Movie Reviews

  • Barabbas movie posterBarabbas
    ★★★☆☆
    04/09/15
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  • A fictional account of Barabbas, the bandit who was released by the Pontius Pilate in the place of Christ before the latter’s crucifixion. Not a bad movie to watch around Easter.

    But the beginning and ending of this film are a little weak. Soon after the movie starts, it shows Barabbas’ (Anthony Quinn) celebrating upon receiving his freedom, but his “wild, riotous living” seems pretty tame by modern standards. As for the closing, Barabbas’ sudden transformation into a crazed arsonist appears out of character for the selfish (but cautious) man we’ve seen him evolve into.

    The middle of the movie has greater verisimilitude, with Barabbas developing a smidgeon of caring for his fellow man after serving several hard years as a slave in the Sicilian mines.

    However, it is the gladiator scenes which are the most watchable, as Barabbas (now past his prime) matter-of-factly becomes a killer of men once again. Here, Jack Palance is well cast as the sadistic Torvald, and Ernest Borgnine puts in a good performance as Lucius, a reluctant Christian forced into the arena.

    One nice touch in all of this was how Christians reacted to Barabbas. On the one hand, they know he was a criminal, and they feel outrage that such an unworthy figure was granted freedom instead of the founder of their religion. On the other hand, they’re also a little in awe of him, since he’s one of the few who actually witnessed the crucifixion and is thus a living, breathing tie to their Lord.

    To this hot-cold reception, Quinn’s Barabbas responds with just the right amount of bewilderment and consternation.

  • Julie & Julia movie posterJulie & Julia
    ★★★★☆
    04/02/15
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  • “Julie & Julia” is about subject matter which I’m not particularly interested in, so I’m surprised I watched it.

    And even more surprised that I enjoyed it.

    The movie compares the struggles of writer Julie Powell in the early 2000s with those of chef Julia Child in the 1950s. Amy Adams plays Julie Powell, and I found I liked Adams more than I did her character. As for Meryl Streep, she was amazingly good – it was uncanny how she channeled Julia Child’s voice from the very beginning.

    It should also be mentioned that the relationship between Julia Child and her husband Paul (Stanley Tucci) was very touching, and the scenes between the two added a level of depth and maturity to a very sweet little film.

  • Mutiny On The Bounty (1935) movie posterMutiny On The Bounty (1935)
    ★★★★☆
    03/21/15
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  • A number of liberties were taken with the story in this movie, despite this adaptation reputedly being one of the most faithful to the book ever filmed.

    Some of this is understandable. According to the novel, Fletcher Christian was a minor British nobleman who was publicly called a liar and a thief by his captain (a self-made commoner) – and the authors contend that the loss of face he suffered from these grievous insults was the real reason for his mutiny.

    The movie does depict this episode, but rather than attempt to explain the British class and honor issues involved to a (possibly uncomprehending) 1930s American audience, the film takes the easier route of suggesting that Christian’s mutiny was motivated more by Captain Bligh’s brutal discipline of the crew.

    The movie also has a happy Hollywood ending, which is at complete odds with the melancholy ending of the book (in which Roger Byam returns to Tahiti 20 years later, only to find his Tahitian wife dead and the island paradise rendered a desolate wasteland because of war among the native tribes).

    Where the movie excels is in showing the cruelties of 18th century ship life, and in the gentle and easy life the sailors experience during their initial sojourn on Tahiti. Their mutiny becomes a foregone conclusion when they reluctantly leave their island heaven on earth and must face the unpalatable prospect of several more months of Bligh’s tyranny at sea.

    As for the acting, Charles Laughton played Bligh as a venial and vindictive martinet, superbly defining the character for generations to come. Clark Gable was a lesser actor, but nevertheless sympathetically portrayed Fletcher Christian as a cheerful (though easily angered) second in command.

  • Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan movie posterStar Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan
    ★★★★★
    03/11/15
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  • About a week after Leonard Nimoy’s death, I watched Star Trek II once more.

