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The War Game (1966)
As chilling now as it was in 1966
Films like this should never be forgotten, never put away. They remind us that no matter how parlous our current times seem, they weren't less dangerous then. In this era of suicide bombers it is too easy to forget it was that students marched out of their classrooms for air raid drills, when people built fallout shelters in their backyard, and the newspapers printed maps with the kill rates for distances from ground zero printed on them. The War Game is a strong reminder.
The film is quite simply a pseudo-documentary of a nuclear attack on England in the mid-1960s. It is doubly chilling for the matter-of-fact the narrative and the unflinching camera. Viewed today, in glorious black and white, it seems to be more a report of an actual event than the what-if film it was originally intended to be.
Little Buddha (1993)
A very thoughtful movie, if you give it a chance.
Bertolucci is a director who doesn't keep making the same movie.
Little Buddha has much about it that can be praised. It shows much, tells some, and demands of the viewer some thought. This is not something always appreciated by the viewer. The key to understanding this movie, I believe, is not the search for the reincarnation of an important Buddhist teacher, nor is it the life of the Buddha up to the time he achieves enlightenment, but the way a child, or children, and an old man, come to understand together something of the connections that may exist between themselves. We don't see through a character's eyes, we watch the effects of the characters on each other. In particular, Jesse, the 9 year old American who may or may not be the reincarnation, holds our attention because we watch him absorb the lessons that are being taught, and as he learns them, he grows in ways we can expect a 9 year old to grow. We also watch his father, whose character becomes more sympathetic as the movie progresses, who has even further to grow than his son, because he has already learned too much.
The movie is also beautiful to watch. The cinematography, the editing and the direction combine to provide just the right dramatic tension to a movie whose pacing is deceptive, in that it seems slow, but is not. The ultimate result is that a viewer who allows it, will find him or herself transported for a little while, to unexpected places.
Richard II (1982)
A video of what is supposed to be an Elizabethan style production
I've thought about this video a few times since I saw it, mostly because I've been undecided as to whether it works or not. In the end, I am swayed by my rereading of the play to feel it does work. The key to seeing it this way is to recognize that Shakespeare's King Richard II is an exceedingly vain monarch, acting always without considering the repercussions of his sometimes thoughtless actions. David Birney captures this vanity quite well in the first half of the play, and continues in this vein into the final act, where the words are thoughtful, but it is easy to read into them a final grandiose vanity.
I prefer Derek Jacobi's performance, but I think it worth an interested viewer's time to compare the two, because they are very different in their affect.
Something's Gotta Give (2003)
What "Annie Hall" might have been like if Woody Allen was a woman.
This is a stylish movie that's pleasantly entertaining but not to be taken too seriously. Jack Nicholson projects a rakish charm in his role as the perpetual bachelor who only dates inappropriate, younger women. Diane Keaton is very funny as the middle-aged divorced playwright who can't find a man, and then suddenly she finds two.
The movie reminded me very much of a Woody Allen romantic comedy of the 1970s, along the lines of "Manhattan" or "Annie Hall", but from the woman's point of view, and without Woody Allen's signature bittersweet ending. Instead of a neurotic playwright Alvy Singer or television writer Isaac Davis, we have neurotic playwright Erica Barry. The trajectory of the story follows similar lines as those comedies, as people fall in love, mess up, break up, and get back together again. It would work better if it wasn't all so damn slick. Too often, I felt like I was watching a well made television commercial rather than a movie.
This movie should live on forever.
Once in a while, I see a film I wished I'd seen before. This movie is one of those. It was a complete and total surprise. I'd heard of it, but never anything definitive. It is simply one of the greatest films I ever saw. From the first shot to the closing credits, it was wonderfully acted, beautifully photographed, and superbly directed. Everything worked: the music was effective, the costumes and makeup were perfect.
Roger Livesay and Deborah Kerr, in particular, shone beautifully. There was a chemistry between them that was especially magical during the early years. Livesay aged well, not just in the way he looked, but in the way he acted. He gave the impression that as an actor, he understood that generals always fight the previous war, and his General Candy felt, by films end, exactly that sort of general.
