"Spirited Away" (Warner, 2002)
I still think Lilo & Stitch should have won the Oscar, but I am glad that the Academy steered me towards this unusual, playfully creepy Japanimation gem. Director Hayao Miyizaki definitely crafted a magical reality in this "Alice In Wonderland"-ish fantasy film, about a bold little girl named Chihiro, who wins over the forces of weirdness when fate pulls her into an alternate dimension, populated with all manner of slithery and untrustworthy Grimm Brothers extras. A wholly original, charming film which skilfully pulls you into its odd internal logic. Fun and funny.
"Twelve O'Clock High" (Warner, 2002)
"Eight-Legged Freaks" (Warner, 2002)
An amiable and well-paced creature feature comedy, starring David Arquette as a nebbishy every-guy who has to help save his hometown from an infestation of giant, mutant spiders. The leviathan arachnids are escaped from a local vivarium, which means we get several different varieties of exotic monsters, each with their own special powers and habits (jumping, spinning giant webs, attacking from hidden trap doors, slurping out human innards like they were Icees, etc.). The special effects are great, the spiders make cute, anthropomorphized noises, and the script is funny and not to be taken seriously on any level. It's a fun film.
"Watch On The Rhine" (Warner, 1943)
This film adaptation of Lillian Hellman's groundbreaking anti-fascist play has aged poorly since the 1940s. The plot is similar to Casablanca: Paul Lukas (in perhaps his best role) plays an aging, weary member of the German underground, who has come to America with his wife and family, as they continue to raise funds to help the resistence at home. America is still a slumbering giant, childishly unaware of the evil depths of the Nazi threat. Lukas faces off against an unscrupulous Nazi collaborator, who threatens to turn him and his family over to the Germans, and while the bad guy is an absolute sleaze, he and Lukas share a common bond as Europeans, realists who recognize the nature of the fascism, even though their American hosts remain clueless. The stage version of this story was ahead of its time (Hellman was one of those left-leaning "premature antifascists" who ached for the American government to get into war), but the film adaptation, which came out in '43, was a bit anachronistic: by then, the thought of any Americans, anywhere, being naive and accomodating towards the Germans was a bit unbelievable. Mostly, though, the movie is just way too exposition heavy, and even with a fine set of actors and a script that was touched up by Dashiel Hammett, it's frankly a bit awkward, sluggish and melodramatic. Bette Davis is fine; Beulah Beondi is a hoot. A classic, sure, and worth checking out, although you have to be in the right mood.
"Nowhere In Africa" (2003)
"The Pyx" (1973)
Man, what a great Scrabble word!
"Things To Come" (1935)
"Witness For The Prosecution" (MGM, 1957)
Charles Laughton is magnificent as a curmudeonly, indefatiguable British barrister who takes on a high-profile murder case, despite a recently brush with physical collapse. Tyrone Power is his client, an oily yet earnest, desperate man, accused of murder, after his gigilo-like relationship with an elderly English matron collapses. Marlene Dietrich sizzles noirishly onscreen, playing Power's wife, a cynical, hard-as-nails German war bride whom Power brought back to London, following the War. Billy Wilder adapted this script from an old Agatha Christie story; the bangaroo surprise ending is a bit over the top, but it's all quite entertaining. Laughton fans, in particular, will get a kick out of the brisk, saucy interplay between him and his real-life wife, Elsa Lanchester, who plays the embattled home-care nurse assigned to keep an eye on Lord Wilfred, and make sure he doesn't drink, smoke cigars, or get over-excited when he returns to work. It's a losing battle, but a delight to watch. Recommended!
