I_Ailurophile

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Reviews

Poseidon Rex
(2013)

Giddily heedless, indifferent, & built strictly for silly fun - like it or not
Just right into it! Not even four minutes in and the plot has already begun as we meet the person who will become our protagonist, and we get our first glimpse of the titular beast. Add in many women wearing only bikinis or little more, the introduction of some forgettable characters who are only meant to die off, and an immediate plot point that raises skepticism, all within the first ten minutes, and we are guaranteed a wild ride of one sort or another. Exposition, plot development, and the introduction of all these characters are as brisk and brusque as Mark L. Lester's direction, Daniel Duncan's editing, and the acting - politely declining any especial tact or nuance in any regard. None of this is inherently bad, not even the most meager instances of the acting. I don't even mind the plainly ingenuine CGI monster that doesn't blend well with its background, the carelessness and inauthenticity with which action sequences are executed, or curt, questionable dialogue and delivery. And why don't I mind? Because it's readily evident that 'Poseidon rex' doesn't care. It just wants to have a silly good time with the nonsense that writer Rafael Jordan cooked up, one part adventure and one part comedy, and if other folks want to come along for the ride, good for them.

Good on Lester and his cast and crew for filming on location in Belize; it's nice to know that at least not all the underwater footage we get is stock. The CGI looks better at some points more than others, though mostly it's definitely on the low end of the spectrum in various ways. The scene writing, and Lester's direction to realize it, are distinctly unbothered, sometimes giving the impression of not even trying and at others being weirdly inconsistent within a single scene. I'm not sure if it's just fine for criminal Tariq and his gang to be walking stereotypes, considering the comedic edge (whether it's successful or not), or just inappropriate regardless. Christopher Cano's score is mostly unexceptional, but still well done and enjoyable; on the other hand, it's hard to miss the repetition of one specific song in the soundtrack three times within the first thirty minutes. Oh, and of course a romantic element is introduced that, like many movie romances, is totally contrived. And so on, and so on; to break this down piece by tiny piece would take far longer than I care to entertain.

It's a good thing that 'Poseidon rex' is geared for a cheeky, unserious romp instead of an earnest action-adventure creature feature, because it certainly couldn't be acceptable under any other circumstances. With all this having been said: every last aspect of the picture is approached with emphatic carefree heedlessness - truly, everyone involved just wanted to have fun, and did so, regardless of how it all looked in the final cut. And there's nothing wrong with that! But still, the absolute indifference of how this or that looked does wear thin after a while. If that ethos weren't so solidly pervasive, if anyone had at any point decided to inject even a tinge of sincerity into their contribution, this probably would have had a better chance at favorable reception. Although, on the other hand, had anyone tried, the effort would surely have come off as overzealous just by comparison. Anyway, it seems like the feature leans especially hard into its humor within the last twenty minutes or so, and thus it at least has a (relatively) strong finish.

I don't know if it's just because they're the stars, but Brian Krause and Anne McDaniels sure seem to be having the biggest blast of all. Coming in at a close second are those who in the last act portray military personnel. And me? What can I say, sometimes one just wants a title that's totally frivolous. For what it's worth, this is actually better than I expected, thanks simply to the unremitting abandon of all sense of restraint, and for that it's also significantly more enjoyable, too. Yes, of course this will actually appeal to only a very select type of viewer, they who are open to all the wide possibilities of what cinema has to offer no matter how ludicrous in concept or execution. But to my surprise I actually had a good time watching, and that's something that even some major studio fare can't claim. Even if you think you know what you're getting into you're likely still in for an eye-opener, yet if you're prepared to engage with the film on its level, 'Poseidon rex' is a wonderfully insipid way to whittle away eighty minutes.

Humain, trop humain
(1974)

Emphatically low-key; duly interesting
Even for a filmmaker like Louis Malle, who tried his hand at so many different genres over his career, this feels like a bit of an oddity. And here I thought his 1969 documentary 'Calcutta' was stripped down; what is more plainspoken than footage inside an automobile manufacturing plant, of the production process? What's more plainspoken than a documentary with no narration or interviews - only incidental, casual conversation heard in passing? Coming off like an extra long and unorthodox episode of 'How it's made,' I think it's safe to say this is a picture that's likely to appeal only to especial fans of Malle, or perhaps of Citroën, or maybe the most ardent of cinephiles. Even at that, 'Humain, trop humain' is an interesting peek inside the industry as we get some detailed glimpses of auto production that are commonly taken for granted.

In some measure I admire the film's approach that lets the content speak for itself, a somewhat educational experience. True, explanatory language of some nature could help to enrich the movie; for everything that we see, it's not always entirely clear what a particular car part does or represents - the modern industrial equivalent of trying to determine the purpose of a totem uncovered during an archaeological expedition. Narration might have provided a through-line to further elucidate the imagery. Yet, to that point, I think it speaks well to this 1973 picture that one is made to wonder specifically how the manufacturing process has changed in the past fifty years. No doubt many of the facets of auto production seen here have been updated (for better or for worse, where either safety standards or automation are concerned, respectively), and an enterprising filmmaker today might do well to try their hand at 'Human, trop humain,' Part Two. My interest is piqued, and that alone says much.

Like the works of Werner Herzog, in some sense this film also communicates fascination with People in all their complexity, both good and bad. Only by especially looking inside an auto plant does one get a real sense of how big the operation is: the number of jobs, the variety of jobs, the hard-working folks that are required to fill them. Any viewer who shares that curiosity and interest in humanity might also find a kinship in Malle's movie. With that said, I do think it's a fine choice to include footage from a crowded showroom floor, seeing people react to the complete Citroën models on display. As far as this feature goes, however, I'm not so sure about the sequencing; that the showroom footage is inserted in the middle of observation of the production line rather breaks up the flow of the runtime. I suppose that break could be taken as either a good thing or a bad thing; I'm inclined to think it's a smidgen off-putting, and the interval should have been shuttled to either the beginning or the end.

Maybe all this verbiage is beside the point, though. The premise couldn't be any simpler, and what it suggests is exactly what we get, with no frills whatsoever. I would say that the most meaningful deficiency with 'Humain, trop humain' is the total lack of narration - but then again, there's something oddly enchanting about the earnest directness of the material as we see it. I can quite understand how such a title won't appeal to a lot of people, and it's most recommendable if one has a particular impetus to watch, or even just looking for something light and low-key with no need to actively engage. Either way, this is well done and reasonably interesting as it is, and a decent way to send a mere 70-some minutes.

Outside the Law
(1920)

Enjoyable and well made - albeit with two BIG asterisks
Let's get this out of the way first and foremost: there are aspects of this movie that have NOT aged well. Language in even the very first intertitle to appear on-screen is wildly outdated and cringe-worthy. That two white actors, E. Alyn Warren and Lon Chaney, are cast as Chinese men in chief roles, and dressed with makeup to try to make them appear so, is simply appalling; one can raise the canard of "standards of the time" all they want, there were plenty of early filmmakers who didn't stoop to this low. This isn't to say that celebrated filmmaker Tod Browning should be discarded for falling into the same trap as many of his contemporaries, but it's certainly an asterisk on his output generally, and on this film specifically. It's not entirely wrong to say that watching becomes a matter of weighing the otherwise quality against such glaring, unfortunate distractions.

Thankfully, there is no small amount of value in 'Outside the law' if we can compartmentalize enough to see it. For one thing, while "Black Mike" is the clear villain of this story, there are welcome tinges of abolitionist sentiment in the telling, spotlighting the shortsightedness, cruelty, and uselessness of police and prisons. For another, as one might expect of the silent era at large and perhaps Browning's works in particular, the visual presentation is quite lovely. The production design, art direction, costume design, and (noted caveats and exceptions aside) hair and makeup are all utterly splendid and wonderfully fetching, readily inviting us to take a load off and indulge the cinematic fancy. The cast are terrific, with Priscilla Dean especially impressing in a performance of charming personality, poise, and nuance; as villainous Black Mike, Chaney absolutely demonstrates once more why even today he's so highly celebrated. Wheeler Oakman is less known to me, but he also gives a good show as "Dapper Bill Ballard"; others in small roles are just as swell. And for that matter, Browning's direction is reliably great in terms of orchestrating shots and scenes and guiding his cast.

On the other hand, I definitely take issue with parts of the screenplay, a facet which does also affect the characterizations and acting in some measure. Broadly speaking 'Outside the law' dabbles with a familiar narrative thrust of silent features: a girl who finds herself on The Wrong Side, and ultimately makes good while others around her of far seedier personage get their dues. Yet at times this rendition seems to at once both reduce the essential beats to their most basic elements, and also amplify them to such a degree that they become garish and heavy-handed. Above all, the abject ham-handedness of the unnamed "kid across the hall," and his use as a device for both the plot and character development, is plainly tiresome and flagrantly unconvincing, not to mention oafishly simplistic. Even for a period known to some extent as, well, "simpler entertainment for a simpler time," and recognizing different values of one hundred years past, this component just does not come off well. Factor in a cheeky visual ploy pounding on the same nail that The Kid already ruthlessly hammered in, and smartly worded intertitles describing the course of events that in another picture might be a source of minor delight instead seem to feed directly into the gawky, club-footed writing.

All these weaknesses are deeply unfortunate, for overall the tale is strong, compelling, and absorbing, despite easily recalling other titles. The exposition, rising action, climax, and ending are all pretty super, as far as I'm concerned, both on paper and in realization. It would have actually taken very little to improve 'Outside the law' and let it stand much taller - perhaps only two discrete elements, in fact. Firstly, the characters of Chang Low and Ah Wing are not so vital to the storytelling that they couldn't have been substituted with figures that DIDN'T mean putting two white actors in yellowface. Or hey, here's a novel thought, why not cast Chinese actors in Chinese roles? Secondly, "the kid across the hall" is a decidedly silly, gawky shortcut of a plot device, the inclusion of which represents in turn a sacrifice of meaningful, judicious storytelling and character development. The physical amount of film stock that was used to capture scenes with young Stanley Goethals could have been employed to illustrate some other story beat that served the same purpose without going so cheap and kitschy. Whether the inclusion as we see it was a dictum of studio executives or a reflection of lack of imagination on the part of Browning and his cowriters I don't know, but the end result suffers either way. It's frustrating that both of these faults could have been so easily remedied.

The bad news is that these flaws are, respectively, dismaying and insulting; by them alone is a picture brought low that might have otherwise been a must-see. The good news is that they do not wholly detract from the quality the feature otherwise represents, and neither is truly a focal point, so 'Outside the law' still remains something that's worth checking out if you come across it (albeit with notes). I'd love to say I like this more than I do, given the strength of the cast and crew, Browning's direction, and the general narrative thrust; that two issues that were so readily fixable are part of the final cut, however, drags down my opinion. I still appreciate this movie, but golly, I could have appreciated it more.

Cold Steel
(1987)

Baseline enjoyable, yet oddly deficient writing brings it down
It's safe to say this isn't quite what I expected. The antagonist played by Jonathan Banks has had little time on screen even as the halfway point rolls around, except primarily for the scene of violence that kicks off the plot. Meanwhile, the film carries itself with an oddly light tone, such that there's a lot of humor sprinkled liberally throughout - more than is characteristic for any such thriller. The romantic element is even more contrived than we get from most movies, and not written very well in the first place; the protagonist and his buddy are even more free-wheeling, endangering civilians, than is true of most Hollywood cops, let alone real-life cops. And through all this, plot develops rather slowly, with only scattered beats advancing the story even heading into the last third of the runtime.

