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Capsule Movie Reviews by Gene Keyes
First set, 2010-02-10

In 2009 I subscribed to a DVD-by-mail rental service, Zip.ca, which is the Canadian equivalent of Netflix. The Zip website has members' reviews, including mine. But that section is not public, and very hard to navigate, so I have gathered my reviews here.


Lady in the Lake

3 stars of 5

Nifty first-person POV
From Zip's summary: Based on a novel by Raymond Chandler, the story focuses on private eye Philip Marlowe as he searches for a missing wife and discovers a different woman's corpse in a mountain lake.
GK review: The plot is incoherent and the dialogue is stilted, — both are full of non-sequiturs — but this is worth watching for that first-person POV (point-of-view). The only time you see Marlowe (Robert Montgomery) is if he is at a mirror (or doing a brief intro for the movie-audience). Otherwise, he might as well have a vid-cam on his head the whole time. Nifty


Project Moonbase

2 stars of 5

Period piece, for Heinlein fans only
From Zip's summary, "Feature film" cobbled together from several episodes of the unsold TV science fiction series "Ring Around the Moon." Set in the future  — 1970, that is  — the film takes place on a huge space station, where a group of pilots and scientists draw up plans to establish a U.S. military base on the moon.
GK review: Amusing period piece, only of interest to hard-core Robert Heinlein fans (like me). Plausibility is sub-zero; acting and script are beneath criticism. A few forecasts as seen from 1953 do pan out: the first moon landing is 1970 in a vehicle vaguely similar to the Apollo LEM; and there is a circum-lunar trial flight.

This movie can't hold a candle to Heinlein's other major cinematic accomplishment, the pioneering and relatively-realistic Destination Moon, of 1950, which made a great impression on me when I saw it at age nine. But Project Moonbase is only good for a chuckle.

Spoiler alert:

Besides being a towering figure in science fiction and popularizer of space flight, Heinlein was also an egalitarian who had strong female characters in his writing. Here, the female lead has made not only the first earth-orbital flight, but also the first lunar-orbital flight, and landing  — much to the disgust of her co-pilot, and her commanding general, who indulge in 1950s-style sexism. And in a surprise ending, the US president also turns out to be a woman.


The Great Race

2 stars of 5

Bloated disappointment
From Zip's summary: Tony Curtis stars as The Great Leslie, a hero among heroes whose purity of heart is manifested by his spotlessly white wardrobe. Leslie's great rival is Professor Fate (Jack Lemon), a scowling, mustachioed, top-hatted, black-garbed villain, who schemes to win a 22,000-mile auto race from New York City to Paris by whatever insidious means possible.

I thought I liked it 40 years ago, but was quite disappointed this time. It might have made a good 15 minute Road-Runner-Coyote cartoon, but as a live spectacle, it is bloated beyond belief, slow-moving, incoherent, and — even for a farce — lacking a scintilla of plausibility. (For instance, director Blake Edwards' original Pink Panther at least had a veneer of rationality atop Sellers' antics, and much better continuity.)

The Great Race does have what one reviewer called "the Ben-Hur of pie fights", which scene stuck in my memory because of the way Tony Curtis walked through the melee almost unscathed. But that alone does not make up for this mostly tedious morass.

Three Doors DVD's


The Doors: Soundstage Performances

4 stars of 5

Doors' songs inside and out
The Doors are an acquired taste, which I've had since 1967, though I don't see where Morrison gets that charismatic reputation. All I see is a screechy sourpuss who looks like a combination of Dick Nixon and Ayatollah Khomeini. For my money the other three band members are much more worth watching, and in this DVD they also offer up a bunch of one by one comments on the origins and nuances of ten different Doors' songs, as well as anecdotes about some of their appearances. (For instance, I didn't know Krieger played slide guitar with a broken wine-bottle neck on his finger.)

