Sabotage AKA The Woman Alone (1936) (***, spy, thriller)

Saboteur (1942) (**1/2, suspense)

Safety Last (1923) (***, comedy) (5-20-02)

Sahara (1943) (***, classic, war)

Sahara (2005) (**, action) (9-28-05)

Saint, The (1997) (**, action, drama)

Salton Sea, The (2002) (***, crime, noir, drama) (7-7-03)

Sanjuro (1962) (***, Western, action) (3-6-00)

Satan Bug, The (1965) (***, sci-fi)

Satanic End of the World Films:  (9-18-00)

Satan Met a Lady (1936) (***, crime, humor, classic)

Saving Grace (2000) (***, Comedy) (9-4-00)

Saving Private Ryan (1998) (****, war, drama) (3-15-99)

Scarface (1983) (***, crime, drama)

Scent of a Woman (1992) (***, humor-drama)

Schindler's List (1993) (****, docudrama)

Schindler (BBC Special) (****, documentary)

Sci-Fi Files, The (1997) (TV-Series, documentary, ***1/2)  (4-24-00)

Scotland, Pa (2002) (**, black humor) (12-31-03)

Scream (1997) (***, horror, humor)

Screamers (1996) (**1/2, sci fi, horror)

Sea Hawk, The (1940) (****, action, war, romance, classic)

Sea Monsters: A Prehistoric Adventure (2007) (****, documentary, animation, science education) (1-16-08)

Sea of Love (1989) (***, drama)

Searchers, The (1956) (****, Western, classic)

Sea Wolf, The (1941) (***1/2, drama) (4-30-02)

Secret Window   (2004) (**1/2, suspense, mystery) (10-22-04)

Seduction, The (1982) (bomb, suspense)

Sense and Sensibility (1995) (***1/2, comedy, drama)

Serenity (2005) (***, space opera, sci fi) (6-12-06)

Serial Mom (1994) (*1/2, comedy)

Servant, The (1963) (***, drama)

Seven (1995) (**1/2, crime, drama, horror)

Seven Days in May (1964) (***1/2, thriller, drama)

Seven Samurai, The (1954) (12-7-98) (****, drama, action, western) (12-7-98)

Seven Thieves (1960) (***, crime)  (8-2-99)

Seventh Seal, The (1957) (****, drama, classic)

Sexy Beast (2000) (***1/2, crime, suspense) (7-23-01)

Shadow, The (1994) (**1/2, adventure, fantasy)

Shadow of the Vampire (2000) (***1/2, drama, black humor) (11-27-00)

Shakespeare In Love (1998) (****, drama, humor) (2-1-99)

Shallow Grave (1995) (**, black humor, crime, drama)

Shall We Dance? (1997) (****, humor)

Shall We Dance? (2004) (***1/2, drama, comedy, dance) (12-7-04)

Shampoo (1975) (*1/2, comedy)

Shane (1953) (****, Western, classic)  (12-4-00)

Shanghai Knights (2003) (**1/2, comedy, martial arts) (2-24-03)

Shanghai Noon (2000) (***, Western, comedy, martial arts) (7-14-00)

Shawshank Redemption (1994) (****, crime, drama)

She Done Him Wrong (1933) (****, comedy, classic) (7-30-01)

Shockwave aka A.I. Assault (2006) (**, sci fi) (8-13-07)

Sherlock Holmes (2009) (***, action) (3-17-10)

Shrek (2001) (****, comedy, drama, animation) (6-11-01)

Shrek 2 (2004) (***1/2, animation, comedy) (7-23-04)

Shining, The (1980) (**1/2, horror) (8-30-99)

Shock Corridor (1963) (**1/2, drama) (7-8-02)

 Short Fuse (2001) (***1/2, drama, crime) (7-20-04)

Shot in the Dark, A (1964) (***1/2, comedy, classic) (6-12-00)

Side Street (1949) (****, classic, noir, crime)

Siesta (1987) (***, drama)

Signs (2002) (***, sci fi, suspense) (12-9-02)

Silence of the Lambs, The (1991) (****, psychological thriller)

Silent Running (1971) (***, sci if)

Silverado (1985) (***1/2, action, western)

Simple Men (1992) (***, comedy, drama)

Simple Plan, A (1999) (****, noir, drama) (1-25-99)

Sinbad: Legend Of The Seven Seas (2003) (***1/2, animation, fantasy) (7-7-03)

Singin' In The Rain (1952) (***, musical) (12-30-02)

Siskel, In memory of Gene (3-3-99)

Sixth Sense, The (1999) (****, horror, psychological drama) (8-16-99)

Skinwalker (2002) (***, mystery) (12-9-02)

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004) (***1/2, sci fi, action) (10-22-04)

Slaughterhouse Five (1972) (***-Sci Fi, drama)

Sleeper (***1/2 humor)

Sleepless in Seattle (1993) (unrated, Romantic comedy)

Sleepy Hollow (1999) (***, fantasy, horror) (12-20-99)

Sling Blade (1996) (****, drama)

Sliver (1993) (**, thriller)

Small Time Crooks (2000) (**1/2, comedy)   (1-15-01)

Smilla's Sense of Snow (1997) (***, suspense, drama)

Snake Eyes (1998) (***1/2, action, suspense, noir) (9-4-00)

Snakes on a Plane (2006) (**, action) (2-20-07)

Snatch (2000) (****, comedy, crime) (3-19-01)

Sneakers (1992) (**1/2, action suspense)

Snow Falling On Cedars (1999) (**1/2, drama) (1-10-00)

Soapdish (1991) (**1/2, humor)

Soldier of Orange (1979) (**, drama)

Solaris (1972) (***1/2, sci fi)

Some Like It Hot (1959) (****, crime, humor)

Sometimes They Come Back (1991) (**1/2, B Horror)

Sommersby (1993) (***, drama)

Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983) (**1/2, horror) (2-26-01)

Sorcerer (1977) (***, adventure)

Sorry, Wrong Number (1948) (***, noir, thriller)

A Sound of Thunder (2005) (***, sci fi) (6-12-06)

Space Cowboys (2000)( ***, comedy, drama)   (8-14-00)

Spartacus (1960) (****, drama, historical costumer) (5-1-00)

Spartan (2004) (****, action, drama) (8-24-04)

Spawn (1997) (***, fantasy, comic book)

Special Effects: Anything Can Happen (1997) (***1/2, documentary)

Species (1995) (**1/2, sci fi, horror)

Speechless (1995) (**1/2, humor)

Speed (1994) (***, adventure)

Speed, Comments

Spellbound (1945) (**1/2, suspense)

Spider-Man  (2002) (***, fantasy) (5-13-02)

Spiral Staircase, The (1946) (***1/2, thriller, classic)

The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie (2004) (**, adults; **** children) (12-7-04)

Spy Hard (1996) (**1/2, comedy)

Spy Kids (2001) (2000) (***, comedy, family, action) (6-4-01)

Spy Who Came in From the Cold, The (1966) (***1/2, drama)

Stagecoach (1939) (****, Western, drama, classic)

Stage Fright (1950) (***, thriller)  (9-13-99)

Stalag 17 (1953) (***1/2, drama, war)

Stalker (1979) (****, sci fi) (9-24-01)

Stand by Me (1986) (***, drama, comedy)

Stargate (1994) (**1/2, sci fi)

Starman (1984) (***, sci if, romance)

Starship Troopers (1997) (**, sci fi)

Star Trek (2009) (****, space opera, science fiction) (6-10-09)

Star Trek Insurrection (1998) (**1/2, sci fi) (12-28-98)

Star Trek: First Contact (1996) (3 1/2 Tribbles, Sci Fi)

Star Wars (1977) (****+, space opera, fantasy, Sci-Fi)

Star Wars: Episode I--The Phantom Menace (1999) (***1/2,sci fi, space opera) (5-31-99)

Star Wars: Episode 2: Attack Of The Clones (2002, ***) (5-13-02)

Star Wars: The Magic of Myth

Star Wars is Back

Star Wars on the Big Screen!!

State and Main (2000) (unrated, comedy) (5-27-02)

State of Play (2003) (7-31-09) (****, thriller, drama)

State of Play (2009) (***, crime, drama) (10-14-09)

Stepford Wives (2004) (bomb, comedy, satire) (12-31-04)

Still Breathing (1997) (***, humor)

Sting, The (1973) (***1/2 drama)

Stir of Echoes (1999) (***, thriller, drama, horror) (8-7-00)

Stone Cold (2005) (***1/2, crime, drama) (12-29-09)

Storm of the Century (1999) (***, horror) (12-22-03)

Strange Cargo (1940) (**1/2, drama)

Strange Days (1995) (**, drama, sci fi, crime, thriller)

Stranger, The (1946) (**1/2, drama, thriller)

Strangers on a Train (1951) (***1/2, thriller)

Straw Dogs (1971) (*** drama)

Stray Dog (1949) (****, drama)

Street Smart (1987) (**1/2, drama)

Stunt Man, The (1980) (****+, drama)

Sugata Sanshiro AKA Judo Saga (1943) (***, action) (3-13-0)

Sum Of All Fears, The (2002) (***1/2, war, drama) (8-26-02)

Suddenly (1954) (***1/2, action, suspense, noir) (8-19-03)

Sunshine (2007) (**, sci fi, drama, horror) (5-2-08)

Support Your Local Sheriff (1969) (****, comedy, western) (12-22-03)

Surf Nazis Must Die (1987) (bomb, drama?)

Suspect, The (1944) (**1/2, crime)

Suspicion (1941) (***, suspense) (3-18-02)

Sweet Home Alabama (2002) (**1/2, comedy) (9-16-02)

Sweet Smell of Success (1957) (****, noir, drama) (5-14-01)

Sweltering New Mexico

Swordfish (2001) (***, thriller) (1-14-02)

Sabotage AKA The Woman Alone (1936) (***, spy, thriller) (D.- Alfred Hitchcock; Sylvia Sidney, Oscar Homolka, John Loder, Desmond Tester, Joyce Barbour, Sara Allgood) Unbalancing, efficient thriller with superb Hitchcock touches. Based on Conrad's The Secret Agent. The Verlocs (Sidney and Homolka) are married and run a movie theater. Homolka is older than Sidney who has her younger brother Tester living with them. Sidney begins to suspect that her kindly husband of convenience may do more than show films in politically unsettled prewar England. As in Hitchcock's best thrillers, everyone weighs their actions ever so carefully. But be careful what you ask for. Len Deighton fans may recognize Homolka as the craggy Sad Sack Russian agent in Funeral In Berlin and Billion Dollar Brain. Hitchcock makes an unmissable appearance on the receiving end of a young pest. Beginning

Saboteur (1942) (**1/2, suspense) (D.-Alfred Hitchcock; Robert Cummings, Priscilla Lane, Otto Kruger) This is not one of the master's better efforts. A plant worker is accused of sabotage and murder of his best friend. He then goes about tracking down the Nazi killers. There are many delightful little touches throughout, but there are two truly memorable scenes near the end. Virtually everyone has seen the outtake where the villain hangs and falls from the top of the Statue of Liberty; it is generally cut and is even better when seen in entirety. Many have also seen parts of the chase scene where the villain is standing on the stage in front of the screen while a murder movie is showing and you mainly see his silhouette on the screen indicating the action in the theater juxtaposed against the unfolding action on the screen. These two scenes are full of the touches and nuances that made Hitchcock such a master. However, you may want to make judicious use of the fast forward. (12-12-92) Beginning

Safety Last (1923) (***, comedy) (5-20-02) (D.- Fred Newmeyer, Sam Taylor; Harold Lloyd, Mildred Davis, Bill Strothers, Noah Young) Everyone has seen the shot of the bespectacled Lloyd with his straw hat on, hanging from the clock face far above the street. This is taken from Safety Last. About the last 20 minutes of this film are of Lloyd climbing the side of a multistory building, and one horrendous problem after another confronts him as he ascends. This sequence is one of the great classic comic gems of cinema. It has nerve racking tension and humor. The rest of the 78 minute film is how he got there. Surprise, surprise. It involves a woman (Davis), for whom he must make good. While the rest of the 78 minute film is entertaining, especially where he manages to convince his lady love that he is something that he isn’t, it is the culmination that is the masterpiece. Not to be missed by lovers of silent comedy and slapstick genius.

That is Lloyd doing all the climbing except in the long shots. Lloyd got the idea while watching a human fly ascend a building, and the long shots were actually done by that man. While clever use of different buildings and a safety platform below Lloyd reduced the risk, this was by no means a safe undertaking. Oh yes. Did I forget to mention that Lloyd lost his right thumb and forefinger several years earlier in an explosion during a stunt. He is wearing a special glove. We have studied the film and cannot see any evidence for the missing fingers. The man is truly amazing in his acrobatics. Review based on excellent print recently shown on TCM. This was the last film for Davis, who became Lloyd’s wife shortly afterwards. Beginning

Sahara (1943) (***, classic, war) (D.-Zoltan Korda; Humphrey Bogart, Bruce Bennett, J. Carrol Naish, Lloyd Bridges, Rex Ingram, Richard Nugent, Dan Duryea, Kurt Krueger) Stunningly photographed actioner of American tank commanded by Bogart collecting an assortment of strays as it flees the Nazi advance in North African desert during the fall of Tobruk. After assemblying the slice-of-life group, it becomes a variation on The Lost Patrol where the unit defends itself in an isolated oasis. The movie was made during the war so one does have to make allowances for the heavy propaganda component, especially given that the war wasn't going that well for the allied side. Nevertheless, the cinematography is spectacular, the action sequences well staged, the acting good, and the plot has very interesting and believable twists in terms of the behavior of the two sides. And the desert! It and the sky are an integral part of the story. Bleak. Remorseless. Unforgiving for anyone who trespasses. It is possible that it was filmed in the American Southwest. Parts of Arizona have sand dunes like those seen and were used in more than one film. (3-30-98) Beginning

Sahara (2005) (**, action) (9-28-05) (D.-Breck Eisner; based on the novel by Clive Cussler; Matthew McConaughey, Steve Zahn, Penelope Cruz, Lambert Wilson, Delroy Lindo, William H. Macy, Lennie James) Reviled by many. Certainly mindless. If you have ever read and enjoyed a Clive Cussler novel, then you knew exactly what to expect and were probably pleased with the result. It has to have a boat. In this case a Confederate iron clad that found its way into the middle of what is now the Sahara that Dirk Pitt (McConaughey) is trying to find. An evil chemical company polluting the world. A beautiful woman (Cruz) looking for the source of the pollution. A climax that involves them all. Lots of action. Little logic. I don’t think it makes a good popcorn movie, although it was probably better on the big screen. But some like it. You were warned.

Saint, The (1997) (**, action, drama) (D.-Phillip Noyce; Val Kilmer, Elisabeth Shue, Rade Serbedzija, Valery Nikolaev) Based on Leslie Charteris novels from 1926 on. The Saint has been the basis of over a dozen films and a 60's TV series starring Roger Moore, who later did a credible James Bond. Simon Templar (Kilmer) (AKA The Saint) is a gentleman thief, a master of disguises, and the consummate con man. Unfortunately, for me, the film is a great disappointment. It opens with the origins of The Saint in a brutal orphanage. Spring to the future where Russian industrialist Ivan Tretiak (Serbedzija), bent on seizing Russia, hires Simon to steal the secret to cold fusion from electrochemist Dr. Emma Russell (Shu). Love and secrets gained, then lost, then regained make the remainder of the film.

The problem for me is lack of focus and a schizophrenic viewpoint. Saint wants to be a James Bond film with all the gadgetry, the fabulous villains, the witty dialogue, and the great action. But it also wants to have a deep emotional core involving the relationship between Templar and Russell. So the film oscillates between the two extremes, and about the time you finally think its gaining momentum and going to take off, they hit the brakes and change directions. Saint doesn't play it tongue-in-cheek enough; the humor is limited, the action sequences are so-so, and the director and writers just don't build any tension.

Saint does have its moments. Some of the disguises are quite effective, and Kilmer manages the roles very well and some with good touches of humor. The Shu-Kilmer chemistry is solid. The Russian cinematography is beautiful. I enjoyed the funereal henchman Ilya (Nikolaev). (7-14-97) Beginning

Salton Sea, The (2002) (***, crime, noir, drama) (7-7-03) (D.-D.J. Caruso; W. Tony Gayton; Val Kilmer, Vincent D'Onofrio, Adam Goldberg, Luis Guzmán, Doug Hutchison, Anthony LaPaglia, Glenn Plummer, Peter Sarsgaard)The story begins with a lone trumpet player, Kilmer, slouched sprawling against a wall, playing. The room is in flames, there is money and photos burning and blowing everywhere. In classic film noir style voice over, he laments “If you're looking for the truth, You've come to the wrong place.” Even something as simple as who he really is is up in the air. Is he Danny Parker or Tom Van Allen? “I honestly don’t know anymore. Maybe you can help me, friend. As you can see, I don’t have much time anymore.” “So who am I after all is said and done? Avenging angel or Judas.” But he wants you to hear the whole story before you decide. After the violent death of his wife and a legacy of “what ifs”, he became a crank (crystal meth) addict who is so far in the hole that he has to reach up to touch the bottom. He gets his next high by snitching on others in the drug culture.

Ultimately, he runs across one of the most memorable and despicable villains in filmdom, the dealer Pooh Bear (D'Onofrio). He got this name because of his roly-poly physical build and the fact that he partook so much of his own wares that he lost his nose. He sports a fake nose to cover up the gash in his face. Pooh Bear is not a term of endearment; he is one of the most gruesomely ruthless murderers to ever stalk the earth.

The story tells you how and why Van Allen/Parker got to where he did and allows you to judge for yourself. Taut, brutal, unpredictable. Really moody with a delightfully nonlinear plot. This is classic film noir stirred with some very black humor. Only the end deviates from classic noir. It should have ended a few minutes earlier.

Incidentally, D'Onofrio, a remarkable character actor, gained 45 pounds for the part, and introduced the breathing squeak you hear. Kilmer’s tattoo is incredible, and apparently much of his dialogue is improv. The cast rode around with the police to prepare themselves for their parts. Review based on DVD.Beginning

Sanjuro (1962) (***, Western, action) (3-6-00) (D.- Akira Kurosawa; Toshiro Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai, Takashi Shimura, Yuzo Kayama, Reiko Dan) Entertaining sequel to Yojimbo. Moth eaten wandering samurai Mifune aids 9 inept young men in stopping a corrupt leader in their clan. Not in the same league with Yojimbo, but Mifune’s deadpan performance is a delight, and there are several good action sequences. As with Yojimbo, the man with no name provides a name, but it is clearly specious. Based on the letter boxed, subtitled DVD, which appears identical to the TMC showing a while back. The subtitles are good and Kurosawa, a master visual artist, tells much of his story without words. Even with letter boxing, the full original wide screen (about 2.35:1) was not shown.

As an aside, Sanjuro was originally written by Kurosawa with his samurai being much quicker with his wits than his sword. However, the studio insisted that Mifune have lots of great action sequences, and so Kurosawa rewrote it. He then found that he was not going to be the director, so he rewrote it again—he didn’t feel that others could tell the story as visually as he could. Then the studio reassigned him the directing, so he rewrote it yet again. Beginning

Satan Bug, The (1965) (***, sci-fi) (D.-John Sturges, George Maharis, Anne Francis, Dana Andrews, Richard Basehart, Edward Asner, Frank Sutton) Alistair MacLean's books generally do not make good movies. The Satan Bug is a pleasant exception. Along with a little botulism toxin (hardly worth mentioning), the Satan Bug (a virus of such virulence that its release would threaten all life) is stolen from a maximum security government biological warfare facility. The story revolves around government agents led by Maharis attempting to track down the culprits. The plotting is crisp, the action satisfying, the suspense cliff hanging. Forget about the holes left in a typical MacLean plot and the technical gaffe of botulism toxin killing in seconds. You can amuse each other pointing them out later after the final credits roll and you pry your fingers out of the chair's arm. Bug delivers good solid old style suspense. As an aside, my family assures me that Maharis and I are distant cousins, although he certainly doesn't know that I exist. Script by Edward Anhalt and James Clavell. (8-9-93) Beginning

Satanic End of the World Films:  (9-18-00) I thought it was time for a collection of satanic end of the world films. Something old (Rosemary’s Baby). Something new (End of Days). Something borrowed—a book in this case (The Ninth Gate). As you can see the quality varies greatly, but all have some pleasurable viewing elements. Beginning

Satan Met a Lady (1936) (***, crime, humor, classic) (D.-William Dieterle; Bette Davis, Warren William, Alison Skipworth, Arthur Treacher, Winifred Shaw, Marie Wilson, Porter Hall) The second and thinly disguised version of Dashiell Hammett's Maltese Falcon. However, stylistically Satan is mucher closer to The Thin Man than to the classic 1941 Maltese Falcon. William's is a witty, fast talking, unscrupulous, womanizing detective who ends up searching for a famous ram's horn rather than the falcon. Davis is the woman who connives to get it. Throw in the portly and ruthless matron, Skipworth, and the tall erudite Englishman, Treacher.

While different than the 1941 version, Satan is entertaining in both its own right and as a fascinating comparison to the 1941 film. The acting is good. Williams plays it light and breezy compared to the brooding introspection of Bogart. Davis plays it lighter and much more openly the sexual predator than Mary Astor, although this could be due in part to the later censorship codes. Skipworth is delightful, and it seems likely that Greenstreet's "Fat Man" is modeled after her. The gunsel (not sure who played him) is dead on recognizable in the interpretation of Elisha Cook, Jr., but Treacher's interpretation is a major change over Lorre's role, which is much closer to the book. And, of course, even with the major changes, much of the crisp, Hammett dialogue is preserved.

Although I haven't seen it, Maltin claims that the 1931 Maltese Falcon is much better and truer to the book. However, I think if you go into Satan in the right mood, you will not be disappointed. Shows irregularly on Turner Classic Movies. (6-15-98) Beginning

Saving Grace (2000) (***, Comedy) (9-4-00) (D.- Nigel Cole; Brenda Blethyn, Craig Ferguson, Martin Clunes, Tchéky Karyo, Jamie Foreman, Bill Bailey, Valerie Edmond, Tristan Sturrock, Clive Merrison) The British have always had a touch with larcenous comedy. Grace maintains this fine tradition. In a small fishing town, suddenly widowed Grace (Blethyn) finds that her husband left her a lot more unpleasant things than loneliness. For the delicate Grace, whose life revolves around garden parties and growing world-class orchids, her world is about to crumble to ashes. With help from a local but decent low life, Matthew (Ferguson), she arrives at a creative solution to everyone’s problems that exploits her great gardening skills.

The film is filled with memorable characters, delightful vignettes, and some spectacularly funny scenes. The townsfolk are delightful without being unbelievable. The recurrent joke with the lights is a hoot. The store scene near the end and the garden party are nearly lethally funny. The film does drag a bit as it approaches the end, but recoups itself admirably.

The acting is excellent. The characterization is superb. The comic timing and set pieces are a delight. The scene where the banker is waiting for Grace is a visual gem—but it must be seen on the big screen for its real impact.

Just remember. As far as the law in this small insular town is concerned, there is no crime worse than salmon poaching. Beginning

Saving Private Ryan (1998) (****, war, drama) (3-15-99) (D.-Steven Spielberg; Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore, Edward Burns, Barry Pepper, Adam Goldberg, Matt Damon, Jeremy Davies, Vin Diesel, Giovanni Ribisi, Harve Presnell) Ryan has a masterful opening and ending. An old soldier returns to the graveyards at Normandy for the first time with his wife, children and grandchildren in tow. As he stands staring down at one of the countless crosses, his mind flashes to the Normandy invasion. We watch the assault on the Normandy beaches as seen through the eyes of Captain Miller (Hanks). The landing crafts race through the pounding waves toward their destiny on Omaha Beach. Soldiers vomit from sea sickness and fear. They should be afraid. The massive naval bombardment and bombing have barely fazed the brilliant defenses orchestrated by Field Marshall Rommel and the crack German troops situated on the commanding cliffs. Omaha Beach is known today as "Bloody Omaha". Of the over 10,000 casualties and 3000 deaths in the initial landing along the entire coast, the majority were at Omaha. The military description is that the first wave was annihilated and subsequent waves were decimated. Slaughtered is an apt replacement for these euphemisms. Spielberg does not let his audience off this easily. We have a 25 minute front row seat to the chaos, the noise, the violence, the fear, the blood, the dismemberment, the death. Survival is as capricious as which way you turn your head. In short Hell.

The plot revolves around the fact that the battle in France and the Pacific has succeeded in wiping out 3 of the 4 sons of the Ryan family. The fourth was a paratrooper during the Normandy assault and is somewhere in France. The Sullivan Law was supposed to preserve the blood line of families by preventing all of the men from one family from being in harm's way, and Army Chief George Marshall (Presnell) wants Ryan saved at any cost. After the capture of the beachhead, Captain Miller is ordered to go in, find Private Ryan, and bring him out. The film tracks the search for Ryan through the shattered countryside leading to a final set piece battle in defense of a bridge at the end. Miller's platoon has 6 battle seasoned veterans and a green translator, fluent in German and French but never fired a rifle except on the rifle range.

Ryan is first class story telling. The characters are well developed with distinct personalities. These are not professional soldiers. These are men from all walks of life, forced into the fiery crucible. All of them are weighted down by what they are doing and especially by this assignment. How many must die for this one man? For Miller, as commanding officer especially, the enormity of what he is doing burdens him. "This Ryan had better be worth it!" The personal toll is reflected in their conversations. "Every man I kill, the further away from home I feel." This alienation is characteristic of war, even "good" wars, and the survivors carry these memories to the end.

For me, a weakness is that the final climactic battle is pure Hollywood. However, it does carry the story line to a dramatic conclusion, and it gives the film an elegant symmetry. We begin with the first person view of the slaughter of the American troops against well entrenched defenses that they slowly overwhelm. With the end, we get the defenders' view, as they slaughter a Panzer group in the narrow, easily defensible ruins of a town, and themselves are slowly and brutally overwhelmed. Another minor complaint that I have is that a critcal identity is misrepresented.

The film has innumerable scenes that burn into the mind. The shooting of prisoners--a logical consequence of men charged with adrenaline, fear, and a desire for revenge. The callousness of men in the face of death as they play cards with dog tags, totally oblivious to its effect on others. The image of the squad silhouetted against the night sky illuminated by the distant explosions. The almost imperceptibly slow approach of the camera as it moves in on the soldier reminiscing about his mother.

Operation Overlord, the invasion of Normandy, was the beginning of the end for the Third Reich. With a successful beachhead in France, the overwhelming might of the Allies insured ultimate victory. However, had the Allies been driven into the seas as at Dunkirk, then the final outcome of the war is uncertain. A number of factors contributed to the success. The Allies had total air superiority and successfully disabled the German radar warning systems. The attack was unexpected. There were a very limited number of times when the tides would be suitable. The Allied weather forecasters predicted a very narrow window of opportunity, which was taken, while the German weather forecaster had predicted that an amphibious invasion would be impossible and were so definite in their assessment that the defense commander Rommel returned to Germany to visit his family and try to convince Hitler to let him alter the defensive strategy. Rommel was certain that the assault would occur on Normandy, while Hitler was certain it would be at the shortest crossing point, the Straits of Dover. Hitler with the advice of von Rundstedt had Rommel hold back much of his mobile forces to be used in lightning Panzer strikes if the landing was successful. Rommel, who had been on the receiving end of allied air superiority in North Africa, knew that fighter planes would cut these forces to ribbons. He either stopped the invasion on the beach or the war was over. Rommel was right. Ultimately the Allies managed to cut off the German defenses on the peninsula with a loss of 200,000 Germans. The Germans call it the Stalingrad of Normandy.

The assault on Omaha was so disasterous that they considered withdrawing. However, since Omaha was the center of the offense, they were afraid that the splitting of the offense would allow the Germans to capitalize on the relief of the attack. at the center.

A few tidbits. The actors actually trained at boot camp level so that they were in physical condition similar to the men they portrayed. The extended scene where Hanks tosses the grenade to the other soldier--he missed the toss the first time and the scene had to be reshot.

Ryan is a taut, brutal film. In terms of horror, it makes the best modern horror films look like a Sunday picnic. You are warned. It is profoundly moving in spite of Hollywoodish elements. Beginning

Scarface (1983) (***, crime, drama) (D.-Brian DePalma; Al Pacino, Michelle Pfieffer) While I enjoyed Scarface, many people including the critics did not. Be forewarned: if the vulgarity were cut out, it would be a silent movie; if the violence were omitted, it would be a 60 second sound bite. However, Al Pacino's performance is electrifying. The story is about the rise and fall of Joe Montana, a criminal Cuban boat person. This is a one-man movie, and Pacino wears the part like a Saville Row suit-impeccably. He may be extraordinarily ruthless and violent, but he obeys an internal and highly developed code of ethics--albeit not our ethics. Pacino IS Joe Montana and is absolutely and utterly convincing. Beginning

Scent of a Woman (1992) (***, humor-drama) (D.- Martin Brest; Al Pacino, Chris O'Donell, James Rebhorn, Gabrielle Anwar) The family of a blind, bitter, drunken officer (Pacino) gets a prep school young man (O'Donell) to baby sit for them while they take a much needed break. Genghis the Khan would make a more appealing client. The family is no sooner backing down the driveway than the previously housebound Pacino, who was supposed to "be aired daily" in their absence, has a cab taking him and the boy to the airport for a first class flight to New York with all the opulence that money can buy (limo, Waldorf Astoria, the best food, the best booze, the best hooker, etc.). Why? Check it out. Pacino is superb as the Machiavellian, mercurial officer who can change from calm rationality to scatological satire to a lethal chokehold in seconds. This is the kind of performance that once again establishes Pacino as a great actor. O'Donell is excellent as the boy. Some critics have denigrated his performance. I thought it perfect. A 17 year old confronted by an authoritarian military officer is going to be timid and act with considerable trepidation. His handling of Pacino is about as brassy as one could possibly expect. The plot has some holes and drags at times, but this is really a one man performance that more than carries the day. His final transformation is perhaps unrealistically easy, and it is still going to take a lot of work to make him fit for civilized company. Incidentally, it is not a tragedy, so you can relax. As an aside, the blind do not like you to take their arm, but much prefer to take yours. (6-7-93) Beginning

Schindler's List (1993) (****, docudrama) (D.-Steven Spielberg, Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley, Ralph Fiennes, Caroline Goodall, Embeth Davidtz) So much has been said about this film that I limit my comments. Its Academy Award for best picture certainly is fully justified. An absolutely mesmerizing story superbly presented. Oskar Schindler was an opportunist. He loved the good life: food, material possessions, drink, women, and being the center of attention. He was very personable and a great con man. In the free wheeling, black market, bribe-driven atmosphere of WWII, he wooed the German officers and managed sweetheart deals that made him a very rich man indeed. These activities also allowed him to discover up close what was happening to the Jews who supplied the cheap labor that made him still richer. For reasons that are never revealed, (see Schindler) he sets about trying to save as many Jews as possible from the Holocaust. He did this at great risk to himself (he was jailed for executable offenses, and barely managed to slip out of the noose) and in the process expended his fortune in bribes to save as many Jews as possible.

The acting is flawless and the cinematography is stunning. Stellar performances include Neeson as Schindler (who is so smooth that he could sell universal welfare to Rush Limbaugh), Kingsley as Itzhak Stern (who was the business man who ran the operation and made the money that ultimately provided Schindler with the power and capital to save Jews), and Fiennes as the human monster Amon Goeth. The story is so riveting that one doesn't notice the longer than 3 hour running time. Much of the filming was in the original locations including Schindler's factory and outside Auschwitz.

As well as the big moments, Spielberg is always a master of details. Goeth shot the Jewish workers from his veranda for target practice and to keep them working harder. He also shot every other person in a work crew from which one boy escaped to discourage further attempts. However, Goeth had taken a Jew for his maid and apparently became greatly attached to her in spite of her heritage. As the war drew to a close and the hangman's noose closed around his neck, he refused to release her. If he had to die, so would she. Schindler finally managed to get Goeth to bet her in a card game, a game which Goeth ultimately lost. This may have provided Goeth with the necessary face-saving method of releasing her. On the other hand, he may have just lost.