I don't think 'Cold steel' is outright bad. The cast, and Dorothy Ann Puzo's direction, are mostly fine. The crew behind the scenes put in good work, stunts and effects not least of all (though one effect employed at T-15 minutes is astoundingly weak). The writing, however, is something else altogether. The characters, dialogue, and scene writing are middling, and kind of unconvincing, and the overall tale suffers as a result. This definitely goes for the plot development, too - slow in the first two-thirds as noted, even in the last act something just feels very "off" about it. And the linchpin of the feature, the background we get early in the last act that ties all the pieces together, is maybe the flimsiest part of all, in every regard. Or is it the climax?

It feels more earnestly like a thriller than some of its brethren can claim, despite the weird levity throughout much of the runtime. Yet it's a thriller in which the writing is strangely hollow and questionable, and from one moment to the next I can't decide which aspect of the screenplay is the most troubled; it looks good on the surface, but meaningful substance is missing. 'Cold steel' is entertaining on some level, but it's the type of entertainment whereby anything will suffice to pass the time, sans active engagement - and as if to emphasize the point, the action-filled climax really should be fun, but instead it sort of Just Is.

Look, I don't hate this. But every time I think the picture is breaking even, cynicism rears its head once more. It's decent enough for a lazy day if you come across it, and perhaps most recommendable for fans of those involved. Don't go out of your way, though, because 'Cold steel' is a thriller that can't quite gel into a complete, satisfying whole.

Brut Force
(2022)

A good story, weighed down by too many other weaknesses
The premise seems so simple, yet scarcely any sooner has the picture begun then a different notion begins to enter one's mind. I don't mean this in terms of the narrative thrust, but rather, instead of the adult-minded thriller one presumably anticipates, 'Brut force' comes off as something much more weirdly simplistic. The image comes to mind of a slightly older Nancy Drew, pointedly precocious in her youth and never losing that pluckiness. This is conveyed by the odd peppiness that defines the tone, including overly enthusiastic delivery of dialogue that like the scene writing is often much too exact and on the nose, nevermind playful - from all actors and for all characters, but protagonist Sloane above all. Moreover, filmmaker Eve Symington's direction is strangely brusque, maintaining what feels like an unnatural gait for the plot at large, from scene to scene, and even within a single scene. There's no pause between beats, and as a result the drama, tension, and mystery that the course of events should invite, or most any other feelings for that matter, don't have a chance to truly manifest. This is a game of "connect the dots" played without taking much time to stop and appreciate the image that's being formed, instead just zipping along the designated path as speedily as our eyes can make contact with the next point.

It's suitably well made from a technical standpoint, even if I disagree with some of the choices made - in editing, for example, or arrangement of shots and scenes, even something as small as a character tilting her head in a way that doesn't seem right. The only cast member I'm specifically familiar with is Patricia Velasquez; I know what she's capable of, and I recognize in her costars much the same potential. It's too bad the performances of all at best feel slightly off, echoing the tenor of the feature overall; I assume the actors would impress me if I saw them elsewhere, but here I only feel sorry for them - even lead Lelia Symington. In fact, that sadly quite goes for almost everything: the plot is solid in the broad strokes (if vaguely familiar at times), but every component part that goes into it, including its development on-screen, is some combination of rushed, unbelievably precise, off-center, or just unconvincing. Even most instances of intended weight don't come off well, and the more dramatic or even profound the movie tries to be, somehow the worse it gets; twists and turns feel empty and false not just for the sheer number crammed in, but also for the fact that they might be as feebly executed as lines of dialogue mere seconds apart. Only in the last 10-12 minutes does it feel like 'Brut force' has finally hit a point of genuinely firing on all cylinders, and while that strong finish is gratifying, it's just kind of too late to make a difference.

Or could it be that I'm just too jaded and cynical? Am I being too harsh, and unfair? I don't doubt Eve Symington's sincerity, or the work that anyone put into the production. Again, I actually do like the story. Ali Helnwein's original music is pretty terrific, too, lending what ambience it an to the proceedings at some points (the ending especially). I don't think this is altogether awful. It's also not half the film it could have been if everything were approached just a little more mindfully. With that said, it seems 'Brut force' is the first full-length feature of the filmmaker, and even though I think it emphatically falters, it's not a bad effort as such. I look forward to seeing what Symington may make in the future as she hones her skills. Still, to whatever extent this is enjoyable, it's considerably weighed down by weaknesses that are all too glaring. As it stands this is most recommendable to those who have a particular impetus to watch - wine lovers, perhaps, or fans of those involved - while for a wider audience, the importance of watching is probably rather less. It's okay enough if you come across it, I suppose, but definitely don't go out of your way, and keep your expectations tempered.

The Great Skycopter Rescue
(1980)

Unevenness & weakness overshadow the potential to be "weird but good"
Within mere minutes the first impression the movie makes is that it's extraordinarily bad at introducing characters - communicating who they are, or what they do or represent. Within the next several minutes it becomes equally clear that film editing, sound editing, and the sound design at large are all over the place, practically haphazard, and the picture is scarcely any better at exposition, plot development, scene writing, or dialogue than it is at doing anything with its characters. I'm not familiar with filmmaker Lawrence David Foldes, nor anyone else who contributed to the writing - save for Henry Edwards, whose only other credit as a screenwriter appears to be the bizarre, extreme mixed bag that was 1978's Beatles jukebox musical 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.' None of this inspires confidence, and by the time fifteen minutes have elapsed, I'm led to deeply question my decision-making skills, for 'The great skycopter rescue' is quickly proving to be flummoxing, all but nonsensical, and inspiring skepticism more than entertainment. That impression does not substantially improve.

This is truly strange. James Courant's story comes across as a grab bag of ideas that he had at varying points and decided to throw all together in one tale, and the screenplay whipped up between Foldes, Edwards, and Tony Crechales doesn't particularly alter that notion. Every constituent part of the narrative seems like it's from something else entirely: the bikers, the eventual plot, the aircraft, each major character, and so on. I can't tell if the figure more or less set up as the protagonist, "Jimmy Jet," is the worst or best example. At various points he comes across as just another wacky whim of the writing, or possibly - and more smartly - a very reluctant and jaded protagonist, thrown into the course of events for no apparent reason. The latter tack would be kind of brilliant, but would require this to be sufficiently well composed in the first place to have given such thought to an FM radio DJ who wears a fake space suit and pretends to be from another planet because that's what the job requires (wait, what?), and who becomes embroiled in A Plot just because that's what The Movie requires. Instead, as the length advances interminably, it's evident that such a tack is entirely too witty for what the title represents.

This isn't downright terrible, and the news isn't all bad. Stunts, effects, and action sequences are mostly done well. There are suitable plot ideas in here, and small sparks of cleverness; again, Jimmy Jet could've been something cheeky and special depending on what way the feature went. It's weird and silly, but it could have also been earnestly enjoyable. "Could have been" doesn't sell tickets, however, and as it exists, 'The great skycopter rescue' is a great curiosity. Some scenes are frivolous, some are heavy-handed, some are flagrantly thin, some are perfectly sincere, some seem intended as parody, some are allowed to linger too long - and some are all of these things during the course of their duration, a sentiment that likewise applies to the effusive footage of "skycopters" in flight. (And if you're astonished at the song that is chosen to play over the climax, congratulations on having been born yesterday.) The acting follows the same slant, save for that some players (even Aldo Ray) comport themselves, and deliver their lines, so feebly that one could be forgiven for thinking they were total non-professionals just pulled off the street. William Marshall is the only point of consistency, but even at that I'm unsure if his overly dramatic performance is a superb choice for this mess or simply over the top. The best I can say for Foldes as director is that his contribution in that capacity was inconstant. The result of all this is a feature that's all but impossible to pin down, to the point that any value it does grasp at becomes mired in the end product.

There were many bits and pieces that could have been the saving grace of the picture. It could have been more genuine; alternatively, it could have fully leaned into the ridiculousness. Had it not approached the plot so weakly, loosely, and indifferently, or its writing broadly, a solid foundation might have seen it through otherwise tawdriness (also including, for the record, gratuitous nudity and needless homophobia in the dialogue). As it stands: I can't say I didn't have a good time watching, but I'm inclined to think that any amusement stemmed more from pure escapism, distracting me from a very bad day, than it did from actual quality. I'd rather outright hate a movie than be bored by it, and I wasn't bored by this, yet "like" surely isn't an appropriate word, either. This is so flimsy and uneven in every way that even forming a singular opinion becomes difficult. I appreciate the effort, and what 'The great skycopter rescue' had the potential to be; I also don't know who I could honestly recommend it to, except perhaps for those who are already truly receptive to all the wide, ludicrous possibilities cinema has to offer. Leave it for a lazy day when you're feeling especially curious, then just kick back and try not to laugh out of bewilderment.

The Wicked Darling
(1919)

Gratifyingly well made, solid, & enjoyable
I'm not supposing it's true across the board, but it's striking that many of the films Tod Browning made were characterized by a vivid visual presentation that was all but fantastical in and of itself, even if the same weren't true of the content. This fits neatly into that sensibility, with rather vibrant sets, costume design, and even hair and makeup to greet us even within the first minutes. Factor in the unmistakable visage of Lon Chaney and the immediate charm of Priscilla Dean, and unless everything else about the picture went terribly wrong then it's all but guaranteed to be enjoyable. Thankfully, as the length advances it's clear that this is indeed well made, and worthy of remembrance. It may not be an absolute must-see, but for fans of the silent era above all, 'The wicked darling' is worth checking out.

Dean gets the starring role and stands out most but the whole cast, also including Wellington A. Playter and Spottiswoode Aitken, give fine performances of swell personality and nuance. I might argue that they even best what one might say of some other early silent features, where the exaggerated body language and facial expressions of theater were predominant; the acting here somewhat seems like a bridge between the two styles. Meanwhile, it's worth repeating that those behind the scenes really did turn in some excellent work; while silent movies certainly relied on strong visuals generally, some are more noteworthy for their imagery than others, and I rather believe that 'The wicked darling' is one of the standouts. If I've any especial critiques it might be that the editing is decidedly curt and choppy at points, with cuts from shot to shot or moment to moment exceeding the brusqueness one may sometimes forgive owing to either limited technology or print degradation. Even this doesn't severely detract from the viewing experience, however, and the quality well outshines this weakness.

True, the story is fairly common material for the era, the saga of a girl of low circumstances and rickety morals who makes good while her even more unsavory fellows don't. Yet who says every film has to be perfectly original (you're asking for trouble) or a beacon of singular brilliance (so few are)? Even if we're familiar with the brunt of the tale, it's written well, with characters both sympathetic or unlikable, and appreciable scene writing. Browning was no slouch, demonstrating solid capability as a director well before those titles that would be his most enduring claims to fame. And it should be said, too, that while the surviving print definitely suffered from deterioration before it was digitized, at large the fundamental image here is gratifyingly sharp, unquestionably surpassing what no few of its contemporaries were able to achieve; whether one wishes to credit cinematographer Alfred Gosden for this aspect or otherwise, it's notable and commendable.