I recommend this movie without qualification to anyone who appreciates the art of moviemaking, and the pleasures of watching.
Full of sound and fury, but signifying nothing
This is one of those movies you hate to pan, everyone on screen seems to be trying so hard to make something out of the material. Sometimes, even the best efforts can't rescue a plot thinner than the skins of the villains. And therein lies the problem. All the special effects, all the fencing, and ship to ship fighting, can't rescue this film. Given the lack of a story worth hanging a hat on, Johnny Depp does his best to give the film a center, but he is undercut. On one side is Geoffrey Rush chewing scenery faster than it can be built. I keep hoping to see him in a role that requires some subtlety, because I believe he is capable of greater things than anything I've seen him in recently. On the other side are Orlando Bloom and Kira Sedgewick gamely trying to give the film some romance. If only they were given some material to work with. At best, this film is a good way to spend a couple of hours where the alternative is banging your head against the wall.
Early Almodóvar: twisted and funny
I found myself wrapped up in this off-beat movie, off-beat that is, for anyone but Almodóvar in the mid 1980s. For him, this one was sort of tame. It's populated by an Almodovaran crowd of demimonde, and struggling proletarians and intellectuals. Some take drugs to get by, some sell drugs but won't take them. Sex is a commodity, and honor a dubious value. The struggle to survive in a harsh urban environment ought not be as comic as this often is, so it's not surprising when Almodóvar brings a little emotional sustenance to leaven the pessimism. But nobody in this film should be taken at face value, least of all the director, and nothing should be taken too seriously. It's fun, and in the end, that's enough.
Excellent Polish Farce
I knew nothing about this film when I saw the DVD on the shelf. My expectations were based exclusively on the director's reputation. My pleasure at this wonderful farce, set in late 18th Century Poland, was immense. It is apparent from almost the first moments that the actors are both at home in this material and having the time of their lives playing it. It is a classic, with all the classic characters. There is the puffing, sanguine paterfamilias; his beautiful niece and heir; the boy next door who loves her, and is loved by her; and his scheming father. Of course these neighbors are feuding. Mix in the beautiful, scheming widow, and a buffoonish lackey, and there is room for a lot of fun.
Polanski's performance as the blustering Papkin, never at a loss for words, never worried about anything more than he worries about himself, is delightful. He brings a mixture of roguishness, bravado and cowardice that is always fun to watch.
Wajda lets his actors have their way. They are all professionals and quite good, and this material wouldn't stand up to tight reins. Instead, we are served a curious castle and severe winter conditions, and somehow, with Wajda stirring the pot, the stew comes out quite tasty. If a viewer enjoys farce, this is one to see.
The Taming of the Shrew (1967)
Colorful and comic - Taylor and Burton are well matched.
There is no denying Franco Zeffirelli's visual sensibility, nor his dramatic strength. He takes this Shakespearean comedy, chops and cuts and edits the text to his liking, and regurgitates a wonderful film. If one were to watch the film without sound, it would still be entertaining, that is how well Zeffirelli put it together. But it wouldn't be enough without a terrific Kate, and Elizabeth Taylor, certainly in her prime in 1967, more than fills the bill. She hams it up when hamming is appropriate to the moment, and plays it with more subtlety when that is required. She is well matched by Richard Burton as Petruchio. He is good, but there is something not quite there. I think perhaps he seems more jaded and a tad less calculating than I'd expect in the role. I think I prefer the more caustic performance of John Cleese in this role.
I can't help but wonder what Zeffirelli would've done with an operatic version of this play.
Deeper than it seems at first glance
This is a seriously good comedy. Michael Caine is delightfully saucy as the title character. He ought to seem a cad, and at times he is, but he takes his lumps too, and takes them in stride. The supporting cast is very effective, with especially excellent performances by Jane Asher, Shelley Winters and Millicent Martin. The camera work is also notable, and London serves as an effective backdrop. Definitely worth a look, and a reminder Michael Caine was as good then as he is now.
For the afficionado - no lie.