One thing that initially surprised me is that in spite of the enormity of events, Spielberg always held his characters at a distance. Close enough for us to appreciate them as humans, but not so close as to allow you to become deeply emotionally involved with them. I think that this was a masterful ploy. It always allowed you, nay required you, to objectively analyze what was happening rather than become so swept up that you left the theater only reacting at an emotional level. Emotions alone cool too easily. What is needed is the moral, intellectual outrage to continue to fuel our indignation long after the fade to black. Schindler's List succeeds where more emotional films fail.

While Schindler was distraught by the few Jews that he ultimately saved, the true extent of his accomplishment can be noted by the following. Today there are six thousand descendents of Schindler's Jews. There are only four thousand Jews living in Poland.

Over the vigorous objection of the studio, Spielberg shot in black and white to create a superb period piece with the look and feel of the period as we know it from the existing documentary film footage. Indeed, many of Spielberg's scenes could easily be be mistaken for documentary footage. Color just would not have had the impact.

In the final modern scene, the placing of rocks on Schindler's grave by the survivers is done because rocks represent a contribution with permenance. Flowers are too transitory and are considered more decorative. (11-28-94) Beginning

Schindler (BBC Special) (****, documentary) At Sneak Reviews. Mesmerizing! Just how closely did Schindler's List follow truth? Judging from this documentary, pretty closely. Spielberg simplified a few things and inserted dialogue where no record exists. However, none of the changes seem unfaithful to events nor does any of the film dialogue seem inconsistent with the facts. For example, Schindler managed to save only the women from Auschwitz, although many of the children did survive, and his escape at the end was much more dramatic than presented.

Does this documentary answer the question of why Schindler risked his life and bribed away his fortune? When asked well after the war why he did it, Schindler's answer was simple and to the point "I had to help. I had no choice." Everyone has a limit to which they can be pushed. Schindler, in spite of all his character faults, ultimately had a core of humanism. There are some thing that no civilized person can participate in or acquiesce to by doing nothing. Schindler reached his point at a time and in a position where he could do something. While in the grand scheme of things he realized that his efforts didn't represent much (just a few saved or made more comfortable before the end while millions died), it was his small way of trying to restore order in the universe and minimize the ravaging of man on other men.

Did the war change Schindler? Probably not. The war was the high water mark of his life, both financially and in accomplishment. He was never again a successful business man but he still had such a commanding presence and such respect that he was followed to South America by his wife, his mistress, and a number of the Jews that he saved. Ultimately, in his declining years he was honored lavishly by the Israeli government. Perhaps for a man such as Schindler, this was the ultimate reward in that he was the center of attention and surrounded by others singing his praise. For those whom he saved, I think that this human weakness would be small compensation for what he gave.

I am reminded of an incident in Somalia before the United Nation's intervention. After the down fall of the government, a Somali policeman continued to leave his home every day and direct traffic on his corner. For two years he did this, without pay and becoming more threadbare with every day. Further, he did this at no small personal risk as the heavily armed thugs in their "technicals" roared through the streets. Here is a man I admire and hope that, given a similar set of circumstances, I could emulate. He chose order over chaos. He risked his life to preserve that little piece of civilization over which he had some control even as screaming anarchy swirled around him. True, in the grand scheme it wasn't much, but if only more people were as willing to act with his conviction and try to salvage and improve their small corner of the world then we could all sleep better. (11-28-94) Beginning

Sci-Fi Files, The (1997) (TV-Series, documentary, ***1/2)  (4-24-00) (D.-Chris Lethbridge, Peter Swain; narrator Mark Hamill) A four part 200 minute TV series on science fiction with the greatest emphasis on sci fi movies. Titles include "Children of Frankenstein", "Spaceships and Aliens", "March of the Machines", and "Living in the Future". More pop than in depth, one gets a broad overview of the thinking of sci fi writers and directors, the impact of sci fi film and writing on science and society, and a huge number of clips from films ranging from A Trip to the Moon (1902 and arguably the first sci fi movie) to Starwars and Sleeper. It will give you lots of ideas on films that you want to rush out and see and reminds you of films that you haven’t seen recently enough. The comments and discussions range from the profound to the egotistic view that all of modern science is the result of science fiction—as if scientists could not think for themselves. Many comments are made by luminaries in the field such as Arthur C. Clarke. One of the very interesting and believable stories involves the formation of a cabal of writers who claimed responsibility for the SDI (Star Wars) proposal under Reagan. It is uneven but a truly entertaining evening(s) with lots of opportunity for kibitzing during and after. Although, if you do watch it straight through you will find a certain amount of repetition since each show was complete and independent of the others. Review based on the DVD available from Sneak Reviews. Beginning

Scotland, Pa (2002) (**, black humor) (12-31-03) (DW: Billy Morrissette; James LeGros, Maura Tierney, Christopher Walken, Kevin Corrigan, James Rebhorn, Josh Pais)  "Macbeth" by William Shakespeare set in a small Pennsylvania town circa the 1970s with a burger joint Duncan’s as the object of desire. Slaving underlings Joe "Mac" McBeth (LeGros) and his wife Pat (Tierney) show Duncan (Rebhorn) how he is being robbed blind by the manager, Doug McKenna (Pais). Instead of being promoted to manager as they expect, Duncan brings in his sons which sets in motion the inevitable murders and retributions orchestrated by the manipulative Lady Macbeth. “We’re not bad people. Just underachievers who have to make up for lost time.” Their nemesis is Lt. Ernie McDuff played by an understated Walken and three local hippies as the witches.

While the film has some entertaining moments and it is interesting to see how the director shoehorns Macbeth into a modern black comedy, it fails as good black comedy and never has enough sheer drama to be taken seriously. So on the balance an interesting exercise. Beginning

Scream (1997) (***, horror, humor) (D.-Wes Craven; David Arquette, Drew Barrymore, Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox, Jamie Kennedy, Matthew Lillard) At the expense of mortally offending one of my graduate students, I give this only ***. Wes Craven is a master of modern slasher horror genre and has even instilled some of the films with style. Scream is a horror movie within a horror movie. The characters know they are in a horror movie and try to use all their knowledge of the clichés of the genre to survive. You will recognize all of them along with a steady stream of horror films on the ever present TV. Fail to know what to do and you're dead--generally very bloodily. If you are a real slasher aficionado, then you will probably enjoy the tongue-in-cheek send off. Scream even manages to generate some genuine tension as it pokes fun at the genre. However, do not equate fun with absence of gore. Scream is every bit as bloody as the films that it satirizes. (6-1-98) Beginning

Screamers (1996) (**1/2, sci fi, horror) (D.-Christian Duguay; Peter Weller, Roy Dupuis, Jennifer Rubin, Andy Lauer, Ron White, Charles Powell) Based on a Philip K. Dick short story Second Variety. The future on a garden planet Sirius 6, which has been reduced to ashes by genocidal warfare between miners and federation government forces. Neither side wants the war to spread to other worlds or for their general populaces to get first-hand accounts of the horrors, so both commands seem content to let the participants exterminate each other. The outnumbered government forces have kept the war of attrition going with a delightful little instrument of death, Screamers. They burrow through the ground and are named after the last sound you'll ever hear as they make their final dismembering assault. Think of them as the ultimate, intelligent land mine that hunts down it prey. Pray also that your Friend or Foe ID bracelet works. Since they are self replicating in factories under no one's control, Sirius 6 will never again be fit for humanity.

Suddenly the miners want peace, but the only surviving part of their hand-carried message is the hand held note requesting a meeting--the screamers are right neat and tidy. So commander Hendriksen (Weller) has to go out and find out why. Perhaps there are some questions better left unanswered. Or maybe asked earlier.

The war-ravaged world with its barren deserts, shattered cityscapes, and lethal, moving earth is a monument to man's inhumanity to man. Even the dusting of snow only accentuates the bleak emptiness. This apocalyptic image will stick with me long after the plot. The characters are all weird--normal under the circumstances. Unfortunately, the plot has too many holes and ultimately is logically inconsistent. Nevertheless, in addition to atmosphere, Screamers does have a few interesting, although not totally unpredictable, plot twists in the second half. So if you are in the mood for a futuristic nightmare, give it a peek. (8-26-96) Beginning

Sea Hawk, The (1940) (****, action, war, romance, classic) (D.- Michael Curtiz; Errol Flynn, Brenda Marshall, Claude Rains, Donald Crisp, Flora Robson, Alan Hale, Henry Daniell, Una O'Connor, Gilbert Roland) First rate swashbuckler from Warner with magnificent sets, costuming, great battles and sword play, romance, and rousing Korngold score. Flynn is in top form as pirate Captain Geoffrey Thorpe supporting Queen Elizabeth I (loosely based on Sir Francis Drake). The acting is first rate, the love interest between Flynn and Marshall believable, and Robson is marvelous as the strong, commanding Elizabeth .

The film opens with a sea battle worthy of the best modern actioners. Two full-sized ships in a specially created lake were used. These scenes were then cunningly intercut with models and film clips from the silent and 1935 versions of Captain Blood and from the silent 1924 The Sea Hawk.

In one of the galley scenes where the slaves were being whipped, I marveled at the realism. Then I discovered that the director told the slave master to actually whip the actors who stoically didn't break ranks for the shot as they winced in pain. All except Flynn who, to put it tactfully, precipitated the replacement of the actor playing the slave master.

As usual, that is the superbly athletic Flynn doing most of his own stunts. The only exception is in the climactic sword fight where master swordsmen replaced the actors. (Details taken from Microsoft's Cinemania 1995). (3-23-98) Beginning

Sea Monsters: A Prehistoric Adventure (2007) (****, documentary, animation, science education) (1-16-08) (D-Sean MacLeod Phillips; W.-Mose Richards) (1-16-08) About 40 minutes long and worth every minute. We saw it at the Carmike, which has full digital projec tion and the 3D is extraordinary (you use Polaroid glasses). It is a National Geographics film done with NSF support and I thing actually shot in IMAX--the prospect blows me out of my seat. Given the name, my wife and I first vetted it. We were so impressed that we took our family to it including our 7 and 10 year old granddaughters.

The film is somewhat misnamed. While some of the most ferocious creatures to ever roam the ocean are shown, the story is actually about the life cycle of a prehistoric Molly (an air breathing sea creature about the size of a modern dolphin) roughly 90 millions years ago juxtaposed with reenactments of modern fossil discoveries and how scientists piece together the story of what happened 90 millions years ago from the fossil record. It ends with the enticing statement that we have just begun to exploit the fossil record. A very nice grabber for getting children interested in science. The story is fascinating for children and adults alike.

The computer animation of the ancient seas is exceptional. It is so good that one immediately suspends any disbelief. The limited acting isn’t great, but that isn’t the point of the film. Sometimes they overdo the 3D. I found it could take a while to focus if they changed suddenly to a scene that was in your face. But if it came at you, I had no problems adjusting.

Our granddaughters thought it was awesome. We knew we had a winner when they started reaching out to touch the objects in front of them, and ducking when they came at you. Part way through I asked the 7 year old what she thought. The response says it all. "Really, really, really cool!"

The studios seem to be making another stab at getting 3D mainstream. That way they can offer something that even the best home theater cannot. Beowulf is out in the 3D – to mixed reviews. After a couple of abortive tries at 3D over the years, I think this time the technology is good enough that it may happen. We were sufficiently intrigued by the 3D we plan to see Beowulf in spite of the fact that it bears little resemblance to the Beowulf that I remember. [We didn't see it. The reviews by others were a turn off. Too bloody and violent and the animation unappealing.] Beginning

Sea of Love (1989) (***, drama) (D.-Harold Becker, Al Pacino, Ellen Barkin, John Goodman, Michael Rooker, Richard Jenkins, William Hickey) Taut, erotic thriller. While there is nothing particularly new here, it is handled stylishly, the acting is first class, and the ending taut and believable. However, the ending doesn't play completely fair with the audience, who can reasonably expect to have all clues to sort out the killer if they are clever. A cop (Pacino) investigates a series of brutal murders with male victims selected through lonely hearts personal ads. He acts as a decoy and flushes out Barkin. These two desperate, lonely hearts form a match made in heaven as they grab onto each other like drowning swimmers. Or if she is the killer, it may well prove hell for Pacino. Far better and more believable than the over hyped, outrageously expensive Basic Instincts. Stylish, dark, brooding mood piece with excellent chemistry between Pacino and Barkin, who even with her crooked smile is one of the screen's sexiest women. But we take respectable thrillers where we can get them. (11-15-93) Beginning

Searchers, The (1956) (****, Western, classic) (D.-John Ford; John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, Ward Bond, Natalie Wood, John Qualen, Harry Carey, Jr., Olive Carey, Antonio Moreno, Henry Brandon, Hank Worden, Lana Wood, Dorothy Jordan, Pat Wayne) A complex, sprawling Western, a morality play, and a study in psychological obsession set against the unforgiving southwestern desert of the Monument Valley area. One marvels at the strength of these people to suffer enormous hardship and tragedy and yet continue to strive towards tomorrow.

Uncle Ethan (Wayne) returns after the Civil War to join his brother's family consisting of his wife, Martha (Jordan), two young daughters, a son, and an adoptive son Martin Pawley (Hunter). Martin was saved by Wayne years earlier when his family was killed by Indians. Wayne has no respect for him since he has a hatred of Indians and Martin is an eighth Cherokee. The children love seeing "Uncle Ethan", but the adults are tense since it is clear that Martha and Ethan were once strongly attached and the flame remains. The precipitating crisis arises when the family is attacked by Indians and the youngest girl is abducted. This leads to an obsessive, brutal, multi-year search by Ethan and Martin to find the girl. Ethan's goals are to kill the girl, since she has been clearly soiled, while Martin's is to protect her from Ethan.

There is more than enough moral ambiguity to go around as alliances shift and the body count rises. In one raid, which is pure adrenaline, the horror is suddenly brought home in a fleeting image of a woman scooping her child out from under the horses of the onrushing riders.

Wayne's performance is driven, ruthless, disturbing, although one can debate whether his final actions are believable. The settlers are hardened by their environment and their sense of humor has a hard edge to match. The bleakness of the film is leavened by this black edged humor.

As with Stagecoach, the backdrop is largely of Monument Valley and is an integral part of the film's tone. Vast. Harsh. Unforgiving. The color cinematography is awesome, and a recurring image runs through the film and is seared into our minds--a darkened room with a centered door opening onto this wasteland. Our first and last images of Wayne are through such doors opening and, in the end, closing. Even on TV, the door only represents a peep hole in a wall of blackness, but the light provides no relief. On the wide screen, the effect would be overwhelming. In the final scene, Wayne's way of grabbing his arm was a tribute to the recently deceased husband of one of the actresses; it was his characteristic mannerism. The younger and older versions of the missing girl are played by the Lana and Natalie Wood respectively. The befuddled young cavalier officer at the end is Wayne's son. (3-2-98) Beginning

Sea Wolf, The (1941) (***1/2, drama) (4-30-02) (D-Michael Curtiz; Edward G. Robinson, John Garfield, Ida Lupino, Alexander Knox, Gene Lockhart, Barry Fitzgerald, Stanley Ridges) Savage screen version of Jack London’s story. Set in 1900, this is a brutal tale of intelligent but monstrous sea captain Larson (Robinson) who terrorizes the crew of his ship The Ghost. “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” This line from Paradise Lost is the operational philosophy of Robinson even if making a Hell on earth is his own doing.  Unwillingly brought into his domain are shipwreck survivors writer Knox and fugitive Lupino. A willing participant is headstrong seaman Garfield, also a fugitive who thought The Ghost was an improvement over the police. Larson is a master of both psychological and physical control, but his latest additions prove less malleable than the crew and provide the conflict against which the morality story works out.

A film like this rises or falls on the strength of Larson’s part. Robinson is stellar as he walks the line between evil, dementia, and intellect. The rest of the cast counterbalances him perfectly. One elegant feature of the film is that we never learn anything about the backgrounds of the participants or why Larson is running. This totally internalizes the conflict. Sea Wolf is a film that 60 years after it came out still has great emotional power and deep seated emotional resonance. The film appeared just before WWII and many considered Larson modeled on Hitler, but the story is much more general that one madman. Review based on excellent print on TCM. Beginning

Secret Window   (2004) (**1/2, suspense, mystery) (10-22-04) (D.-David Koepp. Based Stephen King's novella;  Johnny Depp, John Turturro, Maria Bello, Charles S. Dutton, Len Cariou) As always I enjoyed Depp’s performance. The film is true to itself with no cheater endings; however, the story line just never warmed me up. Mort Rainey (Depp) is an off-center mystery writer still recovering from an ugly divorce that is about to become final. He is holed up at his lake house having lost his beautiful city house to his wife. He talks to himself and suffers severe writers block when who should arrive at his door but a large, threatening man by the name of Shooter (Turturro) with a Mississippi accent who claims that Mort stole his story. Shooter wants justice (in a rather unusual manner) and leaves a copy of his story. The story is virtually a word-for-word copy of Mort’s Secret Window. Through an increasingly threatening series of negotiations, Mort gets Shooter to agree that if Mort can produce a copy of the story that predates Shooter writing his, Shooter will give in. To say more would spoil your enjoyment.

The proof will be in an Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine dated June, 1995. With EQMM they actually created a dummy copy of the necessary issue. This included the original cover art, but different authors. The back cover was replaced by the inside back cover ad for EQMM to avoid copyright issues with the actual ad on the back and for artistic purposes. Although you only get flashes of the magazine interior, it is a scrupulous copy of the 1995 format. The cinematographer needed a larger copy. It turns out, when you need close ups of something small like a magazine, it never photographs well. It is much better to have a larger copy. So what you see in the movie is sometimes a copy 3-4 time larger than the actual. EQMM, July 2004, 87. Beginning

Seduction, The (1982) (bomb, suspense) (D.-David Schmoeller; Morgan Fairchild, Andrew Stevens, Michael Sarrazin) An absolutely awful thriller with minimal plot, no thrills, and no suspense other than wondering when, if ever, it is going to end. A gorgeous TV anchor woman is stalked, unfortunately not very efficiently, by a disturbed admirer. The movies most noteworthy feature is the amateurish camera work. I have never seen a microphone and boom show up on the screen more intrusively and anywhere near as often as in The Seduction. You see more of the microphone than you do of the comely Ms. Fairchild--and there isn't any more of her to be seen. You might even be able to count on your hands the number of scenes where the mike boom isn't visible. (8-9-93) Beginning

Sense and Sensibility (1995) (***1/2, comedy, drama) (D.-Ang Lee; Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Kate Winslet, Hugh Grant) Screen play by Emma Thompson. This will not appeal to everyone. This is a light comedy of manners and follows faithfully Jane Austen's novel of the same genre. As in any comedy of manners the important thing is not what you do but whether you do it in accordance with society's standards of correct behavior. The Dashwood young ladies are filled with the contrasting and exuberant feelings (senses) of young adults; however, the oldest, sensible Elinor (Emma Thompson), is controlled by societal standards while the two youngest adhere less strictly to those standards. The young ladies and their newly widowed mother are VERY politely edged out of their family home and money by their own half-brother and his wife. In their 19th century world the women have very little of their own and no correct way of improving their fortunes except through marriage; that becomes their focus, although their enlightened mother is more interested in love and security than in actual cash value. The ups and downs of the romances that follow provide the plot and test Mrs. Dashwood's, and Elinor's, complete faith that whatever is done properly will succeed in the end. As in so much good comedy, the characters are exaggerated. Elinor is not just prim and proper, she is VERY prim and proper. Fanny is not just wicked but so VERY wicked. This longish movie leaves unanswered vital questions such as will Edward ever regain his inheritance? Or, will Lucy succeed in the Ferrars family? Or does Willoughby ever learn the importance of proper behavior? The novel answers these questions and more. (review by S. E. Demas) (2-5-96) Beginning

Serenity (2005) (***1/2, space opera, sci fi) (6-12-06) (DW.- Joss Whedon; Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres, Alan Tudyk , Adam Baldwin, Jewel Staite, Morena Baccarin, Sean Maher, Summer Glau, Ron Glass, Chiwetel Ejiofor) Galloping good space opera or perhaps more accurately, space western. A high energy, action packed, character driven film based on the short lived Fox series Firefly. Fox apparently ruined the series, by running it out of sequence, failing to support it, and dropping it after one season. However, the ground swell from the fanatical core audience helped generate a feature-length film to wrap up the series. I had never seen Firefly, but the film gives you enough background to follow the plot arc.

Serenity is the name of the firefly class freighter that lives up to its name. Captain "Mal" Reynolds (Fillion) was on the losing side of the war with the Alliance and is eking out an existence with a mixture of smuggling coupled with an occasional honest job. They have picked up a couple of passengers the government really, really wants, and an astronomical body count of collateral damage to get them back is irrelevant. The passengers are the doctor, Simon (Maher) and his nearly crazed sister, River (Glau). She is so disturbed because of something the government did to her, and although the series never answers what they did, the film does. Glau was a prima ballerina and you can believe it from the way she moves. The crew also includes the delightfully ditzy engineer, Kaylee (Staite), who has never seen a machine that she couldn't relate to; their heavy, Jayne (Baldwin), who is a few rounds short of a full load but very useful; and the first mate Zoe (Torres) and her husband, Wash (Tudyk), the pilot to whom she is married. Zoe is an ex-military officer who fought with Mal, and Wash clearly likes strong, dominating women. Throw in Book (Glass), a religious man with a past we will probably never know now that the series is cancelled, and Inara (Baccarin), the Companion (another name for a very, very high class call girl) and you have the ship's complement. Pursuing them with relentless fanaticism is a government operative (Ejiofor). His portrayal is excellent. A driven man with an internal code of honor and logic that makes you fear, but also respect, him.

However, the Operative is only one of their troubles as they encounter Reavers, who are the scourge of the fringe of the galaxy. The captain shoots a man they are leaving behind as they flee the Reavers just because that is a far cleaner death than what would otherwise await him.

The film does a nice job of filling out the story line, bringing you up to speed, and wrapping up the series. It also gives you a good taste for the characters and their interactions with each other. We so enjoyed the film that we went back and rented the series, which makes the film that much more enjoyable.

Like Star Wars, check your credibility at the door, lean back, and enjoy. Beginning

Serial Mom (1994) (*1/2, comedy) I cannot believe I wasted $2.00 on it at the Jefferson! A half star for a few (very few) funny scenes. An incredible waste of Kathleen Turner. Some people rate Serial highly as a black comedy spoof on the media and the demands of our culture. If so, it is way too subtle for me. "Based" on a true story, Kathleen Turner plays a current picture perfect 50's style mom who makes the mother in Leave It to Beaver look positively disorganized and inadequate as a mother. Turner does, however, have one little quirk. She is so uptight that she blows up when anyone crosses her very strict sensibilities. She makes obscene calls to a neighbor and leaves a trail of dead bodies that Vlad the Impaler would appreciate. If you want to see real satire, I would recommend Network or Man Bites Dog as far more effective and funnier in a very black sense than Serial Mom. (9-12-94) Beginning

Servant, The (1963) (***, drama) (D.-Joseph Losey, Dirk Bogarde, Sarah Miles, James Fox, Wendy Craig, Catherine Lacey, Patrick Magee) This is not a supernatural thriller, but a human drama. However, for a fine gentleman (Fox), Bogarde as his man servant might as well be Mephistopheles. Oh, how simple, seemingly reasonable decisions can carry destructionlike a small wharf rat with plague. Viciously good performances and unsettling plot make for a disturbing evening. Based on the novel by Robin Maugham. (7-19-94) Beginning

Seven (1995) (**1/2, crime, drama, horror) (D.-David Fincher; Morgan Freeman, Brad Pitt, Richard Roundtree) Not for the squeamish. A serial killer is brilliantly creating human monuments to the seven deadly sins: gluttony, greed, sloth, envy, pride, and lust. Freeman is a well read homicide detective with just days to retirement who is assigned to crack this case with a young, excitable not overly literate new officer. The interplay between the two is darkly entertaining. For example, at one point Freeman comments "Its from the Merchant of Venice." Pitt replies "I haven't seen it."

Fincher creates a city and world of absolute and total squalor and depression. Some of his sets are masterpieces of dark, brooding depravity. Actually you recognize the feel from the penal colony in his Aliens3. Everyone and everything the detectives encounter drives them and you deeper into the pit. To quote Freeman, "This isn't going to have a happy ending."

The plot is interesting, but I think there is too much gratuitous gore, which does adversely affect my rating. The last few minutes showed that this wasn't necessary for genuine horror. So the director who proves his talents really missed an opportunity to do a truly memorable crime-horror film. You cannot figure out who the killer is, but that isn't the point. The acting is good. This is the sort of part that Freeman could slide into without even reading the part and do a stellar job. Pitt is solid, and the killer is evil personified. He has his own world view and is going to bend everyone to it. Ultimately, Seven is more about style and atmosphere and as a prelude to the end. About the last 15 minutes was horrifically tense. Almost unbearable. You know.... you just know that something unimaginable is about to happen, but you cannot figure out what or how.

With Seven, Fincher has come a long way since his disasterous Aliens3. However, his roots in MTV still show. Seven has an overpowering sound track. Either the music or the background street noise frequently drowns out the dialogue. I thought the added emphasis on the street noise was a nice touch for atmosphere, but he overdoes it.

By the way, you won't find the killer listed in the marquee or the opening credits. For reasons that will become clear when you find out who it is--especially if you have been watching current films. I knew when we heard him on the phone that I had heard that voice before but I couldn't place it. There is also a nifty insider's joke revolving around a news reporter, which will be clear if you recognize the actor playing the killer. (10-9-95) Beginning

Seven Days in May (1964) (***1/2, thriller, drama) (D.-John Frankenheimer; Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Fredric March, Ava Gardner, Edmond O'Brien, Martin Balsam, George Macready, Whit Bissell, Hugh Marlowe) B&W top-drawer thriller about military plan to overthrow the US government. I'm glad I hadn't seen Seven Days before Nixon's resignation and the transfer of power as it would have vastly increased my already strong sense of paranoia and dread. Intelligent scripting and fine acting make for a disturbingly believable evening. The two sides are played by Lancaster and Douglas, and they are both normally Good Guys, which pulls the rug out from under your normal cues of villainy. The crisis triggering the coup and the justification are argued so compellingly that it can be difficult not to root for, or at least sympathize with, the conspiracy. Some of the dynamic documentary-style footage creates a sense of immediacy and adds to the growing tension. The director skillfully uses several tools to build a feeling of isolation and impending doom. Many scenes are without music or use an absolutely static camera, frequently in extended long shots. This approach is so unusual that I found it unbalancing and, when coupled with several key plot elements, left me in doubt as to the final outcome up to the closing moments. Modern viewers may find it thin on action, and I think the President's (March) speech a bit much; but, in my opinion, it is still first class and not to be missed. Screenplay by Rod Serling from novel by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey. (1-27-97) Beginning

Seven Samurai, The (1954) (12-7-98) (****, drama, action, western) (12-7-98) (D.-Akira Kurosawa; Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Yoshio Inaba, Ko Kimura, Seiji Miyaguchi, Minoru Chiaki) Reviewed based on the 208-minute version from Sneak Reviews--from the images, I am sure that the original is for a wider screen. However, the film doesn't seem long. Also available in shorter versions including a 141-minute one, but be sure to get the whole enchilada. While this is set in 16th century feudal Japan, I consider this a western because of the dramatic structure--it is effectively a Japanese western, and Kurosawa had long wanted to make a western. As with many of Kurosawa's films, it was also made into an American western (The Magnificent Seven in this case).

A truly magnificent film. Complex characterization, sophisticated plotting, first-rate story line, magnificent cinematography, and some of the best battle sequences on film. Many of the scenes could be framed and mounted as art. The film is in Japanese with subtitles. However, as with much of Kurosawa's work, the action and emotions are so direct that one barely notices the subtitles. Kurosawa is also a marvelous visual artist so many of the scenes have little or no dialogue. The image says everything.

The setting is the 16th century during the collapse of the feudal system. Farm villages are terrorized by brigands, and unemployed samurai (ronin) walk the town streets. One terrorized village decides to fight back by hiring ronin to defend them. Six samurai and one of uncertain lineage (Mifune) end up being convinced for various reasons to work for food. Thus begins the epic struggle between seven samurai and the villagers against 40 well armed brigands. The acting is impeccable. Mifune's performance is inspired as the source of his blusterous buffonery is stripped away and his spirit revealed.

Kurosawa uses human faces on film as a painter uses oil on his canvas. Rarely has so much been conveyed so effectively and wordlessly by the etched countenances of so many. Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns were modeled or adapted directly from Kurosawa films. Leone was, likewise, a master of extracting stories from the faces of his actors.

The final scene is awesome. The peasants, the surviving samurai, everyone's positions, and the hill says it all with almost no dialogue. Modern films should take a lesson in how conciseness can be so much better than an endless series of explanations and tied up loose ends. Beginning

Seven Thieves (1960) (***, crime)  (8-2-99) (D.-Henry Hathaway; Edward G. Robinson, Rod Steiger, Joan Collins, Eli Wallach, Alexander Scourby, Michael Dante, Berry Kroeger, Sebastian Cabot) It is good to see an intelligent chemist (Robinson) portrayed in a film for a change. True, he is a disgraced professor and is masterminding a heist in Monte Carlo, but we quibble over minor imperfections. Steiger is good as the ramrod brought in by Robinson to keep everyone in line--he must have come from the Darth Vader school of management, but they toe the line. This is a classic caper film where we see the assembly of the troops, the chemistry between them, the evolution of the heist with all the things that can go wrong going wrong, and the final wrap up. The characters tend to be interesting and complex, the plot entertaining and dependent on a piece of chemistry (incorrect, but we won't argue over that), and the plot twist entertaining. The end isn't completely satisfying, but it does tie up some of the personal details that worried you during the film. Beginning

Seventh Seal, The (1957) (****, drama, classic) (D.-Ingmar Bergman; Max von Sydow, Gunnar Björnstrand, Nils Poppe, Bibi Andersson, Bengt Ekerot, Bertil Anderberg, Gunnel Lindblom, Inga Landgre) Allegorical tale of a disillusioned knight Antonius Block (von Sydow) who returns from the crusades after ten years, crushed, disillusioned. Only to be confronted with Sweden in the throes of the Black Death. "Does God exist?" he cries, although he will settle for any information on the ultimate fate of man. Indeed, he will settle for making any contribution to the world. As he tries to sort out this question, Death (Ekerot) arrives to claim him. By a ruse, Block gains a temporary reprieve with a game of chess.

As he and his pragmatic squire Jons (Björnstrand) traverse the land to Block's castle and wife, they are confronted with the best and worst of humanity, gaining an entourage as they go. They see the dregs, the demented, the zealots, and those just trying to keep their spark of basic humanity as the world disintegrates around them. The story may be medieval, but the issues, the characters, and their reactions are as modern as today's headlines. A fascinating story with stunning imagery and cinematography as well as excellent acting. The story is not as unremittingly bleak as the description would indicate, but is leavened with humor (much of it black).

