Archive for 'Films'

Films I saw in 2013

June 5, 2013 by , under Films.

  

 Films I Saw in 2013

(New reviews are added each evening)

 

Watching Films is our way of fulfilling a deep-seated need

to nestle ’round the campfire listening to our Story Tellers.

This is when and where we express our fears of the Unknown,

debate the Mystical, and find support for our assumptions about

the Sunlit World.

 

CODES: “again” = I’ve seen it before, “WOTO” = We Own This One, “IMDB” = my opinions also found on The Internet Movie Data Base site

Below are the majority of the films I’ve seen to date this year. Those most recently viewed are placed at the top of each selected category.

Last updated: 11-11-13

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2013 MOVING PICTURES * NEVER enough time, SO many films

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1.
“FILMS THAT WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE”

“Shoah” (International documentary, 1985):  By Claude Lanzmann, this 9 ½ hour French documentary is unique and very important within WWII/holocaust history.  (Caveat: I have access to only 2 ½ hours of the film.)  What is unique – and uniquely powerful – is that no archival film footage is used.  The entire project was done (openly and covertly) forty years after the war by interviewing survivors, participants, perpetrators, the uneducated, and those in denial.  Lanzmann is brilliant in gaining the casual confidence of those he interviews, and, with the use of interpreters, quickly gets below the surface of people’s psyches and memories.  This film is about content, not style.  There is no concern for stylish shots or fancy editing.  This is a serious accumulation of devastating revelations.  You will never again believe anyone who said/says “I knew nothing!” 

“Rebirth” (2010):  This is a ten year documentary which follows a small group of people who survived the 9-11-01 murders in New York City.  They are interviewed each year.  We watch them age, rage, cry, feel guilt, loneliness, alienation, and a thousand other emotions.  “Rebirth” will not change your life because it is about the terrorist attack on 9-11 (although that IS enough) – it will change your life because it is a first-hand guide you should keep and use for the pain that has come (or will come) into YOUR life.  These people – in various ways – paid high prices for their knowledge.  It came to them unwanted and hated, but they were stuck facing each day as best they knew how.  Over ten years they learned a few things.  “Rebirth” is very sad but equally inspirational as you see average people – just like you and me – wrestle with the ultimate questions year after year after year, and find little places of peace in which they can live.  Bless them for sharing their wisdom.

“Le Quattro Volte” (“The Four Times”) (Italian, 2010):  What a wonderful consideration about the cycles of life/lives!  Inspired from Pythagoras’ concept of the “four-fold transmigration of the soul”, the director Michelangelo Frammartino created an exquisitely sensuous, understated non-dialog film.  Embedded in it are cycles within cycles, all reflecting parts of the Bigger Picture in elegant, quiet, sad and humorous ways.  All things must pass.  All things are connected.  All things play their parts.  This IS a unique work of Art.  A MUST for the art film lover.

“A Film Unfinished” (2010):  This is a documentary brought about by the discovery of never-before-seen raw film footage shot by the Nazis for use in propaganda films against Jews, combined with narratives from Jewish prisoners’ secret journals kept in the Warsaw ghetto, and interviews with victims, victimizers and collaborators.  Shown are various “takes” of supposed spontaneous Nazi documents of Jewish depravity, greed, etc., using either actors or cherry-picked prisoners who no doubt thought if they cooperated they’d find some sort of “relief” from their current, fragile existence.  This film is very informative, sad, and difficult to watch.  It is not for the faint-hearted, but is for those who want more truth.

“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” (again, French, 2007):  Directed by painter Julian Schnabel.  I prefer his film making to his painting!  This is a profound, true story scripted from the original, autobiographical book by and about a man who, due to a stroke, ends up “a vegetable”.  How he – and to a certain extent, others – deal with “it” is a fascinating subject made uniquely visual through the talents of the cinematographer, sound and lighting people, director, actors, etc..  Why so unique?  Because you see the film through the eye and mind of the paralyzed man, Jean-Dominique Bauby, former editor of Elle Magazine in Paris.  HE created the book.  The “vegetable”.  This is a sad, frightening, artistic, and very uplifting film.  WOTO

“The Crucible” (again, 1996):  This has been, is, and will continue to be one of the most powerful scripts and films of my life.  Prepare for a slow, steadily increasing pitch of concocted insanity which builds in 17th century Salem Massachusetts, as a group of silly, flighty girls set the stage for their conniving parents to begin a “witch hunt”.  The mass hysteria, greed, ulterior motives, threats, and power plays intensify until you – right along with the residents of Salem – cannot fathom or manage another moment of this delusion.  Arthur Miller wrote this American Icon during the McCarthy “Commie hunts” of the early 50′s.  There are GREAT sets and costuming.  There is superb acting by Daniel Day-Lewis, Winona Ryder, Paul Scofield, Joan Allen, etc.  I am awestruck by the power, intelligence, and soul of this TRUE MASTERPIECE.  I do not use these words lightly.  This film WILL change your life.  WOTO

“Annie Hall” (again, 1977):  Simply one of the most innovative, interesting, insightful films you will ever experience – again and again.  THIS work announced Woody Allen would never again return to slapstick comedy, and would instead draw from deeply personal sources in the manner of other serious artists.  It’s innovative for his use of static camera shots allowing characters to leave (or never enter) a scene (yet you hear their conversation), subtitling of thoughts vs spoken words, movies within movies, the use of animation within a “normal” film, giving the dialog to other actors on a stage, characters who leave their bodies and still carry on conversations, characters who break from the film and talk to us the audience, split screen depictions of different times or places with the characters speaking to one another across the splits, flashbacks of characters who describe their futures… superb breaks from what is expected.  It’s interesting on more than artistic levels, as Allen delves into references far beyond the mundane, and presents them with wit, humor, and awkward honesty.  It’s insightful for his honest and thoughtful look at how humans behave under different realities.  “Annie Hall” is a masterpiece.  (And watch for many lucky young actors (such as Jeff Goldblume, Christopher Walken, Shelley Duval, etc.) who, thirty years ago, could only dream that “Annie Hall” would help kickstart their hopeful careers.  WOTO  IMDB

“The Best Years of Our Lives” (again, 1946):  If you love Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life”, you’ll love this one too.  However, this one takes on even more serious issues (and using less humor) at THE time they were happening: soldiers returning from the war, and EVERYONE trying to adjust.  It’s a very patient (170 minutes), evenly paced film that refuses to cut corners or avoid what needed to be faced.  We come to know three soldiers with different military experiences, ages and social classes, a variety of home lives they must face, job opportunities (or lack of), and physical or psychological wounds.  On the other side are those to whom they return – who have missed them terribly or learned to “get along” without them, and do not understand what their soldier experienced.  Acting, dialog, scoring, sets, situations, characters are especially gritty for 1946.  It won numerous Academy Awards, and was selected at one of the most important films of all time by the Library of Congress for the National Film Registry.  Directed by William Wyler, Starring Myrna Loy, Fredric March, Dana Andrews, Teresa Wright, Hoagy Carmichael, Virginia Mayo, and Harold Russell (who won Best Supporting Actor, AND was given a special award for “bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans”.  This is a no-nonsense, dramatic, often profound film.  WOTO

“Taxi Driver” (again, 1976):  Martin Scorcese hires Robert DeNiro, Jodie Foster, Harvey Keitel, Sybil Sheppard… and the rest is history.  This is one of the Top 5 character studies of all time, and a truly great Film Noir.  A socially awkward taxi driver can’t emotionally connect with anyone… and the pressure builds… and builds… and builds.  WOTO

“Bug” (again, 2007):  “Pi”.  “The Fight Club”.  “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?”  “Thelma and Louise”.  “Memento”.  “The Trial”.  “Sid and Nancy”.  “Clean, Shaven”.  “Eraserhead”.  “They Might be Giants”.  Somewhere within all these films – yet standing entirely on its own – is “Bug”.  Ashley Judd is AMAZING (as is Michael Shannon), with strong support from Harry Connick Jr. and Lynn Collins.  Originally a stage play, “Bug” is one fascinating, FASCINATING story.  It has one goal, and it meets its goal driving faster and faster in one unswerving direction.  As of this year, I have placed it here in my top category because it has implications we all should interpret and consider: issues about reality, conforming, status quo, relationships, love, and support.  Many questions are asked in this hot house environment.  Only they, you, can find the answers.  No one else has your answers.  Fascinating.  Nerve wracking and insane, but fascinating.  WOTO.  IMDB 

“The Piano Teacher” (2001):  Directed by the reliably unique Michael Haneke, written by Nobel Prize winner Elfriede Jelinek, starring Isabelle Huppert, Annie Giradot and Benoit Magimel, this is a story not for the psychologically or sexually squeamish.  Like all of Haneke’s films, he delves enthusiastically into that which remains taboo and outcast.  Meet a punishing piano teacher, her oppressive mother, and an admiring young man too willing to take chances.  The acting is superb, the script full of patient and disturbing signs, and the overall atmosphere is one of cold, hollow, harsh, self-imposed danger brought on by mental issues controlling the characters like puppets.  This is a serious character study of the highest order which will not be “enjoyed” but certainly “admired”.

“All About Eve” (1950): Each year I see A LOT of films. I’ve always believed I’d seen “All About Eve”.  I seemed to feel so “familiar” with it. I was wrong. This is a famous film and I absorbed it without a single viewing. Well, NOW I’ve seen it and I understand why it’s an Icon. Nominated for fourteen Academy Awards (winning six including Best Actress for Bette Davis, and Best Picture), this is a patiently plotted, conniving, sharp-tongued battle of wits not only between characters but between the script and the audience. Anne Baxter also stars (along with many others, and up-n-comers like Marilyn Monroe). “Eve…“ could easily be interpreted as a mere 138 minute soap opera, but would be wrong. The writing and acting make it much more. This is the stone heart and soft underbelly not merely of the theater world or Hollywood, but Humanity. Greed, jealousy, manipulation, lust, treachery, selfcenteredness… it has it all in spades. This is a masterpiece of reminders and warnings. WOTO

“Day of Wrath” (Danish, 1943): One of my favorite films of all time is the silent “The Passion of Joan of Arc” (1928) by Carl Theodor Dreyer. The entire “script” was taken word-for-word from the real court inquisition against Joan of Arc. It – the facts, the acting, the photography, the Art of it all – is ASTOUNDING. Fifteen years later, while Denmark was under Nazi occupation, Dreyer made “Day of Wrath” – a metaphorical film set in 1623 within a small village full of paranoia and hopelessness, accusations and punishments. If you are familiar with Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible”, you will see its inspiration coming not only from the early 1950s Commie Hunts (once again couched in metaphors) but Dreyer’s work. “Day of Wrath” is dark and patient with an increasing sense of disaster. Look for no relief in this dedicated, superb work. It starts low and goes down from there.

“Shackleton’s Antarctic Adventure” (2001):   Though not of the depth or equal to the quality of “The Endurance” (2000), this made-for-Imax documentary (with useful recreations where needed), is an hour of striking photography and shocking information.  It DEMANDS you ask yourself “At what point would I have given up and been happy to die?”  Outside of war, there was perhaps NO circumstance more dramatic, demanding, and documented than Sir Ernest Shackleton’s expedition attempt at survival on the south axis of the world, completely isolated, frozen in the ice, running out of food, with seventy below temperatures and one hundred mile an hour winds… for what was an “eternity”.  I, for one, am not the equal of any of these men.  If you find this film amazing, please see “The Endurance” and a quality recreation “Shackleton” (2002)* with Kenneth Branagh.  Each are unique and add their own pieces to this puzzle.  WOTO

also:

*“Shackleton” (British, 2002): This is a recreation of the infamous 1914-1916 Ernest Shackleton expedition to cross the entire Antarctic continent. Starring Kenneth Branagh (a good indicator of quality projects), the film is a three and one half hour depiction of obsession, deprivation, torture, and the fight to not lose all hope. I have seen at least three films on this expedition. Each one adds insight, yet each one omits aspects and downplays various circumstances. This version is a little sloppy in depicting the horrifying cold and wind of Antarctica, which here appears to often be nothing more than an inconvenience. None the less, this expedition is one of the most amazing feats of survival in recorded human history, and is not to be left ignored.

“7 Days in September” (2002): This is amateur documentary film footage shot in New York City on 9-11-01 and for the following week. It is well assembled, and gives most of its attention to the feelings of those who experienced the trauma first-hand. I have collected available film from this attack. No two collections are alike. They are all worth viewing. Never forget.

“Elmer Gantry” (again, 2 hrs. 27 min., 1960:) Brilliant. Without a doubt, Burt Lancaster deserved the Academy Award for Best Actor. He took Sinclair Lewis’ character and RAN with it. This was wonderful casting. His over-the-top, shit-eatin’ grin and relentless glad-handin’ were perfection for a drifting grifter of a con man who used and abused everyone while leaving many of them still happy he’d been there. He was everyone’s back-slappin’, lip-kissin’, butt-squeezing’ best acquaintance. Also starring was Jean Simmons, Shirley Jones (who also won an Oscar), Dean Jagger, Arthur Kennedy, Patti Page, and lots of character actors and perfect looking extras who filled out this 1920’s setting in the Bible Belt Midwest with its traveling Revival shows. Prepare yourself for a dark, bitter look at the colorful carnival of Bible thumpin’ corruption. Everyone – on both sides of the tent canvas – is as secretly dirty as they come. Everyone has their angle. Everyone has their agenda. Everyone has everyone.  I do not have this film in my collection.  I WILL get it.

“Of Mice and Men” (again, 1939):  This was the first adaptation of John Steinbeck’s brilliant, contemporary novel – seen by audiences during their Great Depression about their Great Depression.  It was nominated for Best Picture of the Year, and remains my favorite of the three versions I have seen.  (Five were created.)  It stars Burgess Meredith, Lon Chaney Jr., Betty Field, Noah Berry Jr., and lots of good character actors.  The producer was Hal Roach, the director Lewis Milestone, and scoring by Aaron Copeland.  Photography and lighting are exquisite.  The second version (done in 1981) is weak and lacks believability.  The third version (done in 1992) is very strong (this too is in our collection), but lacks the “here and now” feeling of the original.  Other versions – 1968, 1975 – I have not seen.  The 1939 original still tears my heart out.  WOTO

“Albert Nobbs” (2011): This is the first 2013 entry into my top category. “Albert Nobbs” is a quiet, smart, dramatic, well-crafted, character study. It patiently leads you to powerful levels of emotion and meaning. Unblinking, you, like Nobbs, stare at everyone caught in their societal “positions”. The story is intimate, painful, sad, frustrating, and reeks of past, present, and future tragedy. Yet, there exists a “bigger picture” – holding wisdom worthy of reminder no matter how heart aching. Glenn Close is the central character. She is astounding. She carries the film. The supporting cast is great – no doubt about it – but here there is no film without her. The photography, scoring, editing, etc. are all very fine – all supportive – all aimed at keeping the films’ intent on track. It is seldom I put a film in my Top Category after a first viewing. This was a first viewing. WOTO

 

2.

“ FILMS EASILY WORTH TWO HOURS OF YOUR LIFE”

 

“A Beautiful Mind” (again, 2001):  The first time I saw this film it blew my mind (pun intended).  The storyline parallels “The Sixth Sense” or “Fight Club”, but “A Beautiful Mind” is a TRUE story… an amazing story.  Actor Russell Crowe studied with the real man (“Nash”, who he portrayed), and the film was approved by Nash.  It is assembled expertly (directed by Ron Howard, photographed by Roger Deakins), putting you in the same convoluted mind as this brilliant and tortured man, which is a frightening and frustrating place.  At times, it left me literally gasping for breath.  The film holds all the high standards one would expect AND it’s a creative effort to show nearly impossible states of mind.  The acting is great by all, but it’s Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly (Nash’s wife) who are the awe-inspiring leads.  KNOWING this is a true story forces its way into your consciousness – “How would I handle this if it were me?”  See this film, appreciate your life, and hope you too have someone who loves you beyond reason.  WOTO

“A Letter to Three Wives” (1949):  Starring three lovely actresses: Jeanne Crain, Linda Darnell, and Ann Southern.  The story is simple but interesting, especially within the context of its being made soon after WWII.  Three women – friends – suddenly find themselves on a day-long outing pondering the quality of their marriages after receiving a written message from their fourth (absent) woman friend who claims she has now run off with one of their husbands.  Though somewhat quaint in the issue of gender roles, remember this IS 1949, and WWII took a high toll on many people in many subtle ways.  The fact one woman was ALSO in the military adds additional depth to what could’ve been nothing more than a soap opera.  The film takes on issues with a more honesty and openness and unflinching stares than many films even today.   WOTO

“Apocalypse Now” (again, 1979):  This is not a historical film about any war.  It doesn’t even pretend to be “reality”.  This is an incredible, surreal depiction of insanity at all levels brought on from stress and lack of consistent rationale, set within a war zone (our war in Viet Nam, in this case).  It is an expression of nightmares – contradictions that make sense only to those who are living them.  Francis Ford Coppola created a masterpiece of psychological horror.  Martin Sheen becomes our eyes as we meet and experience those who have gone before him and not made it out for one or more reasons.  Also starring Robert Duval, Marlon Brando, Lawrence Fishburn, Sam Bottoms, Frederic Forrest, Albert Hall, and Dennis Hopper.  All the films’ components add to the theatrical, dreamlike, unreality of this story.  Lighting, scoring, photography, acting, sets, costuming, script, dialog, you name it – all used for one goal.  This is a very pure film.  WOTO

“Ghost World” (again, 2001):  Modern Teen Angst.  Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson star along with Steve Buscemi, Terri Garr, Brad Renfro and others in this nihilistic comedy-drama about best girl friends, who, upon graduating from their high school hell, try to establish the next phase of their lives… with varying degrees of… hmmm… not exactly success… but… something…  If you liked “Welcome to the Doll House”, “Crumb”, “Happiness”, “Rocket Science”, “Election”, or “Napolean Dynamite”, you’ll somehow like this one too.  It’s sarcastic, dark, alienated, funny, pathetic, and way too often true.  WOTO

“La Dolce Vita” (Italian, 1960):  I like this film.  I like it a lot.  I like Federico Fellini’s films from “La Dolce Vita” back, whereas forward we end up with that “all of life is a carnival” staging which can be foreseen in his earlier work but without the relentlessly frantic, narrower feel.  I prefer the earlier films full of quieter desperation looming like the proverbial elephant in every party room and boudoir.  Here is where he and Michelangelo Antonioni (one of my favorite directors) agree… where Existentialism and Nihilism share their stories.  “We have the moment.  We have little else.  …Oh well.”  What separates Fellini from Antonioni is a tiny, momentary sparkle from a glass splinter of hope causing discomfort.   WOTO

“Stalingrad” (again, 1993, German):  By the same people that made “Das Boot”, “Stalingrad” comes with a certain amount of automatic respectability.  I am not disappointed (except for the lighting of interior scenes).  This is an epic film about Hitler’s attempts to conquer Russia during WWII – Stalingrad being one major downfall for the Germans.  Just as in “Das Boot”, the viewer is WORN DOWN right along with the soldiers.  Relentless violence, fear, depravation, arrogant Generals, and brutal weather were only relieved by death. Think “Full Metal Jacket” meets “Saving Private Ryan” meets “Das Boot” (no Hollywood romance here).  Be prepared.  WOTO

“Behind Locked Doors” (1948): With caveats: the acting is, well, okay-to-poor, but the story is sort of interesting (!), and the Noir b/w lighting and photography is wonderfully textured and composed.  A real visual treat.

“Brothers” (again, 2009):  Directed by Jim Sheridan, starring Tobey Maguire, Jake Gyllenhaal, Natalie Portman, Mare Winningham, Sam Shepard, and two very talented little girls (sorry, I don’t have their names at the moment).  This is the story of soldiers and their loved ones – of loss, change, wounds, guilt, fears, sadness, lack of words, pent up pain, wanting to give up, wanting to hold still, wanting to move forward, and trying to find, then undo, the blame.  It is a frightening, terrible, horrifying scenario laid before us – and WE are the ONLY people allowed to see all sides and the truth.  WE have the insight, empathy, and dread as the only clear-headed ones involved.  If YOU could just scream at them to HOLD ON!  TALK!  OPEN UP!  ADMIT!  BE PATIENT!  PLEASE!!  The acting is amazing.  Expect to end up very tense – you’ll need a shoulder massage.  This is a very fine psychological drama.

“It Happened One Night” (again, 1934):  One of the classic Depression era “road movies”, this Frank Capra comedy starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert never fails to entertain.  A disenchanted rich girl meets up with a drunken, shifty newsman for a haphazard journey with questionable goals.  What more do you need?  WOTO

“Osama” (Afghanistan, 2003):  Award winning and inspired from a true story, this is the first film to come out of Afghanistan after the removal of the Taliban.  However, the story is set BEFORE they were defeated.  It is a harrowing look at what happened not only to adults and parents, but to children.  Expect constant tension, acts of desperation, and pain seared into the soul.  Director Siddiq Barmak used no professional actors, only citizens of Kabul.  Apparently they needed little “coaching” to express their emotions.  WOTO

“Rendition” (2007):  This is a solid, intricate, tense drama starring Meryl Streep, Alan Arkin, Jake Gyllenhaal, Reese Witherspoon, and Peter Sarsgaard.  It’s another one of the catch-terrorists-before-more-goes-wrong stories, but it’s a good one with plenty of people to dislike and distrust.  WOTO

“Les Miserables” (again, 1998):  This is a GREAT film version of social consciousness in the 19th century.  Starring Liam Neeson, Geoffrey Rush, Uma Thurman, Claire Danes.  Lush filming, great acting, solid story telling, grand sets and costuming… and no singing.  THIS is the version you want to see.  WOTO 
Should you be especially interested in film versions of this story, see:
“Les Miserables” (1933):  This film on dvd comes in three parts totaling 279 minutes.  At one time, audiences were appreciative of long, complex stories.  They didn’t need everything stated and resolved in 22 minutes – they had an attention span.  This is THE definitive interpretation of Victor Hugo’s novel.  The photography is flawlessly inventive and artistic.  The scoring is everything from subtle to emotional and sweeping.  The story is, of course, HUGE.  Like other authors of that time, the use of irony was a major and wonderful device.  Expect the film to expect YOU to keep up.  The acting is all over the map – from superb and aware to stiff and overstated (from the only-then-dying silent film era).  The sets and costumes are great; the landscapes and cityscapes sometimes contrived as flat imagery.  This film, like “All Quiet on the Western Front”, is a must-see example of what powerful, early film making can be.  IMDB 

“They Drive by Night” (1940):  Starring George Raft, Humphrey Bogart, Ann Sheridan, and Ida Lupino.  Top notch Great Depression Working Stiff drama about two blue collar brothers trying to keep their lives together under the typical, trying times of that era.  Though not quite a Noir in style (there ARE Good Guys and daylight in this story), it has all the features of a Morality Tale with a rich, 1940 look.  I knew nothing about this film, and I’m thrilled to have discovered it.  WOTO

“True Grit” (again, 2010):  Count on the Coen brothers to give you interesting, quirky characters whatever the setting.  Here they take an old “John Wayne” vehicle and make it their own: a young girl comes into a rough town asking for help to find the killer of her father.  She’s looking for a man with “true grit”.  She wants justice, yes, but she also wants vengeance.  Enter Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a very disreputable lawman who is a slurring mess of a bum and nearly-random killer.  She decides he’s perfect, prods and bribes him into her hunt, and off goes the film.  Also starring Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, and a sizable group who create wonderful odd, sleazy characters, this intimate but sweeping Western was photographed by the great Roger Deakins.  WOTO

“The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler” (again, 2008):  A made-for-tv Hallmark production that rises above what I’d come to expect from the greeting card company.  Anna Paquin stars as a woman driven to save children from the Nazis and their Warsaw ghetto during World War II.  Though not at the level of “Sophie’s Choice” or “Schindler’s List”, there is something of both stories in this harrowing depiction of good against evil, and, since it is true, deserves to be known.  WOTO

“This Must be the Place” (2011):  Perhaps the strangest, stylized role Sean Penn has ever taken on – a wealthy, retired, child-like rock star from the 1980s – this story is carried almost entirely on his shoulders.  It is a mesmerizing look at someone who at first seems entirely incapable of thinking or acting, but as he sets out to conquer fears and find specific answers, we see he is much more complex than first assumed.  I need to see this film again – not because I’m debating the quality of the work, but the story left me debating whether I would’ve taken it in another direction.  It’s simply too early for me to decide.  Also starring is Francis McDormand, with supporting roles by Harry Dean Stanton and other talented people… but it is Penn’s film.

“Die Nibelungen – Siegfried and Kriemhild’s Revenge” (German, 5 hours, 1924):  The Kino release of this restored epic by Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou is a dandy.  It includes a small booklet with the two discs to help you prepare for and understand the VERY GERMAN Journey you about to undertake.  Set in the Ancient Time of the Gods, warring Nordic and Asiatic tribes fight for domination all the while looking like exotic versions of what was fashionable in 1924 Germany and Austria.  Think Vikings meet Secessionists and Wiener Werkstatte.  It’s a complex tale of honor, heroes, vows, violence, treachery, and doom… big, heavy, dark Doom.  Germanic Doom.  Ironically (?), though made way before Hitler gained any traction, it was picked up by the Nazis as a film which spun nicely with their agendas and propaganda, and was re-released with minor tweaks guided by Joseph Goebbels.  This was a very expensive film to create, with special effects and sets still able to amaze.  Again, this is a FIVE HOUR film, but the discs divide it up at the intended “acts”, and is perfectly acceptable.  I used two nights.  Although I still enjoy Lang and Harbou’s “Metropolis” more, this is certainly a great film of the silent era.  Be prepared for dialog and narrative texts using the Old
German font.  Yikes!  WOTO

“Barton Fink” (1991):  I wrestle with “Barton Fink”.  I know I like Coen brothers films, and the strange atmosphere of “B.F.” keeps me interested, but I’ve never settled on WHY I like this one or what its main point might be.  That said, the acting of John Turturro and John Goodman is especially powerful, with other characters often caricatures who are “over the top”.  The sets MUST be considered another of the “stars” – that well-worn, aging, grimy, peeling Art Deco of 1941.  And certainly, the Coens owe a tip of the fedora to David Lynch’s film “Eraserhead”.  WOTO

“Fahrenheit 451” (again, 1966):  Quite “dated” in its presentation of the “future” (few film makers seem to get past their own sense of the contemporary), this is none the less an interesting idea worth following to the end.  Books are illegal.  The job of “firemen” is to find and destroy books.  All women look like 1966 Twiggy or Jane Campion, the decor is early post-modern (which fashion was beginning to dictate in 1966), the altered “future” vehicles are just plain clunky, the music track is heavy over the images (but eerily effective), and the future – so “far” ahead – still enjoys using rotary telephones and metal file cabinets.  You’ll find no hint of a computer-like machine anywhere in this future, but they DO have giant flat screen tee-vees on the walls.  Of course.  They’re controlling the minds of their civilians.  Now go kiss your books.  WOTO

“The Tillman Story” (again, 2010):  Documentary about the life, death, and lies built around Pat Tillman, football player-turned soldier in Afghanistan.  Through excruciating research, his family discovers the hidden truth about his being killing while in the service, and who – leading right to the top – was behind the abusive concoctions deemed useful by our government.  If you are still naïve about the mindset of governments, this will be an eye-opener for you.  YOU mean nothing until you are USEFUL to those in power, and, once you are no longer useful, you are sent back to nothingness… or at least they will try.  WOTO

“Cool Hand Luke” (again, 1967):  Starring Paul Newman, Arthur Kennedy, Strother Martin, Dennis Hopper, Wayne Rogers, Joe Don Baker and other actors you will recognize.  A minor offense lands a man in a Southern work prison.  He has no ability to bide his time or follow rules.  There is a price for the direction of his path, yet he becomes a symbol of rebellion and strength to the other inmates.  Who will win?  Who will THINK they won?  Who will pay what price?  Although “Cool Hand Luke” starts with “lightness” to its drama, the light slowly fades.  This is probably my second favorite film of Paul Newman’s (the first being “Hud”.)   WOTO

“Stories We Tell” (2012):  Actress Sarah Polley created a very interesting and sly documentary about her family.  It centers on the death of her mother.  The question is: In a family of story tellers with their own points of view, how do you find “the Truth”?  There’s more going on here than first meets the eye and ear. 

“Marie Antoinette” (again, 2006):  Starring the fantastic Kirsten Dunst, the mildly talented Jason Swartzman, the nearly unrecognizable Molly Shannon, Judy Davis, and [I challenge you to spot] Marianne Faithful.  Let’s get the problem out of the way first:  the film uses recent music, including Gang of Four.  Not a great idea.  Yes, I understand not only attempts to “sell” a movie to a younger audience and to give a “flavor” of youth to the new Louis 16th monarchy, but this was NOT the way to do it.  If anything, using more contemporary sounds – perhaps with traditional instruments – or some other exploration might have worked.  Sophia Coppola’s directing fell down here.  Now on to the rest of the film:  It is SO much better than I expected!  The sets, costuming, camera work, lighting, dialog, and acting were wonderful.  The decadence was overwhelming, and though you NEVER see the impoverished, starving French peasants (because you’re viewing the world through Marie), YOU KNOW they are out there, YOU know this is incredibly decadent, and you KNOW from your history what is coming.  Marie’s social and psychic transition from Austria to France is a surreal leap into the looking glass.  Any excesses Marie found or created were to divert her attention from the crushing rituals and pettiness of the French courts.  Had it not been for the score of “Marie Antoinette”, I would have NO hesitations about this film.  None.  IMDB WOTO

“Buffalo ’66″ (again, 1999):  Vincent Gallo is the reason this film exists.  He did EVERYTHING.  He wrote, directed, scored, performed… ALL of it.  This is a true Auteur film.  Christina Ricci was another shining star in this dark shuffle through lower-middle class life in upstate New York.  “Billy” (Gallo) is released from prison.  (You eventually learn why he was put in.)  He has his mind set on killing the guy who [Billy claims] is the reason he was sent away.  Coming from the ultimate dysfunctional family, but still wanting to “please” his parents, he kidnaps a woman tap dancer (Ricci) and demands she pretend to be his wife who loves him very much.  And THEN it gets bizarre…  “Buffalo ’66″ is SO quirky and weird you bust up laughing – out of nervous fear someone like him could be your neighbor or coworker.  Anjelica Huston, Roseanna Arquette, Ben Gazzara, Mickey Rourke, Jan-Michael Vincent, and other perfectly cast greats make for an “Eraserhead” mood set in the seemingly normal world of run-down Buffalo New York.  Harsh lighting, hyper-sensitive sound, off-putting color, grainy film, neurotic dialog… all add up to a solidly unique experience.  WOTO

“Farewell, My Queen” (French, 2012):  This is a rich period drama set at Versailles during the first four days of the French Revolution.  It is centered on the woman who attends and reads to Marie Antoinette while observing the comings, goings, and intrigues of an obviously corrupt Court and its denizens.  Not only does the story get more interesting as it moves along, but the costumes, locations, sets, lighting, detailing, etc. are fantastic and informative.

“Carnal Knowledge” (again, 1971):  Jack Nicholson, Candice Bergen, Art Garfunkle, Ann-Margret, Carol Kane star in this c. 25 year story of a friendship between two men and the women who happened to be in their paths.  It’s a dark look at common, immature men.  They’re pathetic.  The women have their flaws too, but this film is about two men and their inabilities.  It was a shocking film in 1971, and still carries its harsh edge very well.  WOTO

“The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” (again, 1956):  Starring Gregory Peck, Jennifer Jones, Lee J. Cobb, and Fredric March.  It’s ten years after WWII: welcome to contemporary America where there is peace, relative prosperity, and personal values that are becoming skewed.  Gregory Peck plays a man who works hard, pays his bills, and tries to find satisfaction in what he does… but then there are the others in and around his life…   You’ll have a tough time finding anyone else to like within his range.  They all seem to be working overtime to meet their fantasies and crush him in the process.  Plus, he’s trying to deny what the war did to him, but is plagued with flashbacks.  Peck is great, most of the other actors are also very good – good enough that you’d never want to meet them in real life.  WOTO

“The Invisible War” (2012):  Documentary.  Want to get angry?  Watch this.  It is about sexual assault and rape of both women and men in the Armed Services of The United States of America… NOT by “the enemy” but by fellow soldiers and the administration that protects them.  How?  See this.

“Bottle Rocket” (again, 1996):  Three buddies.  They have NOTHING going in their lame ass lives… except for their lame dreams of getting a plan and striking it big with the ultimate, lame crime.  Their energy, god bless ‘em, is commendable, but just SO lame.  They have no clue.  They’re caught in lameness.  If you love dry humor, you’ll love this one.  In the flavor of “Waiting for Guffman”, “Best in Show”, or “Welcome to the Dollhouse”, “Bottle Rocket” is worth your time.  This was Luke and Owen Wilson’s first film.  WOTO

“The Return of Martin Guerre” (French, 1982):  This is a fascinating true story of a young man in 16th century France who vanishes from his new marriage, returns (with explanations) to welcoming arms, only to then have his identity questioned.  You will feel like a ping pong ball in a tornado as the accusations, possible realizations, and admissions turns keep swirling around you.  Wonderful sets and costuming add gritty realism to this complex adult drama.  Starring Gerard Depardieu and Nathalie Baye.

“Fear Me Not” (Danish, 2008):  Fascinating story of a man who is considering retirement yet find life too quiet and unchallenging despite his family.  He secretly volunteers for a drug study, and begins to slowly change.  Great acting, moody dialog, and little clues on along the way still leave you unprepared for more than one realization.

“The Public Enemy” (again, 1931):  Starring James Cagney and Edward Woods.  This Prohibition Era film is presented as an “educational explanation” as to how good kids can go bad, and how we, as struggling Americans, must step in and turn them around.  And, it is shown in a year-by-year format.  It’s wonderfully simple and straightforward in its Melodrama, with a naïve presentation… but this film has essential truths.  Jean Harlow and Joan Blondell support but were simply box office dressing.  What this film does have – especially for its time – is an increasingly intense story line leading to an inevitable – and even now powerful – last scene.  I love how it was edited.  WOTO

“Smart Money” (1931):  Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney star.  This is the story of the rise and the fall of a small town barber who becomes a big time gambler.  Set during the contemporary Great Depression, the issues of money and power are never far away.  We see the weaknesses of an otherwise likeable fellow (Robinson) as he gets savvy in a world full of cons and leeches.  What is fascinating is his strange ability to retain an almost chronically manic optimism through even the worst of tragedies and ugly outcomes.  Also, expect some fine Art Deco sets, costumes, cars, and graphics.  WOTO

“The Loneliest Planet” (2011):  A young, engaged couple hires a guide to hike the Caucasus mountains of Georgia (Russia).  It’s a severe but beautiful land into which they head.  During this journey, they encounter themselves (and others) in unexpected ways, which requires time to ponder their relationship and themselves.  This is a casually paced, wide-angled, big-picture film requiring your patience, but the issues raised are interesting and the outcomes uncertain.  Talented actors, amazing landscapes, and a unique score add up to a worthwhile viewing.

“The Last Temptation of Christ” (1988):  Directed by Martin Scorcese, starring Willem Dafoe, Harvey Keitel, Barbara Hershey, Harry Dean Stanton, David Bowie, and more, screenplay by Paul Schrader, score by Peter Gabriel.  Knee-jerk “christians” had a field day with this one despite the fact it announces right up front this story does not reflect the gospels.  It’s a fascinating film.  Full of old world symbolism and mysticism, narrative reconsiderations, plot twists, character suppositions, story extensions, gore, sex, passion, and unfortunately stylish hair cuts for Jesus and Lazarus.  Except for that last point, this film brings me back to it again and again.  The “reluctant Christ” concept, the doubting followers, a very relaxed Pilot… all very interesting in relation to what has been the traditional story.  WOTO

“Beautiful Boy” (2010):  This is a straightforward story about a married couple already facing crises only to then face the loss of their son.  Acting by Michael Sheen and Maria Bello is superb.  Cinematography is intimate and often puts the viewer in a voyeur position.  “Beautiful Boy” is a sad film from start to finish.  However, there IS a process forming – a HOPEFUL process – which does keep you plowing through the pain.  Go in strong because it will wear you ragged.

“America America” (1963):  Written and directed by Elia Kazan, this is a retelling of the story of his Greek immigrant Uncle Stavros.  It is an epic journey full of setbacks, fears, mistakes, cruelties, and successes.  Beautiful b/w photography, good scoring, fine acting, and a forceful plot show the underbelly of leaving one’s country, trying to reach another, and the compromises chosen along the way.  “America America” was then and is still considered an important, honest film about trying to follow a dream.

“Anatomy of a Murder” (again, 1959):  I’d seen it before but I’d never really seen it.  I was too young and inexperienced.  Now I’m less of both.  If there was ever a Film Noir set around a courtroom drama, this is it.  Directed by Otto Preminger, starring James Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara, Arthur O’Connell, Eve Arden, Kathryn Grant, and George C. Scott, and beautifully scored by Duke Ellington, this is a well written, sharp edged story about a possible rape that is being considered by flawed, world-weary witnesses, investigators, and lawyers.  Upon its release, “Anatomy of a Murder” was actually banned in some locations for the dialog (a quaint concept now).  However, this is NOT a quaint film.  It is sophisticated, insightful, rich in character and legal wrangling, witty, and no nonsense.

“Aftershock” (Chinese, 2010):  In 1975, a huge earthquake in China killed a quarter of a million people in a matter of minutes.  This reenactment makes it personal.  DEEPLY personal.  This is not a “disaster movie” nor a mere soap opera, but an ironic, emotionally epic story about two families who faced immediate horrors and long term wounds.  Think “Sophie’s Choice” but in a different setting.  Almost flawless casting with great actors, acceptable special effects (which were not needed for much of the film), and a story line worthy of Thomas Hardy add up to an amazing experience.

“Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” (again, 2012):  This was good… COMPLEX and good.  It is SO good and SO complex my wife and I watched it two nights in a row last year!  (You have no idea how RARE it is for her to request such an action!)  The story is mainly set in eastern Europe, 1973.  The Cold War has dragged on for more than twenty years.  007 is nowhere to be found… no Aston Martins with ejector-seats.  The film has two main goals: to present the lives of Cold Warrior spying as a lonely, deadly game of paranoid Chess, and, to make certain every visual and audio component of this film creates a bleak, cold, dank, confusing, lonely, fearful feeling.  The score is fog filled with ennui.  Gary Oldman, in the lead role, is perfection.  All goals are met.  It is a very disciplined film.  You’ll find no flights of artful fancy where designers show chops simply to attract their next gig.  “One Hour Photo”, “The Ice Storm”, “The Blair Witch Project”, and “Vagabond” are other films which come immediately to mind for their “Problem set / Solution found” approach.

“Searching for Sugar Man” (documentary, 2012):  Pay little attention to the hype or you’ll be disappointed.  This film is about a guy who was an American musician in the late 60s/early 70s… then, the movie claims, he vanished.  Meanwhile, one copy of his recordings innocently slipped into South Africa (then under heavy control and censorship), and began being rerecorded and shared among the then protesting youth of that country.  There, he became a music/social idol.  Caveat: his music is mediocre and derivative – being one and two-shot attempts made three and four years too late trying to clone Dylan, Donovan, and other socially conscious artists, as well as entertainers like James Taylor, etc..  However, due to the tight controls of South Africa at that time, he seemed like a breath of fresh, vital air to those people.  This is the story of a series of investigators who try to learn what happened to Sixto Rodriquez, the musician and writer… and it is this detective work and the results which make the film so interesting.

“Platoon” (again, 1986):  If “The Thin Red Line” is a contender for the ultimate poetic film about war (and I say it is), then “Platoon” is the gritty, tense, realistic contender.  There is NOTHING soft, easy, relaxing, funny, or romantic about this story.  The acting is superb by all (the list is too long, although Tom Berenger, Charlie Sheen, and Willem Defoe take main characters), and each scene is a creation with only one goal in mind – to attempt an explanation of what it is to be a soldier in war, and specifically, the Vietnam war.  The photography is confusing and violent, the lighting leaves movement and perception in doubt, the sanity of the characters is fragile, and the scoring is both epic and era-driven.  This is Art on all levels.  WOTO  IMDB

“Sullivan’s Travels” (again&again, 1941):  Veronica Lake and Joel McCrea (whose comedic sense is not the equal of Lake), star in a pre-WWII, Depression Era story about a millionaire movie mogul who decides to make a “serious” but warm movie (“with a little sex”) – “in the spirit of Frank Capra” – about the hardships Americans are facing.  Convinced by one of his butlers that he knows NOTHING about the real world, he decides to be fitted with a “tramp costume” and set out for the “real” America, with only a dime in his pocket.  If THIS wasn’t pathetically funny enough, it only gets better thanks to Veronica Lake and the director Preston Sturgis.  I’ve always felt Lake did not receive enough credit for her ability to perform comedy just as easily as she did the vampy, noir-ish blonde.  Her timing, reactions, willingness to get down and dirty (literally), etc. is top notch.  Sturgis’ control makes for a uniquely good looking film, with rapid fire dialog exchanges and overlaps.  All THIS and STILL a “Capra-esque” message by the end.  What more could you fairly expect?  WOTO IMDB

“Paper Moon” (again&again, 1973):  Starring Ryan O’Neal and [real life daughter] Tatum O’Neal (age nine), with Madeline Kahn.  This is one of my favorite comedies of all time.  Sometimes hilarious, sometimes quietly witty (even sad or tense for moments), this deceptively smart film is RICH in feelings for the 1930s American Depression, the Midwest, bleak locations, plain folk, music, and velvety, silver-screen blacks, grays, and whites.  This is a “road” movie of sorts, populated with scammers, hookers, moon-shiners, bible thumpers, hillbillies, and potential suckers.  The story relationship between Ryan and Tatum is set as POTENTIAL father and daughter, but the chemistry is so wonderful it could only happen from their real history.  The ongoing battles of wit, struggles for control and occasional truces are brilliant.  Deadpan humor is the best, and they have it mastered.  The entire film is pure, unadulterated, sophisticated, down home joy.  You don’t want the film to end… but then you remember you can always watch it again.  Life is good.  WOTO

“Silkwood” (again 1983):  There was a whole slew of atomic / radiation / blast / corruption movies during this era.  “The China Syndrome” was a good suspense story which came out only three weeks before the real “Three Mile Island” atomic reactor mess.  “Silkwood” – based on a true story and carried to a marvelous level by a young Meryl Streep – has many of the “slew” components, however it is made much more complex and interesting by her performance as a common blue collar worker with no activist inclinations and lots of clumsy behaviors.  Directed by Mike Nichols.  Also starring Kurt Russell, and a very good (non-Vegas) Cher, along with a ton of actors (up-and-coming major stars) with small roles.

“Harlan: In the Shadow of ‘Jew Suss’” (2008):  This documentary has numerous levels: a look at the life of Feit Harlan, major film director in Germany during the Nazi era; the moral issues of an artist (or anyone else) working within a system currently holding power; and, the legacy one leaves for his/her family and country.  Being a student of WWII, I have seen the film “Jew Suss”. Overseen by Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Minister of Propaganda, it was designed to incite further suspicion, hate and action against the Jews in Europe during the 1930s and 40s.  The film is a “period” costume drama set in a former era of Germany in which the Good People (Aryans) of Germany let down their Guard and were infiltrated by the Bad Sub-humans (Jews) who use their conniving and evil actions.  In the end, the Good People, through direct and stern action, remove the Vermin (Jews) from their lands.  Yes, it’s that ugly, and was done in a manner effective for the average, slightly or uneducated citizen of that time.  The documentary takes on the various levels in part through archival film as well as interviews with many of Feit Harlan’s relatives.  Do they all have the SAME point of view?  Absolutely not.  With whom do YOU stand?  I don’t know.

“Christmas in July” (twice this year, 1940):  Written and directed by Preston Sturges.  This is a witty and humorous story about a man who faces sudden, apparent fame and fortune.  Plenty of sharp insights about people – the desire to be “in the know”, their greed, and a deep-down decency – drive the plot and dialog.  This is entirely enjoyable, fast-paced, and intelligent.  WOTO

“Moonrise Kingdom” (2012):  I can’t call myself a fan of Wes Anderson’s films… in fact, some I detest (“The Life Aquatic”, “The Royal Tennenbaums”), some bore me (“Rushmore”), but he also did “Bottle Rocket” which I loved… so, I keep an open mind with him and I’m glad I do.  I really enjoyed “Moonrise Kingdom”.  Despite the write ups labeling this a drama, etc., I found it a humorous and oddly sweet nostalgia/young romance film.  I will see it again.  Plus, Mark Mothersbaugh’s scoring was very good.  The overly stylized photography (nearly ever shot is structured as a symmetrical composition) seems obsessively art oriented without a functional justification (though most people will not notice this).  I simply found the story and the actors – especially the two central kids – charming and funny in the same sort of odd, true, bittersweet way kids are presented in films such as “Stand by Me”.

“High Noon” (again, 1952):  Gary Cooper plays such a low key role as the successful, retiring sheriff of a small western town that it’s easy to slip into the passive slumber in which most of the towns’ citizens tend to exist.  THEN, from out of the past, comes the Threat.  With the old sheriff retired and the new sheriff yet to arrive, who will confront a proven evil?  “High Noon” will blow apart most of your Hollywood stereotypes of Old West characters, and may cause you to ask why, in 1952, did this unexpected story struck such a strong chord with the public and critics alike.  WOTO

“The Aviator” (again, 2004):  I don’t know a lot about Howard Hughes.  I truly hope this film played it straight with history because it is a fascinating story and I’d rather it be accurate.  (Martin Scorsese directed it – not Oliver Stone – so there IS a better chance it honors the truth.)  We’ve ALL heard about Hughes’ final, reclusive, CRAZY years, but “The Aviator” covers the years before he became entirely lost in what I’m sure would now be labeled Obsessive/Compulsive Disorder.  The story immediately peeks into his childhood where an important issue is clarified.  We then dive into his start with aviation as a young man.  We see his mind working 1,000 miles per hour, flying in 4 directions at a time, and NEVER shooting down ideas.  He gambles everything, often, and fights for what he gets.  He’s no namby-pamby rich boy.  You have to admire him, even if you DON’T want to be in his hire.  Leonardo DiCaprio does a wonderful job, as does Cate Blanchett, Kate Beckinsale, Alan Alda, Ian Holm, Gwen Stefani, and Alec Baldwin.  The dirty business of politics & payoffs is covered, as are the glorious, imaginative efforts of Hughes and his engineers.  The special effects are solid, photography is exciting and era-appropriate, dialog interesting, sets & costumes rich with era, scoring great… it’s an all-around solid character study and re-creation of an era worth another look.  If you liked the film “Tucker”, I can assure you “The Aviator” will do nothing but equal or better it – which is quite a compliment.  IMDB WOTO

“The Perks of Being a Wallflower” (2012):  As long as you’re not burned out on “coming of age” films, this is a good one containing less of the typical “irony” and more sensitivity.  Set in the early 1990s, we watch one solo character as he navigates his way through the first weeks of high school, his internal issues, his history, and a mix of other characters.  The acting is quite good, and the ensemble work seems very earnest.  Prepare yourself – the actors playing aging adults in this film were born in the late 60s and early 70s.  The actors playing teens were born in, yes, the 90s.

“Higher Ground” (again, 2011):  Vera Farmiga isn’t merely beautiful she’s a talented director and a great actress.  Combined with the writer of both the book (“This Dark World”) and the screenplay, this film is a powerful yet understated look at ambivalence and doubt.  Here the setting is organized religion, though many stages could be used for the subject.  I knew immediately I wanted to OWN this work.  It will offer rich insights each time I see it.  The entire cast is talented; the sets and costuming fantastic in their commonness; the dialog perfectly natural and the counterpoint to Farmiga’s subtle acting; the photography honest, informative, unpretentious.  This has it all.  It is humane, philosophical, psychological, emotional, and intelligent.  WOW.   WOTO

“Being Flynn” (2012):  Starring Paul Dano, Robert DeNiro, and Julianne Moore.  A broken home, deluded father, desperate mother, and confused son is the basis for this true story.  DeNiro is especially impressive as the combative, self-absorbed drunk.  Despite the desperation shown throughout the film, there are glimmers of hope which balance the otherwise relentless burdens within these characters’ lives.

“Angela” (again, 1995):  Follow and observe two sisters through their odd, unstable, poor, common, magical, joyful, fearful lives with and without their parents (and other people and places) – all of whom they must decipher for themselves as best they can.  The world is a confusing place, but Angela always comes up with an answer, taking charge of herself and her younger sister.  Her answers come from unknown and imaginative, mystical sources, but you’ll see a certain Angela-logic at work, which give the girls iffy solace, stability, and romantic mystery to their otherwise very modest lives with their all-too-human parents.  Seldom do films work so convincingly from the viewpoint of children (although parts of “To Kill a Mockingbird”, “The Little Fugitive”, and “Ponette” come to mind), with their need/pleasure to explain the world to themselves.  It would be possible to take this entire film as an indictment of the dangers of religion, also.  The dialog, scoring, and photography are just right, along with the astoundingly natural presentation of and acting by both young girls.  A “must see”.  WOTO

“The Manchurian Candidate” (again, 1962):  This is one of THE BEST paranoid, Cold War, political/espionage stories of the entire era – hardly dating itself, and not James Bond in flavor.  This is one creepy, interesting, unique film… and you will NEVER think of Angela Lansbury the same way again.  Yikes.  Shot in a harsh black and white, with strong camera angles and edgy music, it is a patient but relentless story headed one direction only – a darkening direction – which gives you glimpses of truth it as it moves along at its pace, not yours.  The tension builds.  You’ve come to like, sympathize, and hate characters… but “The Manchurian Candidate” never panders to your wants.  You’ll also find it eerily predictive of the J.F.K. and R.F.K. assassinations – which had NOT yet occurred.  It’s almost as though this fiction book-turned-film was the rough draft for our soon-to-be real political environment.  Amazing.  WOTO

“Kalifornia” (again, 1992):  This film proves Brad Pitt is more than just a pretty boy.  It is further evidence Juliette Lewis is one of our best actresses (although I’m ready to see her try a “mainstream middle class” sort of role).  The story: two yuppies (David Duchovny & Michelle Forbes) want to travel cross country on a book research tour of serial murder sites.  They need help with gasoline costs, advertise for riders, and meet another young couple – two trailer trash characters – who want to go along.  This one is NOT for kids: sex and lots of violence.  If you thought “Reservoir Dogs” was an unpleasant but important film; if you thought “Pulp Fiction” was an unpleasant but interesting story, you’ll also want to see “Kalifornia”.  WOTO

“The Good Life” (2007):  A strong Indie film, it has a singular vision and sets out to make all its artistic components support that goal.  This I always respect and enjoy.  Is this film “entertainment”?  Depends on your definition.  It’s set in dismal weather in a dismal town under dismal circumstances with very flawed people who can’t find their way out.  Yes, the title is “ironic”.  However, this is a journey worth taking.  Actors Mark Webber, Zooey Deschanel, Chris Klein, Harry Dean Stanton, and Bill Paxton help create a powerful and surprising story leaving you worn-out yet satisfied.

“Das Goebbels Experiment” (2005):  Documentary, narrated by Kenneth Branaugh.  Excerpts are read from Nazi Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels diaries linked to original film footage of his activities and speeches.  This would only be interesting to those who want to understand more about that horrific time and the people who helped create it.

“Citizen Kane” (again, 1941):  The following is what I wrote in 2004:  “So many people hold this film so high, it’s hard to see it for what it might yet be.  None the less, I see gorgeous, uniquely lit, well-composed shots and a simple story about a man who gains too much yet always has too little.  It is NOT, to my mind, one of the great character studies nor built on astounding dialog, outstanding acting, or even an especially unique morality play.  It’s a formal, artistic leap… a great visual work.”  WOTO
And, 
for 2011:  I hold to those thoughts, but also add: much of the time I am distracted by the mediocre quality of painted and animated backgrounds, and the makeup used to “age” the characters.  I am impressed with the great look of the faux-documentary film footage, and the brilliant (and gutsy) use of lighting in almost every single scene.  What drives this film is the story, and what enhances (or distracts) the long journey are many of the visuals, but it lacks emotion at every turn.  This is an intellectual film, even when it’s trying to express emotion.  This is its weakness.  Ironically, the film is something like the character it criticizes.
And,
for 2013:  I hold to those thoughts.

“Conspiracy Theory” (again, 1997):  Mel Gibson is great as a taxi-driving, conspiracy theory freak of a man who can’t shut up to anyone about anything.  He seems to be especially focused on reporting his claims to a bureaucratic woman (Julia Roberts), who has, to her regret, lent a semi-tolerant ear.  This movie starts fast and takes off from there.  Gibson carries it full force.  He is both entertaining and sympathetic as a very disturbed man who is completely consumed by his beliefs… and may eventually convince someone to not entirely write him off.  WOTO

“Time of the Wolf” (French, 2003):  Another great film by Michael Haneke.  His work fascinates me.  This one is something along the line of “The Road” – a post-apocalyptic story with, however, very little visual drama and gore but plenty of first-weeks social collapses happening at every horrifying psychological turn.  Starring Isabelle Huppert.

“Zoolander” (again, 2001):  It’s as ridiculous as the Austin Powers movies, and just as funny… maybe funnier… but with different actors.  Ben Stiller wrote, directed, and starred in this story of male fashion models who have, throughout history, been the brainwashed dupes committing all the international political assassinations.  Far fetched?  Derek Zoolander first thought so!  Well, not “thought” exactly, but was eventually convinced… sort of… I guess.  Owen Wilson, Will Ferrell, Jerry Stiller, Jon Voight, and a mile long list of real stars playing real stars.  Do you like break-dancing kung-fu fashion fighters?  Do you like male model “walk off” posing-competitions held at the old “Members Only” warehouse with David Bowie as the judge?  Then you’ll like this one.  We watched it two nights in a row.  It’s just plain funny.  Hilarious, stupid, fun.  WOTO

“Braveheart” (again, 1995):  Huge, powerful, violent, interesting, romantic, inspiring, and… did I say VIOLENT?  The story (fertile myth) retells the fantasized life of William Wallace, who, in the 12th century, lead his ragtag band of commoners into larger and larger battles against highly militarized England, eventually winning freedom for “his” Scotland.  With big scoring, majestic landscapes, Shakespearian situations, and absolutely no effort to tell history with any credibility, this IS a story WORTH telling into the centuries.  Some people are Driven and Focused.  THIS the man Wallace becomes after experiencing for himself the cruel and unfair treatment of “his” people by the monarchy of England.  It’s an inspiring story full of blood, torture, fire, steel, mud, and courage.  The acting is high quality across the board, photography is lush, sets and costuming wonderful (despite inaccuracies), and moments of dialog are nearly worthy of Henry the VIII.  Starring, produced and directed by Mel Gibson, with Sophie Marceau, Patrick McGoohan, Catherine McCormack, and many other talented people.  CAVEAT:  DO NOT think of this film as in ANY WAY historically accurate.  WOTO  IMDB

“The China Syndrome” (1978):  Great suspense drama set in a tv station and a nuclear reactor.  Starring Jack Lemmon, Jane Fonda, and Michael Douglas.  No music score is used during the film.  The tension mounts steadily.  Thirteen days after this film release was the “Three Mile Island” event.  (Superfluous note: it’s amazing how much the colors brown, tan, and orange are seen throughout this story… but it WAS 1978…)  WOTO

“L.A. Story” (again, 1991):  After the very first viewing of this film twenty two years ago, I knew Steve Martin had matured… crossed the line… and I was thrilled.  I said then and I still say now: THIS is HIS “Annie Hall” – with which he leaves his old comedic style behind and explores the more complex world of Life in all its glory, ridiculousness, irony, existential kneejerkiness, and sweetness.  I can’t imagine Martin being so self-centered as to not give Allen credit for his basic inspiration, indirect and direct.  Martin allows himself more “magic”, let’s call it, in the shifts from harsh daylight moments of Los Angeles to the twinkling unreality of city neon.  The tone of L.A. is quite different than New York, and the love/hate of their favorite cities comes through.  Also starring Victoria Tennet (his real life wife, now ex), Sarah Jessica Parker (as the wonderfully sexy, bouncy, L.A. “pop tart”), and Marilu Henner as the self-centered, empty bitch-wife, plus Woody Harrelson, Rick Moranis, and many more talented people in minor roles.  Were I to put a “Double Feature” together, one evening WOULD be “Annie Hall” (first) followed by “L.A. Story”.  WOTO

“His Girl Friday” (again, 1940):  Starring Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, and Ralph Bellamy.  This is what they call a “screwball comedy”.  Expect machine gun-rapid, overlapping, witty dialog for 92 minutes without taking a breath.  Seriously.  It will WEAR YOU OUT!  However, it’s a funny and dark look at the newspaper business and politics-as-usual.  WOTO

“Ai Weiwei – Never Sorry” (2011):  This is a documentary about Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei.  It is as much an expose of Chinas’ power structure as it is a look at art.  You may like Weiweis’ art, you may not, but there is no doubt you will like China even less than you may already.  You may like Weiwei himself, you may not, but there is no doubt he has the stubbornness to confront the government and all of its drones with an almost reckless abandon for his safety.  Here you will find a unique circumstance unlike any other.

“The Hustler” (again, 1961):  Paul Newman, Jackie Gleason, Piper Laurie, and George C. Scott star in this black, white, and VERY gray film set in the pool halls and shanty apartments of down-and-out dead-enders always on the lookout for a break.  Stark photography, great Jazz, grimy sets and locations, and dialog as deadly as a rusty scalpel make for the perfect damaged psyche and Existentialist drama.  WOTO

“Hysterical” (2011):  This is a funny, odd but true story about late Victorian England, the medical profession, social politics, and a very important invention.  Starring Hugh Dancey and Maggie Gyllenhaal.  This entire production is aimed at telling a story, and it does it quite well.  Not for children.  THERE!  THAT got your interest…

“Educating Rita” (again, 1983):  Starring Michael Caine and Julie Walters (both of whom won numerous awards for their roles), this is the story of a determined, potential student and a burned out drunk of a Professor.  The script is razor sharp, often funny, always humane, and occasionally sad.  Were I to illustrate the plot with a symbol, I would use an “X” as they start in very different places, then cross to meet in the middle, then…   (p.s.: the early Eighties score is pretty close to awful.  TRY to ignore it.)  WOTO

“Touch  of Evil” (1958):  Brilliant and amazing.  Frankly, I prefer this one over “Citizen Kane”.  Orson Welles out-did himself here (despite a deeply messy Hollywood battle once again).  Starring Welles, Charlton Heston, and Janet Leigh, this grimy, sleazy, political crime drama is set in a Mexican border town.  Shot mostly at night, I was glued to this film as perfectly composed, photographed, lit, and scored scene after scene astounded my artistic senses, while the acting and story kept me fascinated and repulsed at the same time.  You can ask no more from this type of film.  It is a candidate for my top category after more viewings.  THIS is a DEFINITIVE Film Noir.  DO NOT SEE the 95 min. versionSEE ONLY the newly restored 1 hr. 51 min. version, restored.  WOTO

“Waco – A New Revelation” (1999):  1993.  Waco Texas.  David Karesh.  The Branch Davidians.  ATF, FBI, CIA.  Dead agents, children, mothers, fathers, and religious leader.  Lies.  Disappearing evidence.  Asses being covered right and left.  Whether you watched this drama unfold, or whether this is something about which you’ve never heard, incidents like this occur in our country and we need to be aware of them while keeping an open mind.  April 19, 1993, Waco Texas.  April 19, 1995, Oklahoma City.  All Americans.  WOTO

“Absence of Malice” (again, 1981):  Directed by Sidney Pollack, starring Paul Newman, Sally Field, Bob Balaban, Melinda Dillon and plenty of other characters worthy of your hissing, this is a look at “journalism”.  It scared people then – and this was before the web!  It is a dark, dirty journey through one man’s encounter with those hungry enough to get a paycheck living off rumor and lies.  The acting is wonderful, the music is too aggressive, the photography and lighting are acceptable (they get the job done), and it’s interesting to view this also as a period piece, especially within “phase two” of “women’s lib” going into the 80s.  WOTO

“Beetlejuice” (again, 1988):  Sometimes you come home and you don’t need to see the NEWS on t.v., “Schindler’s List” on video, or the BILLS waiting on your desk.  “Beetlejuice”, with all the great people involved in its making, is funny and witty from start to finish.  It’s a Tim Burton film, with a shiny faced Alec Baldwin, youthful Geena Davis, hilarious, edgy Catherine O’Hara, Jeffrey Jones, young, Goth Winona Ryder, and a wonderful, insane Michael Keaton!  Special effects are both intentionally cheezie and limited by contemporary terms.  There are scenes you’ll suddenly remember as you’re driving along, and you’ll laugh out loud.  You’ll never again think of Harry Belafonte in the same way.  WOTO

”Chasing Madoff” (2011):  This is a documentary about the attempts to decipher the financial schemes of “Bernie” Madoff, and why everyone ignored or suppressed the facts for over a decade.  It is maddening, and every one of us is paying the price for their crimes.  I take issue with the STYLE of this film – using stills and footage unrelated to the actual events for the simple purpose of what I will call “representational entertainment”.  None the less, the information IS here.

”To the Moon” (1999):  This is a two hour documentary on the Space Program from the first satellite to the last Moon landing.  It focuses on the REAL reason we pushed on with it – to beat the Russians.  Motives aside, this grandest of human efforts should be studied and admired by all people for all time.  WOTO

“Welcome to the Dollhouse” (again, 1996):  It is THE DEFINITIVE “Junior High is Hell” film.  Follow one typical kid through just a few daze of Junior High life.  It’s as amazing and funny as it is painful and dark.  Solondz’ production values are slightly less refined here, but that is of no concern.  This is a bleak, suburban story full of angst, pettiness, silliness, embarrassments, personality flaws, and real dangers.  Across the board, the cast is outstanding in their portrayal of classic, flawed, middle class life.  Are there always people in the herd who are singled out and pecked all their lives by the others?  Yes.  WOTO

“Heist” (again, 2002):  This is a complex, high speed cat-n-mouse crime caper drama by David Mamet.  Gene Hackman, Delroy Lindo, Danny Devito, Rebecca Pidgeon, and others make for an exciting heist story where one-upmanship is the name of the game.  WOTO

“Menace II Society” (again, 1993):  I have some caveats for my support of this film: first, a simple warning it is extremely vulgar and violent; second, racial issues are right in your face, and third, it gets preachy and a tad grandiose at times.  Okay, then WHY do I have it in my #2 category?  It has a certain Shakespearian urban grittiness to it that I like very much.  We have lost souls, creeps, schemers, killers, innocents, and those in transition.  There are both surprises and the Inevitable.  Set in sunny California, the convertibles glide and the street blood glitters like spilled rubies.  Who comes out on top?  WOTO

“Code Unknown” (twice this year, 2000):  Directed by Michael Haneke.  Starring Juliet Binoche and Thierry Neuvic.  Here, you’ll sense a story [of sorts] requiring your attention.  However, the main goal of this film is to create feelings in you about their worlds (and yours).  You’ll experience isolation, the inability and refusal to communicate, alienation, loneliness, anxiety, stress, fear, displaced aggression, and all the other frighteningly common results of too many people feeling hard-pressed in a place getting smaller by the day.  I think I’ll enjoy it even more next time.  No, really.

“A Simple Plan” (again, 1999):  The plot is straight forward: three average men find a plane crashed in the woods.  It is filled with money.  They struggle with whether to keep it or not, and how to keep it if they do.  Then it gets complicated.  Even now knowing the story – which is a tight, exciting, interesting suspense drama – I’ll see it again just for the acting by Billy Bob Thornton, Bill Paxton, Brent Briscoe, and Bridget Fonda.  If you liked “Presumed Innocent”, you’ll be glad you saw this one too.  Great suspense is built on the psychology of the characters, not a scary ghoul waiting in the shadows of an alley.  WOTO

“Blue Valentine” (2011):  Have you and a friend ever built a wonderful sand castle for which you felt proud and satisfied, only to then to watch it be slowly encroached, damaged, and eaten by the patient forces nearby?  “Not a bang, but a whimper…”  Go to this film with patience and a willingness to admit we all carry the invisible devils.  Produced by and starring Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling, this is a superb work of dramatic acting, written and directed by Derek Cianfrance.  WOTO

“Secretary” (again, 2002):  It is SO incredibly refreshing when I have the opportunity to see an intelligent, unique film… and THIS IS certainly one of them.  Despite what negativity you may have heard by the same type of nut who thought “Life of Brian” was sacrilegious, “Secretary” is NOT about meanness or domination/control of “women”, it is about ALL relationships.  Maggie Gyllenhaal does a superb (career making) job as a ‘mentally unstable’ girl who lands her first job as secretary to a lawyer (James Spader) and may gain some independence from her past and a family that does NOT help her condition.  Will she find independence?  Should she?  Is she the only one feeling trapped by their psyche?  What about him?  This is an often funny, sometimes dark look at what can drive a person on.  It is an unblinking stare at what works for one may not work for another but the search should continue… the end goal being to make things work on your terms and that of no one else.  The longer I think about this film (and it DOES encourage lots of thought), I actually find the story beautiful and romantic along with tender, crazy, and funny.  It is SO complex in its psychology… yet so decipherable (with work)… that I know I will revisit this one repeatedly.  It is FASCINATING.  WOTO

“Bernie” (2011):  Imagine Werner Herzog out hunting for a good story, and when he finds it he turns it over to Christopher Guest.  We have perfect casting with Jack Black as a mortician in this true story of small town delusions, gossip, and compulsive support.  This is a hilarious (but true) and creepy (but true) chapter from a Texas town, where a seemingly wonderful man, without much history, causes an entire community to adore him while he begins changing without notice.  Jack Black’s casting limits had become a cliché for me.  THIS film revives my faith (Amen!) in his broader talents.  I look forward to more unique roles in his career.

“Interview with a Vampire” (again, 1994):  The reviews back then were only luke warm… but I think it’s better than that.  My initial hesitation was in casting all the male vampires with Hollywood pretty boys (Cruise, Banderas, Pitt, Slater) – yet this somehow added an ever sadder note - maybe because these vampires had NO trouble attracting and killing – which, for them, made consuming easy but added to the boredom and guilt of their eternal Hell.  This is also the film that caused me to follow the career of Kirsten Dunst.  Fabulous.  WOTO

“Gallipoli” (again, Australian, 1981):  See a young Mel Gibson early in his career star in a strong film by Peter Weir.  Set in 1914-15 Australia at the outbreak of World War I, we meet a number of young men who react to the enlistment fervor with differing attitudes.  We follow them through the fantasies and realities of war.  Except for Weir’s occasional poor choice of music, this is a handsome, engaging film – an anti-war statement which may remind you of “Paths of Glory” or other classics of the genre.  WOTO

“The Dreamers” (again, 2003):  Bernardo Bertolucci is one of my favorite directors.  He makes beautiful, powerful, memorable movies that do not shy from the blatantly sexual, violent, dark, or abnormal in life.  This is the story of an intelligent but naive visiting American student, who, in 1968, meets a witty and secretive Parisian brother and sister who share obsessions over movies and themselves.  The American is invited into their “world” – where the parents are often absent, leave money for their general use, and everyone seems oblivious or are in denial towards the worlds outside or inside.  For this reason (at least), it occasionally reminds me of the film “Performance” (1970), mixed with Bertolucci’s own film “Last Tango in Paris”.  NOTE: “The Dreamers” is NOT for children.  WOTO 

“Guilty by Suspicion” (again, 1990):  This is the true story of the Hollywood Commie Hunts by ladder-climbing politicians (gee, that sounds familiar) of the early 1950s, focusing on director David Merrill, his family, friends, and associates.  If you don’t think YOU could be affected by “social” pressure, or it’s just a matter of finding “another” job, or simply moving “away”, or “taking the Fifth Amendment”, then you need to see this film. Robert DeNiro, Annette Bening, George Wendt, Patricia Wettig, Sam Wanamaker make this a tense, thorough, maddening depiction of what can happen “at Home”.       “Oh heck, it wouldn’t ever happen here again!”       Yeh.  Right.  WOTO

“Flirting” (again, Australian, 1991):  Want to see what Nicole Kidman looked like before she became NICOLE KIDMAN?  She, Thandie Newton, and Noah Taylor star in a warm, funny, sad, and relatable “coming of age” story set at a pair of private schools in 1961 Australia.  There is nothing much special about the cinematography, special effects, lighting, sets or costuming, but the story has more subtlety, honesty and sophistication than most American equivalents.  This is about Class Division, Herd Instinct, Racism, the breaking of Barriers, and, above all else, First Loves.  WOTO

“The Blair Witch Project” (again, 1999):  It’s been a few years since I’ve written about this film… but my appreciation for it does not lessen.  Shot in hand held b/w 16 mm film and color video tape, this student film project takes three art major pals deep into the woods to document the legend of a local witch or at least the horrific crimes said to have been committed by her.  (The story behind the film is nearly as interesting as the legend of the Blair Witch but let’s stick to the film.)  It is a VERY smart work of Art, with camera, lighting, and audio that matches the increasing tension in this VERY scary story.  We watch THE film makers MAKE THIS film and discover, along with us, what awaits them.  The stress, exhaustion, and fear expressed by them is NOT all fiction.  Some people dislike “Blair Witch”.  I assume it’s because it’s not only a unique movie, but stressful.  You CANNOT stand back and pretend distance.  In this sense, it reminds me of Lynch’s film “Eraserhead”.  Try as you might, it’s GONNA GETCHA. WOTO

“Primer” (again, 2005):  Created by Shane Carruth.  Having won two major awards at the Sundance Film Festival, this low key, dialog heavy, high-tech sounding “garage” sci-fi film is very interesting if you stick with it.  It starts slow and jumbled.  You could give up.  If you don’t, you’ll eventually be rewarded with a story that contains just enough clues that you’ll think about the “what ifs” right along with our two main characters.  If you insist on punch lines, conclusions, tidy wrap-ups, clear aims… this isn’t it.  Think an Indy film inspired by Dilbert meeting Ridley Scott who’d just played pool with David Lynch.  Did you like “Following” or “Pi” or “Memento” or Clean Shaven”?  No?  Then you’re probably on the wrong track here, too.  WOTO

“Upstream Color” (2013):  Created by Shane Carruth, who also made “Primer”.  Carruth makes intuitive, thoughtful films that require your attention, intellect, and creativity.  There are no easy answers.  And, they require your learning as much of his intrinsic language as possible… which may mean audio and visual signs, not necessarily verbal.  He is an upcoming auteur film maker – a “control freak” (as he describes himself), and keeps a nice balance between open-minded artistic exploration and personal intellectual logic.  In “Upstream Color” you will see grub worms used for mind control, pigs who take on burdens of very confused and understandably upset humans, and lots of compulsive behaviors.  What is THIS film ABOUT?  Cycles and their random, momentary participants. 

“Unstrung Heroes” (again, 1995):  With wonderful acting by all (Andie MacDowell, John Turturro, Michael Richards. Maury Chaykin, with direction from Diane Keaton), this quirky story makes more and more sense as you follow a family through their own comedies, oddities and tragedies.  Shown are some of the most subtle, lovely realizations of all time… which become profound as you realize how and what the young boy is learning from his split, bickering family tree… how they ALL are very important to his best upbringing.  Very good scoring never becomes assertive, and signals various factions of the family and mental states.  This one will make you laugh loudly and cry quietly.  WOTO

“Lord of War” (2005):  Starring Nicholas Cage, Jared Leto, and Ethan Hawke, this is an interesting story of international arms deals.  It has an agenda, it has its points.  Do NOT confuse this movie with a documentary or a docu-drama.  It is not a quotable source.  Appreciate it as having good action, photography, acting, sets and so forth along with good points, limited information, and broader agendas.  Always beware agendas, always relax and enjoy a good film.  WOTO

“The Asphalt Jungle” (1950):  Directed by John Huston, starring Sterling Hayden, Sam Jaffee, Louis Calhern, and other up-and-coming actors including a young, thin Marilyn Monroe, this Noir is perhaps the BEST of the genre.  It has the down-and-out characters, the dark sleaze of urban grime and crime, plenty of hood and moll lingo, and The Caper.  “Asphalt Jungle” has some of the most beautifully filmed, lit, and composed b/w scenes of all time, bar none.  It is amazing.  The story has a certain inevitable feel of Doom to it, which is quite appropriate.  Absolutely top notch, post-WWII, lost-soul Existentialism.

“The Color Purple” (1985):  Despite its flaws and mistakes, it is always a joyous pleasure and deeply painful.  This film took Spielberg into broader respect.  Be prepared for early career, now-famous actors.  Witness the superb premier of Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey (who I long to go back to acting), Danny Glover (doing an admirable job in a very ugly role), “Larry” Fishburn, Margaret Avery, Adolph Caesar, Rae Dawn Chong, Akosua Busia.  Taken from the Pulitzer prize-winning novel, and keeping its epic, ironic, twists-of-Karma sensibility, we live and breathe the pains, degradation, and joys of very difficult lives over many decades.  Towards the end, the film takes on less of a literary, and more of a theatrical, even musical nature – which I seriously question – but this is a small point compared to the overall film, its craft, acting, and heart of a very emotional story.  Full of lessons in life, I watch it with a kind of awe – KNOWING that people HAVE faced these issues – some succumbing, some rising above – and I am both embarrassed and proud to be a part of this Human Race.  WOTO IMDB

“Five Easy Pieces” (again, 1970):  Though not Jack Nicholson’s first film, I think it’s fair to call it his first serious film (not a hot rod or motorcycle or monster to be found), and no doubt the film which set his true course.  He’s a dislikable man – a man from whom you’d grab your daughter and, if need be, lock her away until the threat has moved on.  Slowly, you gain insights into his previous world.  There ARE explanations behind all of us.  Still, he moves in worlds you might find repulsive, and from which he may never escape… by choice.  This is a wonderful, bleak, gritty, disgusting story of a self-indulgent, wounded, mess of an immature man.  And it’s wonderful, like I said.  Karen Black received Best Supporting Actress for her role as the wimpering simp of a punching bobo controlled by Robert Dupea (Nicholson).  WOTO

“The Seventh Continent” (1989): This is Michael Haneke’s first film – and what a start!  It announces the arrival of a director with a singular vision expressed through purity of presentation even when depicting what first appear to be vague scenarios.  This film is based on a true incident – a middle class family leads their rote life without many downs or ups.  The repetition Haneke creates will test the patience of less dedicated, trusting viewers.  Hang in there.  Have faith.  He’s taking you somewhere very distinct.  His cropped compositions, black-outs, stillness, use of spatial divisions, and symbols are Art.  The actors are fascinating.  The dialog and narrative are bleak.  It is a very smart film.

“The Family Man” (again, 2000):  If it wasn’t that this story is basically a contemporary spin of “It’s a Wonderful Life” (Version 2000), it would be in the next category above.  It’s witty, funny, emotional, sad, inspiring, and loaded with reminders of what Life really IS about.  Nicholas Cage and Tea Leoni are perfect for this one.  It’s what they call a “feel-good” movie (with its ups and downs along the way).  WOTO

“The Queen” (again, 2006):  Helen Mirren stars as Queen Elizabeth during the period just before, during, and after the death of ex-Princess Diana.  This is a VERY focused film that does not veer off into studies of the other members of the royal family.  If it looks at a second person with any depth, it’s Tony Blair, who was new to the government.  I found it interesting for the events of Diana’s death as seen through the eyes of Queen Elizabeth, compressed into 103 minutes.  One set of very interesting scenes revolve around a huge, elegant, 16-point stag on their “country” property.  Elizabeth has two encounters with him, and you realize she reveals her “humanity” through him, because she sees herself AS him… with the second encounter not having the elegance of the first.  IMDB

“The French Connection” (again, 1971):  GREAT, gritty character study set in the great, gritty city of 1971 New York… still the really nasty, grimy, dirty, rotten-to-the-core Big Apple.  Gene Hackman plays a piggish, uncouth, intuitive undercover cop who begins spotting “signs” his gut tells him to follow – and follow – and follow.  Roy Scheider is his partner, and together they begin unpeeling a complex, international drug deal about to go down.  Based on a true story (?), this is a superb work that holds up very well in concert with the era’s blatant, funky look, strong photography, and a spectacular score.  A patient and interesting drama turns to exciting and dangerous as they begin to piece together the French Connection puzzle.  It is one of the best cat-and-mouse “cop” films of all time.  WOTO

“Safety Not Guaranteed” (2012):  This is a sly, cool, Gen-X indie film full of dry humor, recognizable character types, and issues of transition from youth and idealism to aging and fantasy.  Totally enjoyable, start to finish, this low budget film has high production values, wonderful acting by all, and metaphors galore.  I’ll see it again!

“Children of Men” (again, 2006):  It’s 2027.  No children have been born for 18 years.  This means there is no future, and one sees any reason to plan for or maintain any thing.  There is NO investment in a tomorrow.  It is bleak indeed.  Eventually, new factors enter the story and drive it along, but the real star of the film are the astounding sets and their detailing, expressing this cultural death.  Brilliant.  Rich.  A total, progressive collapse of civilization.  The conception of 2027 in England is quite interesting.  It is NOT the “futuristic”, sci-fi type.  Progress had generally ceased.  It is a past being held together with duct tape for a short term present soiling itself.  It is gray, dank, gritty, infested, and dangerous.  Is there hope?  Maybe.  Towards the end, there are a few scenes too heavily symbolically for me, but they can be overlooked with a little effort.  Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, and Michael Caine star.  WOTO IMDB

“Zero Dark Thirty” (2012):  Caveat: I think this film has “short legs”.  I don’t expect it to be considered of great value once this era and its newsworthiness passes out of emotion and into drier history.  However, for now – especially for Americans who remember (and remain angry) over the attacks on our country the last 15+ years – this is a good movie to relive some of the sadness, frustration, and sense of revenge many of us share.  (The opening “scene” of a black screen with 9-11-01 voices brought me to quiet tears.)  It is a pleasure to watch Jessica Chastain (and others) take the roles of dedicated, shadowy sleuths driven by both emotions and ego.  (No doubt Claire Danes’ character in “Homelands” was inspired by the real woman leading the search for Bin Laden.)  The photography and scoring are good, and though the script condenses or stretches events to a silver screen pace, “Zero Dark Thirty” was an interesting and tense 2.5 hour drama.

“On the Beach” (again, 1959):  Starring Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire, Anthony Perkins.  Directed by Stanley Kramer.  We find ourselves in the near-future of 1964 Australia.  There is an odd, “informal” feeling to what we see… and people are tired or depressed or drinking excessively… is THIS what Australians are like?  We soon learn THE Atomic War is OVER, the whole of life on the planet is, they suspect, now dead, and, from the very few and dwindling reports they’ve gathered, radioactive clouds are slowly drifting towards Australia – possibly the last location with “clean” air.  People are in manic or stupefying denial, or trying to prepare for everyone’s death – including their children.  No longer are scientists madly searching for a last-minute cure, but the military is out searching for safe ground in an exploratory submarine. “Up periscope.  No life.  High radiation.  Dive.  Move on.”  Back in Australia, cars run out of petrol and are left abandoned.  It’s become a bicycle society.  “On the Beach” actors do a solid job depicting people trying to be stoic or fatalistic or casual as their deaths approach.  The b/w photography is appropriate and good.  If I could, I would rip 90% of the scoring OUT – since it uses “Waltzing Matilda” REPEATEDLY (in a variety of styles for moods), which really got under my skin.  The individual character situations are powerful, their reactions thoughtful and sad.  This is one of the three finest Cold War/anti-war films ever made.  It may or may not be equal to “Failsafe” and “Dr. Strangelove”, but none are alike, and they ARE the Ultimate Cold War trio.  WOTO IMDB

“Donnie Darko” (again, 2002):  A film with average production values, but interesting photographic ideas, uses of music, and a story line you haven’t heard before.  There are lots of “isn’t that…?” movie stars, a moody feeling to the entire film that gets under your skin… and yet, you’re not quite sure what to do with it all once it’s done.  Try to mix some of “The Ice Storm” with “Poltergeist” and “Carrie”, plus the story structure of “The Sixth Sense”.  I saw “Donnie Darko” for the first time a few years ago.  Tonight, on my third viewing, I deciphered the story to a much greater degree – which I will not divulge here.  (I hate people who ruin movies for others.)  I think it’d be interesting to watch it twice in one night… and double check my theory.  (The dvd special features discuss some of its issues, but I avoid these offerings until I’ve done my own thinking.)  WOTO

“Body Heat” (1981):  First-time director Lawrence Kasdan wrote this story and gave it what would become his signature touches.  Watch for various objects to symbolically describe their owners mental and emotional states.  William Hurt (in his second role after “Altered States“) and Kathleen Turner (in her first role) bring great mood to an already strong “noir” style drama.  The plot thickens with a deadly patience while the actors scorch the screen with impatient sex.  Ted Danson, Richard Crenna, and Mickey Rourke co-star.  If you haven’t seen this film, don’t pre-inform yourself.  Jump in, go for the sweaty ride in the thick fog of Florida, and expect to be conned like the rest of us.  It’s wonderful.  WOTO

 “Carnage” (2011):  Directed by Roman Polanski, this concentrated, one-room “comic-drama” between two sets of parents debating an unfortunate incident between their children is intense, funny, and disgusting.  Think of it as a less insightful, less painful, less draining “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?”.  Talented acting by Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly, Kate Winslet, and Christoph Waltz brings out the best in the script.  In the end, you don’t want to know ANY of these people… yet, in your real life, you know you DO.

“The Big Chill” (again, 1983):  It is staged within my age group and subculture (the college crowd, late ‘60’s/70’s).  For that reason, I have a de facto relationship to it, but many more people treasure “The Big Chill”.  The dialog is dead-on accurate about relationships with all the b.s. of hidden agendas, fantasized outcomes, shared hopes and dreams of each group of friends, and, the true bonds created by good friends.  Issues of aging (this IS a mid-life crisis film), fading communication and intimacy, urges to reignite former ideals, the struggle over practical life versus philosophical stands… it’s all here, done in an admirable way with zero superfluous chatter.  Yet, it is also witty, funny, sad, maddening, tender, and given a rich depth due to a large, talented, ensemble cast, including Glenn Close, Kevin Kline, Tom Berenger, Jeff Goldblum, William Hurt, Mary Kay Place, and Meg Tilly.  You will also see Kevin Costner’s leg and scalp.  What??  Why??  An ultimate trivia question!  WOTO

“Blackboard Jungle” (again, 1955):  “Blackboard Jungle” was banned in many cities.  On one level, it is now simply a good period piece and an accurate description of what many teachers face every day, to this day.  But, on more important levels, it’s filled with statements about post-war America, the kids who were growing up without fathers (lost to WWII & Korea), and the rapidly changing reality of contemporary life (see “Rebel Without a Cause” and “The Wild One” for other classic, good examples) that were almost too much for many Americans to handle.  This is the first of what would become a genre.  Bill Haley and the Comets had (what many consider) the very FIRST Rock & Roll hit (used in the film), Elvis was just on the scene, the war babies were hitting their teens (and the streets), and the first wave of suburban flight was on.  If you view “Blackboard Jungle” through the lens of 2013, you may get nothing but a “quaint” feeling, but if you’re smart enough to avoid the “That was then, this is now” trap, it offers much more – and is quite satisfying.  The acting of leads Glenn Ford, Anne Francis, Sidney Portier, and Vic Morrow are stronger and grittier than you expect from a 1955 film.  WOTO

“The Day After Trinity” (again, docum., 1980):  This is an older look at the inventors, the making and the use of the atomic and hydrogen bombs during WWII and the “Cold War”.  It centers on Robert Oppenheimer, his intelligence, quirky leadership, and poetic hesitations which brought about the eventual, hypocritical governmental wrath.  One must view this 1980 piece accepting that some of it is opinionated and statements were made thirty three years ago when less information had yet to be uncovered (especially about our understanding of the bombs effects, the current status of German attempts to create the first bomb, the mentality of the warring Japanese, and the Russians secret research about which we knew next to nothing).  It is, none the less, fascinating.

“Last Days” (2005):  Written and directed by Gus Van Sant.  For you action, story line, mood-change movie people I have a warning: there ain’t none here.  It’s a good film – I’ll even say a BOLD film – loaded with aimless, repetitious, mumbled and stumbled scenes of a young man beyond help, falling towards death while still exhibiting moments of brilliance.  Inspired by Curt Cobain’s short life (but NOT Cobain’s facts), this film is like watching an inevitable accident in slow motion.  You may not “like” “Last Days” but you might admire it (I do), or, you will hate it.  There isn’t one “entertaining” moment in the entire thing.  Characters wander without purpose, the audio recording sounds accidental, the camera work voyeuristic and hesitant, and the story has no real beginning or end.  It’s Existential without the interest in continue existence.  WOTO

“Miss Evers’ Boys” (again,     ):  Starring Alfre Woodard and Laurence Fishburn, this is the [basically] true story of “The Tuskegee Experiment” (which is unrelated to “The Tuskegee Airmen” of the same era.)  It’s 1930’s Alabama.  Syphilis is rampant among the black residents of the area.  The U.S. government funds research which causes guaranteed terrible results for many.  And, there was a cover up.  Woodard is especially good, the sets and costuming rich in era and location.  (My only real complaint is the entire film was shot with a soft focus filter.  Not a good decision.)  WOTO

“Robots” (again, 2005):  This is SO MUCH FUN every time I see it!  If you love design from the 20th century, especially the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s, especially industrial/machine age design, you’ll gawk & drool your way through “Robots”.  If you love innuendo, obscure references, and witty plays on words, you’ll listen close… and feel worn-out by the end.  No, the plot is nothing unique… little good guy against big bad guy.  Love, family, friendship, honesty, determination, courage, and other aspects of human interest are introduced but never deeply explored – after all, this ISN’T made by Pixar.  However, the visuals are inventive, exciting, beautiful, and fun.  They are masterpieces of image making.  The jokes tend to be adult oriented and funny.  For pure PLEASURE – with no philosophical demands made on the adult mind – “Robots” is top notch.  I will see it repeatedly – whenever I want tons of quality visual and audio stimulation, without any challenges to my intellect.  WOTO

“Life of Pi” (India, 2012):  Although generally set in the East, the making of this film has an international flavor due to the languages and actors used.  Initially, I questioned the CGI as possibly faulty and somewhat easy to spot, but as the story progressed, I saw it had a purpose (which I cannot discuss here except to say it was a great artistic decision).  The story itself is humorous, tender, sad, frightening, and always thoughtful.  You’ll see images and experience scenarios absolutely unique to your experience.  This too has its purpose.  There is a “magical realism” to this film quite justified by its goals.  It is a powerful yet charming film that will drain yet refresh you.

“Fallen Angel” (again, 1945):  This is a great film starring Dana Andrews, Alice Faye, Linda Darnell, Charles Bickford, and lots of character actors from the time.  The photography is strong, the scoring moody, the sets appropriate, and the dialog full of tough guy talk and hot dame repartee.  Crime, passion, sleazy motivations, innocent girls, booze, rooms full of smoke, and a few twists and turns.  Truly a top notch example of the Film Noir genre.  WOTO

“Winterset” (1936):  First a stage play (winning the Pulitzer Prize) then a screenplay by the same writer – Maxwell Anderson – this early, pre-Noir-style work called for Depression Era fairness for those who suffered the most.  Set in dark stone hovels under the Brooklyn Bridge during a cold, relentless period of rain and sleet, we are first shown the problems immigrants faced in this country (a la Sacco and Vanzetti), then fast-fowarded to contemporary 1936.  We now understand the motives of the main characters (starring a young Burgess Meredith, Margo (who you may remember from Capra’s film “Lost Horizon”), Eduardo Ciannelli, Maurice Moscovitch, Paul Guifoyle, John Carradine, Mischa Auer, and Edward Ellis).  The sets are dark, dank, claustrophobic, and reek of stink and poverty.  The scoring supports nicely (nominated for an Oscar).  Scenes such as the people dancing on cobblestones to a calliope (and the resulting tension) add another desperate, almost surreal flavor.  Add in a touch of gangster / Greek tragedy, and a few moments of grandiose speeches (in the style of “Grapes of Wrath”).  For what could now be called its “overly expressive” moments, it keeps your attention, offers unique resolutions, is NOT dime-a-dozen entertainment, and has you thinking about it long after.  It received the Venice Film Award for photography.  Anderson also wrote “Key Largo” and “The Bad Seed”.  For me, this was a wonderful surprise of a film about which I’d never heard a word.  WOTO

“Riding in Cars with Boys” (again, 2002):  Drew Barrymore, James Woods, Steve Zahn and Brittany Murphy star in a wonderful story of common people dealing with their uncommon events – things we all must somehow face.  There are Dreams, there are Plans, and then there’s Life.  Sets and costuming over time stay period-accurate (although there IS some of the “Spotless Car Syndrome” I dislike), the main characters are not one-dimensional, and the situations not out of reach or unbelievable.  Occasionally, the children become precocious but not to the point of distraction.  “Riding in Cars with Boys” has comedy, tragedy, frustration, anger, tenderness, irony, the plain truth to much of that is depicted and, in the end, hope.  Always Hope.  WOTO

“The Murderers are Among Us” (German, 1946):  Made in Germany when it was still full of corpses, refugees, defeated civilians and soldiers, and miles of rubble, this dark anti-war film is a unique look into the REAL German mindsets mere months after their surrender.  Since much of Germany was yet completely shattered, the need for sets and locations was minimal.  This is part of the New Realism movement.  Masses of people shown are not actors and no doubt wear their actual daily rags.  The photography is often powerful and bleakly beautiful, the acting and dialog is dramatic (and seldom subtle), the editing is patient and ponderous.  Were you to believe all that is implied in this film, you would conclude nearly every German was innocent of any serious support of the Nazi party and should be quickly excused from those associations.  Well, history shows this is NOT the case, but I love “The Murderers are Among Us” for its being a German statement about how they are trying to see themselves AND how they want the world to see them.  This is a film of desperation on many levels.

“The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” (again, 1973):  Made for television, this high quality work won nine Emmy awards.  I saw it first-run on t.v..  It astounded me (especially compared to other “consciousness raising” attempts of that era) – much of which is due to the acting of Cicely Tyson and the abilities of the makeup specialists.  The story covers the life of Jane Pittman, 109 years old in 1962, who is being interviewed by a young white man about her life.  In lengthy flashbacks from childhood, we experience the challenges of a black child/woman growing up in the South.  The film is brutal, charming, very sad, funny, tender, frightening, and powerful.  My only complaint is the official dvd presents a great work in desperate need of color restoration (as do many works from the 1970’s).  I suggest shutting off its distractingly bad color and watching it in a purer black & white.  WOTO

“Theremin – An Electronic Odyssey” (1993):  Did you know that electronic music basically started in the 1920’s with the Russian inventor Lev Termen?  This is 1 hour and 22 minutes of Learning.  If you love music, avant garde thinking, and history, you’ll appreciate this fortunate last documentary on the complicated life of Termen, who died soon after.  He was a man of relentless intellectual curiosity.  Ya gotta love that.

“Angel” (English, French, 2007):  This is Francois Ozon’s first English language film.  It stars Romola Garai, Michael Fassbender, Sam Neill, and Charlotte Rampling.  “Angel” is a unique experience.  First appearing to a be little more than a Period Drama set in Edwardian England, you’ll meet a very obnoxious young woman with no concern for others or reality.  She lives within a fantasy she will become a famous novelist.  Slowly, YOU begin wondering what is and isn’t real in the film due to the story line, people’s behavior, the visuals, the scoring, etc..  Surely all these factors CAN’T be mistakes!  Well, I stuck with it, and, they weren’t.  We are taken inside the highly edited vision of “Angel” and watch the world through her eyes – AND those souls who have surrendered themselves to her meandering, ill-conceived vision.  I will see this one again.

“Minority Report” (again, 2002):  If you like intelligent Sci-Fi – a complex, suspense whodunit with top notch special effects, a story with moral undertones, and lots of action & twists (“Total Recall” would be another example) – then this is one for you.  The acting is good to great across the board.  Tom Cruise has some strong scenes, and Samantha Morton is always good.  Max von Sydow does an incredible amount with the little he uses.  The script does not treat you like an idiot (though IF you think you’re on top of it, you WILL slap your forehead a few times), the photography is harsh, cold, and artistically appropriate (do not adjust your set), and the representation of technology 50 years from now is wonderful (though I’m sure entirely quaint by 2054 A.D.).  WOTO

“Runaway Jury” (2003):  This is a TOTALLY engrossing story of American legal system corruption, written by John Grisham.  Centered on the act of lawyers choosing and affecting a jury in order to manipulate them into an outcome, Gene Hackman, John Cusak, Dustin Hoffman, and Rachel Weisz make for an exciting, complex plot full of ugly maneuvers that are too easy for us to accept as what could happen within ANY case – YOUR case – MY case – ANY case.  Are there ANY GOOD guys?  That’s something I won’t discuss.  Just see it.  It is a top quality script delivered by great actors, especially Hackman and Weisz.  WOTO

“Seven Years in Tibet” (again, 1997):  Brad Pitt, David Thewlis, and other talents make this true story an emotional and tactical ride through the years just before and during WWII.  After years of being held in a P.O.W. camp, these Axis soldiers escape only to find more difficult and life changing events ahead of them.  Despite its adventuresome plot, the real meaning of this film is about personal growth.  You are also treated to MAGNIFICENT landscapes and visits to other cultures (especially Tibet).  It is a wonderful, stressful, beautiful film.  WOTO

“Jacknife” (1989):  Starring Robert De Niro, Ed Harris, and Kathy Baker.  This is a post-Vietnam movie.  Yes, there are others, and no, this story is not unique.  Plus, the “eighties” score is dated and blatant, and the photography is nothing special.  However, the acting is of such high quality the everydayness of these events and people with their scars and fears reach right to the core of meaningful human experience.  See this film for what these three people bring to it.  It is well worth your time.  WOTO

“2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968): by Stanley Kubrick.  Caveat: I’ve slowly gained mixed feelings about this epic film.  In 1968, I put it in the “Changed My Life” category… because it DID just that.  Kubrick’s vision was so grand and challenging, the film itself so carefully and courageously assembled in details, effects, writing, scoring, and ideas, I simply could not grasp all he’d created but knew I wanted to and, as an artist, should aim this high with my own work.  I have viewed this film many times since.  Why have I gained mixed feelings?  For one, it is now easy to see it does not “transcend” its Time.  It IS OF its time in every way.  It speaks in rich and optimistic terms about the near future of 1968, it does not speak about 2001 let alone 2013.  It uses the then-popular visual effects and symbols representing the other / higher consciousness / psychedelic / drug related involvements.  Its vagaries were an important component of the era.  It shows complex machines extrapolated from the limits of 1968 thinking.  (A more powerful computer should be much larger, for example.)  “2001” expresses our vision in and of 1968 – it simply does it better than other films.  It IS a period piece.  (Note that the phone company logo never changed.  Witty, but very out of place with the entire Space Age modernism depicted with existing designer furniture, costuming ideas, etc.).  I have a deep, personal-growth attachment to this film.  It showed me how far one can reach as an artist.  Now, forty five years later, it has aged right along with me.  Now, we are both closer to curiosities than cutting edges.  Such is the Passage of Time.   WOTO

“Bellflower” (2011): Think of “Bellflower” as the slacker version of “Gummo” and “Kids” in attitude and appearance.  We meet a group of pathetically unproductive twenty-something men and woman who not only waste their time in selfish, pointless ways, but insist everyone else be affected by them as well.  More time is given to the men, whose guiding fantasies were formed as adolescents when first seeing the movies “Mad Max” and “The Road Warrior”.  They want to build a flame thrower and a bad-ass car, and cruise around scaring everyone with their awesomeness.  In the meantime, they kill lots of random time.  Visually, “Bellflower” appears related to “Gummo”.  These independent film makers may have used a program very similar to what quickly became its own cliché – Instagram.  The look has a built-in “dirtiness”, with color and focus distortions normally seen only in those static digital photos.  At times, the effects seem random, but due to the thematic content I couldn’t argue its point.  The audio also has a slightly tweaked, walking-in-your-sleep treatment.  Acting is generally good, dialog is a perfect expression of these useless humans, and plot movement is just cohesive enough to keep you hanging out with these losers (who reminded me most of older versions of the teens found in “Kids”).  “Bellflower” will make you want to take a shower, look in the mirror at yourself, and say out loud: “I’m not doing so bad after all…”. 