This film makes a lot more sense to someone who's seen many of Fellini's films, such as myself, than to someone who hasn't, such the person with whom I saw it. The film is Fellini the director on himself, the director. The comments by some of the people who worked on the films with him are very good, but too limited to do more than punctuate Fellini's self examination. What he has to say is very interesting, and makes me want to re-view some of the films I haven't watched in many years, especially "8 1/2". But this documentary is too long, too desultory, and simply too boring in its use of a single shot throughout the interview with Fellini to engage the more casual viewer.
Italiensk for begyndere (2000)
Quirky romantic comedy
"Italian for Beginners" is an odd comedy. The characters are mostly inexpressive, their joy and their despair equally muted - well, maybe the despair isn't because most of the movie seems soaked in a fatalism that would mortally wound the film if it wasn't for a tension that keeps the viewer involved with the characters. I wondered, as I watched, if this is a good example of Danish comedy. But in the end, it didn't matter because I found the characters sympathetic, their situations worth caring about, and the resolution of the various plotlines quite satisfactory. I was moved without feeling manipulated. This film has a Dogme 95 certificate, which says all that needs to be said regarding technical issues.
You Can Count on Me (2000)
trivial and annoying family drama
This film is about as predictable and annoying a family drama as I've seen. The central characters are unsympathetic and uninteresting, the situation they find themselves in is one we've seen at least a dozen times before, the locale is trivial at best, but mostly boring - just what we need, another film set in small town America, a regionalism of less and less interest as the American population continues to become metropolitanized - and the filmmaker has gone to extremes to manipulate the audience through gratuitously dominating musical selections - I mean are we stupid or something, does the filmmaker not realize the audience gets it, that the pathos of a character visiting his mother's grave does not have to be hammered home with a grave selection by J.S. Bach, or does a scene in which an unmarried woman on the way to an assignation with a married man have be trivialized by a c&w selection. Irony this is not, heavyhanded it is. The structure of the film is flaccid at best, as scenes sort of stumble along . I wish I couId say the actors' performances were wasted, but I can't. I do feel I wasted both my time and money here.
Five Graves to Cairo (1943)
Making the most of a propaganda vehicle
Can Billy Wilder do no wrong? Except for the last few minutes, which are strictly WWII propaganda, this film is the goods. Franchot Tone's tone is at once sardonic and dutiful, a combination that brings out the irony of the situation he finds himself in when he stumbles into a bombed out hotel in the middle of the desert. It is the height of the war in North Africa, the British have retreated into Egypt, the German/Italian army is on the move, and there is intrigue in the air. There are other excellent performances by Anne Baxter and Akim Tamiroff and a scene reminiscent of "La Grande illusion," where Field Marshal Rommel, played with swagger and arrogance by Erich von Stroheim, entertains several British POW officers. Wilder handles the material deftly, his timing never falters, as the mystery and the tension build. As for those last few minutes, well, this film came out at the height of the war, so I'll forgive the propaganda excesses.
Greaser's Palace (1972)
Jesus plays the palace
Quite simply one of the odder incarnations of a Jesus story: in a desolate town in the middle of a borax desert in the late 19th century, where Herod has a serious case of constipation, the holy ghost is a cigar smoking actor under a white sheet with eye-holes and a mouth cutout, and Jesse aka Jesus wants to be a song and dance man. But the people won't let him be. Alan Arbus is dry and laid back in the role, always puzzled and not at all a mystery. Downey hit the high point of his career with this one, possibly the last movie he made without someone looking over his shoulder. I wish he'd the opportunity to continue exploring filmmaking of this type.
Destry Rides Again (1939)
Stewart gets handed the mop and cleans up the town
Jimmy Stewart, in the title role, is a pleasure to watch and listen to. The economy he brings to the role is surpassed only by his drollness. Marlene Dietrich is magical and when she and Stewart get together, it may not be exactly sparks but there sure is some heat.
This is one of the finer westerns of the period. It holds up very well into the 90s. The supporting characters are well cast and bring a nice feel of variety to the tiny town of Bottlenck.