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HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY (1941) (****)

This film has become somewhat of an infamous footnote in cinema history, having the distinction of beating out masterpieces CITIZEN KANE and THE MALTESE FALCON for the best picture Oscar. Certainly those films are “better” than this one, but it doesn’t change the dramatic power that this film presents.

It’s melodramatic and nostalgic, but it tells a gritty story of poor miners and the sacrifices they have to make without ever preaching a message. Film master John Ford is too good for that. The story is narrated by a grown Huw Morgan, played as a child by Roddy McDowall (PLANET OF THE APES). We see the story unfold as Huw’s family deals with hardships at the mine and personal turmoil. The disintegration of the Morgan family is mirrored by the disintegration of the town.

Blogs

HIGH SPIRITS (1988) (**)

Neil Jordan is a great filmmaker, who has made films like MONA LISA, THE CRYING GAME and INTERVIEW WITH A VAMPIRE. This comedy/horror mix shows none of the skill Jordan has displayed in any of his other films. However, in Jordan’s defense, he was left out of the editing process by the studio and claims that the film he wanted to make is not what was released.

Peter Plunkett (Peter O’Toole, THE LION IN WINTER) has turned his ancestral castle into a hotel and is about to loose it to the bank, which plans to move it to Malibu. His mother (Liz Smith, A GOOD THIEF) has told him for years that the castle has ghosts, so he devises a plan to turn the castle into a theme hotel where the staff dresses up in sheets and tries to scare the guests. The guests include: the ineffectual Jack (Jeff Guttenberg, COCOON) and his demanding wife Sharon (Beverly D’Angelo, NATIONAL LAMPOON’S VACATION), sex pot tease Miranda (Jennifer Tilly, BOUND), soon-to-be priest Brother Tony (Peter Gallagher, SEX, LIES AND VIDEOTAPE) and parapsychologist Malcolm (Martin Ferrero, THE TAILOR OF PANAMA) and his doubting family.

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HEAVEN OR VEGAS (1999) (**)

Deep within this turd of a movie is a wonderful redemption story trying to find its way. Writer/director Gregory C. Haynes has something going at times, but ruins it with flights of fantasy that just don’t hold up. The film can’t make up its mind whether it wants to be a romantic adult fantasy or a thoughtful redemption story. As it stands both directions don’t work at all.

But the film isn’t just brought down by a split-personality screenplay, but also its leads Richard Grieco (TV’s 21 JUMP STREET) and Yasmine Bleeth (TV’s BAYWATCH). Bleeth plays a stripper Rachel, who is stuck in adolescence, dreaming of the day her knight in shining armor will come and rescue her. One night she is attacked in a casino parking lot when depressed gigolo Navy (Grieco) comes to her aid. How this episode moves to Navy and Rachel hitting the road to Montana is pure fantasy.

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FATHER OF THE BRIDE (1950) (****)

I’ve never had an opinion on Spencer Tracy before. Now I see his greatness. Previously I’ve only seen him in films with Katharine Hepburn, who overshadows pretty much anyone else on the screen. In this film, Tracy is front and center as Stanley T. Banks, a man who is wrapped up in his only daughter’s wedding plans.

One night during dinner, Bank’s daughter Kay (Elizabeth Taylor, A PLACE IN THE SUN) tells him and his wife, Ellie (Joan Bennett, SUSPIRIA), that she is marrying Buckley Dunstan (Don Taylor, DAMIEN: OMEN II), who her parents don’t even know. The film chronicles the many trials and tribulations that Stanley goes through in the preparation for the big day from concerns about Buckley to an ever-expanding budget to the bride’s last minute doubts to coordinating all the people involved in the event.

Blogs

DRACULA: PAGES FROM A VIRGIN'S DIARY (2003) (***1/2)

Canadian director Guy Maddin is known in film circles for making avant-garde cinema. His DRACULA: PAGES FROM A VIRGIN’S DIARY is just that. The film's style perfectly captures the look and feel of a silent film like NOSFERATU. For effect, Maddin even uses color tinting to compliment the mood of the scenes. However, Maddin also uses the elements of silent films for comic effect — oh, how he has fun with melodramatic title cards.