Once again, there's nothing about 'The wicked lady' that's so piercingly fabulous as to uniformly demand viewership. It's well made in every regard - writing, direction, acting, all the contributions of the crew - with the curtness of sequencing being well outshone by the feature's value otherwise. It's also familiar, and from afar, unlikely to stand tall next to its kin. Nonetheless, simply for the fact of how strong every component part is, and the whole as a result, I dare say that maybe this is more readily recommendable, a title that should be upheld as an example of what early cinema could accomplish when everyone was firing on all cylinders. It may not be totally flawless or essential, yet if one has the opportunity to watch 'The wicked lady,' I believe it's fully deserving of one's time, and a great credit to not just all those specifically involved but the skill and ingenuity of early filmmakers broadly.

Cluny Brown
(1946)

Even in a career full of great comedies, there may be exceptions.
By no means can I claim full knowledge of the man's films (I'm working on it), yet I've loved anything I've seen from Ernst Lubitsch. This, one of the last pictures he made before his death, is the first to leave me a little flummoxed. Lubitsch's direction is beyond question. The crew put in splendid work, including production design and art direction, costume design, and hair and makeup. The cast is swell, with Jennifer Jones and Charles Boyer above all giving terrific performances; even in but a small supporting part, it's almost always a pleasure to see Una O'Connor. And at large the screenplay concocted between Samuel Hoffenstein and Elizabeth Reinhardt is filled with potential. The dialogue overflows with repartee and wit. A panoply of exaggerated characterizations includes welcome satirical knocks of (mostly upper class) uptight haughtiness, lending to scene writing of robust situational humor while gradually building the narrative. All the ingredients are here for another fantastic comedy from an early master of the genre, and in some measure the various pieces recall the works of P. G. Wodehouse.

So why, while watching, was I able to count the number of times (four) that I laughed? More to the point, why was the number of times I laughed more noteworthy than the comedy that elicited such a reaction? Why did the first laugh not come until over 35 minutes had elapsed?

It takes quite some time for 'Cluny Brown' to start to meaningfully form its narrative. Even after it does, but certainly more noticeable before, many scenes come off like an assemblage of sketch comedy, bouncing at will from one set-up to the next. At the same time, especially early on, some of the dialogue and scenarios are so random in their conjuring that it feels like a bunch of ideas just thrown at a wall to see what sticks. (I think of The Beatles' extreme misfire 'Magical Mystery Tour,' for example, or 1977's 'Attack of the killer tomatoes.') This ethos remains dominant in fits and starts even as the plot meaningfully advances, and meanwhile, the feature adopts a tone and pacing that ranges from relaxed to lackadaisical. That approach rather kills the comedic timing in some instances; at others, gags are simply sustained too long, or just all too dry. Furthermore, it seems to me that the story is tight and well considered where the title character and Belinski are concerned, yet the further the story strays from that core, the writing all around just kind of tapers off.

It's well made, and acted. The narrative is fine in the broad strokes, with plenty of outstanding ideas in the details, and no few bursts of humor baked and ready to go. So why is the end result so flavorless? How did the wit altogether evaporate in that space between conjuration on paper, execution on-screen, and/or reception by our eyes and ears? For a feature about two very spirited people upending the dull grayness of those around them, that frivolity and mirth is not passed on to the audience in any substantial way. I'm a bit shocked, to be honest; I had every reason to carry high expectations with me as I sat to watch, and those expectations have absolutely not been met. My first impulse is to say that it's not bad, it somehow just lacks the necessary spark to allow the comedy to resonate with any vitality. And that remains true. Yet for not just that lack, but the way all the best advantages are wasted, I'm wondering if "below average" wouldn't be a more appropriate assessment.

I'm glad for those who get more out of 'Cluny Brown' than I did. I, however, wonder how this went so wrong. I know what Lubitsch was capable of, and among so many essential filmmakers from the early years of cinema his name will always stand out to me. I'm sad and disappointed that of all the fabulous, rich comedies he ever gave us, this is well outside that company.

Nagaya shinshiroku
(1947)

A quiet, lovely drama
By any modern conception of film-making Yasujiro Ozu's approach here seems relatively unsophisticated and basic, but the simple appearance belies a keen mindfulness that's plainly admirable. Ozu demonstrates an outstanding eye for shot composition that is at once precise, spartan, and unremarkable, yet underhandedly artful and aesthetically pleasing. While 'Nagaya shinshiroku' is well made - the crew put in good work - and the story is duly interesting, it's nonetheless true that the filmmaker's orchestration of shots and scenes is the most readily impressive aspect of the feature. By that fundamental standpoint, it's a small pleasure to watch, especially in light of some of the scenery we get to take in over the course of these 70 minutes.

In fairness, such apparent uncomplicated visual presentation pairs neatly with what is a rather straightforward narrative. We're greeted with the fringes of a city pulling itself together in the wake of war, a peek at the lives of those living in a particular range of housing - and in their midst, the introduction of a lost child. There's not much to it on the surface, yet as the length progresses and other elements peek through, ever so slowly a deeper, quietly lovely story takes shape, and appreciable broad themes. Nothing about this movie is immediate or grabbing, though for those able and willing to sit and absorb, what gradually unfolds is warm, inviting, and satisfying. Through it all the cast give fine performances, though of them all Choko Iida certainly stands out most for a gratifyingly nuanced bit of acting in what becomes the central role.

The last few minutes become a little heavy-handed in their treatment of the themes, made all the more notable in contrast with the pointedly subdued tone the picture has otherwise adopted. Still, provided one is on board with a title that is so muted and measured in its storytelling, 'Nagaya shinshiroku' really is a splendid, rewarding viewing experience. I can understand how it won't appeal to all viewers, as it's a piece that is quite leisurely in imparting its tale. Ultimately that's part of what makes it so worthwhile, however, with Ozu's arrangement of shots placating us in the meantime. I don't think this is so essential a film that one needs to go out of their way for it, but if you have the chance to watch, this is well worth such a small amount of one's time.

Calcutta
(1969)

Imbalanced, imperfect, & now outdated, but interesting in its own right
Acclaimed French director Louis Malle gives us in this documentary a very plainspoken, rather comprehensive look at Calcutta, India, in the late 1960s. We see the rich tapestry of life in the city, and all that it entails: the sick and impoverished, music and culture, labor and industry, social and political division and unrest, the divide between rich and poor, the lasting influence of British colonialism, and much more. We're given glimpses of the struggles of an exploding population, illustration of a bridge of sorts between the agricultural and urban, and the role of religion in daily life. And all this, it should be said, transpires before us with minimal input from Malle himself. In some sequences the filmmaker provides narration after a fashion, offering some explanation of the sights to greet us, or translates brief interviews with select individuals; elsewhere, his words walk a line between history lesson and commentary. For the most part, however, the preponderance of these 100 minutes are presented as unfiltered footage of the people, places, and daily life of a growing city.

Such a low-key, almost passive ethos is a far cry from the unflinching and intense or off-beat and oblique drama the man has given us in his features throughout his career, yet the result is no less fascinating. Especially coming from an imperialist culture (the United States, or really, anywhere in "the west") that constantly others and looks down upon regions outside our provincial purview, it's striking how wonderfully diverse Calcutta is. While there are common connective threads throughout much of the city as Malle's picture observes, all the same there's also substantial variety in language and ethnicity, religious beliefs and practices, economic classes and livelihoods, culture and recreation, and social and political views. Of course, within that portrait, we're also faced with the staggering poverty and appalling living conditions of wide swaths of the population, accentuated in profound contrast with imagery of a walled-off golf course within the city where the wealthy shuts out everything around them. 'Calcutta' is nothing if not eye-opening, in many different ways.

And on that note, the movie's strength is also its weakness. Malle casts a wide lens across the city, showing us as much of Calcutta for better and for worse as I suppose he reasonably could. That aim and approach is admirable, giving a no-frills exhibition of a specific place at a specific time. On the other hand, for lack of a unifying vision, thesis, or particular driving force behind the documentary, one might reasonably argue that certain difficulties raise their head. That lack of focus is more noticeable at some times more than others, and at times inculcates that the endeavor is altogether exploitative, or perhaps falls into the same trap of othering and condescension as much of "western" culture can readily be faulted with in the first place. This is especially unfortunate since there are scattered moments throughout the runtime when Malle does gloss over notions that could have easily been seized upon to center the production. Primarily, he briefly commentates at one point on the relationship between the pillaging of India of its resources by the British during colonial rule, a theft which led to the further growth of the United Kingdom as a world power. It is accurately suggested, but not outright remarked, that this exact lack of resources has contributed significantly to the state of Calcutta as it is seen here. Clearly Malle must have felt that it was beyond his scope as a documentarian to plainly draw such connections, or build a film around them. However, declining to do so, or give any more discrete core to the feature, also has its own ramifications. ("The choice to be apolitical is a political choice.")

Mind you, I don't doubt Malle's intent and sincerity, only the precise method and results thereof. Still, even as 'Calcutta' raises questions, they are as much questions about the production as they are questions for what we, as viewers, will do with the information that we now have in our possession. Moreover, with or without those questions, what the documentary represents above all is an opportunity to see a corner of the world for all that it is, and not just the worst side of it. And truly, for all the hardships put on display here - at that, surely not all-inclusive - what we see more than anything else is a city teeming with vibrant life, life that deserves to be seen and heard and appreciated all on its own. Given the nature of the movie it's certainly not something that will appeal to those who don't already favor the style, but whether one is a fan of documentaries at large, Malle especially, or just looking for broaden their horizons - though imperfect, 'Calcutta' is worth checking out if you have the chance.

Kôkaku Kidôtai
(1995)

A complex, heady thriller, far beyond my assumptions and expectations
Creator Masamune Shirow has gifted us with an incredible future world, one as dangerous as it is fascinating, and it's a pleasure to play in it for even only 82 minutes. Kazunori Ito's screenplay is itself wonderfully smart, feeding us small portions of information at a time to build a portrait of that world - sometimes seeming frustratingly withholding, and in so doing appearing to contribute to a somewhat brisk pacing, yet never overloading us. And with this foundation we're presented a story that blends neo-noir, cyberpunk, and the action crime-thriller with substantial, twisted psychological aspects, further introducing profound themes and questions of identity, humanity, self, and basic consciousness and life. It's a rich, enticing scenario, and as good as 'Ghost in the shell' is, still it sometimes feels like we're only ever skimming the surface, as though the screenplay was written with assumption that the viewer would already have the in-universe context and background to best enjoy it. Never have I understood more clearly the gap between full-length features and anime series, for far, far more time could be spent in Shirow's world before really starting to get a firm grasp on all the minutiae that figure to some extent in this 1995 picture.

I could do, perhaps, with some of in-universe lore being more fully established in the feature - and at the same time, maybe less verbose dialogue in some instances. On the other hand, there are no few times when Ito and director Mamoru Oshii let the dialogue drop off (and even background sound) so that the imagery, and Kenji Kawai's exquisite, dynamic original music, can speak for themselves, and such moves are quietly brilliant. There's no overstating the genius of Kawai's score, not least for how it largely deemphasizes the typical hard-charging zest to spotlight softly haunting, somewhat ambient pieces; as one essential example, the major fight scene coming at about the one-hour mark is given an impactful vibrancy that it just wouldn't have if a more rock- or EDM- based theme were employed. And as to that imagery: one could surely expect no less, but the animation here is truly top-notch. The fundamental designs of the environments, vehicles, and characters; the exceptional detail, facial expressions, action sequences; a wide array of effects, including not least the computer interfaces and the therm-optics activation: everything from backdrops to the slightest active element are outstanding, a feast for the eyes. This is to say nothing of the clear inspiration that the visuals have given to many creators and filmmakers for their own tales in subsequent years, for there are many.

