I have not liked the last several Woody Allen films. I would have to say the last one I didn’t want to turn off in the middle (or even at the beginning) was Small Time Crooks (2000). And, even that one, I only liked…a little. So, when I got Melinda and Melinda, my first thought was, “Why the heck did I put this on hold?” Regardless of the reason, I decided to watch it…mostly since I had no other DVDs to watch at the time. Had this been a week where my coffee table was filled with piles of soon-to-be-due DVDs, I would have probably passed on this one. Well, I’m glad I didn’t pass. The most striking thing about Melinda and Melinda (aside from the fact that it’s actually a funny, original, entertaining Woody Allen film with him NOWHERE to be found among the cast) is the premise, or the gimmick of the plot. Like another film I really liked from 1998, Sliding Doors, Melinda and Melinda’s gimmick is original…involving how ONE plotline pans out in two different ways. Sliding Doors focused on TIME…how a split second of time difference changes the course of everything that happens after. Melinda and Melinda uses a different but just as original twist…the same story told from two different angles—one, a romantic comedy and the other, a drama. The only “like” character in both story variations is Melinda, played in both the comedy and drama by Radha Mitchell. Aside from her, all of the other characters differ in each story, as not to confuse the viewer. In both stories, Melinda is a troubled soul with a good deal of emotional baggage who finds temporary help with a group of friends. I found it fascinating how her personal troubles easily transformed from comic to serious…just by changing some minor elements. Director Woody Allen is able to turn a dramatic character trait of Melinda’s around and use that same trait for comic effect in the other storyline. Pretty original for Allen…and the end result is a funny, touching film that might not be some of Allen’s best work ever but is some of the best work he’s done in recent years.

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Based on the TV series, Bret Maverick, director Richard Donner brings to the big screen a Western comedy about a handsome gambler (Mel Gibson), a charming lady con-artist (Jodie Foster), and a lawman (James Garner), all heading for a poker tournament held on a river boat with a $500,000 pot for the winner. Much of the film’s success comes from the biting dialogue from screenwriter William Goldman (of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid fame). Gibson and Foster are purely charming together and Garner adds just enough tension to the film to keep the audience on its toes. Look for Graham Greene in a small role as Gibson’s friend, Joseph, who practically steals the movie and many of the laughs!

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When simple-minded, big-city lawyer James Stewart arrives in the town of Shinbone, he butts heads with town bully John Wayne as they fight over a woman and over how to run Shinbone. After notorious outlaw Liberty Valance comes to town, Wayne and Stewart set aside their differences to fight him. Stewart and Wayne shine as both tortured souls in their own ways. Not Ford and Wayne’s finest pairing, but with the addition of Stewart, this one is a must-see classic Western. On a side note, this film trademarked Wayne’s “pilgrim” expression, which he uses too many times to count here.

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Basically, Laura is a murder mystery, complete with a series of suspects and a hard-edged police detective, with a little love story tossed in to make things interesting. The thing that makes this film stand out above all of the thousands of other murder mystery films is the direction. Laura is a first-rate example of Film Noir, a type of film in the 1940s and 1950s that grew to represent the dark, threatening era of World War II, the Blacklist, and the Cold War. Laura is one of the first film noir films and possibly one of the best. Director Otto Preminger masterly increases suspense and romance with the right combination of lighting and the camera angles. Preminger didn’t direct many Film Noir films after this one, but he should of since he was so superb at it.

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Not exactly realistic, but a fun tale of a 19th Century duke who travels through time to meet his new wife in the present day. This film reminded me of the classic films of the 1940s and 1950s where believability was not necessarily a requirement. The “un”believeable part is the time-travel element that transports Hugh Jackman’s duke from the late 1800s to the 21st Century. I found myself not even caring that it is the most illogical premise ever conceived (at least, that I have seen). The movie really is not about if you believe in time-traveling. It’s about romance and love and fate and timeless passion. Jackman definitely steals the show as the charming, courteous time-traveler. Liev Schreiber also shines as Kate’s ex-boyfriend who starts the whole time-travel mess in the first place.

