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Milgram and the Fastwalkers

Slow, talky, unoriginal community theater.
Or perhaps an English language tele-novella, since much of the dialogue seems like Google translations of decades-old TV. I tried, I wanted to like it, but (in spite of it being written and directed by its lead actor) I found myself unable to guess what the motivation was to make this amalgam of abduction tropes and cliches. Maybe someone saw the success of the X-Files, and thought they could hit the same mark without cast chemistry, wit, or convincing dialogue and plot. Some in the cast, perhaps most, could act if given proper material, but this production consistently asks for "bricks without straw," which few can get past. Unlike other turkeys (Theodore Rex, anyone?), it isn't even accidentally funny.


A loving, moving look at a giant in American History
I know this came out for Black History month in the U.S., and it's right on target: illuminate a pivotal figure from our national past who was an African American. Show both the obstacles overcome and the world-changing effect achieved. That's a fine formula, and it works.

But George Stevens has gone beyond the formula, and this monologue, by the amazing Laurence Fishburne as Thurgood Marshall, with slide-show and lighting effects, is surprisingly powerful. They shine their light into some of America's darkest places, yet retain humor and hope. Fishburne uses all his registers, and is a delight to watch, as he persuades you that you are in the presence of the man who, with his argument in Brown v. Board of Education, triggered the end of legal segregation in the U.S, who became the Supreme Court's first African-American member. And who gives you all the context of that life.

If you let yourself, through a spell woven by the spoken word and evocative images on the wall behind the sparsely furnished set, you'll be transported into the life and world of Thurgood Marshall. It's entertaining, enlightening and ... over too soon.

Smoke Alarm: The Unfiltered Truth About Cigarettes

Preachy but entertaining PSA, top quality production
Clearly a message piece, in the vein of the After-School Specials, this is still worth a watch.

A very good line-up of voice talents, some excellent stop-motion animation, effective music and some over-the-top melodrama liven up the production and make it entertaining for the full half hour.

Interviews with actual teen smokers and a mouth-cancer survivor humanize the statistics, which are clearly presented and scattered throughout the film, some presented in a game show format. I'd say the folks who made this had as a goal making it unlikely that anyone watching would tune out. The variety is impressive and mostly fun, in spite of the subject.

As an example of their attention to every detail, I noticed, in the newsstand sequence near the end, the issue of Cigar Aficionado with Arnold Schwarzenegger on the cover passes by .

Leonard Cohen: Live at the Isle of Wight 1970

A wonderful time machine for Cohen's fans
Basically footage from a 1970 concert, bookended and interleaved with some context and, thankfully, presented without much evident editing. Some audience scenes are inserted, and some modern interviews, to help set the context. The quality is surprisingly excellent, with very few artifacts of age; the picture and the sound are very clear.

Leonard Cohen has been an important force in music since the 1960s. For those of us who admire him and his work, this is a terrific look at a seemingly fearless performer as he was 40 years ago. His performance is perhaps less polished than now, but the powerful intimacy and kaleidoscopic imagery of his poetry are as affecting as ever. I'm grateful to the makers of this film for bringing this to us.

Jive Junction

Forgettable but fun feel-good teen fare from the forties
This Dickie Moore musical strikes all the appropriate notes for its mid-war audience, competently but without any real flair. The biggest potential for interest in the story, the introduction of the classically-trained star to hep jive popular music, is side-stepped at the beginning: he's picked it up on the side already. That pretty well establishes the tone: this is a simple story, without serious conflicts, passions or surprises.

The musical numbers are mostly adequate; they're passable but bland, with the notable exception of one pleasant vocal duet. The numbers were written for the movie, and appear to have been designed not to offend anyone. If you're a real fan of swing from the forties, you may be disappointed.

The dialogue is similar; while there are moments that sparkle, much is generic and predictable. The unquestioning sexism in the story is typical of the period, and is here mostly humorous now. Fortunately, it's a story made to play well to youth yet not anger the establishment. It works if used as such: enjoy it and move on.

The Last Sin Eater

Flawed but deeply felt
This is a film that requires some willing suspension of disbelief, since its makers seem possibly to be prey to the fallacy that it enough that Christian art be Christian. Which is not to say that they didn't get most of it right, just that their missteps are so avoidable. Fortunately, most (like the young star's unbelievably sumptuous wardrobe) weren't major distractions for me. But the crudeness of the special effects scenes (which, thankfully, are brief) did disrupt my experience, as I wondered, "What were they thinking that this looked right to them?"

