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Varian's War (2001)
Varian's Bore Best Forgotten
As reluctant as I am to dismiss any movie that reminds us of the atrocities of the Nazis during WW II, this 2001 TV movie (so bad no one bothered to digitized it) should be watched so one can appreciate how hard it is to make a great movie. Even a respectable cast, strong production design and great story based on historical events can't save this dreadfully slow paced bore fest. Hurt has made a career playing low key characters but he sleepwalks through this dramaless tax shelter production. Indeed, Canada, where the "tax shelter film" was born, does have a role in producing this clunker and as a critic once said, "Making a commercially viable film in Canada is like trying to compete with Ford by building a car in your basement." The one great Canadian contribution is Maury Chaykin in a small role that perks the film up just enough to remind you how awful the rest of it is. Forget this mess and watch 'Schindler's List' again.
Something Wicked This Way Comes
For most of us, school is the first introduction to institutionalized socialization and politics. That is why so many coming of age stories take place in schools. 'Goodbye, Mr.Chips' (1939), 'Dead Poet's Society' (1989) and 'The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie' (1969) are prime examples. At face value, 'The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie' is exactly that - a coming of age movie. However, there are darker and more complex themes woven into this story which elevates it to high cinema. The movie is based on the novel written in 1961 and the subject is as apt today as ever. Jean Brodie, the independent, romantic, worldly wise teacher, is the main character in this cautionary tale about the insidious, manipulative and yet, seemingly harmless encroachment of fascist ideology. It takes place between the World Wars, in a time where Hitler, Hirohito and Mussolini are viewed by many with fascination. Mussolini after all, "made the trains run on time". How he did it was another matter? Maggie Smith (who won an Oscar for her performance) portrays Brodie as heroic, fiery, good intentioned and devoted to her vocation and her selection of hand picked students. Is she reckless and naive or calculating and exploitative? Is she hero or villain? It is a complex theme that is handled masterfully by director Ron Neame (who would go on to direct 'The Poseidon Adventure' in 1970) and a wonderful supporting cast. You will undoubtedly recognize some familiar faces including Gordon Jackson, Pam Franklin and a young Jane Carr.
Fifty Dead Men Walking (2008)
Tremendous Troubles Tale
The odd title intrigued me enough to PVR this. The film makers go to some lengths to inform the audience that this is loosely based on real events and adapted from a book by the real life Martin McGartland. Moreover, you're gonna' want to turn the closed caption feature on as the accents are heavy. Otherwise, this spy thriller about the "troubles" in 1990's Belfast will have you glued to your chair. Anchored by the great Ben Kingsley, Jim Sturgess is amazing as McGartland. The supporting cast is no less so including Tom Collins who steals a scene or three as McGartland's man at arms. Released in 2008, this movie ends up on my 'Best Films You've Never Heard Of' list for sure. Enjoy!
The Arrival (1996)
I Couldn't Wait For The Departure
'Platoon' in 1986. 'Wall Street' in 1987. 'Eight Men Out' in 1988. Three great movies. Had he stopped there and fallen off the face of the earth, Charlie Sheen would have become legendary. Obsessed over like Dean or Marilyn or Hendrix or Winehouse. But he didn't and so we have 'Major League' (1989), 'The Rookie' (1990) and 'The Arrival' (1996). Hey, what have you done lately? None the less, 'The Arrival' is drab, depressing and painfully ironic. Sheen seems lost throughout relying on his goatee and brush cut to do the heavy lifting. In fact, it appears that by the last twenty minutes the entire cast and crew have given up on this movie. There is something very scary though. The subject is "global warming". And after twenty-three years our understanding, acceptance and response is no less superficial in 2017 then it was in 1996. So much for movies having an impact on real change.
