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Interesting failure, lovable but infuriating
22 October 2005
This interesting failure shows us how Disney, never content with being an entertainer and businessman, had intellectual pretensions--sometimes magnificently realized (as in Fantasia), rather less well here.

I say this as a great fan of this puzzling but lovable attempted documentary in cartoon form. The pool table sequence goes on for far too long, and contains very little actual math (the same could be said of the whole movie). Disney ultimately lacked the courage of his pretensions, and the movie positively drowns in these little pop culture references, possibly included to forestall charges of elitism. The closing sequence lurches into what we would nowadays call "Intelligent Design" territory, and a reference to God's guiding hand is squeezed in at the last minute, perhaps to placate red-state viewers.

So what you are left with is a mishmash of elegant, graceful animation (some of the finest ever committed to screen) combined with a jarringly superficial treatment of the subject. And yet, and yet; the opening segment, with the waterfall of numbers and the jam session with the Ancient Greek mathematicians, has a sense of wonder and hallucinatory magic that has rarely been equaled. And there is always Donald, our favorite everyman, who learns that math isn't just for eggheads, after all.
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Richly textured, imaginative meditation on German unification
24 April 2004
The early slapstick in this movie evolves in a markedly different direction, asking the question -- to what extent do we who live in the globalized, brand-oriented West really have it better over those who survive under dictatorship. That's not a tough question for American audiences, but Europeans--and Germans--are bound to feel more deeply ambivalent. In the film, the son becomes increasingly committed to protecting his sick mother from the horrors of Western capitalism -- just as the Communist authorities imagined, however wrongheadedly, that they were doing with their own citizens. As the movie progresses, the family apartment becomes a shrine to those who miss the old ways and the old customs, to wit, a quiet pride and a discreet but powerful family cohesion (much less evident in the divorce-prone West).

This is mainly a fantasy, a meditation on childhood nostalgia and cravings for stability and order, and how these are bludgeoned aside by progress. One of the most profound European films in many years.
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Whale Rider (2002)
A beautiful, powerful picture
11 September 2003
Beautifully acted with some of the most soulful performances you are likely to see, this movie has moments of stark beauty that will snatch you away from your petty everyday concerns. The astonishing NZ landscape is a character in its own right.

In his stubborn insistence on the letter (rather than the spirit) of tribal custom, the Maori chief -- grandfather of the heroine -- ends up dishonoring the very values he holds dear. Instead of seeing reason and passing the baton directly to his granddaughter, he ostracizes her. For a long period, the chief seems a man whom time has passed by: dignified, proud, for sure, but vaguely irrelevant... until the movie's climax when his culture's ancient verities are resoundingly and unexpectedly reaffirmed and he is reconciled with his granddaughter (no mere child, but something far more important) at last. Whale Rider treats Maori culture with respect and seriousness; but the movie's message is universal.
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Blue Car (2002)
Interesting and worthy, defying conventions
11 September 2003
Here is a movie that convincingly defies expectations; the young heroine is not a flouncing Lolita but just a kid, and her innocence makes her final depravation all the worse. Her teacher's infatuation with her is not immediately evident and he covers his tracks initially quite well. The long-awaited resolution is thoroughly excruciating and a penance to watch. This is a script in which there are no easy exits or soft options. It is liable to be upsetting to some -- not a date movie.

Technically, the movie is sound except for an abrupt shift in tone half way through which is not properly set up or handled. Watch out for the perennially wasted Margaret Colin (as the clueless mom) in another role which does her no justice. One hopes against hope that Hollywood will find good material for Agnes Bruckner as she grows older.

This is in many ways a profoundly conservative film; and conservatives and liberals will debate whether the young heroine's broken home is the catalyst for her creative inspiration or the touch-paper that triggers her downfall. Well worth seeing, this is an indie flick to its core which deliberately avoids any of the usual satisfactions of major studio product.
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A British movie with kick!
27 April 2003
The latest in a growing pool of movies focusing on culture clashes in Great Britain, "Bend it Like Beckham" combines a number of familiar conventions with plenty of innovative touches. One constant theme -- airplanes soaring ahead from Heathrow Airport -- reflects the characters' desire to surmount the repressions of their suburban environment and fulfill their dreams. This is decidedly un-British, and all the better for it!

The leading ladies are both excellent -- the girl who plays Jess is an especially sensitive actress, and Jules (Keira Knightley) will be lighting up our screens for many years to come. You heard it here first.

The director is painstakingly indulgent toward the Asian society from which Jess is inexorably seeking to escape. Indian homes are seen as vibrant, colorful, an endless source of delicious food, and a protective cocoon for ordinary women with no career ambitions, like Jess's sister. But our sympathies never leave the ambitious and individualist Jess, not for an instant.

