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dwhudson's reviews view profile

Altmanesque Miracles  
on September 1, 2002 - 1:23 PM PDT
  of Happiness (1998)
19 out of 20 members found this review helpful

If Robert Altman's cultural make-up hadn't been pretty much made up in the 60s (both pre- and post-hippie), if he'd been born and raised in an age of air-quoted irony instead, proud to wear an overtly conspicuous nerdiness on his sleeve, when the mid-to-late 90s came along, he'd probably have made movies something along the lines of Todd Solondz's Happiness, Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia or Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums. Except that he might not have, since the real Robert Altman wouldn't have preceded him.

Consciously or not, each of those three filmmakers seems to have decided at some point to an Altman movie. Almost like a rite of passage. A fiercely independent, personal Altman movie, to be sure, but remarkably similar in structure and theme. You've got the cast, which people tend to think of as an ensemble, though you rarely have more than two or three members of it acting in the same room at any given time. You've got the pace of one scene setting the tone for the next. And you've got your running motifs: social and familial dysfunctionality (though interestingly, all three of our younger directors make a point of including incest in the catalog of dysfunctions and I can't recall it coming up with Altman offhand), but above all, deep, gaping, tangibly painful loneliness.

Of the post-Altman three -- Happiness, Magnolia and The Royal Tenenbaums, all of which I personally like loads, even though the intentional, look-at-me eccentricity all around can be grating -- Happiness, IMHO, is the most accomplished. Magnolia is thrilled with its own movieness (not a bad thing!), the camera swirling and seemingly never settling down, the musical number, the frogs and so on; The Royal Tenenbaums is a stylized fairy tale (also not a bad thing!) with its saturated colors and brothers sailing around and around the world and so on.

Happiness is the most rooted in reality, and what a stark, gruesome reality it is. I don't think I am ever going to forget looking into Dylan Baker's hauntingly innocent face, shot through as it is with denial and demonic intentions, all at the same time. The isolated, out of shape and just out of it computer guy could have been such a dull cliché if Philip Seymour Hoffman hadn't bared the underbelly you didn't even know was there. I could go on. The cast is astounding. Hell, the casting is astounding (Louise Lasser!). And Todd Solondz has worked miracles, all the more miraculous because they come off so frank and unmiraculous.
Parallel Parallel Universes  
on August 29, 2002 - 1:56 PM PDT
  of Monsters, Inc. (2001)
8 out of 8 members found this review helpful

Let's start with the parallels between Monsters, Inc. and Toy Story. We might as well because that's where it seems the Pixar/Disney team started. What made Toy Story work so darn well, they must have asked themselves; what made it take off at the box office to, you know, infinity and beyond. In a way that A Bug's Life didn't. For all the clever dialogue and characterization and what was at the time the novelty of the Pixar look, at bottom, the story had to click, and it had to click all around the world. The premise is based on a universal fantasy: every kid wonders about the lives his/her toys lead when s/he's away and every adult remembers wondering.

Ok, so what's another universal fantasy. The monster behind the door! Of course, that's a universal fear, and there's our first departure from the Toy Story formula. Monsters, Inc. is not scary, of course. Thrilling at times, but not scary; the scare factor is actually played down, almost for laughs, sort of a healthy service the movie provides for parents: See how silly the whole idea is, dear? The movie even takes this a step further by reassuring the kids that monsters, like snakes and spiders, are far more scared of you than you are of them.

So both movies have parallel worlds bumping into each other, the real and the imaginary, but the populations of the two imaginary worlds have very different missions: toys aim to make kids happy, monsters aim to scare them. Monsters, Inc., y'see, is basically a giant electric company that powers the entire alternate universe. And the source of that power? Kids' screams.

But you can practically hear the wheels grinding in the writers' heads (two of the writers served on the teams for both movies, and one of them, Peter Doctor, co-directed Monsters, Inc.): these monsters have to be as cute and cuddly as possible; no one can actually get hurt; in general, we have to back-peddle the threat -- way back. This is probably why Monsters, Inc. is far less dramatically engaging than Toy Story.