The final scene as Death leads his victims over the hill is now legendary and a visual icon. The set had been struck, the actors had gone home, and a magnificent cloud structure drifted behind the hill. Bergman and his cinematographer dressed the film crew in the costumes and snatched this now-classic scene before the light and clouds failed. (9-1-97) Beginning

Sexy Beast (2000) (***1/2, crime, suspense) (7-23-01) (D.- Jonathan Glazer; W.- Louis Mellis, David Scinto; Ray Winstone, Ben Kingsley, Ian McShane, Amanda Redman, Cavan Kendall, Julianne White, Álvaro Monje) At Vinegar Hill Theater. This has been billed as a comedy. While it has black humor scattered throughout, comedy was not a word that came to my mind. When I walked out I was totally wired. With elements of the original Get Carter and Snatch, Glazer creates his own unique vision of crime. Gary “Gal” Dove (Winstone) is a retired English gangster who is living the good life in Spain with his loving and devoted wife DeeDee (Redman) and close friends Aitch (Kendall) and Jackie (White). Gal should have paid more attention to the omen at the beginning of the movie. He is wanted for one last job by crime boss Teddy Bass (McShane) who sends enforcer Don Logan (Kingsley) to bring Gal back. Gal is soft and his idea of a strenuous day is working on his tan or good-naturedly chewing out his pool boy (Monje). The last thing he and DeeDee want is any additional criminal activities. Unfortunately, Don is not a man who takes no for an answer. Don is a master of psychological warfare, bright in his own way, a hair trigger psychopath, and a true human monster. If Don does not instantly set off all your instinctive alarm bells, then you are in the shallow end of the gene pool and aren’t going to be around long enough to propagate your line. Our first introduction to Don is at a dinner; you won’t soon forget it, even though he isn’t there. In spite of his physical softness, Gal has more mental resilience than is healthful, which brings about the defining crisis of the film.

Beast is predominantly a character study, especially of a deviant personality and of psychological manipulation. Kingsley is stunning; no Ghandi here. The supporting cast is good, but no one can stand up against Kingsley. The interactions between the principals and their behavior make for fascinating discussions afterwards. Beast also includes elements of a caper, although not as well developed as the psychological elements. Teddy is also chilling, but in a completely different way from Don.

A major problem of the film from our standpoint is the working class English. Once again I am reminded that many English do not speak American. In the entire movie, we probably only understood 25% of what Aitch said, and we missed a key response of Gal near the end.

I end with a number of warnings. Beast is one of the most profane films that I have seen in some time. We have heard these words in many other films, but not with such mind bending intensity. The psychological violence is in a class by itself and the violence is not trivial. The film is bimodal. People either really liked it or despised it. In particular, you either accepted Kingsley or the film failed. Beginning

Shadow, The (1994) (**1/2, adventure, fantasy) (D.-Russell Mulcahy; Alec Baldwin, Jone Lone, Penelope Ann Miller, Peter Boyle, Ian McKellen, Tim Curry, Jonathan Winters) Us older folks will remember The Shadow on the radio. I tuned into it every week along with The Creaking Door, The Scarlet Pimpernel and the Lone Ranger. This, along with the weekly cliffhanger at the Saturday matinee, made up my mass media entertainment. The Shadow, which dates back to depression novels, was especially appealing in its almost mystical righting of the world's evils. Lamont Cranston has learned the secrets of clouding men's minds so they cannot see him and of making weak criminals do his bidding. "Who knows what evil lurks in the mind of man?" The reply is the sardonic laugh "Only the Shadow knows!" In the film, we learn that Cranston knows first hand of evil--from the giving side; however, he is reformed and trying to right the horrors of the world. Or at least of "that most wretched lair of villainy we know as ... New York City". Things are no picnic for the Shadow, but they get right tense with the arrival of Shiwan Kahn (Lone) who is the last survivor of Genghis Kahn. Shiwan figures Genghis conquered half the world and it is his destiny to finish the job. Shiwan is aided by the same skills as the Shadow, utter ruthlessness and contempt of human life, and the unwitting and half witting assistance of two scientist (McKellen and Curry). Baldwin is steely believable. Miller is intelligently beautiful and with psychic skills that make her a match for Cranston. Winters is a pleasure as police commisioner and Cranstan's uncle, who is always decrying the drone-like existence of the youth. Shadow wants to be the comic book adventure of Dick Tracy and the weekly cliffhanger of Raiders of the Lost Ark. While it is stylishly atmospheric, striking and beautifully visual, and entertaining, it just does not rise to these lofty heights. Either the canvas isn't grand enough (perhaps too close to the original) or the writers and director weren't equal to the task. So ultimately it fails even though the ride does have many pleasures. One of the visual treats (I had to stop and replay the tape, I was so taken) was a beautiful pattern that transforms to something completely different from what you expect.

As an aside, note the digital displays used on the timer. These are Nixie Tubes, one of the earliest display technologies (I'm not sure what year they were introduced so I'm not sure whether this is an error). If you look closely, you will see that every digit is a separate wire in the shape of the number. By applying a high voltage to the wire (digit) they wanted to glow, the neon gas near the surface was excited and a pleasing orange number appears. Also, Shadow is an excellent example of the wet street rule. (11-28-95) Beginning

Shadow of the Vampire (2000) (***1/2, drama, black humor) (11-27-00) (D.-E. Elias Merhige; W.-Steven Katz; John Malkovich, Willem Dafoe, Cary Elwes, Eddie Izzard, Udo Kier, Catherine McCormack, Ronan Vibert) Warning: Don’t let anyone tell you about the film beforehand. The following review is, however, viewer safe. A unique view of the making of one of the most significant horror films of all times, Nosferatu. Malkovich portrays the director F. W. Murnau, one of the great German filmmakers, as a totally driven man who will sacrifice everything and everyone to put his art onto celluloid (actually gun cotton then). Willem Dafoe plays the actor Max Schreck who is Count Orlock, the vampire in the film. Little is apparently known about Schreck, so Dafoe can play him shamelessly without fear of libel suits as with the portrayal of Murnau.

The director and actors skillfully blend the making of the film into clips from the actual film Indeed, even having seen Nosferatu immediately before Shadow, it wasn’t always clear what black and white scenes were from the original and which used the modern actors. In addition to being a delightfully unbalancing story with superb acting, the film also provides insight into the way directors made silent films; they made very good use of the absence of a microphone.

Dafoe’s performance is breathtakingly good. He is an offbeat actor who takes chances. For him this is the role of a lifetime and he makes the most of it. Incidentally, the 1922 film was not sensitive enough for the night shooting shown.

My recommendation is to check out Shadow when it comes out on the big screen. However, for maximum enjoyment, do watch Nosferatu (preferably the newly restored DVD version) immediately beforehand. Lean back and be prepared for a blackly enjoyable evening. Beginning

Shakespeare In Love (1998) (****, drama, humor) (2-1-99) (D.-John Madden; Gwyneth Paltrow, Joseph Fiennes, Geoffrey Rush, Colin Firth, Ben Affleck, Judi Dench, Rupert Everett) The year 1593. The setting London with its bawdy, randy Elizabethans. A broke hack writer, Will Shakespeare (Fiennes), works for a second rate theater on the verge of bankruptcy. The film then builds on this reality by creating Will with a writer's block that can only be broken by a new love (any love actually would do) to fire his creative juices. Along comes Viola (Paltrow), an upper class young woman who is betrothed to money grubbing, overbearing Lord Wessex (Rush), but who loves theater and Shakespeare's prose and poetry above all else. Their budding relationship is the inspiration for Will's new play Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter and this writing is driven by the evolution of their relationship.

The conceit of Romeo and Juliet being written in response to the travails of Will's own love life is carried out beautifully. The juxtaposition and mixing of their relationship with the developing play works perfectly as each act is a natural outgrowth of their ongoing affair. The story written by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard is ingenious and immensely entertaining. The film is simultaneously funny and poignant. The acting is impeccable across the board. One can truly believe the chemistry between Will and Viola and the ultimate resolution.

Familiarity with Romeo and Juliet will help you follow the evolution of the story, but it is not a prerequisite to enjoying the film. Nor is being familiar with Shakespeare's other works; although if you are, you will keep asking yourself "which play did that line come from?".

The writers had enormous fun incorporating elements of many of Shakespeare's other plays including farcical fights, court intrigue, mistaken identities based on the flimsiest of disguises, madly racing exchanges of costumes, etc. They also play light and easy with historical facts. Some have credited Christopher Marlowe (played in the film by Everett) as having written some of Shakespeare's plays, and Marlowe did, in fact, die by the knife in 1593. While Romeo and Juliet did not surface in full blown form until 1597, it is also clear that it was written at some time earlier than that. It has been claimed that Shakespeare stole many of his lines from others. Many of the movie characters actually lived. The boy playing Romeo existed. The sadistic boy Given turned into the macabre writer John Webster. The film also slips in a lot of very modern elements, which makes the story line both jarring and that much more amusing.

In addition, the writers do a marvelous job with the dialog. It sounds Elizabethan, but is perfectly comprehensible on the first listening. Actually, in the spate of recent Shakespearian films where the actors speak their lines like normal human beings, the Elizabethan English is very understandable, as opposed to the more ponderous classical style. Maybe the writers didn't toy with the English at all--or at least not too much.

Finally, the film humanizes old Will. We tend to put him on a pedestal. However, at this time, he was young, in a free wheeling society, and an artist. So his portrayal in the film is probably much closer to reality that many of our preconceived notions. Quite frankly his behavior is striking similar to what we see in many recent and current movie stars. So things haven't changed much at all. Then again, his plays are timeless in their reflection of human nature, so why should we be surprised?

Don't let what I've said about great acting and writing turn you away. This is film for all to enjoy. In his day Shakespeare's audiences were the uneducated groundlings as well as the educated. Shakespeare in Love carries on the tradition of appealing to all. Beginning

Shallow Grave (1995) (**, black humor, crime, drama) (D.-Danny Boyle; Kerry Fox, Christopher Eccleston, Ewan McGregor, Ken Stott) Three nastily-dispositioned roommates Juliet (Fox), David (Eccleston), and Alex (Stott) finally find a suitable foursome for their apartment--he can give as good as he gets. Unfortunately, he doesn't last long and leaves them with a body, a suitcase of money, and an opportunity to uncover their barely submerged larcenous traits. Although not without interest as to how it will all work out, Grave never gels. The characters are never sympathetic, the comic timing is off, there is too much gratuitous gore for good comedy (even black comedy), and from a dramatic standpoint the critical character of David just doesn't work. His tranformation is critical to the whole evolution of the film, and it isn't believable. Check out Kind Hearts and Coronets for a much funnier English example of getting rich quick by pruning the family tree. The Ladykillers is an even better example of droll English mayhem. From the American viewpoint, Eating Raoul is blackly funny. (4-28-97) Beginning

Shall We Dance? (1997) (****, humor) (D.- Masayuki Suo; Koji Yakusyo, Tamiyo Kusakari, Naoto Takenaka, Eriko Watanabe, Akira Emoto) For me an absolutely fascinating study of human nature and cultural restraints, told with humor, compassion and great insight. However, don't let the superlatives lead you to believe that this is just a weighty tome. Shall We Dance? is enormously entertaining. It is also a tribute to our great sense for survival and the willingness to risk everything for a grab at the brass ring. Shohei Sugiyama (Suo) is a successful 42 year old businessman. By society's standards, he has it all. A wife, a 12 year old daughter, a rising position in his firm, and now a new house--a unique accomplishment for many Japanese. However, when he is complimented by one of his underlings and asked how he likes his work, his response is "Not a matter of like or dislike. It is my job." Taking the train home later that night, he sees a beautiful woman, Mai Kishikawa (Kusakari), standing forlornly at the window of a dance studio. Thus, begins a journey of self-discovery for Sugiyama and several others.

Before going further, let me supply the details about Japanese culture that were provided at the film's beginning--clearly added for non-Japanese viewers. Partnered dancing is anathema in a culture where even demonstrations of physical affection between husband and wife are reserved for private times. Dancing with your wife in public would be unheard of and with someone else would verge on scandalous. Most Japanese look with great suspicion on Western style ballroom and popular dance. This point is made clearly by Sugiyama's approach to the studio, which is more like a teenager making his first visit to a brothel than a successful businessman seeking respectable entertainment. Of course, he cannot tell his wife of his activities and she draws her own conclusions based on longer "work" hours and other clues.

Sugiyama is initially attracted to the instructor. The manner in which he and several others find happiness in a world that presses down on them, makes continual demands, and does not satisfy them is the film's thrust. In this regard, there are strong parallels with the out-of-work steel workers in The Full Monty. Both groups are seeking happiness and satisfaction--and in neither case is society very supportive of their efforts.

The acting is excellent. However, especially for Sugiyama and Kusakari, much is in their expressive body English and subtle changes in personality. Mr. Aoki (Takenaka) is a riot with his strong physical comedy. While I don't dance, and have no sense of rhythm, the dancing is beautifully choreographed.

Finally, Dance is a big screen film, so catch it in the theater if at all possible. Also, stay around for all the closing credits. They don't end until the final fade to black. Dance is in Japanese with excellent subtitles. The only down side is that there is frequently a lot of physical action on the screen while you are trying to read. (11-24-97)

Shall We Dance? (2004) (***1/2, drama, comedy, dance) (12-7-04) (D.- Peter Chelsom; W.- Masayuki Suo and Audrey Wells; Richard Gere, Jennifer Lopez, Susan Sarandon, Stanley Tucci, Bobby Cannavale, Lisa Ann Walter, Anita Gillette, Richard Jenkins, Omar Benson Miller) I really enjoyed the original Japanese version. The critics were not overly warm toward the remake; in general, I am not a proponent of making English language versions of good movies. Therefore, I did not go into the current version with high expectations. I was very pleasantly surprised. John Clark (Gere) is a lawyer who has arrived at that point in life where there is something missing. He is successful, enjoys his job, and loves his wife and daughter. However, he needs a new spark. For some time now as he rides home on the subway, he has been watching a young woman (Lopez) standing pensively alone in the window of Miss Mitzi's Dance Studio. Finally, one evening he gets off and after steeling himself goes in. The result is that he is roped into taking lessons in ballroom dancing. What starts out as interest in a woman who seemed to express in looks what he felt becomes something much more.

If you haven’t seen the original, I won’t ruin your fun of discovering with plot other than to say it involves marital misunderstandings, a sympathetic detective, misplaced affections and missed cues, and ends with a dance contest. If you have seen it, I think that they do a credible job of translating the story to America without doing a disservice to the cultural issues of the original.

This is a high spirited romp with delightful characters, interactions, and plot development. The dance sequences are marvelous. The acting is excellent with Gere and an over-the-top Tucci being standouts. Lopez exudes the necessary sensuality and the other characters are riotous while maintaining believable humanity. If you want an upbeat, high energy evening, don’t miss this. Very much a big screen film.

One memorable scene in the film is when Lopez describes the intent of the rumba while demonstrating it. You will never be able to look at a rumba again in quite the same light.

The Japanese version is based very much on a specific Japanese cultural bias not present in the current version. This is explained in a voice over at the beginning. I wouldn't be surprised if this was added in the world release just for non Japanese, since they would all directly undestand the social issues. This point makes the original deeper from both a social and human basis. The subtitles are good and the story fabulous. Don’t miss that one either.

Shampoo (1975) (*1/2, comedy) (D.-Hal Ashby; Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, Goldie Hawn, Jack Warden, Lee Grant) Highly rated comedy that doesn't do anything for me. Beatty is an egocentric womanizing hairdresser who pushes his luck once too often. If it hadn't been for the notorious (but now almost tame) dinner table scene, I don't think it would have gotten as far as it did. A lot of sick people and Beatty's character was unsympathetic and unappealing. (2-21-95) Beginning

Shane (1953) (****, Western, classic)   (12-4-00) (D.-George Stevens; W.-A. B. Guthrie, Jr. from the Jack Schaefer novel; Alan Ladd, Jean Arthur, Van Heflin, Walter "Jack" Palance, Brandon de Wilde, Ben Johnson, Edgar Buchanan, Emile Meyer, Elisha Cook, Jr.) In AFI’s Top 100 US films (#69). Stunningly photographed, first rate western about the changing times in a valley near Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Weary ex-gunfighter Shane (Ladd) wanders into the not so peaceful valley where the local cattle baron Rufus Ryker (Meyer) is trying to drive off the dirt farmers led by Starrett (Heflin). The plot sounds hackneyed now, but it wasn’t then. And dig a little deeper and this isn’t even just a simple western of good versus evil. Shane is idolized by the Starrett son, Joey (de Wilde), for the very skills from which he is running. Shared hardships lead to a strong bond between Starret and Shane. Ultimately Starrett’s wife, Marian (Arthur), is attracted to this man with no past. The grueling life of the farmers along with their hopes is accurately portrayed; on the other hand is the sympathetic portrayal of Rufus Ryker, who is a man who has slaved and suffered much only to see the success now within his grasp threatened by new laws and landholders. One of the most touching and memorable scenes in the film is when he presents his case and tries to deal with Starrett. Ryker is a proud man. Not a man who begs. But he is a pragmatist and he really doesn’t want bloodshed if possible. This scene is as close as he ever will come to begging.

Ultimately Ryker is prepared to use any means to keep what he considers rightfully his. Enter the gunslinger Jack Wilson (Palance). Palance doesn’t say much (12 lines actually). He doesn’t have to. His appearance, every gesture, glance, and word exudes inhuman evil. If rational people could read his mind, they would be driven insane.

The acting is first rate. Ladd, a limited actor, is perfect. Laconic. Understated. But ultimately a man of character and strength. Unlike Ryker he recognizes that his day has passed and it is time for a new order, which he has yet to determine if he can survive. The end with the boy calling after Shane is a movie icon. It was used at least in Pale Horse, Pale Rider.

Review based on the excellent DVD available at Sneak Reviews. The DVD also has an excellent voice over by the associate producer of the film Ivan Moffat and Stevens, Jr, who worked on the film with his father. This has lots of insights into the characters, the technical details, anecdotes, and why things were done the way they were done. In short, excellent. For example, all of the clothes are authentic. The town was only on one side of the street—the way many small towns really were and not double sided since the director didn’t have to hide anything. The valley had nothing in it except his sets at that time. And, oh yes, it did have the breathtakingly stunning Grand Tetons as the backdrop. These dominate (by careful use of telephoto lens) many scenes and are an integral part of the film. If you have never been there, they are just outside Jackson Hole, WY and are one of our natural wonders. In the scene where Palance was supposed to get back onto his horse, the director wanted Palance to move like a cat; as this was something he achieved getting off of the horse, what you actually see is him getting off the horse run in reverse. Palance had never handled a gun or ridden a horse before the film and practiced religiously every day. He was good with the gun by the time he needed it. Where Ladd is showing off his shooting skills, he probably is closing his eyes. Arthur was 50 at the time, but she certainly doesn’t look it.

Stevens had been in the war and wanted to make the violence more realistic. People die and it isn’t nice. Men being thrown backwards by the impact of bullets was new in this film. He was also appalled by the spate of Westerns and the idolization of gun fighting and killing by children. The scene near the end with Joey and his toy gun is an embedded political statement.

The film had been restored. A major change was that many of the scenes were day-for-night, which means shot in the daytime and then adjusted in the lab to look like night. However, over time these got lost and the scenes looked like day; this is now corrected in the DVD. If you want to see the change, just look at the trailer where critical night scenes are in broad daylight. Another fact not mentioned on the DVD is that the film was converted from regular format to wide screen by the studio with the loss of much of the color and, of course, the director’s meticulous compositions. The DVD is not wide screen and does not look like it is regular format chopped out of a chopped wide screen version, so I assume that what we see is probably close to the director’s original. At any rate it looks great.

While this wasn’t on the DVD, Palance related how he got the part. The director had seen him in a stage play in the East, thought he had potential, and called him. After describing the part, Stevens offered him the job. Then, as an afterthought, he asked "You do ride a horse, don’t you?" To which he got an immediate "Yes" even though Palance had never been on a horse in his life. The script called for Palance’s entry into town to be at a full gallop. That didn’t work. A trot. Nope. A slow, deliberate mosey. And that is the way it plays. The director was frequently congratulated later for the brilliant arrival scene. And it is brilliant, but now you know the story. Beginning

Shanghai Knights (2003) (**1/2, comedy, martial arts) (2-24-03) (D.- David Dobkin; Jackie Chan, Owen Wilson, Fann Wong, Aaron Johnson, Thomas Fisher, Aidan Gillen, Donnie Yen, Oliver Cotton) Jackie Chan’s physical comedy is the closest thing that we can get to masters of the silent screen such as Chaplin, Lloyd, and Keaton. His sense of timing and physical mastery are impeccable. Knights is best when it sticks to these. We follow the further adventures of Chon Wang and Roy O’Bannon who, following their wild west outing in Shanghai Noon, end up in England after an assassin bent on world domination (or as close to world domination as could be had in the 1890s). They encounter the palace guards, a young Charlie Chaplin, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jack the Ripper and a few others. Wilson and Chan have a fluid chemistry that works well as blow-hard O’Bannon capitalizes on Wang’s expertise. Not that O’Bannon is a total loss, he just favors his personal safety and material need over most other things—except his friend.

In addition to the visual comedy, Knights has a lot of verbal humor. Uneven, but with a few good laughs scattered throughout. As in all Chan’s films, some of the best laughs are in the bloopers at the end. So don’t walk out until the credits are done. If you are into a Chan style of humor, Knights will make for a pleasant diversion. Beginning

Shanghai Noon (2000) (***, Western, comedy, martial arts) (7-14-00) (D.- Tom Dey; Jackie Chan, Owen Wilson, Lucy Liu, Brandon Merrill) Not one of Chan’s best, but definitely a pleasing evening. Princess Pei Pei (Liu) is kidnapped from China in 1881, taken to our wild West, and held for ransom. One of the palace guards Chon Wang (Chan) goes with the group sent to save her. His first dose of our West is a train robbery led by the inept Roy O’Bannon (Wilson). Not surprisingly, they will end up as sidekicks who, along with an Indian maiden (Merrill), set out to save Pei Pei. Wilson and Chan are so self effacing, it is difficult to tell who is the biggest underplayer. The chemistry between the two is excellent. The humor ranges from droll to full-blown slapstick. Chan is a master of a physical comedy of which we have not seen since the silent greats Keaton and Chaplin.

Not surprisingly, much of the action hinges on martial arts sequences. As usual, they are breathtakingly choreographed, awesomely executed, and in Chan’s hands (and feet) delightful. He even displays the same aptitude with weapons and things that you hadn’t ever considered weapons.

Chan and Wilson are a delight working together. They play effortlessly off of each other like they have worked together for a lifetime. The outtakes at the end reinforce the impression of good natured camaraderie. The film uses and pokes fun at icons from just about every Western ever made. For example, the charge at the end is right out of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

So if you are in the mood for a good natured, droll/slapstick evening, do give Shanghai Noon serious consideration. As with all of Chan’s movies, you must stay for the bloopers at the end. Beginning

Shawshank Redemption (1994) (****, crime, drama) (D.-Frank Darabont; Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman, William Sadler, Bob Gunton, Clancey Brown, Gil Bellows, Mark Rolston, James Whitmore) Superb film of crime, punishment, and redemption. It's the forties and Tim Robbins, a banker, may have slaughtered his wife and her lover in a drunken rage. He denies it, but the evidence looks compelling. He squeaks by with a life sentence in the hell hole of Shawshank Prison. The warden (Gunton) is a monster interested only in things being really quiet and orderly. His prime enforcer is the sadistic Brown who agrees that it doesn't get much quieter than a dead body or a mauled convict in solitary. The tale is narrated in voice over by Freeman, a lifer who can get anything for a price. Anything, that is, except out. Robbins is one of those people who shows little emotion and warms to others only very slowly. In spite of his quiet nature, he also has an iron will and bends, at least in spirit, to no one. With growing respect for each other, Freeman and Robbins begin a multidecade friendship. The story unfolds in a leisurely series of vignettes that provide a clear view of the dehumanizing conditions and the coping mechanisms of the protagonists. You learn a lot about the different characters without actually having to be told. Parts are brutal, parts whimsical, but all are set to the ever present foreboding stone walls, the armed guards, and the martinet warden. The incident on the roofing detail is a superb example and provides ever so much insight into Brown's and Robbins' character. In case you aren't familiar with the story, I'm not saying anymore other than to say that the film does build to a climax. However, even if it didn't, Shawshank would still be mesmerisingly good. The cinematography, the acting (Freeman got an Oscar), and the story telling are superb. Not to be missed. The film is based on Stephen King's novella Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption--the title makes sense after you read the novel or watch the film. Huge chunks are moved directly into the film, and I can think of no more perfect narrator than Freeman. The film adds a few more dramatic twists and makes a few unrealistic scenes (e.g., the intercom incident--but I liked it), but basically preserves the dramatic structure of the novella. In my opinion, the novella makes a fine read, and you shouldn't steer away from it because of King's horror reputation. (5-7-96) Beginning

Silent Running (1971) (***, sci if) (D.-Douglas Trumbull; Bruce Dern, Cliff Potts, Ron Rifkin, Jesse Vint) Special effects master Trumball's only directorial effort. He is responsible for 2001, Close Encounters, etc. Somewhat ponderous, but beautifully executed cautionary fable. The Earth's sole surviving plants and small animals are kept in a space station orbiting the Earth. The government finally decides that they will never be needed again and orders their destruction. Loving caretaker Dern rebels and attempts to flee into the endless night with his precious plants. His only companions are three work robots.

The effects are marvelous as you would expect. Dern is a sympathetically offbeat lead. He makes you believe a man can be torn between killing his friends or destroying all the remaining beauty of nature. He also conveys the psychological depth of the consequences. The societal and ecological statements are well done if over dramatic. Less could have been more. The ending is perfect.

While space and the space craft were handled by magnificent miniatures, the "droids" were much more difficult in 1971. They didn't have the fabulous Animatronics and puppets. As I understand it, there are actually powerful, but legless, actors in those units. (10-19-98) Beginning

Silverado (1985) (***1/2, action, western) (D.-Lawrence Kasdan; Kevin Kline, Scott Glenn, Danny Glover, Kevin Costner, Brian Dennehy, Linda Hunt, Jeff Fahey, Rosanna Arquette, John Cleese) Long (132 min), but never dull in my opinion. Not a great fillm, but consistently entertaining. Four different characters (Kline, Glenn, Glover, Costner) end up headed to Silverado for a variety of reasons. Lots of interesting characters and interactions, and the plot draws on elements of about every Western made including the Samurai classic Yojimbo. Beautiful cinematography, superb action sequences, and awesome scenery.

Good villains are required for any action film. Dennehy is fine as the sheriff who controls the town for wealthy land owners. He has the build (I love the scene with him and the burning building) and the cool presence to make a fine heavy. At the end, he makes a series of choices dictated by his own internal logic and sense of honor. Fahey (Lawnmower Man and the current TV Marshall) makes a fine pyschotic.

The four principals clearly enjoy themselves. In particular, Costner has a grand time. He cuts loose and avoids that deadpan attitude that he now passes off as acting. It reminds me that he actually can show emotion.

Black Mesa as seen from White Rock Lookout Park in White Rock near Los Alamos, New Mexico. The mesa is in the shadow of a cloud, highlighting it against the sunlit valley. The Rio Grande River Gorge plunges away 900 feet below. Black Mesa holds deep religious and historical values for the Tewa Indians. It is where they stood off the Spanish for an extended period after one of their revolts and was the habitat of some ogres in the past. If you ever drive to Los Alamos or Taos from Sante Fe, you cannot miss it. It dominates the entire river valley.

My students frequently ask me what New Mexico is like. Hard to describe. If you, too, have ever wondered, just zip out and rent Silverado. Because of the extraordinary variation in terrain (brutal desert to majestic snow-covered peaks), you may find it difficult to believe that the entire movie was filmed within about a 30 mile radius of Sante Fe. Even as a New Mexican, I was amazed that the region was so small. The opening scene looks up the Rio Grande River gorge and you can see Black Mesa (somewhat cropped in the non-letter box version). You also see it again (referred to as Black Top) as they cross a river (the unbilled Rio Grande). A common eastern misconception is that New Mexico is dry hot desert. True only for parts. Even as I sit here writing in Los Alamos in early May, snow blows past our window and the mountains across the valley will remain covered with snow, perhaps into June. Three weekends ago, Los Alamos got a foot of snow! So much for sweltering desert. (5-8-95) Beginning

Siesta (1987) (***, drama) (D.-Mary Lambert; Ellen Barkin, Gabriel Byrne, Jodie Foster, Martin Sheen, Grace Jones, Julian Sands, Isabella Rossellini, Alexi Sayle) A bizarre, erotic little mystery. A stunt sky diver (Barkin) wakes up in a blood stained red dress at the end of a runway in Spain. She cannot remember how she got there although she suspects that she may have killed her ex-lover or his wife. The movie is a trek through an assortment of very strange incidents with very strange people while her recollections of the lost four days gradually return. The movie is offbeat and some of the philosophy may be offensive. On the other hand, it is offbeat and intriguingly done. Definitely not for everyone, so don't say I didn't warn you. This is a variation on a well-known civil war short story. To prevent giving anything away, I'll refrain from naming it. If, after seeing the movie, you still need its name then let me know. Barkin and Byrne married shortly after the movie came out. Beginning

She Done Him Wrong (1933) (****, comedy, classic) (7-30-01) (D.-Lowell Sherman; Mae West, Cary Grant, Gilbert Roland, Noah Beery, Rochelle Hudson, Rafaela Ottiano, Louise Beavers) I rate this at **** only because of its pivotal role in film. It started the meteoric rise of Mae West, it assisted Grant’s career, and it slipped a lot passed the censors. A spoof of the Gay 90s, the film reprises West’s role in her play Diamond Lil. The play was so bawdy that the film censors rejected the film when it arrived with the title Diamond Lil even though they never watched it—which is why it was renamed. The 39 year old West worked hard at making the humor more risqué and less explicit and felt that the movie was better for it. She also picked Grant as the romantic lead after seeing him on the lot.  West is the happily kept, diamond grubbing woman of a gangster until she falls under the spell of a young captain of the mission next door who works on saving her immoral soul. You have heard many of the lines, which are both clichéd and tame now. They weren’t then. What you do see was won after countless battles with the censors. Beginning

Shockwave aka A.I. Assault (2006) (**, sci fi) (8-13-07)  (D.-Jim Wynorski; W.-Bill Monroe; Jim Wynorski; Joe Lando, Michael Dorn, Alexandra Paul, Mike Baldridge, Joshua Cox, Roark Critchlow, Lisa Lo Cicero) Made for Sci Fi channel and then direct to video. This is one of those films where you pretty much know what you are going to get when you rent it—low budget schlock, and it doesn’t disappoint. Terrible acting, ghastly plotting, grade Z special effects. More laughs than shocks. What more do you want for a mindless Saturday evening. The military has been working on autonomous, learning, self-sustaining battlefield robots. This has not gone entirely smoothly as demonstrated by the carnage of the opening sequence. Two of these technological terrors are being flown to where their inhibitor circuitry can be activated. In case you cannot guess, this is the thing that makes them respond to commands rather than function as self-serving entities. Of course the plane goes down on a deserted Pacific island and a crew of Navy Seals and a scientist are inserted to make sure they didn’t survive. They did, and the troops are ill equipped to handle them. Oh, did I mention, if the troops fail to destroy them within a certain time the island will be destroyed. The robots bear a striking resemblance to the Martian war machines of the recent low budget War of the Worlds, so I suspect they may have just been adapted from that film. In short if you are slumming for sci fi films, A.I. Assualt is a possibility. Beginning

Sherlock Holmes (2009) (***, action) (3-17-10) (D.-Guy Ritchie; W.-. Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham, Simon Kinberg; Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Mark Strong, Rachel McAdams, Kelly Reilly) This isn't your parent's Sherlock as you'll discover in the opening sequence. This is an action film that pays homage to the intellectual acumen of Holmes (Downey) as he unravels a perplexing mystery. For a Richie film it is remarkably linear and lacking in quirkiness, although he does approach Holmes' thought processes, especially involving physical activity in an entertaining manner. Holmes' inner demons are also rather explicitly shown. Watson (Law) is much less of a bumbler than in Doyle's original and can certainly hold his own physically. His inability to keep up with Holmes intellectually is forgivable as no one could. The story is spiced up with love interests for both Watson and Holmes. Holmes is rather ungracious when he finds Watson with a beau. Peevish comes to mind, but with a vast intellect and seething sarcasm.

