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Strictly for kids
I've never read the Harry Potter series, but many adults have told me they are worth a look. In fact, it's pretty remarkable how many post-teens are into this book series. It sort of left me wondering what was it about second childhoods, and how much clever people make by cashing in on them.
Watching this movie gives you a sense as to the deeper value of the Harry Potter series, though just a sense. The universe of Harry Potter, at least what's presented on-screen, is packed with colorful personalities, fantastic backdrops, and some very clever magical objects. At its center is a character that brings together the best of Luke Skywalker and Frank Merriwell, while recalling and reclaiming a slightly antique British identity in line with Victorian explorers and "Chariots of Fire." I think I get it now.
But this movie tries to do too much with the source material. Judicious editing would have been a good idea. As it is, the movie spends more than 2 1/2 hours giving lip service, and often not much more, to bits of business that seem pretty extraneous by the time the credits roll. Even the central plot elements seem tacked on and inadequately dealt with. What was Alan Rickman's character's place in the story? Did we really need to spend so much time with Harry's unpleasant uncle and aunt, given the fact they are gone and forgotten 20 minutes in? Doesn't any kid at Hogwarts feel the least bit jealous at all the attention the doting faculty spends on precious Harry?
The story also moves a wee bit too easily. No real challenges face our hero. Everything that happens to Harry happens with such minimum fuss and so much applause from the surrounding characters that it gets a bit tired, even if the actor playing Harry is good at remaining sympathetic and projecting wonder. By the end, when the solution to a crisis at hand is literally dug out of Harry's pocket, I sort of shrugged and thought to myself: Of course. It's Harry Potter.
I can't believe all these bookreaders, not to mention those kids running around with their brooms and glasses on Halloween, fell for such denatured yarn-spinning. There's something good at the core of the movie, and it's likely the vision of the author as presented in the novels, but it doesn't come across well here. The producer seems more interested in giving every beloved book nugget its own turn on screen than in telling an interesting story. You may go in in search of your inner child, but you'll end up just feeling 160 minutes older than when you went in.
Riding in Cars with Boys (2001)
Sure it's manipulative, but it's very good, too
There's a scene in "Riding In Cars With Boys" where Drew Barrymore delivers one of the most poignant scenes in hers or any other actresses' career. She sits in a fan-backed chair, a prisoner at her own wedding, her eyes like sponges registering all the hurt and anguish she is feeling from family and friends, all because no one really wants to be there, least of all her. For much of the rest of the film, Drew's Bev will alienate us with her selfishness, even cruelty, towards those who give her love, but we the audience never stop caring about her, because Barrymore never loses that core truth of the little girl trapped in the awfulness of her basic humanity.
"Boys" is reminiscent of another movie producer James Brooks had a hand in, "Terms of Endearment." In both, a complex tangle of interconnected relationships are worked out in a meticulous, unblinking way. There's humor and pathos served up in equal, occasionally simultaneous amounts, and some unpredictable twists that keep the audience on their toes.
But here's the thing: "Boys" actually earns its tears. The emotion and heartbreak here feels real, not piled on with a trowel as it was in "Terms." Sure, there's some business involving a child's tooth and some other business involving the Everly Brothers' "All I Have To Do Is Dream" where you can feel the strings being pulled. But it works, and there's no use trying to penalize the composer for writing an effective melody. No surprise cancer deaths, no convenient astronauts living next door. "Boys" is based on a true story, but anyone would recognize it for one even if it didn't say so in the opening credits.
Great acting all around, great '60s ambiance. Nice to see my home state getting some attention, but I'd have liked it had they actually shot some of the film in Connecticut, rather than New York and New Jersey. (Why was that, anyway? Union issues?)
I'm surprised to see this movie isn't scoring a higher IMDb rating, or isn't catching fire in a bigger way at the box office or critics' circles. It's a better movie than "Terms," which is not enough towards saying it's a great movie, full of the stuff of life, that will probably be bopping a lot of people over the head in its second go-round on cable and video. I'm just glad I got the chance to catch on to it early.
Support Your Local Sheriff! (1969)
1969: The last great year for westerns
There hasn't been a decade since 1969 as loaded with classic Westerns as was that one year: "Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid," "The Wild Bunch," "True Grit," "Once Upon A Time In The West," and this one, the least appreciated but easiest to watch.
