I came upon the 1996 Edition of Roger Ebert’s Video Companion, probably something I picked up at a Library Used Book Sale years ago. Here are the comments on the movies I’ve seen. We start with the entries under A.
Titles in bold letters: Seen by Me; otherwise, not seen or only partly seen
Numbers in parenthesis: Star Ratings by Roger Ebert
Numbers in brackets: My Ratings
About Last Night (4) [2½] – 1986
Given the general state of movies, critics tend to overrate anything halfway decent. David Mamet’s play Sexual Perversity in Chicago is a distillation of attitudes, suitable for the stage centered on dialogue. No wonder then the ‘adaptation’ is more developed(or filled-in) in terms of narrative and personality. But Edward Zwick didn’t so much flesh out thinly conceived characters as graft Mametics onto the Romance formula of love-at-first-sight, tenderness, heartache, and reconciliation. Demi Moore and Rob Lowe, then in their physical prime, are lightweight but have a certain appeal.
Absence of Malice (3) – 1981
The Accidental Tourist (4) – 1988
Only caught parts of The Accidental Tourist, one of those ‘intelligent’ and ‘sensitive’ works catering mainly to the female audience. Based on an Anne Tyler novel and directed by boomer forger of ‘respectability’ and ‘meaning’, Lawrence Kasdan.
The Accompanist (3½) – 1994
I vaguely remember watching this upon release. One of those respectable European Art House films. Good but not very memorable.
The Accused (3) – 1988
Message Movies aren’t my thing, and I stayed clear of this one. It certainly made Jodie Foster transition from a ‘child star’ to an adult actress.
Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1) – 1994
Jim Carrey, funny guy but unbearably obnoxious.
The Addams Family (2) – 1991
Addams Family Values (3) – 1993
One of the direst trends in the 1990s was the rush to adapt long-forgotten TV shows into movies. But why? That stuff was made for the small screen for a reason: it wasn’t good enough for the big screen. Never saw Addams Family on TV and don’t care to see the movie versions.
The Adjuster (3) – 1992
Before Atom Egoyan degraded into a second rate sensationalist(and third-rate propagandist for whatever is trendily PC), he was one of the quirkiest figures on the Art House scene, comparable to fellow Canadian David Cronenberg. The Adjuster, which I have yet to watch, was made when he was still at the top of his game.
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (3) – 1989
Within his limited but real talents, Terry Gilliam might have made a decent filmmaker, but his oversized ambition to be the next Welles and Fellini(and dozen other masters) led him to delusional projects of increasing monstrosity. Gilliam’s failures are more the products of overweening infantilism than overreaching imagination, thereby lacking in even the nobility of failure. What for Welles was a metaphor(cinema as a train set) has been a literal truth for Gilliam. Cinema is just one big toyhouse. He hankers to be regarded as a misunderstood visionary, even a genius. He’s really a big baby whose childish antics grew tiresome.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (3) – 1993
The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (2½) – 1994
The Adventures of Priscilla was remade, if my memory serves me correctly, into To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar! Both were made when the idea of transvestism ranged from amusing to ridiculous, something to chuckle about rather than buckle under. How times have changed.
After Hours (4) [3½] – 1985
Despite Raging Bull’s burst out of the starting gate, the 80s were generally not a good period for Martin Scorsese. The King of Comedy was estimable, at the very least provocative, but many found it too dark for comedy and/or too light for psycho-drama(about a lunatic, the likes of whom nearly killed Andy Warhol and really killed John Lennon). Still, the film was onto something about the porous boundaries between the real and the unreal in a celebrity-saturated culture where famous stars enter into the lives of millions through the TV set, indeed as if every star is a family member and everyone is a star, or at least a friend of one. In this climate, what is real and unreal? (Today, we can’t even tell what a woman is, and the Zelensky spectacle makes Rupert Pupkin seem downright somber in comparison.) Scorsese had more success with After Hours, also a blend of humor and horror, because it is simpler on the responses. We know when to laugh, when to shudder. Besides, the neuroses and pathologies on display are relatively kid-stuff, even self-congratulatory(as in “Aren’t we New Yorkers so lovably off-the-wall crazy?”, i.e., the denizens of a city too batty to fall asleep). Thus, it never gets under the skin like The King of Comedy does. Based on a thesis by a film-student, it’s lightweight Scorsese, more a sparring session than a full engagement in the ring. But nice moves and fancy footwork.