Maddin tells the story of Dracula, mixing the plotline of the Bram Stoker novel with ballet. In 73 minutes, he boils down the plot into its key elements and presents an actually faithful adaptation of the Stoker tale. However, Maddin is too sly to make it that simple. He turns the novel’s themes of sexual promiscuity and foreign invaders into a contemporary satire on those issues. Dracula is played by Wei-Qiang Zhang, which highlights the irrational fears of immigration. The creature of the night stalks the blonde beauty Lucy (Tara Birtwhistle), but has his eyes set on the innocent Mina (CindyMarie Small, 2004's SHALL WE DANCE?). Queue the xenophobic Dr. Van Helsing (David Moroni).

Blogs

DONNIE DARKO: THE DIRECTOR’S CUT (2001) (****)

My original review of this film was very thin. I was tired when I first watched it and was quite confused when the film was over. I’ve seen it several times since then and read countless thoughts and philosophies about the film on the Internet. Now comes the Director’s Cut and I must say it is better than the original.

It brings in information about the time travel philosophy that makes the “how” of the film easier to figure out. However, the film still contains a mind-bending premise that haunts and baffles. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Donnie Darko, a troubled teen who fears death and being alone. His intelligence is intimidating. Like most teens he thinks about sex a lot and questions authority. But unlike most teens Donnie sees a six-foot rabbit named Frank (James Duval, INDEPENDENCE DAY), who tells him secrets about time travel, tangent universes and the end of the world.

Blogs

DINER (1982) (***1/2)

This buddy movie set in 1959 is a nostalgic look at a group of guys beginning to take on adult responsibilities. The plotline that brings these men back together in their childhood hometown is the wedding of Eddie Simmons (Steve Guttenberg, COCOON), who before he will marry his fiancé (which we never see throughout the film) must give the girl a quiz on football that she must pass. It is these kinds of quirky details that fill this funny film.

The other guys in the group include: Laurence “Shrevie” Screiber (Daniel Stern, CITY SLICKERS), who is already married to Beth (Ellen Barkin, THE BIG EASY), but has nothing in common with her; the ladies man with a gambling problem Robert “Boogie” Sheftell (Mickey Rourke, 9 1/2 WEEKS); jokester/ alcoholic/ trust-fund moocher Timothy Fenwick, Jr. (Kevin Bacon, FLATLINERS); talker and tag along Modell (Paul Reiser, TV’s MAD ABOUT YOU); and Billy Howard (Timothy Daly, TV’s WINGS), who impregnated his longtime platonic friend Barbara (Kathryn Dowling, CLARA’S HEART).

Blogs

CAROUSEL (1956) (**)

I was excited going into this film. A Rogers & Hammerstein musical dealing with one of my favorite subjects – the circus. Boy was I disappointed.

The story starts out with alpha male carousel barker Billy Bigelow (Gordon MacRae, OKLAHOMA!) in heaven hearing that there is trouble with his family back on Earth. After which, we flashback in time to when Billy met his wife Julie Jordon (Shirley Jones, ELMER GANTRY). Both end up losing their jobs over the meeting, but it doesn’t matter because they fall instantly in love with each other. After they're married, they live off Julie’s cousin Nettie (Claramae Turner). Then Billy gets caught up with shady Jigger Craigin (Cameron Mitchell, MY FAVORITE YEAR), which leads to Billy ending up in heaven where he asks to go back down to Earth to help his daughter Louise (Susan Luckey, THE MUSIC MAN).

Blogs

BULL DURHAM (1988) (***1/2)

I was not impressed upon my first viewing of this film years ago. I liked it more the second time around, but I still wasn’t blown away right after. However it stuck with me and I kept thinking about it. Maybe its reputation made me want to know what I was missing. But I think it’s the subtly of the film that had me off guard. Subtly doesn’t typically go hand in hand with sports movies.

This film also doesn’t have the “big game” plot line to string the characters along, which is an instant rooting factor for an audience. This film is actually about holding onto youth and missed chances that really don’t have anything to do with not trying hard enough. Ebby “Nuke” LaLoosh (Tim Robbins, BOB ROBERTS) is a promising young pitcher, who has a major control problem. He throws as many wild pitches and walks as he does strike outs. Veteran minor league catcher Crash Davis (Kevin Costner, DANCES WITH WOLVES) is brought in to help the kid mature.