    Easily the greatest Trek movie ever made, “The Wrath Of Khan” is Horatio Hornblower in space – complete with green cadets, experienced old hands, cat-and-mouse ship chases, sneak attacks and enemy broadsides. This general sea-faring concept is further driven home by the nautical-sounding score by James Horner (who, not surprisingly, went on to write the soundtrack for Titanic a number of years later).

    Trek II achieved a perfect mixture of tension and comic relief, which very few of its successors have ever managed to duplicate. Too much tension, and a Star Trek movie becomes grim; too much comic relief, and it becomes jokey and something that can’t be taken seriously.

    Nimoy’s performance here as Mr. Spock differs somewhat from his take on the character in the Original Series: this Spock is older and more comfortable in his skin than the Spock of the Five-Year Mission. Trek II’s Spock is still logical - but in contrast to the Original Series, he’s both logical AND wise.

    Notable too is Kirstie Alley as Lieutenant Saavik, in some ways playing the role the younger, more conflicted Spock once did. What a great shame it was that the studio didn’t hire her for future installments of the series! (Indeed, I’ve always thought that the filmmakers missed a great opportunity with the entire cadet plot line: in subsequent sequels, the writers could have depicted the cadets gradually growing into senior positions – allowing the members of the 1960s cast to gracefully retire.)

    What faults the movie has are very minor. The Mutara Nebula and the sandstorm on Seti Alpha VI looked pretty good in 1982 (particularly the nebula), but in 2015 they look less convincing, and I found myself wishing for a little of the George Lucas treatment to bring those particular special effects up to modern standards. Some might also argue that Ricardo Montalban’s portrayal of Khan Noonian Singh is a little over the top – which I don’t fully agree with. In “Space Seed” (the Original Series episode in which Khan appeared), Khan could be suave, arrogant, menacing or consumed with rage. But in Trek II, his character has changed after being driven into madness by the death of his wife. Quoted lines from “Moby Dick” hammer home the idea that he’s now a megalomaniacal 24th century Captain Ahab, seeking revenge at the helm of a mighty ship plying the stars.

    In fact, the only real criticism I have of Star Trek II is that it was just TOO good – so good, that some Star Trek sequels began copying its formula repeatedly. This started happening to a limited extent with some of the Next Generation movies, and became fairly obvious in Star Trek XI. And while this was tolerable for a while, I admit to completely losing patience with Star Trek XII due to its blatant aping of “The Wrath Of Khan”.

    So yes, “Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan” is a great movie. But is it too much to ask for films that don’t rehash the same story over and over again?

    (N.B.: This review applies to the original theatrical cut, not the director’s version. The director’s cut has an additional three minutes of exposition which explains a few things in greater detail, at the unforgivable expense of slowing down the movie. It’s amazing how adding a mere 3 minutes to this film changes it from thrilling to ... kinda boring.)

  • Blazing Saddles movie posterBlazing Saddles
    ★★☆☆☆
    03/05/15
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  • Stupid, crude and offensive. The only saving grace of this movie is that it contains a couple very funny scenes and a few very quotable lines.

    Considered ground-breaking and transgressive in its time, “Blazing Saddles” inspired two generations of low-brow comedies, and in this way contributed to a general coarsening of the culture.

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    POSTSCRIPT:

    This piece nails one of the movie's greatest defects: Blazing Saddles review

  • The Godfather Part II movie posterThe Godfather Part II
    ★★★★★
    02/22/15
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  • “The Godfather: Part II” is at once both prequel and sequel, depicting Vito Corleone’s rise to power in the early decades of the twentieth century as well as resuming the story of his son Michael’s reign a few years after the events of the first movie.

    This more complicated narrative structure invites the viewer to compare the two men as we watch each being corrupted in their respective eras. Towards the end of the film, our attention is drawn to one chief difference in their priorities however: while Vito entered the Mafia in order to support his family, Michael is willing to sacrifice his family in order to remain Don.