The chemistry between Watson and Holmes is good, which is an essential factor. The love interests are strong, resourceful women (McAdams and Reilly). The villains are suitably slimy and evil, and it is clear the director has prepared for a sequel if there is demand. The action sequences are solid, but like many action films overdrawn. The story line is satisfyingly convoluted and unbalancing enough to make for a good yarn. So as long as you don't go into Sherlock Holmes expecting a measured intellectual classic Holmes, you are likely to be satisfied. Beginning

Shrek (2001) (****, comedy, drama, animation) (6-11-01) (D.- Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson; voices by Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz, John Lithgow) As my wife and I settled in and the children swarmed in like the Golden Horde, my wife turned to me and said “We really need to bring children to a film like this.” After the movie, she turned to me and said, “I did bring one.” Now the truth is out. What can I say? On a second viewing I consider Shrek as good as Aladdin. Shrek is a masterful piece of computer animation from Dream Works that raises the bar on animation. It is sly, hip, irreverent and will appeal to children of all ages. Although I could have done with a little less bathroom humor, the children in the audience who got the references clearly had a ball.

Shrek (Myers) is an ogre living in his swamp with as many Keep Out and No Trespassing signs as a thoroughbred horse farm. His not so idyllic life is overturned when the slimy Lord Farquaad (Lithgow) banishes all the fairy tale characters from his kingdom and they flee to the swamp. As his cosy little house is overrun with dwarfs, wolves, pigs, “dead broads”, etc. Shrek declares war. His only ally is a motor mouth donkey (Murphy) that can not be shut up. As Shrek acidly observes, “The trick isn't that he talks; the trick is to get him to shut up." Shrek and the donkey get conned into a quest to rescue fair Princess Fiona (Diaz) from a mighty dragon in a castle surrounded by fire. Enough of plot. This is a fairy tale after all and you know how it will unravel. Well, not exactly. Shrek is not your usual knight in shining armor and Fiona is not your typical damsel in distress. The humor ranges from childish to quite sophisticated. The articulation in the animation verges on realistic; you can forget it is animation at times and just accept the wild creations on the screen as reality. The film makes countless topical references and steals scenes shamelessly from other movies. Disney gets a good-natured drubbing; Katzenback of Dream Works left Disney in a very bitter dispute. It twists so many of the images that we are familiar with into riotous parodies.

Myers and Diaz are good. Lithgow practically has the patent on overbearing arrogance. But Murphy is the high point of the movie. Whenever he was on the screen, I was prepared to laugh. Indeed, I need to watch it again to catch the lines that I missed. In fact, I plan to see it this weekend with my granddaughter. [Note: I enjoyed it even more the second time. My daughter turned to me as we walked out and said "Dad, you laughed more that anyone else in the theater."] Beginning

Shrek 2 (2004) (***1/2, animation, comedy) (7-23-04)  (D.- Andrew Adamson, Kelly Asbury and Conrad Vernon; W.- J. David Stem, Joe Stillman and David N. Weiss; based on the characters by William Steig; voices by Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz, Antonio Banderas, John Cleese, Julie Andrews, Rupert Everett, Jennifer Saunders) There can be only one Shrek. Everything else that follows has to live up to the original, which is an essentially impossible task in my opinion. That being said, Shrek 2 is a worthy successor. Hip. Timely. Sharp dialogue. Delightful characters. Marvelous animation. And something for everyone. My granddaughters will love it, and I will have to sit through it countless times with them, so the multilayering is critical to my sanity.

The plot revolves around our very green and ogreish Fiona (Diaz) and her new husband Shrek (Meyers). Mommy (Andrews) and Daddy (Cleese) in a land very far away would like to meet their new son-in-law and send a summons. Let it be said that Mommy and Daddy are not green with trumpet shaped ears sticking out of their head. So the new hubby, much less the new model of the daughter, does generate a strong parental response, especially with King Harold (Cleese). This was not the way things were supposed to go, and the King would like to set things straight with the help of the over-the-top Fairy Godmother (Saunders) and her handsome son Prince Charming (Everett). I should add that Fairy Godmothers aren’t always up to our expectations.

We can safely say that the arrival of Shrek, Fiona, and Donkey (Murphy) at the castle could have gone better. Donkey, being over talkative but not stupid, quickly looks around for the nearest metaphorical bomb shelter. Would that the rest of the encounter had gone as well. Dinner is a riot as we get two testosterone-pumped males in a heated spitting match.

Enter a new character, Puss-in-Boots, played delightfully by Banderas. Puss is everything that Bandaras has played in his action films, only in a somewhat more diminutive form, and making up in sheer ferocity and cunning (what did you expect out of a cat) for what he lacks in size. As a bit of trivia, Banderas had to let his voice recover for several day after the fur ball scene.

The humor ranges from droll to slap stick. The animation is once again stellar and we totally forget that this is all computer generated. The cultural and cinematic in jokes are a delight, and the human elements have very realistic underpinnings. Shrek and Fiona’s first argument is instantly recognizable. The tension between the father and mother and the couple is completely believable as is the mother’s diplomacy. My wife and daughter assure me that I once said to one of my daughter’s dates: “I’m a black belt in karate, and don’t you forget it.” I don’t remember this at all. And if I did say it, it was as a joke.

Will the lovers survive the interference of their father? Will there be a Shrek III? Will I get the DVD when it comes out? Count on it. Will Ghostbusters get royalties on Shrek 2? I doubt it. Beginning

Shining, The (1980) (**1/2, horror) (8-30-99) (D.-Stanley Kubrick; Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd, Scatman Crothers, Barry Nelson, Joe Turkel, Anne Jackson) Visually impressive but emotionally unsatisfying adaptation of Stephen King's thriller. A blocked writer (Nicholson) takes an off season caretaker position at an isolated mountain resort, Overlook Hotel, along with his family. The magnificent hotel has a lot of spiritual baggage and the son (four-year old Lloyd does an excellent job) is an amplifier while the father is a very sensitive receiver. The combination quickly drives the unstable father towards madness. This interpretation is Kubrick's twist on King's simpler malevolent haunted house. The film, while magnificently filmed, never grabs you by the throat. Probably the biggest weakness is Nicholson, who goes over the top in his performance, especially toward the end; he could be easily served as a side order with eggs. The effect is not scary, just ludicrous. The over two hour length is excessive. But it is visually impressive.

Kubrick was renowned for his multiple takes, and no one could figure out exactly what he wanted. Barry Nelson playing the general manager had to show Nicholson and Duvall the hotel. While this was complicated, he commented "But it presents problems to keep spontaneity after you do 60, 70 takes." He got off lightly. Crothers had to do 136 takes when he showed them the kitchen. The maze was constructed just for the film; but it was a real maze, and people actually got lost in it. [Details from Premiere, August 1999] For the opening drive to the hotel, Kubrick took miles of film for the sweeping helicopter view of the area. Ridley Scott borrowed unused portions for the view of the countryside in his finale of the original version of Blade Runner. You will not see this in the Director's Cut. Beginning

Shock Corridor (1963) (**1/2, drama) (7-8-02) (D.-Samuel Fuller; Peter Breck, Constance Towers, Gene Evans, James Best, Hari Rhodes) An interesting, but overcooked, over philosophized effort by low rent director Fuller. Fuller was not one to hide his views and in Shock he grandstands on the subjects of brain washing and the treatment of vets, modern warfare, and racial intolerance. The film is simplistic but does have a powerful base emotional impact. Journalist Breck, with the reluctant help of his girlfriend (Towers), goes undercover in a mental institution to unmask a murderer. To paraphrase Nietzsche, be careful when you look into the abyss as the abyss also looks into you. Breck does do a good job as we watch his descent into hell. As with his other films, Fuller has a very jaundiced view of human nature and is more than willing to turn over rocks and see what crawls out. As one inmate comments on the joys of sleeping: “When you are asleep, no one can tell a sane man from an insane one.”

The black and white theatrical release had a color dream sequence that, to save money, was taken from some of Fuller’s home movies. These are not your usual home movies—trust me. The final rain sequence was not supposed to be in the final script, and had Fuller announced it, it would never have been allowed. He just waited until the very end, flooded the set and ran two cameras to be sure of capturing it. Review based on excellent Turner Classic Movie release including the color segments with comments by Robert Osborn. If you are interested in Fuller, I think a much better film with less philosophy and more impact is his noir Pickup on South Street. Beginning

 Short Fuse (2001) (***1/2, drama, crime) (7-20-04) (D.-varied; actor partial list: Tom Noonan, Frances McDormand, Mary-Louise Parker, Jeremy Sisto) Shorts are not a favorite of mine, but the dust cover and the numerous well known actors intrigued me. I wasn’t disappointed. Eight superbly crafted nasty little shorts by different people. 98 riveting minutes. Ranging from profane, to almost whimsical, to profound. They all have one thing in common in that they are taut, edgy, frequently unbalancing, and you can rarely guess where they are going. All involve violence, either physical or emotional. Since at least one of the titles gives away too much, just play them through without looking at the titles on the menu. They are all perfect in the short format with no well-defined length which means that the director can make them just long enough to tell the story and no longer.

Available at Sneak Reviews. So if you have an evening where you can watch it and still have time to unwind before you try to go to sleep, give it a look. Beginning

Shot in the Dark, A (1964) (***1/2, comedy, classic) (6-12-00) (D.-Blake Edwards; Peter Sellers, Elke Sommer, George Sanders, Herbert Lom, Tracy Reed, Burt Kwouk, Graham Stark, Andre Maranne, Turk Thrust) The second in the Pink Panther series. Shot was rated as the 48th best American comedy in the AFI’s 100 Years ... 100 Laughs. Sellers is at his peak as Inspector Clouseau. Clouseau is so clueless that not only doesn’t he know, he doesn’t even suspect. Clouseau is convinced that the gorgeous maid (Sommer) is innocent of murder despite mounting evidence and body count. Some truly riotous sequences. Sellers is marvelous as he bumbles through life, mispronouncing words, misinterpreting actions. In addition, he is driving his boss Inspector Dreyfus (Lom) crazy; Lom became a regular in the series, and we get to watch his masterfully played mental disintegration as Clouseau leaves a wake of destruction. We also get the first installment of the long running gag with his manservant Kato (Kwouk). The Mancini score is great. Clouseau is one of a kind. Sellers made the role, and there is nothing else like it in film. Enjoy. Beginning

Side Street (1949) (****, classic, noir, crime) (D.-Anthony Mann; Farley Granger, Cathy O'Donnell, James Craig, Paul Kelly, Jean Hagen, Paul Harvey) A young, broke, only partially employed veteran Joe (Granger), his momentarily expectant wife (O'Donnell), an easy $200 lying there just waiting to be picked up. And thus begins a classic noir. As someone said, noir is where someone in a moment of weakness makes a simple mistake--and the trapdoor to hell opens up. Joe's descent is as precipitous and as stomach wrenching as the first plunge on a roller coaster. The city (New York) has never been darker, more brooding, more dangerous. Everywhere he turns, new threats materialize as he blunders along trying to sort out what happened. Every attempt at extrication digs the pit deeper.

Before becoming one of the top directors of Westerns, Mann had a well justified reputation for taut, brutal noir. Side Street is one of his last noirs, and he is in fine form. The acting is good; the setup as Joe EVERYMAN runs for his life is frightening believable. The city, like a dangerous animal, is an integral part of the tapestry of fear. The cinematography is classic noir, and the final chase through the barren chasms of the city accompanied by the oddly wailing sirens is taut, enervating. Side Street and the even better Naked City share much of the same bleak urban vision and should be seen by anyone interested in noir. (6-29-98) Beginning

Signs (2002) (***, sci fi, suspense) (12-9-02) (DW.-M. Night Shyamalan; Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix, Rory Culkin, Abigail Breslin) I have to admire the beautiful elegance with which the first 90% of Signs is put together. Shyamalan is a master craftsman when it come to putting together genuine suspense and creepiness with nothing but visual/aural images. Hitchcock would have admired his style. Flash and boom, overt violence are not necessary to get past our surface defenses and truly disturb us. Signs does a great job of this. Unfortunately, the ending for me ruins the whole effect. The ending is ludicrous. Completely illogical and totally sappy.

The setup is that the world is experiencing an incredible increase in crop signs and other disturbing occurrences. We view this potentially world altering occurrence though a microcosm of humanity, the Graham family. Father Graham (Gibson) (religious denomination unspecified) has lost his faith and is eking by with his two children Morgan (Culkin) and Bo (Berslin) and the support of his brother Merrill (Phoenix). The family response and how they ultimately rise to the challenge is the backbone of the film.

The atmosphere is positively palpable. The acting is good. The humor entertainingly black. But the ending! Unbreakable had a weak ending in my opinion, but Signs is much worse. Shyamalan needs a steadier hand on his writing. Hopefully he will get a second opinion on his next film. Beginning

Silence of the Lambs, The (1991) (****, psychological thriller) (D-Jonathan Demmie; Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins) A superb thriller based on Thomas Harris' book. This is a sequel to Harris' superb Red Dragon which was made into the riveting movie Manhunter. Anthony Hopkins does a stellar job as the psychopathic Dr. Lecter. Jody Foster plays the excellent foil to Lecter--young, strong, determined, resourceful, but in the final analysis, no real match for Lector's evil genius. Some of their interviews are positively sexually seductive. Four academy awards including best picture, Foster, Hopkins, and Demme. My family and I are somewhat divided; I thought the much underrated Manhunter was the better of the two. But not to worry, either one will set your neurons to full jangle. Incidentally, for an interesting comparison check out Lector in Manhunter--while he had a smaller part, he was every bit as evilly seductive as Hopkins. Beginning

Simple Men (1992) (***, comedy, drama) (D.-Hal Hartley; Robert Burke, William Sage, Karen Sillas, Elina Lowensohn, Martin Donovan, Mark Chandler Bailey) And now for an exercise in the stylized off beat. This is my first exposure to Hartley, who was recommended by one of our graduate students. Burke and Sage search for their father who was a Brooklyn Dodgers all-star shortstop until he became a 10-most-wanted anarchist in the 60's. A wry sense of humor and a consistently unpredictable plot (which is why I'm giving no more plot away), especially in the first half, made for a strange but enjoyable evening. Much of the film was shot in Lindenhurst, which is Hartley's hometown and favorite locale. Hartley also populates it with as high a concentration of odd balls and misfits that you will ever run into. Normalcy is not a word that these people have ever heard of, much less experienced. People like this certainly exist, albeit usually not in this concentration. Sometimes self-indulgent and with a total disregard for linear or even logical plot development. Also, some of the acting is the worst I have seen in a long time--the opening robbery comes to mind. Fortunately, the characters are so off beat that it is ususally impossible to recognize bad acting. Fans of Jim Jarmusch's Down by Law will probably find themselves right at home. In case you haven't guessed, not for all tastes. (4-8-96) Beginning

Simple Plan, A (1999) (****, noir, drama) (1-25-99) (D.-Sam Raimi; Bill Paxton, Billy Bob Thornton, Bridget Fonda, Brent Briscoe, Gary Cole, Becky Ann Baker, Chelcie Ross, Jack Walsh) A nearly perfect film rendition of the novel A Simple Plan by Scott B. Smith, who scripted the film play. Simple is film Noir with a capital N. The town is small, stagnate. The opportunities limited. Hank (Paxton) is in a dead end job with a very pregnant wife, Sarah (Fonda), and a slightly retarded brother, Jacob (Thornton), to look after. However, as Hank laments in a voice over at the beginning, simple things are really all you need to be happy. Hank, Jacob, and Jacob's drunken friend Lou (Briscoe) discover a downed small plane in a Minnesota snow field. A duffel bag stuffed with money precipitates the simple plan. Add in a little human nature and a little bad luck and you have the most horrific consequences. Noir is like quicksand. Once in, every struggling movement to escape only sucks the principals more deeply into the muck. In films of this type, my wife and I always ask the question, what could have been done and when to alter the outcome? After one early irrevocable step, every movement is made on the basis of logic and familial love. In retrospect the consequences are as inevitable and as catastrophic as the wreck of two trains rushing headlong towards each other on the same track,

The acting is impeccable. The principals are all perfect and completely believable. Sarah is bright, an outsider, and her actions are painfully logical. Jacob comes as close as anyone to the conscience of the group. The film is taut, suspenseful, brutal. The atmosphere is both physically and emotionally glacial. Cold. Distant. The action is in juxtaposition to the stark, unforgiving winter. The falling snow covers up the crimes, the weaknesses, the horror. Perfect.

I am reminded of the Coen brothers' Blood Simple--stark, brutal, predestined. The Coens are economical with no wasted action or scenes. Simple Plan is the same. This thought is fitting since Rami consulted with his friends the Coens (Fargo) on how to film in a Minnesota winter. Those familiar with the book, a viciously efficient read, will not be disappointed with the film. The bulk of the story is preserved with relatively few changes as necessitated by the limitations of a feature film. The mood and morality are perfect. Thornton said before Christmas that Simple Plan was intended as a black counterbalance to the unbridled joy of the season. He was right. You were forewarned. Beginning

Sinbad: Legend Of The Seven Seas (2003) (***1/2, animation, fantasy) (7-7-03) (D.-Patrick Gilmore, Tim Johnson; W.-John Logan; voices by Brad Pitt, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Joseph Fiennes, Dennis Haysbert) Not Aladdin, but delightful piece of animation that will entertain older children and keep adults watching with enthusiasm. As if the affairs of man are not complicated enough without the capricious intervention of the gods. Sinbad, for reasons that become clear during the film, has taken up a life of piracy. He is about to try to seize The Book of Peace, but unbeknownst to him, his prey is commanded by Prince Proteus (Fiennes), his friend. Things might have worked out except the Goddess of Chaos, Eris (Pfeiffer) sees a golden opportunity to set in motion a series of events that will produce catastrophic results and destroy a few lives along the way. Actually Eris was the Goddess of Discord in mythology who threw the golden apple “for the fairest” and set the scene for that most famous of beauty contests. But Chaos does just fine. I won’t give anything away except that it is a classic tale of Good vs. Evil (although it is hard to call Eris Evil, just true to her nature). We have romance involving Princess Marina (Zeta-Jones), a quest to Tartarus, the realm of the dead, insurmountable odds, a ticking deadline, and Herculean efforts. And no wishy-washy frail princesses here.

Sinbad is a top flight swashbuckling adventure. Fights, monsters, betrayals, moral choices. All interleaved with droll to slapstick humor. The animation is classic style cell animation composited with computer generated creatures and landscapes. The best of both possible worlds with a fluidity and elegance lovely to the eye and the heart.

Oh yes, did I mention Eris? The rest of the characters and story are good, but Eris alone is worth the price of admission. Pfeiffer is extraordinary as her honeyed words seduce, betray, and send men to their doom. Her vocalization along with the associated fluid animation has to be seen to be believed. Whenever Eris was on the screen, I was entranced. Given the opponent, the ending is the only way it could have been.

I just got through watching most of the old Sinbad films with Ray Harryhausen’s stunning stop motion animation of the creatures. While the stories were uneven, some of his animation was out of this world and still looks great. The current Sinbad is a worthy successor with a better story line and top flight use of art and technology to convey the story.

If you like animation and good stories, run, do not walk to Sinbad. Sinbad is PG and may be too intense for some younger children. Just remember, “Don’t push it. You’re cute, but not that cute.

Singin' In The Rain (1952) (***, musical) (12-30-02) (D.-Gene Kelly, Stanley Donen; Gene Kelly, Donald O'Connor, Debbie Reynolds, Jean Hagen) As you may have noticed, I am not a great fan of musicals. Singin’ is considered one of the greatest musicals ever made. It has been recently re-released in the theaters in restored form to celebrate its 50th anniversary. My review is based on the DVD, which looks great. Clearly, my rating strongly reflects my personal tastes. The story revolves around the transition of Hollywood to talkies. Don Lockwood (Kelly) is a leading romantic man who plays against beautiful Lina Lamont  (Hagen). Needless to say, there is great consternation and confusion over the transition with many still believing (hoping) it will be a transient aberration. When the studio head makes the decision to make a musical, we are confronted with one of the classic transition problems. While Lockwood has a voice that matches his stature, Lamont has a voice that makes finger nails scratching down a blackboard welcome relief. What happens next was standard operating procedure at that time. Voice coaches, and as last resort a voice substitute off screen with lip syncing. Enter (literally from a cake) pert, bubbly, unrealistically optimistic Kathy (Reynolds in her first big role). For reasons of conscience,  Kelly takes her under his wing at the studio. Surprise, surprise. She has a fabulous voice and ends up doing Lamont’s voice. Lamont, in very human fashion, is not about to sink quietly into the silent film graveyard, which leads to the central conflict of the film.

The singing is excellent, the dance numbers great, and the whole film has a stunning Technicolor look. The acting is good with the interplay between Lamont and Lockwood being particularly believable and entertaining. You know the things you see had to have happened in real life. The long standing friendship between Cosmo (O’Connor) and Lockwood also rings true. Reynolds stands up well against the veterans.

In reality the making of Singin’ has its own bit of Hollywood lore. It was put together and rushed into production to capitalize on the success of the 1951 Academy Award Vincente Minnelli's An American in Paris.

For me, the best parts of the film were watching the Hollywood machine and the individuals react to this new threat to their very existence. Adapt or get left behind. In reality, many got left behind.

So if you like musicals and want to see what is considered the best one ever made, run do not walk to Beyond Video or other video stores carrying the DVD.

Snow Falling On Cedars (1999) (**1/2, drama) (1-10-00) (D.- Scott Hicks; Ethan Hawke, Youki Kudoh, Rick Yune, Max Von Sydow, James Rebhorn, Sam Shepard) 1950 in a small island fishing village in Washington State. A night fishing incident in a heavy fog. The next day a drowned body. The result, a young Japanese-American Kazuo Miyamoto (Yune) with a young wife Hatsue (Kudoh) and family is charged with the murder. Another young man, Ishmael Chambers (Hawke), returns to his home from the big city to cover the trial. It is immediately clear that there was something between Ishmael and Hatsue when they were younger. The depth of the interactions between the principals and the Japanese and American communities is brought out through a series of flashbacks. Remember this is not long after the war during which the Japanese community was interned and many were robbed of their possessions (one of the unsavory incidents in our recent history that is starkly portrayed in the film), and feelings still run strong on both sides.

I think the story is interesting and would have adequate strength to hold its own if told in a conventional flashback manner. The acting is good and the cinematography beautiful with many of the images breathtaking. Unfortunately, the director does not give his actors, his story, and his audience credit for their intelligence and chooses to jazz the presentation up with a hyperkinetic editing style of short, overlapping, repetitious, and frequently inappropriate, flashbacks and dialogue that are distracting and ultimately destructive to the integrity of the story itself. With few exceptions, images must exist on the screen long enough for the viewer to place them, interpret them, and integrate them, at least at a subconscious level, into the story. Hicks makes his cuts so quickly and so randomly that ultimately they are just irritating rather than drive the story forward. This needn't be so. Lone Star tells a story in much the same way and works beautifully. The Thin Red Line uses a similar editing style, but Mallick knows when and how long to hold his images. One last complaint. The director lied to his audience on one critical piece of information.

The character development is overall excellent. Hawke is good as the brooding introspective sufferer. Kudoh has a low key part but is critical to Hawke's interest. Yune does much with his stoic body English. Von Sydow is magnificent as Kazu's weathered old lawyer. So weak, so frail, he may not make it through the trial, but with a sense of righteous indignation that lets him tower over a prosecutor a third his age.

Ultimately, we may not know why people did what they did and what they hoped to gain by their actions. "Facts you can cling to. Emotions just float away." While the facts may be clear, the underlying emotions may never be sorted out by either principals or audience.

The film is beautiful. Some people really liked it. If you plan to see it, do see it on the big screen. Beginning

Siskel, In memory of Gene . (3-3-99) The film world lost a fine and fun film critic with the untimely passing of Gene Siskel. Siskel and Roger Ebert, both in their twenties, were testosterone driven film critics for opposing Chicago papers when someone in had the brilliant idea to team them as a pair on a half hour film review show. Siskel was lean, balding, intense with an ascerbic wit. Ebert was roly-poly, a little shaggy and exuded good will and humor. Who would have thought that a half hour of two guys jawing at each other would have hit the responsive chord that it did. With their incisive comments, the abrasive interactions, and their humor, this Mutt and Jeff combination was an instant success all over the nation. Their signature thumbs up or down on a film is now a cultural icon. Over more than 20 years, the show changed but the pair didn't. Except for the show, the two didn't speak for five years. Ultimately, their intelligence and love of films, coupled with a little more maturity, led to an enduring friendship. Siskel managed to continue work on their TV show and his paper almost uninterrupted until his death from a brain tumor. Film lovers will miss him.

In memoriam, I attach two of my reviews. Goodfellas I am sure he liked. Meditteraneo I know he didn't as the little anecdote I include shows. Beginning

Sixth Sense, The (1999) (****, horror, psychological drama) (8-16-99) (D.-N. Night Shyamalan; Bruce Willis, Haley Joel Osment, Toni Collette, Olivia Williams, Trevor: Morgan, Donnie Wahlberg) First, don't let anyone tell you about the film beforehand. Written by Shyamalan, who also has a bit part as an emergency room doctor. In my opinion, Sixth is arguably the best "ghost story" film ever made. Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Willis) works with disturbed children in Philadelphia and, in his moment of glory and recognition, something goes terribly wrong with one of his past charges. We pick up sometime later with Crowe crushed by his failure, nonfunctional, and his marriage on the rocks. Enter a troubled child, Cole Sear (Osment). The boy is so much like Crowe's failure that Crowe is sure that if he can heal the boy, it will be his own redemption. The boy is withdrawn and maladjusted, but this is just the surface problem. When Crowe finally draws him out, we get the classic line "I see dead people", which is presented with such absolute conviction and fear by the boy that we have no doubt that he believes it. I will say no more about plot, other than to point out that Sixth is not a scare-you-out-of-your-socks film, although it is disturbing. It is much more in the vein of classic ghost stories than modern shock films. There is virtually no FX. Everything is internalized, cerebral, and psychological.

Sixth is an essentially perfect film. From the opening moments to the final credits, I was absolutely mesmerized. The film never hits a wrong note. The plot, the cinematography, and the music, when present, were flawlessly integrated. The acting was stellar. The 11 year old Osment is the key to the film and had a part that would try a seasoned adult. He projected just the right amount of fear and uncertainty in his voice and body English. Oscar comes to mind. Willis, an underrated actor, was perfect. Brooding, introspective, driven, and truly puzzled by his charge.

I have heard one complaint about the film being too slow moving. It isn't. It is slow moving, but it has its own deliberate pace, which is essential to the unravelling of the story. Incidentally, the director does play fair. Beginning

Skinwalker (2002) (***, mystery) (12-9-02) (D.-Chris Eyre; W.-James Redford; M.- B. C. Smith; Adam Beach, Wes Studi, Sheila Tousey, Michael Greyeyes, Alex Rice, Saginaw Grant) Skinwalker just showed on PBS American Mystery series. Skinwalker is based on Tony Hillerman’s book of the same name. For those unfamiliar with Hillerman he writes mysteries built around Native American police officers in the Four Corners area of the Southwest. While the resolutions of the mysteries are generally weak, this is not why I have read Hillerman for many years. The books are deeply atmospheric both in terms of the physical atmosphere, the alien situation for average readers, and the deep insight into the Native American philosophies of life. Indeed, he has been given several awards by the Navajo Nation for his bridges to their culture.

This story revolves around the ritualistic murders of several medicine men by what looks like a skinwalker, a witch capable of shape changing. We get the first meeting between crusty, no-nonsense officer Joe Leaphorn (Studi) and the young, impulsive officer Jim Chee (Beach). Chee is training to be a medicine man, a bit of tribal “nonsense” that further deepens the rift between the two men. The story unfolds as the two men work together towards the resolution of the killings with growing respect for the others viewpoints and approaches. The film is set against various family and cultural conflicts, some involving a young Dr. Stone (Greyeyes), a newcomer to the local health clinic.

It has been too long since I read the book to comment on how well it follows the original, but one thing is perfect: the casting of Chee and Longhorn. Their individual personalities, and their interactions with each other are exactly the way I pictured them. Also the film captures the moods in the Southwestern desert beautifully. This starkly beautiful and extremely hostile area is not likely to make Easterners stampede to the Four Corners, but for me it brings a bit of homesickness, and a feeling of peace and contentment.

In keeping with the books, the mystery is not great, but also in keeping with the books that isn’t why you should watch Skinwalker. The characters, their thought processes, their culture, and the surroundings all are true to Hillerman. Skinwalker will make for a unique evening. Review based on PBS broadcast. The film is available in VHS or DVD from PBS. Beginning

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004) (***1/2, sci fi, action) (10-22-04) (D-Kerry Conran; Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie, Giovanni Ribisi, Michael Gambon, Ling Bai, Omid Djalili) An Indiana Jones wannabe. It is set in the world of the future as envisioned by the comic books and pulp writers of the 30s and 40s. The basic plot, to the extent that one is necessary, is that Dr. Totenkopf appears bent on world domination. He is kidnapping critical scientists and sending his minions of giant flying robots to seize resources from throughout the world. Standing in his way is Sky Captain Sullivan (Law), mercenary and protector of the world and his ex-girl friend “get the story at any cost” Polly Perkins (Paltrow). As with Raiders, this is a throwback to the old cliff hangers. As my wife said, you manage to get all 12 parts of a Republic cliff hanger rolled into about 2 hours.

The art design is unique. Virtually the entire film was shot in front of a blue screen and most of what you see was computer composited in. The colors are pastel to virtually old black and white tinted. The images are frequently almost realistic, but just enough off to give the feel of an old movie or comic book.

The film is filled with homage to countless films and even to Orson Wells’ radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds. The attack on Sullivan’s base reminded me of the start of WWII. The humor is entertaining and the plot just off beat enough to keep you guessing. The acting is good given the subject matter. Many of the images are truly stunning. It is too bad that director couldn’t pull off the suspense and dialogue to go with his visual gem.

The evil doctor is played by Laurence Olivier who died in 1989, and is composited in from old shots. The time will come when they will just program in the mannerisms, look, and voice and totally generate a film with a dead actor. But not yet. Beginning

Slaughterhouse Five (1972) (***-Sci Fi, drama) (D-Georg Roy Hill; Michael Sacks) A faithful adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut's off the wall antiwar novel by the same name. Billy Pilgrim becomes "unstuck" in time and bounces back and forth--without any warning. He jumps between the past (a German POW camp Slaughter House Five in Dresden at the end of W.W.II), the present, the near future, and the far distant future (where aliens have preserved him and Miss Montana (played by the delectable Valerie Perrine) as the sole surviving humans). A funny, unbalancing, offbeat, savage antiwar movie that draws its energy from the massive Dresden fire bombing, which was classified for a number of years after the war. If you aren't familiar with the details, I won't enlighten you. The movie portrays a sufficiently accurate account of the facts, and different people do arrive at morally opposing conclusions. Pilgrim has the unique philosophical perspective of knowing his entire life up to and including his death since he has already been to the future. Not for everyone, but then Vonnegut isn't. It does makes more sense if you see it more than once or read the novel first. Beginning

Sleeper (***1/2 humor) (D-Woody Allen, Woody Allen, Diane Keaton) I find Allen uneven. In particular, I just cannot relate to his more recent comedies such as Manhattan--although people from New York assure me that for the in, it is one of the funniest things they have ever seen. In my small town, lower middle class opinion Sleeper is Allen's best comedy. It concerns a nerd from the present who went into the hospital for minor surgery, died under anesthetic, was frozen, and is awakened 200 years in the future by revolutionaries. They are trying to overthrow a harsh dictator and need someone who has no government record. Needless to say Allen, who expected to be home 200 years earlier, is not amused. Neither are the revolutionaries with their off the wall "catch" from the past nor the government, which is determined to finish what the surgeons botched 200 years earlier. In trying to escape from the police, Allen kidnaps Keaton ala Hitchcock, and they bounce off of each other like an insane Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn. They are perfect neurotic foils for each other. Much slapstick set at a supersonic pace. If one joke misses, you don't have time to lament before the next one bowls you over. Truly memorable scenes include the chase at the mushroom shaped house, Allen's comments on real news snippets from the 50-70's, the pleasure ball, the VW bug, and the garden/dinner.