There are other reasons: Woody and Buzz and crew live right under Andy's nose. His room is their room. When it's adventure time, they roam the universally recognized spaces of a well-to-do American suburb; the gas station, the pizza place, etc. A kid tucked away on the umpteenth floor of a high-rise apartment building in Moscow, a kid on a sheep farm in New Zealand, whatever, these kids know these spaces like the back of their hands.

The monsters, though, live and work on some other side. The main entrance hall of Monsters, Inc. itself actually reminded me of the airport-like customs area of Men in Black. And since they're monsters, there's not a whole lot the writers can do with them, oddly enough. They're all equally wacky-looking. One eye, three eyes, loads of legs, no legs, what's the difference, really?

With toys, though, you can have a ball. Take a familiar object, like an Etch-a-Sketch and give it a mind of its own: it can draw a map of where you need to go! Toy soldiers can repel down a stairway to eavesdrop on the goings on and relay what they hear via a cooperative walkie talkie, and so forth. Clever uses of everyday objects in familiar spaces. Monsters, Inc. has none of this to work with.

What it does have, though, in spades, is a potential for surrealism. Unfortunately, it has to be marketed to kids and can't really take that potential and run with it. There is a lot of work, though, with a very literalized version of the division between the real and imaginary worlds: the door -- played for comic and classically farcical effect late in the movie and with an awe-inspiring number of them in the chase sequence. But for all the imagination put into what might be behind them, the doors are never as threatening as even that door-to-another-world in the Twilight Zone credits.

None of this is to say that your kids won't like the movie. They will. It's delightful, no question. But don't expect them to cherish it and beg to see it again and again like they did with Toy Story. On the other hand, they might beg to see the extras here: they are great.
The Way It Was  
on July 9, 2002 - 4:14 PM PDT
  of Pollock (2000)
9 out of 10 members found this review helpful

For all that's terrific about this film -- and there's quite a lot, starting with the outstanding performances by just about the entire cast, but in particular, of course, Ed Harris and Marcia Gay Harden -- there's something about bearing the experience that had me squirming throughout the two hours. What we have here is a grand wallowing in the final moments of American art before it discovered irony. I have no doubt that this is actually the way it was. But there's something slightly embarrassing about the Greenwich Village myth, the jazz, the cigarettes, the booze, the dreadful seriousness, angst and despair, even in what's supposed to come off as a light-hearted moment, such as the early scene in which Pollock, sloshed to the gills, yells out, "Fuck Picasso!"

The Abstract Expressionists were Romanticism's last hurrah (until it resurfaced in the pop culture of the 60s, though not in any NY galleries), complete with the unabashed belief in "genius" and all that seems pretty incomprehensible to us now, post-Warhol. And yet, having said that, there is a moment in Pollock that justifies all the growling and groveling, all the psychotic fits (which, it should be added, Harris plays exceedingly well; it would have been easy to botch these scenes. He does not. When he starts drumming into his plate at dinner in an early episode, his power is frightening.)

Oh, the moment: That's when we see the paintings. Just before the guests pour in for the opening party (the turning point of the story; the scene with the guests is the very first scene and then appears again when chronology calls for it; after that, after Pollock had achieved what he decided he was born for, it's all downhill); the moment that precedes Pollock's triumphant show at the peak of his career, the one right on the heels of the (in)famous story on him in Life magazine, Harris shows us the paintings. And they are, for lack of a better term, fucking gorgeous. Just breathtaking.

I can't decide if we could have used a bit more about why, maybe a few more words on them from Clement Greenberg, for example (played superbly by Jeffrey Tambor, though again, everyone shines here). The paintings are, after all, what Pollock lived for and what Lee Krasner gave up her own career, and for that matter, her life for. Ultimately, Harris probably made the right decision. This is a biopic, not an art history lesson, after all. He may count on our being moved enough to go see the paintings ourselves, read up on them, etc. Later, after the story is told.

Biographies are tough stories to tell, though. Pollock's unravelling is not pretty and the final sequences of the film become an exercise in waiting the damn thing out, waiting for the doomed to finally do himself in. But then, that's the way it was, surely.

I wouldn't have missed this movie for anything, but it's also creepy in ways that Harris may not have intended.