    Along the way, we are afforded glimpses into the immigrant experience at the turn of the twentieth century, and get a foreshadowing of the profound social changes that were to occur in the 1960s as the American family began to break down. This sense of disintegration pervades most of the ‘50s-based scenes, actually: from Hyman Roth’s chronic health problems to the fall of the Cuban Batista regime to the cracking of La Cosa Nostra’s traditional code of silence under pressure and suspicion.

  • Casablanca movie posterCasablanca
    ★★★★★
    02/15/15
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  • It’s easy to watch “Casablanca” with a jaundiced eye the first few times. Because of its reputation as being one of the best movies ever made, the viewer can’t help but notice its flaws (such as the breathless intro, some hokey dialog here and there, and some occasional schmaltz).

    But these objections disappear upon later viewings, as one discovers meanings and subtleties that weren’t obvious initially. It takes a while to realize how Bogart’s Rick Blaine is a metaphor for America’s own hesitancy to enter the Second World War, and how Raine’s Captain Renault dramatizes the opportunism of many of those who were trying to survive in Vichy France. Blink and you’ll miss a knowing smile or a sly look, signifying that the characters know more than they necessarily let on. Upon this latest viewing, I noticed a symmetry in roles that I previously hadn’t: while Rick Blaine devises the scheme for Ilsa’s and Victor’s escape, Ilsa herself deserves the credit for engineering Rick’s escape from Paris earlier on.

    (I once read an interview with one of the screenwriters, who gave a few suggestions as to how different the script would have been had it not been constrained by Hollywood censorship codes. In the case of “Casablanca”, I can only say that the movie is a far greater one for hinting at certain things rather than stating them outright.)

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    POSTSCRIPT:

    A couple apropos paragraphs from a review from The Belmont Club blog:

    ‘It's not surprising that one of those few movies that was actually about the Second World War emerged as the war movie per excellence. Casablanca had no combat footage whatsoever and was set almost entirely inside a saloon. But because it explored the great issues of a civilization torn between barbarism and freedom and the dilemmas of people caught in its tides it became, by popular acclaim, the greatest war movie of the 20th century.’
    ‘Every line in the script was devoted to the War and its effect on the fugitives trapped in Rick's Cafe. It was about "small people whose troubles didn't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world"; about trying to be a man when you didn't have a country ("It says here you're a drunk. Oh? Then I'm a citizen of the world"). It was about salvaging a last memory before plunging into the abyss ("you've brought back Paris"). It was about great issues, the ones than endured. And therefore Casablanca has remained true, as propaganda never could, even as time went by.’
  • Broadcast News movie posterBroadcast News
    ★★★☆☆
    02/08/15
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  • Expertly acted, the main characters are a bit childish at times. (But given that this is a romantic-comedy, perhaps that is to be forgiven). Released in 1987, the movie contains a few astute observations about the direction that network news was taking, such as the rise of infotainment and tear-jerker reporting.

    It also features a couple of memorable scenes, the first of which involves a handsome-but-dumb anchor who delivers a flawless on-air performance while being fed his lines over an ear-piece by an ambitious producer. (The second is like the first in reverse, where an exceptionally clever newsman proves to be a flop in front of the camera due to nervousness.)

    For a romantic comedy, “Broadcast News” has some pretty heavy moments, while the romantic plotlines ultimately end up going nowhere. Apparently the movie has some crudities which I cannot comment upon, since these were censored from the "edited-for-television" version which I viewed.

  • Network movie posterNetwork
    ★★★☆☆
    01/31/15
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  • It would be an understatement to say that this 1970s satire about the television business is well-acted: three members of the cast won Academy awards and two others were nominated.

    Detracting from this is a subplot involving marital infidelity that doesn’t advance the main theme, as well as for some unnatural dialogue (which was so bad as to be funny - and it’s difficult to tell if this was intentional or not!)

    Nonetheless, “Network” has proven prophetic about the absurdities television networks are willing to air in order to boost ratings (including ranting political commentators, TV psychics and crime-related reality programming).

