Saturday, January 30, 2010


**** - CLASSIC
***1/2 - EXCELLENT
**1/2 - GOOD
*1/2 - POOR

Friday, January 29, 2010

ALIVE (1993)

Starring: Ethan Hawke & Vincent Spano
Director: Frank Marshall

Queasy movie about the rugby team that survived 72 days in the Andes Mountains when their plane crashed on its way from Uruguay to Chile. A half-good movie encumbered by clunky dialogue for its delivery) - but physically impressive beyond the astonishing particulars of its story (which involves cannibalism). Unquestionably the most chilling portrayal of a plane crash in movie history. Scripted by John Patrick Stanley, from the book by Piers Paul Read. John Malkovich appears unbilled. Same story previously filmed as SURVIVE! (125 mins.)

My Rating: ***

Monday, January 25, 2010


Starring: Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, Talia Shire, Andy Garcia, Eli
Wallach, Joe Mantegna, George Hamilton, Bridget
Fonda, & Sofia Coppola
Director: Francis Ford Coppola

Only a filmmaker like Coppola (teamed with writer Mario Puzo) could extend his history-making Mafioso saga and make it work so well. Absorbing story of Pacino's attempt to remove himself from the world of crime, and how fate and circumstance draw him back in, with his trigger-happy nephew (Garcia) and the rest of his family in tow. Longish, but masterfully told, with one almost-fatal flaw: the casting of Coppola's daughter Sofia (an amateur) in the pivotal role of Pacino's daughter.

From the first frame of this operatic, Shakespeare-influenced final chapter in the screen's finest gangster epic, we are thrust back into the larger-than-life world of the Corleone family. It is two decades after the "modern-day" events in Part II, and Michael (a brilliant performance by Al Pacino) has managed to move his family interests out of crime and into legitimate enterprises. But sinister forces lurking within his empire compel Michael to revert to the old, violent ways - with tragic consequences. (163 mins.)

My Rating: ***1/2


Starring: Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton
& Talia Shire
Director: Francis Ford Coppola

They said it couldn't be done, but cowriter-director Coppola made a sequel that's just as compelling. This one contrasts the life of melancholy "don" (Pacino) with early days of his father (De Niro) as an immigrant in N.Y.C. Winner of six Oscars including Best Picture, Director, Screenplay (Coppola, Mario Puzo), Supporting Actor (De Niro), Score (Nino Rota, Carmine Coppola), Art Direction/Set Decoration (Dean Tavoularis, Angelo Graham, George R. Nelson).

Oscar winner for Best Picture is even better in many ways than The Godfather, as this blockbuster completes what is surely the greatest gangster saga ever filmed. Michael Corleone (Pacino) has consolidated the power handed to him by his father, as the film flashes back and forth between the early life of the late Don Vito and the ongoing story of his embattled family after his death. (200 mins.)

My Rating: ****


Starring: Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Talia Shire,
Diane Keaton & Robert Duvall
Director: Francis Ford Coppola

The 1970s' answer to GONE WITH THE WIND, from Mario Puzo's novel on the violent life and times of Mafia patriarch Don Corleone (Brando). Pulp fiction raised to the highest level, masterfully done, and set to Nino Rota's memorable score. Absolutely irresistible. Academy Award winner for Best Picture, Actor (Brando), and Screenplay (Coppola and Puzo). Baby in baptism scene is actually Coppola's infant daughter Sofia - who later costarred in THE GODFATHER, PART III. Followed by two sequels.

Mario Puzo's popular novel comes to life in artful fashion. Film in foreboding tones, the movie takes us into the lurid world of the Mafia. Marlon Brando won an Oscar for his performance, but it's Al Pacino who grabs your attention with an unnerving intensity. (175 mins.)

My Rating: ****


Starring: Ralph Meeker & Cloris Leachman
Director: Robert Aldrich

"Remember Me."