Ladri di biciclette (1948)
Lamberto's Big Adventure
I watched this because it is reputed by many to be one of the greatest movies of all time. Is it though? An example of Italian Neo-Realism which was a post war era style of guerrilla film making. The film quality is so crisp and vibrant that it looks like it might have been made in 1968 instead of 1948. (Maybe that has more to do with it's restoration. Not sure.) It is certainly intriguing enough. The film does a great job of showing what post war Italy must have been like. The acting is fine even though they are apparently non-actors. (But as Dizzy Dean says, "It's not braggin' if you're doin' it!") Was the lead actress in 'Roma' considered a non-actor? It's just too slow and unsophisticated. It reminded me of those foreign kid movies on "Kookla, Fran & Ollie". Any humour is lost in the translation (even with sub-titles). And it's beyond depressing. I can see how this might be an important picture but a great one?
Gentleman's Agreement (1947)
If You Only See One "Aesthetically Significant" Movie This Year...
I settled in to watch the classic best picture oscar winner 'Gentlemen's Agreement' (1947) with the enthusiasm one reserves for their favourite dog earred novella or digging into another roulette spinning heart attack burger at your favourite diner. It'd been a while since I last saw it but I am a cinophile and so I knew full well what was coming. Gregory Peck. Elia Kazan. Moss Hart. Dorothy McGuire. John Garfield. Celeste Holm. 8 oscar nods and three wins. One of the highest grossing films of 1947 and it pissed off the House Un-American Activities Committee so much that all involved were called to testify. (Garfield ending up on the Blacklist for refusing to "name names") Except...I couldn't get through it. So I figured I was just not in the right frame of mind and I saved it for another day. Couldn't get through it then either. It was...well, boring. There, I said it. I finally got through it but it felt more like a classroom assignment. It's slow, over wrought and bland. A movie about racism with not one black actor. Peck's 'Mom' is only 13 years older then Peck (31) making their relationship just creepy. Yes, Peck is impecKable (sic) and the movie deserves to be preserved in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" but not every great movie can remain timeless. Dean Stockwell (Quantum Leap) plays the little boy.
Frances Ha (2012)
Frances "La Dee Da, La Dee Da, La La"
Before all the hoopla surrounding 'Lady Bird', Greta Gerwig was making a name for herself as the indie "it" girl. A mix of Diane Keaton and Grace Kelly. Developing her career as an actress in the softer light of a host of delightful indie pics, including 'Mistress America' (2015), which she co-wrote and Lola Versus (2015), Gerwig is all raw emotion and naked neurosis. She is unafraid to portray unnervingly fractured, hapless, fatigued, sexually clumsy characters. The creative offspring of such indie legends like John Cassavettes and Shirley Clarke. 'Frances Ha' is sweet, delightful and never the less consequential. Unwilling to be confined within the weak list of movie tropes, the film flirts with romance but quickly establishes Frances as a women who is open to love but not needful or desperate for it. One of my favourite movies.
The Twilight Zone (2019)
That Sign Post Ahead? "Under Construction", Maybe?
Look, I like that the 'Twilight Zone' is back and I'm rootin' for it. Jordan Peele is fine but it does seem that he is doing a poor impression of Rod Serling. (But hey, if you don't know who Rod Serling is you won't mind.) Peele has been so good at playing it straight for laughs that it's hard to take him seriously in this role. But there is no question he brings a certain cache to the series. As for the first three episodes I watched, I found them well cast, intriguing but sort of anti-climactic and, in the case of 'Six Degrees of Freedom', a bit of a let down. This is still TV after all and so the ironic twists need to be a little dumbed down. The classics (not all of them) had some great blow your mind moments: the misanthropic book worm who breaks his only pair of reading glasses, the pig faced humans, the "to serve man" alien cannibals, the lonely man unaware he's in the sensory deprivation tank, etc. Of the 152 original episodes, Serling wrote or adapted 96. The weren't all gems (in fact, the original series on CBS had mediocre ratings and was cancelled three time before it's last season in 1961.) The new 'Twilight Zone' is well acted and produced but the endings have been sort of 'meh'. Or maybe it's because what "lies between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge" is our own current reality. Bwa ha ha!