“Heavenly Creatures” (again,    ):  Unique and disturbing, this is the true story of two “outcast” New Zealand school girls who created their own private, hallucinatory fantasy world until faced with adults wanting to disassemble it.  This film – Winslett’s first – made me want to see anything she does (EXCEPT for that godawful “Tit-and-Ick” moovie).  Co-starring was Melanie Lynskey, who did a good job, but was outclassed by Winslett.  I enjoyed the cinematography indicating their different levels of consciousness.  Except for “clean car syndrome”, I appreciated the sets and costuming. “Heavenly Creatures” is not for children!  WOTO

“Miller’s Crossing” (again, 1990):  Here is another of the Coen brothers unique films.  They create characters you cannot stop watching within stories that spin with events crashing into one another.  “Miller’s Crossing” depicts “the Mob” and their lackies in late 1920’s America – criminals creating power struggles, double crosses, fake honor, greed, grifts, opportunism, and existential dog-eat-dogness.  No one makes films like the Coens, though this one has a similar – ONLY similar – dark humor to “Pulp Fiction”, but without the hip snideness or pop culture references.  “Miller’s Crossing” is a period film, theatrical, and nearly operatic.  How about this:  half Sam Peckinpah, half Quentin Tarantino, all Coen brothers.  ?  Yeh, THAT works for me.  WOTO

“To Rome with Love” (2012): Written and directed by Woody Allen. This is a multi-facet film set in Rome with various people under the romance and delusions of the moment. Allen takes his life-long involvement in movie casting and slyly shifts it onto a higher plane – now asking us to consider OUR roles in OUR lives – the CONTEXT (Time and Place) being interesting but temporary. It’s funny, tender, sexy, ridiculous, ironic, beautiful, and full of the advice to enjoy who you are now, here, with those you love and who love you. THAT is your greener grass. Very nice. Thoughtful. Uplifting. And, like I said, funny.

“The Good Shepard” (2006):  168 minutes.  Directed and produced (and with a small acting role) by Robert DeNiro, starring Matt Damon, William Hurt, Angelina Jolie, Joe Pesci, and many other talented actors.  This is a dark, DARK story of life deep, DEEP in the “Skull and Bones” Club, the U.S. Government, and specifically, the CIA.  Who is attracted to such activities?  What is the price for such a life?  Who are the victims?  Is there ANYONE you can trust?  This is not a mere “paranoid” film, but a complex, nicely woven story covering about 40 years of the larger circles who brought the CIA into existence.  You’ll need to pay attention, because it jumps around in time A LOT.  It’s a cold, unemotional, calculating, narrow film that makes no effort to offer solutions.  There probably aren’t any.  But the ride through this world is worth your time.  WOTO

“State of the Union” (1948):  Originally a stage play (and in the film you can see and hear those roots), this movie version was created by Frank Capra.  Starring Katherine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Angela Lansbury, and a huge cast of character actors (often seen in Capra films), this is the story of an already powerful, wealthy man who, though hesitant, is convinced by political groomers and glommers he should run for President of the United States.  Slowly he is brought along to the point of … well, I’m not going to ruin it for you, but I will say the film is listed as a comedy – and there ARE comedic moments – but it’s mainly a very edgy, angry look into politics and greed.  I may prefer “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” as another Capra work with similar interests (as is “The Candidate” with Robert Redford), but “State of the Union” is a good, tough film that reminds everyone what America has tried to be when at its best.  And, it IS a primer for anyone who wants insight into the political system.  WOTO 

”The Visitor” (2007):  Except for an undercurrent agenda of post-9-11 reactions to terrorism and foreigners, this is an understated psychological study of a college professor who has disconnected from life, and, if he realizes it at all, is doing nothing about it.  Enter “the situation”.  The basics are not new territory, but this is a good version, with real heart and great acting.  There are few moments too easily predicted, and overall it captures and holds your interest.  Kudos to all four main actors: Richard Jenkins, Haaz Sleiman, Danai Gurira, and (sorry) the woman who plays “Tarek’s” Mother.  “The Visitor” is a gem of a little film about which I’d heard nothing.  WOTO

“Desperate Characters” (1970):  This one has me fascinated with the artistic questions I felt the need to ask and, as of yet, cannot answer.  There are numerous components to Frank Gilroy’s film which I think were intentional but my wife thinks were mistakes.  They include: some stiff exchanges of dialog, and ambient audio recording giving all locations a chilly, harsh, empty sound.  The story is about alienated, detached married people in 1970 New York City – which was then nothing much more than an expensive cesspool of trash, disease, and crime.  The people are miserable, sad, afraid, and angry.  My inclination is to give the stiff interactions and hollow audio credit for adding to the ambiance of a VERY moody film.  My wife thinks they were accidents.  We DO agree that Shirley MacLaine is wonderful in her low key, passive-aggressive role.  I also liked Kenneth Mars as her brash, gross, outspoken husband.  It was the supporting cast who made us wonder about the style of dialog.  Some of it was almost surreal in its detachment.  I’m going to stick with “intentional”.  You’ll decide for yourself.  It’s worth it.  

“Napolean Dynamite” (again, 2004):  A caveat:  This is one uniquely funny movie IF you like dry, Dry, DRY humor.  If, like me, you love Christopher Guest movies (Waiting for Guffman, A Mighty Wind, etc.), and stories like Welcome to the Doll House, Drop Dead Gorgeous, or even The Brady Bunch Movie, you should like this one too.  It doesn’t have the dark edge of Dollhouse, or the intellectual references of Guffman, but this is the ULTIMATE dead pan, dry-as-a-bone, walking-in-your-sleep, never-cracks-a-smile, supremely LAME-O movie of all time.  Everything you see and hear is in support of that one goal.  Every stitch of clothing, shot of landscape, choice of song, piece of furniture, and stunted word of dialog takes you deeper into the Land of Nowhere.  And where do you end up?  Nowhere, but somewhere, and it ain’t spectacular, but it is what it is, and that’s exactly what it should be.  I watched it twice in the first week I rented it.  Now we own it.  Consider it a swweeet. love story.  Sorta.  IMDB WOTO

“The Jacket” (again, 2004):    Go into this one feeling sharp.  Expect to manage many puzzle pieces.  It is a combination of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” mixed with “Frequency” mixed with “Black Hawk Down” mixed with “The Sixth Sense” or something… and more, including it being itself.  I like the visual representations of memories, drug states, consciousness, etc.., and the score by Brian Eno is quite effective.  Actors Adrien Brody, Keira Knightley, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kris Krisofferson, Daniel Craig, Kelly Lynch, and Brad Renfro do a fine job.  For those of you with Claustrophobia, watch out.  WOTO

“Desert Bloom” (1985):  Set in the 1950 post-war desert community of Las Vegas Nevada, this is far from a gloppy glitzy gambling soaper.  It is the complex, dramatic, subtle, sad, elegant, hopeful story of one average family dealing with their personal realities at a time when “Duck and Cover” meant atomic bombs being tested within view.  It is a feast of period accurate messiness from average American home décor to the psychic wounds of young parents lucky enough to have “survived” World War II.  Think of “Desert Bloom” as the older cousin to “The Prize Winner of Defiance Ohio”.  This is high praise.  I must own this film for multiple viewings.  Starring Jon Voight, Jobeth Williams, Ellen Barkin, and a wonderful newcomer Annabelle Gish, plus plenty of other supporting actors.

“Young Adult” (again, 2011):  Starring Charlize Theron (who continues to prove she is one of our finest actresses) and an entire cast of talent who does the writing, casting, acting, set designing, filming, etc..  This is the story of a dreary, deluded mess of a young woman who supposedly has “everything” – living the high life in the Big City of the “Mini-Apple” (Minneapolis) – yet feels empty.  She decides to return to her home town and relocate (or steal, if necessary) her glory days.  Every admirable aspect of this film is aimed at depicting the desperation of a person on the verge of collapse who seems determined to smash against reality until she is shattered.  Believe it or not, much of it is humorous in a dark, pathetic way – a VERY pathetic way – an EMBARRASSINGLY PATHETIC way – where your choice is either laugh or cry, get on with life or end it all.  I highly recommend “Young Adult” as one of the best of 2011.

“Leave Her to Heaven” (1945):  This one was shot in lurid Technicolor (but received the Oscar for best color photography… it was actually the set decorator who made things look so good).  It is an interesting story of increasingly obsessive love and control, starring the all-time most beautiful woman with an overbite – Gene Tierney (nominated for Best Actress).  Also starring are one of the two most zombiesque actors of all time (competing with Torg from “Plan Nine from Outer Space” fame) – Cornel Wilde, plus the just-plain-cute Jeanne Craine, and a moustacheless Vincent Price.  Tierney plays a deeply flawed psychological mess of a woman who slowly takes everyone down in her dark world.  From the moment she locks eyes with Wilde, you know there’s trouble comin’… but, like him, you can’t help but stare back.  It is creepy!  WOTO

“Summer of ’42” (again, and again, and again, 1971):  Let’s get one thing out of the way right now:  I will – for the rest of my life – have a crush on Jennifer O’Neill …because of this film.  For that reason – if it WAS the only reason – I would put this film in my “Guilty Pleasures” category.  But… it’s not the only reason I return and return to this work.  Simply put, when it’s funny, it makes me laugh harder than most others; when it’s tender, very few films can touch it; when it’s sad, it’s really sad; and when it reaches my fragile spots – which all men have whether they admit it or not – it makes me feel as though I could shatter.  It’s also full of lovely landscapes, nicely framed shots, elegant music (won the Oscar), wonderful dialog, and perhaps the finest LACK of dialog ever created.  Everyday adults play no role in this story.  It’s about three boys – best Summer Pals – who, for this season, stay in a New England beach island community.  They’re bored, they make their own fun, they’re horny and have no idea how to deal with that, they’re embarrassed and embarrassing, they’re innocent and dopey, they’re funny, desperate, and very human.  Maybe “Summer of ‘42” is a tad more of a male-film, but only if females aren’t willing to see the Truths in this delicate, insightful story.  I adore it.  Gary Grimes, Jerry Houser, and Oliver Conant play the boys.  Despite the fact there ARE other people on the island, and they DO inhabit parts of the film, together, these four people (O’Neill included) will seem like the only ones left on Earth… and that’s pretty much how they feel about it, too.  WOTO IMDB

“The Dead Girl” (2006): Piper Laurie, Marcia Gay Harden, Josh Brolin, Giovanni Ribisi, Tony Collette, James Franco, Mary Beth Hurt, and other great actors star in this low key, chilly, dark murder mystery. The story is told from varying points of view and characters who have little in common but a young woman found brutally murdered on the desert outside Los Angeles. The photography and scoring are beautifully supportive of the film’s goal to fill you with sadness, horror, fear, and suspicion. This film was nominated for three “Independent Spirit” awards. Except for laughs, watch this for every reason you want to see a good film. It’s all here.

“The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” (2009): by Terry Gilliam. Anyone who says they totally understand a Gilliam film after one viewing is deluded or a liar. I have viewed this film once – only last night. I always look forward to his films. No one else alive on Earth has his vision. His characters are mythic but flawed, they’re always funny while being dark and complex, and there always exists a contest of strength (good vs. evil, generally). No one else better combines special effects with live action. Gilliam understands their potential and limits, wisely using both. At times, the sets and circumstances outweigh the characters – or you must consider the environments themselves characters. Starring Christopher Plummer, co-starring Lily Cole, Andrew Garfield, and Heath Ledger, with fine supporting work by Verne Troyer and a glorious, scene-stealing Tom Waits, this story takes you into the “outdated”, steampunkish world of Dr. Panassus and his little troupe who, seemingly, try to “get by” in a world which has moved on. The story itself resembles the relationship of Parnassus to the outside world – there seems to be a “center” of simplicity which is completely engulfed in frantic excesses. Could both have more easily found “peace”? Yes, and perhaps some trimming would not have hurt this huge Gilliam effort, but this is not Gilliam’s way and I would fear over-editing to the point where his uniqueness is snipped to a calm death. I do not totally understand this film, and need to view it again.

“Full Metal Jacket” (again, 1987):  One of the things I like about Stanley Kubrick’s directorial career (as it progressed) was his way of keeping things from becoming as simple as they might first appear.  Humans and their interactions are complex, and he seems to go out of his way to avoid supplying clean, one-liner endings.  His earlier films, at least through “Doctor Strangelove”, ARE “simpler” (and by that, I DO NOT MEAN simplistic), but by “2001″, Kubrick was properly muddying the waters.  “Full Metal Jacket” and “Eyes Wide Shut” are good examples of his ability to avoid supplying easy answers.  You might want to tag “Full Metal Jacket” an “anti-war, anti-military” film, and in ways that might be true – at least, for awhile – but more and more pieces of the film keep you from being lulled into a single statement.  These guys signed on to the Marines, they weren’t drafted.  No two men are alike, and no two respond to their training stresses in the same way.  Once in Viet Nam, they retain their individual personalities, with two things binding them together – the shared stress of surviving the war, and the drive for revenge over losing buddies.  Although not powerfully “matter of fact” like “Band of Brothers”, or supremely “poetic” like “The Thin Red Line”, nor is it an “agenda” film like “Doctor Strangelove”, “How I Won the War”, “Apocalypse Now”, or “Beach Red”, I prefer these later films of Kubrick’s.  They are more mature.  They allow me room to think.  This is a sign of greater Art.  WOTO

“Stagecoach” (again, 1939):  Because this is an ensemble film AND directed by John Ford, the fact it contains John Wayne is not enough to deter me.  In fact, kept out of any singular spotlights and kept within the group of characters, he was a good member.  “Stagecoach” is a seemingly simple story: a group of people, each with their own motives, hires a stagecoach to cross the western plains and deserts for various goals… and thus begins a journey of challenges and soul searching.  It is not only an interesting journey, but equally interesting to see a serious interpretation of the American West via contemporary 1939 – a HUGE year in films, World Fairs, design, and the “official” start of World War Two.  Not only were people transient due to lack of work in the Great Depression, but the mood was yet Isolationist despite the roving, attacking enemies everywhere around us.  The subtext of “Stagecoach” cannot be missed.  “We may have our problems, but if you PUSH US, we’ll unite and PUSH back until you are gone or dead.”  WOTO

“The Contender” (again, 2000):  This is a superb in-house political drama from which you feel dirty and infected after watching these characters, and yet… things aren’t all what they seem, and yet… others most certainly are.  With actors like Gary Oldman and Joan Allen leading the talent, you can rightly expect top level jobs.  Watch for devices designed to add to the repulsiveness of a scene, especially the up-close eating, drinking, smoking, and perspiring.  You just want to get away from these slime balls.  Some of the plot twists were predictable (intentional?) but others – equally important – weren’t..  “The Contender” is an interesting story and well done from start to finish, with its only flaw being a slightly heavy-handed, agenda-leaning ending.  Let’s see if YOU want to be in politics after this…  WOTO

“The Battle of the Sexes” (the KINO restored version, again, 1928):  By D.W. Griffith?  Really?  The man who brought you those huge, sweeping dramas?  A comedy?  That’s right!  On the other hand, this is also a drama.  Caveat: You must forgive some of the nearly 100 year old acting style.  It comes from the stage, and many actors had not made the shift to the camera with its close-ups and other concepts entirely foreign to Broadway.  As a film, this is probably the most beautifully photographed silent film I’ve ever seen (by Karl Struss and Billy Bitzer), and quite funny… for awhile… then it gets serious.  Much of the actors physical comedy and drama is of the highest quality for its time, especially the girl who plays the “daughter” who uses her face with the insight she’s playing to a lens not a group of people off in the back row of a darkened room.  “The Battle of the Sexes” is a morality tale.  It was made BEFORE the Great Stock Market Crash and the first skyscraper – the Chrysler Building – when Jazz was early and wild, liquor was no-no, and sexual behavior / gender roles were being questioned.  This was an exuberant and trying time.  Think of it as the elder 1960’s.  “The Battle of the Sexes” was expertly made, most of the actors were top notch for their time, the new music written for this silent film (by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra) is good (see the KINO restored version), and, like I said, the photography is fantastic.  Watch it without your 2013 biases, if you can.  WOTO

“The Big Sleep” (1946):  Take a Raymond Chandler thriller novel, have William Faulkner write the screenplay, put Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in the lead roles… and yet you still get a film that feels too long and too muddled with less than enough payoff for it to have been worth more than a stylish way to spend a couple of hours on the sofa.  GREAT “mugs and dames” dialog, some enjoyable décor, good cars, nothing but Hollywood stage sets inside and “out of doors” – it’s a mixed bag of ups and downs within limited entertainment.  But, ya gotta love Bacall’s vampy voice, and Bogart’s cool sarcasm.  However, there exists (now on dvd) a less vampy version released in 1945 to our soldiers overseas, with a clearer plot line.  I have a dvd with both versions.  This might be the one you want.  WOTO

“Badlands” (again, 1972):  Created and directed by the then UPSTART Terrence Malick (he did other favorites later (including “Days of Heaven” (1978) and “The Thin Red Line” (1998).  This is a beautiful, quirky, disturbing, recreation of a true story about two young people who, in 1959, ended up on a killing spree that shocked and frightened the entire country. The violence is there for us to see but the most disturbing thing about “Badlands” – even today – is the detached, sociopathic, unemotional randomness of these youths.  Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen are barely teens in these roles, who add a mesmerizing, creepy atmosphere to the bleak north central United States.  The photography, scoring, etc. are all given over to the goal of presenting these deeply flawed, Existentially-soaked teens.  Even in 1972 this would’ve been a shocking film from a psychological point of view.  Seen were no major motivations, drugs, alcohol, or much sex… they simply did what they did when they did it and that was that.  Much later, films like “Natural Born Killers” would arrive.  But “Badlands” took earlier stories like “The Wild One” and “Rebel Without a Cause” into new territory.  Alienation-gone-numb.  WOTO

“Days of Heaven” (1978): NOW I understand why everyone was thrilled when Terrence Malick returned to film-making after a twenty year self-retreat. Although I am familiar with his earlier “Bad Lands” and his later, brilliant “The Thin Red Line” (my favorite) and “The Tree of Life”, “Days of Heaven“ points to what he would do once returning to writing/directing. His films have a deep sense of an intimacy with the Moment in a Place. His use of a single character narrative floating over the film adds a meditative calm and slightly surreal context to what you are viewing. Clearly, Malick is willing to experiment and allow for coincidental creations. His camera stares into a scene with a patience Werner Herzog uses as well. His editing juxtaposes the simple with the dramatically implied. Malick films are rooted in philosophy, time, to a lesser degree story, and components such as action or conclusion used only if absolutely necessary to support the philosophy. He is a director I will thoroughly investigate, despite my nagging suspicion his “The New World” will be a mistake (from the previews seen). (More on that later.) I hope I’m wrong. Of what I’ve seen, I admire it all.

“Good Night, and Good Luck” (again, 2005):  This is the true story of Edward R. Murrow’s television commentator/news career in the early 1950’s, and his battle with the fear mongering, political bully Eugene McCarthy.  Restrained acting, subtle period sets, low key costuming, the use of actual footage when possible, and the most beautiful, velvety blacks, grays, and whites of any film ever, made this an extremely high quality film experience.  For those too young or uneducated to have knowledge of this period of history, it is a good start towards understanding what not only happened, but what can easily happen again, if we remain a society of passive consumers.  David Strathairn, Patricia Clarkson, Jeff Daniels, George Clooney, Robert Downey Jr., Frank Langella star.  WOTO IMDB

“The Triplets of Belleville” (again, French, 2004):  Prepare yourself for a unique experience.  This is pure animation in the very best sense of the word.  Take the high point of Disney… better yet, the Fleischer Brothers in the 30’s and 40’s, remove the Disney schmaltz, make the visuals even better (!), create an entire story with no dialog, cool music, extremely sensitive ambient sound, incredible insights into the details of daily creatures (human and otherwise), rooms, machines, etc., sprinkle in some really weird, gross, and dark humor moments… then just sit back and let it wash over you.  It’s VERY refreshing.  I wish I could say I’d been in on this Vision.  WOTO IMDB

“The Dark Corner” (again, 1946):  Fine Noir thriller set in the gritty city of post-WWII New York and the office of a down-n-out mug of an investigator who has his own history and ain’t all that proud of it.  Mark Stevens, Lucille Ball (BEFORE she was “Lucy”), William Bendix, and Clifton Webb star.  Lots of slam bang, hard shell, tough talkin’ men, wary women, shifty vixens, and weasley high-hats.  Expect some of the finest Noir lighting, shadows, textures, and compositions ever.  It is a feast of artistic black, grays, and white.

“John Adams” (third viewing, 2008):  One small caveat here:  I think this story is essentially for Americans.  Although it IS about larger issues of freedom, etc., the framework is entirely constructed of AMERICAN HISTORY.  Okay, with that out of the way… this is a fantastic retelling of the turbulent years just before, during, and after the American Revolution.  The sets and costuming are amazingly down to earth and gritty, the politics complex and crude, the personalities clear and interesting, the situations understandable on ALL sides of the multiple fences.  Starring Paul Giamatti, Laura Linney, David Morse, Stephen Dillane, Tom Wilkinson, and more and more talented people – they (I hate to sound like a cliché here but) “bring history alive”.  The WEIGHT of reality given to their situations, their debates, their decisions, and finally, to their actions is immense and palpable.  Made by HBO?  Yes, and not one iota lesser in quality than any top notch film willing to take on such a sweeping story.  Must-see History.  I was “riveted” to every single moment of this 501 minute work of Art.  WOTO

“Dark Days” (2000): This is a low budget documentary unlike any you’ve probably ever seen. Shot in black and white, and using crude lighting and sound equipment, Marc Singer (and crew) go into the perpetually unlit bowels of New York City underground train tunnels to spend time with homeless men and women. Living in self-made “shacks”, surrounded by drugs and rats, with thieves and arsonists for “neighbors”, you watch and listen to their stories, history, excuses, foul mouths, bullshit, and occasional glimmers of insight only a terrible life can bring about. Want a film to scare kids away from “crack”?  This is the one.

“The Silence of the Lambs” (again, 1991):  Ever needed the insightful help of an intelligent, murdering cannibal to find a serial killer who skins his women victims?  Starring Anthony Hopkins, Jodie Foster, and Scott Glen, with photography by Tak Fujimoto, and direction by Jonathan Demme.  This is a tight, frightening, psychological suspense drama – and NOT for kids.  Expect two hours of engaged tension.  WOTO

“Game Change” (2012): Sarah Palin, John McCain, Barack Obama, we know them all. We know the story (or most of it, anyhow). This is not a film loaded with surprises, especially if you kept one ear on the campaign. THIS film is about how and who retells the story. The screenplay is well done. It lays out the main steps leading towards the selection of Palin, and the slow realization she (and they) were entirely unprepared to deal with the myriad of daunting realities. Palin was a flawed choice, but she was who she was, and the “vetters” didn’t do their jobs. Julianne Moore worked hard in the role in Sarah Palin, and, as usual, she was up to it and brilliant. I ended up with a limited but true empathy for this Vice President candidate who simply was unprepared at all levels for the pressures that would be applied. Very few of us could handle those demands – and I don’t know why anyone would choose them. Ed Harris as John McCain was great. Woody Harrelson as the lead campaign organizer was also great. There wasn’t a bad acting job in this film. “Game Change” is a sly look at the shallow, corrupt, misguided political process we still like to call “democracy”. It reminds me of a mix between “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”, “The Candidate”, “All the President’s Men”, and few other darker ones thrown in such as the original “Manchurian Candidate”, “Charlie Wilson‘s War“, and “Bob Roberts“.

“Pork Chop Hill” (1959): Created and released only six years after the real conclusion of the Korean War, this is the story of the war‘s “last” battle – a harrowing, dirty look at terrible losses for questionable purposes. Though not directly anti-war or anti-bureaucracy, it leans that direction while still honoring the courage and dedication of real men under extreme circumstances. Starring Gregory Peck as the cool, calm leader in the trenches, we watch him slowly drain of patience and hope while nothing seems to go right – none of which is his fault. The film is loaded with almost unrecognizable young stars. The b/w photography is gorgeous; the lighting – despite its lack of continuity – is effective. This is, after all, Hollywood… but less so than most films of the 1950’s. WOTO

“The Ground Truth” (2006): You need to watch and listen to our soldiers returning from war, who, during this era, are mainly the soldiers of Afghanistan and Iraq. You need to hear it from THEM. YOU will never gain appropriate insight by using only your ideas and logic, your fantasies and fears. You need to see documentary film, photos and interviews with those who “survived” but carry the amputations, and emotional and psychological wounds. This is not the only documentary of its kind, but it’s a good one. WOTO

“Chris & Don: A Love Story” (2007):  This is a documentary about Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachhardy – their lives and lifestyles, their long term relationship, their associations, careers, their ups and downs but never outs.  Using home movies, photos, art, diaries, and recreated scenes, we are invited in for a close look at a gay romance between two men thirty years different in age – one a writer, one a visual artist.  Once I got beyond Don’s affectations (to which he fully admits), I found their story interesting from various points of reference: the second half of the twentieth century in America, the gay community, the Hollywood community, the Arts community, and the human community.  This film was touching, happy, sad, and complex.  Its scoring is lovely and appropriate, the photography a mixed bag of results… but overall, this is a fine work patiently considering what it is to be “a couple”.    

“I Shot Andy Warhol” (again, 1996):  Lili Taylor is one of my favorite actors, and this is one of my favorite films in which she stars.  Valerie Solanis (played by Taylor) is the paranoid feminist lesbian “writer” who did, in fact, confront Warhol as had no other.  Her fringe “involvement” with him, “The Factory”, its denizens and their intense, pathetic, deluded lifestyles are the perfect environment for tragedy.  WOTO

“Sullivan’s Travels” (again 1941):  Veronica Lake (one of my 40′s Babe crushes) had a film career that peaked before I was born.  (It’s a DISTANT crush, for sure.)  She and Joel McCrea (whose comedic sense is not the equal of Lake), star in a pre-WWII, Depression Era story about a millionaire movie mogul who decides to make a “serious” but warm movie (“with a little sex”) in the spirit of Frank Capra” about the hardships Americans are facing.  Convinced by one of his butlers that he knows NOTHING of the real world, he decides to find a “tramp costume” and set out for the “real” America with only a dime in his pocket.  If THIS wasn’t pathetically funny enough, it only gets better thanks to Veronica Lake and the director Preston Sturgis.  I’ve always felt Lake did not receive enough credit for her ability to perform comedy as easily as a vampy, noir-ish blonde.  Her timing, reactions, willingness to get down and dirty (literally), etc. is top notch.  Sturgis’ control makes for a uniquely good looking film with rapid fire dialog exchanges and overlaps.  All THIS and STILL a “Capra-esque” message by the end.  What more could you fairly expect?  WOTO IMDB

“Into the Wild” (again, 2007):  Directed by Sean Penn, this is the recreation of the true story of a bright, emotionally wounded young man who sets out on a solo journey, thinking His Solution was removal from all attachments, if not society altogether.  His final goal was to be self-sufficient, living alone in the Alaskan wilderness.  In many ways, comparisons could be made to “Grizzly Man”, but there’s something warmer in the way this young man, Christopher McCandless, related to others (or avoided them) and what was at the heart of his search.  He was lost in his psychic scars, guided by romantic visions (fueled by famous writers), totally unprepared for what he enters, and was fool-hearty to the point of having a death wish.  Don’t research this story before viewing the film.  Just join him on the journey.  WOTO

“Mean Streets” (again, 1973):  This is the one that put writer/director Martin Scorcese on the map.  It is a frantic, non-stop, story-less slice-of-life about a bunch of small time hoods in their trashy, little Italian New York neighborhood, using up their daily lives in meaningless, pathetic ways.  Excellent depictions.  Rober DeNiro shines as “Johnny Boy” – the charming, explosive, full-of-excuses liar who expects everyone else to pick up his slack.  Harvey Keitel plays his well-meaning but misguided cousin – also a loser – who keeps covering for Johnny.  They redefine “co-dependent”.  Everyone else takes supporting roles and does a great job.  The photography is rich and harsh, the score loud and straight from a juke box, and the dialog perfectly petty.  Scorcese would improve (with “Taxi Driver” !), but this one hell of a start.  WOTO

“Of Mice and Men” (again, 1992):  Gary Sinise almost single handedly created this film version of Steinbeck’s novel, and with John Malkovich co-starring it’s a potent version of a potent story.  Set in the era of 1930′s Great Depression America, two drifters, who are life long friends, make-do riding the rails, getting odd jobs, and clinging to any dream that helps them get one more mile down the tracks.  The photography is beautiful and effective, the sound track rich and earthy, scoring very supportive, its inspiration is flawless, of course, and the acting by all involved (including Ray Walston) is magnificent.  If nothing else causes you to now read all of John Steinbeck’s work, this should do it.  I also admire the first film version made in 1939.  See BOTH.  WOTO

“Wings” (silent, 1927): This is the FIRST film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Starring Richard Arlen, Buddy Rogers, and “The It Girl”, Clara Bow. This is a story of Youth caught up in the naïve excitement and terrible horror of World War I (which ended only ten years before the premier of this film). It is a story about love, loss, and war. Melodrama presides but the quality of camera work, the pure magnitude of on-location shooting, the special effects, stunts, and gritty realism (when needed), makes it easy to see why “Wings” took the first honors. It has the “size” of “Gone With the Wind”, “The Bridge on the River Kwai”, or “Doctor Zhivago”. BIG. You’ll see Gary Cooper in a role lasting about three minutes. He was not yet a headliner. “Wings” has nostalgia, heart, action, violence, passion, sexiness, and a somewhat predictable story line which barely detracts from its consistent quality. WOTO

“Baby Doll” (again, 1956): This is the least known yet most controversial story and screenplay by Tennessee Williams… and, it was banned by the Roman Catholic’s “Legion of Decency”. The church told their followers if they saw the film they’d go to Hell. That’s right. But, if YOU see it, you’ll keep waiting for the ticket to Hell – and it won’t arrive. Directed by Elia Kazan, this film IS a steamy, seedy, sensual, almost surreal story – Southern Gothic in nature, and wonderfully weird. It was shot in Beloit, Mississippi, and uses many of its “locals” as extras – which adds additional flavor. There’s no film like it. You CAN see it’s a Williams work, and you might think “David Lynch” or “Werner Herzog” on occasion, but “Baby Doll” is unique. It stars an insane Karl Malden, a fantastic Carroll Baker (lord I loved watching her ever-shifting face and twitchy body), and Eli Wallach in his first, sleazy, major role. WOTO

“Unforgivable Blackness – The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson” (2004): I don’t care WHAT subject he takes on, Ken Burns pulls you in, teaches you, and you enjoy it – ALWAYS. In this case, it’s the history of a turn-of-the-last-century professional boxer who was his own biggest fan and one of his own worst enemies… along with the whites who hated this first black man to force his way towards the Heavyweight Boxing Title of the World. Jack Johnson was a first-generation free-black who, due to ego more than social concern, was determined to live his life his way – right or wrong. This is a complex story of alienation, dedication, obsession, defensiveness, and self-destruction. The fact he and his world were documented so well in periodicals, photographs, and films makes this a visual treat and one of the early examples of the power of daily news and commercial hype. I was “glued” to the screen. WOTO

“The Taming of the Shrew” (again, 1967):  As you know, this was written by William Shakespeare, but was directed for film by Franco Zeffirelli (a few centuries later).  It stars Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton (the “ideal” match), and introduces Michael York.  Taylor is at her best both as the SHREW from Hell AND the angelic, gorgeous wife.  Burton is brash, bold, and blustery.  The machinations of dowry arrangements explain the initial driving force for all the characters, but from thereon out, it is character transformations we watch… and, we watch them in costumes and sets ranging from the disgusting to the lush.  Zeffirelli, who also did my favorite version of “Romeo and Juliet”, does a superb job of creating environments which help explain the characters and (hopefully) the era.  Yes, as was often the case in films, the stars were coiffed in the style of THEIR time not the story‘s, but there were attempts to camouflage this incessant habit (which we only sometimes escape even today).  Taylor is beautiful, everyone is funny, charming, and conniving.  This is great fun.  WOTO

“Quicksand” (again, 1950):  Starring Mickey Rooney, Peter Lorre, Barbara Bates, and the lovely girl-next-door, Jeanne Cagney.  This is a good drama about a decent enough fella who stupidly allows himself to slip ever-deeper into trouble from double-dealings.  “Quicksand” is a perfect title for this semi-Noir, and all the actors are well-suited to their roles.  The story contains abrupt changes at the end – about which I debate their effectiveness – but “Quicksand” is focused on Spiraling Down, and it’s very well constructed.  For those of you who also like to watch for sets, costumes, and cars, this film is loaded.  WOTO

“Public Enemy” (1931):  Starring James Cagney and Edward Woods.  This Prohibition Era film is presented as an “educational explanation” as to how good kids can go bad, and how we, as struggling Americans, must step in and turn them around.  And, it is shown in a time-time format.  It’s wonderfully simple and straightforward in its Melodrama, with a naïve presentation… but has essential truths to it.  Jean Harlow and Joan Blondell support, but play no significant role.  They were simply box office dressing.  What this film does have – especially for its time – is an increasingly intense story line leading to an inevitable – but even now, powerful – last scene.  I love how it was edited.  WOTO

“Marathon Man” (again, 1976): Written by William Goldman, directed by John Schlesinger, starring Dustin Hoffman, Laurence Olivier, William Devane, Roy Scheider, and Marthe Keller. Although the production quality of this film has that 1970’s look of poor quality, this is the suspenseful story of an average NYC nobody who leads a solitary shlub of a life, and whose big goal is to practice jogging until he can run in a marathon. He begins receiving attention from people he knows… or thinks he knows, and some he knows he doesn’t know but maybe a couple he wants to know, and plenty who are not his idea who‘s healthy to know. He’s in the middle of a deep, dark conspiracy with people who have a lot to lose… and they all believe he holds the key to their success. WOTO

“Claire Dolan” (2000): Starring a great Katrin Cartlidge as a distant, robotic, wounded hooker constantly hounded by her very controlling pimp (Colm Meaney). This is a bleak story set in detached environments that offer very little relief let alone hope. The creation of this film has a unique atmosphere (photography, scoring, sets, costuming) that helps power the singular goal of “Claire Dolan”: to underscore the complete lack of Hollywood romanticism (bullshit) given to such myths as “Pretty Woman”.  Cartlidge was known best for her role in “Breaking the Waves”.  Sadly, she died in 2002 of pneumonia - at the age of 41.

“Things to Come” (again, 1936): I have never seen this film in a fresh restoration, but would like to own one. (I own two poor VHS versions, one put out by “United American Video Corp”. I have researched and ordered a supposedly improved version on dvd by Image Entertainment. More on that later.*) You WILL need patience and forgiveness with the quality of its film transfers… probably in their 88th generation by now.

And, there are caveats with my enthusiasm for this futurist style sci-fi film: If you don’t care about no-holds-barred set design, costuming, and special effects, it will be of less interest to you. (Much of its look was taken from such designers as Norman Bel Geddes (and his book “Horizons” of 1932), the general atmosphere of “streamlining”, and recent and upcoming World‘s Fairs.) If a “prediction” film (taken from H. G. Wells book and screenplay) – which is fascist-sci-fi – sounds interesting, you’ll love this one.

It covers the one hundred year history of “Everytown” (in Britain) from 1936 to 2036. To write this book in 1936 required little courage, only talent. To make this film in 1936 took courage and talent. From the silver screen, it looked down on the public and said “YOU are in DENIAL!” After all, World War II was brewing in Europe… but still short of incidents making it an undeniable certainty. “Things to Come” is a dark look at the threat of war, war itself, its long term effects, and the odd but understandable fantasy solutions concocted in the 1930’s. (In that sense, it reminds me of a scientific version of “Gabriel Over the White House” (1933) – another truly unique response to a collapsing world.)

“Things to Come” is both silly and smart, ugly and beautiful, preachy and realistic, but isn’t an excuse for a sugary love affair. H. G. Wells may have not had the distant future pinned down, but he nailed the near future to the wall.  WOTO

(* The dvd version has arrived (Jan. 3, 2013). It is a MAJOR improvement over the older available copies. “Image Entertainment” version is highly recommended.)

“Brokedown Palace” (again, 1999):  Two American high school girls, best friends, take off on a last vacation before their lives separate at the fork in the road – one to college, one not.  Through a series of seemingly random, childish events, they are suddenly swept up into a nightmare that has no solution.  Great acting by Claire Danes and Kate Beckinsale make this “it could happen to YOU too” film an intense, emotional, frightening story… and a warning to others.  Have your teens watch this one.  WOTO

 

 

3.
“Hey, relax and ride the sofa”

“The Southerner” (1945):  Of the American films French writer/director Jean Renoir created (dialect written by William Faulkner), this is was his favorite.  I prefer others works of his (such as “Grand Illusion” 1937), but, with my having a soft spot for films made during our Great Depression, I also like this late entry enough to recommend it.  It’s rough around the edges, but its heart is in the right place depicting a certain “can-do” brutality and stamina one must admire.  (Yes, Jean was the son of painter August Renoir.)  There are “American” scenes clearly written by a French man, which I also found interesting (such as children having morning coffee with their parents, and a man rolling a cigarette for a woman).  I may move this film one category higher upon further consideration.  WOTO

“Baby Mama” (2008):  I have a habit of listening to everyone and waiting to hear sentences that I figure have never EVER been uttered on planet Earth before.  There are numerous lines in this Tina Fey / Amy Poehler comedy that fit this rare, glorious category.  This movie is full of just plain stupid people that are funny and tacky as hell.  No more.  When you’re in that mood, this is a fine one for it.  WOTO

“Mary of Scotland” (1936):  Katherine Hepburn stars in this VERY Hollywoodish version of history set in sixteenth century Scotland.  It is full of relatively unbelievable sets, lighting, behaviors, etc..  Totally Hollywood.  None the less, the political Shakespearian intrigues are worth following.  WOTO

“Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel” (2011):  She was the fashion editor of Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, and curator of costumes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Perhaps anyone who has reached these levels of influence MUST be interesting, MIGHT NOT be likable, and CERTAINLY has Attitude.  You may like her, you may not, but she’s certainly 110% of what she set out to be.

“Trespass” (2011):  I watched this one for Nicholas Cage and Nicole Kidman.  It is a fairly standard burglar/break-in/hostage flick (with a couple of minor twists and additional violence), but I wanted to see how the actors handled their roles.  They were good.  They made it worth the time.  The set of a modernist house was also quite good.  WOTO

“The Roaring Twenties” (1939):  With a “news flash” historical narrative and the classic Depression Era stance of fighting social problems in the movie house, this James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart crime vehicle takes us through the WWI and Prohibition years by following two men who make bad choices.  There are plenty of ups and downs… but we know what’s going to happen.  WOTO

“Swimming Pool” (again, 2003):  This is a suspense-mystery story starring Charlotte Rampling (aging very nicely thank you) and Ludivine Sagnier.  It is beautifully lit and recorded scene by scene in the lovely, sun drenched French countryside.  “Swimming Pool” is a nicely paced whodunit drama full of moist nudity and sex.  Kudos go to Rampling and Sagnier for their acting.  WOTO

“The Grass Harp” (again, 1996):  Based on a story by Truman Capote, and full of talented actors, this is the funny, caricatured yet sad and delicate tale of a boy who, upon losing his parents, must go live in a small Southern town with his unusual Aunts.  What he learns during those odd years prepares him for adulthood.  There is the occasional problem with continuity and consistently poor lighting (not to mention one of my pet peeves: “clean car syndrome”), but it is forgivable.  Edward Furlong, Walter Matthau, Piper Laurie, Joe Don Baker, Nell Carter, Roddy MacDowall, Sissy Spacek and others make this an enjoyable experience – one you’d like to see continue like a long, lazy summer day.  WOTO

“Little Caesar” (again, 1930):  Starring Edward G. Robinson and Douglas Fairbanks Jr..  This is the story of the rise and the fall of a gangster.  Patterned after the still very active Al Capone, this “fictional” movie looks at the brutal, no-honor-among-thieves world of crime.  It’s a morality play that wrestles with their contemporary issues of the Great Depression, Prohibition, and a system that seemed incapable of handling the collapses of such a demanding time.  Acting and dialog are delivered in a strange, halting rhythm, and the photography is full of luxurious blacks, grays, and whites.  Watch for great Art Deco sets, costumes, cars, and graphics.  WOTO

“The Shining” (again, 1980):  Okay, Stanley Kubrick isn’t a god after all.  It had been a long time since seeing this horror film and it’ll probably be my last.  Upon each viewing, it drops lower on my lists.  Why?  I’m conflicted.  Jack Nicholson is at his insane best, the photography is often superb (WOW how about those garden mazes at night in the snow?), the sets are strong… and YET… much of the acting is weak-ish with Shelley Duvall (although once she gets a head of steam, stand back!), Danny Lloyd, and Scatman Crothers (yes!), but perhaps the most distracting, non-artful aspect is the overbearing score of music and other soundscapes meant to add tension, fear, adrenaline… they were obvious and overused… and relentlessly present.  It really damaged the overall quality, for me.  And finally, writer Stephen King has nothing to brag about.  I’m not sure he EVER has…  WOTO

“The Birdcage” (again, 1996):  This is the American spin-off of “La Cage aux Folles”, the story of a very expressive gay couple.  I can’t tell you which version is better.  They’re both very funny.  “The Birdcage” stars Robin Williams, Nathan Lane, Hank Azaria, Dianne Wiest, Gene Hackman, Christine Baranski, and others.  It is set in the glitzy section of South Beach, Miami, Florida… and away we go!  WOTO

“Meet the Parents” (again, 2000):  I hope DeNiro and Stiller work together again.  They’ve got IT.  The supporting cast is good.  This film is somewhat predictable, but funnier than expected, and wonderfully awkward/uncomfortable.  One short segment goes limp and gooey, but it’s easy to overlook.  (I have not seen the sequels, or if I have, they were not memorable.)  WOTO

“Hail the Conquering Hero” (1943):  This is a Preston Sturgis comedy about a young man who is rejected from the Marines for having Hay Fever.  He is depressed – he cannot follow in his family’s tradition.  Along come some veteran Marines on leave from the island battles in the Pacific, and through an incredible series of small, crazy moments, the young man becomes a War Hero who gains all the accolades.  Though the mood makes a U-turn into seriousness at the very end (almost expected due to the fact we were still IN the war in 1943), this is an entertaining, screwball comedy worth a one-time viewing.  WOTO

“As Far as My Feet will Carry Me” (German, 2002):  Although hyped as “based on a true story”, this epic tale is – upon research – more fantasy than anything.  With that said, it’s still an acceptable drama of one man’s journey across thousands of inhospitable miles and terrain while being tracked by those from whom he escaped.  Set in WWII through the early 1950s, this German production has the look of made-for-television, and pushes some details into Der Hollywood mentality, but also has some solid acting and interesting moments.

“4:44 – Last Day on Earth” (2011):  Starring Willem Defoe and Shanyn Leigh, this is an Apocalypse film set mainly in one apartment on the lower East Side of NYC.  Everyone knows – with no further delusions of hope – that all of life ends at 4:44 the next day.  What could have been a great and fascinating film was made only mildly so by shortchanging the chance to explore deeper levels of human nature.  It tried – but left skimming issues somehow.  I can’t quite put my finger on it… but there lacked a cohesive binding to the many scenes and reactions.  However, Leigh was very good as the young lover of Defoe.  Intense, romantic, mystical, she played a woman who wanted to wear her favorite clothes, work on a painting, and have sex – including on her painting.  The film asked little of Defoe, the special effects were sometimes weak, and moments seemed quilted together.  Loved the idea, was only mildly drawn to the result.

“The Great Moment” (1944):  This is a Hollywoodized version of the man who discovered anesthetic, his experiments, his successes, and the people who tried to take it all from him.  It’s an historical episode that should be depicted in scenes of great pain, great joy, great greed, and great anger, yet this version rides along in a strange atmosphere of almost mediocre slapstick humor.  Preston Sturgis was the director – the WRONG person for this one.  None the less, the history-light is better than nothing (and this is something about which I knew nothing).  WOTO

“Brooklyn Castle” (2012):  Documentary.  In Brooklyn New York, at I.S. 318 exists our nations’ best Middle School Chess team.  If any one of these kids walked past you down the sidewalk you’d have no clue s/he was special and very driven.  Now, I don’t know about you, but I am NOT wired to understand and play Chess.  My brain works in other ways.  These kids are not only wired but work very, very hard at study and practice of this mind/tactic game.  However – and despite the respect and glory they bring to the NYC school system – their budget is repeatedly cut which causes them great stress and insecurity.  This is both the story of hard working kids and a system on makeshift life support.  Bless the parents, teachers and kids who care.

“Design for Living” (1933):  Gary Cooper, Fredric March, and Miriam Hopkins star in a slightly sexy screwball comedy that is very uneven.  It repeatedly jumps around from witty to dull.  Watch for wonderful, high style Art Moderne interiors.

“The Lady Eve” (1941):  Starring Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda, directed by Preston Sturges.  This is a romantic comedy with a con game plot.  Stanwyck is sparkling, Fonda somewhat dim-witted (but partially as the character), and the dialog very snappy.  An enjoyable cruise.  WOTO

“The Brothers Grimm” (2005):  A Terry Gilliam film.  This is about the Grimm brothers out collecting folk tales, but in the vivid, insane, special effects Gilliam way.  It’s not his best work, and the pace is relentlessly fast and often of the slapstick action variety.  It is entertaining, sometimes wonderful (especially visually), but also one speed.  WOTO

“The Great McGinty” (1940):  This is first film to be written and directed by the same person: Preston Sturges.  “The Great McGinty” is a Depression Era morality tale centering on the dangers of greed and ill-gotten wealth.  It is, none the less, often light in nature, and a well-told tale.  WOTO

“That Thing You Do!” (again, 1996):  Tom Hanks wrote and directed this mid-1960s nostalgia comedy/romance about good friends with a homegrown love for music who suddenly find themselves moving into the Big Time by leaps and bounds.  It is obviously based on the career of the Beatles (but without all the later tragedies and huge shifts in power).  Steve Zahn is especially fun.  Liv Tyler is supportive and darling.  This is a light, feel-good movie that occasionally touches on real issues of Life.  WOTO

“50 First Dates” (2004):  This is a somewhat interesting, charming little romantic comedy starring Drew Barrymore and Adam Sandler.  Sandler, eh, I can take or leave, but Barrymore has a certain comedic warmth you just have to love.  If you liked “Groundhog Day” you’ll probably like this one too.  WOTO

“Fear” (again, 1996):  Mark Wahlberg, Reese Witherspoon, Alyssa Milano, William Petersen, and Amy Brenneman star in a boyfriend-gone-bad (Jekyl/Hyde) drama.  Acting is all around fine.  Most everything about it all around fine… it’s simply not unique.  It builds to a predictable crescendo with just enough over-the-topness to keep you there to the end.  WOTO

“The Searchers” (1956):  Personally, I think this one is held too high in history, but I do think it is one of the more earnest attempts in the 1950s to take on complex human issues.  Set in the 1880s of southwest America, this is a non-cowboy “Western”.  Instead, we meet ex-soldiers, racists, farmers, pioneers, mercenaries, and loners at various, distant outposts of Existentialism.  For me, what dulls the “edge”, despite director John Ford’s attempts, is the over-abundance of Hollywoodishness.  There’s some bad makeup, loads of mistakes and discontinuity (no doubt for budget and time conditions), and some inexcusable flatness in characters given lots of plot-line power (such as the kidnapped girl played by Natalie Wood).  I enjoyed the more complex character given John Wayne, and Ward Bond is wonderfully brash.  A couple of minor characters were perhaps the richest portrayals.  All in all, the film was both a flip-flopping let-down and revelation throughout.

“India – A Dangerous Place to be a Woman” (     ):  BBC documentary.  A young woman with ties to India returns for another visit.  This time it’s different.  She’s working on a documentary about the rape and killing of females in a country with its own set of rules.  “India…” is a somewhat anecdotal but solid and emotional look at what is done to half the citizens of its culture.  The title is an understatement.

“Twentieth Century” (1934):  This is considered the very first “screwball comedy”.  It stars John Barrymore and Carole Lombard.  Set in urbane theater and train environments, it’s the story of delicate, conniving actors and their delusional, hilarious beliefs in themselves.  If there’s one word to describe “screwball comedies” it is “RELENTLESS”.  The actions and dialog are machine gun rapid and non-stop from the lion’s roar to the scrolling credits.  You barely have time to breathe.  If you go in with energy, you exit sapped.  Directed by Howard Hawkes, this game-changer will pound you into comedic submission.  WOTO

“Malice” (again, 1993):  If you like whodunits and actors Bill Pullman, Nicole Kidman, Alec Baldwin, George C. Scott, Bebe Neuwirth, Peter Gallagher, Anne Bancroft, and George C. Scott you’ll like this roller coaster ride.    WOTO

“Anything Else” (2002):  Woody Allen.  If you’re not a fan, this one won’t change your attitude.  If you are a fan, this one will be right up there with many of his other screwed-up relationship, life-is-so-complex-and-terrible-but-it’s-all-we-have, funny-paranoid stories about people trying to figure out what life means and how they feel about it.  In terms of feel, “Anything Else” is similar to “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan”, but without the high quality, and it’s as though he’s taken someone under his wing (Jason Biggs)… passed the torch… become the teacher and cheerleader… because THAT level of neurosis takes too much energy for an aging man.  All the classic Allen film devices are there.  This is not so much an innovative new film for him as a signal to his audience (and perhaps himself), that the clock is ticking and it’s time to pass on thoughts about passing on thoughts.  WOTO

“The Bone Collector” (again, 1999):  Very tense murder mystery, with all the components of “Silence of the Lambs”, including lots of major graphic violence.  Angelina Jolie is especially great.  The story is interesting and keeps you glued to the screen.  My one complaint is the lack of weaving used in the plot to include the psycho murderer.  S/he is not on the edge of your insight.  S/he simply pops up when it’s time to resolve the story.  This was weak.  WOTO

”Revenge” (1990):  Kevin Costner, Anthony Quinn, Madeleine Stowe star in this average thriller set in contemporary Mexico amongst wanderers. criminals, peasants, and whores.  It’s not a great story, it’s not a great anything, but it’s a decent time-passer if that’s what you need.  WOTO

”The Razor’s Edge” (seen twice this year, 1946):  This film has been described as “cerebral melodrama”.  That works for me.  It’s a long journey of a group of “friends” who face various dramas and traumas between the World Wars.  Gene Tierney is luminously beautiful as always but SUCH A BITCH, Anne Baxter plays a woman facing disasters and alcoholism, Tyrone Power is a man without meaning, and Clifton Webb – in a wonderful role – is the DEFINITION of a fastidious, social climbing snipe.  WOTO

“RKO 281″ (again, 2000):  IF you care about the film “Citizen Kane”, you’ll find this one interesting, but its production has something of a tee-vee-lite feel (early HBO).  WOTO

”Regarding Henry” (again, 1991):  Harrison Ford and Annette Bening star in this somewhat obvious but heart-felt story about a man who encounters tragedy, and his family who must carry the weight.  Although this film wears its emotions on its sleeve, the points made are good ones and worth hearing again.  WOTO

”Robot & Frank” (2012):  Frank Langella is a favorite actor of mine (“Lolita” (newer version), “Frost/Nixon”, “Good Night and Good Luck”), and he does a wonderful job within the limits of this entertaining and sometimes insightful story about an aging man in the near-future who needs a robot to assist him in daily routines.  Also starring Susan Sarandon, Liv Tyler, and James Marsden.

”Vicki” (1953):  Somewhat standard murder mystery in which you must determine (right along with the characters) who killed the lovely lady.  Nothing outstanding here in any way, but nor is it objectionable.  Starring Elliot Reid, Jeanne Crain, Richard Boone, and Jean Peters, along with plenty of familiar faces.

”Amazing Adventure” (1936): Starring Cary Grant.  Think of this as a much weaker version of “Sullivan’s Travels”.  Wealthy man decides to “experience” the Great Depression and learns things along the way.  WOTO

”Hometown Story” (1951):  Although now billed as a “Marilyn Monroe” movie, she had a mere bit part in this early effort.  It is Jeffrey Lynn, Donald Crisp, and Alan Hale Jr. who carry the story.  Definitely a grade B film with average acting, less than subtle story and dialog, and most every moment being “telegraphed” in advance, it none the less has a nice, naïve Morality Tale sense to it that I found pleasing.  A man loses an election, goes back to his old job, gains power, and sets out to cause trouble for those who beat him.  In the hard, painful process, he learns things.  It is NO “It’s a Wonderful Life”, but it has its heart in the right place, even if it wears it on its sleeve.  WOTO

”Payback” (1999):  Starring Mel Gibson, with Gregg Henry, Maria Bello, David Paymer, Kris Kristopherson and others.  This is a surprising film for Gibson due to his BAD guy role.  He has few redeeming qualities, and only looks “better” in comparison to some of the other scum bags presented.   Think of “Payback” as Noirish cousins to “Pulp Fiction”, but in a Gibson/ultra-splat way.  I found it very entertaining, even with some silly continuity mistakes, etc..  WOTO

”The 6th Day” (2000):  This is another Schwarzenegger sci-fi flik, so don’t expect superb acting but do expect lots of action and another interesting story of further potential threats to the personal and moral status of our future existence.  This one centers on cloning, and even within the last thirteen years further evidence of the progress of such ideas has developed on our front.  It provides us a point of meditation even during the slambangskid of chase scenes.  WOTO

”True Crime” (again, 1999):  Fairly standard crime/journalism whodunit starring (and directed by) Clint Eastwood, also starring Isaiah Washington, Denis Leary, and James Woods.  A down-and-out journalist (who has made a perfect mess of his life), gets on the trail of a possible clue to solve a case and get a man off “death row”.  This story is a nail-biter as it gains more and more speed towards a generally predictable ending.  WOTO

”3:10 to Yuma” (again, 1957):  Starring Glenn Ford and Van Heflin, this is a sprawling, burning desert story of criminals, gutless wonders, and plain farmers caught in circumstances that test their souls.  The b/w photography is wonderful, the story often interesting, and the music score heavily spackled over the entire effort.  I prefer the newer (2007) version.

”Thirteen rue Madeleine” (1947):  This is both a documentary using actual film footage and a recreation a la Hollywood.  It is the story of agents the U.S. sent into collaborator France (Vichy) during WWII.  Their goals were to further false information, learn new information, and set up destruction of specific, important German sites.  Starring James Cagney, this is an unusual film for him due to its non-fictional nature.  It IS interesting and somewhat exciting, but is mainly another reminder that dedicated, brave people died for us.  WOTO

”John Q.” (again, 2002):  I would call this one a high quality average Hollywood movie, starring Denzel Washington, Robert Duvall, James Woods, Anne Heche, Eddie Griffin, Kimberly Elise, Ray Liotta, and Shawn Hatosy.  An average working guy is put in the position of needing to protect his son in ways he never imagined.  The situation goes from bad to worse… and become life threatening.  Although the written characters are on about a 20% solution of steroids, the scenarios are amped up to match, and the health care programs are nearly in an edu-agenda status here, “John Q”s heart is in the right place.  WOTO

”Counterspy vs Scotland Yard” (1950):  It’s only five years after WWII, and lots of technology is being tried in secret.  Spies are everywhere.  This is a fun, simplistic cat-n-mouse look at spying and counterspying.  Watch for a young Amanda Blake, later to become “Miss Kitty” on “Gunsmoke”.  There’re some pretty good cars, trucks, buildings, and décor too.  WOTO

”The Big Heat” (1953):  Directed by Fritz Lang, I expected more frankly.  None the less, this is decent entertainment.  I am disappointed only due to my inclination and love of Film Noir, of which “The Big Heat” is considered a member of the genre.  I disagree.  The lighting, the “heartwarming” use of a child, and the other-than-Noir ending easily make it a crime drama, but not a Noir.  Noir is Existentialism from title to credits.  It has no patience for any version of Good Guys Riding Off into Any Kind of Hopeful Sunset.  “The Big Heat” is trying to segue into the 1950’s with its newer/older outlook.  It is structured much closer to “Blackboard Jungle” than any other film I can currently recall (not to mention Glen Ford’s starring) – a film I like!  If you like it, you will like this.  PS: It’s amazing how bullets never made people bleed when shot and killed in 1953.

“Safe Men” (1999):  This is a sometimes witty example of the “retro dork deadpan” school of comedy.  (Think “Starsky & Hutch”, “Bad Ass”, “Anchorman”, “Blades of Glory”, “Step Brothers”, “Zoolander”, “Dodgeball”, etc. + the king of them all: “Napolean Dynamite”.)  Sam Rockwell, Steve Zahn, Mark Ruffalo, Josh Pais, Paul Giamatti, Harvey Fierstein, Michael Lerner, and Christina Kirk.  Don’t think, just enjoy its tacky, dry, gross, awkward humor.  WOTO

“Starsky & Hutch” (again, 2004):  I HATED the original tee-vee show.  Any questions?  No?  Fine.  Moving on… I found this MOVIE in a thrift store for $1.49, and was willing to risk it since the chemistry of Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson is already a proven formula, not to mention Vince Vaughn, Snoop Dog, Will Ferrell, and a much-too-minor role for Juliette Lewis.  This version of silliness is also sometimes witty, funny, definitely FUNKY, and full of visual, story, dialog, and photographic period references.  “S & H” is stupid fun and enjoyable when you want to give your brain an easy couple of hours.  WOTO

“U-Turn” (2006):  There are a few reasons you might enjoy this film, and just as many why you may not.  First, the Againsts:  It’s waaaay too late to do a “Pulp Fiction” wannabee, but that’s what it is from the intro titling font right through with the camera tricks, editing, retro autos, uber-violence, and funky, pop culture music.  It’s a kitschy splat film without that extra touch of panache.  Now the Fors:  It’s interesting to see Sean Penn as a bumbling, hesitant loser; Billy Bob Thornton as a GREAT oddball-greaseball of a garage mechanic; and Jon Voight is Unrecognizable as a blind (?) old Indian who totes around a dead (?) dog and spews fortune cookie mysticism at anyone who gets near him.  The location shots are great, and the sets are equally expressive of the characters.  Joachin Phoenix is somewhat interesting as an Elvis Badass wish-he-was, Claire Danes is kooky as his tacky trailer trash girl, Nick Nolte does his Nick Nolte, Powers Booth and Jennifer Lopez left me yawning, and it was fun to spot Laurie Metcalf (from “Roseanne”) as the bus station ticket agent, Bo Hopkins (from “American Graffiti”) as a diner customer, Julie Haggerty as a frighteningly tacky waitress, and Liv Tyler as an innocent bus station customer.  If you like “Pulp Fiction”, “Natural Born Killers”, “Love and a .45”, etc., you’ll find a reason to like this one too, but it won’t be your new Number One.  WOTO

“The Last Station” (again, 2009):  This is the depiction of the last period of Leo Tolstoy’s life as a Russian writer, in Russia.  Russia.  So… WHY were all the actors British or American, and very comfortable using their home accents?  This one started off on the wrong foot with me, and then it began limping.  Tolstoy?  Should be interesting.  Russia in that era?  Should be interesting.  Yet much of it wasn’t.  We are presented with a group of people who seem distracted, petty, dull, and unworthy of our attention.  We don’t care one whit about these people.  In fact, we’re grateful they aren’t our neighbors.  “The Last Station” is a king with no clothes.  It is a soap opera dressed up in rented formal wear.  However, there’s some pretty nudity on occasion, good to great acting, and strong location shots.  It’s okay… just don’t expect “War and Peace” or “Anna Karenina”.  WOTO

“Stalingrad” (German, 1993):  Think of this as the land version of “Das Boot”, but done less artfully.  What carries this film is the fact the Battle of Stalingrad was the real beginning of the end of Germany’s “vision” of ruling the world.  This film version has the look of a television production.  The acting was okay to great, the lighting was terrible, special effects were weak, sets were very good, mistakes were made, continuity and historical accuracy was spotty, and it carries the whiff of an edited look at what the Germans did.  You will follow a group of “Average Johanns” through the experiences of soldiers warring for Germany against the U.S.S.R..  It’s not a pretty sight, but I felt it still went soft when describing what the Germans did to the Russians.  And, like much of Germany’s outlook, there is an undercurrent of seeing themselves as the Victim.  A new film “Stalingrad” has been made in 2013.  I am anxious to see it.

“Kingdom of Heaven” (2005):  By Ridley Scott.  I like his films “Gladiator”, and especially “Black Hawk Down”, but this one is all action with a little story buried beneath… and the story is depicted in a barely believable manner.  It’s all battle scenes, stoic speeches, and fuming lust dampened by honor.  In other words, it felt empty… a big, empty film full of ringing steel and flying blood.  See it only for the action – and don’t ask too many questions.  WOTO

“Back to the Future” (again, 1986):  Directed by Robert Zemeckis (with an influence from Steven Spielberg), starring Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Crispin Glover, and Lea Thompson, this is classic 1980’s fun.  The characters are cartoonish, the story silly, the music score real music-y, there’s dancing, romance, innuendos, and yet it’s pure, occasionally witty fun with no deeper intent than to entertain.  And, I should add, contains more cliff-hanging, jerks-you-around moments in the last 15 minutes than you can manage without getting downright giddy.  Roll with it.  It’s pure, dopey fun.  Just fun.  You’ll learn nothing… though you might ponder your entire existence at some point.  Yeh.  Maybe.  WOTO

“Elf” (again, 2003):  Starring Will Ferrell, James Caan, Zooey Deschanel, Bob Newhart, Ed Asner, and Mary Steenburgen.  I consider “Anchorman” and “Step Brothers” two of Ferrell’s best films.  “Elf” is not one of them.  It’s just okay.  I don’t blame the actors.  I think they did what they were asked, and then went home.  The script is generally uninspired, the results are a mixed bag of funny moments and lots of misses, and you find yourself waiting for opportunities to laugh.  It’s just “okay”.  WOTO

“Earth Vs. the Flying Saucers” (again, 1956):  If it wasn’t for the special effects created by Ray Harryhausen, and the wonderful expression of Cold War fears and WWII solutions, I’d have this film down in my “Guilty Pleasures” category.  It IS a Grade B film – a Drive-In flick – but a cut above most.  In this story, the U.S. is putting up the very first satellites (which in reality was first accomplished by the Russians in 1957), but they’re mysteriously coming back down again in flames.  And, flying saucers are being seen.  A relationship?  And just who ARE these saucer fliers?  Sit back, enjoy, and think about the world in 1956.  WOTO

“City Slickers” (again, 1991): The midlife crisis for men… expressed in hilarious, insightful, and tender ways.  When my head feels just a tad off-kilter, I watch this one.  WOTO

“Detropia” (2012):  Documentary.  This takes a look at crumbling Detroit Michigan, the people who work there, live there, and who want to stay under very trying circumstances.  It is bleak and eerie place.  Much of the “tour” is given by two residents who may wear as thin on you as they did me: a UAW union president who is unable to say anything only once, and a foul-mouthed blogger.  What is GOOD about this documentary is the photography and audio that captures a mood of almost mystical sadness and grasping isolation.  Are there glimmers of splinters of slight hope?  Yes, maybe, sort of. 

“Reality Bites” (again, 1994):  Starring up-and-comers Winona Ryder, Ethan Hawke, Ben Stiller, Janeane Garofalo, and Steve Zahn, this is a twenties-something Angstian slacker / career vehicle like many others of various five and ten year periods within our twentieth century culture… but it’s better than some.  Thanks go to the actors more than the script.  They turn lines into humor and pathos.  WOTO

“The Hobbit” (part one, 2013):  Prequelized after the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, Peter Jackson went back to the book that started it all, and has begun releasing this new trilogy.  At this time, only Part One is out.  Though it is enjoyable, don’t spend time thinking or anticipating.  It lacks the patience and depth of the others.  Like so many films made on the heels of success, efforts of detailing and variety are given over to amplified and lengthened scenes attempting to cash in on the most popular past moments, i.e., “give ’em what they want”.  The C.G.I. runs from mediocre to great but seems to partially function as a crutch to enhance the excess time used in crowd-pleaser scenes.  You’ll find less patience with story and character, more pointless humor, more contemporary slang (what I call “Shrek humor”), and relentless action with predictable outcomes.  “The Hobbit” does not reach the level of “Lord of the Rings”.

“Lost Horizon” (again, 1937):  Frank Capra’s VERY expensive story about a group of people escaping China and finding themselves in a world that was barely a rumor of a fantasy.  Costing more than four times the amount of any film made to date at Columbia Studios, this film is considered important enough that numerous restorations have been made over the years, as the original length is slowly reassembled from edited copies.  A perfect expression of its time, “Lost Horizon” expresses the fears of an upcoming World War (yet to begin in Europe), the predominant U.S. position of Isolationism, an economy beginning to find its way out of the Great Depression, the growing optimism that humans could do what they set out to do (Example: the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair), and the American desire to simply be left ALONE.  “Let the storms rage OUT THERE.  We want nothing to do with it!”  Well, Pearl Harbor would change that – but not for four more years.  Meanwhile, it was only two before Hitler began attacking other countries.  All of this is set symbolically in “Lost Horizon”.  It has its flaws in overwrought characterizations and small tangents, but I continue to find it interesting, often beautiful in appearance, and worth pondering.  I may again put it up in the next higher category…  WOTO

“Ransom” (    ):  Directed by Ron Howard, starring Mel Gibson, Rene Russo, Gary Sinese, Delroy Lindo, and Lili Taylor.  GREAT cat-n-mouse kidnapping film.  It never lets up.  There are also moments of discontinuity, and good acting, scoring, and photography.  WOTO

”Django Unchained” (2012): Quentin Tarantino’s latest effort.  Except for a couple of very memorable scenes in some of his more recent films, I basically gave up on him after his two films I own and consider “brilliant”: “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction”.  The rest struck me as wayward and derivative at best, and pathetic at worst..  I’m as of yet undecided, but “Django…” strikes me as the closest is quality to “Pulp…”.  It is loaded with shifting cultural references, kitschy reuses of kitschy original sources, and kept a sense of humor.  It KNOWS what it is… and isn’t.  This I can respect.  Will I own this one?  As of yet, I don’t know.  I already own the “original” Spaghetti Westerns of the 1960’s and repeatedly enjoy their odd, Italian macho funkiness.  “Django” is more violent than Sam Peckinpah’s films and more graphic in its violence than most films.  That doesn’t impress me.  The sense of humor does.  I laughed – hard – through some of the scenes.  Just wait for the gang of KKK riders with their hoods…

“Argo” (2012): Some of us remember the real events depicted in “Argo” since we lived in that and similar environments. Keeping in mind this IS a movie, and movies have their own practical demands of time and budget, this is a good “period” piece representing 1979-1980. You may say “Yeh, but it was easy since it wasn’t long ago!” I did too… until I did the math. 33-34 years ago. That’s long enough to make almost everything in the film need adjusting or replacement. Are there nitpicky details to be found if you have no life? Yes. Check IMDB.com if you’re wondering. And let’s not make as mistake about it: this film IS a HOLLYWOOD product. History has been flexed, Time has been compressed, and characters morphed. None the less, this is a tight, interesting, exciting film (even if you know how it turns out), and worth at least one viewing. The Story is the Star.

”Men with Guns” (2004):  There are two films with the same title.  I bought the wrong one but didn’t realize this until I was watching, and by then I was interested and stuck with it!  I admire “Reservoir Dogs” for one reason: it’s the purest non-romanticizing, anti-preaching, violent [fictional] film I’ve ever seen.  “Men with Guns” comes in second, but does have an embedded moral. Its production values are lower, the photography gets a little too artsy for its own good once in awhile, but what it sets out to do it does very well with a cast of solid actors willing to get down and dirty.  The film’s point starts ugly, and goes down from there.  It is not for the tender-hearted or children.  You get no heroes.  It is what it is and if you don’t like it then don’t do it.  Got it?   (PS:  I might be moving this one into the next higher category…)  WOTO
“Poltergeist” (again, 1982):  For some reason, I always seem to forget that this is a Spielberg movie, even though it was (in my past) a favorite sci-fi/horror story.  Set in a brand new subdivision, we meet a typical real estate man and his typical family in their fresh, one-owner home.  Then you – they – start to notice – or sense – small things – none of which deserve notice by themselves – going a little awry – off key – and the tension builds… and builds… and builds.  This is NOT a slasher film.  It is a psychological and para-psychological sci-fi fantasy drama in the same genre as “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”- with occasional bits of wit tossed in just at the right moments.  The special effects are now old, so take with you a little forgiveness.  Suspend your disbelief, allow for all the Spielbergian visual and audio trademarks, and go for an interesting, well-paced, fun-tense ride.  Oh, and don’t think the ride is over just because your car has stopped.  WOTO
“Sabrina” (1954): This is a light, romantic comedy-drama starring William Holden, Audrey Hepburn, and Humphrey Bogart. It is a story of big money and big entanglements, which serves up lots of charm and is easy on the brain. Bogart probably had fun taking the role of a dorky business tycoon, Holden did Holden, and Hepburn was only in her second film, but quite charming. It is 113 minutes of plot swerves (not all predictable) and a pleasant journey. WOTO
“Skyfall” (2012):  I love Roger Deakins cinematography.  I loved many of the visuals whether real or cgi.  The relentless action was entertaining enough.  And yet… something was missing.  Missing was the humor, sarcasm, innuendo, and strut from 007 or the Femme Fatale.  I’m a sucker for the early Sean Connery 007s in which everyone admitted this was a fun joke full of comic book ideas put to real film.  Gone is that stylish swagger, sexism, flirtatiousness, cat-and-mouse / pussy-and-dog play.  Too bad.  “Skyfall” takes itself too seriously under the circumstances, and expects you to accept it.  (There is the occasional reference to the OLD James Bond wit, but it has none of its own.)  I missed the tongue in cheek and tongue in mouth action.
“The 1964 World’s Fair” (1996):  This one hour look at the New York World’s Fair of 1964 is acceptable IF you’re interested in the subject.  It uses home movies (which have their own clunky charm), documentary in-progress and promotional films (slick), and “remember when” interviews with adults who, as kids, visited the Fair many times.  It was far from a “visionary” construct, but few Fairs are.  There IS footage of the 1939 New York World’s Fair (my favorite), and some comparisons to the ’64.  The world had shifted in 1964.  The Fair was planned in 1959.  Think of this Fair as more representative of the 1950’s.
“The Dirty Dozen” (again, 1967):  Presented is an all-star cast in a classic Hollywood blockbuster.  Though it has some of 1967’s new vision about war, the military, and individualism, its basis – set in WWII – hangs onto the 40s and 50s.  Soldiers being held for death sentences or life-long punishments are assembled for what seems to be an impossible, behind-the-lines mission.  If they succeed, their sentences are commuted.  “The Dirty Dozen” was nominated for four Academy Awards.  You’ll find lots of attitude, followed by plenty of sarcasm and humor, ending in tons of explosions, fire, and falling bodies.  Highly entertaining.  WOTO
“It Started with Eve” (1941):  Starring Deanna Durbin, Robert Cummings, and Charles Laughton.  This is another of the Depression Era class-conscious comedies with predictable outcomes… yet it is also thoroughly sarcastic and funny with occasional touches of softness and romance.  Deanna Durbin had that “girl-next-door” cuteness mixed with a grounded silliness.  Laughton was wonderful as the cranky, rich, dying (?) magnate who takes an increasing interest in his son’s (Cummings) affairs.  WOTO
“Dodge Ball” (2004):  100%, laugh out loud, stupid fun.  Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Christine Taylor, Rip Torn, William Shatner, Lance Armstrong (pre-busted), Chuck Norris (et al)… tell the tale of down and out “Average Joe’s Gym” – threatened with bankruptcy and a take over.  Vaughn and his small band of out-of-shapers try fighting their way to the top (?) to win the National Dodge Ball championship – for the much-needed cash – AND the pride!  If you liked Stiller in “Zoolander”, if you liked the humor of “The Big Lebowski”, you’ll like “Dodge Ball”.  Give yourself a high level, low-grade, brain-dead evening on the sofa, and enjoy the hell out of it.  “Grab Life by the Ball”.   YEH!!!  WOTO
“The Inn of the Sixth Happiness” (1958): If you’ll forgive this film its 1958-ness and its Hollywood-ness, you’ll probably enjoy this lengthy (158 min.) story somewhat based on the adult life of Gladys Aylward. Gladys, a British woman with a personal “calling“, worked in northern China with orphans before and during Japan’s attack on that country in 1937. She was devoted to the children, saved many lives during the war, and helped cause social change in rural areas. Some of the biographical facts stick near the truth, but veers way off when a classic movie “love interest” between Gladys (Ingrid Bergman) and the Captain (Kurt Jurgens) becomes a secondary driving force. The landscapes were shot in Wales, the main “Chinese” characters were Austrian and British, and Bergman was Swedish. No one bothered with fussy details like accents. That’s Hollywood for you. Those factors, a few continuity issues, and the shallow acting of the male leads are my negatives. My positives are the cinematography, the spectacular landscapes, and the acting of both Bergman and the other female lead. WOTO
“Flying Tigers” (1942): Resembling the American P-40 attack group (the “Flying Tigers” based in China), this is a story of a group of fighter pilots seeking early retribution for the Japanese horrors forced upon the Chinese. It also depicted one aspect of what America faced in WWII, though the movie has its contemporary patriotic tone. The American audience had seen little in the way of success up to this point, and became more and more disheartened as the losses mounted. War production was not yet up to proper speed. Germany and Japan both yet seemed unconquerable. The Flying Tigers became an early symbol of the determination and courage Americans were willing to put forth in the name of Freedom. This IS a “John Wayne” Hollywood movie, but if you’re willing to keep that in perspective, there are good special effects, and worthwhile insights into the minds and hearts of men at war. Plus, you get to see the REAL planes doing their jobs both in documentary footage and recreated scenes. (PS: As always, if you get an accursed colorized version, TURN OFF the color!) WOTO
“The Outlaw Josey Wales” (1976): This is an early directorial job by and starring Clint Eastwood as a father with Righteous Vengeance. (Think “The Patriot”.) Set during the Civil War, but far from the center North/South military actions, these hinterland military “lines” were blurred and messy. This lack of clarity sets Josey Wales (Eastwood) on a path of kill or be killed, which redefines his life. Along the way he gains cohorts who will – all unknowingly – help define what must be done. Although many of the characters are typical “loners”, the flow of this story slowly weaves them together in helpful, interesting, humorous and fateful ways. WOTO
“The New World” (2005): This movie was a long time coming. Terrence Malick began work on it in the 1970’s, then walked away from film making. Thirty years later, amongst lots of whoop-dee-doo about his return to the film world, he would finish it during his “second Renaissance” which has included the brilliant “The Thin Red Line” and “The Tree of Life”. But, I was afraid of this… the previews hinted at it… Tilted Human History and Lotsa Holly-woodsland Romance. Watch this film as fiction, since the story of the characters is highly inaccurate and loaded with guesswork. What IS wonderful about the film is: the sets, much of the costuming and makeup, the scoring, the audio track, and the cinematography. Signature Malick devices exist – the low shots through tall grass, aiming the lens into the sun, giving patient time to the “small” moments of a time and place, the philosophical narrative, and less chatter from people. See “The New World” for its sensual side. This is NOT an academic work about Capt. John Smith and Pocahontas.
“Everything Must Go” (again, 2010):  If I were to rate this film solely on Will Ferrell’s dramatic role, I’d have the film in the next higher category.  He proves himself here – he’s something of a revelation.  Unfortunately, there’s the plot with the gaping holes.  The idea is his wife locks him out of the house with all of his stuff thrown on the front lawn.  He decides to live out there.  The problem is with his relationship to his house – his being “locked out” – which NEVER makes complete sense, especially with his track record.   We are NEVER provided a solid reason for his yard predicament – which could easily be solved.  Kudos to Ferrell, kudos to the support actors, and some boos to the story.
“The Fifth Element” (again, 1997):  So just what IS the “Fifth” element? Eventually you’ll be shown in this fun, action-filled, kitschy, tongue-in-cheek sci-fi carnival of a “future” (300 years from now)…which naturally looks more like NOW and our past than anything else, but hey, that’s part of its silly charm… as IF NOTHING – even cell phones – would have changed since 1997.  Or… are THEY going through ANOTHER “Retro” phase?? Expect nothing insightful, and enjoy the adventure, quirky characters, and funky sets. WOTO
“The Enemy Below” (1957): Starring Robert Mitchum and Curt Jurgens, this is a ship and sub / cat and mouse story set during WWII in the south Atlantic. A crew quite used to seeing no action and having no faith in their new commander will be tested by an underwater threat. Although this genre is well-trod and not the equal to the much newer “Master and Commander” (2003), “The Enemy Below” is an interesting tactical / psychological chase, with the added perspective from 1957 (twelve years after WWII) when the U.S. was looking at old enemies for new allies against the latest enemy (old ally), the U.S.S.R.. It is a typically bloodless war created in the 1950s on the high seas of Hollywood, with swells of music equal to the big waves of the Atlantic. All in all an enjoyable drama. WOTO
“Tristan + Isolde” (again, 2006):  Caveat:  You have to like legends such as those about King Arthur’s Court and Romeo & Juliet.  You have to like epic struggles of good vs bad, honor and deceit, love and duty.  This is not a brilliant film, but it’s good, and it brings much of the Dark Ages to a certain romantic light when England was torn into competing tribes, and Ireland ruled.  This story is full of politics, passion, swords, and people swearing allegiance to this or that, to him or her.  All the good people are beautiful and always coifed, and all the bad people ugly.  There is enough tragedy for everyone involved.  It is violent and gritty (in the style of “Gladiator” or “Black Hawk Down”), but has a more complex story than Romeo & Juliet.  Acting is dramatic and legend-ish.  Photography is lush, landscapes incredibly powerful, and the scoring elegantly sweeps across every facet of this big tale.  If you are in the mood for a small, personal film focused on a quirky character, this is not the one for you tonight.  WOTO
“Anne of Green Gables” (1934): I’m a sucker for films from the 1930’s. I love their look and sound. I love their down-to-earthiness caused by the Great Depression. I love their messages of hard work pays off and honesty is the best policy. “Anne…” is a charming film lead by a precocious sixteen year old Anne Shirley. Feisty, witty, romantically over-dramatic, and silly, she captures the hearts of everyone, including the staid adults who adopt her. This is pleasant fun. Cozy, satisfying, heartfelt fun. WOTO
“Vanishing Point” (again, 1971): Starring Barry Newman, Cleavon Little, and Dean Jagger. Newman is a Man with a Past, a speed freak, and a car jockey. In a big block Dodge, he sets out to break a record drive-time from Denver to San Franci…sco. There are people who don’t want this to happen, others who do, and to fill in the journey, people who are simply “there” along his path. This is both an interesting and dull film. It’s interesting as a period piece that includes Hippies, Black Powerers, Jesus Freaks, homosexuals, oddballs, Rednecks, The Man, lots of drugs, and some fancy car chase maneuvers. It’s dull because the car IS capable of high speeds (and is always implied) but in reality seldom reaches 40-50 mph (despite the dubbed-in high-rev of a powerful engine at its max). Major disappointment. All these beautiful, straight, open Southwest American roads … and no real speed. Newman underplays his character, which seems too Buddaesque for a man with “that” Past, a love of fast driving, a death wish, and a dedicated love for amphetamines. I liked much of the photography. Because this is a 70’s film AND does not produce the promised high speeds, it is hyper-scored. “Vanishing Point” is, in other words, both enjoyable and unenjoyable. To tell you the truth, I most enjoyed the weird old desert coot character played by Dean Jagger and the rockin‘ and a bobbin‘ blind semi-psychic DJ played by Cleavon Little. WOTO

“Meet the Stewarts” (1942): Starring William Holden and Frances Dee. This is a light comedy about a hard working young man who marries a flighty but charming young woman who comes from a life of ease and has no clue how to run a home. That’s it. It’s pleasant fun (with one crisis to spice things up). Expect nothing more and you’ll have… well… a pleasant time.

“Flying Down to Rio” (1933):  If you’re in a mood-lite and don’t want a Filmic Challenge, this might do it for you.  It’s Fred and Ginger’s first film together, and without a doubt they are the ones who bring fun and spice to an otherwise weak, sometimes weird attempt at a musical-romance-comedy with confused Busby Berkeley-style dance routines.  The acting is poor, the costuming odd as hell, the décor, etc. pure Hollywood 1933.  It’s occasionally funny, VERY Great Depression, silly, surprisingly sexy, and clunky.  Let it take you away.  That’s why it was made in the first place.  WOTO

“Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” (again, 1974): This is early Martin Scorsese, and was “book-ended“ by “Mean Streets“ and “Taxi Driver“. It has an eye catching, weird beginning which is suddenly abandoned for a version of daily “reality” which lasts the rest of the film. (“Alice…“ has a lot of that 1970’s film-reality to it, including heavy use of soft focus filters, period music laid over the scenes like an extra layer of glass, and the “documentary” shaky-camera look.) Little about the film (which later spawned the god-awful “Mel’s Diner” tee-vee show) reaches the greatness of which Scorsese was capable, but neither is this a flat, lifeless story. Ellen Burstyn received the Best Actress Oscar for her single mom role, Harvey Keitel does a great job as an early suitor, Kris Kristofferson does what he can, the young “son” is… okay…, watch for a very young Jodie Foster, and Diane Ladd gives some depth to the foul-mouthed beehive waitress queen role. It is better than most films of the 1970’s. It is, by comparison, one of his weakest. THAT is the curse of being great: good just isn’t enough. WOTO

“Bubba Ho Tep” (again, 2003):  Ever wondered where the REAL Elvis went, since we all know His death was faked?  How about John F. Kennedy?  He wasn’t assassinated!  Where’d HE go?  This movie answers those questions AND how to kill the evil spirit of a mediocre Egyptian King mummy.  With scoring that has the ring of big, cheezie,  cowboy westerns, and dialog of pulp fiction novels, this kitschy, funny film may not be for all tastes, but if you like self-conscious faux-dramas, this IS for you!  Starring Bruce Campbell (Elvis) and Ossie Davis (J.F.K.).  No joke.

“The Circus” (1928): Written by and starring Charlie Chaplin. This is one of his lesser known comedy-dramas using The Little Tramp character. It’s full of physical shtick, witty ideas, and small emotional moments related to his themes of being an outsider and wanting to belong. The “Innocent Girl” is played by a gorgeous young woman. The “Villainous Man” is worthy of hissing. The natural light photography – luminous grays surrounded by brilliant whites and velvet blacks – restored on this dvd (the Roy Export Establishment) – is lovely. The sets, costumes, and vehicles are nostalgic despite this being a contemporary film. I am not a huge Chaplin fan, and the scoring was a little heavy-handed, but I enjoyed much of this movie.

“Knowing” (2009): Starring Nicolas Cage and Rose Byrne. This is a fun sci-fi thriller with lots of build up and typical cliches… but it starts going flat towards the end and will remind you VERY MUCH of another movie I needn’t mention here. Special effects are everything from good to really lame. It’s a mixed bag, average quality, easy-evening-on-the-sofa type of movie. That’s it. Oh, and Rose Byrne is really cute. WOTO

“Treasure Island” (again, 1934):  Written by Robert Louis Stevenson, starring Jackie Cooper, Wallace Beery, Lionel Barrymore, Nigel Bruce, Otto Kruger, Lewis Stone, and “Chic” Sale. This is the story of a young 18th century lad who befriends the wrong people – PIRATES! – while on a dangerous treasure hunt far from home. Cashing in on 1931’s Beery/Cooper collaboration “The Champ”, we again find a naïve, good hearted young man putting faith in a questionable father figure. The wonderful parts about “Treasure Island” are: the scroungy smelly ugly nasty old pirates; the sets by (who else but) Cedric Gibbons; a tale as satisfying as a good meal; and (if you turn off the Bastard Turner-ized colorization) a lovely black and white visual experience. WOTO

“The Phantom of the Opera” (silent, 1925): I own a mediocre, unrestored version of this film on vhs tape with zero music score (United American Video Corp.). Okay, it’s not ideal, but still… I enjoy it on a few levels: seeing its relationships to other early films such as “Nosferatu”, “Frankenstein”, “Dracula”, etc.; some of the dramatic photography; the VERY theatrical gestures by the actors, especially the female lead’s movements (the gorgeous Mary Philbin); and a truly scary Lon Chaney Sr.. WOTO

“Mystery Men” (again, 1999):  A silly comedy full of perfectly cast stars having lots of fun in a witty, totally dumb-funny movie about a group of LAME-O “super heroes” trying to make a name for themselves.  This is adolescent humor made for adults.  It cracks me up.  I admit it.  Ben Stiller, Paul Reubens, Janeane Garofalo, Hank Azaria, William Macy, Greg Kinnear, Geoffrey Rush, Tom Waits…  WOTO

“A Town Like Alice” (Australian, 1991):  Last night I was reminded to do that which I seldom bother: read the film package for the running time.  Half way through this film – a story I was enjoying despite its low production qualities (which felt more like 1970’s television than a movie) – I began thinking “This plot feels FAR from any conclusions…”, so I checked the package.  305 minutes.  Five hours.  Well, THAT would explain it!  “A Town Like Alice” was an all-evening experience.  The story is set in Malaysia during WWII, and Australia and England a few years later.  We follow three main characters along many criss-crossing paths.  I am a student of WWII history, so the settings may be of more interest to me than you.  I also found the Australian representation of their country in the late 1940’s – in small, isolate towns and ranches – interesting in their bleakness.  Stripped of all its locations and peripheral characters, it is essentially a typical drama-romance.  WOTO

 

4.

Not Quite So-sofa but not quite Crap

“The Fountain” (2006):  By Darren Arondofsky.  How could the man who made the great films “Pi” and “Requiem for a Dream” go wrong?  I’m not sure, but he sure did.  This was a film made by a teenage lad with pimpled urges who’d grown up and didn’t notice.  Loaded with a crazy quilt of thirteen year old boy fantasies (modern romance, goth battles and chivalry, futuristic space travel and whirly-twirly faux-Heaviosity), this movie was a good looking, empty mess of early male doodles on Pee-Chee film.  The one saving grace: Rachel Weisz never looked more beautiful.  She made me feel thirteen again.  WOTO

“Mars Attacks” (again, 2000):  Chocked full of stars given very little to do within a story that is only on occasion witty, this is something you watch when you don’t really want to pay attention.  It’s probably the weakest film of Tim Burton’s career.  I don’t hate it… it’s too mediocre to hate.  It’s just… dull much of the time.  WOTO

“Colditz” (2005):  This WWII story has something of the flavor of a television production using war as an excuse for adventure and romance.  Often, it has a weak appearance, inconsistencies, and too light a hand to be believable (considering the subject of war, and POWS under Nazi rule).  At 184 minutes, there needs to be more.

“Gothika” (2003):  Halle Berry, Robert Downey Jr., Penelope Cruz, and Charles Dutton star in this passable-but-nothing-special suspense-paranormal-murder mystery.  It demands you not only suspend your disbelief but your everyday common sense when it comes to special effects, timing, and continuity.  Relax, kill some spooky time.  What the heck.  WOTO

“To Sir, with Love” (again, 1966):  If it wasn’t for the terrible production values, I’d be willing to put it in my “Guilty Pleasures” category, but the look, sound, and formulaic, stereotypical Teacher-with-Bad-Kids theme was lifted directed from “Blackboard Jungle”.  The surface changes were merely to update an ongoing issue for another generation of “rebellious youths” and the increasing inclusion of black actors into mainstream movies.  (I enjoyed Sidney Poitier playing a very straight, proper, shell-shocked first-year teacher.)  What’re enjoyable about this Mod London Teens version of angst are their fashions, slang, and dances.  What WERE they (we) thinking?  Here were the last attempts to express social Modernism before it all collapsed into Post Modern nostalgia and slumber.  I’ll give these kids that much – in their naïve way, they still believed a few solutions might be found in the Future.  PS: You also have the chance to see “Lulu” (the mod redhead to sang this famous hit) and a backup band then known as only “The Mindbenders” (soon to become “Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders”).  Put on your tiny rectangular purple shades and swing baby, swing!  WOTO

“How to Survive a Plague” (2012):  I tend to hate documentaries that have one-sided, self-serving agendas.  THEY are not Documentaries.  They are typically poor-me and/or great-me, Mirror Mirror on the Wall Products.  This one, created mainly by and for “ACT UP” in New York, is such a product, unfortunately.  Apparently the real drama of suffering and dying people, and the searches for cures of HIV/AIDS isn’t enough material.  Apparently, the public needs narcissistic star wannabees spending most of the time hyping themselves for us to appreciate the importance of finding a cure for a disease.  Look, I’ve lost friends and loved ones to AIDS.  It’s NOT a gay disease, nor simply found in one or two cities of America.  It’s not transmitted in one way, it did not originate in America, and the largest losses have not been within one segment of this community.  You’d never know that going by this “WE are THE Victims, WE are THE Heroes” home movies presented here.  ACT UP isn’t alone.  Just about EVERY grassroots organization goes through the pathetic stages of immaturity and power struggles caught here on tape.  THIS is why I don’t give “”How to Survive…” a lowest rating.  It IS a primer on what the next group of people should consider doing and NOT doing in the future.

”Grave of the Fireflies” (Japanese, 1988/1992):  Since this film was both Japanese and “anime”, I approached it with both enthusiasm and hesitation.  I love how the Japanese can tell a large story in a small, intimate way.  I don’t love anime or the blatant methods of audience manipulation – the tugging at heart strings which reminds me of early, silent American films.  This animated film is a story of two children trying to survive the last days of WWII, when it was clear their country had lost the war it instigated.  The kids face devastating circumstances at every turn.  There ARE some subtle, delicate moments which avoid shoving emotions in your face, but for the most part this is an overt effort that insulted my sensibilities – especially regarding my expectations of Japanese understatement.  WOTO

“The Day After” (again, 1983):  In 1983, this made-for-tv movie was a real shocker to the average audience.  Admittedly, its “heart” and “theories” are in the right place: atomic war is bad, can only get worse, and survivors won’t do well at all.  Fair enough.  However, the production quality is simply too low for todays’ unforgiving, more discriminating (spoiled?) audience.  The acting, scoring, lighting, music, make up, costuming, special effects… almost every thing and moment you see and hear is simply too crude and naïve to not be distracting much of the time.  For more respectable considerations of the subject, see “On the Beach” and “Fail Safe”.  WOTO

“Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” (2011):  I wanted to like this one.  It’s about September 11th, and I approach the subject with awe, anger, and reverence.  Yet, I couldn’t help but wish that every scene, character, gesture, and word uttered would’ve been “dialed back” – PLEASE – just a little.  Everything was on steroids!!!!  It was over the top – !!!!! – sacrificed for style (apparently).  This made empathy very difficult when I was constantly distracted by all the unbelievable characters and behaviors.  And, the more I pondered it, the less I believed. 

“Torn Curtain” (1966):  Honestly, why do some of you think Alfred Hitchcock was a great director?  “Torn Curtain”, with Paul Newman and Julie Andrews, is a Cold War spy movie that quickly reveals its tedious rhythm of extended scenes (= tension?) and formulaic stumbling blocks.  Glimmers of wit are few and far between, and not enough to keep your interest.  Acting is called-in.  The film isn’t awful, but nears awful by the end.  You’re laughing at it instead of getting tense with it.  WOTO

“Lincoln” (2012): For all the hype, for all the “obsessive dedication to historical accuracy” claimed for this film, it’s loaded with intentional changes and clumsy mistakes. I REALLY expected to like this, and the actors did not let me down. Daniel Day Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, all of them – good. The time period in our history can only be considered fascinating and terrifying. Yet, something… SOMETHING… kept me detached. It is a film focused on Lincoln, yes, but it’s more about the political process in all its slippery, slimy reality. That’s okay with me too. But my wife and I look INTO films after seeing them, and as we learned about name changes and other absolute denials to historical accuracy for questionable if not ridiculous reasons, “Lincoln” lost all its credibility with me. Its hype is a lie. Its truths come and go at the whim of contemporary needs. This makes me sick. There you go. That’s it. Do NOT rely on this film to teach you more about that period.

“Pecker” (again, 1998): I’ve tried to like John Waters’ films BEFORE “Hairspray”, but keep failing (even though I “enjoyed” the Odorama card for “Polyester”).  I want to like his films SINCE “Hairspray”, but tend to feel let down.  I don’t know, maybe it’s because Divine is dead…Whatever the case, I think Waters wanted “Pecker” to be HIS “Manhattan” (Woody Allen), and in the process of making “insights” about the the Art-fashion-gallery world, lost his edge.  I also think each and every actor WALKED through this script without breaking a sweat, which was disappointing.  Try “Serial Mom” if you liked “Hairspray”… it’s closer to what I look for with his films.  WOTO

“Won’t Back Down” (2012):  Starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, this is another “public schools are awful, we gotta DO something!” movies.  It’s not BAD, generally, nor is it good.  All the scenarios are pumped up on stereotypes we’ve seen before, and we know where this is going.  There IS some  talented acting going on, which kept me going on an otherwise predictable, occasionally ridiculous presentation.    

“Of Human Bondage” (1934):  Starring Betty Davis (already getting her nasty chops), Leslie Howard (with “SUCKER” written on his forehead) (characters both unlikable for different reasons), Francis Dee (a lovely young woman), and other actors fill out this soapy version of Somerset Maugham’s novel about emotional entrapment.  Perhaps if the script and setting had been interpreted as American, it might have been more interesting and had “edge“.  As it is, a group of limp, unexpressive British people with very little to offer isn’t much of a tale.  Its point, which has tons of potential – “Each one of us is bonded to another for better or worse” – is not brought to much dramatic intensity.  WOTO

“Flying Leathernecks” (1951): Starring John Wayne, Robert Ryan, and Jay Flippen. Directed by Nicholas Ray. I’m not a fan of John Wayne, but I am a student of World War II. Many early post-WWII films used lots of real film footage – not only because it was credible, but much less expensive. I watch this sort of film for two reasons: the real footage, and to watch for the “spin” put on a story designed for our American audience. It’s interesting and I don’t exactly fault it. It’s VERY easy to understand how any group wants to put itself in the best light. And, by 1951, we were fighting the people who’d been our Allies (and who we’d saved from the Japanese) only six years earlier – the Chinese. It’s an upside-down world. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. “Flying Leathernecks” has some historical interest, but is, as expected, a weak film. With me, John Wayne’s reputation remains intact – poor. WOTO

“Cold Creek Manor” (2003): A New York City couple (and their kids) are sick of city life, so they leave and begin anew in an old, crumbly mansion out in the country. The “locals” aren’t all that friendly, and there are a couple outright aggressive types. Why? Well, you’ll find out. Much of the acting is good, though Dennis Quaid is a disappointment. Continuity and credibility are weak. Scoring may be a little heavy-handed, but it is interesting. Lighting and camera work are clichéd. The story line is loaded with manipulations you’ve experienced before, but it’s an occasionally fun ride down a well-worn back country road. Also starring Sharon Stone, Kristen Scott, and Christopher Plummer in an odd cameo role.

