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A tour de force for Palance as Lieutenant Costa
There is a dramatic core to this film that would make it worth looking at even with lesser actors. But the cast is strong, and none stronger than Jack Palance as Costa. I am going to discuss the end of the film pretty explicitly, so if you haven't seen it, please skip the rest of this. See it first.

Throughout the film, Costa seethes at the cowardice and ineptitude of Captain Cooney. Their scenes together crackle, and are among the best in any war film of any vintage. A strong sense of impending physical danger hangs over every man, but especially Cooney, as Costa has promised to kill him if he makes any more bad choices as leader. Because of Palance, we believe it.

In the film's closing minutes, Costa, who has been gravely injured (his arm ground up under a tank track), summons his last ounce of strength to return to the basement where Cooney and the rest of his company is hiding. His intent is to kill Cooney, as he has promised. But blood loss and shock overtake Costa, and as he props himself up through his last minutes, it is hard not to feel complete identification with his character, to feel an ache to see him make things right. Cooney's weak leadership has cost lives. Cooney is scared witless, with the specter of death, in the form of a mangled, barely-alive Costa, staring him down. He has not been this close to death.

After this scene plays out, and the soldiers present in the final moments of Costa's life are discussing what went down, we see Costa's body passing by outside on a stretcher, as it is carried away. We glimpse him intentionally, but it is an element held to the background. Tellingly, Palance's intensity does not let up here. There is no peace for Costa. He portrays the dead Costa as a horrifically grimacing, staring corpse, rigor mortis freezing on his face the rage for justice in his heart. It is a heartbreaking and unforgettable sight. Painful. And no one steps forward to softly close Costa's eyes or smooth his face. This, the film seems to comment quietly, is how Costa lived and how he died. It could be no other way for Costa.

I cannot think of another American actor who would have made the choice to play a dead man this way. Totally antiheroic. It is a perfect end to the film, which has been about one man's simple effort to make sure the right thing happens, even as it never seemed to.

Big Mouth

Our eroding culture
Every cartoon writer wants to hit with the next Simpsons or South Park. But minus the critical spark of wit and comic vision, all such attempts are doomed to wallow in the potty-mouthed and potty- minded musings of clear also-ran stand up comic wannabes. Ergo Big Mouth.

We stuck around through the first episode, willing to assume the series would simmer down, maybe deliver a few legit laughs and insights after getting the most transgressive ready-mades out of its system. Didn't happen. We turned off the second episode about ten minutes in, never to look back.

Without the distracting conceit of a demon spraying the room with verbal filth every couple of minutes, this series might have gone anywhere. There are, after all, universal elements of adolescent angst in the basic material. But the writers blew it, settling for -- or perhaps more pathetically, straining to finesse -- rude chuckles for potheads.

Another win for this packager, no question, and another dump on the audience, a part of which will accept any hogslop set down in front of them. Sad.

The Doolins of Oklahoma

Fine mainstream western from era before High Noon
As has been generally observed, John Ford was making adult westerns long before the release of the high profile 'adult western' High Noon, and he was doing it under the radar of 99% of the critics of his day.

While no Ford, Gordon Douglas directed lots of highly watchable films that likewise never got their due in their time. Doolins is one of these. As a well-known director for hire, Douglas once credited the existence of his entire oeuvre to having a family to feed.

--Fair enough, and a pretty bravely self-deprecating and self-aware attitude in a town of pretentious auteur-wannabes. I'd offer the opinion that Douglas was the average intelligent man making films for his peers. Because of that, his films remain worth a sit-through. (His Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye rivals Walsh's White Heat in energy and noir viciousness as a late Cagney vehicle.)

This is the best Randolph Scott western after the Boetticher films. Place it alongside other fine non-Ford westerns of the era, including Angel and the badman, Winchester 73 and Yellow Sky. It's definitely worth a watch.

The Oscar

As a film, a B or B-; as a nostalgia piece an A+
I'm less interested in the alleged camp value of this film that I am in the opportunity to again see so many of the names with which I grew up working. It was business as usual in those days fifty years past, and anytime they surface again, in any form, it is to treasure. This film IS Hollywood of the mid '60s.

The Oscar isn't any worse than 75% of the films of the era. --Or today, when you get down to it. In that day, an all-star cast was employed to conceal all inadequacies; these days, CGI fulfills the very same function. I get it. A lot of people don't, simply because CGI is so big and bombastic by its very nature as to overwhelm judgment. Another fifty years from now, I think there are going to be lots of films like The Oscar, films that people laugh at because they have nothing going for them but an obvious patch meant to cover their weakness. You can bet on it.

The film is built around three male roles, with everyone else more or less stepping out of their way for the big acting moments given to them. Boyd, always the stony-jawed, steely-eyed manly male actor, is exactly as you remember him. Tony Bennett does a really nice job, which is a pity, given this films negative rep. Milton Berle was a surprisingly good dramatic actor, and proved it in many films and TV shows, just like this one. Eleanor Parker rises above the secondary status to which the actresses in this film are consigned. She makes the development from haughty to pathetic entirely credible.

Bottom line: Enjoy it as a chance to see names, names, names, even if you don't buy the drama or the story. It comes straight from the heart of the last demi golden age, just past the decline and disappearance of The Golden Age of Hollywood. It commemorates this unique time and place as well as any film.

Who's Minding the Mint?

Glad it still rates a 7.2 out of 10 by IMDb users
It's a cute movie alright. I recalled it from a viewing 40-plus years past as closer in spirit and cumulative effect to It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad World than a recent look back seemed to confirm.