Mile 22 (2018)
Dull Elimination Race
'Mile 22' seems like it was based on a video game a la 'Max Payne'. Short on brains and long on action. Initially the movie seems grounded in a heightened reality about black ops and then Iko Uwais shows up and the overly choregraphed unrealistic fight scenes dispel any hope of this being anything but a silly Hollywood action movie. Wahlberg's character has nothing new to offer either. Wahlberg is a fine actor when he has something to work with ('Three Kings', 'Boogie Nights', 'The Gambler', etc.) and when he doesn't he plays the petulant, half cocked, over bearing, hard ass cop/agent/soldier he played in 'The Departed', 'Patriot's Day' , 'Lone Survivor' and 'The Other Guys'. Lauren Cohan and Ronda Rousey actually come across as realistic espionage agents. Take away the cartoonish fight scenes and this might have held up. The fast cut editing can't make up for the boring and predictable plot.
A Pass On 'Glass'
Of Shyamalan's trilogy ('Unbreakable' in 2000 and 'Split' in 2018) this is the least smart or enjoyable. McAvoy's character is not so much sinister as comical (admittedly sometimes purposely) and Willis and Jackson are given little to do. 'Glass' is a more distilled analysis of the exceptional aspects of madness and it's interpretation. In this way 'Glass ' is the deus ex machina of the trilogy. If that sounds more like a 'Ted Talk' then a movie, you'd be right. Shyamalan has made a career out of weaving the supernatural with the mundane and, of his seventeen films, atleast eight have relied on twist endings. The best of these have provided clues throughout the movie that allow an audience to enjoy the movie from two different perspectives (with the innocent frame of mind or without) but it's also turned the genre into a trope that can fall flat or relies too much on the illogical (see Jordan Peele's 'Us' for an example). However, this won't stop fans of the first two films from seeing 'Glass'. "Are they or aren't they"? By the end you won't care either way.
Avengers: Endgame (2019)
'End Game' Goes Into Extra Innings
There is a lot more right with this movie then wrong. Marvel fans will love it. It is too long by about 35 minutes and focuses mostly on the original six Avengers (who after 20 Marvel films are no longer the most exciting of the line up). The battle scenes are amazing but also happen so fast it will all be a blur. (It's meant to be watched more then a few times.) The plot is confusing and Brie Larson (Captain Marvel) is barely in it. (A big over sight as her film was a major box office hit.) Unless you are a fan (and who isn't) you'll want to take a hard pass on this one. Do not watch it in 3D!! The glasses just darken an already gloomy screen image. Not worth it. Otherwise, it's a fun popcorn movie with enough emotional highs and lows to merit the hype surrounding it. Might be best to see it in IMAX or at the drive in.
The Dressmaker (2015)
A "Modiste" Movie
Wouldn't be an Australian movie without a little cross dressing, drab small town intrigue and a hunky Hemsworth (this time it's Liam). 'The Dressmaker' is charming enough and well acted (Sarah Snook steals a scene or two) but Kate Winslet's performance is as beige and dry as the outback fictional town the movie takes place in. Winslet's gift is her ability to fill even the most pedantic of characters with an oozing creamy ribald sensuality. Yet, there is little if any chemistry between her and Hemsworth. Hugo Weaving and Judy Davis are left to do the heavy lifting which they do admirably. A box office success when first released in Australia which begs the question: What do I know? Well, I know there is something missing. Maybe Hugh Grant? (I'd say "or a Hugh Grant type" but there isn't such a thing. We miss ya', Hugh.) The drama seems confined and forced almost as if the story would have been better suited as a metatheatre play. The result is just an okay little movie.
'Us' Worthy Of Fuss
One of the nice problems to have when you make a critical and commercial masterpiece is what to follow it up with. (Especially in an industry that is constantly asking "What have you done lately?") Tarentino followed 'Pulp Fiction' (1994) with 'Jackie Brown' (1997). Two years after Spielberg's 'Jaws' (1975) he directed 'Close Encounters' (1977). Orson Welles' followed 'Citizen Kane' (1941) with the just as brilliant but largely ignored 'The Magnificent Ambersons' (1942). On that basis alone, 'Us' is a pretty amazing second film for director and writer Jordan Peele. It is sharp, original, deft and yes.... the fun kind of scary. There are some weak and contrived plot lines to overlook. And whatever the underlying social commentary is supposed to be, it was lost on me. None the less, a strong supporting cast will leave you both looking through your fingers and rooting for the good guys. Lupita Nyong'o is the scariest thing to come out of horror films since Max Schreck in 'Nosferatu' (1922). It's beyond Oscar worthy but the Oscar will have to do. Tim Heidecker ('The Awsome Show') is fun to watch in a surprise bit of casting. See it in a theatre but don't go alone.
