Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Midnight Cowboy

Movie Review: Midnight Cowboy

Year of Release: 1969
Country of Origin: USA
Director: John Schlesinger
Cast: Dustin Hoffman, Jon Voight

Plot outline: A naive male prostitute and his sickly friend struggle to survive on the streets of New York City (IMDb).

Midnight Cowboy is the bridge between the softer, more formulaic movies that preceded it, and the gritty, intense cinema that would define the 1970s, and as such is half-brilliant, half hamstrung. Director John Schlesinger does a great job painting New York as a cold, harsh, unforgiving metropolis. Indeed, the city is almost a supporting character in the story, as leads Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight’s characters simply struggle to survive in New York’s bleak underbelly. And as for Hoffman and Voight, they both give amazing performances, generating a believable chemistry and completely disappearing into their respective characters. Unfortunately, despite being risqué enough to garner an X rating upon its release for it’s frank references to homosexuality and prostitution, Midnight Cowboy isn’t quite honest enough. It resorts to dreamy ballads and an incredulous Andy Warhol party to advance the plot, all of which feel out of place in what is otherwise an uncompromising story of two of society’s cast-off’s finding each other and struggling to survive. As a groundbreaking piece of cinema, Midnight Cowboy deserves the accolades showered upon it, but it would be later movies that would actually realize the potential glimpsed here. (FML)

My judgement: **** out of 4 stars

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

The Long Ships

Movie Review: The Long Ships

Year of Release: 1964
Country of Origin: UK, Yugoslavia
Director: Jack Cardiff
Cast: Richard Widmark, Sidney Poitier

Plot outline: Viking seamen battle a Moorish prince for possession of a golden bell (IMDb).

Inspired by the success of The Vikings (1958) starring Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis, producer Irving Allen used Swedish writer Frans Bengtsson’s well-researched novel The Long Ships and dumbed it down for his own costume action-adventure movie that's set during the middle-ages. It's about the rivalry between a Norse adventurer, Rolfe (Richard Widmark), and a Moorish sheik, Aly Mansuh (Sidney Poitier), over a golden treasure called the Golden Bell of St James -the great bell made of pure gold that contains half the gold in the world and is three times the size of a man. The bell was fashioned from gold looted by the Crusaders in Byzantium. Director Jack Cardiff, who was the cinematographer on The Vikings, can't do much with the messy script, except keep it stilted and oddly amusing. Though it's beautifully shot along the coast of Yugoslavia, so at least it makes for a good watch. If you take pleasure in watching a bad movie that treats history as if it were a tale fit for a romper room, then try sucking on this one for a while. The noisy movie drags on for seemingly an eternity as it covers battles, double-crosses, sea-storms, floggings and safe cinema sex. There was dissension on the set, as Widmark hated the script and played it as camp while Poitier hated his dialogue and played it seriously. The result was a hodge-podge, a shallow and poorly executed movie. (DS)

My judgement: *1/2 out of 4 stars

Monday, 29 March 2010

Gosford Park

Movie Review: Gosford Park

Year of Release: 2001
Country of Origin: UK, USA, Italy
Director: Robert Altman
Cast: Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, Kristin Scott Thomas

Plot outline: Multiple storylined drama set in 1932, showing the lives of upstairs guest and downstairs servants at a party in a country house in England (IMDb).

