“A Fish Called Wanda”–1988

Starring: John Cleese, Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Kline
Written By: John Cleese
Directed By: Charles Crichton

***1/2 (out of 4)

Take 2 Pythons (Monty), an a aquarium of fish, a diamond heist, and a brilliant mix of British and American humor, and you’ve got one of the best comedies of 1988  with “A Fish Called Wanda.”

George, a London gangster, is planning a diamond heist and  recruits two Americans, Wanda(Jamie Lee Curtis) and her lover Otto (who poses as her brother) to help. The theft goes well, and they diamonds are hid safely away. Both George and the two Americans want the loot for themselves, so Wanda and Otto (Kevin Kline) have George arrested. George, of course, has already hidden away the diamonds before he is sent to jail. So, a mad chase begins.

Wanda sets her sights on George’s barrister, Archie (John Cleese), and attempts to woo him in hopes of finding where the diamonds are. Otto,  jealous, continually disrupts these attempts, nearly ruining any chance of claiming the diamonds.

You don’t have to be a fan of Monty Python to enjoy this film, as there is plenty of American humor for most viewers to get enjoyment out of it. But Python fans will be plenty satisfied as well, thanks to a madcap script and performance by John Cleese, and Michael Palin’s hapless, stuttering Ken, George’s right hand man. Kevin Kline won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance, and Jamie Lee Curtis sparkles with chemistry with both Cleese and Kline.

Diamond heists are nothing new in movies, but they’re rarely this funny.


“Citizen Kane”–1941

Starring: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten
Written By: Orson Welles & Herman J. Mankiewicz
Directed By: Orson Welles
**** (out of 4)

Rosebud.  One man’s dying word, the one thing in his life he lost, and was never able to get back. An investigative reporter attempts to find the secret behind the mystery of newspaper tycoon Charles Foster Kane’s mysterious dying word in the classic 1941 “Citizen Kane,” written, directed and starring Orson Welles. “It’ll probably turn out to be a very simple thing,” it is said of Rosebud. Rosebud itself may be simple, but trying to solve the mystery is quite a jigsaw puzzle.

It’s been consistently called the greatest movie ever made, twice topping the American Film Institute’s top 100 American Films list. It is unquestionably an incredibly deserving picture, brilliantly crafted both in its writing and its visuals. If for no other reason, “Citizen Kane” deserves notice for its groundbreaking visual style, using deep focus, as well as its low angle shots, thereby allowing the ceiling to be visible.

The film is certainly notable for the impact it would have on almost everything that followed it, and every viewing brings something new to my appreciation of it. All the elements work flawlessly to create what is certainly one of the most fascinating films ever made. As for it being the greatest film ever made? It’s hard to argue with it, and it keeps me coming back for repeated viewings once or twice a year, so it’s doing something right.

In Memoriam – Sidney Lumet (via Ars Sacra)

Sad news, especially having just revisited his fine debut film, “12 Angry Men”.

In Memoriam - Sidney Lumet Sidney Lumet (June 25, 1924 – April 9, 2011), stage, television, and film director. Sidney Lumet was one of the most prolific and acclaimed film directors in movie history. He was born in Philadelphia and studied acting at Columbia University. After military service in World War II, he returned to New York and became involved with the Actors' Studio. As a result, he frequently cast "method" actors for his films. After starting as a director in of … Read More

via Ars Sacra

“12 Angry Men”-1957

Starring: Henry Fonda
Written By: Reginald Rose
Directed By: Sidney Lumet

* * * * (out of 4)

I first came across “12 Angry Men” a decade ago as a high school freshman  in Civics class. It immediately struck me as extremely fascinating and engrossing back then, and it stuck with me for a long time afterwards. It quickly became one of my absolute favorite films. Top notch performances from all 12 actors, a flawless script, and attentive direction make “12 Angry Men” truly one of the finest films ever made.

A young man is on trial for murdering his father. The evidence against him clearly points to his guilt. An old man who lived in the apartment below them says to have heard the killing, and to have seen the boy run out just seconds afterwards. An old who lived across the street says she saw the killing from her bedroom window. The switchblade knife used in the murder is uniquely designed, and known to have been in the boy’s possession.