The mushroom shaped house is real and can be seen from I-70 going west out of Denver, and I understand that the massive sandstone building at the end is JILA, the meteorological lab outside Boulder--you can see it from the University. The rousing, floor stomping, heart pumping Dixie Land accompaniment performed by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band maintains the kinetic level slightly above that of a Concorde. This is in keeping with Allen's long interest in jazz; he plays, and apparently very well, in New York. Beginning

Sleepless in Seattle (1993) (unrated, Romantic comedy) (D.- Nora Ephron; Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, Bill Pullman, Ross Malinger) Not my kind of movie at all. Ryan and Hanks can be most charming. However, a half an hour into it, and I didn't see any comedy and precious little romance. A contrived throwback to the tear jerker of the 40s and 50s that moved meto the VCR off switch. Now if you want romatic comedy, check out When Harry Met Sally.... (2 28-95) Beginning

Sleepy Hollow (1999) (***, fantasy, horror) (12-20-99) (D- Tim Burton; Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci, Miranda Richardson, Michael Gambon, Casper Van Dien) This is a weak ***, so read on. A modern retelling of Washington Irving's Legend of Sleepy Hollow. This isn't Walt Disney's Sleepy Hollow but probably more in keeping with the original, so if blood and gore aren't your cup of tea, pass. The time is 1799 and Crane (Depp) is a big city police officer who thinks scientific methods should replace brutality and torture as a way of solving crimes in the new "millenium". His boss and the judge are not eager to replace proven methods with such nonsense. To get Crane out of their hair, he is sent to Sleepy Hollow to solve a series of brutal beheadings. When he arrives, the town is in a state of terror, and the Headless Horseman is quick to provide Crane with a specimen on which to apply his new techniques. Incidentally, the chemical test used to determine the nature of the blow is a hoot.

Crane is not easily intimidated by the alleged supernatural, although he isn't too happy with the grotesque nature of body examination, exhumations, and autopsies. However, it also isn't long before he decides to examine the superstition more closely.

The story unfolds quite differently from the original, so the plot is largely new. However, Crane is more than a little interested in the buxom Katrina Van Tassel (Ricci) and her paramour, Brom (Van Dien), is more than a little interested in squelching the competition. Burton pulls a fine twist on the Disney version over this conflict.

As I said, this is not your Disney version. The Headless Horseman and his coal-black steed are out of your worst nightmare. He was a human monster before decapitation; we see how he was beheaded (the unbilled actor playing this role is perfect). However, with immortality, his ferocity knows no bounds. He moves with the speed, the agility, the grace of a tiger and wields his sword with the ferocity of all the demons of hell. Actually he should. One of the two actors playing the headless horseman was Ray Park who did the extraordinary part of Darth Maul in Starwars: Part I. In short, the Horseman is a truly magnificent enemy.

Depp is delightfully quirky. The townsfolk are sufficiently terrorized and the elders seedy and unreliable. Ricci is wasted. The town and settings are delightfully dark and broody. However, some of the scenes are obviously set pieces that I suspect are homage to the bloody Hammer Studio horror masterpieces of the 50s and 60s. The Frankenstein films also are represented. The F/X are frequently impressive, especially the entry and exit of the Horseman through the gate of hell.

A weakness of the film is it doesn't know quite where it wants to go. Is it humor, horror, romance? Unfortunately, what doesn't become clear until most of the way through the film is that it is a mystery and you should treat what you have seen as such--a hint.

As an aside the version showing at the Seminole has been badly hacked in a few places or the editing was terrible. Beginning

Sling Blade (1996) (****, drama) (D.-Billy Bob Thornton; Dwight Yoakum, J. T. Walsh, John Ritter, Lucas Black, Natalie Canerday, Robert Duvall) Written, directed and acted by Thornton, this deserving Academy Award winning film is a downer that explores dark corners of the human mind that we'd rather not view too closely. I didn't enjoy Sling Blade in the normal sense, but I reveled in the superb film making and performance by Thornton.

Thornton portrays a mildly retarded institutionalized man, Carl Childers, who murdered his mother and her lover 25 years earlier when he was 12. The State has decreed that he is no longer a threat and must be released even though he has no more grasp of the outside world and how to survive by himself than the dysfunctional 12 year old of 25 years earlier.

Thornton's performance is inspired. We have an instinctive set of warning bells that trigger when we encounter someone or something that is off center or out of kilter. Well, our first meeting with Thornton is a 5-alarm fire. Yet, by the end of the film, without any perceptible change in his behavior, we have managed to develop a deep empathy for the character.

The story revolves around his befriending a lonely fatherless boy and his mother. The mother has an abusive boyfriend who threatens what little stability the boy and his mother have.

Childers has come to grips with, understands, and accepts what he did 25 years earlier. In his own fashion, he has developed a deeply felt code of behavior. Sling Blade is about carefully weighed choices and actions with far reaching consequences--including moral consequences whose ramifications could well be felt for another 25 years.

I thought the penultimate scene in the kitchen was perfect, and the last scene was necessary as opposed to a number of Hollywood films that keep tacking things on. Country singer Yoakum as the boy friend is credible, and Black as the boy is a natural. Black starred in the short running TV series American Gothic. I conclude with my warning, Sling Blade turns over rocks that many may not want to look under. (4-7-97) Beginning

Sliver (1993) (**, thriller) (D.-Phillip Noyce; Sharon Stone, William Baldwin., Tom Berenger, Polly Walker, Colleen Camp, Amanda Forman, Martin Landau) Lonely Stone moves into a tall luxury apartment where the previous occupant (who bears a striking resemblance to Stone) did a swan dive off of the balcony. Writer Berenger and building occupant Baldwin pursue her, and one of them is very likely the killer. Glossy, beautifully filmed voyeur's delight, but the plot is murky and illogical. Apparently, it was reshot with a change in the identity of the killer. Maltin claims the reshooting degraded what was there. On the other hand, if the reshooting was an improvement, I'd have hated to see the original. Some of the issues of privacy and responsibility were interesting and, had they had been handled maturely, something might still have been salvaged. (2-21-95) Beginning

Small Time Crooks (2000) (**1/2, comedy)   (1-15-01) (D.- Woody Allen; Woody Allen, Tracey Ullman, Michael Rapaport, Tony Darrow, Jon Lovitz, Elaine May, Elaine Stritch, Hugh Grant) A welcome throwback to Allen’s Sleeper-Bananas period. Over the objections of his loving and much brighter wife, Frenchy (Ullman), a bunch of inept crooks led by Ray Winkler (Allen) prepares to clean out a bank by tunneling under it. These guys are so incompetent that they couldn’t plug a power cord into a socket if it had a fluorescent bull’s eye around it. This leads to the riotous first half of the movie, which culminates in unexpected consequences. We are then treated to a savagely satirical new show where the gang is interviewed in the Dateline - 20/20 format. Unfortunately, we then lose sight of the gang, and the remainder of the film deals with unintended consequences of success. Much of this doesn’t work; the exception is the dense but good natured May (May) who is a stitch whenever she is on the screen. If only Allen had managed to maintain the frenetic slapstick style of the first half, we would have a fine comedy. A pleasant diversion, if you don’t expect much in the second half. Review based on the nice wide screen letterboxed DVD at Sneak Review, which contains a little text based supplementary material. Beginning

Smilla's Sense of Snow (1997) (***, suspense, drama) (D.-Bille August; Julia Ormand, Gabriel Byrne, Richard Harris, Robert Loggia, Vanessa Redgraves, Jim Broadbent) The opening scene is absolutely breathtakingly composed. A seal hunter, his dogs, and their reactions to a cataclysmic event. Totally realistic and believable. The rest of the story isn't. However, Smilla's isn't really about story. It is character, atmosphere, and mood driven where it works very effectively at a gut level. A young Inuit Greenland boy races off the top of a roof in Copenhagen, and his are the only footsteps in the snow. Smilla (Ormand) was his friend and is half-Inuit herself. She is also a natural at interpreting snow, and to her the death wasn't an accident. Smilla is also glacially isolated from all other human contact--the boy was her sole touch of humanity. Throw in a secretive neighbor (Bryne) who may be hiding something, a powerful scientist, and a major conspiracy involving a mining company and you have the basic plot. The plot has more holes than a Swiss cheese. The Bryne part just doesn't work.; he suffered from pneumonia during part of the filming which may have affected him. The sex is total Hollywood and not at all necessary for development. However, Ormand's performance, coupled with the seductively dark brooding cinematography and sound track, still make the film work. I cared for her. I had a vested interest in her quest. If you aren't susceptible to cinematic magic and insist that a film stands on logic, I cannot recommend it; but if you are susceptible--check it out. Preferably on the big screen.

The absolutely awesome ice fields appear to have been shot in Greenland and Sweden. Ormond was totally taken by the grandeur (I can understand why) and wanted to live there. (3-17-97) Beginning

Snake Eyes (1998) (***1/2, action, suspense, noir) (9-4-00) (D.-Brian De Palma; Nicolas Cage, Gary Sinise, John Heard, Carla Gugino, Stan Shaw, Kevin Dunn, Michael Rispoli, Joel Fabiani, Luis Guzmán) Although this film was savaged by the critics and shunned by the audiences, I finally rented the DVD because everyone agreed that the opening shot was stunning. It is. I think much of the savaging was due the fact that many watchers limited their view of the film to one element. In my opinion, I think had the ending been better crafted this would have been a great film. I also think its reputation will grow with time.

The set up. Atlantic City at the coliseum on the night of a big prize fight. A hurricane rages outside. A flamboyant, weasily official Ricky Santoro is betting big on it. His long time friend Commander Kevin Dunne (Sinise) is back in town and in charge of security for the Secretary of Defense during the fight.

Dunne is straightlaced and by the book. He thinks Santoro should get his family out of Atlantic City. "This isn’t a beach town anymore. It is a sewer." Santoro’s response is "But it’s my sewer and I love it!" A big fish in a little pond.

An assassination sets in motion the remainder of the film. We think we saw it, but what did we really see? In the first half of the movie we will be confronted multiple times with our perceptions of reality. And each time we have to reassess reality. After this is where I think most people felt the film fell apart. "The riddle had been solved. Anything after that is wasted." However, actually this is only a small part of the film. The core of the film is a noirish character study of Dunne and especially Santoro. Fateful decisions must be made that will irrevocably alter lives. What decision to make? How to live with the consequences? The heart of the film is revealed by Santoro’s monologue in the stairwell. Noir at its best. Humanity tortured by the consequences of simple actions and sucked into a quicksand from which there may be no escape. After you have watched the film, replay this scene.

The editing, the cinematography is absolutely breathtaking in its virtuosity. The opening sequence is 12 minutes (12!) of continuous filming with no breaks. One continuous take. It leaves you breathless. It sets the story. And it tells us ever so much about the principals. In my opinion, only the implausible confluence of events at the end detracts from the film. However, if you consider it film noir, such endings are in fact almost standard, so maybe it isn’t an error on the director’s part. The acting is good overall and Cage and Sinise are stellar. Perfect for the parts. Cage makes you both loathe and care for Rick—no small feat.

To fully appreciate the film, you must watch it wide screen. Review based on the excellent DVD. Beginning

Snakes on a Plane (2006) (**, action) (2-20-07) (D.-David R. Ellis; Samuel L. Jackson, Julianna Margulies, Nathan Phillips, Rachel Blanchard, Flex Alexander) Rated 6.9/10 on the Internet Movie Database with many 10s. The first class Bourne movies rated only 7.4 as did a number of recent good movies and even some classics. So there is no accounting for taste. As one character comments "Why exactly are there snakes on this plane?" The answer is simple. It is a crass attempt to make a bizzillion dollars with a dreadful movie and an over the top marketing campaign. A masterpiece of marketing over substance. Using a cunning web and TV campaign the film was hyped long before it was even completed. Every bit as bad in the reality as many reviews claim. Even before it hit the screen, there was a flood of look or sound alikes hitting the rental in order to capitalize on the name (e.g., Snakes on a Train).

The story such as it is: An FBI agent is bringing a witness to a gang killing to LA from Hawaii. To stop the flight, the criminals put a crate of poison snakes on the plane which were released in mid-flight. The resultant carnage and defense includes every cliché. Frequently poorly, although it also has great fun poking at the airlines and their regime. What else could wrong. How about the plane being caught in a major league storm? Snakes is tasteless, crude, rude, occasional amusing, and if you are in the right mood, a pleasant evening diversion. Unless, of course, you are a nervous flier. In which case, this just adds something else for you to be deathly afraid of on planes.

Probably the two best things that can be said about the film are that even super stars like Jackson have to eat between hits, and this allows him to survive. Second, it does look like everyone is having fun as they race madly about dispatching every variety of poisonous snake imaginable or being dispatched by such. Over 450 snakes were used in the making of the film including a beautiful 22 foot python. The cg snakes aren't as much fun to watch as the real thing, but I am sure were a lot less dangerous to the handlers.

My wife has one mantra in films about snakes. "Whatever you do, don't let the head meet the tail!" Unfortunately with poisonous snakes, this is not a useful strategy, and she appeared to have no opportunity to use it. But finally the director managed to pull the python out of the hole. Beginning

Snatch (2000) (****, comedy, crime) (3-12-01) (D/W.- Guy Ritchie; Benicio Del Toro, Dennis Farina, Brad Pitt, Rade Serbedzija, Jason Statham, Alan Ford, Mike Reid, Robbie Gee, Lennie James, Ewen Bremner, Jason Flemyng) The British have a knack for larcenous comedy with such classics as The Ladykillers, Kind Hearts, and Coronets, and How to Murder a Rich Uncle. With Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Ritchie established himself as the new king of the genre. Snatch is cut from the same cloth, only funnier and blacker. Those familiar with Barrels will instantly recognize the assortment of bizarrely named and behaving criminal low lives, the hyperkinetic editing style, and the convoluted, Swiss watch engineered plot that makes a Chinese puzzle box look straightforward. The similarities have been raised as an objection to the film. In my mind that is like saying all of Woody Allen comedies or Damon Runyon stories are the same because they use similar characterizations and styles. This is a completely different movie and as long as Ritchie manages to have original plots and characters, I will enjoy going to his films.

As with Barrel, the plot defies description. It involves a diamond heist involving Franky Four Fingers (Del Toro), who is a gambling addict. Uncle Avi (Farina) is a Jewish gangster. One Punch Mickey Oneil (Pitt), is a Gypsy with an accent so incomprehensible that his own mother has trouble understanding him. Bullet Tooth Tony (Jones, who was the father in Barrel), is a fearsome fixer and in real life one of England’s most feared soccer players. Boris the Blade (Serbedzija). A dog who swallows a squeaky toy. Pigs. And, of course, lots of inept criminals.

The plot cannot be described in anything less than a novella as the several different plot lines thread through each other like worms in a bowl, occasionally making contact and ultimately wrapping up in one tight little package. I judge a good comedy by how much I replay it in my mind later and laugh and smile. Thus, the **** rating. My wife and I talked about it long after we left the theater. We then spent about 45 minutes the next day sorting out the plot, the points of contact, who knew what and when, etc. A delightful exercise and it does hold together. However, the English is still hard to understand at times. I can hardly wait to see it again to get more of the dialogue and savor the plot as it unfolds.

There are a number of delightful images that float through our minds. Four Fingers’ thoughts at the mention of gambling and Uncle Avi’s trans Atlantic flights are two.

Warning: It is profane and it is violent on a Pulp Fiction level. Beginning

Sneakers (1992) (**1/2, action suspense) (Robert Redford, Sidney Poitier, Dan Aykroyd) At the Movie Palace. A throw back to the romantic crime capers of the sixties. A light throw away with action, humor, and plot fit for the most paranoid paranoid. The plot even has a built in paranoid. Aykroyd as "Mother" makes the paranoia of Oliver Stone's JFK look like Sunday Bible School. For example, one of his milder beliefs is that the moon landing was staged on a movie set. Mother drives Poitier, an uptight ex-FBI agent, up the wall. A group of computer misfits, who are into breaking into banks and other high tech establishments, are coerced into a government job to lift a code breaking circuit from a mathematician. Wheels within wheels, plots within plots, and you end up with THE CAPER where they must break into a super secure fortress. Cute, but generally predictable, although some of the scenes with the blind electronics expert are different, to say the least. A fine break before finals. (11-30-92) Beginning

Soapdish (1991) (**1/2, humor) (D.-Michael Hoffman; Sally Field, Kevin Kline, Robert Downey, Jr., Cathy Moriarty, Whoopi Goldberg, Elisabeth Shue, Carrie Fisher)This is a funny spoof on soap operas. Enjoyable but not heavy duty. Beginning

Solaris (1972) (***1/2, sci fi) (D.-Andrei Tarkovsky; Natalya Bondarchuk, Donatas Banionis, Yuri Yarvet, Anatoly Solonitsin) Classic Russian science fiction. A space station is circling a planet Solaris that appears to be intelligent. The humans probed it, and it probed them. Now their innermost subconscious thoughts become real. Most people cannot live under such conditions and the station is abandoned in great haste except for a few particularly hardy--or sick-- individuals. A psychologist is sent up to try to pick up the pieces and make the station tenable. The thing to appear from his subconscious is his long-dead wife. He tries to solve the problem by killing her--only she keeps coming back. The real novelty of the plot revolves around the fact that as far as she is concerned, she is every bit as real as he is. Slow moving, but fascinating, movie. Not for everyone. The scene where the psychologist first meets the station head is outstanding. The leader is so uptight that it is clear that if they touched even to shake hands, he would loose it and shatter. The scenes near the beginning of a Russian metropolis are remarkable--"I had no idea that there were such modern, metropolises in Russian in 1970." On second viewing years latter, I thought that it certainly looked at lot like Tokyo. Look close for the Japanese road signs. Solaris is based on the unreadable, for me, novel by Stanislov Lem. Cerebral and surreal. Not for all tastes. Beginning

Soldier of Orange (1979) (**, drama) (D.-Paul Verhoeven, Rutger Hauer, Edward Fox, Susan Penhaligon) Six young college classmates fight the Nazis during the occupation of the Netherlands during WWII. A much ballyhooed movie. Unfortunately, I'm not at sure why. In spite of a few stylish scenes, the acting is wooden, the dialog banal, and the plot development slow and illogical. In short, unless you are an avid Hauer fan and don't mind an entirely different voice from the dubbing, this is not worth the effort to hunt down. Review based on dubbed cable version. (2-21-94) Beginning

Some Like It Hot (1959) (****, crime, humor) (D.- Billy Wilder; Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis, Marilyn Monroe, Joe E. Brown, George Raft, Pat O'Brien, Nehemiah Persoff, Joan Shawlee, Mike Mazurki) Classic farce by Wilder and I. A. L. Diamond. While it has elements that are not politically correct, it is funny. Two musicians witness the St. Valentine's Day Massacre where gangster "Spats" (Raft) and his four "Harvard lawyers" rub out Toothpick Charlie and his gang. The witnesses' only way of avoiding a similar fate is to hide as a pair of female musicians, Josephine (Curtis) and Daphne (Lemmon), in a band going to Florida. One of the band members is Sugar Kane (Monroe) who inadvertently, but sorely, tries the "women". Once in Florida, the plot is complicated by millionaire Osgood E. Fielding III (Brown), who continues his poor choice in wives by avidly pursuing Daphne, and the reappearance of Raft's mob at a convention of "Friends of Italian Opera". To tell more would spoil many of the plot turns and twists.

The plot is imaginative with fine dialogue. Curtis and Lemmon are outstanding in their crossdressing roles. And they aren't even half bad looking. Their chemistry is perfect. Monroe is suitably sexy and vulnerable. Brown's character is a hoot. Raft plays a parody of his earlier gangster roles. His question to the one hood about where he learned to coin toss is an in joke from Raft's Guido Rinaldo in Scarface (1932). The hulking pug-ugly Mike Mazuki is one of the Harvard Lawyers, and he hadn't gotten any less threatening from his lethally dull witted thug in Murder My Sweet (1944).

Brown's great closing line was written at the last minute because Wilder didn't want to have to depend on the unreliable Monroe who was often late, and frequently forgot her lines even when they were written on the furniture--although the performance you see does work. The film is in black and white because the makeup on Lemmon and Curtis would have looked garish in color. (Details from Microsoft Cinemania '95). (1-19-98)

Comments from Film Festival (10-29-01) It was fabulous to see this on the big screen again after probably 35 or 40 years. It was the number one American comedy in the recent AFI rating. Suffice it to say, it is a great film. Many try to read all sorts of subtext into it. Maybe it is there. Maybe it isn’t. Sometimes a rose is just a rose and a great comedy is just a comedy. Regardless, it has great acting, style, plot, and humor.


Sometimes They Come Back (1991) (**1/2, B Horror) (D.-Tom McLoughlin; Tim Matheson, Brooke Adams, Robert Hy Gorman, William Sanderson, Robert Rusler, Bently Mitchum) Based on a Stephen King short story, Sometimes is a pretty standard B-level horror with no real surprises and the typical weak horror film ending. Nevertheless, I give it **1/2 for directorial style and some of the acting. There is after all rarely a genuinely new horror topic. The film has a certain consistent edginess and nagging feeling of uncertainty that I liked. This is not easy to achieve, even with good material. Further, the three psychotic punks manage an over the top show of unhinged evil--definitely not young men a father would want his daughter to bring home. No great shakes, but some respectable chills for a movie of this class. (6-19-95) Beginning

Sommersby (1993) (***, drama) (D.-Jon Amiel; Richard Gere, Jodie Foster, Bill Pullman, James Earl Jones, William Windom, Brett Kelley, Richard Hamilton) Lush, beautifully photographed remake of The Return of Martin Guerre set in Tennesee immediately after the Civil War. Unlike a plague of recent European films converted to English, Sommersby avoids two fatal errors. First, it holds true to its convictions and doesn't soften the very hard edge of the original too much. Second, it doesn't do a scene for scene, word for word repeat of the original in English. Rather it chooses a photogenic time and place and alters the plot details so that you are never exactly sure what is coming next. Sommersby is a returning Confederate solder who spent most of the war interned. He was a brutal, egotistical man before the war, and his wife (Forster) is less than enthusiastic about his survival but makes the best of it. As with Martin Guerre, however, war has totally altered his personality and the story goes on from there. Well acted by Gere who shows uncommon depth and Foster who is always charming. The plot is psychologically not as deep or subtle as the original and is, therefore, less satisfying than Guerre. Also, I don't think that the plot held up as well as Guerre. Nevertheless, attractive, well acted and worth checking out. The films was shot at beautiful Warwick Mansion in Virginia. Photos of Warwick Mansion (3-14-95) Beginning

Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983) (**1/2, horror) (2-26-01) (D.- Jack Clayton; Jason Robards, Jonathan Pryce, Diane Ladd, Pam Grier, Royal Dano, Shawn Carson, Vidal Peterson, Mary Grace Canfield, James Stacy, Narrated by Arthur Hill) Based on a Ray Bradbury story and scripted by the author. The night is pierced by the headlight of an oncoming train approaching perfect small-town America in the early part of the 20th century. But perfect is only in memories or writings. Every place has lusts, regrets, fears, and weaknesses. The train carries Mr. Dark’s Pandemonium carnival. The name says it all. There is no frailty that cannot be exploited, no wish that cannot be granted; but the price will always be exorbitant. The story unfolds through the eyes of a young boy as he recollects the events from the perspective of adulthood. The principals are the boy, his best friend, his father (Robards), and Mr. Dark (Pryce). The father is old, sick, and fearful of dying.

The story is nicely atmospheric with beautiful sets and some excellent scenes. However, it just isn’t hard edged enough and the plot never gels. One of my favorite scenes was the exchange between Robards and Pryce in the library. Dark is indeed the personification of evil and oilily seductive.

I suspect that Bradbury was pleased by the film. He is a wordsmith. Flowery, ornate, and absolutely precise. Visually the film is the same way. No piece of trash, shadow, or object seems out of place.

Review based on the letterboxed DVD from Beyond Video. The image is beautiful, but unfortunately the sound synch to the picture is off, which is a distracting flaw. Beginning

Sorcerer (1977) (***, adventure) (D.-William Friedkin, Roy Scheider, Bruno Cremer, Ramon Bieri) At Willoughby and Blockbuster. Friedkin does not cater to the audience and the movie requires close attention, especially in the beginning. One sequence alone is worth the price of admission. At one point they must drive the big trucks across a decaying suspension bridge not inches above a raging rain-swollen river. Long before I saw the movie, I had been thunderstruck by the movie poster showing this scene. The sequence is absolutely breathtaking and must be seen to be believed! You truly wonder how they did it. The title comes from the name stenciled on one of the trucks and is easy to miss. A sign of the times: Maltin originally considered the electronic score by Tangerine Dream strange; but now, while suitably disturbing, it is not unusual. (4-25-94) See also Variations on a theme (adventure). Beginning

Sorry, Wrong Number (1948) (***, noir, thriller) (D.-Anatole Litvak; Barbara Stanwyck, Burt Lancaster, Ann Richards, Wendell Corey, Ed Begley, Leif Erickson, William Conrad) Melodramatic, but still effective story told from her standpoint. Stanwyck is domineering bedridden daughter of rich cough drop magnate (Begley). Her husband (Lancaster) was poor, but ambitious. While unhappily alone one evening, she calls her husband at work, but intercepts a call of two men planning a murder. Her persistent digging begins to reveal that she might be the intended victim. The story is skillfully told in flashbacks, although one has to suspend belief that a few of the scenes could actually have taken place (e.g., Richards' scene at the beach). As with any good noir, it is a dangerous world out there and seemingly simple decisions can have far reaching, potentially fatal, consequences for everyone. An expanded version of Lucille Fletcher's radio drama, which is considered better. (6-10-96) Beginning

A Sound of Thunder (2005) (***, sci fi) (6-12-06) (D.-Peter Hyams; W.- Ray Bradbury, Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer and Gregory Poirer; Edward Burns, Ben Kingsley, Catherine McCormack, Jemima Rooper, August Zirner, Corey Johnson) Obviously, judging from everyone else's comments on this, I will have to put this one down as a guilty pleasure. I consider this a fine example of a 50's style sci fi film. I think that is exactly what the director wanted to make. Judging from the Internet Movie Data Base, my wife and I must be two of the few people in the world who enjoyed it. Moderately well acted, passable effects, an intriguing plot, and after a solid build up, fun action and special effects with a dash of some real tension. Of course it deviates from the half a dozen pages of Ray Bradbury's short story. A big company is sending people back into the past to hunt dinosaurs, but only those that are about to die so that nothing gets changed in the future. However, there is a lesson here. Don't mess with the past. No matter how careful man's controls, something will go wrong. And of course it does, and we are off.

My recommendation is that if you are fan of 50's sci fi, give it a look. Otherwise a pass might be the wise decision. Beginning

Space Cowboys (2000)( ***, comedy, drama)  (8-14-00) (D.- Clint Eastwood; Clint Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland, James Garner, Marcia Gay Harden, James Cromwell, William Devane) The film starts in the late 50s when a team of crack test pilots (Team Daedalus) is prepping to go into space. They don't. Forward to the present. An out of control Russian communications satellite needs to be rescued. Oddly enough the guidance system is an antiquated American system--a true dinosaur. No one in the space program knows how to fix it except the long-retired Frank (Eastwood). A little political blackmail on his part reassembles the over-the-hill Team Daedalus consisting of Hawk (Jones), Jerry (Sutherland), and Tank (Garner).

One of the major and enjoyable conflicts is that the project is headed by Bob Gerson (Cromwell), the nemesis of Daedalus and the mortal enemy of Frank. I cannot pass up one line, which shows in the previews. As Gerson tries to play political hard ball of his own, he says "I can't fill up a space shuttle with geriatrics!" As Frank arrogantly walks out the door, his response is "The clock's ticking, Bob, and I'm only getting older." There is also a long simmering conflict between Hawk and Frank. These guys may be old, but age doesn't mellow hard core type A personalities.

About the first two-thirds of the film is a riot as the team is assembled, they train for the launch, and their personalities are revealed. Each, by the way, has an interesting life of their own, which I will avoid revealing since it is so much fun. Given the nature of test pilots, there is no doubt in my mind that the characterization is correct for many of them, even at advanced ages. For example, Chuck Yeager who first broke the sound barrier in the X-1 (it is the similar looking X-2 used in the film) was still flying jets in his 70s. And you don't take one of the greatest casts of scene stealers in film and put them together without delightful chemistry. These guys may be older, but they are great actors. The chemistry between Eastwood and Jones, in particular, is pure charm. There are also romantic interests, substantial mutual respect from many others, and substantial skepticism and hostility to the team--all very believable. The competition between the geriatrics and the young bucks is also a hoot. I would rate this portion of the film as ****.

Where it fails for me is in the last third. It becomes serious. You can pretty much see the outline of what is going to happen when you find out something about one of the astronauts. From then it on becomes boilerplate film making. Glossy, but you have seen it all before. If only they had maintained the comedic element throughout, I would have found it a great movie.

The actors selected to represent the older men at a younger age were good. The voices of the principals coming out of these young actors was well done and very jarring. They were no doubt dubbed and electronically altered to more closely match young men, since our voices change as we age.

So with my caveat about the end, I do recommend Space Cowboys for a delightful evening. Beginning

Spartacus (1960) (****, drama, historical costumer) (5-1-00) (D.-Stanley Kubrick; Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov, John Gavin, Tony Curtis, Woody Strode) Based on the book by Howard Fast, and adapted to the screen by Dalton Trumbo. The noble ancestor of Gladiator. The review is based on the lovingly restored (in 1991 by Robert A. Harris) DVD version of the film. Based loosely on historical facts. Spartacus (Douglas), an intransigent slave, is saved from death by Batiatus (Ustinov) to become a gladiator. On being used by a couple of spoiled noble women as a lethal plaything in a fight to the death with his friend (Strode), he leads a gladiator rebellion. They ravage the countryside creating an army that even the might of Rome cannot overcome. Senator Crassius (Olivier), as devious and power hungry as he is intelligent, ultimately uses the situation to seize power. He is opposed by Republican Gracchus (Laughton) who ultimately will get his own small revenge.

The film is bold, sweeping, magnificent, bigger than life. The characters all have great intelligence and great appetites. Spartacus burns for freedom and the slave girl Varinia (Simmons) who reciprocates. Gracchus lusts for the good of Rome, food, and nubile women—lots of them—and hates Crassus. Crassus lusts for power, Varinia, and Antoninus (Curtis). Antoninus strives for a simple life of teaching, singing, and story telling. Julius Caesar (Gavin) is driven for the good of Rome, but oh how we make our fateful decisions. Batiatus (an Oscar winning, scene stealing performance) wants wealth and revenge on Crassus. In spite of their excesses, these are not cartoon characters, but real human beings with real and believable emotions and behavior. These were pragmatic people living in brutal times and violence is frequently dispensed with the ease with which we swat flies.

The scripting is intelligent, the acting superb, the cinematography stellar. One can forgive some of the excesses of the speeches on freedom and the romance that seem overdone today. Less would have been more. But I quibble over minor points. Kubrick knew how to put scenes together with economy and power. As the gladiators wait their turn, what is presented is far more powerful than had we clearly seen what was going on.

Douglas is sleek, oiled, powerful. He is also a gifted leader. Olivier and Laughton carry their parts effortlessly, although there are times when you expect Olivier to launch into Shakespearean prose. Varinia is sweet, desirable. Ustinov is oily, pragmatic. Curtis, in one of his early roles, is handsome, sweet, innocent.

Spartacus has battle scenes that have only been equaled recently. As the mighty Roman army squares mass for the final confrontation, the scene goes on and on as seen from the rebels’ view. We can feel their apprehension, their fear. And then on a single command, the phalanx forms. Then the battle. Grand. Encompassing. Brutal. Incidentally, the assembly of the troops must be seen wide screen; to watch it scanned, cropped, and chopped will diminish its effect.

So, if you are in the mood for a grand epic, especially of the swords and sandals style, rush right out and rent Spartacus. Incidentally, it is over 3 hours, but it doesn’t seem like it.