“Ziegfeld Follies” (1946): MGM tried to revive the Follies right after WWII. Despite tons of stars, dancing, singing, “comedy”, and staged extravaganzas, this two hour shish kabob of shtick is just plain tiring. The Technicolor is lurid, which, for once, is perfect. Talk about a gaudy experience! I admit to not liking most musicals or many “broadway” stage plays. Their complete lack of real world “context” leaves me baffled and only occasionally amused. What I DO enjoy about this mess of a “show” are the sets by Cedric Gibbons. He ruled film sets for decades – and deservedly so. “Ziegfeld” sets are bizarre, abstract, sparse, and spewing with excesses, but always smart and innovative. For me, THEY (and some of the costuming) are worth the viewing. WOTO

5.
“QUICK ! DUCK !!

It just hit the fan !!!

“The Hunter” (2011):  Even Willem Dafoe couldn’t save this big pile of confused motivations trying to be a taut thriller.  A mysterious chemical corporation wants control of a gene found only in an animal thought to be extinct.  Dafoe is the hired hunter who heads into Tasmania – full of pissed off locals, odd women, children who hold secrets, and a landscape that may or may not still host this “lost” animal.  Everyone behaves in ways not explained by the film – as though the script were written using the I-ching.  Silly and messy.  Skip it.  You’ll only end up feeling cheated.

“Room 237” (2012):  I call it “Inkblotting”.  It’s a favorite sport of dumb people who wish they had insights into Art… but since they don’t and were given permission by Freud and Surrealism to puke up any associations they swallowed, they masturbate their overactive tiny glands into self-excitement.  In THIS case, we have some embarrassing Inkblotters and Wish-they-weres delving into their swirly visions of Stanley Kubrick’s film “The Shining”.  Think of it as a sport in the Obsessive Dimwit Olympics.  You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll give up in twenty minutes.

“Pretty Models all in a Row” (aka “Love Feast”, 1969):  Hey, I enjoy laughing at “Plan 9 from Outer Space” or “Glen or Glenda?” just as much as you.  I love films.  But… THIS 8mm celluloid tapeworm is absolutely, irredeemably, start-to-finishly AWFUL without the charmingly stoopid characteristics of a klassick Edward Wood Jr. flick.  It’s sixty four minutes of pathetic attempts by Ed to be a vaudevillian funnyman, with an increasing pile of twenty-something mod street walkers and male hookers all naked and writhing on one bed, exhibiting bad breasts, nervous laughter, various bruises, and, oh my god, are those needle tracks on her ass?!  Seriously, don’t let my words confuse you.  There is NOT one moment worth your time.  My wife and I yawned and wretched through the entire mess.  Out of boredom, I tried keeping count of bruises for awhile but gave up.

“Peace, Love, and Misunderstanding” (2011):  Unlikable characters are set in a cliché environment apparently intended to be funny, sensitive, and insightful.  Skip it.  It ain’t.  It’s irritating and predictable.

“The Palm Beach Story” (1942):  I love Preston Sturgis’ film “Sullivan’s Travels”, so it came as a huge surprise I hated his “Palm Beach Story”.  But I do.  I HATE it.  It is the weakest, most repetitive, obvious, shticky bunch of trite tripe I’ve seen in a long time.  Add very unlikable characters and what do you have? – a waste of your precious time.  For some reason, there are people who like this thing.  They probably also think the Three Stooges are genius.  Therefore, I cannot like them.  Simple Social Logic.

“Line of Fire” (1969, 1979, 1983):  That’s right, it was made in all three of these years over a fourteen year period.  Say WHAT????  I’ll explain in a minute.  For now, let me just say it’s “marketed” as a Robert DeNiro film, I wanted to see it because it was DeNiro, and it doesn’t have a date on the box.  Well, lemme tell ya – it’s a swirling mess of a screw up of a piece of crap made by idiots on crack cocaine.  It’s AWFUL, and not the kind of awful that is hilarious.  It’s just homegrown awful.  With some research by my wife, we learned that “Line of Fire” is not listed in DeNiro’s filmography.  (“Okay, he was so embarrassed by it, he must’ve bought it to wipe it off the market…”)  No, it was originally shot as footage for a movie called “Sam’s Song”… but… “Sam’s Song” was never released.  The footage remained never used, rough reels of an idea that deserved to die.  And it became dead film – basemented, shelved, whatever.  Along come some guys who had a chance to buy the rights to it in 1979.  “Hey, this is DeNiro!  We got somethin’ here!!!  All we need to do is shoot more film, sew this stuff together into a movie of some kind, use a later photo of DeNiro on the box, leave its date off, change the title, and ooh mama the money’s gonna roll in!!”  Well, DeNiro apparently got wind of this “project”, apparently attempted a law suit, and clearly didn’t get it stopped.  By 1983 it was released as “Line of Fire”.  Imagine the deluded dolts who tried making a film from someone else’s raw footage, added in their own scenes, and hyped it as something new and legitimate.  Holy Stupid Crap.

“Hang ‘Em High” (again, 1968):  The Man with No Name returns… but without a bit of that stylish, funky, romantic bad-assness of the previous flix made in Italy.  THIS is a pale attempt to continue the saga.  If you love “A Fistful of Dollars”, “For a Few Dollars More”, and “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”, you will be terribly disappointed in this one.  No Sergio Leone direction, no Ennio Morricone score, no Italian faux-American West.  Add Inger Stevens, the actress with the personality of Play-Doh, and you have absolutely no reason to watch the demise of this otherwise kitschy, fun series.

“The Scarlet Letter” (1934):  I’m sure the book is fine, but this movie is one big, soapy, poorly made drama that is only interesting to see examples of what may have been the nightmare that was 17th century America.  WOTO

“Star Trek Insurrection” (1998):  Oh my god.  This is one big bag of ultra-tired story, movie, and sci-fi clichés.  It has NO redeeming value.  Start to finish, it is awful.  It has 1960s simplistic Gene Roddenberry tee-vee written all over it.  WOTO

“Big Business” (1988?):  I LOVE Lily Tomlin, and I enjoy Bette Midler, but even they cannot fix an entire script.  Although this “twins mixed up at birth” theme COULD’VE been hilarious, it was mild smiles at best and usually less.  The occasional snappy line could not make up for the repetitive predictability of the other 99.9%.  WOTO

“Two Brothers” (2004):  Ugh.  Ick.  Vomit.  Here, you’ll encounter Disney style sweetness and intellectual absence.  Two Tiger cubs are brothers.  They go through “mischievous adventures” and “remarkable journeys”.  Consider it a warning when language of this sort is used in promotions.  (“Heartwarming story”, “Timeless Tale”, etc..)  “Two Brothers” is awful.  It treats animals as humans with fur coats, treats most humans as evil (except, of course, one starry-eyed child), and uses the movie as a vehicle for external agendas.  I cannot count the ways it insults everyone and everything.  Don’t raise your children on this distorted stuff.  Give them a chance in life.

“Marnie” (1964): Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. I’m not a big fan of his work, but I do like a few in the early part of his career. That said, this is a film from late in his career. It’s supposed to be a psychological drama about a very troubled woman with a dark past. Starring Tippi Hedren and Sean Connery, it begins interestingly enough but continually sinks due to poor acting (by all involved), poor special effects and sets, and a story that insisted on dragging every 1964 social issue AND the kitchen sink into what could have been a simple and neat thriller. But, it’s not. WOTO

“Hell’s Angels on Wheels” (1967): I saw this one first-run at where else ? but a drive in. This was BEFORE Jack Nicholson was JACK NICHOLSON, and, if you’ve ever seen any of his early paid-my-rent movie jobs (horror, hot rods, motorcycles), you’d understand EVERYONE pays their dues and then prays it‘s all lost and forgotten. This one is so bad it’s hardly even worthy of being a “period piece”, and certainly not a “cult classic”. Sure, there’s hipster jive, lots of action slathered with bad scoring, terrible camera work and acting, sex, drugs, rock & roll, dancing, fighting, stealing, telling women what to do (and with who) (when the women aren’t being manipulative on their own), pointless filler-scenes of random behavior, and a story with only the loosest of threads. It really IS awful. Is it so awful it’s wonderful?  No.  It’s just awful. WOTO

“Spider Baby” (1968):  Just stab me repeatedly.  Let’s get this over.  I like a bad movie as much as the next tongue-in-cheeker, but this one is SO self-conscious it hurt.  After thirty minutes, I’d had enough.  It wasn’t going to get any better – not wittier, not scarier, not anythinger to pull it out of the awkwardness it seemed determined to hold hostage.  Lon Chaney Jr. was on his last leg.  I’m sure everyone on the set thought this $65,000. budget-slasher was destined to be their rocket ride to fame and infamy.  Eh.  I don’t think so.

6.

“Uh… Say WHAT?”

 

“The Bridge of San Luis Rey” (again, 2004):  I SUSPECT eventually I’ll have an idea about this film, but for now, let’s keep it here.  Five people fall from the foot bridge of San Luis Rey, in Peru, during the Inquisition.  A monk sets out to “divine” WHY THESE five people met with tragedy.  What brought them to that point at that time?  Was it pure bad luck? God’s plan?  Satan?  The result was his book, filled with data on these people, and, since it was the Inquisition, he was taken to “Court” for trial of Heresy or anything else they could conjure up.  This film is FULL of stars and requires a heavy suspension of disbelief because of all the high recognition (and the lack of proper accents).  The photography was good, the music fine, but what requires your WORK is listening to the philosophical dialog.  It IS work, and does not tie itself into a neat little package at the end.  However, there ARE things you can discern for yourself, and this may be its value.  WOTO

“Pumpkin” (again, 2002):  Christina Ricci & Dominique Swain make “Pumpkin”… well… sort of a “Animal House” meets every one of the teen/activist movies of 1963 in an orgy of intentional clichés and non-PC bad taste (which is what brings it into 2002).  It’s meant to be funny – and it often is – as long as you’re willing to enjoy the sarcastic, toe-smashing flavor.  There are plenty of bubble-headed blonde sorority bitches, square-jawed pinchy-eyed tennis playing frat boys, insulated face-lifted socialite mothers… and a bunch of retarded fellows who need to be trained for the Special Olympics.  Yes, THAT’S the plot.  Really.  However, the people who wrote/filmed/scored/etc. this thing were taking EVERY dopey word, scene, angle and tune from the theoretical ’1963′ movie and cramming them all together into one condensed, relentless, predictable, often witty movie that never quite gels into a flowing story but is more like a collection of overused and used again tricks of the B-grade, drive in movie trade.  Occasionally it loses itself into an almost serious tone, which left me hesitating about it…. “Just what DO you want to BE?!”  In fact, THAT is why I put “Pumpkin” in THIS category.  I wonder if its slipping in and out of dark humor was intentional or a lack of focus.  I honestly don’t know.  I do know I enjoyed it… in a weird way.  WOTO

“Jew Suss” (German, 1940):  Joseph Goebbels was the Propaganda Minister for the Nazis.  He controlled radio, print, books, recordings, and films.  He considered this film his “masterpiece” of propaganda.  He set out to “educate” the German public about the threat of Jews.  “Jew Suss” is the “retelling” of 18th century Germany which – claimed the film – was infiltrated by Jews who attempted to destroy all that was good and decent, but, in the end, the Germans eventually saw through this deceit and righted the Jewish wrongs by “removing” the cancerous effects of those who did not belong amongst the decent Aryans.  It is a period piece clearly aimed at the less educated populace intended to help push them along the path of proper “racial purity” and cooperation.  It should be laughable, but it is too slick for mere chuckles.  The prejudice is injected in slow, steady doses.  It cannot but chill you to see such a serious effort to get everyone in line.

“Our Hitler – A Film from Germany” (German, 1977):  This is a seven hour film.  It comes on two dvds.  I got through the first half of 3.5 hours.  That’s all I could do.  It’s an extremely creative work in many ways, but the production values are low budget, it has never been restored from its 70s “look”, and it’s VERY German.  What do I mean?  I mean it’s as dense and weighty as Wagner, with huge, poetic speeches and unreal environments holding mythical beings set on artificial stages presented in something of a cabaret style.  I simply could not continue consuming this thirty course highly garnished meat and potatoes meal.  It beat me.  It won.  You’ll have to see the second half for me.

“A Complete History of my Sexual Failures” (doc., British, 2008):  This documentary is not professional, artistic, as humorous as it claims, or honest in its stated intent – which is: a young man sets out to learn about himself by interviewing former girlfriends, family, and therapists of varying sorts.  What becomes clear – if not to him, to us as viewers – is he has no true interest in changing.  He holds his repulsive “identity” close and seems to cherish – if not revel in – this one thing of value he “owns”.  The first impressions of humor, which soon vanish as your insights increase, are replaced by feelings of gratitude you are not this person and don’t know him personally.  He has serious problems and will fight for them to the day of his lonely death.

 

 

 7.


“Guilty Pleasures”

(Okay, you caught me!)

“Jaws” (again, 1975):  It’s a tense, fun, adventuresome drama with little witticisms and humorous moments tossed in for variety.  On the heels of his first film “Duel”, Spielberg creates another monster stalking the innocent: a big, hungry, mean-spirited Great White Shark.  This is an ominous and sometimes bloody story that kept movie-going audiences away from beaches for years.  It’s great, silly fun in its horrifying way.  Starring Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, and Robert Shaw.  WOTO

“Gangster Story” (c. 1959-60):  Ever wondered what Walter Matthau would look like as a killer?  Well, I guess he wondered too because HE directed “Gangster Story”.  Set in sunny California on what must’ve been a whopping $300. budget, we cruise the broad boulevards, banks, orchards, and ranch homes in two-toned finned convertibles while watching bad production and bad acting.  It’s a bad movie, but unique for its being a Matthau fantasy.  And, if you’re a fan of 1950’s west coast architecture and décor, this is a fun one.  WOTO

“Gangs, Inc.” (1941):  Joan Woodbury, Jack Larue, Linda Ware, and Alan Ladd star in this grade-C “Crime Don’t Pay” flik.  You gotcher tough guys, hard dames, heaters (and bloodless shootings), coppers, dough, and Lessons in Life.  Watch the fashions and cars for pleasure, and be shocked at the brutal editing.  WOTO

“Don’t Knock the Rock” (1956):  Sleazy real life promoter Alan Freed (headed to prison in 1959 for payola deals) plays himself in this ironic, wonderfully naïve story of Rock & Roll as it fights its way into “respectability”.  It’s a Grade D drive-in flik intended to cash in on the latest wave of Rebellious Teens and the parents who were petrified of the latest changes.  Frankly, it’s just an excuse to market acts – from the soon-to-become greats like Little Richard and the one-act ponies like Bill Haley & the Comets, to the mind-bogglingly mediocre Alan Dale and the truly awful “Treniers”.  Professional dancers play teens who can move like no real teen ever, quality acting is not to be found, and the entire production lacks everything.  None the less, this is a great, clunky, self-righteous Period Piece about an era adoring itself while feeling growing pains.

“The Girl from Chicago” (1932):  Think of the incredibly unprofessional “Plan 9 from Outer Space”… and then think lower… and then lower yet.  This is an all-black production made only for blacks in an unbelievably clunky, low-budget, non-artistic, un-inventive way.  It’s awful in every possible aspect.  Why do I find “pleasure” in it?  I enjoy the fashions, cars, city scenes, some of the contemporary black community insights, AND the astoundingly hilarious, terrible production.  When an actor forgets his lines and you can hear the “director” off camera giving him his lines – which the “actor” then repeats – you KNOW you’re in for a special experience.  What’s the story of this flik?  Does it matter?  WOTO

“Our Daily Bread” (again, 1934):  By King Vidor.  This is a WONDERFUL American Depression Era propaganda film.  It is blatant in promoting Socialist, Communist, Fascists, and even Democratic concepts… but generally degrading Democracy.  After all, Democracy seemed to have failed Americans at that time.  It has fine period photography, dialog, and other noble “Salt of the Earth” presentations.  This is SUCH fun for its naïve, simplistic idealism.  Acting is weak, but who cares?  Its heart – and it DOES have heart – was in the right place, even if its mind was not.  It represented much of what was on the minds of the American public at that time – economically, politically, socially, and morally.  Knowledge of the era helps you appreciate what and why things are presented as they are.  It is a shallow but very rich period piece… an oddly satisfying film I’ve enjoyed repeatedly.  WOTO

“The Long, Long Trailer” (again & again, 1953):  There’s not a single curse word, drop of blood, bodily function, or sexual innuendo in this comedy.  It is Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz at their very best.  I liked their t.v. show, especially the early ones, but this film tops them all.  (My wife looks at me like I’m nuts the way I enjoy every moment of this movie.)  Taking on other character names, this story is of a newly wed couple who decides to go in hock, live on wheels, and cross America towing a 40 foot trailer in their new Mercury convertible.  It’s a cool trailer, cool car, and an excellent representation of post-WWII postcard U.S.A. road dreams.  And, it’s funny as all… heck.  Lucy was one of the best physical comediennes.  Desi is her perfect foil.  Their timing is amazing.  What she does with her face is beyond words.  The “Ansco Color” film scenarios are a joyful mess of awkwardness, tension, slapstick, sugary romance, and bits of simple wisdom thrown in for good measure.  THIS one is NOT a true “guilty” pleasure” for me.  It is just a pleasure.  WOTO

“Min and Bill” (1930):  Starring Wallace Beery and Marie Dressler.  Although this early “talkie” is rough around the edges, I love the atmosphere of films of this time, as well as the type of acting, story, and emotions.  It’s funny, feisty, dramatic, and sad.  This one has some surprises too – so feel free to get sucked into believing it’s predictable and you have masterful insight.  WOTO

“Gun Crazy” (1949):  Truly an inspiration for the later film “Bonnie & Clyde”, “Gun Crazy” is an obvious attempt at a social drama mixed with steamy sex and violence, none of which can meet the expectations of a 2013 audience.  However, it is an interesting period film with one twist in the plot you will NOT see coming.  PS: the violence is entirely bloodless, but I still would not recommend it for younger viewers.

”Our Gang” and “The Little Rascals” (1922 to 1944):  I have many of these short films, and adore most of them.  This is partly due to personal nostalgia, having grown up with these shown on early television as reruns from the theater.  As far as I’m concerned, the earlier ones (“Our Gang”) are the best, including the earliest silent examples.  The “golden age” of Our Gang is, for me, the Jackie Cooper/Farina/Mary Ann/Wheezer years with that wonderful, rougher quality of film and audio but the “focus” still remaining on CHILDREN who ARE CHILDREN and do CHILDISH things in their own world WITHOUT much adult interference.  Most people think of the Alfalfa/Spanky/Darla/Buckwheat era, but for me, these kids were preciously preened little people who lost their natural innocence to programming big people during the same later era of much slicker technologies, bigger budgets, and too many adults.  There are many compilation sets available.  Try to find those that cover the entire range.  You may see what I mean.  WOTO    

”Highway 13” (1948):  Run of the mill “sabotage” story with average to poor acting, unremarkable visuals and audio, and laughable special effects but a slightly surprising ending and plenty of cool cars, buildings, décor, and costuming.  WOTO

“Motor Patrol” (1950):  Grade C crime drama about a car theft ring and the motorcycle cops who risk their lives to enforce law and order.  It has the depth of a “Dragnet” episode with bad special effects, poor acting, and very few surprises, but it’s worth the trip to see the 1930s, 40s, and early 50s cars, costuming, buildings, and décor.  WOTO

“Saving Silverman” (again, 2001):  Immature, stupid, ridiculous, and funny as hell sometimes.  Think “Animal House” meets “High Fidelity” with a touch of “The Big Lebowski”.  How could you ask for more??  WOTO

“Tarzan the Fearless” (again, 1933):  After the very early silent film about Tarzan the Ape Man of the Jungle, starring the very apey, odd Elmo Lincoln, Hollywood left Tarzan to swing alone on the vine fifteen years.  He was then revisited by the up-and-coming handsome athlete-star Buster Crabbe (who would soon gain fame with his roles as “Buck Rogers” and “Flash Gordon”).  I LOVE the muffled sound and soft look of late 1920s / early 1930s films.  I enjoy the choppy, semi-cliffhanger editing, and the lack of great acting, story continuity, or really, ANY credibility at all.  There is NO “Jane” in this one, but there IS a platinum blonde “Mary” – whose makeup remains Jean-Harlow-flawless whether after swimming naked in a jungle lake or being manhandled by various lustful males.  Why, even her torn jungle-ware (EXPOSED THIGH!!) regenerates itself as we begin to resolve the tropical turmoil.  And hey, who doesn’t love jungle animals dancing to a 30s jazz band record out there in the wild?  I mean, really!  WOTO

“Boys Town” (1938):  Oscars: Best Original Story, Best Actor.  “Boy’s Town” (the real place) was already famous by 1938, and the writers felt it was a story worth retelling.  It also fit the late 30’s era.  The Depression was dragging on and people were getting the idea that if you weren’t part of the solution, you were part of the problem.  Father Flannigan was a good story symbol besides a real guy who got real things done.  Starting with nothing but attitude, he began, pushed, and maintained “Boy’s Town” – the place where orphan boys could find a home.  I’ve visited the real place.  It has never stopped growing in size and complexity.  I’ve seldom been more impressed with what determination can accomplish on the personal scale.  As for the film, Spencer Tracey received the Oscar for an understated role as Father Flannigan.  A young Mickey Rooney stars as the boy “beyond help”.  As with Rooney’s entire career, he shows no restraint in his acting.  Occasionally, but not often, it seems appropriate.  I have mixed feelings about this.  His character NEEDS to be center stage, and his attitude NEEDS to be excessive, but his style is so “stylized”, it has more to do with the Vaudeville stage than what Film can offer.  This is my only complaint about “Boy’s Town”.  If I could dial down Rooney’s job, the film – including its heart-tugging goals – even the “Hollywoodness” of it – would be in a higher category.  The black and white is SO beautifully shot, I was in constant admiration of it.  The story is told in a solid, linear fashion.  Everything about it was designed to reach the common person of 1938.  It reached me, again, in 2013.  WOTO

”The Purple Heart” (1944):  This is a drum-beating, all-American propaganda film made while World War II remained unresolved.  Its fiction spins off a “what if” story related to the true exploits of the “Doolittle Raid” over Tokyo which shocked the confidence out of the Japanese, and gave a very needed boost to American morale.  In the fictional setting of the film, one B-25 bomber crew has to bale out over China, is caught by the Japanese, and faces jail, torture, and a rigged trial in Japan.  The men eventually make tough choices which will affect not only their lives but the course of the war.  Make no mistake about it: this IS a highly nationalist, flag waving effort at a time when it was needed, and, in review, an interesting effort to do so.

“Radar Secret Service” (1950):  1950 was a bad time for fashion, a pretty good time for cars, and a busy time for Grade B, side street / drive-in crime dramas.  Think of this one as part “Dragnet Meets J. Edgar Hoover”, part “Buck Rogers and his Amazing Radar Machine”, and part “Discontinuity Orgy”.  It’s a fun, stupid ride indeed, and contains one of the most amazing continuity mistakes (?) of ALL TIME.  Did they really think we wouldn’t notice????  WOTO

“Moulin Rouge” (again, 2001):  I REALLY dislike “Musicals” (“West Side Story”, “The Music Man”, ad nauseum), but there are a couple I do enjoy, and I add “Moulin…” to that VERY short list. (It includes “Little Shop of Horrors” (newer version), and “Hairspray” (the film NOT the film made of the musical)…i.e., the rare musical that does NOT take itself seriously (which SHOULD be the STANCE, considering the nature of those dopey musicals, in the first place…)  Other than the “love interest” angle to Moulin Rouge, this is truly a unique, frantic, over-the-top, creative film.  It most reminds me of the work of Terry Gilliam, especially his “Brazil”.  Nicole Kidman and Ewen McGregor should NOT have sung, but they did, and I suppose they wake up screaming once in awhile.  I appreciated the high-kitsch of this entire project.  What I added this year:  “The stage version must certainly seem DULL compared to this swirling, computer-manipulated, extravagant, hyper-insane event on film.  The “references” to other musicals, music, artists, and events – very few of which existed in 1899-1900 – were fun to identify.  I wonder what John Leguizamo said when first approached about being in this film:  “John, we think you’d be PERFECT as the faggoty, absinthe addicted, stoned dwarf artist with a heavy lisp!  How about it?!”  WOTO

“Child Bride” (again, 1938):  This is truly an awful thing, but it’s one of those “wreck-by-the-side-of-the-road” movies for which you MUST slow down and stare.  Set in Hill Billy hills-n-hollers, this is about people who ain’t knowed no better, and the mens folkses who marry little girls.  You’ll see dirty old coots kissing 10 year old girls, killin’ one t’other at the Still and danged near ev’rywheres, and all sorts of goddawful bad dialog turned worse with bad acting.  It’s really pretty funny, despite the repulsive ideas.  Why, you’re even “treated” to the “funny” old phrase “I figgered there wuz a nigger in th’ woodpile somewhere!”  When I say CAR WRECK, I MEAN CAR WRECK!  WOTO

“Pale Rider” (again, 1985):  I think of this film as an earnest attempt by Clint Eastwood to transition from the “Man with No Name” Spaghetti Westerns towards the later, great films such as “Unforgiven”.  The source of inspiration for “Pale Rider” is “Shane”.  This Eastwood vehicle is less cartoonish, darker, grimier and grimmer but he still has quite a ways to go.  The sets are perfectly bleak, the costuming somewhat down to earth, the landscapes spectacular, and most of the characters are less romantic but remain archetypal to a fault.  They brim with larger-than-life, legendary meanings.  I enjoy “Pale Rider” AND recognize Eastwood needed it to move on in more interesting directions.  Awkward gaps exist in the editing which fail to maintain a sense of natural Time.  For example, in the opening scene, bandits are charging ahead on their horses over the mountains and through the valleys, non-stop, full-tilt, relentlessly pounding on mile after mile after mile – which is absolutely pointless to the story and which the horses could never manage.  Other scenes depict characters behaving in unbelievable ways (for example, pioneers relax by OPEN cabin doors during the winter while simultaneously trying to stay warm inside – and acting as though someone ELSE took care of their firewood needs, for free!).  Dramatic license?  Sure, but distracting to the realism?  Yes.  Sloppy continuity?  Single dynamite sticks that explode more than once?  Come on now… we ARE WATCHING, you know!  THIS is a Guilty Pleasure.  WOTO

“Heaven” (again, 1987): This is a semi-documentary about fringe American beliefs of a place some call “Heaven”. Diane Keaton relies heavily on two sources: film and television clips (c. 1920’s through 1980’s), and, unique people she accumulated for on-camera, sit-down interviews. She sets a tone of outrageous (hilarious) delusions and capitalist (chilling) greed. It is certainly entertaining, but seldom informative. Avoid it if you seek an in-depth, academic study. I enjoy it for its near-insanity. Her staging of interviews in “german expressionist” style sets with fragmented lighting are interesting and unique, but often distracting. The editing shows clear intent to pound away at the craziness of those people she displays… and they ARE on display. “Heaven” is one of a kind, and has its flaws, but if you’re ready for an entire belief system to be nothing but skewered, you’ll have fun. WOTO

“The Wild Ride” (1960): This is a very early, obscure “hot rod” film starring Jack Nicholson. He was 23 when making this (and the awful, first attempt at “Little Shop of Horrors“), but he looks 17. “The Wild Ride” is a bad film… but it has a certain good-bad flavor to it. He plays a nasty punk of a bully who heads up a little gang of California teen hot rodding cats and their chicks. “I follow the laws! I follow MY laws!“ he sez to the fuzz. I like this film – it is a “Guilty Pleasure” for me – due to the Car Scene, the RELENTLESS Beatnik hip lingo, the bongo-n-jazz flute scoring, the social hierarchy and “rebellion” themes, and its shameless, low quality rip off of “The Wild One” (made 7 years earlier, starring Marlin Brando, lots of motorcycles, and Lee Marvin). If you’re looking for another good-bad drive-in quality movie, this should be on your list… in my good-bad opinion. WOTO

“Valley of the Dolls” (again, 1967): Lurid, candy colored, soapy and trashy… and lots of Guilty Pleasure fun! Made from the book, this movie is a timely Hollywood expression of changing sexual and social roles in the none-the-less slower, conservative worlds herein depicted, the beginning of a drug problem barely forecasting at what was yet to come, and some of the tackiest and suaviest architecture and décor to date. “Valley of the Dolls” is pumped full of current, past, and future stars. It centers on four driven women played by Susan Hayward, Patty Duke, Barbara Parkins, and Sharon Tate. Also see Martin Milner, Lee Grant, George Jessel, Joey Bishop… even the very first moment Richard Dreyfuss is seen on film! (Watch close or you’ll miss him.) Beautiful women with big hair, glittering gowns, throats full of “dolls” (pills) fight among themselves and against the slick-haired men in sharkskin suits who never stop smoking or wanting a piece-o-that. WOTO

“Superstar – Dare to Dream” (2000):  I’ve never seen a character from the television show “Saturday Night Live” used successfully in a full-length feature film. At best, these movies are as shish kabob string of short skits one might see on SNL. A film they do not make. That aside, if you like this or that character – in this case Molly Shannon’s “Mary Katherine Gallagher”, the deluded, horny, clumsy Catholic high school girl – you’ll still enjoy these films as guilty pleasures – brainless spurts. WOTO

“Hot Rods to Hell” (again, 1966):  “Hell couldn’t hold these angels!!!” Bored desert-rat teens with souped up mod-rods are waiting for their next road victim. A decent, god-fearing family is on their way to start a new life. There’s gonna be trouble, I tell ya, and it’ll be out on the anything-goes asphalt!! It’s pedal-to-metal-time as Dad (Dana Andrews), Mom (the lovely Jeanne Crain), their hot daughter and Beaver-esque son duel it with petty punks out along the lonely stretches between nowhere and Hell! I saw this first run, and it always stuck with me. It’s funky, silly, weird, and addictive. You WON’T be able to stop watching. It’s like what they say about bad car accidents… you just gotta stare.  WOTO

 

 

8.

“This isn’t a “Film”, but I don’t know where else to put it”

 

“Olympia” (German, 202 min., 1936):  Hitler’s favorite German film director made this documentary by his order.  Leni Riefenstahl said “Ja, mein Fuhrer”.  She was happy to work for him / Germany.  Recorded is the 1936 Berlin Olympics.  Germany was in the midst of still trying to create an international image of power and goodness.  They hadn’t yet physically attacked any countries, but were of course attacking groups of their own people.  In this film – a long film – you are essentially treated to artistically photographed athletes from many nations competing for laurels.  On occasion, you are also shown Hitler, Goering, and Propaganda Minister Jospeh Goebbels rooting on and applauding “their” athletes, and back-slapping one another IF a German wins.  However, this did not occur as often as they expected.  In fact, Jessie Owens and the other Americans did a near clean-sweep of sprints and jumps.  The stadium full of visitors loved them, and for a short time made them “stars” of Berlin.  You are NOT shown the Nazi leaders reactions. They were not enthusiastic.  Events did not and would not go their way…  WOTO

“Frost / Nixon” (docum., again, 1977):  I saw David Frost’s interviews with Richard Nixon first run on television where they were intended.  These interviews lasted 28 hours.  Forty five million Americans alone watched them.  It was the largest audience EVER for a news interview.  Why?  For some, it was Watergate.  For others it was Viet Nam.  For others it was Nixon himself.  For many of us it was all three and more.  These interviews occurred when television was in its last struggles to be pertinent to our culture.  The above reasons should be enough to explain why everyone should sit through a mere 88 minutes of 28 hours.  For those who see History as merely old stuff having NOTHING to do with them and their current world, I can’t help you.  Maybe you’ll become wiser later.  Maybe you’ll remain uninformed.  Maybe you’ll never care.  It’s not my job.  Your ignorance may be your bliss, but I can assure you your ignorance is NOT OUR bliss.  WOTO

 

 

 

9.

“Your Suggestions”

 

Ronn,

Yet another surreal, disturbing, absurd, complex film I’ll probably want to see again, but only when Colleen’s out of town. Probably not one Pat would enjoy either; multiples scenes of unsimulated sex and brief moments of downright shocking violence.
“Dogtooth”
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1379182/?ref_=sr_1
Accolades: First Greek film to be nominated for an Oscar in 30 years and only the fifth to do so. First Greek film to premier (and earn an award) at Cannes in a decade.
Short summary: Family lives in an isolated area and has done so their whole life. The parents teach the children to fear the outside as well as build their own vocabulary using already established words, ie, a “zombie” is a small yellow flower. As a result, the children are little more than infantized adults; they fight over toys, play games of endurance, and believe the airplanes they see flying overhead are no larger than they perceive them. The only person allowed to leave is the father and the only way to leave is by car. Each week, he brings his son a woman from his work he has hired to “relieve” his son of sexual urges. What could *possibly* go wrong with this scenario?
After “Winter’s Bone”, I’m probably going to need a big, dumb, brainless comedy to wash away all this pathos.
James
-
Ronn,
 
Colleen and I went to see “Silver Linings Playbook” tonight, despite the fact it’s coming to DVD on Tuesday.
 
I felt it was a passable romantic-comedy-drama about mental illness that starts out really interesting and then gets all gooey in the middle and stays that way until the end. I gave it a “meh” and Colleen gave it two teary eyes. She said it’d been a long time since she’d seen a “good” modern romantic film with characters you can believe would exist.
 
Jennifer Lawrence did a great job as a grieving widow who can flip her emotions on a dime, which she does often. I haven’t had much experience with the other Best Actress nominees this year, but I think she earned her award. Bradley Cooper starts out playing bi-polar really well and, as the film continues, seems to become “magically cured” by love…in some people’s eyes. I don’t know if I believe that statement, but his illness does seem to fall to the wayside at parts and it feels like he’s becoming a “happy-go-lucky adviser to those with problems” at others.
 
And, of course, I am now physically attracted to Jennifer Lawrence and want to see “Winter’s Bone” to see if that will cure me. Probably not, dammit.
 
James

 

 

 

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The Big Sleep

February 17, 2013 by , under Films, FILMS - 2006+.

 

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For someone who doesn’t get paid, I see and write about a lot of films.  I see them because I love them.  I write about them so I can later look them up and review my thoughts.  Let’s face it – not all movies are memorable or worth a second viewing, and, my memory sucks.

As in the past, I again watched “The Big Sleep” (1945 & 1946), starring who-else-but pop culture icons Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.  My previous viewings left me with mixed, unenthusiastic feelings.  It’s not a stand-out film… at least not the 1946 version I’d always seen released to the public.  However, recently I purchased a dvd that held a 1945 version.  My wife and I decided to watch 1945 one night, and 1946 the next.  Stick with me on this…

“The Big Sleep” was made during the war and sent first to our soldiers overseas.  Whether this shipment was a gesture of Patriotism by Hollywood or merely an easy way to test market a movie without getting critics involved, you decide.  Either way, the studio learned a few things related to their investment: 1) the story was complex but sufficiently clear, and Bacall, the female they wanted to sell as the Star, had serious competition in Martha Vickers who played her lovely, flirtatious, out-in-left field sister.  I agree with what must have been the soldiers responses: Vickers is much better.  Bacall was neither equal in looks or acting dynamics… but, she had Bogart.

In 1945, at age 46, Bogart was a big star.  Bacall, at age 23, had a couple films on her resume - box office bombs.  Investors were afraid one more flop would kill her with the public.  Bogart had other big issues in his life: he was alcoholic, married, and had the hots for Bacall.  He was becoming known for unreliable behavior and costing Warner Brothers more money through delays.  In 1945 Hollywood, neither of these as-is people were a solid investment.

This is where it becomes easy to say “I’m going to stop reading about Hollywood and its machinations, and stick to watching films.”  But, like driving by the proverbial car wreck and seeing damaged people getting loaded into ambulances or hearses, I admit my wife and I look on.  There’s a “tabloid history” angle hard to ignore… now made even easier with a tablet computer next to us on the sofa for immediate research after the film.

“The Big Sleep” needed to be “re-vamped”.  Literally.  Most everyone had a vested interest in getting Bogey and Bacall into the limelight without unnecessary delays.  This would require editing out the “problems” and shooting additional scenes to be inserted.  Removal of film footage focused on Martha Vickers.  The studio wanted Bacall as the marketable Star, and Bogart wanted Bacall as… well, for the time being anyhow, his mistress.  Bacall no doubt saw the scrawls on the walls – she was on her way out and other women could out-dazzle her.  But, now she had a big star who would fight for her in ways she could not.  Vickers, too good to be removed entirely, was snipped out until no longer a screen “distraction”, and with the newly created open spots in the film, additional Bogart/Bacall scenes were created – scenes with plenty of Hollywood Heat.  The people who needed to make money would make more money.  The people with careers on the line would ally in ways necessary for self-defense and power.  A product would be altered, careers would be sculpted, people would be built up or torn down, and the public would be none the wiser while happily paying their twenty five cents at the box office window to see Their Stars.  Only later would they debate a confusing, incomplete-feeling plot.

All is Glorious in Hollywood… just don’t wander into the back lots.

 

 

(PS: Martha Vickers’ career and life would flail about unsuccessfully up to her death at age 46 in 1971.)  

 

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Films I saw in 2012

December 24, 2012 by , under Films, Films 2012.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Films I Saw in 2012

 (New reviews are added each evening)

Watching Films is our way of fulfilling a deep-seated need

to nestle ’round the campfire listening to our Story Tellers. 

This is when and where we express our fears of the Unknown,

debate the Mystical, and find support for our assumptions about

the Sunlit World.

 

CODES: “again” = I’ve seen it before, “WOTO” = We Own This One, “IMDB” = my opinions also found on The Internet Movie Data Base site

Below are the majority of the films I’ve seen to date this year.  Those most recently viewed are placed at the top of each selected category.

Last updated: 12-31-12

===================================================

2012  MOVING PICTURES    *    NEVER enough time, SO many films ====================         =========================

 

 

1.
“FILMS THAT WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE”

 

 

 “It’s a Wonderful Life” (again and again, twice this year, 1946):  It’s a great film and story with wonderful acting, gorgeous black & white photography, important philosophies… why, it has everything.  Jimmy Stewart was at his best.  Donna Reed?  What a girl-next-door-babe!  Clarence the Angel?  Perfectly innocent and effective.  Bert & Ernie?  I suppose they are a major realization for Sesame Street fans!!  The children – fragile and pure.  Sam Wainwright – the goofy, life-time friend, no matter how rich he became.  Evil Mister Potter?  The man we love to hate (hissss!), played by Lionel Barrymore (Drew’s grandfather).  The rejected kid at the dance who opens the dance floor on George & Mary?  Remember “Alfalfa” in “The Little Rascals”/”Our Gang”?  That’s him!  You KNOW what “Potter’s Field” is slang for, right?  It’s the generic name given to graveyards for people who died alone, broke, and unclaimed.  Uncle Billy?  I relate to His memory problem and having a Raven as a bird-pal.  Violet?  We ALL knew (or know) a Violet…the good-hearted gal who relied heavily on appearances.  One of the prettiest photographic scenes is early in the film when George and Mary are just leaving town in the taxi for their honeymoon: it’s raining and they stop to look back at what appears to be a “run” on the Savings & Loan.  As they peer out the back window of the taxi, THAT shot is pure beauty.  Do I still get misty with a film that I’ve easily seen 50 times?  YES.  I tear up when Mr. Gower realizes that young George caught his prescription mistake, and when adult George comes home in the evening shattered from the day’s events – and he SNAPS.  This film’s heart is in the RIGHT place SO often for SO many reasons.  I’ve always shaken my head in amazement at people who see it as schmaltzy.  Yes, it seems to have those moments, but they’re not clichés – they are minimal and needed as RELIEF from the overwhelming amount of loss, frustration, fragility, anger, near & true violence, nasty characters, and shocking realizations.  I see it as a TRUE spiritual journey along a frightening road.  This film by Frank Capra, and “Wings of Desire” by Wim Wenders, are my Top Two Films of All Time.  WOTO IMDB

“L’Enfant” (“The Child”) (again, French, 2005):  This IS a profound film.  We meet a teenage girl who has a new baby boy.  She seeks someone named “Bruno”.  Bruno is the father – and much more – and much less.  I cannot discuss the story line without harming it for you, so excuse my vagueness.  “L’Enfant” is an interesting combination of main characters – two “children” who have a child: one affected by the arrival of this new being, and one so locked into Existential life nothing seems to connect.  The locations, sets, camera work, dialog, sound, and the acting (!) by two brilliant young actors – Jeremie Renier and Deborah Francois – make this new film by the Dardenne brothers a serious, emotional, intelligent look at (contemporary European) Human Life.  Deservedly, it won the Palme D’or at Cannes.  WOTO IMDB

“Lawrence of Arabia” (again, 1962, 227 minutes, British):  One of the top five finest character studies (in film) of all time.  This is a true story, but so huge, so sweeping, you’d think it was a Hollywood Historical Fantasy.  Watch a naïve young man, T. E. Lawrence, rise through the ranks of the British Army during World War One, with a very complex relationship to his uppers and the desert tribes of the Middle East… which fuels his intense personality and his perceived destiny in the strangest, most successful, and deluded of ways.  EVERY aspect of the making of this “larger than life” story reflects its nature – the original film was shown in luxurious Cinemascope, the orchestral scoring (in massive stereo) was created by Maurice Jarre, the photography of the desert landscape is often shot at a distance, the film is long enough it provided an audience break (with orchestra) at the half-way point, it was directed by David Lean (who would go on to do “Dr. Zhivago”), and, it’s full of top actors: (introducing) Peter O’Toole, Anthony Quinn, Alec Guiness, Jack Hawkins, Anthony Quayle, Claude Rains, Arthur Kennedy…  And, to top it all off, you may find painful warnings about our current situation in the world.  WOTO

“God Grew Tired of Us” (again, 2006):  Documentary.  This film explains a little about the late 1980’s/early 1990’s holocaust in war-torn Sudan.  It follows the desperate escape of starving, orphaned children across a thousand miles of deadly terrain full of murderers, lions, and hyenas until those who survive reach “safe camps”.  These become their parentless homes.  Finally, after as long as fifteen years, a lucky few are picked to come to America and start a new life.  What these grateful, frightened, confused, anxious young men find is the real United States.  They are given three months to “adapt”, find work, pay back the government, and make it on their own.  It will make you both proud and ashamed… proud and ashamed in many, many ways.  WOTO 

“Grand Canyon” (again, 1991):  I love the feel of each and every scene.  Some of them have stuck to me like emotional glue – even after 21 years.  Some I’d forgotten but was immediately brought right back in.  I love the woven script (this is an early example of a style we now take for granted), the characters are layered and believable, the storyline and its points are nothing to dismiss.  The acting – by Danny Glover, Kevin Klein, Steve Martin (no, this is not a comedy), Mary McDonnell, Mary Louise Parker, Alfre Woodard, and others – is superb.  “Grand Canyon” is an often difficult film to watch – it’s sad, violent, harsh, depressing, frustrating – but well worth your effort, with excellent messages waiting for you.  It’s also full of heart.  It’s also warming, hopeful, inspiring, smart, and accurate.  WOTO IMDB

“Temple Grandin” (2010):  What I said last year: “I expect this film to end up in my TOP category after another viewing and more consideration.  For now, I’ll say this: Claire Danes is (and always has been) a brilliant actress, and had this film been made for “screen”, she would OWN the Oscar for Best Actor.  She rose to a challenge.  This leads me to the story of Temple Grandin, a person born with Autism, who struggles every day with her uniqueness, but, despite the impediments shoved in front of her by many people, and with the glorious help of a few generous adults in her life, she not only coped, but has changed the world for millions of lives – most of whom are Cows.  No, this is not a comedy, and I’m not going to trough-feed you her life.  Danes spent time with the real Grandin (who is also a Professor at Colorado State University) and, along with Julia Ormond, Catherine O’Hara, and David Strathairn, will keep you glued to the story, its characters, and its emotional highs and lows with such power you can scarcely breathe.  Added to that, notice the unique and effective use of photography, editing, and sound.  How do we “represent” Autism?  See “Temple Grandin”.  See it NOW.”  What I say this year:  “And now it IS in my top category.”  WOTO

“In Darkness” (Polish, 2011): is Agnieszka Holland’s latest film.  I am a fan.  Among her many projects, she created “The Secret Garden” and “Europa Europa”.  This true story is “simple”: Nazis take over Lvov Poland, put the Jews in fenced ghettos, and soon begin the extermination.  Opportunistic Poles (also under the thumb of the Nazis, but not rounded-up) begin charging huge fees to the Jews for food and “protection”.  A group of Jews are hidden in the sewers.  As the viewer, you exist with them in this dark, deadly, disgusting world for 14 months (2 hour 23 minute film).  Beautiful photography, a minimalist score, matter of fact harshness, and the facts will leave you exhausted and appreciative. 

 “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (again and again, 1966):  Taken from Edward Albee’s stage play, this screenplay by Ernest Lehman won nearly every award 1966 could offer up in its honor.  Starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, co-starring Sandy Dennis and George Segal, this is one of the most intense, insightful character study films of all time.  Each character and plot point is slowly, painfully revealed through psychological autopsies of lost souls who seem to have died long ago.  The photography and lighting are stark, the music score is spare, tender, and sad, the dialog equal to needles under fingernails, and the acting beyond belief.  It is brilliant.  WOTO 

“12 Angry Men” (1957):  Occasionally I slam into a film that all my life I seem to have believed I saw.  I suppose its fame is SO ingrained, its title SO recognizable, I “absorb” it as my own.  I don’t know… but “12 Angry Men” turns out to be one of them.  What a revelation!  Directed by one of my favorite directors, Sidney Lumet, this one is right up there with “The Pawnbroker”, “Failsafe”, and “Serpico” (also his), with a similar thematic feel to “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”, and the dialog-heavy intensity of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?”.  Great b/w camera work, superb dialog, fascinating acting… and all set in one room around one long jury meeting table.  It is NOT a “crime” or “courtroom” drama.  This is about twelve random men with their own personalities, mental capabilities, and biases trying to decide the fate of someone they do not know within a system that is not part of their daily experience.  It is fascinating, gripping, maddening, and sad… plus encouraging.  WOTO

 “June Bug” (again, 2006):  This is a unique, patient story full of funny, odd, awkward, sad, and common moments set in North Carolina.  A recently married, urbane Chicago couple travels down South to 1) woo a folk artist to sign with their gallery, and, while there 2) visit his family (who she’s never met).  SHE finds much more than she can comprehend (which is not to say the family DOES), but in the process discovers more about her husband, his roots, and herself.  The editing, timing, and calm shots gave June Bug a tone of meditation, revelation, lovely optimism, and empathetic brain-deadness.  The characters are absolutely believable, weird, charming, lovable, not lovable, flawed, and typical like all of us.  I was totally charmed by Amy Adams, who plays the sparkly pregnant girl with an almost relentless sense of wonder and optimism.  EVERYONE else does a great job – Embeth Davidtz, Ben McKenzie, Alessandro Nivola, Frank Hoyt Taylor, the fabulous Celia Weston, and Scott Wilson.  Can Profound be hidden in the Common?  Absolutely.  “June Bug” is a SUPERB film.  WOTO IMDB

“Stranded” (French/Spanish, 2007):  Maybe you remember or have read about the 1972 plane crash in the Andes Mountains, where the survivors had to then stay alive in the snow, at 18,000 feet altitude and 30 degrees below zero, during the threat of avalanches, with close to no food… for 72 days?  It’s true, and this is a documentary of that nightmare told by the survivors, their photographs, and very artful film recreations.  As it did me, “Stranded” will leave you gasping and shaking your head.  Even as you learn what they did, you won’t know HOW they did it.  This group is very open, especially thoughtful, and quite wise is their ponderings over the 35 years since their trials.  You will ask yourself The Big Questions, and be grateful you AREN’T required to answer them.  WOTO

“The Grapes of Wrath” (again, 1940):  Author John Steinbeck approved this film version of his book, despite changes that needed to be made for censors.  Set AND made in the Depression of the late 1930’s, starting in Oklahoma, we follow a destitute and harassed family as they attempt to reach “the land of milk and honey” (California) for jobs.  Their journey is the stuff of… well, humans and their stories.  The photography and lighting is some of the finest of all time.  The story, unabashedly pro-Common Man – self-governing, self-policing, self-motivating – Unionizing – Socializing, if you will – is pure Great Depression.  The hero isn’t a god – God is within each of us – we are simply in a position to choose heroism.  This is a large, sweeping, gritty, shadowy, rough film with tight lips and squinted eyes, bearing the pain and continuing on, stopping to mourn but not to abandon.  It has its speeches, and they are glorious.  The horizons are wide, though the moment is short.  It is full of symbolism and yet remains personal.  Only the most hardened or inexperienced or uneducated would see this film as somehow less than what comes from Hollywood now.  I also suggest you see the dvd version with the running commentary by two experts, one on John Ford, one on John Steinbeck.  THIS is worthwhile.  WOTO  IMDB

“The Bridge on the River Kwai” (again, 1957):  I saw this film first-run in the theater.  My Dad took me.  Perhaps it was his way of trying to show me a little about War – World War II – the war he’d experienced a mere 12 years earlier.  I was only seven years old yet the film had me mesmerized with its sweeping actions and ideas, its battles of will and subversion.  It left enough of an impression I have made a point to check in with it every few years.  It never fails to involve me (and not in a child-like manner).  It is BIG.  This is a BIG film.  Directed by David Lean, you would expect so.  Set deep in the jungles of a far away place during World War II, this is the story of hundreds of British soldiers (and one American) being held prisoner by the Japanese.  It is a story of Will vs Will, yes, but also the slow, subtle, changing beliefs within all main characters… leading us to an amazing conclusion.  This is a masterpiece of cinematic storytelling.  WOTO

“Treasure of Sierra Madre” (viewed twice in 2011, 1948):  Once in a great while, a film comes along I have long believed I’ve seen before and would like to see again.  I begin watching it, don’t recognize this or that scene, and blame it on my failing memory.  Eventually, I realize – once in a great while – a film is so famous – a film about which I’ve heard so much – a film on everyone’s Top lists – a film I’d come to assume I’d seen… I hadn’t.  THIS is one of them.  What a wonderful “discovery”!  Starring Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston, and Tim Holt, directed by John Huston, and winning three Academy Awards, this is the story of great poverty, existential realities, the power and danger of groups, acts of faith and insanity, and greed versus righteousness.  It has everything.  It is beautifully photographed, its story well told, its actors in top form, and, for 1948 Hollywood, it is one of the grittiest, sweatiest, dirtiest, smelliest, most feral feeling films up to that point.  Bravo.  Again.  WOTO

“War Torn 1861-2010” (2010):  This is a profound documentary of first-person accounts of “shell shock” / “post-traumatic stress disorder” from the Civil War to our current involvements.  “War Torn” is not an anti-war or hawkish propaganda piece.  It contains no romance or suspenseful tales.  This is a straight forward look at what war does to the minds, hearts, and souls of those we ask to be warriors in our name.  I’ve never heard clearer, more painful descriptions of the causes and results of delayed mental / emotional problems than in this documentary.  Every one of us should see this 67 minute revelation.

“Synecdoche New York” (again (3rd viewing), 2009):  Warning: This film will require multiple viewings.  You will NOT absorb all it offers in one viewing.  My guess is 3-5 viewings will be required for a solid grip.  It was written and directed by C. Kaufman (who created “Adaptation”, “Being John Malkovich”, and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”).  Starring a huge, talented cast including Philip Seymour Hoffman, Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams, Catherine Keener, Emily Watson, Dianne Wiest, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Hope Davis, Tom Noonan… wow.  Okay, now with the introductions out of the way… I don’t know what to say about the film.  It is very complex, extremely challenging, constantly changing, full of unusual and surreal ideas set in gritty realities (yet somehow also dream-like), has dialog that demands you listen, time-warps, spatial inbreeding, details galore, and is occasionally slightly humorous but generally very sad, paranoid, and desperate.  What IS it to be a particular person – in this case, an artist – and pay the unique price?  How many kinds of loss are there?  When is “dedication” distraction, or destruction?  How do you feel about aging and dying?  What do you want to leave behind?  Is being appreciated important to you?  Okay, there’s a starter set of questions you’ll be asked.  You’ll also be presented with a variety of scenarios related to these and many more questions.  This work makes Kaufman’s other films look like Haikus.  You’ll have to work for this one, I guarantee you.  If you’re feeling lazy or sloppy or silly, wait for another opportunity to see “Synecdoche New York”.  It will probably be considered one of Kaufman’s masterpieces, and you need to be at your best.  WOTO

“The Thin Red Line”(again, 170 minutes, 1998):  I don’t know how many times I have watched this masterpiece by Terrence Malick, but I have no intention of stopping.  It is one of the most thoughtful, poetic, melancholy, and beautiful films (shot by John Toll) in ANY category, but is certainly tops in the war/anti-war genre.  Though loaded with stars, they do not have that “glow” around them… their abilities and the roles are that good.  Included in this talented cast: Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Woody Harrelson, Adrien Brody, Jim Caviezel, John Cusack, and John C. Reilly.  Scoring by Hans Zimmer is amazing and heart-wrenching.  Ambient sound recording is elegant, rich, and frightening.  Every aspect of “The Thin Red Line” creates awe.  The power of this film is overwhelming – leaving you exhausted, exhilarated, and saturated all at the same time.I know it’s difficult to imagine a tense, graphic, violent war film that is also poetic and beautiful, but this is a unique film – a work of Art – which, for its success, demanded a perfect team of brilliant people.

Once in awhile I encounter Art so good it makes me think “If this person never created another thing, his/her entire life would be justified by this one result”.  Of course that’s not true.  This is NOT how artists work, and it would be a tragic circumstance.  But, my reaction IS complimentary to that singular result.

With “The Thin Red Line”, you know you’re in for something special from the opening scene, music, and narrative.  We’re headed somewhere natural, fascinating, subtle, temporarily quiet, ominous, and guaranteed to bring doom to something – someone – everyone – because it is all Of This World.

The ambient sounds are heightened for their lush sense of Life, yet are also tools for possible survival.  Your senses are more important than your logic.  You are Of This World… and so is everything else.  You NEVER turn off your ears.

The narration floats over the events like spirits full of doubt and confusion.  You realize these are the thoughts of the soldiers with whom you are now traveling.  Their physical senses keep them in the moment much of the time, but for split seconds or ten glorious minutes of sleep – whenever possible or when absolutely necessary for their sanity – they have visions of their old lives with a friend or parent or lover or piece of existence that now seems gone forever.

The camera glides along the ground like an animal in stealth, moving through the tall grass or bamboo forest or around rocks as a means of survival while at the same time on the hunt.  At times, the soldier, you, move as though in a trance.  Suddenly, the moment is shattered into a directionless, whirling mess of a nightmare.  Sounds scream then muffle, pieces of things fly past, on, or through you; sights are mere blinks of vision while you try to avoid whatever might bring blindness.  You are as likely to look straight up into the tree tops as down at your feet or off to the horizon.  The dangers are in hidden holes, slitted mounds, treetops, or pouring over the backside of a hill.  The flash from a gun barrel arrives before the bullet, but the bullet arrives before the sound.  You never hear “your” bullet coming.  You are never given the luxury of such time.

The camera is also a meditative glance at other lives trying to exist in their world while particular humans battle through it.  Island natives, colorful parrots, dramatic bats, hungry dogs, a baby bird, an alligator… all there to show how life continues – and ceases – unconcerned with our momentary beliefs and actions.

The scoring is oddly present much of the time, yet never the star of the scene.  It simply delivers a constant sense of dread or sadness, no matter what seems to be apparent.

There are so many amazing moments of acting, I cannot go into them.  It’s difficult to call some actors “supporting” when what they did is so memorable.  This includes many of men in roles of the Japanese enemy.  I will say that Jim Caviezel, and especially Nick Nolte, both in lead roles, are astounding.  Sean Penn has a solid role, but it did not challenge him… he simply knew how to do what was asked of him.  Adrian Brody, John Cusack, and Woody Harrelson show what they can do, but are seldom the center of things.  George Clooney, listed high on the roster, actually has a very small, insignificant role.

“The Thin Red Line” is not so much a pro or con statement about war as it is a poem about Life we often put off balance – and then demand others correct.  WOTO

“The Civil War” (again, 1989, 9 parts, c. 630 min, Ken Burns):  This is one of the FINEST documentaries of all time.  Though no film can be everything to everyone, this one does its best, and its best is very good.  It covers the pre-war, war, and post-war periods with great detail, insight, interesting personal notes, AND never becomes heartless.  It was a horrible, HORRIBLE war that shocked even the sensibilities of a 19thcentury people unfortunately accustomed to tragedy and death.  You will learn and feel much, and feel grateful for it.  Could you possibly ask for more?  WOTO

”Shooting War – World War II Combat Cameramen”(again, 2000):  This is a documentary about the photographers of WWII.  It is SO insightful, interesting, sad, brutal, and intense, I couldn’t stop thinking and talking about it for days.  Over the last twelve years, I’ve collected more than 550 hours of WWII film footage and over 44,000 pages of books on the same subject.  This documentary remains one of the most insightful studies, and, one of the most brutal.  You will see the very last thing some cameramen saw through their viewfinders before they too were killed; you will watch people commit suicide who believed Americans would torture them; you will see living pieces of dying bodies; you will see people drop to the ground under the final slam of a bullet… you will see much of what real war is, unsanitized (unlike many other footage collections).  These cameramen, most of whom did NOT carry a weapon, became the eyes of an astonished and often unbelieving world of people who could not imagine the horrors brought upon innocent non-combatants – civilians, women, children, the aged.  These men, who carried cameras, many of whom gave their lives, are the ones who have NOT allowed history to be easily manipulated, exaggerated, underplayed, or denied.  WOTO

“The Crucible” (again, 1996):  This has been, is, and will continue to be one of the most powerful scripts and films of my life.  Prepare for a slow, steadily increasing pitch of concocted insanity that builds in 17th century Salem Massachusetts, as a group of silly, flighty girls set the stage for their conniving parents to begin a “witch hunt”.  The mass hysteria, greed, ulterior motives, threats, and power plays intensify until you – right along with the residents of Salem – cannot fathom or manage another moment of this delusion.  Arthur Miller wrote this American Icon during the McCarthy “Commie hunts” of the early 50′s.  There are GREAT sets and costuming.  There is superb acting by Daniel Day-Lewis, Winona Ryder, Paul Scofield, Joan Allen, etc.  I am awestruck by the power, intelligence, and soul of this TRUE MASTERPIECE.  I do not use these words lightly.  This film WILL change your life.  WOTO  P.S. – While you’re at it, see his “Death of a Salesman” and “Focus”.

“The Bicycle Thief” (again, Italian, 1948):  Set in contemporary Italy soon after WWII, this is the painful and very direct story of a family man out of work and his attempts to keep his wife and children fed and clothed.  Directed by Vittorio De Sica (who also did another of my favorites, “Umberto D.”), this Italian Realist film uses simple camera movements, natural lighting, black and white imagery, and non-actors to tell a story of Existential pressures.  It has social conscience, asks for change, and is honest in its descriptions of Life then and there.  There are no super-heroes, huge action scenes, tantalizing sex romps, or gauzy romances.  This sort of film paved the way for later directors I also admire, such as Werner Herzog.  If you’re looking for escapist fare, go somewhere else.  If you’re looking for a great film, go here.  Try to find a RESTORED dvd version, as the older copies can be rough with difficult to read subtitles.  WOTO

“Andersonville” (again, 1996):  – This is an historical re-creation of our own, true American tragedy – a P.O.W. camp during the Civil War – and what THAT experience demanded of those interned.  “Andersonville” is certainly an anti-war film and a true story, but it takes the time (168 minutes) to look within individuals for the complexity of dealing with horror… offering slivers of consolation when it can be found.  Although there are a few tiny problems with continuity, and compromises with its night lighting, the sets, costuming, makeup, and acting are ASTOUNDING and heart-rending.  This huge effort adds up to a major statement about the depths we humans can sink and heights we can reach when pushed far beyond that which our upbringings prepared us.  Its elegant ending brought me to one of the tearful moments I experienced in with fine work.  WOTO

“The Endurance” (again, 2000):  Documentary.  “In 1914, Sir Ernest Shackleton set sail on the Expedition with 27 men aboard, aiming to cross Antarctica. But when the vessel became stranded in frigid, deep waters (and crushing ice), the crew began a battle of the human spirit, testing the limits of endurance as they strove to overcome the debilitating setback.”  Miraculously, they succeeded in capturing the experience in journals and on film.  What is MOST profound about this story is what you learn from the mouths and diaries of survivors & their families, which leaves you gasping for air and feeling you can NEVER EVER AGAIN WHINE ABOUT A SINGLE THING in your cushy, little, safe, easy, pampered life.  This is one of the most difficult, torturous trials of life of all time.  These men were the toughest, bravest, most steadfast, determined humans to walk the Earth.  It BOGGLES my mind to think of what they faced and what they did in their attempts to survive.  Wow.  See this!  Get some perspective.  Find yourself without words.  WOTO IMDB

2.

“ FILMS EASILY WORTH TWO HOURS OF YOUR LIFE “

 

 

“Rebecca” (1940): I was SHOCKED! I dislike most of Alfred Hitchcock’s films. Yeh, yeh. I know. Sacrilege. But, his popularity has always baffled me. I was SO baffled, I went out and bought a near-complete set of ALL HIS FILMS! Conclusion: the earlier, the better. However… “Rebecca” is a stand out – a wonderful psychological suspense drama – MUCH better than most of his, and able to hold its own against any other directorial effort. Its visualization is superb. Joan Fontaine is astoundingly great and carries the film. She is luminous, fragile, fearful, defensive, insecure, and adorable. Laurence Olivier, George Sanders, Judith Anderson, and others are very good. At 132 minutes, it requires some patience, but the time is used to set you up then keep your head spinning as it is sent off in different directions. A total pleasure. WOTO

“The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (again, German, 1919): For the sake of perspective, let’s just call this a “one hundred year old film”. Despite how contemporary audiences approach and “view” popular movies, no one in our era can enter a film this old – let alone one this experimental and artistically linked to movements and philosophies of THAT era – without an education in the time and place from which it grew. Otherwise, “Cabinet…“ will only cause the uneducated to snicker as though they have greater insights or a lack of patience with the obvious. This is not the place for an education. You WILL see amazingly crude, geometric, tilted, distorted sets with odd lighting and painting, harsh actor movements, and a jagged storyline which only gets more disoriented the further along you go. It will leave you confused and – if you care – upset. It will feel unresolved. This is where you come in. Either be willing to learn about a film considered one of the most important of ALL time, or skip it altogether. One or the other. Trust me. There is no casual in-between with this one. WOTO

 “Chloe” (2009): Nearly everything director Atom Egoyan has done, I love. This is no exception. With his identifiable ambivalence and fascination with the mysteries of the human heart, he approaches the subject in a similar manner to “Exotica”. The superb and powerful Julianne Moore, solid Liam Neesom, and talented and beautiful Amanda Seyfried star in this story of a flirtatious professor, an insecure gynecologist, and needy but very insightful hooker who begin crossing paths. Although there are twists and turns to the plot, Egoyan is more of an explorer than a garden designer. Expect to be consumed in places you may or may not have considered part of your own backyard.

 “Things to Come” (again, 1936): I have never seen this film in a fresh restoration, but would like to own one. (I own two poor VHS versions, one put out by “United American Video Corp”. I have researched and ordered a supposedly improved version on dvd by Image Entertainment. More on that later.) You WILL need patience and forgiveness with the quality of its film transfers… probably in their 88th generation by now.

And, there are caveats with my enthusiasm for this futurist style sci-fi film: If you don’t care about no-holds-barred set design, costuming, and special effects, it will be of less interest to you. (Much of its look was taken from such designers as Norman Bel Geddes (and his book “Horizons” of 1932), the general atmosphere of “streamlining”, and recent and upcoming World‘s Fairs.) If a “prediction” film (taken from H. G. Wells book and screenplay) - which is fascist-sci-fi - sounds interesting, you’ll love this one.

It covers the one hundred year history of “Everytown” (in Britain) from 1936 to 2036. To write this book in 1936 required little courage, only talent. To make this film in 1936 took courage and talent. From the silver screen, it looked down on the public and said “YOU are in DENIAL!” After all, World War II was brewing in Europe… but still short of incidents making it an undeniable certainty. “Things to Come” is a dark look at the threat of war, war itself, its long term effects, and the odd but understandable fantasy solutions concocted in the 1930’s. (In that sense, it reminds me of a scientific version of “Gabriel Over the White House” (1933) – another truly unique response to a collapsing world.)

“Things to Come” is both silly and smart, ugly and beautiful, preachy and realistic, but isn’t an excuse for a sugary love affair.  H. G. Wells may have not had the distant future pinned down, but he nailed the near future to the wall. WOTO

 “Everyday People” (2004): Written and directed by Jim McKay. This is an ensemble work set during one very stressful day in an old, established NYC neighborhood restaurant/bar scheduled to be sold and razed. Although on the surface this film appears to be another (gimme a break) look at racisms, its real subject is stereotyping and the lack of respect shown in making assumptions. This one takes a refreshing stance by not letting them (or US) get away with initial reactions to who we think we know. For that, I admire it. It is also well scored, photographed, dialoged, and acted. Let’s call it one of the “hidden jewels” of 2004. WOTO

“Into Thin Air” (1998): This is a solid recreation of a real attempt to reach the summit of Mt. Everest. The guides have varying motives for doing this climb: money, recognition, the Challenge, etc., and have differing views on what and how it should be done. Two features of humans are showcased: arrogance and heroism. This climb goes very wrong, generally for reasons they suspected from the start. Still up they went. You WILL hold your breath in this Thin Air. WOTO

“Smash-up” (1947): Starring the lovely Susan Hayward, plus Lee Bowman, Marsha Hunt, and Eddie Albert. This is the story of an insecure woman who tries to find courage and stability through alcohol. The “solution” is a disaster, of course. “Smash-up” is a harrowing depiction of little, poor decisions growing and adding up to an entirely huge, terrible existence. Although I could do with a little less music, this film is a serious and painful look at the disease, the inflicted, and the by standing victims. Susan Hayward is fantastic. WOTO

“A Christmas Story” (once a year, every year, since 1983):  We watch this one every year near Christmas.  We know it by heart, and continue to love it.  (Let’s see – I think this means I’ve seen it about 28 times!)  For me, it’s unavoidable since it tells the story of MY EXACT childhood!  No, REALLY!  From the coat “Slick” wears, to the coal furnace, the school design, the heavy winters, the coon skin cap, the toys, to the tongue on the flag pole… except I never got the chance to shoot my eye out with a BB gun – the absence of which I’ve always regretted …. UNTIL THIS YEAR!  I NOW OWN A RED RYDER BB RIFLE!!!!  The story is set exactly 10 years earlier than when my experiences begin, but in Indiana THAT means little.  (It was written by Jean Sheppard, who grew up in northern Indiana.)  The period sets, costumes, cars, etc. are near flawless (even if there IS some of that “Clean Car Syndrome”).  Believe me, I’ve studied it… but, there is ONE LINE of dialog precisely BACKWARDS, a real mistake.  One day you might catch it.  Might not.  Good luck!  There are plenty of continuity slip-ups that’ve taken me all these decades to notice.  The cop car that pulls up to the flag pole is a late 1940’s (’47 or ’48) model.  Oops!  While you’re at it, try to determine in EXACTLY what year “A Christmas Story” is set!  It CAN be discovered.  FYI: the original family home has been restored and made to look EXACTLY like it did in the film!  You can take tours.  Also, the “leg lamp” is being reproduced.  You can now have your very own (though miniature)!  This is a film of simple humor, tenderness, nostalgia, and joy through the eyes of both children AND adults.  WOTO IMDB

“Mad Love” (1935):  Caveat: This film is worth it for the lighting, cinematography, and sets, whereas the story is a basic, predictable horror/sci-fi effort.  Pick your priorities.  Starring Peter Lorre (extra creepy), Frances Drake (lovely), and Colin Clive (later to become Dr. Frankenstein); directed by Karl Freund (“Metropolis”), with sets by Cedric Gibbons.  We have some heavy hitters behind the making and look of this late “Expressionist” style drama, with all sorts of tilted angles, illogical lighting, and diagonal set painting to enhance the unstable feeling of this story.  Visually, this is a beauty.  A BEAUTY.  This, and its vestiges of Expressionism, are why I suggest it. 

“National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” (once a year, every year, since 1991):  This is one of three Xmas movies my wife and I really DO watch EVERY year within two weeks of the holiday.  It’s nothin’ but stoopid, slapstick, dry, hilarious fun… or… we be rill dum, but we no care!  Chevy Chase created a niche with the character Clark Griswold, a highly mediocre, frustrated but well-intentioned suburban Everyman married to his lovely & loving wife (Beverly D’Angelo – with the only sexy overbite in movie history).  This film is FULL of people who would soon become stars:  Randy Quaid, Juliette Lewis, Brian Doyle Murray, Doris Roberts, etc.  Expect nothing but laughs.  Roll with it.  It’s a no-brainer night… and worth every danged no-brain cell.  While you’re at it, watch for references to “It’s a Wonderful Life” and a few continuity slip-ups.  Consider it sport.  It’s time to relax and just have fun.  WOTO

“Drop Dead Gorgeous” (again, 1999):  This is one of the funniest films I’ve seen, and I’ve seen it many times!  It’s a pseudo-documentary about the 50th anniversary of an insipid Teen Beauty Pageant held in small town Minnesota America.  Kirstie Alley plays the neurotic pageant organizer and former Teen Queen; Kirsten Dunst is the good-hearted, glass-is-half-full teen who innocently benefits from disasters around her.  There is a wonderful group of talented women playing various levels of crazy involved in such an event, including Amy Adams, Denise Richards, and Brittany Murphy.  Although not quite up to “Waiting For Guffman”, “A Mighty Wind” or “This Is Spinal Tap”, it’s close – VERY close – and that’s saying a lot.  …Maybe it IS as good…  WOTO

“Kids” (again, 1995):  Written by the same person that created “Gummo” (Harmony Korine), this first effort – “KIDS” – announced a new talent on the block.  With the same documentary style, and all the doubts as to whether ANYONE is ACTING at all, you are “privileged” to hang with a bunch of feral city kids as they stumble their way through their daze.  One reviewer said it made him want to go get a vasectomy.  I agree.  Directed by Larry Clark, “starring” Leo Fitzpatrick, Justin Pierce, Chloe Sevigny, and many others, this one just makes you sick with the honest ugliness of these lost souls.  It’s a good film.  It’s also unpleasant as hell.  I’ve seen it numerous times.  WOTO

“Steamboat Bill Jr.” (1928):  Buster Keaton at his best, who I far prefer over Charlie Chaplin.  Keaton is a young college lad coming “home” to meet his steamboat captain father.  Needless to say, he is straight from the “ivory tower” and knows little of this river world.  As the film moves along – at first like a calm river, then picking up speed until it becomes a raging torrent of AMAZING comedic stunts – you more and more admire Keaton’s comedic and athletic abilities (doing his own stuntwork).  I’ll put a big thank you into whoever had a LEGITIMATE and VERY GOOD original silent film music organist design the accompanying music.  It gives you a superb sense of what audiences in 1928 would have heard, and why no one was in THAT much of a rush to leave them for “talkies”.  This 2003 sepia-tone dvd was issued by Quality Special Products, DSSP Inc., of Quebec Canada.  WOTO

“Kings Row” (1942):  Although somewhat soapy in its presentation, this Depression/WWII era film about 1890-1910 in a small American town has captured a certain truth about what lies below the surface of all we hold close, and examines the ways in which people deal with it.  “Kings Row” – an ironic name for this town – brags about its decency from the town’s Welcome sign on in.  Slowly… ever so slowly… the shine goes dull and dark… But, this is NOT a contemporary style Dark film.  No Werner Herzog, David Lynch, or Atom Egoyan visions.  Just Reality and Hopes set at the turn of the last century in the middle of that century… a century filled with the horrors of world wars.  Considering when this film was made, the timing was very good to remind ourselves that YES, things are NOT perfect !!! but damnit, it was NOT time to give up, there ARE ideals worth keeping, and we might just WIN!!!  WOTO

“Calendar” (1993):  This is by one of my favorite directors, Atom Egoyan, whose one interest is exploring the complexities of the human mind and spirit.  I’m not going to mention much about the plot, because part of its profundity arrives through your own work as you watch, think, and debate.  Egoyan, like any good artist, expects you to do YOUR part in this attempt to communicate.  Here, his very patient, seemingly repetitive scenes (which at first tested MY patience and, had it not been for my previous experiences with his work, nearly caused me to abandon it), builds toward a very sharp point – if you’re willing to be intellectually engaged.  He provides the clues, you provide the conclusion.  Wait until you are in a very alert, observant mood ready to dissect what you see and hear.  It’s worth the effort.

“Rebel Without a Cause” (again, 1955):  For a film that’s over a HALF CENTURY OLD, it continues to stand on its own very well.  Yes, there are “quaint, dated” moments (in comparison to the, what?, “REAL” world now?), but, shelving our contemporary cynicism, James Dean, Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo, Jim Backus, and Ann Doran do a wonderful job with a strong script.  The photography is often artful (but I think the film would’ve been visually stronger in black & white), and the scoring is sometimes heavy handed like every other film of that period, but the issues raised – although shown with less complexity – are not outdated in concept.  Children STILL need guidance, STILL need parents, STILL need role models, and REMAIN confused and frightened about how to deal with the world.  There is nothing passe about that.  WOTO

“East of Eden” (1954):  Directed by Elia Kazan, this story is taken from the last third of John Steinbeck’s novel, and it stars James Dean, Julie Harris, and Raymond Massey.  Dean and Harris are the ones to watch.  Magic.  They’re too young to be this good!  The story itself leans a little heavy on the soap, but is more than made up for with the acting, locations, and sets.  The lighting gets a tad surreal at moments, and one scene is shocking weird in its “illumination”.  None the less, it’s easy to see why this film started Dean’s major (and short-lived) career.  WOTO

“Boomerang” (1947):  This is no “On the Waterfront” but it’s a solid social pressure / courtroom drama by Elia Kazan.  The timing of its making is interesting.  This true story was recreated right after WWII.  You’d think everyone was VERY defensive for the Rights we hold close.  “Rights” are an evasive concept when put up against greed and SELF-righteousness. There are lots of sleazy characters to hate.  This one will keep you watching from start to finish.

“Grand Hotel” (1932): Set in Berlin, this is a contemporary film made just before Hitler took total power.  Germany was itself in a Great Depression.  The film is placed inside the luxurious, very expensive “Grand Hotel”, while stories of residents are woven together in various ways.  This is certainly the earliest film I’VE seen where ensemble plot-weaving is done – and done well.  The sets and décor are fabulous Art Deco by Cedric Gibbons, the stars BIG, the photography strong, and the plot lines interesting (especially as it moves along).  This is NOT a “glamour” film.  In fact, the various characters and their flaws are in contrast to the “timeless” beauty of The Hotel.   Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery, Lewis Stone, Jean Hersholt star.

“Panic in the Streets” (again, 1950):  This is a superb Noir thriller about a murder which becomes very complicated once a contagious plague is discovered in New Orleans.  Tracking down the killers and all who had contact with them and/or the dead man starts the clock ticking.  They have little time, a large population, bureaucracies to hurdle, and criminals trying to hide the crime and themselves.  Richard Widmark, Jack Palance, Zero Mostel, Barbara Bel Geddes, Paul Douglas.  Directed by Elia Kazan.  Intense, believable, and gritty.  Beautiful camera and lighting work.  WOTO

“Broken English” (2007):  Starring Parker Posey, and written/directed by Zoe Cassavetes (John’s daughter), this is a contemporary tale of 30-something urban life and one woman’s awkward, neurotic attempts to find love… or something like it.  The scoring is moody, the photography unobtrusive, the dialog revealing, and Posey’s acting great as always.  Also acting: Gena Rowlands, Griffin Dunne, Drea de Matteo, and Peter Bogdanovich.  Not that it matters much, but there is one continuity mistake no one should have missed while editing this film.  I think the choice of title was weak, and the use of Marianne Faithful’s song “Broken English” entirely inappropriate for the content of the film.  None the less, the body of the film is a solid, insightful, emotional examination of insecurity, confused desires, and desperate acts.

“In Bad Taste” (    ):  Disclaimer: if you HATE films by John Waters (even “Hairspray”, which is the ONLY film of his I love) and you want to avoid documentaries, opinions and learning, skip this one.  If, on the other hand, you have a sneaking suspicion that he deserves another look, rent “In Bad Taste”.  Waters is far from stupid, and deeply consumed by his unique vision.  How can that NOT be interesting?  This is a much better look at his work than was “Divine Trash”.

“Chicago 10” (1968/2006): This is a documentary about the 1968 Democratic Convention and the Peace/Anti-war protests planned for demonstration in Chicago.  The result was a heavily reactive, militaristic, violent series of clashes between civilians, soldiers, and police.  Each day became more intense and confrontational, while the protest leaders were scooped up and prosecuted for … well, whatever the mayor, judge, and system could concoct on the spot.  No one was perfectly right, and stupidity was shared by many, but those in power made the largest mistakes and fueled an already unstoppable public fire.  Using original film and audio footage, and the courtroom transcripts (with contemporary animation for the visuals, since filming the trials was not permitted), this is a look at the insanity of America in 1968.  Anyone who is nostalgic for or romanticizes those daze was not there.

“Chapter 27” (2007):  Jared Leto plays the crazy man who killed John Lennon.  This film covers the last three days of the murderer lingering around the “Dakota” hotel.  Leto is spine-tingling.  Frightening.  Absolutely nailed nuts.  Speaking of which, Lindsey Lohan does a fine job as the friendly-but-hesitant girl he meets.  This is a narrow, focused story that does not wander from its one goal.  Depict insanity.

“Spellbound” (again 2003):  Documentary.  Follow eight school kids from the local to top levels of competition in THE National Spelling Bee.  This is NO game, folks.  These kids are intense.  Yeh…and so are their parents, even if they try to hide it from the cameras.  You won’t like all the parents, oh no, and you will empathize with all the kids.  The film is nicely set up, with a little background of each kid, their homes, family, school, town… and once “we” are over those hurdles, it’s on to Washington, D.C..  High stress.  You’ll pop a vein in your head, right along with them.  It’s a wonderful documentary.  Totally engaging.  WOTO

“Brokeback Mountain” (again, 2006):  There was never any doubt I would like the photography, sound, scoring, and, most probably, the acting and casting.  As it turned out, I LOVED them.  After all, this is the same man who made “The Ice Storm” – a great film.  Then again, I was nervous that this could somehow be another “Crouching Tiger/Hidden Dragon”… and boy did I dislike that one.  “Brokeback” is as good as “Ice” in all the ways I expected.  What had me concerned was the story.  I kept asking myself if this was ENOUGH of a story… after all, the minority-on-the-outside/in-the-closet is a well-trodden subject.  Was it getting all its attention merely due to the “cowboy” context, and would this film be of ANY interest if set in Miami, San Francisco, or New York City, and the male characters were urbanites?  What Ang Lee did was walk a very fine line, and present the specifics more as environment than subject.  “Brokeback Mountain” was more about love, obsession, truth, responsibilities, honor, honesty, and a huge amount of sadness… the Big Stuff.  Although a few, tiny errors exist in the film I’ve already forgotten what they were.  This is very high level film making.  I will see it again and again.  IMDB WOTO

“Edward Scissorhands” (again, 1990):  Simply one of my favorite FABLES of all time.  It has humor, drama, delicate emotions, great and fun design, and morals.  This is Tim Burton at his best.  In this film there is not one thing I would want to change.  That’s that.  WOTO

“12 Monkeys” (again, 1995):  Terry Gilliam is one of my favorite creative film makers.  He always has a unique vision, evident in this story of the future, past, and present.  Although I prefer “Brazil” over “12 Monkeys” for a vision of the future, think of “12…” as “The Terminator” and “They Might Be Giants” meets “Brazil”.  Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, and Brad Pitt (in a great, crazy-man role!) star in a time-travel tale in which the destiny of the human race might be at stake… unless our hero (?) (Willis) is just plain nuts.  The deeper we go, the less certain EVERYONE – including you – becomes.  WOTO

“The Castle” (German, 1997): Written by Franz Kafka, directed by Michael Haneke.  I like Kafka’s work (“Metamorphosis”, etc.), and I’m beginning to admire the courage of Haneke’s film making choices (though I have ambivalent feelings about his “Funny Games”).  Kafka did not finish “The Castle”, yet Haneke made the film with its missing sections, no ending, and a heavy narrative.  The story is quickly established as one man’s journey into a bleak, cold, paranoid, absurd world of inefficient bureaucracy and pettiness.  The trudging pace, rhythm, colors, sounds, sets, costuming, make up, acting… every component… is tightly controlled to create the singular effect of numb discomfort (yet, in its absurdity, often funny).  And fear not: the “non-ending” is in no way frustrating, for the story has already made it abundantly clear conditions in this small, ramshackle village near an unseen castle will maintain status quo.  This is the kind of auteur film I admire for its clarity of purpose and higher Art goals.  

“O Brother Where Art Thou?” (again, 2000):  The Coen brothers interpret Homer’s “Odyssey” in this typically quirky, interesting, funny, dark, and did I say quirky ? film.  Starring George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson, John Goodman, Holly Hunter, Charles Durning.  Three men escape a chain gang in the 1930’s Depression Era South.  Thus begins their journey of adventure, riches won and lost, Sirens, Prophets, danger, temptation, and Destiny.  High quality entertainment is what this is.  It even makes you think you might read Homer’s original Greek epic… but I doubt it’s as entertaining.  Oh, and there’s great music too.  WOTO

“I Wake Up Screaming” (1941):  If you like Film Noir, this is a witty, serious crime drama.  At times, it was difficult to decide what they were trying to DO with the film.  Its score, from the late 30’s, was made of bits and pieces of popular music used repeatedly like cut pieces of fabric in a quilt.  The script would slip into witty (and even funny) moments although nothing of the moment asked for it.  Betty Grable, Victor Mature, and Carol Landis starred along lots of character actors some of you will recognize. “I Wake up Screaming” keeps you guessing, did eventually offer up a solution, but kept its oddball character.  The GREAT thing about this film was the photography – highly intelligent compositions with some of the best Noir lighting and angles of all time.  I was in a near-constant state of admiration for the “look” of this film.  WOTO IMDB

“A Mighty Wind” (again, 2003):  IF you loved “This is Spinal Tap”, “Waiting for Guffman”, and/or “Best in Show” (I especially love “Guffman”), you’ll also love this one about “the” reunion of the “best” of the (worst of the self-deluded, cliché) folk groups of the early 1960′s.  (They are based on the “New Christy Minstrels”, the “Kingston Trio”, and “Ian & Sylvia”.)  As usual, Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy assembled THE finest group of THE driest comedians of ALL time, and allowed them to improvise their characters.  Each actor had to LEARN to play an instrument for their role, and were given “perimeters” for their character… and were then set loose to create most of the dialog right on the spot.  They also wrote the “folk” music you’ll see and hear.  Of course it’s perfectly terrible, which means it’s ACCURATE to the period.  Self-delusion is always Guest’s theme.  All of his characters and groups, no matter what the setting in his films, truly believe they are talented, know what they’re doing and saying yet see no irony or contradictions, and press on in the faith that others see them as they see themselves.  It’s a lovely, sad, hilarious, pathetic, mind-boggling, brilliant experience, as usual.  We see this film at least once a year.  WOTO  IMDB

“Little Shop of Horrors” (again, 1986): This is almost a musical.  I can’t call it an official musical or I’d have to take back my declaration that I DETEST ALL MUSICALS, but, it is a wonderful, funny, “Musically Inclined” comedy horror film.  Do NOT confuse this with the AWFUL earlier version (1960, Roger Corman).  They have nothing in common, thankgod.  The later version is funny, witty, plays nicely off the idea it last came from the stage, has silly, original music, much better casting for the roles, great sets, and just enough “edge” to avoid that unfortunate “shtick” so common in the 50’s.  Rick Moranis, a superb Ellen Greene, an insane Steve Martin, Vincent Gardenia, James Belushi, Christopher Guest, a whacked-out John Candy, and a really creepy Bill Murray star.  Watch the supporting cast.  You’ll see people who would later come forward.  WOTO

“Crossfire” (again, 1947):  Solid film noire, with Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan, Robert Young, and other hard-as-nails types, including the tough broads with which they killed nights (including Gloria Grahame).  This is a murder mystery, wonderfully lit and photographed, shot almost entirely at night and full of attitude but never overplayed.  The story focuses on men who have lost their way.  The walking wounded.  They are back from the War with nothing to do and no way to burn off their anger, fear, guilt, and confusion over what they experienced.  “Crossfire” is also an early entry into the issues of post-war racism, and only goes preachy for about a minute.  Dialog is minimal and masculine.  This is a gorgeous, tight, understated, dark film.  WOTO

“Shakespeare in Love” (again, 1998):  Since my last viewing of this film, I’d forgotten how much I enjoy it.  The sets and costuming are wonderful – rich in detail and entirely de-glamorized.  (How can an era which produced such great music spawn such awful clothing?  Anyone who is someone looks like they were sprayed-down in horse hoof glue and rolled through a crafts store until head-to-feet were entirely encrusted in gaudy doo-dads and thing-a-mabobs!)  The dialog is snappy, witty, and loaded with “insider” jokes.  It demands you keep on your toes.  Although generally a comedy, there are moments of passion and sadness nearly equal to “Romeo and Juliet” itself.  The multiple parallels drawn throughout the story are fun to catch and assemble.  WOTO

“The Children of Theatre Street” (American / Russian, 1977):  This is a documentary about Soviet Russia, “their” children, and the famous Kirov School of Ballet.  Though the film starts slow with a oddly paced intro and narrative by Princess Grace (Grace Kelly), and the production quality is dismally low with poor video tape, we are allowed to watch over shoulders as the very select, calculating school board chooses 20 kids from thousands of applicants.  We then continue watching as they face eight years of grueling work-study asking more of their bodies, minds, and souls than they could have possibly imagined.  All the while, they seem to understand very few peers reach the glorious heights of fame as an international representative of Ballet AND Mother Russia, but are fairly assured their government WILL tell them where they MUST perform as in-country dancers for the hinterland populace of this immense, very controlled homeland.  “The Children of Theatre Street” is both inspiring and chilling as you slowly put two and two together: this is NOT the U.S.A., motives and behavior are NOT driven merely by personal desire, expectations are understood within a VERY different context, and the end results are NOT a simple matter of individual choice.  And, Ballet IS a gorgeous craft and interesting Art form. 

“Whale Rider” (again, 2003):  When a movie has NO stars you can assume it has great faith in the content and production of its ideas.  This is a beautiful film, based in a culture about which most of us know nothing.  The symbolism within the “old” culture struggles against the energy of the “new” culture here.  At the center is a young girl, unwanted by some merely because she is female.  However, you can feel the Destiny at work, and the surprises are small, as events unfold.  Photography and sound are beautiful, and the dialog painfully direct (which is in strong contrast to the mysticism of these people).  Most of the characters are stoic throughout the story – but when the time comes, the actor’s talents become more evident, as emotions are shown.  A wonder-full film.  WOTO     

“The Children are Watching Us” (1944):  by Vittorio De Sica, who is one of my favorite Italian directors (“The Bicycle Thief”, “Umberto D.”).  De Sica’s insights are especially good when it comes to the visions of adults and children within their relationships.  Everyone gets equal attention, nothing is sentimentalized, and seemingly small mistakes are explored until their profound meaning is revealed.  This is a heart-rending film about a young boy, his father, and his mother who has “issues”.  Made DURING WWII but not released until after the war, it is both a harsh look at the behavior of adults and the stage they set for their children’s future, and, the oppressive, watching-over-your-shoulder environment of Mussolini’s ruling era.  The photography is beautiful and feels fresh.  It is “New Realism” at its best while stopping short of becoming documentary-style, intellectual abstraction.  “The Children are Watching Us” is a STORY and has a MORAL…. and you may cry.

“The Life of David Gale” (again, 2002):  An activist in the anti-death penalty movement (Kevin Spacey), is accused and found guilty of murder.  He’s headed towards the executioner, has four days to convince a woman reporter (Kate Winslett) he’s innocent, and she, eventually believing him, begins to investigate.  Also starring Laura Linney, this is a VERY complex, VERY interesting, twisty-turny whodunit, that will stay ahead of you, and leave you nearly breathless in realizations.  It’s great dramatic fun as you’re slapped over and over with new bits of information.  WOTO

“Trans Siberian” (2007):  Starring Woody Harrelson, Emily Mortimer, and Ben Kingsley, nearly all of this film is set on a train crossing where else ? but contemporary Siberia – huge, bleak, cold Siberia.  This is a high level suspense drama with plenty of doubts about the identity of people, their motivations, what they know, and why they know it.  The story builds in tension and holds you tight – racing along the frozen tracks in this middle-of-nowhere drama.  WOTO

“Snow White: A Tale of Terror” (2002):  Yesterday, I found a film for which I’d been casually searching (used): “Snow White: A Tale of Terror”.  It stars Sigourney Weaver and Sam Neil and young actors whose names I cannot remember.  You’d be hard-pressed to recognize it as the “same” story laid out by Disney.  This one is based on the Grimm’s story… and those brothers didn’t play around.  Their story is much more interesting and very, very dark.  The making of this film is rich in detail, wonderfully creative, and full of scenes so memorable I, for one, could not let it go un-owned.   The makeup, costume, and set designers (artists) had a blast while laboring on this project.  The photography, scoring, and sound are perfect for the story. 

Sure, I had my very first animated crush on Disney’s Snow White girlie-girl.  Really.  I longed… to touch… her flat, non-existent surfaces… her pale Pantone white smooth surfaces… but eventually I grew up… and my crush on a Flat Snow was replaced by my falling for Real Snow in this movie.

She’s feisty, moody, troublesome, hard headed, has breasteses, and isn’t a sucker for the first pretty-boy who gallops up in silk pantaloons.  The Witch of a Step Mother has a history which explains her slow downfall into Evil.  And Dwarfs?  You don’t know no stinkin’ Dwarfs!  Take your Sleepy and Sneezey and round-file ‘em!  WOTO

“Sense and Sensibility” (again, 1995):  It takes a special mood for me to watch what [for the sake of brevity I’ll call] “chick flicks”.  It takes an incredibly special mood for me to watch “period films” of the constipated British upper class.  However, the mood does come along, and when it does this film is a high quality example.  Centered on the acting of Kate Winslet and Emma Thompson, this Jane Austen story looks at the cultural restrictions put upon women of that time and place.  Everyone followed an incredibly tight set of rules even when it threatened destitution or death.  It is a story worthy of pondering by any member of any culture.  Expect superb photography and solid supporting role actors as well.  WOTO

“Jeremiah Johnson” (again, 1972):  I’m not big fan of Robert Redford – rather, the roles he’s taken over the years – but this is a definite exception.  He’s in his element as a man who returned from the Civil War, found he could no longer tolerate “society”, and, though absolutely unprepared for the future path he has chosen, heads into the Rocky Mountains to live without further “civilized” human contact.  Presented as a “legend”, we are told, shown, and sung his story.  It is as funny as it is horrifying, sad as it is happy, violent as it is peaceful.  This is a realistic (there are very few 1972 compromises except for the treatment of Reford’s hair and beard, and the implied subtext of that era – men returning from the Viet Nam war), gritty, insightful depiction of those who don’t live “off” the land, but WITH the land – which IS, after all, The Boss.  I have appreciated this film for 40 years, and do not expect my viewpoint to change except for further appreciation.  WOTO

“Rock n Roll Invaders – The AM Radio DJs” (1998):  This documentary takes a long, anecdotally-based look at AM radio, rhythm and blues, “sepia” stations, rock and roll, racism, pop music theater shows, and the DJs who helped use the air and their influence to break barriers… while some fell into the “Payola” scandals of the mid-1950’s.  Production quality is varied and often low, but for those interested, this is a must-see insider experience.  

“The Battle of the Sexes” (the KINO restored version, again, 1923):  By D.W. Griffith?  Really?  The man who brought you those huge, sweeping dramas?  A comedy?  That’s right!  On the other hand, this is also a drama.  Caveat: You must forgive some of the nearly 100 year old acting style.  It comes from the stage, and many actors had not made the shift to the camera with its close-ups and other concepts entirely foreign to Broadway.  As a film, this is probably the most beautifully photographed silent film I’ve ever seen (by Karl Struss and Billy Bitzer), and quite funny… for awhile… and then it gets serious.  I must say, much of the physical comedy and drama is of the highest quality for its time, and some of the actors – especially the girl who plays the “daughter” – really uses her face with the insight she’s playing to a lens not a group of people off in the distance.  This is a morality tale.  It was made BEFORE the Great Stock Market Crash, BEFORE the first skyscraper – the Chrysler Building, when Jazz was early and wild, liquor was a no-no, sexual behavior and gender roles were being questioned… this was an exuberant and trying time.  Think of it as the 1960’s.  “The Battle of the Sexes” was expertly made, most of the actors were top notch for their time, the new music written for it (by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra) was good (see the KINO restored version of this film), and, like I said, the photography is fantastic.

“Gabriel over the White House” (1933):  I suppose it would help to be interested in both politics and history to make the most of this strange, dark, crazy pessimistic-cum-crazy optimistic drama created during the Great Depression about the Great Depression:  A typical sleaze of a politician wins the Presidency of the U.S..  It’s an ugly scene created in some imaginative ways.  (Watch for “Little Dickie” of “Our Gang” as his nephew.)  Then our self-involved President gets himself in a car crash (at 95 mph on Washington D.C. roads …  I see nothing much has changed!).  When he exits a coma, we have a New Man ready to create a New Deal.  Yes, the rest of the story is one funded and guided by William Randolph Hearst as a primer for what he’d like to see our upcoming REAL President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, do.  We are shown visits by Gabriel the Angel through the use of lighting changes and slight breezes.  Gabriel apparently leads our President to cut through the bureaucratic crap, adopt a “Dictator” stance, shift our policies to Socialism, and our tactics to Fascism.  Problems with gangsters?  Give them one warning to leave the country.  If they don’t go, round ‘em up, run ‘em through a military court, pronounce ‘em guilty, and shoot ‘em…  dead.  This film is REALLY interesting for many reasons, not the least of which is it was made in 1932 and held back until ’33 when F.D.R. took over, which was the same year that Hitler took over Germany.  Socialism, Fascism, AND Communism were being discussed in THIS country as possible viable alternatives to the current mess.  I liked much of the photography, the sets (oh my god, the Cedric Gibbon’s designed mobster’s high style Art Deco apartment!)… even the slightly stiff dialog and deliveries.  At other times, the compromises deserved a quick laugh (model planes dive bombing model ships, firing squads aiming their rifles about three feet from the blindfolded criminals, creating 95 mph in cars through the use of speeded-up film, etc.).  None the less, I found “Gabriel Over the White House” creepy, interesting, entertaining, funny, ugly, naïve, very smart, and slightly surreal.  Think 1930’s Frank Capra on L.S.D..  WOTO

“MICMACS” (twice this year, French, 2009):  This interesting and often funny film is by the same director who did “Amelie” and “City of Lost Children”, Jean-Pierre Jeumet.  The man has a vision, that’s for sure.  Full of absolutely unique sets, costuming, scenarios, and character stories, “MICMACS” could be said to have its roots in “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” mixed with “Mission Impossible” mixed with “Mystery Men” and an appreciation for Tim Burton and steam punk… BUT it is unmistakably Jeumet.  This is a comedic suspense crime drama running on revenge and overflowing with fantastically grimy detail… but always humorous.  Wierd.  WOTO

“Freaks” (1932): Created by Tod Browning – a major silent film director in the 1920’s – this is a morality play about mistreated circus sideshow freaks who, as a group, defend themselves against the attitudes and behaviors of “normal” humans. (Browning himself had been a sideshow contortionist.) As a director, he was well-known for taking on / creating bizarre subjects (“The Unholy Three” (1925), etc.). Yet, “Freaks” went too far for the sensibilities of the public and the new set of rules being wielded by censors in an increasingly hesitant Great Depression environment. (Even Betty Boop was censored!) Sadly, this film marks the beginning of the end of Browning’s career. As usual, contemporary negative reactions were a knee-jerk visual response to a story that had much more than shock value. It takes a stand, demanding all people be given equal respect… but the Knee-jerks won. The film was outright banned or often edited down as much as thirty minutes, and never garnered the attention other socially-conscious films of the time received. Those who enthusiastically applied to be in the film were in fact circus sideshow “freaks” with true “deformities”, and some of them were also professional actors who showed up in later films such as “Tarzan” and “The Wizard of Oz” (1939), all the way to 1985’s “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome”. In somewhat the same manner as Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” (its haphazard distribution and editing caused many versions, most being lost and requiring nearly a century of detective work and laborious restoration to get a solid example reassembled for fresh eyes and minds), the film “Freaks” suffered the same treatment and will require similar attention. Even in my limited experience, I have seen two versions of apparently four or five resulting from forced editing by censors. None the less, this 2004 Warner Brothers / Turner Entertainment version is a good one, with added special features explaining many issues you will want discussed. WOTO”

“The Descendants” (2011):  This is one of the top ten most emotionally complex films of all time.  Have a clear head and a full heart when viewing.  Starring George Clooney – again proving he may be the most versatile actor today – we meet his wife, his kids, his relatives, his friends, his acquaintances, and more.  Every character is multi-dimensional, and not as simple as first presented.  Although described as a “tragic-comedy”, I’d say drop the “comedy” and expect this to take you to many places asking “How would I handle this??!”  It is a very rich experience. 

