MOVIE REVIEWS BY DAVE SMITH

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THE DEPARTED

Howard Hawks could direct anything. He was so versatile, he made excellent films in almost every genre. There are not many directors who can do that. Frank Capra and Alfred Hitchcock were at their best when they stuck to the thing they did best. The same can be said of Martin Scorsese. Scorsese recently made films like Gangs of New York and The Aviator. While these films were not bad, they were not as good as they could have been. I did not care for Gangs of New York. It seemed to me Leonardo DeCaprio was miscast. It also seems that DeCaprio is Scorsese's new DeNiro. Scorsese evidently likes DeCaprio's work. DeCaprio does seem to be maturing and he is at his best in The Departed. So is Scorsese. Scorsese's best work has been in violent, gangster films. Mean Streets and Goodfellas are already classics of that genre.

Like Robert Altman, Scorsese has no trouble recruiting actors to play in his films. The Departed is like a who's who in Hollywood. In addition to DeCaprio, there is Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Martin Sheen, and Mark Wahlberg. They are all well cast. Damon and DeCaprio do their best to keep Jack Nicholson from stealing the film. To their credit, they do so. Nicholson is powerful as usual in the role of Costello, the mob boss in South Boston. Damon and DeCaprio are both "rats." Damon, on the police force, is a spy for Nicholson. DeCaprio is an undercover cop who has infiltrated the mob. It becomes general knowledge that each side has a "rat." Who will uncover "the rat" in their midst first?

The plot is deliciously complex and rather unpredictable. As is the case with Scorsese's gangster films, this one is riddled with the "F" word. How this will be cleaned up for television is beyond me. There's a lot of blood and gore in addition to the foul language. But the film is one of Scorcese's best. He has been nominated for an Oscar for best director six times but has never won. Could this be his year?

THE ILLUSIONIST

Way back in 1953 Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh starred in a film called, "Houdini." It was based on the life of the famous escape artist and magician, Harry Houdini. It was one of the most successful films based on magic. The problem with doing a film on magic is that the audience is immediately in a disbelieving state, knowing that all kinds of tricks can easily be performed on film. Even when we see David Copperfield on TV, we wonder how much of the magic is conjured up by special effects. Magic has always been most successful on a stage. Seeing magic "live" increases the sense of wonderment.

One of the first people to experiment with motion pictures was the French magician Georges Melies. Melies startled the world using double exposures, matched dissolves, and other filmatic tricks that the audience of that day could not understand. His famous "A Trip to the Moon" even predicted the way space capsules would eventually "splash down" in the ocean. Today the movie audience is much more sophisticated and therefore highly suspicious of magic tricks on film. Fortunately the magic in "The Illusionist" is somewhat secondary. It is obvious that many of the illusions, especially those involving the appearance of ghost-like images, are created digitally.

Edward Norton is Eisenheim, a mysterious figure who suddenly appears with a magic act that creates a sensation in Vienna in 1900. Jessica Biel is Sophia, a soon-to-be princess. Rufus Sewell is the prince who wants to be King and the villain in this plot. For those of you who are admirers of Paul Giamatti, you will not be disappointed with his work here. Giamatti all but steals the film from the principals. Overall the cast is excellent although I have some problems with Norton as the mysterious magician. Norton is simply not dark and mysterious enough. For this role, someone like David Strathairn might have been more believable.

However I'm not complaining. The film is highly entertaining and holds your attention even if the plot twist is pretty obvious early on. Adding to the pleasure are the wonderful costumes and the set design which beautifully reflects the Vienna of 1900.

FLYBOYS

If you want to see a film about the flyboys of World War I, I recommend Wings released in 1927. William Wellman, the director and John Monk Saunders, who wrote the original story were both ace pilots during "the great war." The flying sequences were real. Few films since have equaled the authenticity of the exciting sequences in the air. In 1929 Wings won the first Oscar given for best picture.

Now one of the problems some people might have with wings is that it is a SILENT film. However you can get a copy which has a sound track with music especially composed for the film. Richard Arlen, Charles "Buddy" Rogers, and Clara Bow are the stars. Gary Cooper makes a fleeting, but notable, appearance. If you haven't seen a silent film, this may be a good one for you. The dog fights in the air were all real and the plane crashes were done by Dick Grace, Hollywood's best stunt pilot at that time.

