"Down With Love" (Touchstone, 2003)
"Auto Focus" (xxxxxxxxx, 2003)
"Young Bess" (Touchstone, 2003)
with Colin Farrell
"The Recruit" (Touchstone, 2003)
Pretty boy Colin Farrell plays opposite Al Pacino in this muddled espionage thriller. Pacino plays it cool as a grizzled CIA recruiter who picks Farrell out of the crowd, and grooms him for a bit of cloak and dagger action inside the Agency. The main problems with this film are that Farrell's mode of action is so spasmodic and unsubtle, you're amazed to find out he wasn't just dozing off in spy school... That, and the fact that there's almost no chemistry at all between him and the rail-thin, somewhat two-dimensional gal he plays opposite. This flick was kinda okay, but if you like paranoid spy thrillers, you might as well rent The French Connection or Day Of The Condor again, and wait 'til the studios come up with something better.
"The Belles Of St. Trinian's" (1954)
Alastair Sim reprises, after a fashion, his barmy schoolmaster role from the 1950 film, The Happiest Days Of Your Life, only this time he's playing Margaret Rutheford's character, performing in drag as Miss Fritton, a dotty headmistress whose belief in a liberal, unstructured education has led to complete lawlessness and havoc at her private girl's school. Sim also plays Miss Fritton's twin brother, a crooked bookie who locks horns with his sister over a rigged horse racing scam. The joy of this movie comes from the anarchic behavior of the ill-mannered, blithely menacing students, who are surly, dishevelled and perhaps a bit worldly beyond their years. (The film was based on a series of drawings by cartoonist Ronald Searle, sort of a "Pippi Longstocking" meets "Lord Of The Flies" scenario...) There are also several choice character roles: Sims' gender-bending aside, there is a magnificent performance by George Cole, as "Flash Harry", a fast-talking but quite loveable con artist who helps sell the bootleg liquor the Fourth Form girls make in chemistry class, and Joyce Grenfell as a horsey, inept policewoman who is sent in undercover to find out just what's going on at St. Trinian's. As with many postwar British comedies, the underlying theme is of a crass new age threatening to overtake the decorum of the old, established order, as typified by the hypocrisies of the adults in the film (Sim and the slovenly, venal school staff) and the more likeable slickness and unapologetic hucksterism of the Flash Harry character. The depictation of the chaotic, unruly, cigarette smoking girls -- American style juvenile delinquents! Egad! -- is also pretty funny. The film runs at a brisk, slapstick pace, and the humor is often rather obvious and unsubtle, but when it hits the mark, it's a delight.
"The Man On The Eiffel Tower" (RKO, 1949)
Burgess Meredith, of all people, directed this off-center thriller, which features Franchot Tone as an ice-cool (but quite deranged) criminal mastermind who secretly yearns to be caught, and taunts a Parisian detective, Inspector Maigret (Charles Laughton) into hounding him. The moodiness of the film's beginning is undercut by the implausibility and uneven direction of the cat-and-mouse machinations of the second half; Laughton's character loses steam and while Tone delivers some choice moments eye-bulging insanity, it's had to make heads of tails out of his overly-explicit taunts of Maigret's faltering investigation. Sort of a lesser version of The Third Man, with a resplendid mid-century Paris in place of a war-torn Vienna. Nice look at the inner workings of the Eiffel Tower as well... An interesting early adaptation of mystery novelist George Simenon's Maigret character.
"The Westerner" (Samuel Goldwyn, 1940)
"Virginia City" (Warner Brothers, 1940)
An awkward Civil War western with an all-star cast... Errol Flynn faces off with Randolph Scott, as rival captains of the Union and Confederate armies, who struggle to outfox and outmanuever one another over possession of a load of Western gold that Scott hopes can finance a last-ditch effort by the Confederacy. Ultimately, though, these men of honor have to confront a common foe: the creaky plot. Oh, wait. I meant to say, Humphrey Bogart, slumming here, on his way to Casablanca fame, as a vaguely Mexican bandito leader who is unconcerned with the moral issues surrounding the war between the states: he just wants the loot the two heroes are struggling over. Director Michael Curtiz struggles with the material as well, but is also hampered by the film's leading lady, the uniquely unappealing, uncharismatic Miriam Hopkins. Overall, this is an okay oater, but with this much talent onhand, it seems like it should have been much better.
