Film criticism by Ian Kay.

Short Reviews

Here is the place for me to write brief reviews and reactions to the films I do not have time to write more about.

July 2010

Nothing Sacred (1937) – Wellman; Chaotic and tinged with a bite (on the ankle of New York city), Carole Lombard and Fredric March get wrapped up in a media bonanza and fall in in love. None of it makes a whole lot of sense, the editing is choppy and the character actors are a little overplayed. But the two leads are charming and once the insanity picks up speed it doesn’t stop, making the brief (just over an hour) comedy effortless to watch. Almost incidentally it is also a parable, framing the absurd, false hype of fame and the callous, fickle reactions of New Yorkers.

Whatever Works (2009) – Allen; The first time I saw this movie I felt like it had a mean streak that didn’t sit quite right with me. But on second viewing I see that it is a sweet, ironic tale of a New York curmudgeon (with a mean streak) and the southern family with whom he collides.  It feels relatively claustrophobic and set-bound for an Allen picture (not a whole lot of New York in the background), but perhaps this serves to keep Larry David from seeming too similar to Woody himself.  Good fun.

June 2010

Burden of Dreams (1982) – Blank; For fans of Herzog this is an interesting if not exciting documentary of his work on the great film Fitzcarraldo. That film took years to make, as it was derailed several times by tribal wars, disease and logistical nightmares.  There is a desperate tone to this documentary; rather than painting Herzog as an eccentric artist, we instead see him as a stubborn, worried craftsman. We never really get a feel for why Herzog wants to make Fitzcarraldo. There is some reference to accomplishing dreams, but why this story and this location is Herzog’s dream is not addressed. Herzog’s manic monologues and the enormity of the challenges he faces make for a good show.

Couples Retreat (2009) –  Billingsley; Reprehensible.

May 2010

Call of the Wild (1935) – Wellman

Hot Tub Time Machine (2010) – Pink

Iron Man 2 (2010) – Favreau;  Same story, different hero. Downey and Cheadle provide enough charm and wit to keep the engines running, but other than a handful of fun references to the Avengers and Captain America and the introduction of Black Widow (Scarlett Johanson) and War Machine (Cheadle),  the movie is just a basketful of summer-time explosions and cliched bad guys. Too bad, really, as the first Iron Man and the newest Incredible Hulk movies avoided many of the usual superhero-flick pitfalls.

Panic in the Streets (1950) – Kazan

The Phantom of the Opera (1925) – Julian

Vidas Secas (1963) – dos Santos

April 2010

15 Minutes (2001) – Herzfeld; This is a cops-and-murderers thriller of the middling kind, where great actors like Robert De Niro show up to produce a little something out of nothing with a script that has a good premise lost underneath a lot of  garbage.

Night and the City (1950) – Dassin; A very solid piece of classic noir. The cinematography is far greater than the rest of the film, though, at times matching the intensity of The Third Man. The rest doesn’t match Reed’s great film, but it manages to be sharper than something like The Big Sleep (which is a lot of fun but short on bite). Richard Widmark is perfectly cast as a deluded and doomed petty criminal trying to make his way in a grotesque and ultra-savvy London underworld.  I doubt such a united underworld ever existed, in any city, but it certainly sets a dark landscape for Widmark to run around in.  Lots of double-crossing and murdering and a really good, tense wrestling match to boot.

The Spirit (2008) – Miller; In a very similar visual style as Sin City but without any of the texture, engaging characters (except for Sam Jackson’s “Octopus”) or intelligible plot lines.  Awful neo-noir dialogue that seems intended to be tongue-in-cheek is too flat and uninspired to produce a smile, let alone a laugh.  With all of the special effects flying around, the only impressive visual is Eva Mendes.

The Street with No Name (1948) – Keighley; A decent if superficial tough-guy picture kept lively by Richard Widmark’s charismatic bad guy. Mark Stevens as the hero is bizarrely smug and boring.  The 40’s style radio news narration is distracting, as it really sends home the corn of the times. There are are a few hardcore, tense scenes that are fun.

March 2010

Coraline (2009) – Selick; A masterfully animated version of Neil Gaiman’s creepy fable.  True to the story and the tone, I foresee this movie gaining a bigger reputation as time goes by.