A Highlight of Middle Childhood  
on July 4, 2002 - 1:24 PM PDT
  of The Iron Giant (Special Edition) (1999)
8 out of 8 members found this review helpful

Most people think you only have to go through childhood twice. You've got a handful of decades in the middle, maybe less, and you spend them chasing love and money and dealing with the frustrations of never having enough of either. A lot of your first childhood is ridiculously wasted on eagerly anticipating this mess; the second on wishing you had it to do all over again.

But for those who spawn along the way, there's yet another childhood slipped into the middle of it all. You don't live it as fully as Childhoods I and II, but vicariously, through the eyes and emotions of the people you care most about in the world, your kids, and that's intense enough. You rediscover the taste of candy corn, the sheer wonder of snow and the furious injustice of being bullied. Among other things.

And then, in return, you let them in on a little secret: the hypnotic power of movies and TV. And often enough, you end up watching what they watch. Sometimes this is going to mean reruns; sharing the stuff you loved when you were their age. There's no way around going through the entire Disney ouevre, for example. Other times, they're the guides, introducing you to Powerpuff Girls, Lilo, Stitch and armies and armies of -mons.

Basically, when a movie comes out for kids, it's an event and they're not going to miss it and neither are you. Oh, you can miss the theatrical release. But at some point, thanks to the wonder of video, and now, DVD, you'll catch 'em all.

So here's the good news: When it comes to The Iron Giant, you are in luck. Nothing against Disney, but, as much as the styles may vary (or not), all the narratives pretty much run together. There's an iron-clad cast (protagonist, diminutive sidekick, bad guy, love interest) and story (discovery of mission, seeming failure, big loud triumph). You go through a dozen of these or so and you can just imagine the joy of running across a flick every bit as good as any Disney feature but that somehow breathes a different air.

Unfortunately, Warner Bros. either didn't know what it had on its hands or didn't know how to promote The Iron Giant. The movie fell off the charts when it was released and its small but dedicated following now is its only hope. The cover of the DVD, for example, isn't very promising. A boy and his robot. Oh, boy. The story sounds like an E.T. rip-off. To be fair, there are similarities (fatherless kid hides alien with remarkable powers from his Mom and the rest of the world until things get out of hand), but, as the blurb up there says, Ted Hughes wrote this one in 1968.

Part of its charm (and willful naivete) is that it's set in a small town in New England in the Eisenhower years. The only subversive element around is the relatively safe and pretty darn cute beatnik (nicely voiced by Harry Connick, Jr, who, like Tom Waits, has spent his life pretending he was born a couple of decades too late anyway). And actually, the town looks pretty idyllic -- except that, for a kid, it's boring and lonely.

Enter the robot. One of the most beautiful aspects of the story is that we never learn where he came from (he simply plunges to Earth from outer space) and hardly anyone brings the up the question, much less dwells on it (as E.T. did; all our robot wants to do is live in peace with his new friend).

Enter the antagonist, a military mind sharpened on the grindstone of the Cold War. Now, there's nothing really wrong with this, and I certainly didn't mind having my youngest exposed to a (literally) cartoon portrayal of this mindset, but you've got to admit it's a rarity these days. It plays differently in a post-9/11 world in which there's an almost universal feeling that having defenses at the ready in some form or another may not be a bad idea.

The Iron Giant unabashedly argues that it is. There is another, darker side to the robot that even he is unaware of until he perceives a threat, and the movie makes sure the kids understand that the threat is completely unnecessary. All in all, it's a very 60s reading of things, which is why the story all but had to be set in the 50s.

At any rate, again: Especially those who've been overdosing on usual kids' fare, the dialog, the look, the whole is marvelously refreshing. There's no skimping on action, either, with a boisterous storm at sea to start things off, a terrifically comic tidal wave and so on. Plus, the giant is just huge and the possibilities there are explored with real imagination.

As for the kids, I'd suggest age 5 and up; 6 or 7 on up would probably be better. There are a few scares, but most importantly, the ending looks like it's going to be Bambi-scale devastating, and you're going to have to hold a hand tight right up the very, very final frames. You'll be glad you're there to do it, though.
Showcasing Gifted Actors  
on June 16, 2002 - 3:02 PM PDT
  of The Gift (2000)
4 out of 4 members found this review helpful

The main attractions here are the outstanding cast, the outstanding director (who's, of course, hot-hot-hot now) and the very idea of another screenplay by Billy Bob Thornton, again in collaboration with Tom Epperson. This is the fifth screenplay they've written together and they have yet to beat their first, One False Move.