  • It Happened One Night movie posterIt Happened One Night
    ★★☆☆☆
    01/17/15
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  • Very little of the humor from this 81 year-old romantic comedy still works. However, the general plot is serviceable, and Clark Gable delivers a believable performance as a working-class reporter exasperated by the follies of the spoiled heiress he travels with to New York. The movie also serves as a window into the ‘30s, with its tourist camps and more puritanical mores.

    With respect to the latter, some of this is overdone for comic effect. The ending though, is surprisingly suggestive – and can only be explained by the fact that Hollywood censorship codes were only tightened slightly after the film was released.

  • Amadeus movie posterAmadeus
    ★★★★☆
    12/14/14
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  • One of the Greek sophists once suggested that there are two kinds of envy: the bad kind of envy (in which we begrudge success that comes to good men) and the good kind (where we begrudge bad men their success).

    This is at variance with the standard Christian concept of envy, which views envy as one of the seven deadly sins. But it's a useful way to think about this movie.

    Because at its heart, "Amadeus" is a movie about envy. While musical genius Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart isn't a bad man, he is introduced to the audience as a crude little twit - and it's understandable why musical mediocrity Antonio Salieri would be jealous of his talent. Over time, Salieri's envy corrupts his soul and drives him into insanity.

    The movie is less adroit in handling the main religious question it raises. During a prayer session, Salieri asks God why He chose to grant such formidable musical gifts to an "unworthy" man like Mozart and not to a pious man such as himself?

    Granted, we learn that Salieri isn't nearly so pious as he thinks. But given that the film's narrative occurs in the context of a confession between Salieri and a priest, it's a little disappointing that the writers didn't have the priest try to supply an answer (ANY sort of answer!) to this query.

  • A Charlie Brown Christmas movie posterA Charlie Brown Christmas
    ★★★★★
    12/02/14
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  • Nearly 3 generations have grown up watching "A Charlie Brown Christmas" on television, so the gauze of nostalgia makes it difficult to review this objectively. It features some wonderful little vignettes about childhood and Christmas, as well some of the meaner aspects about them as well. On some viewings, Linus' little sermon about the meaning of Christmas can seem a bit preachy - but at its heart, Christmas is a religious holiday, and it's not bad to be reminded of that.

    While the other animated special, "How The Grinch Stole Christmas," is more of a personal favorite, the incredible jazz soundtrack accompanying "A Charlie Brown Christmas" is far more listenable.

  • The Maltese Falcon movie posterThe Maltese Falcon
    ★★★★☆
    11/15/14
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  • The first film noir, and still one of the best. While there were a couple of prior attempts to bring Dashiell Hammett’s book to the big screen, there have been no remakes ever since director John Huston’s definitive 1941 version.

    And with good reason. For who could take the place of slightly-built Peter Lorre, whose careful manners do little to conceal his creepiness and murderous intent? Who could outdo the oversized Sidney Greenstreet, with his combination of affable charm and cold menace?

    And above all, what living actor could portray a cynical, scheming detective better than Humphrey Bogart?

    The only sour note among the major characters is Mary Astor as compulsive liar Brigid O’Shaughnessy. It will always be an unsolved mystery why John Huston didn’t tell her to tone it down a little.

  • The Big Sleep movie posterThe Big Sleep
    ★★☆☆☆
    11/02/14
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  • An incomprehensible, byzantine plot. I have the book around somewhere, and will have to read it sometime to get a better idea about who murdered whom and why.

    Bogart turns in another fine performance as cynical, hard-boiled detective Philip Marlowe, and by-and-large, the supporting cast is pretty good, too. (Although it’s a little humorous how the film-makers decided to have every female actress throw herself at Bogart’s character.)

  • That's Entertainment: Part II movie posterThat's Entertainment, Part II
    ★★☆☆☆
    10/25/14
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  • “That’s Entertainment: Part II” is a documentary featuring clips from the Golden Age of Hollywood. Produced as part of MGM Studios celebration of their 50th anniversary, it features scenes from great musicals, comedies and serious dramas.