James Garner is such a comfortable onscreen presence, it's hard to appreciate all the fine work he does in this film. It's a clever comedy that is perhaps a bit too anxious to please, but can make you laugh all the same. The supporting actors are tremendous, too. It's funny to see Dern play such a naif, but Brennan has the best time of it. His expression when Garner sticks his finger in the barrel of Brennan's pistol is priceless.
No scorpion fights, no blown-up trains, no Italian dubbing or even Strother Martin. But I can't think of a better family movie, or just something to beat the blues.
The Tailor of Panama (2001)
A couple of stitches missing, but still a decent fit
"The Tailor of Panama" is an adaption of a good John le Carre novel, which is in turn an adaption of a better novel by Graham Greene. There's nothing wrong with lifting the plot of "Our Man In Havana," especially since le Carre acknowledged this at the outset and managed to do some interesting things with his story. "Tailor" is a fine rumination on the costs of political and personal deception, more downbeat than it needs to be, but le Carre isn't in the business of writing happy books, and he manages to create a pair of interesting characters, in the way-over-his-head title character, one Harry Pendel, and his more opportunistic partner-in-crime, the corrupt and corrupting British agent Andy Osnard.
The movie manages to do right by one of these characters, anyway. Pierce Brosnan is inspired casting as Osnard, a clever rake with a heart of lead. As transparent as all that is, it's hard not to like him and admire his randy gusto. Brosnan gets off some funny lines, mostly as he's getting ready to hop into bed with one of his female co-stars. Like Olivier's Richard III, you dislike him, but you can't help but be entertained and wish him better than he deserves.
I can't get behind Rush's performance, though. Part of it is the trouble of playing a character whose greatest interest in the book comes from his internal torments. Director John Boorman helps out by having Pendel be visited by the image of his dead Uncle Benny as the plot thickens, and these surreal scenes do work when they happen. But Rush seems to have based his characterization on Alec Guinness's Fagin from "Oliver Twist," and he doesn't quite have the screen presence to carry off his more over-the-top scenes. As Harvey Kornman from Blazing Saddles" might have put it, "too Jewish."
The movie does a good job of conjuring the vital, sleazy ambiance of the book's Panama City, and what Matthew Wilder in an earlier review here said so well, "the melancholy of ordinary human characters caught in the cogs of wheels too large for their imagining" which has been le Carre's M.O. since "A Small Town In Germany." The scenes in the British embassy come across particularly well, though without some of the complexities and character insights that made the same scenes more involving in the novel.
What I missed most in the movie was the sense of Pendel's bad intelligence taking on a life of its own. Here we just get the feeling right away that he is spinning some threadbare fiction no one would rightly believe if they weren't seduced by the smell of money. It doesn't help that the characters of Mickie Abraxas and Marta, Pendel's allies in the novel, are not sufficiently developed in the movie. Brendan Gleeson actually outhams Rush in the former role, while Leonor Varela is wasted in a handful of scenes and never given her proper place in the story's spotlight.
What else was wrong? Too much exposition, especially at the outset. We already know everything about Pendel's and Osnard's dicey backgrounds before the titles are over, and the novel's best scene, a cold opening of the pair meeting for the first time at Pendel's shop, is stripped of its juice because there's no reason for us to wonder why the conversation is taking the turns it does.
One improvement over the book was the ending, not as downbeat and catastrophic on film as it was on page. Seeing Osnard winging away scot-free and unbowed was nice, but the overall impact of the conclusion still leaves one cold. Does the punishment meted out to Pendel really fit his crime?
I liked this film on the whole, just not very much. I can easily understand the attraction of the story, and hope it finds the thoughtful audience it deserves. It just could have been better. How much better? Watch Sir Alec in the movie version of "Our Man In Havana" and find out. And the next time Hollywood wants to make a Graham Greene movie about flawed heroes in Latin locales, they should take a good look at still-cinematically-virgin "The Power And The Glory." Now that would make a good movie.
