The African Queen

John Huston’s classic film had the unusual distinction of being the last film from the American Film Institute’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list to appear on DVD in the United States, not bowing on that format until March of 2010, well into the Blu-ray/Netflix streaming era. You could find it overseas, but only if you had a “region-free” player, and those copies were made from prints that were, to be polite, pieces of mule dung. Yeah, you should have heard the less polite version of that sentence.

Having seen Paramount’s new release, on Blu-ray of course, I have to say it was worth waiting for the studio to sort out who had the rights to The African Queen, find a half-way decent copy, and then take the time to restore the film to something quite near its original glory.

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When I first saw Avatar in the theaters, I experienced it the way it was supposed to be seen, in full-blown IMAX 3D. Seen that way, it was a visual and aural experience unlike any I’d had before or since in the movie theater. James Cameron had eschewed the usual 3-D gimmickry of objects seeming to fly over the audience’s heads, and used the tools at his disposal to create an all-encompassing fantasy environment that seemed real enough to touch.

Some people even reported feelings of depression after the movie because they preferred the alternate reality of the movie to their own. While I think such people were already in need of serious therapy and possible medication, I can understand how this movie, more than any other, would be the one to inspire that kind of “separation anxiety.”

As a visual spectacle, this film has thrown down an intimidating gauntlet that will be hard to top for the sheer exhilaration factor. Even “King of the World” Cameron himself might be feeling a little performance anxiety as he prepares Avatar 2, because even he might be hard-pressed to top his own creation.

But, about that story…

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The Men Who Stare at Goats

Like its protagonist, Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) this movie can’t decide if it should mercilessly mock the idea of an Army unit researching psychic phenomena as an alternative to war or cheer for the collection of oddballs who threw their lives into the endeavor. Director Grant Heslov tries to have it both ways and comes close to pulling it off.

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True Grit

Remakes of John Wayne movies are a rare thing. Stagecoach was remade twice, but never with memorable results. The Sons of Katie Elder was kinda/sorta remade as the Mark Wahlberg film Four Brothers, but the modern-day gang parable was barely recognizable next to the source material.

In True Grit, Jeff Bridges would be stepping into the iconic role that earned Wayne his Best Actor Oscar and the only character that I can recall that Wayne actually played twice. It was a ballsy move for an actor now permanently identified with “The Dude,” the memorable slacker from The Big Lebowski. Fortunately for Bridges, the Coen Brothers, also writer/directors for Lebowski, had the actor’s back.

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True Grit (1969)

Don’t be deceived by the fact that John Wayne received an Oscar for his performance as Rooster Cogburn. That award was probably more of a lifetime achievement award than recognition for a single performance, much like Paul Newman’s Oscar for The Color of Money. John Wayne had given better performances and made better films. Probably not coincidentally, John Ford was usually involved.

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The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

While John Ford would go on to direct several more pictures after this one, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance represents a sort of exclamation point of one of most celebrated directorial careers in American film. His previous high-water mark, The Searchers, was a film torn between the conventions of a previous era and emerging modern sensibilities. Liberty Valance is thoroughly modern by 1962 standards and virtually timeless by any other.

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The Damned United

When Brian Clough (Michael Sheen) takes over as manager of the Leeds United football club in 1974, he seems less interested in preparing them to play and more focused on punishing the team for the sins of its previous coach, his personal bête noire, Don Revie (Colm Meaney).

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Maybe it’s a side-effect of just watching The Fighter, but the title Frost/Nixon makes this film sound more like a prize fight. The comparison is not wholly inappropriate. David Frost (Michael Sheen) was a media bantamweight trying to move up in class while Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) was a political heavyweight looking for an easy tune-up for his eventual rehabilitation from the Watergate scandal.

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Them! launched what would be Hollywood’s version of the Godzilla movie, expressing our atomic-age fears via giant bugs and insects instead of rubber lizards. This particular sub-genre has been largely forgotten by our collective movie memory, but Them! remains as an example of 1950s sci-fi done with a style and self-confident maturity that the category often lacks.

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The Fighter

I think we’re wasting money on all the “Just Say No” programs we think are going to keep kids off drugs. Two hours with someone like Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale) should convince anyone that drugs are a one-way ticket to nowhere. The first time we see him in The Fighter, the ex-boxer is living for two things: his rose-colored memories of the time he knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard and his next vial of crack.

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The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)


Combine a completely unnecessary remake of a 1950s science-fiction classic with a starring role for Keanu Reeves and you have a recipe for nothing to get excited about. In that respect, the 2008 version of The Day the Earth Stood Still does not disappoint. It unsuccessfully tries to hide its narrative emptiness behind a noisy CGI light show and half-hearted lip service to a ripped-from-the-headlines current-events subject.

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