There are a few strange editorial segues, but by and large, this movie marks a step forward for British film; gritty kitchen-sink dramas are all very well, but the snap, crackle and pop of "Bend it Like Beckham" is a vast improvement, and leaves much hope for the future, as do the movie's young actresses. Bravo!
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Joan of Arc (1999)
A challenging role
26 April 2003
Joan is perhaps the most female difficult role to cast. The actress must be attractive but not conventionally alluring; magnetic but not intellectual; a towering figure but physically slight. You must understand why people would die for her. Above all, the performer must convey an authentic sense of religious piety, a virtual impossibility for young actors today. Sandrine Bonnaire--a wonderful star in every other respect--tried her hand in the recent French version but was too sexy for the part.

As Joan, Sobieski juggles the disparate requirements astonishingly well. This is emphatically not the kind of movie in which the actress can merely show up and look decorative; you have to work at it, but as Sobieski revealed in Uprising, she has the capacity for challenging period roles. And that also means that in contrast to her female peers in the business, she has a long professional future.

Watch out for O'Toole in an astonishing performance as a Cardinal who gradually realizes that Joan is the real thing.

The culminating scene--no details provided, you must see it yourself--is curiously uplifting and properly theological rather than merely unpleasant.
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A grand classic, far ahead of its time
26 February 2003
Many film lovers will identify a watershed movie that signaled Hollywood's drift away from Hays Office values and censorship, and MP is a good candidate -- I propose the precise moment when Veda Pierce announces she is to have a baby out of wedlock. Today, to achieve the same impact and to show the same degree of degradation, young Veda Pierce would have to have ended up as a stripper rather than as a cocktail singer. But what is surprising is the degree of impact and relevance that MP retains.

Observe the timeless issues this wonderful film explores: female dissatisfaction with domesticity; the need to juggle work and children; the battle of the sexes; the need for self-advancement and self-actualization. And consider the other dimensions which make this a uniquely American moviegoing treat: how inherited wealth dampens the work ethic; is fast food good or bad?; what role there is, if any, for lazybones in a workaholic society; sexually harassing males, and how women are forced to work alongside them.

A women's picture this may be, but from an era when Hollywood treated the genre as a worthwhile field deserving of the best scripts and directorial resources. No Oprah-esque simpering here; it is laced with bite and testosterone from the sound of the opening gunshot. The much underrated Joan Crawford knew this was the role of her lifetime and gave it her all, but with surprisingly effective understatement. "Mildred Pierce" is now out on DVD, and all should see it, and learn.
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The Pianist (2002)
The kind of movie I thought they had forgotten how to make
15 January 2003
Connoisseurs of fine film, here is an epic for you. Be warned, the first half is exceptionally violent, although the mood shifts to one of suspense in the second half. Although this site jointly recommends "The Pianist" along with Schindler's List, Spielberg's movie is more Middle American than Central European in flavor; Polanski has a much firmer hand on the material, he understands all the ramifications in a way that others cannot. Superb ensemble acting, especially from Frank Finlay and Emilia Fox. Fine pyrotechnics and stunt work (with one stunt in particular, I cannot figure out how they did it). As a spectator, you really feel you are in the midst of the Warsaw Ghetto, among suffering people about to die. Good to see Polanski back on form, any shortcomings are incidental (the pianist's friendship with the decent Nazi soldier at the end of the movie seems a little too good to be true, although is apparently based on fact). This film is Polanski's gift not just to the Jewish people, but to the Polish people. It is a movie for those, like me, who admire the Jewish people for all they have achieved and who take due note of all the unspeakable horrors they have endured through time, which must never be forgotten. "The Pianist" is *THE* holocaust movie.
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Tendentious, but important
6 November 2002
There are interesting things in this tendentious and meanspirited movie. Moore's own history as a gun-owner and teenage rifle champion enables him to earn the trust of the gun-owners he interviews. And he has a certain affection for small-town American life that shines through his reflexive political correctness. He is a good magpie of amusing snippets of old TV and movie footage. And he scores one major coup -- it is astonishing that Charlton Heston in the closing interview should be so inarticulate, offering no support for gun rights -- a side of Moses we don't usually see.

But Moore's grasp of foreign policy is nonexistent and he assumes that everyone shares his politics. Despite his smarty-pants downplaying of crime and terrorism, there are bad people in this world, who would show men like Moore no mercy. Moore misunderstands Canada in the manner typical of first-time visitors to that country. He confuses exceptions to rules with rules. And the idea of Moore's being some kind of moralist who can shame the USA into admitting its wrongs is a giant laugh.

But precisely because of the documentary footage he has put together, this is worth seeing.
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Kung Fu: Pilot (1972)
Season 1, Episode 0
A towering moment in American TV history
17 August 2002
A watershed moment in the history of American television. All who fondly remember the TV series should make a point of seeing the pilot, which is a beautifully crafted, lovingly executed piece of work.

It marks, also, the first of Kwai Chang Caine's many adventures in the Wild West; Caine takes up a job laying railroad tracks as part of a gang of cruelly mistreated Chinese immigrant workers. Extensive flashbacks tell the story of Caine's childhood in China, joining the Shao Lin temple after being orphaned, and partaking of a rigorous program of intellectual and physical development.