Now a few tidbits. The oysters and snails scene was not in the original theatrical release. The actors demanded that Kubrick include it since it explains a major character action. Kubrick knew he couldn’t release it with that scene, but humored the actors by filming it. However, he didn’t bother to waste effort by recording sound with it since he knew it would not be shown. The restored version includes the scene. First they had to locate what the dialogue actually was. Then they had to reproduce it and sync it to the film. Curtis was still alive, but much older and our voices change so they electronically altered his voice to match the original sound. Olivier was dead, a serious problem. His voice was duplicated by the man who at one time was considered Olivier’s successor on the stage, Anthony Hopkins. Hopkins is a superb mimic and a joker. Indeed, people working around him quickly learn to never respond to someone speaking to them until they visually confirm the identity.

The armies that you see are made up of 8000 Spanish soldiers. Many tons of custom armor were made especially for the film.

Besides making Kubrick’s reputation and giving him the power to do as he chose, Spartacus is a landmark film for another reason. Douglas was the executive producer. The writer, Dalton Trumbo, had been blacklisted years earlier by the film industry in response to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Blacklisting meant you weren’t allowed to write or act in films. Writers got around it by using false names or the identities of friends. Douglas credited Dalton Trumbo directly, which resulted in the end of the black list.

Historically, Spartacus did lead a revolt and his armies decimated the Roman forces sent against him for years. Ultimately, weakened by internal conflicts in his own troops and a combined assault by two armies he was crushed. Beginning

Spartan (2004) (****, action, drama) (8-24-04) (D.-David Mamet; Val Kilmer, Derek Luke, Kristen Bell, William H. Macy, Ed O'Neill, Tia Texada) This is not about the Greeks. It is a masterful modern paranoiac political thriller. Mamet is noted for his dialogue rather than for his action films, but Spartan manages both in stellar fashion. Scott (Kilmer) is in special ops. They do things and clean up after things that had better not show up in the press. He is a consummate professional. Efficient, ruthless, flexible, honorable. And he doesn’t think too much about what he does. The plot revolves around the disappearance of the daughter of an important political figure on Friday. They need to recover her before the press gets wind of her disappearance on Monday morning. “Where is the girl?” is like a mantra. Not necessarily easy or even doable, but at least the task is clear. And they set about solving it with great efficiency. However, as the plot unravels, nothing proves straightforward or simple. Motives, loyalties, rationales, even facts are all mixed and uncertain.

Did I mention dialogue? Like the film, sparse, terse, efficient. No wasted motion. Here Mamet demonstrates his consummate skill at dialogue. It doesn’t need to be wordy to be great, and his brevity is masterful.

Beautifully acted with Kilmer perfect for the role. His growing disquiet and refusal to accept unacceptable possibilities as he begins to suspect that there are issues beyond what he sees and hears, is played exactly right. He is a man who has always done what needed to be done because there was a good reason for it, even if he was not party to all the details. But this goes beyond anything he has seen before. How he adapts, how he reacts, how others around him behave and interact with him is the body of the film. The supporting cast is also excellent. The action sequences are infrequent, but perfect. Explosive, terse, brutal, efficient. Much like the characters.

If you want a straightforward actioner with a linear plot, you can skip Spartan. If you want a thinking person’s action film, fascinating character development, and a film that will stick with you long after fade to black, do give it a try.

Review based on the excellent DVD (I don’t think it ever showed in C’ville, which is a travesty). Beginning

Spawn (1997) (***, fantasy, comic book) (D.-Mark Dippe; Michael Jai White, John Leguizamo, Martin Sheen, Theresa Randle, D.B. Sweeney, Melinda Clarke) At the Jefferson---only $2.00 with gargoyles. As my son succinctly put it, "This is not a main stream film". Based on the comic strip of the same name by Todd McFarlane. Al Simmons (White) is killed by his evil boss Jason (Sheen). In Hell, he gets a deal he cannot resist: return to his wife and the opportunity to reap vengeance on Jason if he will lead the Army of Darkness against Heaven. Accepting, he returns as Spawn, a horribly scarred, superhuman character accompanied by The Violator (AKA, The Clown (Leguizamo)) to insure his adherence to the deal. Spawn isn't about plot. We've seen most parts before, although the acting is campy and appropriate. In particular, Clown is great. Vicious. Machiavellian. Acid tongued one liners roll off his lips like water off my roof. He is clearly having a ball! Leguizamo is completely unrecognizable; it took hours to make him up. But mainly, Spawn is a visual roller coaster. The opening credits set the tone, and it gets wilder from there. The CG is fabulous. Hell is mind boggling. The morphing and FX on Spawn are absolutely fluid, especially his cape. You will long remember his crash through the skylight.

The ILM and CG people did earn their keep. Spawn was so muscle bound that one of the great challenges of the CG people was being able to make his physically impossible movements actually look realistic. The physical Spawn was frequently augmented by CG. The most difficult scene was where Clown morphed into a monster and battled Spawn on the rooftop. All the different parts had to change at different speeds and at different times. The huge differences in the shapes of Clown and the creature coupled with the movement of the fight during the transformation made this especially challenging. The CG people ended up adapting facial morphing software to the task.

The final credits are unlike anything you have seen before. A hint. The crawl was done by Imaginary Forces. If you can read them, you're better than I am.

In summary, if you are into fantasy and visual extravaganza, you might want to check out Spawn. Just remember, main stream it isn't. (9-1-97) Beginning

Special Effects: Anything Can Happen (1997) (***1/2, documentary) (D.-Ben Burt) Now showing until June in IMAX at the Virginia Science Museum in Richmond. An awesome half hour show on FX.. Numerous behind the scenes tidbits on the making of such classics as the Star Wars Trilogy, Independence Day, and Jumanji. For example, we get to watch the New England town from Jumanji being demolished (courtesy of various mechanical devices) with nary an animal in sight. The effect is stunningly surrealistic. Then we get to see the final cinematic experience with the computer generated animals. It couldn't look more realistic. To my surprise, we also learned that Jumanji used some animatronic animals. The lion, for example, was mechanical except where we saw all of him and big movements. The puppetry was impressive.

However, remember that all of this was IMAX with a superb sound system that can blow you out of your seat when necessary. I thought the opening of Star Wars was impressive on a regular theater screen. You ain't seen nothing yet!

Special Effects is not be missed by lovers of movies. This will be in Richmond until June. The film alone is $4.00, but for $8.50 you get the movie and the museum. This is a pretty good science museum if you haven't seen it. They are showing the bug exhibit with the giant animatronic bugs right now, which is also rather informative and amusing. (3-10-97) Beginning

Species (1995) (**1/2, sci fi, horror) (D.-Roger Donaldson; Ben Kingsley, Michael Molina, Forest Whitaker, Mary Hegenberger, Whip Hubley, Michelle Williams, Natasha Henstridge) A review of Species for crying out loud? Totally impaled by the critics. My reason? I have a weakness for grade Z sci fi horror. Species is prime grade Z. Actually, it is more a 50s sci fi clothed for the 90s. It has more gore, more slimy creatures, much better effects, and a lot more skin. It also has a plot where you are as prone to laugh as to cringe in horror or fear. In short a wasted evening that includes going over the plot and deciding where you would have taken their interesting premise and done it right, laughing at the plot's faux paus and non-sequitars, and predicting the next scene.

Scientists with large radio attennas begin communicating with beings in outer space. Under the control of Kingsley, the signals provide us with the blue print for cloning some of their DNA into a human egg, which results in a charming girl who matures with incredible rapidity. The film begins when the girl (Williams) is about to enter adolescence, and the amoral scientists (what other kind does a good 50s sci fi have?) having at long last gotten cold feet, try to destroy her. Too late. After a quantum jump in aging, the alien reappears as a very nubile young woman (Henstridge) who has one overwhelming desire--to breed. And with her looks and obvious willingness, she has no shortage of takers. Regrettably, Black Widow spiders are more benign. The film is about the pursuit as seen from both sides. The hunt team is clearly lacking in real talent--I hope that when the human race is really down to the wire, we can mount a better defense than this. Whitaker is an empath who can feel what she felt just by viewing the scenes. "She kills because she is threatened" is about the best he can do. Actually, she kills for just about any reason, so any suggestion cannot be far off. The others aren't much better. The most interesting aspect of the film is the alien Sil. She has no idea what she is, what skills she has, or exactly what is expected of her. But she certainly isn't going to die easily--a good survival trait for any species. Williams, the young Sil, is a knock out. She truly conveys the fear, the sense of betrayal, and the audacity and skills necessary to survive in a very hostile world. The older Sil can in no way remotely act, but the part calls for a detached spaciness, which she manages well. So what can I say? Get out the pop corn, lower the lights, and waste an evening.

P.S. If you want to see what I consider a truly fine film of this genre, check out Carpenter's The Thing. Much reviled for its grossness when it came out, but now pretty tame. It superbly captures the tension and paranoia intended in the original novella Who Goes There? Incidentally, fire is the one thing most feared by polar explorers. At least in the early days, a 24 hour a day watch was posted just for fire. All that solid water around is useless for fire fighting, and being burned out in a polar winter is tantamount to a swift death sentence. (1-2-96) Beginning

Speechless (1995) (**1/2, humor) (D.-Ron Underwood; Michael Keaton, Geena Davis, Christopher Reeve, Bonnie Bedelia, Ernie Hudson, Charles Martin Smith) Charming little throwaway set to a politically corrupt campaign in New Mexico. Davis and Keaton are speech writers for opposing candidates. They meet and sparks fly before they realize their little conflict of interest, by which time it is too late to turn back. Clearly modeled after the James Carville-Mary Matalin romance of the Bush-Clinton campaign. The machinations as they try to cover up their affair and the complications of the conflict of interests all make for light entertainment. The chemistry between Davis and Keaton, both charming actors, is first rate and very believable. Unfortunately, the plot doesn't live up to the actors. One of the most memorable scenes is where the two of them are lecturing to a school class on politics. Let's just say that, for good reasons, it ends up less than civil. Forgettable, but a pleasant diversion. (-29-97) Beginning

Speed (1994) (***, adventure) (D.-Jan De Bont, Keanu Reeves, Sandra Bullock, Dennis Hopper) A solid actioner that pushes all the adrenaline pressure points starting with the opening, after which you cannot turn the switch off until the final crawl. I really did like the opening credits in the elevator shaft. It went on forever, and with each floor your dread ratcheted up another notch. Hopper plays (chillingly) a very clever blackmailing bomber. While money and power over others are important, he does not reveal his true love until the closing scenes. Reeves and his partner, an explosive's expert, encounter Hopper in his first big heist, after which things get up close and personal on both sides. Without giving anything away, Hopper's next gem is a loaded city bus that once it gets to 50 mph will explode if its speed drops lower than 50. Real simple rules. Pay $3.7 mil by 11:00 or the bus goes boom. Try to take anyone offboom. In short, pay up or boom. Plenty of slam-bang action (ever think about keeping your speed above 50 in Los Angeles?), special effects, spectacular crashes and explosions, fine cinematography, actors that are good enough that you can care for them, and you have everything required for a nail biting no-brainer. Reeves has certainly managed to break the Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure mold by demonstrating himself as a credible action hero. Not as clever, as intricately plotted, or with as interesting an assortment of characters as Die Hard, but Speed is likely to be the action movie of the summer, and certainly will please most fans of the genre. The only glaring weakness in my opinion was the ending sequence. After the rest of the movie, which had some very clever set ups, it was deja vu. Do note that one of the cars is aptly numbered 13 and that there is an appropriate sign on the back of the bus. (6-20-94) Beginning

Spellbound (1945) (**1/2, suspense) (D.-Alfred Hitchcock, Ingrid Bergman, Gregory Peck, Leo G. Carroll, Rhonda Fleming, Regis Toomey, Michael Chekhov) Vintage Hitchcock. Plot and characters are dated by modern standards, but the movie is rich with scenes viewed from Hitchcock's unique visual perspective. The new head of a sanitarium (Peck) turns out to be an amnesiac imposter. Bergman, a cooly aloof psychiatrist, falls hook, line, and sinker for him (one of the totally unrealistic elements) and tries to find out what horror is blocking Peck's memory and what led to the demise of the original head. Hitchcock touches abound throughout. The scene with the razor and the psychiatrist is masterful as the psychiatrist skillfully goes about saving his own life. The film is in black and white except for a fleeting burst of critical color. There is a unique dream sequence designed by Dali (nominated for Special Effects). An interesting and entertaining diversion for fans of Hitchcock and suspense, but many may find it too slow and dated. As an interesting aside, it received an Academy Award for Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture, yet my wife and I found the sound track very intrusive and frequently completely inappropriate, which just goes to show the changes in movies styles and tastes over the years. (7-6-93) Beginning

Spider-Man  (2002) (***, fantasy) (5-13-02) (D.-Sam Raimi; Tobey Maguire, Willem Dafoe, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Cliff Robertson, Rosemary Harris, J.K. Simmons) The *** is a family weighted average. I really enjoyed it. When a couple got up and left in the middle, my wife thought that was a pretty good idea. This is a comic book and it works at that level. Wimpy nerd Peter Parker (Maguire) is bitten by a mutant spider and becomes Spider-Man. The transformation has an accelerated believability. He is taken aback by what is happening to him, but being human adapts readily and is opportunistic in exploiting his new found skills. Of course, a super hero requires a super villain, and scientific genius Norman Osborn, with a little too much hubris, provides the perfect foil in the Green Goblin. Osborn is both humanly believable and poignant in his fall.

Maguire is perfect as the off center Parker. Mary Jane (Dunst) makes a credible love interest. The chemistry here was good, and Maguire’s portrayal of coming to grips with his new powers works for me. Dafoe is great as both the businessman and his alter ego, the Goblin. My only problem with the Goblin was the sterile mask. If we could somehow have gotten Dafoe’s facial expressions in, it would have been better. In a cameo part the less than honorable editor J. Jonah Jameson (Simmons) is a comic gem. I found the special effects cool and appropriate for the tone of the movie. All of the actions were modeled after real gymnasts so they would look physically plausible, even if extreme.

So what can I say? I enjoyed it. But others didn’t. You were warned.  Beginning

Spiral Staircase, The (1946) (***1/2, thriller, classic) (D.-Robert Siodmak; Dorothy McGuire, George Brent, Ethel Barrymore, Kent Smith, Rhonda Fleming, Gordon Oliver, Elsa Lanchester, Sara Allgood, Rhys Williams) A somewhat dated, often copied Gothic tale that even now generates chills. In a turn-of-the century small New England town, a serial killer is strangling young women who have various imperfections. Psychosomatic mute Helen (McGuire) is very likely the next victim. Helen works in a well off-of-center Warren household made up of the bedridden matriarch (Barrymore), her step-son and her son who hate each other (Brent and Oliver), her hard suffering nurse (Allgood), a secretary (Fleming), and a hard drinking handy couple (Lanchester, Oates). The bulk of the film takes place during the night as a violent storm rages. The house is sealed against the killer, but .... Beautifully atmospheric with stunning visual imagery using shadows, lighting, point of view, and perspective. The spiral staircase is fully exploited to justify the name. The image of the eye is way ahead of its time. The imagery reflect Siodmak's German expressionistic roots and his seminal contributions to film noir. McGuire is excellent using her body English and facial expressions to convey her feelings and rising terror. However, she is no weak damsel.

The film is based on the novel Some Must Watch by Ethel Lina White where Helen was a cripple. However, the change to a mute was inspired. Helen had free run of the house, but is unable to verbalize her terror or her situation to others--very skillfully exploited. Review based on video disk from Sneak Reviews. (7-1-96) Beginning

The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie (2004) (**, adults; **** children) (12-7-04) Give me a break. I have two SpongeBob-age granddaughters. This would not have been on my must see list otherwise. SpongeBob is a youth who aspires to success. In this case, he believes his great efforts have put him in line to be manager of Krusty Krab II, the new outlet being opened by Eugene H. Krabs. Youth, in this case, gets short shrift. Enter evil Plankton who wants to take over the world starting with the fast food stores in Bikini Bottom. You begin to see the plot outline. Will King Neptune fricassee Krabs? Will SpongeBob and his buddy rescue Krabs and stop the evil Plankton? Will David Hasselhoff, in the flesh, rescue everyone? Count on it. But not before lots of close escapes, good buddying, and a moral suitable for the intended age group. Four and seven definitely fall in the intended age group as judged by the transfixed and laughing children in the theater and next to me. While SpongeBob has its moments for adults, it is not Shrek or Aladdin, and is not one that I am going to rush out and get the DVD when it becomes available—unless, of course, I am asked nicely enough. Beginning

Spy Hard (1996) (**1/2, comedy) (D.-Rick Friedberg; Leslie Nielsen, Charles Durning, Marcia Gay Harden,Barry Bostwich, Andy Griffith, Wierd Al Yankovich) James Bond, Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Whoopi Goldberg (yes, Whoopi Goldberg) meet Leslie Nielsen. Nielsen, master of the bumbling, Detective Drebin of the Naked Gun series takes on every action film you have ever seen. They don't fare very well. Uneven, sophomoric, but with some good belly laughs. If you like the type, you will find Spy Hard engaging. One very impressive part was the opening "Bondsian" credits where Yankovich sings the rock piece "Spy Hard". As with any of these, do stick around and follow the closing credits. (6-3-96) Beginning

Spy Kids (2001) (2000) (***, comedy, family, action) (6-4-01) Antonio Banderas, Carla Gugino, Alexa Vega, Daryl Sabara, Alan Cumming, Teri Hatcher, Cheech Marin, Tony Shalhoub, Danny Trejo) From the man who brought us the hyperkinetic, brutal action films El Mariachi, Desperado, and From Dusk Until Dawn we get a children’s movie. And it works. Some children’s movies are purely for children and are dreaded by adults. Some, such as Aladdin, are a joy for children of all ages. Spy Kids is for kids, but it has enough sly humor and send-offs of the Bond movies so that adults can take children and not cringe throughout. I give Spy Kids *** based on the response of the children in the audience; they clearly enjoyed it greatly. Two delightfully played children, Carmen (Vega) and Juni (Sabara) Cortez have the typical view that their parents are so square that they make a children’s building block look like a ball. They are wrong. Ingrid (Carla) and Gregorio (Banderas) are retired top spies who moonlight as consultants. And of course, kiddie show host Fegan Floop (Cumming) and Alexander Minion (Shalhoub) want to take over the world with intelligent human looking robots from their Oz-like castle in the ocean. Suffice it to say that the parents get into trouble and the kids have to rescue them. 

The pace is hyperkinetic. The devices, settings, and villains all Bondsian. The characters entertaining with Minion, especially, being a direct copy of Bond villains. Cumming as Floop is a bit of a twist after just watching him as the emperor in Titus. The children are charming and the adults good foils for them. Ultimately, this is very much a family movie with family values. Honesty. Togetherness. Acceptance of the way people really are. Very Disney, but not offensively so.  I won’t recommend it for adults, but if you have to take children to a film, this one won’t insult you. As an aside, those familiar with the director’s earlier films will enjoy his continued use of his stable of actors; clearly, they enjoy working with him. Beginning

Spy Who Came in From the Cold, The (1966) (***1/2, drama) (D.-Martin Ritt; Richard Burton, Claire Bloom, Oskar Werner) This is old enough now that many of you probably have not seen it or read LeCarre's book. Brutal psychological study of a burned out British spy, Burton, who is assigned to track down a clever, very efficient, Soviet agent. I won't spoil the drama by revealing anything. Burton is excellent as the world weary agent who finally begins to think he can make a contribution. (4-3-95) Beginning

Stagecoach (1939) (****, Western, drama, classic) (D.-John Ford; Claire Trevor, John Wayne, Andy Devine, John Carradine, Thomas Mitchell, Louise Platt, George Bancroft, Donald Meek, Berton Churchill, Tim Holt, Tom Tyler, Chris Pin Martin, Francis Ford, Jack Pennick, Chief White Horse, Yakima Canutt) Based on Ernest Haycox's story "Stage to Lordsburg". A black and white masterpiece and the quintessential Western. The setting is a stagecoach ride through hostile Indian territory with Geronimo (Chief White Horse) on the warpath. The occupants are a microcosm of humanity thrown together and include a drunken doctor (Mitchell); a prostitute (Trevor), who was driven out of town; a gambler(Carradine); a pregnant woman (Platt); an obnoxious banker (Churchill) and his wife (Fowler); and a whiskey salesman (Meek). Add to this the driver (Devine) and a tough sheriff (Bancroft) riding shotgun. The wanted Ringo Kid (Wayne) joins the stage when his horse goes lame. Recapture is better than brutal death in the desert, and he still has a score to settle with the killers of his father and brother. These people and situations are now stereotypes, but they were new and imaginative in 1939. They still resonate today as weak or normal people rise to heroic feats when confronted with apparently overwhelming obstacles.

The plot develops as the characters are drawn deeper into their own personal dangers, and as they rush headlong towards destiny with the Apaches. The acting is good, the situation complex, the moral issues ambiguous, and the cinematography magnificent. However, as with Ford's The Searchers, the stark, awesome terrain is an integral part of the film. This was the first film made in Monument Valley on the Utah-Arizona border. This real estate of awesome peaks is as brutal and inhospitable as the surface of the moon and as totally indifferent to human fears, loves, aspirations, and suffering.

Stagecoaches actually ran through Monument Valley in the late 1800s, and Ford used the old roads. Deserts recover very slowly, and the trails will probably still be visible in 500 years. The stunts are still impressive and are largely due to stunt master Yakima Canutt. However, Wayne actually did do a number of his own stunts. (3-2-98) Beginning

Stage Fright (1950) (***, thriller)   (9-13-99) (D.-Alfred Hitchcock; Marlene Dietrich, Jane Wyman, Michael Wilding, Richard Todd, Kay Walsh, Alastair Sim, Joyce Grenfell, Sybil Thorndike) Stage Fright was one of Hitchcock's least favorite films. He didn't like the gimmick and thought there was never enough threat to the leads. I thought the twist was so clever that I am amazed that it isn't used more often. And I felt there was certainly danger for the protagonist, although not of the physical intensity of many of Hitchcock's other films. A young man (Todd) is suspected of murdering his girlfriend's (Dietrich) husband. On the run, he uses an ex-girlfriend (Wyman) to hide him. As the noose tightens around them, we get enjoyable character development, especially of Dietrich and Wyman's father (Sim). As usual, Hitchcock leavens the plot with lots of humor (frequently black) and marvelously staged scenes and cinematography. Dietrich is a delight as the not so grieving widow. My wife and I are still pondering how she managed to smoke a cigarette under the mourning veil without causing a catastrophic fire. And no, I'm not going to tell you what the twist is. You'll have to see it yourself and decide whether you like it or not.

Dietrich was a brilliant multi-talented actress. She knew editing, lighting, make up, composition, the works about film. She also had an exceedingly strong personality. Hitchcock was a powerhouse and controlled everything down to the last details. So when she reset the lights for her shots, the technical people reported this to Hitchcock and expected a counter-order. No. Hitchcock gave her free reign--unheard of with any other actor. Apparently, he respected her skills and her iron willed determination to do things her way. Look and you will notice the extremely flattering lighting and cinematography of Dietrich. Beginning

Stalag 17 (1953) (***1/2, drama, war) (D.-Billy Wilder; William Holden, Don Taylor, Otto Preminger, Robert Strauss, Harvey Lembeck, Richard Erdman, Peter Graves, Neville Brand, Sig Ruman, Ross Bagdasarian) The classic POW film. Based on a stage play, Stalag still shows a certain staginess. Nevertheless, a taut, fascinating story told with excellent performances, superb film noir style cinematograhy (Ernest Lazlo of Kiss Me Deadly), and plenty of gallow's humor. Since many of you have never heard of it, I will not give too much away. Holden received an Oscar for his performance as an opportunistic POW who plays all the angles to exploit his fellow GIs. Preminger is the sadistic martinet camp commander. Ruman is his easy going, good natured, gullible sergeant who ends up on the wrong side of numerous practical jokes. The tension revolves around the steadily increasing body count as escape attempts fail, the conflicts between the POWs and the Germans and with each other, the finding of the spy in their midst, and the ultimate resolution. Holden's character is well drawn. He is basically true to his nature--egocentric, self serving, and opportunistic. However, there are limits over which no man will go, and Holden balances this nicely with his unrepentant opportunism along with his hate and disdain of many of his fellow POWs. Apparently, the only soft touch that Wilder was willing to add was his salute at the end. The model for TVs long-running comedy Hogan's Heroes. (10-2-95) Beginning

Stalker (1979) (****, sci fi) (9-24-01) (D.-Andrei Tarkovsky; Aleksandr Kajdanovsky, Alisa Frejndlikh, Anatoli Solonitsyn, Anatoli Solonitsyn, Nikolai Grinko, Natasha Abramova) Mind bending visual, aural tour de force by legendary Russian director Tarkovsky. At 160 minutes slow moving and not for all tastes. However, I found it to be a rich, fascinating, cerebral evening that we are discussing for days afterwards. In the film, 20 years earlier a meteorite struck. “It was decided the meteorite wasn’t quite a meteorite.” It created a lethal no man’s land, known as the Zone. The army went in and no one came out. The entire region is now cordoned off by the army and no one is allowed in. A few “stalkers” (meaning seekers in Russian) clandestinely guide people into the Zone. The goal: a room where your wishes become reality. The story revolves around a stalker, Kajdanovsky, taking two men known only as Writer (Solonitsyn) and Scientist (Grinko) on a quest into the Zone. The Zone in spite of its visual natural normalcy is a constantly shifting death trap. What is safe one minute will be lethal later. Stalkers can find the safe routes. The only suggestions of the underlying horror are the decaying remnants of prior human habitation.

As with Tarkovsky’s earlier film Solaris, reality in the Zone is a very slippery quantity. To a certain extent, people create their own reality or, at any rate, affect it. By the end the viewers are uncertain of exactly what they have seen, what they have felt, and what it means. But perhaps that is appropriate. You are in the same position as the travelers; and as survivors of the Zone, you will surely argue endlessly about what has transpired. The film does bear on one of Tarkovsky’s recurrent themes, the need for a spiritual elements in life.

Stalker is very much an aural, visual poem. It is almost dreamlike. It bypasses your cognitive faculty and slips into your mind. It has intellectual meaning, but it is the emotional level that it gets to first. The Zone, in spite of its innocuous surface is one of the creepiest, most disturbing places that I have seen on film. The combination of sound, movement, color or lack thereof, and texture all conspire to make this a truly affecting film. In terms of having such an emotional effect with so little happening, it reminds me of The Sixth Sense. However, do be sure to see it with others for post-viewing discussion, and keep the copy around for awhile. We went back and rewatched several scenes to clarify points.

The poems were written by Tarkovsky’s father the noted poet Arseniy Tarkovsky. Everything about the film is noteworthy from the music, the cinematography, the set designs, and the stellar acting.

What do others think of Stalker? Views range from boring pretentious tripe to a life-altering experience. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. Beginning

Stand by Me (1986) (***, drama, comedy) (D.- Rob Reiner; Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, Jerry O'Connell, Kiefer Sutherland, Casey Siemaszko, John Cusack, Richard Dreyfuss) Beautifully crafted little coming of age film. Based on Stephen King's autobiographical novella, The Body. Also, certainly filtered through at least some gauze of nostalgia, but I think that merely adds to the charm. Narrated by Dreyfus, we follow a group of four young misfit boys in the 50s on a quest. You know the type. The fat, the pimply, the ones nobody picks for the teams. The ones who gravitate to each other like wildebeest grouping to defend themselves from predators--and there are predators. Their quest is to view the rumoured body of a missing boy. It doesn't sound like much but, like the Shawshank Redemption, it is fascinating to watch it unfold, and there is a dramatic payoff. Fabulous and completely believable performances by the young cast. I had to keep telling myself that they were actually acting. (5-7-96) Beginning

Starman (1984) (***, sci if, romance) (D.-John Carpenter; Jeff Bridges, Karen Allen, Charles Martin Smith, Richard Jaeckel) The other film with scenes shot at Meteor Crater (more correctly know as Barringer Crater after the man who established that the crater came from a meteor strike). Charming little film about a creature who visits earth on a peace mission only to be shot down as a possible hostile. He is a ball of energy that assumes a human body (Bridges) so that he can survive for a few days and get to his pick-up point. True, he assumes the appearance of a young widow's (Allen) recently deceased husband and abducts her to get to his destination. Her initial worst fears are replaced by even worse fears when she discovers what he really is. Bridges is a gifted actor and he plays the alien trying to adapt to a totally alien body and environment beautifully. He gets better with practice, but he is always out of kilter. The chemistry between the two is excellent as her initial fear and hostility turn from fear to respect to love. Of course, the government supplies a villain trying to hunt him down. But the real fun here is watching Bridges play a stranger in a strange land. (10-12-98) Beginning

Starship Troopers (1997) (**, sci fi) (D- Paul Verhoeven; Casper Van Dien, Dina Meyer, Denise Richards, Michael Ironside, Jake Busey, Neil Patrick Harris, Clancy Brown) Troopers tries to be two things: galloping spirit-rousing space opera like Star Wars and mind-numbing scare-your-pants-off horror like Aliens. Unfortunately, it succeeds at neither. Based on Robert Heinlein's novel of a Fascist future where only those who have served in the military are full citizens, we find the earth assaulted by vicious giant bugs (about one line in the book). Ignore the fact that they are not intelligent but can somehow propel asteroid-sized rocks between star systems and hit targets on earth with pinpoint accuracy--even though the bugs have never left their own system and even though, at light speeds, the asteroids would be arriving so late the targets would have forgotten about the war. A group of high school graduates joins the services, some for noble reasons and some for want of a woman. The story follows their training and exploits, especially the ground pounders, in the bug war.

As space opera, Troopers takes itself too seriously. The mayhem, the blood, the gore are too much; it never achieves the joy and exuberance required of the genre. Even Star Wars plays lip service to the technical rationality of what you see. Troopers just ignores the technical gaffes such as the distance between stars for the astroid weapon.

As horror, we assemble an attractive cast of cardboard characters whose sole purpose is to be fried, impaled, dismembered, or flattened. We never develop any real empathy for the characters, which is a critical element of good horror. However, veterans Ironside and Brown seem to be having fun. Basically what we have is a futuristic Friday 13 where the only suspense is in guessing which wooden character will buy the farm next and how. Many of the scenes are designed just to put troopers in harm's way without any logic. After having established that the masses of bugs on the surface are just so much cannon fodder for low flying aircraft with napalm, we insist on placing troops on the ground without air support. Also, it seems as if it takes a minimum of a thousand automatic weapon rounds to bring down one bug. So, what do we give the soldiers? More rounds, of course. Grenades actually work pretty well, as do tactical nukes. I think they used one grenade and three nukes in the entire film. Some people have complained about the bugs' ridiculous ability to fire projectiles. Actually, this has a reasonable facsimile in nature; the bombardier beetle can fire scalding corrosive fluids considerable distances with pinpoint accuracy.

Now having explained my disappointment, I'll give the positives. The film does capture the essence of Heinlein's futuristic society and the rationale for the class dichotomy. Verhoeven has always had a fine tongue-in-check view of Madison Avenue and the misuse of the media, and Troopers maintains this nasty satirical edge. Oh, the effects? Impressive!. One scene in particular sticks in my mind where the valley is filled with lethal bugs (where is a bug motel when you need one) in their final assault on the outpost. There is no doubt where the approximately $100M budget went. Between the computer generated bugs and stunt men, digital freaks will get their money's worth. You cannot tell the models or real people from computer bits. Yes, I did get my $1.50 worth at the cut-rate theater. (2-9-98) Beginning

Star Trek (2009) (****, space opera, science fiction) (6-10-09) (D.-J. J. Abrams; W.-Roberto Orci Alex Kurtzman; Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Leonard Nimoy, Eric Bana, Bruce Greenwood, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Anton Yelchin) I am not a rabid Trekie, so don't expect me to be incensed or elated by how well or poorly the film fits the Trek mythology. It stands or falls on its own merits. I have watched Star Trek from its inception and a number of the movies. Some were good and some were awful. This one reinvents the franchise and falls in the same class as the original Star Wars with entertaining characters and spectacular effects. However, the story is not FX driven; it has a worthy plot. We get the background on Spock and Kirk, how they met (not very well), and how the rest of the Enterprise crew falls into place. Their nemesis is the Romulan Nero from the future with suitable upgrades in his technology and bent of righting a future wrong, and Earth and the Enterprise along with select members of it crew are high on his hit list.