If one had the time, it would be very easy to dive thoroughly into every facet of the movie to take it all in bit by bit. Nearly every shot of the picture is a wonderland unto itself, every theme among Kawai's music is a bounty, every heady topic broached in the narrative demands thought and analysis, and every action sequence could be looped over and over and provide plentiful entertainment all on its own. I can safely say that 'Ghost in the shell' is not what I anticipated based on what scant knowledge base I had, yet for that, it's probably better. The image I had formed in my mind was of a more concretely action-oriented bonanza with cyberpunk stylings; I'm so pleased that I was so mistaken, and instead the title overflows with sharp intelligence and deep, probing inquiries and ideas. The most significant criticism I would offer is that between the chunks of dialogue to greet us at many points, and the steady clip the film maintains throughout its length, it can be hard to process everything that's thrown at us within the space of even a mere few minutes; real-life humans, sadly, do not have the same cybernetic processing power as our fictional counterparts. If 'Ghost' relaxed just a smidgen, giving the audience time to absorb the deluge, the effect would surely be heightened.

Yet even if the end product stops short of flawless, by and large this is terrific, indisputably a landmark of animation and animated storytelling and a tremendous credit to the industry in Japan. The film's strengths far outweigh any subjective faults; even with considerable violence in select instances, I don't think it's unreasonable to say that given the nature of the material, this could arguably find more appeal with some picky viewers who see anime only as the realm of explosive action and kid-friendly cartoons. Whatever else is true of 'Ghost in the shell,' it's definitely geared toward a mature audience in every sense of the term, and for those who are ready to plug in and intently engage with a more intellectually-minded saga, it's well worth seeking out, if not an outright must-see. Simply put, this is a classic, well outside any assumptions one may have of the medium, and anyone with the slightest inkling that they might appreciate it owe it to themselves to watch 'Ghost in the shell.'

Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley's Island of Dr. Moreau
(2014)

A delightful peek behind the curtain
1996 film 'The island of Dr. Moreau' is an extraordinary oddity. Boasting a strong cast and all the advantages of major studio backing and modern technology, it nevertheless became a mess in execution; it's been years since I've seen it (I'm due for a rewatch), but even then I recognized how far off the track it had gone. It certainly pales in comparison to 1977's adaptation of H. G. Wells' novel with Michael York, or 1932 adaptation 'Island of lost souls' that I personally loved just as much. How could a modern adaptation, whipped up by an up-and-coming genre filmmaker like Richard Stanley, go so wrong? 'Lost soul: The doomed journey of Richard Stanley's Island of Dr. Moreau' is a welcome bit of background on an unfortunate cinematic misfire, and it's quietly fascinating in its own right.

It becomes apparent very quickly, before even twenty minutes of the documentary's runtime have elapsed, that Stanley had a significantly different vision for Wells' book, a rendition that leaned into horror more than sci-fi, was substantially more violent, and absolutely more sensational and altogether far-out. The concept art that's presented to us is fabulously imaginative, and I can scarcely even fathom what a striking, nightmarish picture 'Moreau' might have been if the original notion had come to pass. Almost as quickly we learn how studio politicking changed the pending fabric of the feature in many various ways, on the fly, and still more as one issue or another cropped up - background noise that Stanley had to actively fight while also trying to work on the feature. Amidst revelations of mounting problems on the production, we also find that Stanley is weirdly, wonderfully eccentric, love him or hate him. This applies to his general personality, beliefs, and interests, to his conceptions of the movie and emphasis on the beast folk, and to the relationships he fostered with the cast and crew. Factor in poor behavior from and/or substantial discord between various figures on location, including Val Kilmer and new director John Frankenheimer, the titanic stature and equal ego of Marlon Brando, and an increasingly disorganized production, and by the time this title has concluded, it's not really any longer a surprise how the '96 picture ended up so troubled.

As great as it is to get a behind-the-scenes look at 'The island of Dr. Moreau,' I've some problems with 'Lost soul.' It's not that it's not well made such as it is, with skilled editing, effects work, and direction. It's that much of the editing, effects work, and direction is flagrantly excessive in the first place, representing odd choices of embellishment for a documentary. Imagery is shown to us exactly as and how it is spoken of, far too On The Nose. Still photos are manipulated with effects that make them seem like silly fabrications. Needless unnecessary interstitial shots, often characterized by overzealous camerawork, are inserted as establishing shots or to pad out the visuals while significant dialogue rolls on. The pacing is also strangely brisk and brusque, never really pausing for even the slightest beat to allow the viewer to digest the matters that are being discussed. True, there's a lot of information to impart, and the runtime is already over ninety minutes, yet to that point - one might also say that the material could or should have been tightened. Let it be more focused, reduce or drop some interviews, make the picture more concise. It feels peculiar to say that filmmaker David Gregory needed a reminder for a documentary that "sometimes less is more," but here we are. As it stands, for all that is covered, at some points it feels like we rush past some of it, or we don't really get a full, detailed image of 'Dr. Moreau' despite the length of a movie that hopes to provide just that.

Still, while I disagree somewhat with the approach Gregory took to his retrospective, far more than not 'Lost soul' is unquestionably interesting, ultimately giving a rather comprehensive look at 'Moreau' from beginning to end. Some of the interviewees offer up some choice lines that really drive home what a quagmire the movie was behind the scenes, which is all the more sad since it had seemed so promising at the outset, and they were excited to work on it. It would be a step too far to say that this documentary is an altogether must-see, but for those who love learning the nitty-gritty about film production, and for cinephiles broadly, it's a delightful peek behind the curtain at a little slice of industry infamy.

Alamo Bay
(1985)

Stunningly dark, but equally absorbing and powerful
I don't think it's unfair to say that compared to many other films of Louis Malle, to some extent this feels relatively ordinary. Early scenes of exposition are well done but unassuming; the setting, characters, and all facets of the visual presentation, splendid as they are with all due commendations to the crew, are common compared to those of his other works, such that at a glance one might reasonably see this as belonging to most any filmmaker. Yet even if 'Alamo Bay' doesn't leap out of the gate to make a big impression, there's no questioning its excellence - nor that there's a ferocious undercurrent of unease and tension, right from the start, that is after all in keeping with the captivating airs Malle's pictures tend to carry in one fashion or another. Even before the plot really kicks up, and ever more so thereafter, the film overflows with horrid, appalling racism of every variety, misogyny, conspiracy theories, and the most terribly regressive of all sociopolitical views. The nearest point of reference to come to mind is 'American History X,' save for that this mixes its violence and terrorism in with a false veneer of civility and the complicity of law enforcement. Add in willful misunderstanding of geopolitics and wholesale swallowing of the worst propaganda, and by any measure the result is astonishingly ugly, neck and neck with the most cringe-worthy elements of 'Pretty baby' or 'Murmur of the heart.'

Difficult as the subject matter is, what can also surely be said of 'Alamo Bay' is that, characteristic of Malle no matter what he's doing, it is completely unflinching. The filmmaker never balks from the darkest and most dire of drama, or whatever a narrative or scene may require, and neither do his cast or crew. Screenwriter Alice Arlen has penned a portraiture of the most grim, hateful underbelly of the United States, with every inch of the screenplay oozing and reeking of the most foul ichor and only scant glimmers of light amidst the bleakness. It's a great credit to all involved, down to everyone in the supporting cast, that they unremittingly give of themselves to tell this story, even if that means depicting the worst people in the world. I don't know that Ed Harris has ever portrayed so despicable a character - to be honest, I didn't know he was capable of it - but his performance as Shang is as full as any he has ever given. I'm less familiar with Amy Madigan, yet she gives a stalwart show of acting as Glory, defined by wonderful poise and nuance, that stands toe to toe with her husband. Much the same could also be said of Ho Nguyen, whose turn as determined Dinh is a terrific complement to Madigan's admirably bullheaded businesswoman; it's between the two of them that the feature can claim its welcome pinprick of hopefulness. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised, as Malle always seems to bring out the very best in his collaborators, but still I'm taken aback by just how superb the acting is.

Ry Cooder, meanwhile, operates quietly in the background, lending considerably to the dreary atmosphere. His isn't a name that bears the same level of recognition as many of his fellow film composers or musicians generally, yet his work is always fantastic. His dynamic themes carry tinges of both the Texan South where the tale takes place, and the lands of Southeast Asia where important characters hail from, and range from light fare to establish the scenario to somber, almost ambient chords portending the far grittier aspects. I freely admit that I'm not super familiar with Cooder; for whatever I've heard from him, what I know best is his work on 1986 blues coming-of-age drama 'Crossroads,' which is certainly a far cry from a saga of immigration and white supremacist terrorism. With that said, 'Alamo Bay' is certainly deft illustration of the breadth of his skillset, and I'm so pleased with it.

By all means, this is well made across the board - cinematography, editing, direction; production design, art direction, hair and makeup, and so on. I would assume no less. Yet here perhaps is the biggest difference between this and Malle's other features, which is that where, elsewhere, every last detail can be scrutnized and elevated for praise, in this case it's more that a specific few parts stand out most. It's Arlen's screenplay, for one, and the acting, for another. And as much as Malle deserves congratulations in a technical capacity as director, otherwise 'Alamo Bay' is much more about the uncompromising unity of vision with which he assembles the movie and those working alongside him, the deep investment subsequently fashioned for the viewer, and the powerful, often uncomfortable feelings that the viewing experience elicits. Ultimately I think this film is just as perfect as anything else in the man's oeuvre, it's just that the focus is slightly shifted from what we've seen in, say, 'Au revoir les enfants' or 'Lacombe, Lucien.' But then again, isn't that only further demonstration of how masterful a creator Malle was?

Content warnings are very necessary for the strident racism and terrorism that are part and parcel of the storytelling, and in some smaller measure, also domestic violence, nudity, and alcohol. This will not appeal to all viewers, and even setting that aside I can understand how it won't come off equally well in the eyes of all who appreciate it. For that matter, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a Malle fan girl; I've yet to see any of his full-length features that I haven't adored, so take my words with a grain of salt if you will. All I know is that whatever I thought 'Alamo Bay' might be, in my opinion it's it's even better, far and away better, easily joining the company of his most highly acclaimed titles. It gets oh so dark, yes, but with that the filmmaker does what he does best. Keeping in mind the nature of the content, as far as I'm concerned this is well worth seeking out, however you must go about it.

Nowhere
(1997)

The type of wonderfully left-field creation for which nothing can really prepare you.
Let's be honest, there's an unreasonable number of very recognizable names and faces in this movie. They may not have all had the same star power, or any, in 1997, yet reading through the list of credits is nonetheless a small journey in and of itself. As we first press "play" that ensemble seems like the one anchor we'll be able to hold onto, as it's quickly cemented that everything else to greet us beyond the casting is an astounding, flummoxing sideshow of bizarrerie. At its core this is a dark comedy, after a fashion, about college students, of some sort. Yet nearly every constituent element is put together like a song in which every member is playing an unconventional instrument that shouldn't go together, and at different tempos, in different time signatures. And somehow, because every element is so weirdly far flung and out of sorts with each other, that's exactly why it sort of all works. From one moment to the next the picture feels like a loosely assembled story that's barely even connected to itself, but in some outrageous capacity, the disparate pieces do kind of organize themselves into a form that's almost cohesive. Is any of these words making sense even in the moment I type them?