Robert Altman’s unique mosaic whodunit set during a weekend party at a country house is a cross between Upstairs Downstairs and an Agatha Christie mystery. Altman has a wonderful way of working with large casts of characters (
an illustrious British cast with Kelly MacDonald and Clive Owen shining) and bringing something wonderful and unique to the screen when a lesser director would merely bring confusion. While it would take several viewings to keep all characters distinct and know them all, it's perfectly coherent the first time through. Where many movies show and tell only the story at hand, Altman fills the edges of the frame and also the soundtrack with a refreshing richness. And all is not as it seems: neither amongst the bejewelled guests lunching and dining at their considerable leisure, nor in the attic bedrooms and stark work stations where the servants labour for the comfort of their employers. Part comedy of manners and part mystery, the movie is finally a moving portrait of events that bridge generations, class, sex, tragic personal history and culminate in a murder (or is it two murders?). But the murder really only provides an excuse for the characters to reside together for a while, as we get to know them. The camera is always moving, although very subtlely at times; the effect is that we are one of the dozens of the houseguests, catching snippets of conversation wherever we happen to be, missing out on equally intriguing events elsewhere, and finally revealing the intricate relations of the above and below-stairs worlds with great clarity. The result is intriguing and quaintly beautiful. (AG)

My judgement: ***1/2 out of 4 stars

Sunday, 28 March 2010

Primary Colors

Movie Review: Primary Colors

Year of Release: 1998
Country of Origin: France, UK, Germany, USA, Japan
Director: Mike Nichols
Cast: John Travolta, Emma Thompson, Billy Bob Thornton, Kathy Bates, Adrian Lester

Plot outline: A glimpse into both the political machine and the sordid life of Clinton-esque Governor Jack Stanton as he campaigns for his party's 1992 presidential nomination (IMDb).

It's unfortunate that Mike Nichols' brilliant political satire, Primary Colors, resembled the Bill Clinton scandal, was released at a time when the American public was sick of hearing about it. Primary Colors is a funny, thought-provoking, and frank exploration of the political game. It's become a dirty game in recent years, with lots of mud slinging. It's all about ratings points and PR. What goes on behind all that? What is life like for a politician - and his campaign managers - who must always be thinking about his public image? By the time an event occurs and news of it filters through assorted political and personal agendas to your ears, how much of the truth has been skewed? How much to politicians running for office need to concern themselves with things that wouldn't matter to anyone else, and how much can they indulge and get away with it? Is it right to use shady means to rise to the top of a shady system if what you want to do when you get there is make honorable decisions and instantiate honorable policies? All these questions and more ran through my head while viewing Mike Nichols' tightly-woven fabric of a movie. Beyond the questions, I was inspired by its perspective, one to which I had not been treated in the past. And I empathized with each of the characters, understanding their own perspectives and caring for their own drives. Just as in real life politics, in which so much can distract us from that single most important issue of character, so also is it easy for the characters in such an ambitious movie of exploring ideas to be forgotten. But Nichols is too experienced at making these sorts of thoughtful dramatic comedies to let this happen here. Primary Colors caught me up in its tapestry of characters, ideas, perception, and humor. I recommend it highly. (AG)

My judgement: ***1/2 out of 4 stars

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

The Shining

Movie Review: The Shining

Year of Release: 1980
Country of Origin: UK, USA
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd

Plot outline: A family heads to an isolated hotel for the winter where an evil and spiritual presence influences the father into violence, while his psychic son sees horrific forebodings from the past and of the future (IMDb).