"Winged Migration" (2003)
"The Happiest Days Of Your Life" (London, 1950)
A delightful English comedy romp starring Alastair Sim and Margaret Rutherford as rival schoolmasters who spar with each other after their two schools -- one for boys and the other for girls -- are mistakenly merged by a bureaucratic snafu. A prime example of postwar British humor, with the social openness of the coming sexual revolution looming like an open pit in front of a fusty, old-world England which nonetheless retains a certain poised, elegant properess. The contemporary political jabs that are embedded in the plot -- zingers aimed at the Laborites and Liberals -- will probably be lost to modern audiences, but the inspired verbal and slapstick humor comes through loud and clear. A clever, fast-paced and very witty film... funny and fun!
"Panic" (Artisan, 2000)
Holy Sopranos, Batman! William Macy stars, with characteristic subtlety and hangdog gravitas, as Alex -- a hit man who's gone into therapy for a newfound, nagging sense of depression. Everyone in the cast in marvellous, including Tracy Ullman as his earthy, unsuspecting wife, Donald Sutherland as his overbearing, abusive father, and even John Ritter as his nervous, disbelieving shrink. Neve Campbell delivers an understated, knockout performance as a neurotic younger woman that Alex fixates on, and child actor David Dorfmann (later seen as the kid in The Ring...) as Alex's believably precocious son, Sammy. The script is clever and subtle, with out falling back on the glib, cliched irony of much modern satire. The strongly-defined characters and their realistic responses are a breath of fresh air in the trite and true millennial entertainment era. Recommended!
"The Kennel Murder Case" (Warner Brothers, 1933)
William Powell drifts through this brisk murder mystery, portraying detective Philo Vance in a B-grade preview of the infinitely suaver, more droll "Thin Man" roles he would later excel at. This film is entertaining enough, after a style, but the script is as clumsy as the stage is cluttered, as one great character actor after another bump into one another as the plot zips unsuspensefully by. A murder is committed, but the police peg it as a suicide until Vance pops up to prove them wrong, playfully locking horns with the inept Sargeant in charge of the case (delightfully portrayed by the gravel-voiced Eugene Palette). Not one of director Michael Curtiz's brightest moments -- things just whiz by too quickly and the formula isn't given enough time to develop a sense of charm or wit. This is okay, but there are plenty of other oldies-but-goodies to spend your time on first.
"Buffy The Vampire Slayer" (2003)
The final episode. Waaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhh.
'Bye, Buffy! You saved television. A lot.
"X2: X-Men United" (2003)
Although still a bit cluttered and slow-moving in parts, this was a vast improvement on the first X-Men film, which I thought was a complete dud. A couple of things are happening: first, obviously, special effects technology is finally catching up to the imaginative stretch of the early comicbook artists, and the action is starting to look cool enough to be convincing and fun. The opening sequence with the teleporting Nightcrawler is a good example -- not true, perhaps, to the character's original power as seen in the '70s, but very cool onscreen. Second, the studios are starting to get a sense of how to pace these things. For some reason movie producers who take on comicbook plots always seem to feel the need to endlessly stop the plot dead so we (the audience) can stare at the heros and bask in their awesome presence, a legacy, I'm afraid, of the uber- dismal "Batman" franchise. Personally, as an experienced, longtime comicbook reader, I just want them to get on with it and hit me with some action! I'm way over the point where it's amazing to me that these characters are on screen -- I want to see them do stuff. This film did a pretty good job moving in that direction. They assumed a fair amount of familiarity with the various characters, and that the audience for this film was prepared to see amazing and uncanny powers manifest themselves onscreen, and the tendency to explain, explain, explain was minimized in favor of action. The pacing of the action was a bit slow (it felt like they were just padding the movie at times) but in general they seem to be getting the idea. At the end of the film I thought, what they really need is to get to the point where making these blockbusters is as routine and as fluid a process as producing the comics -- if we were up to, say, X-Men Movie #12, I bet things would be a lot smoother and more fun. I've got my fingers crossed that this is the direction we're headed.
"Matrix Reloaded" (2003)
NOTE: this review contains spoilers. Don't read it if you want to be surprised by the film.