“Raising Arizona” (again, 1987):  Nicolas Cage, Holly Hunter, John Goodman, and Frances McDormand star.  The Coen brothers write and direct.  This is a weird, funny story about a VERY unlikely couple who, when finding themselves “barren”, kidnap a baby for themselves.  Somehow this tale of criminals-who-kidnap has humor and heart.  Every character is a mess of contradictions and quirky details.  The entire experience is over the top, unbelievable, and surreal.  A unique film.  The Coen brothers would go on to make much better films – deeper, more sophisticated works – but their love of oddball humans and environments show up right at the beginning.  WOTO

“Wendy and Lucy” (2008):  Michelle Williams carries this entire independent film on her shoulders, and does a fine job.  Created by Kelly Reichhardt, this is a patient, somewhat Existential road story of one young woman (with her dog) who faces numerous challenges while trying to reach Alaska.  This is not an action film and barely a drama.  Its tone is very low-key – a slice of wayward homeless life that focuses on muddled determination.  Production values are low budget, but the entire project is so pure and honest, without the least bit of pretentiousness, I admire it greatly.  It is fresh and honest.  Produced by Todd Haynes.   WOTO

“The Iron Lady” (2011):  There are a couple reasons to see this film: 1) you’ll learn a little more about British politics and/or the Falkland Island war, and 2) you’ll be blown away by the acting.  Meryl Streep is amazing, as are many of the other actors.  Also effective is the photography, the editing back and forth through time and realities, etc..  Mainly, it’s the acting.  Let’s face a fact here – the lives of politicians seldom make for more than mere “timely” subjects, so I don’t expect this film to go marching off into the sunset EXCEPT as a superb showcase for what great acting can reach. 

“Oranges and Sunshine” (British/Australian, 2011):  Starring Emily Watson, this is a dramatization of the true story of Margaret Humphreys who, only a few years ago (and still involved), began uncovering a deep, dark “ignored” secret in England and Australia regarding missing children.  Except for the fact it’s true, you’d have a hard time believing this could have happened at all.  Watson is a favorite actress of mine, the supporting roles are quite good, and this “small” film is big in its story and production.  This film is totally worth your time and realization.   

“Copland” (again,    ):  Starring Sylvester Stallone, Harvey Keitel, Ray, Liotta, Robert DeNiro, Cathy Moriarity, Janeane Garafalo, Michael Rapaport, Annabella Sciorra.  This is a good story of cop corruption and redemption.  A small community on the “other side” of the G.W. Bridge out of New York is populated by nearly all NYPD… a corrupt self-defense concept that turns in on itself.  Their boot-lick sheriff (Stallone) is the perfect Do-nothing, Look-the-Other-Way lap dog.  Things get out of control – something that can’t be allowed.  This is the ONLY film I can recall where I liked both the casting and the acting of Stallone.  The other actors … they’re always good at what they do.  This is a strong story with good photography, effective scoring, you name it.  It’s no quite up there with “Serpico”, but it’s a good one.  WOTO IMDB

 “The Nazi Officer’s Wife” (2003):  Documentary.  Interviewed is an Austrian woman, Edith Hahn, who, as a young woman in Nazi occupied territory, finds herself needing to survive by taking on a new identity.  What she did, and how with whom as help, is her amazing story. 

“Certified Copy” (French, Italian, English, 2010):  This is a unique vision created by director Abbas Kiarostami, starring the amazing Juliette Binoche.  I think this may be the role of her life.  It’s a somewhat mysterious story that moves in and out of clarity as a man and woman wander rural Italy for an afternoon trying to communicate their beliefs about Art, originality, and relationships.  The debates are essentially intellectual (and interesting enough) but it is the emotions and interactions of these two that give it such drama, pathos, awkwardness, tenderness, and humor.  Revel in it. 

“Into the Abyss” (2011):  This is a documentary by Werner Herzog about a particular murder case, the killers, their families, and their other relationships.  Herzog has his unique vision – and in this case an added agenda – but he none the less creates a compelling, disturbing film populated by lots of people who are allowed to talk long enough to reveal their very troubled points of view.  You thank god none of them live on your street, or if they do, you’ll never wave or open your door to them… not if you’re smart.

”The Lion in Winter” (1968):  Adapted from the original stage play, this is a brilliant dialog film in the demanding tradition of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?”, but set in the 12th century with Henry II and his conniving family members.  It’s a room full of snakes in that castle.  Every line, thought, and action is further fodder for retort and revenge.  It’s written very much in the attitude of Shakespeare but without the rhyme.  “The Lion in Winter” is smart, witty, dark, funny, and well acted by all.  Peter O’Toole, Katherine Hepburn, Anthony Hopkins, Nigel Terry, and others star in an incredibly literate, intense story.  The sets are beautifully gritty, but the lighting is compromised.  Spotlights alter fire and candlelight logic at every turn.  I found this the only flaw but one that nagged me throughout.  1968 was an epic year for films.  WOTO IMDB

“Murderball” (doc., 2005):  This is a documentary about paraplegics who formed a wheelchair version of Rugby, have gone international, and complete in a section of the Olympics.  It is sad, rough, violent, funny, and encouraging.  They have something to say, and you’d better listen… or they’ll kick your ass.  WOTO

“The Road” (again, 2009):  Something terrible happens on Earth, and for those who survived the collapse of culture happens fast.  A father and his son are soon living “on the road” as they try to reach the southern coast, hoping for a more temperate climate and the slim possibility of edible animal and plant life… all the while dodging roving bands of post-apocalyptic thieves and cannibals.  For as outworn as this scenario could be, it is incredibly well-written, offers insight, great acting, and flawless sets, costuming, and make up helping to establish the believable tattered remains of a world gone for a decade.  Viggo Mortensen, Charlize Theron, Robert Duvall, Guy Pearce, and a young talent – Kody Smit-McPhee, star.  Adapted from the book by Cormac McArthy.  It is not as Existential as you might expect.  Painfully realistic morals are in place, decisions are being made, and emotions are present to feel.  This is perhaps a flawless film experience, comfortable or not.  WOTO 

“Agnes and his Brothers” (German, 2004):  You read that right.  Created by Oskar Roehler, this is the story of a wounded family.  If you read the viewer “ratings” on it, you’ll see low scores.  Since it is an interesting, well-acted, nicely photographed, appropriately scored film… I can only assume the negative responses are because it is SAD and TRAGIC.  Well look, people, don’t kill the messenger!  Watch Benny Hill episodes instead!!  “Agnes and…” is deeply psychological and emotional, with people wearing their wounds on their sleeves.  Think Ingmar Bergman but with action.  Think Todd Haynes but without the steroids.  Starring Martin Weiss, Moritz Bleibtrau, and Herbert Knaup. 

“Clockwork Orange” (again, 1971):  Though not as focused at “Dr. Strangelove” (and perhaps as equally vague in focus as “2001: A Space Odyssey”), “Clockwork Orange” is full of great indictments of where we were headed if not careful… and careful we weren’t.  This 41 year old film, depicting the near-future (ours), seems very contemporary and, dare I say, almost “commonplace” now, instead of what was then definitely on the edge of unbelievable and shocking in terms of violence, the media, governmental intrusion, political maneuvering, and collapsing urban environment.  Recreational rape?  Random ransacking?  Prisoners as guinea pigs?  The only large, visible aspect of this film that has dated itself is the costuming and décor, but let me tell you – it’s a WONDERFUL sampler of the late-Mod, Post-Moon-Landing Hi-Fashion expressions of a scientific and cultural future opposite of the Hippie/commune prediction.  My doubts about “Clockwork”: it could’ve been pared down a little and not lost meaning, and, Kubrick could have taken on fewer story components.  THAT said, this one is still nearly as brilliant as “Strangelove”, and equally interesting as “2001”.  WOTO IMDB

“Welcome to the Dollhouse” (again, 1996):  It is THE DEFINITIVE “Junior High is Hell” film.  Follow one typical kid through just a few daze of Junior High life.  It’s as amazing and funny as it is painful and dark.  Solondz’ production values are slightly less refined here, but that is of no concern.  This is a bleak, suburban story full of angst, pettiness, silliness, embarrassments, personality flaws, and real dangers.  Across the board, the cast is outstanding in their portrayal of typical, flawed, middle class life.  Are there always people in the herd who are singled out and pecked all their lives by the others?  Yes.  WOTO

“Life During Wartime” (2009):  Todd Solondz is an interesting filmmaker, and I expect I’ll always see whatever he creates, but this one – at least as a first-time view – came in under my expectations.  I prefer “Happiness” and “Storytelling”, with “Welcome to the Dollhouse” remaining my favorite.  “Life…” seemed a little too repetitive of “Happiness” (and yes, I understand he was in part retelling the same story but with different actors, etc., which I DID find intellectually interesting), yet let’s face it, the “shock value” of certain ideas can only go so far and then an artist might find themselves painted into a corner.  My thoughts are inconclusive on this film, and I feel like I need to see his next film for more perspective.  “Life…” had well-chosen actors who did a fine job as Solondz directed, but it’s clear the results are not of collaboration but a single vision, and it’s this single vision I want to continue watching.

“Faithless” (Swedish, 2000):  Written by Ingmar Bergman, directed by Liv Ullmann, and starring a VERY talented actress Lena Endre.  Okay, let’s get THIS out of the way right now:  If you like action, comedy, and English, this isn’t the film for you tonight.  This is classic Bergman – it starts with subtle depression, and spirals down from there.  This is nearly pure dialog presented on film.  Ullmann was not only Bergman’s main actress, and wife, but also protégé.  And, the film appears to be made on the bleak island where Ingmar spent his last years in isolation, in what might be his home.  Why pay for sets when you have all you need right there at home?  “Faithless” is about having less and less faith which becomes less and less helpful.  This is 2 hours and 22 minutes of scarred psyches.  It will wear you down… but in a good, artistic way.  Endre’s acting is close to amazing, and most of it is done with her face.  Watching this film is like reading a Kafka book – you know not to hope for a Disney ending.  Still, it’s powerful, emotionally complex, and tests your dosage of Prozac.  WOTO

“Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” (2012) was good… COMPLEX, and good.  It is SO good and SO complex, my wife and I watched it two nights in a row!  (You have no idea how RARE it is for her to request such a thing!)  The story is set mainly in eastern Europe, 1973.  The Cold War has been fought for more than twenty years.  007 is nowhere to be found.  No Aston Martins with ejector-seats.

The film has two main goals: to present the lives of Cold Warrior spying as a lonely, deadly game of paranoid Chess, and, to make certain every visual and audio component of this film creates the bleak, cold, dank, confusing, lonely, fearful feeling.  Goals met.  It is a very disciplined film.  No flights of artful fancy where designers show chops simply to attract their next gig. 

“One Hour Photo”, and “The Ice Storm” are other films that come immediately to mind for their “Problem set / Solution found” approach.  “The Blair Witch Project” and “Vagabond” are also examples. 

“Hart’s War” (again, 2002):  This is a film about perceptions and honor, written as a WWII/P.O.W. story set in Germany during the winter of 1944-45.  You’ll be struck first by the great photography and scoring, then by the memorable scenes taking place within them. Much of it takes place in P.O.W. huts and a makeshift “court room”.  Although headed by talented actors, most are well-submerged in their characters.  “Hart’s War” is a complex work, with a cautiously revealed plot entirely necessary to make its points.  The truth MUST arrive slowly.  This is a serious and admirable film at every level which discusses humankind’s most cherished, defended beliefs.  WOTO  IMDB

“The Madness of King George” (again, 1994):  This is an Academy Award winning recreation of a fascinating, near-total disaster in the life of King George (and the country of England).  Suddenly struck with an unexplainable mental collapse, all the hangers-on begin jockeying for new positions while trying to eliminate the ailing King.  Starring the amazing Nigel Hawthorne, this is one of the finest character studies of all time.  I’d put it up there with “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Taxi Driver”.  Also starring Helen Mirren, Ian Holm, and other fancy-pants characters you will love to hate.  It is also fair to expect solid photography, scoring, etc.  WOTO

 Mystic River” (again, 2003):  Talent all around.  Directed, produced, and scored (!) by Clint Eastwood, with many of the actors I admire most:  Sean Penn, Laura Linney, Marcia Gay Harden, Kevin Bacon, Laurence Fishburn, & Tim Robbins.  Add a strong suspense/crime story (with a few plot line “holes” that were probably explained in the original novel) composed from the history and psyches of three childhood friends, use great photography, supportive music… and you have one serious, high quality drama.  It is not a pretty sight, and there are no winners or heroes to be found, but it rings of truth – lives that repeatedly circle around shared and private histories, that never get clarified, that never utter what needs to be spoken.  The meanings and characters of this story are larger than the little lives depicted.  This is the stuff of epics.  Eastwood created a film equal to his superb film “Unforgiven”, with its use of gritty realism set in a specific time, place, and people, which rises above them to present our largest concerns as humans.  WOTO IMDB

Diabolique” (again, 1996):  I’m again watching the newer, American version of ‘Diabolique’.  It’s a decent suspense drama… FUN twists and turns that keep you wondering and jumping out of your seat.  But, there’s only one reason I – a VERY biased person in this case – watch this film repeatedly: plain jane Sharon Stone is paired with the most beautiful woman on the planet – the one, the only, the Oh My God     Isabelle Adjani.  I first saw her in Werner Herzog’s version of ‘Nosferatu’.  Not only was that film a revelation of story telling that finally explained to me the sense of doom, sadness, and sexuality of the Vampire legends (none of that Bela Lugosi / Hollywood junk), added to my admiration of Herzog as a film maker, and solidified my interest in the acting of Natassia’s crazy father – Klaus Kinski – but introduced me to, well, like I said:  Oh My God, Issy.  How can one human be so gorgeous?  I suppose it had to happen once, with all of the eventual genetic possibilities here on Earth.  And to think I was alive when it happened…  WOTO        

“Interview with a Vampire” (again, 1994):  The reviews back then were only luke warm… but I think it’s better than that.  My initial hesitation was in casting all the male vampires with Hollywood pretty boys (Cruise, Banderas, Pitt, Slater) – yet this somehow added an ever sadder note - maybe because these vampires had NO trouble attracting and killing – which, for them, made consuming easy but added to the boredom and guilt of their eternal Hell.  This is also the film that caused me to follow the career of Kirsten Dunst.  Fabulous.  WOTO

“Cave of Forgotten Dreams” (2010):  Another of Werner Herzog’s amazing documentaries.  This is about a deep cave covered over by an avalanche approximately 20,000 years ago and hidden from all humans until its discovery in 1992.  Here was found the world’s oldest (35,000+ years) cave paintings, skeletons, tracks, and scratches of long extinct animals, and human hand prints made during this prehistoric era.  Also seen are pristine stalagmites, pieces of charcoal, etc..  Herzog has been the only film maker allowed in to document these wonders, which have been protected and strictly controlled by the French government ever since.  Add Herzog’s unique combination of matter-of-factness, mystical ponderings, and wry sense of humor, and you have another must-see film.

“Rescue Dawn” (2006):  Written and directed by one of my favorite directors, Werner Herzog, this film is about a man he admires very much, Dieter Dengler.  This is the second film he has done about Dieter, whose life is made of the horrifying and glorious moments reserved for the very few.  I suggest seeing Herzog’s documentary “Little Dieter Needs to Fly” first, then “Rescue Dawn”.  Set in 1965 Laos, a group of soldiers (whose existence is not acknowledged because America claimed no war involvement outside of Viet Nam) are faced with life in a prison camp in the middle of the jungle.  This is about the men, the camp, and an escape attempt.  Every actor in this film put themselves through a lot to get this done, as you will see for yourselves.  Major kudos go to Christian Bale, Steve Zahn, Jeremy Davies, and all the others.  The photography is great, the scoring – as always in Herzog films – interesting, the credibility (lack of CGI) is superb.  In this film every viewer will find a reason to emotionally “relate”.  WOTO

“3:10 to Yuma” (2007):  I’d heard this was good, and it was – as easy-view entertainment.  I loved the high quality detailing – within close up shots, sets, sound, etc..  The story is classic good vs bad, right overcoming wrong, and wrongs made right.  Christian Bale and Russell Crowe star.  It’s a “chase flick” at heart.  There are a few continuity and logic problems in it, but they’re easy enough to overlook.  Relax, enjoy, prepare for lots of violence and very few women.  WOTO

“Encounters at the End of the World” (2007):  Documentary by Werner Herzog.  You’d never mistake a Herzog document for anyone else’s.  There is always his signature unique use of music and imagery, his dark narratives and unusual probing questions, and the lingering sense he sees all catastrophes as exclusively the result of human behaviors.  Werner is German.  He is insightful, entertaining, occasionally almost funny, reverent and dedicated to his chosen subjects, not nearly as angry as he was in his youthful film making years, yet will always (?) retain his lack of faith in humans to be without selfish ulterior motives.  And frankly, it’s hard to argue with him.  THIS documentary is about his personal look at the Antarctic – the South Pole – and the researchers who have chosen to live the odd, isolated yet communal life in the harshest environment available.  He finds beautiful sights, unusual people, foreboding signs, and his style of “poetry” at every turn.

“Saving Private Ryan” (again, 1998):  Directed by Spielberg, starring Hanks, Sizemore, Ribisi, Burns, Danson and many more actors, this is one of the most visually brutal and detailed films of all time – necessarily so within the context of an increasingly PERSONAL WWII story.  The audience is dragged along for the fights, exhaustion, panic, gore, revenge, blind speed, frozen fear, confusion, and moments of simple clarity.  “Saving…” has much in common with “Black Hawk Down”, “We Were Soldiers”, “Platoon” and the monumental “Band of Brothers”.  We look back at and ponder World War II.  We compare it to wars since.  WWII is OUR gauge.  We KNOW this one had to be done despite its human costs.  THOSE soldiers are – and deserve to be – our heroes.  WOTO

“Quicksand” (again, 1950):  Starring Mickey Rooney, Peter Lorre, Barbara Bates, and the lovely girl-next-door Jeanne Cagney, this is a dandy drama about a decent enough fella who allows himself to slip into deeper and deeper trouble from double-dealings.  “Quicksand” is a very good title for this Noir, and all the actors are well-cast for their roles.  The pacing changes abruptly at the end, about which I debate its effectiveness, but this story is about the spiraling down, and it’s very good.  For those of you who like to watch for sets, costumes, and cars, this movie is full of them.  WOTO

“Dog Day Afternoon” (again, 1975):  Winner of numerous awards that year, and featuring top notch work by Al Pacino, Charles Durning, and others (plus great bit parts played by future stars like Carol Kane), this one does nothing but get better with each viewing.  Real life events are retold about 3 men who, with no real experience or plan, set out to rob a bank.  They could be the trio that defined the term “clusterfuck”.  This film, part period piece but essentially a commentary on the media, is brilliantly written, decently photographed, and effectively paced to feel fast yet painfully grueling.  If you love Pacino in “Serpico”, you’ll also love him in “Dog Day Afternoon”.  He was on a great “role”.  WOTO

“Bergman Island” (documentary, Swedish, 2006):  Caveat: To enjoy this film you must have seen some of Ingmar Bergman’s films and appreciate them, or become intellectually baffled by them and want more insight into the man himself.  This film has no other goal than to delve into the man.  Marie Nyrerod did a fine job of bringing him out into the open – a man who, in his last years (died 2009, age 89), was a recluse on a harsh, cold Scandinavian island.  You will come to see he drew heavily from his own life, and, due to his personality, brought into his sphere others who no doubt had varying degrees of regret.  His upbringing, his career, his films, his behavior, his beliefs, “his” island… became a very tight, understandable world of sadness, fear, and isolation.

 “The Prowler” (1951):  Written by Dalton Trumbo, directed by Joseph Losey, starring Van Hefflin and Evelyn Keyes.  This film has been beautifully restored – and DESERVES it.  Film Noir has become one of my favorite genres.  Although often lower budget, the lighting and photography are often better, the scripts rough and tough, and the characters more interesting and less predictable.  It’s an imperfect world, and Noir shows every flaw in gorgeous black and white.  “The Prowler” is about people choosing lust and greed as their guide for behavior.  They’re not special people – they mere have less self-restraint.  Their moral compasses are off.  There’s a fair chance they are doomed.  Realizations may never arrive… just like in Real Life.

“Lost in La Mancha” (2002):  This is a documentary about artist/director Terry Gilliam setting out to make his biggest budget European film of all time – “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote”.  I’ll say up front I admire Gilliam’s creativity, sense of humor, and willingness to fight for his ideas.  That said, this documentary is – in ALL its irony – a testament to both Gilliam AND Quixote.  If there was ever a documentary about film making that film students should see, this is the one.  Had I seen it as a younger artist, it would have scared me to death, and, if I’d had enough sense to acknowledge my weaknesses, I would have VOWED then and there to NEVER: attempt a large film with investors, crew, and cast, using exterior scenes and natural light.  Its revelations would have immediately turned me to study those artists who worked alone, used their own money, and stayed indoors.  Were there such film makers?  Yes.  Are they famous?  Have YOU heard of them?  No.  I would have shared that destiny.

“One Eyed Jacks” (1961):  Directed by and starring Marlon Brando, this morality play set in the Old West may be a little drawn out but deals with lots of issues – both “timeless”, and contemporary to 1961.  Crime, revenge, murder, forgiveness, lying, cheating… not to mention racism, illegitimate pregnancy, and the “mingling” of the races… are all tackled in this story.  The photography is wonderful despite its distorted Technicolor skin tones, the locations are bleak and grand (Wow, the coast near Monterey, California!), the pace very (too?) patient, and the twists, turns, and turn-abouts plentiful.  Also starring are Slim Pickens and Carl Maulden, along with lots of people who Hollywood bosses were hoping they could form into stars – but failed.  WOTO

“Benny’s Video” (Austrian, 1992):  I’ve been slow to arrive at an exploration of Michael Haneke’s films, but no longer.  Having already seen “Fun Games” and “Cache”, “Benny’s Video” seals the deal.  I want to see ALL of his work… despite its often being violent and psychologically disturbing.  I liken him to a next generation, unemotional Werner Herzog in his subjects and outlook.  In Haneke’s world, people take actions but don’t explain them to you.  YOU are expected to sift through the images and words, assembling an explanation suitable to your beliefs and fears.  Don’t get me wrong.  Haneke is not a sensationalist.  He is not OUT to shock you for its own sake… but he will shock you.  Trust him to have a point (like Herzog), even when he won’t give it to you on a silver(screen) platter.  There are three main characters in “Benny’s Video” – Benny, a teenage boy, and his father and his mother.  All the issues are within these three – the alienation, disconnection, and rationalization.  See the special feature interview with Haneke AFTER the film.  His appearance and demeanor will not fit your preconceived image, I promise, but his intelligence will outdo your expectations.

“Beach Red” (again, 1967):  Produced, directed, and starring Cornel Wilde.  I saw this film back in the late 60’s and it blew my mind.  It was perhaps the most powerful film I had seen up to then.  I never saw it again – until now.  How would I react after forty five additional years of art training, viewing thousands of films, studying World War II, and that much more life experience?  Very well, thank you.  Unlike stumbling across your old Beatles wig or wide wale cord bell bottoms, this remains a rough, thoughtful war/anti-war statement.  I now see it was also the very solid inspiration for one of the best of the genre: “The Thin Red Line”.  We stay with two groups of experienced and inexperienced WWII soldiers – one American, one Japanese – on a small island in the Pacific.  They hunt each other.  Things don’t go well.  “The Thin Red Line” shares the single group idea, as it does the individuality of its characters, the thought-narrative of many of them, and the Existential and other philosophic debates given rise by the tension, fear, and sadness of these men.  “Beach Red” may have its “1967 flaws” portraying the 1940’s, and wear its position on its sleeve, but it is a no-nonsense, earnestly accurate depiction that no one can dismiss.  Although I recommend “The Thin Red Line” (1998) over “Beach Red”, I suggest seeing both.

“El Mar” (Spanish, 2004):  Set during and after the Spanish Civil War, think of this story as a dark, tubercular, gay, mirror-world “Stand by Me” with lots of self hatred and misdirected violence.  No, really… and, it makes for a unique viewing.  Early on, as I’m watching (it’s very well acted, and a beautifully photographed and scored film) I’m thinking “There’s an undercurrent here…” (which becomes overcurrent as it progresses).  Later, I watched the dvd previews for other films.  “El Mar” was released through a specialized company (“Picture This!”) with which I was unfamiliar.  Sadly, it appeared this film was alone in depth, complexity, and solid production values.  Alert: This is for adults only, and be prepared for intense violence.  WOTO

“Zelig” (again, 1983):  This is one of Woody Allen’s lower profile but equally high quality films.  It’s so full of interesting moments, witty lines, social criticisms, and psychological tongues-in-cheeks, you hardly want to laugh lest you miss something.  Allen and Mia Farrow star in this film made by the same Team as always.  (If it ain’t broke…) “Zelig” is a “documentary” about a troubled soul, Leonard Zelig, who, in the 1920’s, came to be known as the “Chameleon Man”.  Through the use of black and white film footage and period recording techniques (and no digital trickery in 1983), a complete world exists here.  Start to finish brilliance.  WOTO

“Behold a Pale Horse” (1964):  Starring Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn, and Omar Sharif.  Set in and after the Spanish revolution of 1937-39, we are presented with a moody story of men struggling with issues of morality tied to the past, present, and future.  Each man “MUST” do something about his lack of resolution.  Included is a young boy who seems to be a spark.  This is not a war film.  This is a debate about what is right and wrong, when and why.  The camera work is shadowy and powerful.  The score, by Maurice Jarre, is often stripped to minimal in a very effect manner.  I never once questioned the sets or continuity.  These men were at peaks in their careers.  WOTO

“All the President’s Men” (again, 1976):  Focusing on the Watergate Scandal, and made soon after Nixon’s resignation due to his & his staff’s lying under oath, this film came out.  It was an exciting, tense, boiled-down depiction of what had become a huge mass of confusing facts with which the public had wrestled.  History aside, is this a good FILM?  Yes.  It’s well acted and well made.  It tells the story in a clear manner, and gives us the broader meanings.  Does is have enough intrinsic substance to interest someone who is uninformed and uninterested in this episode of history?  I doubt it, but I could care less about someone so ignorant and so lacking in curiosity.  This film reminds us Patriotism comes in MANY forms, not just one or two.  Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford, Jack Warden, Hal Holbrook, Jason Robards star.  See small, early roles by Meredith Baxter(-Birney), and many others.   WOTO IMDB

“The Caine Mutiny” (1954):  Nominated for seven Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Actor (Humphrey Bogart), this is a tense drama about the collapsing psyche of a WWII ship commander and his increasingly fearful crew.  The story is halved – on the sea, and in the courtroom.  Also starring Van Johnson, Fred MacMurray, Jose Ferrer and a ton of character actors you will recognize from the period, this screenplay from the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Herman Wouk is top notch in almost every way.  I had my doubts about the purpose of a “love interest” mixed in with serious issues (ah, Hollywood), and the rough jumps from original documentary war footage to recreated war footage (which were very understandable for this time).  It was fascinating to again see Bogart in a paranoid Jekyl / Hyde role.  This one is totally worth two hours of your life.  WOTO

“Peggy Sue Got Married” (again, 1986):  One of the first things that strike you is this film is FULL of soon-be-stars.  Kathleen Turner and Nicholas Cage head it up, although they too were just beginning careers, but you’ll spot Joan Allen, Helen Hunt, Jim Carrey, and others that would soon have their own spotlights.  As for the story, I’ve always loved it.  Yes, it appears to be just another 50′s nostalgia flick
on the surface, and yes, the “back to the future” angle was used by many at that time, but THIS one has what the others don’t: SOUL.  This is an honest-to-god look at life, friendship, love, destiny, insights, regrets, choices, tradeoffs, and balances.  “Peggy Sue Got Married” is truly bittersweet, often funny, a great one at which to stare (cars, decor, the gorgeous young Turner), but what it mainly offers – and does it quite well – is the chance for you to put yourself in the same place, and travel along – to your own history – look again at your roots, and LOVE them for what they were.  That is not nostalgia.  That is maturity, and forgiveness.  Amen.  WOTO

“Mutiny on the Bounty” (again, 1935):  Starring Charles Laughton, Clark Gable, and a cast of talented men, this is the true story of a four year voyage headed by one of the worst captains of all time – Captain Bligh.  Cruel, petty, paranoid, vindictive, and delusional, Bligh – brilliantly brought back to life by Laughton – has come to epitomize the worst in men, and for whom Mister Christian (Gable) and the crew runs out of patience and time.  This film still packs a punch (Best Picture for 1935), and should be seen by anyone who loves historical recreations, action, drama, and psychological studies.  WOTO

“A Bug’s Life” (again, 1998):  I think I enjoyed this one nearly as much as the “Toy Story” series.  It is beautiful, funny, witty, and enjoyable.  Pixar remains the leader in compu-animation… NOT just due to visual quality (my GOD the textures, reflections, shadows, colors of light, subtle movements, and detailing!!), but for the story line, sound tracks, etc.  Alright, the script IS based on “The Seven Samurai”, but it’s a good story!  WOTO

“High Sierra” (1941):  This is the one that made Bogart a star.  He, Ida Lupino, Joan Leslie, Alan Curtis, Arthur Kennedy, Henry Hull, and Henry Travers fill out a screen play written by W. R. Burnett and John Huston, and directed by Raoul Walsh.  This is a BEAUTIFULLY photographed Noir-ish crime drama using now-classic roles but with unique characteristics.  It is also a film of its time.  The plot is tight, moves at a stimulating pace, zigs and zags with mini-scenarios, yet never loses sight of its main goal.   WOTO

“Bitter Victory” (1958):  Although in some ways a standard WWII war film, in the hands of director Nicholas Ray, “Bitter Victory” has more unique moments than most films of any genre, especially up through the 1950’s.  This is a deeper, darker look at the human psyche when faced with difficult decisions.  No one is entirely clean, no one is completely dirty… and no one has the right to judge another but we do it all the time.  Starring Richard Burton, Curd Jurgens, and Ruth Roman.

“Bigger Than Life” (1956):  James Mason plays a decent man whose body begins causing him great pain, and he needs to find a solution.  In the process, things go wrong.  Real wrong.  You will be glued to this story.  Barbara Rush co-stars as his wife.  Walter Matheau plays his supportive co-worker and friend.  I am a big fan of director Nicholas Ray, the director.  Look him up sometime.  He probably did a film you love and you didn’t even know it.  I generally think of his films as rough, insightful, tense, and full of emotions – including caring.  I also think of him as a “b/w” guy… but “Bigger Than Life” is in color.  I hate that color film became the default film by the 1950’s.  Here, Ray uses color film as only an artist who deeply understands black & white could.  The colors are in a limited palette, often placed against neutral tones, and usually localized to focus attention and express an emotion.  Ray was smart.  The look of this film is BEAUTIFUL and ominous at the same time.  The scoring – from the opening scene on – expresses a schizophrenic state soon to arrive.  If there was EVER a color film that exemplifies Film Noir, it’s this one.

“Basquiat” (again, 1996):  If anything, I’m even MORE impressed with the film my fourth time around.  Jeffrey Wright as Basquiat, and a huge cast of top actors (David Bowie, Dennis Hopper, Gary Oldman, Parker Posey, Claire Forlani, Courtney Love…), set the tone for this recreation of the early 80′s New York art scene – complete with all the emptiness, shallowness, politics, and greed necessary to build and destroy careers, a.k.a. “artists”, a.k.a. “people”…and Julian Schnabel, who created this film, should know.  It’s a sad film.  The outcome is telegraphed in whispers-to-sledge hammers as the young artists’ career falls into the spotlight, warms him, encourages him to flames, and burns him to cinders.  It was another marriage made in Hell… PERFECT lore to keep the art market glowing.  WOTO

“The World According to Garp” (again, 1982):  Robin Williams, Glenn Close (in her debut role), John Lithgow, Swoozie Kurtz, Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, Amanda Plummer, Mary Beth Hurt star in the film adaptation of John Irving’s novel.  When I saw this film first run in the theater, the story left me a little confused, but I knew I’d seen something unique.  Over the years I’ve repeatedly seen it and I have no further doubt about the story line or its point: You have lots of choices in life, and lots of reactions available to you as circumstances come flying at you.  HOW you deal with them is what is ALWAYS under your control.  This is a quirky, funny, sad, occasionally violent, out-of-left-field film still quite worthy of your viewing.  WOTO IMDB

“San Francisco” (1936):  This is a BIG movie.  MGM, naturally.  “San Francisco” set the bar for huge, sweeping, Hollywood dramas.  (“Gone with the Wind” would take the high bar challenge three years later… but unfortunately, THAT movie was just so… very… Southern… and I’m not a fan.)  Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable, and Jeanette MacDonald star as archetypes of America as it stumbles, spits, and booms into the 20th century.  Some might call it a “musical”, but I assure you that if it was I wouldn’t have seen it through.  The music is set within the context of stage presentations which are used to represent various lifestyles existing at the same time in that one town (and, of course, across most of America).  Mixed with this “period” film of 1905-1906 is the VERY mid-1930’s Great Depression “can-and-will-do” attitude of the New Deal, nationalism, isolationism, and internal cooperation.  Seldom do I get caught up in the “sweep” of grand films, but this one – having patiently built its characters and using the latest and best mega-special effects for the inevitable terror – often had me glued to it and feeling some of the intended emotions.  All three lead actors were wonderful.  Jeanette MacDonald is glorious.  WOTO

“On Dangerous Ground” (1952):  If you love Film Noir like I do, you’ll love this one.  The first part is loaded with crumbling wet nights in the big city, cops and criminals running amok, and the whole goddamm mess tiring.  Starring Ida Lupino as a blind innocent, and Robert Ryan as the battered, emotionally cold, ready-to-snap burned-out cop, this story starts in the city, goes to the country, and makes a couple U-turns after that.  The photography and scoring are wonderful and often harshly realistic.  There’s a no-nonsense Nihilism stinking on every surface.  When Ryan has gone too far, he’s sent on another investigation out of town.  This is when things get complicated for him…

“Born Yesterday” (again, 1951):  Think “My Fair Lady” mixed with “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and “All the King’s Men”, with stars Judy Holliday, William Holden, and Broderick Crawford.  Holliday won Best Actress for her role – and for good reason.  Though much of this film is a sharp comedy, there is also a dark streak running through it by way of Crawford’s “crude mug” role, and the corruption of government officials theme.  You can see this story has its roots on the stage, but still takes advantage of movie possibilities.  WOTO

“Pride and Prejudice” (2006):  Starring Keira Knightley, Donald Sutherland, Judi Dench, Brenda Blethyn, Jena Malone, and others.  Definitely a “chick flick” on one level – full of girlie concerns and lots of giggles and bouncing, but this is also a painfully Existential look at girls/women trying to stay “protected” in the care and service of parents, then a husband.  “Period” films are interesting from a potential historical recreation challenge point of view, and as a way to compare the changes and continuities of one culture and era to another – as compared to ours – as we NOW view both.  I admit I have not read the book, but if this latest film version is true to Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice”, her world was indeed as dull and difficult as it was cloistered and ritualistic.  (As you can read, I did not put much weight on the soap and romance angles.)  WOTO

“Objectified” (2009):  This is a documentary on Design and Designers, the worlds in which they think and act, the worlds for which they create Things, and the meaning of it all.  You’ll meet the intelligent, the pretentious, the conflicted, the famous, the here-today-gone-tomorrows.  “Objectified”, like the film “Helvetica”, discusses (and opens many eyes) to the world through which we blindly stumble, making it clearer, more fun, more interesting, and more comprehensible.  Whether it’s a car, building, toy, spoon, or software program, it WAS designed (hopefully with much work and consideration).  If it was designed WELL, you may not notice it.  If it was designed POORLY, it is one of the irritants of your day, and may very well kill you.  You should take it personally.

“Homicide” (again, 1991):  Written by David Mamet, whose work I either LOVE or HATE.  Joe Mantegna is great as a detached and effective homicide detective, who, when faced with what first appears to be a standard murder, becomes increasingly involved in the investigation as he peels back layers of not only the crime but his own self-hatred, doubt, and death wish.  This is a strong character study.  “Homicide” is both mysterious and grounded.  Mamet’s machine gun dialog WORKS well in this setting of men who are under constant pressure and keep trying to blow off enough steam to get through the day.  Bill Macy does a fine job as his partner.  If you like this one, see Mamet’s “Glen Gary, Glen Ross”, and “Red Belt”.  WOTO

“Normal” (again, 2002):  THIS IS WHAT I WROTE A FEW YEARS AGO AFTER A VIEWING: “An HBO production, this one HAS the feel of made-for-tee-vee, unlike other high quality HBO projects, such as the newer version of “Lolita”.  The acting is pretty solid, but the complexity of the subject (a man – Baptist and farmer in the Midwest, who’s been “happily” married for 25 years – “outs” himself as a female caught in a male’s body).  The story does not delve into the psychology of such a person, and instead, samples the reactions of others to him, most of which are expected and tragic, of course, and, when the really tough situations come to a head, the script lets everyone off the hook with easy solutions.  This was most disappointing.  Jessica Lange shed a few crocodile tears, but overall, the actors are worth the watch, in a story that is intellectually weak.”  THIS IS WHAT I WRITE TODAY AFTER ANOTHER VIEWING: “I was a little unfair to the film.  What I meant about “made-for-tee-vee” was there is an “edu-info” angle to its making, not necessarily a product of poor quality.  The acting by Jessica Lange and Tom Wilkinson isn’t “pretty solid”, it’s very solid.  It is perhaps both of their best work.  I retract my comment about “crocodile tears”.  And, I no longer criticize the film for not delving into the past (his psychology).  It has a perfect right to start in its own here-and-now, and on occasion give a quick glance into his childhood.  This film IS just as much about the reactions of others as it is the struggle of the man himself, and the solutions are not as easy as I first implied.  “Normal” is well worth viewing for the its issues of living in a particular culture, and for the chance to watch Lange and Wilkinson (as well as some of the support cast).  WOTO

“Lolita” (both versions) (again & again, 1961 & 1997):  “DON’T MESS WITH STANLEY KUBRICK, right?  What are you going to DO, make a BETTER “2001 – A Space Odyssey” or a BETTER “Lolita”?  I would not think so!  THEY’RE SACRED GROUND!

I read the book “Lolita”, own both versions of the film, and I finally set up what I’d wanted to do for years…watch BOTH versions of “Lolita” in ONE evening for a solid comparison…and, folks, Kubrick lost.  Adrian Lyne won with his 1997 version.  I feel sort of weird even saying it – because Kubrick was a great film maker – but it’s true.  He came in second.

Don’t get me wrong.  Kubrick’s “Lolita” is good… sort of.  The b/w photography is full of rich grays, luminous whites, and velvety blacks equal to “Dr. Strangelove”.  The camera work is great.  Sue Lyons is gorgeous.  But, Nelson Riddle’s score is light, silly, and overbearing to the point of whitewashing serious issues in the story. Combined with scenes nearly “Laurel & Hardy” in their presentation (such as Humbert and the hotel butler wrestling with a fold out cot, as Lolita sleeps), dilute and mock otherwise very intimate, taboo, disturbing ideas…which is the original intent of the book, in my opinion.
Yes yes, Kubrick was up against the standards of 1961, but that is an INSUFFICIENT explanation.  The film was originally restricted, and with that signal, we can assume everyone agreed that the subject matter of “Lolita” was serious, mature stuff.  To then treat ANY component or scene with silliness seems aesthetically mistaken.  Was Kubrick trying to add irony?  Sarcasm?  I doubt it.  The film is not “set up” that way.  There ARE lots of dialog innuendos (tame by contemporary standards), but, AGAIN, they’re improperly presented as nearly the reading matter of bathroom joke books.  Har har.  Tee hee.
Kubrick leaves out a VERY important section from the book, which gives us crucial insights into the childhood of Humbert – setting up his entire psychological future!  He’s not a pervert.  He’s a man whose growth froze at age 14 due to a great loss at a very important time in his life.  He’s stunted, sad, confused, broken, and full of deep longing.  Despite his own intellectualization about those years, emotionally he hasn’t moved a single step forward.  Lyne’s version gives us those insights so we can not only watch the “Lolita” story unfold, but understand it.  Kubrick ignored it.
Under Kubrick, Shelley Winters plays Lolita’s mother, and as you might expect, does it in her typical (her only?) over-the-top, harpy style.  None the less, it works well enough for the story.  James Mason plays Humbert Humbert, which I don’t quite
believe.  He’s too removed, too intellectual without revealing much emotion…and it’s EMOTION that drives H.H. down his long, destructive path.  Peter Sellers has the role of Clare Quilty, the play-write.  He is ever-present (with a relentlessly visible and entirely useless Beatnik ‘wife’), and takes on numerous “identities” while stalking Lolita and messing with Humbert’s mind.  Although this COULD have been dramatic, it tends to be Peter Sellers-style shtick comedy – which is entirely out of place – because we KNOW Quilty IS a pervert and a sadist, who cares nothing for other humans.  Sellers was terribly miscast.  Sue Lyons, although beautiful, acts less like Lolita’s 14 years, and more like someone else (or herself) at 18.  She’s a little too sophisticated, savvy, and self-aware.  Lyon’s acting range is narrow, which limits the 14 year old character from being the moody, quirky, schizy, silly, deadly, unpredictable, awkward, sexy mess of a girl-woman.
I feel certain that the author Nabokov would give the nod to Adrian Lyne’s depiction of his book.  I’m sure the author was glad to see Kubrick do what he DID, but with the comparison WE can NOW make, there’s very little about which to waiver.  Lyne, his film-making team, and the actors, win.  Lyne managed to tell a more coherent story, with much more emotion, no distractions or side trips, in an aesthetically tight manner, with appropriate and talented actors.  (Though there are small continuity slip-ups.  Watch the flat tire scene as they are traveling the mountains, her brilliant red lipstick as she and Humbert violently kiss in the motel room…)
(Earlier comments of mine about Lyne’s version):  “I see this film about once a year.  The fact that ANYONE would have the AUDACITY to even TRY to take on a film already so DEFINED – ICONIC – especially by Stanley Kubrick – shocks me.  Next, that ANY attempt could even possibly equal the original?  Oh my god!  And, that this version FAR OUT-PERFORMS the original!?!  How could this BE?!  I believe THIS is the film version of “Lolita” author Vladimir Nabokov would have approved (and perhaps Kubrick as well) but could NOT produce it in those earlier years.  The subjects are delicate right from get-go.  To choose Jeremy Irons as the haunted, tortured Humbert Humbert was perfect.  That’s his territory.  To then choose a new actress – indeed, Dominique Swain was introduced in THIS film – was not only risky, but, Swain had to play the 14 year old Lolita while she (Swain) WAS 14.  The scenes in which she not only participated but had to ‘understand’ in order to effectively perform astound me.  When I read background about the making of these delicate scenes, I’m impressed with the efforts made to keep everyone comfortable in otherwise tense, awkward situations so crucial to the story.

Watch also for the witty, often subtle symbols used to depict various states of mind and sexuality, or as warnings of things to come… a finger gently inserted into and tugging at the leather loop of a dog leash; night moths unable to deny the brilliance of an electric zapper - dying a gloriously violent death; Lo’s teeth retainer tossed into “Hum’s” cool summer drink; insects stuck to a curl of fly paper; the nightmare of dripping water wearing a hole through soap; the bananas; on and on…
Melanie Griffith plays “Lo’s” mother, and does a fine job but it is a “short-lived” role.  THIS film is all about Irons and Swain and what they do so flawlessly and intensely – bringing sadness – GREAT SADNESS – loneliness, sexuality, confusion, guilt, passion, humor, melancholy, and tragedy to us.  Backing it up is elegant camera work and editing (for the most part) – never overbearing or self conscious yet never common.  Scoring is by the master – Ennio Morricone – who has managed perhaps the definitive collaboration between visuals, dialog, and orchestration.  HE makes the psychic wounds unable to heal.  His music is exquisite.

All this…and made for Showtime cable TEE-VEE??!  Let the stereotypes and snobbishness about television die the lonely death of an old stereotype!  This has all the Art and humanity one has any right to expect from a single work.

 

(A postscript:  Since her premier in “Lolita”, Dominique Swain has lead a career of grade-B films, cast unfortunately as the nymphet/sex object, but without the intelligence of her first, wonderful role.  As of this writing, Swain would be about 24 years old.  There is STILL plenty of time to DUMP her agent and get someone with good judgment who can guide her career with the respect it deserves.)  WOTO & WOTO, IMDB

 “The Good Earth” (again, 1937):  There are things about this film I LOVE… and things I “hate”.  The cinematographer, Karl Freund, was brilliant.  Each frame is beautifully composed, moved, and lit.  The photography also has that 30’s style I’m prone to think was the finest decade of b/w photography with its strong sense of light, all those silvery grays with flashes of white and black, and the upshots of people looking off into their futures.  Romantic and artistic both.  The story itself, a Pulitzer Prize winner for Pearl S. Buck, is a huge arc – an Epic – and though somewhat predictable for the era of the Great Depression, it’s strong.  Okay, now we have to talk about makeup and acting.  A stage play was first created from the book, and it shows here.  The makeup was designed to be seen from the back row of a theater, NOT close to a lens.  It’s AWFUL.  The acting is stiff, posed, and exaggerated – again, designed for the back row not the lens.  So “The Good Earth” is truly a mixed bag of results (but winning at least two Oscars).  The cinematography is worth the price of admission as far as I’m concerned.  The story holds up.  You’ll need great tolerance for the makeup and acting.  Determine your priorities from here…

“Best in Show” (again, 2000):  There is NO such thing as a bad Christopher Guest movie.  His mockumentaries are fresh, incredibly dry, hilarious, full of insight, and always focused in on small, flawed fish in small, polluted ponds – who have really big faith in themselves.  Superb.  “Waiting for Guffman” and “A Mighty Wind” remain my favorites, but “Best in Show” takes a red ribbon.  Guest is always willing to let his talented actors improvise.  They team up for such subtle and insane small moments I am nearly speechless at what I see and hear.  I try not to laugh nearly as much as I want for fear of missing the next lightning fast moment.  WOTO

“The King of Masks” (Chinese, 1999):  Nearly epic, this drama follows an old man who makes a meager living as a street performer.  He is masterful at what he does, and desperately wants to pass his “secrets” on to a son – tradition requiring this be done only from an elder male to a younger male.  Through bizarre circumstances, he ends up with a boy… but, after all, this is not the solution he sought.  “The King of Masks” is thoughtful, brutal, tender, clearly NOT of our culture, fascinating, and emotional.  Photography is sometimes gorgeous, scoring is delicate and moving, and the acting is often so effective it loses its “foreignness” and reaches “universal”.

“Beijing Bicycle” (again, Chinese, 2002):  This is a “pure” film.  Don’t believe the blurb written about it: Two boys learn sharing through the use of one bicycle.  The blurb couldn’t be MORE WRONG.  This story has one of the smoothest, most linear, singularly focused goals I’ve experienced in a film since “The Field”.  There are no plot twists, no what-ifs, no “oh my god, I had no idea THAT was happening!” moments.  “Beijing Bicycle” is a simple, yet symbolic film about a young man who comes to the big city, gets a job as a bicycle messenger, and things quickly go from uncomfortable, to bad, to awful, to worse it seems.  “Guei” (the messenger) wasn’t raised to recognize the ways of a metropolis – which tries to chew him up piece by piece.  We get to “know” other characters who we believe (along with Guei) ARE who they appear to be.  “Beijing Bicycle” has to be the finest expression of what I would expect to be the current set of fears by those in China who see their future as an unknown, with the “replacement model” being the U.S.A. and/or (?) their long-time enemy, Japan.  This story expresses the huge doubts caused by the loss of Mao and the Communist-controlled way of life.  Even if it WASN’T perfect, it was familiar, and many of these “new world” issues did not happen Back Then.  Those who are (literally) “buying” into the free market concepts are losing their pride, identities, and souls.  Watch for the slow, steady transitions of situations and characters.  Watch for the symbols of decadence, unhealthy living, improper greed, corruption, and sadness – all within a small group of teens.  WOTO IMDB

“Don’t Look Back” (French/Italian, 2009):  Written and directed by Marina de Van, starring Sophie Marceau and Monica Bellucci, this film is going to do the “INKBLOT” on you, just like it did my wife and I.  She saw an eventual story line that helped clarify the superbly created disorientation.  I saw a psychological state in need of further transformation.  You will meet a woman and her family.  Her ability to recognize the reality she has come to accept begins to falter, then collapse.  She sets out on a journey to “understand”.  You see the entire world through her eyes.  You become just as disoriented.  It is very disconcerting, especially in this “era” of additional threats by Alzheimers disease.  Then again, is this a horror film, a sci-fi, a fantasy?  I say no.  I’m going to stand behind my opinion for now… but what I CAN say (with less vagueness) is the lead actors are amazing, especially Marceau, and you will be glued to “Don’t Look Back” even when confused.

“Stanley & Iris” (again, 1989):  Robert DeNiro and Jane Fonda star in this story about the working class Struggle with Life – hard working people who can just barely get by, each with their limits and lacks.  These two actors brought it to life.  Jane Fonda is AMAZING in this one, and it’s a real pleasure to see DeNiro in a subdued, gentle role.  I’m not a big fan of heavily scored films, but this one, by John Williams, for all of its sweeping orchestral work, seems somehow perfect.  “Stanley and Iris” is a story of common people with sad stories who work hard to find the joy.  WOTO

“The Graduate” (again, 1967):  Written by Mike Nichols and Buck Henry, directed by Mike Nichols, set décor by George Nelson.  Though VERY much OF its Time, “The Graduate” has held up surprisingly well over the last 45 years.  Its look at upper class wealth – the emptiness, hypocrisy, and pent-up frustrations – remains hilarious and tragic.  We are left “rooting” for the youngsters trying to find their way out of the maze of tantalizing, mind-numbing offers to continue status quo.  Was Dustin Hoffman ever really that young?  (Yes!)  Was Katharine Ross ever cuter?  (No!)  Was Anne Bancroft ever edgier?  (I’ll have to think about that…)  This film was somewhat shocking in its time, the subplots continue to make us squirm uncomfortably, and the social class / age divisions remain hilarious and awkward.  This time around I noticed some of the witty editing, camera uses, tiny continuity problems, and the terribly overused music by Simon & Garfunkle.  See if you can spot the one-second no-name premier of Richard Dreyfuss, and note the large number of character actors who would go on to have larger (not necessarily more respected) recognition.  WOTO

 “The Big Lebowski” (again, 1998):  Unique films come from the Coen Brothers, and this is one of them: a twisted comedy – dark, ridiculous, grounded in the common but far from it, these characters move within their little world like mice being tested in a maze by a sadistic, sarcastic, smart ass god.  Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Julianne Moore, John Turturro, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and others create a skewed but believable scenario of bowling, beer, and possible crime.  Oh, plus, this film MUST hold the world’s record for use of the word “fuck”… and every single time was absolutely necessary… at least in the world of “The Dude” and his buddies.  It’s all they got, man.  That… and their balls.  WOTO

“The Dresser” (1983):  I seem to remember hearing good things about this film back in ’83, but I never followed up on it.  Only now, 29 years later, have I seen it… and it is AMAZING.  Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay star as an aging, weakening Shakespearian actor and his incredibly dedicated assistant (“dresser”).  This story is a poem to the theater, very intense, sometimes funny, often pathetic and maddening, and very sad.  Set in WWII Britain, we follow a well-worn stage troupe as everyone tries to put on another performance of Shakespeare while outside German bombs fall and inside the leader (Finney) screams unreasonable demands and hallucinatory thoughts.  His collapse seems imminent… his assistant (Courtenay) thinks otherwise… and the curtain will rise in short order.  This film has nearly the intensity of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”, if that tells you anything.  WOTO

“Hero” (again, 1992):  Full of stars and soon-to-be’s, this is a hilarious, witty, and cynical view of the media, fame, reputation, and truth.  In this one, Dustin Hoffman nearly matches his sleaze role as “Ratso” in “Midnight Cowboy”, Geena Davis is great as the driven tee-vee reporter, Andy Garcia is the opportunist who carries the lies, and everyone seems to be naively under our microscope.  “Hero” reminds me of “Wag the Dog” – ALSO a sharp commentary on hype and propaganda.  WOTO

“Rome Open City” (Italian, 1945):  Directed by Roberto Rossellini, cowritten with Federico Fellini.  Here begins Italian Neo-Realism in film making.  Created DURING WWII and only months after the German occupation of Rome, this is a rough, crude look at life there, then.  My short review is not the place or time to discuss how “Neo-Realism” came about, but I DO suggest some homework prior to viewing this work, which will give you needed insight and the start of an acquired taste.  The dvd put out by Criterion / Janus has some excellent special features about that era, interviews with Rossellini and others, and very insightful points of view on what set “the stage” for such a radical shift in film making.  As for the film, it has its powerful moments and scenes of good acting, but stands more for its contribution to change and history in Art.

“The Help” (2011):  It’s 1961-62 in Mississippi.  There are poor black servants and comfortable white employers.  A young woman – hoping to become a writer – wants to create book of interviews with black maids who describe their lives as second class, background help.  Okay.  We’ve seen plenty of films about 1950’s / 60’s segregation and integration.  We’ve seen plenty of films about the systemic racism found especially in the southeast U.S..  This story is powered from the viewpoint of the maids, and many of the scenarios are expected.  Many of the characters are essentially one-dimensional stereotypes: all the black adults are all heroically patient and tight-lipped in their suffering, and all the white adults are evil and stupid.  THIS did little for me.  HOWEVER, the acting of ALL the lead and support actors is SUPERB.  SO good, I’d see “The Help” again just for the acting.  Really.  The acting is SUPERB.

“The Killer Inside Me” (2010):  Casey Affleck stars as a 1950’s west Texas sheriff who begins to lead a double life which escalates as local pressures ask more and more from him, and his psyche descents into darker and darker places.  Adapted from Jim Thompson’s novel, and directed by Michael Winterbottom, costarring Kate Hudson and Jessica Alba, this is a low-key, fascinating, explosive character study most notable for the overlay of first-person narration (the thoughts of the sheriff).  It is a tense, sometimes violent film made even more so by the easy going lulls and the seeming perpetual drive of a distorted mind.  Affleck, Hudson, and Alba are fantastic.  There is a 1975 film version of this same novel.  I have not seen it.

“City Lights” (again, 1931):  I am not a die-hard fan of Charlie Chaplin, but this one – with its comedy and romantic pathos – along with “Modern Times” – a social satire – are both wonderful in their own ways.  “City Lights” was his last “silent” movie (though he wrote and used a recorded score and a few other sound effects as the bridge) into his “talkie” film career.  Chaplin’s sense of composition, choreography and timing can be wonderful, but watch out – he can really beat to death a joke.  His co-star, Virginia Cherrill, the Beautiful Blind Girl, is glowingly lovely and equals or betters Chaplin in subtle gestures, especially in close-up shots.  The story has a straight line, but weaves about as it gets there, with additional characters and scenarios providing pure entertainment in a contemporary, 1931 Art Deco urban environment.  It’s a wonderful “just go for the ride” comedy and romance with a knock-out ending worth the entire trip.  He also loads in a few comments about social class, World War I, the Depression era economy, and, in an almost dismissible way (to us now), a scene with integration of the races.  Chaplin was no slacker, that’s for sure.  WOTO

“Auto Focus” (2003):  Assuming this is an accurate biography, it’s a sad one indeed.  Bob Crane (Greg Kinnear), “star” of the lame 1960′s t.v. sit-com “Hogan’s Heroes”, is a mediocre talent awash in a growing self-delusion, and, has an addiction to porn.  His best friend – his “connection” (Willem Dafoe) – is a cutting edge video tech, who helps his obsession in new ways.  Everyone gets something from this deal… EXCEPT his wives (Rita Wilson, Maria Bello) and kids.  He’s a has-been in no time, but it takes years to finish the easily foreseen downward spiral.  Even Crane sees it coming.  He’s “addicted” and he’s not going to change.  He has plenty of time… but, at every turn, chooses to be doomed.  Lead actor Greg Kinnear is amazing.  He carries the film.  Willem Dafoe and Rita Wilson are also good.  This is NOT a film for kids.  If you have the Special Edition dvd including the documentary on the follow-up fourteen years later, make sure to watch it also.  WOTO

“Overnight” (2004):  Documentary.  This film follows a group of young men who are musicians.  During spare moments, one of them writes what he feels is a good movie script (called “The Boondock Saints”).  Overnight, they become “stars” on the rise, schmoozing and boozing with the big names.  Can they handle it?  Will the movie be produced?  Will their band get a cd?  This is a fascinating look aimed at one of the men who claims to be the leader, the spokesman, and the boss.  He has a foul mouth, a drinking problem, and an ego problem – yet it seems like everyone is rubbing his shoulders to make sure they get a piece of this or that action.  You will want to laugh, but you’ll mainly wince.  WOTO

and, because of seeing “Overnight”, I decided to rewatch “Boondock Saints” (which is my collection):

“The Boondock Saints” (again, 1999):  As violent as “Pulp Fiction”, with characters nearly as quirky and interesting, this story is one of cops, mafia, and vigilantes, but with a slant you probably haven’t seen before.  Sure, there ARE bad guys, and they do bad things… and SOMETHING needs to be done about them… but what, and by whom?  Willem Dafoe, Sean Patrick Flanery, Norman Reedus, David Della Rocco,
and Billy Connolly star in this Shakespearian/Peckinpahish/Tarantinoesque tale of Righteousness.  “The Boondock Saints” is a stylish film – almost too stylish, considering the barely and only occasionally comedic but always dark content – with scoring that is layered thick over the action.  DaFoe’s acting is totally quirky, over the top and enjoyable as a CIA Agent with no one to rein him in.  Think “Pulp Fiction” set on the mean streets of lower middle class Irish Brooklyn or Jersey City.  WOTO

“Men of Honor” (again, 2000):  I don’t use this term often:  INSPIRATIONAL.  Robert DeNiro does his usual, masterful job of being a complex hard ass.  Cuba Gooding Jr. knocked me out.  He was superb.  The concept is simple:  Don’t give up in the face of any adversity… and man, there was enough adversity here for a hundred men, but in this true story, it was all piled on one man.  If it weren’t a true story, it would be unbelievable.  Its Hollywood treatment (irrational/convenient editing, excessive/sweeping music score, speeches where there should be dialog, etc.), downgrades its real life truth – which is dramatic and real.  You WILL be both very ashamed AND very proud to be a member of the human species.  You will wish (and doubt) you have the courage and strength of Carl Brashear.  Through Gooding, Brashear gives you something for which you can aim.  DeNiro and Gooding (plus strong supporting actors, Michael Rappaport, Hal Holbrook, Charlize Theron…) give grit to what is otherwise silver screen sheen.  These actors and the truth behind “Men of Honor” are why I stand by this film.  WOTO

“The Interrupters” (2011):  This is a documentary about a group of ex-cons who decide to organize as a group to literally step between warring individuals, families, and gangs in Chicago.  It is intense, sad, frustrating, and hopeful.  It is ugly, pathetic, maddening, and – on the rare occasion – funny.  These people – the “Interrupters” – are NOT paid nearly enough to do what they do… but they did not join with money as their first goal.  They first need to right wrongs in which they were a part.

“Winterset” (1936):  First a stage play (winning the Pulitzer Prize) then a screenplay by the same writer – Maxwell Anderson – this early, pre-Noir-style work called for Depression Era fairness for those who suffered the most.  Set in dark stone hovels under the Brooklyn Bridge during a cold, relentless period of rain and sleet, we are first shown the problems immigrants faced in this country (a la Sacco and Vanzetti), then fast-fowarded to contemporary 1936.  We now understand the motives of the main characters (starring a young Burgess Meredith, Margo (who you may remember from Capra’s film “Lost Horizon”), Eduardo Ciannelli, Maurice Moscovitch, Paul Guifoyle, John Carradine, Mischa Auer, and Edward Ellis).  The sets are dark, dank, claustrophobic, and reek of stink and poverty.  The scoring supports nicely (nominated for an Oscar).  Scenes such as the people dancing on cobblestones to a calliope (and the resulting tension) add another desperate, almost surreal flavor.  Add in a touch of gangster / Greek tragedy, and a few moments of grandiose speeches (in the style of “Grapes of Wrath”).  For what could now be called its “overly expressive” moments, it keeps your attention, offers unique resolutions, is NOT dime-a-dozen entertainment, and has you thinking about it long after.  It received the Venice Film Award for photography.  Anderson also wrote “Key Largo” and “The Bad Seed”.  For me, this was a wonderful surprise of a film about which I’d never heard a word.  WOTO

“The Devil’s Double” (2011):  Part documentary, part recreated history, part fiction; this is a look inside the depraved life of Uday Hussein (son of Saddam) during the 1980’s (before the fall of Iraq’s regime).  Decadent, psychopathic, violent, self-serving… this only begins to describe the Hussein family.  We see their world through the eyes of a man forced to become a “double” for Uday.  It’s a true nightmare.  The production quality of this film is quite good.  Work with photography, lighting, scoring, and editing are effective.  Lead actors are strong.  Some of the visuals are not for the squeamish, but you cannot stop watching the surreal lives of these mortals delusional with power.  Continuity was occasionally questioned, but I might be mistaken.  Think of this as a Middle Eastern political kingdom gangster movie a la “The Godfather” based in fact.

“American Graffiti” (again and again, 1973):  Because of how its been used for the last forty years I’ve come to hate the “N” word, but this was perhaps the first “Nostalgia” film made by and for the Baby Boom generation.  As we reached our twenties, much of the 1960’s had gone increasingly sour for everyone.  John, Martin, Robert, and Malcolm were assassinated; Jimi, Janis, Jim, Tim, and Nick killed themselves; our cities were burning; Johnson and Nixon were yet to be confirmed as liars, and their Viet Nam war dragged on without a plan or an end in sight.  The tag line for “American Graffiti” seemed especially poignant: “Where were you in ’62?” – 1962 being chosen for its status as the “last year of innocence” before the assassination of J.F.K. – which was the beginning of the end of assumed optimism.  For its contemporary audience, “American Graffiti” was set a mere ten years earlier.  It gives us people, places, situations, and emotions common to many of us.  This film tells the story of a few teens in a small town on their last evening as a life-long Group of very close friends… a profound, frightening, and sad turning point each of us must face.  Futures loomed but there remained one last, thoughtful, panicky, manic night.  “American Graffiti” is usually not credited for its experiments and innovations (right up to its “epilogue”), but try and find a film that does it earlier.  George Lucas started with a bang.  WOTO

 “Bitter Harvest” (or “How Harry Became a Tree”)(Irish, 2001):  IMDB.com has this film listed as a drama.  Netflix: a dark comedy.  IMDB is correct.  Set in the small, rural village of Skillet, Ireland, in 1924, this is the story of stupid, petty people who make things worse for themselves on a daily basis.  We all know such folks, but it becomes interesting to watch their destructive processes when we are at a safe distance from the mess.  Beautiful photography and bleak landscapes provide the look for a damp, chilly, stick-and-mud existence pockmarked by petty thinking and the idiotic need for stimulation of any kind.  Well acted, beautifully lit, and fantastically designed ramshackle huts and décor set the tone to remind us our small ideas can lead to big results.

“I’ll Cry Tomorrow” (again, 1955):  Susan Hayward won Best Actress at Cannes, and an Oscar nomination for her role as Lillian Roth – a rising star who discovers booze.  She’s on a one-way slide downhill for much of this story, with glimmers of delusional alcoholic faith, earnest attempts to go straight, frightening bottoming-outs, and a stumble into AA.  Hayward and the supporting cast deserved all the attention they received.  This is the real stuff.  The acting is occasionally “theatrical”, but easily justified when seen as part of the characters’ personalities.

”Rabbit Hole” (2010):  From the Pulitzer Prize winning stage play comes this film version starring Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart, Dianne Wiest, and other talented established and new actors.  This is one usually quiet but always painful story of a middle aged couple, the traumas they have faced and continue to face, those who surround them, those who share similar circumstances, and EVERYONE trying to cope as best they can.  No one escapes unscarred.  No one receives all the scars.  It is what it is… “like a brick in your pocket”.

“Pan’s Labyrinth” (again, Spanish, 2006): won 3 Academy awards.  They were deserved… but I suspect the film leaves quite a few audience members scratching their heads.  The story has two strings – one historical, about the end of WWII in Spain when those in power are trying to clear out the last of the rebels, and, one increasingly fantastic, about a young girl who stumbles into a world of mystery, threats, and very strange events.  It will move back and forth from one set of “realities” to the other: dark Fact and dark Faerie Tale.  Think of one as the ADULT stage for the Struggle, and the other as the CHILDS’.  Political and archetypal.  The character and set designs are interesting – wonderfully unique, bizarre, dark, and frightening.  THIS IS NOT a movie for young children.  NO.  It is violent and full of visualized nightmares.  WOTO IMDB

“Raising Victor Vargas” (again, 2002):  Grandma has the job of raising her three grandkids.  The parents are gone.  That’s all we know.  Victor is the oldest of the kids, and the role model.  They do not live under the best of circumstances, but traditional Grandma is determined to keep them decent.  Set in contemporary
ghetto lower east side NYC, “RRV” is a slice-of-life look at the typical struggles of typical teens during a typical week.  It is an intimate and honest look, with surprisingly subtle acting from new, young actors Victor Rasuk, Judy Marte, Melonie Diaz, Kevin Rivera, Silvestre Rasuk, and Wilfree Vasquez.  It has real heart, and finds a way to present it without cliches or banging you over the head.  Very nice.  WOTO

“Matchstick Men” (again, 2003):  Nicholas Cage, Alison Lohman, and Sam Rockwell star in this interesting story of con artists and the people they con, love, hate, or about whom they’re ambivalent… not to mention how they feel about themselves… not to mention the complexity of the con.  Cage plays another quirky character inside a twisty-turny but seemingly direct plot that provides interest and a few new thoughts about the nature of relationships.  All the leads and supporting cast do wonderful jobs, and some of the biggest surprises and loosest ends do get tied up at the very end, I promise!  WOTO

“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939):  Preceding “It’s a Wonderful Life”, “Mr. Smith…” is a huge, powerful, romantic, painful story of one small, naive man against the savvy big and many.  Jimmy Stewart is a patsy of a new Senator for the hardened, graft-filled U.S. Senate.  He has no clue what’s being done to him.  The “Machine” is chewing him up… and then the film gets rolling.  It is NOT a pretty sight.  This, like “It’s a Wonderful Life”, first appears to be full of overused, sugary ideas and lost ideals.  But the film won’t let you go when you reach that easy point.  You are pushed beyond your current little bitterness about what Life has delivered and begin seeing the Bigger Picture: We all matter, we all play a part, we all have potential, and we all must be brave.  And, it’s true.  Don’t let a 1939 film fool you.  THAT audience had been and was facing much tougher circumstances than for which WE in 2012 would seemingly ever have the guts.  Frank Capra was hitting his stride and speaking for all humans.  He made masterpieces, this was one of them, and you will be less without it.  WOTO

”State of the Union” (1948):  Originally a stage play (and in the film you can see and hear those roots), this movie version was created by Frank Capra.  Starring Katherine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Angela Lansbury, and a huge cast of character actors (often seen in Capra films), this is the story of an already powerful, wealthy man who, though hesitant, is convinced by political groomers and glommers he should run for President of the United States.  Slowly he is brought along to the point of … well, I’m not going to ruin it for you, but I will say the film is listed as a comedy – and there ARE comedic moments – but it’s mainly a very edgy, angry look into politics and greed.  I may prefer “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” as another Capra work with similar interests, but “State of the Union” is a good, tough film that reminds everyone what America has tried to be when at its best.  And, it IS a primer for anyone who wants insight into the political system.

“Happy Times” (Chinese, 2002):  Though this film is billed as a “comedy”, and IS often funny, “Happy Times” begins with one scenario and attitude, and slowly, steadily changes into others.  You would be right to expect the director of “Raise the Red Lantern” – Zhang Yimou – to take you to thoughtful and emotional places within lives always more complex than unsophisticated stories allow.  This is a unique, funny, tender, aggravating, pathetic, maddening, warm, elegant, and sad look at just a few of us… who this time happen to be in China.  WOTO

“Another Earth” (2011):  Starring a rough beauty – Brit Marling – and William Mapother.  DON’T let the previews give you the impression this is just another “sci-fi” flick intended to entertain teenaged boys or twenty-something stoners.  No.  This is a quiet, meditative, moody piece about Life.  We all make mistakes, we’re all stupid, we all cause pain, and none of us should get off light.  Then, along comes an event you certainly never expected, and it appears to offer you a fresh start or at least a way out.  Do you take it?  This is a patient, sad story with secrets and scars.  Highly recommended, especially for people who already appreciate Bergman, Herzog, Ozu, or Wenders, and don’t demand a simple resolution.

“Young Adult” (2011):  Starring Charlize Theron (who continues to prove she is one of our finest actresses) and an entire cast of talent who does the writing, casting, acting, set designing, filming, etc..  This is the story of a dreary, deluded mess of a young woman who supposedly has “everything” – living the high life in the Big City of the “Mini-Apple” (Minneapolis) – yet feels empty.  She decides to return to her home town and relocate (or steal, if necessary) her glory days.  Every admirable aspect of this film is aimed at depicting the desperation of a person on the verge of collapse who seems determined to smash against reality until she is shattered.  Believe it or not, much of it is humorous in a dark, pathetic way – a VERY pathetic way – an EMBARRASSING PATHETIC way – where the choice is either laugh or cry, get on with life or end it all.  I highly recommend “Young Adult” as one of the best of 2011.

“Chinatown” (again, 1974):  One of the finest neo-Noir crime dramas of all time, it was directed by Roman Polanski, and includes great acting by Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston, and a cast of wonderful character actors.  “Chinatown” has a webby, complex plot full of liars, cheats, and dead ends set in pre-WWII Los Angeles – a sleepy “little” town with growing pains caused by those who want to make the big money.  Made during the first American Art Deco REVIVAL, it uses great locations, and costuming that is solid but sometimes self-conscious.  Its overall tone is set right from the opening credits, and is carried through with costuming, score, lighting, props, and character details. (However, it does have a bad case of “clean car syndrome”, and I did spot one moment of discontinuity.  Hey, it’s a “sport” once you’ve seen a film 10 or 20 times…)  WOTO

“Birth of Flight” (British/Australian, 2010):  This is an 8 part, 7 hour documentary series on the history of airplanes.  Dull?  Hardly.  It’s packed full of spectacular, original film footage of every imaginable thing people thought they could get (and keep) in the air – from the wackiest (WHAT were you smoking?) to the most functional, beautiful, and powerful machines then on Earth.  It also looks at the people who designed, built, flew, and died for these grand efforts to stay aloft.  I can’t say anything kind for the scoring, but found the (South African?) pronunciation of some words interesting.  WOTO

“The Dark Corner” (1946):  Fine Noir thriller set in the gritty city of post-WWII New York – and the office of a down-n-out mug of an investigator who has his own history and ain’t all that proud of it.  Mark Stevens, Lucille Ball (BEFORE she was “Lucy”), William Bendix, and Clifton Webb star.  Lots of slam bang, hard shell, tough talkin’ men, wary women, shifty vixens, and weasely high hats.  And, expect some of the finest Noir lighting, shadows, textures, and compositions ever.  A feast of artistic black and white.

“Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father” (again, 2008):  This is an extremely complex, increasingly painful yet hopeful, sad yet joyous story about Evil vs Good.  It is about Love and Hate, and the Law vs Vengeance.  It is about the deepest of sadness and all of our attempts to make sense of its cause.  I don’t want to discuss the details.  See this documentary.

“Fur” (2006):  You need to go into this film with every bit of your Suspension of Disbelief in place.  Don’t know what I’m talking about?  Look it up and come back.  For all of us who are admirers of Diane (DEE-ann) Arbus’ photography of the 1960’s-70’s, THIS FILM IS NOT actually about her – and it says so right up front … sort of – it’s “an imaginary portrait” of the period of her life before she picked up the camera and went all the way down the rabbit hole.  Yes, it provides an excuse for how her previous world might have pushed her along, but it’s all fantasy, so don’t get attached to it.  Well then, if it’s NOT really about HER, who IS it about ? … It’s about artists and anyone else trying to expand their horizons, especially those who begin to understand it will mean discarding the comforts of their old lives.  It’s for those people who have secrets and nowhere to share them; people who are FORCED to BE secrets and must respond; and, people who oppress others and should reconsider their behaviors.  This is about facing one’s uniqueness with courage.  Nicole Kidman is great as always.  WOTO

“Animation Legend: Winsor McCay (date?):  If you want to see superbly drawn animation now over 100 years old, you must go to Winsor McCay.  HE IS The Man.  There is such JOY in his invention of this new technique called “the moving ink pen animation”, you cannot resist this “simple” but elegant work.  Although I prefer his sequential-frame cartoons one would have seen in magazines and newspapers of the time (they are, of course, much richer and more complex), the fact he was willing to make 25,000 individual pen & ink drawings for a short animated film is amazing.  You will also see he was the Source of inspiration for ALL animation to follow – from Disney and the Fleischer brothers and Robert Crumb to scenes later used in early object animation such as “King Kong”.

“Radio” (again, 2003):  As film fans, we can become so full of contemporary expectations about what makes a good film AT THE MOMENT, that if we’re not careful, we could overlook a gem like “Radio”.  It doesn’t have a twisty plot, surprise ending, special effects, imaginary creatures, anyone dancing across tree tops, or blood splattering everywhere.  It’s a true story about two men – a football coach (Ed Harris), and a young man who exists on the edge of society (Cuba Gooding Jr.) in a small town.  Bless both actors for signing on to this effort.  If you need a strong, emotional reminder about Priorities in Life, and want to FEEL inspired… heck, even if you just want to FEEL… and FEEL A LOT… see “Radio”.  Debra Wenger and others do solid work in their roles, which in this case, is to support the greatness of Harris, and the blinding brilliance of Gooding.  THIS alone caused me to watch “Radio” twice in one week when I first encountered it.  WOTO

“The End of the Affair” (again, 1999):  Ralph (pronounced “rafe”) Fiennes, Julianne Moore, and Stephen Rea star in a Neil Jordan film about love, honor, weakness, perspective, and forgiveness in war-torn London during WWII.  On the surface, this is a romantic drama involving a “triangle”, but it goes much deeper and shows wise sensitivity to the real complexities of Life.  Moore is, as always, amazing, with Fiennes and Rea close behind.  This story requires attention from start to finish as it reveals various perspectives which slowly answer most of your questions.  It is a weighty film with lots of longing and darkness, rainy nights, V-1 bombs dropping from the rarely sunny skies of Britain, and people following people trying to understand other people.  The making of the film includes strong photography with an astounding sense of color, a rich (though somewhat unexplored) score, continuity and detailing of the highest order, and dialog that will make you wish you’d “thought of that” or that you could remember it next time it’s needed.  This film may end up in my top category yet…  WOTO

“Facing Windows” (Italian, 2003):  A young, working class couple encounters an older man who has lost his memory.  He ends up in their home.  Here discoveries are slowly made through splinters of his memories, scraps of paper, and the woman’s attempts at sleuthing.  Everyone has their secrets, everyone has their talents, everyone has their weaknesses.  This is an interesting, passionate, sad, and fulfilling story.  WOTO

“Kinsey” (again, 2004):  Liam Neeson and Laura Linney star as the awkward but intellectually curious couple who stumble into the long-needed idea of sex research – an investigation which continues to this day.  The process of their reaching the concepts, beginning the surveys, expanding the research, gathering “followers”, and fighting for funding is an interesting story.  Completely woven into this set of linear events is a second one: that of Professor Kinsey’s character – his childhood, sexual orientation, his Obsessive/Compulsive disorder, his inability to leaving his topics for the mundane niceties of dinner chat… which made him less and less someone to “invite”, and always present – the effects of his domineering and demeaning father, played brilliantly by John Lithgow.  Laura Linney is one of my favorite actresses, and she does not disappoint.  This is a truly great character study driving an interesting historical cultural shift.  WOTO

“Christ Stopped at Eboli” (Italian, again, 1979):  Directed by Francesco Rosi.  This is an interesting, quiet film about being imprisoned in a place no one would willingly go – in this case, the poorest, least productive and educated, most diseased, remote regions of southern Italy.  Set in Mussolini’s 1930’s Fascist environment, a political prisoner – an artist – urbane and educated – is banished to and must remain in such a place within his own country.  Here, his former cosmopolitan life is of little use.  He struggles with and learns from the local people who seldom have contact with the outside else except an occasional letter from relatives who escaped to America.  “Christ Stopped at Eboli” is worth your consideration on numerous levels – photography, acting, dialog, scoring, subtlety, and political implications.  My one constant problem with 70’s color films, especially Italian, is their quality of production.  Perhaps it was the growing use of video tape recording.  Plus, the dvd I viewed this time was a digitized copy of what I believe was a vhs copy of a vhs copy of the film, which had colors and lights and darks shifting, admirable but flawed translations, and an odd echo to some of the studio sound effects added later.  IF there IS a restored version, make sure it is your choice.  WOTO

“Half Nelson” (again, 2006):  Starring a very effective Ryan Gosling, and talented young actress, Shareeka Epps.  Gosling is a middle school teacher and a girl’s basketball coach.  Epps is his student and a loner, even on his b-ball team.  She seems to need him, and he responds by caring for her.  Then she makes a discovery about her teacher – her favorite teacher – someone almost like a friend.  She also has a mother who works double shifts as an EMT, and a “father” who is far from a good influence.  She has what she has.  THESE are the three adults in her life.  THESE are the adults who matter in her life.  Exactly WHO IS caught in this “half nelson” grip?  This is a low-key, nicely scored, grittily photographed, slow-to-reveal, slow-to-change story full of set-backs, little insights, sadness, and glimmers of decency and hope.  It is a very fulfilling experience.   WOTO IMDB

“Devil’s Playground” (documentary, 2002):  The title refers to the world OUTSIDE the Amish community – according to the Amish.  This is a look at much of Amish culture / religion in America, but focuses on the youth – especially those age 16 and above who are allowed to visit or join “the world” beyond their community, and experience as much of the Devil’s Playground as they choose.  This is the period (“Rumspringa”) in which they decide if they want to join the Amish church, and if so, make final preparations to forsake ALL outside life.  As you can imagine, it is both frightening and exotic for all of them, with terrible, predictable, and interesting results.

“Tsotsi” (again, South African, 2005):  Winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film 2005, enter it knowing you’ll be slammed with stress… but don’t run away.  “Tsotsi” is totally worth your effort.  You will follow one teenager and his feral buddies, all existing (and nothing more) in the deepest squalor of shanty town Johannesburg, South Africa.  These “children” are worse than vultures, and for them life has no meaning, no value.  By pure, violent, chance, Tsotsi finds himself on a new road without a map.  His careening along MAY or may NOT lead towards a flawed version of Redemption.  I was absolutely riveted to this film, and amazed at the unique power offered by some of the scenes.  The acting by all, and especially by the young lead Presley Chweneyagae, was all-consuming.  I may put this film in my top category after another viewing or two.  WOTO IMDB

Eames – The Architect and The Painter” (again, 2011):  This is a documentary, and a very good one.  It describes the complex career of designers Charles and Ray Eames, the brilliance of their ideas and products, their roles in these collaborations, the power and notoriety they gained, and the seldom-mentioned dark clouds in their relationship.  The film also contains LOTS of interviews with other designers who worked UNDER them.  Yes, you’ll meet a shish kabob of valid egos with their points of view – all intelligent people.  There is NO doubt that the Eames’ helped make Modernism a truly practical and reachable philosophy through their total involvement with Design, not mere decorating.  Immersed in everything from materials and prototypes to production and marketing, they DEFINE a True Design team.  See this and understand more.

“Micmacs” (French, 2009):  By the same director who did “Amelie” and “City of Lost Children”, Jean-Pierre Jeumet.  The man has a vision, that’s for sure.  Full of absolutely unique sets, costuming, scenarios, and character stories, “Micmacs” could be said to have its roots in “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” mixed with “Mission Impossible” mixed with “Mystery Men” and an appreciation for Tim Burton and steam punk… BUT unmistakably Jeumet.  This is a comedic suspense crime drama running on revenge and overflowing with fantastically grimy detail… but always funny.  Weird.  WOTO

“In America” (again, 2002):  This is a SUPERB drama about a young Irish couple who moves to America (Hell’s Kitchen N.Y.), to start over with their two young daughters.  Is life difficult?  Oh yes… but, life is perhaps more difficult because of their pasts than the present.  We slowly learn more about each of these people – family and neighbors.  Tender, sad, funny, painful, very painful, gentle, maddening, poetic, mystical… the story is one of understanding, forgiveness, and the circle of Life.  ALL the actors (Paddy Considine, Samantha Morton, Djimon Hounsou), including the two young girls, are so GOOD that you don’t want the film – them – to go away.  It is written, photographed, and acted in such a delicate, balanced way, that you are constantly seeing “reality” from both the children’s and the parent’s points of view.  “In America” is a must-see.  It is brilliant and powerful.  I may put this one in my Top category.  It’s almost there now.  WOTO

“Frank Capra’s American Dream” (1997):  This documentary takes a thorough look at Frank Capra’s life and career as a director.  It’s the story of American opportunities.  His life is reviewed from pre-film involvement to his death, with much of the time studying his films, their meanings, the sub-texts, and the cultural atmosphere in which they grew.  I found this a fascinating film, well constructed, and full of insights.  If you like even one Capra film, this entire document will interest you.  If you think Capra films are “sappy” and you desperately NEED to cling to your belief, do NOT see this biography and critique.  WOTO

“Meet John Doe” (again, 1940):  Before Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” there was “Meet John Doe”.  Capra mortgaged his home to make this first independent film – gambling everything – while The Great Depression dragged on.  Europe was at war.  America was still undecided… and unattacked.  Capra had things to say, and he said them.  This story may lack some of the finesse of “…Wonderful Life,” but it’s a strong, socio/economic/political statement – not only about THAT era, but MOST times for MOST people in MOST places.  Capra made uncommonly good films about common people who HAD to fight to overcome their obstacles.  Gary Cooper improves with every moment of this story, finding his “zone” towards the end – as a brooding, doubting, disheartened but decent man.  Barbara Stanwyck is on her game throughout.  You’ll see many of Capra’s favorite character actors here, who joined him in film after film.  If you like “…Wonderful Life”, this one will be of great interest to you.  If you like the film version of “The Grapes of Wrath” (with Henry Fonda), you’ll probably feel this 1940 Capra effort was on equal footing.  WOTO

“Higher Ground” (first viewing, 2011):  Vera Farmiga isn’t merely beautiful, she’s a talented director and a great actress.  Combined with the writer of both the book (“This Dark World”) and the screenplay, this film is a powerful yet understated look at ambivalence and doubt.  Here the setting is organized religion, though many stages could be used for the subject.  I knew immediately I wanted to OWN this work.  It will do nothing but offer more rich insights each time I see it.  The entire cast is talented; the sets and costuming fantastic in their commonness; the dialog perfectly natural and the counterpoint to Farmiga’s subtle acting; the photography honest, informative, unpretentious.  This has it all.  It is humane, philosophical, psychological, emotional, and intelligent.  WOW.

“The Stranger” (again, 1946):  Starring and directed by Orsen Welles, with Edward G. Robinson and Loretta Young.  World War II had just ended.  Did an American audience want to see a film about Nazis who might now be infiltrating Middle Town America,  and the undercover agents trying to track them down?  I can’t say, but this is a GOOD cat-n-mouse suspense Noir with weasley bad guys slipping in and out of the shadows, hard nosed good guys that never seem to go away, and trusting, luminous gals (Wow, that Loretta Young!).  The photography is superb, the pacing good, the acting about what you’d expect for top stars in 1946 (Young is especially strong), with a story that couldn’t get more pertinent to that time.  WOTO

“Bob Roberts” (again, 1992):  This is a wonderfully sarcastic and dark mockumentary of a political campaign in Pennsylvania, between the arch-conservative, faux-Dylanesque newcomer Bob Roberts (Tim Robbins), and the tired, seen-it-all incumbent, Senator Paiste (Gore Vidal).  Also cast are Allen Rickman, Helen Hunt, Susan Sarandon, Jack Black, John Cusack, and many other talents that make this a totally satisfying, snide look at politics, spin-meisters, and event coverage.  I was especially impressed with Giancarlo Esposito as the very intense Left wing investigator conspiratorialist.  In an ironic, possibly accidental manner, the film’s attempts to skewer the Right (well deserved) make it equally easy to analyze the Left for the same thematic flaws such as greed, power, hypocrisy, media manipulation, spotlight hunger, etc..  WOTO

“Racing with the Moon” (again, 1984):  Richard Benjamin directed Sean Penn, Nicolas Cage, Elizabeth McGovern (all still in their teens?!) (and in minor roles: Crispen Glover, Carol Kane, Michael Madsen, and Dana Carvey)… in this “showcase” film, where lots of talent got a major boost.  Set in 1942 in a small seaside village, and only weeks before two best friends ship out to the Marines and the fury of WWII, we share intimate, funny, pathetic, sad, frightening, and ambivalent moments with flawed but decent people we come to believe we know and deep down just have to like.  This is a bittersweet story – not sugary nor hopeless.  It’s rich with mixed emotions and that confusing, frozen summer between children and adults.  Scoring is appropriate and nicely demure, photography is somewhat contrived in spots, but that was 1980’s.  The “truth” of the simple story, sets, décor, costumes, dialog and the talented actors are why you will appreciate “Racing with the Moon”.  Think of it as a unique film with relationships to “Stand by Me” and “Summer of ‘42”.  WOTO IMDB

“The Nutty Professor” (again, 1963):  Jerry Lewis was funny…and then he went out of fashion and was no longer funny.  The world changed right under him.  I’ve never been a big fan of his, but one film stands far above the rest, and THIS is the one.  In case you’ve seen only the Eddie Murphy take-off, do DO NOT think one replaces the other.  They do NOT.  ALL films are “period pieces” – since they cannot escape the era from which they were born – but “The Nutty Professor” captures not only the best of Lewis’ sense of humor, but, by pure chance, a time soon doomed.  Begun in late 1962, and completed in early/mid 1963, “The Nutty Professor” arrived during the last few moments of what I consider the “1950′s”.  Within a couple of months of its release, our President would be assassinated – and America would change SO dramatically, we continue to feel it today.  (And, by the next year, the Beatles would arrive.)  The 1960′s began.  So, this film of Jerry Lewis’, depicting an isolated, cloistered nerd of a professor; properly dressed conservative students; and, a greasy-headed cigarette-sucking Hugh Hefner rat-pack style sexist, were images that died alongside John F. Kennedy.  This is a FUNNY film, I laugh a lot, and stare even more at the astoundingly cute Stella Stevens, but underlying the characterizations come a queasy feeling – which, by my personal experiences, were relatively accurate – and deserve little nostalgia.  WOTO

“Winter’s Bone” (again, 2010):  With a very talented cast of actors, strong scoring, great photography, sensitive audio, sets that may have not been sets, costuming and makeup that is dead-on perfect, and… well, you know how something can feel so real that you can’t imagine someone created it?  This is everything in “Winter’s Bone”.  Set in the far-back country of Appalachia amongst people who have never been nowheres and figure they’s all family somehow or another, this is an evenly paced, ever-intensifying story of poverty, desperation, and trying to hang onto it because that’s all you got.  Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Dale Dickey, and others star.  This film rightly won the “Grand Jury Prize” at Sundance Film Festival.  WOTO

“You Don’t Know Jack – the Life and Times of Jack Kevorkian” (2010):  Doctor Death.  Murderer.  Human Rights.  The Mercy Machine.  Dr. Kevorkian.  Assisted suicide.  I went into this film with three biases: 1) I always thought Kevorkian was right, but; 2) I thought he was THE worst person to represent him(self) to the public and courts; and 3) I knew Al Pacino would be GREAT.  I saw nothing to change my mind on any of those points.  Directed by Barry Levinson, also starring Brenda Vaccaro, John Goodman, Susan Sarandon, and Danny Huston, and with Pacino as good as he was in “Serpico”, this was a totally rich, occasionally funny (!), but mainly very serious and often sad look the suffering of people and one man who tried to find a solution.  This is a totally significant experience.  WOTO

 

3.
“Hey, relax and ride the sofa”

 

 

“The General” (again, 1927): I love Buster Keaton, and I often enjoy silent films as an artistic alternative to the scream of many contemporary films. There are many witty moments in “The General”, but having recently also watched “Steamboat Bill Jr.” (made only one year later), I’m spoiled by its snappier pace and varied stunts. By comparison, “The General” needed trimming and more variety. I still enjoyed it, but found my thoughts wandering – and that’s not good. WOTO

“Wild Hogs” (2007): This is just plain hilarious, stupid fun if you like the subjects of men at their dopiest – in mid-life crisis – who decide to “get away from it all” on their motorcycles. It’s a “City Slickers” template with a rougher edge. Totally enjoyable. WOTO

Bongwater” (1997): Stoners, losers, lazy whiners – all lost souls wearing suits of bullshit. Laugh at them but seldom with them as they stumble through their useless daze and nights. Luke Wilson, Alicia Witt, Amy Locane, Brittany Murphy, Jack Black, Andy Dick, Jeremy Sisto, Jamie Kennedy, Scott Caan. WOTO

“The Secret Life of Girls” (1999): Starring Linda Hamilton and Eugene Levy. This is a “nostalgia-comedy-drama-meander” through the mid-1970’s. It does not have the depth of “Stand by Me”, “Summer of ‘42”, or “American Graffiti“, nor the intensity of “The Ice Storm”. Its goals are unfocused but there are great sets, some wit, and occasional insight accompanied by lots of ambivalence, silliness, and a complete lack of explanation why someone chose the title of this movie. Its okay on a lazy afternoon. WOTO

“Clockwise” (British, 1986): Starring John Cleese (of Monty Python) as a school headmaster who prides himself on being an accurate multi-tasker who‘s always in control. Naturally, the movie begins throwing more and more in his path as he tries to accomplish what he sees as a very important day. Unfortunately, the barriers quickly fall into predictable categories of shtick… sometimes entertaining, sometimes tiresome.

“Bless This Child” (2000):  Well, this is sort of a “Rosemary’s Baby” kind of movie, with Gothic overtones, lots of mystical Catholicism, punk rockers as Satan worshippers (embarrassing), and the Little Girl Who’s Different.  It’s not a bad story, it’s nothing super unique.  It’s a decent suspense/ghosty/spinning-things story with some pretty good special effects.  Kim Basinger stars, which is not a plus, but the director kept her bad acting subdued to the character.  WOTO

“Dragonfly” (2002):  This is a psychological suspense drama with ghosty twists to it.  It’s quite fun for the first 90%, then it begins falling apart, loses its edge, and goes entirely soft… sort of like bad sex.  None the less, it’s fun while it’s hard, hot, and heavy.  Go for the ride if you can’t find someone who promises a good finish.  WOTO

“The Testament of Dr. Mabuse” (again, German, 1933):  Although directed by Fritz Lang and considered one of his masterpieces, I found this one slow going at times.  Made in Germany as Hitler was coming to power, it’s not difficult to sense the unstoppable threat, relentless plotting, and contagious insanity “in the air” at that time.  The film was immediately banned in Germany, and Lang escaped Nazi oppression.  Dr. Mabuse (mah-BOOZeh) is a maniacal genius with huge, devious plots to destroy decent Germany and anyone in his way.  The acting is Expressionistically exaggerated, the sets and costumes are often wonderful (contemporary Bauhaus and Art Deco design), and the photography is strong with special effects that were, for the time, reasonably advanced and appropriate this hallucinatory story.  I LOVED the opening minutes with the relentless pounding and shaking of a worn-out industrial environment.  WOTO

“The Blue Bird” (1940):  THIS is an interesting film, but not for any other reason than the fact it’s fun to compare it to the film it ripped off – “The Wizard of Oz”.  Clearly an attempt to “cash in” on the success of “Oz”, this oddball fable takes all the “Oz” elements, puts them in a salad spinner, then a blender, then covers them in a different dressing, and call its “The Blue Bird”.  Shirley Temple is twelve years old here, and plays the role of a spoiled little bitch of a girl – which I’m sure she enjoyed after what her career had demanded from her up to then.  However, the public did not agree… thus, the obscurity of this curiosity.  Here’s the fun part: for all of you “Wizard of Oz” FANS, identifying and analyzing its bits and pieces shish kabobbed onto the “Bluebird” skewer would be a fun evening with friends.

“Gojira” (“Godzilla”) (Japanese, 1954):  Everyone’s heard of “Godzilla”, but few of us have heard of “Gojira”.  This was the movie made by the Japanese for the Japanese.  It is a much darker, better film than the simple, kitschy movie we “foreigners” know (which is why I have “Gojira” in THIS category and not the much lower “QUICK! DUCK!” list).  Keeping in mind the Japanese deserved loss of WWII – culminating in Hiroshima and Nagasaki – was only nine years earlier, “Gojira” is full of atomic references, mass destruction, and moral warnings aimed at the world, including criticisms by the Japanese for the Japanese.  Yes, the “special” effects are questionable to downright silly, but the INTENT of this film is not – and that is the striking difference which makes this a worthwhile, interesting view.

“Unknown” (2005):  This is an interesting crime suspense thriller set in an abandoned building out on the desert.  Inside, a number of men – bloody and unconscious – slowly wake to assume whatever bad happened isn’t over.  The problem is they can’t remember who they are, the nature of their relationships, or why they’re in this place – and they figure people they don’t want to know will return.  Oh, and there’s also the problem the building seems impossible to breach.  This is good, tense stuff.  Very entertaining.

