Columbo: Murder by the Book (1971): Steven Spielberg directs this early episode of Columbo starring Peter Falk as the ruffled detective. This mystery here features the murder of one half of a best selling writing team by the other half of the team. Because the authors here are mystery writers the killer tries to be very clever in setting up the disappearance and murder and is very arrogant in his dealing with the police and detective Columbo. Detective Columbo plays his role of a somewhat bumbling clueless detective to disarm the suspect, but Columbo picks up on the little clues that give hints towards the killer and asks pointed questions that do not seem to be to the point but give Columbo exactly the information that he needs. The strength of the episode is in the acting of Peter Falk and not so much the direction.
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003): This is the second time I have seen the movie, but the first time Sandy had the chance or the inclination to watch it. We hoped to watch it before we went to Disney World to prepare for the ride, but we did not get the chance and apparently it does not make a bit of a difference. Pirates tells the story of Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), a pirate without a ship who is searching for the Black Pearl, an infamous pirate ship. Sparrow is, let us say, flamboyant. He has been described as a drunken Keith Richards, but I do not know how accurate that description is. Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) is a blacksmith who has fallen in love with the governor's daughter Elizabeth Swan (Keira Knightley) and when Elizabeth is kidnapped by another group of pirates (those of the Black Pearl), Will joins with Jack Sparrow to rescue her, though Jack has his own agenda. Pirates is a comedic action pirate movie and is a lot of fun to watch. In a major surprise, Depp was nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of Jack Sparrow. This is all the more amazing because actors in comedies and action/adventure movies generally do not get nominated for major awards. It was richly deserved.
Life Stinks (1991): This Mel Brooks movie is a comedy with a message. Life Stinks deals with the homeless, the bums, the poor people and tells a story about how they are looked at, treated, and the responsibilities of those with wealth. And, it is a comedy. Mel Brooks plays the richest man in America who takes a bet to live on the streets for 30 days and if he wins the bet he will win half of the land he wants to acquire to renovate part of the city. Brooks has to deal with all of the troubles and issues that plague those without homes and he shows us part of what life might be like for those poor and homeless and he tells us that life stinks. This is surely one of his best films and was a return to the early days of Mel Brooks before he started with all of the parody films. Life Stinks is not perfect and Lesley Ann Warren's dance sequence seems totally out of place, but this is a film with heart and that clearly meant something. Brooks only made two more movies after this (Robin Hood: Men in Tights, and Dracula: Dead and Loving It), and I hope that he has one more in him and that it isn't a parody.
Bananas (1971): Woody Allen's third feature film has Allen playing essentially the same character he always does somehow getting involved in the revolution of the fictional nation of San Marco (feels similar to Cuba). Throughout the film he and several other characters are working their way through a storyline by making jokes of everything and Allen gets all the best lines. But, doing so is so distracting and inappropriate to the plot that Allen keeps pulling me out of the movie. There are some moments that deliver, though. The first moment is the opening of the film where we have Howard Cosell himself doing a broadcast from San Marco where he views the revolution as a sporting event. It is perfect because Cosell is so serious about it. The second is closer to the end where Cosell does the same thing with marital intimacy. The third moment that stands out is a television ad within the movie for "New Testament Cigarettes" which is shot as part of a church service. "I smoke them", says the priest, "He smokes them", pointing to heaven. That one made me laugh. The rest of the movie, however? You can skip this one. I am working on watching all of Woody Allen's movies, so I'm stuck.
One more thing to mention: Woody Allen playing a scene where he is supposed to be comedic and absurdly sexy is just creepy. Makes my skin crawl.
Flags of Our Fathers (2006): Clint Eastwood takes the book by James Bradley and makes it into an excellent picture about Bradley's father and the truth behind the famous picture of the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima during World War II. I have not read the book, so I cannot speak to how closely it compares, but Eastwood's film tells three stories. First is the story of the picture and the national tour which the flag raisers are ordered (they are still soldiers) to go on to promote the war effort and war bonds. But there is no simple truth about the picture. The men who are on the tour are not the men who raised the flag the first time. There is more of a story behind the raising of the flag and why the United States promoted the picture and flag raisers the way they did. The soldiers on the tour flash back to the invasion of Iwo Jima and the fighting there and that leads us into the war portion of the movie. The battle sequences are as brutal as any war footage in any movie. The famed brutality of the opening to Saving Private Ryan is eclipsed by some of the sequences in Flags of Our Fathers. The third storyline has James Bradley learning about what his father, John Bradley (played by Ryan Philippe), did in the war and about the truth of the flag raising. The sequences with the son are the least interesting and effective to me, but necessary as it gives a reason to explain what happened to the flag raisers after the war was over. Flags of Our Fathers is a powerful, well constructed film which jumps between the various storylines to tell a single narrative.