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THE BIG KAHUNA (1999) (***)

Based on the play HOSPITALITY SUITE by Roger Rueff, the film practically takes place entirely in the hospitality suite of a hotel in Wichita, Kansas, during an industrial lubricant convention.

Phil Cooper (Danny DeVito, RUTHLESS PEOPLE) is a veteran of the company and has developed a calm distance from the tensions of the job. Bob Walker (Peter Facinelli, RIDNIG IN CARS WITH BOYS) is a very religious newbie. Larry Mann (Kevin Spacey, AMERICAN BEAUTY) is a verbose salesman, who is quite blunt. The goal for these men is to land a meeting with “The Big Kahuna” of the biggest industrial company in the Mid-West.

The story is a well-observed character study of the three main men. It deals with issues of character, sincerity and religion.

Blogs

Three All New Nik Phelps Performances

SUNDAY, February 27th Celebrate 79 years of Movies at the Balboa Theatre
Birthday Party.

Don't miss the rare opportunity to hear Nik Phelps perform his new original
score for the 1926 Greta Garbo classic TORRENT. Accompanying Nik will be
the incomparable pianist Frederick Hodges. In true 1926 movie fashion there
will be a vaudeville show featuring magician James Hamilton, Ms. Suzanne
(Kitten on the Keys) Ramsey on piano and witty vocals, a newsreel and Nik
and Frederick having musical fun with a cartoon.All this and prizes and
Birthday Cake too!!!!

SUNDAY, February 27 1:00 PM
Balboa Theatre - 3630 Balboa Street (at 37th Avenue) in San Francisco

Blogs

WHEN WILL I BE LOVED (2004) (**1/2)

The title to the movie is key to understanding partly the motivations of the lead character Vera (Neve Campbell, THE COMPANY), a cultured rich girl who lives in a fantastic loft apartment in New York City. Her boyfriend Ford (Frank Weller, BUSINESS OF STRANGERS) is a hustler, who always talks about his next big deal, which is really a figment of his imagination. Ford meets the Italian media mogul Count Tommaso (Dominic Chianese, DOG DAY AFTERNOON), who is smitten with Vera and wants to set up a liaison with her for $100,000.

Vera is a very sexual person, but may be looking for something more than what Ford or even the Count can give her. The fact that she doesn’t need the money makes her acceptance to meet the Count intriguing.

Blogs

SILVER CITY (2004) (***1/2)

I am quite a fan of John Sayles work. This time around Sayles constructs a political satire, which sets its eyes on the Bush administration.

Though its not direct, one can easily tell that the character of Dickie Pilager (Chris Cooper, ADAPTATION) is meant to represent George W. Bush. Pilager is running for the governor of Colorado. He’s a simple man who often has a hard time finding the right words to say when in front of the press. His father, Judson (Michael Murphy, TANNER ‘88), is a famed senator from the state and a leader of their party. Both politicians are funded heavily by mega-corporation head Wes Benteen (Kris Kristofferson, ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE).

Blogs

SHALL WE DANCE? (2004) (***)

This film is a remake of a Japanese film that I have not seen as of yet. However, I have a feeling the setting will make a big difference in my take on the original.

The American version moves the film from Japan to Chicago. John Clark (Richard Gere, CHICAGO) is an insurance salesman who doesn’t really demand much from life, but seems to be lacking something. He loves his hard-working wife Beverly (Susan Sarandon, ATLANTIC CITY) and his children Jenna (Tamara Hope, THE DEEP END) and Evan (Stark Sands, CATCH THAT KID). However, one night on the train ride home, John glimpses Paulina (Jennifer Lopez, ANGEL EYES) in the window of Miss Mitzi’s dance school, looking as sad as he feels.

Blogs

RAY (2004) (***1/2)

The best biopics are the ones that explore the person’s personality and RAY is at its best when it does just that. The film chronicles the rise to stardom of soul music inventor Ray Charles up until he goes into rehab to kick a heroine habit. The accomplishments of the man are amazing from combining gospel and R&B to gaining the right to own the masters of his songs to helping break down Jim Crow laws in the South.