“Jailhouse Rock” (1957):  There was the Edgy, Cool Elvis, the Lame Elvis, and the Fat, Drugged Elvis.  You want to see the pre-1960, Edgy Cool Elvis, and “Jailhouse Rock” fits the bill.  He’s a self-centered punk.  Cocky and dislikable.  Treats everyone like shit.  This one’s fun.  It’s not a great film, it’s a star-vehicle movie, but Elvis still had “It”.  Plus, the sets, hip jive, and feisty characters are swingin’, Daddy-O.  WOTO

“Planes, Trains and Automobiles” (again, 1987):  Steve Martin and John Candy star in this hilarious, gross, ridiculous, always almost believable and occasionally touching movie about two men – initially strangers to one another – trying to get home in time for Thanksgiving.  It’s a disaster… and my wife and I laugh a lot.  The choice of locations and peripheral characters are flawlessly bleak and mediocre.  The typical, overbearing Eighties music is there, of course.  Don’t let that stop you.  This is great fun.  WOTO

“Absolute Power” (again, 1996):  Taut, nicely paced crime/corruption suspense drama with Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Laura Linney, Ed Harris, E. G. Marshall, directed by Eastwood.  Set in Washington D.C., this one sets off a drama that spreads like poison through the lives of the innocent, suspected, and guilty.  Engaging and exciting.  WOTO

“Doctor Zhivago” (again, English, 1965):  I LOVE David Lean’s other British based films, such as “Bridge on the River Kwai” and “Lawrence of Arabia”.  They are profound.  However, I have problems with Zhivago.  Yes, it’s EPIC, beautifully photographed, made of amazing sets, and full of swollen moments… but I AM bothered at how the Russian Revolution is used as a back drop for a mere lusty affair.  (It is the same complaint I heard about the film “Pearl Harbor”, which I have not seen.)  I’ve also come to realize that Omar Sharif had little going for him except good looks (?) and those deer-caught-in-headlights staring eyes, which made all the girls go googlie.  All he does – all he’s capable of doing – is GAZING.  GAZING at any and every thing.  “Lara” (the mistress, played by Julie Christie, who made all the guys go googlie), has a daughter… well, PART of the time.  Whenever the little girl is inconvenient to the story, she simply vanishes – no longer exists – and the adults play at being single for as long as they want.  I learned that all Russians – at least back during WWI – spoke with heavy British accents!… except for the Russian prisoner on the train, played by Klaus Kinski (!), with HIS heavy GERMAN accent.  Go figure.  While watching, and thinking back to the time this film was made, the Cold War was on, and NO WAY would this story have been shot in the REAL Moscow (or ANY of the U.S.S.R.).  The huge areas of “Moscow” were SETS, and the villages, countryside, etc. were (as I read in the end credits) shot in Finland and Canada.  Ah, the old Big Budget movies.  Maurice Jarre scored the film.  There are many lovely passages that add romance and drama to the scenes, but I did grow tired of the “variations on ‘Lara’s Theme’” pounded at us.  I was nearly flinching by the end… and the end is over three hours away.  Note:  there is a lengthy orchestral piece prior to the film’s first scene, and during the intermission.  This was used to cue the very large audiences, in the huge, wide-screen cinemascope theaters, to get into their seats and settle down.  And of course, in those days people still behaved and respected the other movie goers (especially at those expensive, special theaters), so they DID settle down, they DID shut up, and they waited until after it was over to discuss it.  You didn’t drag your babies and chickens to the movies, or have cell phones.  I saw the film late first run.  We dressed up, went downtown to one of the palaces of film presentation, and treated it like what it was – a special occasion.  A Time Lost.  WOTO

“The Last Time I saw Paris” (again, 1954):  Fast Flashback: It’s V-E Day.  All of Paris is celebrating in the streets.  Van Johnson is on his way to America but in no rush.  There, nothing and no one was waiting for him.  Suddenly, out of the millions of Parisians yelling, dancing, and hugging, a beautiful young woman (the absolutely luminous Elizabeth Taylor) runs up and gives him the kiss of his life.  Here starts the story.  Though a romance, “Last Time…” has a larger sweep with valid issues staring directly at young, post-war couples.  The roles taken by these stars are refreshing.  Some of the drama is not given the time and subtlety it deserves, which kept it from my next higher category.  Good child actors are hard to find.  This one proves it.  I have seen only un-restored copies of this film.  The color is faded, shifts, and is “off” at times.  I’m ready to watch it again after this is fixed.  WOTO

“Detour” (1945):  Great little Noir story made on a fast, shoestring budget.  Heavy on the dialog with tough talkin’ Joes, connivin’ femme fatales, and Existentialism but light on the production quality, continuity, and visual logic, it’s none the less an interesting plot with good twists and philosophic ironies.  1945 – when everyone may have seen the end of the war on the horizon but was worn out tired, pessimistic, sad, and no doubt given to bouts of hopelessness.  “Detour” is a small diamond in the rough expressing all of that.  WOTO

“The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” (2011):  This is an ensemble movie using some fine actors and the story is occasionally wonderful, but the bulk is too predictable, has simplistic characters on typical “reversal journeys” and there are clichés.  It is pleasant, one-time entertainment I think wanted to be significant (or at least gain an old person cult following like “Cocoon”) for aging Baby Boomers.  

“Finding Forrester” (again, 2000):  The story is too predictable for my taste – especially the last half hour – and many of the plot points are on steroids, but it has its heart in the right place.  This is a film about hopes, dreams, losses, art, growth, friendship, and facing the moral dilemmas of Life.  The same writer created “Good Will Hunting” (which is NOT a recommendation, as I did not like it at all) – and this time did a better job.  There are lots of lines you’ll hope to remember – and use – when the right circumstance arises.  WOTO

“The Bishop’s Wife” (1947):  The year after “It’s a Wonderful Life”, Hollywood decided we needed another Xmas-angel-faith-relationship-life-changing-realization film.  Under the surface details, this one is like a non-sequel sequel.  It even uses some of the same scenarios and actors in very similar roles.  NONE of this would have been missed by the audiences of 1946-47.  Is it as good?  No, but it’s enjoyable.  Cary Grant is charming as a stylish Angel, Loretta Young is absolutely luminous and sweet, David Niven is cold and calculating (and very much in need of a lesson), and many other characters you can easily place into the “It’s a Wonderful Life” positions.  “The Bishop’s Wife” is almost shocking in its blatant Siamese twin relationship to Frank Capra’s beloved classic.  WOTO

“The Client” (1999):  Introducing Brad Renfro, starring Tommy Lee Jones, Susan Sarandon, Mary-Louise Parker and others, this is a crime / courtroom drama about a young boy who becomes the unwilling witness to crimes of great concern to both criminals and spotlight hungry lawyers.  Good, solid, tense entertainment.  WOTO

“House of Strangers” (1949):  This is a Noir film but it somehow feels less like one.  Perhaps it’s the lengthy feuding family soap opera mixed in with Richard Conte’s dark, mean character, and Susan Hayward’s beat-me, demean-me, love-me character.  Good Noir characters don’t ask for, let alone want to be explained or analyzed.  They just ARE – and to hell with you if you don’t like them.  Edward G. Robinson (as the bank tycoon) and his four sons seem to receive justifications for their problems and actions.  It’s too wimpy for these films.  I’ll see it again, but for Conte and Hayward mainly.  WOTO

“A League of Their Own” (again, 1992):  Written and directed by Penny Marshall, starring Geena Davis, Tom Hanks, Madonna, Rosie O’Donnell, Lori Petty, Jon Lovitz, David Straithairn, Garry Marshall, Bill Pullman, and glimpses of others who would become stars, Tea Leoni included.  It’s 1943.  The men are at war.  A candy magnate wants to support a women’s baseball league.  It’s fraught with apathy, sarcasm, incompetence, and vitality.  This is both a funny and bittersweet Hollywood spin on real life circumstances.  Hanks is especially funny and pathetic as the down-n-out coach.  WOTO

“The Ice Harvest” (2006):  Entertaining crime comedy/drama with lots of double and triplecrosses.  It set in the American Midwest during a bleak day and night before Christmas.  A variety of lost, greedy souls are on one another’s paths.  Starring John Cusack, Billy Bob Thornton, and Connie Nielsen.  WOTO

“Death Wish” (again, 1974):  I remember when this film first came out.  Its ideas were being debated by everyone who saw it, just as they were IN the film itself.  The world is out of control, and innocent people are being hurt and killed.  How do we – the Average People – get the world back under control and safe?  Based on the novel by Brian Garfield, Michael Winner’s film tapped directly into the pulse of the early 1970’s, when crime was rising to another new, higher, more intense level of violence, and people were scared – CONFLICTED and scared.  One man (Charles Bronson) becomes an Activist in New York City after his family is attacked.  He is eventually labeled “The Vigilante” by the media, the public cheers him on, the police aren’t sure they want to catch him… everyone is conflicted, even the criminals, who begin to “cool it”.  Not much has changed since those times, except criminals carry bigger weapons than they did then, and no one has scared them since the “Subway Vigilante” – Bernard Goetz – took care of business in December of 1984.  PS:  Watch for Jeff Goldblum in a small role, and Christopher Guest in a tiny role.  Herbie Hancock does a great musical score.  WOTO

”The Seven Year Itch” (again, 1955):  Marilyn Monroe and Tom Ewell.  There’s no attempt to hide the fact this film was taken from a stage play.  Watch this one for pure, light, occasionally witty entertainment.  It’s slightly sexy, goofy, and VERY 1955 in its thinking.  Marilyn, as is often the case, is overly made up (VERY 1955) but is still so luminous she shines through (but is not the 22 year old she plays – she was 29 at the time and would live only another 7 years).  Ewell is the bumbling, fantasizing middle aged (38) Everyman.  This is period fun, period.  Relax and enjoy.  WOTO

“The Big White” (2006):  It’s full of great comedic stars and has a dark edge.  Mix “Ruthless People” with “Fargo”, drop the quality some, and you get “The Big White”.  Holly Hunter and Giovanni Ribisi are the standouts, but don’t discount Robin Williams, Alison Lohman, Woody Harrelson, Tim Blake Nelson and others.  WOTO

“The Statement” (again, 2004):  A Nazi war criminal has been hiding (in France) for decades, leading what may have been a decent life ever since.  None the less, he’s always been on The List of those to be hunted, found, and killed – whether he knew it or not.  Thus goes the plot.  You’ll notice weak continuity details, a somewhat muddled story, and good acting from Michael Caine and Tilda Swinton.  It’s an entertaining and suspenseful enough film for a ride on the sofa.  Sometimes that’s all you need.   WOTO

“Fair Game” (2010):  I don’t like preachy, edu-agenda films, and this one has that flavor.  None the less, “Fair Game” tells one version of an incident a few years ago when our government “outed” one of our CIA agents (Valerie Plane) as punishment for an outspoken (anti-war) spouse.  Frankly, when something has that “agenda” tone, I don’t trust it, but let’s put that aside.  Sean Penn does a decent Sean Penn, but this role certainly didn’t challenge him.  Naomi Watts is worth watching, along with a number of other actors.  The constant moving jitter of “live” camera has become a movie cliché, especially when used relentlessly.  It’s tiring.  It’s too easy.  If you followed the news, you know how this turns out.  It’s no “All the President’s Men” but it’s still pretty good. 

“Trapped” (again, 2002):  As I basically said last time: “I rented this one to watch Charlize Theron do her job (as the Mom) – and I was NOT disappointed – at all.  Kevin Bacon was good, but the role wasn’t much of a stretch (as the bad guy).  Taylor Vince Pruitt was good, and his role reminded me of what I already knew he could do – as he’d done most of it in the much better film “Heavy” (with Liv Tyler) (as the fragile, withdrawn person).  Dakota Fanning, the little girl who plays the daughter, should have a great career ahead of her.  She’s more believable, and has a wider range, than any child that age I’ve seen in a long time.  Courtney Love does a good job, too, but doesn’t reach inside you.  The man who plays the Dad, Stuart Townsend, was, well… forgettable.  This is a standard, clock-ticking kidnap story full of exciting photography, action music, and tense moments based in reality… but, at a certain point it goes over the top and loses credibility.  It becomes implausible, and that was disappointing.  Watch “Trapped” for the acting, and the first 7/10 of the story.”  WOTO

“My Afternoons with Margueritte” (French, 2010):  Starring Gerard Depardieu and Gisele Casadesus, this is the story of an illiterate, middle-aged working man who meets an delicate, well-educated, 95 year old woman, who, like him, counts pigeons in the park.  They slowly learn more and more about one another.  This is a tender and predictable film with healthy reminders that bear repeating.

“The Artist” (2011):  A contemporary, near-entirely silent film?  Yes, about the silent film era as it transitioned into sound.  Careers were destroyed, careers were made.  If you already know this, then there’s nothing else to learn from this film.  It’s a melodrama in that old style.  What you can enjoy, however, is the photography, lighting, sets and costumes, and a few witty scenes.  That’s it.

 “Sundowners” (1950):  This western is more interesting than many, mainly due to more complex characters and choices given them throughout the story.  Starring Robert Preston, Robert Sterling, Chill Wills, and the lovely Cathy Downs.  I saw a very poor copy of the film, and I’m sure it could be a good looking Technicolor mini-epic with a restoration.  This is NO “Shane”, but it’s pretty good.  WOTO

“Second Chorus” (again, 1940:  I pretty much HATE musicals, but once in awhile something slips past me because of dancing, décor, costuming, and/or deep kitschiness.  Well, when it comes to DANCING, there’s Fred Astaire (despite his singing) and Paulette Goddard in this one.  If that wasn’t enough, it IS a 1940 film, which means some pretty good Hollywood Deco, some cool dancing, and the Artie Shaw band, baby.  Dig.  WOTO

“The Last Time I saw Paris” (1954):  Two words: Elizabeth Taylor.  She was certainly at her most luminous.  Swirling about her were other fine actors: Van Johnson, Donna Reed, and Walter Pigeon.  The film is set in Paris on V-E Day.  An almost random (fateful?), romance begins between Taylor and Johnson (hardly a convincing couple when you looked at them), but the story has a strong arc of joy, sorrow, and resolution.  Just watch to gawk at Liz.  That was enough for me!  WOTO

“Unthinkable” (2010):  Starring Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Sheen, and Carrie-Anne Moss in a high-tension cat-and-mouse thriller about a terrorist and those who are supposed to extract his knowledge in a very short period of time.  Engaging throughout (though a little too transparent in its news-relatedness), my only issue is with the style of the conclusion.  Somehow the last thirty seconds left me unsatisfied.  That’s all I can say (so far).

“The Cove” (2009):  This is an agenda-documentary.  It’s about the caging (entertainment industry) and killing (eating) of Dolphins.  If you are capable of skipping over the guilt of former “enablers”, dismissing the “bravado” of self-proclaimed hero-activists trying to undo the evil people and systems they see as wrong, and, if you are willing to always question the facts as they are presented, you’ll find this an interesting look at the Self-Righteous (on every side of a couple issues they raise) and how the combination of big business, cultural differences, and defensive, stubborn self-interest guarantees that a lack of workable solutions will be found.  THAT is the real message here, though everyone involved will deny it.

“Boom Town” (1940):  Starring Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Claudette Colbert, and Hedy Lamarr.  The original all-American oil-drilling saga about competing powers, friends and enemies, love and hate, wealth and poverty all wrapped up in the late Depression / Pre-United States WWII era.  (Here, poverty wasn’t inevitable, and Hedy Lamarr – a German/Austrian – was called a Dutch woman in the film.)  It has drama, comedy, great sets, above average-to-great special effects, beautiful b/w photography, plenty of soap to drive the relationships, and an oil town so mucky, so dismal, so THICK and TAINTED, you can almost taste it.  Ugh.  Very enjoyable!  WOTO

“Ondine” (2009):  Although interesting and VERY Irish (expect difficulty understanding some of the speech), this is no “Secret of Roan Inish” with its deep, lyrical charm and mythology, nor a stupid comedy like “Splash”.  A fisherman (Colin Farrell) hauls in his net to find a woman in amongst the fish.  His daughter decides she must be a Selkie (a woman-seal creature), and indeed, this “catch” brings him surprising, good luck for awhile – at least while it’s easy and convenient to loll around in the idea of a magical story.  Things change.  While I’m here, I’m going to suggest that subtitles should be offered even when the “shared” language is considered the “same”.  Accents can be nearly as difficult as foreign words.  I had a TERRIBLE time with “Trainspotting” for example.

“City Island” (2009):  This is a sometimes biting but usually farcical comedy about a family that seems incapable of sharing the truth with one another.  Andy Garcia, Julianna Margulise, Emily Mortimer, Steven Strait, Alan Arkin star.  You KNOW someone’s something’s gonna eventually blow up.  It does.

“Fallen Angel” (1945):  This is a great Film Noir, starring Dana Andrews, Alice Faye, Linda Darnell, Charles Bickford, and lots of character actors from the time.  The photography is strong, the scoring moody, the sets appropriate, and the dialog full of tough guy talk and hot dame repartee.  Crime, passion, sleazy motivations, innocent girls, booze, rooms full of smoke, and a few twists and turns.  Truly a top notch example of the genre.  WOTO

“The Sandlot” (again, 1993): Inspired from “The Little Rascals”, “A Christmas Story”, and “Stand By Me” (but without the depth), this is a lighter, fun story (set in 1962) about a group of boys who love baseball, their free time, and their goofy, confused, adventurous, wing-it, mythical lives.  It’s pleasant viewing for an evening on the sofa.  WOTO

“Mr. Wong, Detective” (1938):  Boris Karloff and his lispy British or whatever accent dressed as a Chinese detective is the silly point of this film.  Low cred.  But, the whodunit factor is high here, and will keep you guessing all along.  It’s a fun one.  And, when things get slow, there’s Donald Deskey and other late Art Deco designer furnishings, cars, fashions, and buildings available for staring and lusting.  WOTO

“High Crimes” (again, 2002):  Ashley Judd does another good job along with Morgan Freeman and Jim Caviezel, in this fairly standard whodunit thriller.  Unfortunately, who DID “it” comes too easy.  All you need do is to look in the exact opposite direction… then look back where you started.  THIS is now passing for Intricate Plot.  None the less, the lead actors are fun to watch while the plot twists in the ways you suspect.  WOTO

“Waiting for Superman” (2010): Documentary with a slant by David Guggenheim.  It is about the state of public education in America and what is or isn’t being done about its problems.  Some of the information is interesting and discouraging.  He follows a number of families with children determined to “make it” despite the condition of their local schools.  Here’s the set up: NO time is given to an in-depth look at the majority of parents who are uninvolved or discouraging in the education of their kids.  MOST of the focus is aimed at voting against public schools, city bureaucracies, and teacher unions – pushing instead for charter, magnet, and private schools, merit pay for teachers, and standards of learning exams for students.  I.e., let’s keep looking everywhere BUT in the HOME for the answers as to why kids ARRIVE to school with an existing sense of day care-itis, a general sense of dislike or distrust, a lazy and entitled attitude, and an all-around negative, hopeless attitude.  Are there problem teachers and administrators?  Yes.  Are their vested interests in not only the status quo but the industry of perpetual “new” ideas and promises?  Yes.  Are students affected by the school environment which is seven hours of their day?  Yes.  NOW let’s talk about the OTHER seventeen hours based at home… or is that just a little too close to home?

“The Fabulous Dorseys” (again, 1947):  Made as the Dorsey brothers careers were on the wane, this is a sometimes highly romanticized look at The Past, with a tougher eye as their careers advance.  The story isn’t the payoff here… it’s seeing the real musicians do their music “live” for the film.  If you like Big Band jazz, you’ll enjoy this movie.  Also showcased is Janet Blair, Paul Whiteman, William Lundigan, Sara Allgood, Arthur Shields, Art Tatum, Charlie Barnett, Henry Busse, Bob Eberly, Ziggy Elman, Stuart Foster, Helen O’Connell, and others.  WOTO

“A Sentimental Journey – America in the 40’s” (documentary, 1997):  Hosted by Charles Durning.  This 3 vhs tape set put out by Reader’s Digest has the weaknesses you would expect from R.D. – a mixed bag of skimmed subjects, less than super production qualities, interviews with some people who seem to have little to offer… and yet deep down, especially with what Durning delivers, it has a serious, soul-searching, somber and respectful tone that keeps this look at the 1940’s from dancing off into nostalgic delusion.  That’s why I stuck with it.  It has an emotional truth to it.  WOTO

“The Dish” (Australian, 2000):  Based on a true 1969 story, it is about a small town in Australia that maintained the “back up” radar dish for NASA – the only one on that side of the planet able to capture video images.  And, the FIRST MOON LANDING was about to be attempted.  “The Dish” is a low-key comedy set in something like an Aussie version of Mayberry, but because of the subject – near and very dear to many of our hearts – it also revives a sense of awe, excitement, and pride in humanity seldom felt by so many at the same moment.  THIS was a TRUE MILESTONE in Human History.

“The Hollywood Sign” (2002):  Rod Steiger, Burt Reynolds, Tom Berenger in a dark comedy crime/heist movie.  The three leads play actors who never made it, and eventually stumble across an opportunity to run a deal that will either make them rich or dead.  The humor is in their pitifully bad acting, naïve thoughts, and stupid mistakes.  The movie loses focus once in awhile when it tries to present the “humane” side of things.  Screw that.  Stick with the heist.  The story has a couple of fun plot twists as well.  WOTO

“Going in Style” (1979):  Totally entertaining in its dry, patient timing and humor … and what would you expect from George Burns, Art Carney, and Less Strasberg?  Three old guys, now roomies to save money, kill their time on park benches.  It’s an exciting day if they get to yell at a kid.  George comes up with idea – mainly to add pizzazz to their humdrum.  Rob a bank?  Ever done that?  No.  Which one?  How could it matter?  When?  Soon, why not?  How do you do it?  I dunno!  At this point, the story could go numerous ways, any one of which you might guess.  But, THIS one takes two paths: one funny, one sad.  It left me not only with mixed emotions, but mixed feelings about the film.  None the less, I enjoyed the journey.  WOTO

“In the Cut” (2004):  There are reasons to see this film:  Meg Ryan performs an unusual, interesting role as a plain-jane nobody living with hidden fantasies (perhaps THE dramatic role of her career to date); Jennifer Jason Leigh creates another of her patented, screwed-up women roles; and the fact this is a murky, almost hallucinatory, violent crime drama done by Jane Campion.  The story itself, by Susanna Moore, pulls a few too many obvious tricks to divert your attention from The Unknown Killer, but Campion takes it in a Noir-ish, swirling stew of lust, paranoia, and violence.  If it weren’t for the “diversionary” tactics used throughout the film, I’d have it in the next higher category.  WOTO

“Rango” (2011?):  This one isn’t by Pixar but Dreamworks, which puts it in second place, but… it has SOME funny, witty moments, and SOME beautifully drawn animation.  We are given the story of a reluctant Hero – a bug-eyed lizard who is forced into an adventure that will change his tiny life.  (Think Barney Fife.)  The dialog is loaded with 1) “adult” humor kids will not catch, 2) tons of other movie and actor references which would be fun to “notepad” with friends one evening (have a competition!), and 3) silly jokes everyone can enjoy.

“Danny Deckchair” (Australian, 2004):  In many ways a standard, predictable, romantic comedy, and certainly low budget in its special effects, this little film still has a certain charm and silliness you can enjoy.  A simple guy leads a typical working class life in suburban Sydney.  He TRIES, okay?  Still, he’s burning out.  He gets a hare-brained idea how to add excitement to his day… but it goes way above and beyond what anyone could have predicted.  Well, except that it IS predictable.  Sit back, float with it, take the trip.  Don’t ask much – and it WILL entertain.  WOTO

“Spy in Black” (1939):  In real life, 1939 was a tense year for Britain, Europe, and Scandinavia.  Hitler was already throwing his weight around, but only at those he knew were closer to defenseless.  He was a coward, not a fool OR a genius.  Still, he’d convinced all those concerned that if THEY would give him pieces of OTHER countries he wanted, he’d leave those concerned alone.  This line of crap actually worked, Russia got in on the action, and soon Czechoslovakia and Poland were swallowed up.  All through the 1930’s, with the writing literally on the walls and in the shop windows of “undesirables”, masses of humanity tried to escape the Nazis and their collaborators.  It was in THIS VERY TENSE, REAL environment that “Spy in Black” was set.  WWII had NOT begun (yet), so this story takes place in WWI, 1917, with who else but the British against the Germans.  This is a typically British – a low-key drama with lots of people slipping in and out of the dark and fog as spy versus spy versus counterspy.  There are some slick surprises in this Noir work.  WOTO

“The House on 92nd Street” (1945):  This is a fresh-out-of-the-War retelling of a German spy ring in America who got hold of U.S. atomic bomb data in the early 1940’s.  VERY serious business.  The film is done in a semi-documentary, “Dragnet” style and, although heavy on the FBI propaganda pitch, is a true story using many of the real people and locations (with reenactments as needed).  I found it fascinating what and how – over seventy years ago – the Allied counter-espionage efforts accomplished without any such thing as computers, the web, etc..  This is NOT a film about lighting, acting, camera or sound work.  This is about information.  WOTO

“Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” (again, 1936):  Starring Gary Cooper and Jean Arthur, with the usual cast of character actors Frank Capra trusted, loved, and hired repeatedly, this is the story of a simple, small town man who is suddenly grabbed and thrown into the limelight, surrounded by wolves, and may very well be eaten alive.  Capra clearly likes the Every Man, and clearly dislikes opportunists, slackers, and cons, which shows in nearly every film he created.  What also shows is his love of the American ideal – and the people who acknowledge it is dream – but a dream worth trying to reach using the freedoms we try to improve.  “Mr. Deeds…” is perhaps the start of Capra’s social conscience films, and though rough around the edges, it is funny, quirky, disgusting, sad, and inspiring.  I view his films like I do other artists: each work is practice for the next.  For Capra, it all culminates with “It’s a Wonderful Life” – mature, balanced, finessed, subtle, yes inspiring, and very elegant right out to the edges.

“Joyless Street” (“Die freudlose Gasse”) (1925):  This is the silent film that introduced the world to Greta Garbo.  No doubt about it, she had something.  Her acting was unique, and she was luminously dark.  Add in dramatic lighting and photography – nearly Expressionist in its pre-Noir style.  Sadly, MY copy held the most inappropriate and completely disengaged baroque classical music as a score as has ever been forced upon a film.  And, it appears my version was essentially edited in half!   The ORIGINAL length is listed as 125 minutes.  Often, American theaters chopped the hell out of foreign films, assuming our “locals” couldn’t sit still for two hours… Either way, what you’ll get is are some stunning visuals, characters worth watching, and a classic, soapy, morality tale – this one set and made in Vienna during its Great Depression, which set a REAL “stage” for the opportunist Adolph Hitler.  WOTO

“Penthouse” (1933):  Starring Warner Baxter and Myrna Loy (in her first major role).  This is a very stylish, lightly dramatic crime whodunit set in the very Moderne penthouses of New York City.  Loy is clearly the shining star – cute, feisty, ready for anything.  Baxter can keep up, and is a good foil to her.  You can also expect some laughs with the Man Servant, and the Kingpin with a Heart.  “Penthouse” was done in a clear, shining, Art Deco Hollywood style.  WOTO

“Hugo” (2011):  This is an entertaining little fantasy about a boy who must find his destiny through the most literary and mechanized means imaginable.  It is a visual treat but has a predictable story.  It reminds me of other CGI and steam-punk projects, with too many bland characters but a couple great ones, and the entire work demands you suspend your disbelief or the continuity problems will drive you nuts.  Mainly, this film is a charming, emotional love poem to early film making – especially if you already know something of the history of films (and it does include “lessons” in the film).

“Wonderland” (2003):  This is a dramatic but fairly accurate recreation of the post-fame life of porn star John Holmes.  Is it a typical story of a shooting star?  Yes.  And, it’s made at an acceptable level.  Starring Val Kilmer, Kate Bosworth, Lisa Kudrow, Josh Lucas, and Dylan McDermott (the least believable), this is the story of the last phase of a tragic life and those taken down with it.  What adds MORE punch to this film is the second full-length disk, which is a true documentary about Holmes.  Seen together, they remind one how many bad choices can be made, who you associate with matters, and your delusions will assuredly collapse.  WOTO

“Dressed to Kill” (British, 1946):  Adapted from a Sir Arthur Conan Doyle book, this is another witty, above average whodunit starring  Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce – in where else but foggy London, with a slinky femme fatale and missing printing plates for the British five pound note!  Intrigue!  Murder!  Cat and Mouse moves!!  That’s all I need to say.  WOTO

“Witness” (again, 1985):  Sure, there are all the action/drama clichés, along with the patented Harrison Ford Pair-O-Facial Expressions.  Of course there’s a beautiful woman who gets naked, and bad guys with all kinds of guns.  Given this, don’t expect a truly unique experience, and yet, the SETTING – in an Amish community – DOES separate it enough from other films with otherwise same components.  Directed by Peter Weir.  Kelley Lynch, Lucas Haas, and if you watch closely, other eventual stars are in this entertaining story.  Just for fun, watch for a very young Viggo Mortensen.  Watch Kelly (the Amish love interest) Lynch’s makeup do flip-flops: if it’s a scene about the Amish, no make up; if it’s a scene about romance or sex, make up!  The Amish must be a bunch of hypocrites!  The scoring is, as my wife put it, “overbearing”.  It has that Eighties electronic sound, and is used in nearly identical fashion whether it is a pastoral, violent, thoughtful, or sexual scenario.  One size fits all.  Maurice Jarre did the score.  He’s usually better than that.  Danny Glover plays an evil man.  That’s a nice switch.  There are continuity problems, which are always fun to score when the film gets boring or predictable. There are a few extremely memorable scenes.   WOTO

“Public Enemies” (2009):  This is a fairly accurate recreation of the criminal life of John Dillinger.  Set in 1920’s and 30’s mid-America during the Great Depression, we watch Dillinger – one of the last surviving “romantic” bank robber / killers play cat-n-mouse with J. Edgar Hoover, Melvin Purvis, and the newly forming F.B.I..  Toss in the Love Interest, of course.  Fine.  Should be plenty.  Johnny Depp, Christian Bale (!), Marion Cotillard (!), Billy Crudup, Stephen Dorff, Giovanni Ribisi… what could go wrong?  Well, very little, but… despite some great actors, Michael Mann did not extract their best; despite great sets, Michael Mann had continuity flaws (including the Classic “instant-ON” tube radio); despite wonderful photography (but a very poor special effect), fine scoring, effective costuming, etc., Michael Mann’s effort left me… not cold, but cool.  Everything added up to about a 75% effort.  Something was always missing, that last, most important level: depth, soul, connectedness, fully expressed insight.  Missing.  You leave the film feeling “dramatized” but empty.  “Bonnie and Clyde” gets closer to the goal.  See that one (again).  WOTO

“The Debt” (2010):  Solid acting, strong and complex plot, dramatic scoring, good photography, sets and lighting… hey… what’s not to like?  Helen Mirren, Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington, Ciaran Hinds, and Tom Wilkinson bring the story to a highly believable level.  But, if you know just a little about Israel’s policies and shadowy death squads that hunt escaped Nazis (to this day), you’d have to roll your eyes at the procedures used (in the plot) to successfully kidnap, maintain (!), and safely move an enemy until courtroom justice can be fairly administered.  Huh uh.  That’s way too much trouble.  Slip in, kill, slip out, never mention it.  Enemy: dead.   Next one on the list…

“Scarlet Street” (again, 1945):  Depending upon how you feel about Film Noir, you’ll either enjoy this one a lot, or want to put it in the category below.  Imagine Edward G. Robinson as a meek, mild, hen-pecked husband.  Difficult to do?  It was for me… for the first few minutes… and then his ability to create this character makes you forget his gangster roles.  Imagine Dan Duyrea as a sleaze ball.  Yes, he does a good job of THAT.  And finally, what about Joan Bennett as a VERY hot, beautiful, manipulative Noir broad?  No problem there.  None.  “Scarlet Street” is directed by Fritz Lang, who was my initial reason for seeing this film.  As it turned out, the story – albeit a tad longer than necessary? – is a dandy.  We have dark revenge, twisted irony, plot surprises, moral lessons, more darkness, and blinding, harsh glare all in the same steamy story.  WOTO

“Topper Returns” (1941):  This is a wacky farce whodunit starring Roland Young, Joan Blondell, “Rochester”, MM mm Carole Landis, and a couple of very cool cars.  The plot drags in spots and could’ve used someone with sharp scissors to trim it down, but it’s still fun.  WOTO

“Beaufort” (Israeli, 2007):  Oscar-nominated, a film about men in war… and yet it’s in THIS mediocre category of mine?  ‘Fraid so.  The film is divided into two emotional rivers – each draining strength off the other.  One: a reasonable look at a brotherhood of men caught in the bleak world of war – hours and days of mind-numbing boredom with occasional moments of absolute terror and devastation.  The other: a major desire to retell a recent (1999-2000) Israeli story to Israelis, with the built-in assumption the audience will be affected by not just what they see in the film, but what they know from the real and personal experiences.  Had THIS aspect been downplayed or kept absent, we’d have a better film along the line of (but not equal to) “Das Boot” and other claustrophobic, wall-climbing battle stories.  However, as it is, we – an international audience – are presented with a default one-sided story (you never even SEE an “enemy” soldier) missing a wiser look the broader understandings undistracted by the specifics which will not matter to the LARGER, “outside” audience.

“Vicky Cristina Barcelona” (2008):  Last night, my wife and I watched Woody Allen’s latest (?) film – improperly billed as a comedy.  It’s not funny.  Nor is it much of a drama.  It’s just sort of hangs there in the middle.  I viewed a group of people flounder along and fail to find resolutions for those things they claimed were banes of their existences.  After it was over, my wife said “Well, that was a one-time view”.  I tend to agree.  Nothing was bad, nothing was especially good (interesting), and nothing seemed to be learned or put into action by any of these characters.  I need to ponder it more, but I suspect I’ve already learned enough about this condition from people I’ve known in real life.  One way or another, I at least want to LEARN from an experience.  WOTO

 

 4.

Not Quite So-sofa but not quite Crap

 

 

“The Peacemaker” (1997):  A terrorist group hijacks ten atomic warheads. Things appear to go wrong, people are alerted, and a vague chase begins. George Clooney and Nicole Kidman team up to save the world. It is a Hollywood “cartoon”. With one-dimensional creation reigning supreme throughout this film in all its aspects, the only positive aspect is its twists-n-turns movement despite an obvious outcome. This was an acting walk in the park. A paycheck for Clooney and Kidman. Hey, I understand. I too have bills to pay. WOTO

“9 1/2 Weeks” (1986):  This was sure a big deal when it came out.  Yeh… well… it was the 80’s.  It took the standard “We’re from different sides of the tracks” theme mixed with MTV style scenes pumped up with contemporary music, lots of backlighting, lots of the color black and the Techno look to everything (not that there’s anything wrong with that…), the money-honey wall street ‘tude, and everything dripping with faux-sex.  Young Mickey Rourke isn’t nearly as good as older Mickey Rourke, however, Kim Basinger (I’m NOT a fan) was better than I expected (going by her later movies).  This is a brainless film with some good late-teen erotica.  WOTO

”Bonhoeffer – Agent of Grace” (1999):  This version of his story is mediocre, with low production qualities and some continuity issues.  It’s simply weak.  I don’t hate it, I don’t love it.  Meh.  If you want to learn more about this man, there is a much better film – a documentary: “Bonhoeffer” (2003), Finnish. 

“Night and Day” (1946):  I’m going to take it easy on this one.  I hate musicals.  I hate their lurid, out of context, hallucinatory fluffiness.  This one, based (?) on Cole Porter’s life, has one buffer: nearly all the music is set within the context of rehearsals and shows.  None the less, this post-war, Technicolor bad dream covered over in avalanche of pastels and adhesive rhinestones is NOT my cup-o-joe.  If you love musicals, I don’t know, maybe you’ll love this one too… but I doubt you and I can have a relationship.  WOTO

“Twin Peaks Fire Walk with Me” (1992):  I’m a fan of David Lynch’s potential in making films.  I’ve followed his work since “Eraserhead” and “The Elephant Man”.  Lynch made “Fire Walk with Me” AFTER his television series “Twin Peaks”.  I saw a couple episodes of the series.  It was unique for tee-vee but weak for Lynch.  The film upset fans of the t.v. show.  They felt it abandoned the series.  I’ve now seen the film, and felt it too was weak for Lynch… i.e., the entire Twin Peaks experience is weak and strained in comparison to some of his other work.  I love some of his sets and costuming, the photography and lighting, the scoring (by Angelo Badalamenti is brilliant as always, his characters, and the actors work (but Chris Isaak is awful).  Lynch always walks a fine line in telling a story – between the cohesively incomprehensible and the transparently surreal.  This one is the latter, and that is not a compliment.  WOTO

“Meet the Robinsons” (2007):  Disney bought Pixar but promised to not interfere with their team.  Smart move.  Disney, who made “Meet the Robinsons”, shows why they should stay away from the best: they aren’t.  From the blatant story line and shallow characters to the spotty visual results and huge mistakes in scoring, this is a turn-your-brain off, enjoy-some-scenes, and expect-nothing-more animated movie that desperately wants to be equal to Pixar quality but has no clue how to go about it.  You can’t “hate” it, and though only occasionally funny or witty, all it’s trying to do is what Disney typically does – 1) Sell more Disney, and 2) tug at lowest common denominator heart strings… to sell more Disney.  All I can hope – nearly pray for – is they keep their controlling hands off their brilliant, black sheep adopted child, Pixar.  WOTO

“Thelma & Louise” (again, 1991):  I saw this “period piece” first run in the theater.  The audience was composed of fools who soured my chance to properly experience it.  I gave up on theaters because of such crowds.  Since then, I MAY have seen it but I’m uncertain… so here we are in 2010 and I had the chance to try it sans idiots and jerks.  Let’s put it this way – “Thelma & Louise” aged like a twenty one year old Quickie Mart wine.  There are two good reasons to see this film, but first the reasons to avoid it:  It’s still very much a product of the 80’s, which means inappropriate, loud scoring and song placement stuck willy-nilly over the moving pictures; cheezie lens filters; incredibly blatant, stylized, and (again) inappropriate lighting running the gamet from their T-bird dashboard to entire mountains; continuity problems up the wazoo including no one bothering to make certain it was correctly day or night, or the car was supposed to be clean or dirty, etc. during a single scene; and, not surprisingly, every male character in this feminist/victim tale is a one-dimensional caricature of a cliché of a stereotype.  We’re talking laughable film making.  So then, what’s to like?  What’s to like is the acting of Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis.  THEY are the ONLY reason this one isn’t in my Category 5.  WOTO

“Shenandoah” (again, 1965):  Classic 1960’s moovie set a hundred years earlier (Civil War) but totally 1965-contemporary in its use of young tee-vee stars, fashionable hair-dos, issues of their day thinly disguising Issues of Our Day: women’s rights, integration, the peace movement, individual rights, governmental control… you name it.  This is Hisstory rewritten so we can talk to ourselves.  Go in with this understanding – AND a sense of humor – and you’ll enjoy much of it.  There are also the incredibly artificial, choreographed fight scenes, lacks of continuity and logic, lighting that requires total suspension of disbelief, and enough literary ironies to choke a family of nine.  One saving grace:  James Stewart acting circles around every other human near that camera.

“Mark of the Vampire” (1935):  If I say Bela Lugosi, you’ll get the wrong picture.  Think more along the line of Lionel Barrymore, director Tod Browning (who did “Freaks”), and set decorator Cedric Gibbons.  Yes, there’s silliness to this film, but the photography and lighting are wonderful, and there’s a super twist to the plot you will NOT see coming!  It’s not a great film, but has some good components.  WOTO

“The Mask of Fu Manchu” (1932):  You really need to be in a forgiving mood – and prepared to put your brain on a shelf – when watching 1930’s “serial” style movies.  If you see the name Boris Karloff, it’s a good warning.  Even if they put him in Chinese clothing, make his eyebrows pointy, and droop his eyelids, he’ll still have that cheesie-dramatic, English lisp of a voice.  The surprise here was Myrna Loy as his lovely but deadly Chinese daughter.  This was VERY hard to swallow.  I kept expecting her to fire off some witty wisecracks.  Then there was The Handsome Man, the Loving Father, the Dedicated Servant, the Mindless Slaves… et cetera… rounding out the “dramatic” cast.  The story and its construction are just silly.  So WHAT was there to enjoy?  The sets were done by THE Art Deco movie dresser Cedric Gibbons.  Not only is everything he touches full of style, but he does a weird, good job of never letting go of the Moderne style even when depicting Asian palaces, torture rooms (and these are dandies!), and ancient tombs.  Ya just gotta love that!  WOTO

“Murrow” (1985):  Starring Daniel J. Travanti, Dabney Coleman, Edward Herrmann.  The power is in the story of Edward R. Murrow, not in this particular telling.  The film has the look and low production qualities you would expect from 80’s television.  Editing is choppy, continuity has mistakes, photography is seldom more than the capture of images, acting is acceptable, special effects bad.  If you want to see a higher quality take on Murrow’s life, see “Good Night, and Good Luck”.  WOTO

“A Shot in the DarK” (again, 1964):  When I say “again”, I mean I’ve seen it before and just saw it again.  I saw this one in 1964 – and 2012.  Things change.  This is probably the least funny of the “Inspector Clouseau” series with Peter Sellers.  See ones with the title words “Pink Panther” in them.  They’re better.  However… Elke Sommer is STILL a Babe-O-Rama in this silly flik (despite most of her awkward hair dos), and restirs the heart (or something) of the 14 year old boy who first saw her on the screen 48 years ago.  A Sixties hottie, for sure!  WOTO

“Gung Ho” (1943):  If nothing else, I learned that “Gung Ho” is Chinese for approximately “Work Together”… but read on.  I have a larger point to make.  This is a WWII recreation of specially trained Marines aimed at taking the island of Makin (in the Pacific) during 1942.  The film was made only about 12 months later than the real events.  This means it was put together fast.  It was put together fast because “Gung Ho” was aimed at the public.  It was aimed at the public because we needed all the encouragement, steam, and faith there was to be found in the midst of a war we were still losing.  War films made DURING that war are unlike others.  These are made with a heavy hand.  There is no time for subtlety.  They are propaganda.  Every side concocts encouragement.  Every side wants their people to behave like a Team, to follow orders, and to inspire and threaten others to tow the line.  Every side wants to win, and no side is utterly convinced they are invulnerable.  (Those who are always see their own defeat.)  I like this genre of film because propaganda is of interest to me, and these movies tell a certain kind of “truth” that isn’t found outside their current era’s atmosphere.  That “truth” is told in two ways: 1) more and accurate details of people, equipment, and places (because the public was better informed and motivated), and 2) the emotional truth of that public is laid bare for us to see and question from the convenience of our cozy armchairs (“The only good Jap is a dead Jap” etc.).  If there IS such a thing as a Righteous War – if there IS such as thing as True Evil – and IF True Evil requires others to sacrifice themselves to defeat it – then I cannot fault “propaganda” as a method of refueling the disheartened, doubtful, and tired survivors.  Let the more balanced views come before or after the battle.  THIS is why I find such B-grade movies fascinating.  WOTO

“Wasted” (2002):  Texas teens – good, white suburban kids – addicted to heroin.  Produced by MTV, complete with its shaky camera video look, and having some of the script style of an After School Special, this is none the less a worthwhile film for the under-21, hopefully still reachable crowd.  Unfortunately, it nearly denies the nightmare of drug withdrawal.  Nick Stahl is good, Summer Phoenix is great, and others are also good in their relaxed, believable lead roles.  They were a pleasure to watch in their codependent, rationalizing, pathetic ways.  WOTO

“Ruthless” (1948):  Starring Zachary Scott, Louis Hayward, Diana Lynn, Sydney Greenstreet, Lucille Bremer, and Martha Vickers.  This is a pot-boiler cousin to “Citizen Kane”, where the good go bad, spend their lives in focused misery, and fail to find the way back to the heart.  Bitterness, conniving, existential dog-eat-doggery abound in this stylish-but-lower grade morality play.  WOTO

“Five Corners” (1987):  Have you ever met someone who tries their damnedest to be liked by everyone?  That’s this film.  It attempts to not only weave about seven different stories together, but be a nostalgia flick, a brutal drama, and a comedy.  Director Tony Bill just couldn’t handle it, I guess.  Lots of loose ends were left dangling for no good reason… there wasn’t even a sequel or action figures prepared for a follow-up.  Actors Tim Robbins and Todd Graff are acceptable at best, Jodie Foster does a better job, but it is only John Turturro who shines – and he’s a psychopath.  The sets are also very good.  The costuming is a little too self-consciously “1964”, the time in which this film is set.  See it for Turturro, or see it to kill time.   WOTO

“Seven Doors to Death” (1944):  Late WWII whodunit mystery with some snappy patter and characters set in what must have been considered the precursor to a shopping mall.  Lots of shots fired in the dark, women screaming, bodies hitting the floors, and plenty of doors cracking open and quietly closing.  Unfortunately, the story seemed muddled and not worth trying to “figure out”.  WOTO

“Music Within” (again, 2007):  This movie is based on the true story of the man who eventually came to lead the Americans Disability Act.  Here’s the good news:  some of the acting is pretty good.  Michael Sheen as “Art” is great.  GREAT.  Unfortunately, everyone else is mediocre, the “period” sets, cars, costumes, music, etc. are off as much as 10 years from the year claimed, other continuity problems exist, the story as told is shallow, too fast, and lacking in detail, the music score does the “let’s use hit tunes from that year” shtick, the vehicles have “Clean Car Syndrome”, and there’s a general made-for-tv, “edu-info” feeling to the “lessons” being crammed into this story.  All in all, this is an amateurish effort, and the only two reasons I have it in THIS category (not lower) is you may want to learn how the Disabilities Act came about, and watching Sheen is a tremendous joy.  WOTO

“The Russians are Coming, the Russians are Coming” (1965):  After a somewhat mysterious opener, the film takes off as a decent farcical comedy (with Carl Reiner, Eva Marie Saint, Alan Arkin, Brian Keith, Theodore Bikel and Jonathan Winters) but slowly morphs into an unabashed and obvious socially conscious drama.  Prepare to be slapped in the face with a mid-60’s “The Youth of the World is Our Only Hope” message.  I like this film for two reasons: the better comedic moments, and, its being a true Period piece implying our struggle out of the Cold War and into the Peace Movement…for all its naiveté.  WOTO

“Howl” (2010):  Using only audio records and transcripts of Allen Ginsberg and others, this is a highly “artistic” look at his creation and publishing of the poem “Howl”, and its ensuing court battle against censorship.  It is, in other words, a star-filled documentary of sorts, but filled with animation purporting to “illustrate” passages of the poem.  And there is the problem.  The animation is colorful, active, and flashy – demanding – which steals audience energy and focus from the Art it was obligated to support.  My wife ended up closing her eyes so she could focus on the content of the words.  I watched, but knew I was viewing animation made by an artist who did NOT (?) understand his/her role as an illustrator, and attempted to use “Howl” as an opportunity to prove THEIR own worth.  If any artist wants to show their personal best, they create their own work.  They do not ride on the famous backs of others and cast a shadow upon their clients.

 

 

5.
“QUICK !   DUCK !!

It just hit the fan !!

 

 

 

“Life with Father” (1947): You’d think with William Powell, Irene Dunne, Elizabeth Taylor, and Zasu Pitts something could be done with ANY script thrown in front of them… but not this one. “Life with Father” is supposed to be loaded with snappy dialog, non-stop wacky interactions, and lots of that “Gay (18)90’s” nostalgia. Ugh. I didn’t like the characters, the 1947 vision of 1888 was probably as “off” as most other Hollywood efforts to cash in on “olden daze”, and try as they no doubt did, the actors were unable to beat that script into anything beyond frantic obnoxiousness. WOTO

 “Mothra vs Godzilla” ( “Godzilla vs The Thing” ) (again, Japanese, 1964):  There are good films, bad movies, good bad movies, and bad bad movies.  This one is just a bad movie.  It’s dopey, dull, and really dull. 

“The Charles Bukowski Tapes: Vol. 1” (1983):  If you like Bukowski’s poetry, read it.  If you want to beaten to death with 240 minutes of amateurish video tape, a mind-numbing format, and the drunken slurs and slurring of a worn-out man, see this French “interview”.  Like the proverbial drunken monkey at a typewriter, yes, he DOES say some things worth hearing, but the cost is too high. 

“Exodus” (again, 1960):  Nominated for three Academy Awards, running 3 ½ hours in length, starring Paul Newman, Eva Marie Saint, Lee J. Cobb, Sal Mineo, Peter Lawford, and Ralph Richardson, this film asked a lot from a 1960 audience but asks much more from a 2012 audience lacking patience, motivation, perspective, education, and perhaps a more sophisticated set of film going expectations.  It has not aged well.  “Exodus” is long, often slow-moving in its attempts to organize and clarify, and yet assumes the viewer was/is already reasonably aware of Israel’s choppy beginning.  True to Hollywood form, “Exodus” sometimes puts style above logic and continuity (stars wear 1960 hair styles in1946; lighting is unintentionally surreal, especially for night scenes), inserts profitable box office actors whether or not s/he is appropriate to the role (Paul Newman was at one of his peaks (in the “Hud” era), but he was NOT well-chosen as the revolutionary Jewish son of a revolutionary Jewish father who established the first plot of Israeli land in Palestine.  Peter Lawford as a racist didn’t quite fit, Eva Marie Saint as the narrow-minded-but-lovely-sexy American was optimistic, and Sal Mineo as the young, shiny-faced, determined Jewish terrorist killer was really out there), many of the characters are predictable with clear fates, and the script tells the viewer what to think.  It is one of those big, sweeping films which received much attention at the time because it was OF its time.  Its large point of view is slanted to one side (Israel vs the World) but is somewhat mitigated by admitting to infighting of Jewish factions.  “Exodus” was a Product, and written all over it is “Made in Hollywood with the Stamp of Approval by those Holding an Interest”.  WOTO

“Chained for Life” (1951):  You may know the Hilton sisters – the Siamese twins – from the 1932 film “Freaks”.  They were coaxed into a second film nearly twenty years later – a lame exploitation film over which there was little to sympathize, groan, or laugh.  It’s simply dull.  DULL.  They’re terrible actresses, the production is terrible, the script is terrible, all of it is TERRIBLE.  Not good terrible, not fun BAD.  Just ignoring-worthy. 

“Peter’s Friends” (1992):  This movie SOOOOO wanted to be the “The Big Chill” for the next generation.  So much.  And, that is its problem.  The plot was fully stolen, and with that attitude came a lack of character depth.  You don’t care about any of these “friends” – you feel no attachment or concern – which can only prove it’s the material not the actors.  It is fair to expect Kenneth Branagh, Stephen Fry, Emma Thompson, and others to give you something of substance, but each was handed a tee-vee dinner and told to behave as though this was a fine, 15 course meal.  WOTO

“Blindness” (2008):  It had to eventually happen.  I have counted on Julianne Moore to make good career choices since Day One.  Well, it’s Day Thirteen, and a bad day it is.  “Blindness” is the biggest mess of terrible dialog, illogical circumstances, continuity screw-ups, and bad directing its only value can be as an unintentional comedy.  Also starring are Mark Ruffalo, Danny Glover, and other actors I have respected.  I can only wonder who read the script and said “NO WAY!  NO THANK YOU!!”  I can’t even begin to describe it.  Just think “The Road” mixed with “Lord of the Flies” set in a concentration camp in a large American city, throw in a disaster moovie contagion, and… then downgrade it from a A to an F.  There ya go.

“Run for Cover” (1995):  This was rented by mistake.  I wanted “Run for Cover” (1955) directed by Nicholas Ray and starring James Cagney… and let me tell you, THIS AIN’T IT.  THIS is pure shit.  Not funny-laff-at-it shit, not tacky-good shit, just plain shit.  It’s the kind of film you’d make your film students watch so they’d be scarred enough to never make these mistakes themselves.  It was one big mistake, start to finish.  Just awful.  NOT Ed Wood awful, just PLAIN awful.

“For Richer or Poorer” (again, 1997):  Tim Allen and Kirstie Alley star as two rich, “high style” New Yorkers who have to go on the lam avoiding the IRS.  Most of the film is predictable and slapstick.  Moments of actual wit are few.  They try to “hide” in an Amish community.  Guess what?  They have trouble fitting in!  WOTO

“High Plains Drifter” (1973):  This is an early directorial effort by Clint Eastwood.  He also stars in it, of course.  What is most interesting is seeing this effort to combine his earlier Spaghetti Western successes as “The Man with No Name” with current interests.  All the same themes are remain – the Mystery Man with No Name; town full of staring, paranoid people; the stink of corruption everywhere; the Problem that Needs Solving, and Karma waiting to kick nearly every single ass.  The photography, scoring, story, the men, the women, sets, the landscapes… it’s all Spaghetti-esque, but doesn’t quite match up.  There’s that last 10% missing – the High Style of those Low Budget Italian films.  For example, Dee Barton may have longed to create a “haunting” score for “High Plains Drifter” but he ain’t no Ennio Morricone, folks.  That’s all.  Go in expecting less than 100%, and you’ll enjoy this addition to the genre.  Go in as a big fan of the original Italian films, and you’ll be left wanting more an hour later.  You get the joke.  WOTO

“Battle Royale” (Japanese, 2000):  A middle school classroom of students are kidnapped to an island and told they have three days to kill all of their classmates and be the one and only survivor allowed to leave.  The first twenty minutes have a certain snide Pop culture ‘tude about it, but it doesn’t take long before it simply becomes what it set out to be: a badly bred cross between the “Survivor” tee-vee show and “Lord of the Flies” delivered by Quentin Tarantino if he were Japanese, wrote video games, and was loaded on Red Bull “energy drink”.  This is one big crouching drag on and on.  Skip it.

“Gidget goes Hawaiian” (1961):  Unlike the original 1959 “Gidget” (with Sandra Dee) which has a certain innocent, kitschy charm, THIS “Hawaiian sequel” has nothing to offer.  In its bizarre way, it attempts to be “relevant”, but gives us characters entirely self-centered, unlikable, and tainted by the world.  (James Darren is the least affected of the bunch.)  Deborah Walley, in her first film and playing the lead role of Gidget, is not cute, attractive, or believable.  All the adults are idiots.  All the teens are connivers.  The special effects stink.  Someone got the brilliant idea to turn this one into a partial “musical” – and DEFINES the reason I hate musicals.  If “Gidget” was for teens, “Gidget goes Hawaiian” was for bitchy teens.  Ugh.  WOTO

“9 to 5” (again, 1980):  When countries go to war, they do this out of huge, apparently irreconcilable differences of opinion and perceived threats of unwanted change.  Each faction must paint a picture of the opposition as Wrong, with Evil Intent, and in Need of Defeat.  The Enemy must be simplified for easy hate.  The same can be said for factions of a culture in transition.  “9 to 5” is a classic example of flat stereotypes, goods vs evils, a simple story and a simple resolution.  The public will not understand or tolerate a more complex view of their current conditions.  This movie, at the beginning of the second decade of “’Feminism”, made every effort to propagandize but popularize serious issues with the pandering of a kindergarten teacher to children.  This movie was popular when it came out, despite theme songs and bad acting.  It did what it set out to do.  Now, with the distance of 32 years, it is embarrassing.  This is one Period Piece I don’t need in my collection.  If you’d like the dvd of “9 to 5”, I’ll GIVE it to you.  WOTO

“The Mysterious Mr. Wong” (1935):  Maybe you’re a Bela Lugosi fan?  Yes?  In that case, you won’t mind his playing an ancient Chinese man with a Transylvanian / Count Dracula accent, in New York City.  Expect a thin, unresolved plot, with lots of stereotypes, snappy patter, and stupid decisions to keep the action moving along.  Expect a bunch of American white guys with fu-man-chu moustaches and scotch tape to arch their eyebrows filling in the other Chinatown roles.  Anywhere you follow Bela, expect dumb to be there waiting for you.  This one has the depth of a Saturday afternoon serial.  WOTO

“Brand New World” (2004):  Once in awh I make a mistake.  Despite all the signs, my choices sometimes lead nowhere.  Guy Pearce, Ray Winstone, Jonathon Schaech, Julie Cox, Sammi Davis, Twiggy Lawson, Emily Lloyd… Music by Wendy Carlos… !!!  …and yet, NOWHERE.  Hidden somewhere in this small, awkward film was an attempt to describe women trying to deal with men who were ill-adapted soldiers of a recent war.  But mainly what you get is an uncooked shish kabob of poorly realized reality vs hallucination in the distant hope it can join the likes of “Apocalypse Now” mixed with “How I Won the War” and a dash of “M*A*S*H” but set in the Falklands (?) with British military and civilians “guarding” their success on a forlorn, sweepingly beautiful, bleak island.  THAT is the only reason to see this film: the landscapes.  Oh, and if you’re curious as to what Twiggy (THE “Twiggy”) looks like in 2004, this is your chance.  WOTO

“The Fourth War” (1990):  Once in awhile I make a mistake.  Despite all the signs, they sometimes lead nowhere.  John Frankenheimer.  Roy Scheider.  Jurgen Prochnow.  Harry Dean Stanton.  !!!  Nowhere.  The only good thing about bad films is they are fun to describe: It’s 1988 on the Communist border between Czechoslovakia and Germany.  Red and American guards sit bored in their own shanty encampments.  Along comes a loose cannon commander.  A Rogue.  Attitude.  Escalation.  All hell breaks loose.  The story becomes less and less credible until finally you feel like you’re watching “Rocky VIII”.  Continuity is thin-to-nonexistent.  Special effects were done by undergraduate set and pyrotechnic juniors.  Scoring – and let this be a warning to you for future choices – was by Bill Conti.  Think big, sweeping, relentless orchestral movements overstating the mundane and smeared upon inexplicable scenes in the style of “Chariots of Fire” meets “Star Wars” meets “Rocky I through XII” meets Italian Spaghetti Westerns in Oom Pah Pah Germany.  And then there’s The Ending.  A train wreck of an idea.  Just awful.  AWFUL.  Still, THIS was fun to write…  WOTO

“Road to Bali” (1952):  Technicolor shtick from start to finish with – if you’ve never noticed – the VERY gay “comedy” team of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, along with the ONLY reason I watched this awful thing – Dorothy Lamour, sadly slathered in paint, rhinestones, and silks.  IF you love bad, rapid-fire, vaudevillian patter and songs, then you’ll love this post-WWII diversion from quality.  WOTO

“Ma and Pa Kettle go to Town” (1949):  Let me get the one “plus” out of the way… I bought this AND watched it to see location film of New York City in 1949, and Hollywood’s studio version of same.  If THAT is enough for you, then see this moovie.  If not, run like a McCoy with a Hatfield on your tail.  For those who DON’T know who Ma and Pa Kettle were, think precursors to The Beverly Hillbillies yet less animated and just as stupid and without the slightest concept of birth control.  The film quality is really nice.  (That’s sort of like saying your ugly brother is a very nice person…)  Continuity, on the other hand, is, well… what in the Sam Hill is that there whachacalltit ? “canteen doohickey”?  They’re riding in a taxi, taking in the sights.  It’s raining on the right side of the street, dry and sunny on the left side.  Hey, you take what stock footage was on the table at the moment.  They walk out of a restaurant.  It’s day time.  They take two steps, and it is night time.  “The Big Apple – A Weird and Scary Place!”  In Ma and Pa’s defense, I must say they’re not nearly as IRRITATING as Granny and Jethro.  WOTO

“Chuck Berry – Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll” (1986):  If you like old Chuck Berry recordings from the 1950’s, and don’t want to damage your feelings about them, DO NOT view this 1986 documentary!!  It’s always sad to see someone still relying on successes from 30, 40, 50 years earlier, and whose ego depends entirely on convincing others of the ongoing, living value of endless re-presentations.  If that isn’t enough, he’s disagreeable, nasty, self-centered, demanding, pompous, angry, and can’t sing a note.  (He’s always yelled / spoken his lyrics, if you think about it.)  His entire focus is on money and getting the show done so he can leave.  He can’t recall the date of the wedding anniversary with his wife, but can tell you what he made at a gig in 1952.  He’s mad people won’t pay him more for his pimped-up Caddies and Lincolns, he’s mad the world isn’t fair, he’s mad when someone else expresses an opinion, he’ll slug you if you say hi at the “wrong” time, and he’ll bore you to death with the same old shtick show after show after show after show….

 

6.

Uh… Say WHAT?”

 

 

“Vampyr” (German, 1931):  After first viewing:  By Carl Dreyer, famed director of 1928′s “The Passion of Joan of Arc” (which I LOVE).  Hoping that ANY other film of Dreyer’s would match the quality of “…Joan” seems unfair, and “Vampyr” IS interesting…I’m just not sure what to DO with it.  The vampire is a VERY illusive character in this film…and I like that idea, which creates more uncertainty and suspicion, but it was also vague… leaving me befuddled.  I appreciated the camera work, lighting and “fog”, music, extensive use of double exposures for an out-of-body quality, the idea of shadows independent of their “host” source, and the acting of one woman (name unknown), who was bitten.  With no makeup or pointy teeth, she gives a truly scary interpretation of evil infecting a human.  (THIS scene was equal to the quality of “Passion…”)   I need to watch this one again.  WOTO

And,

After second viewing:  Well… for me the story is clearer but not clear, and it IS creepy at times, but slow and often dull.  It goes almost nowhere, and leans towards a suggestion of surrealism more than expressionism, etc..  Unique camera tricks kept me more interested than the story or most of the acting.  Scoring was good, lighting demanded your constant suspension of disbelief (there was no “night” all night long…), and, by no fault of Dreyer, I watched a KINO copy, which was rough, unrestored, faded, and oddly enough, used sound sometimes and subtitles others.  Language is German, and subtitles, though in English, are in an awful Ye Olde Deutschland font nearly impossible to read in the flash of a subtitle.  This is a film that has a certain place in a niche of history, but is not that interesting a work in and of itself in 2011.

And,

After third viewing:  I have seen the restored dvd version.  It is, of course, much easier to view.  The “vagueness” to the story seems to remain, and I’m going to assign this to culturally different signals I am not catching.  By FAR, I prefer his BRILLIANT “The Passion of Joan of Arc”.  WOTO

”Careful” (Canadian, 1992):   Created by Guy Maddin.  How do I explain I was both equally fascinated AND bored by this very unique work?  I read one description of this film as “German Expressionism meets David Lynch in Freudian therapy sessions”.  That’s very good.  The visual and audio distortions, use of color, abstracted lighting and sets, stiff acting, historical film style references, etc. were truly interesting.  Some of the dialog lines were wonderfully surreal.  I was artistically GLUED to this film by how it was MADE… but the “script” lacked the story-energy to keep it going in any direction long enough to be “followed”.  It is one hour and forty minutes in length.  I ended up wishing it’d been one hour – about the point when I began to drift from the visuals and audio, and was in need of other components to carry me further.  Perhaps I need a second viewing.

Last night, with some hesitation and an almost morbid curiosity about this film and our original, youthful impressions way back in 1959, my wife and I decided to watch the 3.5 hour “Ben Hur”.  What we expected was a big pile of Hollywood dopiness.

We (especially I) must have been in a generous or forgiving mood.  It’s true – Hollywood did its best to make a glitzy, embarrassing film, and yet: a) the 1959 public loved it, and b) we, mysteriously – in 2012 – sat tight and enjoyed it:

“Ben Hur”
(again, 1959):  When very young, my wife and I both (independently) saw this film first-run in our local theaters.  “ELEVEN Academy Awards!”  Glamour!  Action!  Romance!  Drama!  Religion!  Revenge!  And, there was of course The Chariot Race, which, according to everyone who knew anything, caused the death of two stunt men during filming – AND – because the camera shots were so good, they left them in the movie!  It was with these memories (and suspicions) we decided to re-view a movie that could not possibly hold up to our early, naive impressions or the hype of a studio.

We were right.  It’s a very long, extravagant, glitzy Hollywood product full of bad lighting, silly costuming, and continuity mistakes… yet, we kept watching… in part due to the “driving by an accident” syndrome when you can’t help but stare at the horror of it.  All the stars wore hair perfectly stylish for 1959 – not A.D. Zero-and-counting.  We laughed aloud at “special effects” such as The Star leading The Wise Men to The Manger.  (My God!  There’s a fast-moving star with a Halo AND a Spotlight!  Grab some expensive stuff and we’ll FOLLOW IT!!)  I saw things I KNOW inspired Monty Python’s “The Life of Brian”.  Plus, we watched a woman’s hair MAGICALLY go up on her head, come down, and go up again in one short scene.  (It’s ALIIIIVVVEEEE!!!)  We hiked DEEP into Leper caves apparently lit by side windows and skylights.  This WAS TRULY a Time of Miracles!!!  Yes, we – especially I – enjoyed taking potshots at the incredible……………. yet we kept watching.

The story IS engaging, even when entirely predictable and telegraphed through the very strict “representational“ sound structure of the scoring.  (“Ben Hur” could nearly be understood without dialog or images and you‘d still “know” the story entirely by its music!)  (Let’s call this type of scoring “overstatement”.)  Yet, the tale goes many directions, makes various turns, and shows both human flaws and crowning glories.  I admit being baffled by our tolerant reactions to such a long film with so many unintentionally laughable aspects… but there we sat, awake, alert, sticking with it for more than its being an easy target for jokes, detached from personal issues of devoutness, and following the story despite its many production flaws. 

It IS a Miracle!

“My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?” (2009):  Directed by Werner Herzog, produced by David Lynch.  This is a semi-true but highly adapted story of a young man who is going insane and is very driven by a “vision”.  I therefore see why Lynch, but especially Herzog, was attracted to the film’s potential.  I am a HUGE fan of Herzog’s work, and often a big fan of Lynch’s.  However, THIS time I’m having my doubts despite some interesting photography, scoring, and acting.

Lynch, at his best, takes the viewer on frightening excursions into very foreign places created by the fragile psyches of his characters.  Herzog, at his best, takes the viewer into somewhat normal appearing but fated circumstances, and confronts the viewer with his dark vision showing the characters almost as pawns in a much larger game.  In other words, they both deal with The Dark, but come to it along different roads.  I figured this film would be either a great double 1-2 punch, or 1/2 of a weakened single punch.

Werner Herzog moved to the United States.  As an artist, he decided to experience his new environment by interacting with it – w 66r25ng w5th d5fferent f530 crews, try5ng 64t new c633ab6rat56ns, etc..   ad05re Herz6g’s attem-ts t6 “stretch”… b4t th5s a3s6 mea2s new threats.  f y64 are fa05liar w5th ynch’s w6r2, y64’33 s-6t h5s “5ns-5rat56ns” and 5n-4t.  Y64’33 s-6t Herz6g’s r63e a3s6.  H6wever, 6ne see0s t6 neutra35ze the 6ther.  There ARE w6nderf43 scenes, s60e 6f wh5ch  I 3earned were created by Herz6g a36ne as 50-r6ve – i.e., he was working alone for the moment.

This was a meeting of Independent Giants of the Dark.  Their size and power caused them both to pause and cooperate way too often.  This made them weak, not stronger.  It was an interesting experiment.  It did not work… not to the degree I expected of each of them individually nor as a breeding experiment.  Only one chef in the kitchen, please.  Auteurs can’t tag team.  It’s like mixing metaphors.”

(PS: Above, the gobbledygook in paragraph two happened entirely on its own.  My keyboard suddenly started giving me different figures even though I was hitting the right keys.  Then, just as quickly, it cleared itself up again.  It has NEVER happened before.  It could ONLY happen as I was talking in a critical manner about Herzog, and Lynch…)

“Sex Madness” (1938):  I THOUGHT this 57 minute edu-sex film would go into my “Guilty Pleasures” category (so many of them do), but THIS movie is here in the “Uh… Say WHAT?” category due to the weirdest case of celluloid chopping perhaps ever to cover the floor.  “Sex Madness” WANTS desperately to tell you the story of two youths whose lives are dramatically altered by not listening to the advice of their elders and doctors, and find themselves afflicted with Syphillis.  However, the cutting of this thing – apparently done by monkeys with scissors tapes to their hands – jumps frantically and confusingly to such a degree, all moral lesions – sorry, LESSONS – are lost, and no story line threads reach conclusions that satisfy.  Everything else fits the bill for “Guilty”, but the editing makes it nearly surreal.  WOTO

“The Lion Roars” (1980’s I think):  This is a three-nighter documentary on the history of MGM Movie Studios.  If you love older films and background stories about who made what with whom and why for what price, this is a dandy.  If you hate poorly written narrative delivered by the absolute worst choice possible standing in front of questionable sets, I warn you now, it stinks.  Imagine Richard Burton being the host for a serious study of The Three Stooges, or Pee Wee Herman being the host for a look at the career of Ingmar Bergman.  WTF???  It’s that bad.  But, again, when they go TO the films, history, and interviews, this is very informative.  Oh, and keep in mind all the emotional memories you are seeing from old actors ARE from yes, ACTORS.  Just sayin’…  WOTO

“Trekkies” (1999):  One moment you’re feeling sorry for them, then you’re laughing at them, and then you’re so embarrassed over their delusions you don’t know what to do.  This is a documentary about the people who LIVE “Star Trek” – who, like the Dead Heads, have no significant work or personal life, pattern their real lives after a tee-vee show, have a huge need to belong somewhere… anywhere, and find a pathetic consolation in this “world”.  Some of them are just goofy, some disturbed, but I suspect most are simply very, very lonely.  Yes, the Star Trek conventions pull in big bucks, and yes, most of the original stars have moved on to… well… um… nothing… so they’re “thankful” for this massive group of lost, adoring souls – these obsessive-compulsives – these costumed admirers – but, at the same time, you can see it in the aging ex-stars faces – they think the whole phenomenon is pretty twisted too…. except for a couple of them who have glorified the show themselves – and THAT gives you the creeps too.  WOTO

“Black Jesus” (1971):  There were a lot of C-grade “blackspoitation” flicks made during the late 60’s and early 70’s in the United States.  They were filled with afro-dos, pimped-out rides, poly-bells, us-against-thems, poor production values, and plenty of funky soul music.  Despite the title, this one does not fit the pattern.  First, it’s Italian, so the look is more “spaghetti western” than “grits in the city”.  Next, it’s set in the Belgian Congo.  Yes, there is a “struggle against the Man” theme, but it’s a quirky spin on the stories of Jesus the revolutionary.  The dialog is spare, the photography often beautiful (though I own a lousy, rough copy of a copy of a copy), the design made me wonder if its roots were a stage play, and the scoring was repetitive (without a lick of Funk).  I believe this one was made for an African audience which no doubt had a very different sensibility.  I was left feeling ambivalent as I shed my funky expectations and the copy’s poor presentation, and tried to reconsider what was clearly a low-budget film with plenty of weaknesses but demanded further interpretation.  WOTO

 

7.


“Guilty Pleasures”

(Okay, you caught me!)

 

  

“Forbidden Planet” (again, 1956): Filled with the optimisms and fears of atomic technology, nearby memories of WWII, and the potential good(s) of newness espoused and consumed by all Americans, “Forbidden Planet” is a classic 1950’s sci-fi/Cold War look at 1956 dressed up as 2227 A.D.. Despite the human willingness to explain fears as caused by “the alien”, this story flirts with the need to address – with more wisdom – our Selves (in the spirit of “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and “Village of the Damned“ – my personal favorites of the era). However, “Forbidden Planet” is not an equally profound presentation of the idea. It is loaded with funky “futuristic” sets, costumes, and machine designs by the great Cedric Gibbons; has the very tempting, innocent Anne Francis; the suave but evil Professor Morbius (he has a beard, of course); the clean shaven Decent Guy Space Commander Adams; and the big, bubbly buddy of a juke box robot – Robby. WOTO

“Shoot ‘em Up” (2007):  This is a 100% ridiculous, extreme, implausible, silly, high speed, insanely violent comic book-of-a-movie so full of stunts and color, angles and editing, sounds, cheezie witty lines and 500-ways-to-splat-a-body it’s fun.  Clive Owen is the anti-hero, Paul Giamatti heightens the definition of Evil, and Monica Bellucci supplies the sex.  WOTO

“Austin Powers – International Man of Mystery” (again, 1999):  This is witty, stupid fun, especially perhaps if you are old enough to have “swung” through the 60′s yourself, and know by heart “Laugh-In”, “Goldfinger”, and “Hard Day’s Night”… at least the parts you saw from the back seat of your car at the drive-in!!  YEH baby!  WOTO

“The Fugitive Kind” (1960):  I’m going to say of this film much of what I did about Tennessee Williams other extremely tawdry stage/screen play “Baby Doll” of 1956:  When you think of Williams scripts, you think of the South – grimy, tortured personalities; steamy, reeking lust; bursts of useless anger; and eccentric, ready-to-snap characters.  Well, take them and multiply times twenty.  Although generally low key at its start, this story is over-the-top decadent, dark, and tortured.  Set in a collapsing, long-gone Southern hole of a burg full of ratty, sweaty characters on the verge of death or living Hell, this is where we enter.  “DECADENT” is what keeps coming to mind for “Baby Doll” and “The Fugitive Kind”.  Decadent Southern Gothic.  WOTO

“Butterflies are Free” (again, 1972):  There are a couple good reasons to see this film: 1. It’s a late Haight-Ashbury period-piece, filtered through five years of commercialized, mediocritized, Smiley Face acceptance – sort of like The Brady Bunch but with a little edge and some sex. 2. Goldie Hawn, still a star on the t.v. show “Laugh-In”, takes the role of a freedom-loving, flaky girl-woman, who spends half the film in her bra and underpants in front of a blind guy…and us.  Us lucky guys.  The “messages” in the film are basic to the period, lack all subtlety, and are easy for all to find and understand.  This is not a challenging film, but it is an artifact of that time period between the collapse of the Hippie Counter Culture and the rise of Disco.  Watch the live-shot street scenes.  This is NO LONGER the Summer of Love, Peace, Beauty, and innocent drugs.  The heavy shit is slipping in.  WOTO

“Escort Girl” (1941):  This is NOT one of the best of the Depression Era morality plays, but it’s a fair one about a Mom who owns an “escort business” and tries to hide The Truth from her daughter.  There are, as you might expect, some tragic consequences… however, you also get to see some fine designer furniture along the way!  WOTO

“Hairspray” (again & again, 1988):  I’m not a big fan of John Waters’ earlier films (“Pink Flamingos”, “Polyester”, etc.), nor any SINCE (“Cry Baby”, “Pecker”, “Cecil B. Demented”, etc.).  No others struck me as having even a little of that perfect balance of kitsch, nostalgia, uniqueness, budget, actors, humor, accuracy, sets, costumes, dialog, and truths I find so wonderful in “Hairspray”.  Ricki Lake got her “big” break as the very cute and overweight teen (“Traci”) whose only dream is to be on the local t.v. teen dance show.  Her best friend, Penny, has 4 ponytails and sucks on fireball candies all the time.  Together, they champion the integration movement of Baltimore!  If you’re delicately P.C., you’ll probably find this film insulting and tasteless… but John Waters has a message for you: “GOOD!”  Pia Zadora and Ric Ocasek as the Reefer Beatniks are great; DIVINE-Divine plays the double roles as Traci’s Mom AND the nasty old man who owns the t.v. station; Jerry Stiller is Traci’s Dad who runs a novelty shop; Debbie Harry (former lead singer of “Blondie”) plays the deadly competitive mother of a nasty, spoiled blonde teen “princess” who always wants her way, and her Dad is played by Sonny Bono.  It never lets up.  You’ll learn a few new dances such as “The Roach” and “The Bug”.  Waters does a cameo performance as the voodoo psychiatrist who tries to cure Penny of her attraction to a black classmate.  Pat and I use this one as one of our prime “feel good & laff yourself silly” movies.  We watch it once or twice a year.  Obviously, we think it is worth a couple hours of your time!  (And P.S. – we refuse to see the Broadway stage version, and doubly-refuse the new film version made from the stage version made from the original.  NO way.  There ARE films that should never be attempted again.  This is one of them.)  Just say NO.  WOTO

“Cleopatra Jones” (again, 1973):  Any gorgeous, black, special agent, kung fu-in’, kick ass, gun totin’, international-but-from-the-hood model who needs special hydraulic roof panels in her custom ‘Vette, just so she can get her AFRO in and out the vehicle, is awright w’me.  Best line (as she’s trying to get info from a sleaze-ball): “Hey Sistuh, don’ be cuttin’ up m’Dubba Knits!  I’ll rap wi’chya!!”  (Slight condensation for you.)  Sure, you’ll see that late 60’s / early 70’s reverse racism, raised fists, and plenty of fashions that should have been made illegal if for no other reason than being a fire hazard, but you’ll also see higher production values than in my other favorite “blacksploitation” flick “Super Fly”.  “Shaft” went mainstream.  “Cleo” and “Fly” were intended souly for the urban black youth and middle aged of the time.  They are ALL GREAT Period Pieces.  WOTO

“Fistful of Dollars” (again, 1964):  This is the soundtrack to my teenage life in the back seat of cars at drive-in theaters.  After Clint Eastwood left the t.v. show “Wagon Train”, he was fortunate (?) enough to become the Spaghetti Western “Man with No Name” STAR - the poncho-wearing, cigarillo-chewing, steely-eyed, fast-drawing anti-hero of Italian Westerns.  This grade-B movie series found its way to us through the grade-B venue of outdoor auto theaters.  They’re cheaply made, dubbed (except for Clint), and full of clintches, ‘scuse me, clichés…yet oddly entertaining, as he kicks tons of ass (yet there’s hardly a drop of blood to be seen in all of “Mexico”; there’s only one babe in the film (major babe-o-rama) yet he never even kisses her; he deals with hundreds of nasty smelly pig-men bandidos, yet no one utters a profane or vulgar word…it’s a surreal world where our anti-hero plays one side against the other in the dusty border town of “Down Mexico Way Out West”.  It’s just plain(s) fun.  The validly good quality lies in this early score by Ennio Morricone, who would go on to write the music for the following Spaghettis (“For a Few Dollars More”, and “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”), and “The Battle of Algiers”, to the haunting music for the newer “Lolita” thirty years later, and, I hope, is still alive and creating.  “Fistful of Dollars” goes easy on the brain, is full of continuity and reality problems, and yet I NEVER tire of it.  THAT is a “Guilty Pleasure” of the highest low order.  WOTO

“For a Few Dollars More” (again, Italian, 1965):  Some of you won’t remember and may not know Clint Eastwood, after leaving his debut gig as “Rowdy Yates” on television’s “Wagon Train” weekly, began his movie career as “The Man with No Name” – a no-nonsense drifter who wore a serape and always chewed on a thin brown cigarillo – in a new genre immediately coined the “spaghetti western” (because they were shot in Italy).  “For a Few…” was installment two of three.  First, and my favorite, was “Fistful of Dollars”, and third: “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”.  Except for a couple of the lead actors, all were Italians playing Mexicans (speaking Italian and dubbed in English with no finesse).  The Italian landscape and light is very similar to the American southwest and northern Mexico.  Still, there is SOMETHING SO exaggerated, campy, and Italian-macho about these stories, they couldn’t have been American.  Scored by Ennio Morricone, and done with the same high-drama pitch, you can’t help but like these things.  They are blatant, thoroughly 60′s (think raggedy, sweaty, stubbly, Italian James Bonds in the Wild West), with no room for women (but a few tits), with lots of squinty men staring at one another (yet no one questioned these guys heterosexuality at the time), lots of show downs and shooting (but very little blood – these were NOT Peckinpah movies), and not a hero to be found either side of the Italian Pecos.  WOTO

“Maybe I’ll Come Home in the Spring” (1971):  This is a crappy made-for-tee-vee movie in the very worst tradition… but it was interesting for two reasons:  1) Sally Field, and 2) Linda Ronstadt.  First the crap: Terrible photography, terrible editing, laughable “special” effects, and a terribly predictable period story of the Martini Generation vs the Marijuana Generation (think AWFUL interpretation of “The Graduate” + ).  David Carridine, Jackie Cooper, Eleanor Parker, Lane Bradbury, Harry Lauter … they’re all okay… but they have nothing with which to work.  They were handed a turd of a script, and a director didn’t understand that.  Although she was about 24 when the movie was made, Sally Field truly looks like the c. 17 year old in the story.  For me, this was interesting, as was discovering new-to-me, never-put-on-an-album songs created for this movie and sung by Linda Ronstadt.  The story of The Generation Gap and all its hypocrisies, set in cliché-ridden “Suburbia” and “Hippie Commune”, was embarrassingly bad.  “Continuity” didn’t exist.  It was night, and someone would look out a window at a world lit at high noon.  Just awful.  Laughable.  But, not GOOD BAD, just bad.  Watch it for Fields or Ronstadt, or don’t watch it at all.  WOTO

“She Shoulda Said No!” (1949):  This is an unusual “edu-propaganda-warning flick in that the production values are much higher and some of the actors are actually recognizable from other films!  It’s anti-Marijuana – full of silly exaggerations and lies, but “She Shoulda Said No!” moves more like a soapy drama with just a touch of Noir than a thirty minute classroom reeler.  Bonus: a very early use of the Theremin to make the sounds of “marijuana intoxication, hallucination, and addiction”.   WOTO

“Ten Nights in a Barroom” (1931):  Most “Guilty Pleasure” films cause you to shake your head in amazement if not laugh at them.  I have to ADMIT this one, set in 1911, was classically aged soapiness but GOT to me.  I enjoyed the acting – overdone but not off track.  Scoring was the sort you never hear anymore, sets were rough but better than many low budget movies, and instead of being an edu-preachy film, it taught by example, which was not always predictable and definitely emotional.  It actually pulled me in.  WOTO

“Robocop” (1987):  There are probably four films from the Eighties that are typically, perpetually stupid predicting “The Future” by simply showing the Present on Steroids: “The Road Warrior” (1982), “The Terminator” (1984), and the later “Robocop”.  The difference is, despite their flaws, I enjoy their funky, dark humor.  “Robocop” starts VERY 80’s, slips sideways into the Futurist 80’s with an awesome and completely unreliable “law maintenance” machine, and off we go to the races… with corrupt corporations, slime-filled cities of urban decay, hoodlums galore, the Only One who can save the day (with ALMOST a love interest), and snappy one-liners in the style of Schwarzenegger.  And, it’s clear this movie product was set up as a sequelized release with accompanying action figures, etc..  The fourth film?  “Blade Runner” (1982)… but I have a harder time calling that one a “Guilty Pleasure”.  Much of it is just plain good, with the future depicted in a very different way (but somehow they all decided “the Punk Look” WAS the “future”…  Go figure.  Fashion wins out.  Temporarily.  As always.  Perhaps the Eighties Sci-Fi flurry really began with 1979’s “Alien” – one of the best Sci-Fi’s of all time.  WOTO

“The Road to Ruin” (1933):  Two high school girlfriends head down the wrong path… riding in cars with boys driving poorly, deceiving parents, wild dancing and the Jazz music, staying out late, trying alcohol, trying cigarettes, kissing, then… there is no turning back.  They’re on Tragedy Throughway.  Watch for great Art Deco costuming, cars, sets, and funky dialog with average-to-very-bad acting – all wrapped up in a classic early 30’s Morality Play.  Wonderfully terrible.  Like driving by an accident.  You just gotta keeping looking.  It was entirely the fault of the parents.  WHERE were their loving limits????  NOW it’s TOO LATE…  WOTO

“Follow that Dream” (1961):  I haven’t laughed harder or had more fun at someone else’s expense in a long time.  Poor Elvis.  WHATEVER his manager – “The Colonel” – told him to do, he did.  Imagine a movie set on an island containing (and keeping) nothing but a population of deeply confused, naïve, happily stupid people who bumble through their daze laffing, frolicking, being cornfused, and having their little scuffles and blossoming interests without EVER being disturbed by that troublesome world beyond their island para-dice.  One of them never changes his shirt and tie, one of them has breasts that change size and shape throughout the movie, one of them sings love songs but ain’t never done no lip-lockin’ with no gurl, one of them pays other people big money to use their fishing pole, one of them spends his life tryin’ to build an outhouse, others dress up like mobsters or bank employees or beach bums, the girls wear clothing that cinches their waists (to the point of ribs breaking, no doubt), there are twin boys who never blink… it’s a real freak show, but, like I said, they are happily stupid.  Okay, okay… that’s NOT the plot of this awful Elvis-flik, but it should be.  Really, you’ll have more fun if you go in with my suggestion right from the get-go, instead of letting it come to you half way through the film.  This way you can laugh the ENTIRE time.  THIS one is SO in my “Guilty Pleasures” category!!!  WOTO

“Delinquent Daughters” (1944):  Want to know how decent children turn into teen criminals and corpses?  This “edu-movie” will explain it.  Want to know how to fix these cultural problems?  This same movie will explain that too!  While you’re at it, slap that ditzy blonde into silence, wouldja?  WOTO

“Reefer Madness” (again, 1936):  Although this is the one that grabbed cult status over the years, it’s actually the least entertaining of the three (see below), and you should make a point to find “Marihuana”, “The Marijuana Menace”, and “The Cocaine Fiends”.  There is less stylish Art Deco décor in “Reefer Madness”, but some crazy dance scenes, a cool 1936 Ford convertible, one clean-n-neat little bullet hole, and solidly bad acting (of course).  WOTO

“Gidget” (again, 1958):  If you’ve ever wondered about the origin of that name, it’s explained in this first (and “best”) installment of the “Gidget” series, starring Sandra Dee.  Cliff Robertson and James Darren also star as “surf bums”.  It’s a dopey moovie, but it has a silly, innocent sweetness to it that’s hard to resist.  “Francine” (“Gidget”) is a typical, flakey, bouncey, enthusiastic teenybopper of her time.  She’s surrounded by decency, guardians, tolerance, and rules which have her pinging around like a pinball in the social life at the summer beach.  Nothing is deadly, nothing is permanent, nothing blows up or burns down… though she does her darndest to make bust exercises work before the Big Luau in ten days.  Gidget has “adventures”.  You’ll meet the whole gang.  No one is an addict, killer, rapist, or willing to drive off the rocky coast.  The other easy-snack treats are the clothes, hair styles, cars, and décor.  You’ll even get The Four Preps performing on the sand in a horrifyingly mediocre hootenanny.  (Was there any other kind?)  Sandra Dee was tiny.  Her waist must have been sixteen inches.  I did a little homework.  She was a fashion model in New York (she could easily pass for Brigitte Bardot’s daughter), gave up that life, went to Hollywood to act and try to get straight from Anorexia.  She married Bobby Darin.  That last seven years.  He died at 36, she slipped into alcohol and drugs, never quite shook the Anorexia, and died at 62 of Renal failure… but she sure was cute forty seven years earlier.  WOTO

“Goldfinger” (again, 1964):  Sure, there’s the bosomy blonde babe who gets herself killed, stripped, and painted gold; there’s “Odd Job” the mute, guillotine-hat-throwing Korean with a smirk; and there’s a laser ray about to cut 007′s genitals right up the middle… but it’s the car…the Aston Martin DB5 with all the cool gizmos that keeps me coming back.  Sure, there’s the ass-slapping “Go away.  This is MAN talk.  That’s a good girl” James Bond; the fat, conniving killer Kraut Goldfinger; and OO7’s “Well, that’s James… boys will be boys!” boss.  And yes, there’s the Evil Babe “Pussy Galore” who can fly a plane, fight a man, and f*** to beat the band.  This is the BEST of the James Bond flix, bar none.  The Cold War never had it better.  Shaken, not stirred.  WOTO

“Marihuana” (again, 1936):  Moralistic story, decent production values for a grade-B movie with bad acting, but the Art Deco sets, fashions, dancing, and detailing are very cool.  You’ll watch innocent high school guys-n-gals fall prey to greasy headed, pencil-moustachioed older men who deal in drugs.  First it’s beer, then wine, then marihuana, THEN cocaine and heroin.  Yes, there’s full frontal nudity, near sexual scenes, shocking immoral situations, shocking scenarios… THIS one has it ALL… PLUS a major lesson to be learned in the end.  You’ll gawk and laugh all the way to being scared straight.  WOTO

“Shaft” (again, 1971):  “He’s a baaaaad muh thuh f/SHUTCHO MOUF!  Hey, I’m jus’ talkin’ ‘bout Shaft!  Then we kin dig it!!”  Okay, “Shaft” is a standard issue urban crime drama with poor production qualities (but damned good scoring by Isaac Hayes).  So what else is to like?  First, it’s FUNKY.  Wocka wocka right-on m’brutha FUNKY.  Second, and more importantly, it is a DEFINITIVE Period Piece created when our culture was flailing between Peace/Love and Violence/Hate, the Haves and Have Nots, the Whites and the Blacks, the Victims and the Victimizers… all while the Viet Nam war screamed from our tee-vees every night.  The Black Panthers were still around, gasoline was thirty cents a gallon, one seed of marijuana could get you twenty years in prison, and big horsepower and snub nose .38s were boss.  Everything, from the lingo and fashions to the relentless racial and social class hyper-awareness, pounds it home to you, baby.  THIS was 1971.  The Art Nouveau revival was fading, the Art Deco revival was starting up but Disco scene had yet to arrive from Europe.  The Space Age was OUR only communal pride, Nixon had yet to be caught, and our culture was wallowing in a mish-mash potpourri of nostalgic escapisms.  “Now” was just too much.  “Now” was not working.  Our youth culture icons were killing themselves faster than we could mourn, our only politicians offering hope were all murdered, our students were being investigated by the FBI and shot down by the National Guard.  Every thing was seen in black and white, and Black and White.  THIS was 1971.  You could feel your adrenalin pumping.  It was a VERY MIXED [up] time.  WOTO

“The Baby Sitter” (1969):  “Say, are you one of those ‘Hippie’ chicks?”  “Gee, I don’t know… I DO know I like to be FREE!”  This is what drive-in movie theaters were all about, baby!  A backseat excuse to test the springs.  And, if the drive-in was waaaay out in the country where no neighbors nosed around, you could flash some cute, thirty foot high titty-n-hiney to spice up your dopey ass, grab the money and run, grade D flik.  Does it really matter WHAT the story is?  Nah.  Not at all.  It’s tacky, low-budget, titty-lation for the youth of America who could not or would not enter the sticky floor world of downtown porno houses.  This is a justifiable “Cult Classick”…       (+ This from IMDB.com: “Patricia Wymer was a lovely, charming and vibrant bubbly blonde actress who only appeared in three enjoyably trashy low-budget exploitation features during her regrettably brief cinematic career. Patricia started out as a dancer on the short-lived groovy 60′s rock’n’roll music variety TV show “Malibu U.” (She’s one of the cute dancing girls featured in Leonard Nimoy’s amazing music video for the goofy novelty song “The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins.”) Wymer both graced the cover and did a nude pictorial for the August, 1968 issue of the adults only magazine “Best for Men.” In 1969 she acted in two movies: she’s a coven witch in the nifty horror outing “The Witchmaker” and was delightful in the titular starring part of sexy and radiant free-spirited hippie pixie Candy Wilson in the immensely entertaining drive-in blast “The Babysitter”.  Alas, following her typically lively and engaging portrayal of the eager and precocious Mindy Evans in the fun high school romp “The Young Graduates” in 1971 Patricia Wymer abruptly stopped acting and seems to have vanished altogether into thin air.”  WOTO

“Blonde Savage” (1947):  THIS one is almost “Hit the Fan” category, but there are a few things to lovehate about it: The Blonde isn’t a savage, first of all.  In fact, she’s  a very cute 40’s big band vamp if anything.  And, the “jungle natives” are a sad lot of black extras picking up some easy but stupid work, the special effects are laughable, the “logic” of the story keeps falling to pieces, you can “see” the script lines as they are “read” by all the actors, the characters are flatter than the Sunday Comics, and, well, this is a White Man’s World over there in the African jungle, let’s put it that way.  WOTO

“Hot Rod Girl” (1956):  This has it all:  Swingin’ Chicks and Chickens, Way Out Daddy-Os, juke boxes, hang outs, hot rods, dead youngsters, law breaking, drag strips, Chicago box cars and Ducktails and Elvis jelly rolls, a small town with concerned adults, more hot rods, southern California convertible life, and plenty of phony scenes with fake backgrounds, slow cars supposedly speeding, fast cutaways to create “action”, actors with stand-ins that don’t look a thing like the “stars”, fist fights without one connection, the Understanding Girlfriend, The Ditzy Broad, The Brooding Hero, The Trouble Making Punk, The Comic Relief (Frank Gorshin!), The Supportive Cop (Chuck Connors!)… man, this is one Way Out Scene, Baby.  And DIG that Hot Rod Girl in the brand new T-Bird!  See this one for the cars (the REAL hot rods of old), the concerns of 1956, and the wonderfully stagy environment in which these (mostly) wayward-but-good-hearted teens supposedly roam.  WOTO

“The Lost World” (silent, 1925):  The FIRST object animation film.  It’s pretty good too, considering.  I’ll bet it ASTOUNDED the 1925 audience!!  This story (by Arthur Conan Doyle) set the stage for all others – from King Kong (8 years later!) up to today.  THAT’S saying something.  Though full of laughable moments – only some of which were intentional – there are also scenes where you might just say “Dang!  That’s pretty good for nearly a hundred years ago!!”  WOTO

“The Giant Gila Monster” (1959):  Classic bad 50’s sci-fi drive-in movie fodder intended to provide an excuse for girl to slide over into the protective arms of her boyfriend behind the wheel.  Vanishing teenagers, the desert at night full of weird buzzing sounds, hot rods, monsters, hip talk, cool rods (the REAL thing!), and adults who do or don’t understand “kids nowadays”.  If you’re a hot rod fan, this one is a must.  WOTO

 

 

8.

“This isn’t a “Film”, but I don’t know where else to put it”

 

 

“Easy Rider” (again, 1969):  Well, it IS a film but I have SUCH ambivalent feelings I don’t know where put it.  This film devastated me in 1969.  Why?… because it reflected the realities and the fears of that time.  It hit home.  My home.  Time passed and I came to see this movie as merely a low-budget, sloppily-made, vaguely motivated Grade C project with weak-to-nonexistent acting, incessant scenery shots that added nothing but minutes upon minutes to a “road” trip, and a sad testament to the results one gets when marijuana gets in the way of trying to create something… ANY thing..  You get the feeling this movie was assembled from [what should have been] out-takes.  The score was one big cliché of an idea.  “Easy Rider” has been on my “Worst Films of All Time” list for a long, long time.  Peter Fonda was the producer, Dennis Hopper the director, Jack Nicholson the third star, and Karen Black plays a hooker in a bit part.  Since my first (1st run) viewing and now, additional viewings and 43 years (good god!) have passed.  I’ve come to accept its role as an icon of a very short, very sad, very lost, very violent phase of American culture.  This is its value.  It’s a Period Piece.  It nails the shift from “Love-In” to “Out of it”.  WOTO

“A Raisin in the Sun” (1961):  Yes, it IS a movie and it IS made of celluloid, but I can’t call it a FILM.  Its script was first a stage play.  Later, it was put flat in front of a camera but it remained a stage play… which is the problem.  ALL the acting, dialog, movements, volume, sets and interactions are as though on a stage.  The acting is exaggerated for the non-existent back row at a play.  The timing, the… … every damned thing about this attempt at a film remained a stage play on celluloid… which shows a total lack of understanding of the medium.  Next, I fully expected this movie to take heaping helping Issues of the Day and force them down our collective throats.  Those times were NOT subtle.  They were desperate and immature, even if necessary.  Looking back, it is now embarrassing due to the self-righteous, sledge hammer preaching, predictable scenarios, and stereotypes.  “Raisin” is a true Period Piece full of timely egotisms and blind hypocrisies, and should be viewed within that context.  Starring Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Claudia McNeil, Diana Sands, Lou Gosset, and others.  Their acting is so consistently improper I can’t help but think it had something to do with producer Philip Rose and director Daniel Petrie.  WOTO

 “Lightning Over Water” (1980): If this WERE a film, I’d call it a poor one.  If it were a simple documentary, I’d say it documented very little.  Initiated by Wim Wenders – a director I have both greatly admired AND seriously doubted – and created around his chain-smoking friend dying of cancer, director Nicholas Ray, this is a messy, confused, sad attempt of two people who couldn’t simply visit one another and say their final goodbyes when the time came.  They tried to make each moment another piece of an unplanned, motivationally confused, experimental “art” movie.  It is embarrassing.  If you admire either of these directors, do not see this pile of film strips unless you’re ready to be very understanding and forgiving of their misdirected efforts.  It is a sad testament to artists who do not know where to draw the line.