After the Rehearsal (4) – 1984
Still haven’t caught up with this Ingmar Bergman film. But then, he did name Fanny and Alexander as his final work(as director).
Against All Odds (3) – 1984
Act One is one long Mexican travelogue, and Act Two gets lost in a convoluted plot with a double-or-maybe-triple-cross. But then, Phil Collins’ title song(titanic power ballad) plays with the end titles, and the movie doesn’t seem so bad after all on second thought. What a difference a song makes.
Age of Innocence (4) – 1993
1993 was one of the best years in film, and Scorsese’s contribution added to his stellar record for the whole decade(with Goodfellas, Casino, and Kundun; even parts of Bringing Out the Dead). Comparable to Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons, it was Scorsese’s directorial venture into uncharted territory in terms of style and tone. Though Scorsese’s perspective is that of an enchanted outsider(contra Luchino Visconti with The Leopard), what an eye for detail and keenness of duration(of reality as felt in another time and place). Its fatal flaw is Michelle Pfeiffer in the role of Countess Olenska, whose coquettish demeanor had me wondering what exactly about her got the fella’s head spinning. She is even less exciting than Winona Ryder’s character as a socialite dullard.
Airplane! (3) – 1980
If you have a lot of darts, some will hit the bull’s eye. Zucker Brothers and Jim Abrams had a big sack of darts and threw them all(and then the sack and kitchen sink to boot) until the dart board crashed through the other side of the wall. The sheer level of insanity from start to finish is perhaps the most amazing since the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup, or at least Woody Allen’s Take the Money and Run. Utterly infantile but inspired.
Airport (2) – 1970
Airport 75 (2½) – 1975
Airport(or was it Earthquake?) may have set off the disaster movie craze of the 1970s. Mostly a worthless(and wasteful) genre(though Cassandra Crossing and Towering Inferno are okay), but it did inspire Airplane!(and the overlooked Big Bus, which came out earlier).
Aladdin (3) – 1993
Alex in Wonderland (4) – 1971
Federico Fellini on the set of 8½ had seven and half movies under his belt and international renown as an ‘auteur’. When Paul Mazursky embarked on a similarly semi-autobiographical Alex in Wonderland, he’d completed one short and one feature film. In other words, he hadn’t paid his dues to even ponder the crisis of creative exhaustion, let alone his place in the film firmament.
Alice (3) [2½] – 1990
Featherweight Woody Allen pic made on a whim.
Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (4)
A Woman’s Film done raw, short on sentimentality and heavy on vulgarity. As a piece of New Hollywood realism, it surely owes a thing or two to John Cassavetes. I’d rather have Joan Crawford or The Bad News Bears. (Pet peeve: People getting sloppy with food.) The TV spin-off was more fun: “Kiss my grits.”
Aliens (3½) [2½] – 1986
James Cameron’s sequel to Alien is essentially Rambo-In-Outerspace. Not bad for a shoot-em-up but ultimately no less deadening than Stallone’s bonehead outing.
Alien3 (1½) [3½] – 1992
A much underappreciated Alien sequel, the only one I care for in the entire series. Its theme is as fittingly demented as the visuals and further explores the relative condition of alien-ness. David Fincher’s mastery stands far above the rest, all the more impressive as top directors were involved in the franchise.
Alive (2½) – 1993
All Dogs Go to Heaven (3) – 1989
All of Me (3½) – 1984
All the President’s Men (3½) [3½] – 1976
Oliver Stone claims to have been riveted by Alan Pakula’s film of Woodward-and-Bernstein as Holmes-and-Watson hot on the trail of the Watergate Scandal, that is until he learned most of it is hogwash. Being ignorant of the details surrounding Watergate, I can only comment on the film-making, which is terrific. A worthy addition to the Paranoid Cinema of the time, albeit with the advantage of being based on actual events. It’d be nice to believe the film offer a glimpse into a moment in history when journalism mattered and made a difference(as opposed to now with the total corporatization of big media), but Pat Buchanan has suggested that Watergate itself was a deep state coup, in which Washington Post played a less than principled role.