Most of the cast does a truly fine job, with all the central characters (the Forbes family and Fagan Kai) getting moving, heartfelt and convincing performances from their players. There's a relationship here between quantity of screen time and quality, so the minor characters remain pretty two-dimensional, though not distractingly so.

The cinematography (except for special effects, as noted) is beautiful and effective, and successfully evokes the feeling of confining, dense Appalachian woods and isolation.

Bottom line: despite its minor shortcomings, this is an effective, affecting, non-preachy and original retelling of one of the central concepts of Christianity.

Jivin' in Be-Bop

The Dizzy Gillespie Variety Hour? How cool is that?
This was recently shown on the Black Family Channel, and (as a Jazz musician myself) I had to check it out. I mean, 1946 footage of Dizzy Gillespie? Not something you see that often. My expectations were moderate, though, having seen some of the strange vehicles musicians have been roped into, attempting to blend some kind (any kind) of plot with their music.

This is emphatically not that. Although the print shows its age at times, and synchronization was a occasionally off ('course, maybe they weren't performing live for the film's sound track ...), this is a well-crafted hour full of solid entertainment. Singers, instrumentalists, dancers both male and female, even comedy. Add to that getting to see such performers as Milt Jackson, Ray Brown, Benny Carter and Gillespie himself, along with many more, in what amounts to a front-row seat for a very cool variety show, photographed intelligently and orchestrated to please. Includes Salt Peanuts and Night In Tunisia; many of the numbers don't show the musicians, which I was sorry for, but overall, the show is great fun.

If you're a fan of Jazz and Bebop, Dance, and/or Dizzy Gillespie, and you get a chance to watch this, prepare to be entertained.

Final Breakdown

Interesting story, decent acting, though unpolished
First, in spite of its shortcomings, it did hold my interest throughout. It wants to be compared to some of Pam Grier's films, especially the earlier ones, though it falls a bit short of that mark. Still, it's generally fun, for similar reasons. And Regina King is attractive and effective in this role.

The plot is not too original, and the direction indicates a good feel for visuals, but not much finesse. Most of the characters are obvious stereotypes, which substitutes for character development. And, often, for plot development as well, as they do what they must, regardless of reason. The musical cues are occasionally so heavy-handed I laughed out loud - not the intended effect.

On the plus side, the story is told pretty effectively, hiding, then revealing, clues, so that understanding is pleasantly delayed into an "A-ha" moment near the end. And there's some restraint on the gratuitous sex and violence, so Jeff Byrd, the director, shows discretion and promise. No need to see it twice, but you might give it a chance once.

Hidden Values: The Movies of the Fifties

"We go to the movies to see who we are."
Those of us who frequent IMDb probably see lots of movies. We probably saw many as children, uncritically sitting, quietly, in the dark, accepting the entertainment. The central idea here is that we accept more than entertainment. We learn what it is to be a good man, a good woman, a bad man, a bad woman; how to treat each other, to achieve success, love, and happiness. Or how to deserve failure, rejection and ridicule. All absorbed slowly, by immersion (as with C.J. Cherryh's fictional "tape", for any who've read her stories).

The 1950s were long enough ago that we can pretty clearly see the sort of values presented, and how it was a strange brew: combining WWII-era conservatism, favoring traditional sexual roles (i.e. the old double standard), traditional racial roles, capitalism, parochialism and duty, with postwar, pre-60s radicalism, favoring re-examining all the above, seeking pleasure (and yet meaning), cosmopolitanism and individuality. If you grew up during this decade and watched movies, these are the values you're likely to have, at least in part.

Through interviews and examples, this film illustrates these points with clarity, if a bit dryly, and generally maintains the viewer's interest. I'd like to see a similar documentary done for every decade, so any of us who grew up in them could be illuminated, as well.

Romance of the West

Community theater on the silver screen!
I found my jaw dropping soon after this movie started, and only finished it so I could say I'd seen the whole thing and could therefore be entitled to comment on it.