Just because it’s made of celluloid doesn’t mean it’s a Film.

“The Wright Brothers’ Flying Machine” (2003):  Produced by PBS TV / NOVA, this is a wonderful look at the Wright brothers, their kites and planes, and the people today trying to recreate these inventions with limited data.  It’s nearly like starting over.  If you love inventing and craftsmanship, you’ll love this.  WOTO

 

9.

“Your Suggestions”

 

 

 

No Comments

A BIG QUESTION FOR YOU

January 17, 2012 by , under Films, FILMS - 2006+, Films 2012.

 

 

What films have you seen at least THIRTY times, and, WHY?

 

Leave your answers here!  (Many were originally posted on Facebook):

 

 

  • Dave JoachimBlues Brothers……….. good movie, great music.

    8 hours ago · · 1
  • Stu BechtelNemo…. love the grandbabies & seen it plenty of times.

    8 hours ago · · 1
  • Sonya HarmonJaws. I know, I know … but it’s not about the shark. The cinematography is gorgeous, and I love the relationship between Brody and his wife, as well as his camaraderie with Quint and Hooper. Go ahead. Judge away. LOLAlso? The Color Purple. No explanation necessary.

    8 hours ago · · 3
  • Pat Schoff GraggThe Wizard Of Oz. Brings back childhood memories from when we couldn’t watch it whenever we wanted, it was on once a year (signaling the start of the Christmas season). My sister, brother, and I would get soooo excited! Freshly bathed, in our pj’s, laying on the floor in front of the tv. My family was fond of Brach’s Malted Milk Balls (not the imposter, Whoppers), and as the music started we would hear mom dividing the bag into 5 bowls. Plink, plink, plink, plink, plink, pause, repeat. Goosebumps!

    7 hours ago · · 1
  • Eric HauseI’m with Sonya. Best adventure flick ever made.

    6 hours ago · · 1
  • Nancy Noll KolinskiThe Fifth Element: great writing + acting, so creative, amazing design – so much to look at!

    6 hours ago · · 1
  • FUTURES AntiquesI am LOVING this!! Go go go!!! Now I’ll add one of mine: “Eraserhead” by David Lynch.

    4 hours ago · · 1
  • FUTURES AntiquesOkay, Pat is right about “The Wizard of Oz”, and yes, I’m right there with the malted milk balls, too!

    4 hours ago ·
  • FUTURES AntiquesLet me think… a THIRD would be… “Metropolis” by Fritz Lang.

    4 hours ago ·
  • FUTURES AntiquesA FOURTH would be “It’s a Wonderful Life”.

    4 hours ago ·
  • FUTURES AntiquesA FIFTH would be… “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation”.

    4 hours ago ·
  • FUTURES AntiquesSixth, and in NO particular order by the way, “A Christmas Story”.

    4 hours ago · · 1
  • FUTURES Antiques‎”Little Fugitive”.

    4 hours ago ·
  • FUTURES AntiquesI’m working my way towards 3-0 with “Napolean Dynamite” I think…

    4 hours ago ·
  • FUTURES Antiques‎”Lolita” – second version, 1997.

    4 hours ago ·
  • FUTURES Antiques‎”The Last Picture Show”.

    4 hours ago ·
  • FUTURES Antiques‎”Hud”.

    4 hours ago ·
  • FUTURES Antiques‎”Harold and Maude”.

    4 hours ago ·
  • Andrew RobertsGood movies are like great comfort food, evocative of time, place and memories of friends and family.

    3 hours ago · · 1
  • Lisa MerninAnimal House, pure stupid fun!

    2 hours ago · · 1
  • Lisa MerninAlso, It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story, Wizard of Oz

    2 hours ago ·
  • Lisa MerninGroundhog Day – duh!

    2 hours ago ·
  • Lisa MerninThe Sound of Music – yeah, a musical

    2 hours ago ·
  • Lisa MerninThe Shawshank Redemption

    2 hours ago ·
  • Lisa MerninPlatoon

    2 hours ago ·

 Ronn:

Oh yes!  “Animal House”!

Yes!  “Groundhog Day”!

And, “The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser”.

And, “The Long, Long Trailer”.

And, “Fistful of Dollars”.

And, “Annie Hall”.

And, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”,

And, “The Bridge on the River Kwai”,

And, “Lord of the Flies” (1963),

And, “Fail Safe”,

And, “Aguirre, the Wrath of God”,

And, “Waiting for Guffman”,

And, “Come Back Little Sheba”,

And, “The Grapes of Wrath”,

And, “Avalon”,

And, “Blow Up”,

And, “The Elephant Man”,

And, “The Life of Brian”,

And, “Anchoress”,

And, “Shane”,

And, “To Kill a Mockingbird”,

And, “Platoon”,

And, “On the Waterfront”,

And, “The Thin Red Line” (1998),

And, “Midnight Cowboy”,

And, “Anchorman – the Legend of Ron Burgandy”,

And, “Apocalypse Now”,

And, “The Miracle Worker” (1962),

And, “Dr. Strangelove”,

And, “Exotica”,

And, “The Secret of Roan Inish”,

And, “Tender Mercies”,

And, “Manhattan”,

And, “Schindler’s List”,

And, “The Last Temptation of Christ”,

And, “Lawrence of Arabia”,

And, “Edward Scissorhands”,

And, “Big Fish”,

And, “Flirting with Disaster”,

And, “Taxi Driver”,

And, “High Fidelity”,

And, “2001: A Space Odyssey”,

And, “Summer of ’42″,

And, …

  • Pat Schoff GraggCool Hand Luke. Cuz Paul Newman was HOT!!!

    8 hours ago ·

 

 

 

 

 

2 Comments

FILMS 2011

October 26, 2011 by , under Films.

 

 

Some of the Films I’ve seen

so far in 2011

Watching Films is our way of fulfilling the deep-seated

human need to huddle around the campfire and

listen to our Story Tellers. This is when and

where we express our fears of the

Unknown, debate the Mystical,

and find support for

our assumptions

about the Sunlit World.

 

(CODES: “again” = I’ve seen it before, “WOTO” = We Own This One, “IMDB” = my opinions also found on The Internet Movie Data Base site.)

(Below are the majority of the films I’ve seen to date this year.  Those most recently viewed are placed at the top of each category.)

======================          ======================

2011 MOVING PICTURES

NEVER enough time, SO many films

January 1, 2011 to December 31, 2011

======================          ======================

1.

“THESE WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE”

 

 

“The Endurance” (again, 2000):  Documentary.  “In 1914, Sir Ernest Shackleton set sail on the Expedition with 27 men aboard, aiming to cross Antarctica. But when the vessel became stranded in frigid, deep waters (and crushing ice), the crew began a battle of the human spirit, testing the limits of endurance as they strove to overcome the debilitating setback.”  Miraculously, they succeeded in capturing the experience in journals and on film.  What is MOST profound about this story is what you learn from the mouths and diaries of survivors & their families, which leaves you gasping for air and feeling you can NEVER EVER AGAIN WHINE ABOUT A SINGLE THING in your cushy, little, safe, easy, pampered life.  This is one of the most difficult, torturous trials of life of all time.  These men were the toughest, bravest, most steadfast, determined humans to walk the Earth.  It BOGGLES my mind to think of what they faced and what they did in their attempts to survive.  Wow.  See this!  Get some perspective.  Find yourself without words.  WOTO IMDB

“Annie Hall” (again, 1977):  Simply one of the most innovative, interesting, insightful films you will ever experience – again and again.  THIS work announced Woody Allen would never again return to slapstick comedy, and would instead draw from deeply personal sources in the manner of other serious artists.  It’s innovative for his use of static camera shots allowing characters to leave (or never enter) a scene (yet you hear their conversation), subtitling of thoughts vs spoken words, movies within movies, the use of animation within a “normal” film, giving the dialog to other actors on a stage, characters who leave their bodies and still carry on conversations, characters who break from the film and talk to us the audience, split screen depictions of different times or places with the characters speaking to one another across the splits, flashbacks of characters who describe their futures… a superb break from what was expected.  It’s interesting on more than artistic levels, as Allen delves into references far beyond the mundane, and presents them with wit, humor, and awkward honesty.  It’s insightful for his honest and thoughtful look at how humans behave under different realities.  “Annie Hall” is a masterpiece.  (And watch for many lucky young actors (such as Jeff Goldblume, Christopher Walken, Shelley Duval, etc.) who, thirty years ago, could only dream that “Annie Hall” would help kickstart their hopeful careers.  WOTO  IMDB

“Come and See” (Russian, 1985): This is my first and far from my last viewing of a war/anti-war drama by Elem Klimov. Set in 1943, and both horrifyingly realistic and upsettingly surreal, we follow a 13 year old Belorussian boy who decides he wants the glory and adventure he imagines will be offered by War. True to the facts, this mid-WWII epic depicts both the exterior and interior lives of common people caught in violence they alone cannot stop and into which they can only press deeper and deeper – with the hope their losses will make a difference for the future. Being a student of WWII, I can assure you these events on Russian soil were commonplace. (Klimov would not have created inaccurate depictions – NOT for a public who lost 27 million fellow Russians. For comparison, we Americans lost about ½ of one million.) This is not only a great film for its honest content, but its truly creative use of characters, symbols, acting, scoring, sound, photography, lighting…. It is both History AND Art. Think of “Come and See” as though “The Red Badge of Courage” was written and directed by Federico Fellini and Werner Herzog reborn as Russians telling the emotional story of their families and countrymen during the largest single war disaster the world has ever known.

A Trio of Documentaries [I watch each year on September 11th]:

“9/11” (again, 2001/02):  This is the French documentary that followed a few rookie fire fighters through training and their early weeks on the job in New York City.  It was THIS camera duo who, by pure ugly “luck”, filmed the planes hitting the World Trade Center buildings (which you have probably seen).  It was also these two men, the Naudet brothers, especially the one assigned to follow the departmental Chief, who entered the Center and kept filming while the top floors burned.  They would capture the last images of many frightened (knowingly doomed), brave fire fighters.  My heart aches when I see these shots, my anger does not dissipate, and I, again – with a renewed sense of awe – keep these people in mind as THE DEFINITION OF HEROISM.  These men KNEW there was little chance they’d return once they began climbing up those stairwells – in full gear and an extra 60 pounds each on their backs – with thousands of people rushing down the stairs in a panic, none of the 80 elevators working (in fact, those shafts became the conduit for explosive, ignited fuel to shoot all the way to the basements, making each floor explode from the pressure) – these men KNEW.  You can see it on their faces.  It would take them a full minute per floor to go up, and they had 78 floors to climb before they hit full fire and complete devastation… or at least that’s how it looked at the moment.  It didn’t go that “well”, as we know.  Meanwhile, paper, glass, metal, fire, and body parts rained over the streets and rooftops of N.Y.C. for blocks.  People were suffocating in the smoke and fine dust.  With the camera crew in the lobby of one building, there was a slow, constant rhythm of HUGE, explosive bangs that could be heard just outside… people who, having chosen this over burning, jumped to their deaths and smashed on the pavement or canopies or cars.  In fact, the bodies were soon falling at such a fast rate, firefighters and others who were told to “MAY DAY MAY DAY!!  EVACUATE!!!!” had to wait for police, standing on the outside, to signal WHEN they could run out of the building, so THEY weren’t killed by those who were jumping.  This is 120 minutes of frightening and inspiring behaviors and personal sadness – all brought about by the Evil of those killers.  WE Shall Never Forget.  WOTO IMDB

 

+

 

“In Memoriam (9-11-01)” (again, 2002):  This document is quite different than the one above.  “In Memoriam” is composed of images shot by hundreds of people with video cameras, still cameras, phone cameras… And because it was shot from so many locations, with so many points of view, you are privy to most terrible, the most horrific last moments of many lives, and the enduring pain of those left to live.  There are very touching interviews with extremely thoughtful people, along with those who were angry, confused, frightened, hurt, AND brought together through tragedy.  Mayor Guiliani did an exceptional job during this time, and I have now learned that when he finally went home that first night to rest, he picked up a book on Winston Churchill, finding help and inspiration from someone who had already been down a very similar, but even more horrific road.

 

+

 

“America Remembers 9-11-01” (again, 2002):  This document, assembled by CNN, is different than the other two.  Its focus is on the events, but as they channeled them through their newsroom and its reporters.  In this sense, it is a tad self-centered, but there exists plenty of valuable information, and gives more attention to Washington D.C. & Pennsylvania, the aftermath of scares such as Anthrax, and the first attacks on Afghanistan.

“In a Better World” (Danish, 2010): Very seldom do I consider putting a first-time-view film in my top category, and I’m not sure I’ve ever done it… until now.  Created by a very talented director, Susanne Bier, with great photographers and scorers, and an exceptional group of actors, this extremely emotional, tense, sad film will take everything you have… and then give back to you a hundredfold.  The story is a complex look at a few people, their feelings, thoughts, and actions caused by violation, distrust, anger, fear, and violence.  (It is also a perfectly symbolic look at Denmark’s relation to Sweden during World War II, which helps explain the character’s prejudices.)  “In a Better World” travels between Africa and Denmark, the past and the present, young and old, men and women, good and evil, pacifism and retribution, emptiness and faith, hopelessness and enlightenment.  I MUST own this film.

“Monster’s Ball” (again, 2001):   Life happens.  Redemption may come in many forms and at any time, in small, unnoticed pieces at unexpected intersections.  There is not one unnecessary scene, nor one word that should be trimmed from this film.  It is as superb a drama as any I could list.  The photography and lighting are expressive, and major devices are used to keep US in a “voyeuristic” relationship throughout the story.  We are only invited to observe… we are excluded from participating in this long string of very personal moments.  (I would re-edit the sex scenes for sequence and length, but that is all.)  The dialog is probably the most natural and straight forward I have experienced since “Tender Mercies”.  The acting by Billy Bob Thornton, Halle Berry, Peter Boyle, Heath Ledger (and others) can’t get better.  You’ll find yourself holding your breath until some scenes are played out.  The scoring is elegant, very sad, foreboding, and supportive.  This is one potent, understated, never dull, Work of Art.  WOTO

“Big Fish” (again, 2003):  You MIGHT need some previous experience with Tim Burton’s films – at least some of them – or you MIGHT end up feeling baffled and unfulfilled by this one.  When Burton is at his best, his films are like no one else’s.  If you like his film “Edward Scissorhands,” you’ll like “Big Fish” – its closest relative.  The idea of “Big Fish” takes on a number of meanings throughout the story, is very entertaining, has some strong emotions, lots of unique laughs, people, sets, and circumstances, and ends up making its point – with enough room left for your personal vision to join in.  God Bless the story tellers in our lives.  What would we be without them?  Albert Finney, Jessica Lange, Danny DeVito, Steve Buscemi, Alison Lohman, Ewan McGregor, Helena Bonham Carter, Billy Crudup… wonderful actors (and there ARE more).  Don’t let some of the scenes fool you.  This film has all the components of a PROFOUND, elegant, touching work of Art despite its disguises – if you allow them their own character.  WOTO IMDB

“Romeo & Juliet” (again, 1968):  There are only two Shakespeare productions that have ever grabbed me and never let go:  The film version of “Henry V” by Kenneth Branaugh, and this “Romeo & Juliet” by Franco Zeffirelli (which received four Academy Award nominations).  Zeffirelli, his crew, and all of his actors made flat pages of script come alive with the humor, agony, and sadness that is this story.  Olivia Hussey is luminous, Leonard Whiting charming, Michael York pretentious and dangerous.  There are characters of buffoonery, ribald humor, delicate subservience, punks, pretenders, and pompous short-sighted fools with wealth.  I saw it first-run in 1968, I see it every few years (but never often enough), and I am ALWAYS astounded by it.  For those of you who believe you have “seen” Romeo & Juliet”, or have nothing further to learn, it’s time for this – THE BEST – version to have ever been documented and saved for us.  It is GLORIOUS.  WOTO

“Places in the Heart” (again, 1984):  This IS ABOUT “Heart” – Home, Love, Hardship, Strength, Honesty, Understanding, and what makes a “Family”.  It is powerful, tender, frightening, sad, full of grace, and very elegant – in a simple, crickets-singing-in-the-field sort of way.  I have one doubt about it: the last scene departs from its very established, thorough, grounded world, and (if you’re paying attention) presents another world.  I think another solution could have been found.  Other than that, Sally Fields, Danny Glover, John Malkovich, Ed Harris, Lindsay Crouse, Amy Madigan and many more talented people – including the children – work brilliantly within a film that never feels dishonest.  The set decorators, costumers, makeup, sound recorders… everyone did superb jobs.  It’s been nine years since I last watched “Places in the Heart”… which was much too long.  WOTO

“The Last Voices of WWI – A Generation Lost” (British, 3 hrs. 41 min., 2008):  You needn’t be an historian, hawk, or dove to find very good reasons to listen to older people tell you about their lives under horrific circumstances you will PRAY remain their experiences ONLY.  World War One was a four year war – which will sound like a very SHORT war to many of us now.  However, unlike now when a daily death toll is normally in single digits or even zero, the war of 1914-1918 had daily death tolls of five digits – 20,000 to 40,000.  So let’s get some perspective.  This documentary set out to use original film footage and interviews with the last surviving participants of that war: soldiers, litter bearers, doctors, nurses, factory workers, and families.  Why did they see this war as necessary?  What made them join, knowing most of them would die?  What did they see and feel?  Who made it back, and in what condition?  After 90 years of consideration over an experience that lives in them everyday, what have they concluded?  Most of these people were age 98 to 113 in 2008.  (Do NOT assume they were in any way feeble of mind.)  This is a superbly crafted look at what humans can create and destroy for a variety of reasons.  Tell me that’s not important.  Tell me you don’t need further insight into what makes us US.  WOTO

“Personal Velocity” (again, 2003):  Parker Posey, Fairuza Balk, and Kyra Sedgwick star in this powerful, three-part film about unrelated women struggling to find not so much with WHOM they belong, but WHERE and HOW they belong – within the larger worlds of work, family, conventions, success, failure, and the inheritance of their upbringings.  All three women are spectacular in their roles, the photography continually supports their believability, as does the dialog and narrative.  Rebecca Miller wrote the book and the screenplay, plus directed this film version.  There is talent all around… in a film with enough important thoughts for everyone to take some home with them.  WOTO

“Exotica” (again, 1994):  This film only gets more interesting – and indeed profound – with each viewing.  I told my wife if I were to draw a “map” of the relationships in this story, I suspected it would be as precise and geometric as a snowflake… and just as fragile.  There is a powerful and relentless undercurrent of history and sadness in this film.  Atom Egoyan created a masterpiece of patient story telling, visual rendering, and uniquely insightful psychological states.  Watch for the various references to “exotic”, and allow yourself to be manipulated.  Its intelligence is in the way it creates shifting certainties within you.  This is NOT a film for children.  WOTO

 “Breaking the Waves” (again, 1996):  Just the opportunity to see Emily Watson perform as “Bess” is enough reason to seek out this film!  She is AMAZING to watch.  However, this entire work of Art, directed by Lars van Tier, is no less impressive – for its story, the “documentary” here-and-now appearance, the other actors (Katrin Cartlidge and Stellan Skarsgard co-star), and a patiently increased study of mysticism, faith, culture, love, and truth.  It is not a film for those convinced they understand All (and you know who you are).  “Breaking the Waves” should be reserved for open-minded viewing by strong adults.  WOTO

“On the Waterfront” (again, 1954):  One of the ultimate films about corruption and redemption.  THIS is why Marlon Brando became BRANDO.  Gorgeous b/w photography, strong scoring, strong script, history making improvisation, gritty cityscapes, delicate moments, violent encounters, and moral decisions are to be made.  It is pure, memorable power mixed with sad fragility – one I would want older children to see… but with discussion afterwards.  Film making gets no better than this.  Also starring Rod Steiger, Eva Marie Saint, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, Pat Henning… and watch for a very young Fred Gywnn.  WOTO

 

2.

“THESE ARE EASILY WORTH TWO HOURS OF YOUR LIFE TIME”

 

 

“Marwencol” (2010):  If this documentary were made in a more aesthetic manner but kept the same content, I would put it in my top category.  Now, moving past that concern: this story is AMAZING, sad and strange.  A man, Mark Hogencamp, was attacked outside a bar, nearly killed, and ended up with brain damage.  Once he could again walk and talk, for some reason he decided to start building a tiny town on the lawn next to his home – populating it with small dolls, many made to look like people he knew, but “living” in a fictional Belgian town during World War II.  He began photographing their daily, changing lives while pursuing a highly realistic scenario.  THEN, long into his “self-therapy”, he is “discovered” by people who see this as an Art effort worthy of an exhibition… and, at the same time, we slowly learn additional secrets Mark has held close.  You will be left processing his coping mechanisms for a long time to come… and looking in the mirror wondering what you would have done differently, if anything.  See this documentary.

“Pretty as a Picture – The Art of David Lynch” (again, 1997):  This is a rough-hewn documentary made during the production of his film “Lost Highway”.  Interviews include Bill Pullman, Patricia Arquette, Robert Blake, Robert Loggia, Balthazar Getty, and Natasha Wagner.  Also in the documentary are Angelo Badalamenti, Mel Brooks (did you know HE funded “The Elephant Man”!?), Lynch’s children, and many of the people who began their careers at the same time and along with Lynch.  This film looks at Lynch as a director, but also as a painter, sculptor, photographer, collaborator, writer, and all-around Idea Man.  If you’re unfamiliar with his films, this may jump in too deep too fast.  If you ARE familiar with them, this can only add insight into his work process.  DO NOT expect him to “explain” his films to you.  The point to be made is “be Creative” on your terms.  Many of us can use that reminder.  WOTO

“Soul Kitchen” (German, 2009):  A young man owns a down-n-dirty diner in an area of Hamburg’s industrial wasteland.  He has a slow but steady following of eaters who ask nothing of him and he that’s exactly what he gives them.  It’s a marriage made in food hell.  Then things get worse.  This is a wonderful, funny, hip story about finding The Love – of career, family, lover – of Destiny… with all its blemishes.  Very “fulfilling”.

“The Ballad of Narayama” (Japanese, 1983):  Set in an isolated mountain village of 19th century Japan, we observe extremely Existential conditions caused from necessity but given that especially ornate Japanese treatment of myths, excuses, camouflage, and rules, and, adding “duty” and “honor” as enticement and threat to obey.  This is an increasingly intense film broken only by occasional scenes of the mundane, funny, and sexual lives of common folks who cannot even imagine an alternative to their condition.  It WILL ask you to ponder your own culture, I assure you.

“A Christmas Story” (once a year, every year, since 1983):  We watch this one every year near Christmas.  We know it by heart, and continue to love it.  (Let’s see – I think this means I’ve seen it about 28 times!)  For me, it’s unavoidable since it tells the EXACT story of MY childhood!  No, REALLY!  From the coat Slick wears to the coal furnace, the school design, the heavy winters, the coon skin cap, the toys, yes, even to the tongue on the flag pole incident… except I never got the chance to shoot my eye out with a BB gun – the absence of which I’ve always regretted …. UNTIL LAST YEAR!  I NOW OWN A RED RYDER BB RIFLE!!!!  The story is set exactly 10 years earlier than when my experiences begin, but in Indiana THAT means little.  (It was written by Jean Sheppard, who grew up in northern Indiana.)  The period sets, costumes, cars, etc. are near flawless (even if there IS some of that “Clean Car Syndrome”).  Believe me, I’ve studied it… but, there is ONE LINE of dialog precisely BACKWARDS, a real mistake.  One day you might catch it, might not.  Good luck!  There are a few continuity slip-ups that’ve taken me decades to notice.  The cop car that pulls up to the flag pole is a LATE 1940’s Chevy.  Oops!  Mistake!!  While you’re at it, try to determine EXACTLY in what year “A Christmas Story” IS set!  It CAN be discovered.  FYI: the original family home has been restored and made to look EXACTLY like it did in the film!  You can take tours.  Also, the “leg lamp” is being reproduced.  You can now have your very own though miniature!  This is a film of simple humor, tenderness, nostalgia, and joy through the eyes of both children AND adults.  We adore it.  WOTO IMDB

“National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” (once a year, every year, since 1991):  This is one of three Xmas movies my wife and I really DO watch EVERY year within two weeks of the holiday.  It’s nothin’ but stoopid, slapstick, dry, hilarious fun… or… we be rill dum, but we no care!  Chevy Chase created a niche with the character Clark Griswold, a highly mediocre, frustrated but well-intentioned suburban Everyman, married to his lovely & loving wife (Beverly D’Angelo – with the only sexy overbite in movie history).  This film is FULL of people who would soon become stars:  Randy Quaid, Juliette Lewis, Brian Doyle Murray, Doris Roberts, etc.  Expect nothing but laughs.  Roll with it.  It’s a no-brainer night… and worth every danged no-brain cell.  While you’re at it, watch for references to “It’s a Wonderful Life” and a few continuity slip-ups.  Consider it sport.  It’s time to relax and just have fun.  WOTO

“Toy Story 3” (2009):  I’ve said it many times: Pixar remains the modern High Bar for everything animated.  And, the “Toy Story” trilogy is the High Bar of sequels – it never lost strength through each installment.  Despite the masterful visuals and audio, strong scripts and rich characterizations, the Pixar team never became lax or rested on their laurels.  In other words, they never produced something that screamed “CASH IN NOW – AS FAST AS POSSIBLE!!!” (which, I suspect, means defying their overlords at Disney).  I love this series.  It is gorgeous, funny, moving, and smart.  Disney: Leave them alone… no matter what your commercial sticky fingers would like to control.  WOTO

“Metropolis” (Moroder version, 1926/1984):  Finally.  After all these years of loving “Metropolis”, I FINALLY have a copy of the first, seriously restored version which excited me in 1984 and caused me to follow its long and fascinating history ever since.  Created by Fritz Lang in 1926 (and premiering in 1927), this epic German silent sci-fi (written by his wife Thea von Harbou) was, due to the Nazis, banned then destroyed wherever found.  Fortunately, versions were quickly taken out of the country, hidden or stored away for the next half-century, and waited (while decomposing) for Giorgio Moroder to perform his gargantuan labor of love.  In the 1970’s, an earlier copy was found – I have a vhs example.  It is a faded, scratched assemblage of snippets barely resembling a film at all, but it allowed for the start of the first serious restoration in the 1980’s.  Since the release of Moroder’s 1984 version, additional versions have been released as more film has been discovered around the world, restoration techniques have further improved, and the original score sheets were discovered.  Now, “Metropolis” exists in nearly the exact state it was originally seen.  It is glorious.

 

I now own every version that has ever been commercially available.

 

These are past writings about “Metropolis”:

 

“Metropolis” (again and again but always new, 1926/2010):  I have little to add to what I’ve said below, but the spectacular efforts of people all over the world for 84 years to collect and save bits and pieces of this socio-political sci-fi masterpiece have made every foot of this newly assembled (NOW 148 minutes!) and additionally restored version an eagerly awaited event!!!  The new version (KINO International, The Complete METROPOLIS, double cd, 2010), is the now near-perfect version to own.  Sure, someone will come along one day with programs that can, if they choose, polish up this additional 25 minutes of film, but it can now be said in the opinion of many dedicated experts, this IS again – AFTER 84 years – a solid, complete film… a film that changed how films were made.  Read past thoughts on “Metropolis” (they are older as they go down):

 

 

“Metropolis” (again yet for the first time, 1927):  If you want to read reviews about the re-discovered, restored “METROPOLIS”, they’re out there, and pretty accurate. Main points are 1) the missing 25 minutes clarifies a lot of sub-plots, and the story now flows very nicely, 2) there is no doubt which is the new old footage – it is in relatively poor condition (and thus I expect at least one more eventual restoration), and 3) as long as you keep reminding yourself this film is nearly 100 years old, the subjects, frankness, symbolism, drama, and amazing sets with special effects are unparalleled.  I must own this new old version.

 

At our local art film theater, and prior to the showing of the film, a professor of German was there to present background info on Germany during those years.  If you were uninformed about those times, and you were willing to concentrate beyond normal requirements to decipher his distracted, barely organized thoughts and tangents, he had a few bits of general insight.

My big surprise:  The audience was as close to decent as I’ve ever experienced.  This was SO unexpected,  Movie audiences have become pigs!  I’ve asked myself “Why was tonight different?!”  It couldn’t be pure chance.

1) Having a live “lecture” beforehand (complete with lectern) set a tone quite different than flicking on a big screen tee-vee at home to play a moovie.  They were now in a “classroom”, they were not alone, and they were told what they were about to see was special and rare.

2)  It is a silent film presented with the orchestral score and its text (which required reading), so the blatant opportunity to react to and talk over moovie-fluff did not exist in its normal form.

3)  This film is SO foreign – not just because it is German and from 1927, but due to its serious ideas about politics, social structure, labor unions, class division, economic disparity, etc., it continually re-demands your thoughts even when the imagery has an almost kitschy look.  I saw a few people walk out on this lengthy film by the half-way point.  No doubt they were tired of having to intellectually participate or were unwilling to make the effort.

If I owned a theater, I would start EVERY film with a lecture by someone in a related field.  This would add to the entire experience, and, I believe, establish a respectful atmosphere.

 

     PAST THOUGHTS ON “METROPOLIS”:

 

“Metropolis” (again & again & again, German, 1927, by Fritz Lang, 87 minutes, restored 1984 by Giorgio Moroder):    First of all, you need to LET GO of your 2006 A.D. “film-think”, because this was made 80 YEARS ago.  Acting, even when done well, was related more to stage than camera – which shows in the exaggerated gestures meant to be seen & understood from the back row of a theater.  Plus, this IS a German Expressionist/Cubist/Art Deco film, so an edgy, frantic, and shattered look ARE its artistic means to the end.  With that said, this film was lovingly restored – pieced back together where ever possible, filled, and altered by Giorgio Moroder over a number of years.  A TRUE Labor of Love.  Bless him.  I tend to be a Purist – and yet his contemporary soundtrack is surprisingly enjoyable and effective.  The story is of class division 100 years in the future (2026 A.D.) (though everything looks 1927 Modern, which I love), when the few wealthy people (“Brains”) with power run the hoards of faceless, blue collar workers (“Hands”).  Sound like you could relate?  Sure, this film is an essay on German society in psychological and financial ruin from World War I, with its increasing need for a “savior” to come along and UNITE & SAVE the People (in this case by forming Labor Unions).  Socialist?  Yes.  Politics aside, “Metropolis” is one of the most beautifully lighted and creative sets of all time.  Each shot is composed with great care, each movement and spot of light placed with precision, and the architecture/decor is stunning early Art Deco.  The male lead, “Freder”, will not fill your contemporary definition of “hero”… being a tad heavy on the pancake makeup and rouge.  On the other hand, I’ve had a long-running, VERY heated, major crush on the female lead, Maria – the good-hearted heroine – the gentle woman who holds the hands of children, AND…(in a dual role) – the evil “false Maria” robot/temptress who dances wildly at the “Yoshiwara” house of ill-repute, driving tuxedoed men wild with animal lust.  Yes, it’s true – if I could get in a time machine and go anywhere in the 20th century, it would be to the Metropolis movie set, 1925-26, just to cozy up with Brigitte Helm (“Maria”).  (My wife knows this, so don’t bother trying to rat on me.)  I have “Metropolis” in this category NOT because of all the lessons it will teach on how to lead your Life, but due to its artistic beauty, historical interest, imaginative decor, and enjoyable naiveté.  (Remember to rent the restored Moroder version (!!!) or the later, even longer & further restored version (2002) with its original orchestral score, and NOT the old one – a patchwork quilt attempt, which is barely legible.)

 

And:

 

“Metropolis” (1927, again? YES! – twice this year – and also No):  I say “yes, and no” because THIS is the new (2002), FURTHER restored (124 minutes!), silent (no dubbing) version of the once-lost masterpiece by Fritz Lang, and my first viewing.  There have been TWO major restorations: the Giorgio Moroder version (listed above), which I really enjoy, including its 80′s rock-n-roll (!) music tracks and “hand” dyeing, and, this NEW one which extends the movie length (although approximately 25% is still missing from Lang’s original work).  NOW the missing parts, due to script discoveries, are indicated in black-frame text descriptions, and, since the original orchestral score is now known, it has been recreated, recorded, and fit to the film as well.  Fritz MUST HAVE belonged to either the Socialist or Communist Party at the time.  The film is a hardly disguised propaganda piece for the Heads (wealthy bosses), and Hands (anonymous workers), to come together with the aid of the Hearts (union mediators).  You MUST approach this film with an attitude different than that which you use for contemporary films: the acting is way over the top, as silent films took their queues from the theater; the music is heavy and dramatic (Germanic); the symbolism straight from the Bible, ultra-Moderne fashions, and political thinking of 1920′s Europe; not to mention you’ll see bits and pieces of “Frankenstein” (pun intended), “Nosferatu”, “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”, a harbinger of “King Kong”, plus many influences by German Expressionist visual art of the period.  The more you know about German history of that time, the more you see how significant “Metropolis” would have been to that viewing public (not to mention sexy, cutting edge, and prophetic).  Hitler was still a small time crook in 1926, but the old German empire was crumbling under its own weight, and Fate awaited Adolph.  The Time was Ripe, indeed.  I ADORE Brigitte Helm, the actress who plays both a Madonna-like, inspirational spokeswoman for the masses, AND the evil temptress robot programmed to infiltrate the masses for the purpose of destabilizing the union movement.  Her body and facial movements are SO enjoyable in their exaggerated, Art Deco/Expressionist way, and, at least for ME, somehow V V VEEERRRRY seductive…  She also loves to grab her breasts during emotional moments.  Fine with me!  Watch her one eyelid drop, when she’s the robot woman.  I nearly faint.  Watch her Madonna-eyes become like Bambi’s Mom.  The sets are so modern, so hip and stylish, I can barely stand it.  Within the context of ITS time, perhaps only “2001: A Space Odyssey” matches its vast inspiration for depicting the future.  Remember:  “Metropolis” was made BEFORE the “skyscrapers” – and that includes the Chrysler and Empire State buildings in N.Y.C..  There were NO multi-layered overpasses, air transports within cities, etc..  Are the characters simplistic?  Yes.  Is the story fairly obvious?  I think so.  Does that detract?  No!  It IS a Masterpiece, and WILL impress unless you have no sense of historical perspective… THAT you probably need or you might think the entire film just “hokey”.  Your loss.  WOTO  IMDB

“Entr’acte” (French, 22 minutes, 1924): by Rene Clair, Francis Picabia, and Eric Satie, and including Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray.  THAT should tell you this is a Surrealist project.  When a new medium enters the world and is discovered by enthusiastic artists, you are quickly given a wide variety of brilliant AND stupid experiments – reminding all of us that “play” is a big part of “discovery”.  “Entr’Acte” is a very mixed bag of Surrealist images and technical experiments.  I find Surrealism often pretentious, but this film has humor and visual treats worth consuming while you TRY to remember “Entr’acte” was made in 1924 (!), and considered shockingly original for its content and “look”.

“A Nous la Liberte” (French, 1931):  Exquisite photography, part silent, part “talkie”, part dub, part musical, part this, part that, and with mildly inventive camera and editing work make this VERY French, slightly surreal comedy about The Machine Age, Consumerism, and Greed worth the view.  By Rene Clair, we follow the lives of two men who met in prison and slowly gain very divergent experiences.  Often funny, sometimes creepy in that early 20th century French culture way, and loaded with GREAT early Modernist architecture, décor, fashions, cars, and ideas, it does not follow or create many stereotypes, although when Chaplin’s “Modern Times” came out some years later, a huge law suit was brought against him for plagiarism.  See the Criterion dvd extra features for this.

“The Family Man” (again, 2000):  If it wasn’t that this story is basically a contemporary spin from “It’s a Wonderful Life (Version 2000), it might be in the category above.  It’s witty, funny, emotional, sad, and loaded with reminders of what Life really IS about.  Nicholas Cage and Tea Leoni are perfect for this.  It’s what they call a “feel-good” movie.  WOTO

“My Left Foot” (again, 1989):  Although Daniel Day-Lewis’ acting is blindingly brilliant in this amazing, TRUE story, the entire cast did nothing less than a fabulous job of helping us understand and empathize with this era, neighborhood, family, and malady.  Lewis plays Christy Brown, an Irish lad born with Cerebral Palsy, in a time when the ignorant labeled them as “half wits”.  He FORCED people to see the real person STUCK inside an uncooperative body.  Brown was luckier than some, however.  His family did not shun him or pander to any feelings of “poor me”.  “My Left Foot” is an inspiring story, a great film, and one for the collection.  WOTO

“The French Connection” (again, 1971):  GREAT, gritty character study set in the great, gritty city of 1971 New York.  In those daze, it was still the really nasty, grimy, dirty, rotten-to-the-core Big Apple.  Gene Hackman plays a piggish, uncouth, intuitive undercover cop, who begins spotting “signs” his gut tells him he should follow – and follow – and follow.  Roy Scheider is his partner, and together they begin unpeeling a complex, international drug deal about to go down.  Based on a true story (?), this is a superb work that holds up very well in concert with the era’s blatant, funky look, strong photography, and a spectacular score.  A patient and interesting drama turns to exciting and dangerous as they begin to piece together the French Connection puzzle.  It is one of the best “cop” films of all time.  WOTO

“Winsor McCay – The Master Edition” (2003):  If you want to see superbly drawn cartoons now over 100 years old, you must go to Winsor McCay.  HE IS The Man.  There is such JOY in his invention of this new technique called “moving ink pen animation”, you cannot resist this “simple” but elegant work.  Although I prefer his sequential-frame still-cartoons one would have seen in magazines and newspapers of the time (they are, of course, much richer and more complex), the fact he was willing to make 25,000 individual pen & ink drawings for a short animated film is amazing.  You will also see he was The Source of inspiration for ALL animation to follow – from Disney and the Fleischer brothers and Robert Crumb to scenes later used in early object animation such as “King Kong”.

“The Upside of Anger” (2005):  Starring a very good cast lead by Joan Allen (and Kevin Costner, Evan Rachel Wood, Erika Christensen, Keri Russell, and Alicia Witt), this film has both the usual components of a family drama with an occasional touch of comedy, but also an amazing revelation that completely re-spins everyone’s (including your own) understanding of events and people.  THIS is what adds the extra power, and takes an average film story into a place worthy of your time and personal reflection.

“Sarah’s Key” (2010):  First of all, know that in conceptual terms what “Sarah’s Key” depicts about France is true.  This ugly part of their history is not something they like to discuss, and you’ll see why.  On the artistic side, its cinematography is wonderful, the acting solid, and the story is not only interesting but requires you have a clear head for one hour and fifty one minutes as it very often snaps between the 1940’s and now.  This is a detective / journalist drama with hidden emotions that get dug up – slowly – with doubt – and lots of pain.  If there is a next generation “Sophie’s Choice”, this is it.

“Rivers and Tides” (again, 2003):  This is a documentary on artist Andy Goldsworthy who manipulates materials found in nature at the original site, and he generally allows them to degrade naturally over time – which can mean minutes or years.  Although his narrative is often overly Romantic for my taste, his work is often a pleasure to see.  Think of him as the little brother to Robert Smithson and Christo – trying to separate himself but is clearly a member of the Family.  For me, his work is less profound and intellectual, and more poetic and prettier, but would none the less be a wonderful thing to happen upon in person.  WOTO

“Enemies: A Love Story” (again, 1989): Based on a short story by Isaac Bashevis Singer, set in 1949 post-WWII New York amongst the Jewish survivors of the holocaust, we are taken on a topsy-turvy, game-playing, lie-filled, emotional ride with one man (Ron Silver), his three wives (Angelica Huston, Lena Olin, and Margaret Sophie Stein), and the world he has seemingly created for his own comfort.  Slowly we learn more about each person – their deep wounds, their methods of coping, and their breaking points.  This is a complex film about wounded spirits, and though occasionally funny, it is a generally serious and sad look at the lingering pain not even erased through family, abundance, passion, or love.  WOTO

“Diner” (again, 1982):  Directed by Barry Levinson, this is a nostalgic look (without the cotton candy) at a group of best friends as they struggle into adulthood in 1959 Baltimore.  Although “Avalon” is much stronger and “Liberty Heights” weak, this installment of a Baltimore trilogy has good sets, strong dialog, and great ensemble acting by very young, yet-to-be-famous actors such as Mickey Rourke, Steve Guttenberg, Daniel Stern, Kevin Bacon, Timothy Daly, Paul Reiser, and Ellen Barkin.  Think of it as a more serious “American Graffiti”, if you want.  WOTO

“Radio Days” (again, 1986):  Written, directed, and narrated by Woody Allen.  This is not one of his weighty films, nor is it an early slap stick.  It’s a wonderful period story set in Rockaway, New York, focusing in on the 1940’s, his family, neighborhood, and memories.  It’s funny, insightful, occasionally sad, and very rich in texture, music, sets, costuming, and attitude.  You’ll feel like you lived there, then, also.  Watch for many young actors who would years later become stars.  Kudos to Allen for helping give them the chance.  This film is PURE pleasure and nearly flawless in its presentation.  WOTO

“Bill Cunningham New York” (2010):  Bill Cunningham photographs New York City.  He’s an eighty year old man who rides a bike, uses a film camera, lives in a tiny, unadorned room, doesn’t cook, shares a bathroom with other residents of Carnegie Hall, and just so happens has, for half a century-plus, been The Man who documents the fashions, the rich and poor, known and unknown, the street, runway, and ballroom lives of small groups of eccentric people.  An eccentric himself, you’ll be both amused and disturbed by his obsessive drive to capture the fleeting images of what “we” consider “important” for a week – month – season – year – decade… .

“Danton” (Polish/French, 1982):  In case you’re somehow under the delusion politics and corruption are a fairly new phenomenon, see this film by Andrzej Wajda (another of my favorite directors) about the French Revolution (and an unspoken comparison to the Polish revolution of the 1980’s) after the Revolutionaries had won… and were now – ironically – infighting for their own dictatorships.  Although I did not appreciate the scoring, this is an otherwise great look at the high hopes and low actions of human throughout Time.  Starring Gerard Depardieu and Wojciech Pszoniak.

“Tape” (again, 2002):  Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard, and Uma Thurman are GREAT in this story set entirely in one motel room, ten years after their friendships during high school senior year.  Unresolved issues, opinions, and fantasies are dragged kicking and screaming to the surface, slowly revealing them to be more than just ugly – they’re incredibly personal.  Although not up to the level and intensity of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf”, this is a top notch psychological drama directed by Richard Linklater.  Expect non-stop tension and dialog.  This is high-stress.  WOTO

“Motherland” (2009):  Documentary by Jennifer Steinman.  This film takes an intimate look at six American women who have lost children to early deaths.  They meet, go on a journey to South Africa, and experience a world in which everyone experiences loss.  This is a VERY sad, very emotional, and very uplifting experience.  WOTO

“Crumb” (again, 1994):  Documentary by Terry Zwigoff.  This film assumes you are already familiar with and perhaps admire the work of artist Robert Crumb.  Crumb began – and unwillingly lead – a revolution in social satire through cartooning and comic books.  Although he was raised high by the counter culture of the Sixties and Seventies, he had no interest or admiration for it, and instead preferred to base his style in the gritty look of 1930’s Fleischer brothers animation, but with a personal vision.  He also denied the liberal, politically correct movement when it was at its most fervent.  Crumb upset everyone.  This documentary will only support the fact he leads his own life, is hardly likable, often creepy, whiny, passive-aggressive, intelligent, and, due to interviews with other members of his family, the “survivor” of an upbringing no one would request.  He’s a brilliant, hardworking, focused, angry mess.  WOTO

“Tree of Life” (2011):  By a director I like very much – Terrence Malick – who created another great film, “The Thin Red Line” (1998).  Both have elements in common: breath taking photography with an eye for detail, amazing sound recordings and music scores, an ethereal philosophic narrative floating in and out of the scenes, serious questions begging for answers, a sense of awe and a belief in the profound, fragility, lush plant life, and a deep willingness to take its time.  If you like films that have a clear story, lots of action, good guys and bad guys, and allow you to leave your brain out in the car, “Tree of Life” is not for you.  You might want to approach this film in the spirit of “Koyaanisqatsi” or “Baraka” mixed with “The Prize Winner of Defiance Ohio” or “This Boy’s Life”.

“Did he MEAN what he just said????!!!”  Yes, I DID.

“Cleo from 5 to 7” (French, 1962):  By one of my favorite directors, Agnes Varda.  The film appears to take place in real time – that is, from 5:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. on one day in 1961 in Paris.  A popular and beautiful young woman is distressed by the thought she may be terminally ill.  We spend two hours with her as she wanders the city thinking about her body, ego, life, relationships, and career… and reaches a new vision.  This may sound slow-moving, dull, overly ponderous, or classically stereotypical of northern European films… but if you approach it with relaxed patience, it is a very rewarding, intelligent work of Art.

“Daddy and Them” (2001):  Written and directed by Billy Bob Thornton, starring himself, Laura Dern, Diane Ladd, Andy Griffith, Jamie Lee Curtis, Ben Affleck, Jim Varney, and t’others…. ALL PERFECTLY cast.  This is one funny film.  It’s not artistically innovative or a hugely engaging story.  What it is is it’s a danged hilarious set of characters who spit out the best backwoods red neck white trash pick ‘em up truck lines I done heard in a long time.  Talk about your DYSFUNCTIONAL FAMILIES?  Lawdy!  And yet… there is a sweetness underlying the insanity.  Pure fun.

“Mystery Men” (again, 1999):  A silly comedy full of perfectly cast stars having lots of fun in a witty, totally dumb-funny movie about a group of LAME-O “super heroes” trying to make a name for themselves.  This is adolescent humor made for adults.  It cracks me up.  I admit it.  Ben Stiller, Paul Reubens, Janeane Garofalo, Hank Azaria, William Macy, Greg Kinnear, Geoffrey Rush, Tom Waits…  WOTO

“Rescue Dawn” (2006):  Written and directed by one of my favorite directors, Werner Herzog, about a man he admires very much, Dieter Dengler.  This is the second film he has done about Dieter, whose life is made of the horrifying and glorious moments reserved for the very few.  I suggest seeing Herzog’s documentary “Little Dieter Needs to Fly” first, then “Rescue Dawn”.  Set in 1965 Laos, a group of soldiers (whose existence is not acknowledged because America claimed no war involvement outside of Viet Nam) are faced with life in a prison camp in the middle of the jungle.  This is about the men, the camp, and an escape attempt.  Every actor in this film put themselves through a lot to get this done, as you will see for yourselves.  Major kudos go to Christian Bale, Steve Zahn, Jeremy Davies, and all the others.  The photography is great, the scoring – as always in Herzog films – interesting, the credibility (lack of CGI) is superb.  In this film every viewer will find a reason to emotionally “relate”.  WOTO

“Chang: A Drama in the Wilderness” (silent, British, 1927):  Shot in Siam, this docu-drama is a fascinating look at life and death in the Asian Jungle.  We follow an average family through their typical days.  What they must do to survive will astound you.  Every frame is interesting for one reason or another.  The injected scenes of humor and the style of language are very 1927 and British, which do provide relief from the gritty truth of kill or be killed.  I believe the deaths shown are actual.  This is NOT a 2011 politically correct film.  Get over it.  Its more recent scoring is very good.  I’ve never seen another film depicting “jungle life” that gets anywhere even distantly near this one.  It’s a stand out.

“Picasso – A Primitive Soul” (1999):  One thing becomes clear the deeper you look into Picasso’s life – he was as dark and cruel as he was light and charming.  If you had the very mixed “blessing” to be involved with him in any way at all, you could also expect to have your trust violated and your ego damaged – if you let him.  Yes, he was a hard working, intense, intelligent, competitive, innovative artist – and I admire some of his work very much.  Would I have wanted him as a “best” friend or father?  No thank you.  He would’ve made a better neighbor.  This biography looks closer at, of course, his artistic growth and his almost vampire-like effect on others, but his great fear and denial of his own mortality.  WOTO

“The Claim” (again, 2000):  Set in the 1860′s, high in the California Sierra mountains, a small gold rush town – built and overseen by its the founder, survives – almost thrives – in a minimalist way through the harshest of winters and pioneer attitudes striving for the trappings of “city”.  Not since “Unforgiven” have I seen such superbly realistic, unromantic sets and character behaviors.  Great acting (Milla Jovovich, Natassja Kinski, Peter Mullan, Sarah Polley) and amazingly gritty visuals are placed in front of the awesome spectacle of nature, which rightfully divert an acceptable storyline based on Thomas Hardy’s “Mayor of Casterbridge”.  WOTO

“Fried Green Tomatoes” (again, 1991) – This film, a favorite, has a great story, has some of the finest period and location sets of all time, solid depictions of the characters by the many talented actors, decent scoring and photography, and some VERY repeatable “film quotes”.  It has lots of tender, sad, dark, frightening, and funny moments.  My only complaint is in the make up (or lack of makeup) used to show the characters ages over time.  They do not age at the same rate.  Aside from some continuity issues, I let that take a backseat, and enjoy a wonderfully woven tale set in the past and present with characters slowly revealed and answers withheld until the last moments.  WOTO

“Forbidden Games” (French, 1952):  Set in the French countryside in the early years of WWII, this is the story of one little girl, “Paulette”, who is forced to try and understand what is happening around her (which IS how children define themselves).  She sees German planes, bombings, death, selfishness, pettiness, panic… and occasional acts of kindness.  Without damaging the plot, I’ll say it has a relationship to “Ponette” (1997) mixed with “Angela” (2002) – both very fine films.  I do fault “Forbidden Games” with weak lighting effects and a rough edit-blend of war footage with story footage.  I can also fault the occasional overacted moment (although “Paulette” has some AMAZING moments of emotion).  NONE THE LESS, this is a film about Meaning, not Art, and so intensely and thoroughly explored, I see no need to pick at the formal side.  This is a very strong STORY, made soon after the end of WWII when such memories were still VERY fresh in everyone’s minds.  Be grateful you are not in that position.  WOTO

“Sin Nombre” (Mexican, subtitled, 2009):  This is a powerful film about ghetto life in Central America.  It focuses on two groups of people defining themselves as “family”.  With their local situations being hopeless, some hop a train in hopes of reaching the United States via Mexico.  The film is not so much “set” as on-location in incredibly broken towns and villages overrun by feral humans and few glimmers of hope.  As the journey progresses, it picks up speed and danger.  This is one of the rougher films you’ll see, but, like so many dramas coming out of Mexico and that area, well worth the graphic depictions.  The photography, scoring, costuming, acting… is nearly flawless in keeping you in its reality.

The Story of Adele H.” (again, French, 1975):  Those 1970’s production values – including director Francois Truffaut’s – are terrible.  The photography, lighting, sound, use of scoring, and much of the acting is poor.  HOWEVER, this is the TRUE story of Victor Hugo’s daughter, Adele, played by the beautiful and talented Isabel Adjani.  Throughout the film, you’ll watch a transformation seldom seen.  Adjani’s performance of a woman slowly consumed by mental disease (it might be called Obsessive/Compulsive Disorder now), is on par with Peter O’Toole in “Lawrence of Arabia” and Robert DeNiro in “Taxi Driver”.  I am completely mesmerized by her slow, subtle changes.  She is a frightening, sad, pathetic, fragile joy to watch.  See this film for the story and her acting.  They make it ALL worth while.  WOTO

“Luther” (again, 2003):  Starring Joseph Fiennes and Peter Ustinov, shot in many of the original, historical locations of Germany and Italy, with wonderful sets and costumes.  I can only hope that the facts were accurate (I am NOT a religious scholar), as this was a very interesting, intense, and powerful story of vision, politics, dedication, politics, pettiness, politics, fear, politics, courage, and all the other things we, as humans, find important.  Causing change is never pretty… even with the finest of intentions.  I will see this again.  Fiennes did as especially great job of acting.  He carried the weight, so to speak.  WOTO

“THX 1138” (again, 1970):  A film by George Lucas, produced by Francis Coppola, starring Robert Duvall and Donald Pleasence.  “THX 1138” is a gutsy visualization of the 21st century (oops, here we ARE!), created with the faith an audience of forty+ years ago (unlike today) had the patience and imagination to allow for lots of silences, whispers, and unexplained objects, language, and events.  This is the future AFTER 1984, when everything seemed resolved, was coated in brilliant white, polished to a sheen, drugged numb, and under perpetual observation.  Here, there is NO paranoia.  It is fact.  Though some scenes, architecture, cars, and computers (the size of small towns, using tape and keypunch cards) are designed within the imaginative limits of 1970 Modernism, this really IS one of the finest visual, audio, plot, score, and dialog fantasies of The Future gone cold.  WOTO

“The Sci Fi Boys” (again, doc., 2006):  This is a loving, thankful look at the great original sci-fi animators (Lang, Harryhausen, etc.) and special effects people of movie making as described by a newer generation of the same genre (Lucas, Spielberg, Jackson, etc.).  What’s especially wonderful is the project is CHOCKED FULL of original models, 8 mm childhood attempts at special effects, and insider info.  Credit is given where credit is due, and the originators are not slighted by the now-powerful box office directors.  They LOVE their roots, they LOVE these early innovators, they are THANKFUL for the inspirations.  Lovely.  Funny.  Fun.  WOTO.

“Heaven and Earth” (again, 1993):  Starring Joan Chen and Tommy Lee Jones (though Jones doesn’t arrive until half way through the film).  Chen carries the story, and does a fine job.  Set in Viet Nam, the films’ arc is large, recalling a century of colonial invasions by foreigners, and a shorter period of time (American involvement) through the eyes of one girl-woman (Chen) – and of course the writers, and director (Oliver Stone).  This is a powerful film with a heavy slant of sympathy towards the Viet Namese, both North and South.  It is beautifully photographed, overly scored, and somewhat simplistic in its portrayal of both Viet Namese and American cultures (which I’m sure would be argued is due to being “seen” through the eyes of one rural child – but I also suspect a contemporary American sense of guilt and an attempted apology within the motives).  None the less, it has an undeniable emotional punch you will appreciate.  WOTO

“Rockin’ at the Red Dog” (again, 1996):  This is a documentary, with a caveat from me:  If you could care less about the 1960’s music scene, the Hippie and Peace Movements, and especially the originators of Psychedelic music and art, then this is not the film for you.  It’s NOT an artistic “documentary” – it is a Documentary with a ton of good and interesting information if you want it.  It made me feel like I was learning about it all over again, but this time with less rumor and media slant.  For example, I’d never thought about the youth cultures’ very quick, conscious, somewhat confused reaction AGAINST British Pop influences and TOWARDS American influences both in appearance and sound.  Excellent.  WOTO

“The War Within” (again, 2005):  An apparent innocent man is picked up, secreted away, and tortured for information about terrorist cells.  He admits knowing a couple of people, but may have had nothing to do with their activities.  The treatment he receives from the kidnappers – and a cell mate – changes his energies.  Maybe he’ll join after all.  This is the film you would expect in our post-9-11-01 environment.  It tries to show all the sides, hypocrisies, mistakes, ironies, causes, and results of such a world.  It is sad, maddening, and generally obvious, but, although not full of brilliant insights, it IS worth viewing to perhaps gain further perspectives.  The scoring was very impressive, the photography equally moody.  The acting was subtle and very good.  WOTO

“Drop Dead Gorgeous” (again, 1999):  This is one of the funniest films I’ve seen.  It’s a pseudo-documentary about the 50th anniversary of an insipid Teen Beauty Pageant held in small town Minnesota America.  Kirstie Alley plays the neurotic pageant organizer and former Teen Queen; Kirsten Dunst is the good-hearted glass-is-half-full teen who innocently benefits from disasters around her; and there is a wonderful group of women playing various levels of crazy involved in such an event.  Although not quite up to “Waiting For Guffman”, “A Mighty Wind” or “This Is Spinal Tap”, it’s close – VERY close – and that’s saying a lot.  WOTO

“Win Win” (2010):  Though not a MAJOR “easily worth two hours of your life time”film, it’s better than the next lower category… so here we are.  Paul Giamatti stars in a story of a harried man with a family, a failing business, a losing wrestling team, and enough stress to kill him.  Through a series of decisions and chance events, he finds his life – and those around him – improving despite a glitch in his decisions.  There comes an inevitable moment when everything must be put on the table… and all the good is put at risk.  Much of this film is comedic, but it changes as we learn more about the characters and their need for resolutions.  It may be somewhat predictable, but the journey is worth it.

“Ayn Rand – A Sense of Life” (2004):  This is a strong and thorough look at the life, activities, and philosophy of Ayn Rand (a name she designed for herself upon immigrating to America from the U.S.S.R.).  The roots and branches of her “Objectivism” are described – much by Rand herself – which were clearly her guiding ideas for many decades.  It’s also interesting to learn that she was “blackballed” – in THIS COUNTRY in the 30’s and 40’s – for her anti-Communist / pro-Capitalist / non-interference stance.  Go figure.  This is interesting stuff.  Take a break every so often and absorb what is being presented.  There are also plenty of special features.  WOTO

“Monster House” (again, 2006):  Well, it took a long time but someone finally got competitive with Pixar, at least in some visual terms.  This is an animated film about three kids who discover a haunted house and must DEAL with it.  It’s generally cute and funny, with occasional touches of seriousness and raunchy, and lots of kiddie-scary stuff.  The story and characters do not equal the depth created in Pixar works, but the sense of color and light / shadow is superb.  “Camera” movements are interesting, sound effects are good, texture is sometimes good, and that weird world of “realistic” visual techniques (depth of field, ambient light, etc.) clashes with the abstraction of animation distortion in a fascinating tension.  This is definitely a kid’s movie, with adults along for the ride.  Go for it.  WOTO

“Citizen Kane” (again, 1941):  The following is what I wrote in 2004:  “So many people hold this film so high, it’s hard to see it for what it might yet be.  None the less, I see: gorgeous, uniquely lit, well-composed shots and a simple story about a man who gains too much yet always has too little.  It is NOT, to my mind, one of the great character studies, nor built on astounding dialog, outstanding acting, or even an especially unique morality play.  It’s a formal, artistic leap… a great visual work.”  WOTO  Now for 2011:  I hold to those thoughts, but also add: much of the time I am distracted by the mediocre quality of painted and animated backgrounds, and the makeup used to “age” the characters.  I am equally impressed with the great look of the faux-documentary film footage, and the brilliant (and gutsy) use of lighting in almost every single scene.  What drives this film is the story, and what enhances (or distracts) the long journey are many of the visuals, but it lacks emotion at every turn.  This is an intellectual film, even when it’s trying to express emotion.  This is its weakness.  Ironically, the film is something like the character it criticizes.  WOTO

“The Battle over ‘Citizen Kane’” (1996):  Documentary.  Caveats: 1) It probably helps if you admire the film “Citizen Kane”, 2) and, it probably helps if film making interests you, 3) or, you should at least be interested in human greed, power, battle, and destruction – both by others and by the self.  This is a detailed look at William Randolph Hearst (the publishing billionaire about whom “Citizen Kane” was based) and Orson Welles (who created the film and became the enemy of Hearst).  This was a classic Clash of the Titans… BOTH famous, BOTH powerful, BOTH convinced of their righteousness, BOTH refusing to back down or lose.  It’s a fascinating look at creation and destruction.  WOTO

“Poetry” (Korean, 2010):  Melancholy is the driving emotion, and unfinished business is the driving plot vehicle.  A proper grandmother is trying to raise her ungrateful slob of a grandson while she faces a limited income and a diagnosis of the onset of Alzheimers’.  If that wasn’t enough, other issues are soon uncovered adding even more pressure to her world.  This is a meditative look at hidden sadness, denial, the passage of time, and the desire to make things “Right” before it is too late.

“Manhattan” (again, 1979):  Following “Annie Hall” – one of Allen’s masterpieces –“Manhattan” is an equally strong follow-up film in his much more sophisticated, mature manner.  Gone is the fun-but-dopey slapstick of his earlier movies, which required you to search for the deeper meanings (which he clearly wanted to express, but did not want to put up front… for some reason).  Manhattan’s photography is gorgeous, the scoring perfect, the dialog adult and insightful, and his look at relationships complex, funny, sad, tender, and surprisingly forgiving.  Despite Woody’s history of pairings with females and the central characters of “Manhattan”, this is a work of art that needs to make no apologies to anyone.  Diane Keaton and Mariel Hemmingway are exceptional.  Good supporting work comes from Michael Murphy, Anne Byrne, a young Meryl Streep, and Wallace Shawn.  WOTO

“Ghost World” (again, 2001):  Modern Teen Angst.  Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson star along with Steve Buscemi, Terri Garr, Brad Renfro and others in this nihilistic comedy-drama about best girl friends, who, upon graduating from their high school hell, try to establish the next phase of their lives… with varying degrees of… hmmm… not exactly success… but… something…  If you liked “Welcome to the Doll House”, “Crumb”, “Happiness”, “Rocket Science”, “Election”, or “Napolean Dynamite”, you’ll somehow like this one too.  It’s sarcastic, dark, loaded with alienation, funny, pathetic, and way too often true.  WOTO

“The Borrowers” (1997): Based on the novel by Mary Norton, this is the story of a “Bean” (Human Being) family and a “Borrower” (Tiny People) family who lives under the floor.  When an Evil Real Estate Tycoon (John Goodman) connives to take away the Home, the adventure begins.  This is an extremely witty, fun, action-packed movie for young and old.  Pure pleasure.  Let yourself go.

“Bloody Sunday” (2002): Directed by Paul Greengrass, this is a documentary style recreation of January 30, 1972 when the British military shot 27 Irish civilians on a Civil Rights march in the town of Derry, killing 14.  This incident caused the immediate and constant growth of the IRA for decades to come.  The British and Irish accents are sometimes difficult to understand, especially in this frantic, action camera style.  None the less, the points get made, and in a very effective manner.  The man who takes the role of Civil Rights leaders (sorry, I don’t have his name in front of me) was superb as a politician with heart.

“Basic Instinct” (again, 1992):  Sure, some of this film appears a little “80’s style” now, but it’s aging very well.  Though heavily laden with scoring, it is beautiful and effective.  The photography is great.  This IS a good, Nouveau Noir suspense-murder whodunit of a very high order.  And, it is NOT for kids.  (Lots of nudity, sex, violence, and other adult material.)  Sharon Stone does a great job in her role.  It’s not just about looks or one scene in the interrogation room.  Michael Douglas does a good job in his role – it’s the only role he can do, but casting was dead-on right.  WOTO

“Natural Born Killers” (again, 1994):  Written by Quentin Tarantino and directed by Oliver Stone… expect a violent, exaggerated, surreal story that never lets up, wonderfully unique image montages, editing, camera work, color, lighting, and unexpected scoring.  Woody Harrelson, Juliette Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones, Rodney Dangerfield, Robert Downey Jr., and many more stars are consumed inside their various insane, sociopathic roles.  This is an extremely twisted story of “star crossed lovers” – with a VERY dark sneer at the commercial media machine.  NOT for kids or the squeamish, but for film fans, “Natural Born Killers” is a must-see work.  WOTO 

“Blaise Pascal” (French/Italian, 1972): Directed by Robert Rossellini, this was one of a series he created on the evolution of knowledge in Western civilization.  Pascal was a 17thcentury mathematician and philosopher, working mainly on geometry and probabilities.  Okay, I’m not a math guy.  This film moves slow and steady with subtitles and lots of dialog.  It is not “entertaining”, but is loaded with fascinating recreations of life as it would have been for a privileged elite and their servants – which, especially by our standards, looks absolutely horrifying with its insane beliefs in “medicine”, religion, and “God, witches and Satan” – you find yourself grateful it’s NOW NOT THEN.  Essentially, you join their debates over both the ground-breaking scientific theories AND the blind-leading-the-blind metaphysical beliefs… which could get you burned at the stake. 

“Incident at Loch Ness” (again, 2004):  Produced and directed by Zack Penn, written by Werner Herzog and Penn.  Herzog makes powerful films.  Some are documentaries with a vision.  This film claims to be a documentary about Herzog and his involvement in a documentary about the Loch Ness monster.  Herzog makes dark, confrontational films full of detached, hallucinatory realism and contradictory moments.  Think of “Incident…” as Werner Herzog takes a stroll through Christopher Guest territory.  This is a lengthy (perhaps a little too long) “document” full of questionable characters, bizarre encounters, and an angry, light dance across the Floor of Truths, Facts, Bullshit, and Humor.  I feel certain it would also help to already love Werner Herzog and his films.  WOTO 

“Chuck and Buck” (2000):  The film has a low budget look but don’t let that scare you.  It has wonderful acting, a very unique story, and many fascinating moments.  Two boys were Best Friends – one grew up, one didn’t.  “Chuck and Buck” is a very tender tale loaded with incredibly stressful and awkward moments which are sometimes quite painful to watch.  It is listed as a “comedy”.  I disagree.  Nor does it remind me of any other film.  WOTO

“Stand by Me” (again, 1986):  Based on a novella by Stephen King, directed by Rob Reiner, starring Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, and Jerry O’Connell, with supporting roles by Kiefer Sutherland and John Cusack.  The story is set in a small rural Oregon town, in 1959.  Four boys are knock-around best buddies.  We get to know them.  Intimately.  THIS IS AN ACCURATE look into the world of adolescent boys – with every stupid, goofy, serious, gross, and tender aspect shown.  If you want to understand boys, this is THE film.  In the story, they set out on an adventure to confirm a horrible rumor – they understand this may be THE adventure of their lives – and, though they don’t know it yet, it will mark a turning point in their lives.  Although the acting is good, it is uneven, mainly because so much is asked of these young boys; the scoring is acceptable but at times “retro”-cliché, the camera work is there to tell the story, that’s all… But despite any hesitations I have about the MAKING of this film, it is a GRAND story full of heart, and I wouldn’t want anyone to miss it.  Four boys, three summer days – and the stuff of Myths.  I’ve seen it repeatedly, and will continue to do so.  THIS is the story of True Friendship with all its warts and glory.  WOTO

“The Ice Storm” (again, 1997):  This is an outstanding and profound essay about alienation.  It does nothing but go up in my esteem every time I watch it.  The story is built on lost souls awkwardly trying to reach out beyond their limited lives, minds, and bodies in upper class New Canaan, Connecticut.  Watch for great 1970′s (non-kitsch though sometimes ugly as sin) sets and costuming, perfect scoring, often bleakly elegant photography and restrained acting reflecting the ice storm which reflects the psychic conditions of this group.  You will experience clear, cold layers over everything and everyone.  It is a chilly, lonely, sad, darkly funny, surreal, painful experience.  I began my film “relationship” with Ang Lee through this film.  I expected nothing but greatness from here on out.  Then he did “Hulk”.  What???  Then he did “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”!  Awful!!  Then he did “Brokeback Mountain”!  Ah, Ang is back.  Or IS he?  This guy’s either great or terrible.  Not an in-between man at all.  WOTO

“Crazy Heart” (2009):  Starring Jeff Bridges, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Colin Farrell, with a supporting role by Robert Duvall.  An old country singer is down on his self-induced, drunken, screwed-up luck.  I mean, he’s BAD.  Along comes a young woman who could inspire him to maybe do just a little better… and thus starts their journeys.  Great acting by Bridges and Gyllenhaal.  You can count on them.  This is a strong character study with potent scenes full of mixed, disgusting, frightening, sad, pathetic, and hopeful moments.  WOTO

“Quiz Show” (again, 1993):  This film by Robert Redford won an Academy Award.  I think that might have been stretching it a little, but it IS a good piece of work.  Set in the mid-1950’s, it looks at the factually based events surrounding T.V. game show corruption.  John Turturro does a great job as the average guy who desperately needs attention and money, along with Ralph Fiennes as the fragile psyche who never fully gets on board with the schemes, and Rob Morrow as the dogged investigator.  Sets and costuming are good, but WHO was responsible for those caterpillar eyebrows on Morrow?  They only serve as a constant distraction.  Since television did (and does) see itself as “mere entertainment and cash generators”, this film illustrates the easy rationalizations that take producers beyond fantasy and into delusion.  WOTO

“Cimarron” (1930):  This film received “Best Picture” and two other Academy Awards in 1930 – and deserved them.  It’s an interesting period piece – both for contemporary 1930 AND the earlier times it recreates (1880+ Kansas/Oklahoma America).  Keep in mind that many people in the theater audience personally experienced the expansion of this country in a covered wagon – its Manifest Destiny, the hardships, the Existential necessities, the human flaws, violence, and dreams of that time.  Some of the acting is still “stage based” (but not all – Irene Dunne understands the camera better than Richard Dix), and the sound recording sometimes misses a line.  However, overall, this film is NOT sappy or romanticized in a soap opera way – it’s quite gritty, actually, but IS sometimes romanticized in the “inconvenience” of the “red skins” and the remaining “dedication” of the “freed coloreds” to their “white” masters… etc..  What I found MOST interesting was the detailing of daily life in those places at the various periods represented (divided by story cards every few years).  Every effort was made to finesse each and every costume, building, and daily action in ways you will not see in any other “Western”.  This film was made for people who could judge its accuracy (though the manner in which guns were handled had me wondering).  PS: The story travels right up to the brand new disaster of the Great Depression in 1930.  WOTO

”Les Mistons” (French, 17 minutes, 1957):  by Francois Truffaut.  A charming, insightful, funny, and sad gem of a short story about a group of little boys infatuated with an older girl.  This is the famous little film with the “bicycle seat” scene.  The photography is rough in that “New Realism” style, voice-overs are very “studio”, but the quick skill with which Trauffaut moves us through emotions is amazing.

“Antoine & Colette” (French, 30 minutes, 1962): by Francois Truffaut, with still photography by Cartier-Bresson.  Unrequited love.  A young man falls deeply in love with a luminously beautiful girl who seems to never meet his hopes.  We’ve all been there one way or another.

“Downfall” (again, German, 2005):  This is a recreation of the last days down in Hitler’s bunker, as told by his secretary, who survived the war.  Bruno Ganz (of “Wings of Desire” fame) takes Hitler, and Alexandra Maria Lara takes Traudl Junge, the secretary.  I am a WWII history buff, so I watch for 1) accuracy in characters, events, etc., 2) the point of view that this film was made BY Germans FOR Germans, and 3) it’s a FILM – a work of Art.  Historically, it was recreated by Junge’s words.  She and few others survived the bunker and any attempts to escape Berlin.  We’ll have to accept her words (cross referenced with other sources) as what we know, but must also understand that she would have an agenda for putting her position in the most acceptable light… after all, she remained in Germany, dying only a few years ago.  None the less, it struck me as honest and thoughtful.  Characterizations were acceptable, and I liked Ganz as Hitler, but such HIGH profile people, such as Hitler, need almost miraculous casting and acting to suspend the disbelief, and this did not happen for me, historically picky.  The special effects – from bombs to executions – were average to weak – probably budget issues.  Things had a staged, slightly “dry” appearance.  I thought it was “brave” for this German film to state repeatedly (through the mouths of the characters) that the German people got who and what they wanted and deserved – they created their own fate – and to complain or blame others is an unacceptable position.  Overall, the film moved a little slow, and if you’re not interested in History, I think this one is too focused and German for most American viewers.  WOTO

“Flash of Genius” (2009):  Despite the fact an idiot “reviewer” (marketing liar) called this film a “remarkable, hugely entertaining, FEEL-GOOD journey” – which couldn’t be further from the TRUTH – this IS an amazing story.  With great acting by Greg Kinnear and strong support by Lauren Graham, Dermot Mulroney, and Alan Alda, “Flash of Genius” puts to film what has been known by the auto industry and car aficionados for decades: Dr. Robert Kearns invented the intermittent windshield wiper, and Ford Motor Company stole it from him.  Kearns decides to fight Ford for the Right to produce his invention himself… which takes his life, and the life of his family, down a stressful, ever-darkening, very damaging path of detective work, sleazy lawyers, and court room dramas.  This is NOT a happy film, you will NOT feel good by end.  You will feel drained and ready for The Big Sleep.  None the less, you will REMEMBER this film, the inventor, AND the thieves at Ford – EVERY time you turn on your windshield wipers.  WOTO

“A Mighty Wind” (again, 2003):  IF you loved “This is Spinal Tap”, “Waiting for Guffman”, and/or “Best in Show” (I especially love “Guffman”), you’ll also love this one about “the” reunion of the best of the (worst of the self-deluded, cliché) folk groups of the early 1960′s.  (They are based on the “New Christy Minstrels”, the “Kingston Trio”, and “Ian & Sylvia”.)  As usual, Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy assembled THE finest group of THE driest comedians of ALL time, and allowed them to improvise their characters.  Each actor had to LEARN to play an instrument for their role, and were given “perimeters” for their character… ane were then set loose to create most of the dialog right on the spot.  They also wrote the “folk” music you’ll see and hear.  Of course it’s perfectly terrible, which means it’s ACCURATE to the period.  Self-delusion is always Guest’s theme.  All of his characters and groups, no matter what the setting in his films, truly believe they are talented, know what they’re doing and saying yet see no irony or contradictions, and press on in the faith that others see them as they see themselves.  It’s a lovely, sad, hilarious, pathetic, mind-boggling, brilliant experience, as usual.  We see this film at least once a year.  WOTO  IMDB

“Miral” (2010):  Although I am not crazy-supportive of this film as a work of art, it is too good to put in the lesser category below, so here we are.  Julian Schnabel set his bar very high with the bold film “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”, and this one gets nowhere near it.  It is an interesting, semi-factual story about a woman (Hind Husseini) who, in 1948, started a school for refugee Palestinian girls in the newly established Israel.  This school still exists and has helped thousands of children.  What is most interesting is to see a film with an agenda that takes the “other side” of the Palestinian/Israeli wars.  If you want to learn more about that area’s problems, this will help balance your insight.  As for the making of Art, Schnabel’s artistic techniques were VERY effective in “Diving Bell…” but mere stylish gestures in “Miral”.  The narrative demanded more clarity and less flair.  Willem Dafoe is listed as the star of the film.  This was a marketing move.  He had a minor role and easily strolled through his role.

“Three Kings” (again, 1999):  The first time I saw “Three Kings” was in 2001.  This is what I wrote:  “Good action drama with a multi-dimensional, political base.  Reviewers gave it more credit than me.  I thought it was a decent, one-time film.”  Now it’s 2011, and I’ve seen it a third time.  I must’ve been distracted first time around.  The film is based on a true story of four soldiers who decide to go for the Fortune (Kuwaiti gold) while stationed in Iraq (after the “first” war), only to find themselves in a very complex set of situations offering insights which make for a much more dangerous journey.  This IS an action film with darkish-comedy but it slowly turns to the serious insights of its characters.  WOTO 

“Rambling Rose” (again) – Robert Duvall, Laura Dern, Diane Ladd, and Lukas Haas are absolute perfection in this quirky, bittersweet look at a short period of the past of an upper class Southern family, as they deal with the arrival of “Rose” (played by Dern in perhaps the role of her life), their household helper.  She is a vulnerable, honest, earthy, somewhat naïve young woman who wears her feelings and desires on her filmy sleeve with very little self-restraint.  Be forewarned:  if you are bothered by stories of older men seducing female children, then you should be bothered by older women seducing male children.  Right?  RIGHT??  Duvall as a southern gentleman is a wonderful anachronism, Ladd as a liberal and somewhat “artistic” northern woman who ended up in the South due to her love of her husband is heroically funny and grandiose, Haas is a witty and devilish lad who finds desire, love, and sex a very attractive set of new ideas, and there are other fine peripheral characters who add detail to this story of a time now gone – full of golden and laughable memories, a few secrets, and rich lessons.  It’s hilarious, sexy, moving, insightful, tender, and entertaining.  WOTO

“Blood Diamond” (again, 2006):  I stand by what I said two years ago:  “Based on facts, this is the fictional representation of the contemporary illegal diamond trade between Africa, Europe, and America.  It has a certain “educational” angle to it, but for the MOST part successfully avoids lecturing.  Instead, you are shown relentless, graphic violence, and non-stop greed, torture, black marketeering, the kidnap slave trade, and everyone with agendas.  It’s a beautifully photographed film, with subtle yet powerful scoring, and great acting by the leads, including, but not limited to, Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Connelly.  You GET the points being made early on.  What carries you through this film is the story of the characters – THEIR journeys – THEIR changes – and the fact you care about them more and more.  DiCaprio is back to doing his best.  Re-watch “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” and “The Basketball Diaries” – and forgive him “Tit-and-Ick” as it sinks into the sunset of your recent, painful memories.  IMDB  WOTO

“Maya Lin – A Strong Clear Vision” (again, docum., 1995):  At age 20 and still a student, Lin entered a design competition for the Viet Nam Memorial.  Against ALL the typical odds, she won.  This caused a firestorm of accusations, complaints, insults, and worse.  She weathered them though NOT a public type person.  She went on to design other memorials, architecture, and art.  This is an intimate look at the processes of making art and how it relates (or doesn’t relate) to the public coffers and opinions.  She is one of the finest designers around, and I put her Viet Nam Memorial at the top of all memorials. 

“16 Blocks” (again, 2006): Starring Bruce Willis, David Morse, and Mos Def.  This is a very strong film in the spirit of “Serpico” and “Copland”.  There is burn-out and corruption at every turn.  One man is challenged to face not only these conditions, but his past and a very real present as he delivers a petty criminal to an investigation.  All three leads are excellent.  It is a high action, drama, morality play with more heart than you’d expect.  WOTO

”Big Bad Love” (2002):  Because of seeing the film “Billy Liar” (just below) only last night, my wife and I both noticed similarities in the story and structure, but equally as many differences.  Though also filled with shattered, abstract fantasies, THIS one is most easily read if approached as a POEM not a NOVEL, where imagery is fleeting and transmits more of a mood than a narrative.  There ARE a couple narrative threads, but they’re only noticeable towards the end, so enter this work as a collection of partial clues and devastated emotions.  Arliss Howard, Debra Winger, Paul Le Mat, Rosanna Arquette, and Angie Dickinson star.  Great sets, locations, and other decomposing Deep South sights.

”Billy Liar” (British, 1963):  Set in the very middle class row houses of contemporary England, this is the story of a young man who can’t seem to grasp reality or a need for truth.  Though the film perhaps takes a little too long to reach its inevitable point, it initially takes a comedic view upon which the sun slowly sets and Truth may – I say MAY – win out.  It is a fine piece of work announcing the “Swinging Sixties” and the accompanying dilemmas of a world-wide Baby Boom generation.

“Partner to Genius – A Biography of Olgivanna Lloyd Wright” (Documentary, 1996):  Frank had many failed relationships.  This one lasted, in spite of their both being married to others, their personalities, poverty, ambitions, external pressures, and personal disasters.  Though not of consistent quality, this look at “the woman behind/alongside” the man is another glimpse into that world we have come to appreciate for its brilliance.  I believe you should FIRST understand some of F. L. Wright before O. L. Wright.  The perspective will help.  WOTO 

“Quills” (2000):  Three Academy Award nominations, Best Actor Geoffrey Rush, also starring Kate Winslett, Joaquin Phoenix, and Michael Caine.  This is a somewhat-Period drama (with dark comedy, and lots of sexual innuendo and violence) about the Marquis de Sade, how he upset “proper” (hypocritical) society, and lived out the rest of his life locked away in an insane asylum while still trying to write and publish.  It’s a great story, but there are other stars as well:  the sets, costumes, “extra” actors, and everything else that went into this superb evocation of a time, place, and mentality.  It’s a painful joy from start to finish.  WOTO

“We Own the Night” (2007):  Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Wahlberg, Eva Mendes, and Robert Duvall.  This is a crime drama.  The story and characters are not ground-breaking new ideas, but because of the people who made this film, it is a high quality example of crime, corruption, and redemption.  Created in a very gritty, superbly detailed manner, its believability is nearly flawless.  Towards the end, the story may float above its otherwise Earthly groundings, instead becoming almost mythic (and forcing a couple of continuity issues to be, I believe, consciously side-stepped), but this is a small price for an otherwise solid presentation.  WOTO 

“Best Boy” (documentary, 1979):  By Ira Wohl, who received the 1980 Oscar for Best Documentary.  This is the story of a very young boy who has been alive for fifty some years and lives inside the body of an aging man.  “Philly”, Ira’s mentally retarded cousin, is the focus.  The subjects include tolerance, patience, acceptance, harsh realities, living in the moment yet planning ahead, love, and being grateful for every day and every person who adds to life.  Try to watch this and not be affected.

“Besieged” (1998):  By Bernardo Bertolucci – one of my favorite directors – and starring Thandie Newton and David Thewlis, this is both a political and an emotional story of adults slowly understanding and appreciating one another under difficult circumstances with no sense of where things will end up.  Bertolucci can be trusted to give you a sumptuous visual experience, and, in this case, a hyper-sensitive audio experience, while asking mature questions about privacy, intimacy, longing, and sacrifice.  Expect no neat solutions, but do expect a mysterious, emotional ride.

“Hideous Kinky” (1998):  Starring Kate Winslet, this is a biographical story of a young English mother with two little girls who decided to lead a more creative and spiritual life in Marrakech.  Rich in detail, full of early 1970’s “vibe”, and meandering in its story, this is a warm, fragile, sad, frightening, and unresolved tale equaling those times.  The photography is rich, the soundtrack a little heavy-handed with the counter-culture tunes (but admittedly helps create that “vibe”), and the acting of all primary characters quite good, including the two small girls.  This is a slice-of-unusual-life with very little start or emotional resolution but still quite a fulfilling experience.  WOTO

“The Philadelphia Story” (1940):  Starring Cary Grant (who insisted on top billing, but donated his salary to the British Relief War Fund – which was before we got in the war), Katherine Hepburn (who was considered a box office curse, starred in the stage play and owned half the rights to the script), Jimmy Stewart (was doing just fine, and received an Oscar for this role), and Ruth Hussey, John Howard, Roland Young… and others.  More and more of the World was at War, but you wouldn’t know it by this upper class, breezy, farce of a comedy.  Americans were still Isolationists, Pearl Harbor was still over a year away, and this film received awards – as a diversion, if nothing else.  It is fun, witty, fast paced, “snappy”, and takes-you-away.  Perhaps it could use a little trimming, but it’s witty, sometimes almost edgy, and pays off if you pay attention.  WOTO

“True Grit” (2010):  Count on the Coen brothers to give you interesting, quirky characters no matter what the setting.  Here they take an old “John Wayne” vehicle and make it their own: a young girl comes into a rough town asking for help to find the killer of her father.  She’s looking for a man with “true grit”.  She wants justice, yes, but she also wants vengeance.  Enter Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a very disreputable lawman who is a slurring mess of a bum and nearly-random killer.  She decides he’s perfect, prods and bribes him into this hunt, and off goes the film.  Also starring Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, and a sizable group who create wonderful odd, sleazy characters, this intimate but sweeping Western was photographed by the great Roger Deakins.  I was ready to watch it again the very next night.

“The Crime of Padre Amaro” (Mexican, 2003):  Mexican films seem to be in a Renaissance the last number of years, and one of the actors who helps point the way is Gael Garcia Bernal.  Add to that list a young woman named Ana Claudia Talancon.  This film, directed by Carlos Carrera, is a dissection of the Catholic church based on a novel written in 1875.  Expect hypocrisy, bribery, lust, sins galore, politicking, lying, insanity, crime… you name it, it’s got it.  Paced with a steady decline of all the characters, we watch one big, complex collapse of a gold-leafed house of cards.  WOTO

“The Big Red One” (1980/2004):  This film, by Sam Fuller, was recently restored and gained an additional 40 minutes of footage (originally cut for its theatrical release by Lorimar in 1979-80).  Now the question is:  “Was all this work worth it?”  It’s a War story, loosely based on Fuller’s experiences with the First Infantry of WWII (thus, a big red One on the patch on their uniforms), and somewhat quirky/unique in his story telling.  However, the stars (especially Lee Marvin, who set the tone), the scoring, the photography, the weak special effects, and the near BLOODLESS battles for 162 minutes, make this much closer to a 1950’s-60’s product than the realistic anti-war statement it is described to be.  However, it’s a good war/anti-war story with strong insights into life as a warrior on the ground.  If you like them, you’ll like this one too.  If you’re looking for more, there are plenty of great choices made before and after “The Big Red One”, such as “The Thin Red Line”.  None the less, I’ve watched “Big Red” twice, and find it generally satisfying on its own level.  WOTO

“Panic” (2000):  William Macy, Tracey Ullman, Neve Campbell, Donald Sutherland, Barbara Bain, and John Ritter star in this low-key drama about a hitman having a mid-life crisis and goes for therapy.  The story is simple and nearly fatalistic, but some nice turns occur while you watch solid acting, fleshed-out characters, good dialog, beautiful photography, and good [if not a little heavy-handed] scoring.

“Sunset Boulevard” (again, 1950):  This is a classic drama of egos, pettiness, and the, ahem, “glamour” of Hollywood.  “Sunset Boulevard” is witty, bitter, and hard-edged, starring William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim, and Nancy Olson.  Much of the script is done in the Holden character narrative, as the down-and-out hopeful/hopeless screen writer, who, while escaping the repo man, lands in the surreal world of an aging, forgotten, deluded silent screen star.  It is sometimes funny (bizarre), often dark, and always pathetic.  This is a hard-boiled, hip-talking, pessimistic look at the desire for and effects of “Fame”.  Superb.  WOTO

“Winter’s Bone” (2010):  With a very talented cast of actors, strong scoring, great photography, sensitive audio, sets that may have not been sets, costuming and makeup that is dead-on perfect, and… well, you know how something can feel so real that you can’t imagine someone created it?  This is everything in “Winter’s Bone”.  Set in the far-back country of Appalachia amongst people who have never been nowheres and figure they’s all family somehow or another, this is an evenly paced, ever-intensifying story of poverty, desperation, and trying to hang onto it because that’s all you got.  Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Dale Dickey, and others star.  This film rightly won the “Grand Jury Prize” at Sundance Film Festival.  WOTO

 “Inglorious Basterds” (again, 2009):  What I wrote last year: “Here’s where I stand:  I loved “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction” but have not loved, let alone liked, any of Tarantino’s work since, and I highly recommend you avoid seeing interviews with him.  It was with hesitation I rented his new film.  I felt he’d given what he had right up front, and not had the sense to then stop and reassess.  I was relieved to see he’s given up most of the caricatures he’d made of his career.  If not for some of the pop scoring, I’m not sure I would’ve spotted this film as one of his (for awhile).  The scenes were long, tense, and patient.  Evil arrives in a seemingly polite and casual form, with an underlying deadly cold logic.  Tarantino’s good at that.  Once the violence begins (which you can expect: a fictional story set during WWII, and a Tarantino film), it picks up speed and gore.  The reason to stick with it is its espionage story, the tension in many of the scenes (always resulting in an “orgasm” of blood), and, a few plots twists that play out nicely.   Fewer of his characters were quirky and detailed in this newest film, but the leads were solid, especially the “Jew hunter” German, and the leader of the Allied team of “nazi hunters”.  They are interesting, even funny at times, but no one is under the illusion this is going to be der strudel walken.  “Inglourious Basterds” was a stimulating one-time view.”  Now: Except I’ve seen it twice… and enjoyed it for all the reasons stated above, plus some of the other actors’ work, the incongruous scoring, and – I must say again – some of the most tense scenes in film history.  Be forewarned – this is a VIOLENT film.  Think of it as a much more graphic Sam Peckinpah film.  WOTO

“Welcome to the Rileys” (2010):  Prepare yourself for a slow, quiet, painful story of loss, alienation, silence, and desperate acts.  Expect superb acting by James Gandolfini, Melissa Leo, and Kristen Stewart, and, great sound and camera work.  Oftentimes, the glimmer of hope can be one small star in the blackest night sky.  Watch for it.  Keep watching for it.

“Temple Grandin” (2010):  I expect this film to end up in my TOP category after another viewing and more consideration.  For now, let me say this: Claire Danes is (and always has been) brilliant, and were this a film made for “screen”, she would OWN the Oscar for Best Actor.  She rose to the challenge.  This leads me to the story of Temple Grandin, a person born with Autism, who struggles every day with her uniqueness, but, despite the impediments shoved in front of her by many people, and with the glorious help of a few generous adults in her life, she not only coped, but has changed the world for millions of lives – most of whom are Cows.  No, this is not a comedy, and I’m not going to trough-feed you her life.  Danes spent time with the real Grandin (who is also a Professor at Colorado State University), and Danes (along with Julia Ormond, Catherine O’Hara, and David Strathairn) will keep you glued to this film, its characters, its story, its emotional highs and lows with such power you can scarcely breathe.  Added to that, notice the unique and effective use of photography, editing, and sound.  How do we “represent” Autism?  See “Temple Grandin”.  See it NOW.  WOTO

“The Buddy Holly Story” (again, 1978):  Whether or not you are a fan of early Rock and Roll, it certainly needs to be understood.  This isn’t a “fan” movie (although Gary Busey’s role as Holly might make you a fan of his!).  It’s a film about culture-shock.  Seemingly overnight, a loud, brash, creative, never-before-experienced music and its presentation was threatening a post-WWII status quo… causing the underlying racism, greed, fear of communism, atheism… you name it… to come belching up to the surface of Earth’s most powerful country.  Within the business, Buddy Holly broke the rules – he politely stood up for himself until he needed to be less polite, he was his own producer, he ran the show, he made the deals.  Buddy Holly and the Crickets offered an extremely stripped-down, straight-ahead sound unlike any other group.  His career was cut short, along with others, and was therefore frozen in history – never to grow further or shrivel into oblivion.  WOTO

“Shoeshine” (Italian, 1946):  This is by one of my favorite Italian directors, Vittorio de Sica.  Set in the present time of early post-World War II Italy, when many adults were missing or dead, children roamed feral in packs, the black market was the only way to survive, and the legal system was in shambles, this is the story of two friends – both shoeshine boys – who are slowly caught up in the tattered webs of an overwhelmed society.  De Sica was an early “neo-Realist” film maker who did not beat around the bush.  He had social agendas in mind, and set out to make powerful dramas he hoped would cause change.  Expect no comedies.  Expect gorgeous b/w photography, big scoring, plots that spiral down, and clear intentions.  Other must-see de Sica’s: “The Bicycle Thief”, “Umberto D.”, and “Two Women”.

“Falling Down” (again, 1992):  Michael Douglas, Robert Duvall, Barbara Hershey in a story about one average man who has had ENOUGH and isn’t going to take it – or ANYTHING ELSE – anymore !!!  This isn’t a beautifully filmed work of art – it’s just a story (increasingly dark, bizarrely funny at times) – but what I like about it is the Period/Artifact quality about American culture, its falling apart, and the stresses put on average people every day.  What would it take for YOU to SNAP?  Watch this, and see if you [deep down and honestly] get any vicarious satisfaction from Douglas’ new, increasingly intense way of dealing with the world.  The characters are generally two-dimensional (though Douglas is really interesting, and Duvall stands out as always), and the plot may not surprise you… but it’s still an interesting, whacked-out trip.  WOTO

“Million Dollar Baby” (again, 2004):  What I wrote after the LAST viewing: “This is a Clint Eastwood product all the way.  If I remember correctly, it won a ton of awards at the Oscars.  When I heard “leaks” that it was a TRAGIC story, I thought “I’m THERE!”  When I heard the co-star was Hillary Swank, I was DETERMINED to see this film.  Fine….  Unfortunately, MY experience is that when a film becomes hugely popular, especially a “sad” one, it’s a shlocky, gooey, sugary story.  At first glance (boxing, face cuts, blood, sweat) you’re diverted from the standard appearance of sugar coating…then the story begins revealing itself.  EVERYONE is hurting, EVERYONE is wounded, EVERYONE is scarred and out to fix the cosmic imbalances of their devastated lives.  Even if that’s true to life (and it may be), this is SO condensed – in the spirit of “Love Story” or “Steel Magnolias” etc. – that I found myself backing further and further away from it.  The ONLY reason I kept pulling BACK in was Hillary Swank.  She is great.  GREAT.  You could even see that SHE was doing much of the boxing – which means she STUDIED, and SHE worked mighty hard.  Eastwood strolls through “his” patented role.  Morgan Freeman, also a co-star, is a wonderful foil to Eastwood, and although I enjoyed the dialog between the two men, Freeman was not challenged either.  Before seeing it, I’d managed to avoid all the plot details, so I could see “Million Dollar Baby” fresh.  Even then, many of the dramatic moments were easily predicted, as was the conclusion.  Watch this one for Swank, or don’t watch it.  While we’re here, go rent “Boys Don’t Cry” if you want her talent to blow the top of your head off.”  What I want to add after THIS viewing:  Now, I’m a little more forgiving, I suppose.  It was easy to ignore the sugar coating.  I also give Eastwood and Freeman more credit, along with some terrific supporting actors (“Danger” the skinny hopeful boxer, and the members of Swank’s sleazy trailer trash family).  I also appreciated the emotional roller coasters, which I willingly rode this time.  WOTO

“Georgy Girl” (1966):  I debated as to whether “Georgy Girl” should be in THIS category or the one lower.  I decided that that the characters and scenarios, especially Georgy, were complex enough to justify recommending it to others.  Made it 1966 – at the height of British Mod Power yet-to-be-crushed the following year by American Flower Power – this story will scream “Pop Cultural Period” at you, which, for the uninitiated, first appears light and silly.  It is not.  You will get to know some very confused people trying to slough off the frantic demands of a world changing so quickly their heads are spinning.  Boundaries seem to have vanished.  Everyone seems entirely self-centered.  Rules of behavior are crumbling on a daily basis.  The pressures are showing on everyone.  Desperate decisions are made for the moment that will last a life time.  DO NOT let the “Pop” fool you.  This film still offers insights into the modern world.  Starring VERY young up-and-coming stars James Mason, Alan Bates, Charlotte Rampling, and of course, Lynn Redgrave.  WOTO

“The King’s Speech” (2010):  This is the fascinating, painful, hilarious, and inspiring story of the reluctant King (George VI) of England before and during WWII.  A serious stutter in his speech was a true crisis in British and world morale.  If not for Lionel Logue – self-proclaimed speech therapist – the problem certainly would have increased, not found solutions.  The acting (my god, the acting!), photography, scoring, and the fact this is a true story, add up to a very powerful experience – not only about those people in that time, but for all of us facing our own perceived limits.  Wonderful.  Must see.   Please do.

