Wednesday, September 01, 2021

Candyman (Bernard Rose, 1992)

I avoided this for decades because I assumed it was just another body-shaming, sex-phobic gorefest. Color me stunned that it achieves a stateliness quite uncharacteristic of the genre. The body count is minimal which allows the narrative to focus on semiotics (!) grad student Helen's (Virgina Madsen) investigation of the title folk anti-hero (Tony Todd) terrorizing the residents of Chicago's Cabrini-Green housing project. The film's biggest drawback is the cartoonish depiction of the projects which comes off scarier than the Bates Motel. There is an attempt to imagine the texture of daily ghetto life in the character of Anne-Marie (Vanessa Williams; no, no that one), a single mother trying to raise her infant Tony. But overall, the haunted-house characterization of Cabrini-Green feels designed to play off (and confirm) the unexamined fears of white viewers. And if Helen is the rare narrative-driving, intelligent female protagonist, why do we see her breasts several times and never her husband Trevor's (Xander Berkeley) butt? 100% serious question.

Grade: B+

P. S. Dig the poster below. The scariest film since...last year???

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Tuesday, August 31, 2021

The Bridge on the River Kwai (David Lean, 1957)

There's a terrific film lurking somewhere in here. The climactic bridge destruction will file your fingernails down to nubs. But Lean cannot resist puffing everything up into An Oscar Film®. At 161 minutes, a good forty minutes could easily be shorn, especially all the scenes of William Holden in paradise. Also, even though Oscar films are supposed to be selling narrative dexterity, the storytelling is sloppy. It's naive, at best, to posit that the film must end with said bridge destruction. It leaves so many questions unanswered, namely, the fate of everyone involved, both prisoners and captors. Set a Don Siegel or a Raoul Walsh on it and this thing would snap. Then again, it would come across as a "mere" genre pic and get ignored by the Academy, as if An Oscar Film® weren't its own genre with limitations and patterns.

Grade (my affection is waning so I better get this in now): B+

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Friday, August 20, 2021

Ben-Hur (William Wyler, 1959)

Damn straight the chariot race and the sea battle and the driving of the galley slaves are excitement incarnate. Would that they o'ercrowed the dialogue scenes which Wyler just could not get a handle on. Exhausted or overwhelmed with the project, he shoots far too many moments in establishing long takes. A simple shot-reverse shot becomes cause for celebration. Otto Preminger could have made such unintensified continuity sing. But alas, he was helming an infinitely superior project at the time. Running time: 3:42:27.

Grade: C-minus

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Patton (Franklin J. Schaffner, 1970)

Honest, I tried to find the slightest hint of personality in this tumescent warhorse. The slashing windmill comparing Patton to Don Quixote was a much appreciated touch of looniness. But that may have hit harder because it comes at the blessed end of the film. And there's one terrific shot (again, towards the end of the film) of Patton wrestling with his legacy, his portrait on one side of the frame and, on the other, the general himself getting reprimanded yet again for ignorant comments meant to instigate eternal war. But overall, Patton is about as exciting as series of battle plans because that's exactly what it is. The vast majority of the running time is taken up with battle plans and maps and conferences and newsreels and stats and figures and ugh! It all reminded me of the number-crunching rationalizations that did nothing to help America win the Vietnam War raging at the time of release. No wonder it was Nixon's favorite film.

Grade: C-minus

Gandhi (Richard Attenborough, 1982)

I learned a lot and that's about the best I could say for this Wikipedia article masquerading as a blockbuster. So in the spirit of the film, I searched its Wikipedia page for dissenting voices and was struck by this trenchant comment from Makarand R. Paranjape: “Gandhi, though hagiographical, follows a mimetic style of film-making in which cinema, the visual image itself, is supposed to portray or reflect ‘reality.’” But a closer reading revealed that this was trotted out as a positive critique. Scare quotes won't make Attenborough's mimetic approach any less stillborn. The film is mere reportage and thus stylistically indistinguishable from other impersonal Oscar winners like Patton or Spotlight

Grade: B-minus

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Thursday, August 19, 2021

Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar (Josh Greenbaum, 2021)

I do too love contemporary Hollywood cinema. It's just that I cannot stomach franchises and Marvel/DC/Disney tentpoles and feel-bad horror flicks and middlebrow Oscarbait which leaves...Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar! For sure, it adheres to a formula as much as anything listed above, xeroxing the template for Booksmart and, especially, Romy and Michele's High School Reunion. And the Marxist in me needed more information about how the title duo can afford to go to Vista del Mar after being laid off from Jennifer Convertibles. But Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo's stoopid screenplay has no room for logic or even information as evinced by my favorite line of the film screenshot below. And they deserve props for the warm, gentle fun they poke at a culture rarely represented for being so widespread: middle-aged women of middle America who attend craft fairs, watch QVC, join book clubs, and chat 'til they drop. All that and it's a musical too! Hooray for Hollywood! 

Grade: A-minus

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Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Out of Africa (Sydney Pollack, 1985)

The only thing preventing this biopic of Karen Blixen/Isak Dinesen from achieving classical-Hollywood elegance is a typically 1980s case of elephantiasis. Cut it down by at least 45 minutes, especially the  romance with Robert Redford (pretty but dull and in desperate need of Blistex), and Pollack would've created a film to remember a year after seeing it. As it stands, it's shockingly watchable for such a project. The story derives much of its tension from a buy-now-pay-never sexuality one tends to associate with the 1960s. Klaus Maria Brandauer's Baron Bror von Blixen, Dinesen's faithless husband, is no more fickle than Redford's Denys Finch Hatton. He just provides a lot less gotta-be-me-babe justifications for his roaming and both men give Meryl Streep's Dinesen no peace. But now let's have Farah Aden's story.

Grade: B+

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Monday, August 16, 2021

The Amityville Horror (Stuart Rosenberg, 1979)

The Amityville Horror is a horribly written film. In an unexpected preview of writing in the Peak TV era, events shine with such diamond-cased episodicity that they have no bearing on the narrative encasing it. A toilet burbles up with nasty Texas Tea...and we never hear about it again. A craggy, sniffly dude comes to the back door offering a six pack of beer as a welcoming gift...and we never hear from him again. However, the flapping threads actually work in the film's favor. You feel the Lutz family's disorientation as they weather all manner of supernatural foolishness in the notorious murder house. At 118 minutes, it's far too long. And poor Rod Steiger looks totally lost as a beat-down priest. But this improbably popular horror flick, the number two box office champ of 1979 behind, ugh, Kramer vs. Kramer, is much better than I remembered. Trivia: screenwriter Sandor Stern wrote and directed the creepy Pin (1989) and three of his four sons formed the hardcore-punk band Youth Brigade.

Grade: B

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Friday, August 13, 2021

Chariots of Fire (Hugh Hudson, 1981)

I'm not sure how fresh 1981 audiences found the spinning newspapers, training montages, overused sound advances, and witless dialogue ("So where does the power come from to see the race to its end?" "From within." For real??). But today, this dreary biopic comes off like an SNL parody. It's not even all that solid as a narrative; Harold and Sybil meet in one scene and they're already an item making heavy life decisions in the next? That's Oscar material? Yes. The only thing that could save it is amped-up homoeroticism and Top Gun surpassed it in that realm. As parables about the waning of empire go, I'll take Titanic.

Grade: C and dropping

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