The difference between the two films seems clear to me now. With Mad Mad, the force of the narrative is centrifugal. You have a sense as you watch it that anything might happen. Think of the demolition of the gas station by Jonathan Winters. Edie Adams and Sid Caesar dynamiting their way out of the locked hardware store, then hiring a sputtering antique plane to carry them perilously to Timbuktu and back. Mickey Rooney and Buddy Hackett trapped in a private plane they can't fly as the owner lies drunk on the floor behind them. The collision with the control tower. On and on.

The energy of Who's Minding is centripetal. As with any good caper film, everything finally stops down to focus on a single glimmering instant of opportunity. In many ways, Mad Mad World vs Who's Minding The Mint? is Around the World in 80 Days vs. Asphalt Jungle or Rififi. There are no set pieces here the equal of Mad Mad World's. There is some fine slapstick silliness, perhaps best exemplified by the single take, deep-focus scene of a long hallway with a series of near misses between guard, pregnant beagle and Uncle Miltie in drag as the father of our country played out on different levels. I enjoyed the ingenuity of that scene probably more than any other moment in the film, although Victor Buono's dignity going down with the dinghy is also pretty funny.

My real joy seeing this film now is in watching these actors work. Period. Not every film was great or golden. But it WAS a golden age.

Not very long after this film, the way movies looked, in terms of thinking about cutting and camera placement, the lighting and the film stock and the focal lengths -- changed forever. Not long after this, the only place you could see a film shot in the manner of a film like Who's Minding was on series television. Films went the way, visually, of the seminal Midnight Cowboy. And eventually, TV stopped looking like this film.

Today, I think I miss the stars more than the film style.

Jack Levine: Feast of Pure Reason

Still the only documentary out there about this original artist
This is a film of first and second hand reminiscence. We hear his daughter, his friends, and the man himself.

I saw it not long after it came out on PBS, and even at that point it stood as a refreshing oasis in the desert of material available about this unique voice in American art. Levine was cast long ago as America's Otto Dix; some said America's George Grosz. I can see that in terms of caustic observation and politics. But he buffered Dix's acid with the brushwork of Degas at his most seductive, and his natural gift for caricature surpassed Grosz's and brought the bite of Daumier or Toulouse-Lautrec into the 20th century. His mastery of anatomy and details of the world around us was so sure that he worked from memory most the time, with little or no recourse to the model or prop. He was some artist.

The promise has been made that another film about him is on the way. We'll see. For now, get hold of this VHS if you can. Rent a copy for your art group if you have to. It's a treasure.

The Men Who Made the Movies: Alfred Hitchcock

Context is everything
I count myself lucky to have been one of those young cinephiles glued to the television for all 8 weeks of this series the first time it was on. Being a hardcore auteurist, thanks to my then burgeoning Andrew Sarris library, I understood clearly what this series was: Richard Schickel's personal vision, if you will, of the careers of a handful of the greatest American directors of the period covered by fellow critic Sarris's American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968.

At this time, it would have been very hard for any avid reader-about-film to miss the parallel between directors and critics. Sarris, Canby, Crist, McDonald, Schickel, Wood, Durgnat, Kael were something like auteurs themselves. Each had a highly personal point of view of what a film was and, be they the Ed Wood of film criticism or the Orson Welles, each staked their territory admirably the old fashioned way, with hundreds of highly literate, finely articulated essays on the topic. We remember the rivalries and the sniping these days when we remember the era at all. But that's the Enquirer view, the Entertainment Tonight view. I wish people understood that it was as exciting a time to be reading film criticism as it was to be a movie-goer in the 60s and 70s.

If you take it in the context of today, when every show is a saturating, thick barrage of clips and chock full of two second sound bytes from multiple interviews, individual episodes of The Men Who Made The Movies may seem to fail to deliver. But judging such shows by the intelligence of the foundation, the script, and not just interview and clip counts, this series comes up champ. Schickel's insights into the style and vision of Hawks and Hitchcock and Capra, et al. are as cogent as anything written on them before or since. He put his finger right on what the smartest auteurists of the era thought made these directors' work worth a second thought. And Cliff Robertson's reading of Schickel's words was understated, steady and insightful. -- One of the best jobs of voice-over narration I have heard, almost 40 years later.

Ten of ten. I wish someone would issue this series on DVD.

Breaking Bad: Fly
Episode 10, Season 3

Waiting for Godot
The richness of this episode lies between the lines. Walt and Jesse in a confined space and in a holding pattern until they can clear the cook lab of a source of contamination, the fly of the title. All they can do is wait, and while waiting, talk, and talk they do.

It would be selfish of me to really bring in the heavy spoilers on this episode. So I'll just say this. Within a limited format, "Fly" contains a white hot kernel of suspense that is as compelling as any in the series thus far. Walt, in an injured, fatigued state and acting weird (Jesse begins to suspect Walt may have a brain tumor) is in a mood to pontificate and ramble. In such a state, we quickly realize, he may say too much.

That's all I'd better say.

This episode rates a 10 of 10. It could have had more gun play. It could have gone back to the Hank storyline which we are right in the middle of now. But there's a place for this episode at this point. It is pure character revelation. Not a bad thing.

Ace in the Hole

Unflinching contemplation of the role of big media
We complain that the media is a bunch of models paid to mouth the words their bosses hand them. --And further, that the content of those words is suspect, often belying the objectivity and absence of self-interest their authors claim for them. In another day --when this film was made-- media was every bit as open as it is in the present day to another charge as well: that the media is far from the objective witness to events they would have us believe, that they often in fact precipitate events either actively, for the sake of a good story, or passively, enabling event-makers by their simple presence on the scene.