Still the finest scare comedy
When Abbott and Costello were good, there was no one to touch them. Here they were at maybe their best, working with a great script and their best-by-a-mile concept. I prefer "Time Of Their Lives" as a film, but this is their finest hour or so as comedians.
As someone who grew up watching A&C Sundays at 11:30 AM in the NY area back when Cheech and Chong were the comedy team of the moment, it's great to revisit this one and see how well it all stands up. It's also nice to think, with all the personal sadness and cinematic dreck he was forced to go through, that Bela Lugosi managed to bat 1.000 in playing his greatest role, as he only played the Count in two film classics, this and "Dracula."
Playing the monsters straight probably was the best idea the filmmakers had, but there's other good stuff here. These guys were not resting on their laurels. The scenes with Chaney, the final chase, the dames (two for Lou, none for Bud), the music, all of it well-thought-out and very effective. Would the film have been better with Karloff than Strange as the Monster? Probably not, as the Monster is the least interesting character of the monster trio by necessity of plot (he's weak and needs to be continuously charged up by Drac, necessitating the immediate operation on Lou.) Karloff would have detracted from Lugosi's role more than adding anything of his own. Besides, Strange is very good.
Too bad Vincent Price couldn't make it when Bud and Lou went up against the Invisible Man for real two years later.
Double Indemnity (1944)
Poignant touches, master design
It's not hard to put a finger on why "Double Indemnity" is so good. The acting and story are both so mesmerizing, it's hard to say anything more than what's rightly been said about them already. Barbara Stanwyck makes the gas chamber seem a small price to pay, while Fred MacMurray pulls off the trick of making a loathsome character sympathetic to the audience. Edward G. Robinson deserves a better class of cigar for the fine work he puts binding this whole thing together, by working simultaneously as MacMurray's trusting foil and instrument of his doom.
But what makes this film work, and hold up so well more than half-a-century later, are the small touches. The clever opening (the killer reveals his identity in the opening scene) puts us on early notice that attention will need to be paid. Attention is rewarded, by the many little bits of business that are next to nothing on their own but make a great picture better when taken as part of the whole.
* The opening conversation between a taciturn Walter Neff and a chatty elevator operator. We don't find out until a little later why Walter's so gruff.
* How Neff accurately reads what Phyllis is proposing before it's even out of her mouth, tells her so, and then walks away. Was there ever a more unpromising beginning to a film noir tryst than this? Yet it shows us the guy has brains and some sense of morality, which makes his subsequent fall more of a challenge to accept, and more involving once we do.
* The thumbnail match-lighting that goes on throughout the movie, usually at witty moments of simultaneous understanding and deception between Neff and Keyes. (Bet the Ronson people were glad this was one movie fad that didn't catch on.)
* The problem with the car starting, which may seem a cheap bit of momentary suspense except when you think how it underscores in retrospect Keyes' great speech of murder accomplices sharing a trolley ride to the cemetery.
* The fact that the only time the three main characters in the movie share a speaking scene together, it's one dominated by a fourth character, the supercilious insurance company president. His "suicide" theory, as delivered to the Widow Dietrichson, is perhaps the funniest moment in an often-very-funny film, closely rivaled by Keyes' subsequent, satisfying dressing-down of his boss. (What an exit line: "Next time I'll wear a tuxedo!")
I'd say more, but I'm heading into spoiler country, so I'll let it go with a "must-see" recommendation, and this point about the last scene: Did you notice how Fred's last cigarette was soaked with blood around the middle, from being in his jacket pocket when he was wounded? So even the small enjoyment of a smoke would soon literally be cut off by his culpability in the crime. Gotta love that iron code of irony in film noir!
For Love of the Game (1999)
Pretty boring film that, like a pitcher wondering whether to throw to home or first on a suicide squeeze, suffers from a fatal case of indecisiveness. Is it a romance or a sports yarn? So it tries to do both, and fails. Too bad "The Lou Gehrig Story" was already done. Ostensibly about a pitcher trying to end his career with perfect game, it develops no excitement about this prospect up until the eighth inning. Before then, we get flashback after flashback, sometimes flashbacks within flashbacks, documenting what is, except for the celebrity of one of the participants, a pretty desultory romance.
