discussion...) Still, Vin Diesel looks gnarly and has a great, undeniably cool sceen presence, and this semi-high tech shoot-em-up parody of a Bond film is pretty enjoyable, in a don't-think-too-hard-about-it kinda way. Worth checking out, if you want to watch a good no-brainer.
"Mrs. Ghost And Mrs. Muir" (1947)
"Hi De Ho" (All American, 1937)
Cab Calloway, leader of one of the most successful hepcat swing ensembles of the Harlem Renaissance, stars as himself in this flimsily plotted showbiz revue. Calloway fans will definitely want to check this film out, although no one should expect much in the way of great drama or filmmaking. It's all just an excuse to show Cab and his band strutting their stuff, which is cool, since he was definitely one of the great showmen of his time. The production quality of the film isn't great, though -- the acting is pretty stiff, and the "scenes" barely exist, hastily stuffed in between the wall-to-wall musical performances (some of which are clumsily dubbed, others which seem to have been filmed live). Also, the plot is a little troublesome -- the story opens with Calloway in an apartment room, bossing around his girlfriend, Minnie (the Moocher, of course) and slapping her down when she back-talks him. Minnie's jealous of Calloway's female business manager, Nettie, a "high-class" bourgeois woman -- and when Cab won't drop the other woman, Minnie goes off as a woman scorned, brewing up trouble for Cab and his pals. The race, class, and gender issues are disturbing from a modern vantage point, but like all the dramatic aspects of this film, have to be taken with a grain of salt. Really it's all about the music... Oh, and the dancing. The last third of this hour-long film features the Cab Calloway nightclub act in full swing, which means some truly amazing tap dancing and leggy chorus girls. Leave the PC issues aside, and this is a great cultural artifact.
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