Taking the basic premise, that the media is never "just a witness", as a starting point, The Big Carnival spins a story that is very hard not to like, even as the misanthropic fury oozes from every pore. It isn't only the media that takes a thrashing here. A good deal of the films fury spills onto "ordinary people". The people who line up to watch Leo Minosa's underground ordeal are The Common Man; the film does a lot to convince us that most of our empathy with The Common Man is pure sentimentality. The ordinary people in The Big Carnival are not of deeply cultivated compassion or insight; if it is being sold, however much it panders to their darkest side and degrades them in the process of their consumption of it, they are always to be found waiting in line for seconds. This unflattering view of The Common Man is part of Wilder's broader critique: that we get the media our standards bring upon us. Yet while nobody comes off looking very good in The Big Carnival, no one is simply made to look bad for the sport of it.

This is possibly the film that cinched Wilder's rep. as the most cynical man in the world's most cynical town. (Maybe there was no place he could go from here but toward the more audience-friendly material of Some Like It Hot.) But "cynical" can be merely a pejorative way of saying someone sees things as they are, without the whitewash of sentimentality or wishful thinking. Doesn't a true artist need to be able to eschew the defense mechanisms that help the rest of us make it through the day feeling everything is more or less alright, even when it isn't? In the degree to which he was able to do that, Wilder succeeds as have few filmmakers before or after him. In The Big Carnival, Wilder proves again that The Truth, omnipresent as it supposedly is, is still ultimately the province of the insightful artist and poet, not some talking head responding to the string-pulls of a man behind the curtain, nor some exploitative careerist who lacks the civility to turn off the video cam.

Ten stars. See it!

Happy Days

A small oasis of nostalgia in a time far more hospitable to nostalgia
1970 was a watershed year in my life, the year that ushered in many life-long obsessions. That summer, AM radio stations coast to coast ran historic programming and specials honoring what was being called the fiftieth anniversary of broadcasting. Most documentaries and nostalgia shows started their run with noisy clips of the KDKA coverage of the 1920 presidential election. It was about this time that Old Time Radio record albums began appearing on store shelves. I bought my first OTR record from a very old style (complete with lunch counter) S.S. Kresges downtown about that year, and shortly followed with the great Themes Like Old Times radio theme compilation (actually, the first minute or so of a whopping 90 radio programs from the '30s and '40s). The nostalgia craze, centering on the Depression years and WW2 (happy times, those - !?) was in full throttle. (I remember quite a number of "nostalgia" books popping up everywhere at the time, books such as Richard J. Anobile's frame by frame reconstructions of classic film comedies of the Marx Brothers and Laurel and Hardy, packaged to echo the bygone Deco era graphically.) It wasn't long before the focus of the commercial nostalgia industry shifted from this earlier period to the mid to late 1950s represented by that other Happy Days. But briefly, for one twinkling instant, it seems now, the commercial nostalgia industry threw all it's resources behind this always-interesting era, before closing the book on it forever and leaving devotees of the period to rummage in flea markets and public libraries to satisfy our inborn archivist's/throwback's avocation.

Happy Days came at just the right time to act as an enhancement to this nostalgia craze, and I eagerly ate it up. Certain things from this show pop into my head to this day, 40 years after the fact: Skermahorn and Ballou (Bob and Ray); Curly McDimple; Voodini, the bumbling magician (Chuck McCann). There was a fair amount of throwaway material here, a lot of soft padding in the Hee Haw type format. But seeing an historic and cultural period acknowledged in the context of a culture that ruthlessly discards the past -- that always hard-sells the trend of the second and determinedly promotes itself as "modern" --was thrilling. No other way to describe it.

Always a completist and documentarian, I seem to have been cursed even as a child with a wistful sense that life is a passing parade. Somewhere, I have cassette recordings of the audio of bits of this show, made against that day when no other trace of it would exist.


Funny movie.
This film won't appeal to three types:

1) those who get a bad '80s hair-band vibe from any film that hasn't just been released because their frame of reference is erroneous,

2) those who absolutely must feel that they have conceived every witticism and crafted every irony that exists, or else feel threatened by the clear existence of superior talent in the universe and react like a cranky three year old at nap time or

3) those who have attained that rarefied and magical metaphysical status which precludes their doing anything as carnal and popular as watching real movies anymore -- in spite of the fact that they won't shut up about their "love of cinema."

Miracles IS laugh out loud funny. Conti is brilliant. Garr was never better. (I have no idea who directed it, and other than feeling a little bad for failing to look the guy up and give him his props, I would say it doesn't matter. It's not an "oh look at me, I know all the directors" kind of flick.) The situations and set pieces are disarmingly unexpected, delightfully silly and often -- not always, but OFTEN -- wholly hilarious. I won't even venture the opinion, as some have, that the key to life isn't contained in this film. I dunno, Cisco. ...The bit with the priest dismissing the miracle as "no miracle" seemed as profound as anything anyone has had the kahunas to put in a movie in the last 20 years.

Bottom line, only a fool argues with the spasm of laughter. The sniffy, supercilious sorts who keep whining about the script and direction should seek out A Breed Apart, another loss leader currently making the rounds on THIS Network. Miracles will look like Citizen Kane beside it. ...Guaranteed, or the money you spent watching it on free TV back.

Work with it, Sherlock.