Now, here was a real surprise: I really enjoyed the new Matrix movie! It's funny how people keep saying that the first one was so cool and amazing, but that this one was all action and no new plot twists. I heartily disagree. I thought the first film was bo-o-o-o-o-rring and had an extremely static us-vs-them set-up. Reality's not what it seems? Ooooohh! Never saw that idea before! The machines are out to get us? Golly!! Here, though, the premise branches out and becomes more interesting: it seems that when Keanu Reeves character, Neo, did the big old mind-zap on one of the villainous characters in the virtual world of the Matrix reality, intending to "free" it from its servitude to the wicked mainframe, he did just that: he gave it free will, and it became an independent player. Not a good guy, mind you, as we all expected, but a malevolent free agent, with an agenda all of its own. Turns out that he's not the only one: there are all kinds of seemingly autonomous entities running around inside the fake reality, each with their own motivations and capabilities. It's not just the freed humans who are the active protagonists, pitted against a monolithic and remorseless mechanical intelligence: this virtual world really does have a lot of twists and turns, and may even have a level of complexity and unpredictability that mimicks the "real" world. I admit, my eyes glazed over as fast as anyone else's when Neo ran into the tiresome, heavily accented, degenerate Euro-trash gangster who started to intone about the illusion of free will, etc., but the 2001 -ish encounter with the Architect was much more engaging, and raised the possibility that none of what we've seen to date was real -- not the human rebellion, or the "physical" reality they retreat to, or any of the dramas that have played out onscreen. Now, that's cool.
Best of all, this sequel was almost entirely shorn of the tedious slo-mo, action-figure posing and endless fetishization of the Neo character that dragged down the first film. We don't need the producers to visually telegraph to us how cool this guy is (as a narrative device it is clumsy and counterproductive): we want them to show us, and here, they finally do. As the film opens, Neo's Scooby Gang just accepts that he's super-powered and able to do studly, amazing, manga-ish things within the artificial parameters of the Matrix reality. So now he just flies and fights like a normal comicbook hero, and it looks really cool onscreen. Thank you: that's all we really needed. Likewise, the directors seem to have learned the lesson of Keanu's other successful action film, Speed, which is that it's best not to rely on Canoe's supposed acting ability, and much better just to have things happen around him... really fast, before the vacuum sets in. Talk about dodging a bullet.
Anyway, I really enjoyed this film, and I didn't expect to. I think the third installment will be equally good, and if these folks are able to sustain the momentum, I'd say they are prime candidates for developing the big screen vocabulary for future sci fi/comicbook action films. Let's keep our fingers crossed.
TV taped from Thursday, May 8:
Well, okay, so this isn't movie-watching, per se, but then again, this wouldn't be a real, self-respecting blog if I didn't go off on indulgent tangents whenever I felt like it. Mostly, though, I just wanted to vent a bit about this week's episode of E.R., which majorly sucked. I like ER. Or at least I have up until the last season or so... what's killed it for me are multiple causes, ranging from the endless "very special episode" melodramas to the floundering character development for several key players (Carter, Abby, Gallant, Corday) and the seeming blind spots that the producers have for characters and actors who are clearly duds. Thank god they finally got rid of Erik LaSalle!! But was "replacing" him with the unbearably over-obvious, unappealing and ever-insufferable Mehki Phiffer really such a great idea? (And what's with Susan/Shelly whatsherface? Yawn.) Anyway, this week's episode was one of the worst shows I've ever seen on TV... Seriously! They made this big deal out of it being the series' 200th episode, and then they all but nailed a tin sign on it, proclaiming the show moribund and creatively bankrupt. The episode hinged on a flawed gimmick, a confusing editing sequence that crosscut between Drs. Carter and Pratt, working on separate shifts that appear -- when we can finally figure it out -- to have taken place (literally) in separate realities. The purpose of the the juxoposition seems to have to elevate Phiffer's character to the same level as that of Carter, and indeed, to place him above Carter, whose life has suddenly fallen apart, providing the excuse for Carter to leave town and (presumably) for actor Noah Wiley to pursue a more rewarding career in film acting. Anyway, suddenly Pratt, who has always been a cocky, arrogant jerk, is portrayed as a benevolent, empathic, good-natured bon vivant... The "perfect" natural choice to fill in the role of studly, all-knowing male doctors who seem to lead the cast on this show. Note to the producers: it ain't gonna work. Phiffer is a dud, and if you pin all your hopes on him, the show will die an ugly, painful death. Oh god, I can't watch!!