No Good, Bad & Ugly
"You have a gift son but it s not enough; if you rely too much on it you will fail." That's from another movie (The Natural) and if only someone had had that talk with a young Seth McFarlane. It's clear he is a gifted voice actor, writer and animator. And yes he can sing and his acting is passable. He just shouldn't do all of these things at the same time! This is supposedly a tribute to Mel Brooks' 'Blazing Saddles' and, to be fair, Mel Brooks' comic sensibilities are an acquired taste as well. (For example 'Robin Hood: Men In Tights' is a horrible film too!) But 'Blazing Saddles' had the magical pairing of Gene Wilder and Cleavon Little to prop it up. In 'A Million Ways' you have Seth McFarlane and Charleze Theron (who should get an oscar for "best supporting good sport"). It also stars Neil Patrick Harris, another boyishly charming actor who wants the world to know he can do it all and arguably Neil can (Gone Girl) but it's still annoying. McFarlane has the time, money and most importantly the need to continue producing this kind of stuff forever. Hopefully, he'll get better at it. But for now, this is his "Men In Tights".
What We Do in the Shadows (2014)
Not So Dark Shadows
If you are a fan of "Flight of the Conchords' then you will love this movie currently on Netflix. Written and directed by Jemaine Clement (the larger looming but no less adorable half of the 'Conchords') and Taika Waititi (who breathed new life into the 'Thor' franchise directing 'Thor: Ragnarok'), this film combines our seemingly immortal fascination with vampire lore with the deft and unprepossessing comic sensibilities of New Zealand, all packaged in the satirical style of a mockumentary. Karen O'Leary and Mike Minogue stand out as the affable and mildly paternalistic police constables. Rhys Darby (Murray, the band manager from 'Conchords') is hilarious as the leader of a wolf pack that is more wolf support group. The movie spun off two television series; 'Wellington Paranormal' in New Zealand and an American version of 'Shadows' . Both equally as funny.
Unicorn Store (2017)
Charming But Unicorny
A strong cast and deft low key performances make for a charming and light hearted film that suffers a little from an "after school special" vibe. Suffice to say, there are no sharp edges here. Brie Larson plays a quirky, disenchanted, artsy drop out trying to find a place for herself in a world of careful and obedient conformists some with not so subtle agendas. Yet, Larson, acclaimed and awarded for playing damaged, troubled souls seems to hold back here. Moreover, there isn't a shot where the camera doesn't like her. One is hard pressed to believe that someone with such a knowing wide eyed whimsy and vibrant smile would be sitting in her parents basement outcast, vagrant and disowned by society. The result is a film that is less poignant message and more fairy tale. None the less, Brie Larson fans will love it.
36 Hours (1964)
"Fake News" Even Then
By 1960, the studio system and block booking (selling movies in largely mediocre packages to theatres) was dead and movies were competing with television's popularity. There was more to lose in producing a mediocre movie. As a result, for economic as well as artistic reasons, many great films throughout the late fifties and early sixties were still filmed in black and white. 'The Defiant Ones' (1958), 'Fail Safe' (1964), Psycho (1960), 'Cape Fear (1962) and 'To Kill A Mockingbird' (1962) were all box office and critical successes at the same time as the technicolor 'Mary Poppins' (1964) and 'West Side Story' (1963) were wowing audiences. '36 Hours' (1964) is a prime example of a good film that could have easily been done in color (most of it takes place in Yosemite National Park) but for either or both economical and artistic reasons wasn't. A co-production with James Garner's 'Cherokee Productions', Garner had a lot riding on it's success. An intrigung premise involving 'mission impossible' like deception, great writing and powerhouse acting creates for a captivating thriller. A German doctor has only 36 hours to extract vital information about D day from an unsuspecting U.S. intelligence officer. The fact that the plot relys on many a troupe from world war two movies and several contrivances more suited to a 'Twilght Zone' episode shouldn't take away from your pleasure in watching James Garner (fresh off 'The Great Escape' and ten years from 'The Rockford Files'), Eva Marie Saint and Rod Taylor (he filmed 'The Birds' in 1963). John Banner, of 'Hogan Heroes', foreshadows his popular 'Sgt. Schultz' character.