One of film noir's darkest nightmares, this grim adaptation of one of Mickey Spillane's "Mike Hammer" thrillers has as much to do with the paranoiac sci-fi films of the fifties as it does with the two-fisted universe of the private eye. Meeker is Hammer, a sleazy gumshoe on the trail of "the great whatsit" (actually a box filled with radioactive substance), who's willing to beat, berate, and otherwise abuse anyone standing in his way. Directed with stunning artistry (and tongue in cheek) by Robert Aldrich, the film has weathered critical distaste to emerge as a cult classic, a brutal and often very funny critique of Spillane's macho sensibility and the nuclear paranoia of fifties America.

Years ahead of its time, a major influence on French New Wave directors, and one of Aldrich's best films. Leachman's film debut. Some video versions have 82 seconds of additional footage which completely changes the finale.
(105 mins.)

My Rating: ***1/2


Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Kerry Washington & Patrick Wilson
Director: Neil LaBute

There's something to be said for making a mainstream movie that depicts behavior as taboo as destructive racism on the part of a black main character. It's probably even less common for a director to opt to tackle this kind of phenomenon not in some gritty urban drama, but in a wide-release Sam Jackson thriller. At least that's how Lakeview Terrace is marketed -- though for all its semi-successful attempts to ratchet up the intensity with every scene, it's pretty obvious that if the thriller side of this movie was in the driver's seat, the social-commentary side was riding shotgun, and probably reading the directions.

The premise is that twentysomething couple Chris (Patrick Wilson) and Lisa Mattson (Kerry Washington) move into the titular posh gated community in the Hollywood Hills, only to discover that their neighbor Abel (Samuel L. Jackson), an officer with the LAPD, appears to be totally crazy. He makes it clear that he disapproves of their relationship -- since Chris is white and Lisa is black -- and animosity grows, passive aggression becomes real aggression, and Chris and Lisa's imperfect marriage starts to crack under the pressure as the conflict violently comes to a head. This basic treatment sounds like the grounds for an interesting story, but unfortunately, the film often handles all the subject matter with a really distracting degree of heavy-handedness. While there are scenes that succeed in subtly hitting all the right nerves, evoking director Neil LaBute's trademark brand of uncomfortable realism, too many themes hinge on über-simplified paint-by-numbers clichés and hokey constructs. For example, the film thematically builds around an analogy in the form of a subplot about a wildfire that burns in distant view of the community. As the hostility incrementally escalates between Abel and the Mattsons, the fire is incrementally revisited, placing the characters on their balcony again and again to make the same observations about the inferno growing closer and more powerful, and recite the same transparently naïve lines about how, of course, the danger will never reach their (figuratively) insulated home. We get it! This kind of conflict threatens everybody! We get it! Especially those who seem immune! We get it! In the end, we all get burned! It's like a PSA; you're just waiting for Jackson to break the fourth wall, look into the camera and say, "It's time to end the hate. Nobody wins at this game, homes. Nobody wins."

The stupid fire thing even comes up again when Chris puts a row of fully grown trees along his property line to block his view of Abel's yard. Official-voice-of-reason Lisa shakes her head in consternation and argues that this will only breed more antagonism, to which Chris halfheartedly responds that the landscaping is environmental: "Trees make oxygen, right?" And oxygen fuels fire! GET IT?!? It's that kind of triteness that keeps stealing the scene, especially when Chris and Lisa discuss their marriage. The parts are well acted, but the undergrad-film-student dialogue keeps veering toward soap-opera style. Which would be fine if this were just a thriller, but the highfalutin content about class and race makes the style feel awkward and incongruous. (106 mins.)

My Rating: **1/2

Thursday, January 7, 2010


Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Connelly & Djimon Hounsou
Director: Edward Zwick

Ed Zwick's movies have traditionally been earnest, sober-minded action-adventure dramas that offer up some supposed serious examination of a societal ill. Blood Diamond keeps up that streak by showing how the illegal smuggling of diamonds impacts African countries. While Zwick does a fine job of laying out the confluence of bloodthirsty rebellions, corrupt governments, and greedy foreign interests that keep many African nations in a constant state of turmoil, his story of an Afrikaner (Leonardo DiCaprio) who sacrifices his own self-interest for the love of a woman and the good of a decent African man is so relentlessly square that the film plays more like a ham-fisted lecture than a movie. As is usual for Zwick, Blood Diamond offers beautiful, coffee-table-book-quality cinematography. While these images are pleasant to look at, the thuddingly obvious subtext of horrible atrocities occurring in such beautiful places makes it difficult to be awed by the natural majesty, and they constantly betray the schematic mindset of the director.