TV's Greatest Horror Series
My favorite episode right now is probably The Purple Room, wherein Rip Torn must agree to spend the night alone in an old Louisiana mansion, if he is to inherit it. But I love The Incredible Doktor Markesan, The Remarkable Mrs. Hawk, Guillotine, The Cheaters, Kill My Love and La Strega. All the episodes are, at very least, expertly-crafted, with good use made of music and good, atmospheric B&W cinematography. I wrote Universal years ago asking why they don't go to DVD with this property, and predictably perhaps, I received no reply at all. A site says that when this series was offered to local stations (as opposed to cable stations, which can break the mold in many ways) several years ago, there was not one taker. That shook me. Armed with that figure, the people at Universal will probably never DVD the series. But since there's evidence that they have an audience ready and waiting for this series, and with money to buy it if it was available, the studio seems to keep blowing it. The internet auction sites have had the complete Thriller for a song for several years now, which edges into the copyright holder's potential market. But it isn't too late to do this package right and offer something the off-air recorders and resellers can't offer, like commentaries or a well-researched and serious documentary on the series. But they need to move on it. The people who care about this series, were involved in it in some way, however distant, or are authoritative on it are not increasing in number, nor are they getting younger. Universal really needs to give this the full treatment, and NOW. So what's the hold-up?

The War of the Worlds

A good film caught in the culture wars (sigh)
The flaws I find in this film are pretty much the problems you will find in any fantasy/sci-if or horror film of this vintage. It's small things, like Ann Robinson's character being the only one without dust on her after a nuclear bomb goes off -- done, you know, simply because "actresses don't get mussed in Hollywood." If you can overlook things like this, you should enjoy this film immensely.

Ray Bradbury said in the George Pal documentary, that WotW did something very important among the films of its day, which is deliver something genuinely scary. Bradbury said that. Having gotten his legs as a writer in Weird Tales and other horror pulps before crossing over to sci-if, where he never left the horror completely behind, the great man understood and valued the undeniable universal power in striking a chord of terror.

The effects serve the concept, and not the other way around here, which is good and proper. The alien ship design was and is a handsome piece of design -- far more elegant and suggestive of an alien design intelligence than anything put on film before Scott's Alien in 1979, 26 years later. The sound effects are right, too. (Contrast the sound effect of the alien craft here with Gort's extended carbine ricochet, for example, in the great Day the Earth Stood Still. I think you would have to concede that this sound, with it's nerve-wracking strobing and slow accelerating, is more "on it", and more effective.)

Watching the film again over the weekend, I was struck again by the robust, energetic American shape of the film. Nothing fancy or arty -- just a hotly propulsive invasion yarn with suspense, scares, and destruction. No question, this is decent mainstream American studio film-making at mid-century.

About the elephant in the room: It's irksome that many people on the internet (though by no means a majority) are so exercised over the religious or spiritual dimension of this film. I think it's primarily young urban hipsters who know it's cool to disdain this sort of thing, doing their obligatory generational checking the box. But in any event, it's over-reacting -- bordering on religious phobia -- to interpret anything in the film as pushing religion. Context is all important, and of course it is context that is so easy to distort or omit altogether in an online back and forth post venue.

A preacher in the film is killed by aliens. His niece, Sylvia, whom he raised like a daughter, sees much that happens after this devastating loss from a religious/spiritual perspective which she shared with her uncle/father. This isn't a strain of credulity in terms of human psychology, or of character in fiction. A few scenes later, when a scientist says that they've calculated that the aliens will be able to wipe out the people of earth in 6 days, if they continue their assault unchecked, she mutters, somewhat dazedly, "Six days... as long as it took to create it." One can interpret a note of objectivity in some of the faces of the Pacific Tech scientists as the camera pans around the room after she says that. One has a faint smile. Another looks thoughtful. One has a look of pity for the girl. I can imagine the sort of people who announce the first time you meet them that they are atheists getting a blood pressure spike from this scene, the first of many. But within the context of the characters and the emotions of the film, there is nothing to get upset about.

Much of the misinterpreted religiosity of the film is of this nature. It's character, not preaching. Sylvia, when separated from the rest of her group, winds up in a church -- which action echoes a story we have already heard about her being lost as a little girl and making her way to a church because she thought her family would find her. From a storytelling standpoint, another purpose is served by having Clayton's search for Sylvia take place in churches across town: in this setting, people are resigned, at peace, but in any event quiet and respectful, not like the loud, marauding herd that had hijacked and wrecked the truck Clayton was driving in earlier. A search among such a crowd would have been impossible and hopeless. The aura that exists in these places -- where these people, lost in thought and prayer, are far past trying to duke it out in order to survive at all costs -- makes the search credible, and the resulting reunion touching.

One can question whether churches would fill to capacity if there really was an alien invasion. I think they would, because, faced with certain death, there are many people to whom that would seem apt and natural. (A Pew Report says just over 78 percent of the American public as identify themselves with a religious tradition.) Disagreeing with that doesn't change the reality of people's values and feelings. And, again in terms of larger context, I think this would have definitely been true in 1953.

I submit that the WotW isn't simply something that an emotionally mature, reasonably tolerant adult can watch and "get", but that any religiosity the film possesses has been exaggerated by those with a specific ax to grind and agenda to push. Ultimately, such objections are dismissible as so much culture wars cross-talk.

Nine of ten stars. Well-designed effects in service to a well-crafted, emotionally effecting, old-fashioned, all stops pulled Hollywood night at the movies. Work with it.

Cornbread, Earl and Me

A very flawed film of rare and beautiful moments; worth a look
Cornbread, Earl and Me is a long way from a perfect film. Some of the characters are overdrawn, and some are cornily acted. But it is, as others say, truthful -- painfully so. And that's to it's eternal credit.