The fate of the boy is in the hands of 12 jurors. Retiring to the jury room, the men take a quick ballot of what should be an open and shut case—The boy is obviously guilty. 11 men quickly raise their hand to vote the boy guilty. One juror holds out. He doesn’t necessarily think that the boy is innocent, but he does not feeling right about sending the boy off to be executed without at least discussing it first. They soon re-examine all the evidence, and start to find some new revelations that may find the boy innocent.

Reginald Rose’s “12 Angry Men” is simple, yet fascinating and deeply captivating film. Taking place virtually in real time, the film is a wonderful case study of personal prejudices, perspectives, and backgrounds and the way they cloud our judgment.

First time film director Sidney Lumet uses the camera like a seasoned pro. He has  a great handle on how to use the space of the jury room, and his camera placement and framing adds a graceful power to the proceedings.  Often times, the camera is just an observer, letting several portions play out in an extended single take. (Look at the opening scene in the jury room– Including the opening credits, the shot runs as a single take uninterrupted for just over 6 and a half minutes.)

Henry Fonda shines as Juror No. 8, the lone hold-out on the first vote. The rest of the casting is fantastic, as well,  including Martin Balsam, John Fiedler, Lee J. Cobb, E.G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Edward Binns, Jack Warden, Joseph Sweeney, Ed Begley(Sr.), George Voskovec, and Robert Webber. You simply could not ask for better casting all around.

I’ve seen several other versions of this material, including the 1997 TV remake with Jack Lemmon and George C. Scott, and a touring stage production starring Richard Thomas, but none of them have ever matched the experience of watching this film. It is one of the finest films ever made. I never grow tired of it. All of the elements work exceptionally well–the script, the performances, the cinematography. It is, in a word, perfect.

“The King of Comedy”-1983

Starring: Robert DeNiro, Jerry Lewis, Sandra Bernhard
Written By: Paul D. Zimmerman
Directed By: Martin Scorsese

* * * 1/2 (out of 4)

“The King of Comedy” is a pretty good comedy….sort of. Black comedy is probably a more accurate description. But it is a very good film. It deals with celebrity stalking, and how far one will go to get what he wants. It is extremely entertaining, and has a purely awesome performance from Robert DeNiro as stalker Rupert Pupkin.

Rupert Pupkin is one intriguing character. I admire his drive and determination in his simple goal, to be on the Jerry Langford’s (Jerry Lewis) show, which he thinks will launch his comedy career. At the same time, he takes obsession to a whole new level, and that got on my nerves a little. But I never grew to hate him. He is utterly likeable and charming, which is both a strength and weakness. It makes what he does acceptable and understandable, but we never truly feel any sort of threat from him. That at least keeps the film grounded comedically, but prevents it from being even greater.

The enjoyment one gets out of “The King of Comedy” is based upon one’s reaction to Pupkin. You can either sympathize with him, and forgive him a little, and even like him. Or, you will be completely turned off by his neurotic, overly obsessed nature. I had a little bit of both reactions, but it is so carefully and wonderfully played by Robert DeNiro that I never hated the guy. What he does may be creepy, but he is never creepy. And that’s important. Unlike Jim Carrey’s stalker in 1996’s “The Cable Guy”, Pupkin is a someone I was actually interested in spending 90 minutes with.

“The King of Comedy” is effective in both its drama and its comedy. It has a nice build up of suspense, and an effective payoff. An important part of the success of the film is in its payoff. It did make me laugh, so therefore it was a satisfying conclusion. But I had to ask if it was it all worth it? I’m not sure that it was for the resolution we are presented with.  Still, the film is fascinating and highly entertaining, and well worth a look.

“The Cable Guy”–1996

Starring: Jim Carrey, Matthew Broderick
Written By: Lou Holtz, Jr.
Directed By: Ben Stiller

* 1/2 (out of 4)

“The Cable Guy” would make a great thriller or horror film. Unfortunately, it does not make a great comedy. Jim Carrey’s eponymous character, Chip, is a creepy, unsettling, unrelenting stalker. After a while, the mere sight of him started to wear on me. And, he’s got a good 80-90 % of the screen time.

It’s all in the approach to the character. Carrey takes the Adam Sandler route and gives his character a strange voice and awkward mannerisms. Sandler can pull it off, because there’s usually a genuine niceness to his characters. Carrey is, I guess, supposed to creep us out while making us laugh. He got the creepiness right. But he doesn’t have a single joke, so he’s never funny. His character has seen WAY too much television, and has almost no social skills.  He acts goofy, but there’s a big difference between acting funny and being funny, and Carrey isn’t funny here.