DiCaprio is enough of a movie star to know how to own the screen, and his selfish rogue who learns to care for others is a stereotype that goes all the way back to Bogart inCasablanca. He tries, and viewers should be very thankful for the effort, but the serious tone of the picture constantly douses the sparks of life he brings to the material. Jennifer Connelly is entirely unbelievable in the role of a hard-as-nails, internationally respected reporter. Some people, like Dennis Farina, were born to swear on screen, but she is not one of those people. When she spews out the f-word, she does it with a world-weariness that rings false. She sounds like a 12-year-old girl trying the word out on her parents for the first time. Djimon Hounsou might be a very talented actor, but in this film -- as in most of his major films -- he is not playing a person as much as he is a symbol of "otherness" that white characters must learn to respect in order to teach the movie's moral. Here, as with In America and Amistad, he suffers both beautifully and majestically, making it hard to think of the character as a real individual. It's not a bad performance; it's a badly conceived character.

In the end, Zwick's motivations are good-hearted, but that doesn't excuse the fact that the film is a crushing bore because he talks down to his audience. The lessons and facts and morals are spoon-fed to the viewer, and Zwick fails to grab our attention during the action scenes, so there ends up being very little of interest for the audience. (143 mins.)

My Rating: ***


Starring: James Garner, Jason Robards Jr. & Robert Ryan
Director: John Sturges

Director John Sturges's sequel to Gunfight at the O.K. Corral didn't seem like much when originally released in 1967, perhaps because James Garner was thought to have lost the charm he displayed in the TV series, Maverick. But today this outstanding western deserves to be. Garner is superb as an embittered and obsessed Wyatt Earp, who, with the help of an increasingly ailing Doc Holliday (Jason Robards, Jr.) sets out to bring Ike Clanton (Robert Ryan) to justice. Flavorful score by Jerry Goldsmith. (100 mins.)

My Rating: ***1/2

Wednesday, January 6, 2010


Starring: Brad Davis, Randy Quaid & John Hurt
Director: Alan Parker

The mother of all prison escape movies. This is the true story of Billy Hayes, who was busted for trying to smuggle hashish out of Turkey and spent five years in the squalor and terror of a Turkish prison. Midnight Express is not an experience easily shaken. Yet it is a film for our times that teaches a powerful and important lesson.

Hayes's ever-present desire to get on the "Midnight Express" (prison slang for escape) makes this thriller totally engrossing as it reaches an effective climax.

Great moviemaking, though not as faithful to Hayes' true story as filmmakers would have us to believe. Oscar winner for Oliver Stone's script and Giorgio Moroder's score. (121 mins.)

My Rating: ****

HANG 'EM HIGH (1968)

Starring: Clint Eastwood
Director: Ted Post

Clint Eastwood's first stateside spaghetti Western is a good one, with the star out to get the vigilantes who tried to hang him for a murder he didn't commit. Pat Hingle is the hangin' judge who gives Clint his license to hunt, and Ben Johnson is the marshal who saves his life. Ed Begley, Sr. is memorable as the leader of the vigilantes.

Steely avenger (Eastwood) sets out to take care of those varmints who strung him up and left him for dead. Played in Clint Eastwood's usual flinty manner, should please non-discriminating Western buffs. (114 mins.)

My Rating: **1/2


Starring: Charles Bronson
Director: Michael Winner

Audience manipulation at its zenith; Businessman Bronson's wife and daughter are savagely raped, and his wife dies, turning mild-mannered liberal Bronson into a vigilante on N.Y.C. streets. Chilling but irresistible; a bastardization of the Brian Garfield novel, in which vigilantism as a deterrent to crime is not a solution but another problem. Music by Herbie Hancock. One of the muggers is played by Jeff Goldblum, in his film debut. Followed by four sequels.