At the center of the films' inevitable and staggering sequence is a very young Laurence Fishburn as the nominal "Me". I had heard the odd-sounding title of this film for decades without seeing it. When it came on THIS network, I settled in to give it a watch, expecting something poignant and earnest. It delivered.

To snipe at the film unfairly, perhaps, I wish that the police hadn't been so corrupt by design. I wish that the investigators from central precinct hadn't been so fast to act like jerks. I guess I wanted the epically weepy, tragic vibe of the central scene to carry on for at least the middle third of the film. But in rapid succession after the death, we are presented things which turn our sadness to anger and then to militancy. At that point, even the most naive viewer will be aware of how heavily we are being manipulated by the film's makers. The danger of subconscious and then conscious satirical reaction and resulting camp "failed seriousness" is never far away in the last half of this film.

I don't disagree with the politics. I don't disagree with the film's matter-of-fact assertion that police are often abusive of the privilege and power that their gun and authorization to use it gives them. I know this is true. But knowing it, that's the thing: I don't have to sit still to be told it and retold it for an hour and a half.

Evoking a touching, bitterly poignant moment ... now that's something many and many a freshman film maker attempts, and achieves only clumsily or not at all. I have to give this director and writer kudos for lining up the awful moment where the two halves of the film, the pastoral and the horrific, collide and fracture the characters' world. It's heart-rending. But I think they made a mistake in not allowing the rare and beautiful chord they achieve -- The Truth, wound up in sorrow-- to sustain for a bit longer.

The courtroom scenes and a lot else in the last half are rather amateurishly staged and acted. But, thank God, we will always have the first half of this film, with Laurence Fishburn's incredible breakdown, Rosiland Cash's terrible epiphany and the harrowing minutes after that. These moments would seem to guarantee the film immortality.

A generous 7 of 10 stars. When this film is good, it wails. When it is bad, it is truly some of the worst "blaxploitation" footage I have ever sat through. If ever any film did, this one proves that a film's heart being in the right place will keep you on it's side, even as it wheels off it's axis and into the void.

Fast Film

Fast Film is an orgiastic summation of the dream life of the 20th Century. The chief romantic storytelling vehicle of the last century and modern culture's mythology -- The Movies -- is hand cut and pasted into a ripping tale of pursuit, cliffhangers, narrow escapes, final clutches, dashing heroes, melt-in-your-mind babes and shrieking scary monsters. The facility and wit of the enterprise renders a nerdy analysis of the films staggering technique, or an inventory of clips recognized, embarrassingly beside the point. Even as your neural sensor boggles and clicks off one film recognized after another, it all flies under the radar of consciousness. We have been here before; we have never seen anything quite like this.

Above all, it's an achingly funny film. Someone else here said it was sort of sad, too, and with this, I concur. As you watch the purgatory-trapped face of James Wood meld into Gene Kelly into Roger Moore into Sean Connery into Orson Welles into Richard Carlson and on, it is hard not to feel the pull at your heart of a thought set to words a long time ago, now brilliantly evoked by film maker Widrich: "All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts... ...The lover, Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad Made to his mistress' eyebrow. Then a soldier, Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard, Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel, Seeking the bubble reputation Even in the cannon's mouth."

It doesn't get any better than this. Check it out. Ten of ten.

4: Rise of the Silver Surfer

Doesn't satisfy
This film has been called a 90 minute thrill ride by some of the cast members. Fair enough. I think that's the best thing to be said about the film. But, unfortunately, it's also the films most damning liability. Sure-fire, wowing 'em story conference vortices spin up every 90 seconds and nothing ever really slows down enough for the audience to savor pieces of time. Tons of good stuff is tossed off as a waste. (Example: The medieval tapestries in Doctor Doom's castle are glimpsed for about two seconds, briefly picked out of Stygian dark by a restless camera. Works for a music video. Not so sure about here. I thought of what a genius producer like Val Lewton could have done to get that kind of detail on the screen, further probing a conspicuous and memorable prop as a metaphorical or sub-textual comment on a character. Here, it's just "hey, look, we had a big budget". But we can't dawdle. They want to get straight on to the blowout special effects.)

The approach might be called Ginzu Bar & Grill film making. You are impressed by the flash. Undeniably a lot of dazzle is on show here. But it works up an appetite for a main course that ultimately proves to be more steam and sizzle than steak. As a film-goer, I was left wanting to take the proverbial cruise by White Castle for a sack of the real stuff on the way home from this polite but inadequate repast.

Some things I miss: Galactus -- who very well might have seemed silly as a mile-tall guy with purple tights and a pronged hat -- is shown here as a fractal cloud of dust. I wish they could have found a way to handle "him" without turning Galactus into an "it". When we glimpse him, he bears a striking resemblance to a front on a Doppler weather map. Maybe the Kirby Galactus wouldn't play today. But these guys are the big shot imagineers. Why couldn't they come up with anything better than this?

More than this, however, I miss the full story of Silver Surfer, and I think the absence of that story does untold damage to this movie. As portrayed in the second FF, the Surfer is not exactly enigmatic, although that may have been the intention. Instead, he's underdeveloped, a nodding, gazing statue who -- because we don't know enough of his story, or feel enough of what he has at stake -- does not stir sufficient fear or curiosity or passion, as he should. One looks at where the story time went that could have been spent on this critical material. And one is left assuming it all went to watching Johnny Storm be cute. Or Reed and Sue's wedding take cute turns south. Or Ben Grimm being crude and gruff... and cute.