The plot finds Steve (Matthew Broderick), an architect who has just broken up with his girlfriend, Robin(Leslie Mann) by prematurely proposing marriage. He moves into a new apartment, and waits all day for the cable guy to show up. When he finally does, Steve takes his friends’(Jack Black) advice and tries to bribe the cable guy to get free movie channels. The cable guy takes an instant liking to Steve, and wants to be friends. Steve reluctantly (and stupidly) accepts. He soon regrets it, because Chip never leaves him alone, and basically stalks him. He gives Steve a complete entertainment system upgrade. And Chip, inexplicably, insists on trying to help get Steve back together with Robin.

There is also a funny, yet sadly small side-plot featuring director Ben Stiller as a one time child star accused of killing his twin brother. Owen Wilson also has a cameo, and I think this may be the first time I was glad to see Owen Wilson in anything.

The film fails miserably as a comedy. The film expects you to laugh at Carrey, but he doesn’t do anything all that funny, and there’s not a single comedic situation set-up. You’re just supposed to laugh at his shtick. I didn’t. The film’s last shot insinuates that what we just experienced was supposed to be fun in some way, as it’s about to happen all over again. I think it assumed that Chip is somehow a likeable character. He isn’t.

Had the film not been approached as a comedy, it may have had something. As it is, though, I didn’t laugh, and that’s the biggest sin a comedy can commit.

“The Big Lebowski”-1998

Starring: Jeff Bridges,  John Goodman
Written and Directed By: Joel and Ethan Coen

* * (out of 4)

I count myself as a fan of the Coen Brothers films. I like their writing, I like their characters, I like their visual style. They have made some crazy ideas for films somehow work.

By the time the Coen Brothers made “The Big Lebowski” in 1998, they already had 6 films to their credit, having most recently made what is still their best film, “Fargo”.  They had enough success, and built up enough goodwill with their audiences that they could get away with some things that other filmmakers couldn’t.

I fear that the usually reliable Coen Brothers got too caught up in that creative and artistic free license when they made “The Big Lebowski.” It is a somewhat polarizing film that has the familiar quirkiness of previous Coen Brothers films, but relies far too heavily on style over substance. It is often a very funny movie, but it never begins to make any sense, or have any meaning. It’s a very strang movie, and you either buy into it, and enjoy it for its zaniness,  or you don’t. I bought into it, at least for its story and its characters, but I didn’t quite get the zaniness. I think the film is an exercise in pure style, and that just didn’t work.

Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski (Bridges) comes home to find two thugs waiting for him and saying his wife owes them money, and one of them urinates on The Dude’s rug, (which disappoints him because the rug “really pulled the room together.”) They quickly realize they’ve got the wrong Lebowski, and leave. The Dude goes looking for the other Jeff Lebowki (David Huddleston), hoping to get compensated for his soiled rug. Later, when the other Lebowski’s trophy wife is kidnapped, The Dude is recruited as an intermediary to negotiate her safe return.

The Dude’s also an avid bowler, and spends a lot of time down at the bowling alley with Walter(Goodman), a grizzled Vietnam vet who advises on what to do about his current problem, and Donnie (Steve Buscemi), a timid little shrimp who can hardly get three words out without being told by Walter to shut up.

The character of The Dude is an interesting study. I can buy into the idea of him, and Jeff Bridges plays it perfectly. He is a idol for many fans of this film, though whether its his philosophy or his lifestyle or both is unclear to me. I suppose I can understand the appeal of The Dude, but I think what it comes down to is that his life is not mine, it is not one that I aspire to, and while a character like that may be fine as a supporting role, I find it difficult to stick with him for 2 hours.

This was my second viewing of “The Big Lebowski,” and I think I liked it less than the first time I watched it, and I didn’t overly enjoy that time either.  I have really tried to like this film, but keep coming back to the same thing–this film is an experiment in pure style. I enjoy the Coen Brothers style, but what made their previous films work was some substance that makes the film worth watching. I have yet to find that in this film.

The Coen Brothers can do so much better than this. “The Big Lebowski”  feels like a wannabe ripoff of what has made their previous films work. It’s sort of like a weird crossing of “Raising Arizona” and “Fargo”. They got the style right, but never do anything interesting with it.