Big, Red & Cheesie
Holy Moley! A funny, campy spin on the gloomier DC movies thus far was long over due. Who better then Captain Marvel, a less popular campier rip off of Superman, so popular in the 40's that National Comics (DC) sued for copyright infringement and won. However, with the best of intentions, 'Shazam' falls short. The jokes are flat, the storyline is unoriginal and the characters dull and uninspired. Zach Levi, tasked with portraying a 15 year old magically transformed into an adult super hero, comes off as a little creepy. (Tom Hanks, Judge Reinhold, Barbara Harris, Dudley Moore and Jennifer Garner all did it better.) Perhaps actual cameos from the other heroes (like Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman or Affleck's grim Batman) might have helped. The kids might like it but.... I've already watched one 'Captain Marvel' this month. I liked that 'Captain Marvel'. 'Captain Marvel' was a pretty good movie. 'Shazam!'... you are no 'Captain Marvel'. (See what I did there?)
Christopher Robin (2018)
Oh, (Don't) Bother
The charming Ewan MacGregor and a cast of adorable talking stuffed animals from the mind of A.A. Milne should make for a winning combination. And it does... kind of. However, this family movie is too long and too dreary to win over children and too silly to appeal to even the most sentimental adult fans of the classic fictional anthropomorphic teddy bear created by English author A. A. Milne in 1926. The voice acting and CGI effects are bang on. Fans nostalgic for the 60's animated shorts will love Jim Cummings' impersonations of the classic voices of Sterling Halloway (Pooh) and Paul Winchell (Tigger). Although, missing is John (Piglet) Fiedler's voicing of Piglet. It has its moments but, over all, this movie is very much like old grey Eeyore: pessimistic, gloomy and anhedonic.
There's nothing like stumbling on a great movie. Okay, this isn't a "great" movie BUT it is really, really good. I don't know what I was donig in 2010 but somehow this gem escaped me. Like, love or hate him, forget every preconceived notion you have about Ryan Reynolds. I saw this on the small screen and I wish I had seem it on the big screen. From what I've read this was dismissed as too gimmicky to garner much box office, otherwise I can't see any reason not to be completely enthralled by this movie. Reynolds is incredible. Relentlessly stark, gripping and disturbing this is a whole other type of scary. Amazing! .
Captain Marvel (2019)
More Like... Staff Sergeant Marvel?
There is no question that Brie Larson packs the gear to serve in the army of Marvel super-heroes. 'Captain Marvel' is the twenty-first movie released since Iron Man (2008) and the first with a female lead. That's a lot to hang on the shoulders of a young actress, even an academy award winning one. But hang it they do. In fact, if it wasn't for Larson's performance this movie has little to offer. A lack luster script, formulaic origin story and dull supporting cast, means that Larson is left with a lot of the heavy lifting (and, seemingly, without a hair stylist either). That's balls out for any actress! In the comic books, Captain Marvel is a secondary character, which means that , like Ant-Man and The Guardian movies, there was a lot of wiggle room to create a movie with a broader appeal unrestricted by the canon that comes with the more iconic heroes. Yet, there is nothing new here and Larson is largely left to win us over with her steely glances, barefoot fighting and playful kibitzing. Fanboys or grrls will not be disappointed but 'Captain Marvel' doesn't hold rank to attract a wider audience.
