What a dud. I grew up reading Marvel comicbooks, and am embarassed whenever I see such terrible adaptations hit the screen. And why -- leaving the crappy script, muddled direction, abysmal acting, murky scenery and sound design aside -- do they have to muck with the original plotline so much? It's a shame, really.
"Shanghai Knights" (2003)
A disappointing, though not entirely lackluster, follow-up to the zip-bang comedy of Shanghai Noon. Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson still have good chemistry together, but they trade the unexpected sparkle of the first film in for slow-moving schtick. A terribly placed pop music soundtrack also gets in the way. But as lighthearted, unpretentious comedies go, you could do a lot worse. I'd still go see the third film in the series, if they make one.
"Gangs Of New York" (Miramax, 2003)
Meh. This is a painfully heavyhanded, broadly played, on-the-nose, over-the-top dud. Scorsese just can't help himself, can he? I recall reading reviews of this film which concentrated on Daniel Day Lewis's supposedly delicious turn as a villain -- but his role was one of the central weak points the film, and was, in all honesty, just a rehash of the same old, tired, badguy schtick that Robert DeNiro does with equally belabored relentlessness. Anyway, a potentially fascinating story -- of the outlandishly violent, corrupt gangs that ran New York City in the later 1800s -- is ruined by Scorsese's blunt, pointlessly aggressive direction and a remarkably unsubtle script. You can practically hear him goading the actors on keep "giving more" and indulging their hammiest impulses. Thus, the film is drowned in a deluge of overly-obvious violence, cheap melodrama and garish visual design. If done right, this could have been a masterpiece. As is, it's a real stinker. Wish I'd skipped it.
"Alison Krauss & Union Station - Live" (Rounder, 2003)
Well, one thing's for sure: the camera loves Alison Krauss -- and so do her fans, as seen in this charming, well-produced concert video, featuring the beaming fiddler/vocalist and her longtime cohorts, guitarist Dan Tyminski, Ron Block, Barry Bales and dobro whiz Jerry Douglas.
"The Cruel Ocean" (Ealing Studios, 1953)
How funny... Speaking of Jason Patric, they just showed a dubbed version of The Lost Boys on one of the local Spanish-language stations. I had forgotten (if I ever actually knew...) that he was in that one! I didn't watch much if it tonight, but I do remember seeing it in the theaters when it came out. God, those '80s fashion disasters are so hilarious! And the santa Cruz boardwalk never looked livelier... (or undead-lier?) Ay, caramba!
"Lloyds Of London" (Twentieth Century Fox, 1936)
This semi-historical drama features a young, rail-thin Tyrone Power in his first starring role, as Jonathan Blake, a fictional English entrepreneur who has a rags-to-riches career at the famed Lloyd's insurance company. He is also the (again, fictional) childhood friend of Lord Horatio Nelson, naval hero of the Battle of Trafalgar, where the British turned aside and decisively defeated the combined armada of Napoleonic France and his Spanish allies. Power is attractive but a bit stiff; the film is surprisingly engaging, though a bit disappointing due to the liberties it takes with history. Mostly, though, this is good, clean fun, classic 'Thirties fluff. Plenty of good character actors, too!
"Compulsion" (Twentieth Century Fox, 1959)
Dean Stockwell stars in this icky thriller, based on the infamous Leopold-Loeb murder case which shook Chicago in the 1920s. Most of the film features Stockwell and cohort Bradford Dillman, as two wealthy, sadistic criminal dilletantes bound together in a twisted dominant-submissive homoerotic pact, which leads them to kidnap and murder a young boy in their neighborhood -- all just for kicks. Dillman is compellingly grotesque as the ringleader who pushes Stockwell in violence and psychosis, and then delights in taunting the police behind their backs. This prelude is tense and gut-gripping, horrifying, in fact, but the film loses impact after they are caught and brought to trial. Orson Wells does a fine turn as the liberal lawyer who is brought in to defend them, and delivers a dazzling anti-death penalty speech, but the emotional drama of the ending is strangely muffled... Somehow, Wells's character is brought in a little too late, and there's no real interaction between him and his loathesome clients. The relevant points are made, but they don't resonate as effectively as the nauseating buildup -- Stockwell and Dillman remain unlikeable, yet their sickness and its philospohical rationalizations aren't dug into as deeply as they could have been. The confrontation of the character's gayness (and their need to disguise it before the jurors) is fascinating, though -- even though the movie was made thirty-five years after the killing took place, the filmmakers make no judgement about the homophobia involved. Anyway, as psychological thrillers go, this one's a doozy.