The music on this DVD is also worth watching more than once. Though it lacks "Light My Fire", it does have one of their best versions of "When the Music's Over". The DVD includes performances in Toronto 1967, Denmark 1968, and PBS 1969. I like their Hollywood Bowl renditions better (different DVD) but these others are also good to see in the comfort of one's home. (Unlike a Doors Tribute concert I was at, where a drunk spilled beer on me, and the music loudness blasted three years off the life of my ears.)



The Doors Collection

4 stars of 5

Hollywood Bowl OK; less so the rest

Best part of the DVD is "Live at the Hollywood Bowl", a complete performance of the Doors' main repertoire, and very worth viewing. I don't like Morrison's screechy poetry, but there are musical passages of great delicacy. I also don't like repetitive music, but Ray Manzarek's keyboarding is an exception; he can go on stroking one or two notes for a long time, adding to suspense, rather than boredom. And Morrison's hammy staginess is sometimes fun to watch.

Most of the rest of the DVD is dispensable: a hodgepodge of Doors-y stuff: familiar audio tracks with unnecessary video; a couple of forgettable jr. artsy videos by Manzarek; and .an almost incoherent Doors interview smothered in clouds of cigarette smoke;

Too bad such great music emerges from such a drug-addled cesspool.



The Doors of the 21st Century: L.A. Woman Live

3 stars of 5

Admirable music; horrible editing

Live performance of their old classics by a resurrected group of The Doors, with two original members: Ray Manzarek, keyboards (my favorite), and Robby Krieger, guitar (also pretty good). Replacing Jim Morrison is Ian Astbury, whose performance is in a higher key, and less resonant. (Not that I like Morrison much either, who was too screechy for my taste.)

There is also a different drummer, plus bassist, who are almost non-persons. The credits are flashed so fast one must find out elsewhere who they are. (See "The Doors", Wikipedia, for a recap of infights among the latter-day group.)

The music is great, the DVD editing is horrible. There are no introductory titles, and no notion of who's who until the unreadably fast end-credits. No shot appears to last more than five seconds; many are only one or two seconds. There are no extra features except an useless set of stills. There is no way to return to the setup menu once the stills, or the main feature, are playing.

The music makes up for the awfulness of the DVD. If, like me, you have heard all the Doors albums, seen some other Doors DVDs and the Oliver Stone movie, and been to a couple of tribute bands (Lizard King, and Back Doors), then you enjoy the nuances of a different performance: in this case, more riffs, more curlicues, more glissandos. And despite the dreadful editing, at least one can get some idea of the artists at work: the main three, anyway.

Unfortunately, much of Manzarek's handiwork is seen from below keyboard-level, missing a lot of his talent. The grasshopper camera likewise misses much of Krieger. Astbury looks sullen but without Morrison's elan, and not worth watching. The light show is very distracting, and contributes nothing, IMHO.

But if you like The Doors, you'll like this, even if you wish the camera would quit its pep pills, and the old Doors could get their act together.

1972; 1992

1776: Restored Director's Cut

4 stars out of 5

Splendid ambience; worth watching twice
As a hybrid of drama, comedy, and musical, this film succeeds admirably, and conveys a realistic sense of the ambience of the Congress in the year 1776. Whatever the artistic license and historical abbreviations, the movie gives one a "you are there" sense of the political drama and maneuvering which led to the Declaration of Independence.

I for one don't count musicals among my favorite genres, but at least the songs here are few and far between. Most of them are mediocre, IMHO, except for a very dramatic, vividly orchestrated, and well-sung pro-slavery piece, "Molasses to Rum", by the South Carolina delegate, Rutledge. It is remarkable to watch the movie's portrayal of how Ben Franklin and others sold out the anti-slavery cause and helped take out the anti-slavery clause of the Declaration, in order to placate the southern states.