It has all the problems of a lackluster school or community production (no offense to those whose productions have luster). The plentiful dialogue is awkward, running the gamut from stilted to preposterous, generally delivered with the sort of relentless exaggeration common on the stage, but which is wearisome on screen. The characters are barely one-dimensional; it seems as if the movie were modeled on an early silent (the resemblance is very strong), by someone who said, "Give me one of each!" The grizzled, gibberish-talking alcoholic sidekick, the lovable, singing, two-gun hero and his saccharine gal, the cheerful priest, the shady politician, a number of noble Native Americans in their colorful full regalia, chafing under the oppression of the capitalists, some heartrendingly cherubic children - until the roster was full. The songs are massively produced; odd even for a singing Western. Much of the time we're on an obvious sound stage, the edits are often odd (people disappear from the screen a bit before their lines are done), and the costumes - it's all sub-par, even for 1946. On the other hand, it is in color.

Partners in Action

Decent if derivative
Not terribly original in its basic plot, this film still managed to entertain me. Armand Assante delivers a solid performance, the major supporting roles are well handled, especially Douglas Smith's. There are enough fresh details in the story to make it work, and it tries hard to remain plausible. "Scenery chewing" over-the-top acting makes an appearance from time to time, perhaps in an effort to pump up the less inspired bits, or so it seemed to me. Blessedly, these moments were brief. As were the periods of subspace turbulence ... uh .. sorry, cinema verite camera shakiness. If you enjoy the "hard-boiled ex-cop with heart of gold, in trouble" thing (and who doesn't?), this film will deliver. Not the best, but it's got the goods.


Predictable but quite enjoyable
This is a well-crafted, mostly well-acted, satisfying 'Stick It To The Man' melodrama that has few real surprises, but which I found enjoyable anyway (after all, sometimes The Man needs to be Stuck). The brush strokes are broad here, at times perhaps crossing the line into stereotypes, but there's a good job done at the beginning bringing the characters to life, so that you end up caring about their story. Especially good are Roger Guenveur Smith in the lead role and Allen Hamilton as the primary villain; supporting cast is, well, supportive, with Joe Minjares adding some wry humor. Best of all, despite the film's serious message: the injustice of racial oppression, it avoids getting too preachy (a common failing in the SITTM genre), telling the tale with a pretty deft touch and some humor. Minor quibble: the ending unfolds hastily; don't let your attention stray in the last 10 minutes. Overall, a solid film with some thought-provoking points and a satisfying Good Triumphing Over Evil story.

The Racket

Wonderful rescued film
This has been resurrected courtesy of Turner Classic Movies, the University of Nevada, et al. (in pretty good shape, too) in a nicely done digital restoration, complete with a good score. If you get a chance to see it, you might want to take a chance: in spite of it being a silent (I consider that a handicap), it's an entertaining film, with a lot to like.

There's fine acting, especially by Louis Wolheim as the main gangster, whose face is so expressive you don't miss the sound as long as he's on screen. Marie Prevost and 'Skeets' Gallagher turn in solid supporting performances. There's clever dialogue: very good given the constraints silent films inherently have.

Personally, I thought the best feature is the wonderful cinematography. Rarely does the camera technique look dated or technically primitive, and many scenes are as well done as any since. The use of dissolves and interesting angles was delightful, and there are even a couple (surprising, to me) attempts at zooms that come off alright. Obviously a good director/cinematographer team. The overall look of the film is fresh and clear.

The story is pretty entertaining and the characters are brought to life, making me glad this film was brought back to life as well.

84 Charing Cross Road

A truly good movie, nothing to change!
I will not summarize the plot -- you can read others' comments for that, or, better yet, see this yourself. Classic film buffs who say that there was a Golden Age of Cinema after which all is in decline need to see this one (although I realize that 1987 probably is long enough ago to qualify as a bygone era for younger IMDb users). I would not change a thing in this production. Every member of the cast delivers the goods, the story is moving and truthful, the characters come to life and you're swept up in their lives. When you weary of car chases with explosions, language you can't repeat to your mom, cliché-ridden distortions of human relationships and humor based on normally-private bodily functions, give yourself a treat and watch this movie. If you think only hobbits can be sweet and kind and show us the Good that can reside in common folk, check out the humans in this one. If you . . . never mind, just see it.