A Star Is Born (2018)
Ga Ga Land
Well, here I am again not getting it. I didn't hate this movie. It was okay. Did I miss something? Yes, Lady Gaga can act. (It is an impressive debut performance.) And Bradley Cooper can sing. But is there anything 'oscar' worthy in this film? I went through this same problem with 'La La Land'. I guess I just don't like musicals. I found the music to be innocuous, Bradley Cooper's voice annoying and Sam Elliott as "big brother" too much of a stretch for me. I liked the dog though. Not to mention that this premise has been done and done to death at least five times. (And they weren't very good pictures either.) And like 'La La Land' I felt that all the hype about the movie was a bit manufactured. And another thing, didn't people get tired of Cooper's character "mansplaining" everything to Ga Ga's character? I thought it was 2018? Look, I didn't love 'Black Panther' either. Maybe, I'm just getting cynical in my oldish age. I have been talking back to the TV lately.
Green Book (2018)
'Green Book' is charming, funny and heart warming. Oh, and "based" on a true story. "Inspired" may have been an even better choice. So if your looking for historical accuracy, you may want to pass. However, taken for what it is, a road trip movie about two diametrically opposed characters directed by Peter Farrelly, it's a fun and thoughful story. It's flawed only by its inability to decide if it is about the characters or investigating a bigger idea about race then and now. There is no question that this subject, especially in these times, deserves better and more serious consideration but does every movie about race in America have to be charged with that duty? (This may be the fault of sloppy marketing that leaned into the "based on a true story" trailer plug. ) Having said that, there is a lot to unpack here and the movie gets bogged down in too many running themes. (Thus a 7 over an 8 rating) Mortensen and Ali have a nice chemistry. It'd be cool if they did something else together. To coin another movie, "This might be the making of a beautiful friendship.".
San Andreas (2015)
The Fault In Our Stars
Wouldn't even waste a review on this movie except I couldn't resist the catchy headline. Those of us who grew up in the 70's remember when disaster movies were all the rage. (Towering Inferno, Earthquake (in Sensurround!), Airport, Posiedon Adventure, etc) In those days before CGI the special effects were part of the reason to see the movie. Today, I've become so used to sensational effects that it's hard to get a "meh" out of me. What's missing here is characters that we care about, atypical storylines and solid suspenseful moments. (Moreover, after 9/11, watching crumbling buildings and terrified crowds just seems ironic. We live in a world where the unimaginable is all too imaginable.) Dwayne Johnson is essentially beefcake throughout. Paul Giamatti is wasted. Alex Daddario is watchable but not enough to save this overly cliched snoozer.
Fallout And I Can't Get Up
The 'Tom Cruise' brand on a movie means the audience is promised something, usually high octance popcorn fare, and Tom Cruise has made a pretty good career delivering on that promise. (ie. 'Jack Reacher', The 'MI' franchise, 'Oblivion', 'American Made', That movie where he dies all the time.) In fact, of his last 12 films only 2 were stinkers. Great stuff! But it also means our expectations are higher. So 'Fallout' is not a bad movie although, of the six MI films, it's the least good. Also, I'm the same age as Tom Cruise so it truly pains me to say this... Tom is starting to look his age. At 56, 41 in Hollywood leading men years, his face has less integrity, the hair color is off by years and he looks great but you can tell he's trying. It might be time for 'Agent Hunt' to come in from the field. Just sayin'. Otherwise, Rebecca Ferguson, who is 35 (of course she is), brought a fresh look and much needed fiest to 'Rogue'. More subdued in this film but still wonderful to watch. Frankly, It'd be nice to see her in charge of the IMF team. Am I right, ladies! 'Fallout' is more fuzzy familial and less cold hearted. A six seems harsh but I'm comparing it to the other five movies in the franchise. In my opinion the first MI (1996) is still the best. 'Rogue Nation' (2015) second. 'Ghost Protocol' (2011) third. MI 2 (2000) and MI 3 (2006) tied for fourth and 'Fallout'. Still I look forward to the seventh - Mission Impossible: Reverse Mortgage Scam.