It's a movie with cute to spare. There is no big concept comedy here. It's pretty much all "character-based" comedy, which for these writers means sit-com comedy, sarcastic digs at each others foibles every other line. And the really dark places FF 2 could have gone -- Galactus' emotional blackmail of the Surfer -- are replaced by wise-acre comedy and depressingly convincing replications of red carpet tabloid TV. Did we really need to see all that?

I can't help but feel FF 2 is an opportunity missed.

Topio stin omihli

So, Was this Films Animal Cruelty Real or Fake?
SPOILERS (underscore)

I watched this film to that spot where a tractor intrudes on a snowy street scene, from screen right, apparently pulling a snow plow blade. My jaw dropped when we finally see that the noisy tractor is in fact pulling a dying and bloody horse. --Just dragging the rustling, kicking body by ropes by the hind legs over the icy streets. That was the end of my involvement and interest in this pathetic "great film."

I am open to nearly anything in art, except animal cruelty. Daring themes, uncommon ideas, innovative, non-linear modes of presentation of material. But animal cruelty? --No, not once. It is a total stopper, the most complete form of buzz-kill. The reason for this is that I do not condone animal cruelty in real life. And whereas you can always bet that cruelty to people in film is fake (Was James Caan really fatally machine-gunned during the making of The Godfather? Was Margaret Hamilton really melted by Judy Garland during the making of Wizard of Oz?), one can never be as certain what actually may have taken place during the making of films from certain countries that have lax to no animal welfare laws in place.

If you are a horse-fancier, sympathetic to animal protection, or if you are simply a person still capable of being shocked or incensed by the unconscionable spectacle of people exploiting and torturing animals, you will want to avoid this film.

I give the part I saw -- which seemed vague, rambling, dreamy, pointless and moreover rather silly -- a 4 or 5. Subtract a few points for subjecting me to something as uncalled for as it was nasty.


Diane Lane is the One to Watch
This film gives us reason to cheer. It is a welcome break in a very dry film season. The summer of 2006 gave the kids Superman Returns; adults have this thought-provoking exploration of fallen idols and corrupt cultural milieus.

About the Affleck thing: It is inevitable that known heavy hitters like Brody and Hoskins practically overshadow the other players in this drama. It's for this reason, I think, that people search for the unexpected astonishing performance in regard to this film. An avoidance of the obvious. I understand that. But even given this, I think it's just a little unfortunate that Affleck is garnering all the would-be maverick appreciation.

I say this because, in my estimation, Diane Lane as Toni Mannix does the work of her career here. She is perfect as the former chorus girl who has learned, from rubbing elbows with high society, to project a sophistication she likely lacks. Lane's Toni does this through her crafty and image-conscious use of a throaty, worldly laugh, a dry, slightly haughty demeanor and a breathy velvet voice. Toni is a rather artificial matron, made human by Lane. We never doubt her Toni for an instant.

Now, Affleck is fine. But while I have not seen Lane play this kind of character before, Affleck is still basically Affleck. He works as George Reeves because they are similar. An actor playing himself is not a bad thing, if the casting is pitch perfect. And here it is. But make no mistake, it is aspects of his own persona that Ben Affleck is doing an impersonation of here. He gets the weary, beaten Affleck just right. And it works perfectly for the weary, beaten Reeves. This is inspired good casting. It's pretty good acting.

I liked the film a lot. Anyone steeped in the culture of 50s Hollywood will love this film, I feel certain. As for the mystery at the heart of Hollywoodland, the film provides much back-story, shines bright light on various forks in the road, but offers no definitive answers. But that's fine. It is a wholly involving, poetic exploration of a terrain, not a who dunnit.

Ten stars. I wish there were more films in this league.

Alphaville, une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution

Great in Theory; Utterly Taxing in Fact
I had just seen a Clouzot film from the 50s, the satisfying symmetry and classic film language of it fresh in my mind, when I sat down to watch this film, knowing it only from its glowing rep.

I had to go back a second day to take another run at it. I can't tell you now how it ended. It occurs to me that perhaps if I hadn't watched that Clouzot so shortly before seeing Alphaville, Godard's technical off-handedness, the visual opposite of style and structure, wouldn't have put me off so completely. But what's done is done. Alphaville feels like a home movie: shot for fifteen dollars, completely eschewing the most basic visual niceties of real feature films, and improvised, or feeling that way-- apparently rambling along, to its eternal detriment, without a plan.

This film has an ultra-cool rep which I somewhat appreciate. But it's like Warhol, Velvet Underground, Nico, Gimme Shelter-era Stones, mod London, etc, in that the heady gestalt accompanying it (its phenom, its legend, if you will) has finally transcended the experience of the thing itself. Too much has been made of it by fetishists of Godard and the 60s.

An aside: I can only imagine what Hitchcock must have made of Godard's (and much of the new wave's) lack of visual rigor. He must have been flat appalled, but ever too genteel (and grateful for their attention) to say so.

I wanted to like Alphaville. Those often-seen noir stills of Eddie Constantine with that hat and trench coat are perfect icons of the mid-to-late 60s, seeming to spring from the heart of the "personality poster" boom. That era was acutely attuned to the pop icon: Dean and Bogart and Marilyn captured forever in a 3 by 5 foot dorm poster, their trademark stance, expression, gesture, props and clothes positively charged with meaning for a generation in search of a transcendent attitude. But where those still images succeed as vivid evocations of something more than you see when you look at them, I think the film fails. It finally evokes nothing more than its sense of its own importance, and itself. An art happening/a dead end. A film about film that seems too contemptuous toward film language and style -- the conventions or givens of film -- to become a satisfying film experience.