The School of Rock

Spinal Tap with kids!
A fine effort. This role was made for Jack Black (literally), whose musical prowess is legendary (i.e., part truth, part imagination - see also "Tenacious D") - he is a genuine musician, with a voice of his own and a deft touch with lyrics that put the *iron* in *irony*. He's a force to be reckoned with as an actor, too - he brings it to you, and you know it. As in "This Is Spinal Tap", the music is actually played (and some of it written) by the folks you see on the screen. For me, this gives it "street cred" you can't get any other way. Linklater's direction is generally on the money; the only quibble I have is that the pace flags in spots. Perhaps it could have been edited a bit tighter? I'd hate to have to decide what to cut, though. It's fairly predictable, in the "Bad News Bears" sense, but there's still fun to be had in seeing how they get there. Joan Cusack does her usual utterly convincing job, and the kids are great.

The Bourne Supremacy

Bring Dramamine
Having the camera shake violently throughout every action scene truly spoils this otherwise decent thriller (much as loud surprising sounds used in lieu of actual drama in bad horror flicks). Curious, because there's plenty of excitement here, if only one could bring it into focus. I became increasingly annoyed by the unrelenting lurching, until I realized it looked like "subspace turbulence" from the 1960's Star Trek, then I found it somewhat amusing (perhaps not the effect they were going for). Just as in the first film, not much of the story is from Ludlum's novel, though maybe that's not such a bad thing - you can enjoy both the book and the movie, since they're not too closely related. Bring your Dramamine/Bonine, sit in the back, and you'll probably enjoy Matt Damon's hairbreadth escapes.

Isola: Tajuu jinkaku shôjo

Atmospheric and cerebral; not your basic horror flick [spoilers]
[Potential spoilers ahead] First, I want to make it clear that I saw this movie in Japanese with English subtitles, which (by the way) seemed to be well done, as far as I can tell without understanding Japanese. I'm surprised its IMDB rating is so low - dislike of subtitles, perhaps? - below some genuinely depressing flicks. I enjoyed it, with the sole exception of a brief bit of visual effects near the end that's both cheesy and unneeded. The plot is plausible, especially for its genre, the characters are well-realized and it's nicely shot and edited, with a score that gently enhances - almost no cheating by beating you up with music and sound effects, all too commonly done. [Here are the Spoilers] The idea that someone's "soul" can be set adrift during an out-of-body-experience by the death of her body, and that the "soul" can then find a home within a person with multiple personalities (always room for one more?) is less incredible than the central ideas of many popular movies. The mind-reading ability of the main character is presented in a believable fashion, with attention paid to its effects on her.

The Last of the Mohicans

Great look & sound.
Braveheart meets Dances With Wolves in this proto-Western set before the American Revolutionary War. The cinematography is breathtaking, the costumes and props are consistently realistic, and the great Trevor Jones score, with help from the Celtic group Clannad, is so moving it's an integral part of the experience (use good speakers, if at all possible). I don't buy soundtrack albums; I bought this one. I found the storytelling to be enthralling, especially given the fact that the story, although a classic, is really a bit of a lightweight, after all. If you've read Mark Twain's comments about James Fenimore Cooper and this book, never mind; this movie makes it all work. I was particularly impressed with Wes Studi as Magua.

A Thousand Clowns

One of the few perfect movies
It's a shame that being in black & white is now a nearly fatal handicap; this is one of the few movies I consider perfect. From the enthralling, completely believable performances by everyone in the small cast, to creative details in the score, cinematography and editing, to dialogue with as many great lines as The Princess Bride or Monty Python & the Holy Grail, to the reality of its bittersweet message (given especially by Martin Balsam, in the abandoned restaurant), this is a level that film-makers very rarely achieve. If you get a chance to see this, get ready for a real treat. Like all perfect movies, it repays re-viewing with details and depths previously unnoticed.

A Prayer for the Dying

Moving performances from Mickey Rourke, Bob Hoskins.
Fine character portrayals by Rourke, Hoskins, Davis and Bates. If you don't generally think highly of him, don't be put off by Rourke starring; he shines in this ensemble piece . If you only think of Hoskins as a humorous figure, see this movie for a new perspective.

The plot is dark; the pace, at times, deliberate, but it maintains its intensity well, for most of the film, through to its satisfying, if somewhat abrupt, conclusion.


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