Kevin Costner is quietly effective, though perhaps too quiet to wake up viewers lulled by the drony dialogue. Kelly Preston has a big vein on her forehead, and not much notable screen presence besides that. Even John C. Reilly is forced to spout some howlers ("We'll be awesome for you!") And Vin Scully! How did they make you utter a line like "A Chapel pitches a gem in the Cathedral of Baseball"? That wasn't thunder in the sky; it was the sound of Mel Allen groaning.
Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)
Golden-age film offers great gangster yarn and metaphysical struggle
"Angels With Dirty Faces" has been called the gangster movie of the New Deal. Previously, with such early-30s films as "Little Caesar" and "Public Enemy," gangster films at their best were engrossing actioners with charismatic but undeniably evil central figures. "Angels With Dirty Faces," released in 1938, presents a more nuanced view of what makes the modern bad man tick. Is it a bad heart? Or is society to blame?
Cagney is undeniably great in the role that made him a legend. His practiced patter never wears thin, and his screen presence is electric throughout. (Especially at the end, and I don't mean that as a pun.) But the screenwriters never let us forget the good in the man. We see him come up against more ruthless elements of the underworld, people like Bogart (a real baddie here) who have no compunction about killing a man if it means avoiding payment of a heavy debt. We see him interact with a group of starry-eyed juveniles (The Dead End Kids) whose nickel-and-dime antics fill him with a poignant but heartily-amusing nostalgia. And we see him try to do right by his former partner in crime, now a priest played by Hugh O'Brien.
But Cagney is trapped by the circumstances of his life. He can't walk away from a life of crime, which has made him what he is and gives him the only life satisfaction he knows. He's correctly on guard for double-crossers at every turn. When cornered, his cheery face becomes bug-eyed and menacing. We know he's bad, but we like him, and that puts us in the company of the audience-surrougate figure, Father Connolly.
Director Curtiz was an auteur before his time, filling his canvas with images of downtrodden street life. This isn't for mere effect, but to show us why Rocky is what he is and how come he finds little hope for his redemption. There are souls to be saved in this picture, but for Father Connolly, they are Laurie and the boys. He must take on his childhood chum, the same kid who saved Connolly from the perils of the Mean Streets and allowed him to become what he was.
It is a choice between God and friendship, and while Connolly has little doubt which way to go, the audience may not be with him all the way. The ending points up this spiritual conflict in some of the most harrowing terms ever brought to screen at that time. When you really think about what's going on behind Connolly's face in that final scene, it's a real tear-inducer.
Was Rocky's last scene a put-up job? I guess it can be argued back and forth, but the real question of value is whether, if it was faked, was it enough to perform a miracle even the good Father Connolly wouldn't have quite believed in, the salvation of Rocky. The last image of the boys, desolately accepting the news of their hero's fall, is at once triumphant and bittersweet. Nothing comes easy in this world of ours.
"Angels With Dirty Faces" may strike a falsely optimistic note to some, but it is optimism well-earned by the honesty of vision expressed. Add to that clever dialogue, great pacing, and one of cinema's keystone performances by Cagney, and you have a real keeper here.
P.S. It also features one of the finest Cagney impersonations ever, by William Tracey as the young Rocky. Funny stuff.
For Your Eyes Only (1981)
Best Bond of its decade, but not a good decade for 007
It's hard to give just a 7 to this movie, because it holds a special place for me. The filmmakers went for something sincere here, using the Fleming books for more than title fodder and adding many interesting wrinkles of their own. They had just made their biggest box office killing with the last Bond release, the ridiculous and formulaic "Moonraker," so changing direction and respecting Bond's roots was a noble effort worth applauding.
I love Roger Moore in this film. He was my favorite Bond and really plays the role wonderfully here, with balanced measures of humor and grit. Topol is also great, and leaves you sort of wonder how come he doesn't land more good roles like this and the lead in "Fiddler on the Roof." Julian Glover makes a fine baddie, especially since he has to play his villainy closer to reality than other fiends in the series like Dr. No and Goldfinger.
