"Night Train To Munich" (1940)
An enjoyable, antiquated spy thriller from the early days of World War Two. England was already at war with Germany when this came out, although the action is set on the very day that England and France declared war, following the German invasion of Poland, in 1939. Carol Reed directs and Rex Harrison stars as a devil-may-care English agent who slips into Germany to rescue a Czech scientist and his attractive daughter from a jackbooted, ruthless Gestapo agent, played by Paul Henreid (of course!). The film mixes offbeat comedy with suspense, buoying British spirits by poking fun at German officiousness and rigidity. One notable feature of this film is the second appearance of the team of Basil Radford and Naughton Wayne as the plucky, train-riding upper-class twits, Charters & Caldicott, who played the same roles in Alfred Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes. The Charters & Caldicott duo appeared in several films, all with different directors, as sort of a cherished English cinema in-joke... They definitely add to the fun here!
Ya-awn is more like it.... The Japanese original of the haunted-house horror film, The Grudge, this seems for the most part rich in concept and iffy in execution. Then, in the end, it turns out the conceptual end wasn't so hot, either. I've seen some comments where the episodic plotting was hard to follow... Not really, it's just that there isn't much of a payoff at the end. Some of the imagery and staging is quite suspenseful, but the sparse special effects and stagey acting undercut any genuine scariness, and by the end you're inured to any possible chills the plot might hold. It's interesting to note one particular thematic similarlity between this film and the more popular Ringu/The Ring, and that's how both hauntings manifest themselves basically as viral infections, plagues that spread from person to person and don't seem to take into account the morality of their victims. A parable, no doubt, for our modern age of pandemics and paranoia... However, I can't say as this particular flick is really worth the time to watch it. If I see the remake, though, I'll letcha know what I think of that one, too.
"Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban" (Warner, 2004)
Yay... finally! A Harry Potter movie that's fun! Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron injects some much-needed life into the too-smooth Potter film franchise. He also gives the films a new look, with crisper, cleaner cinematography and more colorful design. The first two Potter films combined a fuzzy, Disneyesque emotional palatte with rather murky CGI -- the unfortunate pitfall of modern films that are so on heavy computer-generated effects that they darken and fuzz everything out in order to obscure the creaky edges of the effects themselves. None of that here: this movie looks bright and realistic, and is packed with engaging visual detail which matches the playful, sometimes satiric tone of the direction. I sure hope they bring Cuaron, or someone of equal artistic vision, on board for the next four movies, 'cause the two by Chris Columbus were kind of snoozy. This one was a gas!
"Spartan" (MGM, 2002)
"Write what you know" is a maxim that writer/director David Mamet cheerfully ignores while plotting this stunningly leaden secret agent thriller... Val Kilmer (yawn) stars as a super-secret, black ops government agent dude whose mission is to get the President's kidnapped daughter back at any cost. Turns out the President doesn't really want her back that much, though, or at least "his handlers" don't: she's threatened to expose Daddy's marital infidelities and rather than let her embarrass the President, they decide to leave her to the tender mercies of the horrid Arab slave traders who have nabbed her. Now look, I'm the biggest pinko liberal tree-hugger on the face of the planet, but even I thought this idiotic plot rang incredibly false... Preposterous plotting aside, this movie was a waste in pretty much every other regard -- the acting is uniformly mannered and dull, the dialog is a hackneyed, unnecessary rehash of Mamet's trademark circular/repetitive verbiage, and the tough-guy posturing is just plain lame -- Mamet does not have a feel for the material. Really, this movie is little more than a waste of time and talent... even William Macy, the reason I rented it, is pretty lame here, too. Don't bother with this turkey. It blows.