“Beetlejuice” (again, 1988):  Sometimes you come home and you don’t need to see the NEWS on t.v., “Schindler’s List” on video, or the BILLS waiting on your desk.  “Beetlejuice”, with all the great people involved in its making, is funny and witty from start to finish.  It’s a Tim Burton film, with a shiny faced Alec Baldwin, youthful Geena Davis, hilarious, edgy Catherine O’Hara, Jeffrey Jones, young, Goth Winona Ryder, and a wonderful, insane Michael Keaton!  Special effects are both intentionally cheezie and limited by contemporary terms.  There are scenes you’ll suddenly remember as you’re driving along, and you’ll laugh out loud.  You’ll never again think of Harry Belafonte in the same way.  WOTO

“My Flesh and Blood” (documentary, 2003):  By Jonathan Karsh.  How does a single woman living on welfare raise two bio children and eleven adopted “special needs” children?  It’s beyond difficult – it is as close to impossible as it gets.  Susan Tom says “No one is perfect.  Everyone has their disabilities…” and she’s right… but she – with her own personal problems – takes on kids with huge problems that will make your heart ache.  This is the daily life of one family – a family SO complex, so medically and physically demanding, so emotionally scattered and diverse, so full of pain, sadness, and joy, they will become a point of revelation for you.  To paraphrase one of the girls born with no legs: “I wouldn’t want legs.  I can do things other people can’t!”  … and she’s right.  WOTO

“Waste Land” (documentary, 2010):  Artist Vik Muniz makes images from unusual materials, and decides to branch out into a huge project that becomes much more complex than even he could envision or was prepared to understand.  Involving many people who work in the garbage dumps of Rio de Janeiro (pulling recyclable materials), he learns what Antoine de St. Exupery’s Fox already knew and told the Little Prince: “You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.”  This is an interesting and emotional journey where ALL lives are affected in ways no one could foresee.

“The Life of Brian” (again and again, British, 1979):  Over the last thirty two years, I’ve noticed that this film vs their earlier film (“The Holy Grail”) is debated like Woody Allen’s earlier films vs “Annie Hall”.  It’s ye Olde silly/slapstick vs the cerebral debate.  Holy Grail is fun, and has a ton of wonderful commentaries on culture, history, multiple-realities, AND debunks everything humans create…yet it somehow comes off as sillier than Life of Brian.  They are BOTH worth seeing.  Let the nitpicking come to an end!  The Monty Python Flying Circus television show, which was broadcast via PBS here (1969-74), must have kept them exhausted, and “Grail” came at the end of this era.  Certainly, the production values are better in “Brian”, and the Python gang was motivated enough to come BACK together to make it… which could only mean they were older, wiser, and perhaps more focused than before.  I refuse to choose.  I own them both, and I laugh with amazement at the both of them each and every time.  However, “The Life of Brian” is SO dead-on accurate, and SO equality minded when pointing out the foolishness of religions, bureaucracy, politics, social norms, political correctness, activists, and society in general, it leaves no one unscathed, unbattered, or able to restrain themselves from gut busting laughter while admiring the insights of these talented, witty men.  WOTO IMDB

“Please Give” (2010):  Oliver Platt, Catherine Keener, Ann Morgan Guilbert, Amanda Peet, Rebecca Hall, and Lois Smith star in the Indie film written and directed by Nicole Holofcener.  Expect a group of neurotic characters with fragile egos and confusions about Life to trip across one another, bumping and smashing their ways through each day.  This is a funny, pathetic, sarcastic, sad, edgy film full of ambivalence and maybe a sliver of a hint of a whisper of possible growth.  You just want to slap each and every one of them.

“The Meaning of Life/Monty Python” (again, British, 1996):  Though not equal to “The Life of Brian” or “The Holy Grail”, I somehow forget this one is available, and am pleasantly surprised when I re-watch it!  It does not have strong threads of continuity – it’s more a grouping of separate routines – but is very witty and typically sarcastic about social habits, rules, and beliefs.  VERY sarcastic.  WOTO

“Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father” (2008):  This is an extremely complex, increasingly painful yet hopeful, sad yet joyous story about Evil vs Good.  It is about Love and Hate, and the Law vs Vengeance.  It is about the deepest of sadness and all of our attempts to make sense of its cause.  I don’t want to discuss the details.  See this documentary.

“Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (again, 1977):  It was great suspense, drama, comedy, and sci-fi THEN, and it still is.  Thirty four years ago, no one else was anywhere near the film and story quality of Spielberg’s UFO masterpiece.  “Star Wars” was a cartoon.  “E.T.” was full of sugar and spice.  But “Close Encounters” had edge, true drama, some seriously painful moments, and extravagant special effects.  Richard Dreyfuss, Terri Garr, Melinda Dillon, etc. were wonderful in their roles.  The music/sound tracks were equally big.  Yes, it was 1977, and it shows in the clothing and hair styles, Dillon’s perpetual bralessness, kids riding in cars in the front seats without seat belts, people smoking any damned place they wanted, and classic suburban stereotypes as a post-60’s criticism.  Personally, I find these “period” signals interesting.  THIS time I noticed Spielberg’s odd “extras” choreography – masses of people running places for – when you actually think about it – absolutely no reason, often in lines reminiscent of Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” and Busby Berkeley movies of the 1930’s.  His patented backlighting-with-smoke is heavily represented, as well.  After all that, what’s left is a great, slowly unfolding suspense film that never lets you look away.  Not for a minute.  However, you might not want to ask too many questions about Dreyfuss’s relationship to his family who gets left behind…  WOTO

“This is Spinal Tap” (again, 1984):  Every time I see one of Christopher Guest’s films, I think “No, I’ve changed my mind.  THIS is my favorite!” … and then I see another one.  Check out “Waiting for Guffman”, “A Mighty Wind”, and “Best in Show”.  His ability (along with Michael McKean, Rob Reiner, and Harry Shearer) to not only come up with a scenario, but choose the other actors to create the roles with their improvised responses, amazes me.  It’s also fun to watch for all the disguised cameo roles by well known people.  He does have one main theme:  small, mediocre people with incredibly & irrepressibly deluded, optimistic views of themselves, their abilities, and their impact on the larger (but very small) world.  If it wasn’t so funny, it would be depressing as hell.  Sure, we all know someone like this, and chances are there was a month or two when WE were one of these characters.  Come on.  Admit it. WOTO

“Mary and Max” (2008):  This is a WONDERFUL stop-motion Claymation feature for adults about Mary (an eight year old girl in Australia) who becomes pen pals with Max (a middle aged man in New York).  They correspond (but do not meet) for twenty years.  In that time they discuss – the film illustrates – what they discuss, which is all over the map in subjects and emotions.  Written and directed by Adam Elliot, voices by Toni Collette and Philip Seymour Hoffman.  Expect it to be charming, gross, witty, hilarious, dark, sad, and accepting.

“Revolutionary Road” (2008):  Starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslett.  DiCaprio’s career is a mixed bag of results, but this is one of his top notch successes.  Winslett is always good.  You can trust her choices.  Set in mid-1950’s suburban America, this story is one of the mid-life crises, social-constriction dramas we know pretty well by now, but it’s an excellent example of the genre.  Here, there is an arch of emotions and psyches that is truly fascinating as we watch a young middle-aged couple try to define or redefine who they are and what they want.  Pressures and temptations from the outside muddy the water of crystalline dreams.  The multiple conclusions they reach are exhilarating and crushing.  Sets, costuming, cars, and décor are flawlessly flawed.  Scoring is emotional but unobtrusive.  Photography is by master Roger Deakins.  “Revolutionary Road” is up there with “The Ice Storm”, “Safe”, and “Normal”.  WOTO

“The Kennel Murder Case” (1933):  Starring the suave and witty William Powell as Detective Philo Vance, this wonderful, stylish, Art Deco classic whodunit crime investigation is fun from start to finish.  Loaded with fake leads and dead ends, this one will keep you guessing – and you WILL fail to get ahead of it.  I’ll bet you money right now…

“Casino Jack and the United States of Money” (2010):  Documentary.  Jack Abramoff’s career of manipulating politicians and other greedy people for his benefit are followed in great detail.  Names are named.  We have a corrupt government in Washington, D.C.., in case you didn’t know.  Lobbyists put politicians together with money using interested parties who want to make more money.  See how our “system” works.  See how it goes all the way to the top and sinks all the way to the bottom.  Fascinating, depressing, disgusting.

“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” (2007):  I bought this used dvd on a hunch.  The story sounded potentially interesting, but the cast spoke volumes about its potential quality:  Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Sam Shepard, Mary-Louise Parker, Paul Schneider, Jeremy Renner, Zooey Deschanel, Sam Rockwell, Nick Cave, and ? James Carvill?  It is a fascinating story, apparently all true, beautifully photographed (by the great Roger Deakins), scored appropriately, well-acted, with sets, costumes, and locations that are perfect… you name it.  Quality everywhere.  This is a slow, evenly paced psychological study of late 1800’s “pop” culture centered on the then-rumored exploits of Jesse and Frank James, their occasional gang members, and a public who couldn’t get enough of their crimes.  Really.  This was a fascinating, moody, often tense drama full of foreboding and paranoia.  WOTO

“I’ll Cry Tomorrow” (1955):  Susan Hayward won Best Actress at Cannes, and an Oscar nomination for her role as Lillian Roth – a rising star who discovered booze.  She’s on a one-way slide downhill for much of this story, with glimmers of delusional alcoholic faith, earnest attempts to go straight, frightening bottoming-outs, and a stumble into AA.  Hayward and the supporting cast deserved all the attention they received.  This is the real stuff.

“P.S.” (2004):  Starring one of my favorites, Laura Linney, plus Topher Grace, Paul Rudd, Marcia Gay Harden, and Gabriel Byrne.  Everyone’s having a crisis, and no one will take ownership.  Everyone looks elsewhere, and everyone else takes the heat.  Then along comes a person who makes status quo more difficult… until finally everyone starts spitting up deeper and deeper hidden personal Truths… and they aren’t handling it very well… Growing up so hard to do.  Production values are never demanding of your attention – they merely support the characters and the story.  Clean, neat narrative story telling that takes its time.  Excellent.  WOTO

“Open Hearts” (Danish, 2002):  This is one of the Dogma 95 films, which means it will be a technically stripped down and emotionally raw work.  Many of the same Danish actors show up in the Dogma films, and, considering how good they are, I am glad.  They include: Sonja Richter, Nikolaj Kaas, Mads Mikkelsen, and Paprika Steen.  To describe the plot is diversionary.  “Open Hearts” is about emotions, LOTS of emotions, unresolved and ambivalent emotions that ask EVERYTHING from EVERYONE.  I have yet to see a Dogma 95 film that is intended for children or those adults who always prefer special effects, constant action, and things that blow up.

“Rachel Getting Married” (2008):  I have one negative and one partially negative thing to say about this film, but first all the positive.  The actors are amazing.  Anne Hathaway, Rosemarie DeWitt, Bill Irwin, Debra Winger, and others were subtle, intense, pathetic… you name it, they nailed it.  The dialog was razor sharp and painful.  This alone makes the film worth seeing.  The Bull in the China Shop, The 800 Pound Gorilla in the Room, and the Skeleton in the Closet all apply here.  This is rough, insightful stuff.  However… I thought the staging of the wedding – the overly abundant shish kabob of international representation – from the clothing to food to music to you-name-it, was often highly distractive to the real points of the film.  Also, there is “reality” video – the Documentary or Home Movie Style – and there is the camera that swirls and drops and jitters like it’s duct-taped to a monkey on caffeine, which also became distracting to the real points of the film.  Someone (director Jonathon Demme?) needed to reel in a few assistants who desperately wanted to “show their stuff”.  It was such a “pleasure” to watch each actor create his/her character’s set of neurosis.  Is there a monitor that has a gyroscopic image stabilizer and a music reducer in it?  WOTO

“Terminator II – Judgment Day” (again, 1991):  Seven years earlier, the first “Terminator” came out, and for its time it wowed the audience with the story, touches of humor, high pitched action & violence, and special effects.  Looking back, it’s one funky movie, full of VERY period stuff.  By “II ”, computer power increased dramatically, allowing artists more and better control.  But, a good movie is never about equipment… it’s about story, details, pacing, scoring, acting, dialog, and on and on and on.  Whereas the first of this series is down in my “Guilty Pleasures” category (and you SHOULD see it first), THIS is the real thing.  It’s still full of tongue in cheek wit, insider jokes, and hyper-violent action, but it’s also “mature” sci-fi, with strong comic book heart.  WOTO

“The Celebration” (Danish, 1998):  I feel like I’ve been through five car wrecks.  THIS one will wring you out.  Think of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf” but set in a Danish mansion with rooms full of relatives.  Winner at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival, this is an increasingly tense, layered, sad, pathetic, frantic, explosive story about a family reunion to celebrate the father’s 60th birthday following the funeral of one of his children.  Using nothing but very talented Danish and German actors, director Thomas Vinterberg grabs you by the throat and does not let go.  At times, the faux-documentary photography becomes a little too artsy for its own good, but kudos for the lack of scoring and polished appearance for this rough and raw presentation.  It may very well go into my top category upon another viewing, which, so far this year, holds only the GREAT “On the Waterfront”.  Watch for any film calling itself part of the “Dogma 95” movement, of which “The Celebration” is part.  WOTO

“The Social Network” (2010):  Facesmash.  The Face Book. Facebook.  Who designed it, who was taken for a ride, who was taken for granted?  Why is this of any importance?  Pretend you don’t know anything about Facebook, or, it’s 100 years from now and Facebook isn’t even a vague memory for your most studious great grandchildren.  This is a film about how Ideas arise, which ones are recognized for their potential, the ways in which they are grown, and their many costs to all those involved.  It’s as old a story as humans and slingshots.  Creed, deed, speed, and greed.  So, is this a good FILM?  Yes.  The frantic pace of creation and competition is well expressed in the dialog, photography, scoring, and the acting of all involved.  Even if you are familiar with the story and all the debates about who “really” did what, this is a good film at the higher levels of consideration.

“Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer” (Documentary, 2010):  Although (sadly) there is nothing unusual about the downfall of politicians caught diddling outside their marriage, this one has unusual clarity.  Spitzer was up in New York, and kicking white collar crime’s ass.  He made a lot of enemies.  Powerful enemies.  He was not a glad-handing kiss-up, and did not take bribes.  It was only when his successes (and crime’s convictions) reached the boiling point that his newly-earned enemies set out to find whatever they could to ruin him so they could get back to business-as-usual.  It’s a story of sleaze and retribution and more sleaze… and everyone is willing to tell their side of it… even if they’re lying or delusional.  You’ll want to take a long, hot shower after this documentary.

“Bandits” (2001):  Witty, quirky, crime-caper, bank-robbers road movie starring Bruce Willis, Billy Bob Thornton, and Cate Blanchett.  They each are spot-on perfect for their phobic, manic-depressive, stoic, nutty characters who create problem after problem for themselves and those around them.  A very funny film with scenarios you’ve never imagined, and resolutions you could not foresee even if a gun was pointed at you… you know, like in a bank robbery.

“Fallen Angel” (1945):  This is a great Film Noir, starring Dana Andrews, Alice Faye, Linda Darnell, Charles Bickford, and lots of character actors from the time.  The photography is strong, the scoring moody, the sets appropriate, and the dialog full of tough guy talk and hot dame repartee.  Crime, passion, sleazy motivations, innocent girls, booze, rooms full of smoke, and a few twists and turns.  Truly a top notch example of the genre.  WOTO

“The Art of the Steal” (2009):  Think you understand how politics, big money, high society, the courts, and “fund raiser” charities operate?  Ever heard of the Annenberg Foundation, or the Pew Charitable Trust?  Ever heard of Picasso, Matisse, Renoir, Van Gogh?  Want to learn how white collar thieves operate right under your noses?  See this documentary.  Don’t think it affects YOUR life?  If not, you haven’t read the above and understood – which makes seeing this film even more crucial.  Imagine YOU had something everyone in power wanted, and THEY knew how to manipulate the System to make sure they got it from you.  Or, let me put it in your daily life:  ever listen to NPR, ever watch PBS?  Ever gone to Philadelphia?  DON’T write this off because you just-this-moment said to yourself “Well, I don’t have anything they would want!”  It’s way bigger than that, and it DOES reach into your life.  This is MUST SEE stuff.

“The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers” (2009):  If you want to understand A LOT about the trauma of the 1960’s and 70’s related to the government, its corruption, the media, the military (especially in Viet Nam, of course), and social movements, this is a good 1.5 hour start.  Sure, EVERYONE has their “take” – it’s Ellsberg’s film for the most part – but he is generally fair in assessing himself, those around him, and the times in general.  Ironically, he seems to not quite see himself and his associates AS self-centered and AS self-righteous as his enemies – Nixon, etc.  This is typical, and you go in understanding we’re all humans.  You’ll cringe at some of the things Ellsberg did “for the greater good” (like involving his children – something he never addresses as a mistake).  None the less, seeing the papers, hearing the tapes, seeing the photos, getting it first hand from so many who were there and are yet alive is powerful stuff.  If there is still anyone for some reason wishing they’d lived this era – that they “missed the opportunity” – see this film, AND “Hearts and Minds” (1974), and “Winter Soldier” (1972).  THEN see how you feel about it.

“Katyn” (Polish, 2007):  Based on the novel “Post Mortem” by Andrzej Mularczyk, and directed by one of my favorites – Andrzej Wajda, this is the true story of the Soviet slaughter of 22,000 Polish officers removed to the Katyn Forest in 1940.  At the beginning of WWII, the USSR and Germany were Allies and had secretly agreed to attack and split Poland.  This was the “official” start of WWII.  To make certain Poland lost its organizational capabilities to fight back, a quiet, thorough plan was designed to collect, transport out, and “liquidate” all Polish military leaders.  Years passed before the mass graves were found.  The atrocity was then used as propaganda by both Germans and Russians against each other, who, by that time, were no longer “allies” in the war.  Wajda is a very talented man.  I admire his work.  “Katyn” uses archival footage, superb reenactment locations, sets, and amazing actors (who are fictionalized for a number of reasons) to bring an event into the awareness of a wider population.  It also shows you how ANY system can manage to do such a thing and keep it unknown, quiet, or at best, centered on rumors well past the event.  It wasn’t until the fall of Communism in 1989 that people had access to any hard evidence it was the USSR / Stalin behind the Katyn slaughter… over FIFTY years later.  WOTO

“Moon” (again, 2009):  Starring a very talented Sam Rockwell, this is the story of a maintenance man isolated for three years at an energy-harvesting plant on our Moon.  He and a computer are the only “lives” there.  His “enlistment” time is almost up, and the effects of loneliness are now showing.  But something is not right…  This is a quiet, evenly paced, yet always interesting drama that owes a tip-of-the-helmet to Kubrick’s “2001…” and other more intelligent sci-fi films, but unfolds its own unique story.  I also find it perhaps the saddest story ever set within the futuristic science fiction genre.  I’ll let the geeks argue over that one.  WOTO

“Restrepo” (documentary, 2010):  Follow the 2nd Platoon into Afghanistan and live with them as they fight, build, patrol, die, and cry.  This is powerful stuff – not because they are unusual American men, but because they are typical American men who show their strengths, weaknesses, feelings, professionalism, and comeraderie.  Be sure to also watch the “extended interview”, which are equally potent as they are given time to sort out what they learned in those fifteen months.

“4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days” (Romanian, 2007):  I like a film that is written, visualized, and directed essentially by one person with a clear goal.  This is one.  Set in a 24 hour period of 1970’s Communist Romania, this is a simple story of two college roommates – women – who set out to do something that is illegal and dangerous.  “Action” is minimal, tension increases, dialog (subtitles) move fast.  At the same time, the camera seldom moves and the scenes are long and unblinking.  Its purity of purpose reminds me of “One Hour Photo” (mentioned below, oddly enough), where every aspect is kept stripped down to meet a single goal.  Wonderful.  In this case, dark and hesitant.  Intelligent.  It won the Palme D’Or at Cannes in 2007.  Many have called it the best film of 2007.  Whatever the case, it IS a fine example of a non-pretentious, powerful Art film that will leave you looking forward to YOUR daily life.  WOTO

“The Night Listener” (    ):  Starring Robin Williams and Toni Collette.  Before you jerk your knee about Robin Williams, let me remind you he also did the really creepy films “One Hour Photo” and “Insomnia”.  There’s not one moment of shtick in any of these.  Toni Collette?  Guaranteed quality.  As for the story: it is written from actual events experienced by the man who then wrote the book and later wrote the screenplay who was also present on the set for film advisement.  Now imagine you are this man, and you think you know who is saying what to you about numerous subjects from supposed locations with certain motivations and consistent stories with reported histories, and this goes on for months and years, and… then… something happens causing the entire experience to come into question… so you go investigating.  This is one dark trip down a rabbit hole, folks.  The photography, lighting, scoring, acting, all of it is well done and supportive in creating a very interesting, foreboding, ominous story – a true story – that leaves you prepared to reevaluate what you know – assume – about YOUR life.  And, it’s only MORE pertinent with the rise of Facebook and other social “constructs”.   WOTO

“Bad Lieutenant – Port of Call New Orleans” (2009):  Directed by Werner Herzog.  I went into this film thinking it was ENTIRELY a Herzog project (like most of his), but the script seemed too traditional.  My suspicions were correct – the screenplay is by someone else.  So, if you’re looking for a classically unique Herzog experience, this won’t be one of them.  None the less, this drugged-up, corrupted cop & crime drama is interesting, dark, funny, and existentially ironic.  Nicholas Cage, Eva Mendes, Val Kilmer, Brad Douriff, and others make up this post-Katrina New Orleans underbelly story.  WOTO

“Adoration” (2009):  Is another interesting film by writer/producer/director Atom Egoyan.  I’m not prepared to say much.  This was a first view.  Egoyan doesn’t make easy films.  I need time to think, and then watch it again.  You will meet a young man.  He begins to tell a story.  You meet five people – through time, through the eyes of one another, through rumors, fantasies, through slowly revealing truths.  What IS true and what is not… and why should that matter?  WOTO

“The Recruit” (again, 2002):  Al Pacino, Colin Farrell and other talented actors star in this suspense/drama whodunit about the CIA, “moles”, traitors, and other paranoids.  It’s an interesting story right from the start, and the surprises don’t stop until the last seconds.  Effective but slightly overused scoring, and strong but not distracting camera work help push the tension along.  Of course there’s a “love interest”…or IS there?  Lots of suspense fun.  WOTO

“The 39 Steps” (again, 1935):  FINALLY !  A Hitchcock filmed I enjoyed start to finish !!  This is a man-on-the-lam spy thriller that keeps your interest all along the way through England into Scotland during the pre-war years when everyone was tense about Germany.  Of course the special effects (luckily, few) are crude by today’s standards, but the photography is lovely, the scoring decent enough, the acting fair… but this one is all about the story, and it’s a good one.  I also enjoyed “The Vanishing”, and, to a lesser degree, “Notorious”.  You’ll also get to see some suave interior décor sets in “The 39 Steps”… well, as suave as the British could manage… WOTO

“Fargo” (again, 1996):  A “true” crime story (of no real importance) by the Coen brothers, this film is great due to its stars – playing quirky characters to which you can’t stop watching and listening.  Frances McDormand, Bill Macy, Steve Buscemi lead the “action” through North Dakota…where things like this just don’t normally happen, doncha know.  Yah.  Geez.  The script (by the Coens), the photography (Roger Deakins), and all the other talents make this funny yet dark and violent film deserving of all the attention it has received.  WOTO

“Get Low” (2009):  Starring Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Bill Murray, Lucas Black.  Set in the Southern backwoods of Depression era America, an old hermit slowly lets go of a dark secret he’s held most of his life.  “Get Low” is a mystery with humor, sadness, and tenderness.  Stay with it.  It’s classic “peeling of the onion”, and the acting, scoring, and photography are wonderful.  One small complaint: what I call “Clean Car Syndrome”.

“The Tillman Story” (2010):  Documentary about the life, death, and lies built around Pat Tillman, football player-turned soldier in Afghanistan.  Through excruciating research, his family discovers the truth about his being killing while in the service, and who all – leading right to the top – was behind the abusive concoctions deemed useful by our government.  If you are still naïve about the mindset of governments, this will be an eye-opener for you.  YOU mean nothing until you are USEFUL to those in power, and, once you are no longer useful, you are sent back to nothingness… or at least they will try.

“Gladiator” (again, 2000):  Russell Crowe and Joachim Phoenix are superb in this epic story of honor, greed, lust, deceit, duty, and righteousness.  It has all the grand elements of a Greek or Shakespearian tragedy, with the added gritty realism of a Ridley Scott project (“Black Hawk Down” was another, and has a similar visual look to it).  The score is powerful and appropriately huge.  The special effects are used only as necessary to construct battles, and the Rome of old.  Costuming, sets, dialog – everything that went into this drama – was the given proper treatment, making for a very satisfying – and violent – experience.  WOTO

“Great Guy” (1936):  Starring James Cagney.  This is a sometimes humorous but generally serious crime drama set in New York.  “Johnny Dave” (Cagney), an ex-boxer, is the new Chief of Weights and Measures (we get good lessons in how customers are cheated), who sets out to correct the corrupt.  Lots of tough guys, knuckle sandwiches, cute gals, and some of the best Art Deco sets and décor I’ve ever seen in a film.  This is an “expose” film, and a good one for 1936.  WOTO

“The Professional” (1994):  Starring Gary Oldman, Jean Reno, and Natalie Portman in her first role (and WHAT a first role)!  Jean Reno plays a hit man who has a simple, orderly life.  Circumstances lead him into a “messy” situation to which he must adapt due to circumstances that cross paths with a young girl (Portman), and a psycho man (Oldman).  Although the story is over-the-top in believability (closer to “Pulp Fiction” than gritty realism)… the acting is great, the characters are interesting, and the story is unique.  It is beautifully filmed, I’m left ambivalent about the scoring, and, again, expect the need to accept this bizarre story on its own terms.  WOTO

“Catfish” (documentary, 2008):  Be patient with this film – it begins slow, you’re not sure what’s going on or why these three young men are so dedicated to making it or why one of them seems to be in a constant state of whiny bitchiness, the camera work is nervous, the massive use of computer graphics and screens is tiresome and… then it gets interesting and you won’t walk away from it even if your house starts on fire.  This is a film about “social networking”.  Pay close attention.  You’d better pay close attention.

“True Romance” (again, 1993):  An extremely violent film, up there with Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, “True Romance” is, somehow, an oddly sweet love story.  Starring Patricia Arquette, Christian Slater, Dennis Hopper, Brad Pitt, Val Kilmer, Gary Oldman, Christopher Walken, James Gandolfini, Michael Rappaport… the list goes on (plus oddly sweet scoring by Hans Zimmer), “True Romance” is a white trash, random world, go-with-the-flow story about two people who meet under false circumstances, but simply, and quickly, decide to always be honest and in love with one another.  It was THAT simple.  What ensues is a cross-country, crime drama road movie, with lots of interesting, tacky, some dark, weird characters, aimless lives, and slaughter left & right & up & down… but at its core is this oddly sweet love story.  There ARE other films that have similar plots, but they do not have the “soul” of this one.  WOTO

“Impact” (1949):  This is a fun cat-n-mouse crime mystery loaded with ethical and moral decisions to be made along the way.  Expect a few surprises, also.  Stars Brian Donlevy (the excessively loving husband), Helen Walker (the lying, greedy bitch of a wife), Tony Barrett (your basic back-door-lover, lounge sleaze), Marsha Peters (the lovely – and I mean LOVELY- good-hearted small town gal next door), and Charles Coburn (the wise, witty, old detective).  Also enjoyable are the suave corporate sets, the decadent “Hollywood Regency” residential sets, and of course the cars, fashions, hair styles, buildings, and “small town life” in Larkspur Idaho.  WOTO

“The Boys of St. Vincent” (again, Canadian, 1994):  This is a two-part, 186 minute marathon of valid anger, disgust, pain, and sadness.  It is the story of orphaned boys being abused by Catholic “religious” men.  Though thinly veiled as “fiction”, this is a “names have been changed to protect the innocent” story, and it is harrowing.  You have no idea – - – and I would degrade it by trying to tell you.  However, I can tell you there are points of resolution.  This is not a film about photography or sets or lighting (mediocre) – this is a film about the story, and the awesome acting by many children and adults.  They leave you breathless.  And, if you have the strength to stay with them, you will be rewarded with a very intense, deep feeling of angry resolution.  WOTO

“To Die For” (again, 1996):  I think this is my FAVORITE film with Nicole Kidman in the lead (in competition with “Eyes Wide Shut”).  She is ASTOUNDING as the driven, beautiful, deluded, manipulative sociopath, who will stop at nothing to continue shoving herself and those around her towards her singular goal (based on a true story).  Seldom have I seen an actor who has every millimeter of his/her body under total control to make for the desired effects.  Joachin Phoenix, Buck Henry (who also wrote the screenplay), Matt Dillon, and many other talented knowns and unknowns make for a dark, funny, frightening, insightful story about contemporary life in some people’s America.  WOTO

“Northfork” (again, 2003):  By the Polish brothers, this film will keep you fascinated, scratching your head in confusion, laughing, and being very moved by scenes you can FEEL more than decipher.  It’s a surreal, multi-level, gorgeous looking, delicately scored, delicately acted, unique work… sort of like a bleak, wind-swept Terry Gilliam film if he’d been northern Swedish, and made a film in Montana while Ingmar Bergman hung around the set during lunch.  Starring Peter Coyote, Nick Nolte, Anthony Edwards, Darryl Hannah, and others, this story of a small town slated for submersion under water as part of a huge dam project, takes on much larger meanings… and THESE are what creep into you as the film moves along.  It is eerie, sad, beautiful, bleak, surreal, funny, absurd, fragile, and challenging.  WOTO

“High Fidelity” (again, 2000):  This is a witty, funny, insightful film about young men, how they think, their male friendships, and relationships with women.  If you are a music lover, a trivia freak, a Top-10 style list-maker, and a smart-ass, you’ll enjoy it as much as I have – repeatedly.   I could’ve done with less “talking to the lens/audience” shtick, but that’s a small price for all the insights into obsessive/compulsive priority organizers, the goofy way most men evaluate their relationships and time spent, and the trial and error approach to maturity.  This is a hilarious yet very wise little film.  WOTO

“Lars and the Real Girl” (again, 2007):  The thing is this film was marketed as a “comedy”, and that’s basically wrong.  Despite some oddly funny moments, this is an extremely interesting psychological study of a very isolated man and the community around him that feels they must react to his decisions.  It’s a very awkward, sad, tender, occasionally light or funny, unique, emotional story with huge lessons for many of us.  Do we each have issues that seem to demand others react?  Do we reach out?  HOW do we react?  Who and how do we help?  Or, should we simply stay clear of the entire mess?  What begins as an entirely absurd scenario becomes more and more acceptable, and then understandable.  We grow with the characters.  I don’t like to use this term, but I will: This film is heartwarming… but not sappy.  And every actor, bar none, does a superb job with their character.  WOTO

“The Rose Tattoo” (1955):  Starring Burt Lancaster and Anna Magnani, stageplay written by Tennessee Williams, “The Rose Tattoo” took three Oscars, including Best Actress for Magnani – and well deserved.  This is an American immigrant ethnic drama and comedy full of exclamation points and arm waving, but with good heart, set in a time and place that can no longer exist.  The photography is beautiful, scoring is supportive, and characters are almost larger than life, but full of unique flaws as only Tennessee Williams could create.  It touches on social issues being more openly discussed at that time, but with more finesse and a lighter hand than many others.  WOTO

“The Kennedy Mystique – Creating Camelot” (doc., 2004):  This documentary is focused on the use of the media as an image creator (especially television, which, in 1959-1963, was in its infancy).  It looks at how the Kennedys, their staffs, and those around them – including the print and television reporters – collaborated in presenting a limited and polished view of the First Family.  This is a PRIMER in hype, for better and worse, and quite revealing.  Also, anecdotes from the likes of Ben Bradley and Arthur Schelsinger, not to mention the official White House photographers, give new insight into campaigning, daily political life, and near worldwide disasters of the period.  This is a fascinating piece, and I think would remain the case even for those too young to have lived that time.  WOTO

“Mystery Train” (1989):  Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch.  This film takes three separate stories and slowly weaves them together.  DON’T go searching for the subtitle option when you hear Japanese speaking only Japanese.  There ain’t one.  Just go along for the ride, understand what you can, and patiently live with it while the stories grow, unfold, and criss-cross in the Hometown of Elvis.  Like the Coen brothers, Jarmusch likes quirkly characters, and this one won’t let you down.  WOTO

“One Eyed Jacks” (1961):  Directed by and starring Marlon Brando, this morality play set in the Old West may be a little drawn out but deals with lots of issues – both “timeless”, and contemporary to 1961.  Crime, revenge, murder, forgiveness, lying, cheating… not to mention racism, illegitimate pregnancy, and the “mingling” of the races… are all tackled in this story.  The photography is wonderful despite its distorted Technicolor skin tones, the locations are bleak and grand (Wow, the coast near Monterey, California!), the pace very (too?) patient, and the twists, turns, and turn-abouts plentiful.  Also starring are Slim Pickens and Carl Maulden, along with lots of people who Hollywood bosses were hoping they could form into stars – but failed.  WOTO

 “Little Miss Sunshine” (2006):  “Highly dysfunctional, distanced family finds function through a shared experience.”  If this sounds familiar, it should, as many have approached this subject.  Set as a drama, dark comedy, and slapstick all in one, you move through scene after scene thinking you’ve seen this one then that one before… and yet you stick with “Little Miss Sunshine”.  Why, if it’s so well-trodden?  In part, it’s the combo-meal of scenes, but the quality is mainly due to the acting of all the leads, including Greg Kinear, Toni Colette, Alan Arkin, Paul Dano, Steve Carell, and a wonderful little girl, Abigail Breslin – who, when put to the test – is a knockout of an actress.  Think of their VW bus as a symbol, by the way.  WOTO

 “The Lord of the Rings” (again, 3 pts., 2001, 2002, 2004):  This is the third time I’ve watched this trilogy, but for some reason is the first time I’ve written about it.  When I view them, it’s done three nights in a row.  It’s A LOT of movie.  9 ¼ hours!  I’m not going to detail it here… but I will say I enjoy it from start to finish, even if it leaves me so worn out I forget to write.  I’ve also read the books, twice, but I’m not going to compare books to movies.  That’s simply unfair.  Kudos are due the designers.  Characters that may or may not have had an image in my head were defined and well-formed in the film.  I was deeply satisfied with the visualization of almost every moment, landscape, hut, monster, soldier, race, and hero.  On rare occasion, the digital effects during a massive battle scene would miss a beat here or there, but seriously, I’d be embarrassed to complain and pick it to pieces.  This story, by J. R. R. Tolkien, is a fictional romantic adventure of the finest kind, with lots of ethical and morality issues, emotional and psychological states, and for every question it asks, it tries to provide the right answer.  This is NOT an ambivalent story.  It IS Good vs Evil.  And, let’s face it, these stories were written using a thinly disguised World War II in Europe.  WOTO

“The Day the Earth Stood Still” (again and again, 1951):  One of THE finest and first Period, Sci Fi, and Cold War films of all time.  Michael Rennie (perfectly cast as the curious, amused, but also deadly serious Visitor with a message), Patricia Neil, Hugh Marlowe (as the irritating, petty fiancee), Sam Jaffe (as the “Einstein” scientist), Francis Bavier (pre-”Aunt Bee”, as the know-it-all biddy), and Billy Gray (soon to be the son on “Father Knows Best”, as the innocent, trusting lad) star in this fresh-out-of-WWII, Commie-paranoid (they look like US!) UFO story, in which we – as a planetary species – receive THE Final Warning from all of our space neighbors.  Understated dialog, natural and location sets, and elegant set design keep this from being the tacky joke most others became.  This IS a message movie, yet was highly successful with its 1951 audience… still awe struck by what everyone experienced fighting Germany, Italy, and Japan… only to find the USSR next on the list.  The beautiful b/w photography and lighting, and the innovative mood music are also worth noting.  WOTO

“Kiss Me Deadly” (1955):  Starring tough guy Ralph Meeker, along with Albert Dekker, Paul Stewart, Juano Hernandez, Wesley Addy, Marion Carr, and the first role for Cloris Leachman, this is a tough-as-nails, late Noir film about sleazy investigator Mike Hammer, whose greed pulls him deep into a mystery from which very few will escape.  Full of tricky broads, lying cons, unblinking killers, and where’s-the-cash stoolies, this is a dark tale with very little light at the end of the tunnel.  Stylish 1954 contemporary sets, clothing, cars, etc. are to be seen in this southern California locale.  My only question is whether it could’ve been trimmed a little without harming it.  None the less, it’s a dandy mystery-crime caper.  WOTO

“Synecdoche New York” (again (2nd viewing), 2009):  Warning: This film will require multiple viewings.  You will NOT absorb all it offers in one viewing.  My guess is 3-5 viewings to gain a solid grip on it.  Written and directed by C. Kaufman (who wrote “Adaptation”, “Being John Malkovich”, and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”).  Starring a huge, talented cast including Philip Seymour Hoffman, Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams, Catherine Keener, Emily Watson, Dianne Wiest, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Hope Davis, Tom Noonan… wow.  Okay, with the introductions out of the way… I don’t know what to say about the film.  It is complex, challenging, constantly changing, full of unusual and surreal ideas set in gritty realities (dream-like), dialog that demands you listen, time-warps, spatial inbreeding, details galore, occasionally slightly humorous, but generally very sad, paranoid, and desperate.  What IS it to be a particular person and pay the unique price?  How many kinds of loss are there?  When is “dedication” a distraction?  How do you feel about aging and dying?  Okay, there’s a starter set of questions you’ll be asked.  You’ll also be presented with a variety of scenarios related to these (and many more questions).  This one makes Kaufman’s other films look like Haikus.  You’ll have to work for this one, I guarantee you.  If you’re feeling lazy or sloppy or silly, wait for another opportunity to see “Synecdoche New York”.  It will probably be considered one of Kaufman’s masterpieces, and you need to be at your best.  WOTO

“Nothing but the Truth” (2008):  Remember the case where the woman reporter refused to give up her source to the Government, and they jailed her?  This is based on that concept, but tells a parallel story not historically related.  There is some very fine acting here – from Kate Beckinsale, Matt Dillon, Alan Alda, Vera Farmiga, David Schwimmer, and others.  It is a harrowing look at the reality of Government bullying, psychological torture, life damaging, and spirit crushing.  Who wins here?  Do things always turn out the way they should?  Go with this.  You won’t regret a moment of it, and you won’t see a number of things coming.  You WILL ask yourself how you would handle it.  WOTO

“Valkyrie” (2009):  This is the historical recreation (with “dramatic license”) of the largest group of German military people who, in 1943 and 1944, attempted the assassination of their leader, Adolph Hitler.  It is a detailed, interesting, exciting, and frightening depiction of the Nazi regime when no one under Hitler was free to speak their minds… and live.  Pay close attention and you will learn something.  Regarding the film, I have a three issues: 1) the lack of German accents on the Germans is sometimes distracting, 2) I believe the story makes some info/tactical leaps too large for the average viewer.  It assumes the audience has received a proper and thorough education on World War II.  This is why I said “play close attention”.  The information is there, but not always laid out in front of you.  And 3) do NOT allow the film to give you the impression LOTS of Germans were against Hitler.  The film does this by its sheer microscopic focus on those who were opposed.  The fact is, nearly every German supported and idolized Hitler, despite attempts being made to rewrite (soften) history.

“Anchorman – The Legend of Ron Burgandy” (again, 2004):  Imagine my surprise after renting “Forgotten” with Julianne Moore, putting in the tape at night, and finding “Anchorman” starting up.  I think that is a first.  Wrong tape, right box.  Okay, Will Ferrell, Paul Rudd, Steve Carell, Christina Applegate, Tim Robbins, Fred Willard, Jack Black, Ben Stiller, Luke Wilson, and a seemingly endless supply of talent fill out this totally ridiculous, witty-in-a-brain-dead-sort-of-way, “epic” about a 1970′s tee-vee anchorman and an overblown belief in his self.  But, as much of the world DOES operate, everyone believes him, so things work out pretty well … until the hot Feminist comes along…  The core of this comedy seems to be tons of improvisation that was later edited to fit the small plot.  It’s fresh, tacky dopiness, and great fun.  I laugh constantly.  Seriously.  WOTO IMDB

“Blades of Glory” (again, 2006):  Will Ferrell does it again.  Yes, it’s basically the same character as Ron Burgandy in “Anchorman”, but it’s a damned good character – the man with huge delusions of grandeur.  This time he and his ice skating Nemesis “Jimmy” (played by the man who starred in “Napolean Dynamite”, Jon Heder), don the most grotesque but, sadly, hardly exaggerated Ice Skating Entertainment costumes, and battle it out for top honors, only to find they need each other as never imagined.  This is hilarious, stupid fun with dead pan accuracy.  Think Christopher Guest films, but slapstick.  WOTO

“Napolean Dynamite” (again, 2004):  A caveat:  This is one uniquely funny movie, but only if you like dry, Dry, DRY humor.  If, like me, you love Christopher Guest movies (This is Spinal Tap, Waiting for Guffman, A Mighty Wind, etc.), and stories like Welcome to the Doll House, Drop Dead Gorgeous, or even The Brady Bunch Movie, you should like this one too.  It doesn’t have the dark edge of Dollhouse, or the intellectual references of Guffman, but this is the ULTIMATE dead pan, dry-as-a-bone, walking-in-your-sleep, never-cracks-a-smile, supremely LAME-O movie of all time.  Everything you see and hear is in support of that one goal.  Every stitch of clothing, shot of landscape, choice of song, piece of furniture, and stunted word of dialog takes you deeper into the Land of Nowhere.  And where do you end up?  Nowhere, but somewhere, and it ain’t spectacular, but it is what it is, and that’s exactly what it should be.  I watched it twice in the first week I rented it.  Now we own it.  Consider it a love story.  Sort of.  IMDB WOTO

“The Right Stuff” (again, 1983):  History as written by Tom Wolfe can be simplistic, and sometimes full of ideas held by few other than Wolfe… which is difficult to call History.  However, I do not know how many liberties he took with the history of American test pilots & Mercury Project astronauts (1947-1963).  I DO know that the film is interesting, exciting, and sheds light on what these men (and their wives & children) faced – not only at high speeds way up in the wild blue yonder, but way down here on the dirt of national egos and media hype.  Epic in scope and film length, “The Right Stuff” could have been told in no less than three hours, and it’s not.  WOTO

 “Religulous” (again, 2008):  Documentary/Opinion/Editorial/Comedy by Bill Maher.  Maher travels world-wide to discuss/film/question (and slyly edit) religions with people who claim to KNOW – KNOW IT ALL – KNOW religion, know Right & Wrong, know who’s who, know the whys, wheres, and whens – and, most importantly, KNOW The MANY Only One God, including themselves, of course.  What?  “Religulous” is a massive collection of Self-delusional Kitschmeisters whose unintentional stupidity and self-righteousness keeps reminding you it’s not just innocent wastefulness but their gathering of power for bigger goals.  This is must-see stuff.  Even the most religious among us will agree over the ridiculousness of these people and ideas… well, at least until he gets to YOUR religion.  Then the infidel must die.  It’s in The Book, after all.  What can you do?  It’s out of your hands.  You’re just holding the Weapon of Righteousness.  You’re wearing the Shoes of Action and the Underwear of Power.  You’re just the Instrument of God.  I mean, Hey.  WOTO

“Tell No One” (again and again, French, 2006):  This is a straight out, classic murder mystery with a lots of unsolved questions, twists, turns, dead ends, double-backs, and the unceasing demand you pay attention or go to bed.  It’s worth the effort.  This is one complex, interesting, fun, web of clues and surprises.  My wife and I have decided to watch it two nights in row, to make sure we understand all the switcheroos and questions.  WOTO

(And… we DID.)

“The Perilous Fight” (documentary, PBS television, 2002):  At last count, I own 516 hours of documentary film footage from World War II.  Almost none of it is in color.  “The Perilous Fight” is 4 hours of color, and a very basic history lesson in the whys and hows of WWII.  YOUR LIFE TODAY is what it is because of what happened in WWI and WWII.  Until you understand that, you will skip through your life thinking all you have (and don’t have) ALWAYS WAS and ALWAYS WILL BE.  How pathetic.  One correction to the documentary:  In the last few years, the estimate of 50 million killed because of WWII has been adjusted up to 70-72 million.  MILLION.  WOTO

“Village of the Damned” (again, British, 1960):  You could label this movie “horror” or sci-fi” (as many do), but for me it’s not a perfect fit.  This story, of the residents of Midwich England, is indeed odd and spooky from the first frame on, and the increasing tension is wonderful (also beautifully filmed), but I consider this film more of a “Cold War” analogy: the enemy looks like us, seems to be one of us but for small differences, they walk among us, and may have powers beyond us – to get into our minds, KNOW us, CONTROL US, have the POWER TO DESTROY US!  It was 1960, and the Cold War was getting hot.  I see this story as more akin to “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”, “The Manchurian Candidate” (original version), or “Night of the Living Dead”.  The choice of “enemy” is perfectly subversive.  Placing it in comfortable, conservative Britain – perfect.  “Mid”wich England?  Yes, perfect.  It’s NOT a place where ANY thing unusual has ever or ever will happen………….. OR WILL IT??????????  I thoroughly enjoy this creepy little film.  WOTO.

And the following is what I wrote last time:

“Village of the Damned” (again, British, 1960):  I saw this one first run in 1960.  I was 10.  I remember the adults being very upset by this odd film.  I didn’t understand why they were disturbed, but I KNEW I was seeing the first “adult” sci-fi.  There were no monsters, no rockets, no buildings being smashed, no space suits… yet it was creepy and disturbing.  I may have seen it again over the decades, but don’t remember doing so.  Would it now be laughable, like so much of what we outgrow?  Well, yes, and no.  Special effects, although (gratefully) almost non-existent, are obvious.  Dialog varies from brilliant to lame.  The acting hovers above other sci-fi flix of the time, but nowhere near what I’ve come to demand from top films.  The photography is BEAUTIFUL.  It’s rich, well composed black & white.  The setting – a pastoral, Mayberryesque rural village in England, was perfect.  The build-up of tension is patient and steady.  Slowly the pieces of the puzzle come together, and then we switch to issues of resolution.  While this was happening, I began to see why it upset the adult population in 1960.  By the end of the film, I totally got it.  “Village of the Damned” reaches the level of societal insights comparable to “The Day the Earth Stood Still”, but less obviously.  The Cold War was in full swing.  Fear of the unknown – the Infiltrator – the Spy – the Double Agent – permeated life.  Adults were sensing a huge generation gap stomping their way – one unlike the world had ever seen.  The children were in the formative years of this revolution.  No one knew what the next day would bring.  Science was constantly offering up major alterations to life, and politicians were promising they’d be installed as daily reality.  We would be on ANOTHER PLANET within another 9 years – AHEAD of our predictions!  No one was joking anymore.  Hey… if WE would be on other planets soon… maybe it’s possible someone can reach US too!  The Age of Fantasy was fading – for REAL.  Also threatening were the concepts of Brain Washing, Mind Control, and other invisible tools of warfare.  Overall, this is a subtle film, which adds to its chilly creepiness.  Forgive a few awkward scenes, and you’ll love the calm evil of this classic.  It is a GREAT period piece.  WOTO

 

3.

“These provide good enough reasons to relax & ride the sofa”

 

“Air Force” (1943):  Directed by Howard Hawks, this is an almost-real-time recreation of the real events around a crew and their B-17 “Mary Anne” just as Pearl Harbor is attacked.  “Air Force” has beautiful b/w photography, many special effects better than most at that time, and a rousing, patriotic story of these men’s struggle against their Japanese enemy.  Think of it as similar to “The Memphis Belle” story, but made DURING World War II.  “Air Force” is NOT a “retro” movie.  Although it goes light on the graphic effects of violence, that war at that time can be forgiven its soft approach to the public.  Starring John Garfield, Arthur Kennedy, and Harry Carey.

“Amen.” (2002):  Based on the stage play “The Representative”, this well-acted drama is set in 1930-40’s Germany as the Nazis refine and accelerate their euthanasia and “purification” killings.  Initially, only a few people know what is happening, but the word is quickly out and met with denial, fear, avoidance, and c.y.a. behaviors if not outright opportunism.  I found it interesting, but the film takes big leaps in time without announcing them.  WWII is my hobby study.  I suspect “Amen” takes too many leaps not only in time but in assuming the audience is well-educated about this era and can fill in the many gaps and subtleties therein left unexplained.  For this reason, I cannot recommend it as “introductory” material.

I’m NOT saying every film SHOULD make certain it steps down to an entry-level instructional film, but, if at all possible, provide what is necessary in an artful way – since it DOES claim to want to communicate ideas and perpetuate reminders to those who have fewer and fewer personal connections.

“The Cool School” (Documentary, 2007): This is an intimate look at the art scene in Los Angeles after World War II through the 1970’s.  It not only interviews many of the [now-famous] West Coast artists, but reminds us that it was here Andy Warhol was given his first exhibition, Marcel Duchamp had his first retrospective, yet none of the L.A. artists found themselves getting the same attention, respect, or sales equal to what was happening in New York.  Like any defensive group of individuals who believe there is more power and support in collaborations, this group went through phases of creativity, business, pettiness, rises, falls, collapses, and nostalgia.  Kienholz, Ruscha, Volkos, Bell, Still, Baldesari, etc. are given lots of time to discuss their many remembrances.

“Home for the Holidays” (again, 1995):  Loaded with stars who create some wonderful acting, this story set in Baltimore during the Thanksgiving holiday.  One family gathers at the parental home… and the insanity, hilarity, ugliness, and tenderness ensue.  It’s NOT as funny as “Christmas Vacation” but begins along that line, yet as this story moves the comedy is replaced with emotional moments of nostalgia, doubt, regret, certainty, resignation, and growth.  WOTO

“Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon” (1943):  Written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and starring Basil Rathbone & Nigel Bruce, this is a dark, twisty, disguise-filled story about Germans spies in Britain trying to snatch a new, revolutionary bomb sight design that could (and did, as it is based on facts) help change the course of World War II.  The script is much more intelligent than the “Bulldog Drummond” series, with exquisite Noir photography at every turn.  THIS is a dandy in the genre.  WOTO

“Shrek” (again, 2001): “Shrek” was done by Dreamworks.  Pixar is the best.  NO ONE gets close to Pixar.  They do gorgeous animation and, more importantly, they do good story, dialog, and character.  Animation, made with ink pen OR computer, is not enough.  It’s as empty as a beauty queen with no thoughts.  “Shrek” has SOME soul – not a lot, but some – along with humor, an overactive desire to teach social values, and yet seldom allows itself to go limp and sugary sweet (but watch out towards the end).  This isn’t a film so much for small children as adolescents, and there are so MANY older cultural references beyond them you’ll feel you have YEARS of insider jokes that need explaining (which is true).  On the other hand, maybe they’ll simply enjoy the obvious layers – and that will be good enough.  Sequels are usually MUCH weaker than originals – loaded with desperate attempts to cash in on what the first did uniquely.  “Shrek II” is that way.  It takes half the movie to find its rhythm and pull away from some of the gooey shmaltz, and once that is done, it has a hard time hanging onto the witty, less reverent material… instead slipping back to the shmaltz.  I own the first one.  I will not own the second one.  Dreamworks does some good stuff, but it ain’t no Pixar.  See Toy Story II and III for an example of sequeling which loses nothing in the process.  WOTO

“Duel” (again, 1971):  Perhaps Steven Spielberg’s earliest directing, this very straight-forward story – done on what had to have been a tiny budget with very few actors and all (?) on-location sets – is none the less special from the first camera shot as “you” drive out of your suburb and town for a business meeting.  Starring Dennis Weaver (in perhaps HIS first role after “Gunsmoke”) (Sorry, I’m just guessing here, it doesn’t seem important enough to research), he takes the solo role of a harried, married man trying to get across a desolate piece of California.  It’s a typical day on a typical road… until… it becomes what appears to be a tense, life-or-death, often breath-taking race where “society” quickly reverts to the “Laws of the Jungle”.  A must-see for Spielberg, photography, and action fans.  WOTO

“Apocalypto” (2006):  I have mixed feelings.  The photography, sets, costuming, and locations are astounding, both in the jungles and the “city”.  THESE elements are worth the watch.  Set in about the 16th century, we meet rural jungle tribes living their lives as they’ve always known, for better or worse (although there is an odd odor of “contemporary” about many of their interactions, especially the young men).  Along comes another group of natives who wreak havoc on their lives.  We slowly learn why.  This is where the movie becomes somewhat standardized with depictions of good vs evil, natural vs artificial, advanced vs traditional, progress vs disaster… and… the basic action of the film is a relentless chase movie driven by greed, lust, fear, and love.  Oh, and it’s LOADED with violence.  We also have a hero character who, though bleeding, is given almost superman status… which allows for extra doses of violence.  Its believability weakens as the film races along, but the ride is exciting if you leave your brain in the other room.  WOTO

“Midnight Run” (again, 1988):  Robert DeNiro is a bounty hunter who must catch and transport white collar criminal Charles Grodin… unfortunately, the FBI, the Mob, other bounty hunters, you name it, also want Grodin for their own reasons.   This is a road / cat-n-mouse comedy, overly scored, overly long, and very 80’s in its style, but the DeNiro/Grodin chemistry is worth the trip.  WOTO

“Everything Must Go” (2010):  If I were to rate this film solely on Will Ferrell’s dramatic role, I’d have it in the next higher category.  He proves himself here – he’s a revelation.  Unfortunately, there is the plot with the gaping holes…  The idea is his wife locks him out of the house with all of his stuff thrown on the front lawn.  He decides to live out there.  The problem is with his relationship to the house – his being “locked out” – which NEVER makes logical sense, and NEVER provides the necessary solid reason for the predicament.  Kudos to Ferrell, boos to the story.

“Don’t Say a Word” (again, 2001):  Starring Michael Douglas and Brittany Murphy, along with Sean Bean, Famke Janssen, and Oliver Platt.  This is the thriller that made me want to see more of Murphy’s work.  She’s VERY good at Fragile, Neurotic, and Deviant.  The story is filled with greed, lust, murder, revenge, and resolution.  Somewhere inside the head of a mental patient (Murphy) are the numbers to a solution.  LOTS of people want those numbers, but no one can get inside.  That is, until a psychiatrist is found (Douglas) who might just be capable…IF he can be convinced to go in after it.  Although some of the film has blatant devices to create tension, and the characters are laid out a tad simplistically, it’s an enjoyable trip.  Everyone does a good job (but don’t expect much from the little “daughter”) of making you jerk this way then that.  WOTO

“Born Rich” (doc., 2003):   Made by a rich kid about other rich kids – all of whom were – along with their parents – BORN into million-billion money and have never faced actual work (let alone careers), this is a clunky, amateurish film made interesting solely by viewing lost souls who have no rudder, no priorities, no Intent.  They are the car wrecks by the side of the road… you MUST slow down and stare at the tragedy.  A couple of them might be survivors and may make it as real humans possibly offering deeper value to the world, but most of these twenty-somethings are pathetic, hot-house flowers who have determined they MUST remain in the only environment that will tolerate them or they can tolerate.  They are limited by their fear and addicted to their surroundings.  Ugh.

“Black Swan” (2010):  Academy Awards for Best Film (Darren Aronofsky) and Best Actress (Natalie Portman).  I’m not so sure about Best Film, but I am about Best Actress.  Portman always amazes, and is worth the price of admission.  Aronofsky, with his leaning towards the hallucinatory, tells the story of a ballet dancer slowly losing her sense of reality – and you find yourself wondering what is real right along with her.  This is my first viewing, and I am not convinced the story was best visualized this way.  I simply need to ponder it over at least one more viewing.  However, Portman, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey, and others were also very strong in supporting roles, the camera work was interesting, and the sound track effective.  To be continued sometime in the future… (the next day):  The use of symbols was so simplistic I felt embarrassed for the writer.  (Academy Award for Best Film?  REALLY?)  Symbols are often used to replace the limits of a literal fact and provide a more flexible directive to its audiences.  (Symbols can also be pure “code”, but in Art their intent is to guide yet be more inclusive for individuals, cultures, and time.)  If the symbols, such as they were in “Black Swan”, are mere illustrations of the narrative, they sit as redundant road signs for the script.  I was not impressed with the writing.  But, as usual, I WAS impressed with Natalie Portman.  She is one of our greatest young actresses.

“Girl Walks into a Bar” (c. 2010-11):  It claims to be the first full-length movie made for the internet and shown on YouTube.  Who knows?  Was it any good?  Well, if you like dialog-heavy, snappy patter scripts with just enough plot to keep it moving along and somewhat interesting characters as you go, you’ll enjoy this one.  Would you want to hang out all the time with any of these people?  No.  They’re relentlessly self-absorbed and smirky-ironic, but anymore who isn’t?

“Hollywood Ending” (2002):  I admire Woody Allen’s work and will ALWAYS make a point to see each film at least once…  and this is the once-view.  It’s entertaining, Debra Messing and Tea Leoni are superb comedians, there are some insightful lines about the worlds of film/art/commerce and hilarious lines about relationships… but there are also long waits between those moments.  It’s spotty.  Uneven.  Without flow.  But the idea of an “impossible” director who suddenly gains a huge new problem (I can’t tell you what it is!) is inspired.  WOTO

“Sweeney Todd” (2007):  There are too many caveats to allow me to raise or lower this film to another category.  I HATE musicals – people singing when they should simply be talking – and this is a musical film made from a musical stage play.  Agh.  Nor did I like the lyrics.  They were too explanatory.  I LOVED the sets and costuming, CGI special effects, and orchestration.  You may or may not know the story.  It has a certain relationship to “Romeo and Juliet”, but “Sweeney Todd” makes that play look like a comedy.  It is also a very, VERY bloody, violent film.  I respect Johnny Depp for taking on a project which no doubt asked new things of him.  I gained even more respect for Helena Bonham Carter who shined above all.  Sacha Baron Cohen was a fantastically creepy Tim Burtonish character.  So, if this sounds like I am split down the middle over this filmusical, I AM.  I am in Ambivalence Hell.

“The Happening” (2008):  I’m not a fan of M. Night Shyamalan as a director or writer.  From what I’ve seen, his films contain an unevenness that distracts and disappoints.  They move from cliché to unique moment, unforgettable to very forgettable, again and again, and, they are generally predictable.  I came to this film due to his main stars: Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Dechanel, and John Leguizamo.  I’m beginning to think Wahlberg is better at comedy than drama.  His timing and delivery seem to fit.  Because of this, Shyamalan inserted a few barely appropriate comedic moments into a story of mass fear and death.  Dechanel, who I have seen be brilliant (“All the Real Girls”), seems to have been directed to exhibit big blue saucer eyes and that’s about it.  The actor who has always stood out (but the “industry” never seems certain how best to use him, is Leguizamo.  He has repeatedly proven he has range and intensity.  Here, HE is the actor to watch.  The story will carry you along, but it will not be in your Top List.  WOTO

“Starsky & Hutch  (2004):  I HATED the original tee-vee show.  Any questions?  No?  Fine.  Moving on… I found this MOVIE in a thrift store for $1.49, and was willing to risk it since the chemistry of Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson is already a proven formula, not to mention Vince Vaughn, Snoop Dog, and a much-too-minor role for Juliette Lewis.  This version is also sometimes witty, funny, definitely FUNKY, and full of visual, story, dialog, and photographic period references.  “S & H” is stupid fun and enjoyable when you want to give your brain an easy couple of hours.  WOTO

“Idiocracy” (again, 2006):  This is really dumb fun.  If you are a fan of watching our medias and public degrade themselves into Monster Truck/Jerry Springer/Maury Povich/Home Video spectacles of repulsive mediocrity, this is a story you’ll love (WARNING: SPOILER AHEAD !!):  A VERY average dude is put into a suspended animation experiment, is supposed to wake up in a year, but things go wrong, and 500 years pass.  Okay! The Future!!  The Glorious Future!!!  Oh… no… not only has there been no progress, everyone and everything is entirely dumb-assed down, and he finds himself the Smartest Man on the Planet.  If you love and hate what is passing for entertainment now, and want to see one persons vision of how it becomes daily life in the future, this comedy is for you… funny, gross, and like totally way dum, gross, uh like funny, dude.  Totally…  And don’t kid yourself, THAT future is about a year away, not 500 years away.  WOTO IMDB

“Grace is Gone” (2007):  There are a few reasons to watch this film, and many more to pass it by.  The “passes” first: This is a Hallmark product, and has all the “marks” of one: Sentimental, poorly produced, poor artistry, simplified characters, lack of continuity, “missing windshield syndrome”, multiple shadows in natural environments, scenarios constructed with convenience and speed in mind not reality, cliché lens filters… I could go on and on.  Now, the “watches”:  It will make you cry if you’re in that mood, and the older girl of the two that play his daughters is really quite good.  John Cusack (who plays the father of two girls) seems, as an actor, in over his head with this one (had people making this film been more talented and demanding).

”Exit Through the Gift Shop” (Documentary, 2010):  First, I’m going to quote myself from another of my reviews of another documentary about MORE graffiti losers:

“Beautiful Losers” (Documentary, 2008):  I HATE “vanity films”.  You know what they are – films made merely to promote this product or that person(s).  If you want to get on my bad side, try to validate and romanticize graffiti applied to other’s private property.  I taught a long time, and it’s been almost as long since I had to listen to so many self-righteous, self-impressed, self-centered, uneducated, immature idiots who want to believe their emotions validate their lack of intelligence.  Their art efforts are shallow, and, of course, self-aggrandized, and, are equally admired by a small peer audience of uneducated culture-babies who grew up on placebo intellectualism and Trix cereal.  You’ll love/hate their ironic rebellious insistence to be heroic “Individuals” by their ALL looking alike, making like things, reveling in their refusal to become adults, and speaking with the same lack of language skills…”  Now, back to “Exit…”: In addition to these points, this film becomes more interesting, personal, and pathetic as you get to know a few people much better, including the deluded O.C.D. guy behind the camera who eventually feels he should be in front of the camera.  This is when the film finds its footing… looking at the extraordinarily untrained and misguided camera man, and the only “street” artist of any interest, “Banksy”.  Let’s not get confused here (like so many in the film) – “Graffiti” isn’t an art form, it is an act.  Whether good or bad art is applied during this act is a separate issue.  (But I DO I hate people who make graffiti on private property, and, if they come to a tragic end, I don’t care.)  “Banksy” becomes interesting when he takes his efforts OFF private property and tries to weight it against others involved in Art, not pissing-out territories.  IF there’s a third character in this film it’s the insecure and greedy fashion conscious consumer culture ready to pounce on anything they are told might raise their status for a week.  “Exit Through the Gift Shop”, quite by accident, supplied the raw material for a good editor to make a huge indictment of almost everyone in the First World.

“Legally Blonde” (again, 2001):  Reese Witherspoon (the woman with THE pointiest chin in movie-babe history) is always good (watch how she changes her body language and voice as the passage of time takes her into more serious situations), and this generally predictable, light comedy does not disappoint.  Occasionally the story gets a little heavy-handed with the 70′s Feminism, but the majority is a funny, never quite believable, romantic, farcical piece of entertainment.  Relax & enjoy the lack of significance.  What the hell.  There’s nothing wrong with a good actress and wit.  Also starring Luke Wilson, Selma Blair, Matthew Davis, Jennifer Coolidge, and a cameo with Raquel Welch!  WOTO

“i, Robot” (2004):  It’s become a truism with me that actor Will Smith = comic book level action films.  And yes… I can point out an example that dents the truism.  However, I’m stating the Odds.  “i, Robot” – at least as a film – is a fun, action-packed, ballet of twisting perspectives and relentless energy that offers no material for thought.  The FX are acceptable to good, the attempts at emotional manipulation would be obvious to a 10 year old, the acting, dialog, and scenarios are TOTAL comic book… Hey, the entire thing IS comic book.  Go in brain-dead, enjoy the ride, and it’ll all be over in 114 minutes…  WOTO

”The Way Back” (2010): This film is to 1956’s book “The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom: by Slavomir Rawicz (which inspired the movie) what “One Hour in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” would be to “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.  It’s simply not enough.  I am not one of those “films are incapable of reaching the level of books” snobs, nor do I believe films need to slavishly attempt to reproduce a book’s words in camera images.  The trilogy “Lord of the Rings” is a great example of how each can stand on its own merits.  But… when a story is claimed to be true, an additional level of responsibility is required, and if that level does not have a fair chance of being reached the other medium should look elsewhere.  “The Way Back” falls SO short of “The Long Walk” – a story of such power you will NEVER forget it – it leaves you very unsatisfied.  I like Peter Wier’s previous films.  I was anxious to see this one.  Colin Farrell, Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris, Saoirse Ronan, Mark Strong, and Gustaf Skarsgard do great jobs.  The photography, sets, costuming and make up are all very good.  The movie is simply a shorthanded version of shorthand, and leaves you understanding you were not told nearly enough.  Read the book.

“My Favorite Wife” (1940):  Cary Grant, Irene Dunne, Gail Patrick, and Randolph Scott star in the romantic farce about a man whose wife was lost at sea, and years later remarries only to then learn she was not killed and now she’s back!!!  It’s predictable but fun screwball comedy you’ll enjoy when that’s your craving.  Directed by Garson Kanin.  Watch for their small son – he’s one of the previous stars from “The Little Rascals” (Scotty Beckett).  WOTO

“Mifune” (Danish, 1999):  This is NOT one of the Rip-you-to-pieces films to come out of the Dogma 95 film movement, but it does stay with the strict rules of no added light, hand-held camera, and no scoring.  This Dogma 95 movie is a romantic comedy… a sometimes gritty and weird romantic comedy… but in the end a predictable one.  Still, it keeps your attention, you care about the characters, the acting is very good, and the predictable is done in a unique manner.

“The Dark Knight” (again, 2009):  What I said last time (with new revisions): “Saw it last night, on a huge screen with mega sound system and blue ray tech.  First a response to the tech:  I’m not sold on super high def imagery.  It looks artificial.  I don’t see (or care to see) everyone’s pores when I talk to them, so why should I see them here?  It is imagery-detail on steroids.  I don’t need or want to be able to read every title of every book on every shelf behind an actor sitting in a library.  That’s distracting, not impressive.  Like soft-focus lenses, etc., if they are being used as a default setting, it gets tiresome and pointless.  It is a technology in love with itself.  As for the film:  I have VERY mixed feelings – generally negative from an artistic p.o.v., and positive from an acting p.o.v..  See this film ONLY if you’re in a brain-dead, passive mood.  Let it do the work.  Positive: The acting of Heath Ledger as the Joker, and, to a lesser degree, Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent.  Positive:  The design of environments, weapons, and machines.  Negative:  The relentless insistence on using a limited set of sound effects and camera tricks, until you hated them and winced every time they were again used.  Examples: the silly gruff (disguise-)voice used by Bruce Wayne as Batman, and the bass rumble-thunder used for everything from a car crash to a slap in the face to a ceiling light being turned off to a theoretical violent event yet to happen.  Also, you’ll see the never-ending, circling, swirling camera… it’s embarrassing, overused, and abused technique.  Also negative: Editing that seldom finished a scene.  Examples: the huge pile of money with the Chinese guy on top which was set on fire and then…. NOTHING.  We’re on to something else!  The two gang members given a broken pool cue, told they had to fight to the death, and then… NOTHING.  We’re on to something else!!  The film was FULL of these.  I think I know why this was done.  Two reasons: It was a long film, and, it was edited to get past ratings so the youngest of viewers could be included (to pay for a theater ticket).  This also explains why a high-action film (filled with people who (apparently) died during the perpetual war in Gotham City) never – NEVER – shed a drop of blood no matter how many bazookas, machine guns, bombs, and Batman shrapnels were fired at their bodies.  THIS is part of the aesthetic reason I question “high definition” imagery.  If it presents “realism on steroids”, and then edits the content to an unreal level, its credibility is confused.  The director and editor seemed artistically unaware of this contradiction, or, they just didn’t care.  “People want High Def, Blue Ray, whatever, because we’ve convinced them they should want it, so now we have to give it to them.”  The box office is the boss.  There were continuity problems (explosions that happened before the impact of vehicles, etc.).  Sadly, many actors were assigned nothing of substance.  All these great actors – Michael Caine, Maggie Gyllgenhaal, Christian Bale, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman… did little more than deliver lines they were handed.  Their careers prove this lack was not their fault.  It was the director and the writer, Christopher Nolan.  And, again by editing and the lack of a cohesive or resolved story, the easy way was taken to allow loopholes for the next “blockbuster” sequel.  “The Dark Knight” was a good example of Hollywood 2009.  It is no more sophisticated now than it was in 1930… the mentality remains… only the gizmos have changed.  It’s one more reason to become familiar with independent and foreign film makers, contemporary and past.”  This is action-packed, brain-dead, time-kill, which has its place in entertainment, but is not top shelf stuff.  WOTO

“Forgetting Sarah Marshall” (2008):  The hype on this one was a little too heavy for what it was.  Yes, this is another of the men-are-boys, gross-out, genital-jokes male-bonding improv comedies so common through these years, and it had its moments of hilarity, but overall, not so much.  There were long waits between laughs, let’s put it that way.  It wasn’t dislikable, it was just… okay.  WOTO

“Destination Tokyo” (1944):  You have to keep in mind the fact this film was made DURING World War II, so it has a decided point of view.  For those of you incapable of viewing history without your current politically-correct mindset, just skip it and save you’re your panties from wadding up.  Starring Cary Grant, John Garfield, and a large cast of character actors who would make it big after the war – especially in television – this is the story of one submarine crew given the task of sneaking into Tokyo Bay to gather information before the first American air attack on Japan.  The special effects are reasonable for 67 years ago, the characters are clearly “samples” of types of American Fellas, their interactions are intended to warm and rend the heart, the violence they receive is VERY cleaned up, but the dangers they face are not exaggerated.  “Destination Tokyo” was intended as a spirit-lifter for Americans now in their fourth year of WWII.  WOTO

“Invictus” (2009):  I’ve come to appreciate Clint Eastwood for his work behind the camera… but not this time.  As if history wasn’t powerful enough, he took it and Hollywooded it to death with lots of characters gazing off into the future, lights at the end of tunnels, ponderful moments galore, sweeping music slathered over damned near everything (all thanks to a relative of Eastwood’s…), 1-dimensional racists who suddenly come around, and waaaay too much Rugby playing for Rugby’s sake (or was this film created to sell in South Africa?).  Nor did this film challenge the abilities of Morgan Freeman or Matt Damon.  SOMEDAY, SOMEONE will make a POWERFUL film about Nelson Mandala.  Someday.

“The Astronaut Farmer” (2006):  This is a lightweight “American Dream” movie.  You know, the Little Man against The System, The Little Man following his dream, meeting with difficulties, meeting with crisis, finding himself at crossroads… does he give up, move on, die trying, or come to his senses?  It is NOT a challenging movie, nor is it fleshed out, well detailed, or edited with a good sense of time/timing, but some of the acting by Billy Bob Thornton, Virginia Madsen, and others is good… and, yes, there are also very one-dimensional characters.  It’s not an awful film, and I don’t hate “feel-good” flicks, but this is only a so-so result.  Go in expecting little, and enjoy what it has.  For a similar story, but with more of the right stuff, see “October Sky”.  WOTO

“I am Legend” (2007):  Cashing in on the seemingly endless Zombie craze, it is also a Sci-fi Disease Holocaust story.  Will Smith’s career giving you advance notice it is chocked full of action not depth.  The always-important crowd pleaser of special effects is here in truck-fulls, and some are very good, especially the visualization of a long-“deserted” New York City.  The conclusion is broadcast early, but the movie is entertaining enough to finish the ride.  Smith has a couple scenes that reach impressive, though his shifting sense of isolated realities of delusional hermit while being a clear-headed scientist is hardly believable.  This is closer to a 50’s sci-fi than something Existential like “The Road”.  WOTO

“The Man on the Eiffel Tower” (1949):  Charles Laughton is a detective.  Franchot Tone is a psycho-killer.  Burgess Meredith is a pigeon (and the director of this film).  They are in post-war Paris.  You’d think that would be enough to be interesting.  Hardly.  It’s simply a slow story with continuity problems, a weak look, messy dubbing and studio over-dubbing for some location shots.  It’s not a BAD film… it’s a highly mediocre film.  If you need to kill time, and relax on the sofa, choose something else.  WOTO

“The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer” (1947):  Starring Cary Grant, Myrna Loy, and Shirley Temple.  It’s a comedy, and once in awhile you’ll laugh, but for the most part the set-ups and the rhythm of the jokes are so expected it becomes something of a chore.  What offers relief are the few unexpected moments, and the 1947 scenery, sets, cars, costumes, airplanes, graphics, etc..  And, let’s face it, Shirley was ALWAYS cute and charming.  WOTO

“Mr. Majestyk” (1974):  A classic late 60’s/70’s “rugged individual who just wants to be left alone BUT if push comes to shove WATCH OUT!” flick with Charles Bronson.  This one is better than some.  It’s middling.  You know how it’s going to turn out, but it is pretty good fun getting there.  WOTO

“Fallen” (again, 1998):  This is a fun Psy-fi suspense drama full of murder and Evil incarnate.  Think of Satan as a Disease.  That’s all I’ll say.  Starring Denzel Washington, John Goodman, Donald Sutherland, James Gandolfini.  WOTO

“Ruthless People” (1986):  Perfectly 80’s style comedy about a well-meaning and very likable pair of kidnappers (Judge Reinhold & Helen Slater) who have a tiger of a hostage by the tail (Bette Midler), who has a husband (Danny DeVito) who wants her dead anyhow.  Funny, entertaining, and FULL of very cool furnishings by Memphis Design Group and their many spin-offs.  This is probably THE film for 80’s Mod design, perhaps followed by “Beetlejuice”.  None the less, this is wacky, witty, funny, sarcastic story made very enjoyable by the stars.  WOTO

“Secret Agent” (1936):  Starring a very young John Gielgud, Robert Young, and Peter Lorre, this Hitchcock spy film has more twists and turns than previous stories, and much more stylish Noir photography.  Though supposedly set in 1916 (mid-WWI), the look and the attitude are entirely pre-WWII.  Enjoyable, with some difficult English, German, and faux-Spanish accents.  WOTO

The Constant Gardener” (again, 2005):  Starring Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz.  This is a spy thriller and whodunit, set mainly in Africa.  An English diplomat begins to sense not is all as it seems in his life or that of his activist wife.  After a terrible event, the story moves backward and forward analyzing moments – only to find more and more to decipher.  This is a low key, dialog driven, generally interesting puzzle, with surprises and a resolution.  WOTO

“He Walked by Night” (1948):  Starring Richard Basehart, this is the true story of a sly killer moving amongst but completely detached from normal Los Angeles life in the early post-WWII years.  Watch for lots of characters actors from that era, and notice a very young Jack Webb as a forensics expert – who, ironically (?) is in this very “Dragnet”-like film that predates his television show by years.  WOTO

“Eyes in the Night” (1942):  Starring a young and lovely teen, Donna Reed, along with John Emery, Ann Harding, and Edward Arnold, this is a World War II espionage story with some pretty good whodunits and who’s-whos built in.  You WILL be manipulated and it IS fun… despite the fact it was VERY serious business in America at that time.  WOTO

“The Interpreter” (again, 2004):  Starring Sean Penn, Nicole Kidman, and Catherine Keener – actors I respect – they are the reason I acquired a film about which I’d heard nada.  It’s a conspiracy thriller.  It moves fast, stays interesting, allows you to believe you’ve figured it out and it’s now over – a number of times – and it then puts you right back on the roller coaster.  It isn’t as finessed as some in this genre, but is a perfectly great piece of one-time entertainment (or more, once you forget enough of the complex story).  Sean Penn owns the scenes.  WOTO

“Tropical Thunder” (2008):  Packed with stars you’ll be hard-pressed to recognize, this is a seriously funny comedy full of violence, foul-mouthedness, alpha-maleness, and just lots and lots of stupid, gross fun.  It is also full of witty “shots” taken at the film industry.  A group of actors can’t seem to get their “acts” together for a new film on Viet Nam a la Rambo, so the director, going on the advice of a well-known psycho ex-Nam Vet, takes the actors to Nam and drops them off in the jungle to reshoot the film using a radical new style.  It only gets funnier from here.  Towards the end, it loses some momentum, but you’re hooked, and you’ll see it through.  WOTO

“Rich and Strange” (1932):  Though not a fan, this is early Hitchcock, which I seem to prefer over his later work.  There are interesting visual ideas in this one which appear to be created with no purpose in mind other than a director playing with ideas.  None the less, this is a morality play mixing drama, comedy, and romance in odd proportions and quirky ways.  It’s simply an odd film – moving quickly at times and not at others.  WOTO

“Inception” (2010): Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen Page, Michael Caine, Tom Berenger, and others.  There was lots of talk about this film.  I remember there also being lots of talk about “The Matrix”.  I’ve seen both now, and although they were fun, they left me cold – feeling I had no investment in these characters or that scenario.  Special effects can be great, but isn’t it time for the geeks (making AND viewing these films) to realize it’s no substitute for fleshed-out characters and a good story?  A strong score (Hans Zimmer) is fine, but if it becomes overbearing, I begin suspecting the film is making up for something lacking…  Christopher Nolan (writer/director) is no hack, and “Memento” proved it.  “Inception”, for all its mazey fun and mental leaps, lacked soul.

“The Polar Express” (2004):  I have very mixed feelings about this animated movie.  It’s certainly no Pixar, and it’s not even up to Dreamworks.  Some of the design was WONDERFUL – the less realistic characters, the land & city scapes, the sense of light & color, the sounds, some of the action, machine designs, the explanations as to how Santa pulls off this yearly feat… but, some was AWFUL – the “Village of the Damned” main children’s faces (stiff and blind, as though there was nothing but cold clay under their skin), the music, the overuse of swirling perspectives, and some very miscast voices for some of the kids.  I’m very 50/50 on this one, with support for showing it to kids, but advising discriminating adults to skip Sony Imageworks – whose results are extremely spotty at best.  “The Polar Express” wanted so badly to be the next Christmas Classic… but it’s not.  WOTO

“The Yearling” (1946):  I really wanted to put this film in the category above… but one factor kept niggling at me.  First the plusses: unlike most Technicolor films that make me want to vomit up a stomach full of hard candies, this is absolutely beautiful.  BEAUTIFUL.  Better than most Hollywood gaudiness, frankly.  The story is good too – set in the wilderness of 1870’s Florida, we grow close to a self-sufficient small family who faces daily trials, losses, and glories.  Some of the scenes are very moving, scary, tense, subtle, funny, or sad.  Gregory Peck, Jane Wyman, and Claude Jarman Jr. are the talented central characters.  The film received lots of awards.  However… the characters must speak… and when they speak they Speak as High Trained, Classic Stage, Hollywood Hillbillies who cannot utter a word without the image of a director waving the script and yelling for them to “ENUNICATE that ‘Ya’ll reckon?” with Great Feeling!  EMOTE!  EMOTE!!  Make Shakespeare proud!’”  Since that style exists throughout the film, it always drags you right out of the backwoods hard-scrabble life and into a gilt theatre at the intersection of Broadway and Hollywood.  Gol dernit!  But, I’ll still recommend it for its film style and heart.  WOTO

4.

Not Quite So-sofa but not quite Crap

 

“The Time of Your Life” (1948):  Think of this as an inspiration source for the t.v. show “Cheers”, forty years earlier.  Originally a stage play by William Saroyan, this film keeps its roots deep in the stage, with very stylized, rapid fire dialog, and character entries and exits.  Quirkiness abounds and most of these visitors are fairly eccentric and entirely unexplained.  They just “are”.  William Bendix, James Cagney, his daughter Jeanne Cagney, Broderick Crawford, and a cast of character actors who would later become “household faces” (such as the woman who played “Mrs. Howell” on “Gilligan’s Island”) fill out this sometimes entertaining oddball of a film.  My complaint is it often rings hollow – actors in roles batting out snappy patter to another waiting actor.  WOTO

“Madonna – Truth or Dare” (again, documentary, 1991):  This is the concert tour film made by and for Madonna in 1990-1991 (though it has a very 1980’s feel about it).  There ARE glimmers of insight into what stardom does for and to people, but for the most part this is a self-indulgent vanity production coming out of what was then her still-viable money machine.  Would you want to be associated with her?  Unless you’re an autograph hound, I doubt it.  She’s immature, defensive, self-centered, lacks subtlety, is a mediocre singer, not the best dancer, has limited self-expressive interests, and very high maintenance.  I grew weary of her shtick, but was left feeling sad for her.  Her life was her creation – but look at it.  Would you REALLY want to be stuck there?  WOTO

“Into the Night” (1985):  This is a formulaic, full length 80’s MTV disco crime drama music video flick, but made just a little better by Jeff Goldblum and the most luminous Michelle Pfeiffer you’ll ever have the pleasure to see.  Expect guns, chase scenes, a love connection, and all the 80’s trappings: drum machines, wailing saxophones, ’59 Caddies, red Ferraris, big hair, the Mob(s) a la Miami Vice but in Los Angeles… the whole shtick. WOTO

“The Ruling Class” (British, 1972):  Starring Peter O’Toole.  It was the early 70’s.  Social classes and Absurdist/Surreal humor went together like Monty and Python.  This film is an epic example of the verbose, social upheaval lecturing of that time.  It is sometimes funny, sometimes dark, nearly always over-the-top, offers glimmers of insight, gets angry, and criticizes anyone “above” the middle class (in England)… but it seems incapable of deciding when it wants to stop, and begins frustrating after about the fifteenth false ending when you’re worn to a nub and totally OVER it.  This 2 hour and 34 minute film could easily be 90 minutes… but IT DON’T WANNA BE AND IT AIN’T GONNA BE, SO THERE!!  “The Ruling Class” is a period piece, was a harbinger of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”, and now you’ve been warned.

“Arsenic and Old Lace” (1944):  I’m SURE some people LOVE this film.  And, I am shocked to discover a film by Frank Capra I DON’T like.  It is a wacky, “single-set” farce of a comedy loaded on steroids… perfect for a stage play.  I also understand that this film was created in the midst of World War II, and everyone needed a laugh – even if it IS about killing !! – and even if only for an hour and a half.  This is a personal preference decision.  It’s too “comic book” for me.  However… in the middle of the film is a section SO EXQUISITELY lit and photographed, I could easily watch it again and again.  The old mansion is dark and various people are moving through the place with barely a sliver of light to be seen.  It is SO well composed and abstract, I was nearly shocked.  Visually, this is as sophisticated as it gets.  Few directors have achieved (or had the guts to present) such a high-brow effect.  Capra pulled it off.  WOTO

“Too Late the Hero” (1970):  And indeed, this film is VERY 1970.  It retains the 60’s style acting, characterizations, dialog, and heavy-handed Hollywood scoring somehow always available out in the jungle during World War II…  Starring Michael Caine and Cliff Robertson, this is a thinly veiled, conflicted discussion of the then heated Viet Nam War… why, the writers even – OOOOOPS !!! – included the phrase “long haired conscientious objector” … and put long-ish sideburns on these 1970, I mean, 1942 soldiers.  Yes, all the usual types are there: gung ho, crazy, macho, ironic, innocent, coward, and one or two who transform due to their experiences… then die or survive.  Whatever.  This is a period piece about 1970.  View it THIS way or not at all.

“Airforce One” (again, 1997):  Let your mind take a nap and the rest of you go on this roller coaster ride of a Schwarzenegger-style, steroidical, political thriller starring Harrison Ford, Gary Oldman, William Macy, and others.  The scoring is heavy-handed and relentlessly “dramatic”, the CGI is weak (but yes, this WAS 14 years ago), the acting by some supporting actors is mediocre at best, parts of the story line are NOW ironic… but as long as you don’t THINK – and you need an adrenaline buzz – this might suit your evening.  WOTO

“Bulldog Drummond Comes Back” (British, 1937):  Another in the suspense series created in England while another World War loomed.  These are all set in night fog, with foreigners, disguises, secrets, guns going off, riddles, and an occasional British (hardly funny) joke.  WOTO

“Bulldog Drummond’s Revenge” (British, 1937):  With war already on the horizon and intrigue in the air, Europe was on-edge over Germany’s attitude and behaviors.  This is reflected in such films expressing secrets, espionage, spy vs spy, lights going out, guns going off, and girls going gaga over handsome John Howard (“Bulldog Drummond”), the obsessively investigative character of this series.  His pal “Algy” is the “comedic” foil, his butler the straight man, and Colonel Nielson, his peer in Scotland Yard.  The plot is thin and linear, the characters flat and simple, but they are surrounded by style.  What more could we possibly hope for with the English?  WOTO

“Bulldog Drummond Escapes” (British, 1937):  Just this once, Ray Milland plays Bulldog Drummond in foggy England amongst killers and cons, counterfeiters and conniving kidnappers.  Milland has a jaunty American approach to the character… almost joyous he’s involved in whodunit gun play and skull crushing.  (See the next review also.)  WOTO

“The Shadow Strikes (Scourge of the Underworld)” (1937):  The Shadow is a secret crime fighter disguised as a suave man-about-town and successful lawyer.   (Think normal human but based on Batman.  Witty repartee and a story loaded with dead ends is the goal as its entertainment.  Don’t look too close at continuity, “night” that looks like high noon, and the C-grade acting delivering C-grade dialog.  WOTO

“Murder with Pictures” (1936):  I’m allowing for the fact I was TIRED as to why I fell asleep on the sofa before the whodunit ending came along… but this movie was also a slow moving murder mystery that, while I WAS awake, only entertained me with its Art Deco décor, architecture, clothing, and cars.  Let’s put it this way, I have no intention of watching it again for the “revealing ending”.  WOTO

“Fog Island” (1945):  Classic “suspects-invited-to-eerie-mansion-whodunit” murder mystery full of intrigue and greed.  Do the guilty get theirs in the end?  WOTO

“The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1934):  Though not a fan, this is early Hitchcock, which I seem to prefer over his later work… but that doesn’t mean I am fascinated by either.  This movie WANTS to be a fast-paced thriller, and it is not.  It drags.  And, you don’t like the characters that are intended as the good, innocent, righteous people.  They’re irritating, stupid, distant, cold, and extremely casual considering the scenarios.  Yes, they ARE British, but still …  Peter Lorre is about the most interesting person – as a bad guy – but again, no one is in any way fascinating or of depth.  WOTO

“Midnight Manhunt” (1945):  VERY average murder mystery with a “body, body, who has the body?” theme.  It’s combination of shadowy events, shticks, and mild humor.  WOTO

“The Shadow: International Crime” (1938):  You might think “snappy repartee” is easy.  Well, it’s not, and this one proves it.  Oh, it has its charm, but Lamont Cranston is no David Niven or 007 let alone a dazzling “The Shadow”.  Still, its a fun little crime mystery of little impact with a ton of GREAT Art Deco stuff to keep you occupied.  WOTO

“Mr. Moto’s Last Warning” (1939):  Starring Peter Lorre as Mr. Moto, this is standard fare pre-WWII uneasiness, with spy vs spy attempts to start and stop the beginning of European/North African war.  WOTO

“Murder by Television” (1935):  VERY standard whodunit murder mystery set in a mansion with a group of suspects, blah blah blah, starring Bela Lugosi.  What’s best about this film are the opening graphics, the Art Deco and Moderne interiors, the machine designs, and the entire barely-sci-fi discussion about the potential of “television” as a new medium.  Comedic relief, common at this time, was supplied by frightened bug-eyed blacks and shifty Confucius/Challie Chan-quoting Chinese servants.  WOTO

“A Walk in the Sun” (1945):  This is a strange one in the way its put together – with scrap book pages, cameos, introductions, storytelling songs, song lyrics, and narratives layered over a group of WWII soldiers who land in Italy and need to reach a farm house six miles away.  To save on budget (and probably shot in California) we travel with and only see this group of men who only “sense”, see smoke, or hear battles and the enemy – and if someone is shot (including by fighter planes), there is little or no blood, gore, or screaming death.  It is almost set up like a stage play musical… a surreal stage play musical.  At its core, this movie is about a group of average G.I. Joes who would much rather be home but must do their job.  WOTO

“Blast’em” (1992):  This is a vanity documentary… which means the people who wanted to be documented had a documentary made about them.  Pathetic, right?  Well, NOT if you’re them and you’re THAT convinced you’re deserving of more attention than anyone ever seems to give you and your “art”.  This is about some of the awful people who stalk the current stars and other faux news-worthy characters of Here Today / Gone Tomorrowland.  Paparazzi.  If YOU had a film made about you and your daily exploits but it showcased your whining, foul mouth, unprofessionalism, illegal behaviors, sneaky tricks, and self-centered self-righteousness, would YOU want it released to the public?  Doubt it.  But THAT is how ironically deluded and desperate these people were.  Long gone now, I’m sure.  I don’t even have the urge to remember their names or Google them to see who rightfully died at the hands of a fed-up person who’d been violated once too many.

“Ride, Rise, Roar” (documentary concert, 2010):  There are four components to this film: David Byrne, the musicians, the choreographers, and the dancers.  1) Byrne: seldom profound, but when he got close it was 35 years ago and they were called The Talking Heads.  Now he’s closer to a Las Vegas act than anything else, 2) the musicians generally followed his extensive directions given during rehearsals, and musically the songs were very weak compared to the originals, 3) the choreographers were interesting, but most of their results were clichéd and perhaps too much under the influence of Byrne, and 4) the three dancers danced their asses off, did a great job with what they were given, and hey, it was a paycheck.

“Wedding Crashers” (2005):  Owen Wilson, Vince Vaughn, Rachel McAdams, Isla Fisher, Christopher Walken, Will Ferrell.  All this talent yet a lo-so-so reaction?  ‘Fraid so.  The opening scene at a divorce meeting sets a great tone – Wilson and Vaughn are a tag-team of sweet bullshit.  Hilarious.  We then learn they crash weddings to pick up chicks as a vacation-away-from-work sport, and see them adapting like Lounge Chameleons to any and all groups.  Also good, but now losing its tempo.  Unfortunately, the film gets long and longer, predictable and even more predictable, until you’re finally saying “Let’s just get this over with”.  Skip the “uncorked” extended version.  Stay with the “rated, theatrical” version.  WOTO

“Less than Zero” (1987):  This is in many ways just a painfully long music video from the 80’s: movie scene (with drama), video, movie scene (with dancing), video, movie scene (with sex), video…  It is set amongst the then-stylish, pampered, upper class hi-skool kidz with wealthy parents in southern California – so, it’s decadent but visually interesting. “Less than Zero” is the story of idle time and recreational drug abuse gone bad. The subject was not news or unique movie material in 1987. Word. Andrew McCarthy and Jami Gertz TRY to act… honest they do… but they fail, especially Gertz. McCarthy has a few unique moments which caused me double-takes. There is only one person to watch: Robert Downey Jr., who effectively takes us down his dark, druggy, rabbit hole of a wasted life, and, with plenty of Irony (or insight), describes his future real life.  WOTO

“Best Laid Plans” (2009):  Alessandro Nivola, Reese Witherspoon, and Josh Brolin star in a plan-goes-from-bad-to-worse crime drama, and has many wonderful, unexpected turns in the story.  I also liked the acting of all involved.  Yet… due to the scoring, photography, and set decorating, I was left with an empty feeling similar to all of those pathetic music videos (Fast Food Snax Sound).  In fact, I’m willing to bet that the people behind the visualization of this film did or do such projects.  The scoring was cheaply manipulative and sometimes felt like the scene was photographed to justify the music.  The camera work and lighting had that self-conscious, artist-comes-first look of an immature photographer who doesn’t understand s/he is part of a team for a larger goal.  And, the set decorating was just retro-chic-hip embarrassing and full of mistakes… but, because “appearance” was more important than supportive content, mistakes be damned.  Full steam (hot air) ahead!

“Pirate Radio” (2010):  With actors including Philip Seymour Hoffman and Kenneth Branagh, and a subject close to my personal heart, I went ahead and purchased this dvd cold.  Yeh.  I don’t normally do that.  Know why?  I make mistakes.  This isn’t an awful film, and god bless ‘em, the actors did what they could… but what we have here is a weak script made too long about characters that don’t matter, with the usual compensatory attempts: period music smeared over profanity and nudity.  Apparently the same “creator” made “Love Actually” and “Notting Hill”.  You’re your judgments accordingly.  Me?  I won’t be seeing them.  WOTO

 

5.

“QUICK !   DUCK !!

It just hit the fan !!! 

RUN like the wind!!!!”

 

 

“The Atomic Brain” (1964):  You would think that a mid-1960’s, black & white, budget-starved, no-talent, near-nude mess of a silent sci-fi / teaser flik with dubbing and narration would be enough to put it in the Guilty Pleasure category.  Well, I would!  Sets made of cardboard, all the illumination done with one big spotlight, ideas stolen directly from “Frankenstein” (why, even the mad scientist is “Doctor Frank”!) and “Metropolis” (brain/soul transfers done via cardboard rings covering “just enough” of dead, naked women), and concepts like Continuity being entirely absent (!) SHOULD have this one right up there with “Plan 9 from Outer Space”… and yet… much of it is simply DULL.  Dull, dull, dull.  Yet again, I’m ambivalent.  How is it these freshly dug-up dead chicks can stand on their own in the atomic Brain-Transfer vault, and why did the mortician shave their pubic hair?  Hmmm…  WOTO

 “Black Girl” (“Borom Sarret”) (French/African, 1966):  Read any book about film, and this one is cited as a GREAT work.  Well folks, the King Has No Clothes.  A brain-damaged college freshman could’ve done better.  Here’s what the STORY tried to be: an African woman is hired as a child caretaker in Africa, and later follows the French family to France to continue working for them.  She doesn’t like it.  She complains a lot, thinks of herself as a slave, and eventually does something drastic.  I’m telling you this isn’t just a yawn… it is story full of plot holes, no character depth, no situational empathy (although I suspect viewers were EXPECTED to have strong feelings and side with the “poor girl”), continuity problems, and a motivational mess.  That’s not all.  The movie has TERRIBLE camera work, crappy lighting, editing by a monkey with scissors, scoring that makes no sense and has no subtlety, acting that just plain stinks, location shots that are perhaps the worst I’ve ever seen… I’m simply ASTOUNDED at the kudos given this terrible mess of a lousy film.  I can only surmise that in this case the “King has no clothes” Syndrome was the 1960’s politically correct social agenda in the Euro/American sphere for recognizing black/white equal rights – which caused it to be held high for its [possible] intentions when in reality it deserved to be tossed in the garbage can as a failed attempt.  No doubt a deserving film was ignored while all the attention was smeared upon “Black Girl”.