"San Antonio" (Warner Brothers, 1946)
Errol Flynn was never more debonaire than in this briskly paced, totally enjoyable, two-fisted Western romance. Flynn plays Clay Hardin, a rancher who's been chased out of town by a syndicate of corrupt rustlers, but is back in town with the proof that will vindicate him... and with a hankering to meet actress Alexis Smith. She's a high-tone New York gal who finds herself charmed by the dapper, self-assured machismo of Flynn's good-natured rustic roughneck. You'll be charmed, too: it's hard to imagine anyone else being so suave and polite when they're kicking butt on the bad guys. Filmed in brightly saturated Technicolor, with the ruins of the Alamo eerily lit by the Texas moon. This film is a goodie! [Cast note: anyone who was charmed by S. K. Sakall's famous comedic cameo as a German emigre in Casablanca ("What watch mama?") will get a kick out of his extensive supporting role in this film... More cutesy ethnic schtick than you can shake a schntizel at!]
"Rounders" (MGM, 1964)
Henry Fonda and Glenn Ford co-star as a pair of almost-over-the-hill cowpunchers whose love of the free life, and plain lack of horse sense, have kept them pinned to the same lousy job year after years, and also from settling down with any of the gals that moon over them when they come down from the hills long enough to spend their dough. These guys are loveable foul-ups, roustabouts who haven't quite figured out how to get ahead, but sure like doing things the hard way. Plenty of light comedy (including some of the most charming early '60s sexist jokes you're ever likely to see) and a funny love-hate relationship between Ford and the one horse he simply cannot break. It's nice to see Ford and Fonda play characters who just ain't that bright, each in their own typical understated style. Cute film -- recommended!
"The Train" (United Artists, 1964)
John Frankenheimer directed this semi-grim WWII action film, with Burt Lancaster as a one-man army out to stop the Nazis from plundering all of France's greatest modern art treasures. Frankly, not the greatest script, but there is some pleasantly flashy B&W cinematography, and an interesting cameo by oafish French character actor Michel Simon (who was the heart of Jean Vigo's 1934 masterpiece, L'Atlante.) This film's okay, but there are plenty of films that are better.
"Caught In The Draft" (Paramount, 1941)
Eddie Bracken and Dorothy Lamour star, respectively, as Bob Hope's comedic and romantic foils in this lightweight military comedy. Bob plays Don Bolton, a pampered, smartaleck-y movie star who latches onto marrying Lamour as a way to to avoid the draft ("I'm not a coward," he says, "I'm just allergic to bullets.") The trouble is his would-be wife is also the daughter of a bristly old-school Army Colonel, and she shares daddy's distaste for shirkers. Their love-hate relationship slowly tilts towards love, and eventually he proves himself worthy of her hand. The sketch-oriented script has episodic laughs, but is pretty predictable and sluggish: it might have been funnier at a time when universal conscription was becoming a reality, and civilian America was ramping up to meet a total war economy. In that regard, it's an interesting cultural relic.
"This Island Earth" (Universal, 1955)
An impressive, imaginative early science-fiction thriller, in which Earth's best scientists are drafted to work for an imperilled alien civilization. The characters are all paper-thin, but the plot is reasonably dense, and the special effects, particularly the sets and minatures used for the outer-space sequences are brilliantly ambitious and creative. A nice bridge between the hokey serial films of the 1930s and '40s and the 'Sixties era of Star Trek and 2001. [Cast notes: also-ran Jeff Morrow plays the too-butch lead, Faith Domergue (who specialized in this kind of role) plays his bullet bra-ed co-scientist. And check out young Russell L. Johnson (best known as "the Professor" on Gilligan's Island) as one of their colleagues.] Recommended!
"Comancheros" (Twentieth Century Fox, 1961)
John Wayne's tough-guy character gets some choice zingers in this amiable, two-fisted, entertaining (and occasionally ricketty) western about a Texas Ranger who's out to bust up a gun-running gang that's selling arms to the Comanche renegades. It's one of those films where the Indians drop like flies every time the cowboys open fire, but it zips along at a pleasant pace, with a tad more plot than normal. Lee Marvin has a short but choice role as Mr. Crow, a sinister gunslinger who goes on a roaring bender with Wayne, paving the way for their interplay in the '62 sizzler, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence. This was the last film directed by Michael Curtiz, who is probably best known for his work on Casablanca, and while this film is nowhere near the same league at that classic, it still has its moments.