This morally-questionable premise blazed the trail for dozens of other films about one-man urban crimebusters. Colorfully presented, but a violent, unpleasant movie. (94 mins.)

My Rating: ***

SCROOGE (1935)

Starring: Seymour Hicks
Director: Henry Edwards

This little-known British version of Charles Dickens's classic A Christmas Carol is faithful to the original story and boasts a standout performance by Seymour Hicks, who also cowrote the screenplay. A truly enjoyable film, unjustly overshadowed by Alastair Sim's bravura performance as Scrooge in the venerated 1951 version. (78 mins.)

My Rating: **1/2


Starring: Jack Nicholson & Shelley Duvall
Director: Stanley Kubrick

Eliminating most of the supernatural episodes from the original Stephen King novel, Kubrick's version, is at once a coolly ironic near-parody (with a Nicholson performance that defines "over the top") and a genuinely chilling dissection of how a family breaks down when the father cannot (or does not want to) perform his duties as provider and protector. Making the most of the then-new Steadicam technology for intricate camera movements, Kubrick renders the hotel and maze palpable as Danny moves through them, while turning the Overlook itself into an eerily threatening entity, punctuated by Danny's vividly disturbing shinings. It isn't just Jack who is psychotic: it is the hotel and all it represents about the American system. Positioned to be a summer hit, The Shining was released to decidedly mixed reviews (including from King, who vocally objected to Kubrick's alterations of his novel); although it was the most successful movie Kubrick had made, it did not become the blockbuster that he had hoped. Despite this checkered reception, Kubrick's ability to combine icy detachment with visceral dread makes The Shining a profoundly creepy interrogation of madness, memory, and familial disintegration. (146 mins.)

My Rating: ***1/2


Starring: Alastair Sim
Director: Brian Desmond-Hurst

Superb film is too good to be shown only at Christmastime; always delightful Sim makes Scrooge a three-dimensional character in this faithful, heart-warming rendition of the Dickens classic. Screenplay by Noel Langley. Patrick Macnee plays young Marley. Original British title: SCROOGE.

Starring Alastair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge, the meanest miser in all of London, this is a wondrous uplifting story - as only Charles Dickens could craft one. Recommended for the whole family, A Christmas Carol is sure to bring a tear in your eye and joy to your heart. (86 mins.)

My Rating: ****


Starring: Marie-France Pisier, John Beck & Susan Sarandon
Diector: Charles Jarrott

Trashy Sidney Sheldon novel gets the treatment it deserves in ponderous story, set from 1939-1947, about a woman who parlays her body into film stardom. Dull, as opposed to lively, drek.

The story involves a French movie star and a Washington socialite vying for the affections of a World War II hero. Average music scoring by Michel Legrand. (165 mins.)

My Rating: *1/2

TRUE GRIT (1969)

Starring: John Wayne, Glen Campbee, Kim Darby & Robert Duvall
Director: Henry Hathaway

Film version of Charles Portis' wonderful novel about an over-the-hill marshal who helps a 14-year-old track down her father's killer. Not as good as the book, but Wayne's Oscar-winning performance and rousing last half hour make it fine screen entertainment. Sequel: ROOSTER COGBURN. Followed by a TV movie in 1978 with Warren Oates and Lisa Pelikan.

Well-directed by Henry Hathaway, it's still not one of the Duke's classics-although it does have many good scenes. (128 mins.)

My Rating: ***

TAPS (1981)

Starring: George C. Scott, Timothy Hutton, Tom Cruise, Sean Penn & Ronny Cox
Director: Harold Becker

A military academy is to be closed and replaced by a condominium, but the boys are fired with a sense of honor, duty, and love for the military. The National Guard moves to take the grounds by force; a bloodbath ensues. Not very believable, with sometimes pompous dialogue, but makes a strong point against carrying honor and tradition too far. Fine performances.

George C. Scott is an iron-jawed commander of a military academy and Timothy Hutton a gung ho cadet who leads a student revolt in this often exciting but unnecessarily violent drama. Sean Penn's film debut. (126 mins.)

My Rating: **1/2

Tuesday, January 5, 2010


Another year to see and enjoy old movies in a new light.