Time and space are elements that Stanley Kubrick toys with in all of his movies, but a near empty hotel may be the perfect place for him to explore those particular elements. He has plenty of long hallways to play with, interesting rooms and confines to scope out and a stark surrounding landscape to finish it all off. Quite often the camera starts far away from its subject and either the camera closes in or the subject slowly approaches the camera. This creates a permanent sense of unease, nothing is ever quite in focus, objects take up more space than they should or are confined to a smaller area that feels comfortable. At every moment Kubrick plumbs the depths of the landscape of the hotel, leaving no area safe. His camera is always pervasive yet standoffish at the same time. Much like its lead character The Shining never feels quite right visually and in that way it is perfect. The question then becomes, sure, the craftsmanship is great, it’s a great looking picture, but how does it work as a horror movie? The answer to that isn’t easy, or maybe it is, I’m not sure. The simple answer is that The Shining may be the best horror movie ever made, but to get to that conclusion requires a bit of complexity. Most great horror is all about the mood and atmosphere of the picture, and The Shining has mood and atmosphere in spades. It starts with the eerily artificial score, there’s no better way to instill horror in a naturally beautiful setting than by having a score that sounds like something from another world entirely. Every scene has a bit of an edge to it, even when there isn’t any malicious intent in the story the score implies that there is and the viewer is taken aback by this contradiction. I’ve already covered the visuals, so that moves us onto the acting. Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall and Danny Lloyd are very naturalistic and minimalistic in their approach. This isn’t Jack being Jack, this is Jack adapting his natural persona into a creepy atmosphere to great affect. Duvall is scared and because we relate to her fear we are scared for/along with her. Lloyd isn’t a typical child actor, he is mighty creepy and never once feels out of step with his adult counterparts. All of the above elements combine to form the slow cooker approach to horror. For those who don’t understand what I mean, think of that crock pot in your parents kitchen. You watch them put all sorts of ingredients in and then walk away. Hours pass by and the ingredients slowly combine and join together to form what will eventually be a scrumptious meal. That is the horror on display in The Shining, not the fast slasher type or the twist type, but the kind that slowly cooks over the course of the movie. It cooks and cooks until it reaches its conclusion, a conclusion that never had any choice but to be great, because all the ingredients were slowly added and cooked to perfection. (BT)

My judgement: **** out of 4 stars

Monday, 22 March 2010

Little Nikita

Movie Review: Little Nikita

Year of Release: 1988
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Richard Benjamin
Cast: Sidney Poitier, River Phoenix, Richard Jenkins

Plot outline: A teenager discovers his parents are "sleeper" KGB agents who, after being inactive for 20 years, are called upon to run one last dangerous mission (IMDb).

Is River Phoenix a star? Perhaps not. But his hair is. Little Nikita would be nothing without River Phoenix's hair. It's the most engaging, the most watchable thing in the movie. It has body. It has character. It even has drama. In other words, it has everything that's missing from the rest of the picture. Everything in the movie feels arbitrary and unmotivated, and time after time, scenes that should have payoffs don't, or there is action without the necessary set-up that would allow us to make sense out of it. The director is Richard Benjamin, and he is so inept that he can't even stage a car chase. And that, you'd guess, is pretty much the one talent needed these days just to get your guild card. The difficulties reveal more than simply the absence of a style or visual flair. They indicate a lack of any grasp of the essentials of the director's art. Benjamin's camera reveals nothing. When he moves it, it's usually for no particular reason and to no real effect. Both the action and the dialogue scenes are without pace. And there's little compensation in his work with the actors. (HH)

My judgement: *1/2 out of 4 stars

Sunday, 21 March 2010

The Organization

Movie Review: The Organization (1971)

Year of Release: 1971
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Don Medford
Cast: Sidney Poitier, Raul Julia, James A. Watson Jr.

Plot outline: When a group of revolutionaries fighting the drug rackets are framed for murder, detective Virgil Tibbs steps in to clear their names (IMDb).

We first met Virgil Tibbs in In the Heat of the Night, when he was a cop from Philadelphia. In They Call Me MISTER Tibbs! he moved to San Francisco and had a really elaborate hilltop home. Now, in The Organization, he has moved into a less elaborate home (apparently after reading the reviews wondering how he could meet the payments on his police salary), but he still has his loving wife, sweet daughter and smart-mouth son. There is just barely a chance for each family member to do his thing, however, because Tibbs is up to here in the most complicated caper of his career. It is so complicated, in fact, that I am not sure I could figure it out. The plot is not exactly believable. It's about a strange gang of characters (a storefront preacher, a member of a girl's track team, etc.) who steal an enormous shipment of heroin. But after they make their getaway, someone else kills the guy they left behind, bound and gagged. They let Tibbs in on their secret because they don't want the murder rap (although since they DID kidnap the guy and nothing can bring him back to life, you'd think they would keep quiet). Anyway, after an investigation that gets a little confused, Tibbs is suspended from the force for concealing his knowledge. And then he is either put back on the force (in a scene not in the picture) and is on plainclothes duty in the unfinished subway system, or he was not cleared and just happens to be working on the subway when the movie's big chase scene goes by. Anyway, there's a bit of shooting, a few identities are untangled, and the movie comes to an unmourned end. (RE)