There are some great moments here, though they are mostly small ones that catch your notice because they aren't what you expect in a Bond movie. The novelty of Bond actually turning down a roll in the hay with some nubile lovely because she's too young is quite funny, as is Bond's paternalistic chagrin when the girl laughingly tells him she's no virgin. (Moore's reaction shots here and throughout the movie are really good.)And how many other times did we ever see Bond become stalled as he infiltrated his enemy's lair in order to bind some minor character's wounds (and a bad guy at that?) It's funny because the director lets it drag out a bit and break up the rhythm while it adds to the suspense.
The action scenes in the film are a mixed bag. The car chase up and down a Spanish olive field is well-done and cleverly staged, with Bond again working against our expectations by utilizing a canary-yellow Citreon. I like the standoff at Kristatos' warehouse, too, it's tense and vivid and has a great payoff. But the ski chases around Cortina drag on too long, and the less said about that silly hockey fight the better.
The plotting is solid but draggy, there are lots of choppy edits (unusual since the film's director is an accomplished editor) and the Bill Conti score is often annoying. (The title song he did with Sheena Easton was lovely, though, and a film highlight.) And while Bond women have seldom shown off sharp acting skills, Carole Bouquet is wooden enough to have you looking for termites in that long hair of hers.
"For Your Eyes Only" is Bond atypically presented in a minor chord, and lacks the high thrills and big payoffs of other 007 movies. But for aficionados, and Moore fans, it's a film worth treasuring. Just make sure that you don't show this one first to someone you're trying to turn onto 007.
Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
Unusual Hitchcock outing scores winning performances
Joseph Cotten made one of the great screen villains ever with his Uncle Charlie, who gathers complexity not because of the possibility of his innocence (from the opening scenes it's clear Hitchcock is not playing that game) but because of the identification he elicits from both the viewer and from his niece. He's a tortured soul as well as a torturing one. Teresa Wright matches Cotten every step of the way, as a good girl who never falls into the stilted ingenue trap of the period. That confrontation at the back steps near the conclusion is a classic cinematic confrontation, and the menace is all hers ("Go away or I'll kill you myself...that's how I feel...")
The supporting players are uniformly fine, especially Patricia Collinge as snookered sister Emma and Henry Travers and Hume Cronyn as the comic-relief pair (the latter two do a lot to liven up some duller patches in the second half.) I may be the only one who feels this way, but I love Janet Shaw as that poor waitress Louise, the kind of person Charlie might have become if her uncle had his way. ("I've been in half the restaurants in town...Yes sir, for a ring like that I'd just about die.")
The most interesting thing about "Shadow of a Doubt" is the marriage of two great artistic visions, Hitchcock's belief in the core evil of humankind and Thornton Wilder's sunnier but no less complex focus on how society, informed with some sense of spiritual responsibility, can shape man for the better. There's a duality here that is presented to us in varying ways throughout the film, most successfully with the two lead characters, "twins" who live on opposite ends of a wide moral chasm.
I just wish this film moved a bit faster and that the characters weren't so marble-mouthed at times. I don't think this is MTV-era carping, it just feels slow for a Hitchcock film. Then again, compared to "Our Town," this is a Will Smith video, so maybe that Hitchcock-Wilder duality has its downside. I give it an 8, not tops but I really enjoy it and think you will, too.
The film that made Bond great
"Thunderball" is a solid addition to the 007 series, with great fights, fantastic locales, the finest bevy of Bond-women bar none, and Sean Connery giving his most relaxed and assured performance in the series. "Goldfinger" may be the movie which made Bond a social phenomenon, but it was "Thunderball" that gave it real legs and assured Jimbo would outlive his '60s milieu.
I can't give the picture more than a "7," however. On its own merits, apart from what it did for Bond, "Thunderball" not a great movie, or even an especially good one. The opening half-hour, as many have said, is very confusing and not a little dull. There are logic holes throughout, none fatal but increasingly annoying with later viewings. The underwater sequences are overlong and not particularly interesting to watch despite the wonderful score and the beautiful underwater scenery. I like Adolfo Celi as the lead villain, and Luciana Paluzzi was as good as bad Bond girls ever got, but I never felt Bond was truly menaced in this one, apart from the great Junkeroo sequence, which is really the highlight of the entire film.