"Back To Bataan" (RKO, 1945)
A hearty, but hamfisted, formulaic WWII propaganda film about the liberation of the Phillipine Islands from the Japanese occupation, loosely based on contemporary history. Future McCarthy snitch Edward Dymytrk directs; a handsome young John Wayne is the white guy who organizes the guerilla resistence, and Anthony Quinn is cast in one of his many "ethnic" roles, as the grandson of a legendary Filipino political figure who is now called upon to lead his people to freedom. Although there's plenty of "good neighbor policy" talk about the nobility and can-do spirit of the Filipino people, this jingoistic, bluntly-scripted film is mostly pretty patronizing... And of course, "the Japs" are just pure, conniving, buck-toothed evil. The script is pretty action-packed, though... if you like shoot-em-ups, this is OK, if you don't think too much about the plot or the social overtones. Really nice B&W cinematography.
"Roberto Carlos E O Diamante Cor Da Rosa" (1970)
Fast-fading Brazilian jovem guarda pop idols Wanderlea, Erasmo Carlos and Roberto Carlos star in this paper-thin action comedy, wherein a hunt for long-lost Phonecian treasures lead our heros across the globe, and then back home to Brazil. Musically, this is disapointing -- the film starts with a sizzling soul number (an early Tim Maia song), but that is the only staged "live" performance in the film, the other numbers are either brought in as incidental music or in cheesy playback lip-synchs that have nothing to do with the plotline. Some kooky early '70s fashion (lots of big gold chains, leather vests, skintight jerseys and flared bell-bottoms) but less of a glimpse of the world itself. The film pingpongs from Tokyo to Jerusalem and then back to Rio, but most of the camera time is spent on our heroes, and they are stuck, frankly, a rather dull script... If you wanted to be charitable, you could see this as an absurdist romp, much like the Hong Kong films we know and love... or, alternately, you could just skip it. Other than the song at the start, there's little to recommend this film.
"Antwone Fisher" (20th Century Fox, 2002)
Despite its palpably made-for-Oprah qualities, this psychological melodrama has its moments. The story revolves around the struggles of African-American Navy sailor Antwone Fisher to control his explosive, self-destructive anger and to confront the personal history of physical and psychological abuse that created his dysfunctional predicament. Fisher, who wrote this screenplay based on his own life, was put up for adoption by a ne'er-do-well mother, then raised in a series of abusive foster care environments, turning as a young adult to the armed forces as a last resort to straighten out his life. As the film opens, he's about to get tossed out of the military due to his habitual brawling, and is sent to see a Navy psychiatrist -- played by director Denzel Washington -- for one last chance. Fisher's character, a self-portrait, is perhaps a bit too warm, fuzzy and puppydogish, although Derek Luke, the actor who plays the adult Antwone, is absolutely magnetic and expressive, and almost singlehandedly makes this film work. The Navy shrink, on the other hand, is a flimsily realized stereotype -- one of those semi-saintly medical saviors (with personal problems of their own that are brought into focus by the life-affirming struggles of the patients they guide) that Robin Williams nearly killed his career playing again and again and again. The cliche works, but Fisher's script certainly brings nothing new to the role, and as a result Denzel's a bit of a dud in this film. Still, the issues the film addresses are powerful, the brief flashback scenes showing Fisher's childhood abuse are genuinely horrifying, and skillfully, sparingly presented. Although the drama of Fisher's rediscovery of his biological family is symbolically transposed (some might say forced) onto the wider issue of the African-American slave diaspora, the emotional issues are still profound, and the scenes of him opening up about a lifetime of pain, first to his therapist, and later to his lover, will probably ring true for many viewers.
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