My judgement: *1/2 out of 4 stars

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Buck and the Preacher

Movie Review: Buck and the Preacher

Year of Release: 1972
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Sidney Poitier
Cast: Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Ruby Dee

Plot outline: A con man helps a group of former slaves survive the perils of the wild West in their search for the promised land (IMDb).

Sidney Poitier's directorial debut, Buck and the Preacher is a slowly paced western that mixes action and comedy. His effort here is commendable, but the script ineffectively blends the two elements. Namely, the action is missing. The story builds slowly, but that isn't a bad thing; the characters are developed enough that viewers will want to stick around and see what happens to them. But, until the end, there is little but plotting and suspicious eyeing between Buck (Poitier), who used to be a sergeant in the Union Army, and the Preacher (an ex-con, played by Harry Belafonte). Despite excellent performances by Poitier and Belafonte, it never quite clicks. Nice, though, to see the Indians riding to the rescue instead of the Cavalry. (HP)

My judgement: **1/2 out of 4 stars

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

They Call Me MISTER Tibbs!

Movie Review: They Call Me MISTER Tibbs!

Year of Release: 1970
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Gordon Douglas
Cast: Sidney Poitier, Martin Landau

Plot outline: A police detective's investigation of a prostitute's murder points to his best friend (IMDb).

This sequel to In the Heat of the Night will suffer in inevitable comparisons to its infinitely better predecessor. Instead of looking like a theatrical movie edited for television, the movie looks suspiciously like a TV movie edited for theatrical release, with grainy photography, cheesy opening titles, and sets that look like they're made of plywood. The murder sequence has a glaring continuity error: the camera shows two hands choking the girl, then a shot of a hand reaching for a statuette, then a shot of the girl being choked with two hands again, and finally the statuette coming down for the fatal blow. Solving the case should be easy: find the only guy with three hands! :-) But the shoddy production values can't completely obscure this movie's considerable merits: namely, Sidney Poitier's performance as the cool detective determined to follow the evidence wherever it may lead, even if it implicates a friend. Martin Landau is also convincing as the do-gooder preacher-activist suspected of brutally murdering his prostitute girlfriend. In addition to being haunted by the case, Tibbs is conflicted about his home life, but the issues of race and Tibbs' barely concealed sense of social outrage are absent here. So is the complex murder mystery that made its predecessor so compelling. (MDB)

My judgement: **1/2 out of 4 stars

Monday, 15 March 2010

A Raisin in the Sun

Movie Review: A Raisin in the Sun

Year of Release: 1961
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Daniel Petrie
Cast: Sidney Poitier, Claudia McNeil, Ruby Dee, Diana Sands

Plot outline: A substantial insurance payment could mean either financial salvation or personal ruin for a poor black family (IMDb).

Released in 1961, the story revolves around the changes that are taking place within the Younger family. The father of the family has died, leaving behind a ten thousand dollar insurance policy. The money causes a crisis of changing morals for Lena Younger and her two grown children. As a movie it comes off very well, although, there are times when the director seems to give up on the idea of camera movement completely. Other times the camera work is dynamic and telling. The real gold here is in the script and the performances, all of the characters are strong and well drawn out. The cast is flawless each one of them (with the exception of the little boy, who's part is limited) communicate things with a look or gesture that many modern performers don't seem to be able to. There are times when the melodrama can feel like a bit much, but you have to make allowances for the style of filmmaking, and from the fact that the playwright adapted her own work. There are conventions on stage that don't translate into movie, and I think that is why some of the more theatrical moments come off a bit wonky. This is a minor thing and does not distract at all from the power of the whole, but to modern eyes especially it will seem overdone at times. More than anything else, A Raisin in the Sun is a story about people who will not give up their dignity. Even in the face of a world that they didn't build that tries to take it away. It is a raw, stunning piece of work that is justly regarded as one of the classics. (JH)