And already, you can probably see where this is going: Thorton's gift, and it's an amazing one, is for acting, not for writing. See this movie not so much for the rather forgettable story, but for the chance to see some very fine talents at work. See it to watch Cate Blanchett not overwork the "I'm not really American, but look at me, I could pass" angle. There's just the right dash of Southern in her voice, and that's that; the rest of her energy is channeled into incarnating a soul so troubled, all you want to do is place your hands on her shoulders to steady her -- if only you weren't pretty sure she wouldn't let you.

One of the reasons I rented this is to see Blanchett and Giovanni Ribisi work together after I'd seen them in Tom Tykwer's Heaven. As it turns out, both films have them bound by a unique and unlikely constellation of particulars; I'd say there's an attraction here, too, though Heaven actually has them recognize it and live it out. The contrast between Ribisi's characters is astounding, and while I'd be impressed by either performance alone, setting the two together has whet my appetite for anything with his name on it.

Kudos, too, to Greg Kinnear, who once again does "likable" and "underappreciated" quite well, Hilary Swank, and yes, damnit, Keanu Reeves. I hate admitting that he's perfect in this role. Drives me nuts. Keanu has got to be the #1 Idiot Savant of Acting.

Raimi works in some rather gorgeous under-the-skin images (when you get to the bit with the drop of water and the tree, you'll see what I mean), but his main concern here seems to be working with his actors on the rhythms of scenes, the nuances of characters, and leaving the whiz-bang stuff for another day. Good for him.

The Ayn Rand-Leninist Waltz  
on May 21, 2002 - 3:10 PM PDT
  of A Bug's Life (1998)
5 out of 5 members found this review helpful

"Ants were not put on this earth to serve grasshoppers." It's a darn rousing moment, I tell you. Flic, who's just had the ant-juice beat out of him by Hopper, the badass imperialist bastard, rises to two of his six feet and, with his last ounce of strength, utters this line. Within moments, the entire colony is linking arms and the music is swelling and the grasshoppers are getting nervous, and folks, before you know it, we're talkin' 'bout a revolution.

But wait! In the ensuing chaos, Hopper himself gets away, and it's not long before it's Flic and Hopper, one on one, with Princess Atta along for the ride. Our climactic standoff has the protagonist outsmarting the antagonist (get it?) after all. The colony doesn't so much revolt en masse as scatter along with everyone else because a force majeure -- rain -- is a threat to all parties present.

A Bug's Life is a masterly confusion of political ideologies that nevertheless begs political analysis. The ant colony has become a colony, on an island no less, in the purest political sense: The opening scene finds the ants gathering food demanded by the grasshoppers as a sort of annual tax. For "protection," Hopper explains in his finest monarchist/mafioso sneer. That very opening scene also delivers the first joke, one that would have done Ayn Rand proud: A leaf falls, blocking the scent trail our harvesters are following, and the first ant to come up to it just freaks. Omigod! I've lost the trail. While the ant in front of him is just inches away, the collective society he's grown up in has made him too much of a wimp to figure out that he can simply walk around the leaf and get on with it.

Along comes a supervisor to save the day. How does he get the wimpish ant to overcome his fear and walk around the leaf? "Come on, you can do it. We're professionals." Professionals? In a moment, we've slipped from collectivist drudgery (not to mention sheer mindlessness), and now, only finely honed business culture can save the day and get the cog in the wheel functioning again, i.e., serving the imperialists so that all will be right with the world once more.

Cut to the Randian individual. Flic is an inventor, dreaming up tools the conformist ants are too stupid to know what to do with. Of course he's an outcast. No one understands him, etc. Fortunately, though, unlike, say, Howard Roark, Flic is a friendly, sympatico rugged individual. But whoops, one of his inventions causes the loss of the entire year's tax payment. Order has truly been disrupted, but the ants decide they can't fix things with pesky Flic around. They send him off on what they hope will be a suicide mission: Flic thinks he's off to get help to beat the lousy grasshoppers, the only solution that makes any sense to him (i.e., revolution), while the ants, led by the Queen and Princess Atta, simply hope that with Flic gone, they can gather the payment all over again.