Yet I still find myself watching this film and enjoying it again and again. Yes those questions still pop up, like "How come Largo has about a dozen henchmen swimming with him and the bombs, yet we see 007 kill more than 20 of them?" And "If Bond really attached himself to a floating line that was suddenly scooped up by a B-17, wouldn't it rip his torso in two?" You start to realize after a while, as the Austin Powers people did long ago, that catching such things, and realizing they slipped by you before, is part of the fun of watching movies like "Thunderball." From the '60s on, fun is what a good James Bond movie has been all about.
Too funny for words...
...but I'll try a few anyway. There is simply no better showcase for Peter Sellers' awesome talents. So often a Sellers film would disappoint in the script department, but here the priceless dialogue and clever situations keep coming. Sellers makes the most of them all, in his strongest-ever Clouseau performance front to back. Sure, he took bigger risks in his career, but his comedy compass was never this sure, nor would be again, at least in this laugh-out-loud kind of way.
Yet this is not a one-talent film. Not with Herbert Lom's maniacally over-the-top performance. We've seen Dreyfus before, but not like this. In the beginning, recovering in an asylum, he is a man who's sanity is delicately balanced on a razor's edge. After a well-intentioned but disastrous pep-up visit from Clouseau, who now has Dreyfus's old job, the balancing act is over. Dreyfus goes mad. He goes beyond mad, to a place Shakespeare's King Lear wouldn't even dare venture. I can't say enough good things about what Lom does with his character, but if anyone is interested in a blueprint for comic abandon, this is a good place to go.
In addition, Lesley-Anne Down is gorgeous and funny as the Russian agent who (mistakingly) believes Clouseau responsible for a loyalty-altering sexual experience. You have funny cameos from Graham Stark (as the German hotel clerk whose dog doesn't bite), plummy Leonard Rossiter, randy Omar Sharif, and even a voice-over from Mrs. Blake Edwards herself, Julie Andrews, who dubs the voice of the singing butler in the gay bar scene. Whoever played Ford and Kissinger (kids, ask your parents!) deserve kudos, too.
Blake Edwards also shined here, directing a true comedy without let-up which allows for all sorts of crazy situations and hysterical reaction from Sellers. The two did that just a couple of other times, in "A Shot in the Dark" (my second favorite Panther) and "The Party," which isn't as funny as "Strikes Again" but is nearly as endearing, with Sellers playing an Indian variation of his fish-out-of-water Clouseau. See "The Party" if you haven't already. Better yet, see "Strikes Again" again. It never grows tired.
Did I mention that terrific animated titles sequence?
Au revoir les enfants (1987)
Lived-in feeling gives sad film great depth
The movie was a project close to Louis Malle's heart (he was in tears when the film premiered at a film festival in 1987) and it shows in the multi-layered treatment he gives the central setting, this fascinating boarding school with its broad cast of characters. Because there are so many different strands and affecting moments tangential to the central plot, one is not entirely prepared for the finale even if you are expecting it. French film is characteristically digressive, often to a fault, but here it works to splendid advantage. It also lends itself to repeat viewings.
I don't think you need to have lived in occupied Europe to appreciate this wonderful film; it speaks to all of us who have lived through childhood's quickly-passing parade and know its lifelong regrets. That last image of the stone wall is emblazoned in many consciousnesses, as it is in mine.
There are many interesting choices Malle makes in this film. For example, while the central subject is the Holocaust, nearly all the Germans we actually see in the film are fairly decent if nonetheless menacing types. The real villains here are almost entirely French collaborators, which was done I think to call attention to collaboration during a period when the French were dealing with the Klaus Barbie trial. [Barbie was a Gestapo officer who was aided in his work rooting out Resistance leaders by many French collaborators.] But casting French people as the heavies also suggests the central evil of prejudice and oppression is not something exclusive to one nationality, and it broadens the scope of the movie.
The tender treatment Malle affords the Catholic hierarchy in the movie is unusual, too, when you see other more anti-clerical Malle efforts like "Murmur of the Heart." There is an unexpected sense of spirituality throughout this film, somewhat muted but there all the same.
This may well stand as the cinematic masterpiece of a man who, at his best (see also "Atlantic City" and "My Dinner With Andre") was to motion pictures what his countrymen Zola and Hugo were to novels: An artist who filled his canvas with the verve and breadth of human life.