"The Saddest Music In The World" (2002)
A super-stylish, overly-artful dark, absurdist farce about an embittered, parapeligic Canadian barkeep (Isabella Rosellini) who stages a cynical, showy contest to find the saddest song in the world (and help raise her beer sales while the world weeps 'round its radio sets...) Although I was engaged enough to sit through the whole film, immediately afterwards (and for large chunks of the viewing itself) I felt that I wasted my time watching it. It's painfully derivative of David Lynch's work (which I've never been overly fond of...) along with the same sort of kinetic, surrealistic visual absurdism as movies like City Of Lost Children and Amelie. This is a well-crafted film, in terms of its look, the editing, and the elaborate cinematographic trickery, but the easy irony and lack of true emotional substance ultimately makes it an artsy cinematic puff piece.
"The Office Special" (BBC, 2004)
Aw, wasn't that nice? After twisting our guts inside out all last season, they gave us a happy ending after all! Yay.
"The Wire: The Complete First Season" (HBO, 2002)
Wow! This cable-TV cop show really is as good as everybody says it is! Plus, after having watched five DVD's worth in one fell swoop, I have decided that, from here on out, I am now "street," yo. Word.
"Before Sunset" (Warner, 2004)
A brilliant sequel to the quiet 1994 masterpiece, Before Sunrise. Richard Linklatter is a really clever, soulful filmmaker. He sure fooled me and my wife with the start of the film: both Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy look haggard and thin at the start of the film, their attempts at clever repartee seems stilted and false, and we thought: oh crap, is this movie going to suck, or is he doing that on purpose? Well, he was doing it on purpose. The movie works. It's great. If you liked (or loved) the first film, this followup is no disappointment. Check it out.
"Mystic River" (xxxx)
"The Alamo" (2002)
Remember the Alamo...!!! As if any of us could forget... Well, as someone who did not grow up in Texas, I was certainly familiar with the story, but this film helped me see the Alamo martyrs as more that just some ragtag mob of guys who were in the wrong place at the right time... Made by a Texan director with numerous actors who also grew up in Texas, this film pays sincere homage to the Alamo's defenders without being overly adulatory or fawning. It's not a perfect film...It takes a while for their characters to settle into your mind enough for you to care what happens to them (and in some cases, this never really happens: Jason Petric's Jim Bowie is a bore from start to finish)... The film also gives the Mexicans their due: although Santa Anna is portrayed as a ruthless sadist (which he was), he also gets one of the scripts most illuminating scenes, in which he defends his no-quarter-given policy of annihilation to his military staff: In Santa Anna's view, the Texians plan an incursion on Mexican sovereignty that will mean political humiliation and economic subjugation of Mexico to the United States, which in fact is what happened. Although he is a heartless bastard, he is also a patriot and, in his way, he was completely right. So, the film isn't completely one-sided, and while it does have it's flat, creaky, big-budget moments, I did find it useful as an "historical" film to explain the significance of this one, small, dramatic battle.
"To Be And To Have" (2002)
This documentary film is like the antidote to, or at least the cultural polar opposite of, the reelection of George Dubya Bush to the United States Presidency... A subtle, poignant look at the work done by one schoolteacher in one, small school in rural France. Mssr. Lopez, who is about to retire in the next school year, teaches twelve children, ranging from 4 to 11 years of age, and he gives each one his full, loving attention, helping them explore and find their place in the world. He's the dream teacher: parents who see this film will ache to have Lopez magically appear in their lives and have him take over their kid's education. As the world around us becomes faster, meaner, more heedless of humanity, watching a film like this restores one's faith that rationality and compassion will still have a place in our future... And they will, as long as the world still has teachers like this in it. Beautiful cinematography, as well.
"Dawn Of The Dead" (2004)
Man, this is one scary, action-packed movie. Zombie-o-rama, with a relentless pace from the film's first scene on... Fans of the original George Romero films will not be disappointed... The script, the acting, the action are all first-rate. Finally -- a scary monster-slasher film where the protagonist's motivations and and actions all make sense, and the kitsch is kept to a minimum. This is one of the best, bleakest horror movies you'll ever see... and make sure you sit through the credits once the film is "over."
November 2, 2004
Man, that sucked.
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