Wings cost $2,000,000 to make. Flyboys cost 60,000,000. Wings looks real while Flyboys looks like a video game. As a matter of fact, you can now buy a Flyboys video game. At least to me, one of the big problems with this film is the unrealistic air dogfights. It is very obvious these were all done with digital effects. There are other things in this movie which are also artificial, including some of the acting. Martin Henderson is all wrong as the veteran ace flyer in the Lafayette Escadrille. This part has all the potential of being a delicious role for someone who could really be believable as the tired, callous, yet caring veteran. Henderson never reaches that potential. James Franco is the leading man in this film and he is good but has some problems, not the least of which is his having seen too many James Dean movies. Franco does look like Dean and his acting is highly suggestive of Dean. However he does have a certain naturalness, especially when he is in the same scenes with Henderson. I believe Franco has all the tools of a good actor. He might make it.

The rest of the cast is just adequate. No one stands out except for Jean Reno. You should recognize Reno the minute you see him. He was the "hit man" in The Professional with a very young Natalie Portman. In Flyboys, he is the tired, but caring Commander of the Escadrille. He is by far the most believable actor in this film.

The subject of this film has great potential. It is too bad that the best we can say about it is that it might make a good video game.

ALL THE KING'S MEN

Not many critics have given this movie a good review. However I recommend it for no other reason than to see Sean Penn's bravura performance. OK maybe Penn does go over the top a little and maybe his heavy southern accent is hard to understand, but there is no denying the power of his performance. In fact, some reviewers have said that one of the problems with this movie is that we don't see enough of Penn. Director Steven Zaillian has put more emphasis on the subplot than was necessary. Perhaps it was because he had these high priced, high profile actors ...Anthony Hopkins, Jude Law and Kate Winslet and thought he had to beef up the subplot in order to use them more. Big mistake! Britishers Law and Winslet have trouble affecting a believable southern accent and Hopkins doesn't even try. Law and Winslet suffer from extreme blandness, especially when they are up against Penn.

It's always tough to do a remake of a very successful movie. The 1949 film of this Robert Penn Warren novel won a best picture Oscar. There is no danger that this one will do that. Broderick Crawford won an Oscar for best actor. There is a chance Penn might get nominated but his chances will be diminished by the savage reviews the film is getting. Mercedes McCambridge won an Oscar for best supporting actress. Patricia Clarkson isn't in the same league as McCambridge. James Gandolfini, taking a break from "The Sopranos," is one of the bright spots in the film. His portrayal of "Tiny" is right on target. South Bend, Indiana native Ralph Dumke played "Tiny" in the original. Despite the fact he is not a Hoosier, I think Gandolfini is better.

Everyone knows the subject of this film is Huey Long, former governor of Louisiana. In the film he is called Willie Stark. Long was a hick, elected by hicks. He kept many of his campaign promises, building roads, bridges, health clinics and schools in a state that sorely needed them. His dictatorial style made many enemies. He was assassinated by the son-in-law of a political enemy.

The story of the life of Huey Long is fascinating. Unfortunately this film is not.  

INVINCIBLE

Yes...as one critic put it...this film is shamelessly rigged for cheers, but wasn't "Rudy?" Wasn't "Hoosiers?" How about rigged for cheers and tears...like "Pride of the Yankees?" Please, that's what most sports films are all about. They are supposed to be inspirational so let's not berate them for catering to our emotions. "Invincible" tries to be a "feel good" movie and in that respect it succeeds. Sure there are embellishments by the screenwriter. The real Vince Papale (played very well by Mark Wahlberg) had a secure job as a full time teacher. He wasn't fired as the movie suggests. He also played wide-receiver on a semi-pro team which is where Dick Vermeil (played not quite so well by Greg Kinnear) became interested in him.

The director and screenwriter also invented a girlfriend who happens to be a Giants fan and who knows as much about sports as Vince. Not a likely scenario, but it's possible. As this story goes, Vince is the star of a sandlot football team. These are real macho guys who wear no equipment and love to play in the rain and mud. When Dick Vermeil comes to coach the Philadelphia Eagles and announces there will be "open try-outs," all of Vince's buddies urge him to go. Reluctantly he decides to give it a try. Naturally he is the best and fastest guy in a group of stumbling, bumbling, overweight, and most un-athletic guys the casting director could find. When it is announced Vince has made the team, cheers resound throughout the blue collar neighborhood.

Do we need to tell you about the big finish? I think not. At the end of the film we get to see the real Vince Papale and even see him in action on the playing field. "Invincible" is a nice little movie. Just don't go expecting too much.

LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE

This low budget little film received a standing ovation after it was screened at the Sun Dance Film Festival.  After seeing it, I can understand why this happened.  It's a refreshing little film.  No big stars, no huge special effects, no trite script and, to top it off, it's an honest-to-goodness-satire.  What does it satirize?  Those little "beauty contests" which feature pubescent girls dressed in sexy clothes and lathered in make-up.  Is there something wrong with this kind of an event? 

Well there is nothing wrong with this film.  Like "Prairie Home Companion," it's a breath of fresh air.  They don't make many movies like this any more.  A screwball dysfunctional family decides to enter their 7 year old daughter in a kiddy beauty/talent contest.  They have to travel from New Mexico to California in a broken-down old van that won't start unless it is pushed and has a horn that blares intermittently for no reason.  Grandpa, played by the irrepressible Alan Arkin, has been kicked out of his Nursing Home for snorting cocaine.  He is the one who is teaching little Olive (Abigail Breslin) how to perfect her act for the contest.  Her brother, Dwayne, is so depressed he has taken a vow of silence and doesn't speak.  The father, Greg Kinnear, is a failed motivational speaker.  Kinnear's brother, played by Steve Carrell, is the number one Proust scholar in America. He has just attempted suicide because his male lover left him for the number two Proust scholar. Toni Collette is the long suffering Mom who doesn't quite know how to handle her family.

With a cast like this, how can you go wrong? Somehow this family makes it to California.  Unfortunately Grandpa died along the way.  However they don't have time to dispose of the body so they just take him along.  (A la Imogene Coca in "National Lampoon's Vacation.") The climactic moment when little Olive gets to compete with a dazzling array of overly talented little girls dressed in Jon Benet Ramsey type costumes is somewhat of a surprise.

This is a film which proves the old adage that "less is more."  You don't need big money, spectacular sets, the latest digital effects, the biggest stars...all you need is a good script and a nice ensemble of excellent actors.

 

A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION

81-year-old director Robert Altman said he had to get a back-up director for this film "in case I croak." Altman didn't croak and this film is all the better for it. Garrison Keillor who created the well- known NPR radio show, A Prairie Home Companion, wrote the screenplay and leads a top notch cast which includes, Meryl Streep, Lilly Tomlin, Kevin Kline, Woody Harrelson, John C. Reilly, Tommy Lee Jones and Lindsay Lohan. The premise is that the radio show, after 32 years on the air is about to be cancelled so the theatre can be torn down to make room for a parking lot. The whole movie centers around the last broadcast.

This is a film which will appeal to those who don't care about a plot. Like Sienfield, it's almost a show about nothing. Altman never has any problem getting well known actors to play in his movies. He is an actor's director and the actors know it. He gives them free rein and a lot of the dialogue is made up on the spot. Meryl Streep who just played one of the most sophisticated women of today in "The Devil Wears Prada" transforms herself into a country singer. As the Johnson Sisters, she and Lilly Tomlin do several duets using their own very good singing voices. Woody Harrelson and the multi-talented John C. Reilly are cowboys who sing songs about bad jokes. Kevin Kline plays Guy Noir, a down-on-his-luck private dectective who is now a security guard at the theatre.

Keillor holds the whole thing together with his effortless manner while showing off one of the best voices ever heard on radio. Keillor doesn't seem to mind that the show is going off the air. He seems ready to just call it quits and go on to something else...whatever that may be. The secret to the success of this film are the actors and the characters they portray. They are all fascinating personalities. They wander on and off camera with reckless abandon. This film may not be a "Nashville" or a "MASH" but who could ask for more than a film which combines the talents of a Garrison Keillor and a Robert Altman?

THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA

Although the story for this film is based on a best seller, there is a feeling we have seen this plot before.  You know, the fresh-faced college girl (Anne Hathaway) goes out to face the real world for the first time?  Against all odds she gets a job most young women "would kill for." She becomes an assistant to Miranda (Meryl Streep), who is the powerful editor in chief of Runway Magazine.  Runway is THE number one fashion magazine..  Streep takes one glance at this hapless young woman who still dresses like a college girl, and guess what?  She hires her on the spot!

If you haven't already put yourself in a state of suspended reality, you'd better do it quick.  Because Andy (Hathaway) rapidly transforms herself into not only a fashion plate, but the best assistant Miranda ever had!  Ah, but that is what movies are all about...isn't it?   We love to see improbable situations turn into dreams come true.