Filmmaker Gregg Araki, wearing multiple hats as writer, director, and co-producer, also acts as editor. In all these facets, and in the latter especially, Araki operates with a brisk, forthright brusqueness that makes it seem like the feature is always leaping forward, almost tripping over itself while cutting from shot to shot or scene to scene with such flagrant, reckless choppiness that the viewer has to strain to keep up. Much the same could be said of Arturo Smith's cinematography, which seems to purposefully decline any measure of finesse or subtlety. Amazingly, these don't even begin to compare to the extreme, outlandish, bewildering costume design, hair and makeup, production design, art direction, music, sound editing, lighting, characters, dialogue, or scene writing. The same could be said of the story insofar as there is one - more or less a "day in the life" portrait of these far-fetched figures - and still, as if anything could go a step further, the acting might be more peculiar still. I don't really know how to even describe the performances except to say that they are all as far-out and odd as they could be. In every way possible, 'Nowhere' is all over the map, zipping from this to that or the other thing with little if any rhyme or reason. What is this movie? Is it good or bad? I don't know if I have answers to these or any other questions.

Dadaist surrealism, dire realist drama sometimes twisted out to strange ends, existential despair, sci-fi horror, strong and graphic violence, doomsday prophesying, occasional oblique thriller airs, sex comedy, stoner comedy, dark comedy, the obnoxiousness of teen comedies, the blithe heedlessness and brazen carefree spirit of art films, the heedless blitheness and carefully spirited brazenness of independent cinema: we get all this and more. The picture goes everywhere and nowhere, saying and doing everything and nothing, keeping itself weakly bound together with the thinnest of threads. I've seen plenty of features that were funky and preposterous, flying in the face of all good sense and defying easy explanatory language, and every time I think I've found the superlative. Takashi Miike's 'Gozu' was equally dazzling and perplexing; Weiping Kaigen's 'Velvet' is altogether baffling; and so on. I don't know how, but 'Nowhere' goes even further. And for all that, kookiest of all is that in a way I don't even understand, it's kind of enjoyable? It's puzzling, but not sloppy or accidental. To use another shaky simile, the feature is like an image comprised of jigsaw pieces that come from several different puzzles, yet all fitting together and visualizing something that's sort of complete.

I don't know. I just don't know. How do I recommend this? It's so offbeat and left-field that surely only those receptive to ALL the wide, wacky possibilities that cinema has to offer could find a foothold. Unless one is thusly open-minded, then no matter how big a fan you are of someone who is involved, I can't imagine the average viewer will like this. For those anyone ready to embrace whatever comes their way, however - well, 'Nowhere' is made just for you.

The Sound of Music
(1965)

Not every reputed classic holds up. This one absolutely does.
I think it's safe to say that most people are vaguely aware of this movie in bits and pieces well before they actually see it, or truly know anything concrete of it. "My favorite things" and "Do-re-mi" are practically childhood staples; the first two lines of the title song have been immortalized in various capacities. Beyond these and possibly other numbers, I don't think it's unfair to say that most folks are only nominally aware of 'The sound of music' for a long time before they actually see it, perhaps unknowing even of the fact that it's loosely based on a true story; I readily admit it's taken me more than thirty-seven years to actually check it out for the first time. And I can't say I had any specific notion of what to expect, so one way or another I was in for quite the experience. I don't know that I'd say it's entirely perfect, yet whatever subjective nits one may pick are by all means far outweighed by the tremendous value the feature represents; at length it really is a fabulous, entertaining classic - and frankly, a must-see.

Recognizing that the storytelling plays fast and loose with real history, and that the film has accordingly been castigated in Austria for failing to meaningfully depict the country, nonetheless I don't think I could say there's any especial flaw. If anything, it's just that there's an extra layer or three of overbearing ham-handedness pervading the picture beyond even what one may suppose based on rudimentary knowledge. Where that stems from is up for debate - its basic nature as a musical, perhaps, but maybe more so its nature as a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, or the unmistakable family-friendly slant. Or maybe it's all the many ways in which the movie has been parodied in subsequent years, affecting one's perception in turn, or some combination of all these. Terrific actress that Julie Andrews is, she is so exuberant and animated in her performance that she alone embodies a rather astounding level of gauche silliness; in accordance with mid-century kids' fare, the child actors are often guided into unremitting goofiness in no few sequences. It's all a lot to take in, and viewers who aren't receptive to such playfulness may well be put off.

Yet even at its most over the top, seemingly begging for parody, 'The sound of music' can also be said to be unfailingly sincere, and warm, and enchanting. The story is, after all, rich and inviting: a widower who in his grief turned to anger and rigidity; children who need to be children, and to be loved, and to be discovered for who they are; a free-spirited woman whose boundless personality and recalcitrance stirs things up in just the exact right ways. Set these dynamics against the looming backdrop of fascist brutality for a healthy helping of additional plot and drama, and the result is marvelously fun in ways I can honestly say I hadn't anticipated. Tried and true songs that are so familiar in and of themselves as to be tired and possibly rued are altogether revitalized in the context of the cinematic presentation, and by that I do pointedly mean to include even "My favorite things" and "Do-re-mi"; other songs throughout that are less renowned are possibly even more splendid. And this is to say nothing of the brilliance of each musical sequence, and the accompanying choreography.

Even at their most ridiculous, the cast give exceptional performances from one to the next. Andrews is absolutely the star, and has indisputably earned her reputation by this alone, but it's a special joy to see Christopher Plummer here, so very young compared to his visibility in the twenty-first century; his singing may be dubbed, but his acting and, yes, his dancing are beyond question. The child actors, too, are most excellent, with Charmian Carr particularly standing out with a strong showing as eldest daughter Liesl; it's a shame that she didn't enjoy more of a career in film or TV. And what outstanding work from behind the scenes! The filming locations are lovely, of course, but the production design and art direction are genuinely no less so, a real treat for the eyes. So it is as well with the costume design, and hair and makeup; Marc Breaux and Dee Dee Wood's choreography, too, is just superb. Ted D. McCord's cinematography is sometimes a little too lively for my tastes, yet overall is certainly lush and vibrant; William H. Reynolds' editing is sharp and mindful. And who could possibly impugn the direction of acclaimed filmmaker Robert Wise, with his keen eye and great intelligence - orchestrating scenes (what magnificent shot composition!), and guiding his cast? Factor in Ernest Lehman's fantastic screenplay, bristling with dynamic and meaningful substance and no small measure of wit (one notable exchange between the Captain and Herr Zeller is especially catching), and how could this really go wrong at all?

There are occasional moments scattered throughout that I think are painted with needless flair or embellishment, including even the execution of some songs ("Climb ev'ry mountain" comes to mind). The endless charm and zest could have been tempered even just a smidgen without really losing anything, while possibly making the end product more palatable for those who can't take the extra cheese. In contrast, there are arguably some moments (in the second act most of all) that lag just a hair, lingering too long, and it might even be said that given the wide range of the narrative, this struggles a tiny bit with tone. But still, again: any subjective weaknesses are ultimately minor, and far outshone by the otherwise resounding strength of the picture in every regard. 'The sound of music' is a musical that prioritizes fun more than anything else, but still it bursts with gratifying heart and satisfying, absorbing storytelling. To be frank, despite the broad high esteem for the movie I think my expectations over all these years was a little mixed, perhaps a reaction to the title's ubiquity. I'm so pleased that for whatever slight rough patches one discern, this really, truly is completely deserving of its titanic, stellar reputation. From the ham-handedness of the earliest scenes, through to the far more serious but ingenious and deeply rewarding last twenty minutes or so, this is a movie that eventually, at one point or another, everyone really does need to see. Set aside any preconceptions or reservations you might have and find the time for it - 'The sound of music' is even better than even cynical ol' me ever assumed.

Fiddler on the Roof
(1971)

A perfect adaptation of an enduring musical
There are few stage musicals that as enduring as that biggest claim to fame of Joseph Stein, Jerry Bock, and Sheldon Harnick. There are few stage musicals whose songs, dialogue, characters, scene writing, story, themes, choreography, and splendidly witty, wry humor have so steadily stood the test of time, becoming so recognizable in the public consciousness and easily adaptable. At turns woefully grim, or solemn, or wonderfully funny, or joyous, 'Fiddler on the roof' is a classic piece of theater that very few of its brethren can truly match. It is such an absolute pleasure, as one who enjoys both theater and cinema, that this 1971 film adaptation should be so faithful not just to the objective content of the title, but to the feelings it elicits and imparts. Between Stein's screenplay and its realization by esteemed filmmaker Norman Jewison, and the impeccable contributions of cast and crew alike, this movie is roundly excellent in every regard, and surely a must-see.

It can't be overstated how fabulously well made this is. As if the adaptation weren't enough, Jewison's attachment alone should pique the interest of any moviegoer, for his sharp mind and keen eye have brought us many a superb feature, and this is just another gem in his crown. Oswald Morris' cinematographer is equally smooth and vivid, mindfully capturing every detail to greet us. And what detail! Production design, art direction, costume design, hair and makeup, to say nothing of the timeless choreography: every element of the visual production is flawless. The sound design, too, is unimpeachable, letting every note of Bock's music (adapted here by - John Williams!), and every word of the lyrics sung by the tremendously skilled cast, ring out with faultless clarity. The casting is just exquisite, from chief star Topol down through every family member, suitor, villager, and smaller supporting role. Each illustrates stupendous skill of both song and dance to match the resplendent spirit of the musical, and just as importantly, all demonstrate swell acting skill, outstanding range, nuance, and personality, becoming as essential a component of this rich tableau as every beam, pillar, slat, chicken, and coat or hat.

For whatever changes there may be to 'Fiddler' in adaptation, they are slight and few, and certainly do not alter the substance of the stage production. With Stein, one of the original creators, penning that screenplay himself, it is assured without question that the tale remains intact down to the tiniest facet. Teyve's ruminations - speaking to god, to his animals, or to the audience, sometimes freezing the action in a scene otherwise - are a critical aspect of the presentation, spotlighting his many conflicting thoughts and feelings, and these have not been modified even a bit. The bountiful heart, the incredibly clever humor, and the lighter yet still ponderous and even heartbreaking drama of Teyve grappling with the changes in his world, are all a pleasure to enjoy anew in the cinematic medium, an absorbing and deeply impactful experience. Even the most jolting, horribly sobering beats - the egregious, genocidal oppression and violence of the state - are rendered ever so smartly, ensuring their gravity is felt no less. Moreover, for as vibrant as the musical may be when seen live on the stage, one might well argue that there's a level of detail that just doesn't reach every person sitting in a theater - the full subtlety of every expression, of every gesture and movement - but there is no loss of fidelity at all on film.

Factor in attentive editing to draw all the disparate pieces together, and what more is there to say? There are few stage musicals that are as enduring as 'Fiddler on the roof,' and few movie adaptations of musicals that are as perfect as this. Delightful and difficult in turn, it's always brilliant and strongly affecting, with every exquisite part building into an indelibly great whole. Thanks to the writing, the direction, and all the hard work of the cast and crew, it never really feels as long as three hours, and that's no minor accomplishment, either. When all is said and done this really is a must-see, for theater buffs and cinephiles alike, and general audiences, too. However one must go about carving out time to watch, this is one title that demands viewership at one point or another.

