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Serial Review


Extraordinary
Martin Mull is a little-remembered comedian of the '70s and '80s, best known for TV's Fernwood 2-Night and the HBO series The History of White People in America (with collaborator Fred Willard, since then a fixture in Christopher Guest movies). Mull achieved greatness only with Serial, an underrated mainstream comedy with moments of Albert Brooks-like social satire.

Based on a novel by Cyra McFadden about the wacky California hot-tub culture of the late '70s, Serial expanded on the novel's Marin County setting to skewer the entire decadent nation. Mull plays a working stiff whose wife (Tuesday Weld, in an excellent performance) leaves him to find herself. His teenage daughter joins a cult, and Mull tries to adapt to a single lifestyle while wanting his family back. The supporting characters include a psychologist (Peter Bonerz) who encourages Mull's best friend to drown himself in the Bay to achieve oneness with the universe, and Tom Smothers as a hippie priest who begins a wedding by apologizing for being part of a society that "kills whales."

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Once Upon a Time in America Review


Weak
I'm as big a fan of misogyny as the next guy, but how did this hateful and often tasteless Godfather ripoff become a classic? What, just because it's four hours long? Robert De Niro and James Woods are never hard to watch, but even here their take on Jewish gangsters in New York from 1900 to 1960 or so wears awfully thin as they brutalize one woman after another and get into the kind of mobster scrapes you've seen in upteen other movies. And after the top names, the talent roster is pretty thin. Treat Williams? Elizabeth McGovern?

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The Five Pennies Review


OK
Louis Armstrong's appearance here -- as himself -- is The Five Pennies' real draw, though Danny Kaye, Barbara Bel Geddes, and the rest of the cast turn in admirable performances in this biopic of relatively obscure jazz trumpeter Loring "Red" Nichols. Nichols has quite the turbulent life story -- starting his own popular jazz combo (the titular Five Pennies) after pissing off every band leader in New York, only to have it all crash down on him when his daughter develops polio. During WWII he works as a shipyard laborer before bouncing back again for a bittersweet finale. While Kaye is perfectly fine in the lead, the story of Nichols just isn't on par with the life of some of music's greats. The combination of career self-destruction and simple bad luck are just a little too spurious to make for a classic movie.

Feeling Minnesota Review


Unbearable
In case you've been wondering, Feeling Minnesota is a film "inspired by a line in a Soundgarden song." This little fun fact is about as interesting as the film ever gets, and the wary moviegoer is well-advised to limit his Minnesota experience to looking at a poster for the film in the movie theater's lobby. And even then, you shouldn't look at the poster for very long.

As near as I can tell, this is the story of Jjaks (Keanu Reeves, and no that's not a typo), his brother Sam (Vincent D'Onofrio, "Gomer Pyle" from Full Metal Jacket), and Sam's slutty new wife Freddie (Cameron Diaz). Everyone's pretty miserable (ostensibly having something to do with their humdrum Minnesota existence). And Sam and Jjaks fight a lot (ostensibly over Freddie).

Continue reading: Feeling Minnesota Review

Once Upon a Time in America Review


Weak
I'm as big a fan of misogyny as the next guy, but how did this hateful and often tasteless Godfather ripoff become a classic? What, just because it's four hours long? Robert De Niro and James Woods are never hard to watch, but even here their take on Jewish gangsters in New York from 1900 to 1960 or so wears awfully thin as they brutalize one woman after another and get into the kind of mobster scrapes you've seen in upteen other movies. And after the top names, the talent roster is pretty thin. Treat Williams? Elizabeth McGovern?

Continue reading: Once Upon a Time in America Review

Falling Down Review


Excellent
Falling Down proved in 1993 that Joel Schumacher can make a good movie if he tries. A minor cult favorite, Falling Down tells the simple story of a guy (Michael Douglas) trying to get home from work... only he's been laid off, he gets stuck in traffic, he can't order breakfast, his wife refuses to let him see his kid, and... well, and our anti-hero snaps, resulting in a manhunt led by last-day-on-the-job cop Robert Duvall. Two interesting characters intertwine while a raucous and wry adventure develops underneath them. Quite a fascinating and original work of art.