Much comedy ensues. Identities are mistaken. There are jokes galore and funny accents. Here's where I should interject: Echoing the reviews above, most kids will like this movie, but they won't like it as much as Toy Story. This is primarily because a lot of the humor is going to fly right over their heads. The comedy formula for A Bug's Life is pretty similar to that of the old Warner Brothers cartoons of the 40s: the visual slapstick is for the kids; the verbal humor is for the adults. Also: Some of the action sequences seem just a tad more frightening to kids I've seen it with than anything in Toy Story. Mileage may vary, but as a parent, I'd recommend: Ages 6 (at the very least) and up.

But back to politics briefly. The ultimate day-savers here are a group of circus performers, i.e., vagabonds outside the system, outside the strict dichotomy of exploiters and exploitees. You've got a spider, two pill bugs, a walking stick, a ladybug, a beetle, etc. Here, individual qualities are accented, but are, in and of themselves, inadequate. The troupe survives only by cooperating, by pooling their unique qualities into a single, cooperative unit.

It's a wonderful, tried and true American formula, really. You might find yourself reminded of WWII flicks in which kids from Omaha and NYC, Kentucky and Maine, find themselves in a foreign land, ready to do battle against the faceless Krauts or Japs, and they're only going to make it if they work together as a company. Or heist movies, the kind that Ocean's 11 riffs on: the safe cracker, the charmer, the acrobat, the brain. Or Sneakers: the blind sound expert, the telephone system cracker, etc.

A Bug's Life scoffs at pure conformity yet shies away from outright revolution, even in the face of the most blatant exploitation. The bottom line of this movie is: Make do with diversity. No more, no less. The rest is mysterious confusion.

Brilliant Slow Burner  
on April 17, 2002 - 3:07 PM PDT
  of You Can Count on Me (2000)
9 out of 10 members found this review helpful

What a welcome antidote to just about everything on any of your local multiplex's screen on any given weekend. I don't just mean the latest CGI-driven franchise; I especially mean the movies that promise, as the blurb here puts it, "a remarkably honest and moving experience" -- but never come anywhere near the honesty and, er, movingness of this marvellous film.

Right off the bat, I have to say: Give it a chance. This is a slow burner. The opening shots don't bode well. Though much of it is photographed beautifully, the first few minutes aren't. And the music is handled pretty clumsily throughout. I'm also not completely convinced that Lonergan really understands 8-yr-olds, but we have no 4.5 rating, and the positives so overwhelm these negatives I mention that I'm going for that rare 5.

So, what are those positives? Besides the honesty and movingness, of course? Well, let's not leave off with the honesty right away. The performances are all outstanding, including Lonergan's own wonderful turn as the priest who aches to help but knows his limitations all too well. And the performances are built on an amazing screenplay. Soon enough, you'll be wondering what happens next, but you'll also realize that these people are so real, so human, you have no idea. They're not walking along Joseph Campbell Hero trajectories like so many other shadowy creations of the last couple of generations of screenwriters have. They face disruptions in their lives, yes; but their crises aren't built on plot points leading them to Valuable Lessons which they use to overcome their adversaries and live happily ever after.

Then there are the themes. Take Lonergan's priest, for example. Interestingly, we see much, much less of a recognition that religion plays any sort of role in Americans' lives these days than in the heyday of the Hollywood studios, but it's here, in just the right contextual dose that aligns perfectly with its role in small-town American life (and, to boot, Lonergan's priest is so post-Vatican-the-Sequel, he'd never have made it past a Hollywood censor back in the day).

Ultimately, You Can Count on Me settles on a note that's become, in less talented hands, the feel-good philosophy and modus operandi of the day: We don't know. We don't know what it's all about, we don't always know what's right or wrong, we're just doing our damnedest. But hell, it's worth a shot. In this case, though, Lonergan has been so straightforward with you, you forget all those other times it came to you coated in a layer of schmaltz. Hey, it's honest. And yeah, it does move you.

Let's go over the top.  
on April 14, 2002 - 3:40 PM PDT
  of Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)
8 out of 8 members found this review helpful

When I first heard Coppola was making this way back when, I was very excited because I was going through a sort of Gothic phase, reading Anne Rice (which was great at first, but I left off after Queen of the Damned) and Mary Shelly and so on, and I thought, Wow: the director of the Godfathers, tackling Dracula. It made titillating sense.