Basic Training
(1985)

Nothing special. Not outright terrible. You could do worse.
I appreciate how very low-budget this is; if moments rolling past this or that landmark aren't stock footage, then they may as well have been. And why not pause the image for a few seconds on such scenery, or recycle some shots, just to help pad out the length that tiniest bit? Factor in a rudimentary plot with thin sketches of characters, both serving merely as an excuse for innuendo, sex jokes, gratuitous nudity, and sex scenes - hey, that's a movie! The set dressing and wardrobe are just enough to get the job done, as are the acting, the direction, and for that matter the writing... Look, this is no must-see. I wonder if anyone ever needs to see it ever, unless you're a huge fan of someone involved. But if you're looking for something silly and light that you don't need to actively engage with, or if you're just bored or curious, I suppose there are worse things than 'Basic training' that you could watch.

If you enjoy "sex comedies" as a genre, this is probably right up your alley. I guess my point of concern is that it takes the cheap and easy road at almost all times. There are bits of cleverness here or there, a gag or a line that come off well, and I suppose writer Bernie Kahn deserves credit for finding ways to insert innuendo anywhere and everywhere. I appreciate the tongue-in-cheek core concept of idealistic Melinda being forced to change her tune to get anywhere with those ideals. At the same time, it's very easy to imagine how this could have been smarter, and more fun. For one thing, in some measure this is definitely intended as a parody or maybe a satire of the United States government, and specifically of its military management (think 'Canadian bacon,' or 'Stripes'). Such facets are pretty much only a vehicle for that very same sex comedy, however, so the intelligence that could have gone into witty mockery of the halls of power doesn't really go anywhere. Alternatively, the writing and even the set design - almost uniformly geared strictly toward those same raunchy ends - are so outrageous that the picture is a half-step away from being a parody of the sex comedy. I'm distinctly reminded to some extent of John Waters' imperfect yet underrated 2004 romp 'A dirty shame,' that embraced every most farcical notion and ran with it. 'Basic training,' however, earnestly wants to be that cheesy, sleazy sex comedy, and it never especially aims higher. Ah, what this could have been.

It's not outright bad. Even as someone who doesn't broadly care for sex comedies, I think this is entertaining on some baseline level, the sort of thing you put on when you just want to space out. I'll even go so far as to say that in the narrative and scene writing alike there are parts of this I genuinely like; were Kahn of a mind to approach his screenplay with more sincerity, well, there would probably be more praise in my words now. Andrew Sugerman seems like a perfectly capable director. As it stands, of course, the feature prioritizes All Things Sexual over anything else, so whatever other value one may discern basically ends up being an incidental bonus. This includes, for example, Walter Gotell playing a cheeky variation on General Gogol, the Soviet official he revisited multiple times in Eon Productions' James Bond franchise; on the other hand, the climax where we see Gotell the most is paired with a concurrent scene that just lingers too long, as is true of some others. All told I think 'Basic training' is a good time; only, one way or another, it's nothing super special, and not essential by any means. Save it for a lazy day, and let's just leave it at that.

Pretty Baby
(1978)

A finely, carefully crafted film, even at its ugliest
Though he dabbled with various genres and ideas in his career, one consistency for which filmmaker Louis Malle could always be relied upon was to never swerve from whatever he had set his mind to. 'Black moon' is as surreal as it is dark; 'Murmur of the heart' is fun and warm, even at its taboo climax; a piece as far-flung as 'My dinner with Andre' is nevertheless wholehearted and fascinating. So it perhaps shouldn't be too surprising that a historical drama in no small part exploring the life of a child growing up in a brothel, and living that life herself, would be replete with underage nudity, and other moments involving that youth that should cause any person of basic decency to flinch. It goes without saying that 'Pretty baby' is in some ways a rather difficult watch. Yet as one should anticipate of Malle, it's also unquestionably excellent.

As is always true with the man's works, this feature makes an impression right from the start, and it's no shock that it's a great one. For modern viewers who didn't grow up with her it's easy to forget that Brooke Shields got her start as a child actor, and while not all her pictures met with equal success, she really was quite skilled even from her earliest days; as Violet she demonstrates admirable, believable personality, nuance, and range, truly selling her performance. Why, there's a moment coming just before the one-hour mark in which Shields embodies two diametrically opposed emotions at once, for only a scant few seconds, and it's so utterly exceptional as to be awe-inspiring. If not necessarily to the exact same extent, much the same surely goes for her co-stars, from Susan Sarandon and Keith Carradine to Antonio Fargas, Mae Mercer, and 60s and 70s scream queen Barbara Steele. The production design and art direction are warm, full, and downright exquisite, bringing the "house of ill repute" to vivid, brilliant life, and a real pleasure as a viewer. The costume design, hair, and makeup are no more than a step behind, themselves quite lovely. Cinematographer Sven Nykvist, so deservedly esteemed as he was, again illustrates why he was so in demand and worked with such high profile filmmakers, as his work here is without question smooth, smart, and mindful. And combine that photography with Malle's impeccable direction - the guidance of his cast, and orchestration of every shot and scene - and the unfailing result is vibrant, rich, and flavorful, even in the most unsavory moments.

Even with cinematic precedence, screenwriter Polly Platt was somewhat daring to concoct such an uncompromising portrait of historical New Orleans that centered a child. The characters are varied and rather beautifully written; the dialogue is real and lively, a joy in and of itself. The scene writing is wonderfully dynamic, showing us all the complexities of a singular brothel: its brushes with corrupt wealth and power, and the dangers that come from untrustworthy clientele; the protective, warmhearted familial bonds between sex workers, and the possible benefits and definite risks of growing up in such an environment. All this and more is neatly woven into the narrative that explores a real place, and in some measure a real person, largely through the perspective of a young girl, who for all her forced worldliness is still immature and unknowing. Yes, 'Pretty baby' certainly rides a fine line between artful storytelling and awful exploitation, but in my opinion it never crosses the line into salaciousness: this is the reality that the examines, however ugly it might get, and still the execution is so careful and attentive that the final product is as earnestly enjoyable as any movie could be. Still the story as it presents is altogether inviting as much as it is fascinating from a more detached standpoint. I can only salute Platt for conjuring such a tale, and Malle for unreservedly realizing it with all the terrific skill and intelligence he always brought to his projects. And special kudos to Shields, by all means, for never ducking away from whatever a scene requires; I gather that even today she recalls the experience well, even if a moment was uncomfortable in one fashion or another, and that speaks well to her own wit and professionalism.

Make no mistake, there are many elements of the feature that should very reasonably be condemned as they manifest in real life. Even the portrayals of E. J. Bellocq and the sex workers, all kind and bighearted, are paired with recognition of how very wrong the key relationships on a fundamental level, and the life into which so young a child is led. Then again, there is very gratifyingly no judgment here of sex work in and of itself, and as to the seedier aspects - well, that's historical drama for you. Even at its most distasteful 'Pretty baby' is concerned only with the sincerity of its craft and storytelling, and with so fine an assemblage of persons involved in its making, it turned out marvelously. It certainly won't appeal to all viewers, and I couldn't blame them one bit, yet so long as the subject matter and the basic fact of the imagery is no object, this is no less fine a feature than any other that Malle has made. My commendations to all for a job well done; it's hard to even imagine most filmmakers approaching this material in so objective and judicious a manner, but I would expect no less from Malle, so this is yet another sparkling gem in his crown.

Cats
(2019)

"That Bad?" No. An extreme, peculiar mixed bag, and an acquired taste? Very yes.
Even a mere three years after its release, it seems difficult to watch this movie for the first time with earnest detachment. Its reputation far precedes it as one of the worst box office bombs in recent memory and a target of merciless mockery and bafflement; in good humor, even its stars have made some unfriendly remarks in the time since. Combine one of the most bizarre of all plots among Broadway musicals (let us hope 'Starlight Express' never gets the Hollywood treatment) with character designs that were deemed unfeasible, in adaptation, for full-body costumes, but which in digital post-production immediately raise the specter of the "uncanny valley," and this surely faced an uphill climb even before cameras started rolling. Factor in immediate and severe reactions from critics and audiences alike, and the one saving grace for a new potential viewer might be either total adoration of Andrew Lloyd Webber's piece for the stage, or near-total ignorance of it. For my part I readily admit that all I really know of 'Cats' is the almost ubiquitous song "Memories," and a one-time reading of the plot synopsis that I found very curious. Sitting for this feature with low expectations but insubstantial foreknowledge, I tried to be as open-minded and objective as I could while watching.

I found myself pausing after the very first song, before even ten minutes had elapsed. I paused because I immediately understood what one friend had told me, which is that watching will make me feel like I'm on drugs. I paused because I immediately understood what I had been told by folks who, by a certain set of circumstances, had found themselves seeing the stage musical not once but multiple times, and walking away remarking that they didn't care for the music. I paused because in less than ten minutes I was bewildered, laughing hysterically in bafflement, confounded by the utmost assault on my senses, by the panoply of bombastic outlandishness that so readily greeted me. Very, very few have been those films to which I've had such a response. In less than ten minutes the impression has been cemented that in one way or another will last for almost the entirety of nearly two full hours: It's not that this is without value, but that value is overwhelmed by a combination of poor choices and nightmarish, flummoxing surrealism so extreme that the very question of quality, "good" or "bad" - let alone that value - is shuttled to the smallest, furthest corner of a vast room that bursts at the seams with kaleidoscopic, cacophonous inanity.

That value, to wit, includes the choreography (also applying in some measure to the "training" the actors supposedly underwent in the movement and behavior of felines), the stunts, and the singing skills of the cast, and to a lesser degree, their acting. Though they feed directly into the unswerving outrageousness of the perplexing spectacle, on a fundamental level I also appreciate the contributions of those contributing to the production design and art direction, and to the extent that it applies, the costume design and makeup work. I'll even go so far as to say that I appreciate, on a fundamental level, the work of the animators and effects artists, whose work was for better or worse essential to this rendition of 'Cats' as we see it. Of course, to consider the work of those animators and effects artists also rather demands one seek some knowledge of what was going on behind the scenes. It's on record, for example, that quickly after this was first released in theaters, the studio replaced theaters' existing version with a new one in which glaring errors in the CGI had been corrected. Yet it seems to me that this rather goes hand in hand with the profound, unremitting, inhuman pressure Tom Hooper accordingly put on the post-production artists to complete their work on an unimaginable time table. That this was apparently the same animation collective that had previously suffered the crunch of correcting the appearance of the title character in 'Sonic the hedgehog' that, having been dictated by producers in the first place, was swiftly met with enormous backlash - well, I don't personally place any blame on MPC Vancouver for this, either. If a world-famous sculptor is commissioned to chisel a slab of granite into a used litterbox, well, that's just what their work will represent. If that sculptor is made to in any way rush that work, the result will suffer. And so we have the visual presentation of this picture.

On the other hand: as someone who has never seen Andrew Lloyd Webber's stage work, and has minimal knowledge of it, I don't know how much of this 2019 movie is a direct reflection of the Broadway musical, versus how much is invention of adaptation by filmmaker Hooper and writing partner Lee Hall. What I do know is that these anthropomorphized cats (...and mice, and cockroaches) are peculiarly sexualized, not just in that the female characters are represented with human breasts but also in how characters, scenes, and some dialogue is written. Then there are those gags that are so condescendingly simple, and childish, that even a child would surely find them insulting, such as when Bustopher Jones lands on an object in such a way that his crotch impacts the surface. Both the sexualization and the more insipid gags are made worse by the design of the characters, an odd smashup of the believably real (as though whole physical costumes were used) and the dubiously fabricated (pure CGI) - with the unwelcome Uncanny Valley unquestionably being the final product.