My judgement: ***1/2 out of 4 stars

Wall Street

Movie Review: Wall Street

Year of Release: 1987
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Oliver Stone
Cast: Michael Douglas, Charlie Sheen, Daryl Hannah, Martin Sheen

Plot outline: A young stockbroker prospers on Wall Street under the tutelage of a greedy millionaire stockbroker (IMDb).

The movie certainly offers universal human truths about business dealings, yet it is also clearly a product of its time. Stylistically, Wall Street is very much a part of the late 1980s: tortoise-shell glasses, yellow power ties, big cell phones, slicked hair. It is a fast-paced, absorbing movie that makes complicated business dealings understandable to the uninformed, yet still intriguing. The screenplay is smart and lean, and Stone's direction is solid and confident without being overly flashy. His limited use of fast zooms, rapid edits, and canted camera angles foretell of the more extreme stylistic decisions that would come into play in his later movies like JFK (1991), Natural Born Killers (1994), and Any Given Sunday (1999), while his soft spot for family dynamics clearly portends the sentimentality of World Trade Center (2006). There is rarely a boring moment in Wall Street, and although its tone tends to get a bit didactic near the end, it never feels overly moralistic. Stone grounds his morality play in the day-to-day workings of everyday life, whether that be the hustle and bustle of Bud's trading company or meetings with his father at a smoke-filled pub in Queens. Stone gets the small moments just right, especially the scenes between Martin Sheen and Charlie Sheen as father and son, which play nicely into the larger whole. Wall Street is remembered mainly as a movie that exposed the ugly underbelly of the greed-is-good corporate world of the 1980s, but it is also very much a human story about a father and son finally coming to understand each other. Michael Douglas is at his best playing the oily Gordon Gekko (he won a well-deserved Best Actor Oscar). Charlie Sheen is similarly well cast as Bud Fox the stockbroker with blue collar roots who will do anything to make good. Particularly poignant are his scenes with real-life father Martin Sheen, who plays his dad, factory worker and proud union steward Carl Fox. Supporting cast is top notch with the exception of miscast Darryl Hannah who sticks out like a sore thumb as Bud's "trophy" girlfriend, courtesy of Gordon Gekko. John C. McGinley and Hal Holbrook are highlighted as Bud's fellow account executives. (A, GC)

My judgement: ***1/2 out of 4 stars

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Marie Antoinette

Movie Review: Marie Antoinette

Year of Release: 2006
Country of Origin: USA, France, Japan
Director: Sofia Coppola
Cast: Kirsten Dunst, Jason Schwartzman, Judy Davis, Rip Torn

Plot outline: Based on Antonia Fraser's Marie Antoinette: The Journey, it tells the story of the beautiful Queen of France who became a symbol for the wanton extravagance of the 18th century monarchy (IMDb).