As far as the film being pretentious, which I keep reading here, let's say this. Perhaps one need not automatically regard a film that features chunks of philosophy regurgitated whole on the soundtrack as pretentious. Perhaps. But even if you do not, the sure sign of the director's pretentiousness, for this viewer, comes in the fact that Godard clearly is so assured of his genius that he doesn't try very hard to make the audience interested. He thinks he can carelessly present negligible material, and we will gobble it up as work of the import of a new symphony from Beethoven. THAT is pretentious. Right off, he gets a strike against him for this attitude, which lies so close to the topmost layer of this shoddy little film.

Four of ten stars. And I advise you: You must want to LOVE it, before you spend time with this film. Even that may not be enough to salvage it for you, as I found.

Der Wald vor lauter Bäumen

God's Lonely Woman
Melanie is, simply and unalterably, who she is and has always been. She cannot effectively assert herself. She cannot control other people's impression of her. She cannot draw people close to her, or even get them on her side. This applies to her out-of-view family (we know them only from overhearing her end of unrewarding telephone conversations with them), her students, her staff peers and her neighbors and would-be friends.

Emotional isolation has never felt so completely real on film. Nothing is over-dramatized. No scenery chewing here, Thank God. No dishonest cutaways to a colorful fantasy world inside the main character's head. No Hollywood situations or developments. What happens throughout feels inevitable, and thus real.

I was turned off, in the beginning, by the shot-on-video character of this film, because by default it seemed to mean a dispensing with classic film language, and a less articulate camera. --And there are times I thought a score would have helped. But eventually the deliberately flattened style (call it Bressonian) grew on me. I realized the film wasn't an over-hyped thriller (as the video box more or less lead me to believe) that needed or invited a lot of flash style in the telling. Directness is the best decision the makers could have made in a vehicle built to carry emotional truth.

I recommend this film for people who want something emotionally naked, at times painful to watch, with a psychological preoccupation. If you look at Melanie and see some piece of yourself in real life, this film will probably bring you down. On the other hand, it might also broaden your view of yourself and the world, and impress you again with the fact that no one is weird; people simply are.

Mission: Impossible III

Child of Raiders
I have to hand it to MI3: It delivers nonstop action and the kind of over-hyped "intense" moments of which Hollywood builds prefab popcorn movies with sleep-walking regularity. I find no plot holes to carp about. In fact, the film is to be commended for not letting anything so burdensome as a plot get in its way. Almost every second of screen time is given to explosions and athletic stunts and sweaty last second cliffhanging saves that tax physics and credulity to the tensile snapping point.

This sort of film is the logical conclusion of a development in film-making begun with Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1980. If you recall that film from the time of its release, you know exactly what I mean. It was next generation Hitchcock that built a celluloid shrine to one single object, the all stops pulled set piece. That single object had but one purpose, for these fan boy plunderers of the Hitchcock legacy: To stagger you under the one-two gut-punch of crazy plot revelation AND slick bit of film-making, the FX or and the way a scene was shot and assembled. Raiders and its legion of imitators took the Statue of Liberty scene from Saboteur, the Mt Rushmore scene from North by Northwest and the Merry Go Round scene from Strangers on a Train as their inspiration and rolled one of these magical film instants out every 7 minutes of screen time.

Inflation being what it is, the time between big moments has narrowed to more like every 2 minutes. And the actions which seemed far fetched in Raiders -- Indi being dragged top- speed under a truck down a gravel road, the face off in the pit of a thousand million snakes, the final blowout confrontation between supernatural forces and the bad guys -- are tamed by comparison with the downright giddy visual hyperbole by the time we get to the MI franchise. I don't exactly regret that Raiders ever happened; it was a rousing, loving, and perhaps above all, a history-savvy homage to a certain type of film moment. But what has happened to Hollywood since then is hard not to view with regret. Still, it's not Spielberg's fault that his palatable take on Hitchcock's deft touches has evolved from slightly overwrought parody to witless and ham-handed overkill.

The story is-- let's be generous -- strikingly simple: The bad guy who wants the Mcguffin back gets to Cruise's squeeze and, holding her captive, is able to make him dance -- which in this case means make him deliver the Mcguffin back home. How all this happens, in terms of filmed language and gestalt, makes the cartoon caffeine cinema of Michael Bay look like the glacial floe of Robert Bresson's oeuvre. If I have seen more shaking camera, strobing light and one second edits, I'm not sure where.

Maybe because I searched for something as old school as the faint must of "literary quality" to the script (silly me), my favorite MI3 bit is what you could call a storytelling conceit. It isn't original. It's the Citizen Kane gambit of beginning with the end, flashing back, and progressing to the same point by film's end. They put a surprise twist to this gambit, but that isn't really very original either (sort of like the old TV series or Wild Wild West). So, um, forget the search for literary quality here.

I give the film 5 stars of 10.

Mr. Bug Goes to Town

Mr. Bug and Fleischer
Leslie Carbaga's excellent book on the Fleishers tells the whole story of the Fleischer's big move of their entire animation unit to Florida, and their subsequent ejection by Paramount.

Mr. Bug Goes to Town didn't destroy the animation pioneers' credit with Paramount, although it's often told that way, and this was Paramount's favorite version of the story. According to Carbaga, the big studio, more than anything, wanted to get their mitts on the animation studio and ease the famously bickering brothers out of the picture altogether. Mr. Bug provided them the pretext to do just that. --The sad closing of a great quirky, innovative chapter in American animation.