I won't go into details on the plot as that will spoil your pleasure in first viewing. The actors selected to play the young principals are good matches to the originals in both appearance and behavior without slavish adherence to the roles. Pine is perhaps a bit boyish for Kirk, but time will correct that. Nero (Bana) is a worthy enemy whose behavior is rational in his frame of reference. Revenge is best served cold, and his is cryogenic. The film is a good mixture of action, cliff hangers, character development, humor, and blow you out of the seat FX. I think they strain things a bit with Nimoy's role, but I can understand the desire to connect him to the plot, and one can justify (with some strain) the logic of the necessary plot twist; this is space opera, not hard core science fiction so I don't consider this a major fault. Quinto as Spock was a brilliant decision in my opinion. On TV's Heroes he plays Siler whose cold, ruthless logic Spock would admire.

If you want galloping good space opera, you have come to the right place. This is one I will buy on DVD, but don't wait for that, this is a true big screen film. Experience it in the theater. Beginning

Star Trek Insurrection (1998) (**1/2, sci fi) (12-28-98) (D.-Jonathan Frakes; Jonathan Frakes, Brent Spiner, LeVar Burton, Michael Dorn, Gates McFadden, Marina Sirtis, F. Murray Abraham, Donna Murphy, Anthony Zerbe) Definitely not up to the standards of Star Trek First Contact. Insurrection plays more like an extended and unexceptional TV show rather than a film where a better plot could be developed. The setup isn't bad. During what appears to be a routine clandestine study of a primitive world, Data (Spiner) goes wild, uncovers the subterfuge for the natives and hands the Starfleet crew over to the locals--in apparent violation of the prime directive. This initiates a conflict between the observers and the natives. However, nothing is as it appears. I won't spoil the plot by revealing more.

The F/X are good and do show well on a big screen. There are the usual quirky and entertaining behaviors of the different crew members. However, the plot never rises above the ordinary, the action sequences are so-so, the women are used primarily for romantic interest, and the film just drags in places. The concept could have been a stimulating intellectual exercise in ethics, but it is just used as a plot device. Finally, the villains are only so-so. In a good action film, it is the quality of the villain that helps to make it, and even the venerable Abraham just doesn't have much real opportunity for villainy. So you may wish to see Insurrection primarily if you are a Trekkie. Beginning

Star Trek: First Contact (1996) (3 1/2 Tribbles, Sci Fi) (D.-Jonathan Frakes; Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, Brent Spiner, LeVar Burton, Michael Dorn, Gates McFadden, Marina Sirtis, Alfre Woodard, Jamie Crowell, Alice Krige) I would give it about *** as polished, mindless entertainment; but my son, an avid Trekkie, assures me that it rates higher in Tribbles. See Tribble Ratings. First Contact is well worth the money for the big screen experience. A Borg assault on Earth leads to Captain Picard and the Enterprise being thrust back into the twenty-first century to save mankind. For nonTrekkies, the Borg is a collective half man, half machine, hive intelligence that roams the universe in giant, heavily armed cubes and assimilates other races. The film moves right along, and the plot is an adequate excuse for the interpersonal interactions of the crew, the 21st century Earthlings, the Borg queen (Krige), and an impressive array of special effects. Frakes, who has directed several Star Trek, The New Generation TV shows avoids being overly enamored with effects and clearly understands their role in carrying along the story without dominating it. For visuals, I particularly liked the opening sequence with Picard in the Borg ship, and the space walk was a masterful diminution of man in the face of first the Enterprise and then space itself. Krige is suitably and mesmerizingly creepy as she goes about seducing Data (Spiner), the android who strives to better understand humans by trying to be more like them. In short, if you enjoy Star Trek at all, an enjoyable way to waste an afternoon or evening. Beginning

Stargate (1994) (**1/2, sci fi) (D.-Roland Emmerich; Kurt Russell, James Spader, Jaye Davidson, Viveca Lindsfor, Alexis Cruz, Mili Avital, Leon Rippy). Starwars meets Raiders of the Lost Ark. Nice opening, then drops to overdone in the midde, and then peaks again at action-packed finale which, while we have seen it all before, is done with high spirits and style. Fringe Egyptologist Spader has unacceptable views of ancient Egyptian timelines; some things just didn't happen when people thought they did. It turns out he is right, but for reasons far beyond his imagination. There existed an ancient stargate that allowed transmission of people and objects between the two ends of the universe. Such technology is not without military interest and Spader and a small contigent of soliders led by Colonel Jack O'Neal (Russell) go through to see what is at the other end. In my opinion, the initial opening of the gate is just superbly suspenseful and creepy--this section alone generates more intense emotion than all of Congo. The middle section could have been shortened, the love interest reduced, and finally I could have done without the cute hairy beast. A few points were laughable such as the ease and details with which Spader translated the ancient hieroglyphics and picked up the local language. Also, a bomb the size of the one shown, even amplified 100 times, would not be the end of our civilization. However, one overlooks errors of this type for the story. Not a bad evening's diversion for those who like this type of movie. (7-12-95) Beginning

Star Wars (1977) (****+, space opera, fantasy, Sci-Fi, and probably anywhere else you want to put it) (D-George Lucas, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, Peter Cushing, Anthony Daniels, Alec Guinness) Set to the grand Star Wars theme, an awesome banner describing the rebels' faltering efforts to stop The Empire marches across the screen and fades into oblivion. Eerily, a tranquil multi-moon planetary system floats onto the screen with its life giving pencil thin blue atmospheric band. Suddenly, a small, desperately fleeing spacecraft, dogged by laser fire, descends across the screen and retreats into the distance. To the thunderous orchestral music of John Williams, the pursuing Empire's dreadnought inexorably enters the screen, splits it, fills it, crushingly overwhelms it, and finally recedes in pursuit of its doomed prey. In this last scant 15 seconds, the face of science fiction cinema is revolutionized forever, and the equally hapless audience is dragged body and soul into the epic struggle of good versus evil set in George Lucas' galaxy long ago and far away.

Everything works in this futuristic fairy tale. A farm boy, a haughty princess, an Errol Flynn swashbuckling smuggler, a large lethal furry rug that rips the arms off of anyone who beats it in chess, an old man who wields a wicked light saber, intelligent robots, a FORCE, and a rag tag rebel army battling the might of The Evil Empire. You don't think President Reagan came up with that term from scratch do you? John Williams' epic music (one of the very few sound tracks we have bought) sets the stage for the action, the humor, the delightful characters, the crisp dialogue, the cliff hangers (see review of Raider of the Lost Ark), the throat grabbing action, and last, but not least, the special effects that place you squarely in this marvelous galaxy. The Empire is a worthy enemy with the forces led by the evil Lord Darth Vader (villain of the 70s and 80s), Grand Moff Tarkin (Cushing), and the Death Star, which blows away planets like a man swatting flies. In short, villains worthy of the name.

Lucas acknowledges Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress as the model for Star Wars. James Earl Jones supplies the seductively menacing voice of Lord Vader. The prissy, gloom-spouting robot C3PO has his roots deeper in Eeyore, the donkey in Winnie the Pooh, than in modern robotics.

Special effects must be used to enhance a movie and aid the story development. Effects just for effects are wasted. The effects in Star Wars, while they overwhelm the senses, are essential to place you in that Galaxy Far Away and Long Ago. In Star Wars, instead of detracting, they epitomize their mastery and proper use. Star Wars represents the last of the old and the first of the new sci-fi movies. The use of traditional life size and miniature models, courtesy of such masters as Douglas Trumball, blue screen masks, and matte overlays has never been better. However, what sets this apart is the use of John Dykstra's computer controlled cameras for scenes involving multiple models. What had long thwarted movie makers was combining multiple objects all moving differently as viewed from yet another moving object. To make this look right is an extraordinarily complex problem that was solved by a unique computer controlled camera system. The trajectories of each object and of the viewer were put into the computer. These included not only the paths, but the supposed distances, any rotational movements of the object or any movement around it by the viewer, and the actual size of the model; the camera had to be placed at the correct distance so that the model filled just the right amount of screen for its supposed distance and size. The computer then calculated and placed the camera, which moved freely in three dimensions at just the right position for each frame of the action sequence. This procedure was repeated for each object, and the films were then combined in the traditional way to produce a seamless whole. This technology made possible scenes such as multi-spacecraft dogfights, or the mind boggling climactic battle where you scream over the maze-like surface of the Death Star with several fighters on your tail jockeying to blow you away and gun emplacements all around you trying to do the same. Everything looks and feels real because everything you see is physically, mathematically correct. Incidentally, in most of the shots the models were held stationary while the camera moved quite quickly. You wouldn't want to get in the way, else you become one of the still-elite statistics of humans killed by industrial robots (the Japanese have the dubious honor of having the first, but not the last, person killed by robots). Another absolutely ingenious trick was the ground skimmer, which appeared to float over the surface, courtesy of a mirrored undercarriage.

One can forgive lapses in the plot necessary for good comic book action or the use of twinkling stars or of sound in space. The Tie fighters without their ominous growl would just not have been as menacing. The climactic battle dragged a bit although the final countdown was as suspenseful as anything ever put on film.

In the final analysis this is a Great Rip Roaring Adventure with the special effects, the alien worlds, people and situations merely forming the tapestry that ties together an epic adventure, the likes of which are rarely seen.

Academy Awards in Art Direction - Set Direction, Costume Design, Film Editing, Best Original Score, Sound, Special Achievement Award, and Special Visual Effects as well as the Hugo and Nebula Awards from the World SciFi Soc'ty. This movie is so good that any one of a number of the scenes alone are worth the price of admission. The attack on the Millennium Falcon and the bar scene come to mind.

To be fully appreciated, you must see Star Wars on a big screen. If you have only seen the TV version, then you have not seen Star Wars. A letterboxed version on a big TV screen is better, but... When it is released in the theaters again, run, do not walk, get close to the screen for the wide angle effect, sink way back into the seat, and cinch up your seat belt. Otherwise the opening will blow you clear out of the theater. For action adventure, it doesn't get any better. (8-15-94) (1-20-97) Beginning

Star Wars: Episode I--The Phantom Menace (1999) (***1/2,sci fi, space opera) (5-31-99) (D.-George Lucas; Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd, Pernilla August, Samuel L. Jackson, Frank Oz, Samuel L. Jackson, Ray Park, Terence Stamp) I take my life in hand by giving this ***1/2. As in Frankenstein, I expect the townfolk at my door momentarily with pitchforks and torches. Star Wars this is NOT. Enjoyable? Yes. Entertaining? Yes. Visually impressive and stimulating? Yes. Required to set the stage for the next two features? Yes. But a great film? No. The plot is second rate. The dialogue banal. The character development was shallow; it was extremely difficult to warm up to, and develop empathy with, any of the characters. The acting was stilted--obviously the gifted Neeson was not given any freedom. Only Portman manages to convey any real feeling in her efforts as a pubescent young woman, suddenly thrust into a position as a planetary ruler, to come to grips with the life and death decisions of her position. And the movie has one of the most irritating characters to come along in quite a while, Jar Jar Binks. Binks might have worked if he had been kept as a bit player, but he grows wearisome quickly. Finally, we have seen too many of the scenes before, and the film lacks the magical feeling of excitement, wonder and just plain fun of the earlier films, especially the original.

Everyone probably knows the basic plot, so I will be brief. This is the first of three prequels to the original Star Wars. A trade blockade of a peaceful planet leads to two Jedi, Qui-Gon Jinn (Neeson) and a young Obi-Wan Kenobi (McGregor) being sent out to end it. Skull duggery and an invasion lead to them running off with the young Queen Amidala (Portman). After landing on Tattooine, they encounter a young slave boy Anakin Skywalker (Lloyd) who will ultimately become a great Jedi and finally the monster Darth Vader. The freeing of the boy, the resolution of the war, and the struggle against two Sith lords (an unknown mole in the Senate and his apt pupil Darth Maul), constitute the remainder of the film.

Even within the constraints of the film, I think Lucas could have done much more to make the characters likeable and/or deeper. I think an especially serious error was in Anakin, who is to become Darth Vader. Vader was the essense of Mephistopholean film evil in the 70s and 80s. Anakin is a cute kid and nothing more in the film. The best we can get is a warning from Yoda about the dangers of the boy. We should see hints of the underlying complexity of the character and dual edges, but regrettably don't.

Why did I give it ***1/2? From a visual and aural standpoint and from artistic conceptualization and design of a future, it is exceptionally impressive. Be sure to see it on a BIG screen where you will experience the full richness. The film is a cornucopia of visual imagery. It is magnificent. I also loved much of the sound track, especially the use of choral music. In terms of the city scapes, it draws heavily on Metropolis, Things to Come, and Bladerunner and pushes this envelope with state of the art FX. The under water city is stunning. And the completely computer generated robot army was awesome. Where the troop carriers unload their cargo of death is one of the memorable scenes in film. I loved the very Eastern style makeup on Portman and Darth Maul. The Podrace scene was beautifully choreographed, but like the assault on the Death Star in Star Wars, went on too long. The battle scenes with the magnificent Park as Maul were spectacular.

I believe that Binks is the first completely computer generated character to appear in a film. Also, I have known it was coming for several years but hadn't expected it quite this soon, but in theaters in California and New Jersey, the film will shortly be shown entirely DIGITALLY. No film. None! It is stored digitally and projected through a computer style projection system. This is the wave of the future. Film will eventually disappear and "films" will be transmitted digitally, possibly over the internet, to the theaters who will then display them purely digitally. I have heard that Lucas intends to shoot the next Star Wars purely digitally, with no film at any stage--using very high resolution CCD digital video cameras. Beginning

Star Wars: Episode 2: Attack Of The Clones (2002, ***) (5-13-02)

Star Wars: The Magic of Myth at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (1998) (****, exhibit) http://www.si.edu/activity/exhibits/nasm.htm This exhibit (through Nov. 1, 1998) is not to be missed by lovers of the Star Wars' films and of science fiction. First the nitty-gritty. The exhibit is free, but you must get tickets. They can be obtained in advance for a nominal fee through Protix (see the Smithsonian Web Page above for details). Several weeks ago, we arrived at about 9:30 on Sunday for tickets when the ticket booth opened at 9:45. There was a significant line, but we still got into the exhibit at 10:15. There is a video that can be watched outside the exhibit or inside. We recommend watching it outside for convenience. You definitely should rent one of the CD audio guides (ca $4). Much of the best information is provided on these. Each unit can provide two ear pieces. They say the exhibit takes 45 minutes. If you love Star Wars, don't believe it. We took 2 hours.

Now for the exhibit. Awesome. As you enter you are confronted by one of the original star destroyer models, a storm trooper, R2D2, and C3PO. In case you missed it in the film, C3PO has been around the block a few times. One of his legs had been replaced and is a different color from the other one. Many of the original costumes are shown such as the Imperial Guard, the Imperial Snow Troopers, and Bobba Fett, along with assorted creatures. In one room near the end, there is a huge wall mural of the Death Star. It absolutely dominates the room and provides an enormous sense of depth. Numerous concept drawings and original McQuarrie art are scattered throughout. The original C3PO was so close to the robot in Metropolis that I thought it was the Metropolis robot. There is a huge Millennium Falcon model in the final room complete with detailed damage from laser fire--it is so real looking, it is unreal. They also have several of the Imperial AT Walker models. Again the attention to detail is breathtaking and accounts for the realism in the films. In case you hadn't already guessed, the movement of the Walkers was modeled after careful study of the movements of elephants, and all the Walker action was done with stop action photography. However, I doubt if you realized that the ominous growl of the Tie Fighters was a synthesis of an elephant and car-tire-on-a-rain-slick highway noise--the CD provides this info along with the actual synthesis.

Of course, no exhibit is complete without Darth Vader and Yoda. However, for photo ops, the best shots of you and Vader will be in the gift shop at the end of the tour where there is no glass between the two of you. Also, the best shot of Solo in Carbonite is provided in the gift shop. The shop provides gifts from $1 to $2000 including Vader himself.

Many photos are available on my web site at http://people.virginia.edu/~jnd/starwars.htm. In terms of photos, you will generally need a flash or a tripod, but if they don't warn you, do all flash photography through the glass over the exhibits at an angle rather than straight on. Otherwise the flash reflection ruins the picture. Also, I learned something new about photo processing. I took a shot of Jabba the Hut without a flash where his lair was in very warm oranges and reds. I got it right as shown on the contact sheet. However, when it was printed, the printer looked at it and assumed that I had taken a shot under tungsten light, which makes prints very orange and red. Assuming that I wanted it to look "normal", a correction filter was applied and the final print looks like it was taken under normal sun light! (4-6-98) Beginning


If you haven't seen Star Wars on the big screen, you have NOT seen Star Wars. When it opens this month, run, do not walk, to the theater. Get up close and in the center, cinch up your seat belt, and be prepared to be blown away! For this event it is acceptable to toss any small children out of the best viewing seats. Just don't try it on me. Not only is Star Wars on the big screen, but Lucas has digitally remastered many of the little things that he either could not afford to do or to correct in 1977--or he just didn't have the technology in '77 . He does now, and the revised Star Wars has a number of the glitches fixed along with a few new images that you won't recognize from the original. I reproduce my earlier review below. For pure visual, aural overload and a story right out of the fairy tales, it doesn't get any better than this! (1-20-97) Beginning

Star Wars on the big screen is every bit as good as I remember. It's still showing, so if you haven't seen it, zip out right now before it is too late. What did I think of the enhancements? The cleaning up of some of the visual imperfections was very nice. I didn't think the more mobile creatures were necessary, and for me they detracted slightly from the original's simple elegance. If I want great dinosaurs, I'll watch Jurrasic Park. The scene with Jabba the Hutt was supposed to be in the original. They even did the dialogue with Ford, so what you see of him is original footage, but Lucas could not get the effects right. There are big differences of opinion, even within my own family, of whether or not this scene adds story line clarity. I don't think it was necessary, but it doesn't bother me. One addition that I did dislike was where Greeto was capturing Solo in the bar. Greeto now gets off the first shot. Ridiculous. Across the table, he wouldn't have missed, and Solo's moral position doesn't need to be raised.. If Greeto said he was about to kill him, Solo, a pragmatic low-life adventurer, would take him at his word. (2-24-97) Beginning

State and Main (2000) (unrated, comedy) (5-27-02) (DW:-David Mamet; Sarah Jessica Parker, Alec Baldwin, Charles Durning, Philip Seymour Hoffman, William H. Macy, Patti LuPone) Lots of people like this film. Really like it. We don’t. Let me first remind you that an unrated film means I couldn’t finish it. We finally gave up about two thirds of the way through. I am a great fan of David Mamet. He writes some of the most intelligent, sharpest dialogue around. In my opinion State and Main does not qualify. It is about a film crew, run out of one town, trying to finish their film in quintessential small town America, Waterford, Vermont. The crew and cast is made up of a bunch of manipulators and oddballs, and the interactions with the town and each other are the thrust of the film. Macy is the director and lives by the line “It is not a lie. It is a fiction.” In spite of a first class cast, the plot is boring and the dialogue sluggish. I got maybe three weak smiles out of the part we watched. However, many others consider it an incisive beautiful satirical view of the film industry.  Your choice.

State of Play (2009) (***, crime, drama) (10-14-09) (D.-Kevin Macdonald; W.-Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy ; Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, Helen Mirren, Robin Wright Penn, Jason Bateman, Jeff Daniels) I'll begin by saying I first watched the 6 hour BBC miniseries from which this Americanized version of the film was adapted. I thought the BBC series near perfect. It is perhaps unfair to compare the two as the format is so different, but I will anyway. I won't repeat the plot here; check the original review at


Crowe plays Cal the reporter, Affleck plays Stephen Collins as a fast tracked congressman, Mirren plays the editor Cameron Lynne, and the rest of the cast plays their parts from the original.

The film is a taut little thriller, but it shortchanges the interpersonal relationships of the series, in part by including more and, to me, needless action. The film makes sufficient changes in the original plot to keep you off balance in places even if you have seen the original. What was painfully missing was the dynamic interplay in the newsroom and the exceptional level of tension. In the film, deadlines were fluid commodities that could be extended seemly countless time to try to ratchet up the tension. Not in the series which I suspect is much closer to reality. Helen Mirren was adequate, but not Bill Nighy, as the editor. Crowe did a good job as a scruffy Cal. The writers did clean up a glaring weakness in the original in the hospital scene.

In summary, if you have two hours to spend, the film is adequate fast food. If you can afford 6 hours, go directly for the 7 course sit down meal. Both the series and the film are available at Sneak Reviews.

State of Play (2003) (7-31-09) (****, thriller, drama) (D.-David Yates; W.-Paul Abbott; David Morrissey, John Simm, Kelly MacDonald, Philip Glenister, Polly Walker, Patrick Brennan, Shauna MacDonald, Rebekah Staton, James McAvoy, Marc Warren, Bill Nighy, Marc Warren, James McAvoy) First class 6 part BBC miniseries. Sex, murder, crime, big business, politics, and an aggressive free press. What more could you roll into 6 hours? A young low grade criminal is executed in the London streets. The attractive assistant of a powerful young minister (Morrissey) of parliament, Stephen Collins, dies in an accident in the subway station. Cal McCaffrey (Simm) a long time friend of Stephen and a newspaper reporter goes to console him. How much friendship and how much business? This is one of the countless questions, many deeply moral with human ramifications, posed as the story develops. The story is principally seen through the eyes of the reporters as they look under rocks, pry into personal foibles and begin to piece together what may have happened. You get an excellent view of the workings of a newsroom, the personalities involved, and the internal politics of the paper. I am reminded of the stellar All the Presidents Men. The reporters and editor Cameron Foster (Nighy), develop elaborate strategies to make sure everything they print is right and that they can legally print it; this provides interesting insights into different democracies since the British judicial system places far more stringent demands on the press than ours.

A true advantage of a miniseries is that you can take a large cast, develop their individual personalities, and integrate them into a complex story line. State exploits this format beautifully.

The story is taut, the emotions gripping; the action breakneck as they race to meet deadlines, the suspense palpable, the humanity of the principals tangible. The story telling is mesmerizing as you follow people you can genuinely believe in and empathize with. Each episode ended with us waiting breathlessly for the next installment. Fortunately, since it was on DVD we generally didn't have to wait long, although we didn't just plow through them. We took time to savor each episode, analyze the actions and events, and try to figure out where it was going next.
The series was made into an American movie by the same name. Roger Ebert loved the film, but it had such a short stay in Charlotteville that we missed it. I eagerly await the DVD. I thought the miniseries near perfect, so it will be great fun to compare the two and see what had to be done to Americanize the story.

In summary, a stellar achievement if you seek great drama and not mindless action. If you aren't hooked at the end of Episode 1, then this isn't your kind of film. Available at Sneak Reviews on Ivy.

If you are wondering what the title means, it is a British noun for "the way in which something is happening or developing" which sums up the film. http://www.macmillandictionary.com/dictionary/british/state-of-play

Stepford Wives (2004) (bomb, comedy, satire) (12-31-04) (D.-Frank Oz; Nicole Kidman, Matthew Broderick, Bette Midler, Glenn Close, Christopher Walken, Roger Bart, David Marshall Grant, Jon Lovitz) We didn’t see this in the theaters since the critics were less than kind, however a rental didn’t seem like a bad deal. The critics were right, and it was a bad deal. Too bad since it has a stellar cast. Unlike the original, which was played as a satirical horror story with warning of the dangers of modern technology and our current society, the remake was played as satirical humor. Humor and satire are tough to do right and integrating the two is really hard. The film fails miserably in my opinion. It is busy, noisy and dull. The few bits of humor never bring it above the level of “when will this end?”

Still Breathing (1997) (***, humor) (D.-J. F. Robinson; Brendan Fraser, Joanna Going) Shown at the Virginia Film Festival. Quirky little romantic comedy about Texas street performer Fletcher (Fraser) who comes from a long line of males who have always had vivid dreams about the women that they were going to marry before they ever met them. Unfortunately, sometimes they are like the prophecies of the Greek oracles--not always as clear and accurate as they first seem. Fletcher has a dream and begins his quest. The object of his desire turns out to be a California con artist who mistakes him for a rich Texan. The film has an off beat plot, charming performances by the two leads, and good supporting actors. Fraser reminds me a lot of a young Jeff Goldblum in both looks and style. He is delightfully off center, very human, and very likeable. (1-12-98) Beginning

Sting, The (1973) (***1/2 drama) (D-George Roy Hill; Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Robert Shaw, Charles Durning) Seven Academy Awards including Best Picture, Director, and Screenplay. After Chicago big boy Shaw murders one of their friends, Redford and Newman set out to con (sting) him. This high energy 129 minute movie never drags, and you will bounce out of the room when it is over. Wheels within wheels. The movie is filled with the delightful rag time music of Scott Joplin, who made his living playing in cat houses about the turn of the century. This movie single handedly sparked a revival in Joplin's music. The Entertainer and many other pieces that you would recognize are Joplins. If you want a high energy treat, buy one of his albums. Many older movies, even Oscar winners, just don't hold up nowadays. Sting is not one of these. Rent it for a foot stomping, high spirited good time. Beginning

Stir of Echoes (1999) (***, thriller, drama, horror) (8-7-00) (D.W.- David Koepp; Kevin Bacon, Kathryn Erbe, Illeana Douglas, Kevin Dunn, Conor O'Farrell, Zachary David Cope) Stir is a fine "ghost story". Stir had the misfortune to appear after the superb The Sixth Sense, and it is not as good as Sense. However, in spite of superficial similarities, it is a very different film and should have been judged on its own considerable merits. Tom Witzky (Bacon) is a young blue collar man with a family in a working class neighborhood who goes under hypnosis on a lark. This precipitates a series of increasingly disturbing visions and premonitions. Given what is happening to him and his family, the resultant virtual destruction of his life is eminently believable. While the viewer begins to suspect the outlines of what happened long before the principals, the resolution of the mystery is only part of the equation. The real point is how Everyman and those around him react when confronted by the enormity of his new-found and uncontrollable power. The burning and hanging of witches in earlier days as these unfortunates plunged into madness makes perfect sense in this context. There are some questions that are better left unanswered.

Bacon does a superb job as we watch his mental and physical disintegration. Here was a man who was discontented with his life. He had no idea of how good that life was. His wife Maggie (Erbe) is pushed repeatedly and believably to the limit by those things she cannot bring herself to believe. If you ignore it, surely it will just go away. Their young son Jake (Cope) plays a good focal point for the action. The secondary characters are all interesting and believable.

The scene in the cemetery is beautifully crafted. Every little nuance is just right, and in retrospect there wasn’t a missed beat. Ever so much information is transferred with absolutely minimal dialogue.

The whole film is handled creepily well from the acting, the images, and the sound track. The F/X are minimal and all that is required for this film . The hypnosis scene is done superbly. What so many modern horror films believe is that horror is giant monsters and graphic images. Real horror is mental, as such masters as Alfred Hitchcock recognized. Whisper does a good job at getting deep into our psyche and disturbing us at a base level. The only wrong note the film hits is when Bacon almost goes over the top—we feared we were going to get a repeat of Jack Nicholson near the ending of The Shining which, in my opinion, largely ruined that film. Fortunately, Stir gets pulled back on track before irreparable damage is done.

Stir is based on the Richard Matheson novel by the same name. Matheson has been a master of the macabre for years. The excellent Duel, Spielberg’s first film, was written by him. I Am Legend, arguably the best modern vampire novel, is his masterpiece. The second rate Omega Man and the much truer to the story, ultralow budget The Last Man on Earth are based on this novel. The novel of Stir has enough disimilarities from the movie that you can read and enjoy the novel after the film—or vice versa. The director made a number of excellent choices in updating the novel for film.

Review based on the excellent letterboxed DVD, which has a very good and very enjoyable commentary by the director as a voice over on the film. It includes comments on actors and actresses, locations, directing, film tricks, anecdotes, and other interesting tidbits. A few points: The film was shot in 39 days in the sort of Chicago working class neighborhood the director grew up in. Richard Matheson enjoyed the film. What happened with the kicked can was not in the script, but Bacon was quick enough to finish the scene without so much as a glitch. The friend of the psychic was the director’s wife. The pin we see going into the hand was real. The person was paid $100, and he did it twice. But take one was what got used. The awful breaking sound is wet celery being crunched. The very odd movement was achieved by shooting the movement at 6 frames per second with the actor moving at about quarter speed. It was then shown at the normal 24 frames per second. Few people can manage to move smoothly at quarter speed, but the actress (Jenny Morrison) is a ballet dancer. The visions were shot with a 14 mm (very wide angle lens). The director kept coming back to "Less is more" and scenes that weren’t working suddenly worked when material was taken out. Where Bacon is digging, he is in actual pain due to a pulled back muscle. The boy in the door near the end was not the actual actor. It was past his work hour and a local boy was pulled in as a sub. The rain is fake. Real rain never looks real on film. In case you miss it, the book the babysitter is reading is The Shrinking Man, one of Matheson’s novels. Koepp also has rules for working with children. In particular, keep the parents out of the way and work around what the child does rather than try to micromanage. Koepp cowrote and produced the very disturbing film Apartment Zero—not for the squeamish—where one of the actors had such a strong accent, he had to be dubbed. Beginning

Stone Cold (2005) (***1/2, crime, drama) (12-29-09) (D.-Robert Harmon; W.- Robert B. Parker (novel), John Fasano (teleplay); Tom Selleck, Jane Adams, Reg Rogers, Viola Davis, Alexis Dziena, Kohl Sudduth, Polly Shannon, Victoria Snow, Ralph Small) Based on one of Parker's Stone novels. This is the first Stone mystery that I have watched, and I am hooked. The title says it all. Two of the most stone-cold-blooded serial killers to ever grace the screen move into Jessie Stone's small town of Paradise, MA. Deeply flawed Stone is the police chief. He used to be a hot shot California detective before he self-destructed. We don't find out why in this film, but we can guess the key features. He is an alcoholic and has an ex -wife, actress Jennifer Stone from California, whom he hangs onto in a sick, long distance relationship. He also has an intense sense of right and wrong. And doing the right thing is at the top of his list even if bending the rules is necessary. Lines that summarize his rigidity is when the town council is trying to force him to back down on an issue. He dispatches their meddling with "I'm a cop. I've been a cop for a long time. I'm good at it. I know how to do this. You don't. " A council member responds with "Damn it, we can fire you." Stone's laconic response as he walks out is "You can. But you can't tell me what to do."

Throw in a rape and you have a tight little thriller. Selleck is perfect as Stone. Jaded, beaten down, but not about to sacrifice his standards. Abby (Shannon) his girl friend or pal, if you wish, is a good counter for his taciturn persona. The killers (Snow and Small) are as disturbing as they come. Mimi Rodger (Rita Fiore) is a hot, hot-shot lawyer for the opposition; we will almost certainly see more of her in future films. The rest of the cast is excellent. The dialogue is crisp, incisive, the plot is sharp, unbalancing, and the music and cinematography disturbingly gripping. It may be made for TV, but it is head and shoulders above much of the tripe in the theaters. Beginning

Storm of the Century (1999) (***, horror) (12-22-03) (D.- Craig R. Baxley; W- Stephen King; Timothy Daly, Colm Feore, Debrah Farentino, Casey Siemaszko, Jeffrey DeMunn, Julianne Nicholson, Dyllan Christopher) A small island off the Maine coast becomes isolated during the winter storm, the Big Blow of 1989. The storm is the least of their worries as they also have an unannounced guest, Mr. Andre Lineoge (Feore) who also plays the TV newscaster and the TV minister. He begins a campaign of physical and psychological terror on the islanders. “Give me what I want and I’ll go away.” But first of all you have to establish who is in control. The film starts with a death and ends with human confrontation of epic proportions. But enough of plot. King’s stories rarely make a successful transition to film. They are too convoluted, too atmospheric. Storm, however, was a 247-minute miniseries, which is the perfect venue for this type of film. We didn’t realize that when we rented the DVD and were prepared to turn it off after the first gory 30 minutes. However, the true nature of the beast became apparent as we watched the leisurely, seductive unraveling of the opening credits. It works.