The movie is well cast, with Streep's portrayal of a woman who has sold her soul to her job practically guaranteeing her another Oscar nomination.  Hathaway, who you may remember from "The Princess Diaries" and "Brokeback Mountain," is solid as the college kid dramatically converted and more than willing to sell her soul to get ahead.  Incidentally Hathaway has "Bette Davis Eyes."  It's almost distracting to look at her as her eyes widen into big white pools.

One of the best character actors to come along in recent years is Stanley Tucci.  His talent knows no bounds.  He can do anything.  In this film, he is Miranda's number one fashion maven who shows he has a heart by helping Andy transform herself.  There is nothing really new in this plot.  There is even the obligatory scene where we finally see Miranda with her guard down and discover she is really human.  

The best reason to see this film is Meryl Streep (and perhaps Tucci).  Streep (with silver hair) still looks good and still commands the screen.  With ten Oscar nominations and one win ("Sophie's Choice"), this could be Streep's eleventh nomination and...her second Oscar?

DE-LOVELY

When Kevin Kline entered Indiana University, he was a music major. He could play the piano very well and he was an excellent singer. However he happened to attend an audition for "Macbeth" and I.U. Professor Bill Kinzer asked him to read some lines. He did and was cast as "The Bleeding Soldier." He said, "It was fun." This sealed his fate. he switched his major to drama and the rest, as they say, is history.

Cole Porter was not an actor and was not a very good singer. However he was one of the most sophisticated and talented song-writers America ever produced. Kline certainly had to be familiar with Porter although there is no evidence he performed in any Porter musical while at I.U.

While Kline bears little physical resemblance to Porter, he is successful in capturing the moods of a man who was carefree and casual on the outside, but who endured much physical and societal pain. This movie is far superior to the 1946 biopic "Night and Day." At that time when Porter was asked who he wanted to play him, he replied facetiously, "Cary Grant!" The film was fun but pure fantasy.

"De-Lovely" is much closer to the real story of Cole Porter. But like most movies, certain scenes are added that have little or no basis in fact. Robert Kimball, Porter biographer and technical advisor to De-Lovely, states that there is no evidence Porter was ever black-mailed by a male lover. He also states that contrary to the film, Porter never frequented any gay clubs or bars. Porter was actually a bi-sexual. His wife, Linda, (played tenderly and understandingly by Ashley Judd) had a miscarriage with their only try for a child. Linda often selected male partners for him, being careful to pick only those she knew could be trusted to be discreet. Theirs was indeed a unique relationship, showing their love for each other was strong and lasting.

"De-Lovely" is a film which will not have wide appeal. It is primarily a musical and it's told in flashbacks, neither format is particularly popular in this day and age. But for those of us who yearn for the days when much time, effort and talent went into the writing of brilliantly clever lyrics and sophisticated melodies, this film is a real treat. It is comforting to see artists like Elvis Costello, Sheryl Crow, Alanis Morissette, Robbie Williams, Diana Krall and Natalie Cole singing from "The Cole Porter Songbook." For us, at least, it's an exhilarating film.

The Brave One

The Bourne Ultimatum

Waitress

Once

La Vie En Rose

Ocean's Thirteen

Fracture

Avenue Montaigne

The Hoax

Lives of Others

Premonition

Venus

Children of Men

Freedom Writers

Dreamgirls

Night at the Museum

Holiday

Bobby

Deja Vu

The Queen

Flags of Our Fathers

The Prestige

Chicago

Gangs of New York

Femme Fatale

Monster's Ball

Planet of the Apes

Chocolat

Small Time Crooks

Where the Heart Is

Return to Me

Erin Brokavich

Liberty Heights

Topsy-Turvy

Magnolia

The Talented Mr. Ripley

The Green Mile

Double Jeopardy




 

All contents of this website 2000-2013 by David L. Smith

"When Movies Were Movies" and "Hoosiers in Hollywood" are registered trademarks, fully protected under U.S. and International law. Use without permission is strictly prohibited.

 

Home |Silents Please! |The Golden Age |Current Films |Hoosiers in Hollywood |Movie Music  |About Me |Links |Linking to the Site |Guestbook |Contact Dave

 

 

All contents of this website 2000-2013 by David L. Smith

"When Movies Were Movies" and "Hoosiers in Hollywood" are  registered trademarks, fully protected under U.S. and International law. Use without permission is strictly prohibited.

 

Home |Silents Please! |The Golden Age |Current Films |Hoosiers in Hollywood |Movie Music | |About Me |Links |Linking to the Site |Guestbook |Contact Dave