Deconstructing Harry (1997) – Allen; Woody experimenting and largely succeeding. The short-story pieces are excellent and there are some very funny situations. Some of the scenes – and much of the editing, intentionally – has a terse anxiety to it that both honors the theme and makes for a handful of awkward viewing moments. There are plenty of obvious Bergman references and other Woody-isms that, as a fan, make it even more fun.

The Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) – Anderson; A delightful, animated version of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s book. Lots of celebrity voices (Clooney hams it up maybe a touch too much) and a nice measure of Wes Anderson’s muted, wry humor. Perhaps not as magical as some of the best of the Pixar movies, but nonetheless it is great fun.

The Insider (1999) – Mann; One of the great films of that decade. Marvelous performances from Crowe and Pacino, and Mann’s signature, visceral style does for this what Oliver Stone’s did for JFK (which is to say it was perfect for it).  One of my very favorite moments comes when attorney Ron Motley (played with controlled power by Bruce McGill) chews out Brown & Williamson’s leading  attorney . When he finishes his tirade with “Wipe that smirk off your face!”, you’ll want to cheer.

Leaves from Satan’s Book (1921) – Dreyer; Curious, tragic and epic, Dreyer tells the tale of Satan’s plight during four historic events spanning nineteen centuries.

New York, I Love You (2009) – various directors; A fine collection of short films, seemlessly edited together in an attempt to give the impression of unity. Some of the shorts are immediately forgettable, but a few are quite excellent: the artist and the Chinese woman (Ugur Ucel and Qi Shu), the scenes with Ethan Hawke, and the two thieves stealing from each other (Andy Garcia and Hayden Christensen).

Nights of Cabiria (1957) – Fellini; If I had to save just three of Fellini’s films from a fire, I might very well grab this one (along with La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2? I don’t know!) Anyhow, Giulietta Masina is mesmerizing as a fiery, independent, unhappy street walker. Fellini does not indulge, does not over-emphasize symbols and allows the character to unfold in front of us. Yet his signature shadows and “anything could happen” atmosphere are still present. A great movie.

State of Play (2009) – Macdonald; An entertaining, cliched, predictable thriller with good performances by Russell Crowe, Jason Bateman and Ben Affleck.

February 2010

CHAPLIN SHORTS  – Easy Street (1917), The Count (1916), The Vagabond (1916) – love and loneliness, fifteen years before City Lights, The Fireman (1916) – some excellent physical stunts, Behind the Screen (1917)

Fired Up! (2009) – Gluck;  another generic B-comedy with cheerleaders. Eric Christian Olsen is very funny (he’s pretty gifted with the ad-lib) and his tandem moves with D’Agosto are enough to make the movie worth a (cheap) rent.

Fletch (1985) and Fletch Lives (1989) – Ritchie; Chevy Chase at the top of his game. Tons of fun and hilarious one-liners. Decent vehicles for a funny guy.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009) – Yates; Another excellent entry into the series; far more mature and involved than previous films and significantly true to the book.  Outstanding cinematography. My first Blu-ray movie.

The Seventh Seal (1957) – Bergman; One of the great films; First time seeing it on Blu-ray. Phenomenal clarity and improved subtitling.

Superman II: The Richard Donner cut (2006) – Donner; A big improvement on the theatrical release; now an excellent partner to the first Superman movie.

January 2010

Avatar (2009) – Cameron;  Very impressed with the effects, disappointed with the derivative plot (though am I really surprised?).


  • The Adventurer (1917) – One of his most frenetically paced shorts (and that’s saying something). My favorite gag was a switched wine glass that is almost impossible to see unless seen in slo-mo.
  • The Immigrant (1917) – Loved it.  A hint of the emotional side of some of his later work.
  • The Rink (1917) – It was fun to see Chaplin demonstrating his roller-skating tricks. Otherwise rather average (for Chaplin).

One Week (1920) – Buster Keaton – Fantastic and clever.  The stunts are still awe-inspiring.

The Red Badge of Courage (1951) – Huston;  It is sometimes hard for me to get past expository narration, and here it alternately enhances and distracts from the story.  I suppose I’d rather lose the few advantages of the narration in favor of the raw scenes. Anyhow, it is still a solid, well-photographed war movie.  Layered shots and effective closeups more than make up for some of the dated acting.

Vampyr (1932) – Dreyer;  Creepy, dream-like and mildly confusing. Dreyer made this all about atmosphere. Amazing effects for the time, and a truly chilling slowly-opened door during an early scene. Not great, but certainly worth seeing, especially for horror fans.

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