I wanted to comment, also, that the film actually debuted December 4, 1941, not December 7. That may have been close enough to do the trick, anyway, in terms of national mood damaging the film's success. But another part of the legend of this troubled little film is that it was killed by having the bad luck to be in the theaters at the same time Dumbo (released October 23, 1941) was still doing very brisk holiday business. I haven't done the research into box office numbers, but I'd say that Dumbo's concurrent presence in theaters likely had an impact on Mr. Bug. Movie-going was at an all time high at this period, and successful films could go strong in theaters for months. -- Something unimaginable in these typically short-run, quick to-DVD days.

Nora Prentiss

Noirly perfect
Scarlet Street is one of my favorite films noir. But seeing Nora Prentiss again recently for the first time in about 25 years, I am struck by a couple of aspects of Nora that make it superior to Scarlet, for this viewer.

For one thing, Dr. Talbot's wife and family are pleasant enough. Maybe a little square. --But the home Talbot forsakes has nothing at all in common with the loveless, bitter home life in which Chris Cross is trapped in Scarlet Street. So by the end of Nora Prentiss, you feel, doubly, the sting of the mistake this films anti-hero has made in leaving the life he had, in doomed pursuit of the other woman. In Scarlet Street, the choice between life as a homeless, haunted drifter, and a life suffered in total subjugation to a shrew and harpy, could be seen as a toss-up.

And for another thing, Ann Sheridan's Nora is not a vicious user, pushed close to cartoon character, as is Joan Bennett's Katherine March. She doesn't have an angle. She seems genuinely capable of loving Dr. Talbot for himself. His attraction to her is completely credible. Chris Cross has to be too naive to fall for callous Katherine March; Dr. Talbot only has to be a normal guy who feels an attraction to women to fall for Nora.

Fritz Lang would top most great directors lists, while Vincent Sherman wouldn't appear on them at all. Still, nobody ever said Sherman couldn't fly. And with James Wong Howe in the copilot seat as Director of Photography, the look and feel of Nora Prentiss are top notch, and occasionally striking. The visuals of the final scene between Nora and Dr. Talbot have an unsettling, horror-like nuance that made me think of Seconds -- another great Wong DP job.

This film hit a nerve with me as a casual viewer, first time I saw it, because serious dramatic films in which disfigurement played a part were all but nonexistent. --Especially so in films from Golden Age Hollywood, which seemed built as a towering facade of hunks and babes. Hollywood was so uncomfortable with this topic that, outside a hand full of horror films (like Tod Brownings' films with Lon Chaney Sr.), it was virtually never addressed, and less so after the silent era. There is some kind of shock in finding a film from 1947 that features this as a critical plot pivot.

9 of 10 stars. It never exactly goes for the grit, as Scarlet Street does. But what it delivers is, nonetheless, a peerless noir portrait of desperation and one's own nature fatally betraying self. For that, you have to consider it worth your while if you are more than a lukewarm devotee of the genre.

Malibu's Most Wanted

Not quite Kung Fu Hustle, but pretty hilarious
Trying to sell my friends on this film, which I love, I tell them to think of it as 'The Jerk' for the new millennium. You know the bit: An innocent goof lives his life seemingly oblivious to the fact that he is, eh.... um... Well, oblivious to who he is -- his talents (or lack), and most importantly, to the way every other living being perceives him.

Hijinx ensues. --Very, very world-class embarrassing hi jinx.

The idea of the world's lamest rapper may be barely weighty enough for a solid 4 minute sketch on SNL or in Living Color. But the makers, with the amazing Jamie Kennedy in the center of the thing, have gone for the burn, taking an hour and a half to shake out every possibility of the concept. Surprisingly, it's time well spent. More happens plot wise here than in the Steve Martin vehicle. The situations are multiplied, and with them the opportunities for some pretty incredible shtick.

Malibu's Most Wanted is the cult film of tomorrow. The humor may not be close to the same league as Airplane or Kung Fu Hustle, and in fact seems to issue from the pits of over-commercialized multiplex teen formula comedy that I and a lot of other people groan at with regularity. But it brushes lightly with inspired comic genius. That's pretty vague. But I don't know how else to characterize a film -- even a dumb, almost insulting one -- that renders me helpless with laughter a couple of times, and manages a carload of solid giggles and grins. It may be a special taste film. But if you are open to it, it's worth your while.

9 of 10 stars

Jackie Brown

Perhaps the most shocking entry in the Tarantino canon
Quent loves to play, and you can pretty much count the Kill Bills and Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs -- the director's entire oeuvre-- as the work of an oldish boy swinging self-consciously twixt the pits and pinnacles of as gaudy and embarrassing a public arrested adolescence as Hollywood has seen.

JB, on the other hand, is all the things the rest are not: subtle and sublimely emotionally resonant, an astoundingly adult work, drawn with feelings such as regret (in place of adolescent phobias), reluctant resignation (in place of retreat before a whooping menace with a straight razor), and compromise (in place of 'throw the gun out or we'll blast you' play-acting that alone seems to inform Quent's imagination). QT amazes us this time out with the maturity of his vision. We didn't know he had it in him. That simple.

There are many of us who wish the fan boy favorite would quit playing for the fan boys, and get down to the business of creating great films for the rest of the planet. Jackie Brown made us impatient for the inevitability of this development, and keeps the hope that it may some day happen alive for us. Just don't wait too long, Quent.

Ten of ten. See it.

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