All the Right Moves (3) – 1983
Released in the same year as Risky Business(which made Tom Cruise a household name), All the Right Moves is a lesser work but features the newly minted star expanding his persona and working hard at it. Already, he sensed he could not rest on his laurels and had to fight for every inch. Not much of a role but Cruise gives it his all, good training for bigger challenges down the road, such as Born on the 4th of July. The energy(and earnestness) on display here came to define his entire career.
All the Vermeers in New York (3) – 1992
Altered States (3½) [2½] – 1980
What might Stanley Kubrick, or even David Cronenberg, have done with Altered States? Such promising material about psychedelics and anthropology(which merged in the Sixties), but in the hands of Ken Russell, just batshit crazy. Nancy Reagan was far more economical: “Just Say No to Drugs”. (Like Milos Forman’s Hair, it was a film out of time.)
Always (2) – 1989
Minor Spielberg but nice. As the story goes, Spielberg and Richard Dreyfus discovered to their surprise that their favorite movie happens to be the same: A Guy Named Joe. As remakes go, it’s on par with Warren Beatty’s Heaven Can Wait(based on Here Comes Mr. Jordan). At the very least, a worthy valentine to what Holly Hunter once possessed in spades as an actress, so full of spunk and sparkle… that is until she skanked herself out in the rancid Piano by the flaky Jane Campion.
Amadeus (4) – 1984
There’s much that is wondrous about Milos Forman’s adaptation, but all said and done, it goes for the lowest common denominator in its pop conception of Mozart(and classical music in general). By the evidence of this film, Mozart was the greatest composer of his era(and maybe of all time) because he had a knack for catchy melodies and coy improvisation. It’s been said in the pop music industry that nothing is harder than composing a catchy tune, the essence of hit songs. But surely there’s more to classical music than conjuring instantly infectious melodies; Mozart was more than the Neil Sedaka of his age.
To be fair, the film draws a distinction between the brilliant but frivolous Mozart, capable of cranking out any number of pleasant ditties, and the dark & tragic Mozart haunted by deeper passions. But Tom Hulce isn’t up to the task, what with his Mozart mostly registering as a missing member of the Monkees. And, his performance is as overshadowed by F. Murray Abraham’s(hammy as it is) as Salieri’s music is by Mozart’s. Possibly the biggest flaw of the film is to diminish Mozart’s peers as a bunch of poseurs and mediocrities. Obviously meant to highlight Mozart as a giant among dwarfs, it actually diminishes him as well: He comes across not so much as The Champ among champions but the good over the bad. How better it would have been if Salieri was given his due as an excellent composer but Mozart was even greater.
Amarcord (4) – 1974
Following his crowning achievement with 8½, Fellini wandered into the wilderness of boundless self-indulgence. Characters, plot, themes, and other conventions of storytelling became peripheral, secondary to his dreams and whimsy. So, it was with a sigh of relief that the critical community received(and over-valued) Amarcord as a kind of return to form, with some semblance of a plot with peoples and places. Still, the juice was gone, and Amarcord is at best a piece of dried fruit. The sets look more like artifice than artifacts of memory. The characters don’t rise above caricatures. Sadly, with the possible exception of And the Ship Sails On, it was Fellini’s last notable work. It also proved to be a respite than a return as he reverted to his bad habits on the subsequent works.
Amateur (2½) – 1995
American Dream (4) – 1992
American Gigolo (3½) – 1980
To better appreciate the role of the director and cinema as a cooperative art, consider the problems of American Gigolo. Though Paul Schader was a competent director, he was not a great one. (Also true of John Milius.) Consider what Scorsese was able to do with Schrader’s screenplays. Had Scorsese or a film-maker of comparable talent directed American Gigolo, there would have ensued a back-and-forth dialectic between writer and director as mutual corrective and inspiration. American Gigolo is all Schrader(as Neon Bresson) with his blinders on and succumbs to his narrow obsessions, much like Sam Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. At the very least, it made Richard Gere a movie star.