An excellent ensemble cast with largely believable responses to events. Feore is fearsome. Whenever he is on the screen, he dominates it, even when he is doing nothing. The rest of the cast is good with the sheriff/store owner Mike Anderson (Daly) and his wife Molly (Farentino) forming the emotional core.

The story unfolds at its own pace, building dread and fear with each nuanced scene. The final confrontation leaves far more questions than it answers. The psychological issues that are raised and what the true situation was is food for much discussion afterwards. What were the real alternatives? Based on what was known, were the choices believable? What would have been the outcome of other choices? What was the morality of what was done? What was the meaning of Lineoge’s final remark? I don’t think the presentation of all the principal’s views was as skillfully handled as it should have been; there wasn’t enough ambiguity on the one side. However, I do believe the outcome would have been the same. Finally, the film deals briefly with the aftermath. Again, we are presented with the complexity of human nature and our gamut of responses to horrific events.

There is very little new in the horror genre. Storm is no exception. Successful horror depends on style, detail, subtlety. Storm delivers. Some of the effects were a bit weak, like the flying scenes. However, given the rest of the film and the intent, this is forgivable. The little segment at the very end has been lambasted. I thought it worked by adding one last bit of horror to what had happened.

With minimal gore and action, Storm manages to bring a very successful King to film. So if you like your horror leisurely and largely psychological, set aside a dark cold weekend evening, turn out the lights, and enjoy. Beginning

Strange Cargo (1940) (**1/2, drama) (D.- Frank Borzage, Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Ian Hunter, Peter Lorre, Albert Dekker, Paul Lukas, Eduardo Ciannelli) Story of prisoners escaping from Devil's Island. However, one of the escapees is Hunter who projects a Christ-like presence, with a mission that goes far beyond just physical escape for the prisoner. Some fine cinematography and an intriguing plot, although the end becomes somewhat predictable. (8-3-94) Beginning

Strange Days (1995) (**, drama, sci fi, crime, thriller) (D.-Kathyrn Bigelow; Ralph Fiennes, Agela Bassett, Juliette Lewis, Tom Sizemore, Michael Wincott, Vincent d'Onofrio) Set in Los Angeles mere hours before the dawn of the 21st century. LA is a mess--within inches of total anarchy. Police and military patrols swarm through the streets and cart off the worst offenders against a backdrop of burning cars and near rioting thrill seekers. Prophets of doom predict the coming Apocalypse. Others plot it. Technology in its glory has managed to improve on drug addiction. Lenny (Fiennes) sells your ultimate fantasy. "Wires" that you wear on your head can record everything that you see, feel, and do. The disk recordings can then be played

back to someone else in a process known as "wire tripping." So real, it is all but indistinguishable from the reality. Sports, crimes, sex. If people want it, recordings are for sale. Lenny sells dreams. He's really good at it, in part because he believes totally in them and is his own best customer. Whenever he feels a little down, he trips on his ex-girlfriend Faith (Lewis) who dumped him for a rock promoter Philo (Wincott). We are treated to one of Lenny's pitches to a business man with a "virgin brain", a first timer. Lenny is as seductive as Mephistopholes himself. As Lenny accurately puts it: "I'm the magic man--the Santa Claus of the Soul." Perhaps Lenny should have paid more attention as he was cruising the street; a Santa Claus is chased down and mugged as we sweep by. Lenny deals everything except Black Jacks, deaths and snuff films.

Lenny could have gone on like this forever, but something puts him at the heart of a big deal. He finds he is in trouble when he receives a wire of a friend being being snuffed in a particularly nasty way. His unravelling of what is going on makes the film. Throw in a limo driver bodyguard friend (Bassett), his ex, Philo (whose guarding of Faith from Lenny's return makes King Kong's protection of Fay Wray look second rate), a totally disreputable friend Max (Sizemore), and other assorted low lifes.

Bassett is the one sane person in this maelstrom. She knows Lenny has a bad habit and tries to shake him out of it at one point. "This is your life!" she screams as she slams him against the wall. It may not be pretty, but its real. And if he doesn't get his act together, those little plastic disks will be his bier. She sums up the seductiveness and the dangers of the technology when she says "Memories are meant to fade. That's why they are designed that way."

Why only two stars? A lot of nice touches, but too long, too unfocused, and too uneven. It wants to be the new Bladerunner (****) set to a mystery. While it has some nice atmosphere, it just cannot compete with the subtle tonality and depth of Bladerunner, and once the mystery is resolved, there is no reason to see it again. It has some respectable action sequences, but they get diluted with too much dead filler. The resolution of the mystery was OK, but there is no way you could have predicted it based on your knowledge. I did love some of Fiennes's scenes such as the sales pitch, but there are so many disconnected elements going on that there are times when you lose track of the main plot completely. The end could have easily been cut by 5-10 minutes, and similar critical cuts throughout would have made everything crisper. A question that we discussed: Is Lenny cured? Cure for a lot of addicts requires hitting rock bottom, and he certainly achieves that. On the other hand he's good at selling things and giving people what they think they want. So.... (11-6-95) Beginning

Stranger, The (1946) (**1/2, drama, thriller) (D.-Orson Welles, Orson Welles,Loretta Young, Edward G. Robinson, Richard Long, Martha Wentworth) Escaped Nazi war criminal (Welles) has successfully assumed a new identity as a history prep school instructor in a small Connecticut town where he marries a powerful judge's daughter (Young), who is unaware of his past. This carefully fabricated facade is cracked, then shattered, when relentless Nazi-hunter Robinson follows the trail to town. This is apparently Welles' least favorite film; nevertheless, some of the plot development and visuals still make for an entertaining evening. Welles' characterization is both a strength and a weakness. He manages the man under enormous stress very well and one can truly appreciate his predicament. However, his relationship with his wife (Young) lacks coherency. I suspect that some of the discordant touches are deliberate to prevent Welles from appearing too human, but it is distracting. I also found Robinson's underplayed role inconsistent with the alleged emotionality of his quest. You do appear to see the seeds of Welles' chilling monologue about others, which he gives at the top of ferris wheel in the 1949 The Third Man. A delightful supporting role is provided by Billy House as the local drug store proprieter who also acts as clerk and waiter ("serve yourself"), bus station official, local checkers' hustler ($0.25 per game), gossip, and probably a dozen other things. Watch how he shamelessly cheats Robinson. (5-9-94) Beginning

Strangers on a Train (1951) (***1/2, thriller) (D.-Alfred Hitchcock, Farley Granger, Robert Walker, Ruth Roman, Leo G. Carroll, Patricia Hitchcock, Marion Lorne) Based on a Patricia Highsmith novel and coscripted by Raymond Chandler. The inspiration for Throw Momma From the Train. Considered one of Hitchcock's finest thrillers. Even now, while some of it is badly dated, the movie is frequently mesmerizing. Hitchcock did like disturbed young men as the subjects of his movies. A chance encounter (or is it?) on a train between tennis star Guy Haines (Granger) and sick rich young Bruno Antony (Walker) leads to, intrigue, blackmail, and murder. Walker, with a disturbingly intimate knowledge of Granger, subtly propositions Granger with a "tit for tat" murder, a perfect crime. I'll kill your troublesome wife and you kill my rich father. Since there is no relationship between the two of us and our victims who would suspect? Granger brushes Walker off, only to realize too late the depth of Walker's psychopathic drives and his ability to reconstruct what he desires rather than what is. The term stalking may be new, but the psychopathology is at least as old as The Illiad and Hitchcock has a grand time.

There are two scenes of extraordinary power even today. The first is Hitchcock's unique view of the first murder; extreme violence is not necessary to convey absolute and total horror. The second is the merry-go-round climax. Never has a calliope and those charming wooden horses been so unnerving and, finally, so terrifying. The four horsemen would be welcome relief. Also, while not terrifying, the lost lighter with the onlookers is a masterpiece of Hitchcockian suspense.

The reaction of Walker to the sister is unrealistic and adds a very unreasonable plot twist to the story. Further, some of the interplay between the two men is unreasonable. Nevertheless, on the balance, this is a black and white classic that should be seen by all students of modern suspense.

Walker's chilling performance, which appeared to have mirrored a disturbed personality, marked him as a rising star. Unfortunately, his excessive life style and premature death from a heart attack brought an early end after only one more movie.

Remember, Hitchcock loved to make a brief appearance in his movies Hithcock is easily seen next to his equally large prop. (5-2-94) Beginning

Straw Dogs (1971) (*** drama) (D-Sam Peckinpah, Dustin Hoffman, Susan George, David Warner, Peter Vaughn, T.P. McKenna, Peter Arne) Younger theater goers are usually not familiar with the work of the important and influential Sam Peckinpah who was highly controversial for his violence-themed movies. Straw Dogs was an exceptionally explosive movie in its time, although modern viewers may wonder why. Dustin Hoffman is a pacifist mathematician who moves to his English wife's small town on an isolated island. Being an outsider with a local wife, who was the object of desire for one of the locals, and a staunch pacifist makes Hoffman a target of derision that leads to a series of increasingly nasty pranks and a final brutal confrontation with several locals. As with many low key people, Hoffman has a limit beyond which he cannot be pushed, but this wall is not visible to antagonists and comes as a complete surprise. The tension builds inexorably to a contest of wills that results in a lethally explosive conclusion where even the survivors will be scarred for life--especially given facts as yet unknown to them. The movie is thought provoking, well acted and filmed, but even now definitely not for the squeamish. When Dogs showed a number of years ago on commercial TV, it was so badly butchered (illogical even for someone who saw the original) that I refused to watch a TV movie for years afterwards. Things had gotten better recently, and I was beginning to relax until we saw the same commercial barbarism exacted on Manhunter when it showed recently as Red Dragon. (2-15-93) Beginning

Stray Dog (1949) (****, drama) (12-7-98) (D.-Akira Kurosawa, Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Keiko Awaija, Ko Kimura) A 122 minute black and white beautifully crafted masterpiece where you will spend more time discussing the meaning and nuances afterwards than you spent watching it. A young police officer's (Mifune) gun with seven bullets is stolen, and he spends the remainder of the movie on an odyssey of cultural and self-discovery seeking it. The gun and the search follow a tortuous path ultimately leaving a trail of suffering and death. The title refers to the final recipient of the gun, but equally well symbolizes the gun and the possible fate of the young officer. Really two movies in one. The first half is a period piece looking at the disarray, changes, and suffering in the post W.W.II era. The second half is a taut, extremely effective police procedure film. The movie is completely Japanese in spite of the fact that the American occupation was still in full swing in 1949, not a single Western face appears. The war is never brought up directly. The issue of moral responsibility in the face of extreme stress from any source forms the dilemma of the movie. When confronted with adversity, why does one person's moral center survive and strengthen and another's crumble? The movie is beautifully textured with many masterful scenes done as throw aways (e.g. the interrogation of the bar girl, the piano player, and the dance hall). There is one extended hotel scene that is pure Hitchcock: a devastatingly effective set up where you can see what is going to happen, but aren't sure of the details and wait with growing dread as it unfolds. In contrast to many of Kurosawa's movies, all of the characters are extremely human and believable including the women, even those in minor or subservient positions. You can relate to and feel for everyone. The detective Sato not only looks like Oscar in Body Heat, but has a similar moral code. "I hate them all. Evil is evil." The climactic ending is so... well, Eastern. The entire movie is reduced to a few simple aural and visual brush strokes. If you loved the better known Rashomon, you will love Dog which is cinematically a better film. Some viewers may find the movie slow, especially the first half, but richly rewarding for those who stick it out. (4-26-93)  Beginning

Street Smart (1987) (**1/2, drama) (D.-Jerry Schatzberg, Christopher Reeve, Morgan Freeman, Kathy Baker, Mimi Rogers, Jay Patterson, Andre Gregory) The movie itself is no better than **1/2, but Morgan Freeman's performance galvanizes any scene he is in. A desperate newpaper reporter writes a bogus article on a pimp, and then is expected to deliever more stories on same. He manges to hook up with a pimp, Freeman, who he thinks that he can manipulate--big mistake. Initially, Freeman appears articulate and reasonable. Gradually the veneer begins to shred, and you see something underneath that you would rather not--a totally manipulative psychopath. Freeman is pure quicksilver. After the shark fin has momentarily broken the tranquil surface and disappeared, he slips with such ease back into his reasonable role that, initially, you want to gloss over the warnings. His skill at this is similar to that of James Woods and Malcolm MacDowell, two of my favorite actors. Freeman won The New Film Critics Cir. Best Supporting Actor. Beginning

Stunt Man, The (1980) (****+, drama) (D.- Richard Rush; Peter O'Toole, Steve Railsback, Barbara Hershey, Chuck Bail, Allen Goorwitz, Adam Roarke, Alex Rocco, Sharon Farrell, Philip Bruns) A must see in my top 20 movies of all times. Critically acclaimed, died at the box office. Available at Sneak Reviews and Beyond Video. You know in the first two minutes that this movie is not like any other you have seen. Unbalancing is the word that I keep coming back to. Is it a tragedy or comedy? An escapee from the law (Railsback) is involved in the accidental death of a movie crew stunt man. The director (O'Toole) offers to hide Railsback if he replaces the stunt man. O'Toole plays the suave, manipulative Mephistopheles to Railsback's barely contained hair-trigger instability. Hershey as an actress is the Railsback's flaky, unpredictable love interest--also expertly manipulated by O'Toole. Absolutely fascinating photography of an action movie being made within a movie with no clear demarcation lines between reality and illusion. A captivating foot stomping score matches the high spirited tone. The plot succeeds as just a rip-roaring good tale, but it plays at very many levels--my wife and I still argue over what really happened. Catch the words of the song as he enters the town. If you look for further enlightenment in Paul Brodeur's original book, you will not find it. The book is very good, equally unbalancing, but with a somewhat different tone and a very different ending.(3-1-93) Beginning

Sugata Sanshiro AKA Judo Saga (1943) (***, action) (3-13-0) (D/W-Akira Kurosawa; Susumu Fujita, Denjirou Oukouchi, Ryunosuke Tsukigata, Takashi Shimura) Kurosawa's first film. Lost during WWII, it was later reedited with subtitles to replace the missing pieces from the short 1944 version. This review is based on the version shown on TMC; I assume it is this edited version. The story is second rate and involves conflict between dissenting martial arts schools in about 1890. The story is about the rise of a young underling, his maturation and the climactic battles between the styles. Throw in a Romeo and Juliet romantic interest between the schools and you have the basic plot. However, you watch this film primarily for its historical interest and for some stunning scenes that demonstrate Kurosawa's genius even in his first film. Kurosawa was a superb visual stylist and a master of verbal minimalism. He demonstrates this skill even in 1943. There are several scenes of extraordinary power done with little or no dialogue including the aftermath of the one fight and the dinner scene. The dinner scene in particular has not a single word, yet the evolving facial and body expressions say it all. Words would merely detract.

The final fight on the mountain is magnificent as the hurricane whips the grass around and alternately shows and hides the action. The use of the racing clouds and their shadows to reveal and conceal are stunning.

The mountain scene almost didn't get made. Toho studios wanted it done on a sound stage. Kurosawa got them to give him funds for three days on a mountain top noted for its winds. Two days and No wind. Kurosawa insisted on staying. The crew sat drinking on the third day before they realized a great wind had come up. The rest is history. Information from the Kurosawa web site at


and Robert Osbourne on TCM. Beginning

Sum Of All Fears, The (2002) (***1/2, war, drama) (8-26-02) (D.- Phil Alden Robinson; Ben Affleck, Morgan Freeman,  James Cromwell, Liev Schreiber, Alan Bates, Philip Baker Hall, Bridget Moynahan) A year ago this film could have been just another adrenaline rush actioner. After 9-11, Sum is a graphic representation of our real fears and a possible game plan for the end. Sum  is based on Tom Clancy’s book by the same name. Given the length and complexity of his books, there were substantial simplifications, several critical changes, and a politically correct alteration of the enemy.

My generation had the cold war with both sides having enough mega tonnage for every man, woman and child on the earth to be the proud owner of multiple tons of atomic explosives. The new reels regularly showed the horrendous effects of nuclear weapons tests on civilization. I knew people who witnessed atomic tests, and the TV weather in Albuquerque included the temperature, humidity, and radiation count from the Nevada and Pacific tests as they drifted over us. This fear was reflected in such cataclysmic films as Fail Safe and Dr. Strangelove. With the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of organized world wide terror organization, Sum of All Fears becomes a mirror for this generation’s accumulated fears.

The story begins in 1973 with the loss of an unarmed nuclear bomb by the Israelis where it lies dormant and unrecognized for many years. Spring forward to the present.

Harrison Ford and the other actors playing Jack Ryan have become too old for the part, so the story takes the twist of introducing a young Jack Ryan, who is just being brought into the CIA fold by master spy Bill Cabot (Freeman). Ben Affleck is the new Ryan.

The opening in the war room is absolutely chilling. We don’t really appreciate how chilling until a replay at the end where structure and certainty are replaced by fear and limited information.

It comes as no surprise that the nuclear weapon falls into unfriendly hands. The plot unfolds as Ryan and his colleagues get a scent and rush to fathom its intent and track it down in time.

We get the unraveling scenario from both sides. Decisions are based on incomplete or flawed information, on perceptions and gut feeling of their opponents’ intent, and on the belief that survival of one’s nation trumps all other considerations. Intelligence is rarely an accurate science. The conclusion of the film is one of the most white knuckle and, I fear, accurate representation of a headlong rush towards the apocalypse that I hope to see in a while. 

The acting is solid. Affleck has taken heat as not being mature enough for the part. In the film, he is a new man in new surroundings. He shouldn’t be too poised, too assured. Indeed, as my wife remarked, he was really too good for his level of experience. But then it was required for the plot, so I think he was perfect. We’ll have to see whether he continues in the part and grows with it. President Fowler (Cromwell) is also perfect. He and his advisers’ behaviors and actions are totally believable. The effects are good. The suspense enough to make you rip the arms off your chair.

The film does have a Hollywood ending and a little thought will sober this view. I do have one technical complaint, and that is the flash from explosions arrives before the shock wave.

So be afraid. Be very afraid. Check out Sum if you dare. Beginning

Suddenly(1954) (***1/2, action, suspense, noir) (8-19-03) (D.- Lewis Allen; Frank Sinatra, Sterling Hayden, James Gleason, Kim Charney, Paul Frees, Christopher Dark, Bart Wheeler, Paul Wexler) Tight little gem. Family's house is commandeered by a team bent on the assassination of the President. Minimalist claustrophobic sets, taut direction, edgy acting, all conspire to make a satisfying experience. Sinatra, in particular, is first class as the complex killer, a mixture of braggadocio, skill, confidence and seething insecurity. The final shot of Sinatra sums up his world view. Hayden is good as his foil and a man molded in somewhat the same cauldron as Sinatra, but who came out with completely different values and skills. Review based on beautiful print recently shown on TMC. Beginning

Sunshine (2007) (**, sci fi, drama, horror) (5-2-08) (D.-Danny Boyle; W.-Writer:Alex Garland; Cliff Curtis, Cillian Murphy, Michelle Yeoh, Hiroyuki Sanada, Rose Byrne, Benedict Wong, Chris Evans, Troy Garity, Mark Strong) First, my wife's and my opinion are not in the majority. Even Roger Ebert liked it. Given the director (28 Days Later) and the cast, one expected more. It is billed as a thinking person's sci fi. A psychological study of humanity under stress. For us what it was, was a bore. And the ending was just another horror slasher film.

The sun is dying and mankind will shortly be gone. Seven years earlier, we sent a stellar bomb the mass of Manhattan Island on the Icarus 1 to reignite the sun. It clearly failed. In man's last gasp, they have managed to assemble one last attempt and we are watching the end game as the Icarus 2 approaches Mercury's orbit. One can argue about the wisdom of the ship's name. True, they are flying close to the sun, but the original does not end well. We get to watch the psychological impact on the crew of 8 as after 16 months in space they approach the culmination of their mission, and hopefully escape after dropping their payload. There are disasters, decisions that must be made under stress, and ultimately they pick up the beacon from the lost Icarus 1. The description makes it sound far more interesting than it really is. Sunshine is not Solaris (although it is true that many people find Solaris boring), and Boyle is not Tarkovsk.

The film is not without its pluses. The special effects are extraordinary. The ship, its interactions with sun, and the solar viewing room are magnificent. Gold is a super reflector of infrared radiation, so the exterior shield of the ship is gold showcased against the magnificent burning solar orb. Man has always worshiped the sun as the giver of life. If you are going to develop a sun cult, what better place to do it than on the Icarus, especially given the view and the importance of your mission. The ships psychiatrist, Dr. Searle's (Curtiss) behavior is fully believable.

The DVD had extras but we weren't interested enough to view them. Beginning

Support Your Local Sheriff(1969) (****, comedy, western) (12-22-03) (D.-Burt Kennedy; James Garner, Joan Hackett, Walter Brennan,  Harry Morgan, Jack Elam, Henry Jones, Bruce Dern) Plain and simple. One of the best spoofs of the western genre ever made. If it wasn’t written for James Garner, I would be amazed. It replays Garner’s Maverick character in spades. Jason (Garner) wanders into a small, but not very healthy, gold town that just lost its third sheriff in 2 months. He is working his way, albeit slowly, to Australia. They need a sheriff. He needs money. So a bargain is struck with the town’s people not expecting to have to pay out very much if anything. As I said, it is not a very healthy town for lawmen, and Jason decides that his first duty is to arrest local tough Joe Danby (Dern) for murder. Jason works on taming the town as much with brains as brawn. Not that the opposition has much of the former.

Blazing Saddles is a great Western spoof. In your face. Crude. Rude. Slapstick. In contrast, Sheriff is quiet, droll, situational, and character-driven. The whole tone of the film is set by the eulogy at boot hill in the opening scene. If you can get past this without laughing, then Sheriff isn’t your film.

The bad guys are the Danbys. Pa Danby (Brennan) and his three trigger-happy sons. All three sons are 5 rounds shy of a fully loaded six shooter. Brennan is a hoot as the exasperated father who tries to keep his kids out of what he considers trouble (trouble is a relative term when you are killers and thieves); some things just don’t change. Throw in the self-serving town council led by mayor Olly Perkins (Morgan) and his wild cat daughter Prudy (Hackett) who quickly, but not very efficiently sets her sights on Jason, and you pretty much have the cast. Oh, there is one other player, the town drunk Jake (Elam) who ends up as Jason’s deputy. In reality, Elam had a bad eye, which gave him a most unnerving countenance; this led to his frequent portrayal of bad and ultimately dead guys. Here he gets to ham it up delightfully as one of the good guys.

Sheriff sends off all the western conventions and films in grand style. It helps if you are familiar with the genre, but it isn’t essential. One delightful feature is that Morgan and Brennan play fractured versions of their parts in the deadly serious High Noon and My Darling Clementine. Also, consider where the city fathers retire to during the final shoot out.

Dern is fabulous as the nearly psychotic Joe Danby. His arrest is actually a masterpiece of human psychology. Jason has seen Joe’s skills. Joe has never seen Jason’s. Psychologically it is no contest. Which brings us to the jail, the nicest in the area except for one small detail. But enough of plot. A superb cast, stellar dialog, and a delightful story line make Sheriff one of the western gems. Rush out and see it. Review based on the excellent DVD.Beginning

Surf Nazis Must Die (1987) (bomb, drama?) (D.-Peter George, Gail Neely, Robert Harden, Barry Brenner, Dawn Wildsmith, Michael Sonye, Joel Hile) Critic reviews on the marquee might include: "I was simply amazed that they could put this on the screen." "Never have I seen an audience so affected by a movie..." "This movie defies logic, ..." "The audience was moved..." Now that mad dog biker movies and killer sharks are out of style, someone decided to make going to the beach a risky undertaking. A vicious surfer gang kills a young man who interrupts one of their assaults. His vengeful mother leaves her retirement home and roars off on her motorcycle with Uzis and grenades to end their reign of terror. Considered, every so briefly, for our coveted Golden Gobbler Award. Contrary to what you might think and all other sane thought, this movie was actually released to the theater rather than directly to video. In our opinion, there is only one rational reason to see Surf Nazis... What a fantastic conversation stopper and attention getter at a party. Just imagine the impact at a reception by the President as you drop: "I was watching Surf Nazis Must Die last night and..." How many other people can claim to have seen Surf Nazis...? How many would want to or admit to it? The only thing that might have raised this above Bomb would have been inclusion of some fine surfing shots. Regrettably, even if you watch the whole thing, the shots are neither very good, nor very frequent. (11-30-92) Beginning

Suspect, The (1944) (**1/2, crime) (D.- Robert Siodmak; Charles Laughton, Ella Raines, Dean Harens, Molly Lamont, Henry Daniell, Rosalind Ivan) Dated, but solidly entertaining thriller. Laughton is a fine gentleman and the long-suffering husband of shrewish wife Ivan. A comely, innocent young thing (Raines) provides Laughton with a view of what his life might have been. Who did it and how will it unravel? (10-23-95) Beginning

Suspicion (1941) (***, suspense) (3-18-02) (D.- Alfred Hitchcock; Cary Grant, Joan Fontaine, Cedric Hardwicke, Nigel Bruce, Dame May Whitty, Isabel Jeans) Considered one of Hitchcock’s masterpieces, Suspicion is more likely to leave modern viewers unsatisfied. After a whirlwind and totally unrealistic courtship by playboy Grant of wallflower Fontaine, the movie settles into its real theme: lack of communication and growing suspicion by the wife that her debonair husband is out to collect her inheritance. This portion of the film works very well up to the completely Hollywoodish ending mandated by the Production Code. You really can feel Fontaine’s confusion and growing dread as she collects tidbits of information that may or may not be corrrect and/or meaningful, about her husband. Grant is believable, delightfully manipulative and self-serving regardless of the outcome. Incidentally, the scene where Grant is carrying the glass of milk up to his suspicious wife is a gem as the glass seems almost luminescent on the darkened stairs. A nifty little effect achieved by Hitchcock by placing a light in it. Beginning

Sweet Smell of Success (1957) (****, noir, drama) (5-14-01) (D.-Alexander Mackendrick; W.-Ernest Lehman (novel), Clifford Odets; Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, Susan Harrison, Martin Milner, Sam Levene, Barbara Nichols, Jeff Donnell, Joe Frisco, Emile Meyer, Edith Atwater) Simply put, a great film that you will spend more time discussing than watching. A searing character study of corruption, power, and exploitation of power in the communications industry. J. J. Hundsecker (Lancaster) is a newspaper and radio columnist of enormous power. Like a king of old, he holds court in the Stork Club or Club 21 and sucks information like a vampire from, and dispenses his favors to, his fawning and groveling camp followers. Like Shakespeare’s Richard III, he manipulates, corrupts, and destroys for the pure pleasure of the act. One added or deleted sentence in his column can make or destroy a star, a politician, a restaurant.

In Success everyone has a price and everyone has a line beyond which they will not be pushed. We get to watch prices and lines shifting and moving like living entities. The plot builds around one of J. J.’s followers, oily press agent Sidney Falco (Curtis), who is trying to use J. J. to get to that mythical top. Their current marriage of convenience is brought about by J. J.’s desire to break up the romance between his sister Susan (Harrision) and rising Jazz musician Steve Dallas (Milner) of the Steve Dallas Quintet. Unlike J. J., Sidney at least acknowledges his moral faults. The rest of this immorality play unfolds in a complex and fascinating fashion. I will reveal nothing further about plot, but the whole film reeks of evil, decay and depravity, and you may feel like taking a shower afterwards.

Both Lancaster and Curtis generally played heroic or comedic characters, but both are stellar in this underbelly of human nature. The dialogue is acid and incisive. Lancaster, who rarely raises his voice, is a man you know instinctively that you should fear. Trust your instincts. Both actors bring disturbing depth and believability to what could have been cardboard characters.

The city is an integral part of this black tapestry. Stunning noirish black and white cinematography by the legendary James Wong Howe set the stage. The streets of New York have never looked darker, more sinister. The final touch is the great music and jazz score by Elmer Bernstein and the Steve Dallas Quintet.

Now the real story. J. J. Hunsecker is modeled closely after the real demagogue of press and radio Walter Winchell. Witty, articulate, cunning, and utterly ruthless, Winchell was the origin of the celebrity tell all gossip columnist and their cult of power. Winchell made and ruined people with the offhanded ease shown in the film. Not surprisingly, Winchell did try to stop the film. Only the studio’s previous success with Marnie and the power of Lancaster and Lehman got it made. His power was ultimately eroded as TV replaced radio and the newspapers, and with his ultra right wing bent he mistakenly backed Senator McCarthy during the dark days of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. Once one of the most powerful and feared men in the country, the only person at his funeral when he died in the early 70s was his daughter. Beginning

Sweet Home Alabama (2002) (**1/2, comedy) (9-16-02) (D.- Andy Tennant; Reese Witherspoon, Josh Lucas, Patrick Dempsey, Candice Bergen, Mary Kay Place, Fred Ward, Jean Smart, Ethan Embry, Melanie Lynskey) Melanie Carmichael (Witherspoon) is a successful New York designer who came up the hard way, from rural Georgia. Her beau Andrew Hennings Dempsey) is the son of the rich, famous mayor of New York (Bergen). Mommy dearest is also a master manipulator who knows exactly what’s best for her son and his political career and it doesn’t include some backwoods blond. Her son on the other hand is charming, has his mother’s strength of character, and bemusedly puts up with her. When he pops the question, Melanie agrees but has one bit of not so unfinished business in Georgia, her not so ex Jake (Lucas). So she goes back to tidy things up. We get her interactions with her family (Place, Ward), her ex, and his and her friends. Maybe Georgia did have a few good points?

It is a charming collection of actors with sweet by the numbers plots and a few twists. Too bad they didn’t have a real script to deal with. Also, the end in my opinion is rather a cop out in regards to the winner of the only place to live scenario.  Worth the Jefferson or a rainy afternoon diversion rental when you want a few grins and no thought. Beginning

Sweltering New Mexico: The mountains are now coated in fresh snow and snow flakes race past our window as I write this in Los Alamos on May 17th. And Taos has a foot of snow. (5-15-95)  Beginning

Swordfish (2001) (***, thriller) (1-14-02) (D.- Dominic Sena; John Travolta; Hugh Jackman; Halle Berry; Don Cheadle; Sam Shepard; Vinnie Jones) I will certainly take some heat on this review, but bear with me. Swordfish came out before the horror of 9-11 and was intended as a simple, but bloody action thriller. It involves a master criminal (or maybe something else), Gabriel Shear (Travolta), who hires a master hacker Stanley (Jackman) to hack into a computer for him. As the story is told from the end, the goal and method is murky as the plot slowly builds the picture. The opening scene is truly disturbing as we learn much more than we ever want to know about Shear. He is urbane, literate, personable. He is also a sociopath and a monster who will stop at nothing, even his own death, to achieve his goals. I would have found Travolta’s performance stellar and frightening before 9-11, because I knew such people really existed.

Swordfish is bloody, violent, sexy (you get the much hyped topless scene of Berry), and profane. Depressingly close to today’s headlines. However, for me Travolta’s chilling performance makes the film. His mercurial performance works. Here is a sociopath who could be your good neighbor for years. You could barbecue with him, trade tools, play with his children, and you would never suspect what a monster lurked under the surface. Just don’t look closely at the plot.

The DVD has a director’s commentary, alternate versions of some scenes, especially the ending, and some info on the making of. Since it was a one night rental, I didn’t get to it all. The making of and the alternate endings were particularly interesting. In the day of computer graphics, it was a surprise that that really was a bus suspended from a helicopter over the city. Equally entertaining is how they pulled it off. Beginning