It must be noted, furthermore, that whatever fun may be derived from the initial befuddlement does not last, and isn't ultimately the predominant tone. In contrast with, say, the introduction of Jennyanydots, spotlights given to other characters (Old Deuterotomy, Gus, or Grizabella) are more somber in nature. I'm pleased that some numbers and story beats actually do come off very well. Among other examples, never would I have assumed any such thing from 'Cats,' but "Beautiful ghosts" hits surprisingly hard; Bombalurina's big appearance, singing "Macavity: The mystery cat" is more of a mixed bag, but still is pretty swell overall; "Mr. Mistoffelees" is unexpectedly smart and heartfelt. However, whatever the mood at any given time, still it stands that many sequences range from well done but unremarkable ("Have you seen any other musical, ever? Cool, you've seen this.") to questionable and straining credulity - some sequences may boast both these flavors within their few minutes - to possibly unconvincing (including the finale, and even the reprise of "Beautiful ghosts"). Moreover, the pacing is inconsistent, alternately lagging, rushing, or patchy, and this applies to the plot development, editing, and direction. Some choices of direction and cinematography come off as needless, questionable embellishment. And for all this, what heart and weight some elements of the tale should carry is more than not just rendered inert.

One could easily speak at still greater length of every little facet of this production, for there is so very, very much to take in over these two hours. I'll say this: I don't actually think 'Cats' is nearly as bad as its reputation portends. There are tidbits throughout that are actually kind of brilliant. The problem is that there's so much more that inspires major skepticism, other parts that don't make much of an impression at all, and some plain weakness. There's nothing inherently wrong with a picture swinging from bombast, to humor, to thrills, to sincerity, and back again; this does not do so believably. The feature is a sadly mixed bag in almost every way, a result stemming as much from Webber's original show as from the guidance of Hooper, Hall, and the producers, and other creative minds involved. No matter how well it's done in fits and starts, I find it difficult at any time to say that I downright "like" it, and I easily grasp why other viewers have reacted to the title with such denigration. There are, I assure you, far worse things one could watch; I've seen the bottom of the barrel, and this is nowhere near it. Still, this is probably the worst thing that some cast members have ever appeared in; sorry, Dame Judi Dench, and Sir Ian McKellen; sorry about your feature film debut, Francesca Hayward. And it's genuinely hard to conjure a situation in which I'd recommend this, for the viewing experience is so weird, and all over the map, such that I don't know who'd really enjoy it. Maybe 'Cats' is best reserved for those receptive to all the wide, wild, left-field possibilities of what cinema has to offer, and let's just leave it at that.

North
(1994)

I've seen worse, but how much is that really saying?
Sometimes it's not enough to read about cinematic infamy, and you have to watch it for yourself. 1978's 'Sgt, Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band,' 1987's 'Ishtar' - or 1994's 'North.' The fact that this film is most famous for inspiring the abject enmity of Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel says a lot. One has to wonder, could it really be that bad? And either way, one has to feel at least a little bad for writer Alan Zweibel, whose story was supposedly inspired by his own family. However, it doesn't take long after pressing "play" that we can start seeing the problems that the critics surely must have upon the title's release. I don't think it's so completely rotten that there was never any possibility of it being enjoyable; there are small kernels scattered across these ninety minutes, like sand thrown into the wind, that represent potential sparks of cleverness. These include, as examples, Jon Lovitz being a fast-talking lawyer to a pre-teen child, or Bruce Willis wearing a bunny suit, or what we see of Jason Alexander's work; major themes of family and compromise, or B-plot themes of manipulation and scheming. And hey, what a cast! Unfortunately, a movie can't be made or enjoyed based only on potential.

'North' wants us to take at face value that the title character exists in a reality where he can undertake his journey bereft of any of the rules, laws, or consequences that actually exist. That's fine, for we can just consider this quasi-fantasy, or a fairy tale or fable based in the modern world. On the other hand, as the script tries to be extra cheeky about details like changes across time zones, or parodying this or that, it loses sight of any meaningful intelligence. More troublesome are the cheap jokes in the picture that at best ride a fine line of underhanded insensitivity, outright punching down, or condescending to the youngest would-be audience members: fatphobia, xenophobia, racism (including and absolutely not limited to - egads! - the makeup applied to Kathy Bates), infertility, or exploitation; gags based on human anatomy, stereotypes, and the most simplified, wrongheaded concepts taken to aggravating extremes.

And incredibly, still worse are the unflagging Perfect Smiles, Perfect Charm, and Perfect Wit of every one and everything in the feature, some combination of which remain prevalent even as others take a backseat, such as during more "serious" moments in North's journey. The movie works so very hard to be perfectly warm, perfectly funny, and perfectly smart that it forgets to be earnest, fun, or authentic. There's nothing and no one to which this ethos doesn't apply: acting (from both Elijah Wood and the large supporting cast), humor, production design and art direction, effects, choreography and stunts, costume design, dialogue, characters, scene writing, themes, and the story at large, all the way through to the climax. And as if all this weren't bad enough, the resolution of the plot, and the ending, dallies with that trope of fiction which is my greatest pet peeve, my sworn enemy. It's not that anyone here wasn't doing their job - cast, crew, writers, director Rob Reiner. It's that no one seems to have stopped at any time to give sincere thought as to how the end result would look. Were there no test screenings? Was there no feedback at any time?

Oh, and the bizarre turn toward thriller vibes in the last act? Let's just try to forget that tonal shift even happened.

Again: this almost approached a level of entertainment. As the colloquial saying goes, however, "'almost' only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades." Ultimately I disagree with Ebert and Siskel, but only insofar as, to my disgust, I have sadly seen movies that were even worse than this. I'm not sure if I feel glad for those who do, after all, derive some true satisfaction from watching this, or pity. I understand what Zweibel, Reiner, and all others involved tried to make. It also seems clear that no one ever paused to really think about what they were creating. I won't say that this is entirely worthless, but I think that value stems from its usefulness as a teaching tool for how not to make a full-length feature. There are times when I wonder if I'm not being too harsh, but by all means, such instances are overwhelmed by bafflement at the choices that were made. As it turns out: 'North' is pretty much almost exactly that bad.

L'avventura
(1960)

Is an impeccable visual presentation enough by itself to make a film worth watching?
It's been remarked that this is a very visual film, and that unquestionably rings true to me. Michelangelo Antonioni's orchestration of shots and scenes as director, and Aldo Scavarda's cinematography, are terrifically sharp and vivid if not outright arresting, an utter pleasure to behold as a viewer and without a doubt the most consistent aspects of the feature. Eraldo Da Roma's smooth editing comes in a close second behind this pair. The filming locations range from fetching to gorgeous, and in short order other facets like production design, art direction, hair and makeup, and costume design aren't far behind. I don't even rightly know how to describe it, but in its visual presentation 'L'avventura' is uniquely precise, natural, calculated, fluid, and vibrant, all at once, and all the time, in a way that's especially striking. Even at that, I'm not sure that the movie seems so distinct in this regard as to be hailed as a model for all those titles to follow it, yet there can be no doubt that Antonioni and Scavarda in particular prove themselves to be fine craftsmen.

It's important to note the visual presentation right away not only because it's so excellent in the first place, but also because outside of that which our eyes take in, the picture seems less than flawless. It's not that the acting is bad, because it's not; I think the cast turn in solid performances, with Monica Vitti and Gabriele Ferzetti being most noteworthy given that more time on-screen means more time to shine. It's not that the music is bad, because it's not; I quite like Giovanni Fusco's score. These elements just don't readily leap out in the same way that the visuals do. And it's not that the screenplay is bad, because it's not; the story is theoretically compelling, and the scene writing, even if I don't think every last detail is wholly suitable for the narrative (e.g. The scene in the sewing shop) or fully convincing (the progression of the dynamics between Claudia and Sandro). It's certainly true that the plot is ultimately rather light, though, accentuated by the fact that wide swaths of the dialogue could be dispensed with and nothing would be lost. In fact, part of me feels like 'L'avventura' could be rewritten with new dialogue, pointedly changing the tale so long as it still comports to the imagery before us, and we'd still effectively have the same movie.

Say of the writing what one will, however; there's one fault that decidedly stands out more. The pacing is not great. The first hour meanders so blithely, conveying so little in that time, that it becomes downright soporific; one hour took me two to watch because I really did keep falling asleep. The remaining length is more eventful, yet also weirdly deficient in its communication of the plot - just as the state of the primary characters' relationship to one another feels a little arbitrary, the broad strokes of their geographical journey are much clearer than the purpose of the stops they make along the way. With that in mind, even though more is happening on-screen after the first hour, still the pacing seems just as unbothered, as though the proceedings are just kind of shuffling around instead of meaningfully going anywhere. And for all this: oh yes, the visuals remain just as enticing, a real treat for movie lovers. Whether the camera is showing us landscapes, cityscapes, interiors, or shots of characters near or far, the result is always exquisite. Yet no matter how perfect a film may look, do the visions to greet us really matter if the storytelling is emphatically Lesser Than?

This is the second feature from Antonioni that I've watched, and the second for which my regard diverges significantly from popular opinion. The disparity isn't quite so great as with 1966's 'Blowup,' and I don't specifically dislike 'L'avventura,' but my thoughts on it are quite divided. The fundamental sights before us are totally splendid. The course of events they are intended to relate, from scattered small moments to major character relationships to the overall narrative, are substantially weaker. What we have then, in my estimation, is questionable material rendered with exemplary execution; the latter elevates the former, but is that enough? I'm glad for those that get more out of this movie; I'd like to say the same for myself. Unlike 'Blowup,' I can at least say that I understand how other viewers could derive more earnest meaning from this, its elder. Still, whatever it is that other folks have seen in 'L'avventura,' what I see is a stunning visual presentation that does its best to aid its companion component of storytelling that struggles to limp along. I don't regret watching it; I am, however, unsure that the visuals alone especially made it worth three and a half hours of my time.

The Passionate Plumber
(1932)

A solidly entertaining 30s comedy
To be sure, it's a little strange to hear Buster Keaton's voice, or indeed to hear anything in one of his films. Yet the "worst" that can be said is that scenes emphasizing dialogue feel like they could be from any contemporary comedy, which is no slight at all, and meanwhile we're still nonetheless treated to plentiful gags of the sort we're accustomed to from the star (if not so much his famous stunts). Most scenes are full of high energy that the excitable dialogue only adds to, and for all this, 'The passionate plumber' serves up lots of laughs all throughout its length, if maybe just not quite as robustly as its silent predecessors.

We're given a classic scenario of one of the comedian's characters bumbling his way into an ever-escalating farce, and as always, Keaton's nonplussed demeanor amidst the madness is a terrific contrast to the flamboyance required of his co-stars. It's simply a joy as a viewer to watch Irene Purcell, Mona Maris, and Gilbert Roland, among others, lean into the zest of folks who are increasingly confounded by protagonist Elmer's ignorance and low reactivity. Sight gags, situational comedy, a measure of physical comedy, exaggerated characters, a few choice quips in the talkie's dialogue, and the result is consistently fun. There might be a few points where the energy thins out or tapers off, but the effect isn't so severe as to significantly detract from the viewing experience.

Edward Sedgwick demonstrates solid capability as a director in bringing a swell screenplay to life, and all those behind the scenes made fine contributions, too, not least where the sets are concerned. Save for those sparing instances of minor lag, the comedic timing is pretty on point such that we're always kept engaged, and even at its loudest the shenanigans are never overbearing. If my words seem less than enthused, I don't intend it - only, it's hard to describe or explain a joke without ruining it, you know? Suffice to say that anyone who appreciates Keaton's most revered classics should still have a good time here, and even setting that aside, it's roundly entertaining. I know the man came to deeply regret his partnership with MGM in the years to come, yet this isn't to necessarily say it didn't produce some enjoyable movies, and I think 'The passionate plumber' is definitely one of them.