The legendary singer is brought to startling life by Jamie Foxx (COLLATERAL). The actor deserves all the praise he has been getting for a performance that borders on channeling. He by far deserves the Oscar. But adding to the films distinguished performances are the many women in Charles’ life. Sharon Warren, in her film debut, brings raw emotion to the role of Charles’ mother, Aretha Robinson. Kerry Washington (SAVE THE LAST DANCE) brings emotional complexity to the role of Charles’ wife, Della Bea. Regina King (JERRY MAGUIRE) has never been better as Charles’ Raylette back-up singer and drug-addicted lover, Margie Hendricks.

Blogs

FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS (2004) (***1/2)

This film is the best film I’ve ever seen about high school football. Actually it's the best film I've seen about football period. It’s also a close second to HOOSIERS for the best high school sports movie as well. That's a lot of praise for a film in a genre that has a very strict plot structure. But what makes Peter Berg's film so good is how it uses the conventions of the genre to build tension and then u surprise us, making us re-think the nature of competition in general.

Billy Bob Thornton (BAD SANTA) plays Gary Gaines, head coach of the Permian High School Panthers football team in Texas. Based on a true story, the film chronicles how football is all that some small towns in the South live for. The film focuses on Gaines as well as three of the team’s key players – quarterback Mike Winchell (Lucas Black, SLING BLADE), running back Don Billingsley (Garrett Hedlund, TROY) and running back Boobie Miles (Derek Luke, ANTWONE FISHER).

Blogs

VERONIKA VOSS (1982) (***)

Director Rainer Werner Fassbinder is one of the most revered German directors. This is the first of his films that I have seen. We meet Veronika Voss (Rosel Zech, AIMEE & JAGUAR), an aging Nazi era actress. One night she has a run in with sportswriter Robert Krohn (Hilmar Thate), who becomes instantly infatuated with her despite having a girlfriend named Henriette (Cornelia Froboess).

Krohn quickly learns that Veronika is not mentally stable and is under the care of Dr. Marianne Katz (Annemarie Duringer, TV’s BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ). As Krohn gets to know Veronika more, he discovers the dark secrets behind the fall of the actress. The film works as a character study, a mystery and a metaphor all at the same time.

Blogs

AN UNMARRIED WOMAN (1978) (****)

This is one of the best and most honest films I’ve seen on how infidelity affects the cheated on. Erica (Jill Clayburgh, SILVER STREAK) and Martin (Michael Murphy, SALVADOR) seem to have a fairly stable marriage until one day he drops the news that he is having an affair with a younger woman. Erica is shocked and goes through a range of emotions trying to deal with the situation.

At first she leans on her friends – Sue (Patricia Quinn, CLEAN AND SOBER), Elaine (Kelly Bishop, DIRTY DANCING) and Jeannette (Linda Miller, TURNER & HOOCH). Each of them has their own problems, some worse off than Erica. The film also deals with how the breakup affects Erica and Martin’s daughter Patti (Lisa Lucas, HEART AND SOULS). Eventually, Erica starts seeing a psychiatrist named Tanya (Penelope Russianoff, real psychiatrist in only film performance), who tells her the things she already knows, but needs to hear from the outside party.

Blogs

THE FORGOTTEN (2004) (**)

Telly Paretta (Julianne Moore, FAR FROM HEAVEN) is holding onto the memory of her son who died in a plane crash. Or did he? Or better yet, did her son ever exist? That’s about as much of the plot as I will reveal because the film plays like it has deep secrets, which as an audience we can figure out a) by having seen 100 films like this one or b) having seen the film’s trailer which pretty much reveals all of its secrets.

Telly’s husband Jim (Anthony Edwards, TV’s E.R.) and her therapist Dr. Jack Munce (Gary Sinise, FORREST GUMP) are very worried about her mental health. She is convinced that she is sane and the rest of the world is crazy. She tries to convince this to anyone who will listen, including ex-hockey player Ash Correll (Dominic West, MONA LISA SMILE) and cop Anne Pope (Alfre Woodard, MUMFORD).