And I remember that, when I first saw it, I loved it. Well, I've just seen it again, and I'm not as enthusiastic about it as I was then. First, if you're going to enjoy this, you're going to have to just let go. That much is clear right from the get go in the first, pre-credit sequence. Way saturated orange reds, overlapping fades, a real "in the studio" feel and a lot of battle yells and arghs in good ol' gutteral Excalibur fashion. Coppola says right off: Let's go over the top. Way over the top.

That's all well and good. The problem for me, ten years later, is that there has been a lot of over the top filmmaking in the meantime, so there's less of a kick here now than there was then. Less a feeling of getting away with wallowing in the down and dirty end of pop culture that actually takes a tremendous amount of craft to pull off well. Which, of course, Coppola's got. Craft in spades.

The second problem is that there less of a sense of genuine awe and mystery on the one hand, and humanity and humor on the other -- points that come to mind now because I happened to bring up Excalibur, which had both.

One thing this movie's got, though, that Excalibur hasn't is erotic pull. Though she'd hate to hear it, probably, Winona Ryder is the central magnet in this field. (She evidently had one of her worst experiences making this film. In interviews, she'd always later compare Coppola unfavorably with Scorsese. Coppola would yell nasty things at her to get her to, well, put out -- and if you've ever seen Hearts of Darkness and can remember the filming of the opening sequence of Apocalypse Now with a sloshed Martin Sheen, you can just imagine -- while Scorsese was evidently a gentleman. Well, he would be, wouldn't he? They were making Age of Innocence, fer chrissakes.) Anyway.

Ryder is always an odd sight, and in particular, an odd sound as anything but a twentysomething West Coaster, but that aside, she's never been more beautiful than in this movie. Whatever Coppola yelled at her, it worked; her Mina has a raging sexual beast somewhere deep, deep inside her, but neither Mina nor Ryder want anything to do with it. That's an irresistible temptation for a centuries-old demon, and on that point, it's quite easy to suspend belief.

It gets difficult again at the end. I certainly don't want to give anything away, but is that... the flash of redemption we see there before the final credits roll? What, love really conquers all? Really? Once you start wondering what Coppola has gone to all this trouble for, besides the lusty bath in the atmo, the whole project, for me, anyway, begins to slip away.

Best sequence of all time?  
on April 2, 2002 - 3:08 AM PST
  of Goodfellas (1990)
7 out of 8 members found this review helpful

Fairly late into the film, Liotta's character starts narrating the story of the day -- just an afternoon, really -- he got nabbed. Coked up and sweating, he's got dinner on the stove, a delivery to make, the kids are crowding his ankles and he thinks the helicopters are following him. Definitely one of my favorite sequences in any movie ever. You can adjust the circumstances (and the state of mind), but thisis what it feels like to be an adult. You're just doing your damnedest, is all. Juggling your responsibilities, struggling to keep them all afloat and hoping like hell you won't be found out for the fraud you really are. Truly brilliant.

And, yes, of course, the rest of the movie is excellent. This is Martin Scorsese, after all, and one of his best. He's on his home turf; what's not to like?

First smart move: Pesci's character suddenly lashing out in the very first scene, jabbing the poor lost soul in the trunk of the car. This is a newsflash to the audience: We won't be holding back here, folks. If this sort of thing makes you queasy, walk out/turn off now, because anything can happen from here on in. That knowledge -- anything can happen, we won't be pulling punches, these people are ruthless -- serves the horror genre well and gives this gangster flick its first jolt of adrenalin: for the next two and a half hours, anyone anywhere on the screen might lash out like that again.

Loud, lusty, robust.  
on March 27, 2002 - 3:52 AM PST
  of Amarcord (Criterion Collection) (1974)
14 out of 14 members found this review helpful

I'm a little worried that the blurb above is going to make it sound like there's no "plot" here and scare people away from what's probably my favorite Fellini. You want a good story? There are dozens of good stories here, driven by marvellously eccentric, earthy, sexy, sometimes scary but always very much alivecharacters. Sure, if you're looking at the trees rather than the forest, you'd call it episodic, but it holds together much more tightly than, say, Fellini's Roma. You've got your Aristotelian beginning, middle and end, you've got your unities of time and place.