9 Songs
(2004)

A romantic drama trading in all pretense for all explicitness
The camerawork and arrangement of shots, including lighting, varies significantly in quality, though I suppose in fairness that if the sex scenes were shot with even more of a mind for visibility, it would supersede even an "X" or "NC-17" rating. Even at that, I do appreciate that the ethos throughout, including grainy handheld photography during most scenes, promotes a feeling of very personal and realist storytelling. That extends to the unbothered simplicity of filmmaker Michael Winterbottom's writing - this is, quite plainly, nothing more than the scattered tracing of the trajectory of a relationship, with emphasis on substantial, explicit, graphic sex, and rock shows. Throw in candid moments of little nothings between the leads, drug use (was this also unsimulated?), and other minute bits and bobs, and presto! That's a movie!

'9 songs' throws us right into the middle of Matt and Lisa's relationship, and right into the middle of most scenes, including occasional unrelated snippets about Matt's work. We're not getting a full image of anything, as we might expect with most romantic dramas or of cinema at large, but rather snapshots at a time, effectively building a fuzzy mosaic-like collage. In every regard it's a rather unorthodox approach that's taken, to the point that one will either (a) enjoy the blithe artistic notions that led to its creation, and like the feature, (b) or balk at the lack of truly meaningful narrative or character development, and hate the end result. I don't think there's room for any middle ground. Where does my opinion take me? "Like" might be a strong word, but I get what Winterbottom was going for here, and I think it works.

I don't intend a direct comparison by any means, but I'm reminded a little of Lars Von Trier's 2013 movie 'Nymphomaniac.' Here, as there, the content is defined largely by unswerving depiction of nudity and various sex acts. Yet here, as there, the end product couldn't necessarily be described as pornographic, and nor is that the intent. 'Nymphomaniac' was a fascinating character drama; this, however loosely, is one part romantic drama, one part art flick. With this in mind, I admire the commitment of the actors involved, for Kieran O'Brien and Margo Stilley are unflinching in their embrace of every last moment (so, so many moments) that surely would throw less open-minded viewers and censors into conniptions. I'm not sure how much could be said about their acting in terms of the character writing, but in the very least, the dynamics between Matt and Lisa provide (of every nature) provide the fuel for the performances. And by the strength of their contributions here O'Brien and Stilley have convinced me that they'd be worth checking out in a title of more focused, conventional storytelling.

It's curious. I wouldn't says that '9 songs' is bad; I don't know if it's "good," either. Does this really exist on a spectrum of quality? There are familiar flavors and ideas in this, yet they are molded into a form that's at once salacious, and flat; spicy, and bland; warm, and detached; calculated, and natural. Winterbottom's writing and direction, Marcel Zyskind's cinematography, and the editing of both footage and sound are pointedly brusque, yet never overbearingly so, just as the sex is absolutely unfiltered, but somehow never feels tasteless or gratuitous. It's a very peculiar, off-center balance that Winterbottom maintains here alongside O'Brien, Stilley, and the crew, and the exploration of Matt and Lisa's involvement is simultaneously complete and not, satisfying and insufficient. All I know is that whatever my expectations were, they were no more than middling, and when all is said and done I come out the other end recognizing the value of what the picture represents. I totally understand how this won't appeal to everyone, but I see what '9 songs' is, and for those who are receptive to all the wide possibilities of what the medium has to offer, I think this is actually fairly worthwhile.

Oh, and the actual songs included here are pretty terrific, too.

Ascenseur pour l'échafaud
(1958)

Terrifically smart, flavorful crime thriller
It's almost always a good sign when a movie begins to impress in one or multiple ways from the very beginning. For the second and surely not the last time in watching the works of Louis Malle I can only ask how one watches this and doesn't immediately fall in love? What here isn't exquisite? Malle's direction, even in only his first full-length feature, is fabulously smart, as is the splendidly keen, vivid cinematography of Henri Decaë. What can one say of Miles Davis' original music except that it's an absolute joy, perfectly matching every scene to greet us no matter the flavors? The cast give strong performances of poise and nuance, all making their mark even in the first moments they appear on-screen - Jeanne Moreau, Maurice Ronet, Yori Bertin, Georges Poujouly, and the rest. Scarcely has 'Elevator to the gallows' begun and it's wonderfully, endlessly pleasing as a viewer.

Some shots, sequences, or bits of dialogue carry slight airs of an art film in their arrangement, even as there's a definite story to be told. The narrative greets us right out of the gate with the dark tension of a crime thriller, followed in short order by the offbeat thrills of crime and tension gone wrong. At first it seems so simple, yet the tale quickly spirals out in splendidly varied, original directions, and all the while the adapted screenplay of Malle and co-writer Roger Nimier boasts superb intelligence in its scene writing as the plot takes shuffling steps both sideways and forwards. No matter where the picture ultimately takes us, the journey is captivating in unexpected ways, and every component part helps to build that rapturous enchantment, even underappreciated facets like lighting and shot composition. It bears repeating that Malle's direction is impeccable, whether in orchestrating shots and scenes or guiding his cast, and that cast delivers quietly vibrant acting that in and of itself is rich and enticing.

Factor in the terrific, fetching filming locations, and excellent production design, art direction, and hair and makeup work; factor in the noir-esque notions of shady figures losing control of a downward spiral. And once more I ask: what here is not to love? How is this not more well known? It has all the characteristics of Hollywood thrillers of the 40s or 50s, yet with enduring little flames of brilliance in this or that aspect that together help the movie to feel fresh, new, and a creation all its own. I don't know that I can even rightly say there are any flaws here, save perhaps for the very specific writing of a few moments. In one instance a scene plays out with a lack of definition that means context is lost for non-French or even perhaps non-contemporary viewers; in another - I dare say, the ending - the incongruity of what the dialogue portends altogether makes no sense that I can discern. There must be something I'm missing, even if it's just necessary particular knowledge of France in the 1950s, which is itself perhaps a small mark against the feature insofar as it can't be readily, equally enjoyed by one and all across all time and space.

Any such possible critiques are ultimately minor, however, and do not significantly detract from the viewing experience. By and large 'Elevator to the gallows' is an outstanding, absorbing film that deserves far more recognition: smart, well made, and detailed in every way. It's without question a tremendous credit to Malle that his first solo venture as a director was such a resounding success; far be it from me to gloss over Davis' exemplary contribution, but how can one really describe music? There is so much to earnestly appreciate in every last regard, and at length I can only offer my very high and hearty recommendation to all. Whatever your impetus for watching, whatever facet you may enjoy most, this is a great, compelling movie, and well worth checking out.

Top Gun
(1986)

Enjoyable? Yes. Overrated? Very yes.
It's been more than two decades since I last watched this. In the intervening time it's been all but completely forgettable to me; there are maybe three things about the movie I specifically recalled, and I readily admit that one of those instances I was confusing 'Top gun' with 1991 spoof 'Hot shots!' Beyond this I remembered only a vague notion of not caring for this reputed classic, but even if it faced an uphill battle, I'd been well overdue to rewatch and reevaluate. How does it hold up more than thirty-five years later?

In retrospect it's a pretty impressive cast that was put together for this, a nice mix of established names, rising stars, and others who were just getting started. I don't know that we get the best sense of what they're capable of here, just on account of other issues that present, but more on those in a minute. The soundtrack is indisputably classic, and I like Harold Faltermeyer's varied score; I honestly didn't realize Berlin's "Take my breath away" originated here, so that's a nice little bonus. I'm less impressed with how the score or soundtrack are employed in many instances. This includes, for example, when the score over the opening credits shifts abruptly and gauchely to Kenny Loggins in the first minutes (or its overzealous repetition generally), or the ham-handed lead guitar melodies that strain to believably replicate the success of Jack Nitzsche's score for 'An officer and a gentleman' a few years earlier. Sometimes a song will present in the movie with such exact timing that the soundtrack, of all things, threatens suspension of disbelief.

I'm confused by the statement by Commander Jardian, that which kicks off the plot, that he's "gotta" send someone to the flight school; the film never explains why such an assignment is compulsory. I'm alternately annoyed and aggravated by the flagrantly transparent boot-licking of the picture of the United States' imperial war machine; gag me with a spoon. The boorishness and sexism in the screenplay is tawdry and overbearing, though in fairness, this is offset in part by the undeniable queer subtext that worms its way into so many interactions between the men, subtext so prominent that the "sub-" prefix is almost obsolete. There's no small amount of wit and intelligence in the dialogue, scene writing, or narrative - though on the other hand, there's also an overabundance of almost senseless ham-handedness and cliche.

Somehow even worse, in every regard the pacing is altogether rushed and unnatural; that definitely includes the romance, but also action sequences, the editing, and even the delivery of dialogue and Tony Scott's direction. Why, the biggest emotional beat of these 100 minutes, and the character relationship that defines it, are severely dampened on account of how heedlessly the scene and plot development zoom along; from one moment to the next, the climax seems to all but come out of nowhere, a contrivance of Movie Magic. The characters are mostly written to be as unlikable as possible, or even downright unbelievable; I don't know whose idea it was for Iceman to constantly be chewing gum, but every time he does I can only hope that his lower jaw spontaneously falls off. 'Top gun' is surely at its best when it is measured and sincere in some capacity, though that doesn't happen very often for one thing, and for another, sometimes the effort feels forced. Suffice to say that the actors had a tough job cut out for them, and they did the best they could.

At very particular moments the dialogue is filled with jargon that's either distinctly technical, or so wrapped up in the specifics of fighter jets and flight maneuvers that the substance of the feature gets lost in the details. What may actually be mostly singularly admirable about the movie is the stunt flying, and the cinematography, above all those aerial shots that capture the planes in the air. Yet even this is adjoined with a caveat, because the setup of cameras inside the cockpits is frankly shaky and unreliable in terms of fundamental framing; it's fine so long as we're seeing the pilot's perspective, but when the lens is turned back on a character, anything goes. And the weaker of those interior aerial shots are paired with other instances of exterior aerial footage - applying to more intense maneuvers of close proximity - that come off loose and disjointed; alongside overzealous editing, such action suffers from the common issue of substituting zest and bombast for meaningful choreography and impact. Adding insult to injury, I don't think the feature does a good job of elucidating the course of events where those action sequences are concerned. Who is flying where? Who is firing on who? Who is pulling what maneuver? I can only shrug. It's the multi-million dollar equivalent of kids just running around willy-nilly in someone's yard and calling it a day.

Needless to say, 'Top gun' is a very mixed bag. I'm pleased to say that it's better than I expected, or rather, better than I remembered from when I last saw it more than 20 years ago. I do think that overall, it's above average. It's a very low "above average," however, as I also don't understand why it's held in such esteem as it is. For everything it does well, it also overflows with very noticeable inelegance shortchanging the value, and otherwise choices in its craft that weigh heavily against what the title has to offer. I'm glad for those for whom this is an indelible classic, a major part of their childhood or something that brings them joy. I'm definitely not one of them, however. Is it worth watching? Sure. But I also think 'Top gun' is characterized by undeserved hype that lends it far more prevalence in our culture than it truly earned, and if not for that, you can kind of just take it or leave it.

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