Looking for Mr. Goodbar Review


Excellent
It takes a strong stomach to see Annie Hall playing a wanton slut of a woman, left behind by the sexual revolution. Nonetheless, Diane Keaton pulled a 180 in this gritty drama, about a schoolteacher for the deaf who experiments with drugs and (more importantly) wild sex, during the era of free love. Overflowing with symbolism and hopelessly depressing, this one is a true eye-opener. If you think you know Ms. Keaton -- you don't, until you've seen this one.

The Cincinnati Kid Review


Extraordinary
A fairly obvious attempt to make The Hustler of poker, with Steve McQueen playing the role of Fast Eddie (McQueen and Newman were rival screen heroes at the time). The Cincinnati Kid artistically falls just short of that standard -- the characters are not as fully developed as in The Hustler -- but it's just as much fun, and one of McQueen's best films.

McQueen is the Kid, a young card player who believes he is the best in the country. Edward G. Robinson is the Man, the aging veteran that McQueen must knock off his pedestal. McQueen is cocky, confident, appealing, and fundamentally decent; Robinson is complex and opaque, with one of the greatest poker faces in cinema. The inevitable showdown between the two is a battle of wills and nerve which lasts a night, most of the next day and another night.

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Chelsea Walls Review


OK
New York living is all about location. And where you live is often a sign of your lifestyle. If you live in Brooklyn, it is assumed you are more artistically inclined then, say, someone living in Queens (though this borough is making a comeback with its cheap rent). But the most notorious creative residence in all of New York has been the Chelsea Hotel, as far back as anyone can remember. Boasting such notable alumni as Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and Bob Dylan, there is still a laidback, comfortably scrappy atmosphere about the place when you walk by.

Ethan Hawke (Training Day) courageously attempts to capture the essence of what makes this landmark so addictive in his directorial debut, Chelsea Walls. A collage of character plotlines that only barely intersect, Chelsea is a unique and respectable experiment in its focus on an inanimate object as its central character. Backed by a score that appropriately feels as if it were written while observing the production, Hawke creates an environment easily accessible to both New Yorkers and the non-initiated.

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Thief Review


Extraordinary
Director Michael Mann's first movie was this, the often-overlooked Thief (before his stint on Miami Vice), about a professional safecracker (Caan) and his biggest job ever... and the gangsters that he finds himself working for.

Essentially remade as Heat in 1995, Thief doesn't just focus on the job, it focuses also on the man. Caan's criminal is complex and troubled, with a sterile wife (Weld) and a dying friend (Nelson) he wants to remember. Good guys and bad guys have never been harder to peg, which is why Thief is so much fun, filled with nuance and subtlety not often found among caper flicks.

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Chelsea Walls Review


OK

For an actor directing his first movie, Ethan Hawke has remarkable patience and an intrinsic knack for creating personal, intimate, candid, lingering moments between well-drawn characters in "Chelsea Walls."

This film is composed of handful of interwoven vignettes about denizens, new and old, of New York's Chelsea Hotel -- a legendary (and now somewhat unkempt) residential haunt of artists, poets and other Bohemians for more than a century. It is a film in which body language and unspoken human intercourse play a much more important role than dialogue, which often reveals its meaning only through the context of a scene.

Adapted by Nicole Burdette from her own off-Broadway play of the same name, "Chelsea Walls" opens with a pair of cops arriving at the hotel to investigate a suicide, then the camera wanders into another room to discover a pair of lovers whose passionate but ill-starred relationship has run its course. A leathery, hard-living writer (Kris Kristofferson) is trying to gently dismiss an uptown woman (Natasha Richardson) who wishes she had the will power to stop visiting, of her own accord, the musty Chelsea apartment he keeps darkened with forever drawn shades to better cope with his chronic hangovers.

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