"Narc" (Lion's Gate, 2003)
Simplistically put, this film picks up where Serpico left off... Jason Patric -- who I'd never really given much thought -- gives an excellent, unusual slow-burn performance as a discredited, disheartened narcotics agent whose two-year stakeout ended in a disasterously violent shootout, his dismissal, and by his being haunted by failure and guilt. He's offered a second chance, working on a hopeless but politically charged case, one involving another undercover officer who was killed months earlier, and whose death strikes an emotional chord with Petric's mopey, emotionally knotted character. The strength of this film lies with its opening moments, the stylishness of the directing, the intensity of the acting, and the unique, often mystifying emotional tone that is set in Petric's early scenes, including several scenes with his wife, who is dismayed that he's going back into dangerous police work. The film slows down when Petric is paired off with Ray Liotta's character, Lt. Oak, the smouldering, loose cannon partner of the dead cop, and they shake down half of Detroit trying to solve the mystery. Although Liotta projects mucho menace and simmering, explosive violence, his character is extremely predictable, and the story soon slides into a standard-issue pattern, failing to capitalize on the disorienting tone set at the start. Still, as cop films go, this is a superior product -- it's moody, thoughtful, elegantly directed and thankfully doesn't fall back on lame one-liners and stale humor to "amuse" the audience. The gritty seriousness of the film is a little undone by the hysteric tenor of the closing scenes, but, hey -- that's Hollywood for ya! Whaddya gonna do? If you watch this film not expecting a lot from it, you may be quite pleasantly surprised.
"Heaven Can Wait" (Warner Brothers, 1943)
Don Ameche stars in this heartwarming comedic melodrama about a man who dutifully reports to the gates of Hell once he dies, convinced that his life of sin will merit a little of the sulfur and brimstone treatment. The Devil, who seems like a rather nice chap, isn't so sure, and asks Ameche to tell him his life story, just to size things up. Although this film was quite popular when it came out, it might not play as well to modern audiences, who are used to seeing "sin," in all its forms, presented explicitly onscreen, and as a result are rather literal minded about what we see onscreen. Because these old movies often only hinted at unsavory topics, rather than actually show them, Ameche's inferred infidelity doesn't really translate plotwise: as far as what he see onscreen, he seems like a rather nice fellow, a bit of an irrepressible rapscallion, but certainly not a sinner. Also, the chapter-by-chapter novelistic narrative structure -- we witness his life through a series of birthdays and anniversaries, a linear, formalistic approach that may seem a bit clumsy and belaboured to we jaded moderns. Still, it's a classic...
"Johnny Apollo" (Twentieth Century Fox, 1940)
A dazzling proto-noir gangster film, featuring Tyrone Power in one of his best roles, as "Johnny Apollo," a wealthy man's son who changes his name and turns to a life of crime after his father is exposed and sent to prison as an embezzler. Power effectively sheds his pretty-boy image as a romantic leading man, and does an excellent turn as a cynical tough guy -- even more astonishing is Dorothy Lamour's performace as Lucky, a hard-bitten gun moll who takes Johnny under her wing. Snarling out her lines in a thick urban accent, Lamour is about as far away from her Polynesian and exotic hottie typecasting as possible; she also gives one of the most convincing gangster gal portrayals I've ever seen. Better still, is Lloyd Nolan's turn as gang leader Mickey Dwyer, whose grinning, boyish enthusiasm and charismatic charm belies his violence yet completely explains Apollo's devotion to him. Nolan plays a cheerful psychopath -- the kind of role that Robert Deniro and Joe Pesci have so artlessly beaten to death -- with such naturalness and ease that his performance may actually be the heart of this film. Look for his scene with the icebox lock, and you'll see what I mean. I loved this film: if you're looking for a good gangster flick, or a little-known Hollywood classic, check this one out!
"Viva Villa" (Warner Brothers, 1934)
Wallace Beery stars in this surprisingly raw, graphically violent (and yet, somehow somewhat sentimentalized) Hollywood version of the life of Pancho Villa, one of the leaders of the Mexican Revolution. Character actor Leo Carillo, infamous as a latino Uncle Tom for his portrayal as Pancho in the "Ceesco Keed" series, here costars as Sierra, Villa's blandly sadistic lieutenant, and Faye Wray appears as an aristocratic lady who catches Villa's fancy. Ben Hecht's sharp, no-nonsense script is politically left-leaning, and while it takes liberties with its depictation of Villa as a brutish lout with a heart of gold, Beery's performance sheds unexpected nuance... Basically, he's transposing his loveable-mug boxer persona onto the Mexican landscape, but in a weird way, it almost works. Apparently this film had a stop-and-start shooting history, with three directors (Howard Hawks and William Wellman worked on it, but didn't wind up in the final credits) and some extensive recasting as well; James Wong Howe provides some typically fine B&W cinematography. A dynamic classic old film, with a relatively sympathetic presentation of the Latin American peasantry... Worth checking out, even though the racial aspects of the film are at times dubious.