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A SOLDIER'S STORY (1984) (****)

Director Norman Jewison has never been shy when dealing with issues of race on the big screen as he did in IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT and THE HURRICANE. The only thing that lessens the importance of A SOLDIER’S STORY, a little, is that IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT come before. When it comes to cinematic stories about race relations this is one of the important films.

Set on a Southern military base during WWII, the film chronicles the investigation surrounding the death of a black sergeant named Waters (Adolph Caesar, THE COLOR PURPLE). Capt. Davenport (Howard E. Rollins Jr., TV’s IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT) is assigned by Washington D.C. to handle the case. However, the situation is tense because of the area’s racial climate and the fact that Davenport is the first black officer that many people there have ever seen. Capt. Taylor (Dennis Lipscomb, UNDER SIEGE), white, who oversees the black troops, is very reluctant to allow Davenport much freedom for fears of starting a race riot.

Blogs

THE FIVE OBSTRUCTIONS (2004) (***)

This film is a treat for cinephiles, but may be confusing to the average movier-goer. Because I know who Lars von Trier is and I know a little bit of the background going into the film, I enjoyed it quite a bit. However, I kept thinking to myself during the entire film that if I hadn’t heard anything about this film going into it would I have liked it as much.

So the film presents a fundamental concept of film criticism – one should judge the film that is presented on the scene not by what one brings to the film. However, any honest critic will say that every opinion is filtered through who that person is and knows, therefore, complete objectivity is impossible. Therefore, as a cinephile who knows that von Trier is the director who created the Dogme 95 style of filmmaking, which strives to break down all artificiality using found locations and natural light, I whole-heartedly recommend this film to people like me or the curious at heart.

Blogs

THE DOOR IN THE FLOOR (2004) (***)

Based on 1/3 of John Irving’s novel A WIDOW FOR ONE YEAR, this film chronicles the turbulent marriage of Ted (Jeff Bridges, THE BIG LEBOWSKI) and Marion Cole (Kim Basinger, 8 MILE) after their two sons die in an accident.

Ted is an author and illustrator of children’s books, who has hired an assistant for the summer from the private school where he and Marion teach. Eddie O’Hare (Jon Foster, LIFE AS A HOUSE) is a wanna-be writer who finds it a privilege to be working for Mr. Cole. However, he quickly discovers that he has been hired mainly to cart Ted around. Ted and Marion are trying a separation where the couple trade off staying in their house and an apartment in town. Eddie soon develops a crush on Marion, which turns into an affair.

Blogs

SHERMAN'S MARCH (1986) (****)

So what is this documentary about? Its subtitle makes it pretty clear -- A Mediation to the Possibility of Romantic Love in the South During an Era of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation. Director Ross McElwee (BRIGHT LEAVES) received a grant to make a film about General Sherman's march of destruction through the South during the Civil War. But then his girlfriend dumps him and the film transforms into a mediation on love and death.

If you think the movie is going to be pretentious or artsy, you’d be totally wrong. It’s hilarious from start to finish. McElwee’s dry wit is what influenced Michael Moore. The film’s subjects are as wacky as anyone in documentaries like GATES OF HEAVEN or VERNON, FLORIDA. It’s like VERNON combined with 20 DATES. Throughout the film, McElwee is either hooked up with women or meets them as he tracks Sherman’s march.

Blogs

CONTROL ROOM (2004) (***1/2)

Anyone who has listened or read coverage of the Iraq war in any depth has at least heard of Al Jazeera – the Arab CNN. You’ve probably heard U.S. Secretary of Defense call it pro-terrorist, anti-American and as he does in this documentary “willing to lie to the world to make their case.” This film is a pretty objective, fly-on-wall look at the channel and its reporters.

At varying times, the station at best looks more objective and dedicated to journalistic integrity than anything on in the U.S., and at worst looks as biased as Fox News. To some comparing Al Jazeera to Fox News might be like calling them twisted propagandists, but in reality, Fox News is just slanted to its audience, which hold a patriotic, conservative view of America and Al Jazeera does the same, only its target audience is Arabs. Due to the fact that I have never seen Al Jazeera, I cannot comment on their reporting practices. The film actually shows very little footage of the station, which I would have liked to see.

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