Let me remind viewers again to use the English subtitles, to help with dialogue and song lyrics. Also, the "special feature" on the DVD is a complete re-run of this very long movie, with a voice-over discussion by the director and writer. Since they drown out the dialogue, you can still read the subtitles. We learn, for example, that President Nixon, after a private showing, had prevailed upon the producer to remove an anti-conservative song, which segment was to be destroyed. The director many years later recovered that film, and restored it to this edition of "1776" along with other outtakes.

The newly restored "1776" is worth watching twice  — or even three times if you sit through the special-feature discussion.


Charlie Wilson’s War

4 stars of 5

Use English subtitles when watching it!
From Zip's summary: Story of the Texas congressman whose efforts to prevent the Red Army from overtaking Afghanistan eventually led to the collapse of the Soviet Union while simultaneously fueling the rise of radical Islam.
The thing you have to do with this DVD, is turn on the [English] subtitles! The repartee-dialogue is so ultra-fast and so mumbly I would have missed 2/3 of it without subtitles. Even then, my girlfriend and I watched this twice, in order to pick up nuances and throwaway lines. I agree with critics that Hoffman does the best acting here as a hard-charging CIA agent; but somehow I keep imagining James Garner, rather than Hanks, as Wilson (as in Garner's Americanization of Emily).

In the extras section, there are interview-snippets with the real Charlie Wilson and Joanne Herring.



4 stars of 5

OK, but needs narrator & cast of characters
GK summary: Tom Cruise's re-creation of Stauffenberg and the 1944 attempt to kill Hitler and overthrow the Nazi regime.
Script, acting, scenery, effects, etc., of Valkyrie were all pretty good, but this kind of movie very urgently could use (1) a narrator, a la Alistair Cooke, and (2) a cast of characters, with some screen excerpts of each one, and mention by the narrator of who each of these are, and their importance to the plot (in both senses of the word).

I for one am 68, and over the years have read various books touching on the events of 1944-07-20, but even now would need a refresher (and what about much younger viewers?): Who was Beck? Who was Goerdeler?* Et al. (For that matter, who was Adolf Heusinger, the general briefing Hitler as the bomb went off -- and who later became head of NATO's military committee, of all things?)

The narrator would describe the context, the earlier anti-Hitler plots, the major players, and who was covering up for the July 20 attempt. To avoid grossing out the audience, he could also mention the horrible piano-wire execution of the accused, which was barely alluded to in Valkyrie. Hitler ordered films of that shown to the officer corps, until they demanded a stop. The narrator could thus do both an introduction and a postscript in the movie.

I thought the Hitler character was somewhat lacklustre; he seemed to be portrayed more as a figurehead monarch than a hypnotic dictator.
*E.g., this kind of explanation (from Wikipedia): "Goerdeler was a monarchist conservative German politician, executive, economist, civil servant, and first a servant of and later an opponent of the Nazi regime. Had the 20 July plot of 1944 succeeded, Goerdeler would have served as the Chancellor of the new government."


Leonard Cohen: Live at the Isle of Wight 1970

3 stars of 5

Cohen better in 2008 than 1970
Leonard Cohen is another of my acquired tastes. When I first heard "Suzanne" 40 years ago I hated it for its pretentious poetry. But the song (and Cohen) have grown on me, even though I still don't like surrealistic poetry, nor the majority of his songs which are too slow and draggy. However, his best (including "Suzanne") outweigh the rest.

This "Isle of Wight" DVD came out in 2009, of his performance at a raucus, Woodstock-scale event in 1970. Meanwhile, I had just VCR'd a [2008] Cohen concert from PBS, "Live in London": a 38-year difference. At 78, Cohen is far better in his old age! The polish; the instrumentation; the stage presence (except for the ugly fedoras everyone is wearing): what an improvement, even though the words and melodies are much the same.

Still, one can enjoy the Isle of Wight DVD, albeit mainly as a contrast to the so much smoother, mellower 2008 Cohen.

(I likewise notice that the later-years Victor Borge is much better than his younger version.)

(PS: Charlie Daniels plays a fiddle riff with Cohen at Wight, but I'd never have guessed that's who it was.)


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