"A Thousand Clowns" (1965)
An intriguing film about the balance between nonconformism and one's responsibility to others. Jason Robards stars as Murray Burns, an ascerbic, bohemian Madison Avenue dropout who spends his days romping through Central Park, visiting the Empire State Building and Statue of Liberty, seeing ships off, and generally thumbing his nose at all the 9-to-5ers who haven't also had the gumption to quit their jobs. He's also the guardian of his twelve-year-old nephew, Nick, but sadly the child welfare authorities have gotten wind of Uncle Murray's odd ways and willful unemployment, and Robards is forced to contend with the crushing power of "the real world." Adapted from a stage play, this film retains much of the blocking and timing of its original incarnation, but makes fine use of New York's mid-'60s scenery to conjure the giddy solitude of Murray's outside-looking-in antics. Like many theatre pieces from this era, this grapples with Big Issues and Psychology (both with capital letters), but it does so with a light touch, more a Neil Simon-y bittersweetness than overtly angst-ridden and shouted at the top of one's lungs. Made just before the hippies took over, this film is an obvious precursor to Harold And Maude and the like... On the surface, the issues aren't terribly subtle, but they are handled deftly and echo well; the film retains an admirable sense of uneasiness and ambiguity even up through its seemingly neat-package ending. Barbara Harris is good in the role of Murray's anguished girlfriend, and teen actor Barry Gordon is a marvel as Nick, giving as good as he gets, playing opposite Robards. (Gordon later moved into bit television roles and voice work; a pity, since he's fascinating here, in a more serious role...) An interesting movie, exploring choices and material that are still present today.
"Midnight" (Paramount, 1937)
Claudette Colbert and Don Ameche costar in this charming comedy... She's a down-and-out singer who's come to Paris by train, riding on her last dime; he's the irrepressibly flirtatious local cabbie who tries to charm his way into her life, and who searches all across the city she she gives him the slip. Colbert's as cute as ever, but this film is a real treat for folks who haven't seen much of Ameche: forget about those lame Sonia Henje films; this is Ameche at his best.
"A Face In The Crowd" (Warner Brothers, 1957)
A dark political movie starring Andy Griffith, of all people, as Lonesome Rhodes, a crude, venal, yet irresistibly charismatic Southern singer who rises to the top of show biz, riding a wave of canny publicity moves and the powerful new medium of television. Rhodes is a scary character -- equal parts Elvis Presley and Huey Long -- and his transition from back-slapping yokel to heartless demagogue is briskly portrayed in this moody melodrama, directed by Elia Kazan. Like Sweet Smell Of Success, which dealt with similar themes, the film hits an hysterical tenor towards the end, as Rhodes, who has charmed the nation, is revealed as the scoundrel he is. Griffith's loud, powerful performance is remarkable, certainly unlike any role he's had before or since; also includes strong supporting roles by Patricia Neal (as the woman who discovers him) and Walter Matthau, as his rival, and a brief appearance by newcomer Lee Remick, who debuts as Lonesome's wife. A good film about the early American fears surrounding television and mass media.
"The Horn Blows At Midnight" (Warner Brothers, 1945)
A WWII-era starring role for radio legend Jack Benny that, at best, will seem like an archaic time capsule for audiences in the modern day. Benny's brand of humor is hopelessly dated -- even if you have a sense of his once-omnipresent celebrity and the character he built up around it-- the pennypinching, self-agggrandizing boob, with a tin ear and a "love" of music -- this film still doesn't hold up that well. The plot is kind of interesting, with Benny starring as Ethaniel, an angel of the heavenly host who has been tapped for the job of blowing Gabriel's Horn one more time, to bring doomsday down on the wicked folks on Earth. The sets and special effects for the scenes up in Heaven are imaginative and vast, but when he gets back down to earth, the film starts to falter. The slapstick is too drawn out and slow, and in general the humor is predictable and strained -- you see the gags coming a mile away, and still they take their sweet time passing you by. Benny's one of those old-fashioned, unfunny 'Forties humorists like Red Skelton or Ish Kabibble whose appeal will probably be lost on modern audiences.
"I Love You Again" (Warner Brothers, 1940)
"Captain Horatio Hornblower" (Warner Brothers, 1951)
A fun swashbuckling film starring Gregory Peck as the restrained, capable Captain Horatio Hornblower, hero of the popular novels by C. S. Forester. Starts on an action-packed note, then slows down a bit for a long romantic interlude, then picks up steam again as cannons burst and swords clash in the big climactic battles of the end. Good old-fashioned fun, with a brisk script and plenty of great character actors and snazzy Technicolor cinematography. Recommended!
"Night Of The Living Dead" (Latent Image, 1968)
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