Thus the pilot combines a fairly conventional Western narrative with a dazzlingly innovative Eastern sequence, which is very much the heart of this movie. The producers did their homework, took infinite pains, and the results speak for themselves. Magical sets, moody photography, and meticulous research create an unforgettable impression; to give but one example, observe the moment when the two Kung Fu masters demonstrate their long choreographed sequences of moves on the temple grounds. Most heartwarming of all are the performances (as Masters Kan and Po) by Philip Ahn and Keye Luke, superb actors who had slogged through two lifetimes of unrewarding ethnic parts in cinema and on TV until each at last achieved the role of a lifetime.

Good work in the American half of the story by Hollywood pros Albert Salmi and Barry Sullivan, plus a stalwart Asian-American cast who went on to lend distinction to the regular episodes in the 3 seasons of KF that followed (Benson Fong, James Hong, many others). And spare a thought for David Carradine, who combined a mix of decorousness and stubbornness and turned this into one of the most unusual characterizations in the history of television.
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Even non-fans should enjoy this one
17 August 2002
A pretty fair movie, much sharper and also more waspish than Presley's later 1960s efforts with Ann Margret, and sprinkled with some pointed jabs at the music industry. The Title Sequence is sparkling and Presley's raw magnetism is something to behold (he was no disgrace as an actor). Violent fist-fights. And a very strange but haunting scene, when Hunk Houghton (Presley's prison cellmate) bursts into song (an African-American Spiritual).
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Slap Shot (1977)
Enjoyable romp
20 July 2002
In Slap Shot, a hockey club hires a trio of thugs to beef up its mediocre hockey team.

Fresh and unexpected, this is one of the best of Paul Newman's mid-period movies (also note "The Drowning Pool"). Set vaguely in Canada or upstate New York, the picture loses steam in the second half and gets bogged down in soap opera; but the memorable first match appearance by the Hanson Brothers--the aforementioned thugs--is a magical movie moment, not to be missed.

"Slap" takes the time to investigate an array of pro sports themes: sadistic player violence; boorish sexuality; fan behavior; fan loyalty to athletes and vice-versa (or total absence thereof); the bloodless, detached world of athletic club ownership. But the film is better than the snide satire it has been portrayed to be, and in its own manic way, it conveys much of the joy of sports.
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An oasis in a desert of bad movies!
5 June 2002
Painstaking attention to detail, a fine script, and a congenial cast make for one of the happiest movie-going experiences in a long time. If you're tired of Zoolander, Freddie Got Fingered, and all the rest, here is a movie for you.

Kirsten Dunst is very pointedly listed as the star -- and those who have any qualms about her aptitude for period roles should take a look at her performance as the little Nazi girl in "Mother Night", or later in "Little Women." Hollywood doesn't have a clue what to do with interesting actresses -- Dunst deserves better than "Bring it On."

I especially liked the scene where Dunst, as Marion Davies, stumbles upon Charlie Chaplin, who has decided to fall asleep rather than join in a sexual threesome. Dunst's facial expression reveals pleasurable surprise that her lover -- at least this time -- has not betrayed her.

As an Brit. based in Washington, I had not seen Eddie Izzard before (these blind spots are an occupational hazard facing expatriates). He is elemental, a force of nature, combining destructive and creative urges in equal measure. His rival for Davies' affections -- newspaper magnate Hearst -- is initially a boorish figure, but later comes across as the only person aboard ship with recognizably human emotions.

Delightful to hear the unjustly underrated Paul Whiteman's music on the soundtrack.
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Strange but compelling
4 May 2002
A film of surpassing strangeness, with some surprisingly potent erotic scenes. The Net seems remarkably silent on the subsequent career of Veronique Deschamps, who takes the lead role of the tomboy, Pietro. Can this striking young actress have made only a handful of movies? Don't be put off by the hearty settings in the Swiss alps -- you'll find no yodeling or cuckoo-clocks here. Warmly recommended for all admirers of French film.
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Richly enjoyable adventure
8 October 2001
Time has not faded the immense charm of this 1960s classic, which builds unstoppable momentum with one dazzling set-piece after another. The chill of horror you'll experience when Talos, the Giant Man of Bronze, awakens from his slumbers is palpable and mesmerizing. The climactic "Children of the Night" sequence has never been bettered, recent technological advances most emphatically notwithstanding. Easily the best of the sword-and-sandal epics, and fun for all the family. Don't hesitate!
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The crowning achievement of British TV, still unsurpassed
4 August 1999
Impeccable in casting, sets, dialogue, and period feel. All of the principals are magnificent; but the actors who play Stephen Gardiner and Robert Barnes are simply extraordinary. The much-maligned Keith Michell is still the best Henry this century, easily brushing aside Robert Shaw, Richard Burton, and Charles Laughton. Michell's combination of vanity, insecurity, overweening machismo, and determination to stay top dog at all costs is painful but fascinating to watch. This TV series does full justice to all facets of the Tudor period; best of all, it reveals extra magical touches with each re-viewing. Which means, in short, that this is a video which you should buy, rather than rent.
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