And what a time, but above all, what a place. This is a movie to get lost in, an Italy so lusty and loud and robust it'd tip over into the stereotypical if it weren't 100 percent Federico Fellini. There's the wonderful scene, for example, when the townspeople go out to watch a cruise ship pass. A blatant studio set, rolling sheets of black material for waves, a cardboard cut-out for the ship that nevertheless looks like an entire city passing through the night.

This is a movie in love with sights like these, with the sound of virbrant voices calling across the town square, in love with pungent, persistent memory itself.

The true meaning of "Capraesque"  
on March 24, 2002 - 8:51 AM PST
  of It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
3 out of 4 members found this review helpful

In one of my favorite reviews of this "ubiquitous holiday chestnut," Sean Nelson remindsus in The Strangerof the true meaning of "Capraesque" by also reminding us just what a dark movie It's a Wonderful Lifetruly is: "En route to his tearful redemption, our George is put through a Job-like incrementum of humiliation, emasculation, and depredation, all of which issue from his inability to be selfish."

But that, of course, is what makes the redemption "work," at least for the moment, and what makes the film far richer than you might think if all you ever saw of it was the "angel gets his wings" snippet.

For a dissenting opinion, see David Mamet in Sight and Sound. Picking up on an old thesis -- that Frank Capra didn't know (or more cynically, didn't want you to know) the first thing about banking or how the financial system really works -- Mamet writes, "This, it seems, is as close as Hollywood can get to the notion of an equitable distribution of wealth -- the reliance on a person of character in a position usually occupied by the heartless."

So far, so good. But much of what else Mamet has to say is bunk. Capra's characters are no more notthe "other" than De Sica's (is Mamet, of all people, mistaking neorealism for reality?); I've seen plenty of middle Americans (smart ones, too) deeply, viscerally relate to George Bailey (and of course, a lot of the credit here has to go to Jimmy Stewart; it's a phenomenal performance); and what's more, ifCapra is saying "that all one needs is a kindly banker," then thatis Capra's critique.

In 1947, happy endings were as part and parcel to Hollywood product as cherries were to ice cream sodas. Everyone understood that actually eating them was optional.

The Embarrassing Side of the 70s  
on March 23, 2002 - 5:40 AM PST
  of Harold and Maude (Criterion) (1971)
20 out of 35 members found this review helpful

First things first. You dohave to see this movie at some point in your life. It's just one of those required viewing lessons in social history. No way around it. As the blurb mentions, this was standard "midnight movie" fare for a good ten years after its release. At least.

Second, no bones about it, both Ruth Gordon and Bud Cort are terrific. The movie was a blessing for Gordon, whose earlier career had previously been pretty much forgotten. Without Harold and Maude, she probably wouldn't have got the book deal that eventually followed, her memoirs in which she utters one of the most important pieces of advice you'll ever hear: "Keep your bowels moving."

Unfortunately, the movie was something of a curse for poor Bud Cort. No one could ever look at those ET-like eyes again without thinking: Harold. Very tough for him to get cast in any other role, and sadly, he was last seen in Wim Wenders's pathetic Million Dollar Hotel.

Then, the movie didlaunch the directing career of Hal Ashby, an editor who directed this, his first feature, at the age of 42. He'd later give us far better work such as Shampoo, Bound for Gloryand his masterpiece, Being There.

Ashby's flower child background is written all over this movie. If the 70s were all about digesting the radical break of the 60s (arguable, but go with it), what we have here is an amalgam of all the gooshy stuff released by that break. This movie is a prime example of why the 70s for many was the "Me Decade." When I saw it way back when, I must have been about Harold's age, but I'd regale my friends who loved the movie with my own version of Harold and Maude's leitmotif, "If you wanna sing out, sing out," in which I merely extended the logic: "If you wanna rape dogs, rape dogs."