“Revenge of the Nerds” (again, 1984):  This mirror image “Animal House” wannabee is classically empty 1980’s fare.  Never mind we have a young John Goodman playing the role of a football coach, or Anthony Edwards as a supposed “nerd”, this is an insipid and seldom funny komedy ready to suck the life out of you.  Even the fact I went to the University of Arizona (where this was shot) couldn’t keep me interested in watching the BACKgrounds let alone the foregrounds.  Never mind there are a handful of upper and lower full frontal female nudity scenes (for those interested) – even the choice of who and what gets center stage is … well, up for debate.  Can you say “Rockets aimed at the South Pole”?  WOTO

“Bulldog Drummond’s Secret Police” (1939):  Some “Bulldog” movies are fun with good décor and such… but this one is dull, with pathetic “comedic” characters to what?… counterpoint some intense darkness and murders in a castle?  No, it’s simply something you must endure… Bulldog’s clumsy sidekick, the absent minded professor, the bitchy but lovable Aunt… blah.  WOTO

“Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet” (again, 1965):  What I wrote last time: “I nearly put this one in the “Run!” category.  It takes itself seriously, and even hired Basil Rathbone to “star” (a very sad gesture for him, after a solid movie career as “Sherlock Holmes”).  That’s its problem.  It tried to be “serious” but lacked the budget, creativity, professionalism, and artistry (not to mention a sense of humor) to pull it off.  I fell asleep.  However, I put it here because its “roots are showing”, and some of them are just cheezie enough to enjoy… the beehive hairdo of Marcia, the leg-grabbing Land Anemone, the Flying Monster, the stiff-as-papier mache Mountain Brontosaurus…”  What I wrote this time: “I fell asleep again.  Even Marcia’s hair couldn’t keep me awake.  I’ve never fallen asleep during “Plan 9 from Outer Space” or “Barbarella”… at least not that I remember.  RUN LIKE THE WIND!!!!”  WOTO

“Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women” (1968):  THIS movie was made FROM PIECES of the above movie, then re-released 3 years later!  Both versions were patchworked from yet a PREVIOUS sci-fi film I believe was made in the USSR!!  There is no mingling – only edited relationships – between the English speaking characters and the dubbed Russian (?) speaking characters in both “Voyage” flix.  So THIS one cuts OUT Rathbone and beehive Marcia, instead re-names the Space Program “Marcia”, and inserts Mamie van Doren and her bevy of beautiful babes in bell bottoms on the planet Venus.  Both have Venusian monsters (the rubber Godzillas the size of men, the Flying Monster (now a God called “Terra”), the stiff Bronto, the trusty robot (but this time meets a different end), the Leg Grabbing Venusanemone, the VERY Jetsons-style flying car the crew uses on the planet, and some of the same landscapes.  This time it’s the Venusaginas – complete with 60’s bleached blond hairdos, heavy cat-eye makeup and false eyelashes, sea shell bras, and hip hugger bell bottoms that threaten the Cosmo-Astronauts.  THIS version kept me awake.  It’s still awful, but in that good way.  Oh, and it was narrated by Peter Bogdanovich!!!  …  when he was still starving, I assume.  WOTO

“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (again, 1984):  Unlike the superb interpretation done earlier (in 1958) with Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman, this 80’s version with Tommy Lee Jones and Jessica Lange is equal to a video tape exam of freshmen in a college Acting 101 course – where dialog and gestures are relentlessly overdone and “theatrical”.  I simply could NOT get through it again.  Don’t bother.  See the earlier version.  WOTO

“Sherlock Holmes: The Sign of Four” (British, 1932):  Other than the occasional Art Deco outfit or sofa, this is one of the DULLEST movies I have ever seen in my ENTIRE LIFE!!  It has NO redeeming value.  I can’t even remember a scene about which is worth concocting a joke.  Skip it.  WOTO

“Not Another Teen Movie” (2001):  If you put your brain in neutral and let this flick take you on its ride, you end up feeling like Mel Brooks sat next to you on a faulty roller coaster and talked the entire time about how funny his farts are.  Join a cluster of 100% stereo-steroidal-typical California hi-skool kids, their teachers, coaches, and parents.  This should insult-yet-bore just about everyone who’s delicate or likes actual humor, and for the rest of ya’ll, your constant yucking – and I mean YUCKing [it up] – should leave you giggling followed by feeling especially vulnerable and empty.  Quick!  Reach for another beer!!  Redeeming qualities?  Some pleasant exposed skin pulled tight over large plastic bags of semi-natural feeling gel.  WOTO

“The Best Man” (2000):  Why ANYONE titles their film after another of the same title is beyond me, but we made the huge mistake of renting THIS instead of the one we sought (made in 1964) (which has YET to be seen!).  THIS 2000 version is one big piece of cliché crap aimed at a hopelessly tee-vee oriented audience who wouldn’t know bad acting or scripting if it, you know, bit ‘em on the ass.

“The Moonstone” (British, 1934):  Possibly the dullest British suspense movie of all time.  SO lame, SO dull, SO British, I wasn’t sure it was over until the lame, dull, trumpeting “It’s over!” music began.  Ab so lute ly pointless.  WOTO

“Divine Trash” (again, 1998):  This is a documentary about John Waters’ films, from the beginning in 1966 up to his work on “Pecker”, but most of the time is spent on “Pink Flamingos” and his star, “Divine”.  Most of Waters’ films are pure junk – adolescent, tee-hee, gross-out junk – but they came along at the “right” time in history, and the rest, as they say, IS history.  They have no redeeming value except to allow less secure film makers a precedent.  They are incredibly poorly made.  The visuals, audios, etc. are simply amateurish.  If anything, Waters’ rise to in-famous was a King-Has-No-Clothes, We’re-All-Stoned, Thumbs-upism.  All of his early work took him to what became the closest to a well-made look (better budget) but retained some of his down and dirty ‘tude:  “Hairspray”.  After that film, and still with a better budget, he again seemed to lose sight of balancing ideas with results.  “Serial Mom” was okay…, “Pecker” was a dull attempt to be Woody Allen, “Cecil B. Demented” was pointless.  John Waters is an insightful, interesting, intelligent man – apparent if you see him in interview – which is the case here – but little of that is evident in most of his work.  There are people who come along and do what they do.  What they do is of little or no intrinsic value, but their actions give the “go ahead” for those who WILL create things of value.  WOTO

“Beautiful Losers” (Documentary, 2008):  First of all, I HATE “vanity films”.  You know what they are – films made merely to promote this product or that person(s).  Second, if you want to get on my bad side, try to validate and romanticize graffiti applied to other’s private property.  Third, I taught a long time, and it’s been almost as long since I had to listen to so many self-righteous, self-impressed, self-centered, uneducated, immature idiots who want to believe their emotions validate their lack of intelligence.  Their art efforts are shallow, and, of course, self-aggrandized, and, are equally admired by a small peer audience of uneducated culture-babies who grew up on placebo intellectualism and Trix cereal.  In an especially pathetic move to create associations, they include film maker Harmony Korine as though he is “one of them”.  (After all, it’s not WHAT you know, it’s WHO you know.)  You’ll love/hate their ironic rebellious insistence to be heroic “Individuals” by their ALL skateboarding, looking alike, making like things, reveling in their refusal to become adults, and speaking with the same lack of language skills.  You’ll want to choke the “LIKE” and “YOU KNOW” right out of them.  Oh, and just in case that doesn’t bring you over, one of them dies and the others are given the chance to cash in on THAT emotion too… complete with romantic music sprayed on the surface of their fallen comrade.  I nearly puked.

“Dune” (2000):  David Lynch tried it.  John Harrison tried it.  Please everyone, give up!  And THIS version – with space aliens from other planets speaking in British, American, Irish and god-knows-where-else-from-Earth accents; aliens who, when in trouble, say “May Day!”; aliens who all look like humans from either Parisian fashion runways, transvestite clubs, or the Flintstones; aliens who seem to have no culture of their own and instead spent all their time ripping off our ancient Egyptians, Chinese, Himalayans, and Art Deco suavies – this film – FOUR hours in length – will suck every drop of precious life fluid from you. I gave up after two hours. The mediocre-to-awful special effects, the idiotic lighting, the unsubtle scoring, and the bravura dialogs added to the torture of faux-sci-fi. Wait! Did I mention their symbols that look like ancient English coats-of-arms, Middle Eastern mosaics, and Nazi war glitz? How about the minarets, cave dwellings, cliff dwellers, and 2001 Space Odyssey architecture? Oh, and don’t forget the space ships that look like House Flies! If ANY kudos go to ANY person(s) involved, they’d have to be to those who designed some of the costumes and some of the city views. IF.  WOTO

“Born in East L.A.” (1987):  Starring Cheech Marin.  He never had much of a career in the first place, including with “Chong”, but this is simply pathetic… it’s one long set of short, bad shticks taped together with the belief that all non-Latinos are stupid or evil, and all illegal aliens are angels without wings.  If that’s not bad enough, it’s VERY Eighties/MTV in its look.  Run away!  Run like the wind!  WOTO

“Nancy Drew: Reporter” (1939):  Bonita Granville, the buxomiest actress to play a teenager in all of moovie history, has the role of Nancy Drew, the perky, troublesome, but oh-so-cute cub news reporter who gets her big nose and other pokey-outies into tight spots.  This is pure pap.  Hollywood had no idea how to use kids in films during the second half of the Thirties.  Everyone was incredibly stagy, phony, polished to a glossy sheen, and empty.  It was a bad time for entertainment using the under-aged.  WOTO

“The Final Countdown” (1980):  Holy crap.  This is SO bad it was fun to watch… and yet very painful… and will be a fun review… yet be very painful.  When you don’t recognize a single name in the intros – not the director, not the production company, not the film company – NADA – that’s a hint it will be either an interesting Indie film or… pure crap.  This was made in 1980.  Indies were rare except for angry experimental films taking pot shots at the Establishment… and THIS film is about the Navy, okay?  1980.  Reagan was just elected and the military was going through a build up but still wearing the bandages of Viet Nam.  When you recognize most of the actor’s names in the intro – and they are all actors “on their way out” – passé, old, fat, whatever Hollywood decides is no longer a cash cow – you know this will be a disaster [of a] film.  Still, you have to see for yourself.  You have to slow down to see if anyone in this accident is dead by the side of the road.  For the movie, you hope those watching with you have a sense of humor, because you’re going to shoot off your mouth – A LOT – at least I do.  (DON’T invite me to your house.  You’d hate me.)  Here’s the story:  It’s 1980, Kirk Douglas is the commander of the U.S.S. Nimitz, and they are out on maneuvers.  Status q     uo all around… UNTIL this huge ship and all its crew are sucked through a big, screaming, tacky hole of swirling bad effects… and they find themselves 39 years in the past.  December 6th, 1941 to be exact.  Of course it takes them a long time to accept the idea.  The Jack Benny show on their radio isn’t enough.  This isn’t some sort of elaborate joke or test planned for them?  No.  The clues begin to add up.  It’s true.  They’re in The Past!  Now, here’s the moral dilemma: they’re in the Pacific, they know war history, and they CAN go after the Japanese planes and ships headed towards Pearl Harbor.  They CAN CHANGE HISTORY… but, SHOULD THEY?  I’m not going to tell you the ending.  Try to come up with the cheapest, most chickenshit script conclusion you can, and you’ll be close.  Okay, the story sucks.  Is that it?  No!!  There is a REASON these actors – Kirk, Martin Sheen, Katherine Ross, James Farentino and many others were hired: they were cheap.  And, they were cheap because they were seldom good in the first place.  (And, I might add, seeing this on blue-ray dvd did NOT help their causes, even from a physical appearance p.o.v.!)  Then there’s the scoring:  THE most inappropriate, loud, marching band meets The Exorcist meets Top Gun meets Tubular Bells meets soap operas meets a monkey with a conductor’s stick “music” I’ve heard in way too not long enough ago.  Continuity?  Shaky.  Realism?  Not in the special effects, not in the bullets hitting bodies, not anywhere EXCEPT in the sky.  If you are interested in 1980’s and 1940’s aircraft, the crew who shot the aerial footage was the aberration on this project.  They were great.  If you like the U.S.S. Nimitz, you’ll like watching that big floating city of a ship.  But, if you look for a good story, good writing, good music, good make up, good acting, good special effects, good logic, good character development, good ANYTHING ELSE other than pictures of planes in the air, man have you come to the wrong place.  THIS MOVIE SUCKS from start to finish.  Like I said:  See it with friends because the ONLY pleasure is treating this thing like a sideshow geek (which is no longer acceptable), yelling and laughing at the screen for an hour and a half.  It will release the tension of baddititty.

“The Blind Side” (2009):  Starring Sandra Bullock.  Apparently, Bullock wouldn’t know a piece of crap script and bad director if they both bit her on the ass at the same moment.  Oh, wait!  They DID!!  This is the most formulaic, Hollywood-shtickesque, predictable pile of day-old clichés I have encountered in quite some time.  It’s insulting to film-lovers, it’s insulting to whites, blacks, athletes, southerners, big people, tiny people, and… anyone else who comes to mind.  Best Actress nomination?  Well, it’s true she looked liked a genius next to every other untalented face on that screen, but no, Oscar OR Golden Globe worthy?  No.  Kathy Bates?  She had a minor role towards the end.  She walked THIS paycheck to the bank in her sleep.  I can’t say enough bad about this thing.  It was the Worst of Disney meets After School Special with a couple cuss words thrown in for that “gritty touch of reality”.  You know, “street cred”?  Pathetic.  Look… this movie is based on true events.  It COULD be one hell of a story… but, it was put in the wrong hands – both in front of AND behind the camera.  “The Blind Side” was doomed from the start.  Awful, and, uh, did I already say PATHETIC?

“True Lies” (1994):  When I’m in the mood for interesting, action-packed, sarcastic, witty violence that demands I suspend my disbelief, I go to Arnold.  Schwarzenegger.  The actor, not the politician.  He had a great track record for a reliable entertainment product… except this thing directed by James Cameron.  It is supposed to be interesting.  It’s not.  Witty.  Not.  Funny.  Not.  Action packed.  Yes, but like a comic book missing the occasional page.  Violent.  Yes, but ditto the above.  Its continuity is a mess, it is awkward, ill-conceived, and just plain STUPID.  141 minutes of STUPID.  Don’t you be like me.  WOTO

“Better Off Dead” (1985):  Great film if you’re a special eleven year old and don’t quite understand television sit-coms or laff tracks yet.  This disaster of an 80’s teen shtick – think “Happy Days” a decade later – lead by John Cusack – is the worst, most clichéd, tired piece of crap I’ve had to face in a long time… and no, my wife and I could NOT get through it.  We have lives – and the clock ticks for one and all.  The one thing I’ll give it:  the TITLE is accidentally perfect.  WOTO

“Where the Wild Things Are” (2009):  Let’s establish something:  I had never read the book – I didn’t even know the story – so I approached this movie as another movie ONLY – NOT a book and NOT childhood nostalgia.  This movie has nothing to offer beyond the frantic behavior of a disturbed child and a lot of special effects (of course).  CONTENT within this story is nearly non-existent.  It is boring, too long, and pointless.  The characters are irritating at best.  My wife, who apparently read the book to her children, was extremely disappointed in the movie, though for reasons I cannot address.  After it was finally over, she went upstairs, retrieved her copy of the book for me, I read it (in about 2 minutes), and was further baffled.  For all of you who adore this book (or what it has become in your nostalgic memories), I must say I found nothing interesting in the book either, and I was left wondering why anyone liked it or the movie.

“Children of the Damned” (1963):  This is the sequel to “Village of the Damned”, which I have up in my “Easily Worth Two Hours” category.  Sequels hold about 25% the quality of the original, and this is no exception.  I’d never seen this one before, and although I love the photography and lighting, it was a watered-down, hardly surprising, blatantly Cold War-based thriller that managed to go nowhere interesting.  See “Village”.  Skip “Children”.  WOTO

 

6.

“Say WHAT?”

 

 

“The Saddest Music in the World” (2004):  It’s the early 1930’s, and the Great Depression is in Winnipeg Canada.  Isabella Rossellini plays a legless beer baroness who decides to hold an international competition for the saddest song in the world.  All entrants must come to Winnipeg – i.e., it’s a publicity/money-making stunt.  Well, people DO arrive and perform their music in a “dueling banjo” sort of format.  This is a visually quirky and unique film that offers up characters who should be interesting but aren’t.  I gave up on it after about an hour.  I loved looking at it, the story had occasionally dark but funny moments, yet the people and the overall movement laid there flat and dull.  WOTO

“In the Loop” (British, 106 minutes, 2009):  One hundred and six minutes… really?  Although I found it sometimes witty, it had the feel of a television show in the spirit of “The Office” but on amphetamines and lasting at least four hours.  Maybe it was just me… I was tired… fact is, I fell asleep during their insanity.  When I woke, it was still going… and going.

“The Swimmer” (1968):  Burt Lancaster stars as a man who seems just a little “off” somehow, and when he decides to cross his well-to-do county by swimming through all of his wealthy friends backyard pools, his beliefs and delusions (?) are slowly revealed.  This is an fascinatingly oddball film that keeps you watching as you wait to discover who is right, wrong, or out of their mind.  Production values lean towards that late 60’s tee-vee/low budget look, with an overly melodramatic score by Marvin Hamlisch, and directed by Frank Perry.  Watch for a very young Joan Rivers playing a straight bit part, Janice Rule, Kim Hunter, lots of character actors, and a scorching young beauty – Janet Landgard.  Do NOT read the dvd box – it gives away too much.  You want to go for the ride… even when you have no clue where you are!!

“Vampyr” (German, 1931):  After first viewing:  By Carl Dreyer, famed director of 1928′s “The Passion of Joan of Arc” (which I LOVE).  Hoping that ANY other film of Dreyer’s would match the quality of “…Joan” seems unfair, and “Vampyr” IS interesting…I’m just not sure what to DO with it.  The vampire is a VERY illusive character in this film…and I like that idea, which creates more uncertainty and suspicion, but it was also vague, leaving me befuddled.  I appreciated the camera work, lighting and “fog”, music, extensive use of double exposures for an out-of-body quality, the idea of shadows independent of their “host” source, and the acting of one woman (name unknown), who was bitten.  With no makeup or pointy teeth, she gives a truly scary interpretation of evil infecting a human.  (THIS scene was equal to the quality of “Passion…”)   I need to watch this one again.  WOTO

And,

After second viewing:  Well… for me the story is clearer but not clear, and it IS creepy at times, but slow and often dull.  It goes almost nowhere, and leans towards a suggestion of surrealism more than expressionism, etc..  Unique camera tricks kept me more interested than the story or most of the acting.  Scoring was good, lighting demanded your constant suspension of disbelief (there was no “night” all night long…), and, by no fault of Dreyer, I watched a KINO copy, which was rough, unrestored, faded, and oddly enough, used sound sometimes and subtitles others.  Language is German, and subtitles, though in English, are in an awful Ye Olde Deutschland font nearly impossible to read in the flash of a subtitle.  This is a film that has a certain place in a niche of history, but is not that interesting a work in and of itself in 2011.  WOTO

 

7.

“Guilty Pleasures (Okay, you caught me!)”:

 

“The Violent Years” (1956):  A gang of tight-skirted, lipstick-wearing high school senior chicks savvy beyond their tender years slink out at night to create havoc, crime, and death in their sleepy but increasingly concerned burg.  This is one heavy-handed morality tale that does not pretend to be anything else – which is part of why I like it – zero subtlety in this cross between a drive-in movie filler and an 8mm classroom edu-reel.  Marvelously bad in absolutely ALL possible ways.  WOTO

“The Wild Ride” (1960):  This is a VERY early Jack Nicholson film in which he plays a teenager… because he IS a teenager!  This is one crazy scene, man!  Can you dig the beat?  Where’s your rod?  Cool it man, there’s the Fuzz!  This C-grade drive-in fodder is SO FULL of jazzy bongos and flutes, way out kitty kats in beach combers, and flat-topped, duck-tailed top dogs, it’s waaaay out, Daddy-O.  Crazy pops!   WOTO “The Wild Ride” (1960):  This is a VERY early Jack Nicholson film in which he plays a teenager… because he IS a teenager!  This is one crazy scene, man!  Can you dig the beat?  Where’s your rod?  Cool it man, there’s the Fuzz!  This C-grade drive-in fodder is SO FULL of jazzy bongos and flutes, way out kitty kats in beach combers, and flat-topped, duck-tailed top dogs, it’s waaaay out, Daddy-O.  Crazy pops!   WOTO

“My Favorite Brunette” (1947):  Full of stars (and inside jokes about them), this Bob Hope vehicle is no better than anything else he made, but I watched it for one, maybe two reasons: 1) Dorothy Lamour, and 2) late 1940’s cars, fashion, and décor.  No, I don’t especially like the late 40’s look, so 2) Dorothy again.  However, one revelation came to me: it’s clear Woody Allen learned much of his physical comedy from Hope… and yet, I still like Allen.  WOTO

“The Amazing Transparent Man” (1960):  Yes, this is classick drive-in movie fodder – recorded with no finesse, poor acting, continuity problems, you name it, but it’s a good example of Cold War and Atomic paranoia (though so naïve IT is amazing!), and of course there’s a buxom femme fatale in the mix.  Personally, the 1959 Buick convertible they drive everywhere is the star – with THE best tailfins of any car during that gloriously desperate year in Detroit.  WOTO

“Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome” (1947):  There’s nothing super special about this one, but I have a soft spot for period Noir films.  “Gruesome” is played by Boris Karloff, which is fun.  There’s this GAS, see?  And it freezes people, and then….  WOTO

“The Quick and the Dead” (1995):  To enjoy this film, I expect you’re required to already love those C-grade Spaghetti Westerns of the 1960’s, since this blatantly “retro” film is entirely dependent upon those gloriously operatic Westerns filmed in Italy nearly 50 years ago.  Instead of Clint Eastwood we get Sharon Stone, instead of Eli Wallach we get Gene Hackman.  One out of two isn’t bad.  There are some GREAT UGLY supporting characters in “Quick…”, wonderfully over-romanticized camera work, intentionally silly CGI, but also lots of useless material that only distracts from the purity of a cult film – which should have one goal from which it never veers.  Expect no scoring even close to the quality of Ennio Morricone.  “The Quick….” pales next to the originals, but has its own level of funky fun.

“Child Bride” (1938):  This is truly an awful film, but it’s one of those “car wreck” movies where you must slow down and stare.  Set in Hill Billy hills and hollers, this is about people who ain’t knowed no better, and the mens folkses who marry little girls.  You’ll see dirty old coots kissing 10 year old girls, killing one t’other, and all sorts of goddawful bad dialog turned worse with bad acting.  It’s really pretty funny, despite the repulsive ideas.  Why, you’re even “treated” to the “funny” old phrase “I figgered there wuz a nigger in the woodpile somewhere!”  When I say CAR WRECK, I MEAN CAR WRECK!  WOTO

The Devil’s Cabaret” (c. 1930, color, a film short):  Think of “The Devil’s Cabaret” as “Vaudeville’s Busby Berkeley goes straight to Hell and does a show for Satan”.  Oh my god.  You’ll get rapid “fire” bad Hades jokes, lots of dancing Flappers and Ballerinas, interesting sets, costumes, and sight gags.  It’s SO bad it’s great – and they knew it.  Bonus fact: the man who plays Satan would [in a few years] become “Ming the Invincible” in the Flash Gordon serials.  I’m sure he felt better about that.  WOTO

“Dick Tracy vs Cueball” (1946): Your first thought will be “Why did they choose this guy to represent the cartoon strip character?”  This will also be one of your last thoughts.  In between, for 62 minutes, you’ll get mild, formulaic Noir on the cheap, with the plucky young lad, the feisty blonde girlfriend, the dedicated detective sidekick, the self-involved Mayor, a cast of shifty characters with just a pinch of cartoonishness to them, and some good Art Deco and Art Moderne decor.  You’ll see continuity mistakes a blind man couldn’t miss… but what the heck, relax, enjoy, and go for the ride… in a big, black sedan.  WOTO

“Gold Diggers of 1937” (again, 1937):  You watch “Gold Digger” Depression era movies for two things: the amazing Busby Berkeley choreographies, and, the Art Deco sets.  The stories are dopey, they are (shudder) musicals, the acting is poor, the ideas kitschy and sometimes insulting, etc..  No, you WATCH this series of films to WATCH them and nothing more… but the watching is fun.  WOTO

“Dick Tracy Detective” (1945):  Your first thought will be “Why did they choose this guy to represent the cartoon strip character?”  This will also be one of your last thoughts.  In between, for 61 minutes, you’ll get mild Noir on the cheap, with the plucky young lad, the feisty blonde girlfriend, the dedicated detective sidekick, the self-involved Mayor, and a cast of shifty characters with just a pinch of cartoonishness to them.  You’ll see continuity mistakes a blind man couldn’t miss… but what the heck, relax, enjoy, and go for the ride… in a big, black sedan.  (If this “review” sounds like the movie two above, you’re right.  It does.)  WOTO

“Chained for Life” (1951):  Can Siamese twin women find happiness in Life, Vaudeville, and Romance?  It’s a complicated world that only gets more confusing as the story drags its four legs along…  Using real Siamese twins and a cast of real Vaudeville acts (this movie IS a Vaudeville act within itself!), we are asked to review the issues and “help” a Judge salve his soul as he searches for wisdom.  Expect poor production, poor sets, poor dialog, super-poor acting… well, the entire thing is POOR, but it’s like driving by the roadside accident – ya just gotta slow down and stare.  WOTO

“Gambling with Souls” (1936):  This is a wonderfully poorly made 30’s Morality Play about women who WANT too much and where it leads them.  Told in flashbacks, we follow one woman from a life of ease (during the Great Depression) into greed into gambling into liquor into prostitution into blackmail into …   If only she herself had seen THIS movie!!!  WOTO

“Love and a .45″ (again, 1994):  This is a Pulp Fiction spin-off with an amoral couple running and hiding out in the open across the countryside, thinking they are the new Pop culture Bonnie and Clyde.  The characters are one-dimensional, the actors do a good job within those limits, the action – though cartoonish – is tense, the overall feel is intentionally unreal and artificial, the violence is out there on the edge, and Rene Zellweger continues to hold top position for White Trash Babe of All Time.  Though not equal to “Natural Born Killers”, this IS a dark-funny, over-the-top violent poke at our media culture.  WOTO

“Desperado” (1996):  In the 60’s, everyone wanted to make the next Spaghetti Western.  In the 1990’s, everyone wanted to make the next “Pulp Fiction”.  Well, here you have both – a pulpy Burrito Western.  Starring pretty boy Antonio Banderos, along with Salma Hayek, Steve Buscemi, Cheech Marin, Quentin Tarantino, and lots of other character actors, this is a Mexican SplatFest.  Turn off your brain and go for this lengthy feeling Kill-a-Thon south of the border.  WOTO

“Plan 9 from Outer Space” (again, 1959):  I don’t know how you could’ve gotten this far in life and still not know about “Plan 9”.  Created by Edward Wood Jr., a married transvestite (who also did the film “Glen or Glenda!?”), this is at first glance just another poorly made, back-alley, D-grade sci-fi moovie.  However, our culture has decided it is The Very Worst Film EVER MADE, and now uses it as the Icon of Ineptness.  I’ve seen plenty of bad films, but this one challenges you to take out a score sheet, and try – just TRY – to list all the mistakes and bad decisions.  You could spend your life – as some people with no lives seem to have done – trying to do exactly this.  “Plan 9 from Outer Space” IS an Icon, a Lesson, a Sport.  Sadly, this was not Ed’s intent, nor did he live to see it reach this odd, Top Category status.  (Nor did Bela Lugosi, whose last role was in this film.  He died of illness and morphine addiction before Ed began assembling clips which became the basis of “Plan 9”.)  Ed died drunk, essentially alone, feeling defeated and ignored.  Knowing this, it is with mixed emotions I watch this true disaster of a movie.  WOTO

“Our Daily Bread” (again, 1934):  By King Vidor.  This is a WONDERFUL American Depression Era propaganda film.  It is blatant in promoting Socialist/Communist concepts, and degrading Democracy.  It has fine period photography, dialog, and other noble “Salt of the Earth” presentations.  This is SUCH fun for its naïve, simplistic, idealism.  Acting is weak, but who cares?  Its heart – and it DOES have heart – was in the right place, even if its mind was not.  It represented much of what was on the minds of the American public at that time – economically, politically, socially, and morally.  Knowledge of the era helps you appreciate what and why things are presented as they are.  It is a shallow but very rich period piece… an oddly satisfying film I’ve enjoyed repeatedly.  WOTO

 

8.

“This isn’t a “Film”, but I don’t know where else to put it”:

 

“Boardwalk Empire” (2010):  HBO Television, Episode One, directed by Martin Scorcese, starring Steve Buscemi.  Set in 1920 Atlantic City, this is about Prohibition and the forming of the Mobs.  Though not quite a “film” in itself, it is a 75 minute look at that era – BEAUTIFULLY photographed, with sets and costumes you don’t doubt for two moments.  Yes, things ARE a little too clean at times…  This was good enough I would – if I had cable t.v. – tune in.  Since I don’t, I will probably buy the dvd set when available.  WOTO

“Muhammad Ali” (documentary, 1989):  This is an hour long look at his career.  Only a die-hard fan of boxing or Ali would want to see this.  The sport of Boxing is only interesting when viewed as a tactical process throughout all 15 rounds, for example.  For this reason, this “highlights” story is of limited interest to a fan.  WOTO

“Paris, Je T’Aime” (2006):  A challenge was made to directors: “You have two days to make a film about Paris.  It can be no longer than five minutes.  We have divided the city into neighborhoods.  Choose one, assemble you team, and make a movie.”  If nothing else, this was an intellectual, technical, and artistic challenge for those involved.  Asking film directors to do tackle this concept is like asking novelists to write a poem.  Character development and a narrative story in FIVE MINUTES?  Possibly impossible.  It is fair to expect you’ll like some very much, and others will leave you confused or apathetic.  I found most of them interesting for the reasons mentioned above.  Do NOT enter this “movie” like a movie.  Enter it more like a rack of postcards.  WOTO

“Rex Steele – Nazi Smasher” (    ):  This is a student film, animated and scored at N.Y.U..  It has a funky, retro-American feel and sound with a Japanese look.  It is short, fun, clichéd, and intellectually unchallenging.  This was essentially a formal and technical exercise.  WOTO

(Five films):  “D-Day”, “Surrender in the Pacific”, “Invasion of Poland in 1939 by the German Army”, “Fury in the Pacific”, and “The Battle for the Marianas” (Documentaries, 2008):  Footage of World War II, made during the war for American military and civilian audiences.  It is a combination of morale raising and harsh reality, marching music and burning bodies.  It is what it was.  WOTO

“Cage/Cunningham” (Documentary,    ):  John Cage and Merce Cunningham – two mighty important people in the American Modernist movement 1930’s-1980’s.  Music, and Dance.  Additional interviews with Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Nam June Paik, Frank Stella, and many others.  This is NOT an intro course into Modernism or Cage or Cunningham.  This hits the road running.  Start somewhere else if these names mean nothing or little to you at this point.  Trust me.  If you DO already have some background, this is an oddball but interesting look at two very simple yet complicated men / artists… and life long partners.

“911 – In Plane Site” (doc.?, 2004):  Sometimes I haunt junk stores and pawn shops looking for obscure films… and that’s how I found this “documentary”.  It is about the attacks on September 11, 2001, and, by using and abusing film, rhetoric, half-ideas, and literal fast-talk, it attempts to convince us that EVERYTHING we understand about the 9-11 murderers is not just up for question, but (like ALL conspiracy nuts), is WRONG.  However, don’t get ME wrong… I am not saying 100% of what is presented and asked is insane.  I’d say 50% is insane, 40% is improbable, 9% is iffy, and 1% has enough validity that it should require further independent investigation.  This film has all the classic tactics of someone trying to dance and shove you down their path, and it’s fun to dissect their methods… but that aside, the 1% was enough for me to nod in agreement that more needs to be known.  WOTO


 

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Boop oop ee Don’t!

August 14, 2011 by , under Films.

My wife and I watched a double feature last night.  We’ve become
interested in 1930′s Hollywood films censored during the Great Depression.

“The Divorcee” (1930):  Norma Shearer stars in this censored
Hollywood morality tale.  Set BEFORE the Great Depression
crashed down on everyone (1929) but made FOR the real
Depression audience, this is the story of a woman who,
finding her situation inconvenient, sets out to “live”
all she thinks she’s missed.  It’s most amazing in one
way: the costuming and the sets by Cedric Gibbons.  This
melodrama has great Art Deco everywhere you look… even
the people are dancing in geometric gestures, revealing gowns,
dramatic poses, and risqué life styles.  I found Shearer fascinating
to watch for her odd beauty and ability to use her body as sculpture.”

Hollywood was at odds with the censorship board.  As is usually the case, a bad economy creates an environment – nearly a religion – of conservatism and the reevaluation of life styles.

Sound familiar?  It should.

Hollywood was trying to make films that might sell while the censors were trying to cut out anything that would!  Push, pull, push, pull.  Film makers fought back by finding loopholes in ever-increasing guidelines.

 

Even the Fleischer Brothers cartoons starring “Betty Boop” went under HEAVY censorship.  Yes, Betty had to wear longer dresses and lose the cleavage.

So, taking “The Divorcee” as an example, Hollywood couldn’t use the short, now outlawed “Flapper” skirts.  Instead, they draped Shearer, sans ALL underthings, in dramatically long gowns made of VERY clingy, translucent material, allowing stiff nipples and pubic hair to be visible through the silvery sheen.

“But you SAID no short skirts, and they aren’t any short skirts!!”

And the game went on.

(If you’re interested, I think they are filed on Netflix under “Censored Films”.)

How does this apply to more recent eras?  What about the lax attitudes in ’70′s films?  It’s all relative.  Much of the 60′s nudity vanishes in the ’70′s as the economy gets worse.  (Don’t confuse the flood of more recent films SET in the 70′s with the actual films OF the 70′s.)

What can we expect now?  The same thing.  The economy says so.  But do we still have a “censorship” board?  Forget whether we have a “board” or not.  “Boards” are nothing but a group of people made up from a portion of “US”.

People withdraw in a bad economy.  They get conservative.

They CONSERVE.

Sound familiar?

 

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I gotcher Top One Hundred ri’chere, Pally!!!

August 6, 2011 by , under Films, FILMS - 2006+.

 

So, the first list below is the New York Times “Top 100 Films of All Time”.  I have issues with it, but let’s start there…

Marked in red are ones I own.  I italicized those I agree should be in the Top 100:

A – C

* Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972)
* The Apu Trilogy (1955, 1956, 1959)

* The Awful Truth (1937)

* Baby Face (1933)
* Bande à part (1964)
* Barry Lyndon (1975)
* Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980)
* Blade Runner (1982)
* Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
* Brazil (1985)

* Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
* Camille (1936)
* Casablanca (1942)
* Charade (1963)

* Children of Paradise (1945)
* Chinatown (1974)
* Chungking Express (1994)
* Citizen Kane (1941)
* City Lights (1931)
* City of God (2002)
* Closely Watched Trains (1966)
* The Crime of Monsieur Lange (1936)
* The Crowd (1928)

D – F

* Day for Night (1973)
* The Decalogue (1989)
* Detour (1945)
* The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972)
* Dodsworth (1936)
* Double Indemnity (1944)
* Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
* Drunken Master II (1994)
* E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982)
* 8 1/2 (1963)
* The 400 Blows (1959)
* Farewell My Concubine (1993)
* Finding Nemo (2003)

* The Fly (1986)

G – J

* The Godfather, Parts I and II (1972, 1974)
* The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966)
* Goodfellas (1990)

* A Hard Day’s Night (1964)
* His Girl Friday (1940)
* Ikiru (1952)
* In A Lonely Place (1950)
* Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
* It’s A Gift (1934)
* It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

K – M

* Kandahar (2001)
* Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)
* King Kong (1933)
* The Lady Eve (1941)
* The Last Command (1928)
* Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
* Léolo (1992)
* The Lord of the Rings (2001-03)
* The Man With a Camera (1929)
* The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
* Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
* Metropolis (1927)
* Miller’s Crossing (1990)

* Mon oncle d’Amérique (1980)
* Mouchette (1967)

N – P

* Nayakan (1987)
* Ninotchka (1939)
* Notorious (1946)
* Olympia, Parts 1 and 2 (1938)
* On the Waterfront (1954)
* Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

* Out of the Past (1947)
* Persona (1966)
* Pinocchio (1940)

* Psycho (1960)
* Pulp Fiction (1994)
* The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)

* Pyaasa (1957)

Q – S

* Raging Bull (1980)
* Schindler’s List (1993)

* The Searchers (1956)
* Sherlock, Jr. (1924)
* The Shop Around the Corner (1940)
* Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
* The Singing Detective (1986)
* Smiles of a Summer Night (1955)
* Some Like It Hot (1959)
* Star Wars (1977)
* A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
* Sunrise (1927)
* Sweet Smell of Success (1957)
* Swing Time (1936)

T – Z

* Talk to Her (2002)
* Taxi Driver (1976)
* Tokyo Story (1953)

* A Touch of Zen (1971)
* Ugetsu (1953)
* Ulysses’ Gaze (1995)
* Umberto D (1952)
* Unforgiven (1992)

* White Heat (1949)
* Wings of Desire (1987)
* Yojimbo (1961)

Did anyone ask “Hey, WHERE’S … ????”  Well I DID!  So I’m adding to the list (in no particular order!):

Taxi Driver
The Thin Red Line (1998)
Sybil
The Endurance
Tender Mercies
The Best Years of our Lives
Marty
Zelary
The March of the Penguins
Apollo 13
Woman in the Dunes
Dersu Uzala
The Prize Winner of Defiance Ohio
Bicycle Thieves
Being There
Girl on a Bridge
The Cider House Rules
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Brief Encounter
The Bridge on the River Kwai
Wrestling Ernest Hemmingway
Little Fugitive
All the Real Girls
Lord of the Flies (1963)
Lolita (1997)
The Pianist
The Sweet Hereafter
Exotica
A Man for All Seasons
All or Nothing
John Adams
Waiting for Guffman
A Mighty Wind
Focus
Come Back Little Sheba
Paths of Glory
Hud
The Ice Storm
The Grapes of Wrath
Avalon
Grand Canyon
The Human Stain
Trilogy: Blue, White, Red
Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
The Last Picture Show
Blowup
All Quiet on the Western Front
Big Fish
Into the Arms of Strangers
The Elephant Man
Touching the Void
The Life of Brian
To End all Wars
The Field
Amelie
Stroszek
Little Dieter Needs to Fly
The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser
The Color Purple
1984
Sansho the Baliff
The Burmese Harp
Grizzly Man
Tae Guk Gi
Anchoress
The House of Sand and Fog
Crimes and Misdemeanors
Eraserhead
Crash
An Angel at my Table
Mystic River
Hart’s War
The Deer Hunter
The Pawnbroker
Devi
My Left Foot
Forbidden Games
Au Revoir Les Enfants
Ponette
Germinal
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Shame
Harakiri
Zorba the Greek
All the Real Girls
Of Mice and Men (1992)
Cinema Paradiso
Annie Hall
IL Postino
The Count of Monte Christo
Platoon
Iris
Monster’s Ball
Monster
Band of Brothers
The Safety of Objects
A Song for Martin
Angela
Secretary
Tully
Personal Velocity
The Believer
Sophie’s Choice
Moll Flanders
The Straight Story
Andersonville
A Beautiful Mind
To Kill a Mockingbird
Truce
Memento
Wit
Fail Safe
Safe
Apocalypse Now
Midnight Cowboy
The Crucible
Days of Wine and Roses
Brave Heart
Hilary and Jackie
The Miracle Worker (1962)
Hope and Glory
Savior
Leaving Las Vegas
The Last Temptation of Christ
Another Woman
Autumn Sonata
Dominick and Eugene
Unstrung Heroes
Heavy
Elizabeth
Under the Domin Tree
Jude
Europa Europe
Stalingrad
Pelle the Conqueror
The Secret of Roan Inish
The Joy Luck Club
Life of Brian
Manhattan
Breaking the Waves
The Last Days
The Old Man and the Sea
Career Girls
Freedom Song
The Hairdresser’s Husband
Hoop Dreams
Orlando

and more.  So there.

 

DO YOU HAVE ANY TO ADD TO “THE TOP 100″???

 

 

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Boo! Hiss!!

July 9, 2011 by , under Films, Uncategorized.

 

TOP TEN Worst MOVIE ACTORS OF ALL TIME:

 

Peter Fonda
http://www.filmreference.com/images/sjff_01_img0157.jpg

Keanu Reeves
http://pub32.bravenet.com/photocenter/remote/2724789253/77837CBB62.jpg

Bob Hope
http://www.classictelevisionblog.com/tv/images/2007/06/07/039_37157.jpg

Eddie Cantor
http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/bobhope/images/vcvg49.jpg

Zsa Zsa Gabor
http://www.publishersweekly.com/articles/blog/880000288/20071017/queen_of_outer_space_poster.jpg

Dudley Moore
http://cache.viewimages.com/xc/760689.jpg?v=1&c=ViewImages&k=2&d=17A4AD9FDB9CF193875DCB1DD8387ABB5D732A7307F216D4284831B75F48EF45

Meg Tilly
http://www.adorocinema.com/filmes/valmont/valmont01.jpg

Henry Winkler
http://imagecache2.allposters.com/images/pic/77/039_42337~Henry-Winkler-Posters.jpg

Paul Simon
http://i45.photobucket.com/albums/f69/srv1965/Paul%20Simon/annie_hall-paul_simon-woody_allen-d.jpg

Gary Coleman
http://blog.doctissimo.fr/php/blog/monenfance/images/gary-coleman.jpg

Bonus:  The entire cast of “Slacker”.
http://images.salon.com/ent/movies/feature/2006/07/05/slacker/story.jpg
(scene where one slacker tries to sell “Madonna’s PAP Smear test” to some other slackers)  I actually LIKE the movie for other reasons, but the acting is atrocious.

 

 

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A Starter Set of Great Films

February 15, 2010 by , under Films.

 

Should you ever want to see great films, here are a few I think you could rent without fear of wasting your time. Some are not easy to watch, but all are worthwhile:

WARNING: If your favorite films include singing and dancing, Sylvester Stallone, Kung Fu, lots of girls hugging and crying, or men wearing big rubber insect heads and walking through the night towards teenagers parked out by the lake… IGNORE THE FOLLOWING SUGGESTIONS!  I’m not your guy.

Aguirre, the Wrath of God” (again, 1974): Werner Herzog is one of my all-time favorite film makers, and this is one of my favorite films by him. Actually taken from the diary of the priest who accompanied Pizarro’s expedition in 1560, Herzog recreates the pretentious and self-deluded search for the “Lost City of Gold – Eldorado”. He likes true stories… ones that are bizarre in their own right, but with his direction and personal vision, they become profound (and never optimistic).
The camera work is always interesting (camera shots that don’t sweep – they (“you”) stare and stare – and stare – at a thing or person or place until it becomes abstract, intense, beautiful, threatening, profound), the scoring is always appropriate yet never expected, and his casting, often using the unique talents of the late Klaus Kinski, guarantee nothing less than an intense experience… even in a film like “Aguirre”, which SLOWLY claws and slogs its way along each and every slippery, dangerous, foreign mile of jungle. Herzog’s work ‘focuses’ on the ridiculously high beliefs humans create for and hold of themselves – that they could actually “own” anything, “conquer” anything, outwit that which they do not understand, and by sheer Will cause anything they deem important, to exist. Herzog is NOT a cheerleader for the history of humans, but he is an observer and ponderer… and we are fortunate he does it on film.

All or Nothing” (again, English, 2002): Think of the contemporary British lower middle class. Now think of Ingmar Bergman, when he’s way more depressed than usual, making a film about them. This film by Mike Leigh is 99.99% relentlessly hopeless, painful, and VERY well done. IF you have the strength to stick with it to the end – and I suggest you find the strength – you’ll receive a tiny glimmer off the cold, wet mud of Life. The point is we all take the Glimmers where we find them, and there’s no such thing as bad one. Everyone involved in this film was dedicated to its single goal, and they made it a focused, pure, work of Art.

All Quiet on the Western Front” (again, 1930) – It’s no wonder this masterpiece was banned from numerous countries for years. No one is excluded from Remarque’s indictment of the politics, social myths, and economics of War (set in Germany, WWI). Except for an occasional bit of over-acting (a leftover from silent film and stage training – which is very forgivable, considering), this work is an amazing experience – NOT at a hokey, dated, poorly visualized 77 year old period oddity. For an audience in 1930, it would have been especially horrific, disgusting, and full of painful truths. On the other hand, at that same time, Germany was in the process of secretly rebuilding their war state. This is the film that carved a path for others such as “Paths of Glory”, “Beach Red”, “Full Metal Jacket”, and “The Thin Red Line”.

All the Real Girls” (again, 2003): An extremely elegant slice of life/coming of age story shown with the same lack of pretense as “Tender Mercies” and “The Straight Story”. It is NOT an action-filled, sex-laden, violent, plot-heavy, computer affected film that will meet the demands of the average movie goer. It is SO subtle, SO understated, and SO down to Earth, it hardly seems the stuff of scripts and cameras. Give it time. Be patient with it – as you would a Japanese film. It is well worth what appears to be a meandering stroll. Aside from Patricia Clarkson, whose work I love, the actors were originally unknown to me (listed below) but SO good they are the ones who carry and create this incredibly natural feeling film, and I’d be willing to see anything they did. The “under glaze” of scoring helps raise the feelings to a slightly higher level than one would expect from daily mundane life. The shots of common objects, cropped and focused upon, give added proof that this is an idea formed from looking a little closer and a little longer…a willingness to find the elegance and drama in what makes up most of our lives most of the time. The ensemble work, complexity of each character, interactions, and editing take it to a very high level of questions and potential answers. I’m almost shocked at how sophisticated it is, considering the age of its creators. I adore this film. It is grounded, fragile, complex, wise, and patient. (Paul Schneider, Zooey Deschanel, Shea Whigham, Danny McBride, Maurice Compte, Heather McComb, Benjamin Mouton, John Kirkland, James Marshall Case, Patricia Clarkson, Maya Ling Pruitt.)

Anchoress” (again, English/Dutch, 1993): I would be SO proud to say I’d had a part in the creation of this work of Art. I’ve watched repeatedly. It is fascinating, beautiful, strange, and insightful. “Anchoress” takes place during the European Medieval period, when humans survived at the mud level. This is the story of one young woman who tries to find comfort and beauty inside the church, with ‘Mother Mary’…or at least a poorly made icon. She isn’t capable of deciphering her motives, and soon offers herself to the church as an “Anchoress” – a person devoted to God, relinquishing all worldly connections, and being voluntarily cemented into a small crawl space of her church’s wall for the rest of her life. Strange times, those… EXCEPT we see that the priest considers this a good marketing tool for the church (as an “attraction”), and a perk for his resume with the Big Boys back in Rome. But, things don’t go as anyone predicted… “Anchoress” is shot in some of the most powerful black & white film I’ve ever seen (equal to Bergman or Lynch), has an incredibly sensitive, ambient sound track (not score) attuned to the daily life of Earth, and, a camera that loves to be thoughtful and intimate. Each shot is a composed, artful image. (I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: If Rembrandt had used a movie camera, and b/w film, this could’ve been his.) Despite, or because of, the near total lack of dialog, there are scenes you will never forget. Watch for the shots of “earth” as symbols for the human body, the Anchoress’ exploration of herself through the touching of weeds and dirt, her literal entry into the earth, as a means of escape and happiness, etc. You’ll also see a strong indictment of the era’s patriarchal system – I’m sure depicted due to feelings that much of it still exists. This is a very grounded film, while being mystical at the same time. Perhaps that’s part of the attraction. It deals with the dual urges to deny & rise above our daily life on & of the earth, yet revel in it at the same time. This is one smart, interesting, complex, visual and audio masterpiece.

Andersonville” (again, 1996): The last time I saw this film, I put it in the category below. It then dawned on me that I’d applied an artificial limit – because of it being a historical re-creation, not fiction. What?? As if fact can’t be profound? My apologies. This film has everything that makes one important: good photography; astounding sets, costumes, and makeup; great acting; the painful credibility of fact; and, the wordless power of watching humans reach their lowest and highest levels of existence.

An Angel at My Table” (again, New Zealand, 1990): It’s been three years since I’ve watched this film. There is NO further reason to wonder if it should be in my top category. It is created by Jane Campion from the writer Janet Frame’s autobiographies of her harrowing life. We join Janet during childhood, move through the teenage years and into adulthood, as she struggles for a place – ANY place – in the world…but deep down, writing is her one reliable love. Three actresses were needed for the role of Janet, and all do wonderful jobs, especially depicting someone who always feels on the outside, and longs to be included. Jane Campion, one of my favorite film makers, presents a powerful, subdued, and melancholy work of Art. It is not an amazing film due to every camera shot or the quality of sound recording… THIS work is great for its acting, and its story telling. It has as much emotion as one heart can hold for 157 minutes.

Anne Frank Remembered” (again, 1995): This is THE definition of what quality documentaries are to be. It uses facts, first hand accounts, archival film footage, respectful narration, and quality scoring. Those who played major roles in Anne and her family’s lives – and survived – are interviewed extensively, providing honesty, credibility, detail, heart, and inspiration. Kept is a fine balance between the specifics of a young girl’s life and death, and the larger meanings derived from these horrors. It simply gets no better than this… and:
Anne Frank (The Whole Story)” (2001): Starring a very talented cast, this is an in-depth look (3 hrs. 9 min.) at the last few years of Anne’s short life, with and without her family and friends, often using her own words from her diaries. She is not glamorized as a young heroine, nor are the others who go into hiding for years. In fact, this is as much a gritty story of people being cooped up in small, hidden rooms and what happens to the psyche in such an environment, as it is the eventual outcome of being discovered and the results with which we are all familiar. If there is one depiction of her story you should see, this is the one. Its approach ends up speaking for everyone who went through that horror.

Avalon” (again, 1991): I don’t put a film into this category with ease. I take it very seriously. Each time I see “Avalon” by Barry Levinson, I appreciate it, and him, more. This film has depth, humor, complexity, subtlety, sadness, resignation, joy… It is Family. For better and for worse, Family. The passage of Time, the scars we Inherit, Create, Share. Moments and Memories – precious commodities. A beautiful film that looks at five generations of Family, over a 60+ year span. It’s a totally emotional film. The layers are always present. We see this family through the eyes of everyone, which is quite a feat. You get to know everyone. You see their point, then you see someone else’s point, then you see what is happening and what may not be repaired. On it goes. And it makes you want to hold your family a little closer, and work a little harder at making it the center of Life, even when it seems impossible.

A Beautiful Mind” (again, 2001): (What I wrote last year:) This one blew my mind (pun intended). It’s storyline equals “The Sixth Sense” or “Fight Club”, but THIS is a TRUE story, and thus, much more amazing. Russell Crowe studied with the real “Nash” (that he portrayed), and the film was approved by Nash, as well. It is assembled expertly – putting you in the same mind as Nash, which is frightening and frustrating. It left me gasping for breath at times. I will own this film. (And this year:) We DO now own this film, and I saw no reason to leave it out of this top category. Everything was done with all the high standards one would expect, AND it’s a creative effort to show a nearly impossible state of mind, especially over time. The acting is great by all, but of course it’s Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly that are the awe-inspiring leads. KNOWING this is a true story is what forces it’s way into your life…”How would I handle this, if it were me?” Now go – appreciate your life, and hope you have someone that loves you beyond reason.

Being There” (again, 1979): Starring Peter Sellers, Shirley MacLaine, Jack Warden, Melvyn Douglas, Richard Dysart, Richard Basehart, written by Jerzy Kosinski. This is a very witty, sarcastic, snide, dark, funny, and weirdly tender look at American culture and its desperate need for guidance and leaders. It’s a perfect film to wind-up the 1970’s. Though in the spirit of “M*A*S*H” and “Network”, this is a broader and wiser look at our – human – confusions and methods of trying to decipher Truth. We find what we need when we need it and we tailor it for a perfect fit. God bless us, we try – very hard.

Bicycle Thieves” (Also known as “The Bicycle Thief” (Italian, 1948): Set in contemporary Italy soon after WWII, this is the painful and direct story of a family man out of work and his attempts to keep everyone fed and clothed. Directed by Vittorio De Sica (who also did another of my favorites, “Umberto D.”), this Italian Realist film uses simple camera movements, natural lighting, black and white film, and non-actors to tell a story of Existential pressures. It is socially conscious, asking for change, and honest in its descriptions of Life, then and there. There are no super-heroes, huge action scenes, tantalizing sex romps, or gauzy romances. This sort of film paved the way for later directors I also admire, such as Werner Herzog. If you’re looking for escapist fare, go somewhere else. If you’re looking for a great film, go here.

Big Fish” (again, 2003): You MIGHT need some previous experience with Tim Burton’s films – at least some of them – or you MIGHT end up feeling baffled and unfulfilled by this one. I’m not sure, but I hope I’m wrong. When Burton is at his best, his films are unlike anyone else. If you like his film “Edward Scissorhands,” you’ll like “Big Fish” – for it is its closest relative. The idea of “Big Fish” takes on a number of meanings throughout the story, it’s very entertaining, has some strong emotions, lots of unique laughs, people, sets, and circumstances, and ends up making its point – with enough room left for your personal vision to join in. God Bless the story tellers in our lives. What would we be without them? Albert Finney, Jessica Lange, Danny DeVito, Steve Buscemi, Alison Lohman, Ewan McGregor, Helena Bonham Carter, Billy Crudup…my god, who else do you want? (And there ARE more.) Don’t let some of the scenes fool you. This film has all the components of a PROFOUND work despite their disguises. Allow them their own character.

Born into Brothels” (again, 2004): Documentary. This is a look at a young American woman who decided to try helping a few very poor children growing up in the brothels of India. She used photography as the means to bond, communicate, and teach. Each child was given a camera. THEY were encouraged to document and express much about their lives. It’s not a pretty sight. Glimmers of hope are few and far between, making them even more precious. This is not a film for young children unused to how life IS on much of Earth. Should you EVER feel your life is “rough”, please, rent this film. Should you know your life could be MUCH worse – and you need to feel more grateful – rent it. Should you want to scoop up a bunch of children and spirit them away from their circumstances, rent this film as encouragement. I’ve seen this film twice, and was moved even more upon the second viewing.

The Bridge on the River Kwai” (again, 1957): I saw this film first-run in the theater. My Dad took me. Perhaps it was his way of trying to show me a little about War – the war he’d experienced a mere 12 years earlier. I was only 7, yet it had me mesmerized with its sweeping actions and ideas, its battles of will and subversion. It left enough of an impression I made a point to check it again every few years. It never fails to involve me (and not in a child-like manner). It is BIG. This is a BIG film. Directed by David Lean, you would expect so. Set deep in the jungles of a far away place during World War II, this is the story of hundreds of British soldiers (and one American) being held prisoner by the Japanese. It is a story of Will vs Will, yes, but also the slow, subtle, changing beliefs within all main characters… leading us to an amazing conclusion. This is a masterpiece of cinematic storytelling.

Brief Encounter” (British, 1945): Starring Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson – who do wonderful jobs. They play two common people who meet under common circumstances, and mistakenly allow themselves to get “off track” in a railway station. This is MORE than a soap opera or mere romance – it is a morality play depicting the many steps towards devastating “points of no return”. Although VERY British in its attitude, and the desperation very World War II in character, “Brief Encounter” rises above time and place, keeping it a valid meditation on the recklessness of longing and fantasy. Written by Noel Coward, directed by David Lean, set to music by Rachmaninoff, exquisitely lighted and photographed, this is a big feeling film about two average people.

The Burmese Harp” (“Biruma No Tategoto”) (Japanese, 1956): What a powerful film. Directed by Kon Ichikawa (“Fires on the Plain”), this story is set during the last days of WWII, in Burma, with a troop of Japanese soldiers. They are weary, confused, but very bonded. When they learn their country has surrendered, with mixed emotions they submit and head to a P.O.W. camp to be detained until arrangements for their fates are made. One of them volunteers to go find a die-hard troop still “dug in” and unwilling to surrender, and ask them to give up, lest they be destroyed by who are now the victors. Thus begins his journey of spiritual awakening. Think of this as the story of Siddhartha, but on a clear, human level. It is gorgeous in its black & white compositions and lighting, slightly theatrical in its scenarios, and quite emotional. “The Burmese Harp” is a unique use of WWII as the stage for larger issues. Superb.

The Cider House Rules” (again, 1999): Expect to be moved and impressed at every turn. This is a highly sensitive, quiet, thoughtful story worth considering again and again. Tobey Maguire has the talent and the good fortune to get involved in high quality works, including “The Ice Storm”, “Rambling Rose”, and this one. Great acting (and well-cast in his role as the steady observer), Charlize Theron as the beautiful (duh) but confused woman in the middle (the SAME actress who performed “Monster”!), Delroy Lindo as the strict, honorable, but completely off-course crew chief, and every other young and old actor in “The Cider House Rules” give final life to a powerful script with insights and depth no one could find trite. Written by John Irving. Everything you want from a great narrative film is here. Michael Caine (as the doctor who’s seen it all and has dealt with “the rules”), Kathy Baker & Jane
Alexander (as his world-wise nurses), Kate Nelligan… everyone adds to its power. Life isn’t easy, simple, or always pretty… and then there are the “cider house rules” with which one must wrestle… This is a profound work.

Cinema Paradiso” (again, Italian, 1990): One of the most touching, funny, sad, insightful, humane movies full of deep longing ever made. Starting in a 1940′s small Italian town where the only real entertainment for it’s residents is the local movie house (the “Cinema Paradiso”), we watch one young boy, who is fatherless because of the war, adopt an old man – perhaps the most important man in town – the man who is the projectionist at Paradiso. The boy LOVES movies and the old man. Life is typically silly, frustrating, and joyous for him as he grows, but the time arrives when he must “become a man”, and, with the old one pushing him, he leaves his small, intimate world to tackle the larger one. Thirty years pass. When he finally returns, he finds himself facing unfinished emotional business. A very moving experience.

The Color Purple” (1985): Always a joyous pleasure and deeply painful, this is the Film that took Spielberg into broader respect. Be prepared for very young, now famous actors. They’re all 21 years younger here… the superb premier of Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey (I long for her to go back to acting), Danny Glover (doing an admirable job in a very ugly role), “Larry” Fishburn, Margaret Avery, Adolph Caesar, Rae Dawn Chong, Akosua Busia… You can FEEL it in this film – EVERYONE was there because they felt they were doing something of importance… which they were. Taken from the Pulitzer prize-winning novel, and keeping its epic, ironic, twists of Karma sensibility, we live and breathe the pains, degradation, and joys of very difficult lives. Towards the end, the film takes on less of a literary, and more of a theatrical nature – which I question – but this is a small point compared to the film craft, acting, and heart of very emotional story. Full of lessons in life, I watch it in awe – KNOWING that people HAVE faced these issues – some succumbing, some rising above – and I am both embarrassed and proud to be a part of this Human Race.

The Crowd” (1928, silent): Written by King Vidor and John Weaver, directed by King Vidor, sets by Cedric Gibbons. Many of us now tend to put all silent films in that category of Keystone Cops silliness with fast, exaggerated movements cranked out for their shallow entertainment value. Not so here. This 1 hr. 44 min. film is the history of a boy-to-man who meets a woman, they fall in love, and deal with Life. We follow them for years – through “everything” – and you feel it. It is light and lovely, awful and crushing. The point gets made: Life happens while you’re making your plans. This is a film that could’ve easily inspired “It’s a Wonderful Life” many years later. Yes, you’ll see some stereotypes and melodrama, but if part of Art is communicating its meaning and touching upon profound issues in strong, interesting ways, you have it here. The photography is sometimes astounding, the acting much more subtle than you would expect for nearly 100 years ago, the story has detail and patience, and it is seldom a soap opera – especially when you remind yourself this was made in 1928 – perhaps before any other film you find profound and innovative. Also note this was BEFORE the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression – when social circumstances caused a flood of life-is-hard movies. This is my FIRST viewing, and putting a film in my top category after a single viewing is very rare for me – but I know depth when I see it. Let go of any snobby little biases you might have for digital effects or method acting, and realize you are in the best company with “The Crowd”.

The Crucible” (again, 1996): What I wrote in 2000: – A slow, steadily increasing pitch of insanity builds in 17th century Salem Massachusetts, as a group of silly, flighty girls set the stage for their conniving parents to begin a “witch hunt”. Arthur Miller wrote this masterpiece during the McCarthy “Commie hunts” of the early 50′s. GREAT script, sets, costuming. Superb acting by Daniel Day-Lewis, Winona Ryder, Paul Scofield, Joan Allen, etc.
Earlier: I can only add I am awestruck by the power, intelligence, and soul of this TRUE MASTERPIECE. I do not use these words lightly.

Dersu Uzala” (Russian / Japanese, 1974): In tone, this film is pure Russian, and in look, it’s pure Japanese (directed by Ikira Kurosawa). It is a seemingly simple story of Russian cartographers exploring Siberia at the beginning of the 20th century. They meet a mountain man, Dersu Uzala, who becomes their guide. He and the Captain form a deep bond within the very Existential, brutal landscape. (It was shot in Siberia… wear a coat while you watch!) “Dersu Uzala” won the Academy Award. The deeper story discusses humans as a small, fragile part of Nature, learning to respect this role for what it is, and finding the fear, pain, joy, and satisfaction within these glorious limits… just as the 20th century starts finding its own demanding, conflicting rhythm.

Devi” (Hindi, 1960): Directed by Satyajit Ray, and banned in India until the intercession of Nehru, this is the story of a lovely 17 year old wife, who is suddenly labeled as a “Goddess” (while her husband is absent to complete his final exams in college), due to a dream (“vision”) by her father-in-law. What follows is a fascinating, multi-angled look at the transitional Indian culture (and MOST cultures, frankly). Is this any different, any worse, or any more desperate than seeing the face of Jesus in a grilled cheese sandwich or the grain of a wooden door? Is her overnight change in status unique? Are the people who have confused motives, hopelessness, or malleable minds any less vulnerable here and now? The quality of the video copy I viewed was rough – a copy of a copy of a copy – yet even then, the power of Ray’s vision shines through. This is a serious, beautiful, insightful, tragic film. (It has something of a “cousins” relationship to the film “Anchoress”.

The Devil Came on Horseback” (2007): Documentary. This is an up close and personal look at the genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan, including those dead, tortured and raped, those who did it, those who supported it, and those who watched it happen. This is a sad, frustrating, and grisly document made by a man who sort of “stumbled onto” his dedication to help bring this ongoing issue into harsh international light. It’s not that this hasn’t happened before – it has. But here it is again, and this documentary doesn’t give you the “Abstract Out” some do. One man rolled up his sleeves and caused this horror to be known to the world. I suggest you see it. You won’t like it, but you’ll also know you live an easy and safe life by comparison, and if you can, you might share some of your comfort with someone who has none.

Dominick & Eugene” (again, 1989): Although along the lines of “Rainman”, this film is much more interesting, and has much more heart. If you liked that other film (and I think you should), you will LOVE this one – with superb roles created by Tom Hulce, and Ray Liotta.

The Endurance” (2000): Documentary. “In 1914, Sir Ernest Shackleton set sail on the Expedition with 27 men aboard, aiming to cross Antarctica. But when the vessel became stranded in frigid, deep waters, the crew began a battle of the human spirit, testing the limits of endurance as they strove to overcome the debilitating setback. Miraculously, they succeeded, even capturing the experience in pictures and on film.” What is MOST profound about this story is what you learn from the mouths and diaries of survivors & their families. Their story leaves you gasping for air, and feeling you can NEVER EVER AGAIN WHINE ABOUT A SINGLE THING in your cushy, little, safe, easy, pampered life. This is one of the most difficult, torturous trials of life of all time. These men were the toughest, bravest, most steadfast humans to walk the Earth. It BOGGLES my mind to think of what they faced, and what they did to survive. Wow. See this! Get some perspective.

Eraserhead” (again x 40?, 1977): This is David Lynch’s first full length film, and debatably, his most powerful. All stories aside of his behind-the-scenes efforts to MAKE “Eraserhead”, it was this film that brought him international recognition, and remains well worth the time to re/visit. The first time I experienced it, I “hated” my friend who brought me (with no advance warning except that it was “amazing”). What I saw on the screen frightened me at the deepest levels of my being, and I didn’t know why. As the years and viewings pass (both in the theater, and on video or dvd), I lose none of my emotional response, but gain further intellectual and formal appreciation for the artfulness of it, and lots of thoughts about the meaning. Lynch himself will NOT discuss Eraserhead’s meaning, and perhaps wisely so. None the less, I believe he sees it in somewhat surreal terms (clarification being left to the individual), but was guided by the deep seated fears, confusions, and attractions that fill the Freudian world of the child, and which continue into adulthood. Most of his films since have been eerie and unsettling, but based more in realities we can recognize in the waking, every day sense. Here, the photography is gorgeous and mysterious, the SOUNDscape is perhaps the most subliminally powerful of all time, the dialog perfectly uncomfortable, and the situations right at the edge of possible. Your experience – the sort from which you desperately want to WAKE (but then return to repeatedly, as I have, perhaps 40 times now) – is never comfortable. This film takes emotional and intellectual work. The new restoration for dvd – LONG OVERDUE – is of high quality. Do not let the packaging “Eraserhead dvd 2000” throw you. It’s only stupid, confusing layout. And, since I have you here, let me make a short pitch for AVOIDING “extras” – commentary, deleted scenes, interviews, bloopers, factoids… all the CRAP with NO value to the original work of Art. It’s filler, and can do nothing but harm the purity of the REAL WORK. If it was important, it would be IN the film.

Europa, Europa” (again) – True story of one Jewish boy that has to fend for himself through World War II, finding “survival” an extremely complex goal. Very powerful, very insightful, very inspiring. Next year: “Europa, Europa” (again, 1991, German/Russian): – True story of one Jewish boy that has to fend for himself through World War II, finding “survival” an extremely complex goal. Lots of ironies, plenty of horrors, but not without surprising, tender moments. Very powerful, very insightful, very inspiring.

Fail Safe” (again, 1964): One of the great anti-war films of all time. How much money and energy can countries spend on the fear of a threat of a warning of a war? What measures can and should be taken to insure the follow through of war, even when we doubt our machines, our wisdom, and our closest friends?

The Field” (again, 1991): Starring 199o Oscar Nominee for Best Actor Richard Harris, Sean Bean, John Hurt, Brenda Fricker, Frances Tomelty, and Tom Berenger. This is the stuff of the Epics. Think novels with the Hugeness of Vision by Thomas Hardy, John Steinbeck, or Herman Melville; the Tales of the Greeks or Shakespeare; and the operas of Wagner. HUGE visions. All of this is hidden in a little story about an Irishman who rents a 3 acre plot of land? It only stays hidden for so long. Richard Harris is fantastic as an aging man who feels disconnected to all but “his” beautiful, green, beloved (leased) plot of land, which was worked by his father before him and his father before him. Alas, his son (Sean Bean) seems hesitant to carry it on. If that isn’t bad enough for a man who sees nothing as more important than tradition and love for the land, along comes an American (Tom Berenger) with a whole new idea for this property, and soon makes the legal owner an offer of purchase. The little story becomes bigger – then Bigger – and BIGGER – all the way to HUGE. It has a straight-ahead, linear movement that not only seems to imply warnings, but unstoppable Karma. Like all good Epics, it is full of lessons – about vice, virtue, evil, wisdom, warnings, tragedy, potential redemption, and reminders about what is good & bad, right & wrong, fair & unfair. You’ll also love the landscapes.

Flight 93” (again, 2006): It’s fair to compare THIS one to “United 93”, since both deal with that one doomed flight on 9-11-01. It’s not like they don’t have most of the facts at their disposal, and to play fast and loose with the truth – WARNING TO OLIVER STONE ! – could get you in trouble with a public that is still pretty damned sensitive about that terrible day. “United” had two layers: in the air, and with officials on the ground. “Flight” has three layers: air, officials, and families. The acting in both by unknowns is really good, and a very smart tactical decision for the films. No “star” power. The special effects are minimal, but decent. The intensity of “United” is a little more what I would expect in such a situation, but we’re haggling over tiny percentages here. See both. Neither will be pleasant. Both will make you go hug your loved ones. Both will remind you THIS AIN’T OVER.

Girl on a Bridge” (again, French, 2000) (seen twice this year): Shot in gorgeous black, gray, and white, starring Daniel Auteuil and Vanessa Paradis, the plot is simple: a knife thrower meets a girl on a bridge about to commit suicide, and they decide to spend some time together. The feeling is richer: it has a Mythical atmosphere about it. The meaning is complex: it is psychological, para-psychological, and spiritual. I’ve already begun to think of “Girl on a Bridge” as the best friend of my favorite film of all time: “Wings of Desire” by Wim Wenders. Both films have drama, comedy, romance, and spiritual journeys. Both are b/w, both have great photography and interesting scores, both are understated with solid acting, both are subtitled, full of destiny, and as complex as you are willing to admit and tackle.

Grand Canyon” (again, 1991): I love the feel of each and every scene. Some of them have stuck to me like emotional glue, even after 17 years. Some I’d forgotten, but was brought right back in, due to their quality. I love the woven script (this is one of the early ones, which we now take for granted in film), the characters are layered and deep, the storyline and its points are nothing to dismiss. The acting – by Danny Glover, Kevin Klein, Steve Martin (no, this is not a comedy), Mary McDonnell, Mary Louise Parker, Alfre Woodard, and others – is superb. “Grand Canyon” is an often difficult film to watch – it’s sad, violent, gritty, depressing, frustrating – but well worth your effort, with excellent messages waiting for you. It’s full of heart. Make that Heart. It’s also warming, hopeful, inspiring, smart, and accurate.

The Grapes of Wrath” (again, 1940): Author John Steinbeck approved this film version of his book, despite changes that needed to be made for censors, etc.. Set AND made in the Depression of the late 1930’s, starting in Oklahoma, we follow a destitute and harassed family as they attempt to reach “the land of milk and honey” (California) for jobs. Their journey is the stuff of… well, humans and their stories. The photography and lighting is some of the finest of all time. The story, unabashedly pro-Common Man – self-governing, self-policing, self-motivating – Unionizing – Socializing, if you will – is pure Great Depression. The hero isn’t a god – God is within each of us – we are simply in a position to choose heroism. This is a large, sweeping, gritty, shadowy, rough film with tight lips and squinted eyes, bearing the pain and continuing on, stopping to mourn but not to abandon. It has its speeches, and they are glorious. The horizons are wide, though the moment is short. It is full of symbolism and yet remains personal. Only the most hardened or inexperienced or uneducated would see this film as somehow less than what comes from Hollywood now. And, for the first time, I am suggesting you see the dvd version with the running commentary by two experts, one on John Ford, one on John Steinbeck. THIS is worthwhile.

Grizzly Man” (2005): Werner Herzog is one of the world’s best film makers. I’ve followed his career for 30+ years. One of the many interesting things about him is he sees little and no need for fiction. Reality is more accurate & much stranger for his dark, accurate, Germanic opinion of Life. When not reenacting real events for many of his films, Herzog is making documentaries. “Grizzly Man” is a documentary. His three main jobs were to edit & arrange film (which was shot by a man, “Timothy”, who decided he should “protect” the Grizzly Bears in an Alaskan National Preserve), interview people involved in the killing investigation and/or who knew him, and work with brilliant musicians to create one of his typically unique, haunting scores. You are put in the position of knowing up front what happened to the man: he was torn apart and eaten by a Grizzly. We then “backtrack” to look closely not at the bears but this man. Like peeling away layers of onion skin, we learn that Timothy was a loser, and in deep denial about it. You will NOT like this guy. He was a liar, a self-appointed expert know-nothing, an alcoholic & drug addict, a dilettante, an empty charmer who convinced a few people he was the Second Coming for them and the bears, an emotional Jekyll/Hyde, a rejected actor-wannabee who found his only “venue” in his self-made video tapes, a deluded fool who related to Grizzly bears as though they were people hiding in bear costumes, a paranoid who needed to create enemies in order to prop up his imagined value, a gay man clearly refusing to acknowledge his own orientation…and that’s only the beginning. Herzog makes a layered, insightful documentary from the rough footage of Timothy’s footage. It is Unforgettable. Almost everything Herzog has done IS unforgettable.

The Human Stain” (again, 2003): Anthony Hopkins, Nicole Kidman, Ed Harris, and a load of other talented actors take us into this seriously internalized film of darker and darker layers of secrets within secrets. It has a very literary, ironic style to it. Regarding the acting: Hopkins does Hopkins and he does it well (though I’d like to see him take on a new kind of role again, something to challenge him), Kidman was supreme, Harris did Harris (ditto Hopkins comment), Gary Sinese alone is worth the “dance scene out on the porch”. The scoring and photography is elegant. We all carry weights, we all keep secrets, we all step into the scorching light of openness at unusual, even unexpected times, and we all leave something(s) unresolved. It is a VERY thoughtful film. You will never again use the term “murderer” within your previous limits.

The Ice Storm” (again, 1997): This is an outstanding and profound essay about alienation. It does nothing but go up in my esteem every time I watch it. The story is built on lost souls awkwardly trying to reach out beyond their limited lives, minds, and bodies in upper class New Canaan, Connecticut. Watch for great 1970′s (non-kitsch) sets and costuming, perfect scoring, often bleakly elegant photography, and restrained acting to reflect the ice storm which reflects the psychic conditions of this group. You will experience clear, cold layers over everything and everyone. I began my film “relationship” with Ang Lee through this film. I expected nothing but greatness from here on out. Then he did “Hulk”. What??? Then he did “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”! Awful!! Then he did “Brokeback Mountain”! Ah, Ang is back. Or IS he? This guy’s either great or terrible. Not an in-between man at all.

I Have Never Forgotten You” (2006): Documentary on the life of Simon Wiesenthal, architect, Holocaust survivor, and probably best known as the “Nazi Hunter”. This is a very well assembled look at a reluctant hero, a man who found his reason for living, a man who once on his path could not turn back. This life took its toll on his family, on him, and, perhaps most famously, on the lives of the Nazis trying to hide in South America, the United States, Austria, and other locations. This is NOT a James Bond story. This is real, and does not dazzle with gizmos, girls, fast cars, and handsome men sipping martinis. This is a life time of hard work, little money, and lots of hate letters and threats on his (and his family’s) life… But, every so often, he and those who worked with him, brought another criminal to justice. This is how its done – one grueling, dull, difficult day after another – for sixty years.
Iris” (again, 2001): Astounding acting by Judi Dench, Jim Broadbent, Kate Winslet, and Hugh Bonneville bring to life this biographical story of a free-spirited woman – a writer, philosopher, and stubbornly independent person – who is slowly overtaken by Altzheimer’s disease. “Iris” is a deeply moving & very smart film, but more than that, it is profound in its insights about life, love, and “rolling with (and trying to roll with) the punches”… It is also frightening, as it accurately depicts the slow collapse of a great mind and strong personality. It is as tender and sweet, as it is frightening and sad. Now go kiss someone who loves you.

It’s a Wonderful Life” (again and again, 1946): It’s a great film and story, with wonderful acting, gorgeous black & white photography, important philosophies… it has everything. Jimmy Stewart was at his best. Donna Reed? What a girl-next-door-babe! Clarence the Angel? Perfectly innocent and effective. Bert & Ernie? I suppose they are a major realization for Sesame Street fans!! The children – fragile and pure. Sam Wainwright – the goofy, life-time friend, no matter how rich he became. Evil Mister Potter? The man we love to hate (hissss!), played by Lionel Barrymore (Drew’s grandfather). The rejected kid at the dance who opens the dance floor for George & Mary to fall in? Remember “Alfalfa” in “The Little Rascals”/”Our Gang”? That’s him! You KNOW what “Potter’s Field” is slang for, right? It’s the generic name given to graveyards for people who died alone, broke, and unclaimed. Uncle Billy? I relate to His memory problem, and I’ve always wished I had a CROW as a bird-pal. Violet? We ALL knew (or know) a Violet…the good hearted gal who relied too heavily on appearances. One of the prettiest photographic scenes is early in the film, when George and Mary are just leaving town in the taxi after their wedding – it’s raining, and they stop to look back at what appears to be a “run” on the Savings and Loan. As they peer out the back window of the taxi, THAT is pure beauty. Do I still get misty with a film that I’ve easily seen 50 times? YES. When Mr. Gower realizes that young George caught his prescription mistake. When adult George comes home that night shattered – and he SNAPS. This film’s heart is in the RIGHT place SO often for SO many reasons. I’ve always shaken my head in amazement at people who see it as schmaltzy, sugary. Yes, it seems to have those moments, but they’re not clichés, they are kept to a minimum and are needed as RELIEF from the overwhelming amount of loss, frustration, fragility, anger, near & true violence, nasty characters, and shocking realizations. I see it as a TRUE spiritual journey along a frightening road. This film by Frank Capra, and “Wings of Desire” by Wim Wenders are my Top Two Films of All Time.

Jerusalem” (1996, Swedish): 166 min., subtitled. If you read the fine print on the video boxes (2), you’ll discover this was made for Swedish TELEVISION…and THAT should tell you how far we Americans have yet to go for quality programming. Jerusalem is an epic tale, full of detail, characters, woven plot ideas, great acting & photography, and incredible patience. A small Swedish village, c. 1900, is split in half by a manipulative, zealot preacher interested in starting a religious commune. Written by Selma Lagerlof, Jerusalem reminds me very much of the English novels by Thomas Hardy. Get comfortable, have a clear head, and enjoy this in-depth look at religious fervor.

John Adams” (again, 2008): One small caveat here: I think this story is essentially for Americans. Although it IS about larger issues of freedom, etc., the framework is entirely constructed of AMERICAN HISTORY. Okay, with that out of the way… this is a fantastic retelling of the turbulent years just before, during, and after the American Revolution. The sets and costuming are amazingly down to earth and gritty, the politics complex and crude, the personalities clear and interesting, the situations understandable on ALL sides of the multiple fences. Starring Paul Giamatti, Laura Linney, David Morse, Stephen Dillane, Tom Wilkinson, and more and more talented people – they (I hate to sound like a cliché here but) “bring history alive”. The WEIGHT of reality given to their situations, their debates, their decisions, and finally, to their actions is immense and palpable. Made by HBO? Yes, and not one iota lesser quality than any top notch film willing to take on such a sweeping story. Must-see History. I was “riveted” to every single moment of this 501 minute work of Art.

To Kill a Mockingbird” (again, 1962): I should be so lucky as to find the right words to describe this beautiful, black and white, elegant, insightful, powerful, tender, funny, charming, timely, well-acted, understated master work of Art. Gregory Peck, Brock Peterson, Robert Duvall (in his first role)…bring no-nonsense delicacy to the Southern, Depression Era story.

Little Dieter Needs to Fly” (1998): Another Werner Herzog documentary. How he manages to find these TRUE stories, I do not know, but it must consume him. His film “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” was created from the diary of the Spanish Priest who accompanied Coronado’s search for the City of Gold, Eldorado. His film “The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser” (also known as “The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser” or “All for One, and God Against All”) was created from a centuries-old file (1828) found in the “city” hall of small German village. “Little Dieter Needs to Fly” is the ASTOUNDING life story of a German boy who, during the deadly bombings of Germany in the last years of WWII, decided he wanted to fly aeroplanes, and to accomplish this he must move to America. Although thrown off the path for a few years (but learning skills he never expected to NEED), he eventually found himself flying in 1966 – for America – over Viet Nam. This is the story of a man who was shot down, deprived, beaten, tortured, and left for dead more than once, until he didn’t know what was real and what was his imagination. At all. How he survived, what he remembers, and what life was like for him over the next 30 years is the stuff of breath-taking pain and awe. TRUST Herzog. See ALL his films.

Little Fugitive” (again and again, 1953): I must’ve been about 19 the first time I saw this film. I was stunned. It was extremely narrative, yet visually abstract, had very little dialog, lots of emotions, seemed completely impromptu and relaxed, yet was too perfect to be so. Unlike many of the experimental film makers of the Sixties, THIS work – barely out of the Forties – seemed equally sophisticated but without the pretentious snideness of a Warhol, for example. In fact, you could misinterpret this film by Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin as “sweet” IF you weren’t paying attention. The story IS wonderful, the photography is often outstanding, the use of a still movie camera that allows almost all the movement to happen within that framework is clearly the result of their being still camera photographers, but adds a uniqueness I did not notice until this viewing. There is almost NO camera movements! Each scene is closer to being a moving still shot! The light is gorgeous, the scoring is very limited and not always subtle, but the theme is carried with minimal repetition. The natural behavior of everyone involved is totally charming. This is NOT an angry, cold, violent, predatory, frightening film. It is an adventure and a joy, with warmth, fun, subtle moments in tiny realizations, and is in no rush to take you to the end… because the Being There is the real issue.

Lolita” (both versions) (again & again, 1961 & 1997): “DON’T MESS WITH STANLEY KUBRICK, right? What are you going to DO, make a BETTER “2001 – A Space Odyssey” or a BETTER “Lolita”? I would not think so! THEY’RE SACRED GROUND!
I read the book “Lolita”, own both versions of the film, and I finally set up what I’d wanted to do for years…watch BOTH versions of “Lolita” in ONE evening for a solid comparison…and, folks, Kubrick lost. Adrian Lyne won with his 1997 version. I feel sort of weird even saying it – because Kubrick was a great film maker – but it’s true. He came in second.
Don’t get me wrong. Kubrick’s “Lolita” is good… sort of. The b/w photography is full of rich grays, luminous whites, and velvety blacks equal to “Dr. Strangelove”. The camera work is great. Sue Lyons is gorgeous. But, Nelson Riddle’s score is light, silly, and overbearing to the point of whitewashing serious issues in the story. Combined with scenes nearly “Laurel & Hardy” in their presentation (such as Humbert and the hotel butler wrestling with a fold out cot, as Lolita sleeps), dilute and mock otherwise very intimate, taboo, disturbing ideas…which is the original intent of the book, in my opinion.
Yes yes, Kubrick was up against the standards of 1961, but that is an INSUFFICIENT explanation. The film was originally restricted, and with that signal, we can assume everyone agreed that the subject matter of “Lolita” was serious, mature stuff. To then treat ANY component or scene with silliness, seems aesthetically mistaken. Was Kubrick trying to add irony? Sarcasm? I doubt it. The film is not “set up” that way. There ARE lots of dialog innuendos (tame by contemporary standards), but, AGAIN, they’re improperly presented as nearly the reading matter of bathroom joke books. Har har. Tee hee.
Kubrick leaves out a VERY important section from the book, which gives us crucial insights into the childhood of Humbert – setting up his entire psychological future! He’s not a pervert. He’s a man whose growth froze at age 14 due to a great loss at a very important time in his life. He’s stunted, sad, confused, broken, and full of deep longing. Despite his own intellectualization about those years, emotionally he hasn’t moved a single step forward. Lyne’s version gives us those insights so we can not only watch the “Lolita” story unfold, but understand it. Kubrick ignored it.
Under Kubrick, Shelley Winters plays Lolita’s mother, and as you might expect, does it in her typical (her only?) over-the-top, harpy style. None the less, it works well enough for the story. James Mason plays Humbert Humbert, which I don’t quite
believe. He’s too removed, too intellectual without revealing much emotion…and it’s EMOTION that drives H.H. down his long, destructive path. Peter Sellers has the role of Clare Quilty, the play-write. He is ever-present (with a relentlessly visible and entirely useless Beatnik ‘wife’), and takes on numerous “identities” while stalking Lolita and messing with Humbert’s mind. Although this COULD have been dramatic, it tends to be Peter Sellers-style shtick comedy – which is entirely out of place – because we KNOW Quilty IS a pervert and a sadist, who cares nothing for other humans. Sellers was terribly miscast. Sue Lyons, although beautiful, acts less like Lolita’s 14 years, and more like someone else (or herself) at 18. She’s a little too sophisticated, savvy, and self-aware. Lyon’s acting range is narrow, which limits the 14 year old character from being the moody, quirky, schizy, silly, deadly, unpredictable, awkward, sexy mess of a girl-woman.
I feel certain that the author, Nabokov, would give the nod to Adrian Lyne’s depiction of his book. I’m sure the author was glad to see Kubrick do what he DID, but with the comparison WE can make NOW, there’s very little about which to waiver. Lyne, his film-making team, and the actors, win. Lyne managed to tell a more coherent story, with much more emotion, no distractions or side trips, in an aesthetically tight manner, with appropriate and talented actors. (Though there are small continuity slip-ups.*)
(Earlier comments of mine about Lyne’s version): “I see this film about once a year. The fact that ANYONE would have the AUDACITY to even TRY to take on a film already so DEFINED – ICONIC – especially by Stanley Kubrick – shocks me. Next, that ANY attempt could even possibly equal the original? Oh my god! And, that this version FAR OUT-PERFORMS the original!?! How could this BE?! I believe THIS is the film version of “Lolita” author Vladimir Nabokov would have approved (and perhaps Kubrick as well) but couldn’t make in those earlier years. The subjects are delicate right from get-go. To choose Jeremy Irons as the haunted, tortured Humbert Humbert was perfect. That’s his territory. To then choose a new actress – indeed, Dominique Swain was introduced in THIS film – was not only risky, but, Swain had to play the 14 year old Lolita while she (Swain) WAS 14. The scenes in which she not only participated, but had to ‘understand’ in order to effectively perform, astound me. When I read background about the making of these delicate scenes, I’m impressed with the efforts made to keep everyone comfortable in otherwise tense, awkward situations so crucial to the story.
Watch also for the witty, often subtle symbols used to depict various states of mind and sexuality, or as warnings of things to come… a finger gently inserted into and tugging at the leather loop of a dog leash; night moths unable to deny the brilliance of an electric zapper – dying a gloriously violent death; Lo’s teeth retainer tossed into “Hum’s” cool summer drink; the nightmare of dripping water wearing a hole through soap; the bananas; on and on…
Melanie Griffith plays “Lo’s” mother, and does a fine job, but it is a “short-lived” role. THIS film is all about Irons and Swain, and what they do so flawlessly and intensely – bringing sadness, loneliness, sexuality, confusion, guilt, passion, humor, melancholy, and tragedy to us. Backing it up is elegant camera work and editing – never overbearing or self conscious, yet never common. Scoring is by the master – Ennio Morricone – who has managed perhaps the definitive collaboration between visuals, dialog, and orchestration. HE makes the psychic wounds unable to heal. His music is exquisite.
All this…and made for Showtime cable TEE-VEE??! Let the stereotypes and snobbishness about television die the lonely death of an old stereotype! This has all the Art and humanity one has any right to expect from a single work. (A postscript: Since her premier in “Lolita”, Dominique Swain leads a career of grade-B films, cast unfortunately as the nymphet/sex object, but without the intelligence of her first, wonderful role. As of this writing, Swain would be about 22 years old. There is STILL plenty of time to DUMP her agent and get someone with good judgment who can guide her career with the respect it deserves.) (*Watch the flat tire scene as they are traveling the mountains, her brilliant red lipstick as she and Humbert kiss…)

Lord of the Flies” (1963): From the 1954 novel by William Golding, this first film version is the stronger choice. Directed by Peter Brook, photographed by Tom Hollyman, it is a frighteningly accurate depiction of the fragility of “culture” and all its stages of collapse. The book and this film had a huge impact on my understanding of Life – society – customs and gesticulations – myths and rumors – the deadliness of the inactive mind – and would forever help clarify my vision of living amongst humans. Expect lots of rough-edged, spontaneous, in-the-middle-of-things photography, strong lighting, and awesome blacks, grays, and whites composed into isolating and foreboding compositions. (This film surely showed the way for those who made “The Blair Witch Project” decades later.) The occasional, split-second mistake made by one of the many child actors during their massive group interactions is very forgivable under the circumstances. For its time, the scoring would’ve seemed especially foreboding and ironic, even bleak. There will be no special effects or other distractions. This is a serious film about serious issues acted out on the stage of an island entirely populated by proper little British boys. What a perfect film for 1963: the threat of more atomic bombs, assassinations, political wars, cultural upheaval, insecurity, and anger. This was a very good era for black & white films. Add “Dr. Strangelove” and “Failsafe” to the list. “Lord of the Flies” is a perfect book and a perfect film… still useful today. I admire them both.

A Man for all Seasons” (again, 1966): When we depict another Era in our Time, it is because we find something useful to learn, re-learn, or even merely provide us support for our current goals. This story of Thomas More and his ethical battle with King Henry the VIII is a perfectly dovetailed moment in time with ours in 1966 (and many others, as well). It is about the Individual vs the System, the use of Law, the abuse of Power, honor vs allegiance, truth vs convenience, and a life worth living. Though on occasion this production shows its theatrical roots and demands suspension of disbelief (artificial lighting, overly dramatic makeup, etc.), there is nothing but the highest quality dialog and ideas here. It is both insightful and inspiring to anyone needing a little added courage when facing the corruption of power. Others seemed to agree. It received six Academy Awards, including Best Picture for 1966.

The March of the Penguins” (French, with English narration, 2005): This is one of the most beautiful, artful documentaries of all time. The photography, scoring, editing, timing, narration… is all wonderful. We learn about and live with Emperor Penguins at the South Pole for a year… the breeding and birth cycle for the next generation. The hardships these animals face make you gasp with amazement and sigh with grateful relief that you are not faced with equivalent challenges. Their system of cooperation (when needed) makes me feel shame for what we humans seem to deny, and their strength and dedication to their goals are inspiring. This is a GLORIOUS, POWERFUL, POETIC meditation on the meaning of Life. This is no “Happy Feet” schmaltz. This is the real thing. Everyone, children included, should see it.

The Miracle Worker” (again, 1962): Just astounding. To think that Patty Duke (at age 12) premiered with this role as Helen Keller, paired with a the young, lovely Anne Bancroft as her teacher, in such a powerful story, is Film Heaven… in black & white. I can’t explain how much I admire this work, especially the acting of these two people. It IS indeed a “life changer”. In fact, this very well could be what first inspired me, also then age 12, to think I might teach one day… I wanted to rent the newer version at the same time, and watch BOTH in one evening. In the newer version, Patty Duke took Anne Bancroft’s role, and Melissa Gilbert takes the role of Helen Keller – both of whom are equally astounding! Talented people are such a pleasure to watch.

Monster’s Ball” (again, 2001): Life happens. Redemption may come in many forms and at any time, in small, unnoticed pieces. There is not one unnecessary scene, nor one word that should be trimmed from this film. It’s as superb a drama as any I could list. The photography & lighting are expressive, and major devices are used to keep US in a “voyeuristic” relationship throughout the story. We are only invited to observe…we are excluded from participating in this long string of very persona moments. The dialog is probably the most natural and straight forward I have experienced since “Tender Mercies”. The acting, by Billy Bob Thornton, Halle Berry, and Peter Boyle (plus others), an’t get any better. You’ll find yourself holding your breath until some scenes are played out. The scoring is elegant, sad, foreboding, and supportive. This is one potent, understated never dull, Work of Art.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939): It’s odd how sometimes you think you’ve seen a film, but you haven’t. This is such a famous film, and so many film clips are shown from it for all sorts of reasons, I came to the “conclusion” I’d seen it – but, I hadn’t. Now I have. Preceeding “It’s a Wonderful Life”, “Mr. Smith…” is a huge, powerful, romantic story of one man against many – in this case Jimmy Stewart is a patsy of a new Senator against the hardened, graft-filled U.S. Senate. He has no clue what’s being done to him. The “Machine” is chewing him up… and then the film gets rolling. It is NOT a pretty sight. This, like “Wonderful Life” first appears to be full of sappy ideas and lost ideals. But the film won’t let you go when you reach that easy point. You are pushed beyond your current little bitternesses about what Life has brought, and you begin seeing the Bigger Picture: We all matter, we all play a part, we all have potential, we all must be brave. And, it’s true. Don’t let a 1939 film fool you. THAT audience had been and was facing much tougher circumstances than that which we would seemingly ever have the guts. Frank Capra was hitting his stride, and speaking for all humans. Frank Capra made masterpieces, this was one of them, and you will be less without it.

My Left Foot” (again, 1989): Although Daniel Day-Lewis’ acting is blindingly brilliant in this amazing, TRUE story, the entire cast did nothing less than a fabulous job of helping us understand and empathize with this era, neighborhood, family, and malady. Lewis plays Christy Brown, an Irish lad born with Cerebral Palsy, in a time when the ignorant labeled them as “half wits”. He FORCED people to see the real person STUCK inside an uncooperative body. Brown was luckier than some, however. His family did not shun him or pander to any feelings of “poor me”. “My Left Foot” is an inspiring story, a great film, and one for the collection.

Of Mice and Men” (again, 1992): Gary Sinise almost single handedly created this film version of Steinbeck’s novel, and with John Malkovich co-starring, it’s a potent version of a potent story. Set in the era of 1930′s Great Depression America, two drifters, who are life long friends, make do riding the rails, getting odd jobs, and clinging to any dream that helps them get one more mile down the tracks. The photography is beautiful and effective, the sound track rich and earthy, scoring very supportive, it’s inspiration is flawless, of course, and the acting by all involved (including Ray Walston) is magnificent. If nothing else causes you to now read all of John Steinbeck’s work, this should do it.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (again, 1975): I’ve seen – no, I’ve EXPERIENCED this film many, many times. It’s brilliant. I could NEVER get through Kesey’s book, but the film is effective and powerful. The book was written in the early 1960’s, a stage play followed, but it took an additional 13 years to get the film made – pushed mainly by Kirk Douglas and later, his son Michael. In the meantime, America was changing. The issues of individual expression and freedom had amplified, become angry and violent, but was being lost to the life-sucking years of our Viet Nam war. Those times felt like “we” were all trapped in an asylum. Nicholson created the perfectly irreverent, young Every Man – the Gadfly. Louise Fletcher was chillingly superb as the System’s automaton. Brad Douriff played “Billy”, the fragile, decent boy who might just make it to maturity. Watch for all sorts of actors in the asylum that hadn’t “made it” yet in Hollywood… such as Christopher Lloyd and Danny DeVito. I will never tire of this masterpiece.

One True Thing” (again, 1999): Meryl Streep, William Hurt, Renee Zellweger,
and others star in a superb “family drama” film, that does NOT talk down to its characters or audience. It does not become simple, soapy, or shallow. This film is not about its photography, scoring, lighting, or editing. Those factors are all subordinate to the one goal of telling a story – a Lesson – about Life. We are all flawed creatures. Have the courage to live with it.

Pather Panchali” (again, Hindi, 1955): Poetic depictions of humans in all their pettiness, silliness, honor, and beauty. We “live” with a typical family over the years, as they struggle, love, fight, laugh, cry, and die. Shot beautifully in black and white, the moments are shown in lingering, thoughtful ways, whether as direct observations or symbols. This is a “slice of life” film but with a monumentality hidden within the smallest of gestures. You must be in no rush. This is a very patient film with no big punch lines or actions sequences. Allow yourself to join these people, and take some of their experiences home with you. This is “part one” of a trilogy, often called the “Apu Trilogy”. They are all directed by Satyajit Ray.
And,
Aparajito” (Hindi, 1956) (“part two” of the “Apu Trilogy”): This one picks up where the last one left off, and follows the young boy into young adulthood as further difficulties and hard-won successes come to face him. My observations remain the same about this one as the one above. Their depictions of Life are SO unromanticized, especially during a time in most film making when that was the standard, they are incredibly refreshing in their honesty. Oh, and the scoring is by, who else?, Ravi Shankar.
And,
The World of Apu” (1960): This is the third and final film of the Apu Trilogy. Apu is an adult, and is trying face the realities of his life. He suddenly finds himself at a crossroad that was totally unexpected. What he decides will alter the course of his life. Once again, I warn you that these are NOT action films and require your patience, but the payoff is great. They plod along through daily and decisive moment after moment, with all the humanity any scene could ever hold. I was surprised at the lack of cliché story lines, and was NEVER sure where they would take me next. (P.S. – I remain mystified by the East Indian culture. If anything, these films exhibit more and more examples of thinking that leave me feeling very foreign – and sometimes relieved. People are NOT the same everywhere, unlike what the Koombiyah people would have you believe.) These are great films, should be seen in order, but is not 100% necessary. Maybe only 99%…

Pelle the Conqueror” (again, 1988, Swedish): A father and son leave Sweden, becoming indentured workers in Denmark. This is a long story, and needn’t be described. The film is about strength, acceptance, reality, endurance, life, and death. The acting & settings are amazing; the photography is beautiful; and the meanings are given to you in small, seemingly insignificant moments that keep adding up.

Persona” (again, Swedish, 1966): Wow. Liv Ulmann and Bibi Andersson take this entire film – Ulmann without uttering a single word. Set in only a few rooms and two locations, this is the direct daily encounter of two women – one, an actress who suddenly went silent and was institutionalized, and the other, her nurse companion. What starts as a shocking set of images of film and life reality, snaps into a medic