American Graffiti (4) [3½]
A landmark New Hollywood film(for commercial than artistic reasons) that harked back to the early 60s before the shit really hit the fan. In light of George Lucas’s trajectory with the success of Star Wars, there’s been the question of what might have been had he stuck with personal film-making, the kind that led to THX-1138 and American Graffiti and was preparing for Apocalypse Now? Given Lucas’s choice of the ‘dark side’ of power and fortune, American Graffiti has gathered a certain mythic poignancy of a dream betrayed, not unlike Ben Kenobi’s tragic sense regarding Annikin. Upon closer inspection, American Graffiti, like THX-1138, is better with machines than mankind(and in this sense a logical precursor to Star Wars). It is also spotty and uneven, especially in the pacing, though ultimately the boyish qualities of charm(Paul LeMat), menace(Harrison Ford), and yearning(Richard Dreyfus) pull it through. Despite its ‘radical’ New Hollywood credentials, it coasts on nostalgia and yearning for lost innocence.
American Me (3½) – 1992
An American Tale: Fievel Goes West (2½) – 1992
An American Werewolf in London (2) [2½] – 1981
If old horror movies done in earnest to frighten later came to seem tame and even unintentionally funny, An American Werewolf in London goes full throttle on state-of-the-art gore but for laughs, which makes it a singularly queasy experience. The ‘American’ werewolf is unmistakably Jewish, and maybe it’s an allegory about anxieties surrounding relations with shikses.
An Angel at My Table (4) – 1991
A Jane Campion film I most certainly do not want to see.
Angel Heart (3½) – 1987
In many respects, just awful with its porny penchant for style for style’s sake, a hallmark of Alan Parker, one of the most shameless sensationalists in movie history. Parker griped the critics were insufficiently appreciative because their literary bias blinded them to the power of visual expression, but fireworks are not to be mistaken for the fire. (Equally hyperbolic Adriane Lyne did better with similar material in Jacob’s Ladder.) Still, a mood of diabolism sustained throughout the film is not easily shaken off. It must have gotten something right to linger in the dark corridors of the mind.
Angels in the Outfield (2) – 1994
Angie (2½) – 1994
Annie (3) – 1982
Annie Hall (3½) – 1977
The timing couldn’t have been better for Allen and NY culture. By 1977 New Hollywood had petered out, and the big ‘auteurs’ seemed to be treading water, sidelined by movies like Jaws and Rocky(and, of course, the big movies of 1977, Star Wars and Close Encounters) or undone by excessive habits(often involving cocaine and worse). Allen was always admired for his wit and even intellect(something he disparaged), but he’d opted for the role of comedian, even clown, well into the mid-70s. But just when the personal element seemed to be fading from American Film, Allen stepped up to the plate in the role of “America’s Bergman”. Annie Hall was showered with accolades and awards, more for what it signified than what it delivered. In retrospect, it seems rather thin. Still, Allen’s mature turn did yield some real treasures in years to come.
Another 48 Hours (2) – 1990
I rather enjoyed 48 Hours by master director Walter Hill but not enough to catch the sequel.
Another Woman (4) – 1988
Woody Allen’s somber piece on cold reserved WASPs is one of his most ‘Bergmanesque’ works. It is also insufferable. Some have noted similarities with Wild Strawberries.
Antonia and Jane (3) – 1991
Apocalypse Now (4) – 1979
Only the first hour is truly great, and the rest drifts and meanders(and stalls at times to make obligatory antiwar statements) before finally settling upon the most anticlimactic of conclusions. Still, the first hour is absolutely stunning, among the very best on celluloid, and there are just enough memorable moments in the rest to make this one of Coppola’s most towering achievements.
Apollo 13 (4) – 1995
I hear this is pretty good, but rah-rah feel-good movies aren’t my thing. And I don’t like Tom Hanks in serious roles, and Opie is dopey.