    Because of its scope, the movie suffers from changes in tone when switching between scenes from different genres. This is something which might have been avoidable had the movie been split into three separate documentaries. In addition, some of the clips from “great” musicals are anything but, and should have remained on the cutting room floor.

  • The Music Man movie posterThe Music Man
    ★★★☆☆
    10/12/14
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  • A lot of the humor in this 1962 musical no longer plays well to modern sensibilities.

    Nonetheless, Robert Preston is phenomenal as “Professor” Harold Hill – a charming, smooth-talking con man who sets out to swindle the inhabitants of a small, turn-of-the-century Iowa town by selling them marching band equipment and uniforms. Notable too is Shirley Jones as the perceptive and worldly (yet somewhat repressed) Marian Paroo, who eventually falls for Harold Hill despite her better judgement.

    The songs themselves are fairly uneven, running the gamut from show-stopping (“Ya Got Trouble” and “76 Trombones”) to sweet (“Lida Rose” and “Goodnight, My Someone”) to virtually unlistenable (“Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little”).

  • The Buddy Holly Story movie posterThe Buddy Holly Story
    ★★★☆☆
    10/04/14
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  • Gary Busey was justly nominated for an Academy Award for his fine performance here as Buddy Holly. So one star for for that, and another for an ending that would be difficult to improve upon.

    There were also a few interesting vignettes about race relations in 1950s America, perhaps. But unfortunately, there were simply too many silly scenes to merit a higher review rating.

    Musically, Busey did an impressive job singing Holly's songs live (while playing lead guitar), and I'm very much inclined to pick up the soundtrack sometime.

  • Batman: The Dark Knight movie posterBatman: The Dark Knight
    ★★★★★
    09/13/14
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  • For decades, the Joker character was little more than a weird oddball dressed like a clown. That changed with Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns,” in which he became a psychopath who was downright scary.

    In “The Dark Knight,” Heather Ledger builds upon Miller’s depiction, turning “The Clown Prince of Crime” into a nearly-inhuman force of nature – by turns brooding, maniacal, menacing and utterly terrifying. But as the movie progresses, we discover that Ledger’s Joker isn’t merely some crazy anarchist out to kill and destroy at random – we find that he’s a malevolent lunatic with a shrewd plan to corrupt and destroy men’s souls.

    Few other movies have captured the post 9-11 zeitgeist as well as when Alfred tells Bruce Wayne, “...some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.”

    With those three lines, the butler played by Michael Caine reminds a great many reasonable, rational men of an enduring truth they may be apt to forget.

  • Batman Begins movie posterBatman Begins
    ★★★★☆
    09/06/14
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  • Part of my problem watching this movie when it first came out was that I couldn’t stop comparing it to the source material. (I believe that in the comics, Joe Chill was never caught, and the Ra’s al Ghul character was a 600 year-old Arab who gets periodically resurrected by immersion in the waters of something called “The Lazarus Pit”.)

    That’s kind of a bad attitude to take – movies should be judged on their own merits and not how slavishly they adhere to fans’ preconceived notions.

    Having seen “Batman Begins” again this weekend, I appreciated it more, and was very impressed by the movie’s sense of verisimilitude. It’s probably the closest we’ll ever get to a film version of Frank Miller’s “Batman: Year One” or Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns”. Even the parts which kind of bored me the first time around (such as the origin scenes surrounding Batman’s costume and equipment) seemed more engaging upon a second viewing.

    “Batman Begins” features a number of Oscar-winning actors, and very effectively depicts the emotional trauma caused by the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne. There were some complaints at the time that Katie Holmes was miscast, and admittedly, she’s not particularly convincing as a hard-boiled district attorney. But, the greater part of her role is that of a likable childhood friend, and in that capacity she's completely believable.