"Whistle In The Wind" (Embassy, 1961)
Alan Bates plays opposite a teenage Hayley Mills in this odd parable about a band of rural English children who mistake a fugitive criminal for the second coming of Jesus Christ. The indeterminate nature of the ending, which is open to subjective interpretations, makes this a difficult film to pronounce judgement on: non-Christians may not totally get the theological implications, but the dynamic between the aloof, dismissive adult villagers and the flock of children who readily revere the dishelvelled, dangerous Bates is an interesting precursor for the 'Sixties generation gap that was to come. Beautiful B&W cinematography, and excellent performances by all the child actors, who, amazingly, act like real kids do: petulant, competitive, and able to believe the fantastic.
"This Land Is Mine" (RKO, 1943)
French director Jean Renoir helmed this melodramatic wartime propaganda piece, about a small town "somewhere in Europe" that falls under the heel of Nazi occupation. Charles Laughton stars as a bumbling, apolitical local, befuddled schoolteacher Albert Lory, who is forced to face up to the dasterdly evil of the fascist regime while others around him either give their lives to the resistence, or collaborate with the oppressors. A talented cast balances out a stilted and rather tendentious script; Laughton, in particular, is stunning for his ability to elevate his talk-heavy closing monologue above its baldly propagandistic scripting into something resembling a stirring, dramatic speech. Fans of the cantankerous character actor Una O'Connor will definitely want to check this one out as well: playing Laughton's domineering, opportunistic mother, she gets to chew more scenery here than in any other film I've seen her in. Also of interest is the attempt to lampoon the supposed gentlemanliness of the German Army, with Walter Slezak playing the educated, insidiously manipulative officer who seeks to quell any rebellion under his command. Not a great movie, but an interesting timecapsule of sloganeering wartime propaganda.
"I Know Where I'm Going" (Rank, 1945)
A typically wry, enchantingly off-beat and spiritually inclined Michael Powell-Emric Pressberger film, which extols the mystery and unpredictability of life, and the love of human foibles and natural splendor. Wendy Hiller stars as a young, ambitious "new Briton," an unabashed goldigger eager to make the most of the modern life and her rapid upward mobility. She's off to a remote island in the Scottish Hebrides, where she's scheduled to wed a extremely wealthy (but rather boorish) English Lord, and thus cap off her ambitious rise into the upper class. Of course, she doesn't know it, but fate has planned otherwise. When she arrives at the nearby island of Mull (a real place, with real features that were incorporated into the the plot of the film) she's halted by the North coast's uncontrollable weather, and while she's stuck on Mull, finds herself charmed by the earthy locals. In particular, she is smitten by young Torqvill, the laird of the decrepit local castle (Roger Lifesey), who lives life with gusto, despite being heir to a fallen fortune. The city-slicker whose priggishness is called into question by kooky, loveable locals is, of course, a story that has been done many times both before and since this film was made ("Englishman Who Went Up A Hill..." etc...) But somehow, this Michael Powell outing has long been a cult favorite, as seen in several bonus featurettes that accompany the film on the DVD version. The DVD makes the most of its "extras," with several excellent featurettes, including a short BBC documentary about the making of the film, in which New Yorker editor Nancy Franklin, smitten by the film, journeys to the island of Mull to recapture some of the grandeur and mystery she felt in the movie. Powell's widow, famed film editor Thelma Schoonmaker Powell, also narrates a couple of segments, gently illuminating Powell's artistic vision and love of nature, as she looks through his home movies and still from the production of the film. (Micheal Powell fans simply haveto see these parts...) Cast notes: Livesey grows on you, but Wendy Hiller is unlikeable throughout -- the one real trouble with this film. And look for young Petula Clark, as the precocious daughter of an aristocratic family that hosts Hiller during her stay on Mull. An interesting film that captures a certian something about postwar Britain, with beautiful cinematography and a stunning look at a real-life boat-swallowing whirlpool. Recommended.
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