Beautifully shot with nods to late-18th-century art and the icy formality of Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon, Sofia Coppola draws on Antonia Fraser's sympathetic bio Marie Antoinette: The Journey, letting Kirsten Dunst play the queen as a nice, naive Austrian girl thrust into a strange land and an arranged marriage by politics she doesn't understand. She's shaped by fame and lofty expectations, but never turned into the monster that history made her to be. Dunst and her Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman) mostly live in isolation at Versailles. They host parties and attend to domestic affairs (and later, for Dunst, love affairs) in a hurricane's eye that keeps a growing storm at bay, at least for a while. It's a daring move, focusing on the isolated splendour and interior dramas, and letting the politics remain at most a distant rumble; Coppola deserves credit for offering a different, and probably truer, perspective on life as a royal. But the perspective rarely lends itself to compelling filmmaking. When Marie Antoinette does settle into the business of plot, it scares up some nice moments, bringing dry humor into Schwartzman's all-too-public inability to consummate his marriage, much less produce an heir. And the movie takes time to explore fascinating details, such as the servant charged with wiping off the eggs at a country retreat so Dunst's daughter can gather them. Elsewhere, Rip Torn and Asia Argento bring some much-needed earthiness to the airless proceedings as Louis XV and his uncouth mistress Madame du Barry. But for all its invention, Marie Antoinette ultimately falls into the same traps as other historical dramas. It has to check off history's highlights: Louis XV's death, du Barry's expulsion, the American Revolution, "Let them eat cake!" - as it chugs toward the inevitable. The mostly post-punk and new-wave soundtrack feels shoehorned in, and Dunst's flat line-readings do little to squelch the notion that the movie's insights don't go much further than the costumes and famous locations. It's history written with truffles. (KP)

My judgement: **1/2 out of 4 stars

Saturday, 13 March 2010

The Bedford Incident

Movie Review: The Bedford Incident

Year of Release: 1965
Country of Origin: UK, USA
Director: James B. Harris
Cast: Richard Widmark, Sidney Poitier, Martin Balsam

Plot outline: An American destroyer, with a journalist on board, is determined to confront a Soviet submarine caught violating territorial waters. Perhaps too determined (IMDb).

James B. Harris, who handles the movie very well, is also gifted in developing these interpersonal tensions into dramatic moments that certainly add to the mounting tensions while contributing to the dramatic ending. Although this is a well-acted Cold War melodrama with a supporting cast who all provide fine performances, Richard Widmark is perfect in his role as a dedicated anti-Communist and patriotic American zealot who cuts no slack. One of my favourite scenes is when Richard Widmark appears to take on the persona of a Gestapo icon and becomes so intimidating at one point that he even frightens the retired, ex-Nazi U-Boat commander Wolfgang Schrepke (Eric Portman) who happens to be an on board consultant during this patrol. The ship model used during the iceberg scenes does seem dated. Also, in one interior scene of the ship, I noticed a weapon rack of Enfield rifles. Such rifles were certainly obsolete at the time this film was made. Furthermore, this weapon was uncommon on American ships and was typically used by the British Royal Navy. Despite these small errors, the suspense, drama, and entertainment value of this movie are engrossing even after several viewings and the performances only magnify the escalating tensions throughout the movie. Although some might consider the ending exceedingly abrupt, I think it is very explosive, leaves the audience breathless, and forces them to deeply reflect on the movie as well as its strong, unsettling message. (DH)

My judgement: *** out of 4 stars

Friday, 12 March 2010

My Left Foot

Movie Review: My Left Foot

Year of Release: 1989
Country of Origin: Ireland, UK
Director: Jim Sheridan
Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Brenda Fricker

Plot outline: Based on the true story of Christy Brown who was born with cerebral palsy. He learned to paint and write with his only controllable limb - his left foot (IMDb).

Prior to 1989, not many knew of Daniel Day-Lewis - sure, he'd starred in a handful of British arthouse flicks in the Eighties, but he wasn't very visible in the cinematic consciousness. Jim Sheridan's directorial debut, My Left Foot changed all that. The deeply moving true story of cerebral palsy-afflicted and celebrated Irish polymath Christy Brown, My Left Foot is an alternately tough and tender movie that deals honestly with disabilities, hinging upon Day-Lewis' utterly compelling and award-winning performance. Unfolding contrary to the usual "life-affirming triumph" biographies that Hollywood churns out, My Left Foot centers on the story of Christy Brown. Paralyzed from birth, he's written off as helpless and intellectually stunted - his strong-willed mother (Brenda Fricker, who collected an Oscar for her work) begs to disagree. By encouraging Christy to use his left foot (his only controllable limb), he soon learns how to write and becomes a famous author, artist and fundraiser. As he comes into his own, he also falls in love with his nurse. Nominated for five Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress) and winner of two, Sheridan's unblinking veracity lends an air of raw realism to what otherwise be an insufferably tear-jerking story. As it stands, the movie earns the right to pluck heartstrings, doing so in as unsentimental a way as possible. (PJ)