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OK—everyone has seen it. Everyone knows the story. Some people can even recite the dialogue (I would have to confess, I’m in this category). When you get right down to it, this is a great movie. Sad thing is that it gets so over-watched around the holiday season that many people have the “not again” mentality. PLEASE don’t disregard this movie just because it has been overplayed, colorized and basically abused. What director Frank Capra does here is capture a little slice of Americana—something that Capra excelled in. Unlike Capra’s other Americana films (most notably Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Meet John Doe, and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town), this one has a dark edge—a hardness that makes us think for a second that maybe America is not all that it’s cracked up to be. That is where Jimmy Stewart’s acting genius kicks in. His portrayal of the lowly, always-disappointed George Bailey has the audience rooting him on, even when he’s at his most weak. I mean, here is Bailey, standing by a bridge, looking down into the icy waters of the river, waiting for the perfect moment to jump. Does anyone really believe he will? No—not with the genuine way Stewart breathes life into Bailey. No one with that much compassion in their heart could really ever end it all? But, that’s why Stewart is perfect as Bailey. He does give Capra a “hard” edge, all while keeping the film, at its core, a feel-good film…one that can and should be enjoyed ANY time of year, not just in the holiday season.

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This film set the stage for early romantic comedies and also gave the brilliant career of director Frank Capra a boost. While running away from the demands of her strict, wealthy father, Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) meets struggling newspaperman Peter Warne (Clark Gable) on a bus going from Florida to New York City. They cannot be more different: he likes to drink more than work and she is spoiled and prudish about everything. What should be just a two-night ride turns into a much-longer trip filled with stops and mishaps, all of which bring the two closer together, despite their differences. This movie’s sharp, witty dialogue inspired a new form of film comedy, where the characters’ initial love/hate relationship inevitably turns to romance. This comedy style was used later for films such as Howard Hawks’ 1940 classic His Girl Friday and George Cukor’s The Philadelphia Story, also from 1940. Neither Gable nor Colbert wanted to make this comedy, but after they were both honored with Academy Awards for their work, they were probably glad they did. It Happened One Night also won Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay Oscars.

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I’m not a pool shark. I’m not even a pool fan. But, I am a Newman fan, which makes this film good enough for me. Newman plays “Fast” Eddie Felson, a young, brash pool shark who needs a lot of sophistication and polishing if he is ever going to become the best. Enter Minnesota Fats (expertly played by Jackie Gleason) who is just the one to add some polish to the young hustler. A romantic relationship with Piper Laurie distracts Felson too much for my taste, but the George C. Scott character as Fats’ manager makes up for the diversion. Scott is brilliant here…cocky and tough — I think it is one of his best roles. And, it is one of Newman’s best roles as well…he is perfectly able to balance on that bridge between arrogant jerk and engaging sweetheart. Watch this one for his and Scott’s performances alone…and you also might want to pick up a pool cue!

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For the first time, Woody Allen acting in one of his movies did not annoy me so much that the temptation to turn the film off was almost irresistible. He does not choose, in Husbands and Wives, to play someone who is more neurotic than anyone else in Manhattan. That is not the ONLY reason I enjoyed this film. It is a strikingly open and honest film about relationships. It doesn’t hold anything back and is not afraid to realistically show the anatomy of a break-up, midlife relationship malaise, and the frantic energy of a new relationship. In hindsight (this film is from 1992), it’s a strong subject matter for Allen, who has a young college student fall for his middle-aged professor character. It was not long after this film that Allen, in reality…NOT in the movies, fell in love with his adopted step-daughter. But, leaving that alone, he does an excellent job of being as honest as he can be in this film…as an actor AND as a director. His scenes with Juliette Lewis (the young girl that plays the smitten college student) are filled with frank talk…not with silly dribble that many May-September screen romances sometimes fall for. The other characters’ relationship dialogue is just as true as Allen’s. No one walks away into the sunset in this one. It’s brutal at times, but so is life and love. Right?

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When I rewatched this one recently, I fell in love all over again with Robert Mitchum’s character (OK — and with Mr. Mitchum himself). This one is a true classic…a film that gets very little attention during the holiday season, but should be up there with those notables Miracle on 34th Street and The Bishop’s Wife. Mitchum plays a wandering ex-Army man, who really just wants to make enough money to move to California and build boats. But, to save for the trip, he works retail stores at Christmas. Janet Leigh plays a widowed single mother who works as a comparison shopper…going from store to store buying things to compare prices at different places. She encounters Mitchum during one of her buys and the sparks start from the get-go. Even though she has a fella who’s sweet on her, she and her adorable son gravitate to the charming and debonair Mitchum. I mean, I sure would. Wouldn’t you?

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