You can't argue with the gist of the movie, of course: Life is good. Get out there and enjoy it. The problem is, though it tackles such essential existential questions (remember, Sartre and Camus were still all the rage), its simplistic approach is truly embarrassing 30 years on. Free love: good, military: bad, and so on. Stylistically, it's impossible not to look at those washed-out colors, long lens shots, all underlaid with Cat Stevens's quintessential goofy-hippie soundtrack without realizing that you're looking at a remarkable relic of a now-very-distant past. And good riddance.

Watch it with that in mind and it's gotta be a kick.

Gloriously Impossible  
on March 22, 2002 - 2:04 AM PST
  of Everyone Says I Love You (1996)
1 out of 3 members found this review helpful

As a Woody Allen fan, I'm naturally glad that he manages to pump out a movie a year. On the other hand, though, it's a shame that that constant, clockwork production keeps knocking minor little gems like this one off the map.

Not only would no one ever say, "Everybody Says I Love Youis my favorite Woody Allen movie," but a lot of people, fans included, might forget he ever made it. If I had to recite the man's filmography, I'd be a dozen or so titles into the list before I even remembered this one.

But, as Andrew Sarris once wrote of Manhattan, the movie that finally changed his verdict on Woody Allen, "'Swonderful." What a lovely, absurd juxtaposition: Allen's nervous realism of surfaces and minor neuroses slapped up against the raw emotional exposure of a good old-fashioned musical number. It's no coincidence that when these non-singers (Allen included!) break out into song, they're almost always alone.

Oh, and then there's Venice, probably Allen's second-favorite city in the world. The perfect setting for him to take Goldie Hawn's hand and do something utterly yet gloriously impossible with her.

And the "New Hollywood" was born.  
on March 21, 2002 - 8:13 AM PST
  of Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
7 out of 8 members found this review helpful

How do you begin to describe the shockwaves this movie sent through Hollywood back in 1967? Well, fortunately, that's already been done in Peter Biskind's excellent Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, a history of the "New Hollywood" with each chapter more or less focusing on a single film for each year of the decade many now talk about as a "golden age." And for Biskind, the 70s started in '67 with this movie.

There are a couple of reasons it rattled Hollywood's cage, but mainly, director Arthur Penn summed it up best at the time: "We're in the Vietnamese War, this film cannot be immaculate and sanitized and bang-bang. It's fucking bloody."

But of course, it was more than that. Screenwriters Robert Benton and David Newman turn out to be pretty quotable, too: "The thing we loved about Bonnie and Clyde wasn't that they were bank robbers, because they were lousy bank robbers. The thing about them that made them so appealing and relevant, and so threatening to society, was that they were aesthetic revolutionaries."

For me, the movie is a key turning point in an ongoing dialogue between European and American moviemaking. Broadly sketched: after WWII, Europe was deluged with American product. In France, Truffaut and Godard in particular ate it up and spit it back out, shot through with all kinds of spunky new life. And they were particularly wild about the gangster genre.

Well, Benton and Newman were big Truffaut and Godard fans. They saw Breathlesstogether in 1963; Benton watched Jules and Jim12 times in two months. And they wrote Bonnie and Clydein the hopes that Truffaut would direct it.

Nothing against Truffaut, of course, but I'm glad Warren Beatty tapped Arthur Penn instead. Not only is he an enormously inventive and intuitive director -- my favorite scene: the moment, the mere split-second of silence when our two anti-heroes realize they're about to be literally blown to bits; and look at each other with that this is itlook -- but Penn simply got into the nooks and crannies of an America Truffaut wouldn't have known to look for.

One last point. The "New Hollywood" probably would have happened with or without this movie, but Bonnie and Clydecertainly jump-started it. Besides opening doors to fresh filmmakers, though, it also helped launch the career of the "NH"s most important cheerleader, Pauline Kael. She submitted a 1000-word rave to The New Republic, and when it was rejected, she went to The New Yorkerwith it (look for it in the indispensible For Keeps: 30 Years at the Movies).

So the stage was set. Young talent, weened on 60s counterculture, would take their projects to LA while, from her perch in NYC, Kael would harangue the upper and middle classes looking for countercultural cred into creating a market for their work. A perfect match.

Because these filmmakers and Kael were after the same thing. It's all in Kael's stand-out line from her review of B and C: "The audience is alive to it." That, more than spectacle, more than craft, more than professionalism, was the one dominant criterion. Aesthetic revolution indeed.

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