My judgement: ***1/2 out of 4 stars

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Cheaper by the Dozen

Movie Review: Cheaper by the Dozen

Year of Release: 1950
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Walter Lang
Cast: Clifton Webb, Jeanne Crain, Myrna Loy, Betty Lynn

Plot outline: Based on the real-life story of the Gilbreth family, Frank Gilbreth, Sr., a pioneering efficiency expert, tests his theories on his large family (IMDb).

The story was originally a book by Ann Gilbreth, Frank Gilbreth’s eldest daughter. It is very difficult to say how close the movie is to the experiences of the real family, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were very close. What parents of 12 children wouldn’t be experts of time efficiency? Frank Sr. is a very funny father. He is a quirky, endearing, loving and crazy man. Such characteristics make for an interesting father. One disappointing part of the movie is that you do not get a full sense of each character. You see a few crazy things Frank does and you laugh. But you really don’t understand exactly how the children feel about their father’s behaviour. You get to love Frank and like Lillian, and Ann, but you don’t know anything else about the remaining 11 family members. The rest of the characters were made to be so unessential that I don’t even remember their names. Now it isn’t to say that this is a bad movie or anything like that. It is definitely a fun family movie to watch. But it was more like watching one 86 minute long episode of Leave it to Beaver. I think I would have really liked to see the entire family incorporated to make it funnier, even if it meant that the movie would be longer. (KV)

My judgement: **1/2 out of 4 stars

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Because of Him

Movie Review: Because of Him

Year of Release: 1946
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Richard Wallace
Cast: Deanna Durbin, Charles Laughton, Franchot Tone

Plot outline: A young woman who wants to break into the theater schemes to become the protege of a famous Broadway star (IMDb).

Although Deanna Durbin gets the top billing, the movie unquestionably belongs to Charles Laughton. His performance is magnificently expansive. This, unfortunately, can not be said of Miss Durbin. Her vocal chords are as melodious as ever, but she only sings three songs: "Lover," "Danny Boy" and "Goodbye" - obviously because she is so busy acting. And incidentally, all Durbin's efforts to convince the great John Sheridan that she is a promising young actress, quite worthy of becoming his leading lady, ironically fail until she overwhelms him with a rendition of "Danny Boy." The point is that she sings the sentimental Irish ballad with a true feeling for its pathos. An encore would certainly, have been in order. On the whole, the movie is a pleasant-enough entertainment, chiefly because Mr. Laughton had the wisdom to toss restraint out the door. Franchot Tone plays a polished playwright - it would be nice to meet an unpolished one for a change - with a high degree of petulance and naivete, while Helen Broderick and Donald Meek fare a little better in lesser roles. But the fact which can't be stressed too strongly is that Miss Durbin should make the most of her greatest asset: her voice. (NYT)

My judgement: ** out of 4 stars

Friday, 5 March 2010

Gorillas in the Mist

Gorillas in the Mist

Year of Release: 1988
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Michael Apted
Cast: Sigourney Weaver, Bryan Brown, Julie Harris, John Omirah Miluwi

Plot outline: The story of anthropologist Dian Fossey, centering around the extensive work she accomplished with gorillas, and her murder in Rwanda in 1985 (IMDb).