The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (3) – 1974
Arachnophobia (3) – 1990
Aria (3) – 1988
Aria was pure gimmick masquerading as a cultural event. Big-name directors were handed fat checks to make short films based on arias — music videos for connoisseurs? A wholly cynical enterprise for both parties, promoters and creators alike. That said, Franc Roddam’s music video of Liebstod(Richard Wagner) shot in Las Vegas packs quite a punch.
Ariel (3) – 1990
It’s been so long since I’ve seen this film by Aki Kaurismaki, Finland’s most famous director. I recall it being quite good.
Arizona Dream (3) – 1995
Emir Kusterica was one of the greatest directors in the 80s and 90s, but his Serbo-Croantics don’t translate well into Americana. Unlike the versatile and impersonal Ang Lee, a man for all senses and sensibilities, Kusterica is steeped in a peculiar worldview bordering on cosmology, drawn from the culture of his people and the urban folklore of gypsies. To Kusterica, Arizona might as well be Mars, and to Arizonans, he might as well be a Martian.
Arthur (3½) [2½] – 1981
Mildly amusing Dudley Moore comedy. John Gielgud steals the show as Moore speaks mostly drunken gibberish to Liza Minnelli.
At Close Range (3½) – 1986
At Play in the Fields of the Lord (3½) – 1991
At the Max (4) – 1992
Au Revoir Les Enfants (4) – 1988
There’s something disingenuous, even a bit sickly, about Louis Malle’s film about the Occupation period. It’s clearly meant as an act of atonement, or impossibility thereof, given history cannot be undone, especially where death is involved. There are three layers of guilt here. France as a nation in collaboration with the Germans. Malle’s privileged childhood even during years of hardship for many. And the private sense of guilt that, on some subliminal level, he betrayed the Jewish boy who became his friend. A secret Malle had to get off his chest. Like Ingmar Bergman’s Faithless(directed by Liv Ullmann), the contrition reeks of self-congratulation, i.e. “Look how courageously and, of course, artistically I’m revealing myself to have been a real shit.” Still, beautifully done and undeniably heartbreaking.
Autumn Sonata (4) [3½] – 1978
Bergman’s return to bourgeois chamber drama after prolonged entanglements with clinical psycho-drama(Face to Face and the like), political statement(Serpent’s Egg), and social relevance(Scenes from a Marriage). A sign that he finally got it(whatever it was) out of his system and made peace with the basic pathos of life. No use getting all neurotic over life’s problems that are never resolved. As a film about parent and child, it presages the great post-directorial screenplays about his own parents.
Avalon (3½) – 1990
Barry Levinson sold himself and the audience short. What made Diner so special was its cultural specificity, as the viewer is made to rub shoulders with the local Jews and Catholics of the community. It has the pungency and verve of real ethnic America. Avalon is even more culture specific as it tells the story of two generations of Jewish Americans, from immigrant to son to grandson, but it’s awash in the glow of generic Americana. Levinson transposed the golden boy mythologizing of The Natural onto his Jewish forebears, making them the Golden Jews. It’s about how Jews became Americans through Thanksgiving and the like. The problem is they don’t seem very Jewish to begin with. What’s the point of becoming American if you are already Americanish right off the boat? The Golden Jew aspect is accentuated by some very ‘Aryan’ types cast in lead roles. Does Aidan Quinn even remotely look or sound Jewish? It’s a sanitized portrait of Jewishness. Even the family squabbles seem by-the-numbers, oy-vey as oh-boy. But, it’s obviously a labor of love and offers food for thought on Americanism as a blessing but also a curse that inevitably leads to amnesia.
Awakenings (4) [2½] – 1990
A most fascinating subject material, but the treatment goes from feely-good to feely-sad without anything resembling complexity or ambiguity. Penny Marshall directed. She should have stuck with projects like Big(with Tom Hanks in his best role). It would have worked better if Marshall just laid out the incredible facts and attended less to how we should feel at any given moment. When the material is hot, just serve it cold. The heat is already there.