    The movie is not without its flaws. There were a few plot holes towards the end, and some of the action scenes were a bit muddy and over-the-top in the third act. It cannot be gainsaid though, that the story is well-written (with an interesting dual theme about the use of fear to either preserve or destroy a civilization).

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    POSTSCRIPT:

    It's been so long since I've read "Batman: Year One" that I didn't realize how closely the ending of "Batman Begins" hews to it.

  • The Thin Man movie posterThe Thin Man
    ★★☆☆☆
    08/16/14
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  • The movie features wittier banter between Nick Charles & his wife than the book. While there's an unfortunate amount of 1930s-style overacting from several of the actors, the two leads give very charming performances and have a lot of chemistry with each other.

    Storywise, the movie benefits from a more linear plot than the book, which helps establish greater sympathy for Clyde Wynant (the "Thin Man" of the title). It also concludes with the murderer being uncovered at a dinner party: a hackneyed device, but somewhat more dramatic than the book (in which the detective reveals the identity of the killer privately to his wife and then to the police lieutenant).

  • The Mission movie posterThe Mission
    ★★★☆☆
    08/03/14
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  • Tragic, with excellent acting and some very memorable scenes.

    I found myself asking though, "What was it about Christianity which attracted these South American Indians?" This is something the film doesn't explore, and it's not a peripheral issue. Why did the Indians leave the jungle to live at Father Gabriel's mission? Why did they insist on staying, although it meant almost certain death at the hands of the invading Spanish? Some explanation about why the Indians felt their lives were better after their conversion might have been helpful.

    It's probably no accident that this movie was made in the '80s, when the debate over Liberation Theology within the Roman Catholic church was at its most intense.

  • Once Upon A Time In The West movie posterOnce Upon A Time In The West
    ★★★★☆
    07/27/14
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  • Clever and innovative gunfights, and characterwise, there's a lot going on here.

    The female character is badly-written, though - her behavior during her encounter with the main villain is beyond bizarre. The movie loses a star for this highly unpleasant scene.

  • The Good, The Bad And The Ugly movie posterThe Good, The Bad And The Ugly
    ★★★★★
    07/20/14
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  • Set against the backdrop of the Civil War, this is more epic than "A Fistful of Dollars" or "For a Few Dollars More". Great fun watching Blondie, Tuco and Angel Eyes form temporary alliances, only to quickly double-cross each other.

    (Calling Eastwood's Blondie "good" is quite a stretch - virtually anyone would be considered "good" in comparison with Wallach's vengeful Tuco or the sociopath played by Lee Van Cleef.)

  • A Fistful Of Dollars movie posterA Fistful Of Dollars
    ★★★☆☆
    07/06/14
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  • Good, but difficult to follow in some parts. Is that due to poor exposition or from the fact that some of the actors speak with Italian or Spanish accents which renders their dialogue hard to understand?

    Perhaps I'll watch this again sometime with the subtitles turned on to find out.

  • The Big Country movie posterThe Big Country
    ★★★☆☆
    06/21/14
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  • I liked the general plot: rich family struggles with poor family for exclusive water rights in the Old West. And the idea of pitting the naval way of doing things vs. the cowboy way also presented dramatic possibilities.

    Nonetheless, I found it very hard to believe that Gregory Peck's sea captain wouldn't understand the importance of maintaining the respect of subordinates in order to effectively lead them.

  • The Last Of The Mohicans movie posterThe Last Of The Mohicans
    ★★★★☆
    04/26/14
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  • Gorier than expected. Good action sequences though, and beautiful scenery from North Carolina.

    (For some reason, I thought this would follow some sort of formula where the tribe would start with, say, 5 Mohicans - and they would each be killed off as the movie progresses. But no.)

  • Tombstone movie posterTombstone
    ★★★★☆
    03/11/14
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  • An uneven movie with great scenes as well as pointless ones. (Regarding the latter: the characters seem to race on horses quite a lot, firing guns at unseen enemies.)

    Val Kilmer was robbed out of an Academy Award nomination for his incredible portrayal of Doc Holliday.

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