Gorillas in the Mist tells a life story that many people already know: what Dian Fossey accomplished and what happened to her, but it doesn't tell us who she was, and at the end that's what we want to know. Here is a movie that has gone to great lengths to be technically accomplished - the shots of the apes are everything we could wish for - but the screenplay has been skimped on, and there is a person missing here somewhere. What we are really dealing with here are two stories that do not fit together very easily. Do we care more about the public Fossey, or the private? Is her work more important, or her madness? In these modern times we demand the whole life. We say we are realists and don't want the autobiography cleaned up for a "screen version," but the result is a movie that is much more depressing and shapeless than it should be. The parabolas are wrong; Fossey's work fills us with joy, but her fate fills us with confusion and dismay. Perhaps a Hollywood cop-out would have been more satisfactory, with Fossey against the bad guys and everyone assigned their role, and some kind of a happy ending.We leave the theater feeling that when Fossey was buried in her beloved jungle, the third act of the movie was buried there, too. (RE)

My judgement: **1/2 out of 4 stars

Thursday, 4 March 2010

It Started with Eve

Movie Review: It Started with Eve

Year of Release: 1941
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Henry Koster
Cast: Deanna Durbin, Charles Laughton, Robert Cummings

Plot outline: A young man asks a hat check girl to pose as his fiancee in order to make his dying father's last moments happy. However, the old man's health takes a turn for the better and now he doesn't know how to break the news that he's engaged to someone else, especially since his father is so taken with the impostor (IMDb).

Deanna Durbin had a beautiful singing voice and was an accomplished pianist. That may have been what drew the audiences of the day to her movies, but what makes It Started with Eve entertaining isn't the music, which is secondary, but the side-splitting comic situations the characters find themselves in. The characters are real, not actors in a comedy punctuating comic moments. For example, when Durbin and the scene-stealing Charles Laughton sit at a table in a nightclub and laugh themselves silly over something amusing that happens involving a lambchop. A lesser comedy would have played the gag straight-faced, evoked the requisite laughs, and moved on. Here, the characters laugh with the audience, elaborating on the silly hilarity of the gag with short phrases spat out between guffaws. In addition, there's more substance to the movie than the usual situational comedy. Mixed in are some engrossing emotional moments - and unlike many comedies that do this awkwardly, these are neither gratuitous nor disruptive to the movie's flow. (AAG)

My judgement: *** out of 4 stars

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Far from Heaven

Movie Review: Far from Heaven

Year of Release: 2002
Country of Origin: USA, France
Director: Todd Haynes
Cast: Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid, Dennis Haysbert, Patricia Clarkson

Plot outline: In 1950s Connecticut, a housewife faces a marital crisis and mounting racial tensions in the outside world (IMDb).

In doing research on homosexuality for the movie, Todd Haynes discovered that the '50s weren't as repressive as he first thought. "There were breakthroughs in the late '40s and in some writings, doctors were saying that this was not a sickness and that you really can't change it. So it was actually more progressive than I thought," he says. The movie's three main characters are all oppressed yet Cathy's suffrage is the most extreme. Frank can hide beneath the guise of heterosexuality and Raymond can move to another state but there's no way for Cathy to conceal her gender. Haynes begs that we apply his latest "woman's picture" to the world today. Fifty years after the events depicted in this movie, do we treat blacks, gays and women much differently? Elmer Bernstein's score punctuates key moments with expert precision, complimenting the tone of the characters' voices and the traumas written on their faces. When Frank enters an underground gay bar, the camera evokes the character's fear with a splash of menacing greens and muted reds. More remarkable, though, is how the movie seemingly loses its color when things begin to go wrong for Cathy. Haynes seemingly suggests that there is no need for labels (gay and straight, black and white, inside and outside) if people are willing to listen to others. Cathy is drawn to Frank not because of his race or because of her own sense of not-being but because he is willing to listen to her voice. Here is a movie of great humanism that applies as much to the '50s as it does to the world today and everyone who inhabits it. The movie's final shot evokes a changing season and perhaps a changing cultural tide. (EG)

My judgement: *** out of 4 stars